Monthly Archives: September 2019

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it work?” Matt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rip and Matt weren’t safe.

They would never be safe.

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 4

Interlude – Brendan Reingold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which was what attracted Brandon’s interest.

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

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

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

The comic dropped from Brandon’s hands.

She was real?

Interlude – The Pit Master

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

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

Which is what made them the best commodity of all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the zombies too?” Slugzim asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just not soon enough.

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

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

Interlude – The Nightmare Queen

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

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

At least on most days.

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

Which was of course when they arrived.

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

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

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

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

And yet the Nightmare Queen wasn’t afraid.

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

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

“Who are you?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Travel,” the light one said.

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

“Why?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

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

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

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

“How can we be spared?” she asked.

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

Broken Horizons – Vol2, Interludes 3

Interlude – Cambrell

Most people in the Fallen Kingdoms expected goblins have names like “Rot Teeth” or “Gunk Nose”. That was because most people were not goblins.

Cambrell hurried down the rain soaked streets of [Thaldinforge] wishing he was not a goblin either. At least not for the next thirty to sixty minutes. 

[Thaldinforge] was not a goblin city. There were only a few of those. It was not a city which was friendly to goblins either. There were several of those but no where close to a significant percentage. It was, in fact, a city where being a goblin was punishable by immediate execution.

Cambrell hated working in cities where murdering him on sight was both allowed and encouraged but sometimes that was where the work was and so that was where he had to go.

Technically, Cambrell was an [Assassin], a role which cast him inline with every superstition people had about goblins. Possessing the skills required to be an assassin however did not mean that one was necessarily a killer for hire. Cambrell, for example, more often served as a covert body guard. Unsurprisingly perhaps, that role tended to involve substantially more killing than a straight forward assassination job.

As he hurried down a back alley behind a cargo holding building, Cambrell took stock of his remaining weapons; two poisoned daggers, a blowgun with half a dozen poisoned needles, and a clerical holy symbol infused with one, and only one, charge of divine radiance.

The last had been a special gift, and one he knew he had to reserve for his target.

“Ha! Try to stay dry kid!” a man called out from a rear loading door as Cambrell ran by. The man sounded delighted that a “kid” was suffering in the weather. Cambrell was tempted to run back and stab him on general principal, but forced himself to remain focused instead. Humans were the worst. They made it a point to slaughter goblins as often as they slaughtered themselves, but when it came time to talk peace, they always believed that they had the moral high ground. 

That wasn’t why Cambrell had become an [Assassin] but it did make some jobs easier. 

Not this one unfortunately though.

This time he was helping the evil human monsters by protecting their evil human city from an even worse monster.

Down in the depths of [Thaldinforge] there had been a plague of [Night Hungers] which grew with every victim they took. [Night Hungers] being somewhere between zombies and proper vampires meant that creating new ones was terrible easy and could end a town the size of Thaldinforge rather quickly.

Unless, of course, someone stepped in and slew the entire plague of them for the ungrateful humans who lived above the [Night Hungers] lair. Someone who didn’t want to see [Thaldinforge] have a reason to mobilize its armed forces, since those armed forces would not succeed in discovering why townsfolk by the dozen had gone missing, but would pay a visit to the nearby goblin villages and begin killing “the greenies” because “you might as well be sure it wasn’t them”.

Cambrell’s only problem as he cut over to another alley and began hoisting himself up a drain pipe was that having begun the job, he couldn’t leave it half finished. Wiping out the [Night Hungers] was all well and good. They were mindless husks driven only to consume. Easy pickings for someone as experienced as he was.

Their creator on the other hand though? He was problematic on a number of points.

First, as a [Plague Vampire], he could replace his loses far too easily. If Cambrell didn’t stop him, the vampire would have his lair repopulated within the week.

That would have been easier to achieve if the vampire wasn’t also the senior member of the [Thaldinforge] Executive Council though. Assassinating a vampire wasn’t impossible, especially not when armed with an item with divine radiance. Assassinating an Executive Council member wasn’t impossible either. Humans were generally predictable in their habits, which was an [Assassin]’s best weapon. The real difficulty lay in taking out a hard and important target without implicating any of the nearby goblin cities and undoing all of the benefit his work on the [Night Hungers] was intended to produce.

Fortunately, Cambrell had a plan for that!

