Category Archives: Broken Horizons

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Interlude 2

Interlude – Byron Grey

Dealing with idiots was part and parcel of the job, but the only joy it gave Byron was in setting them to march to their own destruction all unaware and hopeful that their filthy little desires would be fulfilled.

“So I believe you can see why I thought this was important,” Whiteweather said, nodding towards the monitor which was displaying the report Whiteweather had put together 

All things considered, it was a good bit of data analysis. Using nothing more than his own resources, Whiteweather had discovered that that Azma’s forces had stumbled upon a transdimensional entity in the world they were in the process of opening up.

“Of course,” Byron said. “This changes the character of the operation under Azma’s control quite substantially. Or it will once it’s proven to be true.”

“But the numbers! You can see…” Whiteweather leaned forward over Byron’s desk as though being in physical proximity to the data would strengthen his case.

“Numbers can lie,” Byron said. “You know that. The Steering Committee will never act on interpreted data before the field commander’s report arrives.”

“But they must act!” Whiteweather said. “If she proceeds any further, Azma is likely to gain control of the creature and then there’ll be no leverage strong enough to get it away from her.”

“That is also likely true,” Byron said. “Such is the nature of high stakes gambles like this one.”

“But we can’t let her win!” Whiteweather said. “If she gains any more power they’ll have to promote her to Director to keep her on and you know the first thing she’ll do is conduct a purge of everyone she doesn’t true – and she trusts no one.”

“Quite so,” Byron said.

“That will include both of us!”

“Which is why we are going to do something about it,” Byron said.

“But you said the Steering Committee won’t do anything about it,” Whiteweather said. “You’re not seriously proposing that we openly oppose her are you?”

“Oh of course not,” Byron said. “I know you brought this to me in the closest confidence. Exposing this openly would put you in far too much danger.”

“Thank you,” Whiteweather said as he wiped away the thin sweat which had started forming on his brow.

“I would never do such a thing my friend,” Byron said. “Your safety is of paramount importance. The Consortium can scarcely stand to lose a man of your vision.”

Byron was all warmth and sincerity, turning what should have been a dangerously effusive warning of impending betrayal into a kind and comforting expression of solidarity.

“So you have some scheme to turn Azma’s efforts against her more indirectly?” Whiteweather asked.

It didn’t take much intelligence to see that. Azma was ruthless to a fault. People who openly opposed her died. Never directly by her hand. Very rarely was their demise even vaguely associated with her. Through one means or another, her enemies simply ceased to be. Individually the deaths did nothing to protect her, save to remove that specific thorn from her side. It was only when viewed collectively that her efforts spoke a clear message which this rest of the Consortium (or at least the meaningful parts of it) had absorbed – you did not make problems for Azma. You treated her much like radioactive waste – something horrible which was best dealt with by allowing some else to manage the headache.

Some few had sought to murder her back of course. More than a few really. Attempting to kill Azma herself was invariably met with either one of two fates: an infliction of the exact same death you had intended for her or, in some odd cases, recruitment to her cause. Those were the people Byron found the most worrisome. They knew better than any not to trust her and yet they chose to work for the woman? It was inconceivable.

Then there were the people who sought to strike at Azma through her close relations. This was complicated by the fact that, as far as Byron could see, she had no close relations. No loved ones. No family. Barely even any coworkers or subordinates whom she tolerated.

Three times though she had displayed a passing fondness for someone and an attempt had been made on their lives. Azma was less subtle in response to that, and far less restrained. She hadn’t killed any of her agressort swiftly in those cases. Two of them were still alive in fact. That they lived in unimaginable agony and had paid everything they had for the privilege delivered Azma’s message more clearly than anything else could have.

Byron was not going to repeat those mistakes of course. Not when he had a viable candidate to make them for him.

“In this case discretion is paramount,” Byron said. “As is making sure the Consortium remains on our side. The last thing we need to is to go outside the official processes and find our own apparatus of command being turned against us.”

“That’s a tall order,” Whiteweather said. “You know that female has seduced half of upper management. She exists because she’s suborned so many of the people who are supposed to be keeping her in her place.”

Byron smiled and nodded agreeably, exerting a monumental effort of will to preserve a mask of sympathy. Whiteweather and the people like him were doomed. They were so eager to tear down Azma, and others like her who didn’t fit the ‘proper mold’, because they knew how unworthy they were of the positions they held. In allowing themselves to be blinded to Azma’s accomplishments and talents, they preserved their fragile egos at the expense of truly understanding their enemy.

For his many and vastly indulged faults, Byron did not fall prey to the same foible though. He knew Azma’s quality and talent. He didn’t like her of course, but even in a hated enemy there could be room for respect, and Byron didn’t hate Azma either. She was a particularly deadly fish swimming in a pond he occasionally chose to dip a toe into. He could marvel at her grace and ferocity while carefully working to remove the peril she posed to his aims and endeavors.

“I will let you in on a secret that was passed down to me by my old mentor,” Byron said. He’d never had a mentor of course. One learned the sort of lessons Byron had through observation and a natural aptitude for guile and subterfuge. People who spoke openly about such things tended to be people who were interested in attention and acclaim, which was the exact opposite of the proper mindset for effective social maneuvering in Byron’s estimation. Despite that, people like Whiteweather were so apt to cling to authority figures that offering them even a non-specific, fictional one was often enough to erase any doubts or sensible questions they might otherwise raise.

“The key to undermining someone in Azma’s position is not to oppose them but to give them exactly what they want and more,” Byron explained, knowing that Whiteweather would begin sputtering in confusion if allowed a moment to speak. “Understand that I do not mean ‘ally yourself with them’, or ‘allow them to do as they wish’. The essence of this strategy is that few people will are defended against receiving more of a good thing, and it is so very easy to turn a little more of something good into quite a bit too much and, ultimately, enough to crush them completely.”

“Yes, yes, I can see the wisdom there.” Whiteweather was nodding in an empty, barely comprehending manner.

Byron knew if he asked Whiteweather to offer a practical implementation of the idea Whiteweather would be completely at a loss for even the vaguest approximation of an idea.

“That is where your report is so crucial,” Byron said, setting his claws into Whiteweather’s fragile ego. “Azma has discovered something of great value in her endeavor. It could offer her power and influence beyond any of the rest of us. The transdimensional entity she is investigating represents the most dire of threats to us, if she can bring it under control. Until this however, it will be quite a useful tool to destroy her with.”

Interlude – Marcus Mashall

Marcus was destroying his career. When, not if, people discovered that he was on the game on a GM level account and interacting with an employee who had willingly stepped into the game, he would be at best suspended and at worst arrested for the crime of not stepping aside and allowing the people who believed they were in power to hang onto that belief for whatever time remained before the world came tumbling down.

Marcus looked at his desk. The reports neatly piled in one corner. The coffee cup with the company’s logo on it. The cubicle walls where print outs and notices were pinned. Even the wall paper on his computer’s desktop with it’s plain company logo. 

The whole environment made a statement. Or several statements. 

“The person who works here has no personality.” 

“This desk is for a piece of the corporate machinery, not a person.”

“The man who sits here is afraid to show his real self, even to the people he works with every day”.

Or maybe especially to the people he worked with every day.

By all rights, the person who sat at Marcus’s desk should have been the type of person to dutifully inform his corporate overlords about the new development with Hailey and allow them to work out what the official response would be. 

Marcus wasn’t sure where that man had gone. It was possible he’d never really been that man. That his isolation and lack of personality had been an artifact of the demands the system placed on him.

He had to be the boss. He had to be impartial. He had to enforce the company’s mandates, even when they were ill considered and abusive. If he didn’t then all of the progress he’d made, all the security he’d achieved, would all be taken away.

“Now that the whole world is falling apart though, I guess none of that matters anymore,” Marcus said to no one in particular.

There were still support reps hard at work. Just because the crisis was close to a day old didn’t mean they’d made any real headway on bringing the players together or establishing clear lines of communication. 

If anything the players themselves were more on the ball about that, and the EE support team was largely riding on their coattails, offering what assistance they could, or rather what assistance their management would allow them to offer.

“I’ve got Miguel looking at the server logs,” Marcus said, speaking into a team chat channel and hearing the impossible in reply.

“Good, I don’t know what you’ll need to look for, but hopefully there’s something weird there that can act as a lead,” Burnt Toast said. Burnt Toast, who was also Hailey MacGilfoyle, but who really was the adventurer known at Burnt Toast.

“You sound like you’ve stabilized some,” Marcus said.

“Yeah. I’m…I’m…I’m…holding it together,” Burnt Toast said with a burst of static in between her words. “Mostly.”

“What is happening to you?” Marcus asked. He didn’t expect an answer.

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to be getting worse, so that’s…” she grunted and fought to regain control of her voice before something unwanted slipped out. “Good,” she finished.

“Can you augment her actions at all Marcus?” Mellisandra asked. Mellisandra who was another character within the game. Mellisandra who had a player behind her, but who, again, was also her own person. In fact from what Marcus could tell, he had only spoken to Mellisandra so far. The fictional person with no AI behind her at all had help a short but informative conversation detailing some of things she’d discovered by interacting with her player. 

“No, her screen is completely blank,” Marcus said. “It was fine until I tried to touch the controls, and then poof everything was gone.”

“Its okay Marcus,” Hailey said. Her voice was so similar to Burnt Toast’s but without any effort Marcus knew which of the two he was speaking to. “I think we’re already in an [Inspired] state. There’s probably no additional benefit we’d get from you directing our moves. And it would be a bit creepy.”

“Oh yeah, cause nothing else about this is creepy.”

“I think there may be something far more important Marcus can do for us, if he’s willing,” Glimmerglass said.

“I’m all in on this,” Marcus said.

“I think you need to speak with our [Grand Strategist] then,” Glimmerglass said. “You may not have made this world, but you and the people there know what it’s secrets are, and what secrets the Consortium holds. Give that to us and you’ll give Penswell the most powerful weapon she could ever wish for.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Interlude 1

Interlude – Penswell

Penswell was trying to be in twelves places at once, and was succeeding for the most part. Her problem was that she really needed to be in a hundred places and her limits didn’t stretch quite that far.

“I’ve got news from [Crystal Bower],” General Aurelite said. “Got time to hear the details or do you just want the summary?”

Aurelite was, in theory, in charge of the combined troops of the [Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force]. In practice though that amounted to little more than “Chief Cat Wrangler”. The regular forces were a challenge on their own. Add to that trying to integrate troops which had fought wars against each as recently as a few weeks ago, and then toss the impossibility of controlling the [Adventuring Guilds] into the mix. 

The urge to join the Consortium wasn’t overwhelming, but Aurelite could see the appeal of it.

“Summary first, followed by the details please,” Penny said, allowing one of her projections to freeze in place so she could reclaim the brainpower needed to process Aurelite’s words.

“Ok, in short, we’re holding [Crystal Bower]. The [Library of Light] saw heavy fighting – well beyond our projections – but the team there held out. The [Garden of Silence] escaped relatively unscathed and saw comparatively less fighting. The two other offensive fronts went according to plan. The upshot is we’ve got control of the teleport fields within the city and have reenabled the interdiction wards with the new protocols.”

“That was exactly the good news I needed to hear,” Penswell said. “Give me a breakdown on where our forces are at.”

“The regular troops are moving in and fortifying the key locations,” General Aurelite said. “We’ve got a team from one of the [Crafting Guilds] dispatched with them to create new defensive structures. That should raise their effective level if they have to repulse another invasion.”

“Do they have an special units with them?” Penswell asked. “We were going to move a contingent of [Beast Handlers] and the [Fire Drakes] into the city too, but they’re still pinned down in [Wagon Town].”

“I can order the handlers and the drakes redeployed,” Aurelite said. “They have a path open to exit the battlefield.”

“If they leave, [Wagon Town] falls,” Penswell said.

“It’s not exactly a tactically critical location,” Aurelite said. “The troops in [Crystal Bower] would have a much better chance of holding the city if they had drakes to counter the Consortiums [Clockwork] soldiers with.”

Penny ground her teeth. The argument for “let the goblins die already” had been raised in at least thirty different varieties, from straight out racist calls to “end the vermin while we can”, to more veiled suggestions as to the relative value of different targets the Consortium had attacked, to attempts to couch allow the goblins to be exterminated as ‘tactically necessary’.

The moment you accepted the goblins as people though, it became impossible to take any of those arguments seriously.

“[Wagon Town] has the highest concentration of [Alchemists] and [Tinker Mages] in the entire world,” Penny said. “It is also the bastion which guards the principal gateway into the [Goblin Deeps]. It’s shielding more people than [Crystal Bower], [Thaldinforge], and [Corsair’s Bay] out together.”

