Monthly Archives: September 2019

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 5

On the list of ‘Bad Ideas for Adventurers’, Tessa was sure that ‘sprint through a dungeon’ was somewhere in the top half or so. That it wasn’t higher was solely due to the fact that adventurers were capable of feats of such monumental stupidity that actions which were even vaguely reasonable, no matter how dangerous or ill conceived, simply couldn’t compete.

“There’s a fight up ahead,” she said over the group’s private chat channel.

The cave system of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] followed the typical format of ‘hallways made of stone with the occasional room for big fights’ which games tended to favor. The walls sported a bit more set dressing that most, with veins of pulsing purple energy growing in number and wrapped around protrusions of increasing complexity as Tessa advanced.

“Be careful,” Alice said. “We don’t want whoever’s fighting to think we’re an ambush that’s racing in to join the monsters.”

“Good point,” Tess said. She slowed at the final corner and was about to call out when it occurred to her that there was nothing to suggest that both sides of the battle wouldn’t consider her an enemy the moment they saw her. It wasn’t impossible, or even improbably, to find two different groups of monsters fighting each other. As with many domestic squabbles though, the moment an outside presence appeared, the two sides were quite likely to put aside their differences and turn their collective wrath on the newcomers.

So stealth was called for.

Sneaking forward in armor wasn’t as difficult as she’d been led to believe. Unlike movie armor, the chain shirt she was wearing didn’t clank loudly as she walked, nor did the metal guards on her arms or legs.

Peeking around the corner she saw more or less what she’d expected to see. Several people were being murdered by a trio of monsters that looked like someone had glued scorpion limbs onto an earth worm and then rammed the head of an old man onto the front end of the worm. And the head was breathing fire.

“We have [Soul Blights],” Pillowcase said. “Three of them. And a party. Low level, I think. Move to assist?”

She didn’t turn to look at her team. Her attention was on the battle.

It wasn’t going badly. Or at least not as badly as Pillowcase had expected, but then she’d expected to see a massacre.

One member of the other team was down, but not dead. He was getting assistance from the party’s healer, while the three melee fighters each distracted one of the [Soul Blights] and the party’s primary spell caster rained down area effects.

“Go for it,” Alice said. “We’ve got your back and theirs.”

“Mark Prime!,” Pillowcase yelled the command so that the other party would have a chance to hear her declaration as the mystic symbol for ‘kill this one first’ formed over the leftmost [Soul Blight’s] head.

She considered calling out to the party to declare her intentions, but chose to stay focused on her target instead. If the other party was experienced, they’d quickly figure out what Tessa was up to and if they weren’t then she was going to have to carry the fight for them on her own anyways.

The [Soul Blight] she’d marked target her as Pillowcase charged in, but it wasn’t agile enough to avoid the charging thrust she rammed into it. The blow connected with all of her mass behind it and buried her sword up to its hilt in the center of its bulbous, squishy worm body. The [Soul Blight] wasn’t happy with being used as a pin cushion but it’s semi-amorphous anatomy also wasn’t terribly impeded by the hunk of metal lodged in its midsection.

Pillowcase drew back, dragging her sword out as she did so. The suction force which tried to hold the blade in place was considerable but the strength of even a low level [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] was even more so.

“[Rapid Shot]” Rip yelled as she unleashed a flurry of arrows into the [Soul Blight].

“[Casting spell: Lesser Torment]”, Matt said with a eagerness in his voice which both suggested he’d been dying to try out his new spell and that the worries which had plagued him on the trip to the dungeon had been cast aside once battle was before them.

Pillowcase paid that no mind, but Tessa filed it away for later. She was intimately familiar with the mental divide which might be lending Matt his courage, but embraced her own version of it and left Pillowcase free to act as instinct guided her.

That was a wise move as the monster in front of her was far from finished. Thanks to both the damage Pillowcase had inflicted, and the taunt effect on her strikes, the [Soul Blight] focused its attention solely on her and lashed out with a claw. Dodging wasn’t an option. The room was big enough but she wanted the enemies to stay in place. 

That left blocking.

The shock of the claw strike was familiar. It felt right for a creature which outmassed her by three-to-one. More importantly though, it wasn’t sufficient to pierce her shield, or punish the arm she had the shield strapped to beyond the arm’s limits.

“Who are you?” Starchild, the nearest melee fighter from the other party, asked.

“Helpers,” Pillowcase said. The middle of a battle was not the place for conversation. 

The [Soul Blight] reared back and spat a stream of flame which covered both Pillowcase and Starchild. Pillowcase used her shield to take the brunt of the attack but a fair bit of fire slipped through around the edges.

Burning was not a great thing for [Clothworks]. Pillowcase was more resistant to fire than her base materials would have been but it was still one of the attack forms which she was the weakest against. 

“[Casting spell: Minor Cleansing]” Alice said, dousing the flames before they could spread over more of Pillowcase’s body.

Burning wasn’t pleasant, but Pillowcase wasn’t afraid of it. She hadn’t been made to be afraid of anything.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” she said, a growl of anticipation accompanying the words. This was what she craved. This was what she was built for. To be at the heart of a battle. To contest against a worthy foe.

Pillowcase centered her spell on the middle of the three to catch all of them in its effect. That locked in the attention of the one fighting her and the one on the far side of the battle. Only the one she’d targeted remained glued to the other party’s [Guardian] since he had a headstart on influencing it’s actions.

“Thanks,” Starchild said. “You showed up at a good time.”

Pillowcase parried a scorpion claw which was aimed at Starchild’s head and punished the [Soul Blight] for leaving an opening with a blow to the appendage that hit for critical damage.

The [Soul Blight] from the far side of the battle, crouched down and leapt over the one in the middle as the one nearest to Pillowcase belched fire again. 

Pillowcase moved out of the path of the fire, blocking to mitigate the indirect splash of flame and then tumbling away as the leaping [Soul Blight] crashed down onto her position.

Rip and Matt unleashed another volley of attacks, which struck the first [Soul Blight] and left it shaking. Starchild capitalized on that and slammed her staff into the [Soul Blight’s] lowered head, shattering the inhuman visage like a watermelon. In the wake of Starchild’s swing, Pillowcase saw emerald fire scorching the air. 

Pillowcase adjusted her assessment. Starchild wasn’t a typical melee fighter.

The [Soul Blight] was impeded by the loss of its head, but it apparently didn’t keep anything critical within it. Without a mouth to shape its fire, it belched flames everywhere and began lashing out with its claws. 

Fire washed over Pillowcase again and she watched her health drop perilously. The [Lesser Spirit Drain] struggled against the ongoing damage and mitigated a fair amount of it but Pillowcase was still burning faster than her magics could repair.

A dozen steps away, Brick Spithouse, the other party’s [Guardian] was weathering the flames with only a tiny fraction of the damage Pillowcase was taking. He blocked an blow from the [Soul Blight] he had under control and threw attack after attack at it, most of which bounced harmlessly off the carapace of the creature’s limbs.

Spells and attacks slammed into all three monsters, but PIllowcase felt her vision narrowing to only the one before her.

It was a fatal error, and she knew it.

She had at least two of the creatures to deal with.

She had to stay alert on a broader level.

One of the [Soul Blights] stabbed her with its rear stinger.

That hurt.

Even apart from the poison it sent coursing through her, having a two foot long barb jammed into her chest was not pleasant.

“[Rapid Shot]” Rip called out, taking advantage of the momentary lack of mobility in the tail to blast it off the [Soul Blight’s] body.

“You ok?” Alice asked.

“Yes.” Pillowcase said, judging how quickly she was healing compared to the damage she’d taken so far.

“Good,” Alice said and began casting a healing spell on a member of the other party who who’d been slashed down to less than a quarter of their health.

Pillowcase’s own health wasn’t much better than that, but it didn’t trouble her. She had the monster’s attention and though they assaulted her with fire and claw, she was able to hold them off. 

Second by second they pressed her, but after extinguishing the flames on herself, and shifting to a defensive footing, Pillowcase was able deflect enough incoming damage to allow the life she was stealing from them to begin repairing her wounds. 

A fierce joy sang in her chest as she danced around the two horrors and held them bound to her will, daring them to do their worst, and laughing when they proved incapable of overwhelming her.

She’d turned her two playmates to face away from the other fighters and was just about back to being uninjured when the monsters went off script.

Together, the two creatures turned and vomited flame on the position where Rip and Matt were attacking from.

Pillowcase’s rage consumed her. Rip and Matt were supposed to be safe. She was doing her damn job correctly.

With a flurry of blow, provoking strike after provoking strike landed but nothing Pillowcase could do was sufficient to bring the monsters back to face her.

In desperation she leapt onto the back of the nearest one, trying to hurl herself in front of the flame stream but it was too late. In her party status display, she saw Rip and Matt’s health plummet to zero.

They hadn’t screamed. 


There hadn’t been time.

With grim precision, Tessa hacked at the [Soul Blight’s] neck. Starchild had crushed its head but she was determined to cut it off. 

The third [Soul Blight] escaped her notice. She was too focused on the one before her to care about it.

“I’m sorry!” Rip said. “We’ll be back in a second. We’re running to the [Heart Fire] now.”

She sounded panicked but not pained.

Pillowcase shook her head.

Rage wasn’t productive.

She’d injured the [Soul Blight] she was riding, but at some point she’d taken three more serious wounds and her own health was trending perilously low again.

Worse the third [Soul Blight] was menacing the other party’s healer.

Leaping from the back of the [Soul Blight] she was on, Pillowcase landed sword point first on the third monster. She’d claimed it as ‘hers’ and she wasn’t about to let it harm anyone else if she could.

It was a valiant gesture but foolish in its own way. This [Soul Blight] still had a functional stinger on its tail and used it freely, jabbing at Pillowcase repeatedly and forcing her to scramble off its back. 

“Gather behind me,” Brick Spithouse said to his team.

Pillowcase didn’t have to wonder why for long.

The [Soul Blight] he’d been fighting switched its target away from him just as the other two had done with Pillowcase. The other party wasn’t caught quite as unprepared as Rip and Matt had been but only one of them, the healer, was behind Brick. Fortunately for them, the healer was the one the [Soul Blight] chose to attack and Brick was able to use his shield and armor to prevent a repeat of Matt and Rip’s fate.

Pillowcase was envious.

And angry.

And distracted.

She didn’t even feel the stab wounds that stole the last sliver of her health.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 4

Tessa stood before the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] and could smell the death and terror that waited inside. Every sensible instinct told her to turn around and flee. Or almost every instinct. 

Let’s do this, Pillowcase whispered, her voice bright with anticipation.

Tessa closed her Clothwork hand into a fist and felt Pillowcase’s strength fill it. 

Yeah, let’s, she said, replying to no one but herself.

“It like they left the door open for us,” Alice said, gesturing to the decorated arch around the cave mouth which lead into the ruins.

“Monsters just inside?” Tessa asked, looking to Alice for confirmation of the guess.

“Probably just a couple at most,” Alice said. “Once we get past them, we should find the [Heart Fire] brazier. They changed dungeon design to put one of them at the start of each map so you can attune to it right after you zone in.”

“Are we going to be zoning?” Matt asked. “I don’t think we have yet, have we?”

“We should have when we left [Sky’s Edge],” Alice said. “And then again at the farm house, probably, but since it didn’t happen there, it’s probably not going to happen here either.”

“This place does seem to be more ‘real’, for lack of a better term, than the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Tessa said. “Hmm, which means we can’t rely on escaping any of the dungeon’s monsters but fleeing outside. There’s no zone line to cut them off from following us.”

“What do we do if we have to run?” Matt asked.

