Back at Jarvain’s escape from Turwin, Sorith and the Mirage had won the duel with the pirate warship – but hadn’t been able to keep Jarvain’s jumpship from taking some damage. Not enough to stop it from jumping out – but certainly enough to be expensive.
With a few fuel-creation spells, the Mirage even managed to make it back to the Jumpship before Jarvain had to jump out.
Jarvain still wasn’t happy about the Cadet’s ages – but he had to admit that Sorith had performed very creditably under serious fire. His preliminary look at the combat records showed a very creditable record indeed… In fact, although he’d been assuming that the results of their preliminary evaluations in training simply reflected differences in measurement schemes for awhile now, this time it was just too blatant to explain that way. Reflexes, strength, resistance to fatigue, recovery from injuries and neural shocks, weapons skills, and more, all flagged at “elite” or (mostly) at “metahuman”. From the raw numbers, far superior to any normal human being.
What the hell had Kevin done to a bunch of 13-year-olds to get this kind of results? More importantly, why the hell didn’t he do it to people of the appropriate ages instead?
Sorith’s debriefing – at least on the topic of the Mirage – was a bit anticlimactic. Jarvain had forgotten that the cadets were all from that silly steampunk world. All he got was a wave of enthusiasm about how incredible the Mirage was.
Still, the boy did come up with some practical tactical suggestions – most notably, keeping some of the aerospace-capable units out in space as outriders until they we’re well underway. He might have done that without prompting if they weren’t kids… He had Kaliat and Pakria take the Falconstrikes out. They’d need to dock and refuel every so often, but that shouldn’t be too much trouble.
Otherwise the trip back was uneventful.
Meanwhile, back in the Underdark, Marty and Kevin (and Limey, who’d transformed into a baby spellbook) were finishing setting up gates, getting the dark elves moved, and setting out for the Mind Flayer city – trailing 40 assorted phantasm orc and bugbear slaves in heavy chains.
Fortunately most of the sun elves had fallen back on sneering. The final resort of the arrogant but ineffectual.
Nothing much happened on the trip to the Mind Flayer city. The caravan seemed to be large enough to scare off most of the minor monsters.
The cavern hadn’t changed much, although the water was a bit deeper. The place looked to be more or less uninhabited, the buildings were in various stages of collapse, the water was forming lakes and small streams all over the place, and there was a large circular section of the city missing where the main temple had been. The air was filled with the smell of moldy damp decay.
Overall, not really that different. In the Underdark, who could tell?
It took a bit of searching to locate the mine Jarvain had been exploring – and a fair amount of work from the orcs and bugbears to clear the entrance – but the task was straightforward enough.
It also uncovered quite a lot of skeletons and such.
Come to think of it, it wouldn’t be too surprising if that negative energy burst had created some fairly nasty undead…
Naturally enough, a fair sized army of the undead turned up immediately.
Oh well: same plan as the Orcs. Kevin laid down large-area fireblasts to deal with the minor hordes, the Thralls blasted anything that survived to move in, and Marty handled the ones that were tough enough to wade through the gauntlet and get in close.
Unfortunately, that stank even worse than the undead had originally – and three of the bigger zombies were tough enough to get to Marty.
He had a lot of fun, especially experimenting with the ways his new pocket friends could boost his abilities and chopping chunks off of zombies.
Back at Ealor, Jarvain had returned the ship to the rental agency, the insurance people were arguing with the rental people over the damage to the ship Jarvain had rented, the Cadets finally had reasonable route for getting Jarvain to Kevin (as he kept demanding), and Jarvain was taking Jaiden to the medical center.
The medics weren’t too busy at the moment, so the reception programs passed Jaiden into scanning pretty much immediately while Jarvain got drafted into providing medical history and into admitting that he was the father, and that they were – at best – engaged.
Well, she was about one and one-half months along, and the child appeared to be developing normally. Jaiden did, however, appear very young – although the proper authorities had presumably approved of the engagement. There was a lot of pushing on parenting classes and having an experienced mother talk to Jaiden.
On the other hand, they did have a complaint being filed about taking her into combat and traces of a massive radiation dose not all that long ago – although the only remaining traces seemed to be in the hair, nails, and other nonliving structures. That called for a live doctor – who wanted to know just what Jarvain had been doing with Jaiden. According to the reports and diagnostics submitted, she had fair reason to believe that the child had been taken into combat and subjected to a substantial amount of radiation, even if there was no real evidence of genetic or enzymatic damage.
Jarvain noted that they travelled with a very good healer. Unfortunately, “we can fix it” was not a justification that the doctor liked one little bit. It also wasn’t an answer.
