Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 12

Lisa

The tremor in Tessa’s hands spoke volumes to Lisa. She’d seen people’s hands shake when they’d worked out too much. She’s seen them shake when their blood sugar dropped too low. Tessa’s weren’t shaking for those reasons, though the trick she did in Kralt’s library might have over extended her, and Lisa had no idea when the last time they’d had regular human food was.

“It’s ok if we catch up to the others a bit late,” she said, guiding Tessa to take seat by the wall for support. “Why don’t we take a moment to catch our breath here first.”

“But you don’t breathe,” Tessa said. She sounded like she was trying to be teasing but the undercurrent of anxiety betrayed the fact that her mind was racing over other thoughts.

“And we should have something to eat. Did your pack come with any [Adventurer’s Rations]?” Lisa asked, skipping past Tessa’s comment to keep her focused on meeting her physical needs. 

As Tessa hunted around in her inventory for some basic rations, Lisa wondered why her starter gear hadn’t come with a bunch of blood bottles. Those probably weren’t strictly necessary she decided since within the game food was only for buffs and [Vampires] tended to pick those up from feeding on enemies, which were plentiful everywhere.

“It look like I’ve got some [Traveler’s Rations],” Tessa said, citing a slightly higher grade of started food than the [Adventurer’s Rations]. “But I’m fine. I can eat them as we go.”

“Are you though?” Aptomos, or Ashad, said. Even as a slime, he was able to form a concerned expression as he leaned forward to get a better look at Tessa.

“Yeah, I was just being dramatic,” Tessa said. “It’s nothing.”

“Nibble on the rations to start with,” Lisa said. “I got a [Wineskin] with my starter pack that you can use to wash them down.”

“Ugh, I’ve never been a fan of wine,” Tessa said.

The game effect of drinking was to replenish a character’s magic pool, with any sort of beverage offering some enhanced recovery. Lisa didn’t know if ‘destroying a pocket dimension’ was necessarily a magic consuming action, but, on the chance that Tessa had depleted her internal reserves, Lisa passed her the [Wineskin] anyways.

“I think this one’s only filled with water,” Lisa said, since she hadn’t paid for any more exotic beverage to fill the [Wineskin] with. 

Tessa took an experimental swing, and then a much longer pull.

“It’s cold!” she said. “And, yeah, just water, but it’s like it came from a refrigerator.”

“Or a mountain stream,” Ashad said. “I remember WD, he’s one of the developers, talking about this idea that since the [Wineskins] never actually emptied or turned stale they must have some kind of portal at the bottom to a fresh source. He thought a mountain stream would be best, but I always though they should just make fresh water magically.”

“Well, it’s good either way,” Tessa said and took another long pull.

“Have some more of the rations,” Lisa said. 

It would take a while before the food had any effect of Tessa’s system. Probably longer than they could spend recovering her strength, but that was ok. Lisa was trying to address any physical conditions first because grounding the body was the best method she knew for giving an agitated mind a chance to come back to equilibrium. 

“The kids are going to freak out if we take too long getting to them,” Tessa said. 

“We’re still in telepathic contact with them when we need to be,” Lisa said. “We can reassure them the instant they get worried.”

She wasn’t reaching out proactively because saying ‘Tessa needs to collapse for a little bit, we’re going to run late’ would incite Rip and Matt to take the worst sort of risks and both of them knew it.

“I’m ok though,” Tessa said.

“Are you?” Lisa asked. “We’ve all been through a lot, but you got hit with far more than any of the rest of us.”

“It’s my job right?” Tessa said, trying to add a wry smile to her words as she began to stand.

“Because you’re our tank? If you want to go by that line of reasoning then my job is support you and make sure your in the best shape possible, so sit down. Your healer commands it.”

Tessa rolled her eyes but she did sit down, her shoulders sagging with involuntary relaxation. 

“Maybe you can bring me up to speed a bit?” Ashad asked. “The last I saw only a few people had been shifted from our world to this one. I take it a lot more got pulled over though?”

“As far as we can tell, everyone who was logged in before they shutdown the authentication server is at risk,” Tessa said. “I think there are still some people who were logged in but whose characters have stayed safe so they’re still in both worlds.”

Together Lisa and Tesa fielded Ashad’s other questions, explaining what little they knew of what was happening on Earth and what kind of things they’d run across. The explanations grew a little fuzzy when Tessa tried to describe what had happened to her when she faced the [Formless Hunger] and Lisa was careful to give her all the time she needed to work through her explanations of the experience. When she got around to explaining her new class, Ashad’s eyes widened with inspiration.

“Wait here just a moment, ok!” he said. “I think I can help.”

He bounced off as only a [Slime] could, leaving the two of them at least briefly alone.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” Tessa said, without trying to rise again. “I mean, if something happens, it’s not your fault. You don’t have to carry that responsibility.”

Lisa reached over and took Tessa’s hand in her own. There was still a tremble that ran through them, but it was a quieter one than before they’d sat down.

“I want that responsibility,” Lisa said. “I care about you. Not just as a healer and tank team, and not just because you saved me from a painful death. I…”

Lisa wasn’t sure how she was going to finish that statement, and in the pause as she gathered her words, the opportunity to put her thoughts in order was ripped away from her.

