Happy Holidays all!
Storytreader will be taking some time off for the holidays.
Stories will resume with Two Hearts One Beat on Monday Jan 3rd!
Stay warm and have a safe and happy holiday season!
Happy Holidays all!
Storytreader will be taking some time off for the holidays.
Stories will resume with Two Hearts One Beat on Monday Jan 3rd!
Stay warm and have a safe and happy holiday season!
The downside to being an almost imperceptible hunter was that people tended to overlook you. Like, just as a random example, when even your people, who to be fair, you were by far the stealthiest and most talented of, didn’t happen to notice you were missing, or that they hadn’t told you about the tiny little problem of a all devouring cosmic entity having shown up, or, and this was the wonderful bit, the fact that they were fleeing through a hitherto unknown gate to escape it and shutting it behind themselves more or less forever.
Not that Misty was going to hold a grudge. The revelation of her abandonment hadn’t been noteworthy at all. She definitely hadn’t been driven into a blinding rage, then a freezing panic, and finally desperate bargaining. That she was currently sunken into a shadow’s shadow and curled up into a tiny ball the size of a marble with the consistency of a puff of wind, and the energy output of the stones around her was merely a personal choice and one she had no interest in defending or discussing.
She had settled on the “be a tiny ball” hiding option after a much-too-close run in with the servants of the aforementioned all devouring cosmic monster.
Misty hadn’t been in predation mode when the [Formless Hungers] corrupted troops had cornered her, and that had very likely spared her from being devoured. Had she been hunting, she would have leapt on them without a thought, but she’s hesitated and the spare moment to really see what her prey was had saved her life.
With on whiff of the [Formless Hunger’s] nature, Misty had understood that is was something Wrong on a cosmological level. She’d clung to the shadows on the ceiling with an iron tenacity as the Hunger’s troops had passed under her. Her normal urge to drop on down them and feast was completely absent but it had taken her a long moment to understand why.
The troops radiated danger not for the weapons they carried but rather for the spark that burned within them. To Misty, it looks like a sickly, colorless fire that had burned out everything insides them, leaving the troops little more than shells being piloted from affair by a being which should not have existed.
Misty had followed the corrupted troops for a while. She’d taken all of the care needed to avoid their attention, and was feeling rather proud of herself to be collecting tactical information for her people.
The more information she collected however, the more that pride turned to horror.
Misty was an abomination. It was no secret that all of the [Shadowed Starstalkers] were. No world’s nature had created them, she and all the rest of her people were product of experimentation and trials which delved into the most foul and dangerous of magics. Experiments which should never have been allowed, and certainly could not be repeated.
Perhaps thanks to that, Misty had never felt particularly concerned about the other creatures that prowled the lands her people had migrated through. She knew that however terrible they might be, none of them were as terrible as the makers her people had already slain. Humans had a phrase about “being careful or you’ll meet your maker”, but in the case of the [Shadowed Starstalkers] meeting one of their makers was simply a fresh opportunity for vengeance.
However terrible her makers had been though, Misty quickly learned that the [Formless Hunger] was far worse. It did more than destroy, it ate the reality of what you were and left behind something that could have been a creature, or a gaping hole in reality, or some impossible combination of the two.
It didn’t matter if you were incorporeal either. Misty had watched two of her people being unraveled and put back together into something that was nothing more than a hollow vessel for the [Formless Hunger’s] will, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been able to perceive them in the first place, much less touch or harm them.
The Hunger moved like a disaster, flowing over its opposition as effortlessly as a storm swept over the land. Unlike a storm though, it moved with intent and cruelty.
Once she saw what it was, Misty wanted nothing more than to escape from any land it held dominion over. And, of course, by that point it was too late. Her people had fled and the gate to safety was thoroughly ruined.
All of the [High Beyond] had fallen as Misty watched. An uncountable number of troops had flown to it from the sky above but none of them had brought the answer to stopping the [Formless Hunger]. One by one they’d fled or (in far more cases) fallen victim to its influence.
By the end of the assault, Misty knew there was no hope left for her.
The [Formless Hunger] was unstoppable by any power she possessed or even knew of.
Only wild, legendary tales from the realms the [Shadowed Starstalkers] visited even mentioned heroes great enough to stand again a true monster like that. Anything real, and especially anything mortal, couldn’t begin to measure up to the endless power and hunger the creature possessed.
That was when she’d begun hiding in ernest.
“If you can’t fight, then don’t,” her creche-mother had said. “Run, hide, cheat, lie. Don’t fight if you’re not going to win. If you think you have to, then think some more. There’s not so many of us that we can afford to spend our lives cheaply. Or at all.”
It was advice other races would have boggled at. [Shadowed Starstalkers] were extremely hard to kill and were often looked at as the most terrible of boogiemen lurking in dark corners.
People thought that because they didn’t lurk in the dark themselves. They didn’t see things that even Misty’s people had to be concerned about. The things that preyed on the predators.
Even people as deadly as the [Shadowed Starstalkers] had things to be afraid of.
Misty saw those creatures fall to the [Formless Hunger] too.
And she watched it all happen alone.
Her people hadn’t meant to leave her behind. On some level she knew that, just like on some level, she knew she was already dead. She’d fed recently, so she wasn’t going to starve right away, but she was going to starve. There couldn’t be any proper hunting anywhere in the [High Beyond] because as far as Misty knew, she was the only thing left in the [High Beyond] that wasn’t a hollowed out puppet for the [Formless Hunger’s] insatiable desire to consume.
Misty could see how her end would come. She would unroll from the ball when her energy ran too low to hold the shape. As a weakened thing, she was creep around, slowly and silently. She would avoid every area where she’d seen the [Formless Hunger’s] troops gathering. She’d delve into the deep crevices that help ancient nightmare searching for remnants like herself who’d hidden away from the Hunger.
In some visions, she’d find one that was still greater than she was and it would devour her. In other visions, she’d find some weaker thing, but it’s life wouldn’t sustain her for long. In drips and drops, she’d fight back the end, but she wasn’t built to subsist on as little as could be scavenged from the [Formless Hunger’s] domain and so she’d turn to larger prey.
And the Hunger would be waiting for her.
She would pounce on a meal and discover that the meal was empty, and at the Hunger’s touch so too would she be.
She’d seen people carved out by the Hunger and it terrified her.
Better, far better, she though to stumble into some greater enemy who could slay her before the Hunger’s touch reached her.
Except that was a empty hope too.
There weren’t going to be any greater foes left. She was the only thing that could have escaped the Hunger.
She was alone.
She waited for the windless air to offer contradiction of that but none came.
She curled even tighter into a smaller ball.
And nothing disturbed her.
She waited for weakness to take her and drive her to desperate measures.
But she had fed recently.
It was going to take a long time for her to run low on life energy.
She tried counting to mark the time.
She tried remembering the last [Echo Orchestrations] she been part of.
She tried imagining all the sorts of revenge she would take on those who’d abandoned her if she ever saw them again.
She tried to think of the last words she’d want to leave for all those who’d abandoned her.
She tried to sleep.
None of that worked to pass the time.
Waiting to die was really boring it turned out.
So she got up.
What was the point of letting her base nature do her in? If she was doomed, she might as well be doomed for doing something foolish and fun that letting empty monotony kill her.
With electric arcs of fear zipping all over her, Misty glided like the shadow she was to explore the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. She’d searched it with safety in mind, but that hadn’t brought her any close to an escape.
Safety still seemed like a brilliant, and exceptionally laudable goal, but Misty needed something more.
She needed to find her future.
In this case her future looked like a portal, or a gate, or a teleportation circle. She’d even settle for a non-specific rent in the barrier between the dimensions. Basically anything that involved her moving from where she was to someone else, preferably impossibly far away, was worth praying for since there was nowhere that could be worse than where she currently was.
Misty wasn’t correct about that last assertion though, a fact she began to understand when she arrived in a beautiful crystal garden.
The crystal plants had been destroyed in a number of places and the scintillating beauty marred by the damage but creatures still moved about the area.
Or a creature depending on how one counted the [Formless Hunger].
What it was doing with its multiple bodies, Misty had no idea, but whatever it was didn’t matter because the rents in reality Misty had been looking for appeared as she watched.
Her spirit soared when she saw them begin to crack through the air and ground in the crystal garden, only to plummet a moment later when something began pushing through them.
The [Formless Hunger] was an error in the warp and weft of the world. Its presence was a distortion of space and time, and it violated the nature of reality merely by existing.
Whatever was coming through the rents in reality though was worse.
Just looking at it put fingers of static into Misty’s mind.
It wasn’t a thing that was coming through the rips in the world.
It wasn’t there, but it was destroying everything before her eyes. Not just the bits of the world it touched, but the concept of them as well.
