Category Archives: Broken Horizons

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Broken Horizons – Epilogue 8 (Finale)

Sometimes opportunity comes knocking at an unexpected hour. Other times, it’s family.

“Is that cookies I smell,” a familiar young [Tabbywile] said.

“I think what she means is, ‘Hi’ and ‘Mind if we bother you, those smell delicious’,” a similarly familiar [Metal Mechanoid] said.

“Rip! Matt!” Tessa said and pulled the two into a big hug.

“More like ‘cookie’ singular,” Lisa said, “My [Cooking] is skilling up very slowly.”

“You’ve got the aroma portion of it down,” Rip said. “I could smell them from a block away and it was wonderful!”

“Not that we came to raid your cookie jar,” Matt said. “We were just thinking of checking in and maybe getting a new party invite, if that’s okay?”

Rather than wasting time answering the question with words, Tessa tossed them both instant invites. She still didn’t have a game-like HUD to work with when she was in her quasi-human form, but she’d discovered that she didn’t need it for a variety of the common functions which mirrored the various game mechanisms she was used to. A little imagination and configuring her thoughts to simulate the echoey sound around the world’s key words was enough to handle most of them and some of the rest just required phrasing the request in C++.

“You’re more than welcome to help yourselves to the output of the my skill grinding attempts,” Lisa said. “I can’t promise quality but since I bought a literal ton of ingredients, I can definitely offer quantity.”

“Where ‘quantity’ is one cookie at a time,” Tessa said.

“Dibs!” Rip called.

They settled around the central island in the [Tea Shop’s] kitchen. There wasn’t really enough space for three people plus a cook, especially not with Matt’s larger-than-average metal body, but Lisa seemed to prefer the company to the space as she worked.

“How did things go with your families?” Tessa asked. She’d been sad to see the kids go, but had gone along with the responsible course of action because she’d known Rip and Matt would keep Rose and Jamal physically safe, and that the pair could leave any ugly situation they found themselves in or call for help that a wide variety of people would have been only too willing to provide.

“It was good,” Jamal said and added more softly, “Better than I thought it would be.”

“Are you going back there?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah. Someday. Not for now though,” Jamal said. “We need some time. Mom and me. Maybe for the holidays though?”

Reading microexpressions wasn’t a skill Tessa had ever developed, and detecting them on a [Metal Mechanoid] would have required truly astounding powers of observation. Even without that though, Tessa heard something different in Jamal’s words. Though they were filtered through a mechanical voice box, there was a peace in them, and hope for a future that maybe hadn’t seemed possible before?

“I’m glad that turned out well,” she said, turning to see if Rose had the same sort of news to report.

“Nothing good to report here,” Rip said. “But that’s not a surprise.”

Tessa’s heart clenched and she had to fight back the urge to smother Rose with hugs and supportive words.

“Still sucks, you deserve a hell of a lot better,” she said.

“Of course she does,” Lisa said and wrapped Rip in a hug from behind. “You are ridiculously brave and when your family figures that out they can fight me to the death for you.”

“Oh, uh,” Rose said, as Rip’s eyes grew glassy. “I don’t…you don’t have to…I mean…”

“I think we didn’t want to assume that you’d want to stick with us,” Matt said. “You don’t have to. I mean we’re basically adults in this world, and we’re all trained up now, so it’s okay if you don’t want to take care of us. We’ll be okay.”

“Hey,” Tessa said. “We take care of each other. As long as you still want to hang around with us that is? We have lead you into more than a few meat grinders so far after all.”

“Want to?” Rip said, “Of course we want to!”

“You know, it’s funny you gave them a choice there,” Lisa said, smiling playfully. “I wasn’t planning to. These two are mine now.”

“Ours,” Tessa corrected her. “Just like we’re theirs.”

A long moment of cozy warmth followed but was interrupted by a spark, and then a puff of flame and the acrid smell of burnt chocolate chip cookie.

“Ack! No!” Rip squeaked, breaking free from the layered hug in an attempt to rescue Lisa’s most recent attempt at crafting.

“Well, the good news is, it’s a full batch of twelve this time,” Tessa said, seeing the results Rip rescued from the mixing bowl.

“Twelve charcoal briquettes,” Lisa said, breaking one apart and checking to see if there was anything salvageable with in it.

“I’m sorry,” Rip said.

“Sorry? Why?” Lisa asked. “This is progress. Smelly progress, but still, I haven’t been able to make more than one of anything in any batch I’ve done so far. Sure these are junk, but they’re great junk! I’ve got a much better idea what to do next time now. Could you get me the flour and sugar buckets over there.”

“You’re doing another batch right now?” Matt asked.

“I’ve been making batches for the last three hours,” Lisa said.

“Where are all the cookies from those?” Matt asked.

“They went to a good home,” Tessa said and patted her belly, which was somehow capable of holding far more food than should have been geometrically possible.

Another knock sounded on the door.

“Monsters?” Jamal asked.

“Unlikely in town,” Lisa said, exchanging her mixing spoon for one of the nearby kitchen knives.

“Let me get it,” Tessa said and was inappropriately pleased to see that Matt and Rip were both taking up the best covering positions which were available from the limited options inside the [Tea House].

Calling a few of her higher level spells as a [Void Speaker] to mind, Tessa opened the door to find another pair of familiar faces waiting for her.

“Hi Tessa!” Lady Midnight said. “We heard that Rip and Matt had made it back and guessed we’d find you here.” 

Beside her stood her Earthling counterpart in a worn medical gown.

“We figured we’d let you all know that we were back too,” Claire said. “Though I suppose this is technically my first time to be standing here.”

“I thought you two were off helping cure all the diseases on Earth?” Lisa said.

“We did,” Lady Midnight said. 

“Or, rather, we did as much as we could,” Claire said. “They got an incredible number of therapies and outright cures developed and probably advanced Earth’s medical knowledge by a thousand years or more, but with the worlds drawing apart, the [Remove Disease] class of spells began to fade too, so there was less we could contribute.”

“It sounded like with the breakthroughs that were made though they have the tools to figure things out on their own from there,” Lady Midnight said.

“So the Earth is going to become a disease free zone?” Rip asked.

“Oh, I think it’s better than that,” Tessa said. “The level of advancement you’re talking about is near Singularity level tech.”

“That’s not necessarily better,” Lisa said.

“True. Medical tech that’s sufficiently advanced that we can’t foresee what society will look like after it’s developed is probably going to be put to all kinds of terrible uses.”

“Not all kinds,” Claire said. “Intrinsic in most of the high end body modifications that are going to be possible is the ‘out clause’ that anyone it’s applied to will definitely be able to [World Walk] to one of the worlds were the technique was derived from. If they don’t like what was done to them, there should generally be the tools to reverse the effect on the origination world.”

“Do you think that will happen a lot?” Rip asked.

“Probably not. The fact that you can’t inflict a lot of the unpleasant techniques on people long term, and that even some of the bioweapon options aren’t viable, should help dissuade people from bothering to try in the first place,” Claire said.

“Also, the Earth has several hundred million less people who were at the far end of the ‘abuse and misuse power’ spectrum,” Lady Midnight said. 

“You know, even with that, I can’t say I miss the place,” Rip said. “I like this place as home much better.”

“You haven’t even gotten to see a tiny fraction of it yet either,” Lisa said. “We powered through so much of it, you didn’t get to see any of the classic places that everyone’s been to.”

“Or the new places where no one’s been,” Tessa said. “We know there were unfinished dungeons and strange corners of the world when the [World Shift] happened. With the Fallen Kingdoms rising, there have to be countless more new areas to explore. Ones where no Beta Tester has ever tread before.”

“We may very well be too high level for most of them though,” Lisa said. “Uh, hopefully I guess. We never did figure out how to break the level cap after all.”

“Well, you five will be too high level,” Claire said. “Me though? I’m just a little level 1 newbie still.”

“Same here,” Lisa said. “Well, level 10 since Tessa power leveled me a bit so I could survive the crafting backlashes with less fuss, but I’m not going to be dungeon delving without Lost Alice any time soon.”

“We’re short of party members for that anyways aren’t we?” Jamal asked, pointing to the six of them in the room.

His question was answered by another knock on the door.

“Starchild and Pete?” Tessa guessed.

“Doubt it,” Claire said. “They’re off exploring other games, looking for other members of their ‘cluster’.”

Tessa opened the door warily to find that Claire was correct, but that her own wariness was unwarranted.

“Obby? I thought you were…” Tessa searched for words to wrap around the nebulous idea that floated in her mind but came up with nothing better than, “gone?”

Obby smile and brushed away Tessa’s confusion as though it was both eminently reasonable and entirely unimportant.

“We decided to stay,” Obby said. “Since my wife here is now a mighty level 1, I was thinking I would power level her up a bit and thought I’d check in with you folks if there’s anyone else who might need the xps too?”

“You’re timing is fantastic!” Tessa said. “We were just talking about that.”

She ushered them in to the central room where everyone had gathered, the kitchen being just a trifle too cozy to seat eight people at once.

“Were you thinking we’d do a grand tour of the world?” Rip said.

“Cause that sounds pretty awesome to us,” Matt said.

Tessa pictured them setting out like she had a dozen years ago, the whole world of [Broken Horizons] fresh and new before her.

Except it wouldn’t be quite the same. The perils they faced would be largely irrelevant in the face of their level capped might and the low level characters would be relegated to the position of children strapped into safety seats in the back of the car. Free to watch the safari but forbidden to interact with most of it.

There were methods of fixing that but they all seemed inherently artificial. A level sync could be broken at whim to deal with dangerous encounters where part of the joy of fighting together was knowing that you really had to depend on each other.

When everyone was invested and working together? That was where the real magic happened.

Tessa looked down at her hands.

The hands that had worked magic so many times.

The hands that had held the power of a god.

The hands that still held so much potential.

Did she want to use that potential to make a fleeting dream come true?

Of course. 

What else was her potential meant for?

[Sky’s Edge] had been rebuilt. It wasn’t the small village it had once been though. At its heart lay a shrine to those who’d been lost to the [Oblivion Remnants]. The [Shrine of the Lost] wasn’t a simple memorial though. It was a gateway, a rift into the edge of nothing and from which, occasionally, some of the Lost were able to reemerge. 

A few who came back were simple confused, their time spent in Oblivion having passed for them in less than a blink, while others spoke of wandering in their own dreamscapes, encountering nightmares and all sorts of strange visions. Some even spoke of falling through a starry abyss to other worlds, and so the search for the Lost was expanded to include all the realms the [World Walkers] could find. 

Little by little the damage that had been done was healing, though that took as many different forms as there were people in need of restoration.

The shrine was not why Tessa had brought her party to [Sky’s Edge] though. She’d chosen it as the start of their journey partially out of nostalgia and partly because, of all the places she could have attempted what she planned to try, [Sky’s Edge] felt the most appropriate.

“I didn’t think as much changed up here as down on the planet’s surface?” Claire said when she stepped out of the new [Teleportal] that had been constructed to facilitate travel between the [High Beyond] and the rest of the world.

“It hasn’t,” Tess said. “We missed a lot of it, but we’re not here because of what’s new in the [High Beyond]. We’re here for what will be new in us.”

“And that would be what?” Rip asked.

“Depends on whether this works or not,” Tessa said, holding her hands out towards the center of the square where she’d first encounter Lisa a lifetime ago.

She glanced over to see Lisa nod in agreement and support. They hadn’t told the others about Tessa’s idea yet, mostly because neither of them wanted to get anyone’s hopes up if it proved to be impractical.

Drawing in a deep breath, Tessa closed her eyes and grasped the power that lay dormant within herself.

She’d never formed her level 99 [Void Speaker] ability and it was there, quiet and waiting to be given meaning by the name she chose for it.

Beyond herself, impossible to contain or even fully perceive, the [Risen Kingdoms] loomed up and engulfed her. She was only a tiny mote against the endlessness of eternity, so many other lives as bright her own, so that her wishes vanished in the tide of their dreams and aspirations.

There was no shout she could have screamed that would have risen above the cacophony of so many lives, her voice alone was too small to even be noticed on the scale of the world. Even the gods themselves could barely speak loud enough for their wills to be made manifest across the whole of the realm. Tessa could have cast all the untapped power she carried into that maelstrom and been as lost as a raindrop falling into the ocean.

So she didn’t scream.

She whispered.

“[Infinite Creation Portal: Path to a New Beginning].”

>> Command unrecognized.

Tessa focused her mind’s eye down to a single image and a single desire.

She wanted to be with her friends and family.

She wanted to be a part of a world she’d always loved, even when it had broken her heart.

She wanted to play.

“[Infinite Creation Portal: Path to a New Beginning]”

>> System expansion detected.

>> Planetary level permission required.

The voice that spoke those words in Tessa’s mind could have leveled mountains with a syllable. The voice that answered them though was unexpectedly gentle and kind.

“Oh, I like this idea,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “Permission granted.

>> New Ability [Infinite Creation Portal: Path to a New Beginning] obtained!

>> New Permanent World Feature Generated: [Portal of New Beginnings].

>> Documentation request send to [God of Knowledge] for new power description and portal user help.

>> New Global Status Update generated and transmitted to all users.

>> [High Beyond] map updated.

>> New Title Awarded: Published Game Developer 

>> New Permissions Granted: Junior Debugger

>> New Interface Installed: Level 1 Troubleshooter

>> Threat Assessment raised to Tier 7!

Tessa reeled at the barrage of system messages, which scrolled across the new and not-at-all totally-overwhelming HUD that had appeared overlaying her previously fully human vision.

