Marcus had defeated an [Armageddon Beast]. He didn’t see how that was possible, and he knew he hadn’t done it alone, but when Jin led them around to the front of the office building, the street was strangely missing a world devouring monstrosity.
It felt wrong.
The world was under attack.
It wasn’t supposed to look this safe.
The cognitive dissonance of being disappointed at not find a sanity destroying abomination consuming all light and matter around it, left Marcus wondering if any amount of therapy was going to be enough to work through the psychic damage he was clearly accumulating.
“But it was here, I swear it was,” Anna said, her expression suggesting she’d probably be quite willing to take Marcus up on the offer of group therapy sessions.
“We know,” Beth said. “We saw it too. So did everyone else here.”
“Why aren’t they still staring it then? Or looking for where it went?” Anna asked.
“Their damage is a bit different than yours,” Jin said. “You were there when the [Armageddon Beast’s] nature got turned on itself. You remember it because you named it and you destroyed it. Or convinced it to destroy itself to be accurate. Everyone else,” she gestured to the crowds that were more plodding in random directions than traveling anywhere, “hasn’t exactly forgotten it, but they don’t have a direct awareness of what they were seeing, or what’s been taken from them.”
“Taken from them?” Marcus said. “I thought you said this weird feeling was just a bruise or something?”
“It’s not a bruise,” Jin said. “But that’s not a bad metaphor either. What the [Armageddon Beast] was able to take from all of you will come back on its own. Once we’re past all this, once you can spend enough days and weeks and months just living and reconnecting to the solidity of this world, you’ll be back to where you were.”
“Okay, but where are we now?” Marcus asked.
“Here. In Las Vegas. On a reasonably nice October day. And not covered in blood, so that’s a plus!” Jin said.
“It worries me that you felt the need to add that last part,” Anna said.
“It’s just one of those benchmarks to help you figure out how bad of a day you’re having,” Jin said.
“Noted,” Marcus said, noticing as well that Jin’s answer hadn’t been quite been a complete one.
“This place is still a weak spot, isn’t it?” Astra asked, feeling around at the air in front of her.
“Painfully so,” Jin said.
“Will we have another breakthrough then?” Beth asked.
“Depends on how things go,” Jin said. “I think we’re making headway on the problem but these things are always hard to tell.”
“What kind of headway do you mean?” Marcus asked. “And what is the problem exactly?”
“In theory I’m supposed to be all super cryptic here,” Jin said. “There is a real danger to yourselves and the world in general in being too aware of what’s happening, but you’re both smart enough to figure some of this stuff out on your own, and you’ve both stepped across a fairly important threshold, so I’m going to leave the choice up to you by asking if you really want an answer to those questions?”
“Yes,” Marcus said.
“I don’t know,” Anna said at the same time.
“Should we want the answers?” Marcus asked.
“That is something I definitely can’t tell you,” Jin said. “You’re choices are your own.”
“What about you then?” Anna asked. “Is it something you regret learning?”
Jin’s smile broadened into a gentle laugh.
“Not even for a single moment,” she said and raised her left hand to show a gleaming yellow band on her ring finger. “My story isn’t yours though. You don’t need to go to lengths I did to find your other half.”
“Can you tell us just enough for this to make some small amount of sense then?” Anna asked.
“Sure, or I can try,” Jin said. “Here’s the simplified version; something destabilized the boundaries of your world. We’re still working to figure out what the destabilizing factor was, but as a result of it, things that were beyond the horizon of your reality have managed to start becoming real.”
“Do we know where those things are coming from?” Marcus asked.
“Literally nowhere,” Jin said. “Before it came here, the [Armageddon Beast] didn’t exist. At least not in terms of anywhere meaningful to this world.”
“So they’re from faeryland, or Narnia, or something like that?” Anna asked.
“No. The places that you can imagine, or name? Those all have at least a sliver of reality to them. They’re ideas that can be shared. They can live on in the minds of those who know of them even if there’s no physical reality that they’re bound to.”
“And the [Armageddon Beast] isn’t like that?” Marcus asked.
“Before you named it? No,” Jin said.
“How can Nothing be like that though?” Anna said. “It was going to dissolve us, the building, everything.”
“That’s where this gets tricky,” Jin said. “And where it stops making intuitive sense at all. What the [Armageddon Beast] was before Marcus named it, isn’t a question with an answer. It wasn’t a proto-beast, it wasn’t an unformed monster, and it wasn’t even nothing. It simply wasn’t. And yet that ‘wasn’t’ was changing into an “is”. Without Marcus and your interference it would have been able to become almost anything and there are things much worse than [Armageddon Beasts] out there.”
“Okay, that’s…let’s call it something I don’t want to think out,” Marcus said. “What about the ‘headway’ you mentioned? Naming these things sounded like something you already knew about. That can’t be the whole answer right?”
“It isn’t,” Jin said. “Even once it was named, the [Armageddon Beast] was still more than capable of growing to the point where it consumed the Earth. The longer it had the less stoppable it was going to be too.”
“So we couldn’t just send in a plucky team of geeks to upload a virus to it, or drop a nuke on it or something?” Anna asked.
Marcus knew what the answer was, but he listened for confirmation anyways.
