Author Archives: dreamfarer

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.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 15

There were enemies below them. Which came as a surprise to precisely no one. The enemies were invisible. Again, not a surprise. The enemies could fly. Tessa hadn’t known they could do that but her team was prepared for it nonetheless.

It was one of the problems the developers had faced in crafting new areas. People desired novelty. They wanted to experience the unexpected. But the surprised had to be ‘fair surprises’, otherwise the players would feel like they were being arbitrarily brutalized. 

Whether ‘invisible flying monsters at the bottom of a shaft deep enough to severely injure even mid-tier players’ counted as ‘fair’ was open to debate but it was enough in keeping with the dev’s general design philosophies that the seemingly ‘empty and safe area’ had been a pretty clear sign that something was up.

Twenty feet below the mushroom Tessa had gathered the party on, Obby engaged seven roughly humanoid tornadoes. The whirling winds of their body were visible mostly through the dust they’d picked up and the illumination from the swirling arcs of red lightning that formed an eerie approximation of a circulatory system.

Not all of the monsters were focused on Obby though. Two of the [Crawling Vortexes] had been too far away from her when the fight started and were rising towards the giant mushroom the rest of the party was gathered on.

“Gimme a sec and I’ll get those two back,” Obby said on the team channel. “Just need [Champion’s Challenge] to come off cooldown.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tessa said. “This may work out better. If holding the ones you’ve got aren’t too bad to handle for a bit?”

“I’m doing fine,” Obby said. “I can block the physical stuff and Lost Alice is patching up the electrical damage faster than it’s coming in.”

“Good. Let me take these two then and we can focus them down.” Tessa met the approaching Vortexes at the edge of the mushroom cap.

By dropping into the monster’s nest first, Obby’s attack had bought the rest of party time to react without worrying about being immediately in danger. Tessa hadn’t wasted the opportunity and thanks to Pillowcase’s expertise, knew she was ready for what came next.

“I can throw a couple of HoTs on you,” Lisa said, queuing up a quick Heal-Over-Time spell as she did., “but it looks like most of my healing’s going to have to go to keeping Obby up.”

“I can backup heal,” Starchild said, pointing the glowing end of her staff towards Tessa.

“Don’t worry about that,” Tessa said. She slammed simple melee attacks into both of the Vortexes, and felt the numbing shock of their lightning arcing over to her hands. For any of the others, that would have been a problem, but as a tank, Tessa had no worries. The spells she’d cast ensured the attacks locked the Vortexes onto her even as she regenerated the damage the shocks had caused. “I can’t take what they can dish out. Just take them down quick.”

It was a better use of the teams resources. Starchild’s build was focused on dealing damage, with her healing being a side focus at best. It was definitely more Pillowcase than Tessa though who made the call to try to stand on her own.

Is this bravery, stupidity, or am I just not really ‘Tessa’ at all anymore? she wondered.

As long as we’re together, something’s probably wrong if we can’t draw on my combat training, Pillowcase answered herself. I suppose we could split apart like we did with Glimmerglass to see though?

Tessa blocked a fist made of spinning air that tried to slam itself down her throat and was rewarded for holding out when the Vortex burst into a shower of sparks following Matt and Rip’s attacks on it.

On her other side, Starchild drove her enchanted staff from the other Vortex’s center, grounding it out into the mushroom beneath them.

We could try to split, but I think I’m a lot happier being together.

“Obby, how are you doing?” Tessa asked.

“Fine,” Obby said. “Not a fan of the stun effect these jerks have, but it’s annoying, not deadly.”

“Think you can let another one or two go?” Tessa asked. “I’ll try to pull them up here.”

“Only tricky bit will be keeping it to one or two,” Obby said, “Should be doable though. If I run out of healing range for a bit, don’t worry, I’ll be right back.”

“Regening mana,” Lisa said, and downed a recovery drink.

