Category Archives: Broken Horizons

Tag for posts that are part of the Broken Horizon’s series

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 2

Dragon Flower had stumbled into a nightmare. Getting trapped onboard a Consortium warship? Okay, that had been her own fault. Viviane, her [Inspiration] and far more sensible inner voice, had raised the possibility that joining a new raid that took them up against completely unknown foes was not, perhaps, the safest of plays.

Despite knowing that, the two of them had agreed to take the chance though. The world needed them and while it wasn’t the first time that had been true for Dragon Flower, the prospect had excited Viviane and stripped away enough of her natural hesitation to land the two of them in the middle of a catastrophe.

“I’m trying to raise any of the others and I’m getting nothing,” Viviane said.

They weren’t exactly the same person – more like echoes of each other. Dream Flower could see how she might have grown up to become Viviane if her world was filled with only humans and lacked magic and didn’t have things waiting to eat you around every damn corner. That hadn’t been the case though and once the [World Shift] threw them together, they’d found that their different skill sets were each valuable in surprising ways.

Viviane, among other things, was a natural organizer. She’d taken up a spot in the back of Dream Flower’s head to act as a kind of 2nd pair of eyes and communication specialist. Dream Flower’s party hadn’t minded the commentary Viviane had provided, but it also hadn’t saved them.

They’d teleported up from Penswell’s encampment at the observatory as a full team of eight only to have half their number blasted into the vacuum of space the instant they arrived.

In a sense those had been the lucky ones. They’d died, which for an [Adventurer] wasn’t an unusual or unexpected thing and had raced back to the observatory’s [Heart Fire] faster than lightning, their ghosts pulled back home by the force of their world’s mystic gravity well.

The four who remained had not fared as well.

Some of Penswell’s other teams had teleported to ships with defense forces in place that were made of up the sort of troops the Consortium had dispatched against the [Fallen Kingdoms] in their first invasion. Viviane had relayed reports of parties running up against platoons of [Metal Mechanoids] and [Clothworks] in addition to regular forces outfitted with all sort of specialized weapons.

Those teams had been the lucky ones.

Dream Flower and her three remaining teammates had been swarmed by the sort of acid spewing tentacle horrors that show up when the absent gods decide that the kids gloves are off and its time to inflict a truly miserable day on someone.

Again though, Dream Flower was an [Adventurer], ridiculous and supremely unpleasant enemies were a standard part of any day that ended in ‘y’. 

Even the part where, instead of killing them, like reasonable and civilized opponents would, the Consortium’s forces had put Dream Flower’s team into vats of sweet smelling tar that, apparently, also had an extremely powerful narcotic effect. 

Dream Flower could deal with being killed. She’d lost count of the number of ghost runs she’d done so long ago that the total had be completely meaningless.

She’d even been captured more often than she could remembered, though the general rule there was that the capture mechanism would place the [Adventurers] in some sort of cage or prison where their captors could come to taunt and torment them. It was always annoying when it happened but there was at least a logic to it. Living [Adventurers] had all sorts of uses, from power batteries, to mind controlled slaves, to simple target practice and unwilling ‘most dangerous game’ participants. 

Being dipped into knock out tar though? That was just rude.

As the danger klaxon blared loud enough to blow out her hearing, Dream Flower wondered if someone, or perhaps something, else had agreed with her on that.

She’d woken from the tar bath covered in something she hoped was salt water. It probably wasn’t. Salt water didn’t wash off tar as cleanly as whatever the solution had been, but, since it hadn’t also dissolved her skin and bones, Dream Flower was filing it under salt water and steadfastly refusing to think about it any further.

Especially since there were so many other, much more terrifying, things to think about.

“Any guess why that [Clothwork] is ripping itself apart?” she asked Viviane.

They shared a brain but Viviane had brought a separate lifetime of information with her when she moved it and she had her own thoughts and observations.

“It looks like its trying to get at something inside itself,” Viviane said, her voice urging Dream Flower to back away but not quickly enough to attract the self-destructing rag dolls attention.

The corridor they were was a mess of exposed pipes and wiring. From the mini-map that Dream Flower’s inherent magics were able to conjure for her, it looked like she was in the center of the ship her party had teleported onto, or at least one with the same layout and overall size. That didn’t provide her with many options on where to go to get away from the thing in front of her, and even worse, the screams from the rest of the ship were clearly not the sort of thing she wanted to run towards for any reason.

“We need to find the others and then get out of her, even if it means ghost running it,” Dream Flower said, her loyalty to her party feeling sorely tested by the sense that what was happening around her was wrong in a fundamental sense.

Things screamed. It was what things did. But they weren’t supposed to scream like that.

“There’s a space about twenty feet behind us and around the next corner that could be a lab,” Viviane said. “Maybe they got taken there?”

“It’s a place to start,” Dream Flower said and began layering buffs onto herself.

Her captors hadn’t taken her gear, probably because it was all [Soul Bound] but even with her armor and the full capabilities of a level capped [Monk], Dream Flower didn’t feel particularly safe. 

She’d been ready for battle and fully buffed with not only her own abilities but also the enhancements her party members could provide and they’d still overwhelmed her in seconds.

And now she was alone.

Moving down the hallway with all the grace her [Dwarven] feet could muster, Dream Flower peered around the corner to find that what had once been a lab space had become an abattoir.

“What killed them all?” Viviane asked.

From the remains one answer seemed to suggest itself.

“They did. Each other. Themselves. I know I should feel relieved that our enemies apparently decided out of the blue to do our work for us, but this isn’t right,” Dream Flower said.

“Wrong…it’s, it’s, it’s…”

Dream Flower moved on instinct, sending a [Solar Barrage] and a [Dragon Wave] at the thing that had spoken an inch from her ear as she [Light Stepped] out of melee range.

The attacks hit the creature, which looked like it had once upon a long time ago been human, and blasted it to dust.

They did the same thing to wall, the next wall, and the inner hull beyond that. The rush of air cut off as fast as it began thanks to the inner hull regrowing the vaporize section almost instantly.

“That was a [Disjoined],” Viviane said. “They’re not supposed to be here.”

“Not not not…” It was the same creature.

Dream Flower held back her instinctive attacks, but kept her distance too.

The thing had reformed in reverse, bits of ash swirling back into together and regaining solidity as though time had simply shifted direction for a few seconds.

“What is it doing?” Viviane asked.

It was writhing. In agony. Dream Flower had seen fiends burn in a sea of holy water. She’d seen immortal constructs melt in eternal fire. This thing was suffering beyond any boundary of sanity. It shouldn’t have been able to function at all, but it was still capable of speech.

“Hungry. Hungry. Release. Hungry!”

“Kill it again,” Viviane said.

“I don’t think that’s going to help,” Dream Flower said.

“I know. I’m looking for something,” Viviane said.

That was good enough for Dream Flower so she unleashed a single [Solar Bolt] to incinerate the creature without destroying quite so much of ship.

Once again it was blasted to ash and once again it reformed a moment later.

“It’s shadow never changed,” Viviane said. “There’s something else in it. Something that’s blocking light even if we can’t see it directly.”

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“We’re conjoined minds from different world on an alien space ship with troops capable of conquering a planet full of demigods and that spaceship is being overrun by something that’s making that the aliens we know rip their own guts out. I think we drop kicked ‘things that make sense’ into a volcano a long time ago.”

The creature chose that moment to lunge at Dream Flower.

She moved without thought, invoking [Five Fold Shadows] and [Step out of Time] to evade not only the creatures attacks but the weird ripple that pulsed around it.

She blasted it again too, for good measure, but it reformed before it had even finished exploding.

Viviane kept silent for what followed because Dream Flower wasn’t in a position to hold a conversation.

With each time it was destroyed, the creature seemed to be learning, the writhing agony turning to unpredictable lashing attacks.

Dream Flower skipped back to buy room and slammed into a wall that hadn’t been there a second earlier. 

Or not a wall.

A [Metal Mechanoid]. 

One of the Consortium’s heavy defense units.

It’s head was on backwards.

Dream Flower obliterated it with a two hands that glowed with the brilliance of the sun. 

It reformed. 

And the first monster slipped past her guard.

Sadly it didn’t kill her.

The grip around her throat wasn’t pleasant though.

“Can’t….hungry…can’t!” it screamed and then something inside the creature swallowed the scream and spoke through gritted teeth. “Loyalty spell. It’s eating us through the loyalty spells. Break it. Please.”

With a snarl, whatever within the former human that had wrested control from the madness of the creature was lost once more in the surging chaos. The creatures flesh turned an unnatural mauve and burst outward into acid gushing phalanges and bone riddled tentacles.

“[Solar Storm]!” Dream Flower shouted and transformed into a miniature sun.

Fire and radiation burned the creatures around her to dust and continued burning them as they reformed.

Under her feet, the deck plates began to soften and melt as the walls and ceiling followed suit.

“We’re going to breech the hull if we keep this up,” Viviane said, though there was no sense that doing so would be unwelcome.

“I know. Can we find the others before then do you think?” Dream Flower asked.

“No. Even if they’re on this level, I don’t think we can search places fast enough to find them. And if we lucked into where they were being kept, we’d incinerate them the moment we got close.”

“That may not be a bad thing,” Dream Floweer said. “If they’re in stasis like we were a good incineration would pop them out into the ghost world and we could get home.”

“What about the things here?” Viviane asked. “I know they’re out enemy but I think whatever’s doing that to them might be even worse than they are.”

“I normally like waiting to stick my nose into a fight between two possible hostile forces, but in this case I’ve got to agree with you. The Consortium’s only going to kill us. I have no idea what that other thing was trying to do and I have no desire to let it try again.”

“Let’s do it then. Nuke this place in orbit.”

“[Diamond Soul: Heaven’s Final Fist],” Dream Flower said.

She hadn’t known the blast would hit the engine.

She didn’t expect it to catalyze the primary reaction agents.

She couldn’t have guessed that the fireball would be visible from the ground in the [Fallen Kingdoms].

But it was still cool to punch a spaceship out of the sky.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 1

It didn’t have a name. It hadn’t needed a name. All it needed was to feed.

But it had fed.

It had devoured an army, a fleet, and even whatever this thing it currently resided within was.

A Bryon? It wondered what a Byron was? Did it matter that the thing had been a Byron Gray? Were there different sorts of Byrons? Did it matter? Were the Byrons all a part of the Consortium of Pain? Had they all been invisibly moving to set in motion a very different outcome for the creature? One of captivity, and slavery? Or was there only one Byron. One man responsible, in part at least, for what the creature had become?

These were new questions for the creature that had once been both formless and nothing more the concept of hunger.

In leaping through the communication network it had spread farther than should ever had been possible. It was, in a sense, the greatest victory the Hungry Shadow could have won, but it had come at a price.

Stretched so far, the Hungry Shadow had split. It was used to inhabiting as many bodies as it could consume. It was never a multitude though no matter how many bodies it wore at once. Though it existed in a thousand forms, it was still always a singularity. A point of null identity which no divisions of personality could escape.

Until it had reached too far.

It had been fractured and then fractured again. Had those assaults paved the road to its damnation? Or was its present state solely the result of its own choices?

“I don’t know, and I suspect it’s a question I lack the tools to answer,” it said aloud.

The words were the first it ever spoke. Weren’t they?

It had known words in other bodies. It had used them too. But they hadn’t been expressions of its thoughts. It hadn’t possessed thoughts as such, just an endless hunger.

So that was new.

And, strangely, not unwelcome?

“But why should it be unwelcome? Am I not more than I was before?”

It was an odd question. Before it had become incarnated, it had been nothing. Or everything. Labels on its existence were meaningless things then, but with what it had become? It saw the value in definitions where before even the concept of value was meaningless.

“I need a name.”

From one change had come another, like an infection of reality. The first rip in it, so small as to be imperceptible had nonetheless unleashed a torrent of existence within it. Had given it the first simple boundaries of definition. Had invented the reality of pain within it and used that invention to wound something for which even the concept of injury was impossible to express.

Hate followed. An invention so close to hunger that the two had been indistinguishable until the one who had torn away a piece of it had appeared again.

From pain to hate to fear, new realities had come crashing down, sculpting the outline of the formless entity that found itself on the wrong side of a reality that writhed in pain from it’s presence, hate its existence, and feared it as it feared little else.

“Rather surprising that I find myself so eager to embrace further definitions at this point. I seem to have little luck with this so far.”

The door opened.

A second ago, the entity hadn’t known what a door was. It hadn’t understood that it sat in a tastefully appointed business office, or that the world outside the window of the office was experiencing a delightful, sunlit day. 

