Monthly Archives: August 2022

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 8

Taipei, Taiwan

When the sky starts raining blood, that’s usually a bad sign. When the blood is more corrosive than organic acid, that’s definitely a bad sign. When the pools of blood rise up as part of a sentient blood blob hivemind, that’s pretty much the worst sign possible.

Mei-hua wished she could still believe that was true. In the streets around her, the world was quite literally melting down. The blood rain had been enough to get people indoors before it started dissolving everything. That in turn had convinced the population of Taipei that they needed to be someone else. The army of blood blob monsters had hurried that notion along even as some of the population had begun to understand just how bad their day had become.

Fleeing from a city under siege by inhuman monsters raining down from space was a fantastic idea, but it did beg the question of where, exactly, they could flee too.

It wasn’t that Taipei was the only place on the island, or that passage off of Taiwan was impossible to come by. The problem was that there didn’t seem to be anywhere that wasn’t currently experiencing its own special little slice of armageddon.

Not to mention the fact that Mei-hua had lived in Taipei for thirty five years. Watching a horde of [Blood Blobs] melting down her favorite coffee house did not leave her in the mood to run away.

And she wasn’t the only one.

She’d head of the people who’d vanished to other worlds, drawn away into virtual realities, and how some of them seemed to have weaponized the effect and dragged away the monsters that were assaulting their cities with them.

Mei-hua didn’t have any alternate worlds that she felt particularly connected to though. She’d always been more drawn to fictions around the real world, mysteries, thrillers, romances, and action movies. It wasn’t that she couldn’t suspend her disbelief enough to enjoy a good fantasy tale but her early experiences with them had been soured either by the people she saw them with, or by the atrociously bad writing of the stories themselves. She still had friends who tried to convince her to play this fantasy MMO or watch that magical adventure film, but they just didn’t feel like they were for her.

Which wasn’t to say that the games she did play were ones people would have expected her to enjoy.

“Boom. Headshot,” she said as a round from the entirely real-looking rifle that she’d conjured into being exploded the top half of one of the [Blood Blobs].

“How can it be a headshot when they have no heads?” her friend and fellow FPS veteran, Chih-ming asked.

“They have a brain somewhere in there,” she said, lining up another shot. “It’s floating in the goo, but you can see a shadow of it if you watch them for a moment.”

“Bah. I don’t have your aim. I’m going to do it my own style,” Chih-ming said.

Mei-hua didn’t need to ask what that was. Despite being separated by three blocks, she fancied she could see the fiery glare the moment he opened up with his flamethrower.

They weren’t alone, and more and more people were starting to see that they could fit back, but Mei-hua had played a lot of horde annihilation style games and she didn’t like how the numbers she was seeing added up.

Santiago, Chile

Isabella felt like she was one of the unlucky few. So many of the other players in her [Broken Horizons] guild had been drawn over to the [Fallen Kingdoms] and yet because she had a modicum of skill and was talented enough to not let her character Stardancer die, she was stuck in the real world still, though the view outside her window left her questioning just how real her world could possibly be.

[Fire Zombies].

Those weren’t a thing that happened in the real world.

They weren’t even a thing that made sense.

That didn’t seem to be stopping them from existing however.

“I may need to come over to you after all,” Isabella said, speaking to Stardancer, however impossible that might be.

“Things are not what you would call great here either,” Stardancer said as she [Shadow Stepped] away from an attack by a [Dread Wormling] the size of a bus. 

The [Dread Wormlings] were spawning at a rate of “Solidly Far Too Many Much Much Too Often”. 

“Yeah, but you can handle that. You’re amazing,” Isabella said, watching a [Fire Zombie] climbing into a second floor window across the street to gain entrance to a room where it could find more combustibles.

The inhabitants of the building had seen it coming, [Fire Zombies] were just as predictable as another depiction of zombies that Isabella has seen, and were waiting with fire extinguishers. 

Not all of the buildings on the city had such sensible defenders unfortunately.

“We’re amazing,” Stardancer said. “If I lost you now, I would be so much slower. And deader.”

“Which is why I’m thinking I should figure out how to get to you,” Isabella said. “Without you dying.”

“I’d happily die if it meant keeping you safe, but I don’t know if we’re going to win this one,” Stardancer said, two of her [Shadow Wraiths] vanished as another [Dread Wormling] landed on them. The [Shadow Wraiths] managed to do their job and drain the wormlings of the last ounce of their life essence, but by the time Stardancer had called two more [Shadow Wraiths] into existence five more [Dread Wormlings] were in play on the field of battle.

“Trust me. You are going to win,” Isabella said. “The only time you ever lost was when I let you down. You’ve always been an invincible badass.”

“Far from it,” Stardancer said. “But it is nice that you think so.”

“I know so,” Isabella said. “But I’m starting to think we’ve only got enough badass between us to save one of our worlds.”

Mumbai, India

Gita wanted to celebrate her 80th birthday. She’d been looking forward to it. Her family had flown in from the far corners of the world they’d dispersed to and she knew it might be the last time she would see many of them.