“We got too close to a nuclear blast” wasn’t a good one either – especially when it implied that Jarvain was using a young girl as a co-pilot in a war machine.
Jaidens claims that she was of age were pretty obviously silly – as were Jarvain’s claims that she’d told him that she was of age. She was blatantly obviously an adolescent, and he would have had to have been blind not to see that.
That he was exploiting an orphan in this way – and possibly planning to take her into combat again (even on the theory that the Mirage was the best form of protection available for her) – didn’t go over well either.
They had noted many unusual readings in the medical diagnostics – multiple genetic modifications, superior physical abilities, high potential life span, and several other odd things. Unfortunately they found the blunt statements that “Kevin gave them to me when I signed up to work for him – along with setting up the link so that I could come back if I was killed. I’d rather not demonstrate that though, since the baby can’t. You can ask one of the others if you want” and “How? He used magic; he’s really good at that” pretty frustrating.
The fact that he’d done the same thing to Jarvain’s similarly-underage cadets was interesting as well.
She recommended keeping away from combat, monthly checkups, and staying near a proper medical facility once she was approaching full term. She STRONGLY recommended that Jarvain keep her away from combat and nuclear explosions – and that he cut down on alcohol and cigars. Even with modern medical technology, they couldn’t fix everything.
She started calling child protective services as soon as they’d left. They might not have jurisdiction, but SOMEBODY should.
Meanwhile, Sorith was being interviewed about the Mirage’s complaints – if only because having an AI acting like that was almost unprecedented: only the Russian AI and one or two others had ever demonstrated that kind of initiative and ability to go beyond their programming.
The interview didn’t go that well. The description they had was accurate enough – a fairly minor anti-insurgent mission had turned into a duel with an antiquated, but still effective, pirate starship with a considerable nuclear arsenal – but the fact that the Cadets appeared relatively young for such a level of responsibility. Didn’t match their own opinions. The cadets felt qualified; they’d had a lot of training from Jarvain and Kevin, Kevin had asked them to do this, they were well past the age of majority at twelve – and they did whatever Jarvain asked because Kevin had told them to. It was a part of the contract.
What did they get out of the contract? Immortality, a lot of magic powers, a fancy city to relax in between missions, and a lot of other stuff. It’s a lot better than home. They were sure of the Immortality part: Kevin had brought back other contractees who’d died. That was one reason why they were confident about participating in combat. Their remarkable scores on the simulator tests were a part of the contract as well. The contract ran out in a few centuries, and they got to keep all the powers and immortality afterwards. Unfortunately, Kevin couldn’t make it work on people who were older than he was yet.
That routed the interviewer; he’d been doing well to hold on past the first mention of “Immortality”.
All the interviews – and all the medical diagnostics – went about the same way. The information that they were all gatekeepers, and that they’d helped in the planet-moving, was pretty startling as well.
Back in the Underdark, Marty and Kevin decided to simply turn the slaves loose. It wasn’t like they really needed them to bargain with anyone, or even for cover – and if they decided to attack, well, they could just kill them. The creatures seemed to find the fact that no one even cared if they picked up weapons and armor intimidating enough anyway.
They also wanted to know what was up – so they informed them that they were looking around in the old mine for a big glowing pool. If any of them saw anything like that, there would be a handsome reward.
The ex-slaves decided to come along.
Given that Jarvain had reported an unbreathable atmosphere, Kevin prepared a few protective spells – and it didn’t take long to reach the pool.
The entire area glowed with a pale blue light, scattering reflections. At the edge of hearing, there were faint, incomprehensible, whispers. The energy flows were palpable.
Oh dear. It this was actually it. Now they had to guard it or something until Vekxin showed up Still, if he was anywhere around, he should have been able to dig it out himself – although ti did reach into other dimensions and caverns of course.
Kevin threw up more shields: the Mirage must have been a fairly effective shield – or else Jarvain was just insensitive.
Marty wanted to drink it.
Kevin felt that there was something owed. Arxus had gone up and down in power enough that there should be an echo of him here. It should be possible to conjure him; he’d been a psychic nexus, so there was no reason why he couldn’t manifest in more than one place at a time. He started getting a ritual ready…
While Kevin was busy, Marty took a drink. Why not? It wasn’t like it could kill him.
He had a vision… A small medieval village. He remembered a terrible plague affecting the nearby lands. He watched as his father, a paladin, headed off to the affected areas. He heard tales of the dead rising from the grave and sickbeds to slay the living and add them to their armies. He heard of the defeat of the kingdom’s army. His mother fell sick and was gruesomely killed by the villagers before she could die. All he could think about was how much he hated his father for abandoning them both as the undead armies closed in.
