Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 14

Neither in her new form as Lady Midnight or in her old one, did Claire O’Connor need fighting experience to know that she was dead. The eight ‘adventurers’ who’d surrounded her and Starchild were too obviously bad news for there to be any doubt what their intent was.

“We’re not flagged for PvP,” Starchild said, taking a relaxed pose. 

Her voice sounded feminine as she spoke in the [General Chat] channel where regular, non-telepathic speech occurred. Despite how Starchild sounded though, Claire guessed it was Pete who was speaking. Starchild seemed to use direct game related references less and naturalistic, in-world explanations for game mechanics more, whereas Pete spoke like most gamers Claire knew, herself included.

“And do you think we care about that anymore?” the [Half-Giant] leader of the player killing squad asked.

“Didn’t give it much thought,” Starchild said. “Have you tried it already, or are we your first test subjects?”

Pete sounded calm and collected on the outside but Claire could see Starchild arranging her fingers in the starting position of one of her spells.

“We’ve been farming noobs for hours now,” the leader said.

“Are you still playing through the game client or are you here for real?” Claire asked, confused for a moment on exactly what form of idiocy they were dealing with.

“A game client? Oh, isn’t that cute,” the leader said. “She thinks the only thing she needs to be afraid of out here is some bugs.”

Claire felt a chill run through her. There was something wrong with the [Half Giant].

“What else is out here beside bugs?” Starchild asked, her tone low and careful as though she’d caught onto the same bad vibe that ran through Claire.

“All kinds of bad things,” the leader said. “Things you’d never want to meet.”

“Things like you?” Starchild asked.

She was one word away from unleashing her magic but Claire didn’t think it was going to help. The only time eight on two odds worked out in the favor of the two was when the eight were very bad, the two were very good, or there was a noticeable gap in levels between the opposing groups.

They could fight, and would if no better option appeared, but even if all eight players avoided her to focus on Starchild there was no chance that her healing spells could keep up with the brutality a full party could unleash on a single defender. The option where some of them targeted her was even worse though.

Lady Midnight was still a low level [Grave Mender]. She didn’t have anywhere near her full compliment of skills and spells yet. On thing in particular she was missing was any method of healing while she was under attack. Her [Minor Blood Channel]  spell was her most powerful healing tool but any damage she took, or movement she made was enough to disrupt it. That was fine when they were fighting mindless foes, or ones the party’s tank could compel to focus on themselves. Against intelligent foes though (assuming other players could justly be described as intelligent) anything interruptible was almost useless.

“You don’t think we’re bad things?” the leader asked. “Oh, isn’t that cute. She thinks the only thing she needs to be afraid of out here is some bugs.”

Claire took a half step backward before she could stop herself. Acting like prey wasn’t the right move, but she was rapidly coming to the belief that the ‘adventurer’ in front of her wasn’t human on the inside and possibly never had been.

“I’m sure you’re plenty bad,” Pete said, the cadence of his voice Claire’s tip off that he was speaking rather than Starchild. “I’m just wondering if you’re the worst there is?”

It was phrased as a challenge, or a taunt. Claire couldn’t tell what Pete’s play was exactly but, since he seemed to have one, she took a moment to look around at the other Player Killers who were arrayed around them.

None of them were moving. Not ‘they weren’t advancing’, they weren’t moving at all.

Each one had stopped and frozen in place, caught in the middle of a motion which seemed oddly unnatural the more Claire tried to make it out. 

They weren’t posing. There was no theatricality to the position of their arms and legs. They were simply motionless with their body dynamics all wrong.

Claire thought of puppets, if there were ones whose control had been given to a machine. 

In the eyes of the one directly to her left, she saw a wild, twisting thing. Something inside the frozen figure was turning and screaming, though the eyes were unfocused and unmoving.

“We’re bad,” the leader said. “We’re Bad. we’re Bad.”

“But are you the worst? Aren’t there things out here that are badder than you?” Pete said, an edge of madness creeping into Starchild’s voice as he egged the leader on.

As a strategy, it seemed like a pretty dreadful one to Claire, but it was keeping the leader talking and the rest of the kill squad frozen, and that was better than several of the alternatives.

What’s the chance that they’re faster than we are? She sent the question telepathically, but saw the player killer nearest to her twitch when she did.

I can’t see their level, Pete replied. They shouldn’t have any movement skills at this point, but I’ll bet one or more of them can slow us. 

PvP experience is trash isn’t it though? Claire asked. Could they have leveled up as much as we have just beating other players?

Neither she nor Starchild had leveled much of course, but even as a Level 5 [Grave Mender] and a Level 6 [Druid], they were noticeably stronger than they’d been at Level 1.

I don’t think there are that many new players around here for them to have fought yet, Pete said. But when I said I can’t see their levels, I mean they don’t seem to have any.

Claire blinked. Those words didn’t compute. Everything in [Broken Horizons] had a level. Even the little incidental fauna like rabbits and mice were technically “Level 0”. Or almost everything. Some “special” monsters, like the [Wraithwings] didn’t. But those were monsters. One’s programmed for events. Not things that could talk.

Staring directly at the [Half Giant] seemed like a great method of provoking him into something unfortunate, but Claire couldn’t help herself. The spot next to his name which was supposed to display his level was simply empty.

What the hell are these things? She couldn’t help but take another step backwards.

The player kill squad responded by taking two unnaturally quick and jerky steps forward.

I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to, Pete said.

“Isn’t that cute,” the leader said. “They probably think. Think.”

He’d appeared with his sword in hand and, as he twitched , the blade caught fire, burning with a deep violet light.

That’s not a low level ability, Pete said. Or at least not one I’ve ever seen in the game before.

Denial, being one of the few options available to her, seemed like a great idea to Claire.

Maybe it’s new? Maybe this is one of the PvP specs  for a class from [World Shift] and these guys are just putting on an act to scare us?

It’s working if so, Pete said.

I’m adding the leader to my blacklist. That should take move us to a different layer than him and the rest of his crew, Claire said.

It was a strategy she’d used a many times in the game when someone was being obnoxious. Generally that wasn’t due to PvP concerns, since fighting players outside of PvP zones and arenas was only possible if both sides were open to PvP.

Sadly, it didn’t work this time.

> Add to blacklist command failed. Invalid target.

The words appeared in the virtual chat log before her.

It didn’t work, she said, her sense of the world being out of kilter growing stronger with each passing second. He’s not a valid target.

Oh wow. That means he’s not a player then.

But he has a player’s class, and he looks like one of the player models. Sort of.

All of the members of the player killing squad looked like they derived from the same basic templates as the rest of the player characters, but there were differences to them. Nothing simple to quantify like their bones being too long, or their skin being too pale. Those traits were mundane and whatever was wrong with the kill squad went much deeper than physical changes.

“Do you want to…kill me?” the leader asked, his head twisting much too far to the side as his voice rose a whisper to a hopeful squeak.

“We’re not here for you,” Starchild said.

“How cute.” The leader raised his blade and began stalking forward. The other members of the kill squad stayed where they were though, paused mid-motion.

Don’t fight them, Claire said. So far we haven’t flagged for PvP. Maybe they can attack us anyways, but if so we need to be able to report that.

Reporting this is a great idea. Can you see if Pillowcase or Alice is available? We should tell them about this, in case… Pete trailed off as the leader of the player killers closed into melee range.

In case there are real consequences to this fight, Claire thought. She’d been willing to risk “death” in the dungeon they’d delved into mostly because she’d already “died” here and gotten better without a problem.

The player killer squad though didn’t seem like the monsters she’d fought so far, and she’d never been a fan of PvP under the best of circumstances.

Pillowcase? Hi, this is Lady Midnight, Claire sent the telepathic message out hoping she wasn’t contacting the [Clothwork] tank at a bad moment.

Lady Midnight? What’s up? You sound scared? Pillowcase asked.

Starchild and I ran into some player killers, but they’re not normal. There’s something wrong with them, Claire kicked herself for not having the right words to convey what was going on succinctly.

“You think, probably” the leader said. “You think, you’re safe if you don’t fight back?”

He coughed out a deep giggle and held his burning sword beside Starchild’s face.

Claire wasn’t sure if Starchild flinched back out of reflex or pain from the flames. Her health hadn’t taken a hit but she hadn’t let the flames get terribly close either.

We just finished off a pretty weird pack of trash mobs, Pillowcase said. Let’s [Coalition] so we can all chat freely?

In a minute, Claire said, I think they’re about to attack now.

Don’t flag for PvP! They can’t attack you if you’re not set for it! Pillowcase said.

We’re not flagged, Claire said. That doesn’t seem to be stopping them.

What? Pillowcase’s surprise and outrage was a mirror of Claire’s own feelings.

I tried Blacklisting them too, but I don’t think they’re players anymore.

WHAT!?

They’re, I don’t know how to describe it. Glitching? They move like something out of a horror movie. And their leader is repeating himself. Little phrases of dialog. Like an NPC.

Pillowcase cursed.

“Time’s almost up,” the leader said. “Fight or flight? Which will it be?

“Neither,” Starchild said. “We’re not here for you. Go find someone who wants to play with you.”

The leader stabbed her.

One moment he was creeping around Starchild, the next Claire saw his blade burst from her back in a shower of blood. Less than an instant later it disappeared as he pulled it back for another strike.

“Wrong, wrong, Wrong choice!” The leader’s grin was feral as the other player killers came to life, skittering inwards like a tide of frenzied beetles.

It was over. They were done for. All Claire had left to decide was how she was going to meet this death, and the choice was easy.

Like a healer.

“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel]” she said and sent a telepathic cry out after the spell finished casting. They can attack us! PvP flags do not apply!

She thought it would be her last message before she was kicked over into ghost form (or worse, though she was resolutely not considering that possibility). The healing she was able to dump into Starchild prevented the torso wound from being fatal by cutting off the [Bleed] damage and repairing a chunk of the health Starchild had lost before the wound closed. It wasn’t going to be enough to see them through a two on eight fight, but it bought Starchild a chance to cast the spell she’d been holding.

The burning violet sword met a flaming green staff as the player killer leader tried for a second strike. As a [Half Giant] he should have been stronger than Starchild but the [Druid] fought with a power beyond what her simple frame suggested she should have. 

It was enough that the two were stalemated for a brief instant.

Then the other player killers joined the fray.

One slammed a short sword into Lady Midnight’s arm and Claire screamed, losing her spell. The pain was unreal. Or perhaps all too real. It hurt far worse than even the brutal killing blows from the [Soul Blights].

This is bad, Pete said.

Something’s wrong. Their weapons hurt too much! Claire sent to Pillowcase. She didn’t know what was going to happen but she had to make sure someone else knew so that they could stop it from happening again.

Hang on! Run away! Stall for time! We’ll come to you! Pillowcase said.

Claire wished for that more than anything in the world, but Pillowcase and her team were too far away. Only a miracle could save them.

“Hey!” a woman’s voice boomed across the battlefield, commanding the attention of the player killer squad.

Claire felt the edges of a skill wash over her. That single word had been a [Provoke] and the golden haired [Guardian] who uttered the command followed it by leaping from the highest rock in the area to land in a perfect (and impossible in the real world) three point landing. Rising, she drew her sword and pointed it at the player killer leader.

“They said to find someone who wants to play with you, well here I am.” 

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 13

Starchild was walking into mortal peril. She knew that people had died at the destination she sought, ripped apart by steel and fangs for no greater sin than because they’d been unwary. 

“This should be a cakewalk according to Pillowcase,” Pete said.

Starchild agreed.

“There were four of them though,” Lady Midnight said. “We’ll want to be careful that we don’t get overrun.”

“It sounds like if we stick to the outskirts of the farm, the [Chaos Centipedes] should be the only thing we face. The [Chain Lasher], if it’s respawned, shouldn’t be a problem if we stay away from the house,” Pete said. 

“Worst case we end up back at the [Heart Fire] right?” Midnight offered with a shrug.

Things could go considerably worse than that from what Starchild knew but she wasn’t about to worry her new friend with thoughts about what the [Hounds of Fate] might do to them if they were too slow to reach safety after dying. 

They would probably be fine anyways.

She hoped.

Pillowcase and her team had managed to recover from a Total Party Kill without incident, so it clearly wasn’t impossible.

It had been their first deaths of the day though (not counting the one that brought them to the [Fallen Kingdoms]). Starchild had never seen proof that multiple deaths made it more likely that you’d get caught by the hounds, but it stood to reason that if one death drew the hounds closer, then each subsequent one would amplify that effect. Probably until the hounds just waited around you in the [Dead Lands] knowing that you’d be back in a minute two based on your past performance.

“It sounds like the [Chaos Centipedes] should be fine for the two of us too,” Starchild said. “There were two other adventurers, Aiemethia and Zibby, who were leveling on them, and they were both lower than we are now when they did it.”

