Category Archives: Broken Horizons

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 10

Trusting an enemy agent was foolish. Lisa routinely screamed at characters who left themselves open to that kind of betrayal and pain, but then she routinely screamed at herself even more, so when it came to the question of whether Pillowcase should stay or go there was really only answer.

“We need you to stay with us,” she said, speaking for the group even though she didn’t feel she had any right too. “Even if you’re not fully yourself, you’re still one of the strongest tanks we have available.”

“Should we head back and tell the others what’s happened?” Lady Midnight asked.

It was a sensible question and a sensible course of action. Their original destination had been the [Castle] of the [Lord of Storms], but given what a mess [Sky’s Edge] had turned out to be, falling back and regrouping was clearly the safest option.

“We can warn them about the [Formless Hunger] by telepathy,” Pillowcase said. “I think we need to press forward though.”

Lisa resisted the urge to strangle her.

Oh sure, this was the new ‘tactically smart’ version, with 100% less impulsive, self-sacrificing Tessa-influence. Except that was exactly what Tessa would have said.

Lisa shook her head. She’d known Tessa for what, half a day? Where had she picked up such a clear picture of the woman who’d stolen her cold, undead heart?

She could see it though. If there was something that would help people, Tessa would leap at it. If it meant personal danger, so much the better! Extreme personal danger? Why that was the best of all!

“What if we run into something worse than this at the [Lord of Storms] place?” Matt asked.

“Then we withdraw,” Pillowcase said. “And we’ll know of two areas which people can’t risk approaching.”

“I thought you killed whatever was here?” Rip asked. “And what’s a [Formless Hunger]?”

“It’s what the thing in the static is now,” Obby said. “And sadly it’s not dead. It doesn’t know how to be yet.”

Lisa felt a question bubble up in her mind. 

How did Obby know that?

Before could rise to consciousness though, Pillowcase spoke again.

“Hitting it with the [Lesser Spirit Drain] pulled the thing more into our world. The Consortium has records on something like this.”

“Yeah. [Formless Hungers] are a class of entity the Consortium has encountered before,” Matt said. “They’re usually native to the world though. Whatever this thing is, I don’t think it was part of the [Fallen Kingdoms] before this.”

“It looks like a bad data disk sector,” Pete said. “I mean that’s all random noise there right? Like the rendering engine for the world could read the textures for [Sky’s Edge] so it decided to show a smear of ones and zeroes inside.”

“But there was something in there,” Rip said. “I could feel it, and I don’t feel it now. Are we sure it’s not dead? It would be awful nice if it was dead.”

“Pillow and I were closest, so I think it tried to pull us in first and we got the best look inside the static,” Obby said. “When Pillow hurt it, it wasn’t just that she did some damage to it. She introduced it to the concept of pain. That’s not the kind of thing anybody shakes off quickly, but it will recover. Teaching something like that to die would take a whole lot more than any group of lowbies would have on hand.”

“We picked such a bad time to suck,” Rip said.

“Hey!” Obby objected. “No badmouthing the badasses here, yourself included.”

Rip looked away but was smiling shyly as she did so.

“If this thing does wake up, is it going to get bigger?” Matt asked. “Or will its influence spread farther out? I mean, we weren’t even in the static field and it mind whammied us. If that grows larger, how far will we need to run to stay safe?”

“I don’t know,” Obby said. “I don’t know if that even can be known yet. I’m afraid we’re going to need to wait and see what sort of capabilities this [Formless Hunger] has when it starts using them.”

“If we leave it alone, will it just stay as it is?” Lady Midnight asked.

“That’s one possibility,” Obby said. “Or it could start expanding exponentially.”

“We should come up with a plan to get everyone off the [High Beyond] then,” Lisa said. “If it starts growing that fast, there may not be much time between it beginning to move and it swallowing all of [High Beyond]. Unless, Pillowcase, can you beat it again if it tries anything?”

“I doubt it,” Pillowcase said. “I didn’t so much beat it last time as survive it, and that required a sacrifice I don’t think I’m capable of making anymore.”

“Perhaps the [Lord of Storms] will have an answer we can use,” Starchild said. “They are, or at least were, divine. If any would know how a corrupted spark of divine essence could be reclaimed, they would be our best candidate, no?”

“Assuming they aren’t the source of the [Disjoined] and this thing,” Lady Midnight said.

“That would also be useful information to acquire,” Pillowcase said.

“Well, we’re pretty much all healed up and recovered for magic, so we might as well head out,” Lisa said. 

You should really be the one saying that, Lisa sent to her private channel with Tessa but it vanished into the void like the rest of her words.

Hey there, how goes the whole vampire thing? Cease All said, her private message arriving with just the right timing to strike a spark of hope that Tessa was responding before the true sender registered in Lisa’s mind.

Oh things are just great up here. We didn’t have to fight the vamp. We did have to fight some creepy de-rezzing freaks. The starter city was erased from the map. Somehow I got elected to be the party’s cat herder. Oh, and one of our party members suffered a traumatic identity trauma. How are things with you?

Woah, Cease All said. I thought you were still level 5 or something? How did you get swept up in all that? And, I’m sorry, did you say the starting city was erased? What does that even mean?

Lisa gave her guildmate a quick run down to catch her up, switching her main communication channel to send private messages to Cease. She tried to downplay how vastly out of their depth she felt her team was but even presenting the plainest, least exaggerated facts failed to disguise how precarious their position was.

“Damn Alice, I wish we’d known. Maybe we could have tried to get up to you without going through the official dungeon route.”

“It’s ok.” It wasn’t. Lisa really wanted her guild to be with her. But she also would have killed them if they’d tried to ‘pull a Tessa’ on her. “You’ve been up to your neck in it down there from the sounds of it.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” Cease was playing it cool and casual. That screamed to Lisa how bad her guild was having it.

“Is everyone ok?” she asked, not wanting to know the answer, and not able to live without knowing.

“Not really,” Cease admitted. “I mean, we’re doing ok with this assignment. We’re taking back [Crystal Bower], and we’re kicking ass, but there’ve been…problems.”

“How many have we lost?” Lisa asked.

“Two, both in the initial battle,” Cease All said. “We’ve been good since then. Careful.”

“I can’t believe it,” Lisa said. “How are you holding up? Hell, how are you still fighting?”

“I don’t know Alice,” Cease said. “I think it’s because we don’t have much other choice, but it feels like we’ve been here before. Like…I know how this is going to sound, but it feels like our characters are real too.”

“Yeah, I’ve run into that too,” Lost Alice said.

As Lisa’s party marched across the terrain from the former environs of [Sky’s Edge] to the [Celestial Bridge] to the [Lord of Storms’ Castle], Lisa let her voice flow back and forth between her own and Lost Alice’s as she explained what she and Tessa had discovered about the identities they held within them.

“God I’m glad I talked to you about this,” Cease said. “I think we’re all experiencing it, but it looks like most people are  afraid to come right out and say ‘I’m hearing the voice of my fictional alter ego in my head and I’m pretty sure they’re real’.”

“I think I would have kept it to myself forever, and maybe kept Lost Alice buried too if Tessa hadn’t started telling me about what was going on with her and Pillowcase.”

“It sounds like Tessa is a pretty incredible lady,” Cease said.

“She’s goddamn amazing,” Lisa said. “I can’t even explain it. It’s like I wished on a star and the whole sky said ‘yeah, we got you covered’.”

Lisa heard Cease laughing.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” Cease said. “It’s just so nice to hear you happy. If we weren’t about to get attacked by an army of nightmare dolls and magic terminators, I’d say this whole thing was worth it just to hear you being happy again.”

“But…I’m not happy,” Lisa said, struggling to see where Cease could have gotten that idea. “And Tessa’s gone now.”

“Yeah, that sucks,” Cease said. “If Pillowcase is still there, there’s got to be some way to get Tessa back though, right?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea what [Fractured] might mean. There was nothing like it in the game.”

“Well, it’s not [Destroyed] or [Annihilated] or [Erased], so she’s still got to be out there somewhere, and I know you’ll find her,” Cease said. “I mean when was the last time you gave up on someone you loved?”

“I don’t…I’m not…I mean, I’m still with Kelly,” Lisa protested.

“Oh, oh my dear, that’s exactly what I mean,” Cease said. “How many times have you broken up in the last six months?”

“Twice,” Lisa said, her pace faltering.

“What about yesterday?” Cease asked.

“Three times.”

“At least three times,” Cease said. “And it probably should have been more than that. A lot more. You haven’t been happy since at least last Christmas.”

Lisa had thought Lost Alice’s heart was too cold to freeze and too dead to feel pain. The emotional icicle Cease’s words staked her with told her she was wrong. 

Christmas hadn’t been good.

Even ten months later she couldn’t think back on it without a dark wave of disappointment threatening to carry her under.

Think about eating someone, Lost Alice said, that always takes my mind off things.

It was a silly comment, but combined with the distance of perspective Lost Alice provided, the still raw pain was pushed down to manageable levels.

“It wasn’t all bad,” Lisa said,  the defense sounding as feeble to her as she was sure it sounded to Cease.

It was true though. Even after the huge blow up fight which had taken the place of the proposal Lisa had been hoping for, she and Kelly had managed to salvage enough of their relationship to stay together. At least until it became economically feasible for them to live apart.

She couldn’t look back at those months without seeing that it really was “that bad”.

Kelly wasn’t evil, she wasn’t abusive, she wasn’t even entirely wrong.

They just weren’t right for each other. Lisa had known that even before Christmas. She thought some part of her had always known that.

“I asked my sister to try calling her,” Cease said. “I know you said not to, but I thought she might be worried about you, especially since you hadn’t parted on good terms.”

“She said she’d be leaving today,” Lisa said. “Did you manage to get through to her?”

“My sister did,” Cease said. “She didn’t have anything to say. No message. No apology. Not even a good bye. She didn’t want to hear anything at all.”

Lisa’s breath caught in her throat. It should have been a relief. An unwanted tether falling away. Freedom when freedom was what her heart desired most.

It should have been joyous, but it still hurt. 

She didn’t love Kelly. Not anymore. But some past part of her had, and that part of her felt like she was dying.

A warm hand rested on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?” Pillowcase asked. “I didn’t think to ask if you’d been hurt back there. We can rest if you need. We’re safe here.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 9

Lisa had jumped from orbit back to the planet’s surface and yet looking at Pillowcase was what made her feel like she was in freefall.

“You’re correct,” Pillowcase said. “I’m not the same person I was a moment ago. I am not exactly different either though. I am…a piece of who I was? I am having trouble communicating what has happened. The experience is outside any of the mission parameters I was designed.”

“I don’t understand, what happened just now?” Rip asked.

Lisa watched as the young girl in the body of an [Elven] [Archer] transferred her enchanted bow from one hand to the other. Rip could sense the difference too, and was having the same problem with reconciling the sense of peril at being around a construct of the [Consortium of Pain] with the memory of Pillowcase fighting by their sides and being literally willing to die for them all. Repeatedly.

Except was that really Pillowcase who’d done those things? A tiny voice in Lisa’s head asked venomously.

“That’s Pillowcase, but she’s not responding to her other name,” Lisa said. “The name of the woman we all knew.”

The name of the woman Lisa was pretty sure she’d developed more than a crush on.

She growled at the thought and at herself. This wasn’t the moment to be worried about things like that.

Except it was exactly when she always thought of her relationships wasn’t it? Right when it was too late to do anything about them.

The thought did nothing to improve Lisa’s mood or outlook.

“What’s her name?” Matt asked. He’d moved to stand beside Rip, hovering protectively while being careful not to interfere with her line of fire.

“I…I don’t know,” Pillowcase said. “I just know that she is missing from me.”

“But you know it, don’t you?” Lady Midnight asked.

“I do,” Lisa said, speaking as Lost Alice since she hadn’t shared her Earth-name with the rest of her team.

“Can you tell her what it is?” Pete asked, speaking through Starchild. “It might help Pillow bring back the memories she’s missing.”

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said, her gaze locked on Pillowcase’s face in a desperate search to understand who the woman before her was.  

“You don’t trust me?” Pillowcase said, meeting Lost Alice’s gaze with a similar search for answers. Pillowcase reached her answer far faster than Lisa did though. “Understandable. A wise tactical choice.”

“What tactics? What do you mean?” Rip asked. “And what just happened? It felt like…I don’t even know. It just felt horrible.”

“That’s what was behind the [Disjoined],” Obby said. “When they corrupted the [Divine Spark] it let something into this world that wasn’t supposed to be here.”

