Monthly Archives: May 2020

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Interlude 2

Interlude – Byron Grey

Dealing with idiots was part and parcel of the job, but the only joy it gave Byron was in setting them to march to their own destruction all unaware and hopeful that their filthy little desires would be fulfilled.

“So I believe you can see why I thought this was important,” Whiteweather said, nodding towards the monitor which was displaying the report Whiteweather had put together 

All things considered, it was a good bit of data analysis. Using nothing more than his own resources, Whiteweather had discovered that that Azma’s forces had stumbled upon a transdimensional entity in the world they were in the process of opening up.

“Of course,” Byron said. “This changes the character of the operation under Azma’s control quite substantially. Or it will once it’s proven to be true.”

“But the numbers! You can see…” Whiteweather leaned forward over Byron’s desk as though being in physical proximity to the data would strengthen his case.

“Numbers can lie,” Byron said. “You know that. The Steering Committee will never act on interpreted data before the field commander’s report arrives.”

“But they must act!” Whiteweather said. “If she proceeds any further, Azma is likely to gain control of the creature and then there’ll be no leverage strong enough to get it away from her.”

“That is also likely true,” Byron said. “Such is the nature of high stakes gambles like this one.”

“But we can’t let her win!” Whiteweather said. “If she gains any more power they’ll have to promote her to Director to keep her on and you know the first thing she’ll do is conduct a purge of everyone she doesn’t true – and she trusts no one.”

“Quite so,” Byron said.

“That will include both of us!”

“Which is why we are going to do something about it,” Byron said.

“But you said the Steering Committee won’t do anything about it,” Whiteweather said. “You’re not seriously proposing that we openly oppose her are you?”

“Oh of course not,” Byron said. “I know you brought this to me in the closest confidence. Exposing this openly would put you in far too much danger.”

“Thank you,” Whiteweather said as he wiped away the thin sweat which had started forming on his brow.

“I would never do such a thing my friend,” Byron said. “Your safety is of paramount importance. The Consortium can scarcely stand to lose a man of your vision.”

Byron was all warmth and sincerity, turning what should have been a dangerously effusive warning of impending betrayal into a kind and comforting expression of solidarity.

“So you have some scheme to turn Azma’s efforts against her more indirectly?” Whiteweather asked.

It didn’t take much intelligence to see that. Azma was ruthless to a fault. People who openly opposed her died. Never directly by her hand. Very rarely was their demise even vaguely associated with her. Through one means or another, her enemies simply ceased to be. Individually the deaths did nothing to protect her, save to remove that specific thorn from her side. It was only when viewed collectively that her efforts spoke a clear message which this rest of the Consortium (or at least the meaningful parts of it) had absorbed – you did not make problems for Azma. You treated her much like radioactive waste – something horrible which was best dealt with by allowing some else to manage the headache.

Some few had sought to murder her back of course. More than a few really. Attempting to kill Azma herself was invariably met with either one of two fates: an infliction of the exact same death you had intended for her or, in some odd cases, recruitment to her cause. Those were the people Byron found the most worrisome. They knew better than any not to trust her and yet they chose to work for the woman? It was inconceivable.

Then there were the people who sought to strike at Azma through her close relations. This was complicated by the fact that, as far as Byron could see, she had no close relations. No loved ones. No family. Barely even any coworkers or subordinates whom she tolerated.

Three times though she had displayed a passing fondness for someone and an attempt had been made on their lives. Azma was less subtle in response to that, and far less restrained. She hadn’t killed any of her agressort swiftly in those cases. Two of them were still alive in fact. That they lived in unimaginable agony and had paid everything they had for the privilege delivered Azma’s message more clearly than anything else could have.

Byron was not going to repeat those mistakes of course. Not when he had a viable candidate to make them for him.

“In this case discretion is paramount,” Byron said. “As is making sure the Consortium remains on our side. The last thing we need to is to go outside the official processes and find our own apparatus of command being turned against us.”

“That’s a tall order,” Whiteweather said. “You know that female has seduced half of upper management. She exists because she’s suborned so many of the people who are supposed to be keeping her in her place.”

Byron smiled and nodded agreeably, exerting a monumental effort of will to preserve a mask of sympathy. Whiteweather and the people like him were doomed. They were so eager to tear down Azma, and others like her who didn’t fit the ‘proper mold’, because they knew how unworthy they were of the positions they held. In allowing themselves to be blinded to Azma’s accomplishments and talents, they preserved their fragile egos at the expense of truly understanding their enemy.

For his many and vastly indulged faults, Byron did not fall prey to the same foible though. He knew Azma’s quality and talent. He didn’t like her of course, but even in a hated enemy there could be room for respect, and Byron didn’t hate Azma either. She was a particularly deadly fish swimming in a pond he occasionally chose to dip a toe into. He could marvel at her grace and ferocity while carefully working to remove the peril she posed to his aims and endeavors.

“I will let you in on a secret that was passed down to me by my old mentor,” Byron said. He’d never had a mentor of course. One learned the sort of lessons Byron had through observation and a natural aptitude for guile and subterfuge. People who spoke openly about such things tended to be people who were interested in attention and acclaim, which was the exact opposite of the proper mindset for effective social maneuvering in Byron’s estimation. Despite that, people like Whiteweather were so apt to cling to authority figures that offering them even a non-specific, fictional one was often enough to erase any doubts or sensible questions they might otherwise raise.

“The key to undermining someone in Azma’s position is not to oppose them but to give them exactly what they want and more,” Byron explained, knowing that Whiteweather would begin sputtering in confusion if allowed a moment to speak. “Understand that I do not mean ‘ally yourself with them’, or ‘allow them to do as they wish’. The essence of this strategy is that few people will are defended against receiving more of a good thing, and it is so very easy to turn a little more of something good into quite a bit too much and, ultimately, enough to crush them completely.”

“Yes, yes, I can see the wisdom there.” Whiteweather was nodding in an empty, barely comprehending manner.

Byron knew if he asked Whiteweather to offer a practical implementation of the idea Whiteweather would be completely at a loss for even the vaguest approximation of an idea.

“That is where your report is so crucial,” Byron said, setting his claws into Whiteweather’s fragile ego. “Azma has discovered something of great value in her endeavor. It could offer her power and influence beyond any of the rest of us. The transdimensional entity she is investigating represents the most dire of threats to us, if she can bring it under control. Until this however, it will be quite a useful tool to destroy her with.”

Interlude – Marcus Mashall

Marcus was destroying his career. When, not if, people discovered that he was on the game on a GM level account and interacting with an employee who had willingly stepped into the game, he would be at best suspended and at worst arrested for the crime of not stepping aside and allowing the people who believed they were in power to hang onto that belief for whatever time remained before the world came tumbling down.

Marcus looked at his desk. The reports neatly piled in one corner. The coffee cup with the company’s logo on it. The cubicle walls where print outs and notices were pinned. Even the wall paper on his computer’s desktop with it’s plain company logo. 

The whole environment made a statement. Or several statements. 

“The person who works here has no personality.” 

“This desk is for a piece of the corporate machinery, not a person.”

“The man who sits here is afraid to show his real self, even to the people he works with every day”.

Or maybe especially to the people he worked with every day.

By all rights, the person who sat at Marcus’s desk should have been the type of person to dutifully inform his corporate overlords about the new development with Hailey and allow them to work out what the official response would be. 

Marcus wasn’t sure where that man had gone. It was possible he’d never really been that man. That his isolation and lack of personality had been an artifact of the demands the system placed on him.

He had to be the boss. He had to be impartial. He had to enforce the company’s mandates, even when they were ill considered and abusive. If he didn’t then all of the progress he’d made, all the security he’d achieved, would all be taken away.

“Now that the whole world is falling apart though, I guess none of that matters anymore,” Marcus said to no one in particular.

There were still support reps hard at work. Just because the crisis was close to a day old didn’t mean they’d made any real headway on bringing the players together or establishing clear lines of communication. 

If anything the players themselves were more on the ball about that, and the EE support team was largely riding on their coattails, offering what assistance they could, or rather what assistance their management would allow them to offer.

“I’ve got Miguel looking at the server logs,” Marcus said, speaking into a team chat channel and hearing the impossible in reply.

“Good, I don’t know what you’ll need to look for, but hopefully there’s something weird there that can act as a lead,” Burnt Toast said. Burnt Toast, who was also Hailey MacGilfoyle, but who really was the adventurer known at Burnt Toast.

“You sound like you’ve stabilized some,” Marcus said.

“Yeah. I’m…I’m…I’m…holding it together,” Burnt Toast said with a burst of static in between her words. “Mostly.”

“What is happening to you?” Marcus asked. He didn’t expect an answer.

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to be getting worse, so that’s…” she grunted and fought to regain control of her voice before something unwanted slipped out. “Good,” she finished.