Starchild flexed her hand and felt the fraction of her strength that had returned. Once she’d been empowered by the grove to which she’d been bound through her [Druidic Initiation]. Together with so many others, throughout both the [High Beyond] and the [Fallen Kingdoms] which lay below them, she’d tended to the spirits and creatures who were part of ever-flowing [River of Life] from which all [Druidic] power flowed.

It had been so easy then. Spells and miracles came effortless to hand thanks to the connection the grove supplied.

Then the [Consortium of Pain] had come.

Starchild’s hand tightened on her staff as the memory of the black ash which remained of her home swept over her. She could feel it’s grit and smell the choking fumes.

And she knew it had been her fault.

That’s absolutely not true, Pete said.

I ran. I left my grove to die and I fled, Starchild said.

I saw what attacked your grove, Pete said, referring to the “cutscene” he’d mentioned earlier. You saved as much of your grove as you could have.

I only saved myself.

I stand by what I said. Nothing you could have done would have changed what happened there. Not then. The war machines they unleashed on you were orders of magnitude more than were necessary for victory. They were like something from my world, except also able to negate your magics.

That should make me feel better, Starchild said. But it still feels like I failed them.

I think the ones who fell would be overjoyed that some of their order survived. Wouldn’t you be if it had been someone else who made it out?

I’m not sure, Starchild said. My happiness for them might be a small thing compared to my anger at what the Consortium did.

That’s why we’re going to reach the level cap and do unto the Consortium as they did unto you. Pete said. Beating them won’t be enough. I’m thinking eradication via overwhelming force.

That’s not what my order preached, Starchild said.

I know, and I’m open to however you want to handle it, Pete said. If you want to look for a non-violent solution, I’m not going to push you to kill them all.

I said that’s not what they preached, I didn’t say I disagreed with you, Starchild said.

“Thats an interesting thing you do where you speak in two different voices,” Midnight said. “It all shows up in the same chat though.”

Starchild wondered for a moment if Lady Midnight was able to overhear her and Pete’s private conversation, but then she saw in the chat log that she had been the last one to speak to Midnight after Pete had been answering Midnight’s previous questions.

“This is how it sounds when I’m talking, me, the former-player,” Pete said. “The other voice you’ve heard is Starchild’s. She’s basically my other half I guess?”

“Wait, so are you two people or one?” Midnight asked.

“Two, at least as far as we can tell,” Pete said.

“I have my own set of memories which seem to be wholly distinct from his,” Starchild said.

Lady Midnight stopped walking and stared at them, tipping her head in one direction and then the other. 

“You’re serious?” she asked.

“It’s not the kind of thing I would joke about,” Pete said.

“Ok. Do you have a history of…hearing voices?” Midnight asked.

“Not at all,” Pete said with a shrug. “I haven’t looked into Multiple Personality, or Dissociative Identity, but I don’t think that’s what we’re experiencing.”

“We’re both here at every moment and both in control,” Starchild said.

“How does that work? What if one of you wants to go left and the other one wants to go right?”

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Pete said.

“I think it would be like when you see two things you want,” Starchild said. “We’d pause and share why we want go in each direction, then pick the one that sounds better.”

“Wow,” Midnight blinked and shook her head. “That’s hard to imagine. Not the deciding which way to go, but the whole thing. Being two people at once.”

“We’re not entirely separate. I think Pete described it as a fusion before. How are your two sides arranged though?” Starchild asked.

“I don’t think I have two sides?” Midnight said. “I’m just me.”

“Do you remember learning to cast the spells you know?” Pete asked.

“I mean, not for real? If I think about it, I can kind of daydream about what happened but isn’t that like just making it up?” Midnight asked.

“How about fighting?” Pete asked. “I’m basically letting Starchild take care of all of that because I’ve never fought before and fighting for real is freaking terrifying.”

“I’m able to stay towards the back and things don’t attack me. Well most of the time,” Midnight said. “But yeah, I don’t know if I could jump on the front lines. Huh. Maybe if I was playing my main character, I’d be in the same boat you’re in?”

“I don’t know,” Pete said. “I asked Alice and she said her party is all different too. I think she’s more like you.”

“It’s kind of strange thinking that I’ve got two party members, but by comparison to the rest of today, I guess that’s not even in the Top 100 for ‘Weird Stuff I Didn’t Expect to Run Into’.”

“I feel like I have an advantage over you both,” Starchild said. “Something like Pete and my circumstance isn’t exactly common here but it’s not as beyond the pale as it seems to be on your homeworld.”

“Yeah, the whole ‘magic is real’ thing is pretty big change,” Pete said. “Not to mention, ‘this fictional world is completely real’. I still don’t get how this place can be so close to the game. Was one of the developers a wizard from here or something?”

“Sounds as plausible as anything else,” Midnight said. “I just hope I’m able to keep up with you.”

“That’s not going to be a problem,” Starchild said. 

“Yeah, it’s the nice part about a duo,” Pete said. “We can make sure we go at each other’s speed.”

“That and we’ve seen how good of a healer Lady Midnight is,” Starchild said. “She was doing fine with five people to watch after on her own. If she’s able to focus on just me, we’ll be basically invincible so long as we’re fighting things that are reasonable for our level.”

“[Grave Mender] does seem to be a pretty good class,” Midnight said. “At least for pure healing. I was dreading trying to solo with it. I’ve got basically nothing for damage output.”

“This is such a good fit then. I feel like I capped my Luck stat when I came here,” Pete said. “Between being compatible with Starchild and then running into you, I don’t think I’d have dared to ask for all the good thing I’ve got now even if I wishing on a nice genie.”

“Well, we ran into that other group first,” Midnight said. “I’m not sure that I’m counting that in the ‘win’ column.”

“I’m willing to call that one a ‘learning experience’,” Pete said. “Plus we did get some xps from the [Gloom Drinkers] and we made contact with another, apparently more capable, adventuring party if we ever need to call on someone.”

“I wonder how they got that good so quickly?” Midnight asked.

“They’re probably all veterans,” Pete said. “I mean, I’ve played for a while but I was never much of a raider. If they got through those bosses, I’m guessing their mains are all in one of the guilds that raids like five days a week.”

“Maybe I can ask their healer for some pointers?” Midnight said. “I took a long break from the game and I only came back a few months ago, so I’m pretty rusty still. And my main is an [Archer] so there’s probably healer stuff I’m not even thinking about.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Pete said. “We’re almost at the farm house though so let’s see how we do first. That may give us a better idea what questions to ask.”

“Yeah, I’m sure they’d prefer not to have carry two noobs,” Midnight said. “And we do know something about the game, so we should be able to work out the basic stuff.”

“Maybe we should compare notes on what we can do, before we take on our first [Chaos Centipede],” Starchild suggested.

“That’s a good point,” Pete said. “The melee build I had Starchild develop is a weird one for a [Druid] but with the changes they made with [World Shift] it’s supposed to be kind of broken, in a good way. Everyone was expecting that it would be nerfed in the first patch, but, well, no more patches I’m guessing.”

“I’m wishing I’d read up more on the [Grave Mender] spells now,” Midnight said. “I usually piece my builds together from reading different guides, but I figured it didn’t matter early on because I would respec once they fixed the bugs and rebalanced the powers in a month or so.”

“Do you have any real life friends who are still on?” Pete asked.

“No. The guild I usually play with can only make Wednesdays and the weekend,” Midnight said. “Some of them talked about logging in tonight, but I didn’t see them on. That’s why I rerolled a [World Shift] character. I figured it was going to be solo time anyways.”

“Solo time and you rolled a healer?” Pete asked.

“Well, ‘solo’ as in my guild’s not here,” Midnight said. “Teaming is a lot better for xps and healers usually get teams fast.”

“And hopefully a team of two will work out ok in this case,” Pete said.

“I think it should,” Starchild said. “With my build I’m almost a hybrid between a DPS and a Tank. If Lady Midnight can keep me on my feet, we should be able to grind through centipede for as long as her magic holds out.”

“I’ll warn you when I start getting low,” Midnight said.

“Aww, isn’t that cute, they think the only thing they need to be afraid of out here is some bugs,” a [Half-Giant] in mismatched, bloody armor said as he stepped out from behind one boulders along the edge of the road to the farm house.

Starchild’s hand tightened on her staff as her limited selection of spells leapt to her lips. A quick glance around her left her questioning if they would be anywhere near enough. 

From the shadows, seven other players emerged, the names above their heads shining with the ugly red light of someone marked as a Player Killer.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 12

Starchild was supposed to be peaceful. She was supposed to be in harmony with the natural world around her. She was supposed to be supportive and caring for her fellow party members. 

“I’m pretty sure she’s going to start swinging any second now,” Peter said, speaking on a private channel to Lost Alice. “I’m guessing if they’re lucky, she’s stop while there’s still enough left of their corpses to respawn in place.”

“So you’re saying your character is a wholly separate person and that she’s talking to you?” Alice asked.

“More or less?” Peter said. It was beyond strange to be sharing a body with someone he’d made up, but given that he’d disintegrated into a glowing ball of light and then shot god knows how far across the cosmos, his capacity for being overwhelmed had run dry.

Plus he liked Starchild.

“So what are you then? A ghost who’s possessing her body?” Alice asked.

Peter envied her. Alice and Tessa and the two younger kids were still back in the dungeon that Starchild’s party had fled from. The four of them had apparently taken down the bosses who had crushed Starchild’s party repeatedly. 

We should have stayed with them, Starchild whispered in Pete’s mind.

You’re not wrong. We probably still could? Pete was ambivalent about abandoning their party and if Starchild pushed for it, he wasn’t going to torture her to refusing to leave.

Might not be safe, and we don’t know if they have room. They’ve already got three spell casters, and their setup lets them keep only their tank on the front line. Everyone else is safe at ranged.

Starchild was her own person,  Pete knew that, but he could hear echoes of himself in her words just the same. Every doubt framed as a rationale was one he would have rushed to convince himself of. Seeing them in Starchild didn’t make them any easier to cast aside though. If either of them had the courage to manage that, they were both more interested in saving it for some future calamity.

“I’m not really possessing her,” Pete said, speaking externally and yet silently since Alice was miles distant. “We’re more co-piloting? I’m not sure how to explain it exactly. It’s like whatever we are now is a fusion of what we were, without losing what we were. Isn’t that what it’s like for you?”

“No, I’m just hungry,” Alice said. “Some of my teammates though are experiencing something similar to what you described. You should compare notes with Pillowcase when we’re somewhere safer.”

“Not a bad idea,” Pete said. “I’m guessing everyone’s having a different experience, but there’s probably patterns that might gives us clues about what’s going on.”

“And warnings,” Alice said. “These other personas might be ok for you two, but I can’t believe everyone will get along well with their characters like that.”

That depends on how we’re related, Starchild said.

“I think I got lucky there,” Pete said. “Star and I are pretty copacetic.”

“And being in a woman’s body isn’t a problem?” Alice asked.

“It totally should be. I know that. I’ve seen the pain dysmorphia can cause,” Pete said. “My sister went through hell up until recently, when things started getting better. Then this hits and those problems went away for her. Now she’s got bigger fish to fry. Literally since she’s a max rank Fisher and apparently fishing up monsters in the city is giving people something safe-ish to do.”

Maybe it’s not bothering you because we’re in this together? Starchild asked.

Maybe? It’s only been a few hours though, so who knows what this will be like for us if we’re together long term? Pete said.

I can picture a year with you a lot more easily than I can picture another hour with these idiots, Starchild said, indicating the sullen party that was walking ahead of her.

We can leave, Pete offered. Even if we don’t connect up with Alice and Pillowcase’s group, we could go off and do something else.

What else is there for a soloist to do though? We’d never advance on our own.

Eh, we could. It would be slow, though not slower than this to be fair. Pete was still ambivalent about the idea, but he was growing more willing to be talked into leaving.

We should stay, Starchild said, her inner voice fatigued but resolute. They’re sort of terrible, but that’s mostly just their skill. They’ve been good so far as people. If they would just start listening and working together we’d be fine.

“It looks like we’re coming up on a trash mob, we’ll touch base as we go,” Alice said.

Pete knew he could keep sending to her but that she would almost certainly miss what he was saying in the rush of battle. Given that it was fairly rude to interrupt someone when they were fighting for their lives, Pete opted to not even send back an “Ok” acknowledgement.

“So where are we going to go?” Brick Spithouse was, perhaps, the most sullen member of Starchild’s party. And, Pete guessed, the youngest.

“Some place easy,” Lady Midnight, the party’s healer voted.

“We could go back to town?” Fire Falls, the party’s [Elementalist] suggested. “Our gear is pretty trashed and there might be people there we can talk to about better hunting spots.”

“And a better party.” Brick mumbled the words but they were clear as day in the party’s chat log.