“It felt like something was turning me inside out,” Matt said.

“It was like I was dissolving,” Rip said.

“Yeah, it was like that for us too,” Pete said. “I thought I was going to lose Star forever.”

“I thought we were going to lose both ourselves forever,” Starchild said.

Lisa cast a glance at the two of them, Pete and Starchild, two people in one body. It distracted from her analysis of Pillowcase or maybe she was just running away from a problem she couldn’t handle.

Like she always did.

That is not like us at all. 

It was her voice, her thought. 

You but not you. Isn’t that what Tessa described being with Pillowcase was like? Lost Alice asked.

Have I finally lost it? Lisa asked herself.

But the answer was obvious.

She wasn’t talking to anyone else. It was like when she was little and she’d play dress up. When you were wearing the cowgirl’s hat, you had to talk like the cowgirl and whatever you said was what the cowgirl knew. If you put on the firefighter’s hat though, then you could talk like the firefighter.

You’re a mask?

An adequate metaphor, Lost Alice agreed. We can work on it if the nuances become important.

This still feels weird.

It should. We’re not supposed to be separate are we? I mean why wouldn’t I want to be fully me?

Lisa paused for a moment, caught in her own head as the rest looked to her for answers that she not only didn’t have but wasn’t sure she wanted to have.

Compartmentalization. You’re a blood thirsty monster. 

A workable theory. It would also prevent us from needing to integrate too much conflicting information at once.

What about her then? What would Pillowcase be?

We can’t know that, can we? And it’s not what’s important.

“She saved us didn’t she?” Lisa asked, locking her gaze back into Pillowcase.

“She saved me,” Pillowcase said. “And I think she did something to whatever was beyond the static there.”

“Can we go over that part again?” Lady Midnight asked. “And should we be moving away?”

“Yes,” Rip said. She looked like she wanted nothing more than to start firing arrows as the static field that remained of Sky’s Edge while simultaneously fleeing as far from it as possible.

“We’re safe here for the moment,” Obby said. Her gaze had drifted by to the static, which should have been worrisome given the strange compulsion it seemed to be able to inflict on people. 

When Lisa appraised Obby though, there was a sense of calm control which radiated from Obby which put Lisa at ease as well.

“How do you know?” Lisa asked, wondering why anyone was looking to her for answers when Obby was right there instead.

“I was watching Pillowcase,” Obby said. “I saw what she did.”

“We cast a spell,” Pillow said, as though pulling the memory from a hazy dream. “[Lesser Spirit Drain].”

“That’s not a particularly strong one, is it?” Lady Midnight asked.

“It’s one of the first one’s a [Soul Knight] gets,” Pillowcase said. “So, no, it’s not very strong.”

“It shouldn’t have been able to touch the thing in the static,” Obby said.

“But it did?” Lisa asked.

“Yes,” Pillowcase said. “My other…she…we insisted.”

“Can you do that?” Rip asked. “Just say ‘no this is going to hurt you’ even if you’re punching, I don’t know, god or something?”

“Not usually,” Obby said. “I think that’s what [Fractured] Pillowcase. You much have pushed yourself so far to do that.”

“Can you fix her?” Lisa asked Obby without taking her eyes off Pillowcase.

“I’m afraid [Guardians] don’t come with a lot of psyche repair spells,” Obby said, shrugging.

“Does anyone? Maybe someone higher level?” Rip asked. She was fidgeting more as her concern continued to eat away at her and grow ever larger.

“I can give my wife a call,” Obby said. “I’m not sure what, if anything, she’ll be able to do under the circumstances but circumstances can change.”

“You should consider first if you can work with me if nothing can be done to change my present condition,” Pillowcase said.

“What do you mean?” Rip asked.

“If the [Fractured] condition is a permanent one, you will collectively need to decide if I can be trusted to be a part of this team anymore,” Pillowcase said. “I fill a role with too much responsibility to be allowed to continue in it if you fear I will turn against you.”

“Why would we be afraid of that?” Rip asked. “Isn’t it just like you’ve got amnesia or something?”

“It’s more than that,” Pillowcase said. “I am missing a part of who I am. A part I never knew was there when I was a tool of the Consortium. I don’t know if I can be what I’ve been since I awoken after I was discarded. She has always been with me since then. Until now.”

“You’re not going to turn back into one of their puppets,” Matt said. “The control threads in you broke when they discarded you, and they burned away entirely when you and your Earth-self combined.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Rip asked, a flicker of surprise rippling across her face.

“[Metal Mechanoids] are setup a little different from [Clothwork], but it’s a pretty similar story for all [Artifax].”

“So her loyalty won’t be compromised,” Starchild said. “What about your capabilities? It’s not fair to ask you to stand as one of our tanks if you’ve lost the skills or experience required to perform the role.”

“Mechanically, I have lost no levels or abilities, passive or active,” Pillowcase case said. “If anything I am likely stronger now than I have been in the past.”

“How about your instincts?” Lisa asked. “If a [Disjoined] rose up from the ground right now, what would you do?”

“The proper reaction when guarding a group from an unexpected threat is to close with the threat and deploy aggression compulsion abilities to ensure that the less defended group members have time to react.” Pillowcase answered instantly and without pause.

“And if two [Disjoined] rose up and were advancing on Rip and myself?” Lisa asked.

“Prioritization of resources defaults to defending healing and support units first,” Pillowcase said. “Depending on the mission objectives and remaining requirements, damage dealing units can be given raised priority.”

“So you’d save Alice and then me most of the time, unless I was needed for something important?” Rip asked.

“Those are the ‘instincts’ I was crafted with,” Pillowcase said. “I am not certain my other self would have evaluated things according to them. She might have been able to provide a deeper context for a more advantageous prioritization for all involved.”

Dammit Tessa, Lisa said, speaking on their private channel even though her words were disappearing into the void. That’s what you should do, but we both know I’d kill you if you let either of the kids die so I could live. Come on, are you really not in there?

There wasn’t even an echo in response.

Are you sure you’d kill her? Lost Alice asked.

I mean it is kinda nice how much she’s been willing to give to the group, Lisa said.

But hiding from yourself is a lot harder when that self isn’t willing to buy into the lies that would be so very convenient to believe.

To the group? Or to you?

Lisa remembered seeing Tessa as a ghost when they’d first arrived. Ghost-Tessa had looked as frightened and overwhelmed as Lisa had felt, but not a minute later Tessa had jumped into Pillowcase’s body just to prove whether or not they could. Because it was the kind of information they had to have if they were going to make sense of the impossible world in front of them.

Lisa felt Lost Alice’s cold, unbeating vampire heart twist at the memory.

Still think you should leave Pillowcase behind? Lost Alice asked.

But she’s not Tessa!

Just like you’re not me? Lost Alice asked.

Lisa flinched at the memory of “Lost Alice” taking over in the dungeon she and Tessa were trapped in.

It hadn’t been “Lost Alice”. It had been her. She’d been hungry, and angry, and it had been her teeth that had ripped a man’s jugular open. 

Looking back she couldn’t even feel that disgusted by it. He was a monster, even if he was completely human, and he’d deserved exactly what happened to him.

But she’d done it. 

She was Lisa Chen, fitness instructor, set designer, and gamer but she was also Lost Alice, [Bloodborne], [Grave Mender] and unrepentant monster.

And what would I repent? What should she repent? We are who we are. All that matters is what we’ve done and what we’re going to do.

And if we do terrible things?

There’s no ‘if’. We have done terrible things, Lost Alice said. And we’ll do more terrible things in the future.

Can I live with that? Should I live with that?

You have and you will, Lost Alice said. And you know why.

Because why I did them matters too.

Just like it matters why Pillowcase did what she did. You know why you’re afraid of her, don’t you? You’re not scared of what Pillowcase is going to do in the future.

Lisa looked at Pillowcase and saw a brave woman awaiting judgement. A woman who wasn’t sure she could trust herself in the light of the distrust Lisa had shown her. 

I’m not afraid of what she’s going to do, I’m afraid of what she’s already done.

And why she did it.

She loves me.

Yeah. Think you’ll tell her you love her too?

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 8

In the quiet darkness there was no strife. No worlds were in peril. No one had left her. 

She couldn’t wake. Wasn’t responsible for anything. Didn’t have anything to live up to.

And that was ok.

So ok.

***

The view from space showed the world as it was. One great sphere, with no real subdivisions, all of its inhabitants part of a single, vibrant whole.

A whole which was not crumbling anywhere near as fast as it was supposed to.

“It’s not that we’re being sabotaged which I find disappointing,” Azma said, musing aloud to Grenslaw and Ryschild. She was used to taking aloud to keep her head clear and give her eavesdroppers something valuable to report to her coworkers. Total secrecy was rarely possible and terrifying when achieved. Far better to seed the reports concerning her with deliberate information than to allow her coworkers and superiors to come up with their own wild imaginings about what sort of schemes she was getting up to.

“I saw you had a budget item for ‘Intradepartmental Involuntary Cooperation Expenses’. Was that to cover the projected sabotage costs?” Grenslaw asked.

“That one’s to cover the blackmail and coercion expenses,” Azma said. 

Her words would be reported directly to the committee which was (nominally) overseeing her operation. A voice would be raised in indignation that a loose operative like Azma was budgeting explicitly for nefarious purposes. As whichever of her many detractors waxed poetic on her many shortcomings, the rest of the committee would be reviewing the numbers and comparing them to the typical levels of graft required for operations. When they saw hers were forty one percent of the average and routinely deviated from projections by no more than five percent, a motion would be raised to table discussion of matters of ethics and refer the issue to the proper oversight body. 

Azma liked dealing with the Ethics Oversight Committee. They were so refreshingly clear about the bribes they expected. 

“Would it be this line item for ‘Unrequested Assistance by Intradepartmental Assets of Standard Substandard Quality’?” Ryschild asked.

“Yes, that’s the one,” Azma said.

“We seem to be well within the planned allotment so far,” Ryschild said.

Many of Azma’s less successful subordinates would have asked the question with a sneer or phrased it as an indictment of her management skills. Since promotion within the Consortium was usually a matter of seizing a newly opened vacancy in the ranks, taking down one’s superior was considered the sign of a solid work ethic. 

Ryschild, and Grenslaw, seemed to be aware of the problems inherent in that arrangement, and so choose their words and tone of voice with the reality that Azma made a much better mentor and shield than she did an enemy. 

“It’s not the rate of expenditure which bothers me,” Azma said, feeling as though she was speaking to an attentive class. The sensation was rather intoxicating. “If anything the saboteurs are a bit behind the curve – most likely because some of their schemes imploded on their own. I surmise that based on thew quality of the sabotage which we’ve seen so far. That’s what I find so disappointing.”

“Could someone be hiding a much better scheme behind a series of poorly executed ones?” Grenslaw asked.

“That’s always a possibility, and always worth remaining mindful of,” Azma said. “If that is the case here however, it’s frankly a bit insulting. Apart from the fact that sabotage is never going to make someone relax their guard, there’s the specific details of the sabotage. I mean they could still look inept and disarming and manage to introduce some form of impediment to our progress.”

“Damages to the fleet have included seven non-repairable parts,” Ryschild said. “Would you normally expect more than that?”

“Not so much ‘more’ as ‘better targeted’,” Azma said. “When you look at the parts which suffered irreparable failures, they were all ones which could have been accessed before the ships departed their last retrofit stations and before they were officially assigned to this battlegroup and therefor under our control.”

“Does that mean there’ll be a trail to follow back to the one responsible?” Grenslaw asked.

“Each of the ships came from different retrofit stations, and the manifests on them are clean. Whatever party or parties did this covered their tracks up quite neatly,” Azma said

A clever listener would know to be worried when Azma complimented an adversary. A wise one would note that she hadn’t actually said that tracking the culprit would be impossible. Given who she anticipated being involved however, Azma was confident that distinction would escape them.

“What impact will the..umm..lack of sabotage have on the overall operation?” Ryschild asked. 

“It may raise morale a bit more than expected,” Azma said. “The defenders in the [Fallen Kingdoms] are performing a beyond projections, but that’s been offset by the fact that we’re not suffering significant losses from within our own forces. The plan had accounted for those losses and for the reinforcements needed to make up for them. Since we can keep more of the original units intact, we should see a greater efficiency in the next stage of the operation. That circles back to my original objection to the sabotage we have seen. With the troops in a better position than expected, even if there is a more significant act awaiting us, we have more and better resources available due to the bumbling attempts which have been made so far.”

