Monthly Archives: November 2020

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 19

Byron

Being a Director in the Consortium of Pain was a terribly exhausting job. Byron smiled gratefully that fools like Madrax Odful were willing to act as such convenient scapegoats in taking the roles when so little real authority came with the position.

Oh, it was certainly true that Director level positions wielded tremendous influence and were given enough wealth to bankrupt a small world or two but, in Byron’s view, settling for so little seemed like the mark of a small mind.

“Are you sure you won’t take an appointment as the fleet’s official [Tactical Analyst]?” Maldrax said as people behind him in the projection scurried back and forth as close to running as decorum would allow.

“I’m afraid I would make things far worse you my dear friend,” Byron said. There were several promising “unopened” worlds in the latest report from the field scouts. He found himself rather tempted to take a weekend vacation and go conquer one himself. All the fighting had given him a taste for a little mayhem, though only a little. Reasonable fellows avoided the sort of mayhem Maldrax had dipped himself into. Or at least they avoided it unless the payout was sufficiently likely and vast.

In Azma’s defense, Byron did have to admit that the payout on the current operation was likely to be vast. Lesser players would end their career and go into retirement following conquests not a tenth as valuable as the world Azma had been given to exploit. And that was without the [Transdimensional Entity]. With that as a prize, she’d be able to move on a level where she might even notice some of Byron’s minor pieces moving about.

Which, of course, was why he’d interfered. There were already quite enough players to worry about, and Azma didn’t show any sign of knowing when to check her ambition. 

“I don’t see how you could do worse than the ineptitudes they sent with me to handle things,” Maldrax said, unconcerned that the ‘ineptitudes’ he was referring to were swarming around the [Secondary Bridge] which was serving as the primary locus point for fleet-wide communications.

Byron hid a smile at the thought that all of Madrax’s personnel had been hand selected from the highest performing members of each of the individual disciplines. The problems they were experiencing were likely to be in part due to Azma’s lingering sabotage efforts, but could also be attributed to the hand which selected them being rather poor at the job.

Identifying actual talent took work, whereas identifying people who would agree with your proposals was a much simpler task for a Director to accomplish. 

“If I were to aid you and word of that got out, you know the credit for the operation would be tilted towards my division,” Byron said. “The last thing you want is for Gunridge to make a partial claim on your find.”

Director Gunridge wasn’t an enemy to Maldrax. Enemies were much simpler to deal with, and vastly easier to deny a claim on new treasure than friends and allies were.

“They’re saying we have troops marching to nowhere down there,” Maldrax said. “Why are they marching anywhere? We have transports precisely so no one needs to march.”

Byron could think of several dozen reasons why one would want to let the Consortium’s troops move from one point to another under their own power. Which of those reasons were a primary element in Azma’s planning was a mystery to him, and not one which he found himself overly invested in unraveling.

“Can’t you just recall them then?” Byron asked, knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that recalling troops from the field when you didn’t know what aim they were trying to accomplish was both the right decision and the surest way to provoke a mission-wide failure. 

“We don’t know,” Maldrax said.

“Nonsense,” Byron said. “You’re the Supreme Commander of the fleet now. They’ll do whatever you say.”

It was the reassurance Maldrax needed to hear while also presenting as empty headed an argument as Byron could bring himself to make.

“We don’t have the ships to recall them all,” Maldrax said. “That saboteur sent too many ships to the moonlet trying to secure the [Transdimensional Entity] for herself.”

“What about landing a carrier or two?” Byron said. A part of him was chortling at the idea that he might convince Maldrax to make such a foolish misstep while the rest was applauding Azma’s ingenuity. 

By stranding the troops on the planet surface, even if only temporarily, she’d managed to ensure they couldn’t be used directly against her. Moreover if she managed to return to power, she could complete whatever scheme she had for them and claim an unexpected victory, thereby cementing the idea that only she could handle the reigns of the operation properly.

“The carriers are too slow,” Maldrax said. “We know the defenders can teleport onto them. And, even worse, they tell me if we start pulling our troops away piecemeal that the remaining ones will be left open for a counterattack. We could lose the territory we’ve already won!”

Maldrax had never managed an “Opening” campaign, had never even been within three degrees of separation from one, so Byron could have forgiven him his dismal understanding of tactics and strategy. Could have, but didn’t.

“Whatever will you do then? Allow the troops to continue on with Azma’s plan?” Byron asked, digging into Maldrax’s ego. Byron didn’t need to tip Maldrax over the line into a failure inducing rage, but that was an outcome which Azma had likely discounted which made it all the more amusing to contemplate.

“I intend to give them new orders,” Maldrax said. “If I could find one competent [Tactical Officer] around here who could decipher what the hell that woman was thinking.”

“Have you had any communication with that woman yet or has she been eaten by the entity already?” Byron asked, knowing the answer to both questions was obviously no.

“We can’t even look in her damn direction thanks to that…” Maldrax’s words tapered off to nothingness as he went from skimming a report a nervous aide had handed him to reading the document with increasing horror.

Byron racked his brain to imagine what turn of events could have provoked so extreme a reaction. Nothing on the operation could have gone that far off course, so it had to be something personal?

“It’s gone,” Maldrax whispered.

“What’s gone?” Byron asked, still perplexed.

“The entity. It’s gone.”

“It’s moved? I thought this one just digging itself in a little deeper? Did it go fully mobile? Is it coming for the fleet?” That last possibility seemed dire enough to provoke the reaction Byron was seeing.

“No. It’s gone. Completely gone,” Maldrax said, dropping the paper and staring blank eyed into the wreckage of his career in the far distance. “It was digging deeper and then something happened. A containment unit exploded. It changed.”

“A containment unit exploding shouldn’t have had any effect on the entity. What do you mean it changed?”

“It’s not a [Transdimensional Entity] anymore,” Maldrax said. “We’re doing active scans now to confirm it. It was overtaken by some kind of wave and what was left behind wasn’t transdimensional anymore.”

“Where did it go?” Byron asked.

“Into the moonlet,” Maldrax said. “Like it was hunting something.”

Melissa / Feral Fang

Evacuating a village out of the path of a Consortium army should have been a nightmare. The villagers were already scared, and venturing deeper into the [Shadow Creep Woods] wasn’t doing good things for any of their nerves. Feral Fang had a number of unpleasant memories from encounters with the local monsters back when she was a mid-level adventurer. The likelihood of a panicked stampede seemed fairly remote despite all the spooky elements surrounding them though. It was harder to be scared of the forest when a small army of very scary [Goblin] [Assassins] was actively frightening all of the other scary stuff away so everyone could pass in peace.

“So I’m having a truly terrible idea right now,” Jesterix said as she marched at Melissa’s right side and tossed a ball back and forth with one of the village kids.

“No, you can’t change class to [Assassin],” Melissa said, “Even if they do get some very stylish hats.”

“What? No. I mean, ok, yes, those are some amazing and annoyingly class specific bits of gear, but this is a much better terrible idea,” Jesterix said.

“Better than the hats? Okay, this I’ve got to hear,” Melissa said.

“Our new friends are flushing all of the monsters out of the woods right?”

“Not all of them, but yeah, they are clearing a path for us pretty well. I don’t think they want to try the same thing with the Consortium though. Soldiers don’t tend to scatter when you hiss at them.”

“That’s true, but consider this; the monsters all respawn right?”

“At least the ones we’ve seen tend to.”

“And the Consortium troops are even as we speak marching along the forest’s border right?”

Melissa saw where Jesterix was going and had to agree, it was a really terrible idea.

But she was kind of onboard for trying it out.

“Could we direct the monsters that well?” Melissa asked. “I mean it’s easy to get them to run away from a bunch of max level [Goblins] but could we get them to run towards something specific?”

“I think it depends on how tough the soldiers are,” Jesterix said. “If they’re all max level like us, then the monsters will just run from them too. If the monsters are stronger than them though? I’m thinking feeding frenzy.”

“And no matter which is true, it’ll throw the army into chaos for a while,” Melissa said. “Except that could be bad right? What if they decided that they need to hunt the forest clean of monsters before they continue on. We want them to ignore the fact that we’re here right?”

“I said it was a terrible idea, didn’t I?” Jesterix said.

“What if you brought the dragons down from the mountains instead?” the young girl who was playing with Jesterix said.

“Oh, there’s no dragons in the mountain anymore,” Melissa said. “All the dragons from here flew south and setup stronghold in the [Caldera of Radiance] about six years ago.”

“Yeah, the only thing left up there are…” a dangerous gleam appeared in Jesterix’s eyes.

“Are the [Emberwings],” Melissa said, the same plan coming together in her head that was dancing behind jesterix’s eyes.

“Those are really dangerous aren’t they?” the young girl asked.

“They can be, but only if they’re provoked,” Melissa said.

“Yeah, then they tend to fly into things, explode, reform and explode over and over. It gets kind of annoying,” Jesterix said.