“Can you augment her actions at all Marcus?” Mellisandra asked. Mellisandra who was another character within the game. Mellisandra who had a player behind her, but who, again, was also her own person. In fact from what Marcus could tell, he had only spoken to Mellisandra so far. The fictional person with no AI behind her at all had help a short but informative conversation detailing some of things she’d discovered by interacting with her player. 

“No, her screen is completely blank,” Marcus said. “It was fine until I tried to touch the controls, and then poof everything was gone.”

“Its okay Marcus,” Hailey said. Her voice was so similar to Burnt Toast’s but without any effort Marcus knew which of the two he was speaking to. “I think we’re already in an [Inspired] state. There’s probably no additional benefit we’d get from you directing our moves. And it would be a bit creepy.”

“Oh yeah, cause nothing else about this is creepy.”

“I think there may be something far more important Marcus can do for us, if he’s willing,” Glimmerglass said.

“I’m all in on this,” Marcus said.

“I think you need to speak with our [Grand Strategist] then,” Glimmerglass said. “You may not have made this world, but you and the people there know what it’s secrets are, and what secrets the Consortium holds. Give that to us and you’ll give Penswell the most powerful weapon she could ever wish for.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Interlude 1

Interlude – Penswell

Penswell was trying to be in twelves places at once, and was succeeding for the most part. Her problem was that she really needed to be in a hundred places and her limits didn’t stretch quite that far.

“I’ve got news from [Crystal Bower],” General Aurelite said. “Got time to hear the details or do you just want the summary?”

Aurelite was, in theory, in charge of the combined troops of the [Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force]. In practice though that amounted to little more than “Chief Cat Wrangler”. The regular forces were a challenge on their own. Add to that trying to integrate troops which had fought wars against each as recently as a few weeks ago, and then toss the impossibility of controlling the [Adventuring Guilds] into the mix. 

The urge to join the Consortium wasn’t overwhelming, but Aurelite could see the appeal of it.

“Summary first, followed by the details please,” Penny said, allowing one of her projections to freeze in place so she could reclaim the brainpower needed to process Aurelite’s words.

“Ok, in short, we’re holding [Crystal Bower]. The [Library of Light] saw heavy fighting – well beyond our projections – but the team there held out. The [Garden of Silence] escaped relatively unscathed and saw comparatively less fighting. The two other offensive fronts went according to plan. The upshot is we’ve got control of the teleport fields within the city and have reenabled the interdiction wards with the new protocols.”

“That was exactly the good news I needed to hear,” Penswell said. “Give me a breakdown on where our forces are at.”

“The regular troops are moving in and fortifying the key locations,” General Aurelite said. “We’ve got a team from one of the [Crafting Guilds] dispatched with them to create new defensive structures. That should raise their effective level if they have to repulse another invasion.”

“Do they have an special units with them?” Penswell asked. “We were going to move a contingent of [Beast Handlers] and the [Fire Drakes] into the city too, but they’re still pinned down in [Wagon Town].”

“I can order the handlers and the drakes redeployed,” Aurelite said. “They have a path open to exit the battlefield.”

“If they leave, [Wagon Town] falls,” Penswell said.

“It’s not exactly a tactically critical location,” Aurelite said. “The troops in [Crystal Bower] would have a much better chance of holding the city if they had drakes to counter the Consortiums [Clockwork] soldiers with.”

Penny ground her teeth. The argument for “let the goblins die already” had been raised in at least thirty different varieties, from straight out racist calls to “end the vermin while we can”, to more veiled suggestions as to the relative value of different targets the Consortium had attacked, to attempts to couch allow the goblins to be exterminated as ‘tactically necessary’.

The moment you accepted the goblins as people though, it became impossible to take any of those arguments seriously.

“[Wagon Town] has the highest concentration of [Alchemists] and [Tinker Mages] in the entire world,” Penny said. “It is also the bastion which guards the principal gateway into the [Goblin Deeps]. It’s shielding more people than [Crystal Bower], [Thaldinforge], and [Corsair’s Bay] out together.”

Penny was pretty certain that Aurelite mumbled something like “if you can consider them people”, but since the General didn’t seem inclined to overtly pursue the matter, she let it drop, wondering if that was a mistake.

“I’ll take it that no replacements for the [Fire Drakes] have been found yet?” she asked instead. [Crystal Bower] was still an important focus point in the overall campaign, and the elves there deserved protection as much as the goblins did.

“We’re in negotiations at present, but those may take some time,” Aurelite said.

“Negotiations with who?” Penny asked. She was trying to stay abreast of the diplomatic war being wages in addition to the physical one, but she’d fallen behind on monitoring the political maneuvering of the various factions as the fighting had intensified and consumed all her attention.

“We have opened communication with the [Tyrant of Flames],” Aurelite said.

“What! When was this! Who authorized it?”

“You did,” Aurelite said. “You specifically instructed the diplomats to ‘make any alliance, with any force that is willing to fight against the Consortium’. Those were your exact words.”

Penny pinched the bridge of her nose, her jaw and neck muscles going rigid.

“I didn’t think I needed to add ‘who isn’t actively trying to eradicate all life in the [Fallen Kingdoms]’. Perhaps I was foolish but that seemed too obvious to mention.”

“And yet here we are,” Aurelite said.

“We need to call those negotiations off,” Penny said. “The [Tyrant of Flames] is an existential threat to this world. We can’t fight one apocalypse with another. That doesn’t leave us with a world, it leaves us with a [Flame Tyrant] who’s now got extra-dimensional [Murder Barges] at his command!”

“I am well aware of that. But the negotiations have to continue.”

Penny paused for a moment, stunned at the stupidity of that line of thought, but then paused. General Aurelite was many things but she wasn’t stupid, which meant there was some compelling reason why she would risk such a catastrophe. Penny searched her imagination for what that reason could be. She called to mind the worst possible situation and knew that must be it.

“The Consortium’s already negotiating with the [Flame Tyrant]?” She knew that had to be it, even though she really hoped to be wrong.

“They got there before we did,” General Aurelite said. “We’re not out of the running though. Our diplomats are still alive and are reporting back, second hand admittedly, what the Consortium is offering for the [Flame Tyrant’s] cooperation.”

Penny’s concentration wavered as her breath turned white hot. Holding onto a dozen projections at once became impossible. Three were indispensable but the rest she released until she could get her rage back under control.

“What makes any of them thing the [Flame Tyrant] will cooperate with either the Consortium or us,” Penny asked. “And what can we possibly be offering a monster like that?”

“At this point? Existence,” Aurelite said. “The [Flame Tyrant] isn’t stupid. Despite what the Consortium is offering, it’s obvious that from their perspective, foreign powers like the Tyrant will never be respected or allowed to continue existing in a world they conquer.”

“Of course not,” Penny said. “If they let the [Flame Tyrant] live, they’ll all be burned to ash within a week.”

“That’s where we have an advantage,” Aurelite said. “We have a history with the [Flame Tyrant]. There’s at least the possibility of an mutually satisfactory relationship there.”

“What? How?”

“Well, we could give the [Flame Tyrant] one of the Consortiums other worlds after we beat them,” Aurelite said.

Penny pictured it. One world cast from slavery into the fires of utter destruction in order to preserve the world she knew and loved. The temptation was clear and the numbers added up, provided she assigned based on what was the most convenient for herself. Otherwise it was the problem with the goblins writ on a planetary scale.

“Has that been suggested yet?” she asked.

“Not explicitly,” Aurelite said. “The negotiators reported that they’re still working through the social amenities required to properly address the Tyrant.”

“They’re wasting time. Good. Have them continue with that and report if there’s any sign of the Tyrant accepting either offer,” Penswell said.

“Do you think that’s likely?” Aurelite asked.

“No. In this case it’s much better to string both of us along until its clear who the victor will be and then threaten to join the other side if their demands aren’t met.”

“That’s when we’ll recruit them?” Aurelite asked.

“That’s when we’ll destroy them,” Penny said. With a deep, calming breath, she forced her muscles to unclench. The [Flame Tyrant] had caused too much pain already but allowing herself to get distracted by that wasn’t going to do any good for the people she still could save.

Interlude – Marcus Marshall

Seeing Hailey disappear in front of his eyes shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Marshall. He’d already seen one of his other support reps suffer the same fate and there were reports from around the world talked about the same thing happening to players by the tens of thousands.

But Hailey hadn’t been at her desk. She hadn’t even been playing Broken Horizons.

Or…

Marcus rushed back to the call center room and Hailey’s cubicle. His administrator password was enough to get him in her machine. His stomach sank when he saw two instances of the game’s client running. 

One was clearly the official “GM” level account which most of her work was done through. They’d always required the support reps to have an normal user version of the code installed as well though. Sometimes problems could be tracked down in the less restrictive “GM code” but more often the reps needed to be in the same version of the game that players were seeing to encounter the bugs they were reporting.

