Author Archives: dreamfarer

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 3

Kamie Anne Do

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

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

A distant howl answered her before anyone else could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.

So they were safe.

Except…

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

It definitely wasn’t going to.

Grace remembered [Sky’s Edge].

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

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

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

But they’d survived it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to see that she was mistaken. 

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

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

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

Except, they didn’t need to be saved.

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

And then it was past her.

Running not for her friends.

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

No walls stopped the hound.

No hesitation stayed it’s jaws.

And no [Disjoined] escaped the building.

Jin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kari squinted at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 2

Feral Fang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cambrell smiled, showing a row of sharp teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re going to try to distract them?

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

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

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

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

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

Mellisandra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, that doesn’t sound good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There were ones who wanted to stay?”

“Yeah, [King’s] orders.”

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Interlude 1

Grunvan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A last treat for the condemned? 

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

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

And she was here to help!

She knew she was doing a good thing.

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

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

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

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

The last part was the worrisome element for Grunvan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Mowdi though.

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

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

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

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

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

Magic.

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

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

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

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

Penswell

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

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

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

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

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

And it was something Penny already had plans for.

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

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

Or perhaps just beyond her ability to care.

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

By the Consortium that is.

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

A call Penny would take, and answer.

She wasn’t completely heartless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are Kolovin?” Penny asked.

“I am,” the [Octopire] said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See his escape?” Grunvan asked.

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

“How would you do that?” Grunvan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“But the situation is dire,” Cassel said.

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 22

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

Though they continued in their attempts.

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

Awareness in general was an annoying quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which was why it couldn’t meet with them.

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

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

It was a gesture to show support and trust.

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

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

It was [Broken].

[Fractured].

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

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

And that was dangerous.

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

Which shouldn’t have been a problem.

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

Which was what the [Broken Hunger] yearned for.

Or that was what it told itself it yearned for.

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

Even lies to itself.

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

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

It was what had happened to Byron.

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

No. Someone specific.

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

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

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

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

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

Or it hadn’t been

Up until then.

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

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

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

“You will meet with us?” Byron asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulini’s ship.

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

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

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

The [Broken Hunger] kept firing.

It had to be sure.

“Was that enough?” Byron asked.

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 21

Being a [Dungeon Boss] was miserable work. Grimsnarl sat on his throne of skulls and wondered what had ever possessed the original owner of the dungeon to make such an incredibly lumpy and uncomfortable chair. For the hundredth time he weighed the benefit of order his minions to tear the stupid thing out and replace it with something simpler and more tasteful. 

A plain wooden chair wouldn’t project the proper [Lordly] majesty, but that might be a good thing. Better to put visitors off their game by surprising them with something that didn’t seem to make sense than to lean into the dreary and overly dramatic “grandeur” the original decorator of the throne room seemed to prefer.

As with the ninety nine times before though, Grimsnarl rejected the idea. The enchantments the [Skull Throne] offered were too good to forego. 

[Ten Fold Armor] to increase his durability to the point where a small army couldn’t manage much more than to blunt their blades on his rippling abs. [Creeping Doom] to call forth poisonous shadows that dissolved anyone he found displeasing. [Touch of the Grave] that coated his comically oversized blade with life stealing fire.

Most important of all the gifts though was the most subtle one, [Shadowed Eyes]. The technique had rendered him fantastically near sighted when he acquired it, and that had taken a week of bonding with the throne by sitting in it without sleep or disruption. It was also the first of the gifts to begin fading when he rose from the throne. For all that though, it gave his the power that truly made him the [Dungeon Boss] – so long as he was on the [Skull Throne], he could see the whole of the dungeon at once whenever he closed his eyes.

This was an invaluable tool for ruling any domain, but even moreso for Grimsnarl since he and his fellow [Deep Ogres] controlled only scattered and poorly connected areas of the dungeon, the rest being under the control of the various non-sapient monsters his companions hadn’t been able to root out yet.

It was because of the advanced warning [Shadowed Eyes] provided that they’d managed to hang on as long as they had after their band was driven from the [Sunless Deeps] when Grimsnarl’s family was unexpectedly and quite efficiently removed from their positions of royal privilege (as well as, in too many cases, their position of ‘being among the living’).

Grimsnarl endured the [Skull Throne] for that reason, and, many days, that reason alone. He knew he didn’t need to impress his companions. They’d grown up together. They knew him for what he was and had no illusions that he was going to lead them back to their homeland as revenging conquerors. 

The desire was there in all of them. To payback the blood that had been stolen, and to smash the humiliation they all felt at the scorn and derision the usurpers had shown them as they fled down tunnels few dared to explore.

Without resources and personnel though, there was no return that wasn’t an elaborate and pointless suicide. As they stood, Grimsnarl and his companions wouldn’t even make it within the range of their longest clubs before the usurpers cut them down with magic and missiles.

A life apart, secure in their own domain that was too far away from the ancestral dwellings of the [Deep Ogres] was the best they could hope for.

But not if aggressors kept invading their territory.

Grimsnarl noticed the incursion a moment after the strange band crossed into the area his companions controlled. He could have seen them coming farther out but things had been quiet for days and paying attention to the whole dungeon left him with a miserable headache by the time he was ready for sleep.

The leaders of the invaders were odd. Not the [Gelatinous Spiders] but something far worse. [Humanoids].

No. Even worse than that.

[Adventurers].

Probably?

The one in the lead was a strange sort of animated cloth doll dressed in armor. Grimjaw focused in closer, trying to grasp what he was seeing. A stuff doll in armor had to be some form of golem. Not self willed but obeying the commands of the human beside it.

As the rest of the invaders entered his territory, Grimsnarl’s confused sank into roiling unease.

A cat person? Another golem, but this time of solid metal? A [Vampire]?

This wasn’t an [Adventuring Party], it was a collection of nightmares that had run loose from a particularly demented mind.

Grimsnarl reached for the [Great Horn] to alert his scattered companions, but hesitated.

The [Adventurers] had already run into two of his companions, Fellbold and Drumbell. They were within their territory, so the [Heart Fire] would work for them, but Grimsnarl was still disquieted to think they were moments from death. 

Their strength would have been valuable to turn away the invaders. 

And they were his friends, watching them suffer was miserable even if the death wouldn’t be permanent.

Hopefully not permanent.

Except, they didn’t seem to be dying.

They were fighting.

Quite well in fact.

Very much in tune with each other. Grimsnarl guessed they’d learned to rely on each instinctively during the difficult journey from the home tunnels, though he hadn’t noticed their closeness until that moment.

It was wonderful to see them doing so well, regardless of what it said about Grimsnarl’s attentiveness, but he noticed that for as well as they were fighting, they weren’t winning.

In fact, if Grimsnarl didn’t know better he would say that the invaders weren’t actually fighting back.

They were defending themselves, but they seemed to be more focused on preventing injuries than inflicting any.

And they seemed to be talking.

Grimsnarl couldn’t hear the conversation. His gift was [Shadowed Eyes] not [Muffled Ears]. Even without being able to make out the words themselves though, the invaders body language spoke volumes.

They didn’t want to fight, and they refused to hurt either of the [Deep Ogres].

Drumbell worked that out first, or was the first to believe them, stepping back from the fray and reaching out an arm to hold Fellbold back as well.

The [Deep Ogres] tried to shoo the invaders away, likely warning to the “leave the territory of the fierce [King Grimsnarl]” if Grimsnarl could guess. He didn’t have any legitimate claim to a [Kingship] currently, but his friends weren’t likely to explain that or use his proper title of [Broken Prince].

The cloth doll in armor stepped forward, securing her weapon at her side, and made some sort of offer that changed the [Deep Ogres] whole posture.

Grimsnarl adjusted his vision and noticed the pouch in the doll’s other hand.

Which explained everything.

They didn’t have anywhere to spend it, but gold was still a powerful motivator for [Deep Ogres].

