Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 7

Tessa knew what Alice’s answer was going to be. The healer didn’t have any reason to join three level 1 strangers to form a party. Not when she had an active guild to call on and could be joined by a pantheon of near god level players who could escort her to the heights of power easily.

Standing in the [Sky’s Edge] town square waiting for an answer, Tessa felt a familiar dread clawing through her veins. 

Why would anyone want her? Especially when she was pathetic compared to the alternatives.

Alice was a healer and healers had some of the easiest times finding parties. Too few people wanted to play them, so the ones who did were always in high demand. It had been a wonderful advantage for Tessa when she played Glimmerglass. She’d been able to find an invite for any dungeon or team she cared to join in seconds usually. For Alice, it meant that she could have her pick of teams to work with, and with a guild to back her up, she’d be able to work with people she knew and who were setup to completely overpower the foes she would need to fight. She could have safety and good company and a quick path to the level cap rather than rolling the dice on all of those with a bunch of strangers.

“Ok,” Alice said. “Send me an invite.”

Tessa started to launch into her resigned acceptance – “that’s cool, give us a shout if you learn anything important” and other bridge building phrases – but stopped herself on the first word as she processed what Alice had actually said.

“That’s…ok, umm, invite coming,” Tessa said. She couldn’t quite understand Alice’s answer but she wasn’t about to question it too deeply under the circumstances.

“Us too please!” Rip Shot said. Beside her Matt nodded in agreement.

Tessa called up the user interface and looked for the party management menu. She had to fiddle with it for a bit, in part because it had been years since she’d seen it, and in part because the menus had been updated a couple of times, but mostly because in the past it had been rare for her to be the one to assemble a team.

As she sent the party invites out, a voice in her head was chattering away trying to figure out why Alice had decided to join them.

She’s got better options than us, Tessa told herself. We’re not even a full team. I’m sure she could get one of those in a heartbeat if her guild is holding off on doing end game content.

She glanced over to where Alice stood, interacting with the invisible interface in front of her to accept the team invite. Whether it was because Alice was in a vampire’s body and didn’t need to breathe or because she was naturally reserved, Tessa noticed that Alice was rigid to the point of being motionless aside from her fingers navigating the unnecessarily complex menus.

“What are we going to do first?” Rip asked, her voice sounding slightly different – clearer and closer than it should have, possibly because she was speaking in the “party” chat channel, the private line they had setup which would allow them to communicate no matter where they were in the world.

Tessa cast her gaze around [Sky’s Edge], taking stock of the environment as she considered her answer.

Good teams weren’t dictatorships, but they tended to fall apart quickly if no one stepped up to act as a leader. Tessa hadn’t meant to attempt to fill that role. In theory, it should have fallen to Alice since she had more experience both recent and overall, but willingness to try counted for as much or more than experience some times. 

I just hope that’s not a mark against us, Tessa thought, since her willingness was driven by circumstance more than natural inclination or talent. Over the years she’d played Broken Horizons, Tessa had gravitated towards playing healers even when she wasn’t playing Glimmerglass because in part because she didn’t naturally seek the limelight, or feel comfortable telling people what to do. 

As a Tank though, she knew people would naturally slot her into that role, and she’d watched enough good Tanks to at least be sure she knew what not to do under normal circumstances.

“Let’s see who else is around here still and whether they’re stuck in the game yet or not,” she said. 

“There are some folks still in the chapel,” Alice said. “Your friend told them to stay there.”

“That’s probably smart,” Tessa said. “If they survived the [Wraithwing] attack, then they may still be outside the game. Worst case, they can leave their characters parked there with their computers running and go on with their lives until we find some solution to this.”

“There’s some people coming out of the other buildings too,” Matt said.

[Sky’s Edge] had been scarred by the Wraithwing attack but the damage was relatively minor considering the destructive power of the [Wraithwings] [Acid Spittle] and other attacks. From the damaged buildings, Tessa saw people who looked like high resolution versions of the town’s [Non-Player Characters] emerging to inspect the aftermath. They weren’t moving like pre-programmed characters and the expressions on their faces were deeper and more pained than any Tessa had seen the developers bother to animate for generic townsfolk.

“You made it!” Mogwin said as the ghost crow landed on Tessa’s shoulder, his attention focused on the town rather than her. “And you’re complete. A [Soul Knight] with a [Soul]. Good job!”

[Quest: Basic Survival – COMPLETED!]

[Soul Knight Level 2 Achieved!]

[Minor Spellcasting Gained – 1 Unspent Spell Research Point Available!]

[Blade Skill – Minor Life Stealing – Rank 2 Achieved!]

[Passive Skill – Minor Provoking Strikes – Rank 2 Achieved!]

[Heavy Armor Proficiency Unlocked!]

Tessa felt a surge of energy pass through her and for a second she swore her skin glowed with barely constrained power.

“What the hell!” Alice said, looking at her own hands with the same incredulity Tessa was feeling. “I didn’t have a Basic Survival quest. My quest log was empty?”

Tessa was certain she hadn’t either, and the implication of that hit both women at the same time.

LOGOUT DISABLED

You still have a quest in progress

 Tessa didn’t grumble at the sight of the error message after she tried the logout button again. She knew it wasn’t going to be that simple, but it was worth the test nonetheless.

“Why did we just level up?” Rip Shot asked. “We didn’t survive the event?”

Tessa was curious about that herself and was ready to offer the theories that sprang to mind but was interrupted before she could speak.

“The [Wraithwing] event gives out experience for the duration of time you manage to survive it,” Mogwin said. “Honestly, you were all cheated out of what you really should have gotten from it. You would have earned a ton more but you can’t jump up more than one level at a time. I’d file a complaint but I don’t think it would do a lot of good.”

Tessa’s eyes went wide. That was absolutely not how a system controlled character normally spoke. Not that a system character would ever speak in response to chat within a party, but if one did, that was not how official game messages were formatted. They would never sounds so…conversational?”

“You…you can talk?” Alice asked, looking as shocked as Tessa felt.

“I know, it’s weird because I’m a bird right?” Mogwin said. “You ground pounders are always shocked by that, but there are plenty of us talking birds in the world.”

“That’s…that’s not it,” Tessa stammered. It made sense Mogwin would be real if the rest of the world was, but talking to something that definitely was not human took a bit more for Tessa to accept that she’d imagined it would.

“Oh, it’s because I’m a ghost then?” Mogwin asked. “I mean, you all were just ghosts a few minutes ago right? I’m not saying that’s a double standard, but it kinda is.”

“Who are you?” Rip Shot asked, her expression neutral as she stepping slightly in front of Matt to shield him.

“Sorry, right, you’re not all [Soul Knights]. My name’s Mogwin. I’m a [Guide]. I was watching Pillowcase here after she started to reintegrate, and just wanted to offer some encouragement. I mean most of the time I’m more of a [Cheerleader] than a proper [Guide] if you know what I mean.”

“Can you only guide [Soul Knights]?” Alice asked.

“No? I mean, they’re usually the ones I feel a pull towards, but it’s not like I can’t talk to anyone else. Obviously, right?”

“Can you tell us how to get home?” Alice asked.

“Probably. Where do you live?” Mogwin asked.

“On Earth,” Alice said.

“What’s an Earth?” Mogwin asked and Alice’s shoulder’s slumped.

“I should have known,” she said.

“Let me try,” Tessa said. “Mogwin, we’re not from here.”

“I know, you were manufactured by the [Consortium of Pain],” Mogwin said. “Or at least your body was.”

“No, I mean, our…ghosts I guess? Those didn’t come from the [Fallen Kingdoms] or the [High Beyond]. We came from another world, and we’d like to get back there.”

“Ouch. That sucks. It kind of fits with the [Consortium of Pain] though. I mean, it’s not like they’re from around here either right?”

“Do you know how we can get back?” Tessa asked.

“I’m sorry. The [Consortium of Pain] is a bit beyond me. I know a bit about the [High Beyond] but monsters from outside time and space are above my pay grade.”

“Do you know why the Logout button isn’t working?” Alice asked. The disdain in her voice made it clear that she didn’t expect an answer. Mogwin seemed too integrated into the world for something as meta-physical as a logout button to have any meaning to him. 

“You probably still have a quest to finish.”

Tessa turned slowly to look at the ghostly bird on her shoulder.

“What?” Alice spoke first, her voice low and deadly, and Tessa could guess why. If Mogwin understand game related concepts, it meant he might be related to whoever had brought them all to the Broken Kingdoms.

“Well, logging out is when you surrender the spark of exceptional inspiration and let yourselves rest right?” Mogwin said. “But if you’ve got a quest that’s calling you on – a real quest I mean, not just one of the chores you can do for people, but something that’s important – you’ll hang onto that inspiration until you either give up or get it done.”

Tessa tried to fit his words into a sensible pattern and came up with nothing when she looked at it from the perspective of a developer. When she turned things around and thought about how someone inside a game world might see things though it started to make a lot more sense.

When players were logged in, their characters would look like they were driven to adventure with a zeal few could match. With a player to guide them, the characters could progress to incredible heights of power and accomplish legendary deeds. On their own though, the characters didn’t change. 

If Tessa imagined Pillowcase existing in the time when she’d was logged off then it might very well look like Pillowcase had simply lost her drive for adventure and decided to relax for a while instead of throwing herself into battle after battle with monsters of all types.

“How the hell do we give up then!” Alice looked ready to rip Mogwin off Tessa’s shoulders, and possibly rip him to pieces, but Tessa’s insight showed her why Mogwin’s answers weren’t actually overlapping with Alice’s questions.

“Wait,” Tessa said, feeling like she should confirm her guess before correcting Alice. “Mogwin, what do you think we are?”

“You’re an Artifax,” he said. “She’s a Graveborn, and you’ve got a Beastkin and another Artifax in your party.”

It was exactly the answer Tessa had expected. Mogwin saw them as though the characters they were embodied in were real. Which led to the next obvious question.

“And is this a game or is this real? Broken Horizons I mean,” Tessa asked.

“Uh, real?” Mogwin said, not bothering to hide his confusion. He pecked her and Tessa flinched away. Ghost or no, his beak hurt. “See, you’re not dreaming.”

“Point taken. What about our [Classes] and [Levels] and [Skills] and [Spells]?” she asked.

“Those are things you have?” Mogwin said, even more confused where the questions could be leading. “Oh, congrats on unlocking spell casting! Did you need some info on what your choices are? I can make suggestions too if you have a particular goal in mind.”

So this was a world where the fundamental mechanics were a bit more arbitrary and exposed than the real world, Tessa decided. That might have implications she’d need to think through – weird limits, or exploitable opportunities where Broken Horizons rules didn’t quite line up with physics and biology in a manner that Earthly physical laws would be happy with. For the time being though, that was a secondary concern. The important take-away was that to Mogwin, everything around them was natural and normal – even talk of coming from another world. 

“This is worthless,” Alice said. “He doesn’t know how to help us get back.”

Tessa shrugged. Alice wasn’t wrong, and Tessa couldn’t think of any words that would make things seem better. There were things they could learn from Mogwin, but the most important questions would be just as far beyond him as they were beyond Burnt Toast and the other support staff members.

“Why is he the only one here?” Rip Shot asked. “Shouldn’t we all have guides?”

“You do,” Mogwin said. “I was just stopping in. If you need yours for something just give them a call and they’ll be by as soon as they can. Us [Guides] are getting a bit of a work out at the moment. A lot of newly inspired folks are rising up, probably in response to the Consortium making a new push to grab land.”

Tessa translated that one easily. With the launch of the [World Shift] expansion, there were tens of thousands of new characters being created. Even with the players being split across dozens of servers, each with their own version of Mogwin presumably, the [Guide] would still be extremely busy.

“Why would the Consortium conquering things matter?” Matt asked. “I mean how does that bring more ‘inspired’ into the world?”

Tessa wasn’t sure if he was simply phrasing the question in a manner Mogwin would be able to answer or if he really didn’t see the connection to the expansion’s release. In either case, she was curious what Mogwin’s answer would be. 

“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean it’s great from my perspective. You all are like a fresh wave of antibodies the [Fallen Kingdoms] has called up to destroy the infection the Consortium is spreading. I am just a simple, and dead, bird though, so the cosmic stuff is not exactly my area of expertise.”

“Who do you report to?” Alice asked. “Who gives you your orders?”

“[The Queen of Nightmares]”, Mogwin said. “She’s the one you’d want to ask about this Earth place I think.”

“And how do we talk to her?” Alice asked, ceasing on the lead with a barely restrained fury.

Tessa expected Mogwin to be offer some evasive or non-committal answer but again she was surprised.

“You’ve got a couple basic options,” he said. “If she wants to talk to you, she’ll initiate a conversation. Easiest way to make that happen is to have something that catches her interest, just saw it three times before you go to sleep and she’ll turn up in your dreams and chat with you about it.”

“That seems pretty simple,” Tessa said, knowing there’s zero chance that it would be.

“Yeah, but it’s got low odds of working. The Queen’s always busy and the things that attract her interest are basically impossible to predict. Fortunately there is a more reliable option. If you definitely want a chance to talk to the Queen, all you have to do is finish the [Quest: Bridge to a New Horizon].”

“What do we have to do to start that one?” Alice asked, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Intuition told Tessa what the answer would be even as the words tumbled from Mogwin’s beak.

“From what I can see? It looks like you already have.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 6

Lost Alice was right. Tessa didn’t want to admit it. She wanted the world which lay around her to do more than look like the one she’d spent so much time immersed in despite only being able to glimpse it from the other side of a monitor. She wanted this version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] to be the place she’d dreamed of living in. To hold the adventure and wonder and meaning which had drawn her back after six years away.

