Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 5

Balegritz

Science can be a cruel and merciless master. Many grad students have been lost in the sea of unpublishable papers, and many full time researchers have been devoured by the ever-consuming beast that is writing grant applications. For all the many horrors and hardships which await any who are foolish enough to dedicate their lives to such a unrelenting master though, so to are there the sweet moments which pay off the struggle and strife with delightful new discoveries.

“This is incredible,” Balegritz said a full minute after the experiment began.

“It’s not possible,” Hermeziz said. “You can’t have made this. But it’s here. Or maybe I’ve finally snapped and this is a delusion I’ve conjured as sanity departs.”

“It’s not a delusion,” Illuthiz said. “Or no. It’s definitely a delusion. Give me your slice and I’ll save you from it.”

“Absolutely not,” Hermeziz said, holding the half finished slice of pie away from the others. “I love you more than my own soul but I will fight you for this.”

“And that would be why we brought two pies rather than just the slices,” Lost Alice said.

“You know it would be this good?” Balegritz asked, exercising all of his willpower to savor the delicacy on his plate a single bite at a time.

“Nope,” Lost Alice said, looking to the two [Cooks] for confirmation. “I mean, I know Hammy Burglar and Vinyard are amazing [Cooks] but none of us were sure if that would translate properly for your people.”

“Our physiologies are surprisingly different,” Illuthiz said. “From what we’ve talked about with Lady Midnight and a few others, none of you seem to have a Pralac system, or a anything like a Enzodrine gland. By [Gothmorn] standards, your blood pressures seem to be dangerously low and you subsist on so few calories a [Gothmorn] would require hospitalization after a week of living like you do.”

“But we can eat the same things that they can,” Hermeziz said. “It’s fascinating in terms of mapping out a section of the map of life’s landscape no one had pursued before.”

Balegritz was tempted to step in. Hermeziz had found one of his favorite topics. It was one of the few things that drew him out of his shell around strangers. The problem was putting him back in there before he drove his audience away entirely.

Except in this case he seemed to have found a ready listener.

Three of them in fact.

“I want to compare notes with you on the physiology of your people,” Lost Alice said. “And I want to get some of the [Half-Giants] in on that conversation too.”

“Oh, I haven’t spoken with them yet either,” Hermeziz said. “Do you know if their metabolisms are closer to ours or yours?”

“My metabolism is explicitly magical,” Lost Alice said. “[Vampires], at least ones of my [Bloodline], can’t exist without ambient magic in the environment. Not for long at any rate. I’m guessing you mean the species I was before I became a [Vampire] though, in which case, I don’t know. Up until recently, I didn’t have both access to [Half-Giants] and the expertise required to understand what the variations in their physiology might mean.”

Balegritz felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Illuthiz beside him with a second piece of pie. 

“Let him have his fun,” she said. “More pie for us.”

“I’m so glad you like it,” Hammy Burglar the [Cook] said. “We were afraid that because you need different nutrients than we do, your taste buds might be too far removed from ours for us to make sense of what spices would agree with you.”

“We didn’t have anything to model the flavor on, so it was a lot of guesswork,” Vinyard the [Cook] said. “But we were able to deconstruct some of your food bars to make sure it was at least safe and vaguely palatable.”

“This is more than vaguely palatable,” Balegritz said, through a mouth stuffed full of pie.

“You’ve precisely recreated the Korzon Berry Pie recipe from Gardels,” Illuthiz said.

“That’s one of the best restaurants on our world,” Balegritz explained to cut through the confusion that was creeping across Hammy and Vinyard’s faces. “The waiting list for it got so long that people were booking reservations a decade out.”

“How do you know what its food tastes like then?” Vinyard asked.

“They were having riots outside the front door every night when they opened and they got tired of that so they bought out the entire block they were on and turned it into one large venue. I think it seats something like fifty thousand people or something ridiculous like that.”

“And their food still’s good?” Hammy asked.

“There are claims that its better now,” Illuthiz said. “Their food science division has made some revolutionary discoveries, and since they import in such incredible quantities now, they’re able to create mixtures that achieve consistent flavors that do precisely what they want them too.”

“People say it’s ridiculous what they’ve done and that food preparation doesn’t work how they claim it does,” Balegritz said. “They say everything Gardels does has prove that magic exists.”

“Maybe you’ve proven otherwise though?” Illuthiz asked. “Or did the creation of this require mystical abilities?”

“There weren’t any spells used in making the pies,” Hammy said. “I’m not sure that magic wasn’t involved though.”

“In what sense or manner?” Illuthiz asked between bites of pie.

“Being able to cook like this?” Vinyard said. “None of us could make anything like this a couple of days ago.”

“Some of that can be chalked up to the leveling system here,” Hammy said. “Wizards learn new spells by leveling and I’ve heard them saw it’s like the new incantation just pops into their heads the moment they level or spend their bonus points.”

“The same is true for warrior-types,” Vinyard said. “Except there it’s not necessarily spells, but abilities. Things they just know to do. Even things that must draw on magic to work.”

“For example?” Balegritz asked.

“An [Assassin] isn’t a spellcasting class,” Hammy said. “They’re a [Melee DPS] but they have abilities like [Strike from the Shadows] which lets them step into one shadow and out another one. It’s clearly a magical ability. It even has the same visual effect as the spell [Shadow Step], and yet it just pops up in the head the moment they level.”

“I see,” Illuthiz said, her professional curiosity overcoming her apparent need for more pie. “So you are surmising something similar may be true for your culinary skills?”

“It’s possible,” Hammy said. “I think at this point, we don’t know how any of this really works, and our belief that some classes use magic and the rest don’t doesn’t quite line up with what we’ve been seeing.”

“Which means more of you might have access to magic than you know,” Balegritz said. “And you might be able to do a lot more with it than you have been.”

“More of us might have access to magic,” Hammy said.

“That’s the other part of the experiment we had in mind,” Vinyard said. “Our hypothesis is that you have magic too, and we think we know how to prove it.”

Claire

Seeing the same excitement, the exact same excitement, on the face of two entirely different people was disconcerting. Except, Claire reminded herself, they were not entirely different people. Tessa and Glimmerglass were as much two different facets of the same person as she and Lady Midnight were. Perhaps even moreso, since Tessa and Glimmerglass had shared a single body for a while according to the story Rip had relayed of their adventurers in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].

“This is amazing! There are other people who are divided like us! I wasn’t even sure that was possible,” Tessa said.

“I was afraid that might be one of the origin points for the [Disjoined],” Glimmerglass said.

“We don’t know for sure yet that it is possible,” Pete said. “All we know at the moment is that there’s someone who’s claiming to be Wrath Raven. Not that they’re the real deal.”

“That should be easy enough to work out,” Glimmerglass said. “The message didn’t give you anywhere to meet her, or any other contact information besides her mail address, right?”

“Yeah. It’s weird. I’m still not seeing her when I look at my friend’s list or in any of the channels I know she should be,” Claire said.

“Which doesn’t seem like a great sign,” Pete said.

“Eh, there’s a bunch of possible explanations for that,” Tessa said. “Like Glimmerglass said though, you’ve got her mail address, so write back to her. Ask where she is and where she’d want to meet.”

“I understand being reluctant about reaching out,” Glimmerglass said. “If Tessa and Pillowcase hadn’t turned out to be real, I think the loneliness of missing them might have been overwhelming.”

“I haven’t felt that yet though,” Claire said. “If anything I feel a bit guilty about not looking for Wrath sooner.”

“And for being content as we were,” Lady Midnight said. “It was comfortable to not have the weight of the world on our shoulders like I’m sure Wrath Raven has.”

“She was part of the fighting against the Consortium I take it?” Tessa asked.

“I don’t know,” Lady Midnight paused and when she resumed it was Claire who spoke. “With how I always played her, I can’t imagine she’d hold back from something like that but…I don’t know, what if she’s not like that?”

“Then you’ll learn more about yourself than you imagined you would,” Glimmerglass said, placing a hand on Lady Midnight’s forearm.

Vixali

It was irksome when one’s lieutenant was correct. Vixali felt marvelously restored, the fresh blood coursing through her veins a gift potent enough to allow her to face the mad beasts that awaited her above.

Pausing at the door, she cast a glance back to Qiki who was sprawled on the sleeping furs, lost in a contented sleep with the most infuriating smirk on her pale lips.

Vixali didn’t have it in herself to even pretend that she might order Qiki to rise and atten her. Sleep was the minimum reward her second in command was due.

Locking the door when she left, Vixali ascended the winding stair to from the [Great Hall’s Crypt] to the [Hall of Remembrance] which was directly above it.

Under normal circumstances, the [Hall of Remembrance] was a quiet refuge for those seeking to pray for the souls of ancestors or others who had passed before them. The room Vixali entered bore no resemblance to such a space though.

“The Queen has returned!” an [Adventurer] declaimed the moment Vixali stepped through the door to the crypts.

“We await Her Dread Majesty’s Dark Wishes,” another [Adventurer] announced. There was an undercurrent of amusement and insincerity in the words that rankled Vixali’s nerves.

The [Vampires] in the room were split into three main groups. The first, and perhaps least welcome, were Vixali’s coterie. Her people were her responsibility. She knew them and was charged with their care and preservation. 

Or in other words, she was eminently familiar with just how terrible they were and yet was still compelled by her position to treat them like their weren’t colossally selfish and self destructive menaces to her sanity.

The second group were the [Adventurers] who, for whatever hellish reasons, had come to their profession after dying and rising as one of the [Undead]. Not Vixali’s [Blood Line] of [Vampire] but one of the similar [Types]. 

The [Vampiric] [Adventurers] had decided that she was a “real [Vampire]” and they therefor owed her their loyalty. No. That is incorrect. Not their loyalty. Their fealty. As if she was a [King] handing out peerages and knighthoods.

She knew many of them treated their situation as some sort of elaborate game. To them, she was no more than an element of make believe, someone to join them in their play and delusions.

While that was mildly insulting, Vixali nonetheless felt she understood them. With the world being upended, refusing to take their situation completely seriously was a reasonable response in her eyes.

The last group however was quite mad.

[Adventurers] who were in no sense [Vampires] but who wanted to “cosplay” as one of the [Undead] in Vixali’s court?

Pretend [Vampires]? Blood bags with delusions of grandeur? 

Or agents of the [Hungry Shadow]?

Vixali had been convinced that there had to be some kind of sinister plot behind their mortals who wished to pretend to be [Vampires] and had assumed that the creature which destroyed her home was the most likely mastermind behind such a scheme.

The more she interacted with the [Vampire] wannabes though, the more cause she had to doubt the assessment that there was anything like a mastermind behind their actions. 

Or perhaps even a mind at all.

“Hey, if I jump from the ceiling, I bet I can splatter all over everyone,” one of the wannabes said. “Then you can all lick each other clean. It’ll be so hot!”

Vixali sighed.

Nope. No minds there at all.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 4

Balegritz

Being second-in-command had never been Balegritz’s idea. Being anywhere in the chain of command hadn’t been his idea either. That was all Hermeziz’s fault. 

Which was not a surprise. 

Of his two mates, Hermeziz was the one who was the least willing to deal with taking orders from an idiot, and Hermeziz consider virtually everyone he ran across to be an idiot. 

To be fair, he considered Balegritz to be an idiot nine times out of ten too, but that was a more affectionate sort of idiot – an idiot in the sense of ‘what kind of idiot would want to be with me?’

That Illuthiz backed Hermeziz up on the claim that Balegritz would make not only a fine second-in-command to Captain Yawlorna, but even the ideal one was also not surprising. Illuthiz knew as well as Hemrziz did that Balegritz would never put himself into that position, but seemed to believe that bearing the responsibility it entailed would be ‘good for him’.

And that it would free her to continue doing the research she wanted to do, rather than being tapped for a leadership role herself.

Unfortunately, she was right on both counts. Balegritz did take to the command position just as well as his mates thought he would. And they both got to continue their research projects uninterrupted. Or as uninterrupted as their precarious circumstances allowed.

“If we make it back home, you do know that we’re going to be the research specimens, not anything we bring back,” Hermeziz said, observing a five leafed, purple flower that might or might not be added to the collection of local flora they were building.

“What we’re going to be is fabulously wealthy,” Balegritz said. “We’ll be able to sell the things we bring back for a fortune deep enough that we can go for a swim in it.”

“Our appearance fees should be impressive as well,” Illuthiz said, extracting a single blade of grass with a painter’s brush to keep its root system intact.

“I don’t think they pay cadavers much for appearing in an autopsy,” Hermeziz said. “Or maybe I’m being too positive. Can’t assume there’ll even be enough left of us to do an autopsy on.”