Marcus didn’t have to pull up the other instance of Broken Horizons to know that Hailey had been logged in on her account as well. He could see the character name in the title bar. Pulling it up he expected to see the same blank screen which had been on Ashad’s screen when he’d been disintegrated or pulled into the game or whatever happened to GMs who tried to use their god-like powers.

Hailey’s client wasn’t fried though.

Marcus could see her – or her character, “Burnt Toast”, really.

And he could see the message that appeared in her chat log.

>> Hey Marcus! Sorry to cut out on you like that.

>> I’ve got some important stuff to do here though.

>> Could you try to make sure no one turns off my computer. 

>> And maybe cover for me? If anyone asks, tell ‘em I went home early or something.

Marcus stumbled back.

This was not possible. Even for the last day, this wasn’t possible. People were only supposed to be absorbed, or whatever was happening to them, when their characters died, or when they tried to log off. Hailey had been standing right beside him. She couldn’t have tried to log off.

Maybe she’d left her character somewhere dangerous and been killed when she was away?

But she seemed to know exactly when it would happen.

No. She seemed to chose when it would happen.

>> One more thing…thing…thing….thing…

>> I seem to be having a bit…bit of trouble

>> This might not have been the best…worst…best…worst…best idea ever.

>> Maybe have Jane and Miguel check the server logs for

>> for this character? What’s happening to me might shed some light on

Marcus waited for another message to appear but after a minute none more showed up.

On the screen, Hailey’s character appeared to be kneeling down, head pressed to the floor and meditating. It was an interesting emote, especially since Marcus knew for a fact that there wasn’t any emote like that in the game.

“Can I help get you out of there?” he asked as he typed the message into the chat window.

It should have gone to the local channel and been said so that the other characters around “Burnt Toast” could hear it too. Instead a reply immediately appeared in the chat log, with Marcus’s text simply being swallowed up.

>> I don’t want to get out of here.

>> We have too much to do still. There’s too many people here who need our help.

Marcus wasn’t even sure he believed the “people” in the game were real people anymore. One part of him acknowledged that they seemed to respond and behave like real people, but another part was still valiantly clinging to denial as a means to retain at least a few shreds of his sanity. 

He hadn’t slept in a long while, and he’d been under so much stress leading up to the launch of the World Shift expansion. Hallucinations didn’t seem that far out of the question. Even a full psychotic break probably wouldn’t have been unwarranted, and would certainly have been better than what he was facing.

Except he knew it couldn’t be that easy. 

Rolling up his sleeves, he went over to his own machine and unlocked it. Waiting for him was his own game client – this one running his “GM” character. GM powers were strictly off limits, but talking? Talking didn’t seem to cause any problems.

He was wrong about that, but also very right in what he did.

>> Ok, no getting you out then.

>> Tell me what I can do to help.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 20

Glimmerglass didn’t know she was going to change the world when she clicked the send button, but in a sense, that was exactly what she intended.

>> TO: @burnttoast

>> FROM: @glimmerglass

>> HEADER: Checking in

>> BODY: Hi there! It’s been a while, but I wanted to see if you’d gotten caught up in all the stuff that’s going on now. I hope not – it’s pretty awful – but if you are in the middle of this, toss me a line ok? Your name is showing up kind of weird in my list, and it’d be nice to know you’re okay.

Glimmerglass had struggled over the words for longer than she should have. She knew that preparing for the next wave of the Consortium’s forces was crucial, but debating between “my list” and “my friend list” had seemed just as important.

Was she BT’s friend anymore? Did BT even want to hear from her in the first place?

“Message is sent?” Cambrell asked.

“Yeah. I kept it short. I guess that’s good?” Glimmerglass said.

“It’s good you sent it,” Cambrell said. “How she responds, or if she responds, that’s on her. Won’t change that you tried, they you were brave enough to reach out.”

“I know. None of that makes it any easier to take my eyes off my Inbox though,” Glimmerglass said.

“No answer might be the best answer. Didn’t you say that?” Cambrell asked.

“Yeah, if she’s fully retired she might not be reachable at all. That would put her out of any immediate danger.”

“Might expose her to more danger in the long though, wouldn’t it?” Cambrell asked. “Old adventurers aren’t going to be ignored by the Consortium for too long after they conquer the world.”

“That won’t be a problem for her if do our jobs though,” Glimmerglass said. “If we take back [Crystal Bower] and the other cities Penswell has targeted, we should be able to stop their advance.”

“Maybe,” Cambrell said. “Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a strategist – and I can see why this place is a critical but this is war on a world-wide scale. Holding one town, or even one country isn’t going to be enough to stop the whole war.”

“I know. Even if we could get a main boss to appear, there’s too many of the Consortium’s forces here for them all to crumble when the boss is defeated. This war is going to change the face of [Fallen Kingdoms] forever, even if we were to win it right now. If we can hold [Crystal Bower] and the other places though, we can create safe areas for the non-combatants to. That would give the retired adventurers some hope.”

“Won’t do much for the regular people though,” Cambrell said.

Glimmerglass deflated a bit, seeing the world through Cambrell’s eyes. Goblins had been accepted as a “people” rather than “pests” or “monsters” only relatively recently. And that “accepted” status was far from universal. There were still goblin controlled dungeons and areas which were viewed as fair game for adventurers to plunder since the goblins who inhabited them had refused to enter into the non-aggression pacts the “civilized” goblin nations had signed.

In the midst of a global crisis, it was all too easy to imagine the goblins – no matter their affiliation – being left to fend for themselves, or even actively sabotaged by their neighbors who would be just as happy to see the Consortium’s forces succeed in a complete genocide so long as the genocide was limited to “the right people”.

“Do you know how your friends and family are holding out?” Glimmerglass asked. She could teleport off to help them, but she could put in a word for her team to help with the defense of [Toothache] or [Wagon Town] or one of the other goblin cities once [Crystal Bower] was secured.

“Uh…dead,” Cambrell said. “But that’s not new.”

“What?”

“Didn’t become an [Assassin] because I had a lot of either one,” Cambrell said. “Don’t tend to make many on the job either.”

“You’ve got…no one?”

“Coworkers. Employers. Enemies. Lots of those. It sounds bad when I say it like that, but it’s sensible.”

Glimmerglass sputtered searching for which of the many objections she was going to raise first. Something in Cambrell’s expression brought her up short though.

“Sensible? Do many people target you for your work or do they go after the people who sent you?” she asked, guessing what one of the prime issues might be.

“Oh, they always come after me. The targets, their relatives, target’s bosses, my bosses sometimes. It’s fun. You should try it. Keeps you on your toes. And makes you a light sleeper.”

“I’m guessing the easiest route to take to you tends to run through those who are close to you?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Only if I care about them,” Cambrell said. “Happy advantage though, if you’ve got an annoying associate, messing up just enough on a mission and then hanging around them for a little while can fix that problem easily.”

That should have been terrible. It should have evoked sympathy but Glimmerglass couldn’t help but be drawn in by the goblin’s gallows humor.

“So how annoying would you say we all are?” Glimmerglass asked, affecting a suspicious glare.

“It varies,” Cambrell said. “This isn’t that kind of mission though. Here if I mess up, we just all die. Or get captured. War’s not particularly subtle.”

“Happy advantage then, we can be friends,” Glimmerglass said.

“My enemies aren’t limited time offers,” Cambrell said. “They’re happy to wait as long as it takes to get to me.”

“I’d be more worried about your enemies if I didn’t know what my friends were like,” Glimmerglass said.

“My enemies don’t fight fair,” Cambrell said.

Glimmerglass laughed. “You think my friends do? Let me ask you this, do your enemies generally possess any sort of wealth?”

“Sure. Nobody hires me to kill poor people, and poor people can’t afford me,” Cambrell said.

“Do you know what adventurers do to people who have loot who decide to flag themselves as hostile to us?” Glimmerglass asked. “If not allow me to direct your attention to where Damnazon and Mellisandra are stripping the [Trainsaw Transport] for every saleable part, while the rest of the team loots every body in the area. There are locust plagues that leave more behind than your typically adventuring team.”

Cambrell turned his gaze in the direction Glimmerglass indicated and started to chuckle a moment later.

“That is kind of disturbing now that I look at it,” he said.

“Yeah, you might think being an [Assassin] is bad, but trust me, you fit right in,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean, I’m the healer and I’ve bashed in more brains with my staff so I could get some new underwear than I should ever admit.”

Cambrell slowly slid his gaze to Glimmerglass, a look of honest concern creeping into his eyes.

“For reference, I don’t wear underwear,” he said.

“So noted,” Glimmerglass said with a nod of approval.

“Hey, any word on when the next Consortium strike force is going to get here?” Mellisandra asked. “I’m try to coordinate with some other teams.”