Tensions within [Thaldinforge] had been running high since well before the disappearances had begun to occur. The [Executive Councilor]/[Vampire], Exarian Dreslun, had to die before the morning came, and his remains had to be discovered so that people would understand that the threat to their city had come from within and not from their goblin neighbors. His death though did not have to be attributed to a daring and skilled goblin. Not when it could instead be place at the feet of one of Dreslun’s fellow Executive Council members, all of whom would be delighted with his removal from the world.

Cambrell had already done the hard part of that work, infiltrating the house of the council member his intel indicated had suggested had the best ratio of animosity for Deslun and personal resources to arrange the vampire’s destruction.

Leaving one borrowed dagger at the scene would cast suspicion away from the goblins, and leave the whole mess as resolved as it was going to get, since humans never called their own rich and powerful to task for their misdeeds.

At the top of the drain pipe, Cambrell stopped and surveyed his surroundings. The multi-story house where Dreslun was staying as part of his masquerade of being human was within magically-assisted leaping distance. 

That was good. It would make tracking how he arrived and where he went afterwards more difficult, which would in turn give him a better chance of escaping the city before he stumbled on someone who would try to stab him.

With the cloud cover and the pouring rain, visibility was terrible. That was good too, not only because it made hiding easier but because it kept the streets open and free from witnesses.

Except for the ones who were huddled together on the rooftop.

That was bad.

“What is a kid doing up here?” one of the forms covered in a shapeless cloak asked another.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” the other said. [Human] male. Big. [Warrior]. Armed. Armored. Skilled. More Skilled than Cambrell.

Those were the details Cambrell noticed, with the last observation raising his eyebrows.

They were adventurers. 

They had to be. No one else developed as much skill as Cambrell had. Cambrell revised his earlier assessment. The situation wasn’t bad. It was horrible. Basically as bad as things could get. He was dead. Probably.

On the plus side, it wouldn’t take long. 

Well, the run to the nearest goblin accessible [Heart Fire] would take a while. 

“Ask him what he needs,” a third figure said.

There were five of them, which was four more than they needed to send Cambrell to the [Dead Lands] and five more than he wanted to deal with.

“Ask him where we are?” a fourth figure asked. [Elf]. Female. [Archer]. Top tier weapons. More dangerous than the [Warrior]. 

Cambrell translated those observations into a simple conclusion; he couldn’t fight them and he couldn’t run. 

He was definitely, one hundred percent, dead.

Except, he didn’t feel mathematically crushing despair grip him. By every statistic he could think of, a fight was inevitable, and he simply could not win. He couldn’t even take one of them out with him. 

But he didn’t have to.

Something had happened, something Cambrell couldn’t identify. The version of him from a day ago would have thrown himself into battle for no better reason than even inflicting a scratch was better than dying without putting up a struggle. Those limited options still crowded his thinking but, in the moment of mortal peril the presence of high level adventurers always heralded for goblins, Cambrell found new paths opening before him.

“I’m sorry Sirs,” he said, trying his best approximation of a high pitched human child’s voice. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll just go now.”

Why fight or run when he could just leave? It was so simple but it left his mind swimming. They hadn’t identified him as a threat and there was no reason for them ever to do so. Cambrell would simply find a different route to the vampire’s house and avoid encountering adventurer’s entirely!

“Wait!” the Archer said. “I’m sorry, but could you tell us where we are?”

Cambrell waited for the snappy one-liner indicating they were only playing with him. It would inevitably be followed by the gratuitously overpowered attack, but neither came.

“You’re on the roof of the [Melgin Dairy Depot],” Cambrell said, beginning to pick up on the profound confusion the party before him was gripped by.

How could anyone, even someone as fundamentally dim and clueless as a human not know where they were? 

For that matter why were they standing on a rooftop in the pouring rain? Cambrell hadn’t tried to offer an explanation for his presence because there weren’t any he could think of which sounded even slightly plausible. 

No one should be up in here, in this weather. So why are they? He wondered.

“The [Melgin Dairy Depot]?” the Warrior said. “In [Thaldinforge]? In the [Fallen Kingdoms]?”

His questions grew more soaked with disbelief as he uttered them.

“Dude, how are you doing that with your voice?” a male human, the first speaker asked. Wizard. Top tier gear. Powerful wards active. Most fragile member of the party. Priority kill target. 

