Monthly Archives: December 2019

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 6

Azma expected the defenders of the world below her to fall, but she knew they weren’t going to fall easily.

“It seems to me that this plan of yours exposes us to undo risk over the course of an unacceptably long time frame,” [Commander] Melsworth said. “It’s like it was concocted by a junior program manager, eager to show off all the little cleverness they always think they have.

Azma leaned back in her chair in smiled. She didn’t often look forward to meetings with the [Commanders] who had been placed under her. Typically they were the useless flotsam of nepotism and personal conceits from those above her in the Consortium’s organizational structure. Such flotsam generally fell into one of two categories; either they were sycophants who brought no new ideas to the table or, like Melsworth, they lacked an understanding of their role and believed themselves to be by some measure her equal.

Meetings were tiresome to Azma, but educational opportunities? Those were always entertaining.

“Tell me, [Commander] Melsworth. Did I request your opinion?” It wasn’t a question despite the phrasing.

To Melsworth’s side, [Commander] Ryshild paled and began measuring the distance between himself and Melsworth with his eyes. Evidently deciding it was insufficient, he leaned back in his seat and tried to slide it away from the doomed man beside him.

“A good [Commander]…” Melsworth began.

“Uh uh uh,” Azma said, silencing the man with a gesture. With any reasonable sapient being, the gesture would have sufficed on its own, but Azma knew who she was dealing with so the gesture also included the [Command] to Melsworth’s air passageways to fuse shut. “Your opinion. Did I request it?”

Melsworth tried to gasp for breath but with nose, mouth, and throat sealed shut, no options were open to him.

“You may nod or shake your head,” Azma informed him.

He stared at her, anger and confusion warring behind his eyes. The rest of the room, meanwhile, had gone sensibly silent.

Good, Azma thought. Perhaps the rest will pay attention this time.

“I can see you wish to say a great many things.” She stared into Melsworth’s eyes as his face flushed red with his struggle. “You doubtless wish to know how I dare to assault someone of your rank. You are perplexed perhaps on how so simple a [Command] could have penetrated your formidable defenses. You are possibly even thinking of those who back you and how you can call on them to bring me into line. ‘This will not be tolerated’, ‘do you know how important I am’, ‘you cannot do this’. Several phrases along those lines I’d wager?”

She looked at him and watched as the red flush began to shade over to purple.

“Now it is occurring to you to ask ‘how much air do I have left’, and ‘how far is she going to take this’, and ‘doesn’t she know she can’t do this’.”

She tilted her head and opened her eyes slightly wider, a questioning look to test if her guesses were on the mark. The panic on Melsworth face was confirmation enough for her to continue.

“The answer is simple. Your rank means nothing, and I can do this because I am charged with absolute authority over the prosecution of the initiative before us. In short, my decisions hold the lives of everyone on all of our ships in the balance, and that includes yours.”

Azma looked around to make sure each of her subordinate officers was grasping the simple message she was attempting to convey. Brevity was a valuable tool for successful communication, but the object lesson who had current shaded completely over to purple was more likely to drive the point home. Or so she hoped.

“As you began to say, a good [Commander] recognizes the value of construction feedback. No plan is ever perfect and they can all be improved. Where you went amiss however Melsworth was in presuming that your feedback offered any value whatsoever.”

Melsworth jerked up, his eyes pleading as his body started to thrash.

“You wish to make a case for leniency? Or perhaps you have other feedback? More useful feedback to provide?”

Melsworth began nodding his head vigorously and pounding on the table with one hand while gesturing to his mouth with the other.

“You labor under a misapprehension still,” Azma informed Melsworth, fixing her eyes upon him. “Did I ask for your opinion?”

Melsworth raged pounding the table with both hands as his knees began to sag.

“I believe this is important to understand,” Amza said, turning to the rest of her staff. “[Commander] Ryshild, what do you believe is happening here?”

Ryshild straightened up and focus his gaze directly ahead onto a patch of empty air over the middle of the table, perpendicular to where Azma was.

“Disciplinary action,” he said, his voice as firm and crisp as he could make it.

“Correct,” Azma said, allowing a small smile to flicker across her lips. 

Ryshild had been with her on a previous operation. He was as much the waste product of a nepotistic appointment as any of the others, but he had been tempered to some extent by his time under her command. A half dozen more such operations and he might rise to a level of at least bearable incompetence.

“And what is he being disciplined for?” Azma asked. It was too much to hope that one of the slack jawed fools before her might properly understand what Melsworth had done wrong, but history had shown that it was the perfect opportunity to weed out additional issues.

“He spoke back to a woman.” [Commander] Falcrest had whispered it sidewise to the woman sitting next to him. His next words would be something orbiting the idea that he was only joking.

Except his next words would never arrive.

Azma snapped her fingers and Falcrest froze into motionlessness in the wake of a wave of agony which erupted from his chest. Slowly, ever so slowly, the edges of his fingers began to crumble away to dust.

“Would anyone else care to guess?” Azma asked pleasantly.

Ryshild raised his hand, drawing a surprised and genuine smile from Azma. She nodded to him, intensely curious what answer the young man was willing to risk his life on.

“Was it Insubordination in Battle, sir?” he asked.

“Very good [Senior Commander] Ryshild,” Azma said, replacing the rank insignia on his lapels with [Senior Commander Wings] with a small wave of her hand.

Another hand rose.

“Yes [Commander] Grenslaw?” Azma asked, shocked and delighted at the unprecedented learning being displayed during the impromptu educational seminar she’d convened.

“Do all planning sessions count as battle conditions or is it because we’re inside the arcanosphere of a uncontracted global power?” Grenslaw asked.

“That is an excellent question [Commander],” Azma said with an appreciative nod. She felt like she should fan herself. Two intelligent responses in a single meeting? She didn’t remember choking out a Luck God recently, but such good fortune could result from little else. “In general planning sessions are not considered battle conditions, though special rules do apply regarding information security. Being within a hostile powers arcanosphere counts as being on [Full Alert] which carries less restrictions than [Battle Conditions].”

Two seats up from Grenslaw, [Commander] Falcrest was continuing to disintegrate slowly. Each mote of dust that fell from him carried a scream of pure crystallized agony. Azma filed a note to remind herself to have the air scrubbers cleaned and the dust collected from them. There were plenty of places that sort of thing could be sold for a tidy profit.

“So we’re not at [Battle Conditions] and you killed them anyways?” [Commander] Camden said.

Azma sighed and stared at him. The streak of intelligence had been so pleasant. It was really her own fault for thinking it could continue.

She tapped a finger on the table, waiting to see what Camden would do next. Grenslaw and Ryshild had brightened her day. She could give Camden one chance to save himself certainly.

“Well? Did you? I mean that’s pretty unprofessional isn’t it?” Camden said.

Azma looked across the room at the rest of the [Commanders]. Some were looking intently at her, as though eager to hear a serious response to the charge. Some were looking studiously at nothing whatsoever, likely wishing they could be anywhere else at all. Grenslaw and Ryshild were the only two shaking their heads with with their eyes closed.

“[Commander],” Azma began and gestured at him. Flames enveloped Camden and he leapt from his seat. “Were you under the belief that we were somehow equals?”

Camden ran screaming into the hallway, but Azma’s next gesture dragged him back to his seat where he continued to burn.

“Open question to the room,” Azma said. “Does it seem wise in light of what you’ve seen today to address the [Supreme Commander] of this operation with even the barest trace of disrespect?”

“No, sir!” several voices answered at once, and a tiny measure of Azma’s good mood returned. Killing them all might have saved time and aggravation, but it was nice to have at least a few potential candidates to mold into more permanent underlings.

Melsworth, still voiceless and breathless, thrashed, banging on the table to get her attention, before a great shudder went through him and he collapsed to the ground, consciousness finally fleeing.

“Excellent,” Azma said. “Now are there any questions?”

Usually the room was dead silent by this stage of the educational seminar. Once again though Azma was surprised as Grenslaw raised a hand.

“What is the current status of the fleet sir?”

“We are at [Battle Conditions],” Azma said. “The official notification was delivered to the fleet at the start of this meeting.”

“Shouldn’t we be out there leading our troops?” [Commander] Baris asked.

It was borderline, but Azma was feeling generous. Baris could live. At least until he decided to speak next.

“No,” Azma said. “You are, all of you, entirely unsuited to command. I have spoken with your command staff. They have their orders and are executing them as we speak. Frankly I should be monitoring their progress more directly, but the most valuable use of my time at the moment is keeping you all from interfering with their efforts.

“Aren’t our troops our responsibility though?” [Commander] Young asked.

Azma inhaled. It was a reasonable question, and it suggested a good mindset. It could have been phrased better, but she could work on that. Young had not intended it as an insult and so Azma would take the question for what it was.

“No,” she said. “They are my responsibility. Your commissions are as meaningless as your rank. The last thing this operation needs is someone striving for personal glory and promotion by changing a plan they don’t understand or are incapable of following.”

Grenslaw raised her hand and Azma nodded to acknowledge her.

“Is there a station from which we can watch the battle operations unfold?” Grenslaw asked.

“Yes, for those who care to,” Azma said. “Or you may return to your private quarters. Food and entertainment have been provided and are waiting for you there.”

Most of the [Commanders] looked all too eager to retreat to their rooms, but both Grenslaw and Ryshild waited behind as the others left. Apart from the three corpses, they were the only ones in the meeting room within a minute of Azma signaling that the other [Commanders] could leave.

“Only three deaths,” Azma said. “I seem to be getting soft in my old age.”

“Will there be any trouble relating to those sir?” Ryshild asked.

“No. They died under [Battle Conditions], so there will be a substantial payout to their surviving heirs, and their patrons within the ranks could not have thought very highly of them or they wouldn’t have been assigned to me.”

“Is there any special story we should use in explaining their absence to the troops?” Grenslaw asked.

“Only be sure to make it clear that I was the one who killed them,” Azma said. “In-fighting among [Commanders] is as common as it is terrible for the morale and discipline of the troops underneath them. I’ll fold the troops assigned to our three fallen comrades into the ones assigned to each of you. Please understand that this is a test. The other [Commanders] may object to the enlargement of your commands. Resolve it without sowing discord between the troops and you will receive a passing mark on the test.”

Neither one asked what the price of failure would be. 

As the troops began to descend onto the surface of the [Fallen Kingdoms] both Ryshild and Grenslaw could see that failure was not an option.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 5

When faced with an impossible task, normal people look for a more practical alternative. Over the years, Tessa had observed that players were definitely not normal people.

“If the area at the bottom of that pit is a a standard raid zone for the [Sunless Deeps], we might be able to have my guild clear it for us,” Alice said to her team and the demons.

“They won’t be able to get there,” Obby said. “At least assuming it’s still similar to what the beta-testers reported. According to them it’s a stand-alone area, without any active connections to the rest of the [Sunless Deeps] yet.”

“They also said it was empty though, didn’t they?” Lady Midnight said, leaning back and resting her chin in her hand as she nibbled on her lip.

“Something has clearly changed,” Starchild said.

“Even if it hasn’t, we do have another option. Possibly,” Alice said.

Tessa was pretty sure she could guess where Lisa’s thoughts were turning.

“You’re thinking we could [Recall] them into the area with us?” she asked.

“Yeah. Maybe. We’d have to see how removed that area is,” Alice said. She looked paler than Tessa remembered but there was a vitality in her eyes that could have been [Vampiric Mesmerism] if Tessa didn’t know that she’d always had a weakness for that look.

