Being a Director in the Consortium of Pain was a terribly exhausting job. Byron smiled gratefully that fools like Madrax Odful were willing to act as such convenient scapegoats in taking the roles when so little real authority came with the position.
Oh, it was certainly true that Director level positions wielded tremendous influence and were given enough wealth to bankrupt a small world or two but, in Byron’s view, settling for so little seemed like the mark of a small mind.
“Are you sure you won’t take an appointment as the fleet’s official [Tactical Analyst]?” Maldrax said as people behind him in the projection scurried back and forth as close to running as decorum would allow.
“I’m afraid I would make things far worse you my dear friend,” Byron said. There were several promising “unopened” worlds in the latest report from the field scouts. He found himself rather tempted to take a weekend vacation and go conquer one himself. All the fighting had given him a taste for a little mayhem, though only a little. Reasonable fellows avoided the sort of mayhem Maldrax had dipped himself into. Or at least they avoided it unless the payout was sufficiently likely and vast.
In Azma’s defense, Byron did have to admit that the payout on the current operation was likely to be vast. Lesser players would end their career and go into retirement following conquests not a tenth as valuable as the world Azma had been given to exploit. And that was without the [Transdimensional Entity]. With that as a prize, she’d be able to move on a level where she might even notice some of Byron’s minor pieces moving about.
Which, of course, was why he’d interfered. There were already quite enough players to worry about, and Azma didn’t show any sign of knowing when to check her ambition.
“I don’t see how you could do worse than the ineptitudes they sent with me to handle things,” Maldrax said, unconcerned that the ‘ineptitudes’ he was referring to were swarming around the [Secondary Bridge] which was serving as the primary locus point for fleet-wide communications.
Byron hid a smile at the thought that all of Madrax’s personnel had been hand selected from the highest performing members of each of the individual disciplines. The problems they were experiencing were likely to be in part due to Azma’s lingering sabotage efforts, but could also be attributed to the hand which selected them being rather poor at the job.
Identifying actual talent took work, whereas identifying people who would agree with your proposals was a much simpler task for a Director to accomplish.
“If I were to aid you and word of that got out, you know the credit for the operation would be tilted towards my division,” Byron said. “The last thing you want is for Gunridge to make a partial claim on your find.”
Director Gunridge wasn’t an enemy to Maldrax. Enemies were much simpler to deal with, and vastly easier to deny a claim on new treasure than friends and allies were.
“They’re saying we have troops marching to nowhere down there,” Maldrax said. “Why are they marching anywhere? We have transports precisely so no one needs to march.”
Byron could think of several dozen reasons why one would want to let the Consortium’s troops move from one point to another under their own power. Which of those reasons were a primary element in Azma’s planning was a mystery to him, and not one which he found himself overly invested in unraveling.
“Can’t you just recall them then?” Byron asked, knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that recalling troops from the field when you didn’t know what aim they were trying to accomplish was both the right decision and the surest way to provoke a mission-wide failure.
“We don’t know,” Maldrax said.
“Nonsense,” Byron said. “You’re the Supreme Commander of the fleet now. They’ll do whatever you say.”
It was the reassurance Maldrax needed to hear while also presenting as empty headed an argument as Byron could bring himself to make.
“We don’t have the ships to recall them all,” Maldrax said. “That saboteur sent too many ships to the moonlet trying to secure the [Transdimensional Entity] for herself.”
“What about landing a carrier or two?” Byron said. A part of him was chortling at the idea that he might convince Maldrax to make such a foolish misstep while the rest was applauding Azma’s ingenuity.
By stranding the troops on the planet surface, even if only temporarily, she’d managed to ensure they couldn’t be used directly against her. Moreover if she managed to return to power, she could complete whatever scheme she had for them and claim an unexpected victory, thereby cementing the idea that only she could handle the reigns of the operation properly.
“The carriers are too slow,” Maldrax said. “We know the defenders can teleport onto them. And, even worse, they tell me if we start pulling our troops away piecemeal that the remaining ones will be left open for a counterattack. We could lose the territory we’ve already won!”
Maldrax had never managed an “Opening” campaign, had never even been within three degrees of separation from one, so Byron could have forgiven him his dismal understanding of tactics and strategy. Could have, but didn’t.
“Whatever will you do then? Allow the troops to continue on with Azma’s plan?” Byron asked, digging into Maldrax’s ego. Byron didn’t need to tip Maldrax over the line into a failure inducing rage, but that was an outcome which Azma had likely discounted which made it all the more amusing to contemplate.
“I intend to give them new orders,” Maldrax said. “If I could find one competent [Tactical Officer] around here who could decipher what the hell that woman was thinking.”
“Have you had any communication with that woman yet or has she been eaten by the entity already?” Byron asked, knowing the answer to both questions was obviously no.
“We can’t even look in her damn direction thanks to that…” Maldrax’s words tapered off to nothingness as he went from skimming a report a nervous aide had handed him to reading the document with increasing horror.
Byron racked his brain to imagine what turn of events could have provoked so extreme a reaction. Nothing on the operation could have gone that far off course, so it had to be something personal?
“It’s gone,” Maldrax whispered.
