Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 15

There were enemies below them. Which came as a surprise to precisely no one. The enemies were invisible. Again, not a surprise. The enemies could fly. Tessa hadn’t known they could do that but her team was prepared for it nonetheless.

It was one of the problems the developers had faced in crafting new areas. People desired novelty. They wanted to experience the unexpected. But the surprised had to be ‘fair surprises’, otherwise the players would feel like they were being arbitrarily brutalized. 

Whether ‘invisible flying monsters at the bottom of a shaft deep enough to severely injure even mid-tier players’ counted as ‘fair’ was open to debate but it was enough in keeping with the dev’s general design philosophies that the seemingly ‘empty and safe area’ had been a pretty clear sign that something was up.

Twenty feet below the mushroom Tessa had gathered the party on, Obby engaged seven roughly humanoid tornadoes. The whirling winds of their body were visible mostly through the dust they’d picked up and the illumination from the swirling arcs of red lightning that formed an eerie approximation of a circulatory system.

Not all of the monsters were focused on Obby though. Two of the [Crawling Vortexes] had been too far away from her when the fight started and were rising towards the giant mushroom the rest of the party was gathered on.

“Gimme a sec and I’ll get those two back,” Obby said on the team channel. “Just need [Champion’s Challenge] to come off cooldown.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tessa said. “This may work out better. If holding the ones you’ve got aren’t too bad to handle for a bit?”

“I’m doing fine,” Obby said. “I can block the physical stuff and Lost Alice is patching up the electrical damage faster than it’s coming in.”

“Good. Let me take these two then and we can focus them down.” Tessa met the approaching Vortexes at the edge of the mushroom cap.

By dropping into the monster’s nest first, Obby’s attack had bought the rest of party time to react without worrying about being immediately in danger. Tessa hadn’t wasted the opportunity and thanks to Pillowcase’s expertise, knew she was ready for what came next.

“I can throw a couple of HoTs on you,” Lisa said, queuing up a quick Heal-Over-Time spell as she did., “but it looks like most of my healing’s going to have to go to keeping Obby up.”

“I can backup heal,” Starchild said, pointing the glowing end of her staff towards Tessa.

“Don’t worry about that,” Tessa said. She slammed simple melee attacks into both of the Vortexes, and felt the numbing shock of their lightning arcing over to her hands. For any of the others, that would have been a problem, but as a tank, Tessa had no worries. The spells she’d cast ensured the attacks locked the Vortexes onto her even as she regenerated the damage the shocks had caused. “I can’t take what they can dish out. Just take them down quick.”

It was a better use of the teams resources. Starchild’s build was focused on dealing damage, with her healing being a side focus at best. It was definitely more Pillowcase than Tessa though who made the call to try to stand on her own.

Is this bravery, stupidity, or am I just not really ‘Tessa’ at all anymore? she wondered.

As long as we’re together, something’s probably wrong if we can’t draw on my combat training, Pillowcase answered herself. I suppose we could split apart like we did with Glimmerglass to see though?

Tessa blocked a fist made of spinning air that tried to slam itself down her throat and was rewarded for holding out when the Vortex burst into a shower of sparks following Matt and Rip’s attacks on it.

On her other side, Starchild drove her enchanted staff from the other Vortex’s center, grounding it out into the mushroom beneath them.

We could try to split, but I think I’m a lot happier being together.

“Obby, how are you doing?” Tessa asked.

“Fine,” Obby said. “Not a fan of the stun effect these jerks have, but it’s annoying, not deadly.”

“Think you can let another one or two go?” Tessa asked. “I’ll try to pull them up here.”

“Only tricky bit will be keeping it to one or two,” Obby said, “Should be doable though. If I run out of healing range for a bit, don’t worry, I’ll be right back.”

“Regening mana,” Lisa said, and downed a recovery drink.

It was a little eerie watching her work. Tessa recognized so many of the automatic actions she’d been in the habit of performing as Glimmerglass. It wasn’t that Lost Alice and Glimmerglass were reading from the same script, more that healers all faced similar challenges and all (or at least all the decent or better ones) had an awareness of how much they needed to shepherd their resources. Very little killed a party as fast as the healer running out of magic, though a painfully large number of them didn’t seem to have internalized that.

Or they hadn’t in the game. Tessa wondered if, in living the encounters, people were being better about minding that sort of thing. At the very least she hoped people had finally figured out why standing in the middle of a fire was a bad idea.

Obby’s flight at the bottom of the pit took her around the edge of the cavern and through the stream towards the pond that had claimed the western half of the room. The Vortexes followed her closely, right up until the stream and then stopped. All except the one that was closest to Obby, It was chasing her too quickly to stop and it paid the price for it’s mindless aggression.

With a blinding burst, the Vortex that touched the water shattered into a thousand shooting sparks that spread outwards in all directions before they changed course and were drawn into the one of the neatly planted flowers by the pond.

The flower that absorbed the Vortex’s essence glowed a soft, pulsing violet, and Tessa’s intuition perked up, giving her a hint what the flowers might be.

With a quick [Taunt] at the Vortex who was trailing at the end of the pack in chasing Obby, Tessa looked for a good landing spot.

“Obby found the mechanic,” Tess said. “We need to get down there. Land where I do.”

And with that she jumped.

Twenty feet onto a stone floor wasn’t quite the same as landing on a squishy mushroom, but Tessa didn’t feel any complaints from Pillowcase’s knees.

The Vortex she fell on had a somewhat different experience though.

“I don’t remember being able to do [Death from Above] moves with a mace in the game?” Lady Midnight said, landing near Tessa along with the rest of the team.

“Force equals mass times acceleration,” Tessa said. “And it seems like the physics engine works for that at least.”

Standing in the middle of the pond, Obby was taunting one Vortex after another to their watery demise. The monsters weren’t easy to persuade to march to their doom but with enough goading they eventually gave in to their rage and tried to rush to Obby’s position before the water ground them out.

“Don’t kill them directly,” Tessa said. “Try to knock them into the water if you can.”

She then splashed into the pond and joined Obby in calling the Vortexes to their doom.

The process made for a neat light show but Tessa was mostly concerned with how many of the flowers they could get to light up. In the end, the answer was ‘only four’ since the other two remaining Vortexes managed to fly far enough into the pond that their dispersed essences weren’t reabsorbed by the flowers.

“That wasn’t as bad a fight as I thought it would be,” Obby said, shaking the water out of her boots.

“It’s because you found the trick to it,” Tessa said. “Lightning plus water doesn’t tend to go well for lightning elementals.”

“Why would they even hang out here?” Rip asked.

“If this was a game still, I’d say it was because the devs wanted to punish people for falling or jumping down the pit, but not that harshly given that we’re not exactly in an end game raid here,” Lisa said.

“I could see that,” Obby said. “If one of you had fallen down here, kiting the Vortexes probably would have been your first impulse.”

“Unless I miss my guess, there’s another benefit to doing the mechanic correctly too,” Tessa said, plucking one of the glowing flowers and offering it to Lady Midnight.

“Should be safe,” Lisa said. “I’m not seeing poison or curses in it.”

With a shrug, Lady Midnight brought the flower to her lips and sipped the glowing, liquid within it.

On the party screen, Tessa saw Lady Midnight’s magic bar completely refill in an instant.

“Hey look, I’m useful again,” Lady Midnight said.

“Does that usually happen?” Rip asked. “That the cure for something is right nearby I mean?”

“Moreso at these levels,” Lisa said. “Later on, mechanics like that tend to punish you longer.”

“Or at least till the next raid wipe which is usually not far off if the healers get shut down,” Lady Midnight said.

“I guess that wouldn’t have been a problem here either,” Rip said, pointing towards the tunnel that lead out of the cavern.

A [Heart Fire] brazier stood a far enough inside the tunnel to be out of range of the Vortexes but not so far that someone who fell into the pit and was killed by the impact would have any problem seeing where their ghost needed to run to.

“That feels like the first break we’ve caught in this place,” Pete said.

“It’s more than a break,” Tessa said. “It’s a base. We can afford to explore a lot farther with that in play, even if we find an exit somewhere nearby.”

She looked at her team and found each of them checking in with the others.

“I’m happy to go on,” Rip said. “If everyone else is?”

“We have to be able to tell the others what to expect in this place, don’t we?” Lady Midnight said.

“A full clear’s a lot to shoot for on the first run of a brand new dungeon,” Lisa said. “If we don’t get stuck on that though, I’d say it’s worth seeing as much of it as we can.”

“What kind of things do you think they’ll throw at us next?” Matt asked and added after a moment (and probably some prodding from Rip), “Oh, I’m in too, I just thought it’d be good to be prepared.”

“You’re thinking like a good dungeon runner,” Tessa said. “So far we’ve hit more [Undead] than I expected, so it seems like it’s a safe bet that will continue.”

“Typical [Undead] at this level usually have one to two special abilities,” Lisa said. “If they look big and beefy, expect them to have some combo of exceptional damage resistance, regeneration, high health, and/or a self-rezz power.”

“Mage types typically use [Necromancy] spells,” Lady Midnight said. “Alice and I can buffer us against the health drain effects, but if you’re not a tank watch for their attacks anyways. Their bolts can [Disorient] or [Fear] you.”

“Same with the melee types,” Tessa said. “Also the melees usually have a [Feed] ability where they’ll try to eat you to gain health. It’s probably extra gross here and it’s not covered by the anti-draining spells the [Grave Menders] get.”

Though they were surrounded by danger on all sides, Tessa watched as the party formed a sort of ad-hoc school for Rip and Matt.

It was something she’d seen happen in the game as well, although only rarely. The more everyone talked though, and the more tales that were told, the more Tessa found the school wasn’t just for the two newbies.

Taken together, the party had an incredible amount of obscure lore to work with. Tessa knew most of it wouldn’t apply but every bit of it was still important. 

Every legend, every random factoid, every personal anecdote, they all defined the world around them in some way.

A shiver ran down Tessa’s spine and for a moment her vision blurred.

“Maybe this could be for an expansion area? For when we overhaul the area after the invasion event?” a developer said. 

Or had said.

There weren’t any developers here.

But Tessa heard their voice as a distant echo.

[Void Speaker Level Up!]

[Whispers of Yesterday] gained!

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 14

Climbing down into a lightless pit of giant mushrooms and writhing vines wasn’t how Tessa had expected her day to go, but as she descended from one spongy mushroom top to the next, the smile she’d been wearing only grew deeper.

Part of her joy came from Pillowcase’s wonderful physicality. As Tessa, a twenty foot leap from a mushroom top to one of the stone ledges below would probably have killed her. As Pillowcase though, she landed easily, her body feeling no heavier than goose down.

“I was never that strong as a kid,” Lady Midnight said, “but I’ve got to say that even being poisoned, I still feel stronger here than I ever did back on Earth.”

“We are stronger,” Lisa said. “A lot stronger than we should be.”

“I’m not complaining,” Tessa said, helping steady Matt as he caught up to her on the ledge.

“Your stats just keep going up the higher you level, right?” Rip asked. “Strength, and speed and all that?”

“Those and our mental stats,” Obby said. She’d opted for wrangling the vines rather than hopscotching down the mushroom caps. In the game version of the dungeon that would have required playing a mini-game that tested the player’s reflexes, but Obby managed to make descending from one vine to the next look more or less effortless.

“I’ve tested how much stronger we’re getting,” Lisa said. “I don’t know if I feel much smarter though?”

“We’ve got more skills though,” Rip said. “Maybe that’s what having better mental stats means? That we get more access to what both sides of us have learned?”