But Alice was right.

The world around her wasn’t the one she’d played in for years, and she wasn’t the adventurer who’d risked life and limb in pursuit of fame, fortune, and a calling which felt higher than either of those. Not personal power for its own sake but the power to stand as someone who could make a difference, who could turn a tragedy into a triumph, who could stop bad things from happening in the [Fallen Kingdoms] in a way she never could in the real world.

Playing in this version of the Fallen Kingdoms wasn’t going to be the same though. It wasn’t going to come with the same guarantees that playing a game did. There was a critical line between make believe and reality and the inevitable result of being where she was meant that Tessa could feel that line shattering into jagged and dangerous shards.

So Alice was right, but what sets a flurry of razors dancing along Tessa’s nerves was that it didn’t matter.

“What do you mean we can’t play?” Rip Shot asked. She was sharp but she didn’t have the experience Alice or Tessa did. She was willing to accept the narrative the “game” was trying to hand them.

“I mean, if we engage with this place like a game, we’re going to either die, or wish we had,” Alice said. She cast a glance towards Tessa, maybe to see if Tessa was going to make another light hearted comment.

Tessa nodded silently instead. She could see where Alice’s thoughts were heading.

“It looks like we can’t die though,” Matt said, stepping forward to stand by Rip’s side.

“We can,” Alice said. “We might have a few more chances to escape death, but the GMs said we’ve lost contact with people. Until we hear that they’re back safe and sound in the real world, we have to assume that if you vanish like they did then you’re gone for good.”

“It’s still better than our world though,” Rip Shot said.

“Is it?” Tessa asked. She saw a hole in Alice’s reasoning but she wanted to work it out fully to make sure she wasn’t missing something which would undermine her own thoughts. “Consider this: why are we here?”

“Nobody knows that,” Rip Shot said. “We’re just here.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “Does it seem like a natural effect could have swept us all into a game world though? I’ll admit that it’s pretty far outside anything we have experience with, but if it was a natural phenomena, why is it taking everyone. We’re all in different areas. We’re all connected to different servers. And in the real world, all of this is just ones and zeroes on our hard drives.”

“We’re all running the same game though,” Matt said. “What if there was just something wrong with it. Wouldn’t we all get hit by it?”

“It doesn’t seem like it can be the world’s weirdest bug,” Tessa said. “Converting a person to light and shooting them to another world isn’t a software glitch.”

“Well, maybe it’s magic then,” Rip Shot said.

“Sure. The question is who cast the spell?” Alice asked. “Whoever it was, they didn’t care about asking anyone if they wanted to come here. They just decided to move, what, a few hundred thousand people to a new world. One where violence is the answer to almost every problem, and there’s no consequences for any actions you take? What kind of behavior do you think that’s going to encourage in people?”

“But this game has been going for years,” Rip said, concern and doubt coloring her words.

“Yeah, and it’s had plenty of jerks in it for years too,” Alice said. “They’re only a small part of the problem though. The bigger issue is all the other people. The ones who played this for fun, who are going to be terrified or pissed off now.”

“I think it’s going to take a while to sink in for a lot of people,” Tessa said. “I mean, we were basically kidnapped. Whatever brought us here? It’s a lot bigger and more powerful than we are and if it chooses to mess with us again, there’s basically nothing we can do to stop it.”

“But the voice…when we were being called in,” Rip Shot said. “It was calling for heroes.”

“If it wanted heroes, would it have taken everyone?” Alice asked. 

“The logout buttons say we have a quest pendings,” Tessa said. “Assuming the buttons work as a method of getting home, what kind of quest is someone who can drag a city full of people to another world going to want us to work on?”

“That’s what I meant by dead, or wish we were,” Alice said, nodding in agreement with Tessa. “If we complete this quest, whatever it is, we’ll be following the plans of someone who was willing to drag us away from our homes to fight and die for their cause. We can’t do that.”

“You’re right,” Tessa said, and turned to lock her gaze on Alice. “But you know we have to anyways don’t you?”

All three of the people around Tessa looked at her in confusion.

“Let’s say we decide to rebel,” Tessa said. “We go and sit in the chapel and refuse to engage with this world at all. Where does that leave us?”

“Alive and safe and not a party to whatever our kidnapper has planned,” Alice said.

“Does it?” Tessa asked.

“If they can take us from Earth, why would we be safe in the chapel?” Rip asked.

“There’s that, but more importantly, is sitting on the sidelines and letting something happen any better than trying but failing to stop it?” Tessa asked. “In either case whatever bad plan there is, if there is one, would still happen.”

Alice’s shoulders were tensed like fractured glass. Tessa watched her eyes flick back and fourth as she struggled with the question she’d been posed.

“We don’t know that there is a kidnapper here,” Tessa said. “This might be some magical disaster like a [Dimensional Earthquake] or something. It’s possible there’s no one and no plan behind this, but I don’t think you’re wrong to be considering whose interests we’re serving. It could be something monstrous, but if so, are we better off staying weak and hidden and trying to avoid it, or can we try to reach a better footing to deal with whatever’s in store for us?”

Alice was silent for a moment before dropping her shoulders.

“It’s not going to work,” she said. 

“What? This world? How we deal with it? Trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing here?” Tessa asked. She wasn’t sure why but seeing Alice’s conflict play out left Tessa strangely happy. 

“Yes,” Alice sighed. “All of that. And all of us. Goddamn it, why did I make a new character tonight!”

“I don’t think it has to work,” Tessa said. “Not right away. I know it sucks being low level. I wish I’d logged in on my main too, but I didn’t, and I’m here, and I’ve got to deal with that. And yeah, we don’t know how much here is like the [Fallen Realms] we know. At the very least there’s going to be a ton of new stuff just because of the [High Beyond] being a new zone. It might have a ton of new stuff and be deadly and be more than we can handle, but we’ve got some advantages too.”

“Like what?” Rip asked.

“Alice here is a veteran from the sound of things. If her guild is doing end game raids and she’s normally with them then she’s got the kind of experience with tactics and strategy that can take years to develop,” Tessa said.

Alice laughed but allowed her continue.

“I’m rusty but I’ve leveled up a lot in [Broken Horizons]. I know what a fight looks like when it’s starting to go bad and how to build our skills and spells to be effective in a team and solo,” Tessa said. “If we want to, I think we can make ourselves a lot more powerful. Maybe even catch up to the end game folks in time.”

“No,” Alice said. “Think about what we’d have to do to level up? It’s all fighting. That’s fine if we’re killing pixel people on a screen, but how is it going to feel to cut someone down here? How will we know they’re not real people like us?”

“It’ll feel horrible or it should,” Tessa said. “And I know that won’t stop some of the players. Unlike in the game though, I think we’ll have options that we can work with.”

“Like what?” Rip asked.

“Well, first up, we can simply avoid fighting people. If we’re the ones being proactive then if we see a camp full of bandits or some other typical human-ish enemy type, we just avoid it. Second, if we do run into people who want to fight we can always try talking to them, or fight to disable and then run away. There’s a lot of options that either aren’t available or don’t have a point in the game because we don’t have to care about anything that comes up marked as an enemy.”

“So what would you fight?” Alice asked.

“Monsters,” Tessa said. “I fought some [Radioactive Goo Rats] in the tutorial, which I’m pretty certain weren’t sapient, and unless I miss my guess there should be plenty of basic undead out in the wilderness.”

“That’s not going to be efficient,” Alice said. “No one else is going to want to level like that.”

“Maybe,” Tessa said. “I know it would be faster to grind through a big horde of weak enemies over and over, and they would probably be normal soldier types since they don’t have special abilities. Faster, in this case, isn’t better though. I think you’re right; if we want to hold onto the important parts of who we are we can’t turn into murder-bots who’ll kill anything to get stronger.”

“That sounds good to me,” Rip Shot said, and then cast a glance over to Matt. “I mean us. That sounds good to us.”

“Are you thinking to take them along for this?” Alice asked, nodding at the two kids.

Tessa hesitated, hearing the question Alice wanted her to answer; “Are you going to risk these two before you know what you’re getting into?”

“It depends,” she said, considering her options. If she turned down Rip’s offer, the two fledglings would venture off and hook up with another group in all likelihood. That might be for the better. Another group might be able to protect them and keep them safe more easily than Tessa could. But another group might also be a lot worse too. “It depends on if they’re willing to work with me and do things the right way.”

“What does the right way look like?” Alice asked before Rip could voice a similar question.

“It looks like following the plan we come up with,” Tessa said. “It looks like listening when someone who’s encountered something before tells them what to watch out for and what they need to do. And it looks like being patient enough to let someone – me in case I’m not being clear – scout out a situation before we go into it.”

“We can do that,” Rip says, a half a breath too quickly.

“And what happens when they don’t?” Alice asked.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Tessa said. “If it’s minor, then we talk it out and review what we can do better next time. If it’s not, then we get back somewhere safe asap and I break the party up.”

“And you want me to join this?” Alice asked.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, restraining herself from reaching out to take Alice’s hand.

“Because I’m a healer?” Alice asked.

“No,” Tessa folded her arms to keep them from getting her in trouble. “I mean that’s nice, and it’d be great to have someone else with experience on the team, but I’m hoping you’ll join us because you get it. You get what’s important. Your first thought was to be concerned about what we were doing and what we might become in here, and I think we need that more than anything else in this world.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 5

There were so many ways charging towards her body could have gone wrong that Tessa was almost disappointed when none of them did.

As she passed through the wall of the [Heart Fire] chapel, she braced herself to dodge an attack by the [Hounds of Fate]. In hindsight she would kick herself and wonder what had possessed her to risk a close up encounter with them. Stress, and a rebellious streak she’d never paid enough attention to eclipsed common sense and rational thought there, which was usually a guarantee of disaster, but the cosmic dice came up in her favor and she didn’t wind up paying the price she could have.

The hounds didn’t attack. They were gone.

That should have told her something too, but she was too distracted by racing to Pillowcase’s fallen form to consider the implications of their absence. 

The [Heart Fire Spark] in her hand was a part of that distraction. It throbbed like an excited heartbeat, pulsing with a pressure that brought every nurturing instinct within Tessa screaming to the fore. She was holding a new life in her hands. Her life. It didn’t burn her but she felt the edges of her being growing indistinct. Though she ran through the [Dead Lands], she could feel a current of life flowing around her, through her, and ever farther beyond her.

As she slammed the spark into Pillowcase’s body – no, her body – a circuit completed and the greatest relief she could imagine surged through her.

She followed the spark, flowing back into her body, and for the briefest moment, everything was exactly right.

Then she remembered the [Wraithwing Assault].

Jumping back into Pillowcase’s body had seemed like a brilliant idea compared to facing the challenges of the [High Beyond], and the [Fallen Kingdoms] in general, in her own body. As she opened her eyes on the living version of the town of [Sky’s Edge] though she flinched, expecting to be knocked right back to ghost form by another set of killing blows from the [Wraithwings].

After a few moments passed without her being skewered, Tessa looked around and noticed that the town square of Sky’s Edge was devoid of enemies.

She’d made it.

She was alive again.

And standing, for real, in the Fallen Kingdoms.

[Clothwork] hands were not made to tremble. Pillowcase’s body was a constructed thing with no elements in her design included for fear, or wonder, or overwhelming surprise. That thought percolated up through Tessa’s consciousness as she gazed in wonder at the sky of blazing colors which hung above her. 

The hands which she moved into her gaze trembled, despite the action being alien to them. Too much in her was shaking, with delight, with terror, with disbelief, for her hands, her finely woven, cloth hands not to tremble.

“I’m more than I was,” she said, whispering the words because in the face of everything else, that was the most impossible thing for her to believe. She wasn’t human. And she wasn’t a Clothwork. She was the sum of those parts, however it was they might add up.

She couldn’t process it. The world had changed around her, but the world always changed, sometimes violently, and rarely for the better. She didn’t. Or at least she changed so slowly that the differences were impossible for her to perceive. She was always just herself. Just “Tessa”.

Except now she wasn’t.

She flexed her cloth hands into fists, stiffling the trembling as the heart she wasn’t supposed to have beat more fiercely in her chest.

Where are you? Lost Alice asked, her voice appearing in Tessa’s mind as clear as when they were in the room together.

I’m outside, Tess replied, Tell everyone it’s safe to come out. The event is done.

“WHAT THE HELL!?” BT said, appearing at Tessa’s side. “Why didn’t you reincarnate inside?”

“I thought we needed to test what happened if we rezzed back at a body instead of in the chapel,” Tessa said. 

“Are you stupid!” BT shouted. Tessa heard the emotion in BT’s voice and paused.

“Are you angry?” she asked. Obviously BT was, but Tessa could hear it in the voice emanating from the GM’s [Angelic Armor], and there were some disturbing implications to that.

“Of course I’m angry!” BT said, fear, concern and frustration alloying into the kind of anger that can only exist in someone who still cares. “I just told you we’ve lost contact with people who died. And you said the [Hounds of Fate] were right there! What were you thinking?”

“I can hear the anger in your voice,” Tessa said, slowly, emphasizing the words so that BT would take them seriously.

“Yeah, I can too,” Alice said. She’d regained her game avatar’s body again as well, despite returning to life in the chapel. 

BT was silent for a long moment, the [Angelic Armor] shifting into the unattended state it took on when she wasn’t controlling it.

“She’s not wrong,” Alice said. “That was a pretty crazy thing to do.”

“I know,” Tessa said. “The Hounds were silent though, and I figured we needed to know as much as possible about what living here might entail.”

“And you didn’t want to risk not coming back as Pillowcase?” Alice asked.

“That too,” Tessa said. “Oh, hey, thanks for the healing there before.”

