Old Fortune article on Jeffrey Gundlach. It’s a fun read.
Firing the $70 billion man: Full version By Mina Kimes, writerMarch 10, 2010: 10:10 AM ET NEW YORK (Fortune) -- On November 19, 2009 Jeffrey Gundlach was named a finalist for Morningstar's award for bond fund manager of the decade. For Gundlach, the nomination recognized 10 years of stellar results, exceeding even the returns of the legendary king of bonds, Bill Gross. Two weeks later Gundlach was confronted, fired, and then pursued on foot out of a Los Angeles skyscraper by two lawyers working for TCW, the money management firm with $110 billion in assets where Gundlach had worked for 24 years. Not only did TCW oust Gundlach, but the firm also announced that it was acquiring an entire company -- crosstown rival Metropolitan West Asset Management -- to replace him. That in turn set off a wave of defections from TCW, as 45 of the 60 staffers who had worked for Gundlach streamed out the door to join him at a new firm that he had opened within days of leaving. Then things really turned nasty. TCW filed an incendiary lawsuit in January accusing Gundlach of conspiring with confederates at TCW to steal proprietary information as part of a long-running plot to form their own competing firm. The suit added a salacious twist of the knife, perfectly calibrated for maximum media interest -- Gundlach had allegedly stashed a trove of illicit material in his office: 70 pornographic magazines and videos, 12 "sexual devices," and several bags of marijuana. Gundlach has countered with his own lawsuit. He charges TCW and its owner, the French bank Société Générale, with pushing him out so that they can get their hands on his lucrative fees. In addition to his mutual funds, Gundlach had managed what were effectively two hedge funds for TCW, each of which commanded the amped-up fees typical of those vehicles. Gundlach calculates that he would have personally reaped $600 million to $1.2 billion over the next few years. What in the name of Peter Lynch is going on here? Sure, we've come to expect shenanigans from Wall Street. But even if the mutual fund world hasn't been exactly pristine (remember the market-timing scandals a few years ago?), more often than not its managers and executives have been well-behaved schoolboys compared with the leather-clad (in spirit, anyway) rock stars among the investment bankers and hedge funders. But unlike most mutual fund companies, TCW has always aspired to a Wall Street culture. In particular, it cultivated a star system. The company grew by importing ambitious money managers and granting them autonomy. They could invest as they liked; TCW would handle sales and marketing. The two sides would then split the fees, with each manager cutting an individual deal. The result could be huge rewards for managers -- Gundlach made $134 million over the past five years -- but some came to view themselves essentially as sole proprietors. TCW seemed content with the arrangement and did little to tie its managers' fates to the company as a whole. Few of them, for example, received significant stakes in TCW. That bred frustration in multiple generations of standout performers, who viewed corporate executives (some of whom did receive ownership shares) as getting rich off their toil. So it went for Gundlach, a bona fide investing star who, by the end, oversaw about 70% of TCW's assets, some $70 billion, putting him in charge of one of the biggest pots of money in the country. Gundlach didn't just generate steady returns; he avoided the blowup of the century. A specialist in mortgage-backed securities, he publicly warned in 2007 that "the subprime mortgage market is a total, unmitigated disaster, and it's going to get worse." He invested accordingly, not only delivering positive returns in the blighted year of 2008 but also earning himself a growing role as a media sage. His ego grew along with it. There are few people like Jeffrey Gundlach in the mutual fund world -- or in any world. A former rock-and-roll drummer, Gundlach, 50, is a math whiz (but not a quant). He views everything in binary terms: Either you perform to his standards or you don't, and he won't hesitate to let you know which category you fall into. Nor is he shy in articulating his view of himself. "I was by far the biggest revenue generator at TCW, by far the biggest performer," he says. "I created $4 billion in value for clients in '09. If telling you that is self-promotion, so be it. It's just a fact." With Gundlach, it's hard to tell which is largest: his brain, his self-regard -- or his resentment of TCW. He claims that his recent firing was actually the third time the company tried to get rid of him. "All three of them were an attempt to just steal the economics," Gundlach contends. "And this time they did it. Except they didn't steal the economics. They blew it up. They blew it up. They tried to steal the economics, but they didn't understand. They never understood." TCW customers, meanwhile, have been watching the blood feud in disbelief. Investors have fled, with assets shrinking $25 billion since Gundlach was fired. For those who have remained, it seems that their patience is limited. "I'm aware of the investment prowess of both [Gundlach and the new TCW team]," says Mansco Perry III, CIO of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System, which has $50 million invested in TCW. "But right now I don't believe they're acting in the best interest of their clients." frey Gundlach is the sort of boss who inspires sharply divided opinion. He fostered loyalty among the members of his60-person team at TCW, handing out generous bonuses to his group. He also openly mocked the company's other divisions, especially its stock team. Many outside Gundlach's orbit viewed him as an ill-tempered bully. He subjected subordinates to withering cross examinations and relished pointing out errors. Some in TCW's New York offices celebrated his dethroning by posting printouts of his scathing e-mails in the halls. By contrast, loyalists valued his directness. Some would preserve his occasional written compliments as treasured mementos. "You don't have to guess where you stand with him," says Bonnie Baha, a portfolio manager who followed Gundlach to his new firm, called DoubleLine. An interview with Jeffrey Gundlach is less like conversation than like listening to a manic stream-of-consciousness monologue. Consider Gundlach's description of his aborted stint in a math Ph.D. program at Yale (after getting an undergraduate degree in the same subject at Dartmouth): "It was a four-year Ph.D. deal. And they gave me a full scholarship, and it was very hard to get into. There were only seven people accepted, and they had hundreds of applicants. And one of the guys, he was Korean, he had come in via Toronto. I was the only American left. The other American had flunked out. There was a Chinese guy who had polio. That guy was smart. That guy was something else. He had crutches. He had horrible dandruff. He never took a shower, but he was one smart motherf----r, let me tell you. That guy is probably the smartest guy I ever met in my life. And he was my friend. I was the only guy he would be friends with, and there was this other guy, this Korean guy out of Korea, out of Toronto, and I didn't like him very much, and I was walking down the street, and there he was. It was like, 'Hey, Jeff!' They called me Jeff in the day. 