Interlude – Jillian Wong
Jillian was old enough that any new chaos which came into her life had to compete with a wide array of prior calamities and crises before it could surprise or unsettle her. She’d watched the world go through many changes, and suffer many tragedies, living through some of them more personally but aware of so many others which she would never even heard of in an age before the world was as connected as it had become.
As she typed furiously at her laptop, she prayed in a silent shriek that the connection she had spent a lifetime developing would be enough.
Something had taken her daughter and son.
She’d read the news, she’d talked with the local members of the software studio at the heart of the abductions, she’d even spoke to a few of the players who hadn’t yet been abducted. She knew the shape of the problem which lay before her, though she still found it impossible to sound out its depth.
The total number of abductees was unknown,or at least unreleased, but even low estimates placed it in the hundreds of thousands of missing.
The world was caught vacillating between the various stages of grief. The usual band of idiots were denouncing the issue as a hoax and the those who sought a comfortable answer which would demand nothing of themselves were as eager to rush to that banner as ever.
Anger took many forms, as did bargaining, but by far the leading response was depression, with images of bereft families leading to the numb shadow of uncaring which was easily mistaken for acceptance.
Jillian’s answer didn’t fall into any of those categories though. She wasn’t willing to bargain to get her kids back. She wasn’t willing to deny their absence or waste her time on anger, or depression. As for acceptance? Jillian would never accept the loss of her children in so impossible a manner.
She’d given them both permission to play their game. She’d made an account with them so that she could understand where they were choosing to spend their time. The thought that they’d been somehow gobbled up by magic computer pixels was ridiculous but she’d seen it happen. Arguing against it as being unreasonable wasn’t going to bring them back.
Which meant, she had to find what would bring them back.
And to do that she needed data.
Data was Jillian’s speciality. She’d been on the front lines of the data mining revolution for the better part of her adult life. Where her children played games and were far more socially adept than she was, Jillian had focused on absorbing every scrap of information she could on the nature of information.
When and where people disappeared. How long it took after their characters were slain in the game. Where the first person had fallen and where the main concentrations of those lost to the game had been. All those data points and more could be rendered down into something meaningful. Something that would reveal the shape of the problem before them.
That was Jillian’s version of faith, and to the extent that it sustained her and drove her towards a true understanding of the the worlds she inhabited, it was good.
Interlude – Yawlorna
Survival was never guaranteed. Yawlorna knew that. Being stranded in a realm which viewed herself and her shipmates as “demons” meant the locals were likely to stab first and ask questions never. Yawlorna had been considered issuing a similar order to her patrollers, but in retrospect she couldn’t express how glad she was that she hadn’t.
“No more signs of the Consortium troopers,” Balegritz said.
“Did we get to the stragglers first or did they?” Yawlorna asked.
“We did,” Balegritz said. “It could have gone bad. Real bad. But it didn’t, so call it a win for us I guess?”
“Maybe a win, but it wasn’t our doing,” Yawlorna said.
“Be fair there boss, you were the one who got us out,” Balegritz said.
They were walking along a corridor carved to perfect regularity. It was farther than either of them had even ventured into the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Farther and more dangerous.
But they didn’t have any better options.
“We’ve lost too many of the crew,” Yawlorna said, letting her features sag into the weariness she kept carefully hidden from those who were looking to her from answers.
Balegritz looked to her as a leader too, but it was different with him. They’d studied together. He knew she wasn’t the natural commander the others seemed to imagine she was.
With what little command skill she believed she possessed, Yawlorna knew she needed to keep up the illusion of competency. Her crew’s morale was built upon it and if that disintegrated, they’d never make it home.
“Yeah, we have,” Balegritz said. “But you know it’d be a hell of a lot more if you hadn’t kept us all together right?”
His words were true, but it didn’t make accepting the all the missing faces in her ranks any easier.
“You’re doing a great job, really,” Balegritz said. “Nobody expected us to wind up in a situation like this. Weird other worlds and the Consortium breathing down our necks? When did that ever come up in training, right?”
“There was probably a lecture on it somewhere in there,” Yawlorna said. “I know I slept through a few of them.”
“You and me both,” Balegritz said. “Point is though that you were the one who got us connected with the adventurers. And if we hadn’t started working with them, those Kremmer’s Razer’s guys would have torn us all apart. I mean you heard how they laughing before they went down into the pit. They knew were here. If they hadn’t thought there was something more valuable down there they would have split up and had a headcount contest with our skulls.”
The thought had haunted Yawlorna since she’d overheard the Consortium commandos pillaging the remnants of her crew’s camp. Ten minutes later and the message wouldn’t have arrived in time. Ten minutes later and Yawlorna was certain down to her bones that everyone she knew would have become nothing more than trophies for a pack of soulless killers, no matter how hard, or smart, or lucky they fought.