“Didn’t wind up making much difference,” Alice said. 

“Was still nice to have the support though,” Tessa said. “I know a lot of people would have booked it for safety the moment the [Wraithwings] weren’t chasing them.”

Alice shrugged, “I don’t think anywhere’s really safe anymore.”

“So, to confirm, you are hearing chat messages as an audible voice, and it seems to be conveying tone and inflection as well?” BT’s [Angelic Armor] asked in a deep baritone.

“Yeah, who is this?” Tessa asked.

“I’m chatting through the *GM Burnt Toast* account,” the [Angelic Armor] said.

“Clearly, but you’re not BT. You sound like the Old Spice guy,” Tessa said.

“OMG! You can tell who’s typing?” BT asked, sounding like herself again.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Tessa said. “Uh, what the hell is happening?”

“No idea, but this is another data point, and collecting those is the name of the game at the moment,” BT said.

“Who was the other guy?” Alice asked.

“That was my shift manager,” BT said.

“My name is Marcus,” BT’s Angelic Armor said in the baritone voice after a moment. “I wish we had more news for you, but know that we’re doing everything we can here.”

“No offense Marcus,” Alice said, clearly preparing to give offense, “but unless you guys have Gandalf, Merlin, or Hermione Freaking Granger on your payroll, I think we both know there’s not going to be a damn thing you can do about this.”

“My money would be on Hermione,” Tessa said, and saw Alice’s scowl deepen. 

Right, Tessa decided, not the time for levity.

“Our options are limited at the moment,” Marcus said. “We’re still in the best position to coordinate what’s going on though, and pass you the information you need.”

“I haven’t seen any system announcements go out yet,” Alice said, the anger in her voice restrained like a sword only loosely tucked into a scabbard. “When are you going to tell people to be careful about dying. Or stop them from logging in.”

“We’ve already cut off the login servers. Those have been down for a while now,” Marcus said. “We’re still working on the next announcement because we have to get it right or no one who’s unaffected will believe us.”

“Is that really going to be a problem?” Tessa said. “Check the forums, and whatever Discord servers you have access to. This information is getting out there. It has to be.”

“We took the forums down too,” Marcus said. “We can’t be sure what connections to the game are enough to draw someone in, and we didn’t want to take chances.”

“Direct people somewhere else then,” Alice said. “Do you get what’s going on here? How many kids have disappeared from their parent’s home? How many spouses are missing? Do you think there’s no single mothers who play this game? You have got to get word out now so people can start fixing all the things that are going to go wrong.”

Tessa felt the world crashing down. Her giddy joy at being transported to the place that had felt more like a home than any spot on Earth had ever managed, crumbled under the weight of Alice’s words and the terrible implications they carried.

“Has anyone made it back yet?” Tessa asked. “You said the logout button is disabled, and that some people who died aren’t showing up. Have you tried reaching out to them in the real world? Maybe you can’t reach them because they made it completely out of the game.”

“We don’t store contact info for our players,” Marcus said.

“No but you do have their friends lists. And what guilds they’re in,” Alice said. “Some of us know each other out of game. Or at the very least people might have other methods of contacting them.”

There was a pause, which Tessa read as Marcus talking to someone else before  

“Ok, we’ll try that,” he said. “I’ve got to go deal with some other folks now. Please hang on and stay calm for now though. We’ll get you all the information we can as fast as we can.”

No they won’t, Alice whispered. They’re going to want to understand everything before they start sharing anything meaningful. It’s what they’re doing now with delaying the system-wide announcement.

“I’ve got to go too,” BT said. “You’ve got a channel open to me though and I’ve flagged you so your chats will come through – normally we disable that – so give me a shout if anything else comes up.”

“Will do,” Tessa said. “Oh hey, before you go, are any of our other old friends logged in?”

“No,” BT said, the syllable colored in accents of sorrow. “You’re the first person I’ve seen pop up on my friend list in a long time.”

Tessa felt the loneliness wrapped around the words, but pushed through it to the silver lining.

“I’m glad they’re safe,” she said.

“Yeah,” BT said. “Stay safe too ok?”

“You know me,” Tessa said.

“I do. Seriously, stay safe!” BT said and, after seeing Tessa’s half shrug of agreement, dissolved into a teleportation animation.

“So, what should we do now?” Rip Shot asked. Matt Painting was in tow behind her, towering over her in the [Metal Mechanoid] body of his character. Rip Shot had chosen a smaller avatar in picking a [Tabbywile], one of the new [Beastkin] sub-selections. Looking at them it would have been easy to guess that Matt was the protector of the pair and Rip the fragile one, but from their classes, [Dream Spinner] for Matt and [Archer] for Rip, Tessa knew that the roles were almost the reverse.

Tessa wasn’t sure how long they’d been listening in but it looked like they had as much of a handle on what was going on as anyone else did.

Not that anyone seemed to have a solid understanding of what lay before them, or that there was a particularly limited set of options to choose from, but at least one stood out as more immediately important in Tessa’s mind.

“We should see who else is around here still,” she said. “We can start passing around the information we’ve got. I mean, we probably can’t reach too many people on our own, but it’s better than letting them continue on blindly right?”

“Yeah,” Alice said. “There were some people in the chapel. Your GM friend started to talk to them but when she figured out you weren’t coming over she took off to find you.”

“Sorry about that,” Tessa said. “If they survived the [Wraithwing] event, do you think they’ll believe us?”

“If they don’t we’ll have to convince them,” Alice said.

“It should be easy if we can hear their voices right?” Rip said.

“Maybe,” Alice said. “The tough part is going to be convincing them that they can’t go off and level up.”

“Because it’s too dangerous?” Matt asked.

“No,” Alice said. “We don’t know why we’ve been brought here, but whatever the reason, whatever the person responsible for this had in mind, all that we can know for sure is that we can’t play this game at all.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 4

If Tessa wanted to point to the precise moment when she lost control of her life, well the correct answer would have been “conception”. Seeing the error message which hung in the air after she pushed the Logout button though was certainly a moment where she was fully aware of that fact.

“It’s complaining that I haven’t finished the tutorial yet?” she asked, feeling a path around those words as she tried to work out what ‘You have a quest still pending’ could possibly mean. As she asked the question though she knew the answer to it was ‘No’. Everyone was being affected by this and the people who were playing their existing characters wouldn’t have been required to do the tutorial.

“I’m getting the same message I think,” Lost Alice said, since she couldn’t see the one being displayed to Tessa. “But we had different tutorial quests. And mine’s done. I think?”

“Ours too,” Rip Shot said. Tessa saw both of the kids had tried their logout buttons too, though only after she’d proved that the buttons weren’t going to send them home.

“It’s not the tutorial,” BT said. “We don’t know which quest it is. Not yet.”

“My quest log is empty,” Alice said. “I didn’t pick any up because I was going to get power leveled but our resident farmer wasn’t able to log in tonight.”

“It could be an invisible quest,” BT said. The [Angelic Armor] she wore made it impossible to see her expressions but her tone held a clear apology.

“What’s an invisible quest?” Rip Shot asked.

“A bugged one,” Alice said, scowling. Unlike BT, her expression was all too easy to notice.

“No,” BT said, waving her hands in an animation that Tessa wasn’t sure was actually part of the game. “ I mean, it could be bugged, but one of the things they were trying with this expansion was adding in quests the players could be on that they weren’t notified of. So no entry in the quest log, no reward screen when you complete a milestone.”

“What was the point supposed to be?” Tessa asked. 

“It was an experiment. The developers wanted to see if they could make parts of the world feel more responsive by having them change based on things you weren’t entirely aware you were doing.”

“That sounds like terrible game design,” Alice said. “What’s the point of putting in something no one is going to notice?”

“The idea was that you would notice the effects, just not have a clear line to what caused them beyond a general sense from the narrative if you were paying attention.” BT said.

“So the devs were desperate for people to pay attention to all the lore they wrote up and this was their idea to force us to read all of it?” Tessa asked. “It still seems a bit weak. People always figure out systems like that and once its posted up on a wiki somewhere everyone else will just follow guides to get what they want.”

“Well, the idea was to have the quests and the rewards change over time, and be specific to each character, so that there’d always be some surprises. It was just a test though.”

“Can they tell us what the quests are now so we don’t mess them up?” Rip Shot asked.

“Does it matter?” Alice asked. “I don’t think a buggy line of code is responsible for yanking us into a video game.”

“It seems like it’s gotta be more than that doesn’t it?” Tessa agreed. “I think the devs need to spill on any and all ‘surprises’ they had in mind though anyways. If the Wraithwing attack wasn’t supposed to happen, we need to know if anything else we run into isn’t supposed to be part of the game either. Otherwise we might as well just stay here.”

“Oh, wait!” Alice said. “All the players that got dragged off by the Wraithwings! Somebody should reach out to them. If they’re going trying to get through the special dungeon the Wraithwings dragged them to, there’s a great chance they’ll die there instead of someplace safe like we did.”

Tessa almost laughed at the idea of their being safe. Safe was home, in bed, with the doors locked. Being a ghost in the [Dead Lands] version of a [Heart Fire] chapel was a momentary pause in the mayhem at best.

“At least if they die, they can ghost walk back to somewhere better,” she said.

“Can they?” Alice asked. “The [Hounds of Fate] don’t seem to be acting normal either.”

That thought was a chilling one. Tessa had felt protected by the walls of the chapel but it was true that they could still hear the chuffing and pacing of the spectral hounds just outside.

“What’s happening with the [Hounds of Fate]?” BT asked. “There weren’t supposed to be any changes to them with this release.”

“They seem more aggressive,” Tessa said. “Can you hear them out there?”

“I’m still sitting at my computer,” BT said. “All I can head is the [Dead Lands] part of the soundtrack playing.”

“You can’t hear us talking?” Rip Shot asked, throwing a puzzled glance over to Tessa.

“I see you typing in chat,” BT said. “Just like when we were whispering. Explain what ‘more aggressive’ means though?”

“They’re waiting just outside the chapel. Circling in fact. Like they know we’re in here and they’re just waiting for us to step out of line,” Tessa said.

“Isn’t there something in the lore about their being able to smell lost souls or something like that?” Alice asked. 

“Yeah, that’s the justification for why they pounce on us when we try to move too far away, or do too much ghost scouting,” Tessa said. 

From the [Dead Lands], players couldn’t see the people or creatures in the living world except in brief flashes. For an experienced team though, even those tiny bits of information could be a gold mine. Not to mention the invaluable opportunities being dead offered for working out the geometry of new areas. More than once Tessa had paced out an upcoming arena as a ghost in order to see where she would be able to stand to keep herself as far from the Tank and the environmental hazards as possible while still close enough to react to anyone on the team taking damage or needing negative conditions removed.

“Let me double check on the reincarnating thing,” BT said. “I don’t like the idea of something weird happening to you while you’re ghosts.”

The [Angelic Armor] dimmed and slumped in place. BT had set it to “Away from Keyboard” status but it continued a breathing animation which looked more than a little creepy under the circumstances.

“Well that’s great,” Alice said. “We’re stuck in a game, everything is buggy, and we’re going to be eaten by ghosts.”

“So, does this make it into the Top 3 worst launch day events, or only Top 10 do you think?” Tessa asked. 

Alice didn’t seem to be in the mood for levity and Rip and Matt didn’t seem to get that she was joking. 

“I should check in with my guild,” Alice said and moved away, leaving Tessa feeling deflated.

“Do you two have anyone you can contact?” Tessa asked, turning to Rip and Matt.

“I don’t think so,” Matt said.

“We don’t know anyone else who plays this game,” Rip said.

“The new expansion got you to give it a chance?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah,” Rip said. “We wanted to play it for a while but we had to wait till….umm…Matt could get a computer that could handle it.”

Tessa heard the pause and knew it for the mental substitution process it was. After a while it became second nature to refer to people in game by their character’s names but early on there was often a bit of work to remember that no one would know who “Charlie” or “Alex” was, not when the person standing in front of them was named “Axe Thundershaker” or “Zap Blaster”.

Tessa was tempted to give the kids her real name, but thought the better of it. Granted their current situation wasn’t a typical case of “meeting a stranger on the internet” but encouraging kids to give out their personal info online was never something Tessa wanted any part of.

“You can add me as friend if you like,” she said instead. “I don’t know where we’ll wind up going from here, but if we’re separated and you run into any trouble feel free to message me. It seems like the normal chat functions are still working.”

Thank you! Rip Shot said. Tessa heard the sound reverberate in her head without ever touching her ears.

Wow! Telepathic whispers are really telepathic now? It wasn’t hard to respond to Rip’s message. All she had to do was picture speaking to the young girl and think about projecting her internal voice. 

Yeah, Matt and I were trying it out. Rip said. It seems pretty simple.

Definitely a lot easier than typing. Tessa couldn’t suppress a laugh before adding, “Hey, looks like we don’t need to use the virtual keyboard.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked as she typed away on the empty air in front of her.

We’re not just ghosts, we’re telepathic ghosts I guess, Tessa whispered to Alice. She waited a moment, watching as Alice immediately stopped typing and blinked in puzzlement.

Oh. Ok. We’re actually magical now, aren’t we? Alice’s mental voice carried pitch and tone the same as her voice, and thus far more information than a simple text message could have.

She was worried. No. She was terrified and holding it together only through a facade of willpower. With each new bit of pressure though, more cracks were starting to form. 

Tessa searched around for the right words to say. The special, inspiring phrase that would make everyone rise to the challenge and overcome the shock and fear of being taken against their will to somewhere which offered no peace and little safety.

She didn’t find them.

I think so, she said instead.

Are we human at all anymore? Alice asked.