Penny was pretty certain that Aurelite mumbled something like “if you can consider them people”, but since the General didn’t seem inclined to overtly pursue the matter, she let it drop, wondering if that was a mistake.

“I’ll take it that no replacements for the [Fire Drakes] have been found yet?” she asked instead. [Crystal Bower] was still an important focus point in the overall campaign, and the elves there deserved protection as much as the goblins did.

“We’re in negotiations at present, but those may take some time,” Aurelite said.

“Negotiations with who?” Penny asked. She was trying to stay abreast of the diplomatic war being wages in addition to the physical one, but she’d fallen behind on monitoring the political maneuvering of the various factions as the fighting had intensified and consumed all her attention.

“We have opened communication with the [Tyrant of Flames],” Aurelite said.

“What! When was this! Who authorized it?”

“You did,” Aurelite said. “You specifically instructed the diplomats to ‘make any alliance, with any force that is willing to fight against the Consortium’. Those were your exact words.”

Penny pinched the bridge of her nose, her jaw and neck muscles going rigid.

“I didn’t think I needed to add ‘who isn’t actively trying to eradicate all life in the [Fallen Kingdoms]’. Perhaps I was foolish but that seemed too obvious to mention.”

“And yet here we are,” Aurelite said.

“We need to call those negotiations off,” Penny said. “The [Tyrant of Flames] is an existential threat to this world. We can’t fight one apocalypse with another. That doesn’t leave us with a world, it leaves us with a [Flame Tyrant] who’s now got extra-dimensional [Murder Barges] at his command!”

“I am well aware of that. But the negotiations have to continue.”

Penny paused for a moment, stunned at the stupidity of that line of thought, but then paused. General Aurelite was many things but she wasn’t stupid, which meant there was some compelling reason why she would risk such a catastrophe. Penny searched her imagination for what that reason could be. She called to mind the worst possible situation and knew that must be it.

“The Consortium’s already negotiating with the [Flame Tyrant]?” She knew that had to be it, even though she really hoped to be wrong.

“They got there before we did,” General Aurelite said. “We’re not out of the running though. Our diplomats are still alive and are reporting back, second hand admittedly, what the Consortium is offering for the [Flame Tyrant’s] cooperation.”

Penny’s concentration wavered as her breath turned white hot. Holding onto a dozen projections at once became impossible. Three were indispensable but the rest she released until she could get her rage back under control.

“What makes any of them thing the [Flame Tyrant] will cooperate with either the Consortium or us,” Penny asked. “And what can we possibly be offering a monster like that?”

“At this point? Existence,” Aurelite said. “The [Flame Tyrant] isn’t stupid. Despite what the Consortium is offering, it’s obvious that from their perspective, foreign powers like the Tyrant will never be respected or allowed to continue existing in a world they conquer.”

“Of course not,” Penny said. “If they let the [Flame Tyrant] live, they’ll all be burned to ash within a week.”

“That’s where we have an advantage,” Aurelite said. “We have a history with the [Flame Tyrant]. There’s at least the possibility of an mutually satisfactory relationship there.”

“What? How?”

“Well, we could give the [Flame Tyrant] one of the Consortiums other worlds after we beat them,” Aurelite said.

Penny pictured it. One world cast from slavery into the fires of utter destruction in order to preserve the world she knew and loved. The temptation was clear and the numbers added up, provided she assigned based on what was the most convenient for herself. Otherwise it was the problem with the goblins writ on a planetary scale.

“Has that been suggested yet?” she asked.

“Not explicitly,” Aurelite said. “The negotiators reported that they’re still working through the social amenities required to properly address the Tyrant.”

“They’re wasting time. Good. Have them continue with that and report if there’s any sign of the Tyrant accepting either offer,” Penswell said.

“Do you think that’s likely?” Aurelite asked.

“No. In this case it’s much better to string both of us along until its clear who the victor will be and then threaten to join the other side if their demands aren’t met.”

“That’s when we’ll recruit them?” Aurelite asked.

“That’s when we’ll destroy them,” Penny said. With a deep, calming breath, she forced her muscles to unclench. The [Flame Tyrant] had caused too much pain already but allowing herself to get distracted by that wasn’t going to do any good for the people she still could save.

Interlude – Marcus Marshall

Seeing Hailey disappear in front of his eyes shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Marshall. He’d already seen one of his other support reps suffer the same fate and there were reports from around the world talked about the same thing happening to players by the tens of thousands.

But Hailey hadn’t been at her desk. She hadn’t even been playing Broken Horizons.

Or…

Marcus rushed back to the call center room and Hailey’s cubicle. His administrator password was enough to get him in her machine. His stomach sank when he saw two instances of the game’s client running. 

One was clearly the official “GM” level account which most of her work was done through. They’d always required the support reps to have an normal user version of the code installed as well though. Sometimes problems could be tracked down in the less restrictive “GM code” but more often the reps needed to be in the same version of the game that players were seeing to encounter the bugs they were reporting.

Marcus didn’t have to pull up the other instance of Broken Horizons to know that Hailey had been logged in on her account as well. He could see the character name in the title bar. Pulling it up he expected to see the same blank screen which had been on Ashad’s screen when he’d been disintegrated or pulled into the game or whatever happened to GMs who tried to use their god-like powers.

Hailey’s client wasn’t fried though.

Marcus could see her – or her character, “Burnt Toast”, really.

And he could see the message that appeared in her chat log.

>> Hey Marcus! Sorry to cut out on you like that.

>> I’ve got some important stuff to do here though.

>> Could you try to make sure no one turns off my computer. 

>> And maybe cover for me? If anyone asks, tell ‘em I went home early or something.

Marcus stumbled back.

This was not possible. Even for the last day, this wasn’t possible. People were only supposed to be absorbed, or whatever was happening to them, when their characters died, or when they tried to log off. Hailey had been standing right beside him. She couldn’t have tried to log off.

Maybe she’d left her character somewhere dangerous and been killed when she was away?

But she seemed to know exactly when it would happen.

No. She seemed to chose when it would happen.

>> One more thing…thing…thing….thing…

>> I seem to be having a bit…bit of trouble

>> This might not have been the best…worst…best…worst…best idea ever.

>> Maybe have Jane and Miguel check the server logs for

>> for this character? What’s happening to me might shed some light on

Marcus waited for another message to appear but after a minute none more showed up.

On the screen, Hailey’s character appeared to be kneeling down, head pressed to the floor and meditating. It was an interesting emote, especially since Marcus knew for a fact that there wasn’t any emote like that in the game.

“Can I help get you out of there?” he asked as he typed the message into the chat window.

It should have gone to the local channel and been said so that the other characters around “Burnt Toast” could hear it too. Instead a reply immediately appeared in the chat log, with Marcus’s text simply being swallowed up.

>> I don’t want to get out of here.

>> We have too much to do still. There’s too many people here who need our help.

Marcus wasn’t even sure he believed the “people” in the game were real people anymore. One part of him acknowledged that they seemed to respond and behave like real people, but another part was still valiantly clinging to denial as a means to retain at least a few shreds of his sanity. 

He hadn’t slept in a long while, and he’d been under so much stress leading up to the launch of the World Shift expansion. Hallucinations didn’t seem that far out of the question. Even a full psychotic break probably wouldn’t have been unwarranted, and would certainly have been better than what he was facing.

Except he knew it couldn’t be that easy. 

Rolling up his sleeves, he went over to his own machine and unlocked it. Waiting for him was his own game client – this one running his “GM” character. GM powers were strictly off limits, but talking? Talking didn’t seem to cause any problems.

He was wrong about that, but also very right in what he did.

>> Ok, no getting you out then.

>> Tell me what I can do to help.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 20

Glimmerglass didn’t know she was going to change the world when she clicked the send button, but in a sense, that was exactly what she intended.

>> TO: @burnttoast

>> FROM: @glimmerglass

>> HEADER: Checking in

>> BODY: Hi there! It’s been a while, but I wanted to see if you’d gotten caught up in all the stuff that’s going on now. I hope not – it’s pretty awful – but if you are in the middle of this, toss me a line ok? Your name is showing up kind of weird in my list, and it’d be nice to know you’re okay.

Glimmerglass had struggled over the words for longer than she should have. She knew that preparing for the next wave of the Consortium’s forces was crucial, but debating between “my list” and “my friend list” had seemed just as important.

Was she BT’s friend anymore? Did BT even want to hear from her in the first place?

“Message is sent?” Cambrell asked.

“Yeah. I kept it short. I guess that’s good?” Glimmerglass said.

“It’s good you sent it,” Cambrell said. “How she responds, or if she responds, that’s on her. Won’t change that you tried, they you were brave enough to reach out.”

“I know. None of that makes it any easier to take my eyes off my Inbox though,” Glimmerglass said.

“No answer might be the best answer. Didn’t you say that?” Cambrell asked.

“Yeah, if she’s fully retired she might not be reachable at all. That would put her out of any immediate danger.”

“Might expose her to more danger in the long though, wouldn’t it?” Cambrell asked. “Old adventurers aren’t going to be ignored by the Consortium for too long after they conquer the world.”

“That won’t be a problem for her if do our jobs though,” Glimmerglass said. “If we take back [Crystal Bower] and the other cities Penswell has targeted, we should be able to stop their advance.”

“Maybe,” Cambrell said. “Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a strategist – and I can see why this place is a critical but this is war on a world-wide scale. Holding one town, or even one country isn’t going to be enough to stop the whole war.”

“I know. Even if we could get a main boss to appear, there’s too many of the Consortium’s forces here for them all to crumble when the boss is defeated. This war is going to change the face of [Fallen Kingdoms] forever, even if we were to win it right now. If we can hold [Crystal Bower] and the other places though, we can create safe areas for the non-combatants to. That would give the retired adventurers some hope.”

“Won’t do much for the regular people though,” Cambrell said.

Glimmerglass deflated a bit, seeing the world through Cambrell’s eyes. Goblins had been accepted as a “people” rather than “pests” or “monsters” only relatively recently. And that “accepted” status was far from universal. There were still goblin controlled dungeons and areas which were viewed as fair game for adventurers to plunder since the goblins who inhabited them had refused to enter into the non-aggression pacts the “civilized” goblin nations had signed.

In the midst of a global crisis, it was all too easy to imagine the goblins – no matter their affiliation – being left to fend for themselves, or even actively sabotaged by their neighbors who would be just as happy to see the Consortium’s forces succeed in a complete genocide so long as the genocide was limited to “the right people”.

“Do you know how your friends and family are holding out?” Glimmerglass asked. She could teleport off to help them, but she could put in a word for her team to help with the defense of [Toothache] or [Wagon Town] or one of the other goblin cities once [Crystal Bower] was secured.

“Uh…dead,” Cambrell said. “But that’s not new.”

“What?”

“Didn’t become an [Assassin] because I had a lot of either one,” Cambrell said. “Don’t tend to make many on the job either.”

“You’ve got…no one?”

“Coworkers. Employers. Enemies. Lots of those. It sounds bad when I say it like that, but it’s sensible.”

Glimmerglass sputtered searching for which of the many objections she was going to raise first. Something in Cambrell’s expression brought her up short though.

“Sensible? Do many people target you for your work or do they go after the people who sent you?” she asked, guessing what one of the prime issues might be.

“Oh, they always come after me. The targets, their relatives, target’s bosses, my bosses sometimes. It’s fun. You should try it. Keeps you on your toes. And makes you a light sleeper.”

“I’m guessing the easiest route to take to you tends to run through those who are close to you?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Only if I care about them,” Cambrell said. “Happy advantage though, if you’ve got an annoying associate, messing up just enough on a mission and then hanging around them for a little while can fix that problem easily.”

That should have been terrible. It should have evoked sympathy but Glimmerglass couldn’t help but be drawn in by the goblin’s gallows humor.

“So how annoying would you say we all are?” Glimmerglass asked, affecting a suspicious glare.

“It varies,” Cambrell said. “This isn’t that kind of mission though. Here if I mess up, we just all die. Or get captured. War’s not particularly subtle.”

“Happy advantage then, we can be friends,” Glimmerglass said.

“My enemies aren’t limited time offers,” Cambrell said. “They’re happy to wait as long as it takes to get to me.”

“I’d be more worried about your enemies if I didn’t know what my friends were like,” Glimmerglass said.

“My enemies don’t fight fair,” Cambrell said.

Glimmerglass laughed. “You think my friends do? Let me ask you this, do your enemies generally possess any sort of wealth?”

“Sure. Nobody hires me to kill poor people, and poor people can’t afford me,” Cambrell said.

“Do you know what adventurers do to people who have loot who decide to flag themselves as hostile to us?” Glimmerglass asked. “If not allow me to direct your attention to where Damnazon and Mellisandra are stripping the [Trainsaw Transport] for every saleable part, while the rest of the team loots every body in the area. There are locust plagues that leave more behind than your typically adventuring team.”