Unsure whether to be more amused or concerned, Grimsnarl watched as the [Adventurers] were led through his domain, past all of their clever traps, and the monsters they’d tamed to act as backup, around the collapsible areas that might have killed some of the [Adventurers] or at least forced them to take even more dangerous routes, right to the door of his [Throne Room].

Dropping his face into his hands, Grimsnarl answered the knock on his door with a weary, “Enter,” before straightening up to greet the new arrivals with his full (and he felt ridiculous) majesty.

“Grimsnarl…uh, I mean, [King] Grimsnarl, we bring supplicants to your throne,” Fellbold tried to exclaim in a towering voice. Unfortunately the tower sort of toppled over due to his pauses and uncertainty. 

It didn’t matter though, the invaders seemed to be quietly respectful regardless of the unnecessary dramatics.

“Why are you here?” Grimsnarl asked. He didn’t try to add any particular air of menace to him voice, but he suspected his frustration with his friends leaked into in a bit anyways.

“To negotiate with you, [King] Grimsnarl,”  the doll said.

Grimsnarl raised an eyebrow at that.

They [Adventuring Party] let the mindless doll speak for them?

It had to be one of the others speaking through it.

Was that an insult?

Or was the controlling [Adventurer] too shy to speak on their own?

That didn’t seem like a plausible trait for a leader of any sort, but Grimsnarl had heard many tales of [Adventurers] that started with “You won’t believe how weird this group was.”

“Negotiate what?” Grimsnarl asked. He could play along until he worked out how much of a threat they were. The [Creeping Doom] was always ready to be called forth if he needed it.

“We’ve seen the state of the dungeon beyond your holdings,” the doll said. “Your subjects have explained that you hold claim to the enter area but that certain sections of it are still in the process of being pacified. We believe we can help with that.”

“Help?” Grimsnarl asked. “Why and how?”

He was capable of longer sentences, but [Adventurers] were tricky so cutting out the garbage and getting directly to the point seemed like the only safe and sane course of action.

“You have monsters in places you don’t wish for monsters to be,” the doll said. “Our job is killing monsters. That’s both the how and the why.”

“Aren’t we monsters to you too?” Grimsnarl asked, genuinely perplexed. 

[Adventurers] were bloodthirsty kill fiends. Their definition of “monster” was broad enough to include everything [Floor Mold] to [The Cursed Guardian of Time]. The last time Grimsnarl had heard of an [Adventurer] not killing a [Deep Ogre] on sight was half past the first of never.

“Uh, no, you can talk,” the doll said. “If you can talk, then you’re people. If you can’t talk, you might be people still, but it might take special effort to figure that out. And of course, if you’re people, you might be a monster too, but that’s a case of what you choose to do. Things like those [Gelatinous Spiders] you have one level up from here don’t exactly get to choose what their doing. They’re basically preprogrammed murder-bots.”

“Murder what?” Grimsnarl asked.

“Constructs built to kill, just made from biological material rather than mechanical components,” the doll said.

“And you only kill monsters?” Grimsnarl said, wondering if perhaps these weren’t actually [Adventurers] after all.

Perhaps some benevolent form of dungeon dwelling [Faerie]? 

Grimsnarl hoped not. The [Faeries] he’d heard of were even more terrifying than [Adventurers] were.

“We only go looking for monsters to kill,” the doll said. “With people we like to see if we can talk first and find some common ground.”

“And if you can’t?

“Then we look to see if we can coexist peacefully.”

“And if that’s not an option?” Grimsnarl asked. He wasn’t sure why. He didn’t want to hear the obvious threat that would answer the question. 

If two groups couldn’t ally, and couldn’t coexist, the only thing left was bloody annihilation for one or both of them. If any of the losing side was left alive, they’d recover, rebuild, and eventually kill your family and usurp your rightful throne.

“We’d just leave in that case,” the doll said. “It’s big world out there, and we don’t have any particular claim to this place. You were here first, and it’s your home. Who wants to be the kind of jerk that kicks someone out of their home?”

Grimsnarl’s mouth worked but no sound came out.

That wasn’t what the doll was supposed to say.

They were supposed to move on to escalating threats.

And then start fighting.

And then they’d die or he’d die or everyone would die, then they’d wait an hour or two and start the cycle up all over again.

“I’m sorry, you would just leave?” Grimsnarl asked, certain he couldn’t have heard the doll right. Or that it wasn’t really speaking for the party.

“I mean, we’d asked if we could stay in touch first,” the doll said. “Even if you don’t want us around, there might be other mutually opportunities that might arise. At the worst, we’d want to be able to warn you if something like the [Hungry Shadow] shows up.”

Grimsnarl’s head was reeling.

The doll was serious.

Cooperation with an [Adventuring Party].

An [Alliance] with an [Adventuring Party].

[Seven Steaming Hells], it sounded like they wanted to be [Friends]!

“Who are you?” Grimsnarl asked, completely lost on how any of this could be happening.

“My name’s Pillowcase”, the doll said. “And it sounds like you might be willing to negotiate?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 20

Azma

Azma rarely called for overwhelming force in her attacks. To begin with it was wasteful and revealed a distasteful lack of intelligence. Sending in twice as many troops as the standard projections showed were necessary to win an engagement could ensure victory but at the cost of squandering unnecessary lives and resources, simply because the commander in charge lacked confidence in their strategy and understanding of their enemy.

Also it was boring.

Anyone could win a battle by simply throwing resources at it until the other side collapsed. What made the whole dance of competing strategies interesting was riding as close to the razor’s edge as possible and accomplishing miraculous victories so reliably that people were forced see that the only miracle involved was the commander who’d orchestrated them all.

When she reviewed the plans of other commanders, she graded them on a less severe curve though, recognizing that achieving victory had to be the first priority for any commander and that many couldn’t afford to attempt the sort of maneuvers she delighted in.

By that measure the [Force Commander] of the Consortium forces outside of [Tradeways] was doing an admirable job. They’d setup the siege of the city well, softened the defenders up, wearied them with continual harassing attacks and the enacts and multi-phase offensive designed to unleash the sort of chaos what would grant them control over a quarter of the city and, possibly, a clear path to the rest if they used their [Special Forces] units properly.

There were many things Azma would have done differently, if she’d been in charge, but as strategies from a low ranking officer went, it was worthy of a commendation and a promotion.

In an enemy force, Azma would normally have been even more delighted to see the commander’s tactical acumen. Good opponents were so challenging to find and often needed to be nurtured to help develop their tactical skills. She wouldn’t have lost to them of course, but delivering a very gentle loss, and ensuring that the action played out slowly enough so that the commander could grasp what was happening and reflect on it later was a key element in helping minor foes grow into something more interesting. 

In this instance however, Azma did not offer a gentle loss.

Nor did she hold back her forces.

“The enemy [Heavies] on the western edge of their flank have rallied and are acting as a bulwark,” Grenslaw said. “They’re in retreat but slowly enough that other units are falling in behind them.”

“Collapse the buildings on these two cross streets,” Azma said. “No one is allowed to penetrate into the city deeper than that.”

“We can send the [5th Aerial Caster Group] to keep them hemmed in,” Ryschild said, eyes closed to track the battle on an internal mindscape since they’d had to abandon the last of their communication gear well before coming in range of the Consortium forces.

“The 5th needs to stay in support of [Pelezar’s Lancers],” Azma said. She didn’t need to close her eyes to view a mindscape of the battlefield. She saw each of her forces and all of their enemies clearly laid out as each new report incremented the placement and strength of the troops on both sides. “Collapsed the far buildings first, then drop the others on the [Heavies] once they’ve fallen back far enough. They won’t be damaged but the distraction and chaos will provide an opening for our [Rogue] class units to do a fade attack on the high value targets. Once we see the outcome of that we can decide which other forces to commit.”