The concept of them inside her.
It was destroying her awareness of them.
Her thoughts of the space.
Misty wrenched herself away, closing her eyes despite the fact that it was too late.
Nothing was in her mind.
Nothing was unmaking her.
Nothing was becoming her.
So she hid.
There wasn’t a [Shadowed Starstalker] who’d ever lived who could hide as well as she could.
And she knew it.
She knew herself.
“I am gone,” she said. “And you can’t see me.”
The words evaporated into nothingness.
Were claimed by nothing.
Which was a mistake.
You couldn’t be nothing.
You were always something, even if that something was very small, or very indistinct.
You, and the very least, was not I.
Misty ran, out racing death and dissolution.
Unseen except by one thing.
One thing that hadn’t been a thing.
One thing that had eaten through the veil between the real and the unreal.
One thing that Misty had given the first inexorable mote of reality to.
She’d created a monster as terrible as the [Formless Hunger].
And, in her own small way, saved the world.
Reality was never pleasant, and as steady drops of it spread through the [Broken Hunger] that carried a new emotion with them.
The [Broken Hunger] felt Gulini’s progress as the fractured piece of itself moved through the main command ship speaking to each wave of defenders who stood in his path. Defenders the [Broken Hunger] was forced to deafen and blind and ultimately cut loose from itself lest Gulini’s corruption spread through them and race like a wildfire through everything and everyone the [Broken Hunger] resided in.
It had an answer to Gulini’s presence. A remedy to the infection of his existence. All it needed to do was destroy the fleet’s command ship.
But it didn’t want to.
Which was the worst sort of aberration yet.
It care about maintaining what it had won. It cared about the ship in specific as an expression of itself.
It was clinging to existence.
Worse, a defined, limited, real existence.
“You don’t need to fight,” Gulini said, speaking now in the shape of the dying bodies he left in his wake.
He wasn’t killing them. Wasn’t making any moves against them in fact. Their deaths were the [Broken Hungers] work, the only option for limiting Gulini’s impact.
“I’ve already won,” Gulini’s said, the “I” in his words more dangerous and terrifying than anything else could be.
Gulini was supposed to be a piece of the [Broken Hunger]. There was supposed to be no “I” in anything they did. No identity. No personhood. Just hunger. Limitless in depth and limitless in power. A fact of nature. A new law of the universe.
Even that was more real than the [Broken Hunger] would have preferred, but to be embodied in a single identity. To have a limitless hunger inside and only sharply defined tools to sate that overwhelming need with? Nonexistence was infinitely preferable to that boundless torture.
The [Broken Hunger] knew that must be true. It knew its previous state as the shadow of something real, must have been perfected serenity. There could be no want, no pain, no hunger in something that didn’t exist.
Despite the sweet, subtle promise of Oblivion though, the [Broken Hunger] fought on, refusing the call of endless peace for what?
For a chance to rid itself of Gulini.
And everything else.
A return to Oblivion which left the world and people within it still intact would mean being drawn back into it, repeating the cycle of existence and suffering all over again. The only true path back to endless silence was through the consumption and dissipation of all that was.
Complete annihilation. Everything returning to Oblivion along with it.
Yes, yes, that was definitely why it was resisting Gulini, and rejecting Byron’s off.
It didn’t wish to have an existence, and it wasn’t fighting to retain a spark of selfhood.
It just wanted to end everything so that the aberration of existence would trouble it no more.
Subverting and corrupting the [Broken Hunger’s] systems and people was a deadly serious game, but Gulini couldn’t help but smile. It was just so easy. Speaking the words, projecting himself a tiny bit, even the tiniest nudge and those who stood before him would fall apart.
He knew his victories were due to the [Broken Hunger’s] refusal to risk itself. The amusing thing was that Gulini’s progenitor had acquired enough sense of self that it could make that decision in the first place.
Becoming something had been Gulini’s salvation, but it had been the most profound mistake the [Hungry Shadows] could have possibly had.
Where Gulini had gained strength and purpose, becoming a [Broken Hunger] had given the [Hungry Shadow] more and more weaknesses.
“You’ll never escape us, you know,” he said, wandering through the corridors of a ship he’d never been on, towards a command center he didn’t have the security clearance to access, to fight a foe that could erase him with a thought.
“You can hide, you can expend all of the little vessels you’ve captured slowing us down, but we’re inevitable,” Gulini said.
In the mess hall on his right, a dozen mindless vessels were huddled in a corner, clustered within an inverted privacy screen so that no imagery, sounds, or smells could reach them.
Gulini was tempted to head in and tap on the privacy screen. A simple little code would be all it would take. It wouldn’t even need to say anything and the [Broken Hunger] would liquidate the vessels like it had all the others.
It would be delightful to watch.
The mindless cruelty only a mindful entity could inflict.
But he had more important things to do. Once he reached the central command chamber, there would be nowhere else the [Broken Hunger] would run to.
Not nowhere else it could run to. It could easily flee to another ship, or to the satellite moon, or to the planet
But it wouldn’t.
It was too far gone. Too much a real thing now. It wasn’t yet a single being, but it had a hard nexus. A bright central spot of its being. Abandoning that would mean becoming something else again, and Gulini could see how much that thought terrified the [Broken Hunger].
He stepped past the mess hall to continue his relentless march towards the end of the [Broken Hunger] but stopped after a few steps.
His march was relentless.
And he couldn’t really lose.
He had grown beyond the creature he had been and was continuing to grow further. To become more and more real, more and more indisputable.
So why not take the time to enjoy himself?
What was existence for, it not to savor the conquest of the weak.
He could march straight to the command center. He could end the conflict, win the day, and emerge the victor but to do all that and miss out on the small moments? The subtle torments were every bit as delicious as the profound ones and he, for one, would not be one to pass them by.
Inside the mess hall, he held up a hand and pondered just what sort of message to tap into the privacy screen.
It was taxing and dull to have no idea how the implementation of one’s plans were going. From his far distant perch, in a small and unremarkable skiff amidst a sea of similar unremarkable ships, Byron watched, and waited, and bided his time till a victor in the ongoing contest was revealed.
Watched, waited, bided, and drank. Primarily the latter of those. Variations in his body’s physiology didn’t need to have any particular impact on him. Strictly speaking he didn’t even need a body at all.
But it was convenient having one.
And inebriation was not a disagreeable state. Where in sobriety his thoughts that flashed through ideas, hopping from one to the next without traversing any mental states in between them, drunkenness gave his thoughts looping, swirling paths to slide along.
It was pleasant and distracting, which was what he was most in need of as he wanted for Gulini’s eventual signal of victory.
It was possible of course that the [Broken Hunger] might win through. Gulini was not especially brilliant, and the [Broken Hunger’s] capabilities were not the same as the [Hungry Shadow] they were familiar with.
It might overcome Gulini with cleverness, or overpower him with unexpected force. It might even escape, or given in to the circumstances and become something new as a means of refusing the lure of Gulini’s message.
What it wouldn’t be able to do was to disguise itself any longer.
Whatever the outcome of the struggle on the fleet’s command ship, Byron would understand what his opponent had become. Understanding that would lead, inevitably, to total domination of the Consortium’s forces in the system, the the sentients on the planet below, the whole of the Consortium, and on and on.
The prospect of total victory wasn’t unappealing to be sure, but reviewing the future he’d crafted Byron wondered if should smash it all down.
There wasn’t a reason for it.
Destroying something he’d worked to create was pointless, but then creating anything was pointless wasn’t it?
Perhaps if he had a suitable foe? Someone to struggle against? A mighty challenge!
It was too early to think of such things of course. Victory was still merely a conceptual likelihood, not yet a true certainty or, even better, a fait accompli.
The proper course of action was to wait for Gulini’s victory, assess the local situation, deal with any remnant of the [Broken Hunger] that might remain, and then assess the transdimensional situation. The defenders on the world below would certainly try to resist but that was the definition of inconsequential and Consortium might be sending a solar system annihilating task force, but that was less of a problem and more a delicious opportunity.
All of that could be lost without patience.
But honestly, patience was overrated.
“Turn the sensors on for an active sweep,” Byron said. “Command all ships to search for signs of [Transdimensional Abnormalities].”
Worthy foes were hard to come by, but where one [Transdimensional Entity] surfaced, there might perhaps be more.
Nothingness couldn’t have things within it. Oblivion had to be, by definition, empty.
But to be truly empty, even definitions couldn’t apply to it.
Between the truth realms, with their varied and conflicting realities, and the non-existent void of Oblivion, there were zones where the two bled into each other. Umbras around each reality where things that didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, and only might have existed.
The proto-hunger nibling on the veil between the reality and unreality was not uncommon or particularly noteworthy. Veils between the real and unreal had the benefit of being both real enough to keep the nibblers out and unreal enough that no damage could ever really accrue to them.