Cambrell dismissed all of those observations, clearing his mind to put on a better show of being non-hostile. True, they couldn’t see him well at all, but adventurers had all sorts of unexpected abilities and Cambrell had no interest in triggering any [Danger Senses] or [Psychic Alarms]. 

“Doing what with my voice?” the Warrior asked.

“That [Thaldinforge] thing,” the Wizard said. “Oh my god. I did it too. [Thaldinforge]. [Melgin Dairy Depot]. [Fallen Kingdoms]. Oh that is so weird!”

Cambrell was lost. It sounded like the adventurers were discovering basic speech, which given humans’ generally low intelligence would have made for a good joke but under the circumstances seemed less than plausible.

“We can’t really be here though? Can we?” the Archer asked.

One of the ones who hadn’t spoke began hyper-ventilating and uttering the sort of nonsense noises that suggested their mind had snapped. 

Cambrell really wanted to leave. He turned to leave again, but, of course, the adventurers noticed the movement.

“No wait! Please! Stay!” the Warrior said. “I know it’s raining a lot, but, um, we can pay you?”

The urge to leap over the side of the building was only held in place by the certain knowledge that the [Archer] could make her arrows follow practically anything.

“Ok,” Cambrell said. “For what though?”

“We, uh, we need a guide,” the Warrior said, the uncertainty in his voice painting a clear picture of his sincerity. 

Cambrell shook his head. Nothing about them made sense, and now they were offering him money to get involved in their madness? Adventurers were renowned for being wealthy – at least the very experienced ones – but there was literally no amount of gold in the world, including all of it, which could tempt Cambrell to remain on the roof and risk discovery for a minute longer.

“I’m supposed to get back to my family,” he said, casting around for the kind of excuse a human child might use when confronted by a handful of strangers in an equally strange situation.

“Oh, yeah,” the Warrior said, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

The Elf nodded in agreement but paused in mid-nod as her cursedly sharp eyes caught the glimpse of him which Cambrell had dearly wished to avoid.

“And where would that family be?” she asked and lest he try to prevaricate further added, “Goblin.”

It was Cambrell’s turn to drop his shoulders in defeat. The run back to the [Heart Fire] was going to suck.

“Does it matter?” he asked and turned to look the [Archer] in the eyes so she could at least see the weariness that filled him at the thought of what was to come.

“Holy…What…That’s a Goblin!” the Warrior said.

“They can talk!?” the Wizard said.

“I can dance, pay taxes, and cook a halfway decent steak too,” Cambrell said for no other reason than educating the ignorant gave him a fleeting sense of superiority.

“Oh My God! It’s a People!’ the Wizard said, in what Cambrell was reasonably certain was grammatically incorrect on a number of levels.

“He, unless I miss my guess?” the Archer said. “And why wouldn’t he be? Goblin’s are a playable race too.”

Cambrell blinked. Goblins were a what now?

“Ok, ok, ok,” the Warrior said, struggling to grapple his wits back under control. “He’s a person. [Thaldinforge] isn’t a Goblin town though.”

Cambrell saw the other shoe beginning to drop as the obvious questions arose in their mind. He expected said shoe to squash him like a bug, but it landed on an altogether unexpected thought instead.

“Yeah, it’s not a goblin town, which means if he’s here, he must know his way around it pretty well,” the Archer said. “So I’m thinking he’s perfect for a local guide. Uh, if you’re willing to help us, Mr…?”

The [Archer] was smiling. So was the [Warrior]. So were all the rest of them. They were happy to meet a goblin on a dark and stormy night.

That along should have been enough warning to send Cambrell running for the edges of town, [Perfect Seeking Arrows] be damned, but the thing about madness is that it’s highly contagious in the right circumstances, and Cambrell really hated long runs in the [Dead Lands]. 

So he smiled back.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 2

Interlude – Niminay

The world was falling apart, but in Niminay’s experience that was it natural state.

“We’re seeing incursions in the [Pelgrathi Highlands] that are hitting at the same time as the Consortium is sending strikes against  the [Aquanoids] and the [Rishell Silvermines],” General Aurelite said, as she pushed a series of force markers across the map in the tactical planning room.

Niminay half listened. She’d been the one to deliver two thirds of the intel which Aurelite was working from and as the highest level person in the room she knew she was going to draw the short straw on sorting out whichever problem area was deemed the worst by the collective wisdom of the [Strategists] and [Generals].