Yeah. I think we’re that too, Tessa said. I don’t know what happened to us, but I don’t feel like a badass adventurer. I just feel like myself. Pillowcase was created on an automation line.  She’s fearless in battle and built for war. Me, Tessa, I’m built for couch surfing and staring at a computer screen.”

Sharing her name with Alice didn’t have the same issues as with two teenagers, but Tessa wasn’t thinking in those terms. Alice stood with the stillness of someone on the edge of a precipice which had no bottom. For as amazing as it was to actually be in Broken Horizons, Tessa felt the same terror gnawing at her heart. They weren’t safe, and for all that they knew Broken Horizons, there was a real chance that they didn’t know this place, and weren’t in any way equipped to handle its challenges. Sharing something real about herself was felt like she was throwing out a lifeline, though whether it was for Alice or for herself she couldn’t say.

Same, Lost Alice said, releasing a breath which seemed to thaw some of the ice that had frozen her spine.

“It sounds like reincarnating might be a good idea,” BT said, her words tumbling out as the [Angelic Armor] hummed back to life.

“Here or back at our bodies?” Tessa asked. As level 1 characters the usual penalties associated with dying weren’t a factor but Tessa was absolutely certain that if she had to confront a world like Broken Horizons, she wanted to do so while wearing a body which could heal back from the brink of death in minutes and didn’t have pesky things like “internal organs” which might object to occasionally being perforated.

“If the [Hounds of Fate] are nearby, you’d be better off reincarnating here,” BT said.

“Why?” Alice asked, her eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. “Shouldn’t the hounds just bring us back here even if they do catch us?”

“Yes. They should. But we can’t reach some of the people who the combat logs marked as having died since this problem started,” BT said.

“Can’t reach? Like they’re not answering whispers?” Tessa asked.

“No. Like the whispers are coming back with ‘character name not found’ errors,” BT said.

“Like they’d been deleted?” Alice asked.

“That’s one path in the code which invokes that message,” BT said.

“So we’re trapped here, and we can die for real?” Rip Shot asked.

“We don’t know that,” BT said. “We just know we can’t contact some of the people who’ve died in game. We’re still working out whether there’s any commonality between how they died or whether they left the area around the [Heart Fire] shrine.”

“It sounds like if we respawn here, we’d at least have two chances then,” Matt said. “One with our living bodies and one with our ghosts.”

He was calm and reasonable despite his words sounding like the ravings of a madman. It was hard to discount them as ravings though when they were already standing around a [Heart Fire] as a quartet of ghosts.

“Yeah, that sounds reasonable,” Alice said.

“Good, then let me try it,” Rip Shot said and, without waiting, plunged her hand in the flames of the [Heart Fire]. Her ghostly body ignited in the normal blazing animation which played during a reincarnation but with this one, Tessa could feel the heat of the flames.

“Me next,” Matt said, not waiting a moment once he saw Rip consumed by the fire.

“Someone needs to watch over those newbies,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Tessa couldn’t disagree but she was still far from sure that it was a job she should volunteer for.

Alice moved to touch the flames as well but paused with her hand outstretched.

“Hey, the hounds stopped moving didn’t they?” she asked.

Tessa turned an ear to listen and found the howling and pacing had disappeared.

“Is that a good sign?” Tessa asked.

“Better than them breaking down the door,” Alice said and reached for the flames.

Tessa made her decision then.

It was potentially a stupid decision, but with three of them chosing to reincarnate via the [Heart Fire], she wanted to see what the other choice would produce. If her game knowledge was going to mean anything, it should be the same outcome in either case, with the only difference being where they stood when they came back to life.

Tessa hoped that would be true as she snatched a handful of [Heart Fire] and dashed through the chapel’s door. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 3

Tessa had meant to pass through Broken Horizons as a ghost, slipping quietly in, where no one could see her, and having some fun. To say that plan had gone somewhat awry would be similar to suggesting that the Titanic had “experienced some problems with ice cubes”. 

> Pillowcase whispered: “BT? Are you on the support team now? What the hell is going on here?”

Tessa had intended to set herself to “Hidden” when she logged into Broken Horizons, in case any of the people she’d added to her Friend List were playing. She’d forgotten to do that in the rush of starting a new character up, and she was both deeply grateful and kicking herself for the mistake.

Burnt Toast was one of the people she’d been intent on avoiding. It hadn’t been BT’s departure from Tessa’s guild that had spelled its end – Burnt Toast wasn’t the very first to go and, looking back, the writing was on the wall by the point where she left – but her leaving had opened the gate for a lot of other people to find another guild or just stop playing entirely. 

Six years later, a large part of Tessa was still angry at BT for violating the unspoken covenant that the guild would always have each other’s backs. She knew she should have been able to move past the feeling of betrayal but how else could she read someone abandoning friends they’d spoke with nearly every night for half a decade?

Drowning out the residual anger though was a wave of relief to be connecting with someone she knew again. Someone who had some real clout within the game (or at least as much official clout as a company would entrust to a junior support technician).

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Oh I am so sorry Tess! I tried sending everyone an email as soon as we knew what was going on, but you must have already been in the game by then?”

> Pillowcase whispered: “Probably. I didn’t check my email once I logged in. What the hell is going on though? I’m literally IN THE DAMN GAME now!”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “I know! It’s impossible, but we saw it happen here! One of the other GMs went freaking *poof* right in the middle of our cubicle farm!”

> Pillowcase whispered: “What are we supposed to do? We’re dead here now and trying to decide if we should even rez.”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “We’re working on that. I mean as much as we can. At this point we’re collecting info and trying to make some sense out of it.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “What do you know so far?”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Not a lot. It seems like anyone who logs in is World Shifted (for lack of a better term) if they try to log out, or, we’re hearing now, if they die in game.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “What about shutting down the servers so we just disconnect and don’t have to log out?”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “We had a glitch earlier that we had to reboot one of the map servers for. Everyone on it got World Shifted as far as we can tell. Oh, and trying to invoke GM privileges? Yeah, that’s an instant World Shift too. That’s how we lost Ashad.”

Tessa paused as a fresh sense of being in another world crashed over her.

> Pillowcase whispered: “Wow, this is really happening.”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered. “I’m so sorry. If I had any idea, I swear I would have warned you. And everyone else.”

“Who are you chatting with?” Lost Alice asked, noticing Tessa’s frantic typing.

“A GM,” Tessa said. “One of my friends from when I used to play.”

“Do they know what happened?” Rip Shot asked.

“Some of the “what” but I don’t think they know any of the “why” or “how” yet,” Tessa said.

“Can she message other players? My guild would listen to a GM,” Lost Alice said.

“Yeah, good idea, what’s their name?” Tessa asked.

“I know ‘Cease All’ is on the raid, and the leader is probably ‘Kozmos’, either of them should be able to get the raid to stop,” Lost Alice said. “They’re in [Lunar Reaches] if that helps?”

Tessa relayed all of the information to BT.

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Give me a min. I can’t pull them out of the raid directly, but I can tell them what’s going on.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “Thanks. Message me back when you’re done.”

Tessa imagined that BT had a lot more people to take care of than just her. The help lines had to flooded with incoming requests at this point. That didn’t change the fact that Tessa still hadn’t gotten any answers on what they were supposed to do. Assuming there were any to be had.

“She’s going to try to get them to pull out,” Tessa said. “If they haven’t gotten to the first boss yet, they should be fine too. The early mobs are pretty simple from what I’ve read.”

“How far in is the first boss?” Lost Alice asked, doing the calculations on how long it had been since she spoke with Cease All.

“Assuming I’m remembering correctly? I think for [Lunar Reaches] you have to fight through the [Lunar Plains] and then up the [Moonfall Ziggurat] to get to the first boss. The beta-testers said the whole dungeon is about an hour, so I’m guessing it’s at least ten minutes to get to the first boss.”

Alice laughed, but it was a sound balanced between relief and fear.

“Knowing my guild it’ll be twenty,” she said. “There’s a decent chance they’re still gathering to go in, in fact..”

“Someone forgot to fix their armor, someone didn’t bring potions, somebody else is on the wrong character?” Tessa asked.

Alice laughed again, more humor creeping into her voice.

“It’s like you’ve run with before.” She stopped and turned a quizzical eye on Tessa. “Wait, have you?”

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “It’s been years since I played and back then I mostly only did raids with my guild. I had a couple of just wonderful experiences with PuGs, especially once they found out I was a girl on voice chat, that made me swear to only play with people I knew from then on.”

“You know a lot about the new raids for someone who’s pretty far away from taking part in them then?” Alice asked.

“That’s always been my thing,” Tessa said. “I love reading about the tactics and loot and everything.”

“Umm, we have a question,” Matt said. “Can the dead talk to the living here?”

“Like if we reincarnate, can we still talk to you if you’re ghosts?” Rip Shot added.

“In the normal game? Yeah, it should be fine, but we don’t know if it’s safe to reincarnate yet or not,” Tessa said.

“Yeah, it might get us trapped here permanently,” Alice said.

“That’s okay,” Rip Shot said, and glanced over to Matt, looking for confirmation.

“Yeah,” he said and looked down. 

Tessa wasn’t an expert at child psychology or body language but it wasn’t hard to read either of the kids. She’d known people who played the game to escape from their life. She’d been that kid at times, and she didn’t like the echoes of her own past that she was seeing in their eyes.

“We don’t need to guess about what happens when we reincarnate,” Tessa said. “I can ask BT when she comes back. I’m sure there’ve been other players who’ve already been through this.”

“Better to learn from their mistakes,” Alice said.

“It’s just, it sounds like the Howling is getting closer,” Matt said.

Tessa only had to listen for a moment. From the scrapping of their nails and the moaning howls, the [Hounds of Fate] were circling around right outside the chapels walls. 

The walls which were insubstantial as far as ghosts were concerned.

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Ok, they’re not going in. We’re shutting down all of the raid maps too so that no one will be able to go into them. We think.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “You think? What’s going to happen in someone tries to go in anyways?”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Don’t know. Don’t want to find out. We’re going to be making some more system announcements in a few minutes.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “You’re going to tell people what’s really happening?”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Maybe? I think they’re still working out what to say. Word’s starting to get anyways though. You should see what the zone-wide chat looks like in [Kaptos].”

[Kaptos] was one of the starting areas for low level players from the original version of the game. The general chat there was legendary for being a cesspool of immaturity and a showcase for the worst behavior gamers indulged in. It was why Tessa had reflexively turned off zone-wide chat as one of the first things she did when she logged in with Pillowcase. The thought of being stuck in a world with a surplus of players like that made her reconsider every dream she’d ever had about winding up in a situation like the one she was in.

She pushed away those thoughts though. She wasn’t trapped with a bunch of immature idiots. Somehow she’d lucked into being stuck with some reasonable folks, or at least one’s who could fake it in a crisis which was better than most of the people she’d met, in game or out.

“You’re guild is safe,” she said to Alice, turning to watch relief sweep across the other woman’s face. It was a lovely expression to see after the worry that had dominated Alice’s eyes before.

“They hadn’t even gotten inside yet had they?” Alice asked, shaking her head at the concern which had gripped her..

“It didn’t sound like they had,” Tessa said. 

A half a moment later, she saw Alice look up in surprise and begin typing on the air, replying, in all likelihood to a message from one of her guildmates who finally believed her. With that crisis in hand, Tessa turned her attention back to BT.

> Pillowcase whispered: “So, like I mentioned, we’re dead now, just hanging out in the chapel in spirit form. Is it safe to reincarnate? And if so, should we do it here in the chapel or go back to our character’s bodies?”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “I don’t know if it matters. I can check though. Who else is there with you? Anyone from the old days? I only saw you on my Friends List.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “No, just some new people I ran into during a bugged event. What the hell is up with throwing Wraithwings at a bunch of Level 1s by the way? Those things were one-shotting me every time they got close enough to hit me.”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Wraithwings? What are you talking about we don’t have any low level Wraithwing events in the game. That’d be ridiculous. They’d slaughter everyone.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “It was, and they did. Or some people got away I guess, but the minute I screwed up kiting them, everyone in the town square died.”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Ok. That’s not good. How many were there?”

> Pillowcase whispered: “Uh, like, all of them I think. Seriously my computer started to lag when they were still outside the draw distance. We just saw them coming in like a big cloud.”

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispered: “Let me go tell everyone about this. I think it’s really important. If you’re seeing stuff that we didn’t put in the game then I don’t know what you might wind up against in there.”

> Pillowcase whispered: “Thanks. That’s super comforting BT. Tell your devs they need to do a little bit more bug fixing before they release the next patch ok!”

“What did she say?” Rip Shot asked, her hand hovering near the [Heart Fire].

“She’s looking into it,” Tessa said. “I guess the Wraithwing attack wasn’t supposed to happen either, so things are kind of messed up.”

“Really? You think?” Rip Shot said, gesturing to her ghostly body.

“I still don’t get why we look like this?” Matt said. “How does the game know to make us look like ourselves and not our characters?”

“We’re not in the game,” Rip Shot said.

“That’s true, but something like this can happen in Broken Horizons,” Tessa said. “There was a faction back when I played called the [Plague Callers]. If you did a lot of quests for them you’d gain [Corruption] and it would change how your ghost looked because, according to the lore, your ghosts reflects ‘the true view of your soul’, and you were tainting it by helping out a straight up evil organization.”

“That makes sense,” Matt said. “What about us logging out though? Is that something that can happen?”

“Our best guess is not yet,” *GM Burnt Toast* said as she appeared inside the chapel. “Sorry, I’m supposed to get reports from all of you to make sure you all saw the same things, so teleporting in to talk to you all directly seemed like the easiest option.”