“Are you okay?” Lisa asked, one hand on Tessa’s back to help her stay on her feet. “It worked!”

In front of them an oval of swirling rainbow light, bound in a band of glowing gold hung an inch off the ground and stretched up six feet high.

“It’s beautiful,” Rip said.

“What does it do?” Matt asked.

“It lets us start over again,” Tessa said. “This is like making a new alt in the game. We won’t lose anything that we are now. We can go back to our current selves, just like we can split apart or recombine with the alts that we already have. What this will let us do is play around with the other people we want to try being.”

“And it will let us experience the world like we should have the first time,” Lisa said. “Everyone growing together.”

“It’ll be a lot slower to climb back to the level cap like this,” Tessa said.

“But we’ll see a lot more of the world in the process,” Lisa said.

“And we can learn to do the things we didn’t get to try on our last mad dash to the level cap,” Tessa said.

“This time it won’t be the fate of the world riding on what we do,” Lisa said.

“It’ll just be us, going wherever the promise of loot and fun takes us,” Tessa said.

It was what Tessa’s heart had yearned for since she’d read her first fairy tale and in the eyes of her new family, she saw the same yearning burning bright enough to light all of their days to come.

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 7

Tessa and Lisa

All the rush and clamor was far distant at last and in a little [Tea House] on the edge of [Dragonshire] all was, for a little while at least, peaceful in the world.

And that was driving Tessa nuts.

“You’re sure you don’t want to work on leveling your [Cooking] skill?” Lisa asked. “Even the failures aren’t too bad.”

She had a bowl filled with something that might have been cookie batter in her arms. That she was wearing a near equal quantity of flour from ‘crafting failures’ put a chuckle in Tessa’s heart, but she shook her head nonetheless.

“I’m still hoping I can put the time in on [Arcane Tinkering] but the supplies for that require [Gem Crafting] and it’s silly to work on that before we run the [Rainbow Diamond Mine] again.” 

From what the other players had reported, the [Risen Kingdoms] still had the limitation that, while you could level up every craft, you could only truly master one of them.

“I’m not planning to master [Cooking],” Lisa said. “We’ve already got plenty of [Master Chefs] in the guild. But you’ve got to admit that instant chocolate chip cookies are a nice option to have.”

“I can’t disagree, though I do feel compelled to point out that more than half the time, you’re a [Vampire] these days. Do cookies really do anything for you then?” Tessa asked.

“Not really,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice’s strain of vampirism allows her to eat regular food, but her sense of taste is pretty dulled. Which is interesting now that I think about it since her sense of smell is off the charts.”

“Is that something that got better as you leveled up?” Tessa asked. She’d stopped her and joined Lisa in the [Teas House’s] kitchen, choosing a seat by the food prep island in the center of the room.

“Definitely. Also I think her blood efficiency got better too, she gets hungry a lot slower than when we were starting out,” Lisa said, drawing a [Fire Hex] over the cookie dough and wrapping a [Shaping Hex] around it.

In theory that would complete the crafting and leave them with a bowl full of finished chocolate chip cookies. In practice the crafting magic wasn’t quite stable in Lisa’s hands yet and the entire contents of the bowl vanished in a bright puff, leaving behind only a single cookie for all her efforts.

“I wonder if that got all of the calories from everything in the mix or if the rest just got burned away?” Lisa said.

“Can I try it?” Tessa asked, taking the cookie from the bowl when Lisa nodded.

It wasn’t a perfect chocolate chip cookie, but it was definitely well into the acceptable range. Tessa looked up, casting Lisa a hopeful expression that there might be another one being prepped soon.

“I think the other ingredients got disintegrated,” she said, remembering that she was supposed to be testing the cookie, not just enjoying it. “This doesn’t taste like it’s got multiple cups of sugar in it.”

“But it tastes okay?”

“I don’t know. I think I’ll need some more to be sure. Maybe another dozen or so?” Tessa said with an impish grin.

Lisa flicked some flour at her, but did start assembling the ingredients for another batch.

“So what would you normally be doing on an afternoon off?” Lisa asked.

“For the last few years? Working,” Tessa said. “Believe it or not, I think dungeon delving is a healthier activity than working as a programmer. Well, no, I should be fair. I know there are decent companies out there. I never had the good fortune to work for one, but there are places that treat their staff like people rather than Employee ID Numbers who can be made to puke up code by yelling at them.”

“You are making me very glad I didn’t try to get into programming,” Lisa said.

“You had an interest in it?” 

“Sure. I played this game for over a decade. I think everyone imagines what it would be like to make their own. From everything I’ve heard though, the game industry is miserable.”

“I thought I was being smart by working for a financial company,” Tessa said, snagging a few of the chocolate chips that were left in the bag after Lisa poured out what she needed. “Turns out it’s less about what you’re doing and more who you’re doing it for though.”

“And now?” Lisa asked.

“Now I am enjoying some lovely cookies which a talented [Cook] is making,” Tessa said, watching with anticipation as Lisa manually finished putting together the batter.

“I meant how does it feel to be working for yourself,” Lisa said. “I couldn’t help but notice the pacing you were doing.”

“Sorry. It just that slowing down feels weird,” Tessa said. “We literally entered this world running and it feels like we haven’t stopped since.”

“Things are pretty quiet now though, or are you hearing something from the guild?” Lisa stopped stirring, concern flashing over her face.

“No, nothing from the guild,” Tessa said. “Nothing from anyone. As far as I can see, things really are okay at the moment. I guess I’m just, I don’t know, waiting for the other show to drop?”

“It did,” Lisa said. “A few thousand times I think.”

“I know. It’s silly. We’ve been through the literal end of the world. We’ve died. A lot. What could be worse than that?” Tessa rested her elbows on the island and let her head fall into her hands.

“It’s not silly,” Lisa said. “It’s the aftermath of trauma, and a major life change, and some very reasonable concerns.”

“Reasonable?” Tessa asked.

“Everything we thought we knew got upended. We’re not who we thought we were. That is a lot to take in. Being worried that something else might come along is just sensible. It’s allowing yourself to be aware of how uncertain all this is.”

“That does sound reasonable. And terrible.”

“We did say when this was all done we were going to find a therapist who could help us sort through all the stuff that happened to us, right?”

“Yeah. That was a good idea then and a good one now. Well, not right now.”

“Enjoying the cookies are you?” Lisa asked, conjuring another [Fire Hex].

“I’m enjoying all of this,” Tessa said, sweeping the room with a glance.

“Are you?” Lisa asked, finishing the batch and producing another single cookie. “You don’t have to pretend for me.”

Tessa heard an undercurrent in those words that got her up and off her chair.

“I’m not pretending,” she said, wrapping her arms around Lisa lightly. “I think I just forgot how to relax. If I try to imagine being anywhere else, all I can picture is trying to get back here. I know that we can go almost anywhere we can imagine and none of those other worlds seems even half as appealing as being in this shop, as being with you, right here and now.”

“Thanks,” Lisa said, her shoulders releasing a tension that had crept up on her without either of them noticing. “I know we won’t be able to curl up in here forever, but I think I need this time to recharge my batteries.”

“Time away from people?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah. I’ve never been that much of a party animal. It’s a little easier when Lost Alice is around. She’s got more stamina for the whole socializing thing.”

“Think she and Pillowcase are having any luck finding our other alts?” Tessa asked.

“I’d guess not yet,” Lisa said. “I think if they do manage to find one, they’ll be so excited they’ll send us a chat message immediately. I know that’s what I would do.”

“It’s a shame they’re missing out on these cookies,” Tessa said taking one from a previous batch Lisa had attempted.

“In theory I should be better by the time they get back. They can share experiences with us then and get the first hand version of them from our senses,” Lisa said.

“It’s neat that we have that to offer to them,” Tessa said. “I remember thinking I was going to be nothing but a burden to Pillowcase, or Glimmerglass, but even just being regular old me, I can do things for them they can’t do on their own.”

“I thought it was interesting how many people were interested in learning how to split and recombine like you do, even the ones who were heading back to Earth full time.”

“Confession time; I am not at all unhappy that a good portion of our guild chose to head home.” Tessa said. “I think we lucked into a good group of people but what we have now feels a lot more manageable than the monster group we had before.”

“I’m guessing we’ll see those numbers going back up over time,” Lisa said, beginning the next batch of cookies.

“You think people will be jumping ship on their current guilds to join ours?” Tessa asked. She could imagine that fairly easily given the rather draconian rules some guilds had in place in terms of enforced performance metrics.

“That, and I think we’ll see a fair number of the people who went back to the Earth returning here over time. Some may just vacation for a while, but I’m betting a good number of them will find the Earth’s not the world they knew either and move back to the [Risen Kingdoms] permanently.”

“I heard some of them saying they couldn’t live without their XBoxes and Doritos,” Tessa said. “I’m reasonably sure we’ll never have those here.”

“The Doritos would be doable but probably not the XBoxes. The thing is I’m not sure the Earth will have those either. With people traveling to different worlds, I think the Earth society we knew is going to change into something very different, and I don’t think it will take long.”

Tessa thought about that and caught a glimpse of the changes Lisa was envisioning.

“It’s even bigger than the change in population isn’t it?” she said. “No one’s going to work jobs like the ones I had. No one needs to stay in situations that make them miserable. If the people there don’t build a world that people feel happy and proud to live in, no one will.”

“That’s why I want to go back and visit in a year or so,” Lisa said. “It probably won’t be unrecognizable by that point, but people can change pretty quickly and I think we’ll see some clear signs for where things are going.”

“Do you think your family will stay there?” Tessa asked.

“Nope. They were some of the first people Rachel taught the [World Walking] trick to. They’re off touring some of my Mom’s favorite movies. They said they’d stop back in too though, and that they’d leave word where they’ll settle down once they decide.”

“How will they manage thatu? Isn’t there a chance that anyone they leave word with will be off traveling too?” Tessa asked, imagining families losing track of each other forever unless one side or the other could pull off a miracle or two..

“Rachel’s got that part covered,” Lisa said. “She and some of the other World Walkers are establishing cross world network connections. She thinks they’ll need to route those through Earth but it should be possible to have something like an extended version of our telepathic chat channels in place as humans start branching out into farther and farther worlds.”

Tessa blinked and then smiled. She wasn’t alone. They weren’t alone. There were other people working as hard as she ever had to keep the worlds going. 

Looking out the window, she saw big fluffy snowflakes starting to fall and felt something release inside her.

The same sense of relief that used to sweep over her when she was a kid and snow was falling on a school night sang down to her fingers and toes.

She could relax, she could be at peace, she could enjoy her wonderful new house and the woman she was in love with.

Then there was a knock at the door.

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 6

Rose and Jamal

Rose found Jamal in the ruins of his house, the pieces of his old life reduced to dust and kindling. He was picking through the rubble, quiet and focused enough that he didn’t hear her walking close.

Or maybe Rip’s stealth skills were still with her. 

Earth was healing, and while the barrier between it and the other worlds in its constellation would never be impassable again, the ability to access abilities from those other worlds was fading quickly. That Rip was still as close to Rose as she was spoke to how thin the wall between the two facets of her self was, but even so Rip’s magic and exceptional talents stood on the bedrock of the Risen Kingdoms and weren’t going to last more than another hour on Earth, at best.

“It doesn’t look like they were here,” she said, stopping a short distance away from Jamal. 

Normally she wouldn’t have knelt beside him and offered him a hug if that was what he needed. This time though, she waited. Sometimes he needed support, and something he needed to work things out on his own before he could let people in again, even her. Neither Rose nor Rip had magical insight enough to tell the two states apart, and so she let him decide, content to simply be there when and if he needed her.  She couldn’t claim any special wisdom in that though given that she’d learned the strategy from him.

“They weren’t,” Jamal said. “I talked to Mrs. Leibowitz.”

Gazing over to the right, Rip saw Mrs. Leibowitz’s house had suffered just a bare fraction of damage Jamal’s had. It was like a tornado had reached down to specifically smite his home alone. That seemed fair somehow. Mrs. Leibowitz had helped them out a bunch of times, giving them a place to ‘help out with chores’ when they were little and needed an excuse to not be at either of their homes.

“That’s…is that good?” she asked. Neither of them had a great relationship with their parents. Having just come from what was probably the last shouting match with her mother that she would ever have, Rose felt lighter and freer than she thought she ever had.

But that didn’t mean Jamal would necessarily feel the same.

“It is,” Jamal said, turning to face her and showing her a smile that was far warmer and more genuine than she’d thought she’d find on him. At least in regards to his family.

“Have you talked to them?” she asked, trying to understand this new place where she found her best friend.

“Yeah. I talked to my Mom,” he said, pushing a section of fallen wall over to clear a space for them to sit down. “She’s…someone new?”

“What like she got replaced with someone like Rip or Matt?”

“No. She’s just different. It’s like, almost dying, and losing me, and just everything that happened? I think it all forced her to look at what she’d been doing. She seems, calmer I guess?”

“Did she ask you to stay with her?’ Rose asked, dreading the answer, but knowing she had to be brave enough to ask.

“Stay? No. She said…,” he paused at the leading edge of a lump in his throat, right before it could put a catch in his voice, “…she said that she knew she’d messed up, a lot, and that all she wanted now was for me to follow my dreams and do what I thought mattered. She said she trusted me, and that once she got out of the hospital, she was going to find a new home and that she hoped someday I’d feel safe enough to come back and visit her there.”

