Monthly Archives: March 2021

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 25

War is hell. War games on the other hand can be quite a different story.

Since they had several new sparring partners to work with, the [Sisters of Steel] had set their next session up as an unusual castle defense scenario. 

One area of the room was sectioned off by a ten foot high wooden picket fence with a single entry point. Inside the fence, a raised walkway behind the fence allowed the defenders to fire upon the attackers while enjoying a fair bit of cover.

For a normal town defense scenario, the attackers would have some goal inside the ‘castle’, anything from simply getting enough bodies inside before the defenders could repel them to needing to wipe out all of the defenders and claim the castle for their own.

In the version the Sisters setup though, things were a little more complicated.

“I understand the castle walls but why do the attackers get their own wall?” Rip asked, pointing to the smaller, four foot high barrier the Sisters had put up.

“Aggressors will most often enjoy the benefits of their own defenses,” Mother Graymourn said. “In this case, they’ll need them in order to deal with the defender’s allies.”

“Allies?” Lady Midnight asked as she strapped on a [Heavy Iron Chestplate]. Tessa wondered about that but a quick check of Lady Midnight’s normal gear revealed that she hadn’t found an updated robe since the tutorial which meant she was missing a significant amount of defense. The [Heavy Iron Chestplate] offered none of the spellcasting support a healer would want but it would at least reduce the blunt force trauma she was about to endure.

“The castle’s defenders will need to do more than hold out against a simple attack,” Mother Graymourn said. “In this scenario, the defenders have won the support of a local member of the nobility who has come to break the siege they’ve been under. The Noble and their forces will setup on the far end of the room. Their goal is to get the noble to the castle alive and, ideally, unharmed. The attackers can win either by eliminating the nobleman or by taking the castle. The defender’s earn their victory either by securing the alliance with the noble or by using the distraction of their arrival to eliminate the attackers.”

“How many fighters will each side have?” Obby asked.

“We’ll vary it up,” Mother Graymourn said. “That and the composition of the three forces. Mixed teams I think for the first battle though. That’ll give us the best view of where you all are starting at.”

“How many of them can you take in one battle?” Lisa asked.

“I think we’ve got room for eight,” Mother Graymourn said.

“That’s perfect. Lost Alice and I can spectate. That should help us plan out our battle strategies for tonight,” Tessa said.

It was an honest and true sentiment. Tessa was sincere in wanting a chance to evaluate her team’s combat prowess outside of a battle that she was directly involved in. That it also happened to allow her to remain cuddled up with Lisa and spared her from the inevitable beatdown the [Sisters of Steel] were going to deliver was really only a happy coincidence.

From the faint smile which rippled across Lisa’s face, she harbored similar feeling regarding the arrangement.

“Eight? So that includes us?” Baelgritz asked.

“Unless the years and the miles have addled this old noggin, I’m pretty sure I can count correctly still,” Mother Graymourn said. “Presuming you’re willing to step into the arena that is.”

Baelgritz shot a worried glance to Hermeziz, who passed it along to Illuthiz. Illuthiz answered with a roll of her eyes and a resigned shrug of her shoulders. Tessa suspected Illuthiz didn’t have much hope for the whole ‘leveling thing’ to apply to them, but the three of them at least seemed willing to prove the point out like the scientists they were.

“Wonderful,” Mother Graymourn said reading their silent acceptance for the confirmation it was. “We’ll form up into the first set of teams in two minutes. Make any plans you want and check your gear. Keep in mind though, you’re not going to be on the same side once the spar begins.”

“If we die, I’m going to haunt you both,” Hermeziz said.

“Exactly!” Baelgritz said. “Even death won’t part us!”

“They’re not going to kill us,” Illuthiz said, her amusement at their posturing tempered only by the need to deescalate the other two before they got completely out of hand.

“They won’t,” Lisa said. “As a warning though, they’re not going to hold back much either.”

“Are you used to sparring matches where magical healing is available?” Tessa asked.

“That sounds unpromising,” Hermeziz said. Tessa had originally pegged him as the most belligerent of the three, but time and exposure had changed that view. Hermeziz bristled the most easily of the three, but his concerns didn’t seem to be unfounded. That he was as open as he was about his reservations seemed to be a strange sign of trust. Tessa suspected that if Hermeziz had decided anyone around them was an immediate danger he would have said absolutely nothing to alert them to his awareness of it. 

It wasn’t fair to analogize a sapient being with an animal, but, despite that, people shared more behavior patterns in common with supposedly “thoughtless animals” than they usually cared to admit.

In Hermeziz’s case, Tessa wondered how good a model a dog might be for predicting his reactions. He seemed to have a fierce and protective loyalty to Baelgritz and Illthuziz, and he seemed to prefer the threat carried by barking to escalating to actually biting. As long as he was grumbling, Tessa was willing to hazard the guess that they were still in safe waters. If he went silent though? Even with several new levels under her belt, she didn’t want to see what that would look like.

“Would it be wrong to make some wagers on the first battle?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“Only if we tried to bet on our team winning,” Tessa said. She believed in her friends. She would fight and die with them. None of that changed the fact that she knew they were doomed. 

Oh, they’d be on separate teams, so one of their teams would win, but the chance that any of them would still be standing once the final victory was secured was effectively zero from Tessa’s perspective.

Lisa wiggled a little closer as the first spar got going.

Mother Graymourn had split the eight evenly between the defenders and the attacker, but had let them choose who they wanted to fight alongside. Rip, Matt, Lady Midnight, and Starchild had chosen to play as the attackers, while Obby, Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz assembled in the castle. 

To those teams, Mother Graymourn added a eight of the [Sisters of Steel] each, and setup another six as the allies. She took role of the Noble for herself, though she warned that the Noble was a noncombatant and so she wouldn’t be fighting and even a single attack against her would be enough to win a victory for the attackers.

Rip tried to take advantage of that the moment the battle began, firing a [Training Arrow] at Mother Graymourn for an instant win. It was a good idea, but also far too obvious to have a hope of working. One of the nuns near Mother Graymourn yanked the arrow from the air and hurled it back narrowly missing Rip only because Matt tackled her to the ground taking the both of them out of the fight for the first few moments.

That let them survive longer than Baelgritz and his crew though.

Rather than attack Mother Graymourn directly, the other [Sisters of Steel] among the attackers elected to make a frontal assault on the ‘castle’. Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz were defending the gate, and trying to take advantage of the full cover the position afforded. That prevented the first round of missile fire from targeting them, but when Sister Cayman burst through the gate, the three of them fell to a single spinning strike from the nun’s spear.

A minute later, the three plopped down on a spectator’s bench beside Tessa having removed themselves from the battlefield after the attackers were driven back. For authenticity they could have lain where they fell, but the prospect of being stepped on after losing so quickly didn’t seem to appeal to them.

“Well, that was worthless,” Hermeziz said.

“Also, not conclusive,” Illuthiz said, plopping down to sit between the other two.

“Yeah, we weren’t ready,” Baelgritz said. “We should play defense again next time.”

“Next time? We have to do a next time?” Hermeziz’s frown was audible in every syllable as he rubbed his collarbone.

“Want me to fix that up?” Lisa asked, beginning one of her healing spells.

“Can we stay on the bench if you don’t?” Hermeziz asked.

“You can stay, I’m going back in there,” Illuthiz said.

“Fine. Go ahead then,” Hermeziz said.

The next battle did see them on defense once more, but it did not see them last all that much longer. 

They opted to defend the gate again, but only the presence of one of [Sisters of Steel] with them preventing a repeat of the first round when Sister Cayman once again pushed through into the castle.

“How is she so fast!” Baelgritz complained, and Tessa felt all the sympathy in the world for him. 

“She’s higher level than us,” Tessa said. “But she’s not using raw speed. It looks like she’s doing what she did when I fought her. She makes really fast distracting movements but when she strikes, she’s slowing down her blows just enough to give her the control to move around your defenses. You had a good block there, it was just in the wrong place.”

“We should change up our order,” Illuthiz said. “Herm, how would you feel about taking point?”

“Terrible,” Hermeziz said. “I can’t keep up with that monster as it is. Being the first line of defense isn’t going to make that easier.”

“I know,” Illuthiz said. “We normally let Baelgritz take point, but you were on the [Fencing] team. I think we need your speed here.”

“I can’t fence properly with these clunky things,” Hermeziz said, gesturing with the [Blunted Long Sword] in his hand. “And even if I had a proper sword, I’m still not as fast as that woman is.”

“You won’t have to be as fast as her. Not if this idea works,” Illuthiz said.

After a quick question was tossed over to her, Mother Graymourn supplied Hermeziz with a practice weapon more to his liking. He wasn’t thrilled with it, the weight was wrong, the length wasn’t ideal, and against plate armor, light blades were a terrible idea. He had a whole litany of complaints, most of which seemed fairly reasonable, but despite them he still trod out onto the field.

And returned a couple of minutes later, once again defeated.

Tessa was pleased to see that they had survived Sister Cayman’s initial charge this time. In part that was because two of the other [Sister’s of Steel] had been there to help blunt Cayman’s attack. In part though, Illuthiz’s plan had worked. 

Hermeziz wasn’t a threat to Cayman, but that was only because she was able to disarm him fairly quickly. Even a fairly quick disarm however cost Sister Cayman a precious second in her attack and broke up her momentum. None of that was enough to allow them to steal a victory from her. Not that time, or any of the next half dozen until the teams got rearranged and they switched sides to try going on the offense. 

Offense proved to have it’s own headaches, with the trio being alternatively overrun by the allies in one round and then the defenders in the next as they surged out of the castle.

“This is the definition of insanity,” Hermeziz said. “We haven’t survived for even sixty seconds in any of these fights.”

“That’s true,” Lisa said. “But you are surviving for longer.”

“It feels like luck,” Baelgritz said.

“It is,” Tessa said. “But it’s luck your making for yourselves.”

Luck that was on course to turn into something much more from what Tessa could see.

They weren’t progressing despite their failures. Each failure was teaching them, and helping them learn. Beside their names, new numbers had appeared. 


Just like an [Adventurer].

