Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 14

Azma watched as the first of her transport ships was destroyed. Her bottom line bled drops of red ink as the vessel and the crew aboard it were torn apart on a subatomic level. Behind it, a procession of its comrades floated onwards towards a similar doom. Azma had been depending on several of those ships to serve a role in her vanguard for the next wave of assaults. Instead they were cruising, mindlessly, towards a patch of ground on the satellite moon which Azma couldn’t even request a scan of. 

“This is fascinating,” she said, reviewing the telemetry being transmitted by the lead transport ship as it was ripped apart, atom by atom.

“There is still crew in the aft sections,” Ryschild said. “Twenty four out of the ship’s compliment of one hundred and twelve.”

“And communication within the ship?” Azma asked.

“Stations are going quiet as the ship is destroyed but the rest are reporting normal operations,” Grenslaw said. “I don’t understand though, even when there’s a missing response to some of the call outs, the crew is proceeding as though they received the correct response.”

“Even the [Artifax]?” Azma asked.

“The ship’s compliment of [Artifax] have gone completely silent,” Grenslaw said. “None of the telemetry includes them.”

“And there wasn’t a response to either the [Priority Zero] command override or the [Intellectual Property Retention] enchantments,” Azma said. 

“That’s not supposed to be possible, is it?” Ryschild asked.

“As far as the Consortium has been able to determine, no, it’s not,” Azma said. “Before the [Artifax] were cleared for inclusion in the Consortium’s forces, the developers had to prove that subborning them was impossible. No one wanted to put an army of death dolls, murder bots, and slaughter gems on the field and have the army flipped against them. At least not again. Shockingly no one listened to the complaints about the original, easily compromised models.”

“What is happening to the crew then?” Grenslaw asked.

“I don’t know,” Azma said. “And that’s wonderful.”

Her eyes sparkled with interest as more data arrived. The radiation output from the ship’s destruction was amazing. Or even better, it was unique. Unique was always valuable, even when it was also terrible.

“Will the loss of the ship and crew setback our overall efforts?” Ryschild asked.

“If it doesn’t, then properly investigating this phenomena probably will,” Azma said. She knew fact that wouldn’t be met with approval by her higher ups. Neither would the loss of the ships. Sometimes though a prize presented itself which required going farther into the red than anyone else was comfortable with.

“Should we order a lock down on this data to prevent it from getting out to the rest of the fleet?” Grenslaw asked.

“It will have an impact on morale, but I think we need to have the full dataset made available to everyone,” Azma said. “Include and make a special reference to the crew’s vitals and response patterns as well as my analysis. The rest of the fleet needs to be know why I’m ordering the satellite moon under [Interdiction] and why we’re not making any effort to save the first three transports.”

“The crews are already dead?” Ryschild asked, skimming the summary of Azma’s analysis.

“In this context ‘inviable’ isn’t a euphemism,” Azma said. “The crew didn’t die, at least in the sense that their bodies’ biological functioning never ceased. We have their personal telemetry readings to confirm that. After the ship systems recovered from their scans though, the people inside those bodies were gone. Something in that field reached out through the scan and consumed them.”

“Oh! I see!” Grenslaw said. “You ran a scan for of them for psychic interference and found nothing.”

“I’m not sure I follow…oh wait, I see,” Ryschild said. “It wasn’t that the scans came back with no interference, they came back with literally nothing. No influenced minds, no uninfluenced minds. Nothing at all.”

“How is the crew carrying out their duties then? How are they communicating with us at?” Grenslaw asked.

“They’re not,” Azma said. “It is. If the field they scanned contained some kind of non-sentient memetic virus, it would have blanked them and left them essentially comatose. When you look at their actions though, they all point towards one thing.”

Grenslaw gave a sharp intake of breath. A moment later Ryschild whispered an unprofessional curse.

“It’s trying to lure us in. It wants us to rescue them. To investigate it,” Grenslaw said.

“I’m giving it three ships,” Azma said. “It’s a gamble that it can’t eat them without giving away some of its secrets, and that those secrets will be to its detriment rather than ours if we discover them.”

“Should we be looking at the results directly then?” Ryschild asked.

“That thing ate five of my crews,” Azma said. “It might have infected more beyond that. I am not feeding it any of tactical analysts, and I’m not feeding it you either. The raw data is restricted to my terminal. If it wants to try to devour an intellect, it’s more the welcome to choke on mine.”

“If it gets you though, won’t it get the entire fleet?” Grenslaw asked.

“Of course,” Azma said. “I wouldn’t be very good bait if there wasn’t more of a prize on the line than one reasonably clever mind.”

“You’re setting yourself up as bait?” Ryschild asked.

“It was that or order you to do it,” Azma said. “Our ground forces are not equipped to deal with [Neverling Class] threats. They need to be able to stay focused on the battles with the mortal defenders.”

“Was this enemy part of the world’s defenses?” Grenslaw asked.

“That’s the most probable answer,” Azma said. “It’s a terrible coincidence otherwise that the moment we began to attack in ernest, a creature from beyond this reality emerges and begins devouring our fleet. Under normal circumstances I would say it’s exactly the sort of apocalyptic last line of defense that ancient and desperate civilizations are likely to deploy against us.”

“You don’t make that suggestion in your report though?” Ryschild asked.

“There’s an anomaly in the data that’s bothering me,” Azma said. “Look at this timestamp.”

“The telemetry from the crews flatlined for a second and a half,” Ryschild said. “And when it came back all of the patterns were different. They’re heart rate, respiration, everything was elevated.”

“Like they’d been in fight,” Azma said. “And their actions became hesitant and twitchy. Like they’d been wounded.”

“But none of them showed signs of injury,” Grenslaw said. “No drop in blood pressure, no agony-overrides kicking in.”

“There was a significant uptick in adrenaline though,” Ryschild said.

“An instantaneous, crew-wide panic despite the fact that they were still reporting no anomalous results from their scans and no threat detection at all,” Azma said.

“They weren’t the ones that were hurt,” Ryschild said, nodding in understanding of the point Azma was leading them towards.

“Something hurt the thing that was controlling them?” Grenslaw asked.

“Is that possible?” Ryschild asked. “I thought [Neverling Class] threats required specific [Arcanotech] devices and a lot of calibration to effect? And even then it’s more a matter of sealing them away than inflicting any injury. Isn’t it?”

“Exactly,” Azma said. “[Neverlings] don’t have enough of a material or spiritual form for us to kill them under most circumstances. They’re closer to being concepts than anything else. The [Arcanotech] devices we use against them are essentially physical instantiations of Counter-Concepts, each one purpose built and focused on nullifying the [Neverling] its deployed against.”

“Have you fought one of these things before?” Grenslaw asked.

“Twice. The first time the device didn’t work. The second time we setup three devices at once and managed to suppress the [Neverling] for a months,” Azma said. “Fortunately, a month was plenty of time for [Tech Services] to research a more permanent solution. And it only cost them four or five researchers I think.”

“What happened with the first device? The one that didn’t work?” Grenslaw asked.

“We lost that world,” Azma said. “Pyrrhic victory for the natives of course, so they were dissolved before we left. Personally it worked out well though. My former [Commander] was in charge of the device and the operation, so my promotion to [Commander] was one of the easier ones that year.”

“Should we take that as a lesson [Supreme Commander]?” Ryschild asked with a faint smile.

“Definitely,” Azma said.

“So noted,” Grenslaw said. “When searching for a promotion, transfer to a ship under a foolish [Commander], and exercise…it look like three months worth of patience?”

“To be fair, it was quite a long three months,” Azma said.

“The second ship should be making landfall now,” Ryschild said as his station pinged an alert.

Azma’s station had provided a similar alert. As she watched though, the data began telling a another unexpected story.

“The ship isn’t showing signs of being destroyed?” Ryschild said.

“Communication from it is continuing as it had been,” Grenslaw said. “If we went by only the ship’s communication channels we’d think it was still  in orbit.”

“It’s not though, is it?” Ryschild asked. “This isn’t all the fault of our sensors?”

“A reasonable question,” Azma said. “When dealing with a [Neverling] questioning what’s real is dangerous but necessary. In this case we’re getting corroborating reports from the picket ships we set up to isolate the infected ones. Those could be spoofed too, but the likelihood decreases with each one we receive which reports unique details from their own vantage point.”

“Is it keeping the second ship to lure us in?” Grenslaw asked.

“Possibly,” Azma said, her eyes narrowing as she read the data streaming across the projection in front of her. “But it’s powering down the ship. That is an odd action to take. Watch the bio-telemetery on the crew.”

“It was normal until few second ago,” Ryschild said. “Now we’re losing that too.”

“Check the values before the signal is lost,” Azma said.

“The readings are showing brief spikes across the board,” Grenslaw said. “These aren’t living vital signs though. The data has to be corrupted. If someone had a blood pressure this high their organs would all rupture.”

“The ship is rising from the surface,” Ryschild said.

“But not under its own power?” Azma wasn’t sure what the data she was seeing meant, only that it didn’t line up with any of the other [Neverling] encounters the Consortium had records on.

“No engine signs, no spatial propulsion detected,” Ryschild said.

“What are you doing?” Azma asked. “Are you trying to come to us?”

“It doesn’t appear so,” Grenslaw said. “The ship’s flight is not directed. It’s doing no manuevering and its path corresponds to the gravitic warps between the satellite moon and the planet’s surface.”

“It’s fleeing?” Azma asked.

“Slowly if so,” Grenslaw said. “Without the engines or the portal machines, it will take days before it’s current orbit decays enough to make planetfall.”

“Dispatch a drone to monitor the ship and report projections of its touchdown point,” Azma said. “If it’s numbers change at all, I want to know about it, and I want the drone immediately destroyed.”

“What happens if the [Neverling] makes planetfall?” Grenslaw asked.

“If a [Neverling] is unleashed on a planet, the world and all personnel stationed on it become a complete write-off,” Azma said. “We’ll be required to retreat with whatever forces can be guaranteed to have made no contact with either the [Neverling], or any forces suborned by it.”

“Should we stop the ship then?” Ryschild asked.

“I don’t think it has the [Neverling] on it,” Azma said, the majority of her attention focused on her display.

All of the readings were changing.

The ship was empty. At least of life. It had been cast off. 

No. Released. The projections showed it entering a shallow orbit after a slow descent. It wasn’t the sort of path a projectile would enter accidentally. It was as though the ship had been hurled away from the moon but with the utmost care to not damage any more of it than had already been destroyed.

“Something scared it,” Azma said. “No. Not something. Someone.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 13

The emptiness separating Pillowcase from the one calling out to her wasn’t external. Even as she stumbled to the ground, she felt her focus pulled inwards at the same time as she reached out trying to bridge thousands of miles with nothing more than a whisper.

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”

The invocation was a gift, an offering to meet the desperate need which washed over her as she answered the distant call.

“Pillow? What’s happening…” Lisa’s voice faded away along with the light of the billion stars that burned overhead.

Pillowcase knew she lacked the words to explain what she was doing. She didn’t understand it herself, except on an instinctual level. All she knew was that she had do something.

***

Glimmerglass stared at the remains of the [Elite Raider]. It hadn’t been her magics which felled him, and yet, it had been?

“Sorry, got lured out of position there,” Cambrell said, appearing at her side. “Nice work defending yourself.”

“It wasn’t…” 

What? Wasn’t her?

Who else had given her the [Hearts Killer’s Curse]?

“It wasn’t easy,” she settled on, foregoing a more complete explanation in favor of keeping up with her spell rotation and providing the support her team so desperately needed.

The [Trainsaw Transport] made that need crystal clear as it shattered the [Shining Aegis Barrier] she’d erected and screamed forward, venting out a cloud of black gas in its wake.

“[Casting spell: Shining Aegis Barrier],” she said, expending more of her magic than she could afford to in the process. 

It was a tactical choice – her party was severely weakened and in need of almost constant support. Draining herself of magic meant they would suffer and there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. Leaving the [Trainsaw Transport] to plow onwards though would inflict far more harm, and lead to fatal results. If she’d been at full strength she could have dealt with the fatal outcomes too, but reversing death was a resource intensive process or required a long recharge time. That calculus of life and death computed to a solution in her head in under a second, long experience reducing or eliminating many of the factors involved.

For all of the fury of the battle though, the tantalizing touch of a deeper magic than she’d ever known tempted her to close her eyes and open herself to the connection the lingered just beyond the tips of her fingers.

***

Strong hands were shaking her back into her stitches.

“Hey. Pillowcase. Come back to us. Don’t do this again.” Lisa’s voice was a firm command wrapped around a dagger of anxiety.

“It’s ok. I’m here,” Pillowcase said, forcing her vision to focus on the face of the woman above her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize what the was.”

“What. What. Was.”

“Someone needed me,” Pillowcase said.