Not a single one of those words sounds like something Jamal’s Mom would ever have said, but listening to him, Rose knew that she had.

Jamal wasn’t magically healed by his mother’s change of heart and sudden maturity. He was touched by it, and maybe set free too, but he’d been hurt enough that his joy was tempered into quiet and plain words rather than any surging exaltations of happiness.

“What about…?” Rose stopped, unsure if she even wanted to say the name of his mother’s boyfriend.

“Still alive too, believe it or not,” Jamal said. “Jumped in front of a Demon Centipede Bus and got stabbed like fifty times, but he managed to both save my step-sister and survive thanks to someone killing the Centipede thing and exploding it into a cloud of healing potions.”

“Huh. That’s not how I would have expected that to go.”

“That’s what my mother said. Didn’t stop her from kicking him to the curb though and from the sounds of it, he agreed. Apparently he’s off to join a monastery or something. Had a near death experience and discovered he had a lot of thing to work on before he was going to be ready to be a fit for human company.”

“Wish I’d known all it would have taken was pushing him in front of a bus. Could have tried that a long time ago,” Rose said. Or Rip. Or both really. Neither one liked The BoyFriend.

Jamal chuffed out a little laugh.

“Glad you didn’t. I’d hate to have to commit grand theft or something so we could thrown in the same prison together.”

“Like they’d have ever caught me,” Rose said.

“Hey, you can’t run like lightning over here,” Jamal said, standing up and offering her his hand.

She took it and brushed herself off. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Nah, but it was a dumb idea,” Jamal said.

“Shut up, you’ve never had a dumb idea in your life. Spit it out, what were you looking for?”

Jamal put a hand on the back of his neck, and made a quick study of his own feet.

“Well, you know how Tessa figured out how we can split apart?” he said.

Rose did, and she was reasonably certain she never wanted to try it. Ever. Every moment she stood on the Earth, she felt the maddening itch to get back in Rip’s skin.

Being a human girl was fine. Great even. Being a Tabbywile though? Fast and strong and free as the wind? She liked being Rose, but she loved being Rip Shot. Asking if she wanted to split the two apart felt similar to asking if she wanted to remove the left half of her torso from the right.

No thank you.

“You’re thinking of taking her up on that?” Rose asked, not startled but puzzled.

“Not permanently,” Jamal said. “I’d just like to know how, and I had this stupid idea to go with it.”

“I will Lightning Bop you,” Rose warned him.

“Okay, not stupid, just, you know, stupid,” he said, though the last was more teasing than serious.

Rose responded properly by glowering and raising her hand in a claw-like fashion.

“I thought if I could find one of my Dad’s old books on engineering, Matt and I could split apart when he was damaged and I could repair him. Or maybe invent new gadgets and upgrade him.”

“You were going to put an Arc Reactor into him weren’t you?”

“Well, he is a ‘Man’, and he is made of ‘Iron’, sorta.”

“And you think that’s a stupid idea?” Rose accused him.

“Well…” Jamal began to say.

“Why on Earth would you NOT do that?” Rose asked. “That’s sounds freaking awesome!”

“I know, but it’s not like I can actually build an Arc Reactor.”

“Well sure, not here. But in the Risen Kingdoms? Come on you know there’s like ten thousand people working on that already!”

“Yeah, but they probably know what they’re doing,” Jamal said.

“Dude, when was the last time you saw an Adventurer that knew what they were doing?”

“Okay, that’s a fair point. But still, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Not really I mean.”

“Geez if only you knew someone with a direct like to one of the literal gods who created the Risen Kingdoms.”

Jamal stared at her as though waiting for a punchline that was never going to come.

“Me!” she said. “I’m still the High Priestess of the Lord of Storms you know.”

“Uh, no. No I did not know that,” Jamal said, raising his forefinger in protest.

“I told you! Or, hmm, I think I told you?” Rose said, trying to remember if there’d been a time after she’d called the Lord of Storms back to life and after they’d met her deity in Heaven and she’d had a chance to confirm that her, largely ceremonial, status was intact.

“That you have a god on speed dial? No, I think I’d remember that.”

“It’s not exactly speed dial and, to be fair, the reborn gods are kinda up to their eyeballs in requests so I’m not supposed to call more than once a week or so.”

“Oh yeah, weren’t they saying something about coding a healthy work/life balance into the fabric of the world?”

“I think that was a joke. From what Storms said, they’re being very careful with any changes they make. Nobody want to let in any new Oblivion Remnants, even if the Risen Kingdoms and Gaia mostly have that sorted out.”

“I can see that. We just got done saving the place. It’d be nice if it stayed saved for a while.”

“Yeah. That said though, I’m pretty sure I can get you hooked up with someone who knows what they’re doing and is capable of teaching what they know too,” Rose paused, a terrible thought turning in her belly. “Umm, if you’re still thinking you’ll come back. That’s what your Mom was suggesting so it’s okay right?”

Jamal shook his head and for a moment Rose’s heart sank into her socks.

“I’m not going back there because my Mom said it was okay.” He offered her a smile. “I went into her room to tell her I wasn’t coming back here. Ever. I don’t know if I would have stuck to that, but it was how I’d felt for so long.”

Rose breathed a sigh of relief, and nodded her understanding.

“Now though? Now I think I will be back. Not soon, probably. Maybe for the holidays? Or maybe just on a random weekend. I don’t know. I just…I just want to see her now. It’s…it’s the strangest thing.”

Rose did step forward then and, as she embraced Jamal, felt his tears fall onto her shoulder.

It was a good while before they parted, even though Rose felt more confident than ever that they wouldn’t have to really part.

“We should get going,” Jamal said. “Matt’s sounding kind of distant and the others will be expecting us.”

“You think they know we’re coming back?” Rose asked. “We didn’t promise anything. They wouldn’t let us.”

“Yeah, well they know we’re kids. I don’t think they wanted to be guilty of kidnapping, even under weird circumstances like this. Getting things squared away with our families was on us.”

Rose spend half a moment reflecting on how poorly her own reunion had gone. Not everyone passed through periods of crisis and upheaval to become better people. Seeing that, and hearing how much Jamal’s Mom had changed somehow made things easier for Rose. She’d never been interested in going back to her Earthly life, and knowing it didn’t want her back made that easier, even if it probably shouldn’t have.

She searched for the feelings of abandonment, or loss, or rejection and came up empty. In dead soil in her heart, new things had taken root. They weren’t the relationships other people had, but they were beautiful nonetheless, and most importantly they were hers.

She wasn’t Jamal or anyone else’s girlfriend, but she still had someone she trusted with all her heart.

She wasn’t anyone’s daughter, not anymore, but she had older people who she could turn to. People who cared about her not because they legally had to, not because society expected them to, but because they’d chosen her as one of their own.

Most of all though, she wasn’t alone. There was a whole world of people and monsters and weirder things out there, and they saw her not as a burden, or a nuisance, but as a person.

As who she really was.

As an Adventurer.

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 5


Azma wanted to conquer the world but the paperwork she had to do before hand was just interminable.

“I thought you’d be at Penswell’s reception?” Byron said as he set a fresh pot of [Gnomish Sweet Bean Coffee] onto the table to the side of where Azma’s documents were arrayed.

“I was there, briefly” Azma said without looking up from the [Royal Directive] she was forging.

“Was it as big as they expected it to be?” Byron asked. “One of the new adventuring teams was in here earlier and said it was going to fill up an entire city.”

“Oh, it was far bigger than that,” Azma said. “The only reason the entire kingdom isn’t going to be a ruined wasteland is that the [Adventurers] mostly brought their own food and drink. And they’ll be leaving via teleportation rather than destroying what infrastructure remains intact after several days of drunken revelry.”

“I suppose business with be slow for a while then given that it’s a quarter of the planet away,” Byron said. “And I suppose I should leave you to your planning, no?”

Azma looked up from her forgery, placing it into the “review later” pile. Without a staff to delegate such tasks to, she’d fallen back on the old systems she’d developed to support editing her own work.

“This isn’t planning,” she said. “It’s execution.”

Byron went very still and visibly refrained from scanning the room for an impending attack.

“If I may ask a foolish question,” he said, “whose?”

Azma’s smile came as something of a surprise. It wasn’t cruel and self satisfied. It almost didn’t look like hers at all.

“Not that sort of execution,” she said. “Take a seat if you’d care to hear an explanation, I could use a sounding board.”

Byron took a half step back, Azma’s smile doing nothing whatsoever to reassure him, before letting his shoulders slump by the barest fraction of an inch and sitting down in the chair Azma directed him towards.

“I am at your disposal then,” Byron said, fully aware of the unfortunate implications of his words.

“You seem to have turned over a new leaf,” Azma said, gesturing to the waiter’s apron Byron wore.

“I had thought that too,” Byron said. “But I wonder if this isn’t my first leaf so to speak.”

“You’re not quite who you were?” Azma asked, peering at some quality that might have been hiding behind Byron’s eyes.

“That’s exactly it. I recall who I was, but I’m not sure if I’m really him any longer. I feel as though I am something new inside my skin.” Byron said, squirming as he tried to find the words to express what had to seem like the ravings of someone quite thoroughly mad.

“As do I,” Azma said. “And as we should.”

“And why is that?” Byron asked.

“Because we are no longer bound as we once were,” Azma said. “Leaving aside the Consortium’s loyalty bindings, which I am sure we both circumvented long ago, we are no longer enmeshed in the broader bindings of the Consortium. The web of politics, and power hierarchies, and artificially scarce resources. This is truly a new world, rather than merely an untapped production center or market to exploit.”

“We are creatures of our circumstances then?” Byron asked.

“All creatures are shaped by their circumstances, and shape those circumstances in turn.” Azma’s gaze wasn’t harsh, but she was still looking for something. 

Despite how historically consistent it was for people to meet unfortunate ends when they attracted Azma’s attention, especially when they had maybe, possibly, tried to kill her, Byron didn’t feel a sense of mortal peril as he sat across from her.

“I suppose my circumstances now are rather changed from what they were,” Byron said.

“And yet, that doesn’t cover the whole of the difference, does it?” Azma asked, leaning slightly in.

“It would be a relief if it did, in a sense. I don’t think I would feel I had become so much of a mystery to myself if what had changed was merely a response to wearing an apron instead of a tailored suit.”

“Tell me, is the mystery one you are running from, or will you embrace it?” Azma asked.

Byron’s gaze turned inward.

After a long, slow breath, he looked up to meet her question directly.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think I’m here to stand still for a while. It feels like if I run from this, I’ll accomplish nothing more than stumbling into the strange depths that await me, and if I try to embrace them, they’ll vanish like shadows before a candle flame leaving me nothing more than the empty shell I probably am.”

“Curious,” Azma said, the ends of her lips concealing a smile that could have been kind or might have cut like a knife.

“That is not your experience I would imagine,” Byron said. “You had the sense to avoid being hollowed out by an all devouring nothingness.”

Azma chuckled at that.

“You know, I had planned several entertainingly dire fates for you. It seemed important that I make a rather spectacular example of you and each of your individual patsies, with a clear distinction in the gradations of how utterly unbearable each of your torments would be.”

“So simple murder was off the table then, I presume?”

“Murder is never simple,” Azma said. “Often however it is unproductive, uninspired, and unoriginal. But yours? Oh, I had many plans where your murder was the one where I at last let myself make a truly bold statement. One that even the Senior Executive Council would understand was something they needed to be truly worried about.”

“That sounds potentially counterproductive,” Byron said. “The Senior Executives don’t tend to shown much tolerance towards the things which can even theoretically threaten them. Presenting a clear and present danger would have united solidly them against you.”

“I know. I had other plans where your suffering would have been played before a more limited audience, but the moving against the Senior Council? It wasn’t a wise play but it was becoming terribly tempting.”

“Did any of those plans involve informing me of what was to come?” Byron asked.

“Oh yes. Most of them in fact. You needed to see your unmaking inexorably descending upon you. You needed to understand the agonies you were going to experience and the poetry behind each one. But then you went and out did me.” Azma shook her head, her eyes rolling skyward as though trying to peer through a thick cloud of disbelief.

“To be fair, being consumed wasn’t a torment that I inflicted on myself,” Byron said. “Not knowingly.”

“That’s the most perfect part,” Azma said. “Even across the endless barrier between worlds, your actions against me were turned back on you and you burned for them like no one else ever has. You were struck down for moving against me and I lifted not a finger to make it happen. I cannot improve on that. It’s a poem whose every syllable is exactly right.”

“So am I free of your malice then?”

“It is so tempting to deceive you and say ‘no’. So tempting to lie and tell you ‘yes’ as the first step in one of the longer and more glorious plans,” Azma said. “Or it should be.”

She breathed out a long, slow sigh, the excitement which had coiled in her like a spring unwinding into quiet serenity.

“As I said though, I am not who I was either.”

“If I may ask, why? You weren’t torn apart, or burned in nothingness. How did you wind up becoming diminished?”

“I’m not,” Azma said. “I didn’t lose who I was. I gained who I could be.”

“I’m not sure I follow that?” Byron asked.

“It was more than my circumstances who made me what I was,” Azma said. “I shaped my circumstances far more than they shaped me, but even as the master of my own destiny, I was still bound to a role, one I thought I had chosen for myself. My ambition, my cunning, my callousness? They were all weapons I’d forged and with them I intended to conquer all who stood before me. In the War of Life, I was going to be the victor.”

“And something changed that?”

