Monthly Archives: October 2020

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 9

Melissa

Fishing was a peaceful activity. Unlike the din of battle, it allowed one to simply relax and take in the sights and sounds that were otherwise all too easy to overlook. The quiet harmony of it was what had drawn Melissa to dedicate a rather monumental amount of time to becoming a [Grandmaster of All Waters] in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. 

It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy adventuring too. She would run any dungeons her guild was interested in tackling, and grind away seasonal quests or loot drops for rare but interesting items. When left to her own devices though, she was happy to login, find an out-of-the-way body of water and proceed to play the rather simple fishing mini-game for hours on end. 

She tended to “zone in” when she fished, not drifting off into a mental haze, but rather allowing the world around her to melt away so that only Feral Fang’s world filled her consciousness.

Waking up in the [Fallen Kingdoms] hadn’t been all that disorienting for her as a result. It had been surprising certainly. Watching a body that she’d never been particularly comfortable in fizz away in a shower of white light only to wake up wearing one that she’d more or less hand designed had been a delight, as had feeling the twinned memories of ‘Melissa’ and ‘Feral Fang’, cozily taking up space in her mind, each as accessible as the other. 

Where the people around her had been distressed to various degrees and at a loss for what to do, Melissa had known immediately where she was and what needed to happen.

Feral Fang and three of her guildmates had been running one of the early dungeons from the previous expansion, in part to kill time, and in part to gear up one of the newer players while Melissa waited for Pete to finish making his character so she could power level him up. 

Only later did she learn that there she couldn’t have made it to the [High Beyond] with clearing one of the new dungeons first, so Pete would have been waiting a week or two before Feral Fang’s guild could put together a successful run. That turned out not be an issue though, since the devs shut down access to the dungeon they needed and then all thoughts of running max level content vanished when the [Fallen Kingdoms] become joyously, wonderfully, terribly real.

“You know, I feel a little bad hanging out here,” Jestrix said. The nominal leader of Feral Fang’s team gestured to the night shrouded glen where a few hundred people had set up camp.

Above them the stars blazed brighter than any Melissa had ever seen on Earth. Some of them were old guideposts, constellations the developers had put into the game which changed throughout the game year to reflect the lore of the world. Melissa had learned their patterns and invented a few of her own as she whiled away time drowning various bits of bait in search of the rare and legendary catches hiding in the world.

It was because she knew the patterns of the stars so well that she was able to see the new arrivals for what they were. Silver gleams from the hulls of nearest parts of the Consortium’s forces. They were part of the terrible reality before Melissa but from a planetary distance they at least held the illusion of beauty.

“I’m ok with it,” Melissa said.

“I am too,” Jesterix said. “But, I mean, should I be? Shouldn’t I want to be out there? Fighting the good fight?”

“I’ve seen you fight the good fight plenty of times,” Melissa said. “Or do you not recall when you and your 110lb noodle arms got all up in that evangelical guy’s face at Pride?”

“I recall that if you weren’t there, he and his army of rabid pamphlet wavers would have flattened me,” Jesterix said.

“Well, I was the one he called a ‘lady boy’, so I couldn’t exactly let you get pummeled alone,” Melissa said.

“That’s what I mean though,” Jesterix said. “In our world, where we don’t have unbelievable magic powers and an inability to die, we didn’t hesitate to step up when we needed to. Here though? Here we’re not really doing anything.”

“I’m fishing,” Melissa said, casting another worm to a soggy end.

Jesterix put her hands on her hips and frowned.

“You know what I mean. We could be out there on the front lines.”

“We could be,” Melissa said. “These people have been safe so far. We could probably abandon them, leave them in this strange and otherwise undefended place, trusting that it’s isolation really will be better protection than the homes we took them away from and head off to go seek glory and xps.”

Jesterix looked like she was struggling between Daisy’s impulses towards selfless heroism and Jesterix’s calculated self-preservation. 

Melissa didn’t have that problem. Some of the other adventurers didn’t seem to have much connection with their character. For Melissa though, her bond with Feral Fang went beyond ‘connection’. There was no line between them, no difference in their voices, no gap in perceptions or thoughts.

When Melissa spoke, it was with Feral Fang’s voice, and Feral Fang’s experience, and Feral Fangs desires, in a large part because Feral Fang had always been an aspirational version of who Melissa really was. 

Melissa knew she’d done a few brave things, and Feral Fang had been a manifestation of the desire to do even more. Melissa had found a measure of peace with herself once she was able to be honest about who she was to herself and her family, and in Feral Fang she’d been able to sink into that peace be it in the serenity of fishing or the thrill of a pitched battle. 

Feral Fang was always what she was, and she was always what Melissa had hoped to be, so when the two met, there was no wall between them, no distance to cross, and no lack of understanding to bridge.

She didn’t know it, but if there was a natural antithesis to the [Disjoined], Melissa Bookman was the living embodiment of it.

Niminay

With Penny at least asleep, Niminay let herself finally relax. It had been an awful day. Too much destruction. Too much death. Too many lost battles.

But it could have been so much worse.

The [Greater Powers] in the world were still at rest, either because they wished the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms] to expend their forces against the new invader, or because Penny had requested that they keep their powers hidden from the Consortium for the time being, or, in several cases, because their power was tied up with their dominion and outside their lairs they were no stronger than any of the individual adventurers who were already fighting.

It was only a matter of time until that changed and the battles transcended the mortal struggles the [Fallen Kingdoms] had seen over the last several days to become clashes which rocked the heavens. 

Niminay, like the other adventurers of her stature, could contend with gods made flesh, but those fights always came with a cost, and defending anything but herself during them was rarely possible.

If anyone could prevent those catastrophic battles from occurring though, it was the woman who lay in her arms, snoring adorably away. The woman who, if Niminay knew her, and she did, was probably literally dreaming up the solution to their problems.

And yet people didn’t see Penny as the hero she so clearly was.

And not because of her unique [Skills], endless depth of knowledge or supreme analytic capabilities. Those were the tools she used, but what made Penny a hero in Niminay’s eyes was what she used them for. 

Penny didn’t strive to simply win. Anyone with an ounce of cleverness could win a difficult battle. What Penny fought for was a specific sort of world. One that was kinder and more compassionate than the one she lived in each day.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t painless. Sometimes, it wasn’t even possible. That didn’t stop Penny, and that was one of the many reasons that Niminay had, in the quiet corners of her heart, pledged herself to Penny in this life and any they could find beyond it, whether they’d had a wedding or no.

Still it would have been nice to make it official.

She did say if I brought down the Consortium flagship we could get married on the bridge? Niminay turned the idea over in mind, savoring the challenge of it.

She couldn’t ‘win’ Penny with a grand gesture. The only way to be worth of Penny’s love was to be given it freely and to reciprocate it in kind. 

That said though, grand gestures did have their place.

For example, announcing things clearly to the rest of the world.

Also, in this case, clearing up some free time for a honeymoon by eliminating the main pile of work on Penny’s desk.

It wasn’t really possible to take down the Consortium’s flag ship of course. Niminay knew that. It was far too heavily defended. And kept well out of range of any strike team the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms] could send against it. And surrounded by enemy ships even if Niminay could manage to take it over.

So, impossible.

Niminay couldn’t stop nibbling on the idea though. 

The flag ship would house the [Supreme Commander] of the Consortium’s forces. The same [Supreme Commander] who Penny was worried about being a ‘smart foe’. 

