Azma had heard coordinating [Adventurers] spoken of as being similar to “herding cats”. Most cats, so far as she knew, were not packing the enough armaments to put a Consortium [Battle Carrier] to shame. Also, had a herd of cats been somehow equipped with a seemingly unlimited supply of weapons of mass destruction, Azma was reasonably certain they would have deployed them with more discretion than [Adventurers] seemed to be capable of exercising.
“They blew up the launch facility,” she said, staring at the tactical map as though through sheer force of disbelief she could will it into a more reasonable state.
“And the fuel depot that had been setup,” Penny said. “Twice.”
“I’m unclear on that,” Grenslaw said. “How did they blow a fuel depot up twice?”
“The second was a a decoy,” Azma said, her voice heavy with resignation.
“Why did they blow a decoy up if they’d already destroyed the actual fuel depot?” Ryschild asked.
Penny was mostly successful in suppressing a laugh.
“You could ask them,” she said. “To save you the time though, the only consensus you’ll be able to find is ‘because it was there’.”
“But it wasn’t!” Azma said. “The fuel depot was isolated from the launch facility precisely so it wouldn’t fall under attack when the launch facility did.”
“Ah, yes, well, you see that made it seem like ‘bonus content’ to them,” Penny said.
“Bonus what?” Azma asked.
“Many of the serious threats on this world prefer to keep their most valuable items in secure locations, well apart from their primary lair,” Penny said. “Generally these vaults are well hidden and have their own guardians, but when you’re the fiercest monster on a continent, finding something more dangerous to guard your horde is challenging.”
“So the [Adventurers] have been trained to search around points of interest for high value, low effort targets,” Azma said. “Something to take into account going forward.”
“I should warn you, that’s not precisely what’s happening,” Penny said.
“There are still deeper motivations at work?” Azma asked.
“No, not deeper in the slightest. Quite the reverse in fact,” Penny said. “While you will find some groups of [Adventurers] being as systematic and methodical as you’re imagining, for many of them its more a matter of simply looking for things to hit.”
“Looking for things to hit?” Ryschild asked.
“Yes. If you send them on a mission there are several general outcomes. First, if the mission is precisely tailored to their capabilities and, more importantly, their mood, they will make beeline toward the objective, slaying everything directly in their path.”
“What if the mission requires stealth?” Grenslaw asked.
“Slaying everything directly in their path,” Penny repeated, her smile bright as though it didn’t conceal enough frustration to power a billion suns for the life of the universe.
“And if it’s not tailored precisely to their capabilities?” Ryschild asked.
“Again, multiple scenarios,” Penny said. “Did you send them on a mission which is too difficult for them to achieve? If they are in a stubborn mood, they will hammer away at it until they succeed anyways, or, failing that, grow disinterested and wander off, potentially with the aim of sabotaging any other parties from completing, or even starting the mission, or sometimes with the aim of coming back days, weeks, or years later to finish the request.”
“If they are not feeling stubborn, I would guess they simply arrive at those end states sooner?” Grenslaw asked.
“In that case, you will either never hear from them again, or they will return at some arbitrary point in time with more powerful assistance in their party.”
“Apart from the delay, that doesn’t seem entirely undesirable,” Ryschild said.
“Are you sure of that?” Azma asked. “Penswell has yet to enumerate what happens when a challenge is too easy for a group of [Adventurers].”
“Yes, well, when that happens, the [Adventurers] will frequently look to make things ‘more interesting’ on their own,” Azma said. “Or they will begin ‘farming’ the mission, should it lie in a [Layered Area].”
“By [Layered Area], you mean the spaces on the planet with encircled timestreams?” Grenslaw asked.
“That’s a fair, but incomplete description of them,” Penny said. “[Layered Areas] are spots where the initial state is effectively unchanging. Time flows within them but once foreign entities are removed from the space, it resets. They can change, they’re not truly frozen in time, or literal loops of time, but for most purposes that is how they behave.”
“And this ‘farming’ involves drawing items of value from these spaces?” Ryschild asked, though only as confirmation of what was already understood.