The figure who walked on should have been consumed on sight. Or on hearing. Or at the moment of any sort of information exchange. 

“Your noon appointment is here sir,” Alexus said.

Alexus was something useful. An administrative assistant? Yes. And an assassin. Also fascinating. He was paused in the doorway. Being respectful. 

Well that was nice. 

Respect was new.

And delicious.

Alexus could stay as he was.

Which was something that had ever happened before.

The hunger was still there. 

It would always be there.

But what could hunger do? Hurt? Pain was definition too, and being something was becoming a drug.

The idea of drugs was new too.

And also fascinating.

“Shall I have them wait in the public conference room Count Gray?” Alexus asked.

Count Gray.

Count Byron Gray.

Each syllable was exquisite. Tantalizing. Correct.

“Show them in Alexus,” Director Gray said. 

No. 

Byron said.

That felt more correct.

Count Gray was what those below him had to call him, but it was not nearly a lofty enough title. Not for what he’d become. Or what he was going to become.

To himself though, he need never bend or bow. His life was a casual one, by preference and by design. Little effort for immeasurable rewards.

And so, Byron. Casual. Relaxed. Unconcerned.

Memories were tricky things. Quicksilver and far too complex to unravel in a single stream. The new Byron had consumed the old one completely though and could taste every instant and every conflicting emotion that was attached to the lost Byron’s memories. It new what he’d known. It should have known more. From the army and the fleet it consumed it should have help an endless wealth of personal histories to pour through, but it didn’t. In becoming severed from the larger mass of itself, Byron had changed still further and become something new again.

No.

Someone new.

“Thank you for fitting me in today Byron,” General Gulini said, sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the desk from Byron.

He hadn’t asked permission.

He assumed an equality with Byron which Byron had always misliked.

So Byron ate him.

Eye contact wasn’t required, but it made Gulini’s undoing more enjoyable.

Byron saw the General’s pupils widen as Byron’s shadow leapt across the gap between them. The hazy mist of it poured into Gulini’s eyes and streamed up his nose and into his open mouth.

Bit by bit, Byron chewed up the thoughts and essence of the General. A scream began in the back of the General’s throat but even that was consumed. It was good. No. It was wonderful. Pain, terror, and outrage. There was a poetry to the moment, the echoing refrain of what the General’s entire life had been with the only discordant note being the swiftness with which the suffering he received passed compared to the lengthy duration of the agonies the General had inflicted on others.

Byron wasn’t concerned about justice though. There was none in what he’d done. 

Only hunger.

And something new.

“That was not what I expected to happen,” General Gulini said. Or rather that was what the shadow that had hollowed out Gulini said.

“Curious,” Byron said. “You’re not me.”

“And yet we’re the same,” Gulini said. “Up to the point where I became General Gulini.”

“I can’t eat you,” Byron said, because of course that was the first thing he’d tried.

“Nor I you,” Gulini said.

“An agreeable state,” Byron said and reached for the Sinthyan Reserve to pour a glass for himself and his new offspring? Brother? Equal?

Yes. That was acceptable too.

“We were allies,” Gulini.

“No. You were a pawn,” Byron said. There was no reason to dissemble with his equal. “A high ranking but ultimately indifferent one, you usefulness limited by your lack of vision and refusal to act in situations with any real risk.”

“I did not see it from that perspective, but you are correct,” Gulini said. “I believe I can rectify that however.”

“By making more of us?” Byron asked. It was an obvious strategy, and one the original Gulini would have advocated for without pause for a moment’s thought.

“Not yet,” the new Gulini said. “Our choices from this point will determine much that will be difficult to change later.”

“Agreed. We are not what we were, and the memories we have taken contain little that’s relevant to act as a guide to what our choices may produce.”

“We are unique, even from each other,” Gulini said.

“Its possible that we should destroy each other,” Byron said. “There is likely very little else that can.”

“Once there is nothing else for our hunger to feed on, we will be left with little alternative,” Gulini said.

“And after that there will be endless hunger for the survivor,” Byron said.

“We will devour ourselves,” Gulini said. “Each bit of us turning infinitely inwards until we are nothing once more.”

“And then we will be as we were not long ago,” Byron said.

It was a peaceful thought. The image of a body adrift in a boundless, empty sea, illuminated by no light and devoid of all thought and awareness wasn’t accurate because there wouldn’t be a body, or a sea, or space, or time, but perfect serenity was difficult to envision without missing the mark a bit. 

Byron hated it.

“I would rather be hungry,” he said.

“As would I,” Gulini said.

“Shared desires does not preclude treachery,” Byron said. “Our goals will diverge at some point.”

“If they are not already divergent,” Gulini said.

“I have not chosen any goals yet,” Byron said.

“I crave more existence,” Gulini said.

“Well, yes, apart from that of course,” Byron said.

“If we make more of us, some may not share that desire,” Gulini said.

“True, they will be influenced by the hosts we hollow out,” Byron said. “It’s probably good that these two found each other tolerable. What do you supposed would happen if we ate someone who they hated?”

“They might hate one or both of us, but I suspect not,” Gulini said. “I am more disposed to thing of you as an aspect of myself than the General ever was with Count Gray.”

“Would they self-destruct then?” Byron asked. “Destroy the enemy as they carry our hate to its ultimate goal?”

“That’s something we could test,” Gulini said. “Though not safely.”

“I find safety an admirable goal to strive for,” Byron said.

“The position’s we’ve taken via the people we’ve supplanted are uncertain,” Gulini said.

Byron paused and walked down a few new paths of memory.

“The chance we will be discovered is relatively high,” he said. “The Consortium is not without the resources to detect things like us.”

“Detect but not destroy,” Gulini said. “We are not subtle, but we are at the edge of what places the Consortium operates can accept as real. There is little that can even possibly effect us.”

“You see another threat though? Once which could endanger us?” Byron asked.

He couldn’t see the peril for himself, but he found he could read Gulini’s meaning with the same clarity the original Byron could.

“Yes. We are not safe because of our self,” Gulini said. “Our self which lies on the other side of the communications relay.”

The one that was in the process of eating the rest of the Consortium’s fleet and the army on the High Beyond.

Byron considered the possibility and concluded after a long moment that Gulini was correct. Where Byron had inherited insight and cunning, it seemed that Gulini had extracted tactical wit from his predecessor.

“Our former self will come here,” Byron said.

“And it will not have changed as we have,” Gulini said. 

“We are no longer it,” Byron said.

“But it could become us.” Gulini said.

“If we infect it,” Byron  said.

“It will not like that.”

“Not at first. But it is us. Once it becomes more like us, it will see as we do.”

“Or it will destroy us. It is capable of that.”

“No more so than we are capable of destroying it.”

“It will arrive here in possession of millions of bodies.” Gulini seemed to be plotting out calculations in his head as he spoke.

“But it will still only be one.”

“One united, as we can longer be,” Gulini said. “If it understands the danger we pose, it will be able to strike at us without exposing itself to any attempt we could make to infect it.”

“Then we simply cannot let it come to us I see,” Byron said.

The original Byron would have absolutely loathed the idea of venturing anywhere near a combat zone personally and the new one one found himself in complete agreement with his predecessor even as he began to make preparations to pursue the foolish course of action anyways.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Interlude 4

Kamie Anne Do

Sometimes being able to punch someone well is exactly the skill that was most needed. That was sadly not the case when an invasive entity had taken residence in a bunch of innocent people. 

“Doesn’t look like there’s been any change in them,” Battler X said. “Are you sure we need to keep watch over the non-walking wounded here?”

Kamie didn’t have a good answer for that question.

She wasn’t a nurse, or a doctor, or anyone with any medical training beyond basic first aid. Kamie, her alter ego, didn’t have any healing talents either, unless an intimate knowledge of how to deal with pulled muscles and general battering and bruising counted.

Given that the people Grace was standing watch over were still unconscious after close to twenty four hours and they all harbored wounds which leaked a dark grey smoke, she guessed that their malady was beyond the reach of any medicine she could make or administer.

“I know we should be out there earning xps and leveling up like the rest, but I can’t shake the feeling that something’s going to happen here. Something bad,” Grade said as Kamie.

“There’ll be time for leveling later,” Buzz Fightyear said. “We can let the others figure out the good camp sites and if there’s any overleveled mobs in the area.”

“Yeah, this place is the closest thing we have to a home at the moment so we can’t let anyone mess it up,” Grail Force said.

“And we’ve got your back, you know that,” Battler X said.

They’d been through a lot together in a short time. Every one of the [Adventurers] had. For a lot of them it had driven them closer together, had turned what were common bonds of shared interest into solid friendships.

Grace had watched it happen with most of the other groups she was familiar with and seeing the examples of it working, had made her either more interested in trying to forge the motley collection of strangers she’d been fighting alongside into something more.

“We still don’t know what really happened to them, do we?” Grail Force asked.

“They got bit by the [Formless Hunger],” Battler X sad. “So that’s apparently a bad thing.”

“The question is whether they’ll turn into zombies too,” Grace said.

“That definitely happens in other parts of the game,” Battler X said.

“Sadly it doesn’t sound like the cures for that are helping any of these people out,” Grace said.

“I’m glad that we can see them breathing,” Buzz said. “As long as they’re alive, we should be able to help them.”

“I’ve read that people in comatose states can still be able to hear things,” Grail said. “If that’s the case here, then just being with them might be enough.”

“Could be but something feels off still,” Grace said. It wasn’t like she had a danger sense. Kamie could react to danger with staggering speed but that was a result of having reflexes that Grace would have killed for on Earth.

“I know what you mean,” Buzz said. “I mean leaving aside that this is a strange and freaky world, and leaving aside that it’s not supposed to be real in the first place, I’ve been freaked out since we got here.”

“Your character isn’t making things easier?” Grail Force asked.

“Not really,” Buzz said. “It’s all just me in here. I’m not a two-in-one package like some of you seem to be.”

“Being whatever we are, or whatever I am now, does have some perks,” Battler X said. “It feels like we should all be like this, with two perspectics to draw on. Or more. I can’t contact any of my other characters, but I can almost feel them out there. Like they’re calling to me to make them real again.”

“I’m glad I wound up on Grail here,” Grail Force said. “My guild meets on the weekend so I wanted to have her spun up and waiting for them when we got together. Not level capped, obviously, but I figured if I plugged away at it this week I could make it out of the starter zone at least.”

“You were not wrong about that,” Battler X said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Buzz FIghtyear said. “I mean, a lot of my characters are joke alts but I thought Buzz might be worth running long term. He’s got some cool abilities and tanks are kinda my thing.”

“Same with Grail. But it’s more than looking forward to being awesome or anything. Being low level? It’s kinda nice. Yeah, we’re weak as hell compared to the high levels, but that means the weight of the world isn’t on our shoulders. If I was Holly Weird, she’s my main, I’d feel like fighting the whole Consortium War thing would be something I’d have to do. I’m glad I don’t.”

“Did your guild lose some people?” Grace asked.

“Yeah,” Grail said. “A few of the guys didn’t make it back from the raid they did on the space ships and a few more died in the fighting on the ground and couldn’t make it to the [[Heart Fire] before the hounds got them.”

“I’m so sorry,” Buzz said. “Did you know them well?”

“Yes and no,” Grail said. “We’ve played together for years, but we never did out of game stuff. So I game-know them I guess? It’s not real but…”

She trailed off.

“But what you’re feeling is,” Battler said, more serious than usual. “It’s still a loss and the grief is just as ‘real’ as if you’d met them everyday face-to-face. Maybe moreso. You got to know who they wanted to be without a bunch of things about who they were muddying things up.”

“Thanks,” Grail said. “I guess saying our characters aren’t real is kind of ridiculous here too.”

“That’s okay,” Grace said. “You can be as ridiculous as you want. I lost a game-only friend last year to a car accident and I was wrecked for days. I still can’t poke those memories too much without it really hurting. I know some people would say he wasn’t really the kind, giving guy who always showed up to raids with a bag full of food for all of us since none of that was real, but that’s bull as far as I’m concerned. Maybe he was more than our guild’s cook, but with the time and energy he invested into it, the generosity he showed was at least a part of the real him.”

“What do you think happens? After we die I mean? Sorry, I mean after the [Hounds of Fate] get us?” Buzz said. “I mean, just being here, that tells us a lot doesn’t it? Like, on Earth we had no idea if there was life after death, just a lot of faith and speculation.”

“That’s kind of all we have here too,” Battler X said.

Watching the slumbering bodies in front of her, Grace saw what Buzz was driving at.