'Hey!' You know, good to see you. I was Ike -- I had this really heebie-jeebie feeling, and he goes, 'Let's go to the bookstore and get our books.' And I was like, 'Uh, I don't know.' And he was like, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Uh, I don't know.' And it hit me right then. I said, 'I'm not going back. I'm not doing it. I can't do it. This is pointless.' " Gundlach's mind combines that feverish quality with a near-total recall of endless minutiae. But somehow, when it comes to investing, he's able to process huge quantities of details and extract a big-picture message. The result has been superb performance: His flagship $12 billion TCW Total Return Bond Fund returned nearly 8% annually over the past decade. Those results beat 99% of competitors, and his nonpublic funds have done even better. For all Gundlach's prowess with numbers, it was anything but obvious that he'd go into finance. He grew up outside Buffalo in a family of modest means. Their only savings, he says, consisted of some Xerox stock, courtesy of their uncle, Robert Gundlach, the inventor of the modern photocopier. "We owned Xerox, and it went way, way up, and for the first time it actually felt like we had a little money. And then it crashed," Gundlach says. He was 12 or 13 at the time. "It was my first experience with a bear market, and I remember it really well. The rallies are pennies, and the selloffs are dollars, and that's always the way bear markets behave." In his mid-twenties Gundlach played drums in a variety of rock bands that performed in L.A. clubs but never made the big time. Meanwhile he was holding down a dreary day job in the actuarial department at Transamerica. One night in 1985 he was watching an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," that described the most lucrative careers. Gundlach decided he would, as he told one interviewer, "figure out my life." The program identified investment banking as the richest occupation. Gundlach didn't know what investment bankers did, but he contacted 23 firms. Impressed by his math credentials, TCW invited him in and offered him a $30,000-a-year job as a research assistant in the firm's bond department. (This despite the fact that, according to Gundlach, he didn't even know what a bond was at the time.) Gundlach was thrilled. He loved wearing a suit and tie to TCW's elegant offices. He became fascinated by bonds. "I felt like I was in the middle of something that was important and exciting," he says. "I loved it! When I would walk into a meeting and be able to say, 'I'm from TCW and here's my business card,' I was proud." As a young analyst, Gundlach zeroed in on the mortgage market. By age 27, he says, he had developed a reputation in his niche as a "young hotshot." After four years at TCW, he was promoted to co-chair of a new division -- mortgage Bonds -- and then made a managing director in 1991. "That doesn't happen," he says. "You don't go from a trainee to managing director in seven years. I was running the most important department at the firm, but the firm didn't like the fact that I was growing so much." Gundlach is getting ahead of the story, but it appears he would later be right. When Gundlach arrived -- and still to a large extent today -- TCW seemed like a museum version of a Wall Street firm. Even in ultra-casual Southern California, for example, the firm had a suit-and-tie dress code. Gracious meals were served in its white-linen dining room. TCW was founded in 1971 as Trust Co. of the West by Robert Day, who inherited millions as the heir to the Superior Oil fortune and hobnobbed with the Martha's Vineyard elite. Day was a hard-nosed boss who used to smack errant employees on the head with his cigar, Gundlach says. (Day says he doesn't remember doing so.) In those days 80% of TCW's assets were in stocks, the rest in bonds. By the end of Gundlach's tenure, the ratio would almost flip. Day built the firm by luring in Wall Street talent. One prominent star, who joined in 1985, was Howard Marks, a junk bond manager who came over from Citicorp. Marks thrived, accumulating $7 billion in assets, about 15% of TCW's total at the time. But he grew increasingly dissatisfied with having to fork over half his fees to TCW. And he resented the fact that TCW would give him no more than a nominal stake in the company. In 1995 he announced that he was leaving and taking his team with him. Marks' departure was a less lurid, but still bitter, harbinger of what would occur with Gundlach almost 15 years later. Day sent a furious letter to clients blasting Marks' exit as "disloyal at the very least," according to press accounts at the time. TCW then quickly replaced Marks' team by purchasing Crescent Capital, a small high yield bond firm in West Los Angeles. The equity issue took on new importance when TCW decided to sell itself. In 2001, Société Générale bought 51% of TCW for $880 million. The deal, former employees say, meant lucrative paydays for a cadre of executives, including the founders of Crescent, who had received large chunks of the company. Some longtime TCW employees were embittered by the newcomers' windfall. Management tried to mend the problems that led to Marks' departure, but the lack of equity for many managers remained a sore point. SocGen announced it would escalate its ownership to 70% and leave 30% for TCW employees. But that 30% turned out to consist of SocGen stock options rather than TCW shares. By 2007 the French bank owned 100% of the company. Meanwhile Gundlach was accruing more and more influence and renown. In 2005 he was promoted to chief investment officer of TCW. And he was named Morningstar fund manager of the year in 2006. His decision to pull his mutual funds out of riskier debt and his accurate forecast of a looming recession brought him favorable publicity and a steady presence in the press. (Another division of TCW, also under Gundlach's umbrella but not his main focus, was a giant issuer of CDOs, many of which imploded.) It was Gundlach's time. His reputation was growing, and bonds were beginning to enjoy their moment in the sun. The result: Investments in his funds swelled. So, too, did his ego, according to former co-workers. "He started to think of himself as a god," says one who worked with Gundlach during that period. Gundlach remained mostly satisfied until January 2009, when SocGen announced that it intended to take TCW public in five years. The uncertainty, he says, made it harder to drum up new business. And he grew even more vexed a few months later when he was passed over for the job of TCW's new CEO. Instead, the position went to the company's former president Marc Stern, who came out of retirement to assume the position. Gundlach was infuriated by Stern's return. He was offered the job of president but turned it down. Always outspoken, Gundlach grew openly critical of TCW's management, even deriding executives while they sat a few feet away in the company dining room. Rumors began to circulate that Gundlach would be fired. By the summer of 2009, he says, it had become difficult to work under that stress, as well as to face TCW's uncertain future. In September, Gundlach met with Stern and offered to purchase the firm at a valuation of $700 million. TCW says Stern passed the offer onto SocGen, which rejected it. TCW and Gundlach disagree about exactly what was said