Monthly Archives: August 2019

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 17

Tessa was dead. It wasn’t the best feeling. What really stung though was knowing that she’d failed.

“Well, that sucked,” Alice said, her ghost appearing in the [Deadlands] above the ground where she’d fallen. She rose, dusting herself off although none of the wispy grey smoke which blanketed the land clung to her.

Tessa hadn’t had time to peer into the living world but she could easily guess how things had gone.

The [Chaos Lasher]’s special [Explosion] move had been more than enough to shred a her, and once she was down the boss monster was free to eat the next person on its hate list, which was Alice thanks to all the healing she’d done. 

Surprising neither Tessa nor Alice, Rip and Matt appeared in ghost form a moment later. Once the healer was down there was basically nothing preventing the Lasher from turning them into confetti, so of course it had. 

“Hey, we’re alive!” Matt said, patting his once-again-human body. Or rather the ghost of his human body. “Well, maybe not alive.”

“That was as bad as the [Wraithwings],” Rip said . She looked less thrilled at having been knocked in a ghostly state, but also less surprised. Tessa’s first inclination was to correct that point, but there was a more important matter to deal with at the moment.

“We need to move,” Tessa said. “Back to the chapel.”

“But I don’t hear any of the wolves.” Matt had his head cocked, listening intently.

As if on cue, the howling of the [Hounds of Fate] echoed in the distance.

“At least we don’t have to go far,” Rip said as they ran from the farmhouse back into [Sky’s Edge].

They didn’t sprint the whole distance, but it was still a much faster jog than Tessa could have sustained in her normal body. Apparently despite looking like her human form, her ghost body wasn’t bound by the same limitations. Judging from how well the others kept up, the same seemed to be true for them as well.

For as convenient as being an untiring ghost might have seemed though, Tessa had no desire to remain in her ghost state any longer than necessary. With each step closer to the Chapel, the baying of the hounds seemed to draw three steps closer. Without discussion the party picked up their collective pace until they were outpacing the best sprint Tessa’d ever run in her life.

“How do they know we’re here?” Rip asked, scowling at the injustice of being chased after they’d already lost the battle.

“Maybe they can smell us?” Matt offered. He couldn’t shrug with how fast they running but the sense of one was there.

Tessa wasn’t immediately concerned with how they’d been detected, only with whether they would make it to safety of the chapel before the hounds arrived. She relaxed her pace a bit when they entered [Sky’s Edge] with time to spare, but then she caught sight of the other ghosts.

“Who are you? Where are we?” a tall and exceptionally thin man asked. Over his head a nameplate reading “Count MeIn” floated. Around him, five other people were clustered, with the same stamp of disbelief and bewildering punched into their faces.

“I’ll get them, you all get to the chapel,” Tessa said to her team. She wasn’t really a Tank, and she wasn’t a leader either, but sometimes circumstances make demands anyways.

Alice broke her stride and seemed to wrestle with following the order. After brief moment, and a glance at Rip and Matt though, her hesitation broke and she took off with them, shouting a quick “don’t waste time,” to Tessa as she left.

“What’s happening?” Count MeIn asked. He didn’t look like a leader either, but he was talking and the people around him were listening for a moment so Tessa jumped on the opening.

“You’re in the game, or somewhere that looks a lot like it. That howling means we need to get into the chapel over there for safety. Follow me.”

She didn’t wait to see if they would or not. Staying behind to answer questions or debate the issue would do nothing but get them turned into ghost doggie kibble. If the crowd was sensible enough to survive here then they’d follow her to safety. If not, then she wasn’t going to do anyone any good getting eaten with them.

Unsurprisingly, the new ghosts followed her, people being generally receptive to the idea of fleeing to a place of obvious safety when the world around them turns into a nightmare.

Inside the chapel, Tessa found all three of her teammates waiting for her. That gave her a brief ping of happiness. They could just as easily (and reasonably) have respawned within the chapel. They didn’t have to wait for her, and doing so was on some level a show of solidarity which Tessa wasn’t sure she’d earned yet.

“Ok, first, what the hell, second, no seriously, what the hell?” a woman named ‘Allwin’ asked.

“You were just playing Broken Horizons and your character died right?” Tessa asked. A chorus of affirmative responses answered her. “Let me bring you up to speed on what we know so far then.”

It didn’t take all that long, since there wasn’t that much Tessa could tell the new arrivals, but that didn’t stop them from asking a million and one questions anyways. A few dozen answers in, Alice whispered to Tessa telepathically to let her know she was going to take Rip and Matt into the living world to look for some things in [Sky’s Edge].

Sounds good, Tessa said. I’ll join you there once this bunch settles down.

We’ll plan our next move then, Alice whispered back.

“So, you said there’s a way back to Earth,” Allwin asked. “We just need to complete a quest?”

“That’s what my class guide said. Or that the quest would let us talk to someone who might be able to get us back. The quest requires access to a much higher level zone though, and there’s no guarantee that we can go back even if we finish it,” Tessa said.

“And communications with the support team are down?” Count MeIn said. “But we can messager each other?”

“Yeah, give it a try. We’re all telepathic now,” Tessa said.

There was a long moment of silence while the crowd around Tessa tried out their new abilities to communicate.

“Uh, I can’t do that,” a man named ‘Sly Blue’ said, tapping at the air in front of him as he tried to work his virtual keyboard.

Tessa was about to explain in more detail when she saw him stiffen, blink, and then nod.

“Oh, got it,” he said, responding audibly to instructions Tessa was sure had been provided telepathically.

From there the conversation grew much quieter as people discussed things privately with only the occasional question for clarification from Tessa. In the end she saw them come to a consensus when Allwin and Count Let MeIn nodded and turned back to her.

“This seems ridiculous,” Allwin said. “But hard to say its not real too. We’re going to respawn and take some time to get a lay of the land here.”

“We’d like to add you and your team as friends though, if that’s ok?” Count MeIn asked.

“Sure,” Tessa said. “Well, add me anyways. You’ll need to check with Alice and the others if they want to do that. I’m happy to act as a liaison in any case though.”

“Are you heading back out there?” Allwin asked.

“Eventually, yeah,” Tessa said.”We had a setback in the last fight though, so I need to see how the others want to handle it.”

“What happened?” Count MeIn asked. He seemed to be conscious of his size and took care to stand a little farther away to not be overbearing.

Tessa described the farmhouse battle and the [Chaos Lasher] which had all but ambushed them.

“Then it exploded and that was it for us,” she said. “We made it back here just before hounds caught up to us.”

“Oh, I don’t know that they were chasing you,” Allwin said. “Our party got taken out by a [Void Dragon] and we heard the hounds the whole time we were running back to town.”

“You fought a dragon! Where?” Tessa asked.

“There’s an invisible bridge about ten minutes north of town,” Count MeIn said. “We thought it was a glitch, but it took us into a new zone.”

“Fortunately when we died, we popped up outside the dungeon,” Allwin said. “I don’t remember seeing a [Heart Fire] inside it, so maybe we couldn’t? Anyways, we kind of panicked and all followed Sly back to town but then we had no idea what to do.”

“Have you played Broken Horizons before?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, most of us have,” Allwin said. “I think we were just in shock.”

“Take some time to catch your breaths then,” Tessa said. “I’m thinking we might be in this for the long haul.”

“I can’t see how we wouldn’t be,” Count MeIn said. “Let us know if you need anything ok? We’re all low level nobodies, but we might be able to help you out with something.”

“Yeah, we’re in the same boat, so you call if you run into anything too. Worst case, we can at least keep each other in the loop on what’s happening in the world.”