It was a little eerie watching her work. Tessa recognized so many of the automatic actions she’d been in the habit of performing as Glimmerglass. It wasn’t that Lost Alice and Glimmerglass were reading from the same script, more that healers all faced similar challenges and all (or at least all the decent or better ones) had an awareness of how much they needed to shepherd their resources. Very little killed a party as fast as the healer running out of magic, though a painfully large number of them didn’t seem to have internalized that.

Or they hadn’t in the game. Tessa wondered if, in living the encounters, people were being better about minding that sort of thing. At the very least she hoped people had finally figured out why standing in the middle of a fire was a bad idea.

Obby’s flight at the bottom of the pit took her around the edge of the cavern and through the stream towards the pond that had claimed the western half of the room. The Vortexes followed her closely, right up until the stream and then stopped. All except the one that was closest to Obby, It was chasing her too quickly to stop and it paid the price for it’s mindless aggression.

With a blinding burst, the Vortex that touched the water shattered into a thousand shooting sparks that spread outwards in all directions before they changed course and were drawn into the one of the neatly planted flowers by the pond.

The flower that absorbed the Vortex’s essence glowed a soft, pulsing violet, and Tessa’s intuition perked up, giving her a hint what the flowers might be.

With a quick [Taunt] at the Vortex who was trailing at the end of the pack in chasing Obby, Tessa looked for a good landing spot.

“Obby found the mechanic,” Tess said. “We need to get down there. Land where I do.”

And with that she jumped.

Twenty feet onto a stone floor wasn’t quite the same as landing on a squishy mushroom, but Tessa didn’t feel any complaints from Pillowcase’s knees.

The Vortex she fell on had a somewhat different experience though.

“I don’t remember being able to do [Death from Above] moves with a mace in the game?” Lady Midnight said, landing near Tessa along with the rest of the team.

“Force equals mass times acceleration,” Tessa said. “And it seems like the physics engine works for that at least.”

Standing in the middle of the pond, Obby was taunting one Vortex after another to their watery demise. The monsters weren’t easy to persuade to march to their doom but with enough goading they eventually gave in to their rage and tried to rush to Obby’s position before the water ground them out.

“Don’t kill them directly,” Tessa said. “Try to knock them into the water if you can.”

She then splashed into the pond and joined Obby in calling the Vortexes to their doom.

The process made for a neat light show but Tessa was mostly concerned with how many of the flowers they could get to light up. In the end, the answer was ‘only four’ since the other two remaining Vortexes managed to fly far enough into the pond that their dispersed essences weren’t reabsorbed by the flowers.

“That wasn’t as bad a fight as I thought it would be,” Obby said, shaking the water out of her boots.

“It’s because you found the trick to it,” Tessa said. “Lightning plus water doesn’t tend to go well for lightning elementals.”

“Why would they even hang out here?” Rip asked.

“If this was a game still, I’d say it was because the devs wanted to punish people for falling or jumping down the pit, but not that harshly given that we’re not exactly in an end game raid here,” Lisa said.

“I could see that,” Obby said. “If one of you had fallen down here, kiting the Vortexes probably would have been your first impulse.”

“Unless I miss my guess, there’s another benefit to doing the mechanic correctly too,” Tessa said, plucking one of the glowing flowers and offering it to Lady Midnight.

“Should be safe,” Lisa said. “I’m not seeing poison or curses in it.”

With a shrug, Lady Midnight brought the flower to her lips and sipped the glowing, liquid within it.

On the party screen, Tessa saw Lady Midnight’s magic bar completely refill in an instant.

“Hey look, I’m useful again,” Lady Midnight said.

“Does that usually happen?” Rip asked. “That the cure for something is right nearby I mean?”

“Moreso at these levels,” Lisa said. “Later on, mechanics like that tend to punish you longer.”

“Or at least till the next raid wipe which is usually not far off if the healers get shut down,” Lady Midnight said.

“I guess that wouldn’t have been a problem here either,” Rip said, pointing towards the tunnel that lead out of the cavern.

A [Heart Fire] brazier stood a far enough inside the tunnel to be out of range of the Vortexes but not so far that someone who fell into the pit and was killed by the impact would have any problem seeing where their ghost needed to run to.

