Kevin had concluded that – given the general lack of any definite answer from anyone – he might as well go talk to the Church about his recruiting in Core. As soon as his parents got home, and started making serious inquiries about “pacts” and “granting magical powers”, people would be putting all the clues together anyway – and it would probably be better to show up to talk on his own, rather than waiting for the Church to come to him.
Still, he probably wouldn’t need combat assistance with the Church (or with his private “project” of fathering a few more ensouled dragon-kids) and showing up with it would make having a reasonable conversation a lot less likely.
With Kevin off to visit the Unified Church and work on some private “project” of his own, Marty and Jamie were at loose ends again. Marty was willing to bet that the “private project” involved girls; Kevin wasn’t nearly as hard to read as he thought he was. People from Core were too blasted honest and open for their own good to begin with, and the fact that he was still a teenager just made it easier. Still, the boy was right enough; he shouldn’t need serious combat assistance with either the Unified Church or with his girlfriends.
Jamie was up for anything as long as it involved combat, so the choice was up to Marty – and he had a bit of a project of his own. He didn’t like leaving Amarant Solutions Manifold operations so totally dependent on the Thralls – but the technological, magical, and psychic gates were very limited in where they worked between. Highway linked to a lot of realms, and so did Catacomb and a few other realms – but they tended to be a bit violent and desolate. On the other hand, he’d heard that the High Seas linked virtually EVERYWHERE – at least eventually – and usually let you slip from one reality to another without needing gates for anything but Core and the realms that were so close to Core that they were hard to tell apart from it.
It was time to check that out. Maybe a little maritime piracy was in order. It might be more lessons for Limey anyway; he’d been neglecting the little guy a bit recently.
Jamie thought that that just might be for the best; if there was one thing Marty WASN’T it was a good example for kids. Just look at how it had been going with Julia!
Marty shook his head at that observation – he couldn’t exactly deny it now, could he – and headed for the High Seas. The great days of sail? The Carribean? The age of exploration? The clipper ships? The whaling ships? (Nah, that was just too bloody and depressing; it wasn’t like the things had any good way to fight back). A laptop on the Spanish main? Raise the anchor and hoist the sails!
On land, New Ascelin was a tangle of alleyways, old buildings, and small businesses, while the harbor was a jungle of masts – with the occasional steam funnel poking up. The ships themselves were mostly late age-of-sail designs, but there were occasional galleys, reed ships, and other vehicles out of the distant past. There were taverns, brothels, supply shops, small consignment shops selling cargos, curio shops selling things that speculative sailors had brought in from the distant reaches of the Manifold in hopes of private wealth, and a variety of other rare goods and services up for sail. Spells, slaves, spices, and ships could all be had here, if you had the cash, the reputation, or the skill to claim them.
The market for ships wasn’t that good – at least for a buyer. There were a few badly damaged vessels available, driven into port by a hurricane in a nearby realm. Three were being sold “as-is” due to the depredations of pirate fleet that haunted the waters to the west. The market was tight otherwise, since cargo was moving across the Manifold like never before these days.
Marty looked into the damaged ships. Two leaking badly, with the pumps working overtime just to keep them afloat in port. The third had badly damaged masts, as well as a hole in the backup steam boiler.
Marty picked one of the leaky ones and brought in a crew of Thralls to start the repairs. Sadly, the Thralls were all from the Linear Realms and the Five Worlds – and they mostly regarded the idea of working in wood with a “hammer” and “nails” as a mysterious lost art from the middle ages. They were certainly willing to try, but a mass drowning wasn’t the result Marty was looking for. He needed at least a few competent carpenters. It would also have been nice if some of the Thralls had had some experience with a sailing vessel, but that would have been too much to hope for.
Annoyingly, all the carpenters were either busy with other ships or were asking for such high prices that he was sure he’d be being gouged unmercifully. More importantly the fact that they weren’t already working on the storm-damaged ships suggested that no one else wanted to hire them (presumably for good reason). Blast it. Maybe he could find some in one of the nearby realms?