“Yes. I won,” Azma said. “Victory, it turned out, was not in domination and mastery though. The War of Life can only be won by making peace. Peace is a fleeting and fragile thing of course, but it’s no less real for those traits. When the peace is broken, you simple make it anew. And make it better. Making peace isn’t an action that is achieved and then set aside, not anymore than waging war is. Each of them, war and peace, are active states, and failing in one can all too easily lead to the worst form of the other.”

“So you’ve given up on conquering the world then?”

“Oh, not at all,” Azma said. “That’s my gift to the newlywed couple.”

“You’re going to conquer the world for them? Does making peace involve playing kingmaker?”

Azma outright laughed at that.

“The very last thing in the world either of the brides would wish for is for me to seat them on a throne,” Azma said. “No, I am going to take over the world so that Penswell doesn’t have to, and so that Niminay can have a moment’s peace before any further catastrophes occur.”

“Forgive me saying this but won’t that required a tremendous amount of bloodshed?” Byron asked. 

Azma liked that his nerves had faded and he had relaxed a bit. It felt unkind to torment what might very well be a fledgling soul. Once that unkindness would have been of no consequence but she welcomed the turning of her heart which had changed her perspective on that.

“In this world, with everyone able to utilize the [Heart Fires], bloodshed holds a rather different status than in most others,” Azma said. “But, no, there will be no bloodshed in my conquest. The [Pax Deus] prevents any sort of armed conflict between nonconsenting sapients.”

“So you will conquer the world without armies?” Bryon seemed perplexed rather than incredulous, as though he was certain she could do as she said but unable to conceive of how.

“I had the largest army this world has ever seen,” Azma said. “My planning was unencumbered by concerns of the toll it would take on civilians or infrastructure. Well, partially unencumbered – I did want to claim as much of the value in the world as I could. Apart from personal greed though, my hands were untied. And yet, the [Risen Kingdoms] are not only unconquered, they are stronger by far then when I first attacked them. If I was evaluating this world for the Consortium, I would recommend interdicting all traffic to it and to the three closest systems as well. If the Consortium still existed that is.”

“You have a secret then. Some tool or strategy that will let you strike where you could not before?” Byron said.

“No. I have no unique tools, and no special resources. Those units who were loyal to me have all been freed and are busy building new lives for themselves here. I have no one and nothing to work with.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Grenslaw said, nodding at the seat to Azma’s right.

A warm, if tentative smile, broke out across Azma’s face as she replied with an agreeing nod.

“You have our support,” Ryschild said, sitting to Azma’s left.

“Till our dying breaths,” they both said in unison.

“That was impeccable timing,” Byron said. “Had you planned it?”

“We didn’t need to,” Grenslaw said.

“It comes naturally,” Ryschild said.

“Still impressive,” Byron said. “But it wouldn’t seem that three of you would be enough where your armies have already failed and peace is mandated.”

Azma glanced back and forth between Grenslaw and Ryschild, something like disbelief fading from her eyes.

“Oh, we will be far more than enough,” Azma said. “Our armies did not fail, you see. They achieved every goal I set before them. It was through their struggles and sacrifice that this world was remade, and this world offers what I have longed for from the deepest, truest reaches of my soul.”

“And that would be?”

“A challenge.”

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 4

Niminay and Penny

Penny had spent more time designing the quest that she was currently handing out than she’d spent on any ten battles of the war against the Consortium combined.

“I feel like we normally get some time off after saving the world?” Niminay said, tilting her head from one side to the other as she tried to parse out the meaning of the various figures and icons which were present on the mural in front of Penny.

“We do. We will I mean,” Penny said, without turning to face her. “I just want to be sure we’ve actually saved it.”

Niminay chuckled.

“I can understand the sentiment – it’d be nice if the world would stay saved for a change, but will all this really guarantee that?” she asked. She traced her fingers along the glowing lines which showed where different resources were meant to move and in which order they’d be deployed.

“Honestly? Not really,” Penny said, and sagged, placing a hand against the wall. “After everything we did though, we’ve got to try, don’t we?”

“No,” Niminay said, her voice as gentle as fingers she threaded through Penny’s hair. “We don’t have to do anything.”

“You’re going to tell me I’ve done enough already?” Penny said, relaxing back into the head massage.

“I’m going to tell you that ‘enough’ isn’t what you should measure yourself by,” Niminay said. “We’re never ‘enough’. There’s always some measure we can fall short of, especially if that’s what we’re looking for.”

“That sounds like quitter talk,” Penny joked, closing her eyes to enjoy the massage more.

“Yes, definitely, because you’re clearly all about quitting, Ms. ‘I have ten thousand copies running around fixing the world and that’s still not enough’,” Niminay said and paused for moment, “You did let that spell go right?”

“Mostly,” Penny murmured, hoping the massage would continue.

“Mostly? How many copies does ‘mostly’ leave you with?” Niminay asked, the implied threat of the head massage ending if she didn’t like the answer clear in her tone.

“Just a few,” Niminay said, knowing that indirect answers would probably not lead to anything good but rolling the dice on the low odds nonetheless.

“So three then?” Niminay asked. They both knew it wasn’t three. It was a test, one which Niminay gamely rose to meet.

“Less than three percent of what I had before,” she tried.

“But still three digits worth of copies,” Niminay said. It wasn’t a question. It didn’t have to be. “And you’re knocking yourself out here? What do you have them doing?”

She resumed the head massage but only after guiding Penny down into one of the nearby chairs.

That was good. Penny hadn’t noticed just how tired she was or how close she was to toppling over as the massage relaxed her more and more.

“Secret project,” she said, her words taking on the pleasant lassitude only the border of sleep could impart.

“Secret from who?” Niminay asked.

“Right now? Everyone.” 

“And when you’re done with it?”

“Won’t be a secret at all then,” Penny said.

“And can it wait?” Niminay asked. “Maybe till after you’ve gotten an actual night’s sleep for a change?”

“Nope,” Penny said. “Too risky. Just lucky it hasn’t been too long already.” 

“That sounds serious,” Niminay said, sounding not in the slightest bit convinced of that.

“Very,” Penny said, unconcerned about being convincing so long as the massage continued. “The most serious quest I’ve ever planned.”

“You did just save the world from a thousand apocalypses at once,” Niminay said.

“That wasn’t me. Lots of people worked on that one. Everyone really.”

“True, but a whole lot of the influential ones were listening to you, and you can’t say you didn’t do more than your share in making things turn out like they did.”

“You were the one out on the battlefields,” Penny said. “I had it easy by comparison.”

“No you didn’t,” Niminay said. “You stretched yourself past your breaking point. I worked hard, but I worked within my limits.”

“Because you’re smart,” Penny said. “A lot smarter than people seem to notice.”

“That’s because I’m standing next to you most of the time,” Niminay said. “If people have a question, they know you’re the right one to ask.”

“But I’m usually not,” Penny said. “I know tactics and strategy. I just know enough of other things to listen to the real experts when they’re talking.”

“In that case I have a new expert for you to listen to,” Niminay said.

“But I don’t have any questions I need to ask,” Penny said.

“I think you do,” Niminay said. “Probably several in fact.”

“Such as?” Penny asked.

“Well, I would start with ‘how did I get back to my bedroom’? And then maybe slide over to ‘why am I dressed in pajamas’? Maybe with a ‘whose pajamas even are these?’ thrown in too.”

Penny looked around. She was indeed in her bedroom. And dressed in pajamas. Surprisingly comfy pajamas. In her favorite colors. Made from [Perfect Cloud Down] if she wasn’t mistaken. 

“How?” was all that she asked.

“You are a lot more run down than you thought.”

“But…” Penny started to object.

“Is your Secret Project one that you really want to work on when you’re this out of it?” Niminay asked. “If it’s important, shouldn’t you be at your best for it?”

Penny grumbled.

“I’ll take that as firm agreement,” Niminay said and stood up from the bed where she’d placed Penny.

“You don’t have to go,” Penny said.

“I’m not planning to,” Niminay said. “I want you to fall asleep in my arms and wake up in them too.”

“Because you don’t trust me not to keep working in my sleep?”

“I trust you with all my heart,” Niminay said. “I’m not here to hold you back. I just want to hold you so that you’ll know I’m here and that, in this moment, you’re safe.”

She crawled into bed with Penny and resumed the glorious head massage, luring Penny into drifting down and down in the embrace of a gentle and rejuvenating night of dreamless slumber.

When she woke, dawn was long passed but Niminay’s arms were still around her.

A bright gleam of gold glittered between Niminay’s thumb and forefinger and caught her eye. Since Niminay tended to keep only the most unusual magical widgets the presence of one drew Penny back to full wakefulness, if along a slow and deliciously relaxed road.

“I still remember my first quest,” Niminay said when she noticed Penny’s eyes were open. “I’d scrounged up enough silver to make a single gold piece and that got me a stick that was masquerading as a bow and some other sticks that were pretending to be arrows.”

“I thought your first quests was in the [Dungeon of Draindell]?” Penny said.

“That was my first dungeon, and my first party,” Niminay said. “I’d started adventuring a few weeks before that.”

“With a really terrible bow?”

“Like I said, it’s questionable if I can even call it a bow, but it did shoot sticks                            out fast enough to do some damage.”

“What was the quest you took on with that?”

“Killing rats. [Belgenwatch] had a bounty out on them.”

“Those weren’t ordinary rats as I recall.”

“No. They were not. Little plague spreading monsters. It turned out even having a really awful bow put me ahead of the other fledgling [Adventurers] there. Everyone who ran into melee with them got so sickened they spent their reward money and more on the plague cures. I managed to make some gold at it because I mostly just ran.”

“Definitely a smart play. Especially if you could lead them into your traps.”

“I couldn’t set traps back then,” Niminay said. “In truth I could barely shoot either. But I could run, and I had the time and patience to make it work. I think I got five gold for that work. Took that right to the auction house and spent it all on better gear, all but one gold piece worth.”

“You wanted a memento?” Penny asked.

“I wanted to be sure I could buy another terrible bow if I lost the rest of my money on the next quest. I held onto that gold piece ever since with the idea that all I had to do was to run away at the right time and and I could start over again if I had to.”

“You’ve always wanted to be an [Adventurer] that much, haven’t you?” Penny asked, sitting up and turning to face Niminay.

“It what I wanted more than anything when I young, and it’s what’s made me feel needed and valuable in the years since. I just have one problem though.”

“What’s that?” It didn’t sound like it would be the sort of problem Penny would need to spin out a hundred duplicates to solve, but she was ready to rise to whatever the challenge might be.

“Being an [Adventurer] isn’t what I want the most, and I don’t want to run away from that anymore.”

Niminay turned the lump of gold in her fingers and Penny saw it was far too regular to be called a ‘lump’. It was thin though. Like a coin, except that wasn’t quite right either?

“So I’m not going to,” Niminay continued. “No more running away. And no more last gold piece either. I’m not interested in rebuilding the life I had before. If I have to rebuild from the ground up, I want to build a better life. One with you.”

She turned the bright gold in her hand so that Penny could see the ring she’d had cast from the coin.

“What? No!” Penny nearly jumping out of bed.

There was a brief moment of silence before Niminay chuckled.

“Okay. Not exactly the reaction I was expecting,” she said.

Penny shook her head and put up her hands in a beseeching gesture.

“I didn’t meant that. Obviously,” she said. “But I was going to surprise you!”

“I know,” Niminay said.

“You…how?” Penny asked.

“Your ‘secret project’? You did a great job on operational security, but I am a world class scout,” Niminay said. “I stumbled on one of your cloth shipments and thought it was for some new armor. I tracked it halfway around the world and found the wine requisition and the mystical lighting globes you ordered too.”

“No! That was all supposed to be a gift to you,” Penny said.

Niminay rose out of bed to stand in front of her.

“Do you think I was anything but a sobbing mess when I figured out what was going on?” she asked. “I literally leapt over a mountain when it sank in.”

“But, you stopped me? Why? I wanted to get everything ready last night,” Penny said.

“Because you were wrong,” Niminay said. “You thought you were running out of time. Like you had to catch me before someone else did. Like you didn’t catch me years ago.”

“But I kept putting you off,” Penny said.

“The time wasn’t right. That was okay then, and it’s still okay,” Niminay said.

“But it’s right now. I want us to be together too,” Penny said. “Forever.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Niminay said. “Would you like to take your ring perhaps?”

Penny grabbed it before the offer could expire.

“I love you,” Niminay said. “I have loved you for so long now, and I am so ready to let everyone know that.”

“But I didn’t get the preparations done,” Penny said.

“You didn’t have to,” Niminay said. “The site’s all setup. I had a few of our friends help out and pick up where things left off when you finally let your spell go.”

“A few? So three?” Penny asked.

“Why don’t we go see,” Niminay said, touching the [Magic Dresser] and letting it instantly cloth her in the stunning wedding gown Penny had designed.

Penny followed suit, donning her own gown and thrilling at the weight and comfort of wearing it at last..

“Put the ring on, I had it enchanted with a one-use spell,” Niminay said. “We can choose something permanent for it together later.”

“What’s the activation for the spell?” Penny asked.

“Just say ‘it’s time’ and hold my hand.”

The teleportation effect on the right turned out to be one that enveloped the travelers in a whirlwind of multi-colored petals. As the flower storm subsided, Penny saw they were standing on the small wedding stage she’d setup for them.

What she hadn’t setup for them was the guest list of those who were present.

The ‘few friends’ who’d helped out turned out not to be three people but closer to three percent of the entire population of the world.

Penny choked up. She’d wanted to make sure the world would know Niminay had chosen her and Niminay had delivered exactly that.