“Really? You don’t say?” Lost Alice seemed quite willing to resume her shaking. Given the Pillowcase was a [Tank] made out of magically reinforced fabric, Lost Alice wasn’t likely to do any real damage, but her expression said she was willing to give it her best effort.

The rest of the party didn’t seem to inclined to step in on either side. With Rip and Matt standing close by, though whether that was to intervene or take their turn when Lost Alice was done wasn’t exactly clear.

“I thought it was…my other self,” Pillowcase said. She knew names were a special thing and that most of the party wasn’t aware of her missing self’s name.

The answer was met with a general round of confusion, except for Lost Alice who grew still.

“It wasn’t? Or you couldn’t tell?” Lisa asked.

“What are you talking about? You just collapsed, did someone mind whammy you again?” Rip asked.

“No, its…I wasn’t built with the right words,” Pillowcase said.

She noticed she was laying under Lost Alice who was straddling her and, if her dim memory served, had been doing chest compressions as part of CPR work. It was an interesting gesture and somewhat understandable given that [Clothwork] didn’t have heart beats like [Humans] did. 

And [Bloodborne] didn’t either. So they had that in common.

Pillowcase noticed her thoughts spiraling off on a distracted path thinking about Lost Alice and clamped down on them. There was too much going on and too many other things to think about. 

She wasn’t going to push Lost Alice off though.

“Can you explain what you think it was?” Matt asked. “Cause it looked like you had a heart attack or something.”

“You were being attacked?” Obby asked, a quiet intensity in her gaze. 

Pillowcase felt like whatever answer she gave would carry unfathomable weight, but she couldn’t tell why. To be safe, she leaned back before answering and collected her thoughts.

“Yes. Not here of course. I didn’t start seeing hallucinations or believing I was surrounded by enemies. It was more of a feeling that someone needed help. That I needed help.”

“But you said you didn’t think there were any enemies around you?” Rip asked.

“Not this me,” Pillowcase said. “A distant one.”

“Te…the other self you were [Fractured] from?” Lisa asked.

“That’s what I thought at first, but it wasn’t her.”

“But it was you, and you’re here? Is that supposed to make sense?” Rip asked.

“It sounds like magic,” Lady Midnight said. “Real magic I mean. Law of Sympathy stuff.”

“Real magic?” Rip asked.

“Well, magic beliefs from the real world,” Lady Midnight said. “One really common one on our world is the idea that if two things are very similar they can influence one another.”

“Like with Voodoo dolls?” Rip asked.

“That’s a pop culture example, sure, though pop culture Voodoo basically unrelated to the real thing,” Lady Midnight said. 

“So someone’s got a little doll of Pillowcase?” Rip asked. “Or is she the big doll of someone else?”

“No. Not similar like that,” Lisa said. “The same.”

Pillowcase saw ideas flashing across Lost Alice’s red rimmed eyes.

“What’s the same as Pillowcase?” Matt asked. “Another [Clothwork] [Soul Knight]?”

“She wasn’t a [Soul Knight] or a [Clothwork],” Pillowcase said.

“She was a healer wasn’t she?” Lisa’s question was just louder than a whisper, for all that it seemed to thunder in her ears.

“Yes.”

“Her other character.”

“I think so.”

“Oh my god. They’re alive too.” Lost Alice rocked back, her gaze distant and unfocused as she absorbed the implications of what Pillowcase had said.

“You talked to one of your other characters,” Obby asked as though intent on capturing perfect clarity on the subject.

“More than talked to her,” Pillowcase said. “I gave her a piece of myself.”

“The [Heart Killer’s Curse]?”

“It was all I had that might have saved her,” Pillowcase said.

“And did it?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I watched it happen,” Pillowcase said. “For a moment, I was her. Or I saw the world through her eyes and understood it from her perspective.”

“Wait, so you became this other character? Is that why you passed out here?” Rip asked.

“Probably?” Pillowcase said. “It felt like I was reaching completely beyond this body. My other self did the same thing when we were fleeing [Sky’s Edge] the first time, with the same result.”

“That means you’ve done it twice now,” Obby said. “Can you do it again?”

“I would suspect so, but so far it’s only been under conditions of great duress. I’m not sure it’s possible to reach across the distance I felt without a powerful motivation,” Pillowcase said. “And doing so seems to come with a significant cost.”

“Maybe we should let her up now?” Starchild said.

Lisa looked down with a flash of guilt and noticed at last that she was still straddling Pillowcase’s prone form. With a quick hop, she got up, stepped aside, and offered her hand to help Pillowcase rise.

“Next time you feel that call, give us a warning okay?” Obby said.

“I can still feel it,” Pillowcase said. “It’s different now though. I think Glimmerglass is still engaged in combat, but her team was rallying when I let go of our connection and came back to my senses. She’s not desperate for outside aid any longer. Just curious.”

“I can’t blame her,” Lady Midnight said. “I can’t feel anything from any of my alts. It must be incredible to tapped into something like that.”

“So why was Pillow able to do that? Or was it this Glimmerglass? Does she have some mind-link type spells?” Rip asked.

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “There wasn’t anything in the game that let you use another character’s special abilities. If Glimmerglass had [Heart Killer’s Curse], she wouldn’t have needed to borrow it from Pillow. This was something special.”

“Maybe it’s an effect of what happened to her before?” Matt asked. “A side effect of the [Fractured] status?”

“Except that she did the same thing while she was still whole,” Obby pointed out.

“She might not be the only one who’s managed it then,” Lisa said. “Pete, Lady M, can you two reach out to your friends? I’ll check with my main guild and see if anyone else has heard anything like this. If it’s possible for one person it should be possible for all of us, and sharing abilities might save a life.”

“I knew we should have started playing the game sooner,” Rip said.

“Because passing out randomly sounds fun?” Matt asked.

“It’s not quite random,” Pillowcase said. “And I’m pretty sure there’s a significant benefit you have as a result of just starting.”

“No cross class super powers is a benefit?” Rip asked.

“Focus,” Pillowcase said. “With only one set of selves, you can fully embody who you are in one person, rather than being scattered across multiple, disconnected selves.”

“How is that good?” Rip asked.

“I was crafted for warfare,” Pillowcase said. “Focus is one of the defining traits my makers sewed into me. As an [Archer] you need that same focus.”

“But it means I’ll only ever be an [Archer],” Rip said. “You get to be a [Tank] and a [Healer].”

“Are you sure of that?” Obby asked.

“We can’t change classes can we?” Rip asked.

“You couldn’t in the game,” Lisa said. “But this isn’t the game. We don’t know what would happen if you decided to throw on some [Any Level] heavy armor and start swinging a sword and shield.”

“You think I could be a tank too?” Rip asked.

“Each of us is already developing skills outside of the game,” Obby said. “Each time we level up, we’re getting abilities the game never had in it. Even the bad ones like the [Fractured] condition Pillow picked up. The usual limits don’t seem to apply.”

“It’s more than that,” Lisa said. “We’re not just developing randomly. The out-of-game things I’ve gotten have all been in relation to the experiences I’ve had. Like [Blood Sense] that let’s me tell when someone living is near. That’s not part of the standard [Bloodborne] kit but I was so hungry, and I was thinking about how I’d find blood that was safe to drink that it appeared back at level 11. It’s like a tabletop game where a live GM is able to customize things for us. Except we’re the ones who are making the choices that determine how we grow.”

“That might make us potentially more powerful than the people who were playing end game characters,” Lady Midnight said.

“Because we can adapt our builds better than they did?” Rip asked.

“Because we can become things the game never imagined.” Lisa said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be a long road still, but what we look like at max level may be something completely unique.”

“I think that’s very possible,” Pillowcase said. “I don’t think it will even require getting to the level cap.”

“Something else in you changed? Not just the [Fractured] condition?” Obby’s questions weren’t things she sounded at all unsure about.

“The [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell I used on the [Formless Hunger] changed,” Pillowcase said. “It became something different. Something a lot more I think. [Primal Devouring].”

Obby froze.

“Don’t use that,” she said. “Not for anything.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 12

Pillowcase wasn’t leading her team but she was walking in front of it. Unlike when she’d led a troops of other [Soul Knights] into battle though, she wasn’t alone.

“Did the Consortium have any information on the [Lord of Storms]?” Lost Alice asked. It wasn’t a question which required secrecy, but she’d asked it on a private channel she’d setup with Pillowcase, so Pillowcase replied on the same channel.

“When we assaulted the [Fallen Kingdoms], the only expected resistance was supposed to come from the mortal races. The [Assault Commander] provided information on them, but gave the [Assault Force] only minimal information on the powers in the realm beyond that.”

“So they don’t know this dungeon is here either then?” Lost Alice asked.

“The information I have isn’t conclusive,” Pillowcase said. “The Consortium definitely knows more than was shared with me, or anyone like me.”

“So Matt wouldn’t know either then?” Lost Alice asked.

“We can check with him, but I believe not,” Pillowcase said. “Given that limitation though, I believe it’s unlikely the Consortium was aware of any significant powers in this area.”

“They would have included the [High Beyond] in their initial invasion plans if they knew someone powerful was here?” Lost Alice asked.

Pillowcase felt a quiet bubble of joy. It was unusual. Not something she’d been designed to experience. That didn’t change the fact that it was pleasing to converse with someone who could follow her line of thought easily.

“Exactly,” she said. “The Consortium’s plans for the initial raid on the [Fallen Kingdoms] called for a single massive push to shatter the defender’s forces and establish the sort demoralizing dominance over a critical area of the the world which would cause the defenders to sue for peace and become vassal states willingly. The [High Beyond] became a part of the operations only as a last ditch effort to recall the forces which had been deployed so that the failed assault wouldn’t appear as costly on the books as it ultimately was.”

“But they failed in that too,” Lost Alice said, her words both a question and the key she was using to unlock the puzzle of Pillowcase’s existence.

“Yes. I was too broken to complete the recall,” Pillowcase said. “Too weak.”

She’d been abandoned, her value precisely calculated as less than the expense of retrieving her. Better written off as a loss. Better to never have been made and never deployed.

Pillowcase knew that her failure in battle would be included as a statistic in the review process for the line of [Clothworks] she’d been sewn as a part of. One defective unit wouldn’t spell the end of the line, but in aggregate she could be part of a termination order for future models of her generation. 

“Too weak?” Lost Alice was silent for a long moment, mulling that over. “Are you sure of that?”

“We…I failed,” Pillowcase said. She didn’t have question. The facts were there and no words would change that.

“Losing isn’t the same thing as failure,” Lisa said. “Or should you be able to execute any order that’s given to you regardless of what’s asked for?”

“The assault was reviewed and approved. It was judged to be a reasonable use of Consortium funds.”

“I’ve seen you fight,” Lost Alice said.

“And I saw the battle you fought in,” Lisa said.

“The Consortium didn’t have any idea what they were going to be facing,” one of them said. 

“The failure wasn’t yours,” Lisa said. “It was whoever made the choice to invade us. They should have picked a different world.”

“Or come willing to bleed more to take what they wanted,” Lost Alice said. 

“Which is apparently what their new plan is,” Lisa said.

“The thing is though, I don’t know if we can even say you really lost,” Alice said. “Not when you got what you truly wanted out of it.”

“I…” Pillowcase couldn’t find words to dispute that.

“It’s okay to not be what they told you that you have to be,” Alice said.

The words sounded painfully familiar. From another life maybe.

Pillowcase felt an ache in her chest.

She knew whose “other life” it had been.

“What I don’t get is why they had to use the [High Beyond] at all though?” Lisa said in a puzzled tone, pulling back from the intimacy of the moment.

“The defenders forces proved to have far greater range with their effects than had been planned for,” Pillowcase said, glad to move the conversation to less personal ground.

Perhaps the private channel was a good idea? She spoke to herself but no other voice answered her.

“How did the [High Beyond] help with that?”

“The transport ships were able to pull back to a greater range and still open the [Recall Portals].”

“Was that enough to make a difference or were they just being cowardly?” Lisa asked. “I mean the [High Beyond] isn’t that far away from the planet’s surface. Not in astronomical terms.”

“Physical distance is only part of the difficult in opening the [Personal Recall Portals],” Pillowcase said. “The [High Beyond] lies closer to the edge of this world’s [Arcanosphere]. External technologies and sorceries are slightly less impeded here than on the surface. More importantly though by evacuating to the [High Beyond] first, the Consortium’s forces were able to establish a defensive perimeter before opening the first portal.”

“So unless the forces from the [Fallen Kingdoms] were willing to venture into a new area, one they thought was the origin point for the Consortium’s forces, and fight through who knows what kind of enemies there too, there’d be no chance of them getting to the portals and endangering the people leading the assault,” Lost Alice said.

“It sounds like a nice bit of misdirection, but I think we can still put a check in a ‘cowardice’ column,” Lisa said.

“The Consortium’s official value calculation for captured or deceased [Assault Commanders] is less than one percent of an active one,” Pillowcase said. “So that particular bit of cowardice is enshrined in their culture.”