“And we happen to know exactly who needs to be annoyed just like that,” Melissa said.

An hour later Melissa was regretting her optimism. 

“We’re going to need to dive right into their camp to get the [Emberwings] to give up on attacking us and go after them,” she said, wheeling her broomstick mount around in a tight corkscrew to gain some distance on the dozen lava bodied bat monsters which were pursuing her.

“At least we’re bringing a lot of targets for them to shoot at,” Jesterix said, matching speed with Melissa.

“Yeah, but they’ve got a lot of people to shoot at us with,” Melissa said. She took a turn around one of the mountain’s spiky pillars without reducing her speed and heard at least a handful of [Emberwings] slam into the cliff face behind her.

“Think evasive thoughts then, since they’re just around that next corner, and they’ve got to have heard us coming,” Jesterix said. 

Melissa had to agree. Their descent from the mountaintop after stirring up the [Emberwings] had put every Fourth of July celebration she’d ever been to to shame. She fully expected to come around the mountainside into a faceful of artillery but instead what awaited her was a pure and precious gift.

The Consortium forces were in disarray.

Not because of any attack but because they’d come to a triple fork in the road around the [Shadow Creep Woods] and the army was arguing over which direction is was supposed to go.

The Consortium, it turned out, was very good at following orders, and when the orders they received conflicted with each other, they were very good at being conflicted too.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 18

Grace / Kamie Anne Do

In Kamie Anne Do’s world any enemy you could defeat without losing all your hit points was a good enemy. Grace’s view was that the best enemy was the one you could defeat without taking any injuries. They both agreed that the [Disjoined Soldiers] didn’t fall into the category of ‘an enemy they really wanted to fight’ though, despite the increasing number of them which they are able to dispatch.

“Where are all these reinforcements coming from?” Battler X asked, fighting back to back with Kamie.

“The last wave were all with the 5th Gryphon squad. These ones are mix of the 5th and the 3rd,” Sergeant Pono said as she tossed her exhausted [Plasma Lancer] away and drew a knife  that was long enough to qualify as at least a short sword. Grace suspected the nimbus of vibrating blue energy around its edge was more than a shiny cosmetic effect, but knives had never been her thing.

“Are we going to see more of the 3rd roll in?” she asked, parrying a raking claw strike and counter attacking to break the [Disjoined’s] elbow in the hopes of taking the arm out of commission.

Her punch landed with more force than Grace’s human form ever could have delivered, enough to shatter the bones she hit. In any sort of reasonable fight she would have achieved her objective. What she was embroiled in was nothing like a reasonable fight though.

“We shouldn’t be seeing as many of them as we are,” Pono said. “We were supposed to be operating under [Apocalypse Security Protocols]. The Hunger couldn’t have gotten through those.”

Pono feinted at the soldier in front of her, forcing it back a half step, before spinning to her right and slicing a leg off one of the soldier’s Kamie was fighting.

“Is that what kept you safe?” Grace asked. She took advantage of the opening Pono created to boot the injured [Disjoined Soldier] back into the crowd, knocking down two others who were trying to capitalize on Pono’s momentary distraction.

“Don’t know that I’d call this safe,” Pono said.

“Fair point,” Grace said.

“You said we’re immune to them though?” Battler X asked. She had downed one but didn’t make the mistake of assuming it was going to stay down. Before the soldier could rise again or scramble away, she dropped a quick series of blows to make sure the body was definitely non-functional.

“I don’t know how,” Pono said. “It’s good that you are though. If the Hunger could get it’s claws into you, it could probably use all of the your powers, and then we’d be having more than a mildly bad day.”

“This is mildly bad?” Grail Force asked. She’d taken up a more secure location and was lobbing death down from above into the horde that was trying to push into the boss chamber the adventurer’s had selected as their battle arena.

“I haven’t lost any major organs yet, so, yeah, could be worse,” Pono said.

The other [Consortium Soldiers] who were still in possession of their own wits had been reduced to fighting with melee weapons as well but were acquitting themselves far better than their [Disjoined] comrades who’d been [Devolving] into forms with blades and spikes and bladders of acid under the [Formless Hungers] influence.

“You sound like an adventurer when you talk like that,” Battler X said. “You don’t have respawn points on your ships do you?”

“Our medtech is top notch but dead is dead,” Pono said. “Well, for people at my pay grade anyways.”

“You should definitely take up the adventuring life then,” Grace said. “Don’t even need dental when you could regrow your entire head.”

“That sounds handy, but I’m bound to my post. We all are” Pono said. “Duty before anything else and all that.”

“Seems like your former comrades disagree,” Battler X said, kicking a [Disjoined Soldier] over to Kamie.

“They’re only former because they had their comms open,” Pono said. “Against a [Transdimensional Entity] like a Hunger no amount of [Loyalty Compulsions] can hold someone to their duty.”

“Wait, [Loyalty Compulsions]?” Grace asked. “You mean when there’s magic forcing you to serve the [Consortium of Pain]?”

“It’s cheaper than yearly bonuses,” Pono said. She lost her knife by burying it in the head of the one of the enemies but in exchange she gained a freshly charged [Plasma Lancer] and was able to able to open fire immediately.

“Do we have anyone who can [Dispel] control debuffs?” Grace asked on the adventurer’s private channel.

“Yeah, I think so,” Grail Force said on the private channel. “Back at the refuge there’s at least a couple.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Grace asked, sure that everyone could see the same opportunity she could.

“Yeah, definitely,” Buzz Fightyear said. “Only problem is I don’t see how we’re going to get them back to the refuge. If we leave this spot, the [Disjoined] will be able to get to a place where they’re not stuck under a level cap.”

“And there’s a whole bunch more of them coming,” Battler X said. She’d pressed through the crowd enough to be able to look down the corridor which led into the boss chamber. 

Grace wasn’t thrilled by the intel but she wasn’t surprised by it either. The [Formless Hunger] didn’t seem to be the sort of monster that was able to learn from its defeats. 

Or it has inexhaustible strength and simply didn’t care about the temporary victories Grace and her team were winning.

Either or both were possible, but Grace liked the first interpretation better.

“Maybe we don’t have to get them to the refuge,” Grace said. “All we really need is one of the dispellers to come to us as reinforcements, after all it looks like we’re going to be here for a while.”

No sooner had she said that than a wave seemed to pass through the [Disjoined].

“Whatever that was, I’m sure it wasn’t good,” Pono said.

Grace was inclined to agree with her.

The weird, hissing static in the [Disjoined] eyes and mouth was swept away by the wave. In its place a purple flame began to burn in their eyes.

“Brace for something bad,” Grace said.

And then the strangest thing happened; the former [Disjoined] began to flow out of the room, like a receding tide.

Something was calling them away.

Azma

The nice thing about an implacable foe was that they were so terribly predictable. Azma didn’t take that as an excuse to rest though. She was running a race against so many different forces that being able to ignore the [Formless Hunger] for a while only meant that she had time to plan out the moves she’d be taking in the hours and days to come.

She’d built up a variety of beautiful models in her mind, solid plans and wild alternates and subtle variations based on the range of responses from the Consortium and the defenders on the planet below. For the actions of those she commanded or could influence into action, she always assumed a statistically significant level of underperformance. Incompetence was a universal trait in her experience and while large, intricate plans were a path to victory in many cases, it was in all cases foolish to assume that the cogs which enacted those plans could be trusts with even the smallest degree of complexity. 

The only person Azma trusted to be able to see the scope of her machinations and keep the various threads straight was herself.

Which meant she was also the only one who could appreciate exactly how disappointing and terrifying it was what a fundamental aspect of those plans when horribly awry.

“Containment Unit 7 is showing a full burst detonation,” Grenslaw said. “Indirect telemetry suggests the personnel from Unit 7 were out of the blast radius when the burst occurred.”

“Good, good,” Azma said, paying only marginal attention to a result which she already knew was the only real outcome possible. “Has the Hunger overwhelmed Unit 7 yet?” 

The timing on the Hunger devouring the containment unit was slightly wobbly. It was possible the containment unit had expended it’s remaining charge in the burst and would fail instantly when the Hunger moved against it. Alternatively it might be able to put up a defense for a few dozen seconds. The more time the better since it would give the troops more time to leave the Hunger’s area of influence but ultimately all that was required was for the Hunger to shift itself out of position. That would leave it too far extended to reach the troops directly and they were all shielded for indirect contacts. Azma was ready for either eventuality but neither one required a change in her plans.

The report she received however did.

“Unit 7 is not being attacked,” Grenslaw said.

“That’s not possible,” Azma said, vague annoyance at the poor data collection available to them rising behind her eyes. “Whatever the Hunger seems to be doing near it is an attack.”

 “There is no sign of movement from the [Transdimensional Entity],” Grenslaw said.

“There’s…what?” Azma’s plans didn’t collapse then. She was used to incompetence and if she’d momentarily forgotten its prevalence in light of Grenslaw’s exemplary service, she still had it factored into several of her plans.

