Monthly Archives: August 2022

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 4

Tessa couldn’t run a mile without winding up hopeless out of breath. If she was being honest with herself, she couldn’t even run a hundred dash without feeling like her lungs were going to implode. The hospital she currently stood in front of was 1.2 miles from the deli where they’d encounter the Void Walker. Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that, but was more confused to discover that not only had they covered the distance in, at most, a half a minute, she also felt ready to do it again at a moment’s notice.

The man holding the shotgun aimed squarely at her center of mass seemed to prefer that she not act on that particular impulse though.

“Who the hell….,” he started to ask.

“I’ve got another incoming air drop,” Fari, the blue hologram woman, cut him off to say.

“More Void Walkers?” Mel asked.

“Don’t think so,” Fari said. “This one’s bigger.”

“Void anima based?” Darius asked.

“Yep. I’m only seeing them from the disturbance in the air currents,” Fari said.

“How long?” Mel asked.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…” Fari began to count down.

“Inside the building,” Mel said. “Reinforce it.”

“I can’t let…” the man with the gun started to say but was cutoff by Mel stepping up to him, taking his gun away, and swinging him around so she could send him stumbling towards the hospital’s entrance. That all took about a quarter of a second.

Time seemed to slow again as Darius refreshed the spell he’d cast on them. Ten seconds was far too short an interval of time for people to react, must less run inside the building. Whatever his spell did though, it seemed to accelerate their thoughts as much as it hastened their running speed.

Mel was led, but Tessa made sure to follow, and pull the others along with her, including the gun guy since whatever ‘bigger’ was, it was probably a gift from Byron and that wasn’t something he deserved was ready to face.

“We need to regroup somewhere,” Lisa whispered to her.

“I know. Azma’s got a plan, and she needs to share it with us, like about an hour ago,” Tessa whispered back.

The lobby of the hospital wasn’t a large area but Tessa saw there were plenty of people waiting for them inside. Plenty of people who weren’t reacting much yet. Or at all. The reason was fairly clear though. Time seemed to be ticking far slower than it should have.

At Mel’s gestures, her squad spread out, each placing a hand on a wall and joining in a chant that was not translated for Tessa’s ears. She didn’t need to understand the words to work out that they were responsible for the glow which began to emanate from the walls.

Darius joined their effort and his hastening spell unwound, decelerating Tessa’s team back into normal time. That let them feel the the rumble that passed through the floor as the tectonic scale rattle that it was. 

Outside, Tessa saw that the world had gone dark, a thick cloud of dust and debris obscuring everything beyond the hospital’s terribly fragile seeming glass front doors.

“What was that?” Rose asked, her body as tense as a violin string.

“Earthquake?” Claire asked. “Are we in California?”

They were. Again Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that? Some residual gift of Darius’s mind enhancing spell? It didn’t really matter, except that getting home was going to cost her more than she had on any of her credit cards.

She shook her head.

Seriously? That’s what came into her head first?

Feeling a little scrambled from that spell, Pillowcase said. But maybe for the better?

Uh, what? Tessa asked.

That spell felt familiar, Pillowcase said. I’ll let you know if I can work anything out. Or if we’ve already worked something out? Don’t worry about it for now.

“I think we are in California,” Lisa said. “But that wasn’t an earthquake.”

“Correct,” Fari said. “That was our new arrival landing.”

“He hit us with a comet?” Jamal asked.

“Comets can’t get back up onto their feet after they land,” Mel said. “Our new friend out there seems to doing just that.” She paused for a moment. “And of course he’s heading right towards us.”

“Boss, why do you sound surprised by that?” one her squad members asked.

“Because it’s fun to complain,” Mel said.

“How do you want to handle guarding this place and fighting that thing?” Darius asked.

“Easy…” Mel began.

“Nope. Don’t say it. Don’t you dare…” Darius interrupted her.

“Sorry Darius,” Fari said. “She’s right. This thing’s power level is reading at Jewel level. Mel’s the only other one here who can handle that.”

“Other one?” Rose asked, but no one seemed to be listening to her.

“We’ve got this covered,” Mel said. “You and the Black squad stay here to find out what we’re dealing with okay?”

“Just make sure you come back to me, or I will sic your mother on you,” Darius said.

Mel offered him a quick kiss of reassurance before vanishing away as though she was stepping into her own shadow.

“What…what’s going on here?” gun guy asked, abject bewilderment filling his eyes.

“Your world is under attack Mr. Findley,” Darius said. “We’re here to help with that.”

“He’s definitely psychic,” Lisa whispered to Tessa.

“I kinda miss that,” Tessa said, thinking fondly back to their private telepathic channel.

She turned to give Lisa a warm smile only to find that in the mad rush inside the hospital they’d somehow gotten separated. Lisa wasn’t right behind her like Tessa had thought she was. She over near the door farthest from Tessa, staring out into the rapidly clearing cloud of dust.

“Hey, you can hear me still, right?” Tessa asked, subvocalizing the words so that it should have been impossible for them to carry to Lisa’s position.

“Yeah, of course” Lisa said, fondness wrapping the words like a hug. She turned as well, clearly expecting to see Tessa standing right behind her. When she didn’t, her gaze darted around the room until a moment later she met Tessa’s gaze. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Tessa said on their private channel. Her mind swam with the implications of what they were doing for several seconds before the next obvious question occurred to her to test. “Hey, group meeting everyone. Can you hear me?” she asked, picturing the party channel she’d used to speak to the rest of her team.

