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?
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.
“[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.