Niminay knew how Penny thought. Labeling someone a ‘smart foe’ meant that they were at least roughly on Penny’s level, which was a terrifying thought and an even worse reality.

The only benefit to having a ‘smart foe’ that Niminay could see was that it meant the enemy had a target of oversized value. The [Supreme Commander] was able to use the Consortium’s forces to a far greater effect that a lesser leader could manage, accomplishing a world wide invasion with armies smaller than one the first one which they’d crushed and thrown back decisively. To do so though required an insight of the forces involved and a complexity of thought which no lesser leader was likely to be able to do duplicate.

Eliminating the [Supreme Commander] would not only remove the force multiplier which they provided to the Consortium’s forces, the entire operation might fall apart as their replacement struggled to understand even the basics of what their predecessor had been planning.

Niminay knew Penny had considered this already. Probably from several thousand angles. That there wasn’t a strike force already formed to get the job done meant that the most brilliant mind Niminay knew had decided it was an unfeasible strategy.

In any other situation, Niminay’s respect for Penny’s brilliance would have convinced her to drop the idea there, but Niminay knew a little about the limits Penny placed on the plans she adopted.

Penny loved Niminay. Niminay knew that, and she knew that meant Penny would never send her on a mission that wasn’t possible. By preference, Penny didn’t even like sending Niminay on missions where she was likely to lose, which Niminay could appreciate both in a person sense and a tactical one. 

When Niminay viewed herself as a resource, she knew that she was more valuable being utilized in battles where she would emerge unscathed. She could be the deciding factor in dozens of fights, as she had earlier that day, but only if she wasn’t disabled or captured by an enemy she wasn’t able to deal with quickly.

What Penny didn’t plan for though, and would never plan for, was that Niminay was more than a resource, and more than the woman who loved her utterly. 

Before she’d been anything else, Niminay had been an adventurer, and in her soul she always would be.

And what did adventurer’s do when faced with impossible odds?

The impossible of course.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 8

Starchild

Slaughtering a trio of [Starfire Worms] was amusing rather than terrifying thanks to the buffs Glimmerglass was supplying, but Starchild still took a particular satisfaction in it since it was the Worms who’d assaulted her.

Despite the chance for easy leveling, Starchild hadn’t tried to deliberately antagonize the dungeon’s wildlife. She was walking through their home after all and it was easy to remember how much she’d hated people who came blundering through her forest, destroying everything in their path. 

The [Starfire Worms] though had burrowed through solid rock for the express purpose of ambushing Starchild and Glimmerglass at a moment when they were getting their bearings and appeared helpless.

“So you and Pete don’t share any memories at all?” Glimmerglass asked. A [Starfire Worm] was trying to devour her but she dodged it’s attacks with little more than casual steps to one side or the other.

“None,” Starchild said. “He’s described some things about your world, but I can only imagine them based on what I know. Things like cars and chainsaws that he’s talked about don’t evoked any imagery or familiarity.”

The other two worms spit acid at her, but the streams deflected off the shield which enveloped her. She smashed one of them with her staff and watched a satisfying quarter of its health bar evaporate. For a dungeon boss, even one split into a trio encounter, that was a more substantial hit than she’d expected to be able to make.

“That’s definitely different from me,” Glimmerglass said. “Even you saying those words gives me a sense of what they are from Tessa’s memories and I can’t speak directly to her at all anymore.”

“How are you sure that you are the same person then?” Pete asked. “I mean you have pretty different experiences and skills.”

“It’s difficult to describe from the outside, but when we’re together it’s easy to see,” Glimmerglass said. “When I can recall my memories of being Tessa, they’re like something I know I did, but that I’d just forgotten. Each one is connected to a whole web of others, and when I think about how I handled a programming problem a week ago, or how Tessa handled it, it fits together. Like, I remember more than the event. I remember the frustration surrounding it, and fatigue leading up to it, and the disgust at my coworkers who laughed when it got dumped on me. But I’ve never had coworkers like that as Glimmerglass. That’s unquestionably Tessa’s memory, from her point of view, and also mine.”

[Starfire Worms] were not the brightest of things, having been built as some form of security apparatus, but the one on Glimmerglass seemed noticeably deficient in tactical sense as it continued it’s futile quest to devour her despite the effortless ease with which she avoided it’s attacks.

“For Pete and I, there doesn’t seem to be that blending of viewpoints,” Starchild said. “He doesn’t feel like an aspect of me, but more like a friend.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I ever wanted to be Starchild when I was playing the game,” Pete said. “I just wanted to know her. I wanted to be her friend, if that sound doesn’t weird?”

“I’m not sure anything can sound weird under the circumstances,” Glimmerglass said. “I just found out my entire world has a strange analog in a game on another planet and that another shard of myself has been playing as me on that game.”

“That’s a lot to take in,” Starchild said, as she finished bashing the second [Starfire Worm] into a shower of sparks.

“It’s good fodder for an existential crisis,” Glimmerglass said. “The good new is, I’m an adventurer, and we have enough life and death crises to deal with that it’s easy to file existential ones away into the ‘deal with never’ bin. What about you though? How are you two handling being stuck together?”

“For me it’s like being supercharged,” Starchild said. “I think I’m running off my own stamina and Pete’s now, at least in terms of focus and motivation.”

“And for me this is like a very interactive dream,” Pete said. “I get to see all this amazing stuff and I can encourage Starchild or warn her about stuff to help make things turn out better. Well most of the time. We did have a few deaths back with our previous party.”

“Those weren’t your fault,” Starchild said, dispatching the last of the [Starfire Worms] and leveling up in the process.

“Doesn’t it feel odd having someone else looking over your shoulder? Or not having a body at all?” Glimmerglass asked.

“It probably should,” Starchild said. “But isn’t that part of an [Inspiration]? We’re used to feeling called to adventure. This feels less weird than that since I get to talk to the person who’s encouraging me and believing in me.”

“I hadn’t really thought about the ‘no body’ thing,” Pete said. “When we die, I have one, but once we respawn, I go back to being like this and it just feels more comfortable somehow? Like I’m one step removed from all the dangerous stuff so I can keep my wits about me a lot easier?”

“Wait, what do you mean ‘you have a body when you die’?” Glimmerglass asked. “I hadn’t even thought of that. When Pillowcase and Tessa died, they did the respawn run in Tessa’s ghost. When I died, I did it my own though, but we were able to switch between each of our bodies at will while we held the god soul. Which ghost do you two make respawn runs in?”

“Both,” Starchild said. “The last time we died, the both of us were there, side-by-side. It was pretty urgent that we get back to the fight so we ran to the [Heart Fire] and I didn’t think about it.”

“We weren’t the only ones like that either,” Pete said. “Some of our previous team had just one ghost and some had two. It didn’t seem weirder than anything else going on but I wonder if it tracks with how the…souls I guess? How the souls are setup?”

“ I know someone we could reach out to who might have a different experience than ours. One more like Glimmerglass and Tessa,” Starchild said.

“Who’s that?” Glimmerglass asked.

“My sister,” Pete said. “I don’t know if there was ever a line between Melissa and Feralfang. I think they may have been the same person even before the [World Shift].”

Oblivion’s Daughter

Looking into the eyes of someone you love can make time standstill. 

In Obby’s case no such thing happened of course. She was just an adventurer. Certainly not any kind of entity capable of shaping reality to suit her whims. If there was anyone like that in the world, the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be little more than a reflection of that entity’s desires and Obby was definitely not someone to violate the integrity of self-sustaining world like that.