“Virus’s are information, and therefor consumable by an [Armageddon Beast] and nukes are basically candy to it, as are any and all other weapons, toxins, and biological agents this world can produce,” Jin said.
“I hate to think what Apple would do if their marketing department learned an iPad was more powerful than the world’s nuclear arsenal,” Anna said.
“It wasn’t the iPad that stopped the [Armageddon Beast],” Jin said. “That was all you two. And that’s related to the headway we seem to be making. Emphasis on ‘seem’.”
“Why do I feel like there’s going to be a huge and unpleasant caveat on that ‘seems’,” Marcus asked.
“Because you’re observant,” Jin said. “The headway is [Wonderland]. And the [United Federation of Planets]. And [Abbey Road].”
“Uh, what?” Marcus asked, each name Jin had spoken resonating within him more deeply than any sounds ever should.
“When the first breakthrough occurred, it was shunted to the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Jin said. “They’re standing as a bastion against the end of this world, and that’s why your players were called to help defend it. Fighting what began as a [Formless Hunger] there meant that any harm that was done to reality, including anyone who was effectively erased from reality, wouldn’t further destabilize this world.”
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘erased from reality’? I thought the [Armageddon Beast] was just going to eat us,” Anna said.
“Eat in the sense of chew you up and digest you? Yes. Eat you in the sense of drain the fundamental essence that underlies your atomic structure as well as consuming the informational foundation that your mind rests on? Also yes,” Jin said. “So you can see why it was better that damage like should happen somewhere else, right?”
“No. No, I don’t see that at all,” Marcus said, appalled at the idea of what had been unleashed on his world.
By which he meant the [Fallen Kingdoms].
He had no idea when that particular mental switch had been flipped. A lifetime ago, before the [World Shift] expansion went live, he would have scoffed at the idea of the [Fallen Kingdoms] being anything other than bits in server memory and data stored on the distributed hard drives. At some point though, his disbelief in the idea that people like Niminay and Penswell could be real had vanished. Maybe it was when his coworker Hailey had literally vanished in front of him and then started speaking back from the other side? It was hard to argue the world was entirely rational after witnessing something like that.
And then, just when It felt like he’d gotten around to believing the [Fallen Kingdoms] were real, he was being asked to accept them as a sacrifice to an unimaginable atrocity?
“Let me rephrase that,” Jin said. “Given that the [Fallen Kingdoms] has experience dealing with world ending threats on the regular and can recover from things that would shatter this world to dust, can you see why it was better for them to serve as the first line of defense instead of this world?”
“You mean because we can resurrect at the [Heart Fires] there?” Marcus asked.
“That’s a small part of it,” Jin said. “Don’t get me wrong – it’s a huge benefit on a personal level, but just being able to bring people back wouldn’t be anywhere near enough if the world itself couldn’t recover from the kind of damage the breakthroughs have done.”
“Breakthroughs? Plural?” Marcus asked. “I thought the only cosmic monster that had showed up was the thing in the new zones, in the [High Beyond].”
“There’ve been more than that,” Jin said. “There’s another one loose there at the moment in fact, one that’s still far more [Transcendental] than the [Broken Shadow] or [Byron] are.”
“[Byron]?” Anna asked, and turned to Marcus. “Was that one of your NPCs?”
“No. Or not that I know of.”
“The formerly-[Hungry Shadow] reached out beyond the sphere the [Fallen Kingdoms] are in and managed to corrupt a couple of the higher ups in the [Consortium of Pain],” Jin said. “In taking on a distinct identity though, the [Byron] piece split from [Hungry Shadow], converting it to a [Broken Shadow]. The [Byron] piece if far more limited than its predecessor was, but still capable of doing incredible damage. Especially if he can remerge with the [Broken Shadow] on his terms rather than its.”
“Why does that sound worse than the [Armageddon Beast] coming back?” Marcus asked.
“Because it is. Substantially so,” Jin said. “The [Armageddon Beast] was like a chemical equation, or a tornado; unequivocal but simple and without a specific will of its own. When it tried to consume you, it didn’t choose to do so, no more so than gravity chooses to hold you down, or an ocean on this world might choose to drown you. [Byron] however has a persona. There is will and intent there, which means cunning and, unfortunately, a malice which is yoked to the infinite hunger it sprang from.”
“Is that something we have to deal with too?” Anna asked.
“Nope. You’re not alone in trying to save the world. Far from it,” Jin said. “The [Adventurers] from the [Fallen Kingdoms] have started to deal with the [Broken Shadow] and they’ll be contending with [Byron] soon enough. Just like the [Explorers] in the [Crystal Stars] have rallied together and are dealing with the entities that have broken through there.”
“But they’re not getting them all are they?” Anna asked, dread suspicion in her voice.
“Not even close,” Jin said. “Fighting even one of the breakthroughs is taking an incredible amount of energy and coordination. The [Fallen Kingdoms] have assembled a literal army of god-tier [Adventurers] and it’s an open question if they’ll be enough. That’s where [Wonderland] comes into play.”
“People are fighting the breakthroughs in other worlds…” Marcus spoke the words without believing them, but as each syllable tumbled from his lips, he knew with greater certainty that he was right.
Anywhere people could imagine. Any place, and any characters they connected to. With the world crumbling in front of them, humanity was calling on the defenders it held most dear and believed in most deeply.