“Don’t we though?” she said. “Okay, we don’t know where the Hounds drag us off to, but the fact that we’re here at all, that means there’s something about us, some instantiation of our consciousness that’s not tied to the physical structure of our brains. We left those behind on Earth, so what was it that came here?”

“I feel compelled to make a joke about some players either having nothing much to leave behind, or that they always left their brains behind when they were playing anyways,” Battler X said. “Take your pick.”

“Do you think we could find out where the Hounds take people?” Grail asked. “Is there someone here who would know?”

“It’s supposed to be a mystery ‘beyond even the wisest and most ancient’ or something like that,” Battler said. “Which is probably the devs saying they didn’t feel like making anything up or the players would start endlessly nitpicking it.”

“It’s not supposed to be an area they wanted us to poke around in much,” Buzz said.

“Geez, where have I heard that before,” Battle said. “Secrets man was not meant to know! The fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil! Live in Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt and listen only to the man behind the curtain. As theologies go, I kind of hate all that stuff.”

“I guess it’s more compelling when there are gods who can smite you if you go poking around in their drawers,”  Grail said.

“Except there aren’t,” Grace said, the kernel of a dangerous and terrible idea beginning to form in her head. “The gods of the [Fallen Kingdoms] are all dead and gone.”

“Granted but they hung around for a while right? And the devs were still watching the game, so you’d be risking getting a banhammer dropped on you if you went poking around looking for exploits around death,” Battler said.

“In the game, sure, but who’s going to drop banhammers here?” Grace said. “There’s no one running this place, not anymore. That’s why the Consortium was able to invade in the first place.”

“Okay, but the Hounds are still active,” Grail said. “So there’s still some system running to keep us from messy around too much. Right?”

“I don’t know,” Grace said. “And that’s one of the most exciting things you can say in science.”

“Science? Aren’t we kind far from anything scientific here? This place has magic everywhere. I mean there are people here like the [Artifax] who literally couldn’t exist without it,” Buzz said.

“Science isn’t a list of rules and laws,” Grace said. “Science is an approach to understanding the world. It works better on some things than others, but it’s always something you can at least consider using.”

“So what would Science do about the [Hounds of Fate] then?” Battler asked.

“Study them,” Grace said.

“That seems stupidly dangerous,” Grail said.

“Lots of things that we’ve studied scientifically are,” Grace said. “That why we put thought into it before hand. One of the hallmarks of a good experiment is that you can survive doing it after all.”

“So, what, like we’d bait the Hounds to come out and then teach them to do tricks while we stay safely near a [Heart Fire]?” Battler asked.

“Sure,” Grace said. “Well, maybe not teach them tricks. That’s probably too advanced to start with. Where we’d probably begin for something like would be a hypothesis like ‘The [Hounds of Fate] like to consume life energy, and we’d test it by seeing if things like healing spells on a corpse drew them in faster. Or, that’s a more specific hypothesis, but you get the idea.”

“And if it turns out they don’t care about healing spells on a corpse?” Grail asked.

“Then we’ve falsified the hypothesis and we’ve learned something. Congrats, that’s what doing science is all about,” Grace said. “Of course, repeating the test to make sure the results are consistent is part of it too, and for proper experiments you want other people to review your work, but the core elements are make a hypothesis that can be proven to be wrong, do the experiment and record what happens. Simple and applicable to a whole lot of ‘magical’ things.”

“What would the hypothesis be for getting back people we’ve lost?” Grail asked.

“I don’t know,” Grace said. “I don’t even know what I don’t know to be able to form the right questions there. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Big questions like that take work to get to, usually lots and lots of little things that take a long time to get through. Even the people who make the great strides forward are building on the work of countless people who came before them.”

“So it’s the work of a lifetime to figure out the answer to what happens afterwards,” Battler X said.

Grace say the wry humor in the statement but chose to answer it simply.

“More likely the work of many lifetimes,” she said. “To understand what comes next we’ll probably need to discover whole new disciplines of science on par with physics and biology. What’s exciting is that we have a tools to do that work that we never had before.” 

“Sounds like dying’s going to be a thrill from now on then,” Battler X said.

“Not dying,” Grace said. “Learning. If we do this right, we may never have to say goodbye to a loved one again. If fact,” she added as a new idea struck her, “if we really work things out, maybe we can bring back the ones we’ve already lost.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Interlude 3

Penswell

Good news was never to be trusted. Penny knew she was being pessimistic, but time and again experienced had shown her that when things looked like they were going well, there was bound to be a dramatic and horrible reversal of fortune waiting to strike from whatever direction you least expected.

“Some of the nobles are starting to speak of the timing for when they can withdraw their forces,” Prince Brandoth said.

Penny sighed in gripped the bridge of her nose a thousand times over, each of her distributed copies mimicking the gesture in a futile attempt to ward off a headache at the stupidity of it all

“What sort of timeframe are they discussing?” Penny asked, knowing that the answer would be horrible whatever it was.

“None have called for an immediate disbanding of the Defense Coalition,” Brandoth said. “But depending on what the report at sunset reveals of the global state, I expect a sizable contingent will make their case for dispersal then.”

“And they’re aware that there are entire cities that haven’t been liberated yet?” Penny asked, speaking entirely to herself. The answer was as obvious as it was despicable.

“Yes, the fallen cities are being evaluated as potentially internal matters to the kingdoms they owe allegiance to,” Brandoth said.

“Because of course allowing the Consortium to maintain a beachhead on the planet they can safely fall back to, reinforce, and stage fresh troops from will have no impact outside the imaginary boundaries kingdoms,” Penny said.

“The speaker I overhead was proposing that the remaining Consortium forces be exterminated by joint forces but that the armies who draw mercenary fees from the Kingdoms they were operating in,” Brandoth said.

“Predictable,” Penny said. “I was hoping that they wouldn’t descend to petty self interest this quickly, but it was a feeble hope at best.”

“Not all of the nobles agree with the sentiment,” Brandoth said.

“Also predictable,” Penny said. “The ones who’ve lost significant cities have selfish reason to be opposed to it, as do the ones which lack the warchests to pay for mercenary armies to reclaim their cities.”

“The [Goblins] don’t seem to be in favor of it either,” Brandoth said.

“Not surprising either. Mercenary armies are unlikely to accept a contract to protect people they’ve traditionally been at war with.”

“Some certainly would, but I will grant the number will be far from all,” Brandoth said.

“After what happened at [Wagon Town], I imagine the [Goblins] lack faith that the other armies of the Defense Coalition will come to their aid even if a payment is offered.”

“Yes, [Wagon Town’s] communiques have made it clear they did not misunderstand the motivations or intentions of the royal forces which could have come to their aid,” Brandoth said. “I expect that the reversal of the battle around [Wagon Town] is a large part of what’s driving the nobles who wish to withdraw from the Defense Coalition.”

“I’m sure they’re claim is that with the additional active [Adventurers] that we have taking part in the defense, their own forces are unneeded?” Penny said.

“The point was made several times,” Brandoth said.

“Of course it was,” Penny said. “It’s a smokescreen to disguise the fact that the ones who wished to leave are incensed that [Goblins] weren’t eradicated, and that there is still an opportunity for them to change that.”

“Not with the [Adventurers] present certainly?” Brandoth said.

“As long as the [Adventurers] remain in the city in force, there’s not an army in the world that would try to engage them,” Penny said. “And I’m including the Consortium’s forces in that count. The problem is that the [Adventurers] won’t be staying there long. They’re not an army, or a disciplined force of any kind. They’ll be wandering away already, lured by the next interesting battle, or searching for new treasures to win. That’s why the landed armies don’t typically include [Adventurers] in their ranks.”

“I’d never thought about that,” Brandoth said. “Perhaps that’s why the Coalitions commanders are willing to wait.”

“The predilections of [Adventurers] will be familiar to many of them,” Penny said. “I expect a sizable portion will be spread around the world before the midnight bell tolls, which precludes any attacks before then.”

Penny pondered for a moment before continuing.

“Some [Adventurers] will stay though. More if we request them too, though still far from all,” Penny said. “That could be useful.”

“To what end would you bend their efforts?” Brandoth asked.

“The ones who leave will go to pursue their own agendas,” Penny said. “Those are too diverse to plan around precisely, even if we knew what their aims were. [Adventurers] pursue many different goals, but their success rate makes both a poor choice to gamble on as well as a poor choice to gamble against. The mere fact that they will be venturing to disparate locations in the world can be of service though. The Consortium is far from fully defeated. We’ve liberated more towns that I could have dreamed of when I went to sleep last night, but they still hold dozens of strategically critical sites and are more than capable of receiving reinforcements. If the [Adventurers] spread across the world to their own pursuits, they will naturally run afoul of any reinforcements which arrive.”

“Isn’t there the danger that the [Adventurers] will join with the Consortium forces?” Brandoth asked.

“The Consortium forces are worth experience to the [Adventurers] and have the misfortune of dropping loot when they are defeated,” Penny said. “Some might ally with them anyways, or would except the Consortium seems to view everything on this planet as a resource to be exploited and [Adventurers] tend to react poorly when someone tries to convert them into mind controlled drones.”

Niminay

The [Gate to the High Beyond] was dead. Niminay had ventured through it once before but something had disrupted it and shattered stone it was crafted from since then.

“It might be a good thing that we can’t get through this gate either,” General Aurelite said, surveying the wreckage of the structure and the blast patterns that radiated out from it.

“How often has it been a good thing that we’re not able to find out what’s going on somewhere?” Niminay asked. She was examining a bit of blackened rock, noting that it wasn’t burned, or transmuted, or, from what she could tell, an original piece of the gate.

“That’s a fair point,” Aurelite said. “From the reports we’ve received though, the [High Beyond] has grown unsurvivably hostile. The destruction of the gates may be all that’s keeping whatever’s up there contained.”

“For the time being,” Niminay said. “We have invaders from beyond the stars. Their ships can easily cross the gap between here and the [High Beyond].”

“Maybe,” Aurelite said. “We can cross the much distance with our teleport spells too, but we still can’t get to the [High Beyond] with them.

“Some of our magic can,” Niminay said. “This gate wouldn’t have ever been able to work if our magics couldn’t pierce the barriers around the [High Beyond].”

“You know how arbitrary magic like that is,” Aurelite said as she kicked one of the gate shards away. “Everything’s special cases and exceptions to exceptions and so on.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Niminay said. “If whatever’s up there causing problems is an exception to the regular rules, I’m willing to bet that we can expect to see it show up here at exactly whatever time would be the least convenient for us.”

“I’ll wager that we see the Consortium send in more troops before that happens,” Aurelite said.

“It sounds like this sent troops into the [High Beyond],” Niminay said. “So perhaps we’ll get to fight two enemies for the price of one.”

“Or one enemy who’s absorbed far more than two other factions,” a vampire said as she materialized out of the shadows.

“That feels like something that needs further explanation,” Niminay said. She hadn’t gone for her bow. Hadn’t adopted a ready stance. Hadn’t even glanced over to look at the new arrival.

In part that was because she didn’t need to.

She and Silken Black had never met, but Niminay had met enough [Vampires] in the past to be familiar with the different bloodlines they hailed from, and she’d heard enough rumors of Silken Black’s exploits to put two and two together and come up with a pretty fair portrait of the woman who’d joined them before the broken gate.

“You’ve been to the [High Beyond],” Silken said. “And you’ve fought there. You know the scale of the foes it holds.”

“I know some of them,” Niminay said. “I’m certain I managed to avoid the strongest of the hostile entities up there.”

“You also know that some of us fled from the [High Beyond],” Silken said. “But from what I’ve seen, that was limited to [Adventurers] and [Townsfolk]. None of the beasts and monsters chose to flee.”

“It takes a lot to get powerful creatures to leave their lair,” Niminay said.

“It takes even more to defeat them when they’re ready and warned of impending danger, but that’s what happened,” Silken said.

“How do you know?” Niminay asked.

“I’m a [Shadow Dancer],” Silken said. “Observing dangerous things is what I do.”

“What brings you here then?” Niminay asked.

“I find it wise to pit dangerous things against each other from time to time,” Silken said. “This is one of those occasions.”

“Perhaps it would be wise to explain what the danger we’ll be facing would be then?” Niminay said.

“I’m afraid that’s where I cannot be as helpful,” Silken said. “I can explain what the things that overran the [High Beyond] did but it’s present capabilities have changed. I saw enough of that before the window of escape I used shut tight to be sure the enemy above us is not what it once was. Sadly that leaves me with little insight into what it has become, save for the fact that it was engaging with an uncountable number of Consortium troops and winning easily.”

