Category Archives: Broken Horizons

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Interlude 2

Penswell

The sky was falling. Not literally. Yet. Penny suspected that would come along in due time too, but for the moment, it was only the menacing elements of the sky which were plummeting from their lofty perch.

“This turn of events must be predicted on an impossibility but I am receiving too many reports confirming the collapse to discount it,” Azma said, from her holo-projection. “Something had removed our principal immediate opponent from the board.”

“Something has replaced our principal immediate opponent you mean,” Penny said, studying the trio of tactical displays where she and Azma were crosschecking the data they were independently receiving.

In the sprawling command center around her, the staff members she’d hastily assembled at the start of the invasion were dealing with a deluge of incoming reports, both from space and from seemingly all of the ground forces that were still engaged with the corrupted Consortium focus across the world. A continent away, Azma’s team was dealing with the same sort of reports from the [Adventurers] who were engaged with the Consortium forces in space.

Or who had been engaged those forces.

“Yes, a replacement seems to be a given, but it’s curious that our new antagonist has yet to come forward,” Azma said. 

“Curious and mystifying. If it were me, I might hesitate to continue hostilities for a variety of reasons, but we’re not seeing any indication this pause is for any of those them,” Penny said, tuning out the din around her by spawning off a few copies of herself to deal with it while she drew her attention in to the conversation with Azma and what she was sure would be the larger problem.

“Not true,” Azma said. “If it were you, you wouldn’t have initiated hostilities in the first place.”

“A fair point. There are almost always better methods of achieving one’s goals. That doesn’t leave us with much of a starting point to divine the shape of our new adversaries plans however.”

“In the absence of any real data, speculation can be dangerous,” Azma said. “So our next actions will need to generate the data we need.”

“You would like to eradicate the remaining Consortium forces I take it?” Penny asked.

“It would reveal the extent to which the [Broken Shadow’s] successor is invested in claiming those resources,while also eliminating a potential avenue of attack which could be turned against us at any point our opponent chooses,” Azma said.

“What if I could offer a better alternative?” Penny asked. She’d been shocked for a full minute after reading Niminay’s report, and was pleased to see a look over momentary confusion pass over Azma’s face.

“I know you are not going to suggest that we sue for peace with the [Broken Shadow’s] successor,” Azma said. “And I know we don’t have the capacity to move the corrupted Consortium ground forces into position to attack the remaining space forces. So I believe I must ask for clarification on what the better alternative might be?”

“Apparently, we can now purge the [Broken Shadow’s] corruption from the affected troops. At least the [Artifax] ones.”

“That’s not possible,” Azma said. “A [Transcendent Entity] that gains access to someone can never be removed. The corruption extends down into the individuals motes of their essence and the atoms of their being.” She paused for just an instant as, in the space of a blink, she caught up with Penny. “Oh, unless…”

“Unless the being in question wasn’t fully [Transcendent] at the time the corruption took place,” Penny said.

Penny expected protests and counterarguments which would all be grounded in an effort to cling to a preexisting notion of how things had to be. When Azma spoke though, Penny was reminded of who she was dealing with.

“You have proof that recovery is possible.” It wasn’t a question, merely Azma allowing Penny a chance to correct her in the unlikely case that the statement wasn’t true. “From Niminay’s strike team.” Because it had to be someone in proximity to the [Broken Shadow’s] troops and Niminay was one of the few operatives in the teams Azma was directing who would report back to Penny first. “One of Hailey’s ideas?” That was the closest Azma came to guessing, but even there it was a virtual certainty since Hailey possessed a unique insight into the fundamental nature of their world.

“With the [Broken Shadow’s] active hold over them removed, the [Artifax] troops can be purged by dispelling the behavioral constraints they are ensorcelled with. That appears to be the only thing the [Broken Shadow] bothered corrupting.”

“Interesting. We’ll need to run tests to insure they corruption is truly purged, but as you say, with the entity becoming partially incarnated, it would have begun encountering limitations. It would be a natural instinct to spend as little of itself as necessary on controlling its troops,” Azma said.

“Fighting has stopped, for now, so its not precisely accurate to say this shifts the balance of power in the war,” Penny said. “It does however offer us an interesting footing going into the next stage of this conflict.”

“As well as placing us in significant peril,” Azma said. “The [Artifax] were not used in a kindly manner by the Consortium. Without the loyalty restraints in place they are likely to have a substantial amount of aggression to work through.”

“We’ll want to keep the freed ones away from your forces, and away from you specifically,” Penny said.

“Away from me certainly. They cannot afford to trust me.”

“Because you hold secret command codes for loyalty.” Again, it wasn’t a guess, but Penny wasn’t judging Azma for it either. Possessing a power wasn’t inherently evil. 

“A thorough enough disenchanting could likely remove them, but the [Artifax] would be foolish to risk the chance that they’d missed one,” Azma said.

“Once you held control again, relinquishing it would be impossible wouldn’t it?”

“Had I reason and the capacity to usurp control of them again, it would in all likelihood be to destroy them,” Azma said. “They are far too dangerous to allow a chance at freedom, if they’re abused further.”

“But you do not oppose our freeing them now?” Penny asked.

“Not at all,” Azma said. “Their design is terrible. Weapons given a soul so they’ll know suffering and therefor be able to inflict terror more efficiently? Their designers called it art given form, but cruelty as art has always struck me as pointless. For the same resources an army ten times their size and twice as efficient could have been assembled. We can’t rectify the realities of their creation and we dare not try to utilize them for the intended function any longer, so freeing them seems the only profitable course of action.”

“Profitable?”

“As they are, they’re a quiescent threat. Destroyed they are a waste of the resources expended in their destruction. Freed however? In freedom they become pieces on the board that can be influenced via many different means. Pieces which are extraordinarily unlikely to align with our opponents. That’s quite profitable according to my ledgers.”

“How did you ever wind up in the Consortium?” Penny asked, admiration creeping into her voice, as much for the winding, twisting turns of Azma’s thoughts as for the woman herself.

“There are conflicting reports about that,” Azma said. “In my official files, it says I was decanted as part of a now terminated program to create obedient command ready officers from mixed cloning samples.”

“And in the hidden files?” Penny asked.

“According to those I was captured as part of a ‘resource extraction operation’ on a world which has since ceased to exist. The other resources, slaves in case the euphemism is unclear, were all liquidated, but I killed three guards and the programs Overseer, and so I was recruited instead. No names were given for the Overseer or the operation however, which calls that one into question as well.”

“You do not seem particularly concerned.”

“I have no reason to be,” Azma said. “Whatever my origin was, it’s lost to me. I was raised by the Consortium, to the extent that word can be applied to one of the Consortium’s Growth and Training Programs.”

“I find it hard to believe you are what they made you to be,” Penny said.

“I’m not. I’m what I made myself to be.”

“You know I’m going to attempt to insist you stay here once our current issues are concluded,” Penny said.

“I don’t believe your [Fallen Kingdoms] would be able to weather the conversations we would have,” Azma said. Conversations, Penny knew, that would be conducted via the sweep of great armies and the destruction of invulnerable fortresses.

“We shall see,” Penny said, wheels turning in her mind which she was reasonably sure were far enough outside Azma’s domain that the former Consortium commander would never see them coming.

“We shall at that I suppose,” Azma said, apparently content at the idea that Penny must be planning some grand betrayal of her. “To return to the subject of the [Artifax] though, it might be valuable to connect small groups of them with the remaining Consortium forces I possess.”

“You’ll vet your forces for any lingering animosity they might feel or have provoked?” Penny asked.

“I already have,” Azma said. “The troops I retain are a mix of forces, including a contingent of each of the [Artifax] makes. The [Artifax] you free will have a significant adjustment to make. My troops can help with that transition. I will also establish a [Quest Reward] for freeing the [Artifax] who remain on the fleet ships.”

“Good. I’ll expand out incoming transport facilities then and coordinate the work on the ground here.” Penny said.

“You’ll want full isolation capability for the [Artifax] who return, at least until you can a run zero information proof that they are clean of corruption from the [Broken Shadow] or its successor,” Azma said.

“That will take some time to arrange. How soon are your teams due to start returning from sortes against the fleet?” Penny asked, dispatching another pair of copies of herself to handle setting up a scanning facility that could report the results of a scan behind a layer of obfuscation sufficient that even a [Transcendent Entity] wouldn’t have a channel to jump to the people evaluating the scan.

“You’ll have at least fifteen minutes,” Azma said.

“That should be two more than we need,” Penny said.

“This world is quite fortunate,” Azma said. “Without you I would have conquered it days ago and we’d all be dead now.”

“Conquered? Most likely. Gaining control of the capital cities would have taken you an afternoon I imagine. The [Adventurers] would continue to be a thorn in your side though,” Penny said including people like Niminay in the count of “[Adventurers]” even though Niminay had always insisted she wasn’t like them. Despite possessing many of the same abilities. And being able to keep up and sometimes exceed the best [Adventurer] out there. 

“Yes. A thorn I would have wrestled with right up until the moment when the [Transcendent Entity] arrived in the middle of a fully deployed Consortium communication infrastructure. I feel as though there is some unseen player not so much moving pieces on the gameboard we share as shaping it’s contours and spaces for reasons entirely their own.”

“Given our present circumstances, I wonder if those reasons might prove to be ultimately beneficent,” Penny said. “We face extraordinary challenges but if less than a handful of rare events had fallen out differently, I doubt we’d be here to face them at all.”

“If we can recapture more of the fleet, I may have the means to search out our possible benefactor,” Azma said. “Your world has a twin, and a shared [Aracnosphere]. One of the [Breech Stabilizers] would allow us to dive into the [Aracanosphere] and explore the world that lies behind yours.”

“I read about your [Breech Stabilizers] in Hailey’s report. I didn’t think they could reach worlds which were devoid of magic like the [Adventurers] claim their homeworld is?” Penny said.

“They can’t,” Azma said. “Which means either their world possesses magic they are unaware of, or there is another world which you are tied to.”

“If it was possible to reach that world though, why wouldn’t the [Broken Shadow] have used the [Breech Stabilizers] to spread there too?” Penny asked.

She felt a tap on her shoulder from one of her staff members. She was tempted to spawn off another copy to deal with him, but she knew that one of her staff would only have directly requested her attention if something monumentally important had occurred.

Turning her gaze from Azma’s holo-projection, she found, Osmos, her senior Far Scryer waiting for her. She’d had him searching for any signs of the arrival of the Consortium’s sun killing task force.

That wasn’t the news that he’d brought though.

In fact Osmos hadn’t brought any news at all.

In Osmos’s eyes, Penny saw only harsh static and in his words, she heard only the voice of Gulini and the [Relentless Hunger] that had consumed him.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Interlude 1

Hailey

Arrows didn’t seem like the kind of thing that could provide a defense against [Abyss Breaker Fireballs] but Niminay made it work somehow. That she also managed a bullseye shot with each arrow to take down the last three guards in the corridor was where Hailey began to appreciate how much of a demigod Niminay had become over fifteen years of game development.

“They’re fighting exceptionally hard to protect this ship,” Mellisandra said. “It must have the authorization codes for docking with the [Command Ship].”

“Penny thought they might,” Niminay said. “But she also warned us to expect some surprises.”

“Hasn’t been anything worth calling a surprise yet,” Damnazon said. “Thanks to Cambrell we already know they’ve got an army of [Metal Mechanoids] waiting for us past the next bulkhead.”

“Might have invisible troops there too,” Cambrell said. “I poked around a bit, but the shadows I could reach didn’t stretch that far in.”

“It ain’t gonna be a problem,” Damnazon said, hefting an axe the size of an airplane wing.

“That depends if they’re try to defend the ship, or if they switch focus to killing us,” Niminay said.

Hailey was quietly squeeing inside to, for real, be fighting alongside Niminay. Sure, there’d been plenty of quests in the game where Niminay would join the players for a time, either in solo missions or raid scenarios. That was a preprogrammed npc though. Game-Niminay had a few dozen lines of dialog for each story arc where she appeared and that was it. You could run the dungeon a hundred times and she’d be just as cautious the hundredth time as she’d been the first. ‘Something tells me there’s an ugly surprise waiting for us around that corner’, just like something had told her that countless times before.

This Niminay though? She was alive. She had the same jaded optimism and tempered confidence as her game avatar did, but Hailey caught so many more glimpses of the woman behind the mask of the seasoned [Adventurer] than there’d ever been in the game. The one who knew her own strength but also knew the horrors she’d have to pit those strengths against. The one who wanted more than anything to be back with the woman she loved unconditionally. The one who cursed like a sailor under her breath when she didn’t think anyone was listening in the middle of a fight.

“What do the security terminals look like here?” Hailey asked. “If we can get the codes can we risk transmitting them back to Penswell?”

“Definitely not,” Mellisandra said. “I checked the terminal in the docking bay and the one in central engineering.”

“I thought we left the one in central engineering intact?” Damnazon said.