With that, they each respawned, Tessa going first and leaving the chapel once she was embodied in Pillowcase’s cloth-like flesh again, with a mission to find her team as her next objective. Fortunately, [Sky’s Edge] wasn’t a large town, so it wasn’t an epic quest to discover their location. They were gathered at Mister Pendant’s store finishing up their transactions.

“When you’re ready to carry stronger gear, let me know,” Mister Pendant said. “And if you have any items you wish to sell I can handle placing them up for auction.”

“What cut do you take?” Alice said.

“Auction services include a 5%, non-refundable, listing fee, and a 10% cut of the final sales price, minus the listing fee,” Mister Pendant said, his voice as smooth and warm as honey.

“Interesting, I thought it was 20%?” Tessa said.

“They reduced it a couple expansions back,” Alice said. “Too many people weren’t bothering with the auction house and the population was starting to thin at the lower levels.”

“With more crafters available, merchants such as myself are able to get quality wares more consistently as well, so the need to hedge against a lack of availability has been greatly reduced,” Mister Pendant said, gesturing to the items on the counter.

“What did you get?” Tessa asked, not sure which of the items were part of the purchase.

“These to start with,” Alice said and passed Tessa an [Iron Sword] and a [Guard’s Shield]. 

“You bought gear for me?” Tessa flushed. Starting adventurers didn’t have much cash as a rule. She had a small pouch of gold coins she received as a subscriber benefit when making a new character but it was nothing compared to the loot a high level player could collect, and not terribly impressive compared to the cost of even basic gear.

“I sent some money over from my main character before I made Alice. So we’re all set there. This should help protect you a little better. I’d have gone for armor too but the weakest gear he sells is still too high level for us.”

“Why can’t we just put it on anyways?” Rip asked.

“You could,” Mister Pendant said. “It wouldn’t offer much protection though because you’re not able to empower it properly. And you wouldn’t be bound to it.”

“I understood none of that,” Matt said.

“Items such as the armor I carry derive their value from more than their material composition,” Mr Pendant said. “The clothes you are wearing now are every bit as protective as the [Chain Shirt] I have in stock, at least for you.”

“How is that possible?” Rip asked. “I’m wearing fabric. The armor is, like steel or something isn’t it?”

“The fabric you wear is reinforced with the magic you carry,” Mister Pendant said. “Against a weapon or creature unable to penetrate the charms woven into each thread, it would stop even a spear thrust from an Ogre.”

“Except that Ogre’s have inherent magic too,” Alice said.

“Ok, but it’d still be good to have it for when we do reach a high enough level right?” Matt asked.

“It would, except there’s decent odds that we can find better gear if we defeat the right monsters,” Alice said. “No sense buying something we’ll never wind up equipping.”

“What about Bows and Staves?” Tessa asked. “Did they have anything for the rest of you?”

“For me and Matt, yes,” Alice said. “For Rip?” She gestured to the new bow Rip was proudly holding in her hands.

“I got this in my inventory when we were fighting!” she said, holding out the weapon for Tessa to see.

“Oh yeah!” Tessa said, remembering the treasure which dropped from a centipede during the fight. “You must have been the last one standing?” Otherwise the treasure pool would have fallen to Matt.

“Yeah, I was a little farther from the Lasher,” Rip said, a ripple of guilt sweeping across her face.

“She was protecting us from the centipedes,” Matt said. “I tried to buy time against the Lasher but I don’t think two seconds helped much.

“That’s ok,” Alice said. “We’ll do better next time.”

“Next time?” Rip asked.

“Yeah. Unless there’s something else you need to get, I say we head back to the farm and murder that [Chaos Lasher] properly this time.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 16

Walls of four-inch thick, solid wood don’t break easily. But they can break. Pillowcase watched her health plummet to a tiny sliver as she picked herself up and marveled at the hit she’d taken. She was outside the farmhouse. A moment prior, she’d been inside the farmhouse and now there was a new hole in the wall just a few feet to the right of where the door was.

“Destructible environments? Huh, that’s new,” she said, rising back to her feet and readying the half of her shield which remained on her arm.

“Destructible gear too it looks like,” Alice said as she renewed the [Minor Blood Channel] spell.

She’d broken the link when she fled from the farmhouse’s doorway. Pillowcase had been concerned about that, given that she’d charged inwards to hold back the [Chain Lasher] while the others retreated to stay way from the razor scythes on the end of the cables which made up the greater portion of the creature’s body. Tactically it hadn’t been the worst maneuver, but it did put Pillowcase out of line of sight from Alice, who therefor couldn’t provide any of the healing support Pillowcase so desperately needed.

The [Chain Lasher] had solved that problem by slamming Pillowcase through the farmhouse’s wall, and in the process confirmed itself a much deadlier threat than the [Chaos Centipedes] had been.

“What do we do? Run?” Matt asked. His attention was locked on the unearthly mass of chains and sinew which rolled out of the farmhouse.

“No!” Pillowcase rolled away from the Lasher’s next trio of attacks, vectoring away from her group. The Lasher remained focused on her, despite the distance she put between them, but Pillowcase knew that was as much the result of no one else attacking it as any enmity she’d managed to accumulate. “We can take this thing.”

She wasn’t certain of that. Creatures frequently grew more deadly the more wounded they became, which meant they hadn’t seen any of the [Chain Lasher]’s more frightening abilities yet. Given that its attacks hadn’t invoked the “One Shot” code which prevented higher level monsters from killing a player with a single blow though, Pillowcase was reasonably sure the Lasher was somewhere near their level, which meant as a team they should be able to take it down.

“Eyes all around,” Alice said, speaking as much to Rip Shot as anyone else.

“Yeah, keep the area clear of the centipedes,” Pillowcase said as she struck the Lasher to force its attention to remain on her.

“There’s a lot of them around us,” Rip said. “Where do I start?”

“Wait for them to approach,” Alice said. “They may stay out of the fight until the Lasher summons them.”

“Hold your abilities till then, but free fire regular shots at this guy,” Pillowcase said. 

A scythe tip caught Pillowcase on the arm and nearly severed it at the shoulder. The loss of control over her sword left her open to two more attacks, both of which struck solidly.

“Turtle up if you can, I can’t keep you over half health,” Alice said.

With half a shield left and even that showing cracks running through it Pillowcase had no idea how well she could “turtle up” by switching to pure defense, but she tried anyways.

“Matt, you are free to cast as fast as you can. Burn this thing down,” she said, taking advantage of the open space outside the farmhouse to incorporate more movement into her defensive strategy.

The arm she’d nearly lost was good as new a few seconds later as Alice’s spell knit her tore clothy flesh back together. The moment she regained feeling in it, Pillowcase tumbled forward, snatched her dented sword up from the ground where it had fallen and rained a pair of blows in on the Lasher.

The dented sword achieved little with each hit. Metal on metal was never a good contest to engage in, but Pillowcase wasn’t looking to do much damage. All she needed were tiny knicks which her skill could amplify into a compulsion to keep the Lasher attacking her.

Bolts of magic began to pepper the monster as Pillowcase blocked, dodged, and occasionally received grievous wounds from the Lasher’s attacks. Matt was making an effort to kill their foes before it took Pillowcase down, but Pillowcase saw a problem forming right away.

As a ball of metal, muscle, and rage, the Lasher didn’t have much of a mind directing its rampage. There was some minor level of awareness within it, but the psychic damage Matt’s spells were designed to inflict found very little in terms of weak spots to disrupt. He could damage the Lasher but each spell had only a small fraction of its usual impact. 

“I’m running out of magic,” he said, nerves plain in his voice.

“Switch to attacks from your staff while your magic recovers,” Alice said. She was rooted to the spot again in order to keep her spell going but was otherwise able to keep an eye on things.