“Oh my god! Tessa? You got your powers back?” Rose said, her voice as clear as if she was standing right beside Tessa.

“Not all of them,” Tessa said. “Just this. I think we all did. Unless there’s someone who can’t hear us?”

“I can,” chimed in Jamal, Starchild, and Claire. Hailey, Yawlorna and Azma seemed to be left out of the chat channel though.

Because they hadn’t been part of Tessa’s team.

Is this what you were looking into? Tessa asked Pillowcase.

No, but I probably should have been, Pillowcase said.

“Who are you all?” Mr. Findley asked. Tessa gathered from his uniform that he’d been part of the security crew assigned to the hospital. She wondered what he’d planned to do against one of the Void Walker mechs if it showed up. Probably run, but that would at least have given the staff some warning, assuming he ran in the right direction.

“My name is Darius. My team is  from the Empress’s ship the Horizon Breaker. My wife out there is one of her Crystal Guardians. Trust me that you could not be in better hands,” Darius said.

“The Empress? Crystal Guardians?” Findley said, his confusion was mirrored in the faces of the rest of the staff. 

Tessa had to admit she had no more idea what Darius was talking about than the hospital staff did, but her psyche had been so thoroughly wrenched out of its familiar comfort zone that the ambiguity didn’t bother her in the slightest.

“There’s a lot going on here that’s going to take a ton of time to explain,” she said, to Findley and an older woman, Deborah McDaniels, the lead trauma surgeon on duty. She was also the hospital’s, and the city’s, disaster coordinator after the official ones were…consumed by the Void Walker? Suborned to Byron’s cause? Away from home and coordinating efforts in Peoria, Illinois and Spokane, Washington? All of the above? Yeah, all of the above.

Tessa blinked and shook her head.

Where the hell had all that information come from?

That you? she asked Pillowcase again.

Nope, and wow, I think we picked up a lot more about Debs and the other disaster coordinators than just that. Pillowcase said. Tell you what. I’m going to stop looking my stuff for a moment and see if I can figure out where we’re getting this meta-information from, okay?

Sounds good. I’d be afraid I’m losing my mind, but this feels like the opposite of that. Like I’m finding other people’s minds too or something.

“I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of time,” Darius said. “Fortunately I’ve got a spell that can help with that. It’s a mind reading effect though, so I’d like your permission before I use it.”

“Are there any dangers to it?” Lisa asked, returning to Tessa’s side.

“For me? Yes. Lots of dangers and Mel and Fari will scold me for using it, but they’re not here, so that’s what they get. For you? Also yes, but only minor ones. Worst case scenario if I really botch the casting is you’ll have a migraine for a couple hours, and it will need to heal naturally,” Darius said.

“Go for it,” Tessa said. “Be aware though, you’ll find two minds up here.” She tapped her head. “My other self is named Pillowcase. If you read her memories, they won’t line up with mine at all if you go back farther than about a week.”

It was Darius’s turn raise an eyebrow in surprise, but he seemed used to a high level of general weirdness too, and shrugged it off.

Tessa saw his eyes fill with a shifting field of lights and then she felt a feather light touch inside between her eyes.

Darius’s head rocked back the moment Tessa felt the mental contact and blood burst from his nose. He stumbled a few steps back before recovering himself and putting up his hand in a placating gesture, which held his squad from leaping to support him.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just wasn’t expecting that.”

“What? What happened?” Tessa asked.

“You have some exciting mental anima defenses,” Darius said. “I’m guessing you’ve been psychically assaulted fairly often? Like everyday?”

“No,” Tessa said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been…” 

She cut herself off and amended her statement.

“The entity that’s responsible for the attacks we’re seeing? We met him when he was something a lot more dangerous but less refined. It tried to basically erase us from reality, and we fought back. That gave me a power that left me more or less immune to him. It might have been that, since it I think it works without any conscious input from me.”

She expected to see confusion and disbelief in her audiences faces but Debs McDaniels simply nodded along in understanding.

“If you know what’s causing all this, we’ll need to get the message out on how to fight it,” McDaniel said. 

“We’re still working on that part,” Tessa said.

“Give us what you can,” McDaniels said. “It’ll be more than we’ve got now.”

“Has someone begun coordinating a resistance effort?” Azma asked, joining the ever widening circle.

“There’s not just one resistance effort,” McDaniels said. “We’ve got disasters all over the world. Thank god the internet’s still up though.”

“It is?” Lisa asked. “Our phones can’t get any service!”

“Oh yeah, cell towers are shot. Analog voice lines are down too. VOIP and digital lines are fine though. Better than fine. We’re getting ridiculous download rates.”

“We’ll need to inspect those,” Azma said. 

“You think Byron’s corrupted them?” Lisa asked.

“No. I’m sure he hasn’t,” Azma said. “This world would have fallen already if he had. I have a suspicion I know what stopped him but I want to confirm it. Quickly if we can.”

“If you’re here to help, we’ve got plenty of computers you can use,” McDaniels said.

The ground shook again and through the clearing dust cloud, Tessa watched a building down the street collapsing in seeming slow motion.

“Go,” Tessa said to Azma and Hailey. “Find us a key to winning this. We’ll deal with whatever new problem’s coming.”