“I haven’t noticed anything ‘coming online’ like that when I leveled up,” Tessa said. “I can still remember all the coding stuff from my work on Earth, and the combat disciplines that were sewn into me as Pillowcase. But maybe that’s because Pillowcase’s skills are literally built in?”

“It’s been the same for us,” Starchild said. “I’m as aware of Pete’s memories as he is of mine.”

“Same for me,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice knows a lot about the world that Lisa had never paid attention too, but I know all it now.”

“So what’s the point of having huge brain stats then?” Rip asked.

“Magic,” Obby said. “A caster’s magic pool is tied to their prime mental stat. For everyone else, it’s probably how we can learn all these incredible techniques in the space of an afternoon or less.”

“Also ‘mental stats’ don’t tell you as much about someone as people like to think,” Lady Midnight said. “Someone with a high IQ can still be an absolute knucklehead, or even objectively bad at mental tasks outside the area the standardized test covers.”

“I should try arm wrestling with Glimmerglass,” Tessa said, picking a mushroom top two levels down to aim for. “If I remember her stats correctly she should be able to crush my Pillowcase-level strength, but the game didn’t play that up much in the narrative.”

Dropping down forty feet was exhilarating and put Tessa in the lead of the pack just as quickly as it raised cries of concern.

“Hey!” Lisa called out. “Careful about dropping too quickly. We don’t know what’s down at the bottom.”

“Or if there’s more of the Creepers waiting as we descend,” Obby said.

“That’s a fair point,” Tessa admitted. 

On reflection, it also occurred to her that testing out her physique was all well and good but so was setting a good example for the impressionable kids that were following them.

As if in confirmation of that, she saw Rip dive off the mushroom cap she was on, do a summersault in midair and then stick a perfect three point ‘super hero landing’ right beside her. As a [Tabbywile], it wasn’t terribly surprising that Rip had catlike grace and could handle falls like a champ but it still wasn’t a great idea to go plummeting into danger if it wasn’t required.

“I’m not going any further!” Rip said, seeing the warning that Tessa was about to give her. “I’ll let Pillowcase lead. I just wanted to see if I could do what she did.”

Tessa grimaced and saw an emoji from Lisa pop up in their chat. The ‘glare’ icon wasn’t anymore complicated than it was in the game but it still communicated disapproval perfectly well.

“We’ll let the others catch up a bit first,” Tessa said, biding her time as the rest of the team dropped and swung down to meet them.

Her team wasn’t going to fall apart into senseless drama, but that didn’t mean she had a free pass to do stupid things. Tessa found she could accept that, especially when no one raised any further fuss about it.

The rest of the journey down the pit was conducted at a more sensible pace. Tessa had been concerned about Lady Midnight at first, but it seemed that the Creeper’s poison had only locked away her magic without reducing her physical attributes at all.

“We’ll have to hope the poison antidote is right at the bottom,” she said once they started getting close enough to hear the running water that awaited them.

“It has to be,” Lisa said. “This is supposed to be a low level dungeon. This kind of mechanic would be considered mean in an end game raid. They can’t expect new players to not wind up discouraged and hating the game if their spells are turned off for all that long.”

“This version of the dungeon doesn’t match what the beta-testers went through though, does it?” Obby asked.

“No. Not at all,” Tessa said. “This was supposed to be a pretty standard set of encounters. The only special mechanics are supposed to be at the mid-boss and the end-boss and even those are just special damage amplifiers to make the fight easier.”

“Why is it different?” Rip asked. “A lot of other stuff we’ve seen is the same as it was in the game. What makes this place special?”

“It’s new,” Starchild said, her voice distant and soft.

“Was that true in the lore?” Lisa asked.

“In the lore, it’s been here for a while, but was rediscovered just recently,” Tessa said. “There were supposedly hints that it had been a base of operations for the [Fellblood Ravagers] years ago. The rare drops from the final boss were a set of clues to that and were meant to tie it into a new chapter in the [Ravager Wars] out in [Storm Kettle].”

“Who are those people?” Rip asked.

“One of the factions from an earlier expansion,” Lisa said. “The [Ravager Wars] are a recurring event that started with the expansion that added the [Storm Kettle] zone. That’d be one path we could take in the 40s to keep leveling.”

“Did they have undead spiders or whatever those Creeper things were as pets?” Matt asked.

“Nope,” Obby said. “The [Fellblood Ravagers] are alchemically enhanced humans. The undead factions are more into necromancy.”

“So what happened? The undead things kicked the Ravagers out?” Rip asked.

“I don’t think so,” Starchild said, kneeling down on the mushroom top and carefully poking its surface.

“What are you seeing?” Lady Midnight asked, kneeling at her side.

“This is new,” Starchild said. “I mean it did not grow to this size as a mushroom should. It is too young. It’s like it was created in the exact form we see it in now.”

“So, by magic?” Rip asked.

“Are there [Druid] spells or abilities that could do that?” Lisa asked.

“Not like this,” Starchild said. “I can make vines grow, but they life is accelerated when I do. The vines that remain after the spell are all as old as any vines their size would be. These mushrooms aren’t like that. And the vines aren’t either. They’re unnatural.”

No one made the obvious comment about the entire dungeon being an artificial structure that was clearly oozing with supernatural menace. The more Starchild spoke, the more Tessa could feel the subtle traces of something skewed around them.

“I’m not sure this even is a mushroom,” Starchild said. “It’s reacting to the simple magics I’ve been trying, but too slowly.”

“Like there’s lag?” Lisa asked.

“No, lag would be slowing everything down,” Pete said. “When she’s casting, it’s like the mushroom has to look up what the answer to the spell should be before the spell can take affect on it.”

“If it’s not a real mushroom, can you tell what it actually is?” Obby asked.

“I don’t know,” Starchild said. “I can’t picture how something else could fake being a mushroom like this one has. It could be that whatever they are is outside the domain of my magic entirely.”

“That makes this place more dangerous then,” Lisa said. “Does anyone want to turn back at this point?”

“How would we get out if we did?” Matt asked. 

“We’d have to climb, but it would be doable,” Tessa said. 

“Climb to what though?” Rip asked.

“If I’m right, the first room magically reset itself when we left,” Lisa said. “There might be a puzzle to open the door, but now that we’re grouped back up, we could try to figure it out.”

“We could see if the poison effect fades when we leave if we try that,” Lady Midnight said.

“It won’t,” Starchild said. “We tried all of our healing on you already and it did nothing. What your suffering under isn’t natural either.”

“Do we know that there’s even an antidote for it in here then?” Rip asked.

“We won’t know until we find one,” Lisa said. “Leaving is a viable test too though.”

“I don’t think we should,” Starchild said. “If we have to come back in, we risk encountering another swarm of the Creepers and we might wind up with more people poisoned.”

“I don’t mind going forward either,” Lady Midnight said. “I just didn’t want to be a burden on you all.”

“You’re not,” Lisa said.

“You’re more than your healing spells,” Tessa said.

“We’re probably going to have a lot of times when one or more of us is out of commission,” Matt said. “This is good practice for that.”

“Sounds like we press then,” Obby said.

She was peering over the edge of the mushroom as though something had caught her attention.

Tessa joined her there and looked down into the dark abyss below them.

Pillowcase’s eyes adjusted instantly, the shadows evaporating like smoke. They were close enough at last that Tessa could see the partially flooded cavern that awaited them.

A fiercely flowing stream gushed from an cleft in the north face of the cavern and flowed into the western half of the room where it gathered in a pool that took up almost half the room before it drained away into another stream which flowed into a broad tunnel to the south of the room.

Around the pond, beds of dark flowers seemed to have been planted into neatly ordered rows. Though she couldn’t feel any breeze in the pit, Tessa thought the flowers were swaying in an oddly blustery wind.

“I don’t see any monsters down there,” Obby said.

“Me neither,” Tessa said.

“Great. That means they’re invisible,” Lisa said.

“Should I try shooting them?” Rip asked. “Unless they can fly I could just bombard them until we were sure they were dead.”

“If the antidote’s down there, that would probably destroy it,” Obby said. “To be safe, we should probably engage whatever monster’s there so that we can control it and use focus fire rather than area blasts.”

“Not that ‘safe’ is a great description of that strategy,” Lisa said.

“Maybe we can split the difference,” Tessa said, narrowing her eyes as she gauged the distance between the lowest mushroom top and the bottom of the cavern. “If we gather up on those,” she pointed to the mushroom caps two levels down from where they were at, “we can have one tank go in while the rest  of us hang back, which should keep all the squishies out of trouble.”

“And the other tank hangs back in case the monster or monsters can fly?” Obby said.

“That was my thought,” Tessa said. “And if we see that it can’t fly then the other tank can drop down too.”

“I will as well,” Starchild said. “I am more effective in melee than from range.”

Tessa turned to Lisa who nodded. “It looks like we’ll be in range to heal the tank no matter where they are in the cavern. If the mob uses some kind of isolation effect, we’d have to move anyway, but at least with this there’s less chance that it isolates the healers.”

“What will our signal to start firing be?” Rip asked.

“As soon as the tank strikes and gets a taunt on it, you’re good to go,” Tessa said.

“If there’s more than one though, let me get a hit on all of them,” Obby said.

“You want to be first in?” Tessa asked.

“Either of us would work,” Obby said. “I just figured if we needed to switch plans after the fight starts it’d be good to have our strategist in a position where she could see the whole battle.”

Tessa blinked, and shook her head.

“Our what?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 13

The singing blood in her ears was Tessa’s battle music – which was odd since Pillowcase didn’t exactly have blood. The lack of a human circulatory system did nothing to remove the pounding in her ears though. She wasn’t deafened by the tumult – [Artifax] combat units weren’t built with frailties like senses that could be overwhelmed by typical battle conditions. The Consortium’s belief was that if the theater of combat was going to prove to have noise in excess of what an [Artifax’s] sound sensors could withstand then they would simply send in units which were deaf by design. It wasn’t like deaf or blind units weren’t superior options in some cases, and the Consortium was adept at turning all of its resources into a weapon. 

Tessa wished she didn’t have to be grateful to to the Consortium for being so efficiently awful, but it was handy that Pillowcase was able to retain her focus despite the [Flying Poison Creepers] that swarmed around them.

There were more than eight targets in front of her.

With four more on each side.

That was untenable.

Her team was behind her.

For now.

Three Creepers dove on her.

She could have parried and blocked them.

She didn’t.

She had to stay in motion and she had to prevent the ones that were getting around her from reaching Matt and Lady Midnight.

Abilities and spells tumbled from her lips without thought or planning. Pillowcase was handling all that. What Tessa needed to do was stay aware of the fight.

The three attackers slammed into her back.

Her armor was strong but not strong enough to resist the impacts completely.

Fortunately their undead resilience wasn’t enough to without the impact of her mace.

A solid blow to one that had almost reached Matt not only dropped a quarter of its health bar away, but also knocked it back over the edge of the ledge they were on.

Matt attacked. The injured Creeper was reduced to a bloody mess.

A still functioning bloody mess though.

Pillowcase’s magics grasped it.

It was a still functioning bloody mess but it was focused on her.

She didn’t need to care about it anymore.

It and four others clamped their jaws onto her.

She didn’t need to care about them either.

A kick against one on her other side did little damage.

But the strike enthralled it so that it could focus on no one but Pillowcase.

Pain tore through her leg. 

The armor at the knees was weaker than the rest.

Weak enough that undead fangs could pierce it.

Poison surged into her system.

It did nothing.

She was a [Tank]. Status effects like the [Poison Condition] were for less durable people.

