Category Archives: Uncategorized

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 9

Byron

The monsters he’d summoned weren’t a part of Byron, but he was still able to feel the trials and tribulations they faced. 

What was the point of obliterating a world if you didn’t have front row seats to watch the destruction from after all?

As a storm howled over Cairo, Byron reveled with glee. As India became a staging point for intergalactic conquest, he cackled, delighted at the idea of an assault that would, itself, also be obliterated. Then there were the [Blood Blobs] which were dissolving half of Taipei. Those drew a standing ovation from him, which might have been awkward since the entire crew of the aircraft carrier was watching him with rapt attention. Given that he’d liquidated their minds he wasn’t overly concerned with any critiques they might make though.

It wasn’t only the Earth that was providing him entertainment however. He couldn’t reach back to the [Fallen Kingdoms] – because of that woman! – but he was able to catch tiny glimpses of it whenever anyone opened a portal between the two realms.

He should probably have been concerned about that portal business.

No.

No reason to worry about that at all.

Portals open all the time.

How else could the Earthlings have gotten there?

Plus it was going to make going back to finish up the job he’d started so much easier

Which made sense and was a perfectly plausible reason to ignore them for the time being.

Through the perfectly harmless and not at all interesting portals, Byron spied the thousand armageddon’s he’d unleashed on the [Fallen Kingdoms] through Gulini. 

Not that there were a thousand left any more. 

Which was to be expected.

Some of them he’d barely put any effort into at all.  Some of them he’d even let that foolish amateur Gulini have sole input on. And some had been solely for his own amusement. The world ending in a storm of [Infinite Paperwork]? Even he had to admit that would have been too silly to let stand..

More than just the silly armageddons had been averted though. From the peeks and glimpses Byron managed to catch, some of his more well crafted efforts had been overcome.

A single group of [Adventurers] had managed to transform the [Sun Eating Dragon’s Egg] into an [Adult Sun Eating Dragon] without the seemingly obvious step of allowing the dragon in question to eat their sun! Byron watched as the [Adventurers] and their new dragon friend exited the star system under the dragon’s inherent [Wyrmhole] powers, heading off to consume some of the other star, or have amazing galactic adventurers, or some other nonsense he was sure.

That was quite the disappointment but there were still hundreds of world ending threats moving at full speed to destroy the [Fallen Kingdoms] and Gulini had been correct, only one needed to be successful to clear a path to the true obliteration of the realm.

And then he felt it.

He’d been so happy a moment before. Watching a [High Wizards Tower] fall into ruin had been like biting into an ugly fruit and discovering it was a particularly tasty treat. 

But his attention had been ripped away.

To her.

She was here.

On Earth.

A chill passed through Byron. 

That’s just silly. Don’t worry about it. We knew she was here already. We’ve sent things to deal with her. Powerful things!

Powerful things like the most renowned horror of a sprawling dark cosmic milieu.

Yes. That Cthulhu thing. She was definitely dead.

No! Even Better! Consumed! Cthulhu devoured those who opposed him. She was gone, Byron was sure of it. Swallowed into the belly of a literally indestructible god.

That had been what he had felt.

Her being consumed.

Her being gone.

Her no longer being any kind of menace to him at all.

Definitely.

He risked a peek anyways.

And screamed.

Not a squeak of fright. Not a bellow of anger. The scream Byron let out was one of the ones that doesn’t really have an end date in mind. It was the sort of sound the suggested disbelief and rage had been cheating on each other with mind numbing terror and all three had just discovered the fact.

Human lungs have a significant limit on the volume they can produce. No matter how much cardio an Earthling might do, they would never manage to out scream a tornado, or hush a volcano, or out bellow tectonic plates crashing together to form a new mountain range.

Byron’s lungs were not quite so feeble however.

He didn’t know when he’d started thrashing on the deck of the aircraft carrier, but he did know it didn’t seem to be helping.

No matter how hard he banged his head into the metal, or through the metal, he couldn’t drive out the image he’d seen. He couldn’t pretend she’d hadn’t done exactly what he’d said she’d do.

It was the pretty pink bow that really got him though. He just couldn’t unsee that.

So he sank the boat.

It didn’t help.

Drowning was no good when you didn’t have to breath and pressure was meaningless to you.

He knew what he had to do.

He’d been trying to stay focused on the larger task, been trying to ignore the danger she posed to him in the hopes of avoiding Unknown’s fate. Byron was sure that it had been Unknown’s repeated and direct assaults on her that had led to each of the transformations he’d suffered, and was determined to learn from the mistakes of others. Especially the one where Unknown had succumbed to his current condition of ‘existing’ due to trying to battle against her.

How could his earlier self not have seen things clearly?

She was to blame!

She was always to blame!

So, given that, stay away from her had clearly been the most sensible thing to do.

And yet she’d followed him. Across worlds even! So, clearly, staying away was not a viable option. He needed to take the fight to her.

He threw up again.

It was a bad idea.

He did not want to face her again.

No. More than “did not want”. Because he wasn’t supposed to ‘want’ in the first place.

He simply could not face her. It was impossible. He literally could not risk it.

So, we’ll just accept that as a limitation? Just define ourself all neatly like that? We’re the one who can’t face our creator? Does the road back to oblivion go in that direction?

Of course it didn’t..

Which meant that, though it was impossible, Byron was going to face his creator once more.

Tessa

Trouble was coming. Tessa did need to be a genius to work that one out. Despite her certainty of that fact however, she couldn’t help but feel a little giddy.

“He knows how to dance?” Rip asked. From the uncertainty in her voice, she was still struggling to believe what she was seeing.

“He apparently knows the [Harlem Shuffle],” Matt said. “Wait? [Harlem Shuffle] is a magic word?”

The thought should have been worrisome. If parts of regular, old, mundane Earth history were receiving the [Fallen Kingdoms] special terminology treatment, it meant the two worlds were blending even more deeply than Tessa had imagined, which was probably an apocalypse in its own right.

But Kitty Cthulhu had summoned a building sized boombox and was busy entertaining the people he’d been trying to destroy just moments earlier. It was hard to do anything but laugh at that sort of apocalypse.

An unstoppable, indestructible, Elder God had become a cut and cuddly, if still absurdly gigantic, kid’s mascot character. 

And Tessa had been the one who’d stopped him.

“However much I mess up from here, at least I managed to do this,” she said on the private channel she shared once more with Lisa.

“I’m still curious how you pulled it off?” Lisa said. “You made a whole new spell up. On the fly. We’re not even supposed to be able to cast spells here, and even if we were back in the [Fallen Kingdoms] spell creation is something that only the NPCs can do, and that only happens during the reality ripples that come along with an update. So, how? Just how?”

“Partially, it’s because I was able to spend some time looking at how our spells work,” Pillowcase said. “And I’ve got several archives worth of enhancement theory woven into my brain.”

“Partially it’s also because I have a ton of unclaimed abilities as a [Void Speaker],” Tessa said.

“And partially it just seemed like an appropriate situation to take a ridiculously dangerous risk,” Pillowcase said. “Not to mention that Fari got us so many more connections to Cthulhu’s essence than we could ever hope to need or want.”

“You had mentioned that you were working on a banishing special though,” Fari said and added quickly, “Apologies if this channel was meant to be private? The encryption on it is weak enough that I couldn’t be sure.”

“It is,” Lisa said, “but you raise a good point.”

“The spell I was working on was somewhat loosely defined,” Pillowcase said. “I was counting on a lot of environmental factors to help it work. With what you gave me though, I had enough access to the heart of what Cthulhu is, which let me grab hold of the god spark within him.”

“Oh. OH!” Lisa said.

