Despite Marty’s belief that there was only one way to handle competition – beat the tar out of it – Kevin felt that it was time to give some attention to Vekxin and this “Rosary of Memory” thing. The battles in the underdark had turned into a sort of stalemate: The Thralls had persuaded 10 of the kids to come home, and captured 8 of them – out of the 125 Vekxin had run off with – and the authorities in Potterworld had picked up another 7, but that really wasn’t going well – and most of the 32 Thralls from Hogwarts has been killed at least once. It had apparently never occurred to them that their classmates might actually try to kill them at first.
In a way that was a profit for him – once they’d been killed, reversing time to break the thrallbond would kill them if they refused to maintain it and snap back to his afterworld (not that most of them would probably have thought that it was a bad deal and opted out anyway) – but that really wasn’t an ideal way to go about it.
Things were improving: he’d sent more thralls as reinforcements, and they’d gotten used to their powers and to working together, were more familiar with their opponents abilities – and had observed that Vekxin’s servants seemed to recover from even the worst mortal wounds, so they were no longer holding back in fights – but they just weren’t capturing their opponents at a reasonable rate. At least young Paul Malfoy’s girlfriend had been among the ones who’d been captured – and, either way, once they were cured of their positive-energy addiction they were invariably pretty pissed at Vekxin. (Hmm… there might be a few more recruits the next time Kevin visited Hogwarts: even if Vekxin had soured most of them on the entire idea, the Thralls might have won a few over, there would be other would-be rescuers who’d seen that it demonstratably both was working and wasn’t a bad deal – and that Dumbledore approved – and there were always the new classes. The ensouled kids who wound up sorted into Slythern – even if there weren’t very many – were almost always easy to recruit). Things blew over fast in the Manifold sometimes – even if they lingered for centuries other times.
Anyway, they might just have to put it about that they’d recovered this “Rosary of Memory” thing – or come up with some sort of substitute or equivalent. With the entire Manifold for people to run away into, it was a lot easier to get them to come to you.
Much more importantly, with some of Vekxin’s agents recovered and cured, they should be able to get a good description of the “Rosary of Memory” – or at least how they were going to recognize it – and information on where they thought they were likely to find it. They’d need that if they wanted to be convincing.
So: the Rosary of Memory was supposed to be a focal point for the memories and psychic energies left behind as souls discarded roles and lives and took on new ones. Vekxin wanted to possess it and merge with it, allowing him to “transcend” his current existence. He knew that it was deep undergound and is protected by a terrible evil. It was described as a pool or fountain that gave off a glowing blue light with faint images shifting beneath the water’s surface. Those nearby tended to hear incoherent whisper and see visions of the dead – or possibly of their past lives.
That fit the general description of the Well of Mimir, the Sagacious Tree, and a selection of other items. “Seeing the dead” wasn’t that big a trick in the Manifold – whether as memory-phantoms or by going and looking them up
Still, the description seemed kind of familiar: a pool, deep underground and guarded by a terrible evil, a collection-point for discarded thoughts, incoherent mental whispers, things of the imagination – like Silmarils – and limited illusions. A high fantasy realm seemed likely – and the Underdark held the Coral/Underdark interface, a nearby Mind Flayer Brain Pool… and that pool of Jarvian’s in the old mine. That would, at least, explain why Vekxin was devoting so much effort to the Underdark – and why he was after the Thrall’s defensive zone there: Kevin had set up his secured communications center near the drow and mind flayer cities, since that was the area he was familiar with – and that was in their search zone. They might even believe that Kevin was after the same thing and was sitting on a probable location.
Well, they’d always kind of assumed that they weren’t done with the Mind Flayers and the Drow. More importantly, even if they turned out to be on the wrong track, it seemed like a good place to set up a fake.
They got into touch with Ithulsin at the House of Roses. He might have some information – and they could easily bribe him if necessary.
He did want a bribe – but Kevin had originally intended to get him some cute drow and elven concubines and a nice estate just to demonstrate that being Drow was much more fun than being a Mind Flayer anyway, and that proved more than adequate. After all, all they really wanted was information – any rumors he might have heard about anything that answered to the description.