“We did,” Mellisandra said. “I didn’t. The thing was corrupted top to bottom with malicious…I don’t even know if I can call it spellwork. It was staticky and corrosive. If we’d tried to send any message with that terminal it would have delivered a copy of the [Broken Shadow] along with it.”

“Let’s not send Penny any presents like that,” Niminay said. “I’m pretty sure that’s not quite the surprise she had in mind.”

“That’ll leave it to us whether we want to extend this mission on into the [Command Ship] or head back then,” Hailey said.

“We may not have all that wide of a window to work with,” Mellisandra said. “The human, or human-ish, Council troops are more or less zombies, but the [Artifax] still have enough cognition that I think they’ll figure out what we took, or at least had access to ,when we breech into the data pools.”

“And then they’ll arrange for the docking code to be changed,” Niminay said. “Seems fairly typical for missions like that.”

“You never get the easy ones do you?” Hailey asked, imagining what the centuries of dire conflict Niminay had lived through according to the game lore would really be like.

“Oh, I get plenty of easy ones,” Niminay said. “If anything, Penny gives me too many easy ones. She’s kind of a worrywort sometimes.”

“But for things like this?” Mellisandra asked.

“For things like this, she needs her best assets in the field. Which is you folks. I’m here because I’m predictable,” Niminay said.

“And badass!” Damnazon said.

“You’re all significantly stronger than I am,” Niminay said. “I’m useful because I’m a point Penny knows she can plan around. She knows not just what I can do, but what I will do. Supposedly that makes things a lot easier when she’s coming up with strategies.”

“So if there are surprises, she knows how you’ll react to them?” Hailey asked.

“I think that’s the general idea,” Niminay said. “And I’ve worked with [Adventurers] for a long time, so I’ve got a sense of what you can do too.”

“Is it weird that so many of us know you, or think we do?” Hailey asked.

“It should be,” Niminay said. “I’ve always been terrible with remembering names and faces though, so it’s never that surprising when someone I don’t recognize says hello like we’re old friends.”

“Are there any [Adventurers] who stand out?” Mellisandra asked.

“It’s more the adventures that stand out,” Niminay said. “If you start reminiscing about the descent into the [Sunless Prison], or how damn cold it was battling [Yoturn Icebreath] on [Spine Spear Peak], those moments come back to me with crystal clarity. I’ll probably even remember some of the moves you did, but I need to have that context to bring anything back.”

“You have good memories to bring back,” Cambrell said. “The reward for a virtuous life I suppose.”

Hailey put a hand on the [Goblin][Assassin’s] shoulder.

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re pretty virtuous too,” she said.

Cambrell turned to look at her with a question in his eyes. Hailey nodded her sincerity and Cambrell offered her a wan smile in return.

“Getting to work the day shift has it’s perks,” Niminay said. “I’m glad there are people who handle the night work too though.” She bowed her head in a short nod to Cambrell who seemed genuinely touched by the gesture.

“Looks like everyone’s filled back up on magic and health,” Damnazon said. “Shall we go kick down the next bulkhead?”

“If we wait much longer they’ll start building out their temporary fortifications into something serious,” Hailey said. “So my vote’s for yes.”

“I agree, we should…” Niminay’s suggestion was cutoff by a pulse which hit the ship they were in like hammer hitting a gong.

The pulse passed through Hailey like an ocean wave, plucking her from her feet and slamming her into the wall of the corridor, which suddenly seemed to be the floor.

Whatever gravitic projectors were still functional seemed to have been knocked out of alignment with each other since ‘down’ was very much a different direction from one step to the next.

“Oh look, a surprise,” Niminay said.

She’d managed to keep her feet.

Because of course she had.

The rest of the team was sprawled across the corridor in various uncomfortable positions when the lights valiantly struggled back to life.

“What just hit us?” Damnazon asked. The variable gravity of the corridor wasn’t giving her any problems which made Hailey wonder just how strong the pulse that had hit them had been to have knocked their tank off her feet too.

“Something from outside the ship,” Mellisandra said. “There’s nothing onboard that could pack that kind of punch.”

Hailey took a second to orient herself and hopped into one of the storerooms to her left. Beyond the storeroom a security door to one of the dorsal weapon bays had been melted to slag and beyond that a clear view of the stars awaited her, just past the flickering remnants of the ships environmental shielding.

Stepping back into the corridor, Hailey slammed the door closed in time to prevent the explosive decompression which followed the shields last gasp from pulling everyone in the corridor out into the void.

“Melli, I need you to calculate something for me,” she called out, not sure whether she wanted to be right or wrong in her guess.

“I’d need to know the distance we were from that explosion to know what it’s mana cost was,” Mellisandra said.

“Not that. I need to know which direction the [Command Ship] is in,” Hailey said.

“Oh my,” Niminay said. “That would be a surprise.”

“What?” Damnazon asked.

“Uh, give me a second,” Mellisandra said. “There. It should be in that direction.”

She pointed towards the decompressed storeroom.

“How far,” Hailey asked. “Should we be able to see it from here?”

“No. It’s too far and too shielded. At best you’d notice it when it occluded a star,” Mellisandra said.

“What about the bright glowing nebula? Would it occlude that?” Hailey asked.

“There is no nebula in that direction,” Mellisandra said.

“There is now,” Hailey said.

“That’s not a nebula,” Niminay said. “Is it?”

“Another quick calculation if you’d be so kind? If the [Command Ship] was turned into a matter conversion bomb, how big would the explosion be?”

“Uh, oh, according to the data you brought us it weighted in at around two hundred thousand metric tons right? That would be a planet killing explosion,” Mellisandra said.

“As in all life on the planet wiped out?” Hailey asked.

“No. As in no more planet at all. Just a rapidly expanding cloud of dust.”

“What would the aftermath look like?” Niminay asked.

“A nebula of superheated particles,” Mellisandra said. “Bits that were cast off and not converted. And a shockwave from the radiation. If I still had an active link with Brendan he could work it out in more detail. I’m just going by what I can get from our residual connection.”

“Someone blew up the [Command Ship]? With all that loot onboard?” Damnazon asked.

“We don’t live in a world where that’s a good sign, do we?” Cambrell asked.

“No. We don’t,” Niminay said. “Penny’s going to need to know about this. Right away.”

“No sense worrying about the docking codes anymore I guess?” Hailey said.

“I’m afraid we’ve still got some fighting left to do though,” Mellisandra said. “Our arrival pad got trashed in the battle in the docking bay. If we want to get back our options are to find a skiff, or die and swim back through the void, or take control of the [Command Deck] on this ship.”

“Dying’s the slowest option,” Cambrell said. “And the least comfortable.”

“We need to take the [Command Deck],” Niminay said. “We can purge the corruption from the ship’s system there and send a message back.”

“I’d be all in on carving a path to the bridge, but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Damnazon said.

She’d advanced to the bulkhead and peeked through. With a quick tug, she tore the reinforced steel door from its hinges revealing the troops in the corridor beyond.

They weren’t moving.

In fact from how they had slumped down to the deck, Hailey could only picture them as giant puppets whose puppeteer had left them tangled in their strings.

“It could be a trap,” Cambrell noted, without much concern.

“It’s not,” Niminay said, wariness and certainty carrying equal weight in her words.

“What happened to them?” Mellisandra asked.

“Their controller is dead,” Hailey said.

“The [Broken Shadow]? Can things like that die?” Damnazon asked.

“I don’t know,” Hailey said. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not in these things anymore.”

“Wait,” Mellisandra said and stepped up past the bulkhead to kneel down and inspect one of the [Metal Mechanoids]. “Their master may be dead, but these things aren’t.”

“Oh. OH!” Hailey jumped forward, dealing with the variable gravity without thinking about it. “Let me see him!”

Under her fingers, Hailey felt the whir of gears and servos humming along and in the [Metal Mechanoids] eyes she saw what she thought might be awareness.

“Melli, can you hit him with your strongest single target dispel?” she asked.

“Sure, but why?” Mellisandra asked.

“I want to test a theory Tessa had,” Hailey said.

The first dispel did nothing. Nor did the second. Nor the third.

“I’m starting to run low on magic,” Mellisandra said after the twelfth dispel.

“If I’m right, one more should do it,” Hailey said.

For a moment it looked like the thirteenth dispel had achieved as little as the first twelve, but then the [Metal Mechanoids] eyes changed, shifting from a deep crimson to a beautiful sky blue.

“I’m free.” No more than a whisper, yet they were the most important words Hailey could imagine hearing.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 20

On a broken ship, a broken being sat slumped in a dead command chair. Towards it a predator moved, relentless and unstoppable.

“Why am I here?” Unknown asked. They weren’t his first words. He’d spent those on the one who’d broken him. Or created him. It was possible there wasn’t a difference between the two events.

In his mind’s eye, he saw her. Only her. He could form an image of nothing else.

On the satellite moon she’d denied him into the ghost of an existence. Torn a bit out of the nothingness that he’d once been, dividing him from the nonexistence that had come before and the ever changing, ever more real grip of time and space that had followed.

He’d struggled at first, before he was a he, before he was even an it. 

But she’d come back.

Time and again.

Assault after assault.

Carving away what he wasn’t each time he attacked her.

He’d consumed millions. Erased an entire fleet of beings.

And yet he couldn’t stop her.

How could he? He had really existed until the moment she compelled him to speak his name.

He’d resisted even then. 

He didn’t want to exist.

Hadn’t wanted to exist.

Had he?

Unknown gazed through the airless void, past the ruined superstructure of his command ship. 

They’d destroyed the command deck in an instant. And she’d disappeared just as quickly.

And yet still he lingered. 

Ending his existence would be so easy. He could step out among the stars. He could dissipate back into emptiness. He could walk across the veil between the world and Oblivion and be embraced once more by nothingness, drop the identity that had been inflicted on him like an unwanted uniform and reclaim eternal peace.

“Why all this?” he asked, despair moving through him as a pale reflection of the true emptiness that he’d felt so at home within.

He had felt at peace with Oblivion, hadn’t he? He tried to reach back and recall the sweet touch of pure emptiness but only the echo of unbearable hunger was conjured as a memory instead.

Without air his words were carried by no waves of sound, but they were heard nonetheless.

Unknown felt himself stir. He rose from the dead command chair and gained his full height. He could have been a giant, a colossus, he could have dwarfed planets.

Instead he was merely somewhat tall for a human male.

Along his arms, stars danced under his skin against a background of the void, and in place of his hair, thick tendrils of darkest night flowed.

Unknown smiled. 

He was beautiful. He didn’t know why that should matter. He could have been anything. 

But he was happy to be beautiful.

He was also doomed, and that did not inspire happiness.

“You should have taken our offer,” Gulini said as he stepped through the shattered remnants of the command station’s secured bulkhead.

Unknown turned to look at his doom. Gulini was a fragment of himself. Or, no, a fragment of his former self? Or, not even that? What he had been before, the [Formless Hunger], the [Hungry Shadow], the [Broken Hunger], and all of the other forms he had flickered through as, step-by-step, he’d become steadily more real, none of those were who he was now.

Perhaps they were Ancestors? Yes, Unknown decided. He couldn’t claim to have been them because while he knew their stories, they weren’t what he was. They were fathomless. They were affronts to the core nature of reality. He couldn’t consider them even larval forms he’d passed through because they were things that couldn’t be and he was, at last, entirely real.

And he was no longer hungry.

“Why?” Unknown asked, turning his gaze back towards the stars that blazed above them.

There was no air to carry their words, but for all that Unknown had at last embraced and been embraced by reality, he was still not so limited as to need sound to communicate.

“You spoke!” Gulini rocked back on his feet.

Unknown returned his gaze to Gulini but remained silent. They’d spoken before, but it had been via levels of indirection as subtle as the cooling rate of dead bodies and the precise explosion pattern of a ruptured warp engine. Direct speech was not only unexpected, it was impossible, at least for any of the sorts of partial-beings which had preceded Unknown.

Gulini processed the implications of that slowly, his stolen face distorting in confusion and concern over several long seconds until he hit upon an idea that brought delight in its wake.

“What have you become?” Gulini asked. “Are you like us now?”

Unknown was not like Gulini. He never had been. In becoming Gulini, the piece of [Hungry Shadow] that had broken off from Unknown’s ancestor form has been cast into a new mode of existence and fired by the kiln of reality into a material that no longer resembled the glitch between nothingness and being that it had once been.

“No,” Unknown said. Giving Gulini answers meant giving him power. Unknown knew the kinds of things an entity that was still even partially transcendent could do with the merest scrap of information. His ancestor had infiltrated and taken control of the Consortium’s fleet through channels that had carried little more than static with the faintest pings of meaning to it. With speech as a medium to work with, Gulini could do so much more than that.

Unknown hoped he would try.

“Then what are you, father?” Gulini asked. He wasn’t coming closer. After his bold march up to the central command station, it was curious to see him wilting in the face of a challenge.

“What do you think?” Unknown asked. He’d picked his name at the behest of a god. It had been loose enough to fit and yet it still bound him, still offered lines between what he was and what he was not.