Cambrell turned his gaze in the direction Glimmerglass indicated and started to chuckle a moment later.

“That is kind of disturbing now that I look at it,” he said.

“Yeah, you might think being an [Assassin] is bad, but trust me, you fit right in,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean, I’m the healer and I’ve bashed in more brains with my staff so I could get some new underwear than I should ever admit.”

Cambrell slowly slid his gaze to Glimmerglass, a look of honest concern creeping into his eyes.

“For reference, I don’t wear underwear,” he said.

“So noted,” Glimmerglass said with a nod of approval.

“Hey, any word on when the next Consortium strike force is going to get here?” Mellisandra asked. “I’m try to coordinate with some other teams.”

“Nothing from Penswell’s [Command Center] yet,” Glimmerglass said. “I did hear from one of the scouting teams we have patrolling the city though and they said we’re clear for the moment. The Consortium force in that last represent most of what they have in this quarter of the city.”

“Might send [Assassins] in,” Cambrell said. “Probably not though. No one good target. This would be a bad job to get out of too.”

“Good, I’ll let the others know,” Mellisandra said and left to go rejoin the looting.

 “Could you get out of her if you had to assassinate one of us?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Probably,” Cambrell said. “Depends on which one.”

“I’m going to guess Damnazon wouldn’t be easy?”

“Wouldn’t be my first choice,” Cambrell said.

“I’m guessing I would be though?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Sorry,” Cambrell said.

“No, it’s smart. Always take the healer out first. I’ve argued for that strategy more times than I can count.”

“Just hard to make sure people stay dead when someone like you is around,” Cambrell said. “Probably have to kill you first even if my target was someone else in the group.”

“You sound like BT now,” Glimmerglass said. “Whenever we did intra-guild PVP, she always apologized for taking me out first. Even when I specifically told her that was the strategy to try for.”

“You told her to kill you first? And this person was a friend?”

“Yeah. We were…close. Or at least I thought we were.”

“Murder seems an odd tactic for staying close,” Cambrell said.

“Dying in an adventurer PVP zones isn’t quite the same as normal,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean, obviously, we weren’t permanently killing each other. It was practice for PvP Raids.”

“Oh. So you used practice weapons?”

“Not at all. Real weapons. Real spells. It’s pretty weird the first time you do it. Really helps if you’ve died and respawned before so you know being blasted to bits isn’t that bad.”

“Still seems like it would be hard to kill the person you’re used to being the one who keeps you alive.”

“I did mention I can cave in skulls with this staff right? In PvP, there’s no such thing as ‘I don’t do any damage’. Turn your back on a healer and they will absolutely punish you for that.”

“Adventurers are weird.”

“No arguments there.”

“So, will your friend be expecting you to cave in their head if they come back?”

Glimmerglass frowned as she tried to consider her message from BT’s perspective.

“I don’t think so,” she said. Could BT be worried about being yelled at? Did she think Glimmerglass was still mad about how she’d left?

Are you still mad?

Am I?

Glimmerglass wanted to say ‘No’. Of course she wasn’t still mad. That was a long time ago.

Except shouldn’t she be mad? 

“Should she be?” Cambrell asked.

“I’m not going to attack her!” Glimmerglass objected. “I…we need her! We need everyone like her!”

“You just look tense when you talk about her,” Cambrell said. “Usually I see that when people are about run away. Or try to stab me.” He paused for a moment to reflect on that. “I may not be as familiar as I should be with how normal people act.”

Glimmerglass chuckled.

“It’s not you,” she said. “Things with BT are complicated. I don’t know if she even knows that though. I think for her it was probably really simple. Our guild wasn’t doing too well and people had started leaving. No one major or critical. Not before her. I thought we could recover, rally and do some recruitment. I thought we had something worth preserving. But that was just me. I…”

“You cared. You needed it more than they did,” Cambrell said. “I know how it is. I wasn’t always…I had friends too. Long ago. It sucks.”

“It’s stupid to worry about though,” Glimmerglass said. “That’s all ancient history at this point. And this war is so much bigger than all that. I can totally let the past just fade away. I just hope she can too.”

Glimmerglass turned her thoughts inwards, her imagination reaching back across the years for the sound of BT’s laughter, for the fiery courage in her eyes, for the scent of her as they sat close around a campfire late into the night.

“I just want to see her again.”

>> Message received!

Glimmerglass blinked and called up her inbound message queue. Before she could open the message from “@burnttoast” though, a comet crashed to the ground beside her.

A cocoon of golden light opened like a flower, layers of petals peeling back as a blinking and stunned Burnt Toast stood up from the minor crater she’d punched into the floor of the library.

“Hey there,” she said stepping forward. 

“BT?” Glimmerglass asked, her breath and heart squeezed into immobility by surprise.

“Long time, no see Glim..glim…glimmer,” BT said and then fritzed for a split second.

Just like a [Disjoined].

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 18

Pillowcase made a discovery. Walking quietly made introspection so easy that it could happen without a conscious choice. Conversely, there was nothing quite like an immediate crisis literally sneaking up behind you to pull you out of your own head.

“Whu-What?” As a [Soul Knight], Pillowcase wasn’t designed for eloquence, but she had the suspicion that even if she still have Tessa’s talents to draw on, she still would have been as tongue tied. The only saving grace was that her monosyllabic question was more than anyone else seemed capable of managing.

“I was just curious if you’d scheduled a meeting with my [Major Domo]?” the Lord of Storms asked. “I have to confess that I didn’t have time to check my engagement calendar before I started packing up shop.”

“No,” Pillowcase said. “No, we did not do that.” An awkward heartbeat passed before she thought to ask, “Should we do it now?”

“Oh no, there’s no need to worry about that. I mean I’m already here, and I’ve got a bit of time before the castle will be ready for transport, so what can I help you with?”

The Lord of Storms, Pillowcase noted, lived up to their in a fairly literal fashion. They were vaguely humanoid, in terms of having an area that might have been a head, with two glowing orbs of lightning in roughly the right space to be eyes, and appendages that might have been arms and legs radiating from a central mass that could be called a body as easily as anything else. Rather than flesh and blood though, the Lord of Storms was incarnated as a living thunderstorm. 

“You know, I kind of expected them to have a voice like crashing thunder,” Lisa said on their private channel.

That was possibly the oddest thing about the Lord of Storms – assuming ‘living thunder storm’ didn’t simply break the meter – when they spoke it was in a chorus of many voices, in perfectly clear [Consortium Operational Standard Terminology] rather than [English], and at a perfectly reasonable volume.

“Wait, can you understand them?” Pillowcase asked.

“Yeah, they’re speaking [English], aren’t they?” Lisa asked.

“Not to me,” Pillowcase said. “I’m hearing them in [COST]. It’s what all other languages translate to for me, but they’re definitely speaking it natively.”

“Ok, that’s creepy,” Lisa said.

The Lord of Storms looked from one member of the team to the next, waiting for a question or a request, but everyone seemed to be too momentarily overawed to put words together.

Or almost everyone.

Pillowcase caught sight of Obby, gazing at the Lord of Storms with a quizzical gaze. Obby seemed less overawed and more quietly amused and curious. Not a reaction which Pillowcase could make a lot of sense out of but then an actual god seemed to be in melee range, so make sense of things seemed like a foolish aspiration for the time being.

“We were hoping to talk to you about the invasion that’s going on,” Pillowcase said, remembering the mission objective and allowing her training to push away the confusion that was scattering her thoughts.

“I can imagine. Bit of bother there. Not strictly my bailiwick but I’ve got some tangential projects in my domain which relate to it,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m afraid I don’t have much in terms of specific details I can share though.”

“Uh, what?” Rip asked. “You’re a god right?”

“I was,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m dead now though, so it’s not strictly accurate to call me a god.”

“Could you explain that?” Lost Alice asked.

“It’s pretty simple. A long while back, I was one of the gods of this realm. Then I died. It happens. The upside to it is that all the responsibilities I had as a deity? Yeah, those (mostly) aren’t a hassle you need to worry about anymore once you’re dead.”

“You don’t exactly look dead though?” Lost Alice asked.

“Thank you! You’re looking pretty spry for a corpse too! I like the whole ‘living soul’ thing. It’s a great look.”

“That’s not what…hmm, ok, I guess I see your point,” Lost Alice said.

“So are you a ghost then?” Rip asked. “I mean if you get to a [Heart Fire] could you come back to life?”

“That’s not quite how the [Heart Fires] work I’m afraid,” the Lord of Storms said. “A god lives through their believers. I mean, it’s a lot easier not having any believers sometimes, let me tell you, especially since taking up my full domain against would mean more or less everyone would believe in me.”

“Do you have any power as you are now?” Pillowcase asked.

“That’s a complicated question, but I think I can give you the answer you’re looking for; no, I can’t jump into battle for you. Being dead limits how I can interact with this world.”

“How about your castle?” Lisa asked. “Can we go there?”

“Yes! Definitely!”

“Safely?”

“Uh, okay. Maybe I should put a caveat on that,” the Lord of Storms said. “My castle is an ancient repository of my power. It’s not ‘safe’ by any metric really. For an aeon it has stood, empty and unreachable, waiting for the world to mature to the point where those who can rise to its challenges are ready to pass through its gates. And, hey, that day has finally come!”

“But we’re not those people, are we?” Lady Midnight asked.

“I’m sorry to say that you’re not,” the Lord of Storms said. “Not yet at least! But you are doing quite well!  Keep up the good work and you should be able to dare passing through the gates in a decade! Or maybe a year? A month? You all look a bit crestfallen. Really don’t feel bad. My castle is a peril beyond anything this world has seen to date. No one could expect you to face it without the proper time to mature.”

“We understand,” Starchild said. “This does not come as a surprise. We had hoped to find aid in your realm against other problems which are beyond our capabilities but we foresaw that we might too weak as we are now.”

“And you came to see me anyways?” the Lord of Storms didn’t have a mouth to smile with or enough of a face to make any expression, Pillowcase nevertheless sensed an undercurrent of delight in the Lord of Storms form.

“Chalk it up to curiosity,” Obby said.

The Lord of Storms paused at that and looked carefully in Obby’s direction, seeming to freeze for a moment before relaxing again.

“And is your curiosity assuaged?” the Lord of Storms asked.

“I’m kind of endlessly curious,” Obby said.

Pillowcase felt like there was a conversation happening she wasn’t privy to. Something dancing behind and around the simple words that were being exchanged and she wasn’t sure if she necessarily wanted to know what that something was.

“What about information?” Lisa asked. “If you can’t fight for the world directly, can you help us out with intel on it? Or on the Consortium?”

“I’m not supposed to,” the Lord of Storms said. “Technically I shouldn’t even be talking with you now. Even revealing that a dead god is an actual thing counts as modifying the world, but under the circumstances I’m not sure the usual rules apply for little things like that.”

“So what other kinds of things could you reveal?” Rip asked.

“Well, I definitely couldn’t tell you that the Consortium has a limited time to complete their offensive here. I mean that would be revealing things about this world and about an extra-worldly organization which I shouldn’t know the first thing about,” the Lord of Storms said.

Pillowcase had a few very pointed follow-up questions to that response but the Lord of Storms continued speaking and Pillowcase wisely chose not to interrupt them.

“If I were to send you on a huge quest chain and make you fight a thousand different top level bosses, I could tell you that the Consortium’s greatest advantage and their greatest weakness are the same thing,” the Lord of Storms said. “Of course it would then be another ten thousand bosses before I could explain that capacity in question is their [Control Web] since it allows all of their forces to be directed according to one unified and overarching vision.”

“That’s incredible,” Lisa said, her eyes flickering back and forth as she processed the meaning of the information.

“I know. I mean, even a thousand boss fights is excessive, and the ten thousand thing is simply ridiculous, but I wasn’t involved in the dominion which covered that sort of thing.”

“How many bosses would we need to beat to learn the route out of the [High Beyond] and back to the surface kingdoms?” Pillowcase asked.

“Oh that one’s easy,” the Lord of Storms said. “There is no path back to the surface kingdoms. Or, well, not anymore.”

“What do you mean? We can’t be stuck here forever can we?” Rip asked.

“Ok, full disclosure here, somethings I’m pretty up to date on, other things, I’m working off the notes I took back when I was alive here,” the Lord of Storms said. “In terms of ‘how do we get to the surface?’ the answer is ‘you don’t’ because when I was a living god, the [High Beyond] was part of what you now think of as the ‘surface’.”

“What happened?” Matt asked.

“Well, you call them the [Fallen Kingdoms] don’t you? Ever wonder where they fell from?”

