Tessa saw Obby starting to change before anyone else was aware of it.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Somethings the mind can encompass.
Not that however.
“You really don’t want to see what comes next,” Obby, or whatever Obby had become, said, and with a wave of her hand, a veil of darkest night slid across the throne room, cutting Tessa’s party off from the horde of Hungers, Gulini Prime, and Obby’s new form.
Gulini Prime saw the [Adventurer] step forward, heard her hollow boast and prepared to slap bits of her into nonexistence. Just for fun.
It was wonderful that some opposition had made it this far in a desperate attempt to stop his victory. It was wonderful specifically because it was already far too late. He’d long since won, but having an audience around to watch all of the pieces fall into place made it all the more worthwhile.
The [Adventurer] was changing though.
That didn’t look right.
“By all means, cast your full might against me,” he said. “Summon your most terrible powers. I want you to know just how hopeless all this was.”
The [Adventurer] was laughing.
Or, was she?
Gulini couldn’t tell where the laughter was coming from, and was reasonably certain, that no human throat could have made that sound. For that matter, mortal throats in general didn’t seem like they were designed to make the thin fabric of the Dreamlit World quake.
“Play whatever tricks you like,” Gulini said. “I’ve won on every front.”
“Have you now? Do tell. Gloat all you’d like.”
It was the [Adventurer] speaking.
Gulini was sure of that.
Except, she was gone.
She’d blurred, and twisted, and stretched, and then cloaked herself in darkness.
As though invisibility would hide her from him.
Gulini laughed at the idea.
Did his laugh have a nervous catch in it? No. Certainly not. He had nothing to be nervous about. He’d already won. This was his chance to enjoy himself.
“Where do you think you are?” he asked.
“Why don’t you tell me.”
“This isn’t just any center of power,” Gulini said. “We stand in the birthplace of this realm, and in the presence of its chief architect.”
“So I see. And it appears you have her quite trapped?”
“It’s not a trap,” Gulini said. “It’s a tomb. The [Nightmare Queen] is cut off from the realm she breathed into life by her own power. She’s devouring herself in order to stave off the Hungers that surround her. She hopes to buy a precious few more moments for her world to exist, but even those moments are bent to my will.”
“You’re not just attacking her are you?”
“Of course not,” Gulini said. “Her [Fallen Kingdoms] have a thousand calamities that have risen up, any one of which is capable of ending all life in the world. And do you know what the best part is?”
“That she would be able to fix all of them if you weren’t here?”
“No! Just the opposite,” Gulini said. “Each of my beautiful, impossible children, is real enough that she couldn’t touch them even if she wanted to. I could let her go right now and the [Scourge of Serpents] would still encircle the world and crush the planet to dust in its coils, or the [Unquiet Shadows] would stretch across the land and pull everything that wasn’t bathed in pure light into the endless abyss, or the [Ashes of Doom] would fall endlessly and reduce everything they touch to cinders and broken memories.”
“That sounds very thorough, but maybe you should explain it a bit more.”
Gulini, on some level, knew he absolutely did not need to explain his plans. Or justify them. Or do anything the invisible and all-encompassing voice was saying.
But he wanted to.
No, he needed to.
Winning and crushing all hope from a world needed the proper garnish of active despair and there was so little time left to enjoy it.
“Throughout the wretched little world you call home I have seeded a thousand Hungers. But why would that be threatening you ask? After all, you know how to beat a Hunger. You converted that pathetic predecessor of mine into ‘Unknown’. And I suppose you also dealt with one of my minor fragments too.”
“So you made the Hungers better?”
“No. I didn’t make them Hungers at all. I made each one into its own unique apocalypse. So now there are a thousand ends of the world, all tearing it apart or ready to blossom.”
“All that work, and you don’t need any of them do you?”
“Of course not,” Gulini said. “Those are just for fun. Let the [Adventurers] struggle and die against them. Let them win and win and win. They only need to fail once and that’s the end of everything, except their true end awaits right here.”
“Because you’re going to destroy the lynchpin the entire realm is built on.”
“Because I’ve already destroyed the lynchpin the entire realm is built on. The Queen made this world, not alone but all of the others who stood with her are long gone. Her dominion encompasses all that the [Fallen Kingdoms] are. Destroy her and the realm she is a part of will shatter and fade away back to a forgotten corner of Oblivion.”
Gulini threw his arm wide in a grand gesture to take in the throne room that was all that remained of the Queen’s sanctum of power.
Except he couldn’t make out the walls of the throne room.
Or the throne.
“Hiding behind the shadows won’t save you when the last flame of existence is snuffed out,” Gulini said. “You will only die in darkness like a coward.”
“No one is going to die here.” Footsteps echoed in the darkness behind Gulini. No matter which direction he turned, they were always behind him. “Not even if you ask nicely.”
Gulini reached out with the emptiness that remained within him, the infinite hunger that still sought to consume everything and then itself. He’d been transcendent once, and so he remained, but the scope of his infinity had narrowed and been hedged in so greatly. He wasn’t yet the man he’d once been, and with the destruction of everything, he never would be, but as his pulse quickened, he felt a cold fear rising that was all too familiar.