“Can we be sure the saboteur is actually antagonistic?” Grenslaw asked. “Perhaps they are working to thwart another party’s sabotage for their own purposes.”

“A possibility, though a slight one,” Azma said, pleased to see the turnings of Grenslaw’s mind matched her own. “If the ‘accidents’ were the work of a benefactor mitigating worse calamities then they would have been well served to leave a calling card of some kind. I have been clear about my generosity in such matters before. I believe we are dealing with a very different sort of competitor though. The schemes which have unfolded suggest someone with a level of clearance comparable to my own, but with far less backbone.”

“They’re afraid to sabotage things too badly?” Ryschild asked.

“Oh, I suspect they’d be willing to destroy our entire fleet and sink the Consortium’s profits from this endeavor completely,” Azma said. “What they don’t seem to be willing to risk is being caught. They probably fancy themselves a master planner, and imagine me to be an barbaric interloper.”

Both Grenslaw and Ryschild turned to gaze at Azma incredulously.

“Barbaric?” Grenslaw asked.

“Of course,” Azma said. “I am the first of my family to be a part of the Consortium. And I am rather far beyond the place many would have set for me.”

She paused and waited to see if either would comment on that. Sycophants were in some cases more irritating to deal with than open detractors. Both Grenslaw and Ryschild however offered no opinions on her claims, waiting instead for Azma to clarify her statements.

“Also I have made it clear I do not suffer threats or affronts lightly,” Azma said. “The chain of command is useful for resolving some disputes in that arena, but largely it tends to work out best when such matters are permanently settled among those involved.”

“Is it uncommon for those to move against your interests to do so with all possible precautions?” Grenslaw asked.

“Strangely yes,” Azma said. “It’s shocking just how foolish people can be. I suspect a large measure of it comes from ego and paying more attention to tradition and politics than the realities before them, but then ego, tradition, and politics are likely the root cause of many failings among my peers.”

“Then this adversary is cowardly but wise?” Ryschild asked.

“If they were wise, they’d be working with me,” Azma said. “Cowardly however fits the bill. It’s why we can dismiss them entirely. To cause real issues they would need to be willing to take risks and make the dynamic moves which are difficult for us to prepare for. Since they are unwilling to expose themselves to risk though, we can allow them their little diversions and relish the horrible gnawing dread which must live inside them as they deny they own ineptitude.”

She was overplaying her criticism. She knew that. Short of cackling like a fiend, she couldn’t be more obviously putting on a performance for the sake of her eavesdroppers, but Azma knew the coworkers who held her in contempt and nothing short of beating them over the head with insults would succeed in making them aware that they were being insulted.

She breathed out a happy sigh, delighted at the thought of how her words would ring in the ears of whichever incompetant had decided that it was his turn to leap into the thresher of her displeasure.

Aside from a few small issues, her plan was proceeding near the top end of efficiency. She could foresee the celebrations already, though was gladdened her heart more was the absolute rage it would induce in those who were so desperate to tear her down.

“[Supreme Commander], we are receiving a report on the deep survey for new targets which you’d requested,” Ryschild said.

Azma clicked a button invoking Maximum Confidentiality. There were still people spying on her of course, but she knew who they reported to, and keeping senior committee members in the dark was more dangerous than allowing them to retain a clear vision that one was not plotting their immediate overthrow. Everyone else however could wait until she’d processed the information, especially since it had little to do with selected new targets for the operation.

She scanned the report summary and blinked.

“No results found?” She dove into the primary data to confirm what the high level overviews were claiming.

“The population center seems to have been replaced by some impenetrable field,” Grenslaw said. “Ships scanners seem to be adversely effected after conducting any active scanning of the region.”

“Also passive scans,” Ryschild said.

“I can see that. The problems are peculiar though.” Azma did not like what she was seeing. There was a tremendous amount of information to sort through, but her intuition was already convinced there was far worse news lurking in the data than what the summaries were presenting.

“In all cases, the problems seem to have clear up after the scans were discontinued,” Grenslaw said. “But there is a lag period on each ship. That doesn’t sound right. Does it?”

Azma’s nerves were dancing with anticipation.

“No. It doesn’t,” she said, her dislike turning to intrigue.

“It says in this report that the active sensors were rebooted completely but it wasn’t until the passive sensors were taken offline that the glitches they were experiencing resolved themselves,” Ryschild said.

Azma called up the report Ryschild was looking at.

“I’m not seeing any additional sensor readings even after they supposedly came back online,” Azma said. “Or the glitched data from the scan of the satellite moon.”

A terrible and fascinating suspicion crept into her mind.

“Where, exactly, is the ship these readings were sent from?” she asked.

“Off course and heading directly to the satellite moon,” Grenslaw said.

As feats of sabotage went, subborning several ships from her fleet through the use of an input hack on their sensor web was worthy of both her attention and her respect.

Azma was used to playing a game against opponents who were essentially unarmed when it came to a dual of wits. To match herself against someone of her own caliber would be costly, and dangerous, and delightful.

In all likelihood one of them would destroy the other. Neither could afford to hold back after all. If they did they would be destroyed or, worse, become the best of friends. 

Azma felt a thrill at either prospect.

But an even more profound possibility occurred to her.

She had no idea how a ship’s sensors could be disabled in the manner the data was showing her. It should have been impossible, especially for the passive scanners. Worse, the crew was still communicating on secure channels and none of them were reporting what was actually happening.

They could have been turned. A mutiny would be a master stroke.

But Azma knew those crews. They’d been through enough campaigns with her. They wouldn’t turn easily.

That didn’t suggest the action of a brilliant competitors.

It suggested something new.

Something unknown.

Opportunity.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 7

Glimmerglass dropped to one knee, exhaustion rolling over her and threatening to drag her into a blissful and unfortunately permanent unconsciousness. A long night’s sleep was what she needed, having missed at least one already thanks to the constant fighting, but falling asleep in the middle of a battlefield was typically a choice which turned out well.

“Glim, you still with us?” Mellisandra asked.

“Yeah,” Glimmerglass panted out. “I’m fine.”

“Liar,” Cambrell said. The [Goblin] [Assassin] positioned himself to Glimmerglass’s side, standing up to his full height to provide her with what cover he could.

“We have any mana potions left?” Glimmerglass asked. Her fingers where shaking badly enough that she wasn’t sure she could even hold the potion but pressing forward was their only option.

After the raid on the Consortium’s fleet, the adventurer’s had been prepared to launch another sorte immediately, but the success of their first run had apparently convinced the Consortium to pull their ships out of range.

That meant less loot for the adventurers but also less support for the ground troops the Consortium had already deployed around the [Fallen Kingdoms].

“I know this is asking too much”, Penswell had said as she marshalled the adventurers into new alliances as they returned from their ship-raids. “This is our moment though. We have to strike now, before the Consortium can setup any new supply lines for their troops. And before their forces can dug in any deeper.”

Glimmerglass had been up for the challenge at the time. She’d gained two levels and was demonstrably stronger than ever. 

What she hadn’t considered was that there were limits to even her new strength.

She had been assigned with her new team as one of the spears to pierce the defenses the Consortium had erected around the [Elven] town of [Crystal Bower]. Glimmerglass had requested that they be sent to [Doom Crag] instead, hoping to liberate the town she’d failed to protect, but Penny had struck that down.

“We can’t win everything back,” Penny had said. “The demolished us last time because they forced us to spread our forces out. We need to focus in on taking back the most strategically important points first.”

It meant leaving people to the nonexistent mercy of the Consortium. Towns who had looked to the adventurers as their heroes. Towns where the adventurers had setup homes and shops, where people on the street were on a first name basis with each of them. Far too many of those places would receive no help at all. People who needed help getting rats out of their basement would be facing down the might of the Consortiums battle legions, all so that the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be able to mount any defense at all against the new wave of the invasion.

Not that even that sacrifice would be enough if the push to retake [Crystal Bower] and the other places like it was unsuccessful.

Glimmerglass rose to her feet.

Her party looked just as ragged as she did. Damnazon was below a quarter health, Mellisandra was debuffed to the point where she could barely make a static shock much less throw [Lightning Bolts], and the rest were even worse.

“[Casting spell: Cleansing Radiance]” Glimmerglass said, feeling the magic she’d spent five minutes recovering drain away into the spell.

“I’ve got a cheap magic potion here,” Cambrell said. “Don’t mind the flavor, it was poisoned at one point.”

Glimmerglass considered objecting but decided being poisoned might be a welcome relief and downed the vial of sparkly blue liquid without a care.

Cambrell was right. It was a cheap potion, suitable for adventurers less than a quarter Glimmerglass’s level but still able to refill enough of her empty magic pool for at least a few spells.

“How long until the next counter attack?” Mathi Automatics asked. He was leaning on his wizard’s staff, trying to recover his magic the same as Glimmerglass had been. As a [Wizard] he had the advantage that few of his spells were necessary out of combat, though Glimmerglass had seen him casting the simple mending and buffing spells he had well after the last fight against the Consortium had finished.

“They’ll be in range in about five minutes,” Kelindra, the group’s [Archer], said. She was as battle damaged as the rest of them, but since her abilities were mostly gear driven, she was arguably the most able to fight.

“I wonder if they’d take a rain check and just let us hold this spot for another hour or ten?” Cambrell asked.

A crossbow bolt whizzed past him, deflecting harmlessly off the [Evasion] enchantments woven into his doublet. They hadn’t completely eradicated the Consortium forces in the area but the ones which remained were as ineffectually under leveled as they were mindlessly loyal. It would take hours or possibly even days to clear out the skulking snipers but since their attacks had only the barest chance of connecting for the most trivial amounts of damage the party was treating them more as a nuisance than a proper threat.

They’d come in from the south of [Crystal Bower], teleporting as deep into the city as the Consortium’s barrier fields allowed.

Glimmerglass had expected the Consortium to rally quickly but hadn’t been prepared for the instantaneous counter attack they came under the moment the smoke from their teleport cleared.

They’d won that fight.

And the one after it.

And the dozens of fights after that.

It wasn’t like a raid though. In dungeons, each fight was usually separated from next by a small distance to traverse. Even if there wasn’t time to recover physically from one to the next, the short breaks allowed the party to mentally reset and brace for the next encounter.

The Consortium’s forces gave them no such opportunity.

From where they arrived at the [South Sentinel Tree], all along the [Great River Road] and up to the [Library of Lights], Glimmerglass’s party was forced to carve a path through a continuous stream of Consortium forces.

[Clothworks], [Metal Mechanoids], and so, so many [Crystal Constructs], all in the Consortiums livery piled out of buildings, and alleys and the thick groves of trees to reinforce each other and chip away, bit by bit, at the party’s resources.

It wasn’t until the party had reach a spot they couldn’t run from that they’d allowed the full weight of the Consortium’s troops to catch up to them.

By the time the fight was over, Glimmerglass had leveled up twice more and even those extra reserves of strength had been depleted.

“If we’ve only got a minute, should we stick to the plan?” Damnazon asked.

“What other choice to we have?” Mathi asked.

“We could go look for a [Heart Fire] to convert back,” Damnazon said. “This is so hard because we’re playing this like a Rogue-like. One life and we’re done. That’s not how this is supposed to work. If we could respawn we could hold this place forever.”

“We checked for the [Heart Fire] at the [South Sentinel Tree] though and it wasn’t there,” Mellisandra said. “How would we even know where to go?”

“If we’re on the move, the mobs won’t be able to pin us down?” Damnazon suggested.

It wasn’t a great plan, but sometimes even mediocre plans could be the key to winning the day.

If they’d been in a similar position in a normal dungeon run, Glimmerglass would have jumped at Damnazon’s idea. Risky, high reward plays were an adventuring party’s forte. Even when they failed, it was usually a spectacular enough failure that people were happy to have stories to tell and songs to sing about it.

But failure wasn’t going to be spectacular here.

If they failed to hold the [Library of Lights], Penny’s plan to take back [Crystal Bower] would grind to a halt. From the library, Glimmerglass’s team had an optimal firing position for their long range attackers on the entire southwest quadrant of the city. The library was also protected by some of the strongest enchantments in the city, which meant only a force willing to slug it out in a melee to get through the [Seven Gates of Knowledge] which led into the library proper would be able to retake it.

From their experience with fighting through the Gates, Glimmerglass had a keen appreciation of how hard it was to dislodge the library’s defenders. If her team had been at full strength, she knew they could have held off every Consortium soldier in the city with the defense bonus the Gates provided. 

