Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 4

Tessa couldn’t run a mile without winding up hopeless out of breath. If she was being honest with herself, she couldn’t even run a hundred dash without feeling like her lungs were going to implode. The hospital she currently stood in front of was 1.2 miles from the deli where they’d encounter the Void Walker. Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that, but was more confused to discover that not only had they covered the distance in, at most, a half a minute, she also felt ready to do it again at a moment’s notice.

The man holding the shotgun aimed squarely at her center of mass seemed to prefer that she not act on that particular impulse though.

“Who the hell….,” he started to ask.

“I’ve got another incoming air drop,” Fari, the blue hologram woman, cut him off to say.

“More Void Walkers?” Mel asked.

“Don’t think so,” Fari said. “This one’s bigger.”

“Void anima based?” Darius asked.

“Yep. I’m only seeing them from the disturbance in the air currents,” Fari said.

“How long?” Mel asked.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…” Fari began to count down.

“Inside the building,” Mel said. “Reinforce it.”

“I can’t let…” the man with the gun started to say but was cutoff by Mel stepping up to him, taking his gun away, and swinging him around so she could send him stumbling towards the hospital’s entrance. That all took about a quarter of a second.

Time seemed to slow again as Darius refreshed the spell he’d cast on them. Ten seconds was far too short an interval of time for people to react, must less run inside the building. Whatever his spell did though, it seemed to accelerate their thoughts as much as it hastened their running speed.

Mel was led, but Tessa made sure to follow, and pull the others along with her, including the gun guy since whatever ‘bigger’ was, it was probably a gift from Byron and that wasn’t something he deserved was ready to face.

“We need to regroup somewhere,” Lisa whispered to her.

“I know. Azma’s got a plan, and she needs to share it with us, like about an hour ago,” Tessa whispered back.

The lobby of the hospital wasn’t a large area but Tessa saw there were plenty of people waiting for them inside. Plenty of people who weren’t reacting much yet. Or at all. The reason was fairly clear though. Time seemed to be ticking far slower than it should have.

At Mel’s gestures, her squad spread out, each placing a hand on a wall and joining in a chant that was not translated for Tessa’s ears. She didn’t need to understand the words to work out that they were responsible for the glow which began to emanate from the walls.

Darius joined their effort and his hastening spell unwound, decelerating Tessa’s team back into normal time. That let them feel the the rumble that passed through the floor as the tectonic scale rattle that it was. 

Outside, Tessa saw that the world had gone dark, a thick cloud of dust and debris obscuring everything beyond the hospital’s terribly fragile seeming glass front doors.

“What was that?” Rose asked, her body as tense as a violin string.

“Earthquake?” Claire asked. “Are we in California?”

They were. Again Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that? Some residual gift of Darius’s mind enhancing spell? It didn’t really matter, except that getting home was going to cost her more than she had on any of her credit cards.

She shook her head.

Seriously? That’s what came into her head first?

Feeling a little scrambled from that spell, Pillowcase said. But maybe for the better?

Uh, what? Tessa asked.

That spell felt familiar, Pillowcase said. I’ll let you know if I can work anything out. Or if we’ve already worked something out? Don’t worry about it for now.

“I think we are in California,” Lisa said. “But that wasn’t an earthquake.”

“Correct,” Fari said. “That was our new arrival landing.”

“He hit us with a comet?” Jamal asked.

“Comets can’t get back up onto their feet after they land,” Mel said. “Our new friend out there seems to doing just that.” She paused for a moment. “And of course he’s heading right towards us.”

“Boss, why do you sound surprised by that?” one her squad members asked.

“Because it’s fun to complain,” Mel said.

“How do you want to handle guarding this place and fighting that thing?” Darius asked.

“Easy…” Mel began.

“Nope. Don’t say it. Don’t you dare…” Darius interrupted her.

“Sorry Darius,” Fari said. “She’s right. This thing’s power level is reading at Jewel level. Mel’s the only other one here who can handle that.”

“Other one?” Rose asked, but no one seemed to be listening to her.

“We’ve got this covered,” Mel said. “You and the Black squad stay here to find out what we’re dealing with okay?”

“Just make sure you come back to me, or I will sic your mother on you,” Darius said.

Mel offered him a quick kiss of reassurance before vanishing away as though she was stepping into her own shadow.

“What…what’s going on here?” gun guy asked, abject bewilderment filling his eyes.

“Your world is under attack Mr. Findley,” Darius said. “We’re here to help with that.”

“He’s definitely psychic,” Lisa whispered to Tessa.

“I kinda miss that,” Tessa said, thinking fondly back to their private telepathic channel.

She turned to give Lisa a warm smile only to find that in the mad rush inside the hospital they’d somehow gotten separated. Lisa wasn’t right behind her like Tessa had thought she was. She over near the door farthest from Tessa, staring out into the rapidly clearing cloud of dust.

“Hey, you can hear me still, right?” Tessa asked, subvocalizing the words so that it should have been impossible for them to carry to Lisa’s position.

“Yeah, of course” Lisa said, fondness wrapping the words like a hug. She turned as well, clearly expecting to see Tessa standing right behind her. When she didn’t, her gaze darted around the room until a moment later she met Tessa’s gaze. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Tessa said on their private channel. Her mind swam with the implications of what they were doing for several seconds before the next obvious question occurred to her to test. “Hey, group meeting everyone. Can you hear me?” she asked, picturing the party channel she’d used to speak to the rest of her team.

“Oh my god! Tessa? You got your powers back?” Rose said, her voice as clear as if she was standing right beside Tessa.

“Not all of them,” Tessa said. “Just this. I think we all did. Unless there’s someone who can’t hear us?”

“I can,” chimed in Jamal, Starchild, and Claire. Hailey, Yawlorna and Azma seemed to be left out of the chat channel though.

Because they hadn’t been part of Tessa’s team.

Is this what you were looking into? Tessa asked Pillowcase.

No, but I probably should have been, Pillowcase said.

“Who are you all?” Mr. Findley asked. Tessa gathered from his uniform that he’d been part of the security crew assigned to the hospital. She wondered what he’d planned to do against one of the Void Walker mechs if it showed up. Probably run, but that would at least have given the staff some warning, assuming he ran in the right direction.

“My name is Darius. My team is  from the Empress’s ship the Horizon Breaker. My wife out there is one of her Crystal Guardians. Trust me that you could not be in better hands,” Darius said.

“The Empress? Crystal Guardians?” Findley said, his confusion was mirrored in the faces of the rest of the staff. 

Tessa had to admit she had no more idea what Darius was talking about than the hospital staff did, but her psyche had been so thoroughly wrenched out of its familiar comfort zone that the ambiguity didn’t bother her in the slightest.

“There’s a lot going on here that’s going to take a ton of time to explain,” she said, to Findley and an older woman, Deborah McDaniels, the lead trauma surgeon on duty. She was also the hospital’s, and the city’s, disaster coordinator after the official ones were…consumed by the Void Walker? Suborned to Byron’s cause? Away from home and coordinating efforts in Peoria, Illinois and Spokane, Washington? All of the above? Yeah, all of the above.

Tessa blinked and shook her head.

Where the hell had all that information come from?

That you? she asked Pillowcase again.

Nope, and wow, I think we picked up a lot more about Debs and the other disaster coordinators than just that. Pillowcase said. Tell you what. I’m going to stop looking my stuff for a moment and see if I can figure out where we’re getting this meta-information from, okay?

Sounds good. I’d be afraid I’m losing my mind, but this feels like the opposite of that. Like I’m finding other people’s minds too or something.

“I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of time,” Darius said. “Fortunately I’ve got a spell that can help with that. It’s a mind reading effect though, so I’d like your permission before I use it.”

“Are there any dangers to it?” Lisa asked, returning to Tessa’s side.

“For me? Yes. Lots of dangers and Mel and Fari will scold me for using it, but they’re not here, so that’s what they get. For you? Also yes, but only minor ones. Worst case scenario if I really botch the casting is you’ll have a migraine for a couple hours, and it will need to heal naturally,” Darius said.

“Go for it,” Tessa said. “Be aware though, you’ll find two minds up here.” She tapped her head. “My other self is named Pillowcase. If you read her memories, they won’t line up with mine at all if you go back farther than about a week.”

It was Darius’s turn raise an eyebrow in surprise, but he seemed used to a high level of general weirdness too, and shrugged it off.

Tessa saw his eyes fill with a shifting field of lights and then she felt a feather light touch inside between her eyes.

Darius’s head rocked back the moment Tessa felt the mental contact and blood burst from his nose. He stumbled a few steps back before recovering himself and putting up his hand in a placating gesture, which held his squad from leaping to support him.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just wasn’t expecting that.”

“What? What happened?” Tessa asked.

“You have some exciting mental anima defenses,” Darius said. “I’m guessing you’ve been psychically assaulted fairly often? Like everyday?”

“No,” Tessa said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been…” 

She cut herself off and amended her statement.

“The entity that’s responsible for the attacks we’re seeing? We met him when he was something a lot more dangerous but less refined. It tried to basically erase us from reality, and we fought back. That gave me a power that left me more or less immune to him. It might have been that, since it I think it works without any conscious input from me.”

She expected to see confusion and disbelief in her audiences faces but Debs McDaniels simply nodded along in understanding.

“If you know what’s causing all this, we’ll need to get the message out on how to fight it,” McDaniel said. 

“We’re still working on that part,” Tessa said.

“Give us what you can,” McDaniels said. “It’ll be more than we’ve got now.”

“Has someone begun coordinating a resistance effort?” Azma asked, joining the ever widening circle.

“There’s not just one resistance effort,” McDaniels said. “We’ve got disasters all over the world. Thank god the internet’s still up though.”

“It is?” Lisa asked. “Our phones can’t get any service!”

“Oh yeah, cell towers are shot. Analog voice lines are down too. VOIP and digital lines are fine though. Better than fine. We’re getting ridiculous download rates.”

“We’ll need to inspect those,” Azma said. 

“You think Byron’s corrupted them?” Lisa asked.

“No. I’m sure he hasn’t,” Azma said. “This world would have fallen already if he had. I have a suspicion I know what stopped him but I want to confirm it. Quickly if we can.”

“If you’re here to help, we’ve got plenty of computers you can use,” McDaniels said.

The ground shook again and through the clearing dust cloud, Tessa watched a building down the street collapsing in seeming slow motion.

“Go,” Tessa said to Azma and Hailey. “Find us a key to winning this. We’ll deal with whatever new problem’s coming.”

McDaniels nodded and drew Azma and Hailey with her in a brisk trot past the gathered hospital staff and through the doors that let to the office areas.

“We’re going to deal with this? Got any ideas on how?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“I think I might,” Pillowcase said as Tessa watched a familiar heads up display settle over her vision.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 3

She was magic. And fire. And starlight. Tessa had spoken to the cosmos and the cosmos had listened to her. She held the power to the change worlds. She knew that and yet, it seemed so very distant.

So very unreal.

With her noodly human arms, and her sadly ignored physique, Tessa barely felt like she could move herself. The thought of being able to wield the kind of power she did in the Fallen Kingdoms sounded wonderful, but on Earth she just wasn’t that special.

Well, except for having you with me, she said inside, speaking to the other fragment of her own consciousness.

Uh, you’re a lot more special than I am, Pillowcase said.

How? You’re a badass Soul Knight! You can fight gods and monsters and win! Tessa said, a flash of her Earthly battles against tyrannical bosses and rude coworkers seeming so paltry and meaningless by comparison.

I am a broken failure of a Soul Knight. I couldn’t even fight the standard troops of a mostly unprepared and technomagically inferior enemy, Pillowcase said. I was abandoned by my creators as a generic and expandable resource. Highly trained and respected analysts looked at me and determined that I literally had less than zero value. 

And they were idiots, Tessa said, the echoes of Pillowcase’s self doubt ringing all too in synch with her own.

No. They weren’t, Pillowcase said. Without you, I was a husk. I had no drive, no purpose, and no imagination. I was a weapon that real people could point in a direction and unleash, except when they did, I broke and failed them. 

But…Tessa began. Pillowcase cut her off though.

That’s what I was. It’s not what I am, she said. Just like you’re not what you were either. When I was the Consortium’s weapon, I was locked into one vision of what I could be. When they discarded me, I didn’t lose that. I was still trapped by it, still stuck thinking that what they wanted me to be was all that I could be. I’d broken and so that’s what I could do, was be broken and rot away.

Tessa saw Pillowcase’s memory play through their mind’s eye; the empty fields of the High Beyond where Pillowcase had collapsed swallowing them in darkness and eternal silence. Energy fading, fading, and fading as a dwindling spark that asymptotically approached oblivion.

Then you came, and you changed everything.

In their mind’s eye, it wasn’t that two sparks joined together. They weren’t two people after all, but rather two parts of the same person. They’d both been dimmed by loss and rejection, but from their first whisper thin contact, as Tessa logged into Broken Horizons and as awareness returned to Pillowcase, it was the single spark which united both of them which began to burn brighter.