“You should check on your prisoner. You wouldn’t want the Queen to get away.”
Gulini couldn’t see the throne the Queen had been driven back to. He couldn’t see the sphere of swirling space where she twisted the fabric of her realm and herself to keep his Hungers at bay. When he looked, in fact, he couldn’t even make out his hands at arms length.
“Where are you?” he demanded, searching the shadows that refused to yield.
“I’m right here.”
The voice came from everywhere around him.
It came from beyond the farthest star in the cosmos.
It came from right inside him.
“What are you?” Gulini’s voice broke as he stumbled in a few running steps.
The illusion of darkness couldn’t be that big. The Queen had set the boundaries of her throne room at static positions, not infinitely flexible ones. It gave the room a measure of reality. It made her weak. She accepted a limitation in order to be closer to the realm she had a hand in crafting and now he was going to use it against her and her would-be rescuer.
He stumbled farther forward. The ground was level, but his feet weren’t finding support or purchase on it.
“You can’t run away from this.”
“I don’t need to run. Your world is ending, and you and I are going to end with it. No matter what you do, I will return to blessed unbeing and my last thought will be satisfaction that I’ve brought everything and everyone else with me,” Gulini said.
“No. Like I said, no one dies here. Not even you.”
“How will you stop me then, if you won’t destroy me?” Gulini asked, smug delight rising in him again.
“By giving you what you’re missing.”
There was no force in what happened next. No sense of talons larger than a galaxy spearing into Gulini and pouring themselves into the void that lay within him. He felt no pain, and no terror as something without form or limit was dragged from inside him. There wasn’t even a sense of loss as the gateway to unspeakable power was torn away and he came crashing back down to the small, fragile, and terribly finite limits of his skin, his life, and his own empty mind.
“You can keep the memories,” Obby said, returning from the woman she truly was to the roll she’d chosen to play in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. “What you were, what you did, what you could have become, that’s all still there for you. Maybe you’ll even learn something from it.”
“What have you done?” Gulini asked as he collapsed to the throne room’s floor too shattered and overwhelmed to maintain consciousness any longer.
“Put things back where they belonged,” Obby said. At her gesture, the veil of shadows that had blocked them off from the Queen and Obby’s team receded.
“What just happened?” Rip asked.
“And where did all the Hungers go?” Matt asked.
“Back where they belong,” Obby said.
“How?” Tessa asked, more confused than the rest because she’d seen more than they had.
“Like I said, I don’t have to hold back here as much. But that’s not important. We’ve got bigger problems to deal with.”
“Do we?” the Nightmare Queen asked, rising from her throne.
“You’re diminished, but you’ll be able to recover,” Obby said. “At least as long as your world endures.”
“The Consortium Fleet will be deployed and ready to annihilate the system within half a day,” Azma said. “The Hierarch of this system will not need her full power to contain that threat.”
“Unfortunately, she’s going to have several other more urgent problems to deal with,” Obby said.
“More urgent than the sun exploding?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Yes,” the Nightmare Queen said. “I can sense them already. There are new threats, Hungers changed into a thousand unique tools, each bent on destroying our realm.”
“Ours?” Tessa asked.
The Nightmare Queen chuckled at that.
“We’ve always made this world together,” she said. “I hold the place I do only because I was the leader of the earliest efforts of creation. That creation didn’t end when the other gods left though, or when the kingdoms fell. You all have played a role in carrying it forward. Your adventures have been what preserved this world, time and again.”
“But we don’t make anything in the world. That’s the developers,” Pete said through Starchild.
“Would the developers have a job without players to engage with what they built?” The Queen’s voice sounded slightly different to Tessa’s ears. Almost familiar, though the memory felt long distant. “You’re the ones who make guilds, who build halls and houses, and who create the stories that bring our world to life.”
“Apologies for asking this, but you sound like you’ve played in the Earthly version of [Broken Horizons]. Are you one of the developers?” Lisa asked.
“Not for a long time, but I was,” the Nightmare Queen said.
“What happened?” Rip asked.
“I died,” the Nightmare Queen said. “I worked and worked and poured so much of myself into this world, that when it came time to shuffle off the mortal coil and move on, this is where I moved on to.”
“And you wound up joined with the Nightmare Queen?” Tessa said, an understanding of who they were talking to bubbling up in her mind.
“I was surprised at the time, but I suppose I had set her up as something of a self-insert character.”
Before Tessa could speak, Marcus did.
“Gail? Is that you?”
The Nightmare Queen blinked in surprise.
“Marcus? You finally made up a cat boy character?”
“Umm, who is that?” Rip asked on the team’s private channel.
“That’s Gail Merriden,” Tessa said. “She was the first Lead Designer on [Broken Horizons]. She shaped everything about the game and she died bringing it to life.”
“So how is she here?” Rip asked.
“Maybe the same as we are,” Lisa said.
“Wait, you mean we’re dead?” Matt asked.
“No. We’re not,” Tessa said. “But we are needed here, and I think so was she.”
“The question is, will she be able to help us?” Lisa said.
“I’m pretty she can,” Pillowcase said. “Take a look at your chat log.”
Quest Complete: The Call Is Answered
New Quest Unlocked: Save The Worlds