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 24

‘Sitting on the bench’ gets a bad rep Tessa decided. She’d been able to stow Pillowcase’s armor away and was lounging on one of the spectator’s seats watching Sister Cayman provide the same sort of instruction to Sister Hecte as she had to Tessa. The spectacle of the combat was far more amusing to watch from a position where she wasn’t being dunked in the water every few minutes, but the real joy was feeling Lisa leaning against her in relaxation.

Pillowcase’s cloth skin was several thousand times less sensitive than Tessa’s vastly more fragile human skin, but Tessa’s enjoyment of being in contact with Lisa came less from the tactile pleasure it provided and more, far more, from the the sheer joy of Lisa’s existence. 

Pillowcase had no reference point for being drunk on love. [Clothwork] didn’t have biological imperatives towards procreation, or any threads in their design to capture an understanding of emotional connections. As far as the Consortium was concerned, bonds between soldier units were handled under the auspices of the command and control spells which ensured their troops loyalty. 

Delving back into Pillowcase’s memories yielded a treasure trove of surprises though. She’d never been in love and she’d certainly never dated anyone, or been physical with another sapient being outside of combat exercises, but she had developed crushes. Lots of them.

Where romantic love was something that existed between people, a sharing each person gave part of themselves to, crushes only required a single, yearning heart. The Consortium was able to suppress unwanted behaviors in their troops, but the loyalty spells hadn’t been able to touch the deepest corners of who Pillowcase really was.

And so she’d loved. On her own. From afar. But even bound up in every sort of enchantment she’d loved.

“Resting with you like this is a balm to my soul,” Tessa said, though for Pillowcase the feeling was even more true.

“I just wish this wasn’t so fun,” Lisa said. “I want this to be super boring so it will feel like it’s lasting forever.”

“Fun does seem to go by too quickly doesn’t it?” Tessa asked, thinking blissfully back to the ‘fun’ they’d had before she switched back to Pillowcase’s body. 

It was very good that [Clothwork] couldn’t blush. Vampires could though and Tessa spied a delightful reddening of Lost Alice’s features.

“Maybe we should have more fun in our lives,” Lisa whispered. It was a private telepathic channel, but the whisper still made Tessa’s knees buckle.

So it was good that she was already sitting. Flopping onto the group as the result of a conversation that was inaudible to everyone else would have been weird even for her.

“Now?” she asked, a unexpectedly large part of her hoping for an affirmative.

“We shouldn’t,” Lisa said. “But god is it tempting.”

[Clothwork] stomach’s didn’t come equipped with butterflies, and yet Tessa discovered they turned out to be capable of spontaneously producing butterflies by the bushel with the right prompting. The right, lovely, [Vampiric], sensual prompting.

Like, for example, the soft hand that was tracing a path down from her ear to her collarbone.

“You have no idea how much I want to run to the [Heart Fire] and change back right now,” she said.

“You have no idea how much I don’t want to even let you get that far,” Lisa said and then sighed. “But the others will be here in a few minutes.”

“And I should probably stay with Pillowcase’s body until we’re done with questing for the night,” Tessa agreed, releasing her excitement and accepting her current fate.

“Something to look forward to then, right?” Lisa said, her voice less sultry but still wonderfully warm.

“Something to fight for,” Tessa said. “I feel like it’s getting easier and easier to forget we’re doing dangerous stuff here. Or, not forget. More like…”

“Like ignore?” Lisa said. “I think I know what you mean. It’s not confidence exactly. I’m still deeply aware of how tiny our powers are compared to nearly everything in this world, but the idea of running into an [Elder Sand Worm] or something doesn’t seem as frightening as it did when we landed here.”

“Denial maybe?” Tessa asked. “We’ve run into some awful stull and survived it so far, well most of the time, so maybe that’s making it easier to pretend the threats aren’t as bad as we rationally know they are?”

“I didn’t get a degree in psychology, but it sounds fine to my layman’s ears,” Lisa said. “Maybe not super healthy, but at the moment, I’ll take it.”

“Huh, you know, that’s an interesting idea,” Tessa said.

“What? That we should indulge in unhealthy behavior because this whole situation is ridiculous and we’ll snap otherwise?” Lisa asked.

“No, although maybe, I mean what’s healthy in one environment may be terrible in another right? Adapt and survive and all that. What I meant though is that there are a lot of people who played [Broken Horizons] and who had all sorts of backgrounds. We’ve lost contact with our Earth, but there’s still people here with skills that you’d primarily find on Earth rather than in the [Fallen Kingdoms].”

“Skills like counseling and therapy,” Lisa said as she made the same leap Tessa had.

“They’re probably already working with the people they know, but there are hundreds of thousands of players. The vast majority of us will probably never run into them. But they could help so much if we could find one!”

“I’d be afraid of them being swamped with work, but metal health isn’t something I’ve heard anyone else talking about,” Lisa said.

“Our world could use a lot of work there,” Tessa said. “Though to be fair, at least we have psychologists, and counselors, and an entire profession devoted to it. When was the last time you saw a psychiatrist in a game who wasn’t the ‘crazy evil villain’?”

“Fair point. I’m guessing [Clerics] generally fill that role here, but they don’t exactly have a Cure Mental Wounds spell to work with.”

“Maybe Glimmerglass could help us get in touch with one?” Tessa said. “She was working with Penswell during the big battle, and, I think, is still reporting in. She should have a channel to any global efforts the players apart from the fight with the Consortium.”

“Worth a shot. My guess is that a lot of those efforts are on hold until the Consortium’s invasion is sorted out. If we were higher level, we’d probably be getting drafted to help too.”

“Worst case we could get an update on how things are going I guess,” Tessa said.

Lisa giggled, and Tessa shot her a quizzical expression.

“Sorry, I was just picturing us getting hooked up with a substance abuse counselor and having to sit there going ‘Hi. My name is Lost Alice and it’s been 20 hours since I last drank blood.’ Probably not that funny, but it seemed silly in my head.”

Tessa heard the echoes of emptiness in Lisa’s words. It wasn’t being a [Vampire] that bothered her. It was what being a [Vampire] had led her to do. 

Lost Alice was a killer. All [Vampires] of her bloodline were. The actions a newly risen [Vampire] undertook when the world was nothing but a bloodrage and they couldn’t form coherent thoughts couldn’t be held against them though. 

Lisa, however, had killed of her own volition.

Mikonnel had been a traitor to the [Fallen Kingdoms]. He’d be holding the two of them captive in the [Sunless Deeps]. He’d planned to do horrible things to them. The world was no poorer for his loss. And she’d been ravenous.

None of that kept the choice she’d made from weighing on her though.

And nothing Tessa could think to say would change that.

But maybe she didn’t have to.

“I mean, you could have made it two hours ago instead,” Tessa said. “I did have liters and liters of blood to spare then. Now you’d have to be content with fluff.”

“Eww, I don’t want to drain my girlfriend,” Lisa said, that gloom that had wrapped around her forgotten at least for the moment. “And you do not have liters of blood to spare. Don’t even lose one if you can help it. You need your blood.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tessa said. “I’m just saying that I don’t mind the idea of being a tasty snack.”

Lisa stared at her for a long moment.

“Oh my god. Seriously? That’s the line you went for?”

Tessa tried to waggle Pillowcase’s eyebrows and knew she was failing miserably. That was okay, cheesy pickup lines delivered with both full and absolutely no sincerity had a magic that transcended facial expressions.

“I should bite you for that, but then you would win!” Lisa said, incensed at the unfairness of it all.

“I’m clever like that,” Tessa said. “I’m kind of hoping we can find a child counselor though.”

“Feel like regressing a few years?” Lisa asked, her words honeyed with sarcasm.

“Not for me,” Tessa said glancing over towards the door where the rest of their party was finally arriving.

“Ah, yeah, them,” Lisa said spotting Rip and Matt at the forefront of the procession. “That could be pretty good. Assuming we can talk them into it.”

“Lead by example maybe?” Tessa said. “I don’t mind sitting on a virtual couch and talking about all the stuff we’ve been through. Or, I guess, in a virtual support group circle?”

“Given the circumstances, I’m guessing the support group model would probably work the best,” Lisa said. “It might even be something we could just do with the whole party even before we find an official counselor to lead us.”

“That’s a good point. We could do an ‘after action wrap up’ with the whole team and try to make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to talk about the deeper stuff that’s bothering them.”

“Right. Make sure everyone knows they’re not in this alone.”

“Not even our space demon friends I guess,” Tessa said as Baelgritz, Illuthiz and Hermeziz came in at the end of party’s train.

They didn’t burst aflame the moment their feet touched the chapel’s floor, which Tessa took to be a good sign.

A better one came a moment later as Mother Graymourn stepped forward.

“Hail travellers!” she said. “The [Sisters of Steel] offer welcome to all who come with goodwill and brave hearts”

She addressed the gathering in general but the bow of her head at the end seemed to be directly most clearly towards Illuthiz.

“I think our…friends are here?” Rip said, pausing as though paging through several options on how to describe Tessa and Lisa.

Tessa waved, catching their attention.

“Yes. They’ve had quite a good sparring session already,” Mother Graymourn said. “If you’d care to join us for a round too, we’ll be resetting our arena shortly and you’re welcome to stay for that.”

“I really want to see the nuns vs demons battle,” Lisa said privately.

“It does seem kind of iconic doesn’t it?” Tessa asked.

“That and I’m dying of curiosity to know if Baelgritz’s crew can actually level,” Lisa said. “I mean what would they even level to? They don’t have classes like ours. Would they gain one? Would they rank up in species type to one of the bigger demon types?”

“I’m going to bet they can, and they’ll just get better stats, no species change though,” Tessa said with nothing to support her guess beside her personal sense for how she’d design things. “It’ll be fascinating to see though either way though.”

Baelgritz seemed to have a similar thought and raised his hand like a student requesting permission to speak,

Which Tessa remembered he sort of was. Yawlorna had described her crew as effectively a bunch of grad students who she’d taken along on a research trip that went horribly, horribly wrong. Despite his appearance, it finally clicked for Tessa that Baelgritz might be even younger than she was.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 23

Tessa measured her life in segments broken up by what seemed like the usual milestones everyone else did. Going to school for the first time. Having her first period. Learning to drive. Graduating high school. College. Getting her first job. Moving out on her own. Those had all felt normal in part because of how spaced out they were. 