“I thought you didn’t have your GM powers?” Tessa asked. As a Game Master, BT didn’t look anything like her characters from the game. GM’s had a distinctive set of [Angelic Armor] and a radiance aura which wasn’t available to any players.

“I don’t,” BT said. “GM permissions are what let us reset things in the game or affect characters directly. Teleporting around is a built in ability for GMs to let us keep an eye on things without drawing a lot of attention.”

“What did you mean by ‘not yet’ on the log out?” Rip Shot asked.

“Try it and see,” BT said.

Tessa called up the control screen again with a wave of her hand and hesitated.

“Has it been the same for everyone or is this an experiment too?” she asked.

“So far, the same for everyone,” BT said.

Tessa swallowed and tapped the Logout button.

LOGOUT DISABLED

YOU HAVE A QUEST STILL PENDING

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 2

Tessa had frequently claimed that she was “dying to play her game”. Staring at the logout button which hovered in the air in front of her she wondered for the first time if not playing it might possibly kill her.

“This is interesting,” Lost Alice said, apprehension drawing thin, sharp lines around each of her words.

“Well, it looks like we’re not trapped here,” Rip Shot said. To Tessa it looked like she was holding her hand over empty air, but given their position Tessa knew Rip’s fingers were hovering near the virtual logout button being projected in front of her.

“We should hold off on clicking that for now,” Tessa said, her desires darting out from her in every direction, each balancing another so that she was held motionless in between them all.

“Probably better if we’re not ghosts when we go back, right?” Matt Painting said. He wasn’t reaching for a virtual control screen.

“Maybe?” Alice said. “We don’t really know what’s going on or how things work here.”

Tessa’s thoughts had been running in the same direction.

“She’s right,” Tessa said. “We might be in some strange state of grace at the moment. If we incarnate here, that might get us stuck permanently.” It didn’t seem likely, but since the entire scenario should have been impossible Tessa wasn’t willing to rule out anything that was at least somewhat internally consistent.

“Or the button might not work,” Alice said.

“Or the trip back might not bring us back to our bodies,” Tessa said. “I don’t know about you, but I saw myself turn to light. That had to be some kind of magic, so maybe it’s possible to reverse the process, but maybe not either.”

“One of us should try then,” Rip said and reached towards her screen.

“Wait!” Alice said, reaching for Rip’s arms and passing through her. 

Rip flinched back and looked as surprised as Alice at the lack of physical contact.

“Guess we’re as ghostly as we look,” Tessa said, while a worse idea began to take shape in her mind.

“Yeah, that’s kind of weird, isn’t it?” Matt asked. “I mean, shouldn’t we look like our characters?”

“I don’t know,” Rip said. “I mean we’re the one’s who got called here. ‘Come Hero’ and ‘RISE’ and all that cheesy stuff.”

“You heard that too?” Alice asked.

“I guess we all did,” Tessa said. “I thought it was just game dialog at first.”

“Same here,” Alice said. “And hey, maybe it was. I mean Broken Horizon’s has been many things over the years but blessed with perfect writing is not one of them.”

“I thought everyone loved the story in this game?” Rip asked.

“Eh, a lot of people do,” Alice said. “Writing better than average in an MMO isn’t exactly a high bar to clear though.”

“It doesn’t help when you can’t count on people reading the quests or listening to the dialog,” Tessa said. “Even back when I was playing, I think the writers were mostly focusing on telling the story through dungeon encounters and boss battles.”

“That’s what we’ve been getting,” Alice said. “World Shift was supposed to change things though. Take the game in a whole new direction they said, but somehow I don’t think this is what they had in mind.” She gestured to her ghostly form.

“If they had, you think there’d have been something in the tutorial about it,” Tessa said, trying to keep her voice light and joking. Part of it was that she didn’t want to rattle Rip or Matt, and part of it was trying to keep herself from falling to pieces.

She could accept that she’d been drawn to another world. She could accept that it looked to either be the Fallen Kingdoms, or be modeled on them. Accepting something as true was not at all the same thing as having the capacity to deal with it though.

“Matt’s got a good point,” Alice said. “If we look like ourselves now, is this what we’ll look like when we reincarnate? It’s kind of a different thing wandering around this world as a level 1 [Grave Mender] compared to a level 0 nobody.”

“We could pick up a spark and take it back to our character’s bodies,” Tessa said. “That’s supposed to reanimate the body just as you left it.”

“That seems like it could cause as many problems as it solves,” Matt said. “I mean if anything’s going to get us stuck here, wouldn’t crawling into a body that’s not our own be the mostly likely thing to do it?”

“If we’re not already stuck here,” Rip said. “I mean it’s not like people haven’t thought about this kind of thing before right? Is there ever an easy way of getting back home?”

She hadn’t taken her hand away from the screen as far as Tessa could see but she wasn’t moving any closer either. 

“Any of that could be true,” Alice said. “Fortunately, we have other options that just guessing. See if you can bring up the bug report screen. Maybe we can get in touch with a GM or something?”

“It’s worth a shot,” Tessa said. “It sounds like you’re going to try something else though?”

“Yeah, I’m going to see if chat still works. If it does, I’ll check with my guild and see if anyone there has heard of this happened to anyone else yet.”

Tessa thought back to the system message which had come up telling the players not to log off. Had the developers known, or even suspected, something like this was going on? Was her original guess about files being wiped by a logout correct, only instead of files it was all of the data that made up the person trying to come back? There were so many possibilities for how things could go horribly wrong that Tessa had to stuff those ideas away before they overwhelmed her.  

“I’m willing to bet we’re not the first,” she said, as she brought up the bug report screen and began filling in the required properties.

Typing on the holographic keyboard that appeared with the screen was strange. Without any resistance or physical feedback, Tessa found her fingers drifting out of position quickly. What was worse though was trying to find the right categories for her report.

Had the game crashed on her? Not exactly. She’d more crashed into it. Was she experiencing a problem with the game’s graphics? Nope. The world was higher resolution and with less video lag than ever. Did she have a billing complaint? Yes, at least insofar as she had no idea how she was going to pay for next month’s bill if she trapped inside the game without internet access.

In the end she settled on “Connection issue” as the bug reports category. It would probably be the first time someone complained about being too connected to the game and Tessa had no real hope that a random support flunky was going to have a Knowledge Base Article available on “How to Recall People Who’ve Been Yoinked to Another World”. If the message could even make it back to Earth though it would suggest that there was still some connection between the two worlds.

“If we can’t go back…” Rip began, and broke off for a moment before continuing. “We’ll still stick together right?”

She wasn’t looking at either Tessa or Alice, just Matt, who didn’t waste any time in answering.

“Yeah, I’m not leaving you,” he said. It was sweet but Tessa wasn’t sure if the question had been intended for her as well, and if so what her answer would be.

The two kids weren’t falling apart, which was a good sign, but they were newbies. There would be so much to teach them, and so much that she still needed to learn too.

The Broken Horizons of “World Shift” wasn’t the same place as the one she’d last played in, and it was possible that anything or everything she knew about the Fallen Kingdoms didn’t apply to the version of the world they’d landed in even if it was still true in the game.

The real problem wasn’t with the kids though. It was internal to her. She couldn’t quiet the rising voices of doubt which threatened to burst free on their own.

If she stayed with them would she really be able to help them that much? Would she even want to after a while? She’d seen too many groups start off with the best of intentions and then fall apart when the member’s interests didn’t line up. It wasn’t anyone’s fault necessarily even. Sure there were jerks out there, and it was always good to bail on a toxic situation before you wound up drowning in bile but sometimes people just wanted different things, or were comfortable with taking different risks. 

Tessa was saved from further contemplations along those lines by Alice speaking up.

“Hey! Chat works!” she said. 

“You were able to get ahold of someone in your guild?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah…” Alice said, distracted as she typed a response out, her frown growing more pronounced with each letter. “She thinks I’m joking.”

“That’s fine,” Tessa said. “Just tell her not to die, or log off.”

There was a pause as Alice flicked her fingers through a keyboard only she could see.

“So what happens if we talk like this around someone who’s just playing the game?” Matt asked.

“Forget that! We can talk to people in the real world!” Rip said. “This is amazing! We can get messages back home.”

“Yeah, but what are the people back home going to find when they look for us?” Matt asked.

“I don’t know but it means if someone there figures out an answer to this, they can let us know what to do,” Rip said.

Tessa saw worry and hope chasing each other through both of the kids. For herself though, she felt a weirdly liberating dread. She was free of any worries about what people might find when they checked her apartment, and that was terrible. 

No one would be checking on her, except maybe her boss after she missed a day or two of work unannounced. She didn’t have anyone who would be sobbing and terrified over what might be happening to her like the kids had with their parents and families. So being trapped in the Fallen Kingdoms was great. And kind of pathetic. 

Her heart twisted up at the idea that maybe the breakup with Crystal had come at just the right time. Maybe it really was for the best that she’d lost the last person who really cared about her just before she was whisked off to another world. Tessa could see the argument in favor of it, but the breakup was still too recent to feel good in any sense. 

“Those idiots,” Alice whispered and began smashing the virtual keys in front of her.

“What’s happening? What are they doing?” Tessa asked.

“Enough people got stuck online tonight that they’re going to try for one of the new raids,” Alice said.

“Will that be too hard for them?” Matt asked.

“Definitely,” Alice said. “Especially without me there.”

“Could you really help much?” Rip asked, looking at Alice’s ghostly form.

“No,” Alice said, shaking her head. “We’re not a top tier group. If we were, we would have run all the raids while they were on the beta server. Instead, this will be the first time a lot of them even step inside the new dungeons. They won’t even try for a completion. It’s just about learning the mechanics for a few of the early fights. And that’s always a recipe for people dying.”

“Did they say which of the Raids they were going to do?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, they’re going to try [Lunar Reaches]. They want to see what the moon looks like. Cease All thinks I’m just mad because they formed up without me.”

“How could you go on a Raid with them if you’re level 1 like us?” Matt asked.

“I’d have to switch over to my main,” Alice said. “Who I’m really wishing I had logged into tonight instead of starting up a new character.”

“I wonder if existing characters are even part of whatever’s going on?” Tessa asked. “Maybe they’ll all be safe and it’s only people who created a new character who can get drawn in?”

“It didn’t sound like Cease knew anyone else who had, so that might be true,” Alice said. “Of course if all of them have been wrapped up in preparing for a [Lunar Reaches] run they probably weren’t paying attention to the rest of the world.”

“So we still need to find someone to talk to then,” Tessa said.

> *GM Burnt Toast* whispers: “Glimmerglass? Is that you? Oh my god, tell me you’re not stuck in this too.”

Tessa froze. She’d known a player who’d gone by the handle of “Burnt Toast”. Burnt Toast been a fellow programmer and she’d always talked about wanting to go into game development.  

She’d also been one of the first to leave when the guild Tessa had loved so much had crumbled to dust.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 1

Tessa didn’t black out. There was no gap in her consciousness. All the of the impossibility of what was happening to her crashed over her awareness as her world fractured and dissolved around her.

The moment of transition from one world to the next differed for each person, based mostly on their capacity to absorb and process it. Many did pass out, only to awaken with the lingering suspicion that they were in a dream, or a coma, or dead and stuck in some strange afterlife. Tessa didn’t have that luxury though. She watched her body dissolve into light but her stream of thoughts continued, apparently in spite of the lack of a body to house them in.

“I’m dying!” she said, as the sparks that made her up streaked across a sky filled with other streaking lights.

“Or I’m dead?” It sounded ridiculous to say, and instinctively she knew it wasn’t true. She wasn’t “going into the light”, she was the light, however that had happened.

She thought of moving her hand and the glowing outline of her arm moved just as she’d imagined. It was effortless, as was twisting around and curling up into a ball. All she couldn’t do was change direction.

In the vast starry sky there was a star, a drop of glittering crystal brilliance which called to her.

Or maybe she was calling to it?

There were currents moving within her Tessa couldn’t name, impulses she was only barely aware of but which sprang from a well of intuition that stretched well beyond her earthly knowledge. In the pit of her stomach, intangible though it might be, she knew the destination before her was the one place in all the multiverse where she absolutely had to be.

“If this is a psychotic break, it’s a really pretty one,” she said, admiring for a moment the tapestry of living light which flowed around her. No human before her had ever seen a sight to rival the cosmos wide panoply which sprawled out in every direction. No human could, their eyes weren’t built to capture infinity, and Tessa was glad to the point of tears that for one brief moment she was something other than human. Something which could see creation’s reaches and be one with its glories.

Then a planet hit her.

Traveling as fast as she had been, the crystal star that had been calling her went from a distant speck of light to filling the entirety of her vision in the blink of her immaterial eye. Landfall happened so shortly afterwards that Tessa was surprised that she didn’t leave a crater from the impact. That was the thing with ghosts though. Being bodiless meant colliding with a world at light speed wasn’t exactly going to scuff her up.

“What….the…” She wasn’t dead. She was a ghost, but she knew she wasn’t dead. Being a ghost was normal. And fixable.

Her mind reeled as the world swirled around her. This wasn’t making sense at all.

Except that she knew exactly what she had to do.

The was a [Heart Fire] brazier inside the chapel on the edge of the town square. She needed to take a spark from it. That would let her fix the whole “being a ghost issue”.

She heard a series of low howls in the distance. They sounded just like the sound file had.

Sound file? Tessa struggled to bring her thoughts together and make sense of what she was seeing.

Everything was disorienting, but it was all too familiar too.

