Storytreader is going on a medical hiatus for the next two weeks. The next chapter of Broken Horizons will appear on July 2nd and the next chapter of Two Hearts One Beat will appear on July 7th.
Pillowcase wasn’t filled with dread. She was filled with magical stuffing. She wasn’t overwhelmed with dread either. She’d been crafted such that no threat would make her composure fall apart. Falling apart did no good on a battlefield after all, and a complete cessation of emotion wasn’t the same as being overwhelmed. Was it?
“It is very clearly time to flee,” Vixali said. A perfectly rational response, delivered in a perfectly calm and rational tone of voice.
The members of her coterie were as silent as only the dead could be. The quiet vacuum persisted for the space of two absent heartbeats before the room erupted in chaos and outcries of all types.
“This is suboptimal,” Pillowcase said, observing the swirling mass of bodies which seemed to be trying to flee in all directions at once.
At her side, Lost Alice cut off a short giggle. Pillowcase wondered what she was amused by. The situation seemed to lack humorous agents.
“For what it’s worth, we beat the [Formless Hunger] once already,” Lost Alice spoke at a normal volume, but the words somehow landed in Vixali’s ears despite the cacophonous din the other [Vampires] were raising.
“Silence,” Vixalie commanded. “And stillness.”
The chaos of the court vanished as quickly as it had erupted, but Pillowcase could see it was a fragile peace – like a thin wafer of ice waiting for a sharp blow or the inevitable rays of the sun to shatter it.
“What is your price?” Vixali asked.
Because no offer of help could be given freely. Everything had to be an exchange to a [Vampire]. Compassion was a weakness experienced by lesser beings and the mark of fools.
“I don’t believe I will set one for this,” Lost Alice said.
“It will be a favor to be repaid later?” Vixali asked.
“No. No price,” Lost Alice said. “We don’t need to charge one.”
Pillowcase wasn’t sure but that sounded like either an insult or a power play.
“It’s both,” Lost Alice said privately, when Pillowcase asked her.
“Is it wise to antagonize the leader of a large group of creatures who are already biased towards hostilities?” Pillowcase asked also on their private channel.
“It depends on the antagonism,” Lost Alice said. “Vix isn’t going to declare war on us for trying to help her. She’ll try to go for a more subtle revenge. She has to or she’ll risk losing the coterie to me.”
“You can take leadership of them from her?” Pillowcase asked, strangely uncertain how she felt about that prospect. Her emotions were thawing after being bludgeoned into insensibility by the terror of discovering that the [Formless Hunger] was both active and aware enough to form plans.
“In theory, sure,” Lost Alice said. “Leadership among [Vampires] is primary gained through shows of strength, with treachery being seen as the ultimate sort of strength. In practice that means that I would have to beat more than just Vix to take the throne though. Qiki would support her because familiarity makes treachery easier to plan for.”
“That doesn’t seem a particularly sort of relationship,” Pillowcase said.
“It’s not,” Lost Alice said. “Intentionally so. A leader needs to work to keep their position or their underlings will devour them. Sometimes literally. Which is why you couldn’t drag me to that throne with wild [Hell Stallions].”
“You are an unusual [Vampire]?” Pillowcase asked.
“You’re not the first one to notice that,” Lost Alice said and glanced over to flash a quick smile at her.
“I hope they appreciated you too,” Pillowcase said.
She didn’t see the flash of pain and longing that swept across Lost Alice’s face. Whether it belonged to Lost Alice or Lisa was something they themselves perhaps couldn’t have said either.
“Tell us what you require then, if no price will be asked, to vanquish this foe,” Vixali said.
“A map,” Lost Alice said. “Specifically of where it has focused its incursions. Or at least where you can be sure its struck against your watchers. Also any of the other dungeon dwellers who are in those areas.”
“That is a significant store of secrets,” Vixali said.
“They were secrets,” Lost Alice said. “Now they’re food for a cosmic monster. If we’re going to make sure it stops advancing, we need to know where it’s advancing currently, and what it chose to strike out against first.”
“And if we give you this information, how will you be able to use it to prevent this [Formless Hunger] from advancing?” Vixali asked.
“Now that is a secret,” Lost Alice said. “What would you be willing to pay in exchange for that?”
She made a point of eyeing the throne Vixali was still seated on, and for a moment Pillowcase wondered if the [Vampire Queen] would agree to transfer her crown to Lost Alice’s head. The moment passed swiftly though as Vixali’s laughter filled the hall.
“We shall see, perhaps, once it’s been determined that your boasts are more than empty words,” Vixali said. “As we are generous though, your request will be met. [Castellan] arrange for a map to drawn up which highlights the information they require.”
“Of course my [Queen],” Qiki said.
“That went well,” Pillowcase said on their private channel.
“It wasn’t a complete disaster,” Lost Alice said. “But we do have a problem before us now.”
“Would that be ‘how are we going to stop the [Formless Hunger]’?” Pillowcase asked. She’d been wondering about that probably more than Vixali had since Vixali only knew that the [Formless Hunger] was contained on the surface but wasn’t aware of the price Pillowcase had already paid to escape it’s clutches.
“Yeah, that would be the problem,” Lost Alice said.