Hitting level 20 though? After no more than a few days from being “born” in the [Fallen Kingdoms]? 

On one level she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. The low levels in the game had been accelerated over the years to allow players to catch up more easily. It wasn’t like she was the first person to reach the lofty height of 1/5th the level cap. Glimmerglass was still more than four times Tessa’s current level.

All of that paled though before the whiplash of finding herself at what had once been one of the most significant level breaks in the game.

Originally, the first ten levels had been setup so that the players could largely solo them. Then [Broken Horizons] took the kid gloves off and the enemies started getting quickly more difficult.

Level 11 through 19 were the early partying levels, which various much bemoaned locations where players would gather and die en masse as newcomers worked out the basics of fighting as a team.

By level 20, the theory went, those early growing pains were done and the players were ready to start taking on more focused challenges in the form of the games first group dungeons.

[Broken Horizons] design philosophy had shifted over the years, but Tessa had joined early enough that her low level experience was still informed by the original designers mindset and they’d had some wild ideas on what sort of challenges were appropriate for beginning players.

In their defense, they were clever enough to make the challenges ones that taught the players how to overcome them, which was part of [Broken Horizons] initial success. Rather than being a byzantine nightmare of random events that lead to complete failure after hours of effort, the torments the [Broken Horizons] dungeons put the players through were ones that had pretty clear paths to overcome, and even the failures often came with some reward that made future attempts more likely to succeed. They were still ridiculously difficult in many cases, but since that was something of a standard for the industry at the time, [Broken Horizons] had the distinction of being the most approachable of the MMOs on the market by far, and as a result it prospered where other games floundered. 

From Tessa’s perspective, those early, tortuous dungeons had been more than a series of ever higher hurdles to leap though. They were touchpoints she’d shared with BT and all of her other close friends. They were experiences that united her guild, and were shared by everyone who played the game at that point. They became the cultural landscape that all her fellow [Broken Horizons] players understood and which set them apart from those who weren’t a part of their society.

And it had all started at level 20.

She knew [Broken Horizons] had progressed beyond level 20 being such a defining milestone. Later expansions had added earlier, and easier, group dungeons in at lower levels to get people into the “fun” sooner, and had toned down the difficulty on the hardest content either directly or through simple power creep of new abilities and items being stronger than the ones that came before. That had made the game accessible to a far wider range of players, and had been something that Tessa had argued in favor of in more forum threads than she could remember, even as she felt the  twinges of nostalgia for surviving the early brutal encounters that some of the players claimed was the lynchpin of the game’s existence.

“This doesn’t seem real,” she said, marveling at not just her own stat screen but the shiny ‘20’ that was sitting beside Lisa’s name too.

“Now imagine if we’d been using XP scrolls or potions,” Lisa said, a mirthful gleam sparkling in her eyes.

“Wait, did you know this would level us up this fast?” Tessa said, detecting a hint of knowing mischief lurking behind Lisa’s smile.

“Not at first,” Lisa said with a shake of her head. “After the first time you took a swim though, I noticed how much our xps bars had gone up.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Tessa said. “We lost all of those earlier rounds, and I basically lost this last one too.”

“Ah but there wasn’t any winning or losing here,” Sister Acroghast said. “This is training. The only important thing when your training is that you’re learning, and you two caught on a lot quicker than most that I’ve seen.”

“But, it can’t be that easy can it?” Tessa asked, still astounded at how fast she’d progressed without ever being in any real peril.

“You’d prefer it to be harder?” Sister Cayman asked.

“Oh, don’t worry, it will be,” Mother Graymourn said. “You’re still relatively unskilled. You have the basics down, but you’ve got so much more growing to do. The more you do, the longer and harder you’ll need to work to progress. I dare say there’ll come a day fairly soon when we won’t have much to teach you and you’ll need to search out other teachers or tougher challenges if you want to continue improving.”

“There are other places we can level like this?” Tessa’s mind boggled at the idea. Leveling in [Broken Horizons] had always meant walking through oceans of blood and climbing mountains of enemy corpses, at least figuratively, though a few dungeons took a stab at making that literal. Giving out levels willy nilly seemed like madness.

“Didn’t the beta testers mention this?” Lisa asked. “I thought they called out [Dragonshire] as having a bunch of different leveling mini-games.”

“They did, but somehow none of them thought to mention that the mini-games were a rocket train for fast leveling. That was unbelievable.”

“Weren’t they mostly over level 20 when they got here?” Lisa asked.

“Ohhh,” Tessa said, understanding dawning on her. “The training programs here are to let people who played the [High Beyond Tutorial] area catch up to the ones who chose to buy the [Quick Start] option?”

Gamers, being among the least patient people on the planet, were often willing to pay for convenience benefits and, once Egress Entertainment understood that, the option of buying a higher starting level for a character had quickly been rolled out. For enough money you could be a character at the level cap who was equipped with a decent enough set of gear to take on the the lowest tier of the end game [Raids]. 

In practice, there were enough quests and unlocks that characters needed that it was more practical to simply bypass the “tutorial levels” and start at level 20 once the “real game began”.

Tessa had never seen the point of throwing money away to skip new content, but given that some people created alternate characters like they were trying to single handedly populate the world by themselves, she could see where the five hundredth time of being a lowbie might get a little old.

“Hey, would we be able to have some friends come by to join you for sparring, or do you need to work on you own training for a while?” Tessa asked.

“We’re here for everyone,” Mother Graymourn said. “It’s our [Holy Mission] you might say. We’ll probably do some more round of [Walk the Plank] then take a break and switch it up. Good training needs to cover all the basics after all.”

“You’re thinking we get the kids, and the others here?” Lisa asked.

“Yes, definitely, before a thousand other [Adventurers] show up,” Tessa said.

“That’s a good idea. If we can get everyone up to level 20, we’ll have a much easier time with the [Cursed Walkers].”

“That’s what I was thinking. We were planning to use the lowest level [Undead] out there to work up to level 20. If we can start at 20 though, we’ll be able to handle bigger groups out of the gate and even take on some of the boss spawns.”

“You say boss spawns, and I hear enough rare loot to pass them out as party favors afterwards,” Lisa said and then switch to the party’s telepathic channel. “Hey folks! How fast can you get to the [Chapel]?”

“We’re not far! What’s the matter?” Rip asked, fright dancing in her voice.

“It’s not what’s wrong. It’s what’s right. Check your party list. Notice anything interesting?” Tessa asked.

“We’re all still alive it looks like,” Matt said. “And nobody new on the list.”

“But you’re listed as ‘Pillowcase’ again,” Rip said.

“And you’re level 20? When did that happen? What did you find?” Lady Midnight asked, the greedy longing for experience points of any sensible [Adventurer] plain to hear in her voice.

“We found the [Sisters of Steel],” Lisa said.

“Okay, that sounds badass. Are they literally made of steel?” Rip asked.

It wasn’t a particularly unreasonable question given the world they were in.

“Nope. Flesh and blood,” Tessa said.

“Awww,” Matt, the [Metal Mechanoid] said.

“They’re wearing plenty of steel though,” Lisa said. “And don’t really care if you drop them into a ten foot deep pool while they’ve got all that platemail on. So Rip’s pretty much correct on the badass front.”

“We’re headed towards the [Chapel] now then!” Obby said.

“Is it okay if Baelgritz and his crew come with us?” Rip asked.

Tessa had the strangest sensation that Rip had decided to adopt the three space travelers as though they were a trio of adorable pets. Given that Rip had been the first to pick up an actual pet so far, and that her first thought had been to name it after a mind numbingly dangerous chemical, Tessa couldn’t rule out the idea that Rip was intending to add the demonic looking trio to her menagerie.

“Should we be worried about Rip imprinting on space traveling demons?” Tessa asked Lisa on their private line.

“I think they’ve already imprinted on you,” Lisa replied privately. “I’m more wondering if our demon trio is imprinting on her.”

“They’re adults though, aren’t they?”

“They are, I think, but they’re adults who’ve been in a rough situation for a long time from what Yawlorna said. Then we show up and show them just how much worse everything they were dealing with could be. And then we show that we can deal with it and keep them alive. That kind of thing leaves an impression.”

“And Rip was the one leading the team when they went to [Sky’s Edge] wasn’t she?” Tessa asked.

“I think so. She’s got a lot of drive. I don’t know how much of that they were there to see, but she leaves an impression quickly.”

“Think we should check with the nuns to see how they’ll feel about three demons joining the festivities?” Tessa asked.

“Probably not the worst idea we could have,” Lisa said.

As it turned out, and Tessa decided it probably shouldn’t have surprised her, Moth Graymourn was all too eager to meet Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz. Granted she’d been told that they were ‘travelers from a distant world who appeared similar to the [Underworlders] we know’ but Tessa was sure none of the nuns had missed that she was saying ‘they look like demons, but they’re really not’. 

“You say they may not be able to learn from sparring though?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“We’re not sure,” Lisa said. “We’re familiar with a fictitious version of them. In the fiction we know, they’re basically static. But these aren’t exactly like the versions we know. They’re lower level than we are, so it might be that they’re stuck there and can’t progress.”

“If they’re people like you say, I don’t believe that will be true here,” Mother Graymourn said. “They may not want to, they may have a terribly difficult time with it, but the one thing that’s true of any person is that they’re always able to change.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 22

Tessa could not, it turned out, ‘do this’, where ‘this’ was overcome an opponent who was twice her level. Giving herself over to Pillowcase’s reflexes helped a little. Practicing Lisa’s advice didn’t seem to help at all first, but after Tessa’s fifth dunking things started to change.

“I think I see what you did that time,” she said as Sister Cayman helped her out of the pool. “You’re not using that much more speed than I am, are you?”

“Nope. I’m moving slower than you in fact.”

“But you’re capable of moving much faster aren’t you?” Tessa asked. 

She’d done as Lisa had suggested. She’d put together a strategy for each match. 

Her first one had been a disaster. 