“Everything used to be up here? In the sky?” Rip asked.

“Kind of ostentatious, I know, but it really did seem like a good idea at the time,” the Lord of Storms said. “In hindsight though maybe parachutes would have been a good idea? Or just set gravity a little lower? Eh, none of that was in my domain and I know the surface architects were under some pretty tight deadlines. Sure there were five times as many of them, and my domain is still working  fine while theirs is…well, a bit broken I suppose, but I’m not going to speak ill of the departed. Even if they were largely egotistical jackasses, who blundered into their own failings despite SOMEONE repeatedly warning them to check their damn work once in a while.” The Lord of Storms shook their head and massage the spot where the bridge of a nose would be. It was such a human gesture that Pillowcase tried to peer through the illusion that had to be before her, but, no, the Lord of Storms was exactly as deific as they claimed to be.

They’re speaking in my native language, maybe their mannerisms are similar? Chosen to put me at ease? I should check to see if the others are seeing exactly the same things I am.

Okay, but why would they have [Human] mannerisms if they were trying to set you at ease? You don’t remember what it’s like to be a [Human].

Hmm….

“Sorry, might be a little bitter about how all that turned out still,” the Lord of Storms said.

“I can see why you would be,” Lisa said. “Especially with the whole being dead thing.”

“That might be influencing me a touch,” the Lord of Storms said.

“Is it bad being dead here?” Rip asked. “Or do the [Hounds of Fate] leave you alone because you’re a god?”

“The what now?” the Lord of Storms asked.

“The wolf-things that chase you when you do a ghost run,” Rip said.

“They were supposed to keep players from going too far off track,” Matt said, repeating what Lisa had explained earlier.

“Um, yeah, I don’t know what those are,” the Lord of Storms said. “So I’m guessing they’re new?”

“I don’t remember the lore on them,” Lisa said. “How about you Midnight?”

“I don’t think there was ever an explicit origin myth for the hounds,” Lady Midnight said. “They were just a part of the system, like zone boundaries, so they didn’t get talked about much.”

“Well, they sound delightful, and also something I’m glad I won’t be running into,” the Lord of Storms said.

“You’re moving your castle somewhere the hounds can’t get to?” Rip asked.

“Yep. It is just not safe here,” the Lord of Storms said. “Better to move it onto a much deeper dimensional layer and wait a bit longer for the denizens of this world to be ready for it.”

“Wait, there’s something you’re not safe from?” Rip asked. “What does a god, a dead good, have to worry about.”

“Uh, isn’t it obvious?” the Lord of Storms said. “That!”

They pointed off into the distance and, before she even finished turning, Pillowcase knew what the god was pointing at.

The static field of the [Formless Hunger] crackled with displeasure as though it had been leashed and was ever so eager to slip free from its chains and devour the world around it.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 17

It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Despite the heavy slowness which gripped her, Pillowcase knew that all she had to do was keep going forward. The domain of a dead god lay ahead – it wasn’t far off anymore – and once they were reached it, all of her problems would narrow to simple tactics.

If I was thinking tactically, I wouldn’t be venturing onto terrain where everything vastly out leveled myself and my group.

No other presence answered. No alternate perspective with a kind voice offered an opinion. Within the confines of her mystically reinforced skull, Pillowcase was alone.

That’s how it should be. It’s how I was designed.

Pillowcase didn’t believe either of those were true, or would matter if they were.

It had been nice having Tessa’s voice and guidance. Pillowcase was able to admit that easily. What she couldn’t understand was why being bonded to someone who’d never been in a real fight in her life should make her feel so much stronger.

It wasn’t as though Tessa had offered tactical analysis which Pillowcase lacked. Or provided a bulwark of unshakable courage against the the various anxieties facing danger produced. 

Not that the Consortium had crafted Pillowcase with anxieties. She was woven to be a weapon and weapons had nothing to fear except failing their masters or never being used at all.

That’s not right.

It wasn’t right. It was what the Consortium had stitched into the folds of her mind. Over and over reinforcing the idea that her value was measurable and calculated. They knew exactly how much they’d expended in creating her, and they knew exactly how much use their models projected they could expect out of her. 

A good [Clothwork] would meet expectations, delivering value in excess of her creation cost. A truly worthy [Clothwork] would exceed those expectations, and being disassembled to determine which deviations from the standard model had created the excess capability so that it could be replicated in future generations.

That was Pillowcase’s ultimate goal. To be good enough that her makers unmade her.

It was the closest she could get to immortality – to be imperfectly duplicated as the next revision of the [Clothwork] template for [Soul Knights].

Can you be immortal if you never live in the first place?

Before she marched in the vanguard against the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms], Pillowcase couldn’t have conceived of the question, much less formed an answer to it.

I was always alive. I just didn’t know it until I met my better self.

Tessa didn’t have a vast library of combat skills, or the ability to shape magic with a whim, or superhuman senses, or an impossibly resilient body.

But she was still Pillowcase’s better self.

Pillowcase laughed quietly to herself.

Tessa would never have accepted that description. There was so much Pillowcase couldn’t remember of her, so many shared memories that were no longer a part of her, but the sense of who Tessa was? That was clear as crystal.

It was through that crystal that Pillowcase was able to look back at her own past and see all the things the Consortium had prevented her from understanding. Tessa was gone, but at least that much of her impact on Pillowcase remained.

I was always more than the Consortium told me I was. More than they would let me be.

She couldn’t have believed that on her own. The Consortium’s conditioning ran far too deep. They’d been her whole world, and even the glimpses she’d seen of places and times their influence didn’t cover hadn’t suggested that their understanding of her was anything other than absolute.

She was a doll and a possession and not a person, and it had taken two seconds of experiencing herself from Tessa’s perspective to shatter all of those lies.

But being a weapon is what I’m good at.

In part that was why she had pressed for the team to continue on to the [Lord of Storms Castle]. There were strategic reasons to investigate it to be sure, but it was also the sort of environment where Pillowcase knew she could be useful. Where she could understand how she was supposed to live.

By killing others.

It was what she was designed for.

But not what I chose to do.

But if not that, what use did she have?

I’m a tank. And I don’t mind being that. I like what it means.

She wasn’t a killer.

She was a protector.

Who, admittedly, also killed sometimes.

It wasn’t a perfect metaphor. As much as Pillowcase wanted to embrace a life that was the complete antithesis of what the Consortium had planned for her, there were people right behind her who needed her. And who she needed. 

She didn’t know what her life was, or what she wanted it to be, but she’d already learned that keeping people around her safe from the sort of things she had once been felt pretty good and as reasons to live went, seemed as good a starting place as anywhere else. 

But how is that fundamentally any different from what the Consortium was asking of you? Aren’t you still basing your value around the service you provide to others?

No. The Consortium compelled my service whether it brought me any joy or not. I was told that I should feel happy to be doing what they commanded and if I didn’t that I was flawed. Defective. Worthless. 

Pillowcase wasn’t sure who she was arguing with. Herself? There wasn’t anyone else in her head, and the thoughts on both sides were definitely her own. Could she disagree with herself though? Question her own choices and decisions? Was that something people did?

From a distance beyond the reaches of the loudest sound, Pillowcase thought she heard the whisper of a mirthful chuckle.

There are things I can do. Things only I’m in a position to do. If I chose to do them that makes all the difference.

Why?

Because my choices define me. If I have no choices, then my life is not my own.

“Hey, do you have a moment?” Lisa asked on  a private channel.

“I do,” Pillowcase said. She was sure she hadn’t bumped into Lost Alice. She’d been very careful to maintain the distance the other woman seemed to prefer.

“We’re about to do something very stupid aren’t we?” Lisa asked.

“We’re taking a risk. We do have some capabilities which mitigate it though,” Pillowcase said.

“That’s one of the things I’m concerned about,” Lisa said. “You’re planning to try tanking anything we run into there aren’t you?”

“I’m happy to share the load with Oblivion’s Daughter,” Pillowcase said. “But, yes, better that I draw the enemy attacks in. It’s what I was built for.”

“Were you built to come back from the dead though?” Lisa asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Every time we’ve had to do a corpse run so far, our ghosts are shaped like our human forms,” Lisa said. “Do you know for sure that, if we get killed in there, you’ll be able to respawn like the rest of us can?”

The [Lord of Storms Castle] looked a lot closer than it had a moment earlier. The distance to it was still the same, but the time before they reached it had become far more precious.

“I don’t know,” Pillowcase admitted, her memories and training being entirely lacking in answers to the question of whether [Clothwork] soldiers left ghosts behind. “I suspect so though. The divine spark in the [Heart Fire] should be able to work on any body which has a connection to it, and this body has been proven to have one.”

Lisa grumbled. “I don’t know if that’s good enough.”

“It is an extra concern,” Pillowcase said. “And a difficult one to test.”

“Yeah, we can’t exactly pre-kill you and see if you can make it back,” Lisa said.

“Well, we could,” Pillowcase said.

“What? No! No we can’t! Not when the question is ‘can she come back from the dead’. What if the answer is ‘no’?”

“It would mean I wouldn’t be a distraction for you if an unwinnable fight broke out?” 

Pillowcase had no interest in dying to test a theory, but her analytical side demanded she be honest about the options before them.

“You would let Obby chop your head off just so I wouldn’t be distracted in a fight?” Lisa’s words boiled with incredulity.

“That would not be my first choice,” Pillowcase said. “But neither would letting the rest of the team face what’s inside the castle without being able to protect them.”

“Of the two, you had better know which option we will be selecting,” Lisa said.

“The one which allows me to pursue the life I’ve chosen to live?” Pillowcase said.

“The one that involves you actually having a damn life!” Lisa wasn’t shouting but that was only because they were on a silent, telepathic channel.

“Can I live if I can’t be who I am?” Pillowcase asked.

“In this case? Yes! Yes you can!” Lisa said. “There’s no need to throw your life away just to prove something. You can be a tank just fine without tackling every impossible challenge thrown in front of you.”

“How?” Pillowcase asked. “Being a tank means facing danger so others don’t have to. If I run from this because it’s too dangerous, then how would I ever face any other danger?”

“Because you just said it yourself – this is too dangerous,” Lisa said. “Listen, training is something I know how to do. When someone comes in looking to start to build their strength we don’t say ‘here’s the heaviest weights we’ve got, if they crush you that’s too bad’. We can work up your strength the same way. But only if you’re alive to put in the work. And maybe that means you won’t be able to tank the most deadly foes out there but you can still be a tank and still do a lot of good by focusing on the battles that you can survive.”

Pillowcase blinked and felt a liquid on her face.

“I’m crying?” she said.

“Why?” Lisa asked.

“How?” Pillowcase asked. “[Clothworks] can’t cry. It’s not part of our design.”

“Hey are you doing ok?” Obby asked, stepping up to Pillowcase’s side as Pillowcase stumbled to a halt.

“I’m at full health,” Pillowcase said.

“Yeah, but you don’t look so good,” Rip said, appearing at Pillowcase’s side and helping her sit down on a small boulder beside the path they were following.

“No. No. I’m fine,” Pillowcase said, trying to stand, but Lost Alice’s gentle touch kept her pinned on her seat. “I’m okay. I’m just…”

“Adjusting,” Obby said. “You lost a literal part of yourself and you’ve been pressing on like nothing changed. You can’t do that. You need time to rest.”

“We all do,” Matt said.

“No. I’ll be fine. We can keep going. We need to find out if the [Lord of Storms] will be able to help us. If the Consortium attacks again…”

“I don’t think that will be a problem any time soon,” Obby said, gesturing back in the direction they’d come.

Pillowcase saw the [Formless Hunger] which had replaced [Sky’s Edge] tearing a Consortium warship apart molecule by molecule. The sight was horrifying and fascinating and captured everyone’s attention for several long moments until it was done.

Other warships were in orbit but something about its first meal seemed to disagree with the [Formless Hunger]. The random pulses of light in the static couldn’t express any real meaning, but something in them suggested to Pillowcase that the Hunger was afraid. Of what, Pillowcase had no idea, and on reflection was not at all sure how she was supposed to feel about something that could terrifying a formless eldritch abomination.

“Look,” she said. “My eyes are better now. No unexplained leakage. I’m ready to continue on.”

“To where?”

“The [Lord of Storms Castle],” Pillowcase said, turning to point at the portal to the castle’s domain, which was no longer visible at all.

“My apologies,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m just in the process of moving. Did we have an appointment?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 16

Rose knew she was supposed to be paying attention, knew the spooky, shadowed land around them actually was full of monsters who wanted to eat them, knew she might be the only one who could sense the predators who were laying in wait for them, but despite all that, she couldn’t help getting lost in her thoughts.

“So what do you think really happened to Pillow?” Jamal asked on their private channel.