“Backtrack as far as you can go,” Alice said. “If you can make it out, head as far away as you can. Even if they can chase you, the dungeon’s guardians may not be willing go too far from home.”

“And we’re all going to do that?” Rip asked.

“Eventually yeah,” Tessa said. “Depending on the danger we encounter, I may need to stay behind to hold them off.

“We can’t just let you die,” Rip said.

“You can, and you will,” Pillowcase said, her tone more solid and serious than Tessa’s had been a moment prior. “If we can’t win a fight, then we have to make sure we lose as little of it as possible.

“Losing you isn’t ‘losing a little’,” Rip said.

“It is if I am going to be lost anyways,” Pillowcase said.

“But you can just respawn, can’t you?” Matt asked.

“If there’s a [Heart Fire] in there, and if it’s not surrounded by enemies,” Pillowcase said.

“We’ll take it slow, and act like we’re going for a full clear,” Alice said. “No progress on the main path until we clear any side branches that we find. That’ll prevent anything from getting behind us.”

“What if the things we kill respawn at the [Heart Fire] and then wait there for us?” Rip asked. She didn’t have an arrow drawn back but she did have one loaded into her bow and she was paying keen attention to the darkness in the cave’s mouth.

“They shouldn’t be able to,” Alice said. “The first thing we do when we get inside is find the [Heart Fire] and attune it for our use and not theirs.”

“We can do that?” Matt asked. “Can they do the same to us?”

“It never came up in the game, but I can’t think of a reason they wouldn’t be able to,’ Tessa said. “Of course to do that, they’d have to get past us, and if they can do that, then we’ll probably be dead which will mean we can ghost back to it before them anyways.”

“Let’s head in,” Alice said. “We’ve already talked about most of the likely scenarios inside. The sooner we find out which one’s we’ve got ahead of us, the sooner we can start working out plans to beat them.”

“Ok, follow me then,” Tessa said, leading her team into the ruins, despite the trepidation she felt.


Inside the cave, the found a long tunnel which stretched into the darkness.

“The game never had full darkness conditions, did it?” Tessa asked, noticing that Rip’s Elven eyesight didn’t seem quite as comprehensive as [Dark VIsion] the rest of the party shared.

“No,” Alice said. “They’d talked about adding that for immersion sake but the hassle of adding torches and personal light sources always put it pretty far down on the feature list.”

“I don’t think the standard list of gear includes a lantern,” Tessa said, peering into the darkness yet seeing the details of the tunnel easily enough. In the distance, around a corner, she thought she could see a flickering blue light, but while [Dark Vision] showed her a lot, it wasn’t great with colors. 

“I’ve got a lantern!” Rip said, rummaging in her pack.

“How?” Tessa asked. “I didn’t see any for sale in the shops we visited.”

“It was in the gear I started with,” Rip said. She waved her hand over the lantern’s face and it lit. Tessa watched the light spread around them as the lantern flickered from a small spark of illumination to being bright enough to light a room. What was strange was how the light shone from the lantern.

Rather than the lantern getting brighter (and therefor more difficult to look at), it was the room itself which was providing the local illumination. 

Looking down at her feet, Tessa saw that she wasn’t casting a shadow. The lantern light was somehow radiating from many different points within its sphere of effect. Tessa couldn’t quite process how that was happening, but it did make the environment easier to see than the sharp contrasts a regular lantern light would produced.

“A magic lantern. Neat,” Alice said. “We should probably check out our supplies to make sure we know what we’re carrying.”

“I think I see the [Heart Fire] up ahead,” Tessa said, and stated moving forward.

She was ready for a fight or, even more likely, an ambush. With the monsters acting more like actual creatures, it seemed almost certain that they’d set a few defenders around the [Heart Fire], both to keep it safe for their own use and because that was the most likely place where they’d be able to dine on some juicy adventurer flesh.

With her sword held in a middle guard position and her shield braced to counter any attacks, Tessa crept forward, listening intently for sounds of movement.

She didn’t hear anything, or at least nothing nearby.

Which made sense.

Everything nearby was already dead.

“What am I seeing here?” she asked as she stepped over the bodies of several weird sort-of moth-like creatures, stabbing each as she went by them.

The stabbing wasn’t strictly necessary. It was meant to help her detect if any of the [Gloom Drinkers] were either faking their condition or, worse, turning into undead versions of themselves, but it wasn’t a foolproof test. None of the moths stirred, but Pillowcase’s senses remained on high alert. The best time to spring a trap was after you’d convinced your foe that you were harmless after all, and the best defense against that was to never be convinced that you were completely safe.

“It could be set dressing,” Alice said as she picked a path through the [Gloom Drinker] bodies.

“Set dressing?” Matt asked.

“In the game, the developers would sometimes decorate rooms with dead bodies to add to the ambiance,” Tessa said. “And to hide the occasional undead ambush.”

“These are still oozing,” Rip said.

“Should I burn them to be safe?” Matt asked. He was holding Rip’s lantern in one hand, to allow her to keep both hands on her bow. 

“Let’s get the [Heart Fire] attuned first,” Alice said. “A lot of mistakes become less of a problem if we have a nearby respawn point.”

Around a corner, the tunnel opened into a wide ‘entrance room’ cavern, which was surprisingly clear of [Gloom Drinker] corpses.

Pillowcase paused, letting her full senses search out waiting foes.

She could see without issue in the darkness ahead, and her hearing seemed to be far sharper than it had been. Even with those two and an inexplicably better sense of smell (inexplicable because her nose was cloth and cotton as far as she could tell), she couldn’t make out the presence of any lurking foes. 

All she could see was the flickering light of the of the [Heart Fire], all she could hear was the snap and crackle of its burning, and all she could smell was blood and bile.

“No foes yet,” Pillowcase said as she stepped into the room, fully expecting to be attacked the moment she did so.

“I think the moths were setup as an early DPS check,” Alice said and then turned to Rip and Matt to explain. “DPS is short for damage per second, it’s a measure of how hard you and the party in general can hit consistently. To make sure you’re up to par for a dungeon, a lot of them will start off with an encounter that simply tests if you can do enough damage to even have a chance of getting through the tougher fights.”

“I get it, so if you can’t beat the moths, then you really have no business coming into this dungeon in the first place,” Rip said.

“Wouldn’t you find that out anyways later though?” Matt asked.

“Eventually,” Alice said. “The devs found that people weren’t as cranky if they lost a minute or two of play before they discovered that they couldn’t finish a dungeon rather than being a half hour into it before they had to give up hope.”

“Alice, could you check me on something,” Tessa asked. She was standing at the [Heart Fire] and wondering if even more had changed in the game than she’d been aware of.

“What’s wrong?” Alice asked stepping in closer to the brazier.

“I think I’m in range, but I’m not getting the option to attune the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “What am I doing wrong?”

Alice glances at the brazier, her expression turning puzzled and then wary.

“Nothing,” she said. “You’re not doing anything wrong. You can’t attune this one because it’s already attuned for our use.”

“That sounds good, but you look worried,” Matt said.

“It’s something unusual,” Alice said, “and anything unusual in a dungeon is generally dangerous.”

“Could it be a fake?” Tessa asked. “Maybe this isn’t a real [Heart Fire] and if we try to use it we’ll wind up in a prison realm instead?”

“That can happen?” Rip didn’t bother to hide her shock.

“In some places,” Alice said. “There’s usually some warning though.”

“Like a pile of dead bugs?” Matt asked.

“No, more like protection runes that define the area which is under the control of whoever’s put the redirect on the [Heart Fire],” Alice said.

“I didn’t see any runes in the tunnel,” Rip said.

“There weren’t any visible ones,” Pillowcase said. “None in here either.”

“It’s a low level dungeon, or at least it’s supposed to be,” Alice said. “They didn’t usually start hitting you with trap dungeons until level 20 or so, and even those weren’t too bad. You’d respawn in a prison, but the prisons are all empty and the doors are easy to knock down.”

“Maybe they’re just taking things easy on us here too then?” Rip asked. “Give us the first [Heart Fire] for free?”

“That doesn’t make sense with the moths in the tunnel though,” Pillowcase said. “Anyone who was defeated by them would be able to come here and respawn, and if they really weren’t able to fight through the [Gloom Drinkers] then they’d be stuck with no one option for leaving.”

“A design that traps players in the dungeon and doesn’t let them flee isn’t the kind of thing a developer would do, but it’s exactly what a real dungeon maker would design for,” Alice said, the thoughts that were spinning through her head deepening her frown the more connections she made.

“The smart play would be to leave and compare notes with Aiemethia and Zibby,” Tessa said. “They didn’t mention the [Gloom Drinkers] but if the moths are set dressing, then they might have overlooked them.”

“I just asked them,” Alice said. “We’re telepathic now, remember? They didn’t see any moth creatures when they came through, and they didn’t think to check the [Heart Fire] before they went on.”

“So this is a trap then?” Matt asked.

In the far distance, Pillowcase heard a dim cry and the sound of a blade striking steel.

“Or someone else is in here now too,” she said before turning to confer with Alice.

A shared nod was all it took.

They had answers to get and the only path to get them led onwards and inwards.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 3

The trip to the dungeon wasn’t a long one and that was a problem. Rose wasn’t worried about following Pillowcase and Lost Alice into it. Beating a dungeon sounded awesome to her, and beating it with them sounded wonderful. She just wasn’t sure if Jamal was ready for it.

I’m betting we run into nothing but low level stuff in there, she whispered to Jamal. Technically she sent the message to his character, ‘Matt Painting’, but she had a hard time remembering to call him that even though Matt, as a Metal Mechanoid, looked nothing like Jamal. There was just something about how he moved, from the little way he ducked his head when he spoke, even silently via telepathy, to how he tended to keep his hands in close to his body. 

They’d been friends for a long time, so Rose didn’t find it at all surprising that she’d know him no matter what body he wore. It just felt right.

Well, yeah, that’s all there better be, Jamal said. Everything here is supposed to be low level, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be lower than us.

Familiarity meant Jamal didn’t hold back or censor himself with Rose as much as he normally did with other people. People he trusted less. The others hadn’t gotten to see Matt and Rip get into one of their epic debates yet, and probably wouldn’t for a long time if Rose’s guess was correct, but at least the two of them could at least continue their usual repartee telepathically. 

We’re not that bad off anymore, Rip said. Anyways, this is a video game. We’re setup to win from the start.

Cause we got off to such a good start with those [Wraithwings]? Jamal said.

That was a fluke. Some kind of weird glitch.

This whole thing is a weird glitch. Jamal said. He was walking with his new staff held in front of his body, rather than using it like a walking stick.

Rose was doing the same with her bow, but that was because Rip Shot had indicated that it was better to keep it ready in case of a surprise attack. Apparently the time to unsling a bow, knock an arrow and fire it could mean the difference between getting in a clean shot and needing to parry with the bow instead. And bows were not meant for parrying. Rip Shot was very clear on that.

The fact that Rip Shot was clear on anything at all was something she hadn’t told the others. Jamal was open about “Matt Painting” having an existence beyond some flavor text in his backstory notes, but Rose wasn’t quite willing to divulge the same about Rip.

It was silly. She knew that. 

But Rip was special.

She had to share Rip with the others because, obviously, they could all see Rip, and hear her. Rip Shot was a mask that wouldn’t come off. And that was fine. Better than fine. The idea of people thinking of her as Rip Shot rather than the disaster-that-was-Rose-Marsden was something Rose had literally prayed for.

Maybe it’s not a glitch, she said.

How is us being here not a glitch? Jamal asked. Do you think someone actually coded ‘AbductPlayersToGameWorld.exe’ and added it to the expansion without anyone noticing?