There’d been all sorts of preparations made by her three daughters and four or five of her grand daughters, but just seeing her grand children and great grand children were sure to have eclipsed all of the other efforts people went to.

It was a simple thing to wish for, a very reasonable request of life in Gita’s opinion, but instead something unreasonable had happened.

An eclipse to be precise.

Not of the moon interposing itself between the sun and the Earth. No, Gita didn’t have to worry about anything as mundane as that. Her birthday present instead turned out to be a flying sauce.

Specifically a [Gem Locust Terraforming Arc]. 

It was larger than the metropolitan area of Mumbai and so the shadow it cast rather effectively turned day into night.

The military had been called upon to deal with it, but Earth weapons were proving to be laughably ineffective against the bugs’ galaxy spanning alien technology.

The reports that Gita listened to said the Terraforming ship had spent an hour irradiating an area just short of a kilometer in radius. The radiation, if it was radiation, seemed to be creating a selective green house effect that was spreading on its own, even after the beam turned off.

The rate of growth seemed to be slow, but it was picking up speed, and at the present rate of acceleration would overrun the city within the day, the country within three day and the world sometime before the end of the week.

Gita was not in favor of this.

Nor were several others.

She was pleased to see that while many people were lost in throes of despair, there were a few bright stars leading struggling to blaze a path forward.

A young boy rose above the city riding a disc of light. From his hands lightning flared and scoured the side of the Terraforming Arc.

One boy against an alien battle force was far from enough though, and no sooner had his attack begun than he was pushed back onto a defensive footing, zooming first high above the alien ship and then down low, seeking cover in the city he was trying to protect.

“That is not right,” Gita said, standing up with only a little help from her cane.

For a moment no one saw her. It was a forgivable error. Gita hadn’t been moving around all that much lately, and there was a giant alien warship hanging over head like an omen of doom seconds away from being fulfilled.

Gita made it to the front door before her oldest son noticed and caught up to her.

“Mother! Where are you going?” Ramesh asked her.

“Out there,” Gita said, as though it wasn’t perfectly obvious.

“But what can you do?” Ramesh asked, looking utterly bewildered.

“I imagine we’ll find out,” Gita said, feeling a calling within her that she hadn’t heard for almost a lifetime.

Niamey, Niger

Amina knew what snow was. She also knew it was absolutely not supposed to be falling Niamey or anywhere else in Niger. 

The snow wasn’t what bothered her however.

It was the voices that spoke through the snow. Those were what disturbed her. 

The snow storm was burying Niamey in ice heavy enough to start collapsing some of the weaker buildings, but it was the voices that were the true danger.

Listening to them invited them to you. They seemed to know who was paying attention and they spoke louder and drew closer the longer you listened until…

Amina didn’t want to think about that, but it was difficult to ignore the once-human snow beasts that were stalking the empty streets. 

She’d seen more than one person collapse after being assaulted by the voices in the snow, only to watch them rise a moment later, their skin transformed into a crystalline blue  substance that cracked with every movement they made.

“I’ve got the door boarded shut and I found these,” Nana, Amina’s most beloved friend said, offering a pair of ear plugs in her outstretched hand.

“Will we be able to hear each other though?” Amina asked.

Nana laughed and shook her head. “They’re not that strong. They just make things a little quieter. I don’t know if they’ll even help, but I thought we could try.”

“Oh, yes, certainly!” Amina said. The voices were terrible, but somehow the prospect of sitting in total silence seemed even scarier.

She fitted the plugs into her ears after watching Nana to see how it was done. 

“They feel weird, and I can still hear things,” Amina said.

“That’s good,” Nana said. “Just try to make sure they stay in.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Amina said. “If they fall out I’m sure I’ll feel it.”

She assumed she’d also hear the difference too, except everything sounded pretty similar to how it had before.

Similar but not the same.

“You can still hear the howling out there, right?” she asked.

“It’s quieter but…” Nana paused, listening more intently just as Amina was.

“But the voices, they’re missing something,” Amina said.

“The don’t sound as threatening somehow?” Nana said. “Does that make sense? I’m going to take the plug out  and…”

Amina grabbed her arm to stop her.

“No. This might be good. We might be able to use this!” she said.

“What do you mean ‘use it’? What can we do about any of this?” Nana asked.

“I don’t know,” Amina said. “And I don’t think anyone else does either. I was so scared before you found me. I just wanted to find some rock to crawl under and hide.”

“It would be a rock covered in snow if you went out there,” Nana said.

“I know,” Amina said. “That’s why I think we can’t wait here. If we do, the snow will eventually bury us, or one of the voices will come in here and pull the ear plugs out, or something else even more horrible. Because there’s no one who can stop it.”

“And you think we can?” Nana asked.

“I think we found something that might help,” Amina said. “Maybe somebody else found something else. Maybe together we can figure out something we can do to stop this. I think that’s our only hope now. This is so much bigger than us, and if we don’t save each other, there’s going to be no one who can.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 7

The madness of a broken cosmos crashed down on Tessa, fetid, freezing air surrounding her as light in impossible colors filled her eyes and drove spikes of unreasoning terror into the center of her pysche.

