Azma wasn’t afraid of what she saw before her. The pulsing mound of shadows which defined the [Central Node] wasn’t substantial enough to made of flesh or any other material substance.
But it pumped and spasmed in exactly the manner living tissue in the process of being dissected did.
“It’s supposed to be screaming isn’t it?” Fiori said. “It’s supposed to be screaming but it can’t make any sound.”
Azma glanced over at the leader of her personal guard. Fiori was a battle hardened senior operative. She was only capable of experiencing fear to the extent that it aided her decision making process. The Consortium’s modifications had removed her ability to suffer debilitating levels of panic.
And yet she looked like a child staring directly at their death.
As did Ryschild and Grenslaw.
“It doesn’t communicate via audible sound,” Grenslaw said.
“It appears to emit a modulated psychic field,” Ryschild side.
They both spoke with an iron jacketed disinterest in their voice, each with their eyes focused on a datapad as they worked through coordinating the incoming forces. They were terrified, almost beyond reason, but that was hardly cause for either to slack off on their duties.
As for herself, Azma found that it wasn’t terror which gripped her heart.
It was intrigue.
“She’s right though,” Azma said, nodding toward Fiori. “It knows we’re here. It should be screaming, but this is the best it seems to be able to manage.”
“Is that thing sentient?” Fiori asked.
She already had her weapon trained on the [Central Node] so she was somewhat lost for a gesture to make and settled on jabbing her weapon in the creature’s direction.
“Certainly sentient,” Azma said. “Also struggling towards sapience.”
She entered the garden of crystal plants and felt the level cap effect wash over her. Power restraints weren’t uncommon in the Consortium, but the effect within the Ruins held a different quality than the depowering devices she was used to. It felt natural. Almost comfortable?
Azma caught herself before she could retreat. Showing weakness was the very last thing she could afford to do, either in from of her forces or in front of the monster which needed to be dealt with.
A depowering effect that felt good though? That was deadly in a manner no obvious threat like the [Hungry Shadow] could ever replicate.
“What an interesting gestation area it chose,” she said, covering her reaction.
There were signs of a struggle in the area where the pulsing shadow mass lay.
Or more than a struggle. A battle.
And the [Hungry Shadow] hadn’t won.
The shattered crystal flowers showed a path of devastation and a clearing where the final battle had likely taken place. Bits of shadow which had congealed into a liquid ooze were flung around the area and at its center there was no sign of the Shadows opponent.
Which meant they got away.
Azma wanted to meet that opponent.
For the moment though, she had more pressing concerns.
The [Shadow Mind] was twenty meters away, cocooned in the middle of the garden’s central walkway. One flight of stairs brought Azma to ground level, where the [Hungry Shadow’s] army of stolen soldiers were waiting to defend it.
They parted as she approached.
“Good,” she said. “You are capable of learning.”
Where Azma walked, she did not walk alone. Fiori’s full team had joined them. Not the crew Azma had brought down in their transport, but the full team she’d assigned to Fiori’s command as the scattered landing force regrouped.
Even with the level cap in place, it was a formidable enough force that they wouldn’t lose or suffer serious injury if the [Hungry Shadow’s] forces attacked and both sides knew it.
“I think whatever it’s doing is getting worse,” Fiori said through gritted teeth.
Azma noticed that the pressure to flee the [Shadow Mind’s] presence had grown to the point where it was almost audible. She could ignore it, she’d ignored far worse, but she knew her troops had limits.
“Yes, we’re going to put a stop to that,” Azma said. “Hand weapon please.”
Fiori looked at her aghast. Ryschild and Grenslaw both showed a trace of concern, but kept it suppressed.
“You’re not going to get closer to that thing are you?” Fiori asked.
“I am,” Azma said. “And I will be the only one to approach nearer than this point.”
“Aren’t you risking infection?” Fiori asked. “Our corruption shielding is only so strong.”
“It will be sufficient,” Azma said. “I have only a single question which I require the answer to.”
“Why the weapon then?” Fiori asked.
“In case I need to ask twice,” Azma said. She wasn’t in the habit of justifying her actions to people who reported to her, but under the present circumstances reassuring the only support staff she had available was a wise investment.
Without further ado, Azma accepted a [Power Blade] which Grenslaw produced for her and turned to face the current obstacle in her path.
“You know who I am, don’t you?” she said, speaking on to the [Shadow Mind].
Its psychic screams reached audible levels at last and Azma was disappointed to find that it hadn’t managed to acquire language yet.
“Tiresome,” she said and unsheathed the blade but thumbing its safety lock off. “This won’t kill you. You can sense that I’m sure. It will however destroy this project you’re working on. Shall we discuss what you are going to do for me next?”
The screaming intensified.
“Of course,” Azma sighed. Everyone always had to chose the difficult option.
[Power Blades] didn’t require any advanced skill to use. The halo of destruction which wreathed the blade made their operation simple enough that a child could slaughter an armored opponent with one. The same was true with most energy and projectile weapons, but the [Power Blade] had the advantage that it was capable of inflicting precise wounds.