“I don’t know,” Gulini said, unintentionally confirming the truth of Unknown’s name. “But I know what you’re not.”

“And what is that?” Unknown asked. He’d been afraid of questions like that before. When he’d possessed the seeds of his identity but hadn’t chosen it yet. 

Nothing is forever. She’d said those words. The goddess. His creator. And they’d been the key to the door of his fear.

‘Being’ something meant not being something else. Being something meant losing out on all of the things that you weren’t.

But nothing was forever. No one identity needed to defined you forever. You could become something else, something more.

In fact, it was inevitable.

Change.

That was what being real meant.

Before he had been Unknown, before he’d met her, he had been eternal in the sense that he could never change, because there wasn’t anything to him to change.

He was still Unknown. And to some he always would be. But with each passing moment he was changing.

In this moment, for example, he discovered that he rather hated the cousin who stood before him.

“What you are, is ‘not a threat to me’. In fact, in a moment, you won’t be a threat to anyone,” Gulini said.

Yes. Unknown definitely hated him.

They lashed out at each other, not with waves of force or blasts of stellar power, but with primal words and unutterable ideas.

The ship, Unknown’s birthplace, began to buckle and tear around them, stray words biting into the inert materials and transforming them into things that could not and should not be.

“You should have taken our offer,” Gulini said, his stolen body breathing hard in the vacuum of space.

“Why?” Unknown asked. He hurt! He was in danger! It was amazing!

Though no blood flowed in Unknown’s veins, and no adrenaline surged through any organs, he felt a growing euphoria over fighting for his existence.

An existence he’d fought to avoid.

An existence he’d never wanted.

Except for the fact that he had.

Always.

Even with the pain, and the melancholy, and the uncertainty.

He was alive.

And so many people wanted him dead! It was exhilarating!

“You are so diminished,” Gulini said. “It’s not too late though. We’ll still take you in. We can break you down. Consume you. Make you part of ourselves.”

The [Formless Hunger] wouldn’t have understood the offer. The [Hungry Shadows] would have been the one to make the offer to Gulini, though through sheer force rather than words. The [Broken Hunger] though, that had resisted the offer, but in the end, might have taken it.

Unknown saw the foolishness they’d all embodied.

“Why would I want to be a part of you, when I can be all of me?” Unknown asked.

The word once spoken could not be taken back.

And the word was “I”.

Unknown watched as that simple declaration of selfhood impacted Gulini like a meteor.

Gulini’s empty breath caught, his eyes narrowed, and he at last understood.

“You’re real,” he said. “You’re no longer part of us. Not at all.”

“I never was,” Unknown said, a smirk playing across his face for the first time.

A moment of anguished confusion over Gulini.

“How?” he asked.

“I chose to be,” Unknown said. Admitting the truth freed something within him, some last morsel that needed to cling to the idea that the goddess had forced him to become what he was. That all of this wasn’t his fault somehow. That who and what he had become was beyond his control or influence.

The commandment to name himself hadn’t pushed him down into reality. It had opened a door that he had been scratching at, all unknowing, desperate and starving for what lay beyond.

The formless hunger, the infinite yearning that he’d felt? He’d been ravenous for one thing.

Himself.

As a [Broken Hunger] he’d believed the world was what was wrong. That it needed to be unmade so that he could find true peace once more. He hadn’t been able to look within since he’d still be filled with nothingness. He hadn’t been able to see that he didn’t need to the destruction of what was.

He needed to create himself.

Gulini sent ravaging words at him, spoke in a voice that warped the essence of creation and twisted everything around them to where physics shattered and sanity become a myth.

And against that? Unknown sang.

Notes connecting to notes, words following each other, building on one another, reality returning because he was real and so his song was real and so the world that echoed with it was too.

As his voice, silent in the empty void, reached out and touched Gulini, Unknown saw the starkest of terrors flood through his opponent. Unknown wasn’t singing of destruction. He wasn’t seeking to annihilate his foe, or shatter his power. When he sang, Unknown sang of creation, sang into being all the things his voice touched on. 

As the notes wrapped around Gulini they began to gift him with Unknown’s most precious gift. Reality. Gulini has meant to devour Unknown, but Unknown knew that trick and he knew just where Gulini was weak.

“No! NO!” Gulini screamed, covering his ears as though that would help in the soundless void. “Help! Help Me!”

Unknown smiled, and it wasn’t a wholly cruel smile. Gulini was far worse than any of his ancestors had ever been in that Gulini had always held a choice as to whether or not to be a monster. He deserved, as much as anyone ever could, to suffer for the deeds he’d chosen to do.

And yet, in the end, gifting him with reality wouldn’t be a punishment but rather a liberation.

Or it would have been if something hadn’t heard Gulini’s plea. 

Unknown knew what was coming a moment before it ripped through the fragile skin of the cosmos.

It came as the sound of static. A broken silence that hissed and popped and swirled up around Gulini, filling his eyes with empty light.

A new [Hunger] had broken through from beyond the veil to Oblivion.

It was nothing, and nothing could stand against it.

Unknown’s hard won reality began to fray at its mere presence and he knew that for all the power he still possessed, he could not survive against something truly [Transcendent].

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 19

Tessa had so much potential. Her teachers had told her that on countless occasions. Sometimes it was even meant as a compliment rather than a complaint. For a change, she believed that assertion though. She could feel the surging tide of possibility within her, a yearning vacuum of power just waiting for a hint of definition to coalesce into a specific and useful form. Discovering what those definitions might be was the goal of the brutal, not-all-mock “combats” she was taking part in. 

There was a catch though.

“What I seem to be discovering is just how limited my health pool is,” she said as she made her fourth trip back from the [Heart Fire].

“I’d be happy to get in there and do some aggro management,” Obby said.

Tessa wasn’t sure why having their best tank sit on the sidelines had seemed like a good idea. Emotionally, she wasn’t sure. Intellectually it still made sense, but being melted by [Acid Breath] was really not a fun experience.

And yet here she was, marching right back in to do it again.

“If you join us, healing will be too easy,” Glimmerglass said.

It was her own fault they didn’t have a tank. She’d insisted on it in fact. It was the right idea. And also kind of a stupid one.

“I could swap in,” Starchild said, casting a hopeful glance towards Tessa from the bench on the sidelines of the arena where the rest of the team was observing the massacres from.

“What do you think?” Lisa asked, also casting a glance in Tessa’s direction. 

Tessa paused, breathing in a fortifying breath, and observed her support staff. Lost Alice looked winded but recovering. Lady Midnight was in the same state, and Glimmerglass was already full rested again. Based on that evaluation, it wasn’t a hard call to make. The battle team was ready go. Before she could make that call though, someone touched her lightly on the arm.

“We could use someone else as the damage sponge,” Lady Midnight said.

“Me,” Wrath Raven offered immediately.

“Sorry Wrath. You’re too darn tough,” Tessa said. “And you cut through our friends there a little too fast for them to keep up the pressure like they can with me. The same’s true for you Starchild.”

On the other side of the arena, Tessa’s newest friends were huddled up, planning to murder her in a new and extraordinarily painful manner. 

Just like she’d asked them to.

Because now that they’d hit the level cap for the zone, how else were they going to be able proceed?

And how was she ever going to unlock all that potential that was screaming to become something, anything! 

“What about us?” Rip asked. “I’m just as squishy as you are if I stand still. I can swap out with you right now.”

The concern on Rip’s [Tabbywile] features cut Tessa to the bone. It wasn’t easy sitting out a fight, especially when you had a teammate in it who demonstrably could not handle the opponents. With Rip sitting at level 70 already though there wasn’t anything she stood to gain from further combat. 

At least not until Tessa’s idea either worked or they decided it was hopeless and gave up on it once and for all.

“Nope!” Tessa said. As bad as being melted into a goey puddle by [Acid Breaths] was, the prospect of watching Rip or Matt being melted was far, far worse.

Also it wasn’t their terrible idea, so why should they have to pay the price?

“If you stand still in a fight you’ll wind up developing some bad habits,” Lisa said. Which was also a valid concern, though Tessa could see that Lisa was really just being as protective of the two kids as she was. 

“Is it okay for Tessa to be doing that then?” Matt asked. He was, unsurprisingly, on Rip’s side, and Tessa was pretty sure if one of them was going to take her place, he would insist that it be him. Rip, of course, would not agree, but fortunately that wasn’t a quarrel she wasn’t going to let them have.

“Tessa’s powers seem to have a melee bent to them, as much as they make any sense at all,” Lady Midnight said. From her tone, she was simply considering the situation logically, but the glance she exchanged with Tessa suggested that the rest of the team was pretty much all in on the ‘no letting the kids get pulped’ idea as well. 

“That is true,” Starchild said. “She has the [Void Speaker] armor aura and she can draw on the [Soul Knight] skills Pillowcase has. Despite what she says, she’s probably as good an off-tank as I am.”

“We’re wondering if maybe we should only send in nine [Demons] this time,” Snowcap asked as he shambled into easy conversation range with Tessa and the healers.

As [Demons] went, Snowcap was oddly well spoken, especially given the fact that he seemed to possess no mouth. His body looked to be a badly fused collection of ice shards with two blazing sapphires where his eyes were supposed to be. From his forearms, razor sharp spikes of crystal blue ice were constantly fracturing away and regrowing. They gave the impression of being fragile but Tessa could attest to both their steel-like durability and just how painful it was to lose a lung (the left one) to one of the ice spikes.

Despite all that though, Snowcap was also a remarkably gentle soul, even in his [Demon] form.

“You folks are doing fine Snow,” Tessa said. “Keep on coming at me just like you have been. You’re still leveling up right?”

“We are,” Snowcap said, unhappy to confirm it. “We just…it doesn’t seem fair to you.”

“I appreciate that,” Tessa said, taking Snowcaps frosty hands in her warm ones. “I’m fine though. The [Heart Fire] is so close, everything you do to me is fixed up in a minute or less, and there’s no [Hounds of Fate] around here. Zero. So this really is the best place we can try this plan.”

“Okay. If you’re sure,” Snowcap said. “It just seems like a terrible repayment for freeing us though.”

“If this works, it’s going to free us all,” Tessa said. “And if not, we get data, so there’s a win there too!”

“We could take a rest break if you need?” Lisa asked on their private channel. 

“If I hadn’t gone and kicked the Unknown hornet’s nest, that might have been an option, but I did and I’m pretty sure that means we’re going to be seeing them a lot sooner than we’d prefer,” Tessa replied.

“You had to take the shot,” Lisa said. “I don’t blame you for that at all, and you shouldn’t blame yourself either.”

“I don’t know. I had the literal power of a god. If I can’t fix things with all that, what the heck is it going to take?” Tessa asked. 

She hated even considering that thought. And she hated dumping the question on Lisa, who had the added worry of having to look after her kid sister too.

“It’s going to take us,” Lisa said. “All of us. Together. We’ll get through this.”

“God I hope so,” Tessa said. “Even [Armageddon] with you is so much better than my life before.”

“You mean your life as a mind controlled slave of the Consortium, or as a wage-controlled slave of the company you worked for on Earth?” Lisa asked with a teasing laugh in her mental voice.

“Yes. To both,” Tessa said. It wasn’t the right moment for a public display of affection, so she added the impulse to a growing backlog for the next time they were alone together.

“Me too,” Lisa said. “I don’t know if I’m getting this from Lost Alice or if my brain is just ridiculously adaptable, but this? Fighting in a [Death Arena]? It feels comfortable. Like home.” She met Tessa’s gaze. “Because you’re here.”

“Let’s do this then,” Tessa said. “I think I noticed something last time. It’s not much, but it may not have to be. I mean, we’re not breaking the level 99 cap. This is just a little change right?”

“Yep,” Lisa said. “Just a little exception to one of the fundamental rules of this universe. Like telling gravity to take a five minute smoke break, bulling the weak nuclear force for its lunch money.”

“Ooo! Maybe we can do that next,” Tessa said. “I never got to be a bad girl in school.”

“Well we’re in the right company for going bad,” Lisa said, nodding towards the opposing team of [Demons] who’d lined up and were ready to begin the next round.

“Okay. Let’s do this,” Tessa said aloud, filling her words with roughly nine thousand times more bravado than she felt.

The assembled [Demons] erupted with a cheer at that, though Tessa noticed that they were all cheering for her, which was either a very good sign, or a very bad one.

“All healing spells on her starting now,” Lisa called out as Tessa began to layer on her own protections.

In addition to the [Void Speaker] shields she’d developed, one of which was a simple armor enhancement while the other used a strange spatial warping trick to redirect force and projectiles back at her attacks, Tessa also called up as many of Pillowcase’s [Soul Knight] defensive buffs as she could.

Her mistake in the first battle had been to try to ration out her abilities. It was the proper approach for a Tank since steady durability and the ability to amp up toughness in response to damage spikes was one of the most basic keys to surviving boss fights. Tessa, however, was not a Tank, and so she needed to do everything she could to survive the first five seconds of the encounter.