“I’m inside the game?” she said, shaking her head as she stared at a perfect replica of [Sky’s Edge], the town Pillowcase had been fighting in. It was covered by the misty haze of the [Dead Lands], with all the color and most of the sound washed away but it was still easy to recognize the piles of boxes she’d spent several minutes carefully weaving around. She felt weightless, and insubstantial, but the world around her was solid. That was something to start with.

Part of Tessa wanted to go into immediate denial mode. “No, it’s not possible”, “I can’t be in the Fallen Kingdoms, Broken Horizons isn’t real”, “This is ridiculous, I must be dreaming”. It would have been easy to write everything off as a hallucination, but with each moment that passed her spinning thoughts were calming down and the solid blandness of the environment was seeping into confirm that, however strange it might be, the ground she stood on was real.

“I can’t even begin to believe this.” The woman who spoke was Tessa’s age. She was translucent, just like Tessa was, with the hint of a loose T-shirt and baggy sweatpants covering her ghostly frame. Tessa smiled. With all of the strangeness of seeing [Sky’s Edge], there was something fundamentally comforting about seeing someone who looked like a normal person rather than a hyper-exaggerated game model.

“I’m guessing you’ve got no idea what just happened either?” Tessa asked. Around them, beyond the ruins of the buildings of Sky’s Edge’s town square, the howls rose again.

“Yeah, not exactly,” the woman said. “I’ve got no idea how it happened, but it’s pretty obvious what it looks like has happened. We’re in Broken Horizons. Like, for real.” After a moment of sizing Tessa up, she added, “You’re Pillowcase, aren’t you?”

Wheels clicked into place in Tessa’s mind.

“Yeah. And you’re Lost Alice?”

“Yeah.” The howls were drawing closer. “We should get into the chapel.”

The [Hounds of Fate] were a game play element in Broken Horizon’s designed to keep the players from abusing the ghost form state. Tessa decided she had very little interest in discovering what function they might serve in a world where the Fallen Kingdoms were real.

“Wait for us!” a young girl called out. An even younger boy was trailing behind her.

Tessa blinked wondering where a pair of children could have come from. Broken Horizons, like most MMOs, didn’t have child characters around for events where people were being killed. Despite the immense amounts of casual violence in the setting, violence against innocents typically only occurred in backstories, never as an event the players could witness first hand.

“I’m Rip Shot,” the girl said. “This is Matt.”

The boy waved shyly.

Tessa reevaluated her guess as to their ages, trying to take into account how kids looked younger than she remembered when she was their age. At first Rip Shot looked like an early middle schooler but, with the lens of an old lady of six and twenty years in place, Tessa guessed Rip was more likely a freshman in High School and Matt Painting was probably the same age, just slow to hit his growth spurt.

“Get inside,” Lost Alice said, gesturing to the closed door of the chapel.

In theory the [Hounds of Fate] wouldn’t be an issue if the ghosts didn’t stray too far away from their bodies or the direct path between the bodies and the [Heart Fire] but no one seemed thrilled to test that in the face of the ever approaching howls.

Rip Shot moved through the door first, stepping through without opening it after her hand passed through the door handle. Matt went second, nodding gratefully to Tessa and Alice.

“After you,” Tessa said, stepping to the side and scanning the town square to see if there were any signs of approaching danger.

Apart from the grey fog which covered everything in a thin sheet and gave the [Dead Lands] their uniquely haunted look though nothing move. The “all lifeless and grey” aesthetic had seemed creepy to Tessa when she first saw it, but over time she found the soft lighting and gentle silence strangely peaceful. However bad things were going, and whatever disaster was befalling the party she was with, a trip to the [Dead Lands] meant at least a few moments of peace to collect her thoughts and calm down before heading back to the fray.

Inside the chapel, Alice, Rip, and Matt were waiting for her. Tessa could see flickers of other people as well but the images were never more than flashes.

“So there’s at least a few people hiding out in here,” Alice said, pointing to one of the flickering images nearest to the [Heart Fire].

Tessa knew those might be the players who’d fled to huddle in the chapel before the Wraithwings showed up.

“How do we get back to being alive?” Rip Shot asked, as she warmed her hand near the [Heart Fire].

“Probably the same as in the game,” Alice said. “Just got to take a spark of flame back to our bodies or we should be able to reincarnate here.”

“How do you do that though?” Rip Shot asked. “We’re new here. We just started playing today.”

A sinking feeling plunged through the bottom of Tessa’s intangible stomach. They were newbies?

Getting drawn into the Fallen Kingdoms had been a dream of Tessa’s for years, and while she was old enough to know that the reality wasn’t going to be as fun as playing the game had been, part of the dream had always been predicated on the idea that the mastery and skill she’d spent years developing would come along with her.

She had no idea if any of the skills she’d once had were really going to transfer over, but the sense of familiarity with the world she was seeing around her, ghostly and strange though it might be, felt like it was going a long way towards keeping her sane for the moment.

New players though? They wouldn’t have any of that. If Tessa’s guess about their ages was right, then this was probably their first massively multi-player online world. There was going to be so much they didn’t understand, and so much they would have to learn the hard way.

What would burning to death because you didn’t know to move out of the path of a fireball feel like in this world? Or crumbling to dust because you didn’t remember to bring a [Counter-Curse Charm] when you fought a [Mummy]?

The Fallen Kingdoms were home to wonders beyond count, but there were so many horrors waiting to devour the unwary too.

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Lost Alice said, her thoughts apparently running on a parallel track to Tessa’s.

“What…?” Rip Shot asked as she quickly pulled her hand away from the [Heart Fire].

“It might be safer to stay like this,” Tessa said. “There’s nothing in the [Dead Lands] that can hurt us. If you go back for your body, the Wraithwings will still be out there waiting for you.”

Tessa paused when she finished speaking. Something about “[Dead Lands]” had sounded strange but she couldn’t quite place what it was.

“What about the howling?” Matt Painting asked. “What are those things?”

“That’s the [Hounds of Fate],” Alice said. “They hang out and keep ghosts from wandering around too far. As long as you stay inside the chapel, they shouldn’t bother you.”

“I read about them,” Rip Shot said. “But how do we know they’ll still act like that? I mean this isn’t really the game is it? Everything looks too real.”

Tessa had to give her that point. Even with the best monitor and video card on the planet, there wasn’t a game that had ever been made that could match the clarity of the world around her. The mist that shrouded everything was thinner inside the chapel and the detail work on the pews and altar was easy to make out through it.

Tessa brushed her hand over the top of the small desk where coin offerings were collected to confirm that it wasn’t a simple model with a wood texture painted on it. Looking closely, it had the richness of minor blemishes and details which no game could or would bother to deliver.

“I think we have to assume that everything is real,” Alice said. “It doesn’t make sense, and we don’t know how or why we got her, but if we try to pretend this isn’t happening, we’re going to get eaten by something unpleasant. I’m just hoping that since whatever this is went to all the trouble to look like BH that it’s going to follow BH’s normal rules.”

“If it’s following the normal rules, shouldn’t we be able to log out?” Matt asked.

“We’d have to be able to bring up the menu for that and I don’t see any game interface to…work…with?” Tessa’s voice trailed off. She was wrong. The moment she thought of the interface for the game it had appeared before her, hovering in the air with its usual icons and menu options.

And at the bottom, looking the same as it ever did, the [Logout] option was waiting.

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 6

Tessa wished, more than anything, that she could just talk to Lost Alice. They were playing together in their struggle to survive the buggy Wraithwing event, but the constant maneuvering Tessa had to do with Pillowcase meant any kind of collaboration was basically impossible.

Which sucked. They had tactical options, plenty in fact, but they could only take advantage of them if they coordinated their actions and without voice chat, Tessa had no idea how to convey the plans she was coming up with to someone she’d never worked with before.

> Lost Alice said: “Think we can just outlast the event?”

Tessa couldn’t type in chat, but Alice’s player had the advantage that Alice was standing still and focusing on a single ability, which left her player free to type chat messages as much as she wanted.

Tessa wanted to answer and say “no, with a buggy event there was no telling when, or if, it would ever end.”  Eventually the servers would be rebooted of course, so it couldn’t literally be endless, but one of the two of them would make a mistake long before that happened.

“Hell, I’m tired enough to fall asleep and I’m not the one who’s been running for ten minutes,” Tessa said, wishing the microphone on her headset could magically carry her words into the game.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request. Several games had built in voice chat and allowed player to auto-join team channels. Tessa grumbled at the twin fact that she and Lost Alice weren’t actually teamed up, and that Broken Horizons was an old enough that they’d never included voice chat in the game client even if she and Alice had been teamed together.

“What we need is to kill one of these damn things,” Tessa said, looking for a spot in the route she’d worked out where she could afford to square off against just one of the Wraithwings.

Even if it was only for a few seconds of attacks, just enough to do more damage than the Wraithwings could heal, if that was even possible, that would be all she’d need. A move like that which she could repeat over and over again would let her whittle down one of the Wraithwings, and with enough wittling, she and Lost Alice would be able to claim at least a partial victory from the whole mess. Not to mention that a dead Wraithwing meant a chance for loot and experience!

Tessa also guessed that, unless the rewards were as buggy as the event itself, killing a Wraithwing would result in an incredible amount of character progress. Where killing a typical level 1 monster might reward the character with one tenth of the experience needed to advance to level 2, the reward for killing a Wraithwing should be enough to shoot Pillowcase up at least into the double digit levels.

Usually the game avoided giving out rewards which were that large, but it also usually avoided putting low level characters into such ridiculously unfair encounters. Also, even with that much of a boost, Pillowcase would still have a long way to go to reach the maximum level of 99. Skipping past the lowest levels would mean getting access to new areas sooner and allow Tessa to play with a better selection of the [Soul Knights] skills and spells.

Unfortunately for her, the pack of Wraithwings she was leading around were clustered too tightly for her to do more than take a single swing at them as she rounded the one set of barrels in the town square where the Wraithwings had particular trouble following her.

Pillowcase’s swings weren’t focused on any specific Wraithwing and rarely hit any of them at all, but the swings were enough to provoke the crowd to continue following her rather than deciding to race over and drag Lost Alice off to wherever their lair was.

>Lost Alice said: “Looks like the chapel’s safe. Can you make it there?”

Tessa glanced across the town square as Pillowcase ran another lap. The chapel was unharmed by the Wraithwing’s assault. The other buildings in town were in varying stages of wreckage from the Wraithwings attack – their acid breath had dissolved a number of walls  – but the chapel looked exactly as it had at the start of the battle.

In game, the lore said that [Heart Fire] chapels were protected by the mandate of the Ancient Gods who forged the Fallen Kingdoms from the blood and bones of the Primordial Titans who existed before time began.

In practical terms, the developers couldn’t allow the respawn points to be destroyed or when a character died they’d have nowhere to go and a player who was stuck with a character as bodiless ghost forever was a player who was going to unsubscribe from your game forever.

>Pillowcase said: “n”

It wasn’t much of a response to Alice’s question, but it got the general idea across. Tessa just hoped Alice could figure out the reasoning behind it on her own.

Tessa had been forced to “kite” monsters often enough with Glimmerglass when a weak Tank couldn’t hold their attention. Kiting, as the name implied, worked best when the character was able to keep the monsters away from themselves. Since the monsters moved roughly as fast as the characters did, that meant the only option was to stay constantly in motion, as Pillowcase was while she ran around and around the village square with the ever growing pack of monsters fluttering behind her like a kite.

When it was done correctly, the strategy worked great since the monsters never got close enough to unleash the attacks their coding was telling them to make, but it fell apart the moment the character who was kiting tried to stop.

Tessa knew that Pillowcase could make it to the chapel door with no problem. She kept passing it on each circuit she made around the town. The moment she stopped to open the door though, the eighteen or twenty Wraithwings behind her would catch up and all of them would unleash their attacks at once.

If the game were a bit more realistic, Lost Alice could have opened the door for her, but that level of realism would beg the question of why the Wraithwings couldn’t simply follow them through the door. Or open it themselves, since they did have hands of a sort.

Tessa was frustrated by the problem, but also thrilled at the challenge it presented, both emotions fueled by how much she was allowing herself to be absorbed into the game. History told her that failure and defeat was by far the most likely end result of PIllowcase’s somewhat silly endless jog around the town square, but that didn’t matter. That there was even the chance of success, in whatever fashion that success might take, stirred her blood just like it had when she was a kid.

She smiled. Even in the event of a total failure, she’d still have the enjoyment of grousing about a monumentally stupid encounter.

Except that she didn’t have a guild anymore, so who was she going to share her stories with? There were people at her work who’d played MMOs, but she didn’t know of anyone who played them still, and even if she did, she wasn’t sure she wanted to connect with any of them like that.

She shook off the thought as unimportant. She had what she wanted right in front of her.

> Lost Alice said: “I think we’re the last two left here. Everyone else made it inside or got hauled off.”

An arrow and a pink bolt shot past Pillowcase and slammed into two of the Wraithwings.

> Lost Alice: “I stand corrected.”

Tessa scanned her screen as she continued maneuvering Pillowcase around the town square. She couldn’t see any other player characters in the town. The trajectory on the arrow and [Mind Bolt] though meant that they had to have been launched from somewhere nearby.

> Matt Painting said: “We’re still here! We can help!”

“What the hell?” Tessa asked her monitor. To respond to the local chat, “Matt Painting” had to be close by, but there was no one beside Lost Alice and Pillowcase on the screen at all.

It was possible to turn invisible in Broken Horizons of course, but not as a level 1 character fresh out of the tutorial.

Tessa pulled the camera back and kept her eyes peeled. A moment later another [Mind Bolt] shot across the screen and burned into a Wraithwing. Tessa tracked it back to…the empty porch in front of the town’s food shop?

> Lost Alice said: “Where are you?”

