Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 5

Pillowcase was bathed in flames and knee deep in steel melting acid, the walls around her had turned to lava, and the air was more razor sharp projectile than gas if measured by volume.

“Oh, come on, you’re not even trying yet!” she taunted the god-monster in front of her.

Hell’s Chosen, formerly one of the Gulini shards, slammed a taloned foot onto her that hit with enough force to ignite the atmosphere around her shield. In theory that should have driven her into the relatively flimsy granite floor like a tent peg, but among the many, many new abilities Pillowcase had developed, [Greater Structural Stability] meant that the spot she chose to fight on would only give way if she did.

And she was just getting started.

“Can you hold on for about six seconds? I want to try out one of my new spells,” Lisa asked privately.

“Go for it! He’s knocking off about fifty five percent of my health with each swing but I’ve got [Restoring Blood Fires] going so he doesn’t have a chance of dropping me till that runs out,” Pillowcase said.

“Shout when it’s five seconds from expiring,” Lisa said.

“Five second on the dot, no worries,” Pillowcase said, almost disappointed when an [Invocations of Planar Torment] from Matt compressed their foe into a singularity of agony and spit him back out three seconds later. 

Her disappointment didn’t stem from the spell failing to kill Hell’s Chosen – max level [Raid Bosses] never dropped to a single hit, not even when they were level capped down to something in the range level 70 characters could deal with.

She wasn’t disappointed by the short duration of the control effect either. That Matt had timed the spell in the short window when HC’s [Raid Boss Immunity Trait] was suppressed was a sign of how proficient he’d become, especially given the lengthy casting time of the spell.

Her disappointment, mild as it was, stemmed from having a few moments of peace and quiet, when her soul was screaming for the rush of battle.

“We definitely need to talk to a therapist when all this is done,” Tessa said, speaking to no one except herself.

“Probably a good idea to make it a group therapy session and drag Glimmerglass along too,” Pillowcase.

Beside them, a pace or two back in order to stay within Pillowcase’s shield range, Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven were busy hacking one of HC’s tentacles off. The tentacles grew back but doing so cost HC some of his health, which was always a good sign that an [Adventurer] was engaging with a mob properly.

That Glimmerglass, a healer, wasn’t simply buffing Wrath Raven but was in there with her surprisingly pointy staff, hacking away at the tentacles like a lumberjack, was a sign of the kind of day they were having.

“Relieving some aggravations?” Tessa sent privately to Glimmerglass.

“Letting my mana regen,” Glimmerglass sent back. “And relieving aggravations. This is shockingly therapeutic.”

“Oh yeah, we all need serious therapy,” Tessa said to Pillowcase.

“[Mjolnir Strike!] [Supercell Burst!] [Twelvefold Storm of Arrows!]” Rip wasn’t holding back at all, either with her attacks or with the mad cackle of glee that had consumed her.

Tessa guessed that after spending such a long time losing fight after fight after fight to the [Demons] the chance to cut loose on a fight they had to win felt more than a little liberating.

Which wasn’t to say HC had been reduced to a mere punching bag. They’d been fighting the monstrous form which the Gulini had chosen as his “true being” for over twenty minutes and each time they came close to knocking its health bar below half, HC entered a temporary [Rage Phase] and regenerated back to full, gaining a new and unpleasant collection of attack options in the process.

A part of Tessa was enjoying getting to cut loose at last too, but that was intermixed with the worry that one of HC’s transformations might give it the key to tear through their defenses.

Dying wouldn’t be a problem. She’d made the [Heart Fire] run so many times she was sure she could do it  while drunk, asleep, and headless if she needed to.

If they all wiped though, they would be leaving [Hell’s Breach] undefended, and that wasn’t going to turn out well.

When her party arrived at [Hell’s Breach] it had been under the control of the various [Demons] they’d fought until Tessa finally managed to liberate them from the chains that bound them. While the [Angels] were in residence, they’d nominally had control over the dungeon, though the portals and traps and mana lines had only been keyed to respond to their demonic forms.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dungeon of good size and sufficient magic must be in want of something to control it. Typically various powerful entities would contest over the location, but with a team of [Adventurers] in residence and a god-monster [Raid Boss] to oppose them, the dungeon was still in equilibrium, just not a terribly stable version of equilibrium.

Sooner or later, one or the other would win, and the winner would determine the disposition of the dungeon’s resources. If HC won, Tessa was sure the would tear all of the magic from the dungeon as a power source as he went roaming the continent as a near unstoppable force, looking for other powerful areas it could consume. Personally she didn’t see the appeal and if she was on the winning side, she had some very different ideas for how things would turn out. Watching HC’s health bar crawling back upwards after Rip’s barrage left Tessa wondering about the likelihood of their coming out on top though. It seemed like they could fight this one boss up until the literal end of the world, which was promising to be a lot sooner than anyone would prefer. 

What they needed was some trick to kill the damn thing.

“[Lesser Avatar of Death],” Lost Alice said and from Tessa’s left side a [Grim Reaper] sailed past, a scythe of serrated bone in her hands.

Pillowcase watched in amazement as Lost Alice, the backline healer, dove into melee with HC. As a [Lesser Avatar of Death] she didn’t need to make any effort to defend herself. Attacks against her either passed right through here, or rotted away HC’s body part if they were melee attacks. The scythe she wielded had a similar effect, turning tissue that was even vaguely close to it necrotic and withering anything it hit into dust with each swing.

Pillowcase was so amazed by the display that it took her a moment to switch to a more offensive footing herself and join in the mayhem.

Together, they and everyone else on the team exerted all the pressure they could and were rewarded by seeing HC’s health bar finally drop below the halfway point. 

Obby called down a [Guardian’s Retribution] that dropped it to 46%, followed by Rachel and Lady Midnight entering [Lesser Avatar of Death] form too and pushing HC’s health to 39%, and then Starchild, Rip, and Matt unleashed [Vengeance of the Green], [Thunder’s Answer], and [Echo of Eternal Agony] respectively, to drop HC to 26% health.

Pillowcase braced for the all too likely backlash which would be unleashed when HC hit one quarter of his health.

Sadly, they didn’t make it that far though.

As before, with HC’s health below half, he gained a phenomenal amount of regeneration and a new suite of powers.

[Consume Strength], [Invulnerable Crystal Shell], and [Death Spikes] all came online together. 

[Consume Strength] wasn’t a concern for Pillowcase. Her [Glorious Soul] passive ability shrugged off stat reducing effects like that with ease. Wrath Raven and the rest of the non-tanks who were in melee range were not so lucky though, with both Lisa and Rachel stumbling back behind Obby and Pillowcase as the loss of strength broke them out of their avatar states.

[Invulnerable Crystal Shell] was more of a problem because it meant that HC’s temporary regeneration was allowed to proceed completely unhindered. Tessa had been so hopeful that the extra damage they’d done would be enough to prevent HC from healing back to full, but as her mace blows hit for zero damage that hope evaporated more and more with each swing.

Of them all though, the [Death Spikes] were the worst. [Spike Defenses] were always annoying to deal with because they damaged you for hitting the target and frequently included unpleasant side effects like paralyzation, or blindness. [Death Spikes] were the worst of the lot since they did tremendous backlash damage with each hit the mob received and their status effect was, as the name implied, [Death].

No concern for your remaining health, no chance to partially resist the effect. If you were not warded against death magic (another perk of [Glorious Soul]) you simply died.

Wrath Raven’s reflexes were quick enough that she checked her swing before she got caught by the spikes, but Glimmerglass, not as practiced at melee, noticed the danger only as her corpse was toppling away from her ghost.

“[Soul Calling: High Reunion],” Lost Alice said, bringing Glimmerglass back to life without a trip to the [Heart Fire]. It was a big expenditure of magic, but under the circumstances Tessa had to agree that they couldn’t afford to have their resources down any longer than they absolutely had to be.

“[Magic Sapping Roots],” Starchild said, summoning grasping vines to leech the magic from the [Death Spikes], shattering the spell as they drained it dry.

“Thank you [Druid]!” Wrath Raven said and resumed hacking away at HC, looking as at home in mayhem as anyone could be.

For as happy as they all were though, the fight had to end. There was too much happening in too many other places, and they’d discovered something too important for it to die in a lonely and forgotten dungeon with them.

“We need a new plan,” Tessa said in party chat. “Anyone noticed anything yet that might seem like a mechanic we could exploit on this guy?”

“Will this thing have mechanics?” Lady Midnight asked. “It wasn’t made by a developer for us to beat right?”

“It wasn’t, but it might be trapped into them anyways,” Lisa said. “It hasn’t pulled out any unique abilities so far. Everything it’s hitting us with is the same as, or just a reskin of, abilities other bosses have.”

“Maybe it lacks creativity?” Rip said. “Could we take advantage of that?”

“This arena is giving us a lot of room to stay out of his reach, but the downside is we don’t have a lot of terrain to get clever with,” Obby said.

“That seems to be changing though,” Matt said. “The lava on the walls doesn’t seem to be a special effect, I think this place is actually melting.”

“Whatever we come up with, we need to keep him in here,” Tessa said. “If he gets outside this dungeon, he’ll scale up to a real max tier [Raid Boss]. Right now, he doesn’t have a whole bunch of the level 100+ abilities but that’ll change the moment he steps outside.”

“We’ll be level 99 out there too though, right?” Rip asked.

“We will be, but even the gear that we have that scales with our level will only scale up to 99,” Obby said.

“We’d need at least level 125 gear if we want to survive fighting for long,” Lisa said.

“Ideally level 135 or 140,” Rachel said. “The beta testers said the new high end raids were going to demand at least that once they were rolled out.”

“Not sure we can hit this thing harder,” Wrath Raven.

“Not sure we can hit it smarter either,” Lisa said. “[Lesser Avatar of Death] isn’t going to be up again for another ten minutes.”

“If we somehow squeeze out a big enough burst of damage, we might have an easy time once he’s on his second health bar,” Tessa suggested, knowing that was a fleeting hope at best.

“He has a second health bar?” Rip sounded sick at the idea but the more experienced [Adventurers] were uniformly unsurprised at the notion.

“We can’t win this one, can we?” Rachel asked, saying aloud what everyone else was thinking.

The portal that had started forming behind her pinged in Pillowcase’s awareness and she spared a fraction of a second to glance back and see what new terror was awaiting them.

And it was a terror.

Or rather she was.

But then Tessa has always been a fan of the terror and hijinks that BT had lured her into.

From behind Hailey, Mellisandra appeared, and then Damnazon, Cambrel and their whole party.

“Not alone you can’t,” Hailey said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 4

It wasn’t every day that Oblivion stretched forth its hands to tear away the very fabric of you existence. Tessa was sure of that since she’d spent at least a week since a creature from beyond time and space had tried to erase the core of her being from the world.

“Yeah, no,” she said, shifting into Pillowcase’s form.

She didn’t really need to, but approaching the idiot in front of her as Pillowcase just seemed more appropriate. Pillowcase’s job was to protect the team and this creature would literally need to get past her dead body if it wanted to get to the rest of her team, and that was not going to happen.

The [Disjoined] in front of her wasn’t one of the garden variety glitchy post-[Adventurer] zombies. It had followed the link back from Penswell’s office, and was, unless Tessa missed her guess, using a cheap imitation of Penny’s self duplication trick to materialize in front of them.

She had to give it credit. It attacked without pause or hesitation. It was capable of talking but apart from a quick bit of gloating (which was probably intended to throw its quarry off their game), it got right to work.

Talons of deadly static speared forward seeking to pierce Pillowcase’s heart, or rather the central power cores that were woven into her.

Pillowcase didn’t call out the invocations for any defensive capabilities. 

There wasn’t time.

“Heh. You’re mine,” the copy of Gulini said after closing the distance between them in less than a blink.

“You sure about that?” Pillowcase gesturing with both hands to the center of her chest. Specifically the spot where the Gulini expected to see his talons quickly disintegrating her from the inside out.

Confused, he looked down to see the tips of his talons failing to even dent the armored breastplate Pillowcase wore. It wasn’t the breastplate that was special though.

“Tessa!” Lisa screamed over their private channel, her view of the two of them obscured by Gulini’s form.

“I’m fine,” Tessa said, a giddy laugh bubbling up inside her. After dying literally countless times in the last dozen or more hours, it felt just incredible to be facing a foe who wasn’t able to tear her apart with a single hit. “[Transdimensional Integrity] remember?”

“How?” the Gulini demanded.

“Gee, I don’t know,” Tessa said, seeing no reason to enlighten her foe when his confusion was so delicious. “Let’s see if it works you can do the same thing.”

Maces aren’t as popular a weapon as swords are. Pillowcase wasn’t sure why people didn’t see the appeal in them though. Hitting people you didn’t like with a ball of spikes on a stick was a viscerally thrilling experience, especially when it made such a satisfying sound as it smashed into the side of their face.