“It wasn’t enough for a full divine power up like the last one,” Tessa said. “I couldn’t have taken Cthulhu’s self away from him no matter what I tried. What I figured out I could do though was to use it to change him into something he already was.”

“The form we see before us is an alternate shape he can take?” Fari asked.

“It goes deeper than that,” Tessa said. “Cthulhu was created almost a century ago in stories from Earth. However the [Fallen Kingdoms] became real, the same thing or something similar happened to Cthulhu’s version Earth. The thing is though that there’s not just one version of Cthulhu out there. Other writers have told stories in his world, and about him. A lot of other writers in fact. So which one is the truth? If the original can be real, why couldn’t the others? Some of them are far better known than the first version is.”

“That is a very powerful spell you wove,” Fari said. “It crossed multiversal boundaries. That’s not something personal magics are capable of in my home universe.”

“It shouldn’t be something that magic is capable of here either,” Lost Alice said.

“I know, and that does worry me,” Tessa said. “The fact that I was able to do that..” she pointed to Kitty Cthulhu, who was helping clear some of the rubble from the battle. The buildings were a loss, but being able to move cars and trucks through the streets was still valuable. “..suggests that something in this world is breaking down badly.”

“That’s likely why we’re here I expect,” Fari said. “We have a few methods of multiversal transport but most of them are accidental, and while our current trip appeared to fit that category the odds are steadily diminishing given that we appear to have arrived precisely when we were needed most.”

“Believe me, we’re grateful for that,” Tessa said. “If you hadn’t shown up, I think all we might have managed would be to taste good before Cthulhu finished digesting us.”

“I’m glad we were able to help,” Fari said. “And I know Mel and Darius feel the same. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there is much we can do about the basic laws of reality unraveling. For problems like that we typically turn to the Crystal Empress.”

“I’m going to guess that’s not someone you can call at the moment?” Lisa asked.

“Not directly,” Fari said. “She does sometimes hear our prayers though, so if all other hope is lost…”

“I think if all hope is lost, it’ll be up to us to find some more,” Tessa said. “I could be entirely wrong, but the other thing that felt like it helped pull the spell together? It wasn’t the magicaI theory I know as Pillowcase, or the undefined powers I have as a [Void Speaker]. It wasn’t anything with power at all. It was just regular old, boring me.”

“Impossible,” Lisa said. “You are many things, but oh my god are you not boring.”

“I was,” Tessa said. “And that’s okay. I didn’t have to be anything special. I was just me, unexciting flaws, and unremarkable strengths, both stuffed into a pretty unexceptional package. Take away everything I can do, and maybe that’s what I’d go right back to being. It’s still a part of me after all. And an important one. One that has something none of my other personas do – a connection to how this world was without any magic, or super science, or anything else out of the ordinary. I anchored the spell on that side of me, so that it could be a part of that purely mundane natural order. I don’t think I could have done that with any magic that was going to change the world, but for a spell that was going to save it? I think that’s exactly what we needed.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 1

Tessa sagged against the [Heart Fire] and let her face fall into her hands. Her body was in perfect condition, restored from near total obliteration to a state of ideal health she’d probably never had it in at any point during her life on Earth. Her heart, her lungs, her muscles and bones? All flawless.

Which meant the imperfection that was responsible for her failure lay in something deeper. In something essential to who she was.

“Hey, how are you doing?” Lisa asked on their private channel. Her telepathic voice was all soft concern, which somehow just hurt all the more.

“I’m okay,” Tessa said, fighting to allow only the weariness in her spirit to show, and not even all of that. 

She wasn’t okay though. She knew that. Whether she viewed things as Tessa or as Pillowcase, she was lost in sea of failure.

She’d been training with [Demons] for hours. Lots of hours. They’d tried different battle tactics, from solo encounters, to bringing in the entire team, to having some of the [Demons] join their side. Tessa had tried switching to Pillowcase’s form. She’d tried battling on nothing but instinct, and she’d tried analyzing every moment while under the effect of Starchild’s best acceleration spell. At each turn though, she’d been met with death.

Death and the absolute impenetrability of the level cap effect that was in place and limiting them. 

Tears of rage and frustration rolled down Tessa’s face as she got to her feet. She could still feel the ocean of possibility waiting inside her. No matter how she called to it through, it refused to crystalize into an ability that let her break the level cap.

At first she’d imagined it as an ability that could reshape the world, removing the level 99 cap for everyone. Then she’d narrowed her vision to a power that she could bestow on her party members. It had hurt to give that up, but she’d pressed on, striving for something she could use to break the limit for herself at least. When even that proved impossible, she turned to her last hope – a gift she could bestow to one other person. If she couldn’t be the one to transcend the world’s level limit, then maybe it would be enough to empower someone else, to give up what made her special in order to make someone else a star?

The idea sounded terrible, but when it came to saving the world, it wasn’t important that she be the one to get the glory. She just wanted the world to be saved, and if she had to sacrifice for that, being someone boring and average wasn’t that hard a sacrifice to make really.

Except even that wasn’t enough.

Or it wasn’t the right approach to take.

Or the level cap just couldn’t be broken.

“Snowcap says our [Demon] friends could use a ten minute break before we continue,” Lisa said.

Tessa wiped her face, and drew in a breath before exiting the [Heart Fire] chamber.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I think this was the last one.”

It felt terrible to give up. A part of her hated quitting anything this important. Hated the confirmation that she was a loser. Strangely, turning to Pillowcase’s perspective was worse than Tessa’s. Tessa’s fear of failure hadn’t been hardwired into her to quite the same degree as Pillowcase’s. The extremity of Pillowcase’s revulsion hit like a punch to the nose – sharp and stinging and entirely out of proportion to the source of the pain.

“Hey,” Lost Alice said as Tessa exited the [Heart Fire] chamber. Without needing to be asked she wrapped Tessa into a cool, refreshing hug and just held her.

The others, even the [Demons], were still outside in the arena, which left the two of them alone enough that Tessa stopped trying to hide her tears.

“Was it bad that time?” LIsa asked.

“No,” Tessa said. Being obliterated was fine, as deaths went almost preferable in fact. Hard to notice any pain when your body evaporated in an instant. “I just don’t think I can do it.”

“You have done it though,” Lisa said. “Not the level cap thing. We knew that was a long shot. But us. This team. We’re ready now.”

Tessa blinked, drying her tears as she snuggled close to Lost Alice and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Do you remember what we set out to do?” Lisa asked. “Not coming here, I meant at the start of all this?”

“We wanted to level up so that we’d be safer,” Tessa said.

“Sure, but that was a side-effect. We wanted to build a party into a team. One that we’d be comfortable with. One that would fight how we wanted to fight. We…I didn’t want to be alone,” Lisa said, her arms squeezing Tessa a bit extra as she finished speaking.

“Oh yeah, I remember that,” Tessa said, allowing herself to crack a smile. “I recall being pretty terrified that this awesome woman I’d just met was going to come to her senses and ditch me for a better opportunity in a heartbeat.”

“Well it’s a good thing my heart beats only for you then,” Lost Alice said.

It was the cheesiest line all on it’s own but what really pushed it over the top was hearing Lost Alice make her heart beat with a quick bum-dum-bump rhythm to underscore the joke. Tessa couldn’t hold back her smile anymore or resist the urge to hug Lost Alice even tighter and whisper, “You are wonderful.”

“And I’m never going to get tired of hearing that,” Lisa said. “But we should let the others know the bloodbath is over. When you’re ready. If you want to take a few minutes, no one will notice or mind.”

“If the world wasn’t ending, I could think of something I’d like to take a few hours, or days, maybe weeks, doing, but no, I think I’m good,” Tessa said, the cloud of failure not exactly lifting off her shoulders, but growing lighter nonetheless.