“How’s your magic doing?” Pillowcase asked. She trusted Alice to warn her when things were getting critical, any decent healer would do that, but in the long run it would be better if Pillowcase could keep intuitive track of that sort of thing without Alice having to waste time or brainpower on reporting it.

“Holding up so far,” Alice said. “Might need to have you kite without a heal if this fight goes on as long as it looks like it will.”

“I can manage that,” Pillowcase said. Better, she hoped, than she had with the [Wraithwings]. “I’ll try to take some of the load off you now too.”

The key was to buy herself some space, as space in turn provided time, and time could be spent for all sorts of things.

What about this? Tessa thought, and stepped forward allowing Pillowcase to complete a front snap kick which knocked the Lasher back by a good ten feet. Pillowcase followed the attack with a backwards flip which put her even farther from the Lasher and gave her plenty of time to cast without being interrupted.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain].” Lines of magic shot from her and began siphoning away energy from the Lasher, and restoring a little of Pillowcase’s health. It wouldn’t have been enough to save her from the Lasher if she’d been alone when she encountered it but added to Alice’s healing it meant her health was able to rise to a much higher and more comfortable level.

“We’ve got centipedes incoming.” Rip’s yell didn’t surprise Pillowcase. The centipedes and the Lasher had to have some kind of symbiotic relationship given the close proximity of their lairs in the farm house.

“Take them down,” Pillowcase said, closing with the Lasher again to make sure her control over its attention went unbroken.

Apart from her failing equipment, Pillowcase felt reasonably good about the battle. Matt’s hits were being resisted but he was making slow yet steady progress, and the secondary effect of his attacks, the slow, seemed to work just fine on the Lasher. Alice seemed to be doing fine on magic and giving her time to refill looked like it would be doable. Even Rip seemed to be doing her job well.

“They’re not dropping fast enough,” Rip said. “Four incoming. Might drop two before the others eat me.”

Ok, maybe Rip’s not quite up to this yet, Tessa thought. She saw the young girl firing wildly as the centipedes charged at her. None of the shots spent enough time to be properly empowered by her skills and so none of them did fatal damage to the centipedes. To her credit though, Rip kept firing. In the face of impending doom, she did what she could to keep helpping her team and Tessa was proud of her.

“Come to me,” Pillowcase said. “Drag them close and I’ll tank them too.”

“Can you hold that many?” Alice asked, no doubt thinking of hundreds or thousands of Tanks she’d met who bit off more than they could chew because they were convinced they could take on everything the world had offer. 

“Holding them won’t be the problem,” Pillowcase said. Alice’s spell was phenomenal, but it did have limits and several centipedes piled on top of the Lasher was on the borderline of exceeding those limits.

Rip raced by, firing arrows behind herself as she ran. Her expression was more than a little panicked but she handled the move well, brushing past Tessa by less than a finger length and continuing to run until she was at roughly half her max range. Far enough to be safe from melee attacks and have a headstart if Pillowcase lost the monster’s interest, but close enough that the rest of the group could still help her if new trouble arose.

Pillowcase didn’t try for another spell, despite how useful it would be. With five attackers to contend with the chance of her casting being uninterrupted was essentially zero. Later on she would gain various methods of dealing with that, assuming she survived that long. For the present though she needed to focus on what was reliable. Laying out a quick barrage of hits which switched rapidly from one to the other left her open to more attacks but she was fine with losing the endurance portion of the battle faster if it meant her team was safe.

Rip and Matt teamed up without prompting to capitalize on the effort Pillowcase was making. With spells and arrows they reduced the first of the centipedes to a quivering pile of good which was quickly left behind in the battle.

In the side of her vision, on one of the transparent screens which resembled the game’s interface, Pillowcase saw a small icon appear for a shared item dropping into the group’s treasure pool. Pillowcase ignored it, knowing they were better off dividing up the loot later, after they had dealt with all the threats around them.

The [Chain Lasher] noticed the death of the centipede too which triggered an instant alarm in Pillowcase’s mind. She tried to keep it from rolling over the fallen corpse but to no avail.

That’s when things started to go bad.

As the Lasher rolled over the centipede’s corpse, it screamed. Then it began to belch an ugly green smoke from vents in its chain tentacles.

“Stay away from that,” Alice said, although Pillowcase didn’t need the warning. Obviously poison gas was nothing she had any interest in messing around with even if her body was mostly cloth and shouldn’t, in theory, have been vulnerable to poisons of any variety.

The problem with that theory was that in a world steeped in magic, things had a tendency to take on magical properties in direct proportion to how much you’d prefer they didn’t. Something like chlorine  gas shouldn’t have had any affect on someone who didn’t need to breathe, but from the sparkles of light and the skulls which forming in the swirling green mists, Pillowcase was quite sure that whatever poison this was it could hurt her all too readily.

“Change targets,” Alice said. “Kill that metal thing before it powers up anymore.”

Pillowcase wasn’t sure that was the right call but she bowed to Alice’s greater experience as a battlefield commander.

It would have been better if she hadn’t.

The combined assault on the [Chain Lasher] was effective in dropping its health faster. From about seventy-five percent the Lasher’s health plummeted to around fifty percent over the course of a minute of solid fighting.

Pillowcase’s own health was hovering around a third of her maximum both from the extra damage from the three remaining centipedes and from the necessity of venturing into the poisonous mist around the Lasher to maintain her control over its attention.

As the Lasher’s health reached an even fifty percent though, the buzzsaws came out.

The motion shook the Lasher like it was vomiting the blades out of its skin but they deployed to deadly effect nonetheless.

Pillowcase dove away from their reach, losing the use of one leg in the process, but her troubles were only beginning there.

The [Chaos Centipedes] weren’t able to dodge the buzzsaws with anywhere near the dexterity Pillowcase possessed. They were sliced to ribbons in less than a second and scooped up by a hundred smaller cables. 

Gases of all sorts began to spew from the Lasher, mixing, reacting, and, in a searing flash, exploding.

Being one legged didn’t slow Pillowcase down much, but even at her fastest she couldn’t have outrun the blastwave that blew her into a dozen pieces.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 15

Tessa approached the shadow wrapped farmhouse but it was Pillowcase who first ventured inside.

“Centipedes, come out and play,” she sing-songed, keeping her sword low and her shield ready. Taunting the enemy without employing a specific skill to compel them to attack you wasn’t part of her creator’s design, which made Pillowcase even happier to do it.

Not that she intended to toss aside all of the knowledge she’d been constructed with. The tactical prowess she possessed was valuable no matter who had supplied it. The [Consortium of Pain] were deplorable monsters, but that didn’t change the value of the power they’d built into her. All that mattered was what she chose to do with it, and in her present circumstances that meant evaluating their environment to understand what her team was facing.

Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase were students of architecture. They couldn’t tell you which Earthly region’s wood working techniques had inspired the two story boxy edifice which lay open and deserted before them. To Pillowcase’s eyes it was a basic human dwelling. Large enough for an extended family and then some, which gave her a catalog of things she was likely to find inside.

Potentially. 

Given the state of the house it was likely that a fair amount of the interior was destroyed or missing. The walls were made from thick slabs of some wood which the shadows painted an unremarkable black but even in the dim lighting they showed signs of abuse and long neglect. From the few jagged spikes of glass and shards of wood which remained, it looked as though there had once been windows and shutters but neither had held off whatever catastrophe had come to visit the farm.

Pillowcase noted the contrast with the state of the walls. Where no windows seemed to remain, the damage to the walls was less severe. The small holes in the walls looked to be the result of decay while the one big hole on the second floor suggested a singular creature had smashed a path inside. It had to be a single creature, Pillowcase reasoned, because if there’d been more than one able to make a hole as tall as a human man in a wall as thick as the width of her palm, she was reasonably sure the house would no longer be standing.