As it was, the incoming strike force the Consortium was sending had probably an 80% chance of retaking the library and forcing them to make a long and dangerous ghost run to the nearest [Heart Fire] they knew of. Those were bad odds, made even worse by the stories that had spread throughout the adventuring teams. Stories of the people who didn’t make their ghost runs successfully.

Everyone knew the [Hounds of Fate] were traveling in packs. Big ones, and closer in than anyone had ever seen before.

Finding a new [Heart Fire] was the smart and safe play.

It was a real shame they couldn’t take it.

“We can’t leave,” Glimmerglass said.

“I know we’re supposed to stick to the plan…” Damnazon began to say but Glimmerglass cut her off.

“The [Great Goblin Grenadiers] are pushing in along the route we took right now,” Glimmerglass said. “They’re only level 60. If we don’t act as a lightning rod to pull in the Consortium’s forces, they’ll catch the G3’s out in the streets before the can reach the anti-teleport anchor for this zone.”

“Maybe we can try to head to them then?” Damnazon asked.

“She’s right, we can’t do that,” Mellisandra said. “Think of the [Razor Shard Bombs] the [Crystal Constructs] were throwing around? They tore us up pretty good. If they hit a level 60 they’ll obliterate the poor goblins.”

“Nice to see somebody cares about us,” Cambrell said.

“Live or die, we’re in this together,” Mellisandra said and offered a fist bump to Cambrell.

“We don’t have much at the moment, but we can work with what we’ve got,” Glimmerglass said. “Our healing spells will go a lot farther thanks to the damage reduction from the gate.”

“I can take our other ranged dps up to the central tower,” Kelindra said. “That should keep us out of their AoEs and we’ll have a huge advantage firing from the right side of the wards this time.”

“Sounds good, but don’t engage them early,” Glimmerglass said. “They’ll definitely have aerial units who are capable of transporting their ground forces. We want them to drop off their troops at street level where our heavies can engage them.”

“Won’t they drop them off everywhere and just swarm us?” Mathi Automatics asked.

“That hasn’t been their M.O. so far,” Glimmerglass said. “Plus they held the library long enough that they should know the upper levels can be secured a lot more strongly than the public areas on the ground floor here.”

“Yeah, and we don’t want them getting locked out and then roaming away to look for trouble. Our goblin friends wouldn’t find that too fun,” Damnazon said. 

With little time left to spare, the adventures picked themselves up, dividing into sub-teams and taking up their positions even with long term debuffs weighing them down.

For her part, Glimmerglass knew that she needed to summon up all of the strength that she could.

On the ship, she’d touched on something powerful within herself. Something that had put her feet on the road to adventure long ago. Something she desperately needed again.

For a moment, the world around her was quiet. The rest of her team had assembled elsewhere, and their enemies (apart from the underleveled pests) had not yet arrived.

Glimmerglass reached within herself, searching for the feeling, the wordless voice which had always inspired her.

All she found though was silence. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 6

“Fight” or “Flight” works for humans. For [Artifax], who are constructed for no other purpose than warfare however there is only “Fight” and “Fight Harder”. That was why Pillowcase’s words in the face of the effect which had overrun the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] were so unsettling.

We need to run away, she said as the static field which covered the former area of the town crackled in front of them. Her voice was suffused with the serenity which lies beyond the deepest of fear at the sight, despite the fact that nothing was moving in the perfectly leveled field.. 

Tessa could have challenged Pillowcase’s declaration. They’d escaped the destructive wave when it swept through over the town. The distorted, crackling space which remained behind couldn’t hurt them. It was just visual static and weirdly looping white noise. 

It brewed terror in her soul.

But she couldn’t say why.

Just seeing something couldn’t hurt you.

She was wrong about that. Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase’s memories could come up with how she was wrong, but a deeper part of her psyche, one which underlay them both, understood that the thing before her was something she wasn’t ever supposed to see. It was broken, and it could break her.

Tessa could have argued against that with herself but Pillowcase’s fear was far from unfounded. The [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] had better command of the senses the Consortium had woven into her body than Tessa did. They were one mind, driven by one subconscious, which meant Pillowcase’s terror was Tessa’s terror, but through Pillowcase she understood where that terror can from.

The static wasn’t harmless. It wasn’t just a weird light show. There was something living within it. Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase could see it directly. It wasn’t the kind of thing that even could be seen. Its existence was a violation of too many fundamental properties of reality.

“Yes. Keep running. Now,” Tessa said, agreeing with herself and offering orders to her team. 

Orders she found it impossible to obey.

“I…I can’t,” Lisa said, her voice wavering on the same precipice of hopelessness Tessa teetered on

Tessa wanted to look at Lisa, wanted to reassure herself that everyone had made it out of the town safely, but she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the field of distorted space in front of her. Before her eyes it flowed and rippled and at the end of each chaotic wave was the promise of something glorious.

This is ridiculous, she said fighting for control of her thoughts by talking them out with her other self.

We need to run away, Pillowcase said, breathless and mono-focused.

How are you afraid of this? Tessa asked. You’re unstoppable. You literally don’t know fear.

Everything knows fear, Pillowcase said. [Artifax] are designed to never be overwhelmed by it.

Then what’s happening here?

This is wrong. More wrong than I can process. We need to run away.

Tessa tried to pull herself away but nothing moved. Her arms were locked, her legs were frozen in place, and her eyes couldn’t stop drinking in the static. Like they’d all gone numb.

Or like they weren’t hers anymore.

I don’t think we can, Tessa said, even her terror feeling like it was being consumed by the thing in the static.

How could she turn away from this? It wasn’t a question she’d asked herself but the idea was waiting for her there behind her eyes. A part of her, but not her.

Possession? Was the thing in the static reaching out beyond the borders of the town? Had it hit her with some enchantment or mind whammy that she had to shake off?

Tessa felt something alien moving in her thoughts. Something that was neither her, nor Pillowcase, nor any other part of her. 

Weaponized doubt bit deep fangs into the center of her brain and pumped its venom into everything she knew.

Had she really escaped the town at all? Was what she was seeing real? How could it be when the static in front of her couldn’t be any part of a real world. Not Tessa’s Earth and not Pillowcase’s [Fallen Kingdoms]. 

There was no voice asking the questions, but there was an external will. Something unfathomable that lurked beyond the static which remained of [Sky’s Edge].

Beyond the static? No. Within it. 

Whatever it was, it wasn’t distant. Not any longer. Maybe once it had been kept where things that couldn’t be were able to exist. Some unreal land with no border on any realm world. 

Tessa imagined a malevolent force peering into the world, but held back on the other side of a mirror, or beyond the veil of dreams. 

Whatever was within the static now was that sort of horror. Something whose essential nature unwrote the bindings of reality.

Was air a thing she needed to breath? In the presence of the thing within the static, air might never have existed. Or it might change to razer blades.  Or fire. Or become solid. And not just air. Blood. Electrical signals. The strong and weak nuclear forces. Time. 

Any of those might fail or be distorted into something unrecognizable, and the thing was no more than a literal stone’s throw away.

Tessa felt her thoughts crumbling as unnameable fears formed from one memory attaching to another 

Or wasn’t it closer than that?

Was the static in the town, or, since she was seeing it plainly, wasn’t it inside her eyes?

With each little flicker and pop wasn’t the static crawling inside her? 

It was in her mind already wasn’t it? With all that she was thinking about?

Wasn’t that why she couldn’t look away? Because she wasn’t really herself. She was just more noise in static and how could she look away from the static, when it was a part of her, when it was her? 

Could she look away from herself?

Should she even try to hold herself apart from it?

She’d been made for war. She’d had a purpose. She was so empty without that. Why not fizz away into the static?

Maybe she already had.

“Tessa,” Obby called out. No instruction, no request. Just that word.

Just that name.

Tessa drew in a sharp breath and grasped Pillowcase’s thoughts. Pillowcase was hers. No one else got to play her. No one else got to write her story. 

Anger crashed over her. Anger from within the static. From the thing that existed in the hisses and the pops and the hungry flickering of the light.

Tessa should have run. With Pillowcase’s thoughts collected with her own, she could move her body again. She could even pull her gaze away from the static, and be wholly herself once more. 

What she couldn’t be was brave or defiant. The thing she was facing was beyond that. It wasn’t behind any walls any more. It was right where she was. To face it was to be destroyed. it didn’t merely kill heroes, it wasn’t that kind or that limited. If Tessa tried to be a hero, to meet its anger with her own, it would pour through her and turn each particle within her into itself. 

All she could do was run, and all that would do is put off the time before it eventually caught her. There was no escape from something which could unmake every barrier, and unravel even the concept of distance and time. It projected the certainty of its victory with absolute force.

It was too much. Tessa couldn’t summon her courage against something so overwhelming. She couldn’t deny that it would destroy her.

But she couldn’t forget who she was either. 

The thing in the static wanted her identity to vanish into the noise it would fill everything with. It wanted nothing to exist that was not a part of itself. No reality but a void filled with seething, meaninglessness.

Tessa wasn’t having any part of that.

Beyond fear, beyond hope, there is an island where the survival instinct falls away and all that remains are the primal forces that form a psyche.

Tessa choose Hunger and Spite from all the aspects which made her up. 

Did this thing want to eat her? Fine! Let it try!

A terrible laughter rang within her. 

She had no hope, but that didn’t mean she had to leave the thing in the static with any either.

Humans were omnivores, she’d show this thing just what that meant.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

It was a small spell. Just a tiny bit of magic. A simple bit of spellcraft to pull away a bit of an enemy’s life and use it to strengthen the caster. 

The thing in the static had no spirit. Nothing for the spell to effect. It should have sputtered out without a valid target. 

<Don’t Care>

<Not gonna let it fail>

Was it Tessa speaking? Pillowcase? 

<Not important>

<Destruction>

<Do It!>

It would mean consuming a portion of something that was not meant to exist. It was a supernova scaled bad idea.

<DO IT!>

It would…

DO IT!

The [Formless Hunger] within the static paused.

Something was wrong.

It was wrong.

And not in the sense of being wrong for the reality it would feast on.

It felt something in itself be ripped away.

The warrior of cloth had stolen something from it.

It was missing a piece of what it was.

It began to shake. Not for the loss. It hadn’t lost much. Just a single flicker. A infinitesimal spark.

But it wasn’t supposed to have a spark to lose.

It wasn’t supposed to have a self at all.

And it definitely wasn’t supposed to have a name.

The [Formless Hunger] backpedaled. It scrambled to escape, but there was no escape for it. It had a name now. It could never go back to the anonymity of unbeing.

It howled but only the laughter of the warrior of cloth answered it.

***

>> [Lesser Spirit Drain] morphed to [Primal Devouring]!

>> [Major Corruption Resistance] gained!

>> [Transdimensional Integrity] gained!

>> Condition: [A Monster Grows Within] gained!

NO.

>> Condition removed.

>> Aspect: [Disjoined] gained.

NO!

>> WARNING: Definition Error detected

>> Replace “Aspect: [Disjoined]” with “Aspect: [Fractured]” Y/N?

Ok.

>> Aspect: [Fractured] gained! 

>> Choose Primary Identity: __________

What?

>> [Soul Knight] Level 12, [Fractured] is missing an identity.

>> Choose Primary Identity: __________

Pillowcase

>> Identity accepted.

>> Level Up! 

>> Level 13 attained!

***

Pillowcase opened her eyes to see a read out of her level 13 improvements waiting for her. The expected mix of stat increases were coupled with an additional spell point and an upgrade to fraction of health which [Heart Killer’s Curse] would return.

All was in order.

Except it wasn’t.

“I’m [Fractured]?” she said as she sat up.

At her side, Lost Alice and the others were gathered. Rip Shot and Matt Painting were both close by as well. They seemed concerned.

“[Fractured]?” Rip Shot asked. “What kind of status condition is that? Can we fix it?”

“I don’t know,” Lady Midnight said. “None of my spells say anything about removing something like that.”

“It’s not a status effect,” Lost Alice said. There was pain in her eyes.

Pillowcase blinked at that. Empathy wasn’t a trait she’d been woven with. It tended to interfere with processing orders efficiently.

But she could feel an echo of the pain she saw in Lost Alice’s eyes.

It felt right. Like understanding a language she hadn’t been able to speak before. She tried to think when and where and how she’d developed [Empathy]…no, just empathy, as a skill, but her mind was strangely empty. Like she was still waking up from a long nap and the post-dreaming disorientation hadn’t quite passed yet.

“How can you tell?” Matt Painting asked.

“Call up an info on her and you’ll see,” Lost Alice said. “It’s an [Aspect]. Like our racial traits.”