“That feels like the first break we’ve caught in this place,” Pete said.

“It’s more than a break,” Tessa said. “It’s a base. We can afford to explore a lot farther with that in play, even if we find an exit somewhere nearby.”

She looked at her team and found each of them checking in with the others.

“I’m happy to go on,” Rip said. “If everyone else is?”

“We have to be able to tell the others what to expect in this place, don’t we?” Lady Midnight said.

“A full clear’s a lot to shoot for on the first run of a brand new dungeon,” Lisa said. “If we don’t get stuck on that though, I’d say it’s worth seeing as much of it as we can.”

“What kind of things do you think they’ll throw at us next?” Matt asked and added after a moment (and probably some prodding from Rip), “Oh, I’m in too, I just thought it’d be good to be prepared.”

“You’re thinking like a good dungeon runner,” Tessa said. “So far we’ve hit more [Undead] than I expected, so it seems like it’s a safe bet that will continue.”

“Typical [Undead] at this level usually have one to two special abilities,” Lisa said. “If they look big and beefy, expect them to have some combo of exceptional damage resistance, regeneration, high health, and/or a self-rezz power.”

“Mage types typically use [Necromancy] spells,” Lady Midnight said. “Alice and I can buffer us against the health drain effects, but if you’re not a tank watch for their attacks anyways. Their bolts can [Disorient] or [Fear] you.”

“Same with the melee types,” Tessa said. “Also the melees usually have a [Feed] ability where they’ll try to eat you to gain health. It’s probably extra gross here and it’s not covered by the anti-draining spells the [Grave Menders] get.”

Though they were surrounded by danger on all sides, Tessa watched as the party formed a sort of ad-hoc school for Rip and Matt.

It was something she’d seen happen in the game as well, although only rarely. The more everyone talked though, and the more tales that were told, the more Tessa found the school wasn’t just for the two newbies.

Taken together, the party had an incredible amount of obscure lore to work with. Tessa knew most of it wouldn’t apply but every bit of it was still important. 

Every legend, every random factoid, every personal anecdote, they all defined the world around them in some way.

A shiver ran down Tessa’s spine and for a moment her vision blurred.

“Maybe this could be for an expansion area? For when we overhaul the area after the invasion event?” a developer said. 

Or had said.

There weren’t any developers here.

But Tessa heard their voice as a distant echo.

[Void Speaker Level Up!]

[Whispers of Yesterday] gained!

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 14

Climbing down into a lightless pit of giant mushrooms and writhing vines wasn’t how Tessa had expected her day to go, but as she descended from one spongy mushroom top to the next, the smile she’d been wearing only grew deeper.

Part of her joy came from Pillowcase’s wonderful physicality. As Tessa, a twenty foot leap from a mushroom top to one of the stone ledges below would probably have killed her. As Pillowcase though, she landed easily, her body feeling no heavier than goose down.

“I was never that strong as a kid,” Lady Midnight said, “but I’ve got to say that even being poisoned, I still feel stronger here than I ever did back on Earth.”

“We are stronger,” Lisa said. “A lot stronger than we should be.”

“I’m not complaining,” Tessa said, helping steady Matt as he caught up to her on the ledge.

“Your stats just keep going up the higher you level, right?” Rip asked. “Strength, and speed and all that?”

“Those and our mental stats,” Obby said. She’d opted for wrangling the vines rather than hopscotching down the mushroom caps. In the game version of the dungeon that would have required playing a mini-game that tested the player’s reflexes, but Obby managed to make descending from one vine to the next look more or less effortless.

“I’ve tested how much stronger we’re getting,” Lisa said. “I don’t know if I feel much smarter though?”

“We’ve got more skills though,” Rip said. “Maybe that’s what having better mental stats means? That we get more access to what both sides of us have learned?”

“I haven’t noticed anything ‘coming online’ like that when I leveled up,” Tessa said. “I can still remember all the coding stuff from my work on Earth, and the combat disciplines that were sewn into me as Pillowcase. But maybe that’s because Pillowcase’s skills are literally built in?”