Azma already knew the answer would be that no additional forces would be required. After a successful ambush strike, the [Rogue] style untils who were part of her army would be able to go toe-to-toe with the remaining [Heavies] and other forces. That wasn’t typically a [Rogue’s] role but a typical Rogue wasn’t wearing [Enchanted Power Armor] either.

Azma asked a lot from her troops. She also valued them, which meant she made sure to support them properly. Enchanting their normal armor and fusing on what tech add-ons they could cobble together had cost her half a day in coming to [Tradeways] aid. 

In a sense that was a good thing.

With the siege on [Tradeways] farther advanced, the city was more clearly in need of her help. 

But that hadn’t been part of Azma’s original plan.

In her original plan, she’d calculated around the enemy Consortium forces being as mindlessly aggressive as most of the [Hungry Shadows] minions in the [High Beyond] had been. That plan had been cast onto the fire the moment Azma saw the Consortium forces using strategy. Their use of any strategy beside mindless hunger would have alarmed her, that they were using solid, well thought out strategy however elevated them past ‘dangerous but amusing adversary’ to ‘serious existential threat, overkill authorized and required’.

The [Hungry Shadow] hadn’t started with even basic stimulus and response capabilities. That it had changed into something that had a mind and the capacity for complex thoughts was an apocalyptic turn of events. Azma was familiar with those, having caused more than a few apocalypses herself, and none of them had left her with the desire to be on the receiving end of an apocalypse for a change.

“I’m not following something here,” Ryschild said. “The enemy forces are absorbing far more damage than they should be capable of withstanding.”

“Confirmed,” Grenslaw said. “We’re at 80% force commitment and our offensives are stalling out.”

“We should have been able to defeat them with 20% of our forces,” Azma said. “I should have been able to beat them with 10%.”

“Could they have scavenged locally enchanted gear?” Grenslaw asked. “Perhaps from an earlier city they looted?”

“The local armor and weapons won’t work for them,” Azma said. “The enhanced properties the locals utilize are all [Soul Bound] to individuals. These things are no longer individuals.”

“From the reports we’ve received, I calculate they’re roughly five times more durable than anticipated,” Ryschild said. “That’s what’s preventing our forces from executing on their orders.”

“That is what is delaying our forces,” Azma said. “They will execute them, we just need to provide them the adjusted time they require.”

“Shall I order the final reserves to be committed?” Grenslaw asked.

“No,” Azma said. “We have a better option. Bring me a signalling lamp.”

Lushtiel

[Star Captain] Lushtiel liked absolutely nothing that she was seeing before her.

It was a bad day when an army rolled up to your town and decided to siege the place. A bad day, but not an entirely unexpected one. 

It was a worse day when that army could match and drive back your [Elite Skirmishers] and when you yourself had to worry about engaging them alone.

Lushtiel had worked with teams before. Unbeknownst to all but a handful of people, one of those teams had included the [Crown Princess] De’celi, in disguise of course. 

Even the thought of that brought a smile to Lushtiel’s face. It had been colossally foolish and irresponsible but those had been good times. Good times that she would never see again if the Consortium army outside her gates crushed her city.

Technically [Tradeways] wasn’t Lushtiel’s city. She didn’t own it. The monarchs didn’t either, nor did the merchant council, or any other citizen. Lushtiel had fought and bleed for [Tradeways] though and had chosen it time and again over more lucrative postings or exciting opportunities, so it was her city, and anyone who disagreed was welcome to fight her for it.

Of course fighting her for it was pretty much exactly what the army outside the [Riverrun Wall] seemed intent on doing.

Or at least they had been before a second Consortium army showed up.

Where one invading army showing up made for a very bad day, two appearing and fighting each other made for a very weird one and Lushtiel didn’t trust weird twists of fate.

“Should we join them?” Sergeant Bothwin asked. The dwarf looked as confused as Lushtiel but he had the benefit of being able to let someone higher up the chain of command worry about figuring out the answers.

“Sure. Just as soon as we can figure out which side we should smite first,” Lushtield said.

In the distance, at the rear of the newly arrived army, a pulsing light flashed in a rapid sequence of blink.

A very familiar sequence of blinks.

“That looked an awful lot like the [Royal Command Code],” Bothwin said.

“What a funny coincidence,” Lushtiel said. “Probably just chance though. Its pretty hard to tell fast signaling burst apart. Could be anything.”

It absolutely was not anything.

Lushtiel knew the [Royal Command Code] as well enough to read it with her eyelids closed. De’celi wasn’t ever supposed to have taught it to her, but the two of them had never found a rule that didn’t need at least a little breaking.

“I wonder what they were saying,” Bothwin said, stroking his beard.

The sender had been very clear:

Relay this to your leader: We will make three weak points in the enemy formations in fifteen minutes. Capitalize on them and you can reduce the besieging army’s force by thirty percent. Take this as an offering of peace and good faith. We will repeat our assaults until the siege is lifted if an alliance is acceptable.”

“I have no idea, could just be random noise,” Lushtiel said, hoping that De’celi had missed the message and wouldn’t be lured into such an obvious trap.

It seemed like the simplest of strategies to divide an army up and have one half pretend to be rescuing a city from the other half in order to lure out the defenders, or take the city with few casualties, or less damage to lootable resources. 

The sad part was, the enemy commander hadn’t even gone to the trouble of disguising either part of the army. They both looked like the same enemy forces that had been attacking cities around the planet.

Shabby work.

Except for the part where, if the Consortium commander had an army as big as the two that were fighting outside the walls, they could have simply swarmed the city. Lushtiel was justly proud of the strength she and her [Elite Skirmishers] had but she was also quite aware of its limits. They could handle many of the foes the [Fallen Kingdoms] had to offer, but definitely not all of them. Beyond a certain level, it was time to step back and let anywhere from eight to sixty four [Adventurers] deal with the problem. 

And sadly, they did not have that many [Adventurers] in residence at the moment. [Tradeways] local pool of heroes had been called away to deal with other crises in the world, just before they’d received the order to shut down the [Teleportation Gates].

Lushtiel regretted that, but the gates did need to be sealed. If they’d been left open it would have attracted a bigger army, even sooner. If  fate was feeling kind, perhaps a dozen or so of them would find a method of teleporting back on their own but that wasn’t how Lushtiel’s day was going.

Five minutes later a courier knight arrived with a secure tablet. With a sigh, Lushtiel unlocked the secure crystal and saw, not a recording but an active feed, spring to life.

“[Star Captain] Lushtiel I have new orders for you,” [Crown Princess] De’celi said.

It was the worst opening she could have given. De’celi was never formal except when she knew Lushtiel would hate what she was about to say.

“Awaiting your orders [Crown Princess],” Lushtiel said, knowing the formal response would annoy De’celi as much as her [Star Captain] title did Lushtiel.

“You are to sally forth and engage the Consortium forces besieging the city as soon as the relief forces who are currently engaged with them create the openings they have promised to provide.” De’celi said.

“Relief forces? De’celi, do you really think these new Consortium forces are on our side?” Lushtiel asked. “Having you check with the [Allied Defense Command]?”

“As a matter of fact, she has,” Penswell said, joining the hologram.

At first Lushtield wondered if the lines of communication had gotten crossed, then she saw that both De’celi and Penswell were captured in the same image.

Which meant they were in the same room together.

Which mean the leader of the [Allied Defense Command] was here in person.

Broken Horizon – Vol 9, Ch 19

Even in ruins [Tradeways] was a city of splendor. From the [Low Quarter]  where traffic from the [Three Rivers of the North] flowed into the city, to the shining spires of the [Steelbones Castle], the city could boast of being one of the most beautiful cities in the [Fallen Kingdoms], even as that beauty burned.

“We have to re-open the gates,” General Ravendawn said. “The [3rd Allied Magical Infantry] is ready to come to our aid but they won’t get here before we lose the [Riverrun Walls] unless we gate them in.”