The plasma bolt which slammed into her forearm didn’t burn it to ash. It just hurt, leaving a bad scorch march on her robes and a nasty burn underneath them,

Before she could process anything beyond noticing the three armored figures at the end of the hall who were all aiming space rifles at them, she felt Tessa tackling her through one of the doors on the opposite side of the hall.

A small, out of step fragment of her was delighted at the unexpected closeness while the rest of her was screaming one word.

“Attack!”

Byron

Listening to the ranting of someone who outranked him was one of the perils of Byron Grey’s job. For the Consortium of Pain’s Director of Xenobiology though, he was willing to endure the tirade with unusually good cheer.

“They tried to capture the damn thing before we were even on sight!” Maldrax Odful, the Director of Xenobiology said. “You said they had it safely contained, not that they were planning to subjugate it!”

“Come now Mald,” Bryon said. “You know I said nothing at all about this. It’s not one of my projects at all.”

“Bah,” Maldrax said. “We both know the leak came from that turd Whiteweather and he hasn’t had an original idea in his head since his two brain cells fissioned from one another.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny Whiteweather’s absence of original thought,” Byron said. They were speaking on a line with Director-class security, both in rooms warded by all the proper surveillance countermeasures and yet Byron would have laid a considerable part of his yearly bonus on the fact that they were being monitored regardless.

Maldrax huffed, unhappy at Byron’s circumspection but recognizing its value. They’d both risen through the ranks at roughly the same time. That Madrax had made Director before Byron wasn’t a point of contention between them only because they were employed in different divisions and therefor didn’t need to see each other as competitors.

They were of course. Byron knew that everyone was a competitor ultimately, and trust and camaraderie were an indulgence which was as useful to practice as any other sort of combat art.

“The worst part though, do you want to hear this? Of course you do. But you know it already don’t you?” Maldrax said.

“I assure you I am blissfully unaware of any unpleasant particulars with the operation you’re now in charge of,” Byron said.

“But that’s just it!” Maldrax’s temple pulsed with a vein which bore far too much blood pressure. Byron was convinced that Maldrax was moments away from a catastrophic failure of his entire pulmonary system, but he’d been convinced of that for years and the collapse had lingered there on the edge of possibility the whole time. “I’m not official in change yet. That vulture left and went right into the blackout zone.”

“Really?” Byron said, showing all of the surprise which he did not feel. “That’s a rather bold and unusual move for a task force’s Supreme Commander to take.”

“It’s a miserable attempt to hold onto her command as long as she can,” Maldrax said.

“It doesn’t seem like that should be a problem,” Byron said. “You outrank her and you’ve been given clearance. Can’t you just, I don’t know, call up the Steering Committee and have them officially transfer the command receipts to your name?”

“Of course I can! What do you think was the first thing I did when I found she’d fled the ship and left us locked out of the primary bridge control room?”

“It would seem that your problem is solved then,” Byron said. “Surely the Steering Committee wouldn’t deny your request?”

Byron knew there was no certainty as to that at all. The Director of Xenobiology lived and died by their quarterly production. Maldrax hadn’t run many bad quarters but he wasn’t sitting atop a string of extremely successful ones either. That put him in the uncertain realm of having value to the Consortium but potentially not as much as some new favorite of a board member or a pet project of the Steering Committee. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Consortium didn’t terminate all of the ex-employees with extreme prejudice. Among the lower work forces, the cost of an execution far exceeded the workers wages, so it was much simpler just to return them to the general workforce of whatever planet they happened to be stationed on. 

In the case of decommissioning a Director however, the firing process usually began with the incineration of the Director’s body. Director’s knew too much about the Consortium and had access to too many resources to take any chances with an action they might respond to in a hostile fashion.

“Of course they’re going to side with me,” Maldrax said. “The problem is the timing.”

“Timing? Are you up against a deadline already?” Byron asked.

Maldrax wasn’t up against a deadline. He was up against several, a few of which Byron had ensured would motivate him to act decisively and with haste.

“It’s not the deadline’s I’m worried about,” Maldrax said. “It’s the damn creature.”

“What’s wrong with the creature?” Byron asked. “It hasn’t been captured yet and the natives are clearly incapable of dealing with it.”

“It’s withdrawing!” Maldrax said. 

“I’m sorry, it’s doing what?” Byron asked, his disaffected demeanor slipping as one of his plans began to spiral in an unexpected direction.

“The creature. It’s withdrawing. It’s pulling into itself and its taken our corrupted forces with it.”

“That’s not typical behavior,” Byron said, puzzling over what it could mean.

Had Azma managed to rig up some deterrent to its expansion with the scraps she gathered from the moonlet it was on? Had the containment units failing been part of her plan?

Byron shook his head, both of those thoughts were ridiculous. 

But then why had Azma put herself into the most dangerous position imaginable?

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 11

Tessa

It was a perfect encapsulation of Tessa’s life. She’d been given a literal ‘key to the kingdom’. And it was broken.

“If we’re going to take him out of her we should be doing it now,” Lisa said, tugging at Tessa’s sleeve.

Tessa knew she was right. Broken though he was, David Kralt could still be useful to them.

It just galled her to save him them.

In her world, he was fantastically wealthy. At least by game developer standards. He’d traded on the fame won through releasing “Crypts of Blood”, one of the early 3d fantasy dungeon crawlers. Later accusations had claimed that he’d stolen most of the source code and art assets from two (former) friends, but it had taken long enough for those to surface that Kralt had already made his millions, sold his personal tabletop campaign for millions more, been brand-associated with the “smash hit MMO” [Broken Horizons] and taken up the sort of lifestyle generally reserved for moderately successful rock stars. 