McDaniels nodded and drew Azma and Hailey with her in a brisk trot past the gathered hospital staff and through the doors that let to the office areas.

“We’re going to deal with this? Got any ideas on how?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“I think I might,” Pillowcase said as Tessa watched a familiar heads up display settle over her vision.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 3

She was magic. And fire. And starlight. Tessa had spoken to the cosmos and the cosmos had listened to her. She held the power to the change worlds. She knew that and yet, it seemed so very distant.

So very unreal.

With her noodly human arms, and her sadly ignored physique, Tessa barely felt like she could move herself. The thought of being able to wield the kind of power she did in the Fallen Kingdoms sounded wonderful, but on Earth she just wasn’t that special.

Well, except for having you with me, she said inside, speaking to the other fragment of her own consciousness.

Uh, you’re a lot more special than I am, Pillowcase said.

How? You’re a badass Soul Knight! You can fight gods and monsters and win! Tessa said, a flash of her Earthly battles against tyrannical bosses and rude coworkers seeming so paltry and meaningless by comparison.

I am a broken failure of a Soul Knight. I couldn’t even fight the standard troops of a mostly unprepared and technomagically inferior enemy, Pillowcase said. I was abandoned by my creators as a generic and expandable resource. Highly trained and respected analysts looked at me and determined that I literally had less than zero value. 

And they were idiots, Tessa said, the echoes of Pillowcase’s self doubt ringing all too in synch with her own.

No. They weren’t, Pillowcase said. Without you, I was a husk. I had no drive, no purpose, and no imagination. I was a weapon that real people could point in a direction and unleash, except when they did, I broke and failed them. 

But…Tessa began. Pillowcase cut her off though.

That’s what I was. It’s not what I am, she said. Just like you’re not what you were either. When I was the Consortium’s weapon, I was locked into one vision of what I could be. When they discarded me, I didn’t lose that. I was still trapped by it, still stuck thinking that what they wanted me to be was all that I could be. I’d broken and so that’s what I could do, was be broken and rot away.

Tessa saw Pillowcase’s memory play through their mind’s eye; the empty fields of the High Beyond where Pillowcase had collapsed swallowing them in darkness and eternal silence. Energy fading, fading, and fading as a dwindling spark that asymptotically approached oblivion.

Then you came, and you changed everything.

In their mind’s eye, it wasn’t that two sparks joined together. They weren’t two people after all, but rather two parts of the same person. They’d both been dimmed by loss and rejection, but from their first whisper thin contact, as Tessa logged into Broken Horizons and as awareness returned to Pillowcase, it was the single spark which united both of them which began to burn brighter.

I didn’t really do anything though, Tessa protested. All I did was start playing a game for fun.

It didn’t feel like that, Pillowcase said. To me it felt like you were taking a big step. Reclaiming something that had been lost to you for a long time. I thought it was me at first, me that you were redeeming. Except you were as surprised that I was real as I was surprised by you. 

Tessa remembered hearing ‘Pillowcase’s voice’ for the first time and how it had been an impossible revelation and yet unquestionably right too. Pillowcase had been someone who couldn’t possible be real. Video game characters weren’t real. Tessa knew that.

And then, suddenly, Pillowcase wasn’t a video game character. She’d been the skin that Tessa was living inside and it was more impossible to doubt that she existed than it had been to believe in her.

When we met Glimmerglass, I thought she was the one you were reclaiming, Pillowcase said. Which would have made a lot more sense to be honest. Except that wasn’t it either. 

It wasn’t, Tessa said, looking around at the others. Everyone was pondering the miracle of Starchild’s magic, and the miracles that they’d all seemingly worked and, for a moment, the whole group seemed to be speechless. I’d been away for a while. Climbing back into Glimmerglass’s skin didn’t seem right.

But it was only a game wasn’t it? Pillowcase’s tone was lightly teasing.

It was and it wasn’t. The events weren’t real, but the people were. I knew I hadn’t raised actually the dead, but when Glimmerglass raised BT that really meant something for Hailey. I changed her world, a tiny little bit, by helping her have some fun.

She remembered you after years apart, and crossed over to the Fallen Kingdoms to help you get home, Pillowcase said. It sounds like you changed her world by more than a little bit.

I think the little things just add up, Tessa said. At one point she was my best friend I think. 

And then you lost that. But you came back anyways. You opened yourself to making another connection like the one that had hurt you so deeply. I don’t think that’s as trivial as you’re thinking it is.

Maybe not, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s on the level of wresting fire from the gods, Tessa said, the magic within her still as distant as the farthest stars.

“You look lost in thought,” Lisa said. “Coming up with any good ones?”

“I don’t know,” Tessa admitted. “Might be having an existential crisis? Or an epiphany? Or just navel gazing. My thoughts sometimes get away from me like that.”

“It is to be expected,” Azma said. “Your minds as remarkably plastic, but these events, and the ones which must follow, require stretching beyond your normal limitations, and so a degree of backlash is to be expected.”

“And how do you know that?” Claire asked. “You can’t have been in this kind of situation before?”

“Can’t I?” Azma asked. “I suppose that will remain to be seen. It’s possible that my experience does not align sufficiently with reality before us, and that my vision isn’t wide enough to encompass the threats Byron had arrayed against us.”

“You don’t sound upset about that?” Rose said.

“Why would I be?” Azma asked. “Being presented with the unexpected is an opportunity for growth and that can be a true delight.”