Tactically then, the most important question was “did the creature break in and leave once it had what it wanted, or did it make a lair of the farmhouse”?

“Do you think there’s more of them in there?” Matt asked. He held the pre-casting charge of an attack spell in his hands just like Alice had instructed. 

The light from the arcane energies cast a rippling illumination inside the farmhouse’s kitchen but Pillowcase didn’t need it to see. Darkness was an encumbrance which could limit a warrior’s abilities so Pillowcase’s creators had given her eyes which weren’t limited by a need for light.

“Yes,” Pillowcase said, focusing her awareness on listening for the telltale signs of an approaching enemy. She’d never fought an invisible foe, but the threads of knowledge woven through her contained echoes of experience she could draw on. She knew what it was like to be stalked by something you couldn’t see, she knew how nocturnal creatures made use of shadows, and she knew how to punish those whose relied on stealth as a shield.

“Where are…?” Matt began to ask, but Pillowcase’s sword strike cut him off.

The [Chaos Centipede] was no bigger than the others, but a five foot long writhing worm of teeth and claws and eyes was jarring to find silently lurking on the wall over your head.

Having as many eyes as it did was a mistake though.

It gave Pillowcase so many vulnerable targets to strike at.

Matt raised his hands to cast the spell he was carrying but Pillowcase stopped him.

“Hold, wait for my mark,” she said and caught an attack from the centipede on the flimsy wooden shield she’d scavenged up.

The centipede dropped from the wall, gurgling a noise that was somewhere between a hiss and a bout of projectile vomiting. Pillowcase swept it away from her and Matt, casting it into the center of the room where it landed on the shattered remains of a large kitchen table.

Overhead, another pair of the centipedes woke and began scuttling across the high ceiling towards them.

Those were the threats for her team to deal with.

“Mark Prime”, she said casting a target over the nearest one and “Mark Secundus” to indicate a kill order for Matt. “[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

Ribbons of light lashed out drawing raw energy from the centipedes. The weak Provoke effect on the spell centered all of their attention on her and slowed them long enough that Matt was able to unleash his attack.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spectral Wounds],” Matt said and unleashed a flare of pink light which pierced into the lead centipede.

The spell didn’t hit with any physical force but the convulsion it sent down the centipede’s body teamed up with gravity to send the creature plummeting onto the floor below.

Tessa wanted to hit it with a quick sword strike to make sure its attention stayed on her. She’d seen too many spellcasters be eaten by monsters, but Pillowcase knew better. The Provoke effect from the [Lesser Spirit Drain] wasn’t a long one but it was long enough to hold and she couldn’t afford to move out of position.

Damager dealers were always at risk in a fight, but even more important than protecting them was protecting the healers. A dead damage dealer could be revived. A dead healer meant the rest of the party would be joining them at the nearest chapel shortly.

As the first centipede rallied and lunged at her, Pillowcase stepped forward, into the attack and introduced the giant bug’s toothy maw to the broadside of her shield.

It crashed back to the ground, stunned for a moment, and providing a golden opportunity to attack. Pillowcase passed up her chance though, taking advantage of the free moment to switch her target indicators between the two centipedes she’d marked.

Matt understood the reason for the change and fired again, sending the third centipede crashing to the ground as well.

With the fight reduced to two dimensions rather than three, the tactical options seemed to condense to a more manageable set of choices. Pillowcase didn’t make that mistake either though.

“Rip, eyes up,” she said. “There’s a second floor. Expect more to come from above. Call out any that show up and engage them at will.”

“I can hear them moving already,” Rip said.

“Good. Let’s see what path they take to get to us,” Pillowcase said.

That was all the time they had for tactics. Even with the slow effects from the spells they’d been hit with, the Centipedes were still able to close the distance to Pillowcase from where they’d fallen.

Pillowcase was pushed onto her back foot, retreating a pace to make sure she was positioned between the centipedes and the rest of the party.

Unlike the earlier fight where she’d had plenty of room to move and dance around her foes, fighting inside the door to the farmhouse meant Pillowcase had to hold her ground. There was no exploiting the mindless hunger of the centipedes with tricky moves to leave them straining to attack when they were just out of range. Here she simply needed to withstand their assault.

It wasn’t easy, or especially pleasant. There were too many teeth and too many claws. For all her focus on blocking blows and parrying bites, many slipped through.

Tears in her cloth skin weren’t like tears through flesh though. There wasn’t the same burning sensation and the loss of her health didn’t come with human foibles like the weakness and mental fog which accompanies blood loss. 

It still hurt though.

Pain can be a great motivator, and an important part of learning to fight. Those weren’t the only reasons the [Consortium of Pain] had designed a capacity to suffer into their constructs of course but they were the only reasons Pillowcase was willing to accept any longer. 

[Casting spell: Lesser Spi…],” she began to say but was cut off when one on the centipedes dove below her shield to bite onto her knee.

She forced it off with a blow from the edge of her shield while parrying another bite from a second centipede.

“You’re at half,” Alice said. “Going to start refilling you. [Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel].”

Because she was safely in the back row, Alice’s spell went off unhindered and Pillowcase felt her pain subside as her wounds knit back together with mystically enhanced speed.

The third centipede chose that moment to leap over its nest mates and try for the juicy prize that was Pillowcase’s face. To its great detriment though, it was the one which Pillowcase had marked for primary fire and Matt’s next spell was ready.

The [Lesser Spectral Wounds] caught it full in its maw and exploded down the length of its entire wounded body.

On death, spells and elemental damage in general can have special added effects. In the game, it was simply a matter of providing a little extra pizazz to the event, but in person watching a five foot long centipede explode into a shower of pink sparks was a bit more exciting.

“YES!” Rip shouted, throwing a fist up in celebration.

Even Pillowcase felt renewed by the light show. She hadn’t had any doubts they would win of course. Doubts were a weakness. But her morale did feel a bit higher.

“Should we push in?” Alice asked.

It was a sound idea. Typical dungeon clearing strategy did call for pressing inwards faster than an alarm could be spread. Being able to engage foes who were unprepared was an unequaled tactical advantage.

Tessa held back.

“No, this is a good, defensible spot,” she said. “Let’s use it as a choke point and get them to funnel to us here.”

“Sounds good,” Alice said. “No point overextending.”

Pillowcase shook her head, clearing away the idea of rushing onwards. Where had that come from? In the game you could never take monsters or anything ‘unprepared’. Creatures were instantly ready for battle and would fight to the death no matter what kind of force was arrayed against them.

She was thinking like this was real.

Which it was now.

She missed a parry and had to hit the centipede on her left with a snap kick to force it back.

Wait, since when was kicking an option? Especially kicking with knock back?

It doesn’t matter, Tessa thought, we’ll figure it out later.

And that was the right idea.

With her focus restored, Pillowcase still suffered claw wounds and a couple of bites but she was able to squeeze in another [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell and easily kept the centipedes focused on her while Matt burned them to the ground.

“They’re coming out of the roof!” Rip said and Pillowcase heard her charging up an arrow.

“Pull back outside,” Pillowcase said as four more centipedes swarmed through the door on the far side of the room.

“We’ve got four coming from above too,” Alice said.

“Make that three,” Rip said, unleashing her [Charged Shot].

“Nope, still four,” Alice said as Rip’s shot damaged but did not instantly kill her target.

“Are you kidding?” Rip said, knocking another arrow.

“Regular shots to finish it off,” Pillowcase said and cast another [Lesser Spirit Drain]. “This is an endurance battle. They’re not strong enough to one shot us but they can whittle us down so spent your resources carefully.”

“Magic is good here,” Matt said, bringing another spell online as Pillowcase began marking targets. 