at the meeting. What's clear is that Gundlach at least broached the possibility of taking his team and leaving. TCW interpreted the statement as a threat and prepared for combat: The company hired investigators to look into the affairs of Gundlach and his closest lieutenants, tapping their office phones and monitoring their e-mails. At the same time they initiated clandestine talks with MetWest, the $30 billion bond house that would eventually replace Gundlach's team. Gundlach was preparing too. He and his "co- conspirators" began e-mailing one another in September about their plot to steal information, according to TCW's complaint. The suit alleges that the group referred to Gundlach as "the Pope" and "the Godfather" and swiped 9 million pages' worth of client contacts, trade tickets, and software routines used to process the complex data that go into analyzing mortgages. They retained a realtor to find an office space with 50 trading desks. Gundlach acknowledges that his team looked at commercial real estate. It made him feel better, he says, to be making plans when he knew he was going to be fired. "I felt powerless," he says. He insists, however, that he had no knowledge of the downloading, his e-mails prove otherwise. Gundlach says he hired a third party to expunge his employees' computers of TCW data and returned all their hardware to the company. The crescendo of rumors -- of his ouster, of a sale -- was wearing on Gundlach. Still, he had no inkling of what was in store for him on Dec. 4, 2009. At 1 p.m. that day, when the markets closed on the East Coast, he was summoned to the 17th floor of TCW's headquarters. Michael Cahill, the company's general counsel, was waiting for him in a conference room with John Quinn, one of Los Angeles' top litigators. Cahill told Gundlach that TCW was putting him on administrative leave. Gundlach argued that the move would cause a disastrous customer exodus unless they negotiated a settlement that resolved various fee and management issues. The lawyers asked him to read a draft of the complaint TCW was planning to file against him. When Quinn tried to place the papers in his hands, Gundlach got angry. He stormed out of the room and began walking down the stairs. Quinn and Cahill trailed him, thinking he was headed for the trading floor one level down, but Gundlach kept going. It was a surreal procession, says Quinn; they marched down 17 stories in total silence. The lawyers followed Gundlach out of the building and onto the street until Gundlach finally turned around and told them he wasn't planning on stopping anytime soon. While all this was happening, chaos had erupted on TCW's trading floor. CEO Stern sent out a companywide e-mail announcing Gundlach's termination and the acquisition of MetWest. Then Stern appeared to reiterate the news in person. Analysts watched in shock as a team of private detectives and attorneys descended. Gundlach's suspected conspirators were herded into offices and conference rooms, where the investigators interrogated them and seized laptops and records. Some company-owned BlackBerrys went dark without warning. Nervous employees scurried around the floor, trying to figure out who had been terminated. By the end of the day, the tally was five. TCW proved inept in its efforts to stanch the turmoil caused by Gundlach's departure. On the rainy Monday morning after he was fired, TCW employees gathered in conference rooms for a companywide conference call. CEO Stern told his troops that the downpour was a sign of renewal, and that TCW would emerge as "a firm that has respect for everyone within the firm." But Day, TCW's founder and chairman, was less temperate in his remarks. He told the employees that he had been through this before -- i.e., with Marks -- and that there was no other choice. "It sort of reminds me a bit of General Washington crossing the Delaware," he said. "The general was in the back of the boat. It would be like a soldier getting up, trying to rock the boat, expecting to sink the boat. His choices are very simple. You shoot the soldier. You throw him off the boat." After a pause, nervous laughter emanated over the speakers. Some of Gundlach's former colleagues were horrified. A few started crying. Others walked out. "Whatever people may say about [Gundlach], here's a guy that has been working for his company for over 20 years and has made a lot of money for investors," says Luz Padilla, a fund manager at the company. "After that call, I was just incensed." Padilla hadn't been set on leaving TCW, she says, until she realized the current imbroglio bore an uncanny resemblance to the Howard Marks controversy -- a talented manager leaves after a fight over money, and a new team takes control. "It was a different set of players," she says, "but almost the same movie." There was also the fear that the arrival of the MetWest group would make the current bond team redundant. Dozens more followed Padilla out. Then came the surge of customer defections. By late February TCW's assets had dropped by some $25 billion. The most prominent deserter was the U.S. Treasury, which pulled out of the $4.1 billion Public Private Investment Fund it had started with Gundlach. Less than two weeks after he was fired, Gundlach announced that his new firm, DoubleLine, was partnering with a respected L.A. money manager: none other than Howard Marks. The onetime TCW star has thrived on his own, building a firm called Oaktree Capital with $70 billion in assets. Marks is buying 22% of DoubleLine and in exchange will provide the administrative backbone for Gundlach's new operation. Needless to say, an alliance between two of its former stars is also a not-so-subtle poke in the eye to TCW. After weeks of relative silence, TCW struck back. On Jan. 7 the company filed its explosive complaint. It emphasized the alleged plot to steal information. It also tarred Gundlach personally, referring to the pornography, sexual devices, and marijuana retrieved from his office. TCW justified the inclusion of the prurient material in the suit under the whisper- thin pretext that it constituted a breach of company policy. Asked about the contents of his office, Gundlach offers only the mildest of quibbles: "Not all of the items are mine." In a letter to investors, he noted, "I had every expectation of privacy in these spaces, which stored vestiges of closed chapters of my life." On a recent Thursday afternoon, Marc Stern sits in one of TCW's dining rooms with Jacques Ripoll, the head of SocGen's asset management division. The two couldn't look more different. Stern, 65, is barrel-chested with white hair and a loud, raspy laugh. Ripoll, 43, has a slick, dark coiffure and a heavy French accent. As Stern talks about growing up on a vegetable farm in New Jersey, one can't help but notice that his story resembles Gundlach's. Both were gifted kids who came from working-class families, and both share a love of art (Gundlach has an extensive collection of contemporary paintings; Stern is the chairman of the L.A. Opera, a passion he developed while riding on his father's tractor and listening to opera on the radio). Despite the controversy, Stern insists that TCW is better positioned than ever, and its new team, he pointedly adds, is "delighted to be here." Stern predicts that TCW will double its assets in three years. He stresses the importance of having "mechanisms where