Monthly Archives: December 2019

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.”