“Nothing from Penswell’s [Command Center] yet,” Glimmerglass said. “I did hear from one of the scouting teams we have patrolling the city though and they said we’re clear for the moment. The Consortium force in that last represent most of what they have in this quarter of the city.”

“Might send [Assassins] in,” Cambrell said. “Probably not though. No one good target. This would be a bad job to get out of too.”

“Good, I’ll let the others know,” Mellisandra said and left to go rejoin the looting.

 “Could you get out of her if you had to assassinate one of us?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Probably,” Cambrell said. “Depends on which one.”

“I’m going to guess Damnazon wouldn’t be easy?”

“Wouldn’t be my first choice,” Cambrell said.

“I’m guessing I would be though?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Sorry,” Cambrell said.

“No, it’s smart. Always take the healer out first. I’ve argued for that strategy more times than I can count.”

“Just hard to make sure people stay dead when someone like you is around,” Cambrell said. “Probably have to kill you first even if my target was someone else in the group.”

“You sound like BT now,” Glimmerglass said. “Whenever we did intra-guild PVP, she always apologized for taking me out first. Even when I specifically told her that was the strategy to try for.”

“You told her to kill you first? And this person was a friend?”

“Yeah. We were…close. Or at least I thought we were.”

“Murder seems an odd tactic for staying close,” Cambrell said.

“Dying in an adventurer PVP zones isn’t quite the same as normal,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean, obviously, we weren’t permanently killing each other. It was practice for PvP Raids.”

“Oh. So you used practice weapons?”

“Not at all. Real weapons. Real spells. It’s pretty weird the first time you do it. Really helps if you’ve died and respawned before so you know being blasted to bits isn’t that bad.”

“Still seems like it would be hard to kill the person you’re used to being the one who keeps you alive.”

“I did mention I can cave in skulls with this staff right? In PvP, there’s no such thing as ‘I don’t do any damage’. Turn your back on a healer and they will absolutely punish you for that.”

“Adventurers are weird.”

“No arguments there.”

“So, will your friend be expecting you to cave in their head if they come back?”

Glimmerglass frowned as she tried to consider her message from BT’s perspective.

“I don’t think so,” she said. Could BT be worried about being yelled at? Did she think Glimmerglass was still mad about how she’d left?

Are you still mad?

Am I?

Glimmerglass wanted to say ‘No’. Of course she wasn’t still mad. That was a long time ago.

Except shouldn’t she be mad? 

“Should she be?” Cambrell asked.

“I’m not going to attack her!” Glimmerglass objected. “I…we need her! We need everyone like her!”

“You just look tense when you talk about her,” Cambrell said. “Usually I see that when people are about run away. Or try to stab me.” He paused for a moment to reflect on that. “I may not be as familiar as I should be with how normal people act.”

Glimmerglass chuckled.

“It’s not you,” she said. “Things with BT are complicated. I don’t know if she even knows that though. I think for her it was probably really simple. Our guild wasn’t doing too well and people had started leaving. No one major or critical. Not before her. I thought we could recover, rally and do some recruitment. I thought we had something worth preserving. But that was just me. I…”

“You cared. You needed it more than they did,” Cambrell said. “I know how it is. I wasn’t always…I had friends too. Long ago. It sucks.”

“It’s stupid to worry about though,” Glimmerglass said. “That’s all ancient history at this point. And this war is so much bigger than all that. I can totally let the past just fade away. I just hope she can too.”

Glimmerglass turned her thoughts inwards, her imagination reaching back across the years for the sound of BT’s laughter, for the fiery courage in her eyes, for the scent of her as they sat close around a campfire late into the night.

“I just want to see her again.”

>> Message received!

Glimmerglass blinked and called up her inbound message queue. Before she could open the message from “@burnttoast” though, a comet crashed to the ground beside her.

A cocoon of golden light opened like a flower, layers of petals peeling back as a blinking and stunned Burnt Toast stood up from the minor crater she’d punched into the floor of the library.

“Hey there,” she said stepping forward. 

“BT?” Glimmerglass asked, her breath and heart squeezed into immobility by surprise.

“Long time, no see Glim..glim…glimmer,” BT said and then fritzed for a split second.

Just like a [Disjoined].

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 19

That the [Formless Hunger] was a sufficient worry for a god to pack up his castle and run away from it made Pillowcase feel a bit better about her day.

“If you fine folks want my advice, heading anywhere but here would probably be a really wonderful idea,” the Lord of Storms said.

“Is the [Formless Hunger] going to begin growing?” Starchild asked.

“Yeah, we watched it eat a spaceship,” Matt said.

“That depends,” the Lord of Storms said. “It’s not growing now, which is a good sign. It might even mean the natural protection we built into this world to prevent things like that from becoming a problem are still working.”

“Why flee from it then?” Lost Alice asked.

“Because if the protections that are supposed to keep stuff like that were still functioning like they were supposed to it shouldn’t be here in the first place. Or it should at least be shrinking rapidly. So that’s a bad sign.”

“Like how bad?” Rip asked.

“Bad like I’m packing up a rather large and the entire pocket realm which contains it and moving it so far away it’ll probably take a few millennia before anyone’s able to find it again.” For a somewhat nebulous, if vaguely humanoid, cloud of mist and lightning, the Lord of Storms was still able to convey a fair amount of intensity with their body language.

“It can affect you too? Even with being dead?” Rip asked.

“Affect? Yeah. Things like that are just awful. The part you see which tore apart that ship is only the thing’s surface level. If you like having molecular cohesion that part of it is pretty dangerous, but it’s the parts that exist on the psychic plane and down in the lower substrates levels of this reality that are the real pain to deal with.”

“Our tank beat it up though,” Rip said, gesturing towards Pillowcase.

“She did what now?” the Lord of Storms asked and turned their gaze to Pillowcase.

Pillowcase didn’t share many of Tessa’s reactions or fears. She simply hadn’t been built with them. Under the Lord of Storms scrutiny though, Pillowcase understood Tessa’s infrequent dreams of being caught naked and on stage.

“I struck back at it,” Pillowcase said.

“Interesting. I guess you did.” The Lord of Storms had their head cocked to the side as though not quite able to understand what they were seeing. “Well, I should still move the castle, but possibly not quite so far.”

“The [Formless Hunger] isn’t as bad as you thought?” Rip asked.

“It’s possibly much worse,” the Lord of Storms said. “You tore a piece of it off, didn’t you?”

“Yes. A single mote of it,” Pillowcase said.

“And it return, it split your soul in two?”

“I was [Fractured], yes, but what I lost had been separate from me before,” Pillowcase said.

“Fascinating,” the Lord of Storms whispered, their voice the roar of thunder, but also somehow barely audible. “You’re not supposed to be here, are you?”

“What do you mean?” Pillowcase asked, wary that divine judgment might be incoming.

[Clothwork] were occasionally called on to fight [gods] . It was considered a good assignment since it carried a high likelihood of destruction with no expectation of performance. If things went as they typically did you could look forward to ending your career without underperforming in a manner which would get your entire production line liquidated. While bound to the Consortium’s control, that had sounded like a good deal, but Pillowcase found it less appetizing since that particular set of mental constraints had been shattered.

“You’re a [Clothwork], a soldier of the [Consortium of Pain], but you’re more than that too. The piece of you that was [Fractured], she didn’t come from this world, or one of the Consortium’s worlds, did she?”

“No, she did not,” Pillowcase said, bracing for what could be an irresistible blow.

“Huh,” the Lord of Storms said and looked away into the distance.

“Was this world supposed to be an open one?” Obby asked. “Or had you planned for it to be self contained?”

“Both?” the Lord of Storms said. “We didn’t have the best design committee when we were setting things up, but we did have a good process for eliciting ideas from everyone and making sure they were discussed with at least part of the team.”

“Ideas for what?” Rip asked.

“Pretty much everything,” the Lord of Storms said. “The strength of gravity, whether we wanted to follow the Standard Model for math or go with a non-Additive variation, I even remember submitting a paper arguing for life forms to communicate through modulations of compression waves – really nice to hear that working out for you as a note. In answer to the earlier question though, I remember there were proposals for this to be a closed system that could run on its own, without interference, and competing proposals that argued for a model which would allow for an interface between this world and some of the other ones we were working on at the time.”

“You made more than one world?” Rip asked.

“Don’t be silly, who told you that? It would take about fifty quests to learn that the answer was ‘of course we did’,” the Lord of Storms said.

“Which of the proposals was adopted in the end?” Obby asked.

“Neither?” the Lord of Storms said. “We had deadline issues – some of the areas were ready and developing and desperately in need of the rest before work was half done on things like the pressure dynamics behavior of atmospheric gases.  Surprisingly things like that matter for more than just cloud formation. Apparently you land mammals enjoy being able to move air in and out of your lungs. Terrible idea, but not part of my development domain, so what do I know?”

“Everything?” Rip said. It wasn’t exactly a question, but it fell a little short of being a statement too.