Too many thoughts, too much planning. She’d pictured a nine step process through which she would partially disarm Sister Cayman, unbalance her, feint for a heavy blow and then shield bash to knock Cayman off the plank. The plan had gotten as far as ‘begin trying to disarm your foe’ before Cayman had swept Tessa’s feet out from under her completely. 

Tessa’s second plan had simplified things a bit, trying to a more straightforward disarm. It had failed just as quickly.

Reflecting on her failures had brought her plan down to “block and attack” with the idea that the attacks needed to be real without overcommitting herself so that when an opening presented itself for an unbalancing strike she’d be able to take it without thought.

It was a good plan. It had failed, but it was still good.

“Speed isn’t everything,” Cayman said. “A fast hit thrown at the wrong target is worse than useless.”

“Being too slow isn’t working out all that great either,” Tessa said.

“That’s not what you’re having problems with.”

“I’m barely able to parry or block your attacks,” Tessa said, but she knew Sister Cayman was right. Jerking her arms and body around faster wasn’t going to make up the gap in skill between the two of them.

“You were doing better in our last exchange,” Sister Cayman said. “And it looked like you were slowing down there too?”

“I was. I thought if I stayed loose and kept my movement more constrained I’d be able to keep up with you better,” Tessa said. 

It was one of the early lessons that had been sewn into Pillowcase. Don’t waste motion. Spend the force you can exert as efficiently as possible. Ideally, which each defense, make the attacker pay. 

The Consortium saw combat as basically the same as any other business transaction. Both parties wanted something, and the goal was to make sure you spent as little as possible achieving your objective  while ensuring that your opponent lost everything they had.

“You’re on the right track,” Sister Cayman said. “Do you want to keep going?”

Tessa glanced at Lisa and then at the other nuns who were waiting. Lisa was a bit soggy as well. Even [Vampiric Reflexes] weren’t enough to keep her from being pitched off her plank, though Tessa noted that the team healer was having a better time keeping her footing than the team tank was.

“I’d be happy to, but should the other people get a turn too?” she asked.

“Oh watching this is much more fun than going for a swim ourselves,” Mother Graymourn said. She was passing around a ceramic jug which seemed to be holding tea based on the cups the nuns were pouring the contents into.

It sounds like you noticed something? Lisa asked privately.

Maybe? I think I know what she did to me this last time, Tessa said. She’s mixing up her heavy hits with her quick ones, but the ‘quick’ hits aren’t really any quicker than the solid ones. It’s disorienting and it’s making me focus on the wrong things. I’m trying to shift my block at the speed I’m perceiving her moving, but that’s not lining up with her real attacks.

So what’s your game plan to deal with that? Lisa asked, climbing onto her plank once more.

I can’t just slow down. If I’m too sluggish, she’ll land a regular old normal hit on me.

That’s what you can’t do. Think about what you can, Lisa said.

Pillowcase had several ideas on that subject, including calling in close air support, retreating to rearm with some long distance plasma bolters, and deploying mines along the planks. That none of these ideas were feasible wasn’t lost on Pillowcase, the Consortium simply had fairly specific ideas on how superior foes were to be dealt with.

What I can do is go more on the offensive, Tessa said. I leave more openings when I do that, but just like I can trust to my armor to protect me from the blows, I need to start trusting my dexterity to help me regain my balance. 

Sounds like its worth a shot, Lisa said. Remember; picture it working. Then stop thinking.”

Turning off her mind had been something Tessa was never good at. Sitting quietly had been impossible for her as a kid, and meditation had never accomplished any more for her than providing time for her to obsess over whatever anxiety was chewing on her mind.

Pillowcase was able to help there, fortunately. Fighting required a special kind of awareness, not empty headed, but empty, a distinction which Tessa didn’t immediately grasp.

With the plank beneath her feet though it started to come to her.

Cayman was on her own side of the pool, waiting for Mother Graymourn to call for them to begin. She looked interested but serene. This wasn’t anything of monumental importance to her. It was just training with a new fighter.

A tightness in Pillowcase’s chest released. Ego could be a terrible master, as could buying into the narrative that showing weakness or failing a test revealed unforgivable flaws.

In theory that bit of anxiety should have come from Pillowcase. She was the one who’d faced the constant threat of being recycled for parts if she couldn’t meet the Consortium’s strict testing standards. Pillowcase knew that wasn’t an idle threat either. Several of the [Clothwork] in her original production lot had been deemed defective and been instantly scrapped when their combat performance reviews came down.

Tessa felt the anxiety that had vanished wasn’t derived from Pillowcase’s memories though. It was derived from her own.

Pillowcase was used to trials overseen by severe, stone faced proctors, where each subtle flaw was noted and judged secretly. A [Clothwork] only discovered they had failed the tests when the command word was given for the them to shutdown permanently.

The [Sisters of Steel] were the polar opposite of that, with their jovial banter and a shared and open review of each bout that seemed to be focused on helping the loser improve rather than placing each failure on a scale that would eventually seal the loser’s doom.

Social failings weren’t an issue for [Clothwork] since they were built to work in whatever groups the Consortium saw fit to assign them to. Another solider was always welcome, where Tessa’s experience with groups had been far less welcoming at pretty much every stage of her life.

In Tessa’s world, it felt like, if they weren’t ostracizing her or belittling her then people were looking to take advantage of her, usually for things she was too naive to know to look out for.

But Sister Cayman didn’t seem to be like that. And neither did Mother Graymourn, or Sister Acroghast. The nuns in general seemed to just be interested in having fun. Tessa could see it in Sister Cayman’s smile and the easy, eager way she walked down the plank. 

She wasn’t holding back, when they fought, Cayman was fighting to win. She respected Tessa’s skill, even if it was less than her own, and as a result she was using their battles as a chance to solidify the basics, which was something Pillowcase knew even the most advanced fighters needed to work on pretty much constantly.

Did Cayman have special moves that would have completely overwhelmed Tessa? Probably. 

Was she trying to humiliate Tessa and demonstrate much more powerful than Tessa she was? Absolutely not. 

This was training. It wasn’t about being perfect, or being able to dominate everyone else. It was about learning.

Tessa smiled back at last.

She didn’t have to be perfect. She didn’t have to win. All she needed to do was understand. 

She might not get even a single hit better than she was in this session, but that wouldn’t matter. She would carry everything she did, and everything Sister Cayman did, with her. She’d turn each blow, each block, and each fall over in her mind and draw out from them everything she could to make herself better and stronger.

But first, she had a fight to win.

More offense, she thought and Pillowcase breathed in bringing the world into focus.

Everything was now, and everything was here.

Cayman threw a triple thrust to start.

Same as their last fight.



Block and miss.

Hit to the head.

Dip and move into rising mace swing.


Spear thrust to the left shoulder.

Off balance, but correct with a knee bend.

Use the bent knee. Surge forward. Offense. Shield bash.

Blocked by the spear.

Push through.

Cayman gave a step.

Overextended. Shift back. More offense. Mace swipe to the knee.


Hah. No surprise.

Spinning strike from the spear.

Very overbalanced.

Catch the spear with the shield and pull.

Cayman’s solid. Good for her. Also good for recovering balance.

Cayman kicked high. Shield caught part of it. Armor soaked the rest.

Reply with a high swing. Ring her bell with the mace.

Nope. She is too damn fast.

No. Don’t try to match her.

Not fast. Ready for the mace.

Spear strike to the back of the right knee.


No. Don’t ask. Just attack.

Kick the spear. Straight punch.

Connected! Right to the face!

Oops. Gah. Head butt. Not expected. Balance not great.

There goes a leg.

Drop? No! Jump!

That’s higher than…

Spear hit, right in the gut, right after reaching the top of the leap.

No balance. No leverage.

Going in the pool.

Land in a handstand on the plank.

How was that possible in armor? 

Do. Not. Think.

Spear right in the back.

Face down on the plank.

Flip backwards and up.

Balance restored. Ground lost.

Also the mace. Where? Bottom of the pool, probably.

Spear to the head? Nope, dodged.

Shield charge!


Cayman’s stronger. A lot stronger.

Fall back. Literally fall. Trying to slide between her legs and get passed her.

Nope. Plank’s too small. She stops that with a boot to the chest.

She jumps back.

Jump back too.

Lots of space. Good for a spear user. Bad for a mace and shield fighter who’s lacking a mace.

Cayman nods towards the pool. An invitation to jump in and save her the trouble?

Yeah, hell no.

Turn with empty left hand forward and give her the ‘Come get some’ gesture.

Cayman laughs.

Laugh with her. Can’t help it.

Spear strike.


Spear slam.

Interrupted with a shield charge.

Shield charge interrupted with shoulder strike.

Falling back from the shoulder strike.

Grab the haft of the spear.

Going off the plank. Taking Cayman too.


Fight’s done.


Is it?

Cayman’s swimming back up to the plank.

She dropped her spear there.



Mother Graymourn said the winner was the first person to step onto the other team’s side.

She didn’t say the fight stopped when someone fell into the water.


Not for the plank.

For the other side!

Tessa pulled herself up from the water on the opposite side of the pool to find Sister Cayman a foot behind her with the most amused expression on her face.

“That was really good!” she said. 

“Does this count?” Tessa asked. “It’s not cheating is it?”

“Of course it’s cheating!” Sister Acroghast said. “That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d learn here.”

“I believe what my second-in-command means to say is that, finding a path to victory outside of the constraints that seem to be imposed on you is the lesson she was most definitely failing to mentor you in, and congratulations on picking it up on your own,” Mother Graymourn said. “Also, no, it wasn’t cheating. I never said you couldn’t swim around your opponent.”

“Not a great plan in general, but you totally got me with it,” Sister Cayman said. “I thought you were just going to come up like the other times.”

“Then I believe you’ve learned a lesson too,” Mother Graymourn said. “Opponents don’t stop being opponents until the battle is completely done, and sometimes not even then.”

“Yep, and if I learn it another hundred times, maybe it’ll stick,” Sister Cayman said with a bashful smile.

“I’m grateful for all of this,” Tessa said. “This kind of experience is invaluable.”