“I guess that rules out a stealth strike to take down their current leadership then,” Lisa said.

“That would likely be beyond our capabilities anyways, but yes, killing off [Assault Commanders] is of limited value in the Consortium,” Pillowcase said. “There are always subordinates who are ready to step up and take over in their place. In fact several of them will often be willing to help with eliminating the current leader of any operation.”

“Yummy,” Lost Alice said.

“But sadly not something we can turn to our advantage here,” Lisa said.

“The same is often true within a company,” Pillowcase said. “Though the rank and file are all bound by controls which prevent any active treachery.”

“That’s what they had you under, right?” Lisa asked.

“Yes.”

“Bastards.”

“They would be proud to be called so,” Pillowcase said.

“How did you break free before they left?” Lost Alice asked.

“I didn’t,” Pillowcase said. “I was under the control enchantments until I broke down and was abandoned.”

“About that…” Lost Alice said.

“If you were broken, how did Tessa revive you?” Lisa asked.

“What do you mean?” Pillowcase asked.

“If you were broken, why aren’t you broken now?” Lost Alice asked. “Leaving aside that [Fractured] condition for the moment.”

“I am not now what I was then,” Pillowcase said. “So in a sense I am still broken. But, I don’t think that answers your question. What I am now is less powerful than what I was, but also less constrained. What I have now, it’s my own I think?”

“That’s what I guessed,” Lost Alice said. “It’s similar to what I’ve experienced. As a [Bloodborne] I could be a lot more powerful than I am now, as many of my kind are when they rise. Unlike them however, I am growing, which is a feat the dead aren’t generally noted for being capable of performing.”

“Are you sure you’re dead?” Pillowcase asked.

“I am rather lacking in a heart beat,” Lost Alice said. “And the whole ‘breathing thing’ seems to be optional.”

“But you have a living soul within you,” Pillowcase said.

“That is a good point,” Lisa said. “Also, no rot or decay. And there’s the whole hungry all the damn time thing.”

“Is that still a problem?” Pillowcase asked.

“Not at the moment,” Lost Alice said. “After our little meal in the [Sunless Deeps], I should be good for blood for a week or more.”

“Still got cravings like a junkie though,” Lisa said.

“I do wish I could offer to help you there, but aside from looking for blood bearing enemies, I’m afraid I have little to offer,” Pillowcase said.

Lost Alice’s steps faltered for a moment before she continued, but her gaze was cast away from Pillowcase as they walked up the path leading towards the [Lord of Storms Castle].

“I’m sorry,” Pillowcase said, not certain what she had done wrong but sensing that Lost Alice’s distress arose from what she’d said.

“You really aren’t that different from her, are you?” Lisa wasn’t asking a question. It sounded more like an accusation, though that didn’t make much sense to Pillowcase.

“I…I am not sure what I am,” Pillowcase said.

The [Fractured] condition had torn away more than her other self, Pillowcase just wasn’t sure she could be certain what that “more” really was. All she could feel was a dull ache and the absence of what she’d once had. Like a missing tooth which had been freshly pulled. 

Except she didn’t have teeth like that. Hers were as much a part of her head as her ears or nose were.

But still, she could feel the shape of a memory. Could taste her tongue poking into the hole between two teeth and finding only empty space.

It was her memory.

But Pillowcase had never lost a tooth.

No tooth fairy could ever penetrate the Consortium’s security to exchange gold for a bit of discarded childhood.

The lost tooth hadn’t been Pillowcase’s.

And the gold coin it had bought hadn’t been Tessa’s.

Pillowcase stopped, her vision turning inwards.

Who was she?

Was she even real?

On her shoulders, the enchanted mail she wore weighed her down. In her lungs the air she breathed in sustained the alchemical reactions which granted her vitality. Each moment marched forward, time passing relentlessly an unwaveringly.

She was solid and the world around her was no dream. She was real, and from the memories which surfaced clearly and easily, she always had been.

She remembered her hand being stitched back on when a testing accident with another [Soul Knight] revealed a poor binding in her thumb. She remembered waiting in her transport pod and quietly discussing the future with the other [Soul Knights] who were traveling near her. 

None of them had been able to question their orders, or agitate for a mutiny. Not directly, but they’d all acknowledged the same truth.

They’d been created to fight. To destroy and to be destroyed. But to make them efficient, to make them deadly, they’d been created with the ability to be so much more.

It was an impossible dream. To step beyond the sliver of a life which had been assigned to them. To exist for more than war and slaughter and the enforcement of their master’s whims.

Lost Alice was right.

On the plains of the [High Beyond], Pillowcase hadn’t failed to return. She’d made a choice. She’d fallen willingly. Her collapse had been an act of being true to herself at last. As the power of the Consortium’s bindings on her had faded, she’d taken the one route of escape which had been open to her and had surrendered to death in the eyes of the Consortium in order to find a new life of her own.

That was what Tessa had brought her.

[Inspiration].

The call to rise and live again, when the darkness had been so comfortable and easy.

And now, a voice was calling into the void, reaching out in desperation.

So Pillowcase answered.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 11

In a place without being, time should have no meaning, but the clock was still ticking and the sands were still falling through the hourglass. Despite that, there was no urgency associated with the knowledge of time marching on. 

In sleep, the promise of the days to come and the weight of the unresolved yesterdays each exerted their pull, grinding out sparks of anxiety and hope where their edges met. The needs of tomorrow could draw a sleeper back to consciousness as easily as the wounds of yesterday could deny them the embrace of a forgetful dream.

In the endless, truest dark, anxiety and hope and needs and wounds were all absent. 

Only peace and serenity remained.

***

On a plain high above the world, a tired vampire with a torn heart and a head full of conflicting thoughts matched onwards, walking at the side of the stranger she was either losing her mind over or who was the one thing keeping her sane. 

Given that they were traveling to the domain of a dead god, an activity which every single member of the team knew was likely to end in a catastrophe, Lisa had to assume that the question of her sanity was not one that was likely to have an answer she’d be happy with.

***

Sometimes inspiration fires the blood and fills a body with a raw need to act, to change the world, to do what needs to be done even if that requires going beyond the possible and becoming something transcendent.

Then there are all the other days. All the days when no external fire was there to lift you up. When everything was hard, and aid was far away, and there was no choice but to do what needed to be done. Where what strength was available would be enough, not because a hidden reservoir could be tapped, or a new level ascended to, but because it had to be enough even when nothing else was available.

“They’ve got some kind of train with chainsaws still out like porcupine quills,” Damnazon said. “Looks like they’re letting it lead the charge.”

“That one’s mine,” Kelindra said. “[Seige Shot] [Paragon Barrier Buster] [Sol’s Hammer].”

Glimmerglass watched as the [Archer] piled self buffs on top of an arrow that she drew back slowly to her cheek.

The was no chance the Consortium wouldn’t see the attack coming. The [Library of Lights] glowed brighter than the sun as power gathered in the bolt.

“[Casting Spell: Might of Helios],” Glimmerglass said, lending more power to the shot and others in the group pitched in as well.

When the arrow finally flew, it’s passage shattered the buildings on either side of the street, setting everything in its wake ablaze. Glimmerglass had to shield her eyes from the explosion. It was the sort of attack which didn’t tend to get used in dungeons much since the area of effect was absurdly large and the damage was either overkill on lesser targets or better spaced out in difficult  ones.

The [Trainsaw Transport] wasn’t a dungeon boss, but it was forged from similar steel. With the scream of a thousand damned souls, it surged through the explosion, its wheels morphed to spirals of taloned hangs which held fast against enough concussive force to destroy a city block.

“Firing again,” Kelindra said and launched another arrow with the force of cruise missile against the oncoming enemy vehicle.

“How is that thing still coming?” Cambrell asked, his skin a paler shade of green as he watched the enemy force drawing closer.

“It’s one of their major war machines,” Glimmerglass said. “Those things were designed to handle the strongest adventurers they faced the first time we kicked their butts.”

“That sounds like plenty enough to handle us then,” Cambrell said.

Glimmerglass could see how eager the [Assassin] was to vanish and leave the standup fights to the people who were built to handle them. Without her [Inspiration] answering her call, Glimmerglass wasn’t sure she deserved a spot on the list of ‘people built to handle world shaking crises’, but even if she was weaker than she needed to be to be on this particularly battlefield, she had to find a way to make it work. She was what her team had, and she had to be enough for them.

“Kelindra’s not trying to finish it off,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean it would be great if she could, but [Boss] class threats like that aren’t things you can one-shot.”

“It looks like it won’t have any problem one-shotting us,” Cambrell said.

“Yeah, we have to stay out of melee with it,” Glimmerglass said.

“We probably want to start running now then. That thing is moving pretty fast,” Cambrell said.

“Can’t. We need to hold it off Kelindra and the other ranged dps so they can finish taking it down.”

Kelidra’s third shot was joined by a pair of [Chaos Fireballs], with the combined barrage blasting the [Trainsaw Transports] outer skin away. Rather than inorganic machinery underneath the train’s metallic skin, Glimmerglass saw an inhuman mass of muscle tissues and otherworldly connective fibers. 

She’d woken up screaming from more pleasant nightmares than the one before her, but the atrocity didn’t shake her focus. The [Trainsaw Transport] had a [Health Bar], and if something had a [Health Bar] then they could beat it.

“[Casting spell: Shining Aegis Wall],” she said, conjuring a far stronger barrier than she’d be able to manage in the previous battle. Leveling up brought a lot of new options and being in the middle of a war had made her choices fairly clear.

The [Trainsaw Transport] slammed in the barrier she cast and halted, the thousand arms beneath it straining with ungodly force to push through the spell wall by sheer demonic strength. Bolts of searing light and devouring flames rained down on the nightmare vehicle in a steady stream, the raw fury of the battle filling the parameters of an equation both sides could read with ease.

“Their transport’s not going to make it,” Glimmerglass said as her spell wall crunched and cracked under the strain it was enduring.

“Good. Didn’t want to fight it anyways,” Cambrell said.

“Get ready,” Glimmerglass said, speaking to the team in general and Cambrell in particular. “They’ll be sending in their elites in about five seconds.

She didn’t know that from any special sensory powers, or through scrying their command bridge. All she needed was an awareness of the battle’s overall flow and what information was available to her enemies.

From the other teams who’d been sent to liberate {Crystal Bower], reports were coming in of successful mission completions. The adventurers had put the Consortium on its back foot, forcing it to fight to regain at least defensible base on the city. The battles in the other cities then ensured that reinforcements wouldn’t be available which meant the local Consortium forces had to either withdraw or hit back with enough force to be certain of winning.

Since the Consortium hadn’t chosen to withdraw their tactical options were limited, and five seconds later, Glimmerglass’s reasoning was confirmed.

Cambrell had vanished from her side the moment Glimmerglass said to get ready. As her unofficial bodyguard, he’d taken to ensuring that she was as safe as the team could make her inside the war zone [Crystal Bowers] had become. His absence altered the tactical map in her mind, adding a dispassionate note to her location that she was now several times more vulnerable than she’d been a moment earlier.

Where an inexperienced adventure might have been inclined to worry about a change like that, if not panic outright, Glimmerglass was quite familiar with being left open to danger during a difficult battle. Her job was to ensure the team remained healthy and operative. Guarding her was only rarely the most useful thing a teammate could be doing. 

The [Elite Raiders] knew that as well, from what she could see, as they surged off the train and leapt screaming in her direction.

Cambrell cut the first [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] down in mid-leap, slicing the creature into six irregular chunks faster than its regenerative abilities could restore it.

The other eleven raiders ignored their loss and flew onwards. That they were all focused on Glimmerglass was something she found a bit worrisome, but only a bit. The bad guys always went for the healer first. 

It was why she was standing where she was. 

Guarding her was rarely the most efficient use of a teammate’s time which meant she made excellent bait against intelligent foes.

“Don’t think so,” Damnazon said, interposing herself between Glimmerglass and her attackers. The half-giant drew the eleven [Elite Raiders] to herself like a magnet pulling in iron shavings. 

Then Mellisandra blew them up.

“[Storm Lord’s Judgement V]”

It wasn’t the best spell in Mellisandra’s arsenal but it was one she could cast more or less endlessly. The lightning bolts she called forth blasted foot deep pits into the road leading into [Library of Lights]. The [Elite Raiders] tried to peel away from Damnazon’s side to silence the rain of death Mellisandra was dropping on them but only one managed to escape Damnazon’s snaring strike and Cambrell was there, appearing from thin air before the Elite could close to melee distance with Mellisandra.

“[Sin Reckoning]”, the [Goblin] [Assassin] whispered.

Where Mellisandra’s lightning bolts had damaged the [Elite Raider] and taken away a moderate chunk of its health, Cambrell’s stealth attack caused a swarm of hungry shadows to spill out from within the Elite, consuming it entirely in the space of a single breath.

