Brendan hadn’t ever envisioned himself as a master planner. He had what he felt was a normal number of friends and a fairly typical amount of charm. He could make jokes, and listen to someone who was having hard time. What he couldn’t do was coordinate the efforts of several thousand people who were all searching for what the best shot, or any shot they could up with to make sense of what was going on and bring their friends and loved ones home.
He couldn’t do manage that. It was clearly beyond him. He’d never had any management training. It wasn’t something he was supposed to be tasked with.
And yet, in the whirlwind that his bedroom had become, in the middle of managing what felt like a thousand conversations and directing people far older and wiser than, he was.
“Jaqueline, can you get the local reports of the [Armageddon Beast] from Sydney translated into Mandarin? Dennis needs it for the Beijing team,” he said before switching to another Discord channel.
By his side, his secret weapon was busy giving clipped commands in Cantonese to a team of developers in Hong Kong.
He’d delivered newspapers to her for years when he was a kid. He still shoveled her snow during the winter. She’d been his next door neighbor since he was two years old and had taught him everything he knew about playing the violin. They’d been friends for years, but ever since Brendan had seen what seemed to be frantic messages popping up in Mandarin on several of the message boards he was a part of, they’d become allies.
Convincing Mrs. Yu that a serious situation was happening hadn’t been as hard as Brendan had imagined it would be. When he’d knocked on her door, she’d greeted him with her coat on and the question, “Is this about that game you play?”
She already knew about the “mass abductions” but was also keenly aware of how stories get distorted. So she listened to him as he calmly (or as close to calmly as he could manage) explained what he’d experienced and the various things he’d put together from the groups he was a part of.
Then they got to work.
Mrs. Yu could speak Cantonese, Mandarin, French, and Russian, as well as a little bit of Korean. While a lot of communication was flowing in English, there was so much in so many other languages that Brendan knew important things were being missed. Mrs. Yu couldn’t translate for the languages she didn’t know, but that was okay. Mrs. Yu had friends. And her friends had friends.
Brendan’s house became a sort of mini-United Nations, with local people setting up shop on tables and couches throughout the house. Brendan’s parents were bewildered at first, and then accommodating, and finally all-in on supporting what was clearly a serious crisis-management effort.
Part of their buy-in came after he took them aside and explained the position he was in. Especially the part where he was still tethered and at risk as well as what had happened to everyone who’d tried to break the tether so far.
“We found something important, you’ve gotta see this,” Shoshanna said. She’d been coordinating communication with a group whose members were primarily in Cairo and Johannesburg. “We’ve got seven reports now all following the same pattern.”
“Oh wow,” Brendan said skimming the breakdown of the incidents. “They’re not all [Armageddon Beasts].”
“No. But they’re all appearing from nowhere, and they’re all erasing things from the environment they spawn in before they apparently erase a person too,” Shoshanna said.
“But the people, all the reports say they marched right towards the Beasts,” Brendan said, a lump forming in his throat at the images of heroism each story told.
“That’s not the best part,” Shoshanna said. “Did you notice what these seven all have in common?”
“Uh, no, what am I missing?”
“Check their stat block. Notice anything important under their bios?” Shoshanna looked so delighted, Brendan knew there was some obvious and important surprise to be discovered, but he’d looked over so many bios…no, so many game bios.
“They have user names? To Broken Horizons? Really!?” Brendan wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t even sure his heart was beating anymore.
“All of them!” Shoshanna said.
“Can we still reach…” Brendan started to asked as Shoshanna handed him a tablet with a document already open on it.
A document that contained dozens of messages.
Like the ones from Mellisandra.
They were alive.
“Tell my guy I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let that thing eat our street,” one of the “erased” people had written with a timestamp well after she’d vanished.
“Tell my folks…” “It was so wild, you can’t believe what it’s like here” “I am so going to get fired, but at least there’s still a planet left where my job is” “Tell my Mom I’m okay!”
And on and on the messages went.
“None of them were logged in,” Brendan said, reading further.
“That’s right. You don’t need to be. Not if one of those monster things shows up.” Shoshanna said.
“I think you don’t even need that,” Mrs. Yu said. “Tell them what you just told me.”
In her hand, she had an iPhone with an active FaceTime connection going. On the screen a Chinese woman who seemed to be college aged was looking back at Brendan.
“The beta server is still active and open,” she said. “I’ve tried it. If you login you can experience an immersive sensation like a full body VR game. But you can get back out again.”
“You can? How?” Brendan asked as his mind went into overdrive trying to think if there was any in-game options for transferring servers.
“You can log out without any trouble. Though there is talk in the beta community…”
“Talk about what?”
“There’s someone here who claims to be able to send people to the live servers. I think some people have done so, but I don’t believe any of them have come back.”
Brendan’s mind whirled the revelations burning in his mind as thought connected to thought in an avalanche of questions and understanding until something impossible snapped together and pure magic filled his view.