Never in all that time had he faced any consequences for his actions, and once again he was going to get to skate away without having to exert any effort or change his behavior at all.

“Fine,” Tessa said at last. “He’s going in the bag though.”

For a crucial moment, Kralt didn’t seem to understand what she meant. That worked out well. Tessa was able to scoop him up from his chair a moment before it crumbled into motes of light without any resistance. 

He had a moment to squeak in protest as she shoved the blue slime drop he called a body into her [inventory] pack.

“I don’t think there’s any air in there,” Aptomos said, bouncing his green slime drop body towards the door.

“Do slimes need air?” Tessa asked.

“No,” Aptomos said. “Just the occasional bit of water and a sufficient level of ambient magic.”

“Then he’s staying there for now,” Tessa said. “Are you the one that led us in there?”

She turned to look at the room after they stepped through portal door. The last pieces of the illusion tumbled away leaving only an emptiness beyond the darkest night.

Something told her to close the portal door and she did not question or argue with that impulse.

“I am,” Aptomos said. “I thought it was important that the All Seer not stay hidden with the state of the two worlds hanging in the balance still.

“Wait, you know about Earth too?” Lisa asked, kneeling down to be on a more even level with Aptomos. 

Tessa followed her lead by taking a seat on the floor. They needed to keep moving, but before they did that they needed to decide if they wanted Aptomos to come with them or not.

“I do,” Aptomos said. “I’m from there.”

“How is that possible?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah. Slime’s aren’t a playable race,” Tessa said, shifting her vision slightly out of focus and finding the shadow of a man suffusing the green slime drop’s body, must like Kralt’s human form had.

“I wasn’t a player,” Aptomos said. “Or, sadly, I wasn’t logged in on my player account when [World Shift] went live.”

“Not a player? Then you were a [Game Master]?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah. ‘Were’ being the operative term there unfortunately,” Aptomos said.

“Oh wow! BT said something about that didn’t she?” Tessa asked and wracked her memory.

Their arrival to the [Broken Kingdoms] had been only a day ago, if Tessa’s sense of time wasn’t totally scrambled, but it felt like years had passed. 

“She said she couldn’t do things like teleport us around because they’d lost one of her coworkers when he tried to use his GM powers,” Lisa said. 

“That would be me,” Aptomos said. “I’m glad Marcus made them stop using system command too. Uh, Marcus is our supervisor.”

“I know,” Tess said. “We talked to him too. How did you wind up here though? As a slime?”

“And what’s your real name? It feels weird calling you a slime name,” Lisa said.

“I’m Ashad Khan. You can call me Aptomos if you like though. It’s the name of my favorite character in my friend’s home brew D&D game. He’s a sorcerer who can polymorph at will, and he’s always going around in these cute forms. And you’re not interested in hearing about my character. Right. Where were we?”

Tessa was a bit curious about the tabletop version of Aptomos, but she had to admit it probably wasn’t the right time for that sort of thing.

“What happened after you vanished from the call center?” she asked.

“Oh, right. I wound up here, except I was kind of burning up,” Aptomos said. “I had this super evolved view of what was going on. Like I could see everything, but it was so much more than my brain could handle.”

“I think I can guess what that was like,” Tessa said.

“Also I didn’t have a body and that felt really, really weird,” Ashad sad. “It was like I was omniscient and that omniscience was doing nothing but telling me I was in danger from everywhere and everything.”

“So you turned into a slime?” Lisa asked.

“It was what was available,” Ashrad said, ripples in his tear drop body suggesting a shrug. “I needed something small, so I could get away from the light that was tearing me apart, and this was tiny enough that when I squeezed in here I left all the rest of that stuff behind.”

“What happened to it? Do you know?” Tessa asked.

“I don’t know,” Ashad said. “That was all too big to be a part of this world. I think I left it somewhere else, but I don’t think that ‘somewhere’ is anywhere in the [High Beyond] or even in the [Fallen Kingdoms] in general.”

“Ah well, probably better that I not have the temptation to pick up another god soul again,” Tessa said.

“A what?” Ashad asked.

“This world seems to map GM powers to fragments of deities,” Tessa said. “BT, or Hailey is probably how you knew her, she came here too. She was in her normal regular character but she had her GM powers stuck to her and I kind of ripped them out. Since they were slowly killing her. The god soul was pretty fun to use, except for the part where it was killing me too.”

“How did you do that?” Ashad asked. “You look like you’re just a normal human. In fact how do you look like a normal person? You’re not even close to one of the game models. Are you human?”

“I honestly don’t know anymore,” Tessa said, looking at her left hand and noticing it shaking more than fatigue and stress could account for.

Yawlorna

It should have been disturbing to be spending time with a talking skeleton. If nothing else the question of how something without lungs, an esophagus, a tongue or lips was making sound in the first place upset Yawlorna’s inner researcher. It could can been a speaker she admitted. Placing a small one in the skull, maybe on the rough of the mouth, would have been simple enough.

Except she knew that wasn’t how Mr. Pendant was speaking. He didn’t need any of the organs associated with speech any more than he needed muscles to move or connective tissue to keep from falling apart. 

