Monthly Archives: October 2019

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could stop them. 

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

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

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

Seriously, what the hell is this?

Pillowcase shook her head. 

Now was not the time to be lost in memory.

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

“We’re set,” Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

No. Tessa.

Tessa could use that time to put her head together.

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

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

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

Pillowcase…

Pillowcase didn’t have an answer for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pillowcase discarded the question.

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

A solid hit. 

Good provoke effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“[Charged Shot!]

“[Casting Spell: Lesser Torment]”

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

You’re waking up, aren’t you?

Fight. Focus.

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

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

No. Not you. Me. I’m waking up.

FOCUS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A design weakness. 

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

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

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

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

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

That wasn’t sure enough though.

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

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

“And I’ve got you,” Alice said. 

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

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

Yes, this was where she belonged.

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

But none of that mattered.

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

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

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

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

But it was her. 

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

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

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

“[Minor Light Stealing]”

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

“[Heart Killer Curse]”

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

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

They could handle this fight.

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

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

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

Even if they were weak sauce compared to her team.

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

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

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

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

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

She had them both well under control.

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

Fully restored to life.

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

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

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

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

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

“A glitch or…oh crap,” Alice said.

“What?” Matt asked.

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

“What’s the trick?” Rip yelled.

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

Tessa’s mind raced as Pillowcase redoubled her defense.

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

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

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

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

Unless what we need isn’t in this room! 

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

Tessa’s spirit soared.

She was not going to lose.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tessa sighed.

“Yeah. I do.”

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

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

“Why risk this place then?” Rip asked.

Tessa paused and searched for her real reason.

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

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

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

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

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

“I think we need this,” Tessa said. 

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

“The experience,” Tessa said. 

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

“Not really,” Alice said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds kind of appealing,” Matt said.

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

“Yeah, that idea sucks,” Rip said.

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

“Both?” Tessa said. “Sort of.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can that happen?” Matt asked.

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

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

“And if we can’t?” Alice asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a pull?” Rip asked.

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

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

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

“How do we do it?” Rip asked.

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 7

They were in the wrong dungeon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we stop them?” Matt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the beta testers just miss it? Tessa asked.

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 6

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

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

Not that there was much of a party left.

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

It wasn’t a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a sobering thought. 

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

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

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

Tessa tried believing that and failed completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” Alice said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Long ago, but yeah,” Tessa said.

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

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

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

“How so?” Matt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Alice asked.

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