And the memory of a kiss wasn’t really cheating right? Whistling a happy tune, she began to pick out a path towards her new friends.

She’d landed in one of the deep levels of the dungeon, well beyond the finished areas and remote enough that the creatures who’d scurried into the dim reaches had little kindness for those who distrubed the sanctity of their abodes.

“You can come out,” Obby said. She wasn’t invincible. She most determinedly wasn’t. If the [Shadowed Starwalkers] decided to attack her, there wasn’t a high chance that she’d survive.

“Who are you to call to us? We see many reflections in you?” The being who spoke peeled himself away from the stonework, a living patch of darkness deforming into three dimensions.

“I’m Oblivion’s Daughter, but you can call me Obby. It’s shorter and leaves people with fewer questions,” Obby said. She wasn’t gently soothing the questions about who she really was to the back of their awareness. That’s not something an adventurer would do. Well, not a tank at least.

“And you dare to trespass on our refuge?” Gray-of-Endless-Mist asked, his shadow form fading to a color matching his name.

“I do,” Obby said. “I know you’re pretty much the highest level things in this area of the dungeon.”

“And you do not fear us?” Gray-of-Endless-Mist asked. 

Obby could see that the other shadows were moving and that Gray seemed to want to join their stalking hunt. She could also see that he didn’t know quite what to make of her and that was an advantage since unknown things were scary, even to scary folk.

“Why would I fear people I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to find so I could help them?” Obby asked.

“You sought us out?” The shifting shadows stopped shifting and Gray stepped back a half pace.

“Yeah, there’s something here, in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave], that you’re familiar with,” Obby said.

“We have learned much of this realm’s secrets,” Gray said as the shadows began to close in. Obby could tell they’d decided she was addled in some manner and not an actual threat.

“Oh, I meant something new,” she said. “You all know what a [Formless Hunger] is right?”

That froze the approaching shadows instantly.

“I thought so,” Obby said. “There’s one of them in the upper levels of the dungeon.”

“That’s not possible,” Gray said. “They can’t have followed us here. They can’t exist here.”

“It is having some trouble with that,” Obby said. “It’s eaten a divine spark, a whole town, and a few battle cruisers trying to fix those problems and it seems to be having middling luck with the results.”

“A divine spark? How could it consume such a thing?” another [Shadowed Starwalker], Black-of-a-Faded-Bruise asked.

“There was a battle that unearthed one,” Obby said. “The Hunger came into this world through it. Sort of.”

“Why would you tell us this?” Gray asked.

“Well, first because you’re in danger and you deserve to have more warning than a pseudopod of static bursting out of a wall and destroying your essence,” Obby said.

“It is not constrained by the matter here?” Black asked.

“Not in the slightest,” Obby said. “Not yet anyways.”

“Does it know we’re here?” Gray asked.

“No, or again, not yet,” Obby said. “It was expanding though, and likely will again once it works out some of its current issues. So it’s only a matter of time before it finds your scent.”

“No!” a third [Shadowed Starwalker] cried.

“We are no more than feed for such things. There cannot be one here!” Gray said.

“There is, but you don’t need to be food for it,” Obby said. “That’s the second reason I came. I can lead you to a spot where we’re gathering all the people we can find.”

“That will draw the the Hunger’s attention more than anything else. Why would we go there?” Gray asked.

“There’s strength in numbers,” Obby said. “Plus if you stand with us, we can protect you, where if you stay here, there won’t be much we can do if the Hunger decided to move in this direction first.”

“Strength in numbers? What strength can there be against a [Formless Hunger]? And why would your numbers ever accept us? We are [Life Drinkers],” Gray said.

“I know that gives you a bad rap in most places, but we’re already bringing in the [Vampires] and the [Demons], so trust me, you wouldn’t be that out of place,” Obby said.

“This is all a trick to gather us together so the Hunger will finish us all off at once!” Gray said.

“We don’t need a trick for that,” Obby said. “All we’d need to do is let the Hunger grow without telling you about it. Or can you run from something you can’t see coming and that can pass through solid walls?”

“We can hide,” Black said.

“By the time the Hunger spreads down here from the surface what makes you think there will be anywhere to hide?” Obby asked. “If we let it grow, it’s going to consume the entirety of the [High Beyond].”

“And what alternative do we have? What else can we do besides ‘let it grow’?”

“Oh? Didn’t I mention?” Obby said. “One of my team has beaten the Hunger twice now. And she keeps learning from it. If it tries to go for a third fight, I don’t think we’ll have a [Formless Hunger] left up here at all.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 7

Starchild

The deep reaches of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] were a far cry from the sunlit glades and shadow dappled forests Starchild had grown up in. Being encased in stone was a new and not entirely pleasant experience. Being surrounded by deadly monsters though was par for the course.

“If we run into anything let me move ahead a bit,” Glimmerglass said. “I don’t have any good enmity tools, so we’ll have to let the mobs face aggro me and hope we don’t have too many peel off to pick on you.”

“That works for us,” Pete said, speaking while Starchild considered her options.

“If there are any stranglers who aren’t too overleveled, could you leave those for me?” Starchild said.

“Oh, yeah, we could power level you up a bit as we head back,” Glimmerglass said. “You’re a [Druid] though right? Could you just pick targets off from range while I quasi-tank them for you?”

Starchild shook her head and gave a short laugh. “No. My circle had a somewhat unique training regime. We specialized in melee combat.”

“Really? That’s neat. I haven’t run with a melee [Druid] in years,” Glimmerglass said, delight wrinkling the corner of her eyes. “So do you have [Devouring Thorns] yet?”

“Not yet,” Starchild said. “That’s in about five levels. For now I have [Thunder Oak] and [Might of the Bear], as well as [Hickory Skin].”

“I remember those!” Glimmerglass said. “Ok, new plan then. Let’s have you lead.”

“I can do that,” Starchild said, wondering how she’d be able to handle things if they ran into a large pack of monsters. 

Glimmerglass was a healer, which was all well and good, but against a large party of more powerful foes, any spell with a cast time could come up short since the time between being fine and being completely dead was sometimes measured in fractions of a second.

“Are you sure?” Pete asked, speaking privately within their shared mental space.

“So long as we don’t run into the [Formless Hunger], Glimmerglass should be unkillable, so in the worst case she can simply clear out the mobs who were too strong for us and then resurrect me.”

“I know dying’s not particularly fun for you though,” Pete said and Starchild could hear the gentle undercurrent of concern for her in his voice.

“I can handle it,” Starchild said. “And I’m sure Glimmerglass won’t let us fall easily.”

Dying was a part of adventuring, but Starchild had discovered that she and her [Inspiration] didn’t experience it the same.

Pete described it as a sudden feeling of disconnection. Like he’d been unplugged from his observation point. Not especially unpleasant, just worrisome since there was a brief period where he couldn’t hear her voice. It was being a ghost which ‘freaked him out’, though he attributed that to fear of the [Hounds of Fate] as much as anything else. 

For Starchild, dying was no different than it was for anyone else. When her health hit zero, the pains of her body vanished and there was a brief moment of disorientation before she rose from her physical form into her aetheric one. 

Being a ghost was annoying because of the limitations, but those were easy enough to fix by simply finding the nearest [Heart Fire]. As for the [Hounds of Fate]? She’d never felt the aura of menace from them that the other adventurers she spoke to had.