Predictably, that spawned yet another heated argument.

“If you don’t want to be with us…”

“It’s not my fault, we just weren’t doing enough damage…”

“If people had just listened…”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t keep trying…”

“I don’t see why anyone thinks we’ll do better anywhere else…”

“Well, it’s not my problem that you all suck…”

“You’re the one who died the most! We all see who sucks here…”

“I see you both sucking…”

Maybe I’m wrong about staying because they need us, Starchild said as she and Pete stayed quietly in the back.

I could try to step in and cool things down before they go too far? Pete said.

It looks like we’re past that point already, Starchild said. I’d guess we were past that point the moment we gave up on the bosses.

***

The party that finally made it back to [Sky’s Edge] hadn’t lost any members but that was largely due to the very real fear of encountering monsters in before they reached the relative safety of the town.

“I’m going to check in at the Chapel,” Lady Midnight said, though no one seemed to have any illusions that they would remain together as a group.

Pete could see the simmering anger which lay behind the unhappy expressions most of the adventurer’s wore. Their beating had done more than bruised their egos. The loss had stripped away the paper thin belief that they’d landed in some kind of fun arcade romp.

They weren’t the Grand Heroes of the Realm, summoned to a magical world to wield fantastic powers and win all the loot. They were nobodies. Even with more strength than they’d ever had before and actual magic, they were still unimportant. Weak. Failures.

Should we let them go off believing that? Starchild asked. I mean, it’s not true. We just hit a bad break and didn’t manage to figure out the secret puzzle of how to kill one set of bosses.

I know, Pete said. For a good team, a setback like that shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet Alice and Pillowcase will be laughing over it tonight when they’re back here.

If they come back here, Starchild said.

I think they’ll be fine, Pete said. If they’re smart enough to figure out the [Soul Blights], then they’re probably smart enough not to mess with anything too fair beyond them too.

True, but if they beat the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave], why would they come back here?

Pete paused to ponder that. He’d played [Broken Horizons] for long enough that the idea of there being a leveling path where you went from a Level 1 village, to a Level 10 one and so on was so ingrained that he was sure something like that had to exist, even though he hadn’t kept up with the Beta Test information enough to know its name.

We should decide where we’re going to go too, Starchild said, gazing as the party she’d been part of split up one by one.

[Sky’s Edge] had grown more populated since they’d left. The townsfolk were out and generally hard at work repairing the damage from the previous night’s attack. They weren’t alone though. At each building there were anywhere from two to ten adventurers pitching in to help with the repairs.

We could do that, Pete said. It’d be a lot safer than going after monsters again.

Kind too, Starchild said. I’m sure the townsfolk will feel better just for having the extra help.

But they’d be even safer if there were people who could actually protect them when the next [Wraithwing Assault] occurs. They both knew it, but Pete felt the idea burning within him.

I feel it too, Starchild said. We’ve got too many reasons to keep going to give up now.

Do we? Pete asked. I mean, should we even try to be adventurers or are we just going to make things harder on people if we really die or have to get rescued?

He could hear the ever familiar doubts rising inside his words. Starchild stood her ground though.

Yes. We should try. Maybe you could be reunited with your sister if she can make it here, but it’s a lot more likely that we’ll be able to make it to her and that’s only going to happen if we level up.

Am I being unfair to you though? Dragging you into danger like that?

You’re not dragging me anywhere, Starchild said. I know, to you, I’m someone you made up. But I have a whole life and I don’t think you made up all of it. For as much as either one of us ‘really’ exists in this pace, I believe I’m real and I know that becoming an adventurer has always called to me. Yeah, there’s no guarantee that everything will turn out ok, but I have to try. To be myself, the me that I want to be, I can’t accept that this is my best. I can be more. And I think you can be too.

Pete choked back a breath at the fierce rush of emotion which accompanied Starchild’s words. 

Let’s do it, he said. Even if we have to solo our way up to the level cap. We can make it work. I know this game, and you’re a freaking badass.

Melee [Druid] for the win right? Starchild’s voice sounded playful and Pete was forced to reflect on the unusual build choice they’d started heading down.

Typically [Druids] were a healer class, though one focused on indirect support more than directly restoring the party’s health. They’d received a few odd buffs in the [World Shift] expansion which had led to Pete experimenting with rolling Starchild up. He wasn’t sure it had been a great idea, but it did mean they had a wider range of tools to draw on than a lot of other characters.

Yeah. We can do this. Pete said. All we need is some method of staying alive long enough to get our spells into play.

“Starchild, are you still there? It looks like it’s just the two of us left,” Lady Midnight said.

Pete glanced at the party roster and discovered it had dwindled down to just the two of them. 

“We can split up if you’d like,” Lady Midnight said. “I’m guessing you’ve got an offer to join that other party that was in the dungeon?”

“No, we’re not going to join up with them,” Starchild said, thinking faster than Pete could.

“Do you know what you’re going to do then?” Lady Midnight asked. “No one at the chapel wants to put together another party.”

“Maybe we don’t need another party,” Pete said. “We could try duo’ing things for a bit? It’d be a lot easier to coordinate things with just two of us. If you’re up for a working together still that is?”

“I…” Lady Midnight said, her relief almost palpable, “…would love to.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 11

Rocks, typically, do not explode. Nor do they scream. Nor are they soft, and cuddly, and weirdly cute. The wings and antennae were decidedly non-rock-like too.  

“Kill it with fire,” Alice ordered, tugging on Matt’s sleeve.

“What? No!” Rip objected, spinning around to place herself between the rest of the party and the creature which had hatched from the “inert” [Gloom Stone].

“My staff doesn’t do fire anymore,” Matt said, looking from his best friend to the voice of experience he’d come to rely on.

“Lightning will be just fine,” Alice said, her fingers twitching in a gesture Tessa recognized as the beginning of a healing spell.

“No!” Rip said. “Don’t hurt it. It’s just a baby.”

“I don’t think that’s what it is,” Tessa said as she angled to get a better look at the fuzzy thing that was huddling in Rip’s sheltering embrace.

“Right. It’s a monster baby,” Alice said. “Those are always bad news.”

“I don’t think that’s what it is either,” Tessa said, holding up her hands in a peaceful gesture. “Think about it. It didn’t hatch from the monster’s corpse. It’s a creature which was released by a specific set of actions by the players. And it’s not attacking. And it’s cute.”

Alice frowned as she followed the path Tessa’s words led her down.

“Oh no. No no no,” Alice said.

“It’ll be fine!” Tessa said. “We don’t have to worry about lag issues anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Rip asked, still guarding her new [Lil Gloom Drinker].

“It’s a freaking pet!” Alice said, the urge to vomit resounding from every word.

“Ok, and that’s bad why?” Matt asked. He’d switched from terrified to confused. Neither was a great look on him, but Tessa could understand where each was coming from.

“Pet’s are a rare drop from certain encounters,” she said.

“So, no, you can’t have one too,” Alice interjected.

Tessa ignored her and continued on as though she hadn’t been interrupted.

“They tend to be unbearably popular, even the really ugly ones,” Tessa said.

“Especially the really ugly ones, and the cute ones, and the boring ones,” Alice said. “People ‘just gotta catch ‘em all’ or something. It’s like a disease.”

“So?” Matt asked.

“So, that usually means when a new pet is released, guilds will spend almost forever grinding out whatever content drops them,” Tessa said. “Even when I was playing there were people who were sick to death of being dragged into endless boss battles for pets that never seemed to drop.”

“But we don’t have to do that,” Matt said.

“That’s right,” Tessa said. “Unless someone collects pets?” She looked at Alice and wondered if Alice might be a former pet hoarder. Glimmerglass had far too many of the things, and Tessa had never been one of the really serious pet catcher types. 

“No!” Alice said, but from how her eyes kept darting to the Rip’s fuzzy celestial butterfly pet, Tessa felt the answer was more ‘Not anymore’.

“So we’re good then?” Matt asked.

“I think we are,” Tessa said, focusing her gaze on Alice.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Alice said, a picture of reluctant acceptance as she let her hands go still.

“What was that about lag?” Rip asked, without relaxing her guard of her pet.

“It’s the biggest problem with pets,” Tessa said. “In the game, even really good computers could be taxed beyond their graphics capacity by big groups like what you find in a raid battle. Add in everyone having a pet tagging along and now the computer has twice as many ‘characters’ to animate, and since the pets don’t know anything about being in battle, they’d just continue doing whatever animations they normally did, including ones that take up even more processing time and ones that obscure parts of the battlefield.”

“Those goddamn [Ice Dancer Pixies],” Alice said. “We eventually instituted a policy to automatically kick from the guild for anyone who pulled one of those things out during a raid.”

“Why?” Matt asked.

“One of their animations was to conjure a small ice puddle which they would skate around on,” Tessa said. “Except ‘small’ in this context was about twenty feet wide. Also the ice puddle was raised up a bit so it wouldn’t clip through uneven terrain too much.”

“That sounds kinda neat,” Matt said.

“Yeah, very,” Alice said. “Everyone loved them. Except for the part where the ice puddles obscured all of the warning signs that would be displayed on the ground when a boss was about to do something.”

“Picture trying to fight in an arena where you’re meant to see telltale hints about where to stand to survive instant-kill attacks but instead all you can see is overlapping sheets of ice,” Tessa said.

“Now imagine trying to heal all those idiots,” Alice grumbled. “Guild kicks were too good for them.”

“It was less than fun,” Tessa said. “On the upside though, I don’t think they released any other pets with animations that big afterwards, right?”

“The [Gas Bubbles] had green farts that were technically smaller, but did pretty much the same thing,” Alice said. “Then there were the [Phoenix Guardians] which were independently targetable for god knows what reason and would block their masters about 110% of the time.”

“FOOF isn’t that big though,” Rip said. “She’s not going to block me.”

“FOOF?” Tessa asked, more to be sure Rip was certain of the name than out of any confusion as to who Rip was referring to.

“Please tell me that is the name you’re giving it and not the one it came with?” Alice said.

“What? I thought it fit,” Rip said.

“God I hope not,” Matt said.

It was Alice’s turn to glare at Tessa as though this was something Tessa had allowed to happen, or even somehow encouraged. Tessa replied with a shrug. Rip had found a pet. What were they going to do? Try to take it away? Tessa had seen what happened when people swiped a pet drop item that was supposed to go to someone else. It wasn’t pretty. Friendships had ended. Whole guilds had been torn apart. And that was for a bunch of ones and zeroes, not something that was actively cuddling with Rip and making the most adorable little cooing sounds.

“Fine,” Alice said. “Just know that you can put FOOF into your backpack. I know that seems weird, but pets are fine in there. In fact, it’s probably the safest place for them since area effect spells don’t spill into the bag’s interior.”

“What if the bag is stolen?” Rip asked.

“It’s attuned to you,” Alice said. “You wouldn’t be able to get into it but neither can anyone else.”

“And if you die and respawn at a [Heart Fire] all of your attuned gear respawns with you,” Tessa said.

“So there’s like no crime in this world is there?” Matt asked.

“Apart from all the players who are [Rogues] there’s plenty of [Bandits], [Thugs], and other criminal types,” Tessa said. “Not everything can be attuned after all. Or fit within a pack that’s attuned.”

“Still, it’s nice that some things can’t be just taken away from you,” Rip said, throwing a frown at Alice.

“That might be something we need to watch for,” Tessa said. “The game didn’t give players the ability to steal from one another because it would just make people unhappy and why bother spending developer time on a feature like that? Here though? Who knows if that’s something people will work out how to do?”

“I think I’m happier here in the dungeon than dealing with people like that,” Matt said.

“Speaking of which, if we’re all healed up here, we should probably move on,” Alice said.

“Think we should bring Starchild’s party up to speed on this?” Tessa asked, as she started walking toward the far end of the cavern room they were in. “They might be willing to come back and help with the rest of dungeon?”

“I don’t know, they did run away,” Rip said, following along with FOOF on her shoulder.

“We would have too though,” Matt said.

“Yeah, but we’ve got an awesome tank who showed us we could be better than that,” Rip said.

“That’s true,” Alice said, offering Tessa a nod and a small smile. “Also, if we assemble a larger group we’ll probably attract stronger foes.”

“I’m half tempted to experiment with that,” Tessa said. “It’d be interesting to know how much of the game’s finer details are present here too. Like If we were in the game, there’s a good chance an encounter with a pet drop in it would have been instanced right?”

“Usually. Open dungeons were too easy to just swarm through. The devs wanted the players to sweat a bit to get the new shinies,” Alice said.

“So my first question is; what, if anything, is instanced in this world? We know this room wasn’t but there’s got to be an end boss in here. Can we just zerg rush him?”

“I kind of hope we can’t,” Alice said.