Rose’s problems were multiplying, but that suited her just fine. Jamal was running by her side, FOOF was flying just over her shoulder, and at her back were people she was beginning to suspect she might be able to trust to at least a some small degree.
“So, the [Vampires] were able to confirm that the [Formless Hunger] is expanding. Do we have people start evacuating now or is it too late to even run?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Where could we exacuate them to?” Jamal asked as Matt Painting.
“The surface?” Lady Midnight suggested. “Or maybe that pocket dungeon that Pillow and Alice found?”
“Do we know the [Formless Hunger] wouldn’t be able to follow us there? Or that there’s any method of exiting the dungeon?” Starchild asked.
“We don’t,” Jamal said. “Pillow and Alice said they weren’t able to find an exit while they were there and if a gate works for us, it’s probably smart to assume it would work for that thing too. So we’d basically be stuffing ourselves into a hole with no way out.”
“I’m open to ideas that don’t suck,” Lady Midnight said.
“We could fight the thing,” Rose said.
She felt everyone’s gaze burrowing into her.
“No, seriously,” she said. “I know when it caught us last time, it was all kinds of wrong, but Pillowcase has new skills, and if we’re expecting it, we can, I don’t know, brace for it?”
“That thing reached into my mind and was ready to take me apart,” Jamal said. “How do we brace for that?”
“Like Pillowcase did,” Rose said.
“She paid a high price for that,” Starchild said. “I’m disinclined to lose any of the rest of us as we lost Pillowcase’s other half.”
“What if we ambushed it?” Rose said. “Last time the thing got the drop on us. Most of us are ranged damage dealers though. Maybe we could out distance it?”
“We saw it take out a spaceship,” Pete said, speaking with Starchild’s voice. “I’m guessing it’s got us beat in the maximum range department.”
“There’s got to be some way to beat it though right?” Rose asked. “I mean, it was this weird cosmic thing but now it’s trapped in a game, so it’s gottable be beatable.”
“Does it?” Jamal asked. “It doesn’t seem to be playing by the rules all that much.”
“You know, I think she’s right,” Obby said. “Being here is going to change it. Just the fact that it has a name now means that the [Formless Hunger] isn’t what it once was. Maybe it could be slain?”
Obby seemed to be talking to herself as much as any of the rest of them, but Rose liked where her thoughts were going.
“Does that mean we could beat it with the right strategy?” Rose asked, hoping to nudge Obby’s musings into a more productive direction.
“What? Oh, no, probably not,” Obby said. “We’ve still got a problem of scale to work against.”
“It’s too big too shoot?” Rose asked.
“Sort of,” Obby said. “It’s size is just a reflection of its overall power though. The real problem is that when something that’s essentially infinite gets translated into the constraints of this world, it’s going to be set at the max available level unless it chooses to be something else.”
“The maximum level for players is 99,” Lady Midnight said. “But the highest level monster is level 150.”
“Can we even scratch a level 150?” Rose asked.
“In the game we couldn’t,” Lady Midnight said. “There were floors on a character’s chance to hit and the damage they could do, but if the level gap was too large, the hit chance was set to always fail and damage was set to zero no matter what. It saved the devs from having to deal with weird rounding errors supposedly.”
“That sucks,” Rose said. “There’s got to be something we can do!”
“Level up, like a like?” Jamal said.
“Even with a power leveler and the perfect mix of enemies, we wouldn’t hit the level cap fast enough,” Pete said.
“And we’d be stuck with worthless gear if we did,” Lady Midnight said.
“Wait wait wait!” Rose said. “Oh! Wait? Could this work?”
“I don’t think we’re going to know unless you use some real words to tell us what you’re talking about,” Jamal said.
“The [Formless Hunger] has a level now right?” Rose asked.
“Yeah, probably level eleventy billion or something,” Jamal said.
“So what if rather than trying to get to its level, we bring it down to ours?” Rose asked. She’d done her research and felt a thrill of victory as it paid off.
Not that it was a victory yet.
It was just a chance at victory.
And she’d thought of it!
“Bring it down to…?” Lady Midnight asked as the gears started turning in her head too.
“Wait, she’s right,” Pete said. “Do they have any of those here though?”
“Any of those what?” Jamal asked.
“Level locked zones,” Rose said, practically skipping as she ran. “They’re usually PvP areas, but the idea is that anyone or anything who goes into them gets scaled down so that noobs like us don’t get crushed by high level griefers.”
“Would that work?” Lady Midnight asked. The party had come to a stunned halt, their trek back to the encampment momentarily forgotten.
“I…yes, yes it would!” Obby said. She gave Rip an affectionate slug on the shoulder. “You are brilliant! No matter what the creature is, the scaling algorithm can refactor its stats to be level appropriate for whatever cap its limited to. And even better, each ability the creature has comes with a minimum level. If a creature is locked below that minimum level, the ability isn’t available anymore. Which for the [Formless Hunger] would probably be all of them!”
“You know, I don’t even know why I was worried,” Jamal said, clear relief sounding in his voice. “Not when I got my girl Rip here.”
“We do have some problems to overcome still though,” Starchild said. “First is the matter of finding a level locked zone in time. I don’t think we’ve run across any so far.”