Yawlorna was tempted to ask him for some of that magic. A nice spell to help her stop falling apart sounded wonderful.

“Your people seem to be mingling successfully with the townsfolks,” Pendant said, offering Yawlorna a tin cup filled with some pungent liquid.

Yawlorna half suspected the cup was poison. The scent suggested it strongly. 

She took it and took a short pull. 

She wasn’t immune to poison, but with how her day was going a little chemical debilitation didn’t seem that undesirable.

“We’re explorers,” she said, fighting back a cough at the fiery burn which followed the drink’s passing. “Meeting new people is what my crew signed up for. A quarter of them have their final thesis papers dependent on it.”

“I’m guessing those folks weren’t happy to be holed up in the lower levels where you’d setup your base?” Pendant asked.

“Not at first,” Yawlorna said. “Then we met some of the things that live here.”

“Lost a few of them?” Pendant asked. There was no accusation in his voice. If anything Yawlorna felt like he was speaking from a shared experience.

“More than few,” Yawlorna said. “Too many.”

Pendant offered her a refill with a compassionate nod. Yawlorna took it.

“Folks here haven’t had your experience,” he said, “but they’ve had their own losses. I think it’s good you’re here.”

“So that we can all fight and die together?” Yawlorna asked. She knew what they were faced with in terms of the Consortium’s forces. Their encounter with Kremmer’s Razors had shown her just how overmatched they were by the Consortium. She couldn’t imagine facing foes like that even if everyone in the cavern around them were trained combatants, and she knew that less than a quarter of them were.

“No, no. If it comes to fighting, we’re probably doing something wrong,” Pendant said. “It’s good to have you here for a much more important reason; you’re different.”

Yawlorna laughed.

“Do you think anyone’s noticed?” she asked, her voice all liquid sarcasm.

Yawlorna and her people looked nothing like the [Humans], [Elves], [Void Goblins], and [Artifax] who made up the prior population of the [Last Refuge]. To her, they looked like a freakish amalgamation of nightmares, twisted, stunted, proto-people. 

To them, she looked like a [Demon]. Horns. Crimson skin. Tails. She was a monster, something the alien world she was on apparently recognized? Otherwise it wouldn’t have a preset classification for her. Or an automatic marking as an enemy of people she never met. 

“I think you being different is reminding the people of how that’s not a bad thing,” Pendant said. “When you walked in here more than a few of them made themselves real small. Some even went for their weapons. Nobody drew though and do you know why?”

“Because they’re afraid we’d eat them if they tried?” Yawlorna asked.

“They’re afraid they’re going to be eaten, but not by you,” Pendant said. “When they looked at you what they saw was ‘hey, that’s not one of those Consortium troops that destroyed our town, or the [Disjoined] people who turned it into a giant monster’. To them, you looked like someone scary and, right now, they’re all wishing there’d be someone nice and scary on their side.”

“I don’t see that going well for us long term,” Yawlorna said. “Once they get done being scared of the Consortium, assuming any of us survive, my people will be next on the bonfire.”

“That’s one future,” Pendant said. “A lot of other bad ones just like it too.”

“Not much to look forward to then,” Yawlorna said.

“Maybe not,” Pendant said. “Which means its up to us.”

“What’s up to us?” Yawlorna asked, wondering if the surprisingly tasty beverage Pendant was sharing with her was clouding her thinking. It barely burned at all anymore when it went down. Was that a good sign?

“If you don’t like the future that’s setup for you, then you make your own instead,” Pendant said.

“I don’t think it’s that easy,” Yawlorna said. She wasn’t drunk. That bothered her. Being drunk would have been nice. Or miserable really, but at least she could have blamed it on the alcohol. This? This was something else. This was…healthy?

“Oh it’s the hardest thing in the world,” Pendant said. “Plenty of chances to fail. You’re basically guaranteed to fall short of what you really want even if you do succeed on some level.”

“This isn’t much of a pep talk,” Yawlorna said.

“You don’t need a pep talk,” Pendant said. “You just need what they needed.”

“What’s that?” Yawlorna asked.

“To know you’re not in this alone.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 10

Glimmerglass

The last several hours had given Glimmerglass a new definition for ‘being of two minds’ about something. She hadn’t expected to find that she missed it though.

“So you’re three people in one?” Melissa asked, speaking on a new chat channel Starchild had setup for them. “That’s neat, I’ve only run into people who were sharing a body with their character so far.”

“At the moment it seems like I’m split between two bodies,” Glimmerglass said. “Or maybe more?”

“Three’s not enough?” Starchild asked.

“Tessa played other characters too,” Glimmerglass said. “If she and I are the same person, then the others might be too?”

“Have you tried reaching out to them?” Melissa asked. 

Glimmerglass couldn’t hear any of the background noise swirling around Melissa, but the slight pauses in her mental voice spoke volumes. As Feral Fang, Melissa was standing guard over one of the groups of people whose town hadn’t been defensible at all. Unfortunately their secure stronghold was also in the path one of the Consortium’s advancing forces. They were safe for the moment but since that moment wouldn’t last long, the townsfolk were packing up their supplies for another trek deeper into the forest and even more remote location.

“I haven’t had any luck, but I don’t know if that means they don’t exist, or if they’re just in some warded area. Or just not accepting random communication prompts from someone they’ve never met,” Glimmerglass said. “I wish I could reach one of them though. I could send them your way.”