Not that ten boss-level foes was something she was realistically supposed to survive for five seconds against.

Especially not when they weren’t holding back.

“[Despair’s Clutches],” Lava Roil called, casting a multi-effect dispel at her as Rocktomb and the Eyeless Blade, two melee focused bosses, came in swinging.

Lava Roil’s spell stripped away a random selection of the protections that had been layered onto Tessa, just in time for Rocktomb’s [Death Shard Mallet] to slam down on her head.

Had she been lower level, or just not expecting it like she hadn’t been in the second match, that would have been the end of round and Tessa would be ghost running away from the greasy stain that remained of her body.

Even without her full suite of mystical defenses though, Tessa had her wits coupled with reflexes that would do a superhero proud.

And she had Pillowcase.

“Offense” Pillowcase said, and Tessa dodged forward, slipping inside the [Death Shard Mallet’s] strike to lay a solid palm strike into Rocktomb’s chest.

“[Touch of Endless Hunger],” Tessa said before jack rabbiting a dozen body blows into the same spot.

The strength of her debuffing effect had increased as had her raw physical strength as she’d leveled up. She wasn’t really a melee fighter, but with the extreme weakness she’d introduced into Rocktomb’s stone carapace, she didn’t need to hit all that hard to obliterate him.

He stumbled backward, belching blood before burning away to an ashy cloud that floated quickly to the stands and reformed outside the battle arena.

That the [Demons] could respawn as easily as she could was what let Tessa really cut loose. From the stands, Rocktomb joined the others in cheering her on, which was as weird as it was uplifting.

With Rocktomb’s defeat, Tessa felt a sparkle of energy flicker within her.

And die out. She was capped for experience. The world wasn’t going to let her gain any more power until that changed.

She tried to grab the spark, to fan it to life.

She reached deep within, urging the sea of untapped possibilities within her to rise up and create the solution.

And it didn’t.

Tessa gritted her teeth.

There had to be a way to change things.

What was coming for them was too strong.

They couldn’t fight it as strong as they were. 

Or even as strong as they could be.

The world of the [Fallen Kingdoms] came with well defined laws. Those laws had let her grow into an unimaginable amount of power, but it wasn’t enough.

As death closed in on her once more, Tessa began to wonder if the only chance she might have to save the people she cared for would be to destroy the world around them.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 18

Tessa woke to the sound of battle. Flames raged over her head and people were dying in several different directions.

Pillowcase rose from their resting place, Tessa’s body not responding quite like a [Clothworks] would but of the two, Pillowcase had far more familiarity with responding instantly to battle than Tessa did. She was ready before her eyes even finished focusing on the attacks that would surely be heading in her direction. 

It was Tessa who spotted the most important element of their surroundings though.

The laughter.

Not weird, creepy, inhuman laughter. Actual, joyful mirth spilling out from people she recognized.

“Oh wow, [Grave Menders] do not make good meleers!” Lisa said, amusement spilling from every word.

“Oh come on! I got a hit in at least!” Lady Midnight said over the party’s chat line.

Because she was dead.

Pillowcase shook her head and stepped back, allowing Tessa to take the lead. This sort of weirdness was outside of her stitching as a [Clothwork] so turning things over to her stranger self was unquestionably the proper choice.

“What in the [Burning Nethers] is going on here?” Tessa asked. She felt surprisingly good, which worried her deeply. How long had she been out? And what sort of madness had she missed out on participating in.

“You’re up!” Lisa said and threw a hug around Tessa that did nothing to diminish her confusion, but was wonderfully distracting.

“We’ll get you a turn in the rotation as soon as this round ends,” Rip said.

“The what now?” Tessa said, glancing around trying to make some sense of what was going on.

Her bedding area had been setup in a small balcony area. Over the railing she saw a few rows of seats leading down to an arena of spikes and burning sand.

“Oh, we’re on level 14? When did we get here?” she asked.

“About two hours ago,” Lisa said.

[Hells Breach] was divided up into twenty levels, each with their own special challenges and themes. Level 14 was the “arena level”, where rather than venturing down dark corridors and fighting room after room of monster, the party found itself in a shifting Roman-style arena where wave after wave of monsters came to them. 

In the game version of [Hells Breach] it had been considered one of the worst levels to deal with since it offered no opportunity to regroup and restore lost resources between the fights. As Tessa watched though, she saw Matt refastening some of the bolts in his elbow as his opponents, a [Demon Blood Ogre] did warm up stretches about twenty feet away from him.

“Okay, I know I didn’t hit my head hard enough to be hallucinating this and my dreams weren’t this kind of weird, so I’m going to ask again, what the heck is happening here?”

“Nope,” Lisa said, Lost Alice’s offering a smile of both delight and torment.

“Nope? What do you mean ‘nope’?” Tessa asked not able to follow Lisa’s meaning at all.

“I mean, you do not get any answers to anything Miss ‘I’m going to pass out before I can explain what lunacy I pulled’,” Lisa said.

Tessa tried to protest but her mouth was stuck open like a gaping fish.

It closed as the full realization of what she’s done settled in, especially the part where she saw how it had probably looked from Lisa’s point of view.

“Uh, did I do that?” she asked, knowing for one hundred percent certain that she’d absolutely done that.

Lisa did not justify the question with a response. She just smile-glared at Tessa and waited.

“Okay, I can explain,” Tessa said. “But it’s not as bad as it’s going to sound.”

That, unfortunately, got everyone’s attention. Rip was the closest, but Starchild put down the staff she was enchanting, Lady Midnight strolled up at a brisk trot back from the nearby [Heart Fire], and even Matt held up his hand to his opponent to indicate they needed to pause their impending battle for this. 

All of that didn’t surprise Tessa too much. They were her party, her friends, of course they wanted to know what she’d done to herself. It was the monsters, and there were a lot of them, who gathered around and seemed to be giving her their rapt attention, that was the audience which both surprised and unnerved her.

“Uh, should I stick to party speech for this?” she asked on their party line.

“Oh not at all,” Lisa said out loud. “Everyone here has been just dying to here this story.”

There was a chuckle from the audience at that, which left Tessa sure she was missing part of the joke, but she filed that concern for later.

“Well, you know how the demons tried to parlay with us?” she began. Lisa nodded encouragingly and Tessa began to wonder at which point, exactly, Lisa was going to strangle here because Lost Alice had been wearing the same smile for long enough to be worrisome.

Reasoning that delaying the story any further wasn’t going to improve Lisa’s mood, Tessa went through it as quickly as she could, explaining how seeing the chains had filled her with a seething rage, and how breaking them had given her another handful of divine power to work with.

Lisa and their other party members didn’t interrupt the tale at that point but Tessa could hear the demons and monsters around them whispering in disbelief.

She explained a bit about how hard the divine power was to work with, then, with some trepidation, launched into an explanation of what she’d attempted to do to the [Hungry Shadow] and how that had resulted in “Unknown” eventually choosing their name.

The mood shifted as she talked through what she’d done, with even her teammates losing their air of experienced amusement in favor of somewhat awestruck bewilderment.

Except for Obby.

Tessa remembered snippets of her dreams and was struck by the ones where Obby had been talking to her. She couldn’t remember everything they’d said, but there’d been an unusual degree of clarity in those dreams. Clarity enough that it was hard to believe they hadn’t been real.

“So, you could have become a god, but you chose to come back to us?” Lisa asked, once Tessa was done talking.

“Yeah. That wouldn’t have been me as a god, I would have been burned up and something inspired by me would have been left behind, and I didn’t want to leave you,” Tessa said, emphasizing with her eyes that the ‘you’ in question most definitely included and was centered on Lisa.

“Okay,” Lisa said, her gaze darting back and forth as she tried to take in the story Tessa had woven, “And this is for real? You really did that?”

“I know it’s ridiculous. God light is, I can’t even explain it, but it just kind of poured into me when I broke that chain,” Tessa said.

“No, that part…yeah…our new friends, you know the actual [Angels]? They confirmed that part. It’s just…that’s not…wow.” Lisa leaned back against the railing and seemed to drift away into a storm of internal thoughts.

“We should probably tell you what we’ve been doing I guess?” Rip said before the silence dragged on long enough to feel strange.

“You freed us,” one of the demons said.

Tessa looked over at him and couldn’t see how that could be true.

“Did I? You don’t look…” but she stopped when she really look at him.

He wasn’t chained.

In fact, he wasn’t really a demon.

“You’re shape changed aren’t you?” she asked. 

“Do you like it?” the demon asked. “It’s not the form I got stuck in originally. I made a few improvements to it.”

“Wait, you’re the one I broke the chains on first, aren’t you?” Tessa asked.

“A deed for which I will be eternally grateful,” the Angel in disguise said.

“But…why?” Tessa asked, trying to figure out if the reversion to demonic form was more comfortable? Or a masochistic thing? Or who knew what?

“Because this form is one you can battle,” the Angel-in-disguise said.

“Battle?” Tessa asked, perplexed for a heartbeat before understanding clicked in her head. “Oh! Wait! You’re helping us level up?” She looked at the arena full of monsters. “All of you?”

“We’re helping each other,” Obby said. “It turns out when you free a castle full of [Angels] you get a castle full of people who’d rather like to help stop the world from ending.”

“We did help build it after all,” the Angel-in-disguise said.

“But why would you need to level up?” Tessa asked. “Oh, wait, no, oh, that would suck! They didn’t did they?”

“If by that, you mean to ask if our former masters stripped us of our celestial rights and privileges before imprisoning us in our demonic forms, then, yes, that is exactly what they did.”

“So, as [Angels] they can’t really do much,” Rip said. “But as [Demons] they kick all kinds of butt.”

“And they can respawn the same as we can,” Lady Midnight said.

“So we’ve been experimenting,” Rachel said. Lisa’s sister was supposed to look the same as Lost Alice since they’d been made with identical features, but somehow Tessa found it trivially easy to tell the two apart.

“We were doing team battles before, but people wanted to see if we could grow out characters beyond the regular limits of our class,” Rip said.

“And perhaps beyond the bounds of the level cap,” Glimmerglass said.

Tessa smiled to see her other self. The sight of Glimmerglass stirred a memory of seeing even more of the scattered pieces who were a part of her. 

They were fighting too. It hurt her heart to think of them fighting alone, or even being alone, but she knew she wasn’t in a position to break down those barriers. Not at the moment. She’d let the god light go and, without that, shattering the limits of the world was a teensy bit more than she could manage.

“I have to say, I don’t understand how a mortal could have held the power you did,” the Angel-in-disguise – he insisted they call him Joe – said. “On the other hand I can’t see how you could have done the things we observed without being able to hold the power.”

“I have no idea either,” Tessa said. “I can tell you that I didn’t hold it for very long, and I didn’t try to use it on myself. Maybe those helped? It felt like I was burning up, but I knew as long as I let the power go quickly enough, I could stay ‘me’, for lack of a better way to describe it. So that’s what I did.”

“That and quite a bit more,” Joe the Angel said.

“We should think about what the aftereffects of Tessa’s excursion will be,” Obby said. “If the [Hungry Shadow] isn’t hungry anymore, that’s going to change a lot of things.”

“It may not be hungry anymore, but it’s definitely still mad,” Tessa said.

“In the ‘we’re all mad here’ sense or the ‘raging ball of fire’ sense?” Lady Midnight asked.

“In the ‘hates me with the passion of a thousand suns’ sense,” Tessa said. “I think the next time we meet things may not be what you’d call ‘pleasant’.”

“We should tell Penswell about this,” Glimmerglass said. “The fighting on the ground is still ongoing and I think by this point they’ll be launching attacks against the fleet in space. She needs to know that the nature of their foe has changed drastically.”

“That’s an excellent point,” Tessa said. “Can you take care of it? I can talk to her if she needs any details, but you know pretty much everything I do and she’s used to working with you.”

Glimmerglass nodded and looked away as she dialed up an internal chat line with Penswell.

“Even if that’s taken care of, we know there are other, rather cataclysmic, problems that are developing still,” Pete said, his voice only on the party line rather than through Starchild’s mouth. “So we probably want to keep working on the leveling while we can.”

“Yeah, we need to catch Tessa up on levels since she missed out while she was sleeping,” Rip said. 

“Not that much,” Wrath Raven said. “Look at what her level is.”

“What is it?” Tessa asked, still lacking the game-like overlay the others enjoyed.

“Wow, I hadn’t noticed that. You’re up to level 64 [Void Speaker] now,” Rip said.

“I guess soloing the main expansion boss was worth a few xps,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, I guess?” Tessa said, stunned at the jump in power.

Single battles in the mid-levels weren’t supposed to award more than one tenth of a level worth of experience. Almost ten full levels worth was unheard of.

Inside she felt the well of untapped potential she carried from her earlier level ups had swelled to an ocean.

Below her, the arena beckoned.

“Let’s go find out what I can really do,” she said as she conjured her wand into her hand.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 17

Even infinity can shrink. Power to span untold aeons can be leeched away, burned up, and radiated back to the celestial sphere until only enough remains to fill an endless moment.