“What is this [Recall] thing?” Balegritz asked.

“One of the abilities we can learn is a teleportation effect,” Tessa said. “It’s got a whole bunch of limitations, but if someone is in the same zone, and they’re in our party, and the other conditions are right, we can pull them from where they are right to our side.”

“I don’t think any of us know that one yet though, do we?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Not yet,” Obby said. “If we level a bit we should be able to pick it up pretty quick though.”

“We can’t level here though,” Rip said. “Can we?”

“I’m betting there’s plenty of monsters our new friend have to contend with down here,” Alice said, looking over to Yawlorna who had been watching the conversation between Tessa’s party with calm, calculating ease.

“We do, but I’m curious how you know that?” Yawlorna asked.

“Deduction,” Alice said. “The first of your people we met was a patrol. People don’t tend to patrol inside their homes unless they expect to find problems fairly often. Or the problems they find are severe enough that they can’t let things linger or build nests. Also, dungeons like this tend have a medley of monsters in them.”

“How do you know so much about dungeons?” Hermeziz asked. “I thought you people were ‘low level’ and that most dungeons were too high for you?”

“Because I’m usually much higher level,” Alice said.

“You can change your levels?” Yawlorna asked.

“Not at will,” Tessa said. “Not anymore anyways.”

“We used to interact with this world remotely,” Starchild said, though Tessa guessed it was Pete who was speaking. “Since we were drawn into it, we can’t do some of the things we used to be able to. Like change to different characters.”

“Your ‘character’ is the body you wear in this world, correct?” Yawlorna asked. “What happened to the bodies you are no longer able to access?”

“We don’t know,” Tessa said. “They may not be here at all. Or they may be sleeping somewhere in a coma until we can reanimate them.”

“It sounds like you should be careful,” Illuthiz said. “Those extraneous bodies could be a liability. They would doubtless provide an excellent channel for curses and ensorcellments to be cast on you.”

It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but Tessa couldn’t deny that it sounded reasonable. If, in the real world, body parts like hair and fingernail clippings had the reputation for being ‘magical conduits’, then, clearly, having an entire body, bones, blood and all should be even more effective.

Tessa thought about Glimmerglass and imagined her poor, long unplayed character tied down to some evil wizard’s experimentation table like a scene out of Frankenstein. Maybe she should head back to where she’d last logged Glimmerglass out once her team got to older zones? If Glimmerglass was still there Tessa could figure out what to do with her.

Burn the body maybe? It was probably the smart move, but even the thought made Tessa’s stomache roll. She couldn’t do that, no matter what the risk was. Glimmerglass had meant too much to her for too long.

“That’s a problem we’ll tackle if it ever becomes an issue,” she said. “For all we know, our other characters, those ‘extra bodies’, they might be entirely virtual.”

“Virtual?” Balegritz asked.

“Imaginary,” Obby suggested.

“You lead very strange lives,” Yawlorna said.

For some reason, being told that by an eight foot tall, fire skinned, massive horned demon woman struck Tessa as hilarious. Pillowcase had the sense not to burst out laughing though.

“We have a couple of bigger problems than not having [Recall] yet,” Lady Midnight said. “First, we have no idea what level the stuff is down there, so we could be asking your guild to walk right into a meat grinder.”

“That’s possible,” Alice said. “Which is why we’d need to scout it first.”

“That will be extremely dangerous,” Starchild said. “If the area below is cut-off from the rest of the [Sunless Deeps] then it may not have access to a [Heart Fire] either.”

“We can always climb back up if we need to,” Obby said,

“That would be a long climb wouldn’t it?” Matt asked.

Tessa pictured trying to climb from the depths of planet to the aerial realm of the [High Beyond] with the baying of the [Hounds of Fate] getting closer every moment. 

We can’t let Rip and Matt go on this, she said to Lisa on their private line. Going down there is legit dangerous.

Yeah, I’m thinking, if we go at all, we send down just a scout or two first, Lisa said. And I’m not one hundred percent convinced we should go. Up till now the risks we’ve been taking have all been ones we can back away from. This one might not be.

Do you think we can win the demons over if we refuse to look for this ship? Tessa asked. And for that matter, do you think it’s worth winning them over in the first place? There could be problems with that too.

What, you mean being friendly with demons hasn’t worked out for people in the past? Lisa’s playfully teasing tone wrapped around her words like a hug.

You know, I’m not even sure ‘demon’ is a good name for them, Tessa said. They’re not acting like any classical demon I can think of, or the demon-ish things we run into in other parts of the game. I bet they have a name for themselves that we should be using instead.

We should, but it’s not going to change the conclusions other people jump to when they see us rolling around with an eight foot demon lady on our team.

I’ve got an idea for that, Tessa said. But it is contingent on Yawlorna’s group actually being on our side.

I think we can get them there, Lisa said. I mean, they’re talking with us, which is a lot more than I expected when we came in here. I thought they were going to be self-delivered fast food that had some loot drops in place of a toy surprise.

Some variant of that is probably how everyone here sees them, Tessa said. I think the only way around that is to take some of them with us back to [Sky’s Edge].

Huh, Lisa said and paused for a moment, considering the idea. I’m in. It could go bad, but you know what? Who cares. Yawlorna seems pretty reasonable. If people have a problem with her being who she is, then they’ll have to through me to get to her.

And nobody gets to you unless they go through me first, Tessa said. It’s the Number One Rule for tanks.

She cast a quick smile over to Lisa and turned her ear back to the conversation.

Yawlorna, Obby, Rip, and Starchild had been discussing how dead people could be hauled up from the [Sunless Deeps] the easiest. The demons had switched from their language to an accented version of what sounded like English to Tessa’s ears, which allowed the other members of her team to join in the conversation. 

“The portal to the [Sunless Deeps] probably isn’t as far down as it appears,” Obby said. “Those things mess with your perception all the time. It’s supposed to make them look cooler.”

“If the [Heart Fire] is just over in that room, then we wouldn’t have far to run once we hit the top,” Rip said. Her eagerness sent a pang through Tessa’s heart.

She’d pictured being a Mom from time to time. It was weird concept, something which she had a sense she was supposed to be, but which always felt too distant and removed to really apply to her. Rip and Matt should have been far too old to appear as her children too, and they certainly weren’t asking her to take care of them.

So why could she picture breaking heaven and earth if that’s what it took to keep them safe?

She’d known them for a few hours? A half a day at most? Why was she unable to think of them as anything but ‘her kids’?

We are meant to protect people and keep them safe, Pillowcase said. 

The words rattled around in Tessa’s mind awakening old memories in confirmation. She hadn’t felt safe as a kid. How much of her personality had grown out that? How much of who she’d become was a rejection of the examples other people had set for her?

We need to take a break just so I can get my head in order, Tessa said, though since she was addressing Pillowcase the words were, in multiple senses, only for her own benefit.

“Ok, leaving our safety aside for the moment, there’s another reason we may want to hold off on traveling down that pit,” Lady Midnight said and waited until she had everyone’s attention before continuing. “Notice how many entrances there are to the [Sunless Deeps] from here?”

“There’s only one,” Yawlorna said. “If there were others we would have been attacked through them already.”

“Right. And what have you done with the one entrance that’s available?” Lady Midnight asked.

Tessa rolled her eyes, feeling foolish for not having considered the point Lady Midnight had made.

“We’ve sealed it,” Yawlorna said. “The seal can be broken though.”

“It would have to be,” Lady Midnight said. “And even if you can remake it, you won’t be able to while we’re down there. So if we run into anything that’s beyond us – or if something just sneaks behind us – everyone here could come under attack again.”

“And if the creatures from the Deeps attack, it’s going to be more than snatch and grab raid,” Alice said. “They’ve seen your layout and they know what your troops are like. They’ll be ready for the fortifications this time.”

“Be that as it may,” Yawlorna said. “We need our ship back, and the longer we delay the less likely we are to be able to recover it.”

“Ah, they’re just stalling,” Hermeziz said. “They’re not able to help us. Or they just don’t want to.”

It was tempting to hear only the insult in Hermeziz’s words, but when Tessa pushed that aside and studied the ‘demon’, she saw something else before her.

He was afraid. Afraid and too desperate to allow even the hint of hope inside.

She could see it in how he held Illuthiz and Balegritz. She could see it in all the ‘demons’.

They were just as lost as she was, except for them the [Fallen Kingdoms] was an opaque and endlessly hostile mystery. 

And they only had one chance at surviving it.

“We do want to help you,” Tessa said, rising to her feet as certainty swept through. “Sometimes we talk too much, and sometimes we’re scared of what we have to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll leave anyone behind, or to fend for themselves.”

She turned and began walking, and for a moment everyone was too confused and surprised to say anything.

Then her course became clear.

Where are you going? Lisa asked.

Where we need someone to go, Tessa said. Not the full team. Just a scout or two, right?

I didn’t mean you alone! Lisa said.

“Don’t follow me,” Pillowcase said. “More people means more risk and I can either tell you what I’m seeing or what’s down there isn’t anything we want any part of.”

Wait! Lisa shouted in their channel.

I can’t, Tessa said. They need to see who we are.

And with that she stepped over the edge of the pit and crashed through the wards holding it closed.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 4

It was a truth universally acknowledged, that an adventuring party in possession of far better things to do must be in want of a quest to squander their time, and resources upon. 

“And what, exactly, might your quest entail?” Tessa asked, mentally crossing her fingers that it wasn’t going to be some variation of an escort quest.

“We need to reclaim our ship,” Yawlorna said. “If we can do that, we can repair it and get the hell out of here.”

The other demons began murmuring among themselves at Yawlorna’s words but none of them took their eyes off Tessa or her party.

“Where does it need to be reclaimed from?” Tessa asked. There were more bad answers to that question than she could count and, given her party’s low level, almost no good ones.

“We do not know,” Yawlorna said.

Of course they don’t, Tessa grumbled on her private line with Lisa.

Don’t what? Lisa asked.

Quest with no known objective point, Tessa said. Those weren’t common anymore, but at one point early on they’d been a tactic the developers experimented with to improve immersion. Some players absolutely loved it, and were virulently against adding quests which offered any actual directions on how to do them. The majority of the playerbase seemed to disagree though.

“Our ship was damaged in the crash and we didn’t have the supplies to repair it,” Yawlorna explained. “Before we could collect what we needed, a raid from what you called the [Sunless Deeps] attacked us. We believe the raiders captured it as it disappeared some time during the battle.”

“How do you lose a whole ship?” Matt asked. “And where could they have taken it?”

“This word you use, ship, it is not exactly right,” Yawlorna said.

“But that’s what you called it?” Matt said.

“No. I said it was a ship,” Yawlorna said.

Uh, what is happening here? Tessa asked.

Translation limitation, Pillowcase said. We are thinking in English, and ‘ship’ is the closest match to the two different words being spoken in Nezzparin, their language.

It sounds like its a bad translation then, Tessa said.

If we focus on the word, the translation threads in our ears will perform a deeper analysis.

Tessa didn’t need to ask Pillowcase for an explanation of what she meant by ‘focus’ or how the deeper analysis would be performed. That knowledge already lived in her head, she just had to remember to recall it.

Pausing for a moment, she replayed Yawlorna’s words and heard, instead of English, the actual tones and syllables Yawlorna had spoken.

‘Ship’ was indeed close, but the word Yawlorna used was closer to ‘Portable Sphere Ship’ and referred to a particular class of vessel which, when traveling, looked like a steampunked up sailing vessel from Tessa’s world, and when at rest collapsed into something that resembled a crystal ball wrapped in bronze.