Rose rolled her eyes. She loved Jamal. Really she did. And he was smart. Except when he was being stupid.

I’m not saying one of the developers was a wizard. I’m saying that us being here by accident seems a lot less likely than us being here because someone intended for us to be here.

Jamal paused for a step, considering that and then caught up with a few quick strides to bring himself back by Rose’s side. The party didn’t have a special ‘marching order’ like in Dungeons and Dragons. They just let Pillowcase take the lead so that anything that jumped out would try to eat her first and the rest sort of wandered behind her.

Although, Rose noticed that Lost Alice wasn’t really ‘wandering behind’ so much as ‘walking with’ Pillowcase.

Were they conferencing like she and Jamal were?

Ok, yeah, we talked about that before, Jamal said, bringing Rose back to the conversation they were having before she could get lost in speculation. Somebody might have brought us here on purpose. Or maybe they brought someone specific here on purpose and the rest of us just got dragged along for the ride.

Yeah but why? Rose could feel on some fundamental level that her coming to the [Fallen Kingdoms] hadn’t been an accident.

Maybe the world needs it’s ‘Chosen One!’ or something like that? Jamal said and Rose noticed that ‘Chosen One’ didn’t have the odd aural quality words with specific meanings in the [Fallen Kingdoms] tended have.

Huh, that’s interesting, she said to no one but herself, pondering how likely it was for a fantasy story not have a ‘Chosen’ hero or main character. 

The trip to dungeon wasn’t a long one though, and she really wanted to settle Jamal’s nerves though, so she packed away her thoughts on the absence of a Chosen One to continue her conversation with him.

I meant, why would it be someone else? Why couldn’t we be the ones who were supposed to come over here?

Because we have no idea what we’re doing? Jamal said. 

I shoot things with arrows and you blast them with spells, Rose said, it’s not that hard to figure out. And you heard Pillow and Alice. We’re doing fine so far!

We’re doing fine for new players, Jamal said. Look at Alice, she’s had years of experience and she’s still worried about being here.

She’s not worried, Rose said. She’s worried about us maybe, but you saw her in those fights. She was perfectly calm the whole time. She’s probably fought like that a million times or something.

I don’t think anyone’s fought like this before, Jamal said. I mean nobody has right? Forgot virtual goggles, this is like being in a VR body suit or something.

Yeah, but she still knows what to expect. And she’s so strong.

But she used to being stronger, Jamal said. I think Pillow was too. Some of the things they talked about, it’s like they’re looking forward to the things they know we’re going to have to face.

Do you think that’s what they’re doing now? Rose asked.

Huh? Jamal asked.

They’re walking together, Rose said. They must be planning our strategy right?

Maybe? Wouldn’t they do that with us though?

That’s true, and I guess they have before.

Do you think they like each other? Jamal asked.

Uh, yeah, I mean they get along fine, right? Rose said, missing for a moment the implications of Jamal’s question.

It wasn’t surprising. Her relationship to romance was either ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘not applicable’ depending on a lot of factors. 

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand it. She had characters that she liked seeing together in all kinds of media. Even people that she was happy to see couple up. 

It just wasn’t for her. 

Like with Jamal. She loved him. She’d told him that in 2nd Grade when some kids wouldn’t let him play kick ball with them. She’d meant it then and she still meant it.

But it wasn’t the kind of love that said ‘I want to date you’, or ‘I want to make out with you’. He was just nice to be around. Other kids called it ‘the Friend Zone’ but it wasn’t like Rose was locking him out of anything. She was more open and free with Jamal than she was with anyone else in her life. It was just that the things outside ‘the Friend Zone’ weren’t things she needed or wanted in her life. 

At least not for herself. For other people romance and sex were fine, and did she remember Alice saying she had a girlfriend back home?

She turned a more discerning eye on her two party members.

I think they’re just talking about the dungeon, she said. They’re keeping some distance between themselves and it looks like they’re pretty serious.

You’re probably right, Jamal said. They’re probably talking about old dungeons they ran. You know, comparing notes to figure out what’s waiting for us.

Pillow was pretty gung ho, Rose said. I’m guessing she’s got a good general sense of how things are setup.

Yeah, that’s probably why she’s not worried. The same with Alice.

We’ll get like them in time, Rose said, picturing being as badass as either Pillowcase or Lost Alice. 

She could do it. It had to be why she’d been brought here.

Rip Shot didn’t disagree, and that made Rose feel a little guilty.

At some point she would have to tell people about Rip. Explain that the she’d been borrowing Rip’s reserves of cool competence and skill to get through their fights. 

Rip didn’t seem to mind letting Rose being in the drivers seat though, and was fine with Rose enjoying the praise for the work that Rip did. If anything Rip seemed happy to be able to focus just on the fighting and leave the rest to Rose. Like they were friends. Or partners. 

It was how Rose had imagined, or at least hoped, they might be. Even though they were from different lives, and different worlds, when Rose had written up her short stories starring Rip Shot, she’d always imagined the [Elven] [Archer] as there in the room with her, helping craft the narrative and make it true.

We’re in this together, she said, whispering it unintentionally to Jamal.

Yeah. We are. And, seriously, that makes it a whole lot better, he said. I know I should probably say that I wish you weren’t stuck in here too, that you were back home safe and sound, but I’m glad your here. 

Same, Rose said and then added, I’m kind of hoping we’ll be here for a good while.

Jamal was quiet for a second before responding.

Seems like a safe bet, he said, his telepathic voice quite and falsely calm.

I figure we should be stuck here for at least a month right? Rose didn’t think it would take that long necessarily, or rather, she was worried it wouldn’t take that long.

Could be a month, could be longer, Jamal said. It might be that we can never go back.

Or that we never chose to, Rose said. She’d give up their old lives in a heartbeat but it still felt dangerous to say it. Like she was promising too much too soon.

She expected Jamal to say that they should wait until the moment came, if it ever did, before they decided. Or that he couldn’t ask something like that of her. Basically something noble and stupid like usual.

That would be nice, he said instead and gave her a quick nod of his head, Metal Mechanoids not having exactly have the most expressive of faces.

The thought sent a thrill down her spine. 

Getting to stay here forever? Getting to be Rip Shot, forever?

She didn’t deserve it, but like hell would she say no to it either.

Even if it turned out that the [Fallen Kingdoms] were miserable, a horror story from front to back, even if people found out that she really wasn’t Rip Shot, she’d still stay. She couldn’t ask Jamal to go back. He would be happy here, or at least happier, and that counted for a lot.

“I was wondering if we were going to have trouble finding the place,” Pillowcase said, coming to a stop as the path which was winding up into the mountains turned sharply around an outcropping.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “Do you think that screams ‘I’m a dungeon, come inside me and die’ loudly enough?”

Around the corner, Rose saw what they were talking about. The path they’d been following ended at the mouth of a dark cave opening. Steam wafted from the entrance, curling in luminous green tendrils as though in walking into the cave you were walking into the maw of an ghostly octopus. 

Worse though were the skulls which were mounted along the arch of the cave’s entrance. They came in all shapes and sizes, each bearing silent witness to the dangers within.

Time was up. They’d arrived.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 2

Preparation was the key to success, which worried Tessa. Lost Alice, Rip Shot, and Matt Painting all looked like they were prepared, with new (if low level) spells, armor, and weapons. Their earlier battles had let them take the first few steps towards forging themselves into a real team. As a team, they’d even checked in with Aimethia and Zibby, who’d returned with a gaggle of lowbies in tow and a reasonably detailed map of the area, including the dungeon they’d discovered and towards which Tessa and her party was traveling.

All of that was great.

It was only Tessa herself who wasn’t ready as far as she could see.

Her armor was fully repaired, her new spells selected, and she’d even organized her pack so that the [Dram of Vitality] healing potions they’d found were within easy reach if she should need them.

Nothing about her kit was out of order. All of the chaos was inside.

Hey, Pillowcase, she tried telepathically whispering to her “other self”, wondering if she could speak with her subconscious (or whatever Pillowcase was) more directly. The words she whispered simply appeared in her private chat log though, the same as if she’d spoken aloud to herself, except in this case no one else could hear her. At least as far as she knew.

Are you going to step up when we get into the thick of things again? Tessa knew she wasn’t going to get a response but as a sort of walking meditation, it seemed like a reasonable method getting her head in order.

I don’t know what we’re going to be facing, she said. I don’t know if whatever skills I get from you are up to handling anything more complex than the centipedes.

She thought back to the fights at the farm. They should have been terrifying. Centipedes as long as she was tall were both disgusting and vicersally disturbing. They were weak by comparison to other monsters, but they’d still hurt her, and for all that the pain of their attacks was diminished due to Pillowcase’s Clothwork body, being chewed on and slashed by monster was scary and more painful than anything she’d run into as an Earthling.

She burned to talk about her concerns with someone. Well, with Alice in particular. Rip and Matt were proving to be solid and dependable, but the last thing they needed was for Tessa to fill them with anxiety and second thoughts.

Alice probably could have handled it, Tessa guessed, but there too the question hung before her; was dumping a load of concerns on Alice really going to do her any good?

Tessa remembered going into a new dungeon as a healer many times. There were so many things which could kill an adventurer and new dungeons could blindside even the most skilled of healers. It wasn’t a great feeling knowing that your party was counting on you to save them and that in many cases you could but only if you saw problems developing soon enough to react to them, and in some cases you just weren’t fast enough.

There were deaths which every healer would agree were not their fault. The person who decided that lava was a great thing to stand on while fighting? Typically they deserved the burning death which awaited them. Those were in the minority on a decent team though. Most of the deaths on a decent team were ones where a healer could say “if only…”

The last thing Alice needs is me dumping my problems on her too, Tessa whispered to Pillowcase.

She knew what her role needed to be. She was the one who’d boldly declared that they should head for the dungeon. She was the inspiring one. The hopeful one. She was the voice of confidence, urging them onwards to dare something new. She was the one they could depend on.

Until she wasn’t. That was what worried her. She knew from too many unpleasant experiences, both in game and in real life, that merely having a positive attitude wasn’t enough. You could try to believe in yourself as much as you wanted and if you weren’t ready for what faced you, all the forward momentum you tried to create would just make it hurt worse when you fell flat on your face.

But that had to be her private pain to deal with.

Didn’t it? 

If she didn’t hide it away, if she revealed that she was the weak link in the group, she’d be sewing doubts and fears which the others shouldn’t have to carry for her. 

Better that their bravery, and calm, and peace not be sacrificed to deal with her anxiety.


I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m getting the jitters, Alice whispered to Tessa telepathically.

Alice had looked so calm and in control that her words were like a planetary collision, sending Tessa’s thoughts reeling off into entirely unforeseen orbits.

What part is bothering you? Tessa asked, her imagination pouncing on the idea that Alice had noticed how weak of a tank Tessa was and had grown rightfully concerned about Tessa making the kind of critical mistakes the party couldn’t recover from.

What would it take before they gave up on her, Tess wondered? Another total party kill? Or would they press on until one of the deaths turned permanent after a [Hound of Fate] caught one of them? Who would it be? Alice? That would be bad, but Rip or Matt would be even worse. 

It’s been a long time since I healed at low levels like this, Alice whispered. I don’t have any of the skills I’m used to, and these mobs are nuts. We beat the centipedes but they had abilities like a mob twenty levels higher would have. And they don’t attack in a set rhythm. They fight like real creatures. Probably because they are real now. I just…I just don’t know if I can keep you all safe like I’m supposed to.

Tessa’s thoughts went whirling so far beyond the grip of any gravitic hold she had on them that she let them fly free. 