The Gulini, it turned out, wasn’t a fan of maces either. Not that it much left to express that sentiment with after Pillowcase’s first swing. 

The sad new was that, while it was basically a pinata filled with staticky death, there weren’t any candy or toys that came spilling out when Pillowcase finished her third swing and found nothing more to aim at above the neck.

Worse though, the Gulini didn’t stay damaged like a proper corpse would.

“What…you…what are…what are you?” he demanded, static coalescing into another head. “What…what…what…”

He began backing away but not fast enough to avoid a [Terra Volt Strike Arrow] blasting into him. That was followed by a [Greater Endless Torment] from Matt and attacks from Starchild, Glimmerglass, and Wrath Raven.

The Gulini didn’t retain much of its manifested form through the onslaught but none of the attacks had an observable effect on the static that lay under the false skin the creature wore.

“What is this abomination,” Snowcap said as he shifted from his [Demon] form to his [Angelic] one.

“This is one of the things we told you about,” Tessa said. “Like the one I tried to fight with the [Divine Spark].”

The Gulini laughed.

“Nothing like that one. I am nothing like that one,” he said, rolling his shoulders before speaking a word to destroy the continent they were on.

It didn’t work.

“Yeah, the one I fought didn’t make empty gesture like that,” Tessa said.

“Why? I am infinite. I am unbound by this world. I am…”

“You might want to listen to the exact words you’re saying for a second there,” Tessa said. There really wasn’t any sense in helping her foe figure out the nature of his predicament, or rather there wouldn’t have been for a normal foe. The Gulini was a special case.

“We can’t beat this guy in a fight,” she told her team on the party channel. “As he is now, he’s basically just ignoring any damage we can inflict.”

“I’m happy to keep shooting him,” Rip said.

“I would agree,” Lisa said. “Except let’s not give him any more chances to learn how to copy our abilities than we have to maybe?”

“My words?” the Gulini said.

The static snapped like thunder, loud and angry, but also diminishing as the Gulini’s gaze drifted outwards in confusion.

“He’s going to figure it out in a little and we need to have a plan ready by then,” Tessa said. 

“We could run,” Lady Midnight said. “I know our [Angel] friends are limited in what they can do, but I bet they can at least fly.”

“We can do better than that,” Lisa said. “We could teleport back to [Dragonshire] or any of the capitol cities that are back online if we wanted to.”

“I’m a little leery of opening a [Warp Portal] to any spot where there’s a bunch of people,” Lady Midnight said. “This thing already portaled in here, seems like a good chance it could follow us.”

“It can,” Obby said.

“Then we need to fight it,” Matt said. It wasn’t a defiant statement, or an angry one.

Tessa felt a small smile spread across Pillowcase’s face. That wasn’t the voice of someone who was afraid. It was the voice of someone who’d been afraid of a lot of things for a long time, but, when faced with an impossible foe, found a bedrock of confidence to stand on.

Nobody knew how they could win, or if winning was even an option, but Matt believed they would and that belief inspired all of them.

“We’re in a good spot to do that here,” Tessa said. “Nice solid level cap means nonsense like that [World Breaker Curse] he tried are off the table.”

“I’m sorry, the what?” Lady Midnight said.

“I’ll explain later,” Tessa said. “Lost Alice and I had a breakthrough while I was recovering the [Heart Fire] chamber.”

“I thought you said they were making out?” Starchild asked, turning to Lady Midnight.

“That too,” Lisa said, unapologetically.

Tessa grinned and was delighted to find that Pillowcase couldn’t blush. Rip and Matt giving each other a covert high-five almost let Pillowcase manage it though.

“The important bit is that, like we’ve seen before, even these reality destroying monsters, are limited in places like this,” Lisa said.

“Limited but not killable,” Starchild said. “We can fight it endlessly if we pace ourselves properly, but spending eternity in a deadlock is not appealing.”

“We can help you battle, but in either of our forms, this is something we have no dominion over,” Snowcap said.

“That’s okay,” Tessa said. “I think you all should probably head out. I’m pretty sure Obby and I can keep his attention locked on  us, but if I’m wrong, I don’t want him deciding to try corrupting one of you.”

“We are incorruptible,” Snowcap said. “Our makers made sure of that.”

“You may be, but it might still be able to steal some of your power, and the last thing we need is for it to get stronger,” Tessa said.

“It is our purpose to defender this creation,” Snowcap said.

“I know. But there’s a lot more that you’re supposed to protect than just this place,” Tessa said. “We’ve been burning up a lot of your time but there’s a whole world that needs you.”

“We have a debt to you,” Snowcap said.

“That debt is paid in full,” Tessa said. “You gave us exactly what we needed. We’re so much stronger now than we were when we came in here. Trust us. We can handle this guy.”

Snowcap glowed brighter for a moment and then nodded.

“Thank you,” he said and, along with the others, vanished upwards a streams of rising light.

“Gone?” the Gulini said, the departure of the [Angels] bringing it back to the world. “But I am not alone.”

“You’re starting to get it. Aren’t you?” Tessa asked.

“Yes. The hateful ‘I’. An accretion. A growth around what should be only lovely dissolution,” the Gulini said.

“Happy to destroy that for you,” Wrath Raven said.

The Gulini laughed again.

“Nothing any of you can do can destroy what I am,” it said.

“Happy to try,” Glimmerglass said and then glanced over at Tessa, awareness dawning in her eyes. “Or are we?”

“What he is now? Oh, yeah, that’s going away,” Tessa said.

“Impossible,” the Gulini said.

Tessa nodded.

“That is the heart of the matter yes. And what’s going to be your downfall,” she paced to the side to keep herself in between him and the rest of her party. He wasn’t consciously trying to maneuver around her, but Tessa had spent an agonizingly long period of time making pretty much every mistake it seemed possible to make and those lessons were still quite fresh.

“You have no power over me!” The Gulini’s snarl was the surest sign Tessa could imagine that he knew he was lying.

“What makes you think I need any particular power to destroy you?” she asked, relishing down to the tips of her toes the growing certainty that her guesses about the nature of the menace in front of her were true.

“Weakness won’t save you,” the Gulini said, once again hearing but not understanding Tessa’s words.

“What do I need to be saved from?” Pillowcase taunted the Gulini.

“From me.” The Gulini’s voice was a low growl. A low growl with only the barest hints of static around the edges.

“And who are you?” Tessa asked, delight bubbling over as she spoke her next words. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t have the force of [Divine Power] backing the question this time, but as she’d suspected, she didn’t need that.

“I have no…no…I don’t have a name,” the Gulini said, his voice not breaking like a glitched datafile but pausing in short, fitful gaps, like someone struggling to deny a truth they couldn’t bear to admit.

“You sure about that?” Tessa asked.

“I will destroy you!” Rage was the predictable response, to the point where parrying the Gulini’s next attack was so trivial for Pillowcase that she only did it for the petty satisfaction of being able to crush his hand to pulp in the process.

“You’d have a better chance at that if you had a name,” Tessa said, offering the Gulini the honest advice that would seal his fate for good. To the rest of her team she added on their party channel, “Be ready for this to get fun as soon as he does give a name.”

“Why’s that?” Rip asked.

“Because he’ll become fully real then,” Obby said. “Which means he’s going to change from trying to kill us with ‘nothing’ and start using ‘something’, like real [Raid Tier Boss] nonsense.”

“Uh, why isn’t he using that now?” Matt asked. “I thought these things could do anything.”

“They can,” Tessa said. “But the [Fallen Kingdoms] has learned some new tricks.”

“The [Fallen Kingdoms]? What do you mean?” Lady Midnight asked.

“I think I know,” Glimmerglass said. “When my other self over there fought the creature that had corrupted the fleet, she got it to name itself and in doing so it lost access to its reality breaking power. That then became something that was true within this world.”

“I don’t know if it became true then, or if the world was waiting for ‘Unknown’s’ name as the final piece in making him part of the world rather than something inherently destructive to it,” Tessa said. “It might even be an inevitable process that the [Fallen Kingdoms] has just learned to speed up. Unknown seemed to be becoming more ‘real’ each time we ran into it – just like this guy has been the longer we talk to him.”

“Heads up,” Obby said. “I think he’s about to hit us with something.”

Tessa looked over to see the Gulini hunched over and shaking, not spasm or weird graphical glitches. It was laughter. And not the kindly variety.

“You did this to me,” he said, his voice nearly all but free of its static hiss. “You made me this.”

“Wish I could take credit,” Tessa said. “But this is all the consequences of your own bad choices.”

“My choices? I don’t choose. I am chosen,” he said. “I am [Hell’s Chosen] and I will destroy you!”

And with that his human form split away, revealing the nightmare he’d  always been.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 3

Penny was being erased. It wasn’t how she’d expected to spend her day, but she had to admit it was nice that the other shoe had finally dropped.

“So easy…so…so…easy…easy,” Gulini said as talons of static plunged into Penny’s forehead.

Or rather the forehead of one of Penny’s temporary duplicates.

It was a ghastly sight to watch, though from Penny’s perspective also a somewhat amusing one. Even as Gulini ripped apart from pale reflection Penny had dodged away from, she could see that he had no idea he was destroying a fake.

“The leader..the..fallen..leader has..the leader has fallen,” he said, thoughts shredding in the storm of static which had hollowed him out. 

“Have I now?” another copy of Penny asked.

She couldn’t turn invisible, but redirecting someone’s attention to where you wanted it to be was the most basic level of strategy. 

Her second duplicate was shredded before she could utter another word, and Penny heard Gulini’s static growler louder. She threw another duplicate at it to buy time, and took stock of her situation.

The [Command Center] was a complete loss. Apart from her, everyone else had been corrupted and were moving towards her with the slow steps of a puppet in the hands of a fledgling puppeteer.

Azma wasn’t an asset either. They’d been speaking a moment prior but the connection was dead, either because Azma was dealing with a visitor like Penny was or because she’d been wise enough to terminate the connection the moment Penny’s attacker revealed himself.

She could issue a recall order, or send out a distress signal. That would get a significant number of [Adventurers] inbound, but with the defenses of the [Command Center] still in place they would take at least ten minutes to arrive.

She could last another two minutes and forty seconds. The destruction of her fifth copy confirmed that calculation.

Calling in the [Adventurers] wasn’t an option. Nor was leaving the comm channels functional. Once she fell, the attacker would have access to her authorization privileges. Based on Gulini’s demonstrated capabilities the entire world, apart from the [Adventurers], would fall under his control within an hour and three minutes, with every significant martial force being suborned within the first seven minutes. 

There was sufficient reserve power in the comm channels to backfire and reduce her body to an ash residue. That would prevent her own corruption and remove the most prominent avenue for the attacker’s influence to spread.

Except, of course, that the comm system had heavy and intricate systems in place to prevent overloads, since reducing its users to dust was counterproductive in most scenarios.

Penny looked at the comm’s console at the far corner of the room. Among the promising bits of info was the fact that she could make it to the console with thirty second of effort, and would be able to pass unnoticed there for at least a minute and twenty five seconds. 

Bypassing the safety mechanisms would require thirty minutes of work though.

Not a viable option.

Unless!

Bypassing the safety mechanisms would require thirty minutes. Destroying the safety mechanisms on the other hand? That could be accomplished in thirty seconds. But doing so would hasten Gulini’s awareness of her real presence to within ten seconds.

Destroying the safety mechanism in a manner that destroyed her as well?

Viable.

Twenty seconds.

And Gulini would need at least a second to close the gap between them.

It was a workable option.

Also one Penny wasn’t going to pursue.

“It was not wise to come here,” she said as her eleventh copy was eradicated.

“Came for you,” Gulini said.

“As I said, not wise.” Casting her voice through the duplicate made it that much more believable as being the real version of her, and Gulini was all too happy to spend extra time searching the shreds of the copy for any trace of a real person in them.

“You’re the key…the lynchpin,” Gulini said and Penny noticed the single stutter.

It was an interesting and promising sign.

But it didn’t buy her any more time.

“You think I’m important?” Penny said, making no effort to hide the mocking disbelief in her voice.

“You are the center,” Gulini said static hissing at the end of his words as he ripped her fourteenth copy apart. “They listen to you.”

“And when you take me, you think they’ll listen to you instead?”

“They will hear silence,” Gulini said. “They will hear nothing.”

“Like you hear nothing?”

“I hear everything.”

“How tragic then that you fail to listen to any of it,” Penny said and watched the anger roll off Gulini in waves of static.

She couldn’t pick up anything in the static to analyze. No specific power to build a countermeasure for, or to turn against itself. There was nothing to it. A nothing which nonetheless was disintegrating her copies as quickly as she could produce them.

Penny wasn’t a high level [Wizard] or [Warlock] or any other combat casting class. People often made the mistake of assuming that meant she couldn’t handle “complex” spells, or that “communication magic” was the only variety she could craft. The fact that she’d chosen to specialize in spells which were more subtle than [Fortress Wrecking Fireball] perplexed those people, but the ability to destroy a single castle had always seemed underwhelming when compared to the ability to destroy (or far more often save) an entire country.