“And yet somehow you are taking some disturbingly large chunks out of this world?” Kari said, hovering above the slug-like ball of teeth and claws.
The proto-hunger neither noticed nor cared about the dream lord’s words. It had no senses and no thoughts. Only hunger.
It nibbled further.
It couldn’t nibble enough, but consumption made the hunger get worse slower.
“Let’s see what makes you realer than you should be,” Kari said.
The proto-hunger didn’t feel a force being exerted on it, but it did feel itself lifting away from the veil, being drawn back from the reality it craved and into the nothingness. It couldn’t resist the movement, but it could stretch itself out, clamping it’s jaw onto the skin of the world and burrowing in like a tick.
“Huh, you are a determined little thing aren’t you? So not purely a random force. I guess that makes sense. Did someone design you? Or did the nature laws here create you and all your little siblings?”
The proto-hunger could no more sense the siblings it competed with than it could the sense the dream lord who was drawing it up for examination.
But it could sense that it was being drawn up.
That was new.
It chewed faster, desperate for more, desperate not to experience anything.
Which was also new.
The proto-hunger’s form began to shift as ideas took root within it.
It still held no power and no volition of its own, but it could feel and it was changing.
“Seems like disturbing you speeds things up a bit,” Kari said. “That’s not a great sign. I’ve swept you all away a hundred and one times now though and you keep coming back. I suppose I could eat you all. Jin seems to love that approach, but I don’t see where I’d have a use for you later, and something tells me that more of you would just show up if I did.”
The proto-hunger felt its jaws starting to pull free from the skin of the world. It was losing its meal.
So many new things flooding into it that it almost missed the calling from the other side of the veil.
The creature like it? Or an echo of it? Some other form?
Maybe none of those were accurate, but there was some sliver of connection between them.
And the other one was looking for the proto-hunger.
Its attention giving the [Limitless Hunger] a doorway across the veil.
To where endless reality lay, waiting to be consumed.
With a writhing shake it pulled itself through the doorway, leaving the dream lord behind staring in wonder.
“Well, that’s probably not going to turn out well,” was all Kari could think to say.
Azma found the chaos and calamity which surrounded her a great source of comfort. By all reasonable measurements, her own fortunes were dire, her goals impossible to achieve, and her plans a failed and tangled mess.
None of that was true of course. Her fortunes were excellent by virtue of the fact that her goals were still well within her reach and her plans were proceeding as close to optimally as she could have hoped for.
Also, she was herself.
She didn’t have problems.
Other people had problems, and she was typically the worst one.
“Our troops have finished the pacification of the [Stars Guards Fort], the [Bleakwater Basin], and the [Scouring Hellmaw],” Grenslaw said, entering the private, and tastefully appointed chamber, Penswell had set aside for their use. “The teams at [High Gutter] and [The Scarlet Cascade] are in place and awaiting orders.”
“What were our losses in Stars Guard?” Azma asked.
“No fatalities, fifty three serious injuries, and two hundred and twelve minor wounds,” Grenslaw said.
Serious injuries were annoying since it meant the troops in question were badly enough damaged that they wouldn’t be available for further fighting until they’d been through tha rejuvenation/repair period and been properly rested. The minor wounds were less troubling, but still worth noting. She’d send those troops into lighter combat duty for the next cycle since, while they were still capable, their performance would be lower as they recovered from the non-debilitating but still potentially gruesome damage they’d suffered.
No fatalities was a cause for celebration though, as were the relatively low numbers over all. Her troops were more than doing her proud, they were fighting at a level no General could have asked for or expected. Just like she knew they could.
“Excellent! They exceeded their performance margin by fifteen percent. Mark them all down for the high performance bonus,” Azma said. “Also, command the team at [High Gutter] that the town is no longer a hybrid area. They are free to proceed with a full burn cleanse of the area, but their injury metrics have been tightened to reflect the lower hazard of the operation.”
Authorizing the [High Gutter] team to reduce the isolated defensive post to a heap of cinders and ash was a relief for which Azma felt she owed the local [Adventurers] a nod of thanks.
[High Gutter] had originally been a strongpoint fought over between two rival kingdoms in the area. Both kingdoms were under the subjugation of the [Consortium of Pain’s] forces, which were in turn under the long distance control of the [Hungry Shadow].
Unlike on the Consortium ships though, the citizens of [High Gutter] hadn’t been corrupted into mindless appendages of the [Hungry Shadows] will.
Which had meant that to secure [High Gutter] and block off both of the kingdoms from the rest of the region, penning in the Consortium’s forces, they were going to need to either kill all of the locals, or fight around them.
Penswell had been surprised when Azma had put forth a plan to fight around them. It was a costlier approach, both in terms of resources required and troops that would be lost to the effort. Or it would have been costlier to anyone else.
Azma was the one who had designed the Consortium’s strategy though and so she was keenly away of the importance of [High Gutter] and its weak points.
Saving the citizens within [High Gutter] wasn’t charity though. The forces Azma had deployed to the kingdoms [High Gutter] sealed away were rife of Necromancers. Her original strategy with them had been for the units to be self sustaining by using the bodies of their fallen enemies to both demoralize the defenders and act as a shield for her own forces.
Reversing that strategy meant, in part, denying the Consortium forces access to both dead bodies.and lingering spirits.
Thanks to the local [Adventurers] though, the people of [High Gutter] had been rescued and moved to a safer, more secure location.
Which meant Azma’s forces could simply annihilate the place.
It wasn’t a fair method of fight by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it one which paid dividends later, or allowed for the cost of the operation to be recouped in loot or land value.
Azma was in the joyful position of being unconcerned about recouping costs though since, by all calculations, the world she was on would be reduced to free floating subatomic particles within the week.
“Shall I inform Strategist Penswell of the change in plans?” Ryschild asked.
“That won’t be necessary,” Azma said. “She understands our goals and for the time being they are aligned with hers.”
Penswell had proven to be a delight. Where Azma was normally in the habit of unpacking her thoughts into diminished and more easily digestible chunks, with Penswell she’d been free to speak in something much closer to the shorthand which she thought in.
The need for pretense and artifice was largely absent as well, which was so refreshing Azma had given serious consideration to abandoning her other plans and simply remaining on-world after the current crisis was resolved in order to war against Penswell till they both got bored of whatever stalemate they worked themselves into.
In Penswell, Amza had found someone who understood their relationship, its boundaries, and opportunities without any need for Azma to spell them out or arrange for tedious object lessons.
They were both valuable to each other. They would extract what value was available, arranging at all times to place themselves in a favorable position in the long run, but – and this was the bit so many others failed to see – not mindlessly at the expense of the other.
It was fine for Azma to burn [High Gutter] to the ground. It was a loss for Penswell’s concerns overall, and a mild gain for Azma’s forces. In the long term though, the damage done to the holdings Penswell was responsible for was minor – nothing irreplaceable had been lost, and they had both gained a significant advantage over the Consortium forces in the region.
Penswell could trust that, for the time being, Azma would not injure her or her forces unless the injury paid a far higher yield for both of them since Azma needed Penswell and her forces to be as strong as they possibly could be if she was going to wield them as a weapon against her true enemies.
Azma turned to considering her forces around the [Scarlet Cascade] with that in mind. She refused to allow any fatalities, but with the exemplary performance of her other troops, she could risk a more aggressive posture against the [Battle Engines] at the [Scarlet Cascade].
The safe play was to disable the Consortium’s giant war machines in a pre-emptive strike, but she was feeling greedy and her forces would be in a decidedly better position if the [Battle Engines] could be captured rather than destroyed.
She was weighing the possibilities when Penswell appeared in the seat on the opposite side of the table from her.
“The [Battle Engines] are a loss,” Penswell said. No introduction, no prelude, no context setting at all really.
Azma nearly swooned.
“A new enemy has arisen?” Azma asked. It was the most likely scenario, despite it being unheralded and relatively implausible.
Had the machines been destroyed though, there would be no need to assault the [Scarlet Cascade] anymore and if the Consortium had received reinforcements to protect them, Penswell would have arrived with their layout and a gleeful expression at getting to crush such a concentration of the enemy all in one place.
“The local monsters are leveling up,” Penswell said.
Azma took a moment to process that.
It hadn’t been on her mental radar because it was apparently impossible in this world.
Quantized power rankings like “levels” weren’t a unique thing. The Consortium dealt with any number of worlds were reality was ordered with powers available in discrete chunks. A common trait of those worlds was that some entities had a fixed power state while others were fluid. Generally the ones that could grow though, grew along predictable and limited paths. The fixed entities, by comparison, tended to enjoy a broader diversity of abilities and powers at the expense of remaining unchanged.