“Absorbing cosmic interference,” Pillowcase said, bringing ghostly after images of otherworldly stitching partially into Earth’s reality.

“Wait we don’t need to use one of your [Soul Knight] powers to do that?” Tessa asked.

“For a Tier 3 Psychic Corruption effect?” Pillowcase scoffed. “Please, I was stitched better than that!”

Above them, the tentacled maw of the High Priest of the Great Old Ones loomed as Dread Cthulhu stretched forth his inhuman hands to grasp and devour them.

“[Death’s Uncrossable Divide],” Lost Alice called out, erecting a dome of necrotic force around them.

Great Cthulhu was used to death. He’d lain beneath the Pacific Ocean in the sleep of death for many strange aeons. Against Lost Alice’s spell however, his mastery over death availed him rather less than he might have expected it to. Rather than crumbling at his touch, Lost Alice’s magical barrier reach out and withered the cosmic monster’s hand.

Sadly that wasn’t even close to stopping him.

“He’s got a lot of life, that spell should be stripping him to a dead husk and it’s barely scratching his health bar,” Lost Alice said.

“He’s got a health bar?” Tessa asked, a hiccup of elation passing through her.

It was a widely known fact that the worst mistake an enemy could make in an MMO was to have combat stats. If they only appeared in cut scenes and were never directly targetable by the characters, an enemy could be as completely unstoppable as the lore suggested they should be. The moment someone gained a health bar though? As a wise man once said, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

“Not going to have one for long!” Rip said. “[Wrath of Heaven’s King].”

Above them ten thousand circles of blazing golden light flared open and from them fell a torrent of arrows made of fire and divine rage. Rip had aimed the barrage away from Tessa’s position, which was good because everything that wasn’t Cthulhu inside the radius of devastation was reduced to shattered powder and ash.

Tessa couldn’t see Cthulhu’s health bar, but from his outward appearance she guessed the attack had scuffed him at least little bit. Whether it was the damage, or Rip’s incantation alerting him to her presence, he turned his attention from Tessa and Lost Alice and over to where Rip was standing defiantly against him.

With a step that shook the city, Cthulhu moved towards his new prey, sanity blasting light swirling from his eyes.

“[Vault of Nightmares Unleashed],” Matt called out. 

At first Tessa thought the spell had failed. It wouldn’t have been surprising. As a High Priest of the Great Old Ones, Cthulhu was proof against all but a few mortal spells.

He was not, however proof against being hit in the head with a boat.

The [Vault of Nightmares] held every fear and horror that could ever stalk the dreaming mind, and chose the manifestation of its attacks based on the target’s psyche. That Cthulhu had negative connotations concerning boats wasn’t terribly surprising. He was known for living in the ocean and as Tessa recalled the first story he’d appeared in ended with him being rammed by a fishing trawler. 

As the alien monstrosity topped onto the wings on his back, Tessa noted that ‘proof against mortal spells’ was apparently useless against [Adventurers] which somewhat confirmed that they weren’t exactly mortal any more. The idea had frightened her originally – the thought of becoming something inhuman carrying some deep seated cultural bias against it. Reflecting on the past few weeks though, she had to admit that the nonhumans she’d encountered had been some of the best people she’d ever had the honor to get to know.

Also, her own inhuman side seemed to be pretty awesome.

Thank you, Pillowcase said.

Cthulhu tried to rise but Mel, the Guardian who’d been the first wave of the battle against him, slammed the giant monster to the ground. She was probably only one millionth of his overall mass, but the energy that wreathed her fist seemed to make up the difference easily.

“She must have fairly good mental defenses too,” Pillowcase said.

“I thought you said Cthulhu’s mind whammy power was only Tier 3?” Tessa asked.

“Tier 3’s typically enough to render a planetary population into a vegetative state,” Pillowcase said.

“And you were built tougher than that? Why?” Tessa asked, a thread of anger rising in her. How dare the Consortium put her other self into a situation where she’d need that much protection? She knew it was a silly thought, but she still felt oddly protective of Pillowcase despite the [Clothwork] being far tougher than a [Human]. 

“It was considered a valid tactic to send in a small army of [Artifax] troops and then detonate psychic bombs to turn the unprotected minds of the populace on a newly opened world into jello. Costly, but less so than facing some forms of resistance would be,” Pillowcase said. “I get how horrible that is now by the way, though at the time it just seemed sensible.”

“I’m just surprised they didn’t try that with the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Tessa said.

“Azma doesn’t seem to be that wasteful. Also too many [Adventurers] could have resisted the effect.”

“How is your spell going?” Fari asked, appearing within Lost Alice’s protective dome.

“I’ve found three threads so far,” Tessa said. “If I can find twelve more, I should have enough to bend around all the many angles in his core. Once he’s all wrapped up, I’m pretty sure I can kick him back to his own world and the threads will keep him bound there.”

In the wasteland beyond them, Cthulhu swatted Mel hard enough to send her into the stratosphere, before rising on membranous wings to eclipse the sky.

“What threads do you need?” Fari asked.