“I think I understand,” Tessa said. “You meant a ‘ship’, correct?” She was careful to use the more specific variant of the word and saw various people opposite her smile at her use of the proper word.

“Exactly,” Yawlorna said. “We had it guarded of course, but the things that came out of that pit…we barely survived where we had fortifications already installed.”

Tessa, Matt, and Obby explained Yawlorna’s story to the others quickly.

“That might be why they sealed the portal,” Rip said in their party channel.

Alice gave a short laugh.

“That’s probably why they had blood to spare.”

How are you holding up on that front? Tessa asked privately.

It’s not getting worse, Lisa said. It is so tempting to nibble on one of them a bit though.

Probably not the best idea under the circumstances.

I know. I’ll be good. For now anyways, Lisa said, forcing some levity into her voice.

“The forces that took our ship are beyond our ability to pursue, but if you truly cannot be killed, it should be simple for you to face them and recover our ship, no?”

“It depends,” Tessa said.

She weighed the costs and benefits of telling the demons specific details about how adventurers worked. She also weighed how much she could trust that what she knew from the game was still true in this ‘real’ version of the [Fallen Kingdoms].

“You want to charge us some fee? Negotiate a reward up front?” Yawlorna asked, her eyes narrowing at that to pick out whatever subtle trick Tessa might be planning and throw it back at her.

“No fees, no rewards,” Tessa said. “Quest rewards always suck. No, I said it depends, because there are a number of factors which could complicate things.” She continued on quickly as the mood of the assembled demons turned sour. “Factors such as did the people who stole the ship keep it or did they pass it on to someone else? Has it been moved to an area which is only accessible via travel abilities we do not possess yet such as being able to walk through solid stone? Or, worst of all, has it been destroyed, or did the person who took it make the repairs it needed and then pilot it away to another world themselves?”

“You say those as though the search for our ship will be impossible,” Yawlorna said.

“Not impossible. Far from it in fact,” Tessa said. “Just not particularly trivial. Also, there’s the very likely complication that the creatures who stole your ship are more powerful than all of us put together.”

“That’s not possible, you just don’t want to do it,” Hameziz said.

“They are only seven,” Yawlorna said. “If they faced a raid such as we did, they would not be able to withstand it any better than our warriors managed to.”

The demons gave a collective shrug of agreement at that, and some part of Tessa warned her that she should let their misunderstanding of what she’d meant linger.

Another part of her warned her that building any relationship on misunderstandings was a catastrophically bad idea.

And a third part felt like someone, somewhere, was watching her. She glanced around the room, but aside from the demons, only the other members of her party had their eyes on her.

“Your pardon,” she said. “I didn’t mean that the seven of us would be unable to handle some of the things which live in the [Sunless Deeps]. I meant everyone in this room, with fortifications, and the element of surprise, wouldn’t even come close to being able to handle some of things down there.”

“That’s not…” Hameziz began to say but Obby cut him off.

“I think we need to establish a baseline for our capabilities,” she said. “What do you say we do a quick spar? That should demonstrate things clearly enough.”

Hameziz raised an eyebrow and frowned, looking over to Yawlorna for direction.

“If you wish,” she said, directing the comment to Hameziz.

“So, you and me?” Hameziz asked. “What are the rules?”

“Hmm, how about no fatal or disabling blows from me, you’re free to do whatever you want,” Obby said. “We go for a minute, or until one of us gives up? We should know by then about how tough we each are.”

“Weapons?” Hameziz asked.

“Anything you want,” Obby said. “I’ll stick with my gauntlets though. If I use a sword I’ll have to put too much energy into not chopping you up to have any fun with it.”

“You’re serious?” Hameziz said, glancing again to Yawlorna, who nodded once more.

“Not usually,” Obby said. “But this seems fun, and it should cut through a lot of back and forth.”

“Well then, gimme my spear,” Hameziz said. “We’ll test out that immortality thing you’ve got going on.”

“Not likely,” Obby said, rising from her chair.

You sure about this? Tessa asked Obby privately.

Yeah, Obby said, They’re not that high level.

Tessa wasn’t sure how Obby could tell that since none of the demons were showing level indicators near their names, but long term players had a sense for things sometimes.

The first round of the fight was so brief that it barely qualified as a sparring match. Hameziz and Obby approached one another in a cleared out space in the main hall, Hameziz tried to lunge unexpectedly at Obby. Obby caught his spear, pulled him in and hit him so hard in the face that he did a complete summersalt before landing flat on his back.

“That…that was a cheap shot,” he said as Illuthiz and Balegritz helped him to his feet.

“It was, but points for trying it,” Obby said. “If you’re going to fight higher level foes, keep thinking like that, just don’t over commit so much.”

“I didn’t…” Hameziz started to say before Illuthiz poked him. “Well, we’re not done.”

“I hope not!” Obby said and raised her hands in relaxed fists.

The next exchange was more drawn out than the first, though Pillowcase suspected that was largely because Obby wasn’t particularly interested in ending it quickly.

Hameziz thrust with his spear and slid the attack into a nimble parry the moment Obby deflected it and moved it to launch her own attack. They clashed back and forth like that for several passes, with Obby offer commentary as they did.

“Don’t cross your legs when you retreat.”

“Watch for low strikes too.”

“Shove and jump back if you want to create distance.”

They were basic tips for spear fighting and despite Hameziz’s ability to engulf his weapon with the [Flames of Avarice] which suggested mastery of the weapon, he seemed to be benefiting from the instruction.

“Is this really a sparring match?” Yawlorna asked.

“Yes!” Hameziz said, as he corrected his stance as Obby had suggested.

“Not exactly,” Obby admitted.

“I think you’ve made your point,” Yawlorna said.

“I’m not sure about that,” Obby said. “Tell you what. One more round, but this time let’s bring in some more people.”

“You wish to fight with your friends?” Yawlorna said.

“Oh, no! Not on my side,” Obby said. “I mean more to stand with Hameziz.”

“They will likely kill you,” Yawlorna said.

“They won’t which is why I think you need to see this,” Obby said. “And, I’ve got gems to rez with if I’m wrong.”

“As you will then,” Yawlorna said. “Let’s see how you fare against three at once.”

“Make it six,” Obby said, gesturing to the nearest five demons and Hameziz.

The demons stepped forward, each smirking and eager to wipe away the arrogant calm they saw in the [Guardian] before them.

The fight wasn’t as quick as the first round, but it was less than a minute later when all six demons were laying on the ground, groaning in pain.

The rest had taken more than a couple steps back.

“That was quite the display,” Yawlorna said, calculations and analysis ticking away in the background of her eyes.

“Thank you,” Obby said. “I could probably handle twice as many before things got dicey. Three or four times as many and I’d go down without significant support. But to be fair, I’m only in a level 15 body at the moment and wearing level 15 gear. Once I level up a bit those numbers will change fairly drastically.”

“How so?” Yawlorna asked.

“At level 20, your troops will be down to a 2% chance to hit me and will be doing only about 10% of their usual damage. By level 25 I could be completely surrounded by as many of your troops as would fit in the space and they wouldn’t be able to damage me faster than my health can naturally recover.”

“So level 25 means you’re undefeatable?” Yawlorna asked.

“Undefeatable by your troops as they are now,” Obby said. “If you were helping them though, it would take more levels for me to reach ‘undefeatable’.”

“There are levels above 25?” Yawlorna asked.

“For adventurers? Yeah, we can go up to level 99,” Obby said.

“And the monsters in the [Sunless Deeps] are even stronger than that,” Tessa said. “Some of them, the most powerful bosses there, go up to level 150.”

“We have truly landed in hell,” Yawlorna said, sinking back into her chair.

Tessa wanted to reassure her, but on reflection she wasn’t sure Yawlorna was necessarily wrong.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 3

Tessa had a theory, but it wasn’t a theory she was particularly happy with, even if it promised to be the answer to one of the problems facing them.

Call up a map of this place please, she asked Lisa on their private channel.

I tried already, Lisa said. It says ‘no map found’.

In the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] which Tessa was familiar with, various areas existed without the in-game maps which the players could call up to get a reference to where they were. In some cases it was because the locations were tiny and no map was needed, in others it was because they were considered to be under a “fog of war” (though that mostly applied to specialized PvP zones), and then there were the places where the developers denied the players in-game maps to create a sense of ‘mysterious’ and provide ‘immersion’.

In theory the latter case was there to encourage exploration and discovery. It was meant to draw the players in and force them to navigate through a dungeon (typically) as their characters had to. Because the developers were sadists at heart, the locations without maps would also typically include such things are randomly reconfiguring mazes or series of isolated sub areas with interacting and random teleporters.

Tessa had never found that sort of thing fun, especially when she was faced with the potential of a running battle through new terrain against an enemy of unknown capabilities.

The lead demon just said this place is called the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grace], Tessa said.

Wait, we were just in there, Lisa said. It’s a low level dungeon. It can’t be this sprawling.

The devs did promise a ‘deep lore dive’ for the [World Shift] expansion, Tessa said. What if they meant that literally?

Lisa cursed and Tessa could only agree.

“We can stand here talking if you like,” she said, turning her attention back to the demons in front of her, “or we can go chat with your commanders, or we can head out, or we can fight. I’d rather not do the last one since it gains neither of us anything, and if you can talk then you’re not the xps we’re looking for.”

“XPs?” Illuthiz asked. Pillowcase was heartened to see that she’d shifted to a more casual stance, even if Hermeziz was still on high alert.

“Wow, you are from a different world,” Obby said.

“Adventurers in this world grow stronger through winning battles,” Tessa said. “There’s a point system related to how strong the foes are.”

“And you have points for us?” Hermeziz asked, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

“There are points for everything here,” Obby said.

“Monsters,” Hermeziz said. “You’re a bunch of blood thirsty killers.”

“Yeah, most of us,” Obby said. “You can take Pillowcase at her word though. We don’t want to fight you.”

“Or anyone who we can talk to instead,” Tessa said. “We need to be stronger because there are threats in this world which are far greater than anything we can survive now, and because it might be the only way for us to get home.”

“What do you mean?” Balegritz asked.

“We’re lost here too,” Matt said.

“You want to go back to the Consortium?” Illuthiz asked.

“No. Our world isn’t one where the Consortium has ever been. Or maybe even ever can be,” Tessa said.

“You’re a Consortium soldier!” Hermeziz shouted. “One of their elites. How could you come from a world where they’ve never been?”

“We’re each more than we appear to be,” Obby said. “And you should probably call your commanders in for the rest. They’ll want to hear it too.”

“And what will you do if we don’t?” Balegritz asked.

“Wait here until you do I suppose,” Obby said.

“Or just leave,” Tessa said. “Chatting like this is nice, and if we can form a working relationship it would be better for both of us, but we’re not the only adventurers out there, and they’ll get too far ahead of us if wait forever.”

“And what if we try to stop you from leaving?: Balegritz asked.

“Then we’ll fight, and no matter how things turn out, neither of us will win,” Tessa said.

“You think you can beat us?” Hemeziz asked.

“There’s seven of us, and three of you,” Matt said. “And we seem to know how this world works better than you do.”

“You have miscounted,” a new demon said.

It was good that the room they were speaking in had a high ceiling. When the new demon appeared behind Pillowcase, her invisibility melted away to reveal someone who’s horns could easily scrape the top of the tall room.