“I can handle that,” Lady Midnight said. “Let me get in touch with the people who are still on Earth. They’ve got to be able to find out where the lowbie PvP zone was in the Beta.”
“Then there’s the larger problem,” Starchild said. “Pillowcase just contacted me. They’re heading out to save Vixali’s [Vampires] by fighting the [Formless Hunger] by themselves.”
The plan had been derailed. Because that was what happened to plans in Lisa’s experience. You made them so someone else could wreck them. Normally that didn’t bother her. Okay that was a lie. Normally that made her want to stab someone, but she’d had an exemplary stabbing-free record for long enough that she didn’t think she was in much danger of falling off the wagon.
Not that stabbing someone was likely to help under the present circumstances.
“I thought we weren’t going to split the party?” Pillowcase asked on their private channel.
“Sometimes you go with the least terrible idea available,” Lisa said.
They were running, but telepathy wasn’t interrupted by a need for breath. Not that either of them technically needed to breath. Lisa was a bit concerned about their stamina though. Despite their superhuman constitutions, they couldn’t run at full speed forever and arriving at a [Vampire Coeterie’s] lair exhausted and unable to run further wasn’t an optimal strategy even if the [Vampires] in question where, theoretically, on their side for the moment.
“If the [Formless Hunger] is expanding downwards, we should warn Yawlorna and her people as well,” Pillowcase said. “And maybe Darren too?”
“Darren should be…no, you know what, you’re right. Monsters aren’t supposed to be able to cross between zones, but even if that’s still true, the [Formless Hunger] exists specifically to break rules right?”
“I believe so,” Pillowcase said. “We also can’t be sure how much divine power it absorbed from the [Heart Fire], so the world may be fine with it moving around like a god would.”
“I called Yawlorna already and warned her to keep an eye out,” Lisa said. “Do you want to give Darren a shout? Wait, we can’t can we?”
“Not directly,” Pillowcase said. “But maybe Yawlorna can send a messenger?”
“We’re here!” Qiki said, pulling up to a stop at an iron portcullis. “I’ll let Queen Vixali know you’ve arrived, one moment please.”
Turning, Qiki walked through the portcullis, her body passing through it like a cloud of mist before reforming on the other side.
“Can you do that?” Pillowcase asked privately.
“Not yet,” Lisa said. “It’s one of the higher level racial abilities for the [Graveborne].”
“Does that mean Qiki is a danger to us?” Pillowcase asked.
“Qiki’s a danger to us because of who and what she is,” Lisa said, though it might have been Lost Alice’s sentiment more than her own. “[Vampires] are predators who feed on apex predators. Qiki and Vixali may be entirely on the level. It’s possible that they can see that they need us if they want to survive. There’s all kinds of arguments to back that up and that’s exactly the sort of situation where their prey is going to be the most inclined to trust them, and so it’s also exactly the sort of situation where they’ll stand to gain the most if they turn on us at just the right time.”
“Would they have any reason to turn on either of us though?” Pillowcase asked. “I can’t nourish them. Would your blood be of any value to them?”
“In general [Vampires] can’t feed on other [Vampires]. The blood is lacking the vitality needed to be proper food,” Lost Alice said. “My case is slightly different though. I can’t feed on any of them except maybe Qiki and Vixali but any of them could feed on me.”
“That seems unbalanced,” Pillowcase said. “What makes your blood different? Your levels?”
“Both my levels and even more so the class I have levels in,” Lost Alice said. “The healing magic I carry can substitute for a living person’s vitality. I’m told I am quite tasty.”
Lisa groaned at the double entendre in Lost Alice’s last statement, but Pillowcase didn’t seem to notice it.
“You can regenerate your magic without taking the vitality from your blood though, correct?” Pillowcase asked.
“Of course,” Lost Alice said. “I recover magic the same as any caster would.”
Lisa could feel the hum of magic which surrounded her and knew that if she wasn’t already at her limit, she could pull in the ambient energy to refill herself easily.
“Could a mana potion serve in place of blood for you then?” Pillowcase asked.
Lost Alice was about to scoff at the idea, but Lisa caught herself.
Mana potions weren’t blood, but there was a chain of logic to Pillowcase’s thoughts. At least in the case of a [Vampire] with healing abilities.
Lost Alice wasn’t pleased with the idea of drinking a mana potion as some kind of artificial, diet blood substitute. Real blood quenched more than a physical thirst. Lisa was able to tear her thoughts away from that though and appreciate the idea that she might not have to tear people apart just to keep her appetite in check.
“You may enter, freely and of your own will,” Qiki said as she swirled up from the floor in a cloud of mist. Producing a key from thin air, she unlocked the portcullis and lifted it lightly with one hand.
Show off, Lisa thought, ignoring the matching thought that she should be using her enhanced strength for similar feats.
Pillowcase advanced forward immediately, making sure to shield Lost Alice in case an ambush was about to fall on them.
No ambush appeared though, so Lisa ventured in before Pillowcase could get too far away.
Qiki led them through a number of cavern rooms, up several natural stairs, and down even more sloping passages.
“Are they trying to confuse us?” Pillowcase asked privately.
“I’m sure they would be delighted if they could but this is probably more to impress us with the amount of area they control,” Lost Alice said. “Each of these caverns should have monsters spawning in them, but Vixali’s control of the area is strong enough to be recognized by the dungeon itself. These areas have basically been ceded to her and her crew.”