She put primary fire on the one’s scuttling down the outside of the house, knowing she could keep the other four pinned in the kitchen if she simply remained in the doorway. Having eight focused on her wasn’t going to be thrilling but the [Minor Blood Channel] would probably be able to keep up with it. If not, she had her own reserves to draw on.

“We’ve got this right?” Rip asked, loosing a normal arrow which nonetheless managed to send the injured centipede crashing to the ground as a corpse.

Pillowcase considered saying yes, but before she could make a warning of being overconfident, the floor of the kitchen exploded.

Rising from the basement, a mass of long metal claws bound together by wrought iron cables and stitched with the sinews of many different creatures pulled itself forward and screamed in rage against its own existence and the existence of the world.

Pillowcase knew how it felt so she screamed right back.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 14

Tessa knew what she had to do, and, as a welcome change, it was something she was able to look forward to putting in the work it required.

“We have to become a team,” she said, casting her gaze towards the farmhouse which waited, dark and foreboding off on the distance. It stood there, a silent and deadly challenge that a part of her couldn’t wait to tackle, while a smarter part reminded her not to try tackling it alone.

“I thought we already accepted your invites?” Rip said. “I can see you on my party window.”

“Yeah, we’re a party now,” Tessa said. “Anyone can be part of a party though. Just accept the invite. Just show up. Just stand around. Being part of a team takes a bit more. Team’s work together. They know each other’s moves. They have plans and they have each other’s backs.”

“We’ve got your back,” Matt said, ernest seriousness writ clearly on his metal face.

“Not yet you don’t,” Tessa said. “We don’t know each other’s abilities well enough. We don’t know what each other’s limits are. We don’t know how to maximize what we can do collectively so that the four of us can accomplish more than four times what any one of us could do alone. We’re are a party, but we need work to become a team.”

Rip looked like she was going to argue but Alice cut her off gently before she could speak.

“She’s right, and it applies to all of us.”

“But you’re a veteran, you know this game like the back of your hand don’t you?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, I can carry us to some extent,” Alice said. “But Pillowcase is right. There’s a huge difference between a group where one skilled player is handling all the problems and a group where everyone is working together.”

“Well, we’re trying,” Rip said.

“Good,” Tessa said. “That makes four of us then. Alice has the most experience here, but as a healer she needs to be nearly precognitive, and she can’t do that without knowing us really well. She needs to know how we fight, when we’re likely to take damage, and how dangerous it is to leave us partially healed.”

“I’ve got a a bit of a learning curve to deal with too. My class, [Grave Mender],is a new one, so I’m sure there are some surprises or optimizations I’ll need to work out,” Alice said. “And, even beyond that,  I’m not used to being this low level, or fighting immersively like this.”

“So how do we become a team then?” Rip asked.

“We march in there,” Tessa pointed to the farmhouse. The dark wood which made up its walls seemed to swallow the abundant moon and starlight which lit the High Beyond’s night. In places where the thatching on the roof had caved in though the darkness took on a seemingly tangible quality. “It’s not a dungeon, but it’ll help us get ready for one. Before we do that though, let’s go over what we can do now.”

Tessa went first, describing what a [Soul Knight] could do and what her role in the party was meant to be. For Rip and Matt’s sake, she described the basic mechanics of tanking in the Fallen Kingdoms, how tanks had significantly more durability than any other class and how different tanks were setup to achieve their enhanced survivability, from being able to simply shrug off blows, to possessing preternatural reflexes which allowed them to dodge heavy hits, to (in the case of [Soul Knights]) being able to recover health which they’d lost by stealing it from their foes.

She also covered the general rules for “hate management” or controlling who a monster was going to attack. From the specific [Provoke] effects which forced a monster to attack the one who provoked them, to the more complicated [Emnity] calculations which monsters used to determine who was the biggest threat based on things like damage done, conditions inflicted, and distance.

“Hate shouldn’t be a problem for us right away,” Tessa explained. “I’ve got a couple of abilities that should let me drag mobs away from you even when you go all out. I want to hold off on using them though because I want you both to learn how to pace yourselves so that, once your abilities can outstrip the tools I have, you’ll already have a sense of when it’s safe to burst something down to the ground and when you need to hold back and let me keep whatever it is focused on me.”

For Alice, Tessa went on and explained some of the mechanics of the personal healing she had access too, both in terms of how strong it was and the limitations on each ability.

“I’ll try to keep from topping you off then unless we’re fighting something hellacious,” Alice said. “I have a passive skill which boosts my healing on injured targets, so I’ll be a lot more efficient if I’m healing you when you’re below at least three quarters of your max health. If you can fill up the rest, I should be able to space out the heals even more to make sure I don’t run out of magic mid-fight.”

From there, Tessa took her turn, describing the healing role [Grave Menders] played. She offered contrasts with her main class, [Solar Priestess] too, noting how her new class lacked the ability to convert damage she healed into spells which inflicted damage back on the enemy. In exchange [Grave Menders] had some of the strongest group healing in the game. 

“I don’t have [Mass Life Return] yet but the beta-testers were calling it required for raids going forward,” Alice said, sounding less than entirely thrilled with the idea.

“When does that show up?” Tessa asked.

“Level 60,” Alice said. “So, not really a factor for us.”

“How long will it take us to level up that much?” Rip asked.

“If we were being power leveled?” Alice said. “We could probably make it to 60 in a couple of hours. On our own though it’s going to take longer. A lot longer.”

“A few days longer, or like a week?” Rip asked.

“When I leveled up my first character the level cap was still 60 and it took me about ten months to make to 60,” Tessa said.

“It’s gotten easier and quicker since then,” Alice said. “But that’s in the game where we can take all kinds of risks. We’ll have to see how things go here before we can really say what our leveling speed is going to look like.”

“I wonder if we’ll even be here that long,” Matt said. Tessa thought he sounded unhappy at the prospect that they might not be, but he was able to keep his metal features schooled into a neutral expression.

“My suggestion is we act like we will be,” Tessa said and glanced over to Alice. “I’m not saying we have to commit to being a team from now till then, but right now it doesn’t look like there’s an option for getting back and making plans around that is like building a sand castle on a cloud. If we can keep up contact with the folks back home, we can use that to keep our option open, but for now I think we need to make sure we can survive and prosper here if we need too.”

Matt nodded, his voice mute but the tension in his body eloquently expressive. He was more than happy to make sure he and Rip had a stable life here, which told Tessa everything she needed to know about what his life was like back on Earth.

“If we can find a portal back to the regular zones, I can get you all invites to [AOL], the guild my main character is in,” Alice said. “They’re idiots, but they’re a good bunch, and they can handle most of the stuff this game throws at us.”

“I’d be glad to sign up,” Tessa said, “but shouldn’t most of them still be on the other side of the monitor?”

“Hopefully,” Alice said, though her expression indicated it was probably a hope which was unlikely to be fulfilled. “That’ll limit what they can do for us, but for low level quests, it’s probably safe for them to help out, and Cease All is a full crafter so she can make whatever we need, equipment-wise.”

“They’d take us even though we’re low level?” Rip asked.

“Yeah,” Alice said, “We take in fresh blood whenever we find people who are worth playing with. It’s how we’ve kept the guild going for this long.”

“That’s good,” Rip said. “I was just worried we wouldn’t be able to do enough.”

“Right now, we’re in a weird position,” Tessa said. “We’re incredibly weak because we’re so low level, but we’re also free to try things that the players who haven’t been drawn in yet can’t risk.”

“In level shifted areas there’s plenty that you can do already too,” Alice said, and began to break down the role and abilities of Rip Shot’s [Archer] class.

Tessa had always like good archers. Unlike melee fighters, they tended to be out of the range of wide area spells and effects which boss monsters unleashed. As a wise man once said “the best defense is not to be there”, and for a healer that meant not having to worry about healing [Archers] at all most of the time. 