Lifting her leg, Tessa used it as an anvil to hammer the Creeper that was attached to the inside of her knee. The instant its fangs left her leg, the injury healed, thanks to both her own abilities and to Lady Midnight pouring healing magic into her.

The injury still carried a cost though. 

She’d had to focus on herself for more than a second. That had left Matt open.

As a [Metal Mechanoid], he enjoyed some of the same Consortium built resilience that Pillowcase did. As a caster though, he didn’t have much to back that up.

Tessa started to shout for Lady Midnight to save Matt rather than her, but healing wasn’t a new role for Lady Midnight. Matt’s health yoyo’d slightly but crept steadily upwards despite the two Creepers that had latched onto him.

To his credit, Matt didn’t let the pain of the injuries break his focus any more than Pillowcase had. With a Creeper hanging on his right arm, he turned the staff he carried in a one handed grip and began blasting the creature at point black range.

Tessa smacked the creatures anyways, tearing their attention to herself.

It wasn’t a fun plan, not when she had to endure their attacks personally, rather than merely through the interface of a digital avatar, but it was what Pillowcase was built for.

“Hold out down there!” Lisa called out. “We’ll get down to you.”

Tessa spent a fraction of a second glancing at the party roster in Pillowcase’s heads up display. Obby was in fine shape, as were the others who were up top. Tessa couldn’t tell if that was because more of the Creepers were coming down to attack her party, or if having four team members rather than three made the difference, or if Obby was just a better tank than she was.

“We’re good,” Tessa said, willing it to be true.

The number of Creepers who were fastened onto her, trying with varying degrees of success to tear through her armor had risen to at least a dozen, with more beyond that struggling to find an opening.

Matt was trying his best to blast them away but his magics weren’t ideal for destroying the undead. 

What they really needed was a [Paladin].

Or Glimmerglass. She’d work great too.

Since they didn’t have either of those, Tessa fell back on what they did have,

“[Casting Spell: Corrosive Spirit Drain].”

In leveling up, her abilities had improved too and this was her first opportunity to try her new [Spirit Drain] spell out.

The swarm of [Flying Poison Creepers] were packed in so tightly around her, that Tessa’s spell engulfed them all.

The creatures went mad as it burned through them.

All their rage belonged to Tessa but, as the spell stole their life force away, tick by tick, the strength that fueled their rage dissolved as well.

The battle had turned against the Creepers.

But it wasn’t over.

Tessa saw the Creeper that got past her.

It flew in from the side, just outside the range of her spell. 

It wasn’t interested in her and she couldn’t take command of its attention in time.

With the same scream that the others were shrieking, the lone Creeper buried its fangs in Lady Midnight’s arm.

Her healing spell faltered and broke under the damage but that was okay. Matt was in good shape and Tessa didn’t need help given how many Creepers she was in the process of draining to death.

The damage Lady Midnight took wasn’t the problem.

It was the poison.

Tessa watched it course up Lady Midnight’s arm, pulsing veins of purple light spreading across her neck and face.

For a moment, Tessa was afraid the poison was going to to something violent like dissolve Lady Midnight from the inside, but its true purpose was far worse.

“Out of magic,” Lady Midnight said, as Matt blasted the Creeper off her and reduced it to ash.

She drank a [Mana Potion].

It didn’t help.

Which was impossible.

The Creepers around Pillowcase were growing so feeble that her simplest blows were knocking them away.

In a minute or less they’d no longer be a threat. 

She wanted to rush over to inspect Lady Midnight’s injuries but held back. Even as weak as the Creepers were, they would still be a threat to squishy targets like Matt and Lady Midnight.

She had to wait.

“What’s wrong down there?” Starchild asked, the concern in her voice matching the impatience that was gnawing at Tessa.

“Lady Midnight is poisoned,” Tessa said.

“I’m fine,” Lady Midnight added quickly.

“She’s not. It’s blocking her magic recovery,” Tessa said. “Are you done with the ones up there?”

“Just dropped the last of them,” Rip said.

“We’ll be down to you in a sec,” Obby said.

“Don’t rush it,” Tessa said. “We can’t afford any falls into the pit.”

“Might clear this poison out though,” Lady Midnight said, her frown stiff and tight.

“Is it doing any damage at this point?” Tessa asked. The last Creeper lost its hold on her and she bashed three times to ensure it wouldn’t be getting back up unexpectedly.

“No. My healthbar’s stable,” Lady Midnight said. “It’s not terribly pleasant though.”

“Do you have any [Antidotes]?” Pete asked.

“Already tried one,” Lady Midnight said.

Tessa stopping searching in her bag for the [Antidotes] she was carrying.

“Wait till we get down there before trying another one then,” Lisa said.

“I have a [Bear’s Endurance] spell which grants resistance to [Poisons],” Starchild said.

“We’ll try combining our effects,” Lisa said. “I have a bad feeling though.”

“Me too,” Lady Midnight said.

“What? Why?” Rip asked. “What is the poison doing to her?”

“It’s not what it’s doing to her,” Lisa said. “It’s what it is. Meaning, it may not be a poison at all.”

“What is it then?” Rip asked, her words rushing faster than her footsteps as she leapt from mushroom to mushroom and vine to vine to reach Tessa and her part of the party.

“A dungeon mechanic,” Lisa said. “Maybe.”

“I’m willing to bet it is,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know of any poisons that block magic recovery completely like this.”

“They can’t,” Tessa said. “[Assassins] can copy poisons from mobs and this one would completely shut casters out of PvP..”

“So, what, poisons just act differently because we’re in a dungeon?” Rip asked, landing on the ledge with Tessa and scrambling over to see Lady Midnight. 

Lady Midnight gave Rip a weak smile but the pulsing of purple glow through her veins told a different story.

“The good news is that if it is a mechanic, then there’ll be something in here that can remove the effect,” Lisa said, as she climbed with care from one mushroom to the next.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen!” Rip burst out with, answering a private conversation aloud. From her instantaneous flinch, Tessa knew that had been unintentional. Matt had caught himself as he reached out to her, providing a solid clue who she’d been talking too.

“That’s something you’ll want to remember,” Obby said. “Dungeons are built to surprise you. And they’re not fair on who they target.”

“You’ve got to make sure your party is ready before you do something that could trigger an encounter,” Lisa said as she finally reached the ledge. She was joyously unscathed, though that prompted several different twinges of guilt in Tessa.

“I’m so sorry,” Rip said, kneeling beside Lady Midnight.

“We all mess up,” Lady Midnight said. “And we came through this one comparatively okay.”

“We did?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, could be everyone was tapped out of magick, instead of just the backup healer,” Lady Midnight said.

“You’re not the backup healer,” Lisa said. “You heal as much as I do.”

“Not at the moment I don’t,” Lady Midnight said.

“That raises the question of what we do now?” Obby asked. “Do we call this run here and start over?”

“I’m not sure we can,” Tessa said. “We don’t know where the exit is, and even if it was nearby, we don’t know if Lady Midnight’s magic cap will wear off once we leave.”

“I agree,” Starchild said. “I think we have to press on. We need to find the mechanism to make her well.”

“In that case do we bring her with us or do we split up again?” Obby said.

“I’ll definitely slow you down,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know if the poison specifically affected my other stats, but I definitely feel weaker than normal.”

“Then we’ll go slower,” Starchild said.

“It’s going to be hard to protect me if I’m like this,” Lady Midnight said.

“I’ll do a better next time,” Tessa said. Lady Midnight’s plight was as much her fault as it was Rip’s, and Rip had the excuse of being new to dungeon running. 

“Shut up, you did fine,” Lady Midnight said. “I was standing too far away, and I knew it. I should have been close enough for your aggro aura to pick up the strays, but I didn’t feel like cleaning off the goo when you splatted those things with your mace.”

Tessa turned, ever so slowly, as stared at Lady Midnight. 

To the best of Tessa’s knowledge, Lady Midnight wasn’t a first timer either.

She was an experienced gamer.

Years of play under her belt.

She’d been in probably countless dungeons.

And yet…

And yet…

She wasn’t turning into the biggest blame throwing baby in the world when something went wrong through no fault of her own?

Was that allowed?

Did Tessa really not need to feel guilty and apologize for being less than the literal best in the world?

It wasn’t that she hadn’t known her team was better than that.

It wasn’t that it should really be a surprise at all.

It was simply that even after all her years away, and after all the good experiences she’d had with them so far, Tessa finally noticed that she’d still been bracing for things to fall apart into acrimony and drama.

With a slowly widening smile, she released a breath that she’d been holding for over six years.

Summer Hiatus

Due to unexpected housing nonsense and the need to move almost immediately, Storytreader’s going to be on hiatus until the beginning of August.

Assuming the current nonsense can be resolved by then, new chapters will resume Sunday August 15th.

CORRECTION: I typo’d the return date originally as Sunday August 11th, but as 2021 does have a Sunday the 11th in August, it should actually be the 15th. (The good news is that the housing nonsense is complete, so resuming on the 15th should be a doable thing.)

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 12

Having tons of rock fall on her wasn’t the problem Tessa expected it to be. The falling debris blocked even Pillowcase’s enhanced vision and the cacophony made regular speech impossible, but she didn’t need to see or speak to react the room collapsing.

“Out!” she yelled on the team channel. “Through the door and out!”

When she’d pulled the lever, a new door had opened in the wall in the back of the cave. Tessa had only had the briefest of glimpses of the corridor beyond it but since she hadn’t seen a crash cascade of rocks piling down in there, it had to be better than staying in the room.

Most of the rest of the team was stunned back the disaster that was enveloping them so Tessa reach out and tossed the nearest one through the door. Rip wasn’t exactly pleased with that, but with her [Archer] reflexes she managed to land on her feet.

Lisa followed, her [Vampiric] speed not actually any greater than the rest of the team’s. She’d shaken off her surprise instantly and was moving on instinct as much as anything else. 

Only Obby moved faster than her, diving clear of the rubble and rolling to land in front of RIp to be the shield the team needed for the inevitable monster attack that was waiting for them.

Tessa helped Starchild through the door after a rock clipped the [Druid] in the head. That had seemed like it was Starchild’s luck running out, but, as it turned out, it was Tessa who’d exhausted her good fortune.

She noticed the problem a tiny fraction of a second before the disaster sucked her up. 

The rocks were still falling. How? 

Shouldn’t they be piling up?

Enough had fallen that a pile should have formed. Or, really, the room should have filled up. 

But it hadn’t.

Rocks continued to fall and a moment too late, Tessa understood why that was.

The ceiling wasn’t the only things that was falling – the floor was crumbling away too, huge pieces falling into whatever unknowable abyss lay below the entry room.

Except it wasn’t going to be unknowable for long, because she was tumbling right into it along with Matt and Lady Midnight.

As she fell, some analytical part of her mind observed that the room wasn’t just a trap, it was a timed puzzle. The [Bone Spiders] were intentionally over-powered for a first encounter in order to force the party to find a method of avoiding them. Once they found the lever, they needed to be ready to execute the ‘get the hell out of room’ mechanic within probably ten seconds. It wouldn’t have been hard if they’d known to expect it and had been prepared for it, but, as with many first time runs of a dungeon, they’d had to learn things through painful error after painful error.

“Tessa!” Lisa’s yell on the team channel reached Tessa before she stopped falling.

By about a quarter of a second.

A lot of her health bar vanished on the impact, and the same was true for Matt and Lady Midnight. An identical percentage in fact, since falling damage was treated differently than other forms of blunt trauma.

Since there were still rocks falling, Tessa rolled back to her feet, and grabbed her two teammates by their hands to haul them off the pile of rocks that was forming around them.