“I can see why they’d attack the silver mines, but what do the Aquanoids have that’s worth assaulting them for?” Prince Brandoth asked.

He wasn’t dim, but given the company assembled to wrestle with the problem of the [Consortium of Pain], he looked duller by comparison than usual.

“The Aquanoids don’t build cities, or collect wealth,” Strategist Penswell said, adjusting her glasses as she studied the newest intrusions in light of the previous ones. “A raid on them wouldn’t be predicated on obtaining resources.”

“And yet they attacked both the Highlands and the Silvermines, which are resource rich areas,” General Aurelite said. “Different factions within the same organization perhaps?”

“That would explain why they’re striking so far apart, right?” Brandoth asked. “I mean the highlands are a thousand miles or more from the silver mines.”

“The distance doesn’t matter to them,” Penswell said. 

Niminay could see Penny was ticking through some evaluation and only had perhaps ten percent of her attention to spare for answering questions. Feeling charitable, Niminay decided to help her friend out.

“Their [Breacher Ships] are world jumpers,” she said. “That they can get here at all means they can land anywhere on the world they want, at any time they want.”

“But that means we’re in danger everywhere,” Brandoth said.

Give the boy a cookie, Niminay thought, with perhaps a little less charity that she should have felt.

“That’s on the first page of my report, in the first paragraph,” Niminay said. “It’s why we have to treat this as a global crisis. Not one which any single Kingdom can be expected to manage on its own.”

“And would it be so bad to leave the unworthy nations to fall before the invaders might?” General Nalunker asked. “It could clear up a few long standing problems we’ve had.”

He was speaking of the Goblin city of Toothache. Everyone knew what he meant too. The goblins had arisen to power only a few years ago. In that short time though, they’d tried to over turn the delicate balance of power between every nation around them. 

Niminay could see the temptation flickering in the Generals’ eyes. Allowing the Consortium to eliminate the goblins without any of the Fallen Kingdoms needing to extend themselves could allow the old status quo to return. No more goblin meant the old borderlines would be respected. It meant the dangerous inter-kingdom squabbling could be replaced with a chance to solidify their hold on territories which had grown unruly despite being nowhere near the goblin’s lands. It meant  they could get off the field of battle for a season and just enjoy themselves.

They were idiots. Excepting of course Penny, and Penny wouldn’t have called the others that. She was far more diplomatic. Niminay had been too, but then what felt like several lifetimes worth of calamities had come and gone and rub away all the awe and instinctive respect she’d had for people in high places. 

It was hard to be impressed by Kings and Generals when you’d spoken with literal gods. Harder still when you’d had to beat those same gods back into the underworld where they belonged. Niminay smiled. Those were good times. Good times.

“Yes, it would be fine to allow the Consortium to scour own world clean,” Penswell said. “There’s just the small problem that they’re not locusts. They have a plan, and allowing them any victories means allowing them to advance their plans.”

“And if their plans are to run us to the far corners of the world so we’re too spread out to resist their main attack?” General Nalunker asked. 

“Then we should respond accordingly,” Penswell said. She reached over and took the stick from Aurelite, pushing pieces from where they were to new locations on the map.

“If we keep our army together, can’t we just beat them again, like when they showed up the first time?” Brandoth asked.

Niminay had been a part of that battle, the first major encounter with the Consortium’s forces. It hadn’t been pretty, or easy, and if it hadn’t been for some truly astounding diplomacy to bring together an almost unprecedented alliance, she was reasonably certain the forces of the Fallen Kingdoms wouldn’t have seen the next dawn. 

The stronger adventurer’s would have escaped of course, respawning and fleeing outwards as the Consortium established beachhold. That would have been a massive problem for the Consortium but being able to get revenge for a destroyed village is a far, far lesser thing than being able to protect it.

“The army is no longer assembled,” Penswell said, as the door to the tactical room opened to admit a new participant. “We lost some of its strongest units immediately following the battle, and the adventurers who came when we called for aid are not at all guaranteed to aid us again.”

“They may not, but there are still plenty of us who will,” Glimmerglass said.

“I thought you adventurers tended to rest and recover your ‘Inspiration’ for fighting for months after battle’s like that?” General Nalunker said.