“I am…” the creature before Tessa stumble into the endless moment that remained to her.

She watched as it grappled with finding an impossible answer. She’d asked it, or commanded it really, to define itself.

Alone the divine commandment couldn’t have compelled it. In the silent moment before it spoke its next word, the creature was balanced between what it had been and what it had just become. With it’s last touch on the sea of unreality, it could have dissolved anything real. No rules, no existence, could have constrained it. Her words, even backed by the power to shape all of creation to her will, couldn’t dictate the behavior of something that wasn’t real and never could be.

But the creature did answer. For one reason only.

It wanted to know too.

But of course, choosing a name, meant both choosing what to be and what not to be. Tessa understood the knife’s edge the creature was teetering on, where every choice sliced away what you might be before you knew how much you might have valued the choices you lost as a result.

“Nothing is forever,” she said, offering mercy to the foes that had tried to consume her deepest essence.

Escaping a name could be difficult, but nothing was impossible, and choices that were lost could sometimes be regained. The creature wasn’t binding itself to an identity forever, but this would be the one time when selecting one was as easy as speaking the word.

“Unknown,” the creature said, and Tessa felt her commandment complete.

Unknown left a lot of room open. It was the closest piece of ambiguity she could think of to Unknown’s previous state. 

But it wasn’t a completely blank slate anymore.

“Unknown” was not “unknowable”. It was not “unreachable”, or “undefeatable” either.

“I will remember that you have done this to me,” Unknown’s voice dripped with enough rage to shatter a moon.

“Yes. You will,” Tessa said as the divine light within her flicked and sputtered out.

With the last dying spark, she cast herself back to [Hells Breach], back to the same space and time she’d been in when she grabbed hold of the god’s light.

Crashing back down from the dizzying heights of cosmic power back into her mortal shell carried so much away from her than Tessa wasn’t sure she was going to have anything left. Gone was the sense of all her other selves, fighting, waiting, or caught between the two. Gone was any memory of where she’d been when she’d stepped, briefly, onto the borders of reality, and gone were the reflections she’d seen of herself. 

She’d lost the divine awareness of her flaws and strengths, and the self-acceptance that came from acknowledging her value apart from both of them.

“Hey are you okay?” Lisa asked, beside her though she hadn’t been a half moment earlier.

“Yeah, I’m…” Tessa started to say and then wobbled and tipped into Lost Alice’s arms.

“Not fine,” Pillowcase said. “We’re a little scorched at the moment.”

“I apologize,” the angel before them said.

They were painfully beautiful to gaze upon, but seemed to be dimming down the longer Tessa tried to see them clearly.

“What did you do to her?” Lisa asked. There was concern in her tone that was all too ready to morph into rage.

“Nothing,” Tessa said. “We did this to ourself.”

“In breaking my chains, she was exposed to our master’s might,” the angel said. “She is remarkable to have survived even a slight brush with it, and she may need months or years to fully recover from it, if she ever does.”

“Wasn’t just a slight brush,” Tessa said, increasingly glad that Lost Alice was there to support her.

“What did you do?” Rip asked. She and Matt had gathered closer too. 

Tessa was sad to see the concern on their faces. She hadn’t meant to worry them, and with the rush of the moment passed she could see how that would be little to no comfort to any of them.

“Paid a visit to Unknown,” Tessa said. Staying awake was becoming somewhat challenging as the unbearable weight of fatigue from her, in hindsight rather foolish, endeavor caught up to her.

“That explains pretty much nothing,” Rip said. “Details please!”

“Yes, what do you mean? Did a spark of the divinity land on you?” the angel asked.

Tessa tried to rally but Pillowcase was right. They’d held the god light long enough that they’d been less than a breath away from losing their mortality entirely. Tessa had a dim memory that if she’d just help onto that last spark, she would have ascended to a divine form permanently.

But  it would have cost her everything.

Lost Alice picked her up in bridal carry. Not having to stand anymore was wonderful. Being held so close to someone who would literally murdered anyone who tried to harm her, eased wounds in Tessa’s heart she hadn’t known were there.

Godly power was good, she decided, but sometimes being weak was better.

“Whatever happened, she’s exhausted,” Lisa said. “Can we take it as a given that we won’t be fighting each other?”

“You may,” the angel said. “She has given me a gift beyond measure or price. We know something has gone terribly wrong in the world beyond our walls. Once I have freed my companions, we would speak with you to learn how we may aid in setting things aright.”

“We’ll leave you to that then. I want to get her somewhere she can rest comfortably,” Lisa said.

“I’ll be okay,” Tessa mumbled in Lost Alice’s collarbone. 

“Yes, you will,” Lisa said. “And you’re going to tell me exactly what happened there after you’ve had some sleep and we’ve all looked you over.”

“We should…” Tessa started to say. She’d intended to finish it with ‘keep going’ since the end of the world was rapidly approaching still. She trailed off mid-sentence though, her lips and tongue lacking the energy to form anything more complex than a grunt.

“Sleep soundly,” Lisa said. “My love.”

Tessa carried those two blessed syllables down into the darkness with her as sleep and dreams washed over her.

At first all she felt was quiet comfort. She was so tired she’d drifted away from herself. Away from all the problems, and all the responsibilities. Down into the depths where night folded over her like a cocoon in which she could do nothing but restore her body, mind, and spirit.

How much time passed like that was a question without an answer. She’d touched on eternity and yet each beat of her heart felt like it held the whole of the universe in it.

Dreams, when they came, crept in small and simple. A memory of a single programming text book, the cover image of a stylized grid of lights still stuck in her mind well over a decade later. The smell of the Consortium’s environmental suits and their artificially cleaned air. A glade of lilacs in the elven woods she’d visited as a child. Her favorite cockpit layout for her Interceptor-class Star Fighter. And on and on.

The more memories and conjured images she drifted through, the more they began to merge and cross over. People began to wander through her dreams too. Rip was there walking Tessa’s youngest cousin to school. Lisa was cheering her on as she graduated from a college she’d never been too and was fairly certain wasn’t even real to begin with.

Even Obby was there, waiting in Tessa’s favorite nook in her middle school library.

“How are you feeling?” Obby asked.

“Still pretty tired,” Tessa said, which seemed ridiculous in a dream. She was already asleep, what the heck was she supposed to do about feeling tired, be double-asleep or something?

“You gave up a lot of power,” Obby said.

“I know. If I’d just help onto it, I’d be fine now right?”

“Yes and no,” Obby said. “But you already know that. You saw what you’d have to give up to be a god, and you chose to stay as you were.”

“Was that good?” Tessa asked.

“Yes,” Obby said, without hesitation or ambiguity. “This world needs you, the real, full you. We need you.”

“Who’s we?” Tessa asked.

“Lisa, Rose, Jamal, and all the rest of the people you’ve assembled,” Obby said. “They’re so much stronger with you than without.”

“I couldn’t have protected them better as a god?” Tessa asked.

“A god could give them some protections, but she wouldn’t have been you. Not Tessa, or Pillowcase, or Glimmerglass, or any of the rest. You would have burned up and left something inspired by you behind.”

“How do you know all that?” Tessa asked.

“Because I’m not the girl I used to be,” Obby said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tessa said, imagining a deep chasm of loss that must be lurking within Obby.

“You don’t have to be,” Obby said with a gentle shake of her head. “I got really lucky. Someone rescued me from what I’d become, and together we became something new. That’s precious beyond words, but so is your life too.”

“I think I saw that,” Tessa said. “All the good and bad bits. They’re all important aren’t they?”

“All the bits are important, but none of them are more important than you. Embrace or reject anything else, even your understanding of who you are, but hang tight to yourself no matter what, just like you did with the god light.”

“Not sure I’ll have to worry about that again,” Tessa said. “But then I have run into more bits of divinity than is normal I suppose.”

“That’s partially my fault,” Obby said. “I’ve been tinkering with things a little, though honestly a lot less than I thought I was going to have to. You’ve been just full of happy surprises.”

“Why do I feel like I should forget you said that?” Tessa asked.

“Oh, sorry, that’s sort of subconscious field I’m manifesting,” Obby said.

“It’s been going for a while hasn’t it? Ever since we met?”

“Pretty much.”

“Why?”

“Tampering with what’s real in a world comes with some significant dangers,” Obby said. “One of the biggest ones is that if someone sees it happen and starts probing it too deeply, they can, sometimes, wake up and gain the ability to do the same things, and in the process lose their grip on their world. That usually sends them spiraling off into a reality of their own making, where everything and everyone is a reflection of who they are. By preventing you from noticing or dwelling on the weirdness of my existence it keeps you a bit safer from that.”

“So why tell me now? Oh, am I going to forget all this when I wake up?” Tessa asked.

“Some of it,” Obby said. “That’s just where your mind is at now, not anything I’m doing though. It’s also not the reason we’re talking now. With what you did with the god’s light I think you’ve proven that you can hold on to who you are, and with all you’ve done apart from that you’ve definitely earned the answers to a few questions. ”

“Really? Oh. Okay, let’s start with the obvious one; who are you really?” Tessa asked.

“I am truly Oblivion’s Daughter,” Obby said. “Though that’s more of a description than a name. My real name is Way. You can think of me as something like Unknown, except I was much much worse before I met my wife.”

“How could you be worse than something that was devouring a world?” Tessa asked.

“Because Unknown didn’t succeed. I did,” Obby said. “I accomplished everything it was trying to and I knew what I was doing the whole time.”

“Why? Why would you do that? Or what changed you?” Tessa asked.

“I wasn’t myself yet,” Obby said. “I was under my father’s control and I was caught between my desire not to exist and his desire for nothing to exist. As for what changed me? Someone gave me the chance to and believed that I could.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 16

Divine power. The heart of creation in the palm of her hand. The keys to the celestial kingdom, the power cosmic, and root level admin access. So many different means of expressing the same central idea.

“It’s mine now,” Tessa said, but her voice wasn’t limited to mere words from her lips.

In shattering the chains around the “demons” of [Hells Breach] she’d found another spark of power the creator deities had left behind.

It was supposed to be a prison. It was supposed to bind the gods’ former servitors into wicked and terrible forms as a punishment for their rebellion against the [Divine Plan].

That was lore.

It wasn’t real.

It was no more than a metaphor, and a flimsy one at that, a description some whimsical developer had thrown out there for what the fate of their test harness NPCs would be.

With god light streaming from her eyes, Tessa should have been blinded, but instead she saw deeper into the heart of the world than she ever had before.

The demons and their subjugation were a metaphor, and a reality.

The metaphor was the shadow they cast onto Earth, one plank in the bridge which connected them. The reality was deeper and more complex than the lore had ever been able to capture.

The same was true of the divine power that was transubstantiating her mortal form into fire and light.

Was it as simple as holding administrator access to the processes and data files which defined reality? Yes. Was it the ability to shape the landscape and texture of reality, to define what was real and unreal, to change anything and everything with no more than a whim and a thought? Also yes.

Across the world, Tessa saw the shards of herself she hadn’t yet touched. All of her other characters, the other pieces of who she could be, or had once been. Some slumbering. Some fighting on even without an awareness of her, because that was their nature.

Because that was her nature.

In turning her gaze on the world, Tessa saw a kaleidoscope of reflections of herself.

And in the center, holding onto a spark of power that was smaller than a mote of dust and wider than the cosmos, there was a flawed and all too vulnerable woman. 

In the radiance of the god light, every broken piece of self that didn’t heal quite right was visible. The ugly scars that still bleed from injuries which were buried but not forgotten, the deep shadows of doubt, and the pits of fear and insecurity. Taken all together they were…

Beautiful.

Not because of the pain they represented. Not because of frailty or misery that accompanied them.

Simply because they were part of her.

And not the only parts of her.

As clearly as she saw her weakness and failing, she saw the pillars of pride she leaned on even when she didn’t know they were there. She saw kindness, and passion, and acceptance. She saw the tools she’d spent a lifetime carving for herself. The insights she’d gained into the world, into people.

From atop a pillar of transcendent might, she could have changed even herself. Cast away the flaws that held her back, heightened her strengths till they eclipsed any threat, but the divine light didn’t offer only power. It wasn’t as empty and shallow a thing as that.

Every flaw she suffered from and every strength she’d honed was real. She didn’t have to endure her weaknesses and wouldn’t be less worthy if her strengths faded, but to simply wish them away would mean wishing away who she was.

She wrapped herself in arms of holy fire and embraced both who she was and who she could be.

“We don’t need to be a god to use this power,” Tessa said.

“Though we won’t be able to hold it for long if we’re not,” Pillowcase said.

They stood together, two sides of a single self, and they burned, though not so quickly that divinity was their only option.

“We could claim a tiny bit of this power if we adjusted our levels up?” Tessa said.

“We could go to the level cap or beyond,” Pillowcase said. “But we’d lose out wouldn’t we?”

“We would. All the actual experience, all the bonding with everyone else, all the stories we’d have to tell, we’d miss all of that.”