Also, denial is a powerful drug and a drug even the powerful can fail to avoid indulging in on the wrong occasions.

“Indirect telemetry shows no sign of movement,” Grenslaw said. “Shall I order one of the abandoned ships to perform an active scan?”

Azma paused, feeling her plans teetering.

If they used a downed ship to actively search for the Hunger, they would only get one set of responses back before they had to assume that the ship was contaminated after that.

“Yes. Do it,” Azma said. The cost was phenomenal compared to the data provided but if Azma couldn’t direct the Hunger, the value of a ship wasn’t going to play a meaningful role in her future.

It took a five second eternity before the answer appeared on Grenslaw’s monitor.

“No movement detected by an active scan either.”

Azma’s plans crashed down around her, brittle shards sending icy panic racing through her veins.

The combat squad she’d brought with her tensed.

The moment when the [Supreme Commander] learned that their careful plans had all failed was almost always the moment when Consortium leaders decided to vent their rage and disappointment in a bloody fashion.

Azma was the exception. 

She simply closed her eyes and began to think.

Had the initial analysis been wrong? Was it possible they hadn’t ever been dealing with a [Transdimensional Entity]?

No. Based on the Hunger’s destruction of the ships which its suborned, the first appraisal had been correct.

Was it possible the Hunger was faking? Playing passive to lure in more troops which is could take control of?

Again, no. That level of planning required capabilities which entities like the Hunger didn’t posses. Or rather couldn’t possess. A Hunger didn’t have a will. It was defined only be its hunger. For one not to respond to a chance to feed, it would have to no longer be a [Formless Hunger] at all.

Azma paused there, considering the implications of that thought.

Not a Hunger. 

No. Not a [Formless Hunger] any longer.

It had changed.

“Find another ship,” she said. “Do another active scan. I want a composition report this time.”

“The expected result for a composition scan of a [Transdimensional Entity] is a ‘Failed to Read’ error,” Grenslaw said. “I have one prepped now. Awaiting orders to trigger it.”

Azma smiled. Grenslaw was providing the proper feedback to ensure Azma wasn’t wasting a resource while also understanding that there was more to the request that was immediately apparent.

“Perform the scan,” Azma said. “I’m afraid it’s not going to be read failure.”

It was Grenslaw’s turn to take a moment of silence.

“The composition scan succeeded. Also indirect telemetry has provided new data,” Greslaw said, visibly stunned. “The [Entity] has begun to move.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 17

Tessa

Pillowcase was in agony. The static fire which wreathed Tessa’s hand was unbearable and no amount of healing magic that Lisa poured into her was enough to repair the damage it was doing.

[Transdimensional Integrity],” Tessa said invoking a skill only Pillowcase should have had access to.

The static fire on her hand shattered into a hail of immaterial glass shards.

“Stop hurting us!” she screamed and slammed her fist into the face of a zombie who surged up from the pile trying to drag her down. 

Her fist left a trail of light through the air as she swung it and on contact released a blinding explosion that hurled her back into the door where Lost Alice was standing.

The Hunger’s zombies were knocked farther down the hall but wasted no time returning to their feet.

In the melee, they’d lost their blasters. Tessa felt a flash of panic when she saw how close the weapons were to the zombies but the Hunger did seem to retain any awareness of them once the blasters were out of the zombies hands.

It did seem to recognize that something had changed though.

Tessa hadn’t seen the zombies look fearful before.

“They’re going to attack again,” Pillowcase said, and from the furtive, side-to-side steps the zombies were taking, Tessa knew she was right. “Sorry about losing focus there. I didn’t know pain like that existed.”

“I didn’t either,” Tessa said. “And you’re doing fantastic. Are you ready for their next charge?”

“No, but we’ll have to be,” Pillowcase said. “The woman we love is counting on us.”

It was not at all the right time for that particular admission to herself, and Tessa’s instinctive response was to slam a thick wall of denial around it. 

Except she didn’t want to. 

Pushing the idea to the back of her mind to deal with later didn’t work either. She was facing off against certain death and even with the tricks she’d been able to pull off, she hadn’t taken out a single one of the zombies. The least she could do was be honest with herself for a second about what she was fighting for.

The zombies screeched in static shredded rage as the Hunger whipped itself up to confront the new threat that Tessa posed.

It should have been terrifying. Real, agonizing peril fractions of a second away from becoming real.

Tessa turned to look at Lost Alice though and she didn’t feel afraid.

The woman she loved.

She was in love again.

She was able to love again.

With death bearing down on her, Tessa felt more alive than she had in years.

The five zombies charged as one, and reinforced by Lost Alice’s healing magic, Tessa stepped forward to meet their charge fist first.

The glow around her hand flashed through every color of the spectrum as it erupted from every point of her body.

>> [Transdimension Integrity] morphed to [Transdimensional Essence]

That’s when Pillowcase case took control again and Tessa’s body shifted into a near perfect fighting stance. 

The fastest zombie took a left jab to the throat. 

The one to his right lost the use of its left arm as Pillowcase spun around it, demolishing it with a corkscrew force as she put the zombie between herself and it’s compatriots.

The injury would have been enough to completely incapacitate any human foe but Pillowcase had learned her lesson. The Hunger didn’t care about the state of the zombies body and was more than capable of repairing incapacitating damage that didn’t involve removing large portions of the body.

Lacking a [Disintegrator Rifle], Pillowcase made due with Tessa’s glowing fists.

Shifting her weight back, Pillowcase used the zombies greater weight against it, hauling the creature off balance and spinning it into the wall beside them.

With all of the rising force she could find in Tessa’s body, Pillowcase surged upwards, her left fist carrying the whole of Tessa’s weight behind it in an unchecked uppercut.

Pillowcase knew it was impossible to hope that she could literally punch the zombie’s head off, and she was correct about that. The ghostly echo of the zombie’s form which was knocked free from its body though came as something of a surprise. 

The other four zombies who had been tearing at her leapt back at the same moment the zombie Pillowcase hit slumped in her grip and began crumbling to grey ash.

The static ghost screamed an inch away from Tessa’s face and wrapped clawed fingers around her throat.

“No,” she said.

And she didn’t burn.

Tessa had been afraid of them. Afraid of the violence they offered. Every time she’d encountered real violence in her life she’d been left sickened by it. What the [Formless Hunger] was doing was too much too though.

Tessa didn’t deserve this, and for once in her life she saw not only that, but that she was strong enough that she didn’t have to take it.

Pillowcase had her training to fall back on in the face of an assault, but Tessa found something all her own to face the Hunger’s minions with. 

“I’ve had enough of you!” Tessa said and wrapped her own hands around the static ghost’s throat, righteous rage surging through her.

The ghost went berserk. It thrashed like it had been the one lit on fire, and wailed loud enough that the stone walls began to visibly shake. 

Tessa didn’t let up. The Hunger wasn’t even real and it thought it deserved to hurt her? Just because she existed?

Beneath Tessa’s hands the static ghost’s flickering form of light began to darken, an angry purple-green spreading from where Tessa was teaching it the meaning of pain. 

The other zombies recovered at that and dragged Tessa off the static ghost, but the purple-green stain continued spreading through its body.

Four on one odds were still terrible odds even with the new found strength Pillowcase felt flowing through her but for a moment she cheered the idea that she’d at least managed to reduce the odds to only four on one.

Then the purple-green finished covering the static ghost’s head and it’s thrashing stopped.

But it didn’t fall to the ground.

Worse, a moment later when the stain spread through the rest of its body, the creature raised its head and gazed on Tessa with eyes of purple flame.

And then it smiled.

The Hunger wasn’t formless anymore.

It still wasn’t alive but it had become something more real than the thing it had been.

And from the teeth which filled its smile, it was still ravenous.

Rose

As rescues went, Rose wasn’t sure three low level adventurers and a bunch of [Lighting Snakes] and [Gloom Drinkers] were going to be enough to save anyone. 

Not even themselves.

That did precisely nothing to dissuade her though.

“We’ve got to get there faster,” she said to Jamal on their private channel as the sound of a battle in the distance reached them.

“Go!” he said. “If they’re fighting, there’s still someone to save.”

“You’ll have my back?” Rose asked.

“Always!” he said, and Matt added, “You’re our best friend.”

“Follow me and come in hot on that fight,” Rose said on the team channel for all to hear before invoking one her new skills, “[Lightning Dash]”

The corridor she was racing down blurred in her vision as she executed a movement somewhere between a burst of super speed and outright teleportation. 

Turning a corner wasn’t an option without using the walls as springboards and the dizzying speed made it impossible to even think about firing her bow.

None of that mattered though.

She had to reach her…teammates in time (teammates, definitely not “New Moms”, teammates). Willing herself to be faster than lightning wasn’t possible. Willing her body to turn into lightning wasn’t strictly speaking an option either, but Rose’s nerves were crackling with so much electricity as she ran that it seemed like the [Lord of Storms] was, maybe, giving her a little more juice in her skills than she should have been allowed under the strict letter of the world’s physical laws. 