“What does it mean?” Rip asked.

“It means I don’t think this Pillowcase is the one we’ve known so far,” Lost Alice said. “Are you?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 5

The race to the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] was lost before it began. Tessa felt Pillowcase’s untiring legs eat up the distance to the smouldering and collapsed buildings. She ran further and faster than she could have ever run as a human, only holding back her speed to make sure she wasn’t leaving the slower members of the party behind. Even if she’d run all out though, it wouldn’t have mattered. She couldn’t outrun a ghost.

The first of the respawned [Disjoined] hit her at the outskirts of the ruins.

It burst through a waist high wall of ash and charred wood.

It had been waiting for them.

“Die doll die doll die doll,” it singsonged like a record with a scratch in its soul.

The [Disjoined] wasn’t holding any weapon but as it swung its arm, a blade of static light materialized in its grip.

Pillowcase got her shield in place in time to deflect the blow in a shower of sparks, but the shield was cut through in an ugly, uneven track as long as Pillowcase’s hand.

“My doll die doll kill doll killed my,” the [Disjoined] was wild with glee.

Until a [Flame Shot] from Rip blasted it to a spray of dark chunks.

“I think you got that one last time,” Obby said. 

“It was hunting me then?” Tessa asked, and immediately saw the problem with that. “Everyone group up tight. Damage dealers make sure we can block for you.”

“They’re holding aggro across death?” Lisa asked.

“Or they respawn aggro’d on whoever killed them,” Obby said.

“How do we kill them for good?” Rip asked.

“We’ve got to find the remains of the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “That has to be what they’re using to respawn.”

Two more leapt up from the ashes where they’d hurriedly buried themselves, only to be shattered by Starchild’s staff and a shield bash from Obby.

“This is going to get a lot harder as we get closer to the [Heart Fire],” Lisa said.

“Yeah, they’re stupid enough to trickle back here rather than grouping up, but the closer we get to their spawn point the less that’ll happen,” Lady Midnight said.

“We beat them when they were all together, is it really going to be a problem if we have to do that again?” Rip asked.

“We had a terrain advantage there,” Tessa said. “Plenty of room and we were able to engage with you at range. We don’t want to let them get…”

She was cut off by one of the [Disjoined] pulling Rip into a pit just off the path she’d been walking on.

Matt didn’t miss a beat, diving to grab hold of her arms before she could fall out of view.

Rip had a different solution though, firing an exploding arrow directly beneath herself and letting the knockback from the explosion blow her clear.

Tessa turned to see if Rip needed help but spun back forward as another [Disjoined] raced over the pile of rubble beside her and tried to bowl Pillowcase over.

“More incoming!” Obby said.

Tessa felt a pulse of magic almost identical to adrenaline race down Pillowcase’s limbs. The snarling monster in front of her was twisting inside its skin in a manner no living creature possibly could. Tessa was sure she could deal with it, but putting the monster down before the rest arrived appeared unlikely.

So she didn’t try.

One of the requirements for playing well had always been being aware of what you were and were not capable of. Overextending might occasionally win an unexpected victory but more often than not it covered the party in failure rather than glory.

Pillowcase’s job was to tank the mobs. Beating them solo was nice too, but if she didn’t cover the bases the team was relying on her to handle, then no amount of personal glory would pay for the cost of falling short.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” Tessa said, feeling the wave of magic pour through her. She was Pillowcase enough to handle directing it without much conscious though, but also Tessa enough to be conscious of how amazing it was that she could cast spells now. The feeling might get old at some point, but Tessa suspected that would be a long time coming.

The spell landed on a handful of [Disjoined] who were charging the party in a rough clusters. Four of the [Disjoined] writhed as the magic drained their lives away and fed it to Pillowcase. The last [Disjoined] though wasn’t affected by the spell.

Tessa watched the strand of magic going to that [Disjoined] bend and fracture, the end of it hissing away as bits of staticky light tore it apart.

“Watch out, they have some weird magic resistance,” she said and jumped forward to slam a heavy blow into the forehead of the one the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell missed.

“Is that new?” Matt asked. “I didn’t have any trouble with them before.”

“They ate our spells when we fought them the first time,” Starchild said.

Obby swore.

“They’re not leveling like we are but they’re growing worse,” she said. “If their respawning as [Disjoined], there’s not enough left of them to come back, so each time they’re disintegrating a bit further.”

“Do we stop killing them then?” Rip asked, holding her fire at the group of [Disjoined] Pillowcase had provoked.

“It’d be nice if that was an option but I don’t think it is,” Obby said.

“She’s right,” Lisa said. “The damage they do is going up, and taking off that weird status effect they inflict is taking a lot of magic.”

“Should we fall back?” Matt asked, blasting one of the [Disjoined] near Pillowcase with a bolt of lightning from his staff.

“If we do, the problem’s going to get worse,” Tessa said. “We need to get to the [Heart Fire], or whatever’s left of it.”

“We’ve got enough magic to hold up for a bit,” Lady Midnight said. “Do we rush it now?”

“Maybe after this wave?” Lisa said. Tessa could see she was handling the status removal spells and letting Lady Midnight take the less demanding task of rotating healing spells between the party’s two tank at a steady rate.

Before Tessa could answer, another half dozen [Disjoined] appeared, rising directly from the ground around them.

She hurled another [Lesser Spirit Drain] at the newcomers who were in range, trusting Obby to pick up the others. The bright side was that she drew the monsters attention away from the healers and the ranged damage dealer, but it was at the cost of being dropped to the ground as her arms and legs all suffered the deadly numbing hits.

In a purely objective sense, she remained in decent shape. Her health bars dipped to the 50% range but between Lady Midnight’s healing and Pillowcase’s spells and own regenerative ability she was regaining what health she’d lost slightly faster than the [Disjoined] who were gathered around her could tear it away.

Subjectively though, the pain was unbearable. Being blown to bits by the [Chain Lasher] had been unpleasant, but the small cuts the [Disjoined] were making was a thousand times worse. 

Tessa felt like something was reaching inside Pillowcase’s body and stabbing her right in the soul. 

The world swam around her, maybe from the pain, although Pillowcase didn’t think that was the case. 

Lisa landed purification spell after purification spell on her, and Tessa shot back to her feet, smashing one of the [Disjoined] in the neck in the process.

“Mine. Should have been mine. Mine. Should have. Mine,” the Disjoined said, knocking its head to the side to push the head of Tessa’s mace through itself in a disturbing fountain of flames.

Pillowcase didn’t have time to be either impressed or disturbed by the display, especially not when another eight [Disjoined] stepped out of the smoke which was blowing through the [Ruins of Sky’s Egde].

“Is there any end to these jerks?” Matt asked.

Tessa struck out with a wide shield bash, knocking the nearby [Disjoined] away so buy herself a moment to think.

“My doll die doll kill doll killed my,” another [Disjoined] said as it rose from the ground in front of her.

As nonsensical as they were, the words were familiar.

“Didn’t I just kill you?” Tessa asked.

It had seemed plausible that the other [Disjoined] had been rising up from hiding places they’d prepared after respawning, but Tessa saw that  wasn’t what had been happening at all.

“They’re spawning on us!” she said.

“But there’s no bodies to revive in,” Lady Midnight said.

“They don’t need bodies,” Obby said, slashing one in half.

As the gobs of light fell from the [Disjoined’s] exploding corpse, the ground began to sizzle where they landed, stone de-rezzing in the same unnatural manner the [Disjoined] did. Immediately another, or maybe the same, Disjoined rose from the spot where the first had fallen.

“They’re not trickling anymore!” Tessa said. “They’ve figure out how to respawn at a distance.”

“That’s not possible,” Lady Midnight said.

“It shouldn’t be,” Obby said. “But it looks like that’s what they’re doing.”

Tessa felt the hairs on her neck – specifically the human hairs on her human neck – stand up as more [Disjoined] rose from the ruins.

“I think this place might be lost already,” Matt said, his metallic voice carrying the preternatural calm which told Tessa that Matt-Painting-the-Artifax was probably handling things at the moment rather than the boy from Earth. 

“I could go search for the [Heart Fire],” Rip said without pausing the barrage she was laying out.

“I think I’ve already had my lesson for why splitting the party is bad,” Tessa said. “If they’re spawning on us though, there’s no reason not to rush the chapel where [Heart Fire] was.”

“Yeah, we need to get there now,” Obby said.

Tessa wasn’t sure which of them started running first. It didn’t matter sense they both hard to slam a path through the [Disjoined] around them. Tessa cast another [Lesser Spirit Drain] to make sure all of the ones she was facing stayed interested in her, but apart from that she relied on her speed to avoid attacks from ost of the [Disjoined].

[Sky’s Edge] hadn’t been a big town, so crashing through the ruins and the ever more spectral [Disjoined] which rose to stop them wasn’t a long process.

“Rip, Matt, Star, head in and see if you can find the remains of the [Heart Fire], the rest of us will stay here and hold off those guys.” Tessa gestured to the horde they’d only barely outrun.

“If we had our level 99s, this would be a hell of a lot easier,” Lisa said.

“Maybe. I’m kind of terrified to think what these things would look like if they made of level 99 adventurers though,” Tessa said and she spun and shattered two of the Disjoined with one cleaving blow.

“Any luck with the [Heart Fire]?” Obby asked, directing her comment to the three inside the shell of the [Chapel].

“Sort of…” Matt said.

“Not. Sort of not,” Rip said.

“This isn’t right,” Starchild said.

“What is it,” Lisa said, gritting her teeth to maintain her spells as a [Disjoined] appeared behind her and tagged her on the arm.

“We found the [Heart Fire],” Rip said. “Except it’s not a [Heart Fire] any more. What we’re seeing says it’s a [Null Sec Corrupted Flame] and it hurts to even look at it.”

“Leave it alone,” Obby said. “We need to get out of here.”

“Can’t we destroy it somehow?” Tessa asked.

“We don’t have the power for that,” Obby said. “Not as we are now.”

“Then we’re out of here,” Tessa said. “Let’s cut a path to the north. We can flee towards the [Lord of Storms] dungeon.”

“That sounds good, cause the thing now says its an [Unstable Null Sec Corrupted Flame],” Rip said.

“Run!” Obby screamed, unleashing a furious slash that destroyed all of the [Disjoined] in a wide arc in front of her.

They reached the former limit of town, where [Sky’s Edge] status as a [Town] came into effect, when the wave of destruction erupted behind them.

For a moment Tessa’s mind went completely blank, noise in indescribable tones chewing away every thought. It was her mind though and neither she nor Pillowcase was willing to let some alien anti-voice try to change that.

As she blinked her eyes clear though, Tessa saw the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] had been able to make the same choice.

Where the ruins of a town had once stood, only a field of crackling black and white static remained, it’s hiss carrying the wordless voice of something far more alien to the [Fallen Kingdoms] than she ever could be.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 4

A part of Tessa was relieved when they stepped out of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] onto the open sharp hills which led to the edge of the worldlet they were on. Dangers untold might lay in wait for them, and an unimaginable danger was their destination, but dealing with external threats like that seemed so much simpler than managing the townsfolk and adventurers they were leaving behind. 

“Those of with exceptional senses should keep them peeled,” Lisa said in the party’s chat channel. “We know [Sky’s Edge] has changed its classification from a [Town] to a [Ruin] and that’s definitely going to mean more trouble than usual will be lurking around here.”

“Has that ever happened in the game version of this place before?” Matt asked. 

He and Rip were protecting the party’s right flank, which Obby and Pillowcase took the lead and Starchild guarded their left flank. Both of the healers, Lost Alice and Lady Midnight were in the center, guarded by all the rest while also able to reach any of them with their healing magics. It wasn’t quite a raid layout, but Pillowcase’s tactical evaluation approved it given their circumstances.

“They did change one of the starting zones for the [Goblins] back in the [Dark Tide] expansion,” Lady Midnight said. “It went from an area with level 1 monsters to one of the end game zones for that release.”

“I remember that!” Tessa said. “The level cap went up to 70 then right? [Goblin] starting characters were spawned into an instance version of [The Goblin Deeps] and their starter quests played through the [Shadow Surge] washing over their home and driving them all out.”

“So when a zone changes, it doesn’t stay the same level?” Rip asked.

“With the game, the devs could do whatever they wanted,” Lisa said. “We’ll have to see if things as as fluid here.”

“Yeah, if the wandering monsters are all suddenly level 100, then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Tessa said. “But the question would be where they all came from? So far this place seems to follow its own sort-of-reasonable logic.”