“We would not turn down the helping hands,” Melissa said. “[High Command] sent six of us to watch over an entire town’s worth of people.”

“Do you need reinforcements?” Glimmerglass, wheels starting to turn in her head.

“Hopefully not,” Melissa said. “We’re moving out now to stay well ahead of the Consortium’s troops. As long as that works and we don’t have to tangle with them, things should be fine.”

“And if they catch up to you?” Glimmerglass asked. “Is there a contingency plan to cover that?”

“Yeah, we fight,” Melissa said.

“An army?”

“It’s not a big one,” Melissa said.

“What’s your gear level like?” Glimmerglass asked. “Is your guild raiding the [Chronomantic Vault]?”

Melissa laughed.

“Not even close,” she said. “My best stuff is [Astral Purple] loot I got off the auction house.”

“Off the…? You decked yourself out in the second highest tier raid gear by buying it?”

“Yeah, people have been buying [Sunken Titans] for some nice prices lately,” Melissa said.

“[Sunken Titans]? I thought only three people could catch those things?” Glimmerglass asked.

“There’s five of us actually, but the two you don’t hear about have been focusing on their [Cooking] skills for the last year or so,” Melissa said.

“I told you she was rich,” Pete said.

“I’m valuable,” Melissa said. “Rich means you’re hoarding your wealth. I spend mine as fast as I pull it out of the ocean.”

“What she means is that she gives away most of it,” Pete said. “Her whole guild has gear like hers.”

“That’s seriously impressive. I’ll have to introduce you to a scroll maker I know. She can do ridiculous things with the inks from the really deep sea critters,” Glimmerglass said. “Even with that though I’m not sure how well you’d do with six versus an entire Consortium army.” 

“Oh, we’ll get demolished I’m sure,” Melissa said. “All we need to do is buy the towns people time to get out of the Consortium’s scouting range and we can rejoin them when we respawn.”

“Unless they capture you,” Pete said.

“Do you think the Consortium is capable of that?” Starchild asked. “Your sister’s a lot more powerful than we are, and we know people here who have fought them and survived.”

“Their troops seem to vary a lot in power,” Glimmerglass said. “The ones we fought in [Doom Crag] were more than a match for several full teams of raid geared adventurers.”

“Were any of your caught?” Melissa asked.

“No. That was part of the initial assault. The Consortium only seemed to switch to capturing us after the counter attack on their battle ships. My team came very close to being captured there though.”

“Any tips for staying free?” Melissa asked.

“Don’t fight them if you don’t have to,” Glimmerglass said. “If you do though, try to hit them with things they won’t expect. They seem to follow some pretty solid plans and they have fantastic discipline, but they’re not all that quick to respond to new situations.”

“So I should hit them with a [Sunken Titan] then? Got it,”: Melissa said.

“Aren’t those things like three hundred feet long? How would you even lift it?” Pete asked.

“I can reel it in, you know lift it up several thousand feet from the crushing depths of the ocean , why would lifting it on land be hard?” Melissa said.

“Wait, how strong are you now?” Pete asked.

“As strong as I’ve ever been,” Melissa said. “Well, as strong as I’ve been as Feral Fang, or did you miss the part when I can punch through solid stone?”

“I believe I mentioned that she’s a lot more powerful than we are,” Starchild said. “Or were you not thinking about the ramifications of the stories you used to describe her?”

“Yeah, but there’s ‘stronger’ and then there’s ‘puts Thor to shame by casually hucking around world serpents’. I mean this is my little sister!” Pete’s objections were voiced with a note of humor coloring each word, but that drained away when he continued. “I supposed to worry about her, you know.”

“I mean, technically, I’m the older one now,” Melissa said in a gently teasing tone. “Feral Fang’s been around a whole lot longer than any of your alts after all. No offense Starchild.”

“None taken,” Starchild said.

“I might be able to do something to alleviate your worries too,” Glimmerglass said.

“What’s that?” Pete asked.

“Melissa allow me to introduce a friend of mine,” Glimmerglass said as she added a new name to the chat channel. “Cambrell, Melissa’s part of a team who might need some rapid backup depending on where the Consortium’s forces in the region advance next. They’re currently hidden in the [Shadow Creep Woods].”

“Nice to meet you Melissa,” Cambrell said. “I’m guessing the [Assassin’s Guild] hasn’t stopped by to say hi yet?”

“There’s an [Assassin’s Guild] here?” Melissa asked.

“Yep. Goblin only. I don’t know where [High Command] is sending you but I can guarantee my people can get you to a better one.”

Grace

Seeing an enemy descend into chaos sounded like a wonderful thing to Grace but her memories as Kamie Anne Do assured her that the more chaos on the battlefield the more dangerous it was.

“What happened to those guys?” Grail Force asked, retreating up to the ledge of overlooking the boss room which had turned from a furious battle between Kamie’s team and a squad fo Consortium soldiers to an even bloodier ball of carnage where the Consortium soldier’s turned on each other. 

“They glitched or something,” Kamie said, ducking an errant plasma bolt.

“That’s good right?” Battler X asked.

“Do you think a glitch is really going to work out in favor?” Grail asked.

“Fair point,” Battler X said with a shrug. “So do we wait for them to finish each other off and mop up the survivors or do we jump in and kill stealth the xps from all of them?”

