The sky was falling. Not literally. Yet. Penny suspected that would come along in due time too, but for the moment, it was only the menacing elements of the sky which were plummeting from their lofty perch.
“This turn of events must be predicted on an impossibility but I am receiving too many reports confirming the collapse to discount it,” Azma said, from her holo-projection. “Something had removed our principal immediate opponent from the board.”
“Something has replaced our principal immediate opponent you mean,” Penny said, studying the trio of tactical displays where she and Azma were crosschecking the data they were independently receiving.
In the sprawling command center around her, the staff members she’d hastily assembled at the start of the invasion were dealing with a deluge of incoming reports, both from space and from seemingly all of the ground forces that were still engaged with the corrupted Consortium focus across the world. A continent away, Azma’s team was dealing with the same sort of reports from the [Adventurers] who were engaged with the Consortium forces in space.
Or who had been engaged those forces.
“Yes, a replacement seems to be a given, but it’s curious that our new antagonist has yet to come forward,” Azma said.
“Curious and mystifying. If it were me, I might hesitate to continue hostilities for a variety of reasons, but we’re not seeing any indication this pause is for any of those them,” Penny said, tuning out the din around her by spawning off a few copies of herself to deal with it while she drew her attention in to the conversation with Azma and what she was sure would be the larger problem.
“Not true,” Azma said. “If it were you, you wouldn’t have initiated hostilities in the first place.”
“A fair point. There are almost always better methods of achieving one’s goals. That doesn’t leave us with much of a starting point to divine the shape of our new adversaries plans however.”
“In the absence of any real data, speculation can be dangerous,” Azma said. “So our next actions will need to generate the data we need.”
“You would like to eradicate the remaining Consortium forces I take it?” Penny asked.
“It would reveal the extent to which the [Broken Shadow’s] successor is invested in claiming those resources,while also eliminating a potential avenue of attack which could be turned against us at any point our opponent chooses,” Azma said.
“What if I could offer a better alternative?” Penny asked. She’d been shocked for a full minute after reading Niminay’s report, and was pleased to see a look over momentary confusion pass over Azma’s face.
“I know you are not going to suggest that we sue for peace with the [Broken Shadow’s] successor,” Azma said. “And I know we don’t have the capacity to move the corrupted Consortium ground forces into position to attack the remaining space forces. So I believe I must ask for clarification on what the better alternative might be?”
“Apparently, we can now purge the [Broken Shadow’s] corruption from the affected troops. At least the [Artifax] ones.”
“That’s not possible,” Azma said. “A [Transcendent Entity] that gains access to someone can never be removed. The corruption extends down into the individuals motes of their essence and the atoms of their being.” She paused for just an instant as, in the space of a blink, she caught up with Penny. “Oh, unless…”
“Unless the being in question wasn’t fully [Transcendent] at the time the corruption took place,” Penny said.
Penny expected protests and counterarguments which would all be grounded in an effort to cling to a preexisting notion of how things had to be. When Azma spoke though, Penny was reminded of who she was dealing with.
“You have proof that recovery is possible.” It wasn’t a question, merely Azma allowing Penny a chance to correct her in the unlikely case that the statement wasn’t true. “From Niminay’s strike team.” Because it had to be someone in proximity to the [Broken Shadow’s] troops and Niminay was one of the few operatives in the teams Azma was directing who would report back to Penny first. “One of Hailey’s ideas?” That was the closest Azma came to guessing, but even there it was a virtual certainty since Hailey possessed a unique insight into the fundamental nature of their world.
“With the [Broken Shadow’s] active hold over them removed, the [Artifax] troops can be purged by dispelling the behavioral constraints they are ensorcelled with. That appears to be the only thing the [Broken Shadow] bothered corrupting.”
“Interesting. We’ll need to run tests to insure they corruption is truly purged, but as you say, with the entity becoming partially incarnated, it would have begun encountering limitations. It would be a natural instinct to spend as little of itself as necessary on controlling its troops,” Azma said.
“Fighting has stopped, for now, so its not precisely accurate to say this shifts the balance of power in the war,” Penny said. “It does however offer us an interesting footing going into the next stage of this conflict.”
“As well as placing us in significant peril,” Azma said. “The [Artifax] were not used in a kindly manner by the Consortium. Without the loyalty restraints in place they are likely to have a substantial amount of aggression to work through.”
“We’ll want to keep the freed ones away from your forces, and away from you specifically,” Penny said.
“Away from me certainly. They cannot afford to trust me.”
“Because you hold secret command codes for loyalty.” Again, it wasn’t a guess, but Penny wasn’t judging Azma for it either. Possessing a power wasn’t inherently evil.
“A thorough enough disenchanting could likely remove them, but the [Artifax] would be foolish to risk the chance that they’d missed one,” Azma said.
“Once you held control again, relinquishing it would be impossible wouldn’t it?”
“Had I reason and the capacity to usurp control of them again, it would in all likelihood be to destroy them,” Azma said. “They are far too dangerous to allow a chance at freedom, if they’re abused further.”
“But you do not oppose our freeing them now?” Penny asked.
“Not at all,” Azma said. “Their design is terrible. Weapons given a soul so they’ll know suffering and therefor be able to inflict terror more efficiently? Their designers called it art given form, but cruelty as art has always struck me as pointless. For the same resources an army ten times their size and twice as efficient could have been assembled. We can’t rectify the realities of their creation and we dare not try to utilize them for the intended function any longer, so freeing them seems the only profitable course of action.”
