Interlude – Grenslaw
Grenslaw’s job was a simple one. Act as the principal aide to an “Market Opening Operation’s” [Supreme Commander] and then, when directed, betray them. It was a fairly typical assignment as such things went in the Consortium. Management believed that cultivating a cut throat environment was the sort of filter any high performing organization required, especially when the cut throat angle was taken literally.
Ryschild, Grenslaw’s opposite number was employed under identical terms. Serve as a principal aide and kill Azma at the selected time. There wasn’t any particular ambiguity in the terms of their contract. The particular method of termination was left to their discretion, and in that each could be assumed to exercise personal initiative, but the wording around the outcome of their assassination attempts was quite iron clad.
By contract, and to further their careers, Azma needed to die. Not metaphorically, not socially or politically. Any of those could be included but only a complete and permanent cessation of biological functions and the final termination of all mental activities would suffice. The meant no “briefly dead but resuscitated” or “bodily destroyed but the mind was uploaded to another substrate”. The Consortium was all too familiar with a wide variety of methods for escaping a death sentence and when it came to its internal dealings made sure to eliminate every loophole it had ever encountered.
Of course the reward for killing Azma would only be awarded to the one who could first submit quantifiable proof of having been responsible, which meant for Grenslaw to collect the bounty and the new position which came with it, Ryschild would likely need to die as well.
Not that any of that was going to happen.
Ryschild glanced over to the station where Grenslaw was working the numbers on the [Formless Hunger] and made eye contact. An wordless agreement passed between them with a simple nod.
The Consortium had taught them each many things. In addition to basic studies, they were each master [Assassins] and [Manipulators]. The first meant that killing someone wasn’t a problem for either one. The second meant they were more aware of the intent behind their contracts than the Consortium would likely have preferred.
Grenslaw returned to the numbers and played with a small smile. The most dangerous enemy in the world was the one who knew you best, and no one fit that category better than Ryschild.
Long before either one would kill Azma, they would kill each other.
It was sweet, or at least struck Grenslaw as so. Rychild was so dependable. They didn’t sabotage each other. They didn’t quarrel. They didn’t even generally avoid one another. On the contrary, they shared most meals together, had regularly helped one another with their classwork, and even more regularly eliminated the lesser annoyances which would have compromised their progress.
Grenslaw remembered a boy who’d tried to play the role of bully in their second year of schooling after they’d been inducted into the [Officer Corp]. The boy had been high born, and well connected. Grenslaw had become a target of his wrath quite accidentally. The boy had made it a matter of pride to then destroy Grenslaw’s chances for promotion to the next year’s classes.
They’d never actually found the boy’s body. Grenslaw only knew he was dead because Ryschild had made a gift of the boy’s personal accounts to Grenslaw on the next New Year’s Eve. The accounts had been given as recompense for the damage the boy had done, and as they were only unlocked because the life seal on them had lifted, Grenslaw had all the proof there would ever be as to his fate.
“This is disturbing,” Azma said, looking up from her station with undisguised concern on her face.
“New values from the [Formless Hunger]?” Ryschild asked.
“Much worse,” Azma said. “Our work is being praised.”
“By who?” Grenslaw asked. She could have asked how receiving praise could be a bad thing but Azma didn’t like answering obvious questions. She wanted her people to have their brains as engaged as hers was.
“It’s unattributed,” Azma said, her eyes narrowing into a hard cast.
“Meant to appear as a leak?” Ryschild asked.
“But not from within our ranks?” Grenslaw added, piecing together the problem as rapidly as Ryschild was.
“It’s meant to look like a leak from the oversight committee,” Azma said. “Or rather the sort of leak one might fake as being from the oversight committee if one was looking to call for extra funding for a project. It seems we have made unexpected and exceptional progress on the transdimensional entity and are to receive a commendation for the work we’ve done.”
“That is a very indirect play,” Ryschild said.
“Yes. Indirect but with many troublesome tendrils,” Azma said. “If we ask for additional funding now to exploit the [Formless Hunger], this leak becomes a time bomb waiting to be revealed as fake, especially if our efforts ultimately prove fruitless. If we argue against the leak, the oversight committee will leap to the assumption that we are either trying to drive up interest by calling attention to it, or that we have outside funding and have contracted away the rewards of this operation which weren’t explicitly called out in the original contract.”
“The latter part would be correct though, would it not?” Grenslaw asked.
“Of course. People would be appalled if we weren’t doing that. They’d trust us even less than they do now,” Azma said. “The problem is that either approach confirms the underlying reality of what the leak claims, namely that we have uncovered a valuable find as part of this operation.”
Grenslaw thought about that for a moment while Azma chewed through more of the correspondence.
“When it says we’ve made exception progress, is that exceptional compare to baseline expectations for finds like this, or is the leak suggesting that we have the [Formless Hunger] under control already?”
“It makes no distinction between the two in its brevity, but the wrong people are far more likely to read it as the second scenario,” Azma said.
“What will the wrong people do?” Ryschild asked.
A new message arrived addressed to the [Supreme Commander]. Azma opened it.
“This,” she said. “This is exactly what they will do.”
Grenslaw saw the text of the missive on their central screen.
With the transdimensional asset secured, control of the asset will be transferred to Applied Xenobiology.
Grenslaw blanched. The [Formless Hunger] was nowhere near secured, and Applied Xenobiology didn’t have anywhere near the firepower to change that.