They were back to marching again, carefully covering the remaining distance between the former [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] and the outcropping which led to the hidden realm where the [Lord of Storms] was supposedly hanging out.

Rose wasn’t bored with the trip. Even with Rip Shot’s experience to fall back on, her body was alive with electricity at the thought of the peril they were daring. Her distraction came from the question Jamal had posed. The question she’d been pondering ever since the horror at [Sky’s Edge] had been driven back.

“I think she saved us,” Rose said. “Again.”

“Yeah. But how.” Jamal’s voice held the same repressed dread that suffused Rose’s heart.

Ahead of them Pillowcase and Lost Alice had taken their usual place at the front of the informal marching order. Even watching them from behind though, Rose could see that things weren’t the same.

Pillowcase wasn’t the same, and whatever connection Pillow and Lost Alice had formed before had changed. There was a distance between them that had nothing to do with the physical space they occupied or how careful they were to maintain it.

Pillowcase moved with mechanical precision. She kept to her side of the path, careful to provide Lost Alice with a constant buffer of space. It was a form of defensive positioning. Rip Shot read the spacing and flow of the movement as steps in some unseen combat, though whether Lost Alice was a foe to be evaded or an ally Pillowcase was giving a clear field around was something neither Rose nor Rip’s perspective could determine.

From how they were walking, Rose wasn’t sure Pillowcase or Lost Alice could have answered the question either though.

“She said she cast a spell on whatever that thing was. The [Formless Hunger],” Rose said, not convinced by the words she was saying any more than she’d been when she’d been listening to them.

“I tried to do that too,” Jamal said. “It didn’t work. I mean I couldn’t cast anything. The magic didn’t have anything to interact with. I wanted to, I tried, but it I couldn’t. It just didn’t work. I tried though.”

Warning bells went off in Rose’s head.

“I know,” she said. “I tried too. [Flame Shot], [Multi-Burst], even [Mark Target] wouldn’t work. Whatever that thing was, we couldn’t affect it.”

“But she did. And it hurt her.”

“It was a glitch though, right?” Rose asked, scrambling to keep Jamal from tumbling over the edge of sorrow and despair she felt lurking in front of her. “It makes sense that it wouldn’t be consistent from one of us to the next.”

Jamal sighed.

“Yeah. I’m just kind of freaked out I think. This has been a lot of take in, and we haven’t taken much of a break at all yet.”

“Do you think we should?” Rose asked. “Maybe before we go into the [Lord of Storms] place?”

“Can we?” Jamal asked. “I mean, I know we could stop and rest, but if we do that what else is going to go wrong?”

Rose could hear an old fear lurking in Jamal’s voice. He was used to being the one blamed for everything that went wrong. No matter how hard he tried. 

That couldn’t happen here.

This was a new start.

It had to better than their old life.

“Probably the same stuff that’ll go wrong if we proceed onwards,” Rose said. “I mean what’s happening here isn’t about us. There have been hundreds of thousands of people effected. What we’re doing now? We’re pretty far into ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.”

“Cause we’re in the sky?” Jamal forced some levity into his voice. Rose took it as a good sign, but knew she didn’t have him convinced yet.

“Because we don’t have to be here,” she said. “We could sit all this out and no one would blame us. They know we’re kids. They can hear our voices and they’ve seen our ghost forms. Everybody expects us to just hide away and be protected.”

“Should we be though? I mean what if Pillow got hurt because she was fighting every hard to defend us?”

“Okay, I know we haven’t known her long, but does Pillow seem like the kind of person to *not* fight hard to defend whoever’s under her care?” Rose asked.

That brought a small chuckle from Jamal. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

 “Her instincts are all ‘I hurl myself into the wheat thresher so no one else has to’, of course she was going to fight hard enough to break herself if that’s what it took.”

“Yeah, but if we were stronger, she wouldn’t have to do that right?”

“Nope,” Rose said. “Strength wasn’t going to help there. And I can prove it.”

“How?”

“Obby,” Rose said. “She’s the highest level of any of us. If strength was enough to fix what was going on with the [Formless Hunger] then she would have been the one to stop it.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” Jamal said. “Still feels like we’re in over our heads though.”

“Oh, we are. We definitely are,” Rose said. “If we were still just Rose and Jamal, then no way should we be here. Even as Rip and Matt, we’re totally not ready for any of this. You can see it in how everyone who knows the game is talking about things. But that’s the thing, isn’t it?”

Rose waited a moment as Jamal considered her words.

“We’re all not ready,” he said.

“Yeah, exactly,” Rose said. “Everyone who’s with us has two strikes against them. First, we’re all low level nobodies. None of us can take on the things the real players are handling. But then, second, maybe neither can the real players. I mean we’re all a mishmash of who we were on Earth and who our characters were, and that’s not what playing the game could have been like for anyone. And we know there are things here that are outside of the game too. So no one really knows what they’re doing.”

“So we suck, but so does everyone, so we’re no worse than they are?” Jamal asked.

“It’s all relative is what I’m saying. It’s been less than a day so far and we’re already a lot stronger than we used to be. And if Alice is right, maybe we’ll wind up stronger than anyone else since we’re doing all our leveling here, where it’s like for real?”

“Yeah…” Jamal was considering the idea as much as agreeing with it, but added another “Yeah!” once it won him over.

“Hey there Rip, got a minute?” Obby asked, speaking on a private channel for the two of them.

“Yeah! What can I help you with?” Rip asked, a little thrill shooting through her.

Obby knew she was a kid, but she always treated her like Rip rather Rose and that felt better than Rose had words to explain.

“It’s about Pillowcase,” Obby said. “There’s some things I’d like you to keep an eye out for okay?”

“Sure, like what?”

“I know you haven’t know her long – you just met in the game after the [World Shift] right?” Obby asked.

“Yeah. It was after the bugged event that hit [Sky’s Edge],” Rip said and explained the desperate fight they’d tried to manage against the [Wraithwings] and how everything had fallen apart.

“I am really impressed that pulled off as much as did,” Obby said. “Hiding in a geometry glitch is clever and trying to fight a horde of things above your level is gutsy.”

“You can call it stupid, it’s okay,” Rip said.

“Don’t start thinking it’s stupid because it didn’t work,” Obby said. “Sure in some worlds you’d know exactly what you were capable of and what your foes could do and all the math would be laid out telling you exactly how everything would go. Most places aren’t like that though, and definitely not this place.”

“In hindsight, we could have done better though,” Rip said.

“Good! That says you’re learning! Figuring things out when they don’t come together how you want is the key to getting better.”

“Yeah, but some things are just impossible right?

“Those are the best things,” Obby said. “What’s impossible today is waiting for a sufficiently clever or determined person to come up with an answer to tomorrow.”

“Umm…is that what Pillowcase did?” Rose asked.

Obby sighed.

“Yeah. That’s exactly what she did. So, it doesn’t always work out great, but if we asked her, she’d tell use that even knowing what the outcome would be, she’d still do what she did.”

“I still don’t get what she did exactly?”

“The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t even that when [Sky’s Edge] turned all ‘staticky’,” Obby said. “I know [Formless Hunger] sounds pretty abstract and ill-defined but what it was before that wouldn’t even fit into a word exactly.”

“I kind of get that. Jamal and I were talking about how our spells and abilities just didn’t seem to work on whatever it was,” Rose said. “So why did Pillow’s?”

“The short form?” Obby asked. “She did the impossible. She took something that wasn’t quite real and turned it into something, granted a very weird and dangerous something, but still a ‘something’ that was part of this world.”

“With her spell?” Rose asked.

“The spell was the conduit, or the metaphor…the tool basically,” Obby said.

“Could our spells and stuff have done the same?” Rose asked.

“That’s a complicated question,” Obby said. “No, in the sense that magic from this world can’t reach that far beyond it. Also ‘no’ in the sense that it wasn’t really the spell that brought the [Formless Hunger] into being real. And then there’s the ‘no’ in the sense that you’re not Pillowcase. Or Tessa. Or any other part of her.”

“So she’s special then?” Rose asked.

“Of course,” Obby said. “Everyone is. That’s the most obvious and overlooked secret there is.”

“But she’s got, like, special ‘fight unreal things’ powers or something? Like, is she the Chosen One?”

“Neither Pillowcase, nor Tessa, had special powers related to what they did,” Obby said. “You won’t find ‘Instantiate Unbeing’ on her character sheet or anything like that. What was special about her was that when that test came, she was where she was, with the motivations she had, and was willing to make the choices she did.”

“Is she going to be okay?” Rose asked. “She seems different now.”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” Obby said. “The Pillowcase who’s with us now is only part of the person we knew before. I guess that’s pretty obvious with the [Fractured] condition she talked about. What’s important though is that she’s not exactly even the Pillowcase that we knew. When she pulled the [Formless Hunger] into this world, she pulled a bit of it into herself as well.”

Rose almost tripped over her own feet.

“Wait, so she has a monster or something growing in her?” she asked.

“Again, complicated,” Obby said. “I mean, it’s not like there’s a literal monster gestating in her chest or something. It’s more that she’s got access to powers now that are outside the normal scope of this world. You can think of it like the [Formless Hunger] became real and a little bit of Pillowcase became unreal in exchange.”

“What’s going to happen with that? Is she going to turn into a [Formless Hunger] too or something?”

“No. She’s too much of herself to become something so devoid of history or identity,” Obby said. “Beyond that though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. A lot of it comes down to her. The little bit of strangeness inside her might become part of the natural world on its own as the world grows to include her. Or she might force it to expand and become steadily less what she was and more something that could never be.”

“Can we help her?” Rose asked.

“Yeah. I think we can,” Obby said. “All she needs, all we can really do, is let her know there are people who care for her. That’s the beacon she can use to find a path back home when she gets lost.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 15

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 15

The wreckage of the [Trainsaw Transport] lay strewn across the front entrance of the [Library of Lights]. It was a victory of sorts, but Glimmerglass was reasonably sure that they couldn’t afford any more victories like it.

“You did good,” Cambrell said. “No deaths.”

“That was because everyone burned off healing potions and their long cooldowns,” Glimmerglass said.

“Better than being dead,” Cambrell said.

“Sometimes,” Glimmerglass said. She was sitting cross legged inside an alcove in the library. Too far from her team to be of any help, because she was too spent to do anything for them besides be another body to protect. “In a proper raid, we’d have let that fight wipe us  and come back restocked and kited out to handle it properly.”

“War’s not like raiding,” Cambrell said. “Not like assassinations either.”

“I can imagine,” Glimmerglass said. “You’re probably wishing there was one meaningful target to hit here right?”

“Sometimes assassinations call for more than kill. What I miss is getting to leave the moment the fighting is over. I wasn’t built for defensive work like this.”

“Amusingly, I was,” Glimmerglass said. “But I’m rusty and behind the curve.”

“Why is that?” Cambrell asked, sitting down beside her and offering his canteen. It wasn’t filled with anything exotic, just water, but it was clean and nicely chilled and very much what Glimmerglass needed.

“The guild I was in fell apart a long time ago. After that I just kind of drifted so I didn’t keep up with the new gear and advances in magic and techniques,” Glimmerglass said.

“Why?” Cambrell asked.

“I didn’t have the [Inspiration] to go out adventuring anymore,” Glimmerglass said, passing the canteen back.

“What’s it like?” Cambrell asked. “The [Inspiration] thing?”

“You never had it? How did you get to be so powerful then?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Not an adventurer. Fell in with some bad people, then found there were even worse ones out there. Turns out if you kill enough bad people, other bad people make it a point to kill you before you come for them. Survive enough of them and you wind up pretty hard to kill overall.”

“That doesn’t sound easy.”

“It wasn’t.”

“That wasn’t my path. I started out as a novice priestess. I always knew I wanted to help people, but I thought I’d do that by giving out blessing at my town’s temple and purifying food and drink for people.”

Glimmerglass thought back to those innocent days which lay in some impossibly distant past. Had she felt the [Inspiration] stirring in her even then? Maybe. Some part of her had always felt like she was part of something greater, that she could be more than she was.

“Temple get burned?” Cambrell asked.

“No,” Glimmerglass said. “Well not right away. It was fine when I started adventuring. A few years later, my town got swept up in the [Ravaging Legion’s] onslaught. A lot of it burned then, the temple included.”

“Sorry,” Cambrell said.

“You’re from [Wagon Town]?” 

“No. Just lived there for a while. Can’t shake the accent sometimes.”

“You got hit pretty hard by the [Ravaging Legion] too right?”

“We did ok. A lot of goblins became adventurers after that. Not me though. Was already too good of an assassin I guess. Never heard the [Inspiration] they talked about.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Glimmerglass said. “It’s pretty incredible. It’s like fatigue and fear and uncertainty? Those all just fall away. I felt so focused and driven back then. Even when we took on a boss a dozen times in row and failed over and over, it was like there was someone at my back, ready to lift me up so I could keep going. Someone who was always whispering in my earn how much she believed in me and how awesome I could be.”

