Good news was never to be trusted. Penny knew she was being pessimistic, but time and again experienced had shown her that when things looked like they were going well, there was bound to be a dramatic and horrible reversal of fortune waiting to strike from whatever direction you least expected.
“Some of the nobles are starting to speak of the timing for when they can withdraw their forces,” Prince Brandoth said.
Penny sighed in gripped the bridge of her nose a thousand times over, each of her distributed copies mimicking the gesture in a futile attempt to ward off a headache at the stupidity of it all
“What sort of timeframe are they discussing?” Penny asked, knowing that the answer would be horrible whatever it was.
“None have called for an immediate disbanding of the Defense Coalition,” Brandoth said. “But depending on what the report at sunset reveals of the global state, I expect a sizable contingent will make their case for dispersal then.”
“And they’re aware that there are entire cities that haven’t been liberated yet?” Penny asked, speaking entirely to herself. The answer was as obvious as it was despicable.
“Yes, the fallen cities are being evaluated as potentially internal matters to the kingdoms they owe allegiance to,” Brandoth said.
“Because of course allowing the Consortium to maintain a beachhead on the planet they can safely fall back to, reinforce, and stage fresh troops from will have no impact outside the imaginary boundaries kingdoms,” Penny said.
“The speaker I overhead was proposing that the remaining Consortium forces be exterminated by joint forces but that the armies who draw mercenary fees from the Kingdoms they were operating in,” Brandoth said.
“Predictable,” Penny said. “I was hoping that they wouldn’t descend to petty self interest this quickly, but it was a feeble hope at best.”
“Not all of the nobles agree with the sentiment,” Brandoth said.
“Also predictable,” Penny said. “The ones who’ve lost significant cities have selfish reason to be opposed to it, as do the ones which lack the warchests to pay for mercenary armies to reclaim their cities.”
“The [Goblins] don’t seem to be in favor of it either,” Brandoth said.
“Not surprising either. Mercenary armies are unlikely to accept a contract to protect people they’ve traditionally been at war with.”
“Some certainly would, but I will grant the number will be far from all,” Brandoth said.
“After what happened at [Wagon Town], I imagine the [Goblins] lack faith that the other armies of the Defense Coalition will come to their aid even if a payment is offered.”
“Yes, [Wagon Town’s] communiques have made it clear they did not misunderstand the motivations or intentions of the royal forces which could have come to their aid,” Brandoth said. “I expect that the reversal of the battle around [Wagon Town] is a large part of what’s driving the nobles who wish to withdraw from the Defense Coalition.”
“I’m sure they’re claim is that with the additional active [Adventurers] that we have taking part in the defense, their own forces are unneeded?” Penny said.
“The point was made several times,” Brandoth said.
“Of course it was,” Penny said. “It’s a smokescreen to disguise the fact that the ones who wished to leave are incensed that [Goblins] weren’t eradicated, and that there is still an opportunity for them to change that.”
“Not with the [Adventurers] present certainly?” Brandoth said.
“As long as the [Adventurers] remain in the city in force, there’s not an army in the world that would try to engage them,” Penny said. “And I’m including the Consortium’s forces in that count. The problem is that the [Adventurers] won’t be staying there long. They’re not an army, or a disciplined force of any kind. They’ll be wandering away already, lured by the next interesting battle, or searching for new treasures to win. That’s why the landed armies don’t typically include [Adventurers] in their ranks.”
“I’d never thought about that,” Brandoth said. “Perhaps that’s why the Coalitions commanders are willing to wait.”
“The predilections of [Adventurers] will be familiar to many of them,” Penny said. “I expect a sizable portion will be spread around the world before the midnight bell tolls, which precludes any attacks before then.”
Penny pondered for a moment before continuing.
“Some [Adventurers] will stay though. More if we request them too, though still far from all,” Penny said. “That could be useful.”
“To what end would you bend their efforts?” Brandoth asked.
“The ones who leave will go to pursue their own agendas,” Penny said. “Those are too diverse to plan around precisely, even if we knew what their aims were. [Adventurers] pursue many different goals, but their success rate makes both a poor choice to gamble on as well as a poor choice to gamble against. The mere fact that they will be venturing to disparate locations in the world can be of service though. The Consortium is far from fully defeated. We’ve liberated more towns that I could have dreamed of when I went to sleep last night, but they still hold dozens of strategically critical sites and are more than capable of receiving reinforcements. If the [Adventurers] spread across the world to their own pursuits, they will naturally run afoul of any reinforcements which arrive.”
“Isn’t there the danger that the [Adventurers] will join with the Consortium forces?” Brandoth asked.
“The Consortium forces are worth experience to the [Adventurers] and have the misfortune of dropping loot when they are defeated,” Penny said. “Some might ally with them anyways, or would except the Consortium seems to view everything on this planet as a resource to be exploited and [Adventurers] tend to react poorly when someone tries to convert them into mind controlled drones.”
The [Gate to the High Beyond] was dead. Niminay had ventured through it once before but something had disrupted it and shattered stone it was crafted from since then.