“You can leave the [Hickory Skin] buff off,” Glimmerglass said. “I’ve got you covered there. [Star Titan’s Resistance]. [Cloak of the Heavens]. [Starfall… no wait, that’ll count as an attack from me and nerf your xp. [Heart of the Dawn Star]. There we go. Those aren’t the best damage shields or regeneration effects but third tier buffs should still be plenty potent for this place.”

Starchild watched as a damage shield ten times larger that her entire health pool wrapped her in a defensive field. In her chest a gentle gold light gleamed, pulsing healing sufficient to restore her to perfect health once per second.

“I’m pretty sure something could decapitate me and I would heal to uninjured before my head left my shoulder,” Starchild said marveling at the magic which infused her.

“Possibly? Let’s not test that out though,” Glimmerglass said. “If it looks like you’re getting overwhelmed, or if something with nasty status effects shows up, or you just feel like you need help, I’ll wade in and burn everything down.”

“If I’m going to lead, how far ahead should I go?” Starchild asked.

“Let’s stay side-by-side,” Glimmerglass said. “If I get some of the aggro that’s fine. As long as I don’t hit the mobs, you should get full credit for anything we defeat.”

“This is going to be pretty boring for you, isn’t it?” Pete asked.

“Not at all,” Glimmerglass said with a bright smile. “As a healer, it’s my job to keep the party standing so that they can grow stronger. I’ve always liked doing stuff like this since the ‘keep them standing part’ is so easy and the rest of the part usually levels up so much faster than normal.”

“I am glad you’ve joined us,” Starchild said as they set off down the hall in a direction which ran in the opposite direction from where they wanted to go. Because of course the proper direction to go in the dungeon was going to be the least convenient one possible. 

“Yeah, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting but I’m glad with how it worked out,” Glimmerglass said.

“I’m not sure I understand exactly what it was that brought you here?” Starchild said. “I mean the god soul you were carrying explains how you had the power to get here, but I don’t understand how you wound up arriving right when we needed you most?”

“I was sort of trading favors with myself,” Glimmerglass said.

“You mentioned something about you and Pillowcase being the same person?” Pete asked. “Was that because you were smushed together by the god soul?”

“No,” Glimmerglass said. “Tessa, and Pillowcase, and me, we’re all sort of the same person. Just in different places? I saw more of that when we were together, and it made more sense then. Right now though? It’s a little jumbled. I can’t call up what a day of programming was like for Tessa, but I know that she works in a cubicle that she hates and writes code that no one is ever happy with even when it does exactly what they asked for it to.”

“And you know what a cubicle and programming are,” Pete said, turning the words over as his spoke them.

“They sound like things from Tessa and Pete’s world,” Starchild said.

“They are,” Glimmerglass said. “But can’t you tell that too?”

“I don’t think we’re like you,” Starchild said. “Pete doesn’t feel like a part of me.”

Hailey

As beds went, a cot in the medical tent was certainly better than a bed of nail. Nine out of ten adventurers would attest to that. For Hailey though, it felt comfier than a bed of the softest down.

“Let her sleep,” Mellisandra said. “She’s been through a lot.”

“We’re supposed to take her to [High Command] though,” Damnazon said. “Like, right now.”

“I thought she was done with sending them the info they needed?” Mellisandra said.

They were both trying to keep their voices down, but BT’s ears were supernaturally acute. She could ignore them if she needed to, BT had a lifetime of zoning out so her senses wouldn’t overwhelm her, but Hailey knew she needed to stay alert no matter how tempting sleep was.

“I think this for something else,” Damnazon said.

Hailey could guess all too easily what Niminay was thinking. It was one of the reasons she had drifted off to sleep.

“No worries, I’m up,” she said, suppressing a groan as she rolled out of the cot and bid the promise of sleep a fond farewell.

“I’m sorry, did we wake you?” Damnazon asked. 

“No, I was just sorting my thoughts out,” Hailey lied. “They were a bit scrambled before.”

“Oh, good,” Damnazon said. “We need to head out then. The folks at [High Command] want to talk to you.”

“They could do that on a secure channel,” Mellisandra said, frowning at the incongruity of [High Commands] request.

“I think it’s less about them talking to me and more about making sure I don’t talk to anyone on the other side,” Hailey said.

“Why would they be worried about that? You put yourself through hell to get to us,” Mellisandra said.

“Ah, just like the first circle. It could have been a lot worse,” Hailey said, saying a silent prayer for Tessa being there when she needed her. Just like she had been so many times before. 

“The point is, you proved your loyalty, more than almost any of the rest of us have,” Mellisandra said. “Unless you’re possessed or something, there’d be no…”

Mellisandra’s voice trailed off as her own words showed her what the problem was.

“No reason for me to share what I know with the Consortium,” Hailey finished. “Except possession is a thing in this world, and so are a lot of other methods of coercing knowledge out of someone. If the Consortium even learned what I revealed about them, they’d be able to reclaim a huge advantage.”

Mellisandra was watching her, peering into Hailey’s eyes, and gasped as she saw the deeper problem lurking there.

“But you know about more than the Consortium, don’t you?” she asked.

Hailey nodded.

“If I fall into the Consortium’s hands, they might be able to learn everything I know about you. All of you. On the whole planet. Where the defensive forces are deployed. What their strengths are. Which of the Greater Entities would be open to their overtures,” Hailey said.

“We should have gotten you somewhere safe hours ago,” Mellisandra said.

“The problem is that there’s nowhere which is perfectly safe,” Hailey said. “I’m too high value of a target for the Consortium to hold back on spending resources to acquire me. My best defense up till now was obscurity.”

“Does that mean someone knows about you now?” Damnazon asked.

“I don’t think so,” Hailey said. “If your [High Command] thought that, they’d have had you kill me.”

“What? No they wouldn’t,” Damnazon said. “We’re not the bad guys here.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Hailey said. “But if I was in ghost form the Consortium would have a lot harder time finding me. We haven’t seen any of the adventurers getting attacked while they were ghost running.”

“No, but the [Hounds of Fate] have been out in numbers greater than we’ve ever seen before,” Mellisandra said.

“True, but they’re still not coming too near to the [Heart Fires],” Hailey said. “If things look bad, I’m going to need to you to let me ditch my gear and then hit me with a max charged [Annihilation Tempest]. I don’t want any traces of this body around for the Consortium to play with.”

Mellisandra was silent for a long moment, her gaze again searching Hailey’s face, and her lips set into a hard frown.

“I can do that,” she said. “But only if you tell me too.”

“I might not be able if they capture me too quickly,” Hailey said. She could picture so many scenarios where a professional mercenary team could disable her and snatch her away before anyone could fight back. Given BT’s capabilities that would be a supernaturally difficult task, but the Consortium had resources potent enough to match BT’s skills, and their coffers were much, much deeper. 

“Then we’ll rescue you just as quickly,” Damnazon said.

Hailey started to object to that, but closed her mouth before the first discouraging word could leak out.

She was BT as much as she was Hailey. She knew how heroes worked. They didn’t get where they were by taking the safe plays. They looked at whatever situation was before them and made their own odds.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 6

Lisa

It wasn’t Tessa slipping her hand from Lisa’s grip that was worrisome. It was the low throated growl. That wasn’t a sound Tessa had made before as far as Lisa knew. For a moment Lisa wondered if the woman beside her wasn’t quite the person who’d been lost saving them at [Sky’s Edge], then Tessa spoke and Lisa understood where her anger was coming from.

“You’re a parasite,” Tessa said. “Gail Merriden gave this world a million times more than you ever did, and when she died all you did was lie to tarnish her name and steal the credit from her for everything she and her team created.”