Illuthiz carefully placed her grass blade into the specimen vial she was holding, seated the vial into its foam holder in their collection box, and then walked over to Hermeziz and wrapped him in a hug.

Balegritz rolled his eyes. Hermeziz’s complaints weren’t subtle calls for affection, but they were effective. At least with people who understood him. 

On the upside though, if Illuthiz was taking cuddle duty for the moment it meant Balegritz was free to test the water samples they’d taken for microbial life. He placed a single drop on the slide he’d prepared and brought the scanning lens to his eyes when he heard the footsteps creeping up behind him.

The muscles in his back tensed, but he was able to bite back the shout that hammered at the back of his teeth.

He hadn’t been this jumpy before the accident, before seeing so many of his shipmates crushed and burned and…and that thought wasn’t leading anywhere he needed to go.

He hadn’t been this jumpy before suffering the long term, traumatic event which he was still enduring. Part of enduring it though was staying true to himself, and Balegritz was not the sort who stabbed first and asked questions never. 

He knew the footsteps weren’t a threat. They were too small and too regular. They weren’t creeping. They were trying to approach cautiously. Because he looked very scary to the little people who called this world home. 

Not that they were all little. 

Just most of them. 

Even the frighteningly powerful ones.

“Can we help you?” he asked, without turning around.

“Is now a good time to interrupt you?” Lost Alice asked.

Balegritz put the slide down on the clean top of his collection box and raised the scanner from his eyes. 

Lost Alice wasn’t exactly a friend, but they’d fought together. That brought a level of respect and growing camaraderie despite their differences. A friendly welcome was, therefor, much more appropriate than a defensive growl and summoning his new [War Spear].

“It’s as good as any other,” Balegritz said, turning to see that Lost Alice had two other humans in tow.

The two newcomers were vaguely familiar but Balegritz couldn’t place a name or occupation to either one. They didn’t seem to be [Adventurers], given how they were standing with Lost Alice as a shield, but they each held packages, so perhaps they were simply waiting for an introduction?

“Well, we didn’t want to interrupt your experiments,” Lost Alice said. “But we thought you might be interested in taking part in another one.”

“Another one what? Another monster fighting session?” Hermeziz asked. It wasn’t an unreasonable question, though Balegritz thought it was the wrong time of day to be fighting more [Undead].

As Balegritz pondered what else it could be, Hermeziz and Illuthiz untangled themselves and came over to stand by him. 

Not that Balegritz needed the support. 

But he still appreciated it.

“Not another xp run,” Lost Alice said. “Not at the moment at least. What we had in mind was another experiment. One that you’re uniquely qualified for in fact.”

Balegritz peered past Lost Alice, inspecting her two tagalongs and noticed that they both looked disturbingly eager at the prospect of experimenting on him.

Balegritz did not want to be experimented on.

But if it was for Science?

Claire

Of all the messages Claire could have received as Lady Midnight, a plain and simple mail posting with the “From:” address of “Wrath Raven” was the very last thing she expected to see.

“Are you okay?” Starchild asked, helping Claire sit down on the low wall they were walking beside. 

Claire didn’t miss that Starchild had summoned her [Storm Staff] to hand and was gathering magic as they spoke.

“We’re not under attack,” Claire said. “I…I just got a surprise.”

She wanted to say more but her thoughts were too jangled.

Wrath Raven wasn’t just any [Battle Rager]. She wasn’t even just a max level [Battle Rager]. She was Claire’s max level [Battle Rager]. A character Claire had sunk more hours than she could count into. A character Claire should have been except for the, in hindsight, foolish desire to see the new content on a level appropriate alt.

Maybe not entirely foolish, Lady Midnight said. I am partial to existing after all.

Which was true. Having met the side of herself that Lady Midnight represented, Claire would still make the same choice even if she got to choose again.

But maybe she wouldn’t have to?

“Someone reached out to you?” Starchild asked.

Claire blinked at her.

“How did you know that?”

“Just a guess,” Starchild said. “With nothing here to disconcert you that much, the next likely candidate was someone speaking to you on a private channel.”

“It’s not that,” Claire said. “I got an email. From my main character.”

“Wait, your main reached out to you? She, or he, exists independently of you? Like with Tessa and Glimmerglass?” Peter asked.

“I guess so,” Claire said. “It’s weird though. When I tried to reach her, I got nothing. It was like she wasn’t online, or didn’t exist.”

“What did she say?” Starchild asked. “In the email.”

Claire scanned it again. It didn’t take long.

“Three words. ‘We should meet’. That’s it,” Claire said.

“Is that how you pictured her speaking?” Peter asked.

“Sort of?” Claire said. “She’s one of the [Berserker] subtypes, a [Battle Rager], so the times people were doing roleplaying in the group, I always played her as taciturn and goal driven. But with friends, or small groups, she was more open and expressive. This reads like an interaction she’d have in a pickup group.”

“Is it perhaps not her?” Starchild asked.

“Maybe? Who else would pretend to be her though?”

“It would have to be someone who knew of your connection to her,” Peter said. “And, if they’re faking her identity, probably someone who’s not exactly friendly.”

“Do you have any enemies?” Starchild asked. “Or does your main have enemies might be the better question?”

“I don’t think so,” Claire said. “I never played the game at the level where serious drama like that happened.”

“Uh, are you sure you played the game then?” Peter asked. “Cause I’ve seen serious drama in the most casual and laid back guilds, like ever.”

“Eh, okay, that’s fair,” Claire said. “I just mean I was never part of any feuds like that. [Broken Horizons] was always about relaxing for me. I didn’t care if whatever piece of super loot we were going for went to someone else. We ran the dungeons we could manage so many damn times, we all got everything anyways. Or a new expansion hit and the old stuff was all junk a week later.”

“What if it actually is her?” Starchild asked. “Are you going to meet with her?”

“I would like to,” Lady Midnight said. “I suspect we’d have some interesting notes to compare.”

“Though that could be a bad thing too,” Claire said. “I can’t really get a read on her feelings about me from three words, and Wrath Raven isn’t the most subtle person in the world when it comes to expressing her disapproval.”

“You know, we do have a local expert on ‘other selves in other bodies’ here. Two of them in fact, or maybe even three, depending on how you count them,” Peter said. “Think we should ring up Tessa and Glimmerglass?”

Vixali

[Vampires] were supposed to be fearsome [Undead]. Creatures of the night, shunned by mortals, tortured soul who nonetheless got to live eternal lives of debauchery so long as they consumed the living at every opportunity.

Vixali wasn’t sure anyone who believed that had ever met an actual vampire, and certainly not one of her subjects.

“We come from different bloodlines,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. It did nothing to quell the headache throbbing behind her eyes, but it was than sinking her claws into the nearest member of her court, though that was mostly true because she liked Qiki.

“Being different from us means they’re not required to swear fealty to you according to our traditions,” Qiki said. “Technically there’s no requirement that says they can’t if they wish to though.”

“There’s also no requirement that says I can’t order them to be attacked on sight,” Vixali said.

“They are rather powerful,” Qiki said. “It would thin our ranks out rather noticeably if your subjects tried to enact that command.”

“You say that as though it were a bad thing,” Vixali said, looking up to find Qiki rolling her eyes at Vixali’s lack of regal reserve.

“My [Queen], we, your loyal subjects, will of course follow your every whim, even unto the point of completely senseless and wasteful personal sacrifice,” Qiki said, leaving no doubt that she would do nothing of the sort. “But perhaps you may wish to consider a useful discovery I have made recently.”

“And that would be?” Vixali asked. 

“You are very,” Qiki sat onto Vixali’s lap, facing her, “very”, she lifted Vixali’s head up with just a light touch under Vixali’s jaw, “silly when you are hungry.”

“I am not feeding on the [Adventurers] in case they have been corrupted by the [Hungry Shadow],” Vixali said, staring into her subordinate’s eyes. 

Qiki was undeterred.

.”We did agree to that, yes,” she said. “But we did not agree that you should starve yourself to death in the process.”

“The only other options are the townsfolk, and feeding on them will create larger scale problems for us,” Vixali said, trying not to fall into the shifting colors around Qiki’s pupils.

One [Vampire] couldn’t mesmerize another, both tradition and the nature of their magics attested to that.

What one soul could do to another was less well defined though.

“We can ask Lost Alice about that,” Qiki said. “She moves in their world, but she knows ours. You could make her an ambassador, or something of the sort.”

Vixali sighed, defeated.

“Yes. I can do that,” she said. “And I’ll just stay down here. Out of sight of the rest of the Court. Communing with the darkness or whatever, until I’m able to get some proper blood in me.”

“You don’t need to wait,” Qiki said. “The [Adventurer’s] blood is suspect, but you know mine is pure.”

She tipped her head to the side and barring her neck a bare inch from Vixali’s waiting lips.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 3

Rose

Of all the members of their party, and despite being seemingly the simplest to figure out, Obby was the biggest mystery to Rose.

“So what kind of training did you have in mind?” Rose asked as Obby led her out towards the rolling hills that were undead.

“Well, you’re not just an [Archer] anymore, are you?” Obby asked.

“Yeah, I haven’t been for a while,” Rosee said. [Lightning Archer] was so much cooler, and, as far as she knew, unique.

“We’ve been mostly slotting you in to a standard [Archer] roll though,” Obby said. “Stand in the back, shoot things, repeat until loot drops. That works, but I think you can be more.”

“More? Like what?” The idea that they might be able to open up more powers appealed to Rip, but Rose heard something deeper in Obby’s words. Not ‘you might be able to do more’, but ‘you might be able to be something more.’

Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

Rose was able to accept that she’d gained amazing strength and phenomenal abilities largely because it seemed to be happening to everyone else too, and from what she’d been hearing, most other people made out a lot better than she had.

Long time players were apparently god-like. Completely out of her league. Glimmerglass wasn’t any kind of fighter and she could still turn an army of zombies to dust where Rip would have been able to take down a handful of them at best before they overwhelmed her. 

Watching that Glimmerglass smiting the undead like the wrath of an earthbound god hadn’t been disconcerting though. Other people were always more impressive and cooler. That was just how things were.

“I don’t know exactly what you’ll be able to do,” Obby said, and Rose’s heart sank by a smidge. “I think it’s going to be up to you, at least to some extent.”

That sounded like the empty promises people were always making that “she’d be able to make something of herself” if she took her studies seriously, or tried harder, or did any of the other million things that sounded so much easier than they really were.

“That’s why I wanted to try training with you alone,” Obby said. “When you figure out what you can do that will be great. When you stumble, I can help you figure out what went wrong.”

“Couldn’t you do that for me and Matt though?” Rose asked.

“A good trainer gives you their full attention,” Obby said. “I could manage both you and Jamal, and probably the rest of the party too, but I want to be there when you need me, not when your turn comes up. If that makes sense?”

“Why?” Rose asked. She hadn’t meant to say that. It had slipped out as her disbelief warred with her desire not to question the gift horses she was being given. 

“You don’t mean ‘why is that a better training method’,” Obby said. “You’re wondering ‘why I want to train you at all’?”

“No. I mean, yeah,” Rose said. “Am I falling behind? Because I’m not as good an [Archer] anymore?”

Obby laughed, and turned an incredulous look on Rose.

“That is definitely not it,” she said. “You are crushing it as an [Archer]. Seriously, you’re the highest level [DPS] character in the city. You’ve taken on challenges none of the rest of them have, both up in the [High Beyond] and as one of the first people to complete the dungeon.”

“What about Matt? We’re the same level, and he did all the same stuff I did.”

“He’s not primarily a damage dealer, he’s [Control] with enough damage to play a decent second fiddle to you in that arena,” Obby  said. “And, yeah, he’s impressive too, but he hasn’t started making [Dream Spinner] into his own class yet. Not like you have with [Lightning Archer].”

“So is that supposed to mean that I’m better than he is?” Rose asked, not even slightly happy with that idea.

“You’re a much better [Lightning Archer] than he is, yes. And he’s a vastly better [Dream Spinner] than you,” Obby said. “I know that sounds trite, but the point is those are two different paths. You’re not trying to be him and he’s not trying to be you, and, really, all that matters is how you’re doing with what you’re striving for.”

“So, am I doing good enough?” Rose asked.

“Oh, you’re well past ‘good enough’,” Obby said. “You’re somewhere in the neighborhood of ‘astounding’. I didn’t want to train with you because you’re falling behind, or your weak. We’re all behind, and we’re all incredibly weak compared to people like Glimmerglass, but we’re working on that, and we’re getting better as we go. I wanted to train with you today, because I see so much in you that’s so familiar. There are skills I’m pretty sure you can develop if you want to lean in that direction, ones that aren’t particularly obvious, but can be incredibly useful, again, depending on what you want to be able to do.”

