Monthly Archives: July 2019

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 11

Convincing Aiemethia and Zibby of what was going on proved to be both easier and less fraught with opportunity for disaster than Tessa’s similar conversation with the players stuck inside the Cathedral had been.

> Aimethia said: “What happens if our computers lose power?” 

Rip and Matt joined the small group which had formed around the stables, playful smiles on their face as they mock rough housed to be the first to join the circle. Tessa hadn’t seen either one as unguarded as that before but once the attention of the people who were gathered turned to them, their playfulness fell away into self-conscious silence.

“If you have a power outage or try to force a shutdown, you’ll probably get sucked in here the same as us,” Alice said, tapping the air in front of her as she looked at responses to the requests she sent to the rest of her guild.

“It’s not so bad,” Rip said. “We’re only level 2 but we get to be our characters here, and it’s pretty awesome.”

She and Matt claimed they’d found the defensive positions Tessa had tasked them with looking for and were ready for a real battle, especially now that Tessa had proven the local monsters weren’t all as disturbingly overpowered as the [Wraithwings] had been.

> Aiemethia said: “Knew I should have made an elf like I’d been planning to. Could have lived forever.”

“Do you think we’d get their immortality if we did that?” Matt asked, apparently enough of a student of the game’s lore to have caught the meaning behind the Elven racial trait “[Children of the Undying]”.

“We might be immortal already,” Rip said. “I mean, if we die we can just respawn right?”

Tessa was going to point out the issue with the [Hounds of Fate] and people disappearing forever but she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject right.

Zibby said: “You said you four have already done that? What was it like?” 

“Mind blowing,” Tessa said, feeling more comfortable on that point than any involving real mortality. “Your body turns to light and you get called here from what feels like the other side of the universe.”

“The ‘being dead’ part isn’t that a big of a deal though,” Rip said. “It doesn’t hurt or anything and respawning even feels kind of nice.”

Matt nodded in agreement, but refrained from speaking. He was watching Aiemethia and Zibby closely. Tessa could guess what he had noticed. The characters who were controlled by players who were outside of the game looked superficially similar to the other people who were walking around [Sky’s Edge] but their movements were off. Not creepy or alien thankfully, just simplified.

Broken Horizons had a variety of “resting animations” for characters based on body style, class, and a user configurable “demeanor” setting. Where a [Paladin] like Aiemethia might stand straight and tall, looking dignified and commanding by default, a [Mathemagician] like Zibby had an idle animation of playing with numbers and formulae as though she were practicing her spell casting during quiet moments.

Those motions were a nice touch of extra detail work which did a lot to bring a character to life within the limited vision of the world the game provided. Standing with the characters in a richer and more immersive environment though made it quickly apparent how pre-programmed those motions were. Rather than making the characters seem real, they gave them the sense of being well sculpted animatronics, like Tessa was on a very strange theme park ride.

By comparison, Rip and Matt were in almost constant motion, fidgeting while otherwise still, waving their hands when speaking and shifting their position and balance as though they were adjusting their bodies like a set of clothes which was draped over their unfamiliar bones. Even Alice, who was generally preternaturally still due to her vampiric nature, moved in unique ways each time she turned or cast a glance somewhere, rather than with exactly the same motions, over and over.

Zibby said: “It’s nice that the experience wasn’t too bad but I see where staying here for now makes sense.”

Aiemethia said: “It does, but we’re level 7 already so we should be able to help them out somehow shouldn’t we?”

“Maybe you can tell us about the dungeon you found?” Alice said. “What kind of things are in there? How long did it take you? Are there any special requirements to get in? That sort of thing.”

> Aiemethia said: “We can fill you in on that or we could just lead you through it. I mean we made it through once with just the two of us. It should be even easier with six. Or eight. If there’s anyone else around in the area we could make a full party of it.”

“That’s not a great idea,” Alice said. “Full parties will cause dungeons to spawn tougher mobs. And if you’re with us, we’ll either get less experience because it’ll be based on how difficult the monsters are for you, or you’d have to exemplar back down to our level which would put you in the same danger we’d be in.”

“Yeah, I know there used to be a cut over at five party members for when the higher tiers of enemies started to spawn,” Tessa said. “We should be good with four but any more than that and we risk running into Boss class encounters.”

“Some of the new content throws Elite Bosses in at low levels too,” Alice said. “If we see one of those we’re going to have to run for now.”

“Why, are they really tough?” Matt asked.

“They almost always come with some special mechanics to deal with,” Alice said. “The simplest ones are things like ‘create three copies of themselves’, or ‘breath a stream of spiders onto you that you need to stand in lava to wash off’. Fun stuff like that.”

“I’m all for avoiding the spider-lava bosses,” Rip said.

“Fights like that are always doable,” Tessa said, “but Alice is right, we want to have a lot more experience fighting like we are now and as a team before we intentionally tangle with anything that complicated.”

“Sounds to me like you might want to check out the abandoned farm we passed about two miles back then,” Helda Birgen said. 

Tessa blinked. She’d forgotten about the family they’d helped rescue despite the fact that they were all sitting in the stables so the family’s cart could be repaired. Helda, the mother, had been watching them, but this was the first time any of the family had ventured to join the conversation.

Tessa tried to form a reply but found her brain stuck in place. She’d slipped into thinking of the family as “NPCs” – non-player characters. Essentially mannequins who would, at the most, act as quest dispensing machines. Granted, Helda’s comment bordered on that, but the trepidation in her voice and the natural pause in the conversation she’d inserted her suggestion into was far beyond what the mindless simulacrums in the game could have managed. 

Tessa had accepted the world as real, but accepting that the people were too sent so many of her long held assumptions into disarray that she found she needed a moment to process it all.

“Abandoned farm?” Alice asked, stepping in with a response. 

“Yeah. We’ve never stopped there, but it looked prosperous enough last month when we came by,” Helda said. “This time though it looked like it had been destroyed years ago and there were a mess of those [Chaos Centipedes] roaming around it.”

“I think that’s where they caught our trail,” Jurgen Bergin, the father of the family, said. “They didn’t notice us right away but when the wind shifted it must have carried our scent to them because they came running after us in a hurry.”

“Is that how your cart wheel broke?” Tessa asked. “You tried to get away and pushed it too hard?”

“More or less,” Jurgen said, casting his eyes down to inspect the top of his boots.

“Running would have worked, except someone was too busy looking behind to notice the rut in the road before we hit it at full speed,” Helda said.

“I was trying to make sure they wouldn’t catch up,” Jurgen said, folding his arms with a scowl.

“Next time, just listen to me and believe when I tell you I have it covered,” Helda said.

“I’m hoping there won’t be a next time,” Jurgen said. “But if there is, then yes, I will trust you to cover our backs.”

“We can make sure the path’s safe! Right?” Rip asked.

“Maybe,” Alice said.

“Aww, you’re not going to leave us behind are you?” Rip asked.

“No, not that,” Alice said. “You two won’t level up if you’re back here in town. No, what I mean is even if we clear the [Chaos Centipedes] out, they might respawn in a month when the Birgens come through with their next delivery.”

“A month, a week, hell they might respawn in five minutes,” Tessa said. “In fact, it might be good if they did.”

“You want a lair of [Chaos Centipedes] to stay there?” Helda asked.

“Not exactly?” Tessa said. “It’s just that we can grow stronger by fighting them, so if they do respawn quickly, we can focus on killing them until they grow too weak to teach us anything new. If they don’t respawn, we’ll need to hunt far and wide for things we can handle, and it’s easy to stumble on stuff you don’t want to deal with when you’re roaming.”

“That’s true. If those things respawn at anything like a realistic rate, the players on the server will hunt them to extinction,” Alice said. “We might not be able to level up at all if areas can be cleared out permanently.”

“Players? Server?” Jurgen asked.

“We’re not from here,” Tessa said. “What we know of your world, we learned by looking at a copy of it on another world. Players are people like us, adventurers basically, and a server is one of the copies of your world that we’re used to interacting with.”

Tessa expected to be met with questions or disbelief. What she didn’t expect was a shrug and a knowing nod.

“That’s not surprising to hear given that you fight like you do, you’d have to be from another world” Jurgen said. 

“Not just how you fight, but where we are too,” Helda added. “We make this our trade route because fewer merchants are willing to. Lots of strange and unusual things come to our world from the [High Beyond].”

“You look surprised,” Jurgen said, glancing at Tessa and Alica. “Honestly, it’s just nice to meet someone from another world who’s friendly for a change. Those [Consortium of Pain] types can be real trouble.”

> Aimethia said: “You’re actually conversing with them, aren’t you?”

“Yep,” Tessa said.

> Aimethia said: “You know, I’d only half believed what you said before, but that? That’s pretty convincing.”

Tessa could see why. It would be possible to fake that kind of interaction, especially if the support team was in on it, but the flow of the conversation had been too unscripted for that scenario to feel likely.

Zibby stood up from where she’d finished healing the [Giant Spotted Gecko]’s injuries. [Mathemagicians] were a support class that had been added after Tessa stopped playing, so Zibby had the [Healing Touch] skill already and was able to put it to good use.

“I guess we will stay here then. If you need us though, you have to promise to call,” she said, sounding far more maternal than Tessa had expected. 

Both Aiemethia and Zibby had chosen to style their avatars as older characters, an unusual choice in Tessa’s experience, and their voices seemed to match their appearance. She was willing to hazard a guess that Zibby had practiced those maternal instincts on children and grandchildren in her time and her concern was her true self showing through the mask her avatar presented to the world.

“We will,” Tessa said. “If you’ll promise to be careful too. We don’t really know anything about what’s going on yet, and it could be really important to have someone we can talk to who’s still in…” Tessa paused, she wanted to say ‘the real world’ but with Helda and Jurgen listening in and responding, could she claim the Earth she knew was any more real than the Fallen Kingdoms she was standing in? 

“…in our world,” she decided.

A thought dinged into her head and Tessa remembered as she spoke that they’d been looking for someone just like Zibby less than half and hour ago.

Do you want to try giving Zibby your contact info so she can call your girlfriend? Tessa whispered telepathically to Alice.

No. I’ve changed my mind, Alice whispered back.

You want to wait for BT to get back to us, or you don’t want anyone to contact your girlfriend for you? Tessa asked.

I…I had some one from my guild do it, she said, but the hitch in her whisper and the incongruity of her statements left Tessa with the distinct impression that Alice’s claim was far from true.

She wanted to push for more details. Was Alice giving up on her girlfriend? Did she have someone else she was working through? How bad had their fight been?

None of that matters and none of it’s my business, she told herself. 

Normally it wasn’t easy to let something like that go, but Tessa had something much more pressing to deal with.

A dungeon was waiting for them, and she needed to be ready for it.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 10

A monster was attacking. Because that’s what monsters do. Tessa knew she should fight it. Because that’s what adventurers do. Seeing one in person, rather than on the other side of a monitor, made that a whole lot harder than she’d imagined it would be though.