“It would be more impressive if they fortified the area somehow,” Pillowcase said. “They have space but its not offering them any benefit in defending it.”
“[Vampires] typically can either destroy an attackers easily, or will turn and flee,” Lost Alice said. “When your prey is is either surprised and helpless or forewarned and incredibly deadly with little middle ground between the two, there’s usually little to be gained by opting for a standup fight you’re not certain you can win.”
“Tactically sensible,” Pillowcase said, nodding in satisfaction.
Lisa was sure Pillowcase could see the crowd which was beginning to follow them. In ones and two, [Vampires] were tagging along in their wake as Qiki lead them to Vixali’s…throne room?
The [Vampire Queen’s] room was carved into clean, polished lines. Almost certainly by hands both familiar with stonework and possessed of far more patience than any of the queen’s minions had.
Unlike the natural caverns which had risen no higher than an office hallway, the ceiling of the [Throne Room] soared, dropping no closer than one hundred feet to the floor.
The most unexpected bit of architecture though were the stained glass windows. Given how far they were below ground, windows of any kind were an impractical choice. By all rights the stained glass should have been dark, mounted against a wall of stone, but the ones which adorned the walls of the [Throne Room] were brilliantly lit.
“Magic?” Pillowcase asked privately.
“Or a truly ridiculous amount of engineering,” Lisa said.
Pillowcase nodded towards the windows running down the left side of the Throne Room.
The ones that were open.
With a cool breeze wafting in which carried the scent of pine trees.
“Right. Magic then,” Lisa said. Lost Alice made sure nothing more than an amused wrinkle of a smile ghosted across her lips.
They were not in a place were being overawed was healthy or wise.
Vixali was watching them from the throne which was perched atop three platforms, each ten feet high.
That is the definition of impractical, Lisa thought and considered how silly Vixali would look putting on mountain climbing gear just to sit in a fancy chair.
Points for dramatic effect though, Lost Alice thought.
“The [Adventurers] Lost Alice and Pillowcase are here in answer to your summons, my [Queen],” Qiki said.
Her what? Lost Alice wasn’t willing to start a fight over the slight, but it did set the tenor of the meeting differently than what she had anticipated it to be.
“You have information we need,” Pillowcase said. “Tell us where you’ve lost your spies.”
Lost Alice suppressed a chuckle. Blunt, to the point, and completely oblivious to the social dynamics at play, Pillowcase was the delight Lost Alice had never knew she’d been missing.
“This is our court,” Vixali said. “A measure of civility is requisite in any petitioners who appear before the throne.”
“That’s interesting information. Not what I asked, but I will remember it if we need to petition you for anything,” Pillowcase said.
Lost Alice couldn’t hold back her smile at that, but the warning bells in her head helped pull it back before it lingered too long. Vixali had a significant number of [Vampires] she had to keep under control. Undermining her authority was fun, but ultimately counterproductive if they were going to be working together.
“In this case, your [Castellan] informed us that there was an opportunity for a mutual beneficial arrangement,” Lost Alice said. “We came at greatest haste because we have information which indicates that arrangement may need to be consummated immediately, hence my partner’s insistence.”
“New information?” Vixali asked.
It was like catnip for [Vampires], and Lost Alice could see the rest of the Coterie hanging on her next words.
“[Castellan] Qiki informed us that some of your servants have gone missing,” Lost Alice said. Most of the coterie reacted as though this was stunning news, but few were good enough actors to hide the fact that it was already well known. “We were at the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge]. We know what happened there and what lies there still.”
This news produced a less dramatic effect on the coterie. They simply became quiet. And still. Predators observing information on which life and death turned.
“We have long since sworn off contact with the daylighter town,” Vixali said. “What about its destruction brings you here in such haste?”
“Have you encountered a [Formless Hunger] before?” Pillowcase asked.
“No. What is this thing?” Vixali asked.
“Nothing,” Lost Alice. “Weaponized nothing. You’ve seen the troop transport the [Consortium of Pain] has sent against the surface world?”
“We are aware of the surface dweller’s woes,” Vixali said.
“The [Formless Hunger] pulled it into itself and took it apart. Atom by atom,” Lisa said.
“That sounds formidable, but it’s immobile is it not?”
“That’s why we came here as fast as we could,” Lisa said. “The tunnels we came through seem to lead back towards [Sky’s Edge]. From what we can see the [Formless Hunger] isn’t expanding beyond the borders of [Sky’s Edge] but it’s not clear where the lower border of the town is.”
“Meaning, the [Formless Hunger] could be expanding in this direction, choosing to move through the dungeon rather than where it would be exposed,” Pillowcase said.
“It seems a simple enough thing to determine,” Vixali said. “We have other watchers and this [Formless Hunger] doesn’t appear to be subtle or difficult to spot.”
“Check with them now,” Pillowcase said. “Please. If the [Formless Hunger] is expanding then we will need to act without delay.”
“I..umm…have some bad news,” Qiki said. “The watchers are gone too. So, either an existing dungeon dweller took them out while they were in hiding without giving them a chance to raise the alarm, or…”
“Or the [Formless Hunger] is growing, and advancing on us,” Pillowcase said.