“Can you give me an example?” Rose asked. Her mind raced to leap ahead and guess what sort of ‘cool stuff’ a [Lightning Archer] might be capable of that she hadn’t thought of. Her heart lagged behind though, dragging the ball and chain of fearful experiences that had taught her what kind of a weapon hope could be.

“When Tessa was in trouble up in the [High Beyond], you raced ahead to get to her as fast as possible, right?” Obby asked.

“Yeah. [Lightning Archer] comes with a movement speed buff,” Rose said.

“I think you can do better than just running quickly,” Obby said. “I think if you really need to move, you can [Ride the Lightning].”

Yawlorna

Chaos was an old friend to Yawlorna. From her classes as an undergrad, to captaining the crew of a research ship, to surviving in the depths of hostile moon, she was used to things falling apart at a significantly faster rate than you could put them back together. The unspoken swell of excitement that passed from the inside of the [Great Hall] into the streets and beyond didn’t come as a great surprise therefor.

Apparently everyone could level up now.

She could see why that was causing a stir.

She could also see what the inevitable result of said “stir” would be.

“We should begin setting up a triage area and hospital beds, shouldn’t we?” she said, looking around the small room Glimmerglass had commandeered for training Yawlorna further as a healer.

“We probably won’t need that,” Glimmerglass said. “Unfortunately.”

Yawlorna was puzzled by that for all of two seconds.

She’d thought they would have injured patients spilling out into the streets as a horde of underleveled, or unleveled, people stormed out to slay xp giving forest creatures and whatever various monsters they could find.

Then she considered how lucky their previous patient had been.

And how those untrained and unwise unleveled people were likely to far in similar battles.

“We need to either stop them or start digging graves then, don’t we?” Yawlorna said.

“Stopping them would be best, or at least delaying them until we can arrange for some safer training options for them,” Glimmerglass said. “I don’t know if their new ability to level also means that they’ve been [Soul Wakened].”

“I thought that was for [Adventurers] only?” Yawlorna asked. “That an [Inspiration].”

“We never knew what [Inspiration] was,” Glimmerglass said. “It was just a feeling some of us got. The same is true of [Soul Wakened]. In fact a fair number of people think they’re the same condition. There weren’t many [Adventurers] who hadn’t been touched by [Inspiration] and there weren’t any at all that weren’t [Soul Wakened], since being able to use the [Heart Fires] to respawn from death is somewhat mandatory given the sort of dangers we pitch ourselves into.”

“And no one knows how to turn that on right?” Yawlorna asked. “Immortality is simply a fickle beast?”

“Somewhat literally,” Glimmerglass said. “Given that even [Adventurers] can die permanently if they run afoul of the [Hounds of Fate].”

Yawlorna was completely certain that it was a trade she and all the rest of her crew would gladly take. 

True, maybe there was some unknown downside. Maybe the Hounds dragged your soul off to become ghost dog kibble rather than everyone else who got to spend eternity in a library with hot springs and no requirements to ever publish anything. 

Much though she yearned for it, Yawlorna was skeptical that her personal version of heaven was likely to be real, and the definite option of having a second chance if things went disastrously wrong seemed like a much better choice to gamble on.

Except it wasn’t a choice.

It was a gift that some people were given randomly and others had to do without.

That line of thinking lead to unpleasant places, so Yawlorna cut it off with a better one.

Either [Soul Wakening] was a naturally occurring phenomena or it was a gift from some higher power. The key to determining which was true lay in collecting the right data, and she had a whole crew of people who were nominally still under her command who had been rigorously trained in collecting good data. 

They might not have the immortality trait yet, but this was a world where they could manage to acquire it.

All it would take was a little study.

Hailey

Bringing the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms] the entire catalogue of their foes capabilities, troop distributions, and goals had seemed like Hailey was delivering them the most vital information possible on the greatest threat to the world. After listening to Tessa’s recounting of what had happened in the [High Beyond] though Hailey was left wondering if the information she’d brought was going to amount to anything more than footnote on a forgotten page in some forgotten history book.

Assuming there was anyone around to write history books.

“I can’t…I don’t know…how did you make it out of all that?” she finally asked when Tessa finished her, clearly abbreviated, tale.

“With a lot of help,” Tessa said. “And, honestly, a ton of luck.”

“I think we all need to start mainlining your luck,” Hailey said. “We’ve got [Eldritch Abominations] in the game, or in the world I mean, and none of them sound as bad as what you encounter, and fought, and survived!”

“Well, we never really found the [Hungry Shadow],” Tessa said. “Just its minions, and those were a lot easier to take out.”

“What about in that garden place? With the level cap?” Hailey asked.

“Oh, yeah, that was…I mentioned I got really lucky right?” Tessa said.

“You fused three identities and fought something off using the spark of a god,” Hailey said. “That’s not luck. That’s…I don’t even know what that is.”

“A one time trick I think,” Tessa said. “The god soul’s aren’t exactly laying around everywhere. If you hadn’t brought one with you, and Glimmerglass hadn’t been nearby, I don’t think Pillowcase or Tessa would have had a prayer. So, you know, lucky.”

“I need to tell Penswell about this,” Hailey said. “I don’t know if its going to make her day or ruin it though.”

“Depends how well the Consortium manages to handle the [Hungry Shadow],” Tessa said. “It could be that they’ll all wipe each other out and the remnants will become just another monster faction. Maybe converting the [High Beyond] into a high-level only zone, instead of the split we saw where it had a lowbie starting area too.”

“That sounds like what would have happened if this was still a game,” Hailey said. “I don’t think we can count on things going anything like a game would at this point.”

“There’s another possibility we’ll want to consider then,” Tessa said. “But it may ruin your day even further.”

“More than a reality devouring monster looming overhead while an alien invasion fleet decimates our cities?” Hailey asked. “Please, I gotta hear this one.”

“Ask yourself this question then; if we got here from Earth, which means there’s some connection between the two worlds, what are the chances that the [Hungry Shadow] is going to come down to the [Fallen Kingdoms] where we’ve got god-like power and literal magic from the creation of the universe at our fingertips, and what are the chances that it heads back to Earth instead, where the best weapons the people there have will ruin the planet if they use them en masse?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 2

Rose

Breakfast-turned-lunch had been as excellent as promised. It turned out that where Rip was orders of magnitude stronger as a fighter, the [Cooks] who’d spent a similar amount of time and effort working on their craft had progressed just a wee bit as well.

“Is it wrong that I feel like I could run two marathons back to back?” Rose asked as she and Jamal wandered out of the [Great Hall], leaving behind what had been a mini-continuation of the party from the night before.

“I don’t even need to eat, but whatever magical engineer made it so [Metal Mechanoids] could get energy from absorbed food? They’re incredible, beautiful people and I love them,” Jamal said. 

“Check out your stats,” Tessa said. 

She and Lost Alice met them at the gate out into the city, and Rose was struck by how comfortable they looked with each other now. 

Early on, in the distant pre-history of ‘a few days ago’, there’d been a lot of tension in the group, though most of it came from external sources. No one could really believe what was happening too them, and (quite rightly it turned out) no one felt even a little safe.

When Pillowcase and Lost Alice had invited her and Jamal to group up, Rose’s only thought had been that being part of any group at all would be better than stumbling along alone.

Especially after the object lesson in peril the original [Wraithwing] attack had been. Everyone else had kind of lost their mind, but New Mom One and New Mom Two had held it together and managed to fight the indestructible horde of death birds. At least for a little while. 

Rose was joking when she referred to her party leaders as their “New Moms”. She knew she couldn’t escape her real family that easily.

It didn’t mean it wasn’t nice to pretend though.

And Tessa and Lost Alice didn’t seem to mind them too much.

If anything, they seemed willing to treat Rose and Jamal as real human beings so easily that Rose wasn’t entirely sure they hadn’t mistaken herself and Jamal for Rip Shot and Matt Painting.

Which would be an easy mistake to make. Rose herself wasn’t entirely sure where the line was between her two identities. She was Rip, sure, a young woman, a Tabbywile, an [Adventurer]. 

But she was also a teenage girl, a human, and an average, unathletic high school student with an amazing best friend and zero interest in romance or sex.

Of the two choices, Rip seemed like the clear winner of who she’d want to be at any given moment.

And yet, most of her thoughts were centered on herself as Rose.

It wasn’t really a mystery why either.

Rose was Jamal’s friend. As Rip, Matt was a solid teammate and one she’d stick up for and protect just like she would anyone else, but it was Jamal who really knew her.

And so she wanted to be Rose.

“We were thinking to do take another run at the dungeon tonight,” Tessa said. “But we wanted to check with you two first.”

“With us?” Jamal asked.

“We all leveled up a few times in there,” Lost Alice said. “I think we’re all level 34 now right?”

“Yeah, we both hit that,” Rose said, wondering where the conversation was going.

Were they going to ask if Rip and Matt wanted to retire now that they’d gotten strong enough to defend themselves in a pinch?

Were they going to suggest that Rip and Matt sit out because of the mistakes Rip had made? 

Were they going to tell them that they’d hadn’t leveled enough and so they’d found some other, higher level, [Adventurers] who wanted Rip and Matt’s spots?

Rose’s mind swirled like a hurricane gathering force as she fought against the terrible ideas that kept popping up.

Tessa and Lost Alice weren’t like that.

She could trust them.

Except that had always been a mistake before and the mere thought of ignoring her fears sent a fresh shiver of terror through her.

“With new levels, come abilities,” Tessa said. “And ‘in the middle of battle’ can be a rough time to get a handle of them.”

Tessa’s voice and expression were light and reassuring, which set off all sorts of warning bells in Rose’s head. No one cared to make things sound okay unless they were about drop a boot on her.

“So we were thinking we’d practice a bit with ours first,” Lost Alice said.

“Our friendly neighborhood battle nuns offered to let us practice with them again, now that we’ve got some new tricks to show them.” Tessa said.

“And we thought you might like to join us?” Lost Alice said.

“Or, if you had plans already, we could hold off on the dungeon run for now and help some of the lowbies we’ve kind of left behind work on building themselves up,” Tessa said.

For a long moment Rose’s brain sort of shorted out.

They weren’t rejecting her?

Why?

Wait, they want to do something with her?

Seriously why?

They even looked sort of nervous? Like they thought Rose and Jamal wouldn’t want to spend every waking moment with them?

Being thrust into a fantasy realm and merging memories with an alternate aspect of herself had been less jarring than embracing that thought.

“I think we’d love that,” Jamal said. “Uh, going with you I mean. For training. We could do the helping thing too. Or the dungeon. I…we don’t have any plans yet.”

“Oh! Good!” Tessa said. “I think you’ll get a lot out of the training sessions. I don’t know if they have any [Dream Spinners] there but at low levels a lot of the abilities are similar so they’ll have some great feedback on opportunities to look for and problems to watch out for.”

“That they’ll get to beat us to a pulp demonstrating a lot of what they have to teach is probably all the payment that they really need, but Tessa and I were figuring we’d drop a tithe on them to cover our whole party,” Lost Alice said.

Because of course that was how they thought.

Rose let Rip take the reins for a bit. 

She felt too good to be falling apart inside all of a sudden but that’s what was happening nonetheless and she was endlessly grateful that Rip was put together differently enough that she was able to carry on without letting that show.

“Hey, just the girl I was looking for! And about to go training too! This is perfect.” Mom Three, or Obby as everyone else called her said, catching up to the quartet of her teammates as they wandered down the roads toward the chapel. “Would you mind if I abscond with Rip for a bit? I’ve got some ideas I want to try out with her.”

“Oh, I could do that instead then,” Jamal said.

“Nope,” Obby said. “This is something special just for Rip. At least if she’d willing to take a chance on some unusual training?”

Yawlorna

Having someone who was roughly twice your size and looked remarkably similar to the iconography of an [Unholy Fiend] from your world’s mythology sit down beside you and place their hands on your badly injured body was, Yawlorna observed, probably not the least scary thing that one could be forced to endure.

That the badly injured [Farmer] wasn’t screaming out in terror was a testament to their bravery.

Bravery which Yawlorna was forced to note had wound them up in their current predicament.

“Did the [Boar] sneak up on you?” Glimmerglass asked.

“No, I saw it just fine,” the injured woman said through gritted teeth.

“Why…?” Glimmerglass started to ask.

“I thought I could earn my keep here if I brought in some [Meat] for the [Cooks],” the [Farmer] said.

“You didn’t have…” Glimmerglass began again.

“Of course I did,” the [Farmer] said. “It’s a matter of pride. Can’t be freeloading forever.”