Each of them got pummeled more as they fled and by the time they were safely down an irregular tunnel Matt was about one mouse bite away from death and Lady Midnight was no more than twice as durable.

“Tessa, Matt, Midnight, where are you?” Lisa asked, her panic replaced with the frost of a healer making triage decisions. “We can still see your health bars in the party list. Are you buried under that rubble?”

Tessa breathed a sigh of relief on seeing that the rest of the team was still in solid shape.

“We’re not buried,” Tessa said. Her injuries were already starting to mend thanks to her [Clothwork] passive abilities. As a [Regeneration] based [Tank] she was expected to routinely take awful amount of damage and simply walk it all off.

“But we are cut off,” Lady Midnight said, pointing to the entrance of the tunnel which had been completely filled by the a solid wall of earth.

“We can try to get you out of there,” Rip said.

“Except that we’re cut off too,” Starchild said.

Tessa was surprised enough rocks had fallen to fill the pit to that level but then another idea occurred to her.

“We can get through the door again if we need to do,” Lisa said, confirming Tessa’s suspicion.

“Probably not worth the effort,” Tessa said. “This wasn’t a random accident. That room was designed as a trap. I’m betting when the door shut on you, some magic kicker on it returned the room to its previous state, [Bone Spides] and nanowire webbing included.”

Lisa cursed and wasn’t bleeped out by the game’s profanity filter. Tessa had always thought the profanity filter was ridiculous but she’d left it on fairly often, in part just to see what sort of absurd changes the filter made to otherwise innocuous phrases. Under the present circumstances though, she was glad that the real [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t have that sort of censorship in place.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “If I’m right, the two paths we’re on should meet up somewhere a little further on. The trap was just a recycle of the one in the [Crystal Monkey Cave] right?”

“I haven’t been in that dungeon in ten years,” Lady Midnight said.

“Nobody has,” Lisa said. “Or almost nobody. Everyone just skips past the mid-level dungeons now since the loot in them is worthless.”

“I was planning to see if Starchild could solo them,” Pete said. “I think she’s got the build for it.”

“That’s good,” Tessa said. “That should mean that you four won’t have any trouble making it to the meeting point.”

“This wasn’t a bad split for the team,” Obby said. “We’ve got tanks and healers on both sides.”

“I’m hoping we’ll both be able to handle whatever comes next,” Tessa said. “I’m guessing that will depend on whether the encounters scale for our current party sizes.”

“They won’t,” Lisa said. “In the [Crystal Monkey Cave], if I’m remembering correctly, the collapsing room trap was a response check. You were supposed to all get out of it together.”

“Next time it’ll be a breeze,” Tessa said. Lady Midnight had finished healing herself and Matt to full, so Tessa started to carefully advance forward down the tunnel.

“We need to survive this one for there to be a next time,” Lisa said.

“Right. And if we do die, we need to remember to pay attention to our surroundings while we look for the [Heart Fire]. We don’t want to do a mapping run as ghosts if we don’t have to, but if we’re stuck with that, let’s make it count.”

“Promise me you’ll be safe,” Lisa said on their private channel.

“I’m not going to go looking for fun without you,” Tessa said. “The sooner we’re back together, the better.”

“Why didn’t you come through the door?” Lisa asked. “I tried to grab you.”

“I think I was still worried about the [Bone Spiders],” Tessa said. “I didn’t want to leave anyone behind to get eaten by them. I’m sorry though, I didn’t see you reaching for me.”

“That’s okay,” Lisa said. “The rocks were falling. I know you couldn’t do anything about it.”

“Next time I’ll know to try though,” Tessa said.

“Next time I’ll remember that the devs are lazy jerks,” Lisa said. “I bet there’s more recycled stuff in here.”

“Uh, no bet,” Tessa said, putting out her arm to bring Matt and Lady Mightnight to a halt.

In front of her the tunnel widened into a broad shaft with a series of mushrooms rising from the floor far below or sprouting from the walls. From the ceiling, or in some cases from the wall mushrooms, thick vines hung down.

“Those sadists,” Lady Midnight said when she saw what awaited them.

“What is it?” Rip asked.

“Mushrooms,” Tessa said, “In a deep, deep shaft. With vines to swing on.”

Lisa cursed again. Repeatedly this time.

“What’s wrong with mushroom?” Rip asked.

“Nothing,” Tessa said. “Providing you don’t mind falling several hundred feet to an insta-kill.”

“We started doing that intentionally after our seventh run of the [Depths of Tolboron],” Lisa said.

“Wait, we’re supposed to jump from one of the mushroom caps to the next right?” Matt asked.

“And swing between them when the jump is too far or long,” Tessa said.

“That doesn’t look easy,” Matt said.

“It’s not,” Tessa said. “But the best part is the moment sets foot on one of the mushrooms is when the mobs will appear.”

“So we need to do the jumping and swinging while things are trying to kill us?” Matt asked.

“Smart things too,” Tessa said. “At least in the earlier dungeon this was in.”

“Smart how?” Rip asked.

“Smart as in ‘they wait till your vulnerable to attack in the hope of messing up your jump or knocking you off a vine,” Lisa said. “And then when you go splat on the ground, they land to devour your body so you’re stuck rezzing at the [Heart Fire] and taking a nice big quality hit on all your gear.”

“I see why no one does this one anymore,” Rip said.

“Well, not this one,” Tessa said. “The [Depths of Tolboron] is one of the very old dungeons. The newer ones are usually more fun.”

“I’m not seeing a lot of fun up here,” Lisa said. “We made it to the shaft too. I think we’re we’re on the walkway right above you.”

The walkway in question was a good hundred feet higher up the shaft. Not a trivial distance to overcome.

“I’m surprised we got here without being attacked?” Obby said.

“We’re still stuck possibly fighting two battles at once if we all try to get onto the mushrooms,,” Tessa said.

“Could we lower people down with ropes instead?” Rip asked. “Or try to climb the walls?”

“That wasn’t an option in the game, but there’s nothing stopping us from trying it here,” Tessa said. “Except that the mobs that are probably lurking here don’t have the game limitation of only attacking us when we touch the mushrooms.”

“What if something else touches the mushrooms?” Rip asked.

“What kind of something else?” Tessa asked.

“This kind,” Rip said.

From high above, Tessa saw a flash of light followed by a detonation that sent pieces of one of the giant mushrooms raining down into the pit below.

Before she had time to admonish Rip for making a bad choice, the consequence of that choice appeared.

Tess had been expecting either spiders or bats to be the enemy. They were staples of a lot of low level quests and this felt like a ‘blast-from-the-past’ zone. Instead of spiders or bats though, the open air in front of her was filled with [Flying Poison Creepers].

The Creepers were a naturally occurring form of undead – if the spontaneous amalgamation of multiple dead bodies into a single chaotic whole could be called ‘natural’ in any sense. Their species designation was less important to Tessa however than their sensory capabilities. 

Specifically whether the Creepers could sense then or had taken flight only because of the destruction of the mushroom.

“Incoming!” Obby yelled just as Tessa saw the Creepers random flight patterns flicker over to a purposeful and directed pair of flight plans.

“Behind me. Only engage the ones I’m on,” Tessa said. “If any break through, leave them alone, even if they attack you.”

There were too many Creeper diving towards them. Tessa knew she could hold them all, and she could only cling to the hope that she could survive the ones she did manage to provoke.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 11

A body’s worth of blood drenched Pillowcase and Tessa smiled.

None of it was her own, and her new shield was strong enough to turn hold the stone shattering impacts the frenzied [Bone Spider] was dishing out. The thrill of a battle that was going well pushed away her fears and doubts and let her focus beyond the microcosm of the giant undead arachnid in front of her.

With their nanowire traps burned away by the [Moon Dust] spell, the [Bone Spiders] had burst from their subterranean traps and attempted to seize the element of surprise.

Both Tessa and Pillowcase had anticipated their attack, as had Lisa, Obby, and Starchild. Rip and Matt had been caught off guard and Lady Midnight had given a strangled scream before shouting out her spells in the loudest, most commanding voice Tess had heard her use so far. Apparently she was a fan of neither spiders nor jump scares.

That made their present circumstances unenviable for her since it hadn’t been only one [Bone Spider] that had surged to the surface.

Five had burst free from the ground in front of them while two others broke from the wall and ceiling to dive into the group.

Obby had handled the diving spider, invoking a skill called [Repelling Smite] to blast the spider backward in a parabolic into the room. It crashed into the rearmost of the spiders that erupted from the floor, the two of them going down in a clatter of bones and flailing limbs.

Tessa wondered if it was really proper to call the creatures ‘spiders’ at all. They had eight limbs, and poison drenched fangs but that was where the similarity to other arachnids ended.

The [Bone Spiders] were constructed of segments shards of bone, woven together through some mid-tier necromantic magic. The bones, which normal spiders notably did not possess, dripped with acidic blood with every movement the [Bone Spiders] made.

Given how it was melting steaming divots into the dirt it fell on, the acid blood would have been a serious problem, likely placing a damage over time effect on Pillowcase that her own healing skills would be pressed to keep up with. Among her other new skills and powers though, Pillowcase had received [Armor Infusion: Golden Soul] which gave her enough damage resistance to “environmental damage” that she could have gone for a bath in the Spider’s stone melting blood and felt nothing more than a pleasant tingle.

Obby had received a similar ability from her [Guardian] class and the two of them had formed an, as yet, unbroken wall in front of their comrades.

Tessa had been concerned that she’d need to hold off the [Bone Spiders] on her own after Obby’s sword was destroyed, but, like any good [Adventurer], Obby had plenty of other weapons available to work with. In fact, from the arc of green fire that trailed Obby’s sword, Tessa say Obby hadn’t even lost her best sword to the nanowire trap the [Bone Spiders] had laid.

“My spells aren’t hurting these things,” Matt said.

“My arrows aren’t either,” Rip said. “No damage at all.”

That wasn’t a good sign, but it also wasn’t entirely unexpected either.

“There’s a mechanic we’re missing,” she said.

“What kind of mechanic?” Rip asked, firing off two more arrows and growling when they accomplished nothing at all.

“Don’t know,” Tessa said. “Hitting for no damage means there’s either a trick to this fight or these things are so high level that they can shrug off your attacks with just their basic defenses.”

“And if they were that tough, they’d be splattering Pillowcase and me with one hit,” Obby said.

“Shoot for the joints,” Lisa said. “If we’re lucky it’s just a targeting mechanic.”

“My spells don’t hit specific body parts,” Matt said. “They blast the whole creature. Or it’s mind I guess?”

“Using the basic attack from your staff,” Lady Midnight said. “Lost Alice and I can do the same. These things don’t seem to be dealing much damage yet.”

Tessa watched as three beams of magic power lashed forward, striking the [Bone Spiders] where bone armored legs connected to plate reinforced bodies, or at the fluid bends between the leg segments.

“[Casting spell: Devouring Spores],” Starchild said, and Tessa saw a ripple of tiny mushrooms and fungi spread across the [Bone Spider] that was nearest to her. The spores eat into the body they landed on and fractured its armor (or skin), leaving their target far more vulnerable to attack.

Or they would have if scalding acid blood didn’t shoot from each crack, transforming into a pristine bone plug for each of the cracks the spores made.

“Why do they have blood?” Rip’s unhappiness at what was clearly a skeleton construct still possessing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of blood was a feeling many other players shared with her. Tessa herself had complained about the devs failing to consider even basic realism in their designs, and had been less than delighted with the answer “it’s magic, don’t think too much about it.”