I know what you mean, she said at last, letting honesty set them both free she hoped. I’m not enough of a tank. Not just my build, but me. Even with whatever combat daze Pillowcase give me that seems to carry me through these fights, I can feel all the mistakes I’m making. And there’s probably a ton more I’m not even aware of.

You’re doing just fine there, Alice said. Trust me, I’ve run with plenty of bad tanks, and you’re not one of them. I’m glad we fell in together.

Alice’s words were the ones Tessa should have been longing to hear, and they did fill her heart with a measure of joy but they didn’t magically banish the doubts from her head. 

Thanks. I think it’s a mark of how good a healer you are though that I haven’t made any terrible mistakes yet. I mean, I know you’re limited in what you can do, but your support has made everything so far so much easier. I’m glad to be with you too.

Tessa had been thinking of how Alice’s healing had kept the fights so much calmer than they might otherwise have been, but as she said the words she saw that they applied to far more than that. 

Having another player, one who was experienced and who was a contemporary rather than younger like Rip and Matt, or older like Aiemethia and Zibby? That had made a world of difference both to Tessa evaluation of their chance of success, and more importantly to her emotional well being. With Alice in her party, Tessa’s world felt a lot less scary. Tessa’s words said more than that though and as they echoed back to her, they sounded far more intimate than she’d intended them to be.

But not necessarily more than she meant.

Which was a problem.

Alice had a girlfriend already, and, however attractive both Alice the vampire character and Alice the human ghost might be, Tessa knew she was definitely not recovered enough from her own disaster of a dating life to be contemplating romance again. 

So what do we do? Alice asked, and for a moment Tessa felt like Alice had read her thoughts. Do we turn back? Or find something else to grind on for a while? Neither one of those feels right, does it?

Tessa breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever madness was playing around in the cotton balls that made up her brain, it hadn’t been apparent to Alice. That was perfect. Better to put those kind of thoughts off till later, and by later, never would fit the bill nicely.

No, turning back doesn’t feel right at all, she said. I think we need to do this dungeon. It’s probably the only way we’ll get over these jitters.

Yeah. Part of me knows that. Part of me thinks that part is out to get me killed though. Alice said.

Tessa repressed the urge to give Alice a hug. It was the mode of comfort she’d picked up from her friends, but among people in their mid-twenties things tended to work differently than for people in the early teens. Somehow even emoting a virtual hug seemed too intense with both of them walking so close together as they marched into the foothills of the mountains beyond the plain [Sky’s Edge] lay on.

Part of me agrees with both parts of you, Tessa said. And part of me still believes in what I said originally. We’re ready for this, and in the long run it’ll make us safer.

Well, more powerful at least, Alice said. I’m not sure if being able to go to the higher level zones and get mixed up in end game stuff eventually is going to be ‘safer’ exactly.

Safer than getting mixed up in it at level 1 anyways, Tessa said.

The [Wraithwing] attack had proven that the real [Fallen Kingdoms] they’d been plunged into did not care about playing fair when it came to setting up encounters. That line of thought led to a chilling end point though.

In theory the toughest monsters in the game were safely tucked away at the ends of the most remote dungeons in the game. In the game they were content to remain in their throne rooms, or atop their piles of loot. But what was stopping them from deciding to go for a stroll? Maybe stop by a the local tavern or the nearest walled city? Say with all of their minions from the dungeon in tow? 

Who, exactly, would be able to stop them if they decided to eat the aforementioned tavern or city? High level adventurers? Maybe. But what was the chance that there’d happen to be some nearby? Especially ones who were willing to fight and die over and over as typically happened when fighting a mega-boss in a new environment?

Worse, how many high level adventurers would be lost in a fight like that? [Heart Fire Braziers] weren’t indestructible, and a smart foe would make them a top priority, leaving dead adventurers with fewer options for escaping the jaws of the [Hounds of Fate].

We need to get to the level cap as fast as possible, Tessa said as grim scenario after scenario played out in her mind. Well, maybe not literally as fast as possible, she added, I’m still on board with the ‘no killing people’ rule.

Good, Alice said. I’m still a bit worried about what’s happening with your ‘Pillowcase’ personality. It sounds like the start of a disorder.

I get that, Tessa said. I guess I’m not worried because it doesn’t feel like I’m losing control. It’s not exactly deliberate either. More like when I need that side of myself, its there. Kind of like putting on a mask to be braver.

You said Pillowcase has different memories than your Earth life had though right?

Yeah, and they feel real too, Tessa said. I don’t know how to explain that. It might just be something I’m making up, like writing backstory for a character in an RPG as I need it.

It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing we’ve run into today if it turned out that they were real though, would it? Alice asked.

No, it wouldn’t. Probably wouldn’t even make it onto the Top Ten list for today.

So far they seem like a good thing, Alice said. Just keep an eye on it ok? Even if you’re able to keep a handle on your character, Matt might run into more trouble if its the kind of thing that can get out of control.

I would never get out of control. My whole purpose is to help keep things under control. It’s what a tank does, Pillowcase said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 1

As a programmer, Tessa had spent weeks ‘working the bugs’ out of a system before. Never before though had she used a sword and shield to do it.

“Oh god, was that the final wave of them?” Rip asked, panting with exhaustion. 

While their adventuring bodies were tougher than their Earthly ones, they did still have limits. Tessa saw Rip’s stamina was all but completely tapped out and the rest of the team wasn’t looking in great shape either.

“It was at least the last wave for now,” Alice said. “I’d say we’ve got about five minutes until the next respawn happens.”

“We could wait for them and keep grinding, but I think it’d be better to pull back at this point,” Tessa said. “We could use the rest and the chance to review the levels we’ve gotten.”

“Can we sort through the gear too?” Matt asked. “I think I saw a new staff drop off one of those last centipedes.”

With no one opposed, the group pulled back to an outcropping of rocks which looked to be a safe distance from the farm house. Matt and Rip collapsed against one of the rocks as soon as they could. Tessa didn’t blame them. The fights with the [Chaos Centipedes] weren’t difficult, not since they’d leveled up a few times, but going through so many of them in a row was taxing, especially for the two who had to do most of the work in putting down the monsters.

“That was crazy,” Rip said as they got the gear which had dropped from the monsters divided up. “How were there so many centipedes hiding under the farm house? It’s like they’ve got an army down there.”

“They probably do,” Alice said. “But a smaller one than it looks.”

“So we killed all of them then?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, several times over,” Tessa said. “Somewhere in those tunnels there’s a [Heart Fire] for the centipedes. You saw how they derezzed a while after they died? That’s what it looks like when someone uses a [Heart Fire] to reincarnate.”

“Wait, how can monsters use a [Heart Fire]? Don’t you need to be able to think to do that?” Rip asked.

“Not exactly,” Alice said. “All you need are the right instincts.”

“So does that mean there’s no way to make the farm house safe again?” Matt asked.

“In the game there wasn’t,” Tessa said. “No matter how long you grinded out the mobs in any given spot, they’d always come back.”

“Which is good for us, in a sense,” Alice said. “We made a decent amount of progress on those things without having to travel very far. We can head back to [Sky’s Edge] now and repair our gear.”

“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea,” Tessa said. “The armor pieces we’ve picked up for me are around half strength now.”

“Let’s get them fixed then before you’re wandering around naked.” Alice said.

“I thought they changed that?” Tessa said. In truth characters whose armor had been completely trashed never appeared in the nude. Broken Horizon’s rating wouldn’t allow that. Running a dungeon in a character’s underwear was not unheard of though, especially if it was new and things were not going well. Tessa thought there’d been talk about allowing the players to at least retrain the appearance of wearing armor though.

“They tried, but there was a bug that took off the model’s skin instead, so they rolled back that change and just never bothered trying it again,” Alice said with a shrug.

Tessa sighed. She knew she shouldn’t throw stones at other developers. They were working under ridiculous deadlines and had to deal with code that was probably some form of black boxed quagmire of “clever ideas” strung together by people who’d never met each other and shared a visceral distrust of their predecessors’ programming styles. To just give up on fixing something so trivial as letting character’s retain their armor though? That was a terrible sign for the stability of the overall codebase.

Why who knows what kind of catastrophe code that broken could lead to? Maybe it would randomly start eating users. But that was just impossible. Code could never do that. Tessa suppressed a laugh at her own train of though. It wasn’t a happy laugh. There was still a bit of hysteria lurking inside her it seemed.

“Where are we going to go after that?” Rip asked as they set off back to [Sky’s Edge].

“Not home,” Matt said, not sounding at all bothered by that fact.

“Huh, homes,” Alice said, her gaze going distant for a moment.

“We’ve got a few options,” Tessa said. “We could hang around [Sky’s Edge] for a while and see what’s happening with the other players. It might be good to collect what info we can from them, especially if any of them have spoken with a GM in the last hour or two.”

As best as Tessa could tell, it was close to sunrise in her original, Earthly timezone. In the [High Beyond] the sky was still the radiant and roiling rainbow masterpiece of cosmic wonder it had been, so local time was difficult to guess at. 

Given the state of [Sky’s Edge] when they arrived, Tessa judged that whatever the hour was, it was late. No one was moving in the town square, and the damage from the [Wraithwing] attack had been hastily patched up, suggesting that people had done what little they could and were getting their rest for the long day of repair and rebuilding which awaited them.

Well, most people. A few buildings still had lights shining in front of them or through their partially repaired windows.

“Doesn’t seem like there’s a lot happening here does it?” Rip said.

“Yeah, but Mister Pendant’s place is still open,” Matt said, pointing to the light over the shops front door.

“Good, he should be able to fix up our armor and weapons,” Alice said. “And buy the extras we have off of us.”

The pile of loot they’d collected from the hoard of [Chaos Centipedes] had indeed included a new staff for Matt. In fact it had included several, most of which were inferior to the last one which had dropped into their shared treasure pool. Since no one else used offensive staves, the best option generally was to convert them into money instead of allowing them to clog up valuable inventory space.

“We might as well do that with all the extra gear,” Tessa said. “Unless anyone wants to work on their crafting skills?”

“I wanted to try [Leatherworking],” Rip said. “I heard it was good for [Archers] to be able to make their own armor.”

“It can be a huge expense,” Tessa said. “Or at least it used to be. I think I remember reading that a couple of expansions ago they did a major overhaul on the crafting system and people seemed pretty happy with it. But most people were already at the max skill level weren’t they?”

“Some people were,” Alice said. “Most hadn’t bothered to work on a crafting skill at all though, since the old system was ridiculous and awful.”

“How did it work?” Matt asked.

“It used to be that you had to gather components from higher level zones than the final items you wanted to make,” Tessa said. “So to make level 10 boots, you’d need ingredients from a level 20 zone. And then once you had them it was random exactly what they would make.”

“Or if they’d make anything at all,” Alice said.

“So, wait, you’d like go to sew a sweater and wind up with a sock or something?” Rip asked.

“Not quite that bad, but there’d be several different types of sweater, basically junk, normal, good, better, and so on. Oh and it was possible for the sweater to just explode in your hands as you crafted it, destroying some or all of the ingredients,” Tessa said.

“The best part was that some quests wanted particular things, so if you made a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Awesomeness’, the quest giver wouldn’t accept it because they wanted a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Mediocrity’. You can see why a lot of people didn’t bother with crafting much.”

“What’s the new system like?” Rip asked, not bothering to hide her dubious expression at the old one.

“The new one has you working with ingredients the same level as the item you want to make,” Alice said. “If you develop a Gathering skill, you can find the components you need in the wild, or you can work just with the crafting skill itself and rework existing pieces of gear in order to skill up.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Matt said. “Why don’t we get started on that now?”