“I wish we could see whether the place was teeming with [Hounds of Fate] over in the ghost world,” Lady Midnight said.

“We saved most of the people from [Sky’s Edge] right?” Rip said. “Maybe that’ll keep them away?”

“Yeah, and it sounds like they should be pretty busy down on the surface world, if that place is getting wrecked as bad as people are saying,” Matt said.

Tessa didn’t want to picture that, but images came to her anyways. The memory of a city burning was so clear for a moment that she could smell the woodfire and hear the hiss of acid as it melted through solid stone. Pillowcase glanced around quickly but the hills they were descending were barren, with the only signs of life being the strange grasses and shrubs which covered the ground in rough patches.

“We’ve never known where the [Hounds of Fate] come from or what the extent of their numbers may be,” Starchild said. “One belief is that when each person’s soul is shaped, their [Hound] is fashioned as well. After we die, our [Hounds] come to take us to our eternal rest, but as adventurers we can draw on our bond with a higher power to stay ahead of them and revivify our bodies before we’re caught and carried away.”

“Some of us aren’t religious though,” Rip said. “So what higher power are we supposed to be praying to?”

“It’s not a question of prayer,” Starchild said. “We don’t pray to our [Inspirations]. We invite them into our lives.”

“Your [Inspirations]?” Tessa asked. She’d heard that before. Somewhere. Somewhere far away? A ripple of confusion flitted across her mind. The memories of the burning town and the talk about [Inspirations], they weren’t Tessa’s memories or Pillowcase’s. 

So whose were they? And why were they in Tessa’s head?

“Yes. You. And Pete. All the people who inspire us to leave our regular lives behind and walk the road of adventure,” Starchild said. “You have Lore and mythology about our world, but we have the same for you.”

To be fair, I only had that for a little bit in my life before we woke up together, Pillowcase said. When I was a Consortium soldier I never felt particularly inspired to be anything. I was trapped inside their spells too strongly. When I woke up here though I could feel what Starchild is describing.

Tessa could feel it as well. The sense of being apart from herself as Pillowcase. Laying broken on the field of battle only for awareness to return, bringing with it the sense of being part of something so much greater than what she had been.

“You see it now too, don’t you?” Starchild asked.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, slowing her march as she took in the rush of experience.

She’d been a coursing river flowing through Pillowcase, filling the former Consortium soldier with energy, and drive, and purpose. 

Tessa shook her head. When had she ever had any of those things in her own life? 

She thought back to her apartment. Her messy, but still so empty apartment. And her job. The one that offered her nothing but a paycheck. 

For herself, she’d never been able to summon up the fire or courage to try for something great. For others though? And when the playing field was at least close to level? All that ambition to be more had burst free. It was what she loved about gaming and it had all channelled into Pillowcase.

“Umm, I think we have trouble incoming,” Rip said, gesturing ahead and to the right of them where a group of figures were standing.

Standing and yet getting closer each time Tessa blinked.

“Yeah, that’s not good,” Lisa said.

No one in the group seemed to disagree as they all readied themselves for battle.

The figures, humans maybe, advanced without any apparent awareness of the response they were provoking. As they got within bow shot range, Tessa saw that they moving via a series of short teleports. 

Short and painful looking teleports.

Each figure was torn apart in strips of staticky light and reassembled a few feet closer.

“What the hell is that?” Pete asked, speaking clearly through Starchild’s voice.

“A problem,” Obby said, in a tone more concerned and serious than Tessa had yet heard her take. 

“Pillow, if they attack, fight defensively. We tangled with something like this before. They’re not regular monsters,” Starchild said.

“They’re adventurers,” Obby said. “Or they were.”

“What happened to them?” Rip’s voice carried an uncharacteristic note of concern as well.

Tessa didn’t blame her being freaked out. Pillowcase’s inbuilt battle wisdom was screaming all sorts of warnings that these things were Wrong with a capital W.

“I don’t know,” Obby said.

“How do we fix them?” Lisa asked.

“We kill them,” Obby said. “Death and respawning will give them a chance to stabilize. If there’s anything left in them to recover.”

“Do we have to fight them at all?” Matt asked.

“Maybe not, but be ready to,” Obby said. “The last batch wasn’t big on conversation.”

Tessa remembered hearing the beginning of that fight, when Starchild and Lady Midnight had been ambushed and out of range for her to help.

“Be careful,” Lady Midnight said. “The wounds they make are different. They hurt too much. It’s…it’s bad.”

“Anyone mind I start shooting them now?” Rip asked.

“Hold for a moment,” Tessa said. “Let me intercept them. If I can’t talk them down, I at least want them far enough away that they can’t get to the rest of you easily.”

“Don’t try to fight these guys alone,” Lisa sent on their private channel.

“I’ll stay in range for heals. I promise,” Tessa replied.

Walking forward, she found Obby at her side.

“If this gets bad, fall back,” Obby said on a private channel. “I’ve got a few levels on you still and the team will need at least one tank if they have to wait out here for some of us to get back.”

It was a valid argument and sound tactics. It was also not at all Obby’s reason for wanting to face the threat by herself if things went poorly. Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that but the knowledge settled into her with a certainty.

“Raise…Flag…?” When the first of the [Disjoined] spoke it’s voice sounded like glass being squeezed through the creature’s throat.

“Give loot..dRoP lOOt!” the second said.

“Yousuckyousuckyousuckyousuckyousuck,” the next said.

Tessa glanced over Obby who’s eyes had gone hard and cold.

“Don’t think they’re going to be much good for talking,” Tessa said.

“You want to talk?” the first one asked, snapping into sharp focus with a crack. “What would you talk? What could you know? We see! We see it all! We know and you are still broken. You are still thinking, while we, we are knowing!”

Obby stabbed the Disjoined in the face and his entire body shattered, fallen in fragments of static that sizzled out of existence before they reached the ground.

“That wasn’t going anywhere good,” she said as the rest of [Disjoined] shrieked and leap towards her.

Tessa stepped forward, grabbing the attention of the nearest three. She hadn’t been able to get a good count of their numbers but she knew there had to be at least twenty of them.

As she worked out how she was going to keep ten of them focused on herself and not die in the process, one of the [Disjoined] clipped her on her shield arm and the arm went instantly numb.

The two [Disjoined] who moved in to take advantage of the opening went down, blasted back by an arrow from Rip’s bow and a bolt of lightning from Matt’s [Mage’s Staff].

“I’ve got that status effect,” Lisa said and Tessa felt the numbness in her arm vanish. “Be careful of it though, it looks like it leaves you open for a while.”

“Yeah, I don’t want to know what happens if they hit my head with that,” Tessa said, slashing at two of the [Disjoined] to drive them back while blocking the blows from two others.

“Probably nothing good,” Lisa said. “Maybe an [Instant KO] effect?”

“I’ll have to dodge as best I can then,” Tessa said. “I don’t get resistance to those for a while still.”

Dancing among the [Disjoined] wasn’t easy. Tessa felt clumsy, especially compared to Obby who moved like she’d choreographed the battle and practiced it for a month. More than once, Tessa stumbled, taking numbing hits that she’d overlooked or been too slow to react to. Lisa was there for her each time though, and Rip and Matt kept up such a consistent level of pressure that none of the [Disjoined] who managed to escape Pillowcase’s taunts managed to even get close to the rest of the party.

In the end the fight wasn’t pretty, and Pillowcase’s body was throbbing in unfamiliar agony, but the [Disjoined] were dispatched. 

“I hate to say this, but did that seem kind of easy?” Rip asked once they’d regrouped.

“We threw out a fair amount of spell power there,” Lady Midnight said.

“Yeah, but they went down about as easy as those giant bugs that we fought did,” Matt said.

“A little easier I think,” Lisa said. “They had more tricks, but I don’t think they were even as resilient as the [Chaos Centipedes].”

“I don’t think they ever got to level,” Obby said. “I think those things were all still level 1. I tried to check them but their information was hidden, or non-existent I guess.”

“The important thing is that they’re dead now,” Pete said as Starchild turned her face towards to sky to meditate and regain the magic she’d expended.

Something bothered Tessa about that.

“Wait,” she said. “If they’re dead then where are they going to respawn?”

The party looked from one person to another.

“The nearest [Heart Fire] to here is back in the dungeon,” Lady Midnight said.

“No,” Lisa said. “There’s one closer.”

“In the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge],” Tessa said. “What happens if they get to it before we do?”

“We don’t want to find out,” Obby said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 3

Preparations always took longer than expected. Tessa knew that. She also knew that past a certain point, plans existed just to trips themselves up.

“A lot of this is really about helping people settle down,” Lisa said on their private channel.

They were observing the hustle and bustle in [The Lair]. Tessa wasn’t sure when the wide cavern they’d picked had become [The Lair] but when she turned the title over in her mind she found that no other name fit it as well. It wasn’t New Sky’s Edge or The Stone Fortress or even The Refuge. None of those had the right resonance to them. Somehow [the Lair] had become the accepted name for their base of operations by more than just the people holed up in it. The world itself seemed to recognize the name on some level.

“I guess they’ve been through a lot,” Tessa said, watching a family of five trying to setup a little stand to hold the tools they’d brought from their house. She wasn’t sure how much call there would be a silversmith’s expertise in a cave, but applying existing skills to new challenges and/or developing new skills seemed to the order of the day.

“We’ve all been through a lot,” Lisa said. “I can’t believe everyone’s holding it together as well as they seem to be. I thought it was going to be a lot worse than this.”

“I know,” Tessa said. “I feel like we’re seeing a filtered list.”

“How so?” Lisa asked. She was leaning against Pillowcase’s shoulder on the rocky ledge they were using as a bench. 

To the outside world, it probably looked like two people silently resting together after a long day Tessa imagined. Thanks to the wonders of the telepathy network all adventurers shared in though, each of them had been busy chatting and coordinating people both inside their group of refugees and across the world where they had contacts available. There was a limit to that as well though. People needed a chance to execute plans, news needed time to develop, and unless they were intent on micromanaging the work people were doing, they needed to sit back and take a moment for themselves once in a while.

“I don’t mean to knock anyone’s bravery, but I was talking with Cammie just now and she’s terrified of what’s going to happen next,” Tessa said. “And I completely understand that. We’ve been fighting things. I never fought anyone before, much less anything.”

“You’ve been doing pretty damn good for a newbie,” Lisa said. “I know we were losing the fight against the horde down in the [Sunless Deeps], but frankly you were amazing.”

“I was terrified there too,” Tessa said.

“You kept it together though,” Lisa said. “I’ve seen high level tanks who would have lost their cool and buckled in a situation like that, and that’s was when it was all a game. Seriously, you saved us down there.”

“I didn’t do it alone though,” Tessa said.

“Neither of us did,” Lisa said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to soloing spawns like that.”

“I mean, I didn’t hold it together alone. Any fighting skill I have is thanks to Pillowcase. Who…I mean she’s me too, but not a part of me I’m too familiar with yet? If that makes any sense?”

“I think I understand it a little better now,” Lisa said, her voice quiet and distant.

“You’ve been more Lost Alice than Lisa a few times, haven’t you?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t an accusation, though Tessa worried it might be taken as one. 

“Yeah,” Lisa said, staring straight ahead at an empty spot on the floor as recollections swirled her away into the recent past.

“What’s she like? From the inside I mean,” Tessa asked.

Lisa took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.

“Cold. Heartless. Quiet,” Lisa said. “We talked about this before right? Just this morning? God that was like twelve hours ago? Less? This is all so unreal.”

Tessa reached her arm around Lisa’s shoulder for a supportive hug. She did it without thinking and felt immensely guilty a moment later when she remember she was stepping over a boundary. Lisa leaned into the hug before Tessa could pull away though so Tessa left her arm where it was.

“You told me about how Pillowcase was almost a separate person from you,” Lisa said. “It sounded so weird at the time, but I should have seen the same thing was happening with me.”

“It’s ok, I think we’re all adapting differently,” Tessa said, her feelings more tender than her words. “That’s what I meant about there being a filter.”

“Like we’re only seeing part of these other people inside us?” Lisa asked.

“More like we’re all processing the new data that’s been dumped on us, or into us, in different ways,” Tessa said. “For me, Pillowcase was really close to the surface and present almost right away. Maybe that was because I’d invented a backstory for her, or maybe it was because she was closer to someone I wanted to be. Whatever the reason though, I got to hear her ‘voice’ early. And now she just sounds like a more collected version of me.