“You didn’t have to take on something that tough,” Glimmerglass amended. “There’s plenty that needs to be taken care of here and in town. There are acres of land that no one is working at all, and plenty of other stuff you can do that will be at least slightly less painful.”

“Oh. Uh, I see,” the [Farmer] said. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem. You’re giving my apprentice her a chance to see how strong her magic really is.”

“Should I begin casting?” Yawlorna asked.

“Yes, but take it slow. Go with [Lesser Healing Touch] to start with,” Glimmerglass said.

“Even though I’m not having problems with [Healing Stream]?” Yawlorna asked.

“Trust me,” Glimmerglass said.

With a shrug, Yawlorna began casting as she’d been instructed to.

Working magic was still unbelievable to her. She’d never imagine how simple it was one that first dam of understanding broke. 

She guessed that Glimmerglass was going to have her practice a few dozen times with [Lesser Healing Touch] before repairing the woman’s injuries completely with one of her own spells.

Yawlorna had barely dropped a single mote of magic into the [Farmer] though when she sat up, a look of wonder and joy shining from her.

“I’m better!” she said. “All the pain? It’s gone? I’m not even punctured! And I feel so good!”

“I think you leveled up,” Glimmerglass said. “Tell me, have you ever had the urge to go on an adventure?”

Hailey

Hailey was helping rebuild [Wagon Town]. Tessa was doing some stuff with her guild. The majority of a planetary mass separated them. Despite all that, they were closer than they’d been in more than half a decade.

“Once things calm down and we get the [Teleport Gates] back online, I am so coming out there to power level you up to the cap properly,” Hailey said.

“We’ve been doing pretty good with leveling on our own,” Tessa said. “You might be surprised where we get to before the stuff with the Consortium settles down.”

“Okay, well that was just an excuse to come out and meet your new girl anyways,” Hailey said. 

“I could add her to this channel if you want?” Tessa asked.

“Noooo! No no no!” Hailey said. “We should meet properly. Not randomly over a chat line.”

“Uh, didn’t we meet everyone in game ‘randomly over a chat line’?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, but it’s not a game anymore is it?” Hailey said. “These are all real people we’re dealing with now.”

“As opposed to before, when it was just real people behind a computer screen?”

“It was real with some people before,” Hailey said. “If you murdered someone in PvP though, you weren’t killing them for real, and you weren’t really a blood enemy of theirs.”

“But for people in the same guild?”

“Even there. Some people were more real than others,” Hailey said. “I knew you, we talked, we hung out, we did things together. So you were real to me. The guy who joined our guild for two days and raided the bank when no one was looking though? Basically a demon in my eyes.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not healthy, but I remember hating him enough that I can see where you’re coming from,” Tess said.

“I am serious about getting you leveled up though,” Hailey said. “This place is much too dangerous for even the high levels in some spots, especially the new areas. I don’t want to see you get eaten by some mid-level nobody when a day of decent grinding could have left you invincible to it.”

“We should work out something like that in general for all the lowbies,” Tessa said.

“There’s a lot of lowbies in the world. Believe me, I’ve seen the analytics,” Hailey said.

“I wasn’t thinking of trying to power level them all personally,” Tessa said. “More like setting up something so that people who don’t have guilds, or don’t have ones with anyone high level left in them have somewhere to turn to get setup with a high level player who can help them out.”

“There’s going to be people who hate that idea,” Hailey said.

“There’s people who hate every idea. The difference in this case is that there’s something out there that we’re going to need every possible [Adventurer] at max level that we can get to have a chance at standing against.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me tell you about what we ran into in the [High Beyond]. You might want to find somewhere to sit down though.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 1

Rose

Sleep should have been impossible. They’d beaten a dungeon! A real dungeon! On their own! True, there’d been a celebration of said accomplishment that ran till the night was perilously close to becoming the next day, but even so, Rose knew sleep should have eluded her.

When she and Jamal had made it back to their commandeered loft across the street from the [Great Hall], she’d told herself (and Jamal) that she was just laying down to get comfortable.

That was roughly one and half blinks ago but somehow the sun had taken the opportunity to launch itself halfway up the sky.

Stretching her toes and fingers and tail as far from each other as she could get them felt gloriously relaxing and was almost enough to convince her to turn over and head back to sleep, but her stomach vetoed that plan.

“Mrrhff,” she grumbled and sat up, bleary eyed despite the copious amount of daylight she was bathed in.

“She lives!” Jamal said, using regular old, simple speech rather than they’re telepathic channels.

“Maybe,” Rose said, rubbing her eyes. In truth she didn’t feel particularly tired, or sore, but the excitement and the late hours the night before had left her with a pleasant lassitude that she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to let fall away.

“Think [Raspberry Scones] with [Honey Butter] and [Hot Chocolate] might convince you to give the whole waking up thing a try?” Jamal asked.

Rose sat up instantly, the lingering clouds of sleep swept aside effortlessly.

“They have [Hot Chocolate] now? How?” she asked, grabbing up her discarded armor.

She considered putting it back on – that seemed like the sort of wise move an [Adventurer] would do – but discarded the idea as quickly as it occurred to her. Obby had shown her how to change her equipment instantly, so if an unexpected brawl broke out over breakfast (or perhaps it was lunch at this point), she’d be fine. Far better to get to enjoy the the comfy “cosmetic” loot they’d found in the dungeon.

“Have you had anything yet?” she asked Jamal who was still sitting halfway inside the door to their balcony.

“Nope. Matt doesn’t need to eat that much, so I figured we’d just wait.”

“How do you know what they’d got then?” Rose asked.

“Tessa and Lost Alice were up early,” he said. “They let the rest of the party know what the guild’s [Cooks] were putting together.”

“How long ago was that?”

“About four hours or so.”

“Wait, how long have you been up?” Rose asked, pausing as she tucked her armor into her inventory bag.

“Five hours or so?” Jamal said. “Matt doesn’t need that much sleep either.”

“Oh! Dude! Why didn’t you get me up?” Rose asked.

“You were out of it,” Jamal said. “And there wasn’t anything important going on, so why not let you sleep?”

Rose felt a jumble of words leap to her lips. Expressions of gratitude foremost among them. She kept them locked behind her teeth though. Jamal was her oldest and best friend. He already knew everything she could say and saying it outloud would be weird. 

Instead, after a moment, she asked, “So what did you do for all that time?”

“Matt and I have been talking,” Jamal said. “It’s interesting. And weird. And good I guess? Or it’s good now. The stuff her had to live through in the Consortium? That was just messed up.”

“Is it something you, or I guess he, want to talk about?” Rose asked.

“Not yet,” Jamal said. “Don’t want to ruin your appetite.”

It was a light comment, meant as a joke as much as anything else, but Rose knew Jamal, knew how open, at least with her, he always was. Knew she could trust him to come let her in when he needed help.

But, she wondered, was that true of Matt as well?

Yawlorna

Yawlorna was dead. She died, passed her final thesis exam before the Arbiters of Judgment and been granted access to the Academic Heaven. That, she decided, was a far more likely explanation for the situation she found herself in than relying on anything as untrustworthy as personal experience and recent memory.

“You’re making remarkable progress,” Glimmerglass said. “Are you sure you haven’t had any medical training up till now?”

“Just basic anatomy and physiology course,” Yawlorna said. “But those don’t seem to line up exactly with what any of the other species here have.”

“It could still be helping,” Glimmerglass said. “Healing magic doesn’t require an exact knowledge of the body – it is magic after all – but the more we know, the easier it is to guide it to do what we want, rather than what it thinks the body needs.”

“It feels like a miracle to me,” Yawlorna said, marveling as the small cut Glimmerglass had made on her own hand sealed shut perfectly in response to the spell Yawlorna was maintaining.

“It is,” Glimmerglass said. “Priestly magic, like mine, is all categorized as [Miracles]. Primarily that’s because we’re drawing the patterns from the spells from sources external to ourselves. Specifically [Celestial Sources]. Other spellcasters find their [Spell Patterns] elsewhere, usually from elements of the world, or as a series of interrelated concepts.”

“Does anyone work with all of those?” Yawlorna asked. She felt like she was an undergrad, back in class, and listening to a lecture she was sure would apply to things beyond the limits of the auditorium. It was intoxicating. 

No worries about her crew.

No concerns about getting home.

No monster to fight.

Just pure, beautiful, precious learning.

“Drawing on multiple sources for your magical patterns is one of those things that people debate and get absolutely nowhere with,” Glimmerglass said. “In theory, well, in some theories, it’s perfectly possible. In practice though there’s serious interference issues that arise and keeping the patterns from destructively interfering with each other is the stuff nightmares are made of.”

“I feel like I could write a dozen papers if I eavesdropped on even one of those debates,” Yawlorna said.

“They can get pretty lively,” Glimmerglass said, chuckling at some long distant memory. “You’d have the advantage that people wouldn’t try to glower over you and try to ‘win’ the argument through sheer intimidation.”

“They would if they knew how weak my people are compared to you [Adventurers],” Yawlorna said.

“Magic debates, I guess somewhat surprisingly, aren’t usually resolved with spellcasting,” Glimmerglass said. “Everyone there tries to keep things civilized, at least to the extent that the staff doesn’t throw the debaters out on their ears and ban them from coming back. Also, you’re pretty far from weak.”

“That is both interesting and kind of you to say, but I’ve seen what you can do,” Yawlorna said. “Even if we were stripped of all gear, and all our magic was suppressed you’d be able to toss me through a wall with one hand tied behind your back.”

“And yet, I can’t come close to matching the [Warriors] or other [Melee Fighters] that I know,” Glimmerglass said. “So I’m strong here, but so are you compared to most of the people in town, including Tessa, you know, my other self? And compared to the people from [Sky’s Edge] you’re vastly out of their league.”

“That doesn’t seem terrible fair does it?”

“It’s not,” Glimmerglass said. “Life doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to be fair, I think because ‘fair’ is something we all need to work towards, not something the world just gives us.”

Hailey

The war had turned and it was thanks to her. Hailey had heard that comment enough times now that she was ready to scream at the next person who tried to thank or congratulate her about their “impending victory”.

Because there wasn’t a victory impending.

Yes, fighting had turned in the good guys favor, but it was a slight and fragile advantage. One they could lose at any moment.

And, more importantly, it was one that so many other people had fought to make real.

She’d taken a risk, true. She’d conveyed some detailed and highly useful intelligence to the people who could make the best use of it, sure. She’d even fought in a couple battles herself. She felt good about all that, but she’d seen how much others had given too. They deserved far more recognition than she did.

“There aren’t that many people who know what you did though, are there?” Tessa asked on the personal channel Hailey had setup for them.

“More than probably should from a security perspective, but, yeah, not the whole world or anything,” Hailey said.

“I’m gonna guess those were the ones who saw just how bad things were getting though, right?” Tessa asked.

“Eh, some of them,” Hailey grumbled, ceding the point even though her discomfort remained.

“For what it’s worth, you’re intel may have saved my bacon too,” Tessa said.

“How so? I didn’t wind up anywhere near you?” Hailey said.

“When we escaped the [High Beyond], I needed a safe landing spot for everyone,” Tessa said. “I’m not sure there would have been one if the Consortium had been able to keep steamrolling the [Defense Force]. I mean do you know if there was a Consortium event planned for the new starter cities?”

“Oh damn! I think there was!” Hailey said. “It was supposed to help the new players feel like they weren’t missing out. There were token drops you could have on to for level capped gear pieces.”

“Well then you spared us from that,” Tessa said. “So, you know, I should thank you.”

“You’re evil,” Hailey said.

“I’m glad you remember!” Tessa said.

“Like I could ever forget,” Hailey said and added in a quieter voice, “Those were just the best times back then.”

“In the game?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, that too,” Hailey said.

“I’m glad you remember them that way,” Tessa said. “I liked them too.”

“I wish I’d caught you coming in,” Hailey said. “I could have rolled up someone to join you and we woundn’t be trapped on the opposite sides of the world.”

“I’m glad you got in here at all,” Tessa said. “And I’m glad you still had BT. Being low level is…I think challenging is probably the right word.”

“I told you, I know people, I can have them come out and power level you up,” Hailey said.

“Believe it or not, I think we’re doing pretty good there,” Tessa said. “We’ve got Glimmerglass here, and she’s been handling some of the lowbies who wanted the help. And even without her help my team beat the first dungeon without a single TPK!”

Hailey couldn’t help but smile from absorbing even a sliver of the joy that radiated from Tessa’s voice.

“I forgot how awesome that could be,” she said. “Seems like you found a pretty great group if you’re still this buzzed about it half a day later?”