When she arrived at the melee, she was greeted by an even more disturbing sight than she’d been expecting.

Tessa was being pulled down to the ground by four Consortium soldiers. 

And she was was glowing like a rainbow on fire.

That wasn’t disturbing though.

What brought Rose to a grinding halt was the fifth figure. 

It was like a shadow pulled from an oil slick. It’s eyes were purple flames and the ripples of color gave it features, which the Hunger had twisted into a cruel, laughing rictus. 

Then there were the teeth. The far too numerous teeth.

It was a [Hungry Shadow].

Obvious. Purely descriptive.

And present on Rip’s heads-up-display just like the name of any other monsters.

She didn’t need to debate if she should join the battle.

She didn’t need to question which enemy was her target.

And she didn’t need to hold back.

“[Thunder Shot],” Rip said.

The arrow which leapt from her bow converted from a simple wooden shaft to a stroke of electricity. It ripped into the [Hungry Shadow] and set it convulsing as the energy began to burn the Shadow from the inside.

That got the attention of the Hunger-Zombies that were tearing at Tessa.

Rip lined up her next shot and saw one of the zombies staring at her with eyes of purple flame.

They all had eyes like that.

“What is happening?” she asked on the team chat and was rewarded by finally hearing Lost Alice’s voice.

“Rip! You’re here? What are you doing here?” Lost Alice said.

“Rescuing you!” Jamal said.

“The Hunger’s coming for you!” Lady Midnight said.

“I think they noticed that!” Rose said.

“Are we too late?” Lady Midnight asked. “Can we get them out of there.”

“We’re not too late,” Rose said, firing more [Thunder Shots] into the melee around Tessa.

“Who needs help more?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Tessa! Help Tessa!” Lost Alice said.

“On it,” Rose said. “[Multi-Burst] [Charged Shot] [Thunder Shot].”

The barrage of skills turned into a storm of lightning that Rip’s Tabbywile’s eyes couldn’t see through for several seconds. 

The good news, as her vision cleared, was that her attacks had drawn the attackers off Tessa.

The bad news was that her first sight of them was three of the [Hungry Shadows] leaping off the walls and slamming into her.

She screamed as the first Shadow dug its claws into her, tearing through her armor and slicing a bloody furrow into her left forearm. 

Another one clamped it’s teeth onto her other arm, immobilizing it and denying her the ability to fire any more arrows.

“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel],” Lost Alice called her, her voice dead calm.

Rose felt the blessed relief of healing magic pour into her, but Rip knew they were still in serious trouble. She didn’t have the durability of a tank and the healing from Lost Alice’s spell was not going to keep up with the damage the Shadows could do.

[Soul Render],” Tessa called out and her voice echoed like the corridor was a grand stadium. 

And then she was there too. Glowing hands hauled the [Hungry Shadows] off Rose and bashed them with blows the Shadows couldn’t ignore.

The [Hungry Shadows] were crueler to Tessa than they’d been Rose. Without Rose’s moderate armor, Tessa was more fragile to begin with and the [Soul Render] stance she’d borrowed from Pillowcase reduced her defenses even further.

Blood flew in too many directions, but Tessa didn’t stop fighting. 

The [Formless Hunger] may have been the one who could take people over, but Tessa was the one who fought like a woman possessed. From what Rose could see, she had completely abandoned any sense of self-preservation and was intent on nothing more than destroying the [Hungry Shadows] before they could harm anyone else.

Even if that meant they killed her.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Blood Channel],” Lady Midnight said, catching Tessa a moment before her health emptied out completely.

“[Torment],” Matt Painting said at the same moment, sending one of the [Hungry Shadows] writhing to the ground as [Lightning Snakes] swarmed over the rest.

The cavalry had arrived at last!

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 16

Lisa

Protecting someone from their own foolishness wasn’t something healers were capable of. Lisa knew that. She also knew that fighting opponents who were level capped at 10 when Tessa was at best 6 or 7 and not a melee fighter was a recipe for a quick party wipe. The two of them were going to die, quickly and painfully, and neither of them knew where the nearest [Heart Fire] was. 

None of that changed what Lisa needed to do though.

Not given what she knew.

Tessa wasn’t fighting to win. Despite the odds against them though, she wasn’t being foolish or naive. She was trying to save Lisa.

Just like she had before.

Lisa choked back a bitter laugh.

They’d been together for less than two days was it? How was it possible there could have been so many chances for Tessa to put herself in danger? And why was she so often doing it for Lisa’s sake?

Lisa could have guessed the answer to that question but trusting her guess? That was something she’d never been good at.

“[Minor Provoking Strikes],” Pillowcase said, causing Tessa’s hands to glow briefly with a violet pulse of light.

“Don’t keep them on you!” Lisa said on their private channel, maintaining her healing spell to restore the damage Tessa was enduring. 

Being capped at a low level was saving them for a variety of reasons, since not only did it mean the Consortium soldiers couldn’t obliterate Tessa with each punch they threw, it also placed the fight in a realm where the healing Lost Alice’s spells provided was still overbearingly strong in comparison to Tessa’s health pool. Even strong magic had its limits though and five on one were well beyond what Lisa knew she could manage to mitigate for long.

“I have to tank them,” Pillowcase said. “If they go after you, we’re sunk.”

It was a lovely, protective sentiment, but Lost Alice could also see the tactical sense of it, even if Lisa didn’t want to consider Tessa’s loss as any part of a viable strategy.

Pillowcase threw one of the zombies into his fellow with enough force to send them both sprawling down the hallway. That left her with three foes for a moment, which she capitalized on by vaulting over the shoulders of one of them to place him between herself and the remaining forces.

Lisa wondered if she was going to use the zombie as a shield and almost dropped her spell when Pillowcase instead crouched to take the zombie down with a leg sweep.

The Hunger-Zombies seemed to be strong and very difficult to damage but coordination and rapid responses were not in their wheelhouse. They managed to land solid hits and cause serious injuries to Tessa but Lost Alice’s spell wasn’t about to let those linger for more than an instant.

Grabbing the zombie’s leg swept before it could hit the ground, Tessa hoisted the flailing thing up and closed ranks with the two she’d knocked away.

She turned the zombie into a battering ram as it tried to bring an overly ornate sidearm to bear for a shot. The space pistol flew out of the things grasp as Tessa slammed the zombie’s head into into the knee of one of its fellows.

It was an amazing show of force, spoiled only by two other zombies colliding with Pillowcase from either side, knocking her away from the injured zombies and bearing her back and down to the ground.

Pillowcase fought to escape the two as best she could, but they had a mass and strength advantage on her.

A static hiss of triumph rang from each of the zombies, but it was victory celebrated too soon. One the ground and overwhelmed, Pillowcase kept her head and used the advantages she still had at her disposal.

The zombies were strong and tough, but they were essentially mindless. With the Hunger directly controlling them, they could only react with brute force. They didn’t understand the body mechanics involved in wrestling or how their greater strength wasn’t great enough to withstand attacks at their joints.

Pillowcase broke three fingers on one of the hands that had grabbed her, which freed her to launch a crushing elbow into the face of the other zombie who was holding her. The physical trauma of the blow let her get both hands around the zombie’s head.

Tessa would have hesitated then. She would have wondered if the zombies could be reclaimed from the [Formless Hunger] and her natural reticence against violence would have made her look for some of the option. 

Pillowcase shattered the thing’s neck, twisting its head a full 180 degrees in one explosive jerk.

Lisa sucked in a breath, but Lost Alice held onto her spell. This wasn’t a fight they could afford to lose, and the zombies were doing everything in the Hunger’s power to kill them.

And the snapped neck wasn’t enough to stop them.

Pillowcase kicked free from the two injured zombies and rolled back to her feet, in time to see all five of them swarm towards her. 

There was a nice long open corridor behind her, but instead of fleeing, Pillowcase braced her feet against the wall and rocketed off from it, slamming into the zombies who were charging her. 

They all went feel into a pile again with the most disturbing element being the inhuman growling.

Which Pillowcase was making.

Lisa wanted to call out. Wanted to ask if Pillowcase, if Tessa, was okay. Wanted to offer a better strategy. Some method they could use to escape.

No words came to her though.

She couldn’t interrupt Pillowcase. Couldn’t distract her. Not when every fraction of a second was filled with critical moves and countermoves.

Pillowcase surged up from the pile of bodies, her hand rising into the shape of knife before she slammed it back into the zombies.

Lisa expected to see it to emerge covered in blood and perhaps holding a still beating heart, but what Tessa pulled from zombie she speared was even worse.

Around her hand, quickly eating away at it, liquid static hissed in a rage to match Pillowcase’s own.

Jamal

They hadn’t found Pillowcase or Lost Alice yet. That worried Jamal. The two teams were supposed to be moving towards a common meeting point. With the extra speed his team was pouring on, they should have run into the Pillowcase somewhere past the midpoint between them, but well before the point they’d reached so far. The only explanation seem to be that something had happened to Pillowcase, or Lost Alice, or both of them.