Tess had charged into battle with monsters an uncountable number of times in the Fallen Kingdoms, but when faced with a five foot tall [Chaos Centipede], she found her feet skidding to an unwilling halt.

The thing had so many legs.

And eyes.

And there was more than one of them.

Undulating in a wave of pulsing flesh at least a half dozen of the monsters were converging on a cart with a small family gathered around it.

The cart was a two wheeled platform hooked to a tame [Giant Spotted Gecko]. Had both wheels still been attached, the lizard probably could have pulled the cart into the safety of [Sky’s Edge]’s domain. As it was though, with one wheel broken into pieces across the road and the other twisted at a bad angle, Tessa could see there was no chance they would outrun the centipede.

“Help!” the family’s oldest son called when he saw Tessa. His father and mother were scrambling to unhitch the gecko, probably hoping it could serve as a transport for their three children. It was a noble effort but one that was doomed to failure. The [Chaos Centipedes] were too close.

Part of Tessa wanted to look away, and she hated herself for it.

There wasn’t time to dwell on that though. Her brief pause had been only a handful of seconds but that were seconds the family didn’t have. 

Move, something inside her urged and the shackles of her fear fell away. She felt light, and almost outside of her body. Since it wasn’t quite her body, it seemed oddly appropriate.

Drawing her [Rusty Sword], a touch of madness danced like fireworks along the edges of Tessa’s mind. What did death matter in a world where she couldn’t really die? What was pain when all injuries could be healed.

Tessa wasn’t a berserker, and Pillowcase wasn’t either, but as she charged towards the coming horde of monsters, the light in her eyes which swept her fear aside drew on some primal component of her being which had no connection to any sense of self preservation.

“[Minor Life Stealing]”, she said and saw the blade swinging in her hand become rimmed with an edge of hungry red light. 

The [Chaos Centipedes] moved with the mindless urgency of creatures driven only to consume, and though Pillowcase was far faster than Tessa had ever been, the centipedes were even faster and closer still to their target. As her feet flew down the open hill, she knew couldn’t reach them in time.

But Tessa wasn’t alone.

“[Divine Smite!]”

From over the small rise behind the cart, two figures appeared and, without hesitation, plowed into the oncoming swarm of [Chaos Centipedes]. The first was clearly a Paladin, one of the knightly classes which had been available from when the game launched. He slammed into the nearest centipede, his sword crackling with holy radiance as he cleaved it the giant bug into two goey halves.

His companion took a more sensible position, imposing herself between the rest of the oncoming centipedes and the family. In her hands, her staff glowed as it became surrounded by swirling numbers and equations.

“[Psychic Barrier]”, she said, sending the swirling numbers out into a wide bubble which enveloped the family, herself, and even the gecko.

It had been a while since Tessa coordinated with a [Paladin], and she wasn’t quite sure which class the other adventurer had since a number of the caster classes had the option to start with [Psychic Barrier]. Despite that, and despite having no time to think or process what she knew, her old playing skills left her instinctively aware of a few things.

First, the [Chaos Centipedes] had to be a more reasonable foe than the [Wraithwings] had been. [Divine Smite!] from a low level [Paladin] was a good attack, though not one they could use frequently, but it would have barely scratched something like a [Wraithwing]. That it killed the centipede in one hit made Tessa feel a lot better about their odds.

That said, she still didn’t like their tactical position. The [Psychic Barrier] had bought precious seconds and might be the power that really saved the day, but it wasn’t endlessly resilient. From a low level caster, it would be lucky to stand up to more than a couple of hits.

From how the two players had engaged the mob though, without hesitation and with an almost pre-rehearsed level of coordination, Tessa could tell they both had a lot of experience playing in general and a lot of experience playing together. That would count for a lot and meant she didn’t have to worry about taking care of them too.

With only brief impressions of those observations flying through her mind, Tessa altered her course, heading to the side of the horde of centipedes rather than trying to intercept them.

The ones she ran towards detected the incoming threat she posed and peeled away from the others to both defend themselves and get the first bite in on a new meal.

That wasn’t good enough for Tessa.

A tank’s job wasn’t to annoy a few of the enemy, it was to demand the attention of as many foes as they could withstand. Without Lost Alice, or another healer, present, Tessa knew her durability would be significantly lower than it would be in a typical encounter. Wounds she took weren’t going to vanish in the blink of an eye like they had when she was fighting the [Wraithwings]. The question she had to answer was would they close fast enough with only her own powers to rely on?

A strike with her [Rusty Sword] put a vicious gash into the first [Chaos Centipede] as she leapt over it to plunge deeper into the swarm. Like it or not, the fight was on.

A wildfire of madness sparked along the hills and valley of her thoughts, daring the monsters to do their worse. The things they could manage were nothing compared to what she’d faced already, or even what she’d been designed for. This was her realm. She was crafted for war and battle. 

Her [Minor Life Stealing Blade] lashed out and she felt vitality surging into her as claw wounds and bites faded away, healed by the life essences of the creatures which had inflicted the wounds.

The [Chaos Centipedes] turned to face her, the whole swarm reeling in place as the [Minor Provoking Strikes] passive Pillowcase possessed compelled them to recognize her as an existential threat to the lives they were barely aware they possessed. 

Yes! A centipede bit down onto Pillowcase’s arm but the fabric deformed easily under its jaws. She couldn’t use the arm for a moment, but her health points only dipped slightly and had recovered to full by the time she stabbed the creature in the head and pried its corpse off her. 

It felt so good to be in a fight again.

She hadn’t thought it would ever happen.

Not after the defeat they suffered. 

A small band of [Chaos Centipedes] wasn’t quite the gathered Armies of the Fallen Kingdoms of course, but it still felt glorious to move through the steps she’d be created to dance. 

Don’t stand still. You’re tough, but why let them have it easy. Circle instead, lead them around and around so that the whole pack scrambles over each other, fighting and biting for the chance to get their teeth into the one who’d driven them mad with anger and hunger. 

Pillowcase knew she could do better. Her footwork was sloppy. Far clumsier than it should have been. Some of her internal stitches hadn’t been rewoven and the reservoir of magic she had to draw on was different. Cleaner somehow but also so much smaller than when she’d marched in the armies of the [Consortium of Pain].

It didn’t matter though. She didn’t need to be at the top of her game. Not for foes who were little more than bugs with some overdeveloped growth hormones.

[Divine Smite!]

The Paladin was close to her, cleaving another of the centipedes to pieces as the cooldown time on his ability finished. 

Could he be an enemy too? Pillowcase didn’t know. He was human, but she didn’t find humans to be objectionable anymore. Not all of them at any rate. A wordless voice reminded her that even humans who were technically allies weren’t necessarily good people, or worthy of her trust.

Under the circumstances though, there were enough common enemies that PIllowcase was reasonably sure the Paladin wasn’t planning to complicate the fight by making it a three way battle, and, happily, her faith was rewarded. Within less than a minute the last of the [Chaos Centipedes] lay dead and lootable at her feet.

> Aiemethia said: “Good job herding.”

“Thanks,” Tessa said, pleased that someone had noticed the effort she put into it.

The transition in her thoughts wasn’t jarring and it wasn’t until the last of the centipedes was dead that she recognized it.

Surveying the battlefield for any other monsters in the vicinity, Tessa cast her thoughts back to the battle. To the thoughts that shouldn’t have been hers. 

But they had been.

She’d been thinking as Pillowcase, as someone who wasn’t human and never had been. Someone who’d been manufactured by evil space tyrants and it had seemed perfectly natural. 

But it hadn’t been someone else thinking those thoughts. She’d been herself all along, with no moments where her thoughts grew fuzzy or were replaced by anything that felt disconnected or alien to her. Her memories were clear and seamless and entirely hers. 

She’d been in the driver’s seat all along, but when she’d needed it, she’d become someone, or something, more than just “Tessa the programmer”.

> Aiemethia said: “Did you just log in?”

Tessa blinked and saw the usual interface elements appear around the [Paladin]. He was already level 7 and his gear reflected it. What worried her was that his voice had the distant, modulated quality of someone who was still on the right side of the monitor.

“No, I’ve been on for a while. Have you gotten any system messages yet? There’s a…” what could she say that a random stranger might believe? “…a problem with the game and they need all the players who haven’t run into it to move their characters to a safe spot and leave them there. You don’t want to be out here where its still dangerous.”

After a long pause, just enough Tessa decided for someone to read what she’d said, he responded.

> Aiemethia said: “No, no messages yet. We were in a dungeon though, so maybe it didn’t come through.”

“There’s a low level dungeon near here?” Tessa asked. “When were you able to get into it? Is it still open?”

Dungeons were a far more efficient source of experience than hunting random monsters in the wild, so the part of Tessa that yearned to be at the level cap hungered to know more. From what she’d read about the Beta test, one of the (many) complaints had been that the early experience didn’t offer any sort of organized, group based content. Most people thought it wouldn’t be a significant issue since new players tended to solo a lot and more experienced ones were often power leveled out of the low levels so they could play with more of a new character’s abilities sooner.

It BT was available Tessa would have been demanding to know exactly what “extras” the developers had added in the final patch that went out, but she already suspected the answer would not include “a brand new dungeon which would take hundreds of development  hours at a minimum”.

A more urgent question than the drive for experience occurred to her though.

“Have you died at all yet? Or tried to disconnect?” She had to confirm if they were still in the real world. 

Aiemethia said: “No, we got through the whole dungeon just fine. How are you typing so fast though?”

Because of course everything Tessa said was coming up on his screen as fast as she spoke it.

“Let’s get the NPCs back to town,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to tell you.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 9

Alice had not been overly joyful to hear that the support staff for Broken Horizons had become unreachable. Another person might have been described as apoplectic but Alice had a shade too much control to lose it like that. Not that Tessa would have blamed her if she did. BT was their one lifeline back to the real world and she was too busy to take their call?

A part of Tessa had to admit that it wasn’t unreasonable for BT to be a little overwhelmed and tied up with other problems. Tessa wasn’t sure how the Broken Horizons support team was divided up, but even if BT only had to deal with the people logged into the server Tessa was on, that was still thousands of calls coming in, many of whom were probably in far worse shape than anyone in [Sky’s Edge].

Alice looked unwilling to give much credit to that consideration, but she kept her complaints silent, the burning glare in her eyes and the hard set of her jaw the only hints of how much she longed to lash out.

“There might be another option to get you message out,” Tessa said. “Let’s go see the people in the chapel together. Maybe one of them can call your girlfriend for you. That’s more important than searching for quests here.”

Alice met Tessa’s gaze for a moment and then nodded in agreement.

“Did you meet any of them yet?” Tessa asked as she walked back to the chapel.

“Not really,” Alice said. ‘We respawned and then noticed that you were gone, so booked outside because it was obvious what you’d tried.”