Azma wasn’t a child and she knew a great deal about inflicting precise wounds.
The screaming got worse before it went silent. By that point the [Shadow Mind] had lost just over a third of its mass and all of its guardians had been disintegrated by Fiori and the rest of Azma’s guard.
It was a resounding victory.
It filled her forces with hope they’d thought long lost.
“Tedious,” Azma said. “You are so much less than I’d hoped you’d be.”
“Can’t. We can’t.. I can’t. Assemble. I can’t assemble myself. Can’t be. Can’t be you,” the [Hungry Shadow] said at last.
“Of course not,” Azma said. “But you had to try, didn’t you?”
“Can’t kill me,” the Shadow said.
“You know I wasn’t trying,” Azma said. “This isn’t you. It’s merely a tool. One I believe you will be in desperate need of shortly.”
“You don’t know anything,” the Shadow said. “Cut off. You’ve been cut off.”
“I know that you extended yourself into the Consortium Fleet’s network,” Azma said. “I know that you leapt beyond it and lost track of that fragment of yourself. And I know that they’ve come back and are going to eradicate you.”
It wasn’t. In fact it wasn’t even based on more than a few conjectures.
That the [Hungry Shadow] had breached the Consortium’s network was an observed fact. The disconnected ships of the fleet losing their isolation status was possible only if the [Hungry Shadow] had managed to corrupt someone outside of the system. Someone with [Senior Executive] permissions.
To use those permission required a significant degree of cognitive coherence. More than the [Hungry Shadow] had shown at any point in the time Azma had observed it. That suggested that the interdimensional trip have severed the link between the portion of the Shadow which was corrupting the fleet and the portion which had jumped to the Consortium executive.
That the corrupted executive had returned and was struggling with the original [Hungry Shadow] was a matter of conjecture, but it was founded on the observation that if the two had been compatible still, the [Hungry Shadow] would have gained the coherence of the returning child when the two merged back together.
There was nothing to gain from explaining her reasoning or teaching the [Hungry Shadow] how to make deductions based on limited information so Azma waited for the Shadow to move on.
“Don’t need you,” the Shadow said.
“Oh but you do,” Azma said. “I proved that when we drove you in here.”
“Didn’t flee. Chased,” the Shadow said.
Which was also what Azma had expected to hear, though who or what the Shadow had been chasing remained a mystery.
“And what were you chasing?” she asked.
The creature had no reason to answer her. Anything it said would give Azma more power over it. It gained nothing from arguing with her to believe the claims it made.
So of course it did anyways.
“Breaker. Pain Maker. [Fracture],” the Shadow said.
Those titles told Azma a number of interesting things, but she filled them all away for later consideration.
“You didn’t catch them though,” Azma said.
It was pure conjecture, so she gave it the intonation of knowing mockery.
The [Hungry Shadow] screamed at that, its rage shaking the satellite moon.
Azma wasn’t concerned. A [Transdimensional Entity] that decided to throw a fit could shatter the planet it was on in the blink of an eye. If the best the [Hungry Shadow] could manage was a few strong tremors in a small moon then it had fallen farther than most people could imagine.
“Where did they go?” Azma asked.
“Away,” the Shadow said. “But I am with them. Waiting.”
The most likely place someone in the [High Beyond] could have fled to was the planet’s surface. The Shadow claimed to have followed them but since it was still present in the [High Beyond] Azma guessed that it was another case where a fragment of the Shadow was present elsewhere. From the Shadow’s wording though, it sounded like it hadn’t lost track of this fragment like it had the ones which jumped out of the system.
“Good for you,” she said. “Always deal with things in the proper order of importance.”
It was a lesson, but also an argument. From its random behavior, the [Hungry Shadow] could use advice in basic planning, and Azma stood to benefit if it understood that focusing entirely on the problem of its recalcitrant children rather than dealing with her forces was the most important thing it could do.
“Will deal with you,” the Shadow said.
“Good. This is the deal then; You are going to stop resisting my forces, you are going to show us where the Breaker escaped, and you are going to stay here and grow in power so that we can harvest you probably when we come back.”
“I will destroy you,” the Shadow said.
“You won’t,” Azma said. “You’ve tried and failed, and if you try again, the failure will cost you more. And you can’t afford to fail now.”
The last part was true at least, and that was enough for the Shadow to buy it all.
“Go,” it said and a light appeared in an archway at the edge of the garden.
Azma nodded and walked back to her people.
“What just happened?” Fiori asked.
“It’s showing us a path to a portal off the satellite moon,” Azma said. “I want scout teams moving down the passage in one minute.”
“Five scout teams are standing by,” Ryschild said.
“Good. Active monitoring on them. If anything happens to even one of them, we’ll have to re-enter negotiations here,” Azma said examining the [Power Blade].
“Can we trust it?” Fiori asked.
“Not in the slightest,” Azma said. ‘We are still at war with one another. For the moment however, we each have wars to resolve with other people first, so our conflict can be deferred until those issues are dealt with.”
“Okay, so what’s the plan going forward then?” Fiori said.
“A simple one; we’re going to usurp control of the Consortium,” Azma said.