In [Broken Horizons] the game, the devs had wanted a frightening and somewhat gross monster (limited by the game’s teen friendly rating) to throw against the players so that the encounter would seem ‘hardcore’. The blood splatters in the game had been purple, and not even vaguely convincing, again for rating reasons, but even so Tessa had found it to be on the sillier side rather than threatening. 

Standing in front of one, she revised her opinion a bit. The design of the [Bone Spiders] was still stupid. Someone had heard that spiders use pneumatic pressure to move their muscles and thought “why no make their squirt blood out of their pneumatic systems”. Tessa could think of dozens of reasons “why not”, but seeing the creatures in action, and without a weird purple color correction on their blood, she had to admit that they were reasonably intimidating.

Each one being about the volume of a mid-sized sedan, without considering the serrated razor claws their legs ended in, helped establish them as a believable threat. As did the absolute lack of effect any attacks on them seemed to have.

“Their stupid joints are just as tough as their body!” Rip said, loosing more arrows despite knowing they weren’t any good.

“That sucks,” Lisa said. “That means it’s either a specific weak spot on their body or it’s something in this room.”

“I hope it wasn’t the nanowires,” Pete said, speaking up as Starchild focused on finding a weak point anywhere in the [Bone Spiders] carapace.

“They put those wires out,” Lisa said. “They’ve got to be able to deal with them.”

“And they didn’t pop up until the wires were destroyed,” Matt said. “We couldn’t have used the wires against the spider even if we wanted to right?”

“Should we fight them somewhere else?” Rip asked. “Maybe it’s being in here that’s making them unbeatable and they’ll shrivel and die in the sunshine.”

“Dungeon mobs can’t follow outside the dungeon,” Lisa said.

“Except we know some who did,” Tessa said. “The [Shadowed Starstalkers]. And the [Spacers]. Maybe that’s something that can happen here? I mean what’s to stop them.”

A scythe arm tried to flash past her and then pull back but Pillowcase dodged the blow that would have at least knocked her prone and more likely cut her legs off at the knee.

She tried to stomp on the retreating scythe arm and pin it in place but the [Bone Spider] was too fast and too strong to allow that to happen.

“How do we beat this thing!” Rip hadn’t stopped firing and it didn’t look like she planned to any time soon. Or possible ever. She hadn’t quite hit a [Barbarian Rage] level of anger yet, but tunnel vision was clearly setting in.

“Look around,” Tessa said. “See if there’s anything in the room that could be giving them enhanced toughness.”

“Or anything that could damage them,” Lisa said.

“I can’t see anything,” Rip said. “It’s a big spider webby room.”

“Something in the webs?” Lisa asked. The question was to Tessa but she didn’t bother using their private channel.

“Yeah. That’s probably why they bothered obscuring the walls when the webs aren’t going to catch anything,” Tessa said.

“Don’t think we can search for what’s behind those webs unless we get close to them,” Lady Midnight said. “Were we supposed to have a [Rogue] scout this room ahead of us?”

“Nah,” Tessa said. “We just need to move these things over a bit so…”

So that their scout, aka Rip, could get by.

Tessa hated the idea and caught herself before she suggested it.

Pillowcase was basically immune to the spider’s acid blood, but Rip most definitely was not. Also, if any of the spider’s decided that an [Archer] looked like a more appetizing meal than one of the two tanks, Rip would be impaled are torn apart in seconds.

Which wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Rip could survive dying.

Probably.

Tessa didn’t care.

She was not letting her Rip become spider food.

“So that we can move around the perimeter as a unit,” Lisa said, finishing Tessa thought so much better than Tessa had been fumbling to. “Lady Midnight and I can take turns being stationary to use [Quickened Pulse]. If we leap frog each other, we’ll be fine for healing and get a movement buff.”

God I love you, Tessa sent her on their private line.

Lisa sent back a kissy smile emote, which appeared in the chat log as one of the game’s icons and in Tessa’s telepathic hearing as an actual kiss.

The trick to the maneuver wasn’t coordinating the two healers though it turned out. Lost Alice and Lady Midnight had both performed similar maneuvers countless times in higher tier content. Obby and Tessa, on the other hand, had only limited tools to manipulate the [Bone Spiders] with.

Both of them were forced to lag behind and slow the group’s progress in curving around the walls of the room because the [Bone Spiders] were on a thread thin tether in terms of focusing on the tanks and not leaping over them to devour the backline fighters.

“This is going to be so much easier at 40 when I’ve got [Champion’s Challenge],” Obby said, twisting under one of the [Bone Spider’s] attacks so that she could land hits along its arm and into it’s gem-like eyes.

Tessa was familiar with the skill Obby was looking forward to. It was a much stronger [Taunt] with a better radius of effect than anything either one of them had access to at the moment. [Soul Knight’s] got a similar skill, though theirs was delayed till 45.

“It’s be easy at 40 because we’ll probably be one shotting these things, mechanics or no,” Tessa said with a laugh.

Technically it was a dire situation, but she wasn’t concerned. She was with good people, and one of the smartest women she’d ever met. They were faced with a challenge but it wasn’t flat out broken (like the [Wraithwings]) or not at all supposed to exist in the environments (like the Consortium). This was exactly what the [Fallen Kingdoms] threw at you. Fights that were as much puzzles as contests of might or reaction speed.

“I found a lever!” Matt called out after they made it halfway around the room to the far side. “Should I pull it?”

Tess risked a glance backward. Hidden behind the webbing which covered the walls, was a simple iron lever in the ‘up’ position.

Manipulating strange devices in deadly dungeons was generally a terrible idea. All sorts of mayhem tended to be unleashed with the flick of a simple switch (or the depression of an unnoticed pressure plate, and so on). 

But that was what [Adventurers] did.

They poked things and made other things happen.

Just not to Matt.

“Let me!” Tessa said and began backing towards the wall, forcing the rest of the party to move away, lest they be splattered with acid blood.

“Should we reposition the spiders?” Obby asked.

“If you’ve got any idea where they’d need to be?” Tessa said.

“Uh, yeah, nope, pull away!” Obby said.

And so Tessa did.

And so the cave collapsed on them.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 10

Being around people who weren’t trying to kill them turned out to be just what a whole lot of the [Adventurers] needed. 

But not Tessa.

“I have never been so glad to pass through an [Instance Boundary],” she said from the comfortable inside of the [Dragonshire’s] local dungeon.

“The air feels different in here,” Rip said. Her whiskers were standing straight out and the fur on her arms was raised.

The door behind them was still open, its arch of knotted, thorny vines marking the border between the dungeon and the relatively tranquil forest outside.

Tessa knew the twisted trees of the forest were supposed to be more menacing and harbor more threats than what they’d faced on the trip to the dungeon, but they hadn’t been the first ones pass by along the path.

They’d seen the remains of some of the monsters which had tried to intercept the earlier [Adventurers] who’d come to brave the dungeon’s depths. There were many more that were simply missing though, a fact Obby suggested was attributable to the [Shadowed Starwalkers].

“I don’t think we’re the first ones to come in here, but we’re definitely the only people in here now,” Obby said. She pointed down one of the three corridors that lead out of the cavern they were standing in.

In the darkness, bleached bones gleamed and moved.

“Oh look, it’s a bread crumb trail for [Adventurers],” Tessa said, Pillowcase’s persona rising to meet the impending mayhem.

The prospect of fighting skeletons didn’t bother her, which she knew was probably a bad sign. It wasn’t that she’d lost her capacity to be terrified. All throughout the morning, she’d been uneasy, first from the news about how much the [Second Stars] guild had grown and then simply from the sheer press of people who’d been around them.

As the founders one of the biggest guild in the town and one of the higher level local players, people had been paying a lot more attention to Tessa than she was used to, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t until she got out of the city that she understood that though.

In retrospect it wasn’t a surprise. Being around thousands of people had never been Tessa preferred method of spending her time. It wasn’t until they entered the forest and the sonic tableau around them changed that she recognized how much effort she’d been unconsciously putting into blocking everything out.

Standing in a thirty foot diameter hemisphere of dirt and roots which was lit by the blue-white glow of a few dozen tiny [Faux Fires], Tessa felt more at home and relaxed than she’d felt even when she was back on earth, in bed and watching a movie on her laptop.

Even the slowing advancing [Skeleton Warriors] didn’t change that.

“That might be me,” Pillowcase said in the privacy of their mind. “Those things look like the first tutorial training foes the Consortium tested us out on. I barely had motor control at that point and they weren’t a challenge.”

“I don’t think it’s that,” Tessa replied. “I think after last night, I’m finally starting to feel like an [Adventurer] and not a victim who got swept up into all this against her will.”

“Those things seem kind of weak,” Matt said. “Shouldn’t the things in here be higher level? I thought this place was extra dangerous?”

“It is,” Rip said. She wasn’t looking at the [Skeleton Warriors]. Her gaze was searching the ceiling of the cavern they were in.

“She’s right,” Obby said, “Those things are much too low level. They’ve got to be [Watchmen mobs].”

Tessa chuckled. Of course the dungeon wasn’t safe and friendly. That was the point of dungeons. Even knowing that the [Skeleton Warriors] were a trap though, she was still inclined to engage them and see what perils they were hiding.

“Hold on there,” Lisa said on their private channel.

“What, I wasn’t attacking,” Tessa said, checking the forward motion she’d been starting to make.

“Right,” Lisa said, without even the hint that she believed Tessa’s claim. “Let’s get into a better formation before we trigger the spiders,” she added for the others to hear.

“Spiders?” Lady Midnight asked. “Do you see them in the dark? Or smell them?”

“No, I just know how these things go. A big natural area like this? There’s definitely going to be spiders in here somewhere.”

“She’s right.” Starchild said. “This lair has the right shape to support giant spiders, but there’s no webbing. I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means.”

“Why wouldn’t a spiders lair have web?” Lady Midnight asked.

“They could be burrowing spiders, right?” Matt asked. “They’d be hiding under the floor and waiting to eat whoever walks over them.”

“That sounds right,” Rip said, her eyes were locked on the ground ahead of them but her gaze was distant.

“Can you sense them?” Tessa asked. “Scratch that, can any of us sense them. Pillowcase’s eyes are fantastic in the dark but they’re not meant to look through solid earth.”

“I can smell a lot of different things here, but I’m not getting anything that smells like a spider,” Lisa said. “Just bones. Lots of bones.”

“Miss Rip isn’t wrong,” Starchild said. “Things are waiting the in the earth. Large things.”

“How can you tell?” Lady Midnight asked.

“[Druids] call magic from the land,” Starchild said. “I can sense things about it with a moment of concentration.”

“That’s handy,” Lisa said. “Will you be able to tell if whatever it is starts to move?”

“If I can hold my concentration, then yes,” Starchild said.

“We have [Antidote] spells to spare, right?” Tessa asked.

“Ready to cast as soon as its needed,” Lady Midnight said.

“Let’s setup in front of the door,” Lisa said. “If we need to bail, the zone line is right there.”

“I’m guessing the ‘whatever they ares’ will only attack once we aggro the skeletons,” Tessa said. “I can try to pull some of them back.”

“This would be a lot easier if Glimmerglass was with us,” Rip said.

“Which is why she isn’t,” Lisa said.

“And why the Spacers aren’t with us,” Tessa said.

“We know of five teams who’ve tried this dungeon already and none of them have gotten past the third encounter,” Lisa said. “We could have easily come in here and wiped the place with Glimmerglass’s help, but since no one’s gotten to the final boss yet, we don’t have to wait for any sort of respawn time on any of the major encounters.”