The Lord of Storms laughed.

“Oh, far from it,” they said. “For example, until I really looked for it, I had no idea that you’re from somewhere else as much as you’re from here. Somewhere I don’t think anyone I know worked on either. Hmm. That’s really curious. I wonder…”

“It’s not their fault that they’re here,” Pillowcase said. She could see a vision of the Lord of Storms deciding that her team was a party of unwelcome interlopers and banishing them to some distant realm they would have even less chance of getting home from.

The only thing worse than that mental image was the possibility that the Lord of Storms would leave her behind and alone.

“I can’t imagine it would be,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m not sure…no I’m quite sure I couldn’t manage whatever has happened to you. Well, maybe? No. That would turn you into a abstract shape. Hmmm.”

“Does that mean you can’t do anything about it?” Rip asked. 

Pillowcase knew she wasn’t an expert on reading the emotional states of others, but Rip seemed gladdened by the possibility that the Lord of Storms wouldn’t be able to return them to Earth. Pillowcase wasn’t sure why that would be the case for anyone except herself. The others all had lives to get back to. For Pillowcase what they were doing was her life.

“I did mention I’m dead right?” the Lord of Storms said. “To be fair though, even if I was alive and at the height of my power here, the most I could offer would be to turn you into an abstract shape. I know that might sounds thrilling, but I don’t recommend it.”

“So noted,” Lost Alice said. “Could you hazard a guess as to who might have done this? Did one of your fellow gods stay behind after you…uh..died?”

“More than one,” the Lord of Storms said. “Remember when I said neither proposal regarding the accessibility of the world was officially adopted? Well I know the proponents of each side hacked together some prototypes so the rest of us could make more informed decisions. I don’t think any of them would be capable of this, but I didn’t follow their work that closely. Deadlines are like that. They might have an idea who would be capable of it though.”

“And where might they be now?” Obby asked.

“Oh, they’re all dead too,” the Lord of Storms said. “Which, I know, is a bit inconvenient.”

“Just a little,” Lost Alice said.

“Can you give them a call?” Rip asked.

“I feel like all of my answers should be prefaced with ‘Complicated’,” the Lord of Storms said. “Technically, no, I can’t call them. Or contact them via any other methods.”

“Ok, and in practice?” Lady Midnight asked.

“In practice, I can probably reach out to a few of them who I’ve worked with on other worlds,” the Lord of Storms said. “They’ll be cranky if I try to bring them back to an old project – nobody likes retreading old work – but it’s not impossible that I could explain things well enough to pique their interest. The only problem is that we’re all dead, so we really can’t do anything here. Not without causing more problems than we could possibly solve.”

“What about the Queen of Nightmares?” Lisa asked. “We were told to go looking for her and that she might be able to help send us back? Does that sound plausible? Or was that just a quest tree being foist on us because it was all the quest giver had?”

“The who now?” the Lord of Storms asked.

“The Queen of Nightmares? Major quest giver? [Quest: Bridge to a New Horizon]? Any of that ring a bell?” Lisa asked.

“Not even a tiny one,” the Lord of Storms said. “Sounds like it was added after my time. Or maybe by the adversary team? Yeah, could’ve been them.”

“So you can’t get us to her either?” Rip asked, again sounding far from disappointed by the prospect.

“Definitely not,” the Lord of Storms said. “I mean, there’s the whole dead thing, which I feel I’ve really got to stress is important, and I can tell you she’s not part of the [Cloud Realm] at all. So, assuming she actually exists, she’s not part of my domain, and I’ve got no access to her. Which makes sense. Dreams were much too fickle for my tastes. Give me something nice and material like a cumulo nimbus or a troposphere.”

“You have an odd definition of ‘material’,” Matt said.

“Oh there’s barely anything exotic about the atmosphere at all,” the Lord of Storms said. “It’s a nice simple set of particles with really simply interactions. Piece of cake to put together. Err, though don’t mention I said that ok? It’s kind of handy to be the only one on a project who understands fluid dynamics.”

“I’m going to guess that won’t be a problem for us to keep a secret,” Lost Alice said.

“That’s good because I believe my castle has finished packing itself up.” The Lord of Storms held out their hand and diamond sphere the size of an eye appeared hovering in the air. Inside, a tiny little castle was visible, with itty bitty points of light where fires were lit on its walls and lightning splayed from its highest towers.”

“Can we call you again?” Rip asked.

“You’re more than likely to wind up talking to no one, or just yourself,” the Lord of Storms said. “Dead gods aren’t supposed to answer incantations.”

“What about prayers?” Rip asked, and Pillowcase saw an idea forming behind her eyes.

“There’s not a lot of point praying to a dead god,” the Lord of Storms said.

“But you said if you had believers you’d be alive,” Rip said.

“Uh, not exactly?” 

“Well, I can see you right here, so I believe in you.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but really, I’m not in a bad state now,” the Lord of Storm said.

“Too bad. You showed up. Now you’re stuck with me.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 18

Pillowcase made a discovery. Walking quietly made introspection so easy that it could happen without a conscious choice. Conversely, there was nothing quite like an immediate crisis literally sneaking up behind you to pull you out of your own head.

“Whu-What?” As a [Soul Knight], Pillowcase wasn’t designed for eloquence, but she had the suspicion that even if she still have Tessa’s talents to draw on, she still would have been as tongue tied. The only saving grace was that her monosyllabic question was more than anyone else seemed capable of managing.

“I was just curious if you’d scheduled a meeting with my [Major Domo]?” the Lord of Storms asked. “I have to confess that I didn’t have time to check my engagement calendar before I started packing up shop.”

“No,” Pillowcase said. “No, we did not do that.” An awkward heartbeat passed before she thought to ask, “Should we do it now?”

“Oh no, there’s no need to worry about that. I mean I’m already here, and I’ve got a bit of time before the castle will be ready for transport, so what can I help you with?”

The Lord of Storms, Pillowcase noted, lived up to their in a fairly literal fashion. They were vaguely humanoid, in terms of having an area that might have been a head, with two glowing orbs of lightning in roughly the right space to be eyes, and appendages that might have been arms and legs radiating from a central mass that could be called a body as easily as anything else. Rather than flesh and blood though, the Lord of Storms was incarnated as a living thunderstorm. 

“You know, I kind of expected them to have a voice like crashing thunder,” Lisa said on their private channel.

That was possibly the oddest thing about the Lord of Storms – assuming ‘living thunder storm’ didn’t simply break the meter – when they spoke it was in a chorus of many voices, in perfectly clear [Consortium Operational Standard Terminology] rather than [English], and at a perfectly reasonable volume.

“Wait, can you understand them?” Pillowcase asked.

“Yeah, they’re speaking [English], aren’t they?” Lisa asked.

“Not to me,” Pillowcase said. “I’m hearing them in [COST]. It’s what all other languages translate to for me, but they’re definitely speaking it natively.”

“Ok, that’s creepy,” Lisa said.

The Lord of Storms looked from one member of the team to the next, waiting for a question or a request, but everyone seemed to be too momentarily overawed to put words together.

Or almost everyone.

Pillowcase caught sight of Obby, gazing at the Lord of Storms with a quizzical gaze. Obby seemed less overawed and more quietly amused and curious. Not a reaction which Pillowcase could make a lot of sense out of but then an actual god seemed to be in melee range, so make sense of things seemed like a foolish aspiration for the time being.

“We were hoping to talk to you about the invasion that’s going on,” Pillowcase said, remembering the mission objective and allowing her training to push away the confusion that was scattering her thoughts.

“I can imagine. Bit of bother there. Not strictly my bailiwick but I’ve got some tangential projects in my domain which relate to it,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m afraid I don’t have much in terms of specific details I can share though.”

“Uh, what?” Rip asked. “You’re a god right?”

“I was,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m dead now though, so it’s not strictly accurate to call me a god.”

“Could you explain that?” Lost Alice asked.

“It’s pretty simple. A long while back, I was one of the gods of this realm. Then I died. It happens. The upside to it is that all the responsibilities I had as a deity? Yeah, those (mostly) aren’t a hassle you need to worry about anymore once you’re dead.”

“You don’t exactly look dead though?” Lost Alice asked.

“Thank you! You’re looking pretty spry for a corpse too! I like the whole ‘living soul’ thing. It’s a great look.”

“That’s not what…hmm, ok, I guess I see your point,” Lost Alice said.

“So are you a ghost then?” Rip asked. “I mean if you get to a [Heart Fire] could you come back to life?”

“That’s not quite how the [Heart Fires] work I’m afraid,” the Lord of Storms said. “A god lives through their believers. I mean, it’s a lot easier not having any believers sometimes, let me tell you, especially since taking up my full domain against would mean more or less everyone would believe in me.”

“Do you have any power as you are now?” Pillowcase asked.