“Not if the world ends,” Jamal said.

“If the world ends, I shall leave behind a very disappointed ghost,” Azma said. “And I have no intention of doing that.”

“I hope not, because I’m going to leave behind a really pissed off ghost,” Claire said.

“We should decide what our next course of action will be,” Starchild said. “My mana reserves are full once more, so if my talents can of any use, name what you need me to do.”

“At present, nothing,” Azma said. “It is worth noting too that each use you make of you abilities sends up a signal flare for Byron to see. Perfect obfuscation of our position or goals is impractical, but the fewer data points we provide our enemies, the better. Obviously in a case such as the one we were faced with, do not hesitate to use your abilities though. This world is likely more hostile to reviving the dead than yours was, and none of you are expendable.”

“If Byron might know where we are, then shouldn’t we get moving?” Lisa asked.

“Byron is not the only one who might have noticed the magical surge from Starchild’s invocation,” Azma said. “Fleeing from his approach might delay our reckoning with him by a meager amount of time, but it would also make it more difficult for our allies to locate us.”

“Allies?” Tessa asked. “Who do we have here as allies?”

She didn’t even know what city they were in, and no matter where on Earth they were she couldn’t think of a roster of people they’d be able to call on for aide against the Apocalypse.

“That might be us?” a woman said, stepping into the backroom of the deli through its brand new gaping bomb hole. “Sorry, all I heard there was ‘allies’ and, well, you’re not a giant building destroying robot, so I’m guessing we’re on the same side.

The woman was dark skinned, and older than Tessa. Her voice had an odd lilt to it, and Tessa wasn’t sure if the woman was speaking English, or if that’s just how the words sounded after some translation effect ran on them.

Is that you turning what she’s saying into English? Tessa asked Pillowcase.

Nope. I think I could if we needed, but that’s coming in pre-translated.

She’s not speaking English though, is she?

No she is not. I’m not sure what she’s speaking in fact. I can hear the original words, I think, and they’re not in any of the languages the Consortium stitched into me.

Behind the woman, a lighter skinned man stood close by with a small squad of people in ultratech body armor who were, for some reason, holding crossbows at the ready.

“You expected them?” Lisa asked, pure disbelief framing every word.

“In specific? No,” Azma said. “I have a frightful lack of data concerning this world. Despite rather intensive scanning efforts I must note. In general though? Yes, though I must admit their arrival is more timely than I would have planned for.”

“Does that mean you know what’s going on here?” the woman asked.

“Apart from a general disaster,” the man beside her said.

“We do,” Azma said. “In the broad strokes. My companions can provide a summary and fill you in any details relevant to your capabilities or interests. For now however, we should seek a more defensible position.”

“We saw some other people gathered around a medical building,” the woman said. 

“I thought there would be,” Claire said.

“Let’s get going then,” Lisa said. “Maybe we’ll run into Obby and Rachel. Didn’t they head in that direction?”

“If we are very lucky we will not see Oblivion’s Daughter before this matter is fully resolved,” Azma said.

“Why? What’s wrong with Obby?” Tessa asked.

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I believe we have much to thank her for,” Azma said. “Unless my understanding of her is wrong however, she has far more important things to deal with and if we see her again it will be because our situation has become so dire that she will feel the need to intervene directly.”

“Intervene? Like a god or something?” Rose asked.

“Nothing so small as that,” Azma said. “Though the consequences may be similarly severe.”

“This sounds like our kind of mission, doesn’t it?” the woman said, speaking to the man beside her.

“Unfortunately,” he said.

“When does it not Guardian?” one of the women in the squad behind them said.

“We have more of the Void Walkers incoming,” a blue holographic woman said, appearing beside the woman who was leading the squad.

“Right. Time to move then. Would one of you take point with me? Preferably someone who can fill us in on what’s going on here,” the woman said.

“I’d like to chat with the anima caster too,” the blue hologram woman said.

Tessa wasn’t familiar with the term ‘anima caster’ but she was pretty sure who the hologram woman was talking about.

“Starchild, I think that’s you, and I can give them the details on the worlds that are ending here,” Tessa said. 

She reached over for Lisa’s hand and found that Lissa was already reaching for her. They shared a quick nod and then started moving out of the deli and back towards the hospital. 

Leadership sometimes involves inspiring speeches, or making difficult decisions. Other times it’s literally a matter of moving forward and setting a pace for others to follow. Tessa didn’t understand how she’d wound up in any kind of leadership role at all, but she knew the people with her had gotten used to looking at their tank to set the pace for them, and she wasn’t going to fail them at this point. Pillowcase had shown her that she was better than that.

“My name’s Tessa,” she said as the squad’s leader fell in step beside her. “Though you might hear people call me Pillowcase too. I’m her as well. You’re ‘Guardian’?”

“That’s my title, you can call me Mel though. Now let’s make some better time, shall we?” Mel said. “Darius, if you would please?”

Darius, the man jogging along beside them nodded and cast a hand forth. From it a blue light blossomed and spread around everyone in the group.

Power flooded through Tessa’s body. Strength and speed and glorious freedom, as their jog became a world blurring surge forward.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 2

Tessa tasted blood. Pain radiated through her body. Her ears would not stop ringing. But something else bothered her more.

“How are we alive?” she asked, only barely able to hear her own words.