“Bits of his essence,” Tessa said. “Our friend Pete pulled one of the [Void Walkers] out of this world because he understood it enough to form a bond with it. He was able to grab the bits of that had become real here and carry them over to the world they were supposed to be in. Where they kind of want to be by their very nature. I need to do the same thing with the bits of Cthulhu that have become real already.”

“That sounds like data,” Fari said.

“It is. My working theory is that where things on Earth are built from fundamental information such as the spin of quarks and the waveform for the speed and velocity of particles, things like Cthulhu are built from another form of information – basically the data invested in him through the imagination of those who know his story. Up until a little while ago, that sort of information wasn’t substantial enough to be ‘real’ here in any sense, if that makes any sense?”

“Yes,” Fari said. “One moment. Processing feeds.”

“[Broken Horizons] had a storyline like that about four years ago,” Lisa said as Fari’s gaze went distant. “Creatures from the [Dreamlands] were manifesting in the [Fallen Kingdoms] when people slept near [Ruby Dreamstone Fragments]. The idea was that the fragments weakened the integrity of reality in general blending the two worlds together. If you slept near one though, the creatures that emerged were able to change from illusory to fully real by using the sleepers as a template on how to be real. We wound up having to fight them on the border between the two planes so that the two parts of them would go back to their right places when they were destroyed.”

Cthulhu renewed his attacks on Lost Alice indestructible shield.

Which began to crack under the pressure.

“How is he so aggro’d on us?” Lisa asked.

“It’s the spell I’m working on,” Pillowcase said. “He can feel me grabbing onto bits of his essence and he is not happy about that.”

“You haven’t been speaking any invocations though?” Lost Alice asked.

“That would be because I’m inventing this spell on the fly,” Pillowcase said.

“I’m sorry, what?” Lisa asked, justifiably concerned.

“The [Fallen Kingdoms] had banishing spells – well rituals typically – but nothing that could handle [Deity] class opponents,” Pillowcase said.

“But you can?” Lost Alice asked.

“If I can gather enough threads of his essence, and if we’re on a world the deity in question is not supposed to be on? And if I don’t mess something up? I think I can give it a solid ‘probably’ in that case,” Pillowcase said.

“You needed twelve threads of essence, is that correct?” Fari asked, her gaze returning to the present and her immediate location.

“If we can get them,” Pillowcase said. “I can try it with fewer but that’ll leave him a bigger opening to escape through.”

“Perhaps these will help then,” Fari said. “May I transfer some data to your mind? Directly?”

“Sure. If you can,” Tessa said.

Links to twelve fundamental truths Cthulhu had been able to make real on Earth so far flooded into Tessa’s mind.

Followed by twelve more.

And twelve more.

And twelve more.

The stream of information became a torrent and her mind reeled at the breadth and scope of the details on offer.

Under the onslaught, the spell she’d been working on frayed, but Pillowcase was there to grab hold of fragments that were threatening to tear apart.

And still more truths, and more data came pouring in.

We have to tell her to stop, Pillowcase said.

No! Not yet, I can deal with this. Just gotta chunk it all up.

Bits of information on Cthulhu’s weight and size and mass and heat and overall physicality went into one mental box. Details of the magic he bore, both active and passive, integrated with Tessa’s Earth and not went into another mental box. 

As more data came roaring in, Tessa gave the weaving of the spell over to Pillowcase and focused on simply sorting and classifying what the information pertained to.

As each box filled up and she couldn’t hold any more data about that topic in mind, she dumped it into the banishment spell.

Outside her awareness, beyond the curtain of her eyelids, the battle raged on with ever increasing fury.

Mel descended from the stratosphere with enough impact to wipe out the dinosaurs. She could have erased San Francisco with her punch, but her magics focused and channeled all of the force squarely into Cthulhu, starting from his head down.

The ancient horror exploded under the blow, vaporizing into a cloud of toxic miasma.

From which he then immediately reformed.

“Aww, I hate things that can do that,” Mel complained.

Starchild called forth a [Subduction Earth Elemental] as large as a building to encase Cthulhu in an eternal tomb of stone, but at Cthulhu’s touch the elemental crumbled away as though exposed to an unfathomable gulf of time.

Eyes blazing once again with impossible light, Cthulhu rose again into the air, and this time when he opened his maw, a discordant chorus emerged and the space around him began to waver.

“Dimensional nexus forming,” Fari said. “We’ll need your spell online soon or I’ll have to unleash some of our ship’s guns to contain this thing.”

“No worries,” Pillowcase said as Tessa opened her eyes, from which light in the same impossible colors that radiated from Cthulhu shown.

You okay in there? Lisa asked on their private channel.

Yep. Sorry. Just took some extra time to handle all the data Fari dumped on me, Tessa said, a somewhat manic edge tinging her voice.

Was it enough? Lisa asked.

More than, Tessa said.

How so ‘more than’? Lisa asked, concerning rising in her voice to match Tessa’s mania.

I see him now. All of him. Tessa said. He’s not a giant anymore. Everything he is? I can hold it all in the palm of my hand! 

She laughed, mad glee filling her to bursting.