people share information and are willing to help each other." While not specifically naming Gundlach, the message is clear: The star manager didn't play well with others. TCW's new head of fixed income is MetWest founder Tad Rivelle, a self-effacing, professorial type -- the anti- Gundlach -- and no slouch as a manager. His Total Return bond fund has beaten 94% of its peers over the past decade. "TCW is ready for growth," Ripoll says. "To be transparent -- this was not possible before." And what of Gundlach's long-desired equity stake? TCW is giving shares to the new team from MetWest (as it did with the Crescent group) but is less definite about handing it to others. "When you have a company like TCW, it is very important that you have equity held by the employees," Ripoll says. "That is what we are putting in place." TCW's basic business model -- a collection of autonomous managers -- seems unlikely to change. In a separate interview, the founder and chairman defends the approach. "I started the company with $2 million, and it has $115 billion today," says Day. "The formula that has worked for 40 years is going to continue to work." (Day also insists Gundlach really didn't care about an equity stake; when given the choice, he always opted for more fees.) Gundlach, meanwhile, is still setting up shop. He has been through a lot of late. He showed up at meetings in January with a black eye and cuts on his face, which he says came from tripping and colliding with his desk at home. On Feb. 1, his wife of more than 20 years, Nancy, filed for divorce. And Bill Gross was named fixed-income fund manager of the decade; Gundlach thinks he would have taken the prize if he hadn't been fired. That said, Morningstar clearly still views him as legitimate: The organization invited Gundlach to deliver the keynote address at its annual investors conference this summer. DoubleLine has registered three mutual funds with the SEC, and it expects $10 billion in new accounts this spring. Gundlach says the most gratifying thing about the firing and its aftermath is that 45 people followed him from TCW -- proof, he says, that he isn't such a difficult guy to work with. As Gundlach walks through his new firm's offices, he looks happy. To reign there, it seems, is better than to serve at TCW. To top of page First Published: March 10, 2010: 4:46 AM ET
Commander Sam Robinson – Valkyrie – Standing before the city gates of Hil’Sania
“Ah crap, we’ve been calling them assholes all this time?” Sam asked. Þorgeir coughed, “Yeah, seems so commander. Looking at the inputs it seems that the probe is receiving both the elven words and the direct translation in binary. It’s really freaky, but I guess that’s how magic works? I guess? It’s making the translation process go really fast.” “Uh, commander, I think they’re waiting for us to respond,” Myrael cut in. “Ah crap, ok. Everyone, let’s turn on the charm offensive. Turn on our speakers, don’t talk about anything remotely confidential and use our callsigns,” Sam replied. “That’s our charm offensive?” Jacqueline asked. “Uh, wait, ah crap. I will take my helmet off and show them that we mean no harm, I guess. None of you take your helmets off unless ordered to, alright? If the skinny dude can conjure up a mountain of food and the actual Mage has a ring that lets him speak in multiple languages at the same time, then we’d do good by not underestimating them,” Sam answered. Sam took a deep breath and slowly took her helmet off and moved towards the Mage. She noted how this Mage, Ilfundel as he called himself, looked like he came straight out of a fantasy movie. A middle-aged looking elf, with red wizard robes, a long and gnarled staff with a lightly glowing orb at the top, and most importantly, dangerous eyes. Even though he was of a different species, the intent behind his oversized eyes was clearly that of caution and skill, honed by experience as she felt herself being appraised and saw the Mage stare at every possible part of her power armour, looking for potential danger. “Thank you for allowing us entry, Mage Ilfundel. We apologize for calling you the wrong term, it was simply a misunderstanding,” Sam said as she shot a glare at Arundosar who instantly sucked in a breath and looked away. “Not a problem. My Apprentice here has a tendency to lash back at those who scorn his kind. But enough of that,” Ilfundel replied. “Ah, yes. We have noticed some of that behaviour,” Sam answered and then continued, “Regardless. I am Valkyrie, and this is Camper [Myrael], Alien [Jacqueline], Icebear [Þorgeir] and lastly Barhead [Alix]. It’s a privilege to meet you all.” The Mage seemed to raise his eyebrows at each of the names, but decided to ignore it and replied in kind, “A privilege indeed. According to our history books the last time a human visited the plane of Arenal, was close to 15 centuries ago, so to see you all here is an amazing sight indeed. What is even more amazing is that the stories of the citizens you’ve rescued appear to be an understatement.” As he said that the mage pointed to the cage where the still unconscious POW was. He continued with measured words, “Yes, taking a pit fiend as a prisoner is extremely difficult. And I assume that you have done so with the help of your armour? Just a single glance at it just shouts power.” “Ah, yes.” Sam answered. She sensed where the conversation was going next and lied, “They are a powerful tool of humanity, but really uncomfortable. Have you ever worn armour? It’s really a shame we can’t get out of ours now that we are in a safe place again.” The raised eyebrow of the Mage now went accompanied with his other eyebrow. “Ah, you can’t get out of them? Why not?” Ilfundel asked. “Well, it’s a bit of secret, but that’s how they are made. It saves, uh, space and energy and it made it easier to design if you don’t have to worry about the user having to be able to do everything. It’s how we can get them to be so big. It’s not a worry as long as you have a team of support personnel,” Sam answered while trying her best to maintain a poker face. “I suppose that makes sense. The last entries into our history books was that you humans and your knights were quite fearsome in your armour and on horseback. But I notice that you are not on a horse and most of the rescued people told me that you can fly and carry no swords and have magical shields?” Ilfundel asked with yet another raised eyebrow and an intense stare. “Ah, yes. Our magics have advanced quite a bit. But I, uh, know very little of them, I’m just a soldier,” Sam replied. “Mmmh. Very well. I understand,” the Mage said with a disappointed smile. “I was going to ask you all to leave your weapons and armour at the gates, but I suppose that’s not really feasible, is it? I will ask the captain of the guard to make an exception for you all, after all, you did save a lot of our people. I will request however that your prisoner will be kept under guard by both our guards and my colleagues. I hope you won’t object?” “Of course not, so long as one of our own can observe the prisoner at all times,” Sam answered. “Very well, that can be arranged. You may enter the city, and are now under our protection, though I suppose you won’t need it. May I suggest we walk and talk a bit towards the tavern? I’m sure you understand that I have many, many questions,” Ilfundel said as Sam breathed an internal sigh of relief.