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 3


The main bar at the [Get Well Water Tavern] in [Sparks Junction] was pleasantly empty as the sun crested over the horizon. In her early adventuring days, Hailey couldn’t have imagined the [Get Well] ever being packed with less than a hundred people, day or night. No matter the season, the weather, or the time of day, there were always calamities to address, riches to quest for, and monsters that someone was willing to pay to have slain.

Of course that was all back in the [Fallen Kingdoms].

In the world that was shaking off its shadowy bedsheets and revealing the multi-hued forest valley below the tavern, adventuring was still alive and well, but the calamities had calmed down enough to let people catch their breaths a bit.

Hailey pulled up a seat to the bar and checked her [Coin Pouch of Holding]. They’d been running flat out to stop the world from ending for so long that she hadn’t even considered if she had the money needed to pay for her stay the previous evening, or to treat her team to the breakfasts they deserved when the arrived in a couple of hours.

Rather than any coins spilling out of the bag when she opened it, a number appeared in bright green digits. 

A large number to be sure, but one that was far below what her in-game gold balance had been. Comparing it with the prices on the chalkboard that was hanging behind the bar, Hailey saw that she was still comfortably wealthy, just not at the level of “corner the entire world’s market on cakes” if she chose to invest her fortune in pastry. If she wanted to, she could probably retire for life on what she had, provided she was willing to live somewhat modestly.

Or she could take a sabbatical for a year or two and pick up some new gear off the auction house at ‘buy it now’ prices. 

There were a lot of perks to the ‘retire for life’ option, but of the two, Hailey had to admit that she was more likely to go for the second. 

Or, if she was being honest with herself, her real answer would be ‘skip the sabbatical, get the gear, and loot some forgotten treasure hoard to pay for more’.

Assuming her party was up for all that.

They hadn’t talked about what would come after they saved the world, in part because none of them had expected to succeed.

Success had been a pleasant surprise, but it left open the question of who they were to each other. As a group that had been thrown together as the world was falling apart there weren’t longstanding ties that bound them. On the other hand though, they’d proven they could work well together, and that they could rely on one another even in the worst of conditions. 

Which unfortunately didn’t say much about how they’d handle working together when times weren’t quite so tough.

Hailey thought back to all the guilds she’d been in. Some had lasted a while. Others had dissolved to nothingness in only a few weeks or even days. There were a few commonalities to the long lasting ones, but ultimately it boiled down to how much energy people were willing to invest and just how compatible they were, neither of which was easy to guess at the outset.

Cambrell was the first to arrive, wandering into the tavern after a dozen or so other patrons had shown up. The serving lad directed him over towards the table off the main bar that Hailey had moved to.

“Expecting everyone will show?” he asked, seeing how many seats she’d reserved for them.

“More like hoping,” Hailey said. “Even if folks want to head off to do their own things, it’d be nice to be able to wish them well and exchange contact info in case we need it later.”

“Any more apocalypses coming?” Cambrell asked, taking the seat one away from Hailey to her left.

“I hope not,” she said. “All my special knowledge is basically obsolete at this point. The Consortium forces are either dead, in ruin, or freed from Consortium control. With the Fallen Kingdoms rising too, all the data I had on locations and points of interest is all old news.”

“You don’t sound too unhappy about that?” Cambrell asked, eyeing her steadily.

“I’m relieved and delighted by it,” Hailey said. “It was nerve wracking knowing that I could ruin everything if I said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. Plus, a new world means new things to explore, new dungeons to run, and new loot to find.”

“And new people to kill,” Cambrell said.

“Thinking about going back to your old job?” Hailey asked. “Or, wait, how would that work now that everyone can use the [Heart Fires]?”

“Quite well apparently,” Cambrell said. “Assassination business is booming since people feel like it’s okay to hire an [Assassin] for basically any reason at all.”

“People aren’t guaranteed to come back though,” Hailey said.

“Oh, I know. Doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down though,” Cambrell said. “Or maybe that’s just the view I got from the guild’s office.”

“Easy millions for you then I guess, right?” Hailey asked.

“Could be,” Cambrell said and hesitated before adding, “Don’t think I’m going to take them up on it.”

“Got a better offer you want to pursue?” Hailey asked.

“I’m hoping so,” Cambrel said, nodding at the empty chairs around the table.

The serving lad brought over the plate of fruits and cheeses Hailey had ordered and the two of them had just started to dig in when Wrath Raven arrived. 

She strode over to their table without needing direction, pulled back the chair opposite Cambrel and plunked down into it, diving into the fruits without saying a word.

Hailey let her eat for a few minutes, noticing as she did the care with which Wrath                                   Raven was selecting and consuming the food. Wrath didn’t spend much time move from one piece to the next, but each bite was chewed and savored for a clear moment before she moved on to the next one.

“Did you want me to have them bring a meat dish over too?” Hailey asked, thinking that most [Berserks] she knew tended to eat like obligate carnivores.

Wrath Raven looked up, met Hailey’s eyes, and shrugged.

“If you want,” she said. “The fruit’s good too.”

Hailey signaled to the serving lad to bring another platter. When she’d ordered she’d been thinking of Earthly appetites but if there was one thing all [Adventurers] were capable of, it was packing away enormous quantities of food and drink, at least during those times when they weren’t starving themselves in order to reach an ever deeper level of whatever dungeon their were in.

Hailey was trying to work out how to ask Wrath Raven if she was staying when an unexpected-yet-delightful guest arrived.

“Oh, good, does this mean you’re sticking with us?” Glimmerglass asked, sitting down between Hailey and Wrath.

“Yah,” Wrath Raven said. “That okay?”

“Definitely!” Hailey said. With Wrath and Glimmer they had healing and off-tanking covered, and between herself and Cambrell damage dealing wouldn’t be a problem.

At least not for small party fights. They wouldn’t be able to tackle big battles without more help since none of them were decked out in the newest top of the line gear yet, and maybe not even once they were, not with just four of them.

“Hope that means you’ve got room for us too,” Mellisandra said. She arrived with a floating tray of various beverages while Damnazon had two kegs hoisted under her arms.

“And I’m hoping we brought enough ale!” Damnazon said. It was still well before lunch but Hailey recalled a bit of lore that mentioned [Half-Giant] physiology having a rather different relationship with alcohol thanks to their high resistance to poisons and toxins in general.

“For those without heroic-tier livers, we brought some [Exotic Juice Concoctions] from the [Bizarre Fruit Bazaar]. Supposedly the risk of accidental transmutation is low, but we did have to promise to inform anyone we gave them to that it’s not guaranteed that they’ll retain their current form,” Mellisandra said.

“Bah, they said best case the transformations only last about ten minutes,” Damnazon said and placed the two kegs beside her own chair and Wrath’s.

“You two look happy today,” Cambrell said, a sly smile stifled on the edges of his lips.

Damnazon sat down on the over-sized chair next to him, and Mellisandra slid onto her lap.

“We are,” Mellisandra said, snagging a piece of fruit and offering it to Damnazon.

Cambrell let a happy huff escape his lips and said, “surprised you two didn’t figure that out sooner. The whole world could have ended without you saying anything to each other.”

“I didn’t want to distract her,” Mellisandra said.

“And I’m, uh, kind of a chicken,” Damnazon said.

“You literally ran into one of the Consortium’s [Cleaving Machines], twice,” Hailey said.

“Yeah, but, that wasn’t anything that could really hurt,” Damnazon said.

 Which meant they had two off-tanks to work with. Hailey liked where this was going. High damage parties were always a wild ride. There was one problem though. If everyone else from their original party showed up, they’d have too many for just one party.

“That brings us to six so far,” she said.

“Six total I think,” Glimmerglass said. “I talked to the others and they’re going to try their hands at [World Walking].”

Hailey was both relieved and disappointed to hear that. She’d hoped their team would stay together, but she understood that lure that had called the others away.

[Adventurers] were driven to seek out new challenges, and new vistas. With the world reborn there were plenty of those in the [Risen Kingdoms] but the temptation to explore other, even stranger worlds was hard to resist.

She suspected in time they’d be back though. There was something special about the world that your heart called home.

The thought surprised her only in that it had taken her that long to put into words. She’d chosen the [Fallen Kingdoms] over Earth not only because she was needed in one far more than in the other, but because this was where she’d always longed to be.

Always who she’d longed to be too.

“That puts us a little short of a full party, is that right?” Cambrell asked.

“Not necessarily,” Mellisandra said. “I was talking to someone who’d like to join us if we’ve got room still.”

Hailey saw a man talking to the bartender glance over and notice their table, specifically Mellisandra and Damnazon.

Unfortunately she knew who he was.

“Oh my,” Byron said walking over to them, “I didn’t expect to meet you again so soon.”

“Him?” Hailey asked, her hands reaching for the hilt of her knives.

She hadn’t had any direct dealing with Byron but she’d seen him in the [High Beyond] and she’d read the minor bits of lore the EE dev team had developed for him. An arrogant bastard through and through.

“Oh, uh, probably not,” Byron said. “I’m only here because I saw the help wanted sign on the door.

“Were you able to get a room at the [Cozy Whale]?” Mellisandra asked.

“Yes. Thank you for recommendation,” Byron said. “It seems I can start here tonight as well, so allow me to return the gold you lent me.”

“Wasn’t a loan,” Damnazon said. “I got ten times that from a [Berserker] when I was starting out, so this is just paying it forward.”

“Thank you again then,” Byron said, sketching a small bow. “I’ll keep an eye open for the chance to do likewise.”

And with that he wandered off, troubling them no further apart from perplexing Hailey beyond words for a few moments.

She caught back up on the conversation when Mellisandra added a new person to the party channel she’d apparently setup between them all.

“Hi folks,” Feral Fang said. “So my old party decided to jump ship for a world of racing cars. Mellisandra you could use a warm body to fill your ranks though?”

“Uh, yes!” Hailey said, recognizing the name of one of the God-tier fishers who’d been instrumental in stopping one of the deeper apocalypses. “Where are you at now?”

“[Heliot],” Feral Fang said.

“Where’s that?” Cambrell asked.

“Currently it’s cruising over the [Amaranthine Scar]. [Heliot’s] a [Balloon City],” Feral Fang said.

“What’s it doing there?” Damnazon asked.

“Acting as a mobile [Adventuring Guild] base,” Feral Fang said. “The Scar got formed by one of the apocalypses that we got to a bit late so it runs from the [Risen Kingdoms] down into the old Fallen lands right on through to the [Sunless Deeps]. Nobody knows how big the dungeon is, or whether it’s multiple dungeons, but people are queueing up to find out.”

“Are there low level areas there?” Mellisandra asked.

“Oh yeah. It seems to start at level 1 and we know the [Sunless Deeps] can hit the level cap and beyond for raid content.”

“In that case, I’ve got one other person who’d like to join us too,” Mellisandra said. “If we don’t mind doing some power leveling to get him caught up?”

“I like that idea,” Cambrell, of all people, said. When Hailey looked at him quizzically he added, “This is a new setup we’ve got here, and, well, I’ve never run a proper dungeon before. Be nice to take it slow learning the ropes.”

“No arguments here,” Feral Fang said. “The Scar is so huge I think trying to rush through it would be madness.”

“Who did you have in mind?” Glimmerglass asked.

“I think that would be me,” a fledgling adventure said. Hailey looked up to find Mellisandra’s Earthborn partner Brandon waving a tiny greeting at them, somehow standing in the [Risen Kingdoms], the stat bar over his head proclaiming him as a level 1 [Paladin] named Sir Ton Tee.

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 2


It had been hours?, or days?, or weeks since his grand defeat. Byron knew one of those was right. Unless it was months, but, no, it couldn’t be months. He couldn’t have lost that much time. Not when he’d lost so much else.

Once he would have despaired at the idea of all that had been taken from him. His position, his wealth, he painstakingly curated collection of fine brandy. As he plodded along an ill defined path towards an uncertain destination though, all he could muster the effort to feel was gratitude that he’d managed to lose the things he had.

Well, except for the brandy. That truly was a tragedy.

The rest however? He could still feel the burn marks that seared his soul. He’d fought for those. The pain of his very essence being consumed the only thing agonizing enough to allow him to recall that he had an essence, an existence, that was distinct from the endless hunger and nothingness that had reached out and jumped inside him.

He hadn’t deserved that, he’d told himself, and he’d clung to that belief and wielded it as something less than a weapon. 

Hurting the [Oblivion Remnant] had never been an option. You can’t hurt something that isn’t there, no matter how much that cloud of ‘isn’t’ was puppeting you and making you do everything that you’d never wanted to do.

He couldn’t hurt his attacker, and couldn’t kill it, but, as it turned out, he could shape it. 

It was his mind the Remnant had poured itself into. His viewpoints and biases had provided the Remnant with the ability to understand and interact with the world on a level beyond simply eating it all. Those had been the tools he’d held onto. His attitude. His disregard. His overwhelming sense of self importance. They’d been what had saved him…

Hadn’t they?

Trying to steer his hijacked thoughts towards an outcome where he could be free of the corruption that had eaten his life had been Byron’s only option but since that had seemed like an impossibility he’d settled for at least trying to prolong his own tortured existence.

Then she had come along.


The one thing the Remnant seemed to fear.

No. That wasn’t right.

The person who’d given the Remnant the ability to fear.

Her presence had been a powerful lever to move the Remnant with, right up until the moment when it hadn’t been.