“In the game, we’d need to check in with the Crafting Guild for the skill we want to pursue,” Alice said. “They give you a primer on it and basic training to get you started.”

“I don’t see any Crafting Guilds around here?” Rip said.

“There’s not,” Alice said. “I checked for that earlier. It’s pretty typical though. The intro cities aren’t meant to be where you hang out long term, and the Crafting guilds are one of the draws to pull players on to the major hubs for each region.”

“So we’ve got to wait on that then?” Matt asked.

“I don’t know,” Tessa said. “That was the game. We can do more than our characters could already. Maybe we can develop skills on our own too.”

“Does anyone here know any crafting skills in real life?” Alice asked. “Sewing, knitting, metal working?”

“I know a bit about carpentry,” Matt said. “Rip does too.”

“Oh yeah, from the play last year,” Rip said.

“[Woodworking] wouldn’t be bad for either or both of you to work on,” Alice said. “Matt could combine it with [Enchanting] to make better staves for himself or improve on the ones we find, and Rip can do the same for her bows.”

“Improve on them?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t something crafters had been able to do six years ago.

“That was added in too,” Alice said. “I’ve skipped doing it because my guild have a bunch of crafting freaks who take care of it for the rest of us, but since they’re on the other side of the world, it might be nice if we can find the guilds to unlock the skill enhancements. They let you do things like take a bow you’ve found and improve the damage it does, or its accuracy. The modifications aren’t much but it’s better than nothing, and at max level they can make a big difference.”

“I wonder if that’s what a lot of the low level players could do,” Tessa said. “Rather than going out and risking death, they can stay back in town and just work on their crafting skills to support the high level players.”

“That would work fine, if there were any high level players around,” Alice said. “Maybe back in the older zones that’s what the GMs are recommending to people, but until we get there, it looks like everyone is in the same boat that we are.”

“And we don’t really know that sitting at home and crafting is actually safe in the long run,” Rip said. Her brows were knit into a worried furrow, which Tessa misread for only a moment.

It took an aggressive puff of air from Rip for Tessa to see that she wasn’t concerned about being safe, she was concerned that the conversation was trending towards the topic of leaving her and Matt behind. 

It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. Part of Tessa still rebelled at the idea of bringing children into the kind of horrifically violent peril they’d already been through. Even against some of the lowest level mobs, Pillowcase had been incapable of keeping her party completely protected. But, reflecting on the short time they’d been together, Tessa knew thinking in terms of keeping the kids safe was coming at it from the wrong direction. 

Rip and Matt weren’t safe.

They would never be safe.

Not even if they were whisked back to Earth and the lives they’d left behind that very moment. 

Safety wasn’t a thing you had. It was something you created. Hiding away, refusing to engage with the world was one method of doing that, and maybe sometimes it was the best, or even the only option, but given where they were and what they’d accomplished already, Tessa knew her team could do better. They could be better.

There were risks out there, and mistakes they all were surely going to make, but it was better by far to stand together and face them than to leave anyone behind.

“Repairs and crafting sound good,” Tessa said. “But what do you say we go and take on that dungeon that’s waiting for us.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 4

Interlude – Brendan Reingold

The fate of the world hung in the balance, the gates to the Outer Chaos had been flung open, and Brandon Reingold rose to the challenge by reading a comic book.

It wasn’t a even terribly good comic. He’d picked it up because he liked the characters but the writer was a talentless hack whose idea of drama was to kill someone messily ever other page. Brandon would have pitched the series except he knew the current team was being switched out for a writer and artist who’d done much better work and who tended to redeem even the terrible storylines the people before them came up with.

Over on his desktop, his character, Mellisandra, looked like she could use a comic book of her own. She’d been standing idly in her personal house for the last two hours. Brandon hadn’t noticed her fidget routine, but it had been looping for roughly an hour and fifty five minutes of that time. That was typical for characters who didn’t receive any input from their players. Broken Horizons had them perform little actions like tapping their feet or yawning to prevent them from looking like creepy lifeless automatons.

Mellisandra’s animations weren’t quite the normal ones anymore though. Instead of stretching occasionally, she had sat down on the floor into a cross legged pose and was pouring over a collection of spell books she’d accumulated in her travels.

At level 88, she was technically a high level character but in practice the gap between her and the actual top end of the player character power curve was far wider than the gap between her and a level 1 character. 

If Brandon had been playing her, she might have made some progress on closing that gap, but the GM he’d spoken with had been pretty clear on the need to both avoid combat encounters and to remain online. 

In theory, Mellisandra should have been left alone. It was late enough that dawn would destroy any chance at real sleep that Brandon had left. If it wasn’t his day off, he would have shut off his monitor hours ago rather than waiting fruitlessly for a notification from the GM staff that it was safe to shut down – or at least safe to go back to playing.

Brandon had been looking forward to the release of the World Shift expansion for months. Pulling an all-nighter seemed like a small price to pay for the chance to check out some of the new content early.

He knew he wasn’t going to get a “World’s First” or anything like that. He was a solo player primarily, so the raids in the new expansion weren’t anything he had a real hope of experiencing. He didn’t need those though. There was plenty of other content that came with each expansion. Content that might be considered too easy to brag about, but the story would still be cool. At least assuming the EE developers lived up to their past efforts.

Over on his desktop, Mellisandra had completed her spell review and was practicing some of her more advanced incantations. Not fully casting them of course. Her inn room only had so much space and filling it with fire would do no one any good. It was still a decent light show though.

Which was what attracted Brandon’s interest.

He stared for a few long minutes, watching the pyrotechnics in amazement. At first he was simply impressed by the depth and diversity of the new fidget animations. The farther Mellisandra went into her practice though the more clear it became that what she was doing wasn’t pre-scripted.

She was using the spells he’d selected for her. She was speaking dialog to herself. She was turning to stare at the computer screen.

“Brandon?” she asked, her face losing the generic expression it was usually animated with and taking on a confused look instead.

The comic dropped from Brandon’s hands.

She was real?

Interlude – The Pit Master

Nezzgrim had a simple life. In the [High Beyond] there were resources, and while his masters in the [Sunless Deeps] couldn’t ascend to the [High Beyond] in this age, they were still quite capable of creating servants who could. 

Some of the resources Nezzgrim had been tasked with collected were things like the [Magicrystals] which had long since been mined out of the lair he was overseeing. Magic was always useful, so long as it wasn’t tinged with the divine. Similarly the precious metals and gemstones in the [High Beyond]’s floating lands were quite useful to his masters’ ambitions. Mortals were both amazingly resistant to corruption and unbelievably willing to sell their principals for appallingly small amounts of wealth.

Which is what made them the best commodity of all.

As a [Pit Master], Nezzgrim was responsible for all of the wealth the motley force he’d been gifted with was able to assemble, but it was the tribute of mortals where he most often took a personal hand in the matter. He’d learned long ago that raising an army of supporters among the mortals was all well and good, but the outlay of effort and expense tended to make it a less than desirable avenue for pleasing his masters. It was far better, and far easier, to simply lure the expendable ones into environments where they could be safely captured, subdued, and then sent to the [Sunless Deeps] either alive or in bite sized chunks, depending on his mood and  the docket of orders he’d been given that week.

“A new party has entered the [Outer Crypts],” Slugzim said. Slugzim aspired to a role of [Chief Butler] serving under Nezzgrim and had taken on many of the duties involved without requesting a cut of the tributes as a more foolish servitor might have.

“Fascinating, Nezzgrim said. “I didn’t think we’d have another group so soon. Have the [Noxious Shamblers] regenerated from their last encounter yet?”

“No my lord,” Slugzim said. “They lie in ruin just inside the entrance.”

“And what is their projected recovery time?” Nezzgrim asked.

“They should possess the mana to reactivate within the next ten minutes,” Slugzim said. “They will await your orders for when to do so though.”

“Perfect. Let me see this new party then.”

A shimmering pool of red spun into the air between them and small figures appeared as the layout of the [Outer Crypts] rose around them.

The party was a larger one, with eight members, all clustered together for safety. Nezzgrim was familiar with their mindset. He’d watched too many earlier adventurers try to plumb the depth of his lair but watching this group brought new ideas bubbling into Nezzgrim’s mind.

“Order the zombies in the next corridor to remain inert for now,” he said, a new strategy unfolding in his thoughts.

The adventurers were surprised by this given how carefully they picked a path through the bodies littering the corridor ahead of them. 

“They’re coming up on the trapped door to the [Inner Crypt],” Slugzim said. “Should I engage the lock?”

“No, they’ve probably taken a key off of one of our earlier minions. Let’s alert the [Starborn Trolls] in the next room instead.”

“Should I have them attack now?” Slugzim asked. “They’ll be at a disadvantage fighting in the corridor.”

“Have one of them wait behind where the door will open,” Nezzgrim said. “Order it to slam the door shut the moment two of them are in the room. That is when the others will attack as well.”

“And the zombies too?” Slugzim asked.

“No, the zombies should animate just before the party reaches the door. I’ll give the signal.”

“And what about the traps?” slugzim asked. “If they go off they’ll damage the zombies as well.”

“Not if, when,” Nezzgrim said. “Order the zombie nearest the door to jump onto the pressure plate the moment someone approaches within five feet of them.:”

It was the an unfair sort of plan. Using the resources of several rooms against a single group was unreasonable, but it was exactly the kind of unreasonable which Nezzgrim felt confident would allow his to achieve his goal of collecting eight more treats for his masters.

It didn’t take long for his ideas to pan out. In the small projection, he watched a zombie surged to life as the party drew close to the door. Rather than attempting to devour them though, the zombie hit the pressure plate as commanded and scything blades slashed out across the corridor.

The result on the party was everything Nezzgrim could have hoped. The two in the lead raced to the door and found it open. The two in the back escaped the twirling blades with only minor injuries. The four caught inside the arcing blades screamed and tried to run as the swinging weapons cut deep into the health reserves.

The leaders raced into the room beyond, perhaps intending to hold the door for their friends, but they weren’t ready for the sheer force of a [Starborn Troll] slamming the door to block them in. They went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs as the rest of the trolls leapt on them, stripping away their weapons and binding them with scavenged ropes.

The ones outside the door didn’t fair any better.The four who’d been caught in the blades collapsed from their wounds and were collected by the zombies. The two who’d escaped the trap tried to fight the zombies, but in the face of the traps it was impossible, so they turned to flee.

Just not soon enough.

Nezzgrim saw one of the adventurer’s begging for their lives from the [Noxious Shambers] who had risen to cut off their escape. It was an odd image. The ones who made it into a dungeon like the crypts tended to made of sterner stuff.

Ah well, Nezzgrim thought, the wailing will just make them sweeter for my lords.

Interlude – The Nightmare Queen

Though she was master over all of the denizens of horror which stalked the [Fallen Kingdoms], the Nightmare Queen rarely received visitors.

True, an audience with her was the reward for a long and arduous quest line, but few saw that one through to its end, more was the pity. It wasn’t that she was lonely, her work was too consuming to allow her time for reflections like that, but some variety would have been appreciated.

At least on most days.

As dawn approached on a day like no other though, the Nightmare Queen was concerned and in no mood for new visitors.

Which was of course when they arrived.

“Hey,” a young woman said. Neither she nor her companion had been present in the Nightmare Queen’s  private study a moment earlier.

Except that they had been. Searching her memories, the Nightmare Queen discovered that they’d been announced and shown in with great deference but a complete lack of fanfare.

“Reality alteration?” she asked, knowing the answer as she did, her history rewriting itself to account as needed for the present circumstances. Probing the memories, they felt smooth and well aged. 

No one in the [Fallen Kingdoms] was supposed to have the power to overwrite her reality like that.