“We’ll need to figure out what we’re going to do next then,” Lisa said. “Apart from report to Penswell and let her know what we’ve discovered.”

“That the level cap is either unbreakable or that I’m just not good enough to break it,” Tessa said in acknowledgement.

“Oh, a lot more than that,” Lisa said. “You freed a bunch of [Demons] and turned them into [Angels]. You went all godmode and fundamentally changed our primary adversary. Oh, and we’re also all level capped now. So she can include us in the lineup of the whatever groups she’s sending against our remaining big bads.”

Tessa blinked.

Then shook her head.

“I’m sorry. What did you just say?” she asked, staring at Lisa as though English had become a foreign language.

“Which part wasn’t clear? The [Demons] bit, the godmode one, or the level cap?” Lisa asked.

“That last one. Oh, wait, you mean we got to the level cap here But, is 70 enough to hit the front lines?” Tessa asked, confusion still spiraling around her thoughts.

“70? What do you…oh my god! You’re in human form still! You don’t have a HUD! I forgot about that!” Lisa said, stepping back to hold Tessa at arms length and gaze into Tessa’s potentially-not-human-but-close-enough eyes.

“Why does that matter?” Tessa asked. She was feeling dreadfully slow, perhaps from the hundreds of recent deaths.

“Here. Let’s go back into the [Heart Fire] chamber. You need to see this,” Lisa said.

Tessa allowed herself to be led back to the room that was starting to feel like her home away from home.

“Do your magic and switch back to Pillowcase’s body.”

“Okay?” Tessa said and held her hand out to the [Heart Fire]. Converting between her two forms had become effortless thanks to all the practice she’d had. She still needed the [Heart Fire] to invoke the change, but a single touch of the flame was enough to let her slide from flesh and blood to fabric and stitching.

Pillowcase opened her eyes and saw the world as she was familiar with perceiving it. Multiple vision channels overlaid each other carrying images from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as more esoteric sources. Atop the sight images, her Heads-Up Display showed the usual readouts and information tracking graphs.

“What am I looking for?” Pillowcase asked. “Wait. My level is blue. Why is it blue?”

“Tap it,” Lost Alice said.

Pillowcase felt a pang of concern that she’d gone out of spec somewhere in the process of attempting to break the limit cap in [Hells Breach]. She hesitated for a second, the thought of her level indicator somehow crumbling away and leaving her back at level 1 danced through her mind, carrying a conga line of terror in its wake. 

“It’s okay. You’ve kept up on so much of the rest of the game, it didn’t occur to me that you might be thinking things still worked like they used to,” Lisa said.

A thought bubbled up from Tessa’s mind, a small item from a patch note that she’d read close to five years prior.

Pillowcase touched the level indicator and, rather than anything malfunctioning or falling apart, a small dialog popped up next to the blue number “70”.

Combat Level: 70

Character Level: 99

The contents were simple enough, but the jolt of understanding that came with them was overwhelming.

“We were leveling in there that whole time!” Pillowcase shook with very non-[Clothwork] tremors of excitement.

“Yeah,” Lisa said. “We couldn’t break the cap, so we’re still stuck fighting at 70 in here, but a while back the devs changed level capped zones so that you still earned xps in them. The rate sucks, and it’s about ten times easier to level anywhere else, but they didn’t want people to feel like old quests and stuff that forced you into level cap areas were a complete waste of time.”

“But, but how?” Tessa asked.

“Do you have any idea how many [Demons] you’ve killed over the last several hours?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, we were getting fractional xp on each one, but the formula is based off what their actual level is not the level cap, so we were still doing okay. I’m so sorry! I thought you knew and that’s why you kept pressing on.”

“That’s why you wanted to swap people in to help me!” Tessa said. “You wanted to make sure they were getting real experience too as they leveled!”

“I mean, that was nice, but mostly it was because I was hoping something would break the cap so you could stop dying so much. As your healer, watching your health hit zero kinda sucked, and knowing that my…that you were really getting hurt each time? I stuck with it because I never want to have to see you go through that again.”

Pillowcase collapsed to the floor like a ragdoll. The irony wasn’t lost on her.

“We did it,” she said, giggling as Tessa’s perspective came to the fore. 

[Clothworks] weren’t designed to process emotions through any mechanism apart from absolute suppression and the relief and giddiness Tessa was feeling, while overwhelming, was something she had no desire to suppress at all.

“We did,” Lost Alice said, sitting down beside Pillowcase. “You did.”

“Not alone,” Tessa said, turning so that she was nose-to-nose with Lost Alice. “Not anymore.”

More than the ten minutes of the [Demon’s] break passed before they broke off the kiss they shared.

“Not anymore,” Lost Alice agreed.

Feeling lighter and truly refreshed at last, Tessa bounced to her feet and gave Lost Alice another quick peck, marveling at how soft and gentle Lost Alice could be while also being literally stronger than steel.

Except, Pillowcase’s body wasn’t really setup to notice things like how wonderful lips touching felt.

And Pillowcase’s body came with vision that including thermographic imaging and the heads-up display.

Tessa looked at her hands. 

Pillowcase looked at Tessa’s hands.

They were human hands.

Lisa seemed to notice the incongruity as well.

“You touched the [Heart Fire] again?” she asked, curious but not concerned.

“No,” Tessa said. 

She hadn’t needed to.

Sick Days

Apologies for the missed entry on Thursday – wound up pretty wreck by a stomach bug for three days straight. I’m going to take today off too, so the next posting on Storytreader will be Tuesday’s chapter of Two Hearts. Broken Horizons should be back next Thursday as usual.

Stay healthy!

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 12

Hailey’s team wasn’t the first to engage the [Broken Hunger’s] forces on the corrupted Consortium fleet. That honor had gone to [L’Arc En Ciel], a primarily European guild that had scored the [World’s First] clears for the three most recently released end game dungeons. 

Azma had evaluated all of the top guilds who were able to field viable [Raid Parties] via the early [Quests] she and her [Co-commanders] had handed out. What would normally have been a competition that ran for several weeks had been settled in a matter of three hours. 

It wasn’t that she and Grenslaw and Ryschild were simply taking all comers either. Yes, the effort needed as many combatants as possible but in a move that perplexed even the [Adventurers] themselves, Azma insisted that her forces were not going to be sent into a meat grinder. Initially, Hailey had assumed Azma was speaking of the troops she’d retained (saved really) from the her original Consortium deployment. That wasn’t her intention though. Azma clarified the matter the moment it was brought up.

She flatly refused to see the [Adventurers] feed themselves into the maw of death repeatedly in an effort to wear down the [Broken Shadow], or the new forces they’d discovered who were in play (fragments of the [Broken Shadow] from what Hailey could make out?).

“It’s inefficient and exposes us to unacceptable risks,” she said.

“The [Hounds of Fate]?” Hailey asked. She wasn’t important enough in terms of combat priority to secure a personal audience with the new [Command Council] but Azma had approved her request almost instantly when she’d asked to speak with them.

“The predations of the [Hounds of Fate] represent a predictable force diminishment rate,” Azma said. “Disagreeable, but a cost that could potentially be required for a successful mission execution.”

“You mean us dying could be worth it to beat this thing?” Damnazon’s translation wasn’t accompanied by anger at the idea. Dying for real was a terrifying idea, but the [Adventurers] who’d signed up for the early quests had gotten to see exactly what the price of failure looked like and there was almost universal agreement that even true death was preferable to what the entity, Broken or Hungry, was capable of doing to people. 

In theory of course, the [Adventurers] were immune to the corruptive influence of the entity. 

At least in its current form. 

Everyone knew that could change though.

What was somewhat more widely convincing was the detailed info on the Consortium’s [Cleansing Fleet] which had been made publicly available.

