Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 13

When you can’t go back, and you can’t stay where you are, you’ve got to go forward. Pillowcase hated that.

“We’re being herded,” Tessa said, as she retreated away from the scuttling monsters who were still out of sight. She had her shield raised, her mace drawn and no doubt her mind thanks to Pillowcase’s tactical analysis that the monsters generating the red glow could catch them whenever they wanted.

“Towards the level boss?” Lisa asked. She was watching the direction they were moving, since retreating into unknown territory was guaranteed to result in encountering something you weren’t expecting.

“That or a better kill zone,” Tessa said.

“So, we’re in mapping mode then,” Lisa said. “Great. I hate mapping dungeons.”

[Broken Horizons] had changed over the years. Modern dungeons were designed with the entertainment of the players in mind. Venturing into one was meant to take fifteen minutes to an hour to complete. Paths were clearly laid out, puzzles relatively simple to deduce, and a premium placed on never putting the players in a position where they were lost and uncertain what to do next.

That hadn’t been true of the original dungeons though.

The original dungeons hadn’t been focused on entertainment. They’d been been designed as sieves, brutal tests meant to separate the “elite” from the less worthy masses of “noobs”.

When Tessa had joined, [Broken Horizons] had been three years old and just beginning to grow beyond its original adolescent mentality. The developers had learned the hard lesson that their tests were costing them a sizable portion of their playerbase. They’d moved in to more accessible designs but they’d left the old dungeons in the game for those who enjoyed that sort of challenge. There was enough desirable loot in the old dungeons that Tessa had wound up running them each many times before venturing on to newer, and more lucrative, content. She hadn’t anticipated ever being in a similar environment again, but the “real” [Fallen Kingdoms] she found herself in didn’t seem as interested in being a themepark for her enjoyment.

“I remember mapping a whole lot better than I wish I did,” she said, thankful in one sense that, though she’d loathed doing it, she could remember each of the dungeons she’d “mapped” back when that was a requirement to progress at all.

Part of the dealing with the largest dungeons of the old game – misery dungeons as her old guild had called them – was knowing what awaited you. Some of that knowledge was easy to acquire. There were wiki’s and forums which spilled the difficult secrets – thereby largely invalidating the developers “tests” – but there were elements of familiarity which couldn’t be gained by reading web pages. The foremost of which was unlocking the in-game maps for the dungeons.

With teleportation and secret door detection as a critical aspect of navigating the original dungeons, characters who had explored areas of the dungeon were at a significant advantage to ones who were groping around blindly for the first time. 

A group of newbies in a dungeon would not only be forced to travel through it via the longest possible path, missing out on opportunities to skip forward to later areas via unlocked teleportation circles, they would also be unable to even access some of the most lucrative areas until they’d managed to discover the hidden paths which lead to them (which was generally accomplished by walking back and forth in an area until the game decided the character had “noticed an irregularity” and would chose to display the secret door or concealed tunnel so that the player could click on them and proceed forward.

“Mapping runs” were one of the methods lower tier guilds like Tessa’s had used to unlock those telepoint and discover the secret areas since they lacked the offensive might to simply carve a path through dungeon within the allowed time limits (since many of the early dungeons also had time limits for the maximum duration you can spend within one on any given run).

Instead they’d been forced to race through the dungeons, time and again, with monsters hot on their heels, trying to reach new areas or discover new paths before they were inevitably torn to shred. As the party’s healer, Glimmerglass had been one of the last to fall usually, though that only meant that time she drowned in monsters she’d watched as other party members fell and she was helpless to save them.

Tessa had all of the early dungeons fully detailed in no small part because she’d been willing to die hundreds of times with Glimmerglass to reach the odd corners and discover the hidden doors that held each dungeons most useful secrets. In retrospect it seemed like a questionable method of “having fun” but at the time it had seemed completely worth it.

Tessa felt like she might need to show a similar commitment with the dungeon she was in, except that dying a hundred times to map it wasn’t going to be an option. Not with the [Hounds of Fate] in play.

“We’ve passed a lot of branching corridors,” Tessa said. “We might be able to use one of those to break through and get back to the entrance.”

“It’s a plan,” Lisa said. She didn’t have to add that it wasn’t a good plan. Tessa was well aware of that. “We should see as much as we can before we branch off though.”

“That’ll make it harder to get back to a [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. As ghosts they could move fast enough to cover in a few seconds the ground they’d crept down over the course of a few minutes. Tessa wasn’t worried about the distance so much as the presence of the [Hounds of Fate]. 

On the one hand, in [Broken Horizons], the hounds didn’t appear within dungeons. Since the walls constrained the ghosts the same as they did the player’s bodies, the devs didn’t need to implement a system to handle players wandering off course. On the other hand, Tessa knew she wasn’t in the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and if the hounds were here, it was going to be next to impossible to avoid them.