On the other hand though, when an [Archer] did manage to draw the monster’s hate off the tank, things could get ugly very fast. Unlike Pillowcase, Rip Shot’s defenses were roughly the equivalent of tissue paper and even once she was higher level they wouldn’t be improving by very much. 

Good positioning could help a lot there, and [Archers] did get movement related abilities which helped keep them away from things that wanted to squish them. Additionally in a duel against other ranged characters they had some nice tricks like short hops of instantaneous teleportation and even the ability to snatch projectiles aimed at them out of the air, but those were all much farther down the line for Rip. 

For the time being her strengths were simple. She could shoot things and make them dead.

“That leaves you as the one who we’ll eventually want to have keeping an eye on the overall battlefield,” Tessa said. “There a lots of fights where additional monsters are scripted to spawn in during the battle and being surprised by them sucks horribly.”

“I can do that now though can’t I?” Rip asked.

“It’s something to practice now,” Tessa said. “When we go into the house, I’m going to want you to hang back and be the last one in. It’ll be your job to tell us if anything is coming in from the surrounding area. More importantly though, I need you to follow the kill order I setup. We need to make sure we can coordinate and focus down the right enemies or we’re going to get torn apart by some of the tougher ones.”

“What about me?” Matt asked. “What will I be doing?”

“You’re our controller,” Alice said. “Rip’s all damage, all the time, but your spells do damage and have other effects.”

She and Tessa took the most time running down how the various conditions in the game worked, from [Paralyzation] (which randomly locked up movement and blocked ability usage), to [Sleep] (which temporarily incapicitated the target but left them in a state where a single tick of damage would wake them), to [Mystic Breach] (which left the target vulnerable to magical damage of all types). 

Matt’s class, [Dream Spinner], was an illusion-based caster. His early spells were simple damage dealing ones, though they also slowed the targets abilities and inflicted their damage through psychic channels where few things had much resistance.  Later on he would get ones which summoned illusionary figures or even incapacitated his target, but for the time being he was essentially a weaker ranged damage dealer than an [Archer] but with a few added perks in terms of slowing the monsters they were fighting and making them more vulnerable overall.

“I want you to be focused on what we’re fighting,” Tessa said. “Different enemies will throw off the effects of what you do faster or slower. You need to learn to pick out when one of the effects fade, or eve better when it’s about to fade, so you can renew it. Just casting things randomly means you’ll run out of magic really fast and not deal anywhere near as much damage as if cast the right spells at the right time.”

“I can do that!” Matt said, an excitement kindling in his eyes which warmed Tessa’s heart to see.

“Good,” she said. “Then let’s make like real adventurers, find the scariest place around, and go kick its butt!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 13

Tessa collapsed. With the battle finished, she couldn’t do anything else. 

It wasn’t that her body was tired. It wasn’t that she was injured. It wasn’t even that she was sickened by the carnage around them.

“Are you ok?” Alice demanded, her blood red eyes flaring wide in concern.

“Probably not.” Tessa’s short laugh wasn’t a sign of an impending breakdown into madness, but she wasn’t entirely sure if that was because she was managing to hold things together or because her psyche had already fractured. In either case though, Alice’s hands on her shoulders felt really nice.

“What happened?” Alice asked, the concern locking her jaw relaxing by a hair’s breadth. Behind Rip and Matt had come to a halt a few feet away and were watching with worry writ large on their faces as well. To their credit though, they were also keeping an eye on their environs as Alice had been teaching them.

“I’m not sure,” Tessa said. “Just wasn’t feeling like myself there for a bit, then once the fight was done everything kind of snapped back.”

“What about now?” Alice asked, searching in Tessa’s eyes for…what? Signs of a concussion? Or a stroke? Could Clothworks have strokes?

“I’m all me,” Tessa said. “I think it comes on when I’m fighting.”

“That sucks. We can’t have you collapse in the middle of a fight. Maybe we should head back,” Alice said.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Tessa said. “I’m not falling apart when it happens. If anything it seems to make me stronger. Like this is all old hat. Like I was built to fight like that.”

Alice narrowed her eyes, searching for understanding but it was Rip who asked the question which showed she already did.

“Is it like you’re becoming Pillowcase?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, knowing how ridiculous that sounded. “Except it’s not like a transformation, or like she’s taking over my mind. It’s more like she’s already there. Already ‘me’, and hearing her voice is just hearing another side of myself.” Tessa paused, searching for words that were hidden behind a veil of personal experience. “I don’t know if that makes any sense? Did any of you feel anything like that?”

“No,” Alice said and released her hold on Tessa, backing away to give Tessa room to rise.

“Yeah,” Rip said, meeting Tessa’s eyes and nodding.

“N-No,” Matt said, tripping over the word and leaving Tessa to wonder why he was lying.

“You felt like that too?” Tessa asked, ignoring Matt for the moment to focus on Rip.

“Yeah. It felt like Rip Shot was the one doing the fighting. She sounded just like she does in the stories I wrote about her too.”

“You’ve written fanfic about the character you just started playing?” Alice asked.

“I started playing her here because I’d already written about her,” Rip said, a spark of indignation heating her words.

“How about you?” Tessa asked, looking to Matt. “Are you a writer too?”

“Oh? Me? Nah. I just thought the name was funny,” Matt said, which was Tessa had expected. 

‘Matt Painting’ was a nice play on words  for an illusion casting character like a [Dream Spinner]. If anything was surprising, it was that the name had still been available given how many illusion using classes there were and how many players had made characters on the server in the last fifteen years.

“You could have taken Gallaway,” Rip said.

“Gallaway?” Alice asked.

“He’s a character in her stories,” Matt said. “Rip’s best friend, in the stories she writes I mean,” he turned to face Rip, “which would have been cool, but Gallaway is your character. I can’t play as him.”

“But you were the inspiration for him!” Rip said, and Tessa could tell they were drifting into well worn discussion territory between the two.

“I think we’re drifting off course here,” Alice said. “So you’re turning into your characters? Is that dangerous? What are they like?”

“It’’s fine,” Rip said. “Rip Shot’s cool. I mean, the one I wrote. I guess this one is pretty much the same?”

“Yeah, I think we’ll be ok,” Tessa lied before backing it up with the truth as she saw it. “Pillowcase isn’t more like a part of me. I’m not going to turn into a Team Killing berserker or anything like that. I just might be a little more…” she sought for a word that wouldn’t terrifying the three people around her and had to settle for, “…intense. During a fight. Once the battle music faded, Pillowcase was done. I don’t think she makes sense for calm moments like this.”

“Is that what it’s like for you too?” Alice asked Rip.

“Yeah, sort of,” Rip said. “It’s not like a light switch or anything though. It’s more like, wait are you a writer?”

“No,” Alice said. “I mean not anymore. I wrote some stuff when I was kid but it was garbage, so, no.”

“How about you?” Rip asked Tessa.

“Not really. I used to make up backstories for my characters, and I did a bit of fanfic back when I was playing, but that was a while ago.”

“How about for Pillowcase?” Rip asked. “Did you make a backstory for her?”

“I didn’t write anything down, but, yeah, I kind of had one in my head. Why?”

“Maybe that’s why we can feel our characters?” Rip said. “We gave them voices before we came here, so they became real when this place did.”

“Ok. Maybe. But where did their battle knowledge come from?” Tessa said. “It’s not like I had a lifetime of fight experience to draw on, so did it just pop up out of nowhere?”

“It could have,” Rip said. “The town, and the monsters, and everything else here looks a lot more detailed than the models in the game. Maybe this place took what was in the game and fleshed it out with what missing.”

“Including us?” Matt asked.

“Sure,” Rip said. “Maybe we were drawn in because the characters needed souls and since we were controlling them, that made us their souls?”