There was movement up ahead, the barest hint of which sent panic racing down Yawlorna’s limbs, until the figure stepped into full view.
Yalworna suspected she should have been worried when the figure turned out to be a skeleton but his manner and voice were too disarming to place him in even the top fifty threats she’d faced since their arrival on the [High Beyond]
“Welcome my new friends,” Mister Pendant said. “I’m afraid my shop is sadly short of wares at the moment, but you are more than welcome to share our hearth.”
“Strength in numbers right?” Balegritz said.
“Numbers bring strength, but caring for one another is how we truly survive,” Mister Pendant said.
Interlude – Way
Oblivion’s Daughter looked around, carefully taking in her surroundings. The key point was to be sure there were no outside observers. No monsters, no adventurers, sure, but also no trace of the [Formless Hunger] or any of the other Remnants. She wasn’t in any danger from them but Oblivion’s Daughter, Obby, was a role she was enjoying.
“You’re low level!” Jin said. “You really are trying out something new!”
“I told you I was going to attack this one from a different angle,” Way said, allowing ‘Obby’ to fade away for a moment.
“Hey,” Jin said, sliding her hands into Way’s, “I think it’s awesome you can still surprise me.”
“You’re going to try to knock me down, aren’t you?” Way said, raising her eyebrow as a dare as much as a question.
Jin kicked the wall behind her and a secret door rumbled open, revealing a hidden lair, complete with a lushly appointed feast preserved in a magical stasis field.
“Maybe I was hoping you’d sweep me off my feet,” Jin said.
“You just added that while we were talking?” Way asked, admiring the melange of aromas which wafted out of the door.
“Maaaaybe,” Jin said with a mischievous grin. She brought her eyes up to meet Way’s gaze but found herself scooped up into a bridal carry which required more adjustment than she’d planned for.
“In theory, I’m supposed to be finding a path back to the rest of my party,” Way said.
“And I’m supposed to be keeping this world clear of further interference from the Remnants,” Jin said.
“How is that going?” Way asked, sitting down in one of the two chairs at the feast table and keeping Jin in her lap rather than transferring her to the other.
“It could be better,” Jin said. “I was able to make one of the Remnants here into a real creature, but the path he chose wasn’t the one I was hoping for.”
“What did he pick?” Way asked, conjuring the wine glass from the opposite side of the table to her hand.
“He chose to become a completely ordinary person,” Jin said. “I’d been hoping he’d opt for the hero’s path and become someone who could start a transformation chain for the rest of the Remnants that are trying to devour this world.”
“That would have been pretty convenient,” Way agreed. “Did he say why he chose to become someone ordinary?”
“Pretty much what you’d expect,” Jin said. “When he saw what this world had to offer, he wanted to experience it as fully as possible. He wanted hot days to feel hot and frigid winds to chill him to the bone. He wanted to feel hunger being satiated and thirst being quenched. And he wanted to dream.”
“I was wondering if the dreams would get him,” Way said. “Those are hard to give up.”
“Yeah, I knew there was a good chance he’d stick with them, but I figured it was worth a shot anyways. It seemed like it could be the answer after Tessa figured out how to convert a Remnant into something this world could accept.”
“Well, partially accept,” Way said, “The [Formless Hunger] is still breaking all kinds of physical laws here.”
“Have things started coming apart yet? Are you having to hold anything together?” Jin asked, a note of concern creeping into her voice.
“Not yet. Tessa did a real number on the Remnant when she turned it into the [Formless Hunger]. It’s only violating physical laws at the moment and those are kind of wishy washy suggestions in this world to begin with.”
“Do you want me to keep a closer eye on things here?” Jin asked. “I know how quickly things like that can change.”
Way popped a candied meatball into her wife’s mouth.
“It’s ok. The Hunger’s nowhere near the stage where I’d need to take the world apart to stop it, and it’s ok if I have to be the one to do it if it ultimately comes to that.”
“I’m trusting you about the first part of that, but if worst comes worst, please let me be the one to dismantle everything. I know how much it reminds you of some of the bad times you’ve had and I would literally do anything to spare you from that.”
“I thank you for that, but I know it’s not any easier on you,” Way said.
“It’s not easy, but I think it’s easier. Especially in this case. You’re a lot more embedded in this world than I am.”
“Yeah, I am,” Way agreed. “But that’s why if it’s got to be destroyed, I’m probably the right one to do it.”
“Because you can carry the essences of everyone to a new world?”
“Oh, I’m not getting into a competition with you on that one,” Way said. “I’ve seen how much you like creating new worlds. No, I should be the one to destroy this world because I’ll know when the people here have given up, and as long as they’re willing to fight on, I’ll be right beside them.”