Ithulsin had heard of such things, albeit mostly in legends. It was said that they occurred “naturally” in various hard-to-reach locales, places long since forgotten by everyone. There was a theory among the Mind Flayers that all such things might be linked together somehow, or even simply all be manifestations of the same fountain. The ill-prepared could be driven mad by the psionic emanations that such pools gave off. Still, whether or not such rumors had any fact behind them – or were even related to the Rosary of Memory or were some other item entirely – was hard to say.
Kevin felt that such things were linked almost by definition – psychic energy didn’tt pay a lot of attention to distance, and Mana paid even less – and anywhere that was a collection point for psychic energy was likely to be forgotten, since thoughts about them were likely to be collected.
Ilthulsin was surprised that he understood psionic theory surprisingly well.
Kevin could detect a bit of pressure – or suction – (albeit ill-defined and hard to pinpoint) on his mental defenses while he considered the subject, which was a limited sort of confirmation anyway.
The Underdark really did sound like just the place to find an upwelling of the Rosary. It also had lots of lost dark gods to manifest to defend the thing… They might be able to hit it from the backside if we passed through the black hole at the center of the negative plane – Kevin suspected that entropy might not apply in the Manifold, but that information and ideas could not be destroyed there, despite the negative plane. Unfortunately, they doubted that even they could survive taking that route.
Vekxin probably had no idea what he was really getting involved with. A nexus like that would EAT a phantasm – just as it would have absorbed Arxus if they’d brought him too close. The fact that he’d been selective about his psychic-energy absorption had been the only thing that allowed him to maintain any kind of an identity without a soul.
It was about time to leave Pictsome. It seemed to be in an acceptable orbit and they’d treated all the human victims of the radiation-flash (not too bad: most of them had been behind shielding anyway), and the puppies (the thralls took most of them), and the imported breeding stock. The local flora and fauna would take a few generations to sort out the genetic damage, but it would be an evolutionary boost in the long run anyway. The repeaters had all shut up now that they’d expended their Mana (much to Ryan’s relief). The Inquisitor and the Military Observers were all busy arguing with Ryan (who didn’t really want them involved), which should keep them off everyone else’s back – so it would probably be a good time to get out. Marty hated to explain and Kevin didn’t think explanations looked profitable at the moment, or at least not with the Inquisitor. He thought that the Military would already like to recruit for him, it was just politically awkward at the moment. The computers were already well aware that they’d showed up with more than a hundred gatekeepers – all about age 14 equivalent – anyway.
Back on Ealor, the Mirage’s repairs were complete – and the techs had finished both the three new mechs and “upgrading” the Atlas (OK: they’d discarded the entire thing except for the ID plate and built a new Mech on roughly the same pattern). They weren’t really happy with the resulting design constraints, but it was what the customer had requested. The Atlas was mostly Wellstone framework, power plant, coolant systems, and laser weapons systems. Given the weight and thrust requirements, it couldn’t fly. It wasn’t something the Singularites would have taken into battle – but they followed a far more mobile and long-range doctrine and used nuclear or orbital weaponry when it was indicated. The Farslayer (optimized for long-range combat, and thus, of course, aerospace-capable), and the two Falconstrikes (light fighters fitted out for land and aerospace mobility, scouting, and hit-and-run combat) were ready as well.
Jarvian assigned the heavier Mech’s to the two male Cadets – Taraq to the Atlas and Sorith to the Farslayer – while Kaliat and Pakria took the Falconstrikes. Sadly, they were a bit blank on naming them though… Well, they were from a steampunk world. Not too romantic about machinery and doubtless expecting them to blow up at any moment.
Now he needed a target to raid – more or less as a test run and a chance for the cadets to practice under fire. A lightly-defended minor industrial world would be best, and would let him pick up some additional mech frameworks, ammunition, and supplies. It should be a serious test run, and that meant – with all due apologies – no supernatural interference from Kevin, Marty, or Smoke.
Besides, he wanted to test his own command skills as well. It would be best to split up. If he was going to take and hold a planet, he’d want them – but not for this.