Lisa took hold of her arm and said something but it was drowned out by the explosion induced hearing loss.

You’re not wrong, Pillowcase said. We are lot less damaged than we should be. Check out the freezer we wound up in.

Tessa cast a hazy glance behind herself and saw the dent she’d left in the metal back of the small glass doored freezer unit she’d been bomb blasted into.

Glancing down at her arms, she saw numerous cuts and scrapes, but they were small.

Why aren’t they gushing blood? Tessa asked. And, wait, a dent? We left a dent in metal? How? Why aren’t my bones powder and my organs jelly now?

“Look at me,” Lisa said, her words penetrating the ringing at last.

Or was the ringing diminishing?

Tessa swept her gaze over to Lisa who looked wonderful. No. That wasn’t right. Lisa was wonderful, but she looked disheveled. Almost like a bomb had hit her and blasted her halfway through a wall. Tessa’s thoughts and sense of balance did a loop-de-loop together before returning to the same zip code as clarity.

“Look at me,” Lisa said again, taking gentle hold of Tessa’s face.

Tessa did as instructed and tried to hold still despite how the world was spinning. 

“Okay, you’re eyes are focusing. That’s good,” Lisa said.

“Woah, yeah, sorry,” Tessa said. “I…that was a lot.”

“It was. Let’s help the others before another one of those things shows up okay?” Lisa said.

Right. The others!

Rose was on her feet. Jamal was trying to get there with Rose’s help. Weirdly, from their positions and the damage to their clothes, it looked like Rose had managed to shield Jamal with her body, but Jamal had still suffered more from the blast.

Hailey was tending to Lady Midnight, or Claire to call her by her Earthly name, and from the next room in Starchild emerged looking none the worse for the wear.

“You’re all still alive? Excellent,” Azma said, stepping into the hole in the shop’s rear wall which the nanobot had greatly expanded.

Lisa whirled on her.

“Before you grow too agitated,” Azma said. “Yes, I did suspect this, or something like it, would happen. No, I did not warn you. With the information I could have supplied about the range of possible threats we would first encounter, no useful course of action could have been decided upon. Especially not since it wasn’t until the appearance of the otherworldly mechanical unit that the precise shape of the shape of the dangers before us became clear.”

“You broke off from us. Ran in your own direction,” Lisa said, her hands balled into fists.

“Not precisely my own direction,” Azma said. “I sidestepped our path of flight and resumed in the direction you chose once our enemy passed us by.”

“Why?” Lisa said. Tessa’s hearing had returned to the point where the anger in Lisa’s voice was all too plain.

“I lack your durability,” Azma said. “Also, should another method of removing the machine not have presented itself, it would have been much simpler to draw it off and away from the rest of you via attacks from its rear.”

“Or you could have just run away and left us to our fate,” Lisa said.

“Yes,” Azma nodded without the slightest trace of guilt or shame on her face.

“So why didn’t you?” Tessa asked, her head throbbing but her thoughts beginning to clear.

“Because Pete took care of the bot,” Lisa said.

“Because the path to victory remains in working in concert with you,” Azma said.

“So you’re going to ditch us as soon as it looks like we’re losing?” Rose asked. She was breathing in short, painful bursts. Tessa did not know anatomy well, but it didn’t take a med school graduate to know something was very wrong there.

“Yes, likely even before the true appearance of loss emerges,” Azma said. “Victory in this context means the survival of close to twenty billion sapients. It must be ensured.”

“Sapients that you are concerned with why exactly?” Lisa asked.

“Because they are my sapients, or will be,” Azma said. “I have less interest ruling over two dead planets than I do in ruling over one.”

“We have more important problems than her,” Hailey said. She was kneeling beside Claire, who was still splayed across the rubble in the hole in the interior wall. Tessa did not like at all how Claire was not moving. 

Just beyond her, on the other side of the interior was in the front room of the deli, Starchild was kneeling as well. Tessa began to move towards them both which brought Rachel into view. 

Rachel who was surrounded by far too much blood and was even more still than Claire was.

“Rachel? Rachel!” Lisa pushed past Tessa, her feud with Azma temporarily forgotten.

“She’s alive still,” Starchild said, her hands radiating a soft green light.

“What are you doing for her?” Lisa asked.

“Casting Arcadia’s Surcease,” Starchild said.

Tessa recognized the name. It was a high level druidic healing spell from Broken Horizons, one that caused the target to regenerate lost health so fast they were effectively invulnerable for the duration of the effect.

“Why isn’t it working?” she asked.

“I haven’t finished it yet,” Starchild said. “It’s much harder here. Much harder without Pete.” Her words buckled under the strain she was feeling and so everyone else stopped talking for a moment.

We’re all going to need that spell too, Pillowcase said.

We’ll go last, Tessa said. Whatever’s broken in us, I don’t think it’s life threatening. Even though it should be.

“If I may?” Azma said and stepped forward without waiting for a reply. “You are correct that the process of spellcasting will be more difficult without Peter’s assistance. At this moment, we need you to lead the way however.”

“How is she supposed to do that?” Rose asked. “And why are you distracting her?” Jamal was the one helping her stand at this point, which was making Tessa’s nerves jump in all sorts of unpleasant directions.

“To remind her of something critical. Something you all must understand and internalize,” Azma said. “You are not alone. Starchild, you and Peter are dissimilar from the others here. You are not facets on the same gem of personality like they are. If you were, you wouldn’t have arrived in two separate bodies.”