I’ve done it before in fact! she said.

I don’t know if you should, Lisa said. You’re not sounding like yourself. Maybe you should drop the spell?

Tessa turned to Lisa, fighting to suppress the mirth she felt. Power was definitely a rush, and divine power even more so.

I’m okay, she said. Really. It’s just that this is so fun and its going to mess Byron up soooo much!

What is? Lisa asked.

Look! Tessa said, gesturing to the cosmic horror who was no longer hammering on the protective barrier in front of them.

The cosmic horror who was no longer either cosmic, or a horror.

“Did…did Cthulhu just get a makeover from Sanrio?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Who?” Yawlorna asked.

“He’s a Hello Kitty now?” Rip asked as the giant, and suddenly cute and cuddly puffy creature in front of them reached up to adjust the adorable pink bow at the top of its head before letting out just the cutest of squeaks.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 6

Byron watched an island sink beneath the waves as the ground beneath it crumbled under the onslaught of the minion he’d placed at the center of the world. It was a victory of the concept, and the first tangible proof of the world’s inevitable demise. 

It was also blandly disappointing.

“I wouldn’t mind if had been a big island,” he said. “Or had people on it, but really, what’s the point of sinking some a tiny little dot in the ocean that no one cares about. If people can’t see what’s coming, and know I was the one responsible for their glorious dissolution into oblivion, then where, please tell me, is the joy in it?”

Arrayed around him the crew of the aircraft carrier the USS Taft stood at attention, alert to his every word, not out of choice or inclination but because he’d invaded the ship as a memetic virus and overwritten their minds. It really made for the best audiences when the people he was speaking to were incapable of do anything except listening to him.

Of course, the existence of people in general was something of a problem, but until he was ready for the big wrap up, Byron found having an audience an acceptable allowance.

Static ran through his mind at the thought.

Why was he a ‘he’ still? Shouldn’t ‘he’ be an ‘it’ at this point? Or something even less defined than an ‘it’?

The argument was one he’d be having with himself since he adopted the name Byron again.

Not that he was Byron.

An actual person? Even the thought brought a wave of distaste rolling through him, which in itself was wrong.

He wasn’t supposed to feel disgusted. Or delighted with his audience. Or anything.

Static, or Oblivion to be accurate, raged along what should not have been his nerves. It was agonizing, and terrifying, and a typical part of Byron’s day by that point.

He was a creature of nothing, something that did not and could not exist. And yet he most definitely was breathing in salt air, absorbing sunlight on his skin, and experiencing a variety of conflicting emotions.

Principally there was aggravation. He knew his current form was superior to the ones he’d worn earlier. As a [Formless Hunger] he’d managed to consume one tiny village before a perfectly normal woman had ripped him to pieces. That was embarrassing and as clear proof as any might need that reverting to a non-sapient existence before his task was done was not going to accomplish anything except offering his adversaries the chance to recast him into some other form once again. Worse, based on the evidence of the fragment that became Unknown, it seemed entirely possible that any new form might lead to embracing a continuing existence, and just how would the static that was trying to tear him to pieces like that?

The static quieted, Byron’s destructive essence lulled into temporary quiessence once again. He couldn’t tell if it was growing surlier or if he was simply losing patience with the process as well. Quite possibly both.

“But of course, what do I have to be concerned about?” he said, stalking across the deck in front of the mindless zombies.

It was a safe question to ask. They couldn’t know the answer, and were incapable of voicing it even if he let it slip.

And he was not going to speak those words, was not going to name his foes, not even to himself.

“I knew she would come,” he said. “I was prepared. That’s not why you’re here of course. I don’t need any of you to protect me.”

The hundreds of miles of ocean which separated them from the nearest land mass was something of a comfort, Byron had to admit. On Earth, he was sure her transportation options would be limited.

“She’s not even going to have any of her powers!” it was important that he convince the crew – his crew – that she was harmless. That they had nothing to fear from her.

It was true too, Tessa – damn don’t even think the name, he scolded himself – the woman wasn’t going to be the indestructible menace with powers designed expressly to thwart him. She was just a human here, just like all the humans he had assembled on deck. He could add her to their roster with no effort at all.

And then he could sail the ship into the whirlpool formed by the sinking of the next island to deliver her directly to the beast that was eating the world’s heart.

A chill ran through him at the thought.

She would defeat it.



She was convert it! She would somehow turn it against him, and turn it into something harmless. Perhaps even cute. 

In place of the world destroying ally, there would be a planet guarding entity.

Byron screamed and tore at his hair.

It was so damn unfair!

No. She wasn’t going to come for him. She didn’t know where he was. And she didn’t have the power to stop him. Or the power to change him.

He vomited a wave of static onto the ship that promptly obliterated the decks beneath and the hull. It wasn’t enough to sink the ship though. He was still okay.

“This place is so revolting,” he told his crew. 

It hadn’t been weakness and fear that overcame him. It was anger. Anger was a good emotion. It destroyed things. And that was what he did. What he was.

Artfully though. It was important to destroy things artfully. To make a proper presentation of it.