“Usually yeah,” Glimmerglass said. “Something’s changed though. I don’t feel the touch of the divine we normally feel, but I am ready to fight.” She went to the window of the tactical room and opened the shutters to reveal the courtyard which was already thronging with the brightly decorated, motley armor of a dozen adventuring companies. “And so are a lot of others.”

Interlude – Zibby

In the valley below, two young boys were running for their lives. They were supposed to be adventurers. Brave. Strong. Powerful.

But this was also supposed to only be a game. 

This wasn’t supposed to be a scenario where monster could actually eat you. 

The [Rust Raptor] which pursued them hadn’t been given that memo though, or, at fifteen feet tall, armed with a mouth full of serrated metal death, it had simply eaten the memo bearer too.

“They’re going to be below us in about ten seconds, are you ready for this?” Aiemethia asked. He had his weapons ready, but was doing his best to only glance over the edge of the long fall occasionally.

“I have to be,” Zibby said. No way was a child being hurt on her watch.

Their plan wasn’t a complex one. When faced with a fifteen foot tall robo-dinosaur, the best idea, usually, was ‘run’. The kids were trying that though and it wasn’t working since the [Rust Raptor] could run at least twice as fast as they could. That left them with the next best option; smack the monster hard enough that it stopped trying to eat the kids.

Zibby would have had a hard time imagining herself jumping onto the back of a dinosaur, robotic or otherwise, with the intent to kill the thing if possible, but as the moment approached a fire she’d carried inside all her life lit up and made it so simple.

The kids running and screaming in terror could have been her kids, but they didn’t have to be. She would have protected them because, despite the adventurers’ bodies they wore, they were scared, and small, and they needed her. 

“Here we go,” Aiemethia said, leaping off the cliff despite the terror the heights certainly gripped him with.

Zibby felt anger fill her. Not wild and uncontrolled. Not when she had a purpose and a use for it. At other times, it felt like a burning brand, one she didn’t want to wield but couldn’t let go of. Facing down a monster though, it was just the tool she needed.

Aiemethia’s fall was cushioned, to a certain extent, but landing on the robo-raptor’s head and slamming his sword through its neck. On any fleshly creature it would have been a mortal wound but the [Rust Raptor] ran on different systems than a purely organic dinosaur.

Zibby landed directly on its back therefor and plunged her staff into the glowing power module affixed to its side. Even as a low level, mostly protection based, caster, she had a few offensive spells.

And, as a [Mathemagician], she could do all sorts of basic mathematical things with her spells.

“[Force Multiplication][Combinatorial Strike],” she said, outer calm masking the focused rush of channeling almost all of her magic into the single strike.

The [Rust Raptor] exploded.

Picking herself up from the scraps of its remains, she dusted off her robes and turned to the children were were staring back at her, speechless.

Some days were tougher than others, but then some were still pretty good too.

Interlude – Kevin McConnel / Roadkiller

Waiting for the raids to come back online made for a boring night, even if it was Kevin’s last one.

He didn’t know it was his last of course. Sitting in his dorm room, the last thing Kevin McConnel could imagine was that his time could be counted in minutes rather than years or decades.

“Hey, I just heard somebody else say they gotten drawn into the game,” Teddy Jacobs said. Teddy was the raid’s main healer, and while the raid was a no-go because EE had shutdown the zones for some reason, everyone who’d signed up was still hanging out in Discord chatting and waiting for a notice that it was safe to log off.

Kevin didn’t have classes in the morning, only suckers and nerds took early morning classes, so staying up till the stupid hours of the morning wasn’t a problem, but he’d been jazzed to shoot for “World’s First” on at least one of the raids tonight.

His team wouldn’t get it. He knew that before he logged in. They were fine, but kind of losers too. None of them were as good as he was. He basically carried their worthless butts through all the other content they’d done, and in return they didn’t complain much when he snagged the loot he needed first.

“That can’t be real,” he said. “It’s some bored little whiner babies who want attention because we’re all stuck here.”

“I don’t know,” Teddy said. “The people at the tavern I’m in are talking in the local chat channel. They’re passing on things from a Game Master.”

“Can you see the Game Master?” Kevin asked, knowing the answer and wondering how stupid Teddy could be.

“No, they already left,” Teddy said. “But everyone here says there was a GM here about ten minutes ago, so we just missed them.”