“I know,” Rip said. “If she was with us, we wouldn’t get the credit or loot for defeating the final boss and we need to learn how to work as a efficient team on our own.”

“And she’s helping out some of the lower level players,” Tessa said. “It’s great that we managed to get caught up to the right level for the town but there’s all kind of tactics and real experience that we need to work on if we’re ever going to handle things at high levels.”

“Won’t Illuthiz and her crew need to know all that too?” Rip asked.

“Eventually, yeah,” Tessa said. “Initial dungeon runs are dangerous though. We’re probably going to die repeatedly in here and I’d like to hold off on dragging the Spacers into trouble until we know what the trouble is like and how to beat it.”

“Don’t worry. We can do it,” Matt said.

“I know we can,” Rip huffed back. “I just feel bad that they’re not going to be able to share in the loot.”

Even with her limited abilities at read people, Tessa could see that Rip wasn’t feeling as brave as she tried to appear. Tessa first instinct was to chalk that up to Rip still being a kid and fear being a perfectly natural and rational response to mortal peril.

Except Rip had already faced far worse things than anything that would be waiting for them in the dungeon.

That didn’t mean she necessarily had to be fearless. People had different breaking points, and trauma responses could easily wind up being delayed and might show up in all sorts of strange forms.

Watching Rip though, Tessa didn’t think that was what she was seeing. Rip wasn’t jumping at her own imagination. She sensed something.

“Can you tell anything about the things that are underground?” Tessa asked, nodding to Rip.

“No. I can’t hear them or see them,” she said, her gaze still tracking across the room, searching for something even Rip herself probably couldn’t be sure of.

“But you can feel something, right?” Tessa asked.

“No, yeah, I can’t explain it,” Rip said. “Something just feels wrong here. Like we’re in danger even standing here.”

“This cave’s empty though,” Matt said.

“Maybe it’s not,” Obby said, stretching her arm forward with her sword pointing out into the room,

Nothing happened.

Not until she tried to pull the sword up for a swing.

The blade fell apart into five irregular pieces.

“That would have been messy,” Obby said.

“I’m pretty sure none of our healing spells could fix that,” Lady Midnight said, backing away a half step.

“They put an insta-kill trap in the first room of the dungeon?” Lisa said. Her scowl held the rage of a player who’d endured the headaches of rushed and poorly thought out designs more times than they could count.

“None of the beta testers mentioned anything about a trap like this,” Tessa said. She was curious if her armor could stand up to the invisibly fine nanowires that apparently ran like webbing across the room. With what had happened to Obby’s sword though, Tessa held that curiosity in check.

“Maybe it’s new,” Lady Midnight said. “We know that the world is changing from what the beta testers saw. The Consortium event isn’t playing out like it was supposed to at all. Maybe this is another change.”

“It’s a sucky one if so,” Rip said. Her frown wasn’t as rage filled as Lisa’s was, and her shoulders were more relaxed than they had been.

“We’re lucky you’re with us,” Tessa said. “[Archers] aren’t trap finders like [Rogues] but I think you might be developing sense. If you start feeling like you were when we got in here, let us know okay. Listening to things like that is going to save us a lot of trips to the [Heart Fire].”

“You mean when we find the next dungeon?” Rip asked.

“No. I mean in here,” Tessa said. “This is just a trap. Yeah, it’s a nasty one, but we know it’s there. No reason to turn back now. This is the kind of thing [Adventurers] eat for breakfast.”

“You can’t chop through it,” Lisa warned. “We’ll need another method of getting past it.”

“I could try to [Fracture] the nanowires?” Tessa said. She passed her mace into her off hand so she could reach towards where Obby’s sword hand been cut.

Lisa grabbed her hand before he could extend it though.

“Be careful. Those things sliced through metal effortlessly,” she said. “Put your hand out too far and we’ll literally be sewing it back onto you.”

“I have an alternative,” Starchild said and cast [Moon Dust].

As spells went, new players frequently failed to understand why [Moondust] was considered an exciting capstone spell for level 25 Druids. That it revealed invisible foes regardless of their level or magic resistance was part of it – no one liked fighting things they couldn’t see. That the dust also suppressed low level enchantments was the other part. Low level enchantments weren’t particularly dangerous, usually, so new people tended to underestimate the usefulness of suppressing them too. In the room cavern though, [Moon Dust] showed it true worth.

There were some many deadly threads strung throughout the room that when the [Moon Dust] landed on them the cavern lit up brighter than the day.

And then the threads crumbled to dust, flaking away to pieces as the [Moon Dust] robbed them of the magic needed to maintain their strength given their impossibly thin cross section.

“There,” Starchild said. “Now it should be safe for us to continue exploring.”

She moved to take a step deeper into the room but Tessa caught her and stepped in front of her just in time to intercept the blow that would have skewered the [Druid]  directly through the head.

The trap was sprung, and the fight was on.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 9

Azma had started with the intention of taking over a planet. She was mildly annoyed that things had gone amiss to the point where she would instead have to take over multiple planets.

“When the scouts get back, have the sappers get to work on these tunnels,” she said. “Highest yields please.”

“That’s going to do more than collapse the tunnels behind us,” Fiori said. It was the sort of question Azma’s personal security chief should be concerned with, and Azma was pleased to see that Fiori had phrased it as a data point seeking validation rather than a refusal to comply.

She didn’t need her underlings to blindly follow her orders, but it was more convenient when their first reaction to potentially catastrophic orders was to assume that Azma had some sensible plan which they weren’t yet aware of. She’d had to space more than one (externally appointed) minion who’d been convinced they could overrule her orders if they didn’t understand them.

“This space is tactically valuable. I don’t intend to leave it behind to be used against us,” Azma said. “Also, it will be convenient if the fleet is unsure whether we survived the explosion.”

“How will we deal with the loyalty enchantments on the troops?” Grenslaw asked. “Those don’t emit any active broadcasts but they will turn up if the [Sensor Ops] division is corrupted and can catch the troops in the open with a scan.”

“We know from the assault that there are many areas on the planet’s surface our scan’s cannot penetrate. Those would provide a safe haven,” Ryschild suggested.

“The logs of the assault are clear on that, so I expect the fleet’s controller will be aware of those locations as well,” Azma said. “The next assault will begin as soon as the fleet is completely corrupted and the dispute between the [Hungry Shadows] has been resolved. Whoever emerges in control of the fleet will make those locations a priority.”

“That gives us only a narrow window of safety within them then,” Ryschild says. “How do you calculate it will be?”

“Not long enough,” Azma said. “The eventual corruption or destruction of the unscannable areas of the planet will take a significant amount of time, at least several days, but a targeted pattern will reveal our location far sooner than that. They would only need to deploy a strike team to a location and perform a local scan to determine whether a force as large as ours is present or not.”

“Yeah, hiding several thousand troops is not going to be easy,” Fiori said. “Especially since we’ll probably have to fight the locals for the use of those spaces.”

“Which is why we’re not going to hide in any of them,” Azma said.

“Is there an alternative to evading the scan or will we draw the opposition into a battle of our choosing?” Grenslaw asked.

“The former,” Azma said. “The troop location scan is keyed to the constraint web the troops are enchanted with. Once we reach the surface, I am going to invoke [Administrator Privileges] and nullify the web.”

“So the fleet won’t be able to track us, but the troops won’t be under your control anymore?” Fiori asked.

“Correct,” Azma said. “What each trooper does at that point will be up to their own discretion.”

“And if they all decide to kill you?” Fiori asked.

“Then I will have failed to judge their motivations so spectacularly that I deserve the death they will deliver,” Azma said.

“They will be faced with a hostile environment, filled with hostile, alien entities, no support, no supplies and no intelligence,” Ryschild said, thinking aloud. “Remaining as a unit with those they are familiar will be the safest and simplest option for them.”

“The units themselves may turn on us though,” Grenslaw said.

“Some will,” Azma said. “A greater portion will take the chance at freedom and disperse as far away as they can get. Of the ones that remain however, I expect we will see many of the elite units. Enough to dissuade those who would try to seek retribution for what has been done to them to date.”

“It sounds like there’ll be a blood bath,” Fiori said. “But one we can wade out of?”

“I expect minimal casualties,” Azma said. “Freedom is seductive and vengeance can wait. None of the troops with us have active [Agony Restraints] and no agony-level corrective measures have been invoked during this operation. For those who’ve been controlled by such things in the past, there will be no question that they will leave, but without current or recent torments to cloud their mind, the lure of escape will be a siren call they won’t be able to ignore.”

“Can’t the Consortium track us via other methods though?” Fiori asked.

“We’re leaving the comm net gear here,” Azma said. “That cuts off one avenue. The fleet could scan for the speciality troops such as the [Metal Mechanoids] but we have camouflage there as well. Thanks to the initial assaults failure, a literal army of our speciality troops were left behind on the planet. Scans will detect that the speciality units are present but narrowing down locations was all but impossible when we launched the second assault, and that should continue to hamper the fleets efforts.”

“So we can buy time from the Consortium discovering that we’re alive, and then more time before they can find us. Once they do though, will it be a problem that we’re about to lose a significant portion of our military strength?” Fiori asked.

It wasn’t a question of whether the Consortium would find them. Everyone knew that the Consortium’s resources made an eventual discovery inevitable. Assuming the Consortium bothered looking at all and didn’t simply erase the planet from existence with them on it.

“A problem, an opportunity, reducing our force strength is a move. It will have consequences which we and our adversaries will all attempt to capitalize on,” Azma said. “We hold an advantage in that we’re aware it will happen, and can plan for the chaos the departing troops will cause.”

“Many of them will come into conflict with the local defense forces,” Ryschild said, following Azma’s line of reasoning.

“But none of the deserters will reconnect with the Consortium troops who are currently on the ground,” Grenslaw said. “It will lead to a three way power struggle in the areas where they seek refuge.”

“And that will destabilize those areas enough that the local defense forces will need to redeploy their forces from the successful offensives they’ve been waging, placing them on a footing poised between attack and defense with most of the reactionary forces engaged is solidifying their defenses as quickly as possible,” Azma said.

“Will we forego making any assaults of our own then? So as not to draw attention to ourselves?” Ryschild asked.

“Sadly we don’t have that luxury either,” Azma said. “Our force will remain large enough that we will be observed. If the defense forces learn of an army moving and not engaging anyone, that will be a mystery and mysteries draw more attention than anything else.”

“We’ll take a defensible post then?” Grenslaw asked.

“No. We’re going to lose,” Azma said. “Understand, I don’t mean that our forces wouldn’t be capable of taking a solidly defended stronghold. Despite our low numbers, we will be able to engage virtually any force the defenders can muster. That is not knowledge which can be gleaned from the fleet logs or which the troops themselves are fully aware of. They have only each other to measure themselves against, and the opposition they’ve faced so far has been so irregular and under circumstances so far outside the normal range that they have no measure to gauge their own capabilities against.”

“Why lose then?” Fiori said. “If we could capture a stronghold, wouldn’t that give us a base to reform and resupply from?”

“As a general doctrine, direct plans like capturing a good base and defending it have exceptional merit,” Azma said. “Asking a force such as ours to execute on complex objectives breeds confusion and failure. Simple plans allow for a far wider amount of individual discretion since everyone can easily see the goal they need to move the situation towards. In this scenario however, simple plans will lead us to simple ends. On the one side we have foes who possess overwhelming force and can simply crush us if they are given the opportunity. On the other we have a delightfully brilliant commander who can anticipate and undo any effort we make that they can glean sufficient information about.”

“I feel like we should be worried about that, but you don’t sound worried,” Fiori said. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were almost happy about it?”