“It’s been the same for us,” Starchild said. “I’m as aware of Pete’s memories as he is of mine.”

“Same for me,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice knows a lot about the world that Lisa had never paid attention too, but I know all it now.”

“So what’s the point of having huge brain stats then?” Rip asked.

“Magic,” Obby said. “A caster’s magic pool is tied to their prime mental stat. For everyone else, it’s probably how we can learn all these incredible techniques in the space of an afternoon or less.”

“Also ‘mental stats’ don’t tell you as much about someone as people like to think,” Lady Midnight said. “Someone with a high IQ can still be an absolute knucklehead, or even objectively bad at mental tasks outside the area the standardized test covers.”

“I should try arm wrestling with Glimmerglass,” Tessa said, picking a mushroom top two levels down to aim for. “If I remember her stats correctly she should be able to crush my Pillowcase-level strength, but the game didn’t play that up much in the narrative.”

Dropping down forty feet was exhilarating and put Tessa in the lead of the pack just as quickly as it raised cries of concern.

“Hey!” Lisa called out. “Careful about dropping too quickly. We don’t know what’s down at the bottom.”

“Or if there’s more of the Creepers waiting as we descend,” Obby said.

“That’s a fair point,” Tessa admitted. 

On reflection, it also occurred to her that testing out her physique was all well and good but so was setting a good example for the impressionable kids that were following them.

As if in confirmation of that, she saw Rip dive off the mushroom cap she was on, do a summersault in midair and then stick a perfect three point ‘super hero landing’ right beside her. As a [Tabbywile], it wasn’t terribly surprising that Rip had catlike grace and could handle falls like a champ but it still wasn’t a great idea to go plummeting into danger if it wasn’t required.

“I’m not going any further!” Rip said, seeing the warning that Tessa was about to give her. “I’ll let Pillowcase lead. I just wanted to see if I could do what she did.”

Tessa grimaced and saw an emoji from Lisa pop up in their chat. The ‘glare’ icon wasn’t anymore complicated than it was in the game but it still communicated disapproval perfectly well.

“We’ll let the others catch up a bit first,” Tessa said, biding her time as the rest of the team dropped and swung down to meet them.

Her team wasn’t going to fall apart into senseless drama, but that didn’t mean she had a free pass to do stupid things. Tessa found she could accept that, especially when no one raised any further fuss about it.

The rest of the journey down the pit was conducted at a more sensible pace. Tessa had been concerned about Lady Midnight at first, but it seemed that the Creeper’s poison had only locked away her magic without reducing her physical attributes at all.

“We’ll have to hope the poison antidote is right at the bottom,” she said once they started getting close enough to hear the running water that awaited them.

“It has to be,” Lisa said. “This is supposed to be a low level dungeon. This kind of mechanic would be considered mean in an end game raid. They can’t expect new players to not wind up discouraged and hating the game if their spells are turned off for all that long.”

“This version of the dungeon doesn’t match what the beta-testers went through though, does it?” Obby asked.

“No. Not at all,” Tessa said. “This was supposed to be a pretty standard set of encounters. The only special mechanics are supposed to be at the mid-boss and the end-boss and even those are just special damage amplifiers to make the fight easier.”

“Why is it different?” Rip asked. “A lot of other stuff we’ve seen is the same as it was in the game. What makes this place special?”

“It’s new,” Starchild said, her voice distant and soft.

“Was that true in the lore?” Lisa asked.

“In the lore, it’s been here for a while, but was rediscovered just recently,” Tessa said. “There were supposedly hints that it had been a base of operations for the [Fellblood Ravagers] years ago. The rare drops from the final boss were a set of clues to that and were meant to tie it into a new chapter in the [Ravager Wars] out in [Storm Kettle].”

“Who are those people?” Rip asked.

“One of the factions from an earlier expansion,” Lisa said. “The [Ravager Wars] are a recurring event that started with the expansion that added the [Storm Kettle] zone. That’d be one path we could take in the 40s to keep leveling.”

“Did they have undead spiders or whatever those Creeper things were as pets?” Matt asked.