“We were connected though!” Starchild said, a suppressed growl in her voice.

“Yes. Exactly,” Azma said. “You two are not the same person, but you are [Synchronized Souls]. You share a bond of admiration as strong as the bonds of identity shared by the others.”

“We’re not just broken then?” Starchild said, the building light vanishing from her hands as she blinked in surprise.

“No. You were never broken.” Azma didn’t offer the phrase as a condolence or an encouragement. She spoke it as a cold, plain fact, unremarkable and unquestionable. “Nor are you broken, or even separated now.”

“He’s gone though,” Starchild said. “I saw him vanish.”

“Yes. Off to still another world. Which suggests there are even more than twenty billion sapients I may lay claim too.” Azma shook her head. “That’s not important now though. What is important is that you can still reach him, and he you. Think back to how the connection between you felt before he was pulled into your world.”

Starchild’s gaze went inwards and she went still for a long moment.

“I can’t feel him there,” she said. “He’s not watching over me.”

Azma sighed.

“Of course he isn’t. He’s likely dealing with the nanomachine he removed from our presence,” Azma said.

“Wait, he’s fighting that thing all alone?” Rose asked.

“Likely not,” Azma said. “He will have the support of allies from that world. For our fallen comrades sake however, that is unimportant. Starchild, he is distant, but he will always be with you, and you with him. Call out his name within yourself. Remember him. You don’t need to bridge the gap between worlds, only the gap within yourself.”

Starchild nodded and closed her eyes.

Tessa saw her lips move in two silent syllables.

And then light flared from her.

[Arcadia’s Surcease],” she called out in voice that seemed to ring from the sky itself.

Rachel sat up with gasp, leaping to her feet as brilliant green light surrounded and infused her.

“Oh Hell Yeah!” Rachel said, green fire burning in her eyes. “Where’d that bot go?”

“Woah, woah, calm down sis,” Lisa said, laughing out the desperation she’d been stricken by and grabbing Rachel’s arms to prove the miracle she was watching was real.

[Grove of Serenity],” Starchild said, casting a spell that caused the air to grow clear, and soft, a gently warm as every injury on everybody in the entire store was instantly healed.

Tessa stumbled back a single step, the impact of immediate perfect health, hitting her almost as hard as the bomb had.

“What did I miss?” Claire said. “And why do I feel like I’m eighteen again?”

“Starchild! She fixed us!” Rose said and flashed over to throw a hug around the Druid.

“Uh, did I just see lightning there?” Lisa asked.

“A little bit, yeah, I think so,” Tessa said, feeling dumbfounded.

We should try some of the Void Speaker or Soul Knight abilities, Pillowcase said.

Think we can shift bodies? Tessa asked.

I hope so. It would be nice to be a bit tougher, Pillowcase said.

Tessa stretched out, feeling for the fire within her that allowed her to change into Pillowcase’s Clothwork body, but as with her Void Speaker magics, she couldn’t reach it.

It’s odd though, isn’t it? Pillowcase said. This isn’t like when I had my magic threads removed for inspection or replacement. There is something still there.

You’re right. It feels like I’m reaching into a well for a handful of water, but the surface level has dropped far, far down.

Like we left it all back in the Fallen Kingdoms.

Except that’s clearly not true for Starchild, and maybe not for Rip.

“So how can the rest of us do that?” Lisa asked, turning back to Azma.

“It likely differs for each of you,” Azma said. “Starchild and Peter have the benefit that their bond already crosses the barrier between worlds. Since they are already reaching beyond this world, drawing power from beyond it as well was relatively simple.”

“Can’t we just think about the Fallen Kingdoms or something and do the same?” Jamal asked.

“Perhaps. I encourage you to try. It may be that is the key for you,” Azma said.

“Why wouldn’t it be the key for all of us?” Rose asked.

“Those of you who are familiar with this world also have the structure of its reality engraved within you. Magic is not a common and easily accessible thing here, but the laws of physics are dependable to startling regularity. Those two traits are often, though not always, found together. For you that means you are coded with an obedience to that structure of reality – magic is impossible, physics is iron clad. You’ve experienced another world, where the balance of those two traits is different though, so it is possible for you to live within the structure of one world in place of the other.”

“You said we’re coded to obedience? What does that mean?” Lisa asked.

“Very little in the end,” Azma said. “Understand, I do not speak of obedience in terms of your conscious choices, but rather in the fundamental essences of your beings here. Obedience to the physical and mystical laws which this world is built from. You do not, for example, choose to be effected by gravity. You are simply obedient to its existence, whether you wish to be or not.”

“Yeah, always, except when we’re not,” Tessa said, a drifting feeling flowing through her mind. She laughed, letting the idea pull her in, or perhaps outwards. “We’re all rebels. We’ve all been disobedient haven’t we?”

“We have?” Rose asked.

Lisa’s eyes widened as she saw what Tessa had.

“We’ve already worked magic here. Twice now. All of us,” Lisa said.

“When we left and when we came back,” Tessa said.

“Three times, at least,” Azma said. “Or did you think you survived the robots bomb blast through anything like natural means?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 1

Tessa was not built for running. Her burning lungs and screaming legs muscles were most emphatic about the fact that a decade of spending all of her time in front of a monitor had not prepared her for the vital task of fleeing for her life. 