Why? They were going to be obliterated. Not only to no longer exist, but to never have existed in the first place. The entire cosmos around him was going to be unwound and undone, from its pointless beginning to its meaningless end.

So what was the point of art?

The static within Byron stirred. Was he tricking himself? Playing some game he couldn’t look at directly without it falling apart?

No. Of course not. That would be silly.

He played with other people, confused, deceived, manipulated. Those was all quite enjoyable pastimes, but he was never anything but scrupulously honest with himself. It was what gave him the edge to win. If he bought into his lies, he would be as vulnerable to them as his targets were. It was only by seeing himself as he truly was and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was committed to the evaporation of all the universes he could worm a path into that he would have the tools to survive…to overcome…to unmake that woman.

The static quieted, pleased to know that there was definitely no spark of the original Byron that still existed.

He was a new creature. A self-made one. No trace of the disgustingly real man he’d once been.

Why, even if he had retained aspects of the original Byron, it wouldn’t have mattered. Not really. Byron had always hated the world around him. No matter which world it was. There wasn’t anyone the original Byron would have had the slightest reservation of consigning to the depths of oblivion.

Except for himself of course.

Byron had found all manner of amusements in his life, and clung to it rather tenaciously. 

Which was only to be expected of course. All living things are wired for survival. Those that weren’t, didn’t.

Which was nothing to worry about.

No living thing could resist the touch of the [Relentless Hunger] that had consumed Byron. The original Byron. Who wasn’t in existence at all anymore.

The crew of the ship were proof of that.

Well, the crew and the various hordes of followers Byron had left behind to cause general chaos and excitement. It hadn’t been especially artful, he had to admit that, but as camouflage, a means to ensure that she couldn’t catch up with him? Top notch work.

He mustn’t think of her though.

But hadn’t she resisted the [Formless Hunger’s] touch?

No. Of course not. It had been a fluke, a weakness of that form, by the time he evolved into the form that met the original Byron he’d changed more than enough to be free of that frailty.

But he’d attacked her three times on the satellite moon.

Three times was more than a fluke.

Especially since she’d hurt him each and every time.

Forced him to change, each and every time.

If she could do that…

That wasn’t something to worry about. No one else had ever resisted any of his previous forms like she had. It was a fluke and nothing more.

And she was going to come back to the Earth and be destroyed here. So it wasn’t going to matter. When he unmade Tessa – no! “that woman” – her whole history would be erased along with her. There would never have been a time when she, or anyone else, resisted a Hungers effects.

It was a calming thought, but the static inside him still burbled and grumbled.

That was a bad sign for it. The heart of oblivion within him shouldn’t be aggravated. It shouldn’t be anything. It should focus on that first, destroy its own worries since it shouldn’t have them at all. Not if it was going to be what it was supposed to be.

As for the original Byron? He certainly wouldn’t be opposing the creature he’d become. He would be aiding it. There wasn’t anything worth fighting for after all and those who did choose to fight were simply deluded fools.

Life had no meaning. Byron had always known that. People created meaning from nothing and then were so surprised when their illusions crumbled away. 

So much angst and unpleasantness proceeded that though. It was the great struggle of those who couldn’t accept reality, that they beat themselves to pieces insisting that the world was what they wished it to be. That there was something, anything, anywhere in all the worlds that would answer their plea and complete them. That those with the power to change the world ever used it for anything except chasing a future that could never be, or, more often, forging a replica of the future they desired from the bodies and souls of those beneath them. 

“What we need is more monsters,” Byron said, which his crew gave their silent agreement to. “Do you know why?”

They did not. They didn’t know anything in point of fact.

“Monsters are not what people imagine them to be. Real monsters are not merely creatures who are terrifying to look at. Real monsters are terrifying to understand. A proper monster doesn’t just scare you, it violates your belief in the fundamental nature of the world. You all so desperately need to believe you understand your world, that your experience allows you to place what happens to you into an intelligible framework. That, on some level, everything makes sense.”

Byron spun dramatically a cast his arms out to encompass the vast ocean around them.

“But it doesn’t. And it never has. Effect follows cause, but you can never know all of the causes? Then how are you to know that sometimes, things don’t just break down? That sometimes, your safety is a lie? That sometimes what you are is a lie?”

“I could unmake you all, right this moment,” Byron said. “And I should. Click clack and gone you are. All your loved ones left with gaping, unexplainable holes in their lives. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”

“I could do that, but not yet. Don’t feel bad. It won’t be long. She’ll be here. Far too soon. Maybe that gives you hope? A rescuer approaches? No, that’s not how it will be. When she arrives, you will first play the role of hostage. They you will play the role of horror. She needs to see just how monstrous I am. She needs to understand what I’ve done. What I am going to do.”

Because, Byron absolutely did not dare to think, how else could she stop him?

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 5

Walking towards the collapsing building was not, by any conceivable measure, a good idea. Pillowcase knew this. She also knew that the enemy who towered over them despite being a half mile distant wasn’t one they had the option of running away from. Not when there was an entire hospital of injured and frightened people behind them, none of whom could possibly escape the cosmic horror that was currently demolishing the city.