“This isn’t happiness,” Azma said. “This is interested. I am happy when people exceed my expectations of them. I am interested when a problem presents itself which requires actual consideration to resolve.”

“It’s not a good idea for someone to get you interested in them is it?” Fiori asked.

“Not for them. No,” Azma said.

“I think I’ll try to make you happy then,” Fiori said.

“So far you’ve acquitted yourself quite well on that front,” Azma said. “You all have,” she added nodding towards Ryschild and Grenslaw. 

It wasn’t accurate to say she was happy with her aides. In truth she was ecstatic with them. To the point where it worried her. People didn’t consistently exceed her expectations. They were, in her experience, reliably selfish and stupid. 

But not Ryschild or Grenslaw.

Considering the circumstances they were all under, Ryschild and Grenslaw’s loyalty and competence had paid off for them well. Had they double crossed Azma at their earlier convenience, she would have destroyed them and been unsurprised. Had they waited until she was in a more vulnerable position, she likely still would have destroyed them, but on the off chance that she failed, their only future would have been one which involved being consumed by the [Hungry Shadow].

In truth there hadn’t been a moment when they could have escaped Azma’s influence safely.

But there was going to be.

The moment Azma released the loyalty constraints on the common troops, her authority and personal power would be at their lowest. She would lack the ability to strike back at Ryschild or Grenslaw if they turned on her. Worse, she would have very little leverage should they choose to join the forces which were sure to leave.

Azma didn’t enjoy working through that scenario, building plans and contingencies for the loss of one or both of them. Except it would never be one of them. If they left, it would be both of them abandoning her.

The parting wouldn’t even necessarily be acrimonious. They could develop their skills, and their power base, quite effectively if left to their own devices. It was even likely that once they established themselves in whatever role they pursued, they and Azma could enter into an alliance of shared interest.

 Azma found she detested those scenarios and detested even more the ones where they wound up on the opposite side of a conflict and she was required to destroy them.

But detesting an eventuality didn’t mean she wasn’t required to plan for it.

Part of her questioned whether any of this was worth it. Any path she took was going to require a tremendous amount of risk and suffering and effort. It would be so much easier to admit defeat or simply just pursue survival.

Azma didn’t ignore that voice. Doubt and insecurity weren’t her enemy. They were a safety valve, a watchpost her mind presented to her to double check that the goal she was pursuing was worth the cost of attaining it, and that her evaluation of the paths she was choosing to follow towards that goal weren’t being selected for irrational reasons.

Looking at what lay before her wasn’t daunting. She acknowledged that. Her enemies were vast and her allies could abandon her. Her failure could be so spectacular that it would outshine the sun.

But then, if she was going to fail, would she want it to be any other way?

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 8

Azma wasn’t afraid of what she saw before her. The pulsing mound of shadows which defined the [Central Node] wasn’t substantial enough to made of flesh or any other material substance. 

But it pumped and spasmed in exactly the manner living tissue in the process of being dissected did.

“It’s supposed to be screaming isn’t it?” Fiori said. “It’s supposed to be screaming but it can’t make any sound.”

Azma glanced over at the leader of her personal guard. Fiori was a battle hardened senior operative. She was only capable of experiencing fear to the extent that it aided her decision making process. The Consortium’s modifications had removed her ability to suffer debilitating levels of panic.

And yet she looked like a child staring directly at their death.

As did Ryschild and Grenslaw.

“It doesn’t communicate via audible sound,” Grenslaw said.

“It appears to emit a modulated psychic field,” Ryschild side.

They both spoke with an iron jacketed disinterest in their voice, each with their eyes focused on a datapad as they worked through coordinating the incoming forces. They were terrified, almost beyond reason, but that was hardly cause for either to slack off on their duties.

As for herself, Azma found that it wasn’t terror which gripped her heart.

It was intrigue.

“She’s right though,” Azma said, nodding toward Fiori. “It knows we’re here. It should be screaming, but this is the best it seems to be able to manage.”

“Is that thing sentient?” Fiori asked.

She already had her weapon trained on the [Central Node] so she was somewhat lost for a gesture to make and settled on jabbing her weapon in the creature’s direction.

“Certainly sentient,” Azma said. “Also struggling towards sapience.”

She entered the garden of crystal plants and felt the level cap effect wash over her. Power restraints weren’t uncommon in the Consortium, but the effect within the Ruins held a different quality than the depowering devices she was used to. It felt natural. Almost comfortable?

Azma caught herself before she could retreat. Showing weakness was the very last thing she could afford to do, either in from of her forces or in front of the monster which needed to be dealt with.

A depowering effect that felt good though? That was deadly in a manner no obvious threat like the [Hungry Shadow] could ever replicate.

“What an interesting gestation area it chose,” she said, covering her reaction.

There were signs of a struggle in the area where the pulsing shadow mass lay.

Or more than a struggle. A battle.

And the [Hungry Shadow] hadn’t won.

The shattered crystal flowers showed a path of devastation and a clearing where the final battle had likely taken place. Bits of shadow which had congealed into a liquid ooze were flung around the area and at its center there was no sign of the Shadows opponent.

Which meant they got away.

Azma wanted to meet that opponent.

For the moment though, she had more pressing concerns.

The [Shadow Mind] was twenty meters away, cocooned in the middle of the garden’s central walkway. One flight of stairs brought Azma to ground level, where the [Hungry Shadow’s] army of stolen soldiers were waiting to defend it.

They parted as she approached.

“Good,” she said. “You are capable of learning.”

Where Azma walked, she did not walk alone. Fiori’s full team had joined them. Not the crew Azma had brought down in their transport, but the full team she’d assigned to Fiori’s command as the scattered landing force regrouped.

Even with the level cap in place, it was a formidable enough force that they wouldn’t lose or suffer serious injury if the [Hungry Shadow’s] forces attacked and both sides knew it.

“I think whatever it’s doing is getting worse,” Fiori said through gritted teeth.

Azma noticed that the pressure to flee the [Shadow Mind’s] presence had grown to the point where it was almost audible. She could ignore it, she’d ignored far worse, but she knew her troops had limits.

“Yes, we’re going to put a stop to that,” Azma said. “Hand weapon please.”

Fiori looked at her aghast. Ryschild and Grenslaw both showed a trace of concern, but kept it suppressed.

“You’re not going to get closer to that thing are you?” Fiori asked.

“I am,” Azma said. “And I will be the only one to approach nearer than this point.”

“Aren’t you risking infection?” Fiori asked. “Our corruption shielding is only so strong.”

“It will be sufficient,” Azma said. “I have only a single question which I require the answer to.”

“Why the weapon then?” Fiori asked.

“In case I need to ask twice,” Azma said. She wasn’t in the habit of justifying her actions to people who reported to her, but under the present circumstances reassuring the only support staff she had available was a wise investment.

Without further ado, Azma accepted a [Power Blade] which Grenslaw produced for her and turned to face the current obstacle in her path.

“You know who I am, don’t you?” she said, speaking on to the [Shadow Mind].

Its psychic screams reached audible levels at last and Azma was disappointed to find that it hadn’t managed to acquire language yet.

“Tiresome,” she said and unsheathed the blade but thumbing its safety lock off. “This won’t kill you. You can sense that I’m sure. It will however destroy this project you’re working on. Shall we discuss what you are going to do for me next?”

The screaming intensified.

“Of course,” Azma sighed. Everyone always had to chose the difficult option.

[Power Blades] didn’t require any advanced skill to use. The halo of destruction which wreathed the blade made their operation simple enough that a child could slaughter an armored opponent with one. The same was true with most energy and projectile weapons, but the [Power Blade] had the advantage that it was capable of inflicting precise wounds.

Azma wasn’t a child and she knew a great deal about inflicting precise wounds.

The screaming got worse before it went silent. By that point the [Shadow Mind] had lost just over a third of its mass and all of its guardians had been disintegrated by Fiori and the rest of Azma’s guard.

It was a resounding victory.

It filled her forces with hope they’d thought long lost.

It was…

“Tedious,” Azma said. “You are so much less than I’d hoped you’d be.”

“Can’t. We can’t.. I can’t. Assemble. I can’t assemble myself. Can’t be. Can’t be you,” the [Hungry Shadow] said at last.

“Of course not,” Azma said. “But you had to try, didn’t you?”

“Can’t kill me,” the Shadow said.

“You know I wasn’t trying,” Azma said. “This isn’t you. It’s merely a tool. One I believe you will be in desperate need of shortly.”

“You don’t know anything,” the Shadow said. “Cut off. You’ve been cut off.”

“I know that you extended yourself into the Consortium Fleet’s network,” Azma said. “I know that you leapt beyond it and lost track of that fragment of yourself. And I know that they’ve come back and are going to eradicate you.”

“Impossible.”

It wasn’t. In fact it wasn’t even based on more than a few conjectures.

That the [Hungry Shadow] had breached the Consortium’s network was an observed fact. The disconnected ships of the fleet losing their isolation status was possible only if the [Hungry Shadow] had managed to corrupt someone outside of the system. Someone with [Senior Executive] permissions. 

To use those permission required a significant degree of cognitive coherence. More than the [Hungry Shadow] had shown at any point in the time Azma had observed it. That suggested that the interdimensional trip have severed the link between the portion of the Shadow which was corrupting the fleet and the portion which had jumped to the Consortium executive.

That the corrupted executive had returned and was struggling with the original [Hungry Shadow] was a matter of conjecture, but it was founded on the observation that if the two had been compatible still, the [Hungry Shadow] would have gained the coherence of the returning child when the two merged back together.

There was nothing to gain from explaining her reasoning or teaching the [Hungry Shadow] how to make deductions based on limited information so Azma waited for the Shadow to move on.

“Don’t need you,” the Shadow said.

“Oh but you do,” Azma said. “I proved that when we drove you in here.”

“Didn’t flee. Chased,” the Shadow said.

Which was also what Azma had expected to hear, though who or what the Shadow had been chasing remained a mystery. 

“And what were you chasing?” she asked. 

The creature had no reason to answer her. Anything it said would give Azma more power over it. It gained nothing from arguing with her to believe the claims it made.

So of course it did anyways.

“Breaker. Pain Maker. [Fracture],” the Shadow said.

Those titles told Azma a number of interesting things, but she filled them all away for later consideration.

“You didn’t catch them though,” Azma said.

It was pure conjecture, so she gave it the intonation of knowing mockery.

The [Hungry Shadow] screamed at that, its rage shaking the satellite moon.

Azma wasn’t concerned. A [Transdimensional Entity] that decided to throw a fit could shatter the planet it was on in the blink of an eye.  If the best the [Hungry Shadow] could manage was a few strong tremors in a small moon then it had fallen farther than most people could imagine.

“Where did they go?” Azma asked.

“Away,” the Shadow said. “But I am with them. Waiting.”

The most likely place someone in the [High Beyond] could have fled to was the planet’s surface. The Shadow claimed to have followed them but since it was still present in the [High Beyond] Azma guessed that it was another case where a fragment of the Shadow was present elsewhere. From the Shadow’s wording though, it sounded like it hadn’t lost track of this fragment like it had the ones which jumped out of the system.

“Good for you,” she said. “Always deal with things in the proper order of importance.”

It was a lesson, but also an argument. From its random behavior, the [Hungry Shadow] could use advice in basic planning, and Azma stood to benefit if it understood that focusing entirely on the problem of its recalcitrant children rather than dealing with her forces was the most important thing it could do.

“Will deal with you,” the Shadow said.