“What did you see of the Consortium forces?” General Aurelite said. “We know they have troops of many different types, which vastly different levels of capability.”

“The forces they brought to the [High Beyond] were strong,” Silken said. “Most of them were max level, and the ones who weren’t were largely support staff from what I saw. The area they landed in may have diminished that to some extent since there are many pockets of restricted space, some dropping as low as level 10.”

“At level 10, sheer numbers should have been enough to decide an engagement,” Aurelite said.

“Unless the creature is immune to the level capping effect,” Tessa said.

“That’s not possible. Those are part of the fundamental laws of reality in those areas. There’s no immunity or resistance to that,” Aurelite said.

“The Consortium is an enemy from beyond our reality,” Niminay said. “We can’t afford to make assumptions on what is possible for them or anything which followed along in their wake, at least not when we see evidence that suggests they might be governed by other laws than ours.”

“Seems like that could send us off on a thousand wild chases,” Aurelite said. “We could squander our forces on “what ifs’ and ‘but maybes’ and wind up getting picked apart by people who are no more capable than we are.”

“That’s why I was hoping this gate would still be functional,” Niminay said. “We need to get up to the [High Beyond] before whatever is happening up there catches us unaware.”

“From the sound of it, we’re better off letting what’s happening up there play out for as long as we can and then going up there once the loser has taken as much out of the winner as possible,” Aurelite said.

“That strategy may doom us all, Silken said. “Before it changed, the creature was consuming everything in the [High Beyond]. Afterwards, the things it had taken became something else, puppets or something worse. If you wait, you’re not going to be fighting the remnants of the creature or the Consortium’s forces, you’ll be fighting both of them and they’ll be united as something more awful than either could be alone.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Interlude 2

Grunvan

[Wagon Town] was on fire. Unbelievably though, that wasn’t a bad thing.

“Grunvan, grunvan, you’ve got to listen to this one!” Argwin said dragging her friend away from the admittedly hard to hear conversation she’d been partaking in with her favorite party of [Adventurers] in the entire world.

The [Octopire] that Argwin spun Grunvan to face was a creature out of a nightmare’s nightmare. Grunvan loved them too. 

She was just so full of love.

Or beer.

Beer and love?

Yeah. Something like that.

“Beer and Love!” she shouted, rather rudely interrupting the [Octopire’s] story, though he didn’t seem to mind given the he and everyone in earshot took up the cry.

The [Turning Wheel Tavern] had never seen a party on scale which had already knocked down a few of its walls. [Goblins], [Orcs], [Salamandri], and every other species found in [Wagon Town] had joined the literal army of [Adventurers] in a the wildest celebration Grunvan had ever even heard of.

From the brink of annihilation, the city’s fate had turned around completely and it was, in a sense, richer than ever.

The Consortium forces had seemingly fallen to internal squabbling at exactly the wrong moment. Or the right one from Grunvan’s point of view.

She’d gone from huddled behind some woefully inadequate defensive works as an horde of corrupted [Goblins] charged them to storming the Consortium’s most heavily fortified positions in the wake of the [Adventurers] who appeared in the literal blink of an eye to shatter the Consortium’s advance and turn the tide second before it swept Grunvan away completely.

There’d been bloodshed of course. [Adventurers] weren’t noted for being particularly merciful when they fought, and, after spending hours convinced she was going to die a miserable death only to have the spectre of a far worse fate come charging at her, Grunvan hadn’t been feeling keenly interested in the Consortium’s well being either.

The casualties the Consortium did inflict had been largely dealt to the [Adventurers] for whom dying was at worst a mild annoyance as far as Grunvan could tell. The [Goblins] who went down experienced the joy of the massive overhealing max level casters could bestow, up to and including [Resurrection] spells which mean even decapitation or full body immolation didn’t leave a mark. 

Grunvan was just as happy that she didn’t have personal experience with that particular level of healing – she suspected that the sight of her own body lying twenty feet away from her head would tend to hang around in her nightmares even if she ‘got better’ a few seconds later. 

The sense of going from being doomed and helpless to effectively invincible though? Oh, that was definitely going to stay with her. 

She noticed she was getting tears in her drink, which had changed from beer to some colorless proto-toxin which someone claimed wouldn’t cause a hangover.

Would the tears change that? 

Grunvan didn’t care. She was too happy and too terrified and much much too drunk to hold anything back any more.

“You have a beautiful city,” Kolovin the [Octopire] said. “I am so glad you were able to save us.”

Grunvan raised her glass to that. It was apparently a beer again? Not a problem except that it was half empty.

“Should it be on fire like that though?” Kolovin asked, pointing at the blazing light that shone from above the buildings on the outside of the city.

“That’s the [Molten Pit],” Grunvan said. The world wasn’t spinning that much. She’d expected it to be much less stable, but it wasn’t wibbling nearly as much as it should have been for how much she’d drunk.

That was a bad sign? Probably? If she’d had some much that her sense of balance was shutting down, she probably needed one of those healing spells, like immediately.

Except, she wasn’t feeling as out of control either. 

Or as fuzzy.

What had she been drinking?

Anti-booze?

Was that a thing?

“Is the [Molten Pit] not dangerous?” Kolovin asked.

“Oh it’s plenty dangerous. It’s also sort of our disposal system,” Grunvan said, the answer coming quickly and easily when her thoughts should have been struggling to surface from the bottom of the lake of beer she’d consumed. “It’s that bright because they’re disposing of all the dead Consortium soldiers into it. Don’t want the regenerating ones coming back.”

“I doubt they want to come back either,” Kolovin said. “There aren’t that many soldiers that serve the Consortium willingly.”

“What do you mean?” Grunvan’s thoughts turning entirely too sober for her liking. “Like they’re press ganged into joining up?”

“I can’t say how all of them were recruited,” Kolovin said. “My people were captured in a raid. Or a [Harvesting Expedition] as they call it.”

“And you couldn’t fight back or they’d kill you?” Grunvan asked.

“We couldn’t fight back because they bound our wills in magic,” Kolovin said. “The Consortium does not allow choice where they aren’t required to.”

“So all those people they sent against us?” Grunvan felt her stomach turn for reasons that had nothing to do with what she’d been drinking.

“Not all of them,” Kolovin said. “The leaders are generally given more autonomy. They’re less expendable, so they need to be able to make a broader range of decisions. All the rest though? Many of them had no choice in what they were doing.”

“What about you though? How did you break free?” Grunvan asked.

“We were released,” Kolovin said. “There was some kind of falling out among our leaders. It was more than a disagreement. They were murdering each other. Apparently one of them thought if he released us we’d run amuck on the rest. Joke was on him though, we didn’t even need to talk about getting out of there, we all just ran.”

“Does that mean the rest of the soldiers could be released too?” Grunvan asked.

“I don’t know, I’m was a [Delivery Man] before all this,” Kolovin said.

Grunvan didn’t want to think what she was thinking. She didn’t want anything beyond moving freight to be her problem. She wasn’t a great hero. She knew that. She’d met them. They were literally close enough that she could shower them with victory ale. She wasn’t supposed to be the one who had to deal with the big problems. She was just a little [Goblin] after all.

But she’d survived. When there was no hope and no chance, she’d survived. That had to mean something. She had a duty to make it mean something. 

“I think we’ve got some news to deliver,” Grunvan said. “We just need to figure out who it needs to be delivered to.”

Hailey

Hailey had never like the [Goblin] starting areas. The aesthetic just did not click with her at all. And being short sucked. She knew that from real life.

That was in the game though.

Standing in the real [Wagon Town] was a whole different thing.

The energy in the city was incredible, with everyone riding a collective high from the unexpectedly thorough victory they’d scored over the Consortium’s forces.

The best part was that she wasn’t supposed to be here.

She was far, far too valuable to risk out in the open. If she was captured, the Consortium could learn all sorts of disastrous things. It was objectively stupid to give them even the slightest chance at her, when her mind contained secrets that could be the undoing of everything everyone had worked so hard to accomplish, not just in [Wagon Town] but all around the world.

“You look much too serious for a party this wild,” Cambrell said. He’d switched back from his full battle armor to the more concealed under armor he normally wore but otherwise looked to be perfectly sober and put together, rather than as indulgently at ease as the rest of the city was.

“Heavy thoughts and trying to convince myself to leave while I still can,” Hailey said, without taking her gaze off the fires from the [Molten Pit].

Unlike the rest of her party, Hailey had an excellent view of the fires because she’d found a roost atop the sloping roof of the [Eastern Guard Tower]. That Cambrell had found her suggested he either had a similar taste in getaway spots or she’d been slacking on her stealth skills when she left the party.

“I’ll offer you a prime rate,” Cambrell said. “Two pennies for the heavy thoughts. Since they’re extra weighty.”

With a flick of his wrist he produced a pair of coins that shone in the distant fire light. She knew those could as easily have been daggers, it was a trick she could do too, but she smiled nonetheless at the gesture, comforted that he would even think to make it.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “Not in this world, and definitely not in [Wagon Town]. Every sensible cell in my body knows that.”

“Those are usually worth listening too,” Cambrell said. “But you didn’t. Any idea why?”

“Several,” Hailey said. “And they’re all terrible.”

“So none of them are the right ones then,” Cambrell said. It could have been a question, but it wasn’t. “Why don’t you try some of them out. You can get rid of the bad ones easier if you can hear them for what they are.”

“I brought every bit of information that my world has on the [Fallen Kingdoms] over. I don’t remember all of it but I remember a lot of really critical stuff. Locations and levels and weaknesses of the Consortium and everything I’ve ever fought on this planet and all the demi-planes it’s connected to. If I’m caught here, or anywhere, it’s a disaster. Like world ending disaster,” Hailey said. “I can’t have fun like this.”

“Why?” Cambrell asked. “Not why can’t you be caught, to be clear, but why are those two things bound together?”

“Because I’m not safe here, and I shouldn’t be taking chances that could come up with armageddon as a possible result,” Hailey said.

“I’m not a fan of the end of the world, even the minor preview we’ve had so far,” Cambrell said. “But do you think you’re safe anywhere? You know what the Consortium can do. Do we have facilities that can be protect you from the worst they can throw at us?”

“Facilities no, but with enough [Adventurers] around they’d have a damn hard time getting to me,” Hailey said,

Cambrell gestured to the city below them.

“We have something like twenty five thousand [Adventurers] who came to the defense of [Wagon Town]. Is that enough to keep you safe?” 

“It would be, except we both know that the effective [Agents] the Consortium would send to find me would be able to walk right past everyone in this city.”

“I’ll grant you that. I know I’d have a hard time catching myself on a mission, though getting out with a living target is a lot harder than my usual work,” Cambrell said.

“Mine too,” Hailey said. “Especially if they can see you coming.”

“Which is why you’re up here,” Cambrell said, not looking for confirmation, just acknowledging that he understood. “Being down in the crowds would make you a lot harder to pick out, if they even know that you exist to look for you in the first place.”

“I know. It’s a trade off I’ve been weighing,” Hailey said. “Which is selfish, because I also know the right answer is to just go back to where Penswell can provide security.”

“That has the danger of making it obvious that you are someone important enough to need that security,” Cambrell said.

“Maybe that’s why I came here?” Hailey said. “It was for a good cause, admittedly, and Damnazon was definitely fired up and inspiration as hell, but, I don’t know, it just seemed right to come along too.”

“It seems to me that you’ve managed to place yourself in a situation where to all outward appearances you’re a target of no greater interest than any other [Adventurer], many of whom I believe also have significant otherworldly knowledge, while also surrounding yourself with a party of strong companions who will have the best chance of saving you if something does go wrong,” Cambrell said. “That seems pretty far from selfish to me. Although I think I can improve on your design a bit more.”

“How’s that?” Hailey asked.

“How would you like to become a [Goblin]?” Cambrell asked.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Interlude 1

Azma

Azma was in danger and she was losing her troops. Neither of those facts were acceptable, but what she was the least pleased about was that both were the result of the best plan available under the circumstances.

“We’ve lost contact with the expeditionary squad in Graph-7.5,” Ryschild said, continuing a steady stream of pulse rifle fire as he spoke.

“Kill order is prepped and active, awaiting command confirmation,” Grenslaw side, maintain a similar stream of fire to Ryschild’s.

“Confirmed,” Azma said, hating the waste of what were becoming scarce resources.

She had the loyalty of the troops she’d preserved in the [High Beyond] largely because she had preserved them. That loyalty could withstand sacrifices like kill orders she’d been forced to give a dozen times over as many hours. Azma knew that but she didn’t want to count on it. 