[Adventurers] were effectively immortal provided they could get to a [Heart Fire] without being caught by a [Hound of Fate]. Something weird was happening with the [Hounds of Fate] but the more pressing concern was that it would be a teensy bit hard to reach a [Heart Fire] to reincarnate when the entire planet had been reduced to a rapidly expanding cloud of disconnected atomic fragments. 

There were, of course, those who doubted the reports of what the [Cleansing Fleet] could do. Artificially inducing a super nova event in a star was ludicrously out of genre for a fantasy world. That there was video evidence and testimony of previous [Cleansing Fleet] actions wasn’t enough for those who didn’t want to believe though. 

For those people there was one additional lure – the promise of the loot the [Cleansing Fleet] held.

Unique items? Power sources which outclassed those anyone else had access to? Materials which offered damage resistance far beyond the best armor any [Adventurer] was wearing? It was, theoretically possible for an [Adventurers] to choose to pass that up. It they were willing to be second best. Left behind. Not as strong as the real players.

Azma’s lesson to Grenslaw and Ryschild was to mandate nothing. They instead offered lavish rewards for the behaviors they wished to see, and withheld those rewards from the [Adventurers] who didn’t act properly.

Hailey couldn’t help but notice that their methods were roughly analogous to the positive reinforcement training methods she’d used to teach basic obedience to her sister’s puppies. She also had to admit that those methods were working just fine on both herself and all of the [Adventurers] who’d passed the gauntlet of [Quests] to be offered a shot at the former Consortium fleet.

“If spending our lives in order to win is on the table for this,” Hailey asked. “Then what’s keeping us from zerging the fleet?”

Hailey was surprised when it wasn’t Azma who answered by Grenslaw instead.

“The more times our [Adventurers] die fighting the [Broken Hunger] the more opportunities it has to learn how to thwart your ability to self-resurrect.”

“Or, worse, learn how to copy the trick itself,” Ryschild added.

“Wouldn’t learning to resurrect via [Heart Fires] be impractical for it?” Mellisandra asked. “It doesn’t have ready access to any on the fleet.”

“There are still [Heart Fires] on the satellite moon, which is controls wholly,” Azma said. “So far, the entity seems to have taken little interest in those since it can’t make any direct use of them, but that could change all too easily.”

“That makes sense, sort of,” Hailey said. “From what Tessa said, it was born from one of [Heart Fires], but it was one that had been damaged beyond repair and had the divine spark within it fully exposed. Whatever’s capable of holding a fragment of god power in must be immune to the nothingness effect that thing has too.”

“So far as we know, that’s not possible,” Azma said. “[Transcendental Entities] can’t be bound by or resisted by any material or power within an realized worldline. Since that is clearly not the case in the worldline we’re presently in however, our knowledge apparently does not stretch for enough.”

“We know the [Broken Shadows] has been growing more, I guess ‘real’ is best term, with every change its undergone,” Hailey said. “Do we know that it can even still change to do things like copy [Adventurer] abilities?”

“We don’t,” Grenslaw said.

“But we do have a theory which you are helping us put to the test,” Ryschild said.

“Yay, we’re guinea pigs!” Damnazon said, nowhere near as unhappy with the notion as Hailey felt a sensible person should be.

“Is it the kind of theory you can share with us, or will that spoil the test?” Hailey asked.

“We believe the abilities of [Adventurers] may be easier to replicate than wholly new phenomena,” Azma said. “They allow for variations in the first tier laws of this world’s physical structures, but your world is already setup to support them. They represent a third or fourth tier of physical and arcane law.”

“I’m not sure I followed that,” Damnazon said.

“Consider a [Fireball] spell,” Azma said. “Fire is not able to spontaneously appear in this world. Under normal circumstances, there must be fuel for it to burn, and oxygen for it to consume. A [Fireball] spell can be cast without fuel and can burn through the void of space. That’s a violation of the basic law of energy conservation, however the presence of arcane energies allows that law to be circumvented to a specific extent. A fixed quantity of mystical energy can be exchanged both to fuel the spell and to suspend the use proscription against producing fire from nowhere.”

“So you think that the next time the [Broken Shadow] changes, it’s going to manifest abilities that we already see withing the world, because those will be easier to access?” Mellisandra asked.

“We do,” Ryschild said.

“Should we be looking for that?” Hailey asked.

“Not especially,” Azma said. “We want to collect multiple corroborating reports before we consider the question decided.”

“That’s why we’re having the [Adventurers] report the specific details of what they encounter,” Ryschild said.

“It would be easy to see one of the [Broken Shadows] throw a ball of fire and jump to the conclusion that it was using the standard [Fireball] spell. We want to verify that the observed temperature, range, coloration, and other factors all line up though,” Grenslaw said.

“It’s also possible it will development new abilities which are analogous to [Adventurer] abilities while not being precisely the same,” Azma said. “We need to know if the limitations [Adventurers] face will also be true for the [Broken Shadows] next form.”

“There is something else you may want to consider,” Cambrell said. The [Goblin] had been doing a magnificent job of blending in with the decor, but Hailey hadn’t forgotten he was there. There was something oddly comforting about the notion of an [Assassin] lurking in the shadows who was on her side.

“Monsters?” Azma asked.

“Yes. They already have abilities which are variants of what [Adventurers] possess, typically with far fewer constraints,” Cambrell said. “As well as abilities no [Adventurers] have access to.”

“Indeed, and thanks to your friend,” Azma nodded at Hailey, “We have a comprehensive list of those abilities too, as well as numerical data on how they function.”

“I see why you’re going to need multiple reports to confirm this hypothesis,” Mellisandra said.

“How critical is it that you determine the answer to that question?” Hailey asked.

“Currently it is the second most important matter we’re investigating,” Ryschild said.

“The second? Wow. Why is it so vital?” Hailey asked.

“To put together a final strategy for dealing [Broken Shadow’s] next form, we need to understand what that form’s capabilities will be,” Azma said. “It’s optimizing itself with each change and, as we are now the predominant threat to its continued existence, its next change will be optimized for dealing with us.”

“Optimized how?” Damnazon asked.

“At the very least we expect it to be able to mimic the most debilitating effects the various [Mega Bosses] you’ve had to face possessed,” Grenslaw said. “Its initial form included the ability perceive and corrupt even the most highly secured data. Each time you face it, its going to be able to learn more about how your abilities work, and, if we’re correct, it will naturally be drawn to the most powerful counteragents which currently exist to prevent you from using them.”

“So [Magic Nullification] fields,” Mellisandra said.

“And [Stamina Depletion Auras],” Cambrell said.

“Decent chance it’ll develop [Confusion Pulses] too,” Damnazon said. “Those are always rough to deal with.”

The [Adventurers] gave a collective groan of agreement.

“So, the [Final Boss Fight] for this part of the questline is going to be miserable,” Hailey said. “I’m shocked. Totally shocked.”

“It is pretty par for the course,” Mellisandra conceded.

“There’s a new angle to it though,” Cambrell said.

“Yeah, I picked up on that too,” Hailey said. “I was just trying to ignore that part.”

“You can feel free too,” Ryschild said.

“That’s our job to plan for,” Grenslaw said.

“What’s the new angle?” Damnazon asked.

“We only get one shot at this,” Hailey said. “If we come close by don’t quite manage to take it down, we’ll probably push it into changing again, and optimizing itself to deal with whatever we come at it with.”

“Oh,” Damnazon said, her single syllable carrying the impossible weight the task represented.

Everyone present knew that [Adventurers] could beat [Mega Bosses]. There was a long and glorious history of groups taking down the most ludicrous of foes, starting with the best of the best among the [Adventurers] and gradually expanding on to a general majority of them as the tricks for the battle were worked out and the overall power level of the populace gradually rose.