Tessa reached out her hand and twisted her wrist violently to the side. In what looked to be the distance, a stack of books shelves exploded into a shower of sparks.

There hadn’t been any incantation, and Tessa hadn’t called out the use of a skill. 

“That’s…that’s not true,” Kralt said. “They bought my world. I ran this game on my own for twenty years before the first programmer ever sat down to write a line of code!”

“If you wanted us to think your work had any value at all you shouldn’t have published it as its own table top game,” Tessa said.

“Oh, right, I remember that,” Lisa said. “That was the game that had the random table for the bust size didn’t it?”

“Among other things,” Tessa said.

“Yeah, that was a total trainwreck.” Lisa couldn’t help laughing at the memory of trying to play the offline version of [Broken Horizons]. Her guildmates hadn’t even made it through character creation before pronouncing it an overly complicated and completely unbalanced mess. 

The worst part though was the lore.

They’d each picked up copies with the thought that even if the game was as mediocre as the early play test reviews said, that the hitherto unrevealed backstory on the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be an interesting read, and might give them some insight into upcoming things for the online game.

Sadly, that was not to be. The tabletop RPG which was theoretically written by the “Original Creator of the Smash Hit Broken Horizons!” turned out to have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with the MMO which shared the same name.

In place of the rich and diverse setting with deep and interconnected lore between dozens of playable factions, the tabletop game was nothing more than a badly plagiarized rip off of the Gor novels welded to a mass of contradictory and arbitrary rules designed, apparently, to allow the game master to ‘win’ the game no matter what the players did.

Lisa had burned her copy, mostly as a matter of teenage rebellion, but at no point in the years since had she been unhappy with the choice, when she ever bothered to remember it at all.

“It was my world!” Kralt shouted as the illusion of the [Library Primordial] continued to flared and shatter around him.

“Unrepentant? Really? Why would that be a surprise though? People like you are all I deal with. Every single goddamn day.”

As she spoke, Tessa’s words echoed through the room much louder than they should have. Lisa looked around, taking in the expanding destruction as the shaking of the library grew somewhat alarming.

“What are you doing!” Kralt’s composure finished breaking as he wailed out the question.

“This place is a lie,” Tessa said. “And a badly constructed one at that. All I did was pick apart one thread and look how it comes all come crumbling down.”

“Should we be leaving?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“Probably,” Tessa said. “If we’re here when this place falls apart completely, I think we’ll be tossed out of this reality.”

“Would that let us get home?” Lisa asked, and found herself uncertain which answer she was hoping to hear.

“I don’t think so? I think we’d basically be lost out beyond the stars somewhere.”

“Ok. That sounds bad,” Lisa said and took hold of Tessa’s arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Just a second. I want to make sure he doesn’t do anything funny.”

Lisa paused, considering that for a moment.

“Is this the real David Kralt?” she asked Tessa. “Like the one from our world?”

“Yeah,” Tessa said. “I can kind of see him. It’s weird. Like one of the stereo-optical illusions. I wish I could check my character sheet. This has to be some kind of passive class skill. I think?”

“And the plan is to let him drop into the endless of void of space?” Lisa asked.

“He deserves it,” Tessa said and Lisa heard a whole lot of transferred rage riding on those words. “I’ve worked with so many guys like him. I lost my last two promotions to people who did the same things he did.”

“I’m onboard then,” Lisa said. It didn’t seem right to drop someone into outer space, but in the grand scheme of things she wasn’t going to bet any money that preserving the toxic butt monkey was the better of the two choices.

“Pardon me,” a tiny voice said from behind them.

Lisa turned, with Lost Alice bracing her body for an attack. 

But it was just another slime, this one green rather than Kralt’s blue.

“Hello?” Tessa said, sounding as perplexed as Lisa felt.

“It doesn’t sound like you intend to rescue the All Sage,” Aptomos said. “But he can be useful if you would reconsider.”

“Useful how?” Lisa asked.

“He doesn’t have a place in this world,” Aptomos said, “but he can does a rank which might help you.”

“A rank?” Lisa asked.

“Yes. He holds, or I guess it would be more accurate to say ’he is’ a key to this world. I thought that might help you out,” Aptomos said.

“How is he a ‘key’? What does he unlock?” Lisa asked.

“I see it,” Tessa said. “It’s buried deep inside him. It’s how he made this place isn’t it?”

“Yes! Exactly!” Aptomos said. “I didn’t know you would be able to perceive it though?”

“Perceive what, specifically,” Lisa said, her eyes narrowing as she began to guess at what the possibilities might be.

“David Kralt worked on the [Broken Horizons Project] in its earliest days,” Tessa said, disbelief tinging each of her words. “He was transferred off it, but his account wasn’t deleted. I can see it in him still. He’s a [Retired Admin].”

Azma

The first squad of troopers to assault Azma’s company did so according to proper protocol. No warning was given, no communication was attempted, and no risks were taken. The ambush was clean and precise and the troopers involved exposed themselves to the absolute minimum of return fire. Azma was quite pleased with them.

She was also pleased that her command codes were still in effect and still capable of reducing their weapons to inert, yet still expensive, clubs.

“They’re withdrawing the loading ramp,” Sergeant Fiori said.

Azma tapped a button on her wrist comm and countermanded the order to seal the ship.

That it was open at all meant there were still forces deployed which it was waiting to recover. That complicated her plans, not in the least because the stragglers who hadn’t returned stood a reasonably high chance of having been corrupted by the [Formless Hunger] and while Azma didn’t want to kill them, refusing to do so could lead to more corruption as well as some serious questions as to her own unimpaired state.

“If they follow protocol, they will be taking their Berserker Ampules now,” Fiori said. “We probably have thirty seconds before they sorte against us? Orders?”

“Concentrated stunning fire,” Azma said. “I want all of you focusing on each target until the target drops and then shift to the next.”

Berserker drugs were one method of overcoming a hostile psychic entity. A difficult to use method, since there was no “off switch” for the berserkers but when the other alternative was having your own forces turned against you, having them instead turn into completely uncontrollable killing machines was often preferable.

True to Sergeant Fiori’s prediction, the initial squad of troopers poured out of the shuttle with wild screams of rage and were immediately barraged with sustained stunner fire.

The drugs gave a measure of resistance to non-lethal, disabling shots. There was a horrible price paid by the body afterwards but for most military purposes the doctrine was that berserkers had to be decisively slain to stop their rampage so the after effects of the drugs weren’t much of a consideration.

Being unwilling to waste her resources, Azma violated the approved doctrine with her orders and chose to rely on the competency of her personal guard.

They rewarded her trust with a display of marksmanship and cool under fire which met even Azma’s high standards.

“That’ll keep ‘em asleep for a bit,” Fiori said, trotting to keep up with Azma.

Neither Azma, nor Grenslaw or Ryschild had broken their stride during the brief firefight. That let them cover the small space to the shuttle’s loading ramp before another fire team could arrive to bar their path.

“Secure the bay,” Azma said and walked to one of the data terminals.

“Shuttle Dragon-462 will be sending be opening firing on us with its main guns soon,” Ryschild said, nodding towards the other partially disabled shuttle which was grounded near the shuttle they’d boarded.

“I’ve shutdown it’s weaponry as well,” Azma said. “Please observe if they chose to send a Berserker party over here and take command of Sergeant Fiori’s team if they do. Protocols are unspecific in this situation and I’m not sure what 462’s commander will chose to risk.”

“At once,” Ryschild said and took up a concealed observation spot by the edge of the loading bay where he could keep an eye on the other shuttle.