“That sounds nice.”

“There’s nothing like it,” Glimmerglass said. “That’s why when my [Inspiration] went away I kind of sank down into a big puddle of lethargy. After you have that kind of support, it’s hard to keep going without it.”

“What brought it back? The war?”

“It didn’t come back,” Glimmerglass said, shaking her head. “Not exactly. You’re definitely not seeing me at my best here.”

“Doing pretty good without it. Maybe more like me than you know?”

“I don’t know that I’d measure up all that well,” Glimmerglass said. “Most of what I’ve got is a holdover from the time when I had [Inspiration] and a [Guild] to draw on. You earned yours without any of that, and you’re higher level than I am.”

“Maybe, but you’re still fighting, same as me,” Cambrell said.

“Same as all of us,” Glimmerglass said. “I can’t get over how everyone’s come together for this.”

“Everyone hasn’t,” Cambrell said.

“What do you mean?” Glimmerglass asked.

“There are a lot of adventurers who are helping out, but there’s a lot who aren’t too.”

“There are a lot that are too low level,” Glimmerglass said. “They’d only be in the danger if we brought them along.”

“Not just them,” Cambrell said. “High level adventurers, higher than you, some of them are afraid, some of them are pretending none of this is their problem, and some of them have…changed.”

“What do you mean ‘changed’?” Glimmerglass asked, the vision of a [Disjoined] flashing across her mind’s eye.

Why had she seen that?

No. Wait. More importantly, how did she know what a [Disjoined] was?

She knew because she’d fought them.

In a ruined city.

An endless stream of them, inflicting terrible wounds and ultimately…

Glimmerglass shook her head, blinking away what had to be fragments of a dream.

“The people I’ve talked to can’t explain it,” Cambrell said. “They just say that some of the adventurers seem…broken.”

“What’s happened to them? Are they still fighting with us?”

“I don’t know if they ever started fighting. Not with us anyways. I think they’re gone now though.”

“Where? If we can fix them that might be the reinforcements we need. In general, I mean, not here and now.”

“I don’t think so,” Cambrell said. “Don’t know if they can be fixed. Or where they are. The people I’ve talked to made it sound like the broken ones all disappeared. Not wandered off, vanished. In some kind of weird, crunchy light.”

“[Disjoined].” The word froze Glimmerglass’s lips as it passed them.

“What’s that?” Cambrell asked.

“A nightmare, I think,” Glimmerglass said.

“You fought them before?” Cambrell asked.

“I…I don’t think so. They’re just sound familiar. Like something I heard about.”

“Bet you haven’t heard anything good about them?”

Glimmerglass chuckled.

“Nope.”

“Think we’ll see any here?”

“I really hope not.” Glimmerglass remembered the image of the ruined city. She’d seen too many cities burning lately. Something about the image though set it apart though. It wasn’t the wrecked buildings and fire. That was a mask waiting to be peeled back and reveal something far worse. Something her mind was resolutely refusing to bring to her conscious awareness.

“Think the Consortium will attack again?”

“I can’t see how they have any other choice. Unless they’re willing to give up on [Crystal Bower].”

“Think they wouldn’t have fought so hard for it if they were going to give it up.”

“We have wrecked a prodigious amount of their stuff so far haven’t we?”

More attackers had followed the [Trainsaw Transport] – late arrivals and then a following wave. Rather than a series of battles it had been one big, unending melee. It was a brutal strategy, denying Glimmerglass’s party the full efficiency of their area spells and effects while maintaining a constant pressure on them to prevent anyone from recovering the resources they were expending. Glimmerglass’s team had come so close to losing, but it had cost the Consortium more than they could pay in the end. Lives. Equipment. Magic. The Consortium had simply run dry before Damnazon lost her last hit point, or Kalindra ran out of mana or Kelindra’s arrows ran dry. 

Glimmerglass was proud of her team and grateful to have found them. They reminded her of her old guildmates. Creative, adaptable, and dedicated. There had been so many chances for things to fall apart, but even when someone made a critical error, one of the others had been there to cover for them and pick up the slack. They were [Inspired]. She could feel the energy of it radiating off them. 

“Think we’ll make it?” Cambrell asked.

“Through the next fight? Maybe. Probably I’d say. They’ll send a tougher force but just resting like this is helping a lot. Some of the debuffs they hit us with are starting to fade and I’ve got more magic back than I have since we got to the library. I think that’s true for everyone else too, though we should compare notes. How are you holding up?”

“Still breathing, not too disoriented. Can’t complain.”

“Hey, I’m your healer. Complain to me or I won’t know you need anything.”

“Lies. I watched you in the fight. You knew what was happening to all of us the whole time.”

“There’s more to keeping people on their feet than just watching their health bars and what status effects they’re under,” Glimmerglass said. “A good team needs someone watching out for what’s really challenging them. Or at least that’s what an old friend of mine used to say.”

“Sounds smart. Also sounds like they were complimenting you.”

“Definitely the first, probably not the second though,” Glimmerglass said. “BT was brilliant but she enjoyed teasing people a lot more than complimenting them.”

“Was?” Cambrell asked.

“We drifted apart,” Glimmerglass said. “When my guild broke up, I lost touch with most of the people I knew. They all had other things they were pursuing, or they’d lost their [Inspiration] like I had and didn’t have much to talk about with the ones who were still out there pursuing their destiny.”

“Have you tried talking to her since you got your [Inspiration] back?” Cambrell asked. “Like you said, we need reinforcements.”

“No. I…I failed them. I don’t think they’d want to talk to me, or if they did, they’d have reached out. I still have the old guild’s channel open, but it’s been silent this whole time.”

“You should try,” Cambrell said. “They could be thinking the same thing.”

“Yeah, but I’m still not like them,” Glimmerglass said. “I really haven’t gotten my [Inspiration] back. Not like before. Not like the rest of the team has.”

“You fight good. You got us out of the statis trap. You didn’t let any of us die in this fight. Best healer I’ve ever worked with.”

“Do you work with a lot of healers during an assassination?” Glimmerglass asked with a wry grin.

“The best is the best,” Cambrell said, raising his chin in protest when the facts wouldn’t back him up. “Don’t think you failed them either.”

“I did though. The guild fell apart on my watch. I was supposed to see what was up with everyone and I didn’t see it coming at all.”

“Maybe they didn’t want you to,” Cambrell said. “People hide things all the time. Pretty rare I kill someone who knows why they had it coming.”

“I think that makes it worse somehow?” Glimmerglass said. “If they were hiding something big enough to break our guild apart then how can I think I ever really knew them at all?”

“Don’t have to know everything someone is thinking to know them,” Cambrell said. “People usually aren’t what they say anyways. Gotta look at what they do, and how they really treat you.”

“We always treated each other pretty well,” Glimmerglass said.

“Maybe it wasn’t about you. Or about the guild. Maybe it was something in them? Maybe something that’s not there anymore?”

“Maybe?” Glimmerglass shrugged.

“Won’t know if you don’t ask,” Cambrell said.

Glimmerglass sighed. The goblin wasn’t wrong. 

Raising her hand, she called up her long unused [Friend List] and began scrolling through it. Only one name wasn’t in the pale grey of someone who’d set themselves to [Inactive].

Why was BT’s name set to gold though?

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 14

Azma watched as the first of her transport ships was destroyed. Her bottom line bled drops of red ink as the vessel and the crew aboard it were torn apart on a subatomic level. Behind it, a procession of its comrades floated onwards towards a similar doom. Azma had been depending on several of those ships to serve a role in her vanguard for the next wave of assaults. Instead they were cruising, mindlessly, towards a patch of ground on the satellite moon which Azma couldn’t even request a scan of. 

“This is fascinating,” she said, reviewing the telemetry being transmitted by the lead transport ship as it was ripped apart, atom by atom.

“There is still crew in the aft sections,” Ryschild said. “Twenty four out of the ship’s compliment of one hundred and twelve.”

“And communication within the ship?” Azma asked.

“Stations are going quiet as the ship is destroyed but the rest are reporting normal operations,” Grenslaw said. “I don’t understand though, even when there’s a missing response to some of the call outs, the crew is proceeding as though they received the correct response.”

“Even the [Artifax]?” Azma asked.

“The ship’s compliment of [Artifax] have gone completely silent,” Grenslaw said. “None of the telemetry includes them.”

“And there wasn’t a response to either the [Priority Zero] command override or the [Intellectual Property Retention] enchantments,” Azma said. 

“That’s not supposed to be possible, is it?” Ryschild asked.

“As far as the Consortium has been able to determine, no, it’s not,” Azma said. “Before the [Artifax] were cleared for inclusion in the Consortium’s forces, the developers had to prove that subborning them was impossible. No one wanted to put an army of death dolls, murder bots, and slaughter gems on the field and have the army flipped against them. At least not again. Shockingly no one listened to the complaints about the original, easily compromised models.”

“What is happening to the crew then?” Grenslaw asked.

“I don’t know,” Azma said. “And that’s wonderful.”

Her eyes sparkled with interest as more data arrived. The radiation output from the ship’s destruction was amazing. Or even better, it was unique. Unique was always valuable, even when it was also terrible.

“Will the loss of the ship and crew setback our overall efforts?” Ryschild asked.

“If it doesn’t, then properly investigating this phenomena probably will,” Azma said. She knew fact that wouldn’t be met with approval by her higher ups. Neither would the loss of the ships. Sometimes though a prize presented itself which required going farther into the red than anyone else was comfortable with.

“Should we order a lock down on this data to prevent it from getting out to the rest of the fleet?” Grenslaw asked.

“It will have an impact on morale, but I think we need to have the full dataset made available to everyone,” Azma said. “Include and make a special reference to the crew’s vitals and response patterns as well as my analysis. The rest of the fleet needs to be know why I’m ordering the satellite moon under [Interdiction] and why we’re not making any effort to save the first three transports.”

“The crews are already dead?” Ryschild asked, skimming the summary of Azma’s analysis.

“In this context ‘inviable’ isn’t a euphemism,” Azma said. “The crew didn’t die, at least in the sense that their bodies’ biological functioning never ceased. We have their personal telemetry readings to confirm that. After the ship systems recovered from their scans though, the people inside those bodies were gone. Something in that field reached out through the scan and consumed them.”

“Oh! I see!” Grenslaw said. “You ran a scan for of them for psychic interference and found nothing.”

“I’m not sure I follow…oh wait, I see,” Ryschild said. “It wasn’t that the scans came back with no interference, they came back with literally nothing. No influenced minds, no uninfluenced minds. Nothing at all.”

“How is the crew carrying out their duties then? How are they communicating with us at?” Grenslaw asked.

“They’re not,” Azma said. “It is. If the field they scanned contained some kind of non-sentient memetic virus, it would have blanked them and left them essentially comatose. When you look at their actions though, they all point towards one thing.”

Grenslaw gave a sharp intake of breath. A moment later Ryschild whispered an unprofessional curse.

“It’s trying to lure us in. It wants us to rescue them. To investigate it,” Grenslaw said.

“I’m giving it three ships,” Azma said. “It’s a gamble that it can’t eat them without giving away some of its secrets, and that those secrets will be to its detriment rather than ours if we discover them.”

“Should we be looking at the results directly then?” Ryschild asked.

“That thing ate five of my crews,” Azma said. “It might have infected more beyond that. I am not feeding it any of tactical analysts, and I’m not feeding it you either. The raw data is restricted to my terminal. If it wants to try to devour an intellect, it’s more the welcome to choke on mine.”

“If it gets you though, won’t it get the entire fleet?” Grenslaw asked.

“Of course,” Azma said. “I wouldn’t be very good bait if there wasn’t more of a prize on the line than one reasonably clever mind.”

“You’re setting yourself up as bait?” Ryschild asked.

“It was that or order you to do it,” Azma said. “Our ground forces are not equipped to deal with [Neverling Class] threats. They need to be able to stay focused on the battles with the mortal defenders.”

“Was this enemy part of the world’s defenses?” Grenslaw asked.

“That’s the most probable answer,” Azma said. “It’s a terrible coincidence otherwise that the moment we began to attack in ernest, a creature from beyond this reality emerges and begins devouring our fleet. Under normal circumstances I would say it’s exactly the sort of apocalyptic last line of defense that ancient and desperate civilizations are likely to deploy against us.”

“You don’t make that suggestion in your report though?” Ryschild asked.

“There’s an anomaly in the data that’s bothering me,” Azma said. “Look at this timestamp.”