“It’s why there are many people who all wield what is, in some sense, the same unique weapon,” Penny said.
“That explains one of the mysteries which lured the Consortium here,” Azma said. “The world has far too much stored potential. It would have condensed down into a singularity if all its power was born by a single timeline, even with the [Dual Arcanospheres] to support it.”
Penny paused hearing that, turning to look at Azma with a confused expression that brought bubbles of delight to Azma’s heart.
“Even with what to support it?” Penny asked.
“You already know this, it’s just the terminology you’re unfamiliar with,” Azma said, relenting. “Your world is coterminous with another – the source of the [Adventurers] I would guess unless their origin is as bizarre and unreasonable as they are.”
“They have described the passage between worlds as a trip beyond the farthest stars,” Penny said. “If our two worlds are coterminous, why would travel between them be difficult?”
“It shouldn’t be,” Azma said. “Once we determined our prize was part of a dual system, my plans shifted to include opening the deeper world as well.”
“Deeper?” Penny asked.
“Your world is metaphysically in front of the other, at least from the dimensions we transported through,” Azma said. “To access it, we needed to bring your world’s [Arcanosphere] under our control. Once that was accomplished though, transit to the other world would have been trivial – though opening it would have presented its own challenges.”
“You can call it ‘conquering’,” Penny said. “We are all aware of the realities of the situation.”
Azma found a strange lack of condemnation in Penswell’s eyes. There wasn’t encouragement either. Penswell didn’t want Azma to continue with her plans for planetary conquest. She simply accepted what Azma had done.
Azma bit back a scowl, a tremor running down her nerves as though she was adrift in unfamiliar waters.
“Was what happened to the fuel depot a case of the [Adventurers] looking to make things ‘more interesting’ or was there some other motivation there?” Grenslaw asked.
“In this case, I would guess the second group of [Adventurers] to arrive on the scene found that the first group to arrive had slaughtered the [Hungry Shadows] forces leaving them nothing to fight. Rather than continuing on to verify that the rest of the mission had been completed, they probably began foraging for other enemies to fight. If the fuel depot had a patrol, or perhaps a particularly quick squirrel was in the area, they would have followed the trail back to the depot, concluded that they had found a [Side Quest] and proceeded to wreck havoc there as only [Adventurers] can.”
“If they wished to extract valuables from the fuel depot though, why did they blow it up?” Grenslaw asked.
“And why did they blow up the launching facility when the goal was to secure it?” Ryschild asked.
“Likely the same reason for both,” Penny said. “They were probably bored.”
“Should we have recalled them sooner?” Grenslaw asked, to which Penny openly laughed.
“My apologies,” she said. “An [Adventuring Party] is less something you ‘recall’ and more something you ‘unleash’. Rather like a flood, or a wildfire.”
“I was under the impression that they wished to work for me?” Azma said.
“And they will,” Penny said. “They will serve as your own personal earthquake or tornado, or tsunami, and you may drop them on whatever unfortunate target you wish to see obliterated. Beyond that however you may find that your control is rather, well, limited is perhaps the best word.”
“That restricts their usefulness substantially,” Ryschild said.
“We do have a need for shock troops,” Grenslaw said. “And several secondary and tertiary targets where complete annihilation would not conflict with the mission objective.”
Wheels however were spinning in Azma’s mind. Herding cats wasn’t impossible. Far from it. You just needed to understand a feline mindset and adjust your expectations accordingly.
“Oh, we can do better than that,” Azma said, the schematics for a thousand new plans unrolling before her mind’s eye.
Penny smiled and nodded in agreement.
“We can contain their chaos?” Grenslaw asked.
“That would be wasteful,” Azma said. “Order is lovely. Order is what the Consortium is built on. Through order we can achieve mastery and control and stave off the uncertainties of the future which can undermine all we’ve built and hold dear.”
“But there is another way,” Penny said, her tone a gentle welcome to the ideas blooming within Azma.
Azma had always enjoyed chaos in general, while at the same time loathing it when it was applied to her. As she envisioned what the [Adventurers] could do, and what she could do if she embraced their madness a thrill passed through her.