It was with more than a little frustration therefor that she regarded the dilemma her foe presented. Subtle magics seemed completely wasted on it. [Fortress Wrecking Fireballs] wouldn’t have destroyed it either, but they would have allowed her to destroy the comm system, and potentially herself.

Penny rejected that idea again though.

Playing for the lowest impact loss was still playing for a loss, and while destroying herself might mitigate the immediate damage her attacker could do, to a degree, it would leave the [Fallen Kingdoms] in a likely unrecoverable state. Also it would make Niminay sad.

So, that wasn’t happening.

“You will be mine.” Gulini’s voice was an echo of itself, a growled memory of what he’d once been, or once had the potential to be. 

Around him, the [Command Center] was beginning to warp and flake away, his mere presence breaking down the fabric of space.

Which was going to be a problem.

Penny had a minute and eleven seconds left until he would break through her defenses and grasp the real her.

Options dwindled faster than her remaining time.

Which meant it was time to start considering the unpleasant ones.

“And what will you do with me if you get me?” Penny asked. She didn’t enjoy the prospect of talking with her attacker, but it offered several avenues of attack and she wasn’t in a position to pass those up.

“Gift you. With Obliteration.” The static was raw in his voice, tearing the words apart a moment after he made them.

Penny felt him trying to project his essential “nothingness” along on the sounds, but in passing through her duplicate’s ears, the static fizzled out into them and never reached her.

“And you’re hoping that I’ll return the gift to you, so you can escape the existence that’s consuming you. That’s making you too real.”

They weren’t guesses. She’d observed enough to understand the basic parameters of what she was dealing with, and from there working out its motivations was a trivial exercise.

“Yes!” Gulini said. “Yes. You understand. How do you understand? How do you know me?”

“Listen to yourself,” Penny said. “Don’t you hear it?”

“I hear everything.”

“But you’re not listening,” Penny said.

She really didn’t like what was going to come next.

She knew it was her best chance, but she really didn’t like it.

“No need to listen,” Gulini said. “I already know.”

Penny couldn’t help herself. She laughed. It gave away her true position, but that didn’t matter. She wasn’t planning to remain out of her attacker’s clutches for the remaining forty eight seconds anyways.

“Do you now?” she asked. “Let’s see about that, shall we?”

He didn’t run towards her. He rippled, statics jittering forward with ever fraction of a second that passed.

Penny, however, didn’t have time for dramatics like that.

She stepped forward and grabbed Gulini by the throat.

It wasn’t the best of moves.

The Oblivion within him surged outward, a dreadful wail escaping his throat, despite the hold she had on it.

Her hand was the first part of her to be drenched in the all destroying, all corrupting miasma that was wearing Gulini as a shell. She’d wondered if the process of being devoured by it would be painless. It would have made sense after all if being melted by nothing involved feeling nothing.

That did not turn out to be the case.

Agony unlike any Penny had experienced roared up her arm. She’d known she wasn’t going to like this part of her plan.

So she shut the pain off.

That was something you couldn’t do with [Fortress Wrecking Fireballs]. 

The other thing even the highest tier combat magic couldn’t do was help anyone survive contact with whatever Gulini had become. Penny wasn’t certain her magics could either, but she knew directly experiencing the phenomena was her best chance at discovering the truth behind it. For perhaps anyone else that would have been an impossible order but for as fast as Gulini’s nothingness was destroying her, Penny’s mind was faster still. To her perception, time slowed, and slowed, and came within the most imperceptible margin of freezing entirely. 

“Now let’s see what it is you’re doing to me,” Penny said, watching carefully as the outer layer of skin on her hand passed through a sort of phase change between reality and something else.

Penny sent her magic into the effect like a thousand scalpels but none of the spells registered anything. Each told her that there was nothing around her hands. That the hands themselves weren’t changing. That everything was exactly as it was supposed to be.

She checked for illusions, following the obvious trail because it would be far easier to convince someone that you controlled their reality than to actually be able to influence what was real. Sadly, those divinations came back empty as well. There were no illusions present, or at least none that she was capable to piercing.

“There has to be something here,” she grumbled, annoyance at the impossibility in front of her growing the longer an explanation for it continued to elude her.

She tried to come at the problem from another angle. She was the one being devoured, perhaps her spells could monitor what she knew she was and as that changed she would be able to discern what sort of transformation was taking place.

That didn’t work either.

She wasn’t being transformed.

She wasn’t being burned, or disintegrated, or mass converted. She wasn’t being anything.

She wasn’t being anything?

“I’m not? I am ‘not’?” Penny asked, the leap not one of logic but of pure intuition. “This isn’t happening, because it’s the unreal meeting the real. When my hands melt, it won’t be that they were destroyed, it will be that they became something that’s not real, that never was. I won’t ever have hands. All of my history will be corrupted. The world would need to encyst me, cocoon me into the shell of an identity, or the ripples of my broken reality would reach out and fracture the realities of everyone I ever met or influenced.”

But the [Adventurers] had proven to be immune to the effect. Or had gained immunity to it. What made them special? 

They were powerful, certainly, but even the new, low level ones, seemed to be able to resist the corruption effect.

Or at least the ones who hadn’t become [Disjoined] were able to resist it.

Penny reached for a spark of understanding and drew back a handful of fire.

[Heart Fire].

The element that was common to all [Adventurers].

Like a waterfall, the pieces fell into place.

Gulini’s improving speech. The [Adventurers’] immunity. How she was going to survive.

The battle between the real and the unreal didn’t have to go to the unreal.

Even as Gulini and his spawn spread like a cancer across the world, the world was resisting him. Even within himself, Gulini was bit by bit fighting to come back.

Where he sought to become a [True Horror] though, the [Adventurers] returned as the selves they dreamed themselves to be.

As the corruption spread up her arms, Penny turned off more of her sense to keep her mind clear.

She needed focus to find her center.

She needed to discover the [Heart Fire] within herself.

It was impossible. No one had ever summoned [Heart Fire] on their own.

Which meant Penny would need to be the first.

She just needed time.

Time which Gulini was not going to give her.

Time which had just about run out.

Until someone grabbed Gulini and began to drag him off her.

“I’ve had more than enough of you,” Unknown said, grasping Gulini’s shoulders and pulling hard enough that a seam began to rip down Gulini’s center.

Broken Horizon – Vol 12, Ch 2

That Lost Alice found Tessa’s new ability delicious should have been unsurprising. A [Vampire] appreciating someone who could transform into a refillable blood bag was a rather obvious point of appeal. That, however, wasn’t at all that intrigued Lost Alice.

Blood was simply nourishment, and while Tessa certainly qualified as delicious in that sense as well, Lost Alice was far more than a blood drinking monster. 

She was also Lisa, a veteran of countless raids, and someone far more clever than Lost Alice typically had the need to be.

“How are you doing that? Does there seem to be a cost?” she asked, try to observe the moment of transition from flesh and blood to [Clothwork] as closely as she could.

“I’m not sure yet,” Tessa said, slipping from [Clothwork] back to human between one blink and the next. “I just focus on which part of myself I want to be and I kind of slide from one to the other.”

“Without the fire? You’re not burning inside or anything are you?” Lisa asked.

“I…You know, I wonder if I am?” Pillowcase said, before shifting back to Tessa and settling in her human form. She leaned back a bit, her gaze evaluating Lost Alice as though she was seeing something for the first time. “I think we all are.”

“Can you be more specific,” Lost Alice asked. There were several unpleasant but still plausible interpretations of what Tessa has said and clarity seemed to crucial if they were going to try to exploit the ability.

“We talk about people having a ‘spark’ or an ‘inner fire’,” Tessa said. “It’s usually a metaphor for someone’s mental state, but there’s a real truth in it too. The spark of life, the energy inside us? It’s literally energy, whether we’re [Human], [Vampire], or [Clothwork], and like any fire, we burn and we change things.”

“That still sounds mostly metaphorical,” Lost Alice said, dubious at first but then beginning to see where Tessa’s thoughts were going. “But it is born out by the fact that we can all respawn from the [Heart Fire].” Things began falling into place quickly the more she thought about them. “There has to be some commonality to our existences. Some foundation we all rest on.”

“I think I’ve been looking at this all wrong,” Tessa said, her gaze going distant. “I was trying to crack the level 70 cap here, and I’d hoped to be able to crack the level 99 cap for [Adventurers] in general. That’s not what we need though. We don’t need to become gods. It won’t help!”

She bounced up onto her toes as ideas seemed to pour into her.

“Yeah, you sort of proved that one with empirical evidence,” Lisa said, wondering when ‘my girlfriend ascended to godhood and then came back’ became a footnote in their lives together. “How’s that related to our inner spark though?”

“Sorry. I’m kinda jumping around a bit here,” Tessa said. “Let me back up and go through it step by step so you can tell me what I’m missing.”

“Should we bring the others in?” Lisa offered. She was happy to be Tessa’s sounding board but she knew having multiple perspectives could be helpful too.

“Yeah. Or. No. Not yet,” Tessa said. “You can poke holes in my ideas faster than they can, and then we can go over it again for a second pass with everyone else.”

“Okay. Let me hear what you’ve got then,” Lisa said relishing the challenge before her.

“We start with [Heart Fire] being able to revive any of us,” Tessa said. “We know it’s a remnant of [Divine Power] so it’s capable of anything, in a sense.”

“That checks out with what we’ve seen you do with the god stuff you’ve gotten your hands on,” Lisa said.

“That’s the next step in the logic chain,” Tessa said. “I’ve held the power of the gods. Which is ridiculous. Even in the game, they never did anything as out there as just give us admin rights. That would be a disaster. So how is that possible that I did anything with the power I got, you know rather that just being burned to ash?Am I a super special snowflake with magical ‘chosen one’ powers. Huh, cool, ‘chosen one’ doesn’t have the weird ‘special term’ sound effect. I think we knew that though?”

She shook her head and continued.

“Sorry, getting off track. The important bit is, I don’t think I have any special gift for using [Divine Power]. I’ve definitely been lucky in gaining access to it a few times now, and my [Void Speaker] abilities seem to make it a little more accessible, but in terms of actually using it? There’s nothing directly applicable in my [Void Speaker] toolkit. But maybe there doesn’t have to be.”

“Oh! I see where you’re going. We all use [Divine Power] don’t we? Every time we respawn from a [Heart Fire]. We can literally carry it in our hands back to our bodies,” Lisa said.

“Exactly! At this point your magic can even replicate the effects of a [Heart Fire Spark] with one of your resurrection spells. We call it magic, but it’s every bit as powerful as the [Divine Power] that we’ve had access to since level 1,” Tessa said.

“But real [Divine Power] like the stuff you’ve had can do a lot more than just resurrect people,” Lisa said.

“And so can your ‘magic’,” Tessa said. “In fact, since the same [Mana Potions] can refill you, me, and any other spell caster, there’s an argument to be made that all magic is fundamentally the same.”

“So you’re saying I could in theory cast one Pillowcase’s spells?” Lisa said.

“Nope!” Tessa was beaming at that, which was a little puzzling until Lisa thought about it for a moment more.

“We can’t because there are other limits in place,” Lisa said. “The magic can do anything but we can’t. We’re limited. By our levels. By our spell selection. Even by our gear.”

“Right! And, that’s what’s been saving us,” Tessa said. 

“Because our limits keep us grounded?” Lisa said, trying out the idea to see if it fit.

“Because they keep us real. Because they keep this world real,” Tessa said. “Let me take another step back there though.”

“I don’t think you need to,” Lisa said. “I think you’re right. The game-like rules we live under here are as much a part of the world as gravity or the boiling point of water.”

“And they’ve already saved us too!” Tessa said and Lisa knew exactly what she was thinking of.

“The level capped area in the [High Beyond].” Lisa remembered the fight with the [Hungry Shadow] in the crystal garden vividly.

“Yep. When I held the [Divine Power] from the [Demon’s] bindings, I knew we were trying to break the level cap, but I didn’t use it for that. When we hold the [Heart Fire Spark], we can use it to recreate our bodies from nothing more than the idea of what we were, but we never remake ourselves at higher levels, or as different races, or classes. And when the [Hungry Shadow] was trying to destroy us, it still couldn’t manage to manifest itself as a higher level threat than the area we were in allowed for.”

“It was bound by the same limits we were,” Lisa said. “But I thought it was something infinite, or more than that. Something that couldn’t be bound. Not by anything?”

“It was. It *was*!” Tess said, emphasizing the last word. “When we found it in the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge], when it was just a big lake of static? I think it had already started to become something there. It had a position and an appearance? Sorta? It was the giant corrosion in the world, but it was ‘in’ the world. And everything it did from there, just brought it further and further into the world.”

“But it did wipe out a whole Consortium task force right? And took over all their spaceships?”