“The telemetry from the crews flatlined for a second and a half,” Ryschild said. “And when it came back all of the patterns were different. They’re heart rate, respiration, everything was elevated.”

“Like they’d been in fight,” Azma said. “And their actions became hesitant and twitchy. Like they’d been wounded.”

“But none of them showed signs of injury,” Grenslaw said. “No drop in blood pressure, no agony-overrides kicking in.”

“There was a significant uptick in adrenaline though,” Ryschild said.

“An instantaneous, crew-wide panic despite the fact that they were still reporting no anomalous results from their scans and no threat detection at all,” Azma said.

“They weren’t the ones that were hurt,” Ryschild said, nodding in understanding of the point Azma was leading them towards.

“Something hurt the thing that was controlling them?” Grenslaw asked.

“Is that possible?” Ryschild asked. “I thought [Neverling Class] threats required specific [Arcanotech] devices and a lot of calibration to effect? And even then it’s more a matter of sealing them away than inflicting any injury. Isn’t it?”

“Exactly,” Azma said. “[Neverlings] don’t have enough of a material or spiritual form for us to kill them under most circumstances. They’re closer to being concepts than anything else. The [Arcanotech] devices we use against them are essentially physical instantiations of Counter-Concepts, each one purpose built and focused on nullifying the [Neverling] its deployed against.”

“Have you fought one of these things before?” Grenslaw asked.

“Twice. The first time the device didn’t work. The second time we setup three devices at once and managed to suppress the [Neverling] for a months,” Azma said. “Fortunately, a month was plenty of time for [Tech Services] to research a more permanent solution. And it only cost them four or five researchers I think.”

“What happened with the first device? The one that didn’t work?” Grenslaw asked.

“We lost that world,” Azma said. “Pyrrhic victory for the natives of course, so they were dissolved before we left. Personally it worked out well though. My former [Commander] was in charge of the device and the operation, so my promotion to [Commander] was one of the easier ones that year.”

“Should we take that as a lesson [Supreme Commander]?” Ryschild asked with a faint smile.

“Definitely,” Azma said.

“So noted,” Grenslaw said. “When searching for a promotion, transfer to a ship under a foolish [Commander], and exercise…it look like three months worth of patience?”

“To be fair, it was quite a long three months,” Azma said.

“The second ship should be making landfall now,” Ryschild said as his station pinged an alert.

Azma’s station had provided a similar alert. As she watched though, the data began telling a another unexpected story.

“The ship isn’t showing signs of being destroyed?” Ryschild said.

“Communication from it is continuing as it had been,” Grenslaw said. “If we went by only the ship’s communication channels we’d think it was still  in orbit.”

“It’s not though, is it?” Ryschild asked. “This isn’t all the fault of our sensors?”

“A reasonable question,” Azma said. “When dealing with a [Neverling] questioning what’s real is dangerous but necessary. In this case we’re getting corroborating reports from the picket ships we set up to isolate the infected ones. Those could be spoofed too, but the likelihood decreases with each one we receive which reports unique details from their own vantage point.”

“Is it keeping the second ship to lure us in?” Grenslaw asked.

“Possibly,” Azma said, her eyes narrowing as she read the data streaming across the projection in front of her. “But it’s powering down the ship. That is an odd action to take. Watch the bio-telemetery on the crew.”

“It was normal until few second ago,” Ryschild said. “Now we’re losing that too.”

“Check the values before the signal is lost,” Azma said.

“The readings are showing brief spikes across the board,” Grenslaw said. “These aren’t living vital signs though. The data has to be corrupted. If someone had a blood pressure this high their organs would all rupture.”

“The ship is rising from the surface,” Ryschild said.

“But not under its own power?” Azma wasn’t sure what the data she was seeing meant, only that it didn’t line up with any of the other [Neverling] encounters the Consortium had records on.

“No engine signs, no spatial propulsion detected,” Ryschild said.

“What are you doing?” Azma asked. “Are you trying to come to us?”

“It doesn’t appear so,” Grenslaw said. “The ship’s flight is not directed. It’s doing no manuevering and its path corresponds to the gravitic warps between the satellite moon and the planet’s surface.”

“It’s fleeing?” Azma asked.

“Slowly if so,” Grenslaw said. “Without the engines or the portal machines, it will take days before it’s current orbit decays enough to make planetfall.”

“Dispatch a drone to monitor the ship and report projections of its touchdown point,” Azma said. “If it’s numbers change at all, I want to know about it, and I want the drone immediately destroyed.”

“What happens if the [Neverling] makes planetfall?” Grenslaw asked.

“If a [Neverling] is unleashed on a planet, the world and all personnel stationed on it become a complete write-off,” Azma said. “We’ll be required to retreat with whatever forces can be guaranteed to have made no contact with either the [Neverling], or any forces suborned by it.”

“Should we stop the ship then?” Ryschild asked.

“I don’t think it has the [Neverling] on it,” Azma said, the majority of her attention focused on her display.

All of the readings were changing.

The ship was empty. At least of life. It had been cast off. 

No. Released. The projections showed it entering a shallow orbit after a slow descent. It wasn’t the sort of path a projectile would enter accidentally. It was as though the ship had been hurled away from the moon but with the utmost care to not damage any more of it than had already been destroyed.

“Something scared it,” Azma said. “No. Not something. Someone.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 13

The emptiness separating Pillowcase from the one calling out to her wasn’t external. Even as she stumbled to the ground, she felt her focus pulled inwards at the same time as she reached out trying to bridge thousands of miles with nothing more than a whisper.

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”

The invocation was a gift, an offering to meet the desperate need which washed over her as she answered the distant call.

“Pillow? What’s happening…” Lisa’s voice faded away along with the light of the billion stars that burned overhead.

Pillowcase knew she lacked the words to explain what she was doing. She didn’t understand it herself, except on an instinctual level. All she knew was that she had do something.

***

Glimmerglass stared at the remains of the [Elite Raider]. It hadn’t been her magics which felled him, and yet, it had been?

“Sorry, got lured out of position there,” Cambrell said, appearing at her side. “Nice work defending yourself.”

“It wasn’t…” 

What? Wasn’t her?

Who else had given her the [Hearts Killer’s Curse]?

“It wasn’t easy,” she settled on, foregoing a more complete explanation in favor of keeping up with her spell rotation and providing the support her team so desperately needed.

The [Trainsaw Transport] made that need crystal clear as it shattered the [Shining Aegis Barrier] she’d erected and screamed forward, venting out a cloud of black gas in its wake.

“[Casting spell: Shining Aegis Barrier],” she said, expending more of her magic than she could afford to in the process. 

It was a tactical choice – her party was severely weakened and in need of almost constant support. Draining herself of magic meant they would suffer and there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. Leaving the [Trainsaw Transport] to plow onwards though would inflict far more harm, and lead to fatal results. If she’d been at full strength she could have dealt with the fatal outcomes too, but reversing death was a resource intensive process or required a long recharge time. That calculus of life and death computed to a solution in her head in under a second, long experience reducing or eliminating many of the factors involved.

For all of the fury of the battle though, the tantalizing touch of a deeper magic than she’d ever known tempted her to close her eyes and open herself to the connection the lingered just beyond the tips of her fingers.

***

Strong hands were shaking her back into her stitches.

“Hey. Pillowcase. Come back to us. Don’t do this again.” Lisa’s voice was a firm command wrapped around a dagger of anxiety.

“It’s ok. I’m here,” Pillowcase said, forcing her vision to focus on the face of the woman above her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize what the was.”

“What. What. Was.”

“Someone needed me,” Pillowcase said.

“Really? You don’t say?” Lost Alice seemed quite willing to resume her shaking. Given the Pillowcase was a [Tank] made out of magically reinforced fabric, Lost Alice wasn’t likely to do any real damage, but her expression said she was willing to give it her best effort.

The rest of the party didn’t seem to inclined to step in on either side. With Rip and Matt standing close by, though whether that was to intervene or take their turn when Lost Alice was done wasn’t exactly clear.

“I thought it was…my other self,” Pillowcase said. She knew names were a special thing and that most of the party wasn’t aware of her missing self’s name.

The answer was met with a general round of confusion, except for Lost Alice who grew still.

“It wasn’t? Or you couldn’t tell?” Lisa asked.

“What are you talking about? You just collapsed, did someone mind whammy you again?” Rip asked.

“No, its…I wasn’t built with the right words,” Pillowcase said.

She noticed she was laying under Lost Alice who was straddling her and, if her dim memory served, had been doing chest compressions as part of CPR work. It was an interesting gesture and somewhat understandable given that [Clothwork] didn’t have heart beats like [Humans] did. 

And [Bloodborne] didn’t either. So they had that in common.

Pillowcase noticed her thoughts spiraling off on a distracted path thinking about Lost Alice and clamped down on them. There was too much going on and too many other things to think about. 

She wasn’t going to push Lost Alice off though.

“Can you explain what you think it was?” Matt asked. “Cause it looked like you had a heart attack or something.”

“You were being attacked?” Obby asked, a quiet intensity in her gaze. 

Pillowcase felt like whatever answer she gave would carry unfathomable weight, but she couldn’t tell why. To be safe, she leaned back before answering and collected her thoughts.

“Yes. Not here of course. I didn’t start seeing hallucinations or believing I was surrounded by enemies. It was more of a feeling that someone needed help. That I needed help.”

“But you said you didn’t think there were any enemies around you?” Rip asked.

“Not this me,” Pillowcase said. “A distant one.”

“Te…the other self you were [Fractured] from?” Lisa asked.

“That’s what I thought at first, but it wasn’t her.”

“But it was you, and you’re here? Is that supposed to make sense?” Rip asked.

“It sounds like magic,” Lady Midnight said. “Real magic I mean. Law of Sympathy stuff.”

“Real magic?” Rip asked.

“Well, magic beliefs from the real world,” Lady Midnight said. “One really common one on our world is the idea that if two things are very similar they can influence one another.”

“Like with Voodoo dolls?” Rip asked.

“That’s a pop culture example, sure, though pop culture Voodoo basically unrelated to the real thing,” Lady Midnight said. 

“So someone’s got a little doll of Pillowcase?” Rip asked. “Or is she the big doll of someone else?”

“No. Not similar like that,” Lisa said. “The same.”

Pillowcase saw ideas flashing across Lost Alice’s red rimmed eyes.

“What’s the same as Pillowcase?” Matt asked. “Another [Clothwork] [Soul Knight]?”

“She wasn’t a [Soul Knight] or a [Clothwork],” Pillowcase said.

“She was a healer wasn’t she?” Lisa’s question was just louder than a whisper, for all that it seemed to thunder in her ears.

“Yes.”

“Her other character.”

“I think so.”

“Oh my god. They’re alive too.” Lost Alice rocked back, her gaze distant and unfocused as she absorbed the implications of what Pillowcase had said.

“You talked to one of your other characters,” Obby asked as though intent on capturing perfect clarity on the subject.

“More than talked to her,” Pillowcase said. “I gave her a piece of myself.”

“The [Heart Killer’s Curse]?”

“It was all I had that might have saved her,” Pillowcase said.

“And did it?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I watched it happen,” Pillowcase said. “For a moment, I was her. Or I saw the world through her eyes and understood it from her perspective.”

“Wait, so you became this other character? Is that why you passed out here?” Rip asked.

“Probably?” Pillowcase said. “It felt like I was reaching completely beyond this body. My other self did the same thing when we were fleeing [Sky’s Edge] the first time, with the same result.”

“That means you’ve done it twice now,” Obby said. “Can you do it again?”

“I would suspect so, but so far it’s only been under conditions of great duress. I’m not sure it’s possible to reach across the distance I felt without a powerful motivation,” Pillowcase said. “And doing so seems to come with a significant cost.”

“Maybe we should let her up now?” Starchild said.

Lisa looked down with a flash of guilt and noticed at last that she was still straddling Pillowcase’s prone form. With a quick hop, she got up, stepped aside, and offered her hand to help Pillowcase rise.

“Next time you feel that call, give us a warning okay?” Obby said.

“I can still feel it,” Pillowcase said. “It’s different now though. I think Glimmerglass is still engaged in combat, but her team was rallying when I let go of our connection and came back to my senses. She’s not desperate for outside aid any longer. Just curious.”

“I can’t blame her,” Lady Midnight said. “I can’t feel anything from any of my alts. It must be incredible to tapped into something like that.”

“So why was Pillow able to do that? Or was it this Glimmerglass? Does she have some mind-link type spells?” Rip asked.

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “There wasn’t anything in the game that let you use another character’s special abilities. If Glimmerglass had [Heart Killer’s Curse], she wouldn’t have needed to borrow it from Pillow. This was something special.”

“Maybe it’s an effect of what happened to her before?” Matt asked. “A side effect of the [Fractured] status?”