Had that been one of his prior lives? They’d have to have one of the core kids take a drink later; if he had the theory right, they shouldn’t have any prior lives to bring up. Hm… If it was one of his lives, he should be able to remember more with that prompting.
Feeling back into the memory, he could… He watched as the villagers were all slaughtered by the undead. Oddly, they encircled him without attacking. A man in black armor approached as the air went cold. The man knelt down and touched him in the forehead – and the memory ended, although he could feel that he did not die.
Meanwhile, Kevin and the Thralls had the circle, the containment, and the shielding spells ready to go. After all, if they did get him, they didn’t need him being sucked right back into the Rosary. Kevin poured plenty of Mana into the summoning – and it worked, although something was resisting or pulling him back.
Arxus was pretty disoriented – and nauseated – when he arrived. It looked like being in two places at once was a bit confusing – and part of him “was still stuck in that damn prison”. Still, despite the initial pain, he was glad to be at least partially out of it. He didn’t like the way the Rosary was tugging at him though.
Kevin reinforced the shields. They’d need to get Arxus away from the Rosary fairly quickly.
Kevin was arranging to leave a few guards while he got Arxus away from the Rosary when one of the bugbears took a drink. Kevin tried to hold it together (and out of the Rosary, to which it was trying to return), but it transformed into a human female – possibly someone’s discarded role’ (there were soul-echoes there). She was from somewhere called Ivalice and looked like an anime-style human woman.
Back in the main cavern, Jarvain was waiting for them – and had quite a row about the cadet’s age with Kevin, although Kevin did keep trying to be reasonable. It seemed like Kevin was getting quite a blast of pent-up frustrations, despite his general confusion about what the problem was. After all Jarvain had been traveling with Kevin’s personal set around for quite a while and had been at the block party where they’d recruited the Cadets.
Wait, had he been THAT drunk? He’d had one riding with him for weeks at the time; you knew she could repair the Mirage, heal wounds, levitate into the cockpit, and throw illusions. Are you really telling me that you either didn’t notice or never asked what else she could do? Wait… It took you weeks to notice that she was a girl. Are you that focused on mechs, having that much trouble accepting the manifold, or do we need to get you to some AA meetings?
Kevin and Marty decided that Jarvain had probably been over-stressed for quite awhile now.
After a while, Jarvain wound down and drank himself to sleep.
AA was DEFINITELY in order.
Arxus was doing better away from the Rosary, although not quite up to snuff yet. Kevin had the Thralls pay careful attention to him, and try and memorize his appearance and habits and traits. They have plenty of psychic energy, so if Arxus was still a magnet for it, that should help. He tried to bind him to the group as well, since he might still be being drained by that “prison” he mentioned.
It seemed that – back on Baelaria – Arxus and the Thralls had been jumped by several people with phenomenal strength and speed. Arxus had been able to go toe to toe with them since he’d absorbed a great deal of power from the constructs he’d been fighting – but a mage, apparently from the Ministry, had appeared and conjured up ropes that were almost impossible to break. Arxus had managed to cut the first two he threw, but was caught by the third. He’d tried to buy the Thralls time to get away – and was pleased to find that Kevin still had them around, even if he had had to bring them back.
Anyway… “I was bound and dragged off through a gateway deep underground. Through there we went outside from some sort of crypt, journeyed for many days and finally came to a castle in the middle of a great field. From there taken deep into a dungeon and presented as an offering to another powerful mage. The mage that caught me was granted something in exchange for myself. I know not what. I was locked up and forced to absorb all sorts of energies. Many of them had a bad taste to them, sort of hard to describe. Then energy would be bled off of me. The mixture of energies fed would be adjusted based on the results of the bleeding. I lost track of how long this went on.”
Kevin had a theory about that: an empiricist trying to create a synthetic energy-mixture, using Arxus as the focus/containment vessel. Well, they already knew that Mana was the closest energy form – at least in what they’d had available – to the Sunpool, although the sunpool certainly hadn’t contained Mana (come to think of it, Mana might be the closest available energy form to almost anything though). As a hypothesis, Merlin was not a Gatekeeper, and didn’t have access to many, and wanted access to places where magic/psychic powers wouldn’t get him, like the really hard Sci-Fi realms and core – and so was trying to find a synthetic equivalent to Mana. Vekxin was important because he could reliably bind existing Gatekeepers to himself. He’d have to check to see if any of the kids from Hogwarts were gatekeepers, or if they just used magic to open existing gates in realms where magic works.