Also, the woman she loved was right beside her, and Pillowcase was not going to look like a chump in front of Lost Alice.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Claire asked.

The rest of her team was there too, marching across the parking lot without an erg of Darius’s magic supporting them.

“We’ll protect you if it doesn’t,” Yawlorna said from their left flank. She tossed a nod over to Starchild who had taken the defensive position on their right flank and looked, if not certain of the result of their gamble, at least certain of her roll in it.

“That’s Cthulhu though,” Claire said. “You know that right? I mean there really aren’t many other big monsters with bat wings and tentacles on their face.”

“Mel and Fari seem to be doing okay against it,” Rose said.

She and Jamal were behind Pillowcase and Lost Alice. Tessa had made some very compelling arguments for them to stay behind in the hospital and help out there, arguments which Rose and Jamal had flat out ignored. Putting them in the rear of the party hadn’t seemed like anywhere near a responsible, adult decision, but if Pillowcase was correct, she reasoned it might turn out to be the safest place they could possibly be in a world on the verge of destruction.

Not that the local agent of destruction was faring terribly well against the defenders who stood against it. Slightly less than a half mile away, Mel picked herself up and out of the ruins of third story office Cthulhu had slapped her into.

Pillowcase watched as something like black fire ignited around Mel’s fists and then wreathed her whole body. She wasn’t able to follow Mel’s next move but she was fairly sure it wasn’t teleportation. One moment Mel was burning in the building and the next Cthulhu was falling backwards as the thunderclap from Mel’s punch sent him flying farther than he’d sent her.

“Are we really even needed here?” Lisa asked.

“She’s more than a match for him, but their battle is going to wreck a fair portion of San Francisco,” Pillowcase said. “We can help with that.”

“I checked the buildings. They’re all empty of sentients,” Fari said, appearing at the edge of the parking lot.

“That’s its own class of problem,” Pillowcase said. “Not something we need to solve now but, when we get them back, the million or so missing people are still going to need places to live, hence why we need wrap this fight up sooner rather than later.”

“We’ve been doing this a while,” Fari said, “which means we know better than to turn down local help. What do you have in mind?”

“Banishing him to the void, or at least his home plane,” Pillowcase said. “If we can access them, Tessa and I have some abilities that should do the job. We’ll just need enough time to reconnect with them and then cast the effects.”

“And we’re here to keep her safe while she does that,” Rose said.

“If our idea works,” Jamal said.

“And that idea is?” Fari asked.

“Starting to work already,” Pillowcase said.

She didn’t mean to be evasive. She had been sewn together with clear compulsion stitches to provide succinct and accurate reports at all times.

Except she didn’t have any stitching compelling her here.

She could do whatever we wanted.

Not without consequences though.

Consequences like putting an exasperated frown on the blue hologram woman’s face.

“Short form, we have powers we can’t access freely here,” Pillowcase explained, being cryptic was kind of fun, but tormenting potential allies seemed mean and foolish. “We’ve each done so already though, but it was in the presence of something from outside this world. Our theory, or my theory if it turns out to be wrong, is that if we get close enough to Cthulhu over there, his reality will start to overlap with the one we’re in now, and once we’re in a situation where we’re not locked into the Earth’s rules, we can call on the ones we know from the [Fallen Kingdoms].”

Fari blinked at the strange sound that accompanied Pillowcase’s last two words. Everyone else’s eyes lit up though.

“She was right!” Jamal said.

“Yeah! It’s working!” Rose said.

“Your anima auras are going wild. What are you doing?” Fari asked.

“Basically if he gets to cheat by existing here, so do we,” Lost Alice said, her cold hand clasping Pillowcase’s still human one.

“You transformed!” Claire said.

“It seemed wiser,” Lost Alice said.

In the distance another building fell and an inhuman, sanity destroying roar announced that Cthulhu was not at all happy with the abuse he was suffering.

Pillowcase shook her head as Cthulhu’s roar tried to burrow in behind Tessa’s eyes and fry the neurons of her brain.

It was a cute trick. It drew on deeper mysteries of the universe than any humanity had uncovered and blasted the unsuspecting mind with “Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know”.

Compared to the [Formless Hungers] assault though it was laughable. Pillowcase’s earliest defenses easily shielded her from the paltry attack.

“Heh. That almost tickled,” Rip Shot said. In her hands a bow of lightning crackled with enough power to destroy not just a building but an entire a city block.

“It is a relief to have you back as you were,” Starchild said. 

“Agreed. I was not looking forward to tanking that thing,” Yawlorna said.

Pillowcase smiled. Yawlorna hadn’t transformed back to her demon-esque appearance but she was holding balls of [Scorching Soul Fire] in each hand. Pillowcase took that as confirmation that assigning her as one of the party’s damage dealers had been the right tactical evaluation. True, she towered over Pillowcase even as a human woman, as well as outmassing Pillowcase at least two to one, but size wasn’t the primary quality a tank needed.

“I am,” Pillowcase said, though she suspected Mel had that role handled well enough. “Fari can you tell Mel we’re going to be joining the melee. I can’t get a level reading on her, but I’m guessing we don’t want to get hit with the attacks she’s throwing around.”