Byron had assumed that the final confrontation between the Remnant and its creator would end in death, despair, and destruction. That was likely the Consortium’s biases he’d acquired in the years he’d spent navigating their maze of treachery and ambition. They had served him well as long as he’d been surrounded by similarly minded people but they had left him ill prepared when someone chose a different path.

In the grand chaos that had followed the final Oblivion Remnant’s sundering and instantiation as a new and fully real being, no one had seemed to notice or care that Byron had all but crawled away from the assembly and began the solitary march he was still plodding along on.

They’d been in the [High Beyond] then. Some time ago. Somehow, he was on the surface of the [Risen Kingdoms] as his thoughts turned inwards, having arrived there some indeterminate amount of time later.

Had there been a portal?

There must have been a portal.

Except all of the portals had been sealed shut.

Or destroyed.

Thoughts in that direction led to the burned and still smoldering edges of his mind. The state of the portals was knowledge the Remnant had possessed, bits of reality and history that had inevitably poured into it, every bit stripping away its transcendence and grounding it in the world it was devouring. It had know what had happened with the portals. It had been there for their destruction. Hadn’t it?

Byron couldn’t be sure and had no wish to be. It wasn’t something that mattered to his current state of affairs.

He tripped and found himself on the rocky edge of a stream. It was a big stream. More of a river? He wasn’t sure. He was used to considering bodies of water smaller than oceans as being fundamentally inconsequential. 

The water was cool and clear and when it passed his lips became the single most important substance in all of creation.

With the few reserves of strength he hadn’t known he still had, Byron scrambled forward on his hands and knees until he was able to dunk his entire head into the water and drink, and drink, and drink.

He would have stayed there forever, or for the rest of his life which, granted, wouldn’t have been very long, if a pair of strong hands hadn’t hauled him back out of the blessed (if somewhat difficult to breath) flowing current.

“It’s a long run to the nearest [Heart Fire],” a woman who was at least twice as tall as he was said. “You weren’t trying to drown though were you?”

“Not as such,” Byron admitted. The idea had flitted through his head, but it wasn’t a good one. He’d fought too long and hard to give up in the face of no opposition at all.

“Oof, smells the you could use a bath,” the woman, Damnazon, said. “Want me to throw you back in?”

“We can do better than that,” a noticeably shorter woman, one only slightly taller than Byron, said. Mellisandra twitched two of her fingers in short, abbreviated gestures and Bryon felt a wave of sparkling energy pass over him.

When he looked down his clothes were repaired, and had the warm comfort of being recently pressed. Running a hand through his hair he found it bereft of twigs and dirt and the other unsavory things it had accumulated. He almost felt like a new man. Except he didn’t want to be a new man. He much preferred the old one.

“Thank you,” he said. “That was unduly kind.”

He hadn’t stopped to think about the words. They’d been the simplest and easiest reaction to the unexpected good deed. What they weren’t, however, was the kind of thing the old him would have said.

Which begged the question of where those words had come from.

“We’re traveling to [Wagon Town],” Damnazon said. “Is that where you’re heading?”

“I didn’t have any particular destination in mind,” Byron said, again being more truthful than he should have been.

Making plans like that would have meant grasping at an ambition.

Byron was done with ambition.

His careful dancing and clever scheming and desperate manipulations had all lead him to a ruin than only an unexpected and undeserved moment of kindness had saved him from.

Byron had never been a scholar, never excelled at any of the academic arts, and yet he was capable of learning, especially from his own past mistakes.

Particularly ones which had left him with injuries down into depths that he’d never known he possessed.

“You might want to tag along with us,” Mellisandra said. “We’re heading to meet up with some friends, but we can make the trip a lot safer for you until then.”

“Forgive me,” Byron asked, merely as a figure of speech. Forgiveness was laughably far beyond anything he could expect from the people of this or any other world. “From your regalia, I would have presumed you to possess the ability to teleport to the location of your choice directly. Why waste time on common foot travel?”

“We had some things to talk out,” Mellisandra said. “And our party wanted to visit their hometowns to make sure everything was still in order. [Wagon Town] was the most central spot to gather in.”

“Some of them are going to take a little while at home so we had a little time to kill,” Damnazon said. “Figured we’d scout the road between here out to [Storm Jammer Peak] and make sure there weren’t any monsters starting to move into the gap the [Wagon Town] guards had to leave.”

“That’s quite considerate of you,” Byron said, and meant it as a compliment.

Which was wrong.

Entirely wrong.

Where was the sneer? The condescension?

Where was the overwhelming sense of pride and superiority?

Hadn’t those been so integral to who he was that they’d preserved him from utter annihilation?

“Did you wind up breathing in some of that water?” Mellisandra asked. “You look a little green around the gills?”

Byron had never gone in for the sort of body modifications that would allow him to sprout gills or other body variations as he needed, but his translation implants handled the turn of phrase well enough to prevent any confusion.

“I seem to have misplaced some things,” he said. His gaze darting around the peaceful forest around them as though he might spy his missing arrogance somewhere and be able to stuff it back into a pocket before it got away from him completely.

“Were you robbed?” Damnazon said. “You looked pretty rough when we found you.”

“I suppose in a sense I was but,” and at this he couldn’t suppress a chuckle, “I’m afraid all I’ve lost is a variety of things I’m better off without.”

“Still, if they’re yours, I wouldn’t mind knocking a few [Bandit] heads in,” Damnazon said.

Byron chuckled again.

Why was he laughing? 

The absurdity?

Had his life become absurd or had it always been a joke and he’d finally woken up enough to be able to see that?

“There weren’t any [Bandits],” he said with a placating gesture. “Nor do I have any valuables to recover.”

“That’s a shame,” Damnazon said. “It’s been a while since we fought low level [Bandits].”

“They might not be so low level anymore,” Mellisandra said.

“Even better!” Damnazon said, raising her axe in a salute towards the road ahead.

Byron was briefly unsure if traveling with the two [Adventurers] really would be any safer than continuing on alone. Then it occurred to him that if he traveled at their side, neither they nor any other [Adventurers] were likely to stumble across him and decide that he looked too much like a [Bandit] or other miscreant to be allowed to remain in possession of all of his limbs.

“I thank you for your offer of protection,” he said and took a spot just slight behind them as they set off on the road Byron had been stumbling towards.

They’d walked for another hour or so, the two [Adventurers] chatting between themselves about a variety of topics. From the small furtive touches they were exchanging, Byron guessed they’d only recently decided to merge their enterprises.

Except that wasn’t right either.

It wasn’t how people thought. It was how the Consortium thought and the words felt foreign and ugly in Byron’s mind to the point where he had to resist spitting them out onto the ground.

The [Adventurers] weren’t ‘merging any enterprises’. They were dating. Or courting. Or any one of a hundred other local variations on ‘getting to know someone with whom you would like to be in a relationship with.’

Byron had never seen the appeal of relationships, though he’d always been aware of their power as a point of leverage and an intoxicant capable of dulling the sharpest senses.

The [Adventurers] did not seem to be intoxicated though. 

They seemed happy, and at ease.

And quite cute together.

Which was…was what? 

Not something he’d ever thought before? Not something he ever should have been able to think? Something he should have been oblivious to? Or afraid to recognize as having worth?

Yes. If he was the Byron he’d been then definitely yes.

Which begged an important question; was he not himself?

No. He’d had experience with being something that wasn’t himself already and these new thought and emotions weren’t that.

What had happened to him then?

Everything. Everything had happened to him.

He’d been stretched to the edges of eternity and had snapped back into a facsimile of his old state of being.

He’d become himself again, after being dissolved into nonexistence.

Except, he could never really go back to being himself, could he?

Not the old Byron. Not the one who saw ever world and word from only his own narrow perspective.

He’d been pulled apart and what had come back together, the bits that had survived that process, they were ones which had possessed the capacity for growth. Not the cruelty, or the false superiority, or the desperate demeaning lens through which he’d viewed everything and everyone.

Those were gone.

He wasn’t Byron-as-he’d-been. That entity had been destroyed. What he’d become was who that Byron could have been is the hungry parts had consumed themselves. If the raging narcissism had gazed on its own reflection and been devoured by it.

He wasn’t who he’d been. Who he’d been had led him to his destruction. Who he was had forced him to hold on and weather the ravages that still burned within him.

Both of those Byrons fell away into the past though.

They needed to be recognized and remembered but the person who mattered was the Byron who he yet be.

Once, ambition and pride would have cast the image of a great and renowned master of creation onto the Byron-who-might-one-day-be, but those leading lights in his life had crumbled as had his need for power and mastery.

In their place, Byron looked at the two people walking in front of him

The two happy people.

He wasn’t sure he deserved happiness, but that wasn’t the illumination they’d provided.

They’d stopped to help him for no reason other than they could.

They’d done something kind because they’d seen the opportunity to do so.

Was there any reason he couldn’t do the same?

Broken Horizons – Epilogue, Ch 1

Tessa and Lisa

As she packed her keyboard back into its original box, Tessa breathed in deeply, taking in the almost forgotten scents of her apartment. It was strange how new something so familiar could feel.

“So is it different than before?” Pillowcase asked.

It was. So very different. Tessa had never possessed an exceptionally acute sense of smell, but among the other perks she’d picked up, that seemed to have been included in the package. It wasn’t just the old scents that had changed though. It was the scents of the Clothwork Soul Knight who stood beside her rather than sharing a body with her. And the scents from the shower as the woman she loved indulged in the chance to clean up after all the lifting and moving they done. And the Vampire who was currently raiding her fridge for the leftovers from the take-out meals they’d had the night before.

Even taken all together though, there was something else different in the air. A freeing lightness that lifted Tessa’s spirits where she would have been prone to maudlin nostalgia.

She didn’t have reams of good memories to associate with her apartment. She’d gotten it after her last breakup and it had been little more than a place for her stuff and a place she could collapse into bed after a long and unrewarding day.

That ‘little more’ though? It was still meaningful, and she’d always been the sort to be sad at leaving even small treasures behind.

“I think I’m the one that’s different,” Tessa said, looking around at the sum total of her Earthly possessions. The boxes of clothes and books and tech and stuff didn’t really amount to much. Certainly nowhere near the mountain of loot she’d amassed in the Risen Kingdoms. She was glad to have them nonetheless though. For as much as she couldn’t claim to be the woman she’d been, both physically and mentally, that Tessa was as much a part of her as any other, and had been just as vital in ensuring her survival as anything other than yet another cosmic horror.

“I gather that, in and of itself, isn’t unusual though?” Lost Alice said, coming into the living room with a box of fried noodles and some chopsticks. 

Tessa paused for a moment to consider that before shaking her head.

“I’ve always been the odd one out, but I was always me. Inescapably so. There were so many times when it sucked to be who I was. I would have sold souls to get to be someone else.”

“Souls? Plural?” Pillowcase asked.

“Well I wasn’t going to sell my own so I always figured the rate would be higher.”

“I’m curious that you choose to let Pillowcase go in light of that,” Lost Alice said.

“She didn’t,” Pillowcase said. “We’re still as connected as we were before.”

“Mostly,” Tessa said. “We don’t have our easy telepathy when we’re in different bodies. But Pillowcase is right, we’re not exactly separate either. Not when we can do this.”

She gestured towards Pillowcase who was standing on the other side of the small living, offering her hand as though for a dance. When Pillowcase returned the gesture, they flowed into the center of the room like a shower of sparks to reform together as Pillowcase.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to do that here?” Lisa asked, towling her hair dry.

“Non-Void Speakers should be careful with it,” Pillowcase said. “Mostly because it’s easy to get stuck like this.”

“The rebonding is pretty intense, so it can be a bit sticky,” Tessa said. “And theoretically there’s a chance that it doesn’t work and the two personas wind up Disjoined.”

“Disjoining only seems to be possible though in cases where one side is forcing the bond on the other, and even then the far more likely result is a bonding failure and Backlash,” Pillowcase said and visibly released a breath she hadn’t needed to take. With her exhalation she fizzed back into light and reformed as herself and Tessa.

“I don’t think any of us need to worry about Disjoining, and getting stuck isn’t really a problem for Pillowcase and I because I can just Fracture us apart again if we need to separate,” Tessa said.

“Like for carrying the last of these boxes?” Lisa asked, glancing with a smile at the small stack of cardboard containers they had left to haul down to their rental truck.

“I figured four of us would have an easier time polishing off the left overs too,” Tessa said. “I’m supposed to the leave the apartment in ‘move in condition’.”

“I thought your landlord got eaten by a Lava Pterodactyl ?” Lost Alice said.

“That was the Director of IT where I worked, my landlord was eaten by a Magma Mole,” Tessa said. “Someone else will be moving in here though, probably, so leaving the place in good shape seems like a decent thing to do.”

“A decent thing and significantly less like to get you eaten by the next Magma Mole that comes through if the statistics I was reading are even vaguely correct,” Lisa said.

“How much do you think this world is going to lose its mind when people figure out that there was a serious bias in the casualties of the apocalypses?” Tessa asked.

“Oh I think this place lost its collective mind a long time ago,” Lisa said. “I suspect the responses will range the usual gamut though from people who are chill about it to ones who either form up a new religion or go into a frothing rage over it.”

“That sounds like something it would be a delight to stay and watch over,” Lost Alice said, rolling her eyes at the thought.

“I do feel a little bad for abandoning everyone here to that,” Tessa said, fighting to keep the frown out of her voice and off her face.

“I’d feel bad too,” Lisa said. “Except that we’re not abandoning them. You know we can’t make the whole world listen to us just because we’ve got some good ideas.”