“More than just experience,” Lisa said. “Check your xps.”

Tessa glanced at the head ups display for her own basic stats. She’d been so focused the display, the chat log, and everything else had faded away completely, so she’d missed a few important things.

[Soul Knight Level 20 Achieved!]

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 21

Walking the plank was not, generally, supposed to be a pleasant experience. The narrow beam under Pillowcase’s feet though felt as firm as a football field of solid bedrock. That was the good news. The bad news was that Sister Cayman looked to be as sturdy as solid bedrock too, and she was having just as little trouble navigating the beams over the pool.

“The rules are pretty simple,” Mother Graymourn said. “The first team to have someone set foot on the other side’s ground win. If you get knocked off into the water, try not to drown. If you get killed, try to float long enough for us to fetch your body out. And, as always, remember to have some fun. Begin!”

That was it. That was the extent of the coaching the [Sisters of Steel] offered for their sparring session. The only help beyond that was Sister Acroghast taking a spot on the easternmost of the plank, leaving the central and western planks for Pillowcase and Lost Alice to defend.

Sister Cayman was nice enough to introduce herself as she and Pillowcase stepped onto the opposite ends of the central planks, but once they were locked in battle, the time for casual banter was done.

The planks were about half as wide as Pillowcase’s shoulder. Plenty of room for her feet, but it did require that she take a fighting stance with her right foot well in front of her left and her body twisted to present the shield in her right hand forward. It was a solid defensive position but with her weapon arm shifted back, throwing viable blows with her the practice hammer they’d lent her was challenging.

Sister Cayman had either fought battles in this particular arena before, or lucked into a fortunate choice of weapons. Spears, it turned out, were ideal for situations where direct thrusts were difficult to avoid and the stepping inside the spear wielder’s reach wasn’t a particularly simple option.

“Don’t let her drive you back,” Sister Acroghast called out over the ringing blows from the two handed maul she was using.

Pillowcase had been giving ground each time Cayman doubled up on an attack. It was easy enough to block the spears initial thrust. That’s what shields were designed to do and they were good at it even in the hands of a relatively low level combatant like Pillowcase. An experienced spear user like Sister Cayman was familiar with that too, and had strategies to work around it. When her first strike missed, as it was all but guaranteed to, she was able to follow it up with a series of probing, short range, thrusts, each following a new path around the shield.

Tessa knew her armor was good enough to protect her from blows with the force Cayman was throwing. She also knew that a successful hit could not only knock her off her feet and into the pool below  but also create larger openings even in the case were the first wasn’t enough to get the job done.

So, when the spear thrusts began to overwhelm her, she’d given ground, spending distance to buy time. 

And it had worked. 

Sister Cayman was clearly higher level than Pillowcase. Tessa would have known that even if she was stuck with her regular human eyes. Being able to see the “30” for Cayman’s level made things such much simpler and Tessa once again found herself wondering if she could keep Pillowcase’s vision even after she switch back to her human body.

Contemplations like that earned her a smash to the side of the helmet. The blow tipped her center of gravity to the side, but Pillowcase’s well designed footwork was enough to keep her on the plank.

“Stop trying to not lose,” Sister Acroghast said.

Tessa wasn’t sure who that was direct at. Sister Acroghast was facing her opponent when she spoke, but the advice seemed generally applicable.

Not that it was practical advice. Or even necessarily good advice.

It had the benefit of being simple to follow – all Tessa needed to do was tumbe off the plank and she would definitely have stopped trying not to lose. Somehow though, she didn’t think that was what Sister Acroghast had in mind.

Sister Cayman took advantage of Tessa’s confusion to get in a solid shot below the shield, stabbing Pillowcase’s leg so hard, Tessa though it was going to tear off. 

It didn’t, but it did leave Pillowcase balancing on one leg for a moment while fought to regain her balance.

Lacking any better options against a vastly superior foe, Tessa tried to hurl herself forward with the thought that if she could carry Cayman off the plank with her, at least she’d be protecting their side from an attacker as best she could.

It was a good plan, a valiant one even.

It just wasn’t good enough.

Sister Cayman saw the Pillowcase coiling for the charge and chose that moment to step forward and strike with her weapon as though it were a staff. One quick high blow that connected with Pillowcase’s shield was followed by an even faster low sweep which took her legs out from under her.

And like that it was done.

Tessa felt herself splash into the cold water and heard the cheer go up from the other [Sisters of Steel] a moment later when Sister Cayman stepped off the plank.

It wasn’t embarrassing to have been knocked off her plank by a level 30 [Guardian]. The math for a matchup between almost any level 30 against almost any level 15 was clear and decisive, so there was no shame in defeat. If anything Tessa felt proud at having delayed Sister Cayman for as long as she did.

Or she would have if Lisa hadn’t still been standing on her plank when Sister Cayman helped Tessa climb out of the pool.

“Well done, well done!” Mother Mayhem said. “Evaluations? Anyone want to comment on what they saw?”

“I saw that I picked the wrong weapons for this,” Tessa said.

“Don’t blame the tools,” Sister Acroghast said.

Tessa wanted to object to that, but she considered how spectacularly ill suited a two handed maul Sister Acroghast had used was for the battle scenario before them. 

And yet Sister Acroghast had chosen it in place of a spear and a sword and shield she’d been offered.

It was a bad call, but Tessa had written it off as Sister Acroghast trying to level the playing field a bit, since she outleveled Sister Cayman and the other junior members of the [Sisters of Steel] by more than Cayman outleveled Pillowcase.

Maybe it was more than that though?

“Pillowcase’s footwork was limited. I would guess this is the first plank battle she’s fought?” Sister Cayman said. “Also from the stance she took, she is probably used to having strikers gathered behind her.”

“Bah, that’s too easy to guess,” Sister Grigrin said. “She’s an [Adventurer]. Of course she hasn’t fought like this before and, wow, how shocking that she’s used to having other people handling the striker role for her.”

“Let’s give Sister Cayman a chance to speak,” Mother Graymourn said. “What was it about her footwork that led to your conclusions Sister?”

Tessa felt both mortified and fascinated by the discussion. Listening to people pick apart her incompetency in exacting detail was pure nightmare fodder, but, the conversation was so practical and analytical that Tessa was almost able to avoid taking it personally.

“Certainly Mother,” Cayman said. “When we started she squared off in a standard defensive stance. As we began our exchange though she stayed in the same stance, only retreating to buy distance as I pressed her.”

“Isn’t that reasonable?” Mother Graymourn asked, the question existing only to be refuted. “The plank limits movement. Keeping a solid base and maintaining her focus on defense against a superior foe are sound tactics, no?”

Phrased like that Tessa’s choices seemed reasonable, but the phrasing was a trap.

“Not in this scenario,” Cayman said. “Her stance was acceptable for balance, but removed her offensive options. Retreating as she did would have bought time for strikers to do their work, but with no backup and no offense, she would have inevitably been forced off the plank.”

“One she was backed onto solid ground, wouldn’t she have been at an advantage though?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“Her position would have improved, but the same move that took her off the beam would have let me claim a spot on their side,” Cayman said.

Tessa was able to picture that all too easily. Landing on solid ground would have been less of a fall but even more embarrassing. Falling into the water had looked like Sister Cayman got in a lucky shot. Falling when Pillowcase had plenty of support under her feet would have made it crystal clear that she was unable to hold Sister Cayman back in the slightest.

“What would have been a workable strategy then?” Mother asked, a pleased expression suggesting that she found Cayman’s analysis acceptable so far.

“With a shield forward stance, she could have pressed for a grapple, moving forward and claiming space with the shield rather than surrendering it,” Cayman said. “If that didn’t work, she could have used a pivoting backstep to reset our positions and switch to an offensive stance before using the impact force of her mace to destabilize my balance.”

“That would have left her open to your strikes though,” Mother Graymourn said.

“She possesses a good enough strength to body mass ratio to make avoidance a viable technique,” Cayman said. “Alternatively, her coordination rating is high enough that she could have relied on soaking the blows with her armor and compensating for the impact with body control.”

“Soaking the blows from a level 30 [Guardian]?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“Well, I wasn’t hitting that hard,” Cayman said, looking somewhat abashed to have missed a point in her otherwise solid case.

“Well, what do think Pillowcase?” Mother Graymourn asked. “What did Sister Cayman miss?”

“Not much,” Tessa said. “She’s right that I’m not used to fighting like this. I was designed for fighting with a full squad of other soldiers. Usually with a specific objective in mind, and usually against inferior foes. Bodies like this are costly to make so we don’t get thrown away casually. Not usually at least.”

“Think you can do better next time?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“I can try,” Tessa said. Pillowcase was used to training, but Tessa’s nerves still hummed with anxious energy.

“Good,” Mother Graymourn said. “Let’s get setup again then. I want everyone to watch Pillowcase this time. Check her footwork. Check her balance. She’ll try the suggestions Sister Cayman made. But Sister Cayman knows that. Be ready to make some new ones for the next round.”

Tessa was surprised that the other nuns were okay with giving her another turn. She’d guessed that she would need to wait for all of them to have a chance to cycle through, but it seemed like they were all more than happy to watch her step up for another dunking.

“You going to be okay?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“The only thing that holds a bruise is my ego,” Tessa said. “I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised I’m losing to a level 30, but it’d be nice not to suck quite so badly.”

“That’s what training’s for,” Lisa said.

“I’ll try to remember that as I head into the water this time,” Lisa said.

“Nope. No negative thoughts. If you get knocked off, you get knocked off. Don’t plan for losing,” Lisa said.

“Just being realistic,” Tessa said.

“Don’t be. I know the game was basically a big math puzzle, but this feels a lot more like a real competition,” Lisa said.

“What’s the difference? Aside from the obvious lack of numbers I mean.” 

“In a real competition, mind set matters. A lot,” Lisa said. “And in training it matters more. This is brand new, so processing what’s going on is hard. Hard, but not impossible. You can get a jump on it by visualize how you’re going to win. You need to reach for that and fight for it, and then, however it turns out, evaluate what happened so you be aware of what’s happening more easily next time.”