Interlude – Penswell
Penny had had better days. It would, in fact, be accurate to say that she’d lived through better apocalypses.
“The news looks good from [Crystal Bower] and horrible from [Wagon Town] and [Thaldinforge],” Niminay said. “I can head to either one, but if I do I’m afraid [Corsair’s Bay] is going to see a lot of action.”
Niminay’s team were all max level and at the gear cap. Thankfully that didn’t make them unique among the forces Penny was coordinating. What Niminay had that the other adventurers seemed to lack was presence. Some of them were good leaders, some of them even had an impressive level of charisma and battle experience, but Niminay had an aura. When she called the townspeople to fight with them, normal citizens became something extraordinary. And adventurers? Adventurers became Heroes. Like the tales of old.
Penny wished she could bottle that quality and pass it out like healing potions. Barring that she was left with the far less enjoyable task of weaponizing the woman she loved.
“I need more of you,” Penny said, entirely aware of the many different meanings that phrase could have and meaning pretty much every one of them.
“Am I hearing an order in there to quit the field and carry you away from all this?” Niminay asked.
“Don’t you dare tempt me,” Penny said. Niminay had the willpower to overthrow the gods themselves. Penny knew herself to be far, far weaker than that. With that in mind she turned the conversation away from all the things she wanted to talk about and back to the matter at hand. “Do you have any of the adventuring guilds you trust to handle [Wagon Town]? I think we can shore up [Thaldinforge] if we the scouts can get us a sense of which Consortium forces are on the move and where they’re heading.”
“I’ve talked with one guild that’s all [Rogues],” Niminay said. “They’d make a decent supplement to your scouts, but they all seem pretty money hungry, so you’ll want to check if we can afford them. As for [Wagon Town]? Do we even know what we’re up against there?”
“Widespread societal prejudice and centuries of devaluation of the goblins as a people,” Penny said, stabbing her quill into on of the rejected requisition letters repeatedly. “Oh wait, you meant the Consortium’s force. How silly of me. It’d be so easy to think they were our allies with how eager everyone seems to be to see them eradicate all life from [Wagon Town].”
“It’s not that bad is it?” Niminay asked. “What about [Wolf’s Point]? They’ve been trading with [Wagon Town] for years.”
“Silence,” Penny said. “The world’s more or less divided into the bigots who want to see all of the goblins dead, and the cowards who are afraid to standup and say the goblins matter too.”
“Let me see what I can do then,” Niminay said. “I’ve met a couple of goblin heavy [Adventuring Guilds]. We’ve got a lull in the fighting now so I can reach out to them. I know the [Wagon Town Council] must be asking for all kinds of reinforcements. I’m sure the adventuring teams will step up, and they might even have some ideas the council won’t have thought of.”
“I could make a case for having you lead them,” Penny said. “It’s easier to get support to [Corsair’s Bay] if your absence does provoke an attack there.”
“I’ll help wherever you send me,” Niminay said. “I don’t think I should lead this one though. I don’t know what the [Wagon Town] forces are like. Or what fighting in the [Goblin Deeps] entails when you’re trying to save people rather than loot the place. Let me talk to the goblins I know and see if there’s a leader that the people in [Wagon Town] will unite behind. I can stand behind them for support if they want, or we can send them the burliest set of adventurers we can muster. Or both.”
“Talking with you always makes me feel better,” Penny said. “Ok, that’s a plan, and if we get on it right now, it might even work. Except, damn it, except we don’t know what kind of forces the Consortium has in reserve around [Wagon Town]. If we send you or a team of adventurers in there, you’ll be walking into what is absolutely a trap.”
“I’ve walked into traps before,” Niminay said.
“And you always walk out of them,” Penny said. “But the citizens of [Wagon Town] won’t. Right now the Consortium is waiting, so the fighting in the town is fairly light. They’re turtled up, and holding out while our forces gather against them.”
“That doesn’t seem like a winning play on their part.”
“It’s not. At the rate things are currently going, we’ll overwhelm them in the next three hours. That means they’re probably about two and a half hours from unleashing their counter offensive and based on their performance in other theaters, they’ll send enough troops to capture or destroy the total forces that we are currently capable of projecting into the area.”
“So…a trap, and a good one,” Niminay said. “But we still have to spring it or they’ll just roll right over everyone there and be able to extend even farther into the [Goblin Deeps].”
“Yeah, and that’s the other reason no one wants to help the goblins,” Penny said. “Nobody wants to see what kind of horrors the Consortium is waiting to unleash.”
A high priority message alert appeared before Penny.
“Huh, a message from one of the team leads in [Crystal Bower] just came in,” Penny said.
“Patch them in. If I need to redeploy there I’d rather know sooner than later,” Niminay said.
“Ok,” Penny said and joined Glimmerglass into the channel with Niminay.
“Hey, we had a…unexpected bit of good luck?” Glimmerglass said, picking her words carefully.
“Do tell, I could really use some good luck about now,” Penny said.
“I think you’ll like this then. Let me patch in Burnt Toast and Marcus,” Glimmerglass said.
“Who?” Penny asked.
“Hi Penswell, you can call me BT. I’ll be your liaison to Marcus,” BT said.
“That would be me. I’m not a player. Not at the moment at any rate. I’m not in your world. But I do know a lot about it. In fact, from what the server logs are showing me, I think I can tell you where every Consortium force in all the [Fallen Kingdoms] are deployed and what capabilities each unit possesses. Would that be helpful?”