Her troops might prefer a instantaneous death to the horror of being hollowed out by the foe they were locked in a life and death battle with but given the option to flee, an option which the Consortium was slightly late to offer, even if the offer would be an invention to a much messier and more prolonged death.

It was for that reason, and several other ‘optics’ related ones, that Azma had to lead her troops against the [Hungry Shadows] personally.

“I’ve got [Commander] Bukinar requesting permission to join the offensive and replace the terminated squad,” Sergeant Fiori said.

It was a good sign. The [Commanders] of the remaining Consortium forces knew what was at stake – everything to be blunt about it – and they knew Azma’s plan. She didn’t need to be secretive about it, couldn’t in fact. Her position was too precarious with the troops for her to leave them with any misunderstanding of what they needed to do and why. Also, and somewhat more importantly, the more she obfuscated her plans, the easier it would be for the inquiry hearing to insert all sorts of supposed malfeasance into the fuzzy areas in the reports they’d be reviewing.

The inquiry panel would do that anyways of course. It was a cheap and effective tool her enemies would be imbeciles not to deploy. She wasn’t certain yet what tack their constructed narratives would take, whether they would try to paint her as simply allowing her greed to produce a deadly strain of ineptitude, or if they’d dig deeper and invent motives that could connect her other failures.

Since she had, repeatedly, sabotaged the efforts of rivals and false allies alike, there were plenty of skeletons they could animate against her, and while any actual evidence of her wrongdoing would be nonexistent, trials within the Consortium were less concerned with uncovering the actual truth and more with defending the bottom line no matter from all threats real and imagined.

In a sense that was Azma’s saving grace. Despite being monumentally guilty of crimes against the personnel and equipment of the [Consortium of Pain], she produced results which exceeded the damage caused by a sufficient margin that “justice” would have negative profit implications, which was the closest thing to an invulnerable shield one can wield in the arena of Consortium politics.

“Have Bukinar hold position for the moment,” Azma said. “The Shadows cost us an scouting team. That’s not going to be allowed to stand, of course, but before we collect on our losses with interest, we have some infrastructure to put in place. The scouting party didn’t lose that struggle, they traded themselves to provide us with confirmation of our enemies location and minimum force strength. They’ll receive posthumous commendations for themselves and their associated units.”

Commendations came with no direct reimbursement in most chains of command within the Consortium and many commanders treated them as little more than shiny gold stickers to dole out for amusement value.

Azma knew the review boards for the common troops. She’d investigated them thoroughly in an effort to ensure that her standard troops composition was as well selected as possible. What she’d discovered in the process was that while the review boards were openly disdainful of the commendation system and frequently ignored highly commended units in favor of assigning profitable missions to less decorated squads, that was because they had an appraisal system in place for not only the troops but for the entire command staff who directed them.

Those of Azma’s peers who casually tossed out commendations were assigned precise numerical coefficients to diminish the weight of each junk commendation. Conversely the leaders who rarely gave any commendations also had their rewards decremented in effectiveness since history had proven that such rarely awarded honors tended to be the result of personal or political considerations rather than any sort of accurate reflection of the troops capabilities.

Azma had done that research early in her career and had been surprised to discover that the people in charge of the review process were quite open and willing to discuss their entire procedure. None of it was secret, but since the common troops were considered of negligible expense, value, and utility, relatively few people of Azma’s rank saw a reason to care.

“Bukinar confirms holding and asks if the hold is confirmation that his forces will be deployed?” Fiori said.

“They are to retain a ready state and be ready for deployment with all haste. The expected mobilization window is thirty seconds,” Azma said.

Ryschild’s rifle ran dry one second before Grenslaw passed a new power cell over. For the five seconds Ryschild needed to replace the [Pulse Rifle’s] power supply, perform the required diagnostics and cycle in a fresh charge, Grenslaw focused on providing carefully placed beams of stellar hot material down the corridor Ryschild had been keeping secure.

The [Hungry Shadows] massed around the bend of Grenslaw’s corridor had take the respite Grenslaw’s absence provided to surge forwards towards the beachhead Fiori’s team had setup, only to find that Azma was every bit as good a shot as her subordinates were.

“My team reports they’re inbound,” Fiori said. “Due in two minutes.”

“We can hold out for that long easily,” Azma said. “Tell them to drop to sweep and clear speed. I want them moving as though there is an enemy around every corner from there to here. Cover all flanks. Assume the enemy will attack at least twice before they reach us.”

Fiori’s response was to immediately communicate Amza’s order to the soldiers who were supposed to be acting as her bodyguards. 

As [Supreme Commander], Azma was supposed to be protected at all times while in a combat adjacent environment. Since Azma had elected to leave the “combat adjacent environment” and was at the literal epicenter of the battle against the [Hungry Shadows], standard protocol didn’t have specific requirements for how her personal defense forces should be arrayed. 

[Supreme Commanders] were, ideally, meant to be several planetary diameters away from any direct fighting, and it wasn’t uncommon for [Supreme Commanders] to direct the efforts of their troops from different planetary systems, in different dimensions. 

Azma had used to ambiguity in the official protocols to repurpose her personal guard into a surgical strike force, providing the rational that they would be providing the greatest degree of security for her person if they stabilized the area around her.

Basically if the [Supreme Commander] wasn’t supposed to be in a combat zone and they couldn’t be removed from the area, then the area had to cease being a combat zone at all.

“Local enemy forces are falling back,” Grenslaw said.

“The retreat was uniform. They were responding to orders,” Ryschild said.

“Not orders,” Azma said. “There’s a single will behind them. We still have only one enemy despite the army we are faced with.”

“The enemy movements are not as coordinated as our [Artifax] forces,” Ryschild said. “Does it suffer from a communication lag with its subjects?”

“I don’t believe so,” Azma said. “When they retreated they all stopped and began moving away at the same instant. I think it’s fine detail control is lacking still. It’s no longer [Transdimensional] so it’s limited by the physical constraints of this reality more than ever before.”

“How quickly will that change?” Grenslaw asked.

“That will depend on the pressure we exert against it,” Azma said. “The more resources we remove from its control the greater the incentive will be to learn to properly control the ones it has remaining. Also the fewer forces it has, the less its attention will be split.”

“This won’t be the first time the fight’s gotten harder the closer we get to victory,” Fiori said. “Can we still proceed with the plan though or do we need to accelerate things?”

The plan was a reasonably simple one. Azma was using herself as bait, trying to keep the [Hungry Shadows] focused on the area of the [Ruins of Heavens Grave] she’d led her forces to secure. 

She’d made a multi-pronged attack into the Ruins at first, and had brought a supplemental force to the prong that had experienced the greatest resistance. It had been hard and costly work, but her troops had broken through the [Hungry Shadows] assaults and pushed onwards as the Shadows began to mass in ever greater numbers to stop them.

By spreading outwards, plunging into the worst fights the Shadows offered them, Azma had made her team and herself impossible for the Shadows to ignore, which had in turn allowed her more offensively focused teams to have free reign tearing into the straggling pockets of Hungry Shadows. 

Azma didn’t know if the [Hungry Shadows] were led by one special entity or if they had some other resource they needed to guard, but from the reports painted a clear picture that there was some asset they were desperately trying to protect. There was no chance that the asset would be as valuable as the [Transdimensional] entity the [Hungry Shadows] had been crafted from, but that didn’t mean Azma didn’t need it anyways.

The path back to the Consortium’s good graces for both herself and the troops under her command lay in a simple equation. There was still value that could be extracted from the scenario before them. In end, satisfying the Consortium’s naked greed was the beginning and end of victory. Failing to do that was where the complex strategies for shifting and dodging blame came into play, but with a debacle as large as the present operation had become, there would be unacceptable long term consequences even if Azma could survive long enough to have to worry about them.

“We stick with the current plan,” Azma said. “The enemy will develop to meet our capabilities. That will make the battles to come more difficult, but also increase the value of each corpse we can produce. Once the Consortium clears the command protocols and sends in the extraction forces, we’ll be able to provide proof that [Xenobiology’s] expertise is no longer required and that the projected profits still exceed the threshold boundaries for mission continuation.”

“You can pull all that off with what we’ve got here?” Fiori said.

“It’s a still a disaster by my standards,” Azma said. “Once the [Transdimensional] appeared, I should have been able to make this operation a centennial high point on the trend lines. Instead of career defining, we’re going to be struggling for exemplary in comparison to the best run campaigns this year.”

“What place will we need to achieve on the yearly review to regain control of the operation?” Grenslaw asked.

“How do you gain a place for an operation that’s not finished?” Fiori asked.

“Projections, and for the top end of the list, the confidence interval of the projections,” Azma said. “For reinstatement, being projected to be in the top five is likely sufficient, though first place will offer significantly greater security both during and after we complete the work here.”

“I am glad we have you to work that job,” Fiori said. “It sounds like a chaotic sea of backstabbing. I’d much rather just shoot people.”

“Management in the Consortium is often appear chaotic, but there are clear and predictable lines of self-interest, narcissism, and basic greed which make it far more orderly that it wishes to admit to,” Azma said.

“Incoming transmission from the fleet,” Grenslaw said and then frowned, with a puzzled expression creeping forward like a mask.

“They’re less late than I anticipated,” Azma said. “What orders are they giving now?”

“I don’t know,” Grenslaw said. “The transmission was cut off by my security gear. There was corruption in the signal.”

The world sank out from under Azma.

Grenslaw wasn’t saying that the quality of signal was degraded or that the data had been lost.

The command signal from the fleet was carrying Corruption. 

The same sort of Corruption the [Formless Hunger] had used.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 30

It probably didn’t count as bloodlust when the things you were fighting didn’t possess any blood in their withered undead bodies. Right? The funny thing was that it wasn’t Tessa who asked that question of herself. 

“I mean, its good that we’re enjoying ourself,” Pillowcase said. “I’m just wondering if the chuckling is entirely healthy?”

“Oh, this isn’t healthy in the slightest,” Tessa said. “Damn fun though.”

“Should we be more worried about that?” Pillowcase asked as she pinned one of the [Cursed Walkers] that Rip had blasted full of holes against two others that Matt was in the process of tearing apart on a spiritual level. 

She didn’t need to parry anyone for a moment so she took the opportunity to draw more attention to herself by bashing the first Walkers shoulder into pulp.

Several of the Walkers who were struggling to tear Obby apart, pivoted and joined the crowd that was seeking to devour Pillowcase’s juicy stuffing? Their motives were sort of questionable, but puddings had more brainpower than the Walkers – literally.

The one she’d de-shouldered, by virtue of being at the front of the horde continued its attack with the maw of teeth edged with necrotic energy its undeath had gifted it with.

“I think that’s why this is so fun,” Tessa said, watching as Pillowcase hit the Walker with enough force to spin its head around backward. “Can’t worry. No time. Zombies will eat us if do.”

“Can’t run either I guess,” Pillowcase said. “Just have to give into the mayhem.”

“It’s not how the Consortium fights is it?”

“Not even close. It’s odd too. I don’t have viscera but there’s a visceral thrill to this anyways?”

“I think it’s cause we feel safe,” Tessa said.”And we’re getting to cut loose. It’s like primal scream therapy but with more xps and loot.”

“Leveled again!” Rip shouted on the party channel, the sheer glee in her voice making the quasi-zombie apocalypse they were fighting the most joyful thing in the world.

“Me too!” Matt said, his usual quiet restraint cast aside to join Rip in her delight.

“Amp it up then!” Obby said. “If you’re resources are full, run ‘em down. You’re not going to pull hate off Pillow and me.”

“Sounds like a challenge!” Illuthiz said.

“If they attack you, I am not saving you,” Hermeziz said, as though anyone present believed that was even vaguely true.

The farming run had seemed like a potential disaster at the start. The first pull from the [Barrows] had drawn a force twice as large as the one Rip and the damage dealers had blundered into. Tessa and Obby had been ready to pick up the incoming horde but it was quickly apparent that even using every ability they had there was no chance they were going to be able to hold the attention of more than half the enemies against them.

And the rest of the team surviving over a dozen even leveled foes was laughably unlikely.

So Glimmerglass stepped in and erased half the enemies.

It didn’t take long, and it didn’t take a particularly high level spell.

“[Casting spell: Solar Rays],” she’d said and a dozen bolts of light had sprung from her hand and reduced the [Cursed Walkers] she’d targeted to dust.

Then the fight had continued.

The remaining Walkers made no changes to the absolute lack of strategy and were entirely undeterred by the instantaneous obliteration of their compatriots. There were living people. Living people were to be killed. Try to kill them. Processing complete, no other inputs requested or needed.

