Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 4

It wasn’t everyday that Azma had a cadre of highly skilled and impossibly well armed mercenaries volunteer to enter her service. That was more of a monthly occurrence really.

“When you say you’re willing to kill quite a lot of people to help me achieve my goals, whom did you have in mind?” she asked.

“We’re thinking to start with the Consortium fleet that’s in orbit, and then the one that’s supposed to be inbound to detonate the sun,” Hailey said. “Once those obstacles have been removed, there’s kind of a long laundry list of Senior Executives who need to go down before the Consortium gives up on this world. And of course the inevitable competitors who decide there’s a market opportunity to exploit here.”

“Of course,” Azma said. “And you’re fee for this will be?”

“Dungeon loot rules,” Hailey said.

Azma tried to parse that. She got the general gist of it from context but the particulars were potentially rather important in cases like this.

“Please be more specific,” Azma said.

“All items of value obtained during a mission are placed into a common pool,” Hailey said. “Anyone who wants a particular piece can cast a lot on it as ‘Need’ or ‘Greed’. Any ‘Need’ lot beats any ‘Greed’ lot, highest roll gets the item.”

“And this would be for?”

“The fleet,” Hailey said. “If we take down a ship, we’ll lot for the pieces of it, and for the ship as a whole I guess. Same with anything the Senior Executives have.”

Azma let a bemused smile cross her lips. They’d been a cute distraction, but the thought of eight [Adventurers] however well geared and highly leveled taking on the might of even the local fleet was laughable. And that was discounting the additional problems the [Hungry Shadow] posed.

This ‘Hailey’ had been singularly helpful according to Penswell though, and she knew about Durance Group, so Azma couldn’t very well let them go.

Had Penswell sent them to her so that Azma would eliminate them? That seemed very out of character for Penswell, but it warranted a lengthy ten seconds of consideration, while Azma chewed on a particularly succulent piece of the [Golden Boar Steak].

“You might want to mention the special compensation we’d be providing to her,” Mellisandra said. She wasn’t dining, but was sampling the wine that was served along with the food. Azma knew nothing of the wine’s vintage, but was perfectly certain that Ryschild had selected something appropriate.

“Special compensation?” Azma asked without letting too much weariness enter her voice. 

Mercenaries had sadly predictable ideas about what motivated people, and Azma dreaded talk of how the items which could be liquidated for cash would be dispersed. She’d seen a hundred different schemes for compensation structures that somehow always favored the ones who created them.

“We need armor and weapons,” Hailey said. “We enjoy things like spaceships and real estate. Those material things are what drive us to do this. Well, that and basic survival, but survival has too many other options to be entirely relevant here. You, however, are playing a different game than we are and so you have different concerns, and needs, and desires.”

It wasn’t a particularly brilliant deduction, but it did offer the promise that these [Adventurers] might understand the value of something beyond a sharp blade and a bag of gold.

“And what do you have that might address those concerns?” Azma asked, a worm of curiosity nibbling away at her despite the certainty that only disappointment awaited her.

“It’s not what we have now, it’s what we will have,” Hailey said. “Information. As the [Supreme Commander], there’s nothing you didn’t have access to for the fleet we’re facing presently but once they’re cleared away and we move onto the incoming star destroying fleet, we’ll be interacting with people and systems which are outside your sphere of control.”

“Go on,” Azma said, though she could see where Hailey’s offer was leading.

“When we tear through them, there will be files and reports and all sorts of intelligence,” Hailey said. “If you’re the [Quest Giver], then we can guarantee those documents will be returned to you. Returned unopened specifically.”

Azma stopped chewing for a second.

That was a dangerously insightful offer. Her greatest need was information, and information which no one else was privy to was  what she build her deadliest weapons out of.

But everything had a price.

“You will expect something in return, a reward for your quest,” she said. She wasn’t unsure of that, but she did wonder if they would value what they offered properly.

“Of course,” Hailey said. “A title is traditional. And for a quest chain like this one, a special uniform, dyeable to be clear, is pretty much a requirement.”

“A title? And a uniform?” Azma knew [Adventurers] were mad in a general sense. New manifestations of it though were still able to surprise her.

“A dyeable uniform,” Damnazon said, tapping the rainbow splattered breastplate she wore with pride.

“That’s not the real contribution you’ll be making though,” Hailey said.

“And what would my real contribution be?” Azma asked.

“The quests!” Hailey said.

“Explain please,” Azma said, though she was starting to see what the [Adventurers] meant by ‘working for her’.

“You understand the Consortium far better than any of us do. You know every capability of the fleet overhead and you have deep knowledge about the working of the rest of the Consortium’s operations and capabilities,” Hailey said. “You are also a strategic and tactical genius. There is no one better to create the plan for dismantling the Consortium step-by-step.”

It was a lovely sentiment, if a completely impractical one.

Azma was having a good day though, and if she wasn’t go to be kidnapped, she might at least entertain herself with the daydream that the [Adventurers] might be able to make good on their claims.

“What you ask is a tall order,” Azma said.

“Is it?” Hailey said. “Let’s consider some things; the last time we tried to assault the fleet, you were in command of it. And we lost. But why was that?”

“Because you were venturing onto unfamiliar terrain against a foe who expected your arrival and knew your capabilities. In general at least,” Azma said. “It comes as no surprise I’m sure that you were baited into that assault so that you would reveal more of your capabilities, and so that we could gain some live specimens to probe deeper.”