“Nope,” Obby said. “The [Fellblood Ravagers] are alchemically enhanced humans. The undead factions are more into necromancy.”

“So what happened? The undead things kicked the Ravagers out?” Rip asked.

“I don’t think so,” Starchild said, kneeling down on the mushroom top and carefully poking its surface.

“What are you seeing?” Lady Midnight asked, kneeling at her side.

“This is new,” Starchild said. “I mean it did not grow to this size as a mushroom should. It is too young. It’s like it was created in the exact form we see it in now.”

“So, by magic?” Rip asked.

“Are there [Druid] spells or abilities that could do that?” Lisa asked.

“Not like this,” Starchild said. “I can make vines grow, but they life is accelerated when I do. The vines that remain after the spell are all as old as any vines their size would be. These mushrooms aren’t like that. And the vines aren’t either. They’re unnatural.”

No one made the obvious comment about the entire dungeon being an artificial structure that was clearly oozing with supernatural menace. The more Starchild spoke, the more Tessa could feel the subtle traces of something skewed around them.

“I’m not sure this even is a mushroom,” Starchild said. “It’s reacting to the simple magics I’ve been trying, but too slowly.”

“Like there’s lag?” Lisa asked.

“No, lag would be slowing everything down,” Pete said. “When she’s casting, it’s like the mushroom has to look up what the answer to the spell should be before the spell can take affect on it.”

“If it’s not a real mushroom, can you tell what it actually is?” Obby asked.

“I don’t know,” Starchild said. “I can’t picture how something else could fake being a mushroom like this one has. It could be that whatever they are is outside the domain of my magic entirely.”

“That makes this place more dangerous then,” Lisa said. “Does anyone want to turn back at this point?”

“How would we get out if we did?” Matt asked. 

“We’d have to climb, but it would be doable,” Tessa said. 

“Climb to what though?” Rip asked.

“If I’m right, the first room magically reset itself when we left,” Lisa said. “There might be a puzzle to open the door, but now that we’re grouped back up, we could try to figure it out.”

“We could see if the poison effect fades when we leave if we try that,” Lady Midnight said.

“It won’t,” Starchild said. “We tried all of our healing on you already and it did nothing. What your suffering under isn’t natural either.”

“Do we know that there’s even an antidote for it in here then?” Rip asked.

“We won’t know until we find one,” Lisa said. “Leaving is a viable test too though.”

“I don’t think we should,” Starchild said. “If we have to come back in, we risk encountering another swarm of the Creepers and we might wind up with more people poisoned.”

“I don’t mind going forward either,” Lady Midnight said. “I just didn’t want to be a burden on you all.”

“You’re not,” Lisa said.

“You’re more than your healing spells,” Tessa said.

“We’re probably going to have a lot of times when one or more of us is out of commission,” Matt said. “This is good practice for that.”

“Sounds like we press then,” Obby said.

She was peering over the edge of the mushroom as though something had caught her attention.

Tessa joined her there and looked down into the dark abyss below them.

Pillowcase’s eyes adjusted instantly, the shadows evaporating like smoke. They were close enough at last that Tessa could see the partially flooded cavern that awaited them.

A fiercely flowing stream gushed from an cleft in the north face of the cavern and flowed into the western half of the room where it gathered in a pool that took up almost half the room before it drained away into another stream which flowed into a broad tunnel to the south of the room.

Around the pond, beds of dark flowers seemed to have been planted into neatly ordered rows. Though she couldn’t feel any breeze in the pit, Tessa thought the flowers were swaying in an oddly blustery wind.

“I don’t see any monsters down there,” Obby said.

“Me neither,” Tessa said.

“Great. That means they’re invisible,” Lisa said.

“Should I try shooting them?” Rip asked. “Unless they can fly I could just bombard them until we were sure they were dead.”

“If the antidote’s down there, that would probably destroy it,” Obby said. “To be safe, we should probably engage whatever monster’s there so that we can control it and use focus fire rather than area blasts.”

“Not that ‘safe’ is a great description of that strategy,” Lisa said.