Jamal wasn’t gripped by worry though. He was well beyond worried and into terrified.

They should have had an easy method of determining what was going on with Pillowcase and Lost Alice. Their “team chat line” had kept them in touch with each other even when they were separated by miles of solid stone and the planet’s ionosphere. 

Which each racing footfall, he waited for some response to the questions Rose and he had been spamming the chat line with with, but only silence answered them.

The same kind of silence as when Pillowcase and Lost Alice ran into the [Formless Hunger].

“We’re going to make it in time,” Rose said. She was struggling to stay with the group. Jamal could hear it in her voice. She was faster than the rest of them, thanks to her class change, and she wanted to unleash that speed more than anything else.

“I hope she’s right,” Matt Painting said, speaking only to Jamal inside the confines of their shared head space.

“She usually is,” Jamal said. Believing in her was easy. In himself not as much.

“It sounds like she inspires you the same as you do me?” Matt asked.

Jamal thought about that before replying.

“You know, I think she does?” he said. “She’s always been the braver of the two of us, but I never felt weird about that with her. I just wanted to live up to the kind of things she could see us doing.”

“I never had someone like that,” Matt said.

“You were always alone?” Jamal asked.

“No. I was constructed as part of a mass order. The others in my production lot were always with me, but we were locked down from the moment we gained self-awareness.”

“That’s unbearably evil.”

“I’m know that now,” Matt said. “The control spells they use kept us from being aware of it though. The pain we all felt then was something we assumed was a part of being alive. It wasn’t until you revived me that I understood what they’d done to us.”

“So, can I ask, why are you talking to me?” Jamal said. “I mean like why now and not before?”

“I didn’t understand what had happened at first,” Matt said. “When I woke up I thought you were another control program. I wasn’t being ordered to speak for myself, so I didn’t.”

“Hey, you can alway speak for yourself,” Jamal said. “I mean, I’m still not exactly clear on what’s happened here but I am not your controller.”

“I know. It’s part of why I wanted to speak up. We’re joined somehow, but it feels symbiotic. I never had to be brave before. The spells took care of making sure I could execute any orders given to me. I don’t know if I have any bravery of my own, but with us together like this I feel like I’m able to borrow some of yours.”

“Can you feel my emotions? Or read my thoughts? It sounded like that was a thing the others could do,” Jamal asked.

“I don’t think I can do either of those thing,” Matt said. “I know you can read some of mine though.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Jamal said. “When did I ever do that?”

“When you cast spells,” Matt said. “I can remember the verbalizations and the equations, but you’re the one who speaks the words and performs the gestures.”

“I thought that was something the game was doing for me,” Jamal said. “Now that you mention it though, it did feel like my head was going funny each time I cast something.”

“I felt more awake while we were casting too,” Matt said.

“Maybe that was you taking control of your body for a bit to finish the spell off right?” Jamal said. 

“I don’t know. It felt more like I was talking with you. I think you did all the actual casting.”

“But I’ve never cast a spell before. I don’t think that’s even possible in my world.”

“You appear to have a talent for it in this one,” Matt said.

“What happens if you want to cast a spell though?”

“I supposed I’d have to be the one to speak?” Matt said.

“Can you?”

“Sure, you’re not controlling me,” Matt said.

“But I’m running with your body now,” Jamal said. “Isn’t that like keeping you in prison?”

“It’s not like the one I was in before,” Matt said. “And I’m not sure you’re directing our actions. I think it’s both of us.”

Matt’s body slowed and fell back to the rear of the pack.

“We just chose that together, didn’t we?” Jamal asked.

“That’s what it felt like to me too,” Matt said. “Trying drifting to the left and I’ll see about the right.”

They continued on a straight course.

“Did you feel conflicted there too?” Jamal asked.

“I did. But I still can’t see your memories or read your thoughts,” Matt said.

“What are we then?” Jamal asked.

“Two people who need each other?” Matt said.

“You’d be fine with anyone though,” Jamal said. “You’re top of the line.”

“That’s not true,” Matt said. “I’m a refurbished unit. I failed the initial tests for being a viable combat caster. They made me a training target after they patched over the deficiencies they found. The only reason I was deployed into a combat zone was that [Supreme Commander Gernal] was attempting to keep costs low by using low value troops as disposable assets. I’m supposed to be so much stronger than I am.”

“You’re strong enough for me,” Jamal said. “All this has been a lot to take in. I think having our strength grow slowly has helped me keep a better handle on it.”

In the distance the sound of blaster fire echoing down the long stone corridors.

Together they quickened their pace to a full sprint, along with everyone else.

“Let’s hope I’m strong enough for them,” Matt said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 15

Pillowcase

There’s never a good time for an attack by zombies with beam rifles to happen. Despite that, Pillowcase felt a particularly severe wave of rage wash over her focused on the ones who interrupted her conversation with Lost Alice. 

[Clothworks] weren’t designed with emotional motivators of course. Rage led to efficiency reductions and poor tactical planning. In an elite trooper those were serious design flaws. In an unfettered sapient though, ‘emotional motivators’ could serve as both a weapon and armor.

At least if there was enough training to back them up.

“Don’t…” Lost Alice started to say but Pillowcase heard the sound she’d been waiting for and knew they were out of time.

In dreadful unison, the zombies stopped firing. 

Then they began marching.

Tessa’s body wasn’t built for a fight. She’d been a programmer and exercise had not been her friend. If they’d been stuck in her body when they arrived, Pillowcase was pretty sure Tessa would have shattered her wrist the first time she tried to swing a mace.

Despite that, she was on her feet faster than Lost Alice could stop her. 

With her left hand, she grabbed the door and swung it open so she could lean out.

“Hey! You looking for another beating?” she called out, making eye contact with the closest Hunger zombie. It wasn’t the [Provoke] skill, but even without using her skills as a [Soul Knight], Pillowcase was confident she could hold the [Formless Hungers] enmity.

“…do anything stupid,” Lost Alice finished, dropping her hand in exasperation.

To her credit though that was the extent of her complaining. Lost Alice was still a relatively new adventurer, but Lisa was a veteran and the middle of a battle was rarely time for in depth tactical discussions.

The Hunger zombies seemed to agree with that point since they lurched forwards with the sort of coordination only badly manipulated rag dolls would be saddled with. 

For all their lack of grace though, they didn’t lack when it came to aiming their weapons. Only a terrifying jolt of adrenaline gave Tessa’s body the speed to pull back into the doorway and avoid a barrage of blasts that would have left her a sizzled corpse.

“[Casting spell: Counter Death],” Lost Alice said, placing the mystic barrier around Tessa. 

Before Tessa had a chance to thank her, the first of the made it to the door, round into the doorframe with its rifle at shoulder height.

Pillowcase smashed him with the door, sending the rifle flying and knocking the zombie back into the far wall.

It was an impressive hit but it wasn’t what she’d wanted to do. 

She’d hoped to stun the zombie but keep him within arms reach so she could properly grapple him and use him as a shield against his comrades.

Except they would have happily shot through their comrade to get to her.

Pillowcase slotted that idea in and asked her brain for a new plan. Tessa’s grey matter wasn’t imprinted with tactical studies and battle protocols like Pillow’s mind stitches were, but human brains weren’t bad hardware for working out that sort of task on the fly.

The next two zombies arrived before her mind spit out a strategy though, so she followed her impulses.

With the door closed between them, the zombies had try to open it. They opted to pull rather than push, which Pillowcase resisted for a second.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Bood Channel],” Lost Alice said.

Pillowcase felt a pulsing warmth spread through her and pains she hadn’t noticed Tessa was carrying faded away.

The zombie yanked harder and the door slipped halfway out of Pillowcase’s grip. She struggled to pull it back a few inches, gritting her teeth and growling. [Clothworks] fought without unnecessary noises but Pillowcase wasn’t fighting like a [Clothwork].

Nor was she fighting as a [Human].

At least not one from Tessa’s world.

The instant the zombies flexed to pull the door open, Pillowcase reversed her hold and threw her full weight behind slamming the door into the zombies’ faces.

This is where it’s going to start to suck, she warned Tessa, in order to brace herself against what she knew was going to follow.

With three zombies momentarily prone, the other two were blocked from getting to the door. They were not however blocked from taking shots at Tessa.

With a speed that didn’t quite rival Alice’s, Pillowcase ducked under the pair of shots which instantly flew at her. She was fast, but that was relative to Tessa’s old self. Dodging blaster fire wasn’t in her wheel house just yet.

One bolt took her in the right arm while the other punched a neat hole through her lower abdomen. Neither hit was instantly fatal and she was so keyed up on a cocktail of fear, anger, and determination that the pain didn’t overwhelm her.

Instead, she felt another tick of the [Lesser Blood Channel] send mystical healing throughout her body. 