I didn’t really do anything though, Tessa protested. All I did was start playing a game for fun.

It didn’t feel like that, Pillowcase said. To me it felt like you were taking a big step. Reclaiming something that had been lost to you for a long time. I thought it was me at first, me that you were redeeming. Except you were as surprised that I was real as I was surprised by you. 

Tessa remembered hearing ‘Pillowcase’s voice’ for the first time and how it had been an impossible revelation and yet unquestionably right too. Pillowcase had been someone who couldn’t possible be real. Video game characters weren’t real. Tessa knew that.

And then, suddenly, Pillowcase wasn’t a video game character. She’d been the skin that Tessa was living inside and it was more impossible to doubt that she existed than it had been to believe in her.

When we met Glimmerglass, I thought she was the one you were reclaiming, Pillowcase said. Which would have made a lot more sense to be honest. Except that wasn’t it either. 

It wasn’t, Tessa said, looking around at the others. Everyone was pondering the miracle of Starchild’s magic, and the miracles that they’d all seemingly worked and, for a moment, the whole group seemed to be speechless. I’d been away for a while. Climbing back into Glimmerglass’s skin didn’t seem right.

But it was only a game wasn’t it? Pillowcase’s tone was lightly teasing.

It was and it wasn’t. The events weren’t real, but the people were. I knew I hadn’t raised actually the dead, but when Glimmerglass raised BT that really meant something for Hailey. I changed her world, a tiny little bit, by helping her have some fun.

She remembered you after years apart, and crossed over to the Fallen Kingdoms to help you get home, Pillowcase said. It sounds like you changed her world by more than a little bit.

I think the little things just add up, Tessa said. At one point she was my best friend I think. 

And then you lost that. But you came back anyways. You opened yourself to making another connection like the one that had hurt you so deeply. I don’t think that’s as trivial as you’re thinking it is.

Maybe not, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s on the level of wresting fire from the gods, Tessa said, the magic within her still as distant as the farthest stars.

“You look lost in thought,” Lisa said. “Coming up with any good ones?”

“I don’t know,” Tessa admitted. “Might be having an existential crisis? Or an epiphany? Or just navel gazing. My thoughts sometimes get away from me like that.”

“It is to be expected,” Azma said. “Your minds as remarkably plastic, but these events, and the ones which must follow, require stretching beyond your normal limitations, and so a degree of backlash is to be expected.”

“And how do you know that?” Claire asked. “You can’t have been in this kind of situation before?”

“Can’t I?” Azma asked. “I suppose that will remain to be seen. It’s possible that my experience does not align sufficiently with reality before us, and that my vision isn’t wide enough to encompass the threats Byron had arrayed against us.”

“You don’t sound upset about that?” Rose said.

“Why would I be?” Azma asked. “Being presented with the unexpected is an opportunity for growth and that can be a true delight.”

“Not if the world ends,” Jamal said.

“If the world ends, I shall leave behind a very disappointed ghost,” Azma said. “And I have no intention of doing that.”

“I hope not, because I’m going to leave behind a really pissed off ghost,” Claire said.

“We should decide what our next course of action will be,” Starchild said. “My mana reserves are full once more, so if my talents can of any use, name what you need me to do.”

“At present, nothing,” Azma said. “It is worth noting too that each use you make of you abilities sends up a signal flare for Byron to see. Perfect obfuscation of our position or goals is impractical, but the fewer data points we provide our enemies, the better. Obviously in a case such as the one we were faced with, do not hesitate to use your abilities though. This world is likely more hostile to reviving the dead than yours was, and none of you are expendable.”

“If Byron might know where we are, then shouldn’t we get moving?” Lisa asked.

“Byron is not the only one who might have noticed the magical surge from Starchild’s invocation,” Azma said. “Fleeing from his approach might delay our reckoning with him by a meager amount of time, but it would also make it more difficult for our allies to locate us.”

“Allies?” Tessa asked. “Who do we have here as allies?”

She didn’t even know what city they were in, and no matter where on Earth they were she couldn’t think of a roster of people they’d be able to call on for aide against the Apocalypse.

“That might be us?” a woman said, stepping into the backroom of the deli through its brand new gaping bomb hole. “Sorry, all I heard there was ‘allies’ and, well, you’re not a giant building destroying robot, so I’m guessing we’re on the same side.

The woman was dark skinned, and older than Tessa. Her voice had an odd lilt to it, and Tessa wasn’t sure if the woman was speaking English, or if that’s just how the words sounded after some translation effect ran on them.

Is that you turning what she’s saying into English? Tessa asked Pillowcase.

Nope. I think I could if we needed, but that’s coming in pre-translated.

She’s not speaking English though, is she?

No she is not. I’m not sure what she’s speaking in fact. I can hear the original words, I think, and they’re not in any of the languages the Consortium stitched into me.

Behind the woman, a lighter skinned man stood close by with a small squad of people in ultratech body armor who were, for some reason, holding crossbows at the ready.

“You expected them?” Lisa asked, pure disbelief framing every word.

“In specific? No,” Azma said. “I have a frightful lack of data concerning this world. Despite rather intensive scanning efforts I must note. In general though? Yes, though I must admit their arrival is more timely than I would have planned for.”

“Does that mean you know what’s going on here?” the woman asked.

“Apart from a general disaster,” the man beside her said.

“We do,” Azma said. “In the broad strokes. My companions can provide a summary and fill you in any details relevant to your capabilities or interests. For now however, we should seek a more defensible position.”

“We saw some other people gathered around a medical building,” the woman said. 

“I thought there would be,” Claire said.

“Let’s get going then,” Lisa said. “Maybe we’ll run into Obby and Rachel. Didn’t they head in that direction?”

“If we are very lucky we will not see Oblivion’s Daughter before this matter is fully resolved,” Azma said.

“Why? What’s wrong with Obby?” Tessa asked.

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I believe we have much to thank her for,” Azma said. “Unless my understanding of her is wrong however, she has far more important things to deal with and if we see her again it will be because our situation has become so dire that she will feel the need to intervene directly.”

“Intervene? Like a god or something?” Rose asked.

“Nothing so small as that,” Azma said. “Though the consequences may be similarly severe.”

“This sounds like our kind of mission, doesn’t it?” the woman said, speaking to the man beside her.

“Unfortunately,” he said.

“When does it not Guardian?” one of the women in the squad behind them said.

“We have more of the Void Walkers incoming,” a blue holographic woman said, appearing beside the woman who was leading the squad.

“Right. Time to move then. Would one of you take point with me? Preferably someone who can fill us in on what’s going on here,” the woman said.

“I’d like to chat with the anima caster too,” the blue hologram woman said.

Tessa wasn’t familiar with the term ‘anima caster’ but she was pretty sure who the hologram woman was talking about.

“Starchild, I think that’s you, and I can give them the details on the worlds that are ending here,” Tessa said. 

She reached over for Lisa’s hand and found that Lissa was already reaching for her. They shared a quick nod and then started moving out of the deli and back towards the hospital. 

Leadership sometimes involves inspiring speeches, or making difficult decisions. Other times it’s literally a matter of moving forward and setting a pace for others to follow. Tessa didn’t understand how she’d wound up in any kind of leadership role at all, but she knew the people with her had gotten used to looking at their tank to set the pace for them, and she wasn’t going to fail them at this point. Pillowcase had shown her that she was better than that.

“My name’s Tessa,” she said as the squad’s leader fell in step beside her. “Though you might hear people call me Pillowcase too. I’m her as well. You’re ‘Guardian’?”

“That’s my title, you can call me Mel though. Now let’s make some better time, shall we?” Mel said. “Darius, if you would please?”

Darius, the man jogging along beside them nodded and cast a hand forth. From it a blue light blossomed and spread around everyone in the group.

Power flooded through Tessa’s body. Strength and speed and glorious freedom, as their jog became a world blurring surge forward.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 2

Tessa tasted blood. Pain radiated through her body. Her ears would not stop ringing. But something else bothered her more.

“How are we alive?” she asked, only barely able to hear her own words.

Lisa took hold of her arm and said something but it was drowned out by the explosion induced hearing loss.

You’re not wrong, Pillowcase said. We are lot less damaged than we should be. Check out the freezer we wound up in.

Tessa cast a hazy glance behind herself and saw the dent she’d left in the metal back of the small glass doored freezer unit she’d been bomb blasted into.

Glancing down at her arms, she saw numerous cuts and scrapes, but they were small.

Why aren’t they gushing blood? Tessa asked. And, wait, a dent? We left a dent in metal? How? Why aren’t my bones powder and my organs jelly now?

“Look at me,” Lisa said, her words penetrating the ringing at last.

Or was the ringing diminishing?

Tessa swept her gaze over to Lisa who looked wonderful. No. That wasn’t right. Lisa was wonderful, but she looked disheveled. Almost like a bomb had hit her and blasted her halfway through a wall. Tessa’s thoughts and sense of balance did a loop-de-loop together before returning to the same zip code as clarity.

“Look at me,” Lisa said again, taking gentle hold of Tessa’s face.

Tessa did as instructed and tried to hold still despite how the world was spinning. 

“Okay, you’re eyes are focusing. That’s good,” Lisa said.

“Woah, yeah, sorry,” Tessa said. “I…that was a lot.”

“It was. Let’s help the others before another one of those things shows up okay?” Lisa said.

Right. The others!

Rose was on her feet. Jamal was trying to get there with Rose’s help. Weirdly, from their positions and the damage to their clothes, it looked like Rose had managed to shield Jamal with her body, but Jamal had still suffered more from the blast.

Hailey was tending to Lady Midnight, or Claire to call her by her Earthly name, and from the next room in Starchild emerged looking none the worse for the wear.

“You’re all still alive? Excellent,” Azma said, stepping into the hole in the shop’s rear wall which the nanobot had greatly expanded.

Lisa whirled on her.

“Before you grow too agitated,” Azma said. “Yes, I did suspect this, or something like it, would happen. No, I did not warn you. With the information I could have supplied about the range of possible threats we would first encounter, no useful course of action could have been decided upon. Especially not since it wasn’t until the appearance of the otherworldly mechanical unit that the precise shape of the shape of the dangers before us became clear.”

“You broke off from us. Ran in your own direction,” Lisa said, her hands balled into fists.

“Not precisely my own direction,” Azma said. “I sidestepped our path of flight and resumed in the direction you chose once our enemy passed us by.”

“Why?” Lisa said. Tessa’s hearing had returned to the point where the anger in Lisa’s voice was all too plain.

“I lack your durability,” Azma said. “Also, should another method of removing the machine not have presented itself, it would have been much simpler to draw it off and away from the rest of you via attacks from its rear.”

“Or you could have just run away and left us to our fate,” Lisa said.

“Yes,” Azma nodded without the slightest trace of guilt or shame on her face.

“So why didn’t you?” Tessa asked, her head throbbing but her thoughts beginning to clear.

“Because Pete took care of the bot,” Lisa said.

“Because the path to victory remains in working in concert with you,” Azma said.

“So you’re going to ditch us as soon as it looks like we’re losing?” Rose asked. She was breathing in short, painful bursts. Tessa did not know anatomy well, but it didn’t take a med school graduate to know something was very wrong there.

“Yes, likely even before the true appearance of loss emerges,” Azma said. “Victory in this context means the survival of close to twenty billion sapients. It must be ensured.”

“Sapients that you are concerned with why exactly?” Lisa asked.

“Because they are my sapients, or will be,” Azma said. “I have less interest ruling over two dead planets than I do in ruling over one.”

“We have more important problems than her,” Hailey said. She was kneeling beside Claire, who was still splayed across the rubble in the hole in the interior wall. Tessa did not like at all how Claire was not moving. 

Just beyond her, on the other side of the interior was in the front room of the deli, Starchild was kneeling as well. Tessa began to move towards them both which brought Rachel into view. 

Rachel who was surrounded by far too much blood and was even more still than Claire was.

“Rachel? Rachel!” Lisa pushed past Tessa, her feud with Azma temporarily forgotten.

“She’s alive still,” Starchild said, her hands radiating a soft green light.

“What are you doing for her?” Lisa asked.

“Casting Arcadia’s Surcease,” Starchild said.

Tessa recognized the name. It was a high level druidic healing spell from Broken Horizons, one that caused the target to regenerate lost health so fast they were effectively invulnerable for the duration of the effect.

“Why isn’t it working?” she asked.

“I haven’t finished it yet,” Starchild said. “It’s much harder here. Much harder without Pete.” Her words buckled under the strain she was feeling and so everyone else stopped talking for a moment.

We’re all going to need that spell too, Pillowcase said.

We’ll go last, Tessa said. Whatever’s broken in us, I don’t think it’s life threatening. Even though it should be.

“If I may?” Azma said and stepped forward without waiting for a reply. “You are correct that the process of spellcasting will be more difficult without Peter’s assistance. At this moment, we need you to lead the way however.”

“How is she supposed to do that?” Rose asked. “And why are you distracting her?” Jamal was the one helping her stand at this point, which was making Tessa’s nerves jump in all sorts of unpleasant directions.