“That’s when you just throw a ton of players at something right?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, a ton of expendable players,” Tessa said. “It was kind of silly fun sometimes in the game, but here I’m thinking it won’t be so pleasant to sprint into a meat grinder over and over.”

“Yeah, and boss monsters that need to deal with endless piles of players attacking them tend to be stupidly overpowered,” Alice said. “The last thing we need is for the best treasure in this place to be gated behind some hideous beast that it’s going to take a hundred players to get past.”

“I don’t know if we can even field a hundred players,” Tessa said. “We certainly haven’t run in to that many.”

“That’s weird isn’t it?” Rip asked. “I mean there were a lot of players on the servers when we logged in. Where did they all go?”

“Some of them got eaten by the [Wraithwings],” Alice said. 

“No, not eaten. Carried off,” Tessa said. “I wish we BT’s line was open. I’d love to know if they’ve managed to find those players. You know they must have gotten transported into the world the same as us.”

“Maybe they didn’t escape the hounds,” Matt offered.

“Yeah, that’s pretty possible,” Alice said. “If they were carried away to a higher level area, even if there were [Heart Fires] nearby they could use, they may not have been able to stay alive for very long.”

“That’s a bit horrifying,” Tessa said. “Although, maybe not. If there were [Heart Fires] they could get to after they died, their ghosts could probably have hung around the [Heart Fire]. The [Hounds of Fate] didn’t seem to be able to get into the chapel, so maybe they would have been safe there?”

“That’s possible too,” Alice said after considering it for a moment. “And ugly. They’d be trapped there, huffled around the [Heart Fire] in ghost form, maybe surrounded by endlessly baying hounds, until someone could make it out to them and clear away the [Wraithwings] and other mobs and escort them back to somewhere they can survive on their own.”

“Maybe that can be a quest we can take on once we’re powerful enough?” Rip said.

It struck Tessa as unfounded optimism at first, but the more she thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded.

She’d never been a hero. The real world had punished her enough just for trying to exist as a woman, much less as a lesbian. It had been all she could do to save herself as much as she had. The idea of rescuing someone else had always seemed like a nice fairytale – something that other stronger people, could manage.

She wasn’t strong yet. Measured against the top tier players, she probably never would be. But she was stronger. Stronger than she’d ever been as a human woman, and stronger than she’d been when she’d first arrived. 

It’s more than being higher level too. I brought us back here. And we beat those guys. The hard way and the smart way.

That wasn’t something the old Tessa could have done.

Why didn’t I run and hide when I got here? I could have stayed huddled around the [Heart Fire] too.

Because you’re more than you were, someone who spoke her own voice told Tessa.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 10

Tessa wiped off her blade and heaved a sigh of relief. The last of the [Soul Blights] was rapidly dissolving into a steaming puddles of purple ichor and she felt like an idiot. But a living idiot at least. So, that was nice.

“So I don’t get how they died like that?” Rip said, poking one of the remaining bits of monster flesh into the puddle to dissolve with the rest.

“I guess it turns out that [Soul Blights] are deathly allergic to [Gloom Stones],” Tessa said. “Lucky that Starchild was able to mail the one’s their party had collected to us.”

“But the [Soul Blights] melted,” Matt said, staying well way from the ichor puddles. “I mean they were huge and one rock hits them and they melt completely? How is that possible?”

“Magic,” Alice said. “Or maybe it’s natural for this world. The [Gloom Stones] might have initiated the equivalent of tissue necrosis like some poisons do. Just much faster than anything we have in our world.”

“But Pillowcase touched the stones too,” Rip said.

“Yeah, and so did Starchild’s party.” Matt edged away as one of the [Gloom Stones] was revealed in the rapidly dwindling puddle.

It looked different than when Tessa had hurled it at the [Soul Blight]. Originally it had pulsed with veins of purple light and been surrounded with a wispy layer of smoke. As it emerged from the receding puddle though it had turned a dull and inert black, streaked through with empty cracks in its surface.

“Clothworks have resistance to poison damage,” Tessa said. “That might have helped, but I’m guessing the [Gloom Stones] aren’t dangerous to us.”

“They looked pretty dangerous to me,” Rip said as she leaned down to stare at the remains of the [Gloom Stone].

“They were probably included just for this use,” Alice said. “We were meant to beat the [Gloom Drinkers] in the entrance tunnel, pick up a dozen or so of their stones and then figure out that we could use them to get by an encounter which was clearly too difficult for a low level party.”

“But we beat the [Soul Blights],” Matt said. “I mean without the stones, we took one of them down.”

“That’s because we’re awesome,” Tessa said. “Unfortunately being awesome can make you kind of thick too.”

“To be fair, we’ve been expecting things to be horrible after those damn [Wraithwings]. I know that’s why I wasn’t questioning how tough those things were or looking for a better answer,” Alice said. She was sitting down on one of the broken rock pillars with a oddly sly smile on her face.. 

Tessa couldn’t attribute the smile to anything but she noticed that despite the extended battle they’d fought, she didn’t feel tired or even winded really. 

Maybe Alice’s healing spells remove muscle fatigue too? Though if that was the case why would they ever sleep? Just keep casting healing spells and stay awake forever. Assuming she ever felt the need to sleep in the first place. She gave that thought a mental shrug. With how long they’d been in the Fallen Kingdoms, Tessa knew she should have been crashing hard from exhaustion but she wasn’t about to complain that Pillowcase had boundless stamina for her to draw on.

“I still feel silly for not even thinking about outside mechanics for this fight though,” Tessa said. “I mean that’s like Dungeoneering 101: Always assume bosses are ridiculous cheaters.”

“Really? All of them are like this?” Rip asked, turning to look at Tessa and Alice.

“No, no,” Alice said. “Most of them are a lot worse.”

Rip’s eyes narrowed in disbelief and flicked over to Tessa for confirmation.

“Sadly, there’s no lie there,” Tessa said with a shrug. “I mean some of them are just plain old beat downs, especially in the older dungeon areas, but those can come with ridiculous DPS checks.”

“Meaning either Rip and I can blow them up instantly or we’re dead right?” Matt asked.

“Nope, bursting down a boss in a second or two isn’t something anyone can do,” Alice said. “Well, no one can do it with level appropriate bosses. Even my other character, the [Solar Priestess], could have incinerated the guys we just fought, but there’s no point going after mobs that are that much weaker than your character.”

“Yeah for a boss who just relies being a big old bag of hit points, you’re looking at a long, drawn out fight. Where challenge for you comes in is overcoming any self healing the boss has and, if they have a timeout, dropping them before the timer expires.”

“What happens if we can’t do that?” Rip asked.

“It differs,” Alice said. “Originally, the fight would just drag on literally forever. You’d get these stalemate battles where neither side could beat the other so the players would have to just stop fighting and accept the defeat eventually. Later on they started giving the bosses things like ‘Rage timers’ where if you don’t beat them in an hour, or thirty minutes, or ten minutes, they’d go berserk and start doing like ten times as much damage as they had been. Other times they just have the boss teleport away, so that you can’t get their loot and whatever time you spent getting to them is wasted.”

“I guess that could have happened with these guys right?” Matt asked.

“Possibly,” Tessa said. “There’s something about this room, or maybe this dungeon, that empowered them. Like Alice said, nothing in Broken Horizons was truly immortal. The [Soul Blights] might have been able to regenerate in place rather than respawning, but to pop back up at full health? That had to be an external force that brought them back.”

“Or it’s possible they have a self-rez ability,” Alice said. “Those are typically on a timer of some sort, so if you kill the mob you need to re-kill quickly before the rez is available again, but I think you’re right, self-rezzes should be off the table for low level mobs like those guys.”

“So we should expect more bosses to be able to do that?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, typical dungeon design has the early bosses showing off abilities the later bosses will possess too, usually in a stronger form,” Tessa said.

“If this place is real now though, why is it following a developer’s designs?” Rip asked. She poked at the [Gloom Stone] remnant with one end of her bow and watched it wobble.

“Probably for the same reason that we have the same abilities and spells as in the game,” Alice said.

“The developers also put in a lot of work on making things hang together for verisimilitude,” Tessa said. “Maybe that’s why this place works as an actual world.”

“What do you mean?” Matt asked.

“Well take these guys,” Tessa said. “They were tough from our perspective but in the overall scheme of things they’re small fries. You wouldn’t even need a level capped [Solar Priestess] to solo them. I’m guessing anyone around level 20 or so wouldn’t have a problem.”

“We’re going to go that much stronger?” Rip said.

“Yeah, a few levels can make a big difference in a fight, and a bunch of levels can completely decide it,” Tessa said.

“So they were hiding here?” Matt asked.

“More like they picked this as their hunting grounds I think,” Alice said, gesturing towards the pile of bones at the far end of the room.

“Look at it from their perspective,” Tess said. “They need weaker creatures to prey on, so they’re eventually drawn to this dungeon because as a low level area, it’s filled with relatively weak creatures. They get in here and they discover, probably when they tangle with something unexpectedly tough, that the area has a constant resurrection field they’re capable of tapping into. Can you imagine a better hunting ground than that?”

“Yeah, my kitchen,” Rip said, throwing a rare smile out.

“Like you cook?” Matt said.

“Jerk,” Rip replied.

“Jerk who can cook,” Matt corrected.

Tessa felt bubbles of warmth sparkle up inside her. If Rip and Matt were able to relax into what seemed to be their old comraderie then they’d done more than come through the battle, they’d come through it as a team.

“The [Gloom Drinkers] fit in there too,” Alice said, looking at one of the [Gloom Stones] they still had left. “They’re obviously toxic to the [Soul Blights], and with them in the tunnel leading out, the [Soul Blights] would have been stuck here unable to exit out, at least not through this entrance.”

“Why would they need to though?” Rip asked. “Why would they need to hunt? Or even eat in general? If we can’t die, or if we can just respawn I guess, why bother with eating?”

“Pleasure? Habit? Because starving is no fun?” Tessa could think of a lot of reasons why someone might eat that weren’t sustenance related.

“Some debuffs carry over across death too,” Alice said. “Maybe hunger is one of them?”

It wasn’t a cheerful thought. Tessa pictured being trapped somewhere without food and simply dying over and over again from continual starvation.

Maybe there are times when you don’t run from the [Hounds of Fate], you run to them.

“Are they going to respawn on us or should we get going?” Rip asked, poking the dead [Gloom Stone] again.

The puddle of purple ichor had seeped down into the cracks in the rock floor following some form of physics which seemed at odds with how Earthly liquids flowed. With no ichor to diminish its motion, the [Gloom Stone] wobbled more than before. In fact, it wobbled a bit more than Tessa felt it really should have given Rip’s gentle tap on it.

“Boss respawn times are typically pretty long,” Alice said. “And, as long as the local [Heart Fire] is keyed for our use, they’ll have to find somewhere else to pop back from.” 

“Not to be greedy, but shouldn’t they have dropped some treasure for us or something?” Matt asked. “I mean the stones made the fight pretty easy, but those things wrecked that other party.”

“You mean like this [Treasure Coffer]?” Alice asked and hopped off the broken pillar she’d been sitting on. 

Or rather, the tall chest which had been cleverly disguised as one of the rock pillars in the room.

“You sure you’re not a [Rogue]?” Tessa asked with a teasing smile.

“Just checking if anyone would think to ask about it,” Alice said and turned to Matt, “Congrats, you passed.”

 “So what did we get?” Rip asked, after rolling her eyes at Matt’s pleased smile.

“Don’t know,” Alice said. “Let’s see if anything’s an upgrade.”

It was like her birthday had come early for Tessa after the lid rose.

“[Wyvern Scale Mail]? A [Shield of Frost]? And a [Mace of Crushing]?” Tessa had never been so glad to see random low level gear in her life.

“I vote that all goes to Pillowcase,” Alice said. “Rip and I can divvy up the coins and Matt can take the…” Alice paused as she cast an appraising eye at the last two items in the [Treasure Coffer]. “[Staff of Lightning Shock] and the [Ifrit Robes]”.

As treasure hauls went, it was far better than anything they’d encountered so far. The gold Alice and Rip were splitting was pocket change to a high level adventurer but it probably increased their personal fortunes tenfolk.

“It’s like this loot was designed for allowing us to deal with the [Soul Blights],” Matt said as he inspected the stats on his new gear.

The [Ifrit Robe] offered decent resistance to fire damage for a low level item and the [Staff of Lightning Shock] came with an enchantment which added a briefly paralyzing electrical effect to a casters basic attacks. Tessa’s new armor and shield similarly increased her resistance against fire damage and her new mace held an enchantment to weaken her foes resistance to damage.

“So of course we get it after we beat them,” Rip sighed. Tessa guessed that while a pile of gold coins would have been amazing in the real world, she’d probably been hoping for some magic items for her own use too.