“Shall I establish contact with the rest of the fleet?” Grenslaw asked.

“We are within the [Formless Hunger’s] expanded zone of influence are we not?” Azma asked.

“The shuttle has transmission antennas on the side shadowed from the Hunger,” Grenslaw said. “I can shoot a tight beam communication down to our troops on the surface and have them act as a relay.”

“That would require remarkably precise calibration?”

“Yes,” Grenslaw said. “I wouldn’t ask anyone else to try. It would be a waste of their time.”

Azma was delighted by the lack of false modesty, but communicating with the fleet was not part of her gameplan just yet.

“I would expect the process to take at least thirty minutes,” she said. “Please do not rush the process, or skip any relevant safety checks.”

“Understood,” Grenslaw said and Azma believed she really had been understood.

Flicking on the ship-wide intercom system, she disabled the safety lockouts and pressed the button to signal a general alert.

“Attention crew of Shuttle Wyvren-770, this is [Supreme Commander] Azma addressing you. By the proper lockdown protocols, you are required to ignore anything I say and treat myself and my Recovery Team as Class 1 Hostiles. I am not rescinding your lockdown protocols. You are to treat myself and my team as you would any other suspect entities. Immediate lethal force. No communication. Destruction of the shuttle in the event that all hands are lost or suborned. For the record, we are not hostiles, and will do you no permanent harm, all etheric rounds will be stun rounds only, but protocols dictate that you are not allowed to trust any forces who are out of position, including me. Do not risk disciplinary probation for failing to follow Consortium Protocols. I am proud you have survived the misfortunes our forces have suffered so far. Don’t throw that achievement away. [Supreme Commander] Azma out.”

“That will make our job somewhat more difficult won’t it?” Fiori asked.

“Not especially,” Azma said. “Now we know how everyone onboard will react to us, and so anyone your team sees you are free to stun immediately. As for their reactions? It will be difficult for them to launch an offensive with all of the weapons depowered and the medical supply cabinets on lockdown to prevent more berserkers.”

“That is simple. Thank you,” Fiori said. “So what is our next move?”

“Next, we need to get the [Formless Hunger’s] attention. Grenslaw, can you do an indirect sensor scan? I need a targeting solution to poke it somewhere painful.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 5

Tessa

The illusion before her was falling apart and Tessa was sad to see it go. The endless library faded as she focused on it, the books and shelves turning turning transparent with only rare lines remaining to form a complex cage. At the center of the prison, the slime sat, wrapped in the thinnest filigreed chains which light could reflect off.

“How do you know who I am?” Kralt asked. 

In Tessa’s vision, his form shifted between the blue tear-drop slime and a stubbly haired, pasty skinned fifty year old depending on where she focused.

“Class skill,” Tessa said, answering the question only for Lisa on their private channel. “Apparently I get some extra insight about out of context problems like this guy.”

“Well? How!” Kralt demanded.

“This cage? It’s one you made, isn’t it?” Tessa asked. She frowned as the illusion of coffee went flat when she took a long look at it. 

“It’s not a cage,” Kralt said.

Tessa focused on a point well beyond the shelves and brought the lattice work of light which underlaid them into greater clarity.

“Yes it is,” she said. It wasn’t just a cage. She could see where the chains which ran around the slime weren’t binding it but were rather being woven from raw aether by the slime. 

The [Library Primordial] was a construct and even without seeing it’s full scope, Tessa could guess at its purpose.

“I made this. I am not bound here. Not like you are.” The last was meant to be threatening but Tessa couldn’t repress a giggle. 

Slime’s were never designed to be intimidating. Kralt was trying to assuming an aggressive posture but all he had to work with was a mostly spherical blue blob of a body. What was worse for Kralt though was that Tessa could see the little whirls and loops of the cage’s bars and how they could be taken apart without a lot of fuss. If it was a trap, it would have been more robust if it had been made of tissue paper.

“This is the only place you can live in the [Fallen Kingdoms], isn’t it?” Tessa said as she visually traced the pattern of the bars and found the core set which all led back to the slime.

“You know nothing,” Kralt said.

“Is it because he’s stuck in a slime body?” Lisa asked aloud for Kralt to hear as well

“Partially,” Tessa said. “He’s built this room and everything in it, the coffee included unfortunately. I think it’s some kind of extraplanar barnacle that he’s wrapped onto the [Fallen Kingdoms].”

“Why would he do that?”

“I’m guessing he had to,” Tessa said. “When he came over the world must have rejected him because he didn’t have a character. It was this or drop into that universe sized void we passed through when we got dragged here.”

“I had a character!” Kralt said. “I was simply too magnificent for this world to handle.”

“Did you actually play as a normal…no, wait, Dav’kralthrax. You tried to bond with the [First Dragon].”

“He tried to become a god?” Lisa asked.

“I’m betting he won’t admit it, but, yeah, I think it has to be that. Any regular character would have landed him with the rest of us.”

“When did you get here?” Lisa asked, addressing Kralt directly.

“You cannot fathom the depths of time I have seen,” Kralt said.

“Think he was the first one here?” Tessa asked aloud but addressing only Lisa.

“Could be, or maybe the trip left him delusional?” Lisa said.

Tessa examined the slime again. She could see the reflection of David Kralt’s human body which his current form held a memory of? She wasn’t sure if ‘memory’ was the right term. The impression she had of Kralt’s human body was similar to an after image of something that had dissolved into the essence of the slime that sat before them. It wasn’t lost, but she doubted Kralt would be able to call it back. Not how she’d been able to switch her form when she was holding the god soul. If he’d ever been able to take the form of Dav’kralthrax, the [First Dragon], it had been completely lost to him. Apparently even the [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t have any interest in his nonsense.

“I am not…why are you here?” Kralt asked, moderating his tone after noticing that anger wasn’t getting him anywhere.

“We’re searching for our friends,” Tessa said, giving him a response but not her attention.

“And you seek to consult the All Sage? Of course,” Kralt sad. Tessa noticed the distinct lack of sound effect around the words ‘All Sage’. It wasn’t an official title or class. She wondered if David Kralt knew that?

“I know everything which occurs in my realm,” he said, confirming his ignorance. “And I will share this information. For a price.”

“No you won’t,” Tessa said, rolling her eyes. “You’re trapped in here, with no connection to the rest of the [Fallen Kingdoms]. You don’t know who are or anything that’s happened to us. You’re worthless.”

“I made this world!” Moderation burned in a heart of rage, but the fuel for that fire was as illusory as the [Library Primodial] was.

“You want to take credit for this place?” Tessa asked, her own heart kindling with stories of an old injustice.

When she’d been a fan of the game, it had been her life. She’d researched everything she could about it. She knew who the original development team had been. She’d listened to the interviews where they shared the passion that had gotten them through the long and brutal years of continual crunch time to release the original beta. She’d heard the pride in their voices as they created something that was far more than the sum of its parts and captured the imagination of a generation. And she’s seen the sorrow in their eyes for the leader who hadn’t made it to see the end of the project.

Gail Merriden had been an exception all her life, and taking on a project for which she would never receive the proper credit had been entirely in character for her. Her motto, which her team related in several interviews, was “make your mark here and now” and it had been a guiding principal in the early work on [Broken Horizons], as the team strove to make something that would surpass not only anything else on the market, but anything they’d ever imagined doing before.