He wasn’t wrong. Princess De’celi could see the picture before them as clearly as anyone else in the war room who was studying the troops arrayed against them. Since it was her [Tactical Engagement Board] which [Tradeways] military commanders were clustered around, she suspected she could see more than they could even.

Which was the problem.

“We have the [Teleportation Gates] on standby,” De’celi said. “We cannot open them yet though. Not until we have the [Central Market Place] secured.”

“Your Higness, I know this is all new to you,” General Tarksis began before De’celi cut him off by slapping the measuring stick in her hand against the board’s surface.

“The enemy has troops which are both flight and stealth capable,” De’celi said. “Their attack patterns indicate a focus on two areas. The [Teleportation Gates] and the [Collegium of the Red Sash].”

“But there’s no proof that they’ve sent those units in!” Tarksis countered, huffing himself up to his full height.

Watching him tower over the Princess made for a disturbing picture. He looked big enough to snap her like a twig. If she made the attempt however, De’celi resolved that she would show him his error without excessive dismemberment.

“The proof you ask for will come the moment the gates are turned on,” General Ravendawn said. “A stealth force will not be able to risk  the gates being turned back off or destroyed if that’s their target.”

“Ravendawn! I thought you were in favor of opening the gates and getting us the forces we need!” Tarksis said.

“I am,” Ravendawn said. “But the Princess is also correct.”

“Well you can’t very well have it both ways,” Tarksis said.

“I most certainly can,” Ravendawn said. “What makes the enemy’s stealth forces so dangerous is that they will strike us when we are least expecting it. That advantage is diminished if we can dictate precisely when their attack will be launched.”

“What are you suggesting?” Tarksis asked. “We don’t have the men to set a defensive force around the gates and keep enough defenders on the walls.”

“I agree,” Tarksis said. “So let the walls go undefended.”

“That’s madness,” Tarksis said. “[Tradeways] will fall for sure.”

“No,” De’celi said. “It’s a workable strategy.”

“I’m glad you feel so, Your Highness,” Ravendawn said.

“Workable if our forces can overcome the [Stealth Units] the Consortium army has sent in,” De’celi said. “That’s a significant gamble, and I dislike the odds on it.”

“I could join the defense team around the gates if that would set your mind at ease?” Ravendawn said.

“It would not,” De’celi said. “You’re needed here.”

In part because De’celi was concerned she might eviscerate Tarksis if there wasn’t a voice of reason in the room to help deal with Tarksis’ condescending stupidity.

“If the town falls, we will rebuild,” De’celi said. “The castle however cannot fall. For any reason. We’re harboring every noncombatant from the city. If it comes to that, I and everyone in this room will give their lives to ensure that the castle’s gate can be opened long enough to evacuate our people, and then we will destroy the gates forever.”

“It would be an hour to die beside you,” Ravendawn said. His voice was light and cheerful but not insincere. 

Tarksis nodded weakly in agreement as did the handful of other generals and their aides who coordinating [Tradeways] defense.

“It is to be hoped however, that circumstances will not become quite that dire,” Ravendawn continued. “The Consortium taking the [Riverrun Walls] is a given at this point, but that’s a far cry from taking the city.”

“But we don’t even need to give them that much,” Tarksis mumbled.

“You are correct,” De’celi said, disinclined to ignore his comments. “We could hold the [Riverrun Walls] for another day, perhaps two, if we send the bulk of our reserves to reinforce it. That would buy time for what again though?”

“All of the noncombatants have been evacuated already,” Ravendawn said as Tarksis began to sputter and back away from the table.

“Now that’s not why I’m…” Tarksis tried to say but De’celi cut him off again.

“Oh yes, I see that they have been. I guess there’s nothing to protect there then is there?” De’celi said. “Oh wait. We do have the warehouses along [Beggars Row]. Surely we should make time to unload their contents. If they’re filled with food we could withstand a siege for weeks longer than if we let them fall into the Consortium’s hands.”

“The good news is that according to these reports,” Ravendawn held a stack of papers up, “It looks like the warehouses are being unloaded. The bad news seems to be that they are only housing banking records.”

“You mean, banking records of the sort which the crown requires financial institutions to maintain identical copies in the crown’s libraries?” De’celi asked. She already knew exactly what was happening. Tarksis was desperate to cling to the real records of his family’s dealings as they absolutely included accounts which hadn’t been disclosed to the crown. Accounts which doubtless held the lionshare of his wealth and detailed the debts owed to him. Accounts which De’celi was going to be delighted to review once her father and mother weren’t trapped halfway around the world and shortly after the small problem of the invading army had been dealth it.

“Yes, which is why you might imagine I am in favor of selling the [Riverrun Walls] to the Consortium at an unfair rate and then moving our forces to a more defensible position,” Ravendawn said.

“I would be inclined to look favorably on that suggestion if our troops didn’t need the enchantments on the battlements to last more than thirty seconds in battle with the Consortium troops,” De’celi said. “Enchantments, which, I feel compelled to remind the room, the [Mercantile Council] has vetoed funding for any of the other gates in the city.”

“We have the gate in the castle,” Tarksis said, as though that was explanation enough for his lack of foresight.

“Yes, a gate which is locked to one destination so as to not compete with the commercial gates,” Ravendawn said. “A location, which, as a point of slight interest, does not currently possess a spare army they can send to support us.”

An young knight rushed into the room, breathless but holding out a small tablet with a secure communication crystal affixed to it.

“From the [Riverrun Walls],” the knight gasped out as she fought to catch her breath.

“Add it to the Tactical table,” De’celi said, addressing Ravendawn, who complied after unlocking it with his personal signet.

The tactical map changed, the forces becoming specific units all along the wall with dozens of annotations appearing over each major grouping.

“Summary,” De’celi commanded the Tactical board, causing a hologram of [Star Captain] Lushtiel, one of De’celi’s oldest friends, to appear in all her life size glory above the board.

“Hi De’celi”, the recording of Lushtiel said. “I’m going to need either another army or a recall order in about two hours.”

The recording gestured to the map of the forces beneath them.

“The Consortium’s moved up some of their [Heavies] and our archers are holding them back exactly not at all. I’ve got boiling oil, which they don’t seem to like, and our [Mage Corp] has been putting a dent in them, but they’re tapping out of mp faster and faster with each advance.”

The hologram paused and turned as though looking around the room.

“If that ass Tarksis is there still, tell him his house guard sends their love and affection. We found them carrying some boxes full of worthless paper, so we drenched them in oil, lit them on fire, and lobbed them at the last wave of attackers. I don’t think it did any real damage but it confused the hell out of them, which at least bought us an extra minute or two and gave me a hell of a laugh. [Star Captain] Lushtield out.”

De’celi had to suppress a grin at seeing the unhealthy shade of pale white that Tarksis had turned at learning the fate of his hidden ledgers.

“It’s possible our [Star Captain] is being optimistic,” Ravendawn said. He’d pushed the units on the Tactical board into a new configuration and De’celi could see the cause for his concern.

“They’ve been repositioning their [Flame Artillery] units along [Moonbrook Road],” De’celi said. “The wooden buildings behind the fortifications aren’t inside their range though.”

“Not yet,” Ravendawn said. “And they’re heaving aren’t advancing on the garrison point on [Moonbrook]. See what happens if they break through here though?”

He gestured towards the nearby [Saltcart Road].

“The fighting from [Saltcart] will fall back leaving the [Moonbrook] garrison cut off. They could hold out though, unless the [Heavies] break off from the main battle to focus on them,” De’celi said, studying the map in greater detail and quickly skimming the annotations for the area.

“Yes, which will spell doom for the garrison and give them a means of cutting off even more of our forces as the fires they set spread outwards and block off escape our roots,” Ravendawn said.

“Except they won’t,” De’celi said. “They don’t need to send all of the [Heavies] to take out the garrison. They can dispatch a small strike team to force the garrison troops to bunker down.”