And yet the Nightmare Queen wasn’t afraid.

The lack of fear could have stemmed from the will of the one who changed reality on her, but the Nightmare Queen didn’t detect the incongruities an act like that might have left, or any compulsion to remain unafraid. The new arrival seemed to simply have no animosity towards her.

“You’ve got a bit of situation here  it looks like?” the other young woman said. She had chosen to be tall to contrast with the other’s shorter stature. And light of hair and feature to the other’s dark hair and eyes.

“Who are you?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“You guard the space between the real and the imaginary,” the first young woman, the dark haired one, said. “You know who we are.”

Her eyes drew the Nightmare Queen in, like a galaxy draws in planets and stars.

“My True Empress,” the Nightmare Queen breathed, awe feeling foreign for one such as herself.

“Yes, but not for the moment,” the young woman said. “For the moment we’re just travelers.”

“What has brought you here?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“You,” the light one said. “And what’s happening with you world.”

“We are under attack,” the Nightmare Queen said.

“By more than you know,” the dark one said.

“You can end the assault though,” the Nightmare Queen said. It wasn’t a guess, or even a request. The Nightmare Queen was to all intents and purposes a god above the gods of the Fallen Kingdoms and even she knew there were beings you did not make requests of.

“I don’t think we need to,” the dark one said.

“There’s more happening here than you know,” the light one said. “Other worlds effected and other forces at work.”

“What will you do then?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“Travel,” the light one said.

“We’ll walk in your world, bound by its limits, changing no more than anyone else might change there,” the dark one said.

“Why?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“So that we can understand it,” the light one said.

“We don’t want to destroy your world,” the dark one said, “but that might be what needs to happen.”

The Nightmare Queen knew down to the last joule of her power that her guests were not making idle threats and if they chose to erase what was, there was nothing she nor anyone else could do to stop them.

“How can we be spared?” she asked.

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” the light one said. “Wish us luck.”

Broken Horizons – Vol2, Interludes 3

Interlude – Cambrell

Most people in the Fallen Kingdoms expected goblins have names like “Rot Teeth” or “Gunk Nose”. That was because most people were not goblins.

Cambrell hurried down the rain soaked streets of [Thaldinforge] wishing he was not a goblin either. At least not for the next thirty to sixty minutes. 

[Thaldinforge] was not a goblin city. There were only a few of those. It was not a city which was friendly to goblins either. There were several of those but no where close to a significant percentage. It was, in fact, a city where being a goblin was punishable by immediate execution.

Cambrell hated working in cities where murdering him on sight was both allowed and encouraged but sometimes that was where the work was and so that was where he had to go.

Technically, Cambrell was an [Assassin], a role which cast him inline with every superstition people had about goblins. Possessing the skills required to be an assassin however did not mean that one was necessarily a killer for hire. Cambrell, for example, more often served as a covert body guard. Unsurprisingly perhaps, that role tended to involve substantially more killing than a straight forward assassination job.

As he hurried down a back alley behind a cargo holding building, Cambrell took stock of his remaining weapons; two poisoned daggers, a blowgun with half a dozen poisoned needles, and a clerical holy symbol infused with one, and only one, charge of divine radiance.

The last had been a special gift, and one he knew he had to reserve for his target.

“Ha! Try to stay dry kid!” a man called out from a rear loading door as Cambrell ran by. The man sounded delighted that a “kid” was suffering in the weather. Cambrell was tempted to run back and stab him on general principal, but forced himself to remain focused instead. Humans were the worst. They made it a point to slaughter goblins as often as they slaughtered themselves, but when it came time to talk peace, they always believed that they had the moral high ground. 

That wasn’t why Cambrell had become an [Assassin] but it did make some jobs easier. 

Not this one unfortunately though.

This time he was helping the evil human monsters by protecting their evil human city from an even worse monster.

Down in the depths of [Thaldinforge] there had been a plague of [Night Hungers] which grew with every victim they took. [Night Hungers] being somewhere between zombies and proper vampires meant that creating new ones was terrible easy and could end a town the size of Thaldinforge rather quickly.

Unless, of course, someone stepped in and slew the entire plague of them for the ungrateful humans who lived above the [Night Hungers] lair. Someone who didn’t want to see [Thaldinforge] have a reason to mobilize its armed forces, since those armed forces would not succeed in discovering why townsfolk by the dozen had gone missing, but would pay a visit to the nearby goblin villages and begin killing “the greenies” because “you might as well be sure it wasn’t them”.

Cambrell’s only problem as he cut over to another alley and began hoisting himself up a drain pipe was that having begun the job, he couldn’t leave it half finished. Wiping out the [Night Hungers] was all well and good. They were mindless husks driven only to consume. Easy pickings for someone as experienced as he was.

Their creator on the other hand though? He was problematic on a number of points.

First, as a [Plague Vampire], he could replace his loses far too easily. If Cambrell didn’t stop him, the vampire would have his lair repopulated within the week.

That would have been easier to achieve if the vampire wasn’t also the senior member of the [Thaldinforge] Executive Council though. Assassinating a vampire wasn’t impossible, especially not when armed with an item with divine radiance. Assassinating an Executive Council member wasn’t impossible either. Humans were generally predictable in their habits, which was an [Assassin]’s best weapon. The real difficulty lay in taking out a hard and important target without implicating any of the nearby goblin cities and undoing all of the benefit his work on the [Night Hungers] was intended to produce.

Fortunately, Cambrell had a plan for that!

Tensions within [Thaldinforge] had been running high since well before the disappearances had begun to occur. The [Executive Councilor]/[Vampire], Exarian Dreslun, had to die before the morning came, and his remains had to be discovered so that people would understand that the threat to their city had come from within and not from their goblin neighbors. His death though did not have to be attributed to a daring and skilled goblin. Not when it could instead be place at the feet of one of Dreslun’s fellow Executive Council members, all of whom would be delighted with his removal from the world.

Cambrell had already done the hard part of that work, infiltrating the house of the council member his intel indicated had suggested had the best ratio of animosity for Deslun and personal resources to arrange the vampire’s destruction.

Leaving one borrowed dagger at the scene would cast suspicion away from the goblins, and leave the whole mess as resolved as it was going to get, since humans never called their own rich and powerful to task for their misdeeds.

At the top of the drain pipe, Cambrell stopped and surveyed his surroundings. The multi-story house where Dreslun was staying as part of his masquerade of being human was within magically-assisted leaping distance. 

That was good. It would make tracking how he arrived and where he went afterwards more difficult, which would in turn give him a better chance of escaping the city before he stumbled on someone who would try to stab him.

With the cloud cover and the pouring rain, visibility was terrible. That was good too, not only because it made hiding easier but because it kept the streets open and free from witnesses.

Except for the ones who were huddled together on the rooftop.

That was bad.

“What is a kid doing up here?” one of the forms covered in a shapeless cloak asked another.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” the other said. [Human] male. Big. [Warrior]. Armed. Armored. Skilled. More Skilled than Cambrell.

Those were the details Cambrell noticed, with the last observation raising his eyebrows.

They were adventurers. 

They had to be. No one else developed as much skill as Cambrell had. Cambrell revised his earlier assessment. The situation wasn’t bad. It was horrible. Basically as bad as things could get. He was dead. Probably.

On the plus side, it wouldn’t take long. 

Well, the run to the nearest goblin accessible [Heart Fire] would take a while. 

“Ask him what he needs,” a third figure said.

There were five of them, which was four more than they needed to send Cambrell to the [Dead Lands] and five more than he wanted to deal with.

“Ask him where we are?” a fourth figure asked. [Elf]. Female. [Archer]. Top tier weapons. More dangerous than the [Warrior]. 

Cambrell translated those observations into a simple conclusion; he couldn’t fight them and he couldn’t run. 

He was definitely, one hundred percent, dead.

Except, he didn’t feel mathematically crushing despair grip him. By every statistic he could think of, a fight was inevitable, and he simply could not win. He couldn’t even take one of them out with him. 

But he didn’t have to.

Something had happened, something Cambrell couldn’t identify. The version of him from a day ago would have thrown himself into battle for no better reason than even inflicting a scratch was better than dying without putting up a struggle. Those limited options still crowded his thinking but, in the moment of mortal peril the presence of high level adventurers always heralded for goblins, Cambrell found new paths opening before him.

“I’m sorry Sirs,” he said, trying his best approximation of a high pitched human child’s voice. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll just go now.”

Why fight or run when he could just leave? It was so simple but it left his mind swimming. They hadn’t identified him as a threat and there was no reason for them ever to do so. Cambrell would simply find a different route to the vampire’s house and avoid encountering adventurer’s entirely!

“Wait!” the Archer said. “I’m sorry, but could you tell us where we are?”

Cambrell waited for the snappy one-liner indicating they were only playing with him. It would inevitably be followed by the gratuitously overpowered attack, but neither came.

“You’re on the roof of the [Melgin Dairy Depot],” Cambrell said, beginning to pick up on the profound confusion the party before him was gripped by.

How could anyone, even someone as fundamentally dim and clueless as a human not know where they were? 

For that matter why were they standing on a rooftop in the pouring rain? Cambrell hadn’t tried to offer an explanation for his presence because there weren’t any he could think of which sounded even slightly plausible. 

No one should be up in here, in this weather. So why are they? He wondered.

“The [Melgin Dairy Depot]?” the Warrior said. “In [Thaldinforge]? In the [Fallen Kingdoms]?”

His questions grew more soaked with disbelief as he uttered them.

“Dude, how are you doing that with your voice?” a male human, the first speaker asked. Wizard. Top tier gear. Powerful wards active. Most fragile member of the party. Priority kill target. 

Cambrell dismissed all of those observations, clearing his mind to put on a better show of being non-hostile. True, they couldn’t see him well at all, but adventurers had all sorts of unexpected abilities and Cambrell had no interest in triggering any [Danger Senses] or [Psychic Alarms]. 

“Doing what with my voice?” the Warrior asked.

“That [Thaldinforge] thing,” the Wizard said. “Oh my god. I did it too. [Thaldinforge]. [Melgin Dairy Depot]. [Fallen Kingdoms]. Oh that is so weird!”

Cambrell was lost. It sounded like the adventurers were discovering basic speech, which given humans’ generally low intelligence would have made for a good joke but under the circumstances seemed less than plausible.

“We can’t really be here though? Can we?” the Archer asked.

One of the ones who hadn’t spoke began hyper-ventilating and uttering the sort of nonsense noises that suggested their mind had snapped. 

Cambrell really wanted to leave. He turned to leave again, but, of course, the adventurers noticed the movement.

“No wait! Please! Stay!” the Warrior said. “I know it’s raining a lot, but, um, we can pay you?”

The urge to leap over the side of the building was only held in place by the certain knowledge that the [Archer] could make her arrows follow practically anything.

“Ok,” Cambrell said. “For what though?”

“We, uh, we need a guide,” the Warrior said, the uncertainty in his voice painting a clear picture of his sincerity. 

Cambrell shook his head. Nothing about them made sense, and now they were offering him money to get involved in their madness? Adventurers were renowned for being wealthy – at least the very experienced ones – but there was literally no amount of gold in the world, including all of it, which could tempt Cambrell to remain on the roof and risk discovery for a minute longer.

“I’m supposed to get back to my family,” he said, casting around for the kind of excuse a human child might use when confronted by a handful of strangers in an equally strange situation.

“Oh, yeah,” the Warrior said, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

The Elf nodded in agreement but paused in mid-nod as her cursedly sharp eyes caught the glimpse of him which Cambrell had dearly wished to avoid.

“And where would that family be?” she asked and lest he try to prevaricate further added, “Goblin.”