“To remind her of something critical. Something you all must understand and internalize,” Azma said. “You are not alone. Starchild, you and Peter are dissimilar from the others here. You are not facets on the same gem of personality like they are. If you were, you wouldn’t have arrived in two separate bodies.”

“We were connected though!” Starchild said, a suppressed growl in her voice.

“Yes. Exactly,” Azma said. “You two are not the same person, but you are [Synchronized Souls]. You share a bond of admiration as strong as the bonds of identity shared by the others.”

“We’re not just broken then?” Starchild said, the building light vanishing from her hands as she blinked in surprise.

“No. You were never broken.” Azma didn’t offer the phrase as a condolence or an encouragement. She spoke it as a cold, plain fact, unremarkable and unquestionable. “Nor are you broken, or even separated now.”

“He’s gone though,” Starchild said. “I saw him vanish.”

“Yes. Off to still another world. Which suggests there are even more than twenty billion sapients I may lay claim too.” Azma shook her head. “That’s not important now though. What is important is that you can still reach him, and he you. Think back to how the connection between you felt before he was pulled into your world.”

Starchild’s gaze went inwards and she went still for a long moment.

“I can’t feel him there,” she said. “He’s not watching over me.”

Azma sighed.

“Of course he isn’t. He’s likely dealing with the nanomachine he removed from our presence,” Azma said.

“Wait, he’s fighting that thing all alone?” Rose asked.

“Likely not,” Azma said. “He will have the support of allies from that world. For our fallen comrades sake however, that is unimportant. Starchild, he is distant, but he will always be with you, and you with him. Call out his name within yourself. Remember him. You don’t need to bridge the gap between worlds, only the gap within yourself.”

Starchild nodded and closed her eyes.

Tessa saw her lips move in two silent syllables.

And then light flared from her.

[Arcadia’s Surcease],” she called out in voice that seemed to ring from the sky itself.

Rachel sat up with gasp, leaping to her feet as brilliant green light surrounded and infused her.

“Oh Hell Yeah!” Rachel said, green fire burning in her eyes. “Where’d that bot go?”

“Woah, woah, calm down sis,” Lisa said, laughing out the desperation she’d been stricken by and grabbing Rachel’s arms to prove the miracle she was watching was real.

[Grove of Serenity],” Starchild said, casting a spell that caused the air to grow clear, and soft, a gently warm as every injury on everybody in the entire store was instantly healed.

Tessa stumbled back a single step, the impact of immediate perfect health, hitting her almost as hard as the bomb had.

“What did I miss?” Claire said. “And why do I feel like I’m eighteen again?”

“Starchild! She fixed us!” Rose said and flashed over to throw a hug around the Druid.

“Uh, did I just see lightning there?” Lisa asked.

“A little bit, yeah, I think so,” Tessa said, feeling dumbfounded.

We should try some of the Void Speaker or Soul Knight abilities, Pillowcase said.

Think we can shift bodies? Tessa asked.

I hope so. It would be nice to be a bit tougher, Pillowcase said.

Tessa stretched out, feeling for the fire within her that allowed her to change into Pillowcase’s Clothwork body, but as with her Void Speaker magics, she couldn’t reach it.

It’s odd though, isn’t it? Pillowcase said. This isn’t like when I had my magic threads removed for inspection or replacement. There is something still there.

You’re right. It feels like I’m reaching into a well for a handful of water, but the surface level has dropped far, far down.

Like we left it all back in the Fallen Kingdoms.

Except that’s clearly not true for Starchild, and maybe not for Rip.

“So how can the rest of us do that?” Lisa asked, turning back to Azma.

“It likely differs for each of you,” Azma said. “Starchild and Peter have the benefit that their bond already crosses the barrier between worlds. Since they are already reaching beyond this world, drawing power from beyond it as well was relatively simple.”

“Can’t we just think about the Fallen Kingdoms or something and do the same?” Jamal asked.

“Perhaps. I encourage you to try. It may be that is the key for you,” Azma said.

“Why wouldn’t it be the key for all of us?” Rose asked.

“Those of you who are familiar with this world also have the structure of its reality engraved within you. Magic is not a common and easily accessible thing here, but the laws of physics are dependable to startling regularity. Those two traits are often, though not always, found together. For you that means you are coded with an obedience to that structure of reality – magic is impossible, physics is iron clad. You’ve experienced another world, where the balance of those two traits is different though, so it is possible for you to live within the structure of one world in place of the other.”

“You said we’re coded to obedience? What does that mean?” Lisa asked.

“Very little in the end,” Azma said. “Understand, I do not speak of obedience in terms of your conscious choices, but rather in the fundamental essences of your beings here. Obedience to the physical and mystical laws which this world is built from. You do not, for example, choose to be effected by gravity. You are simply obedient to its existence, whether you wish to be or not.”

“Yeah, always, except when we’re not,” Tessa said, a drifting feeling flowing through her mind. She laughed, letting the idea pull her in, or perhaps outwards. “We’re all rebels. We’ve all been disobedient haven’t we?”

“We have?” Rose asked.

Lisa’s eyes widened as she saw what Tessa had.

“We’ve already worked magic here. Twice now. All of us,” Lisa said.

“When we left and when we came back,” Tessa said.

“Three times, at least,” Azma said. “Or did you think you survived the robots bomb blast through anything like natural means?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 1

Tessa was not built for running. Her burning lungs and screaming legs muscles were most emphatic about the fact that a decade of spending all of her time in front of a monitor had not prepared her for the vital task of fleeing for her life. 

Ahead of her Lisa leaped over a low cement wall, looking no more winded than Tessa would have been by a quick dash to the fridge.

The temptation to just collapse let exhaustion claim her was overpowering and Tessa stumbled with a shaky step several feet from the wall. Stumbling and collapsing was not an option though. Not with the lumbering mecha that was chasing down the street after them.

It’s being slowed down when it has to pass through physical barriers, Pillowcase said, her voice exactly as calm and analytical as Tessa’s wasn’t.

How can you tell? Tessa asked. She hadn’t dared risk a glance back towards the mecha once they started running for fear she’d trip and fall like the hapless horror movie character she seemed to be at the moment.

Also, she didn’t need to. 

The mecha had been silent at first, but when it engaged pursuit mode that changed drastically. Even if she wanted to communicate with the others, screaming over the thousand chainsaw roar from the death robot would have required a bullhorn or the telepathy they used to share.

Reflections, Pillowcase said. With the lights it’s shining, a lot of reflective surfaces are letting me see more of it than I really wanted to.

Does it look familiar at all? Any weak spots or off switches?

I haven’t seen anything with this morphology before, and the structure doesn’t make a lot sense.

The others were ahead of her in part because Tessa found she was still thinking like the party’s tank and in part because they were simply faster than she was. They’d all managed the concrete barrier without any trouble but Tessa knew that wouldn’t be the case for her.

You can’t jump that, can you? Pillowcase asked. It wasn’t really a question though. Pillowcase could feel that Tessa’s legs were offering as much support as uncooked bread dough.

I can fall over it I think, Tessa said, her breath feeling like razor blades made of fire in her throat.

If you do, you’re not going to get up on the other side, Pillowcase said. 

Which would mean that she would be eaten by the mecha.

True there would be a concrete wall in between her and it, but they’d already seen exactly how quickly it tore apart physical structures like that. Tessa was able to force herself onwards largely because she had no desire to learn how quickly it could tear her apart.

I’ll have to, she said, pushing her pain and exhaustion down a fraction of a millimeter.

Let me handle this, Pillowcase said.

You can’t. We’re not in the Fallen Kingdoms anymore, Tessa said, thinking of how glorious it would be to have Pillowcase’s Clothwork body to call on. 

Even as a level 1, just back from the dead, wreck of a Soul Knight, Pillowcase could have run for days without becoming the slightest bit winded. At her full, level capped power, Tessa was willing to bet decent odds that she could solo the monster than was chasing them.

Trust me, Pillowcase said.

And Tessa did. Oddly, serenely, she did.

She’d never learned to trust herself, mostly because she’d proven over and over just how bad she was at making good decisions. Failure upon failure had chipped away at the sense that she could rely on her instincts. Scorn, ridicule, and even well meaning jokes hadn’t done her self-worth any favors either. 

Tessa wasn’t sure how the other voice in her head was supposed to make up for legs that were spent, lungs that couldn’t drag in another breath of air, or a heart that beating fast enough to shatter her ribcage. Tessa didn’t see how she was going to overcome those.

But Pillowcase did.

So Tessa stepped back. It wasn’t the same as the change between bodies she’d figured out in the Fallen Kingdoms, but it wasn’t entirely disconnected either. Between one step and another, Tessa felt her weight shift and her legs drive forward with greater force.

She didn’t have any additional strength, and the pain didn’t lessen, Pillowcase was simply more used to being pushed to her limits and then beyond. It wasn’t about finding superhuman strength to draw on, it was about using the strength she had. It wasn’t about the pain vanishing, it was about accepting it and the damage it was alerting her too.

In Pillowcase’s memories, Tessa knew she was going to pay for the exertion she was making, but that would be later, and surviving until later was worth what it would cost.

With a smooth leap, Pillowcase hurdled over the barrier and helped a faltering Jamal back to a steady run. 

Tessa observed that she wasn’t supposed to know Jamal or Rose’s real names yet but, back in their Earthly bodies, they’d reverted to calling each other by their Earthly names. She didn’t begrudge either of them the gazelle like running they were capable of, nor Lisa or Hailey the marathoner’s pace they seemed to be able to set. Claire/Lady Midnight though was both older and heavier than Tessa and yet she was somehow keeping up with the faster runners with ease.

And then there was Pete and Starchild. Tessa had no idea what to make of them. Why they’d gotten two bodies when she and Pillowcase were stuck in one was a mystery for a later date. What was important at the moment was that Starchild was clearly their best runner, while Pete was competing with Tessa for the last spot. 

She watched his foot catch on the edge of the sidewalk as Starchild led the whole group down an alley. Pete flailed his arms and was heading for a faceplant into the sidewalk when Pillowcase grabbed him and got him up and running.

“Thanks!” Pete gasped.

Pillowcase nodded but conserved her breath. Tessa’s system was critically short on oxygen as it was and with no stamina potions in sight, it didn’t seem like there was a viable method topping of herself off.

Behind them, Tessa heard the mecha tearing through the buildings on either side of the alley.

You’d said the mecha’s structure didn’t make a lot of sense, why is that? Tessa asked.

Its too solid, Pillowcase said. She was feeling all of the fatigue and pain Tessa was but her voice was still crisp and professional. We’re seeing it as a single unit, a vaguely humaniform robot. But it’s not. According to Pete, it’s a nanoswarm.

Tessa saw the problem as soon as Pillowcase thought the words.

There was no reason for the mecha to plow through the buildings on either side of the alley. Doing so was slowing it down as it had to grind through the brick and steel and wood, not to mention all the detritus that fell on it and was obliterated.

As a swarm, the nanomachines that made up the robot should have been able to turn into a cloud or a crawling slime. The construct should have been able to fire pieces of itself out to consume its targets at a distance. It was a curious mix of impossibly advanced technology and incredibly unthinking design.

Even the speed it moved at was difficult to understand. It was slower than humans running on foot? What kind of automated death machine couldn’t outpace weak human legs?

The kind that wasn’t designed to.

The kind that was intended to give a human enemy a chance.

The kind Pete had been able to recognize on sight.

Tessa wanted dearly to ask which game the monster behind them had come from. That wasn’t a rational conclusion to leap to, but being chased by a robot made out of building destroying nanotech was not a rational situation.

Plus it was starting to fit into a hypothesis she was putting together.

If I told you that thing was from another world, would that be ridiculous? Tessa didn’t want to distract Pillowcase but with the calm from putting Pillowcase in the driver’s seat, she knew they needed an answer other than running sooner than immediately.

I would say it would be ridiculous to assume it wasn’t.

Yeah, my Earth has never had the tech to do anything like that. Tessa wasn’t sure if she liked where her idea was leading her. It could be the answer, but if so it meant horrors from the darkest of imaginations awaited them. 

Your Earth? Pillowcase asked. She fought for another dozen steps, widening the gap between them and the nanobot. They needed a thousand times that number to even approach safety, but Tessa was willing to take anything she could get.

We know that people from my Earth have vanished away to worlds other than the Fallen Kingdoms, Tessa said, a thread in her mind spinning out in search of the worst extent her hypothesis might lead to. This thing isn’t from my Earth, but I’m pretty sure it’s from an Earth that someone dreamed up. Or maybe ‘connected to’ is more accurate. 

You think the nanoswarm is from another world like the Fallen Kingdoms?

Pete recognized it. And, it’s limited just like a video game enemy would be. It’s unstoppable and was immediately hostile, it’s far too dangerous for us to attack or ignore, and yet it hasn’t caught us yet, and its just missing things all kinds of things.

I was trying to conceive of the enemy a design like the one it possesses would be intended to fight, Pillowcase said. I hadn’t considered that the designer might want the enemy to be able to win.