“It might be a good thing that we can’t get through this gate either,” General Aurelite said, surveying the wreckage of the structure and the blast patterns that radiated out from it.
“How often has it been a good thing that we’re not able to find out what’s going on somewhere?” Niminay asked. She was examining a bit of blackened rock, noting that it wasn’t burned, or transmuted, or, from what she could tell, an original piece of the gate.
“That’s a fair point,” Aurelite said. “From the reports we’ve received though, the [High Beyond] has grown unsurvivably hostile. The destruction of the gates may be all that’s keeping whatever’s up there contained.”
“For the time being,” Niminay said. “We have invaders from beyond the stars. Their ships can easily cross the gap between here and the [High Beyond].”
“Maybe,” Aurelite said. “We can cross the much distance with our teleport spells too, but we still can’t get to the [High Beyond] with them.
“Some of our magic can,” Niminay said. “This gate wouldn’t have ever been able to work if our magics couldn’t pierce the barriers around the [High Beyond].”
“You know how arbitrary magic like that is,” Aurelite said as she kicked one of the gate shards away. “Everything’s special cases and exceptions to exceptions and so on.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Niminay said. “If whatever’s up there causing problems is an exception to the regular rules, I’m willing to bet that we can expect to see it show up here at exactly whatever time would be the least convenient for us.”
“I’ll wager that we see the Consortium send in more troops before that happens,” Aurelite said.
“It sounds like this sent troops into the [High Beyond],” Niminay said. “So perhaps we’ll get to fight two enemies for the price of one.”
“Or one enemy who’s absorbed far more than two other factions,” a vampire said as she materialized out of the shadows.
“That feels like something that needs further explanation,” Niminay said. She hadn’t gone for her bow. Hadn’t adopted a ready stance. Hadn’t even glanced over to look at the new arrival.
In part that was because she didn’t need to.
She and Silken Black had never met, but Niminay had met enough [Vampires] in the past to be familiar with the different bloodlines they hailed from, and she’d heard enough rumors of Silken Black’s exploits to put two and two together and come up with a pretty fair portrait of the woman who’d joined them before the broken gate.
“You’ve been to the [High Beyond],” Silken said. “And you’ve fought there. You know the scale of the foes it holds.”
“I know some of them,” Niminay said. “I’m certain I managed to avoid the strongest of the hostile entities up there.”
“You also know that some of us fled from the [High Beyond],” Silken said. “But from what I’ve seen, that was limited to [Adventurers] and [Townsfolk]. None of the beasts and monsters chose to flee.”
“It takes a lot to get powerful creatures to leave their lair,” Niminay said.
“It takes even more to defeat them when they’re ready and warned of impending danger, but that’s what happened,” Silken said.
“How do you know?” Niminay asked.
“I’m a [Shadow Dancer],” Silken said. “Observing dangerous things is what I do.”
“What brings you here then?” Niminay asked.
“I find it wise to pit dangerous things against each other from time to time,” Silken said. “This is one of those occasions.”
“Perhaps it would be wise to explain what the danger we’ll be facing would be then?” Niminay said.
“I’m afraid that’s where I cannot be as helpful,” Silken said. “I can explain what the things that overran the [High Beyond] did but it’s present capabilities have changed. I saw enough of that before the window of escape I used shut tight to be sure the enemy above us is not what it once was. Sadly that leaves me with little insight into what it has become, save for the fact that it was engaging with an uncountable number of Consortium troops and winning easily.”
“What did you see of the Consortium forces?” General Aurelite said. “We know they have troops of many different types, which vastly different levels of capability.”
“The forces they brought to the [High Beyond] were strong,” Silken said. “Most of them were max level, and the ones who weren’t were largely support staff from what I saw. The area they landed in may have diminished that to some extent since there are many pockets of restricted space, some dropping as low as level 10.”
“At level 10, sheer numbers should have been enough to decide an engagement,” Aurelite said.
“Unless the creature is immune to the level capping effect,” Tessa said.
“That’s not possible. Those are part of the fundamental laws of reality in those areas. There’s no immunity or resistance to that,” Aurelite said.
“The Consortium is an enemy from beyond our reality,” Niminay said. “We can’t afford to make assumptions on what is possible for them or anything which followed along in their wake, at least not when we see evidence that suggests they might be governed by other laws than ours.”
“Seems like that could send us off on a thousand wild chases,” Aurelite said. “We could squander our forces on “what ifs’ and ‘but maybes’ and wind up getting picked apart by people who are no more capable than we are.”
“That’s why I was hoping this gate would still be functional,” Niminay said. “We need to get up to the [High Beyond] before whatever is happening up there catches us unaware.”
“From the sound of it, we’re better off letting what’s happening up there play out for as long as we can and then going up there once the loser has taken as much out of the winner as possible,” Aurelite said.
“That strategy may doom us all, Silken said. “Before it changed, the creature was consuming everything in the [High Beyond]. Afterwards, the things it had taken became something else, puppets or something worse. If you wait, you’re not going to be fighting the remnants of the creature or the Consortium’s forces, you’ll be fighting both of them and they’ll be united as something more awful than either could be alone.”