Lisa felt her unbeaten heart ice over.
“It’s worse than that,” she said. “It took out your watchers? Watchers who were setup to be able to observe each other I’m guessing.”
“Yes, of course,” Vixali said.
“Then it’s not just growing,” Lisa said. “It’s intelligent.”
A vampire was waiting for them when Pillowcase and her team returned to their home.
“Greeting brave travellers, my [Queen] would converse with you at your soonest convenience,” Qiki said from the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].
Pillowcase didn’t groan. That was a response Tessa would have made. The [Vampire Queen’s] request was instead added to a list of priorities which was impractically unstable. In any operation there would always be some reordering of tasks. It was to be expected and accounted for according to the experience her makers has sewn into Pillowcase. Even with that though, she had to question the the value of trying to assign a task order to what was more or less pure chaos.
Past a certain point, further interruptions made the idea of forming long term plans into an exercise in absurdity.
“We have not had a great day,” Lost Alice said. “Did your [Queen] explain why she wanted to see us?”
“She is concerned,” Qiki said. “She did instruct me not to rush you, but that time was likely of the essence. So…”
“So one or more of us should go with you now before whatever new catastrophe has a chance to get rolling?” Pillowcase asked. She didn’t need to sleep. Not like a human did. And her stamina was enhanced by both her magical nature and the levels she’d attained. Despite all that though she was still tired.
“Except we won’t be doing that,” Lost Alice said.
“We wont?” Rip asked. She had her bow ready but stood with the same exhausted posture the rest of the team displayed.
“No splitting the party,” Lost Alice said.
“In that case I am instructed to venture along with you for a far as you will allow my company,” Qiki said. “Oh, and I am to render any aid you should require if the creatures in the dungeon prove to be more than you can easily handle.”
Pillowcase didn’t need Lost Alice to translate that from [Vampire]. Qiki would be evaluating their strength every moment she was with them. If they proved to be weaker than the [Vampires] expected then it would lead to complications later on.
“You’re free to tag along as far as you want,” Lost Alice said. “Just remember our people are off limits. Anyone’s fangs touch them and we’ll have a discussion about it.”
A discussion? Pillowcase asked on their private channel.
Direct threats are considered a sign of weakness in vampires, Lost Alice said. By ‘discussion’ I mean I will personally rip the [Queen’s] tongue from her throat, and Qiki there understands it.
Do you think they know that you’re a healer? Pillowcase asked. She hadn’t been sewn with a sense of humor, but the thought was a mirthful one anyways.
Perhaps she really was more than she’d been crafted to be?
If they do they’ll understand that means I can hurt them, heal them, and then hurt them again just as badly, Lost Alice said.
Remind me not to anger you, Pillowcase said, seeing possibilities she hadn’t considered before.
You’ve done more or less the opposite of that so far, Lost Alice said.
Pillowcase wanted a moment to process that but, as seemed to always be the case, no moments of peace were allocated to her.
“Perhaps as we travel, I might ask a few questions?” Qiki said. “There are matters which will just possibly be relevant sooner rather than later.”
“Matters such as?” Lost Alice asked.
“A few of our minions have gone missing,” Qiki said. “They normally quite hard to kill – quite hard to even detect in fact – and yet the vanished without a trace.”
“Were they in or around the ruins of [Sky’s Edge]?” Pillowcase asked.
“Some of them, yes,” Qiki said. “Others were watching some of the deeper passages in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] though, and all seem to have suffered the same fate.”
Pillowcase paused. She’d been leading them back to the camp where the resident’s of [Sky’s Edge] and the adventurers had setup accommodations after the Consortium and Darren-the-Servant-of-Fire had wiped the town off the map. It was supposed to have been as safe a place as they could find. Possibly that was still true, but “safe as they could find” was clearly not the same as “safe”. Not if her guess was correct.
“Did they all disappear at the same time?” she asked.
“The ones in the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] did,” Qiki said. “The one’s watching the lower passages in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] vanished later.”
Tessa would have cursed. Pillowcase remained silent, processing the new information.
“That’s not good, is it?” Rip asked.
“No, not if it means what I think it means,” Starchild said.
“How long did it take for the watchers to vanish?” Pillowcase asked.
“We’re not sure,” Qiki said. “They don’t have a regular check-in schedule.”
“Do you have a rough estimate? And was there anything different about their loss than the ones in the [Sky’s Edge],” Pillowcase asked.
“You should probably talk to [Queen] Vixali about that,” Qiki said.
“We will,” Lost Alice said. “But we’re still going to see what shape our people are in.”
“They’re still quite edible,” Qiki said. “And uneaten,” she added at Lost Alice’s sharp look. “We’re better neighbors than you might imagine us to be.”
“Oh, I imagine you to be the best of neighbors,” Lost Alice said. “You seem quite intelligent after all.”
Was that meant to be subtle? I’m not good at speaking [Vampire] yet, Pillowcase asked Lost Alice privately.
Not especially. I mean I could have slapped her if I wanted to be less subtle but as [Vampires] go she doesn’t seem too bad, Lost Alice said.
Which means we can trust her?
Yes. Her betrayal should be very predictable.
Is that…a good thing?