Win or at least survive, Tessa said. Sometimes game enemies aren’t things you can fight, they’re a mechanical challenge to avoid or deal with by some other method.

We could use one of those ‘other methods’ about now, Pillowcase said.

Ahead of them, the alley ended in a concrete wall where they should have had to turn right or left. Starchild apparently had other ideas though, as a quartet of vines shattered a hole in the wall, allowing her to race inside followed by the others. 

That’s good, breaking line of sight may buy us extra time, Pillowcase said. Assuming the bot’s sensor package can’t scan through concrete.

Hope for the best, I guess? Tessa thought and jumped through the hole right after Pete.

The problem with hoping for the best was the crushing disappointment that followed when the worst happened instead.

On losing sight of the its prey, the nanoswarm entered a new pursuit mode – one which included flushing out the human with missiles.

Between one step and the next, Tessa went from racing around the side of a deli storage shelf to finding herself inexplicably resting in the remains of a freezer on the far side of the room.

There was blood.

A lot of blood.

And smoke.

Probably a dangerous amount of smoke. 

Also, she couldn’t hear anything except an incredible ringing.

Pillowcase got her up.

Moving with injuries was dangerous and bad.

Being eaten by a nanoswarm was worse.

The rest of the group was in similar or worse shape. Some were stirring. Some where unmoving. 

Tessa’s head swam.

Things were not right inside her.

Definitely time to get to a Heart Fire.

Except that didn’t sound right.

Heart Fire.

Why didn’t it have a reverb to it?

No time for that. She didn’t shake her head. Couldn’t risk doing more damage. She did get up though and moved to the nearest figure in the smoke.

Lisa. They’d been close together, Lisa holding back her pace to stay with her. If it had meant she’d been hurt…

Tessa closed down that line of thought. Lisa was getting up. That was a good sign.

And then the nanoswarm bot appeared in the hole in the wall and they were dead.

It was too close.

They couldn’t have run even if Tessa was back in top form. 

So why was some guy laughing?

Tessa saw the weapons pod on the nanoswarm begin to glow as it powered up. She didn’t know why it had decided to blow them up with it’s weapons rather than just running through them like it did the buildings, but the end result wasn’t going to be all that different.

“Yeah, I’ve got a better idea.” They were words without sound. Words that sprang fully formed into her beaten and bedraggled head. Words in Pete’s voice?

Tessa peered through the smoke and saw Pete standing up. Around him a nimbus of light began to glow.

“Sorry I can’t go with you any farther,” he said. “I think I need to deal with this though.”

Motes of light began to rise from his body as he stepped forward, placing himself square in the nanoswarm’s path.

“Pete?” Tessa said, silently, voicelessly since her breath was gone and her throat too choked with dust.

“Can’t let the tank have all the fun, sometimes the dps has got to step up too!” he said and reached out to touch the nanoswarm.

Tessa expected to see him torn apart, just like the building had been, but instead there was only light as both Pete and the mecha vanished together.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Outerlude 1

Jin

Worlds hung in the balance and the balance was tipping in very much the wrong direction. That, however, wasn’t what worried Jin. Two worlds facing imminent annihilation was concerning, certainly, but to her eyes the problem was significantly larger than that.

“Are you rearranging the cosmos again?” Kari asked, appearing beside Jin as they both floated in a endless sea of stars.

“Nope. This isn’t me,” Jin said. “And these aren’t stars.”

Kari looked at her, their celestial forms still human enough for her to be able to convey a confused expression by rearranging the stellar nebula she was using for facial features. “What am I looking at then?” 

Jin drew one of the blazing points of light out from the ever brightening sea of illumination that surrounded them. With a hand made from starlight and dreams, she spun the orb around and drew the two of them in closer to it so they could make out the fine details.

Below them, a world, as vast as the Earth and far more technologically advanced spread out.

“What are we looking at?” Kari asked.

“The Earth we’ve been fighting for was like mine. Only a scaled back version. Where mine had sorcerers and super science and metahuman powers, the one you caught and saved had only normal people and a steady march of very repeatable science all along. No hidden demigods. No secret cabals of supernatural monsters.”

“Sure, we’ve seen plenty of those. We’ve even seen a bunch like my old world too. Lots of places where magic and monsters are reasonably common. This isn’t like either of those though.”

“It’s not. This kind of world doesn’t form on its own.” Jin gave the globe one more spin, revealing the vast multi-leveled technological landscape which covered the planet. “It’s called Coruscant, and it is a world that can never be. Not on its own.”

“Why?”

“The mix of technologies doesn’t add up. This place would generate so much heat that it would melt the planet’s surface. A galactic civilization capable of  building this place could address that, but when galactic civilizations arise naturally, in a reality with physical parameters like this one, they develop different tech than what we’re seeing.”

“This is an illusion then? Or a reality-trap?” Kari asked, moving a half breath back.

“That was what I thought too,” Jin said, drawing them in closer to where a battle was raging. “But it’s not. It’s something much more rare.”

On a landing pad that was several hundred meters long and half that wide, a trio of figures wielding blades of light were fighting for their lives against a creature that seemed to be 90% mouths, 90% tentacles, and 90% solidified rage against the fabric of existence.

“Should we help with that? It’s pretty clear who we want to win, isn’t it?” Kari condensed her celestial body into a human-adjacent species and ignited her own blazing green sword.

“Definitely,” Jin said, joining her with a brilliant amber sword in her hand. “Our job is to save these worlds after all.”

Inhaling, Jin drew in the essence of the world she was walking though. The role she’d shaped for herself was that of an Archivist. She wondered briefly is she should have opted for a warrior’s role. That was usually Way’s first choice and Jin had gotten so used to working with her wife that she’d defaulted to leaving the fighting role open and instead focused one that provided enough information to setup the sort of blatantly unfair tricks that won the day without any fighting required.

Except, fighting was often required, at least when she and Way didn’t manifest their true reality breaking might. With Way at her side, Jin never needed to worry about the fighting though, since Way was every bit as sneaky as she was, except Way tended to focus that into being more powerful than she had any plausible right to be, while still at least technically fitting within the boundaries allowed by a world’s framework of reality.

“Hey, you two, get the rest of the civilians out of here!” The man who shouted at Jin was one of the three who were fighting the Hyperspace Ravager. Kyle Moonfinder. The name came to her along with a detailed biography of his life and his place in the almost overwhelmingly complex society he was a part of.

Jin reeled as an avalanche of information poured into her. She could take it in, but processing it through J’in Voidtreader, the persona she’d created to inhabit within the world, took a bit of time.

Time Way would have bought her without a second thought.

Kari wasn’t Way but sometimes friends knew you well enough to have your back in a heartbeat anyways.

“She can handle that,” Kari said nudging Jin towards a group of diplomats who were huddling behind the remains of a destroyed transport shuttle. “I’ll give you folks a hand.”

‘You folks’ being Kyle, his daughter,…and Lily Na, from South Salem, New York? More information came flooding in but Jin caught the last important bit there.

Lily wasn’t a native of this world. Lily came from the Earth Jin, Kari, and Way had been trying to save weeks. It confirmed Jin’s growing suspicion.

“Come with me if you want to live,” Jin said, extending a hand to the diplomats. The nearest one reached out and the hand that closed on hers was as solid and real as Lily’s would have been. 

As she led them to the turbo lift that would whisk them off to safety, Jin cast a glance back to where Kari and Lily were making short work of the Hyperspace Ravager’s tentacles, while Kyle and his daughter telekinetically held the beast’s near infinite number of mouths at bay.

Jin looked past the physical for a moment and saw that infinity collapsing ever fast, each of Kari’s slashes cutting away not only the tentacle she sliced through but an endless pool of not-quite-real additional tentacles as well.

To an outside observer it looked as though the beast was simply running out of resources at last, and that would be true for all similar Oblivion Remnants that tried to take that form as well.

It wasn’t enough to just save this world after all. Not when Jin could feel a host of new threats continuing to arrive as more and more people turned to this dream world made real as their last hope to save the world it had been born from.

Way

Stepping out of the world was an easy thing to do. Far too easy unfortunately. With Rachel in tow, Way knew she had to be very careful in terms of how much reality bending she did. The last thing she wanted to do was break Lisa’s sister, or worse erase her from history.

“So, I should warn you, there’s might to be a lot that my friends and I talk about that won’t make a lot of sense, and I may not going to be able to explain most of it to you.”

“Uh, okay? What do you need me for again though?” Rachel was on the edge of freaking out after Way had literally dragged her down a dark and smokey alley. As they walked the smoke cleared considerably though. Way was at least able to tweak things like that without risking too much trouble.

“You went back and forth to the Beta server, right?” Way said. “And you went to the real Fallen Kingdoms, and then crossed over to here?”

“Yeah, but a lot of other people were doing that. I’m not special or anything.”

“Remind to go over with you how literally none of that is true,” Way said. “For now though, just focus on being your selves.”

“My what?”

“Rachel Chen of Earth and Deadly Alice of the Fallen Kingdoms.” Way twisted the pink ring on her finger and sent a silent call to the one person she knew would always be with her no matter how many world might lie between them.

“But Deadly Alice isn’t real. Is she?”

“That’s the question of the hour I guess,” Jin said. She fell to the ground next to Way. 

In theory, she could have jumped off the roof of the building above. She was small enough that maybe she could have landed as gracefully as she did with a lot of Parkour training and some very nimble bouncing from one wall to the other.

Jin hadn’t done any of that, and Way knew it, but fortunately neither Rachel nor the world at large noticed that fact. If someone checked, they’d probably find footprints in all the right places for someone of Jin’s size and weight to have dropped from the roof. Or not. The world might come up with some other clever retro-history to explain what happened. Realities were strange like that.

“You’re with her?” Rachel asked, looking first at Jin and then Way.

“We are too, for this job at least,” Beth said. Kari stood beside her, along with a woman who was definitely not covered in blue scales. Nope, just a normal looking lady. Reality was much happier with that.

Reality was also happier with the three of them since they’d elected to walk around the corner at the end of the alley rather than cheat for a faster arrival.

“So, here’s the deal,” Way said. “Rachel is a full fledged world walker.”

“Oh no!” Kari said, with Jin’s expression falling into a worried frown as well.

“I’m a what?” Rachel said.

“You’ve moved through an entire circuit from one world to the next,” Way said. “And this is the important part. You did it while leaving your body behind.”

“I’m sorry. What?” Rachel said. “What do you mean, I left my body behind. My body is right here, thank you! See!”

She poked herself in the arm, confirming that she was indeed made of solid tissue.

“That is your body.” Jin’s nod of agreement did nothing to quell the disbelief in Rachel’s eyes. “But it’s not quite the same as the one you were wearing the last time you were on this world, is it?”

“What do you mean? Of course it is. I’m not a clone or something,” Rachel said.

“That is correct. You are not a clone,” Way said. “You are the real Rachel Chen. Or the real you. There’s lots of Rachel Chen’s in this world I guess, and they’re real too.”

“Okay, why is this important and what are you saying,” Rachel asked, after taking a forced calming breath.

“Consider this,” Way said. “When you transferred to the Beta server, what happened to your body on Earth?”

“Nothing. It was basically just VR. I was still on Earth but I was seeing and interacting with stuff on the Beta server like it was real thanks to whatever weirdness is going on.”

“That’s correct, mostly,” Way said. “Now consider what happened when you used the portal from the Beta server to the Live server.”

“I stepped through and got stuck in Deadly Alice’s body,” Rachel said, confusion beginning to creep across her face.

“And what do you think happened to your Earthly body then?” Way asked.

“I…Well, the same thing as everyone else right?” Rachel asked.

“When you arrived in the Fallen Kingdoms, were you a ghost?” Way asked.

“No, I was just like this. I mean, like Deadly Alice,” Rachel said.

“You were right with that first bit,” Jin said.

“For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure, your Earthly body was still here, even after you stepped into the fully real version of the Fallen Kingdoms,” Way said.

“Fully real?”

“Where we were before? Where you were Deadly Alice? Did any of that feel even a bit less than real?” Way asked. “You could see things, feel things, even smell and taste things there right? Does that sound like VR?”

“No, but…”

“But that is a lot to take in. Trust us, we know,” Beth said, stepping forward to put a comforting hand on Rachel’s shoulder.

“But I’m here now,” Rachel said, looking over her body again as though to make sure she really was herself. 

“Right. So, last step, consider what that means,” Way said.

“I don’t know. What could it mean?”

“It means that when we came back, you reached out to your sleeping Earthly body and brought it here,” Way said. “You needed a body in this world, and you had one so its the one you used.”

“But what happened to Deadly Alice’s body then?” Rachel asked.

“Nothing. Its still yours too, there waiting for the next time you need it.”

“But I can only be her in the Fallen Kingdoms, right?”

“Nope,” Jin said. “You’re wearing your Rachel Chen body because it’s the most comfortable one here. But you are as much Deadly Alice as you are Rachel Chen. You can be whoever you choose to be.”