Beating a boss in one go though? The only people who could be confident in that were those who’d never attempted a [Mega Boss Battle] while it was still considered current content.

“But you’re going to have a plan for us, right?” Damnazon asked, scanning the faces of the [Command Council].

“I don’t know,” Azma said. “Normally I’d have a plan already or I wouldn’t have embarked on even this much of a war effort.”

“Is that a bad sign?” Cambrell asked.

“No. I don’t think so,” Azma said. “To tell you the truth, it’s rather exciting. I’m feeling rather inspired in fact.”

Hailey felt like there was something there she should follow up on but a more pressing question rose to her mind first.

“You said understanding the [Broken Shadows] capabilities was your second highest priority,” Hailey said. “What’s the first?”

“Why, how to kill it of course,” Azma said with a delighted smile.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Interlude 1

Azma

Azma found the chaos and calamity which surrounded her a great source of comfort. By all reasonable measurements, her own fortunes were dire, her goals impossible to achieve, and her plans a failed and tangled mess.

None of that was true of course. Her fortunes were excellent by virtue of the fact that her goals were still well within her reach and her plans were proceeding as close to optimally as she could have hoped for.

Also, she was herself.

She didn’t have problems.

Other people had problems, and she was typically the worst one.

“Our troops have finished the pacification of the [Stars Guards Fort], the [Bleakwater Basin], and the [Scouring Hellmaw],” Grenslaw said, entering the private, and tastefully appointed chamber, Penswell had set aside for their use. “The teams at [High Gutter] and [The Scarlet Cascade] are in place and awaiting orders.”

“What were our losses in Stars Guard?” Azma asked.

“No fatalities, fifty three serious injuries, and two hundred and twelve minor wounds,” Grenslaw said.

Serious injuries were annoying since it meant the troops in question were badly enough damaged that they wouldn’t be available for further fighting until they’d been through tha rejuvenation/repair period and been properly rested. The minor wounds were less troubling, but still worth noting. She’d send those troops into lighter combat duty for the next cycle since, while they were still capable, their performance would be lower as they recovered from the non-debilitating but still potentially gruesome damage they’d suffered.

No fatalities was a cause for celebration though, as were the relatively low numbers over all. Her troops were more than doing her proud, they were fighting at a level no General could have asked for or expected. Just like she knew they could.

“Excellent! They exceeded their performance margin by fifteen percent. Mark them all down for the high performance bonus,” Azma said. “Also, command the team at [High Gutter] that the town is no longer a hybrid area. They are free to proceed with a full burn cleanse of the area, but their injury metrics have been tightened to reflect the lower hazard of the operation.”

Authorizing the [High Gutter] team to reduce the isolated defensive post to a heap of cinders and ash was a relief for which Azma felt she owed the local [Adventurers] a nod of thanks.

[High Gutter] had originally been a strongpoint fought over between two rival kingdoms in the area. Both kingdoms were under the subjugation of the [Consortium of Pain’s] forces, which were in turn under the long distance control of the [Hungry Shadow]. 

Unlike on the Consortium ships though, the citizens of [High Gutter] hadn’t been corrupted into mindless appendages of the [Hungry Shadows] will. 

Which had meant that to secure [High Gutter] and block off both of the kingdoms from the rest of the region, penning in the Consortium’s forces, they were going to need to either kill all of the locals, or fight around them.

Penswell had been surprised when Azma had put forth a plan to fight around them. It was a costlier approach, both in terms of resources required and troops that would be lost to the effort. Or it would have been costlier to anyone else.

Azma was the one who had designed the Consortium’s strategy though and so she was keenly away of the importance of [High Gutter] and its weak points.

Saving the citizens within [High Gutter] wasn’t charity though. The forces Azma had deployed to the kingdoms [High Gutter] sealed away were rife of Necromancers. Her original strategy with them had been for the units to be self sustaining by using the bodies of their fallen enemies to both demoralize the defenders and act as a shield for her own forces.

Reversing that strategy meant, in part, denying the Consortium forces access to both dead bodies.and lingering spirits.

Thanks to the local [Adventurers] though, the people of [High Gutter] had been rescued and moved to a safer, more secure location.

Which meant Azma’s forces could simply annihilate the place.

It wasn’t a fair method of fight by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it one which paid dividends later, or allowed for the cost of the operation to be recouped in loot or land value.

Azma was in the joyful position of being unconcerned about recouping costs though since, by all calculations, the world she was on would be reduced to free floating subatomic particles within the week.

“Shall I inform Strategist Penswell of the change in plans?” Ryschild asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” Azma said. “She understands our goals and for the time being they are aligned with hers.”

Penswell had proven to be a delight. Where Azma was normally in the habit of unpacking her thoughts into diminished and more easily digestible chunks, with Penswell she’d been free to speak in something much closer to the shorthand which she thought in.

The need for pretense and artifice was largely absent as well, which was so refreshing Azma had given serious consideration to abandoning her other plans and simply remaining on-world after the current crisis was resolved in order to war against Penswell till they both got bored of whatever stalemate they worked themselves into.

In Penswell, Amza had found someone who understood their relationship, its boundaries, and opportunities without any need for Azma to spell them out or arrange for tedious object lessons.

They were both valuable to each other. They would extract what value was available, arranging at all times to place themselves in a favorable position in the long run, but – and this was the bit so many others failed to see – not mindlessly at the expense of the other.

It was fine for Azma to burn [High Gutter] to the ground. It was a loss for Penswell’s concerns overall, and a mild gain for Azma’s forces. In the long term though, the damage done to the holdings Penswell was responsible for was minor – nothing irreplaceable had been lost, and they had both gained a significant advantage over the Consortium forces in the region.

Penswell could trust that, for the time being, Azma would not injure her or her forces unless the injury paid a far higher yield for both of them since Azma needed Penswell and her forces to be as strong as they possibly could be if she was going to wield them as a weapon against her true enemies.

Azma turned to considering her forces around the [Scarlet Cascade] with that in mind. She refused to allow any fatalities, but with the exemplary performance of her other troops, she could risk a more aggressive posture against the [Battle Engines] at the [Scarlet Cascade].

The safe play was to disable the Consortium’s giant war machines in a pre-emptive strike, but she was feeling greedy and her forces would be in a decidedly better position if the [Battle Engines] could be captured rather than destroyed.

She was weighing the possibilities when Penswell appeared in the seat on the opposite side of the table from her.

“The [Battle Engines] are a loss,” Penswell said. No introduction, no prelude, no context setting at all really. 

Azma nearly swooned.

“A new enemy has arisen?” Azma asked. It was the most likely scenario, despite it being unheralded and relatively implausible. 

Had the machines been destroyed though, there would be no need to assault the [Scarlet Cascade] anymore and if the Consortium had received reinforcements to protect them, Penswell would have arrived with their layout and a gleeful expression at getting to crush such a concentration of the enemy all in one place.

“The local monsters are leveling up,” Penswell said.

Azma took a moment to process that.

It hadn’t been on her mental radar because it was apparently impossible in this world.

Quantized power rankings like “levels” weren’t a unique thing. The Consortium dealt with any number of worlds were reality was ordered with powers available in discrete chunks. A common trait of those worlds was that some entities had a fixed power state while others were fluid. Generally the ones that could grow though, grew along predictable and limited paths. The fixed entities, by comparison, tended to enjoy a broader diversity of abilities and powers at the expense of remaining unchanged.

The “monsters’ of this world were almost universally of the fixed power state variety, which meant they had a plethora of different abilities, though only a few manifested in each individual.

