The world was falling apart. Chaos was the order of the day, and on all fronts calamity loomed.
“This is perfect,” Azma said, a smile of small delight playing across her face as she watched the illusory projections of troops movements across the globe play out.
“Perhaps if you’re still intent on conquering this world,” Penswell said.
“Oh, you could no longer pay me enough money to even advise on that,” Azma said. “The entire net worth of the Consortium would not be worth that particular headache.”
“You’re relieved to see the world burning then?” Penny asked. She was spread particularly thin at the moment, directing a thousand simultaneous battles and negotiating with fifteen different noble factions who appeared intent on doubling the number of conflicts which had toppled into outright warfare.
“Far from it,” Azma said. “You see the picture which lies before us here though do you not?”
“I see many pictures here,” Penny said. “Along with even more futures, many of which I have rather significant objections to.”
“Possibly you object to the one I see forming as well,” Azma said, nudging some of the units onto new trajectories.
“It’s likely I do,” Penny said. “I am willing to entertain your arguments in favor of your preferred outcome though.”
“I do so wish we could have remained mortal enemies,” she said, fighting to keep the wistful longing from her voice.
“Whereas I am rather glad we are not, at the moment,” Penny said.
Azma’s sigh only deepened.
“As you say,” she conceded. The idea of working with an equal colleague was almost too foreign for Azma’s mind to grasp. In truth, it unnerved her to the point where she’d had to restrain herself from reflexively drawing a weapon several times already. She didn’t need to defend herself from Penswell, and that was simply so wrong as to be more distracting than any actual attempt on her life could have been.
“I take it that you feel the chaos that has erupted in the [Western Salt Marshes] will precipitate battles throughout the region and that we can capitalize on that with our joint forces?” Penny asked.
“I do, though my recommendation is that we don’t employ joint arms against the aggressors in the region,” Azma said. “We have other forces that can quell the chaos more surgically.”
“[Assassins]?” Penny asked. “Murder tends to have unforeseeable side effects.”
“Sending troops into the field is murder on an gradiose scale,” Azma said. “Better in cases like this to direct the murder towards those most deserving.”
“You want to assassinate the [High Kings] who have left our alliance?” Penny asked. It would be considered a war crime and the remaining lords were likely to object in strenuous terms but Penny wasn’t shutting the idea down.
“Yes, though, that’s a minor part of the overall plan,” Azma said.
“There are other methods which could possibly bring them back into alignment with our forces,” Penny said.
“There are,” Azma said. “But these are autocrats who are seizing the opportunity provided by the current crisis and the perception of weakness in the rest of the world to enlarge their domains. Ultimately they only desire and respect power, and your world will be better off without their presence in it once this is done.”
“That would require deposing several [High Kings],” Penny said.
“Oh, it would require much more than that,” Azma said. “Autocratic rulers always try to appear to hold the reins of power by themselves, but none of them can do so without a large power structure to support them. If we dispatch assassins to resolve this situation, it won’t be dozens striking from the shadows. It will be thousands.”
“That’s quite a lot of murder,” Penny said.
“Better too much than too little,” Azma said. “If you wish to cut out the heart of a power structure, you need to cut out all of the diseased sections or you’re doing little more than ensuring the problem will return later.”
“Your plan will create a rather large power vacuum,” Penny said. “Those are rarely filled bloodlessly.”
“The resulting crisis in leadership will draw in a second round autocrats,” Azma said. “Weaker ones, unfit to overthrow the current tyrants, who will see a chance to establish their own domains.”
“You would send the [Assassins] to deal with these as well?” Penny asked.
“These I would send your armies against,” Azma said. “Some of the new leaders may be reasonable. Those you can shape into better leaders. Some won’t be. Those you eliminate.”
“I am not inclined to become a nation builder,” Penny said.
“If you take no action, or only ineffective actions, then you are effectively conspiring with those who are seeking to build their nations now,” Azma said. “That can be a viable strategy too, if you believe the newly engorged autocrats will be worthwhile allies. In my experience that is rarely the case though. Those who seek power and dominance tend not to be concerned about the welfare of others, except where it can benefit themselves.”
“Would you except yourself from that?” Penny asked.
“Of course not,” Azma said. “If I cared about the welfare of others, I would suggest that you follow the plan I laid out and then invest in the areas which are destabilized. Provide the people there the tools and education needed to create their own governmental structures. Teach them how to be strong so that they won’t be ruled by weak men and give them the support they need until they can support others. But you will note that I did not advise that.”
“No, of course not,” Penny said, hiding an unfathomable smile. “The situation in the [Western Salt Marshes] is at least three days from requiring immediate intervention though. You see an opportunity arising sooner than that. Don’t you?”
“I’ve spoken with the [Adventurer] named Hailey,” Azma said. “Did she tell you the proposition she put before me?”
“She did. You accepted it?”
“Not yet,” Azma said. “I feel like I am missing some element of what this [Quest Giver] position entails.”