“It’s fairly typical,” Alice said. “Treasure hauls like this are usually intended to make grinding the bosses easier, so that everyone can get better gear.”

“Should we do that then?” Matt asked as his new robe appeared around him. “Just wait for them to respawn and generate some more loot?”

“We could, but it would be a long wait,” Alice said. “Bosses are slow to respawn, and Treasure Coffers are even slower. We probably wouldn’t be able to pillage this one again for at least a day, or maybe a week or a month.”

“Things take that long to respawn in game?” Rip asked.

“In real time, it’s typically a hour, a day, or a week, depending on what it is, but game time runs a lot faster than Earth time, so if we’re looking at how long it takes to respawn based on that, then, yeah, months are definitely possible.” Tessa saw that the inert [Gloom Stone] Rip had poked earlier didn’t seem to be entirely inert any longer.

“Is that still wobbling?” Rip asked and stepped over towards it again with her bow held out.

“You might want to step back from that,” Alice said as she followed her own advice.

“Why’s that?” Rip asked as she bent down to inspect the stone more closely. She was holding the end of her bow against it to steady it but it was still moving.

Almost shivering.

Like something…

Tessa started to move towards Rip but the creature inside the [Gloom Stone] finished hatching first.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 9

Tension. Pillowcase felt it resonating inside her like a harp string being strummed by a buzzsaw.

“They haven’t seen us yet,” Rip whispered. 

Pillowcase grinned. The whisper was silly. They were speaking telepathically. The [Soul Blights] weren’t going to overhear them no matter how “loudly” they spoke.

“Call when in position,” she said. Maneuvering took care. The three monsters had healed back up to pristine shape, but they were still on the alert. Fortunately the team’s plans had been right.

The [Soul Blights] weren’t sapient. They didn’t think, or plan. Not at the level a human did at any rate.

Tessa snorted. Thinking like a human wasn’t setting a high bar given some of the people she’d met.

That didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous though. The treatise she’d been encoded with gave her a detailed breakdown of their capacities and manufacture.

Their manufacture? Wait, what? Tessa paused behind one of the half height pillars which dotted the chamber where the [Soul Blights] prowled. Rip and Matt were still moving. 

She could stop them. 

Share what she knew with the rest of the team and allow them to digest it.

But how the hell do I know that the [Soul Blights] are manufactured? She didn’t have a good answer for herself. Or for the question, why did I only remember that now?

She could see the datasheet being spun into a thread of crystal and light. She could feel it being woven into her head. Far before she was even fully conscious.

Seriously, what the hell is this?

Pillowcase shook her head. 

Now was not the time to be lost in memory.

Are they even real? Tessa wanted to know. Probably. She probably wanted to know? Or not. Whatever was rattling around in her head, it felt like it went beyond simple imagination and the possibilities there were terrifying the more she looked at them.

“We’re set,” Matt said.

Pillowcase couldn’t see them from her vantage point. That was fine. She knew where they would be. She knew what she had to do.

“I have the shot lined up,” Rip said. “Waiting to see if they separate like you said.”

“They will,” Alice said. “They’re not roaming in sync.”

“Call a warning if they spot you,” Pillowcase said.

It would take between twenty seconds and three minutes for the [Soul Blights’] attention to diverge to the point where Rip could safely try to pull them. Pillowcase…

No. Tessa.

Tessa could use that time to put her head together.

How am I remembering Pillowcase’s life? How am I remembering things she can’t possibly remember?

Memory was information. Pillowcase had been made with all requisite information included. Every fact and thought had been carefully stitched in.

Why would anyone stitch in memories of memories being stitched into your head though? How would that help you be a better [Soul Knight]?

Pillowcase…

Pillowcase didn’t have an answer for that.

“None of them are looking at the others,” Rip said. “I’m taking the shot.”

There was no skill invocation, or spell casting. The idea with pulling was to draw the attention of all the target you wished to fight, so the shot from Rip’s bow came down to purely her skill. 

Pillowcase waited, her fingers leaving dents on the sword handle, as the first of the [Soul Blights] screamed and thundered towards Rip’s position.

“The others are alerted too,” Alice called. “They’re searching for attackers.”

Not a perfect result, but likely the best pull available given the [Soul Blights] status as an integrated combat unit.

These things were made to fight together? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you share this earlier?

Pillowcase discarded the question.

The [Soul Blight] rambled by on the other side of the pillar and she sprang out, plunging her sword into its unprotected flank.

A solid hit. 

Good provoke effect.

The [Soul Blight] checked its charge and swung its momentum into a slashing strike Pillowcase caught on her shield. 

On its own, the strike could have punctured better steel than cheap metal Pillowcase’s shield was crafted from. At least on a direct hit. 

Deflecting the [Soul Blight’s] claw only required catching it at the right angle though, and recoiling for a fraction of a second to spread the force of the impact out.

Pillowcase stabbed the [Soul Blight] again, and felt the familiar glee of battle rising inside.

Chill, Tess said and brought the sword out to parry the attack from the other claw she was exposed to.

Pillowcase stepped back to buy a fraction of a second of breathing room and cast an evaluating glance at the other two [Soul Blights].

They were going to join the fight shortly. For the moment, they were stationary, probably expecting another attack from the other party.

“Pour it on,” Pillowcase said. They had a short time window where the only adversary they had to worry about was the one she had under control. 

“[Charged Shot!]

“[Casting Spell: Lesser Torment]”

Rip and Matt joined the fray in ernest and Pillowcase smiled. They’d waited for her to secure the [Soul Blights] attention. That was to be expected of Matt Painting. He was a Metal Mechanoid, an construct like her, but Rip was a native of this world. Her discipline was exceptional according to the data the [Consortium of Pain] had supplied.

You’re waking up, aren’t you?

Fight. Focus.

Tessa parried another claw strike and felt the impact ring through her arm. If it had been her human arm she guessed she would have fractured her wrist but Clothworks were made just a bit sturdier than that.

Without thinking, she swept her shield out, catching the other claw and clearing it away so they she could slash the head atop the worm body as it drew in a fiery breath.

No. Not you. Me. I’m waking up.

FOCUS!

Pillowcase launched herself backwards, avoiding the sputtering stream of fire from the [Soul Blight’s] interrupted breath attack.

As she rose she saw a twitch in the [Soul Blight’s] legs that she recognized.

The plan was that she would swivel around and block for the party but in the moment she was struck with a better idea.

Stepping forward, Pillowcase pulled her shield in close and thrust her sword up through head which was about to spew fire on her team.

The blade passed point first through the underside creature’s jaw and exited out the top of its mostly vestigial head.

The handle grew warm to her touch as the fire the [Soul Blight] attempt to spit out was trapped inside its mouth.

A design weakness. 

The creatures relied on magic to provide the ingredients but the fire was mostly a mundane chemical reaction from combining two reactive substances.

The [Soul Blight] tried to scream as it burned from within, but Pillowcase’s sword held its mouth pinned shut.

As the flames spread within the creature, Pillowcase saw the tendrils of Matt’s spell, [Lesser Torment] weaving around the destruction and encouraging its growth. In theory, the damage was illusionary but the illusions which could cause unavoidable, debilitating pain, seemed real enough to Pillowcase.

The [Soul Blight] was eventually saved from additional burning pain when its head simply exploded. Pillowcase wasn’t fooled that an injury like that was a serious one though. She’d seen Starchild literally smash a [Soul Blight] head like an overripe melon. The creature’s cognitive function, what feeble ones which existed, were distributed throughout its body and were largely tied up in its Fight or FIGHT response.

She parried and blocked another set of blows, as the other two [Soul Blights] finally turned to join the fray. They scuttled in, heading towards Pillowcase, who had made sure to stay directly in their line of sight.

That wasn’t sure enough though.

“[Casting Spell: Lesser Spirit Drain].” She centered the spell on the nearest [Soul Blight], confident that it would catch them both.

“Mark Prime!” she called, indicating the damaged monster. “Focus this one down. I’ve got the other two.”

“And I’ve got you,” Alice said. 

Tessa felt a distant pain as the undirected flames from the damaged [Soul Blight] splatted her. Alice let a bit of damage accumulate before she cast her healing spells, leaving room for Pillowcase’s own healing abilities to restore her and cement the monster’s attention where it belonged.

Fighting three of the aberrations at once felt glorious once again. As the battle joy rose though it met with a wave calm detachment.

Yes, this was where she belonged.

A battle like this was what she had been designed for. It was her original purpose. Why she had been given form and substance.

But none of that mattered.

Pillowcase, or Tessa, or whoever or whatever she was, her purpose wasn’t what someone else said.

She felt exhilaration at strength she’d never had before.

She felt pride at being able to protect people who were kind to her.

It was even pretty nice to hurt the damn things that had hurt and killed her once already. That wasn’t a great thing. It felt dark, and mean, and crueler than she probably should be. 

But it was her. 

I’m not perfect. Maybe I’m a little evil for enjoying killing these things. Right now though, maybe that’s what I need to be.

Surviving the attacks from all three of the monsters at once seemed to drive that assertion home. 

Everywhere was claws and flame. There was no possibility of blocking or parrying all of them at once. So Pillowcase did what she did best and simply tanked the pain and injuries.

“[Minor Light Stealing]”

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

“[Heart Killer Curse]”

She cast her spells and invoked her abilities over and over allowing the [Minor Life Stealing] to draw a steady stream of regeneration from her foes, while the [Lesser Spirit Drain] stole a bit more and slowed the [Soul Blights], and the [Heart Killer Curse] damaged them and healed her slightly every time their attacks penetrated her defenses. 

It wasn’t easy, or pleasant, but after a few minutes of juggling maintaining the [Soul Blights] attention on her with her need to heal and cast, Pillowcase knew Tessa had been right.

They could handle this fight.

“The first one’s almost down,” Alice said. “Be ready for the other two to enter a rage mode.”

Pillowcase braced herself. She’d lost track of the [Soul Blight’s] health. It was hard to believe they were about to defeat one of the monsters that had repeatedly killed a much bigger party.

Well, maybe not that hard to believe. Tessa didn’t voice that thought to anyone else. Pete’s party had been through enough. They didn’t need anyone kicking them while they down.

Even if they were weak sauce compared to her team.

“[Multi-Burst!] [Charged Shot!]” Rip’s barrage landed like the hammer of a god on the damage [Soul Blight] and blasted it to pieces across the room.

Three cheers for magic clothes, Tessa thought, glad she wasn’t going to have to wipe a ton of gore off after the fight.

“Good shot! Now watch the others,” Alice said.

Pillowcase did more than watch though. She charged in close to hit once with a sword strike and the other with a shield bash. 

Whatever ridiculous, cheater move they were going to pull, she was not letting them get away from her.

She had them both well under control.

So of course the one that was defeated rose from the dead.

Fully restored to life.

“Are you kidding me!” Pillowcase wasn’t sure who screamed that, but was willing to put reasonable money on it being herself.

“How is it back?” Matt asked. “We just spend five minutes beating every bit of life out of it!”

“[Charge Shot]” Rip said. “Damn it’s not ready yet. Die you jerk. Freaking die!”

“These things can’t be immortal,” Alice said. “That’s ridiculous. Even the damn gods aren’t immortal in this world.”

“If this was still a game, I’d say it was a glitch,” Tessa said.

“A glitch or…oh crap,” Alice said.

“What?” Matt asked.

“It’s not a glitch,” Tessa said, arriving at the same conclusion Alice had. In hindsight it was obvious.  “It’s a mechanic. We’re not supposed to fight these things head on like this. There’s a trick we’re supposed to be using.”

“What’s the trick?” Rip yelled.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “There’s nothing in here that we can manipulate is there?”

Tessa’s mind raced as Pillowcase redoubled her defense.

The room wasn’t empty, but there were no clear environmental hazards to use – no lava to lure the [Soul Blights] into for example.

No special enchantments in play either. Nothing that could be boosting the monsters and nothing she could see that would be able to depower them.

None of the things in the room looked like they would help at all.

They were doomed. They couldn’t win the fight.

Unless what we need isn’t in this room! 

“Alice! Get Starchild on the line! Ask them if the critters they fought on the way in had any special drops!”

Tessa’s spirit soared.

She was not going to lose.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 8

When faced with the unknown there is one decision which reasonable people should almost always make.

“Let’s leave too,” Alice said, when Tessa relayed the information Peter had provided about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].

Tessa couldn’t fault her. When they’d chosen to try for a dungeon, it had been with the idea that a dungeon near [Sky’s Edge] would be appropriate for characters of their low level. For that to be the case though, the dungeon needed to be one which was artificially created to be manageable for low level adventurers. The [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] was no such creation according to the players who had a line to the beta testers, and that made it both an unknown quantity and eminently sensible to flee from as quickly as possible.