“Already told her,” Fari said. “And no, you do not want to get hit with those Void Anima attacks. Mel’s good with them though. She also wants me to tell you not to worry about her, and that it’s her job to keep you all safe.”

“Noted. Let’s keep everyone safe though,” Pillowcase said.

“If you have traversal abilities, there is a parking structure two blocks in that direction. I can have Mel steer the monster over there. It should provide you with sufficient line of sight for any anima working you need to do,” Fari said.

“We can setup on the Subway beside it,” Rip said. “Our fallback will be the Starbucks and then the parking garage with you.”

Pillowcase felt bulbs of joy rising up. It had been a lifetime ago that she and Lost Alice had drilled Rip and Matt in the basics of positioning in battle. A lifetime or a handful of minutes, each felt equally true despite neither being as accurate as the Consortium would have demanded of her recollections. 

“Starchild, can you setup with them. You can act as an off-tank and backup heal if they need it,” Pillowcase said. “That will help them stay remote where they can land the best damage.”

“How about me?” Yawlorna asked.

“You and Lady Midnight can setup a crossfire from the top of the Western Union. Fall back directly to Lost Alice and me if you draw aggro though,” Pillowcase said.

“I’ve got the [Gravewalker] spells to stay mobile with,” Lady Midnight said.

“I know. There’s an apartment building across the street from the Western Union though. If he chases you there we can kiss goodbye to a few hundred people’s homes.”

“Good point,” Lady Midnight said.

With their plans in place, the party split up, dashing off with [Lightning Chariots], and [Celestial Transporter Beams] and similar powers which the Earth would never have accepted if there wasn’t a literal cosmic horror from another universe destroying one its cities.

“You are a wonder,” Lost Alice said after carrying them to the top of the parking garage. “I don’t know why I didn’t let myself see it sooner.”

“I think I’m still becoming myself,” Pillowcase, or Tessa, or both of them said.

“Speaking of that, shouldn’t you be transforming too? You were the one who showed us it was possible after all,” Lost Alice asked, stepping back to inspect the very human, very fragile ‘Tessa’ body that Pillowcase was still wearing.

“I would but I’m feeling greedy,” Pillowcase said.

“Greedy? Explain please?” Lost Alice asked.

“We saw what happened when Pete took the Void Walker away right? He went with it. Marcus did the same thing, except we saw him on the other end of things,” Pillowcase said.

“You’re not planning to sacrifice yourself though,” Lost Alice said. “You’re not,” she repeated her eyes growing harder.

“I’m not!” Pillowcase assured her. “That’s the greedy part. I want to fix this problem, but I’m not willing to give you up to do so. Or to drag you with me and give up the kids, or our other new friends, or anything here. We got lucky finding a path back to the Earth. Until I know we can come and go as we choose, or that the Byron problem has been thoroughly solved, I’m not giving up on anything or anyone here.”

That won her a small but delighted smile from Lost Alice.

“Marcus and Pete were both in their Earthly human forms when they vanished though?” Lost Alice said after a moment’s thought.

“They were,” Pillowcase said. “And I think I know how they did what the did. To bring their opponents away they had to reach out and connect with a world strongly enough that they could not only bring themselves there but their opponent too. I’m betting that Marcus dragged Byron back to the [Fallen Kingdoms] because that’s where Byron was from. Pete recognized the Void Walkers, so he probably dragged it back to wherever they come from.”

“Cthulhu comes from Earth though?” Lost Alice said.

“Yes, but not from this Earth. Lovecraft’s books take place on an Earth where the Old Gods are real and ridiculous levels of racism are supported by anyone who wasn’t just like Lovecraft being some form of inhuman monster. That’s where we can send Cthulhu back to, but unlike Marcus and Pete, I plan to use a blend of [Soul Knight] and [Void Speaker] abilities to do so.”

“And being an Earth human puts means you can mix the two power sets without one dominating the other. I see,” Lost Alice said.

“I think my Earthly body can also act as an anchor to keep me here too,” Pillowcase said.

“And if it can’t?” Lost Alice asked.

“Then I’ll break whatever I need to in order to make it work,” Pillowcase said.

Lost Alice rolled her eyes and shook her head slowly.

“No. You will not break yourself,” she said. “You will however take me with you. I can lose my place on this Earth, but I will not lose you.”

Tessa gulped and fought down the lump that was forming in her throat.

“If we wind up on Lovecraft’s Earth, we’ll find a way back here,” Lost Alice said. “You know between the two of us we can manage that.”

“It’s not an especially nice version of Earth,” Pillowcase said.

“That will be its problem,” Lost Alice said, to which Pillowcase had to chuckle.

“Yeah. It will,” Pillowcase said, a fear drifting away from her and leaving her charged for victory. 

Cthulhu burst through the gas station two streets away, with Mel in hot pursuit and the party’s damage dealers beginning to unload sky shattered havoc on him.

The cacophony of fire and thunder seemed like the end of the world unfolding before Pillowcase’s eyes.

So she stepped up to save it.

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.