“It’s relatively simple,” Penny said. “You establish an objective – something you want the [Adventurers] to accomplish, decide on a reward commensurate with the difficulty, and provide a small narrative around why you are asking the [Adventurers] to do what you’re asking them too. In truth though that last piece is only occasionally necessarily. There are plenty of [Adventurers] who simply need to be pointed at a target to unleash their boundless yearning for strife upon.”
“That all seems simple enough. I am having trouble grasping why it stops there though?” Azma said. “If a [Quest Giver] has something they desire, aren’t there [Adventurers] who simply assault the [Quest Givers].”
“Certainly,” Penny said. “[Quest Givers] who are aligned with a faction opposed to the [Adventurer’s] faction are frequent targets for aggression.”
“So any [Adventurers] who decide to join the [Hungry Shadow] will look to assault me? That could be amusing,” Azma said.
“The [Hungry Shadow] would need to change again to be capable of interacting with the [Adventurers] as anything other than an adversary,” Penny said. “If that happens, then we have effectively won.”
“Because we can negotiate with it?” Azma asked.
“No, because it will have lost the last vestiges of being a [Transcendental Entity],” Penny said. “If it changes so much that it can be accept other beings as allies, it will be fully realized within this world. Still an enemy faction to most of the ones which currently exist, but our history is one long chain of coopting and corrupting enemy factions into various alliances. It wouldn’t even be the first faction from beyond the stars we’ve dealt with.”
“Truly?” Azma asked. “Our intelligence was somewhat lacking in historical perspectives.”
“I’m not surprised,” Penny said. “Our full history predates the forging of this world.”
“It…what?” Azam asked. Nothing like that had been present in the reports she’d read. If it had been, she might have been able to guess at the arrival of the [Transcendental Entity]. Possibly.
“Many of the guardians of this world were born on others,” Penny said. “The reasons and timing each came here are different, but each changed or expanded what this place is. Many didn’t come as guardians at all, but as would be conquerors, but most of the ones who survived eventually saw the benefit to defending the place where they lived via their own methods.”
“Fascinating,” Azma said. “We attempted to corrupt some of the major powers we detected who were apparently adversaries of the world’s defenders.”
“That went poorly didn’t it,” Penny said.
“Remarkably so. The level of treachery involved was profound even compared to the Consortium’s typical dealings,” Azma said. “The few who did prove helpful were overwhelmed with disturbing efficiency too.”
“I was glad to see you expending resources recruiting minion who the [Adventurers] were well versed in defeating,” Penny said. “It put us on the back foot in several arenas but it was a solvable problem.”
“I wonder if you could recruit them less expensively than I did?” Azma asked.
“No. If anything the greater adversaries would likely charge more to work with my forces,” Penny said. “There’s significant bad blood between many of them and the [Adventurers]. That you were able to recruit them at all is likely because you were giving them a venue to assault targets they wished to engage anyways.”
“That will make the first phase of deploying the [Adventurers] more challenging then,” Azma said, looking back to the map.
“You plan to take the role Hailey suggested then?” Penny asked.
“I would be a fool not to,” Azma said. “They are dropping the power into my hands as though they can trust me implicitly.”
Penny chuckled at first and then broke into a laugh.
“I feel I am missing something about the role still,” Azma said.
“I’m sorry,” Penny said. “It’s just…you really haven’t worked with anyone like the [Adventurers] before have you?”
“Apparently not,” Azma said.
“As a [Quest Giver] you will be able to provide them with a goal,” Penny said. “How they pursue that goal and the amount of collateral damage they inflict in the process is wholly within their control though. Think of it less as them dropping power into your hands, and more as horde of sugar saturated toddlers with knives who you are desperately trying to convince to move quietly through a room full of explosive runes.”
“Ah, I see. Subtlety is not an option then is it?”
“Just wait,” Penny said. “It’s the sort of thing you need to experience first hand.”
Penny’s stifled delight filled Azma with an unusual foreboding.
Being a [Quest Giver] didn’t sound noticeably different than being a field commander for several special forces units at once.
She thought of the special forces teams she’d deployed to the [High Beyond]. Her lead team had gone awol, ventured down to the planet early, and, the last she’d heard, been slaughtered to a man after they tried to assault a simple farm house. Apparently the farm house was run by a couple of ‘retired adventures’ who’d ‘called in some friends’. It seemed like a ridiculous fate for a highly specialize Consortium force, but every part of this situation was ridiculous, and learning from other’s mistakes was something Azma made a point of doing as often as possible.
“I plan to send the first group’s to capture the largest landing ship I sent down,” Azma said. “We’re going to need an operating platform that can move in and out of the fleet’s range, and if the [Adventurer’s] are immune to the [Hungry Shadow’s] corrupting influence, they’ll be able to use its sensor and weapon arrays where my crew no longer can.”
“A solid starting point,” Penny said. “Simple and straightforward. You should be able to evaluate the capabilities of the [Adventurers] you dispatch before sending them against the fleet and modify your plans from there.”
“I feel as though there is a part of your appraisal which is missing?” Azma said.
“Yours is the best plan I can conceive of,” Penny said, in all sincerity and with a grin that nonetheless filled Azma with dread.