“One problem with that idea,” Alice said. “If you had your character’s experience, why was the fight so hard for you? We need to go over a bunch of things you two did back there before we get into another battle.”

“We won though didn’t we?” Matt asked, his unsteadiness suggesting he wasn’t sure if that was true despite the mound of bug corpses which attested to his assertion.

“Pillowcase was right,” Tessa said. “That fight wasn’t about winning. It was about practicing how to fight the right way.”

“Pillowcase was right?” Alice asked. “Can your Mr. Hyde talk through you too?”

“Pillowcase isn’t my evil other half,” Tessa said. “It’s all me, just not the me I was back on Earth I think, so, yeah she can talk. It’s just me talking, but with a head full of different perspectives. You don’t feel like that at all?”

“No. I just feel hungry,” Alice said.

Tessa was ready to brush that off as a minor complaint but then she considered which race Alice had chosen and saw the concern the healer was holding back.

“Hungry like you want some more rations?” Tessa asked, hoping that her guess was wrong.

“If by ‘rations’ you mean an extra bloody steak, hold the steak, then sure,” Alice said.

“Oh. Oh wow. That’s not great. Is it going to be a problem?” Tessa asked.

“We’ll see,” Alice said. “I don’t think so. The game lore and the mechanics say that [Bloodborn] characters can get by fine without blood. We’re just not superhumanly strong without it, and some of the racial passives which I don’t have yet are only active if I’ve fed recently.”

“We are kind of a mess aren’t we?” Matt said.

Tessa could see his mistakes from the battle burrowing into him. They were a mirror of the ones she’d made as a beginner that had left her feeling like an idiot long after she’d outgrown them.

“Of course we are,” she said. “This was literally our first fight. The whole point was to find out what we need to work on with as few trips to the Chapel as possible.”

Alice cast a glance at Tessa and softened her expression.

“She’s right. There were some things we could do better, but overall this was a solid win,” Alice said. “No one died. No one needed an emergency heal. You even listened when I gave instructions.”

“Yeah, but I messed them up,” Matt said. “I didn’t mean to shoot those guys, but the spell went off when I tried to focus on another target.”

“We’ll work on it then,” Alice said. “Don’t sweat a mistake like that. You can practice that kind of thing away easy.”

“Some of that’s on me too,” Tessa said. “Giving tactics in the middle of a fight is inevitable for some things but the general strategies are things we can work out before hand.”

“I was tempted to do that, but I thought it would be a bit easier to do after we’d seen what an actual battle looks like here,” Alice said. “It’s a lot harder to keep track of things in three dimensions than it was on the monitor.”

“Some of that could just be that we’re more used to parsing what was happening on screen,” Tessa said. “I remember when I started playing how confusing all the battle messages and effects were. After a while all that just drifts away though and your eyes start automatically picking out the bits that you need to look for.”

“So,” Matt asked. “You’ll keep going with us?”

Tessa titled her head trying to parse what he meant for a moment before her conversation with Alice in the town square came back to her.

“Yeah, you’re doing fine so far,” Tessa said.

“And if we don’t?” Rip asked.

“If you can’t handle this stuff, we’ll make sure to get you some place safe,” Alice said. “The worse thing you can do with a party is try to drag along people who don’t want to be there, or want it but can’t cope with the challenges your tackling. It’s not fair to them and no one has fun.”

“Is fun a consideration any more?” Matt asked. “Don’t we need levels to survive?”

The question rang a bell in Tessa’s mind, sending her thoughts tumbling back down the years.

If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong and you should do something else. It had been her mantra when she was playing, but it was more complicated than it sounded.

To Tessa, the game didn’t have be pulse pounding fun every minute of play. There was plenty of room for quiet moments, or even mindless ones where she could zone out while performing some trivial task. What she drew the line was at continuing to engage with the game when it had clearly become something the player hated. 

When all that was left was disappointment and discontentment, continuing on seemed like an exercise in masochism, when in reality it was more likely that change was simply too scary for the player to face. 

It was ugly, and led to the worst behavior, and it happened far too often. She’d seen too many people who couldn’t let go and take the chance on searching for something new. 

Even in herself?

She thought of her job. 

When had she forgotten how important it was to love what you did?

Not that the real world accomodated that kind of sentimentality very well. Leaving a job was a lot harder than leaving a game.

Normally.

Under the present circumstances the reverse was kind of true. Where leaving the game was impossible and leaving her job was going to be effortless. Probably.

And that was fine. If they got in a few hours then maybe things could go back to how they’d been, but Tessa knew that wasn’t going to happen. She was going to lose her job.

She laughed, and felt a stirring of agreement from Pillowcase at the thought that rose within her.

Whatever programming work was on her desk didn’t matter. She had much more interesting bugs to squash now. The pay check that she was waiting for was just as irrelevant too. The bag of starting gold on her hip could buy her boss five times over. 

For all the danger that awaited them, for all the uncertainty over what their fate might be, Tessa felt her younger self screaming a memory back into her awareness.

“We have to have fun,” she said. “We have to love this world. Otherwise we’re just killing ourselves by being here.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 12

There was an upside to being covered in stinky bug guts Tessa decided. She might be horribly grossed out by the slime she was covered in, but in a world where violence was not only an answer but a requirement, she felt no emotional turmoil over the slaughter she was engaged in. In that sense, the [Chaos Centipedes] which were swarming from the abandoned farm house made the perfect foes.

“Oh god, is there a setting to disable my nose,” Rip asked as she knocked an arrow and paused to charge it with energy.

“Not in the normal interface,” Alice said. In her hands she held the [Minor Blood Channel] spell as it pulsed a steady stream of healing into Pillowcase’s body. “We’ve got two coming in from the east, keep an eye out.”

“Which way is east?” Matt asked. He had a spell ready but he was turned in the wrong direction to see the monsters which were wiggling forward under the cover of the [High Beyond]’s version of night.

“Over here,” Tessa said, rolling away from the trio of centipedes she’d been dancing around to pick up the two new arrivals. “Look at the bar at the top of your interface. It shows which direction you’re facing. Eventually you’ll know where you are on the map with just a glance but until then you’ll need to make a conscious effort to keep track.”

One of the centipedes sank its fangs into her leg, taking advantage of the opening Tessa’s instruction had provided. She stabbed in it return, and cursed for wasting the chance to spread her attacks around more.

The Tanks Tessa had worked with had always made the basic parts of their job look easy but the reality was far more complicated, with so many things to remember, and pay attention to, and react properly against that Tessa was left wondering what had ever possessed her to be roll a Tank character rather than her comfortable favorite, a Healer.

“Casting Spell: [Lesser Spirit Drain]”, she said the moment she was in range of the two [Chaos Centipedes].

Everything after that happened automatically, as though her words had set an array of machinery within her to work, one which she could only observe from a distance.

The first stage of the spell was to touch on the power which would fuel it. Tessa felt her Clothwork skin sing as a voice within her called to the magic and found it waiting, wrapped around her hands like a coil of lightning.

The voice that called for the magic become the lungs which drew in the power, flooding her with a formless, boundless energy. Even the tiny spell she’d cast came as a river far wider than she could hold within herself, but before she could let it pass through her and return to its source, she had to shape it. Give the ethereal sparks of creation both form and function, intent and purpose.

It all happened in the blink of an eye but Tessa felt herself burn like a kiln as whatever internal machine held the correct pattern forged the energy she’d drawn forth into the shape of the spell she needed.

Then, at last, there was the release. 

It was gloriously complex, like pouring molten glass from her bare hands  and having it drip into the shape of a perfect crystal goblet. Even as the one who’d lived inside those hands, who’d called the magic together, and done every bit of shaping to transform it from immaterial desire to solidified enchantment, even with being part of the entire process, Tessa still couldn’t comprehend exactly how she’d cast the spell she’d incanted.