“That’s a complicated question, but I think I can give you the answer you’re looking for; no, I can’t jump into battle for you. Being dead limits how I can interact with this world.”

“How about your castle?” Lisa asked. “Can we go there?”

“Yes! Definitely!”

“Safely?”

“Uh, okay. Maybe I should put a caveat on that,” the Lord of Storms said. “My castle is an ancient repository of my power. It’s not ‘safe’ by any metric really. For an aeon it has stood, empty and unreachable, waiting for the world to mature to the point where those who can rise to its challenges are ready to pass through its gates. And, hey, that day has finally come!”

“But we’re not those people, are we?” Lady Midnight asked.

“I’m sorry to say that you’re not,” the Lord of Storms said. “Not yet at least! But you are doing quite well!  Keep up the good work and you should be able to dare passing through the gates in a decade! Or maybe a year? A month? You all look a bit crestfallen. Really don’t feel bad. My castle is a peril beyond anything this world has seen to date. No one could expect you to face it without the proper time to mature.”

“We understand,” Starchild said. “This does not come as a surprise. We had hoped to find aid in your realm against other problems which are beyond our capabilities but we foresaw that we might too weak as we are now.”

“And you came to see me anyways?” the Lord of Storms didn’t have a mouth to smile with or enough of a face to make any expression, Pillowcase nevertheless sensed an undercurrent of delight in the Lord of Storms form.

“Chalk it up to curiosity,” Obby said.

The Lord of Storms paused at that and looked carefully in Obby’s direction, seeming to freeze for a moment before relaxing again.

“And is your curiosity assuaged?” the Lord of Storms asked.

“I’m kind of endlessly curious,” Obby said.

Pillowcase felt like there was a conversation happening she wasn’t privy to. Something dancing behind and around the simple words that were being exchanged and she wasn’t sure if she necessarily wanted to know what that something was.

“What about information?” Lisa asked. “If you can’t fight for the world directly, can you help us out with intel on it? Or on the Consortium?”

“I’m not supposed to,” the Lord of Storms said. “Technically I shouldn’t even be talking with you now. Even revealing that a dead god is an actual thing counts as modifying the world, but under the circumstances I’m not sure the usual rules apply for little things like that.”

“So what other kinds of things could you reveal?” Rip asked.

“Well, I definitely couldn’t tell you that the Consortium has a limited time to complete their offensive here. I mean that would be revealing things about this world and about an extra-worldly organization which I shouldn’t know the first thing about,” the Lord of Storms said.

Pillowcase had a few very pointed follow-up questions to that response but the Lord of Storms continued speaking and Pillowcase wisely chose not to interrupt them.

“If I were to send you on a huge quest chain and make you fight a thousand different top level bosses, I could tell you that the Consortium’s greatest advantage and their greatest weakness are the same thing,” the Lord of Storms said. “Of course it would then be another ten thousand bosses before I could explain that capacity in question is their [Control Web] since it allows all of their forces to be directed according to one unified and overarching vision.”

“That’s incredible,” Lisa said, her eyes flickering back and forth as she processed the meaning of the information.

“I know. I mean, even a thousand boss fights is excessive, and the ten thousand thing is simply ridiculous, but I wasn’t involved in the dominion which covered that sort of thing.”

“How many bosses would we need to beat to learn the route out of the [High Beyond] and back to the surface kingdoms?” Pillowcase asked.

“Oh that one’s easy,” the Lord of Storms said. “There is no path back to the surface kingdoms. Or, well, not anymore.”

“What do you mean? We can’t be stuck here forever can we?” Rip asked.

“Ok, full disclosure here, somethings I’m pretty up to date on, other things, I’m working off the notes I took back when I was alive here,” the Lord of Storms said. “In terms of ‘how do we get to the surface?’ the answer is ‘you don’t’ because when I was a living god, the [High Beyond] was part of what you now think of as the ‘surface’.”

“What happened?” Matt asked.

“Well, you call them the [Fallen Kingdoms] don’t you? Ever wonder where they fell from?”

“Everything used to be up here? In the sky?” Rip asked.

“Kind of ostentatious, I know, but it really did seem like a good idea at the time,” the Lord of Storms said. “In hindsight though maybe parachutes would have been a good idea? Or just set gravity a little lower? Eh, none of that was in my domain and I know the surface architects were under some pretty tight deadlines. Sure there were five times as many of them, and my domain is still working  fine while theirs is…well, a bit broken I suppose, but I’m not going to speak ill of the departed. Even if they were largely egotistical jackasses, who blundered into their own failings despite SOMEONE repeatedly warning them to check their damn work once in a while.” The Lord of Storms shook their head and massage the spot where the bridge of a nose would be. It was such a human gesture that Pillowcase tried to peer through the illusion that had to be before her, but, no, the Lord of Storms was exactly as deific as they claimed to be.

They’re speaking in my native language, maybe their mannerisms are similar? Chosen to put me at ease? I should check to see if the others are seeing exactly the same things I am.

Okay, but why would they have [Human] mannerisms if they were trying to set you at ease? You don’t remember what it’s like to be a [Human].

Hmm….

“Sorry, might be a little bitter about how all that turned out still,” the Lord of Storms said.

“I can see why you would be,” Lisa said. “Especially with the whole being dead thing.”

“That might be influencing me a touch,” the Lord of Storms said.

“Is it bad being dead here?” Rip asked. “Or do the [Hounds of Fate] leave you alone because you’re a god?”

“The what now?” the Lord of Storms asked.

“The wolf-things that chase you when you do a ghost run,” Rip said.

“They were supposed to keep players from going too far off track,” Matt said, repeating what Lisa had explained earlier.

“Um, yeah, I don’t know what those are,” the Lord of Storms said. “So I’m guessing they’re new?”

“I don’t remember the lore on them,” Lisa said. “How about you Midnight?”

“I don’t think there was ever an explicit origin myth for the hounds,” Lady Midnight said. “They were just a part of the system, like zone boundaries, so they didn’t get talked about much.”

“Well, they sound delightful, and also something I’m glad I won’t be running into,” the Lord of Storms said.

“You’re moving your castle somewhere the hounds can’t get to?” Rip asked.

“Yep. It is just not safe here,” the Lord of Storms said. “Better to move it onto a much deeper dimensional layer and wait a bit longer for the denizens of this world to be ready for it.”

“Wait, there’s something you’re not safe from?” Rip asked. “What does a god, a dead good, have to worry about.”

“Uh, isn’t it obvious?” the Lord of Storms said. “That!”

They pointed off into the distance and, before she even finished turning, Pillowcase knew what the god was pointing at.

The static field of the [Formless Hunger] crackled with displeasure as though it had been leashed and was ever so eager to slip free from its chains and devour the world around it.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 17

It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Despite the heavy slowness which gripped her, Pillowcase knew that all she had to do was keep going forward. The domain of a dead god lay ahead – it wasn’t far off anymore – and once they were reached it, all of her problems would narrow to simple tactics.

If I was thinking tactically, I wouldn’t be venturing onto terrain where everything vastly out leveled myself and my group.

No other presence answered. No alternate perspective with a kind voice offered an opinion. Within the confines of her mystically reinforced skull, Pillowcase was alone.

That’s how it should be. It’s how I was designed.

Pillowcase didn’t believe either of those were true, or would matter if they were.

It had been nice having Tessa’s voice and guidance. Pillowcase was able to admit that easily. What she couldn’t understand was why being bonded to someone who’d never been in a real fight in her life should make her feel so much stronger.

It wasn’t as though Tessa had offered tactical analysis which Pillowcase lacked. Or provided a bulwark of unshakable courage against the the various anxieties facing danger produced. 

Not that the Consortium had crafted Pillowcase with anxieties. She was woven to be a weapon and weapons had nothing to fear except failing their masters or never being used at all.

That’s not right.

It wasn’t right. It was what the Consortium had stitched into the folds of her mind. Over and over reinforcing the idea that her value was measurable and calculated. They knew exactly how much they’d expended in creating her, and they knew exactly how much use their models projected they could expect out of her. 

A good [Clothwork] would meet expectations, delivering value in excess of her creation cost. A truly worthy [Clothwork] would exceed those expectations, and being disassembled to determine which deviations from the standard model had created the excess capability so that it could be replicated in future generations.

That was Pillowcase’s ultimate goal. To be good enough that her makers unmade her.

It was the closest she could get to immortality – to be imperfectly duplicated as the next revision of the [Clothwork] template for [Soul Knights].

Can you be immortal if you never live in the first place?

Before she marched in the vanguard against the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms], Pillowcase couldn’t have conceived of the question, much less formed an answer to it.

I was always alive. I just didn’t know it until I met my better self.

Tessa didn’t have a vast library of combat skills, or the ability to shape magic with a whim, or superhuman senses, or an impossibly resilient body.

But she was still Pillowcase’s better self.

Pillowcase laughed quietly to herself.