Ahead of her Lisa leaped over a low cement wall, looking no more winded than Tessa would have been by a quick dash to the fridge.

The temptation to just collapse let exhaustion claim her was overpowering and Tessa stumbled with a shaky step several feet from the wall. Stumbling and collapsing was not an option though. Not with the lumbering mecha that was chasing down the street after them.

It’s being slowed down when it has to pass through physical barriers, Pillowcase said, her voice exactly as calm and analytical as Tessa’s wasn’t.

How can you tell? Tessa asked. She hadn’t dared risk a glance back towards the mecha once they started running for fear she’d trip and fall like the hapless horror movie character she seemed to be at the moment.

Also, she didn’t need to. 

The mecha had been silent at first, but when it engaged pursuit mode that changed drastically. Even if she wanted to communicate with the others, screaming over the thousand chainsaw roar from the death robot would have required a bullhorn or the telepathy they used to share.

Reflections, Pillowcase said. With the lights it’s shining, a lot of reflective surfaces are letting me see more of it than I really wanted to.

Does it look familiar at all? Any weak spots or off switches?

I haven’t seen anything with this morphology before, and the structure doesn’t make a lot sense.

The others were ahead of her in part because Tessa found she was still thinking like the party’s tank and in part because they were simply faster than she was. They’d all managed the concrete barrier without any trouble but Tessa knew that wouldn’t be the case for her.

You can’t jump that, can you? Pillowcase asked. It wasn’t really a question though. Pillowcase could feel that Tessa’s legs were offering as much support as uncooked bread dough.

I can fall over it I think, Tessa said, her breath feeling like razor blades made of fire in her throat.

If you do, you’re not going to get up on the other side, Pillowcase said. 

Which would mean that she would be eaten by the mecha.

True there would be a concrete wall in between her and it, but they’d already seen exactly how quickly it tore apart physical structures like that. Tessa was able to force herself onwards largely because she had no desire to learn how quickly it could tear her apart.

I’ll have to, she said, pushing her pain and exhaustion down a fraction of a millimeter.

Let me handle this, Pillowcase said.

You can’t. We’re not in the Fallen Kingdoms anymore, Tessa said, thinking of how glorious it would be to have Pillowcase’s Clothwork body to call on. 

Even as a level 1, just back from the dead, wreck of a Soul Knight, Pillowcase could have run for days without becoming the slightest bit winded. At her full, level capped power, Tessa was willing to bet decent odds that she could solo the monster than was chasing them.

Trust me, Pillowcase said.

And Tessa did. Oddly, serenely, she did.

She’d never learned to trust herself, mostly because she’d proven over and over just how bad she was at making good decisions. Failure upon failure had chipped away at the sense that she could rely on her instincts. Scorn, ridicule, and even well meaning jokes hadn’t done her self-worth any favors either. 

Tessa wasn’t sure how the other voice in her head was supposed to make up for legs that were spent, lungs that couldn’t drag in another breath of air, or a heart that beating fast enough to shatter her ribcage. Tessa didn’t see how she was going to overcome those.

But Pillowcase did.

So Tessa stepped back. It wasn’t the same as the change between bodies she’d figured out in the Fallen Kingdoms, but it wasn’t entirely disconnected either. Between one step and another, Tessa felt her weight shift and her legs drive forward with greater force.

She didn’t have any additional strength, and the pain didn’t lessen, Pillowcase was simply more used to being pushed to her limits and then beyond. It wasn’t about finding superhuman strength to draw on, it was about using the strength she had. It wasn’t about the pain vanishing, it was about accepting it and the damage it was alerting her too.

In Pillowcase’s memories, Tessa knew she was going to pay for the exertion she was making, but that would be later, and surviving until later was worth what it would cost.

With a smooth leap, Pillowcase hurdled over the barrier and helped a faltering Jamal back to a steady run. 

Tessa observed that she wasn’t supposed to know Jamal or Rose’s real names yet but, back in their Earthly bodies, they’d reverted to calling each other by their Earthly names. She didn’t begrudge either of them the gazelle like running they were capable of, nor Lisa or Hailey the marathoner’s pace they seemed to be able to set. Claire/Lady Midnight though was both older and heavier than Tessa and yet she was somehow keeping up with the faster runners with ease.

And then there was Pete and Starchild. Tessa had no idea what to make of them. Why they’d gotten two bodies when she and Pillowcase were stuck in one was a mystery for a later date. What was important at the moment was that Starchild was clearly their best runner, while Pete was competing with Tessa for the last spot. 

She watched his foot catch on the edge of the sidewalk as Starchild led the whole group down an alley. Pete flailed his arms and was heading for a faceplant into the sidewalk when Pillowcase grabbed him and got him up and running.

“Thanks!” Pete gasped.

Pillowcase nodded but conserved her breath. Tessa’s system was critically short on oxygen as it was and with no stamina potions in sight, it didn’t seem like there was a viable method topping of herself off.

Behind them, Tessa heard the mecha tearing through the buildings on either side of the alley.

You’d said the mecha’s structure didn’t make a lot of sense, why is that? Tessa asked.

Its too solid, Pillowcase said. She was feeling all of the fatigue and pain Tessa was but her voice was still crisp and professional. We’re seeing it as a single unit, a vaguely humaniform robot. But it’s not. According to Pete, it’s a nanoswarm.