“Maybe we can split the difference,” Tessa said, narrowing her eyes as she gauged the distance between the lowest mushroom top and the bottom of the cavern. “If we gather up on those,” she pointed to the mushroom caps two levels down from where they were at, “we can have one tank go in while the rest  of us hang back, which should keep all the squishies out of trouble.”

“And the other tank hangs back in case the monster or monsters can fly?” Obby said.

“That was my thought,” Tessa said. “And if we see that it can’t fly then the other tank can drop down too.”

“I will as well,” Starchild said. “I am more effective in melee than from range.”

Tessa turned to Lisa who nodded. “It looks like we’ll be in range to heal the tank no matter where they are in the cavern. If the mob uses some kind of isolation effect, we’d have to move anyway, but at least with this there’s less chance that it isolates the healers.”

“What will our signal to start firing be?” Rip asked.

“As soon as the tank strikes and gets a taunt on it, you’re good to go,” Tessa said.

“If there’s more than one though, let me get a hit on all of them,” Obby said.

“You want to be first in?” Tessa asked.

“Either of us would work,” Obby said. “I just figured if we needed to switch plans after the fight starts it’d be good to have our strategist in a position where she could see the whole battle.”

Tessa blinked, and shook her head.

“Our what?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 13

The singing blood in her ears was Tessa’s battle music – which was odd since Pillowcase didn’t exactly have blood. The lack of a human circulatory system did nothing to remove the pounding in her ears though. She wasn’t deafened by the tumult – [Artifax] combat units weren’t built with frailties like senses that could be overwhelmed by typical battle conditions. The Consortium’s belief was that if the theater of combat was going to prove to have noise in excess of what an [Artifax’s] sound sensors could withstand then they would simply send in units which were deaf by design. It wasn’t like deaf or blind units weren’t superior options in some cases, and the Consortium was adept at turning all of its resources into a weapon. 

Tessa wished she didn’t have to be grateful to to the Consortium for being so efficiently awful, but it was handy that Pillowcase was able to retain her focus despite the [Flying Poison Creepers] that swarmed around them.

There were more than eight targets in front of her.

With four more on each side.

That was untenable.

Her team was behind her.

For now.

Three Creepers dove on her.

She could have parried and blocked them.

She didn’t.

She had to stay in motion and she had to prevent the ones that were getting around her from reaching Matt and Lady Midnight.

Abilities and spells tumbled from her lips without thought or planning. Pillowcase was handling all that. What Tessa needed to do was stay aware of the fight.

The three attackers slammed into her back.

Her armor was strong but not strong enough to resist the impacts completely.

Fortunately their undead resilience wasn’t enough to without the impact of her mace.

A solid blow to one that had almost reached Matt not only dropped a quarter of its health bar away, but also knocked it back over the edge of the ledge they were on.

Matt attacked. The injured Creeper was reduced to a bloody mess.

A still functioning bloody mess though.

Pillowcase’s magics grasped it.

It was a still functioning bloody mess but it was focused on her.

She didn’t need to care about it anymore.

It and four others clamped their jaws onto her.

She didn’t need to care about them either.

A kick against one on her other side did little damage.

But the strike enthralled it so that it could focus on no one but Pillowcase.

Pain tore through her leg. 

The armor at the knees was weaker than the rest.

Weak enough that undead fangs could pierce it.

Poison surged into her system.

It did nothing.

She was a [Tank]. Status effects like the [Poison Condition] were for less durable people.

Lifting her leg, Tessa used it as an anvil to hammer the Creeper that was attached to the inside of her knee. The instant its fangs left her leg, the injury healed, thanks to both her own abilities and to Lady Midnight pouring healing magic into her.

The injury still carried a cost though. 

She’d had to focus on herself for more than a second. That had left Matt open.

As a [Metal Mechanoid], he enjoyed some of the same Consortium built resilience that Pillowcase did. As a caster though, he didn’t have much to back that up.

Tessa started to shout for Lady Midnight to save Matt rather than her, but healing wasn’t a new role for Lady Midnight. Matt’s health yoyo’d slightly but crept steadily upwards despite the two Creepers that had latched onto him.