She’d known that the tasks before them, defeating the [Hungry Shadow], overthrowing the Consortium, building a real future, all of them were impossible. She’d also known that she would find a way to do the impossible. If that meant growing beyond what she’d been, releasing the reins she’d held so tightly for so long and trusting that she could ride the whirlwind, even if she couldn’t know where it would take her? Nothing was more terrifying or exhilarating.
“Indeed,” Azma said, new delight filling her as shespun back to the tactical table. “Log these new [Quests] please. With the launch facility destroyed, we’ll need another. The [White Cross Mound] is the central staging point for one of the [High Kings] isn’t it? And its within a few degrees of the equator?”
“That is correct,” Penny said.
“New quest then,” Azma said. “A special [Blue Consortium Breaker Sigil] will be awarded to any group capable of clearing the [White Cross Mound] of all hostile forces. Stress the ‘all’ in the quest description. Also, send a messenger to announce the quest within the mound.”
“That’s quite kind,” Penny said.
“Removing unnecessary targets will promote boredom setting in faster,” Azma said.
“The [Adventurers] are going to depopulate the entire staging point,” Ryschild said.
“Yes. That’s a secondary convenience for us though,” Azma said.
“We’ll also prevent White Cross’s aggression in the area,” Grenslaw said.
“Amusing but not strictly relevant,” Azma said. “No, the purpose of this is to create a proper landing area.”
“A mound will make a poor landing…oh,” Ryschild said.
Grenslaw seemed to understand at the same time.
Once the [Adventurers] were done with the [White Cross Mound] it would be the [White Cross Level Field] or perhaps the [White Cross Scorched Earth]. Either would work quite nicely for Azma’s needs.
“You’ll need more fuel as well,” Penny noted.
“Three additional quests should take care of that. A gold reward for the rare ingredients needed should provide us with plenty correct?”
“Gold alone with provide you with some. Gold plus a fanciful title and you’ll be, perhaps literally, drowning in supplies,” Penny said.
“Grenslaw, Ryschild, pick something suitably silly please,” Azma said.
“[Supreme Commander]?” Grenslaw asked.
“This isn’t a test,” Azma said. “You’ve each proven yourselves. You can see what our goal is here. You’ve seen the mania that animates the [Adventurers]. I don’t believe we have a high bar to clear in terms of offering them a compelling lure.”
“Are we to direct the whole operation?” Ryschild asked.
“In as much as it can be directed? Yes,” Azma said and then looked at her underlings again.
They had proven themselves time and again to her, both in terms of personal loyalty and talent. Azma believed in debts. They were a volatile currency to be leveraged and spent with care and precision. Underlings could expect no debts from their superiors of course, those only existed between equals or as recompense when someone greater bestowed an unearned munificence on you.
“As you wish [Supreme Commander],” Ryschild and Grenslaw said in unison.
“Wait,” Azma said, holding each of their gazes before they could turn away. “Tell me your thoughts.”
“Our thoughts?” Grenslaw asked.
“Yes. How would you handle the [Adventurers], if you had complete freedom to design the mission parameters for them?” Azma asked.
Grenslaw and Ryschild glanced at each other, some unspoken communication passing between them which decided who would speak first.
“You have a new perspective on the [Adventurers],” Ryschild said.
“We would study that before designing [Quests] for them ourselves [Supreme Command],” Grenslaw said.
“Good,” Azma said and turned to Penny. “Could you have two more tactical tables brought in here? Or we can relocate to a more spacious command center.”
“I can arrange for both,” Penny said. “Shall I inform the [Adventurers] that there are two new [Quest Givers] whom they can accept missions from as well?”
“That depends,” Azma said. “Ryschild, Grenslaw, is that a role you wish to take on?”
“We would be delighted to,” Ryschild said, and Grenslaw added, “If those are your orders?”
“My orders no longer constrain you,” Azma said as she typed a quick update into their files to be transmitted to all of her former-Consortium troops. “And you needn’t address me as [Supreme Commander] any longer. For as long as you wish to fill the posts, we are equal members of a [Command Council].”