[Elite Boss] class, was Pillowcase’s analysis. Significant threat. Durable and hard hitting. Also resistant to most crowd control effects and will possess a minimum of two special moves. Standard tactical response; engage with a full squad and expect casualties.

The presence of a major foe was almost enough to distract Tessa from the dozen other demons who appeared flying outside the giant opera box they were standing in.

“Drop your weapons,” the Elite demon said.

It was a tempting command. Tessa wasn’t sure that the seven people in her party put together would be enough to take on an Elite, who were typically level 20 and higher, much less an Elite backed by more than twice her team’s number in support troops.

“No,” Pillowcase said.

“You are in a poor bargaining position,” the Elite said.

“That’s not a problem. We’re not bargaining,” Pillowcase said. 

“Curious. We will destroy you, you realize that do you not?” the Elite said.

“You may try to destroy us,” Pillowcase said. “As I said though, it’s not in your best interests.”

“You think you can tell tell [Commander] Yawlorna  where our interests lie?” Balegritz said.

“Yes. I do.” Pillowcase nodded. “You are ignorant of who we are and the goals we seek. As are we of you. It’s in no one’s interest for this to turn to bloodshed, least of all yours. If you slay us, we will recover. If we slay you, you will, apparently, stay dead.”

“Maybe we should test that idea,” Hermeziz said.

“No,” the demon [Commander] said, carefully scrutinizing Pillowcase. “I don’t think that would be wise.”

Finally! Tesa said, venting her frustration to Lisa.

Finally? Lisa asked.

The big one seems to be ready to talk. I mean really talk, Tessa said.

That’s good, Lisa said, concern etching into her voice. When the small army back there showed up I thought things weren’t going so well.

They could be going better, Tessa said. I take it you’ve been keeping things under control with Rip, Starchild and Lady Midnight?

Sort of, Lisa said. Lady Midnight’s been giving commentary on how tough the demons are and assuring Rip that we’re fine. Pete and Starchild have been pretty quiet. I think they’re talking things over between themselves.

“We cannot leave this passageway open though,” [Commander] Yawlorna said and turned to one of the flying demons. “Hazgromonde, fetch a crew. We need structural work done here. I want the top and bottom of that hole sealed within a half hour.”

“We are going to need to leave at some point,” Obby said.

“There are other exits,” Yawlorna said. “When we are done, you will be escorted out one of the minor ones. You have my word on that.”

Tessa wasn’t sure how much the word of a demon was worth, and Pillowcase had no solid suggestions, aside from noting that they didn’t have much room to protest if they still wished to avoid a fight.

“Before we go, one question,” Pillowcase said. “It was mentioned that the name of this place is the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. How do you know that?”

“There’s a library a few levels down. Most of it is ruined but we’ve managed to piece together a few maps of the area from what was left,” Yawlorna said. “Why do you ask?”

“We came here from what we thought was an entirely different set of caverns and they bore the same name,” Tessa said.

“Is it common to reuse names on this world?” Yawlorna asked.

“No. Not at all,” Tessa said. “In fact it strongly suggests that the caverns we were in are connected to this area somehow.”

“Maybe that’s where the pit leads?” Illuthiz said.

“I don’t think so,” Obby said. “That pit leads to the [Sunless Deeps].”

There was a collective intake of breath among the demons.

“How do you know that?” Yawlorna asked. “Have you been there?”

Obby seemed at a loss for words for moment, and Tessa thought she could guess why.

“We have access to fairly broad information about the world,” Tessa said. “It’s not complete, but it does cover most things that any other adventurer has discovered.”

“Sounds like a Consortium hive mind,” Hermeziz muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.

“A Consortium hive mind would never be willing to give information freely,” Pillowcase said. “At best they would sell it to you.”

That brought another pause, followed by a few nods and shrugs of agreement. The demons hadn’t exactly warmed to the adventurers but they seemed to at least accept that the adventurers were behaving too out of character to be affiliated with that particularly enemy.

“Come,” Yawlorna said. “We will gather so that all may question you equally.”

Tessa wasn’t sure what to expect from that but it turned out to be exactly what it sounded like.

Yawlorna lead the group of demons and adventurers down into the central hall, passing word as they traveled to various smaller demons to alert those who were not presently on duty to join them.

By the time they got to the central hall, it looked like several hundred demons had assembled there.

“I think there are more demons here than I have arrows in my quiver,” Rip said on the party channel.

“Isn’t your quiver endless?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, so?” Rip asked.

A squad of demons emerged from one of the side rooms, carrying thirty or so chairs. They arranged them in two groups in the center of the hall but well removed from the barricaded pit in the middle of the hall’s length.

The first group of chairs were plain seats, comfortable enough but without adornment. Those were placed in a group of seven and set to face the remaining chairs which were placed haphazardly in a half circle in front of the seven. 

Tessa and the others in her group were escorted to the seven chairs.

“Starchild and Obby, take the outer edges, Pillow, you take the center, Midnight and I will flank you and Rip and Matt can take the wing seats,” Alice said, solving the problem of who would sit where before they could stumble around looking foolish.

Pillowcase liked the arrangement from a tactical standpoint, but Tessa was praying that tactical concerns weren’t going to be an issue.

Opposite them, the demons seemed to take a much more free approach to seating with two or more demons sprawling together on the same chairs, while others stood empty. Yawlorna and Balegritz either by station or inclination, had chairs to themselves, while Hermeziz and Illuthiz shared one near them.

“You spoke of a working relationship between us,” Yawlorna began. “What do you envision that to mean.”

“As much or as little as each side is comfortable with,” Tessa said. 

It puzzled her how speaking to a eight foot tall demon woman with horns like a bull and muscles as solid as a semi-truck could seem natural.

Why aren’t I freaking out here? she wondered. How is this natural? Shouldn’t my heart be beating out of my chest?

[Clothwork] hearts are designed better than that, Pillowcase replied.

“We’d be comfortable if you weren’t here,” Hermeziz said. 

Illuthiz ground a knuckle into his cheek.

“Questions now,” she said. “Whining never.”

“He’s not wrong to worry,” Pillowcase said. “This isn’t a safe world. We mean you harm, but you don’t know us yet, and trust can only be earned through time.”

“You would be willing to earn our trust then?” Yawlorna said.

“Possibly,” Tessa said. “What did you have in mind?”

“You said you have wide knowledge of this world?” Yawlorna said. “If so then perhaps you can aid us in our quest to leave this world.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 2

Fights don’t always go to the one who attacks first, but hesitating when the enemy is right in front of you was a fantastic method for getting yourself killed in Pillowcase’s experience.

“Wait!” Tessa called out as both her group and the demons in front of her moved to unleash their weapons and spells.

Oblivion’s Daughter was faster than Pillowcase but, to her credit, was also able to check her initial swing the moment Tessa called out.

Rip, Matt, and Starchild had been intending to hold their attacks until given leave to join the fray, but that didn’t stop Rip from letting out a confused “What?” in response.

The demons, who Tessa was certain hadn’t been speaking English when they came into the room, also paused, though in their case that involved pointing their spears at the two nearest targets and bursting into flames.

“Wait,” Pillowcase said aloud, again, for everyone to hear. “We don’t have to fight.”

“Who in Hezzlmin’s Charred Nethers are you then?” Balegritz, the nearest demon asked.

Balegritz was taller than either Pillowcase or Obby and seemed to out mass both of the put together. The flames which burned in his eyes were a soft shade of purple which blended nicely with the nimbus of blue flames which danced around his heavily armored form.

[Bruiser] class, Pillowcase thought. Enhanced toughness and durability with a focus on physical damage. Best slain with non-elemental magic damage. Physical weaknesses include navel, heart, and decapitation. Standard tactical response; hold and allow casters to finish off.

“I’m Pillowcase,” Tessa said, the name feeling at the same time silly and contrived as well as proper and well worn. “Ca you understand me?”

“Course we can understand you,” Hermeziz, the demon on Balegritz’s left, said. “Wait, you speak Nezzparrin?”

Inability to understand one’s enemies is a strategic weakness, Pillowcase said.

Am I omni-lingual now? Tessa asked.

My linguistics threads were designed to render my speech comprehensible to anyone who spoke a language the Consortium had documented. Some concepts may not translate well, and I will not sound like a native speaker in many cases but basic orders are a well tested area.

“We’re not speaking Nezzparrin,” Obby said. “We do have translation magic though.”

We do? Lisa asked. I’m can’t make out anything they’re saying.

It’s part of the [Artifax] lore, Tessa said. I’m guessing Obby picked up some other translation effect somehow.

“What are you doing here then?” Balegritz asked.

“The floor in the farmhouse above this room collapsed,” Obby said, wisely in Tessa’s view omitting the part about their party’s intent to hunt up some demon blood.

“The farmhouse?” Hermeziz asked.

Tessa gestured upwards to the hole in the roof. “Yeah, up there.”

“Flark,” Balegritz said. “That wasn’t there last time.”

“Did you run into any [Chaos Centipedes] lately? There are a few hundred up there on a fast respawn timer,” Pillowcase said.

“[Chaos Centipedes]? That’s were those things are coming from!” Illuthiz, the last demon, said, indignation stoking the green flames around her to noticeably brighter hue.

[Skirmisher] class, Pillowcase noted. Evasive and durable. Primarily a physical damage dealer, but with special movement and status inflicting abilities. Best fought with immobilization techniques. Weak points include legs, eyes, and decapitation. Standard tactical response; constrain and exploit opening if their focus deviates while other front line fighters dispatch.

“Yeah, we’ve seen a few of those things,” Balegritz said. “You don’t look like you fell down the hole though. How long have you been here?”

“A few minutes,” Matt said. “Didn’t you hear me hit the ground? It wasn’t quite.”

Tessa saw the game Matt was playing, trying to turn his earlier mistake to their advantage, but she worried that the demons might have noticed that his fall was a lot quieter than it should have been thanks to the vines Starchild conjured.

“See! I told you I heard something!” Illuthiz said. 

“Ok, you’re right,” Balegritz said. “Question is, what do we do with all of them?”

“We could have them climb up those ropes they’ve got there,” Hermeziz said. “How’d you get those setup if you fell?”

It was a reasonable question but the tone Hermeziz asked it in suggested he was feeling anything but reasonable.

“Magic,” Obby said, pointing to the remains of the vines from Starchild’s earlier spell as though that explained everything.

“We were going to check out this place a bit before we left,” Pillowcase said. “It’s not everyday that you fall into a brand new dungeon.”

“It’s not exactly ‘brand new’,” Balegritz said. “We’ve been here for years now. Ever since we crashed on this miserable rock.”

“Crashed?” Tessa asked. “You’re not from here?”

“Do we look like we’re from here?” Balegritz asked.

“Yeah,” Obby said.

“Pretty much,” Matt said.

“You’re not the strangest thing I’ve seen today,” Pillowcase said. “Probably not even in the top five.”

“I know, right?” Obby said. “At least these folks have a sense of style in their armor.”

Tessa thought she saw Balegritz beam at that, but Hermeziz narrowed his eyes while Illuthiz remained as calm and blank faced as Pillowcase was.

“So maybe we have them leave like they were planning to?” Illuthiz asked.

“Sure, that seems smart,” Hermeziz said. “It’s not like they’ll go and tell everyone and everything that we’re here.”

“Would that be a bad thing?” Pillowcase asked.

“Are you new here?” Balegritz asked. “Or have you not noticed that people like you are universally aggressive to people like me?”