“That sounds like iterating on a section of code,” Tessa said. “I can do this!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 20

If Tessa had felt superhuman before, Pillowcase’s body left her feeling godlike.

“There’s literally no effort to this,” she said, lifting her chin to the makeshift pull up bar Lisa had arranged. “Can we try making this harder?”

Tessa took a half moment on hearing her own words to shake her head in wonder. It wasn’t that surprising though. If workouts had ever been this easy, she wouldn’t have hated them with the passion of a thousand burning suns. 

Or may that was just the trauma of her Phys Ed courses speaking.

Considering it honestly, she probably wouldn’t have spent a lot of time on workouts if she had a body like Pillowcase’s because what would be the point? For a person made of cloth, getting ‘ripped’ was generally a bad thing. 

Plus it wasn’t workouts that increased her strength. 

“Hmm, you’re level 15 now and probably at least three times stronger than you were as a [Void Speaker]? Maybe more since [Soul Knight’s] are a melee class?” Lisa wasn’t really speaking to either Tessa or Sister Acroghast. She was lost in an analytical trance that Tessa had seen (and experienced) several times when a programmer was working on a complicated bit of code. 

It was neat to see that physical therapists could get into a similar headspace. 

Or maybe that was just Lisa.

“Climb on,” Tessa said.

“Uh, what?” Lisa asked, shaking her head free from her thoughts.

“I want to see if this will get any harder,” Tessa said. “Climb on my shoulders and we’ll see if I can do these with both our weights. It’s that or Sister Acroghast can help me out. That platemail looks nice and heavy after all.”

Lisa rolled her eyes at the suggestion that she’d allowed the armor clad nun to glom onto her girlfriend.

“Stop if it feels at all painful,” Lisa said, putting her arms around Pillowcase’s neck. “We don’t need to pulling a muscle. Or tearing your stuffing or whatever [Clothwork] do.”

Lost Alice’s added weight was noticeable, though not enough to make Tessa feel like she needed to stop. She knew she was somewhere over two hundred pull-ups and felt like she could do another two hundred easily.

“You’ll need some proper equipment if you want to do any real training,” Sister Acroghast said. “We’ve got some that should be fine for a level 15 melee fighter, but I know most of you [Adventurers] prefer to build yourselves up following your own paths.”

“This isn’t so bad,” Tessa said, referring only in theory to the physical exercise. The fact that a loving [Vampire] lady was literally hanging on her arm was rather more central to her thoughts.

“You’re not getting tired?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t think I ever could,” Tessa said. She wasn’t great at flirting. She knew that. And it was sort of unnecessary with a girl she was already with, but that was also when she felt the most comfortable trying it.

Sadly, Lisa’s response to it was to hop off Tessa’s back, and gesture of Tessa to stop, which Tessa did somewhat grudgingly. She’d never had much physical strength before and getting to revel in it was too glorious an opportunity to pass up.

“Then I think we’ve run as much the test as we need to,” she said. “Thank you for indulging us Sister.”

“It’s been fascinating,” Sister Acroghast said. “We don’t normally see people come in and change their entire species. Not to mention that I haven’t seen any [Clothworks] up till now. She seem to be quite well made.”

“For all their faults, the Consortium does demand quality in their elite troops,” Tessa said.

“It’s surprising they tossed you away so easily?” Sister Acroghast.

“The commander of the mission wasn’t exactly talented,” Tessa said. “His replacement managed to almost overwhelm the world in about a day rather than losing spectacularly in a single great big battle where they had the element of surprise and the option of orbital bombardment to support their effort.”

“But from the reports we’ve heard, those victories seem to have been overturned as well,” Sister Acroghast said.

“We heard about that too,” Lisa said. “Apparently there’s dissension in the ranks over a change in leadership.”

“Now that you mention it, that strikes me as weird too,” Tessa said. “They had magical mind shackles on us when I fought. It was why all of us fought at all in fact. The Consortium is very aware that people do not like following their orders, and they’ve had a long time to work out measures to ensure disobedience doesn’t affect their bottom line.”

“Perhaps some of the troops they brought aren’t under magical compulsions?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“It is a lot more troops than they used the first time,” Lisa said.

“In theory that shouldn’t matter,” Tessa said. “The protocols were clear that all troops were expected to show unquestioning obedience and the only ones who weren’t subject to a magical compulsion to ensure it were the ones with a long history of willing compliance.”

“So all of their armies are magical slaves?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“Not all, but a large portion,” Tessa said. “It’s horrifying beyond words, but there’s other things they do that are so much worse the plight of their troops tends to be forgotten.”

“We’re not going to forget it,” Lisa said, her hand on Tessa’s arm easing tension Tessa hadn’t noticed she was carrying.

She thought of the other [Clothwork] soldiers she’d served with as Pillowcase. The memories were so different from the ones she held as Tessa but the longer she was in Pillowcase’s body the more vivid they were in her mind’s eyes.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to see them any time soon,” Tessa said, images of what a fully equipped squad of the Consortium’s elites could do if they were set loose in [Dragonshire] painting nightmare scene after nightmare scene across the landscape of her imagination.

“Well, if you do, you’ll want to ready for them,” Sister Acroghast said.

“It’s going to take a long time for that to be true,” Tessa said. “The Consortiums elites can go toe-to-toe with the highest level [Adventurers] out there.”

“Which is why you don’t fight them toe-to-toe,” Sister Acroghast said. “Come along to the afternoon sparring session and I’ll show you what I mean.”

“Seems like an odd place to learn how not to fight, but I’m game,” Lisa said.

Tessa shot her a quizzical expression.

“What? I’m not melee fighting class. Seeing how to win a fight without needing to stab someone myself seems like a great idea to me,” Lisa said.

Tessa had to concede the argument made sense, so she followed Sister Acroghast back down to the corridor to the [Chapel’s] central room.

The wooden poles which had simulated a dense section of forest had been cleared away. In their place three long beams of thick wood were suspended over a pool of murky grey water.

“That wasn’t there before was it?” Tessa asked. 

On the far side of the room the [Sisters of Steel] were emerging from the residence wing on the far side of the pool and collecting the practice weapons they’d left in the racks there.

Bubbles in the pool gave the water the appearance of boiling stew broth but Tessa didn’t feel any heat radiating from it.

“It’s part of the magic of the chapel,” Sister Acroghast said. “The central chamber here is built from [Malleable Space]. It can be whatever the [Master of the Keys] wishes it to be. Within reason of course.”

“There’s a monster in there.” Pillowcase’s guess was more than a passing through. Threat evaluation was one of a tank’s primary duties, and she’d been given plenty of training across a wide variety of potential battlefields to teach her what to watch out for.

“More the simulacrum of one, and not a particularly dangerous one at that,” Sister Acroghast said. “This is meant to be training after all.”

“Training for what though?” Lisa asked.

Sister Acroghast cast a quick wave to Mother Graymourn who was helping one of the other nuns put on a gorget. Mother Graymourn nodded and gathered up a box full of armor before walking blithely over the middle plank of wood. That she did so without looking down, or slowing her pace noticeably told Pillowcase all she needed to know about how familiar the senior nuns were with this practice arena. 

“What happened to the other one and who’s this?” Mother Graymourn asked, nodding towards Tessa as though she were a newcomer.

Which she supposed she was.

“We’ve met already. I’m Pillowcase, this time in Pillowcase’s body,” Tessa said. “This is what we wanted to see the [Heart Fire] about. Or one of the things.”

Mother Graymourn blinked in surprise, cocked her head to get a different look at Tessa, and then shrugged her shoulders.

“It’s good look, but can those arms hold a sword?” she asked.

“Give me one and we’ll find out,” Pillowcase said. 

Tessa wasn’t that cocky. 

Except for all the times when she was playing and she felt like she was at the top of her game.

Of course with Pillowcase’s eyes, she knew she had to be a little careful.

[Dragonshire] was a level 30 town for the most part according to Tessa’s research on the beta. There were quests and challenges which would take a character to higher levels – up to 50 if they were willing to tackle the full extent of the local dungeon and grind for a while – but most of the town’s folks were either noncombatants or topped out around level 30 so that the [Adventurers] could grow beyond them.

Sister Acroghast however was level 55, and Mother Graymourn was level 60. Not near the level cap but both eminently capable of wiping the floors, the walls, and most of the ceiling with a level 15 [Soul Knight].

Not that they would in a sparring match.


Generally, after the first couple of expansions, [Broken Horizons] hadn’t forced the players to waste time on battles that were scripted to be unwinnable or set against impossible foes. When the storyline called for a thing like that to occur, the game would insert a cutscene instead, so the player could at least watch a nicely rendered movie of their character receiving a colossal butt kicking.

Tessa hoped she wasn’t stepping into one of those.

Pillowcase found she kind of didn’t care.

“Is that for me?” Pillowcase asked, gesturing to the box full of armor.

“Yeah, but it looks like you’ve got your own,” Mother Graymourn said. “Does that have any [Retribution] style enchantments on it?”

“Not yet,” Pillowcase said. “If there’s anyone in town who could put one of those on though, I’d love to meet them.”

The popularity among tanks of an enchantment which damage anyone who damaged you with a melee attack wasn’t hard to explain. At low levels though the availability of magic like that was extremely limited.

“Can you swim in it?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” Pillowcase said. “I could probably manage long enough to climb out of that pool though.”

“And you know where the [Heart Fire] is, obviously, I think that’s all we need right?” Mother Graymourn asked, glancing over to Sister Acroghast.

“We should probably fill them in on the rules for this type of sparring,” Sister Acroghast said. “And Lost Alice will need some armor as well I believe?”

“I’m good with my own stuff too,” Lisa said. “These robes have their own enchantments, and I’ll need to learn to compensate for them being weaker than the metal stuff you all wear.”

Tessa was about to protest that Lisa should be able to stand safely behind Pillowcase, but stopped herself.

They’d already seen multiple scenarios where Pillowcase wasn’t able to keep Lost Alice free from harm. Pillowcase would always want to protect Lost Alice, but Tessa didn’t need Lisa to be helpless and dependent on her. 