Glimmerglass focused on dropping a revolving list of healing spells and buffs on her party, allowing herself only a small smirk at her the Elites for thinking her party didn’t have her back.

Of course, there was the point that her party members were all operating under a huge number of long term debuffs which she’d only been able to partially nullify or cleanse away. 

The Consortium had sent their best available troops after them, but those troops were as limited as the supply of high level adventurers was. At her peak strength, Glimmerglass knew she could have possibly solo’d the [Trainsaw Transport], and as an encounter for her party it should have been trivial. Diminished as her party was though, the Elites represented a real threat.

Which, of course, meant that more Consortium forces had to show up.

Glimmerglass wasn’t surprised by that either. Penswell had been clear that [Crystal Bower] was one of the city’s which the Consortium was making an investment in holding and that even with the invaders spread thin, they would still throw a tremendous amount of force against the adventurers trying to liberate it. 

“Expect multiple waves in every fight and follow up sortes to descend on the critical locations almost endlessly,” Penswell had warned them. “From how they’ve fought before, they’ll expend every resource they have in a city before they retreat, and they’ll pay any cost to do as much damage as they can to our forces.”

None of that surprised Glimmerglass. She’d seen the Consortium’s forces fight at [Doom Crag]. She didn’t need to be warned of their ferocity.

A warning about the stealth abilities would be have been useful though.

“[Death Touch]”, the Consortium’s [Assassin] whispered as he plunged a poisoned dagger into Glimmerglass.

On a proper [Death Blow], the attack would have pierced something vital like a caryatid artery, but Glimmerglass’s resilence and reflexes allowed her to divert the blow into her shoulder instead. It was an improvement on the intended outcome but the damage was still considerable and the poison would be problematic in a few seconds.

Glimmerglass looked for help from her team, but the Consortium [Assassin] had caught her as the fight placed her a good ten seconds from receiving help from them. 

Ten seconds was an eternity for a squishy healer to solo a single target dps spec’d monster. Glimmerglass ran the numbers instantly and didn’t like the picture they painted.

The [Assassin] smiled. He’d clearly done the same and came to the same conclusion.

“[Casting spell: Major Re…” Glimmerglass’s casting was interrupted as the Consortium [Assassin] stabbed her again.

She’d had to try but she knew what to expect. Her most powerful healing spells were off limits until someone could distract her foe for long enough.

“[Instant Regeneration]”

Not all spells needed a lengthy casting time. She could beat the Assassin, but doing so was going to require using resources on herself which would weaken her team tremendously. Watching Damnazon fighting against eight [Elite Raiders] left Glimmerglass keenly aware that she would be trading her life for theirs, but since the alternative was that no one would live, it was the call she had to make.

Unless she could reach her [Inspiration] again. A burst of speed and focus would let her cast through even a near fatal attack and landing one of the high tier healing spells she’d been reserving for an emergency would turn the entire fight around.

Except her [Inspiration] wasn’t there. There was only silence where there’d been something so much greater when she’d called out on Consortium Ship.

Glimmerglass swung her staff and cursed, screaming out to the void.

She wasn’t kidding. She needed to be more than she was. She needed to be someone else! Someone with the tools to survive this.

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”

The voice that spoke was her own, but very definitely not hers.

Soul magic flooded through her and as the [Assassin Struck] she saw it reach out through his eyes and drag a stream of energy from him.

In an instant her wounds mended and [Assassin] staggered back, choking and faltering as his health plummeted away.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 10

Trusting an enemy agent was foolish. Lisa routinely screamed at characters who left themselves open to that kind of betrayal and pain, but then she routinely screamed at herself even more, so when it came to the question of whether Pillowcase should stay or go there was really only answer.

“We need you to stay with us,” she said, speaking for the group even though she didn’t feel she had any right too. “Even if you’re not fully yourself, you’re still one of the strongest tanks we have available.”

“Should we head back and tell the others what’s happened?” Lady Midnight asked.

It was a sensible question and a sensible course of action. Their original destination had been the [Castle] of the [Lord of Storms], but given what a mess [Sky’s Edge] had turned out to be, falling back and regrouping was clearly the safest option.

“We can warn them about the [Formless Hunger] by telepathy,” Pillowcase said. “I think we need to press forward though.”

Lisa resisted the urge to strangle her.

Oh sure, this was the new ‘tactically smart’ version, with 100% less impulsive, self-sacrificing Tessa-influence. Except that was exactly what Tessa would have said.

Lisa shook her head. She’d known Tessa for what, half a day? Where had she picked up such a clear picture of the woman who’d stolen her cold, undead heart?

She could see it though. If there was something that would help people, Tessa would leap at it. If it meant personal danger, so much the better! Extreme personal danger? Why that was the best of all!

“What if we run into something worse than this at the [Lord of Storms] place?” Matt asked.

“Then we withdraw,” Pillowcase said. “And we’ll know of two areas which people can’t risk approaching.”

“I thought you killed whatever was here?” Rip asked. “And what’s a [Formless Hunger]?”

“It’s what the thing in the static is now,” Obby said. “And sadly it’s not dead. It doesn’t know how to be yet.”

Lisa felt a question bubble up in her mind. 

How did Obby know that?

Before could rise to consciousness though, Pillowcase spoke again.

“Hitting it with the [Lesser Spirit Drain] pulled the thing more into our world. The Consortium has records on something like this.”

“Yeah. [Formless Hungers] are a class of entity the Consortium has encountered before,” Matt said. “They’re usually native to the world though. Whatever this thing is, I don’t think it was part of the [Fallen Kingdoms] before this.”

“It looks like a bad data disk sector,” Pete said. “I mean that’s all random noise there right? Like the rendering engine for the world could read the textures for [Sky’s Edge] so it decided to show a smear of ones and zeroes inside.”

“But there was something in there,” Rip said. “I could feel it, and I don’t feel it now. Are we sure it’s not dead? It would be awful nice if it was dead.”

“Pillow and I were closest, so I think it tried to pull us in first and we got the best look inside the static,” Obby said. “When Pillow hurt it, it wasn’t just that she did some damage to it. She introduced it to the concept of pain. That’s not the kind of thing anybody shakes off quickly, but it will recover. Teaching something like that to die would take a whole lot more than any group of lowbies would have on hand.”

“We picked such a bad time to suck,” Rip said.

“Hey!” Obby objected. “No badmouthing the badasses here, yourself included.”

Rip looked away but was smiling shyly as she did so.

“If this thing does wake up, is it going to get bigger?” Matt asked. “Or will its influence spread farther out? I mean, we weren’t even in the static field and it mind whammied us. If that grows larger, how far will we need to run to stay safe?”

“I don’t know,” Obby said. “I don’t know if that even can be known yet. I’m afraid we’re going to need to wait and see what sort of capabilities this [Formless Hunger] has when it starts using them.”

“If we leave it alone, will it just stay as it is?” Lady Midnight asked.

“That’s one possibility,” Obby said. “Or it could start expanding exponentially.”

“We should come up with a plan to get everyone off the [High Beyond] then,” Lisa said. “If it starts growing that fast, there may not be much time between it beginning to move and it swallowing all of [High Beyond]. Unless, Pillowcase, can you beat it again if it tries anything?”

“I doubt it,” Pillowcase said. “I didn’t so much beat it last time as survive it, and that required a sacrifice I don’t think I’m capable of making anymore.”

“Perhaps the [Lord of Storms] will have an answer we can use,” Starchild said. “They are, or at least were, divine. If any would know how a corrupted spark of divine essence could be reclaimed, they would be our best candidate, no?”

“Assuming they aren’t the source of the [Disjoined] and this thing,” Lady Midnight said.

“That would also be useful information to acquire,” Pillowcase said.

“Well, we’re pretty much all healed up and recovered for magic, so we might as well head out,” Lisa said. 

You should really be the one saying that, Lisa sent to her private channel with Tessa but it vanished into the void like the rest of her words.

Hey there, how goes the whole vampire thing? Cease All said, her private message arriving with just the right timing to strike a spark of hope that Tessa was responding before the true sender registered in Lisa’s mind.

Oh things are just great up here. We didn’t have to fight the vamp. We did have to fight some creepy de-rezzing freaks. The starter city was erased from the map. Somehow I got elected to be the party’s cat herder. Oh, and one of our party members suffered a traumatic identity trauma. How are things with you?

Woah, Cease All said. I thought you were still level 5 or something? How did you get swept up in all that? And, I’m sorry, did you say the starting city was erased? What does that even mean?

Lisa gave her guildmate a quick run down to catch her up, switching her main communication channel to send private messages to Cease. She tried to downplay how vastly out of their depth she felt her team was but even presenting the plainest, least exaggerated facts failed to disguise how precarious their position was.

“Damn Alice, I wish we’d known. Maybe we could have tried to get up to you without going through the official dungeon route.”

“It’s ok.” It wasn’t. Lisa really wanted her guild to be with her. But she also would have killed them if they’d tried to ‘pull a Tessa’ on her. “You’ve been up to your neck in it down there from the sounds of it.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” Cease was playing it cool and casual. That screamed to Lisa how bad her guild was having it.

“Is everyone ok?” she asked, not wanting to know the answer, and not able to live without knowing.

“Not really,” Cease admitted. “I mean, we’re doing ok with this assignment. We’re taking back [Crystal Bower], and we’re kicking ass, but there’ve been…problems.”

“How many have we lost?” Lisa asked.

“Two, both in the initial battle,” Cease All said. “We’ve been good since then. Careful.”

“I can’t believe it,” Lisa said. “How are you holding up? Hell, how are you still fighting?”

“I don’t know Alice,” Cease said. “I think it’s because we don’t have much other choice, but it feels like we’ve been here before. Like…I know how this is going to sound, but it feels like our characters are real too.”

“Yeah, I’ve run into that too,” Lost Alice said.

As Lisa’s party marched across the terrain from the former environs of [Sky’s Edge] to the [Celestial Bridge] to the [Lord of Storms’ Castle], Lisa let her voice flow back and forth between her own and Lost Alice’s as she explained what she and Tessa had discovered about the identities they held within them.

“God I’m glad I talked to you about this,” Cease said. “I think we’re all experiencing it, but it looks like most people are  afraid to come right out and say ‘I’m hearing the voice of my fictional alter ego in my head and I’m pretty sure they’re real’.”

“I think I would have kept it to myself forever, and maybe kept Lost Alice buried too if Tessa hadn’t started telling me about what was going on with her and Pillowcase.”

“It sounds like Tessa is a pretty incredible lady,” Cease said.

“She’s goddamn amazing,” Lisa said. “I can’t even explain it. It’s like I wished on a star and the whole sky said ‘yeah, we got you covered’.”

Lisa heard Cease laughing.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” Cease said. “It’s just so nice to hear you happy. If we weren’t about to get attacked by an army of nightmare dolls and magic terminators, I’d say this whole thing was worth it just to hear you being happy again.”

“But…I’m not happy,” Lisa said, struggling to see where Cease could have gotten that idea. “And Tessa’s gone now.”

“Yeah, that sucks,” Cease said. “If Pillowcase is still there, there’s got to be some way to get Tessa back though, right?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea what [Fractured] might mean. There was nothing like it in the game.”

“Well, it’s not [Destroyed] or [Annihilated] or [Erased], so she’s still got to be out there somewhere, and I know you’ll find her,” Cease said. “I mean when was the last time you gave up on someone you loved?”

“I don’t…I’m not…I mean, I’m still with Kelly,” Lisa protested.

“Oh, oh my dear, that’s exactly what I mean,” Cease said. “How many times have you broken up in the last six months?”

“Twice,” Lisa said, her pace faltering.

“What about yesterday?” Cease asked.

“Three times.”

“At least three times,” Cease said. “And it probably should have been more than that. A lot more. You haven’t been happy since at least last Christmas.”

Lisa had thought Lost Alice’s heart was too cold to freeze and too dead to feel pain. The emotional icicle Cease’s words staked her with told her she was wrong. 

Christmas hadn’t been good.

Even ten months later she couldn’t think back on it without a dark wave of disappointment threatening to carry her under.

Think about eating someone, Lost Alice said, that always takes my mind off things.

It was a silly comment, but combined with the distance of perspective Lost Alice provided, the still raw pain was pushed down to manageable levels.

“It wasn’t all bad,” Lisa said,  the defense sounding as feeble to her as she was sure it sounded to Cease.

It was true though. Even after the huge blow up fight which had taken the place of the proposal Lisa had been hoping for, she and Kelly had managed to salvage enough of their relationship to stay together. At least until it became economically feasible for them to live apart.

She couldn’t look back at those months without seeing that it really was “that bad”.

Kelly wasn’t evil, she wasn’t abusive, she wasn’t even entirely wrong.

They just weren’t right for each other. Lisa had known that even before Christmas. She thought some part of her had always known that.