For four years, she’d led the team, only for cancer to steal the final joy of releasing her game into the wild from her. When [Broken Horizons] shipped, it was labeled as “a game by David Kralt” with the development team’s credit printed in micro-type in the back of a setup booklet which no one was ever meant to read. 

It had taken a change on management and the purchase of the game by Egress Entertainment to even partially address that wrong and give the original team’s story its due, and David Kralt had fought it at every step, demanding that the game was his legacy and no one else’s in every interview he ever gave.

Kralt must have seen that blazing in Tessa’s eyes, because as her hands clenched into fists, he moved back on his chair and his eyes at last shifted from indignation to a much sensible emotion; fear.

Azma

The crash came not as a terrible jolt but as a horrifying sound. Thanks to the inertial stabilizers, Azma wasn’t thrown from her seat, or even jostled much at all. She made a mental note to arrange a commendation for the shuttle’s engineering crew. She’d demanded they keep the equipment in top condition and from the results she was seeing they hadn’t skimped on their maintenance. It wasn’t their fault that the landing gear sheered off almost instantly, or that the shuttle’s bottom hull screamed as the lithoscape of the satellite moon ripped it to pieces. That wasn’t the horrifying sound however. It was the roar of fire which raised the spectre of mortal peril.

“Suppression systems are failing,” Grenslaw said. “Remain braced. Litho-braking is almost done.”

Litho-braking was a joke which had turned all too real. One did not stop a spacecraft by scraping it across the surface of a planet, especially not one with the wholly unnatural properties of the satellite moon. In order to arrive at their destination though, Azma’s crew hadn’t been given much choice. 

On the plus side it had also meant that they’d been able to do a hard enough burn during their course correction that none of their friendly forces had shot them down, and, as far as they could tell, that the [Formless Hunger] hadn’t been able to react either.

“System, transmit purchase order for this shuttle, my account,” Azma said as a shower of sparks buried the shuttle in fire and light.

“Communications are completely down with the fleet,” Ryschild said. It was neither an admonishment or a question. Ryschild was merely providing a relevant status update for a system Azma had requested monitoring on.

“Yes, that command is meant for the shuttle’s black box. Should the Consortium recover it, they will find that I did not order the destruction of company property, but rather sacrificed a personal transport to fulfill a company objective. It’s the same cost, but so much less paperwork when it’s my ship.”

Azma decided that, while she would fight for any of her people, she was going to adopt Grenslaw and Ryschild into a rare circle in her life. She couldn’t trust them completely of course. They were all in the Consortium. Unconditional trust was madness in the Consortium. That said, her two proteges had earned the position where if someone moved against them in any way, Azma would arrange for the assailiant’s demise. 

Murder was a tool she’d gained a certain notoriety for using, but the reality was she was always careful and discrete with it’s application. If she killed everyone who annoyed her, the lessons she intended to teach would be lost on those who remained. For her proteges though, a certain level of indiscriminate mayhem seemed more than reasonable.

It wasn’t an idle thought either. 

They’d chose to come along with her. Chosen when by all rights and sensibility they should have betrayed her. That choice was going to cost them. The people who were moving against Azma were absolutely going to target her proteges as well, both to get at her and simply because they could.

Grenslaw and Ryschild were going to lose the Consortium’s official sanction, the same as Azma would, but unlike her, they hadn’t developed a reputation which might cause their adversaries to pause before trying to do something quaint like sell them for parts to the Restricted Value Medical Division.

On one level, Azma knew that both Grenslaw and Ryschild were adults and were quite capable of taking care of themselves. On another though, she knew that she was better at that sort of thing, and sometimes being ‘almost good enough’ just wasn’t enough.

“Litho-braking…complete,” Grenslaw said. “All bracings release. Personnel evacuate the shuttle through the remains of the primary loading entrance in the rear.”

Despite the danger she knew they were walking into, Azma didn’t countermand that order. One minute would have been enough to take stock the situation on the ground and formulate a solid plan to ensure their safety. If Grenslaw was ordering an immediate evacuation however, it meant that in one minute the shuttle  would be a flaming ball of metal slag.

Once the three of them, plus the squad of guards Azma had elected to bring along had disembarked Grenslaw’s authority as pilot ended and Azma resumed control.

“Excellent. Ten yards to our target. Commendations,” Azma said, again counting on the monitoring devices she wore to record and transmit the commendation at a timely moment.

“The transports weapon systems have come online,” Fiori, the security team’s Sergeant, said.

“The correct response under the circumstances except for the part where their guns cannot angle down far enough to hit us in this position,” Azma said. “Let’s go see how well their enacting the rest of the security protocol.”

“They will be under orders to kill us on sight,” Fiori said. 

“I should certainly hope so,” Azma said and began striding towards the transports boarding ramp.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 4

Lisa

Some thresholds are perilous to cross not because of the danger which lurks beyond them but because of the opportunities they offer. Lisa was too staggered by the sight of the library beyond the magic portal to process that thought, but Lost Alice’s reflexes were fast enough for her to grab hold of Tessa’s arm before Tessa could stumble through the door.

“You’re seeing this too, right?” Tessa asked, waving her hand at the cosy scene before them.

“Books, coffee, nice lightning? Yeah,” Lisa said. “Should any of that really be in a place like this?”

Tessa took a step back and finally glanced back at Lisa.

“There’s a slime in there,” she said, gesturing to one of the chairs near the table where the coffee had been laid out.

Lisa hadn’t noticed that at first, nor had Lost Alice. Even with being low level still, basic slimes didn’t register as a threat. Typically slimes filled the role of a cute collectible or odd pet but Lisa had never found them particularly appealing. None of that changed the fact that there was, indeed, a slime waiting for them inside the room.

At roughly the size of a basketball, with a body made of blue jello, it would have been hard to determine what the tear-dropped shaped slime was doing. It was the addition of lighter indentations in the shape of big, wide eyes, little eyebrows, and a remarkably expressive mouth that made it clear the slime was watching them and waiting impatiently for the two of them to enter.

“This screams trap, doesn’t it?” Lisa said. It was phrased as a question but she was certain she knew the answer already. 

Doors to magical chambers didn’t tend to fly open when random people walked by them unless the point was to lure those random people to their doom.

“I think you just described this whole place,” Tessa said.

“Yeah, I guess the Ruins are a dungeon.” Lisa had known it was perilous venturing into them but, as with many terrible decisions, it had seemed like such a good idea at the time.

“I was thinking more the world in general,” Tessa said. “That slime’s not normal.”

“Not normal how?” Lisa asked. It smelled like a slime, at least as far as Lost Alice could remember. It wobbled like one too. Even the fine details which made up its ‘face’ seemed to match other slimes. If it was an illusion, it was an exceptional one. 

“I don’t know. It just looks off,” Tessa said and then started forward. “Let’s go find out.”

Lisa could have stopped her. She was faster and stronger than Tessa, but more importantly, Tessa would listen to her. 

Walking into the room was a bad idea. At the least, it would delay they from reuniting with their friends, and if the trap was meant for higher level characters they might never manage to escape it at all.

But Tessa’s voice held a certainty Lisa hadn’t often heard in it. Her partner knew something, maybe not yet consciously, but if that was enough to get Tessa to walk into some new and strange hell, Lisa wasn’t going to let her deal with it alone.

“What are you,” the slime said as they crossed the magical threshold into the [Library Primordial].

“You can talk,” Tessa said.

Lisa was surprised to find the two glaring at each other with the slime apparently so focused on Tessa as to be unaware of the presence of a [Vampire] in front of him. Tessa still knew she was there though, as witness by her reaching out and threading her fingers through Lisa’s without taking her gaze off the slime. Lisa was touched by the gesture until it occurred to her that Tessa was probably trying to hold her back as much as seek comfort in her touch.