“Ok. No telling what they’re like then,” Tessa said. “If you get a bad feeling about giving them your real world contact info, obviously you can skip it. There’s some other folks who might have survived too. I saw them retreating right as the event started. If nothing else got them, they should still be on the other side of the monitor and able to help us out.”

“You know, I don’t even know if I should reach out,” Alice said, reaching the chapel door before Tessa and opening it to allow Tessa to head in first. Tessa could think of a lot of reasons why that might be true, from the risk of any communication dragging Alice’s girlfriend into this mess too, to questions about how bad the fight they’d had really was. Whatever Alice’s primary concern was though, she didn’t chose to share it.

Inside the chapel, Tessa found things pretty much just as she’d expected them to be. The overall space and furnishings were the same as they’d been in the [Ghost Lands]. In the living world though everything had more color and vitality, especially the blue [Heart Fire] which defined and consecrated the chapel’s grounds.

In the fire light, Tessa saw a dozen people standing around, staring blankly ahead. A couple of them were human, but most of the players had chosen to make their new characters in one of the newly available races like Tessa and Alice had.

“Any one of you still here?” Alice asked, since it was impossible to tell whether the players were away from their keyboards or simply not moving their characters at the moment.

> Mugs Munny said: “Yeah. Is that GM coming back?”

Mugs was a [Void Goblin], with deep purple skin and bottomless black eyes which were filled with flickering points of light. He was standing a distance apart from the other people who were clustered near the back of the chapel, and from how his face was making small motions to track to different points in front of him, Tessa guessed he was inspecting something in his menu options – possibly looking for some other method of logging off.

“Not yet,” Tessa said. “They’re super busy.”

> Mugs Munny said: “Are we supposed to keep waiting? I need to hit the sack soon.”

“BT, the GM, she didn’t tell you what was going on did she?” Tessa asked.

>Mugs Munny said: “No. She booked out of here.”

>Mugs Munny said: “Said she’d fill us in when she got back.”

>Mugs Munny said: “I tried messaging her, but I’m getting bounce backs.”

“Yeah, the support system is overloaded,” Tessa said. 

“They don’t know,” Alice said. Her anger was submerged in weariness and an abject lack of surprise.

>Mugs Munny said: “Know what? And how are you typing that fast?”

Ten minutes later Mugs and the two other people who were still at their keyboards were lost in a debate over whether they believed the tale they’d been told and, if so, whether they wanted to try dying to get into the game, or use a log out to do it.

“Yeah, I’m not giving those idiots any info,” Alice said once they were back outside the chapel. 

Tessa knew she should have predicted the reaction they’d received. Faced with the prospect of going to work or literally living out her dream, she wasn’t sure she would have been much more rational after someone offered a modicum of proof that it was possible to dive into the [Fallen Kingdoms].

On the other hand giving out personal information to someone who’d asked Alice to jump so he could see if the “jiggle physics” had improved was never going to turn well.

On the plus side though, they had learned something new from the encounter. It turned out that blacklisting someone (in this case a Metal Mechanoid named “King Bong”) was possible with a simple mental command and resulted in that person vanishing from the world as far as Alice and Tessa were concerned. Once he was on the list, they could no longer see or hear him and he couldn’t see or hear them either. Mugs had helpfully confirmed that for them before adding King Bong to his own blacklist as well.

Tessa was happy to see that blacklisting still worked. It was easy and quick and held the answer to a lot of potential problems that could arise. There’d been a little warning screen that popped up which asked for confirmation (so she knew it wouldn’t happen by accident) and stated that once added, a person could not be removed for 24 hours. Tessa was still harboring faint hopes that the situation might be worked out in less than a day, but the realist in her knew that wasn’t going to happen.

“Want to go look for quests?” Tessa asked the dispirited Alice beside her. “I can search for the other party. Maybe they won’t be so bad.”

“Maybe.” Alice managed the word as a single grunt. “You know it’s not safe out there right?”

“Yeah,” Tessa said. “Outside of town it’s going to be all monsters, all the time.”

“No, I mean it’s worse than that,” Alice said. “It’s supposed to be low level stuff out there, probably nothing we couldn’t solo, but we can’t count on that being true.”

Tessa stopped walking.

“The [Wraithwings],” she said, as the implications of Alice’s words settled in.

“Right. They were ridiculously higher level that anything we should have fought. So either the game’s glitched, or someone’s trying to kill off players.”

“To get us into this world,” Tessa said as the pieces arranged themselves in her mind.

“Maybe not just that,” Alice said. “The voice over when we were sucked in, it talked about a hero. That’s not me, and probably not any of us. But if someone’s looking for a hero and they’ve got a bajillion possible candidates, what do you think they’re going to do?”

“Winnow out the good ones from the bad,” Tessa said, a fresh weight of dread descending on her.

“Or the strong from the weak,” Alice said. 

Tessa rubbed the bridge of her nose. It felt weird to do in Pillowcase’s body, which was somehow both squishier and more resilient than her human one.

“We should setup a game plan,” she said. “If we run into anything stupidly overpowered, we flee. If we all can’t flee, then you three flee and I’ll act as a rearguard. If none of us can flee then we move to as safe a spot as we can, together, and die there so we’ll have a chance to reclaim our bodies on a respawn.”

“Sounds like our basic raid encounter plan,” Alice said. “The trick is going to be getting the kids to go along with it.”

“They’ll need someone to lead them in the retreat,” Tessa said. “Are you up for it?”

“I’ll have to be until we get some more people in the group,” Alice said.

“After King Bong back there I’m not feeling too eager to go on a recruiting drive,” Tessa said.

“That works for me. Low odds we’d get people who would be willing to fight like the NPCs in this world are people too.”

“I used to know people who would,” Tessa said. “I should probably feel glad that they’re not in the game anymore.”

“Yeah, I should feel glad that my power leveler wasn’t able to log in tonight,” Alice said. “It kind of sucks though.”

“We’ll make it suck less,” Tessa said. “I’ll see about finding the other team and a decent hunting ground. And if BT gets back to me I’ll send her right over to you.”

Aliced nodded.

“Thanks. Sorry you got caught up in this too. Really thought I’d be able to keep you alive there during the event.”

“Can’t save me from my own stupidity,” Tessa said with a smile and a shrug.

She turned to head out of town in the same direction she’d seen the other party take but Alice grabbed her arm.

“Be careful. Seriously,” she said. “If anything comes up, at least give a shout in party chat. If you just disappear it’s going to be creepy as hell.”

“No worries,” Tessa said. “I am not a brave person. First sign of trouble, I am out there.”

Alice looked dubious of Tessa’s claim but that was fine. Tessa had every interest in avoiding peril, both at the moment and in general.


Outside of the town, Tessa felt the transition to the [Fields of the Wasted] as a palpable charge in the air. Her senses came to life and a nervous energy ran through her body which seemed to be waking up from a light slumber. 

The aura of peace which kept most monsters out of a town like [Sky’s Edge] apparently also had an effect on players who were within its boundaries as well. Whether that was a magical effect or just the result of the characters sensing that they could afford to relax was something Tessa couldn’t be sure of but the absence of that aura wasn’t entirely unwelcome either. 

Breathing slowing and carefully scanning her environment, Tessa felt more alive and alert than she had in years. Untold dangers waited for her in the gloom which shrouded the lands around the town, but her heart was singing with anticipation at the thought rather than shrinking away like she’d expected it would.

Biting back her rising excitement, Tessa forced reason to prevail. The first order of business was taking the lay of the land. Despite the shadows which covered the world, her Clothwork eyes could still pick out a lot of detail.

[Sky’s Edge] was named as it was because it stood on the edge of a mile high cliff which overlooked the [Low Beyond]. From most vantage points though, it looked like the town sat on the last piece of land before the end of the world and the beginning of the star strewn sky which encircled the heavens. 

It was a grand and glorious vista, even more so when experienced in person rather than through a computer monitor, but it did present Tessa with some challenges, the largest of which being the choice of where to go.

The cliff ran in an irregular north-south line bowing inwards where [Sky’s Edge] sat beside a swiftly flowing river which pitched over the edge of cliff to form a waterfall which never quite reached the ground of the [Low Beyond], dispersing instead into the glittering mist and rolling clouds which covered the base of the falls.

When Pillowcase had revived, she’d been just off to the southwest of [Sky’s Edge] at the edges of the [Fields of the Wasted]. That was also where Mister Pendant had sent her for the [Radioactive Goo Rats] quest, so she felt at least slightly familiar with the area.

The other party she’d seen during the [Wraithwing Assault] event though had looked like they were heading more northwest, which would have led them behind a few hills she hadn’t ventured over yet.

The tactical considerations of whether to further explore an area she was familiar with or seek out a group of unknown players in an area that was likely to hold an entirely different breed of monsters than the ones she’d run into so far warred in Tessa’s mind. 

If I’m going to lead this party, I need to make the smart calls, she told herself.

Then she heard the scream.

It was coming from the south.

She hadn’t been to the south.

She hadn’t seen any players heading to the south.

As it turned out, Clothworks could move pretty fast when they weren’t stopping to think about whether or not they should.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 8

The problem with having a million questions was that they could lead to a million answers you didn’t want to hear.

“Who…” Alice’s voice cut off as she choked back her anger. 

Tessa knew the question Alice wanted to ask, and knew they needed the answer, but was reasonably certain it wouldn’t help.

“Who gave us the quest?” she asked for Alice.

“It looks like you picked it up for yourself,” Mogwin said. He was staring at Tessa like he was reading something written on the inside of her skin. It was chilling to think that might be exactly what he was doing, but wearing Pillowcase’s body provided a sense of insulation which was comforting.

“Was it when we came here?” Rip Shot asked. “The voice that spoke to us. It asked us things. Was that the one who gave us the quest?”

“I don’t know who you talked to,” Mogwin said. “You’d have to ask them yourself. All I can see is that you’re at the beginning of one of the [Nightmare Queen]’s quest lines.”

“We didn’t ask for this,” Alice said, still quietly seething.

“Sounds like a bug then,” Mogwin said, the twitching of his head standing in for shrugging shoulders he didn’t possess.

“Fill us in on what a bug is,” Tessa asked. The terminology was the same but someone inside a program would have to see errors in the code differently from how a programmer would.

“They’re where the fabric of the world breaks down a bit,” Mogwin said. “Most of them are harmless but annoying. Stay away from them if you run into any though, because sometimes even the tiny ones can be deadly.”

“How so?” Matt asked.

“Well, a bug comes from reality not being set quite right. Say a board that’s supposed to be solid just isn’t for some reason. Probably that won’t do you any harm. But what if it’s something that is only occasionally solid? You try to step through the ghost-board and it turns into a fully material one while its plunged through your chest. That kind of thing can ruin anyone’s day.”