It was as though someone else was the crafter who Tessa had set the task of weaving the magic she needed, and it bothered her that the metaphor might be quite literal.

Whether she shared the Clothwork body with someone, or something, else was a problem for when she and her new friends weren’t in danger of being devoured by giant blobs of hunger and teeth though.

The [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell pulsed out from her, passing harmlessly over those she considered allies, and lancing into those she’d deemed to be enemies.

The [Chaos Centipedes] affected by the spell faltered briefly in their rampage, their speed sapped by the spell and their attentions forcefully rerouted to focus on Tessa.

As spells went, it wasn’t that impressive. A small movement speed penalty and a reasonably strong Provoke effect made it as useful tool for a Tank who was looking to protect a team. Pillowcase’s melee attacks could inflict a similar Provoke effect but lacked the range of the spell, and using both in conjunction gave Tessa a shot at retaining control of the monsters even when her damage dealers stopped holding back.

Not that the latter seemed to be problem she’d have to deal with all too soon.

“Keep up your attacks,” Alice called out, as she scanned the area to the best of her ability given the spell she was maintaining.

“I’m almost out of magic points,” Matt said, holding a spell at the ready.

“These are just trash mobs,” Alice said. “Cast till your empty, then switch to basic attacks until you’ve got enough to drop a target in one round of casting.”

“What about me?” Rip asked as she fired another in a steady stream of arrows, killing one of the two new centipedes before it could reach Tessa.

“Just keep firing,” Alice said. “Hold your abilities though. We don’t want to pull hate off of Pillowcase and you’re our answer if something unexpected happens.”

Tessa felt a warm glow of gratitude fill her chest. Teaching new players wasn’t hard exactly, but it was nice to have someone else who was willing to help with it, and who had good advice to give.

“I’m going to see if I can mark these guys,” Tessa said. 

Interacting with the menu system when she was sitting on the other side of the monitor had been too slow in general and so Tessa, like most players, had relied on the in-game macros to make executing certain functions faster. Marking targets in combat definitely fell into that category, though as a Healer she’d never been the one tasked with that since it was typically the Tanks responsibility to determine what was the highest priority to fight. 

Mark First! She focused on one of the [Chaos Centipedes] and subvocalized the command. At first nothing happened and Tessa had to fight the urge to open the menu interface and search for the exact text of the first marker. It would tell her if she was using an inexact wording but the distraction would open more than enough gaps in her defenses for the bugs to eat her, and then rampage over the rest of the party.

Like a memory surfacing from the back of her mind, Tessa felt the right answer bubble up into her awareness.

Mark Prime! Pillowcase said, whispering the words as the thrill of battle danced down her arms and called her blade to life.

A [Chaos Centipede], not the one she’d marked, slithered past her parries and rammed a claw into her left leg as it’s many fanged mouth clomped onto her hip. The extra weight of the creature slowed Pillowcase’s dodging and allowed two others to inflict additional puncture wounds.

She fought back a laugh as Alice’s [Minor Blood Channel] replenished her health to full. The bugs wouldn’t have had a chance if she’d been alone. As it was she wished she could call for more. The small horde that had poured out of the farm house was almost an insult.

From where her team was stationed, Pillowcase heard a shout and felt the impact of Rip Shot’s ability enhanced arrow as it blasted the centipede away that was biting into Pillowcase’s hip.

“Save your abilities!” Alice repeated, more than a little frustration showing in her voice.

“Kill the one I marked,” Pillowcase said, seeing that neither Rip nor Matt were targeting the creature she’d indicated they should focus on.

“But it was chewing on her!” Rip said.

“I’ve got it covered,” Alice said. “More coming from the east. Keep your eyes open. Call them out when you see them.”

“Should I cast on those?” Matt asked as he fired off the spell he was holding at the three [Chaos Centipedes] which had slithered up from a different tunnel than the one the original pair had emerged from.

“No!” Alice couldn’t hold back the growl the followed. It seemed reasonable.

Not, perhaps, necessary. The boy would be eaten for his mistake, which would be a learning experience, and those were always valuable. 

He’ll learn more if he gets a chance to keep practicing, Tessa thought.

“Casting Spell: [Lesser Spirit Drain],” Pillowcase said again, with an eye towards her own magic reserves. The spell was a more effective Provoke than her sword attacks, but it did draw on a limited resource, which was worth factoring into each of its uses. 

In this case though, Pillowcase could see she had the reserves to spare. She went through the same internal transformation of magic into enchantment, but was less aware of it. That was proper. It was supposed to be a seamless, subconscious process so that the caster could stay focused on what was happening in the battle around them.

That’s why Matt’s having trouble, Tessa thought. All of his attacks are doing this to him. He’s getting too caught up in them.

“Don’t worry about this fight,” Pillowcase said. “Slow down. Do one thing, but do it well. Just kill the one I’ve marked.”

“I can kill those though!” Rip said, gesturing to the new arrivals. Despite that, she fired at the ones near Pillowcase but didn’t hit the one which had the marking icon hanging over it.”

“Don’t.” Alice was gritting her teeth loud enough that Pillowcase could heard it from a dozen meters away.

They need a softer touch than that, Tessa thought.

“Yes, you can kill them, you’re already strong enough for that,” Pillowcase said. “That’s not what we’re here to practice though. Practice doing it right on the easy stuff.”

“Ok,” Rip said.

The next shot took marked target in one of its main eyes. Pillowcase marked a second target and a third.

“I can’t get a shot at the marked one,” Matt said. Despite the solidity of his metal frame, Tessa could feel him shaking. He was too new. To the game? To life? To conflict? The fight was overwhelming him.

He could do it though. All it took was training. Anyone could weaponize themselves if honed properly. Tessa felt metal certainty spread through her, affirming that truth.

“If you think [Assist: Pillowcase] you’ll lock in on the target she selected,” Rip said, her voice calm, and supportive, and apparently exactly what Matt needed to hear. His shaking calmed.

“Good,” Pillowcase said. “We’ll move into the house once this wave is dead.”

Dancing around the remaining centipedes was amusing, or at least better than waiting around and not fighting. If they’d been tougher foes, it might have presented a modicum of challenge, but they weren’t, so the whole fight was really just a matter of waiting. The centipedes couldn’t kill Pillowcase, not with her defenses and the combined healing she and Alice brought to the table. If they’d been sapient foes, they might have worked that out, but they were bugs. Hungry murder machines. They had ever opportunity to run, to escape their fate, and none of them would take it because they were too greedy for a taste of Pillowcase’s Clothwork flesh.

The perfect enemies for the fledgling who were with her. Killing sapients could come later.

What?

Tessa didn’t know where that thought had come from and it left her sicker than the centipedes ever could have.The last thing she expected was an answer to her question, but one rose in her mind anyways.

The [Consortium of Pain].

Alice had been right about the need to be careful in who they fought. The mass murder of any creature or people would come with a price none of them should ever be willing to pay.

That didn’t change the fact that there were people who would do horrible, unspeakable things to them.

Could she kill them though?

Yes.

Of course she could. In self-defense. In the defense of others. In revenge, if it came to that. Could she find a better answer than that though?

I don’t know.

She ran her blade through the last of the [Chaos Centipedes] and imagined it being a human. The [Consortium of Pain] were inhuman, in action and biologically, but it wasn’t impossible that her party would stumble across humans who were just as bad. Tessa didn’t know how she would handle foes like that, but she decided one thing in that moment.

She would be the one to deal with them. Whatever else happened, she would not let that be a price that Rip, or Matt, or even Alice had to pay. 

She was their Tank, so she would protect them.