“There wasn’t a [Heart Fire] at the entrance,” Lisa said. “This place might be incomplete, but there should still be one here somewhere. They’re usually one of the first things put in.”

“You’ve seen the early dungeon designs?” Tessa asked.

“The devs have thrown  some of them up on the test servers for special pre-order sneak peeks,” Lisa said. 

“Did they offer anything like that for this one?” Tessa asked, thinking that even if Lisa wasn’t familiar with it, they might be able to reach out to someone in her guild who was or who could look up information on it.”

“Nope,” Lisa said. “I shot a message over to Cease All, but she hadn’t heard about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] either.”

“So either this is all new and unique to this version of the [Fallen Kingdoms], or its based on something the devs weren’t planning to release with the launch at all?” Tessa asked.

“Pretty much,” Lisa said. “It does look like their design though. I mean these hallways and junctions? They don’t seem to serve a natural purpose. They look like the other dungeons were it’s all about channeling the players to interesting fights. So the there should be a [Heart Fire] hear. It would probably be the first quest objective if this was a finished location.”

“We could break and look for it now?” Tessa offered.

“They’re going to chase us and catch us if we do that,” Lisa said, sounding strangely certain.

Almost as though it was Lost Alice who was speaking from experience. 

But Lisa didn’t have a second persona to draw on. She hadn’t made up a backstory for Lost Alice.

Unless a backstory wasn’t what had created Pillowcase?

“That’ll happen no matter what at this point,” Tessa said. “If we run now, we can at least avoid fighting them where they want to fight us. Best case we can take them by surprise.”

“We won’t surprise them,” Lisa said. “They’re predators. They know how to handle prey that tries to flee, and prey that tries to fight back.”

“Do you know what these things are?” Tessa asked.

“No.” Lisa shook her head. “Or yes. I think I do. I just don’t know how. The red light, and the skittering. I’ve seen that before. I’ve heard it. Except I know I haven’t?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tessa said. “It’s probably like your spellcasting, just something this world gave you.”

It sounded reasonable to Tessa’s ears as she spoke, but a deeper part of her guessed that Lisa’s knowledge of dungeon dwellers came from somewhere, or perhaps someone, else.

“I think they’re [Lava Drinkers],” Lisa said. “They’re a kind of parasite if I’m right. Made out of obsidian and filled with lava. So, easy to break, but doing so is a bad idea.”

“Good to know,” Tessa said, contemplating if the mace in her hand was at all the weapon she wanted to be wielding. “At the next passage, we’ll break and try to find another turn to take us back towards the entrance room. If there’s a [Heart Fire] it shouldn’t be to far from where we came in.”

“Pick a path and I’ll follow you,” Lisa said. “And if this doesn’t work out, stick with me ok? We’ll make it back together more easily than if split up and try to find it alone.”

Tessa knew that wasn’t strictly true, but she had no interest in being alone, as a vulnerable ghost, in what could easily be described as Hell.

The next side passage wasn’t far, but before they reached it, they found more bodies. The burns on them were worse that the first batch, as though whatever had slain them had grown hotter and stronger with each kill. 

Tessa didn’t take time to examine them, though Pillowcase was certain she could determine a fair amount about their attacker if she’d been able to make a careful inspection of the corpses. 

“Ok, run!” Tessa said as she turned and dashed down the corridor to her left.

She couldn’t resist looking back to make sure Lost Alice was following her but that also meant she got to see just how close the [Lava Drinkers] were too.

The obsidian armored things were roughly similar to beetles. If a beetle was the size of a small pony and bled bright, glowing rivulets of orange lava from the seems on its body.

They’d both been right.

Lisa had correctly identified their pursuers and Pillowcase had been been correct in saying they couldn’t be outrun.

What Tessa did managed to do though, was clear the next corner and pull Lost Alice around behind her before the wave of [Lava Drinkers] crashed into them.

At first she expected to be obliterated, like she had been at the farmhouse, but the [Lava Drinkers] tearing mandibles weren’t able to strike past her shield with enough force to penetrate her armor. Or At least not often enough that Lost Alice wasn’t able to keep up with repairing the damage.

Pillowcase swung her mace, shattering the nearest [Lava Drinker’s] armored shell. A jet of molten rock splashed towards Pillowcase but she side stepped it, suffering burns only on her upper arms and chest.

Another swing burst the [Lava Drinker] like a balloon, but Pillowcase had been wise enough to ensure the blow send the create stumbling backwards, which left it to spewing lava on several of its fellows.

Another patrol showed up a few seconds later, after Tessa and the [Lava Drinkers] behind them had exchanged substantial helpings of pain.

“We’re boxed in,” Lisa said.

Of course they were. That had been the [Lava Drinkers] plan all along. Surround and conquer. 

Another group appeared behind the first, as [Lava Drinkers] from all over began to converge on their position.

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