How are negotiations going? Lisa asked.

They don’t trust us, Tessa said. Sounds like they think everyone else is universally aggressive towards them.

Decent odds they’re correct, Lisa said.

“There haven’t been many people like me around here until very recently,” Pillowcase said, removing her helmet so the demons could see that they were talking to an [Clothwork] rather than the human Tessa guessed they’d mistaken her for.

“Consortium!” Hermeziz yelled and charged his spear with a nimbus of green flames that Pillowcase instinctively braced against.

[Flames of Avarice]. Reduces healing capacity of the targets. Punctures through basic defenses. Best supplemental defense; destroy wielder before it can be deployed. I hate that stuff.

“Ex-Consortium,” Pillowcase said.

“Ex-Consortium?” Balgritz asking, putting a hand on Hemeziz’s shoulder to delay the impending attack. “How is that possible?”

“I was abandoned after a failed assault,” Pillowcase said. “My new animating force is unconnected to the [Consortium of Pain], and so I am no longer bound to them in any manner.”

“Still programmed for loyalty though I bet,” Hermeziz said.

“No more so than you’re programmed for evil,” Matt said, he’d stepped forward to join Obby and Pillowcase since he was the only other member of their party who could understand the demons.

“That’s an easy claim to make,” Illuthiz said. “Hard to prove though.”

“Not necessarily,” Pillowcase said. “If you have any [Master Enchanters] in your ranks, they should be able to examine my thread weave and see that the command compulsion enchantments are gone. In fact, if you talk to them, they’ll tell you that destruction of a constructs animating enchantment causes a complete erasure of binding spells on them, usually requiring a full recreation ritual to safely bring the construct back online.”

“How do you know we have ranks?” Hermeziz asked.

“Because you look like the people down there,” Matt said, pointing to the back of the room where overlook of the grand hall was.

Pillowcase wanted to put her helmet back on. It was nicer to have her hands free, but since the gesture was likely to heighten the demon’s suspicions, she opted to leave it off.

“Going back to your original point though,” Pillowcase said before the conversation drifted too far from where she wanted it to be. “You’re concerned with keeping this location a secret? It’s understandable, but likely no longer practical. The farmhouse we discovered is swarmed with low level monsters. They’ll draw other adventurers in and if there’s one thing adventurers do, it’s poke their noses into any strange thing they find.”

“Even if they get them bitten off?” Hermeziz said.

“Especially if they get bitten off,” Obby said. “If we disappear here, that’ll create a mystery which other people will definitely follow up on. If more people disappear after that, this will become a hub for higher and higher level players to test themselves against.”

“Also, if you kill us, we won’t have as much reason to be talkative the next time, after we respawn,” Matt said.

“Respawn?” Illuthiz asked.

“Yeah,” Matt said. “You know? How we come back after we die?”

“You do what?” Balegritz asked, though it was clear than all three of the demons were incredulous at the idea.

“When we die, we can come back again,” Matt said. “It just takes a while, especially if we don’t have the stuff to come back right where we fell.”

“You’re lying,” Hermeziz said. “Nobody comes back from being dead. Dead is dead.”

“Not for us,” Pillowcase said. “Though it is seriously inconvenient, so we’re not going to try prove it if you ask.”

Getting back to a [Heart Fire] would be difficult enough, but dodging the [Hounds of Fate] for the whole run might be impossible and Tessa was absolutely not willing to risk any of her new friends on the attempt when diplomacy was a much better answer.

“We could force the issue,” Illuthiz said, her tone light and casual, without the menace her words should have carried.

“You could try,” Obby said.

“But you don’t want to,” Pillowcase quickly added. “Like I said, your base’s location is too close to a village which has become a major land in the last day or so. Dealing with outsiders is going to be a thing whether you like it or not.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Hermeziz said. “If anybody else finds us, they definitely won’t like it.”

“Does it help you to lose members of your troop like that?” Pillowcase asked. “Do you gain anything from an unworkable isolation?”

“Yeah, we do. We stay safe from you and all the other ridiculous monsters out there that want to eat us, or drink our blood, or whatever you sick things do,” Hermeziz said.

Ouch. They’re worried we want to drink their blood, Tessa said to Lisa on their private channel.

Because of me? Lisa asked.

I don’t think so, Tessa said. It was part of a list of exaggerated worries.

Good. I’ll keep my mouth shut then, Lisa said. Hopefully my robes will keep me hidden too. I think they’re big enough that the demons haven’t gotten a good look at me yet.

I’ll be sure to warn them of who and what we all area, Tessa said. They already freaked out a bit when they saw what I was.

They don’t like plushies?

They don’t like the [Consortium of Pain]. Apparently they’ve met Pillowcase’s creators before.

“That’s interesting that we look like monsters to you,” Obby said. “You’re from another world entirely aren’t you?”

“I said we crashed here, didn’t I?” Balegritz said.

“Yes, but you don’t crash here from a world we could see in the sky above this land,” Obby said. “You’re from another reality. And somehow you slipped through to here.”

“I guess?” Balegritz said. “I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that this place is nothing like home. Everything is wrong here. Even the name of it.”

“What’s wrong with the [High Beyond]?” Tessa asked.

“Apart from the otherworlds reverb in your voice when you say those words?” Illuthiz asked.

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Balegriz said. “I mean, this dungeon like you called it. [The Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]? What kind of name is that for a place?”

Tessa stiffened. 

It was the same name as the dungeon her team had been in when Starchild called for help. 

But the developers wouldn’t have named two different dungeons the same thing.

So either they were in truly unwritten territory, or the dungeon they’d fallen into was bigger than any Tessa had heard of before.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Chapter 1

Tessa descended one hand hold at a time into darkness, keenly aware of the dangers which lurked below her and blissfully ignorant of the far greater forces moving across the two worlds she was a part of.

“Couldn’t we just fall to the bottom?” Rip asked. “I mean, we have healers with us right?”

“Apart from not enjoying the idea of breaking my legs, we also need to test the ropes in case we need to use them to exit quickly,” Tessa said.

“Obby didn’t break anything though,” Rip said. She was climbing down the same rope Tessa was on, and was strangely eager to reach the bottom and start fighting again.

Good call there on going down before Rip, Lisa said on their private channel. It was still tempting for Tessa to call her Lost Alice, but that was only force of habit. Strangely, once they’d announced their real names to each other, the text chat that appeared in the corner of Tessa’s vision had updated to reflect “Lisa” as the speaker when they were communicating privately, though it still showed “Lost Alice” when she spoke aloud.

 I think she’d leap from where she is if she thought it was a straight fall to the bottom. Lisa added.

You don’t think her arms are getting tired do you? Tessa asked.

She looks like she’s doing fine from here, Lisa said. Can you catch her if she loses her grip?

I think so. Pillowcase was built pretty strong from someone made of cloth and stuffing. How are you doing though?

Turns out Vampires are pretty strong too, Lisa said with a note of pride in her voice.

“If you folks want to jump, we can catch you,” Obby said.

“That seems like a great idea for breaking two people instead of one,” Lost Alice said.

“We won’t know unless we try!” Rip said.

Tessa was correct that Pillowcase was strong enough to catch and hold a falling elf. Where Pillowcase fell short though was in being just a bit too slow get a handhold on Rip before she fell out of arm’s reach..

“Wheee!” Rip yelled, though only on their group channel. In terms of externally audible qualities, her fall was more silent than a whisper.

“[Lesser Impact Absorption],” Obby said, invoking a [Guardian] skill which was more traditionally used as a damage shield while fighting tough opponents.

“Oof,” Rip gasped into the party channel and added “it worked!” after catching her breath.

“Well, that’ll save time,” Matt said and let go of his rope as well. 

This time Tessa didn’t even try to grab him. As a [Metal Mechanoid], Matt was a lot heavier than Rip and also a lot more inherently durable. In battle, Rip might have the edge in survivability due to her better armor and evasiveness, but for random environmental damage being a walking suit of plate armor was something of an advantage. Which was good because Tessa was pretty sure the [Lesser Impact Absorption] which Oblivion’s Daughter had used had been exhausted soaking the damage from Rip’s fall.

“[Grasping Vines],” Starchild called out as she shoved Obby and Rip aside.

Even with the insulation provided by six feet of vines sprouting up to cushion his fall, Matt still hit the ground fairly hard. Fortunately not hard enough to break anything but Matt did let out a small “oww” before getting to his feet.

“Ok, that was kind of…not bright,” he said. “I think I fell a hundred feet there.”

“Yeah! And walked away from it without a scratch!” Rip said. “I kind of want to climb up and do it again.”

“I will literally bite you if you come back up here,” Alice said as she and Tessa continued to descend.

Tessa was reasonably sure she was joking, but elves were full of yummy blood to a vampire and Lisa had complained about feeling hungry several times already.

“I said ‘I kind of want to’, I’m not going to do it,” Rip said. “I know we’re on a time crunch here.”

‘Time crunches’ gave Tessa a brief flashback to her workplace. According to the clock in her heads up display, she should have been at work hours ago. Had anyone noticed she wasn’t in yet? Were they calling to find out where she was? Had they fired her already?

Losing her job shouldn’t have been able to crack the Top 500 list of Tessa’s primary worries given the situation she was in but it managed to hit home nonetheless. For as believable as everything around her felt, and looked, and sounded, the sense of being cast out and abandoned by her employers was too real for her to ignore.

Wait, that’s not me is it? Tessa probed the edges of her fear while lowering herself down the rope. I’m not worried about losing my job. It sucks. If they fire me and I have all this to work with instead that’s my dream come true.

Correct. This is your dream. Your memory merely touched on my nightmare, Pillowcase said. When my unit lost, when I fell after the battle, all of the meaning I’d been give crumbled. I was no longer what I was supposed to be. I was nothing.

Tessa felt the existential dread Pillowcase spoke of. She remembered it. Knew it as her own. Pillowcase’s despair and fading light was unique to her life as a construct for the [Consortium of Pain] but it spoke in the same voice as the emptiness and misery in Tessa’s memories.

You ok? Lisa asked.

Tessa had paused her descent as she wrestled with the overlapping sensations from two lives. 

Yeah, she said, taking a slow breath to center herself. Just a bit of work related stress catching up to me.

You do a lot of rope climbing at work? Lisa asked.

Well, I do now it seems, Tessa said. I was just thinking about being fired.

You know you’re weird right? Lisa asked.

It’s been noted before, Tessa said.

But it’s a cute kind of weird, Lisa said which made Tessa’s heart do all sorts of wrong fluttering.

They finished their climb to find the others had drawn up a small map on the ground using bits of the vines which Starchild had summoned.

“I took a look outside the door after the last patrol went by,” Obby said. “It looks like the hallway outside leads off in these directions.  She pointing to a curving length of vine with a four way intersection to the left of the room they were in and a single side corridor to the right.

“Which way did the patrol go?” Alice asked.

“Towards the intersection,” Obby said. “From the sound of it, they turned right and went down some stairs or whatever’s over there.”

“Were they patrolling like an organized unit or just walking from one place to another?” Tessa asked.

“It was a patrol,” Starchild said. “They had weapons ready and they were being quiet and observant.”

“That’s a shame,” Tessa said. “This would have been a lot easier if the demons were mindless. Getting the drop on wary and alert mobs is a pain.”

“I think I see why you mentioned blood being a valuable piece of loot,” Lady Midnight said, getting a clear look at Lost Alice for the first time.

“It’s not my first choice of meal, believe me,” Alice said.