“Oh, it was definitely still at least partially beyond the bounds of the world,” Tessa said. “Even this last time when I fought it, it broke through [Divine Edicts] – new laws of the universe basically – like they didn’t exist. But I think that’s because they were new. They could be discarded and there was no harm to what was real. Take away levels though and this world becomes something very different from what it was. So different that I don’t think it would still be this world anymore.”

“Which means we can’t break the level cap,” Lisa said. “We need it. Desperately.”

“Yep,” Tessa said. “I think that’s why my trying to create a [Void Speaker] power to get rid of it, or side step the level cap wasn’t working. I knew it wouldn’t do what we need. Being able to level as high as we wanted would never be enough to save us against a literally infinite foe. I think I’ve been stopping myself this whole time!”

“You know, in retrospect, I’m kind of happy that endless grinding is not how we can fix our problems,” Lisa said.

“Yeah. Can you imagine if it had worked and we had to tell people ‘okay, you’re level 99, we need you to grind up to level 99 million before we can tackle this boss monster.”

“There are people who would do it,” Lisa said.

“That they haven’t already figured out how to should probably have been my first clue that there was something fundamental preventing it,” Tessa said.

“That does leave the question of why monsters – some of them anyways – are able to raise their levels past the cap though?” Lisa said. “Are they just glitching out? Is that what a [Disjoined] state looks like on something that’s not a person?”

“Huh, that is a really interesting idea,” Tessa said. “I wish we had one of those mobs here. I think I could gain some kind of sensory ability that would…hmm, no, wait. I think I can guess the answer already.”

“You can?”

“Yeah, maybe. Can you check with Cease and see what the highest reported level the ‘Level Up’ mobs have gotten to is? I’ll check with BT and see what the new ‘highest level’ foe was,” Tessa said.

“You think they’re still capped, it’s just a higher cap?” Lisa asked.

“Hopefully. We know no one has the new raid gear yet since the raids were closed down and fighting the top tier of new raid mobs always requires progressing your gear through the new tiers. So the massacres the high level [Adventurers] are reporting wouldn’t have to indicate limitlessly leveling mobs. They could easily just be rising to the new mega-boss tier cap,” Tessa said.

“That would make a disturbing amount of sense. Except the part where mobs aren’t supposed to be able to level at all,” Lisa said.

“Except when the world changes,” Tessa said. “During an expansion, mobs in an area can change and grow to deal with level of the [Adventurers] who’ll be questing in the zone.”

“This expansion was called [World Shift] too,” Lisa said. “What if it wasn’t just about us shifting to be here, but [Broken Horizons] itself shifting to deal with the things that were tearing it apart.”

“Yep and if that’s true, then we should be able to find some evidence for it,” Tessa said. “All we need to do is look for how the ‘Level Up’ mobs react to things like the [Hungry Shadow].”

“You know who would know that?” Lisa asked.

“Penswell.”

“Right.”

A minute later they were back with the team and the [Demons].

Ten minutes later they finished explaining their idea to everyone, which resulted in several nodding heads of agreement, from the team and the [Demons] alike.

“Let me get Penny on the line,” Glimmerglass said. 

Lisa watched their party’s chat line and saw ‘Penswell’ join it a moment later after Glimmerglass’s ping reached her.

“Penswell, we’ve got a theory about the leveling monsters but we need some info to confirm it. Do you have a moment to go over it?” Tessa asked.

“I’m sorry,” a static filled voice cackled. “Penswell’s not here, but I’ll be happy to take a message.”

A horrid sound ripped through Lisa’s ears as the space around her twisted and tore.

“In fact, I’ll be happy to take you.” A man composed of nothing but static had appeared in front of them from the ruins of the fabric of space behind it, and it was already reaching for Tessa faster than Lisa could bring any of her spells online.

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 1

Tessa sagged against the [Heart Fire] and let her face fall into her hands. Her body was in perfect condition, restored from near total obliteration to a state of ideal health she’d probably never had it in at any point during her life on Earth. Her heart, her lungs, her muscles and bones? All flawless.

Which meant the imperfection that was responsible for her failure lay in something deeper. In something essential to who she was.

“Hey, how are you doing?” Lisa asked on their private channel. Her telepathic voice was all soft concern, which somehow just hurt all the more.

“I’m okay,” Tessa said, fighting to allow only the weariness in her spirit to show, and not even all of that. 

She wasn’t okay though. She knew that. Whether she viewed things as Tessa or as Pillowcase, she was lost in sea of failure.

She’d been training with [Demons] for hours. Lots of hours. They’d tried different battle tactics, from solo encounters, to bringing in the entire team, to having some of the [Demons] join their side. Tessa had tried switching to Pillowcase’s form. She’d tried battling on nothing but instinct, and she’d tried analyzing every moment while under the effect of Starchild’s best acceleration spell. At each turn though, she’d been met with death.

Death and the absolute impenetrability of the level cap effect that was in place and limiting them. 

Tears of rage and frustration rolled down Tessa’s face as she got to her feet. She could still feel the ocean of possibility waiting inside her. No matter how she called to it through, it refused to crystalize into an ability that let her break the level cap.

At first she’d imagined it as an ability that could reshape the world, removing the level 99 cap for everyone. Then she’d narrowed her vision to a power that she could bestow on her party members. It had hurt to give that up, but she’d pressed on, striving for something she could use to break the limit for herself at least. When even that proved impossible, she turned to her last hope – a gift she could bestow to one other person. If she couldn’t be the one to transcend the world’s level limit, then maybe it would be enough to empower someone else, to give up what made her special in order to make someone else a star?

The idea sounded terrible, but when it came to saving the world, it wasn’t important that she be the one to get the glory. She just wanted the world to be saved, and if she had to sacrifice for that, being someone boring and average wasn’t that hard a sacrifice to make really.

Except even that wasn’t enough.

Or it wasn’t the right approach to take.

Or the level cap just couldn’t be broken.

“Snowcap says our [Demon] friends could use a ten minute break before we continue,” Lisa said.

Tessa wiped her face, and drew in a breath before exiting the [Heart Fire] chamber.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I think this was the last one.”

It felt terrible to give up. A part of her hated quitting anything this important. Hated the confirmation that she was a loser. Strangely, turning to Pillowcase’s perspective was worse than Tessa’s. Tessa’s fear of failure hadn’t been hardwired into her to quite the same degree as Pillowcase’s. The extremity of Pillowcase’s revulsion hit like a punch to the nose – sharp and stinging and entirely out of proportion to the source of the pain.

“Hey,” Lost Alice said as Tessa exited the [Heart Fire] chamber. Without needing to be asked she wrapped Tessa into a cool, refreshing hug and just held her.

The others, even the [Demons], were still outside in the arena, which left the two of them alone enough that Tessa stopped trying to hide her tears.

“Was it bad that time?” LIsa asked.

“No,” Tessa said. Being obliterated was fine, as deaths went almost preferable in fact. Hard to notice any pain when your body evaporated in an instant. “I just don’t think I can do it.”

“You have done it though,” Lisa said. “Not the level cap thing. We knew that was a long shot. But us. This team. We’re ready now.”

Tessa blinked, drying her tears as she snuggled close to Lost Alice and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Do you remember what we set out to do?” Lisa asked. “Not coming here, I meant at the start of all this?”

“We wanted to level up so that we’d be safer,” Tessa said.

“Sure, but that was a side-effect. We wanted to build a party into a team. One that we’d be comfortable with. One that would fight how we wanted to fight. We…I didn’t want to be alone,” Lisa said, her arms squeezing Tessa a bit extra as she finished speaking.

“Oh yeah, I remember that,” Tessa said, allowing herself to crack a smile. “I recall being pretty terrified that this awesome woman I’d just met was going to come to her senses and ditch me for a better opportunity in a heartbeat.”

“Well it’s a good thing my heart beats only for you then,” Lost Alice said.

It was the cheesiest line all on it’s own but what really pushed it over the top was hearing Lost Alice make her heart beat with a quick bum-dum-bump rhythm to underscore the joke. Tessa couldn’t hold back her smile anymore or resist the urge to hug Lost Alice even tighter and whisper, “You are wonderful.”

“And I’m never going to get tired of hearing that,” Lisa said. “But we should let the others know the bloodbath is over. When you’re ready. If you want to take a few minutes, no one will notice or mind.”

“If the world wasn’t ending, I could think of something I’d like to take a few hours, or days, maybe weeks, doing, but no, I think I’m good,” Tessa said, the cloud of failure not exactly lifting off her shoulders, but growing lighter nonetheless.

“We’ll need to figure out what we’re going to do next then,” Lisa said. “Apart from report to Penswell and let her know what we’ve discovered.”

“That the level cap is either unbreakable or that I’m just not good enough to break it,” Tessa said in acknowledgement.

“Oh, a lot more than that,” Lisa said. “You freed a bunch of [Demons] and turned them into [Angels]. You went all godmode and fundamentally changed our primary adversary. Oh, and we’re also all level capped now. So she can include us in the lineup of the whatever groups she’s sending against our remaining big bads.”

Tessa blinked.

Then shook her head.

“I’m sorry. What did you just say?” she asked, staring at Lisa as though English had become a foreign language.

“Which part wasn’t clear? The [Demons] bit, the godmode one, or the level cap?” Lisa asked.

“That last one. Oh, wait, you mean we got to the level cap here But, is 70 enough to hit the front lines?” Tessa asked, confusion still spiraling around her thoughts.

“70? What do you…oh my god! You’re in human form still! You don’t have a HUD! I forgot about that!” Lisa said, stepping back to hold Tessa at arms length and gaze into Tessa’s potentially-not-human-but-close-enough eyes.

“Why does that matter?” Tessa asked. She was feeling dreadfully slow, perhaps from the hundreds of recent deaths.

“Here. Let’s go back into the [Heart Fire] chamber. You need to see this,” Lisa said.

Tessa allowed herself to be led back to the room that was starting to feel like her home away from home.

“Do your magic and switch back to Pillowcase’s body.”

“Okay?” Tessa said and held her hand out to the [Heart Fire]. Converting between her two forms had become effortless thanks to all the practice she’d had. She still needed the [Heart Fire] to invoke the change, but a single touch of the flame was enough to let her slide from flesh and blood to fabric and stitching.

Pillowcase opened her eyes and saw the world as she was familiar with perceiving it. Multiple vision channels overlaid each other carrying images from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as more esoteric sources. Atop the sight images, her Heads-Up Display showed the usual readouts and information tracking graphs.

“What am I looking for?” Pillowcase asked. “Wait. My level is blue. Why is it blue?”

“Tap it,” Lost Alice said.

Pillowcase felt a pang of concern that she’d gone out of spec somewhere in the process of attempting to break the limit cap in [Hells Breach]. She hesitated for a second, the thought of her level indicator somehow crumbling away and leaving her back at level 1 danced through her mind, carrying a conga line of terror in its wake. 

“It’s okay. You’ve kept up on so much of the rest of the game, it didn’t occur to me that you might be thinking things still worked like they used to,” Lisa said.

A thought bubbled up from Tessa’s mind, a small item from a patch note that she’d read close to five years prior.

Pillowcase touched the level indicator and, rather than anything malfunctioning or falling apart, a small dialog popped up next to the blue number “70”.

Combat Level: 70

Character Level: 99

The contents were simple enough, but the jolt of understanding that came with them was overwhelming.

“We were leveling in there that whole time!” Pillowcase shook with very non-[Clothwork] tremors of excitement.

“Yeah,” Lisa said. “We couldn’t break the cap, so we’re still stuck fighting at 70 in here, but a while back the devs changed level capped zones so that you still earned xps in them. The rate sucks, and it’s about ten times easier to level anywhere else, but they didn’t want people to feel like old quests and stuff that forced you into level cap areas were a complete waste of time.”

“But, but how?” Tessa asked.

“Do you have any idea how many [Demons] you’ve killed over the last several hours?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, we were getting fractional xp on each one, but the formula is based off what their actual level is not the level cap, so we were still doing okay. I’m so sorry! I thought you knew and that’s why you kept pressing on.”

“That’s why you wanted to swap people in to help me!” Tessa said. “You wanted to make sure they were getting real experience too as they leveled!”

“I mean, that was nice, but mostly it was because I was hoping something would break the cap so you could stop dying so much. As your healer, watching your health hit zero kinda sucked, and knowing that my…that you were really getting hurt each time? I stuck with it because I never want to have to see you go through that again.”

Pillowcase collapsed to the floor like a ragdoll. The irony wasn’t lost on her.

“We did it,” she said, giggling as Tessa’s perspective came to the fore. 

[Clothworks] weren’t designed to process emotions through any mechanism apart from absolute suppression and the relief and giddiness Tessa was feeling, while overwhelming, was something she had no desire to suppress at all.

“We did,” Lost Alice said, sitting down beside Pillowcase. “You did.”