To his credit, Matt didn’t let the pain of the injuries break his focus any more than Pillowcase had. With a Creeper hanging on his right arm, he turned the staff he carried in a one handed grip and began blasting the creature at point black range.

Tessa smacked the creatures anyways, tearing their attention to herself.

It wasn’t a fun plan, not when she had to endure their attacks personally, rather than merely through the interface of a digital avatar, but it was what Pillowcase was built for.

“Hold out down there!” Lisa called out. “We’ll get down to you.”

Tessa spent a fraction of a second glancing at the party roster in Pillowcase’s heads up display. Obby was in fine shape, as were the others who were up top. Tessa couldn’t tell if that was because more of the Creepers were coming down to attack her party, or if having four team members rather than three made the difference, or if Obby was just a better tank than she was.

“We’re good,” Tessa said, willing it to be true.

The number of Creepers who were fastened onto her, trying with varying degrees of success to tear through her armor had risen to at least a dozen, with more beyond that struggling to find an opening.

Matt was trying his best to blast them away but his magics weren’t ideal for destroying the undead. 

What they really needed was a [Paladin].

Or Glimmerglass. She’d work great too.

Since they didn’t have either of those, Tessa fell back on what they did have,

“[Casting Spell: Corrosive Spirit Drain].”

In leveling up, her abilities had improved too and this was her first opportunity to try her new [Spirit Drain] spell out.

The swarm of [Flying Poison Creepers] were packed in so tightly around her, that Tessa’s spell engulfed them all.

The creatures went mad as it burned through them.

All their rage belonged to Tessa but, as the spell stole their life force away, tick by tick, the strength that fueled their rage dissolved as well.

The battle had turned against the Creepers.

But it wasn’t over.

Tessa saw the Creeper that got past her.

It flew in from the side, just outside the range of her spell. 

It wasn’t interested in her and she couldn’t take command of its attention in time.

With the same scream that the others were shrieking, the lone Creeper buried its fangs in Lady Midnight’s arm.

Her healing spell faltered and broke under the damage but that was okay. Matt was in good shape and Tessa didn’t need help given how many Creepers she was in the process of draining to death.

The damage Lady Midnight took wasn’t the problem.

It was the poison.

Tessa watched it course up Lady Midnight’s arm, pulsing veins of purple light spreading across her neck and face.

For a moment, Tessa was afraid the poison was going to to something violent like dissolve Lady Midnight from the inside, but its true purpose was far worse.

“Out of magic,” Lady Midnight said, as Matt blasted the Creeper off her and reduced it to ash.

She drank a [Mana Potion].

It didn’t help.

Which was impossible.

The Creepers around Pillowcase were growing so feeble that her simplest blows were knocking them away.

In a minute or less they’d no longer be a threat. 

She wanted to rush over to inspect Lady Midnight’s injuries but held back. Even as weak as the Creepers were, they would still be a threat to squishy targets like Matt and Lady Midnight.

She had to wait.

“What’s wrong down there?” Starchild asked, the concern in her voice matching the impatience that was gnawing at Tessa.

“Lady Midnight is poisoned,” Tessa said.

“I’m fine,” Lady Midnight added quickly.

“She’s not. It’s blocking her magic recovery,” Tessa said. “Are you done with the ones up there?”

“Just dropped the last of them,” Rip said.

“We’ll be down to you in a sec,” Obby said.

“Don’t rush it,” Tessa said. “We can’t afford any falls into the pit.”

“Might clear this poison out though,” Lady Midnight said, her frown stiff and tight.

“Is it doing any damage at this point?” Tessa asked. The last Creeper lost its hold on her and she bashed three times to ensure it wouldn’t be getting back up unexpectedly.

“No. My healthbar’s stable,” Lady Midnight said. “It’s not terribly pleasant though.”

“Do you have any [Antidotes]?” Pete asked.

“Already tried one,” Lady Midnight said.

Tessa stopping searching in her bag for the [Antidotes] she was carrying.