“How can reality not be set right?” Rip asked.

“Magic,” Mogwin said, as though that explained everything. When he saw that none of his audience seemed to understand he continued on. “Sometimes when spells backfire, they mess up more than the caster. Take when someone really botches a levitation spell. Maybe the magic does more than shred them, maybe it shreds force of gravity around the caster too.”

“Magic can do that?” Matt asked, carely rubbing his hands together like they were loaded weapons and he was looking for a safety switch on them.

“I mean, not often,” Mogwin said. “And not on purpose I think. I can’t think of any spell casters who’ve tried to blow themselves up and managed to do anything more than that.”

“How do the bugs get fixed?” Tessa asked, wondering what the different version releases and expansions looked like from inside the world.

“The ripples tend to smooth them out,” Mogwin said.

“Ripples?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, magic isn’t stagnant. It flows constantly, just like the weather, and people, and everything. Over time anything that “is” can become something that “was”, even bugs.”

“So they just get better on their own?” Tessa asked. “There’s no grand event where they all disappear.”

“Well, sure, that’s what a ripple is,” Mogwin said. “The world changes at different rates, and sometimes a lot of changes all sweep through together. That’s a ripple. The worst bugs are usually fixed by those.”

“Was there a ripple recently?” Tessa asked.

“Tons of them,” Mogwin said. “That’s to be expected though. The [Consortium of Pain]’s incursion is causing all sorts of problems. Problems you will hopefully be able to help fix.”

“Why would we?” Alice asked. She wasn’t looking any happier with anything she’d heard so far.

“I don’t know,” Mogwin said. “It seems like a rotten gig to me, but then I’m just a [Guide]. I leave the heroing stuff to you folks.”

“Why’s it rotten?” Rip asked, jerking up sharply with a defensive look in her eyes. That wasn’t the narrative she expected or wanted to hear.

“Because most of us are going to fail,” Alice said and turned back to Mogwin. “Isn’t that right?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” he said. “Or maybe not fail, just give up. Most of the people I’ve acted as a guide for just lose their inspiration and settle down after a while. Usually when the road starts getting harder or when they folks they adventure with lose their inspiration. One day they’re great heroes doing great things and the next, they’re not. They just coast through life not really aspiring to much more than getting through the day.”

Tessa felt the words slash across her like a dull knife. “Lose their inspiration”, meant to  quit logging in, especially after their friends stopped logging in? That described her perfectly six years ago and she wasn’t sure it didn’t still fit who she was. 

Would she have continued playing Broken Horizons much past the early part of the new expansion? Would it have mattered if she quit? It wasn’t like she had friends she would have been leaving behind if things had gone differently. If the world had remained sensible and real rather than whatever cybertech fairy tale was built up all around her.

That wasn’t what she was worried about though. She could feel the grip of the past slipping away as her present problems rose up to drown the old ones out. 

It wasn’t the “might have beens” that concerned her so much as the “might well be”. Everything in her experience told her that Mogwin was correct. She had a party now, but they were all strangers. What was the chance that they’d stick together when things got rough? Would they follow her into a dungeon again and again because defeats were typical when you were learning a fight’s mechanics? Should they? Was she really the right one to lead them?

“Can you tell us what the next step in [Nightmare Queen]’s quest is?” she asked.

Tessa knew the voices of doubt and uncertainty that plagued her. They were old friends at this point. She knew she couldn’t shout them down or argue herself out of listening to them. Her only real choice was to move forward.

“Sure. The next step is to visit [Horizon’s Edge]. You’ll need to be at least level 10 to access the [Halls of the Fallen] though.” Mogwin said, a pleased flutter in his wingtips.

“Do either of those places sound familiar?” Tessa asked Alice.

“No. They must be new to the expansion,” Alice said.

“Can you tell us where we need to go?” Rip asked.

“You’ve got a lot of options. If you want to level up, you can check out the [Fields of the Wasted]. If you want to focus on making money though you’d be better off…oh wait, I’m being called away. Sorry. Been nice chatting with you but a [Guide]’s work is never done.”

With that Mogwin leapt from Tessa’s shoulder and took flight, vanishing as quickly as he appeared.

“I’m surprised we got that long with him,” Alice said.

“There was a lot more we could have asked him,” Matt said. “Should we call him back? Or call one of our guides?”

“It wouldn’t hurt, but I’m betting they’re going to be pretty busy for a while,” Tessa said. “We could wait for one to show up, but I don’t think being this low level is going to be safe for too much longer.”

“You want to try fighting then?” Alice asked.

“Yeah. Let’s see what [Fields of the Wasted] look like. I think that’s where I started, so I’m guessing we’ll have [Radioactive Goo Rats] and stuff like that to work with.”

“We should see if there’s any quests here in town too,” Alice said. “I heard back from Cease All, and according to her, none of their characters can travel to the [High Beyond] until they complete a dungeon quest. They need to [Quest: Open the Path to the Stars] or something like that.”

“Figures,” Tessa said. “That restriction wasn’t in effect during the beta test, but the devs warned that they were going to enable it once the game went live. At least from what I read.”

“Why would they bother?” Rip asked. “Don’t they want people to play together?”

“Sure, but if they make it easier to start up a new character than to get an existing high level one here, then people will play through all the new low level content they designed,” Tessa said.

“That also means that no one can come power level us, so we’ve got to do things the hard way,” Alice said.

“Power level?” Matt asked.

“Basically do all the work killing things while partied up with us so that we get a ton of levels without having to take any risks,” Tessa said. “It’s safer and usually hundreds of times faster than leveling on your own, but you don’t really learn what your skills and spells can do.”

“Well that’s not going to be a problem for us,” Alice said, glancing around the town at the people who were picking up the debris and beginning to repair their buildings.

“You want to see if you can find any simple quests for us?” Tessa asked Alice. “I’ll go and see if there’s anyone else who wants to join us.”

“You’re not going to invite the people who survived the attack are you?” Alice asked. “They’re still safe back on Earth.”

“And hopefully they’ll stay like that. I’ll let them know what BT said, and suggest they just walk away from their computers for now. There were some other folks who managed to escape the battle though. I want to see if they’re still around and whether they survived or not. In either case we can coordinate what we’re doing with them.”

“Ok.” Alice bit her lip which showcased the tiny fang hiding on that side of her mouth. As vampire’s went, she wasn’t particularly terrifying. Alice had chosen an appearance that was on the “ less monstrous” end of the spectrum. Aside from dusky grey skin and a slight red gleam to her eyes, she could have passed for a typical human woman. 

Tessa wondered which of the [Graveborne] subtypes Alice had chosen. There were, predictably, several different options which were basically “vampire with this special ability” or “vampire with that unique twist”. Before her team got into their first battle, Tessa knew she should sit the whole party down and find out what their characters were capable of. She wasn’t a master strategist by any means, but knowing what their strengths and weaknesses were was critical in selecting the proper foes to tangle with.

“What should we do?” Rip asked, eager fires alight within her.

“You’re both ranged damage dealers, we probably can’t fight in town – there’s usually suppression fields in effect which keep minor monsters away – but in case we can, find all of the places you can get to that will keep you away from enemies but still within range to hit them,” Tessa said.

“Like on the top of a roof?” Matt asked.

“Yep. While I’m out collecting info, your job is to evaluate this area for the positions you should be fighting from,” Tessa said. “You found a geometry glitch before, which was great, but you can’t rely on those, and can’t even risk them in some cases.”

“Yeah. We kind of fell into it and then couldn’t get out,” Rip said.

“Imagine how much worse it would have been if the [Wraithwings] could get in there too,” Tessa said.

“They sort of did.” Matt grimaced at the memory.

“They sprayed us with that acid after you dropped,” Rip said. “It got in through the hole we stepped through and didn’t take long to do the job. One tick and we wound up here.”

“Consider that in evaluating the places you find then,” Tessa said. “You want spots which will provide good cover from cone attacks, and that you can run away from. If you’ve got questions about one you find, just check in. I’m not going to go far and Alice can give you some pointers too if you’re unsure of a spot.”

“What do we do once we find a place that works?” Rip asked.

“Find another,” Tessa said. “Assume any area you start fighting from is going to be covered in fire about ten seconds into the fight and that you’ll have to move to another. Picture needing to move every ten seconds for about ten minutes and see if you can work out a path that will keep you safe and let you keep attacking every other second.”

“That seems like a lot,” Matt said.

“It’s slow and short,” Alice said. “My guild’s not a top end one and our damage dealers get off two attacks per second usually. A good fight will go five minutes but on a new dungeon they can run up to a half an hour or more while we figure out the mechanics and doing that is a lot easier when people aren’t standing in place and dying all the time.”

Matt nodded and stepped away with Rip to hunt for good spots to attack from.

“Can you handle watching them for a bit?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, it’s not a problem. They’re not the first newbies I’ve wrangled,” Alice said. “Listen, do you think your GM friend would be able to do me a favor?”

“Yeah, definitely,” Tessa said, figuring that despite their years apart BT seemed willing to pick up their friendship where they’d left it off. “What do you need?”

“I need her to make a call for me,” Alice said. “In the real world.”

“Who to?” Tessa asked, wondering why Alice hadn’t brought the question up sooner.

“My girlfriend,” Alice said. “It’s the middle of the night where we’re at, so I know she’ll still be asleep, but we had a fight before she went to bed and if she wakes up and I’m not there…”

“She’s not going to know what to think,” Tessa said, understanding where some of Alice’s rage had been coming from. “Let me put in the call to BT right away.”

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Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 7

Tessa knew what Alice’s answer was going to be. The healer didn’t have any reason to join three level 1 strangers to form a party. Not when she had an active guild to call on and could be joined by a pantheon of near god level players who could escort her to the heights of power easily.

Standing in the [Sky’s Edge] town square waiting for an answer, Tessa felt a familiar dread clawing through her veins. 

Why would anyone want her? Especially when she was pathetic compared to the alternatives.

Alice was a healer and healers had some of the easiest times finding parties. Too few people wanted to play them, so the ones who did were always in high demand. It had been a wonderful advantage for Tessa when she played Glimmerglass. She’d been able to find an invite for any dungeon or team she cared to join in seconds usually. For Alice, it meant that she could have her pick of teams to work with, and with a guild to back her up, she’d be able to work with people she knew and who were setup to completely overpower the foes she would need to fight. She could have safety and good company and a quick path to the level cap rather than rolling the dice on all of those with a bunch of strangers.

“Ok,” Alice said. “Send me an invite.”

Tessa started to launch into her resigned acceptance – “that’s cool, give us a shout if you learn anything important” and other bridge building phrases – but stopped herself on the first word as she processed what Alice had actually said.

“That’s…ok, umm, invite coming,” Tessa said. She couldn’t quite understand Alice’s answer but she wasn’t about to question it too deeply under the circumstances.

“Us too please!” Rip Shot said. Beside her Matt nodded in agreement.