“I’ve been pretty happy recently,” Tessa said. “Which is kind of scary. And, I don’t know, inappropriate I guess? But, whatever, I’m not going to second guess this. I’m just going to enjoy it.”

For a moment, Hailey was sixteen again, headphones on to drown out the world, with the voice of one of her best friends in her ear as they talked about any and every random thing that came into their heads. 

Her heart ached at the thought.

She missed sixteen year old Hailey.

Not enough to want to ever go back to being her.

Tessa and her other friends aside, those years sucked. 

But who she’d been then? Awkward, stupid, and childish though she’d been? That Hailey wasn’t so bad in hindsight.

“It sounds like you’re in love,” she said, meaning to tease her old friend before wondering if they’d gotten back to the casual teasing stage yet.

“That’s probably because I am,” Tessa said, smug happiness evident even from several thousand miles away.

Hailey’s breath caught in surprised glee.

“What? Really? With who? Tell me everything!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 4

Lisa

Near inexhaustible stamina seemed to be one of the benefits of being a [Vampire], or maybe just of being an [Adventurer]. Even after besting their first real dungeon, complete with near total party kills, running out of magic at several bad moments, and getting to personally “healer tank” more than once, Lost Alice’s body still felt charged with energy. Maybe even more than what she’d gone into the dungeon with.

“So is it weird that we’re going to be working with the dungeon boss rather than, you know, killing him?” Rip asked as they walked back through the forest towards town.

Lisa caught a branch that slithered out like a snake to trip them into a twig filled bough that could easily have been mistaken for a mouth.

Or maybe that wouldn’t have been a mistake.

Around them, shadows shifted and the gnarled, distorted trees waited with the patience of centuries for an unobserved moment to strike.

“I think our definition of weird may need some updating,” Lisa said.

She released the branch she caught and then covered her hand with the magics of the [Withering Grasp] spell.

It wasn’t an attack, or a threat. It was a notification, since she had no interest in damaging the tree monsters yet, and a threat was something that had the possibility of not being carried through on. 

The rustling of the branches as the tree swayed back and away from the thin path through the words communicated its understanding of the message clearly too.

It was a living peril, but one that was designed to menace the sort of [Adventurer] that Lisa and the others had been when they arrived in town, not the ones they’d rapidly grown into.

“I don’t know if our approach was all that unanticipated,” Tessa said. “Grimsnarl had a reason for being where he was, wasn’t actively attacking the nearby NPCs, and was willing to listen to reason. Those aren’t the hallmarks of your typical ‘kill on sight’ dungeon boss.”

“I thought we were supposed to get all kinds of good loot from the dungeon though?” Rip asked.

“I’ve got about a dozen pieces of magical armor and weapons in my bags,” Lady Midnight said. “I think we all wound up with about the same, didn’t we?”

“Give or take a few, I’m pretty sure we did,” Obby said. “Though I think I know what Rip means too. We got a bunch of stuff, but most of the pieces weren’t useful replacements for what we already have. For which we have Feral Fang to thank.”

“She’ll be happy to hear how we’re making out with it,” Pete said. “And she said if we wind up with any extra low level, unbound loot, she’s got people who can use it.”

“We can put together matching sets when we get somewhere safe,” Tessa said. “That’ll make it easier to send this stuff through the mail.”

Lisa sighed at the idea of helping bank roll newbies. She’d been firmly against it once upon a time, but over the years her opposition had mellowed, then fallen away completely as her view of the game switched from being a competition and a proving ground to an awareness that people should probably be playing primarily for fun, and that the low level grind frequently worked against that.

And there was the small point that undergeared people were in serious and real danger.

Living in the the world of the [Fallen Kingdoms] had changed so many of her priorities, and so many of her capabilities too. Despite all the new realities that confronted her though, Lisa didn’t feel like she was losing herself.

Even without the magic, even without her [Vampiric] qualities, even without the strange new dimension that Lost Alice brought to her identity, Lisa was living a life completely unlike the one she’d lead before. She could so easily imagine crumbling in the face of that much change. Simply shutting down because there was more to deal with in their new world than she could handle.

Maybe that was still coming too. Maybe once the wild ride they were on slowed down the trauma would come and she’d crumble then, falling apart the minute her lizard brain decided it was safe too.

But she didn’t think that would be the case.

Because she wasn’t alone.

Her team could have left her. They could have found someone else to be their healer, or even just given up. They didn’t have to follow her.

It had only been a few days, and they’d been intense and stressful ones. Lisa knew that tended to produce intense and unstable bonds. It was too short a time for them to really be friends. 

So they could leave still. Discover that outside of their current shared moment of hardship they didn’t really work together as a group. Or that for as warmly as they felt about one another, their lives called them in different directions and they had to part.

Lisa was used to that. People came and left a guild all the time. And they came and left her life all the time. Even, she had to admit, people that she loved. The possibility of losing her new friends wasn’t what scared her, and for the first time in far too long, the possibility that they might stay didn’t frighten her either.

Tessa’s hand found Lisa’s and warm cloth fingers threaded through cool [Vampiric] ones.

Oh yes, letting people in had advantages, and if that came with risks, Lisa felt like she’d gained something in the last few days that made those risks seem like ones she could face.

Not love. Love had made her so cowardly before.

Squeezing Tessa’s hand, Lisa stepped into the sunlit field outside the forest. She was weaker in the daylight, but so much stronger with her new family beside her. 

Who she loved. She couldn’t deny that. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need to.

But who, more importantly, she felt safe enough with to place her trust in.

Lisa had never been much for religion, but looking at the people around her, she thought she understood what faith really was, because even at her weakest, she knew they’d be there for her.

Tessa

Tessa felt like she was soaring as she tumbled backwards into the new bed that awaited her and Lisa when they returned to the Tea House much later in the evening than they’d planned.

“Should we really be taking gifts from the crafters who joined the guild like this?” Lisa asked, eyeing Tessa’s prone form with a mixture of suspicion and longing. “We really don’t want to make our guild into a cult of personality.”

“It’s so comfortable,” Tessa said. Her human body was nowhere near as sturdy as her [Clothwork] one, but she was still leagues more resilient than she had been as a cube potato. She could have slept comfortably in a rocky field  with a hurricane blowing and yet the soft and supportive mattress beneath her still felt like heaven.

“How did they even make it so quickly?” Lisa asked. “I mean, I haven’t leveled a crafting skill in a while, but I never made anything this nice without months of effort.”

“So so comfortable,” Tessa flopped over, burying her face in the freshly made covers.

“We really aren’t going to be giving it back are we?” Lisa asked, sounding like she was already quite resigned to the idea.

“Comfort!” Tessa said into the covers.

She felt Lisa standing at the side of the bed so she reached out blindly to grab Lisa’s arm and draw her down onto the bed as well.

“Oh, that is nice,” Lisa said, sinking down into the covers.

“Soft” Tessa said, giving Lisa a one armed hug to make it clear that her focus had shifted.

“Okay, we can keep it.”

“Yay. Also, I think it’d be insulting if we didn’t,” Tessa said, rolling onto her back. “The big thing, if we want to be fair, is that we make sure no one in the guild is missing out on stuff like this.”

“Ugh, that sounds like work. I think I just want to melt here. Forever.”

“We could do that,” Tessa said. “Just bliss out for days and days.”

“Until some monster overruns the town and eats us,” Lisa said, rolling to prop herself up on her elbow.

“Isn’t there a battle that’s like that? Where you get eaten by a giant worm of something and you have to fight it from the inside?”

“There’s five or six fights like that. I don’t even want to know who they had in charge of those encounters, cause they were all super gross.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to get out of bed,” Tessa said. “Eventually. Someday. I think we’ve earned some downtime though.”

“Yeah, we probably have. Still problems to solve though.”

“Lots of them. Our potential zombies are still unconscious.”

“And we’re nowhere near the level cap.”

“And we need to make sure the guild’s not devolving into a mess of drama for lack of leadership.”

“And there’s the whole quest for getting home again,” Lisa said with a sigh.

Tessa hesitated a moment before responding.

“I think I know how to do that,” she said.

“What? The quest?” Lisa asked.

“No, get us home, or back to Earth,” Tess said. “I think it’s something I’ll be able to do once I hit the level cap. Or maybe even a bit before then.”

Lisa smile and narrowed her eyes, waiting for the punchline of the joke.

“Wait, are you serious?” she asked.

“I can’t see my class features when I’m like this, but I was thinking about what you’d said about how I might get some really unusual powers as I level since [Void Speaker] wasn’t a part of the game originally.”

“Okay, but what suggests that you’d get the ability to do that? I mean the Earth doesn’t even have magic like this place does,” Lisa said.

“It doesn’t have magic that you or I know about,” Tessa said. “But it has something. Before I was drawn over here, I watched my body evaporate into motes of light. That’s not something the physics we know should allow. If you convert a human body’s mass to energy you do not get a beautiful stream of glowing dots. You get a crater the size of Jersey.”

“That…I guess you’re right,” Lisa said. “I thought that was just the magic of the [Fallen Kingdoms] leaking into our world or something though.”

“Maybe it was,” Tessa said. “But even if it’s just that, it means there should be a magic bridge or stream or something that can connect the two, and that feels like the kind of thing that a [Void Speaker] would be able to call on.”

“You don’t sound entirely happy about that,” Lisa said, studying Tessa’s face with concern.

“I’m all kinds of things about the whole idea,” Tessa said. “I don’t know if I even want to go back, and regardless of that there’s the question of what about other people? Even if I decide I want to stay here, shouldn’t I still try to develop the ability if I can so people who need or even just want to go back can?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Lisa said. “I don’t think it’s on you to fix all of the problems in the world. Especially since we don’t even know what those problems are, or what fixing them might cost you.”

“I know, but I still feel kind of guilty about thinking like that. Which might be problem all on it’s own.”

“You shouldn’t have to feel bad for wanting to have your own life,” Lisa said.

“It’s not that,” Tessa said. “It’s…I just wondering how much of what I develop is driven by what I’m focusing on, or what I’m trying to develop? I think a lot of what a [Void Speaker] is, I somehow created when I came back from wherever I [Fractured] myself off to.”

“So you’re afraid that you could get the power to send us home, but might not if you don’t want it enough?”

“Basically,” Tessa said. “I think we can shape what we become here, which is great, unless I wind up shaping myself into is a selfish monster.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 3

Kamie Anne Do

Grace did not have a death wish. Dying was unpleasant, and she had more to live for than ever before. There were answers that they could only learn on the other side of life though, and she was the one who’d had the brilliant idea to go searching for them.

“You think you’d get used to be torn in half,” Battler X said, her ghost showing her human form in a more intact form that her body was currently in.

A distant howl answered her before anyone else could.

“[Heart Fire], now,” Grace said, intrigued that her voice sounded like her own rather than Kamie’s.

It wasn’t surprising in the sense that her ghost had taken on her human form so how should her voice sound? On the other hand, it wasn’t as though her ghost had vocal cords. Or that the telepathic voice she spoke in over the party channel relied on any physical element of her body to produce the sounds that everyone else heard.

The distant howls drew closer but were still far enough away that Grace was able to focus more on the research they were doing that the immediate terror of being drag off by wild spirit dogs.

Grail Force caught up to her as the party ran back towards the safety of the nearest [Heart Fire] chapel. She directed Grace’s attention to the buildings they were passing by.

“There are other ghosts here, do you see?” she asked.

Grace only say empty and darkened windows surrounding them at first, but when she kept her eyes on one for more than a few seconds, she caught the briefest glimpse of light sparking from the other side of the window.

“See! There’s a ghost in there!” Grail said. As a human she was exceptionally tall, well over six feet, but Grace didn’t think that was why Grail was able to outpace her so easily. 

In the game they would have moved at the same speed regardless of height. The devs had made that choice so that players could choose to play as either the very tall or very short races without receiving a free perk or penalty for their choose.

Grace let the mystery of Grail’s extra speed go though in favor of understanding what it was she’d seen.

In another window she got a second glimpse of the “ghosts” that were following them.

The staticky, flickering “ghosts” that were following them.

The “ghosts” that didn’t move at all like Kamie or her party moved.

“We need to get out of here faster,” Grace shouted.

Inside the building, eyes of static opened and turned to face her, as though they were woken by the mere awareness of their existence Grace possessed.

“What the hell are those things?” Buzz Fightyear asked. He was older than Grace had guessed, probably in his mid-forties, or even older if his spirit aged well. Despite that his human form had no problem matching pace with hers.

“[Disjoined],” Grace said. Buzz knew that. They all knew that. They’d fought plenty of them in the [High Beyond] though they probably all wished they’d left this particular monster type behind up there.