“Yeah, right, how would that even be possible?” Kevin asked, but a part of him started to entertain the idea.

It was ridiculous of course. The kind of thing a two year old would come up with. 

But it would be cool.

“They said it happens if you try to logoff, or if your character dies in the game. That’s why the zones are closed and they’re keeping us online.”

There were at least ten million reasons that were more realistic and likely but Kevin was intrigued by the idea anyways.

“So why don’t we just do it then?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Log off,” Kevin said. “See if it happens.”

“Uh, cause then we’d be stuck as our characters?” Teddy said.

“Like that wouldn’t be sick? Come on, we’d be so badass. It would be awesome! What could be bad about it?”

“Dude, think about this place,” Teddy said. “Do you really want a dragon to rip you to pieces and then roast those pieces to ash? Cause we’ve seen that happen in cutscenes.”

“Pff, that’s not gonna happen. Come on, let’s do it.”

“No way man. Even if they’re wrong, what if it scrambles our hard drives. Or worse, deletes our characters?”

“That’s stupid. They’d just roll everything back then. Come on. I’m gonna do it.”

“Don’t! Dude. Don’t do it. If you wreck your account, it’s gonna take forever for someone to gear up another tank for us.”

“Too late man. I’m doing it.” Kevin said and clicked the ‘Logout’ button.

The usual countdown began and Kevin felt a little thrill tingle across his fingers. He knew nothing was going to happen, but it was fun to imagine.

“Wait. Dude. If you get sucked in, what do we tell people?” Teddy asked.

“Tell ‘em to make a character and come join us,” Kevin said. “This is going to be awesome.”

The logout countdown hit zero and for a moment, just as he expected, nothing happened.

Then the world and his body dissolved.

When things started making sense again, Kevin saw that nothing made sense.

He was in the [Dead Lands]. In the [Fallen Kingdoms]. As himself.

That didn’t matter though. He’d just go over to the chapel and respawn as Roadkiller and then start going to town on everything.

Behind him, he heard a howl that was absolutely not from a dog, and not from a wolf.

They might have been called the [Hounds of Fate] but the last thing Kevin thought before his story ended was that they were something he should never have met.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 1

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

Some days seem like they’re never going to end, and Hailey was beginning to doubt if this one possibly could.

“Do we have anything yet on the team that went into Elberth’s Crypts?” Marcus called out over the din of the support center. The answer was ‘no’ but Hailey wasn’t going to be the one to say it. Not when she had fifty two other groups that she was responsible for monitoring.

When she’d taken the job on the Broken Horizon’s support team, Hailey had thought she was carving an “in” for herself to her dream career. After years of playing the game, being part of the team behind the scenes had seemed like it would be heavenly. Those dreams had been smashed pretty thoroughly by the reality of being in customer service though, and from the glimpses she got of the working conditions the development team labored under.

None of that however had prepared her for how much worse being on the front lines of a disaster management team the likes of which no one had ever foreseen, much less planned for, would be.

“We’re still getting heavy pings on the help queue,” Elizabeth Banner, Hailey’s workstation mate, said. 

The support team – or “Game Masters” as they were referred to by the players – were situated in a large ‘open office’ plan, where workstations were clustered together in pods of three stations per large cube. In theory it was to allow them to work together better, bouncing questions off each other in they ran into unusual problems or troublesome players. In practice it meant a complete lack of privacy and more unfiltered noise than was at all necessary. The only bright side to it was that most GM-to-player interactions were done through the in-game chat system or via email so there wasn’t a constant stream of chatter or crosstalk. 

“New players or repeats?” Marcus asked. Even with the request turned off, the system was still monitoring who tried to access the request for help function, and Marcus was trying to use the numbers to work out how many people were in true distress.

“Half and half,” Elizabeth said, as she typed an answer frantically back to one of the team’s she was assigned to manage. Meaning at least half the people trying to call for help knew there was no one listening but were desperate enough to try anyways. 

Hailey could parse that data with no problem. 

They were doomed.

Typically the vast majority, 99% or better, of players had no interaction with the support team, and even when support was requested the interactions were usually brief. Egress Entertainment had developed their staffing plan around that reality, employing just enough low paid support reps to make sure that the workload wouldn’t yield too many customers lost to dissatisfaction. It wasn’t a practice peculiar to the Broken Horizons team, paying for support staff was something few businesses enjoyed doing, and to EE’s credit, they did keep enough people online around the clock every day of the year that support request from players were answered in no more than a couple of minutes typically. 