Tessa called up the user interface and looked for the party management menu. She had to fiddle with it for a bit, in part because it had been years since she’d seen it, and in part because the menus had been updated a couple of times, but mostly because in the past it had been rare for her to be the one to assemble a team.

As she sent the party invites out, a voice in her head was chattering away trying to figure out why Alice had decided to join them.

She’s got better options than us, Tessa told herself. We’re not even a full team. I’m sure she could get one of those in a heartbeat if her guild is holding off on doing end game content.

She glanced over to where Alice stood, interacting with the invisible interface in front of her to accept the team invite. Whether it was because Alice was in a vampire’s body and didn’t need to breathe or because she was naturally reserved, Tessa noticed that Alice was rigid to the point of being motionless aside from her fingers navigating the unnecessarily complex menus.

“What are we going to do first?” Rip asked, her voice sounding slightly different – clearer and closer than it should have, possibly because she was speaking in the “party” chat channel, the private line they had setup which would allow them to communicate no matter where they were in the world.

Tessa cast her gaze around [Sky’s Edge], taking stock of the environment as she considered her answer.

Good teams weren’t dictatorships, but they tended to fall apart quickly if no one stepped up to act as a leader. Tessa hadn’t meant to attempt to fill that role. In theory, it should have fallen to Alice since she had more experience both recent and overall, but willingness to try counted for as much or more than experience some times. 

I just hope that’s not a mark against us, Tessa thought, since her willingness was driven by circumstance more than natural inclination or talent. Over the years she’d played Broken Horizons, Tessa had gravitated towards playing healers even when she wasn’t playing Glimmerglass because in part because she didn’t naturally seek the limelight, or feel comfortable telling people what to do. 

As a Tank though, she knew people would naturally slot her into that role, and she’d watched enough good Tanks to at least be sure she knew what not to do under normal circumstances.

“Let’s see who else is around here still and whether they’re stuck in the game yet or not,” she said. 

“There are some folks still in the chapel,” Alice said. “Your friend told them to stay there.”

“That’s probably smart,” Tessa said. “If they survived the [Wraithwing] attack, then they may still be outside the game. Worst case, they can leave their characters parked there with their computers running and go on with their lives until we find some solution to this.”

“There’s some people coming out of the other buildings too,” Matt said.

[Sky’s Edge] had been scarred by the Wraithwing attack but the damage was relatively minor considering the destructive power of the [Wraithwings] [Acid Spittle] and other attacks. From the damaged buildings, Tessa saw people who looked like high resolution versions of the town’s [Non-Player Characters] emerging to inspect the aftermath. They weren’t moving like pre-programmed characters and the expressions on their faces were deeper and more pained than any Tessa had seen the developers bother to animate for generic townsfolk.

“You made it!” Mogwin said as the ghost crow landed on Tessa’s shoulder, his attention focused on the town rather than her. “And you’re complete. A [Soul Knight] with a [Soul]. Good job!”

[Quest: Basic Survival – COMPLETED!]

[Soul Knight Level 2 Achieved!]

[Minor Spellcasting Gained – 1 Unspent Spell Research Point Available!]

[Blade Skill – Minor Life Stealing – Rank 2 Achieved!]

[Passive Skill – Minor Provoking Strikes – Rank 2 Achieved!]

[Heavy Armor Proficiency Unlocked!]

Tessa felt a surge of energy pass through her and for a second she swore her skin glowed with barely constrained power.

“What the hell!” Alice said, looking at her own hands with the same incredulity Tessa was feeling. “I didn’t have a Basic Survival quest. My quest log was empty?”

Tessa was certain she hadn’t either, and the implication of that hit both women at the same time.


You still have a quest in progress

 Tessa didn’t grumble at the sight of the error message after she tried the logout button again. She knew it wasn’t going to be that simple, but it was worth the test nonetheless.

“Why did we just level up?” Rip Shot asked. “We didn’t survive the event?”

Tessa was curious about that herself and was ready to offer the theories that sprang to mind but was interrupted before she could speak.

“The [Wraithwing] event gives out experience for the duration of time you manage to survive it,” Mogwin said. “Honestly, you were all cheated out of what you really should have gotten from it. You would have earned a ton more but you can’t jump up more than one level at a time. I’d file a complaint but I don’t think it would do a lot of good.”

Tessa’s eyes went wide. That was absolutely not how a system controlled character normally spoke. Not that a system character would ever speak in response to chat within a party, but if one did, that was not how official game messages were formatted. They would never sounds so…conversational?”

“You…you can talk?” Alice asked, looking as shocked as Tessa felt.

“I know, it’s weird because I’m a bird right?” Mogwin said. “You ground pounders are always shocked by that, but there are plenty of us talking birds in the world.”

“That’s…that’s not it,” Tessa stammered. It made sense Mogwin would be real if the rest of the world was, but talking to something that definitely was not human took a bit more for Tessa to accept that she’d imagined it would.

“Oh, it’s because I’m a ghost then?” Mogwin asked. “I mean, you all were just ghosts a few minutes ago right? I’m not saying that’s a double standard, but it kinda is.”

“Who are you?” Rip Shot asked, her expression neutral as she stepping slightly in front of Matt to shield him.

“Sorry, right, you’re not all [Soul Knights]. My name’s Mogwin. I’m a [Guide]. I was watching Pillowcase here after she started to reintegrate, and just wanted to offer some encouragement. I mean most of the time I’m more of a [Cheerleader] than a proper [Guide] if you know what I mean.”

“Can you only guide [Soul Knights]?” Alice asked.

“No? I mean, they’re usually the ones I feel a pull towards, but it’s not like I can’t talk to anyone else. Obviously, right?”

“Can you tell us how to get home?” Alice asked.

“Probably. Where do you live?” Mogwin asked.

“On Earth,” Alice said.

“What’s an Earth?” Mogwin asked and Alice’s shoulder’s slumped.

“I should have known,” she said.

“Let me try,” Tessa said. “Mogwin, we’re not from here.”

“I know, you were manufactured by the [Consortium of Pain],” Mogwin said. “Or at least your body was.”

“No, I mean, our…ghosts I guess? Those didn’t come from the [Fallen Kingdoms] or the [High Beyond]. We came from another world, and we’d like to get back there.”

“Ouch. That sucks. It kind of fits with the [Consortium of Pain] though. I mean, it’s not like they’re from around here either right?”

“Do you know how we can get back?” Tessa asked.

“I’m sorry. The [Consortium of Pain] is a bit beyond me. I know a bit about the [High Beyond] but monsters from outside time and space are above my pay grade.”

“Do you know why the Logout button isn’t working?” Alice asked. The disdain in her voice made it clear that she didn’t expect an answer. Mogwin seemed too integrated into the world for something as meta-physical as a logout button to have any meaning to him. 

“You probably still have a quest to finish.”

Tessa turned slowly to look at the ghostly bird on her shoulder.

“What?” Alice spoke first, her voice low and deadly, and Tessa could guess why. If Mogwin understand game related concepts, it meant he might be related to whoever had brought them all to the Broken Kingdoms.

“Well, logging out is when you surrender the spark of exceptional inspiration and let yourselves rest right?” Mogwin said. “But if you’ve got a quest that’s calling you on – a real quest I mean, not just one of the chores you can do for people, but something that’s important – you’ll hang onto that inspiration until you either give up or get it done.”

Tessa tried to fit his words into a sensible pattern and came up with nothing when she looked at it from the perspective of a developer. When she turned things around and thought about how someone inside a game world might see things though it started to make a lot more sense.

When players were logged in, their characters would look like they were driven to adventure with a zeal few could match. With a player to guide them, the characters could progress to incredible heights of power and accomplish legendary deeds. On their own though, the characters didn’t change. 

If Tessa imagined Pillowcase existing in the time when she’d was logged off then it might very well look like Pillowcase had simply lost her drive for adventure and decided to relax for a while instead of throwing herself into battle after battle with monsters of all types.

“How the hell do we give up then!” Alice looked ready to rip Mogwin off Tessa’s shoulders, and possibly rip him to pieces, but Tessa’s insight showed her why Mogwin’s answers weren’t actually overlapping with Alice’s questions.

“Wait,” Tessa said, feeling like she should confirm her guess before correcting Alice. “Mogwin, what do you think we are?”

“You’re an Artifax,” he said. “She’s a Graveborn, and you’ve got a Beastkin and another Artifax in your party.”

It was exactly the answer Tessa had expected. Mogwin saw them as though the characters they were embodied in were real. Which led to the next obvious question.

“And is this a game or is this real? Broken Horizons I mean,” Tessa asked.

“Uh, real?” Mogwin said, not bothering to hide his confusion. He pecked her and Tessa flinched away. Ghost or no, his beak hurt. “See, you’re not dreaming.”

“Point taken. What about our [Classes] and [Levels] and [Skills] and [Spells]?” she asked.

“Those are things you have?” Mogwin said, even more confused where the questions could be leading. “Oh, congrats on unlocking spell casting! Did you need some info on what your choices are? I can make suggestions too if you have a particular goal in mind.”

So this was a world where the fundamental mechanics were a bit more arbitrary and exposed than the real world, Tessa decided. That might have implications she’d need to think through – weird limits, or exploitable opportunities where Broken Horizons rules didn’t quite line up with physics and biology in a manner that Earthly physical laws would be happy with. For the time being though, that was a secondary concern. The important take-away was that to Mogwin, everything around them was natural and normal – even talk of coming from another world. 

“This is worthless,” Alice said. “He doesn’t know how to help us get back.”

Tessa shrugged. Alice wasn’t wrong, and Tessa couldn’t think of any words that would make things seem better. There were things they could learn from Mogwin, but the most important questions would be just as far beyond him as they were beyond Burnt Toast and the other support staff members.

“Why is he the only one here?” Rip Shot asked. “Shouldn’t we all have guides?”

“You do,” Mogwin said. “I was just stopping in. If you need yours for something just give them a call and they’ll be by as soon as they can. Us [Guides] are getting a bit of a work out at the moment. A lot of newly inspired folks are rising up, probably in response to the Consortium making a new push to grab land.”

Tessa translated that one easily. With the launch of the [World Shift] expansion, there were tens of thousands of new characters being created. Even with the players being split across dozens of servers, each with their own version of Mogwin presumably, the [Guide] would still be extremely busy.

“Why would the Consortium conquering things matter?” Matt asked. “I mean how does that bring more ‘inspired’ into the world?”

Tessa wasn’t sure if he was simply phrasing the question in a manner Mogwin would be able to answer or if he really didn’t see the connection to the expansion’s release. In either case, she was curious what Mogwin’s answer would be. 

“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean it’s great from my perspective. You all are like a fresh wave of antibodies the [Fallen Kingdoms] has called up to destroy the infection the Consortium is spreading. I am just a simple, and dead, bird though, so the cosmic stuff is not exactly my area of expertise.”