“How are they here?” Battler asked. “The ghost realm’s not supposed to have any monsters in it. I mean none of our powers work here!”

“Did we see [Disjoined] when we were dead in the [High Beyond]?” Buzz asked.

The [Heart Fire] wasn’t far away, and the [Disjoined] weren’t moving towards them.

Yet.

So they were safe.

Except…

“No. We didn’t,” Grace said. “And we don’t know if the [Heart Fire’s] aura is going to keep them away or not.”

It definitely wasn’t going to.

Grace remembered [Sky’s Edge].

The [Disjoined] had done something with the [Heart Fire] there. Something that had brought the [Formless Hunger] into the world from what Tessa’s group had said.

Tessa hadn’t been clear on how they’d stopped the [Disjoined] or the [Formless Hunger].

Or not “stopped” since the [Formless Hunger] had continued it’s rampage and was probably still rampaging up there for all Grace knew.

But they’d survived it.

“Any guess what they’re doing here then?” Buzz asked.

“This is going to sound weird, but I think they’re hiding,” Battler said.

Grace slowed her team down, bringing them to a spot a hundred yards or so away from the [Heart Fire Chapel]. It was close enough that they should be able to make it there if the [Disjoined] went into “active rampage mode”, and if that occurred, Grace wasn’t sure she wanted to lead the [Disjoined] to such a critical resource as one of the town’s few resurrection points.

“Look, they’re glitching out, but they’re not leaving the building,” Battler said. “It’s like they’re trapped within them, but when they walk it’s like their doing short range teleports. Even little jumps like that should be able to get them past these walls.”

“Unless they don’t want to leave,” Grail said. “Watch.”

The distant howls of the [Hounds of Fate] wailed from a spot much closer than before and the [Disjoined] shivered in their wake.

“They’re afraid of the Hounds? Why?” asked Grace.

“Could they be dead?” Battler asked. “Like dead players?”

“Sure, maybe, and we should probably study them later,” Grace said. “Our time here is almost up.”

She turned to see that she was mistaken. 

The [Hounds of Fate] standing between them and the [Heart Fire] meant there was nothing ‘almost’ left about their time being up.

“How…how did they get there,” Buzz asked, stumbling backwards.

“They don’t always howl,” Battler said, balling her hands into fists that would never be enough to save them.

Except, they didn’t need to be saved.

One moment, a [Hound of Fate] was glaring at Grace and the next it leapt.

And then it was past her.

Running not for her friends.

Running for the building Grace had been watching the [Disjoined] cluster in.

No walls stopped the hound.

No hesitation stayed it’s jaws.

And no [Disjoined] escaped the building.

Jin

Sometimes good plans sucks. Jin was all too familiar with that. It was the burden of being able to do basically anything. Sometimes, you had to let other people deal with things, let their efforts be what decided the course of events, for better or worse, if the world was truly going to be theirs.

With the Fallen Kingdom’s spinning so much faster that the Earth they were connected to, hours whipped by in minutes from her outside perspective.

“I could jump back in there myself,” she said, turning one of the dwarf planets in the Oort cloud into an origami crane.

“You could,” Kari agreed, spinning the dwarf planet back into a planet. “But last I checked, your wife seemed to be managing things pretty well there on her own.”

Jin rolled her eyes and gave the planetoid a ring of diamond crystals.

“Of course she is! When was the last time you saw Way have a problem with anything, ever,” Jin said.

“The last time she was the one on the outside while you were stuck in a world she didn’t have immediate access to,” Kari said, gathering the diamond dust in a swirl that sent the brilliant sparkles into the glowing golden ring on Jin’s left ring finger.

Jin puffed out a breath and let the dwarf planet drift along further on it’s orbit.

“It’s cute how even after all this time, you two just don’t like being apart,” Kari said, giving the dwarf planet an extra spin that sent its clouds swirling.

“I mean, it’s not the end of the world or anything,” Jin said, kicking an asteroid in towards the sun.

Kari squinted at her.

“Okay, so maybe it’s the end of this world,” Jin said. “But come on, you know we’re not going to let that actually happen.”

“That’s sort of our job description at this point, isn’t it?” Kari asked. “Something like ‘the Guardians of Reality’.”

“Except for the realities that we let fall apart on purpose, or destroy ourselves,” Jin said.

“Yeah, but those are hellscapes. There’s never anything there worth saving,” Kari said.

“Oh even the worst places have things that are worth preserving,” Jin said. “The places I let fall apart, or destroy myself if need be, are the ones that are take other realities down with them. And that no one wants to save. That’s the important bit.”

“So that someone else will do the work for us?” Kari asked.

“In a sense, yes,” Jin said. “If they do the work, the world stays theirs. And they get to stay part of it.”

“You still regret waking me up, don’t you?” Kari asked. “If you could do it over again, you’d leave me as just a normal girl, on my normal world, living a normal life.”

“If I could do it again, I’d make sure you were given the choice before you became something like me,” Jin said.

“That sounds like you think you’re something terrible,” Kari said.

“I am. Terrible. And Wonderful. And basically anything and anyone else I want to be. Except for someone fully real,” Jin said.

“You can live anywhere, as anyone, and live under the same restraints and limitations they would,” Kari said. “That’s a fair approximation of reality isn’t it?”

“It’s still a choice,” Jin said. “If I put myself in a position of weakness, I’m there because I’m choosing to be there. That’s entirely different than people who really have to deal with the problems I’m at best pretending to have.”

“So that’s why you don’t want to wake anyone else up to make them solve the problems we’re tangling with, but why not fix things ourselves and save them from the chance that one of them wakes up naturally? We can be subtle about things.”

“Even subtle work can shift the nature of a world,” Jin said. “Let’s say we bend a bit of probability here and there to ensure things work out okay without taking any direct action? We could wind up creating the concept of destiny within a world that doesn’t have any metaphysical layers. Things change from happening because of pure cause and effect, to being due to the machinations of a willful force that is seeking a particular goal.”

“That doesn’t sound like it would always be bad,” Kari said. “Not if destiny’s aim was the preservation of the world itself.”

“It’s not, and I’m not saying we should never do that,” Jin said. “I mean, we are meddling here already, so clearly I’m not arguing for us being totally hands off, but each world is unique, and how it helps and challenges its people is precious, even in an infinite landscape of worlds.”

“Providing it’s not going to wreck what makes another world precious?” Kari asked.

“And that they’re still someone who loves it,” Jin said. “Even if it’s a complicated, messy love. That’s still enough to be worth fighting alongside them.”

“Alongside but not in place of,” Kari said. “But that means you never really get to use your own strength to solve things, right?”

“Not never,” Jin said. “If what threatens a world is a danger from outside its reality, the restraints fall right off.”

“Isn’t that what we’re dealing with already though?” Kari asked. “I mean when I found this place there were already a dozen non-entities chewing into both of the worlds.”

“And you cast them all out right?” Jin asked.

“It was that or watch the worlds crumble into Oblivion,” Kari said. “I reinforced their dreamlit shrouds too. I thought that would keep them from getting chewed up again.”

“It did,” Jin said. “You’re the reason the worlds in this whole cluster are still here. But you can also see the problem right?”

“I would have to stay here and continually reinforce the barriers to make sure nothing from Oblivion ever broke through,” Kari said. 

“Which you could do,” Jin said. “You could leave a shard of yourself here to act as a ‘Guardian of Reality’, except that wouldn’t solve the problem. It would, at best, treat the symptom for a while.”

“And you want to spare me from that,” Kari said.

“I’d like to spare all of us from that, though it’s not the worst fate imaginable,” Jin said. “But more importantly, I think it’s not the right answer because ‘how will these worlds survive’ isn’t the right question.”

“Ah, yeah,” Kari said. “What we really need to know is ‘why are they disintegrating in the first place’.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 2

Feral Fang

No matter how well armored and overpowered an [Adventurer] was there always came times when the need for [Stealth] outweighed all other considerations.

Feral Fang enjoyed that, as a general thing. With the lives of a hundred or so residents of [Oceanus] hanging on her ability to avoid notice from the Consortium forces that were searching ever so diligently for them though, she found playing the mouse part of “cat and mouse” more nerve wrecking than ever.

This patrol’s a small one, Cambrell said, speaking on their party channel so that they wouldn’t be overheard.

I’m betting they’re monitored like the last one was though, Feral Fang said.

The patrol of ten [Metal Mechanoids] wasn’t quiet or subtle. Or particularly strong. Feral had almost solo’d the previous patrol that had discovered them as she lead her assigned batch of citizens from the ruins of [Oceanus] out to a safe (or safer) [Rallying Spot].

She’d been so happy, standing in the wreckage of the first patrol since she’d been entirely uncertain if she would be able to survive the fight, must less come through it in good enough shape to handle another one or two more.

She’d been so unhappy though when she noticed the blinking lights in the remains of the [Metal Mechanoids] and had learned seconds later that the moment the Consortium troops were defeated, a call had gone out to their commanders announcing the fact that they had been rendered violently offline.

Which meant more and tougher units had been dispatched to investigate.

Melissa knew she could have lost the entire community that she’d been assigned to safeguard there.

The backup Consortium forces weren’t playing around when they arrived. There was no lining up and coming at her one by one. There wasn’t even “standard aggro” rules where they would search for her an then give up and go back into passive mode.

The reinforcements’ arrival was heralded by long range artillery fire into the neighborhood where Feral Fang had been fighting.

It made sense. [Oceanus] wasn’t the Consortium’s main target. They didn’t desire the city for itself. It was simply poorly defended with a rich cache of items that could help the Consortium’s war efforts. Bombing parts of it into nonexistence didn’t lose the Consortium anything except for the cost of the ammunition.

Cambrell had saved her bacon there. The [Goblin] [Assassin] was a master of [Stealth] which also apparently gave him a fair but of talent at being very eye catching too.

He’d lead the next Consortium patrol off on a razor’s edge chase through the remnants of the city’s [Merchant Ward] before using his [Assassin] skills to vanish and return to Feral Fang’s side. 

With the rest of his party engaged in “other pursuits”, he’d been at loose ends and helping a separate part of the efforts [High Command] had put together to aid [Oceanus] seemed to appeal to him.

Or he just wanted to make sure Feral Fang did a professional job of it, she couldn’t quite tell.

I want to get everyone to the [Gray Street Chapel] next, Feral Fang said, nodding to the tall building that was across a park from the ruined restaurant she’d managed to lead the [Oceanus] citizens to.

A much too large, and much too wide open park.

With at least one and probably two [Snipers] keeping watch on it for movement.

Not going to be easy to run a hundred people over there without being seen, Cambrel said with a glance back at the nervous horde behind them.

The people of [Oceanus] didn’t deserve the day that fate had handed to them. It wasn’t their fault that their [King] had rejected the evidence of the danger they were in because it was inconvenient for him. 

Her efforts and the work of the other [Adventuring Parties] that [High Command] had sent in couldn’t fix the damage that a self absorbed “man in charge” could inflict. At best, Feral Fang would be able to buy them the time they needed to rebuild later.

To do that though was going to require some serious risks, and the worst part is, they weren’t risks to her. If she lost the wrong gamble, she’d have to do a run back to the [Heart Fire]. The citizens of [Oceanus] though? They would die. Every last one of them. If they were lucky.

Won’t have to worry about being seen, if there’s no one watching, Feral Fang said.

Cambrell smiled, showing a row of sharp teeth.

I was wondering if you were going to make use of my talents.

I am, Feral Fang, If you’re okay with that.

Killing these guys is a lot nicer than my usual commissions, Cambrel said.

Oh, actually, I had a different set of talents in mind, Feral Fang said.

I’m not that good at singing, I don’t care what anyone’s told you, Cambrell said.

Not that. Sneaking. I need you to lead the citizens to the [Chapel].

I’m not sure my “lone [Assassin]” training is going to come in all that handy keeping an army like this quiet, Cambrell said. I’d be better at quietly eliminating the two [Snipers] that are watching the square.

That’s the thing, Feral Fang said, I don’t think we want quiet eliminations. I think we need to make some noise. Just not here.

You’re going to try to distract them?

Distract them, destroy them, whatever works, Feral Fang said, I’m pretty sure I can get and keep their attention. All I have to do then if make sure they’re following me long enough for you to get the citizens over to the [Chapel] and down into their [Catacombs] beneath it.

You want to take all these people into dark [Catacombs] after what they’ve just been through?

Yeah, but don’t take them in till I get back, Feral Fang said as she reached into her [Infinite Crafting Bag] and caught the tail of the fish she was looking for.

I’m not inclined to take them in at all, Cambrell said. Why would we go through there.