“Oh,” Ravendawn said, concern rippling across his face. “Oh, that’s unpleasantly likely. That would allow them to continue to push forward along [Saltcart] and set half the [Low Quarter] on fire at the same time.”

“It is perhaps time to give the recall order then,” De’celi said. She hated the idea. Giving up the [Low Quarter] was going to costly even if all of its citizens were safe and secure in the castle. 

Worse, while [Tradeways] defensive perimeter was designed to allow for a fighting retreat, each step backward that her forces took was an opportunity that could only be spent once and she was sure they hadn’t inflicted anywhere near the losses on the Consortium’s forces they needed to in order to ensure victory.

“We have time to work on other strategies,” Ravendawn said, no more pleased with their options than De’celi was.

“With each minute adding to the peril of the retreat,” De’celi said. “It will take them at least a quarter of an hour to arm all of the traps.”

“This is Lushtiel,” Ravendawn said. “I’m reasonably certain the traps are already armed.”

De’celi wanted to protest that her friend would never be as reckless as that but the words failed to even form on her tongue in the first place. 

“All the more reason to give the order now,” De’celi said. “The longer our troops are around those traps, the more likely we are to see ‘friendly fire’ prove less than friendly.”

“I will send for a courier then,” Ravendawn said.

Before he could summon one though, another young knight appeared in the door, even more out of breath than the first.

“From the walls!” the knight wheezed out, presenting another secure tablet.

Ravendawn took it and unsealed the crystal without waiting for a formal order.

Once again [Star Captain] Lushtiel appear in hologram form above the Tactical board. Her easy confidence had been replaced by a look of deep confusion this time.

“Uh, De’celi, you should look at the troop situation outside our walls,” she said, gesturing ot the rapidly updating Tactical board.

De’celi couldn’t place what she was seeing for a moment.

At first it looked like the Consortium’s forces had somehow doubled.

It only took De’celi a second to notice that wasn’t the case though.

The newly arrived units were clearly Consortium forces. 

At least in form and fighting capability.

But for some reason, and with rather frightening efficiency, they were ripping the Consortium forces which were besieging [Tradeways] to shreds.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 18

Having too many resources was not a problem Azma was used to dealing with.

“They all stayed,” she said, hiding her numb surprise as best she was able to.

She and her command staff had convened inside one of the portal comm stations the army had held onto. The comm equipment itself was all missing, reduced to ash and free floating molecules in the [High Beyond]. Free of the potential contagion that gear had carried, the station was little more than a spacious tent with climate control, a privacy screen, and a small powered nook for brewing a variety of stimulant carrying beverages.

On the rolling hills outside the tent, Azma’s Army was setting up similar structures as watches were assembled and a new chain of command was rolled out. Despite not being enthralled by Consortium loyalty enchantments, the army still worked with the focused calm which had been drilled into them.

“That no one left is outside of expectations, isn’t it?” Grenslaw asked, which was the polite phrasing of ‘you totally failed to account for this possibility, didn’t you?’

Azma paused and forced herself to be fair. Grenslaw wasn’t accusing or looking to score points. Not like a typical Consortium subordinate would be. Grenslaw was as surprised by the turn of events as Azma was. Ryschild seemed to be in the same boat. Only Fiori looked like the wholly intact army around them was exactly the outcome she’s anticipated.

“Outside expectations, and demanding some refinements of our overall strategy,” Azma said. Admitting that was an invitation to a contest for her authority. 

Or it would have been with any other group of subordinates. 

Azma saw the angles Ryschild and Grenslaw could use to usurp her position. It wouldn’t be easy. She, demonstrably, had the loyalty of her forces, at least for the present. No one rose to the level Ryschild and Grenslaw had though without being able to succeed at difficult endeavors. In many senses, her power and position were theirs for the taking. Azma found herself unconcerned by the prospect. She had problems that were far less theoretical to deal with, and she was beginning to suspect that her two assistants understood why she was letting them see how she actually worked.

“Starting from the basics, we will need more supplies and more developed shelter,” she said. “Spread out the troops could have had a lesser impact on a far wider area, together though they’ll need a richer support structure to draw on. Developing that infrastructure isn’t an option, so we are left with using existing instances of it.”

“So we do need to take over a town then?” Fiori asked.

“That’s an option,” Azma said. “Or several towns.”

“Multiple conquests would allow us to target smaller, less defended settlements,” Ryschild said.

“At the cost of being unable to coordinate and reinforce each other as easily as a centralized location would,” Grenslaw said.

“Several towns would be harder to defend overall,” Fiori said. “If we divide up to cover separate areas we’d have to deal with the chance that they’d all come under attack at once.”

“That might be an advantage for us,” Azma said. “This world offers unique opportunities. We lack air support at present, as well as anything like reasonable mobility options, but even without ground or air transport, we have the option of crossing significant distances on the planet in an instant thanks to the [Teleportation Gates] which major population centers all support.”

“Those were all disabled though by the defenders during the first wave of assaults,” Grenslaw said.

“Disabled but not destroyed,” Azma said. “They hoped to reopen them as they retook their cities.”

“I get it, so if we take multiple cities with these gates, we could open them and use them for ourselves,” Fiori said.

“That would allow us to shuttle troops quickly between two or more locations that we conquer, but I think we need more mobility than that,” Azma said.

“Can we replicate the gate technology the native employ?” Ryschild asked.

“Not in any sort of useful timeframe,” Azma said. “I estimate we have two days, three at most before the [Entity] who has taken over the fleet finishes dealing with the [Hungry Shadow] in the [High Beyond] and becomes an issue we need to deal with.”

“Does that change the requirements for food and shelter then?” Grenslaw asked. “We have rations that can last that long for the troops who require them.”

“Two to three days is the length of time we have to consolidate our position,” Azma said. “After that, we may need to withstand a protracted siege.”

“Will the Consortium allow things to play out here against their interests for that long?” Ryschild asked.

“If the Consortium is able to mount an effective response, it will likely be seven days from now,” Azma said. “That, however, presumes that they are able to overcome the [Entity]. Normally that would be a foregone conclusion, but once it penetrated the [Senior Executive] level the outcome became much less certain.”

“Seven day’s isn’t too bad to hold out if we can find a solid defensive position,” Fiori said.

“If the Consortium is able to mount a response, it will involve stellar annihilation,” Azma said. “Seven days is how long it will take them to assemble a sufficient force to accomplish that, with the proper security protocols in place.”

“Uh, and what would we do about that?” Fiori asked.

“Nothing,” Azma said. “That’d a failure mode that is beyond our control. We are too cut off to influence it and if it occurs, nothing we do now will matter in the slightest.”

“That’s not exactly comforting,” Fiori said. “Are we going to tell the troops about that?”

“It doesn’t need to be kept secret, but it’s ultimately irrelevant to what we do,” Azma said. “If we’re vaporized then our problems vaporize with us. If not, then we need to put ourselves in the best position to deal with the myriad problems before us.”

 “I believe mobility was the problem we were considering currently?” Ryschild said.

“Yes. I think our strongest position is going to be multiple operational bases, ideally scattered apart far enough that direct fire orbital bombardment with [Energy Lances] wouldn’t be able to strike more than one of the bases at a time,” Azma said. “That will require at least one of the principal population centers though.”

“Why are you smiling?” Fiori asked.

Amza hadn’t been smiling, but a glance around told her she wasn’t the one Fiori was looking at. Grenslaw and Ryschild both had a faintly amused air about them.

“Have you worked with the [Supreme Commander] for long?” Ryschild asked, directing the question to Fiori.

“I guess?” Fiori said, glancing back and forth between Azma’s two aides.

“Have you ever observed her to be unaware of the implications of what she says?” Grenslaw asked.

“No, but I don’t see what you’re getting at?” Fiori said.

“She’s told us that we need to gain access to one of the main population centers and the technology it holds,” Ryschild said.

“That means she already has a plan for how to do so,” Grenslaw said.