Tessa would never have accepted that description. There was so much Pillowcase couldn’t remember of her, so many shared memories that were no longer a part of her, but the sense of who Tessa was? That was clear as crystal.

It was through that crystal that Pillowcase was able to look back at her own past and see all the things the Consortium had prevented her from understanding. Tessa was gone, but at least that much of her impact on Pillowcase remained.

I was always more than the Consortium told me I was. More than they would let me be.

She couldn’t have believed that on her own. The Consortium’s conditioning ran far too deep. They’d been her whole world, and even the glimpses she’d seen of places and times their influence didn’t cover hadn’t suggested that their understanding of her was anything other than absolute.

She was a doll and a possession and not a person, and it had taken two seconds of experiencing herself from Tessa’s perspective to shatter all of those lies.

But being a weapon is what I’m good at.

In part that was why she had pressed for the team to continue on to the [Lord of Storms Castle]. There were strategic reasons to investigate it to be sure, but it was also the sort of environment where Pillowcase knew she could be useful. Where she could understand how she was supposed to live.

By killing others.

It was what she was designed for.

But not what I chose to do.

But if not that, what use did she have?

I’m a tank. And I don’t mind being that. I like what it means.

She wasn’t a killer.

She was a protector.

Who, admittedly, also killed sometimes.

It wasn’t a perfect metaphor. As much as Pillowcase wanted to embrace a life that was the complete antithesis of what the Consortium had planned for her, there were people right behind her who needed her. And who she needed. 

She didn’t know what her life was, or what she wanted it to be, but she’d already learned that keeping people around her safe from the sort of things she had once been felt pretty good and as reasons to live went, seemed as good a starting place as anywhere else. 

But how is that fundamentally any different from what the Consortium was asking of you? Aren’t you still basing your value around the service you provide to others?

No. The Consortium compelled my service whether it brought me any joy or not. I was told that I should feel happy to be doing what they commanded and if I didn’t that I was flawed. Defective. Worthless. 

Pillowcase wasn’t sure who she was arguing with. Herself? There wasn’t anyone else in her head, and the thoughts on both sides were definitely her own. Could she disagree with herself though? Question her own choices and decisions? Was that something people did?

From a distance beyond the reaches of the loudest sound, Pillowcase thought she heard the whisper of a mirthful chuckle.

There are things I can do. Things only I’m in a position to do. If I chose to do them that makes all the difference.

Why?

Because my choices define me. If I have no choices, then my life is not my own.

“Hey, do you have a moment?” Lisa asked on  a private channel.

“I do,” Pillowcase said. She was sure she hadn’t bumped into Lost Alice. She’d been very careful to maintain the distance the other woman seemed to prefer.

“We’re about to do something very stupid aren’t we?” Lisa asked.

“We’re taking a risk. We do have some capabilities which mitigate it though,” Pillowcase said.

“That’s one of the things I’m concerned about,” Lisa said. “You’re planning to try tanking anything we run into there aren’t you?”

“I’m happy to share the load with Oblivion’s Daughter,” Pillowcase said. “But, yes, better that I draw the enemy attacks in. It’s what I was built for.”

“Were you built to come back from the dead though?” Lisa asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Every time we’ve had to do a corpse run so far, our ghosts are shaped like our human forms,” Lisa said. “Do you know for sure that, if we get killed in there, you’ll be able to respawn like the rest of us can?”

The [Lord of Storms Castle] looked a lot closer than it had a moment earlier. The distance to it was still the same, but the time before they reached it had become far more precious.

“I don’t know,” Pillowcase admitted, her memories and training being entirely lacking in answers to the question of whether [Clothwork] soldiers left ghosts behind. “I suspect so though. The divine spark in the [Heart Fire] should be able to work on any body which has a connection to it, and this body has been proven to have one.”

Lisa grumbled. “I don’t know if that’s good enough.”

“It is an extra concern,” Pillowcase said. “And a difficult one to test.”

“Yeah, we can’t exactly pre-kill you and see if you can make it back,” Lisa said.

“Well, we could,” Pillowcase said.

“What? No! No we can’t! Not when the question is ‘can she come back from the dead’. What if the answer is ‘no’?”

“It would mean I wouldn’t be a distraction for you if an unwinnable fight broke out?” 

Pillowcase had no interest in dying to test a theory, but her analytical side demanded she be honest about the options before them.

“You would let Obby chop your head off just so I wouldn’t be distracted in a fight?” Lisa’s words boiled with incredulity.

“That would not be my first choice,” Pillowcase said. “But neither would letting the rest of the team face what’s inside the castle without being able to protect them.”

“Of the two, you had better know which option we will be selecting,” Lisa said.

“The one which allows me to pursue the life I’ve chosen to live?” Pillowcase said.

“The one that involves you actually having a damn life!” Lisa wasn’t shouting but that was only because they were on a silent, telepathic channel.

“Can I live if I can’t be who I am?” Pillowcase asked.

“In this case? Yes! Yes you can!” Lisa said. “There’s no need to throw your life away just to prove something. You can be a tank just fine without tackling every impossible challenge thrown in front of you.”

“How?” Pillowcase asked. “Being a tank means facing danger so others don’t have to. If I run from this because it’s too dangerous, then how would I ever face any other danger?”

“Because you just said it yourself – this is too dangerous,” Lisa said. “Listen, training is something I know how to do. When someone comes in looking to start to build their strength we don’t say ‘here’s the heaviest weights we’ve got, if they crush you that’s too bad’. We can work up your strength the same way. But only if you’re alive to put in the work. And maybe that means you won’t be able to tank the most deadly foes out there but you can still be a tank and still do a lot of good by focusing on the battles that you can survive.”

Pillowcase blinked and felt a liquid on her face.

“I’m crying?” she said.

“Why?” Lisa asked.

“How?” Pillowcase asked. “[Clothworks] can’t cry. It’s not part of our design.”

“Hey are you doing ok?” Obby asked, stepping up to Pillowcase’s side as Pillowcase stumbled to a halt.

“I’m at full health,” Pillowcase said.

“Yeah, but you don’t look so good,” Rip said, appearing at Pillowcase’s side and helping her sit down on a small boulder beside the path they were following.

“No. No. I’m fine,” Pillowcase said, trying to stand, but Lost Alice’s gentle touch kept her pinned on her seat. “I’m okay. I’m just…”

“Adjusting,” Obby said. “You lost a literal part of yourself and you’ve been pressing on like nothing changed. You can’t do that. You need time to rest.”

“We all do,” Matt said.

“No. I’ll be fine. We can keep going. We need to find out if the [Lord of Storms] will be able to help us. If the Consortium attacks again…”

“I don’t think that will be a problem any time soon,” Obby said, gesturing back in the direction they’d come.

Pillowcase saw the [Formless Hunger] which had replaced [Sky’s Edge] tearing a Consortium warship apart molecule by molecule. The sight was horrifying and fascinating and captured everyone’s attention for several long moments until it was done.

Other warships were in orbit but something about its first meal seemed to disagree with the [Formless Hunger]. The random pulses of light in the static couldn’t express any real meaning, but something in them suggested to Pillowcase that the Hunger was afraid. Of what, Pillowcase had no idea, and on reflection was not at all sure how she was supposed to feel about something that could terrifying a formless eldritch abomination.

“Look,” she said. “My eyes are better now. No unexplained leakage. I’m ready to continue on.”

“To where?”

“The [Lord of Storms Castle],” Pillowcase said, turning to point at the portal to the castle’s domain, which was no longer visible at all.

“My apologies,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m just in the process of moving. Did we have an appointment?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 16

Rose knew she was supposed to be paying attention, knew the spooky, shadowed land around them actually was full of monsters who wanted to eat them, knew she might be the only one who could sense the predators who were laying in wait for them, but despite all that, she couldn’t help getting lost in her thoughts.

“So what do you think really happened to Pillow?” Jamal asked on their private channel.

They were back to marching again, carefully covering the remaining distance between the former [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] and the outcropping which led to the hidden realm where the [Lord of Storms] was supposedly hanging out.

Rose wasn’t bored with the trip. Even with Rip Shot’s experience to fall back on, her body was alive with electricity at the thought of the peril they were daring. Her distraction came from the question Jamal had posed. The question she’d been pondering ever since the horror at [Sky’s Edge] had been driven back.

“I think she saved us,” Rose said. “Again.”

“Yeah. But how.” Jamal’s voice held the same repressed dread that suffused Rose’s heart.

Ahead of them Pillowcase and Lost Alice had taken their usual place at the front of the informal marching order. Even watching them from behind though, Rose could see that things weren’t the same.

Pillowcase wasn’t the same, and whatever connection Pillow and Lost Alice had formed before had changed. There was a distance between them that had nothing to do with the physical space they occupied or how careful they were to maintain it.

