The night was coming to an end, and the first rays of daylight made it their purpose in life to sneak around the curtains in Penny’s room and stab her directly in the eye. Penny knew beams of sunlight lacked not only malice but also the intelligence required to form malicious thought. Penny also knew enemy action when she saw it.
“The daylight hates me,” she grumbled, trying to turn away from it without fully rousing to wakefulness. Part of her knew that was a bad idea, but the sleepy, larger portion of her mind knew how much sleep was still required and fought valiantly to maintain a state of blissful ignorance. It was a battle which she mostly won, as it left her mind fuzzy enough that she wasn’t expecting to turn into a pair of arms when she flipped onto her side, or be drawn into a warm embrace by those familiar arms which were all too infrequently able to ensnare her as they had.
“I don’t think it does,” Niminay said. “It highlights your hair too wonderfully for it to mean you ill.”
Thoughts trampled a path into Penny’s awareness, cracking open the door to consciousness which, given Niminay’s proximity, Penny wasn’t quite as unhappy about as she might have been.
“What time is it? How long was I out? That was only supposed to be four hours!” Penny’s eyes flew open to behold a heart stoppingly wonderful sight.
“We’re just at dawn,” Niminay said. “I checked in with your team an hour ago. There are no catastrophes which require your attention. You can rest in for another couple of hours before you go back to splitting yourself into a thousand pieces.”
“No catastrophes? In that whole time? That’s not possible,” Penny said, giving Niminay a small kiss before pushing aside the covers and getting dressed. “We have over a hundred active theaters of combat going on. We couldn’t have held on to our positions in them all.”
“We didn’t,” Niminay said, but the delighted smile on her lips didn’t match up with any outcomes Penny could imagine. “We’ve advanced. Not everywhere. There are still a lot of hot spots, but they were able to execute your contingency orders in at least half the battlefields.”
“Things got that bad and no one woke me?” Penny asked.
“Not that bad. That good!” Niminay said. “The openings that you told them to watch for? They found those and more. A lot more in fact.”
“I don’t understand. I must still be dreaming?” Penny said and called up one of her more esoteric skills to determine when she was under the effect of any mental compulsions or sensory manipulations. All the checks came back negative. Her mind was her own. She just couldn’t believe what it was hearing.
“I should let them explain,” Niminay said. “From what I was able to make out, your staff has every reason to be proud and they can offer you all the details you’re looking for.”
“What did they do though?” Penny asked. She was fully dressed, but still felt naked without a solid understanding of the situation before her.
“You left them with orders to carry out exploratory raids remember?” Niminay asked.
“Yes. We had to keep our awareness of the key locations up to date without indicating where we were planning to push back on next,” Penny said. “Those weren’t supposed to be turned into all out offenses though. We can’t afford to be overextended, even if…no, especially if the Consortium is making the efforts to recapture our assets look affordable.”
“I don’t think we’re over extended,” Niminay said. “They didn’t need to order the armies to move at all. Not to recapture the sites we’ve taken back at least.”
“How did they…oh, the [Adventurers]?” Penny asked, knowing it had to be them. Teams of [Adventurers] were the only force capable of retaking a major objective and retreating safety in the time that had passed.
“See, you’re out of bed for all of ten seconds and you already don’t need the briefing your team is preparing,” Niminay said.
“I’m pretty sure I do,” Penny said. “What your describing is alarming.”
“That is exactly what they said you’d say. I gather there was a lot of discussion regarding the wins we’re seeing. The general consensus has shifted from it clearly being a trap, to it being the action of some enemy of the Consortium which we happen to be benefiting from.”
“I need to see the charts,” Penny said and began pacing in the room.
“I’m sure they’ve got everything laid out for you already in the war room,” Niminay said. “Did you want to go there?”
“No. Not yet,” Penny said and continued to pace. “This is too big. I need to put things in order first. I need to work out the questions I should be asking.”
“Should I not be distracting you then?” Niminay asked and began putting on her own clothes.
“Yes, or no, or I could use you here,” Penny said. “I need to bounce ideas off someone.”
“You know I’m here for you,” Niminay said and sat back down on the bed in an attentive pose.
“Okay, good, thank you,” Penny said. “Gods why aren’t we married yet?”
“I can have a cleric up here in like five minutes, three even,” Niminay said. It was a playful tease to help ground Penny’s thoughts, but Penny also knew that Niminay was also entirely serious. It wasn’t that the war didn’t matter to Niminay but she had an [Adventurer’s] mindset where no disaster was sufficient grounds for passing up how you wanted to live your life. Probably because for them, every day held its own disasters and triumphs and life had to happen somewhere. If that somewhere was in a crypt, or on a battlefield, or even a quiet bedroom for two, then so be it.
“No, they’d just muddle my thinking,” Penny said, feeling the wheels in her brain whirling up to full speed.
“Someday…” Niminay promised, looking like muddling Penny’s thinking was something she was very much looking forward to.
Penny considered letting her send for the cleric.
They were still in a crisis but that didn’t mean Penny was dead. Or that she was going to leave Niminay hanging for a moment longer than she had to. She might not be an [Adventurer] herself but she wasn’t a fool either.