With a [Vampire] it’s pretty much as close as you get, Lost Alice said.
Present company excepted? Pillowcase asked.
I think you can get a little closer with me, Lost Alice said. When we have time for that.
Had she been aware of it, Pillowcase could have taken comfort in the fact that even if Tessa hadn’t been fractured from her, their gestalt still would have missed the implications of what Lost Alice was saying at least nine times out of ten.
That sounds good, Pillowcase replied, not consciously aware of how her words might be received.
“I don’t know if this is related,” Lady Midnight said. “But Cammie just let me know that one of the other teams ran into more of the [Disjoined].”
Lost Alice cursed, and then glanced over at Rip and Matt and apologized.
“Any losses?” Pillowcase asked.
“No. From what she said, the [Disjoined] were really fragile, and self-destructive? Let me ask about that,” Lady Midnight said.
“I wonder if we’re the only ones running into these things?” Rip asked.
“I can check with Cease All on that,” Lisa said. “If the [Disjoined] are popping up in the regular realms then maybe someone’s figured out how to keep them from eating towns.”
“That might have been a unique scenario,” Pillowcase said. “[Sky’s Edge] lost it’s [Heart Fire Shrine]. That was what gave the [Disjoined] access to the [God Spark] at its heart.”
“From what my sister’s told me, the regular zones have been hit even harder than we were,” Pete said. “I can’t image the Consortium didn’t target the [Heart Fire Shrines] there too. Adventurers are just too strong if those are still in play.”
“This sucks!” Rip said. “I never even got to see those places and now they’re all wrecked?”
“Weren’t they supposed to be really pretty?” Matt asked. “I read about how well they held up even compared to modern games.”
“Huh, you know, that’s true,” Lady Midnight said. “Everyone used to talk about that. How the artists had really gone above and beyond what the tech at the time could usually do. I wonder…”
“Wonder what?” Pillowcase asked.
“It could be an odd coincidence, or maybe that’s why it was [Broken Horizons] this all happened too,” Lisa said.
“Or maybe this place is why [Broken Horizons] was as amazing as it turned out to be,” Lady Midnight said.
“How would that work?” Matt asked.
“Oh, I see,” Lisa said. “You’re thinking this world might have been some kind of muse for the developers?”
“Yeah, like it inspired them via, I don’t know, dreams or something,” Lady Midnight said.
“Interesting idea,” Obby said. “Kind of a shame we can’t grill the original developers for where they got their inspiration from.”
“There are a whole lot of questions I can think of putting them over a grill to get answers to,” Lost Alice said.
“I thought [Vampires] like their meals uncooked?” Rip asked.
“Generally, but we’ll take what we can get,” Qiki said. “Not that we would eat people of course. That would be wrong.”
Lost Alice didn’t dignify the sarcasm with any answer or reaction.
“Can’t we though?” Pete asked. “Not the grill thing, or eating them, but doesn’t someone have a connection to the support staff? I mean it’s been…a day?…I don’t even know how long now. They have to have some answers at this point right?”
“We had a line that was supposed to give direct access to one of the [GMs] but it was blocked the last several times we tried to access it,” Pillowcase said.
The idea of a [GM] or [Game Master] hadn’t been included in Pillowcase’s stitching, but she could still recall exactly what *GM Burnt Toast’s* role and capabilities had been.
She also knew how close Tessa had believe herself and BT to be.
How do I remember that? she wondered. Tessa’s memories weren’t part of her anymore. They’d been lost when she [Fractured].
“That can’t be the only option for communicating with them though can it?” Pete asked.
“It’s not,” Lisa said. “If we can get word to one of the players who’s still on Earth, they could pick up the telephone, or even have someone drive there I guess, assuming anyone we can reach is close enough.”
“The problem is the concurrent login count,” Lady Midnight said.
“Several hundred thousand players,” Lisa said. “EE’s always been cagey about exact numbers but we know it’s at least that high.”
“A fair portion of those are in the Asia-Pacific or European regions though and those are handled by local call centers,” Pete said. “The HQ we’d want would only be dealing with North American players. Or people who play on the NA servers.”
“That’s still easily over a hundred thousand players,” Lisa said. “They probably don’t have the support staff to handle even one percent of that. Maybe not even a tenth of a percent.”
“Excuse me, but, if I might be so bold as to ask, what are you all talking about?” Qiki asked.
“We’re not from here,” Rip said.
“An explaining more than that would take more time than we have,” Lost Alice said. “What you can pass along to your [Queen] is that we have some idea what happened to your spies. We weren’t involved of course, and we will be happy to provide her with all of the details we know.”
“She will be delighted to hear that,” Qiki said. “From you. In person.”
“Wait, you said the spies in the lower passages were lost?” Lisa asked. “How much lower?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question,” Qiki said.
“There are links between the [High Beyond] and the [Sunless Deeps], how far down were those lower passages? Were they still in the [High Beyond]?”
“Oh, uh, yes, of course,” Qiki said. “We haven’t risked venturing out of the [High Beyond]. A few of our predecessors tried it and came to rather unpleasant ends.”
“That means the spies were still fairly close by right?” Lisa asked.
“Well, the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] is dangerous on its own too,” Qiki said.