“Leaving makes sense to me,” Matt said. “I mean, we can search for the dungeon entrance that Aie and Zibby found instead right? That dungeon was supposed to be a lot easier, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Tessa said, “Going there and grinding on the mobs would be simpler and safer.”

She couldn’t deny the reasoning she was coming up with. She had died fighting the creatures that waited deeper in, and they were, usually, the weakest ones you’d find in a dungeon. Pressing forward again expecting things to turn out differently was almost the definition of insanity.

“You want to give this one another try though, don’t you?” Alice asked.

Tessa sighed.

“Yeah. I do.”

“There’s better treasure in here than outside isn’t there?” Rip asked.

“There should be,” Tessa agreed. “But that’s not why I think we should try again. If we chase after the ‘Best Loot’, we’re going to convince ourselves to charge into places we should never go. Being too greedy can and will get you hurt. Badly.”

“Why risk this place then?” Rip asked.

Tessa paused and searched for her real reason.

“I think we can handle it,” Tessa said finding certainty in her words with each one she spoke. “At least the [Soul Blights]. And if we can beat them, we can push on and see what else we can handle in here.”

“You don’t like to lose, do you?” Alice asked, tiny crinkles of amusement at the corners of her eyes.

“There’s that,” Tessa admitted. She hated seeing parties give up on an objective, though she’d often been the one to encourage them to when she saw that they didn’t have the right makeup. 

This time felt different though. Their team wasn’t a perfect mix. They had the general bases covered but at four members they had open team slots for four more players, and the missing strength there wasn’t going to do them any favors in a tough battle.

But a successful team wasn’t necessarily a question of numbers. There had been people who’d soloed the most difficult content in the game, and small raid groups who’d done things no other group had managed. Who the people were mattered more than how many of them were present. At least sometimes.

“I think we need this,” Tessa said. 

“The win?” Alice asked with a look that was caught between curiosity and teasing.

“The experience,” Tessa said. 

“Are the [Soul Blights] worth that much?” Matt asked.

“Not really,” Alice said.

“She’s right. We’d be better off grinding up the centipedes if we wanted to level quickly,” Tessa said. “I mean the real experience of working as a team.”

“Go on,” Alice said, curiosity melting into intrigue.

Tessa took a breath and thought back to her time playing as Glimmerglass. Knowing what she wanted and putting into words why she wanted it were far from the same thing, but she decided to stumble through it as best she could.

“One thing that always seemed to distinguish the best groups from the rest was that they wanted to be the best. Not the best in the world necessarily, but the best they could be.” It felt like she was stating the obvious but the others seemed to with her, so she continued. “Back when I was playing originally, the only thing a lot of groups wanted was to clear a dungeon, or beat a raid boss, or earn a piece of loot, using the easiest tactics they could find.”

“That’s still pretty common,” Alice said. “Even AoL, my guild, tends to follow whatever strategy the top end guilds come up with for raids.”

“I can understand that,” Tessa said. “You were playing the game for fun. Going the easy route means more good stuff with less headaches.”

“That sounds kind of appealing,” Matt said.

“It is,” Tessa said. “But we’re not in a game anymore. This dungeon is proof of that. There aren’t always going to be strategies in place that we can follow. If we want to survive here, we’re going to have to be the ones who create those strategies for ourselves. Or we can wait and hope that other players take pity on us.”

“Yeah, that idea sucks,” Rip said.

“For the record, I don’t disagree,” Alice said, “but didn’t you say Pete was going to make up a community map so that everyone could share their information? Are you planning to trust the other players or are you working under the assumption that they’re basically scum?”

“Both?” Tessa said. “Sort of.”

She caught Alice’s eye roll and continued to explain her reasoning.

“People can be incredible in a crisis, and this definitely qualifies as a crisis, but relying on everyone working in the common interest is foolish if we’re not willing to pull whatever weight we can,” she said. “I’m happy to share any information we find. I think having all of us at max level might give us the best chance at whatever challenges the [Fallen Kingdoms] throw at us. Part of my concern though is that if we rely on other people to tackle the difficult stuff first, we’re allowing them to be the gate keepers as to whether information about hard challenges gets out or not. Maybe it’s selfish, but I’d rather be the one making that call.”

“Ok, and the rest of your concern is?” Alice asked. “You said the gatekeeping was only part of it.”

“Oh, right, that’s more personal I guess,” Tessa said. “It’s just…this matters. What we’re doing now? This isn’t like anything in our world. At my job, I can put in all the overtime I want. I can write the best code in the world. All the extra effort though? It doesn’t matter. The best I can do is avoid getting in trouble for being late, but even that’s not guaranteed. Here though? We’re in charge of ourselves here. What we do, how much we put into this, how hard we try? All that has a payoff.”

She glanced over at Rip and Matt, wondering if they could understand how soul crushing the adult world could be. Even if their experiences were different though, they two seemed to appreciate what she was saying.”

“We could choose to take it easy. We could let someone else solve this problem. And the next one. And the one after that. And maybe that’s the right answer. I don’t know. I just don’t think that’s what I want to be. I’ve tried it. I’ve lived it. And it sucks.”

“And if we can’t beat the [Soul Blights]? Or if the next thing in the dungeon is some level 99 nightmare beast?” Alice asked, her eyes searching for answers in Tessa’s.

“If we can’t win, then we can’t win. And that’s fine. If the next chamber past these guys has sixteen [Elder Dragons] in it, then hell yeah we book it out of there. That’s not giving up, that’s being realistic. It’s like the difference between a high jumper putting the bar another inch past where their best position, vs putting it up in orbit. I think the [Soul Blights] are something we can handle. They feel realistic if we push ourselves and learn from them. That’s why I want to continue on.”

“I agree,” Alice said. “I want to hear what Rip and Matt think though. We had a setback against the [Chaos Centipedes] but this is different. This place might be way too much for us. I think we’re taking a real risk here too, since the deeper in we go, the less we can trust that something’s not going to come along and switch the [Heart Fire] back so we can’t use it.”

“Can that happen?” Matt asked.

“Not in the game, but like Pillowcase said, this place isn’t playing by the game’s rules anymore,” Alice said.

“I still want to go forward,” Rip said. “I think we can do it too.”

“And if we can’t?” Alice asked.

“If we can’t then we come up with a new plan,” Rip said. “We try somewhere we can handle. Or we go back to town and find more people. Or whatever.”

“I like what Pillowcase said too.” Matt looked away as he said it, too embarrassed to make eye contact. “I think we can be good like you said. And I like that we could be the ones to make sure people are helped out by what we learn.”

“Seems like the the yes votes have decided it,” Alice said.

“This isn’t a voting thing,” Tessa said, reaching out but stopping short of taking Alice’s arm. “I don’t want to drag any of you into something you don’t want.”

“Except you’re not dragging me, and I never said my vote wasn’t yes too.” Alice offered Tessa a smile. “I think you’re right about our skill being important. And our mindset. All of the levels and gear in the world don’t matter if you’re not able to use them. I feel clumsy with Alice here. She’s so different from my main character, but that’s no excuse to suck with her.”

“Even though she’s a vampire?” Tessa asked and regretted the pun as the words left her mouth. They did earn her another eye roll though, so her regret was limited.

“Don’t remind me how hungry I am,” Alice said, flashing her fangs.

As weapons of terror went, they were a bit too tiny to be properly menacing. ‘Cute’ was the word that came to Tessa’s mind, which might have horrified the developer responsible for designing them, but she was going to stick with it.

“So, what do we do?” Rip asked. “I mean, how do we fight those things?”

“We’re not just going to run in there right?” Matt asked. “I mean that didn’t seem to work too well for that other party.”

Pete’s party had left arguing bitterly as Tessa had predicted. She’d been pleased to see that Pete was trying to be a moderating influence and had shutdown some of the worst of the bickering. Or maybe Starchild, his character, had? When she had some time to kill, Tessa want to follow up on that. Even within her own party, she saw people having different experiences with who their characters were. She could only imagine what the full range of possibilities might be.

“Running in is a definite no,” Alice said. “At least for now. I’m willing to bet there’s a strategy where we could make that work, but mindless aggression is not how you ‘git gud’.”

“We’re better off seeing if we can make a pull work,” Tessa said. “Sometimes monsters will alert each other when they sense an enemy, but the [Soul Blights] seem like they mind be a bit more bestial than that.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “They are grouped together though. If they were loners by nature, we probably wouldn’t be facing three of them.”

“True. So decent chance the pull doesn’t bring just one of them?” Tessa said. “I’ll have to be ready for that.”

“What’s a pull?” Rip asked.

“Basically what it sounds like,” Tessa said. “Rather than running in to fight the monsters, we pull them over to fight us. In the right situation, you can pull them one at a time and have a bunch of easier fights than one much harder one.”

“Aren’t we looking for harder though?” Matt asked.

“We don’t need the fights to be hard, just the challenges we chose to tackle,” Tessa said. “Pulling is a tool in our kit, and being good at it can make all the difference sometimes.”

“How do we do it?” Rip asked.

“Well, basically, you get to be the star of this show,” Alice said.

Tessa watch the smile of delight break across Rip’s face as Alice explained what they needed her to do. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 7

They were in the wrong dungeon.

“So, according to Zibby, this place isn’t anything like that dungeon they ran through?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah,” Alice said with a sigh of vexation. “It sounds like we went in the wrong cave.”

“How many dungeons are there around here?” Matt asked.

They were assembled around the [Heart Fire], having respawned there rather than risk rising again on an active battle field. From the steady stream of people in the other party who were passing through the [Heart Fire], Tessa was confident she’d made the right call.

“Usually?” Alice asked. “There should be only one. Or two at most, but in that case the second one is usually an end game expansion on the original dungeon.”

“That can’t be what we’re in now, right?” Rip asked. She was sitting beside Matt and hugging her knees. Despite that though, so looked a little less stressed than she’d been before they started planning their next move.

“Right,” Alice said. “If this was a max level area, those creatures would have killed the entire group of us with their first couple of swings. In fact the [Over-Damage] would have destroyed all our gear too. So, no, this isn’t an end game dungeon.”

“It doesn’t even seem to be particularly beyond us,” Tessa said. In the distance a dying scream rang out as another member of the other party went down before the [Soul Blight’s] attacks.

“Seems to be beyond them though,” Rip said, hiding a smile. It wasn’t a kindly smile but it did speak to the rekindling of her confidence and for that Tessa was quietly grateful.

“Should we stop them?” Matt asked.

“Probably,” Alice said. “We don’t know what the story is with the [Hounds of Fate] and dungeon areas.”

“Can they not come in here?” Rip asked.

“According to the lore, they can go anywhere people can die,” Tessa said. “No wards or walls can keep them out, no locked gates or guard may bar their way. That’s in their description text if I remember right. On the other hand, in the game, they were a mechanism to keep players from roaming off the map when in ghost form, and in a dungeon there’s no problem with that, so the hounds aren’t really needed here.”

“Yeah, what is it with not being able to walk through walls as a ghost?” Matt asked. “I thought we could get back faster if we did, but nope, just crashed face first into the wall.”

“You tried to walk through a ghost wall,” Tessa said. “The [Dead Lands] resembles the living world, and the things in it are as solid to ghosts as material things are to the living. Again, that was just easier for the devs to code up I bet, but it also makes some sense. If ghosts could pass through anything then why wouldn’t they fall through the floor to the center of the planet?”

“I sent a whisper to the tank on that other team,” Alice said. “No response yet.”

“Let me try the melee fighter I talked to,” Tessa offered. “She was at least observant enough to notice that we’d joined the fray.”

“Ok, I’ll show Rip and Matt how to repair the damage respawning here did to their gear then,” Alice said.

Tessa smiled. She’d rarely played with other healers, since most parties only needed one. It was such a delight to be with someone who  thought about helping others that she wanted to reach over and kiss Alice. Since that wasn’t exactly an option though, Tessa settled for enjoying the warm feeling in her chest at the thought that she really wasn’t alone in this.

Starchild? We’re regrouping at the [Heart Fire] point. Can you get your party to regroup here with us? We have to be careful about the [Hounds of Fate].

Tessa added the last bit just in case word hadn’t reached them yet of that wrinkle in their new lives. In truth though she was more concerned about stopping them before they ground out all hope from themselves. Repeated deaths tended to fracture parties and lead to rage-quits more than anything factor. Except there was no “rage quit” option at the moment, so despair seemed the more likely result.

Hi, uh, Pillowcase? It was Starchild who answered back from the text lines in Tessa’s chat log, but they were speaking with a deep baritone voice. One they hadn’t spoken in during the fight. I can try to stop them but some of them aren’t listening so well.

Ouch, sorry there, I’ve been with a lot of parties like that, Tessa said. Are they friends of yours?

