Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 3

Azma was concerned. Not yet worried. That was at least ten minutes away which, all things considered, was ten minutes more than she’d expected to have a day ago.

“Communications from the fleet have ceased,” Grenslaw said. “Shall I instruct our troops to redouble their blocking protocols?”

“Yes, for at least the new twelve hours. Beyond that we’ll need to review the situation in case we need to expand our local communication range,” Azma said without needing to think through the response too much.

Since they’d landed, the fleet, or more precisely the entity which had taken control of the fleet had been broadcasting on all of the secure interplanetary channels. It’s messages were varied, at least according to the checksums on them, but they all effectively served the same purpose. Opening one of the messages would provide the entity with a pathway to access the reader, from whom it would them spread as fast and far as possible. 

That it had stopped broadcasting was no indication that Azma and her forces were safe from its depredations however. In all likelihood it meant that the entity was evolving and had new plans it wished to try in order to consume them. 

It was, of course, also possible that the entity was dead, defeated by the Consortium or some other unknown foe. Azma calculated the odds of that as being too low to have more than a half dozen safeguards against. If the primary threat she and the rest of the planet faced had been defeated, then whatever had defeated a formerly transcendental entity was unlikely to pose any less of a threat than the [Hungry Shadow] had.

“Intelligence gathering on the local forces has returned all preliminary reports,” Ryschild said. “I’ve separated the data on the standard troops from what we’ve collected on the [Adventurers]. So far there aren’t any significant deviations from data provided by [Commander] Penswell.”

Azma nodded. Of course Penswell had shared accurate information with her. They both knew the other would be generating their own reports and any discrepancies would be trivial to unearth. Azma would need to review the reports on the [Adventurers] herself to find the truly useful information. Or rather the truly useful lack of information.

Penswell hadn’t given her false information, just as Azma hadn’t provide Penswell with an incorrect breakdown of the Consortium forces, both the ones under her control and the ones that had been converted to the Hungry Shadows control or had gone fully rogue, pursuing what they believed to the Consortium’s interests as their senior commanders were hollowed out to serve as shells and meat puppets for the Hungry Shadow.

Both however had held back certain qualities of their respective forces in their reports. In some cases, this was a good faith measure taken to ensure they didn’t drown the meaningful data out with useless minutiae. Since Azma could imagine roughly ten thousand scenarios where she or Penny would betray the other, keeping at least a few secrets was more or less mandatory.

Unless she wanted to let everything slip away.

Her whole career, everything she’d built, it was all teetering on the precipice. Or perhaps it was already falling.

The temptation to let it all go. To tip fully over the edge, to let everything crash and burn, the appeal of the notion whispered to her in words of freedom, of rest, of lasting peace after a lifetime of strife.

Azma didn’t try to deny the appeal of the thought. Nothing was tempting if it wasn’t at least a little appealing.

But it didn’t appeal enough.

Not yet.

To give up when the game was still going? To not see it through to the end? That was barely different than losing, and she didn’t lose. Even stripped of her rank, collaborating with the enemy, and on the cusp of seeing the Consortium fall into burning ruin, Azma refused to abandon her long term plans.

The Consortium would fall. It would be brought low and humbled before being rebuilt, but it was not a transcendent entity that would either crush it or restore it. Both of those victories would belong to her.

“[Supreme Commander], there’s a group of [Adventurers] who are asking to speak with you?” Grenslaw said, apparently as perplexed as Azma was at that turn of events.

“Are there now?” she said. “And what is it they wish to discuss?”

“They want to enlist?” Grenslaw still didn’t sound any more certain about the idea.

“With the Consortium?” Azma asked, searching for the trap, the plot, the scheme that this odd turn of events might fall into.

“No. With you they say?” Grenslaw said.

Azma was puzzled for the eternity of three seconds before finally smiling.

“By all means then, have them sent to my dining room. I will meet with them there as soon as we have finished the troops assignments for the assault on [The Citadel of Forgotten Frost].”

Azma saw seventeen different plots that Penswell alone might be attempting with this strange new offer, each one the more ludicrously unlikely than the last. Secretly she hoped it was the ninth plot she’d considered. It would be so delightful for Penswell to send her a team of assassins to suborn. They could hold her hostage, try to escape, she’d turn their loyalties before they could reach the inactive teleport crystal. It would be such a wonderful distraction, and a sign that Penny really was serious about taking the spot of Azma’s chief rival that had sat absent for, essentially, forever.

Assigning the troops to the campaign against the [Citadel of Forgotten Frosts] was the work of only twenty minutes. Grenslaw and Ryschild both offered insightful suggestions, and critiques of each others plans as well as Azma’s own. Together the three arrived at a series of strategies and force distributions which would likely mean the entire assault would run automatically without further intervention. 