There were plenty of choices, but it looked like a high-speed strike on Turwin – a light industrial world – would be best. He could afford a small dropship – just barely – but he’d have to rent space on a jumpship to get there. Still, that was par for the course on raids.
Fortunately there were plenty of ships for rent in the Imperium. Hopefully it would convert to a ship that would work locally on entering the Battletech sector of the galaxy.
It came close enough, thanks to the Cadet’s influence. It was still going to take a week to reach his target though.
Marty, Kevin, and the others decided to leave for the Underdark. Marty wanted to try trading as a cover again – it was just too convenient – and the house was willing to lend them the tinfoil hats again (evidently they were classifying this as a major push – and were after Vekxin too). It would have to be a pretty heavily protected caravan: they’d pushed things last time, and the place was a war zone now. They’d have to stick to worlds with a sizable ensouled population to avoid timeshifts though… Moreover, slaves weren’t really a high-enough value item to justify a heavily-guarded caravan at the moment and they didn’t have any really convenient source anyway. Hm. Wines, spices, exotic liqueurs, really fancy synthetic cloth (it should translate well), synthetic gems, drugs, and luxuries to trade for magical metals and gems and such? Maybe some minor magical weapons, and perhaps some unusual light sources. Just because they all had darkvision didn’t mean they liked seeing in black and white all the time – and not everyone had access to magic even in the Forgotten Realms.
As a diversion, he passed word around to the Drow, Deep Dwarves, Deep Gnomes, and other subterranean races: sizable bounties for Vekxin’s troops. They’d been being local pains anyway – while the Thralls had been helping the local defenders.
Apparently live capture wasn’t much of a worry: the empowerment effect Vekxin used infused his troops with so much positive energy that they were unable to die. If struck down they remained conscious and alive as they slowly healed. One kid, nearly sliced in half, agonized over several days as his body stitched itself together. Unfortunately, repeated self-healing tended to cause neurological damage – obsession, neural disorders, epileptic fits, and so on – due to the positive-energy overload. Unfortunately, they got their orders via telepathic sendings, so there was no good way to trace their command structure.
Well, that gave them protection from the local psychics and a diversion. They could easily stock up on high-value goods en route and take along a dozen or so Thralls as guards: all they needed was a route. They’d prefer to avoid near-empty realms like Coral to avoid timeslips – but at least some of Vekxins early recruits presumably had a more direct route from core, and there were probably local surface of the realms. They could just punch a new gate of course, but they wanted to keep a low profile after Pictsome.
Well, Vekxin was searching the Forgotten Realms, so he probably didn’t want to play with time there. It was impossible in Core, and probably in the Imperium. So: routes that stuck to well-populated universes…
The major routes included Core->Crusader->Lord of the Rings->Underdark (via Moria) and Cre->New Imperium->Classical Imperium->Sith Tomb->Underdark. Hm. Well, Lord of the Rings was pretty popular, so there were probably enough souls there to make it really hard to timeshift. Classical Star Wars was relatively unpopulated though, since as soon as you get off the plot (which people with souls tend to do) you wound up in the New Imperium. Moria it was. They could pick up stuff to sell in the New Imperium. They might have to dodge the Inquisitors though – they had been involved in the Hellstorm fiasco awhile back, and in moving a planet just now.
The house sent some other teams to the Underdark to try and cut off escape routes. Kevin made sure that all the thralls being taken had the fantasy training package, so they could call up their dragon-steeds if necessary.
So: Back through Crusader. Taking a caravan full of goods through Moria was going to be fun…
Getting to LOTR was easy enough: you just needed to hike up a mountain into the alps and wait for the scene transition – and for the roles. LOTR had some really strong ones… Some of the Thralls suddenly had bare feet (and one had a ring), one started walking on the snow, Kevin suddenly had a beard, Marty had a horn and a big sword, and so on… Botheration. They’d almost certainly have to fight the Balrog.