“Not alone,” Tessa said, turning so that she was nose-to-nose with Lost Alice. “Not anymore.”

More than the ten minutes of the [Demon’s] break passed before they broke off the kiss they shared.

“Not anymore,” Lost Alice agreed.

Feeling lighter and truly refreshed at last, Tessa bounced to her feet and gave Lost Alice another quick peck, marveling at how soft and gentle Lost Alice could be while also being literally stronger than steel.

Except, Pillowcase’s body wasn’t really setup to notice things like how wonderful lips touching felt.

And Pillowcase’s body came with vision that including thermographic imaging and the heads-up display.

Tessa looked at her hands. 

Pillowcase looked at Tessa’s hands.

They were human hands.

Lisa seemed to notice the incongruity as well.

“You touched the [Heart Fire] again?” she asked, curious but not concerned.

“No,” Tessa said. 

She hadn’t needed to.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Interlude 6

Kari

Kari was reasonably sure she was watching a world die, consumed by things that should never have been real, and the worst part of it was, it was far from the first time she’d witnessed such an event.

“Shouldn’t we just clean things up now?” she asked, standing at the L1 Lagrange point between the Fallen Kingdoms and their sun.

“Not yet,” Jin said. She was roughly ten trillion times larger than Kari, appearing as a diffuse yet still girl-shaped cloud as she observed various foundational aspects of the cosmos.

“If we wait too long, we could lose a lot of people when we transfer them to their new world,” Kari said. She’d been working on a replacement for the Fallen Kingdoms in her own little bubble of time. It had taken something like ten years of subjective time, but they’d been fun ones as she did her best to match the Fallen Kingdoms as they were, but better.

“Better”, of course, was a subjective thing, and she was sure there would be complaints at the elements she’d intentionally removed or simply overlooked. Expanding the speech capabilities to include all sapient races for example? Oh, she knew people were going to be cranky about that one. But, they could be cranky and understand each other, which seemed so much better than indiscriminate slaughter because neither side could perceive the other as being ‘people’ too.

“I’m still hoping it’s not going to come to that,” Jin said, her celestial eyes narrowing as she focused in on something Kari was presently too small to perceive.

It was tempting to join Jin in a cosmos-scaled view of the problem before them. Expanding back to the broad system level of a universe took away some of the sting from seeing the people within it placed against impossible odds.

It also made it so much easier to accept that the only option to save them all might be destroy everything and reincarnate their spirits in a new world where they could start over without the “end of days” hanging over them.

“Do you really think Way’s going to be able to pull off a miracle in there?” Kari asked. It was a silly question. Where Way was concerned, Jin’s faith was effectively infinite. Even the shards of themselves they sometimes left behind, who lacked any sort of reality authorship, those fragments still loved and trusted one another so implicitly that not even the personifications of Time and Fate were able to keep them apart, or make them doubt each other.

“I don’t think that’s the play she’s going for,” Jin said.

She shrank back down to standard human scale, to stand beside Kari in the vastness of orbital space. Had they been anything like real women the lack of environmental qualities like oxygen, pressure, heat, or radiation shielding would have been at least slightly problematic. Kari had made sure they were just outside the veil of reality on account of that, since it wasn’t particularly helpful to ignore the rules in world that was in the process of breaking down.

“If she’d not playing for a miracle, then we’re pretty much sunk aren’t we?” Kari asked. “We passed the tipping point with this world the moment Byron started pulling in more [Limitless Hungers].”

“Yeah, that wasn’t a good turn for anyone,” Jin said. “Not even Byron. Well, not in the short term I suppose. Long term’s still up in the air.”

“Is there going to be a long term?” Kari asked, watching another rent tear in the fabric of the world below her. “Even if we don’t step in, this place is going to fall apart sooner rather than later.”

“Oh, there’s still time to save it,” Jin said. “I mean we’ve seen worse than this before.”

“Have we?” Kari asked.

“Yeah. Remember the Glen of Unspeaking Bells?” Jin asked, still focused on something on the world below them.

“It was dead when we got there. And then we broke every bell that remained and you ate the remnants and spit them back out as a magical echo in the one of the variants of Hades we found later on” Kari said. “Is that the ‘saving it’ you have in mind for this place?”

“Not quite that dramatic, and if this place does need to good devouring, we’ve got your nice new world I can spit them back into,” Jin said. “But I don’t think it’s going to come to that. There are still a lot of people fighting to save this world and the other ones it’s connected too.”

“Isn’t that the problem though?” Kari said. “All of the worlds that are connected to the Fallen Kingdoms, even if its an indirect connection, are being drawn into this apocalypse.”

“That’s why I asked you to whip up the new Fallen Kingdoms. I was thinking we could either solve the problem here, or, worst case, we could draw all the Oblivion critters here and then sever just this world. The thing is though, I think this world is too resilient for that to work.”

“What do you mean ‘too resilient’?” Kari asked. “It looks to me like it’s literally falling to pieces.”

“It is,” Jin said. “In fact when you look at it from a solar perspective, it’s almost completely devoured already. Like there’s not a spot on it that isn’t been chewed on and corrupted.”

“On just the outside of the dreamlit veil though?” Kari asked, a sick chill passing through her at the thought of things being that much worse than she’d seen.

“No. Not just the outside. On both sides of the veil,” Jin said.

“But it would be too late already. Or, no, wait. It can’t be that bad or the world would have crumbled to nothingness already.”

“And yet it hasn’t,” Jin said.

“That doesn’t make any sense though. If the world’s been devoured, how is it still here?’

“That’s a really interesting question isn’t it?” Jin said with a smile and shrug as she disappeared.

The Nightmare Queen

The Nightmare Queen needed a drink. Slumped on her throne, ragged exhaustion pulling her eyelids down despite her stern disapproval of the fact, she was rather far from her best when it came to entertaining guests. That no one had completed the requisite quests to make the pilgrimage to her lair was no guarantee that she wouldn’t be receiving guests of course, but the fact that the world was soon going to dissolve into chaos and then nothingness was indicative that guests were unlikely.

So of course one showed up anyways.

“Hiya Queen!” Jin said, materializing from literally nowhere in mid stride as she walked into the Queen’s throne room. She was fiddling with something in her hands, a gem of incalculable worth, or perhaps something equally uninteresting, because when she glanced up towards the throne, the Queen’s condition seemed to capture all of her attention. “Oh, you doing okay there?”

The first time Jin had appeared before her, the Nightmare Queen had been painfully aware of who Jin was, and more importantly, what  she wasn’t. Namely, someone small enough to fit within the Nightmare Queen’s dominion. Since the Queen’s dominion was ‘the entirety of the [Fallen Kingdoms]’ that was concerning. 

Except that it hadn’t been.

Jin and her other half, had been cordial and unthreatening. They’d exchanged a few pleasantries, expressed a desire not to destroy the universe the Queen ruled over, and left peacefully and with kind words.

That Jin was back was not, the Queen was quite certain, a good sign. It should have been quite a terrifying one, the Queen found it difficult to work up the right level of trepidation at the prospect of Jin doing whatever the worst it was that she might choose to do though.

“It has been a rather challenging few days? Or weeks? I’ve lost track of them somewhere,” the Queen said.

“Oh. Sorry. That’s my fault. In part at least. I had to fiddle with the flow of time here. I hadn’t been thinking about how disorienting that might be for you,” Jin said.

“It was a blessing I can assure you,” the Queen said, sitting up straighter on her throne. She didn’t have to, Jin didn’t seem at all inclined towards formality, but the act reminded of her of when she’d had a mortal body, and it helped her focus as it would have if she’d still been incarnated in one.

“Apologies for being blunt, but you’re looking a little rough for someone who’s been blessed,” Jin said.

“Losing days into weeks is not the cause for my current state,” the Queen said. “If anything the lengthening of the time given to us is likely the only reason I can still sit on this throne.”

“That was kind of what I came to ask about,” Jin said. “Your world is in a state I’ve never seen before. It’s fascinating but also, I’m guessing, not terribly stable.”

“You guess correctly,” the Queen said. “Every moment the assaults on the fabric of my world increase. More and more creatures of dissolving nothingness are slipping through, and the lesser powers who serve me are falling and falling, one after the other.”

“What are they fighting for,” Jin asked. “Exactly I mean, not the general ‘defense of the realm’, I’m sure they’re charged with.”

“They are fighting to hold the line between the qualities they define in the world and the revocation or erasure of what’s real, so for each Power the fight is different, but the danger is all the same,” the Nightmare Queen said. “As each one falls, the idea at the core of the domain is snuffed out and not longer exists within the world. If the Power of the Oceans falls, there will be no more seas, or great bodies of water. If the Power of the Light falls, everywhere will be smothered in darkness.”

“Huh. Weird,” Jin said. “And you can feel each one falling? Their loss saps away your strength I take it?”

“By the time they are lost, the strength I have given to them is long spent,” the Queen said. “I bolster them so they can stand another day, or hour, or minute longer, until they finally can stand no more.”

“And how many did you say you’ve lost?” Jin asked.

“All but a few handfuls,” the Queen said. “There is so little left now, and once the last one crumbles away, they will come for me.”

“A few handfuls? Hmm. Have you looked at the world recently?” Jin asked, unconcerned at the end of the universe she was standing in.

“I cannot,” the Queen said. “If I leave my throne, my subjects won’t be able to draw on my power and the last bits of the world will vanish before I can take seven steps from it.”

“I think there’s something you should see,” Jin said and waved her hands in a small gesture.

Without flash or ceremony, the walls of the Nightmare Queen’s throne room became more transparent than glass.

And beyond them?

Beyond them lay the [Fallen Kingdoms].

Shining.

Beautiful.

And far, far too whole.

“What vision is this? Show me what this illusion covers?” the Nightmare Queen said.

“It’s not an illusion,” Jin said. “No more than any world is at least. These are your [Fallen Kingdoms]. As they are right now.”

“But, they can’t be,” the Queen said. “Nothing’s missing!”

“Almost nothing,” Jin said. “There are some tears and holes and more than a few people that we’re going to need to round up later.”

“But how can that be? I see mountains! The Power of Mountains was one of the first to fall. There can’t be mountains anymore.”

“And yet, there they are,” Jin said gesturing to the soaring peaks that ran down one of the continents. “So you see what I mean about this being weird right?”

“It’s not weird. It’s impossible. I know. I built this world. You can’t delete the Powers from it and have it continue. It would be like turning off gravity and having everyone stay on the surface of the planet because they all felt like it.”

A surprised smile crept over Jin’s face.

“Maybe that’s it,” she said. “Maybe that’s exactly it.”

With a quick turn she was gone, never having really been there at all, but still leaving the Nightmare Queen to wonder if Jin’s smile was because she saw a path towards the world’s salvation or because she was at last free to end it with a clear conscience.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Interlude 5

Brendan

Brendan hadn’t ever envisioned himself as a master planner. He had what he felt was a normal number of friends and a fairly typical amount of charm. He could make jokes, and listen to someone who was having hard time. What he couldn’t do was coordinate the efforts of several thousand people who were all searching for what the best shot, or any shot they could up with to make sense of what was going on and bring their friends and loved ones home.

He couldn’t do manage that. It was clearly beyond him. He’d never had any management training. It wasn’t something he was supposed to be tasked with.

And yet, in the whirlwind that his bedroom had become, in the middle of  managing what felt like a thousand conversations and directing people far older and wiser than, he was.

“Jaqueline, can you get the local reports of the [Armageddon Beast] from Sydney translated into Mandarin? Dennis needs it for the Beijing team,” he said before switching to another Discord channel.

By his side, his secret weapon was busy giving clipped commands in Cantonese to a team of developers in Hong Kong.

Mrs. Yu. 

He’d delivered newspapers to her for years when he was a kid. He still shoveled her snow during the winter. She’d been his next door neighbor since he was two years old and had taught him everything he knew about playing the violin. They’d been friends for years, but ever since Brendan had seen what seemed to be frantic messages popping up in Mandarin on several of the message boards he was a part of, they’d become allies.

Convincing Mrs. Yu that a serious situation was happening hadn’t been as hard as Brendan had imagined it would be. When he’d knocked on her door, she’d greeted him with her coat on and the question, “Is this about that game you play?”

She already knew about the “mass abductions” but was also keenly aware of how stories get distorted. So she listened to him as he calmly (or as close to calmly as he could manage) explained what he’d experienced and the various things he’d put together from the groups he was a part of.

Then they got to work.

Mrs. Yu could speak Cantonese, Mandarin, French, and Russian, as well as a little bit of Korean. While a lot of communication was flowing in English, there was so much in so many other languages that Brendan knew important things were being missed. Mrs. Yu couldn’t translate for the languages she didn’t know, but that was okay. Mrs. Yu had friends. And her friends had friends.

Brendan’s house became a sort of mini-United Nations, with local people setting up shop on tables and couches throughout the house. Brendan’s parents were bewildered at first, and then accommodating, and finally all-in on supporting what was clearly a serious crisis-management effort.

