Monthly Archives: January 2022

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.

Pillowcase.

Glimmerglass.

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

Marcus

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.

Not…

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? 

No.

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.

Static.

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.”