“Who do you report to?” Alice asked. “Who gives you your orders?”

“[The Queen of Nightmares]”, Mogwin said. “She’s the one you’d want to ask about this Earth place I think.”

“And how do we talk to her?” Alice asked, ceasing on the lead with a barely restrained fury.

Tessa expected Mogwin to be offer some evasive or non-committal answer but again she was surprised.

“You’ve got a couple basic options,” he said. “If she wants to talk to you, she’ll initiate a conversation. Easiest way to make that happen is to have something that catches her interest, just saw it three times before you go to sleep and she’ll turn up in your dreams and chat with you about it.”

“That seems pretty simple,” Tessa said, knowing there’s zero chance that it would be.

“Yeah, but it’s got low odds of working. The Queen’s always busy and the things that attract her interest are basically impossible to predict. Fortunately there is a more reliable option. If you definitely want a chance to talk to the Queen, all you have to do is finish the [Quest: Bridge to a New Horizon].”

“What do we have to do to start that one?” Alice asked, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Intuition told Tessa what the answer would be even as the words tumbled from Mogwin’s beak.

“From what I can see? It looks like you already have.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 6

Lost Alice was right. Tessa didn’t want to admit it. She wanted the world which lay around her to do more than look like the one she’d spent so much time immersed in despite only being able to glimpse it from the other side of a monitor. She wanted this version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] to be the place she’d dreamed of living in. To hold the adventure and wonder and meaning which had drawn her back after six years away.

But Alice was right.

The world around her wasn’t the one she’d played in for years, and she wasn’t the adventurer who’d risked life and limb in pursuit of fame, fortune, and a calling which felt higher than either of those. Not personal power for its own sake but the power to stand as someone who could make a difference, who could turn a tragedy into a triumph, who could stop bad things from happening in the [Fallen Kingdoms] in a way she never could in the real world.

Playing in this version of the Fallen Kingdoms wasn’t going to be the same though. It wasn’t going to come with the same guarantees that playing a game did. There was a critical line between make believe and reality and the inevitable result of being where she was meant that Tessa could feel that line shattering into jagged and dangerous shards.

So Alice was right, but what sets a flurry of razors dancing along Tessa’s nerves was that it didn’t matter.

“What do you mean we can’t play?” Rip Shot asked. She was sharp but she didn’t have the experience Alice or Tessa did. She was willing to accept the narrative the “game” was trying to hand them.

“I mean, if we engage with this place like a game, we’re going to either die, or wish we had,” Alice said. She cast a glance towards Tessa, maybe to see if Tessa was going to make another light hearted comment.

Tessa nodded silently instead. She could see where Alice’s thoughts were heading.

“It looks like we can’t die though,” Matt said, stepping forward to stand by Rip’s side.

“We can,” Alice said. “We might have a few more chances to escape death, but the GMs said we’ve lost contact with people. Until we hear that they’re back safe and sound in the real world, we have to assume that if you vanish like they did then you’re gone for good.”

“It’s still better than our world though,” Rip Shot said.

“Is it?” Tessa asked. She saw a hole in Alice’s reasoning but she wanted to work it out fully to make sure she wasn’t missing something which would undermine her own thoughts. “Consider this: why are we here?”

“Nobody knows that,” Rip Shot said. “We’re just here.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “Does it seem like a natural effect could have swept us all into a game world though? I’ll admit that it’s pretty far outside anything we have experience with, but if it was a natural phenomena, why is it taking everyone. We’re all in different areas. We’re all connected to different servers. And in the real world, all of this is just ones and zeroes on our hard drives.”

“We’re all running the same game though,” Matt said. “What if there was just something wrong with it. Wouldn’t we all get hit by it?”

“It doesn’t seem like it can be the world’s weirdest bug,” Tessa said. “Converting a person to light and shooting them to another world isn’t a software glitch.”

“Well, maybe it’s magic then,” Rip Shot said.

“Sure. The question is who cast the spell?” Alice asked. “Whoever it was, they didn’t care about asking anyone if they wanted to come here. They just decided to move, what, a few hundred thousand people to a new world. One where violence is the answer to almost every problem, and there’s no consequences for any actions you take? What kind of behavior do you think that’s going to encourage in people?”

“But this game has been going for years,” Rip said, concern and doubt coloring her words.

“Yeah, and it’s had plenty of jerks in it for years too,” Alice said. “They’re only a small part of the problem though. The bigger issue is all the other people. The ones who played this for fun, who are going to be terrified or pissed off now.”

“I think it’s going to take a while to sink in for a lot of people,” Tessa said. “I mean, we were basically kidnapped. Whatever brought us here? It’s a lot bigger and more powerful than we are and if it chooses to mess with us again, there’s basically nothing we can do to stop it.”

“But the voice…when we were being called in,” Rip Shot said. “It was calling for heroes.”

“If it wanted heroes, would it have taken everyone?” Alice asked. 

“The logout buttons say we have a quest pendings,” Tessa said. “Assuming the buttons work as a method of getting home, what kind of quest is someone who can drag a city full of people to another world going to want us to work on?”

“That’s what I meant by dead, or wish we were,” Alice said, nodding in agreement with Tessa. “If we complete this quest, whatever it is, we’ll be following the plans of someone who was willing to drag us away from our homes to fight and die for their cause. We can’t do that.”

“You’re right,” Tessa said, and turned to lock her gaze on Alice. “But you know we have to anyways don’t you?”

All three of the people around Tessa looked at her in confusion.

“Let’s say we decide to rebel,” Tessa said. “We go and sit in the chapel and refuse to engage with this world at all. Where does that leave us?”

“Alive and safe and not a party to whatever our kidnapper has planned,” Alice said.

“Does it?” Tessa asked.

“If they can take us from Earth, why would we be safe in the chapel?” Rip asked.

“There’s that, but more importantly, is sitting on the sidelines and letting something happen any better than trying but failing to stop it?” Tessa asked. “In either case whatever bad plan there is, if there is one, would still happen.”

Alice’s shoulders were tensed like fractured glass. Tessa watched her eyes flick back and fourth as she struggled with the question she’d been posed.

“We don’t know that there is a kidnapper here,” Tessa said. “This might be some magical disaster like a [Dimensional Earthquake] or something. It’s possible there’s no one and no plan behind this, but I don’t think you’re wrong to be considering whose interests we’re serving. It could be something monstrous, but if so, are we better off staying weak and hidden and trying to avoid it, or can we try to reach a better footing to deal with whatever’s in store for us?”

Alice was silent for a moment before dropping her shoulders.

“It’s not going to work,” she said. 

“What? This world? How we deal with it? Trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing here?” Tessa asked. She wasn’t sure why but seeing Alice’s conflict play out left Tessa strangely happy. 

“Yes,” Alice sighed. “All of that. And all of us. Goddamn it, why did I make a new character tonight!”

“I don’t think it has to work,” Tessa said. “Not right away. I know it sucks being low level. I wish I’d logged in on my main too, but I didn’t, and I’m here, and I’ve got to deal with that. And yeah, we don’t know how much here is like the [Fallen Realms] we know. At the very least there’s going to be a ton of new stuff just because of the [High Beyond] being a new zone. It might have a ton of new stuff and be deadly and be more than we can handle, but we’ve got some advantages too.”

“Like what?” Rip asked.

“Alice here is a veteran from the sound of things. If her guild is doing end game raids and she’s normally with them then she’s got the kind of experience with tactics and strategy that can take years to develop,” Tessa said.

Alice laughed but allowed her continue.

“I’m rusty but I’ve leveled up a lot in [Broken Horizons]. I know what a fight looks like when it’s starting to go bad and how to build our skills and spells to be effective in a team and solo,” Tessa said. “If we want to, I think we can make ourselves a lot more powerful. Maybe even catch up to the end game folks in time.”

“No,” Alice said. “Think about what we’d have to do to level up? It’s all fighting. That’s fine if we’re killing pixel people on a screen, but how is it going to feel to cut someone down here? How will we know they’re not real people like us?”

“It’ll feel horrible or it should,” Tessa said. “And I know that won’t stop some of the players. Unlike in the game though, I think we’ll have options that we can work with.”

“Like what?” Rip asked.

“Well, first up, we can simply avoid fighting people. If we’re the ones being proactive then if we see a camp full of bandits or some other typical human-ish enemy type, we just avoid it. Second, if we do run into people who want to fight we can always try talking to them, or fight to disable and then run away. There’s a lot of options that either aren’t available or don’t have a point in the game because we don’t have to care about anything that comes up marked as an enemy.”

“So what would you fight?” Alice asked.

“Monsters,” Tessa said. “I fought some [Radioactive Goo Rats] in the tutorial, which I’m pretty certain weren’t sapient, and unless I miss my guess there should be plenty of basic undead out in the wilderness.”

“That’s not going to be efficient,” Alice said. “No one else is going to want to level like that.”

“Maybe,” Tessa said. “I know it would be faster to grind through a big horde of weak enemies over and over, and they would probably be normal soldier types since they don’t have special abilities. Faster, in this case, isn’t better though. I think you’re right; if we want to hold onto the important parts of who we are we can’t turn into murder-bots who’ll kill anything to get stronger.”

“That sounds good to me,” Rip Shot said, and then cast a glance over to Matt. “I mean us. That sounds good to us.”

“Are you thinking to take them along for this?” Alice asked, nodding at the two kids.

Tessa hesitated, hearing the question Alice wanted her to answer; “Are you going to risk these two before you know what you’re getting into?”

“It depends,” she said, considering her options. If she turned down Rip’s offer, the two fledglings would venture off and hook up with another group in all likelihood. That might be for the better. Another group might be able to protect them and keep them safe more easily than Tessa could. But another group might also be a lot worse too. “It depends on if they’re willing to work with me and do things the right way.”

“What does the right way look like?” Alice asked before Rip could voice a similar question.

“It looks like following the plan we come up with,” Tessa said. “It looks like listening when someone who’s encountered something before tells them what to watch out for and what they need to do. And it looks like being patient enough to let someone – me in case I’m not being clear – scout out a situation before we go into it.”

“We can do that,” Rip says, a half a breath too quickly.

“And what happens when they don’t?” Alice asked.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Tessa said. “If it’s minor, then we talk it out and review what we can do better next time. If it’s not, then we get back somewhere safe asap and I break the party up.”

“And you want me to join this?” Alice asked.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, restraining herself from reaching out to take Alice’s hand.

“Because I’m a healer?” Alice asked.

“No,” Tessa folded her arms to keep them from getting her in trouble. “I mean that’s nice, and it’d be great to have someone else with experience on the team, but I’m hoping you’ll join us because you get it. You get what’s important. Your first thought was to be concerned about what we were doing and what we might become in here, and I think we need that more than anything else in this world.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 5

There were so many ways charging towards her body could have gone wrong that Tessa was almost disappointed when none of them did.