“Well, we did talk to Gaia for a bit. That’s kind of like having the world listen to us, isn’t it?” Tessa asked.

“And she’s going back to sleep why again?” Lisa asked. “Because it’s supposed to be up to the people here what happens next right?”

“Yeah. and I suppose if anything catastrophic does come up, we can always come back if we’re needed,” Tessa said. “I guess I’m not worried about that though. The big catastrophes are easy to see and and clear to respond to. It’s the little things. The day by day moments of keeping things on track so that the next day can be better than the last one. It feels like if we take our eyes off that, everything’s going to start backsliding immediately.”

“I don’t believe that will happen,” Lost Alice said. “Not on either world.”

“You think things will be calm and peaceful on Earth and in the Risen Kingdoms?” Pillowcase asked.

“Not at all,” Lost Alice said. “There will be strife, and problems, and plenty of work to do in rebuilding. Both of our worlds, and all of the others we know of, have something new in their favor though.”

“The other worlds,” Tessa said, seeing what Lost Alice was getting at. “They can act as pressure release valves. People won’t feel as trapped in bad situations anymore since they won’t be. Not to the same extent at least.”

“Most people aren’t World Walkers though. So hopping off to another worlds on a whim?” Pillowcase said.

“True, but there will be gates that anyone can use,” Tessa said.

“Gates that people will definitely fight each other for control of once they understand what they are,” Lisa said. “Unless my sister nips that in the bud.”

“Wait, Rachel is still teaching people how to World Walk?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, why, that’s not bad is it?” Lisa asked.

“That’s fantastic!” Tessa said. “If that becomes common enough, the Earth will embrace and people moving back and forth between world and a lot of worlds should get really easy to get to, at least compared to how it is now.”

The image of a sky full of different planets with people jumping between them as columns of light filled Tessa’s mind’s eye.

As much as she couldn’t imagine humanity turning its back on the petty cruelty and irrational divisions that it had clung to for millenia, she equally couldn’t see a place for those old hurts in the future that awaited them all.

She was different from who she’d been, and not because of the class and level she’d won. The apartment she stood in had been half of her life, and it was so small, but she hadn’t been. Her imagination had carried her to distant worlds long before the Fallen Kingdoms had taken her bodily to the High Beyond. 

In stepping out of dreams and onto another world in reality though, the horizons of her life had altered on a fundamental level.

“So you’re still okay with leaving then?” Lisa asked.

Tessa breathed in and knew that she was. The wistful, nostalgic part of herself let go of what she’d had in her apartment, in her city, and in her world.

She could carry forward the things she valued, she could retain her connections with the people who mattered to her, but she couldn’t pretend that she would fit back in her old life.

“Are you still willing to come with me?” Tessa asked, knowing the answer but wanted to hear it anyways.

“Always,” Lisa said.

It was just as nice to hear Lisa say that as Tessa had hoped. Part of her wanted to jump for joy still, unable to believe she’d fall in love with someone who was willing to love her back. The rest of her was kicking at her own backside to do something she’d been considering for probably longer than she should have been.

“How about you two?” Tessa asked instead, nodding towards Pillowcase and Lost Alice.

“For us it’s going home, sort of, so of course we’re going back,” Pillowcase said. 

“Though I’m not sure we’ll be following you exactly,” Lost Alice said.

“What do you mean?” Lisa asked.

“I thought I’d take this one,” Lost Alice indicated Pillowcase, “and start searching for some nice spots for the reception.”

“What reception?” Lisa asked.

“I think they mean this one,” Tessa said, causing Lisa to turn to her with an expression caught halfway between puzzlement and hope.

In her outstretched hand, Tessa held a simple, unenchanted ring. It had no mystical effects bound to it, it hadn’t been forged by a master craftsman, and there was no secret history hidden in its heart.

Tessa knew exactly where the ring had come from.  She remembered the day her Grammy had passed on the engagement ring she’d received and worn all her life.

“What’s important is that you find someone who makes going through the bad times better,” Grammy had said. “Doesn’t matter who that is, just that they’re good for you and you’re good for them.”

Lisa was that person. Tessa knew it to the bottom of her soul. It wasn’t just that they’d been through so much together, it was how they’d been through it and who they’d been for each other. Lisa was good for her and, after everything, Tessa was starting to believe she could be good for Lisa too.

Even if that meant apparently giving her a heart attack.

“This is an offering,” Tessa said, her careful speeches blowing like autumn leaves out of her mind as the words her heart want to say tumbled out of her lips. “I love you. I love you and I’ve loved for you for so long now. But this is still an offer you can refuse and I won’t love you any less. I want to be with you, I want the world to know that I love you and that I am yours. Always and forever. If you’ll have me that is. Will you? Be my wife?”

Lisa, who’d been struck speechless and frozen, let out of a short gasping breath before conjuring a similarly plain ring to her hand.

Tessa watched, similarly stunned, as Lisa hurriedly but with perfect dexterity slid the ring she’d produced onto Tessa’s ring finger.

“Mine!” Lisa said and wrapped her in a hug before pulling back and smothering Tessa with kisses. “Mine. Mine. Mine!” she said between each kiss, moving from from Tessa’s lips to her neck and then her ears.

“That’s a yes then, right?” Tessa asked with a chuckle, to which Lisa clasped her tighter and returned her kisses to Tessa’s mouth.

“Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes you goofball,” Lisa said and they were both crying and laughing and at some point Lost Alice and Pillowcase had vanished to carry the last boxes downstairs.

There would be people to tell and plans to make, but for that moment, Tessa longed for nothing more than to keep holding her fiance close so she could lose herself in the love she saw shining in Lisa’s eyes.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 8

Unknown and Undecided

What’s your name.”

The Creator had asked that question and, because she was the Creator, his creator, she was able to compel him to answer.

They’d stood past the end of the world, a co-joined pair of goddesses holding the newly reborn planet in their hand, faced by an army of unkillable, nigh-unto godlike [Adventurers] and none of that scared the former Oblivion Remnant as much as the three words his Creator had spoken.

“I don’t know, I can’t decide on one. I don’t know what I want to be.”

“It’s okay,” Tessa had said, her eyes filled with a compassion that didn’t make any sense at all. 

He’d tried to kill her. He’d tried to destroy everything she ever was and everything she’d ever existed in. She was supposed to want to destroy him. She was supposed to want to erase him completely. To give back what she’d taken and return him to the nothingness he’d once been.

Except, she’d seemed happy about what they’d done to each other.

And despite every chance at letting go of the world and accepting blissful peace, she’d clung tight to her lives and chosen to keep existing as she was, over and over again.

“You can be undecided on that for as long as you need to be,” Tessa said, “but you should let Byron go. He can’t help you with the rest of what you need to do. Are you ready to do that?”

“What do I need to do?”

“Become the person you choose to be,” Tessa said.


“Like this,” and she placed her hand on his chest and said a single word.


There wasn’t any pain, but there was a sense of loss. One moment he had a resilient shell wrapped around himself, layers of contempt and ego and self-assuredness which kept so much of reality safely at a distance. The next all that went away and he was alone. 

Entirely alone.

“Steady there,” Unknown said, catching him before he could topple to the ground.

No one caught Byron but that was okay. It wasn’t a long fall and he was fairly disoriented  so he barely noticed the impact.

“Why are you helping me?” It seemed like a valid question to ask his predecessor, especially given that he’d tried rather seriously to eliminate Unknown and was under no compulsion to not attempt that again.

Except he wouldn’t.

His Creator had been right. Something had grown in him. Something ugly and repugnant and terrible and disgusting. Something that was glad to exist. Something that answered the endless hunger inside him. Something that he wanted to protect, even from himself.

“Because you needed it,” Unknown said and stepped back, letting him stand on his own feet.

Because he had feet now. They weren’t stolen from Byron. They weren’t the fading memories of appendages which had been erased from existence. They were just feet. Normal, everyday feet.

Just like all the rest of him.

He wasn’t what he had been. Not anymore.

Without any aggression or animosity, Tessa and those with her had slain the last of the Oblivion Remnants and converted his remains into someone else.

His last transformation.

“It’s not,” Unknown said. “You’ll keep changing. This isn’t what you will be, it’s just what you are now. 

“Every change brought misery though.”

“Some of them still will,” Tessa said. “We don’t always change for the better. But we always can. It’s up to you now. You get to pick who you are and if you don’t like it, you get to choose to be someone different. The question you need to work towards answering is just who do you want to be.”

He thought about, and say the goddesses gazing down on him with faint amusement.

“I just need to work on it? I don’t need to have an answer now?”

“Most of us spend our whole life finding that answer,” Tessa said.

“Then I think you’ve already given me my name. I’ll be Undecided for now, and I’ll try to figure out who that is as I go.”

Way and Jin

Sitting on the shore of a lake of fire shouldn’t have been the most relaxing of picnic spots but with her head cradled in her wife’s lap, Way couldn’t imagine a more restful spot in any world.

“That felt like a pretty close one,” she said, accepting a tiny [Sugared Delight] that Jin offered her.

“We had more safety nets than it seemed but I’m glad none of them came into play,” Jin said, nibbling on the next treat herself.

“I suppose Tessa could have woken up,” Way said. “That would have fixed things in a hurry. I’m impressed she resisted it so well.”

“She really likes this world, or these worlds I guess now,” Jin said. “She was one of the last resort options though. I was thinking of some more ‘out of context’ solutions. Like the other worlds in this constellation coming together to create a solution.”

“Isn’t that more-or-less what happened? We had spaceships flying over the Fallen Kingdoms helping prevent the apocalypses here,” Way said, lifting her head to get a better view of Jin.

“Yeah, but that was all their doing,” Jin said. “Or almost all. We did help a little by training up a few World Walkers, but they all figured out how to do it on their own first. We just accelerated things a bit.”

“Ah, you didn’t want us to be the ones to merge things together or they’d have gotten stuck like that,” Way said. “We’ve left worlds is much worse shape though and called it a win.”

“True, but I didn’t think you’d want to leave this particular place that bad off,” Jin said, offering Way another [Sugared Delight].

“You’re thinking about staying, aren’t you?” Way asked. Normally she and Jin conversed via a mode of speech that carried far more than words could convey. While they were inhabiting a reality, especially one which had a recent brush with Oblivion, they dialed their more impossible aspects down and enjoyed existing as only a little more than the women they appeared to be.

“You are thinking of staying, I’m thinking of joining you,” Jin said, daring Way to correct her.

Given all the multi-world calamities that had been unfolding, Way hadn’t considered the notion of hanging around afterwards. Was that what she really wanted to do, or had she become too immersed in the role she was playing? Was Oblivion’s Daughter a side of herself that she wanted to explore further or just a fun mask she’d worn in order to see the end of the world from a ground level point of view?

“Is that something you would really want to do?” Way asked.

“Stay with you? Uh, I’ve literally ripped worlds in half when the wrong sort of people tried to prevent that,” Jin said, looking ready to do so again if she needed to prove her love and devotion.

“I mean stay here. This world isn’t all that much like your own,” Way said.

“True. The Earth-analog here is lower tech and definitely blander with no super heroes running around. But there are other worlds in the constellation that are like my old stomping grounds,” Jin said. “And, it’s not like we’ll be stuck here. We can go home and see my family and yours whenever we want. We won’t even upset this world if we pop in and out.”

“I thought we set it up that the worlds would spin back to their original positions though?” Way said. “Eventually that’ll cut off cross world travel all together.”

“That’s what we had in mind,” Jin said. “Turns out the locals have some other ideas.”

“They brought the world’s back together?” Way asked. “Do they want another breakdown of reality?”

“No, they’re being more clever than that. Kari was going to step in to throw up a few walls at first but she decided an experiment was in order instead.”

“Let me guess, turns out she likes what they’re doing?”

“I think you will too,” Jin said. “The World Walkers are searching for the natural routes between the worlds.”

“The what now?” Way asked.

“A lot of the worlds in the constellation have magic and/or tech sufficient to allow for cross-world transits. Even better than that though, there are natural points of congruency and counter-congruency that they can use as transfer points. Basically the worlds in this constellation have always been linked together, even before the Remnants began gobbling into the Earth’s core reality. The World Walkers are expanding on those connections and making them more real in the places where they won’t be in danger of breaking the worlds they join together”

“Oh, that makes sense. Those connections are how the Nightmare Queen got here in the first place.”

“Her and a lot of others,” Jin said. “I looked into the afterlife situation in this constellation and it’s seriously complicated. The neat part of it is that lots of people who’ve ‘passed on’ wound up taking their next lives on other worlds in the constellation, either in new bodies or in replicas of their old ones, usually with a fair bit of their previous memories intact.”

“And that’s why you want to stay?” Way asked. “Or why you think I want to stay?”

“I think you want to stay because this world, this constellation, will be good for you,” Jin said. “We’ve lived a lot of lives but they’re usually in the service of some goal. Sure, sometimes we just hit up a nice resort world for a vacation, but we don’t put down roots while we’re on vacation. And, more importantly, we don’t form connections and really become part of the story itself.”

Way sat up and twisted around to face Jin.

“You will always be the only connection I truly need,” she said and watched Jin blush despite all their years together.

“But not the only connection that you deserve,” Jin said. “You have friends here, and it’s okay to love them as well. We’ve been on amazing and wild adventures, but I don’t think we’ve given ourselves a chance to be part of a community like you are here.”

“We do have friends though. Kari, and Beth, and Astra as three fairly obvious examples,” Way said.