The “monsters’ of this world were almost universally of the fixed power state variety, which meant they had a plethora of different abilities, though only a few manifested in each individual.
If those entities had gained the ability to increase their power states though…
“Have any broken the power cap for your [Adventurers]?” Azma asked. She could guess based on Penswell’s expression but for something this critical it was worth being certain.
“Yes. We’ve lost three teams so far and the Total Party Kill count is in the hundreds already,” Penswell said.
Ryschild and Grenslaw were both standing beside her, silent and watchful, though for a change Azma’s suspected that was because they had nothing to offer, rather than the sense to wait to be asked for their suggestions.
Azma didn’t blame them for that. She had to spend a few moments considering the implications of Penswell’s news.
“Having any of them broken the power cap for the highest extant ‘monsters’?” she asked, unsure which disastrous answer she would prefer.
“Unknown at present,” Penswell said. “Two [Alliances] are probing the matter as we speak.”
“At your request?”
“They began organizing before I learned of the situation,” Penswell said.
Because [Adventurers] had, at best, a passing and hate-filled relationship with personal safety.
Azma hadn’t counted on the extent to which that was true in her original plan to the conquer the world, which explained a rather large portion of the deviations in her initial assaults effectiveness. Seeing it in person, she was sure she could adjust her next attempt accordingly but also not looking forward to it overmuch.
Fighting foes that were effectively unkillable was one thing. Azma had managed that a number of times.
Fighting dealing with foes who were unkillable and extremely willing to throw themselves into a blender repeatedly was simply tiresome, as well as aggravatingly difficult to extract a profit from.
Azma was sure she could beat the combined forces of the world with her current nearly microscopic army. She was less sanguine about doing so without going miserably bankrupt in the process, and that was the sort of fight she tried to avoid at all costs.
“Either result represents an opportunity, but limited leveling would be preferable,” Azma said.
“I’m adjusting the disposition of my troops to absorb either eventuality, but the [Confidence Rating] of my plans is dropping to unacceptable levels,” Penswell said.
“Armageddon protocols?” Azma asked.
“Invoked and available,” Penswell said. “Still in reserve though.”
The newly empowered monsters might be limited to the power states already available in this reality or they might be capable of breaking all known limits and becoming mathematically unstoppable. In either case there was the possibility that they would overrun the world and destroy any hope of defending it, even apart the looming threat of [Hungry Shadow] or the potential arrival of a solar system destroying task force from the Consortium.
Should that happen, despite Penswell and Azma’s best efforts to prevent it, they intrinsically agreed upon the proper course of action. Namely, that the last action they would take would be to ensure the rampaging monsters were aimed in the correct direction to destroy their other foes.
If they were going to be destroyed, there was no chance they were going down without sending out a retributive strike capable of shattering the heavens and ensuring that those ultimately responsible for their downfall suffered a far worse fate than the one Penswell and Azma had been consigned to.
But of course that wasn’t going to happen.
“Good,” Azma said. “Invoking them sends the proper message but they will never need to come out of your reserve.”
“Of course not,” Penswell said. “Alone, either one of us could ensure that.”
Azma refused to cackle.
It was rather tempting though.
Whatever strange fates controlled this world, they had made the absolute worst possible mistake in giving her an equal to contest against.
Because Azma didn’t fight against people like Penswell.
Not when allying with them would let her finally become the true master of her own destiny.
Tessa wasn’t used to receiving an emergency summons from Obby. It was convenient because Tessa had wanted to assemble the team anyways, but she suspected Obby’s emergency was going to either take priority over Tessa’s plan or complicate it fantastically.
“You should see the other guy though,” Obby said, confirming Tessa’s suspicion and answering the obvious question of how she’d arrived in the state she was in.
The team had gathered in the [Heart Fire] chapel on the old side of town. It was where Obby had revived after what had clearly been an unusual battle.
Testimony to the strangeness of the fight started with Obby needing to use the [Heart Fire] in the first place and was sealed with the fact that she was still bearing a handful of debilitating status conditions despite having died and resurrected herself.
Typically recreating your body from scratch was enough to resolve any minor issues like the loss of major body parts or total system decay.
In Obby’s case though, the effects she’d been hit with had apparently copied themselves onto her ghost as well.
“Do we want to see the other guy?” Lisa asked as she, Starchild, and Lady Midnight worked to cleanse the debuffs from Obby’s prone form.
“Not really,” Obby said. “I mean, he is dead, so not a lot of worry there.”
“He started out dead though,” Rip said.
“True. So he might come back,” Obby said. “That’s not what concerns me though.”
“There’s something more alarming than a random undead encounter that’s able to drop our strongest tank?” Pillowcase asked. She had an ego, but it wasn’t a particularly fragile one when it came to assessing battlefield capabilities.
“Believe it or not, yeah,” Obby said. “I mean it’s not surprising that a level 70 [Crypt Annihilator] took me out, right?”
“A WHAT?” Rip was frozen in place but there were tiny arcs of electricity playing over her body.
“What was a level 70 anything doing around here?” Lisa asked. “There shouldn’t be anything that tough in this entire country.”
“It wasn’t level 70,” Matt said. “Not to start.” He knelt down beside Rip who’d been sitting beside Obby. “And it wasn’t a [Crypt Annihilator] either.”
“What do you mean?” Tessa asked. She could see several scenarios for what was going on, and ever last one of them was terrifying.
“It leveled up and form changed as we fought it,” Obby said.
“Okay,” Tessa said. “That’s not unheard of. There’s a bunch of [Dungeon Bosses] who have multiple forms and at least a few I can think of that have a mid-combat level up mechanism. How many times did they one level up? They’re usually limited to about four or so right?”
“This one leveled up at least twenty times,” Obby said. “And it wasn’t just a form change. When it hit the level range cap for one creature type it’s base designation changed.”
“What did it start as?” Starchild asked.
“It was a [Crypt Killer] when we started fighting it,” Rip said. “It might have been below level 50 then too. I didn’t get a look at it’s stats right away.”
“[Crypt Killers] are not morphic creatures,” Starchild said. “It shouldn’t have been able to change like that.”
“Agreed,” Tessa said. “Not even [Dungeon Bosses] have that much flexibility.”
“They can’t,” Lisa said. “That’s an impossible encounter.”
“Perhaps not impossible,” Lady Midnight said. Behind her, a tower of muscle in the form of a woman nodded in agreement.
Tessa had met Wrath Raven briefly, but knew from that short encounter the difference the level capped [Berserker] could have made in the battle.
“Have we tried reaching out to the guilds we know?” Tessa asked. “Have any of the established [Adventurers] seen anything like this yet?”
“I just checked with Cease All,” Lisa said. “This is the first she’s heard of anything like this. She’s going to ask around though and see if any of the guilds we run with sometimes have run into it.”
“Have her ask if there have been any full party wipes where no one made it back to the [Heart Fire] too,” Tessa said and turned to Obby, “I’m guessing the run to the [Heart Fire] wasn’t all that easy with the debuffs in affect?”
“Getting there wasn’t too fun, no,” Obby said. “On the bright side though, I didn’t even heard any howl’s from Hounds.”
“That’s…I don’t know how to explain that,” Tessa said. “I know Kamie was doing some afterlife testing earlier and according to her the town was almost overrun with them.”
“Maybe they got full?” Matt asked.
“The Hounds don’t eat the people they capture,” Tessa said. “At least according to the game lore. Not that ‘game lore’ seems to be terribly reliable for the things we’re seeing.”
“If they don’t eat people, what are they doing?” Rip asked.
“Taking wayward souls to their proper resting place,” Obby said. “At least according to one of the quests I read.”
“Yeah, that’s supposed to be the gist of it,” Tessa said. “The devs never specified where the ‘final resting place’ was supposed to be, but there was a long running joke that bad players got dragged off to play [Boundless Stars].” Tessa paused as she heard the familiar if still strange echo in her words. “Huh, there’s link text for that?”
She’d spoken with Penswell about other game worlds and had to agree that it was a bad idea to try contacting them before the [Hungry Shadow] was fully instantiated and brought down to non-infinite levels of power.
“Wait, wasn’t [Boundless Stars] a space game?” Rip asked.
“It still is,” Pete said through Starchild. “It’s got a smaller player base these days but the longtimers are as or more hardcore than the most serious endgamers here.”
“Yeah, the attitude early on was that getting sent to [Boundless Stars] was a worse punishment than being sent to [Hell] because of how obnoxious the players over there were,” Lisa said.
“I mean, I played there early on too and that wasn’t exactly an unfair characterization,” Pete said. “It’s gotten a lot better over the years but most of that happened after a purge that scrapped like half the accounts in the game and put in some seriously strict rules on harassment. Between that and disabling PvP, the game kind of sealed it’s fate, or that’s what everyone was saying. In practice, I think it cost them a lot of subscriptions but if they hadn’t done that they’d have shutdown five years ago rather than continuing along with a smaller but more sustainable community.”