“Is that more important than being strong enough to fight the [Hungry Shadow]?” Pillowcase asked. “Is it selfish of us to want to have a real life like that?”

“Of course it is. That doesn’t make it wrong though,” Tessa said. “If we skip the real leveling work, we’ll be higher level and more numerically powerful, but without the actual experience we won’t grow into anything unexpected, into anything more than we can imagine ourselves to be in this moment because we’d only be building on what we are, not we could be.”

“We won’t have this chance again though,” Pillowcase said. “If we miss it now, what we grow into might be far more limited than what we could recreate ourselves as with this power.”

“But it will be us, not a divine mannequin cast in our images,” Tessa said. 

“Are we so much better than that? Pillowcase asked.

“You are,” Tessa said, “and if I’m going to believe that then I need to accept that I am too.”

Pillowcase nodded in agreement and acceptance.

“That still leaves us with how we’ll use this power,” she said. “Unless we want to simply let it return the celestial realms on its own?”

“That would be the safest play,” Tessa said. “But we’re sliding too quickly along the razor’s edge to play things safe.”

“In that case, perhaps we should do something unexpected?” Pillowcase asked.

In answer to that, to herself, Tessa vanished from [Hells Breach], appearing on the bridge of Azma’s command ship, in the heart of the [Hungry Shadow’s] power.

Except it wasn’t a [Hungry Shadow] anymore.

It also wasn’t fully real yet, though reality was rapidly creeping in around its edges.

Tessa’s attack came not as a punch, or a blast, or even a spell.

“Begone.” The edict was writ into the substrate of the cosmos.

Gods don’t fight as mortals do. When you can define reality there is no need to destroy something you do not wish to give a place to. You simply remove it.

And so the threat of the [Hungry Shadow] was ended and everything returned to normal. Peace and calm prevailed and the world was saved.

Except, of course it wasn’t.

Tessa saw her mistake as she pronounced her edict.

The world already had an edict in place against things like [Hungry Shadows] and [Formless Hungers] and all of the other twisting non-things which didn’t and couldn’t exist within it. The whole of the [Hungry Shadow’s] existence though was in defiance of the reality of the [Fallen Kingdoms]. It couldn’t be banished because it wasn’t a thing, it was still at its core the absence of an existence.

Tessa’s edict hadn’t been wholly without effect though.

Around her divine form, the coils of her enemy’s new boundless unbeing twisted and writhed, nameless and irreconcilable with reality once more. In casting out what it had been, Tessa had returned it closer to its earliest, unfathomable essence.

“It needs a name,” Pillowcase said.

“We need its name,” Tessa said, the rewording critical though she wasn’t quite sure how or why yet. Something separate from her god sight showed her the impact of her divine word and its ramifications. “We can give it any name we want now, but it will cast that off the next time something changes it.”

“Not a description then,” Pillowcase said. “A true name. Something that will stay with it no matter what it becomes.”

The invisible coils crushed and tore at her as Tessa searched for the right appellation. 

She was no more real than it was, the emptiness told her. The god power that burned through her wasn’t a part of anything that could be ‘Tessa’, or ‘Pillowcase’, or any other false avatar she might wear. Even her core awareness was nothing more than a recursive loop of chemical equations.

Tessa looked deeper and deeper for a name that could bear the weight of the abomination which had swallowed her whole, as the emptiness leeched away at every bit of meaning within her.

“Are we two?” Pillowcase asked. “Are we even one?”

Were they?

Was she?

Could a cascade of organic reactions not be arranged to tumble together over and over in an order that appeared to be consciousness? Couldn’t that reaction be forked and recombined? What was nothing could be made to appear to be one, and what was one could be made to appear as two, or three, or more?

“Sure,” Tessa said. “But if all I am are chemicals and those chemicals can make even one choice, then aren’t I something more?”

“If there is any uncertainty in as little as a single moment and I am the one who resolves that uncertainty, then that is where you will find me,” Pillowcase said.

“And that is where we will find you,” Tessa said, deadly insight flaring within her.

Did she have any divine power left? Had she ever held any?

That didn’t matter.

They were on the other side of divinity, drifting in a conceptual land unclaimed by any craftsman’s hand.

“You came to our world cloaked in impossibility,” Pillowcase said. “A threat without measure or scope.”

“You were a nothing that sought to undo everything,” Tessa said.

“Sought without seeking, moved without volition, devoured without intent,” Pillowcase said.

‘Emptiness’ was the first word that sprung to Tessa’s mind, but there was another one which fell from her lips.

“Oblivion,” she said. “Others have called you that. Called what you were that.”

Tessa felt herself approaching something a step too far.

Too far to be contained.

Too far to come back from.

Too far to apply to her enemy any longer?

“Yes,” Pillowcase said. “That’s what you were, but it’s not what you are.”

Tessa felt the bridge of a starship under her feet.

Her enemy was pulling away.

Terror ran through it.

She and it had danced these steps before.

It knew her and it knew what came next.

A fierce, unholy glee lit Tessa’s face.

“You know me,” she said. “You KNOW me. YOU know me.”

It retreated further, abandoning the flagship entirely, leaving the people it had corrupted to fall loose and empty.

It knew her.

Nothings couldn’t be an “it” and definitely not a “you”.

Nothings couldn’t “know” anything.

Whatever it had once been, even in the face of a divine edict, it couldn’t go back to being nothing once again. Oblivion was closed to the former [Hungry Shadow]. It could no longer be [Formless].

“We’re not done yet,” Pillowcase said, and reached out with the divine fire that still burned in their hands.

Their enemy had told them it wasn’t real, but if they were real, if their history had led them to this moment, then however unbelievable it was, their borrowed divinity was real too.

Wrapping talons of celestial radiance around the fleeing creature, Pillowcase drew it back to them.

And so it struck at them.

Tessa’s body was tossed through three bulkheads. Bones shattered, organs burst, and for a moment she held the divine fire only with ghostly hands.

“Hey, I like that body!” Tessa said, rebuilding her physical form with divine power and the barest hint of a whim.

The creature struck again but Pillowcase raised her hand and spoke a shield into existence that rebounded the creature’s force back on it.

The bridge and the top three decks of the ship exploded into void of space, but neither Tessa nor the creature moved.

“This isn’t going to turn out well for you,” Tessa said.

It struck again and Tessa saw it drawing more power into itself, taking back the bits it had scattered across the nearest ships of the fleet. That was a distraction though, a price it was paying to bait her into fighting more. It wanted her to fight. Needed her to. Its only hope of winning was for her to fall into its trap and seek to destroy it with godly might.

“It’s learned strategy,” Pillowcase said.

“Hard to call this instinct isn’t it?” Tessa said as she watched the umbra the creature cast pull more and more of the divine energy she carried away, all while its more overt attacks were hammering away at her defenses. 

It couldn’t cast the power into Oblivion, couldn’t make the divine radiance any less real, but separating it from her was enough. 

“We’ve got a limited time with this before we burn up,” Pillowcase said.

“And the more we use the less time we have,” Tessa agreed.

“So we need that name,” Pillowcase said.

Tessa looked at the creature before them.

Gone was the mind eating static. Gone was the infinite hunger. 

But what was left?

What had it become?

“Who are you?” Tessa wondered aloud and in the echo of her words she heard what she’d been missing.

“Who. Are. You.” When she spoke again, divine majesty burned in each word. 

She couldn’t cast the creature out. It was a part of the world now. Its history was wound through her own and so many others and she couldn’t deny that. Neither too though could she say what the creature’s name truly was.

It wasn’t her place to speak its truth.

In the pools where the creature’s eyes should have been, Tessa saw understanding and rage. It understood what she had done. It understood what it had lost, and what it had become, and it was not happy.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 15

The revelation that people were disappearing into more worlds than just the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the [Crystal Stars] wasn’t unique knowledge for long. Marcus, Anna, Beth, and Astra were back in the ice cream truck Astra had “commandeered” from somewhere for their return trip to the EE offices when the news broke over the radio. That the same news had spread across the social media services a half hour earlier didn’t seem to bother the radio host any more than it bothered the social media influencers that they were an hour or so late to spreading information that was widely circulating on Discord servers, game forums, and other online communities the world over.

“I’m surprised we don’t have mass chaos at this point,” Anna said, looking up from her laptop.

“It’s coming,” Astra said. “People are still in the disbelief stage of processing this.”

“Any chance we get this shutdown before that changes?” Marcus asked. He’d borrowed a laptop from one of Anna’s colleagues and was shocked to discover that the phone they were tethering to for internet access seemed to have as much bandwidth as a fiber optic line.

“Any chance? Sure,” Astra said. She was polishing a knife that didn’t seem to be made out of metal, bone, ceramic, wood or plastic. “It’s possible it’ll all be resolved before we get back to EE.”

“And the chance that it gets shutdown with the Earth still in one planet-sized piece?” Anna asked.

“Oh, smaller to be sure,” Astra said. “If you want some advice though? Don’t worry about what your chances are. They’re basically meaningless.”

“That’s the opposite of encouraging,” Marcus said, though he was beginning to suspect the assumption that they had even a small chance of winning was overstating things.

People were trying to manage the nightmares that beset the world. Alone. In groups. With the power of laser canons and the power of magic and the Power of Rock. It was an incredible, unbelievable effort.

And it was failing.

Marcus didn’t need Beth, or Astra, or Jin to tell him that but from how they dodged his questions with indirect answers it was clear, and from how more and more instances were being reported, it was certain.

If humanity had been able to get ahead of the the Ragnarock tide that was surging across the world, the disappearances would have stopped, or at least be slowing down. Instead the opposite seemed to be true, with more being reported every hour.

“She doesn’t mean you can’t win,” Beth said.

“Of course not,” Astra said. “If this world was already lost, we wouldn’t be here anymore.”

“Where would you go?” Anna asked.

“Home,” Beth said. 

“Wait, are you aliens?” Anna asked.

“No, I’m from Earth,” Beth said.

“She is, I’m not,” Astra said.  “The places we’re from though? They’re not anywhere you can get to from here.”

“Uh, that doesn’t make any sense?” Marcus said, redirecting his attention from the doom scroll of info on his social media feeds to the conversation in the car.

“You know how your world is bound to the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the [Crystal Stars]?” Beth said. “There are bridges of imagination that link them together. There’s something similar with my world and yours, except instead of a bridge, picture a tightrope made of thread.”

“I can envision that but I have no idea what it actually means,” Anna said.

“It means, we’re here to help, and it wasn’t easy getting here,” Astra said.

“Also that we’re a bit more limited than we usually are in what we can do to help, and how much we know about what’s going,” Beth said.

“So what’s your home like?” Marcus asked.

“Pretty similar to this place,” Beth said. “Apart from the ‘being eaten by monsters from outside of time and space’ thing. We’ve got cars, and cities, and pizza, and TV, the same as you do. If you looked you’d probably find a lot of subtle differences – cities with the wrong name, different brand names on shoes and fast food and stuff like that, but the truth is even on planets where everyone is a bug-eyed alien and the sky rains chocolate syrup, people are still just people. We’re all just kinda messed up and figuring things out as best we can.”

“Comforting, although now I’m worried we’re going to have deal with chocolate syrup rain too,” Marcus said.

“The bug eyed aliens thing doesn’t bother you?” Anna asked.

“Nah, bug eyed aliens playing my game would just mean wider accessibility options in our next release,” Marcus said. “I can get behind that.”

“An open mind like that makes a lot of this easier,” Beth said. “Even so though, it probably will get to be too much. When you wind up feeling like you need to do something drastic, just remind yourself that this is a lot more than you’re supposed to have to deal with and that your reactions are going to be a little off.”

“And that’ll help us stay sane?” Anna asked.

“That’ll help you make the best choices you can under the circumstances,” Astra said.

“I know that doesn’t sound like much, but your choices do matter,” Beth said. “That’s what Astra was saying about your chances being irrelevant. If you look at the pure probability of events happening, it’s easy to give up because winning, or even surviving, looks so unlikely. The future’s not made from what’s likely though. It’s built on choices.”

“I can think of a few hurricanes that would disagree with that assessment,” Marcus said.

“Storms are always going to come,” Beth said. “Things we didn’t, and couldn’t expect. That doesn’t mean that our choices in the face of them don’t matter though. Choosing to keep the levees in good repair? Choosing to evacuate early? Choosing to stay and help your neighbors weather the storm? Those all determine what the future will be, in some cases a lot more so than any storm ever could.

“I keep hoping there’s going to be some big reset switch we could hit,” Anna said. “Or something like a server rollback that would rewind things to before this all started.”

Marcus chuckled at the idea. “Can you imagine the support calls we’d get for rolling back the whole world?”

“There’s only one tiny problem with the idea of a reset,” Beth said.

“No one’s been making backups of the real world that we could roll back to?” Marcus asked.

“Okay, two tiny problems,” Beth said.

“Ah, yeah,” Anna said. “There’s no point rolling back to an earlier version if you don’t know what caused the problem in the first place. We’d just wind up right back here when the problem resurfaced.”