Sam was grateful for the inbuilt tech of the Paladin suits. Having shared camera feeds and a mic and audio setup that allowed for subvocalized communications allowed Sam to focus on the conversation with Ilfundel while her squad kept sending updates from themselves and the probe that was flying high above the town for Sam to watch and listen to later. When they finally reached the tavern, they subtly switched whoever was talking to Ilfundel, with the nature of the conversation constantly shifting between the world of the elves and the world of humans, and this third world called Arenal. The world where the Elves came from, is called Ljosalfar and seems to be quite similar to this world, much like most worlds as the mage explained. Looking around and listening to descriptions that the Mage gave, Sam guessed that they were in a medieval era town in a medieval era society. Jacqueline guessed that it was closer to a beginning renaissance era or perhaps late medieval era society, due to the high-quality steel they had and a surprising number of merchants that were wondering around on the market square, near which was their tavern. The fact that they had stone paved roads, and not all-too shabby houses with plenty of flourishes and colourfully painted doors and windows added to the sense that the city they were in wasn’t poor. More questions were asked and answered. It seemed that the elves were unified under the rule of the Ljosalfar empire and that the empire extended its reach quite far into this third world, Arenal. Arenal was the common dimensional plane that bordered all other planes and as such, any border tensions, new settlements, colonies and the occasional vassal kingdoms were in Arenal. The only exception was a vassal subterranean kingdom named Dokkalfar, home of the drow. They were in open revolt against the elves after they had rejected their rule after being subservient to them for well over 5 centuries when another emperor had united all the people on the world of Ljosalfar. This knowledge had answered a bit of the questions Sam and the squad had about Arundosar, his heritage and why the other elves were quite clearly being hostile to him. The conversation quickly turned to the situation on Earth and how humanity had progressed so far so quickly. Sam answered what questions she could but often played the role of being just a dumb soldier far from home who didn’t know about much about the complex nature of how exactly their technology and magic worked. She did explain that the humans were still divided and did not serve a single ruler. The Mage was clearly sceptical and explained that every civilized species only truly made advances when a powerful centralized ruler could allocate all the funds necessary to perform ambitious projects that increased the people’s knowledge of technology, magic, or other matters. The Mage explained that this was the way that the gnomes, halflings and even the orcs and giants did it. The dwarves were an exception, but their ways were strange, and perhaps so were the humans as well he conceded. Sam just nodded as she tried to comprehend that they were now fully stuck in a fantasy novel full on with fantasy races. At least knowing that this dimensional plane of Arenal bordered all other dimensions, made it quite clear how it was that things such as grass and chicken, as well as human words had seemed to migrate here. And the idea of elves and other mythological creatures had migrated to Earth. Eventually they reached the Mage tower in the middle of the square. It was a 60 meter tall round tower made of blue-grey bricks and a flat top. Ilfundel explained that it was a repository for knowledge, arcane materials, and an academy for what few magical practitioners there were that visited this close to unclaimed territory. There they dropped off their devil prisoner and left behind Alix and some obviously nervous city guards to watch over the POW in the dungeons as they went to the massive round library to continue their conversation. “Alright everyone, just a few more important questions and then we’ll go to the tavern and have dinner. After that Þorgeir relieves Alix and we re-assess the overload of information we just got and re-plan,” Sam sub-vocalized to her squad. In rapid succession she heard 4 soft “affirmative” through her earplug and contemplated sitting down on the luxurious dark wooden polished seat in front of her. The other tables and chairs, floors, walls and bookshelves were all of the same material in this library. There were easily thousands of books all around her as the library continued to spiral up another four or five floors, with a stone spiral staircase in the middle of it all. Sam wanted to sit down, but quickly didn’t as she realized that only stone or steel could support her suit’s weight. She remained standing, while the rest of the squad were slowly walking around and secretly taking tons of footage of interesting looking books. “Mage Ilfundel, I thank you very much for your introduction to your world, I only regret that I do not know more about mine to be able to give you more information about my world in kind. And I am sorry that I impose on your hospitality again, but I must insist on asking one more pertinent question,” Sam said as she looked Ilfundel intently in the eye. “You’ve told us that you need magical crystals and a magic user to be able to open up a portal. And that depending on how large you want the portal and how long you want to keep it open, the bigger the crystal or more powerful magic users you would need. But we don’t have any crystals at all. And we are just soldiers and aren’t capable of magic. Could you help us get home?” The Mage rubbed his chin and contemplated the question a bit before he answered, “Yes. I had been wondering about that. It’s quite strange really, the history books clearly state that humans didn’t practice magic when they first came to Arenal and thus were always reliant on the other species to open up a portal. And yet here you stand before us with a very magical suit of armour.” Sam could feel the doubt of the ever-skeptical Mage on his tone of questioning, but continued nonetheless, “Ah yes. Like I’ve explained earlier, our magic is a bit different and there is just an extremely small portion of humanity that is capable of magic. Like, one in a million.” The Mage sighed once more as he seemed to get an answer that he didn’t really like. “That’s alright, I can still help you. I can lend Arundosar to you, he is capable of opening up portals and could use the practice. He is not an expert on it and would require a larger crystal to open up a portal for your size, but if you keep the portal open for only a few days instead of a few weeks, then it wouldn’t be a problem. In return,” Ilfundel said as he gave a sly smile, “I would like to take custody of your prisoner and thoroughly study him. Don’t worry, you can have him back when you return to Earth.” “Everybody hear that?” Sam subvocalized. “Aha! You were lying!” Ilfundel boasted out, “You are telepathically speaking with your fellows right now, aren’t you?” “Uh-“ Sam said as she looked like a deer in headlights. “Ah, crap. No. I mean, we don’t have magic. It’s the suits that allow us to talk to each other. Please, we didn’t lie. If we really lied about knowing magic, would we really ask for your help, or even come here in the first place to get help to get home?” “Mmh, true. Alright fine. I’m sure there are many secrets you are keeping from me, I can see it in your eyes. But you are not enemies of the empire, so I’ll let it be. But I must insist on getting something out of this for me, or else this would have just been a massive waste of time. Let me experiment and study on your prisoner and I will keep to my word and help you all to get home, alright?” Ilfundel said as he folded his arms and looked a bit discontent at how this negotiation was going. “We get him back when we return to Earth?” Sam asked. “Yes, and you’ll have my Apprentice on loan until he has opened up a portal,” Ilfundel replied. “Sounds like a good deal, commander,” Myrael said along with some positive murmurs from the rest of the squad. “Wait!” Jacqueline cut in, “Is Arundosar going to use that magical ring of translation? How else are we going to understand him?” “Good one,” Sam subvocalized back and turned her attention back to Ilfundel. “Alright, we accept, as long as Arundosar gets to use your ring. He won’t be very useful to us if we can’t understand him.” Ilfundel looked at Sam and then at his magical ring and pondered her request before answering, “That’s reasonable. Alright, I agree. It’s a deal then.” “A deal, let’s shake on it,” Sam replied. “The soldier you had guarding the devil can leave now. Don’t worry, you can come see him anytime, and you’ll have him back when you return to Earth. Just ask me and I’ll arrange it,” Ilfundel said as he took off his ring and then slowly turned to Arundosar who was at his side and started speaking in hushed tones in elven that Sam could suddenly no longer understand. “Record everything,” Sam subvocalized, “I want to know what he really wants from us.”