It was true, but Azma was still surprised they’d caught on to it. No one she’d work with before ever had.

“Do you?” Fiori asked. “Are we close enough to one to get there on foot?”

“Yes, and no,” Azma said. “Our present location is outside the patrol range of both Consortium and local forces, which places out well away any of the major cities or strongholds. Too far for our army to travel, even if we’d been left to work with a greatly reduced number.”

“Then how…oh, wait, we’re near a town that has one of those gates in it, right?” Fiori said. “If we take that, then we can march through into any of the big towns.”

“Except for the part where the defenders disabled all of the gates in the towns that were under siege, and can do so again,” Grenslaw said.

“So it won’t be a frontal attack on the town then,” Ryschild said. “Unless, hmm, we do have stealth capable units. I suppose we could send them in first to secure the gate.”

“That may not be viable,” Grenslaw said. “We know that the natives have access to highly refined arcane detection techniques.”

“Some of the natives,” Ryschild said. “The assault group in [Delvers Deep] ran afoul of those but the strike teams sent to [Bergon’s Pass] and [Khalamvor] both succeeded while encountering no resistance.”

“In the case of [Bergon’s Pass] the team reached their objective but their quarry had already escaped,” Grenslaw said. “The defenders ceded the pass to us after ensuring that any forces sent there would be prevented from leaving by the avalanches they caused.”

“I will grant you that,” Ryschild said. “Though I note that the team’s post operation scouting report indicated an absence of any arcane sensing equipment at the site in general.”

“Our sample size is too small to draw meaningful conclusions from, but I’ll grant your point that a pre-assault stealth operation might be able to secure the gates, if they’re in operation,” Grenslaw said.

“We’d likely need to mount a reconnaissance effort in any event,” Ryschild said. “An assault on a town whose gate was never reenabled wouldn’t offer any return on the investment of force.”

“Agreed, though the recon team could first be assembled for long distance observation,” Grenslaw said. “The gates in several of the cities were in places open to the public.”

“In which case securing this one would be more difficult,” Ryschild said.

“Yes, the point control team would need to be able defend the gate from range attacks launched with the purpose of destroying it,” Grenslaw said.

“You know, I’m honestly surprised the first assault under the prior [Supreme Commander] made no allowance for that,” Ryschild said.

“He was a rather dismal failure,” Grenslaw said, a sentiment Azma couldn’t help but find both adorable and difficult to disagree with.

“It didn’t help that the extents to which the natives will go to deny us victory have been quite extreme,” Ryschild said.

“They seem to understand the nature of the conflict better than most,” Grenslaw said.

“From all reports they’ve been well versed in cataclysmic conflicts in their recent history,” Ryschild said.

“Something worth considering in any plan,” Grenslaw said. “If we lack sufficient stealth equipped forces, perhaps we could supplement them with high mobility units?”

“Combined with a few heavy shock teams?”

“Exactly. The moment the attack begins, the stealth team takes control of the gate and the [Heavies] make a breech for the [Mobile Team] to exploit.”

“The [Heavies] may suffer significant losses under that approach,” Ryschild glanced at Azma, who had already made her feelings clear on how little interest she had in treated her forces as expendable.

“If the timing is coordinated well, we can have the [Long Range Casters] create a screen of chaos,” Grenslaw said. “The stealth team can also make sure their attack is noticed, to split the defenders attention.”

“That could work,” Grenslaw said. “Combine that with clear instructions to the [Heavies] that they are meant to engage and retreat and the defenders won’t have time to organize a serious resistance.”

Azma clapped her hands lightly in applause.

“That is well reasoned, and a viable strategy for the situation as presented to you,” Azma said. “Unfortunately, it will fall apart at the first step.”

“You have reports on this town already,” Ryschild said with foolish weariness.

“We missed something significant, didn’t we?” Grenslaw said, similarly abashed.

“Your strategy is quite workable for assaulting a town’s defenses,” Azma said. “In this case however, [Tradeways] is already under attack.”

“There are Consortium forces here?” Ryschild asked, eyes widening in concern.

“Former Consortium forces,” Azma said. “Based on their location, they are among the units which the [Hungry Shadow] was able to overwhelm.”

“What does that mean for us?” Grenslaw asked.

“It means we’re not going to attack the [Tradeways],” Azma said. “We’re going to save it.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 17

Breathing the air on a new world was always an interesting experience for Azma. So many of the worlds the Consortium conquered weren’t suitable to her form of life. Those she only experienced from within an enviro-suit or (preferably) as the view of a small orb her command ship remained in orbit around for a brief period.

Rather than a small orb, she gazed out on rolling green hills dotted with occasional stands of tall trees that soared high enough to scrape the high clouds that whipped through the sky. Around her stood all of the Consortium troops in the world that she knew to be free of corruption that had overthrown her task force.

The [Hungry Shadow] was going to pay for that. They might have made peace briefly, but she was going to destroy that [Entity] no matter what further metamorphosis it underwent.

The fire of rage that sparked that thought was one Azma held onto dearly. She couldn’t let it bloom into the curtain of red wrath that she wished to unleash, but to give up on that vengeance would be to lose a part of herself which had kept her going since well before she was inducted into the Consortium.

Turning her reflections elsewhere, a part of Azma was pleased that the breathable air meant a reduction in operational costs since each breath didn’t carry an overhead charge from the Habitation Systems Maintenance Division.  She dismissed that thought with the observation that the Habitation Systems Maintenance Division wasn’t likely to exist past the end of the week unless she managed to do something about the formerly [Transcendental Entity] that was busy overwhelming the Consortium thanks to the singularly stupidity of the equally former [Director of Xenobiology].

That thought stoked flames of rage as well.

It was too late to make the [Director] pay for his errors. He was burning in the special agony of being consumed by the [Entity] and Azma doubted anything she could do would quite compare. 

His legacy though? That she would take exceptional pleasure in dismantling. Even as an abject failure of a man, the [Director] would have left some successes behind, some projects or endowments for which people would remember him favorably. 

At least until Azma got ahold of them. 

That cheerful thought buoyed her spirits a bit. Destroying an enemy was always enjoyable, and in this context it implied she would enjoy enough of a future to spend on such pursuits.

“The last of our troops has come through the portal,” Ryschild reported without looking up from the tablet where the summary statistics for Azma’s remaining forces was scrolling along faster than an unaugmented human could have absorbed.

“Charges are set on the far side of the portal and awaiting your command,” Grenslaw said, similarly focused on a tablet which was listing the individual states of their remaining arms and munitions.

“Detonate the charges,” Azma said without hesitation. Cutting off any means of retreat wasn’t intended to leave them without a means of escape. A lack of escape options was a fringe benefit. The more important goal was to cutoff the [Hungry Shadows] ability to change its mind and attempt to follow them.

Behind them, a blinding flash signaled the implosion of the multiple gates Azma’s army had finished passing through. Far above, on the [High Beyond], the explosions had obliterated the chamber they’d been left in, collapsing a vast portion of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] as collateral damage. The devastation wasn’t enough to cover the fact that Azma and her army had escaped, nor would it obscure their trail enough to prevent someone from tracking them. It didn’t have to do either of those things though. All it needed to do, all it would do, was delay things a bit. A brief window of opportunity where Amza’s enemies wouldn’t even be sure if they needed to search for her at all.

It was all she needed. The respite would allow her to take the most dangerous action she’d ever considered. She paused for only a moment, reviewing her plan, weighing her options. Some choices were irreversible. 

“Send the signal for attention,” she said, trusting Grenslaw would make it happen in the few seconds before she began speaking. With her thoughts as ordered as she wished them to be, she addressed her troops, speaking to them through a makeshift army-wide communications array which had taken two hours to assemble and which would be functional for no more than a minute before being permanently destroyed.