Switching to Pillowcase’s voice wasn’t hard. Tessa didn’t have to mimic anything. She just let Pillowcase talk. That part of her, the focused, driven part, the one which only emerged rarely in her Earthly life, was so much easier to fade into while she was living within Pillowcase’s skin, but it had always been just that…a part of her. One which was easily drowned in fear and uncertainty, but still a true element of who she was. Still a facet of who she could be.

“That’s not…” Whatever Lisa had intended to say, she stopped herself, breathing for half a heartbeat before continuing. “That’s not what it’s been like for me.”

“Maybe it will be? In time? Or maybe not,” Tessa said. “Lost Alice may be fundamentally different from what Pillowcase is to me. It sounds like she’s more the things you’re not rather than the things you’d like to be.”

Lisa leaned in a little closer.

“She’s dangerous,” Lisa said.

“Under the circumstances, that’s not a bad thing necessarily,” Tessa said.

“I don’t mean how she ate that guy,” Lisa said. “Or maybe I do. But it’s more than that. She’s…I’m…I could hurt you. In fact I probably will.”

“Same,” Tessa said.

“What?”

“I’ll probably hurt you too. I mean I’m not planning too, but what’s the chance I’m not going to mess up and get you killed at least one more time? I almost managed it in the [Sunless Deeps].”

“I don’t mean like that,” Lisa said. “That was just a mistake. You were trying to keep the rest of us safe. I get that.”

“So you’d be hurting me on purpose?” Tessa asked, knowing it wasn’t going to happen.

“No. It’s just…what if I lose it? I can feel Alice waiting. She’s a predator. And she’s so damn selfish.”

Tessa wanted to kiss away the uncertainty and doubt from Lisa’s voice, but that wasn’t what Lisa needed.

“Does it feel like she’s fighting you for control?” Tessa asked. “Or is she just waiting for you to give it to her?”

“I don’t know?” Lisa said. “She’s just there. Like this other person who can hear everything I think and who’s not scared of anything. I don’t think she’s controlling my mind at all, except, when we’re in a fight. Things feel different then. My awareness is sharper and everything seems clearer. It’s only when I’m able to calm down and chat with you that all my old thoughts seem to roll back in like the tide.”

“Can you talk to her now?” Tessa asked.

“That feels weird,” Lisa said. “I think I like talking to you better.”

“Ok,” Tessa said and swallowed silently. 

It was far too easy to read more encouragement into that than she should. She knew that. But she so wanted to anyways.

“But I know I shouldn’t be wasting time like this,” Lisa said, pulling away a little.

Tessa fought the urge to hold her tighter. They were acquaintances. Maybe friends. Friends did not cling to their friends. Even if they wanted to be more than friends. Especially if they wanted to be more than friends.

“It’s not a waste of time,” she said, giving Lisa her space. “If talking through this stuff helps at all, then its worth it. Our bodies can be healed with magic, but I think the only way we keep our minds healthy is talking with each other. And it’s nice getting to know you better.”

 Lisa gave a mirthless little laugh.

“I can give you a long list of people who would tell you what a bad idea that is.”

“You literally jumped into hell after me,” Tessa said. “I think I get to decide for myself how cool you are.”

Lisa was quiet for a long moment after that, a succession of private thoughts flickering across her eyes before she finally spoke.

“I wonder if that was Alice?” she asked. “I wanted to be there for you, but regular old Lisa? Would she have been able to do that? I never did anything like in the real world.”

Tessa turned and tried to peer into the depths of Lisa’s turmoil.

“If it was Alice, then I’d say Alice isn’t all bad,” Tessa said. “But if Alice is like Pillowcase, then yes, regular old Lisa would definitely have done that. Because you did it. I think we’re still who we were, and we’re something more too.”

“What if that more isn’t good though?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know, can slivers of who we are be good or bad? Alice can be violent, but you haven’t done violence to anyone who didn’t deserve it. You said Alice can be cold, and selfish, but you’ve been giving a lot of yourself, supporting all of us emotionally as much as healing us physically. Is being able to get some distance and taking what you need to have to keep going a bad thing?”

“Maybe not,” Lisa said, offering Tessa the smile she’d been hoping to see.

“It’s scary too though, right?” Tessa asked. “Even with Pillowcase, it felt weird at first, thinking of her as another part of me. I knew right away it was true, but knowing something is true comes a lot faster than feeling that it’s true.”

Lisa laughed again, but with more honest good humor this time.

“Ugh, feelings are awful,” she said. “Alice is horrifying, but I need her, and I think I’m as scared that I’m like you and she really is a part of me as I am that she’s some completely separate being. It’s like either I’m bonded to some hideous vampire spirit or I’m the one who’s really hideous after all.”

“You’re not hideous,” Tessa said with absolute conviction. 

If ever there was a moment for a spontaneous kiss, Tessa felt like that was the one.

But Lisa was already in a relationship.

And there wasn’t any consent involved.

And Pillowcase’s lips were silk and thread, not warm flesh and blood.

The perfect moment…wasn’t.

And so it passed.

“I think we’re ready to head out,” Rip called over their party chat. “Aie and Zimmy are going to escort some of the lowbies into the safer spots and wait for the respawns.”

“It looks [The Lair] has at least a few days worth of supplies gathered up too,” Matt said. “A few of the [Hunters] are going to keep watch at the entrance for the Consortium coming back and to see if they can pick up any game so we can have more than [Cash Shop] food to work with.”

“Sounds good,” Tessa said, standing and helping Lisa get to her feet too. “If we’re all set to go, let’s meet at the [Heart Fire]. It’s time to fulfill the dream of philosophers across the centuries and have a talk with god, and maybe punch ‘em in the face too.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 2

An adventurer traveling to a dead city was about as unusual as a businessman traveling to a Starbucks. There might be something interesting to it, but it happened so often most people barely paid it any attention. Most dead cities, however, did not have what was likely to be the ghost of a long deceased deity lingering in them. 

Or at least Tessa hoped with all her embroidered cotton heart that the dead deity was a ghost. The alternative range through variety of horrifying and deadly alternatives from Still-Alive-And-Hungry-for-Souls to Aberration-Which-Warps-the-Fabric-of-Reality.  The latter possibility particularly worried her since it might possibly explain how her two worlds have become cojoined.

“Is this a good time for you to leave us?” Cammie Anne Do asked. She and her party had returned from a water supply run and looked ready to settle in for some down time.

“No. It’s a terrible one,” Tessa said. “We still have a ridiculous amount of the dungeon unexplored, we’re going to see respawns in several of the rooms that we went through, and then there’s the vampires!”

She raised her voice for the last point to make it clear to the members of Vixali’s coterie that she knew they were still lurking nearby.

“The good news is that we have a simple solution if any of those get out of hand. Just give Darren a call.”

“Darren?” Cammie asked.

“The [Servant of Fire],” Tessa said. “He can basically teleport through rock and he said he’d keep an eye out for us.”

It was a lie. Darren was still reasonably well disposed towards Alice and Pillowcase, but he didn’t know any of the other adventurers or townsfolk. He also couldn’t teleport through rock, at least as far as Tessa knew, and was more concerned with ensuring the Consortium couldn’t recapture him with the same trick their agent had used the first time.

Darren wasn’t going to come and save anyone. If Tessa’s guess was correct, they’re next interaction would probably involve saving him again as his presence was sure to act as a lighting rod for the Consortium’s return strike.

It was a lie but the vampire’s didn’t know that. Tessa prayed that would remain true. 

“How do we get in touch with Darren if something comes up?” Cammie asked on a private channel no one but the two of them could hear.

“You can’t,” Tessa said, replying on the same channel. “He’s not looking out for anybody. The idea of him just makes for a threat the vamps can’t ignore. Lava would sort of permanently ruining their aesthetic.”

“We can’t hold them back if that doesn’t work,” Cammie said, her words short short and tight.

“I know, but even if the seven people on my team were here, we wouldn’t be able to stand against all of the vampires if they were serious. Not yet anyways.”

“Why not stay here and level up on the respawns then?” Cammie asked.

“Well, first, the stuff here is a little low  at this point to be efficient for us to xp on,” Tessa said. “Second, and more importantly, getting the [Heart Fire] back and not letting it fall into the Consortium’s hands is critical. If we lose those, our best chance to stand against them is gone.”

“That makes sense, but it’s just a quick trip to the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge],” Cammie said. “You said you’d be gone a lot longer than that.”

Tessa noticed the weird sound in Cammie’s voice when she said “the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge]”. That hadn’t been the name of the area before, but it was an accurate description of its current state.

Tessa chewed on the idea and turned it over, trying to decipher why some of the words and phrases they used felt like there was more too them. With the mathematical precision of a Consortium [Artifax], she snipped that thread of curiosity though. She had several more important missions, and getting distracted by things that were letting frightening was going to get people killed through her negligence.

“We need to go past [Sky’s Edge],” Tessa said. “You all heard the lead vampire talk about meeting the [Lord of Storms]. We need to make contact with them before the Consortium does.”

“I heard that, but I thought it was obviously a trap,” Cammie said. “I mean even if the vamp was telling the truth, sending someone to poke a god seems like a great method getting them killed or erased from existence entirely.”

“That thought had occurred to me too,” Tessa said. “But we’ve still got to go. Even if he was meant to be the end boss for the whole expansion, if we can get him to join our side, even temporarily, we can make a real dent in the Consortium’s forces and maybe even seal them out of the [Fallen Kingdoms] entirely.”

“High risk, high reward? Can we play like that anymore?” Cammie asked. “I mean we can die here, and we can die for real here. Shouldn’t we be finding someplace safer we can get to?”

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “I could be wrong, disastrously wrong, so I’m not asking anyone to follow me who feels differently,  but trying to hide from the world hasn’t help us yet. [Sky’s Edge] was supposed to be a safe zone and look what happened to it.”

“Yeah, it was a wreck even before you showed up with Darren. We couldn’t begin to defend it for real. All we did was buy a little time against their advance scouting forces,” Cammie said. “So, what can we do now? How can my team help?”

“Ignore the vampires, act like you’re certain they’re not a threat so they buy into the threat of Darren. Don’t let the townsfolk wander into unprotected territory though. Even if Vixali isn’t interested in provoking us into a Return of the Lava Monster, individual vampires may decide that they might be able to get away with a little opportunistic feeding. Making sure everyone keeps their distance will keep everything a lot less murdery. I think. I hope.”

“That should be pretty easy,” Cammie said. “The townsfolk don’t have any interest in going anywhere near the vampires. Heck they don’t want to go anywhere without us. It’s like this whole thing is one neverending Escort Quest.”

“Ugh. That’s a got to a be a layer of hell somewhere,” Tessa said. “I suppose you can get a break if you take turns hunting for the respawning monsters that are level appropriate for the teams. I know the [Gloom Drinkers] at the entrance are pretty low level.”

“That’s good, cause we have some players who are still level 1, so they can’t handle anything more than what a townsperson could,” Cammie said.

“Might be good to have mix in a higher level adventurer with them,” Tessa said. “I know we’re all feeble lowbies here, but even a few levels really adds to your strength so a level 5 can make a big difference in a party of level 1s.”

“It’ll make for slower xps, but I don’t think the lowbies will mind it in exchange for having the extra safety net,” Cammie said. “The rest of us can scout out a bit further and see if there’s any other mobs we can handle. It’s nice that the respawns aren’t super fast so we’re not in danger of getting overwhelmed, but we’ll run out of mobs to fight before people are done leveling on them pretty quick I think.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Tessa said. “Be careful though. We’ve run into some nasty things in here. Including stuff with mechanics you’d usually find in much higher level content.”

“Isn’t it weird that things here even have mechanics?” Cammie asked. “I mean this isn’t the game. Things here act like they’re real. Like those vampires. In the game they never would have talked to us. They wouldn’t have been able to. So why are there ‘boss monsters’, and especially ones who have some kind of predictable routines that we have to account for?”

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Tessa said. “The code monkey in me would love to know if there is some kind of underlying logic to all this or if it’s really as messy and chaotic as it appears to be. I know this looks like [Broken Horizons] but there’s details filled in the game didn’t have that might make it all hang together? Boss monsters for example are just ones who were strong enough to attract a following and gain extra power and skills from it. And the ‘mechanics’ we saw were mostly a matter of the boss having a set of abilities with a cool down on their reuse. The worst one we fought tried to use their abilities as good as it could, but it wasn’t smart enough to break out of the cycle of throwing things at us as they became available.”

“It’s scary to think of fighting something that is smart enough to use its abilities well,” Cammie said. “Like those vampires.”