“[Demon blood] should be pretty filling, I’m hoping,” Tessa said. “It’s used in a ton of alchemy recipes and the lore has it as being saturated with magic, which is what vampires here are supposedly subsisting on primarily.”

“Wait, so vampires don’t need blood? They need magic?” Rip asked.

“Unfortunately the blood’s an important part of it,” Alice said.

“Think of it like you needing ‘carbon’ for food. Fundamentally that’s what most food is but it has to be in a very specific configuration. You can’t just chow down on a diamond,” Tessa said.

“That makes sense,” Rip said. “So how we do get their blood then? I mean apart from the whole hit them till they stop moving thing.”

“That’s pretty much how it’s done,” Tessa said. “The key it going to be working out how to hit them while not giving them the chance to hit us back very much.”

“We could use the side passages against them,” Obby said and went on to diagram her suggestion, putting small markers for each of them at various points along the vine.

With a map before them, everyone got in on the planning, one creative thought spurring another. It was Tessa’s favorite part of any dungeon run. 

At least when the dungeon run had been a purely recreational activity. 

With the outcome of their plans having potentially life threatening consequences, Tessa found the exercise a few degrees more stressful than usual. She took those feelings though, wrapped them up in a ball, and stuffed them down into the depths of her psyche. The last thing her team needed was someone taking away their optimism and confidence.

In what felt like a blink, they had a plan put together.

“So we don’t know exactly how strong these demons are, or what sort of special abilities they might have,” Alice said, going over the plan one final time. “Obby and Pillow will be the ones to engage with Lady M and me providing backup. You other three are going to start back at the ropes. If Obby or Pillow calls it out, you start climbing.”

“But they’ll only call for a retreat if they’re sure we can’t beat the demons right?” Rip asked.

“How will they get away if they’re holding the demons off though?” Matt asked.

“We can slow them,” Tessa said. “Then when we climb, we’ll pull the ropes up with us. No ropes, no demons following us.”

“And if we can take them?” Rip asked.

“Starchild will take lead on target selection, since she needs to get into melee anyways,” Tessa said.

“I’ll move to support whichever of you seems to have the tougher foe,” Starchild said. “Eliminate the biggest threat as fast as possible  and our healers won’t run their magic dry trying to keep you two on your feet.”

“We appreciate that,” Lady Midnight said. “If we wind up with more mobs than the tanks can handle though we may need you to off tank any that get through.”

“With two tanks we should be fine, but good to have a third backup anyways. The demons are smart enough to peel off and try to wipe Lady M and me out first,” Alice said.

“If they’re that smart, can we talk to them?” Matt asked.

“Demons don’t speak,” Alice said. “At least in the game.”

“From the lore, most of them aren’t from the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Lady Midnight said. “So there’s no shared language there, and demons are always aggressive.”

“Yes. It’s hard to speak with a foe who tries to stab you the moment they lay eyes on you,” Starchild said.

“They’re supposed to be soulless monsters without any personality,” Tessa said. “That’s what makes them perfect for our needs.”

“I hope we’re ready for them then,” Rip said. “Because we’ve got another patrol headed down the hall outside.”

It was always tempting to take more time to plan, to consider more options, but Tessa knew that was a trap. At a certain point you just had to take the chance and the plan you have into motion.

“We’ll let them pass and engage them when they’re not facing us,” Tessa said.

“Yeah, the extra second or two should give us time to get aggro on the whole group,” Obby said, readying her sword.

“How many of them are there?” Tessa asked.

“Looked like three,” Rip said. “But I had to pull back from the door quick, so there might be more.”

“Three’s good,” Tessa said. “More’s doable too, so long as it’s not too many more.”

“They’re not going to know what hit ‘em,” Obby said.

Tessa prayed that would be true and went preternaturally still.

“We gonna check the overlooks?” a deep, and somewhat bored voice asked.

“Probably should,” another replied. “I haven’t looked in for a few days and the last thing we need is another nest of [Plague Rats] using them as a spawning den.”

Tessa’s mind whirled, wondering who she could be hearing. Demons didn’t speak English. 

Except, apparently, for the ones who came strolling into the room with their axes and spears at the ready. The smallest of them was easily seven feet tall and they all looked just as built for war, and as deeply confused, as Pillowcase.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 4

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

As riots went, the defection of the EE staff wasn’t as bloody as it could have been. Michael Kimmler, the company’s Vice President of Sales received a broken nose for trying to order the staff back to the seats when they rose en mass to prevent the server shutdown, and Craig Scott, the VP of Business Relations, was tossed through a glass door when he threatened to lock them all into the cafeteria.

In Kimmler’s case, the response had been a instant and visceral one. He said the wrong thing, to the wrong person, in the wrong tone and that person had a few dozen people who agreed with the position that Kimmler deserved a punch to the face. When Kimmler’s butt hit the floor and he stayed down, out of the crowd’s path, the matter was essentially settled.

Scott on the other hand had been the one to argue several times for “lowering head count” so the anger he received had been simmering for significantly longer than the current crisis. As the glass door in question was not made of candy glass like many movie doors were, Scott’s injuries were significantly more extensive than Kimmler’s, though none were especially life threatening, to the dismay of at least a hand full of the staff.

Hailey wasn’t concerned about either Kimmler or Scott’s predicament though. Nor did she join those of her coworkers who went to the IT labs to ensure the server monkeys didn’t follow the orders they’d been given. In her mind the real threat lay outside.

The FBI was bound to arrive in minutes.

“This isn’t going to go well,” Marcus said, staring out the ruined front door with Hailey.

“What? Like it’s going well now?” She wanted to punch him. A little violent release of her own seemed justified given the day and night and day she was having.

But Marcus was a poor target for her anger. She could see it in the tremble at the corner of his lips. He didn’t want this either.

“No, but all this? Calling in the FBI? The staff doing whatever they just did? It’s all going to make things worse.”

He wasn’t wrong. Hailey knew that. By framing it as a case of “mass disappearances”, the FBI was going to read it as “mass kidnappings” and that wasn’t going to engender anything like a calm, measured response. The EE staff’s action would be fuel for that fire, but the alternative was unthinkable.

“I’m going into the game,” Hailey said. She’d made the decision hours ago but the words tumbling from her lips were the first time she was consciously aware of it.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Marcus said. “You know we haven’t seen either of the GMs that we lost.”

“I’m not joking. I’m not going in on my GM account. I’m going in on my main. She’s all ready to log in.”

“What? Why would you do that? We cleared out all the pending logins! We made sure you all were safe!”

“Yeah. We’re safe. But everyone we ever played with? They’re not.”

Interlude – Azma

Azma beheld the gathered might of her empire and saw the destruction and ruin which it was about to unleash. It put bubbles of joy on her tongue.

Or maybe that was the fizzy liquor?

She took another swig to be sure.

It was half from the liquor.

Which was fair. The troops she had assembled weren’t exactly her empire. Technically they were property of the Consortium. For the duration of the coming conflict though she could use and expend them as she fit. In theory she could request additional resources if they were needed as well. The Consortium was concerned with results and, to an extent, they were willing to invest what it took to get those results.

Azma would never call on more troops or materiel though. Even operating under the strange and unfamiliar rules of the [Fallen Kingdoms], including the odd resonant echo whenever she thought or said certain words, Azma had no doubt that she would be victorious. The defenders might be able to match her troops, they might be able to overcome her engines of war, they might even be able to anticipate her battle strategies, but they were still laboring under an insurmountable disadvantage.

None of them were her.

“Sir! All bays report ready. Portals are locked and targeted. We can begin the operation at your command.”

“Excellent. We’ll start as soon as I finish this bottle,” Azma said, taking another short pull of whatever it was that had wound up in her hand. The fizzy part was pleasant but it was the firey kick that was managing to hold Azma’s interest.

“Sir?”

After Azma’s rather violent insistence that she be allowed to begin the invasion, she couldn’t blame her subordinates for being confused by her decision to delay when everything was at last in place.

All things have their proper time though, and as Azma watched the remote scans of the defenders marshalling throughout the [Fallen Kingdoms] she saw the positioning, readiness and mood of the pieces shifting inexorably into just the arrangement she desired.

“It’s good…wine? Harlac juice? Brandy? No. It’s something else,” Azma said. “But good stuff. Don’t want to rush it. There are moment you simply need to savor after all.”

“Is there anything you want to say to the troops? Anything they can do to prepare?”

“Yes. Tell them to picture what they want me to say about each one of them in the final battle report,” Azma said. “They know their part in the plan. They know why what they’re doing is essential. Tell them to envision how things will go wrong and how they, personally, are are going to rise to the challenge and make it all work out anyways.”

“Even the Artifax Sir?”

“Especially the Artifax. They’re crafted to think of themselves as elites. The best of the best, made to a perfect design by the finest builders the Consortium has to offer. I want them to think of themselves as something more than that. They need to understand that they’re not just the perfect troops. They’re my perfect troops.”

Interlude – Niminay

Niminay hated speeches. Giving them, listening to them, it didn’t matter. Words mattered but she’d always been one better suited to taking action.

“You’ve all heard this tale before,” she began, deviating from the script that had been prepared for her from word one. “The world stands in peril. A new threat has emerged, more dangerous than any which has been seen before. Blah, blah, blah.”

The convocation of adventurers gave a hearty chuckle at that. Somehow in the last decade there had been more world-ending crises than in the last ten millenia of recorded history. That the [Fallen Kingdoms] still remained as anything other than ash stains on a barren plain was due in no small part to the adventurers who were gathered before Niminay. 

“I’m not going to tell you that you stand between the end of the world and all we hold dear,” Niminay said. “You know that already. It’s where you always stand. What I will tell you is that you do not stand alone.”

The crowd didn’t chuckle at that. A gravity settled over the adventurers and Niminay felt the weight of their regard and expectations focus on her.

“We fought this foe before,” she said. “We rallied an army to hold them back and met them with a force unmatched in speed or might. We claimed victory that day and drove them back through their portals. We shattered their army and brought ruin to their vessels.”

A cheer went up which was carried by the crowd, but not for long. Everyone felt more was coming.

“We beat them but they are returning, and we all know what that means.”

“That we’ll beat them again!” one of the adventurer’s shouted, which drew another cheer from the crowds.

“Of course we will,” Niminay said, allowing a little of her own pride to shine through. “We don’t have a choice.” She let the smile fade from her lips as she continued though. “We know it won’t be easy though. The [Consortium of Pain] brought powerful troops to bear last time and they wouldn’t be returning if they didn’t have something better to hit us with.”

From Penny’s estimations, Niminay knew they could expect the next force to be at least 20% stronger than the previous one, with a more plausible chance of it being twice to three times as powerful. Niminay didn’t like those odds, and wasn’t overly eager to share them with the adventurers. Crushing people’s spirits was a terrible idea on the eve of a battle.

“The good news is that they aren’t the only ones who’ve been able to marshall a bigger army. I know that you are spread out, scattered around the world, but if you can hear my voice, then you are fighting with me, and I with you.”

Niminay gathered herself up, feeling the warmth of conviction burning in her chest.

“We have long been divided, playing games against one another, but for every squabble which separates us there is a deeper bond which holds us together. We are the children of those who fell, and though we fall and fall again, still we rise. Whether it be for love of this world of ours, or spite at those who would take it from us, or sheer stubbornness, we rise. Adventurers, soldiers, civilians, in this cause we fight with one heart which will never falter and never despair, no matter what may come.”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Brendan’s eyes felt like they were lidded with lead sheets. Despite Niminay’s rousing speech and the effect it seemed to have on the assembled adventurers, he could feel the merciless claws of fatigue dragging him under.