> Rip Shot said: “We fell off the map. There’s a hole at the edge of the porch. We can still shoot out though.”

Tessa cackled. She couldn’t help herself.

Game glitches could take many forms. One of the simplest being that the pieces of virtual landscape weren’t always perfectly aligned with one another. All it took was for there to be a small gap between two sections – like, for example, the edge of the town square and the edge of the store’s porch – and the game would treat it like a hole in the world.

Typically dropping into a geometry glitch would result in the character falling into an undefined void until they exceeded some maximum position the game could support, at which point they’d either be marked as dead or teleported back to a safe location, depending on how kind the developers were feeling when they wrote the error handling code.

Occasionally though, the areas outside the game’s mapped terrain would have other things in it. It could be anything from a few pixels the developers forgot to delete, to objects that were being stored in a spot where the players couldn’t see them for whatever reason.

Tessa found it hysterical that the buggy encounter with the Wraithwings might be winnable thanks to the equally buggy work on the area’s 3-D modeling team.  It wouldn’t be the first time competing bugs had come together to produce a feature, and given how early the bugs were showing up Tessa knew it wouldn’t be the last. She just hoped that when the next bug hit, it wouldn’t have any serious ramifications.

> Pillowcase said: “yay!”
> Pillowcase said: “fight!”

Communicating in one word sentences was difficult but surviving while typing more would have been impossible so Tessa made do as best she could, while in the back of her mind she ran an old series of calculation.

Could they pull off a full victory by exploiting the geometry bug? In regular play Tessa wouldn’t even have tried. Exploiting bugs in the game was an excellent method of getting yourself banned from play forever. In this case though the impact wasn’t likely to ruffle many feathers. The whole encounter with the Wraithwings was broken and the rewards for beating them, assuming there were any, would probably be rolled back when the, for more serious, logout bug was fixed. All they were really playing for was bragging rights, and neither Tessa’s inner 14 year old nor her outer 26 year old selves were willing to give those up.

Looking over the clutter in the town square, she picked out a new route, one which pulled the swarm of Wraithwings into a tighter circle and gave Matt and Rip Shot unrestricted access to fire on the monsters.

The tighter circle meant maintaining Pillowcase’s distance from the Wraithwings grew even more difficult though. With each pass around the circle, Tessa had to sending Pillowcase into a diving forward roll to gain a little ground and evade the more frequent attacks which the Wraithwings had opportunities to pull off as they came ever closer to finally catching her.

> Lost Alice said: “Careful, you need to keep attacking them too.”

Tessa flicked a glance over to the swarm and it growing diffuse as its members lost interest in her.

The first to go switched its course ninety degrees in an instant, making a beeline for Alice the second she popped up to the top of its threat list. Tessa had Pillowcase roll again and race after the Wraithwing. As she did though more of the monsters split away, heading towards the porch Matt and Rip Shot were hiding under.

“Gotta hope the geometry glitch only let’s players get through it,” Tessa said as she clicked to have Pillowcase slash at the Wraithwing that was homing in on Alice.

Her blow went wide – she hadn’t quite caught up to the Wraithwing – but it passed close enough that compulsion her attacks possessed was able to reach out and snare the monster’s attention. It turned and spewed an acid breath attack on her, but thanks to the attacks slow animation time, Pillowcase was already on the other side of the Wraithwing and sprinting away before the acid could land on her.

“Safe!” Tessa yelled in triumph.

> Pillowcase has been defeated by Wraithwing.

By the time Tessa saw the animation of the two other Wraithwings who’d managed to flank her, Pillowcase’s health had already been reduced to zero and she was tumbling towards the ground.

She watched as the swarm dispersed, heading towards Alice and the two under the porch, and sighed. They hadn’t even taken out one of the Wraithwings. And it was her fault.

She felt sick.

And cold.

And her hand was glowing.

Tessa blinked. That wasn’t right.

It is time…

Staring at her fingers, she watched tiny motes of chromatic light rising from each of them as her hand turned slowly transparent. Her breath had stopped. The cold grew even more intense.

Mogwin landed on her shoulder.

Not Pillowcase’s shoulder in the game.

Tessa’s real shoulder. In real life. Her shoulder that was connected to an arm which had become nothing more than a luminous outline of the limb it once was, and even that was fading as Tessa watched.

Come Hero…

The dialog in her headphones felt like she’d cranked the volume knob to 11. She could hear the words so clearly, but she had no idea what they meant.

The Gate Is Open…

Tessa felt her heart slam blood through her veins like a freight train. She was dissolving and the light was going…somewhere. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t sane. But it was what was happening.

Follow Your Soul…

Tessa heard bells, clear, bright bells ringing. There were hundreds of them. Or thousands. But only one called to her. She closed her eyes, trying to push away the impossible sights before her, but in the darkness she saw stars shooting up all around her.

Find Your True Self…

Tessa opened her eyes to find the world around her fading into shadows. Something was coming for her. Something that knew her. Something that wanted, that needed, to destroy her.

Something she had to stand against.

…And RISE!

The world didn’t go away.

But Tessa did.

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 5

Stabbing chest pains are never a pleasant part of the day. That the ones which gripped Tessa corresponded with Pillowcase being clawed by one of the Wraithwings was eerie but Tessa knew there was a sadly mundane explanation for it.

The burrito wrapper at the bottom of her kitchen garbage basket had warned her that it contained a number of ingredients which wouldn’t sit well on her stomach. She’d known better than to buy the dreadful thing in the first place but she’d been tired and she’d craved the tangy sauce that came with it, so she’d over ruled the voice of experience which tried to warn her away from buying the gut wrecking dinner, and then warned her even more strenuously before she ate it. As usual though, she hadn’t listened to that wiser voice.

The worst part of her suffering wasn’t the odd gas pains, as it turned out though. The worst part, the part she desperately hoped she would remember next time, was that in the end the burrito hadn’t even been that good.

Getting an antacid, or other remedy for the pain didn’t cross her mind. How her body was feeling at that moment was secondary to the disaster that was unfolding in the game.

Grabbing the Wraithwings’ attention had worked out great, at least insofar as she had absolutely convinced them that they wanted to focus on killing Pillowcase rather than pay any mind to the healer whom they’d been chasing.

The problem was, the Wraithwings seemed more capable of accomplishing their murderous task in the blink of an eye.

“I’m down to one hit point?” Tessa stared at the screen as she threw Pillowcase into a dodge roll to evade attacks for a moment and create some space from the Wraithwings.

A single Wraithwing had hit her once and all of her health had been stripped away. That left her with an unpleasant chill. She knew what had happened. The “One Shot Code” had come into play.

The One Shot Code was an immersion breaking change which the players had more or less forced the developers to implement after one too many foes were given such ludicrously damaging attacks that there was no chance for even the toughest, most well geared of players to survive them. In response to an unusually unified wave of backlash, the devs had put in a special bit of code which said that most monsters weren’t allowed to defeat players in a single hit. The idea was to allow some form of counter-play where the players would at least have a tiny window to react to the monster before they were defeated.

In practice, that generally meant that players spent the time between the first and second hit vainly grasping for anything they could do to save themselves only for the illusion that they might have a chance to be crushed a second later when the monster attacked again.

What was weird was, the One Shot Code shouldn’t have applied to the Wraithwing Assault. That wasn’t because it wasn’t in force. Event related monsters, like the Wraithwings, were subject to One Shot limitation the same as the normal monsters were. Typically though it didn’t come up because Event Monsters were configured to be “level-less” – meaning characters of any level could fight, and survive, them.

The developers’ intention was that both high and low level characters should be able to participate in the grand events which happened in the world and that everyone should get something out of it. That could only happen if the monsters hit the characters differently based on their levels. So low level characters would take small hits that represented a meaningful portion of the health, and high level characters would take much larger hits but which would represent about the same portion of their health as what the low level character lost.

The goal of a game event after all was to bring the players together, not slaughter them by the droves.

“This is definitely a buggy event.” Tessa’s iron grip on the mouse reflected her irritation. Dying wasn’t a big deal. She’d done it countless times on Glimmerglass and, with Pillowcase set as a tank, she knew she would get knocked down even more often. What bothered her was the sheer ineptitude of the design work.

The World Shift expansion was supposed to be a chance for Broken Horizons to bring in new blood to the game, either in the form of returning players like her, or new ones who hadn’t been tempted to play it yet. Throwing new players into a meat grinder right as they finished the barest bit of the tutorial meant there was an excellent chance that a lot of potential new players would leave the game in frustration before they got to see any of the fantastic things it offered.

That wasn’t going to be her. Tessa knew how rewarding the game could be if you broke through the difficult patches, but it galled her that she might be alone in that and all the good work the developers had done would go to waste if the general public thought the game was a flop as had almost happened with the expansion which drew Tessa to Broken Horizons in the first place.

> Lost Alice casts [Minor Blood Channel]

>[Minor Blood Channel] heals Pillowcase for 10 health!

Tessa watched Pillowcase’s health bar fill back up to full. The healer she’d “saved” was returning the favor!

A Wraithwing pressed forward and tagged Pillowcase again. Once more all of Pillowcase’s health except for the last point drained away.

“These things can’t be intended for this zone,” Tessa said as she looped Pillowcase around a box, taking advantage of the Wraithwing’s poor pathing function to create enough space between them to escape the Wraithwing’s follow up hit.

> [Minor Blood Channel] heals Pillow case for 10 health!

The furthest Wraithwing turned away from Pillowcase at that. The game’s monsters had very simple rules they followed when it came to who they would attack. People who healed a target a Wraithwing was attacking moved up in priority based on how much healing they were doing. By healing all of Pillowcase’s damage twice, Lost Alice was riding the borderline of convincing the Wraithwings that she was the more important target on the field.

Pillowcase stabbed at the Wraithwing who looked towards Lost Alice. The attack didn’t even connect but, as a [Soul Knight], all of Pillowcase’s attack had a small enmity factor to them which compelled the monsters to remain focused on her.

Tessa knew there were serious limits to how long and how many of the Wraithwings she could keep focused on her, even if she could survive their attacks, but that was a problem for the Tessa of five to ten second in the future to deal with.

Lost Alice said: “Kite”

In the thick of battle, typing long messages was never a good idea. Even a half second delay in reaction time could be enough to guarantee a defeat. It was why any serious group used voice chat to coordinate what they were doing. Voice chatting with random strangers wasn’t really something anyone wanted to do though, so the in-game chat function was the only method of coordinating their actions Pillowcase and Lost Alice had.

Tessa could picture Alice’s player wondering if Pillowcase would understand the simple command. The only thing harder and more frustrating than dealing with a difficult encounter in the game was dealing with a player who didn’t know what they were doing and wasn’t willing to listen.

> Pillowcase said: “on it!”

Tessa put Pillowcase into a run before she typed that message, and plotted a course around the village square.

She couldn’t run in a straight line, because the Wraithwings had been set to move just a bit faster than the adventurers. Running in a circle didn’t make staying ahead of them any easier, except that by putting obstacles between the Wraithwings and herself, Pillowcase ensured the Wraithwings simple movement routines would send them on a much longer path than the one she was running, thereby negating their speed advantage.

> [Minor Blood Channel] heals Pillowcase for 0 health!

Tessa grinned at the combat log. Since Pillowcase was still at full health [Minor Blood Channel] had nothing to repair. It was still ticked away though, and would probably continue to do so far as long as Lost Alice maintained it. Under the circumstances that was amazingly powerful, but Tessa knew it was also a fluke.

[Minor Blood Channel] was the starter ability for [Grave Mender] class, one of the new healer classes introduced in the expansion. Unlike the more common healing spells which improved as the caster leveled up, [Minor Blood Channel] was set to always tick away at a set value. Ten health per tick was incredible on a 1st level character but by 10th level it would be only a minor aid.

In a sense Pillowcase had lucked out being as weak as she was. The Wraithwings were probably hitting for ten or a hundred times her maximum health, but the one shot code prevented the majority of the damage from mattering since the hits were capped at one point less than Pillowcase’s maximum health value. With [Minor Blood Channel] being strong enough to restore her back to full, Pillowcase was able to stay that precious one health point above the level the one shot code was capping the damage at.

It was an exploit for sure, and one which the developers would certainly be patching out of the game with one of the early bug fix releases, but it wasn’t a perfect defense even so.

Tessa saw one of the Wraithwings peel away from the pack that was following Pillowcase and begin to make a beeline towards Lost Alice. From how Alice was standing, Tessa knew that [Minor Blood Channel] had a limitation where the caster had to remain motionless to continue casting it.  

Motionless and alive, which seemed to be mutually exclusive things with the Wraithwing inbound on Alice’s position.

The pack behind Pillowcase was starting to lose cohesion too, as the enmity generated by her initial attacks was gradually forgotten.

Tessa altered Pillowcase’s course, cutting too close to Wraithwings she’d been kiting and taking another nearly fatal hit. The burrito in her stomach seemed intent on replicating the chest bursting scene from Alien but Tessa fought it down.

The battle in the village square wasn’t one they were going to win, and in the end it wasn’t going to matter. There were no real consequences to losing a fight as a fledgling adventurer. There couldn’t be. If anything too disastrous happened to a level 1 character, the player would simply delete them and make up another one. Despite that though, Tessa wanted to show off what she could do.

It was a point of pride she couldn’t defend in any way that felt rational, but being a good player mattered to her. It always had. She knew plenty of people who played “for fun” and refused to take the game seriously. To the extent that they were having fun, there wasn’t anything she could say against that.

All she could say was that she needed to play things differently than that. She needed to play like she cared what happened. Because she did. Her father had never approved of that, and had pointed out repeatedly that defeating a virtual foe didn’t help her at all in the real world, and it was hard to say he was wrong, except that he was.  