“More so than you know,” Lisa said. “Call Vixali, if you can. She needs to make for our camp right now. No delay.”
“What are you thinking?” Pillowcase asked.
“Not thinking. Fearing,” Lisa said. “If I’m right, then I’m giving up on rational thought.”
“Oh no,” Starchild said, apparently grasping the idea Lisa had come upon as well.
“What?” Rip asked.
“We didn’t see the [Formless Hunger] expanding right?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah, it was staying within the town’s borders,” Rip said.
“Was it?” Lisa asked. “Or was it expanding downwards rather than outwards?”
Tessa: What the heck is an “Outerlude”?
Beth: It’s basically a chapter outside of the normal narrative. The usual rules don’t apply here since this isn’t, technically, part of the story.
Tessa: And you would be?
Beth: A traveler. Technically a “World Walker”, which at this point you are too. Also the main character of Hidden Pages, which dealt with this kind of “hidden out of view of the story” thing as its central theme.
Tessa: Huh, that’s neat how you spoke in a hyperlink. It sounded kinda funky. Is that like how when we’re saying things like the [Broken Kingdoms] it sounds weird too?
Beth: Same idea. The callout there is to things which might have help text links associated with them.
Tessa: Why are they just in brackets then? Shouldn’t there be an actual link there?
Beth: It’s more of a conceptual link. I think we’re just supposed to imagine that there are wiki pages relating to a lot of this stuff, or some other kind of documentation behind it.
Tessa: You’d think that would get explained somewhere.
Beth: Eh, it’s not that important and the narrative doesn’t support someone turning to the reader and going “hey, you, here’s what this means”.
Tessa: It’d sure be nice if it did sometimes though. I mean there’s enough plot threads going at the moment that I need a scorecard some days. I don’t even get how they’re all going to come together.
Beth: Maybe they won’t? Your thread is pretty central, but the other ones are there in part to flesh out the world.
Tessa: Is that why we’ve got place names for locations that have never appeared?
Beth: Yeah, in a long running MMO, you should have tons of active locations, and if you add on the idea that even old areas will still have their NPCs as living, breathing people then the world gets a lot more crowded.
Tessa: We stayed in [Sky’s Edge] for a long time though. It seemed like that was a pretty central spot until it got nuked off the map.
Beth: I was kind of surprised by that too. I would have liked to see a side thread to build that place up a bit more. It had some interesting characters in it.
Tessa: I suppose the characters are all in the caves now, so no loss there necessarily.
Beth: Speaking of the caves, was there a spark of romance there between you and Lisa?
Tessa: What? I mean…I…I can’t talk about that. Spoilers and all that.
Beth: Really? You think that’s supposed to be a secret at this point?
Tessa: No. But. I mean.
Beth: Ah, you’re still at that stage of the relationship. Gotcha.
Tessa: What stage? We’re not at a stage. She’s got a girl already. And I’d like to point out that I’m trapped out here in sleepy hyperspace or wherever this is.
Beth: That’s not all that likely to be permanent though is it?
Tessa: I don’t know. I was out of most of the last volume. Or all of it? I don’t even remember anymore. Time has no meaning and everything’s terrible.
Beth: Hey. It’ll be okay. These things tend to happen for a reason. You’re offstage now, but that’s to give other characters time to grow.
Tessa: It was kind of neat to see Pillowcase trying to deal with things on her own.
Beth: Plus the loss of you gave her some unusual new abilities.
Tessa: Not that we’ve seen how those will play out.
Beth: Give it time.
Tessa: Is that really all it’s going to take though. Obby stuck a moratorium on using the [Primal Devouring] skill and the others look like they’re both passive and exotic.
Beth: Those could be the most powerful ones you have though. Situationally useful abilities can be like silver bullets when the narrative throws weird problems at you.
Tessa: Speaking of bullets, I had a question there: if we’re in a ‘more real’ version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the [Consortium of Pain] comes from outside this reality, why aren’t they using things like guns and bombs?
Beth: From what we’ve seen so far, it seems like despite being technomagically advanced, they’re still stuck with fitting into the overall fantasy aesthetic of [Broken Horizons]. I’m sure in the narrative there’s some explanation for guns and bombs not working based on the [Arcanospheres] idea, but it’s one of those things that hasn’t come up explicitly yet, so the final answer is a bit nebulous.
Tessa: You know there have to be some Earthlings who are trying to invent them in the [Fallen Kingdoms] though right? People are so convinced that modern military munitions are the be-all-end-all of warfare.
Beth: Can you blame them? It’s what they’re familiar with and it’s what movies and TV have preached from the beginning. The gun is mighty. Fear the gun. Love the gun.
Tessa: I wonder what the stats for a gun in the [Fallen Kingdoms] would even be?
Beth: It’s ultimately just something that accelerates a tiny mass to a high speed. They’re not that complicated. And they can be used by level 1 nobodies.
Tessa: Oh wow, and they don’t even insta-kill level 1 nobodies, outside of critical hits.
Beth: Right. You’re primarily looking at the equivalent of multi-round bleed damage which actually scores the kill.
Tessa: And since they can be equipped by level 1s, their stats would probably be pitiful. Minor damage, and a minor DOT is all it takes to kill a lowbie who doesn’t have access to magical healing.