In her heart, Tessa wanted Lisa to be as amazing as she could be, wanted to always hold her up and never hold her back, and it was the tiny seed of faith that no matter how far Lisa went, and how little she needed Tessa, she’d still choose her, still want her for who she was right now, just as she was, that promised to bloom into the love Tessa had spent her whole life longing for.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 19

Burning up was supposed to hurt. As the flames spread down Tessa’s arms though she felt no pain at all.

“Are you okay?” Lisa asked, catching her hand back as she instinctively reached for Tessa.

“Yeah. Wow,” Tessa found it hard to focus or form words. “I think this is good. Maybe?”

The flames had spread to her shoulders and were licking the side of her head as the spread down her body as well somehow.

That wasn’t how flames usually traveled.

Was she supposed to stop, drop, and roll? 

That was the right thing when you were on fire, right?

She gasped as the flames wrapped around her face and the world turned a brilliant white before her.

The flames weren’t white though.

Why was she seeing white?

Did she care?


The flames were working. That was what was important.

But what work were they doing?

Healing her? Except she wasn’t damaged. 

Transforming her? That was what she wanted right? To go back to being Pillowcase. To be able to protect everyone.

Except that hurt.

She’d died doing that.

More than once.

And more than died.

Her thoughts started to fly apart when that idea struck them like a hammer against the anvil of her memories.

The flames were everywhere.

She wasn’t herself anymore.

She wasn’t Tessa.

She hadn’t been Tessa for a while.

Was she anything? Really?

The seems of the world were frayed and coming undone.

She could see the wounds it bore.

And beyond the rents in the fabric of time and space, she another world. It was bleeding too. Both worlds were falling apart. Being devoured.

Like she had been.

The cloth she was cut from was too frail.

It always had been.

Memories battered her as words tried to reach through the flames, but the memories were stronger. Sharper.

The failures of her past tore through her, slice the threads of sanity she clutched to veil away the truth.

She’d been convenient for Crystal for a while too, someone who could support her and didn’t ask for much. But Crystal had seen through her. Had seen that the support Tessa offered could go only so far. That Tessa couldn’t socialize like a normal person. Like a real person. All Tessa had was a few interests and a nebulous idea what she wanted out of life. 

Crystal had needed more, and Lisa would too. In time.

That was why she was running away into being Pillowcase wasn’t it?

It wasn’t about protecting the team, it wasn’t about giving anything to anyone else, it was about hiding from her own inadequacies.

Both worlds that Tessa knew were crumbling, but she was going to crumble before either one of them could manage to because, as so many people had told her, that was the kind of failure she was.

No we’re not.

A montage of memories danced past her, each armed with the blades of her failures to cut through that denial.

Who is doing this?

We’re are. I am.

Should we stop then maybe?

I don’t know. Doesn’t this look right?

The memory dancers were like windows into the past, human shaped cutouts in space through which played one painful scene after another, each on infinite repeat, none lose their edge, no matter how many times they spun past. 

Of course. We wouldn’t be afraid if these weren’t believable. It doesn’t mean they’re right though.

Aren’t we just hiding from something we don’t want to admit if we deny them though?

We don’t have to hide. This isn’t who we are. It’s what we’ve done. And what was done to us.

Then why does it feel so much more real than all the rest?

Because we don’t feel safe and we want to know why and need to believe there’s something we can do to avoid the pain we remember. So we get lost in these memories hoping to spot what we can do differently, because that lets us feel in control.

Just another sort of weakness then.

Yes. An important one.


Being weak isn’t something to be ashamed of. Everyone is weak. What’s dangerous is refusing to acknowledge that. Refusing to admit what we fear. Refusing to understand what our fears are trying to tell us. 

Our fears don’t hate us. 

They want more than anything to protect us.

But it’s not their job to figure out how.

So we’re afraid of something and we need to work it out?

Yes, but more urgently, we’re on fire and probably coming apart at the seams.

We should stop that.

Yes, we should.

Is it weird that I feel better now? After talking with myself?

Yes. Very weird. Now let’s go be the kind of weirdo we’ve always wanted to be.

Tessa felt the flames drawing within her. Not burning her away but filling her up. The blazing light in her eyes cleared as blessed clarity returned.

“TESSA!” Lisa was shaking her by the shoulders.

That was probably a bad sign.

How long had she been in the transformation fugue?

“Pillowcase! Can you talk!” Lisa said, still shaking Tessa’s shoulders.

No. Pillowcase’s shoulders!

“It worked!” Tessa said.

“Oh thank god,” Lisa said, sagging in relief. “My heart doesn’t even beat and you gave me a heart attack.”

“Oh, sorry, did it look that bad?” Tessa asked.

“You were writhing and engulfed in flames. It looked unpleasant,” Sister Acroghast said.

“Were you okay?” Lisa asked. She’d stopped shaking Tessa but hadn’t let her go. 

Tessa wasn’t sure she ever wanted her to either.

“I was,” she said. “It was a little freaky, but the introspection helped I think?”

“Introspection?” Lisa asked.

“After the flames got to my, uh, eyes, I couldn’t really see anything and then it reached my brain my thoughts went a little whacky. This is sounding really bad isn’t it?”

“Do I need to answer that?” Lisa said, incredulity dripping from every syllable.

“It didn’t hurt at all though,” Tessa said. “In fact it felt kind of fantastic. But in the middle of the transformation I started getting hit with all these doubts, and weird visions. I think I was doing it to myself though. Basically I was hesitating on whether I wanted to change back into Pillowcase and I had to work that out before the transformation would complete. It’s like a checksum on certainty or something.”

“A what?” Lisa asked.

“Sorry, that’s a computer thing. When you want to make sure a bunch of data is correct you include a checksum with it, basically if the datas right when you add each bit of it together you’ll come out with the same number as the checksum. This was kind of like that. I had to be certain that changing was what I wanted, or what I needed. If I wasn’t sure, I think I would have lost the flame and been left just as I was.”

Lisa regarded her with a narrowed, calculating gaze.

“You see the world in such an interesting way,” she said and it seemed to be both a simple compliment and an observation of something far deeper.

“I like things to make sense,” Tessa said, not wanting to suggest that her clumsy metaphors were particularly insightful or meaningful.

“Perhaps you can help me understand exactly what happened here then?” Sister Acroghast said.

“It’s complicated and not something we can really prove,” Tessa said, “but the short form is; I and a lot of the other [Adventurers] are two people in one. Some weird stuff happened to me and the end result was that I wound up in my body from the other world I come from. Or at least something similar to it.”

“Other worlds are covered in the second year of the [Sisters of Steel] curriculum,” Sister Acroghast said. “We’re familiar with several dozen of them. Why one was your other self from? Or is this the self from another world?”

“It’s sort of both,” Tessa said. “The body I was wearing before comes from a world we call Earth. This body was manufactured by the [Consortium of Pain] and doesn’t really have a homeworld,” Tessa said. “Important point, I am not with the Consortium at all. They abandoned me after the first failed incursion. Without their interference I was able to break the last of the binding spells they had on me. You’ll find a bunch of [Clothwork] and [Metal Mechanoids] in the group at the [Great Hall] who have the same story. We’re all different now, but I believe we all hate the Consortium with enough fury to burn it to ash if we’re ever given the chance.”

Sister Acroghast was taken aback for moment but she’d been around the block enough times and swung her axe against the [Fallen Kingdoms] enemies for long enough that Tessa’s story barely raised one an eyebrow.

“I don’t think we’ve catalogued an ‘Earth’ yet,” she said. “Is that also where the Consortium come from? We’ve heard a bit about them from our other chapter houses.”

“No. Earth has nothing like the Consortium,” Tessa said. “No magic either. We don’t understand how any of this happened.”

“It was probably a [Wizard]. [Wizards] are trying to figure out what they ‘could’ do without bothering to ask if they ‘should’.”

“We know a few max level [Wizards],” Lisa said. “They’re all as stumped as the rest of us.”

“If I may ask, why did you wish to return to this body?” Sister Acroghast was appraising Pillowcase’s form with a look that said she had certain suspicions about Pillowcase’s capabilities.

“This body is better adapted to this world,” Tessa said, restraining her joy at having a proper heads up display again. She still planned to return to being Tessa a fair portion of the time, but for all the advantages a human body help, she knew she’d always miss having a live stream of data in her vision explaining critical things about what she was seeing.

“It looks like you might know how to fight in this one?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“I’ve swung my mace a few times,” Tessa said.

Looking down some finally noticed one of the more obvious changes she’d undergone, namely that it wasn’t just her body which had transformed. Her gear was different too!

“Though not this particular mace,” she said, drawing the weapon off the ring on her belt.

It hummed with power in hands. A [Crusher] enchantment unless she missed her guess. 

Oh, and she no longer needed to guess! 

[Meteor Mace of Crushing]. Level 15. Her level. The [Meteor] property meant it’s impact damage was matched with a flame burst of equal intensity. The [Crushing] enchantment was a later addition. It would send a portion of the impact, and the flame, through solid armor.

It was rare to see [Meteor] weapons at low levels, and almost no one bothered with enchantments on lowbie gear.

And it matched her level.

The gear she’d been using in the [High Beyond] hadn’t. It wasn’t terribly obsolete but it had been lagging by a few levels, as was typical when relying on random loot from monsters.

“Still in [Heirloom] gear,” Lisa said. “That’s interesting.”

“Sounds like you’d do well to test out your kit if it’s new to you,” Sister Acroghast said.

“That is not a bad idea,” Tessa said. “Are there any low level monsters around here that you know of?”

“Sparring would be a bit safer,” Sister Acroghast said. “We finished up our midday spar a little while ago, but the afternoon spar will be starting before too long.”

“You let outsiders join in?” Tessa asked, somewhat less than interested in being drafted into an order of militant nuns.

“Of course! We’re open to all of honor and good faith!”

“Before you do that,” Lisa said. “I’ve got the baseline data from your other body. We should really see how Pillowcase’s compares.”

Tessa looked down at her magically reinforced cloth body and sighed. Lisa had a good and valid point, but without the lure of ‘playing doctor’ the prospect of endless pushups and stomach crunches was a lot less appealing.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 18

Playing doctor was supposed to be fun. It was also supposed to be taboo to do in a church. Which would make it ever more fun. Tessa, however, was not having any fun at all.