“What are you.” The slime was hardly in a position to be imposing. It was blobbed onto the chair and, presumably, capable of little more than bouncing to the floor. It’s tone suggested a far more imperious mindset than the body seemed capable of supporting though.

“Hmm, I wonder if these books are real?” Tessa asked, lifting her gaze from the slime to take in the endless stacks of books around them.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” the slime said. 

“And you’re not supposed to be able to talk,” Lisa said.

“Do you know who I am?” the slime asked as though it were impossible someone wouldn’t be familiar with him.

“The coffee’s probably not real either,” Tessa said. “That’s a shame.”

“Aptomos sent you,” the slime said. “Where is he? I am going to melt him down to sludge.”

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said, returning her gaze to the slime. “You need us.”

“You have no idea who I am, do you? I’ve never needed anyone. Now where is Aptomos?”

“You’re Dav’kralthrax,” Tessa said. “Also known as David Kralt.”

Lisa recognized both names and drew in a sharp breath, despite [Vampires] not particularly needing air.

Dav’kralthrax was a figure from the deep lore of [Broken Horizons]. In the backstory of the game though, he wasn’t a slime. He was the [First Dragon], born from the [Primordial Chaos] before the world was forged, or perhaps he was the [Primordial Chaos], the mythology of the [Fallen Kingdoms] was intentionally sketchy on the subject.

His fire was supposedly responsible for casting the stars into the sky and kindling the fledgling sun.

For all his vaunted place in the mythology though, Dav’kralthrax didn’t appear in the game at all, and had no items or areas which related to him. In theory that was a result of the lore which spoke of Dav’s destruction prior to the forming of the [Heavenly Kingdoms].

In reality though, Dav’kralthrax wasn’t reference in anything beyond the oldest development materials because the [First Dragon] was the avatar for the game’s original lead developer.

David Kralt. The man whom Egress Entertainment was contractually required to credit as the designer of [Broken Horizons] despite the fact that he’d been “moved to other projects” after the first year of development, four years before the game even launched, and who had contributed nothing to its growth or popularity thereafter.

Jamal

What had been a simple trek to meet up with their teammates a bit early had been a frantic rush to reach them before tragedy could overtake them. Jamal wished he could be surprised by that. 

“Hey, if we find more of the [Disjoined], let me be the first to engage them ok?” Rose asked on their private channel.

“If we find more [Disjoined], I thought the plan was to out run them?” Jamal said.

“It is,” Rose said. “But you’ve seen how our plans have been going.”

“Ok, fair enough,” Jamal said. “But what do you mean ‘let you engage them’? Why wouldn’t we both blast them to bits?”

“If they’re going to come after someone, it should probably be me,” Rose said.

“Cause [Archers] are tougher than [Dream Spinners]?” Jamal said with a laugh. “We’re both squishy as hell.”

“Yeah, but I can move faster,” Rose said.

“How? We both run at the same speed,” Jamal said. “Well, sort of.”

Rose was definitely moving faster than the baseline run speed all of the adventurers seemed to be able to maintain. 

“I picked up a couple of movement abilities,” Rose said. “I can use either one for a quick escape if I need it.”

“Wait, when did you level?”

“I didn’t.” Rose was moving through the cavernous passageways at a full run so Jamal couldn’t see her face but he still felt like she was shyly turning away from something.

“How did you pick up a new ability then?”

“My class changed.” She said it like it was a minor bit of trivia, which screamed at Jamal just how important it was.

He checked her entry in the party list and saw that she still had the same bow icon beside her name, denoting her as an [Archer], but when he pulled up her stat sheet he saw she was indeed telling the truth.

“What’s a [Lightning Archer] and how did you…oh god, wait, you didn’t?” Jamal knew exactly where her new class had come from with a moments thought but even knowing that he had no idea what it might mean for her.

“It’s a really cool class!” Rose said, her excitement bubbling out of her.

“You made a deal with the [Lord of Storms]? What did you have to give them?”

“Nothing!” Rose said a tad too quick. “Well, nothing specific. I just have to believe in them. You know, to like, feed them god energy.”

“You’re worshipping a living thunderstorm who we met one time?” Jamal asked. It didn’t surprise him all that much. Rose wasn’t adverse to cheating when she had to win. The thought that there was any actual devotion behind her pledge to the [Lord of Storms] seemed ludicrous though.

But then so did the fact that they were in a fantasy world, and he was joined to a mechanical man with a soul.

With his soul.

The part of Jamal’s brain that processed theological questions was so overloaded by everything around him that he knew he wasn’t considering even the simplest implications of it all but, despite that, the idea of saying prayers to a deity from a game seemed deeply weird.

“It’s not like there’s a whole bunch of rules,” Rose said. “I’m just kind of making it up as I go. I figure if I get something wrong, I can just go ask them.”

“Except they packed up their stuff and bundled themself away in some pocket realm that no one can reach for a thousand years,” Jamal said.

“Sounds pretty godly to me,” Rose said.

Jamal frowned. She didn’t usually tease him about religious stuff. 

“Not that they’re a big G ‘God’,” Rose said hastily. “I’m not taking this that seriously. The way I look at it, the [Lord of Storms] is one of the creators of this world. They’re probably the avatar of one of the original designers. That doesn’t make them all knowing or all powerful, but it does mean that they can act like a patron, kind of. So my job is to remember that they’re real and alive and part of the world.”

“Aren’t they dead though?” Jamal asked.

“Do dead people talk to us?”

“Does Lost Alice count?”

“No. She’s not dead. And she better stay like that,” Rose said. “And anyways we’ve been dead here. It’s not the same.”

“Yeah, nothing is,” Jamal said, thinking of the whirring gear noises he made as he ran, trying to keep up with Rose, Lady Midnight and the [Lightning Serpents].

“You are,” Rose said.

Jamal laugh briefly enough that the chat log just showed an emoji.

“This is what I normally look like to you?” he said.

“No, not that. Obviously,” Rose said. “I mean you. The real you. You’re still as awesome as you’ve ever been. Now you can just blow people up with spells too, which is even cooler!”

“You’re still you too though,” Jamal said.

“I don’t think so,” Rose said. “I feel like I’m a lot more like Rip Shot than I used to be. I could never be this brave without her.”

“Wait, have you ever met my friend Rose? Maybe looked in the mirror? Cause she’s like the definition of bravery,” Jamal said. 

Jamal had never understood why “you cry like a girl” was considered an insult, mostly because he’d seen Rose cry and knew exactly how bad an idea it was to drive it her to tears. She was his best friend. She was a kind and wonderful soul. God help you though if you made her cry. All her restraint and mercy flowed right out with her tears.

“I think I always had her with me,” Rose said. “She’s the me who can handle stuff like this. I just didn’t use to be able to call that part of me up so easily.”

“And I didn’t use to be able to hold my focus as well,” Rip Shot said. “Being aware of my ‘Rose side’ has definitely made me a better [Archer].”

“You sounded different there,” Jamal said. “Are there really two of you?”

“No,” Rip said and Rose continued, “This is all me.” Rip switched back in for “it’s just a matter of who I focus on being at any particular moment.” Rose finished up by asking, “Doesn’t Matt talk to you?”

“Not like that,” Jamal said and felt a strange ripple pass through gears.

“He hasn’t needed me to yet,” Matt Painting said.