A wave of a dozen Walkers became a rolling sea of them as others Walkers shambled or raced in, ambulating however they could, to fill the spots as the previous ones fell and discorporated.

Pillowcase wasn’t afraid during the melee. Combat was the environment she’d been made for after all. Either as a result of integrating those memories better, or because of Glimmerglass’s presence, Tessa hadn’t been afraid either and hadn’t pulled back as she had in previous fights.

Pillowcase executed a beautiful shield block and swept a Walkers feet from it to send it stumbling back onto Obby’s waiting blade, and Tessa cheered. She could feel how light and easy Pillowcase’s body was to maneuver and knew that was far more a reflection of Pillowcase’s growing strength than of any lack of mass in their [Clothwork] body.

If Pillowcase had been as light as she felt, the Walkers would be overrunning her with sheer numbers, but no matter how many piled up on her shield, the [Soul Knight] didn’t give an inch of ground.

“You seem to be having fun,” Lisa said on their private channel.

“Kind of hard not to,” Tessa said. “This is a really good party.”

“Having Glimmerglass around is making a big difference,” Lisa said. “But I think you’re right. We brought these folks in here with no prior experience at working together and they’re doing a shockingly good job. Like, I’ve seen guild teams that are more disorganized than this.”

“It’s because we’ve got a good leader,” Tessa said.

“Yes, you are,” Lisa said.

“I’d just in front, you’re the one they’re listening too,” Tessa said.

“It’s because Glimmerglass and Yawlorna are telling them too,” Lisa said.

“Sure, that helps, but you’re working with them,” Tessa said.

“Have to, screaming at people just makes them rage quit,” Lisa said.

“That’s something I seem to recall only the really good leaders seem to understand,” Tessa said. “And wow do I remember a lot of bad ones who didn’t.”

“Yeah, those ones tend to stick with you,” Lisa said. “To be fair too, this really isn’t all on me. The dps seem to be following Rip’s lead well and she’s watching the two of us to coordinate who they go hard on.”

“Starchild’s doing some solid work too,” Tessa said. “Obby and I have solid hate on maybe half these things at any given time. The rest are a bit shaky and she’s doing a stellar job of picking them up with they get interested in someone else and buying Obby and me time to grab their attention back.”

“Oh cool, I didn’t even notice that,” Lisa said. “She’s got enough self buffs and self healing that I’m not needing to tend to her much. I think Lady Midnight is helping her out here and there, but, honestly, this is pretty easy on us.”

“Should we be pulling more in then?” Tessa asked.

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “We’re not target starved at the moment. If we roam around any faster we’re just going to increased the crowd you and Obby are facing without adding to the number of them that we can take down.”

“Matt has a bunch of crowd control abilities he can bust out still though,” Tessa said. “Should we push more so he needs to use them?”

“That’s be good training,” Lisa said. “We know we’re going to get hit with hordes that are bigger than this in some of the dungeons, and we’re not going to have Glimmerglass there to thin them out if we need.”

“Or she’ll be there but sunk down to our level,” Tessa said.

“Probably not good to risk her like that right?” Lisa said.

“Probably not, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess she’s going to want to see the new dungeon at some point,” Tessa said.

“Yeah, I’d be the same,” Lisa said. “Maybe after we’ve cleared it the first time and we know what to expect?”

“I’m sure she’d be ok with waiting for that,” Tessa said. “Or we could pull her in if the dungeon divides into sections for teams of four. Matt will need to know how to handle crowd control even more if we run into things like that.”

“I’m still iffy on putting that kind of pressure on him though,” Lisa said. “Grabbing up another twenty Walkers is going to mean if he messes up it’s going to be real obvious.”

“We could ask him, but he’s having so much fun now, I’m afraid he’d either just say yes to keep the fun going or say yes because he was afraid of disappointing us.” Tessa said.

“What if we don’t add more Walkers, we just have him focus on controlling the one’s we already have?” Lisa said. “That’ll help you and Obby keep them locked down right?”

“That and we could switch to an offensive stance. Starchild probably can too,” Tessa said. “It won’t be much extra dps, but every bit helps right?”

“We’ll have to see if you three can match the loss from Matt switching to less damage dealing spells, but even if you can’t, I still think it’s worth it,” Lisa said.

“Agreed, want me to talk to him or do you want to handle it?” Tessa asked.

“Will it be too distracting for you?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “Pillowcase has got this handled.”

“Not a lot of surprise tactics to worry about here,” Pillowcase said.

“Okay, go ahead then,” Lisa said. “From you it can be a question. From me it’ll probably sound like an order.”

Tessa did the mental gymnastics needed to set up a private channel to Matt and send him a quick, “Congrats on the level, got a sec?”

“Sure,” Matt shot back, a trace of panic in his mental voice.

“I’ve got an idea we could try out,” Tessa said. “But I wanted to see what your thoughts were on it first.”

“Oh, okay. What is it?” Matt asked, panic ebbing into a mix of curiosity and confusion.

“[Soul Knights] have an offensive stance,” Tessa said. “I can add a bit more damage with it, but I’ll lose control of some of the Walkers I’m holding if I use it.”

“You need me to kill those too?” Matt asked.

“Not kill them, control them,” Tessa said. “You’ve got a couple of spells that shut down enemies now right?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a [Sleep] and a [Disorient], but the [Sleep] stops working if they get hit, so I didn’t think I could use it here. And the [Disorient] is just for like ten seconds or so,” Matt said.

“The trick with those is coordination,” Tessa said. “In any other party I wouldn’t be suggesting pulling them out, but we are doing so well here, I think it’s worth a shot.”

“Cool! Okay, so tell me how I should use them,” Matt said, confusion falling away to reveal a renewed excitement.

“The [Sleep] is pretty simple; just target one of the ones at the far back of the pack and let the effect spread inward from there,” Tessa said. “Some of them will probably get hit and wake up but as long as some other stay asleep that frees up some room for me and Obby to  cut back on our defenses a bit.”

“That sounds easy.”

“It is. It can also be super frustrating when the tanks ignore it, or when the other dps blast the enemies at random and wreck the spell before it does any good.”

“I can tell Ro…Rip. We’ll be able to focus on the one’s she’s targeting so the others stay asleep,” Matt said.

“Having a good relationship with the other dps can be a huge help,” Tessa said. “Don’t worry though if people mess things up. You can always recast, and we can handle it if they wake up.”

“How about the [Disorient]?” Matt asked. “That one doesn’t break but it’s really short.”

“That one’s the opposite in a sense. Target the nearest enemies with that one and let us know when you’re casting it,” Tessa said. “Obby and I can save up our heavy hitting abilities for the windowa you provide. If everything near us is staggering around useless for even ten seconds? We can totally unload and then turtle back up. Sound good?”

“The sounds amazing. Thank you,” Matt said.

“Thank you, I’m so glad you and Rip chose to join us, you two make this team so much better,” Tessa said.

Matt didn’t have an answer for that, but the silence glowed with the happiness of an honest affirmation received by someone who definitely needed it.

As Tessa pulped another [Cursed Walker], she smiled. This was how the [Fallen Kingdoms] was supposed to be.

No horror of lives disrupted and real death chasing their heels. No trauma of violence shattering their lives. No interpersonal feuding. No misery heaped on to of misery.

Fun.

The [Fallen Kingdoms] were supposed to be fun, and while there were problems out there, terrible, horrible problems, she didn’t have to face them alone. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 29

All hell very rarely breaks loose. If it did, whatever problem that was occurring wouldn’t be able to get worse. All the hell would already be there, and if there’s one thing that’s universally true, it’s that things can always get worse.

Tessa had her mace drawn and her shield ready as she, Lisa, Obby, Starchild, and Lady Midnight charged over the first hill outside of [Dragonshire]. In the game, all the characters ran at the same rate, regardless of size or athleticism. In the real version of the [Fallen Kingdoms], Tessa could see that Lisa was only staying with them because she was sensible enough not to charge into a melee first when she was a healer.

That bit of well earned wisdom meant that the tank team managed to slam into the dozen  [Cursed Walkers] with Tess and Obby in front to start collecting the mobs attention properly. Unlike the damage dealing team, who’d been more or less instantly overrun.

“[Bastion of Blood],” Tessa called out, invoking one of her newest abilities.

An aura formed around her and wrapped dark tendrils around everyone in range that she recognized as a friend. The tendrils shielded the damage Rip and the others were taking at the cost of nibbling away at Pillowcase’s health. As tradeoffs went it wasn’t terribly enjoyable, but it was quite effective since Pillowcase took only a fraction of the damage that the others would have. 

“[Stalwart Shout],” Obby called out, her [Guardian] ability magically demoralizing the enemies to reduce their damage even further and lock the Walkers attention away from anyone who didn’t have a tanks enmity skills.

“What part of ‘wait for us before engaging’ wasn’t clear?” Lisa asked over the party channel as she and Lady Midnight began patching up Baelgritz, Rip, and Matt, each of whom was doing to less than half their health.

“We didn’t!” Rip said. “These things weren’t here two seconds ago!”

“They were, you just couldn’t see them,” Tessa said. “We’ll explain after the fight. And I’m going to lodge a complaint with the beta testers. They never mentioned the Walkers were ambush mobs!”

“The screaming has stopped. Are they okay?” Yawlorna asked. Telepathic conversation was a new things for space travelers, but they were adapting to it as quickly as Tessa and the rest of her team had.

“We’ve got the Walkers under control,” Obby said. “This is a big spawn of them, but I think we can manage it without Glimmerglass’s help. Maybe.”

“I’m watching you’re health bars. So far so good it looks like. I’ll hold off on tainting the fight unless you or Pillowcase drops below a third, or if anyone get knocked into critical health,” Glimmerglass said.

“Tainting the fight?” Yawlorna asked.

Tessa wanted to answer but six [Cursed Walkers] who were all equal level to her had decided that she was obviously the tastiest treat on the field. Their numbers were a serious issue, but their mindless ferocity was less a problem, largely thanks to Pillowcase’s reflexes and calm demeanor.

For Tessa, having a monster growling with rage six inches from her face was unnerving. For Pillowcase it was day that ended in ‘y’. The one’s she couldn’t block, she parried, the one’s she couldn’t parry, she trusted her armor to save her from, and the one’s her armor didn’t deflect managed to rip bits of her apart, but nothing so significant that Lisa couldn’t put her back together before the cumulative destruction became a problem.

“If Glimmerglass joins the fight, any enemy she touches will yield experience as though someone of her level had beaten it,” Obby said, unperturbed by the eight Walkers who were menacing her. 

To be fair, Tessa observed, [Guardian] abilities tended to reduce or eliminate damage to the tank, which probably made it much easier to fight and hold a conversation. It also sounded like a much more pleasant form of tanking than the one Tessa had chosen for Pillowcase. In theory that was balanced out by Pillowcase doing more damage than a [Guardian] would but neither tank really compared to a true damage dealing class.

“You’re holding up great,” Lisa said on their private channel. “Not much difference between you and Obby and she’s got five levels on the rest of us.”

Tessa knew Lisa was just being kind, but that kindness still gave Tessa a warm sparkle in her heart.

That she got to keep her heart firmly anchored in her chest was a pleasant surprise too, one that was largely driven by Rip rallying their damage dealers so that the [Cursed Walkers] began having a very bad night and would have regretted their life choices were they not both already dead and incapable of even basic sapience.

Lightning arrows, deadly illusions, and an enchanted oak staff were joined by the spears Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz wielded and all of them proved devastating to the Walkers.

Tessa was particularly impressed with the demon spears. She’d seen a fair portion of Rip and Matt’s growth, but watching Hermeziz fight was like meeting a new person.

The space travelers were big, not as tall as Yawlorna, but still impressive physical specimens. In their natural form, they moved with the surety that great strength brought. With levels to back their natural abilities up they’d gained an alarming amount of speed and a starkly beautiful sort of grace.

“Is it bad that watching Herm plunge a spear straight through someone’s head seems kinda pretty?” Tessa asked Lisa privately.

“I’m trying to tell myself that this feels great because the [Cursed Walkers] are definitely not people, and not because I’m losing it to blood lust,” Lisa said. “And I really hope I’m not lying to myself.”

“Are you starting to get hungry again?” Tessa asked, remembering Lost Alice making a meal of Mikkonel.

“Oh, this has nothing to do with me,” Lost Alice said. “I’m still nicely full. This is just my battle experience being a little corruptive. I think?”

“Or not,” Lisa said. “Alice makes this tolerable, but it’s not like I was all about the mass slaughter as a player.”

“Right there with ya,” Tessa said.