Azma had planned to oversee the operation anyway, in order to ensure that the inevitable unforeseen events would be accounted for properly, but as their meeting concluded she changed her mind.

“Grenslaw, give the orders to mobilize for the operation immediately. Ryschild please brief the unit commanders on the primary strategy and their fallback options. Once all units are in position and readiness is verified, give the order to commence.”

“Should we alert you when the ready checks begin?” Ryschild asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” Azma said. “You two will have full command of this operation. I leave the division of strategic oversight and tactical coordination to you.”

And with that, she was gone, walking sedately down the hallway in the castle she’d liberated in the last operation to find her [Adventurer] guests waiting for her.

She could have brought guards she decided as she stepped into the dining room and saw a full team sitting around the table, waiting for her before they began the meals that had been laid out before them.

Guards would have been expected.

Would they be too put off by the lack of guards to try for a kidnapping?

It was a silly fancy. Azma knew that. They weren’t [Assassins] and they weren’t going to kidnap her. Even if she’d brought the dimmest, most easily overpowered guards she had, which to be fair, even her worst troops measured up well against the level capped [Adventurers] before her, even with her worst though, Azma knew she was be disappointed if she hoped too much for an assassination attempt.

“Told you she’d wouldn’t need a legion of troops to talk to us,” a woman named Hailey said.

A goblin sitting to the left her, slide platinum coin over to her.

The goblin didn’t seem concerned with lost bet as much as he seemed interested in Azma though.

Oh! He was an [Assassin]!

Azma’s hear fluttered with joy but the feeling sank down as she studied Cambrell. 

He wasn’t here to kill her.

Azma scanned the room. Mellisandra had several active spells guarding herself from an impressive array of possible attacks. Damnazon’s reflexes were sufficient that no one else in the room, Azma included, would be able to make a move before she did. And so on it went. Everyone was highly proficient and disturbingly well geared. The team before her was easily a match for any three of Azma’s [Elite Strike Teams]. 

And none of them wanted to kill her.

With a sigh and a shrug that seemed to perplex the [Adventurers] as much as their presence perplexed her, Azma strolled to her seat at the head of the table and sat down. Lifting her knife and fork, she cut into the local meat dish and lifted her eyes to examine the table again.

“You wished to speak with me?” she asked, breaking what had been an uneasy silence.

“Yes. We’d like to join your team,” the one named Hailey said.

“An unusual request,” Azma observed, curious what they’re reaction might reveal.

From the slight pauses and twitches, many of them were nervous. Except for the half-giant. Damnazon seemed to simply be hungry. She wasn’t. She was as curious and nervous as the rest, but she did a remarkable job of playing a brutish slab of muscle.

“These are unusual times,” Hailey said to which Azma had to nod a simple agreement.

“What do you imagine enlisting with my forces would entail?” she asked.

A part of her wanted to believe that they were delaying the kidnapping until later, once they’d learned her routines, but the rest of her knew that was a vain hope.

“Furthering your agenda,” Hailey said without missing a beat.

“And what do you believe my agenda to be?” Azma asked. She missed that there weren’t any convenient airlocks, because history suggested that the answer to her question would be something so stupid that death was really the only remedy.

“You want to control your own destiny,” Hailey said. “Your plan to do so prior to this fiasco was to recoup the Consortium’s investment in this world for both the economic and political influence it would gain you and parley that into an expedition to the Barzai System wherein you would be able to both subjugate the planet as well as unearth and claim ownership of a hidden reserve Soul Contracts which the Consortium’s competitor the Durance Group uses to enforce the loyalty of their senior staff members. With the Durance Group’s senior staff under your command, your ascension to a Senior Executive role in the Consortium would be a fait accompli and from there a campaign of general intrigue and assassination would place you on the governing board, which you would then destroy and replace with a governing structure of your own design. If I remember correctly, that is.”

There is a point beyond which shocking and surprising situations simply can’t move you. Azma felt like that place had become her home.

“Interesting,” was all she chose to say as she took a bite of the [Golden Boar Steak].

“Obviously your plans are likely to have changed, but I’m guessing that your long term goals remain the same?” Hailey asked.

If they had been on a ship, Azma would have executed the entire table. Her plans with the Durance Group were one’s she held buried under a series of psychic locks and keys. The chance that anyone, anywhere could be aware of them was precisely zero.

Ordinarily, preserving her plans might have allowed her some leeway in determining Hailey and the other’s fate, but with the Durance Group it was a matter of preserving her own life, and so the secret would need to die with them to be kept safe.

But Azma was no longer living in ordinary times.

“And you wish to aid me in that endeavor?” she asked.

“Given that the alternative is the Consortium sending in a task force to make our sun go supernova? Yes. We very much would like to see you replace the current idiots who are in charge and we’re willing to kill a great number of people to make that happen.”

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