Admiral Dai – Dimensional plane of Earth – UN Headquarters, N.Y.C.
It had been a busy week, filled with papers, meetings, conference calls, heated discussions over phone calls and tired face-to-face negotiations. Taking stock of the score, admiral Stephen Dai re-evaluated this past tiring week. Disbelief amongst the citizens of Earth quickly turned into extreme and even radical changes. Churches, long-time dying, found themselves overwhelmed by erstwhile atheists now afraid of hell’s portals opening up. The first cries of populists proclaiming an end to peace and safety who needed your vote and support to reform laws and thus to survive were accompanied by madmen proclaiming this to be the coming apocalypse but needing donations to save your soul. Nations in the UN were behaving in a similar manner. Every single member wanted to have more information, while demanding more security in the form of returning fleets and warships. They all neglected the Alpha Centauri pirate insurgency in face of personal peril. Countries already started shifting their trading priorities to get more fuel and rare earth materials to be diverted from colonies and to go to Earth, in preparation, of whatever may come. An entire species was panicking. Worse yet, some of Earth’s leaders who were not susceptible to panic due to years of political manoeuvring to become a player at the top, were now precisely the people who were the only ones who could rationally respond to this crisis and had zero incentive to do so. The United States proclaimed a state of emergency, recalled 3 heavy cruisers and a dozen lightweight-class ships to help with relief efforts, whilst congress quickly passed a crisis budget that doubled military spending to stave off political and populist pressures, and perhaps cynically, win the vote for the next set of elections. In response, China’s president had issued a similar state of emergency and recalled 1 of 3 dreadnought class ships from the Luyten system, accompanied by a full fleet of an assortment of a dozen capital-class ships and close to a hundred lightweight-class ships. This prompted Russia and India, along with the British commonwealth to recall significant portions of their fleets as well, which meant that Europe could not stay behind and retreated large portions of their fleet back to Earth as well. And just like that, the efforts of decades of peace-making was undone in a week. The bad days where a single press of a button could obliterate millions were back. The moments of silence and grief, the endless headlines and talking points, the sheer number of questions, regular commerce grating to a halt, all of it, were extra side-issues that put extra stress and pressure on the now fragile political landscape. The only blessing, Stephen cynically thought to himself, was that those devils attacked almost every major political player simultaneously, dispelling any notion of some sort of conspiracy or powerplay from a single country. Not that that stopped crazy people from spouting these theories. Regardless, the stage before him, the UN assembly room, where he was negotiating with all of humanity for its future, was a chaotic and perilous stage indeed. Stephen heard the audio prompt, sighed, and moved towards the podium and was granted the rights to speak to the assembly by the Speaker. To his surprise, almost every country had reacted favourably or positively to his amendment and his proposal to ramp up spending and production to quickly get rid of the Alpha Centauri problem so that they could all focus on this new problem swiftly and cohesively. Almost every country was going to vote in favour of it. All except China. And over the course of the past 36 hours, China had effectively been lobbying, bribing, bullying or blackmailing another 42 countries to join their stance. Stephen took his seat behind the microphones and cameras and turned them live, “Speaker, I am ready for the next round of questions and remarks regarding the amendment of the proposal for the ‘Star Shield’ initiative.” “Thank you, admiral. The first question is from the People’s Republic of China. Ambassador Zhang, you may speak,” the UN’s Speaker said. Stephen raised his eyebrow and pondered. Usually China would have their proxies talk endlessly to tire out the other countries and would speak themselves much later, sometimes months or years, only to swoop in, talk of ‘this-is-going-nowhere, decide-on-this-now-so-we-can-move-on’, and sway the vote in their favour. If China was willing to talk after 36 hours, then they must have something cooked up. Ambassador Zhang turned her microphone on live and began. “We of the People’s Republic of China have been against this proposal for reasons we have already explained in previous sessions of the UN assembly. However, we have a new amendment to submit that if included in the amended proposal of the admiral, would make us amenable to voting in favour of his proposal.” As Stephen listened to the translation coming in both of his eyebrows went up. They were being aggressive on the diplomatic scene. Normally they were only aggressive on the military side of things. Something was wrong. Stephen looked down at the inbuilt screen panel and saw an attachment that had the newly submitted Chinese amendment. The 15 minutes of break to allow for quickly skimming through the 40 page monster had caused a greater commotion than last week. China wanted to bring back drone warfare. 2 hours went by as the planned question session turned into a heated discussion about China’s amendment. “The enemy is not spaceborne, it only engaged by land and air, and presumably is further capable of seaborne activity. All the UN members have specialized in space operations, not on terrestrial operations. While both the UN Space Defense Fleet and national armies can perform terrestrial operations, none have the scale necessary to do so sustainably for every major metropolitan area on Earth. The only still-maintained expertise that could perform this task and is available to us is drones and drone operations. The only short-term solution we have to properly defend ourselves adequately is through drones. The UN prohibition on drones must end for the safety of humanity!” the Chinese Ambassador spoke as she gave their main rationale. Korea, Japan and many other South-East Asian countries immediately objected, “We have not forgotten what happened to the territories you invaded with those drones! We will not allow this to happen!” “That was well over a century ago, and you do not have veto power,” the Chinese Ambassador responded swiftly and coolly. The resulting screams and shouts were disruptive enough that the whole assembly retreated for dinner. And by sheer coincidence, Chinese state tv had broadcast a new segment showcasing the building of a 4th dreadnought vessel, bigger than the other 3, followed up immediately by another segment that proclaimed that China’s multiple state agencies were talking of starting up agricultural and fuel production subsidies that would make China more self-sufficient on those two sectors within 6 years. TV dinner was never fun at the UN. China was being really aggressive. Their play was ‘give us what we want, or we walk and do it anyway’. Was this a calculated move? Or was this reactionary