Unfortunately, that level of capacity was orders of magnitude below what was required when every player who was logged into the game needed detailed and elaborate help at once.

Not that Hailey, Marcus, or anyone else was really able to help them.

If Hailey hadn’t seen her coworker Asad vanish right in front of her, believing that the same thing was happening to tens of thousands of people around the world might have been impossible.

Or it might not have been. Weird calls could always be part of some prank, but weird calls from everyone in the game? If it was a prank, it was one with enough player cooperation that even real magic would have a hard time pulling off.

More than that though, there was Glimmerglass. Or Tessa. Hailey didn’t think of herself as “Burnt Toast” primarily, but it was hard not to think of her online friends as their main characters, even when she knew their real names.

Assuming Tessa still considers me a friend, Hailey thought. They’d drifted apart after their guild split up, and Tessa had dropped out entirely a little while after that, but Hailey still remembered her fondly. Glimmerglass had always been so damn positive. More often than not, Glimmerglass had been the one patch things up when an encounter went pear shaped, taking each party wipe in stride, offering ideas on what they could try next, or even just sharing encouragement or groans at the unfairness of what was before them. Whatever it took to keep people going, Glimmerglass was usually the one you could count on to see it get done.

In any other circumstance, Hailey would have been so glad to see Glimmerglass log in, even if she hadn’t been able to reach out to her. Just to know that Tessa was doing ok, would have given Hailey a warm little glow in her heart.

Instead, she’d been praying that her manually hacked together search query for her old guildmates would turn up empty and, of course, it hadn’t.

The one day Glimmerglass could have chosen to come back and it had to be the one when the world turned into the Twilight Zone. Hailey wanted to blame her for it all, but after talking with her, Hailey could see it had come as too much of a surprise to all of them for that to be true.

Not that that made it any easier. The conversation they’d had still tugged at Hailey’s heart. She’d promised to be there for Tessa, to keep her in the loop but against the tide of calls the support team had to handle, there just wasn’t time.

Hailey’s desk was proof of that. She had ten screens open, with chat clients in each so that she could communicate to the players who were “Most in Danger” based on their levels and location. She’d managed to talk a dozen of her fifty-two assignments back to safe locations already but everyone had so many questions before they were willing to comply with direct and simple instructions that Hailey was tempted to let them suffer the fates they were so aggressively courting.

Except that wasn’t fair and she knew it. No one could reasonably expect a game like Broken Horizons to suddenly become a matter of life and death, and spending a little time talking each group through what they knew was a small price if it meant some of them could be saved. 

And Hailey had to save them. It was the only way to make up for not thinking of Tessa when there was still time to warn her. 

Well, almost the only way.

Hailey’s finger hovered over her mouse button as her cursor waited on the Broken Horizons icon on her desktop. 

She’d taken “*GM Burnt Toast*” as her handle when she joined the support staff in part so that old friends might recognize her, but that didn’t mean she’d given up her original account.

Waiting just a click away was her other self. As a Game Master, she was limited in what she could do within Broken Horizons, especially with her admin privileges locked out, but if she logged in as the original “Burnt Toast”? What might she accomplish then?

Interlude – Azma

Azma sensed the shift by noting the clarity in her thoughts. The world had changed and that wasn’t often a good sign. Worse, it appeared she’d changed with it.

“Well, isn’t this tiresome,” she sighed. The wine she was swirling in her glass held an aroma which spoke of the clear, bright fields where it had been grown, harvested, and subsequently stolen from. 

A moment earlier, it had simply been wine. No expressive bouquet, no noteworthy history, just a glass of red to go with an otherwise unremarkable meal. Between one tick of the clock and the next though, her meal had become a dinner of fine cuisine.

She didn’t mind the dinner, good food was always a delight, but its presence did suggest certain alterations which were typically problematic.

“Sir!” Ensign Three-Three came to attention as he entered her room. Exactly according to protocol. Just as he was configured to act.

“Go on,” Azma said. She could have made him wait till she was done eating. As a [Commander] in the [Consortium of Pain]’s primary acquisition wing, Azma was given a fairly wide latitude in how she carried out the objectives assigned to her, and how she managed to resources which had been placed under her.