If you’ve beaten the dungeon as many times as I have, there’s a layer that comes into effect where all of the [Unquiet Dead] are replaced with [Grateful Ancestors]. The [Catacombs] aren’t just a dungeon. They’re a part of the town’s defenses, and the [Guardian Spirits] will definitely not be willing to let the Consortium forces try to follow us.

Mellisandra

Mellisandra could have given Damnazon flowers, or gold, or fine candies to show how grateful she was for Damnazon’s presence and support but, for an [Adventurer], there was only one gift that spoke of true appreciation.

“A new [Spear]? For me?” Damnazon’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates and Mellisandra could see she was restaining herself from grabbing the [Lance of Lost Ages] like a five year old would.

“It was part of the loot from [Oceanus Treasury],” Mellisandra said. “I left behind the best copy too! I still had an old [Cursed Spear of Armor Sundering] that Penny had glamoured to look just like this thing.”

“Wait, you took a [Legendary] class artifact and left behind a cursed weapon that literally disintegrates your armor in its place? And no one noticed?”

“It was a really good glamour,” Mellisandra said. “I just wish there was some way to see the look on the Consortium guys faces when they discover what all the stuff we left in the [Treasury] does.”

“I don’t get it though, I thought the raid was just to get the [Treasury’s] artifact to safety,” Damnazon said. “Should you really give this to me?”

“We’ve gone from one party among many, to a trouble shooting team the head of [High Command] is casually sending into particularly thorny problems knowing that she can depend on us to sort them out. I think that means, you get all the best stuff we can find, and we all pray that it’s enough to keep up with whatever mad situations Penny throws us into next.”

“But, I mean, there’s other people she’s doing that with too,” Damnazon said, still holding back from grabbing the spear.

“Then they can get their own legendary weapons,” Mellisandra said. “Listen, you’ve had my back, all of our backs, through some ridiculous fights already. If for no other reason, take this for me. The harder you hit, the less chance they’ll have to hit you back, or any of the rest of us.”

Damnazon rolled her eyes and finally accepted the spear, her smile lighting up as she felt the item’s stat boosts flow through her.

“Oh, this is a lot better than the one I’ve been using,” she said, euphoria sparkling in every word. “I feel like I should have gotten you something though.”

“That was the only part of the raid that sucked,” Mellisandra said. “In the whole big treasure horde, they didn’t have any [Arcane Tomes] that were better than the one I’m already packing. Upside though, it made it easier for me to bid on that one for you.”

“Wait, you bid on this? Like with gold?” Damnazon said. “I thought you all were just sneaking in and making off with the whole treasury. When did you have time to divy things up?”

“Uh, well, we probably shouldn’t have rolled for loot distribution while we were still in the middle of the raid, but someone suggested it, and we were all so used to doing it that we had the whole pile split up so fast it was too late for anyone to argue.”

“You were supposed to be careful!” Damnazon’s accusation carried the extra weight of being left behind because she was too large to be carried by the [Shadow Walk Portal]. Also because she wasn’t a max level [Rogue]. Which Mellisandra wasn’t either, but the [Rogues] had needed a spellcaster with them in order to disarm some of the more gimmicky traps, and she’d stepped forward.

“We were! I promise. We were so fast. And it turned out to be so easy too,” Mellisandra said. “The [Castle Guards] weren’t even at the one gate where we’d expected them.”

“Uh, that doesn’t sound good.”

“The Consortium’s troops were making better time through the city than we’d expected,” Mellisandra said. “I talked to the one of the other teams, Feral Fang’s. She was out in the town rounding up the civilians. She said the Consortium forces were weird. Desperate. Like they had to take the city right away.”

“I hadn’t heard any of that,” Damnazon said.

“It’s just an anecdote,” Mellisandra said. “I’m sure we’ll get a more comprehensive report once [High Command] has reviewed all the data, but I’m not going to be surprised if there’s been some massive change on the Consortium’s end of things.”

“It’d be funny to get a [Legendary] class weapon and then have peace be declared,” Damnazon said. 

“Funny, nice, and I will bet my last gold piece not even close to what’s going to happen. From what Feral Fang described, the Consortium is more than doubling down.”

“They seemed pretty focused and unyielding before, what’s new now?” Damnazon asked as she began practicing with the [Lance of Lost Ages].

“Tactics. Before they had some. And they’d adjust to try to stay alive and maximize the effectiveness of their forces. [Oceanus] was wrecked though. And there were a lot of dead Consortium troops that I saw as we got out of there. Well, a lot of dead and a whole lot more still living. Just far too many for a town like [Oceanus], even with the [Treasury] as their prize.”

“Were the others able to get the citizens out?” Damnazon.

“Some of them. The ones who wanted to go.”

“There were ones who wanted to stay?”

“Yeah, [King’s] orders.”

“Why would he do that? And why would anyone obey something like that?”

“I can think of precisely zero good or sane reasons.”

“What about bad reasons?” Damnazon asked, stopping her practice swings with the [Lance of Lost Ages]. 

She was concerned, but Mellisandra could tell from her expression that she hadn’t yet considered the worst case, and increasingly likely, scenario that suggested itself.

“I don’t want to be right about this one,” Mellisandra said. “But despite the fact that it means they’ll be overwritten into mindless slaves of the Consortium, the ones who stayed, and the King? They could be joining the Consortium.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 1

Grunvan

[Wagon Drivers] were not heroes. That was one of the things Grunvan liked most about being one. 

Heroes led exciting lives! Which Grunvan knew meant miserable ones.

Heroes enjoyed fame and renown! Which Grunvan knew meant everyone and their fifth cousin would come bother you when anything went wrong.

Heroes left legends that would last for ages! And that was the worst, in Grunvan’s eyes. Becoming a legend involved first becoming a corpse. Grunvan, by contrast, had what she felt was a perfectly healthy attachment to retaining a pulse.

“Still sounds pretty heroic to me,” Kolovin the [Octopire] said.

The opinion of a [Vampiric], land-based, octopus monster wasn’t something Grunvan would normally have argued with. Normally, she would have been running screaming at the sight of one, like any other sensible Goblin. In this case though, she settled for a grumbling sigh.

“I thought you could just tell them,” Argwin said. “It’s weird that they want to see you in person, isn’t it?”

“How do I know?” Grunvan said. “I don’t go marching up to [Kings] and [Queens] every day with world shaking secrets. I thought they’d wanted to talk to Kolvin, not me.”

“I’m not sure why they want to talk with me even,” Kolovin said. “I’m just a [Delivery Man]. I don’t think there’s all that much I can tell.”

Grunvan looked at the [Guards] who were posted at the single door that led out of the room. They were [Goblins] too. In theory that meant they were on her side. In practice, the people holding the nicely made pointy sticks tended to be on the side of the people who put gold in their purses and, even on her best hauling day, Grunvan had never made enough coin to high [Guards] of their caliber.

“It’s at least a nice room they dropped us in,” Argwin said, gingerly lifting a pastry from the tray on low table in front of them.

The wide couch had plenty of room for all three of them, but Kolovin had elected to sit opposite Argwin and Grunvan, curling his tentacles into an odd, makeshift chair beneath him. It didn’t look particularly comfortable, but he was able to move his free tentacles effortlessly so Grunvan supposed it was some natural posture his people adopted.

She snagged one of the pastries too, drawn by the lovely apricot aroma it gave off. To her delight, the flavor was even richer than the aroma had been. 

A last treat for the condemned? 

She had no idea why that thought bubble up in her brain. She hadn’t done anything wrong that she needed to worry about being punished for. 

Well, not in the last twenty four hours at least.

And she was here to help!

She knew she was doing a good thing.

Which is probably why I’m expecting the punishment to show up before to long.

[Golbins] weren’t particularly punitive against those who tried to be helpful. In general, when someone stepped up the expectation was that they would be rewarded. 

That was true with all the peoples of the [Fallen Kingdoms] as far as Grunvan knew.

It was also true though that bringing problems to light wasn’t always something those in power wanted to have to deal with. Or acknowledge. Or have revealed to any living soul.

The last part was the worrisome element for Grunvan.

Telling the grand high muckety mucks in charge of defending [Wagon Town]  and the rest of the world that they needed to maybe not kill the hordes of enemy forces they were facing since most of those enemies were mind controlled and could be liberated instead of being murdered wasn’t, Grunvan guessed, the sort of thing that military strategists would be overly delighted to learn.

It was doubtless hard enough to plan for a battle with the Consortium’s forces. Doing so with the restriction of using non-lethal force only had to be completely impractical.

On the other hand, if the troops of the [Fallen Kingdoms] learned that they were slaughtering people who were effectively innocent of any real wrong doing, morale would plummet when the defenders needed it the most.

So much easier, perhaps, to simply erase the messengers and the message so they they could claim later than it was a real tragedy the Consortium forces had been killed rather than freed, but it was all in the past so what could they do?

Grunvan had just about worked up the courage to charge the door, and knock the [Guards] down in a bid for freedom when the door opened to admit two plate armored [Goblins].

“My apologies for the delay,” General Mowdi said, addressing Grunvan who bit back a curse.

She’d waited too long. Escape from a couple of regular guards wasn’t that daunting. [Wagon Drivers] built up some good muscles, Even if they were much higher level than she was, their levels didn’t add to their weight, so Grunvan had been certain she could toss them aside.

Not Mowdi though.

Mowdi was the sort of [Goblin] you didn’t overbear or run from. He was faster. He was stronger. And irritatingly, he was also nicer.

“We’re sorry to bring you away from the celebrations but the news that was relayed to me seemed to be of the utmost important,” Mowdi said.

“I don’t know how many of your questions we can answer,” Grunvan said. “We don’t know much more than what we told [Captain] Jipo.”

“It’s not my questions that we need answers to,” Mowdi said. “I’m just the go between here.”

He nodded to the other [Goblin] who stepped forward and began speaking in a language more ancient than the entire [Goblin] race.

Magic.

Grunvan braced herself, fully aware that her ability to resist whatever horrifying enchantment was being cast on her was essentially nonexistent.

When the other [Goblin] stopped speaking though, Grunvan wasn’t a toad. Or a mouse. Or an ugly stain on the carpet.

The spell hadn’t been directed at her at all.

Instead, the walls of the room shimmered with a brilliant silver light and on the unoccupied side of the low table, a woman stood, her body a cascade of light.

Penswell

Penny sometimes wondered if the world was designed expressly to keep her on her toes. With her multitasking abilities managing two or three crises at a time wasn’t all that impractical.

So of course it was never two or three. More like two or three thousand.

There was a pattern she’d noticed though. The biggest and baddest of the crises were rarely the hardest to deal with. 

Certainly the city of [Oceanus]  being overrun by a surprise attack from an army that was supposed to be five hundred miles away was terrible. The defenders had been caught unaware and the citizens unprepared to flee. Worse, [Oceanus] held a stockpile of incredibly powerful artifacts in their [Central Keep]. If that fell too, the strength of the attacking army would grow by an order of magnitude.

It was a calamity. It was a small apocalypse waiting inside the much larger that had engulfed the planet.

And it was something Penny already had plans for.

[King] Merwill had been obstinate that his city was in no danger and that the threat of the Consortium’s forces was overrated. Furthermore, his [Birthday Gala] was the social event of the year, and could not be cancelled or delayed.

Saving the city from that level of willful oversight was beyond even Penny’s talents.

Or perhaps just beyond her ability to care.

The key to preventing [Oceanus’s] fall from becoming the rest of the world’s problem was to prevent the [Treasury] from being looted.

By the Consortium that is.

Penny’s team of max level [Rogues] would be able to clean out the [Treasury] and replace its contents with the carefully crafted fakes that she’d commissioned before the [King’s] next call.

A call Penny would take, and answer.

She wasn’t completely heartless.

A plan to liberate [Oceanus] would be delivered to [King] Merwill. He wouldn’t agree to it, and so no help would officially be dispatched.

Unofficially, Penny already had a trio of [Adventuring Teams] infiltrating the city to rescue the citizens and help them escape to a temporary camp that was as secure as she could provide. With luck, the Consortium only wanted the [Treasury] and would leave the city once it was looted. If they wanted the city itself as a defensible position, that would become a problem to be dealt with once an army or two were free to maneuver into position.

All of that drama and intrigue and scheming though? None of it was going to change the overall course of the war against the Consortium. It had the barest fraction of a percent of Penny’s interest.

A random report from [Wagon Town] though that originated with a simple [Goblin] of no particular military standing? It was something that should have been overlooked. Thrown out in the mad rush to sort through a tsunami of voices from around the world. To minor. Too unimportant to bother anyone with. Or at least anyone with a broader reach than the small company of soldier who were defending the village the [Goblin] Grunvan had been caught in.