As she passed through the wall of the [Heart Fire] chapel, she braced herself to dodge an attack by the [Hounds of Fate]. In hindsight she would kick herself and wonder what had possessed her to risk a close up encounter with them. Stress, and a rebellious streak she’d never paid enough attention to eclipsed common sense and rational thought there, which was usually a guarantee of disaster, but the cosmic dice came up in her favor and she didn’t wind up paying the price she could have.

The hounds didn’t attack. They were gone.

That should have told her something too, but she was too distracted by racing to Pillowcase’s fallen form to consider the implications of their absence. 

The [Heart Fire Spark] in her hand was a part of that distraction. It throbbed like an excited heartbeat, pulsing with a pressure that brought every nurturing instinct within Tessa screaming to the fore. She was holding a new life in her hands. Her life. It didn’t burn her but she felt the edges of her being growing indistinct. Though she ran through the [Dead Lands], she could feel a current of life flowing around her, through her, and ever farther beyond her.

As she slammed the spark into Pillowcase’s body – no, her body – a circuit completed and the greatest relief she could imagine surged through her.

She followed the spark, flowing back into her body, and for the briefest moment, everything was exactly right.

Then she remembered the [Wraithwing Assault].

Jumping back into Pillowcase’s body had seemed like a brilliant idea compared to facing the challenges of the [High Beyond], and the [Fallen Kingdoms] in general, in her own body. As she opened her eyes on the living version of the town of [Sky’s Edge] though she flinched, expecting to be knocked right back to ghost form by another set of killing blows from the [Wraithwings].

After a few moments passed without her being skewered, Tessa looked around and noticed that the town square of Sky’s Edge was devoid of enemies.

She’d made it.

She was alive again.

And standing, for real, in the Fallen Kingdoms.

[Clothwork] hands were not made to tremble. Pillowcase’s body was a constructed thing with no elements in her design included for fear, or wonder, or overwhelming surprise. That thought percolated up through Tessa’s consciousness as she gazed in wonder at the sky of blazing colors which hung above her. 

The hands which she moved into her gaze trembled, despite the action being alien to them. Too much in her was shaking, with delight, with terror, with disbelief, for her hands, her finely woven, cloth hands not to tremble.

“I’m more than I was,” she said, whispering the words because in the face of everything else, that was the most impossible thing for her to believe. She wasn’t human. And she wasn’t a Clothwork. She was the sum of those parts, however it was they might add up.

She couldn’t process it. The world had changed around her, but the world always changed, sometimes violently, and rarely for the better. She didn’t. Or at least she changed so slowly that the differences were impossible for her to perceive. She was always just herself. Just “Tessa”.

Except now she wasn’t.

She flexed her cloth hands into fists, stiffling the trembling as the heart she wasn’t supposed to have beat more fiercely in her chest.

Where are you? Lost Alice asked, her voice appearing in Tessa’s mind as clear as when they were in the room together.

I’m outside, Tess replied, Tell everyone it’s safe to come out. The event is done.

“WHAT THE HELL!?” BT said, appearing at Tessa’s side. “Why didn’t you reincarnate inside?”

“I thought we needed to test what happened if we rezzed back at a body instead of in the chapel,” Tessa said. 

“Are you stupid!” BT shouted. Tessa heard the emotion in BT’s voice and paused.

“Are you angry?” she asked. Obviously BT was, but Tessa could hear it in the voice emanating from the GM’s [Angelic Armor], and there were some disturbing implications to that.

“Of course I’m angry!” BT said, fear, concern and frustration alloying into the kind of anger that can only exist in someone who still cares. “I just told you we’ve lost contact with people who died. And you said the [Hounds of Fate] were right there! What were you thinking?”

“I can hear the anger in your voice,” Tessa said, slowly, emphasizing the words so that BT would take them seriously.

“Yeah, I can too,” Alice said. She’d regained her game avatar’s body again as well, despite returning to life in the chapel. 

BT was silent for a long moment, the [Angelic Armor] shifting into the unattended state it took on when she wasn’t controlling it.

“She’s not wrong,” Alice said. “That was a pretty crazy thing to do.”

“I know,” Tessa said. “The Hounds were silent though, and I figured we needed to know as much as possible about what living here might entail.”

“And you didn’t want to risk not coming back as Pillowcase?” Alice asked.

“That too,” Tessa said. “Oh, hey, thanks for the healing there before.”

“Didn’t wind up making much difference,” Alice said. 

“Was still nice to have the support though,” Tessa said. “I know a lot of people would have booked it for safety the moment the [Wraithwings] weren’t chasing them.”

Alice shrugged, “I don’t think anywhere’s really safe anymore.”

“So, to confirm, you are hearing chat messages as an audible voice, and it seems to be conveying tone and inflection as well?” BT’s [Angelic Armor] asked in a deep baritone.

“Yeah, who is this?” Tessa asked.

“I’m chatting through the *GM Burnt Toast* account,” the [Angelic Armor] said.

“Clearly, but you’re not BT. You sound like the Old Spice guy,” Tessa said.

“OMG! You can tell who’s typing?” BT asked, sounding like herself again.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Tessa said. “Uh, what the hell is happening?”

“No idea, but this is another data point, and collecting those is the name of the game at the moment,” BT said.

“Who was the other guy?” Alice asked.

“That was my shift manager,” BT said.

“My name is Marcus,” BT’s Angelic Armor said in the baritone voice after a moment. “I wish we had more news for you, but know that we’re doing everything we can here.”

“No offense Marcus,” Alice said, clearly preparing to give offense, “but unless you guys have Gandalf, Merlin, or Hermione Freaking Granger on your payroll, I think we both know there’s not going to be a damn thing you can do about this.”

“My money would be on Hermione,” Tessa said, and saw Alice’s scowl deepen. 

Right, Tessa decided, not the time for levity.

“Our options are limited at the moment,” Marcus said. “We’re still in the best position to coordinate what’s going on though, and pass you the information you need.”

“I haven’t seen any system announcements go out yet,” Alice said, the anger in her voice restrained like a sword only loosely tucked into a scabbard. “When are you going to tell people to be careful about dying. Or stop them from logging in.”

“We’ve already cut off the login servers. Those have been down for a while now,” Marcus said. “We’re still working on the next announcement because we have to get it right or no one who’s unaffected will believe us.”

“Is that really going to be a problem?” Tessa said. “Check the forums, and whatever Discord servers you have access to. This information is getting out there. It has to be.”

“We took the forums down too,” Marcus said. “We can’t be sure what connections to the game are enough to draw someone in, and we didn’t want to take chances.”

“Direct people somewhere else then,” Alice said. “Do you get what’s going on here? How many kids have disappeared from their parent’s home? How many spouses are missing? Do you think there’s no single mothers who play this game? You have got to get word out now so people can start fixing all the things that are going to go wrong.”

Tessa felt the world crashing down. Her giddy joy at being transported to the place that had felt more like a home than any spot on Earth had ever managed, crumbled under the weight of Alice’s words and the terrible implications they carried.

“Has anyone made it back yet?” Tessa asked. “You said the logout button is disabled, and that some people who died aren’t showing up. Have you tried reaching out to them in the real world? Maybe you can’t reach them because they made it completely out of the game.”

“We don’t store contact info for our players,” Marcus said.

“No but you do have their friends lists. And what guilds they’re in,” Alice said. “Some of us know each other out of game. Or at the very least people might have other methods of contacting them.”

There was a pause, which Tessa read as Marcus talking to someone else before  

“Ok, we’ll try that,” he said. “I’ve got to go deal with some other folks now. Please hang on and stay calm for now though. We’ll get you all the information we can as fast as we can.”

No they won’t, Alice whispered. They’re going to want to understand everything before they start sharing anything meaningful. It’s what they’re doing now with delaying the system-wide announcement.

“I’ve got to go too,” BT said. “You’ve got a channel open to me though and I’ve flagged you so your chats will come through – normally we disable that – so give me a shout if anything else comes up.”

“Will do,” Tessa said. “Oh hey, before you go, are any of our other old friends logged in?”

“No,” BT said, the syllable colored in accents of sorrow. “You’re the first person I’ve seen pop up on my friend list in a long time.”

Tessa felt the loneliness wrapped around the words, but pushed through it to the silver lining.

“I’m glad they’re safe,” she said.

“Yeah,” BT said. “Stay safe too ok?”

“You know me,” Tessa said.

“I do. Seriously, stay safe!” BT said and, after seeing Tessa’s half shrug of agreement, dissolved into a teleportation animation.

“So, what should we do now?” Rip Shot asked. Matt Painting was in tow behind her, towering over her in the [Metal Mechanoid] body of his character. Rip Shot had chosen a smaller avatar in picking a [Tabbywile], one of the new [Beastkin] sub-selections. Looking at them it would have been easy to guess that Matt was the protector of the pair and Rip the fragile one, but from their classes, [Dream Spinner] for Matt and [Archer] for Rip, Tessa knew that the roles were almost the reverse.

Tessa wasn’t sure how long they’d been listening in but it looked like they had as much of a handle on what was going on as anyone else did.

Not that anyone seemed to have a solid understanding of what lay before them, or that there was a particularly limited set of options to choose from, but at least one stood out as more immediately important in Tessa’s mind.

“We should see who else is around here still,” she said. “We can start passing around the information we’ve got. I mean, we probably can’t reach too many people on our own, but it’s better than letting them continue on blindly right?”

“Yeah,” Alice said. “There were some people in the chapel. Your GM friend started to talk to them but when she figured out you weren’t coming over she took off to find you.”

“Sorry about that,” Tessa said. “If they survived the [Wraithwing] event, do you think they’ll believe us?”

“If they don’t we’ll have to convince them,” Alice said.

“It should be easy if we can hear their voices right?” Rip said.

“Maybe,” Alice said. “The tough part is going to be convincing them that they can’t go off and level up.”

“Because it’s too dangerous?” Matt asked.

“No,” Alice said. “We don’t know why we’ve been brought here, but whatever the reason, whatever the person responsible for this had in mind, all that we can know for sure is that we can’t play this game at all.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 4

If Tessa wanted to point to the precise moment when she lost control of her life, well the correct answer would have been “conception”. Seeing the error message which hung in the air after she pushed the Logout button though was certainly a moment where she was fully aware of that fact.

“It’s complaining that I haven’t finished the tutorial yet?” she asked, feeling a path around those words as she tried to work out what ‘You have a quest still pending’ could possibly mean. As she asked the question though she knew the answer to it was ‘No’. Everyone was being affected by this and the people who were playing their existing characters wouldn’t have been required to do the tutorial.

“I’m getting the same message I think,” Lost Alice said, since she couldn’t see the one being displayed to Tessa. “But we had different tutorial quests. And mine’s done. I think?”