“Even someone who shows everyone else how to save this world,” Way said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Interlude 1

The Calamity of Wind

The Vortex was far larger than any of its observers could see. It’s arms stretched across the sky to the edges of the world it saw while in it’s center its winds spun with enough force to sheer buildings from their foundation.

The midwest of the United States was used to tornados and had the systems and warnings in place to alert people and get them into shelters. It wasn’t always enough to save everyone, but it saved countless lives every year.

Dubai, by contrast, did not have quite so robust a tornado response protocol in place. 

The Vortex hadn’t known that when it manifested, nor had Byron when he called it into being there. Neither one was overly concerned about the matter though. The Vortex because it lacked the capacity for any emotional or intellectual response beyond an appetite for destruction, and Byron for largely the same reason. The same however was not true for the people beneath the Vortex.

“I’ve got us a flight chartered out, but we’ve got get in the air now.” Ted Billingsworth wasn’t used to giving commands that weren’t obeyed when he spoke to his staff. They worked for him so they knew better than to backtalk when he was serious about something

“A flight? Now?” Kendal knew better than most not to backtalk him. She’d seen him fire more than one upstart who had opinions and thought he, or she, usually a she, knew better how to run his business than he did.

“Yes. Now get your bags. We’re leaving.”

“No. Not by plane I’m not,” Kendal said and the rest of his staff nodded in agreement, with a few of the weaker ones refusing to even look at him.

“That’s fine. See what I care. You’re all fired. And I’m canceling your tickets back to Dallas. Fly on your own money. I’m not paying for any of you,” Ted said before storming out of the hotel.

The gale force winds that battered him as he left the building only stoked his anger He didn’t need those expendable head counts. Maybe he’d even take them to court for breech of contract or whatever his lawyers could cook up. 

No planes were cleared to fly and he’d managed to get one anyway because he was Ted Billingsworth and he was a man the world listened to. They should have been grateful to him, but no, there wasn’t any gratitude in people today. All they wanted was your money. Money for work you didn’t even really need them to do.

Ted’s thoughts would have continued alone thing line except that he caught his plane.

Which is to say, without any awareness of the irony involved, the Vortex had picked up the plane Ted Billingsworth had chartered while it was fueling on the tarmac against all orders, laws, and basic common sense. With winds that should have reduced the aircraft to a cloud of metal shards, the Vortex hurled the plane kilometers across the city to land directly on the spot where Ted was struggling with his bags.

Surprisingly that was not the end of Ted Billingsworth though.

His body was obliterated of course, but his breath remained and it carried with it the anger and misanthropy which had characterized Ted’s entire adult life. 

Ted had wanted to destroy those around him and the malice of the Vortex responded to that desire by mingling its essence with the breath Ted Billingsworth had left behind to create a whole new sort of monster.

The Calamity of Ash

Wildfires weren’t a new thing for California to be faced with, millions of acres burned up with disturbing regularity. Those burning acres did not usually rise up as a legion of ten foot tall columns of flame shaped in the rough configuration of an adult human male though.

“Are any of them coming up towards us?” Hector Gonzalez was ready to gun the car’s engine for a rapid escape at a moment’s notice but without his friend inside the vehicle there was no force on Earth that could convince him to drop his foot on the pedal.

“Good news, no,” Sashanna said without putting her binoculars down.

“Bad news, they’re definitely heading to the fuel depot,” Kevin added. He at least had the sense to look away and check that the car was still ready to go. That he was also checking the distance to the huge tanks of oil and gas that lay at the end of the valley was a good sign for his awareness too.

“Worse news, I can’t get through to anyone.” Miya was more or less juggling their four cell phones and having no luck with any of them.

“So, we should leave then, right?” Hector said. Being perched on a bridge, a wooden bridge to be specific, that spanned a low valley down which an army of flame monsters was advancing was an objectively terrible idea. Hector was pretty sure literally anywhere else in the world would be a better place to be.

“Yeah, we should definitely go,” Sashanna said.

“Sounds good,” Hector said. “Time to get in then!” 

“Just one problem,” Sashanna said. “They’re not burning things.”

“Really? Cause I’m seeing a lot of flames from that direction,” Hector said.

“Yeah, what do you mean Shanna? Those trees are going up like fireworks  when they walk past them,” Miya said, putting their phones away to survey the army of walking flames with her friends.

“That’s my point. Look at what’s happening to their things they walk near,” Sashanna said.

“I’m seeing flames and smoke,” Kevin said. “Looks like fire to me.”

“That’s at the leading edge,” Sashanna said. “Here use these. Look past the front line.” She passed the binoculars over to Keven and pointed to direct his attention. “Over there. Where the smoke is thin.”

“Damn, it’s all just ash and dust. But trees don’t burn to ash and dust that fast. That’s impossible.”

“That doesn’t sound good either,” Hector said.

“Yeah, guys, I’m with Hector. We really shouldn’t be here,” Miya said.

“Okay. You’re right,” Sashanna said, joining the other two as they piled into Hector’s car. “We’ve got to warn somebody though.”

“Who? The fire department? You think they’re going to miss that coming at them?” Hector said as he pressed the accelerator firmly to the floor.

Hector was neither a Fast nor a Furious driver, but the deep inner voice that said “Little Fire Good, Lots of Fire Bad” was screaming so loudly that he didn’t feel much restraint in terms of obeying local traffic laws.

“You didn’t see what was back there,” Sashanna said.

“You said ash and dust. I’m more worried about the living fire dudes personally.”

“There were things out beyond the ash and dust,” Shashanna said.

“What kind of things?” Miya asked in a voice that very clearly stated she didn’t really want to know.

“I don’t know – like fires turned in on themselves,” Shashann said. “Smoke and dust, but alive, with something that, I don’t know, kind of hurt to look at in their center.”

“Maybe they’ll fight the fire guys for us?” Hector said.

“I don’t think so,” Kevin said. “I think Shanna’s right. Whatever those things were? I think the fire dudes are running from away from them.”

The Calamity of Ice

Not everything in the world was burning. Some parts of it were freezing into deathless silence. Places like Cairo.

The snow had started falling after more than thirty Armageddon Beasts had been dispatched by the residents of Cairo.  There’d been a pattern to them that was beginning to spread through the local lines of communication. The visible weakening of a patch of space. The inexplicable vertigo that you felt only on every odd step around the breakthrough spot. The sound of tearing metal that echoed in and out, doppler shifting though you weren’t moving in relation to it at all. 

In an astoundingly short time, Cairo had grown accustomed to the arrival of the Armageddon Beasts and had learned that the beasts could be carried away. Sometimes the ones who dragged them away from the Earth even came back too.

None of them had recognized the snow that fell as being connected to the problem of the world ending beasts, but few mistook it for a good sign either.

“We need to stay inside. This is not supposed to be happening,” Youssef said.

“Everything is down in here though,” Aya said, shaking her phone. “We won’t know anything about what’s going on if we stay here.”

She fought with her phone further but it was being stubborn in refusing to give her any access to email, the internet, or even texts.

Outside the day grew steadily darker as the snow cloud bunched up and turned from a dull gray to an empty black.

“Maybe it’s better than we don’t know,” Youssef whispered low so that no one else would hear him. 

He had no special experience with cataclysms, though he was old enough to have seen the world’s hardship gather and grow and crash down again and again. This snow though? It was something worse than even the Armageddon Beasts everyone was talking about. He knew that as surely as he knew his body needed breath and yet it was only snow. Just simple little frozen water flakes like he’d seen before on trip abroad.

Youssef felt the urge to reach out through his window to touch one of the falling bits of ice. They were so small and soft and harmless. All he had to do was touch one to wash away his worries. 

He wanted to touch one. 

He needed to touch it. 

He was in agony without the cool caress of the snow.

“God is good,” he whispered though the words cost him more than any shout he’d ever uttered.  More than any scream could have though, they woke him from the overwhelming urge which taken hold of his senses.

It all felt silly for a moment until he gazed down the street and saw the figures there.

Figures reaching out to touch the falling snowflakes.

Figures perfectly frozen into clear, crystal ice.

The Calamity of Stone

Not all of the calamities which befell the Earth were present for humans to see. As Byron skipped about the surface of the planet he saw so many empty places, and so many empty people, but always there was a net of connections between them and the ones who were working to stifle his grand acts of Uncreation.

No human stood truly alone, for all that so many were lonely and so many fell without any to catch them. No place was truly empty either. Life, cursed, wretched, abominable life, filled every awful nook and cranny of the planet, from the tops of the highest mountains to the depths of the deepest seas.

“If only I could carve a corner into this ugly blue sphere without any of that,” Byron said ignoring the screaming of the winds and the rage of the oceans. They were trying to tell him something, trying to warn him, at least the ones that he’d claimed as his own were. The rest were shouting meaningless defiance and threats. 

As though anything could be a threat to him anymore.

As though he would let anything or anyone close enough to harm him ever again when he’d discovered how to create such delightful minions.

He dropped a plague of zombies down into the untamed wilds of Miami’s streets and shrugged at the results. People seemed to notice them, but it didn’t really have the impact he was looking for.

He needed to feed the Hunger that was at his core.

The Hunger which called for him to eradicate everything.

Except everything was doing a rather good job at resisting eradication. 

He’d tried to infect their communications network, but had been stymied by the damn thing collapsing. Should he go after the engineers who’d designed it next? It would be fitting, but also futile. Their incompetence had done their work for them in safeguarding the world from him. He needed a new angle, a new position, a new…

He looked down.

A new direction.

Far beneath him the nickel iron core of the planet spun, surrounded by temperatures far beyond anything life could tolerate. Far beyond anywhere a human could reach.

But not beyond him.

Stretching forth his hand, Byron began to call forth a new minion.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 20

Tessa was back in her own body, her very human, very fragile body, and she wasn’t the only one.

“Is your planet normally like this?” a shockingly tall and heavily muscled woman asked in a voice that couldn’t have been anyone other than Yawlorna.

“Only on really bad days.” Lisa’s human form wasn’t a surprise to Tessa. Every time they’d been dead it was the shape Lisa had worn. That fact did absolutely nothing to prevent Tessa’s breath from catching in her throat though. “Come on, we need to get out of this stuff before it chokes us out.”

They were on a sidewalk with a noticeable incline. Worryingly, the smoke seemed to be flowing downhill. Tessa wasn’t an expert on fire safety but she was pretty sure smoke usually went in the opposite direction, so she was delighted when Lisa began leading them uphill from where they’d arrived. Her breath had caught in her throat though because Tessa had a lot more to be delighted about.

Lost Alice was gorgeous, because of course she was. Her appearance was based on a video game character’s, with only mild alterations for individuality and the expression of her personality. Lisa by contrast didn’t have the perfected proportions of her Fallen Kingdoms counterpart or Lost Alice’s flawless skin and amazing hair. What she did have were all the flaws and unique quirks that real people have and in that instant Tessa loved every single one of them. 

Her world was burning, they were running both from and towards disaster, and for a single moment, Tessa felt only a stillness within her and the warmth of Lisa’s hand in hers.

“Please take inventory,” Azma said. She didn’t look anything like her Fallen Kingdoms form either, but she was unmistakable nonetheless. “I don’t believe any of the capabilities you possessed have been lost, but their accessibility may be limited.”

“She’s right,” Obby said. “My 99 levels as a Guardian are offline for now. I think the same will be true for all the rest of you, except maybe for Tessa?”

Tessa had never been able to see her heads up display while in her “human” form so she didn’t have an easy reference to see if her levels were still in effect but when she tried to invoke one her Void Speaker shields, she couldn’t feel anything moving through her.

“Nope. Back to being a regular human here too,” Tessa said, trying to work out where they’d arrived. 

The thick smoke made it hard to pick out landmarks but the shape of skyscrapers in the distance at least confirmed that they were some kind of large city.

“Well this sucks,” said a teenage girl who had to be Rip Shot.

“I’m just glad we all showed up in the same place, not back at our computers,” a teenage boy, obviously Matt Painting from how close he stood to Rip, said.

“That’s a good point. Anybody know where we are?” a middle aged woman with Lady  Midnight’s voice asked.

“Somewhere new,” Starchild said.

Beside her jogged a middle aged guy who looked almost as befuddled as she did.

“Oh, how interesting,” Azma said. “I would so dearly enjoy…no, not the time for curiosity. You have a global communication network. We need to access it.”

“Not a problem,” Hailey said. Unlike most of the others, she wasn’t in casual, ‘just playing around on the computer’ clothes. She was wearing a logo’d polo shirt for Egress Entertainment and with black jeans which more or less screamed ‘Tech Support Rep’, but the important part of the ensemble were the pockets in her jeans. Pockets that held that most holy of modern objects, Hailey’s cell phone. “Or maybe it’s a small problem.”

“No charge?” Tessa guessed.

“No service,” Hailey said. “I getting 4 bars, but it’s not downloading anything.”

“Is it broken?” Rachel asked. In real life she looked nothing like her sister, but as the only other Chinese American girl present, both her voice and the process of elimination made it easy to identify her.