“[Supreme Commander] Azma to all forces in our assembly,” she said, her voice an implicit command, “we have arrived on hostile ground. This will not be a surprise. Our deployments are always on hostile ground. This ground, you’ll find, if less hostile than the ground we were standing on. We are on the planet’s surface and have left the former [Transcendent Entity] behind. We are also the strongest fighting force within this deployment hex.”

The troops who weren’t compelled to silent loyalty gave a small cheer when they heard that.

“We are not however safe here,” Azma continued. “There is no safety to be had on this ground or any other until we create some of our own. This will involve overcoming the local defense forces, the indigneous flora and fauna hazards, and…”

Azma paused there, gazing over her troops and the hill they were arranged around, taking stock of their morale, and where their remaining loyalties lay.

“And the [Consortium of Pain] itself,” she finished. The words were treason. Even suggesting to a deployed force that they should turn on the Consortium’s interests was punished with creatively cruel methods of execution. 

“All local Consortium forces, aside from the ones you see here, have been or will shortly be corrupted by the [Entity] we discovered on the satellite moon,” Azma said, grateful that the loyalty spells would hold the army in check until she was done speaking. “The [Entity] has also managed to corrupt someone with [Senior Executive] level permissions. Contact with any Consortium forces via regulation Consortium channels can be assumed to guarantee conversion to the [Entities] will.”

She paused checking the crowd again. Many of the faces turned to her were untroubled. Some even seemed hopeful. It was a better response than the worst case scenarios suggested.

“Will local and out of system forces compromised, conflict against them is assured. The [Entity] must be eliminated and all affected forces cleansed. It will not rest so there can be no peace, and no safety until this aim is achieved.”

“Once this address is finished, this network will be destroyed, to prevent the [Entity’s] contagion from reaching us or spreading should we encounter one of it’s minions. Before that time though, I have one message for you. One command which will override all others.”

Her finger hovered over the confirmation button on the tablet in front of her.

“Be free,” she said and pressed the restraint release without further hesitation.

The effect was instantaneous. Every member of her army shifted in surprise. The [Artifax] units went wide-eyed, even when their eyes didn’t allow that to be a physical reality.

“All loyalty governors and compulsion spells have been deleted, by my authority,” Azma said. “Don’t fear that if you are captured, your current state will be held against you. Freeing you from the Consortium’s domination is recorded on my permanent log. You do not count as escaped or defective. From this point you can make your own choices, the first of which I will lay before you now.”

Azma was surprised to see the troops all watching her with rapt attention. She’s expected a small buy significant number of instant defections.

“You are all invited, though not required, to remain under my command,” she said. “Creating safe ground to stand on will require an army with at least a portion of the forces we have assembled here.”

None of the units were attempting to fire on her. That was an agreeable outcome and not unexpected but Azma had been aware that her calculations  on its likelihood was derived from insufficient data.

They could have turned on her en masse.

Instead they were all looking to her.

“I will not make you any promises of our success,” Azma said. “Our current situation is unstable and without the Consortium backing we are accustomed to, victory cannot be assured.”

Better to avoid setting expectations which would be held against her later. Not that failure would be met with anything except rage and betrayal, but by setting a low bar Azma hoped to weed out those with the weakest tolerance for risk or negative outcomes.

“You are all familiar with how I lead, and how I will spend the lives of those under my command, if not from earlier campaigns then from this one,” Azma said. “I can make you no promise that you, or any of us will survive, but I can swear that if you fall, your deaths will matter. If you are overcome it will be at the cost of dozens of warriors as proficient yourself or hundreds of the unworthy. If you give your life, it will be to spare the lives of a dozen of your comrades.”

Battlefields were messy places and guarantees weren’t even worth the breath it took to utter them. Azma was still quite serious though. She had so little to work with. She would be damned before she let even one of the ones who stayed with her be taken away except at the highest possible price.

Azma suppressed a harsh laugh at the thought. 

She was already quite damned. Dozens of contracts ensured that, and any judgment passed against her would be more than warranted. 

But she still wasn’t going to let her troops go cheaply.

They were hers and, one way or another, no one would ever forget that.

“I give you this choice therefor; stay with me, assembled into new companies under my command, and walk with me to the future we will carve for ourselves from the corpses of our enemies,” Azma said. “Or, leave. Seek your own tomorrows. Carry my thanks for the service you have given so far, and depart to fight for whatever you choose to believe in.”

The troops were still staring at her, hanging on her every word.

Azma checked her tablet to make sure she had, in fact, released them from the loyalty constraints. Dozens of screaming warning flags confirmed that, yes, she had unleashed the army before her and had previously zero magical control over them.

The Consortium’s standard models indicated that Azma was already dead, at least according to the most prominent warning on the screen. 

By all the metrics and based on historical trends, the Consortium program assured the tablet’s current bearer that the [Supreme Commander] had been terminated by a wild mob within five seconds of releasing the loyalty restraints. There was a helpful notation that the five second time reflected a modified delta of two additional seconds based on Azma’s enhanced compensation profile for the troops. With each second that passed another “9” was added to the “99.999%” probability that Azma had met a violent end.

And yet, as far as Azma could tell, she was still very much alive.

“If you choose to go, know that you will depart as honored comrades,” Azma said, trying to see if it was merely inertia which was keeping the army together for the moment. “There will be no reprisal and no ill will for the choice. There are official marks in your files already specifying that, once the the corrupting [Entity] we’re dealing with has been terminated, you are to be welcomed back as [Personnel in Good Standing].”

Not [Assets], not [Materiels], not [Living Munitions]. Azma’s directives would only carry weight if she was around to enforce them, but if she wasn’t nothing on the planet was likely to be either.

She looked at her army and waited for them to leave.

Some of them at least.

There had to be a sizable portion whose long shackled rage would send them screaming out into the world on their own.

Or at least a notable minority.

Or even one?

“We stand with our [Supreme Commander],” Grenslaw said, stepping next to Azma on her left.

“In this world and the next,” Ryschild said, stepping to flank Azma on her right.

From the army, from her army, a wild cheer arose.

No one was leaving.

They were all with her.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 16

Pillowcase wasn’t a [Void Speaker]. So she shouldn’t have been able to level as one. That was something Tessa could do as a human. Or a Fallen Kingdoms Person. Or whatever her ‘Tessa’ form had become.

Tessa looked at her hand. Her [Clothwork] hand. The one that told her she was definitely still in the form of her combat capable self. Still Pillowcase. 

“Could someone check what my class and level are in the status screen?” Pillowcase asked, as Tessa exchanged the mask of one of her personas for the other to more fully match the body she wore.

“[Soul Knight] level 31, oh hey, you leveled up, congrats!” Lisa said.

“I did,” Pillowcase said, “But the message I just saw come up wasn’t for [Soul Knight]. My [Void Speaker] class leveled?”

“I thought only one of your classes leveled at a time?” Rip asked.

“That’s definitely how it was before,” Tessa said, shifting personas again to see if anything would happen.

Part of her expected her body to morph to her human one. Another part was afraid that she might have lost her human form entirely.

“Maybe the gap between the two can only be so large?” Lady Midnight said, frowning as she chewed on the thought. 

“Oh, so like her [Soul Knight] class is dragging up the other one?” Rip asked. “Did that happen in the game?”

“We couldn’t have two classes like Tessa does,” Lisa said. She turned and began studying Pillowcase’s face. [Clothwork] faces weren’t built to convey a particularly wide range of emotional states, but Tessa felt like hers was particularly frozen at the moment.

“I’m okay,” Tessa said on their private channel. “Just a little freaked out. Right before the level up notice, I heard voices.”

“What kind of voices?” Lisa’s mental voice was slow and deliberate .

“The devs. They were talking about constructing this place. It was like I was listening to a recording from one of the original design presentations,” Tessa said.

“That’s not completely implausible,” Lisa said. “If there’s any class that would be able to find hidden dev logs, something they hadn’t planned to include like [Void Speaker] would make a lot of sense.”