Lost Alice had her back and having someone she was choosing to fight for made a world of difference in staying focused and staying brave. She wasn’t fully repaired when she barrelled into the two, but the pain from her wounds didn’t hold her back at all.

With another roar she slammed both of the zombies to the floor. 

A moment later she was dragged to the ground by two of the other zombies.

On the bright side, her attack with the door had fractured their rifles badly enough that the control mechanisms in the rifles wouldn’t let them fire. 

So Pillowcase got the melee fight she’d been hoping for.

Against five foes, each of whom was stronger than she was.

But not by as much as they should have been?

As she tossed one of them off her and into the wall, Tessa sent a silent question as to how Pillowcase was doing that.

Pillowcase had no idea. She hadn’t planned on Tessa having any more strength than she remembered possessing on Earth. Adding that data point to the equation though allowed her subconscious to finish the plan it was working on.

Pillowcase hadn’t expected Tessa’s new found strength, but she knew exactly how to use it.

Yawlorna

Yawlorna had met precisely one [Vampire] before coming to the refuge of the last survivors of [Sky’s Edge]. Lost Alice hadn’t been what she’d expected when she thought of “a dreadful drinker or blood and souls” but she’s chalked that up to cultural differences. 

Back at home the folklore around [Vampires] cast them as shadowy wraiths capable of paralyzing their victims before slowing drinking them dry. It was considered an especially ignoble death in the old stories since a “True Warrior” was supposed to have an incorruptible will and be able to shrug off the shackles of the undead control.

Yawlorna was proud of how well she could fight. It was part of why she’d been given command of the exploratory expedition. Her crew knew they were venturing into dangerous territory and having someone who could lead them through both academic bureaucracy as well as a pitched battle gave them the courage to face risks that no sensible post-grad would ever risk.

From what Yawlorna had seen of Lost Alice though, only academic prowess was really a required skill for dealing with a [Vampire]. Far from being a mesmerizing monster, Lost Alice had been rather quiet and withdrawn at first, and while she was certainly dangerous, that seemed to be a trait shared by all of the [Adventurers].

The [Vampires] who joined the refugees however were another story.

Yawlorna was eight feet tall. She had more muscle mass that any three of the townsfolk of [Sky’s Edge] put together. Her “demonic” heritage also gifted her with a number of other traits the average person in the [High Beyond] lacked. 

None of that made her feel safe in the presence of the clan of predators which entered the room.

They weren’t exactly living shadows, the [Vampires] of the [High Beyond] but the shadows moved around them in a strange and worrisome manner. 

What was worse though was the air they presented themselves with. 

They didn’t arrive in the cavern as guests, carefully seeking an entrance which wouldn’t trouble their hosts. They didn’t arrive as enemies either though. There was no direct aggression in how they strode into the room.

Each one seemed instead to be a ancient [Lord] entering their own ancestral castle and discovering nothing more noteworthy than that the servants were milling about rather than attending to them directly.

“Now there are some people who do not feel comfortable at all,” Pendant said, gesturing towards the [Vampires] with the cup he’d been drinking from.

How a skeleton drank anything without the liquid splattering onto the floor below was unclear. The researcher in Yawlorna had that as one of the five thousand questions she had for “Mister Pendant” if she could ever get hold of a good note taking device. Without that though she was content to simply engage him in conversation.

“Uncomfortable? Is that what draping themselves over every elevated horizontal surface they can find means?” Yawlorna asked.

“Oh, they’re putting on a fine show of being perfectly at ease,” Pendant said. “Consider though, should anyone be perfectly at ease in a situation like this?”

“Maybe if they were so powerful no one here was a challenge?” Yawlorna said.

“There are people like that,” Pendant agreed. “Unfortunately they’re not here at the moment.”

“That’s a bad thing?” Yawlorna asked, trying to imagine what sort of monster might dwarf the host around her.

Pendant shrugged.

“Eh, the one I’m thinking of is one of the nicest people I know,” he said. “To be fair though, you’re not wrong that there are many others who would not be so enjoyable to be sharing this room with.”

“I’m frankly still amazed that we’re all managing to share this area as well as we are,” Yawlorna said, taking another pull from the mug Pendant had given her. In her back, muscles she’d long since forgotten that she’d pulled relaxed and seemed to knit themselves back together. She wanted to ask what sort of magic could ease wounds so old that they’d become a part of her, but, again, without a notepad to write things down on, she felt like the answers would vanish in the haze of whatever crisis next lay ahead of them.

“I notice the children seem to be enamored with your people the most,” Pendant said.

“The feeling seems to be mutual,” Yawlorna said. “I can’t get over how many of them there are. Most of our cities are far larger than this village and we might have half as many children in them as they have here. What are their fertility rates like?”

“Rather astounding if given a supportive environment,” Vixali, the [Vampire Queen] said.

She appeared beside Yawlorna as though materializing from a gentle gust of wind. Yawlorna was reasonably certain that the [Vampire Queen] had simply walked over, but her presence was so muted that even Yawlorna’s gifts hadn’t fully kept track of her.

Yawlorna’s instincts had some choice things to say about that. Ambush predators who were capable of ambushing her were the sort of creature it was generally wise to exterminate on sight, since there was little guarantee that you’d catch sight of them again until they had their claws in you. 

Despite her brute-ish qualities though, Yawlorna did not listen to those instincts.

As Pendant had said, the situation was one were every ally they could garner might be needed if any of them were to survive.

“You desire something?” she asked instead of skewering the [Vampire Queen].

“Yes,” Vixali said. “You. I desire you.”

Yawlorna cast a quizzical gaze at her. In Yawlorna’s eyes, the [Vampire Queen] was tiny, and hornless enough to appear as an oddly colored adolescent. Yawlorna knew Vixali had to be more than a toddler but without further information it was hard to take her as much else.

“For what?” Yawlorna asked, and allowed her confusion to show plainly on her face.

“You are large,” Vixali said. “The people here respect that. I need you to make them feel safe with being around me.”

“And how would I do that?” Yawlorna asked.

“Stand with them when I talk to them,” Vixali said. “If you’re by their side, they won’t be quite so concerned I’m going to eat them.”

“And if I say no?”

“Then in about two minutes they’ll be descending on my people with staves and fire,” Vixali said. “We were invited, but that doesn’t mean we’re welcome I’m afraid.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 14

Lost Alice

The shift in perspective was easier for Lisa to follow than it had been in the past. When she’d been talking with Tessa in the hallways, she’d been almost fully herself as ‘Lisa’. Lost Alice was still there, but somewhat like a mask Lisa had pushed up onto her head. 

When the first shot was fired though, all that had changed.

Despite Lost Alice’s vampiric speed, Tessa had reacted faster, pure human terror surpassing the monstrous reflexes at Lost Alice’s command. Lost Alice hadn’t wasted time worrying about that. There was violence and danger and that was her world, not Lisa’s. One mask came down as the other rose up.

Beside her, she saw Tessa’s posture shift as well, going from a a timid pose to one which was ready to spring into the sort of action which would be ill conceived for a very breakable human who was unused to life and death combat.

An ill conceived posture for a human, but not an unfamiliar one.

Lost Alice knew where she’s seen the expression Tessa was wearing.

“Pillowcase?” she asked, puzzled by how clearly the other side of Tessa was present in Tessa’s eyes and mouth and grin.

“More or less,” Pillowcase answered.

Lost Alice could have contemplated the ramifications of that, could have wondered if the shift was similar to her own, where “Lisa” now felt like a mask pushed up on her head rather than any sort of  “more real personality” who’d been hidden beneath a “Lost Alice” mask.

“Can you use your skills? Or access your equipment?” Lost Alice asked, seeing many possibilities where Pillowcase in Tessa’s body could go wrong.. 

The puppeted Consortium soldiers would come for them. Lost Alice knew that. The Hunger had directed the soldiers this far, it wasn’t going to leave them firing uselessly in all directions. How long it would need to reassert a degree of control after bursting into a spasm of rage was anyone’s guess but Alice was willing to bet it wouldn’t be long.

“My equipment seems to be stuck with my body. Wherever that is,” Pillowcase said. “I might be able to use some of my abilities though. I hope.”

“I don’t like that,” Lost Alice said. “Their weapons are strong enough for one shot kills if they land an accurate shot.”

“Not one shot,” Pillowcase said. “They’ll need at least two, unless there’s an ongoing damage element to the burns?”

“There seems to be,” Lost Alice said, thinking back to what Tessa’s leg injury was doing to her health until it had been healed. “It’s neutralized when the major damage is repaired but there may be no window for healing between the first shot and the fatal tick of damage which follows.”

“I’ll have to make sure I don’t take a hit like that then,” Pillowcase said, and offered Lost Alice the barest hint of a smile, as though her face was still woven of a fabric which could never properly express the joyful spirit within it.

While seeing Tessa’s human form was all sort of delicious, for a variety of reasons, both vampiric and non-, Lost Alice found herself missing the far more durable body Pillowcase normally wore.

