Azma found the chaos and calamity which surrounded her a great source of comfort. By all reasonable measurements, her own fortunes were dire, her goals impossible to achieve, and her plans a failed and tangled mess.
None of that was true of course. Her fortunes were excellent by virtue of the fact that her goals were still well within her reach and her plans were proceeding as close to optimally as she could have hoped for.
Also, she was herself.
She didn’t have problems.
Other people had problems, and she was typically the worst one.
“Our troops have finished the pacification of the [Stars Guards Fort], the [Bleakwater Basin], and the [Scouring Hellmaw],” Grenslaw said, entering the private, and tastefully appointed chamber, Penswell had set aside for their use. “The teams at [High Gutter] and [The Scarlet Cascade] are in place and awaiting orders.”
“What were our losses in Stars Guard?” Azma asked.
“No fatalities, fifty three serious injuries, and two hundred and twelve minor wounds,” Grenslaw said.
Serious injuries were annoying since it meant the troops in question were badly enough damaged that they wouldn’t be available for further fighting until they’d been through tha rejuvenation/repair period and been properly rested. The minor wounds were less troubling, but still worth noting. She’d send those troops into lighter combat duty for the next cycle since, while they were still capable, their performance would be lower as they recovered from the non-debilitating but still potentially gruesome damage they’d suffered.
No fatalities was a cause for celebration though, as were the relatively low numbers over all. Her troops were more than doing her proud, they were fighting at a level no General could have asked for or expected. Just like she knew they could.
“Excellent! They exceeded their performance margin by fifteen percent. Mark them all down for the high performance bonus,” Azma said. “Also, command the team at [High Gutter] that the town is no longer a hybrid area. They are free to proceed with a full burn cleanse of the area, but their injury metrics have been tightened to reflect the lower hazard of the operation.”
Authorizing the [High Gutter] team to reduce the isolated defensive post to a heap of cinders and ash was a relief for which Azma felt she owed the local [Adventurers] a nod of thanks.
[High Gutter] had originally been a strongpoint fought over between two rival kingdoms in the area. Both kingdoms were under the subjugation of the [Consortium of Pain’s] forces, which were in turn under the long distance control of the [Hungry Shadow].
Unlike on the Consortium ships though, the citizens of [High Gutter] hadn’t been corrupted into mindless appendages of the [Hungry Shadows] will.
Which had meant that to secure [High Gutter] and block off both of the kingdoms from the rest of the region, penning in the Consortium’s forces, they were going to need to either kill all of the locals, or fight around them.
Penswell had been surprised when Azma had put forth a plan to fight around them. It was a costlier approach, both in terms of resources required and troops that would be lost to the effort. Or it would have been costlier to anyone else.
Azma was the one who had designed the Consortium’s strategy though and so she was keenly away of the importance of [High Gutter] and its weak points.
Saving the citizens within [High Gutter] wasn’t charity though. The forces Azma had deployed to the kingdoms [High Gutter] sealed away were rife of Necromancers. Her original strategy with them had been for the units to be self sustaining by using the bodies of their fallen enemies to both demoralize the defenders and act as a shield for her own forces.
Reversing that strategy meant, in part, denying the Consortium forces access to both dead bodies.and lingering spirits.
Thanks to the local [Adventurers] though, the people of [High Gutter] had been rescued and moved to a safer, more secure location.
Which meant Azma’s forces could simply annihilate the place.
It wasn’t a fair method of fight by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it one which paid dividends later, or allowed for the cost of the operation to be recouped in loot or land value.
Azma was in the joyful position of being unconcerned about recouping costs though since, by all calculations, the world she was on would be reduced to free floating subatomic particles within the week.
“Shall I inform Strategist Penswell of the change in plans?” Ryschild asked.
“That won’t be necessary,” Azma said. “She understands our goals and for the time being they are aligned with hers.”
Penswell had proven to be a delight. Where Azma was normally in the habit of unpacking her thoughts into diminished and more easily digestible chunks, with Penswell she’d been free to speak in something much closer to the shorthand which she thought in.
The need for pretense and artifice was largely absent as well, which was so refreshing Azma had given serious consideration to abandoning her other plans and simply remaining on-world after the current crisis was resolved in order to war against Penswell till they both got bored of whatever stalemate they worked themselves into.
In Penswell, Amza had found someone who understood their relationship, its boundaries, and opportunities without any need for Azma to spell them out or arrange for tedious object lessons.
They were both valuable to each other. They would extract what value was available, arranging at all times to place themselves in a favorable position in the long run, but – and this was the bit so many others failed to see – not mindlessly at the expense of the other.
It was fine for Azma to burn [High Gutter] to the ground. It was a loss for Penswell’s concerns overall, and a mild gain for Azma’s forces. In the long term though, the damage done to the holdings Penswell was responsible for was minor – nothing irreplaceable had been lost, and they had both gained a significant advantage over the Consortium forces in the region.