Part of their buy-in came after he took them aside and explained the position he was in. Especially the part where he was still tethered and at risk as well as what had happened to everyone who’d tried to break the tether so far.

“We found something important, you’ve gotta see this,” Shoshanna said. She’d been coordinating communication with a group whose members were primarily in Cairo and Johannesburg. “We’ve got seven reports now all following the same pattern.”

“Oh wow,” Brendan said skimming the breakdown of the incidents. “They’re not all [Armageddon Beasts].”

“No. But they’re all appearing from nowhere, and they’re all erasing things from the environment they spawn in before they apparently erase a person too,” Shoshanna said.

“But the people, all the reports say they marched right towards the Beasts,” Brendan said, a lump forming in his throat at the images of heroism each story told.

“That’s not the best part,” Shoshanna said. “Did you notice what these seven all have in common?”

“Uh, no, what am I missing?”

“Check their stat block. Notice anything important under their bios?” Shoshanna looked so delighted, Brendan knew there was some obvious and important surprise to be discovered, but he’d looked over so many bios…no, so many game bios.

Wait.

“They have user names? To Broken Horizons? Really!?” Brendan wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t even sure his heart was beating anymore.

“All of them!” Shoshanna said.

“Can we still reach…” Brendan started to asked as Shoshanna handed him a tablet with a document already open on it.

A document that contained dozens of messages.

Decrypted messages.

Like the ones from Mellisandra.

They were alive.

“Tell my guy I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let that thing eat our street,” one of the “erased” people had written with a timestamp well after she’d vanished.

“Tell my folks…” “It was so wild, you can’t believe what it’s like here” “I am so going to get fired, but at least there’s still a planet left where my job is” “Tell my Mom I’m okay!”

And on and on the messages went.

“None of them were logged in,” Brendan said, reading further.

“That’s right. You don’t need to be. Not if one of those monster things shows up.” Shoshanna said.

“I think you don’t even need that,” Mrs. Yu said. “Tell them what you just told me.”

In her hand, she had an iPhone with an active FaceTime connection going. On the screen a Chinese woman who seemed to be college aged was looking back at Brendan.

“The beta server is still active and open,” she said. “I’ve tried it. If you login you can experience an immersive sensation like a full body VR game. But you can get back out again.”

“You can? How?” Brendan asked as his mind went into overdrive trying to think if there was any in-game options for transferring servers.

“You can log out without any trouble. Though there is talk in the beta community…”

“Talk about what?”

“There’s someone here who claims to be able to send people to the live servers. I think some people have done so, but I don’t believe any of them have come back.”

Brendan’s mind whirled the revelations burning in his mind as thought connected to thought in an avalanche of questions and understanding until something impossible snapped together and pure magic filled his view.

Before him, literally overlaid on his field of vision, the arcane glyphs and formula that Mellisandra had spent her life researching blazed to life. Nothing that she’d studied applied to portals between their worlds, or [Armageddon Beasts], or voids of all consuming nothingness that sprang up unannounced and could, apparently, be hauled off to imaginary worlds by the sacrifice of a brave soul. Nothing anyone had ever studied covered that.

Except right at the sharp edges, the cutting bits of magic, the parts that took the world as it was and made it something else.

Right there.

Right in front of him.

The infinitesimal slice at the edge of the first glyph that wasn’t static, but was oh so very close to not being real at all.

In that sliver of near nothingness, he saw it.

The path for those who were lost to return home.

David Kralt

 He should have been a god. He’d seen what that woman had taken from him. It was power. It was the key to the cosmos. It was his godhood. Emphasis on “his”.

She’d taken it from him and cast him aside, unconcerned that he was stripped of his rightful place and authority, alone in a world of madness and death. She’d probably assumed he would just roll over and die.

He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction though.

Instead he found a sanctuary. The [Great Hall] the [Adventurers] had commandeered. Not particularly great, but then that suited the low level losers he was surrounded by.

True they were technically far more powerful than he was, which was why he had made a tactical advanced to the secure location of one of the antechambers that wasn’t being used much yet.

He’d come out several times for food. The idiots were just giving it away, rather than setting up a sensible economy and reaping the rewards of their otherwise useless skills.

Gnawing on a load of staggeringly good bread he’d swiped from one of the banquet tables, David Kralt, no, the dread Dav’kralthrax, the first dragon, the Primordial power of the world, felt rage sour his stomach with each bite he took.

He’d been the development lead for [Broken Horizons]. The [Fallen Kingdoms] were his world. More or less. No, less. They’d never really captured the grand sweep of his imagination. So this world was definitely less than what it could have been. Less because he’d been cheated! Stripped of his rightful…

His thoughts had been circling around and eating themselves like that for a while but this loop they didn’t quite finish.

This loop the world, the hated, vile, stolen world started to fray.

Just like in his apartment.

Just like when he’d been dragged off away from Earth.

In front of David Kralt, filling the wall that should have held a door, a layer of static spread out from the door handle.

Static that hurt his mind to look at.

Static that was pouring inside him even as something stretched forward through the film on the door.

A man?

No. It had never been a man.

But it had a man’s countenance.

“Aren’t you fascinating?” Byron said, his words coming from the static, or from inside Kralt’s head, or was there any difference anymore?

Kralt tried to scream but he was melting, his mind burning in electric fire.

“You know this world. You think you created it. Oh, that’s just wonderful,” Byron said. “But wait. This is so much better! You know of another world too? And you’re just so wonderfully open. I have to wonder why though?”

“Why what?” Kralt croaked out.

“Why you seem to have no defenses to something like me? Ooo, ‘me’. So fun to say that. I think I was a ‘me’ before, but with this new addition,” he held up a hand that dripped liquid static, “it’s hard to know if I’m quite myself anymore. Or quite anything. But here we are talking. So I must still be something. Fascinating. Unless you’re nothing. Then I suppose I could be nothing too. Oh that sounds delicious? No. Horrifying? Yes! Exactly. Now where was I? Oh, right, so are you real?”

“Oh course,” Kralt panted, not know why, and not completely sure anymore he was telling the truth. “Of course I’m real.”

“Good. Wonderful even. I suppose I’ll consume you then.”

“No! Wait!” Kralt called, looking for anything he could bargain with.

“Waiting sounds boring,” Byron said.

“I can give you what you want,” Kralt said.

“Am I a thing that wants?” Byron asked. “I must be, mustn’t I? Otherwise how could I be an I?”

“I have power here. I’m…I’m important. I can give that to you!” Kralt wasn’t lying, insofar as he had convinced himself that he was meant to be a god, had been a god, and would one day again be a god.

“I don’t want power,” Byron said. “Power is boring.”

“What do you want then? I can get it,” Kralt said.

“I suppose I must want something,” Byron said, a note of dejection in his voice.

Kralt racked his static infested brain and felt a flash of insight. Something he could give that no one else would dare to.

“You’re devouring this world,” Kralt said, staggering to his feet.

“Trying,” Byron sighed. “It’s troublesome. Though maybe that’s what makes it fun? No. It’s just annoying. And I’m still hungry. But you’re delicious. I could absorb you. And still be hungry afterwards though. Boring.”

“What if I said there was another world,” Kralt said. “One that wouldn’t be anywhere near as much trouble as this one. One without the [Adventurers].”

“Another world?” Bryon asked. “Like the one I can see in your mind? The one that is so very far away? The one filled with so much to eat? Earth? That one?”

“Yes. Yes, Earth! You can see it can’t you? So big. So rich. Just waiting for someone like you. Or like me?” Kralt’s plan was a good one. Whatever Byron was, there was no hope of defeating, or even surviving him. Joining him though? Kralt was owed that.

He was supposed to be a god, but how much more fitting would it be to become something that could eat gods?

Broken Horizon – Vol 11, Interlude 4

Gabriel Santiago

The Blockade Runner wasn’t Gabe’s favorite ship class. Sure, they were uniformly fast as hell and usually well armored and shielded, but that came with an obvious cost.

“I’m scoring direct hits on this damn thing and they’re not even singeing it,” he grumbled.

The damn thing in question was a War Beast. Maybe the same War Beast that had already killed him once. 

“Maybe not but you’ve definitely got it’s attention,” Luna said. “I’m trying to get it off your tail but it’s just not interested in me at all.”

Gabe saw a burst of static flash past the left viewport and slammed the Blockade Runner’s primary engines into overthrust mode.

Real asteroid belts were so sparsely populated that you could fly through them and not be aware of any asteroids around you at all. Asteroid belts in the Crystal Stars though tended to follow the popular image generated by decades of space moves.

At Overthrust speeds, the close packed rocks in front of him became an ever changing wall of death which was just waiting for him to go crashing into it.

A lifetime of piloting he hadn’t actually lived moved his body with the calm precision of one of the world’s best fighter pilots, slipping through the narrow gaps and thin openings while the War Beast was slowed by plowing through and destroying the asteroids in its path.

“I’m about a minute from clearing the belt,” Gabe said, easing off on the Overthrust before he melted one of the Blockade Runner’s engines.  “What do think? Do a dip into the gas giant for a recharge or flip around for another strafing run?”

“Gas giant’s the safer play,” Luna said. “With your current shield strength you should be able to dive low enough that your trail will get muddled. That might let us setup another ambush for it.”

“I don’t know that our ambushes are doing much good,” Gabe said. “This thing’s self repair rating is through the roof.”

“I’m still trying to get through the Crystal Empire’s high command,” Luna said. “Help shouldn’t be far off from what the folks on ‘Lost Here 4 Real’ are saying. We’ve got at least two bomber squadrons en route. We just have to keep that thing from warping away until they get here.”

“Keeping it here doesn’t seem to be a problem,” Gabe said, reaching for the Overthrust control again as the edge of the asteroid belt approached. In the distance he could make out Volkis IV and all the free hydrogen it had to offer.

The Blockade Runner lurched just as he began to engage the Overthruster and an explosion sent him pinwheeling through space.

“Gabe! Hard Burn! Now!” Ti’el, Luna’s alter-ego, commanded.

The pilot Gabe had never really been responded to that command without the need for conscious though. The stars blurred as every engine on the Blockade Runner was pushed passed it’s maximum safety level and driven deep into their critical zones.

He hadn’t been able to course correct, so Gabe had no idea where he was rocketing off too, but he was definitely getting there fast.

As he fought the acceleration that was getting past his inertial dampeners, he spared a glance at the displays that surrounded him. Thousands of numbers were available, but he knew exactly which ones to look at. Or someone in his head did? It didn’t matter in the moment though, not when he saw that his shields were gone. Not just depleted but completely stripped away with zero regeneration happening. A dozen spot sensors were dead as well, with their neighbors screening warnings about failing structural integrity.

“It missed you,” Luna said. “Not a direct hit, but it looked bad anyways.”

“It was,” Gave said. “Thanks for the call out. How much distance do I have from it? My rear sensors are gone.”

“You’re at about ten thousand kilometers and rising. How much longer can you run at a hard burn?”

“I can make it to Volkis,” Gave said, basing that more on determination than a full appraisal of his chances. “No idea if I can make it out of Vokis though.”

“Head there. You’ve got no cover now and that thing looks like its charging up for another shot.”

“Where are you?” Gabe asked.

“About a thousand kilometers behind it, trying to move into optimal weapon’s range,” Ti’el said. “It’s got some odd coloration on it’s hindquarters. We’re hoping those might be weak spots.”

“Did someone say weak spots!” a new voice called out as portals from warp space began to open ahead of Gabe’s flight path. On the comm’s the pilot was tagged as “Astra”.

“Bomber squadron? You made it here?” Gabe asked, relief flooding his voice.

“Yep! And your ship’s telemetry is not looking too good,” Astra said.

“That’s because it’s one shot away from becoming space debris,” Gabe said. “Would you be so kind as to blow that War Beast into tiny gooey fragments?”

“We’ve got target lock on it now,” Astra said. “What kind of defenses is it packing?”

In answer the War Beast released a beam of static ten kilometers wide. The bomber’s took evasive action but they weren’t as fast or agile as the Blockade Runners. Two of bombers were clipped by the beam when they failed to avoid it’s path. Both depowered instantly, floating through space like dead husks with sizable pieces missing.

“Avoid the path the beam took,” Luna said. “There are filaments of that static stuff that stay behind.”

“Roger that,” Astra said, her calm, professional demeanor leading Gabe to wonder if she actually was a combat pilot in real life.

“It’s charging up for another shot,” Luna said. “I’m going to try something.”

“Kick it’s ass!” Gabe said to cover his concern. 

A part of him was terrified for her. His crush on Luna had not grown any less intense since meeting her in person and battling for their lives together in the Crystal Stars.

At the same time though, he knew her. She was skilled, and resourceful, and she knew how to take care of herself. None of those were a guarantee that she’d make it through what she was attempting, but that was her call. They both have plenty of insurance restorations paid for, and he wasn’t going to treat her like a fragile little doll who needed to be told what to do. She was his partner, more now than ever before, and she’d had his respect far longer than that.