Kamie watched the skirmish play out for another moment. The two side were locked in body to body combat. No cover. No tactics. Just a bunch of fighters trying to put each other down on the floor and then kick their opponents to death.

Unfortunately, the wrong side seemed to be winning.

“You guys are going to hate this idea,” Kamie said, hating it herself, but knowing that it was the right one.

At least for certain boneheaded values of ‘right’.

“We’re going to save the ones that didn’t get [Disjoined], aren’t we?” Battler X asked the question as though the answer were inevitable, which, in a sense, it kind of was since Kamie was already picking out her target.

“Yep,” she said. “Just remember, they’ll still be enemies after this.”

“Why save them then?” Grail Force asked.

“Cause maybe they’ll be enemies we can talk to,” Kamie said and used [Seven Step Stride] to flash into the middle of the melee.

In tactical terms, it was the perfect fight for her. A nice crowded area with plenty of targets and her primary foe were berserkers who had strength and speed but precious little intelligence in how they used them.

Kamie was more than happy to demonstrate to the [Disjoined Consortium Soldiers] what a bad idea that combination of traits was. 

Their speed was a liability when it meant they punched and grabbed into traps Kamie had setup while she was watching them. 

One struck out and found his arm spun three hundred and sixty degrees in its socket, shredding every bit of connective tissue which allowed it to work.

Another had a knife it tried to bury in her. A simple redirect put through the head of the [Disjoined] beside it.

Battler X joined her and the two began to make some space for the remaining, non-corrupted Consortium soldiers to breath. 

So, of course, one of them tried to shoot Kamie in the head.

They weren’t friends, Kamie knew that, and because she knew that she was ready for the attempt the Consortium soldier made, disarming him before he could bring the plasma rifle to bear and adding a simple “No, we’re not fighting,” which was probably terribly confusing to the soldier.

Kamie didn’t let herself lose track of the soldier she disarmed but she did focus on defending against the three [Disjoined] who were trying to tear her to pieces.

Three on one wasn’t great odds for a [Monk], at least not three foes roughly as strong as she was. Grace wasn’t worried though. Kamie knew the odds were bad, but Grace knew she had friends she could count on, even if they’d only known each other for a day or so.

Dying together a lot forged a pretty strong bond it turned out.

“Pick on someone my size,” Buzz Fightyear said as he blocked a taloned strike from a [Disjoined] [Clothwork soldier] who hadn’t had claws a moment earlier.

“They’re morphing!” Kamie shouted out the warning loud enough for everyone to hear, though she wasn’t certain the Consortium soldiers would understand her. 

“It’s [Devolution]!” one of them shouted back. “Don’t let them touch you!”

Kamie couldn’t be sure the Consortium soldier was talking to her, but she took their advice nonetheless.

Something moved inside the [Clothwork soldier] in front of her and she had to check her next punch as spikes of angry static ripped through the thing’s skin.

“These things don’t want to die,” Battle X said.

Kamie turned to see two of the [Disjoined] rise from the floor, moving as though the ties between their body and limbs were severed and external strings were compelling their motions.

“Don’t want to,” Kamie said and vaulted onto one of the creature’s shoulders. Changing her grip she grabbed either side of its head and spun, landing with the the stuffed noggin no longer attached its doll like body, which in turn collapsed to the floor. “Still can though.”

“Troop, [Command Decision],” one of the Consortium soldiers called out. “Cease hostilities with the natives. They are now designated [Allied Units].”

That had an effect on both the [Disjoined] and regular Consortium forces, the former of which began screaming something incomprehensible at Kamie and her crew while the latter had the decency to turn the weapons to face the [Disjoined] rather than her.

“They’re trying to convert the natives!” the soldier Kamie had saved called out.

“Yeah, but it’s not working!” the leader shouted back over the din of the screaming. “They must be immune somehow.”

Kamie throat punched one of the [Disjoined] to shut it up, which had the effect of startling the rest into silence too.

Apparently people being able to resist, or just ignore, it’s mental control wasn’t something the [Formless Hunger] was used to dealing with. 

Kamie was happy that it’s day was getting worse for it. 

That it was going to react poorly to its setbacks was a given, but it was still nice to know that even indestructible, reality eating beasts couldn’t catch a break sometimes.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 9

Melissa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ok with it,” Melissa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesterix put her hands on her hips and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niminay

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

But it could have been so much worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still it would have been nice to make it official.

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

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

That said though, grand gestures did have their place.

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

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

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

So, impossible.

Niminay couldn’t stop nibbling on the idea though. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impossible of course.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 8

Starchild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” Glimmerglass asked.

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

Oblivion’s Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That froze the approaching shadows instantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can hide,” Black said.

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 7

Starchild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hailey nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 6

Lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Among other things,” Tessa said.

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

The worst part though was the lore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa paused, considering that for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Useful how?” Lisa asked.

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

“A rank?” Lisa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That would require remarkably precise calibration?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 5

Tessa

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

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

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

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

“Well? How!” Kralt demanded.

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

“It’s not a cage,” Kralt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know nothing,” Kralt said.

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

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

“Why would he do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t an idle thought either. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 4

Lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can talk,” Tessa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, when did you level?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With his soul.

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

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

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

“Sounds pretty godly to me,” Rose said.

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

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

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

“Do dead people talk to us?”

“Does Lost Alice count?”