Before him, literally overlaid on his field of vision, the arcane glyphs and formula that Mellisandra had spent her life researching blazed to life. Nothing that she’d studied applied to portals between their worlds, or [Armageddon Beasts], or voids of all consuming nothingness that sprang up unannounced and could, apparently, be hauled off to imaginary worlds by the sacrifice of a brave soul. Nothing anyone had ever studied covered that.
Except right at the sharp edges, the cutting bits of magic, the parts that took the world as it was and made it something else.
Right in front of him.
The infinitesimal slice at the edge of the first glyph that wasn’t static, but was oh so very close to not being real at all.
In that sliver of near nothingness, he saw it.
The path for those who were lost to return home.
He should have been a god. He’d seen what that woman had taken from him. It was power. It was the key to the cosmos. It was his godhood. Emphasis on “his”.
She’d taken it from him and cast him aside, unconcerned that he was stripped of his rightful place and authority, alone in a world of madness and death. She’d probably assumed he would just roll over and die.
He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction though.
Instead he found a sanctuary. The [Great Hall] the [Adventurers] had commandeered. Not particularly great, but then that suited the low level losers he was surrounded by.
True they were technically far more powerful than he was, which was why he had made a tactical advanced to the secure location of one of the antechambers that wasn’t being used much yet.
He’d come out several times for food. The idiots were just giving it away, rather than setting up a sensible economy and reaping the rewards of their otherwise useless skills.
Gnawing on a load of staggeringly good bread he’d swiped from one of the banquet tables, David Kralt, no, the dread Dav’kralthrax, the first dragon, the Primordial power of the world, felt rage sour his stomach with each bite he took.
He’d been the development lead for [Broken Horizons]. The [Fallen Kingdoms] were his world. More or less. No, less. They’d never really captured the grand sweep of his imagination. So this world was definitely less than what it could have been. Less because he’d been cheated! Stripped of his rightful…
His thoughts had been circling around and eating themselves like that for a while but this loop they didn’t quite finish.
This loop the world, the hated, vile, stolen world started to fray.
Just like in his apartment.
Just like when he’d been dragged off away from Earth.
In front of David Kralt, filling the wall that should have held a door, a layer of static spread out from the door handle.
Static that hurt his mind to look at.
Static that was pouring inside him even as something stretched forward through the film on the door.
No. It had never been a man.
But it had a man’s countenance.
“Aren’t you fascinating?” Byron said, his words coming from the static, or from inside Kralt’s head, or was there any difference anymore?
Kralt tried to scream but he was melting, his mind burning in electric fire.
“You know this world. You think you created it. Oh, that’s just wonderful,” Byron said. “But wait. This is so much better! You know of another world too? And you’re just so wonderfully open. I have to wonder why though?”
“Why what?” Kralt croaked out.
“Why you seem to have no defenses to something like me? Ooo, ‘me’. So fun to say that. I think I was a ‘me’ before, but with this new addition,” he held up a hand that dripped liquid static, “it’s hard to know if I’m quite myself anymore. Or quite anything. But here we are talking. So I must still be something. Fascinating. Unless you’re nothing. Then I suppose I could be nothing too. Oh that sounds delicious? No. Horrifying? Yes! Exactly. Now where was I? Oh, right, so are you real?”
“Oh course,” Kralt panted, not know why, and not completely sure anymore he was telling the truth. “Of course I’m real.”
“Good. Wonderful even. I suppose I’ll consume you then.”
“No! Wait!” Kralt called, looking for anything he could bargain with.
“Waiting sounds boring,” Byron said.
“I can give you what you want,” Kralt said.
“Am I a thing that wants?” Byron asked. “I must be, mustn’t I? Otherwise how could I be an I?”
“I have power here. I’m…I’m important. I can give that to you!” Kralt wasn’t lying, insofar as he had convinced himself that he was meant to be a god, had been a god, and would one day again be a god.
“I don’t want power,” Byron said. “Power is boring.”
“What do you want then? I can get it,” Kralt said.
“I suppose I must want something,” Byron said, a note of dejection in his voice.
Kralt racked his static infested brain and felt a flash of insight. Something he could give that no one else would dare to.
“You’re devouring this world,” Kralt said, staggering to his feet.
“Trying,” Byron sighed. “It’s troublesome. Though maybe that’s what makes it fun? No. It’s just annoying. And I’m still hungry. But you’re delicious. I could absorb you. And still be hungry afterwards though. Boring.”
“What if I said there was another world,” Kralt said. “One that wouldn’t be anywhere near as much trouble as this one. One without the [Adventurers].”
“Another world?” Bryon asked. “Like the one I can see in your mind? The one that is so very far away? The one filled with so much to eat? Earth? That one?”
“Yes. Yes, Earth! You can see it can’t you? So big. So rich. Just waiting for someone like you. Or like me?” Kralt’s plan was a good one. Whatever Byron was, there was no hope of defeating, or even surviving him. Joining him though? Kralt was owed that.
He was supposed to be a god, but how much more fitting would it be to become something that could eat gods?