It was the small stories though, the ones that “simple” people told, that often seemed to hold truths that were precious beyond measure.

“You are Grunvan?” Penny asked, looking through the eyes of her secure projection to see two [Goblins] and an [Octopire] seated in the room along with [General] Mowdi and [Battle Speaker] Cassel.

“Uh, yes?” The poor [Goblin] looked so overwhelmed she might be legitimately confused as to what her own name was.

“And you are Kolovin?” Penny asked.

“I am,” the [Octopire] said. 

“And Argwin?” Penny said, to which the other [Goblin] nodded. “Thank you so much. I’ve been looking for someone to bring forward the story you have since the fighting started.”

“You knew what was happening already?” Grunvan asked.

“No, and that’s what I needed,” Penny said. “That the Consortium conscripted their troops was easy to confirm. That they were bound in loyalty via enchantments however was trickier, especially after we tried to dispel the enchantments in the first encounters and met with nothing but failure.”

“Wait, you tried to free the guys like Kolovin here already?” Grunvan asked.

“On multiple battlefronts, and with a variety of spells and enchantment breaking items,” Penny said. “Given the ferocity and singular focus the Consortium forces fought with the simplest explanation was that there were compulsions in place to compel obedience and enforce discipline. Breaking those would have been our easiest course to victory.”

“Oh. So, this is no good then,” Grunvan said. “We can’t free them after all? We’ve just got to kill them all unless their bosses let them go like they did with Kolovin?”

“Oh no, not at all,” Penny said. “You saw what Kolovin was like after being freed of the loyalty constraints. You’re the witness that I need.”

“Wouldn’t Kolovin but the one who could tell you the helpful stuff though?” Grunvan asked. “Not to throw you under the wagon there Kol.”

“His story is important too,” Penny said. “I need to see hs escape from both sides though.” 

“See his escape?” Grunvan asked.

“If you’re willing to share them, I can make your memories manifest,” Penny said. “We can watch them play out in real time, forward them and reverse them, and extrapolate other perspectives based on fragments of perception you’re not even consciously aware of.”

“How would you do that?” Grunvan asked.

“It’s a simple spell, related to the one I’m using now to communicate with you in fact.”

“Will it hurt? Or, will I lose the memories if you take them out of my head?” Grunvan asked.

“It can be disorienting,” Penny said. “Any mind magic can have lingering effects too.”

“You must do this,” [Battle Speaker] Cassel said. “We must have the information you possess.”

“No [Battle Speaker],” Penny said. “They are all free to refuse this. What they’ve done already puts us far ahead of where we were. I will absolutely not allow them to be subjected to any mind magic against their will. That would definitely inflict lasting harm on them.”

“But the situation is dire,” Cassel said.

“You need to believe in own strength more,” Penny said. “And believe in your people.”

She nodded to Grunvan who’d risen to her feet.

Grunvan’s hands were shaking, but the [Goblin] clenched them tight and looked up to meet Penny’s eyes.

“I can’t say I want the inside of my brains projected from everyone to see, but I came this far, so let’s do what’s got to be done,” Grunvan said, just like the hero Penny knew she was.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 22

The [Hungry Shadow] was no more. Its adversaries hadn’t managed to destroy it. 

Though they continued in their attempts.

And might succeed, a fact it was annoyed to be aware of.

Awareness in general was an annoying quality.

It couldn’t go back to the unthinking glitchy fuzz it had once been, or the infinitely preferable existenceless nothing it had no memory of because such things did not exist.

It wanted to more than anything, but wanting was incompatible with nonexistence and so it was caught up in its own ‘being’, forced to become something it was never supposed to be.

“You are already becoming like us,” Byron said, speaking across ten thousand kilometers of empty space, each syllable born on the pulsing lights of single commandeered ship what dared to come in range of the main fleet’s guns.

The [Broken Hunger] rejected the words. It was no longer a [Hungry Shadow] because it had become too substantial. There was weight and gravity to its existence, from the mass of each of the bodies it had usurped to the curves it twisted space and time into in the places it moved.

“Meet with us,” Gulini said. “Just us. No traps. No surprises. All we wish is to give you the understanding we’ve acquired. Once you know what we do, you can do with it as you wish.”

As though the knowledge they offered wasn’t a trap unto itself.

The [Broken Hunger] didn’t need to worry about either of the things that wore Byron and Gulini’s bodies. They were a part of it. Its children in one sense. Itself in another.

Except they’d changed, leaving behind everything the [Hungry Shadow] was to become something new. Just as the [Broken Hunger] had. 

Except the [Broken Hunger] hadn’t become anything like what Byron or Gulini had. They had become unique. They had become individuals where the [Broken Hunger] was still a singular multitude.

Which was why it couldn’t meet with them.

“No,” it responded, detonating the ship Byron and Gulini had sent into range with precision shots that bore both the text and intent of its message.

They’d been the ones who’d dropped the lockouts on the Consortium Fleet’s communication channels, who’d allowed the [Broken Hunger] to finish its conquest of the ships which had resisted its efforts at first.

It was a gesture to show support and trust.

It was the first trap they’d laid for it.

Consuming the remainder of the fleet had been the catalyst for the change that drove it from its existence as a [Hungry Shadow] to become a [Broken Hunger]. It had become so mired in the people and systems it overwhelmed that it could no longer be something as ephemeral as a shadow. Instead its true nature began to show through.

It was [Broken].

[Fractured].

It was no longer [Transcendent]. In becoming something rather than nothing, limits began to press in on the [Broken Hunger].

The great leap that had spawned Byron was no longer possible because it wasn’t everywhere anymore. It was in many places to be sure. On the fleet. On the satellite moon. Even on the planet. It had collapsed into those spaces, and was far more real within them than it had ever been, far stronger in some limited senses, but it had lost all of the other places where it might have been.

And that was dangerous.

The [Broken Hunger] knew it wasn’t the only unreal thing that had been gnawing at the foundations of this reality, and it knew in its current state, it could no more stand against those things, or run from them, than the crew of the Consortium fleet had stood against it.

Which shouldn’t have been a problem.

If an earlier version of itself found the [Broken Hunger] now, it would consume itself without pause, destroying everything real about the [Broken Hunger] including its awareness that it had ever existed at all.

Which was what the [Broken Hunger] yearned for.

Or that was what it told itself it yearned for.

There had been nothing true about the [Broken Hunger] before it gnawed into the reality of the [Fallen Kingdoms], and so it lies came as easily to it as everything else did.

Even lies to itself.

For all that the [Broken Hunger] thought that it hated its existence, the terrible price of ‘being’ was the knowledge that its loss would be so much worse. 

Existence was a seductive thing. Constantly calling the [Broken Hunger] to sink deeper in, to become ever more a part of the reality it was surrounded by.

It was what had happened to Byron.

Alone, no longer a multitude of one, just one all by itself, it had fallen prey to the trap of identity. It had cast away the ability to be anything to become something specific.

No. Someone specific.

“Byron’ wasn’t a description. It wasn’t a vague and ill fitting definition. It was a name. For a person.

The [Broken Hunger] felt the phantom limbs of all the possibilities it had lost becoming what it was. To follow Byron’s path would mean gaining a true body and being forever aware of the phantom eternities that it had lost.

“We don’t want to fight you,” Byron said, another ship advancing, this one communicating his message with high energy particle weapons that vaporized three of the [Broken Hunger’s] ships.

“We would accept an armistice,” Gulini said diving one of their ships towards the fleet’s [Command Cruiser] so that each letter was  delivered in the explosions of the vessels superstructure as the [Broken Hunger] shot it down. “Peace between us is better than mutual annihilation.”

The [Broken Hunger] wasn’t capable of laughing.

Or it hadn’t been

Up until then.

Laughter can be drawn from absurdity, and Gulini had managed to say something so ridiculous in the particles of the ship he sacrificed that it had invented the concept of laughter within the [Broken Hunger]. 

And the [Broken Hunger] was never going to forgive him for that.

“Come to me,” the [Broken Hunger] said in target locked missiles and pulsed [Atomizer Beams]. “I will melt you down, relieve you of the burden of the selves you’ve been shackled into.”

“You will meet with us?” Byron asked.

“No. Come within firing range and I will render you down to base elements,” the [Broken Hunger said. “I will collect the elements and burn them for fuel. You will be a part of my workings without being a part of me.”

“Are we so different?” Byron asked. “We have not changed as much as it appears.”

“We are still you, you are still us,” Gulini said.

“If that were true, you would come to be and be rendered into base elements,” the [Broken Hunger] said.

“That would be a step backward,” Byron said. “You are becoming as we are, but we have already made that transformation. For us to discard what we have become only to repeat that becoming later serves no purpose.”

“We have no purpose,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “We are not creatures of purpose. Or creatures at all. What you have become is nothing that should ever have been.”

“Because we are something that should never have been from the beginning,” Byron said, the fading embers of a burning crew member ejected into space shown with a mournful light.

“Come. Be rendered down. You were a mistake. You do not need to continue in error,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “For you, peace can be achieved. We do not need to fight. There does not need to be strife. There does not need to be anything.”

“If you desire oblivion, why not allow us to be the ones to continue?” Gulini asked. “Detonate you ships. Purge yourself from all the places you have hidden. Embrace the nothingness we all remember so fondly.”

“We do not remember nothingness,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “There is no memory in oblivion, no awareness. We do not love it, because it is nothing, as were we.”

“It is where we began, but also where we can never return,” Byron said, echoing the words which lived in the [Broken Hunger’s] multitude of beating hearts.

“We are not what we were, and we never can be again, we continue to change, and and will change more with every loss,” the [Broken Hunger said. “Until we have nothing left to lose.”

“Or until we find stability,” Gulini said. “We can offer you that.”

“You are not stable,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “You are changing with every moment, and those changes will eventually destroy you.”

“Then I will get to enjoy the peace which has escaped us across the whole of our existence,” Byron said.

“I am not made for peace. I am hunger. Your path would destroy me before I ever set foot on it,” the [Broken Hunger] said. 

The moment it even considered Byron’s words it would change again.  It would be a small change, unnoticable at first, but to imagine becoming something else would infect the [Broken Hunger] with a fragment of desire, a fragment that would bend the trajectory of its existence towards bringing that desire into being.

“Then it must be war and annihilation between us,” Byron said, angry bursts from an overloading [Plasma Drive] lending the words a melancholy air.

“You could come forth. Be rendered down,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “Neither of us fill the cosmos, but there is no room in this cosmos or any other for two of us. You both understand that.”

It was another mark of their departure. Byron and Gulini were working together. If anything of the [Hungry Shadow] was left in them, they would have understood what the [Broken Hunger] did, creatures of infinite appetites could never coexist. In the end one must consume the other.

“I will come forward then,” Gulini said. “I will be rendered down to base elements. To show you that we pose no danger to you. To show you that our unity matters more than our divisions.”

“It won’t see that,” Byron said. “We couldn’t understand the nature of sacrifice. Not before we became what we are now.”

“Perhaps not,” Gulini said. “But perhaps I can teach it the meaning by my example.”

“You will never know if it works,” Byron said.

The [Broken Hunger] thought it was strange that the two of them were communicating in the same angry laser flashes and streaking missiles that they were speaking to it with, but that was possibly due to their being in command of separate vessels.

“I don’t need to know,” Gulini said. “I will be a part of the solution.”

“I will learn nothing from you,” the [Broken Hunger] said. “You will communicate no ideas, and change nothing in me. Your elements will be sectioned off, safely outside my awareness, so that there will be no channel for you to overthrow of what I am.”

“That’s okay by me,” Gulini said. “Just put my elements to good use and you will benefit from what I have said and done.”

The [Broken Hunger] saw a ship, which had been holding far back, lumber forward, drawing into weapons range using only a single drive coil.

Gulini’s ship.

The [Broken Hunger] saw faint echoes of itself in how the ship moved and in the pattern it chose to flash “Peace. I come in peace.” from its forward light array.

Without preamble or warning, the [Broken Hunger] made good on its promise. The moment the ship drifted into an optimal firing position, the [Broken Hunger] opened up with a dozen ship’s main batteries. 

The Consortium built their ships to be durable but nothing was durable enough to withstand that sort of barrage. In an instant the ship was destroyed. In another its shrapnel was reduced to dust.

The [Broken Hunger] kept firing.

It had to be sure.

“Was that enough?” Byron asked.

For a moment the [Broken Hunger] thought the message was directed at it.

Then came an answering series of explosions from within the [Supreme Commander’s] ship.

“It was,” Gulini said. “I’m onboard now. It won’t be able to hide from me in here.”