“Push-ups? Seriously?” she gasped out as she pushed through yet another one, trying to hurry through the test Lisa was running her through.

“They’re a nice basic exercise,” Lisa said. “We can work on some of the more complicated ones once we’re done covering your other muscle groups.”

“Other muscle groups? How many do I have?” Tessa asked, despair filling her heart as flashbacks of high school Phys Ed classes swam through her mind.

Lisa laughed at the question. It was the laughter of someone who’d heard the question often. It was laughter which offered no mercy though.

“Okay, that’s a full five minutes,” Lisa said. “You did good. Really good in fact. Roll over onto your back now and we’ll see how you do with stomach crunches.”

“You do know that I’m a cubicle potato right?” Tessa asked. “The last time I did a push up or a stomach crunch was, uh, never maybe?”

That wasn’t strictly true. She’d been forced to do a variety of unpleasant exercises in high school, or had tried a handful of times to start “getting in shape” on her own. The longest of those efforts had lasted three days though and she was sure had used up her lifetime supply of stomach crunches.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do them properly,” Lisa said.

That hadn’t been a concern in Tessa’s mind. At least not until Lisa mentioned it. The idea of messing up something as simple of a stomach crunch seemed not only likely but also fatally embarrassing in light of the suggestion that Tessa might do one wrong.

“You’re just torturing me for fun. Admit it,” Tessa said as she rolled onto her back and let Lisa align her feet and legs properly.

“I will admit to nothing,” Lisa said.

“And how is this playing doctor? I’ve had physicals. They don’t make you do this kind of stuff!”

“I’m going to guess that your regular doctor doesn’t have senses that are keyed to follow blood flow through your body,” Lisa said, the mischief in her smile still so damn tantalizing that Tessa could  scream.

“So, wait, you’re watching my blood?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest as Lisa directed her to.

“Watching. Listening. There’s a few other senses I’ve got now it seems,” Lisa said. “The others map to sight mostly though.”

“What do they show you?” Tessa asked, rising up into the first crunch.

“Health analytics,” Lisa said. “They seem to be spells, or parts of spells? Cantrips I guess. Basically, if I focus in on area of your body that’s changing somehow, I can see some graphs and statistics about how that spot if performing compared to the what your usual baseline is. Or maybe it’s what the average baseline is? Oh, I see, it’s showing me both, I just have to concentrate on it harder.”

“Both what?” Tessa asked, she was on her tenth stomach crunch? Could that be right? On her own she could do, one, maybe two?

“The graphs get more detailed the more I look at them,” Lisa said. “I’m watching your respiration now, and I can see what your normal rate is, what your current rate is, what the average rate for a human woman of your age and build is, and what the optimal level for you would be. Oh and what the max level for a human is. Wow, this is just so cool!”

“I’m glad I make for an interesting experimentation specimen,” Tessa said. 

Was that twenty stomach crunches?

No, was that twenty stomach crunches after five minutes of push ups and, if so, why wasn’t she feeling tired?

“Sorry, I just would have loved to have this in my day job at home,” Lisa said.

“You were a physical therapist right?” Tessa said, continuing on with the stomach crunches since neither was Lisa telling her to stop nor was she feeling like she had to.

“Physical therapist, personal trainer, part-time assistant coach,” Lisa said. “Its fun but the days can be pretty long sometimes.”

“Is this how you test out all your patients?” Tessa asked.

“It depends what they need,” Lisa said. “Physical therapy patients? They’ve usually got a specific need and so we focus on correcting or strengthening that. Personal training clients? It’s a question of what they’re training for, so sometimes we need a full baseline for them.“

“And me?” Tessa asked.

“You? I want to know everything about you,” Lisa said.

“So stomach crunches till I puke then?” Tessa asked.

“No! Definitely not,” Lisa said. “Are you feeling any pain? Or fatigue?”

“I should be,” Tessa said. “How many of these have I done so far?”

“That was one hundred and thirty,” Lisa said. “If you’re feeling at all sore, go ahead and stop.”

“So, here’s the weird thing,” Tessa said, as she continued crunching, “I don’t. I mean, I still look like me right? I’m not as fit as you are. But this isn’t hard. And it should be impossible. On Earth, I’d be dying I think, or at the very least in a ball on my side unable to move.”

“That fits with what I’m seeing too,” Lisa said. “Your pulse, and respiration, and oxygen levels are better than what a top end runner at rest would have.”

“Uh, what?”

“You’re not a cubicle potato,” Lisa said. “If you got up now and started running, you’d probably break some world record marathon times.”

“Seriously?” Tessa said, pausing at the top of a crunch. She knew Pillowcase was capable of superhuman feats – [Clothwork] soldiers were simply built like that – and she knew she probably wasn’t exactly an “Earth standard human” anymore either. The thought that she might get more out of becoming a [Fallen Kingdoms] [Human] than just a class and some gear was a new one.

“Yes,” Lisa said. “You are seriously amazing.”

“Does that mean I can stop doing exercises?” Tessa asked.

“I’ve gotten a pretty good look at what’s going on with your body,” Lisa said before the mischievous smile returned and she leaned in close enough for Tessa to feel Lisa’s breath on her neck, “But I’d like an even better one.”


Lost Alice wasn’t always cold.


Sister Acroghast remembered the two visitors when the midday sparring session finished up a few hours later. She found the two were still in the [Chapel], though they seemed to be analyzing the [Heart Fire] rather than praying quietly or speaking with someone who had departed.

They also looked rather disheveled which seemed odd but then they were [Adventurers] and [Adventurers] were expected to be stranger than not.

“The big thing we need to be sure of is that this won’t hurt the [Heart Fire] itself,” Tessa said.

“No, the big thing we need to be sure of is that this won’t hurt you,” Lisa said.

“If I get a little singed, you can patch me up,” Tessa said. “If the [Heart Fire] gets damaged, then maybe we get another wave of [Disjoined] followed by [Formless Hunger] round 2.”

“Excuse me,” Sister Acroghast asked. “What are you speaking of?”

“Oh! Hello Sister!” Tessa said. She hadn’t heard the nun enter the room and fought the urge to hop away from Lisa like they’d been caught at something.

“She might know,” Lisa said and turned away from the [Heart Fire] to face Sister Acroghast. “We know the [Heart Fire] can create vessels for souls to return to. Do you if they can also transform existing bodies?”

“Transform in what manner?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“If the body a soul was in was the wrong one, have you ever heard of a [Heart Fire] being able to correct that?” Tessa asked.

“That depends,” Sister Acroghast said, evaluating the two woman with more care. “Simple cosmetic changes are rarely possible. Nor are changes intended to enhance one’s physique. There’s no short cut to strength and endurance, besides putting in the hours of training. There have been people though who were unhappy with their current form, who dared touch the flames with their living hands. Not all such people can catch the fires. I don’t know what quality they possess or lack but for those people, the flames are no more than pretty lights. For the others however, the ones the flames of change lit upon? They burn, but in burning become something wholly new.”

“And do any of them just burn?” Lisa asked. “Does the [Heart Fire] ever hurt the people it touches?”

“And is the [Heart Fire[ itself ever harmed by that?” Tessa asked.

Sister Acroghast looked them over for a moment before answering.

“No, [Heart Fires] are eternal. They cannot be damaged by anything in this world. As for the people? I have never heard of anyone being harmed by a [Heart Fire] though the transformation itself has been reported differently by different people. And, I suppose, bringing someone back to life on a battlefield is an indirect sort of harm. But no, there too, the [Heart Fires] essence is renewal. They do not cause harm. Not in the immediate sense.”

“That’s good to hear,” Tessa said, relaxing visibly at the news.

“Except that we’ve seen that [Heart Fires] aren’t eternal,” Lisa said.

“What do you mean?” Sister Acroghast said. “They are divine. Only one of the creators could extinguish them.”

Tessa and Lisa shared a silent look before Tessa spoke.

“We’ve seen a [Heart Fire] that was destroyed,” Tessa said. “It was in the [High Beyond]. When the Consortium forces attacked.”

“But they’ve been attacking here and there aren’t any reports of the [Heart Fire] shrines being destroyed?” Sister Acroghast said.

“They used different weapons and different troops in the [High Beyond],” Lisa said.

“And there were something else there too,” Tessa said. “It was nameless when it broke through, but it’s become more real since then. The last time we saw it, the creature had become a multitude of [Hungry Shadows].”

“One became many? And what are these [Disjoined] that you mentioned?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“Another problem that we’re hoping the [Heart Fires] can help with,” Tessa said.

“They are the ones who are in the wrong bodies?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“Them too,” Tessa said.

“There’ve been reports of the [Disjoined] here on the surface, so we know they’re not limited to the [High Beyond] like the [Hungry Shadow] is.”

“What sort of creature are they? Can a good axe slay them?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“The ones we fought weren’t particularly tough,” Tessa said. “But we don’t want to destroy them if we don’t have to.”

“They have no treasure? Or don’t provide any experience?” Sister Acroghast, correctly naming the two most likely reasons [Adventurers] wouldn’t be interested in killing a hostile monster.

“They’re people,” Tessa said. “Or the mixed up fragments of people.”

“Many monsters are,” Sister Acroghast said.

“I think these ones we might be able to help. Or I might be able to help,” Tessa said.

“The [Sisters of Steel] will always stand with those who seek to bring mercy and healing to the world,” Sister Acroghast said. “If these [Disjoined] are hostile though, it may be that destroying them is the only option we will have to keep you and the others in this town safe.”

“Oh, we don’t need you to keep us safe,” Tessa said. “That’s the bigger part of why we’re here.”

“If you seek a transformation which will guard you from an enemy, I’m afraid you’re heading for a disappointment,” Sister Acroghast. “Attempts to become a mighty [Wizard] or powerful [Warrior] have universally failed.”

Tessa and Lisa shared another silent gaze before Tessa spoke once more.

“I think this situation might be just a little different,” she said and turned to reach her hand into the [Heart Fire].

When she pulled it back out a wreath of fire was playing down from her finger tips which were already starting to change.