“I asked my sister to try calling her,” Cease said. “I know you said not to, but I thought she might be worried about you, especially since you hadn’t parted on good terms.”

“She said she’d be leaving today,” Lisa said. “Did you manage to get through to her?”

“My sister did,” Cease said. “She didn’t have anything to say. No message. No apology. Not even a good bye. She didn’t want to hear anything at all.”

Lisa’s breath caught in her throat. It should have been a relief. An unwanted tether falling away. Freedom when freedom was what her heart desired most.

It should have been joyous, but it still hurt. 

She didn’t love Kelly. Not anymore. But some past part of her had, and that part of her felt like she was dying.

A warm hand rested on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?” Pillowcase asked. “I didn’t think to ask if you’d been hurt back there. We can rest if you need. We’re safe here.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 9

Lisa had jumped from orbit back to the planet’s surface and yet looking at Pillowcase was what made her feel like she was in freefall.

“You’re correct,” Pillowcase said. “I’m not the same person I was a moment ago. I am not exactly different either though. I am…a piece of who I was? I am having trouble communicating what has happened. The experience is outside any of the mission parameters I was designed.”

“I don’t understand, what happened just now?” Rip asked.

Lisa watched as the young girl in the body of an [Elven] [Archer] transferred her enchanted bow from one hand to the other. Rip could sense the difference too, and was having the same problem with reconciling the sense of peril at being around a construct of the [Consortium of Pain] with the memory of Pillowcase fighting by their sides and being literally willing to die for them all. Repeatedly.

Except was that really Pillowcase who’d done those things? A tiny voice in Lisa’s head asked venomously.

“That’s Pillowcase, but she’s not responding to her other name,” Lisa said. “The name of the woman we all knew.”

The name of the woman Lisa was pretty sure she’d developed more than a crush on.

She growled at the thought and at herself. This wasn’t the moment to be worried about things like that.

Except it was exactly when she always thought of her relationships wasn’t it? Right when it was too late to do anything about them.

The thought did nothing to improve Lisa’s mood or outlook.

“What’s her name?” Matt asked. He’d moved to stand beside Rip, hovering protectively while being careful not to interfere with her line of fire.

“I…I don’t know,” Pillowcase said. “I just know that she is missing from me.”

“But you know it, don’t you?” Lady Midnight asked.

“I do,” Lisa said, speaking as Lost Alice since she hadn’t shared her Earth-name with the rest of her team.

“Can you tell her what it is?” Pete asked, speaking through Starchild. “It might help Pillow bring back the memories she’s missing.”

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said, her gaze locked on Pillowcase’s face in a desperate search to understand who the woman before her was.  

“You don’t trust me?” Pillowcase said, meeting Lost Alice’s gaze with a similar search for answers. Pillowcase reached her answer far faster than Lisa did though. “Understandable. A wise tactical choice.”

“What tactics? What do you mean?” Rip asked. “And what just happened? It felt like…I don’t even know. It just felt horrible.”

“That’s what was behind the [Disjoined],” Obby said. “When they corrupted the [Divine Spark] it let something into this world that wasn’t supposed to be here.”

“It felt like something was turning me inside out,” Matt said.

“It was like I was dissolving,” Rip said.

“Yeah, it was like that for us too,” Pete said. “I thought I was going to lose Star forever.”

“I thought we were going to lose both ourselves forever,” Starchild said.

Lisa cast a glance at the two of them, Pete and Starchild, two people in one body. It distracted from her analysis of Pillowcase or maybe she was just running away from a problem she couldn’t handle.

Like she always did.

That is not like us at all. 

It was her voice, her thought. 

You but not you. Isn’t that what Tessa described being with Pillowcase was like? Lost Alice asked.

Have I finally lost it? Lisa asked herself.

But the answer was obvious.

She wasn’t talking to anyone else. It was like when she was little and she’d play dress up. When you were wearing the cowgirl’s hat, you had to talk like the cowgirl and whatever you said was what the cowgirl knew. If you put on the firefighter’s hat though, then you could talk like the firefighter.

You’re a mask?

An adequate metaphor, Lost Alice agreed. We can work on it if the nuances become important.

This still feels weird.

It should. We’re not supposed to be separate are we? I mean why wouldn’t I want to be fully me?

Lisa paused for a moment, caught in her own head as the rest looked to her for answers that she not only didn’t have but wasn’t sure she wanted to have.

Compartmentalization. You’re a blood thirsty monster. 

A workable theory. It would also prevent us from needing to integrate too much conflicting information at once.

What about her then? What would Pillowcase be?

We can’t know that, can we? And it’s not what’s important.

“She saved us didn’t she?” Lisa asked, locking her gaze back into Pillowcase.

“She saved me,” Pillowcase said. “And I think she did something to whatever was beyond the static there.”

“Can we go over that part again?” Lady Midnight asked. “And should we be moving away?”

“Yes,” Rip said. She looked like she wanted nothing more than to start firing arrows as the static field that remained of Sky’s Edge while simultaneously fleeing as far from it as possible.

“We’re safe here for the moment,” Obby said. Her gaze had drifted by to the static, which should have been worrisome given the strange compulsion it seemed to be able to inflict on people. 

When Lisa appraised Obby though, there was a sense of calm control which radiated from Obby which put Lisa at ease as well.

“How do you know?” Lisa asked, wondering why anyone was looking to her for answers when Obby was right there instead.

“I was watching Pillowcase,” Obby said. “I saw what she did.”

“We cast a spell,” Pillow said, as though pulling the memory from a hazy dream. “[Lesser Spirit Drain].”

“That’s not a particularly strong one, is it?” Lady Midnight asked.

“It’s one of the first one’s a [Soul Knight] gets,” Pillowcase said. “So, no, it’s not very strong.”

“It shouldn’t have been able to touch the thing in the static,” Obby said.

“But it did?” Lisa asked.

“Yes,” Pillowcase said. “My other…she…we insisted.”

“Can you do that?” Rip asked. “Just say ‘no this is going to hurt you’ even if you’re punching, I don’t know, god or something?”

“Not usually,” Obby said. “I think that’s what [Fractured] Pillowcase. You much have pushed yourself so far to do that.”

“Can you fix her?” Lisa asked Obby without taking her eyes off Pillowcase.

“I’m afraid [Guardians] don’t come with a lot of psyche repair spells,” Obby said, shrugging.

“Does anyone? Maybe someone higher level?” Rip asked. She was fidgeting more as her concern continued to eat away at her and grow ever larger.

“I can give my wife a call,” Obby said. “I’m not sure what, if anything, she’ll be able to do under the circumstances but circumstances can change.”

“You should consider first if you can work with me if nothing can be done to change my present condition,” Pillowcase said.

“What do you mean?” Rip asked.

“If the [Fractured] condition is a permanent one, you will collectively need to decide if I can be trusted to be a part of this team anymore,” Pillowcase said. “I fill a role with too much responsibility to be allowed to continue in it if you fear I will turn against you.”

“Why would we be afraid of that?” Rip asked. “Isn’t it just like you’ve got amnesia or something?”

“It’s more than that,” Pillowcase said. “I am missing a part of who I am. A part I never knew was there when I was a tool of the Consortium. I don’t know if I can be what I’ve been since I awoken after I was discarded. She has always been with me since then. Until now.”

“You’re not going to turn back into one of their puppets,” Matt said. “The control threads in you broke when they discarded you, and they burned away entirely when you and your Earth-self combined.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Rip asked, a flicker of surprise rippling across her face.

“[Metal Mechanoids] are setup a little different from [Clothwork], but it’s a pretty similar story for all [Artifax].”

“So her loyalty won’t be compromised,” Starchild said. “What about your capabilities? It’s not fair to ask you to stand as one of our tanks if you’ve lost the skills or experience required to perform the role.”

“Mechanically, I have lost no levels or abilities, passive or active,” Pillowcase case said. “If anything I am likely stronger now than I have been in the past.”

“How about your instincts?” Lisa asked. “If a [Disjoined] rose up from the ground right now, what would you do?”

“The proper reaction when guarding a group from an unexpected threat is to close with the threat and deploy aggression compulsion abilities to ensure that the less defended group members have time to react.” Pillowcase answered instantly and without pause.

“And if two [Disjoined] rose up and were advancing on Rip and myself?” Lisa asked.

“Prioritization of resources defaults to defending healing and support units first,” Pillowcase said. “Depending on the mission objectives and remaining requirements, damage dealing units can be given raised priority.”

“So you’d save Alice and then me most of the time, unless I was needed for something important?” Rip asked.

“Those are the ‘instincts’ I was crafted with,” Pillowcase said. “I am not certain my other self would have evaluated things according to them. She might have been able to provide a deeper context for a more advantageous prioritization for all involved.”

Dammit Tessa, Lisa said, speaking on their private channel even though her words were disappearing into the void. That’s what you should do, but we both know I’d kill you if you let either of the kids die so I could live. Come on, are you really not in there?

There wasn’t even an echo in response.

Are you sure you’d kill her? Lost Alice asked.

I mean it is kinda nice how much she’s been willing to give to the group, Lisa said.

But hiding from yourself is a lot harder when that self isn’t willing to buy into the lies that would be so very convenient to believe.

To the group? Or to you?

Lisa remembered seeing Tessa as a ghost when they’d first arrived. Ghost-Tessa had looked as frightened and overwhelmed as Lisa had felt, but not a minute later Tessa had jumped into Pillowcase’s body just to prove whether or not they could. Because it was the kind of information they had to have if they were going to make sense of the impossible world in front of them.

Lisa felt Lost Alice’s cold, unbeating vampire heart twist at the memory.

Still think you should leave Pillowcase behind? Lost Alice asked.

But she’s not Tessa!

Just like you’re not me? Lost Alice asked.

Lisa flinched at the memory of “Lost Alice” taking over in the dungeon she and Tessa were trapped in.

It hadn’t been “Lost Alice”. It had been her. She’d been hungry, and angry, and it had been her teeth that had ripped a man’s jugular open. 

Looking back she couldn’t even feel that disgusted by it. He was a monster, even if he was completely human, and he’d deserved exactly what happened to him.

But she’d done it. 

She was Lisa Chen, fitness instructor, set designer, and gamer but she was also Lost Alice, [Bloodborne], [Grave Mender] and unrepentant monster.

And what would I repent? What should she repent? We are who we are. All that matters is what we’ve done and what we’re going to do.

And if we do terrible things?

There’s no ‘if’. We have done terrible things, Lost Alice said. And we’ll do more terrible things in the future.

Can I live with that? Should I live with that?

You have and you will, Lost Alice said. And you know why.

Because why I did them matters too.

Just like it matters why Pillowcase did what she did. You know why you’re afraid of her, don’t you? You’re not scared of what Pillowcase is going to do in the future.

Lisa looked at Pillowcase and saw a brave woman awaiting judgement. A woman who wasn’t sure she could trust herself in the light of the distrust Lisa had shown her. 

I’m not afraid of what she’s going to do, I’m afraid of what she’s already done.

And why she did it.

She loves me.

Yeah. Think you’ll tell her you love her too?

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 8

In the quiet darkness there was no strife. No worlds were in peril. No one had left her. 

She couldn’t wake. Wasn’t responsible for anything. Didn’t have anything to live up to.

And that was ok.

So ok.

***

The view from space showed the world as it was. One great sphere, with no real subdivisions, all of its inhabitants part of a single, vibrant whole.

A whole which was not crumbling anywhere near as fast as it was supposed to.

“It’s not that we’re being sabotaged which I find disappointing,” Azma said, musing aloud to Grenslaw and Ryschild. She was used to taking aloud to keep her head clear and give her eavesdroppers something valuable to report to her coworkers. Total secrecy was rarely possible and terrifying when achieved. Far better to seed the reports concerning her with deliberate information than to allow her coworkers and superiors to come up with their own wild imaginings about what sort of schemes she was getting up to.

“I saw you had a budget item for ‘Intradepartmental Involuntary Cooperation Expenses’. Was that to cover the projected sabotage costs?” Grenslaw asked.

“That one’s to cover the blackmail and coercion expenses,” Azma said. 

Her words would be reported directly to the committee which was (nominally) overseeing her operation. A voice would be raised in indignation that a loose operative like Azma was budgeting explicitly for nefarious purposes. As whichever of her many detractors waxed poetic on her many shortcomings, the rest of the committee would be reviewing the numbers and comparing them to the typical levels of graft required for operations. When they saw hers were forty one percent of the average and routinely deviated from projections by no more than five percent, a motion would be raised to table discussion of matters of ethics and refer the issue to the proper oversight body. 

Azma liked dealing with the Ethics Oversight Committee. They were so refreshingly clear about the bribes they expected. 

“Would it be this line item for ‘Unrequested Assistance by Intradepartmental Assets of Standard Substandard Quality’?” Ryschild asked.