“Probably not,” Lady Midnight said. “Whatever’s happening here probably has the circuits clogged. Pretty standard disaster scenario. Getting out of the city might help but no promises there.”

“Unfortunate,” Azma said. “Not unexpected however. What options can you see for transportation?”

“It’s a city, there’s gotta be cars around her somewhere right?” Rip asked.

Tessa blinked at the incongruity of that. They were definitely in a city. Except they were alone as far as she could tell. No people. No cars. There were alarms blaring but no flashing lights.

This isn’t what it’s supposed to look like, is it? Pillowcase asked, her silent voice as clear as ever in Tessa’s mind.

You’re still here! Tessa said, a weight lifting from her shoulders with each word.

Sort of, Pillowcase said. I don’t have any of my Soul Knight abilities though, and there’s a lot of other things that seem to be broken. I can’t hear the team’s party line at all.

No telepathy on Earth, Tessa said.

Not going to be much help then I guess, Pillowcase said. Still glad to be here though, I was wondering if we’d be split apart and I’d be left back there alone.

I think we’re in this for the long haul, Tessa said, and I think you may be a lot more help than you know.

How?

You’re a lot more than your magic spells. I’ve never been brave enough to really stand up for myself.

Hate to tell you, but I was specifically engineered to not be able to stand up for myself.

Maybe, but look at what we’ve accomplished together? Trust me there’s zero chance I could have done that on my own.

So you’re saying we’re stronger when we’re more fully ourselves?

The results kinda speak for themselves don’t they?

I guess that’ll depend on whether we survive this or not, Pillowcase said with a rueful mirth they both shared.

“Intersection up ahead,”  Lisa said. “We should be able to see the street names at least.”

“Even better, I see a hospital sign,” Lady Midnight said. “If there’s anyone left here, we should be able to find some of them there.”

“There likely will be,” Azma said. “We will be endangering them if we attempt to contact them however.”

“Endangering them how?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Byron either knows of our arrival or will be aware of it shortly,” Azma said. “It’s doubtful he’ll risk a direct confrontation, but he will have disposable minions to dispatch against us.”

“Wait, but we don’t have any powers here,” Rip said.

“And we can’t respawn,” Matt said.

“That’s not entirely true,” Starchild said and held out her hand with a glowing ball of green flame in it.

“Huh?” Obby said. “How did…oh, OH! I see! Clever!”

“Could you fill us in on whatever you just noticed?” Lisa asked.

“As I said, you’re capabilities are not lost, they are simply not easily accessible,” Azma said. “This is typical when moving between Arcanospheres with different fundamental parameters.”

“She’s doing magic here though. That’s not a thing that happens on Earth,” Rachel said.

“Huh, no, I think I get it,” Hailey said.

“You do?” Rachel asked.

“Yeah. We’re not on Earth are we?” Hailey said. “Or, we’re on Earth, but it’s not exactly the Earth we left.”

“It’s mostly the Earth you left,” Obby said.

“Mostly?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah,” Hailey said. “Okay, magic doesn’t exist on Earth right. I mean the wizards throwing fireballs kind of magic.”

“Depends who you talk to but, sure, I’d say that’s a fair statement. Or at least it was before I saw someone literally holding a fireball they were ready to throw,” Lisa said.

“And that’s exactly it! It was a fair statement but it’s not anymore. Think about it. Have you ever personally cast a magic spell on Earth?” Hailey asked.

“No, and not for a lack of trying,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice has been wracking our brain trying to come up with some method of drawing in the mana we need but this body is basically as non-magical as you can get.”

Tessa dearly wanted to disagree with that assessment but it didn’t seem the time or the place to bring the conversation in that direction.

I’ll add it to the ‘demonstrate to her later’ list, Pillowcase whispered to her.

“Is it?” Hailey said, and Tessa saw the mischievous grin that she’d only heard so many times before. “Do you think casting yourself to another world because a distant part of your soul was in peril is a totally normal and mundane sort of action? No magic involved at all?”

“No, but I wasn’t the one who did that,” Lisa said. “Was I?”

“You tell me,” Hailey said. “Lost Alice may have been the one to call, but who was it who answered?”

“We did,” Tessa said, the obviousness of the answer leaving her feeling a little stunned. “When we got there, do you remember we talked about how we could ever trust the person who was responsible for dragging us into a world where we had to fight to survive?”

“That seems like it was a thousand years ago, but yeah, I do,” Lisa said. “And, yeah, I can see how that turned out alright for us, but why would we have done that.

“Because the Fallen Kingdoms needed us,” Hailey said.

“Oh, wait, it’s a lot more than that,” Tessa said. “You heard what Marcus said. The Earth was being attacked by these things and he dragged Byron away to the Fallen Kingdoms. That’s why we answered the call. That’s our quest! It’s not Save the World. It’s the Save the Worlds! We weren’t forced to go to the Fallen Kingdoms. We chose to. To save both worlds!”

“How could we have done that though? I can’t do magic,” Lisa said.

“Of course you can,” Azma said. “You’ve cast countless spells before we arrived here.”

“But that was in the Fallen Kingdoms,” Lisa said. “Wait, Starchild, where are you getting the magic for that from? Lost Alice can’t find any of it.”

“I can feel the soul of the natural world here just as strongly as I could feel it on my world,” Starchild said.

“That’s so weird,” Rip said. “I mean we’ve got plants and stuff here, but we’ve got lightning too and I can’t feel any of the Lord of Storm’s power inside me at all. It doesn’t even sound different when I say Lord of Storms.”

“I can still here Matt’s voice,” Matt or rather his teenage human alter-ego said. 

“Yes, that’s typical as well,” Azma said.

“Since you’ve got experience with this, can you tell us how we find our way back to the power we need for our spells?” Lisa asked.

“It differs in each world,” Azma said. “I can provide some possibilities, but your current status is acting as a cloaking mechanism of sorts.”

“From Byron?” Tessa asked.

“And from everything else he’s brought to this world,” Azma said. “Creatures such as he are drawn to power. That was true when he was no more than a man and has grown only more central to his identity since he devolved into something less.”

“So either we stay powerless and can’t do anything against him, or we figure out the ‘One Weird Trick’ to making magic work on Earth and then a billion monsters come and squish us?” Rip asked.

“I never figured out that trick at all,” Rachel said. “I was only supposed to be temporarily logged in. I have no idea what happened to me at all or how I did it.”

“Really?” Obby said, turning her full attention on Lisa’s sister.

“Uh, yeah, I was able to go back and forth from the Beta server to Earth a few times,” Rachel said. “It wasn’t until I went to the live servers that I got stuck. I think.”

“I think…can I take you to meet someone?” Obby asked.

“Sure, I guess? Is it going to help?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe your situation is unique, but even if it is, I think you might be one of the keys we need to fixing all of this,” Obby said, practically bouncing on her toes.

“We who?” Lisa asked.

“Some friends who’ve been working this problem from a different angle,” Obby said. 

“Don’t we still need to find the other original developers though?” Rip asked.

“Yes, but please, do as she says,” Azma said. “The rest of us will take care of the issues that are within our domain to address.”

Tessa glanced to Lisa who offered a shrug. Obby seemed to know what she was doing and they both remembered her essentially soloing a throne room full of Remnants. Tessa missed their private telepathic channel but the shared glance was able to communicate most of what needed to pass between them.

“Be careful ok!” Rip shouted as Obby led Rachel off at a run into the swirling smoke.

“We still need to connect to the communication network, and to find transportation,” Azma said. “And also to deal with that.”

Tessa followed Azma’s gaze to the ten foot tall mecha that came silently striding around the corner.

No machine that big should have been able to move without making a noise. 

No machine of any size should have disintegrated the edge of the building as it walked through it either.

“Robot!” Matt’s warning was somewhat ironic given his former body but it was Pete who’s words truly chilled Tessa.

“Oh no,” Pete said. “I know what that is. It’s not a bot. That’s a Gray Walker. It’s a nanite swarm.”

“What can it do?” Yawlorna asked.

“Take us apart at a molecular level,” Pete said.

“And how do we stop it?” Starchild asked.

“We don’t.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 19

Azma

It fascinated Azma to watch the [Adventurers] she’d surrounded herself with stumble into an awareness of the decisions they’d long since made.

There was no doubt that they were going to attempt the transit to their home realm. If they’d lacked the conviction for that, they wouldn’t have broken the bonds of time and space to make it as far as they already had. Similarly it was a given that she would accompany them, though amusingly none had thought to question the viability of someone who was wholly unnative to their realm making the journey.

“What about Yawlorna though?” Lady Midnight asked as her young companion Rip moved off to hold a side conversation with the [Nightmare Queen] . “If there’s no alter-ego of hers from Earth for her to transfer into what will happen if she tries to come with us?”

Azma chuckled and corrected herself. The [Adventurers] weren’t wholly witless, just unused to multi-dimensional tactical thinking.

“Maybe we only have the Earthlings go back?” Matt Painting said. He was concerned about the return, not out of fear of the journey but from a dislike of the destination.

Azma toyed with the idea of giving him an “out” by claiming his time for some other venture in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. He would be an excellent asset for a number of possible missions, but that wasn’t the proper use for him.

Matt and all of the others of the little group they’d assembled were going to be far more effective if they remained as a unit.

“The journey will pose no hardship for her,” Azma said and notice the Celestial who was calling herself ‘Obby’ cast a glance over to Azma. 

‘Celestial’ might not be the proper term of course. Azma had never encountered one before, and from what little she’d glimpsed of Obby’s true powers and insight, Azma wasn’t sure if the categorization fit quite perfectly. Celestials were distinct however in that they were a class of being which even the [Consortium of Pain] refused to have dealings with. 

Where capturing a [Transcendent Entity] that could break all manner of physical laws and corrupt an entire fleet through data channels no wider than a whisper was seen as a perfectly viable resource for the Consortium to exploit, the standard mandate on Celestials was not only to leave them alone, but to abandon any systems they took an interest in. 

That would have been enough to put a smile on Azma’s face. If she’d been looking to climb any further in the Consortium’s hierarchy, the presence of a Celestial in the midst of a ruined mission would have absolved her of all guilt and changed her credit balance to ‘anything you can cleanly retrieve will put you in the black’. 

Azma was done with the Consortium though. Even if they survived, they had nothing left to offer her. True, she’d sunk years of her life into carefully gathering power and maneuvering within the confines of the system the Consortium had constructed but the end goal, though unstated, had always been the Consortium’s destruction at her hands. The only other stable end state was her demise and since that was laughably implausible, the Consortium had always and only been a gauntlet through which Azma knew she must pass to hone her abilities before creating her own all encompassing structure of power.

“How do you know she’ll be okay?” Obby asked.

“She is no more a native of this realm than I am,” Azma said. “Translation between realms can take many different forms, and I make no guarantee that any who choose to make the transit back to the Earth will retain their form or functions, but pathways and bridges between realms tend to be far more stable than is statistically likely. It is almost as though worlds that can touch on one another desire to be in communion rather than standing alone in the cosmos.”

Yawlorna looked like she was going to ask for clarification on that but was interrupted by a thundering flash of lightning that burst into the throne room and rose to stand as an entity of living electricity.

Azma smiled, and checked off the next box on her holographic project plan. The [Lord of Storms] had shown up almost exactly on time and with the minimal amount of predicted fuss, even in the presence of a Celestial!

There were several points she had laid out which she was not looking forward too, but, for now, the fact that they were marching towards their doom was a truly uplifting one

Marcus

The [Lord of Storms] arrived with a blast of lightning and a burst of thunder. Neither of those blew Marcus away as much as the words they spoke next though.

“It’s just Sam now. Wait. Gail?” the [Lord of Storms] said and then kneeled before her. “Or should I say ‘My Queen’! Either way, I am yours!”

“Sam!?” Marcus said, as though after everything else he’d seen and done that was the  most surprising thing he’d encountered all day. “Sam Greenweir? Is that seriously you?”

The [Lord of Storms], the once-again living god of lightning, turned to Marcus and threw up their hands as though to give him a giant hug. “Marcus? You made a cat boy character at last!? Oh my god! Why didn’t you tell me!”

Marcus grimaces and leaned back from the lightning hug before breaking into a smile and laugh along with the [Lord of Storms] and the [Nightmare Queen].

 “I’m sorry. What? Why? I mean, you all know each other? How?” Tessa said.

Marcus glanced over and had to stifle another laugh. Tessa was in her human form but could have been a [Metal Mechanoid] from how close she was to short circuiting.

“Oh wow,” Rip said. “That really worked.”

She was saved from hitting the throne room floor by Matt’s presence and quick reflexes.

“I don’t understand how you’re here?” the [Nightmare Queen] said.

“Yeah. Not real clear on that either. Though, wow is it cool to be a god! I’ve got so much energy now! This is amazing!” the [Lord of Storms] said.

“Hey, this isn’t fair,” Hailey said. “Why aren’t their god powers making them glitch out like I was?” 

“They are safely removed from the constraints of the mundane realm we were previously in,” Azma said.

“Oh. OH!” Tessa said. “Marcus…”

“Yep! Thinking the same thing,” Marcus said.