“I think I have to catch some zzz’s,” he said to Mellisandra. He’d heard noises earlier indicating him roommates had been up and making breakfast. From the silence which had returned to the apartment, he guessed they were off to work already, the same as he should have been hours ago. “Are you going to be ok without me for a few hours?”

“I think I should be,” Mellisandra said. “Damnazon and I are going to see if we can find a bigger group to partner up with.”

“Safety in numbers? I like it,” Brendan said. “I’ll send in an email to take a sick day today and tomorrow if we need. And I think I should be fine with just a few hours of sleep, so I shouldn’t be away too long.”

“Get as much sleep as you need,” Mellisandra said. “If we are linked in some manner, your rest may benefit me as well.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to miss anything.”

“We’re still setting up,” Mellisandra said. “If anything happens while you’re away, it’ll be because the Consortium made their move early.”

“That’s more or less exactly what I’m worried about,” Brendan said. “If your world is influenced by how the game developers in my world set things up, I’m willing to bet there’ll be the first big event with the Consortium kicking off soon. The developers would want to introduce that sort of thing as early as possible.”

“If so, it’s surprising one hasn’t happened already,” Mellisandra said. “You’re already far beyond the normal length of time you would have been connected for, isn’t that true?”

“Yeah, but it’s for a good cause.” He smiled, and felt stupid a moment later when he remembered that while he could see Mellisandra (or at least an animated rendition of her), she couldn’t see him at all anymore.

On the screen, he watched as Mellisandra and her half-giant companion met up with a group of adventurers that seemed to include a goblin in their ranks.

“Rest and reclaim your strength then,” Mellisandra said as Damnazon began chatting with the other team. “It’s almost the first rule of adventuring – recover resources at every possible opportunity. Like you said, this is a good cause, and we’ll need to fight for it with everything we have.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 3

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

The last time Hailey attended a meeting in Egress Entertainment’s cafeteria had been for a party thrown in celebration of reaching their most profitable quarter since the game’s launch. That hadn’t been the result of a windfall. It had taken hard work and long hours to release Broken Horizons previous expansion, but the results had been worth it as the expansion drove EE’s revenue to new highs and preserved at least half of the jobs of those who’d worked on it.

Hailey had hoped to see another post-launch meeting in the cafeteria but not like the one which lay before her. Instead of a sea of convivial faces, with varying states of intoxication, and dozens of conversations drowning each other out, Hailey walked into a room that felt like a whisper filled morgue. 

Someone had ordered pizzas but the boxes sat alone and unopened in stacks on the counter. No one had any appetite it seemed. Or at least none of the support staff or Marketing or Human Resources or Sales. As Hailey scanned the crowd she noticed that no one from Development or IT was present.

“Ok, we’re going to get right down to business,” Marcus said. He was standing with a number of the companies other department heads and executives and had, apparently, drawn the short straw as the one to break the news officially.

“There is a problem with the new expansion…” he started to say and then shook his head. “A problem correlated to the new expansion.”

Hailey could see the invisible cords of the company’s lawyers wrapped around Marcus’s words. Admittedly any culpability was legally irresponsible, though Hailey couldn’t imagine EE was likely to survive the repercussions of their game eating the player base.

“We have determined that under certain conditions, some players are, for lack of a more exact description, disappearing after certain events occur in the game.”

A wave of objection swept through the crowd at the obfuscating vagueness of Marcus’s words. Everyone in the room knew exactly what the ‘certain conditions’ were but it was calling what happened to the player a ‘disappearance’ which set off warning bells in Hailey’s mind.

‘Disappearance’ suggested that they had no idea what happened to the players or where they were, and while the first might be true, the second provably was not.

“Once this meeting is done we will be sending out an in-game message to all players who are still logged in advising them of…” Marcus stopped, wrestling with the words he’d been given. “Advising them of the conditions which have been observed and the response Egress Entertainment will be taking.”

“What the hell is that? What are we going to do?”

Hailey twitched. The question could have come from her, but someone else had shouted it first. Joachim, one of her fellow support staff members.

“As of 12:00pm, Eastern Standard Time, Egress Entertainment will be shutting down the servers for Broken Horizons,” Marcus said. “The servers will be down for an indeterminate period of time while staff and federal authorities review the logs and server code to verify that Egress Entertainment’s assets are neither responsible for, nor play a relevant role, in the disappearances which have been reported.”

“Like hell you will.” This time it was Margret from Marketing who spoke up. “You can’t turn the servers off. That’ll drag everyone who’s still online into the game.”

One of the executives stepped forward.

“At this point we have no proof of that, and we will comply with all directives from the federal agents who are enroute to begin an official investigation into the matter. It is our fiduciary duty and it is the law. Is that clear.”

“No,” Hailey said, but it was only a whisper and a prayer. 

Interlude – Azma

Reviewing troops always put Azma in a good mood. If they were her troops, it was a chance to see just what sort of pieces she had to work with in the next game she’d been given to play. If they were other people’s troops, it was a chance to see how many of their toys she could break, ideally without them noticing.

“The Red Ravens are ready for deployment Sir!” Sergeant Eights said as Azma entered the frigate’s launch bay.

At the far end of the room, several hundred yards away, the dark maw of a transport portal stood silent and waiting, the spirits bound in the circle at its periphery forced into slumber by the insulated coils wrapped over them.

Waiting on tracks which lead to the portal, the frigate’s first wave of war machines were parked, as silent as the portal, but just as ready for activation with a moment’s notice. Most were light, agile craft, designed to supplement the frigate’s role during a “Market Opening Excursion”, but a half dozen of the Consortium’s one hundred meter tall [Fortress Crushers] were set for deployment as well.

More important than the machines though were the troops themselves. The “Red Ravens”. Azma hadn’t created the unit but she had inherited it from a rather unlamented [General] after he contracted a vicious case of [Spleen Detonating Plague].

“They look stiff,” she said as she wandered past the front ranks of the assembled unit.

Most [Commanders] knew better than to appear before their subordinates half intoxicated and carrying a carafe of liquor large enough to complete the job. Azma knew better too, but knowing something and caring about it were two different things.

“As requested, Sir!” Sergeant Eights said. Unlike his [Commander], he adhered to the same discipline demanded of his troops. Like most of the wiser staff members though he understood that his [Commander] in an inebriated state was still more competent than anyone else on the ship. It wasn’t so much that she applied special rules to herself either. Anyone else was free to copy her, provided they had the talent and skill to prove they were still well above her required level of effectiveness.

“Not the good kind of stiff,” Azma said, lingering to scrutinize a [Clothwork] soldier  more closely than decorum should have allowed. “They’re afraid.”

“Pardon Sir, but they’re [Artifax],” Sergeant Eights said.

“Yes, yes, no fear built in to them, just perfect Consortium design work in every stitch, rivet, and cut. Look at this one though and tell me what you see?”

Eights stepped beside the soldier Azma had singled out and tried to appraise it. No, her.

“She’s within specs Sir. Posture is perfect, attention focused, respiration regular.”

Artifax often weren’t built with a requirement to breath but many included it as an optional method of energy recovery and thermal exchange.

“Oh I agree,” Azma said. “She’s wonderfully made. Top of the line. Just what you’d expect for the Red Ravens. But look here around the corner of her eyes.”

“They seem to be in fine shape.”

“Yes but they’re not moving.”

“That’s discipline.”

“No. That’s fear. [Artifax] are supposed to be observing their environments constantly, even when at peace. She’s not doing that. She’s grimly focused on a point on the far wall because she’d afraid. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes sir,” Solider Four Seven Six said. “Am I to be decommissioned?”

“Not at all my dear,” Azma said. “You’re afraid because you’re better built than your makers intended, and because you don’t know what your mission is yet.”

“And knowing our mission will help?”

“Of course,” Azma said. “That’s what we’re here for. Sergeant Eights is going to tell you who the Consortium needs you to fight, and I’m to going to tell you, in detail, how you’re going win.”

Interlude – Niminay

Victory often didn’t come easily, but looking at the adventurers who’d gathered to hear her speech, Niminay was reminded that victory was something the people before her had managed to find despite the most impossible of odds.

“We know we’re going to die,” Glimmerglass said. As one of the few adventurers who was located in [Steel Breezes] and not present via an illusionary projection, Glimmerglass had managed to find a place as Niminay’s assistant. For the most part her help was invaluable but occasionally Niminay was struck by just how different the new breed of adventurers were from the people she was used to dealing with.

“Those don’t look like people with one foot in the grave,” Niminay said, nodding towards the rowdy crowd awaiting her.

“That’s because we don’t intend to stay in the grave for very long,” Glimmerglass said. “You need us, and we’re going to be there, no matter how times we’ve got to come back to handle things.”

“No one is guaranteed to come back though,” Niminay said. “The [Hounds of Fate] are always waiting to ferry souls away to their final rest.”

“Yeah, that is a risk, but you don’t get to be an experienced adventurer unless your ghost can run pretty fast.”

“I wonder that I need to make this speech at all then,” Niminay said. “If even death can’t dim your morale, I doubt any words of mine could bolster it.”

“You might be surprised,” Glimmerglass said. “Half of them are or were madly in love with you at one point. They know you’re not royalty, but trust me when I say that for quite a few of them, you are our Queen.”

“How? Why?” Niminay had a vague notion that she was well regarded, and a clear idea that she’d grown famous over her long career, but the adoration Glimmerglass spoke of seemed a more incredible thing still.

“Your example is what drew many of them to begin adventuring in the first place,” Glimmerglass said. “Getting to interact with you over the years was considered a special treat in adventurer circles.”

“Even when I was asking them to march into hell?” Niminay asked.

“Especially when you were asking them to march into hell. Giving someone inspiration is one thing, giving them purpose though? That’s far more precious.”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Mellisandra wasn’t alone, and, for her, that made all the difference.

“So you can’t see me anymore right?” Brendan asked.

“No. The scrying spell I was practicing isn’t mobile.”

“What did I look like to you when you were able to see me?”

“You looked like a human male. I didn’t see any armor or gear to suggest a class, and you’ve said your world doesn’t have them, right?” Mellisandra found that keeping up the conversation was easy enough. Despite the fact that she was moving through a crowd of over a thousand adventurers, she was effectively invisible to them, not through any spell or skill but merely by not being a part of their team or guild.

“Did I look real or, hmm, I guess you wouldn’t know what computer graphics look like, maybe it would be animated, or like a painting?”

“There was definitely distortion in the scrying image,” Mellisandra said. “You looked slightly hazy. As though you were painted with a blocky brush. Why? What do I look like to you?”

“Well, the interface I see you through makes you look like a cartoon, sort of.”

“I know what that is,” Mellisandra said. “I don’t know why exactly, but I can picture it, I think.”

“That’s not what you look like to yourself though, is it?”

“No. I look real to me. Just like everyone else here.” Mellisandra said and promptly bumped into a wall of steel.

“Oh! Sorry, I thought you were going to go around them!” Brendan said.

“Feel free to move me out of the way next time,” Mellisandra said, rubbing her nose.

“My control is terrible compared to yours,” Brendan said. “You’re much better at the fine controls. I can just help with the big movements I think.”

Mellisandra only heard part of what Brendan was saying though.

“Are you talking with your player too?” the wall of iron asked.