“Yeah, that was part of the lore,” Hailey said. “Though, I’m impressed you up the time table on that. From the initial outline it didn’t sound like those raids would ready for another half year at least.”

“Lore?” Azma asked.

“I’m not what you might expect,” Hailey said, “I’m more alien to this world than you are.”

“And that means?”

“On my homeworld, we have a game, a work of fiction which exactly mirrors everything here. This world. All of the magic in it. All of the monster. All of the people. Even you.”

Azma drew in a slow breath and considered the idea. It was unlikely, but not impossible. There were all sorts of scrying and remote viewing devices, and more worlds, and overlapping branches of time, and layers of reality than even the Consortium could catalog. That one of them might have developed a technology which allowed them to monitor other worlds on other planes was virtually a given. That they would make a game out of the scenes they perceived was unexpected but it did fit with the [Adventurers] general mindset.

“And you know me from this game?” Azma asked.

“You had just stepped onto the scene in the game when the [World Shift] event happened,” Hailey said. “And that person wasn’t you. Not the full you, as you really are. She was a villainous adversary with terrifying troops and plans-within-plans, but she lacked your full depth. From my point of view, she’s a rumor about you. Something that might be true, and perhaps sketches the general shape of who you are, but can’t be taken as truly representative of the current you.”

“I’m curious that you would work with someone you describe as ‘villainous’, or do you believe that I have changed? Perhaps as a result of something you’ve done?” Azma asked.

“Not at all,” Hailey said “I don’t think you’ve changed. I don’t think you should have to.”

“There are more than a few corpses who would disagree with you,” Azma said.

“Except they can’t because they’re dead, and good riddance,” Hailey said, “I know what the Consortium types you’ve had to deal with are like, They’re in our fiction too. And we have plenty of people like this in real life too. Spacing is too good for most of them. What you did was a service to everyone.”

Those words should have rolled off Azma. She’d heard empty flattery countless times before.

Except this didn’t sound empty.

Or slavishly worshipful.

Hailey sung Azma’s praises as though she were simply stating basic facts. Facts that Hailey was unashamed to approve of.

Wheels and schemes danced in Azma’s head as her daydreams took on their usual sharp and purposeful edges.

“So you’re idea is to have me design the plan for the conquest of the Consortium’s local fleet as a series of ‘quests’, utilizing my knowledge of the fleet’s capabilities to enhance your chance of success?” Azma asked.

“The local fleet first, then the rest, yes,” Hailey said. “By breaking it down into individual quests, we can be sure that the tasks are manageable ones. You can evaluate our performance and tweak the plans for the subsequent missions based on that, and on the resistance we encounter.”

The idea of sending a perfectly expendable team up to bother the [Hungry Shadow] wasn’t unappealing, though it did come with its own risks.

“If any of you should be corrupted, the others will have to destroy them. Utterly,” Azma said, already considering how they would be able to quarantine the [Adventurers] from making contact with anyone after the first time they encountered the [Hungry Shadows] troops.

“That won’t be a problem,” Hailey said.

“We’re immune,” Damnazon said.

“Immune?” Azma asked. “How do you know?”

“It turns out all [Adventurers] are now. One of us unlocked it and the world kind of rolled it out to the rest of us,” Hailey said.

“How can you be sure of that?” Azma asked. It was far too late to run if they were wrong, but the temptation was still there.

“Because she was the one who made it a [Formless Hunger] in the first place and then fought it to a standstill until it had to change into a [Hungry Shadow] to escape her.”

Azma. Cool, ultimately collected, unflappable Azma gaped.

“I’m sorry. What did you just say?”

“One of my friends was on the [High Beyond] before your forces attacked it,” Hailey said. “She was the one who tore a piece off it after it ate [Sky’s Edge]. That was what turned it from nothing, to the [Formless Hunger]. It came back for a rematch in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] and she fought it there again. This time she had a god soul to work with. The [Hungry Shadow] that left that fight didn’t really come out as the winner. Right now she’s working on putting together round three, and I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about the [Hungry Shadow] or anything like it after that.”

Hailey could have been lying. She had to be lying. It wasn’t possible to simple beat up a Transcendental Entity.

But something had.

Something, no, someone had changed it.

Made it into something more real.

Azma’s mind spun. Galaxies whirled within her. New constellations formed. From infinite possibilities new ideas, new schemes, new tapestries of interwoven plans came together.

The [Adventurers] could withstand the [Hungry Shadow].

The fleet was no longer guarded by forces she was directing.

Only near mindless drones remained.

And the [Adventurers]? What could she do with eight of them? Take back the fleet? Impossible. Or impossible for anyone else? Could she do it? If she had more resources?

“That changes the situation significantly,” Azma said. “It would change still further if you could convince another party, or better two or three, to join you in this endeavor though.”

It was Hailey’s turn to look perplexed.

And then gasp in embarrassment.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t really explain. The last time we assaulted the fleet, it was out of pride and a sense of duty to the world. And that works for a lot of us. A lot of [Adventurers] like to play the part of being a hero. But that differs. What units us all, across every level, and every game is that if you give something good enough loot, we will fall on it like a pack of starving wolves and grind down any problems we face until they’re dust.”

Hailey paused, checking in to make sure Azma was following her.

“I’m not asking you to be a [Quest Giver] for the eight of us in the room,” Hailey said. “I’m asking you to plan a strategy for all of us. All the [Adventurers]. No one is going to want to miss getting a piece of this.”

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