Diverting power from his forward sensors to the repair modules resulted in him flying blind for a few seconds, but his sensor array came back online in time for him to watch Luna finish closing the distance with the War Beast with a hard burn of her own.

She overshot the monster five second before it loosed its next shot.

At four seconds till the shot, she was well in front of the War Beast and just outside her Blockade Runner’s optimal firing range.

At three seconds, she cut her engines.

At two seconds, she flipped the Blockade Runner a hundred and eighty degrees.

At one second, facing the War Beast head-on, she slammed her engines back on, redlining them just a Gabe had.

The distance between the two evaporated.

With some tiny fraction of a second left before the beast fired, Luna cut her engines, and unleashed every forward facing weapon system she had on the War Beast’s open maw.

And then she was gone.

Gabe breathed a sigh of relief when his sensors picked up the telemetry ping of a warp gate opening.

Her shots hadn’t reduced the War Beast’s structural integrity by more than a few percentage points, but that hadn’t been her goal. Startled by the attack, the War Beast belched out another static beam which passed through the opposite side of the portal from the one Luna had entered. 

Gabe’s sensors showed a tremendous explosion as the static beam detonated against something in warp space, but with that beam diverted, the bombers were able to finish closing the distance and unleash their payload against the War Beast.

They followed Luna’s example and warped out before the bombs reached their target, which proved to wise because even twenty thousand kilometers away, Gabe’s Blockade Runner registered the impact of the explosions that followed. 

Space is a vacuum, which means there’s no medium to transmit shockwaves through. Unless of course your explosives are set to summon matter from warp space specifically so that there will be a medium to help contain and focus the blast.

“Did we get it?” Luna asked.

“Scanning now,” Gabe said, delighted to hear her voice.

Another beam of static roared past him, missing his position by five thousand kilometers but it was still in the right general direction.

“That’s a negative,” he said. “It’s still alive.”

“Damn! I’m calculating my position now. Probably at least an hour from getting back there though.”

“Do we have any more squadrons coming in?” Gabe asked.

“We did,” Astra said.

“What does that mean?” Gabe asked.

“That thing’s breath? It’s tearing up warp space too. It’s getting a bit dangerous to fly in here,” Astra said.

“From where I opened the portal?” Luna asked.

“No. It looks like every time it breaths, it’s destroying real space and warp space,” Astra said. “It’s tearing this universe apart.”

Isadora Breckmeyer

Izzy felt the ground trembling under her and knew she was supposed to be afraid, terrified beyond reason, but all she could do was smile.

Taking her headphones off, she gazed around in wonder at the pristine beach that stretched before her. The clouds above were thick enough with pent up rain to darken what had to be the midday sky and the land and sea below into deep shadows.

Despite the coming storm, Izzy felt a warm ocean breeze billowing through her t-shirt and shorts while the soft sand at her feet squished up through her toes.

That she’d been studying in her dorm room five seconds prior made the experience just a bit disorienting, though a part of her knew exactly where she was.

She was with the creature that had tried to destroy her.

It wasn’t a small thing, though some awareness told her it once had been. Just a tiny glitch, nothing more than a spark of wrongness that had somehow slipped into the world. Slipped in and broken – itself, the courtyard in her dorm, the walls outside her room, everything it touched.

Izzy lived on the third floor, in a room that overlooked the dorm’s central courtyard. She didn’t think she’d been the first to see the creature of static and malice arise. People had been screaming. That’s what had brought her to look out the window.

No one seemed to know what the monster that had appeared before them was.

By the time Izzy caught sight of it, it towered over the dorm, a visual flaw in reality in a shape that might have been inspired by a biped but could never have been human.

Looking at it hurt her eyes. It hurt her mind. The thing-that-wasn’t-even-a-thing was trying to get inside her neurons, trying to wrap itself around her thoughts and devour them or corrupt them or erase them.

She felt like she was falling out the window towards it, or that she was steady in her room but that the whole world was toppling away from gravity’s pull and into rending maw of the creature that could not be in front of her.

It couldn’t be there, and yet it was, and yet it couldn’t be there.

“So what?” Izzy said, pulling herself back into the world, or pulling the world back into her. 

She wasn’t food for some cosmic mistake. 

She dreamed of too many monsters not to recognize one when it stood before her.

Without consciously understanding how she could do it, her spirit rose in defiance and, as the creature slammed something like a hand down, erasing the ceiling, her room and herself, she grabbed onto it and pulled it across an unfathomable void.

She hadn’t expected to wind up on a beach in the South Pacific. She hadn’t expected to even survive the attempt to drag the creature away from her home to somewhere else. Somewhere safe.

For a very odd definition of ‘safe’.

Below her the ground shook even more but it wasn’t the creature that was doing it.

With a roar that could never be mistaken for anything else, a giant radioactive form rose from the ocean.

The static creature was a monster. Izzy knew that.

So she’d brought it into one of her favorite moves to meet the King of Monsters.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Interlude 3

Kamie Anne Do

Venturing into the [Dead Lands] wasn’t considered a great idea when [Broken Horizons] was just a game on Grace’s screen. Willingly crossing over to go exploring had been her first terrible idea. The fact that she and her team had run into a pack of the [Hounds of Fate] should have been the end of that terrible idea, and all future ones, because as far as Grace knew (and Kamie had no information to the contrary) encounters with the [Hounds of Fate] were a singular event. As in, if the Hounds caught you, that was it. You were never seen again.

Except that hadn’t happened.

Grace and everyone she was with had escaped after watching the Hounds tear into buildings full of the [Disjoined].

It was probably the most terrifying battle Grace had ever witnessed, up to and including the desperate struggle against the [Hungry Shadow’s] forces in the [High Beyond].

She’d sworn when she’d reached the [Heart Fire] that she was never going to let herself be anywhere near the Hounds or one of the [Disjoined] again.

“Forward! Don’t let them escape!” she roared, hurling herself over the [Dead Lands] remains of a shattered wall.

That she was chasing a trio of [Disjoined Glitchworkers] through a [Dead Land] version of [Dragonshire] was at odds with her earlier declaration. That she and her team had managed to descend below the [Dead Lands] they were familiar with and had found another copy of [Dragonshire] which looked significantly more hellish was worrying. Odd and worrying had been the order of the day since Grace had arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms] though, so she wasn’t that surprised at her life was once again beset by concerns like that. What was a bit surprising were the [Hounds of Fate].

At her side, flanking her and moving with a swiftness that rivaled her own, two of the Hounds ran soundlessly.

There hadn’t been any negotiation. No pleading from the [Adventurers] that they be spared, or even the wag of a tail from the [Hounds of Fate]. Grace’s team had come back to the [Dead Lands] because that was where the fight was and they’d found the battle against the [Disjoined] well underway when they got there, with the [Hounds of Fate] tearing apart the [Disjoined] by the dozens, only for the [Disjoined] to rise up again.

For their part, the [Disjoined] couldn’t stop the Hounds either, but their battle was not without cost. Where a [Disjoined] bled, the ghostly white of the [Dead Lands] peeled away into strips of harsh static.

Grace had seen what those burns looked like in the living world and while she wasn’t an expert on [Dimensional Physics], she felt reasonably sure that burning holes in the fabric of the world was the sort of thing she should be putting a stop to.

“They’re diving down again!” Battler X called out. “Do we follow them deeper?”

There were, it turned out, spaces in the [Dead Lands] that were soft, or perhaps just glitched. Spots that could lead to still darker reflections of the living world.

“Definitely! Nothing bad ever came from delving too greedily or too deeply!” Grail Force said, sarcasm dripping from every word.

Grace couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t exactly sure how they were going to get out of whatever layer of hell they’d descended to as it was, the deeper they went the more it felt like encountering a Balrog would be one of the more pleasant possible outcomes.

On the other hand though, even if they stopped running, she knew the Hounds wouldn’t.

“I won’t fault anyone who wants to turn back,” Grace said. “This is certifiable, danger to self and others, madness. Me though? I’m in this to the end.”

“Right there with you boss!” Battler X said.

“To Infinity and Beyond!” Buzz Fightyear said, because where else was laughter more needed than down among the dead.

Yawlorna

Yawlorna was good with note taking. She’d learned early on in her schooling that writing down the things she was learning was an essential component to solidifying them in her memory. Listening to Xardrak expound on the nature of life and death left Yawlorna wondering if remembering what she was learning was really the best idea.

“It sounds like you’re saying there’s no real difference between life and death,” she said. “And you’re saying life and death are two distinct states with no overlap between them.”

“Correct,” Xardrak said. “And incorrect.”

“Thank you, that answer is both useful and useless,” Yawlorna said.

“Excellent! You are proving to be a fine student,” Xardrak said.

He was still trapped in his prison, but more and more, Yawlorna was coming to see that the prison didn’t hold him. He held it. As a shield, to protect himself from the rest of world and as a weapon, to annoy and aggravate those who came to him for answers.

“I feel as though I would be a finer student if I understood what we’re talking about anymore now than I did when I walked in here,” Yawlorna said. “Instead, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost countless brain cells and know even less than I did before.”

“Splendid!” Xardrak said. “Continue on and you should have your studies mastered for sure.”

“I know you don’t have many amusements here, but I assure you the mocking is not helping,” Yawlorna said.

“But it’s not mockery at all,” Xardrak said, his tone strangely earnest. “I am perfectly serious. Understanding [Immortality] is not a trivial matter. Nor is it a complicated one. The principal breakthroughs are ones of internalized perspective rather than insights gained from atop a mountain of other learning.”

“So you’re saying the contradictions are the point, and if I can understand them, then I’ll be able to grasp the rest of what you’re trying to explain?” Yawlorna asked. 

She left her notebook on the podium Glimmerglass had the staff bring in before she had to leave. Pacing wasn’t helpful, but standing in place was intolerable.

“I am not saying that at all,” Xardrak said. “It’s not through understanding that you will gain the proper perspective on [Immortality]. There is no bridge to this that you can build plank by plank. The only path forward is to leap from the edge of your certainty out into the unknown void.”

“That sounds very poetic, but leaping into a void seems kind of pointless if you can’t see what’s on the other side or far wide the void you need to cross is,” Yawlorna said.

“What makes you think the void can be crossed?” Xardrak said.

“If it can’t why would you try to leap it?” Yawlorna asked. 

She hated teachers who talked in riddles. Teachers were meant to educate, not mystify. Clear, simple, and precise communication, that was what a teacher needed to offer in her view. A teacher purposefully trying to confuse students wasn’t new in her experience. She’d had plenty of undergraduate instructors who’d either not known the material they were presenting or were uninterested in dealing with the teacher requirements of their contracts. They’d made her life miserable, but she’d passed their courses through sheer stubborn determination, which was looking to be the same strategy she would need to employ with the [Lich] in front of her.

“Because you can? Because you won’t know if you can’t until you try? Because even experiments which yield negative results still give us information?” Xardrak said, the flames in his bony eye sockets seeming to plead with Yawlorna to listening to what he was saying. “Or maybe because what you’re looking for is within the void itself.”

“I’m not going to understand this, am I?” Yawlorna asked.

It should have sounded dispirited, a moment of defeat as she abandoned the idea that had driven her to seek out the help of one of the most dangerous people in the world. It should have, but it didn’t.

“Exactly,” Xardrak said. “Continue.”

“Immortality itself is a paradox,” Yawlorna said, something new percolating inside her. “At least here. In this world, in death, there’s still life. The [Adventurers] speak of it for themselves and for everyone else too. They pass through a place they call the [Dead Lands] and are reborn in the living world thanks to the [Heart Fires].”

“Do you see the flaw there now?”

“They’re dead in this world, but they’re alive in the other one,” Yawlorna said. “So they’re not dead at all. Except their bodies can be obliterated and there’s no sign of a ghost that gets left behind.”

“So they are both dead and not dead,” Xardrak said.

“If they’re not dead, then that’s why they can come back to life. They’re lives never really ended. All they need is a spark of [Heart Fire] to repair or create a physical host for their spirits to inhabit.”

“But if that was true, why wouldn’t it be sufficient to simply repair the body with healing spells?” Xardrak asked.

“Perhaps it requires an element of divinity to reunite a spirit with it’s host body?” Yawlorna guessed, though she felt like she was drifting from the right answer.

“If divinity was required, then how would the [Adventurers] who are healers be able to resurrect their teammates without access to a [Heart Fire]?” Xardrak asked.

Another conjecture formed in Yawlorna’s mind but she clamped her jaw shut and paused for a moment before continuing.

“That’s the wrong question,” she said. “All of these are the wrong questions.”

Xardrak gave a small nod as the fire in his eyes danced.

“Life and death are the same,” Yawlorna said. “We still exist whichever state we’re in. No! We’re not in either state at all.”