Penswell could trust that, for the time being, Azma would not injure her or her forces unless the injury paid a far higher yield for both of them since Azma needed Penswell and her forces to be as strong as they possibly could be if she was going to wield them as a weapon against her true enemies.
Azma turned to considering her forces around the [Scarlet Cascade] with that in mind. She refused to allow any fatalities, but with the exemplary performance of her other troops, she could risk a more aggressive posture against the [Battle Engines] at the [Scarlet Cascade].
The safe play was to disable the Consortium’s giant war machines in a pre-emptive strike, but she was feeling greedy and her forces would be in a decidedly better position if the [Battle Engines] could be captured rather than destroyed.
She was weighing the possibilities when Penswell appeared in the seat on the opposite side of the table from her.
“The [Battle Engines] are a loss,” Penswell said. No introduction, no prelude, no context setting at all really.
Azma nearly swooned.
“A new enemy has arisen?” Azma asked. It was the most likely scenario, despite it being unheralded and relatively implausible.
Had the machines been destroyed though, there would be no need to assault the [Scarlet Cascade] anymore and if the Consortium had received reinforcements to protect them, Penswell would have arrived with their layout and a gleeful expression at getting to crush such a concentration of the enemy all in one place.
“The local monsters are leveling up,” Penswell said.
Azma took a moment to process that.
It hadn’t been on her mental radar because it was apparently impossible in this world.
Quantized power rankings like “levels” weren’t a unique thing. The Consortium dealt with any number of worlds were reality was ordered with powers available in discrete chunks. A common trait of those worlds was that some entities had a fixed power state while others were fluid. Generally the ones that could grow though, grew along predictable and limited paths. The fixed entities, by comparison, tended to enjoy a broader diversity of abilities and powers at the expense of remaining unchanged.
The “monsters’ of this world were almost universally of the fixed power state variety, which meant they had a plethora of different abilities, though only a few manifested in each individual.
If those entities had gained the ability to increase their power states though…
“Have any broken the power cap for your [Adventurers]?” Azma asked. She could guess based on Penswell’s expression but for something this critical it was worth being certain.
“Yes. We’ve lost three teams so far and the Total Party Kill count is in the hundreds already,” Penswell said.
Ryschild and Grenslaw were both standing beside her, silent and watchful, though for a change Azma’s suspected that was because they had nothing to offer, rather than the sense to wait to be asked for their suggestions.
Azma didn’t blame them for that. She had to spend a few moments considering the implications of Penswell’s news.
“Having any of them broken the power cap for the highest extant ‘monsters’?” she asked, unsure which disastrous answer she would prefer.
“Unknown at present,” Penswell said. “Two [Alliances] are probing the matter as we speak.”
“At your request?”
“They began organizing before I learned of the situation,” Penswell said.
Because [Adventurers] had, at best, a passing and hate-filled relationship with personal safety.
Azma hadn’t counted on the extent to which that was true in her original plan to the conquer the world, which explained a rather large portion of the deviations in her initial assaults effectiveness. Seeing it in person, she was sure she could adjust her next attempt accordingly but also not looking forward to it overmuch.
Fighting foes that were effectively unkillable was one thing. Azma had managed that a number of times.
Fighting dealing with foes who were unkillable and extremely willing to throw themselves into a blender repeatedly was simply tiresome, as well as aggravatingly difficult to extract a profit from.
Azma was sure she could beat the combined forces of the world with her current nearly microscopic army. She was less sanguine about doing so without going miserably bankrupt in the process, and that was the sort of fight she tried to avoid at all costs.
“Either result represents an opportunity, but limited leveling would be preferable,” Azma said.
“I’m adjusting the disposition of my troops to absorb either eventuality, but the [Confidence Rating] of my plans is dropping to unacceptable levels,” Penswell said.
“Armageddon protocols?” Azma asked.
“Invoked and available,” Penswell said. “Still in reserve though.”
The newly empowered monsters might be limited to the power states already available in this reality or they might be capable of breaking all known limits and becoming mathematically unstoppable. In either case there was the possibility that they would overrun the world and destroy any hope of defending it, even apart the looming threat of [Hungry Shadow] or the potential arrival of a solar system destroying task force from the Consortium.
Should that happen, despite Penswell and Azma’s best efforts to prevent it, they intrinsically agreed upon the proper course of action. Namely, that the last action they would take would be to ensure the rampaging monsters were aimed in the correct direction to destroy their other foes.
If they were going to be destroyed, there was no chance they were going down without sending out a retributive strike capable of shattering the heavens and ensuring that those ultimately responsible for their downfall suffered a far worse fate than the one Penswell and Azma had been consigned to.
But of course that wasn’t going to happen.
“Good,” Azma said. “Invoking them sends the proper message but they will never need to come out of your reserve.”
“Of course not,” Penswell said. “Alone, either one of us could ensure that.”
Azma refused to cackle.
It was rather tempting though.
Whatever strange fates controlled this world, they had made the absolute worst possible mistake in giving her an equal to contest against.
Because Azma didn’t fight against people like Penswell.
Not when allying with them would let her finally become the true master of her own destiny.