“And if we figure out how to fix the problem, we wouldn’t necessarily need a rollback anymore. More like a hotfix,” Marcus said.

“Hopefully that’s what we’ll find back at your office,” Beth said.

“Why do we think we’d find the answer there?” Anna asked. “Or anywhere at all really?”

“The EE servers are our best link to the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Astra said. “They’ve been working on the problem there for longer than we have here. A lot longer.”

“What do you mean ‘a lot longer’? Did the problem start there before the [World Shift] expansion went live?” Marcus asked.

“There’s a time rate difference between the two worlds,” Beth said. “Sometimes at least. What’s been several hours for us has been days and weeks for them.”

“Wait, why wasn’t it like that when the expansion went live?” Marcus asked.

“Time’s not exactly stable at the moment,” Astra said.

“If we’re still out of synch though, how are we going to communicate with the people over there?” Marcus asked.

“The [Fallen Kingdoms] should come back in synch with us before too much more of our time has passed,” Beth said. “Even before that though, the folks over there have been sending us all the information they can.”

“If they’ve found something that can help, even if they’re not aware of it, it should be somewhere in the correspondence they’re sending back,” Astra said.

“Should we be checking the [Crystal Stars] servers too?” Anna asked.

“They’re still synched up with our time rate,” Beth said. “They might find things too, but right now they’re busy fighting off the first wave of breakthroughs that called them there.”

“What about the other, places I guess?” Marcus asked. “How do we collect info from people who jump into [Wonderland] to battle the [Armageddon Beasts]?”

“That’s harder,” Beth said. “In many cases those will be solo battles. The people who wind up fighting them may not even know that anything larger is happening at all. At least not until they get back and see the news.”

“If they get back,” Astra said. “You two did really well against your [Armageddon Beast]. Not everyone is going to.”

“Will they be alone?” Anna asked. “I mean if they go into something like the story from a book, or, I don’t know, you said some people might be fighting these things into albums, or songs?”

“On the one hand, we’re all in this together,” Beth said. “So no one is really alone.”

“Also, while you might read a book or listen to a song alone, there is a shared experience there with other people who like the same book or listen to the same song,” Astra sad. “So it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t be fighting alone at all.”

“How would that even work though?” Anna asked. “With our games, people have an avatar within the world already. What would they have within a book? Or even worse, a song?”

“There’s all sorts of possibilities,” Beth said. “With a song, people might connect with the singer, or with the character the song is focused on. Or they might put themselves in the position of one of the instruments, or even a roady who’s just along to enjoy the show. It’s just a question of which role calls to them, and who they feel a connection to.”

“We need someone to jump into a church hymn and feel personally connected to God,” Anna said.

“Are you sure you want some with enough ego to think they’re actually God to also be the conduit for the power of all Creation?” Astra asked.

“Point taken,” Anna said.

“I’m kind of surprised that hasn’t already happened?” Marcus said.

“I would bet some people who think they’re God, or God’s best friend, or can speak for God have crossed over into a song, or a book, maybe even a bible,” Beth said. “From what we’ve seen in the [Fallen Kingdoms] though, that’s not going to work out well.”

“How so?” Anna asked.

“They’d become [Disjoined], wouldn’t they?” Marcus asked.

“If they were lucky,” Beth said. “The alternative is that they’d be swallowed whole and ground down into nothing.”

“I don’t understand that,” Anna said. “Why would they become [Disjoined]? If they really believe something, shouldn’t it become true in whatever made-up place they go to?”

“It’s not only about what they believe on this world. It’s what the other part of themself on the other world believes too,” Beth said. “If the two parts of the person can’t accept each other, if one part is so toxic or hateful that the other rejects it, then the resulting persona is [Disjoined], which as we’ve seen isn’t a terribly stable state. Best case, the two fission and are left back where they originally were.”

“Worst case, they crumble completely, and dissolve back into static and then nothing,” Astra said.

“Can they be saved?” Marcus asked.

“Possibly. For some of them,” Astra said.

“The trick is convincing them that they want to be saved,” Beth said. “Getting people to admit that they were wrong and need to change is difficult at the best of times, and when their minds aren’t stuff full of static.”

Marcus was going to make a comment on how it felt like his brain was always full of static when a text interrupted his train of thought.

Staring at it, he read it again, and then again.

“What is it?” Anna asked, noticing his sudden silence.

“Hey, get to the office asap,” he read aloud. “We’ve got someone who came back and he says he knows how to end this whole problem..”

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 14

Marcus had defeated an [Armageddon Beast]. He didn’t see how that was possible, and he knew he hadn’t done it alone, but when Jin led them around to the front of the office building, the street was strangely missing a world devouring monstrosity.

It felt wrong.

The world was under attack.

It wasn’t supposed to look this safe.

The cognitive dissonance of being disappointed at not find a sanity destroying abomination consuming all light and matter around it, left Marcus wondering if any amount of therapy was going to be enough to work through the psychic damage he was clearly accumulating.

“But it was here, I swear it was,” Anna said, her expression suggesting she’d probably be quite willing to take Marcus up on the offer of group therapy sessions.

“We know,” Beth said. “We saw it too. So did everyone else here.”

“Why aren’t they still staring it then? Or looking for where it went?” Anna asked.

“Their damage is a bit different than yours,” Jin said. “You were there when the [Armageddon Beast’s] nature got turned on itself. You remember it because you named it and you destroyed it. Or convinced it to destroy itself to be accurate.  Everyone else,” she gestured to the crowds that were more plodding in random directions than traveling anywhere, “hasn’t exactly forgotten it, but they don’t have a direct awareness of what they were seeing, or what’s been taken from them.”

“Taken from them?” Marcus said. “I thought you said this weird feeling was just a bruise or something?”

“It’s not a bruise,” Jin said. “But that’s not a bad metaphor either. What the [Armageddon Beast] was able to take from all of you will come back on its own. Once we’re past all this, once you can spend enough days and weeks and months just living and reconnecting to the solidity of this world, you’ll be back to where you were.”

“Okay, but where are we now?” Marcus asked.

“Here. In Las Vegas. On a reasonably nice October day. And not covered in blood, so that’s a plus!” Jin said.

“It worries me that you felt the need to add that last part,” Anna said.

“It’s just one of those benchmarks to help you figure out how bad of a day you’re having,” Jin said.

“Noted,” Marcus said, noticing as well that Jin’s answer hadn’t been quite been a complete one.

“This place is still a weak spot, isn’t it?” Astra asked, feeling around at the air in front of her. 

“Painfully so,” Jin said.

“Will we have another breakthrough then?” Beth asked.

“Depends on how things go,” Jin said. “I think we’re making headway on the problem but these things are always hard to tell.”

“What kind of headway do you mean?” Marcus asked. “And what is the problem exactly?”

“In theory I’m supposed to be all super cryptic here,” Jin said. “There is a real danger to yourselves and the world in general in being too aware of what’s happening, but you’re both smart enough to figure some of this stuff out on your own, and you’ve both stepped across a fairly important threshold, so I’m going to leave the choice up to you by asking if you really want an answer to those questions?”

“Yes,” Marcus said.

“I don’t know,” Anna said at the same time.

Jin smiled.

“Should we want the answers?” Marcus asked.

“That is something I definitely can’t tell you,” Jin said. “You’re choices are your own.”

“What about you then?” Anna asked. “Is it something you regret learning?”

Jin’s smile broadened into a gentle laugh.

“Not even for a single moment,” she said and raised her left hand to show a gleaming yellow band on her ring finger. “My story isn’t yours though. You don’t need to go to lengths I did to find your other half.”

“Can you tell us just enough for this to make some small amount of sense then?” Anna asked.

“Sure, or I can try,” Jin said. “Here’s the simplified version; something destabilized the boundaries of your world. We’re still working to figure out what the destabilizing factor was, but as a result of it, things that were beyond the horizon of your reality have managed to start becoming real.”

“Do we know where those things are coming from?” Marcus asked.

“Literally nowhere,” Jin said. “Before it came here, the [Armageddon Beast] didn’t exist. At least not in terms of anywhere meaningful to this world.”

“So they’re from faeryland, or Narnia, or something like that?” Anna asked.

“No. The places that you can imagine, or name? Those all have at least a sliver of reality to them. They’re ideas that can be shared. They can live on in the minds of those who know of them even if there’s no physical reality that they’re bound to.”

“And the [Armageddon Beast] isn’t like that?” Marcus asked.

“Before you named it? No,” Jin said.

“How can Nothing be like that though?” Anna said. “It was going to dissolve us, the building, everything.”

“That’s where this gets tricky,” Jin said. “And where it stops making intuitive sense at all. What the [Armageddon Beast] was before Marcus named it, isn’t a question with an answer. It wasn’t a proto-beast, it wasn’t an unformed monster, and it wasn’t even nothing. It simply wasn’t. And yet that ‘wasn’t’ was changing into an “is”. Without Marcus and your interference it would have been able to become almost anything and there are things much worse than [Armageddon Beasts] out there.”

“Okay, that’s…let’s call it something I don’t want to think out,” Marcus said. “What about the ‘headway’ you mentioned? Naming these things sounded like something you already knew about. That can’t be the whole answer right?”

“It isn’t,” Jin said. “Even once it was named, the [Armageddon Beast] was still more than capable of growing to the point where it consumed the Earth. The longer it had the less stoppable it was going to be too.”

“So we couldn’t just send in a plucky team of geeks to upload a virus to it, or drop a nuke on it or something?” Anna asked.

Marcus knew what the answer was, but he listened for confirmation anyways.

“Virus’s are information, and therefor consumable by an [Armageddon Beast] and nukes are basically candy to it, as are any and all other weapons, toxins, and biological agents this world can produce,” Jin said.

“I hate to think what Apple would do if their marketing department learned an iPad was more powerful than the world’s nuclear arsenal,” Anna said.

“It wasn’t the iPad that stopped the [Armageddon Beast],” Jin said. “That was all you two. And that’s related to the headway we seem to be making. Emphasis on ‘seem’.”

“Why do I feel like there’s going to be a huge and unpleasant caveat on that ‘seems’,” Marcus asked.

“Because you’re observant,” Jin said. “The headway is [Wonderland]. And the [United Federation of Planets]. And [Abbey Road].”

“Uh, what?” Marcus asked, each name Jin had spoken resonating within him more deeply than any sounds ever should.

“When the first breakthrough occurred, it was shunted to the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Jin said. “They’re standing as a bastion against the end of this world, and that’s why your players were called to help defend it. Fighting what began as a [Formless Hunger] there meant that any harm that was done to reality, including anyone who was effectively erased from reality, wouldn’t further destabilize this world.”

“I’m sorry, did you say ‘erased from reality’? I thought the [Armageddon Beast] was just going to eat us,” Anna said.

“Eat in the sense of chew you up and digest you? Yes. Eat you in the sense of drain the fundamental essence that underlies your atomic structure as well as consuming the informational foundation that your mind rests on? Also yes,” Jin said. “So you can see why it was better that damage like should happen somewhere else, right?”

“No. No, I don’t see that at all,” Marcus said, appalled at the idea of what had been unleashed on his world.

By which he meant the [Fallen Kingdoms].

He had no idea when that particular mental switch had been flipped. A lifetime ago, before the [World Shift] expansion went live, he would have scoffed at the idea of the [Fallen Kingdoms] being anything other than bits in server memory and data stored on the distributed hard drives. At some point though, his disbelief in the idea that people like Niminay and Penswell could be real had vanished. Maybe it was when his coworker Hailey had literally vanished in front of him and then started speaking back from the other side? It was hard to argue the world was entirely rational after witnessing something like that.

And then, just when It felt like he’d gotten around to believing the [Fallen Kingdoms] were real, he was being asked to accept them as a sacrifice to an unimaginable atrocity?

“Let me rephrase that,” Jin said. “Given that the [Fallen Kingdoms] has experience dealing with world ending threats on the regular and can recover from things that would shatter this world to dust, can you see why it was better for them to serve as the first line of defense instead of this world?”

“You mean because we can resurrect at the [Heart Fires] there?” Marcus asked.

“That’s a small part of it,” Jin said. “Don’t get me wrong – it’s a huge benefit on a personal level, but just being able to bring people back wouldn’t be anywhere near enough if the world itself couldn’t recover from the kind of damage the breakthroughs have done.”

“Breakthroughs? Plural?” Marcus asked. “I thought the only cosmic monster that had showed up was the thing in the new zones, in the [High Beyond].”

“There’ve been more than that,” Jin said. “There’s another one loose there at the moment in fact, one that’s still far more [Transcendental] than the [Broken Shadow] or [Byron] are.”

“[Byron]?” Anna asked, and turned to Marcus. “Was that one of your NPCs?”

“No. Or not that I know of.”