and panic? What was China’s goal? And most importantly, how could Stephen keep the peace whilst ensuring that the ‘Star Shield’ initiative was accepted? It didn’t help that UN members were now completely forgetting formality and protocol and were just acting out of emotion. The US delegate, had accused China in backroom talks of wanting to police their own population in an even more totalitarian manner, with China replying that such drones helped prevent massacres in the Luyten systems before, while completely ignoring the question of repressed domestic protests. Another 4 hours had now passed, making 27 without sleep. Stephen had to admit, even here the tactic of stalling and patiently bullying and tiring out everyone was working, although usually it wasn’t in such a heated and aggressive manner. In a strange turn of events and almost against protocol, it was now his turn to ask questions, even though he was not part of a member state delegation and was only the initiative submitter. Stephen had to take a gamble. Was China taking a calculated move? Or were they panicking and grasping at any straw they had? If it was the first, his question would worsen the situation considerably and set Earth back on the path of drone warfare. If it was the last, he might salvage the situation, and Earth would just maybe set back on the path of drone warfare and he would get his proposal passed. Stephen tried to push his stress and tiredness away and began to ask, “Ambassador Zhang. The enemy’s capabilities are on 2 sides of an extreme. They are both superior and inferior. They can simultaneously open multiple and fully functional wormholes within a gravitational body. And yet they fight with swords and shields. My question is, what happens when the enemy engages with your drones and they manage to capture sophisticated gunpowder weaponry, or worse, energy and railgun weaponry, or other technology they can reverse engineer?” Something snapped. The ambassador was silent and slack-jawed as she thought over the implications. After a full minute of awkward and oppressive silence, the Chinese delegation started to speak to each other in hushed whispers, despite the Speaker’s prompt for them to answer the question. It was panic then, Stephen sighed gratefully. The Chinese panicked and overreacted. Their rule not being democratic, was always more fragile in that it had to keep its citizens permanently placated and peaceful, violently or otherwise. Drones would’ve been a good solution for that, both against an enemy combatant as well as domestic threats. But the Chinese government wasn’t stupid. Giving the enemy any potential whatsoever to gain a disproportionate advantage would be a grave strategic error that could cost humanity everything. The hushed whispers turned into hurried phone calls, and a few minutes of delay turned into another 4 hours of waiting as the Chinese delegation finally returned to the floor of the UN assembly. Admiral Zhang indicated to the Speaker that she was at last ready to answer Stephen’s question. “Admiral, we believe that it would be a grave strategic error to allow the enemy any opportunity to reverse engineer human advanced weaponry,” she finally said. “Your question opens a glaring flaw in our amendment, and so we have taken some time to correct that mistake. We propose to the floor that the assembly should take some time to read the new amendment. We believe it will both address our concerns regarding Earth’s safety as well as compromise enough to allow the ‘Star Shield’ proposal to go through unopposed.” In the half-hour break that followed Stephen read the amended amendment and then laughed at the brilliance of it. The UN prohibition on drones was targeted specifically on armed drones, but exempted police-keeping forces that did not carry projectile-based weaponry, meaning only humans were allowed to carry and operate firearms, railguns and laser weaponry. The Chinese amendment circumvented this by explicitly stating that the millions of drones that they and other nations had, would only be allowed to carry melee weapons and shields. Another 2 hours passed as each delegation talked with their own respective governments and finally the ‘Star Shield’ proposal with its 2 extra amendments was passed. Stephen was silently basking in the victory with his own team of administrative workers and diplomatic aides and thought that perhaps finally he had figured out the political game and that it wasn’t so bad. He woke the next early afternoon to the news that the Chinese dreadnought would not reverse course despite the newly signed proposal and that the 4th dreadnought’s construction would continue as planned. In fact, the production facility would be expanded to start mass-producing a new prototype material that would be used for swords and shields. Stephen cursed and realized that he still hated politics as always.
Devil Lord Azzazzel – The Horned Death – Dimensional Plane of the 9 Hells
Azzazzel stared into the scrying orb and looked at the fat pig-beast that was clearly overcompensating by covering the top of his head down to the last tip of his tail with spikes and horns. “Gabruziel, how goes the raiding?” “Fine enough, though the prey here is hardly resisting. It is clear that none of those petty kingdoms and pathetic towns were prepared for a full invasion force of 50 legions. But I am having some difficulty with sieging a heavily fortified mage conclave as well as 2 deeply burrowed dwarven fortresses. I will need more contingents of siege-breakers from you. Some more pit fiends would do fine,” Gabruziel said in his slow drawl that managed to slobber spit and slime everywhere. “While we are of equal rank, our master still chose me as the leader for this invasion. I will not give you anything, you foul beast!” Azzazzel growled out. “Listen to me and obey! Belial has awoken and our master has regained his connection. In turn I have gained his location. He is held captive by a Mage elf whom Belial will surely try to corrupt from within his cage. Irrespective of his ability to break free, you are to move on from your current sieges and march all your forces straight for the border of the Sylvan Empire. It is conveniently near the border with the human’s dimensional plane, so your plans will not change much. I will maintain my plans and reinforce you in 3 weeks from now with the main bulk arriving in another 4 weeks after that. Go!” Gabruziel growled back in anger, “I will do no such thing without more support from you! You may be the leader of this invasion, but you will fail without me setting up a proper breeching point and supply chain. I have already suffered enough losses from the dwarves and orcs, and the Sylvan empire outmatches them both, especially in magic! While I may be punished and demoted for failing in my mission, you will be stripped of all power by our God himself! You have more to lose! So if you want to succeed, you will send me more pit fiends and other magic resistant siege-breakers!” Azzazzel’s horns flared brightly in an almost white-hot flame out of pure anger, “RAGH! Fine. You shall have your support. But if I still fail, I will drag you down with me and let our master consume you first!” Gabruziel grinned, exposing his sickly yellow and many sharp tusks. “It’s a deal!”