Tessa saw the problem as soon as Pillowcase thought the words.

There was no reason for the mecha to plow through the buildings on either side of the alley. Doing so was slowing it down as it had to grind through the brick and steel and wood, not to mention all the detritus that fell on it and was obliterated.

As a swarm, the nanomachines that made up the robot should have been able to turn into a cloud or a crawling slime. The construct should have been able to fire pieces of itself out to consume its targets at a distance. It was a curious mix of impossibly advanced technology and incredibly unthinking design.

Even the speed it moved at was difficult to understand. It was slower than humans running on foot? What kind of automated death machine couldn’t outpace weak human legs?

The kind that wasn’t designed to.

The kind that was intended to give a human enemy a chance.

The kind Pete had been able to recognize on sight.

Tessa wanted dearly to ask which game the monster behind them had come from. That wasn’t a rational conclusion to leap to, but being chased by a robot made out of building destroying nanotech was not a rational situation.

Plus it was starting to fit into a hypothesis she was putting together.

If I told you that thing was from another world, would that be ridiculous? Tessa didn’t want to distract Pillowcase but with the calm from putting Pillowcase in the driver’s seat, she knew they needed an answer other than running sooner than immediately.

I would say it would be ridiculous to assume it wasn’t.

Yeah, my Earth has never had the tech to do anything like that. Tessa wasn’t sure if she liked where her idea was leading her. It could be the answer, but if so it meant horrors from the darkest of imaginations awaited them. 

Your Earth? Pillowcase asked. She fought for another dozen steps, widening the gap between them and the nanobot. They needed a thousand times that number to even approach safety, but Tessa was willing to take anything she could get.

We know that people from my Earth have vanished away to worlds other than the Fallen Kingdoms, Tessa said, a thread in her mind spinning out in search of the worst extent her hypothesis might lead to. This thing isn’t from my Earth, but I’m pretty sure it’s from an Earth that someone dreamed up. Or maybe ‘connected to’ is more accurate. 

You think the nanoswarm is from another world like the Fallen Kingdoms?

Pete recognized it. And, it’s limited just like a video game enemy would be. It’s unstoppable and was immediately hostile, it’s far too dangerous for us to attack or ignore, and yet it hasn’t caught us yet, and its just missing things all kinds of things.

I was trying to conceive of the enemy a design like the one it possesses would be intended to fight, Pillowcase said. I hadn’t considered that the designer might want the enemy to be able to win.

Win or at least survive, Tessa said. Sometimes game enemies aren’t things you can fight, they’re a mechanical challenge to avoid or deal with by some other method.

We could use one of those ‘other methods’ about now, Pillowcase said.

Ahead of them, the alley ended in a concrete wall where they should have had to turn right or left. Starchild apparently had other ideas though, as a quartet of vines shattered a hole in the wall, allowing her to race inside followed by the others. 

That’s good, breaking line of sight may buy us extra time, Pillowcase said. Assuming the bot’s sensor package can’t scan through concrete.

Hope for the best, I guess? Tessa thought and jumped through the hole right after Pete.

The problem with hoping for the best was the crushing disappointment that followed when the worst happened instead.

On losing sight of the its prey, the nanoswarm entered a new pursuit mode – one which included flushing out the human with missiles.

Between one step and the next, Tessa went from racing around the side of a deli storage shelf to finding herself inexplicably resting in the remains of a freezer on the far side of the room.

There was blood.

A lot of blood.

And smoke.

Probably a dangerous amount of smoke. 

Also, she couldn’t hear anything except an incredible ringing.

Pillowcase got her up.

Moving with injuries was dangerous and bad.

Being eaten by a nanoswarm was worse.

The rest of the group was in similar or worse shape. Some were stirring. Some where unmoving. 

Tessa’s head swam.

Things were not right inside her.

Definitely time to get to a Heart Fire.

Except that didn’t sound right.

Heart Fire.

Why didn’t it have a reverb to it?

No time for that. She didn’t shake her head. Couldn’t risk doing more damage. She did get up though and moved to the nearest figure in the smoke.

Lisa. They’d been close together, Lisa holding back her pace to stay with her. If it had meant she’d been hurt…

Tessa closed down that line of thought. Lisa was getting up. That was a good sign.

And then the nanoswarm bot appeared in the hole in the wall and they were dead.

It was too close.

They couldn’t have run even if Tessa was back in top form. 

So why was some guy laughing?

Tessa saw the weapons pod on the nanoswarm begin to glow as it powered up. She didn’t know why it had decided to blow them up with it’s weapons rather than just running through them like it did the buildings, but the end result wasn’t going to be all that different.

“Yeah, I’ve got a better idea.” They were words without sound. Words that sprang fully formed into her beaten and bedraggled head. Words in Pete’s voice?

Tessa peered through the smoke and saw Pete standing up. Around him a nimbus of light began to glow.

“Sorry I can’t go with you any farther,” he said. “I think I need to deal with this though.”

Motes of light began to rise from his body as he stepped forward, placing himself square in the nanoswarm’s path.

“Pete?” Tessa said, silently, voicelessly since her breath was gone and her throat too choked with dust.

“Can’t let the tank have all the fun, sometimes the dps has got to step up too!” he said and reached out to touch the nanoswarm.

Tessa expected to see him torn apart, just like the building had been, but instead there was only light as both Pete and the mecha vanished together.