If those entities had gained the ability to increase their power states though…

“Have any broken the power cap for your [Adventurers]?” Azma asked. She could guess based on Penswell’s expression but for something this critical it was worth being certain.

“Yes. We’ve lost three teams so far and the Total Party Kill count is in the hundreds already,” Penswell said.

Ryschild and Grenslaw were both standing beside her, silent and watchful, though for a change Azma’s suspected that was because they had nothing to offer, rather than the sense to wait to be asked for their suggestions.

Azma didn’t blame them for that. She had to spend a few moments considering the implications of Penswell’s news.

“Having any of them broken the power cap for the highest extant ‘monsters’?” she asked, unsure which disastrous answer she would prefer.

“Unknown at present,” Penswell said. “Two [Alliances] are probing the matter as we speak.”

“At your request?”

“They began organizing before I learned of the situation,” Penswell said.

Because [Adventurers] had, at best, a passing and hate-filled relationship with personal safety.

Azma hadn’t counted on the extent to which that was true in her original plan to the conquer the world, which explained a rather large portion of the deviations in her initial assaults effectiveness. Seeing it in person, she was sure she could adjust her next attempt accordingly but also not looking forward to it overmuch. 

Fighting foes that were effectively unkillable was one thing. Azma had managed that a number of times. 

Fighting dealing with foes who were unkillable and extremely willing to throw themselves into a blender repeatedly was simply tiresome, as well as aggravatingly difficult to extract a profit from.

Azma was sure she could beat the combined forces of the world with her current nearly microscopic army. She was less sanguine about doing so without going miserably bankrupt in the process, and that was the sort of fight she tried to avoid at all costs.

“Either result represents an opportunity, but limited leveling would be preferable,” Azma said.

“I’m adjusting the disposition of my troops to absorb either eventuality, but the [Confidence Rating] of my plans is dropping to unacceptable levels,” Penswell said.

“Armageddon protocols?” Azma asked.

“Invoked and available,” Penswell said. “Still in reserve though.”

The newly empowered monsters might be limited to the power states already available in this reality or they might be capable of breaking all known limits and becoming mathematically unstoppable. In either case there was the possibility that they would overrun the world and destroy any hope of defending it, even apart the looming threat of [Hungry Shadow] or the potential arrival of a solar system destroying task force from the Consortium.

Should that happen, despite Penswell and Azma’s best efforts to prevent it, they intrinsically agreed upon the proper course of action. Namely, that the last action they would take would be to ensure the rampaging monsters were aimed in the correct direction to destroy their other foes.

If they were going to be destroyed, there was no chance they were going down without sending out a retributive strike capable of shattering the heavens and ensuring that those ultimately responsible for their downfall suffered a far worse fate than the one Penswell and Azma had been consigned to.

But of course that wasn’t going to happen.

“Good,” Azma said. “Invoking them sends the proper message but they will never need to come out of your reserve.”

“Of course not,” Penswell said. “Alone, either one of us could ensure that.”

Azma refused to cackle. 

It was rather tempting though.

Whatever strange fates controlled this world, they had made the absolute worst possible mistake in giving her an equal to contest against.

Because Azma didn’t fight against people like Penswell.

Not when allying with them would let her finally become the true master of her own destiny.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 19

Lisa

It should have been cruel to have the possibility of a path home appear only to turn out to be a dead end and Lisa had the sense that for many people it would be. There were parents among the [Adventurers] who had been cutoff from their children, lovers who’d been split apart across the divide between the worlds, and people who were terrified of the world before them being real rather than a safe collect of pixels for them to play with.

Not everyone was resigned to their fate either. There were plenty of [Adventurers] both high level and low who were trying all sorts of things to find a path back. So far as Lisa knew though, none of them had yet succeeded. 

Even the idea of access the beta server had been tried from what her friend Cease All from her original guild had said. There was no established means of hopping between the servers though – that had always been an admin level function – but the [Fallen Kingdoms] were nothing if not littered with gates and portals and rifts to different times and places given how much the devs liked to use wild and inconsistent settings as part of their expansions.

That her kid sister had been the one to find the right gateway was more alarming than surprising. Rachel would attract all sorts of the wrong attention if it became common knowledge that she’d come from the beta server and knew how to get back.

Beyond that though, Lisa found that she was far more interested in the question of whether Deadly Alice, Rachel’s character was present but suppressed or whether Deadly Alice was actually as nonexistent as Rachel claimed.

The question of getting back home was interesting in an academic choice but with the possibility seemingly off the table, Lisa felt more relieved than anything else.

Going back to her old life was something she knew she should be striving for. It was the responsible thing to do. It was what was expected of her. It was the grown up thing to do.

The voice inside that cast those words at her weren’t her own. They belonged to all the people who had ever told her that she loved was worthless. Games didn’t make you money, so they were frivolous. Activities suitable for children. As an adult she was supposed to hussle. To always be striving to get ahead. 

“Making something of herself” had been a battle she’d fought her whole life, and she’d internalized enough of the arguments to believe some of them.

Living how she wanted to wasn’t practical. She did need money, which meant plugging into a game (or, realistically, several games) 24/7 wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t even have been healthy if she’d won a lottery and been able to forget about money. 

At the same time though, she couldn’t accept the idea that something’s value came only from what it could be exchanged for.

What she was doing in the [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t matter to anyone on Earth. It wasn’t helping her get ahead, or pay off her debts, or win a new career for herself. But it was still important.

Lost Alice was important. Even if she no more exceptional in the [Fallen Kingdoms] than Lisa had been on Earth.

“I think a good long talk is in order,” Lost Alice said. “But I wouldn’t guess you have the patience for it. Also, we probably want to speak somewhere we won’t be overheard by a [Vampire Queen].”

She waved at Vixali who’d been sitting in silent contemplation as Lisa and Rachel held  an equally silent telepathic conversation.

Vixali’s eyes widened in surprise but she recovered quickly, offering Lost Alice a gracious smile and a small nod.

Rachel was more surprised by the revelation, a full body twitch running from her head to her toes.

“You may have the room if you desire privacy,” Vixali said.

“My thanks,” Lost Alice said as the [Vampire Queen] departed.

That didn’t mean Vixali couldn’t listen in on them, but Lost Alice wasn’t concerned. Vixali understood the power balance between the two of them and had reigned long enough as [Queen] to know not to press an issue that might anger a larger and less destructible predator.

“You sounds different now,” Rachel said.

“This is how I always sound,” Lost Alice said. “But, it’s not a part of me you’ve seen often, or ever before I suppose.”

“Why are you playing at that? Stop pretending and be yourself!” Rachel’s eyes were glossy with tears but in place of heartbreak there was anger.

“Rachel, my sister,” Lost Alice said. “This is myself. I can be many things. I’m this, now, because I need the knowledge I have from this life to evaluate the sort of [Vampire] you’ve become. And also, it annoys you, and Mom’s not here to tell me to stop.”

Anger turned to confusion turned to long standing sororal aggravation.

“Stop it,” Rachel said. “Just be yourself. This is serious. Stop joking around.”

“It’s not a joke,” Lisa said. “This is me. All of it. Another me. Not the one you grew up with, but me all the same.”

“But you can’t be an actual vampire. That’s just something you made up!” Rachel said.

“I am aware,” Lost Alice said. “My existence as ‘Lost Alice’ matches far too closely to the fiction I as ‘Lisa’ created. This whole world is riddled with that problem. Everything here matches what someone on Earth imagined, and the things that don’t are largely extrapolations from the things that do. Consider this however, the stone floor you’re standing on is no less solid because someone imagined it first. The smell of the cooking fires from above carries scents that neither of us ever experienced on Earth. Even the pain we feel when we fight is inarguable. This isn’t a dream, or a delusion. What we’re experiencing has the same solidity and weight as our experiences on Earth. For all practical purposes, where we are and who we are is as real as where and who we were.”