“As they are, they’re a quiescent threat. Destroyed they are a waste of the resources expended in their destruction. Freed however? In freedom they become pieces on the board that can be influenced via many different means. Pieces which are extraordinarily unlikely to align with our opponents. That’s quite profitable according to my ledgers.”
“How did you ever wind up in the Consortium?” Penny asked, admiration creeping into her voice, as much for the winding, twisting turns of Azma’s thoughts as for the woman herself.
“There are conflicting reports about that,” Azma said. “In my official files, it says I was decanted as part of a now terminated program to create obedient command ready officers from mixed cloning samples.”
“And in the hidden files?” Penny asked.
“According to those I was captured as part of a ‘resource extraction operation’ on a world which has since ceased to exist. The other resources, slaves in case the euphemism is unclear, were all liquidated, but I killed three guards and the programs Overseer, and so I was recruited instead. No names were given for the Overseer or the operation however, which calls that one into question as well.”
“You do not seem particularly concerned.”
“I have no reason to be,” Azma said. “Whatever my origin was, it’s lost to me. I was raised by the Consortium, to the extent that word can be applied to one of the Consortium’s Growth and Training Programs.”
“I find it hard to believe you are what they made you to be,” Penny said.
“I’m not. I’m what I made myself to be.”
“You know I’m going to attempt to insist you stay here once our current issues are concluded,” Penny said.
“I don’t believe your [Fallen Kingdoms] would be able to weather the conversations we would have,” Azma said. Conversations, Penny knew, that would be conducted via the sweep of great armies and the destruction of invulnerable fortresses.
“We shall see,” Penny said, wheels turning in her mind which she was reasonably sure were far enough outside Azma’s domain that the former Consortium commander would never see them coming.
“We shall at that I suppose,” Azma said, apparently content at the idea that Penny must be planning some grand betrayal of her. “To return to the subject of the [Artifax] though, it might be valuable to connect small groups of them with the remaining Consortium forces I possess.”
“You’ll vet your forces for any lingering animosity they might feel or have provoked?” Penny asked.
“I already have,” Azma said. “The troops I retain are a mix of forces, including a contingent of each of the [Artifax] makes. The [Artifax] you free will have a significant adjustment to make. My troops can help with that transition. I will also establish a [Quest Reward] for freeing the [Artifax] who remain on the fleet ships.”
“Good. I’ll expand out incoming transport facilities then and coordinate the work on the ground here.” Penny said.
“You’ll want full isolation capability for the [Artifax] who return, at least until you can a run zero information proof that they are clean of corruption from the [Broken Shadow] or its successor,” Azma said.
“That will take some time to arrange. How soon are your teams due to start returning from sortes against the fleet?” Penny asked, dispatching another pair of copies of herself to handle setting up a scanning facility that could report the results of a scan behind a layer of obfuscation sufficient that even a [Transcendent Entity] wouldn’t have a channel to jump to the people evaluating the scan.
“You’ll have at least fifteen minutes,” Azma said.
“That should be two more than we need,” Penny said.
“This world is quite fortunate,” Azma said. “Without you I would have conquered it days ago and we’d all be dead now.”
“Conquered? Most likely. Gaining control of the capital cities would have taken you an afternoon I imagine. The [Adventurers] would continue to be a thorn in your side though,” Penny said including people like Niminay in the count of “[Adventurers]” even though Niminay had always insisted she wasn’t like them. Despite possessing many of the same abilities. And being able to keep up and sometimes exceed the best [Adventurer] out there.
“Yes. A thorn I would have wrestled with right up until the moment when the [Transcendent Entity] arrived in the middle of a fully deployed Consortium communication infrastructure. I feel as though there is some unseen player not so much moving pieces on the gameboard we share as shaping it’s contours and spaces for reasons entirely their own.”
“Given our present circumstances, I wonder if those reasons might prove to be ultimately beneficent,” Penny said. “We face extraordinary challenges but if less than a handful of rare events had fallen out differently, I doubt we’d be here to face them at all.”
“If we can recapture more of the fleet, I may have the means to search out our possible benefactor,” Azma said. “Your world has a twin, and a shared [Aracnosphere]. One of the [Breech Stabilizers] would allow us to dive into the [Aracanosphere] and explore the world that lies behind yours.”
“I read about your [Breech Stabilizers] in Hailey’s report. I didn’t think they could reach worlds which were devoid of magic like the [Adventurers] claim their homeworld is?” Penny said.
“They can’t,” Azma said. “Which means either their world possesses magic they are unaware of, or there is another world which you are tied to.”
“If it was possible to reach that world though, why wouldn’t the [Broken Shadow] have used the [Breech Stabilizers] to spread there too?” Penny asked.
She felt a tap on her shoulder from one of her staff members. She was tempted to spawn off another copy to deal with him, but she knew that one of her staff would only have directly requested her attention if something monumentally important had occurred.
Turning her gaze from Azma’s holo-projection, she found, Osmos, her senior Far Scryer waiting for her. She’d had him searching for any signs of the arrival of the Consortium’s sun killing task force.
That wasn’t the news that he’d brought though.
In fact Osmos hadn’t brought any news at all.
In Osmos’s eyes, Penny saw only harsh static and in his words, she heard only the voice of Gulini and the [Relentless Hunger] that had consumed him.