“Which is?” Hailey asked.

“If it’s safe to have admin level access here, then we can risk bringing more of the support staff over,” Marcus said.

“Hold off on that,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “You’re not wrong in that assertion but support reps won’t translate as much more than [Demigods] or [Supreme Spirits]. They would be more powerful than any [Adventurers] but what we’ve lost already is far more fundamental to the realms than that.”

“You need the other [Creators] back,” Tessa said. “You need your old development team back!”

“Is that doable?” Lost Alice asked.

“In theory? Sure,” the [Lord of Storms] said. “If someone could call them like this brilliant young woman did for me, all of the old [Creators] could be reawoken. In practice though?”

“We would need people here who were faithful to the dead gods and hit max level in a god-sponsored class?” Tessa said.

“Or, there is another option,” Azma said.

“You know, listening to the expansion’s villain seems like a terrible idea, but under the circumstances, we just don’t really have a choice do we?” Marcus said.

“Would you expect me to arrange things in any other manner?” Azma asked.

“Team Azma,” Hailey said, bopping Marcus on the shoulder, to which he just shook his head at the debate they’d been having since the [World Shift] expansion was first announced internally.

“What’s our other option?” Tessa asked.

“Calling replacement deities to this realm requires tremendous affinity with them because the call must reach out across the spheres and find the Earth based fragment of the god in question. Far easier to simply go to the Earth and contact the fragments there,” Azma said.

“And they’ll be able to transfer here on their own?” Yawlorna asked.

“It seems to be a gift which residents of the Earth realm possess,” Azma said.

“Not normally we don’t,” Lady Midnight said.

“These aren’t exactly normal times,” Lost Alice said.

“Will that help you?” Tessa asked. “Will it be enough?”

“Yes it will help, but whether it will be enough I can’t say.” The [Nightmare Queen] had begun pacing in her throne room, in exactly the same pattern Gail used when she was chewing on a particularly tough problem. “The more of the old team you can get, the more we’ll be able to shore up the metaphysical boundaries and barriers which have been damaged, but nothing like this has ever happened or was ever planned to happen. There’s no roadmap for any of this.”

Yawlorna

Being in the middle of a disaster was calming for Yawlorna’s nerves. 

She knew she should worry about that.

After so much time worrying about her crew, and the bizarre inhabitants of the alien world they’d been stranded on, and the radical changes she was undergoing, Yawlorna found she was all out of worry, and with the world properly falling apart she could relax and stop waiting for disaster to strike.

It was already striking!

So it was time to strike it back.

“It looks like our path is open,” she said, gesturing to the far end of the throne room where a stream of stars in the floor lead to a brilliant and impossible distant point of light. “We need to figure out who’s going now.”

“All of us, right?” Marcus said. “Gods excluded obviously.”

“If you could stay that might help,” the [Lord of Storms] said. “We need a liaison back to Earth and in this state I don’t know how much connection to it I have anymore.”

“Won’t they need me to find the rest of the original dev team?” Marcus asked

“I got you covered there,” Hailey said. “I didn’t work with them like you do, but I’ve got access to the company directory and I have zero compunctions about hacking HR to find out their last known contact addresses.”

“You can’t ‘hack HR’ Hailey. We actually have decent security on those systems,” Marcus said.

“Oh, I mean ‘hack’ like with an axe,” Hailey said. “If Gilbert tries to give me trouble I will enjoy so much getting my revenge for those late paycheck deposits.”

“Uh, okay then,” Marcus said and stepped back towards the safety of the being made entirely of lightning.

“Are you sure you want to come Yawlorna?” Tessa asked. “You’ve done a ton for us already, and we originally invited you to join us to keep you safe, not drag you across the cosmos to fight some guy from the other side of the Twilight Zone.”

“I don’t know where that is, but of course I’m going to come with you,” Yawlorna said. “I know I look like a [Demon] to you, but I’m not. I’m an [Explorer]. I’m supposed to seek out new life and new civilizations. Taking bold risks is a part of that.”

“When this is all over, remind me to sign up with your crew,” Marcus said.

“Neeerd,” Hailey said and hit him again.

“That’s Ensign Nerd to you,” Marcus said.

“Is there anything special we need to do?” Rip asked.

“And do we know where it’s going to drop us off?” Rachel asked.

“Given that we are the first to walk this path, I suspect there’s only one method of discovering its destination,” Yawlorna said and placed her feet on the milky way of stars leading outwards towards infinity.

She’d expected she would need to cross the endless gulf one step after the other and that time would blur around her. Instead the distant stars surged forward at her so fast that they flared into a billion explosions so bright that the light filled her very bones.

Her second footstep landed not on the path of stars but on hard, night darkened ground in a world where the air was filled with a thick and billowing smoke.

Behind her, she heard the others stumbling and choking as they arrived.

On an Earth that was already burning.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 18

Tessa

Gail Merriden had never been Tessa’s friend. Tessa knew that. The [Nightmare Queen] wasn’t a comforting, friendly entity. Tessa knew that too. She was able to rationally assert both statements with her big, rational mind. Her heart however had other ideas.

“What do we need to do next?” she asked, a hope rising in her that she hadn’t known she’d been missing since she arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms].

She wasn’t friends with Gail or with the [Nightmare Queen], but as a fairly unhappy teen, she’d latched onto the stories of Gail Merriden’s work on [Broken Horizons] and elevated her to a position of near-sainthood. It was neither reasonable, nor healthy, and the dozen years that had passed since then had done a fair job of giving her the maturity to see that, but the fourteen year old inside her still cheered at the prospect of meeting one of her oldest hero figures.

“I have no idea,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “She must know though.” A nod towards Obby indicating the ‘she’ in question.

Tessa blinked at that? Obby? Why would the [Nightmare Queen] defer to Obby?

Because Obby had destroyed Gulini Prime’s Oblivion Remnants and left the man himself a shatter, and purely mortal wreck, whimpering at the foot of the stairs to the [Nightmare Queen’s] throne.

But?

Tessa’s mind went fuzzy when she tried to connect more of the details and probe that idea deeper.

“Sorry there,” Obby said, and the fuzziness diminished. “She’s right that I could get us back to Earth, but I don’t think I have to here.”

“What do you mean?” Rip asked. She was shaking her head to clear away the last wisps of fuzziness.

“Oh, I see,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “She’s right.”

“Gail? Could you dial back the cryptic to about a 3? Or maybe a 2? This has been a really hard sixty eight hour day so far,” Marcus said.

“Sorry Marcus,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “You being here has opened a new pathway beyond the [Fallen Kingdoms]. It was something I had envisioned long ago, back when we were first laying out the original quest trees.”

“You were going to put in a quest where the characters traveled to Earth?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Not specifically. It was more an idea for what the final quest of the whole game could be,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. She gestured and the ruins of her throne room began to slide and fly back into place, each broken bit of rubble fitting itself neatly into the walls and columns it had fallen from. 

As the floor was swept clean a tableau appeared in the dark mirror of its surface.

“I thought that if we ever wanted to move the players onto a new generation of the game, we should give them a quest to bring their characters from the old world to the new one. Nobody wanted to put in the effort to do that of course. Why bother planning for a sequel when you don’t even have the original released and no one is sure if it’ll even be good enough to get out of beta testing in the first place.”

Tessa knew why though.

“You loved this place even then, didn’t you?” she asked. “And you knew we would too.”

“I hoped,” Gail said. “In the end, it was all I really had left to hope for.”

Lisa

Playing “Ask Me Anything” with a cosmic entity who was also her favorite game designer of all time seemed delightful to Lisa. As with so many other desires though,she had to crush the urge down. For as much as she would like to, she couldn’t ignore the ticking clock of the world’s end.

“We can access the final quest path then and direct it towards Earth? Where does it start?” Lisa asked.

“Wait, before we ask that, if it’s the ‘Final Quest Path’, does that mean we wouldn’t be able to come back here if we take it?” Rip asked.

“Coming back to the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be impossible,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “Or that’s what the quest was supposed to tell you. It’s a path though. If you can travel it in one direction you can travel it in the other.”

“There’s a catch though,” Obby said. “The [Fallen Kingdoms] are ending as we speak. Gulini Prime wasn’t kidding when he said he unleashed a thousand apocalypses on it. If we leave here, there probably won’t be a [Fallen Kingdoms] to come back to.”

“And if we don’t leave here?” Tessa asked. “Byron’s gone to Earth. Will we be safe here if we don’t stop him there?”

“No,” Obby said. “Definitely not. If Earth falls every world connected it is going to fall along with it.”

“Not much of a choice then,” Lisa said. “There’s a lot of other [Adventurers] fighting for the [Fallen Kingdoms]. We’re the only ones here.”

Tessa took Lisa’s hand and laced their fingers together.

“She’s right,” Tessa said and Lisa could feel her gathering her strength. “But there’s a lot of danger if  we go back. We’ve been fighting here because we knew we couldn’t really die. If we go back to Earth though?”

“There’s no [Heart Fires] back on Earth,” Hailey said. “No respawning if we die.”

“And we don’t know who or what we’ll even be if we can get there,” Tessa said. “We might be stuck in our Earthling bodies. Maybe with only our Earthling minds too. We might not have anything more to fight with there than any regular person would. In fact, that might be all that we are there. Just regular people.”

“But you’re still going,” Rip said. It wasn’t a question at all.

Tessa glanced to Lisa and met her gaze. A quiet resolve lay in Tessa’s eyes. She knew what they needed to do. Lisa did too. Tessa wasn’t looking for permission. She didn’t need it. She was simply honoring a commitment she’d made. She’d promised Lisa that she wouldn’t run off on her own. Wouldn’t hurl herself into danger alone. The soft, lingering gaze was the fulfillment of that promise. Tessa had to go, but she wasn’t going to leave. 

Love was too easy a response to that. Lisa knew she was already hopelessly drowning in a sea of love for Tessa. Somehow though there was still room for new emotions to rise up in her, and in this case, that turned out to be pride.

So many fears had been nibbling away at Lisa’s heart but in the face of Tessa’s calm courage, Lisa felt pride crush them all. Tessa was right that they had to go, and Lisa was going to follow her no matter where their path lead. Her expression seemed to convey enough of that to Tessa but Lisa added a quiet nod just to make it certain.

“Yeah. We’re both going,” Tessa said, squeezing Lost Alice’s hand.

“You’re wrong,” Rip said, shaking her head. “About being normal people, and about why we’ve been fighting.”

“Not being able to die for real was nice,” Matt said. “But all the times you lead us into battle it was because it was the right thing to do. Even those first bugs we took on. You fought those because you knew Rose and me needed to be stronger to safe here and you didn’t want us to really get hurt.”

“You’ve always cared about us, so don’t you think for a second that we’re not coming with you,” Rip said.

“And you’re also wrong about us only being able to fight like normal people there,” Marcus said. “I dragged Byron back here once already and I bet that’s something he’s going to remember real well. Especially if he used up his last ticket back to Earth already.”

Jamal

A part of Jamal wished Rose had argued against going back. A part of him had no interest in returning to Earth, ever. And a part of him didn’t want to die and absolutely did not want to see Rose die.

Plus there was Matt Painting. 

I have to admit I’m curious if I’ll get to come along for the ride, Matt said internally.

I really hope so, Jamal said. I need you man.

Need? Nah I don’t think so, Matt said. I think you’re a lot stronger than I am. But that doesn’t mean you should have to face anything alone, and I will definitely be there for you if I can be.

“I wish to join you as well,” Starchild said. “If that proves to be possible.”

“What will happen with her and Pete?” Tessa asked turning to Obby.

Obby paused for a moment, staring out into the middle distance.

“I don’t know? Neat!” she said after a quick blink to refocus on the group.

“Seriously?” Tessa asked and Jamal had an inkling of why she was having a hard time believing that.

Obby had removed all the monsters that had been waiting for them, all on her own. She’d claimed that it was because she didn’t have to hold back ‘out here’. For just the barest instant too, Jamal had caught a glimpse of what Obby really was.

All of that should have been mind blowingly important.

But it wasn’t.

Obby was strong. Okay. Fine. He already knew that. He could feel a subtle pressure directing his thoughts away from questioning too much deeper into that. It wasn’t mind control though. When he focused on the question of who, or maybe more importantly what, Obby really was, he saw the holes in his knowledge, but was also able to put together a picture of her that held enough of the important truths about her that the rest didn’t matter as much. 

She was their friend. She would fight for them. She was funny, and kind, and she loved being who she was. She was also keeping things from them, but Jamal had the sense that even that was being done out of love.

“Yeah,” Obby said. “There are a ton of possible outcomes, and I can’t tell which one will become real. Heh, Jin is going to be so jealous. This is a rare delight!”

“Uh, the world is still ending right?” Rose asked.

“Oh, yeah, right. Sorry,” Obby said. “I think they’ll be okay, for a wide variety of possible ‘okays’. I think that’ll probably be true for all of us.”

She nodded to Jamal and he had to wonder if she’d heard the private conversation he’d had with Matt Painting?