“But this is just a projection,” Rachel said. “Except you said your body disintegrated. But if it did that there’d be nothing to project from. You’d be dead already and the dead can’t linger here. The [Daemon] said that too.”

“So I’m neither alive nor dead,” Lisa said. “Sort of fits that I’m a [Vampire] then right?”

“It’s not funny!” Rachel said.

“It’s not,” Lisa said. “It’s perplexing, and confusing, and…ultimately, not that important.”

Rachel sputtered.

“How is you being dead not important?” 

“Because whatever the answer is, I’m not gone,” Lisa said. “I’m here. I can eat, and drink, and love, and still make a difference for the people who need me.”

Rachel looked at her askance.

“You can what?”

“Make a difference, I can..” Lisa started to say but Rachel cut her off.

“No. Before that. You can what?” 

“Uh? Eat? Drink? Oh! Love. Uh, yeah, umm, that,” Lisa said, unsure that she wanted to share anything at all about Tessa with her sister.

It wasn’t that she had any reservations about Tessa. It was simply that Lisa had poured out her heart to Rachel in whining about her past relationships. It was embarrassing and while Rachel had always offered love and support, she also hadn’t been shy about pointing just how terrible most of Lisa’s girlfriends had been for her.

“Wait. Seriously?” Rachel looked more put out than upset.

“This probably isn’t the best time to talk about that,” Lisa said, since they were, technically, still in the [Vampire Queen’s] court.

“Oh my god! You did!” Rachel said aloud, unable to hide even a shred of her surprise. “Have you told her yet? Or are you going all undead stalker…again?”

“What? I’ve never…” Lisa began to protest before cutting herself off. She’d had a vampire-phase and the less Rachel reminded her of it the better.

“Let me guess? She’s a [Vampire] too? Oh no, it’s not the [Vampire Queen] is it?”

“No! No. Tessa is a normal human woman,” Lisa said. “And, a [Clothwork]. Sometimes. When she’s Pillowcase.”

Rachel just gapped, seemingly unable to process any of that.

“That’s not what’s important now though,” Lisa said, trying to bring the conversation back around to the critical questions.

“You’re dating a ragdoll? Or you want to date a ragdoll?” Rachel asked, completely ignoring Lisa’s attempt to change the topic. “How does that even work?”

“Before I answer that, ask yourself if you really want me to go into graphic detail on my sex life?” Lisa said. 

“I…you know what, you’re right. I thought all of this was weird, but that…that is a bridge too far,” Rachel said.

“Good. Then if we could get back to talking about you for a minute?” Lisa asked.

“What about me? I’m the only one in this whole world that makes any sense,” Rachel said.

“Are you though?” Lisa said. “You said you logged into your character on my account on the beta server, right?”

“Yeah? That’s not new, I did that for like a month straight while you were at work.”

“Right. Notice the important element there – ‘while I was at work’. I’m not at work now, so how were you able to log into my account, when it should have still been running on the computer in my apartment?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know. It didn’t give me the ‘already logged in’ message I usually see if your already playing. Maybe you got automatically logged out when you got pulled in?” Rachel said.

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “The GMs were still able to message us and appear in front of us even after we got drawn in. The GMs on Earth that is. They still saw us as logged in on their end.”

“Okay, so then it was a bug. You can’t tell me, with all this, that a login error would be the biggest bug they had with this release.”

“Fair point,” Lisa said. “Was there anyone else on the beta server with you?”

“Yeah. A lot of people. All projections like me as far as I could tell.”

“But you couldn’t tell that I was different?” 

“I mean, you seemed different, but then everyone here does, so I thought it was just a beta vs live server thing.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s because the beta server can be accessed, for whatever reason, by people from Earth still, where everyone here got drawn in because their character’s died or their connection was severed. Was there anything else different about the people on the beta server?”

“Not really,” Rachel said. “I mean a lot of them were speaking Mandarin, but they were talking about the same things as everyone else there. Basically how we were supposed to rescue the people we knew who got trapped.”

“Huh. That’s weird. The beta servers are in California. Plenty of Chinese-Americans there, but I wouldn’t expect them to be speaking in Mandarin anymore than we do?”

“I know, Mom would have been so happy,” Rachel said. “I don’t know if they managed to get anybody out either though.”

“How did you managed to cross over? I mean into the beta server in the first place?”

“I told you, I logged into Deadly Alice. There was a gateway icon in the start town. I clicked on it and that pulled me in here. I clicked on it again and I was back at my desk. It wasn’t exactly hard.”

“And when did you meet the [Daemon] who told you what the rules were?”

“He found me. Like one of those quest NPCs that comes running up to you as soon as you get close enough to their spawn area.”

“And you were still in [Sky’s Edge] in the [High Beyond] right?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah.”

“What did he look like?” Lisa asked, a cold worry growing in her gut.

“Pretty weird. I think the graphics department hadn’t gotten around to putting his final skin on him yet or something so he was just a human shaped blob of darkness.”

“Did he seem [Hungry] at all?” Lisa asked, her nerves balanced on pin tops.

“Yeah. That was one of the tags on his character info,” Rachel said, staring as Lost Alice went even paler than her usual self.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 2

Rose

Breakfast-turned-lunch had been as excellent as promised. It turned out that where Rip was orders of magnitude stronger as a fighter, the [Cooks] who’d spent a similar amount of time and effort working on their craft had progressed just a wee bit as well.

“Is it wrong that I feel like I could run two marathons back to back?” Rose asked as she and Jamal wandered out of the [Great Hall], leaving behind what had been a mini-continuation of the party from the night before.

“I don’t even need to eat, but whatever magical engineer made it so [Metal Mechanoids] could get energy from absorbed food? They’re incredible, beautiful people and I love them,” Jamal said. 

“Check out your stats,” Tessa said. 

She and Lost Alice met them at the gate out into the city, and Rose was struck by how comfortable they looked with each other now. 

Early on, in the distant pre-history of ‘a few days ago’, there’d been a lot of tension in the group, though most of it came from external sources. No one could really believe what was happening too them, and (quite rightly it turned out) no one felt even a little safe.

When Pillowcase and Lost Alice had invited her and Jamal to group up, Rose’s only thought had been that being part of any group at all would be better than stumbling along alone.

Especially after the object lesson in peril the original [Wraithwing] attack had been. Everyone else had kind of lost their mind, but New Mom One and New Mom Two had held it together and managed to fight the indestructible horde of death birds. At least for a little while. 

Rose was joking when she referred to her party leaders as their “New Moms”. She knew she couldn’t escape her real family that easily.

It didn’t mean it wasn’t nice to pretend though.

And Tessa and Lost Alice didn’t seem to mind them too much.

If anything, they seemed willing to treat Rose and Jamal as real human beings so easily that Rose wasn’t entirely sure they hadn’t mistaken herself and Jamal for Rip Shot and Matt Painting.

Which would be an easy mistake to make. Rose herself wasn’t entirely sure where the line was between her two identities. She was Rip, sure, a young woman, a Tabbywile, an [Adventurer]. 

But she was also a teenage girl, a human, and an average, unathletic high school student with an amazing best friend and zero interest in romance or sex.

Of the two choices, Rip seemed like the clear winner of who she’d want to be at any given moment.

And yet, most of her thoughts were centered on herself as Rose.

It wasn’t really a mystery why either.

Rose was Jamal’s friend. As Rip, Matt was a solid teammate and one she’d stick up for and protect just like she would anyone else, but it was Jamal who really knew her.

And so she wanted to be Rose.