Apprentice Mage Arundosar – Dimensional plane of Arenal – tavern in Hil’Sania
“It is a strange experience to be sure,” Arundosar said as he kept staring at his new Ring of Translation while the humans kept eating. Arundosar had long given up on the voracious appetite of the humans who after half an hour were still eating, demanding more soup and chicken from the overworked tavern owner. Not that the surly elves behind the bar were to be pitied, they would just send the bill towards the city who would have to pay according to the reward they gave to the humans for rescuing all those families. “When you say certain words or especially when you say certain concepts that are strange to us, it seems to try and give me a feeling of an idea that tries to come as close as possible to the figurative meaning of the word, while I actually hear a word or words that most closely resemble the literal meaning,” Arundosar said as he continued the conversation on his own. “Can you give us an example?” the red-headed commander asked. “Sure, your name for instance. You say f- v-, uh, vall’keeree, right?” Arundosar asked as she nodded in confirmation. “Right, all I heard the first time you said it with the ring on was ‘warrior-maiden’ with a feeling of fierceness, and a deep, red-blooded focus. Like peering down at a ruby in a darkened hallway, and if you angled it just right so that a single ray of sunlight would hit it, you would see a glorious burst of fire from within.” Sam nodded while the others smiled and started nudging her. “Yeah, that sounds like our commander alright,” the biggest and most resembling a drow male, Camper, said. His name was directly translatable. “Camper is a strange name, are all humans’ names so strange?” Arundosar asked, “I mean no offense of course, just curious.” “Oh, no offense taken. They’re not really our names, but codenames, short new names that we use whenever we can’t use our real names. Like when we are in unknown territory, like now,” Camper said. “Ah, makes sense. You humans have been absent from Arenal for centuries, so of course it would be an unknown territory to you all. It’s no wonder then that the devils attacked you then. They tend to invade dimensions that are weak or isolated, so that no one will come to their aid. It increases the number of slaves and riches they can take,” Arundosar explained with a sneer. “Yeah, bet they’re regretting that decision now,” the large white male with pale blond hair, Icebear, said. His name was also directly translatable, although Arundosar had never seen an ice-bear before. Although, looking at him now, he figured he may as well have. He was a large and pale man who strangled a dire bear to death and was scaring the commoners around him constantly by wearing its fur and growling like an utter madman when his commander wasn’t around. The humans had a strange sense of humour. Funny, but definitely strange. “Alright, that was a good meal,” the commander said as was done destroying her second whole chicken. She turned to the Apprentice and asked, “what’s the plan for tomorrow, Arundosar?” Arundosar thought for a bit as he replied, “Ah, well, it all depends on you really. My master said that I was to help you all open up a portal to home, and I need a crystal for that. Now the Academy sells-“ “We’ve been over this. The reward from the city is 50 gold pieces. Buying a crystal according to everyone here is at least 10.000 gold pieces. We can’t afford that,” Valkyrie answered. “And no. We are not selling any pieces of our armour or technology to the Academy.” “Yes, I understand, you were very clear about that, haha” Arundosar said half-heartedly. They were understandably adamant against such things, they were truly powerful suits of armour. But the reward he would get for it made him try in earnest. His master had promised him an instant promotion to Journeyman as well as a glowing recommendation to start the process of becoming an official Mage depending on how many secrets, both magical and non-magical, Arundosar could bring back from the humans to his master. “Well, that leaves 2 options. We dig for it ourselves and risk a tunnel collapse, getting robbed, finding no crystals at all, or potentially get raided by competing miners,” Arundosar said and noticed that none of the humans looked very impressed or willing. “Or we go win the main prize at the adventurer’s guild. I’ve seen it, it’s quite a sizeable crystal, enough to open up the portal for your size for at least a month, even at my Apprentice-level skill.” The humans seemed more enthusiastic, if still sceptical at that option. The one they called ‘Alien’, was the only one who really smiled at that option and seemed consistently ready to skip sleep and go sign up right now. Alien was translated strangely for Arundosar. He heard it as ‘foreigner-from-beyond-Earth’, with a deep and dark feeling along with a mysterious even dangerous after-feeling to it. And yet she looked so sweet and innocent, it was quite bizarre to Arundosar. The other names were quite fitting so far, as although he also didn’t understand the nickname of ‘Barhead’, he could imagine that the smallest of the human women could perhaps drink a lot. “However, the adventurer’s guild is a bit of a meatgrinder as the commoners say. You either get lucky or you are very skilled and you win big, or you die on the job either from dangerous and wild animals, gangs of thieves and robbers, a crazed lone mage, poisonous plants and other hazardous terrain, competing guilds, some kind of evil mastermind with an idiotic plot to conquer a kingdom, or stranded in a strange and unexplored planar dimension where the winds could fill your head with nightmares and make you fight each other,” Arundosar almost nonchalantly said with a slight shrug as he listed off the most common ways to die in the meatgrinder. “Oh, please commander, puh-lease!” Alien almost shouted as she pleaded with Valkyrie. “Gods-fucking-damnit. Fine. If only because we have no guarantee of quickly finding a crystal at all while mining. We’ll get some rest tonight and tomorrow morning we’ll see how much effort it takes to win a damn-fucking magic crystal so we can get home,” Valkyrie replied in defeat. “It will probably be a lot more effort, but almost assuredly much, much quicker,” Arundosar said. “Mining a large enough crystal to be of use may take months, if you even know where to look. Winning big in the guilds can take as little as a week, if you are strong enough. And I think you are,” Arundosar said with a wink. “I’ll be here tomorrow morning. Oh, and don’t spend any of that gold.” “Why not?” Icebear asked. “The sign-up fee for the guild is 50 gold pieces per adventuring party,” Arundosar replied as he got up, ready to go to his sleeping quarters in the Mage tower. All the humans simultaneously grumbled and complained about wanting to buy souvenirs, but Valkyrie cut them off and finished the conversation, “Alright. We’ll bring the gold pieces with us tomorrow. Easy come, easy go, I guess.”
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