“We do. But the community of Dream Lords and Dream Walkers is a fairly small one, and our interests wind up being somewhat esoteric,” Jin said. “I love the friends we have now, but I don’t think they’d want us to shutter ourselves in with just them. Kari’s got her whole menagerie for example, and Beth and Astra have their College of the Unseen crew that they normally socialize with when we’re not dragging them off on escapades like this.”

“So you’re saying I should get some friends too so I’m not left out?” Way asked.

“I’m saying you fit in here. This world works for you and so do the people you’ve met. Unless I’m all wrong. I can only say how things look from the outside. If you tell me that this world isn’t really your jam and you’re fine with heading out to bigger and better things, I’ll be just as close to your side there as I will be here,” Jin said.

Way paused to drink in Jin open expression.

Way had once been lost to emptiness, a vessel of destruction far more efficient and successful than the [Formless Hunger] had ever managed to be. Even then Jin had believed in her, had loved her for who she was and who she could be. Part of her had wondered if it was the excitement of her impossible nature that had drawn Jin to her, but on some level she’d always known better.

Here was Jin offering her something adjacent to the ‘normal life’ she lost when Oblivion had first claimed her. A life where they wouldn’t be exceptional. A life where they would have friends, and enemies, and hardship, and joy. A life they would only step away from together, so that despite the unfathomable power they could draw on, they wouldn’t. At least not until they both decided to.

Neither of them could ever be fully ‘real’, but this would be close. Or close enough.

“I think…I think I would like that,” Obby said. “But if I get to keep being me, who will you be?”

“I thought I’d try being someone new too,” Dreamlit Wayfarer said, “Though I think you might need to power level me just a little bit.” In her hands she brandished a Level 1 [Apprentice’s Wand], the same tool all 1st level casters began their journey with.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 7

Grenslaw and Ryschild

The fighting was over, and yet the war had just begun. Grenslaw was glad to be getting back onto familiar territory. Ryschild was delighted to have more reasonable constraints on troops could be moved and apportioned. Thanks to them both, the mood in the [Apocaypse Revocation Office] was one of relative harmony and good natured complaints, despite the fact that at least half the nations of the [Risen Kingdoms] seemed intent on treating the post-apocalypse landscape as open land rush.

“This is all your fault,” Grenslaw said, offering Ryschild the carafe of [Dwarven Deep Mountain Brew] coffee.

“Is it?” Ryschild asked, accepting the carafe. “I would love to think so, but it seems an immodest claim, and likely unsupportable. If anything, credit likely belongs to Her.”

He didn’t have to give a proper name to ‘Her’, only Azma could hold that distinction as far as either one of them were concerned.

“Insofar as she entrusted this work to us? Yes, I suppose,” Grenslaw said and took a small pull of [Dwarven Deep Mountain Brew] before it could get cold and solidify. “That would make you merely the one immediately responsible for all this, rather than ultimately so.”

“Even there, I cannot help but feel that some portion of the responsibility lies on your shoulders as well,” Ryschild said, swirling the coffee and seeing strange patterns emerge from the ripples. The [Deep Visions] the coffee sometimes induced hadn’t been a problem yet, but the longer one relied upon it for the wakefulness it provided the more profound they became.

 “In what sense?” Grenslaw asked. “I’d rather not claim credit for work that was not of my own doing.”

“Yes. The grades from other’s works are always inferior aren’t they?” Ryschild said, offering a smile to go with the old, familiar joke between them.

“With one notable exception,” Grenslaw said, a nod and a return smile completing the memory.

“In answer to your question though, while it’s certainly true that no one would be massing for war had my strategy deprioritized the survival of the non-adventuring forces, it was your logistic and deployment plans which translated that strategy into an actionable reality,” Ryschild said.

“That was little more than basic workmanship,” Grenslaw said. “Without a flawless foundation, the entire enterprise would have come to ruin.”

“Flawless? Certainly not. I am fairly certain that She will be able to point out more than a few cracks in said foundation. I see several myself with the benefit of hindsight.”

“Such as?” Grenslaw said, sounding fully offended at the notion that anyone, Ryschild included, would cast aspirations on the plan they had implemented. A plan which had, in point of fact, saved a world that was not at all their own.

Or, not at all their own yet.

“The obvious failing was, of course, not sufficiently accounting for the current state of the [Risen Kingdoms] that would be as the result of my strategy. With armies of the [Great Kingdoms] mostly intact and the [Lesser Kingdoms] having borne the brunt of our initial invasion, it was relatively simple to predict that the [Great Kingdoms] would take the opportunity to grow someone what ‘greater’ at the expense of their former neighbors.”

“I distinctly recall you mentioning that in our initial planning session,” Grenslaw said. “Also, I feel compelled to point out that given that other constraints we were placed under this turn of events is still trending towards the most optimal outcome possible.”

Kashiren, one of their [Senior Communication Staff] members, paused on hearing that. He’d brought them a [Secured Crystal] with updated battle summaries and was decrypting it into the [Grand Tactical Table] Grenslaw had assembled.

“You had constraints beyond ‘save the world’?” he asked. “Are you telling me each of you did this with one hand tied behind your backs?”

“A closer analogy might be with one hand severed and the wound unstaunched so it could bleed out freely,” Grenslaw said.

“But we were facing the end of the world. No, scratch that, we were facing many different ends of the world. How did you have slack to account for anything but ‘fix things no matter what it takes’?”

“Fairly simple,” Ryschild said. “The ‘fix things’ part of the mandate negates the ‘no matter what it takes’ rider all on its own. We were already operating under many different constraints in terms of how we could approach solving the situations which had arise.”

“The key,” Grenslaw added, “was that we were able to leverage the constraints placed upon us to become strengths we could use to augment the whole enterprise.”

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me there,” Kashiren said.

“Me too,” one of the other nearby staff members agreed.

“The constraint we were requested and required to labor under was to preserve as much of the Fallen Kingdoms population as possible,” Ryschild said.

“Had we been able to consider the value of the various factions and group based on their capacity to contribute towards the effort of ending the apocalypses, many other paths would have opened to us,” Grenslaw said.

“In all likelihood however utilizing those safe and more conservative strategies would have resulted in the loss of sixty five percent of the global population,” Ryschild said. “The remaining thirty fix percent would have been the ones most optimized for fighting apocalypses and would have been at their peak strength for doing so.”

“That has a rather significant drawback however,” Grenslaw said.

“Yeah, two thirds of the world winds up dead,” Kashiren said.

“There are many warfare doctrines that would consider that a reasonable and acceptable casualty count given the situations that needed to be resolved,” Ryschild said. “There would have been far deeper problems that simply the diminished population however.”

“For example,” Grenslaw said, “a world full of apocalypse fighters is rather lacking in other essential professions.”

“Even more critically than that, had we attempted to reinforce the power of the strongest by sacrificing the weakest, we would have changed the internal tenor of the armies. Fighting for one’s own survival can yield optimal results, but with the challenges we faced, optimal efforts would have fallen far short of what was needed.”

“We needed people to go beyond their limits, to rise above what they were in the moment and grasp onto something greater,” Grenslaw said.

“Saving each other was a far more inspiring endeavor than allowing tragedies to compound,” Ryshild said.

“Grim resolve played a role too, to be sure,” Grenslaw said. “Those who died were still tragedies. That was unavoidable.”

“What they were not however, was victims,” Ryschild said. “Those who chose to fight against impossible odds? Their futures weren’t stolen from them. They spent all their tomorrows to buy the hours, minutes, and seconds we needed to ensure tomorrow came for those they left behind.”

“I wonder what they would think of the world now?” Kashiren asked. “It seems a poor memorial to them for so many nations to be intent on spilling the blood they died to save.”

“Some would be disgusted, some would be in favor of it, some would be unconcerned so long as the conflict didn’t affect anyone these cared about, and some would probably rise from the graves to protest the aggressive actions in a spectacularly violent manner,” Grenslaw said. “While it is tempting to canonize them as saints, those who fell in defense of this world were still just people, with all the variety and foibles personhood breeds.”

“Also, there won’t be any bloodshed,” Ryschild said. “Thanks in large part to my colleague.”

“That is certainly not true,” Grenslaw said.

“Yeah,” Kashiren said. “Take a look at the latest intel on the troop positions. We have sixty seven armies posed to invade forty three territories as soon as local conditions allow for a full offensive advance. By this time tomorrow, the entire world will be plunged into open warfare.”

“Sixty seven? I’m impressed,” Ryschild said. “I’d only projected forty two would be in place by now.”

“Your projections were correct,” Grenslaw said. “You were counting [Grand Armies]. The armies in this report count the fissioned segments of the [Grand Armies] as their own forces.”

“An understandable mistake,” Ryschild said.

“It’s going to a bloodbath around the world whether its forty two or sixty seven,” Kashiren said. “And this time we don’t have most of the [Adventurers] around to mitigate it.”

“Oh, they won’t be needed,” Grenslaw said. “Or, not for this at any rate.”

“They could at least cut down on some of the dying though, couldn’t they?” Kashiren asked.

“There won’t be any dying,” Grenslaw said. “I wasn’t objecting to that part of Ryschild’s claim, only that I should be allowed to take credit for it.”

“But…how? That doesn’t make sense,” Kashiren said.

“Trust us that from an external perspective, this entire world has only a passing acquaintance with sensible behavior,” Ryschild said.

“Accepting that was, admittedly, harder than it should have been, but once we got past that particular mental hurdle, working with the world’s nature rather than against it became relatively straightforward,” Grenslaw said.

“Uh, I’m still lost. What did you do?” Kashiren asked.

“It’s not what we did, which is why I feel I don’t deserve the credit for what is about to occur,” Grenslaw said.

“To provide some clarity,” Ryschild said, taking pity on the increasingly confused Kashiren, “In about ten minutes the [Pax Deus] will begin. It’s a rather complicated effect, and one which I suspect will be refined significantly in the weeks to come, but the simple statement of its intent is that no combat or assault of any kind is possible between those sapients who choose to accept the favor of the [Reborn Gods].”

“To begin with all sapients are opted in to the [Favor of the Divine], though renouncing it is as easy as saying so with a true intent in your heart,” Grenslaw said.

“What does having [Divine Favor] mean?” Kashiren asked.

“Aside from being protected from violence by other sapients, it’s also a necessary token for beneficial divine spells to affect someone,” Ryschild said.

“And It enables access to the [Heart Fires], even for non-adventurers,” Grenslaw added. “Apart from violence, people will still die to environmental hazards after all. On this world however they will no longer stay dead from such misadventures.”

“There is a wide variety of non-sapient ‘monsters’ as well, especially in the world’s hidden places,” Ryschild said. “The [Pax Deus] is meant to remove the perils of a population which has just been subjected to a cataclysmically large traumatic event. There is no shortage of other perils in the world though.”

Kashiren blinked.

And blinked again.

And fell off the seat he’d been sitting on when he tried to rise.

“Are…are you telling me, the wars are over? War itself is over? Wait! Are you telling me you have the GODS THEMSELVES on your payroll now?” he stammered as he tried to regain his footing.

Ryschild and Grenslaw both stood and offered him their hands to help him rise.

“Payroll? No of course not,” Ryschild said.

“We expect our budget to be slashes quite thoroughly once word gets out of the new global effect.”

“Okay. Okay, that makes sense, but, uh, why are you still here then? Shouldn’t you be off celebrating or something?”

“This is how we celebrate,” Grenslaw said flatly. Ryschild nodded agreement with perfectly seriousness, before they both cracked a smile to show they were joking.

“We’re using these last few moments before our irrelevancy is discovered to facilitate some logistical issues that will be time consuming to work out later.”

“What sort of issues?”

“The [Lesser Kingdoms] need resources to aid in their recovery,” Grenslaw said. “Thanks to Ryschild, the armies of the [Great Kingdoms] will be delivering those resources in the supply trains for their armies.”

“Some of the supplies will make it to the armies of course,” Ryschild said. “Don’t want to starve them, not after the fine work they did for us, but the majority is being directed to the cities and towns that need it the most.”

“People are going to love you for this,” Kashiren said, awe writ plain on his face.

“Oh, I very much doubt that,” Grenslaw said. “We’re the horrible Consortium invaders who used our ill gotten influence in order to undermine the [Great Kingdoms] so that we could take them over as soon as the [Pax Deus] ends.”

“Okay, yeah, there’ll probably be some of that too,” Kashiren said. “Still. Wow. It’s going to be hard to top this. Or impossible maybe. So what are you going to do now?”

“I suppose this is the point where we turn and kill each other before the [Pax Deus] can make that impossible,” Ryschild said, drawing an ebony dagger from a sleeve that should not have been able to hide it. “It is the Consortium’s modus operandi and certainly inevitable between any two people of equal capability.”

“Indeed,” Grenslaw said, drawing a similar dagger from a similar sleeve. “If we don’t kill each other, we’d likely be stuck together forever.”

They stood at attention for a moment before raising the daggers in a formal dueling salute.

“It was always going to come to this wasn’t it?” Ryschild said.

“For the longest time, I wasn’t sure,” Grenslaw said.

“And now?” Ryschild said.

“I am quite certain of this now,” Grenslaw said.

“Good,” Ryschild said and relaxed out of the dueling stance.

Grenslaw relaxed at the same moment and both gave secret smiles whose meaning was known only by the other.

“To forever,” Grenslaw said and drew a rune on Rychild’s offered palm with the tip of the knife.

“To forever,” Ryschild said and drew the same rune on Grenslaw’s palm, sealing the [Eternal Pact] between them.