“What’s gone?” Byron asked, still perplexed.
“The entity. It’s gone.”
“It’s moved? I thought this one just digging itself in a little deeper? Did it go fully mobile? Is it coming for the fleet?” That last possibility seemed dire enough to provoke the reaction Byron was seeing.
“No. It’s gone. Completely gone,” Maldrax said, dropping the paper and staring blank eyed into the wreckage of his career in the far distance. “It was digging deeper and then something happened. A containment unit exploded. It changed.”
“A containment unit exploding shouldn’t have had any effect on the entity. What do you mean it changed?”
“It’s not a [Transdimensional Entity] anymore,” Maldrax said. “We’re doing active scans now to confirm it. It was overtaken by some kind of wave and what was left behind wasn’t transdimensional anymore.”
“Where did it go?” Byron asked.
“Into the moonlet,” Maldrax said. “Like it was hunting something.”
Melissa / Feral Fang
Evacuating a village out of the path of a Consortium army should have been a nightmare. The villagers were already scared, and venturing deeper into the [Shadow Creep Woods] wasn’t doing good things for any of their nerves. Feral Fang had a number of unpleasant memories from encounters with the local monsters back when she was a mid-level adventurer. The likelihood of a panicked stampede seemed fairly remote despite all the spooky elements surrounding them though. It was harder to be scared of the forest when a small army of very scary [Goblin] [Assassins] was actively frightening all of the other scary stuff away so everyone could pass in peace.
“So I’m having a truly terrible idea right now,” Jesterix said as she marched at Melissa’s right side and tossed a ball back and forth with one of the village kids.
“No, you can’t change class to [Assassin],” Melissa said, “Even if they do get some very stylish hats.”
“What? No. I mean, ok, yes, those are some amazing and annoyingly class specific bits of gear, but this is a much better terrible idea,” Jesterix said.
“Better than the hats? Okay, this I’ve got to hear,” Melissa said.
“Our new friends are flushing all of the monsters out of the woods right?”
“Not all of them, but yeah, they are clearing a path for us pretty well. I don’t think they want to try the same thing with the Consortium though. Soldiers don’t tend to scatter when you hiss at them.”
“That’s true, but consider this; the monsters all respawn right?”
“At least the ones we’ve seen tend to.”
“And the Consortium troops are even as we speak marching along the forest’s border right?”
Melissa saw where Jesterix was going and had to agree, it was a really terrible idea.
But she was kind of onboard for trying it out.
“Could we direct the monsters that well?” Melissa asked. “I mean it’s easy to get them to run away from a bunch of max level [Goblins] but could we get them to run towards something specific?”
“I think it depends on how tough the soldiers are,” Jesterix said. “If they’re all max level like us, then the monsters will just run from them too. If the monsters are stronger than them though? I’m thinking feeding frenzy.”
“And no matter which is true, it’ll throw the army into chaos for a while,” Melissa said. “Except that could be bad right? What if they decided that they need to hunt the forest clean of monsters before they continue on. We want them to ignore the fact that we’re here right?”
“I said it was a terrible idea, didn’t I?” Jesterix said.
“What if you brought the dragons down from the mountains instead?” the young girl who was playing with Jesterix said.
“Oh, there’s no dragons in the mountain anymore,” Melissa said. “All the dragons from here flew south and setup stronghold in the [Caldera of Radiance] about six years ago.”
“Yeah, the only thing left up there are…” a dangerous gleam appeared in Jesterix’s eyes.
“Are the [Emberwings],” Melissa said, the same plan coming together in her head that was dancing behind jesterix’s eyes.
“Those are really dangerous aren’t they?” the young girl asked.
“They can be, but only if they’re provoked,” Melissa said.
“Yeah, then they tend to fly into things, explode, reform and explode over and over. It gets kind of annoying,” Jesterix said.
“And we happen to know exactly who needs to be annoyed just like that,” Melissa said.
An hour later Melissa was regretting her optimism.
“We’re going to need to dive right into their camp to get the [Emberwings] to give up on attacking us and go after them,” she said, wheeling her broomstick mount around in a tight corkscrew to gain some distance on the dozen lava bodied bat monsters which were pursuing her.
“At least we’re bringing a lot of targets for them to shoot at,” Jesterix said, matching speed with Melissa.
“Yeah, but they’ve got a lot of people to shoot at us with,” Melissa said. She took a turn around one of the mountain’s spiky pillars without reducing her speed and heard at least a handful of [Emberwings] slam into the cliff face behind her.
“Think evasive thoughts then, since they’re just around that next corner, and they’ve got to have heard us coming,” Jesterix said.
Melissa had to agree. Their descent from the mountaintop after stirring up the [Emberwings] had put every Fourth of July celebration she’d ever been to to shame. She fully expected to come around the mountainside into a faceful of artillery but instead what awaited her was a pure and precious gift.
The Consortium forces were in disarray.
Not because of any attack but because they’d come to a triple fork in the road around the [Shadow Creep Woods] and the army was arguing over which direction is was supposed to go.
The Consortium, it turned out, was very good at following orders, and when the orders they received conflicted with each other, they were very good at being conflicted too.