“There must be a level cap effect in place here,” Pillowcase said. “Otherwise that shot would have blown my leg off or vaporized me completely. I think Tessa’s still below it as a [Void Speaker] though.”

Lost Alice glanced at her own stats. She hadn’t seen a level cap in effect before but apparently one had descended on them with the start of hostilities.

“We’re down to level 10 here,” she said, surprised that it was so low. The previous capped zone they’d been in was 20 and even that had been surprisingly limited for a spot which lore claimed to have been the home of the gods. A moment’s thought produced the obvious reason though. “I guess the gods who set this place up didn’t want anyone wrecking it if a brawl got out of control.”

“No danger of that,” Pillowcase said. “Those plasma rifles they have don’t seem to be able to damage anything but flesh and blood.”

Lisa could think of several advantages to that, especially for troops which might need to fight on space ships where casual holes in the walls could be taken as a bad thing by default.

“When they come close, let me try to pull their attention,” Pillowcase said. “I don’t have any specific [Skills] for disarming people, but the combat training that was stitched into me has a decent set of hand-to-hand techniques so I should at least be able to get in close enough that I can use one of them as a shield and make this a melee rather than gun battle.”

“If all five of them pile on you, that’s still not going to be good for us,” Lost Alice said. “I’m still higher level than you. My strength and speed can substitute for skill well enough.”

“If you get tied up in a grapple though, casting spells is going to get tricky,” Pillowcase said. “Also, I’m the one those guys want, probably, so they might not stick with you anyways.”

“I’ll take ‘might not kill me’ in place of ‘will definitely kill you’, thank you,” Lost Alice said. Not for the first time, she wished she had an immobilization spell which could be cast on party members.

“I’m not a fan of dying either,” Pillowcase said. “It’s easier to see that through Tessa’s eyes. And with your help. But , trust me, I’m not being foolish here. This is best option I can see for both of us surviving.”

“I don’t need a guarantee of survival if it means putting you in jeopardy though!” Lost Alice said, aggravated that Pillowcase couldn’t see how important it was to keep Tessa’s body safe and sound. 

If the woman in front of her died, or even just had to disappear again, Lost Alice wasn’t sure how well she’d handle it. The mere thought of it froze her undead heart.

“And I’m not going to avoid jeopardy when there’s a chance I can keep you safe from being being eaten by the [Hounds of Fate],” Pillowcase said. “I know we’ve had good luck with them so far, but we also know there are a lot of adventurers who haven’t and I…” She faltered for a second, and took a deliberate breath before finishing. “I can’t let that happen to you.”

Lost Alice was a perceptive woman. [Vampires] had to be. She hadn’t been able to read Pillowcase all that well before in part because of the artificial constraints on a [Clothwork’s] face and in part because Lisa hadn’t been ready to.

Seeing the heart wrenching concern in Tessa’s eyes though made denying the other feelings which were swirling there difficult indeed though. 

Azma

Time was not on Azma’s side. Nor were fate, luck, or the vast majority of the [Consortium of Pain].

So it was a fairly typical day for her.

What irritated her weren’t the numerous forces stacked against her, but rather the missed opportunity.

She’d encountered someone in the opposition who seemed like they approached her level of strategic acumen. She didn’t know who her foe was directly, but the indirect portrait the moves of their game had painted was delightful. The enemy commander was compassionate and cautious with her forces, but hadn’t refrained from sending them into battles Azma had been convinced were already lost by the defenders, only to see the battles turn around thanks to the precision of the defender’s attacks. 

It had been better than winning. It had been fun.

And Azma had far too little fun in her life.

As she keyed in the final codes to put her current plan in action, she looked for that sort of challenge in the task before her.

To be certain, turning around the disaster the operation had become was setting an even higher bar for herself than simply conquering the planet. Even with the brilliance of her opponent, and the frankly unreasonable power of the special forces the defenders had assembled, the conquest of the [Fallen Kingdoms] was never truly in doubt in Azma’s mind. She’d reformed the task force she’d been given into one which was more than sufficient for the operation while also being on the bleeding edge between understaffed and economical. In the unlikely event the defenders were able to significantly outperform their observed metrics, she had plenty of budgetary room to bring in an even larger armada, with even more specialized  units.

But that would have spoiled the game with her opponent.

And cost her standing with the Consortium.

But mostly she’d been continued limiting herself once the defenders started doing well because she wished to preserve the balance of the conflict rather than winning through the bludgeon of superior resources.

With those resources cut off, and an even more challenging task before her though, Azma didn’t feel the same fulfilling excitement. 

The [Formless Hunger] was a more deadly foe and cunning to a degree but its power made it blunt and, ultimately, uninteresting as an opponent. She already knew what would happen when the containment units began to surge out of control.

The Hunger would move towards #7, slowly at first, wary of another assault like the one it had repelled, and then swiftly, throwing the wariness aside, as it sensed the feast which had been laid before it.

As it gorged itself, Azma’s wayward tech crew would flee their positions, drawing its attention.

Then containment unit #3 would fire up, forcing the Hunger to chose between the paltry reward of pursuing a crew who was somewhat warded against it or enjoying yet another meal.

The rest of her forces, the one’s still pinned down within the Hunger’s expanded area of influence, would see this and begin streaming in the opposite direction, taking advantage of the short window the Hunger’s distraction afford them.

The crew from containment unit #7 would be swept up in the tide and would begin explaining what happened, as all techs seemed to feel compelled to do. That would plant the seeds in everyone’s mind that someone had been responsible for their salvation, and by not appearing before them and claiming credit, Azma would ensure that they didn’t reject that salvation as a stratagem from someone compromised by the Hunger’s mind devouring capabilities.

From there it would be a race. The Hunger would grow, it’s appetite growing with it, and her forces would flee, seeking to escape it’s ever growing zone of influence.

As the Hunger surged back to collected its fleeing prey, Azma would have her chance to strike. 

She couldn’t give orders to the personnel of her fleet anymore, but the Director of Xenobiology wouldn’t have had enough time to uncover all of her backdoors into the system controls for the ships themselves.

Blowing up a capital ship was an expensive proposition. Blowing up her own capital ship was even worse since she was directly responsible for its full value. The other twenty ships she would need to detonate to render the [Formless Hunger] sessile would have amounted to a catastrophic loss and an immediate termination in any other operation.

In this case though, the honor of bringing in a fully preserved Transdimensional Entity made the action viable.

Especially since all of the important data from the ships would be preserved when the crew was allowed to escape on the life pods.

And there was the small fact that, since the Director of Xenobiology was officially in the command of the operation (something which she would acknowledge in the shuttle’s records for use as evidence later), he would be the one to bear the overall liability for the lost ships, since all of the flight control systems would nominally be under his control.

Azma doubted the Director would be found personally liable. Accountability was not something people above a certain level in the Consortium typically had to deal with. At best, she imagined, it would be just another negative mark on his somewhat precarious overall record.

Really, the only tricky part about her plan involved setting the proper navigation patterns into the ships she planned to use.

Translight jumps near a planet were risky under the best of circumstances, with a full crew to execute them. 

She needs to plot all of their trajectories to insure that the twenty one ships de-warped simultaneously within, ideally, inches of the Hunger’s primary body and with the ship’s power plants ready to undergo an unrestrained [Nova Reaction] within no more than four nanoseconds of arrival in [Standard Space]. A mistake would either feed the Hunger more fuel or, more likely, erase the atomic integrity of the satellite moon, the planet, and everything else within several astronomical units.

Fortunately, Azma did not make mistakes.

In the distance, she heard containment unit #7 roar to life and smiled.

The die was cast.

All she had to do was sit back and win.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 13

Tessa

The room Tessa rolled Lost Alice and herself into wasn’t as grandiose as the hidden dimensional pocket where Kralt had been hiding but it was similar in the sense that it was another library. Or it had been intended to be. After rolling through the door, Tessa found herself clinging to Lost Alice as they both skidded into a solid shelving unit which was empty of the books it was designed to hold.

“Who are they?” Lisa asked, moving with preternatural speed to examine Tessa’s body for damage.

Tessa winced as Lisa found the hole that had been burnt through her calf muscle. Shock and surprise had kept her from registering the fact that the shots fired at them had been accurate enough to do damage and adrenaline was blunting the worst of the pain from really being processed.

Before that condition could change, Lost Alice slapped a healing spell on her and the wound faded to nothingness.

“That could not have been a solid hit,” Pillowcase said, speaking to Tessa as Tessa’s mind struggled to grasp what was happening.

“Yeah, our leg is still attached, and my version of it isn’t covered rune-enhanced like yours is,” Tessa said. “Or is it?”

“I don’t think so,” Pillowcase said. “A proper set of defensive runes would have spread the damage out to reduce it even if it failed. That shot only hit a small area but it went right through.”

From outside the room, the whir of more shots from the freaky space rifles resounded. Underneath it lay an even more disturbing sound though.