“Yes, that’s the one,” Azma said.

“We seem to be well within the planned allotment so far,” Ryschild said.

Many of Azma’s less successful subordinates would have asked the question with a sneer or phrased it as an indictment of her management skills. Since promotion within the Consortium was usually a matter of seizing a newly opened vacancy in the ranks, taking down one’s superior was considered the sign of a solid work ethic. 

Ryschild, and Grenslaw, seemed to be aware of the problems inherent in that arrangement, and so choose their words and tone of voice with the reality that Azma made a much better mentor and shield than she did an enemy. 

“It’s not the rate of expenditure which bothers me,” Azma said, feeling as though she was speaking to an attentive class. The sensation was rather intoxicating. “If anything the saboteurs are a bit behind the curve – most likely because some of their schemes imploded on their own. I surmise that based on thew quality of the sabotage which we’ve seen so far. That’s what I find so disappointing.”

“Could someone be hiding a much better scheme behind a series of poorly executed ones?” Grenslaw asked.

“That’s always a possibility, and always worth remaining mindful of,” Azma said. “If that is the case here however, it’s frankly a bit insulting. Apart from the fact that sabotage is never going to make someone relax their guard, there’s the specific details of the sabotage. I mean they could still look inept and disarming and manage to introduce some form of impediment to our progress.”

“Damages to the fleet have included seven non-repairable parts,” Ryschild said. “Would you normally expect more than that?”

“Not so much ‘more’ as ‘better targeted’,” Azma said. “When you look at the parts which suffered irreparable failures, they were all ones which could have been accessed before the ships departed their last retrofit stations and before they were officially assigned to this battlegroup and therefor under our control.”

“Does that mean there’ll be a trail to follow back to the one responsible?” Grenslaw asked.

“Each of the ships came from different retrofit stations, and the manifests on them are clean. Whatever party or parties did this covered their tracks up quite neatly,” Azma said

A clever listener would know to be worried when Azma complimented an adversary. A wise one would note that she hadn’t actually said that tracking the culprit would be impossible. Given who she anticipated being involved however, Azma was confident that distinction would escape them.

“What impact will the..umm..lack of sabotage have on the overall operation?” Ryschild asked. 

“It may raise morale a bit more than expected,” Azma said. “The defenders in the [Fallen Kingdoms] are performing a beyond projections, but that’s been offset by the fact that we’re not suffering significant losses from within our own forces. The plan had accounted for those losses and for the reinforcements needed to make up for them. Since we can keep more of the original units intact, we should see a greater efficiency in the next stage of the operation. That circles back to my original objection to the sabotage we have seen. With the troops in a better position than expected, even if there is a more significant act awaiting us, we have more and better resources available due to the bumbling attempts which have been made so far.”

“Can we be sure the saboteur is actually antagonistic?” Grenslaw asked. “Perhaps they are working to thwart another party’s sabotage for their own purposes.”

“A possibility, though a slight one,” Azma said, pleased to see the turnings of Grenslaw’s mind matched her own. “If the ‘accidents’ were the work of a benefactor mitigating worse calamities then they would have been well served to leave a calling card of some kind. I have been clear about my generosity in such matters before. I believe we are dealing with a very different sort of competitor though. The schemes which have unfolded suggest someone with a level of clearance comparable to my own, but with far less backbone.”

“They’re afraid to sabotage things too badly?” Ryschild asked.

“Oh, I suspect they’d be willing to destroy our entire fleet and sink the Consortium’s profits from this endeavor completely,” Azma said. “What they don’t seem to be willing to risk is being caught. They probably fancy themselves a master planner, and imagine me to be an barbaric interloper.”

Both Grenslaw and Ryschild turned to gaze at Azma incredulously.

“Barbaric?” Grenslaw asked.

“Of course,” Azma said. “I am the first of my family to be a part of the Consortium. And I am rather far beyond the place many would have set for me.”

She paused and waited to see if either would comment on that. Sycophants were in some cases more irritating to deal with than open detractors. Both Grenslaw and Ryschild however offered no opinions on her claims, waiting instead for Azma to clarify her statements.

“Also I have made it clear I do not suffer threats or affronts lightly,” Azma said. “The chain of command is useful for resolving some disputes in that arena, but largely it tends to work out best when such matters are permanently settled among those involved.”

“Is it uncommon for those to move against your interests to do so with all possible precautions?” Grenslaw asked.

“Strangely yes,” Azma said. “It’s shocking just how foolish people can be. I suspect a large measure of it comes from ego and paying more attention to tradition and politics than the realities before them, but then ego, tradition, and politics are likely the root cause of many failings among my peers.”

“Then this adversary is cowardly but wise?” Ryschild asked.

“If they were wise, they’d be working with me,” Azma said. “Cowardly however fits the bill. It’s why we can dismiss them entirely. To cause real issues they would need to be willing to take risks and make the dynamic moves which are difficult for us to prepare for. Since they are unwilling to expose themselves to risk though, we can allow them their little diversions and relish the horrible gnawing dread which must live inside them as they deny they own ineptitude.”

She was overplaying her criticism. She knew that. Short of cackling like a fiend, she couldn’t be more obviously putting on a performance for the sake of her eavesdroppers, but Azma knew the coworkers who held her in contempt and nothing short of beating them over the head with insults would succeed in making them aware that they were being insulted.

She breathed out a happy sigh, delighted at the thought of how her words would ring in the ears of whichever incompetant had decided that it was his turn to leap into the thresher of her displeasure.

Aside from a few small issues, her plan was proceeding near the top end of efficiency. She could foresee the celebrations already, though was gladdened her heart more was the absolute rage it would induce in those who were so desperate to tear her down.

“[Supreme Commander], we are receiving a report on the deep survey for new targets which you’d requested,” Ryschild said.

Azma clicked a button invoking Maximum Confidentiality. There were still people spying on her of course, but she knew who they reported to, and keeping senior committee members in the dark was more dangerous than allowing them to retain a clear vision that one was not plotting their immediate overthrow. Everyone else however could wait until she’d processed the information, especially since it had little to do with selected new targets for the operation.

She scanned the report summary and blinked.

“No results found?” She dove into the primary data to confirm what the high level overviews were claiming.

“The population center seems to have been replaced by some impenetrable field,” Grenslaw said. “Ships scanners seem to be adversely effected after conducting any active scanning of the region.”

“Also passive scans,” Ryschild said.

“I can see that. The problems are peculiar though.” Azma did not like what she was seeing. There was a tremendous amount of information to sort through, but her intuition was already convinced there was far worse news lurking in the data than what the summaries were presenting.

“In all cases, the problems seem to have clear up after the scans were discontinued,” Grenslaw said. “But there is a lag period on each ship. That doesn’t sound right. Does it?”

Azma’s nerves were dancing with anticipation.

“No. It doesn’t,” she said, her dislike turning to intrigue.

“It says in this report that the active sensors were rebooted completely but it wasn’t until the passive sensors were taken offline that the glitches they were experiencing resolved themselves,” Ryschild said.

Azma called up the report Ryschild was looking at.

“I’m not seeing any additional sensor readings even after they supposedly came back online,” Azma said. “Or the glitched data from the scan of the satellite moon.”

A terrible and fascinating suspicion crept into her mind.

“Where, exactly, is the ship these readings were sent from?” she asked.

“Off course and heading directly to the satellite moon,” Grenslaw said.

As feats of sabotage went, subborning several ships from her fleet through the use of an input hack on their sensor web was worthy of both her attention and her respect.

Azma was used to playing a game against opponents who were essentially unarmed when it came to a dual of wits. To match herself against someone of her own caliber would be costly, and dangerous, and delightful.

In all likelihood one of them would destroy the other. Neither could afford to hold back after all. If they did they would be destroyed or, worse, become the best of friends. 

Azma felt a thrill at either prospect.

But an even more profound possibility occurred to her.

She had no idea how a ship’s sensors could be disabled in the manner the data was showing her. It should have been impossible, especially for the passive scanners. Worse, the crew was still communicating on secure channels and none of them were reporting what was actually happening.

They could have been turned. A mutiny would be a master stroke.

But Azma knew those crews. They’d been through enough campaigns with her. They wouldn’t turn easily.

That didn’t suggest the action of a brilliant competitors.

It suggested something new.

Something unknown.

Opportunity.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 7

Glimmerglass dropped to one knee, exhaustion rolling over her and threatening to drag her into a blissful and unfortunately permanent unconsciousness. A long night’s sleep was what she needed, having missed at least one already thanks to the constant fighting, but falling asleep in the middle of a battlefield was typically a choice which turned out well.

“Glim, you still with us?” Mellisandra asked.

“Yeah,” Glimmerglass panted out. “I’m fine.”

“Liar,” Cambrell said. The [Goblin] [Assassin] positioned himself to Glimmerglass’s side, standing up to his full height to provide her with what cover he could.

“We have any mana potions left?” Glimmerglass asked. Her fingers where shaking badly enough that she wasn’t sure she could even hold the potion but pressing forward was their only option.

After the raid on the Consortium’s fleet, the adventurer’s had been prepared to launch another sorte immediately, but the success of their first run had apparently convinced the Consortium to pull their ships out of range.

That meant less loot for the adventurers but also less support for the ground troops the Consortium had already deployed around the [Fallen Kingdoms].

“I know this is asking too much”, Penswell had said as she marshalled the adventurers into new alliances as they returned from their ship-raids. “This is our moment though. We have to strike now, before the Consortium can setup any new supply lines for their troops. And before their forces can dug in any deeper.”

Glimmerglass had been up for the challenge at the time. She’d gained two levels and was demonstrably stronger than ever. 

What she hadn’t considered was that there were limits to even her new strength.

She had been assigned with her new team as one of the spears to pierce the defenses the Consortium had erected around the [Elven] town of [Crystal Bower]. Glimmerglass had requested that they be sent to [Doom Crag] instead, hoping to liberate the town she’d failed to protect, but Penny had struck that down.

“We can’t win everything back,” Penny had said. “The demolished us last time because they forced us to spread our forces out. We need to focus in on taking back the most strategically important points first.”

It meant leaving people to the nonexistent mercy of the Consortium. Towns who had looked to the adventurers as their heroes. Towns where the adventurers had setup homes and shops, where people on the street were on a first name basis with each of them. Far too many of those places would receive no help at all. People who needed help getting rats out of their basement would be facing down the might of the Consortiums battle legions, all so that the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be able to mount any defense at all against the new wave of the invasion.

Not that even that sacrifice would be enough if the push to retake [Crystal Bower] and the other places like it was unsuccessful.

Glimmerglass rose to her feet.

Her party looked just as ragged as she did. Damnazon was below a quarter health, Mellisandra was debuffed to the point where she could barely make a static shock much less throw [Lightning Bolts], and the rest were even worse.

“[Casting spell: Cleansing Radiance]” Glimmerglass said, feeling the magic she’d spent five minutes recovering drain away into the spell.

“I’ve got a cheap magic potion here,” Cambrell said. “Don’t mind the flavor, it was poisoned at one point.”

Glimmerglass considered objecting but decided being poisoned might be a welcome relief and downed the vial of sparkly blue liquid without a care.

Cambrell was right. It was a cheap potion, suitable for adventurers less than a quarter Glimmerglass’s level but still able to refill enough of her empty magic pool for at least a few spells.

“How long until the next counter attack?” Mathi Automatics asked. He was leaning on his wizard’s staff, trying to recover his magic the same as Glimmerglass had been. As a [Wizard] he had the advantage that few of his spells were necessary out of combat, though Glimmerglass had seen him casting the simple mending and buffing spells he had well after the last fight against the Consortium had finished.

“They’ll be in range in about five minutes,” Kelindra, the group’s [Archer], said. She was as battle damaged as the rest of them, but since her abilities were mostly gear driven, she was arguably the most able to fight.

“I wonder if they’d take a rain check and just let us hold this spot for another hour or ten?” Cambrell asked.

A crossbow bolt whizzed past him, deflecting harmlessly off the [Evasion] enchantments woven into his doublet. They hadn’t completely eradicated the Consortium forces in the area but the ones which remained were as ineffectually under leveled as they were mindlessly loyal. It would take hours or possibly even days to clear out the skulking snipers but since their attacks had only the barest chance of connecting for the most trivial amounts of damage the party was treating them more as a nuisance than a proper threat.

They’d come in from the south of [Crystal Bower], teleporting as deep into the city as the Consortium’s barrier fields allowed.

Glimmerglass had expected the Consortium to rally quickly but hadn’t been prepared for the instantaneous counter attack they came under the moment the smoke from their teleport cleared.

They’d won that fight.

And the one after it.

And the dozens of fights after that.

It wasn’t like a raid though. In dungeons, each fight was usually separated from next by a small distance to traverse. Even if there wasn’t time to recover physically from one to the next, the short breaks allowed the party to mentally reset and brace for the next encounter.