It was Cambrell’s turn to drop his shoulders in defeat. The run back to the [Heart Fire] was going to suck.

“Does it matter?” he asked and turned to look the [Archer] in the eyes so she could at least see the weariness that filled him at the thought of what was to come.

“Holy…What…That’s a Goblin!” the Warrior said.

“They can talk!?” the Wizard said.

“I can dance, pay taxes, and cook a halfway decent steak too,” Cambrell said for no other reason than educating the ignorant gave him a fleeting sense of superiority.

“Oh My God! It’s a People!’ the Wizard said, in what Cambrell was reasonably certain was grammatically incorrect on a number of levels.

“He, unless I miss my guess?” the Archer said. “And why wouldn’t he be? Goblin’s are a playable race too.”

Cambrell blinked. Goblins were a what now?

“Ok, ok, ok,” the Warrior said, struggling to grapple his wits back under control. “He’s a person. [Thaldinforge] isn’t a Goblin town though.”

Cambrell saw the other shoe beginning to drop as the obvious questions arose in their mind. He expected said shoe to squash him like a bug, but it landed on an altogether unexpected thought instead.

“Yeah, it’s not a goblin town, which means if he’s here, he must know his way around it pretty well,” the Archer said. “So I’m thinking he’s perfect for a local guide. Uh, if you’re willing to help us, Mr…?”

The [Archer] was smiling. So was the [Warrior]. So were all the rest of them. They were happy to meet a goblin on a dark and stormy night.

That along should have been enough warning to send Cambrell running for the edges of town, [Perfect Seeking Arrows] be damned, but the thing about madness is that it’s highly contagious in the right circumstances, and Cambrell really hated long runs in the [Dead Lands]. 

So he smiled back.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 2

Interlude – Niminay

The world was falling apart, but in Niminay’s experience that was it natural state.

“We’re seeing incursions in the [Pelgrathi Highlands] that are hitting at the same time as the Consortium is sending strikes against  the [Aquanoids] and the [Rishell Silvermines],” General Aurelite said, as she pushed a series of force markers across the map in the tactical planning room.

Niminay half listened. She’d been the one to deliver two thirds of the intel which Aurelite was working from and as the highest level person in the room she knew she was going to draw the short straw on sorting out whichever problem area was deemed the worst by the collective wisdom of the [Strategists] and [Generals].

“I can see why they’d attack the silver mines, but what do the Aquanoids have that’s worth assaulting them for?” Prince Brandoth asked.

He wasn’t dim, but given the company assembled to wrestle with the problem of the [Consortium of Pain], he looked duller by comparison than usual.

“The Aquanoids don’t build cities, or collect wealth,” Strategist Penswell said, adjusting her glasses as she studied the newest intrusions in light of the previous ones. “A raid on them wouldn’t be predicated on obtaining resources.”

“And yet they attacked both the Highlands and the Silvermines, which are resource rich areas,” General Aurelite said. “Different factions within the same organization perhaps?”

“That would explain why they’re striking so far apart, right?” Brandoth asked. “I mean the highlands are a thousand miles or more from the silver mines.”

“The distance doesn’t matter to them,” Penswell said. 

Niminay could see Penny was ticking through some evaluation and only had perhaps ten percent of her attention to spare for answering questions. Feeling charitable, Niminay decided to help her friend out.

“Their [Breacher Ships] are world jumpers,” she said. “That they can get here at all means they can land anywhere on the world they want, at any time they want.”

“But that means we’re in danger everywhere,” Brandoth said.

Give the boy a cookie, Niminay thought, with perhaps a little less charity that she should have felt.

“That’s on the first page of my report, in the first paragraph,” Niminay said. “It’s why we have to treat this as a global crisis. Not one which any single Kingdom can be expected to manage on its own.”

“And would it be so bad to leave the unworthy nations to fall before the invaders might?” General Nalunker asked. “It could clear up a few long standing problems we’ve had.”

He was speaking of the Goblin city of Toothache. Everyone knew what he meant too. The goblins had arisen to power only a few years ago. In that short time though, they’d tried to over turn the delicate balance of power between every nation around them. 

Niminay could see the temptation flickering in the Generals’ eyes. Allowing the Consortium to eliminate the goblins without any of the Fallen Kingdoms needing to extend themselves could allow the old status quo to return. No more goblin meant the old borderlines would be respected. It meant the dangerous inter-kingdom squabbling could be replaced with a chance to solidify their hold on territories which had grown unruly despite being nowhere near the goblin’s lands. It meant  they could get off the field of battle for a season and just enjoy themselves.

They were idiots. Excepting of course Penny, and Penny wouldn’t have called the others that. She was far more diplomatic. Niminay had been too, but then what felt like several lifetimes worth of calamities had come and gone and rub away all the awe and instinctive respect she’d had for people in high places. 

It was hard to be impressed by Kings and Generals when you’d spoken with literal gods. Harder still when you’d had to beat those same gods back into the underworld where they belonged. Niminay smiled. Those were good times. Good times.

“Yes, it would be fine to allow the Consortium to scour own world clean,” Penswell said. “There’s just the small problem that they’re not locusts. They have a plan, and allowing them any victories means allowing them to advance their plans.”

“And if their plans are to run us to the far corners of the world so we’re too spread out to resist their main attack?” General Nalunker asked. 

“Then we should respond accordingly,” Penswell said. She reached over and took the stick from Aurelite, pushing pieces from where they were to new locations on the map.

“If we keep our army together, can’t we just beat them again, like when they showed up the first time?” Brandoth asked.

Niminay had been a part of that battle, the first major encounter with the Consortium’s forces. It hadn’t been pretty, or easy, and if it hadn’t been for some truly astounding diplomacy to bring together an almost unprecedented alliance, she was reasonably certain the forces of the Fallen Kingdoms wouldn’t have seen the next dawn. 

The stronger adventurer’s would have escaped of course, respawning and fleeing outwards as the Consortium established beachhold. That would have been a massive problem for the Consortium but being able to get revenge for a destroyed village is a far, far lesser thing than being able to protect it.

“The army is no longer assembled,” Penswell said, as the door to the tactical room opened to admit a new participant. “We lost some of its strongest units immediately following the battle, and the adventurers who came when we called for aid are not at all guaranteed to aid us again.”

“They may not, but there are still plenty of us who will,” Glimmerglass said.

“I thought you adventurers tended to rest and recover your ‘Inspiration’ for fighting for months after battle’s like that?” General Nalunker said.

“Usually yeah,” Glimmerglass said. “Something’s changed though. I don’t feel the touch of the divine we normally feel, but I am ready to fight.” She went to the window of the tactical room and opened the shutters to reveal the courtyard which was already thronging with the brightly decorated, motley armor of a dozen adventuring companies. “And so are a lot of others.”

Interlude – Zibby

In the valley below, two young boys were running for their lives. They were supposed to be adventurers. Brave. Strong. Powerful.

But this was also supposed to only be a game. 

This wasn’t supposed to be a scenario where monster could actually eat you. 

The [Rust Raptor] which pursued them hadn’t been given that memo though, or, at fifteen feet tall, armed with a mouth full of serrated metal death, it had simply eaten the memo bearer too.

“They’re going to be below us in about ten seconds, are you ready for this?” Aiemethia asked. He had his weapons ready, but was doing his best to only glance over the edge of the long fall occasionally.

“I have to be,” Zibby said. No way was a child being hurt on her watch.

Their plan wasn’t a complex one. When faced with a fifteen foot tall robo-dinosaur, the best idea, usually, was ‘run’. The kids were trying that though and it wasn’t working since the [Rust Raptor] could run at least twice as fast as they could. That left them with the next best option; smack the monster hard enough that it stopped trying to eat the kids.

Zibby would have had a hard time imagining herself jumping onto the back of a dinosaur, robotic or otherwise, with the intent to kill the thing if possible, but as the moment approached a fire she’d carried inside all her life lit up and made it so simple.

The kids running and screaming in terror could have been her kids, but they didn’t have to be. She would have protected them because, despite the adventurers’ bodies they wore, they were scared, and small, and they needed her. 

“Here we go,” Aiemethia said, leaping off the cliff despite the terror the heights certainly gripped him with.

Zibby felt anger fill her. Not wild and uncontrolled. Not when she had a purpose and a use for it. At other times, it felt like a burning brand, one she didn’t want to wield but couldn’t let go of. Facing down a monster though, it was just the tool she needed.

Aiemethia’s fall was cushioned, to a certain extent, but landing on the robo-raptor’s head and slamming his sword through its neck. On any fleshly creature it would have been a mortal wound but the [Rust Raptor] ran on different systems than a purely organic dinosaur.

Zibby landed directly on its back therefor and plunged her staff into the glowing power module affixed to its side. Even as a low level, mostly protection based, caster, she had a few offensive spells.

And, as a [Mathemagician], she could do all sorts of basic mathematical things with her spells.

“[Force Multiplication][Combinatorial Strike],” she said, outer calm masking the focused rush of channeling almost all of her magic into the single strike.

The [Rust Raptor] exploded.

Picking herself up from the scraps of its remains, she dusted off her robes and turned to the children were were staring back at her, speechless.

Some days were tougher than others, but then some were still pretty good too.

Interlude – Kevin McConnel / Roadkiller

Waiting for the raids to come back online made for a boring night, even if it was Kevin’s last one.

He didn’t know it was his last of course. Sitting in his dorm room, the last thing Kevin McConnel could imagine was that his time could be counted in minutes rather than years or decades.

“Hey, I just heard somebody else say they gotten drawn into the game,” Teddy Jacobs said. Teddy was the raid’s main healer, and while the raid was a no-go because EE had shutdown the zones for some reason, everyone who’d signed up was still hanging out in Discord chatting and waiting for a notice that it was safe to log off.

Kevin didn’t have classes in the morning, only suckers and nerds took early morning classes, so staying up till the stupid hours of the morning wasn’t a problem, but he’d been jazzed to shoot for “World’s First” on at least one of the raids tonight.

His team wouldn’t get it. He knew that before he logged in. They were fine, but kind of losers too. None of them were as good as he was. He basically carried their worthless butts through all the other content they’d done, and in return they didn’t complain much when he snagged the loot he needed first.

“That can’t be real,” he said. “It’s some bored little whiner babies who want attention because we’re all stuck here.”

“I don’t know,” Teddy said. “The people at the tavern I’m in are talking in the local chat channel. They’re passing on things from a Game Master.”

“Can you see the Game Master?” Kevin asked, knowing the answer and wondering how stupid Teddy could be.

“No, they already left,” Teddy said. “But everyone here says there was a GM here about ten minutes ago, so we just missed them.”

“Yeah, right, how would that even be possible?” Kevin asked, but a part of him started to entertain the idea.

It was ridiculous of course. The kind of thing a two year old would come up with. 

But it would be cool.

“They said it happens if you try to logoff, or if your character dies in the game. That’s why the zones are closed and they’re keeping us online.”

There were at least ten million reasons that were more realistic and likely but Kevin was intrigued by the idea anyways.

“So why don’t we just do it then?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Log off,” Kevin said. “See if it happens.”

“Uh, cause then we’d be stuck as our characters?” Teddy said.

“Like that wouldn’t be sick? Come on, we’d be so badass. It would be awesome! What could be bad about it?”

“Dude, think about this place,” Teddy said. “Do you really want a dragon to rip you to pieces and then roast those pieces to ash? Cause we’ve seen that happen in cutscenes.”

“Pff, that’s not gonna happen. Come on, let’s do it.”

“No way man. Even if they’re wrong, what if it scrambles our hard drives. Or worse, deletes our characters?”