Mellisandra looked up as she stood.

And up.

And farther up.

The wall of iron she’d bumped into had a name hanging over her head. Just like all the other adventurers.

“Sorry if that’s a weird question,” Damnazon said.

“No. It’s not,” Mellisandra said. She knew she should tear her eyes off the woman in front of her. Staring was rude. Wasn’t it? Probably? But. Just. Wow. “No, it’s not weird, and yes, I was. You’re talking to yours too?”

“Geez, you sound like me,” Brendan said. “Sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt.”

“Quite a few of us are it seems,” Damnazon said. “And yes, I know that was a blunt way to ask, but blunt is how I am. Oh, sorry, that was for my player. She’s a little more timid than I am.”

“I’m gonna bet that’s more common than not,” Brendan said.

“Mine’s the same, I think,” Mellisandra said. “Which makes sense, their world sounds a lot safer than ours.”

“Yeah, we’re the lucky ones who get to fight off an invasion from beyond the heavens!” Damnazon said. “Well, lucky if we can find a group. I don’t think they’re sending soloists out to fight anywhere yet.”

“You don’t have a party?” Mellisandra asked, shocked that a tank who was so clearly burly wouldn’t have been snapped up hours ago.

“I had a team but they caught a small case of eaten-by-the-[Hounds of Fate]. So I’m kind of on market now.”

“Well if you’d like a [Wizard] teammate who’s still a bit short of max level, I’m all yours.” Mellisandra didn’t mean that to sound like she was flirting, but she didn’t not mean it to sound like that either.

“[Wizard] and [Warrior]? That sounds like a perfect match to me.”

Mellisandra felt a trill of delight sing down her spine. Sometimes it was so hard finding the people you needed, and other times they were just right there waiting for you.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 2

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

She saved seven of them. The lucky seven out of her final twenty accounts. The other thirteen were gone.

Hailey couldn’t process the tragedy of it. Couldn’t feel their loss as anything more that a weight of failure that hung over her like a mountain.

Would there be lawsuits? Would the families be staring at her from across a courtroom, broken parents hurling rage and tears at the one who’d let their children die? Or would they understand?

She’d tried. It hadn’t been enough, but she’d tried against the impossible anyways.

Those were concerns for another day though. The only thought that was still sharp enough to pierce the hollow space fatigue and stress had carved inside her was that the crisis wasn’t done. There were still people who needed her. Hundreds. Thousands of them.

But only one had a name she’d known since she was a kid.

Somewhere in whatever electric dream the players had been banished to, Tessa was struggling to survive. Tessa, the bright, cheerful, point of light she’d followed into so many late nights. The girl she’d left behind when their guild fell apart. The woman she could have saved if she’d just reached out sooner.

“Meeting. Now.” Marcus said, shouting to make sure he had the entire support team’s attention.

Hailey put down her headset and locked her computer. It was still running and her GM account was still logged in. Unless someone unplugged it, she wasn’t in any danger of being drawn into the game herself.

At least not unless she chose to make the jump herself.

So many people had though. And so many of them were missing.

Hailey knew the odds, and had seen what the price could be.

How much did those weigh when set against Tessa though?

Interlude – Azma

 Disobedience ran on a spectrum. Azma always made sure those assigned to her command were aware of that. She also made sure they understood the harshness they could expect for punishments based on the severity of their infractions. 

Those who were surprised by the stricter standards she maintained generally fell into two categories; the ones who were smart enough to keep that surprise to themselves and those who felt the need to protest, usually by citing the Consortium’s official regulations at her.

From the former category, Azma drew her command staff. She reasoned that even if they intended to disobey her, they would at least be smart enough to do so for profitable and compelling reasons. Azma had no interest in suppressing intelligent responses to changing situations even if those responses contradicted her orders. 

The latter category though? The underlings who thought they could dictate the terms of her authority to her? Those she educated.

It was a simple system, only complicated by the fact that she occasionally had to apply it to her “superior” officers as well. Their “education” tended to involve fewer applications of the onerous, menial duties she applied to recalcitrant underlings and more justified (in Azma’s view) homicide.

“Hello [Commander] Azma. I will be your new Executive Oversight,” [General] Miller said.

“[General] Whitemore has been transferred to other duties?” Azma asked, offering Miller a pleasant smile of curiosity. She honestly was curious, though only as to whether Miller was aware of Whitemore’s true fate and whether he understood what it meant for his own position.

“[General] Whitemore is in the morgue,” Miller said. “Or at least the thirty percent of him which we’ve been able to identify.”

“He was so far from the front lines though,” Azma said. “So far from danger.”

And yet not far enough outside her reach to escape paying the price for irritating her.

“Yes. His loss will be felt by all,” Miller said, being careful to be looking down at his notes as he spoke.

Good. He knew better than to risk making the standard pleasantries into an indirect threat. It was a mark in his favor. As was his lie about Whitemore, who would in truth be missed by no one. Better the trite and forgettable fiction than a serious consideration for justice, in whatever nebulous form it might exist, should be served. Even directed outwards, towards the imaginary enemies who had eliminated Whitemore, that sort of passion had a tendency to cause more problems than it solved.

“But we will move on,” Azma said. It was as much a command as a banal reassurance, and to his credit Miller seemed to understand that.

“Yes. Always better returns than yesterday.” It was one of the Consortium’s many mottos. A directive to all of the staff to be ever striving to earn the Consortium more than they had earned before. 

As far as any of the members who were outside the decision making processes of the Consortium knew, the only allowed goal was eternal growth. Open a planet today? If you couldn’t open two tomorrow then you were worthless. And if you could, then you had better have three lined up for the next day.

Azma had never been foolish enough to dance to that tune. Her performance was measured against standards which she dictated, an arrangement she had crafted by delivering consistently above her nearest competitors within the Consortium’s ranks.

Even when those competitors were attempting to sabotage her efforts.

“And will the approvals for engagement be granted today, or does the delay Whitemore spoke of still remain?” she asked, as though the question was near irrelevant.

In a sense it was. She already knew the answer. She was only interested in discovering how Miller would present it.

“By morning, ship’s time, the approvals will be transmitted and on your desk,” Miller said. “The review of the world’s dual arcanospheres has been completed and you have been cleared for a doubled bounty on the conquest.”

“A pity Whitemore didn’t live to see the plan proceed forward,” Azma said.

“He seems to have lacked the vision to see the current scheme’s value,” Miller said.

Speaking ill of the dead was a social taboo in many of the cultures the Consortium had contracts with (or, in plain terms, owned). It was also as clear a signal as Miller could send that he had no interest in interfering in Azma’s prosecution of the war effort.

Azma smiled. Many people mistook her position as a subservient one. They thought she “worked” for the Consortium. Those executives who had survived their tenure as her superior were aware that the relationship was more a matter that the Consortium had resources and Azma allowed the Consortium to benefit from her use of them. 

At least for the time being. None of them wanted to think what would happen when the Consortium was no longer a useful tool at Azma’s disposal.

Interlude – Niminay

Niminay relaxed back in her chair as Penswell massaged her shoulders and neck, wondering for the thousand and first time why Penny had never gotten half the fame she deserved.

“You’ve been up for three days now,” Penny said. “Would you at least take a nap in the chair? We need you not to fall apart before the fighting even starts.”

“Elven meditation blah blah blah,” Niminay said. “You know I can get by without as much sleep as a human.”

Penny’s massage along the back of Niminay’s neck became, briefly, a commanding encirclement around Niminay’s throat.

“Not as much isn’t the same as none,” Penny said. “You know this as well as I do.”

“There’s still so much to do though.” Niminay couldn’t blame Penny for wanting to strangle her. It was part and parcel of their relationship. Niminay saved the world, and Penny saved Niminay from herself. Niminay was reasonably sure that, between the two of them, Penny had the harder of the two jobs. Especially since Penny was frequently the one who came up with the brilliant world saving plans which Niminay got the lion’s share of the credit for when she executed them. 

“Yes. There are many things to do. This is why we have many people to do them.” Penny’s massage returned to a more therapeutic mode of touch.

“It would be easier to believe that if I’d seen you get any sleep in the last twenty four hours,” Niminay said. She knew Penny was correct, but arguing increased the duration of the massage and Niminay wasn’t about to give that up a moment sooner than she had to.

“I’m just following the example of our fearless leader,” Penny said. “As are far too many of the commanders and staff that we’ve assembled.”

Niminay sighed.

“You may have a point there. If I get six hours of rest though will they follow suite or will they panic and work even harder?”

“If you get six hours of sleep they’ll panic for the first hour, then see that things are under control, at least until the first Consortium fleet shows up, and they will then delegate like they’re all afraid to do at the moment.”

“What about the adventurers?” Niminay asked.

“It hasn’t been that long since they started arriving,” Penny said. “Probably most of them don’t need sleep yet.”

“Are they integrated enough yet to handle dealing with delegates for a quarter of a day?”

“It’s always hard to tell,” Penny admitted. “Some of them are frighteningly well organized. Others seem to barely pay attention if you light them on fire. I think overall though their individual team and guild leaders have things under control. Most of the adventurers will be looking to the people they’re used to taking orders from for direction on what to do.”

“There are so many of them though,” Niminay said. “More than I’ve ever seen gathered before.”

“I know,” Penny said. “If what Glimmerglass said is true then there’s something different about them too. Some new spark empowering them.”

“I believe what she says, and that worries me.”

“Why?”

“Because the world has never called for this many champions before, and if we’re being given an army this vast and powerful to work with, what is the Consortium bringing that will require this kind of strength to fight?”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Somethings make the end of the world worth worrying about.

“Are you sure you want to join the other adventurers for the Grand Coalition? If a battle starts up, there’s no guarantee there’ll be enough tanks and healers to go around,” Brendan asked, trying to imagine how he’d arrived at a place where taking part in an epic battle between good and evil was something he’d rather have no part of whatsoever.

“From what I’ve been hearing from the other adventurers, it sounds like it’s not a question of ‘if’ a battle with come, just ‘when’ and ‘where’ with the leading candidates being ‘soon’ and ‘more or less everywhere’. That’s why I have to join up,” Mellisandra said.

“Damn. I really wish I’d played more,” Brendan said. “Maybe if I’d been there as inspiration, we’d have you at the level cap already.”

“More levels would be nice, but it’s not like there haven’t been other crises before. We’ll handle this one like we did the others.” Mellisandra had left her room at the Inn and was mingling with the crowd of adventurers outside a nearby tavern. 

That she was talking to an unseen friend wasn’t drawing any attention since roughly 90% of the other adventurers were doing the same. In those cases, their communication was with distant guildmates or party members. From what Mellisandra had been able to determine, none of them were in direct contact with their ‘Inspirations’, though more than a few, possibly the majority in fact, were reporting that they’d found “new inspiration” – something within themselves that tied them to something greater still, rather than the sense of their ‘Inspiration’ being granted by an external power.

“How did we handle the other ones?” Brendan asked. “Let the high level characters tackle it?”

“Sure. The parts of it that they could. But there’s always enough trouble to go around and all we can do when we’re faced with hard times is manage them with the tools and talents we have. It’s not perfect, and sometimes we’ll fail, but even then we have to believe that our efforts matter. Maybe we hold the gap for one extra minute, or knock off an extra one percent health from a monster, and maybe that’s enough for someone else to rally to the position, or someone else to take the monster down. It’s investing in little miracles that we can never be sure of the outcome of, but if we don’t try, we’ll never make it to see the big ones.”