Rose

They were going back to Earth. Rose could see the path starting to form at the end of the hall, past the starscape that blazed on the floor below them. 

That meant it was time. Any longer and her voice wouldn’t be able to reach far enough.

“Uh, Your Majesty?” Rose said, unsure what the proper title for the supreme being of the [Nightmare Realm] might be.

“Yes?” the [Nightmare Queen] said, turning to Rip without really looking at her, Obby having engulfed most of her awareness with Marcus occupying the majority of the remainder. 

“I think I brought someone for you,” Rose said.

“Something? For me?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked, carving off a thin slice of awareness for her.

“Someone,” Rose corrected her. “They’re dead but I don’t think that’s a problem here.”

“Rose?” Jamal asked, concern and confusion warring in his voice.

Rose couldn’t blame him. She told him about the [Lightning Archer] class she’d developed. She’d explained the link she felt to the [Lord of Storms] and how she hoped that her belief could serve as an anchor to bring the dead god back to life. Listening to her theorize about resurrecting a deity was one thing though. Watching her do so was something else entirely.

“Who is this someone?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked, far more of her attention falling on Rose.

“I think they can help,” Rose said. “You know them right? They were on your team when you built this place.”

“Who?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked and the world seemed to drop away leaving only the Queen and Rose within it.

Except Rose wasn’t alone before the [Nightmare Queen].

“It’s time,” Rose said. “We need you now.”

She didn’t scream the words. She didn’t whisper them. She simply spoke them with every ounce of truth inside her and with each one she felt the world expanding around her as the words reached out, seeking their destination, seeking to the edge of the sky, to the stars, and out, far beyond the edges of reality, across a gulf of light, calling to someone she carried in her heart and who was worlds away.

From beyond the farthest reaches, from the world she’d once called home, a voice, surprised, afraid, and yet awoken to the destiny Rose summoned them to answered.

“I AM CALLED BY MY FAITHFUL,” the [Lord of Storms] said, manifesting as a bolt of golden electricity. “LET THE REFUGE OF DEATH SHELTER ME NO MORE! I LIVE AGAIN!”

The [Nightmare Queen] stared at the god before her and took a long moment drinking in the sight of them.

“Samantha? Is that you?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked.

“It’s just Sam now. Wait. Gail?” the [Lord of Storms] said and then kneeled before her. “Or should I say ‘My Queen’! Either way, I am yours!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 17

Baelgritz

Baelgritz was standing at the end of the world. Under usual circumstances that would have been a metaphor, but the chasm in front of him was doing a very good job of presenting a literal depiction of the world’s demise.

“They’re even eating the magma?” Damnazon asked pointing to the [Terravorlings] that were piling up at the bottom of crater that had been torn in the world’s skin. 

“The question is what happens if they burrow down to the core?” Mellisandra asked.

“I don’t think we’d be around to see that,” Illuthiz said. “These things aren’t gaining volume when they eat. Not like their progenitor,” she pointed to the spikey spherical corpse of the  [Nightmare Terravore] that still floated in the sky above the ruined landscape. The corpse they’d spent the last several hours battling into its current state. The corpse a steady stream of world eating maggots was pouring down from. “No volume gain means that if they eat to the core, their gravitational force along with the the rest of the planet is going to pull everything into the space they ate through, which is going to shatter the entire crust and plunge everything into a sea of lava. Until they eat all of that too.”

“That just does not seem fair,” Cambrell said. “When you kill something it should have the decency to at least stop reproducing.”

“Nothing about these things is even within the same light cone as decency,” Hermeziz said. 

“Cheer up though, Grenslaw says we’re one of the lucky groups,” Baelgritz added.

“How are we lucky? We’ve got no mp left and those things are breeding like crazy still,” Cease All said. She and the rest of the Army of Light were recovering from the battle with the [Nightmare Terravore] as best as they were able but some of the creatures attacks had left them with unhealable wounds, or stat reductions that even trips through the [Heart Fire] couldn’t repair.

“The lucky part is that, while there’s a lot of these things, they’re capable of dying,” Baelgritz said. “Some of things Penswell’s teams are fighting don’t do that.”

“So they’re invulnerable?” Cease said. “That’s not exactly unheard of. Probably just need to find their mechanics.”

“That’s one theory. The [Scourge of Serpents] is the nearest one,” Illuthiz said. “Grenslaw asked if we could teleport there and help figure out what the mechanic could be.”

“Teleport with what? We’re wrecked here,” Cease said, and at least a dozen of her comrades nodded in agreement.

“I explained that, and explained that we have an ongoing problem here still,” Illuthiz said.

“Yeah, too few of us and far too many of them,” Damnazon said.

“Thought that was every day that ends in ‘y’ for an [Adventurer],” Cambrell said.

“It is, but this feeling different,” Mellisandra said.

Below them, the [Terravorlings] stubbornly refused to burn up in the lava like good little world destroying maggots were supposed to. From the insatiable manner in which they torn into the molten rock, their original nature as spawns of a [Relentless Hunger] was readily apparent. Baelgritz  had to wonder though if any of the Hunger’s drive towards oblivion remained. Eating the world’s core would cause it’s destruction in the distressingly short term, and they could theoretically eat the rest of it if given time, but given how the [Terravorlings] were moving it looked like they were taking pains not to devour each other.

“Saving each other for dessert?” Cambrell offered when Baelgritz shared his observation.

“Could be, but what happens to the last one?” Baelgritz asked, feeling like that was a more important question than it should be.

Melissa

Feral Fang was exhausted. [Jormungand] was supposed to be the name of a specific mythological beast, not a species name.

“Fish us up another one! The ocean’s draining away faster than ever!” Niminay said.

Below them, the tide had sunk another ten feet down the cliff face from where Melissa was perched with her [Compliant Rod].

“Have you gotten the [Bottle of Eternal Sweetwater] out of the last one yet?” Melissa asked, replacing the one hundred and one enchantments on the [Compliant Rod] so that it could even begin to withstand the beyond absurd levels of force it was going to have to endure once again.

“Nope,” Niminay said. “The dungeon inside the last one is even bigger than the one before it. The team that went in to get the bottle is still working through it. Is there anything else you can work with?”

“Yeah,” Feral Fang said. “Pure skill.”

Her cast wasn’t a thing of beauty. She had precisely zero interest in looking graceful or showing off. All that mattered was pure efficiency.

The lure she used was an illusion, a bit of magic woven around itself to attract the eye and ensnare the mind of her target. Despite the tight focus on who the lure was designed to attract, Feral Fang still cast it a good ten miles out into the ocean to be sure she didn’t inadvertently captivate her allies. In theory fishing magic only worked on creatures that swam in the deeps, but Feral Fang was overcharging techniques that only the very highest tier of fishers were capable of attempting. If she’d messed up the luring spell she was pretty sure it would detonate with the force of a small atomic bomb.

It was only somewhat distressing that an explosion of that size would barely scuff a [Jormungand’s] hide.

“Any idea how many more of these things there are?” Melissa asked, feeling the ten mile long line go taut almost the instant she sensed the lure plunge into the ocean.

“The good news is they don’t seem to be breeding new ones,” Niminay said. “Not anymore at least.”

“Not anymore? How long were they breeding for?” Melissa asked.

“Uh, are you sure you want to know the answer to that?” Niminay asked.

“Want to? Oh definitely not. Need to? Yeah. Probably,” Melissa said, unable to keep the heavy sigh from her voice.

“We sent a team to [Subaquatica]. Penny hoped it would make a good observation platform,” Niminay said.

“That’s like twenty miles away? Could they see anything from there?” Melissa asked.

“Not exactly? [Subaquatica’s] gone. The [Jormungand Breeding Grounds] covers the whole area now.”

Grunvan

It felt good to be driving a wagon again. After the fuss and bother of the last several days, having a nice simple assignment that was well within her wheelhouse put a broad happy smile on Grunvan’s face.

“We’re out of [Sky Scorcher Missiles] up here. Pass me another crate of them!” Argwin said as she tossed the last of their loaded [Inferno Cannons] to their [Octopire] friend Kolovin.

Yep. Just a nice, normal wagon delivery.

“I think those [Soul Shriekers] up ahead are trying to rot the bridge out before we can get there too by the way,” Argwin said. “You know, just in case you hadn’t noticed the explosions an such.”

Grunvan had, in fact, noticed the explosions. She also saw how the aforementioned [Soul Shrieks] were distorting the air out a twenty yard radius from the bridge. It was of course possible that the distortion would give them a nice massage and maybe do a little exfoliation to clear their pores. Magic was funny like that. Just because it was bending solid metal and causing wood to age into dust before her eyes didn’t mean that it would be bad or harmful for them, right? 

She tossed another [Inferno Cannon] from the box she’d been using as a wagon seat back to Kolovin. It joined the other three that the [Octopire] was wielding and together the quad-array of Consortium heavy ordnance weapons looked like they would be enough to push back the [Wraithwing Assault] long enough for Grunvan and her crew to reach the bridge.

Where they would either plummet to their death or be corpsified by the [Soul Shriekers].

The alternative, however, was worse.

Death had come to the [Fallen Kingdoms], or, more precisely, [Death Shadows]. Creatures that could inhabit anyone’s shadow and instantly drain the life from them, before peeling their shadow away and stalking away as a dozen copies to do the same to anyone even slightly touched by darkness. 

Penswell had passed on the good news in a rather hasty conference. Apparently the world was falling apart in a variety of places and thanks to the actions of a staggering assortment of different enemies, and Penny had the [Adventuring Parties] out dealing with the different threats. 

All of them. 

Every [Adventuring Party] in the world. 

Even the ones who hadn’t taken up arms against the [Consortium of Pain].

And, they weren’t enough.

That was why Grunvan was barreling down a shattered road in a the makeshift remains of a stolen Consortium wagon, being pulled by [Lava Demons] who mostly seemed to understand the commands she was giving them, while being pursued by a flight of [Wraithwings] sufficient to blacken the sky on what should have been a bright and sunny day.

Why the [Wraithwings] had shown up was something of a mystery. As far as Grunvan knew, they weren’t allies of the Consortium and shouldn’t have had any particular interest in the critters that were trying to end the world. [Wraithwings] could die the same as anything else, and the [Death Shadows] didn’t seem picky about who or what they stole the life from.

So far as Grunvan could tell the only reason the [Death Shadows] hadn’t swarmed over them as the [Wraithwings] blotted out the sun was the fear of the [Sun Bombs] her team had stocked the back of the wagon with.

Bombs made for terrible defensive tools but, with the stockpile they were sitting on, Grunvan guessed the [Death Shadows] within a couple hundred miles wouldn’t exactly be able to gloat over their victory.

Kamie Anne Do

Grace was deader than dead. She was okay with that though. They’d been doing good work. Hunting the [Disjoined] down into the deepest reaches of the [Dead Lands]. Developing new skills and even new classes, and putting an end to nightmares she’d never even imagined existed before.

And she’d gotten to scritch a [Hound of Fate] behind the ears.

It had nuzzled her hand in response, and if that was all she really accomplished in her life, that was fine. Good life. A+ score. Met the victory conditions and she could retire in peace.

Except, no matter how tired she and her team were, there was no rest to be had.

“Is it a bad sign that we don’t look like we used to?” Battler X asked, holding up a hand that was no longer a ghostly image of a human hand but rather a chalk white and disturbingly solid appendage with joints spaced noticeably off from where they should have been.

“That’ll depend on whether we can change back to how we used to look once we get back to the [Heart Fire],” Buzz Fightyear said.

“If we can get back to the [Heart Fire],” Grail Force said. “I don’t know about you all, but I lost track of where the path back home was about three layers of the [Emptiness] ago.”

Kamie turned to Grail, her unliving breath caught in her throat..

“I’m sorry. The what?” she asked.

“The [Emptiness],” Grail repeated.

“Why does that sound like a real term?” Battler asked.

“Because it is” Buzz said. “Where did you hear it?”

“I didn’t,” Grail said. “Check your map.”

“This area doesn’t have a map,” Kamie said.

“Right, but look up at the breadcrumb,” Grail said. “The region is still listed.”

“The [Emptiness]? But I thought we were in the [Dead Lands],” Buzz said.

“We were,” Kamie said. “We definitely were. But we chased those things so far. When did we get here? I mean when did the region change?”

“I don’t know,” Grail said. “I noticed a couple of drops ago. Was going to call it out, but we’ve sort of had other things to worry about.”

“I don’t get it though,” Battler said. “This place isn’t empty. The Hounds are here, and we fought those gray hydra things, and the [Disjoined] came here for something right?”

“They did,” Kamie said. “The whole time, they weren’t just running from us. They were running towards something.”

“So how is this place empty then?” Battler asked.

“Can’t you tell?” Grail asked. “Look around. The gray hydra followed us here. The buildings are reflections from our memories. Even the [Disjoined] didn’t last. They were finally falling apart when we got to the last of them. There’s no one here. No people. No ghosts. This isn’t a place for the dead. This is a place for no one.”