“Ours too,” Rip Shot said. Tessa saw both of the kids had tried their logout buttons too, though only after she’d proved that the buttons weren’t going to send them home.

“It’s not the tutorial,” BT said. “We don’t know which quest it is. Not yet.”

“My quest log is empty,” Alice said. “I didn’t pick any up because I was going to get power leveled but our resident farmer wasn’t able to log in tonight.”

“It could be an invisible quest,” BT said. The [Angelic Armor] she wore made it impossible to see her expressions but her tone held a clear apology.

“What’s an invisible quest?” Rip Shot asked.

“A bugged one,” Alice said, scowling. Unlike BT, her expression was all too easy to notice.

“No,” BT said, waving her hands in an animation that Tessa wasn’t sure was actually part of the game. “ I mean, it could be bugged, but one of the things they were trying with this expansion was adding in quests the players could be on that they weren’t notified of. So no entry in the quest log, no reward screen when you complete a milestone.”

“What was the point supposed to be?” Tessa asked. 

“It was an experiment. The developers wanted to see if they could make parts of the world feel more responsive by having them change based on things you weren’t entirely aware you were doing.”

“That sounds like terrible game design,” Alice said. “What’s the point of putting in something no one is going to notice?”

“The idea was that you would notice the effects, just not have a clear line to what caused them beyond a general sense from the narrative if you were paying attention.” BT said.

“So the devs were desperate for people to pay attention to all the lore they wrote up and this was their idea to force us to read all of it?” Tessa asked. “It still seems a bit weak. People always figure out systems like that and once its posted up on a wiki somewhere everyone else will just follow guides to get what they want.”

“Well, the idea was to have the quests and the rewards change over time, and be specific to each character, so that there’d always be some surprises. It was just a test though.”

“Can they tell us what the quests are now so we don’t mess them up?” Rip Shot asked.

“Does it matter?” Alice asked. “I don’t think a buggy line of code is responsible for yanking us into a video game.”

“It seems like it’s gotta be more than that doesn’t it?” Tessa agreed. “I think the devs need to spill on any and all ‘surprises’ they had in mind though anyways. If the Wraithwing attack wasn’t supposed to happen, we need to know if anything else we run into isn’t supposed to be part of the game either. Otherwise we might as well just stay here.”

“Oh, wait!” Alice said. “All the players that got dragged off by the Wraithwings! Somebody should reach out to them. If they’re going trying to get through the special dungeon the Wraithwings dragged them to, there’s a great chance they’ll die there instead of someplace safe like we did.”

Tessa almost laughed at the idea of their being safe. Safe was home, in bed, with the doors locked. Being a ghost in the [Dead Lands] version of a [Heart Fire] chapel was a momentary pause in the mayhem at best.

“At least if they die, they can ghost walk back to somewhere better,” she said.

“Can they?” Alice asked. “The [Hounds of Fate] don’t seem to be acting normal either.”

That thought was a chilling one. Tessa had felt protected by the walls of the chapel but it was true that they could still hear the chuffing and pacing of the spectral hounds just outside.

“What’s happening with the [Hounds of Fate]?” BT asked. “There weren’t supposed to be any changes to them with this release.”

“They seem more aggressive,” Tessa said. “Can you hear them out there?”

“I’m still sitting at my computer,” BT said. “All I can head is the [Dead Lands] part of the soundtrack playing.”

“You can’t hear us talking?” Rip Shot asked, throwing a puzzled glance over to Tessa.

“I see you typing in chat,” BT said. “Just like when we were whispering. Explain what ‘more aggressive’ means though?”

“They’re waiting just outside the chapel. Circling in fact. Like they know we’re in here and they’re just waiting for us to step out of line,” Tessa said.

“Isn’t there something in the lore about their being able to smell lost souls or something like that?” Alice asked. 

“Yeah, that’s the justification for why they pounce on us when we try to move too far away, or do too much ghost scouting,” Tessa said. 

From the [Dead Lands], players couldn’t see the people or creatures in the living world except in brief flashes. For an experienced team though, even those tiny bits of information could be a gold mine. Not to mention the invaluable opportunities being dead offered for working out the geometry of new areas. More than once Tessa had paced out an upcoming arena as a ghost in order to see where she would be able to stand to keep herself as far from the Tank and the environmental hazards as possible while still close enough to react to anyone on the team taking damage or needing negative conditions removed.

“Let me double check on the reincarnating thing,” BT said. “I don’t like the idea of something weird happening to you while you’re ghosts.”

The [Angelic Armor] dimmed and slumped in place. BT had set it to “Away from Keyboard” status but it continued a breathing animation which looked more than a little creepy under the circumstances.

“Well that’s great,” Alice said. “We’re stuck in a game, everything is buggy, and we’re going to be eaten by ghosts.”

“So, does this make it into the Top 3 worst launch day events, or only Top 10 do you think?” Tessa asked. 

Alice didn’t seem to be in the mood for levity and Rip and Matt didn’t seem to get that she was joking. 

“I should check in with my guild,” Alice said and moved away, leaving Tessa feeling deflated.

“Do you two have anyone you can contact?” Tessa asked, turning to Rip and Matt.

“I don’t think so,” Matt said.

“We don’t know anyone else who plays this game,” Rip said.

“The new expansion got you to give it a chance?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah,” Rip said. “We wanted to play it for a while but we had to wait till….umm…Matt could get a computer that could handle it.”

Tessa heard the pause and knew it for the mental substitution process it was. After a while it became second nature to refer to people in game by their character’s names but early on there was often a bit of work to remember that no one would know who “Charlie” or “Alex” was, not when the person standing in front of them was named “Axe Thundershaker” or “Zap Blaster”.

Tessa was tempted to give the kids her real name, but thought the better of it. Granted their current situation wasn’t a typical case of “meeting a stranger on the internet” but encouraging kids to give out their personal info online was never something Tessa wanted any part of.

“You can add me as friend if you like,” she said instead. “I don’t know where we’ll wind up going from here, but if we’re separated and you run into any trouble feel free to message me. It seems like the normal chat functions are still working.”

Thank you! Rip Shot said. Tessa heard the sound reverberate in her head without ever touching her ears.

Wow! Telepathic whispers are really telepathic now? It wasn’t hard to respond to Rip’s message. All she had to do was picture speaking to the young girl and think about projecting her internal voice. 

Yeah, Matt and I were trying it out. Rip said. It seems pretty simple.

Definitely a lot easier than typing. Tessa couldn’t suppress a laugh before adding, “Hey, looks like we don’t need to use the virtual keyboard.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked as she typed away on the empty air in front of her.

We’re not just ghosts, we’re telepathic ghosts I guess, Tessa whispered to Alice. She waited a moment, watching as Alice immediately stopped typing and blinked in puzzlement.

Oh. Ok. We’re actually magical now, aren’t we? Alice’s mental voice carried pitch and tone the same as her voice, and thus far more information than a simple text message could have.

She was worried. No. She was terrified and holding it together only through a facade of willpower. With each new bit of pressure though, more cracks were starting to form. 

Tessa searched around for the right words to say. The special, inspiring phrase that would make everyone rise to the challenge and overcome the shock and fear of being taken against their will to somewhere which offered no peace and little safety.

She didn’t find them.

I think so, she said instead.

Are we human at all anymore? Alice asked.

Yeah. I think we’re that too, Tessa said. I don’t know what happened to us, but I don’t feel like a badass adventurer. I just feel like myself. Pillowcase was created on an automation line.  She’s fearless in battle and built for war. Me, Tessa, I’m built for couch surfing and staring at a computer screen.”

Sharing her name with Alice didn’t have the same issues as with two teenagers, but Tessa wasn’t thinking in those terms. Alice stood with the stillness of someone on the edge of a precipice which had no bottom. For as amazing as it was to actually be in Broken Horizons, Tessa felt the same terror gnawing at her heart. They weren’t safe, and for all that they knew Broken Horizons, there was a real chance that they didn’t know this place, and weren’t in any way equipped to handle its challenges. Sharing something real about herself was felt like she was throwing out a lifeline, though whether it was for Alice or for herself she couldn’t say.

Same, Lost Alice said, releasing a breath which seemed to thaw some of the ice that had frozen her spine.

“It sounds like reincarnating might be a good idea,” BT said, her words tumbling out as the [Angelic Armor] hummed back to life.

“Here or back at our bodies?” Tessa asked. As level 1 characters the usual penalties associated with dying weren’t a factor but Tessa was absolutely certain that if she had to confront a world like Broken Horizons, she wanted to do so while wearing a body which could heal back from the brink of death in minutes and didn’t have pesky things like “internal organs” which might object to occasionally being perforated.

“If the [Hounds of Fate] are nearby, you’d be better off reincarnating here,” BT said.

“Why?” Alice asked, her eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. “Shouldn’t the hounds just bring us back here even if they do catch us?”

“Yes. They should. But we can’t reach some of the people who the combat logs marked as having died since this problem started,” BT said.

“Can’t reach? Like they’re not answering whispers?” Tessa asked.

“No. Like the whispers are coming back with ‘character name not found’ errors,” BT said.

“Like they’d been deleted?” Alice asked.

“That’s one path in the code which invokes that message,” BT said.

“So we’re trapped here, and we can die for real?” Rip Shot asked.

“We don’t know that,” BT said. “We just know we can’t contact some of the people who’ve died in game. We’re still working out whether there’s any commonality between how they died or whether they left the area around the [Heart Fire] shrine.”

“It sounds like if we respawn here, we’d at least have two chances then,” Matt said. “One with our living bodies and one with our ghosts.”

He was calm and reasonable despite his words sounding like the ravings of a madman. It was hard to discount them as ravings though when they were already standing around a [Heart Fire] as a quartet of ghosts.

“Yeah, that sounds reasonable,” Alice said.

“Good, then let me try it,” Rip Shot said and, without waiting, plunged her hand in the flames of the [Heart Fire]. Her ghostly body ignited in the normal blazing animation which played during a reincarnation but with this one, Tessa could feel the heat of the flames.

“Me next,” Matt said, not waiting a moment once he saw Rip consumed by the fire.

“Someone needs to watch over those newbies,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Tessa couldn’t disagree but she was still far from sure that it was a job she should volunteer for.

Alice moved to touch the flames as well but paused with her hand outstretched.

“Hey, the hounds stopped moving didn’t they?” she asked.

Tessa turned an ear to listen and found the howling and pacing had disappeared.

“Is that a good sign?” Tessa asked.

“Better than them breaking down the door,” Alice said and reached for the flames.

Tessa made her decision then.

It was potentially a stupid decision, but with three of them chosing to reincarnate via the [Heart Fire], she wanted to see what the other choice would produce. If her game knowledge was going to mean anything, it should be the same outcome in either case, with the only difference being where they stood when they came back to life.

Tessa hoped that would be true as she snatched a handful of [Heart Fire] and dashed through the chapel’s door.