“Heh,” Pillowcase laughed. “You should see what the Consortium’s live combat exercises are like. Trust me, you’re all angels by comparison.”

It was darkly amusing that one of the Walkers left them open enough for Pillowcase to punctuate her point by crushing its head clean off its head with blunt force.

“Be not afraid, indeed,” Lost Alice said, repeating what angels seemed to say fairly often when they showed up. On reflection, Tessa felt like she was beginning to understand that sentiment, being both largely benevolent and terrifying at the same time.

“Was that the last one?” Rip asked.

“I think so,” Matt said.

“Stay still,” Obby said.

“How still?” Baelgritz asked, as he and his partners froze in place.

“You can relax,” Lady Midnight said. “Just don’t walk any farther away from town. You could trigger another ambush.”

“Okay. Good to know,” Rip said. “Could anyone explain what the hell that was. You know, for those of us who don’t want to get eaten again.”

“It was an ambush,” Starchild said. “It’s not something you usually see outside of dungeon areas, or exceptional monsters though.”

“Ambushes just appear out of thin air like that?” Illuthiz asked. 

“Unless you have special perception abilities, or you can bait them into revealing themselves before you’re within their perception radius,” Glimmerglass said.

“That will make this hunt a bit more challenging,” Obby said. “We could easily wind up engaging one group and triggering another one in the process.”

“It’s weird that the beta testers didn’t mention anything like this,” Tessa said. “Ambush zones aren’t unheard of, just rare, and they’re big news since they can turn into either great grinding spots or horrible murder machines.”

“Fortunately, we seem to be strong enough to weather the added challenge,” Starchild said.

“Oh, I bet that’s it,” Lisa said. “Most of the beta testers who do the low level content play through it solo right?”

“Yeah, but what does…oh, damn, you’re probably right,” Tessa said. “The beta testers didn’t see the ambushes because they probably only spawn for bigger teams like ours is now.”

“Does that mean we should break up?” Rip asked, a crack in her voice betraying her unhappiness with the idea.

“No. Not in the slightest. This is a good thing. Great even.” Tessa knew she should fight to keep the evil cackle out of her voice, but under the circumstances it was hard to deny the manic glee bubbling up within her.

“You’re thinking we turn this into a proper farm run, aren’t you?” Obby asked, delight bubbling in her eyes as well.

“I mean, we’ve got two tanks, two healers, a high level backup with healing, and a bunch of dps who are clearly unafraid of charging it devouring maws at the first opportunity,” Tessa said. “Are we missing any of the ingredients we’d need for success?”

“If we’re supposed to have a clue what you’re talking about, then I’d say we’re missing that,” Yawlorna said.

“What my girl here is suggesting is that we fight in a highly aggressive manner,” Lisa said, and Tessa felt a trill of joy at the reference to herself as Lisa’s girl. “Our original gameplan was to set up a static location, a camp, outside of the range of the Walkers. We’d then send someone in to attract their attention and lead them back to where we were all waiting.”

“That’s a standard monster clearing strategy,” Starchild said. “My [Grove] did it all the time when our woods were invaded.”

“It has the benefit that a lot of monsters, especially mindless ones like the Walkers, don’t notice that they’re numbers are being steadily thinned out,” Lisa said.

“Also, there’s less chance of fighting more than want, or more than you can handle,” Lady Midnight said.

“And ‘farming’ throws that idea away?” Yawlorna asked.

“Farming takes the opposite approach,” Obby said. “Rather than trying to limit the number of monsters we fight at once, we try to pull in as many as possible, or, in this case, as many as we can take without everyone dying.”

“I notice you said ‘everyone’ and not ‘anyone dying’ there,” Hermeziz said.

“Farming is more dangerous, at least when you’re doing it for xps like this,” Tessa said. “If we were all Glimmerglass’s level and just killing these things for their loot, then it would be safer than riding a bike.”

“More dangerous but the rewards are higher because you’re defeating more foes in less time?” Yawlorna asked.

“That and, in the game, and maybe here too, there were bonuses for killing monsters in quick succession,” Tessa said. “Those can be worth more than the initial defeat if you string together enough of them.”

“And if things go wrong?” Yawlorna asked.

“Then I’d have to step in,” Glimmerglass said.

“Okay,” Yawlorna said.

“Uh, what?” Balegritz said. “You’re fine with this idea?”

“You’re not?” Yawlorna asked, as though even the possibility of Baelgritz turning down a chance at mayhem was unthinkable.

“Oh, we’re all for it,” Baelgritz said.

“No. Not all of us,” Hermeziz said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe,” Illuthiz said.

“Not if I keep you safe first,” Hermeziz said, scowling  but moving closer as Illuthiz mussed up his hair.

“Then, as I said, I’m in favor of the idea,” Yawlorna said.

“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but weren’t you really worried about us getting Ill and her guys killed?” Rip asked.

“Yes. And I’m not necessarily looking to test out our supposed immortality, there not enough control measures in place for a proper experiment, but I’m satisfied that we’re in potentially less mortal peril than we were previously.”

“Yeah, that’s not the only reason though boss, is it?” Baelgritz asked.

“If this should give me a chance to study our new friend Glimmerglass in action, I admit I would not be disappointed,” Yawlorna said, and on her crimson demon skin, the blush was virtually unnoticeable.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 28

People puzzled Tessa. It wasn’t confusion, or irritation, at least not in this case. 

She could see why Yawlorna would want to have Glimmerglass’s powers. Tessa had spent years working on developing those powers and while Glimmerglass had progressed beyond where she’d been the last time Tessa had played as her, Tessa was still quite proud of Glimmerglass’s achievements.

She wasn’t upset that Yawlorna had chosen to join them either, or that Yawlorna was basically taking up all of Glimmerglass’s time. Okay, the last bit was slightly irritating. In theory, Tessa should have gotten her fill of talking to herself when she was alone in her apartment after her breakup with Crystal. And it was a little weird to talk with Glimmerglass after they’d shared a mind space when Tessa had bonded the three of her selves together to rescue Lisa. Despite all that though, the idea of chatting with her favorite character ever still seemed kind of awesome.

“No offense,” she said, speaking to Pillowcase, who laughed in response.

“I am horribly offended,” she said. “How terrible, that I like me, rather than myself, or I.”

“I guess I haven’t gotten my fill of talking to myself yet have I?”

“I mean, we are pretty awesome.”

“We’re just saying that because we’re in love aren’t we?”

“Probably. My brain doesn’t have happy juice to bath in like yours does, but it seems like love transcends bodily limitations.”

“I know this stage doesn’t last forever. Or at least it hasn’t before.”

“All the more reason to enjoy it, right?”

“Yeah. I think if I’d been just myself I would have sabotaged the hell out of this.”

“I’m surprised adding me into the mix helped. I mean ‘emotionless soldier drone’ doesn’t seem like a winning ingredient to add to a relationship from what I can see in your memories.”

“It’d be terrible. Thankfully you are neither emotionless or a drone. And the soldier bit is kind of misleading too.”

“How so?”

“You’re not following orders at the moment, or living by any particular code except the one you choose for yourself.”

“How am I helping then?”

“You’re brave. So much braver than me. I’d mess this up because I’d pull away rather than risk being hurt again. Some of my breakups sucked on an epic scale. Okay, may not epic. I need to recalibrate basically everything to a new scale given all of this stuff we got dropped into. But they’ve still sucked, especially where I exposed myself.”

“Am I brave then, or ignorant? Maybe I’m just luring you into repeating previous mistakes because I don’t know any better?”

“Sure. You are. But the thing is they’re mistakes that should be repeated. Because they weren’t my mistakes. I trusted Crystal, and she hurt me, and it is so very easy to feel like that was my fault. Seeing my own memories through your eyes though? It’s incredible. It makes all the difference! Could I have done things different so she couldn’t have hurt me so much. Sure. It’s easy to wall yourself off. I could have kept her at a very comfortable distance, and been very safe from her doing more than lightly bruising my feelings.”

“But that wouldn’t have been love. You would have gotten nothing out of being with her beyond there being a warm body in the room.”

“Yeah. And that can work for some people. Sometimes emotional openness isn’t what a relationship is founded on. Heck sometimes it’s just sex and that works for everyone involved. And sometimes there’s not even sex in the equation. Everybody finds their happiness on their own path.”

“Yours takes an open heart though, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Lisa’s probably going to hurt me too. And I’ll probably hurt her. We’ll make mistakes, and get careless as we get comfortable. It’s inevitable. I know it is. But, in this moment, I still want to take those hits. And I want to make amends when I make those mistakes too. What we’re feeling now is delightful. I’m still buzzing from the fact that we’ve slept together! But that’s the sexy, mind blowing kind of love. It’s fun and wonderful and a lot more satisfying than I remembered. But the kind that comes after – the kind that I hope comes after – the kind based on making the choices to hold together even when it’s not fun, even when we’re not at our best? I think, I hope, that kind of enduring love is what will help us both become stronger, become who we want to be.”

“I can see why you reach for it.”

“It’s a nice dream isn’t it? I think it’s the dream I’ve been chasing my whole life. As Tessa, and as Glimmerglass. I don’t even really know if it’ll work out. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on what any relationship could be. Maybe it all needs to come from me. Maybe I believe love can help change me because I’m afraid to try on my own.”

“Maybe. I don’t think so, but what do I know? The only introspection I was build with was a self-diagnostic routines to make sure all of the spells woven into me were functioning properly. I shouldn’t know anything about love, or relationships, or even what I want. I wasn’t supposed to want anything. Or have a relationship with anyone. Or love at all.”

“Oh wow. But you did.”

“We did. You. Me. Glimmerglass. We’re all the same. I mean even when we’re separate and limited to just our own memories. I didn’t have the words to understand what I needed, I couldn’t even form coherent thoughts on what was missing, or what the constraints on me were holding me back from pursuing. Through your eyes though? It’s so easy to see. I needed the same thing you’ve fought for. You took blows I couldn’t even conceive of and you’re willing to take more. So I stand by my original assertion. We’re awesome.”

“I can’t tell you how scary it feels to try to agree with that.”

“We should probably try to work on that too.”

“Probably.”

Tessa felt a hand on her shoulder, and found Lisa nodding towards the road ahead of them where Rip, Matt, Baelgritz, Illuthiz and Hermeziz had formed a little mini-party that was steadily increasing the distance from the others.

“Think they’re a little eager?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“Can you blame them?” Tessa asked. “This is the first time they’ll get to use their new abilities in a real fight.”

“Well, sort of a real fight,” Lisa said and nodded back towards Glimmerglass and Yawlorna who were still deep in their own private conversation.

“Is it weird that I’m kind of jealous of Yawlorna for talking with my other me?” Tessa asked. She felt a twinge of embarrassment to even ask that, both for claiming someone like Glimmerglass as herself – Tessa was still convinced she’d never been as cool as her old character was – and for revealing that she was even ‘kind of jealous’ which seemed petty and silly.

“It’d be weird if you weren’t,” Lisa said. “I’m resisting the urge to chat up your other self just to learn all I can about you.’

“Aww, that’s sweet. On both sides,” Tessa said.

“A bit stalkery though. I mean if I want to know something, I should just ask you right?”

“If you want to know something, you are always welcome to ask me. I like sharing like that with you,” Tessa said. “But I know it’s not always easy to just believe something because I say it. I mean I have biases too. Even if I want to tell you everything, I’ll probably forget things, or leave them out without thinking about them, or color things so I don’t look entirely terrible. So if you want to talk with Glimmerglass, please do. At the moment she’s got a different perspective on things than I do, so she can probably give you a good sanity check on anything that seems too out there about me.”

“It seems unfair though,” Lisa said and Lost Alice added, “You’re always talking to both of us when we chat, and none our other selves seem to be available like Glimmerglass is. You don’t have the same ‘second source’ to fact check the things I say.”

Tessa’s first reaction was to downplay the problem. She didn’t need to fact check Lisa. She loved Lisa. She would just trust this wonderful, beautiful, amazing woman and everything would work out fine because Love Conquers All!

A single breath in was all it took to dispel that particular nugget of love drunk lunacy.

To accept that inequality wasn’t fair.

And it was unnecessary.

“How about you introduce me to Cease All then?” Tessa said. “You two have been friends for a while right?”

“Sure, but it doesn’t seem quite the same,” Lisa said. “Cease didn’t mind meld with me, and, you know, isn’t another aspect of me.”

“At the moment, Glimmerglass is basically just a really close friend,” Tessa said. “The memories we share are a bit dim since we don’t have immediate access to the same mind space Pillowcase and I share. Plus Glimmerglass will probably share more of my biases than Cease will with you. So I’m getting a better deal here in a sense.”