Temptations did need to be put aside for the greater good on occasion though, and this was such an occasion if one ever existed.
“So the exploratory raids went well?” She was talking to herself more than asking a question, priming the pump of her brain for leaps of understanding she needed to make. “The [Adventurers] met with unexpectedly low resistance.”
“Worth noting, apparently the troops they expected to face were there, the earlier intel we had was largely accurate,” Niminay said.
“The same units but judged to be an easy fight. That says their support divisions weren’t in place. Which in turn suggests a failure at the command level.”
“The early reports did mention that the responses to the provoking raids was much slower than expected,” Niminay said.
The “provoking raids” were ones Penny had designed in order to utilize even the purely combat focused [Adventurers] as an additional support troops. The idea was to send in a team of [Adventurers] to create real problems against enemy forces the [Adventurers] couldn’t hope to overcome on their own.
The [Adventurers] didn’t need to win these battles though. All they had to do was pose a threat which the Consortium had to answer. The long term gameplan was to train the Consortium’s forces that when a team of [Adventurers] showed up the only possible response was to send out an overwhelming forces against the small group. That, in turns, would allow the regular armies to assault positions which had their ranks split and disorganized to the greatest extent possible.
Penny hadn’t been sure the strategy would pay off. Her counterpart, the strategist for the Consortium, was able to see through ploys like that with ease. Regardless of that however, sending in the [Adventurers] still made sense to Penny.
She was careful to select targets where the value of the damage they were inflicting was too high to discount or ignore and where the ease of the parties escape was sufficiently high. It wasn’t enough to win the war, or even greatly slow down the Consortium, but the losses would hurt them and create weaknesses in their capabilities at key points which could be utilized later.
More importantly though, it was the sort of counterstrike which didn’t present a high degree of risk. The [Fallen Kingdoms] lost too many [Adventurers] on the raid against the Consortium’s ships and Penny was determined to spend her resources as wisely as she could, which meant ‘not at all’ if that was possible.
A slow response to a provoking raid was highly out of character for the war’s architect though. If anything Penny had been concerned about traps set for the parties she sent in and troop response rates far in excess of anything the [Fallen Kingdoms] could muster. She’d scaled back almost all the operations with that in mind
“The [Adventurers] fought farther into the enemy encampments than they were supposed to, didn’t they?” she asked.
“Only in a relatively few cases,” Niminay said. “If you’ll accept about 40% as ‘relatively few’ that is.”
Penny almost laughed. For [Adventurers] that was a low number. Normally when given the chance for mayhem and looting, [Adventurers] would somehow manage a 110% disobedience rate.
“Did any of the parties report in-fighting among the Consortium’s forces?” Penny asked.
“How did you know?”Niminay asked.
“It fits a narrative,” Penny said. “If we succeeded on half of the raids I designed, then the Consortium’s defenses suffered a severely destabilizing blow in a short period of time. The only likely candidates include a change in leadership. But that doesn’t make sense at all.”
“Why trade out an effective leader for a terrible one?” Niminay said.
“That too, although we’ve seen Kings and Lords and Council’s do it all the time. There are far too many people who prioritize their personal needs over those of the people around them,” Penny said. “The part which really doesn’t make sense to me though is why the previous commander allowed themselves to be forced out of power?”
“The Consortium doesn’t seem like the sort of organization which cares much for loyalty,” Niminay said. “Maybe the previous leader, the smart one, made some political blunder and got ‘removed from power’ with extreme prejudice.”
“Not impossible,” Penny said. “I’m hard pressed to believe that someone bright enough to design the strategies we’ve seen wouldn’t be every bit as adept at manipulating the Consortium too. I don’t think anyone could arrive in a position of central authority in an organization like that without mastering its foibles.”
“We’ve seen dramatic shifts in power take down even the most highly placed people before,” Niminay said.
“Usually there’s a measure of hubris which precedes the downfall,” Penny said and added with a smile, “or they attract your attention on a bad day.”
“I killed one god like that!” Niminay said. “Only one!”
“What about [Gyr Rex]?” Penny said.
“Ok, two. Two gods. That’s not an every day thing though.”
“Both cases serve to illustrate my point,” Penny said. “There’s usually an up swing in power or influence preceding the downfall of a major power. They stride forth, seeming to be at the top of their game and able to accomplish all of their objectives with ease, but by stepping onto a new stage, they also expose previously unseen weaknesses which prove to be their undoing.”
“Isn’t that potentially what happened here?” Niminay said. “By trying to take on our forces, the Consortium started fighting on a new stage.”
“The pattern fits,” Penny said. “Except that I’m missing the most important part of it.”
“What the new incompetent at the helm wants?” Niminay asked.
“That’s something we’ll see in time,” Penny said. “I’m more concerned with what the previous leader’s weakness was.”
“Curiosity or do you think it will become relevant again?” Niminay asked.
“With as sharp a difference as we’ve seen between the two commanders?” Penny said. “I think it’s a very real concern that the previous one will be back in power before we’re able to destroy the foothold the Consortium has on our world.”