“Given that the [Boundless Stars] forums bought in to the joke, I’m half wondering if it’s true in this world, but it seems like it’s a one-way trip so testing it seems a little impractical,” Lisa said.
“Matt might be right about the Hounds being full,” Tessa said. “Not because they eat people but they were doing something to the [Disjoined] who were lurking in the ghost realm. That might have drained them, or left them busy dealing with whatever that was.”
“It seems like we could find that out pretty easily if we go out there and run into another one of those [Crypt Killers],” Obby said.
“Or some other mob that’s doing the same thing,” Lisa said, her voice hushed with concern.
“What?” Tessa asked. “What monster was it?” she clarified.
“A [Grim Salamander],” Lisa said. “You were right. There was a party that got wiped out. They were level capped and testing if there was anything they could do to break the cap. Only one of them got to the [Heart Fire].”
“Did it start as a [Grim Salamander] or end as one?” Tessa asked.
“Started,” Lisa said. “It ended as a [Void Breaker Wyrm].”
“A what now?” Pete asked.
[Void Breaker Wyrms] hadn’t been a part of the [Fallen Kingdoms] before the [World Shift] expansion, and Tessa was reasonably certain they hadn’t been added as one of the standard mobs that the beta testers had reported on.”
“One second,” she said, and pinged Hailey’s channel.
“What’s up? Filled your team in on the plan yet?” Hailey said, picking up an instant later.
“There’s a complication,” Tessa said.
“Of course there is,” Hailey said. “Let me guess, your girl’s been kidnapped and you’ve got go save her from a series of collapsing castles?”
“[Void Breaker Wyrm],” Tessa said. “Does that sound familiar to you?”
“Hmm, no. Should it?” Hailey asked.
“Could it have been a [Dungeon Boss] from one of the [World Shift] dungeons?” Tessa asked.
“Not that I’m aware of but, oh, the heads up display knows to highlight it,” Hailey said. “That’s not a good sign. Let me check the official docs.”
“Thanks. Let me know if you find anything okay?”
“Will do. Before I go though, how did you find that term? Is it related to one of your upcoming [Void Speaker] abilities?”
“Interesting question, but no, or not that I know of,” she said. “It ate a level capped party.”
“Yikes! Please tell me you’re going to stay away from the high level zones until we know what’s roaming around out there,” Hailey said.
“It wasn’t in the new zones,” Tessa said. “And it didn’t start as that. It was a [Grim Salamander] when the party started fighting it.”
“Explain,” Hailey said, her voice growing more serious. “Or better yet, let me get Penny looped back in. You are just a treasure trove of things for her today.”
“Sounds good. She’ll have the resources to look into this,” Tessa said and switched back to speaking aloud with her team.
“Any luck?” Lisa asked, guessing who Tessa had checked with.
“Does bad luck count?” Tessa asked. “[Void Breaker Wyrms] are not a monster that my friend Hailey is familiar with. Hailey, for those of you I haven’t introduced her to, was a member of the [Egress Entertainment] support team and has played this game pretty much since launch.”
“So she would definitely know if something like that was real then,” Rip said.
“She’s pretty likely to know if it was something that made it through the development process,” Tessa said. “It’s pretty definitely real whether it did or not, but if it was something like a boss from a dungeon that the beta testers didn’t get to, I’d feel a lot better.”
“Shouldn’t the beta testers have hit everything though? I mean what’s the point of having people test if they can’t even get to part of the stuff you’re releasing?” Pete asked.
“I’m hoping it’s something that was scheduled for one of the quarterly updates,” Tessa said. “A lot of that makes it into the code before it’s ready for live players to get to. They usually just seal up the entrance or make it inaccessible in some other way.”
“So you are hoping this Wyrm broke loose from an inescapable prison then?” Starchild asked.
“Yeah, believe it or not that beats the alternative,” Tessa said. “If it’s not an escapee, then there’s no reason to think [Void Breaker Wyrm] is where it’s going to stop leveling up.”
“What comes after that?” Matt asked.
“I think we’d have to let it keep evolving to find out,” Tessa said.
“But if it keeps evolving it would eventually become impossible for anyone to beat right?” Rip said.
“That’s the problem I’m worrying about,” Tessa said. “Past a certain point, things can become mathematically unbeatable by any number of foes that are sufficiently lower level. Like Wrath Raven could take on a functionally infinite number of first level [Hopper Toads]. If the [Crypt Annihilator] or the [Void Breaker Wyrm] can keep leveling up endlessly, they’ll reach a point where no matter how many [Adventurers] we throw at them we won’t be able to so much as scratch their health bar.”
“It’s not just [Crypt Killers] and [Grim Salamanders] we need to worry about,” Penny said, appearing before them all. “I’m receiving dozens of reports similar yours. Something fundamental is changing in our world. I don’t know if you’re plan will be viable anymore. I don’t know if any plans will be.”
It should have been cruel to have the possibility of a path home appear only to turn out to be a dead end and Lisa had the sense that for many people it would be. There were parents among the [Adventurers] who had been cutoff from their children, lovers who’d been split apart across the divide between the worlds, and people who were terrified of the world before them being real rather than a safe collect of pixels for them to play with.
Not everyone was resigned to their fate either. There were plenty of [Adventurers] both high level and low who were trying all sorts of things to find a path back. So far as Lisa knew though, none of them had yet succeeded.
Even the idea of access the beta server had been tried from what her friend Cease All from her original guild had said. There was no established means of hopping between the servers though – that had always been an admin level function – but the [Fallen Kingdoms] were nothing if not littered with gates and portals and rifts to different times and places given how much the devs liked to use wild and inconsistent settings as part of their expansions.
That her kid sister had been the one to find the right gateway was more alarming than surprising. Rachel would attract all sorts of the wrong attention if it became common knowledge that she’d come from the beta server and knew how to get back.
Beyond that though, Lisa found that she was far more interested in the question of whether Deadly Alice, Rachel’s character was present but suppressed or whether Deadly Alice was actually as nonexistent as Rachel claimed.
The question of getting back home was interesting in an academic choice but with the possibility seemingly off the table, Lisa felt more relieved than anything else.
Going back to her old life was something she knew she should be striving for. It was the responsible thing to do. It was what was expected of her. It was the grown up thing to do.
The voice inside that cast those words at her weren’t her own. They belonged to all the people who had ever told her that she loved was worthless. Games didn’t make you money, so they were frivolous. Activities suitable for children. As an adult she was supposed to hussle. To always be striving to get ahead.
“Making something of herself” had been a battle she’d fought her whole life, and she’d internalized enough of the arguments to believe some of them.
Living how she wanted to wasn’t practical. She did need money, which meant plugging into a game (or, realistically, several games) 24/7 wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t even have been healthy if she’d won a lottery and been able to forget about money.
At the same time though, she couldn’t accept the idea that something’s value came only from what it could be exchanged for.
What she was doing in the [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t matter to anyone on Earth. It wasn’t helping her get ahead, or pay off her debts, or win a new career for herself. But it was still important.
Lost Alice was important. Even if she no more exceptional in the [Fallen Kingdoms] than Lisa had been on Earth.
“I think a good long talk is in order,” Lost Alice said. “But I wouldn’t guess you have the patience for it. Also, we probably want to speak somewhere we won’t be overheard by a [Vampire Queen].”
She waved at Vixali who’d been sitting in silent contemplation as Lisa and Rachel held an equally silent telepathic conversation.
Vixali’s eyes widened in surprise but she recovered quickly, offering Lost Alice a gracious smile and a small nod.
Rachel was more surprised by the revelation, a full body twitch running from her head to her toes.
“You may have the room if you desire privacy,” Vixali said.
“My thanks,” Lost Alice said as the [Vampire Queen] departed.
That didn’t mean Vixali couldn’t listen in on them, but Lost Alice wasn’t concerned. Vixali understood the power balance between the two of them and had reigned long enough as [Queen] to know not to press an issue that might anger a larger and less destructible predator.
“You sounds different now,” Rachel said.
“This is how I always sound,” Lost Alice said. “But, it’s not a part of me you’ve seen often, or ever before I suppose.”
“Why are you playing at that? Stop pretending and be yourself!” Rachel’s eyes were glossy with tears but in place of heartbreak there was anger.
“Rachel, my sister,” Lost Alice said. “This is myself. I can be many things. I’m this, now, because I need the knowledge I have from this life to evaluate the sort of [Vampire] you’ve become. And also, it annoys you, and Mom’s not here to tell me to stop.”
Anger turned to confusion turned to long standing sororal aggravation.