Beth: So that is probably why the Consortium isn’t using guns. Bombs are likely in the same category but they can do structural damage, so they’d have to have better stats than a gun.
Tessa: I know Glimmerglass got blasted through a six foot thick wall of stone in one of the old cutscenes, and we started that fight off at nearly full health, so maybe even a city wrecking bomb is something an adventurer could shake off?
Beth: I’m not going to suggest that you step in front of one to find out, but if you can live up to the things your characters have done in the game then, yeah, you’re probably more superhuman than usually gets made apparent.
Tessa: Except for all the times we get knocked out.
Beth: As narrative crutched go, I’ve always found that to be an annoying one.
Tessa: So, do you think we’ll ever get back to Earth? Or is that going to be something that just slips away as a goal as the plot rolls on?
Beth: I did read ahead a bit, so I know where some of this is going, but that’s something I am not going to spoiler.
Tessa: Oh come on! There’ve been all these chapters set on Earth. There’s got to be something going on there.
Beth: Oh, it’s not spoilery at all to say that there’ll be more event on Earth. I mean Hailey left in this chapter – and didn’t that take forever to get too! I thought she was going to hop over back a long time ago – but you’ve still got Marcus there, and several other characters.
Tessa: Yeah, including Brendan, Mellisandra’s player. What’s up with him and Pete?
Beth: They’re meant to reflect how a lot of players will have characters of a different gender and how it’s nothing particularly remarkable.
Tessa: Then you’ve got player’s like Pete’s sister though right?
Beth: Yeah Feralfang, or Melissa. I’m kind of hoping the story gets to her sometime soon. Pete’s mentioned, sort of obliquely, that Melissa’s trans and that falling into Feralfang’s body was something she took to like a fish to water. So that perspective is an interesting one, especially in contrast to her brother, who’s character, Starchild, does not match his own gender. Beyond that though, Melissa is one of the few crafters that we’ve heard of so far, so that’s another perspective we haven’t really seen yet.
Tessa: It’s interesting that there’s such a generally positive reception to discovering yourself in a foreign body, even when the genders match, but more so when dysmorphia is a real thing that’s even been mentioned in the story.
Beth: Yeah, we’ve seen a little exploration of that in Pete and Starchild’s chapters where they seem to still be very separate people. On the other hand, your chapters with Pillowcase have stressed repeatedly how you and Pillowcase are really just aspect of the same person.
Tessa: Then there’s Lisa who thought there wasn’t a Lost Alice at all, only it turns out Lost Alice was, what, sleeping?
Beth: Not exactly sleeping, more like Lisa wasn’t trying to connect with her. She was still thinking of Lost Alice as just an icon or a pawn she moved around the board. Once she started to connect though, she found that their relationship was a lot like yours and Pillowcases. In fact talking to you was probably what made her subconsciously start reach out like that.
Tessa: I’m glad she did. I know it’s weird, but I like having Pillowcase in my head.
Beth: I don’t think that’s weird at all. You made Pillowcase as someone you’d like and so the real version of her is likable. I think it’d be weirder if you didn’t like your character on some level at least.
Tessa: Is that what happened with those [Disjoined] guys? Did they have some kind of violent, negative reaction between the player and the character?
Beth: That was the hypothesis, and until more data emerges it seems reasonable. Picture the most toxic, over-entitled player you know and then imagine how their character relates to the people in the world. There’s kindness and humility built into the game version of [Broken Horizons] characters that some of the real people behind them would find abhorrent.
Tessa: I’m glad I hooked up with the party that I did then.
Beth: I think that’s meant to reflect that there are a lot of good people out there, and that if you’re not an abusive ass you’ll kind of be drawn together.
Tessa: Which I’d like to point out is why I’m not hitting on Lisa. The last thing I want to do is try to mess up the relationship she’s already in.
Beth: But you saw in this volume that she’s really kind of broken up already.
Tessa: I know! Wasn’t that wonderful! Oh, wait, damn, I’m a horrible person. I should not be cheering for her misery. Plus, I’m not going to remember any of this if I ever get back to her am I?
Beth: This chapter? Nope. Not a word of it. What happens outside of time and space, doesn’t really happen in any meaningful sense.
Tessa: Huh. So you don’t really have to worry about spoilers then do you?
Beth: Not for you, but they’re still dangerous.
Tessa: Give me a little one at least. What’s up with Rose and Jamal?
Beth: Really nothing to spoil there. Rose is asexual, and loves Jamal, just not romantically. Jamal is not asexual, and loves Rose, also without an eye towards romance because he knows Rose just isn’t into that.
Tessa: Yeah, but where’s their story going? Tell me nothing bad is going to happen to them. I’ve got to know at least that. If the kids are going to get killed or worse then I’ll just burn this place to the ground right now.
Beth: Woah, woah, woah. Ok, spoiler territory here then: <spoiler> Rose and Jamal are going to be fine. Their story does not end in misery or horror. They’ll have to fight for their happy ending, and it may not look like a typical happy ending for a girl and a boy, but they’ll get there. </spoiler>
Tessa: And me and Lisa? How about us? Do we wind up together? Or at least get to kiss!
Beth: Now for that you’re just going to have to keep reading won’t you?