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

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

“You are,” Rose said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 3

Tessa

While a party of two suited Tessa just fine under the circumstances, she was forced to admit that it did present some issues. 

In theory those were manageable though. The numerical advantage the monster spawns were likely to have could be mitigated by simply avoiding the encounter for example. 

With neither of them wearing heavy armor, the detection radius of hostile creatures was a small as possible and with only two of them in the area there wasn’t supposed to be any penalty to their natural ability to move silently (and also very slowly). Lost Alice also had vision and hearing which were sharper than any creature which had any business being in a low level dungeon like the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Coupling that with the mini-map in the heads-up display, and the chance of anything sneaking up on them should have been effectively zero.

The glitch in that plan had come from Tessa. Tessa and her all too human eyes and ears and (most importantly) sense of balance.

In hindsight, she wasn’t even sure she’d tripped over anything more than her own two feet. One moment she was sneaking forward at her best speed though and the next she tumbled forwards, convinced for some reason that her foot had struck some kind of gelatinous slime.

The scream of surprise was a mistake. She admitted that immediately. An understandable mistake she felt, but still not the brightest move when one was attempting to get through an area which likely contained monsters in significant number who were also significantly stronger than she was.

“What happened?” Lisa asked silently on their private channel as she drew Tessa into one of the alcoves in the ornately carved walls.

“I tripped. Can you see anything there? It felt like I stepped into one of those little slime creatures.”

The hallway they were walking down was leading them away from where the others were supposed to be waiting for them. They’d picked it because it also looked like it would lead them around the area the [Formless Hunger] had invaded, and seemed to be clear of large concentrations of monsters.

Tessa had been intrigued by the work that had gone into the simple passageway. The whole thing was lit by a soft atmospheric glow that had the strength of a series of small candles despite there being no visible source for the illumination. Each alcove received a little more of the light than the stretches of hallway between them. 

With the amount of detail put into the miniature tableaus carved into the alcoves, Tessa was hard pressed to imagine the lighting designer hadn’t worked hand in hand with the crafters who created the carving. The scenes seemed to tell the story of the world’s creation, with each small patch capturing a unique event and each alcove being a single day containing hundreds of important moments.

From the alcoves they’d passed so far, it seemed that rather than seven days, the creation of the [Fallen Kingdoms] had taken years of incredible effort and been the work of far more than a single creator. 

And then, at some point, everything had fallen apart, and the beautiful carved hallways had become home to monsters.

“I don’t see anything,” Lisa said. “Can slimes phase through floors?”

“Not any of the normal ones,” Tessa said. She blinked trying to see more in the dim candlelight but as far as she could tell there was no sign of anything like one of the low level slimes she’d thought she was stepping on.

“It did feel like a slime,” Pillowcase said. “No acid burn or paralytic numbing to it though, so it would have to have been one of the lowest levels of slimes.”

“If you foot wet at all?” Lisa asked.

“No. The shoes are as dry as when I put them on,” Tessa said, surprised that her hand wasn’t covered in goop.

“We’ve got two choices then; move on and hope this was some kind of random glitch or we search around and see what we can find,” Lisa said.

“If we move on, we’ll have a better chance of getting to Rip and Matt before trouble finds them,” Tessa said, keeping a wary eye on the spot where she’d tripped. “But…”

“But if there is some kind of weird monster involved, we would be leading it right back to them.” Lisa sighed in a frustration which was all too familiar to Tessa.

Nothing was ever easy or simple.

“Can you see anything special about that spot?” Tessa asked, moving away from Lost Alice’s embrace to get a closer look.

“It’s just a normal, flat, section of…wait!” Despite Lost Alice’s vampiric reflexes, she still wasn’t fast enough to yank Tessa back before the portal formed in the air in front of her.

“Ok, this feels weird,” Tessa said with half of her body sticking through the rectangular of scintillating purple light which hung in the hallway in front of them.

“Are you ok!” Lisa asked, not letting go of the arm she’d grabbed onto.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, pulling herself back onto the near side of the portal and checking that her fingers and toes still seemed to be functional. “That just tingled. A lot.”

“What’s on the other side? Could you feel anything?” Lisa asked.

“It doesn’t go anywhere,” Tessa said, certain that was the truth, and completely unsure of where that certainty came from. “Not yet anyways.”

“What do you mean? Can you see something in it?” Lisa asked.

“No. It’s not in position. Here, let me do this.” Tessa reached out and push on the edge of the portal. Part of her expected her hand to pass through as it had before, but another part wasn’t surprised when the portal moved instead.

With a gentle shove from Tessa, the plane of purple light swung away from her like a door opening until it made contact with the wall in between two of the alcoves.

The first thing Tessa noticed in the room which appeared beyond the portal was the little tear drop shaped slime which was waiting for them. Then she noticed the books.

The endless shelves of books.

And the pot of steaming coffee which was waiting for them.

Rose

Snakes and blood drinking moths. Not exactly the kind of thing Rose would have guessed she would have been happy to be surrounded by. A lifetime ago, back before she logged in [Broken Horizons], Rose would have counted being swarmed by both sorts of creatures as the definition of a bad day.

Rip Shot didn’t try to suppress the giggle that escaped her lips. The old Rose had such a quaint and amusing idea of what a bad day was.