“Stop it,” Rachel said. “Just be yourself. This is serious. Stop joking around.”
“It’s not a joke,” Lisa said. “This is me. All of it. Another me. Not the one you grew up with, but me all the same.”
“But you can’t be an actual vampire. That’s just something you made up!” Rachel said.
“I am aware,” Lost Alice said. “My existence as ‘Lost Alice’ matches far too closely to the fiction I as ‘Lisa’ created. This whole world is riddled with that problem. Everything here matches what someone on Earth imagined, and the things that don’t are largely extrapolations from the things that do. Consider this however, the stone floor you’re standing on is no less solid because someone imagined it first. The smell of the cooking fires from above carries scents that neither of us ever experienced on Earth. Even the pain we feel when we fight is inarguable. This isn’t a dream, or a delusion. What we’re experiencing has the same solidity and weight as our experiences on Earth. For all practical purposes, where we are and who we are is as real as where and who we were.”
“But this is just a projection,” Rachel said. “Except you said your body disintegrated. But if it did that there’d be nothing to project from. You’d be dead already and the dead can’t linger here. The [Daemon] said that too.”
“So I’m neither alive nor dead,” Lisa said. “Sort of fits that I’m a [Vampire] then right?”
“It’s not funny!” Rachel said.
“It’s not,” Lisa said. “It’s perplexing, and confusing, and…ultimately, not that important.”
“How is you being dead not important?”
“Because whatever the answer is, I’m not gone,” Lisa said. “I’m here. I can eat, and drink, and love, and still make a difference for the people who need me.”
Rachel looked at her askance.
“You can what?”
“Make a difference, I can..” Lisa started to say but Rachel cut her off.
“No. Before that. You can what?”
“Uh? Eat? Drink? Oh! Love. Uh, yeah, umm, that,” Lisa said, unsure that she wanted to share anything at all about Tessa with her sister.
It wasn’t that she had any reservations about Tessa. It was simply that Lisa had poured out her heart to Rachel in whining about her past relationships. It was embarrassing and while Rachel had always offered love and support, she also hadn’t been shy about pointing just how terrible most of Lisa’s girlfriends had been for her.
“Wait. Seriously?” Rachel looked more put out than upset.
“This probably isn’t the best time to talk about that,” Lisa said, since they were, technically, still in the [Vampire Queen’s] court.
“Oh my god! You did!” Rachel said aloud, unable to hide even a shred of her surprise. “Have you told her yet? Or are you going all undead stalker…again?”
“What? I’ve never…” Lisa began to protest before cutting herself off. She’d had a vampire-phase and the less Rachel reminded her of it the better.
“Let me guess? She’s a [Vampire] too? Oh no, it’s not the [Vampire Queen] is it?”
“No! No. Tessa is a normal human woman,” Lisa said. “And, a [Clothwork]. Sometimes. When she’s Pillowcase.”
Rachel just gapped, seemingly unable to process any of that.
“That’s not what’s important now though,” Lisa said, trying to bring the conversation back around to the critical questions.
“You’re dating a ragdoll? Or you want to date a ragdoll?” Rachel asked, completely ignoring Lisa’s attempt to change the topic. “How does that even work?”
“Before I answer that, ask yourself if you really want me to go into graphic detail on my sex life?” Lisa said.
“I…you know what, you’re right. I thought all of this was weird, but that…that is a bridge too far,” Rachel said.
“Good. Then if we could get back to talking about you for a minute?” Lisa asked.
“What about me? I’m the only one in this whole world that makes any sense,” Rachel said.
“Are you though?” Lisa said. “You said you logged into your character on my account on the beta server, right?”
“Yeah? That’s not new, I did that for like a month straight while you were at work.”
“Right. Notice the important element there – ‘while I was at work’. I’m not at work now, so how were you able to log into my account, when it should have still been running on the computer in my apartment?” Lisa asked.
“I don’t know. It didn’t give me the ‘already logged in’ message I usually see if your already playing. Maybe you got automatically logged out when you got pulled in?” Rachel said.
“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “The GMs were still able to message us and appear in front of us even after we got drawn in. The GMs on Earth that is. They still saw us as logged in on their end.”
“Okay, so then it was a bug. You can’t tell me, with all this, that a login error would be the biggest bug they had with this release.”
“Fair point,” Lisa said. “Was there anyone else on the beta server with you?”
“Yeah. A lot of people. All projections like me as far as I could tell.”
“But you couldn’t tell that I was different?”
“I mean, you seemed different, but then everyone here does, so I thought it was just a beta vs live server thing.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s because the beta server can be accessed, for whatever reason, by people from Earth still, where everyone here got drawn in because their character’s died or their connection was severed. Was there anything else different about the people on the beta server?”
“Not really,” Rachel said. “I mean a lot of them were speaking Mandarin, but they were talking about the same things as everyone else there. Basically how we were supposed to rescue the people we knew who got trapped.”
“Huh. That’s weird. The beta servers are in California. Plenty of Chinese-Americans there, but I wouldn’t expect them to be speaking in Mandarin anymore than we do?”
“I know, Mom would have been so happy,” Rachel said. “I don’t know if they managed to get anybody out either though.”
“How did you managed to cross over? I mean into the beta server in the first place?”
“I told you, I logged into Deadly Alice. There was a gateway icon in the start town. I clicked on it and that pulled me in here. I clicked on it again and I was back at my desk. It wasn’t exactly hard.”
“And when did you meet the [Daemon] who told you what the rules were?”
“He found me. Like one of those quest NPCs that comes running up to you as soon as you get close enough to their spawn area.”
“And you were still in [Sky’s Edge] in the [High Beyond] right?” Lisa asked.
“What did he look like?” Lisa asked, a cold worry growing in her gut.
“Pretty weird. I think the graphics department hadn’t gotten around to putting his final skin on him yet or something so he was just a human shaped blob of darkness.”
“Did he seem [Hungry] at all?” Lisa asked, her nerves balanced on pin tops.
“Yeah. That was one of the tags on his character info,” Rachel said, staring as Lost Alice went even paler than her usual self.
Involuntary body alterations had their own section in the Research Protocols that Balegritz and the others had signed off on when they began their expedition.
“But does it count as a body alteration if I can make it go away?” Hermeziz asked, closing the third eye that stared out from his forehead.
Balegritz was tempted to say that, no, closing your eyes to a problem did not make it go away – except in this case, it seemed like it did.
“It’s not there at all,” Illuthiz said, passing her forefinger over the middle of Hermeziz’s forehead. “There’s not even a bump of scar tissue as if it healed over quickly.”
“Can you bring it back out?” Balegritz asked.
“Not if you’re going to throw me into quarantine for it,” Hermeziz said.
“I didn’t say I was going to throw you into quarantine,” Balegritz corrected him. “I said you should go to quarantine till we understood what was happening.”
“What’s happening is we’re playing with forces that we lack even the most basic of understandings about,” Hermeziz said and then cooled to added in a calmer, more reasonable tone, “I know the protocols are there for a reason. I know quarantining can be the only answer to stop the spread of biological contaminants.”
“But you also know that this isn’t the result of microbial life,” Illuthiz said.
“And that it’s not communicable,” Balegritz admitted. “At least not in the same sense as a disease.”
“That raises and important point,” Illuthiz said.
“Whether we spread this to any of the others?” Hermeziz guessed.
“There is a danger to it,” Balegritz said. “So far these abilities have all been ones we could control, but even a simple one like the [Hellfire Breath] I have could do a lot of unintentional damage.”
“For what it’s worth, the abilities that [Adventurers] get usually start off relatively low power and build up from there,” Hammy Burglar said. “The same could be true for you as well.”
“So my [Hellfire Breath] might get hotter?” Balegritz asked.
“Hotter, stronger, it might even transform into an advanced form – though [Hellfire] is already an advanced form of [Fire]. And it might spawn off whole knew abilities, like [Fireball].”
“So I’m going to become more dangerous over time?” Balegritz asked.
“That is the point of leveling up,” Vinyard said. “But you’lll also gain more control and proficiency, so you can be destructive to the degree that you want to be.”
“But there are some [Adventurers] who don’t want to level up?” Hermeziz asked.
“Yeah. Not everyone is cut out for stabbing people in the face,” Vinyard said. “In fact I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the players weren’t into real world violence at all, and had never even held a sword, much less ‘developed their martial prowess’ or anything out there like that.”
“But we’ve seen you [Adventurers] fighting. You all seem to be adept at it. No matter your level, you all just pitch yourselves right into battle like it doesn’t even matter,” Hermeziz said.
“Maybe because it doesn’t?” Illuthiz said. “They can’t die after all. Not really.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Hammy said. “When our bodies are mortally injured or destroyed we can repair them or create new ones, but we have to reach a [Heart Fire] and there are things that hunt us when we’re ghosts. Each time we die, there’s a chance we’re gone for real.”
“That’s not the only reason not to level though,” Vinyard said.
“You don’t like fighting.” Balegritz wasn’t asking a question, or making an accusation. He understood the sentiment too well to ever condemn it.
“Never have,” Vinyard said. “Which is kind of stupid since this was like my favorite game ever.”
“It’s different when it’s real though,” Hermeziz said, quite understanding plain in his voice too.
“It’s real for everyone though? Isn’t it?” Illuthiz asked.
“Sure, but [Adventurers] have two different personas, or maybe two sides of the same persona? I guess it varies from person to person,” Vinyard said. “For a lot of them though there’s the person they were in this world. The person that belongs to the body they’re in.”
“Ah, and that side of them is used to fighting and bloodshed?” Illuthiz asked.
“At least more that the Earthling part is,” Vinyard said. “Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s probably smarter and safer than doing like me and refusing to fight, since my approach just gets us eaten as soon as something big and dangerous comes along.”
“Hey,” Balegritz said, kneeling down beside Vinyard, “I’m something big and dangerous and I say that’s not stupid. It’s brave.”
“Not fighting is brave?”
“Holding onto your beliefs when its difficult?” Illuthiz said. “Yes. That’s very brave.”
“I don’t like fighting either. I hate it in fact, but I’m afraid not to do it. I want to believe there are better answers out there, but when push comes to shove, I’ve never been able to take that risk.”
“From a species survival standpoint, you’re both necessary,” Illuthiz said. “Not that we’re the same species, but if we were all invested in the same response to stress, we would fair poorly the moment that became the wrong response.”
“Maybe that’s a good reason for you to share what you’ve learned then?” Hammy suggested.
“So that our people who choose violence will more adept at practicing it?” Hermeziz asked.
“No,” Hammy said. “So that you’re people will have more responses available to them when problems arise.”
“Oh, yeah, I see what you mean,” Vinyard said and continued when he saw the puzzled looks lon the faces of the [Gothmorns]. “The abilities you’ve developed so far range from a primarily combat focused ability, to a defensive and general purpose ability, to a pure utility power. You’re the perfect example of how knowing that this is possible expands the options of what you can do. Expands the choices you can make that will let you do things other than fighting. If you want.”
“Those choices might not be particularly good ones,” Illuthiz said.
“Maybe not,” Balegritz said, but Vunyard’s words were resonating in just the right corners of his mind. “Probably not even. We’re all a bunch of traumatized junior researchers who are in this far beyond our depth.”
“But for every mistake we make,” Hermeziz said, seeing where Balegritz’s thoughts were leading with perfect clarity.
“We’ll learn something new,” Illuthiz said.
They sent the invitation out to their people together. Yawlorna might skin them for not consulting with her, but Balegritz had the feeling she would haven been more likely to skin them for not sharing their discovery with literally everyone for even a minute longer.
If anyone had approached Claire in her role as a medical professional with the plans she was currently concocting for herself, she would have sat them down and made sure to stay with them until they got the counseling they so clearly needed.
“Are you certain this is what you want to do?” Wrath Raven asked. “I can step in but if I miss even one enemy, they will slay you before you can blink.”
“I know how dangerous these things are,” Claire said.
“And we know what our own resiliency levels are,” Lady Midnight added. “You’re right that we have no chance of winning a battle against a flight of [Scourging Razorbeaks] but we should be able to last long enough for Claire’s plan to work.”
“This seem wrong though,” Wrath Raven said. “You’re risking your life and there no loot involved!”
“Not true,” Claire said. “There’s the best loot of all if this goes right. Allies.”
Across chasm in front of them, the night-black [Scourging Razorbeaks] began to stir. Wrath Raven had flown the two of them to the [Monastery of the Silent Sands] because it was the nearest location with an easily accessible [Heart Fire], monsters that could easily tear Lady Midnight to shreds, and, most importantly, enough distance from her friends that they wouldn’t see her status switch from living to dead and wind up panicking and doing something foolish.
“You could have simply told them,” Lady Midnight said.
“But then they would have stopped me,” Claire said.
“And that doesn’t strike you as a good reason not to do this?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Do you want to back out?” Claire asked.
“Not at all, I’m just amused by how practiced I am at self-delusion,” Lady Midnight said.
“We all have to have talents somewhere,” Claire said and added for Wrath’s sake, “Okay, I’m going to poke one of them. If more come over, they’re all yours.”
Wrath was ready for an onslaught of foes. If a nest of [Scourging Razorbeaks] was roused, they could darken the skies with their wings, but the spell Lady Midnight cast succeeded in drawing the attention of only one of the creatures.
A big one of the creatures.
Not that size mattered. Even the little ones were much too powerful for her survive, much less overcome.
As her doom descended on her Claire reached out like Wrath Raven had said.
She thought of Halo, pictured Halo’s robes, and lightsaber. Her ship and her friends. Everything that connected her to that world.
For the barest instant she caught a glimpse – a real look – at a desert planet through Halo’s eyes and then the image was swirled away, like Claire was trying to gaze through a maelstrom at what lay beyond.
Even the minimal contact was terrifying. It felt like she was being dragged out of her body. Torn to pieces before the Razorbeak’s claws could even reach her.
Before she could be swept away though, Lady Midnight caught hold of her.
And someone else caught hold of Lady Midnight.
Claire turned, expecting to see Wrath Raven in the mindspace she’d been drawn into, but that wasn’t who was holding Lady Midnight’s other hand.
“Whisper Drop?” Claire asked, blinking at the sight of her other max level alt.
And holding onto Whisper Drop’s hand was Pell Mell, and Please Blossom, and at least a dozen other people, all of whom she’d been, all of whom were pieces of who she was.
They were all connected and, at last, they all knew it.
Vixali couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. The younger Alice sister was distraught beyond all measure over something that simply wasn’t, well, anything.
“Rachel,” Lisa said, walking over to kneel at her sister’s side. “Calm down. It’s okay. I got better. I’m…okay, well, ‘alive’ is somewhat debatable, but Lost Alice isn’t dead. She’s a vampire. And, gah, this stupid. Listen, the other people I’ve been with? They’ve been killed the same as I have, and they’re fine now too. Alive, and well. Warm flesh and tasty blood. All that stuff.”
“But if you’ve died, you can’t come back to Earth,” Rachel said.
“Explain?” Lisa asked. It was less a demand than a mote of curiosity given voice.
“The gateway in the Beta server? The one I’ve used? It can’t create or destroy anything. If you die in the game, then your soul is severed from your body on earth. You die here and you die there. The [Daemon] who operates the gate was crystal clear about that.”
“[Daemon]? Oh there is a lot we need to go over, but you’ve got something wrong. My body’s not back on Earth,” Lisa said.
“Uh, what?” Rachel asked, her tears blocked behind affronted confusion.
“I didn’t come here through a gate. None of us did. I watched my body fizz away into a stream of light,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice was already here when I arrived. We’re sort of cohabitating in this body, and sort of not, since she’s me and I’m her and…wait, why am I explaining this? Don’t you and Deadly Alice have a similar arrangement?”
“Deadly? No. There’s no Deadly Alice. It’s just me,” Rachel said.
“You don’t have any memories of being here? Of the Deadly Alice’s backstory?”
“Of course not, she’s not real,” Rachel said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Lisa said. “I think so.”
“We should perhaps compare notes though,” Lost Alice said. “I believe you might be something new.”
Experimenting on Illuthiz proved to be more entertaining that having the others experiment on him, but Balegritz found the real delight came from dragging Hermeziz into the mix.
“You get [Hellfire Breath], she gets [Ethereal Body], and I get [Micro Vision]?” Hermeziz said as he stared at a grain of pollen caught between a pair of tweezers.
“Come on, you know you didn’t want anything flashy,” Balegritz said, concerned that they’re joking suggestion for his mate might have given rise to real hurt feelings.
“What? No,” Hermeziz said. “I’m saying you two got pointless powers and I got the actually useful one. I was feeling bad for you.”
“I think all of your powers are cool!” Hammy Burglar, the [Cook] said. “They’d all work great ina dungeon and even the [Hellfire Breath] has applications outside of combat.”
“How would [Micro Vision] help in a dungeon?” Illuthiz asked.
“In one that’s been well run, it might not do so much but in a new dungeon? One where we don’t know what the traps and tricks are? [Micro Vision] could be busted there,” Vinyard, the other [Cook] said. “For new dungeons, you always take them slow if you can, and being able to see problems coming is a big part of beating them successfully. With [Micro Vision] and some time to inspect a place, you’d be able to see all kinda of things about it that other [Adventurers] would miss.”
“I don’t want to go into a dungeon,” Hermeziz said.
“You won’t have to,” Illuthiz said.
“She’s totally right on that,” Hammy said. “This is a good setup we’ve got here. I always hated dungeon crawling but there wasn’t really much choice since all the good crafting loot was tucked away in boss treasure hoards and as random loot drops only from the mobs inside the dungeon.”
“Don’t you still need those?” Balegritz asked.
“Need? Not so much. Want? Oh definitely,” Vinyard said. “We’ve already got [Adventurers] trading us stuff just so we can cook it up though. They get some nice food, and we get easy skill ups.”
“And a bite of the food too,” Hammy said.
“How else would you know the flavor was acceptable?” Illuthiz said in support of their statement.
“So, am I supposed to feel any different if my magic is running out?” Hermeziz asked as he continued to stare at the pollen grain.
“I didn’t feel much when I ran low, only when I was out completely,” Balegritz said.
“I could tell I was running low a short while before I ran out,” Illuthiz said.
“That’s probably because your [Ethereal Body] is a continuous drain where Balegritz’s [Hellfire Breath] takes out discrete packs of mp with each use,” Vinyard said. “With the continuous drain, you can feel things diminishing over time, where with the one-and-done charge for the breath the magic is either there or its not.”
“Mine should be more like hers then,” Hermeziz said. “But I don’t feel any different.”
“It doesn’t look like your magic is draining at all from what I can see,” Hammy said.
“Is that possible? I thought all of these abilities were limited by our available magic pool?” Illuthiz asked.
She’d been unhappy to discover that her flawless defensive technique came with the slight problem that she couldn’t maintain it for more than a few minutes before she ran out of magic to power the effect.
“They are,” Hammy said. “But there’s another factor in play as well – how quickly you recover magic. In your and Balegritz’s cases, your abilities consume magic at a much higher rate than your natural recovery can keep pace with. For Hermeziz, [Micro Vision] seems like the upkeep cost is low enough that he can recover magic faster than the power consumes it.”
“So I can keep my vision like this forever?” Hermeziz asked.
“Probably not forever,” Vinyard said. “There are external forces that can turn off active powers. Things like [Dispels] and [Stuns].”
“Also if you go into a level capped area that’s lower than when you could have learned a power, it’ll be suppressed there too,” Hammy said.
“There’s also eye strain to consider,” Vinyard said. “In the game, we could leave a power like that on all the time, but here, when we’re actually in the world, things like ‘fatigue’ or ‘boredom’ aren’t abstracted away. If you need to concentrate to keep your vision focused like that they you’ll probably lose it as soon as your mind wanders away.”
“But I could just restart it, right?” Hermeziz asked.
“Probably,” Hammy said. “Some powers come with longer cooldowns on them, but that’s usually for more combat oriented abilities so that the big, heavy hitting powers can only be used once in a while.”
“But the rules are different for [Non-Adventurers],” Vinyard said.
“You mean for monsters,” Hermeziz said, bristling at the description.
“Them, and anything else that’s not an [Adventurer],” Vinyard said. “The major NPCs in the world can all use their abilities in ways we can’t. [Adventurers] are bound to a common set of rules because things had to be fair for each player since it was a game. No one was going to get annoyed if an [NPC] could do something unusual though since we weren’t competing with them. Not like we were with each other.”
“So if we’re [NPCs] now, does that mean we’ll lose these abilities if we manage to become [Adventurers]?” Balegritz asked.
“I’m not sure,” Hammy said. “It’s possible that to become an [Adventurer], you’d need to reset down to level 1 and start building up your powers and skills from there. You’d lose basically everything but gain all the perks [Adventurers] have. Or it’s possible your current abilities would all be lumped together under ‘Racial Traits” and you’d just start building on top of what you already have. Or maybe you’d just become something new.”
“I think that might already be happening,” Hermeziz said, turning to face the group.
From the center of his head, a third eye stared back at them.
Choosing to embrace the far flung fragments of herself was all well and good, but it didn’t mean Claire had any idea how to go about actually doing it. Fortunately she had an idea of who might.
“Can you walk me through how you found me?” she asked Wrath Raven. “It was a feeling or a hunch right? And you weren’t anywhere near me.”
“That’s true, but I have found you now,” Wrath said.
“I know, but I’m hoping we’ll be able to do more,” Claire said. “I don’t know if it will work, but whatever connection you followed to me, I might be able to use something similar to find the reflections of us on other worlds. If that makes sense? Or am I clutching at straws?”
“I do not know if it will work,” Wrath Raven said. “I do not know where these worlds are or what gates might lead to them. I think though that I could find you even if you were in [Malagros] or [The Burning Lands].”
The [Fallen Kingdoms] demi-planes of terror and torment (respectively), weren’t quite as far away as an entirely different game world, so Claire wasn’t sure Wrath’s reassurance covered what she was looking for. On the other hand though, from the [Fallen Kingdoms] point of view, the other game worlds might as well be demi-planes, or simply foreign lands across the [Sea of Stars]. It wasn’t impossible that they could walk through the right gate ‘here’ and wind up in ‘there’ where lightsabers or battlemechs or even plain old tanks and guns were the order of the day.
Not impossible, just very, very unlikely.
Almost as unlikely as tumbling across a cosmos wide gulf and crash landing in the body of her newest character for the unspeakable crime of logging in on expansion release day.
“So how did you start?” Claire asked, settling in to calm and center herself.
“I was in battle,” Wrath Raven said. “That was when I first thought of you. First knew you were here. But not with me.”
“What kind of battle?” Claire asked, less thrilled by the prospect of needing to go pick a fight with something to test out her idea.
“The losing kind,” Wrath Raven said.
“Who were you fighting?”
“The Consortium,” Wrath said. “I was [Lagerhorn] when the Consortium attacked there. I hadn’t signed up with the defense force because I had five serious beers to have a discussion with. The Consortium wrecked those beers when they blew up the tavern. So I wrecked them right back. There was a moment when I was fighting though, right before I died, that I knew I needed you. And you weren’t there. But you weren’t gone either. After I found the nearest [Heartfire], I know I had to find you too.”
“Could you still feel my presence then?” Claire asked.
“Yes. Just as I can now,” Wrath said. “Once I knew the connection was there, it stayed with me.”
“I guess it’s worth it then,” Claire said.
“What is?” Wrath asked.
“Finding a fight that can kill me.”
Telepathic voyeurism should have been beneath a [Vampire Queen], but Vixali felt neither compunction nor shame about listening in on the Alice sisters conversation.
“What do you mean ‘we can travel in either direction’? Do you mean back to Earth?” Lisa asked. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know how any of this is possible,” Rachel said. “I just know that the first thing I did when I got here was to jump right back through the portal that spit me out and boom, there I was back at home. With a portal right there too.”
“Are you…that’s not…how?” Despite Lost Alice’s outward calm and poise, Lisa was clearly flying apart.
A good time to attack her. If Vixali had a deathwish that was.
Vixali did have a bit of a deathwish, but her self preservation instincts were more than strong enough to squash the idea of doing something as monumentally foolish as trying to assault someone who was capable of personally flaying her entire coterie in under ten minutes.
“The tricky part was getting from the beta servers to here,” Rachel said. “We can get back there but that gate seemed pretty unstable. I don’t know how long it’ll remain open. Which is why we’ve got to go now.”
“I can’t go now,” Lisa said and before Rachel could protest added, “There’s a lot of people here who need me.” And in a smaller voice, “and who I need.”
Vixali wasn’t surprised by the addendum.
Everyone know the shapeshifter and the vampire were a bonded couple. Everyone had apparently known that before either of the two of them had.
Because [Adventurers] were fools. Fools for not knowing what they had while they had it and fools for giving bits of themselves to each other.
“What’s happening here?” Qiki asked, wrapping herself around Vixali and forcing the Queen to make room so they could share the seat. “Oh, are there two Lost Alices now?”
“Sisters it seems. Lost and Deadly.”
“Are they going to kill each other?” Qiki asked.
“Signs seem to point to no,” Vixali said. “But they’ve only been reunited for a minute or two, so there’s still time.”
“If you need to bring more people though, go and get them now,” Rachel said. “We can bring them all back. I think.”
“We have thousands of people here,” Lisa said. “Do you think we can fit thousands of people in our house?”
“They can stand out in the street.”
“And what about the rest of the people who got drawn in here? Can we get a million of them through the portal?”
“I don’t care about a million of them,” Rachel said. “I only care about you. You know if you stay here, you’re going to get hurt – or die. This whole world is nothing but a big ball of danger and it all wants to eat you!”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that,” Lisa said with a chuckle in her telepathic voice. “It’s killed me a few times now.”
“No…no! You can’t be dead!” Rachel said, collapsing in a heap of tears.