Even apart from the joy that accomplishing something difficult brought to her, being good at something unreal mattered to Tessa because her victories made it easier to help other people have fun. All she ever saw were pixels on a screen, but the people behind them had real feelings, and if she could make their days brighter by being awesome when they needed her to be that was a win for everyone in her book.

> [Minor Blood Channel] heals Pillow case for 10 health!

Pillowcase slashed at the Wraithwing that was charging at Lost Alice, placing herself solidly back on top of it’s “Hate List”. It was a risky play though and Tessa had to throw Pillowcase into another dodge roll to avoid a trio of attacks from the Wraithwings which had caught up to her.

That was the other reason the “Level 1 character plus [Minor Blood Channel]” exploit wasn’t anything like Invulnerability. As soon as a second monster joined the fight it was extremely likely that its attacks would land before the [Minor Blood Channel] had a chance to tick Pillowcase’s health back up to full, and with only one health point Pillowcase couldn’t survive an attack from even the weakest of foes.

If two foes were deadly, then Tessa knew she was doomed. She watched as roughly a dozen Wraithwings clustered into an overlapping ball of rending death on the screen. She sighed. There was probably no chance that she could take even one of them out. The factors in play for the fight just didn’t allow it.

Lost Alice couldn’t do anything except maintain the [Minor Blood Channel] or Pillowcase would die in seconds since the lead Wraithwing were keeping close enough to get single attacks off every time Pillowcase turned a corner in the village square.

Pillowcase couldn’t afford to seek a more cluttered environment because, the moment she broke line of sight with Lost Alice, the [Minor Blood Channel] would fail.

Best of all though, the Wraithwings health bars were hidden, so Tessa had no idea if the few attacks she’d been able to make had inflicted any meaningful damage on them.

If her suspicions were correct, the overpowered Wraithwings could probably heal faster than Pillowcase, with her relatively low “Tank scale” damage, could hurt them.

> Lost Alice said: “Nice kiting!”

> Lost Alice said: “Thanks for the save there too.”

All the misery Tessa’s fatigue and the burrito had inflicted on her vanished from her mind at the sight of the compliment. Recognition had a harder kick than any drug, but she knew she shouldn’t reply. Not until the fight was over, and a millisecond loss of focus wouldn’t undo all the hard work she’d done.

> Pillowcase said: “thnks!”

Tessa smiled and narrowly avoided taking the fatal two hits that would end her mad run around the village square.

Even in battles you’re destined to lose, you could still find some unexpected victories it seemed.

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 4

Tessa felt a jolt run through her as the world flashed white. Or maybe it was just the screen. She sat back and rubbed her eyes. Reading the new tutorial instructions had taken longer than she’d expected and according to the in-game clock, which had to be lying, it was a quarter to midnight already. That was nowhere near as late as she had stayed up playing Broken Horizons as a kid but also much later than she was used to hitting the sack as an adult.

On the screen, the white flash cleared to reveal Pillowcase glowing with a rapidly fading silver radiance. She was a [Soul Knight] at last, and new, yet oh so familiar, interface elements appeared to show the abilities she’d received for completing the first part of the tutorial.

Outside, a storm had blown in with the occasional flashes of distant lightning strobing through her closed curtains. As ambiance went, she couldn’t complain. The tempest matched the change in the atmosphere in Sky’s Edge where Pillowcase was standing.

“Looks like you’re not alone,” Mister Pendant said, gesturing to the fountain in Sky’s Edge’s central square.

The flash of light had covered not only the addition of the new user interface elements to the screen but also the transition from the solo instance of Sky’s Edge, where Pillowcase had started out, to the open world version when players could interact with each other.

Around the fountain, a thick sea of other players were congregated. Most were standing motionless, their players either away from the keyboard or chatting with each other via Discord or in-game /tells.

Tessa moved Pillowcase to join them, guessing that the next quest giver was probably somewhere at the center of the pack somewhere. She stopped when Mogwin landed on Pillowcase’s shoulder though, curious if the game was going to hand out another quest automatically to her.

“You’re going to want to get ready. Nasty things are coming,” Mogwin warned. The voice actor for Mogwin wasn’t familiar to Tessa, which was nice. She loved the voices from the old version of the game, especially Niminey’s, but a few of them got used for far more parts than they really should have.

It was one thing to hear a shopkeeper advertising their wares in a rich, smooth baritone. It was another to hear that same voice coming from three different farmers, the mayor, and the local horse thief. Eventually the world started to feel a bit unintentionally creepy when half the population all spoke in the exact same voice.

No dialog options came up in reply to Mogwin’s warning, and he didn’t gain any marker to indicate that he had a quest ready, so Tessa marched Pillowcase forward, passing through the crowd like they were ghosts. The lack of collision detection between player avatars was something that had generated a lot of debate early on, since it wasn’t particularly immersive to be able to move through other people like they weren’t there, but the gain in convenience and the elimination of an avenue for players to grief one another put the debate to rest. Eventually.

“Wrathwings!” a town cryer shouted. He was deep in the crush of adventurers but didn’t seem to be paying attention to the horde of people around him. Because he wasn’t. He had a couple of lines of dialog, a trigger for when he said them, and that was all the processing power he needed.

His message was enough to be interesting though even if his personality was basically non-existent. Tessa had been wondering if she’d get to see a Wrathwing attack. They were a new element that was being added with the World Shift expansion and she’d read a lot about them. That they were appearing so early in the game was an unexpected treat too. She’d thought they were limited only to the higher level zones, since they presented some new and unique challenges.

Originally, Broken Horizons had only static enemies. They would patrol around predetermined areas or just stand in place waiting for an adventuring to get close. Eventually the developers expanded on that to include “event style” enemies who would spawn in at intervals or in response to other quests being completed.  Those made the world seem somewhat more alive and responsive.

The Wrathwing Attacks were the next step in that process. Not only did they occur by their own pattern and with variable levels of intensity, they represented a real threat to areas they attacked. From what the beta-testers had reported, Wrathwings and the other “Dynamic Assaults” could do lasting damage to the towns and other player-friendly areas in the High Beyond.

If the Wrathwing’s killed the town Blacksmith for example, the blacksmith’s shop would be out of commission until the players repaired the shop and someone did the quest to recruit a new blacksmith for the town.

What was more exciting though was that the Wrathwing Dynamic Assaults could carry away more than just the non-player character [Villagers]. Any adventurers who didn’t put up enough of a fight to escape the Wrathwing talons would be dragged into the air and carried off to a new, and far more dangerous zone.

Tessa looked around, checking the skies to see if the event was starting but aside from some clouds that were rolling in, there wasn’t any sign of approaching giant birds. Looking around on the ground, about half the other players seemed to be “in the know” on what the town cryer’s “Wrathwings” warning might mean.

Some of them were scurrying inside the sturdier buildings, probably intending to wait out the event rather than struggle through what could be a tough fight with barely any skills or spells.

Others were taking the exact opposite approach, trying to form impromptu teams to meet the Wrathwings head on.

> BattlerX shouted: “Forming Event team. Looking for 6 members. Send tell for invite.”

Tessa considered replying, but hesitated. With six slots open on the potentially eight person team, BattlerX didn’t have much of a party assembled yet. Tactically speaking it would be better to join a full, or nearly full team since the more people they had, the more kills they’d get in the coming battle and the more overall rewards they’d earn.

Tessa’s hesitation wasn’t founded on tactical considerations though. Even the thought of teaming up filled her with dread. There was so much potential for drama and stress and headaches on a random group, and none of that was what she was looking for when she came back.

Plus, she was just a baby Tank. She didn’t have a hundredth of the toughness she’d eventually be able to offer a team. It felt far better to risk trying to solo the event and then spend some time working out how her new class played rather than to try to team up too soon. The last thing she wanted was to  get soured on the whole experience because a teammate decided to be an idiot, especially since the people playing at this point were either pretty hardcore, or as tired as she was, or both.

“Wrathwings! They’re coming!” the town cryer called out again.

> Kami Anne Do shouted: “Where are the Wrathwings? Is the event bugged?”

Tessa was willing to give decent odds that was the case, given the larger shutdown problem the game was having. It had clearly been rushed out to meet a deadline. Even so though, she knew there’d be plenty of other things to work. Simply exploring the new areas could lead to rich and rewarding surprises, and there were likely at least a few quests that weren’t horribly broken. If nothing else presented itself, she could even just mindlessly kill off enemies, providing she could find anything to fight.

“The Wrathwings are almost here,” Mogwin said. “If you look up you can see them.”

Tessa blinked. It almost seemed like Mogwin was responding to Kami Anne’s shout but it was more likely to just be fortuitous timing. Scanning the global chat channels for text cues was certainly possible but the processing required was far beyond any value that could have been derived from it.

Tessa panned the camera up again, searching the otherworldly sky for any sign of giant bird monsters but all she saw was the storm cloud which had almost reached the town.

The storm cloud which was breaking up into smaller, faster moving pieces.

Tessa blinked again.

That wasn’t a storm cloud.

It was a nearly solid wall of things out of a nightmare.

On a technical level, Tessa had to admit that the effort put into the Wrathwing design was impressive. Their models moved in the distinctly unnatural manner which suggested bones were breaking with every flap their wings took. Also they had human heads which were rotating in all directions, and their talons were a disturbing mix of human hands with long, curving metal blades jutting from the palm.

They didn’t scream or cry out as they approached, just moved in an eerie silence as all of the other game noises were muted out as well.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Tessa said to her empty apartment. “How the hell are a bunch of level 1s supposed to fight that?”

She had Pillowcase draw her [Rusty Knight’s Blade] anyways since it was better to go down fighting that to try to flee the town given the speed the Wrathwings were traveling at.

In the worst case, she hoped she’d be able to kill at least one or two of the Wrathwings and get some kind of armor or weapon reward from it. Given the literal trash level quality of her current equipment any new piece would easily be an upgrade.

> Buzz Fightyear shouted: “Damn, I didn’t know the game could spawn that many enemies! See ya all around the Heart Fire!”

Tessa cast a glance over towards the village’s tiny chapel, the one building that would never be destroyed no matter what force assaulted the town. She hadn’t been inside it, but she knew there would be a silver fire burning in a divinely inscribed brazier at its center. When the adventurers who were waiting to defend Sky’s Edge died – and that was going to be “all of them” and “very soon”, they’d respawn around that [Heart Fire] as [Wandering Souls].

From there they’d have the choice of trying to get back to their bodies and resurrect themselves in a mildly weakened state or reincarnating at the Heart Fire in a more significantly weakened state with some extra equipment damage thrown in on top.

Tessa guessed that most of the new players would opt for staying in the chapel until their weakness wore off but there were sure to be some who’d try to throw themselves back into the fray over and over since damage to worthless starter equipment wasn’t exactly a deterrent.

> BattlerX shouted: “Forming Event team. Looking for 4 members. Send tell for invite.”

Tessa admired Battler’s tenacity if nothing else, but knew he wasn’t going to get an answer in time. Before anyone could have typed a response, the first of the Wrathwings began to flood into the village square.

Pillowcase’s mobility (and Tessa’s old reflexes) saved her from the first telegraphed attack a Wrathwing made at her. Rather than standing in the red cone that appeared, Pillowcase side stepped out of it the instant it appeared, clearing the edge of cone only a half second before the Wrathwing belched out a spray of acidic blood that left the area sizzling and ruined.

Another tried to attack her with its palm blades, but missed as Pillowcase backed out of its range. With years of experience as a healer, she was used to keeping away from enemies who were rampaging at her until someone from her team could come deal with them.

Tessa wove Pillowcase around several piles of boxes and fence sections to confuse the Wrathwing’s pursuit tracking system before hiding in the shadow of a building’s porch pole for a moment to take stock of what was happening..

With a moment to breath, several things occurred to her as she scanned the battlefield. First, she had no team, so no one was going to take care of the Wrathwings who were still searching for her.

Second, even if she did have a team, it probably wouldn’t have helped because the low level adventurers were being completely overwhelmed by their attackers. As she watched, several adventurers were lifted above the fray, caught in the claws of the Wrathwings who were fleeing back to their nests already.

The third, and most important thing was that, Pillowcase wasn’t a healer.

She was a tank. The first line of defense. She wasn’t the one who ran from monsters. She was the one who ran to them, so that no one else would be in danger.

Looking over the battlefield again, she saw that the hastily formed teams had been shattered by the onslaught. No one knew how to work together, or at least no one was bothering to try, with characters running around and being picked off one by one no matter where they tried to hide.

The general helplessness wasn’t complete though. One group seemed to have the right idea and had huddled together behind a Metal Mechanoid player, “Buzz Fightyear” from the nameplate over his head, who’d chosen the Guardian class. That team had given up trying to outfight the Wrathwing horde and were making a fighting withdrawal. Tessa wasn’t sure if it was proving to be effective because they had enough firepower to back it up or because there were so many other targets for the Wrathwings to attack instead. In either case, she considered joining them, until she saw someone moving in exactly the same manner she’d just been.

Behind the pale skinned woman, a trio of Wrathwings had formed up and with the village square emptying out there were fewer and fewer places and people the woman could use to distract her pursuers.

Feeling a surge of [Healer] solidarity, Tessa sent the Pillowcase charging out from the shadow she’d been hiding in. The [Soul Knight] rushed across the small square and crashed into the Wrathwings. When her presence alone wasn’t enough to draw their attention away from their quarry, Pillowcase started laying into them with the basic attacks the tutorial had shown her.

That got the Wrathwings attention nice and quick.

The problem was, Tessa had no idea what to do with it.