I mean, they’re not my enemies. Yet, Starchild said, with a note of exasperation in his voice. We met up after we all got dragged into the game, so this is the first we’ve played together. My normal group is either still back in the real world or they were playing their mains over in the regular zones.

So some of them got pulled in too? Tessa asked.

Yeah, a couple of my buddies and my sister got pulled in before I could warn them. Unfortunately they can’t get to us. There’s a quest they need to do but it’s locked out at the moment.

I heard about that, Tessa said. One of our party is in a raiding guild and none of them can make it here either, for the same reason.

I forgot how hard low level partying was, Starchild said. I was planning to get power leveled up to 50 or so at least tonight but at this rate I’m going to be lucky to hit 5 before the servers crash and wipe us all out.

The servers do what now? Tessa asked. Did you hear that was going to happen?

Oh! No! Sorry, it was just a joke people were making given how the servers always seem to crash a few times on the night of a big new release. We figured it would be the perfect icing on the cake if that deleted us too, since it would make this suck even more.

I’ll pass on the whole getting deleted thing, thanks, Tessa said, picturing what a disaster a server crash would be even without that. 

From the sounds of it there were still plenty of people who were logged in and hadn’t been drawn into the game yet. Those people had the best chance of being “saved” since for all anyone knew, there might be a time limit on the World Shift effect, assuming someone couldn’t figure out what caused the World Shifts to occur and stop it from happening again entirely. If the servers crashed though, the best case scenario was that they’d all be drawn in just like the people who’d been drawn in the support staff had tried to shut down one of the map servers where the World Shifts were first noticed.

Same here on not being deleted, Starchild said. My name’s Pete by the way.

Nice to meet you Pete, I’m Tessa. I’m guessing you got a bit more of a change than most of us when you were dragged here?

Yeah. I mean, I love Starchild, but I wasn’t really look to be her. Not like my sister was with her character. Fair is fair though, I think Starchild’s kind of puzzled by me too. Oh, my party is going to gather at the [Heart Fire] now. Finally got them to listen. Thanks for giving us a rally point. That seemed to help focus them.

There were a number of things in what Pete has said that Tessa wanted to unpack, but she knew the sort of patience most pick up groups were ‘blessed’ with. Starving toddlers who were also somehow on an extreme sugar high could almost measure up to the typical group of players. On a good day for the players.

We respawned there, but if your folks want to hang out in the [Dead Lands] to save on gear damage we can form an [Alliance] and chat on the shared channel there? Tessa suggested.

I’ll check with them, Pete said. There’s…dissention in the ranks. Give us a minute okay?

Sure, and good luck, Tessa said. She didn’t have to be part of their party chat at all to know what was being said. Even though it had been years since Tessa played, something never really changed. 

People had run into a bad experience, specifically one which showcased their weakness. It was a wonderful chance for growth and reflection…which no one ever took. Unless Tessa missed her guess, there were recriminations flying everywhere in the other party’s chat log. Who was at fault, what was holding them back, how each person was doing what they were supposed to and it was someone else’s fault that they were failing miserably, all of that would be erupting like a popping pimple.

Calm heads could bring things back together. Sometimes. The problem was, could any of them really manage to remain calm with everything that had happened to them today?

Some of them want to give up, Pete said. They’re saying we don’t have the right skills and that we’re too low level to take on something like this.

That’s always possible, Tessa said, though she didn’t think that was really the issue. 

Sometimes fights were too difficult for a party to tackle. She’d seen it often enough. Maybe the boss healed faster than the party could damage him. Or maybe the battle required mobile characters and no one had movement abilities. Whatever the reason, some fights weren’t winnable with some combinations of characters, or were winnable only with such effort and at such great cost that there wasn’t really a point to fighting them.

Far more often though, she saw things like she’d seen with the other party. People who were each trying to do their own thing, but without any thought towards coordinating with each other, or learning the details of the encounter.

Being beat once was no shame. A lot of the fights were designed around beating the party several times with awful surprises they’d need to account for on their next attempt. 

Failing to learn though? Sheer stubborn stupidity could see a party through sometimes, butr simply bulling through an encounter was never pretty and only very rarely the right answer. 

It sounds like they want to head back to town, Pete said. Maybe focus on grinding some of the monsters near there until we’re a little stronger.

Never hurts to level up on things you can handle. Tessa’s agreement was honest. She could see options for how they could improve, but that would only happen if they were open to working on themselves and coming together as a real team. Even without those changes though, they could tackle easier foes and simply take a slower road to greater power, which in turn could make up for their lack of effective cooperation. To a point anyways.

If you see anyone back in town, can you warn them that there are multiple dungeons out here? Tessa asked. We know of at least two, both low level, so there could be more.

Yeah, I can do that, Pete said. I’ll try find some paper to work with to sketch out maps. Maybe Mister Pendant will let me hang one in his shop so everyone can see what we’ve found out here so far.

That’s a good idea. We don’t exactly have the game wikis to draw on, Tessa said.

We can if we need, Pete said. Some of my friends are still online right? I’ve been asking them to look up stuff as I go. If you’ve got any questions I can pass them along for you. Mind if I add you as a [Friend]?

Not at all, Tessa said. I’ll add you too. The more we can stay connected and informed, the better off I think we’ll all be.

Yeah, I think we’re going to be stuck learning a lot of this the hard way, Pete said. From what my friends are saying, this dungeon wasn’t in the Beta at all.

Did the beta testers just miss it? Tessa asked.

No, Pete said, This whole place was different. There weren’t any cave mouths at all here. Whatever this is, its not something any of the developers put into the game.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 6

Pillowcase was filled with enough rage that it was surprising fabrics weren’t spontaneously combusting in her vicinity. As a ghost there were, perhaps, additional limitations on her ability to set the material world on fire but it still felt wrong that her rage was insufficient to overcome them.

“Returning to the [Heart Fire]. Will be back in the battle in thirty seconds,” Pillowcase didn’t waste time sharing her thoughts. The recriminations she could make against herself weren’t going to help the party fight better. They needed clarity and a lack of distractions.

Not that there was much of a party left.

Pillowcase had made it to the end of the room where the three boss monsters were located and had just started racing up the passageway back to the [Heart Fire] when she saw Alice’s health plummet to zero too.

It wasn’t a surprise.

Once the tanks start to fall, the rest of the party usually isn’t far behind.

It was why she couldn’t be weak. Why she couldn’t allow herself to fail. As long as she stood, they could recover from anything. When she frayed and ripped though? Everyone else suffered then too.

She tried to run faster, but despite the lack of a body to hold her back, and despite the  shame of her mistakes screaming for her to try harder, to redeem herself somehow, Pillowcase couldn’t find any more strength than what she was already using.

As she ran up the tunnel, heading towards chance to rejoin the battle, she thought of the second chance she’d already received.

She was a failure to start with. Before she’d woken up again in the [Fields of the Wasted] outside of [Sky’s Edge], she’d stumbled and fallen.

The Great Battle which she had been crafted for hadn’t ended in either victory or glory. The forces she’d fought with had pushed through feeble, weak foes. The militias of the [Fallen Kingdoms] were sad, pathetic things, as her teachers told her all militias were. There was no victory worth speaking of there, no reassurance that her construction had produced someone worth the materials she was sewn from.

Tessa shook her head. Was that even real, she wondered?

Her memories as Pillowcase had a sharpness to them which went beyond idle imagination. She didn’t have a continuous stream of them, not even as continuous as her own admittedly spotty human memories, but there were moments she could see that went beyond what her idle day dreaming had ever cooked up.

Whether or not Pillowcase’s memories were real though, the pain and anger she felt certainly was.

Tessa sighed as she ran. She could echo Pillowcase’s fears of being unworthy. It wasn’t like anyone at work made a point to commend her on a job well done, and her recent breakup hadn’t exactly been a giant confidence booster either.

“The other party is has two people down now”, Alice said on the team’s private channel.

Tessa could hear the flames in Alice’s voice. She was as angry as Tessa was. Maybe moreso.

That was a sobering thought. 

Alice had every reason to blame Pillowcase for dying. Pillowcase had been grand standing, taking on two of the [Soul Blights] at once and not staying in position to defend her team when they needed her. Worse, Alice had explicitly asked if Pillowcase could handle things and Pillowcase had been wrong when she said she could. If she’d avoided any of the mistakes she’d made, they could easily still be fighting, and winning, but she just wasn’t that good. Try as she might, her dead body wouldn’t let her deny it. 

Tessa felt the cold fingers of rejection reach slowly around her heart. 

What healer would want a tank who was made of tissue paper? Why would Alice waste anymore time with Pillowcase when there was a whole other party she could join. More people meant more safety. It wasn’t cruel. It was the sensible thing to do.

Tessa tried believing that and failed completely.

It was easy enough to believe that Alice jumping ship to the other party would be the smart move. Tessa swallowing that as a good thing for herself though? She just couldn’t. She…She didn’t work like that.

It was almost funny. She hated losing people just as much as she sucked at holding on to them. 

“We’re at the [Heart Fire] now,” Rip said, breathless even as a ghost. “Should we respawn here or bring it back and respawn where we fell?”

Tessa knew the urge to charge back into the fray but was also fully conversant with how bad of an idea that could be. 

“Respawn at the [Heart Fire], but wait for us there,” she said, repeating advice she’d heard countless tanks before her give. 

If only one of them had dropped, then rushing back into the fight might have been fine. As long as the backbone of the team was there, those who returned would be able to restore the strength the team had lost, sometimes even beyond where it had been when they died.

That only worked if there were enough fighters left on the field that the returning players wouldn’t simply be part of an inevitable collapse as the balance of power tumbled ever farther against them.  Adding fresh bodies to that sort of meat grinder meant creating an endless cycle of deaths.

The best method to break a cycle like that was to stop it before it began.

“Will the other party survive if we wait?” Matt asked. He wasn’t as breathless as Rip, though they’d both run the same distance, but there was a wariness in the question beyond simple concern for the other party’s well being.

“No,” Alice said. “They’re down to three now, another just fell, but Pillowcase is right. Wait at the [Heart Fire] after you respawn.”

“Ok,” Rip said. “What can we do to help while we wait?”

“Nothing,” Alice said.

There wasn’t any particular inflection to the word, but to Tessa’s ears it carried a foreboding weight of doom. 

“I’m sorry,” Rip said, her voice smaller than Tessa ever wanted to hear it being.

It was too familiar, that small voice. It was what Tessa heard in too many memories.

And it was, strangely, just what she needed to hear to pull her out of herself in the present.

“Waiting sucks, but it’s all part of the game,” she said reaching out to Rip in particular, though she sent the message for the whole party to hear.

“Yeah, it’s the price we pay for screwing up,” Alice said and Tessa winced.

She knew how those words would resound in Rip’s ears. Not “the price we pay” but rather than “price you pay”.

Rip was the first one to fall. Where other players might have been angry at Pillowcase or Alice for letting them be injured though, Rip had internalized it. Just like Tessa had been doing.

Other people had made mistakes, but for both of them the real worry was how their own mistakes were going to be held against them.

“And the price we pay when someone else screws up,” Tessa said. “Don’t worry Rip, none of this is on you or Matt. You two did everything right in there. Sometimes though, that can still get you killed.”

“Yeah, if anything this is on me,” Alice said, her tone gentler than it had been a moment earlier.

Did she see how Rip was taking her words? Tessa wondered, and then saw a sadder possibility.

“I don’t think any of this is on you either,” Tessa said. “Your heals couldn’t have matched the fire that took them. It was nearly an insta-kill for anyone except a tank.”

“I was healing the wrong person though,” Alice said. “I’m sorry. I’m just out of practice I guess.”

“It wasn’t you, really,” Tessa said. “You saw how Brick Spithouse was able to shield his team? Rip and Matt dropping is all on me. Your death is too. I shouldn’t have gotten distracted.”

Alice laughed, it wasn’t a mirthful sound but it was a good one.

“You were fine,” she said. “You were handling two of those things with no problem. And you turned them away from us! That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do with 99% of the mobs out there.”

“Yeah, you were great,” Matt said. “You had two of them on you and that other guy only had one.”

“That other guy, Brick, knew his limits. He’s probably still alive and kicking,” Tessa said.

“Nope,” Alice said. “He just got roasted by all three of them. He was the last to fall too, so their party is now officially TPK’d as well.”

“At least he held on to the end,” Tessa said, feeling vaguely jealous that a [Guardian] was that much tougher than a [Soul Knight].

“You used to be a healer, right?” Alice asked.

“Long ago, but yeah,” Tessa said.

Alice laughed again. “You’re still thinking like one,” she said. “You want to be the last one standing because you want everyone else to be safe right?”

“Yeah? I mean that’s what the job is, isn’t it?” Tessa asked.

“For a healer? Sure! Well, no, depending on the fight, sometimes even the healer is expendable, but the point is tanks are different,” Alice said.