Waiting for bad news rarely made it better though, and while many [Commanders] would have been inclined to take out any irritation at having their repast interrupted on the poor messenger assigned to do so, Azma saw little value in that. 

There were so many better methods of relieving irritation than penalizing one’s own crew. Better to save the punishments for when they were deserved so as to retain their value in training and indoctrination.

“We have crossed into an uncharted Arcanosphere around the planet,” Ensign Three Three said. “Navigation wanted you informed that it appears to stretch half a local astronomical unit around the planet, and that readings indicate a second, richer Arcanosphere lies ahead at 0.005 AUs from the planet.”

Arcanosphere’s were a typical problem the Consortium faced when opening new worlds. It was why worlds such as her objective, “The Fallen Kingdoms”, were considered so valuable. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy was a prize. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy and no inherent defenses for those reserves was a prize to be claimed with the greatest of urgency.

Which was why the Consortium had sent Azma. 

The initial effort to open the world had been botched by that idiot Gernal, proving once again that nepotism could raise any fool to a position they didn’t deserve. 

Azma would make no claim that nepotism hadn’t raised her to a position she didn’t deserve, her only correction to any such claim would be that in her case nepotism had placed her in a position far beneath her true talents. More than one would-be-contender for her position had perished trying to prove that assertion incorrect, which was quite a bother. If any of the fools could manage to show they were worthy of the role she held, her superiors might finally be willing to elevate her to a more appropriate rank.

They wouldn’t of course. If she ever rose in rank again, she would devour the next person above her, and then continue rising. Everyone involved knew it, but it was still polite to adhere to the fiction that she had simply more time in service to log before being worthy of a promotion.

“Take a command to the Communications team,” Azma said. “Go through Gernal’s sealed communiques. I suspect this is something new, but if it’s not even a simpleton like Gernal should have been able to notice two Arcanosphere’s which weren’t supposed to be here.”

“Yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said and turned to leave.

“One moment,” Azma said. “Did the navigation team say which sort of Arcanosphere’s we’re looking at?”

The [Mystic Barriers] world’s erected where like additional laws of physics which prevailed within their spheres of influence. Each one was unique in theory, but in practice there was a great deal of similarity to be found.

“Oh, yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said. “The Arcanosphere we’re in now is an Incarnation sphere and the one closer to the planet is a Twinned sphere.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Azma said, and frowned.

“Is that bad sir?” Ensign Three Three asked, breaking protocol in the process.

“I’m no expert on Arcanosphere dynamics,” Azma said, which was technically true. Experts were official trained, or constructed with their knowledge. Azma had picked hers up on her own. She preferred learning from the unredacted sources the Consortium didn’t typically allow people to see. Those tended to be more accurate, especially when one occasionally needed to do things one’s superiors might disagree with. “The Incarnation sphere is fairly common. Many planets with mystical potential will raise a sphere in that family. It makes their laws more ‘real’ for lack of a better term.”

“Will that be a problem?” Ensign Three Three asked. He should have left to deliver the message already but Azma found thinking aloud helpful and so she didn’t shoe him away.

“Not particularly,” she said. “It means the defenders of these ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ will be able to fight us on the fields they know, and we’ll have to adapt to the limitations of their reality. For a disappointment like Gernal, that would present a serious hurdle to overcome but any decent Consortium [Commander] should be adaptable enough to adjust to the demands of a foreign battlefield.”

To his credit Ensign Three Three didn’t ask Azma if she fell into the latter category. If anything, she guessed he was curious how far beyond ‘decent’ she was. She had no interest in demonstrating her full capabilities but she knew a small taste via an easy victory or two should bolster the crew’s already solid morale and loyalty.

“What about the Twinned sphere?” Ensign Three Three asked instead.

“That’s a fascinating one,” Azma said. “Very rare. It says that our target is linked to another world, and they’re sharing resources.”

“So we might have to beat two world rather than one?” Ensign Three Three asked.

“Open. The term we use is open. It means the same thing as conquer, except conquered worlds have at least a theoretical chance to revolt, and the Consortium simply does not allow that,” Azma said. “As for having to fight two worlds? That might be the best news we’ve had all day. Two worlds to fight, means two worlds to defeat, and two worlds we can sell for a very tidy profit once we’re done with them.”