“Were those Consortium soldiers?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “Or at least not anymore. Do you hear that laughing?”

“Yeah, and the crackle of static,” Lisa said. “But how could the Hunger look like a space trooper with a gun? Why would it even use guns in the first place?” 

“Don’t know. If I had to guess though?” Tessa said. “What if it ate some of the Consortium forces but didn’t, like, digest them?”

“Ewww, but, ok, sure, why wouldn’t that be something it could do. Nightmares always get worse right?” Lisa said. “How would it know how to use a gun though?”

The firing continued from the corridor, though it wasn’t getting closer. If anything it seemed like the soldiers had been driven wild and were aiming in random directions.

“Again, guessing here, but it might be a good news/bad news sort of thing,” Tessa said. “The bad news is, if those really are puppets of some kind, then the Hunger can access their memories and skills.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty bad,” Lisa said. “What happens if it eats a spellcaster. Or a tank?”

“Worst case? It gets all our abilities,” Tessa said. “Slightly better case is that it only gets the ability to make each puppets use its own abilities. And a slightly better option would be it might mean that the people the Hunger eats still exist enough that the process could be reversed.”

“And the good news in all this would be?”

“If it’s gaining our abilities, it could be gaining our weaknesses too,” Tessa said. “That thing wasn’t even vaguely physical the first time we ran into it. Now it’s walking around in mind-jacked bodies? Maybe the more it absorbs from the this world, the more a part of it the Hunger becomes.”

“Huh, let me check something,” Lisa said, as Lost Alice rose and did a lightning fast peek out of the doorway. “Yep. Those things have health bars.”

“And if it’s got a health bar, we can kill it,” Tessa said chanting the age old mantra players had sung since health bars were a thing. 

She wanted to cheer the news with gusto but the words warbled in her throat.

She could hear the static too. It was supposed to be bursts of random hissing and her ears told her that’s all it was. Just a weird sound the possessed creatures were making? If possessed was the right term? She couldn’t think about that too deeply though. Couldn’t think about them. Not without her heart recoiling.

Her heart that heard the malice lurking in the static. It wasn’t random crackles and sizzles, a trembling voice inside her said. It was one long, continuous scream of hate. 

A scream that built to a crescendo along with the riotous outpouring of fire from the [Consortium Beam Rifles]. 

It wanted her dead. It wanted her erased. It wanted her consumed. That was all it wanted in the whole of its existence.

Tessa had encountered hate before. It tore at her. Even a brush with it left wounds bleeding inside her. Shaking uncertainties and fears that gobbled up her comfort and shredded what strength she could scrape together.

Throwing a glance around the room she looked for other exits. Somewhere to run to. 

“We’re boxed in here,” Pillowcase said, aware of what Tessa’s senses had reported which had escaped Tessa’s conscious notice. “Good news though; the beam rifles don’t seem to be able to punch through the walls here and the door’s made of the same stuff. So it’ll make a good shield.”

“There’s nothing to secure it with though,” Tessa said observing the hinge which let the door swing in both directions. “They’ll be able to pull it open and shoot us.”

“Yeah. If we let them,” Pillowcase said.

“How are we supposed to stop them?” Tessa said. “I saw at least five soldiers out there. I don’t think Lost Alice can handle five on one odds unless they’re a really fragile breed of trooper.”

From Pillowcase’s memories, Tessa was sure that a squad of five who’d be sent anywhere near the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] wouldn’t have been drawn from the underperforming end of the Consortium’s talent pool.

“Not alone she can’t,” Pillowcase said.

“I don’t think I can fight those things,” Tessa said. “I’m not a fighter. I freaking out just thinking about it.”

“I know,” Pillowcase said. “This kind of thing isn’t your job. You weren’t build and trained for violence and that’s a fantastic thing. We need you to be who you are, not a Warrior Princess who’s always looking to bust heads open.”

“Yeah, but right now a Warrior Princess is what we need,” Tessa said.

“And that’s why we’ve got me,” Pillowcase said as her smile spread across Tessa’s lips.

Azma

The odds against them were poor. Azma had accounted for that. Was in fact banking on it, in a fairly literal sense given that when all was said and done, the project still needed to show a positive return on the Consortium’s investments. Crises were expected, operational catastrophes were known to occur, things far beyond the control of anyone could and often did destroy even the best laid plans. Those were all interesting subjects for the “Personal anecdotes” section of the final report, but ultimately irrelevant to the Consortium’s Review Board for whom everything boiled down to the bottom line.

Azma could pull off a miracle, salvage everything, rescue all of the troops, overthrow the planet, regain control of the task force from Xenobiology, and even deliver the [Formless Hunger] for dissection and if the net result was a loss registered against the Consortium’s quarterly earnings then all her support would vanish in the wind, as would her position, and, very likely, her life, though not in that order.

“These readings are proving difficult to parse,” Grenslaw said. “The personal shielding enhancements are obfuscating about eighty percent of the data we’re receiving and it’s not a rich data stream to begin with.”

“Be thankful for that,” Azma said. “If it wasn’t an indirect stream, there’d be too much there for the shields to handle. Under no circumstances, even direct orders, are you to risk corruption by the entity. Is that understood?”

“Yes. What is the window on gathering the telemetry we need?” Grenslaw asked.

“For maximum value, we’ll need a complete analysis of the [Formless Hunger’s] current state within three minutes,” Azma said. “From there to roughly twenty minutes we can still leverage the information. Beyond that we’ll need a different approach.”

“I’ll have something for you in two minutes then,” Grenslaw said.

“What is it we’re trying to do here?” Sergeant Fiori asked.

“Communication with the rest of our forces on the satellite moon is currently restricted due to the creature’s interference,” Azma said. “That means I can’t recall them or give them a specific direction to move in for extraction.”

“I thought once the troops were compromised extraction was forbidden?” Fiori said. “Too much chance that thing would leap to the rest of the fleet.”

“Extraction of compromised personnel is, unfortunately, off the table for now,” Azma said. “For the rest of our forces though, we can get them off this moonlet. They will be quarantined from the rest of the fleet until the Hunger is brought under control, but each one of them still retains a positive value profile so the Consortium will not liquidate them unless no other options are present.”

“How do we get the ones who aren’t brain fried to go somewhere for pickup though? Won’t the Hunger just assume we’re assembling a buffet for it if they gather together?” Fiori asked.

“That’s exactly what will happen if we can’t draw its attention elsewhere,” Azma said. 

“Scan complete,” Grenslaw said. “We have 80 seconds remaining in the three minute deadline.”

Azma was tempted to wait for seventy nine seconds, just savoring the bliss of a delegated job being performed beyond expectations. As with many temptations though, she knew that one could inevitably come with a heavy cost. Time was a wonderful gift, but even so great a deposit as a minute and twenty second would be consumed when things inevitably began to fall apart.

Best to spend it wisely.

“Excellent. It appears that containment units 3 and 7 are both within striking range of the Hunger’s most stabilized areas. And there’s a crew still at 7?” Azma felt her breath catch. The universe was almost being too generous. Two inert but still intact containment units and one nominally active crew? 

Another commander would have seen those as anchors sinking their bottomline even further. Neither unit was capable of containing the Hunger, and of the twelve person crew, only three remained, one of whom was gravely wounded. 

To Azma it was perfect.

The crew wasn’t lost. They were witnesses. All she needed to do was give them time to escape the area. Two minutes would be sufficient in most cases but Azma keyed in her instructions to containment unit 7 for five minutes instead. The two uninjured technicians would be carrying their wounded comrade out of the impending blast area. That would slow them down and restrict the number of viable refuges they could pile into.

And they would need a good refuge.

What Azma was doing was well outside the allowed rules of engagement for Transdimensional Entities. As the number 7 containment unit powered up again though, she let the rush of ignoring foolish protocols wash over her.

Not that a rule against feeding nascent reality destroying monsters was necessarily a bad idea. By most reasonable lights, the last thing anyone should want to do with a monster like the [Formless Hunger] was encourage its growth and maturation.

Asthma fought the urge to cackle. It would have been appropriate as she committed the number 3 containment unit to power up after number 7’s destruction.

She wasn’t just risking that the [Formless Hunger] would gain more power, she was guaranteeing it.

But she was also guaranteeing that, for a little while at least, it would dance to her tune.

Ultimately, for all the terrible power the Hunger possessed, it was a simple creature. It’s desires were circumscribed by the core of its nature.

It was ravenous. Give it food and it would eat. Dangle a morsel before it and it would move towards it. Present it with a feast behind an impenetrable barrier and it would bend its every resource to breaking that barrier, and, being what it was, the barrier would shatter.

Eventually.

Azma knew she could control the beast, she knew she could get her troops out of danger, she even knew she could eventually ensnare the Hunger and bring it back to the Consortium on her terms.

After all there was nothing more such a mindless creature could want than to feast, and working with the Consortium she was all too familiar with those whose hunger was unending.