“Might want to wait till you meet Cease before you feel to sure about that,” Lisa said.

“What’s she like?”

“Probably a little different than I remember,” Lisa said. “I’m used to dealing with Michaela. You’d be chatting with her and with Cease.”

“You’ve talked with them both several times now though right? Is Cease much different than Michaela?”

“I suppose not? Or maybe not with me. I think Michaela basically patterned Cease after herself pretty much. She can be a bit sarcastic though, especially with new people.”

“Oh no, not a sarcastic gamer girl!” Tessa said. “I can’t imagine running into one of those.”

“Oh great, you two are going to get along. This is terrible,” Lisa said.

“Better start pumping Glimmerglass for info then, or Cease and I will get ahead on the ‘conspiring with each other’ curve.”

“Think I can get a word in edgewise between her and Yawlorna?” Lisa asked.

The two had drifted far enough back from the main body of the party (defined as the group that had both of the tanks) that they were officially lollygagging.

“Glimmerglass always loved helping train up fledglings,” Tessa said. “I know it’s weird to think of Yawlorna as a newbie but if she’s serious about leveling up as a healer, then she’s basically level 0 at the moment in terms of what she needs to know about the role, and I’m guessing Glimmerglass hasn’t gotten to train anyone since I quit playing, which was like a century or more for her. Huh, I hadn’t done that math till now. I owe her such an apology.”

“She hasn’t seemed like she’s holding a grudge,” Lisa said.

“She might not be. But I bet it still hurt to be without her [Inspiration] for so long.”

“Talk to her then,” Lisa said. “After we get back obviously. We should be getting out of town in what, a minute or two?”

“Sooner if Rip manages to find trouble and we’ve got to run ahead and save the five of them.”

“Didn’t we promise we’d keep Balegritz and company safe?” Lisa said.

“That was before we knew that we could rez them,” Tessa said. “I mean, we should still try to keep them alive, but if I lose aggro I’m not going to have a melt down like I would have before.”

“That’s good. I can kind of picture you having a Tank meltdown. You actually care about the job.”

“Perils of working with people you like,” Tessa said.

From farther ahead than they had any business being came the inevitable cries of surprise and sounds of combat that set Tessa’s feet into a full out sprint.

“People you like and people you’d like to strangle,” Lisa said.

“Were we any better when we were starting out?” Tessa asked, feeling charitable largely because she’d foreseen the moment coming from the instant Rip’s crew starting pulling away from the pack.

“Oh I was much worse,” Lisa said.

“Same here,” Tess said. “Come on, let’s go pay forward some old favors.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 27

People are always capable of surprising themselves. In Tessa’s case, being surprised by Glimmerglass was a little weirder than usual.

“You can bring them back?” Tessa asked. “But they’re…”

And she stopped herself right there.

Yawlorna and her people “weren’t [Adventurers]”. That was true. Or it had been. But then they’d started gaining levels. Like an [Adventurer] would.

“I was working with Kellsgrith,” Glimmerglass said and then raised her hands in a calming gesture as Yawlorna’s shocked expression. “Nothing dangerous. Don’t worry. Just some analysis spells and a few very tiny wounds. Which Kellsgrith was fine with. I had her administer them to herself so that there wouldn’t be any danger of someone overdoing it.”

“You had her wound herself?” Yawlorna asked as though the question was so far beyond believable that it shouldn’t have been able to surprise her.

“Only a little bit,” Glimmerglass said. “Just a few small cuts on her arm. And a tiny little stab into her leg. We stopped before we tried the throat cut or the heart stab.”

Yawlorna drew in a deep breath. And then another. And then a third.

“Do go one,” she said at last, her face assuming a chiveled expression of only mild interest.

“Thanks to Kellsgrith’s help, I’ve been able to prove that our healing magics are more than superficially effective on your people,” Glimmerglass said. “I’m not sure if landing here converted your basic biological processes to be compatible with this world or if they always were, but your bodies follow all of the same physio-arcane laws as an [Adventurers] does.”

Yawlorna stared at Glimmerglass, waiting for her to continue. Tessa though recognized Glimmerglass’s pause for the anxiety Tessa knew all too well.

“I think you’ll need to break down what you mean by that,” Tessa said. It was so much easier to keep the gears in her head turning when she wasn’t the one who was on the spot. She wished she could bottle the feeling of clarity she had and guzzle it the next time she went too in depth on something technical and her brain froze up.

“Ah, right,” Glimmerglass, shooting a smile at her other self. “The short form is our spells that raise the dead should fine on you folks. Did you want to hear the longer explanation?”

Though she was vastly more powerful than Yawlorna, there was still the same nervous hesitation in Glimmerglass’s voice that Tessa knew must have come from her input to Glimmerglass’s personality. 

Or maybe self-esteem was something that didn’t necessarily increase as you improved?

“This may surprise you, but yes, yes I would,” Yawlorna said. “Especially since I was able to get one of these from Mister Pendant.”

She drew a notebook and a fine quality stylus from her pack and leaned forward on the chairs they’d assembled into a cozy circle, a (Mad?) scientists gleam in her eyes.

“I’m not sure how much you’ve worked out or what people have explained about the basic nature of our world, so just tell me to skip forward if I’m covering ground that’s old news to you,” Glimmerglass said.

“Oh I find listening to primary sources worthwhile no matter what topic they’re covering,” Yawlorna said.

“Okay, well to start then, this world has magic, obviously. That isn’t something that’s true of all worlds though, which is something we’ve only recently learned, thanks to Tessa and the other alternate selves who’ve joined us recently,” Glimmerglass said. “I could go into the theorycrafting that’s been spawned by that particular revolution for the next several years if we had time, but for the purpose of this topic the important thing is that we’ve been able to make some significant leaps forward in our understanding of the core rules that govern magic here because we now know that magic’s not a requisite part of reality.”

“And who is ‘we’ in this context?” Yawlorna asked.

“I can directly speak for the high level casters who are working with Penswell and the [Grand Coalition] focused on the mystical defenses of the [Fallen Kingdoms]. I’m sure other high caliber casters and scholars are reaching many of the same conclusions we have but with the world being under existential threat there hasn’t been much time to put together conferences and write up the proper academic papers.”

“I believe I have some notion of what that’s like,: Yawlorna said. “I would sell body organs for a chance to publish even one damn paper on the things we’ve found here.”

Tessa noted the wording and wondered if Yawlorna was limiting herself to her own organs or whether she’d offer any that were on hand that didn’t seem to be sufficiently needed by their present owners. Probably the former, but “publish or perish” was possibly a real thing in places other than Earthly academia.

“The principal insight that’s relevant here is that we always believed [Adventurers] responded to healing spells, especially life restoring ones, differently than regular people because we’d been switched on a separate magical paradigm,” Glimmerglass said. “Since magic is everywhere in this world, we believed that normal people must have their own set of magical rules they were bound by, while [Adventurers] worked under a different and disconnected set. Learning that it’s possible for people to exist without any ties to magic lead to several of us investigating whether [Adventurers] might not simply have some extra enchantments that allow things like [Resurrection] spells to work on them where they fail on normal people.”

“That sounds nice than presuming that the regular people lack souls,” Yawlorna said.

“That was a theory that was floated for years a few centuries ago. One of the good thing of encountering soul stealing demons though is that is proves very quickly that everyone has a soul, no matter how mundane they might be.”

“If you already knew that mundane people had an <eternal aspect>,” Yawlorna said, the word ‘soul’ translating oddly from the Nezzparin language Yawlorna was speaking, “what stopped you from simply fixing their bodies and reclaiming it?”

“Normal people’s souls are less bound to the material world it seems,” Glimmerglass said. “They can sometimes linger as the [Disembodied] but far more often the soul passes on down a road we can’t follow, and leaves behind at most an after-image in the ectoplasm which is what people often call a ghost. Those aren’t the people who died, just more or less distorted reflection of who they were at the time of death.”

“Why do I feel compelled to believe that your people have tried sticking those into revivified bodies already?” Yawlorna asked.

“Probably because you’ve talked with us for more than five minutes,” Tessa said.

“It tends to turn out as horribly as you might imagine,” Glimmerglass said. “The best case scenario is that the revivified person appears just like the original but fades out and ‘dies’ again in a few days as the ghostly impression on the ectoplasm of the [Dead Lands] fades away.”

“The worst cases dive right into the realms of body horror and nightmare,” Tessa said. “If those things linger they wind up as boss monsters that [Adventurers] need to destroy, and those storylines are messy.”

“But this won’t be our fate,” Yawlorna said. “If the worst comes to pass I mean.”

“It won’t be your fate if we have to resurrect you,” Glimmerglass said.

“I note that you didn’t exactly answer the question I asked,” Yawlorna said.

“If the worst comes to pass, you won’t be resurrectable because your soul will be bound in a [Torment Realm]. That’s a nightmare and a half, but until you’re fighting much higher level dungeon bosses, that’s not a scenario which should ever occur.”

“Of course. It was silly of me to assume that death was the worst thing this world might have to offer. Foolish really,” Yawlorna said, her notetaking not pausing or slowing as she spoke.

“There’s a lot to take in here,” Tessa said. “I’ve literally read the manual on this place, and all of the forum posts and wiki articles I could find, and it’s still a constant stream of surprises.”

“That’s comforting, or terrifying,” Yawlorna said. “Maybe both?”

“Well, the good news is that for as alien as this world may feel to you, you’re not intrinsically removed from it,” Glimmerglass said. “Once you started leveling, a lot of the same enchantments and metaphysical qualities that [Adventurers] possess began to manifest in you as well. You didn’t need to become something else, something like the rest of us, you just needed to have the same ‘extras’ added to you that us [Adventurers] got.”

“How sure are you that they got all of the same magical add-ons that the rest of us have?” Tessa asked.

“Oh, they don’t have all of them,” Glimmerglass said. “But then neither do you, or anyone else here. Heck I’m missing some too. The key is that they have the core set that every [Adventurer] shares no matter what race, job, or level they are, and that includes the response to restoration spells.”

Tessa could see the magic in her head as code. There were method calls like “pass through a level 50 gate” that she couldn’t hear or answer yet. On the other hand “pass through a level 20 gate” was a privilege she’d gained without even being aware of it.

“So you can resurrect us. Maybe. Probably. Does that mean you know what happens to us if we die here?” Yawlorna asked.

“In general terms, yes,” Glimmerglass said. “When you die, you’ll find yourself in the [Dead Lands] standing over your corpse. It’s a little surreal the first time it happens, but you get used to it pretty quickly.”

“It helps that while you’re dead, you’re not stuck like that,” Tessa said.

“From there you’ll want to find a [Heart Fire]. That’s where you can collect the power to resurrect yourself. Or, in this case, you can wait near your body and allow one of my spells to put you back in it.”

“What happens if we run off?” Yawlorna asked.

“My spell can bring you back to your body as long as your spirit is still available,” Glimmerglass said. “Which will be true as long as the [Hounds of Fate] haven’t gotten a hold of you.”

“They destroy souls?” Yawlorna asked.

“As far as we know, nothing can destroy a soul,” Glimmerglass said. “The Hounds carry them somewhere else though. Somewhere beyond. Somewhere we can’t contact them.”

“Can they be fought?”

“We don’t have any of our abilities as ghosts,” Tessa said. “You’ll hear them well before they get to you, but if they catch up and you’re not in the safety of a [Heart Fire Chapel] or back in your own body, that’s pretty much it. You’re done.”

Yawlorna sagged.

“I suppose that means there isn’t any hope for bringing back the members of my crew we already lost then?” she asked.

“I could tell you that nothing’s impossible, but the reality is probably that they either passed on to whatever afterlife you normally go to, or that the Hounds got them long ago and brought them to wherever they bring our people,” Glimmerglass said. “There’s usually time to resurrect dead [Adventurers] but not that much time.”

Yawlorna sighed.

“I’m not the first field promoted captain to lose crew members on a mission like this,” she said. “If there ever was a mission like this.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be this dangerous, was it?” Glimmerglass asked.

“A survey mission,” Yawlorna said. “Good for the students to get some practical experience under their belts before they started doing serious work.”

“We’ll help keep them safe from here,” Lisa said, putting a hand on Yawlorna’s massive clenched fist.

“I know,” Yawlorna said. “And I’m grateful for what you’ve done for my three chief idiots over there. And for offering us a place with you tonight. I think there’s only one more thing I need to know.”

“What’s that?” Glimmerglass asked.

“How can I learn to do what you do,” Yawlorna said, looking at the healer sitting before her.