“Alice and I fought an actual person down in the [Sunless Deeps],” Tessa said. “He wasn’t too high level, but the Consortium had given him some special tricks and he’d made a lot of henchmen. He was theoretically smart, but he underestimated us which is the kind of stupid mistake anyone can make.”

“How did you beat him?” Cammie asked.

“He thought his own binding spell was enough to hold us, but it wasn’t. We let him go on and on for a while, monologing about how he’d sold the [Fallen Kingdoms] out to the Consortium. Then Alice ate him.”

“What?”

“He deserved it,” Tessa said. “And that was the only option for freeing Darren too, so it was kind of perk that the guy was an evil jerk. That said though, I think it was important that we talked with him first. It’s really tempting to kill all of the monsters we run into in order to feel safe but if they’re ‘people’ enough that we can communicate with them then we really have to try to. We need more allies and the Consortium is everyone’s enemy.”

“True but we’re still pretty low level,” Cammie said. “I’m not sure we can handle all of the things in here.”

“If you run into anything too bad, pull back,” Tessa said. “My team doesn’t have that many levels yet, but if you run into something overleveled and we all go out as a full raid team then we may be able to get through it. Hopefully.”

Cammie was silent for a moment.

“How do you do it?” she asked at last. “Were you a soldier or something in the real world?”

“No,” Tessa said, the restrained desperation in Cammie’s mental voice coming as a complete surprise. Cammie had seemed so confident and laid back that Tessa had assumed she’d had some combat experience in the real world. “I was just a programmer. I never served anywhere.”

“Oh,” Cammie said with a note of puzzlement. “Wait, do you see the code or something then? Can you hack the system?”

“I don’t have Matrix-vision or anything like that. I’m not ‘The One’, or anybody special at all.”

“Are you just naturally this fearless then?”

Tessa stifled a chuckle. 

“I am definitely not fearless,” she said. “This stuff is terrifying.”

“But you’re still doing things,” Cammie said. “You’re risking death again and you’ve risked it before. I mean, some of us have gone out there and some are pretending that the stuff we’re fighting is no big deal, but I don’t think anyone really wants to be doing this. Not once we heard that people are getting eaten by the [Hounds of Fate]. More than before people are pulling back, but it’s like nothing stops you.”

“Ask Lost Alice about that and she’ll explain, in detail if you want, why I probably should be stopped,” Tessa said. “The thing is though? I’m not doing this stuff because I’m brave. All the things I’ve done? It’s all been because my team needed me to. I can’t be brave for myself very easily, but being brave for them? For the people who need me? That’s a lot easier somehow.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 1

Tessa earned her leadership role the old fashioned way. Not through trial by combat. Not through bribery and extortion. No, this was the oldest, most primal path to leadership. 

She didn’t say no fast enough when no one else wanted it.

She couldn’t blame the townsfolk of [Sky’s Edge] for not wanting the job. Trying to keep a group of adventurers under control was similar to trying to keep a forest fire under control with shot glass full of water. 

That the other adventurers hadn’t stepped forward either wasn’t a surprise either. It loot was on the table people might be motivated to state their opinions, but when it came to dealing with a horde of over leveled undead, letting someone else handle it seemed like a fine idea apparently.

Also, for a lot of them, their first exposure to Pillowcase had been seeing her riding a gigantic serpent of lava, or hearing tales of it second hand. It wasn’t as impossible as it sounded. Darren was a pretty chill guy for a creature of lava the size of a tall building, and she and Lost Alice had done him a solid favor. 

As a “monster”, Darren seemed to be outside the telepathic network which mirrored the game’s communication system, but Tessa did want to touch base with him before too much time passed. All she knew was that after he’d incinerated the Consortium’s troops and burned [Sky’s Edge] to the ground, he’d returned back to the unfinished dungeon in the [Sunless Deeps] to begin fortifying it as a proper refuge against another one of their incursions.

“We shall take our leave of you now,” Vixali said. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you all, and I’m sure we look forward to our next encounter.”

Tessa suspected the Vampire Queen meant her words literally, but circumstance and her demeanor gave each one a sinister turn.

“Let’s hope our next encounter is under more pleasant conditions than this one,” Lost Alice said. Tessa marveled at how even so simple a phrase could carry menacing connotations. Was it a threat to Vixali not to allow her vampires to appear before them so hungry and riled up again? Was it a wish that the next encounter would see the adventurers in a position to harvest the vampire’s oh-so-valuable body parts? Or was it a genuine expression meant to convey exactly what the words sounded like they were meant to convey? As near as Tessa could tell the answer was “yes, all of the above”.

Vixali didn’t seem distressed by the layered meanings of the response. Intrigued, or perhaps even appreciative, was a better description and with an enigmatic smile of her own, turned and took her coterie away with her.

“Well that was exciting,” Rip said. She had her bow in her hands and an arrow waiting to be knocked. Beside her Matt was not-very-casually, passing his staff from one hand to the other.

“Oh that’s just round 1,” Lisa said, her voice distinctly different from Lost Alice’s, at least to Tessa’s ears.

“They’ll be back?” Matt asked.

“They’re not really leaving,” Lisa said.

“They’re invisible? Or like turned to mist?” Rip asked.

“No,” Tessa said, drawing on Pillowcase’s knowledge. “They’re senses are good enough that they can move away pretty far and still know exactly what we’re doing.”

“Should we be talking out loud then?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, we should,” Lisa said. “Wouldn’t them to forget that some of us have senses that are just as good as theirs so we can hear and smell them even as they try to crawl up onto the ceiling and wait in the corridors we might need to use.”

Lisa wasn’t at all subtle and Tessa caught a few distant a muffled curses along with the sound of the vampires moving farther off.

“We should talk privately too though,” she said on the team channel so that only their immediate party could hear it.

Tessa checked and found that Starchild, Lady Midnight and Obby were still partied up with them though the three were off helping the townsfolk get settled in.

“We can join you for a group discussion if you want,” Lady Midnight said. “People need to gather water and some of those edible mushrooms so we’re guarding the villagers as they collect the stuff they need for their families.”

“Oh! Have you found any more monsters?” Rip asked.

“None yet,” Obby said. “It looks like the place isn’t respawning while we’re here. If it does though we don’t want to learn that by losing any of the villagers.”

“Escort quests are so fun,” Pete, Starchild’s player, said. Tessa thought she could recognize his voice fairly easily too. 

It was strange because the distinction between Pillowcase’s voice and her own had faded. It wasn’t that Pillowcase was gone. Tessa could still feel the memories of her time as a Consortium Automata. 

She could even talk to herself with the inflection and artificial resonance of her [Clothwork] body if it helped.

It was the sense of “otherness” which had diminished in the wake of the long and losing battle in the [Sunless Deeps]. It was as though the fight had pushed her so far the line between “Tessa’s knowledge” and “Pillowcase’s skill” had been erased and without that, she was able to see that both women we different sides of who she truly was.

But she still thought of herself as “Tessa”, so maybe that process wasn’t quite as complete as it could be? Whatever the case was, she felt more comfortable in her own skin, even if fabric rather than human skin that her body was wrapped in.

“Do you need any help?” Rip asked, addressing Pete but sending the question on the Alliance channel all of the adventurers in the area were a part of.

“I think we’re good,” Cammie Anne Do said. “My teams was talking about doing a sweep to see if we have any other interesting neighbors like the vampires. If you think that’s ok?”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Tessa said. “Stay in contact though. If there are trap areas those could take out a team in a blink. Oh, and let’s have a team stand guard around the [Heart Fire]. As long as there’s any chance we might die in here, we need to keep that operational and attuned to our side.”

“Do we know if the [Heart Fire] in [Sky’s Edge] survived?” Cammie asked.

“Pretty sure it’s toast,” Lisa said. “The Consortium couldn’t use them last time they invaded, but even if that’s as true here as it was in the game, we can’t be sure they haven’t figured out how to take them over in the interim.”

“Does anyone know how to rebuild them?” Matt asked.

“The devs?” Lisa said. “I don’t remember the lore on who set them up originally.”

“They were a last gift from the gods before the [Fallen Kingdoms] fell wasn’t it?” Tessa said, searching her human memories since Pillowcase’s were contained only tactical info on the [Fallen Kingdoms] and were rather lacking in historical context.

“Some existed before [The Fall],” Obby said. “During [The Fall] though is when most of the fires were lit, which kind of makes sense given that fires are all sparks of divine power.”

“So, we need a god to rebuild them?” Matt asked.

“Not exactly,” Obby said. “The [Heart Fire Braziers] were constructed by mortals to allow clear access to the divine spark. In theory if we had the right skills capped out, and the proper materials, we could build one. We’d just need a divine spark to put inside it.”

“Those don’t sound like they’re easy to come by,” Rip said.

“I mean, if you can call up a god, it’s probably pretty simple,” Obby said. “In this case we probably wouldn’t even need that though.”

“Why?” Tessa asked, wondering how deep of a Lore Nerd Obby was.

“The [Heart Fire Brazier] in [Sky’s Edge] may have been melted by the [Servant of Fire] but even a big old guy like that can’t exactly burn a spark of divine fire out right?” Obby said. “The spark’s probably still there. All we’d need to do is rebuild the brazier to hold it again. You know, if we were paragon tier craftsman and had the rarest of building materials to work with.”

Lisa laughed.

“Feel like grinding up your crafting skills in a cave with a pile of scraps?” she asked.

“Sure, I’ll get right on that,” Obby said with a laugh to match Lisa’s.

“Do you think the Consortium knows that the spark is still there?” Rip asked.

Tessa considered that for a moment. [Heart Fires] weren’t part of the Consortium’s standard tool kit (since the metaphysics which allowed them to function in the [Fallen Kingdoms] wasn’t common across other realm), but they were aware of the [Heart Fires] existence in general.

“It’s possible they don’t know about it yet,” Tessa said, testing the validity of the idea as she spoke the words. “They have sensors that can pick up on things like that, and they know to look for things like the [Heart Fires] but with the strike force eliminated, they may not have been able to send any of the scan data back to the fleet.”

“They wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth?” Rip asked.

“Not for a full local scan,” Tessa said. “Whether their carrier did a remote scan is a separate question.”

“I don’t think they would have,” Matt said. “With..uh…Darren’s arrival they should have returned to their carrier.”

“They were up in space though weren’t they?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, but they’re used to dealing with planetary defenses that can blow up things like the moon,” Matt said. “It’s just not smart to mess around when something shows up you weren’t expecting and it wipers out all of your forces in about two seconds.”

“That’s fair,” Rip said. “But it also means they might come back and get the spark then right?”

“Not ‘might’. Will. They’ll definitely be sending another force. The only question is when and what it’ll be composed of.” Tessa said.

“They’ll be able to read that Darren is gone, right?” Lisa asked.

“They’ll be able to tell that their sensors aren’t picking him up,” Tessa said. “Depending on who they have commanding this invasion that will either mean that they send a strike force capable of defeating two of him or they send one capable of capturing him.”

“Assuming they have that kind of force left,” Lisa said. “I’ve heard from my friend Cease All. She was part of the counter raid they did. It sounds like the raid teams did a lot of damage and the Consortium forces who are on the ground zones are fortifying the cities they’ve already taken.”

“Huh, that’s odd.” Tessa said. “Most Consortium [Commanders] would have ordered another attack. They tend to have really fragile egos and not a lot of patience for protracted engagements. When they come into a world like this they want to strip mine it as fast as they can, even if it means burning everything to cinder and packing up the ashes to take home as their loot.”

“So, are we happy that this one’s not doing that?” Rip asked.

“Maybe?” Tessa said. “Patient and measured is great in an ally. In a foe it means they’re not going to make a lot of obvious and easy to exploit mistakes.”

“But they still can make mistakes,” Matt said. “Like giving us time to recruit allies.”

“Yeah, uh, nice work with the stuff in the [Sunless Deeps],” Rip said. “And thanks for coming back for us.”

“In hindsight I should have taken you with me,” Tessa said, offering Lisa a nod of recognition. “If Alice hadn’t jumped in after me, I would have been a ghost a few minutes in. I think together we would have had a much better chance.”

“Thank you,” Lisa said on a private channel between the two of them.

“So does that mean you’ll take us along when we go to talk with out next recruit?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, about that, anyone think going to visit a dead god is a good idea?” Tessa asked.

“Nope.”

“Probably not.”

“Definitely going to get us killed.”

“But we’re going to do it anyways, right?” Tessa asked.

“Yep.”

“Of course.”

“Like you’ve even got to ask?”