What was nearby? Probably the Historic Age of Sail and the Napoleonic Wars, Never-Never-Land wasn’t too far off (at least according to the street kids), someplace called “Skull Island” was handy according to the local bartenders, and there were a few people who said something about the “Bloodwars of Dagon” before scurrying away into the shadows.
Looked like the best bets were the Historic Age of Sail and the Napoleonic Wars – and the Historic Age of Sail should have any number of skilled carpenters available. With a crew of Thralls he should be able to make a short trip even in a leaky ship.
Unfortunately, neither he, nor Jamie, nor any of the Thralls – if only because they were all new recruits and were still learning – knew much about dimensional navigation in a sailing ship.
Marty asked the locals. It was a short trip, and they should know at least the local routes.
The sailors in the bars offered the most consistent descriptions of the routes, the mapmakers offered lots of alternative routes – and the fortunetellers find Marty too hard to read. He went looking for people who looked trustworthy, old sailors who were too drunk to lie, and – preferably – people who wanted to come along and get dropped off at the destination.
He found some at last – a trio of young men who wanted to make the trip – and set sail.
Unfortunately, things went somewhat wrong: the ship emerged from a narrow strait into the middle of a naval action: four larger ships with French flags against eight smaller ones with English flags. There were constant cannonades resounding, and a small fortress on the coast was supporting the French ships whenever the British ships were within range.
Marty swore – blast it, he’d hit the Napoleonic Wars rather than the Historic Age of Sail – and glanced up. What flag was he flying anyway? Er… Tir Nan Og. Well, that was going to be interesting. He had a full set of cannons, but the ship was already badly damaged, and his firepower was relatively small compared to the large ships, if only a bit less than the smaller ones. Of course, the Thralls did have their powers and were very talented compared to normal people – but they didn’t have much of any sailing skills or any practice with the guns. At least he could still inspire them.
He hated to say it – but he was going to have to try and stay our of this particular fight if he could. That was going to be a good trick though. Rough sea, onshore breeze, ships fighting further out, and a fortress on the shore.
Marty decided to go for a run past the fortress and some careful navigation past the shoals.
His three passengers elected to strike out for the shore. Well, he couldn’t entirely blame them – even if he had been following their directions, he might well have slipped up a bit.
He had the Thralls pile on the sail. For once, the excess water aboard might help; it would keep the ship from heeling too far over.
Hm. Some of the Thralls were pretty decent with illusions. They could blur the ship a bit, if nothing more – wait; none of them were powerful enough to make everyone perceive the flag as a friendly one, but they could show different flags from different angles. The ships that were going past each other would be a problem – the French ones were trying to herd the English ships towards the shore and the fortress – but he should be able to trick a fair number of them.
It took some very fancy sailing, but it was going fairly well – despite a few stray cannonballs – until they took a fullisade from the fortress. More damage – just what he needed – a couple of thralls with minor injuries, and one who’d taken a cannonball to the head and was lying there twitching. Now, was that the result of someone spotting the trick, someone seeing through the illusion, or just somebody getting overeager? Decisions, decisions… Worse, one of the French ships was only about a thousand feet away. Easy cannon range.
Oh what the hell. He had the Thralls and Jamie open fire – and handle the sails and the rest – while he concentrated on being inspirational and the cannons roared.
The Thralls performed like Trojans, loading and running out the guns, swarming through the rigging, firing the guns with surprising accuracy, and one even took time out to treat the kid with the concussion and get her up and contributing again! The ship ground dangerously along the shoals, but the French Man-of-War, which had been moving to pin it, ran briefly aground, and was heavily blasted by the smaller English ships. The survivors were pouring into the water, and some swam towards his ship!
Wait, Limey was in spellbook form? Wasn’t this a historical realm?
Oh, never mind!
“Fry them, my little parchment swab! Yarr!!!”
The resulting blast set fire to the rigging of the French ship – but some of the French crew were swarming up the sides of HIS ship, clutching blades in their fangs, sinking their claws into the wooden sides of the ship, and dripping water from their fur!