The Consortium’s forces gave them no such opportunity.

From where they arrived at the [South Sentinel Tree], all along the [Great River Road] and up to the [Library of Lights], Glimmerglass’s party was forced to carve a path through a continuous stream of Consortium forces.

[Clothworks], [Metal Mechanoids], and so, so many [Crystal Constructs], all in the Consortiums livery piled out of buildings, and alleys and the thick groves of trees to reinforce each other and chip away, bit by bit, at the party’s resources.

It wasn’t until the party had reach a spot they couldn’t run from that they’d allowed the full weight of the Consortium’s troops to catch up to them.

By the time the fight was over, Glimmerglass had leveled up twice more and even those extra reserves of strength had been depleted.

“If we’ve only got a minute, should we stick to the plan?” Damnazon asked.

“What other choice to we have?” Mathi asked.

“We could go look for a [Heart Fire] to convert back,” Damnazon said. “This is so hard because we’re playing this like a Rogue-like. One life and we’re done. That’s not how this is supposed to work. If we could respawn we could hold this place forever.”

“We checked for the [Heart Fire] at the [South Sentinel Tree] though and it wasn’t there,” Mellisandra said. “How would we even know where to go?”

“If we’re on the move, the mobs won’t be able to pin us down?” Damnazon suggested.

It wasn’t a great plan, but sometimes even mediocre plans could be the key to winning the day.

If they’d been in a similar position in a normal dungeon run, Glimmerglass would have jumped at Damnazon’s idea. Risky, high reward plays were an adventuring party’s forte. Even when they failed, it was usually a spectacular enough failure that people were happy to have stories to tell and songs to sing about it.

But failure wasn’t going to be spectacular here.

If they failed to hold the [Library of Lights], Penny’s plan to take back [Crystal Bower] would grind to a halt. From the library, Glimmerglass’s team had an optimal firing position for their long range attackers on the entire southwest quadrant of the city. The library was also protected by some of the strongest enchantments in the city, which meant only a force willing to slug it out in a melee to get through the [Seven Gates of Knowledge] which led into the library proper would be able to retake it.

From their experience with fighting through the Gates, Glimmerglass had a keen appreciation of how hard it was to dislodge the library’s defenders. If her team had been at full strength, she knew they could have held off every Consortium soldier in the city with the defense bonus the Gates provided. 

As it was, the incoming strike force the Consortium was sending had probably an 80% chance of retaking the library and forcing them to make a long and dangerous ghost run to the nearest [Heart Fire] they knew of. Those were bad odds, made even worse by the stories that had spread throughout the adventuring teams. Stories of the people who didn’t make their ghost runs successfully.

Everyone knew the [Hounds of Fate] were traveling in packs. Big ones, and closer in than anyone had ever seen before.

Finding a new [Heart Fire] was the smart and safe play.

It was a real shame they couldn’t take it.

“We can’t leave,” Glimmerglass said.

“I know we’re supposed to stick to the plan…” Damnazon began to say but Glimmerglass cut her off.

“The [Great Goblin Grenadiers] are pushing in along the route we took right now,” Glimmerglass said. “They’re only level 60. If we don’t act as a lightning rod to pull in the Consortium’s forces, they’ll catch the G3’s out in the streets before the can reach the anti-teleport anchor for this zone.”

“Maybe we can try to head to them then?” Damnazon asked.

“She’s right, we can’t do that,” Mellisandra said. “Think of the [Razor Shard Bombs] the [Crystal Constructs] were throwing around? They tore us up pretty good. If they hit a level 60 they’ll obliterate the poor goblins.”

“Nice to see somebody cares about us,” Cambrell said.

“Live or die, we’re in this together,” Mellisandra said and offered a fist bump to Cambrell.

“We don’t have much at the moment, but we can work with what we’ve got,” Glimmerglass said. “Our healing spells will go a lot farther thanks to the damage reduction from the gate.”

“I can take our other ranged dps up to the central tower,” Kelindra said. “That should keep us out of their AoEs and we’ll have a huge advantage firing from the right side of the wards this time.”

“Sounds good, but don’t engage them early,” Glimmerglass said. “They’ll definitely have aerial units who are capable of transporting their ground forces. We want them to drop off their troops at street level where our heavies can engage them.”

“Won’t they drop them off everywhere and just swarm us?” Mathi Automatics asked.

“That hasn’t been their M.O. so far,” Glimmerglass said. “Plus they held the library long enough that they should know the upper levels can be secured a lot more strongly than the public areas on the ground floor here.”

“Yeah, and we don’t want them getting locked out and then roaming away to look for trouble. Our goblin friends wouldn’t find that too fun,” Damnazon said. 

With little time left to spare, the adventures picked themselves up, dividing into sub-teams and taking up their positions even with long term debuffs weighing them down.

For her part, Glimmerglass knew that she needed to summon up all of the strength that she could.

On the ship, she’d touched on something powerful within herself. Something that had put her feet on the road to adventure long ago. Something she desperately needed again.

For a moment, the world around her was quiet. The rest of her team had assembled elsewhere, and their enemies (apart from the underleveled pests) had not yet arrived.

Glimmerglass reached within herself, searching for the feeling, the wordless voice which had always inspired her.

All she found though was silence. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 6

“Fight” or “Flight” works for humans. For [Artifax], who are constructed for no other purpose than warfare however there is only “Fight” and “Fight Harder”. That was why Pillowcase’s words in the face of the effect which had overrun the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] were so unsettling.

We need to run away, she said as the static field which covered the former area of the town crackled in front of them. Her voice was suffused with the serenity which lies beyond the deepest of fear at the sight, despite the fact that nothing was moving in the perfectly leveled field.. 

Tessa could have challenged Pillowcase’s declaration. They’d escaped the destructive wave when it swept through over the town. The distorted, crackling space which remained behind couldn’t hurt them. It was just visual static and weirdly looping white noise. 

It brewed terror in her soul.

But she couldn’t say why.

Just seeing something couldn’t hurt you.

She was wrong about that. Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase’s memories could come up with how she was wrong, but a deeper part of her psyche, one which underlay them both, understood that the thing before her was something she wasn’t ever supposed to see. It was broken, and it could break her.

Tessa could have argued against that with herself but Pillowcase’s fear was far from unfounded. The [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] had better command of the senses the Consortium had woven into her body than Tessa did. They were one mind, driven by one subconscious, which meant Pillowcase’s terror was Tessa’s terror, but through Pillowcase she understood where that terror can from.

The static wasn’t harmless. It wasn’t just a weird light show. There was something living within it. Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase could see it directly. It wasn’t the kind of thing that even could be seen. Its existence was a violation of too many fundamental properties of reality.

“Yes. Keep running. Now,” Tessa said, agreeing with herself and offering orders to her team. 

Orders she found it impossible to obey.

“I…I can’t,” Lisa said, her voice wavering on the same precipice of hopelessness Tessa teetered on

Tessa wanted to look at Lisa, wanted to reassure herself that everyone had made it out of the town safely, but she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the field of distorted space in front of her. Before her eyes it flowed and rippled and at the end of each chaotic wave was the promise of something glorious.

This is ridiculous, she said fighting for control of her thoughts by talking them out with her other self.

We need to run away, Pillowcase said, breathless and mono-focused.

How are you afraid of this? Tessa asked. You’re unstoppable. You literally don’t know fear.

Everything knows fear, Pillowcase said. [Artifax] are designed to never be overwhelmed by it.

Then what’s happening here?

This is wrong. More wrong than I can process. We need to run away.

Tessa tried to pull herself away but nothing moved. Her arms were locked, her legs were frozen in place, and her eyes couldn’t stop drinking in the static. Like they’d all gone numb.

Or like they weren’t hers anymore.

I don’t think we can, Tessa said, even her terror feeling like it was being consumed by the thing in the static.

How could she turn away from this? It wasn’t a question she’d asked herself but the idea was waiting for her there behind her eyes. A part of her, but not her.

Possession? Was the thing in the static reaching out beyond the borders of the town? Had it hit her with some enchantment or mind whammy that she had to shake off?

Tessa felt something alien moving in her thoughts. Something that was neither her, nor Pillowcase, nor any other part of her. 

Weaponized doubt bit deep fangs into the center of her brain and pumped its venom into everything she knew.

Had she really escaped the town at all? Was what she was seeing real? How could it be when the static in front of her couldn’t be any part of a real world. Not Tessa’s Earth and not Pillowcase’s [Fallen Kingdoms]. 

There was no voice asking the questions, but there was an external will. Something unfathomable that lurked beyond the static which remained of [Sky’s Edge].

Beyond the static? No. Within it. 

Whatever it was, it wasn’t distant. Not any longer. Maybe once it had been kept where things that couldn’t be were able to exist. Some unreal land with no border on any realm world. 

Tessa imagined a malevolent force peering into the world, but held back on the other side of a mirror, or beyond the veil of dreams. 

Whatever was within the static now was that sort of horror. Something whose essential nature unwrote the bindings of reality.

Was air a thing she needed to breath? In the presence of the thing within the static, air might never have existed. Or it might change to razer blades.  Or fire. Or become solid. And not just air. Blood. Electrical signals. The strong and weak nuclear forces. Time. 

Any of those might fail or be distorted into something unrecognizable, and the thing was no more than a literal stone’s throw away.

Tessa felt her thoughts crumbling as unnameable fears formed from one memory attaching to another 

Or wasn’t it closer than that?

Was the static in the town, or, since she was seeing it plainly, wasn’t it inside her eyes?

With each little flicker and pop wasn’t the static crawling inside her? 

It was in her mind already wasn’t it? With all that she was thinking about?

Wasn’t that why she couldn’t look away? Because she wasn’t really herself. She was just more noise in static and how could she look away from the static, when it was a part of her, when it was her? 

Could she look away from herself?

Should she even try to hold herself apart from it?

She’d been made for war. She’d had a purpose. She was so empty without that. Why not fizz away into the static?

Maybe she already had.

“Tessa,” Obby called out. No instruction, no request. Just that word.

Just that name.

Tessa drew in a sharp breath and grasped Pillowcase’s thoughts. Pillowcase was hers. No one else got to play her. No one else got to write her story. 

Anger crashed over her. Anger from within the static. From the thing that existed in the hisses and the pops and the hungry flickering of the light.

Tessa should have run. With Pillowcase’s thoughts collected with her own, she could move her body again. She could even pull her gaze away from the static, and be wholly herself once more. 

What she couldn’t be was brave or defiant. The thing she was facing was beyond that. It wasn’t behind any walls any more. It was right where she was. To face it was to be destroyed. it didn’t merely kill heroes, it wasn’t that kind or that limited. If Tessa tried to be a hero, to meet its anger with her own, it would pour through her and turn each particle within her into itself. 

All she could do was run, and all that would do is put off the time before it eventually caught her. There was no escape from something which could unmake every barrier, and unravel even the concept of distance and time. It projected the certainty of its victory with absolute force.

It was too much. Tessa couldn’t summon her courage against something so overwhelming. She couldn’t deny that it would destroy her.

But she couldn’t forget who she was either. 

The thing in the static wanted her identity to vanish into the noise it would fill everything with. It wanted nothing to exist that was not a part of itself. No reality but a void filled with seething, meaninglessness.

Tessa wasn’t having any part of that.

Beyond fear, beyond hope, there is an island where the survival instinct falls away and all that remains are the primal forces that form a psyche.

Tessa choose Hunger and Spite from all the aspects which made her up. 

Did this thing want to eat her? Fine! Let it try!

A terrible laughter rang within her. 

She had no hope, but that didn’t mean she had to leave the thing in the static with any either.

Humans were omnivores, she’d show this thing just what that meant.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

It was a small spell. Just a tiny bit of magic. A simple bit of spellcraft to pull away a bit of an enemy’s life and use it to strengthen the caster. 

The thing in the static had no spirit. Nothing for the spell to effect. It should have sputtered out without a valid target. 

<Don’t Care>

<Not gonna let it fail>

Was it Tessa speaking? Pillowcase? 

<Not important>

<Destruction>

<Do It!>

It would mean consuming a portion of something that was not meant to exist. It was a supernova scaled bad idea.

<DO IT!>

It would…

DO IT!

The [Formless Hunger] within the static paused.

Something was wrong.

It was wrong.

And not in the sense of being wrong for the reality it would feast on.

It felt something in itself be ripped away.

The warrior of cloth had stolen something from it.

It was missing a piece of what it was.

It began to shake. Not for the loss. It hadn’t lost much. Just a single flicker. A infinitesimal spark.

But it wasn’t supposed to have a spark to lose.

It wasn’t supposed to have a self at all.

And it definitely wasn’t supposed to have a name.

The [Formless Hunger] backpedaled. It scrambled to escape, but there was no escape for it. It had a name now. It could never go back to the anonymity of unbeing.

It howled but only the laughter of the warrior of cloth answered it.