“How so?” Matt asked.

“Take Brick as an example,” Alice said. “He survived till last because the monsters wiped out everyone else in his party first. He was focused on that one [Soul Blight] in front of him and he was holding on it like a champ. Meanwhile the other two were all over his healer, and me, and once we went down, the other damage dealers didn’t stand a chance.”

“So are we supposed to have three tanks then?” Rip asked.

“No, not at all,” Alice said. “We’re supposed to work together. Which is why this is my fault.”

“I definitely do not see that,” Tessa said, though she liked the spirit Alice’s words seemed to be fostering in her team.

“Picture this, if the other party wasn’t there and those three things jumped on us, what would you have done?” Alice asked.

Tessa paused to consider that. She’d made it to the [Heart Fire] but was waiting to respawn until there was a lull in the conversation. As she did, she saw the ghosts of the other party come trudging by her. They each scooped up handfuls of flame and ran right back to where they’d fallen.

“If we’d stumbled on that encounter? I guess I would have grabbed all three of the [Soul Blights] attention with the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell and tried to tank all three.”

“Right,” Alice said. “Now consider that you were doing fine on your own against two of them at once. Would a third have been able to drop you if I’d focused my healing on you?”

“Probably not,” Tessa admitted. “I still would have failed to save Rip and Matt though.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “Or probably. That’s a cheap move the [Soul Blights] have.”

“It cost us pretty good though,” Matt said.

“Well, it’s out fault isn’t it?” Rip said. “We went off too hard on them and so we paid the price. Then everyone else died too.”

“No, that wasn’t you,” Tessa said. “You two did fine on your damage output. If you’d gone over me I could have gotten it back for at least a moment when I attacked. I’m pretty sure those things pick a random target when they do that move.”

“But we could have moved when they turned to us,” Rip said, though it sounded like she was less sure of that being an unforgivable sin as she had been before.

“True, and we can all be ready for that next time,” Alice said. “But ‘not getting a brand new fight perfect the first time’ isn’t really a mistake. If there’d been a big warning that the [Soul Blights] were going to do that, then maybe we’d have something to work on, but this kind of thing is typical of boss battles. Or typical of higher level boss battles. It’s just stupid that the devs threw something like that into a low level dungeon like this.”

“I wonder if the devs did?” Tessa said.

“What do you mean?” Alice asked.

“Well, Aie and Zibby ran this before us right? With just two of them and they were lower level? How did they beat those three things when ten of us couldn’t manage it this time?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 5

On the list of ‘Bad Ideas for Adventurers’, Tessa was sure that ‘sprint through a dungeon’ was somewhere in the top half or so. That it wasn’t higher was solely due to the fact that adventurers were capable of feats of such monumental stupidity that actions which were even vaguely reasonable, no matter how dangerous or ill conceived, simply couldn’t compete.

“There’s a fight up ahead,” she said over the group’s private chat channel.

The cave system of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] followed the typical format of ‘hallways made of stone with the occasional room for big fights’ which games tended to favor. The walls sported a bit more set dressing that most, with veins of pulsing purple energy growing in number and wrapped around protrusions of increasing complexity as Tessa advanced.

“Be careful,” Alice said. “We don’t want whoever’s fighting to think we’re an ambush that’s racing in to join the monsters.”

“Good point,” Tess said. She slowed at the final corner and was about to call out when it occurred to her that there was nothing to suggest that both sides of the battle wouldn’t consider her an enemy the moment they saw her. It wasn’t impossible, or even improbably, to find two different groups of monsters fighting each other. As with many domestic squabbles though, the moment an outside presence appeared, the two sides were quite likely to put aside their differences and turn their collective wrath on the newcomers.

So stealth was called for.

Sneaking forward in armor wasn’t as difficult as she’d been led to believe. Unlike movie armor, the chain shirt she was wearing didn’t clank loudly as she walked, nor did the metal guards on her arms or legs.

Peeking around the corner she saw more or less what she’d expected to see. Several people were being murdered by a trio of monsters that looked like someone had glued scorpion limbs onto an earth worm and then rammed the head of an old man onto the front end of the worm. And the head was breathing fire.

“We have [Soul Blights],” Pillowcase said. “Three of them. And a party. Low level, I think. Move to assist?”

She didn’t turn to look at her team. Her attention was on the battle.

It wasn’t going badly. Or at least not as badly as Pillowcase had expected, but then she’d expected to see a massacre.

One member of the other team was down, but not dead. He was getting assistance from the party’s healer, while the three melee fighters each distracted one of the [Soul Blights] and the party’s primary spell caster rained down area effects.

“Go for it,” Alice said. “We’ve got your back and theirs.”

“Mark Prime!,” Pillowcase yelled the command so that the other party would have a chance to hear her declaration as the mystic symbol for ‘kill this one first’ formed over the leftmost [Soul Blight’s] head.

She considered calling out to the party to declare her intentions, but chose to stay focused on her target instead. If the other party was experienced, they’d quickly figure out what Tessa was up to and if they weren’t then she was going to have to carry the fight for them on her own anyways.

The [Soul Blight] she’d marked target her as Pillowcase charged in, but it wasn’t agile enough to avoid the charging thrust she rammed into it. The blow connected with all of her mass behind it and buried her sword up to its hilt in the center of its bulbous, squishy worm body. The [Soul Blight] wasn’t happy with being used as a pin cushion but it’s semi-amorphous anatomy also wasn’t terribly impeded by the hunk of metal lodged in its midsection.

Pillowcase drew back, dragging her sword out as she did so. The suction force which tried to hold the blade in place was considerable but the strength of even a low level [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] was even more so.

“[Rapid Shot]” Rip yelled as she unleashed a flurry of arrows into the [Soul Blight].

“[Casting spell: Lesser Torment]”, Matt said with a eagerness in his voice which both suggested he’d been dying to try out his new spell and that the worries which had plagued him on the trip to the dungeon had been cast aside once battle was before them.

Pillowcase paid that no mind, but Tessa filed it away for later. She was intimately familiar with the mental divide which might be lending Matt his courage, but embraced her own version of it and left Pillowcase free to act as instinct guided her.

That was a wise move as the monster in front of her was far from finished. Thanks to both the damage Pillowcase had inflicted, and the taunt effect on her strikes, the [Soul Blight] focused its attention solely on her and lashed out with a claw. Dodging wasn’t an option. The room was big enough but she wanted the enemies to stay in place. 

That left blocking.

The shock of the claw strike was familiar. It felt right for a creature which outmassed her by three-to-one. More importantly though, it wasn’t sufficient to pierce her shield, or punish the arm she had the shield strapped to beyond the arm’s limits.

“Who are you?” Starchild, the nearest melee fighter from the other party, asked.

“Helpers,” Pillowcase said. The middle of a battle was not the place for conversation. 

The [Soul Blight] reared back and spat a stream of flame which covered both Pillowcase and Starchild. Pillowcase used her shield to take the brunt of the attack but a fair bit of fire slipped through around the edges.

Burning was not a great thing for [Clothworks]. Pillowcase was more resistant to fire than her base materials would have been but it was still one of the attack forms which she was the weakest against. 

“[Casting spell: Minor Cleansing]” Alice said, dousing the flames before they could spread over more of Pillowcase’s body.

Burning wasn’t pleasant, but Pillowcase wasn’t afraid of it. She hadn’t been made to be afraid of anything.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” she said, a growl of anticipation accompanying the words. This was what she craved. This was what she was built for. To be at the heart of a battle. To contest against a worthy foe.

Pillowcase centered her spell on the middle of the three to catch all of them in its effect. That locked in the attention of the one fighting her and the one on the far side of the battle. Only the one she’d targeted remained glued to the other party’s [Guardian] since he had a headstart on influencing it’s actions.

“Thanks,” Starchild said. “You showed up at a good time.”

Pillowcase parried a scorpion claw which was aimed at Starchild’s head and punished the [Soul Blight] for leaving an opening with a blow to the appendage that hit for critical damage.

The [Soul Blight] from the far side of the battle, crouched down and leapt over the one in the middle as the one nearest to Pillowcase belched fire again. 

Pillowcase moved out of the path of the fire, blocking to mitigate the indirect splash of flame and then tumbling away as the leaping [Soul Blight] crashed down onto her position.

Rip and Matt unleashed another volley of attacks, which struck the first [Soul Blight] and left it shaking. Starchild capitalized on that and slammed her staff into the [Soul Blight’s] lowered head, shattering the inhuman visage like a watermelon. In the wake of Starchild’s swing, Pillowcase saw emerald fire scorching the air. 

Pillowcase adjusted her assessment. Starchild wasn’t a typical melee fighter.

The [Soul Blight] was impeded by the loss of its head, but it apparently didn’t keep anything critical within it. Without a mouth to shape its fire, it belched flames everywhere and began lashing out with its claws. 

Fire washed over Pillowcase again and she watched her health drop perilously. The [Lesser Spirit Drain] struggled against the ongoing damage and mitigated a fair amount of it but Pillowcase was still burning faster than her magics could repair.

A dozen steps away, Brick Spithouse, the other party’s [Guardian] was weathering the flames with only a tiny fraction of the damage Pillowcase was taking. He blocked an blow from the [Soul Blight] he had under control and threw attack after attack at it, most of which bounced harmlessly off the carapace of the creature’s limbs.

Spells and attacks slammed into all three monsters, but PIllowcase felt her vision narrowing to only the one before her.

It was a fatal error, and she knew it.

She had at least two of the creatures to deal with.

She had to stay alert on a broader level.

One of the [Soul Blights] stabbed her with its rear stinger.

That hurt.

Even apart from the poison it sent coursing through her, having a two foot long barb jammed into her chest was not pleasant.

“[Rapid Shot]” Rip called out, taking advantage of the momentary lack of mobility in the tail to blast it off the [Soul Blight’s] body.

“You ok?” Alice asked.

“Yes.” Pillowcase said, judging how quickly she was healing compared to the damage she’d taken so far.

“Good,” Alice said and began casting a healing spell on a member of the other party who who’d been slashed down to less than a quarter of their health.

Pillowcase’s own health wasn’t much better than that, but it didn’t trouble her. She had the monster’s attention and though they assaulted her with fire and claw, she was able to hold them off. 

Second by second they pressed her, but after extinguishing the flames on herself, and shifting to a defensive footing, Pillowcase was able deflect enough incoming damage to allow the life she was stealing from them to begin repairing her wounds. 

A fierce joy sang in her chest as she danced around the two horrors and held them bound to her will, daring them to do their worst, and laughing when they proved incapable of overwhelming her.

She’d turned her two playmates to face away from the other fighters and was just about back to being uninjured when the monsters went off script.

Together, the two creatures turned and vomited flame on the position where Rip and Matt were attacking from.

Pillowcase’s rage consumed her. Rip and Matt were supposed to be safe. She was doing her damn job correctly.

With a flurry of blow, provoking strike after provoking strike landed but nothing Pillowcase could do was sufficient to bring the monsters back to face her.

In desperation she leapt onto the back of the nearest one, trying to hurl herself in front of the flame stream but it was too late. In her party status display, she saw Rip and Matt’s health plummet to zero.

They hadn’t screamed. 

Much.

There hadn’t been time.

With grim precision, Tessa hacked at the [Soul Blight’s] neck. Starchild had crushed its head but she was determined to cut it off. 

The third [Soul Blight] escaped her notice. She was too focused on the one before her to care about it.

“I’m sorry!” Rip said. “We’ll be back in a second. We’re running to the [Heart Fire] now.”

She sounded panicked but not pained.

Pillowcase shook her head.

Rage wasn’t productive.

She’d injured the [Soul Blight] she was riding, but at some point she’d taken three more serious wounds and her own health was trending perilously low again.

Worse the third [Soul Blight] was menacing the other party’s healer.

Leaping from the back of the [Soul Blight] she was on, Pillowcase landed sword point first on the third monster. She’d claimed it as ‘hers’ and she wasn’t about to let it harm anyone else if she could.

It was a valiant gesture but foolish in its own way. This [Soul Blight] still had a functional stinger on its tail and used it freely, jabbing at Pillowcase repeatedly and forcing her to scramble off its back. 

“Gather behind me,” Brick Spithouse said to his team.

Pillowcase didn’t have to wonder why for long.

The [Soul Blight] he’d been fighting switched its target away from him just as the other two had done with Pillowcase. The other party wasn’t caught quite as unprepared as Rip and Matt had been but only one of them, the healer, was behind Brick. Fortunately for them, the healer was the one the [Soul Blight] chose to attack and Brick was able to use his shield and armor to prevent a repeat of Matt and Rip’s fate.

Pillowcase was envious.

And angry.

And distracted.

She didn’t even feel the stab wounds that stole the last sliver of her health.