Hailey’s team wasn’t the first to engage the [Broken Hunger’s] forces on the corrupted Consortium fleet. That honor had gone to [L’Arc En Ciel], a primarily European guild that had scored the [World’s First] clears for the three most recently released end game dungeons.
Azma had evaluated all of the top guilds who were able to field viable [Raid Parties] via the early [Quests] she and her [Co-commanders] had handed out. What would normally have been a competition that ran for several weeks had been settled in a matter of three hours.
It wasn’t that she and Grenslaw and Ryschild were simply taking all comers either. Yes, the effort needed as many combatants as possible but in a move that perplexed even the [Adventurers] themselves, Azma insisted that her forces were not going to be sent into a meat grinder. Initially, Hailey had assumed Azma was speaking of the troops she’d retained (saved really) from the her original Consortium deployment. That wasn’t her intention though. Azma clarified the matter the moment it was brought up.
She flatly refused to see the [Adventurers] feed themselves into the maw of death repeatedly in an effort to wear down the [Broken Shadow], or the new forces they’d discovered who were in play (fragments of the [Broken Shadow] from what Hailey could make out?).
“It’s inefficient and exposes us to unacceptable risks,” she said.
“The [Hounds of Fate]?” Hailey asked. She wasn’t important enough in terms of combat priority to secure a personal audience with the new [Command Council] but Azma had approved her request almost instantly when she’d asked to speak with them.
“The predations of the [Hounds of Fate] represent a predictable force diminishment rate,” Azma said. “Disagreeable, but a cost that could potentially be required for a successful mission execution.”
“You mean us dying could be worth it to beat this thing?” Damnazon’s translation wasn’t accompanied by anger at the idea. Dying for real was a terrifying idea, but the [Adventurers] who’d signed up for the early quests had gotten to see exactly what the price of failure looked like and there was almost universal agreement that even true death was preferable to what the entity, Broken or Hungry, was capable of doing to people.
In theory of course, the [Adventurers] were immune to the corruptive influence of the entity.
At least in its current form.
Everyone knew that could change though.
What was somewhat more widely convincing was the detailed info on the Consortium’s [Cleansing Fleet] which had been made publicly available.
[Adventurers] were effectively immortal provided they could get to a [Heart Fire] without being caught by a [Hound of Fate]. Something weird was happening with the [Hounds of Fate] but the more pressing concern was that it would be a teensy bit hard to reach a [Heart Fire] to reincarnate when the entire planet had been reduced to a rapidly expanding cloud of disconnected atomic fragments.
There were, of course, those who doubted the reports of what the [Cleansing Fleet] could do. Artificially inducing a super nova event in a star was ludicrously out of genre for a fantasy world. That there was video evidence and testimony of previous [Cleansing Fleet] actions wasn’t enough for those who didn’t want to believe though.
For those people there was one additional lure – the promise of the loot the [Cleansing Fleet] held.
Unique items? Power sources which outclassed those anyone else had access to? Materials which offered damage resistance far beyond the best armor any [Adventurer] was wearing? It was, theoretically possible for an [Adventurers] to choose to pass that up. It they were willing to be second best. Left behind. Not as strong as the real players.
Azma’s lesson to Grenslaw and Ryschild was to mandate nothing. They instead offered lavish rewards for the behaviors they wished to see, and withheld those rewards from the [Adventurers] who didn’t act properly.
Hailey couldn’t help but notice that their methods were roughly analogous to the positive reinforcement training methods she’d used to teach basic obedience to her sister’s puppies. She also had to admit that those methods were working just fine on both herself and all of the [Adventurers] who’d passed the gauntlet of [Quests] to be offered a shot at the former Consortium fleet.
“If spending our lives in order to win is on the table for this,” Hailey asked. “Then what’s keeping us from zerging the fleet?”
Hailey was surprised when it wasn’t Azma who answered by Grenslaw instead.
“The more times our [Adventurers] die fighting the [Broken Hunger] the more opportunities it has to learn how to thwart your ability to self-resurrect.”
“Or, worse, learn how to copy the trick itself,” Ryschild added.
“Wouldn’t learning to resurrect via [Heart Fires] be impractical for it?” Mellisandra asked. “It doesn’t have ready access to any on the fleet.”
“There are still [Heart Fires] on the satellite moon, which is controls wholly,” Azma said. “So far, the entity seems to have taken little interest in those since it can’t make any direct use of them, but that could change all too easily.”
“That makes sense, sort of,” Hailey said. “From what Tessa said, it was born from one of [Heart Fires], but it was one that had been damaged beyond repair and had the divine spark within it fully exposed. Whatever’s capable of holding a fragment of god power in must be immune to the nothingness effect that thing has too.”
“So far as we know, that’s not possible,” Azma said. “[Transcendental Entities] can’t be bound by or resisted by any material or power within an realized worldline. Since that is clearly not the case in the worldline we’re presently in however, our knowledge apparently does not stretch for enough.”
“We know the [Broken Shadows] has been growing more, I guess ‘real’ is best term, with every change its undergone,” Hailey said. “Do we know that it can even still change to do things like copy [Adventurer] abilities?”
“We don’t,” Grenslaw said.
“But we do have a theory which you are helping us put to the test,” Ryschild said.
“Yay, we’re guinea pigs!” Damnazon said, nowhere near as unhappy with the notion as Hailey felt a sensible person should be.