“Bipedal friend Rose, you may leave these to us,” Silkscrin said. Silkscrin was speaking in [Storm Tongue] so her words sounded like lightning tearing through clouds, but the meaning was crystal clear to Rose nonetheless.

It was nice to have Patrons who provided helpful gifts.

“It’s ok,” Rose said as the [Lightning Serpents] closed ranks to protect her from the swarm of [Gloom Drinkers] which descended on her party. “I’ve got this.”

As a [Lightning Archer], Rip had acquired a few new skills which were perfect for dealing with a large number of weak creatures. Unlike Matt and Lady Midnight, Rip didn’t need intense concentration to use her abilities either. She was perfectly capable of shooting arrows even with deadly moths swirling around her.

But Rose had a better idea.

“FOOF! Can you talk to these things?” Rose asked as she called her pet from the protective orb it had retreated to in response to the various terrors that had befallen them.

Unlike the [Lightning Serpents], FOOF could not communicate verbally. Rose guessed FOOF was as smart as a very clever animal but not quite fully sapient. Even lacking words though, FOOF was quite capable of commanding the attention of the attacking [Gloom Drinkers], first by emitting a high pitched whine that Rip’s [Tabbywile] ears could hear far better than Rose’s human ones could ever have managed.

[Gloom Drinkers] didn’t have the sort of facial structure to display confusion, but the sudden transformation of their high speed flight patterns into mostly stationary hovering spoke to the sort of puzzlement Rose had grown terrible used to since arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms].

“What’s happening?” Lady Midnight asked, sounding as puzzled as the [Gloom Drinkers] were.

“FOOF is talking to them,” Rose said. “We don’t need to fight them.”

“FOOF?”

“She got a pet a little while ago,” Jamal said. “It’s like a baby [Gloom Drinker].”

“They’re listening to a baby?” Lady Midnight asked.

“FOOF is very persuasive,” Rose said. 

She knew FOOF was persuasive, in part, because FOOF’s level was linked to her own. Rose had noticed that the first time she’d leveled and wondered why a non-combat pet would have levels. It occurred to her that Pillowcase and Lost Alice had described the behavior of non-combat pets, but they hadn’t said specifically that [Lil Gloom Drinkers] couldn’t fight. 

Whether that was a change due to being in the game world for real or if even [Broken Horizons] had FOOF flagged as combat capable, Rose wasn’t sure, but what she did know was that since the [Gloom Drinkers] were all below level 5 and FOOF was ten levels higher than them, her pet could very likely solo the entire swarm.

Which also made FOOF’s commands a little more persuasive as far as the [Gloom Drinkers] were concerned. 

“Hostilities have ceased?” Silkscrin asked.

Rose chirped at FOOF, who responded with an acknowledging flutter as the [Gloom Drinkers] settled down on the various nooks and crannies of the rough corridor which could act as perches for them.

“Yeah, I think we’re good,” Rose said and then watched FOOF perform a rather intricate pantomime of wing flutters and body bobs.

It wasn’t exactly a language but it managed to convey a fairly detailed narrative none the less.

At least to Rose and Rip.

Everyone else looked baffled.

“FOOF says they’re running from the [Formless Hunger] too,” Rose said, acting as translator. “It’s taken one of the exits out, but they could hear it coming and escaped to hear before it could follow them. They thought we were more of the [Disjoined].”

“They know what the [Disjoined] are?” Jamal asked. He believed her, because he was awesome, but he was still struggling to accept a reality he didn’t seem to have any connection to.

“Not as [Disjoined] exactly,” Rose said. “I’m translating a bit there. FOOF basically called them ‘Wrong Scratchy Ones’, but I know that’s the same as the [Disjoined Ones] we’ve seen.”

“Do they know where the [Disjoined] ones came from?” Lady Midnight asked. “Is the [Formless Hunger] burping them out or is it calling to them?

There was an exchange of ultrasonic screeches between FOOF and a few of the [Gloom Drinkers] before FOOF reported back to Rose.

“FOOF says the [Disjoined] are being drawn to the [Formless Hunger]. The [Gloom Drinkers] saw enough to ‘fill a tunnel’, which I think is a dozen or so?”

“And they’re definitely working with the Hunger?” Jamal asked. “Cause last time we saw them, they were kind of in a ‘destroy all the things’ mode.”

FOOF bobbed a few times in answer to the question.

“It seems like they are,” Rose said. “The Hunger had stopped growing before it met the [Disjoined]. Then it sounds like it gave them orders and pulled back?”

“Orders?” Jamal said. “How does something like that give orders? And how do things like the [Disjoined] take orders?”

“They’re related,” Lady Midnight said, a note of creeping dread entering her voice. “We saw that in [Sky’s Edge]. They might even be the same thing.”

“That would be good then, right?” Jamal asked. “I mean we beat the [Disjoined] before, so if the Hunger’s made of the same stuff then we should be able to beat it too?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Lady Midnight said, her gaze distant as a terrible thought grew behind her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Rose asked.

“Why would the Hunger stop growing?” Lady Midnight asked. “What was it afraid of?”

“Can that thing even be afraid?” Jamal asked.

Lady Midnight’s terrible though began to grow inside Rose too.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s afraid of the person who stood up to it. The one it couldn’t kill.”

“And now it’s got minions to send after Tessa,” Lady Midnight said, giving voice to the eight worst words Rose had heard since she’d arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms].