Monthly Archives: January 2022

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 5

There are many things Marcus enjoyed having front seats to. A RUN DMC concert when he was a kid? High point of his 8th grade year. Front seats to a the production of Camelot that his best friend was playing Lancelot in? Couldn’t have been better. Front seats to the end of the world though? Not that great as it turned out.

“This is not something we can deal with,” Astra said. She was able to look at the [Armageddon Beast] without blinking, but from her rigid posture, Marcus was sure she was feeling at least a little of the primordial terror that seem to have replaced the marrow in his bones.

“Not from here. Not now,” Smith said. “We’re being pulled into the thick of things.”

“Probably shouldn’t have gotten this close should we?” Astra asked.

“Didn’t have a whole lot of choice, did we?” Smith replied, glancing over to Marcus as though whatever they were talking about was his fault.

“What is happening? I don’t understand what that thing is.” He couldn’t look at it again, but from the slack jawed emptiness on the face of the people around him he could tell the monster was still out there.

Hanging in the air.

Devouring the world.

Or…no. Not devouring.

He didn’t want to think about it but he couldn’t help it. He’d always been a problem solver. That was what had led him to his position at Egress. He understood systems and people and how to unknot the tangles that both invariably wound up in. 

“So we call in backup?” Astra asked.

“Backup’s got to already know what’s going on,” Smith said. “I think the best we can do now is mitigate the damage as much as possible.”

“I’m game for that if you’ve got any ideas in the ‘how’ or ‘what’ we’re supposed to do areas?” Astra said.

How to stop the [Armageddon Beast]? 

Not possible.

It was the end of the world. The world wasn’t eternal. It had an end. Just like everything else. If it lost that, it would…what would happen?

Marcus felt like that line of questioning was both dangerous and unhelpful. It was ridiculous to think of the Earth outliving the death of the Sun, or the heat death of the universe. Those were so far beyond his scope that it was meaningless to even consider.

And if they weren’t? What then?

Marcus shook his head. The presence of the [Armageddon Beast] was making his thoughts blur and twist. He didn’t have time for that though.

This wasn’t a dream and the laws of reality wouldn’t change on a whim.

Except…he paused and grabbed an idea that had been flitting around the edges of his awareness.

Except, that’s what the [Armageddon Beast] was doing. It wasn’t devouring the world. Not exactly. It was changing the fundamental laws of reality. Turning the solid foundation of physics and mathematics that defined the fundamental aspects of everything into the wishy washy ephemera of dreams.

“Anna, wakeup,” he said, grabbing her hand and giving her shoulder a shake.

“I’m awake,” she said. “I heard you call that thing an [Armageddon Beast], I’ve been trying to figure out what that means.”

“I think it’s related to what’s happening to our players,” Marcus said. “I’ve got no proof that, but it can’t be unrelated to we have people disappearing in direct violation of the laws of physics and now we’ve got something hanging over the  middle of the street that’s eating gravity, and time, and all the other physical constants that exist, right?”

“Yeah.” Anna blinked and shook her head too. “Yeah, that make sense. Sort of. I mean, none of this makes sense, not here, but…”

“But it’s something that could happen in our game’s right?” Marcus said.

“A [Chaos Breacher]. That things like the granddaddy of all [Chaos Breachers],” she said and frowned. “What the heck is happening to my voice? [Chaos Breacher]? Okay, something is really weird here.”

“[Chaos Breacher],” Marcus said. “Yep, it’s happening to me too. I noticed it with [Armageddon Beast]. When we says names, meaningful ones, we get that effect. This has got to be what my players were reporting. Except now it’s happening in the real world too.”

“About that,” Officer Smith said. “I think it’s safe to tell you now that where your players went? That’s a real place too. They’re not in your servers, or anything like that.”

“But that…” Anna said and trailed off.

“Has too many implications to sort through at the moment, yeah,” Smith said. “The important thing is don’t lose focus. The [Armageddon Beast] is growing, and that’s the problem that we need to work on.”

“How?” Anna asked. “I’m a game designer. I’m not…I don’t know, who would you even call for something like this? A wizard? A superhero? God himself?”

“You. Both of you. All of you. Everyone on this world,” Smith said. “That’s who you call to save a world. This is your place, your time, and your fight.”

“Very inspirational poster, but I repeat, I. Am. A. Game. Designer. I’m not equipped to fight a toddler much less whatever that thing is,” Anna said. “What am I supposed to do? Toss a USB stick with my last slide deck on it at the thing?”

“If that’s what you’ve got, sure,” Astra said. “Right now your choice is ‘Watch as that thing and others like it destroy you and everything you’ve ever known’ or ‘do something about it’. If tossing things into the [Armageddon Beast] is what you can do, why not try?”

“I can think of a thousand reasons!” Anna said. “What if it makes things worse?”

“Worse than the complete annihilation of all matter and time?” Smith asked. “Do you really think a USB drive could manage that?”

“No, maybe, I don’t know. Space and time aren’t supposed to be something that can get eaten,” Anna said.

“They are in Broken Horizons,” Marcus said. “We had a whole expansion and saving the timeline, and in the process the personification of Time itself. There were time loops, and space warps, and the players even met themselves at one point.”

“What’s your point?” Anna asked. 

Marcus watched as she forced herself to take a pair of deep breaths. He couldn’t fault her for being on the edge emotionally. He was pretty sure that proved she was holding onto more of her sanity than he was.

Whatever cracks were forming in his psyche though, they were a problem for a tomorrow that might never come. For the time being, he had a problem to solve.

“Crystal Stars had a time paradox storyline too didn’t it?” he asked. “The [Last Horizon] expansion you came out with about three years ago if I remember right?”

“Yeah. We had a [Super Dreadnaught] that was half in and half out of the event horizon of a black hole with it’s [Fold Drives] jammed on,” Anna said. “We had a one time event where if your characters died, they would be spit out of it from some earlier time in their history. I’m still stunned anyone played through it with the threat of deleveling, but the players thought it was the greatest thing we ever did.”

She pause for a moment and said, “Fold drive.”

“Yeah, I thought I heard it too,” Marcus said. “Fold drive. Super Dreadnaught. I don’t know, those sound normal to me now.”

“Is it a bad sign that they didn’t before? Or that we both thought they didn’t?” Anna asked.

“I don’t know? Maybe we’re close to getting sucked into your game?” Marcus said.

“But you don’t have a character?” Anna said.

“Well….” Marcus couldn’t repress a sheepish grin.

“Wait, you play our game?” Anna asked, professional rivalry providing a momentary shield against the madness swirling around them.

“Gotta keep an eye on the competition right?” Marcus said.

“What tier ship are you in?” Anna asked.

“Tenth tier Scout, twelfth tier Light Fighter, and, uh, eighteenth tier Merchant Trader,” Marcus confessed.

“Seriously?” Anna’s look of shock was understandable giving the multi-year commitment progressing to a high level as a Merchant Trader required. “Damn. I’m only a fourteenth tier Trader.”

“Maybe that’ll help us,” Marcus said.

“How? We’re not in Crystal Stars or Broken Horizons,” Anna said. “Oh, wait, but we could be! If that thing is eating the world, we could try to get people into the games instead. Those are whole different worlds!”

“It’s an alternative to getting eaten here,” Astra said.

“But it does have its own problems,” Smith said.

“Right. Getting eight billion people to register for two MMOs isn’t going to work. The servers couldn’t even a hundredth of that many logins,” Anna said.

“Logistics problems aside, that might only be a temporary reprieve at best,” Marcus said. “I know our players ran into some wild things, and some of them didn’t seem to even make it into the game fully. They were these [Disjoined] things.”

As the word left Marcus’s mouth it felt wrong.

The hairs of the back of his neck stood up and a chill ran down both arms.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Anna said, hesitating before each word as though something was waiting to spring on them.

“No,” Marcus said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I should have said that.”

“It’s the end of the world though, right? Can’t really make it much worse, you said.” Anna didn’t look any more convinced of that than Marcus felt.

“We should wake up your coworkers and get out of here,” Smith said, concern hardening her lips.

It wasn’t hard to draw the K2 employees attention away from the [Armageddon Beast] but few of them seemed to come fully back to their senses. Instead, each looked to be locked in some inner battle against the [Armageddon Beast] that lived in their memories.

It wasn’t until Marcus got to the last of them that he saw someone lose that fight.

He and Anna had worked outwards from the center of the crowd waking people up one-by-one while Smith and Astra directed them to the stairwell as though it was a fire drill.

The last person Marcus approached was a twenty something blonde haired guy with a lazy man’s attempt at a beard that he wasn’t quite up for growing.

“Hey, we’re going to be heading out now, you don’t need to watch that anymore,” he said, which was the variation on the general message that had seemed to work the best with the last few people he’d woken up.

It did not work for the last guy though.

In highsight though, Marcus wasn’t sure anything could have worked for the last guy.

“You think you can go…can go…think you…you,” the last K2 employee said.

Marcus’s intestines knew everything was wrong. His spine knew what was before him wasn’t human anymore. His finger flew away from a touch that was beyond mortal peril. All before his mind caught up.

All before the ma turned and regarded Marcus with pools of static where his eyes should have been.

 “YOU!” the [Disjoined] said and Marcus kicked him.

The move probably saved his life and hands tipped with nails of static whizzed past his face.

Marcus cursed and grabbed a chair to throw at the thing that had fallen against the window. It was already rising to launch itself at him when the chair hit, the impact flinging the man back through the window.

“What the hell?” Anna yelled.

“That wasn’t…” Marcus started to say before he saw the things hand still clutching the edge of the window.

Marcus was spared any further need to explain when it lifted itself back up so that its waist was level with the window frame. The chair impact had left an overly large gouge in its face, revealing more seething static beneath the bloodless skin.

Marcus spun left and right trying to find something bigger to throw at the thing before it could finish climbing back in the window, but his mind was freezing up. 

He wasn’t built for violence.

Not like this.

A baseball bat flew past him, smashing into the creatures face and sending it toppling backwards for a four story fall.

Turning Marcus found an equally freaked out Anna who’d clearly just hurled the closest thing she had at hand.

“We need to get out of here now,” she said and together they ran, though Marcus knew, there wasn’t anywhere left to run to.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 4

It wasn’t everyday that Azma had a cadre of highly skilled and impossibly well armed mercenaries volunteer to enter her service. That was more of a monthly occurrence really.

“When you say you’re willing to kill quite a lot of people to help me achieve my goals, whom did you have in mind?” she asked.

“We’re thinking to start with the Consortium fleet that’s in orbit, and then the one that’s supposed to be inbound to detonate the sun,” Hailey said. “Once those obstacles have been removed, there’s kind of a long laundry list of Senior Executives who need to go down before the Consortium gives up on this world. And of course the inevitable competitors who decide there’s a market opportunity to exploit here.”

“Of course,” Azma said. “And you’re fee for this will be?”

“Dungeon loot rules,” Hailey said.

Azma tried to parse that. She got the general gist of it from context but the particulars were potentially rather important in cases like this.

“Please be more specific,” Azma said.

“All items of value obtained during a mission are placed into a common pool,” Hailey said. “Anyone who wants a particular piece can cast a lot on it as ‘Need’ or ‘Greed’. Any ‘Need’ lot beats any ‘Greed’ lot, highest roll gets the item.”

“And this would be for?”

“The fleet,” Hailey said. “If we take down a ship, we’ll lot for the pieces of it, and for the ship as a whole I guess. Same with anything the Senior Executives have.”

Azma let a bemused smile cross her lips. They’d been a cute distraction, but the thought of eight [Adventurers] however well geared and highly leveled taking on the might of even the local fleet was laughable. And that was discounting the additional problems the [Hungry Shadow] posed.

This ‘Hailey’ had been singularly helpful according to Penswell though, and she knew about Durance Group, so Azma couldn’t very well let them go.

Had Penswell sent them to her so that Azma would eliminate them? That seemed very out of character for Penswell, but it warranted a lengthy ten seconds of consideration, while Azma chewed on a particularly succulent piece of the [Golden Boar Steak].

“You might want to mention the special compensation we’d be providing to her,” Mellisandra said. She wasn’t dining, but was sampling the wine that was served along with the food. Azma knew nothing of the wine’s vintage, but was perfectly certain that Ryschild had selected something appropriate.

“Special compensation?” Azma asked without letting too much weariness enter her voice. 

Mercenaries had sadly predictable ideas about what motivated people, and Azma dreaded talk of how the items which could be liquidated for cash would be dispersed. She’d seen a hundred different schemes for compensation structures that somehow always favored the ones who created them.

“We need armor and weapons,” Hailey said. “We enjoy things like spaceships and real estate. Those material things are what drive us to do this. Well, that and basic survival, but survival has too many other options to be entirely relevant here. You, however, are playing a different game than we are and so you have different concerns, and needs, and desires.”

It wasn’t a particularly brilliant deduction, but it did offer the promise that these [Adventurers] might understand the value of something beyond a sharp blade and a bag of gold.

“And what do you have that might address those concerns?” Azma asked, a worm of curiosity nibbling away at her despite the certainty that only disappointment awaited her.

“It’s not what we have now, it’s what we will have,” Hailey said. “Information. As the [Supreme Commander], there’s nothing you didn’t have access to for the fleet we’re facing presently but once they’re cleared away and we move onto the incoming star destroying fleet, we’ll be interacting with people and systems which are outside your sphere of control.”

“Go on,” Azma said, though she could see where Hailey’s offer was leading.

“When we tear through them, there will be files and reports and all sorts of intelligence,” Hailey said. “If you’re the [Quest Giver], then we can guarantee those documents will be returned to you. Returned unopened specifically.”

Azma stopped chewing for a second.

That was a dangerously insightful offer. Her greatest need was information, and information which no one else was privy to was  what she build her deadliest weapons out of.

But everything had a price.

“You will expect something in return, a reward for your quest,” she said. She wasn’t unsure of that, but she did wonder if they would value what they offered properly.

“Of course,” Hailey said. “A title is traditional. And for a quest chain like this one, a special uniform, dyeable to be clear, is pretty much a requirement.”

“A title? And a uniform?” Azma knew [Adventurers] were mad in a general sense. New manifestations of it though were still able to surprise her.

“A dyeable uniform,” Damnazon said, tapping the rainbow splattered breastplate she wore with pride.

“That’s not the real contribution you’ll be making though,” Hailey said.

“And what would my real contribution be?” Azma asked.

“The quests!” Hailey said.

“Explain please,” Azma said, though she was starting to see what the [Adventurers] meant by ‘working for her’.

“You understand the Consortium far better than any of us do. You know every capability of the fleet overhead and you have deep knowledge about the working of the rest of the Consortium’s operations and capabilities,” Hailey said. “You are also a strategic and tactical genius. There is no one better to create the plan for dismantling the Consortium step-by-step.”

It was a lovely sentiment, if a completely impractical one.

Azma was having a good day though, and if she wasn’t go to be kidnapped, she might at least entertain herself with the daydream that the [Adventurers] might be able to make good on their claims.

“What you ask is a tall order,” Azma said.

“Is it?” Hailey said. “Let’s consider some things; the last time we tried to assault the fleet, you were in command of it. And we lost. But why was that?”

“Because you were venturing onto unfamiliar terrain against a foe who expected your arrival and knew your capabilities. In general at least,” Azma said. “It comes as no surprise I’m sure that you were baited into that assault so that you would reveal more of your capabilities, and so that we could gain some live specimens to probe deeper.”

“Yeah, that was part of the lore,” Hailey said. “Though, I’m impressed you up the time table on that. From the initial outline it didn’t sound like those raids would ready for another half year at least.”

“Lore?” Azma asked.

“I’m not what you might expect,” Hailey said, “I’m more alien to this world than you are.”

“And that means?”

“On my homeworld, we have a game, a work of fiction which exactly mirrors everything here. This world. All of the magic in it. All of the monster. All of the people. Even you.”

Azma drew in a slow breath and considered the idea. It was unlikely, but not impossible. There were all sorts of scrying and remote viewing devices, and more worlds, and overlapping branches of time, and layers of reality than even the Consortium could catalog. That one of them might have developed a technology which allowed them to monitor other worlds on other planes was virtually a given. That they would make a game out of the scenes they perceived was unexpected but it did fit with the [Adventurers] general mindset.

“And you know me from this game?” Azma asked.

“You had just stepped onto the scene in the game when the [World Shift] event happened,” Hailey said. “And that person wasn’t you. Not the full you, as you really are. She was a villainous adversary with terrifying troops and plans-within-plans, but she lacked your full depth. From my point of view, she’s a rumor about you. Something that might be true, and perhaps sketches the general shape of who you are, but can’t be taken as truly representative of the current you.”

“I’m curious that you would work with someone you describe as ‘villainous’, or do you believe that I have changed? Perhaps as a result of something you’ve done?” Azma asked.

“Not at all,” Hailey said “I don’t think you’ve changed. I don’t think you should have to.”

“There are more than a few corpses who would disagree with you,” Azma said.

“Except they can’t because they’re dead, and good riddance,” Hailey said, “I know what the Consortium types you’ve had to deal with are like, They’re in our fiction too. And we have plenty of people like this in real life too. Spacing is too good for most of them. What you did was a service to everyone.”

Those words should have rolled off Azma. She’d heard empty flattery countless times before.

Except this didn’t sound empty.

Or slavishly worshipful.

Hailey sung Azma’s praises as though she were simply stating basic facts. Facts that Hailey was unashamed to approve of.

Wheels and schemes danced in Azma’s head as her daydreams took on their usual sharp and purposeful edges.

“So you’re idea is to have me design the plan for the conquest of the Consortium’s local fleet as a series of ‘quests’, utilizing my knowledge of the fleet’s capabilities to enhance your chance of success?” Azma asked.

“The local fleet first, then the rest, yes,” Hailey said. “By breaking it down into individual quests, we can be sure that the tasks are manageable ones. You can evaluate our performance and tweak the plans for the subsequent missions based on that, and on the resistance we encounter.”

The idea of sending a perfectly expendable team up to bother the [Hungry Shadow] wasn’t unappealing, though it did come with its own risks.

“If any of you should be corrupted, the others will have to destroy them. Utterly,” Azma said, already considering how they would be able to quarantine the [Adventurers] from making contact with anyone after the first time they encountered the [Hungry Shadows] troops.

“That won’t be a problem,” Hailey said.

“We’re immune,” Damnazon said.

“Immune?” Azma asked. “How do you know?”

“It turns out all [Adventurers] are now. One of us unlocked it and the world kind of rolled it out to the rest of us,” Hailey said.

“How can you be sure of that?” Azma asked. It was far too late to run if they were wrong, but the temptation was still there.

“Because she was the one who made it a [Formless Hunger] in the first place and then fought it to a standstill until it had to change into a [Hungry Shadow] to escape her.”

Azma. Cool, ultimately collected, unflappable Azma gaped.

“I’m sorry. What did you just say?”

“One of my friends was on the [High Beyond] before your forces attacked it,” Hailey said. “She was the one who tore a piece off it after it ate [Sky’s Edge]. That was what turned it from nothing, to the [Formless Hunger]. It came back for a rematch in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] and she fought it there again. This time she had a god soul to work with. The [Hungry Shadow] that left that fight didn’t really come out as the winner. Right now she’s working on putting together round three, and I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about the [Hungry Shadow] or anything like it after that.”

Hailey could have been lying. She had to be lying. It wasn’t possible to simple beat up a Transcendental Entity.

But something had.

Something, no, someone had changed it.

Made it into something more real.

Azma’s mind spun. Galaxies whirled within her. New constellations formed. From infinite possibilities new ideas, new schemes, new tapestries of interwoven plans came together.

The [Adventurers] could withstand the [Hungry Shadow].

The fleet was no longer guarded by forces she was directing.

Only near mindless drones remained.

And the [Adventurers]? What could she do with eight of them? Take back the fleet? Impossible. Or impossible for anyone else? Could she do it? If she had more resources?

“That changes the situation significantly,” Azma said. “It would change still further if you could convince another party, or better two or three, to join you in this endeavor though.”

It was Hailey’s turn to look perplexed.

And then gasp in embarrassment.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t really explain. The last time we assaulted the fleet, it was out of pride and a sense of duty to the world. And that works for a lot of us. A lot of [Adventurers] like to play the part of being a hero. But that differs. What units us all, across every level, and every game is that if you give something good enough loot, we will fall on it like a pack of starving wolves and grind down any problems we face until they’re dust.”

Hailey paused, checking in to make sure Azma was following her.

“I’m not asking you to be a [Quest Giver] for the eight of us in the room,” Hailey said. “I’m asking you to plan a strategy for all of us. All the [Adventurers]. No one is going to want to miss getting a piece of this.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 3

Azma was concerned. Not yet worried. That was at least ten minutes away which, all things considered, was ten minutes more than she’d expected to have a day ago.

“Communications from the fleet have ceased,” Grenslaw said. “Shall I instruct our troops to redouble their blocking protocols?”

“Yes, for at least the new twelve hours. Beyond that we’ll need to review the situation in case we need to expand our local communication range,” Azma said without needing to think through the response too much.

Since they’d landed, the fleet, or more precisely the entity which had taken control of the fleet had been broadcasting on all of the secure interplanetary channels. It’s messages were varied, at least according to the checksums on them, but they all effectively served the same purpose. Opening one of the messages would provide the entity with a pathway to access the reader, from whom it would them spread as fast and far as possible. 

That it had stopped broadcasting was no indication that Azma and her forces were safe from its depredations however. In all likelihood it meant that the entity was evolving and had new plans it wished to try in order to consume them. 

It was, of course, also possible that the entity was dead, defeated by the Consortium or some other unknown foe. Azma calculated the odds of that as being too low to have more than a half dozen safeguards against. If the primary threat she and the rest of the planet faced had been defeated, then whatever had defeated a formerly transcendental entity was unlikely to pose any less of a threat than the [Hungry Shadow] had.

“Intelligence gathering on the local forces has returned all preliminary reports,” Ryschild said. “I’ve separated the data on the standard troops from what we’ve collected on the [Adventurers]. So far there aren’t any significant deviations from data provided by [Commander] Penswell.”

Azma nodded. Of course Penswell had shared accurate information with her. They both knew the other would be generating their own reports and any discrepancies would be trivial to unearth. Azma would need to review the reports on the [Adventurers] herself to find the truly useful information. Or rather the truly useful lack of information.

Penswell hadn’t given her false information, just as Azma hadn’t provide Penswell with an incorrect breakdown of the Consortium forces, both the ones under her control and the ones that had been converted to the Hungry Shadows control or had gone fully rogue, pursuing what they believed to the Consortium’s interests as their senior commanders were hollowed out to serve as shells and meat puppets for the Hungry Shadow.

Both however had held back certain qualities of their respective forces in their reports. In some cases, this was a good faith measure taken to ensure they didn’t drown the meaningful data out with useless minutiae. Since Azma could imagine roughly ten thousand scenarios where she or Penny would betray the other, keeping at least a few secrets was more or less mandatory.

Unless she wanted to let everything slip away.

Her whole career, everything she’d built, it was all teetering on the precipice. Or perhaps it was already falling.

The temptation to let it all go. To tip fully over the edge, to let everything crash and burn, the appeal of the notion whispered to her in words of freedom, of rest, of lasting peace after a lifetime of strife.

Azma didn’t try to deny the appeal of the thought. Nothing was tempting if it wasn’t at least a little appealing.

But it didn’t appeal enough.

Not yet.

To give up when the game was still going? To not see it through to the end? That was barely different than losing, and she didn’t lose. Even stripped of her rank, collaborating with the enemy, and on the cusp of seeing the Consortium fall into burning ruin, Azma refused to abandon her long term plans.

The Consortium would fall. It would be brought low and humbled before being rebuilt, but it was not a transcendent entity that would either crush it or restore it. Both of those victories would belong to her.

“[Supreme Commander], there’s a group of [Adventurers] who are asking to speak with you?” Grenslaw said, apparently as perplexed as Azma was at that turn of events.

“Are there now?” she said. “And what is it they wish to discuss?”

“They want to enlist?” Grenslaw still didn’t sound any more certain about the idea.

“With the Consortium?” Azma asked, searching for the trap, the plot, the scheme that this odd turn of events might fall into.

“No. With you they say?” Grenslaw said.

Azma was puzzled for the eternity of three seconds before finally smiling.

“By all means then, have them sent to my dining room. I will meet with them there as soon as we have finished the troops assignments for the assault on [The Citadel of Forgotten Frost].”

Azma saw seventeen different plots that Penswell alone might be attempting with this strange new offer, each one the more ludicrously unlikely than the last. Secretly she hoped it was the ninth plot she’d considered. It would be so delightful for Penswell to send her a team of assassins to suborn. They could hold her hostage, try to escape, she’d turn their loyalties before they could reach the inactive teleport crystal. It would be such a wonderful distraction, and a sign that Penny really was serious about taking the spot of Azma’s chief rival that had sat absent for, essentially, forever.

Assigning the troops to the campaign against the [Citadel of Forgotten Frosts] was the work of only twenty minutes. Grenslaw and Ryschild both offered insightful suggestions, and critiques of each others plans as well as Azma’s own. Together the three arrived at a series of strategies and force distributions which would likely mean the entire assault would run automatically without further intervention. 

Azma had planned to oversee the operation anyway, in order to ensure that the inevitable unforeseen events would be accounted for properly, but as their meeting concluded she changed her mind.

“Grenslaw, give the orders to mobilize for the operation immediately. Ryschild please brief the unit commanders on the primary strategy and their fallback options. Once all units are in position and readiness is verified, give the order to commence.”

“Should we alert you when the ready checks begin?” Ryschild asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” Azma said. “You two will have full command of this operation. I leave the division of strategic oversight and tactical coordination to you.”

And with that, she was gone, walking sedately down the hallway in the castle she’d liberated in the last operation to find her [Adventurer] guests waiting for her.

She could have brought guards she decided as she stepped into the dining room and saw a full team sitting around the table, waiting for her before they began the meals that had been laid out before them.

Guards would have been expected.

Would they be too put off by the lack of guards to try for a kidnapping?

It was a silly fancy. Azma knew that. They weren’t [Assassins] and they weren’t going to kidnap her. Even if she’d brought the dimmest, most easily overpowered guards she had, which to be fair, even her worst troops measured up well against the level capped [Adventurers] before her, even with her worst though, Azma knew she was be disappointed if she hoped too much for an assassination attempt.

“Told you she’d wouldn’t need a legion of troops to talk to us,” a woman named Hailey said.

A goblin sitting to the left her, slide platinum coin over to her.

The goblin didn’t seem concerned with lost bet as much as he seemed interested in Azma though.

Oh! He was an [Assassin]!

Azma’s hear fluttered with joy but the feeling sank down as she studied Cambrell. 

He wasn’t here to kill her.

Azma scanned the room. Mellisandra had several active spells guarding herself from an impressive array of possible attacks. Damnazon’s reflexes were sufficient that no one else in the room, Azma included, would be able to make a move before she did. And so on it went. Everyone was highly proficient and disturbingly well geared. The team before her was easily a match for any three of Azma’s [Elite Strike Teams]. 

And none of them wanted to kill her.

With a sigh and a shrug that seemed to perplex the [Adventurers] as much as their presence perplexed her, Azma strolled to her seat at the head of the table and sat down. Lifting her knife and fork, she cut into the local meat dish and lifted her eyes to examine the table again.

“You wished to speak with me?” she asked, breaking what had been an uneasy silence.

“Yes. We’d like to join your team,” the one named Hailey said.

“An unusual request,” Azma observed, curious what they’re reaction might reveal.

From the slight pauses and twitches, many of them were nervous. Except for the half-giant. Damnazon seemed to simply be hungry. She wasn’t. She was as curious and nervous as the rest, but she did a remarkable job of playing a brutish slab of muscle.

“These are unusual times,” Hailey said to which Azma had to nod a simple agreement.

“What do you imagine enlisting with my forces would entail?” she asked.

A part of her wanted to believe that they were delaying the kidnapping until later, once they’d learned her routines, but the rest of her knew that was a vain hope.

“Furthering your agenda,” Hailey said without missing a beat.

“And what do you believe my agenda to be?” Azma asked. She missed that there weren’t any convenient airlocks, because history suggested that the answer to her question would be something so stupid that death was really the only remedy.

“You want to control your own destiny,” Hailey said. “Your plan to do so prior to this fiasco was to recoup the Consortium’s investment in this world for both the economic and political influence it would gain you and parley that into an expedition to the Barzai System wherein you would be able to both subjugate the planet as well as unearth and claim ownership of a hidden reserve Soul Contracts which the Consortium’s competitor the Durance Group uses to enforce the loyalty of their senior staff members. With the Durance Group’s senior staff under your command, your ascension to a Senior Executive role in the Consortium would be a fait accompli and from there a campaign of general intrigue and assassination would place you on the governing board, which you would then destroy and replace with a governing structure of your own design. If I remember correctly, that is.”

There is a point beyond which shocking and surprising situations simply can’t move you. Azma felt like that place had become her home.

“Interesting,” was all she chose to say as she took a bite of the [Golden Boar Steak].

“Obviously your plans are likely to have changed, but I’m guessing that your long term goals remain the same?” Hailey asked.

If they had been on a ship, Azma would have executed the entire table. Her plans with the Durance Group were one’s she held buried under a series of psychic locks and keys. The chance that anyone, anywhere could be aware of them was precisely zero.

Ordinarily, preserving her plans might have allowed her some leeway in determining Hailey and the other’s fate, but with the Durance Group it was a matter of preserving her own life, and so the secret would need to die with them to be kept safe.

But Azma was no longer living in ordinary times.

“And you wish to aid me in that endeavor?” she asked.

“Given that the alternative is the Consortium sending in a task force to make our sun go supernova? Yes. We very much would like to see you replace the current idiots who are in charge and we’re willing to kill a great number of people to make that happen.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 2

Their first battle was more than they bargained for. A lot more. Tessa remembered where the [Iron Lancers] were and she remembered the solution to the puzzle that would have let the party bypass them. Armed with foreknowledge and the ability to initiate the fight on their own terms, Tessa’s party should have been able to handle their foes without a problem. Had they been high enough level that might even have happened.

“Six of them is too much,” Obby said. “We need to thin their numbers down.”

“Trying!” Rip said as she unleashed a [Storm’s Torrent] on the [Iron Lancer] Obby was primarily focused on.

The hail of magically enhanced arrows that tore into the metal plated shell of the Lancer’s body left dents but did little to slow it down.

“Don’t worry about me,” Starchild said. “The [Heartfire’s] near. Save your healing and I’ll just respawn to get back in the fight.”

“I can help,” Glimmerglass said, her staff at the ready in front of her.

“Not yet!” Tessa said, “We need to get xps out of these things more than we need to survive.”

As if to prove Tessa’s point, the [Iron Lancer] that Starchild was struggling against unleashed a [Cerberus Burst] on her, stabbing so fast it’s spear seemed to vibrate into three spears that all landed simultaneously, over and over.

Starchild’s perforated corpse hit the ground with a messy thud. They had healing magic which could have restored even that level of catastrophic damage but fighting things as tough as the [Iron Lancers] was a resources game and the party’s resources were already stretched to the breaking point.

“No Hounds from here to the [Heart Fire] it looks like,” Starchild called out.

“I’m keeping an eye and ear out too,” Pete added. “It sounds like they’re all outside the castle still.”

“I lost another [Iron Lancer],” Obby said as a healing spell restored her left arm to functionality.

The Lancer in question was making a beeline towards Matt, probably because he’d been layering debuffs on it since the start of the fight.

“We’ll bring him back,” Rip said.

She fired an [Thunder Shot] at the approaching Lancer at the same time as Matt cast a [Sleepless Exhaustion] spell at it. 

Their attacks were beautifully timed, each reading the others unspoken intent in the moment it moved from thought to action.

The synergy between them was enough to give their attacks some weight. The Lancer staggered for a second and went down on knee.

Sadly, that second didn’t last. The Lancer twitched and rose to its feet, a fresh surge of power pulsing from the seemingly indestructible molten heart in the center of its chest.

Rip and Matt could have followed up their attack, but it would have been a fatal choice. None of their attacks had proven capable of destroying the [Iron Lancers] while the Lancers possessed an astounding array of one-shot kill abilities.

Instead, Rip took Matt’s hand and blurred into a sheet of lightning, flashing past the Lancers faster than even their hypersonic reflexes could handle. Together the Tabbywile and Metal Mechanoid skidded to a stop on the far side of the defensive line Obby and Starchild has been struggling to hold.

“We need a new strategy,” Lisa said. “We’re burning mp too quickly to sustain this for the whole group.”

She and Lady Midnight were pouring spell after spell into Obby to keep her on her feet, and were keeping ahead of the incoming damage, if just barely.

“Kiting?” Wrath Raven said. “She’s fast.”

It wasn’t an uncommon ploy, and often the first one [Adventurers] thought of when they were faced with something too difficult to smash down directly. In this case however, Tessa knew it wouldn’t work.

“She is. If we need to stall and reset, we can try it, but we’re not pressuring them enough as it is. If we start kiting our dps is going to tank even further.”

“I can take an offensive posture when I rejoin the fight,” Starchild said.

“Take one out, retreat and repeat?” Lisa suggested.

“Maybe,” Tessa said. “We’re close enough to do that if we can survive their [Blade Blizzard] when they hit half health.”

“You have a better idea though, I can hear it in your voice,” Lisa said.

“Not better,” Tessa said. “But it might let us win the fight in one go.”

“I would not mind getting through this sooner rather than latter,” Obby said.

“I trust you,” Lisa said. “What can we do?”

“Obby how solid is their attention on you now?” Tessa asked.

“I’d rate it at jello level solidity,” Obby said. “If I’m feeling optimistic.”

“That’ll have to do I guess,” Tessa said. “Keep the healing on Obby okay. If I get hit, so be it. I can make a ghost run the same as Starchild did, and I might learn something in the process.”

“Try not to get hit,” Lisa said, though she kept all of her magic focused on Obby.

Tessa nodded and stepped out from behind the cover of Wrath Raven’s bulky form.

She was tempted to have Wrath pitch her at the Lancers. It would have been the fastest option for getting to them, and it was a mode of travel the Lancers wouldn’t be expecting.

Instead though, she walked.

Slowly, relaxing her shoulders and face muscles with each step.

She wasn’t a warrior charging into battle.

What she was doing wasn’t a big deal.

She was hardly a threat to anyone.

She just had a message to deliver.

The Lancers, somewhat surprisingly, didn’t react to her at all.

Skill gained: [Presence of the Void]!

Tessa kept the smirk off her fact. An invisibility power was always good. One that worked on enemies you were engaged with in combat that? That was just horribly broken.

Even with the Lancers ignoring her though, getting within arm’s reach of the one the rest of the team was bombarding was difficult. A spear thrust that wasn’t aimed at you could still ruin your day if you happened to be in the path it was redirected onto by a parry or a shield block.

Tessa tapped on her arm, checking it to make sure it was still as sturdy as when she’d put it on. It had grown with her as she leveled as so was roughly strong enough to bounce a tank shell without letting her come to harm. Sadly that was still vastly weaker than Obby’s or Pillowcase’s armor and Obby was getting fairly savagely mauled by the attacks she was absorbing.

Skill gained: [Personal Field: Dark Radiance]

Tessa blinked as shimmering purple and blue light wrapped around her. It didn’t obscure her vision, if anything it sharpened it, but she could feel a weight to glow, like she was wearing a suit of solid plate armor.

“Is that your new trick?” Lisa asked.

“One of them,” Tessa said. 

“How long have you been able to do that?” Lady Midnight asked.

“About ten seconds now,” Tessa said.

“What? You just got that? How?” Pete asked as Starchild returned to the fray.

“I’ve been leveling up a lot in the last few days, but I wasn’t spending any time as a [Void Speaker] so my abilities weren’t set yet.”

“What do you mean ‘not set’?” Starchild asked.

“The class abilities I’m getting don’t seem to be preset like the ones for [Guardian] or [Archer] are,” Tessa said. “I had a theory that they’re developing in response to my needs. Sort of like having a bunch of blank slots that you can fill in as you go.”

“Wait, why not fill them with an ‘I Win’ button?” Lady Midnight asked.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Tessa said. “I don’t have any hard data on this obviously, but it feels like the powers need to ‘fit’ if that makes sense. Like if I got an ability slot at 15th level, the power that goes into it needs to be similar to other level 15 powers.”

“But maybe just a little bit better,” Lisa said. “We’ve all seen how new things wind up benefiting from a ton of power creep. I mean, that’s why I went for [Grave Mender] as a class. I wanted to prove the broken bits weren’t so good that they made my main worthless.”

“Better or weirder right?” Rip asked. “I remember that [Fracture] ability you have. That doesn’t seem like anything the rest of us got at level 5.”

“Yeah. [Void Speaker] seems to be specialized in weird stuff. I’m guessing this armor won’t be as strong as any of Obby’s [Guardian] shield powers.”

“I’d be happy to trade places with you if it is,” Obby lied.

“Funny you should say that,” Tessa said. “Because I do have another trick up my sleeves. Pillowcase: Skill sharing: [Blessing of Blood].”

No visible change came over Tessa’s features, but in her veins a song began to play as Pillowcase’s [Soul Knight] magics took root in her.

In her mind, her perspective shifted, her vision coloring as though she was looking through both Tessa and Pillowcase’s eyes at the same time. 

“Now to see if I can really reach for what I need,” Tessa said, stepping forward with the same lack of aggression in her thoughts.

She wasn’t going to destroy the [Iron Lancers].

She was just bringing them a message.

Words that wanted to reach them.

Spears flashed past her as she moved forward.

Obby’s blade nearly skewered her through the ear.

But nearly wasn’t worth worrying about.

She had a message to deliver.

Words she needed to speak.

“[Touch of Endless Hunger]”, she said, hoping it would work as she imagined.

Skill gained: [To-ch of E-dl-ss Hu-g-r…

Skill gained: [T-uch – – En-les- H-ng-r..

[Touch of Endless Hunger],” Tessa said, pitting herself against what felt like the whole world.


It wasn’t the world that was speaking to her.

It was something that never should have been a part of the world

Something far distant.

Something that was still inside her.

Just a tiny bit. An unmeasurable small piece that she’d ripped off.


It was a thing without a proper name.

It only possessed a description.

A label for things of its kind, even though it was alone.

It needed a name.

It had threatened her.

It had hurt her and the people she cared for.

It needed a name so it would know that she was coming for it.


Tessa felt the [Hungry Shadow] retreat from the point of creation where her ability was being forged.

Except it wasn’t a [Hungry Shadow] anymore.

It was broken?

It was…something more and less than it had been.

It was changing. It knew fear now, and the prospect of a name scared it more than anything else in all of this creation ever could.

Skill gained: [Touch of Endless Hunger]

Tessa felt something shift around her.

Nothing had changed? Oh that was far from true.

Nothing important to most people? Yes.

Everything for someone though? Most definitely.

Within the world, there were now words carved into its fundamental reality which defined and limited Hungers. Formeless, Shadowy, Broken. It didn’t matter what sort of entity they became. The world was wrapping around them. Hunger, even [Endless Hunger] had a quantifiable meaning now. The engines of the world could compute its existence. Could define interactions with it. 

It was no longer a corrosive impossibility. It was part of the world. A tool someone could use. Something that could be defended against.

Not by the [Iron Lancers] however.

At Tessa’s touch the Lancer in front of her staggered, it’s armor cracking and shattering.

It wasn’t a one hit kill. All she’d done was weaken it, reducing it’s defenses to a point where Rip’s next [Storm’s Torrent] blasted away a good thirty percent of its health.

In game terms it was an incredibly strong debuff. Easily one of the most devastating ones any character of Tessa’s level could inflict.

But only one of. There were many other powers that could rival it and that was the key.

She hadn’t won the battle for them, and that was the best news she could have hoped for, because it meant their foe was going to be just as limited as she was.

And it didn’t have the friends she did.

Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 1

Tessa was small and fragile and walking into the sort of danger that was going to kill her. More than once. Accepting that was made ever so horribly more difficult by the howl’s she could hear in the distance.

“Those can’t be the [Hounds of Fate] can they?” Rip asked, her knuckles wrapped tight around her bow.

“Anything’s possible, but I don’t think so,” Tessa said.

She was walking ahead of the others, but a pace behind Obby. It wasn’t the best spot for her. In her low level, presumably-human form, she was the squishiest member of the party, rather than its second most durable one. The urge to shield the others was too strong to let her huddle in the center though, and she had the ready made excuse that “if I’m not in danger, I won’t be pushed to manifest any new abilities” to justify her less-than-rational impulses.

“If the Hounds are walking in the living world, then ghost runs might be easier than usual,” Lisa said, putting a hand on Rip’s shoulder.

It was an odd argument, and Tessa’s suspected it was the physical contact more than Lisa’s words that helped Rip relax a tiny bit.

“Are we in much danger though?” Rachel, Lisa’s younger sister who looked exactly like her, and wasn’t that something Tessa was dying to ask about, said. “I’m higher level than you all and we’re got these two with us too.”

She gestured to Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven who were engaged in a side conversation, and off in their own small party.

The high level escort the two offered wasn’t a guarantee of safety, not with the fun new wrinkle of monsters leveling up into new, terrifying, and potentially unbeatable forms. Despite that though, Tessa was glad to have both of them acting as an escort.

In theory Cease All and a full party from Lisa’s guild would be joining up with them later, but Tessa wasn’t counting on that. She couldn’t say why, but in the back of her mind she felt like a drum was beating, the rhythm growing steadily louder and faster as the world fell apart more and more.

The drumbeat was her imagination, Tessa was sure of that, but she wasn’t willing to discount the message it was sending her.

Their time was running out.

“The area we’re going to has a level cap,” Tessa said. “So we’re all going to be in danger. Glimmerglass and Wrath only need to get us there, but even so, if we run into one of the new monster types, or if an old one that starts leveling up, we need to be ready to run.”

“Do we know that things will be any better in the dungeon we’re going to?” Rip asked.

“This is as much an experiment as anything else,” Lisa said. “If the mobs in the dungeon do level up, we need to see how far. If we’re lucky the level cap will hold for them and we’ll be able to keep going. If they can break the level cap of dungeon though? Then we need to get out of there.”

“What are we supposed to do then?” Rachel asked.

“One problem at a time,” Tessa said. “We’ll deal with the looking for somewhere else if we have to. For now we need to stay focused.”

Around them, burned out farmlands stretched into acidic swamps and scattered, everburning funeral pyres. The sky was ash and cinders, threatening a flood of rain to wash the scorched world away, but always holding back, leaving the air dusty and charged with the scent of a battle to come.

“The level cap will constrain how far we can level as well, won’t it?” Starchild asked.

“It will but its high enough that we should be able to gain quite a few levels before we need to leave,” Tessa said.

“How high is it?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Seventy,” Lisa said.

“That’s a lot higher than where we’re at,” Matt said. “Can we fight level 70 mobs?”

“Not easily,” Obby said. “But the early encounters are lower level than that. I think they go as low as 50 don’t they?”

“Fifty two,” Tessa said. “Which is pretty high, I know. But if we take what we’ve learned and pull really carefully, we can do fine, and the xps should be ridiculous until we get up to early 60s. Then it’ll just be really good.”

“I haven’t fought with you before,” Rachel said. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“You’ll be backline support to start,” Lisa said. “Your job will be to keep me and Lady Midnight safe in case anything breaks through the front line. We’ll rotate you into a DPS role once we get a sense for how the fights are going.”

“I haven’t done a lot of partying. I always played solo before,” Rachel said.

“Partying’s easy,” Rip said. “Tessa’s good about calling out directions.”

“Is that what you do?” Rachel asked, turning to Tessa. “You’re the controller?”

“We’re going to find out what it is I do,” Tessa said.

“Without getting you killed,” Lisa said.

“Ideally, yes,” Tessa agreed without making any promises in that direction. She knew the risk she was taking.

She would have been much safer as Pillowcase, but for as wonderful as it was to be a superhumanly resilient ragdoll, what the party needed, what the world needed, wasn’t another tank. Tessa had, as far as she knew, a unique class. There was no guarantee that a [Void Speaker] would be able to fix things but desperate times called for desperate measures and Tessa was hard pressed to think of a more desperate occasion than the end of the world.

“What can you tell us about the dungeon we’re going to?” Starchild asked. “I presume its in the castle on the mountaintop up there?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ve done this one,” Pete added.

“I’m not surprised,” Tessa said. “[Hells Breach] was considered hard even back when it first launched, and it’s got very little decent loot in it. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously farmed this one since, uh, never?”

“That sounds about right,” Lisa said. “Cease had us run it a few times after it launched and our repair bills were more than we got out of it even when we did a no death run, so we stopped. I don’t think many other guilds even stuck with it that long.”

“So why are we going there?” Rip asked.

“Because no one else will be there,” Lisa said.

“Penswell was able to transport us to the valley which skipped us past about a week of travel,” Tessa said. “That should mean no one else is in this zone, so if we unleash some unstoppable monsters there’ll be time to work out how to handle them, assuming they go beyond the dungeon borders at all.”

“Also, while the loot in here is terrible, the xps should be fantastic,” Lisa said. “Usually its not worth it because to get here you need to slog through a bunch of long levels with few things in them, so the xp/time ratio goes down. Penswell dropped us right into the sweet spot though so its all high xp mobs every step we take once we get into the dungeon.”

“How are we going to get out once we’re done?” Matt asked.

“If we cap out here, Lost Alice and I will have access to [The Dark Hallway],” Lady Midnight said. “We can use that to teleport back to the graveyards  in any of the main cities and from there to pretty much anywhere if they get the teleport network back online.”

Tessa kept quiet while Lady Midnight spoke.

It was certainly true that they’d have access to the standard teleport options if they succeeded in leveling up, but her real plans were a little less than ‘standard’. That was going to need to wait until she discovered what abilities she could develop as a [Void Speaker] though.

“A moment if you have the time?” Glimmerglass asked on a private channel as the castle began to look before them.

“If I don’t have time to listen to myself who could I listen to?” Tessa said.

“Wrath Raven and I have decided that we’ll be entering [Hells Breach] with you,” Glimmerglass said.

“But, no, you’ll be so much weaker in there,” Tessa said, feeling her plans start to crack.

“Weaker yes, but still stronger than the rest of you,” Glimmerglass said. “If we stay out here though, we won’t be able to do you any good at all.”

“Yes you will, you’ll be making sure we have a point we can rally back to!” Tessa said, her calm slipping a bit more than she was comfortable with. 

“Except we both know that once you’re past the first floor in there, you won’t really be able to get back out here,” Glimmerglass said. “The path is too long, and there’s at least three [Heartfires] that you’d be passing up to get here. And that’s only on the second floor. If you plan on capping everyone up to level 70, you’ll need to run through all twenty floors.”

“We can do it,” Tessa said. “We’re a lot stronger than the parties back then used to be. And we’ve going Feral Fang’s gear. It’ll grow with us as we go. No one’s going to be walking around in underleveled junk because there’s no loot dropping.”

“That’s all true,” Glimmerglass said. “But it’s also true that Wrath Raven and I are already in gear that’s far superior to what you’ll have at level 70, and before you say it, yes it will be dampened down by being under a level cap, but even still it will be better than what yours will grow to. And that’s not the most important point.”

“Yeah, the most important point is that you’d be there to help us rather than having to sit and wait, I know,” Tessa said.

“Well there’s that, but we were thinking of something else,” Glimmerglass said. “If the monsters are able to break the level cap in there, we have to be nearby. We have to see it.”

“Why? Oh, wait, you’re thinking if you see them break the level cap, you could learn how to do it too!” Tessa said.

“And we would still be higher level than them when they did it,” Glimmerglass said. “If we can break through from 99 to 100 while they’re breaking through from 70 to 71, we can make sure the problem doesn’t get out of hand. We can help you keep going even past that, in case it’s just one monster that’s capable of doing that.”

Tessa thoughts reeled.

[Adventurers] couldn’t break the level cap. There weren’t any abilities setup for them past level 99. 

But monsters couldn’t level at all and that wasn’t stopping them any longer.

“Or we can keep going even if all of the monsters can level up past the cap,” Tessa said, turning a dangerous addition to an already reckless plan over in her mind.

“But then you’d be fighting, oh, yes, I see,” Glimmerglass said.

If the monsters levels continued to rise as Tessa and her party fought them, they would climb to 80, 90, and over 100. If Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven could learn how to break through the level cap too, then, maybe, they could teach the trick to everyone else.

[Hells Breach] could become the most dangerou place on the planet and they could emerge from its fires as, what? Maximum level [Adventurers]? Beyond maximum level? Limitless?

Tessa could sense the last possibility wasn’t out of their reach. If everything lined up, they could claim unfathomable power from the dungeon before them.

But she had to make sure that didn’t happen.

“You don’t want limitless power,” a wordless voice offered to her.

And she knew that was true.

If everything lined up, they could grind for more power forever, but power wasn’t what she needed. Not in the end.

Gazing passed the castle’s gates, Tessa took a moment to center her thoughts and hold tight to what had brought her to the threshold before her.

Lisa. Rip and Matt. Her new friends. They were all precious beyond measure.

What had brought her to the beginning of the end of the world though was something smaller, and much closer.



All the fragments of herself.

Of the woman she truly wanted to be.

The tomorrow that she would fill with those she loved, and in which she could love herself.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Outerlude 2


The disaster unfolding before Marcus’s eyes was both horribly and comfortingly familiar.

“So that’s where we’re at,” Anna Alexandra said, stepping back to let Marcus have access to the keyboard and screens she’d just been presenting with.

Anna was the Chief Technology Officer at K2 Squared. It was a recent promotion brought on by the fact that the previous CTO had been playing the company’s  premiere MMO, Crystal Stars, when whatever catastrophe that had befallen Egress Entertainment and their Broken Horizons game began spreading.

Remi Touremille, the former CTO was, as far as they could tell, stuck in a series of losing battles, trying to hold back a swarm of enemies that registered as corrupted data on the K2 servers. Whether it was really Remi or only his character and a very clever AI controlling it was a matter of some debate, but the fact that Remi had vanished in a shower of light had the advantage of video proof to silence any naysayers. 

So of course there were people naysaying none the less.

Marcus was, in theory, an impartial outsider to all that, but given that he’d spent longer than he could accurately track anymore dealing with more-or-less the exact same problem in Broken Horizons, he felt a deep well of sympathy for Anna’s predicament.

He just wished he could offer her any real help.

“I don’t know if this is good news, but I can tell you that what I’m seeing here is almost identical to what we’ve run into,” Marcus said. “We tried the same things you did with the servers and lost one of our Support guys too.”

“Our servers aren’t setup like yours though,” Anna said.

“Yeah. You’ve got a megaserver farm rather than shards right?” Marcus asked. He would have loved to go in depth with how they were configured, but he wasn’t sure they had that kind of time anymore.

“I don’t see how either one could lead to this though,” Anna said, gesturing to a counter running on one of the other monitors. It was tracking the total number of logged in users and the number was dropping with no sign of slowing down. Sadly none of those users were logging off. Any attempt to do so seemed to produce the same result as Egress has seen with Broken Horizons – instant teleportation.

Marcus really hoped it was teleportation.

He couldn’t process the thought that is was something else.

“That’s where this could be good news,” Marcus said. “Your setup is so different than ours, that it can’t be related to the servers. Or even the game code.”

“It’s got to be something we have in common though,” Anna said. “People start disappearing in flashes of light but only into video games? Into MMOs specifically? There has to be something common that’s causing it. Doesn’t there?”

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Marcus said. “I mean, we’ve got to look for it, obviously, but I can’t help but wonder if searching in the code and the configuration settings isn’t a waste of time. Or maybe I’m just tired and frustrated. I can tell you this does not getting better after spending a couple of nights at it.”

“Thanks. You are so comforting,” Anna said and collapsed into a chair near him.

“You’re welcome,” Marcus said. “Seriously though, this is important. We can dig into your setup and I’m happy to help point out where its the same as ours, but I think its worth taking a moment to realize that this isn’t your fault. Not you specifically, not your team, or anyone at K2 or Egress. We didn’t do this. It’s not like we missed a bug in the code and, oopsie, our player base is being warped off to parts unknown.”

“I wish it was a bug,” Anna said. “An impossible bug that just happened to show up in both of our codebases at exactly the same time and no one else’s.”

Marcus picked up the coffee that some unspeakably kind soul had dropped off for him.

“Yeah, push out a hot fix and boom, everyone’s back safe and sound,” he said. “Except you know that wouldn’t be the end of it. No matter what happens from here, this is going to change the world.”

“Yeah, there’s going to be a lot fewer people playing MMOs after this,” Anna said.

“Fewer? Oh, no, I don’t think we’re going to see that at all,” Marcus said. “There are multiple protest groups setup already who are demanding that we turn logins back on for BH. I had to setup a special email folder for death threats before the FBI got to our office.”

“Death threats? For what?” Anna asked.

“For not letting them play,” Marcus said. “When people found out what was happening some were, reasonably I feel, terrified, others were shocked and silent, and then there were the ones who felt like they’d ‘missed out’. They though they’d been cheated of of a chance to do something amazing. So they expressed themselves in the manner the internet is best at – bawling like babies.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t try to DDOS your servers,” Anna said.

“Oh, they did,” Marcus said. “But it’s not like that’s a new thing. When we patched the lighting The Tomb of Maldren Vos so it didn’t render clothing transparent? Death threats, DDOS. When we adjusted the cooldowns on Taunts to open up room for a second tank on a team? Death threats, DDOS. Really pretty much anything we do or don’t do will send our loving fans in a rabid frenzy. Or, to be fair, some of them. Most of them are good, and most of the one’s I’ve met are amazing, but the Bawling Babies are hard to ignore.”

“If I didn’t know you were talking about another game I’d say you’ve been reading all my emails,” Anna said. “Why do we do so much work for people who are so horrible?”

“Because they pay us?” Marcus said. “That and our work isn’t really for them. I don’t want to speak for your staff, but I think a lot of us do it for the game itself. I don’t get to code anything, but the designers bring all of us in on the early concept stuff for each new release. Those are some of the best times. When we’re all focused on what we could do to make the world better, or to have it feel more real. To tell you the truth, I can understand the death threats a bit. I mean, getting to live in a world like that? I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about sneaking in through a backdoor.”

“But you stayed,” Anna said, “And came to help us.”

“I know. It surprises me too,” Marcus said. “Though I don’t know how much help I’ve been yet.”

“Honestly? Just know that this is something you folks were already going through? That helps,” Anna said. “Of course if we could find a fix for it that would help a lot more.”

“You’re right. So let me see here,” Marcus said and called up the connection logs for The Crystal Stars. “Your usage spike looks pretty typical for the last couple of weeks. That’s a good baseline. You had a big drop off at the start of the week though. Is that usual?”

“Monday’s are always a little slow, but that is lower than average,” Anna said. “I can’t imagine what else was happening then that might have drawn our players away.”

Marcus was puzzled for a moment. Had Monday been a holiday? No. Those tended to add active players? A worldwide power outage? Obvious not. Then what…

“I’m an idiot,” he said. “Seriously though? Is there that much overlaps between our players?”

Monday having been the launch of the World Shift expansion for Broken Horizons felt like an eternity ago. In Marcus’s mind years had passed though according to the calendar it had only been a few days.

“Could that be what we’re looking for?” Anna asked, perking up at the idea.

“What, that the people who are being swallowed up by Crystal Stars are all BH players too?” Marcus asked. “Damn, that’s an interesting idea. Can you generate a list of the players who have been drawn in?”

“Easily. The question is how to match them to the players in your game?”

“Fair point. They could use different login names in both games.”

“I’d bet that’s relatively few of them though. I think most people pick an online handle to use and stick with it,” Anna said. “If that’s a problem though, we could try to using their credit cards info?”

“Shouldn’t have any false positives with that,” Marcus agreed. “Though we may also find that some of them use one card for one game and another for the other. And then there’s the people who buy timecards and never gave us any credit card info.”

“Let’s start with the user names,” Anna said. “There’s probably a dozen state and federal laws about using peoples credit card info like that.”

“I can call back to Egress and have them send a list over. Should take about five minutes,” Marcus said. “Though, I expect if the FBI isn’t heading here yet that will get them rolling up to your door in an even bigger hurry.”

“I’m surprised they’re not here already,” Anna said. “I know Josh over in legal was going to call them as soon as…well as soon as we saw it happen here and we knew it was real.”

“I think the FBI has bigger problems to worry about at the moment,” Yasha, one of the developers Marcus had been introduced to, said. 

She’d come into the room at something below a sprint, which put both Marcus and Anna on their feet.

“What happened?” Anna asked, the concern in her voice a clear indication of how unusual it was to see Yasha panicked.

“I…you gotta see it,” Yasha said.

“Where?” Anna asked.

“Outside. Here. You can see it from the 4 East conference room. Come on,” Yasha said, offering no further clues as she led Anna and Marcus down a hallway, past a cube farm and to a conference room where every developer on the floor seemed to be gathered.

Marcus wasn’t interested in shoving past them, but Anna didn’t hesitate at clearing a path to the window.

Outside was a sunny, typical Las Vegas day. Everything was normal. Normal people walking the streets. Normal cars cruising up and down the road. Normal weak spot in the fabric of reality twisting in the air like the strands of a colossal helix of DNA.

The usual stuff.

Nothing eating away at the fundamental unpinings of reality.

Just a regular day.

Not the end of the world.


Marcus shook his head.

He’d been staring at whatever was out there for too long.

His brain felt like it was full of cotton balls.

Or was made of cotton balls.

Vertigo swirled the office around him.

Was it real?

Was he real?

Was anything…

“Woah, steady there,” Officer Smith said. “Sorry, I thought everything was going to be okay here. Probably shouldn’t have left until we were sure though.

At her side Officer Astra stood. 

Officer Astra wasn’t human. 

Marcus wasn’t sure which was worse; that he knew that without there being any visible proof to support the idea, or that, after staring into whatever was outside, Astra’s humanity or lack thereof just didn’t matter in the slightest.

“What’s going on?” Marcus asked. “What’s out there?”

“You tell me,” Officer Smith said. “You were the one looking at it for a half hour.”

“I don’t know,” Marcus said. “I can’t even remember. Was it half hour.”

“At least,” Officer Astra said as she guided Anna and then another one of the staff away from the window and into sitting positions.

“This is important I think,” Officer Smith said. “What did you see out there?”

She was asking for something more than a simple answer. Marcus could feel her question burrowing into his mind. It was searching for something? 


It was calling to him. She needed him to do something.

She needed him to tell her what was out there because to do that he’d have to give her it’s name.

No again.

Not give her its names.

Give it a name.

Not just a word.

A name.

Something that encompassed what it was.

Something that defined it. However badly.

Something that would make it real.

He wanted to call it something silly. Or something harmless. Force whatever it was to be as unthreatening as possible.

None of those fit though.

“It’s an [Armageddon Beast],” he said and heard the strangest echo in the name.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Outerlude 1

Gabriel Santiago

In the sky above the Moonlet Station of Dargin Drel swirls of multi-hued plasma arced along the artificially induced magnetosphere to form a dazzling aurora which lit the groundside docking facilities like a holiday. At any other time Gabriel would have been more than content to wait out the duration of the automated repair process just staring at them and making notes and plans for where to go next. 

But not for this repair process.

“Regeneration complete,” the automated voice from the Vita-Pod announced. “All biological system checks passed. Consciousness will return in five, four,…”

Gabriel didn’t wait for the countdown to finish before turning around. Regeneration pods were usually exited via a cutscene where you, apparently, grabbed all your gear and dressed before exiting into the station’s common quarters. Living inside the world of Crystal Stars meant time skips like cutscenes weren’t really a thing.

“Gabe? Is that you?” Luna asked a moment after the Vita-Pod hissed open.

“Yep, my regen finished a few minutes ago,” Gabe said, contenting himself with a view of the aurora for the first time since he’d woken up and found himself living inside the world of the game he’d been playing before he…he wasn’t exactly sure. Dissolved? Transported? Transported seemed less permanent, so he was hoping he could go with that one, but since teleportation wasn’t exactly possible on Earth, he was afraid one of the less pleasant and more permanent options might be the reality.

“Is this for real?” Luna asked. Gabe could hear her dressing behind him, her reserve gear having been laid out for her the same as his had been.

“It can’t be, except, no matter how much I tell myself that nothing here is going away,” Gabe said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Luna said. “I’m…this is weird. I’m not exactly me.”

“What do you mean?” Gabe asked. It sounded like it was safe to turn around, but he was going to let that be Luna’s decision.

“This is Ti’el’s body, not mine,” Luna said. “And…wow this is weird. I can remember things she went through.”

“Yeah. I based my pilot on myself, but I’ve still got these other memories too. Like going through flight school and learning warp space navigation. Also, full disclosure, I do not have abs like these in real life.”

“I want to say this is impossible, but it’s the same thing that happened to those people from [Broken Horizons] isn’t it?” Luna said.

“The thought occurred to me too,” Gabe said. “But what the hell does it mean?”

“I’m going to guess nothing good,” Luna said. “Have you been able to contact anyone yet?”

“Outside the game? No. Inside the game? Also no,” Gabe said. “I pinged support for a GM call but no response yet. I wasn’t even sure you would really be you when the pod opened.”

Luna gave him a light punch on the shoulder as she spun around to stand in front of him.

“Not getting rid of me that easy. My insurance policy’s got like a hundred resurrections left on it,” she said.

“Yeah, but I was hoping you wouldn’t be here at all,” Gabe said before shaking his head. “Wait, no, that sounds totally wrong.”

Luna laughed.

“I get it. If I’ve got to be stuck in a game though, I’m glad I’m not alone,” she said. “Especially if we run into another of those War Beasts again.”

“I’m thinking we want to unlock the Blockade Runners we picked up last week and get spaceborn asap,” Gabe said. “We’re a few systems away from that Beast, and there’s no reason to assume it would leave it’s system, or even could make it here, but…”

“But that thing shouldn’t have existed in the first place, and where there’s one there’s probably going to be more,” Luna finished for him. “Yeah, I think you’re right about the Blockade Runners. If speed can’t keep us out of that things path, then we’ll need to head into Guild Space and see if we can get one of the Dreadnaughts to take it off us.”

“I’m going to bet that thing will take apart any ship we throw at it,” Gabe said. “It wasn’t using any kind of weapons that exist in the game as far as I could see.”

Luna frowned, pausing for a moment in reloading the various pockets in her flightsuit.

“That’s a decent point. Also we’d be risking the players who are manning the Dreadnaughts, if the thing can pull them in here the same as it did us.”

“Maybe that would be a good thing though?” Gabe asked. “Most of our friends read as offline, so we can’t exactly get the message out about what’s happened. If we head for Guild Space we might run into another player who could pass along the message for us.”

“And if he doesn’t believe us, he will after he gets scragged like we did,” Luna said.

“We can’t have been the first though, can we?” Gabe asked. “I mean I tried reaching out to people on my friends list, I tried shouting in zone chat , I even tried a GM call like I said, but no responses.”

“It’s a big galaxy,” Luna said. “Two hundred thousand light years means we get pretty spread out, and it’s not like there’s a COMMS channel for ‘Castaway from the Real World’, or I don’t think there is.”

Gabe was already checking for that, kicking himself for not thinking to set one up while he’d been waiting for Luna to recover.

Sure enough, in the list of ‘Recent Open COMMS’ the was one right at the top named ‘Lost Here 4 Real”. It had been made just a few minutes before Gabe’s Vita-Pod had decanted him. He tapped a seemingly real finger on the holographic projection in front of him and then confirmed the prompt to join the channel.

Instantly a cacophony of voices and a rapidly flowing wall of text drowned out his senses.

“Mute channel,” he said, blinking rapidly to clear his HUD out.

“Wow,” Luna said, doing the same. “I guess we’re not alone after all.”

“That’s probably not good is it?” Gabe asked.

“Uh, no, not at all,” Luna said. “Gabe, what’s happening to our world?”

“You mean between this and the stuff with Broken Horizons? I don’t know. If it was just one thing it would be really weird but, you know, not the end of the world or anything. But this? I mean, it can’t just be them and us right? So is it, like, all games? Movies too? Books? Daydreams? I mean where does it stop?”

“Maybe where we stop it,” Luna said, her voice sounding slightly different.

“Luna?” Gabe asked. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. We’re fine,” Ti’el said. “Maybe better than fine.”

“Uh, what does that mean?” Gabe asked.

He knew he was speaking to Ti’el rather than Luna. It was obvious from her posture. From the tone of her voice and the cadence of her words. She still sounded like the Luna he knew and…like Luna, but it was as though the voice actress who’d been cast for “Female Human Pilot” was the one using her voice.

“What if we’re not here by accident,” Luna said, her voice again fully her own.

Gabe blinked, wondering if he was the one losing his mind.

“You think we did this to ourselves?” Gabe asked, trying to guess Luna’s line of reasoning.

“Not consciously,” Luna said. “But that thing we faced? That was the definition of ‘not supposed to be there’ and what did we do?”

“Died horribly?” Gabe said.

“Not much of a death if we’re here to talk about it is it?” Ti’el asked. “Also, our insurance policies cover resurrections anywhere in Free Space. Hell, you’ve got a Title that would have let you rez back in Crystal Empresses sphere. So, why are we here?”

“Because this is real and there was no menu where would pick our rez point?” Gabe guessed, except he knew that was wrong. Yeah, there hadn’t been a game menu when he dissolved into light, but that didn’t mean Dargin Drel hadn’t been his choice of destinations. “Or, no, it’s because you were here.”

“Yeah,” Luna said. “And I came here because you were here. So why did we both pick this spot? What’s unique about this out of all the med-facilities in the galaxy?”

Gabe tried to think of some special quality that Dargin Drel possessed. The pretty aurora were cool, but hardly unique and far from the most impressive sight in the galaxy. It didn’t have any unusual facilities that he could remember either. Standard repair bays. Standard food services. Standard accommodations and sleep learning centers. If there was a definition of a plain vanilla space port, Dargin Drel would check off every box on the list. It wasn’t even a particularly safe one. Not with the War Beast being so, relatively, close.

“Oh,” he breathed, understanding dawning at last. “We came to the spot that was the closest to the War Beast. We could have gotten away from it. Really far away from it. And we didn’t.”

“And we didn’t,” Ti’el agreed.

“We’re not running from it,” Luna said. “We’re not here because it killed us and now we’re in its power or something.”

“Killing us opened a channel, like a teleporter lock on,” Gabe said. “Oh damn. I was jealous of the Broken Horizons people. I wanted this.”

“We wanted this,” Luna said. “There’s more going on here than anything we’ve ever encountered before, in or out of the game.”

“But this world needs us,” Ti’el said.

“Our world needs us,” Luna said.

“Wait, which one, Earth or this one?” Gabe asked.

“Yes,” It might have been Luna or it might have been Ti’el who answered. Gabe couldn’t tell any longer but he understood the answer nonetheless.

The Crystal Stars were facing an existential threat. The War Beast was something the galaxy wasn’t equipped to deal with.

And it wasn’t limited to just this galaxy.

The Broken Horizon world was under a similar attack.

That was why people were disappearing.

They weren’t being abducted.

They were answering a call.

Gabe laughed.

“We’re going to save the galaxy?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Luna said. “And, honestly, I wouldn’t want to have anyone by my side more than you.”

Gabe’s knees weren’t supposed to be made of jello but the Vita-Pod had clearly made a mistake. Between that and the mega-colony of butterflies that had just hatched in his stomach, he was pretty sure he was owed a refund. Or something.

Standing silent and smiling stupidly was probably worth some compensation too, but Luna helped him reboot from that.

“Of course, it’ll probably be easier if we get a few more people to pitch in too,” she said.

Gabe shook his head but the smile didn’t come off completely.

“You know everyone, and I mean literally everyone is going to want in on this,” he said.

“Yeah, the trick is going to be getting the word out,” Luna said. “I wonder why we can’t reach back to Earth? There should still be a connection right? There was for the BH players I thought?”

“There was, so there’s got to be one for us too,” Gabe said. “We have a lot more space than they do though. What if we’re just too spread out?”

“We need to get one of our friends to log in,” Luna said.

“Or, we need to get a message out to someone outside of Free Space,” Gabe said. “Check the membership of ‘Lost Here 4 Real’, all the players on it are in Free Space. Most of them are in within about 4 jumps from here.”

“Which means the War Beast isn’t alone. Not if everything within 4 jumps has been knocked out by them,” Luna said.

“We’re definitely going to need some help then,” Gabe said. “Which means we need to get to the Ansible Relay.”

“But we can send messages across the galaxy with the global chat channels,” Luna said.

“Only to other players and they’re all freaking out at the moment,” Gabe said. “We need to talk to someone with a little more influence than that.”

“Who are you…” Luna started to ask and then froze. “You want to call the Empress.”

“The galaxy’s named after her. She’s explicitly a being ‘beyond time and space’. She can weaponize the love of every beating heart in the cosmos. They say waking the Empress is the most dangerous thing in creation, but given the circumstances I think that’s exactly the kind of danger we need.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Interlude 4

Cease All

Adventurers had bad days. For Cease All though it felt like every bad day on her calendar was happening to her at once.

“I got killed by a bunny!” Smash Brother Homer was running beside Cease, just as ghostly as she was, and just as determined to fix that small problem. Where they differed was that Smashy was clearly ready to throw in the towel, while Cease knew they had to find out more about what was going on.

“I’m keenly aware of that,” Cease said. “Or did you miss the part where it decapitated me first?”

“It’s. A. BUNNY!” Smashy said. “One. One Bunny. And it TPK’d us!”

“To be fair, it’s a [Chaos Storm Reiver],” Swiftsong said, as she effortlessly glided along beside them. She was just as dead as they were but [Wind Elves] got special animations as ghosts, something Cease hadn’t bothered to envy until recently. “I mean, the bunny look is kinda cute, but I don’t think your average rabbitoid critter can vomit black holes like that thing can.”

“That’s what I’m talking about though,” Smashy said. “Fighting a bunny is embarrassing enough but how are we supposed to deal with attacks that ignore our defenses?”

“Oh, what? Like that’s new?” Cease said. “The devs have been throwing janky cheats like that at us since the [Shatterzone Depths Prison].”

“This isn’t like that though and you know it,” Smashy said.

The [Heartfire] they were racing back to was still one level above them but they’d taken the route so many times now, Cease was sure she could do it in her sleep.

Or at least she was sure of that until the [Hound of Fate] appeared in the passage in front of them.

Ghosts don’t have mass or momentum so when she froze in place it was instantaneous. Between one spectral footfall and the next, she went perfectly still.

None of the others asked why.

They all saw the Hound too.

And they’d all gone just as still as she had.

The [Hounds of Fate] weren’t supposed to appear in dungeons. Not low level ones were new players might legitimately not know where to go, and definitely not level capped ones like the [Emerald Rock Hells] Cease had brought her guild into.

“It’s not howling” Swingsong said. “Is that a good sign or a bad one?”

“When is anything to do with the Hounds a good sign?” Smashy asked.

“I don’t know,” Cease said. “This one isn’t moving either. It’s just standing there. Watching us.”

“Which isn’t creepy at all. No siree,” Swiftsong said.

“You guys ran into a Hound? Here?” Malevolent Sugardrop asked on the party channel. “How? We just got to the [Heartfire] and we didn’t see any Hounds anywhere. Did you take a different path?”

“No we didn’t take a different path you idiot,” Smashy said. “Do you think we’re sightseeing here?”

“I think it’s looking for something,” Swiftsong said.

“Yeah! Us!” Smashy said.

“No. She’s right,” Cease said. “Check it out. It’s not moving much but it’s ears are slowly moving. It’s listening for something.”

“Is it a blind one?” Malevolent asked. “Can they be blind?”

“I don’t think it’s blind,” Cease said though being sure of that when the creatures eyes were inky pools of darkness seemed like an uncertain bet at best. “I think whatever its listening for is far away.”

“I thought they wanted our souls though and we’re right here,” Swiftsong said. “So what’s tastier than us?”

“Maybe a killer death rabbit?” Smashy obviously didn’t mean for the suggestion to be taken seriously, but the idea stuck in Cease’s head nonetheless.

“Maybe it is. That rabbit’s not supposed to be here. We all know that. I mean we came here looking for freaky stuff and we definitely found it.”

“Three cheers for us,” Smashy said.

“So what if the Hound is here for the same reason?”

“The death dog wants to chase the death bunny? Really?” Smashy asked.

“No, she’s got a point,” Swiftsong said. “The Hounds are supposed to catch players who are out of place right?”

“They’re supposed to force us back to the [Heartfire] not drag us off to hell or wherever they take us,” Smashy said. “And they’re not supposed to be in dungeons at all!”

“Okay, so these aren’t exactly like the game’s Hounds, but the point is they’re sort of a troubleshooting system,” Swiftsong said.

“Right. We know things are going wrong here. There’s not supposed to be a death bunny in the [Emerald Rock Hells] and definitely not one that can kill an entire party of us. We came here to figure out what’s going on with the mobs leveling up though right? Maybe this is part of it.”

“Maybe. It still hasn’t eaten us,” Swiftsong said. “So maybe it’s not here for us at all?”

“We could find out if we tried to move,” Smashy said. “But I don’t want to move.”

“Me either,” Swiftsong said.

“I don’t think we should,” Cease said. “Not yet at least. Hey, Mal, if you guys have respawned can I ask you to do some kiting for me?”

“Sure! Uh. Wait. What do you want me to kite?” Malevolent asked.

“The death bunny,” Cease said. “If we can draw it closer, maybe the Hound will catch its scent easier.”

“I like that thought,” Smashy said.

“Yeah,  there’s just one problem with it,” Malevolent said. “The bunny is seriously fast. I can try to pull it from a distance and then kite it out of the [Lava Warren] as fast as I can go, but it’s going to catch me.”

“That’s okay,” Smashy said. “The Hound seems like it can almost sense it now. If you can get it any closer it should be able to pick up the scent no problem.”

“Yes, but I’ll be dead too then,” Malevolent said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Swiftsong said, kneeling down slowly to get a different perspective on the [Hound of Fate].

“Thank you!” Malevolent said.

“You won’t be any worse off than we are,” Smashy said.

“No, it’s not that,” Swiftsong said. “I mean, I don’t think distance is going to matter. Look at it, the Hound’s not really moving it at all.”

“What you mean, it turned its head right there. It’s not dead. Or, you know, it’s not inanimate,” Smashy said.

“Right, but look at its feet,” Swiftsong said. “It hasn’t budged from the spot where it’s standing.”

“It’s not searching for something,” Cease said. “It’s waiting for something to come to it.”

“What? Like us?” Smashy asked.

“Maybe?” Cease could only shrug. Nothing about what was happening made sense, so anything seemed possible.

“It’s going to waiting here forever then cause I am not going anywhere near that thing,” Smashy said,

“So you’re going to stay here as a ghost then?” Swiftsong asked.

“Better than being doggie kibble,” Smashy said.

Cease wondered about that. An eternity stuck in this one corridor frozen in fear seemed like one of the less pleasant afterlives that she could imagine.

But were those really her only options? To become a ghost statue forever or to get ground up into spectral dog food?

“If we wait, it might leave on its own,” Swiftsong said.

“Can’t you all just go backwards? It’s only blocking the path in front of you, right?” Malevolent asked.

“Sure, because running away from a predator always works out well?” Swiftsong said.

“If we need to move, we’ll go backwards,” Cease said. “We won’t turn around and we’ll go slow. But not now. I want to see what its waiting for.”

“If I try to go, it’s going to wake up and eat you two isn’t it?” Smashy asked.

“We don’t know what it’s going to do,” Cease said. “That’s the point.”

“So I should try?” Smashy asked.

“If you don’t mind the chance that it’ll chase after you for being the one who moved first,” Swiftsong said.

“Yeah, I’ll just stay here,” Smash said.

“I’m going to try the bunny kiting,” Malevolent said. “Everyone else can hang back out of aggro range. I’ll snipe it from the entrance to the warren. With [Rapid March], [Diving Roll], and basic sprint I should be able to get it a lot close to you.”

“Can you see where we are?” Cease asked.

“Yeah, your markers are still showing up on my map,” Malevolent said. “I can cover half that distance with movement abilities. As long as I’ve got a headstart from there I might even be able to get the bunny to the Hound itself.”

“I don’t like this,” Smashy said. “Just because we’re screwed doesn’t mean you should be too.”

“I know, it’s so stupid right?” Malevolent said. “Turns out I can’t leave you hanging though.”

“Yeah, that is stupid. You don’t have to go down with us just because we had some bad luck,” Smashy said.

“Stand together, fall together,” Malevolent said. “That’s how we’ve always rolled.”

“Yeah, but not like this,” Smashy said.

“We can help too,” Cease said. “If the bunny does catch up to Mal, we can start moving. Worst can, that’ll draw the Hounds attention, but in that case we can at least lure it away so there’ll be a clear shot to the [Heartfire].”

“And if the Hound doesn’t move at all?” Malevolent asked.

“Then we leave it alone and respawn at the nearest unguarded [Heartfire].”

“This is a terrible plan,” Smashy said.

“Right. That’s how you know its one of ours,” Malevolent said.

“I hate you,” Smashy said.

“Yeah, I know. So are we ready to do this?” Malevolent asked.

“Wait, I think it’s found something,” Swiftsong said.

“Uh, bad news,” Malevolent said. “I think the bunny’s noticed me. Or it’s at least looking at me real funny. Screw it, I’m sniping. Be there in three server ticks.”

Cease wanted to run too, but she had no idea which direction to go.

Away from the Hound? What if she managed to escape it though only for Mal to run face first into it instead.

Towards the Hound? But it was still too soon. She could get gobbled up and Mal would still be out of luck.

A low growl filled the corridor and Cease’s ghostly stomach plummeted past her incorporeal knees.

Something was making the Hound mad.

The Hounds didn’t get mad though. Their howling was a signal to the other Hounds as much as it was a warning to ghosts to get back where they were supposed to be. A friendly warning Cease decided, at least by comparison to the sound the Hound was making as its hackles rose.

Cease had a moment to wonder what primal sin she could have committed to rouse such a deadly ire from the beast before she finally saw what the Hound had been looking for.


All consuming static.

It was a pinprick in space to start with but looking into, Cease felt a tidal current with the force of a galaxy pulling her in.

Pulling her apart.

It was wrong.

It was the end of all things.

No. Not even the end. The erasure of the beginning.

A raw violation of existence and it was spreading. Tearing apart space. Shattered her vision. Her mind. Her soul.

Then a bunny hit it.

“I lost the rabbit,” Malevolent said. “It zoomed right past me.”

“It’s here?” Swiftsong said, sounding as dazed as Cease felt.

“It’s kicking, uh, something’s butt?” Smashy said.

Cease didn’t want to look. Her mind felt ragged, but she forced her gaze up anyways.

The static was spinning around the edges of one of the [Chaos Storm Reiver’s] black hole attacks. Blue radiation crackled off the static and that made it easier to gaze upon.

“Stay back Mal,” she said quickly. “I think we know why the Hound and the Bunny are here. They’re fight…” Cease wasn’t sure what to call it or even how to describe it.

“The end of the world,” Swiftsong said.

“What? Like some kind of [Armageddon Elemental]?” Malevolent asked.

Cease saw the static bind and twist, writhing in the grasp of the black hole, and something more.

It broke free, but retained the swirling buzzsaw shape the blakchole had spun it into. Twirling through the air, it swung back to slice at the [Chaos Storm Reiver] faster than the bunny could dodge.

But not faster than the [Hound of Fate] could move.

With a single deft flick of its head, it grasped the bunny’s scruff and launched it away from the static.

The bunny spat another black hole out at the static as it bounced off a wall and resumed it’s attack.

“They’re fighting together,” Swiftsong said.

“Then their not going to be fighting alone,” Cease said. “Come on, we need to get to the [Heartfire] now.”