Well, getting into Moria was relatively easy, even if they did have to fight the pool-creature and felt compelled to quote a lot of dialog and make a lot of in jokes. Lets see… They had to hit the crypt, and then take an alternate route out – which would turn into the Underdark, which they’d enter at a run just a little way ahead of a group of orcs who’d be chasing them through a tunnel where the Balrog didn’t fit. They checked the book in the crypt – and found that the last bit diverged from the account pretty drastically. Written in blood, it read: “WATCH OUT! THE DAMN THING IS LEARNING!!! IT WILL TRY TO CUT YOU OFF AND KEEP YOU FROM REACHING THE GATE OR THE BRIDGE. RUN YOU FOOLS!!!”
Well damn. The Balrog had acquired a soul, and was remembering past the resets.
They headed out quickly – forget the fight with the troll – but the drums started up anyway. The orcs tried to cut them off and the place was getting hot. Kevin started wide-area blasts to keep the orcs down while the Thralls ran a kinetic force-wedge and missile defense and Marty handled any orcs that broke through.
They threw in a few illusions as well to help keep the arrow-fire scattered, but just kept rolling onwards (albeit with some booster-spells on Marty). They had plenty of magical power available, so they might as well use it. They’d have to report this whether they got out or died: the Balrog had presumably got the last few groups since the book had had a warning, but no one had reported it yet.
Marty single-handedly annihilated a cave troll and they rolled onwards – until the Balrog popped up. Apparently it’d been hoping that it’s minions would accomplish SOMETHING. It was hostile – but made the mistake of talking… Their casual assumption that the “plot” would defeat him eventually, that there was no such thing as “mortals”, and that his entire universe was a creation for amusement, was disconcerting. The fact that they were on their way elsewhere to deal with a very annoying light-energy channeler – who was technically misusing it’s power – was also of interest. If the powers of the light could be corrupted and misused, and he could learn to do so, not even Sauron would be able to resist him!
Well, that actually sounded like it might be amusing – so they put a shrinking-spell on the Balrog and took it along so that it could “vanquish this corrupt user of the Light so that I might learn his secrets and make myself more powerful”. Besides, that would solve the problem: with him and his soul elsewhere, the place should start resetting properly again.
It named itself Gantrithor, Balrog, Ruler of the Mines of Moria, Lord of Darkness, slayer of Gandolf, Aragon, and annoying little hobbits. Marty informed it that he was Marty Tabard of Amarant Solutions, Free Trader Derrick Rodan, duel champion Sam Monroe, and many other people. Keven got dramatic and threw in an entire list – Arpherion the Darkwalker, Titus Decius Aquilla, a trader of Rome, Kierroth, the Knight-Huntsman of Exeter of the Unseelie Fey, Belramos, the Angel of the Abyss, Ailill Keras’an’Darkell, a Dragon of the Draconic Empire, Angkor Shadowfang, a Werewolf, and Kevelian, a Red Wizard of Thay (among others).
Actually that worked out pretty well. Having a Balrog along should give them instant evil-party credentials without having to bother demonstrating!
Back in the Manifold Galaxy, Jarvain had reached his target zone – and the Cadets had pretty much finished marveling over Imperial/Battletech technology and how the ship had changed when they entered Mechwarrior space. They might have contributed some mana to it themselves, but it was still pretty impressive.
Turwin was a small, mineral-rich, world where water was a bit scarce and the biosphere was rather sparse because of it. The factories were clustered around the equatorial region – and there was already a pirate ship in orbit. A very small jumpship – one dropship and a lance or two of Mechs. It hadn’t spotted them, but doubtless would soon enough. It looked like there was already combat going on down at the surface.
Jarvian ordered a hot drop: The Mirage, Farslayer and Falconwings would descend from orbit on their own; the Atlas would need to be dropped off at ground level due to it’s weight.
Jarvian headed in with the rest of the Cadets to secure a landing zone. Air defenses were totally non-existent. The pirates had dealt with them – and were currently fighting around the factories. It looked like the pirates were finishing off the last of the defenders while loading up weapons and mechframes onto their dropship.
Jarvian swore. Dammit, that kind of stuff was what he had come for! Time to move to attack positions and target mobility and long-range weapons from… er… 40 miles out for the Falconwings, current altitude or more for the Farslayer.