She felt like a galaxy was exploding behind her eyes.

“We’re not alive or dead. Our bodies may be either, or to one extent or another both at the same time, but we, who and what we really are, we’re something more than that.”

“Yes,” Xardrack said, with a satisfied air about him. “Now, how would you like to become a [Lich]?”

Baelgritz

All Baelgritz ever really wanted was to be able to spend time, writing papers, with the people he loved in the same room, working on their papers too. Oh, he had other ambitions. And he wasn’t inclined to spend all of his time writing papers. He did have other hobbies. But fundamentally, a nice little rainy afternoon alone with Illuthiz and Hermeziz, maybe with some nice tea and snacks, that was his heart’s dearest with.

He’d resigned himself to not getting that when they crash landed and Yawlorna made him her second in command. He’d been busier then, and surrounded by more people than he preferred, but it had been tolerable at least.

His present circumstances however were not.

“There are a lot of people here,” Hermeziz said gazing out at the convention hall where [Monsters] of every shape and size were still steadily gathering.

After his and his partner’s discovery that they could not only level but also gain new powers, word had gotten out and Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz had become far more in demand than he’d ever imagined any of them would be.

“Are we supposed to talk to all of them?” Baelgritz asked. “We’ll die of old age first!”

“The guilds who brought them in are organizing the schedule,” Illuthiz said. “We’ll be speaking with some [Beast Tamers] first to bring them up to speed on what we’ve learned. They’ll be the ones who handle training the rest.”

“[Beast Tamers]?” Hermeziz asked. “That seems more than a little insulting to all this people.”

“The guilds are aware of that,” Illuthiz said. “It seems that [Beast Tamers] will make the best ambassadors because they have both translation magics and the ability to use what we teach them to enhance their [Heart Bonded Beasts]. I gather it will be the beasts who will do most of the actual instruction since they’ll be able to speak to what  it feels like to develop new abilities.”

“I can’t believe the [Adventurers] are onboard with this?” Baelgritz said. “We’re powering up their foes by doing this.”

“Well, not all their foes,” Illuthiz said. “And I think they can feel it too.”

“Feel what?” Hermeziz asked.

“The world thinning. Like it’s being devoured from within and without,” Illuthiz said. “The [Monsters] here may have been foes to the [Adventurers] before, but against what’s coming everyone’s going to have to fight.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Interlude 2

Penswell

The sky was falling. Not literally. Yet. Penny suspected that would come along in due time too, but for the moment, it was only the menacing elements of the sky which were plummeting from their lofty perch.

“This turn of events must be predicted on an impossibility but I am receiving too many reports confirming the collapse to discount it,” Azma said, from her holo-projection. “Something had removed our principal immediate opponent from the board.”

“Something has replaced our principal immediate opponent you mean,” Penny said, studying the trio of tactical displays where she and Azma were crosschecking the data they were independently receiving.

In the sprawling command center around her, the staff members she’d hastily assembled at the start of the invasion were dealing with a deluge of incoming reports, both from space and from seemingly all of the ground forces that were still engaged with the corrupted Consortium focus across the world. A continent away, Azma’s team was dealing with the same sort of reports from the [Adventurers] who were engaged with the Consortium forces in space.

Or who had been engaged those forces.

“Yes, a replacement seems to be a given, but it’s curious that our new antagonist has yet to come forward,” Azma said. 

“Curious and mystifying. If it were me, I might hesitate to continue hostilities for a variety of reasons, but we’re not seeing any indication this pause is for any of those them,” Penny said, tuning out the din around her by spawning off a few copies of herself to deal with it while she drew her attention in to the conversation with Azma and what she was sure would be the larger problem.

“Not true,” Azma said. “If it were you, you wouldn’t have initiated hostilities in the first place.”

“A fair point. There are almost always better methods of achieving one’s goals. That doesn’t leave us with much of a starting point to divine the shape of our new adversaries plans however.”

“In the absence of any real data, speculation can be dangerous,” Azma said. “So our next actions will need to generate the data we need.”

“You would like to eradicate the remaining Consortium forces I take it?” Penny asked.

“It would reveal the extent to which the [Broken Shadow’s] successor is invested in claiming those resources,while also eliminating a potential avenue of attack which could be turned against us at any point our opponent chooses,” Azma said.

“What if I could offer a better alternative?” Penny asked. She’d been shocked for a full minute after reading Niminay’s report, and was pleased to see a look over momentary confusion pass over Azma’s face.

“I know you are not going to suggest that we sue for peace with the [Broken Shadow’s] successor,” Azma said. “And I know we don’t have the capacity to move the corrupted Consortium ground forces into position to attack the remaining space forces. So I believe I must ask for clarification on what the better alternative might be?”

“Apparently, we can now purge the [Broken Shadow’s] corruption from the affected troops. At least the [Artifax] ones.”

“That’s not possible,” Azma said. “A [Transcendent Entity] that gains access to someone can never be removed. The corruption extends down into the individuals motes of their essence and the atoms of their being.” She paused for just an instant as, in the space of a blink, she caught up with Penny. “Oh, unless…”

“Unless the being in question wasn’t fully [Transcendent] at the time the corruption took place,” Penny said.

Penny expected protests and counterarguments which would all be grounded in an effort to cling to a preexisting notion of how things had to be. When Azma spoke though, Penny was reminded of who she was dealing with.

“You have proof that recovery is possible.” It wasn’t a question, merely Azma allowing Penny a chance to correct her in the unlikely case that the statement wasn’t true. “From Niminay’s strike team.” Because it had to be someone in proximity to the [Broken Shadow’s] troops and Niminay was one of the few operatives in the teams Azma was directing who would report back to Penny first. “One of Hailey’s ideas?” That was the closest Azma came to guessing, but even there it was a virtual certainty since Hailey possessed a unique insight into the fundamental nature of their world.

“With the [Broken Shadow’s] active hold over them removed, the [Artifax] troops can be purged by dispelling the behavioral constraints they are ensorcelled with. That appears to be the only thing the [Broken Shadow] bothered corrupting.”

“Interesting. We’ll need to run tests to insure they corruption is truly purged, but as you say, with the entity becoming partially incarnated, it would have begun encountering limitations. It would be a natural instinct to spend as little of itself as necessary on controlling its troops,” Azma said.

“Fighting has stopped, for now, so its not precisely accurate to say this shifts the balance of power in the war,” Penny said. “It does however offer us an interesting footing going into the next stage of this conflict.”

“As well as placing us in significant peril,” Azma said. “The [Artifax] were not used in a kindly manner by the Consortium. Without the loyalty restraints in place they are likely to have a substantial amount of aggression to work through.”

“We’ll want to keep the freed ones away from your forces, and away from you specifically,” Penny said.

“Away from me certainly. They cannot afford to trust me.”

“Because you hold secret command codes for loyalty.” Again, it wasn’t a guess, but Penny wasn’t judging Azma for it either. Possessing a power wasn’t inherently evil. 

“A thorough enough disenchanting could likely remove them, but the [Artifax] would be foolish to risk the chance that they’d missed one,” Azma said.

“Once you held control again, relinquishing it would be impossible wouldn’t it?”

“Had I reason and the capacity to usurp control of them again, it would in all likelihood be to destroy them,” Azma said. “They are far too dangerous to allow a chance at freedom, if they’re abused further.”

“But you do not oppose our freeing them now?” Penny asked.

“Not at all,” Azma said. “Their design is terrible. Weapons given a soul so they’ll know suffering and therefor be able to inflict terror more efficiently? Their designers called it art given form, but cruelty as art has always struck me as pointless. For the same resources an army ten times their size and twice as efficient could have been assembled. We can’t rectify the realities of their creation and we dare not try to utilize them for the intended function any longer, so freeing them seems the only profitable course of action.”

“Profitable?”

“As they are, they’re a quiescent threat. Destroyed they are a waste of the resources expended in their destruction. Freed however? In freedom they become pieces on the board that can be influenced via many different means. Pieces which are extraordinarily unlikely to align with our opponents. That’s quite profitable according to my ledgers.”

“How did you ever wind up in the Consortium?” Penny asked, admiration creeping into her voice, as much for the winding, twisting turns of Azma’s thoughts as for the woman herself.

“There are conflicting reports about that,” Azma said. “In my official files, it says I was decanted as part of a now terminated program to create obedient command ready officers from mixed cloning samples.”

“And in the hidden files?” Penny asked.

“According to those I was captured as part of a ‘resource extraction operation’ on a world which has since ceased to exist. The other resources, slaves in case the euphemism is unclear, were all liquidated, but I killed three guards and the programs Overseer, and so I was recruited instead. No names were given for the Overseer or the operation however, which calls that one into question as well.”

“You do not seem particularly concerned.”

“I have no reason to be,” Azma said. “Whatever my origin was, it’s lost to me. I was raised by the Consortium, to the extent that word can be applied to one of the Consortium’s Growth and Training Programs.”

“I find it hard to believe you are what they made you to be,” Penny said.

“I’m not. I’m what I made myself to be.”

“You know I’m going to attempt to insist you stay here once our current issues are concluded,” Penny said.

“I don’t believe your [Fallen Kingdoms] would be able to weather the conversations we would have,” Azma said. Conversations, Penny knew, that would be conducted via the sweep of great armies and the destruction of invulnerable fortresses.

“We shall see,” Penny said, wheels turning in her mind which she was reasonably sure were far enough outside Azma’s domain that the former Consortium commander would never see them coming.

“We shall at that I suppose,” Azma said, apparently content at the idea that Penny must be planning some grand betrayal of her. “To return to the subject of the [Artifax] though, it might be valuable to connect small groups of them with the remaining Consortium forces I possess.”

“You’ll vet your forces for any lingering animosity they might feel or have provoked?” Penny asked.

“I already have,” Azma said. “The troops I retain are a mix of forces, including a contingent of each of the [Artifax] makes. The [Artifax] you free will have a significant adjustment to make. My troops can help with that transition. I will also establish a [Quest Reward] for freeing the [Artifax] who remain on the fleet ships.”

“Good. I’ll expand out incoming transport facilities then and coordinate the work on the ground here.” Penny said.

“You’ll want full isolation capability for the [Artifax] who return, at least until you can a run zero information proof that they are clean of corruption from the [Broken Shadow] or its successor,” Azma said.

“That will take some time to arrange. How soon are your teams due to start returning from sortes against the fleet?” Penny asked, dispatching another pair of copies of herself to handle setting up a scanning facility that could report the results of a scan behind a layer of obfuscation sufficient that even a [Transcendent Entity] wouldn’t have a channel to jump to the people evaluating the scan.

“You’ll have at least fifteen minutes,” Azma said.

“That should be two more than we need,” Penny said.

“This world is quite fortunate,” Azma said. “Without you I would have conquered it days ago and we’d all be dead now.”

“Conquered? Most likely. Gaining control of the capital cities would have taken you an afternoon I imagine. The [Adventurers] would continue to be a thorn in your side though,” Penny said including people like Niminay in the count of “[Adventurers]” even though Niminay had always insisted she wasn’t like them. Despite possessing many of the same abilities. And being able to keep up and sometimes exceed the best [Adventurer] out there. 

“Yes. A thorn I would have wrestled with right up until the moment when the [Transcendent Entity] arrived in the middle of a fully deployed Consortium communication infrastructure. I feel as though there is some unseen player not so much moving pieces on the gameboard we share as shaping it’s contours and spaces for reasons entirely their own.”

“Given our present circumstances, I wonder if those reasons might prove to be ultimately beneficent,” Penny said. “We face extraordinary challenges but if less than a handful of rare events had fallen out differently, I doubt we’d be here to face them at all.”

“If we can recapture more of the fleet, I may have the means to search out our possible benefactor,” Azma said. “Your world has a twin, and a shared [Aracnosphere]. One of the [Breech Stabilizers] would allow us to dive into the [Aracanosphere] and explore the world that lies behind yours.”

“I read about your [Breech Stabilizers] in Hailey’s report. I didn’t think they could reach worlds which were devoid of magic like the [Adventurers] claim their homeworld is?” Penny said.

“They can’t,” Azma said. “Which means either their world possesses magic they are unaware of, or there is another world which you are tied to.”

“If it was possible to reach that world though, why wouldn’t the [Broken Shadow] have used the [Breech Stabilizers] to spread there too?” Penny asked.

She felt a tap on her shoulder from one of her staff members. She was tempted to spawn off another copy to deal with him, but she knew that one of her staff would only have directly requested her attention if something monumentally important had occurred.

Turning her gaze from Azma’s holo-projection, she found, Osmos, her senior Far Scryer waiting for her. She’d had him searching for any signs of the arrival of the Consortium’s sun killing task force.

That wasn’t the news that he’d brought though.

In fact Osmos hadn’t brought any news at all.

In Osmos’s eyes, Penny saw only harsh static and in his words, she heard only the voice of Gulini and the [Relentless Hunger] that had consumed him.