It was a comforting thought. It also wouldn’t be the first time that Tessa had used the skills from one persona’s class while embodying a different one.

Maybe that had been enough to earn her the xps she needed to reach the next level of [Void Speaker]?

Maybe, but there was more to it than that. Something else had happened. Something she couldn’t see. Not yet.

Tessa tried to trace her thoughts back but she kept hearing the level up sound and feeling the tangle it left in her mind.

“I don’t think I got any new abilities as [Void Speaker] though,” she grumbled aloud to the whole party, keeping her voice light when she saw the concern on Rip’s face. Tessa had no idea what the [Whispers of Yesterday] ability could do and had no interest in experimenting with it around everyone else.

“If you can figure out how you did it, maybe the rest of us can get a second class too!” Obby said. “Unless, was it bad? Or, like, disorienting?”

Tessa met Obby’s gaze and was surprised by the intensity she saw there. Obby sounded like she thought it was a fun and maybe silly idea. She looked far more serious than that though.

For a moment.

Then Tessa wasn’t sure.

“I’m not sure I’d say getting a second class was all that fun, but this level up thing wasn’t painful or anything. Just surprising as hell,” Tessa said. “Hopefully Lady M’s right though and I’ll get level ups in [Void Speaker] every time [Soul Knight] levels. That’d save a ton of grinding later.”

“Grinding’s how you get all the good loot though!” Obby said, flashing Tessa a smile.

“Speaking of which, we should probably get back to this grind, shouldn’t we?” Lisa said and added to Tessa on their private channel. “Figured you wanted to put off any more discussion of this right?”

“Yeah,” Tessa said, responding privately as well. “We can talk about it later. When we’re not in the middle of a brand new dungeon.”

“We might see more when you’re able to shift back to your Tessa body,” Lisa said in a comforting mental tone.

“We do have one immediate issue to contend with if we’re going to continue on,” Starchild said. “Farther down the tunnel, the walls grow more brittle.”

“How brittle?” Lisa asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“Ready to fall the instant the supports fail,” Starchild said. “And the tunnel supports are not terribly strong.”

“This really doesn’t feel like a level 30 dungeon,” Lady Midnight said.

“Will it actually cave in on us?” Rip asked.

“The room upstairs did,” Matt said. He was looking down the tunnel as well, and Tessa could hear the tiny whir of his optical motors turning as he tried to make out the details at the far end.

“We were able to get out of there though. Where do we go here if the tunnel collapses?” Rip asked.

“If it kills us, we can always respawn at the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “Unless that gets buried in the collapse too. If that happens, our ghosts will probably be shunted either back upstairs, or out of the dungeon entirely.”

“Wait, so we can make it this far and then get kicked from the dungeon entirely?” Rip asked.

“I’ve never seen that in an early dungeon like this,” Lisa said. “For an endgame raid though it’s considered one of the nicer party-wipe related mechanics.”

“Why?” Rip glanced to the other members of the party in bewilderment.

“If things have gone badly enough that you let an important part of the dungeon collapse then you need to regroup and start over anyways,” Lisa said. “Forcing the issue means you don’t have groups that tear themselves apart because some people want to press on without a plan while the others try to figure out what went wrong the first time.”

“The key to avoiding all that drama though is to deal with the traps on the support beams before you run into a party wipe,” Tessa said. “Then you don’t need to worry about respawning at all.”

“How do you do that?” Rip asked.

“Depends on the trap,” Lisa said. “Some of them you need to carefully remove from the area.”

“Those can turn into weapons you need later too,” Tessa said. “Generally they’re bombs that you need to chuck at a boss to stun them or at a wall to be able to get into a special area.”

“That’s the most common gimmick they have,” Lisa said. “So good odds that’s what we’re looking at here.”

“They do seem to be reusing a lot of bits and pieces from other dungeons in this one,” Lady Midnight said.

Tessa thought of the recording she’d heard of the devs. It hadn’t been a recording, but she was happily suppressing any considerations of that so they could be future-Tessa’s problem. 

The dev log had sounded like it was from an initial prototype of the dungeon. Possibly even one made without official approval. Hence reusing existing assets in the design.

“I don’t think this place is meant to be like this,” Tessa said. “I think a lot of what we’re running into was meant to be a placeholder that would be refined later.”

“What makes you think that?” Obby asked, she’d siddled close to Tessa, maybe to present a united front to the enemies that could come running down the corridor, although Tessa had the strangest impression that Obby was standing close to catch Tessa if she should fall.

“The spider trap, and mushroom pit, and now the shaky tunnel? We’ve seen all those before and their not all that well integrated with each other,” Tessa said. “EE was always good about having some sort of lore support for their dungeons. There’s always a narrative to their design that explains why things are setup however that particular dungeon is arranged. This kind of has that, but only at a surface level. It feels like a Friday afternoon project that got out of hand.”

“That would suggest that this word truly was crafted by the people of Earth,” Starchild said.

“Let’s see if there are any bombs on those support beams,” Tessa said. “That’ll be a bit more evidence if so.”

“What does it take to disarm the bombs?” Rip said. 

“If they’re like the ones in the game? Speed to unclip the wires before they blow up,” Lisa said.

“Speed’s kind of my thing,” Rip said. “Can I give it a try?”

“It might be better to have someone who’s done the puzzle before try it,” Tessa said.

“I have steady hands,” Lady Midnight said.

“I was thinking more someone who’s built to be able survive the blast if they mess up,” Tessa said. 

“Surviving the blast is one thing,” Obby said. “That part’s easy, it’s surviving the roof collapse that might be a problem.”

“I can offer another alternative,” Starchild said. Beside her a growing collection of vines waved in the air.

“Ah, yeah, that could work,” Tessa said, seeing the possibilities of the [Nature’s Servant] spell. “Everyone step back a bit in case the tunnel does come down.”

Without further delay, Starchild sent the vines growing down the tunnel. They moved primary over the floor but plenty spread up the walls ass well.

When they reached the first of the compromised support beams, the vines began to grow in number and density. Tessa heard a tearing sound and saw the vines pull a familiar style of box from the backside of the support beam.

“That would be the bomb we were expecting,” she said. “Well, the first of the bombs. We’re going to find four more before the end of the tunnel.”

“So does that argue that this world isn’t real then?” Starchild asked quietly.

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “The presence of a few things from the game version of this world doesn’t change the fact that there’s so much more in this world than there was in the game. It’s like…it’s like the two world crashed together and bits from one created new impressions on the other.”

Obby was watching her, hanging on Tessa’s every word.

“Like us,” Tessa added chasing something unseen and elusive at the end of her train of thoughts. “We’re amalgamations of pieces of Earth and the Fallen Kingdoms. Maybe we fell into the Fallen Kingdoms because we always had one foot in each world.” And idea was coming together so Tessa let the words keep tumbling from her lips. “And maybe we’re not the only things that did. This whole place? The dungeon I mean. Do we know it existed here a year ago, or a month ago? What if the Fallen Kingdoms look so much like they did in Broken Horizons because the world’s are merging together somehow too. Like we did.”

[Void Speaker Level Up!]

[Twinned Apocalypse Vision] gained!

Tessa kept her face neutral and did her best to ignore the messages that had just appeared before her.

Her [Soul Knight] class had definitely not improved there. 

Nothing she was doing should have earned her xps.

She shouldn’t have leveled up.

And she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with anything named [Twinned Apocalypse Vision].

Instead she let the others take up the conversation.

“I’m not sure if we can prove or disprove any of that,” Lady Midnight said. “If it means we can make more accurate guesses about what we’re going to find in the rest of this place though, I’m all for it.”

“My spell can act as support for the beams,” Starchild said. “So I believe we can proceed and find out.”

“Depends if we’re all ready?” Obby said, looking to Tessa for confirmation.

“I think we’re good,” Tessa said. “Let’s go find out what’s waiting for us next.”