Pillowcase moved with mechanical precision. She kept to her side of the path, careful to provide Lost Alice with a constant buffer of space. It was a form of defensive positioning. Rip Shot read the spacing and flow of the movement as steps in some unseen combat, though whether Lost Alice was a foe to be evaded or an ally Pillowcase was giving a clear field around was something neither Rose nor Rip’s perspective could determine.

From how they were walking, Rose wasn’t sure Pillowcase or Lost Alice could have answered the question either though.

“She said she cast a spell on whatever that thing was. The [Formless Hunger],” Rose said, not convinced by the words she was saying any more than she’d been when she’d been listening to them.

“I tried to do that too,” Jamal said. “It didn’t work. I mean I couldn’t cast anything. The magic didn’t have anything to interact with. I wanted to, I tried, but it I couldn’t. It just didn’t work. I tried though.”

Warning bells went off in Rose’s head.

“I know,” she said. “I tried too. [Flame Shot], [Multi-Burst], even [Mark Target] wouldn’t work. Whatever that thing was, we couldn’t affect it.”

“But she did. And it hurt her.”

“It was a glitch though, right?” Rose asked, scrambling to keep Jamal from tumbling over the edge of sorrow and despair she felt lurking in front of her. “It makes sense that it wouldn’t be consistent from one of us to the next.”

Jamal sighed.

“Yeah. I’m just kind of freaked out I think. This has been a lot of take in, and we haven’t taken much of a break at all yet.”

“Do you think we should?” Rose asked. “Maybe before we go into the [Lord of Storms] place?”

“Can we?” Jamal asked. “I mean, I know we could stop and rest, but if we do that what else is going to go wrong?”

Rose could hear an old fear lurking in Jamal’s voice. He was used to being the one blamed for everything that went wrong. No matter how hard he tried. 

That couldn’t happen here.

This was a new start.

It had to better than their old life.

“Probably the same stuff that’ll go wrong if we proceed onwards,” Rose said. “I mean what’s happening here isn’t about us. There have been hundreds of thousands of people effected. What we’re doing now? We’re pretty far into ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.”

“Cause we’re in the sky?” Jamal forced some levity into his voice. Rose took it as a good sign, but knew she didn’t have him convinced yet.

“Because we don’t have to be here,” she said. “We could sit all this out and no one would blame us. They know we’re kids. They can hear our voices and they’ve seen our ghost forms. Everybody expects us to just hide away and be protected.”

“Should we be though? I mean what if Pillow got hurt because she was fighting every hard to defend us?”

“Okay, I know we haven’t known her long, but does Pillow seem like the kind of person to *not* fight hard to defend whoever’s under her care?” Rose asked.

That brought a small chuckle from Jamal. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

 “Her instincts are all ‘I hurl myself into the wheat thresher so no one else has to’, of course she was going to fight hard enough to break herself if that’s what it took.”

“Yeah, but if we were stronger, she wouldn’t have to do that right?”

“Nope,” Rose said. “Strength wasn’t going to help there. And I can prove it.”

“How?”

“Obby,” Rose said. “She’s the highest level of any of us. If strength was enough to fix what was going on with the [Formless Hunger] then she would have been the one to stop it.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” Jamal said. “Still feels like we’re in over our heads though.”

“Oh, we are. We definitely are,” Rose said. “If we were still just Rose and Jamal, then no way should we be here. Even as Rip and Matt, we’re totally not ready for any of this. You can see it in how everyone who knows the game is talking about things. But that’s the thing, isn’t it?”

Rose waited a moment as Jamal considered her words.

“We’re all not ready,” he said.

“Yeah, exactly,” Rose said. “Everyone who’s with us has two strikes against them. First, we’re all low level nobodies. None of us can take on the things the real players are handling. But then, second, maybe neither can the real players. I mean we’re all a mishmash of who we were on Earth and who our characters were, and that’s not what playing the game could have been like for anyone. And we know there are things here that are outside of the game too. So no one really knows what they’re doing.”

“So we suck, but so does everyone, so we’re no worse than they are?” Jamal asked.

“It’s all relative is what I’m saying. It’s been less than a day so far and we’re already a lot stronger than we used to be. And if Alice is right, maybe we’ll wind up stronger than anyone else since we’re doing all our leveling here, where it’s like for real?”

“Yeah…” Jamal was considering the idea as much as agreeing with it, but added another “Yeah!” once it won him over.

“Hey there Rip, got a minute?” Obby asked, speaking on a private channel for the two of them.

“Yeah! What can I help you with?” Rip asked, a little thrill shooting through her.

Obby knew she was a kid, but she always treated her like Rip rather Rose and that felt better than Rose had words to explain.

“It’s about Pillowcase,” Obby said. “There’s some things I’d like you to keep an eye out for okay?”

“Sure, like what?”

“I know you haven’t know her long – you just met in the game after the [World Shift] right?” Obby asked.

“Yeah. It was after the bugged event that hit [Sky’s Edge],” Rip said and explained the desperate fight they’d tried to manage against the [Wraithwings] and how everything had fallen apart.

“I am really impressed that pulled off as much as did,” Obby said. “Hiding in a geometry glitch is clever and trying to fight a horde of things above your level is gutsy.”

“You can call it stupid, it’s okay,” Rip said.

“Don’t start thinking it’s stupid because it didn’t work,” Obby said. “Sure in some worlds you’d know exactly what you were capable of and what your foes could do and all the math would be laid out telling you exactly how everything would go. Most places aren’t like that though, and definitely not this place.”

“In hindsight, we could have done better though,” Rip said.

“Good! That says you’re learning! Figuring things out when they don’t come together how you want is the key to getting better.”

“Yeah, but some things are just impossible right?

“Those are the best things,” Obby said. “What’s impossible today is waiting for a sufficiently clever or determined person to come up with an answer to tomorrow.”

“Umm…is that what Pillowcase did?” Rose asked.

Obby sighed.

“Yeah. That’s exactly what she did. So, it doesn’t always work out great, but if we asked her, she’d tell use that even knowing what the outcome would be, she’d still do what she did.”

“I still don’t get what she did exactly?”

“The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t even that when [Sky’s Edge] turned all ‘staticky’,” Obby said. “I know [Formless Hunger] sounds pretty abstract and ill-defined but what it was before that wouldn’t even fit into a word exactly.”

“I kind of get that. Jamal and I were talking about how our spells and abilities just didn’t seem to work on whatever it was,” Rose said. “So why did Pillow’s?”

“The short form?” Obby asked. “She did the impossible. She took something that wasn’t quite real and turned it into something, granted a very weird and dangerous something, but still a ‘something’ that was part of this world.”

“With her spell?” Rose asked.

“The spell was the conduit, or the metaphor…the tool basically,” Obby said.

“Could our spells and stuff have done the same?” Rose asked.

“That’s a complicated question,” Obby said. “No, in the sense that magic from this world can’t reach that far beyond it. Also ‘no’ in the sense that it wasn’t really the spell that brought the [Formless Hunger] into being real. And then there’s the ‘no’ in the sense that you’re not Pillowcase. Or Tessa. Or any other part of her.”

“So she’s special then?” Rose asked.

“Of course,” Obby said. “Everyone is. That’s the most obvious and overlooked secret there is.”

“But she’s got, like, special ‘fight unreal things’ powers or something? Like, is she the Chosen One?”

“Neither Pillowcase, nor Tessa, had special powers related to what they did,” Obby said. “You won’t find ‘Instantiate Unbeing’ on her character sheet or anything like that. What was special about her was that when that test came, she was where she was, with the motivations she had, and was willing to make the choices she did.”

“Is she going to be okay?” Rose asked. “She seems different now.”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” Obby said. “The Pillowcase who’s with us now is only part of the person we knew before. I guess that’s pretty obvious with the [Fractured] condition she talked about. What’s important though is that she’s not exactly even the Pillowcase that we knew. When she pulled the [Formless Hunger] into this world, she pulled a bit of it into herself as well.”

Rose almost tripped over her own feet.

“Wait, so she has a monster or something growing in her?” she asked.

“Again, complicated,” Obby said. “I mean, it’s not like there’s a literal monster gestating in her chest or something. It’s more that she’s got access to powers now that are outside the normal scope of this world. You can think of it like the [Formless Hunger] became real and a little bit of Pillowcase became unreal in exchange.”

“What’s going to happen with that? Is she going to turn into a [Formless Hunger] too or something?”

“No. She’s too much of herself to become something so devoid of history or identity,” Obby said. “Beyond that though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. A lot of it comes down to her. The little bit of strangeness inside her might become part of the natural world on its own as the world grows to include her. Or she might force it to expand and become steadily less what she was and more something that could never be.”

“Can we help her?” Rose asked.

“Yeah. I think we can,” Obby said. “All she needs, all we can really do, is let her know there are people who care for her. That’s the beacon she can use to find a path back home when she gets lost.”