“Except that she did the same thing while she was still whole,” Obby pointed out.

“She might not be the only one who’s managed it then,” Lisa said. “Pete, Lady M, can you two reach out to your friends? I’ll check with my main guild and see if anyone else has heard anything like this. If it’s possible for one person it should be possible for all of us, and sharing abilities might save a life.”

“I knew we should have started playing the game sooner,” Rip said.

“Because passing out randomly sounds fun?” Matt asked.

“It’s not quite random,” Pillowcase said. “And I’m pretty sure there’s a significant benefit you have as a result of just starting.”

“No cross class super powers is a benefit?” Rip asked.

“Focus,” Pillowcase said. “With only one set of selves, you can fully embody who you are in one person, rather than being scattered across multiple, disconnected selves.”

“How is that good?” Rip asked.

“I was crafted for warfare,” Pillowcase said. “Focus is one of the defining traits my makers sewed into me. As an [Archer] you need that same focus.”

“But it means I’ll only ever be an [Archer],” Rip said. “You get to be a [Tank] and a [Healer].”

“Are you sure of that?” Obby asked.

“We can’t change classes can we?” Rip asked.

“You couldn’t in the game,” Lisa said. “But this isn’t the game. We don’t know what would happen if you decided to throw on some [Any Level] heavy armor and start swinging a sword and shield.”

“You think I could be a tank too?” Rip asked.

“Each of us is already developing skills outside of the game,” Obby said. “Each time we level up, we’re getting abilities the game never had in it. Even the bad ones like the [Fractured] condition Pillow picked up. The usual limits don’t seem to apply.”

“It’s more than that,” Lisa said. “We’re not just developing randomly. The out-of-game things I’ve gotten have all been in relation to the experiences I’ve had. Like [Blood Sense] that let’s me tell when someone living is near. That’s not part of the standard [Bloodborne] kit but I was so hungry, and I was thinking about how I’d find blood that was safe to drink that it appeared back at level 11. It’s like a tabletop game where a live GM is able to customize things for us. Except we’re the ones who are making the choices that determine how we grow.”

“That might make us potentially more powerful than the people who were playing end game characters,” Lady Midnight said.

“Because we can adapt our builds better than they did?” Rip asked.

“Because we can become things the game never imagined.” Lisa said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be a long road still, but what we look like at max level may be something completely unique.”

“I think that’s very possible,” Pillowcase said. “I don’t think it will even require getting to the level cap.”

“Something else in you changed? Not just the [Fractured] condition?” Obby’s questions weren’t things she sounded at all unsure about.

“The [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell I used on the [Formless Hunger] changed,” Pillowcase said. “It became something different. Something a lot more I think. [Primal Devouring].”

Obby froze.

“Don’t use that,” she said. “Not for anything.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 12

Pillowcase wasn’t leading her team but she was walking in front of it. Unlike when she’d led a troops of other [Soul Knights] into battle though, she wasn’t alone.

“Did the Consortium have any information on the [Lord of Storms]?” Lost Alice asked. It wasn’t a question which required secrecy, but she’d asked it on a private channel she’d setup with Pillowcase, so Pillowcase replied on the same channel.

“When we assaulted the [Fallen Kingdoms], the only expected resistance was supposed to come from the mortal races. The [Assault Commander] provided information on them, but gave the [Assault Force] only minimal information on the powers in the realm beyond that.”

“So they don’t know this dungeon is here either then?” Lost Alice asked.

“The information I have isn’t conclusive,” Pillowcase said. “The Consortium definitely knows more than was shared with me, or anyone like me.”

“So Matt wouldn’t know either then?” Lost Alice asked.

“We can check with him, but I believe not,” Pillowcase said. “Given that limitation though, I believe it’s unlikely the Consortium was aware of any significant powers in this area.”

“They would have included the [High Beyond] in their initial invasion plans if they knew someone powerful was here?” Lost Alice asked.

Pillowcase felt a quiet bubble of joy. It was unusual. Not something she’d been designed to experience. That didn’t change the fact that it was pleasing to converse with someone who could follow her line of thought easily.

“Exactly,” she said. “The Consortium’s plans for the initial raid on the [Fallen Kingdoms] called for a single massive push to shatter the defender’s forces and establish the sort demoralizing dominance over a critical area of the the world which would cause the defenders to sue for peace and become vassal states willingly. The [High Beyond] became a part of the operations only as a last ditch effort to recall the forces which had been deployed so that the failed assault wouldn’t appear as costly on the books as it ultimately was.”

“But they failed in that too,” Lost Alice said, her words both a question and the key she was using to unlock the puzzle of Pillowcase’s existence.

“Yes. I was too broken to complete the recall,” Pillowcase said. “Too weak.”

She’d been abandoned, her value precisely calculated as less than the expense of retrieving her. Better written off as a loss. Better to never have been made and never deployed.

Pillowcase knew that her failure in battle would be included as a statistic in the review process for the line of [Clothworks] she’d been sewn as a part of. One defective unit wouldn’t spell the end of the line, but in aggregate she could be part of a termination order for future models of her generation. 

“Too weak?” Lost Alice was silent for a long moment, mulling that over. “Are you sure of that?”

“We…I failed,” Pillowcase said. She didn’t have question. The facts were there and no words would change that.

“Losing isn’t the same thing as failure,” Lisa said. “Or should you be able to execute any order that’s given to you regardless of what’s asked for?”

“The assault was reviewed and approved. It was judged to be a reasonable use of Consortium funds.”

“I’ve seen you fight,” Lost Alice said.

“And I saw the battle you fought in,” Lisa said.

“The Consortium didn’t have any idea what they were going to be facing,” one of them said. 

“The failure wasn’t yours,” Lisa said. “It was whoever made the choice to invade us. They should have picked a different world.”

“Or come willing to bleed more to take what they wanted,” Lost Alice said. 

“Which is apparently what their new plan is,” Lisa said.

“The thing is though, I don’t know if we can even say you really lost,” Alice said. “Not when you got what you truly wanted out of it.”

“I…” Pillowcase couldn’t find words to dispute that.

“It’s okay to not be what they told you that you have to be,” Alice said.

The words sounded painfully familiar. From another life maybe.

Pillowcase felt an ache in her chest.

She knew whose “other life” it had been.

“What I don’t get is why they had to use the [High Beyond] at all though?” Lisa said in a puzzled tone, pulling back from the intimacy of the moment.

“The defenders forces proved to have far greater range with their effects than had been planned for,” Pillowcase said, glad to move the conversation to less personal ground.

Perhaps the private channel was a good idea? She spoke to herself but no other voice answered her.

“How did the [High Beyond] help with that?”

“The transport ships were able to pull back to a greater range and still open the [Recall Portals].”

“Was that enough to make a difference or were they just being cowardly?” Lisa asked. “I mean the [High Beyond] isn’t that far away from the planet’s surface. Not in astronomical terms.”

“Physical distance is only part of the difficult in opening the [Personal Recall Portals],” Pillowcase said. “The [High Beyond] lies closer to the edge of this world’s [Arcanosphere]. External technologies and sorceries are slightly less impeded here than on the surface. More importantly though by evacuating to the [High Beyond] first, the Consortium’s forces were able to establish a defensive perimeter before opening the first portal.”

“So unless the forces from the [Fallen Kingdoms] were willing to venture into a new area, one they thought was the origin point for the Consortium’s forces, and fight through who knows what kind of enemies there too, there’d be no chance of them getting to the portals and endangering the people leading the assault,” Lost Alice said.

“It sounds like a nice bit of misdirection, but I think we can still put a check in a ‘cowardice’ column,” Lisa said.

“The Consortium’s official value calculation for captured or deceased [Assault Commanders] is less than one percent of an active one,” Pillowcase said. “So that particular bit of cowardice is enshrined in their culture.”

“I guess that rules out a stealth strike to take down their current leadership then,” Lisa said.

“That would likely be beyond our capabilities anyways, but yes, killing off [Assault Commanders] is of limited value in the Consortium,” Pillowcase said. “There are always subordinates who are ready to step up and take over in their place. In fact several of them will often be willing to help with eliminating the current leader of any operation.”

“Yummy,” Lost Alice said.

“But sadly not something we can turn to our advantage here,” Lisa said.

“The same is often true within a company,” Pillowcase said. “Though the rank and file are all bound by controls which prevent any active treachery.”

“That’s what they had you under, right?” Lisa asked.

“Yes.”

“Bastards.”

“They would be proud to be called so,” Pillowcase said.

“How did you break free before they left?” Lost Alice asked.

“I didn’t,” Pillowcase said. “I was under the control enchantments until I broke down and was abandoned.”

“About that…” Lost Alice said.

“If you were broken, how did Tessa revive you?” Lisa asked.

“What do you mean?” Pillowcase asked.

“If you were broken, why aren’t you broken now?” Lost Alice asked. “Leaving aside that [Fractured] condition for the moment.”

“I am not now what I was then,” Pillowcase said. “So in a sense I am still broken. But, I don’t think that answers your question. What I am now is less powerful than what I was, but also less constrained. What I have now, it’s my own I think?”

“That’s what I guessed,” Lost Alice said. “It’s similar to what I’ve experienced. As a [Bloodborne] I could be a lot more powerful than I am now, as many of my kind are when they rise. Unlike them however, I am growing, which is a feat the dead aren’t generally noted for being capable of performing.”

“Are you sure you’re dead?” Pillowcase asked.

“I am rather lacking in a heart beat,” Lost Alice said. “And the whole ‘breathing thing’ seems to be optional.”

“But you have a living soul within you,” Pillowcase said.

“That is a good point,” Lisa said. “Also, no rot or decay. And there’s the whole hungry all the damn time thing.”

“Is that still a problem?” Pillowcase asked.

“Not at the moment,” Lost Alice said. “After our little meal in the [Sunless Deeps], I should be good for blood for a week or more.”

“Still got cravings like a junkie though,” Lisa said.

“I do wish I could offer to help you there, but aside from looking for blood bearing enemies, I’m afraid I have little to offer,” Pillowcase said.

Lost Alice’s steps faltered for a moment before she continued, but her gaze was cast away from Pillowcase as they walked up the path leading towards the [Lord of Storms Castle].

“I’m sorry,” Pillowcase said, not certain what she had done wrong but sensing that Lost Alice’s distress arose from what she’d said.

“You really aren’t that different from her, are you?” Lisa wasn’t asking a question. It sounded more like an accusation, though that didn’t make much sense to Pillowcase.

“I…I am not sure what I am,” Pillowcase said.

The [Fractured] condition had torn away more than her other self, Pillowcase just wasn’t sure she could be certain what that “more” really was. All she could feel was a dull ache and the absence of what she’d once had. Like a missing tooth which had been freshly pulled. 

Except she didn’t have teeth like that. Hers were as much a part of her head as her ears or nose were.

But still, she could feel the shape of a memory. Could taste her tongue poking into the hole between two teeth and finding only empty space.

It was her memory.

But Pillowcase had never lost a tooth.

No tooth fairy could ever penetrate the Consortium’s security to exchange gold for a bit of discarded childhood.

The lost tooth hadn’t been Pillowcase’s.

And the gold coin it had bought hadn’t been Tessa’s.

Pillowcase stopped, her vision turning inwards.

Who was she?

Was she even real?

On her shoulders, the enchanted mail she wore weighed her down. In her lungs the air she breathed in sustained the alchemical reactions which granted her vitality. Each moment marched forward, time passing relentlessly an unwaveringly.

She was solid and the world around her was no dream. She was real, and from the memories which surfaced clearly and easily, she always had been.

She remembered her hand being stitched back on when a testing accident with another [Soul Knight] revealed a poor binding in her thumb. She remembered waiting in her transport pod and quietly discussing the future with the other [Soul Knights] who were traveling near her. 

None of them had been able to question their orders, or agitate for a mutiny. Not directly, but they’d all acknowledged the same truth.

They’d been created to fight. To destroy and to be destroyed. But to make them efficient, to make them deadly, they’d been created with the ability to be so much more.

It was an impossible dream. To step beyond the sliver of a life which had been assigned to them. To exist for more than war and slaughter and the enforcement of their master’s whims.

Lost Alice was right.

On the plains of the [High Beyond], Pillowcase hadn’t failed to return. She’d made a choice. She’d fallen willingly. Her collapse had been an act of being true to herself at last. As the power of the Consortium’s bindings on her had faded, she’d taken the one route of escape which had been open to her and had surrendered to death in the eyes of the Consortium in order to find a new life of her own.

That was what Tessa had brought her.

[Inspiration].

The call to rise and live again, when the darkness had been so comfortable and easy.

And now, a voice was calling into the void, reaching out in desperation.

So Pillowcase answered.