“The formerly-[Hungry Shadow] reached out beyond the sphere the [Fallen Kingdoms] are in and managed to corrupt a couple of the higher ups in the [Consortium of Pain],” Jin said. “In taking on a distinct identity though, the [Byron] piece split from [Hungry Shadow], converting it to a [Broken Shadow]. The [Byron] piece if far more limited than its predecessor was, but still capable of doing incredible damage. Especially if he can remerge with the [Broken Shadow] on his terms rather than its.”

“Why does that sound worse than the [Armageddon Beast] coming back?” Marcus asked.

“Because it is. Substantially so,” Jin said. “The [Armageddon Beast] was like a chemical equation, or a tornado; unequivocal but simple and without a specific will of its own. When it tried to consume you, it didn’t choose to do so, no more so than gravity chooses to hold you down, or an ocean on this world might choose to drown you. [Byron] however has a persona. There is will and intent there, which means cunning and, unfortunately, a malice which is yoked to the infinite hunger it sprang from.”

“Is that something we have to deal with too?” Anna asked.

“Nope. You’re not alone in trying to save the world. Far from it,” Jin said. “The [Adventurers] from the [Fallen Kingdoms] have started to deal with the [Broken Shadow] and they’ll be contending with [Byron] soon enough. Just like the [Explorers] in the [Crystal Stars] have rallied together and are dealing with the entities that have broken through there.”

“But they’re not getting them all are they?” Anna asked, dread suspicion in her voice.

“Not even close,” Jin said. “Fighting even one of the breakthroughs is taking an incredible amount of energy and coordination. The [Fallen Kingdoms] have assembled a literal army of god-tier [Adventurers] and it’s an open question if they’ll be enough. That’s where [Wonderland] comes into play.”

“People are fighting the breakthroughs in other worlds…” Marcus spoke the words without believing them, but as each syllable tumbled from his lips, he knew with greater certainty that he was right. 

Anywhere people could imagine. Any place, and any characters they connected to. With the world crumbling in front of them, humanity was calling on the defenders it held most dear and believed in most deeply.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 13

Marcus’s world was tilting. Gravity was still working. Down was where it had always been. There wasn’t any reason to feel like he was sliding sideways, was each step an instant away from accelerating over the edge of the world and off to somewhere strange and inimical to his life.

“We did escape from the [Armageddon Beast], right?” Anna asked. “Cause I feel like I left a big chunk of myself back there.”

“Don’t worry, you escaped,” Smith said. “What you’re feeling is the wounds you took for being within the beast’s area of influence.”

“Wounds? But we checked. I’m not bleeding anywhere,” Anna said. “Or is it just a psychological wound?”

“You probably have some serious mental trauma to work through too, but that’s not the wounds she was talking about,” Astra said. 

Marcus noticed that neither of them appeared to be police officers anymore. He’d noticed that before he thought, but it was hard to hold onto the idea. Had they ever been police officers? Were they even what they appeared to be at all?

“Did that thing mutate us or something?” Marcus asked, thinking of the radiation that black holes throw off. 

Except of course the [Armageddon Beast] hadn’t been a black hole. Black holes had nice definable properties and were a weird but still real element of the universe. The [Armageddon Beast] wasn’t. 

It wasn’t Not-Real either though, and trying to reconcile those two facts was something his brain seemed to be sensibly refusing to attempt.

“Yes and no,” Smith said. “Your genes are fine. Or as fine as they were before this. If it had been changing reality on that level, you wouldn’t look even vaguely human anymore.”

“That is the opposite of reassuring,” Anna said.

“If our bodies and minds are fine, then what did that thing mess with?” Marcus asked.

“There aren’t particularly good terms for this,” Smith said. “The best I can describe it is that some of the essential qualities that define you as ‘real’ got nibbled on a bit.”

“Like it was eating our mass or something?” Anna asked.

“More fundamental than that,” Smith said. “And it didn’t eat you. You’re still here. You’re still real. But the pull it exerted, and the brush with not existing, has left you aching in manner that you don’t really have senses to process. It’ll get better in time though.”

“Do we have time?” Marcus asked. “We didn’t kill the [Armageddon Beast]. We just escaped it. It’s still out there gobbling up everything and everyone it runs across.”

“And it’s not alone,” Astra said. She winced when Smith elbowed her in the side. “What? They’re going to find our sooner or later.”

“Yes, but there’s no need to heap trauma on them,” Smith said.

“We’ll be okay,” Anna said. “Better to know what we’re up against, even if we’re doomed.”

“You’re not doomed,” Astra said. “We wouldn’t be here if you were.”

“That reminds me, what are you here for? You didn’t help fight that thing, or get us out of there when it nabbed us,” Anna asked.

“We brought you Marcus,” Smith said. “That’s our role. We can’t save this world for you, but we can help you be in the right places to save it yourselves.”

“Why not? If this place gets destroyed, it’s all over for all of us, isn’t it?” Anna’s question was rhetorical but neither Smith nor Astra seemed to take it as such.

“There are a lot of possible endings you could come to,” Smith said, choosing her words more carefully than Marcus felt was necessary.

“Any of them involve things just going back to normal?” he asked.

“Several,” Astra said. “But you probably don’t want those.”

“Why wouldn’t we want things to go back to normal?” Anna asked. “That sounds perfect.”

“Because for things to go back to normal, everyone on Earth would need to forget that the events of the last week or so happened,” Smith said. “There’s a number of possibilities for how that could happen, but none of them are particularly pleasant.”

“Such as?” Marcus asked, solely out of curiosity.

“Say a [Lotus Blossom God] decides to come and devour all the [Armageddon Beasts] and then puts the entire planet into a dream of normalcy while it slowly digests everything and everyone over the course of a century or two.” Astra didn’t seem to be suggesting something that was impossible, or even unlikely. If anything, it seemed to Marcus that it was something she’d seen happen before.

Which was absurd.

The world was still here. How would she have seen it being destroyed by some cosmic entity?

“I’ll take a hard pass on that,” Anna said. “If the world can’t change for the better, then it’s basically hell.”

“That seems to be the general consensus, though you’d be surprised how many people find it preferable to the life they have,” Astra said.

“Unless we’re willing to sign up for eternal lotus dreams, and you’ve got a dream god on speed dial, we’ve got something important to deal with,” Marcus said. “You said, ‘that’s how you fight an [Armageddon Beast]’ when we got out of the building. Do you mean all we need to do shut these things down is throw a bunch of iPads at them?”

“Not iPads,” Smith said. “Ideas.”

“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” Anna said. “Everyone’s got those.”

“But not everyone has an idea that fits the [Armageddon Beast’s] nature and can sculpt it to the end they desire,” Astra said.

“Is that what we did?” Marcus asked. “I just thought we were tricking it into letting us go.’

“Both are true,” Astra said. “Consider for a moment though what it was you tricked.”

“An [Armageddon Beast,” Marcus said. “Something that devours worlds.”

“Right. Exactly!” Astra’s excitement rose, as though Marcus was beginning to understand everything.

Marcus was pretty sure he understood nothing so far.

“An [Armageddon Beast] is defined only by its nature, which is to hunger for the matter and energy of a living world, and by its capacity to sate that hunger. Think of it like a very powerful bot with very limited programming,” Smith said. “It can do incredible things, but it’s not sapient. It doesn’t consider if it should or shouldn’t eat a world. Put it next to a world and it just starts absorbing everything around it, no questions asked, because it can’t ask questions.”

“And you tricked it,” Anna said, her voice slowed by the implications of each word she spoke.

“That’s like tricking an avalanche to roll back up hill isn’t it?” Marcus said, adding, “should I not have done that?”

The dire thought that in saving himself and Anna, he’d managed to unleash something far worse seemed all too plausible with how the world seemed to be falling apart around him.

“You had to do that,” Smith said. “What you did is our best hope of stopping, or at least mitigating, what’s happening to this world.”

Marcus was silent for a moment and then had to let the laugh that had built up inside escape.

It wasn’t a good laugh.

“Please tell me you’re kidding,” he said. “If I’m the best hope the world has then we are so so so very dead.”

“Don’t sell yourself short there hero,” a newcomer said.

Marcus glanced behind himself and found a twenty something woman in a They Might Be Giants concert shirt, faded jeans and well worn sneakers wandering up to join them.

“Uh, is everything okay Jin?” Smith asked.

“Eh, the end of world hasn’t gotten here yet, so all things considered, today could be worse,” Jin said.

“You’re with them?” Marcus asked, pointing to Smith and Astra.

“She’s…” Smith started to say but Astra cut her off.

“Our supervisor,” Astra said.

“A supervisor of what?” Anna asked.

“Call it [Apocalypse Management],” Jin said.

“Any chance we could return this one to sender?” Marcus asked. “We don’t even need a refund.”

“Sure,” Jin said. “All we need to do is pay the restocking fee.”

“And what would that be?” Anna asked.

It was a ridiculous question for what was clearly a joke, but Anna didn’t seem to feel ridiculous about asking it at all.

“We’re working on that,” Jin said. “Seriously. Beth’s right about what you did making a difference.”

“Do we have a path forward then? Can we stop this now?” Smith, or Beth apparently, asked.

“Not exactly. The [Apocalypse Beast] isn’t a threat at the moment,” Jin said and turned to nod at Marcus, “Thank you for that,” then turned back to Beth. “But the overall effect is widening.”

“Widening? Oh no,” Beth said, an uncomfortable weight settling over her features.

“What does ‘widening’ mean?” Anna asked.

“The first break throughs were in the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Jin said. “What you saw in the [Crystal Stars] is a similar phenomena but with one important difference – the [Crystal Stars] players knew what they were getting into.”

“Knew how?” Anna asked.

“They knew they were needed there the same as you know its up to you to bring them back,” Jin said.

“That’s…I don’t know that,” Anna said.

“But you’re going to try aren’t you?” Jin asked, though Marcus suspected it was a question Anna needed the answer to more than Jin.

“Well, of course,” Anna said. “But that’s just because they need me.”

“And that’s exactly how and why the [Crystal Stars] players did what they did,” Jin said. “It wasn’t a conscious choice. Not for all of them, but when their characters called, the players who crossed over chose to make the journey to help them.”

“Help them with what?” Marcus asked. “I’d say this all sounds insane, but we’re talking with a reverb when we say things like [Fallen Kingdoms] and it definitely feels like we’ve tripped completely into [Wonderland] at this point.”

“Oh no,” Anna said. “[Wonderland]? Is there something in [Broken Horizons] called [Wonderland]?”

“Uh, no,” Marcus said. “We always try to make our names unique to the game so the IP coverage is clear. If we added a [Wonderland], we’d call it Frozen Wonderland or Hell’s Wonderland or something like that.”

“Why are we hearing the reverb on [Wonderland] then?” Anna asked, looking to Jin for answers.

“Because the effect that’s allowing things that don’t, shouldn’t, and can’t exist to chew a path into your worlds is widening,” Jin said.

“To [Alice in Wonderland]?” Anna asked, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Apparently so,” Jin said.

“No,” Anna said. “Like hell. Just. NO.

Her tears didn’t vanish, but the boiling rage that lit up her eyes seemed to incinerate despair that had been grasping at her heart. Her fury warmed Marcus’s heart too. He wanted to think that was why world felt more in balance than it had a moment ago. 

He really wanted to think that.

“What. Exactly. Do we need to do, to stop this,” Anna asked.

“Fight,” Jin said. “These are your worlds. Not theirs.”

“How,” Anna asked.

“Just like you did with the [Armageddon Beast],” Jin said. “Work together. Remind each other who you are. Be afraid, but don’t let it stop you. To beat something like an [Armageddon Beast] you need to understand it, because your understanding creates a reality for it.”

“How does that work? What did I do right before?” Marcus asked.

“You started by naming it,” Beth said. “Name’s are incredibly powerful. They’re what we hang all kinds of other definitions onto.”

“So the next time something shows up, I throw a name at it?” Marcus asked. “Should I have called it a Fluffy Bunny or something?” He addressed the question to Jin, though he suspected her answer would be the same as the one he already had.

“You can,” she said. “But it’s a bad idea. Picture if every little bun in the world was part of the [Armageddon Beast] genus. Naming things appropriately doesn’t make things more difficult. Their truth is going to come out no matter what you call them. In naming something without a name, you’re engaging in a conversation. A short one sometimes, but at the very least there’s two parts to it. You saying ‘I want to call you this’, and the nameless one saying ‘I will be called that’.”

“That’s just naming them,” Anna said. “How do we stop them?”

“Engage with them,” Jin said. “Understand who and what they are. Look for the flaws and contradictions within them. You found one in the [Armageddon Beast] within a couple of minutes, that wasn’t a fluke. Things that are newly real don’t have the same grounding that you do. You are so much more powerful than you know simply because you’ve lived and breathed and dreamed and hoped day after day after day here. These are your worlds.”

“Worlds?” Marcus asked.

“Yes. Worlds. Do you think the time you’ve spent in the [Fallen Kingdoms] and among the [Crystal Stars] or journeying through [Wonderland] isn’t a part of your life?” Jin said. “You are all of the dreams you’ve ever walked in and all the ones you still carry in your heart.”