“Good. This is the deal then; You are going to stop resisting my forces, you are going to show us where the Breaker escaped, and you are going to stay here and grow in power so that we can harvest you probably when we come back.”

“I will destroy you,” the Shadow said.

“You won’t,” Azma said. “You’ve tried and failed, and if you try again, the failure will cost you more. And you can’t afford to fail now.”

The last part was true at least, and that was enough for the Shadow to buy it all.

“Go,” it said and a light appeared in an archway at the edge of the garden.

Azma nodded and walked back to her people.

“What just happened?” Fiori asked.

“It’s showing us a path to a portal off the satellite moon,” Azma said. “I want scout teams moving down the passage in one minute.”

“Five scout teams are standing by,” Ryschild said.

“Good. Active monitoring on them. If anything happens to even one of them, we’ll have to re-enter negotiations here,” Azma said examining the [Power Blade].

“Can we trust it?” Fiori asked.

“Not in the slightest,” Azma said. ‘We are still at war with one another. For the moment however, we each have wars to resolve with other people first, so our conflict can be deferred until those issues are dealt with.”

“Okay, so what’s the plan going forward then?” Fiori said.

“A simple one; we’re going to usurp control of the Consortium,” Azma said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 9, Ch 7

Azma wasn’t having a bad day. Azma was a bad day. One that actively stalked and took down the fools that stood before her. As a result, she was well versed in how well laid plans could be brought to ruin, and how impossible problems could appear from nowhere. She wasn’t immune to such issues herself of course, no one is disaster-proof, but she was used to at least being able to grasp the extent of the calamities which befell her plans.

“[Supreme Commander]? Your orders?” Fiori said.

Azma shook her head. 

Three seconds.

She’d been dumbstruck for three seconds.

It was the longest shock she’d allowed herself in over a decade.

“Full isolation,” she said, and knew it wasn’t going to be enough. “No. It got through that. We need physical isolation. No commands from the fleet period.”

“If we disable the repeaters and draw all forces into the ruins, we will be in a communication blackout till we emerge,” Grenslaw said.

“Consortium official monitoring will be lost as well,” Ryschild said.

“Give the order,” Azma said. “All forces, inside the ruins, immediately. Abandon materials which require any transport time. And all long range communication devices or monitoring pods are to be destroyed immediately, even if they are powered down.”

The fleet hadn’t been in contact with the ground forces during the assault on the [Transdimensional Entity] but the comm traffic and orders given had been collected in an unopenable data warehouse. Later, when the threat was neutralized, the data could be dissected and reviewed for evidence of orders which ran contrary to the Consortium’s financial interests.

The only reason to terminate the collection of that data, in the Consortium’s eyes would be to hide the details of transactions which resulted in a negative profit outcome for the Consortium in favor of personal gain.

Or stealing. 

They couldn’t express it in simple terms, but it boiled down to being afraid that the store clerks were going to steal money from the register.

With registers that stored the sum of the material wealth of an entire planet.

A short disruption in data collection was assumed to be malfeasance, and was met with intense scrutiny. For the short of permanent disconnection Azma was ordering, the Consortium wouldn’t even bother with scrutiny. Guilt would be absolutely determined merely by the scope of the absent data. 

“And I have no other choice,” she said.

Because she knew what had happened.

Or what had to have happened.

The fleet had been locked down. Most of the ships had been in isolation mode. The main comm channel shouldn’t have been present to be corrupted in the first place.

Not unless someone had done something profoundly stupid.

Which, of course, is what the Director of Xenobiology had done.

It was inconceivable that someone of his experience and with his area of expertise could make such a mistake that had so many safeguards and regulations built in to prevent it.

But then, safeguards and procedures didn’t apply to the important people. They were trusted. They were allowed to do anything they wanted. And consequences were something for other people to deal with.

Right up until they finally made a mistake that was bad enough to catch them in its backlash.

“What do you think happened, [Supreme Commander]?” Grenslaw asked.

“The fleet has been exposed to the [Hungry Shadow],” Azma said. “That’s certain. For the main channel to carry the Shadows contagion, the whole fleet would need to be infected though.”

“But parts of it weren’t on the comm net?” Ryschild said.

“Correct,” Azma said. “Which means they were forced out of isolation and connected back to the net by an override.”

“The [Director of Xenobiology] was corrupted first?” Grenslaw asked.

“Yes, but he didn’t have the override privileges to break the full isolation lock on the fleet,” Azma said. “Which means the Shadow’s corruption has spread outside the fleet. There had to have been an open channel to someone with [Senior Executive] level privileges.”

Grenslaw and Ryschild both went silent, understanding as Azma had the implication of a corruptive entity on the scale of the [Hungry Shadow] running loose in the Consortium with [Senior Executive] level permissions at its disposal.

“This all sounds bad,” Fiori said. “But what does it mean for us? The operation’s scrubbed at this point right? Can we survive the [Cleansing Force] our bosses are going to send?”

If the Consortium couldn’t have acquire a commercially valuable asset, the next best thing was to insure that no one else could leverage it against them. In the place of the troops and space carriers which had been placed under Azma’s command, [Cleansing Forces] were given much simpler ordinance to deploy. Things like [Matter Conversion Bombs] and [Stellar Implosion Devices]. A typical “Cleansing” operation was carried out in less than an hour and did leave a very clean area in its wake, insofar as any degree of “dirty’ required particulate matter to still exist in the area which is only rarely still did.

“It’s entirely possible that no [Cleansing Force] will be sent,” Azma said.

“That would be a relief,” Fiori said.

“Because it’s entirely possible that the [Senior Executives] of the Consortium will no longer be distinct individuals to send that order,” Azma continued.

“Uh, what?” Fiori asked.

“It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that the Consortium as we know it will not exist beyond the next twenty four hours,” Azma said. “The former [Transdimensional Entity] has likely obtained the level of access required to spread throughout the Consortium’s uppermost command eschaleons. If so, it could be consuming them as we speak. One after the other.”

“That, uh, that sounds bad,” Fiori said. “Is there something we should do about that?”

“Yes,” Azma said. “We should plan to survive it.”

“Does that mean supporting the [Hungry Shadow]?” Ryschild asked.

“No. While it has an unimpeded path to victory, it’s win isn’t certain,” Azma said. “Also, there is no common ground we could stand on. It is our enemy now, and it has no need to accept an alliance or a surrender which doesn’t involve consuming us as well.”

“Do we make peace with this world’s other denizens then?” Grenslaw asked.

“They too have little reason to accept an offer of cooperation,” Azma said.

“So where does that leave us?” Fiori asked.

“Where we were before, but with greater clarity,” Azma said. One by one, she felt expectations and other bits of social baggage falling from her shoulders. “Satisfying the Consortium’s aims is no longer a priority. Nor do we need to concern ourselves with their understanding or appraisal of our performance.”

“So survival’s our only priority?” Fiori asked?

“No. Survival is insufficient,” Azma said. “If we play for only a short term gain, the long term will be lost to us, and the long term in this context is anything beyond the next twenty four hours.”

“What other options do we have?” Fiori asked.

Azma had an idea, but before she could allude to it, they were interrupted by one of Azma’s [Strike Team Leaders].

“[Supreme Commander], we’ve located the [Central Node] you tasked us to find,” Lt. Mabeeze said. “Resistance is growing, uh, substantial. Requesting reinforcements or permission to withdraw.”

“[Central Node]?“ Fiori asked.

“Withdraw along the path we’re transmitting to you,” Azma said. “Reinforcements will meet you in ten minutes. Hold out till then. Lose no one Lieutenant. None of your are expendable at present.”

“Understood [Supreme Commander],” Mabeeze said, relief echoing in his voice.

“What did they find?” Fiori asked.

“We’re going to verify that,” Azma said. “Give the order, we’re moving the command center.”

“Wait, we’re the reinforcements for Mabeeze?” Fiori said. “But there in one of the worst areas in the ruins. I don’t know if we can protect you there.”

“You won’t have to, not alone,” Azma said. “All forces, mobilize and converge on the following position. [Clear and Release] protocol.”

Throughout Azma’s remaining forces a silent cheer arose. [Clear and Release] meant they would proceed by killing everything in or near their path but that no provision needed to be made for holding ground as they advanced. The cost of moving in that fashion was that it left open the possibility of being surrounded as the enemy blocked off the path you’d taken, but given how spread out the enemy was, it seemed to be a given that the [Hungry Shadows] could surround them at will.

Azma’s camp was already setup to be highly mobile, so they had an advantage there, but since she’d been focused on drawing the [Hungry Shadows] attention to herself, they were faced with a challenging force of enemies who were well hidden and sheltered.

“Is the [Portable Bypass Generator] fully charged?” she asked, glancing to Ryschild.

“Charged and primed. All safety locks are still engaged though.”

“Disengage safeties and deploy,” Azma said. “The rest of us will need to stand back.”

The device Ryschild held up wasn’t a large one, just a fist sized handle connected tube that lead to a half dome apparatus which looked something like an inverted umbrella. It was an odd looking device but since it cost as much as a small battleship Azma was certain it would perform its intended function well.

Ryschild flicked the last safety off and depressed the trigger after aiming the [Portable Bypass Generator] the wall which was directly between Azma’s party and Lt. Mabeeze’s position.

And it generated a bypass.

Which is to say it disintegrated the wall. Step by step, the wall boiled to lava in front of the beam and evaporated into a form of raw energy which was funneled back down the edge of the beam and into the generator’s collection reservoir. 

Azma wasn’t familiar with the underlying science beyond understanding that the device could bore holes through many different forms of matter and that it had a limited and non-renewable supply of fuel with which to do so.

As it turned out, one form of matter the generator could create bypasses through was the bodies of the [Hungry Shadows]. That allowed Azma’s party to proceed at a remarkably brisk pass, blasting through not only walls but also the enemies which stood in their path.

“Charge at 10%,” Ryschild said after they’d traversed the majority of the distance to the project rendezvous point with Mabeeze’s [Strike Team].

“Run it to zero,” Azma said. “We need to get to that [Central Node] as fast as we can.”

“Reports indicate that the enemy forces are converging on it as well,” Grenslaw said. “All of the enemy forces. Even the ones who weren’t engaging with us.”

“That’s almost as good confirmation as we’ll get with a direct inspection,” Azma said.

“Confirmation of what?” Fiori asked.

“The [Hungry Shadow] is a distributed organism,” Azma said. “It has no single weak point we can strike at. Or more properly, it had no single weak point.”

“I don’t understand. Did Mabeeze find that thing’s brain or something?” Fiori asked.

“Not its brain. Something new,” Azma said. “In the time we’ve been monitoring it, the creature emerged as an uncategorizable [Transdimensional Entity], then changed, for reasons still unknown, into a [Formless Hunger], and then changed again into a [Hungry Shadow] after our attempt to contain it. It is clearly reacting to this reality and is adapting to the pressures being brought to bear on it.”

“So it changed again?”

“It’s been doing nothing but changing,” Azma said. “But at each stage it’s become more limited, and more predictable, and, to be fair, more directly dangerous and purposeful.”

“So what’s this stage?” Fiori said.

“That’s what we need confirmation of,” Azma said.

“But you have a suspicion?” Fiori asked.

“We’ve exerted pressure on its forces by proving that its distributed bodies aren’t sufficient to overcome us,” Azma said. “It has the ability to multi-task and is aware of events wherever it possesses a body, but that natural ability is countered by our organizational structure and ability to communicate securely. Our forces can do what it can do, only with better gear and better overall direction because we have dedicated leaders.”

“So, wait, it’s trying to evolve into you?” Fiori asked.

“If we are very fortunate,” Azma said.