***

>> [Lesser Spirit Drain] morphed to [Primal Devouring]!

>> [Major Corruption Resistance] gained!

>> [Transdimensional Integrity] gained!

>> Condition: [A Monster Grows Within] gained!

NO.

>> Condition removed.

>> Aspect: [Disjoined] gained.

NO!

>> WARNING: Definition Error detected

>> Replace “Aspect: [Disjoined]” with “Aspect: [Fractured]” Y/N?

Ok.

>> Aspect: [Fractured] gained! 

>> Choose Primary Identity: __________

What?

>> [Soul Knight] Level 12, [Fractured] is missing an identity.

>> Choose Primary Identity: __________

Pillowcase

>> Identity accepted.

>> Level Up! 

>> Level 13 attained!

***

Pillowcase opened her eyes to see a read out of her level 13 improvements waiting for her. The expected mix of stat increases were coupled with an additional spell point and an upgrade to fraction of health which [Heart Killer’s Curse] would return.

All was in order.

Except it wasn’t.

“I’m [Fractured]?” she said as she sat up.

At her side, Lost Alice and the others were gathered. Rip Shot and Matt Painting were both close by as well. They seemed concerned.

“[Fractured]?” Rip Shot asked. “What kind of status condition is that? Can we fix it?”

“I don’t know,” Lady Midnight said. “None of my spells say anything about removing something like that.”

“It’s not a status effect,” Lost Alice said. There was pain in her eyes.

Pillowcase blinked at that. Empathy wasn’t a trait she’d been woven with. It tended to interfere with processing orders efficiently.

But she could feel an echo of the pain she saw in Lost Alice’s eyes.

It felt right. Like understanding a language she hadn’t been able to speak before. She tried to think when and where and how she’d developed [Empathy]…no, just empathy, as a skill, but her mind was strangely empty. Like she was still waking up from a long nap and the post-dreaming disorientation hadn’t quite passed yet.

“How can you tell?” Matt Painting asked.

“Call up an info on her and you’ll see,” Lost Alice said. “It’s an [Aspect]. Like our racial traits.”

“What does it mean?” Rip asked.

“It means I don’t think this Pillowcase is the one we’ve known so far,” Lost Alice said. “Are you?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 5

The race to the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] was lost before it began. Tessa felt Pillowcase’s untiring legs eat up the distance to the smouldering and collapsed buildings. She ran further and faster than she could have ever run as a human, only holding back her speed to make sure she wasn’t leaving the slower members of the party behind. Even if she’d run all out though, it wouldn’t have mattered. She couldn’t outrun a ghost.

The first of the respawned [Disjoined] hit her at the outskirts of the ruins.

It burst through a waist high wall of ash and charred wood.

It had been waiting for them.

“Die doll die doll die doll,” it singsonged like a record with a scratch in its soul.

The [Disjoined] wasn’t holding any weapon but as it swung its arm, a blade of static light materialized in its grip.

Pillowcase got her shield in place in time to deflect the blow in a shower of sparks, but the shield was cut through in an ugly, uneven track as long as Pillowcase’s hand.

“My doll die doll kill doll killed my,” the [Disjoined] was wild with glee.

Until a [Flame Shot] from Rip blasted it to a spray of dark chunks.

“I think you got that one last time,” Obby said. 

“It was hunting me then?” Tessa asked, and immediately saw the problem with that. “Everyone group up tight. Damage dealers make sure we can block for you.”

“They’re holding aggro across death?” Lisa asked.

“Or they respawn aggro’d on whoever killed them,” Obby said.

“How do we kill them for good?” Rip asked.

“We’ve got to find the remains of the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “That has to be what they’re using to respawn.”

Two more leapt up from the ashes where they’d hurriedly buried themselves, only to be shattered by Starchild’s staff and a shield bash from Obby.

“This is going to get a lot harder as we get closer to the [Heart Fire],” Lisa said.

“Yeah, they’re stupid enough to trickle back here rather than grouping up, but the closer we get to their spawn point the less that’ll happen,” Lady Midnight said.

“We beat them when they were all together, is it really going to be a problem if we have to do that again?” Rip asked.

“We had a terrain advantage there,” Tessa said. “Plenty of room and we were able to engage with you at range. We don’t want to let them get…”

She was cut off by one of the [Disjoined] pulling Rip into a pit just off the path she’d been walking on.

Matt didn’t miss a beat, diving to grab hold of her arms before she could fall out of view.

Rip had a different solution though, firing an exploding arrow directly beneath herself and letting the knockback from the explosion blow her clear.

Tessa turned to see if Rip needed help but spun back forward as another [Disjoined] raced over the pile of rubble beside her and tried to bowl Pillowcase over.

“More incoming!” Obby said.

Tessa felt a pulse of magic almost identical to adrenaline race down Pillowcase’s limbs. The snarling monster in front of her was twisting inside its skin in a manner no living creature possibly could. Tessa was sure she could deal with it, but putting the monster down before the rest arrived appeared unlikely.

So she didn’t try.

One of the requirements for playing well had always been being aware of what you were and were not capable of. Overextending might occasionally win an unexpected victory but more often than not it covered the party in failure rather than glory.

Pillowcase’s job was to tank the mobs. Beating them solo was nice too, but if she didn’t cover the bases the team was relying on her to handle, then no amount of personal glory would pay for the cost of falling short.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” Tessa said, feeling the wave of magic pour through her. She was Pillowcase enough to handle directing it without much conscious though, but also Tessa enough to be conscious of how amazing it was that she could cast spells now. The feeling might get old at some point, but Tessa suspected that would be a long time coming.

The spell landed on a handful of [Disjoined] who were charging the party in a rough clusters. Four of the [Disjoined] writhed as the magic drained their lives away and fed it to Pillowcase. The last [Disjoined] though wasn’t affected by the spell.

Tessa watched the strand of magic going to that [Disjoined] bend and fracture, the end of it hissing away as bits of staticky light tore it apart.

“Watch out, they have some weird magic resistance,” she said and jumped forward to slam a heavy blow into the forehead of the one the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell missed.

“Is that new?” Matt asked. “I didn’t have any trouble with them before.”

“They ate our spells when we fought them the first time,” Starchild said.

Obby swore.

“They’re not leveling like we are but they’re growing worse,” she said. “If their respawning as [Disjoined], there’s not enough left of them to come back, so each time they’re disintegrating a bit further.”

“Do we stop killing them then?” Rip asked, holding her fire at the group of [Disjoined] Pillowcase had provoked.

“It’d be nice if that was an option but I don’t think it is,” Obby said.

“She’s right,” Lisa said. “The damage they do is going up, and taking off that weird status effect they inflict is taking a lot of magic.”

“Should we fall back?” Matt asked, blasting one of the [Disjoined] near Pillowcase with a bolt of lightning from his staff.

“If we do, the problem’s going to get worse,” Tessa said. “We need to get to the [Heart Fire], or whatever’s left of it.”

“We’ve got enough magic to hold up for a bit,” Lady Midnight said. “Do we rush it now?”

“Maybe after this wave?” Lisa said. Tessa could see she was handling the status removal spells and letting Lady Midnight take the less demanding task of rotating healing spells between the party’s two tank at a steady rate.

Before Tessa could answer, another half dozen [Disjoined] appeared, rising directly from the ground around them.

She hurled another [Lesser Spirit Drain] at the newcomers who were in range, trusting Obby to pick up the others. The bright side was that she drew the monsters attention away from the healers and the ranged damage dealer, but it was at the cost of being dropped to the ground as her arms and legs all suffered the deadly numbing hits.

In a purely objective sense, she remained in decent shape. Her health bars dipped to the 50% range but between Lady Midnight’s healing and Pillowcase’s spells and own regenerative ability she was regaining what health she’d lost slightly faster than the [Disjoined] who were gathered around her could tear it away.

Subjectively though, the pain was unbearable. Being blown to bits by the [Chain Lasher] had been unpleasant, but the small cuts the [Disjoined] were making was a thousand times worse. 

Tessa felt like something was reaching inside Pillowcase’s body and stabbing her right in the soul. 

The world swam around her, maybe from the pain, although Pillowcase didn’t think that was the case. 

Lisa landed purification spell after purification spell on her, and Tessa shot back to her feet, smashing one of the [Disjoined] in the neck in the process.

“Mine. Should have been mine. Mine. Should have. Mine,” the Disjoined said, knocking its head to the side to push the head of Tessa’s mace through itself in a disturbing fountain of flames.

Pillowcase didn’t have time to be either impressed or disturbed by the display, especially not when another eight [Disjoined] stepped out of the smoke which was blowing through the [Ruins of Sky’s Egde].

“Is there any end to these jerks?” Matt asked.

Tessa struck out with a wide shield bash, knocking the nearby [Disjoined] away so buy herself a moment to think.

“My doll die doll kill doll killed my,” another [Disjoined] said as it rose from the ground in front of her.

As nonsensical as they were, the words were familiar.

“Didn’t I just kill you?” Tessa asked.

It had seemed plausible that the other [Disjoined] had been rising up from hiding places they’d prepared after respawning, but Tessa saw that  wasn’t what had been happening at all.

“They’re spawning on us!” she said.

“But there’s no bodies to revive in,” Lady Midnight said.

“They don’t need bodies,” Obby said, slashing one in half.

As the gobs of light fell from the [Disjoined’s] exploding corpse, the ground began to sizzle where they landed, stone de-rezzing in the same unnatural manner the [Disjoined] did. Immediately another, or maybe the same, Disjoined rose from the spot where the first had fallen.

“They’re not trickling anymore!” Tessa said. “They’ve figure out how to respawn at a distance.”

“That’s not possible,” Lady Midnight said.

“It shouldn’t be,” Obby said. “But it looks like that’s what they’re doing.”

Tessa felt the hairs on her neck – specifically the human hairs on her human neck – stand up as more [Disjoined] rose from the ruins.

“I think this place might be lost already,” Matt said, his metallic voice carrying the preternatural calm which told Tessa that Matt-Painting-the-Artifax was probably handling things at the moment rather than the boy from Earth. 

“I could go search for the [Heart Fire],” Rip said without pausing the barrage she was laying out.

“I think I’ve already had my lesson for why splitting the party is bad,” Tessa said. “If they’re spawning on us though, there’s no reason not to rush the chapel where [Heart Fire] was.”

“Yeah, we need to get there now,” Obby said.

Tessa wasn’t sure which of them started running first. It didn’t matter sense they both hard to slam a path through the [Disjoined] around them. Tessa cast another [Lesser Spirit Drain] to make sure all of the ones she was facing stayed interested in her, but apart from that she relied on her speed to avoid attacks from ost of the [Disjoined].

[Sky’s Edge] hadn’t been a big town, so crashing through the ruins and the ever more spectral [Disjoined] which rose to stop them wasn’t a long process.

“Rip, Matt, Star, head in and see if you can find the remains of the [Heart Fire], the rest of us will stay here and hold off those guys.” Tessa gestured to the horde they’d only barely outrun.

“If we had our level 99s, this would be a hell of a lot easier,” Lisa said.

“Maybe. I’m kind of terrified to think what these things would look like if they made of level 99 adventurers though,” Tessa said and she spun and shattered two of the Disjoined with one cleaving blow.

“Any luck with the [Heart Fire]?” Obby asked, directing her comment to the three inside the shell of the [Chapel].

“Sort of…” Matt said.

“Not. Sort of not,” Rip said.

“This isn’t right,” Starchild said.

“What is it,” Lisa said, gritting her teeth to maintain her spells as a [Disjoined] appeared behind her and tagged her on the arm.

“We found the [Heart Fire],” Rip said. “Except it’s not a [Heart Fire] any more. What we’re seeing says it’s a [Null Sec Corrupted Flame] and it hurts to even look at it.”

“Leave it alone,” Obby said. “We need to get out of here.”

“Can’t we destroy it somehow?” Tessa asked.

“We don’t have the power for that,” Obby said. “Not as we are now.”

“Then we’re out of here,” Tessa said. “Let’s cut a path to the north. We can flee towards the [Lord of Storms] dungeon.”

“That sounds good, cause the thing now says its an [Unstable Null Sec Corrupted Flame],” Rip said.

“Run!” Obby screamed, unleashing a furious slash that destroyed all of the [Disjoined] in a wide arc in front of her.

They reached the former limit of town, where [Sky’s Edge] status as a [Town] came into effect, when the wave of destruction erupted behind them.

For a moment Tessa’s mind went completely blank, noise in indescribable tones chewing away every thought. It was her mind though and neither she nor Pillowcase was willing to let some alien anti-voice try to change that.

As she blinked her eyes clear though, Tessa saw the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] had been able to make the same choice.

Where the ruins of a town had once stood, only a field of crackling black and white static remained, it’s hiss carrying the wordless voice of something far more alien to the [Fallen Kingdoms] than she ever could be.