“That’s stupid. They’d just roll everything back then. Come on. I’m gonna do it.”

“Don’t! Dude. Don’t do it. If you wreck your account, it’s gonna take forever for someone to gear up another tank for us.”

“Too late man. I’m doing it.” Kevin said and clicked the ‘Logout’ button.

The usual countdown began and Kevin felt a little thrill tingle across his fingers. He knew nothing was going to happen, but it was fun to imagine.

“Wait. Dude. If you get sucked in, what do we tell people?” Teddy asked.

“Tell ‘em to make a character and come join us,” Kevin said. “This is going to be awesome.”

The logout countdown hit zero and for a moment, just as he expected, nothing happened.

Then the world and his body dissolved.

When things started making sense again, Kevin saw that nothing made sense.

He was in the [Dead Lands]. In the [Fallen Kingdoms]. As himself.

That didn’t matter though. He’d just go over to the chapel and respawn as Roadkiller and then start going to town on everything.

Behind him, he heard a howl that was absolutely not from a dog, and not from a wolf.

They might have been called the [Hounds of Fate] but the last thing Kevin thought before his story ended was that they were something he should never have met.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 1

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

Some days seem like they’re never going to end, and Hailey was beginning to doubt if this one possibly could.

“Do we have anything yet on the team that went into Elberth’s Crypts?” Marcus called out over the din of the support center. The answer was ‘no’ but Hailey wasn’t going to be the one to say it. Not when she had fifty two other groups that she was responsible for monitoring.

When she’d taken the job on the Broken Horizon’s support team, Hailey had thought she was carving an “in” for herself to her dream career. After years of playing the game, being part of the team behind the scenes had seemed like it would be heavenly. Those dreams had been smashed pretty thoroughly by the reality of being in customer service though, and from the glimpses she got of the working conditions the development team labored under.

None of that however had prepared her for how much worse being on the front lines of a disaster management team the likes of which no one had ever foreseen, much less planned for, would be.

“We’re still getting heavy pings on the help queue,” Elizabeth Banner, Hailey’s workstation mate, said. 

The support team – or “Game Masters” as they were referred to by the players – were situated in a large ‘open office’ plan, where workstations were clustered together in pods of three stations per large cube. In theory it was to allow them to work together better, bouncing questions off each other in they ran into unusual problems or troublesome players. In practice it meant a complete lack of privacy and more unfiltered noise than was at all necessary. The only bright side to it was that most GM-to-player interactions were done through the in-game chat system or via email so there wasn’t a constant stream of chatter or crosstalk. 

“New players or repeats?” Marcus asked. Even with the request turned off, the system was still monitoring who tried to access the request for help function, and Marcus was trying to use the numbers to work out how many people were in true distress.

“Half and half,” Elizabeth said, as she typed an answer frantically back to one of the team’s she was assigned to manage. Meaning at least half the people trying to call for help knew there was no one listening but were desperate enough to try anyways. 

Hailey could parse that data with no problem. 

They were doomed.

Typically the vast majority, 99% or better, of players had no interaction with the support team, and even when support was requested the interactions were usually brief. Egress Entertainment had developed their staffing plan around that reality, employing just enough low paid support reps to make sure that the workload wouldn’t yield too many customers lost to dissatisfaction. It wasn’t a practice peculiar to the Broken Horizons team, paying for support staff was something few businesses enjoyed doing, and to EE’s credit, they did keep enough people online around the clock every day of the year that support request from players were answered in no more than a couple of minutes typically. 

Unfortunately, that level of capacity was orders of magnitude below what was required when every player who was logged into the game needed detailed and elaborate help at once.

Not that Hailey, Marcus, or anyone else was really able to help them.

If Hailey hadn’t seen her coworker Asad vanish right in front of her, believing that the same thing was happening to tens of thousands of people around the world might have been impossible.

Or it might not have been. Weird calls could always be part of some prank, but weird calls from everyone in the game? If it was a prank, it was one with enough player cooperation that even real magic would have a hard time pulling off.

More than that though, there was Glimmerglass. Or Tessa. Hailey didn’t think of herself as “Burnt Toast” primarily, but it was hard not to think of her online friends as their main characters, even when she knew their real names.

Assuming Tessa still considers me a friend, Hailey thought. They’d drifted apart after their guild split up, and Tessa had dropped out entirely a little while after that, but Hailey still remembered her fondly. Glimmerglass had always been so damn positive. More often than not, Glimmerglass had been the one patch things up when an encounter went pear shaped, taking each party wipe in stride, offering ideas on what they could try next, or even just sharing encouragement or groans at the unfairness of what was before them. Whatever it took to keep people going, Glimmerglass was usually the one you could count on to see it get done.

In any other circumstance, Hailey would have been so glad to see Glimmerglass log in, even if she hadn’t been able to reach out to her. Just to know that Tessa was doing ok, would have given Hailey a warm little glow in her heart.

Instead, she’d been praying that her manually hacked together search query for her old guildmates would turn up empty and, of course, it hadn’t.

The one day Glimmerglass could have chosen to come back and it had to be the one when the world turned into the Twilight Zone. Hailey wanted to blame her for it all, but after talking with her, Hailey could see it had come as too much of a surprise to all of them for that to be true.

Not that that made it any easier. The conversation they’d had still tugged at Hailey’s heart. She’d promised to be there for Tessa, to keep her in the loop but against the tide of calls the support team had to handle, there just wasn’t time.

Hailey’s desk was proof of that. She had ten screens open, with chat clients in each so that she could communicate to the players who were “Most in Danger” based on their levels and location. She’d managed to talk a dozen of her fifty-two assignments back to safe locations already but everyone had so many questions before they were willing to comply with direct and simple instructions that Hailey was tempted to let them suffer the fates they were so aggressively courting.

Except that wasn’t fair and she knew it. No one could reasonably expect a game like Broken Horizons to suddenly become a matter of life and death, and spending a little time talking each group through what they knew was a small price if it meant some of them could be saved. 

And Hailey had to save them. It was the only way to make up for not thinking of Tessa when there was still time to warn her. 

Well, almost the only way.

Hailey’s finger hovered over her mouse button as her cursor waited on the Broken Horizons icon on her desktop. 

She’d taken “*GM Burnt Toast*” as her handle when she joined the support staff in part so that old friends might recognize her, but that didn’t mean she’d given up her original account.

Waiting just a click away was her other self. As a Game Master, she was limited in what she could do within Broken Horizons, especially with her admin privileges locked out, but if she logged in as the original “Burnt Toast”? What might she accomplish then?

Interlude – Azma

Azma sensed the shift by noting the clarity in her thoughts. The world had changed and that wasn’t often a good sign. Worse, it appeared she’d changed with it.

“Well, isn’t this tiresome,” she sighed. The wine she was swirling in her glass held an aroma which spoke of the clear, bright fields where it had been grown, harvested, and subsequently stolen from. 

A moment earlier, it had simply been wine. No expressive bouquet, no noteworthy history, just a glass of red to go with an otherwise unremarkable meal. Between one tick of the clock and the next though, her meal had become a dinner of fine cuisine.

She didn’t mind the dinner, good food was always a delight, but its presence did suggest certain alterations which were typically problematic.

“Sir!” Ensign Three-Three came to attention as he entered her room. Exactly according to protocol. Just as he was configured to act.

“Go on,” Azma said. She could have made him wait till she was done eating. As a [Commander] in the [Consortium of Pain]’s primary acquisition wing, Azma was given a fairly wide latitude in how she carried out the objectives assigned to her, and how she managed to resources which had been placed under her.

Waiting for bad news rarely made it better though, and while many [Commanders] would have been inclined to take out any irritation at having their repast interrupted on the poor messenger assigned to do so, Azma saw little value in that. 

There were so many better methods of relieving irritation than penalizing one’s own crew. Better to save the punishments for when they were deserved so as to retain their value in training and indoctrination.

“We have crossed into an uncharted Arcanosphere around the planet,” Ensign Three Three said. “Navigation wanted you informed that it appears to stretch half a local astronomical unit around the planet, and that readings indicate a second, richer Arcanosphere lies ahead at 0.005 AUs from the planet.”

Arcanosphere’s were a typical problem the Consortium faced when opening new worlds. It was why worlds such as her objective, “The Fallen Kingdoms”, were considered so valuable. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy was a prize. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy and no inherent defenses for those reserves was a prize to be claimed with the greatest of urgency.

Which was why the Consortium had sent Azma. 

The initial effort to open the world had been botched by that idiot Gernal, proving once again that nepotism could raise any fool to a position they didn’t deserve. 

Azma would make no claim that nepotism hadn’t raised her to a position she didn’t deserve, her only correction to any such claim would be that in her case nepotism had placed her in a position far beneath her true talents. More than one would-be-contender for her position had perished trying to prove that assertion incorrect, which was quite a bother. If any of the fools could manage to show they were worthy of the role she held, her superiors might finally be willing to elevate her to a more appropriate rank.

They wouldn’t of course. If she ever rose in rank again, she would devour the next person above her, and then continue rising. Everyone involved knew it, but it was still polite to adhere to the fiction that she had simply more time in service to log before being worthy of a promotion.

“Take a command to the Communications team,” Azma said. “Go through Gernal’s sealed communiques. I suspect this is something new, but if it’s not even a simpleton like Gernal should have been able to notice two Arcanosphere’s which weren’t supposed to be here.”

“Yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said and turned to leave.

“One moment,” Azma said. “Did the navigation team say which sort of Arcanosphere’s we’re looking at?”

The [Mystic Barriers] world’s erected where like additional laws of physics which prevailed within their spheres of influence. Each one was unique in theory, but in practice there was a great deal of similarity to be found.

“Oh, yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said. “The Arcanosphere we’re in now is an Incarnation sphere and the one closer to the planet is a Twinned sphere.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Azma said, and frowned.

“Is that bad sir?” Ensign Three Three asked, breaking protocol in the process.

“I’m no expert on Arcanosphere dynamics,” Azma said, which was technically true. Experts were official trained, or constructed with their knowledge. Azma had picked hers up on her own. She preferred learning from the unredacted sources the Consortium didn’t typically allow people to see. Those tended to be more accurate, especially when one occasionally needed to do things one’s superiors might disagree with. “The Incarnation sphere is fairly common. Many planets with mystical potential will raise a sphere in that family. It makes their laws more ‘real’ for lack of a better term.”

“Will that be a problem?” Ensign Three Three asked. He should have left to deliver the message already but Azma found thinking aloud helpful and so she didn’t shoe him away.

“Not particularly,” she said. “It means the defenders of these ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ will be able to fight us on the fields they know, and we’ll have to adapt to the limitations of their reality. For a disappointment like Gernal, that would present a serious hurdle to overcome but any decent Consortium [Commander] should be adaptable enough to adjust to the demands of a foreign battlefield.”

To his credit Ensign Three Three didn’t ask Azma if she fell into the latter category. If anything, she guessed he was curious how far beyond ‘decent’ she was. She had no interest in demonstrating her full capabilities but she knew a small taste via an easy victory or two should bolster the crew’s already solid morale and loyalty.

“What about the Twinned sphere?” Ensign Three Three asked instead.

“That’s a fascinating one,” Azma said. “Very rare. It says that our target is linked to another world, and they’re sharing resources.”

“So we might have to beat two world rather than one?” Ensign Three Three asked.

“Open. The term we use is open. It means the same thing as conquer, except conquered worlds have at least a theoretical chance to revolt, and the Consortium simply does not allow that,” Azma said. “As for having to fight two worlds? That might be the best news we’ve had all day. Two worlds to fight, means two worlds to defeat, and two worlds we can sell for a very tidy profit once we’re done with them.”