“Wait till we get down there before trying another one then,” Lisa said.

“I have a [Bear’s Endurance] spell which grants resistance to [Poisons],” Starchild said.

“We’ll try combining our effects,” Lisa said. “I have a bad feeling though.”

“Me too,” Lady Midnight said.

“What? Why?” Rip asked. “What is the poison doing to her?”

“It’s not what it’s doing to her,” Lisa said. “It’s what it is. Meaning, it may not be a poison at all.”

“What is it then?” Rip asked, her words rushing faster than her footsteps as she leapt from mushroom to mushroom and vine to vine to reach Tessa and her part of the party.

“A dungeon mechanic,” Lisa said. “Maybe.”

“I’m willing to bet it is,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know of any poisons that block magic recovery completely like this.”

“They can’t,” Tessa said. “[Assassins] can copy poisons from mobs and this one would completely shut casters out of PvP..”

“So, what, poisons just act differently because we’re in a dungeon?” Rip asked, landing on the ledge with Tessa and scrambling over to see Lady Midnight. 

Lady Midnight gave Rip a weak smile but the pulsing of purple glow through her veins told a different story.

“The good news is that if it is a mechanic, then there’ll be something in here that can remove the effect,” Lisa said, as she climbed with care from one mushroom to the next.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen!” Rip burst out with, answering a private conversation aloud. From her instantaneous flinch, Tessa knew that had been unintentional. Matt had caught himself as he reached out to her, providing a solid clue who she’d been talking too.

“That’s something you’ll want to remember,” Obby said. “Dungeons are built to surprise you. And they’re not fair on who they target.”

“You’ve got to make sure your party is ready before you do something that could trigger an encounter,” Lisa said as she finally reached the ledge. She was joyously unscathed, though that prompted several different twinges of guilt in Tessa.

“I’m so sorry,” Rip said, kneeling beside Lady Midnight.

“We all mess up,” Lady Midnight said. “And we came through this one comparatively okay.”

“We did?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, could be everyone was tapped out of magick, instead of just the backup healer,” Lady Midnight said.

“You’re not the backup healer,” Lisa said. “You heal as much as I do.”

“Not at the moment I don’t,” Lady Midnight said.

“That raises the question of what we do now?” Obby asked. “Do we call this run here and start over?”

“I’m not sure we can,” Tessa said. “We don’t know where the exit is, and even if it was nearby, we don’t know if Lady Midnight’s magic cap will wear off once we leave.”

“I agree,” Starchild said. “I think we have to press on. We need to find the mechanism to make her well.”

“In that case do we bring her with us or do we split up again?” Obby said.

“I’ll definitely slow you down,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know if the poison specifically affected my other stats, but I definitely feel weaker than normal.”

“Then we’ll go slower,” Starchild said.

“It’s going to be hard to protect me if I’m like this,” Lady Midnight said.

“I’ll do a better next time,” Tessa said. Lady Midnight’s plight was as much her fault as it was Rip’s, and Rip had the excuse of being new to dungeon running. 

“Shut up, you did fine,” Lady Midnight said. “I was standing too far away, and I knew it. I should have been close enough for your aggro aura to pick up the strays, but I didn’t feel like cleaning off the goo when you splatted those things with your mace.”

Tessa turned, ever so slowly, as stared at Lady Midnight. 

To the best of Tessa’s knowledge, Lady Midnight wasn’t a first timer either.

She was an experienced gamer.

Years of play under her belt.

She’d been in probably countless dungeons.

And yet…

And yet…

She wasn’t turning into the biggest blame throwing baby in the world when something went wrong through no fault of her own?

Was that allowed?

Did Tessa really not need to feel guilty and apologize for being less than the literal best in the world?

It wasn’t that she hadn’t known her team was better than that.

It wasn’t that it should really be a surprise at all.

It was simply that even after all her years away, and after all the good experiences she’d had with them so far, Tessa finally noticed that she’d still been bracing for things to fall apart into acrimony and drama.

With a slowly widening smile, she released a breath that she’d been holding for over six years.