“Is it the kind of theory you can share with us, or will that spoil the test?” Hailey asked.
“We believe the abilities of [Adventurers] may be easier to replicate than wholly new phenomena,” Azma said. “They allow for variations in the first tier laws of this world’s physical structures, but your world is already setup to support them. They represent a third or fourth tier of physical and arcane law.”
“I’m not sure I followed that,” Damnazon said.
“Consider a [Fireball] spell,” Azma said. “Fire is not able to spontaneously appear in this world. Under normal circumstances, there must be fuel for it to burn, and oxygen for it to consume. A [Fireball] spell can be cast without fuel and can burn through the void of space. That’s a violation of the basic law of energy conservation, however the presence of arcane energies allows that law to be circumvented to a specific extent. A fixed quantity of mystical energy can be exchanged both to fuel the spell and to suspend the use proscription against producing fire from nowhere.”
“So you think that the next time the [Broken Shadow] changes, it’s going to manifest abilities that we already see withing the world, because those will be easier to access?” Mellisandra asked.
“We do,” Ryschild said.
“Should we be looking for that?” Hailey asked.
“Not especially,” Azma said. “We want to collect multiple corroborating reports before we consider the question decided.”
“That’s why we’re having the [Adventurers] report the specific details of what they encounter,” Ryschild said.
“It would be easy to see one of the [Broken Shadows] throw a ball of fire and jump to the conclusion that it was using the standard [Fireball] spell. We want to verify that the observed temperature, range, coloration, and other factors all line up though,” Grenslaw said.
“It’s also possible it will development new abilities which are analogous to [Adventurer] abilities while not being precisely the same,” Azma said. “We need to know if the limitations [Adventurers] face will also be true for the [Broken Shadows] next form.”
“There is something else you may want to consider,” Cambrell said. The [Goblin] had been doing a magnificent job of blending in with the decor, but Hailey hadn’t forgotten he was there. There was something oddly comforting about the notion of an [Assassin] lurking in the shadows who was on her side.
“Monsters?” Azma asked.
“Yes. They already have abilities which are variants of what [Adventurers] possess, typically with far fewer constraints,” Cambrell said. “As well as abilities no [Adventurers] have access to.”
“Indeed, and thanks to your friend,” Azma nodded at Hailey, “We have a comprehensive list of those abilities too, as well as numerical data on how they function.”
“I see why you’re going to need multiple reports to confirm this hypothesis,” Mellisandra said.
“How critical is it that you determine the answer to that question?” Hailey asked.
“Currently it is the second most important matter we’re investigating,” Ryschild said.
“The second? Wow. Why is it so vital?” Hailey asked.
“To put together a final strategy for dealing [Broken Shadow’s] next form, we need to understand what that form’s capabilities will be,” Azma said. “It’s optimizing itself with each change and, as we are now the predominant threat to its continued existence, its next change will be optimized for dealing with us.”
“Optimized how?” Damnazon asked.
“At the very least we expect it to be able to mimic the most debilitating effects the various [Mega Bosses] you’ve had to face possessed,” Grenslaw said. “Its initial form included the ability perceive and corrupt even the most highly secured data. Each time you face it, its going to be able to learn more about how your abilities work, and, if we’re correct, it will naturally be drawn to the most powerful counteragents which currently exist to prevent you from using them.”
“So [Magic Nullification] fields,” Mellisandra said.
“And [Stamina Depletion Auras],” Cambrell said.
“Decent chance it’ll develop [Confusion Pulses] too,” Damnazon said. “Those are always rough to deal with.”
The [Adventurers] gave a collective groan of agreement.
“So, the [Final Boss Fight] for this part of the questline is going to be miserable,” Hailey said. “I’m shocked. Totally shocked.”
“It is pretty par for the course,” Mellisandra conceded.
“There’s a new angle to it though,” Cambrell said.
“Yeah, I picked up on that too,” Hailey said. “I was just trying to ignore that part.”
“You can feel free too,” Ryschild said.
“That’s our job to plan for,” Grenslaw said.
“What’s the new angle?” Damnazon asked.
“We only get one shot at this,” Hailey said. “If we come close by don’t quite manage to take it down, we’ll probably push it into changing again, and optimizing itself to deal with whatever we come at it with.”
“Oh,” Damnazon said, her single syllable carrying the impossible weight the task represented.
Everyone present knew that [Adventurers] could beat [Mega Bosses]. There was a long and glorious history of groups taking down the most ludicrous of foes, starting with the best of the best among the [Adventurers] and gradually expanding on to a general majority of them as the tricks for the battle were worked out and the overall power level of the populace gradually rose.
Beating a boss in one go though? The only people who could be confident in that were those who’d never attempted a [Mega Boss Battle] while it was still considered current content.
“But you’re going to have a plan for us, right?” Damnazon asked, scanning the faces of the [Command Council].
“I don’t know,” Azma said. “Normally I’d have a plan already or I wouldn’t have embarked on even this much of a war effort.”
“Is that a bad sign?” Cambrell asked.
“No. I don’t think so,” Azma said. “To tell you the truth, it’s rather exciting. I’m feeling rather inspired in fact.”
Hailey felt like there was something there she should follow up on but a more pressing question rose to her mind first.
“You said understanding the [Broken Shadows] capabilities was your second highest priority,” Hailey said. “What’s the first?”
“Why, how to kill it of course,” Azma said with a delighted smile.