“We were thinking to do take another run at the dungeon tonight,” Tessa said. “But we wanted to check with you two first.”

“With us?” Jamal asked.

“We all leveled up a few times in there,” Lost Alice said. “I think we’re all level 34 now right?”

“Yeah, we both hit that,” Rose said, wondering where the conversation was going.

Were they going to ask if Rip and Matt wanted to retire now that they’d gotten strong enough to defend themselves in a pinch?

Were they going to suggest that Rip and Matt sit out because of the mistakes Rip had made? 

Were they going to tell them that they’d hadn’t leveled enough and so they’d found some other, higher level, [Adventurers] who wanted Rip and Matt’s spots?

Rose’s mind swirled like a hurricane gathering force as she fought against the terrible ideas that kept popping up.

Tessa and Lost Alice weren’t like that.

She could trust them.

Except that had always been a mistake before and the mere thought of ignoring her fears sent a fresh shiver of terror through her.

“With new levels, come abilities,” Tessa said. “And ‘in the middle of battle’ can be a rough time to get a handle of them.”

Tessa’s voice and expression were light and reassuring, which set off all sorts of warning bells in Rose’s head. No one cared to make things sound okay unless they were about drop a boot on her.

“So we were thinking we’d practice a bit with ours first,” Lost Alice said.

“Our friendly neighborhood battle nuns offered to let us practice with them again, now that we’ve got some new tricks to show them.” Tessa said.

“And we thought you might like to join us?” Lost Alice said.

“Or, if you had plans already, we could hold off on the dungeon run for now and help some of the lowbies we’ve kind of left behind work on building themselves up,” Tessa said.

For a long moment Rose’s brain sort of shorted out.

They weren’t rejecting her?

Why?

Wait, they want to do something with her?

Seriously why?

They even looked sort of nervous? Like they thought Rose and Jamal wouldn’t want to spend every waking moment with them?

Being thrust into a fantasy realm and merging memories with an alternate aspect of herself had been less jarring than embracing that thought.

“I think we’d love that,” Jamal said. “Uh, going with you I mean. For training. We could do the helping thing too. Or the dungeon. I…we don’t have any plans yet.”

“Oh! Good!” Tessa said. “I think you’ll get a lot out of the training sessions. I don’t know if they have any [Dream Spinners] there but at low levels a lot of the abilities are similar so they’ll have some great feedback on opportunities to look for and problems to watch out for.”

“That they’ll get to beat us to a pulp demonstrating a lot of what they have to teach is probably all the payment that they really need, but Tessa and I were figuring we’d drop a tithe on them to cover our whole party,” Lost Alice said.

Because of course that was how they thought.

Rose let Rip take the reins for a bit. 

She felt too good to be falling apart inside all of a sudden but that’s what was happening nonetheless and she was endlessly grateful that Rip was put together differently enough that she was able to carry on without letting that show.

“Hey, just the girl I was looking for! And about to go training too! This is perfect.” Mom Three, or Obby as everyone else called her said, catching up to the quartet of her teammates as they wandered down the roads toward the chapel. “Would you mind if I abscond with Rip for a bit? I’ve got some ideas I want to try out with her.”

“Oh, I could do that instead then,” Jamal said.

“Nope,” Obby said. “This is something special just for Rip. At least if she’d willing to take a chance on some unusual training?”

Yawlorna

Having someone who was roughly twice your size and looked remarkably similar to the iconography of an [Unholy Fiend] from your world’s mythology sit down beside you and place their hands on your badly injured body was, Yawlorna observed, probably not the least scary thing that one could be forced to endure.

That the badly injured [Farmer] wasn’t screaming out in terror was a testament to their bravery.

Bravery which Yawlorna was forced to note had wound them up in their current predicament.

“Did the [Boar] sneak up on you?” Glimmerglass asked.

“No, I saw it just fine,” the injured woman said through gritted teeth.

“Why…?” Glimmerglass started to ask.

“I thought I could earn my keep here if I brought in some [Meat] for the [Cooks],” the [Farmer] said.

“You didn’t have…” Glimmerglass began again.

“Of course I did,” the [Farmer] said. “It’s a matter of pride. Can’t be freeloading forever.”

“You didn’t have to take on something that tough,” Glimmerglass amended. “There’s plenty that needs to be taken care of here and in town. There are acres of land that no one is working at all, and plenty of other stuff you can do that will be at least slightly less painful.”

“Oh. Uh, I see,” the [Farmer] said. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem. You’re giving my apprentice her a chance to see how strong her magic really is.”

“Should I begin casting?” Yawlorna asked.

“Yes, but take it slow. Go with [Lesser Healing Touch] to start with,” Glimmerglass said.

“Even though I’m not having problems with [Healing Stream]?” Yawlorna asked.

“Trust me,” Glimmerglass said.

With a shrug, Yawlorna began casting as she’d been instructed to.

Working magic was still unbelievable to her. She’d never imagine how simple it was one that first dam of understanding broke. 

She guessed that Glimmerglass was going to have her practice a few dozen times with [Lesser Healing Touch] before repairing the woman’s injuries completely with one of her own spells.

Yawlorna had barely dropped a single mote of magic into the [Farmer] though when she sat up, a look of wonder and joy shining from her.

“I’m better!” she said. “All the pain? It’s gone? I’m not even punctured! And I feel so good!”

“I think you leveled up,” Glimmerglass said. “Tell me, have you ever had the urge to go on an adventure?”

Hailey

Hailey was helping rebuild [Wagon Town]. Tessa was doing some stuff with her guild. The majority of a planetary mass separated them. Despite all that, they were closer than they’d been in more than half a decade.

“Once things calm down and we get the [Teleport Gates] back online, I am so coming out there to power level you up to the cap properly,” Hailey said.

“We’ve been doing pretty good with leveling on our own,” Tessa said. “You might be surprised where we get to before the stuff with the Consortium settles down.”

“Okay, well that was just an excuse to come out and meet your new girl anyways,” Hailey said. 

“I could add her to this channel if you want?” Tessa asked.

“Noooo! No no no!” Hailey said. “We should meet properly. Not randomly over a chat line.”

“Uh, didn’t we meet everyone in game ‘randomly over a chat line’?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, but it’s not a game anymore is it?” Hailey said. “These are all real people we’re dealing with now.”

“As opposed to before, when it was just real people behind a computer screen?”

“It was real with some people before,” Hailey said. “If you murdered someone in PvP though, you weren’t killing them for real, and you weren’t really a blood enemy of theirs.”

“But for people in the same guild?”

“Even there. Some people were more real than others,” Hailey said. “I knew you, we talked, we hung out, we did things together. So you were real to me. The guy who joined our guild for two days and raided the bank when no one was looking though? Basically a demon in my eyes.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not healthy, but I remember hating him enough that I can see where you’re coming from,” Tess said.

“I am serious about getting you leveled up though,” Hailey said. “This place is much too dangerous for even the high levels in some spots, especially the new areas. I don’t want to see you get eaten by some mid-level nobody when a day of decent grinding could have left you invincible to it.”

“We should work out something like that in general for all the lowbies,” Tessa said.

“There’s a lot of lowbies in the world. Believe me, I’ve seen the analytics,” Hailey said.

“I wasn’t thinking of trying to power level them all personally,” Tessa said. “More like setting up something so that people who don’t have guilds, or don’t have ones with anyone high level left in them have somewhere to turn to get setup with a high level player who can help them out.”

“There’s going to be people who hate that idea,” Hailey said.

“There’s people who hate every idea. The difference in this case is that there’s something out there that we’re going to need every possible [Adventurer] at max level that we can get to have a chance at standing against.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me tell you about what we ran into in the [High Beyond]. You might want to find somewhere to sit down though.”