“CHARGE!… Wait, fur?”
Limey responded with a fullisade of fireballs, detonating the magazine of the french ship! Unfortunately, a modest number of French… Werewolves?… had already boarded, and were hacking at the Thralls – although they were most surprised at the level of resistance from what looked to be cabin boys!
“Yarr! These be the most fearsome cabin boys on the seven seas! Surrender now, ye mangy scalywags, or go see Davy Jones!”
With the Thralls begin employing telekinesis, lightning, swarms of spiders, coils of serpents, blinding beams of radiant energy and pistols the werewolves resisted with elemental magic and their own fangs and regeneration – but were soon overwhelmed and taken prisoner; Marty had a full crew, and only eight werewolves had made it aboard – although the Thralls were fending off several more who were attempting to scale the hull.
Meanwhile, the British had destroyed another French ship, but were withdrawing with severe losses themselves while the other two French ships fell back towards the fortress.
“TO DAVY JONES WITH ALL OF YE! Wait, even better! Limey! Can you turn them into toasters?”
“Toasters hard! But already shapeshifting canine things! Puppies! HELPLESS PUPPIES! Baked at 350 degrees with pineapple slices and spices for two and one half hours! Yo-Ho-Ho!”
“All right, ye little buccaneer! Puppies they be!”
The Thralls – since Marty didn’t order otherwise – scooped up the puppies, including the ones in the sea, leaving them with a couple of dozen of them. They weren’t too sure about baking them though. At least while they were stuck being puppies, they weren’t exactly threatening. They seemed shocked and panicked and not wanting to drown.
Hard to say how long the spell would last. It’d be about twelve hours normally, but with shapeshifters it might be more or less.
Limey seemed to have loaded a “Blackbeard” program or something, and was voting for drowning them one by one in a barrel of sea water.
“Ooh! We shall keep them as SLAVE puppies! My crew! Make cages, chains, collars, and silver branding irons!”
“OK!” “Yes sir!” “Aye aye!”
“And be quick with it!”
The Thralls – at least the ones who weren’t involved in frantic repair and keep-afloat work – did so (with much bustling) while Marty fed Limey a few scrolls, inspired the crew, and tried to use his piloting skill to help keep the ship afloat.
“Yummy! Magic Pirates and Magic Pirate Treasure! And Puppies!”
“What are you going to name yours Limey? Mine’s ‘Dog’!”
“‘Fido’! Very Classic!”
The puppies weren’t too happy about being branded with hot silver – the howling was pretty loud. On the other hand, they weren’t being drowned, which was something.
One of the Thralls had a question.
“Sir? Er… I don’t think that werewolves really exist do they? Or at least they SHOULDN”T exist, should they?”
“Yeah, that was bothering me too. What the hell’s going on here?”
Marty decided to fish some of the stray English sailors out of the water. They seemed to be normal humans, although they were carrying a fair number of minor magical charms. Still, the line of collared, chained, caged, and freshly slave-branded puppies probably made the point about his ruthlessness well enough.
“Right, ye be my captives! And this be me first mate and talking spellbook! Now tell me about these wolfmen, or Limey will turn ye into werepuppy food!”
“Polymorph to Penguin! Talk, or I’ll turn you like him and you’ll get heat stroke and THEN be werepuppy food!”
“Dunno what’s happened to them – unless ye be a truly mighty sorcerer – but they be French sailors! That dog Napoleon has led them across most of Europe, there be fewer of them than of normal people, but they be damned hard to take out! He be putting the beastfolk in charge of real men, instead of chained in the mills and such where they belong!”
“Yarr! That freezes the cockles of my withered heart! What say ye, first mate Limey?”
“Ripe for plunder they be! Werepuppies to keep and Humans to make walk the plank!”
“Then let’s us plunder! I decree that half our human captives shall walk the plank and the other half shall be werepuppy food! Serve two rations of Rum for every member of the crew!”
“Er… Sir? Which side are we on? The werethings seem violent and hostile, but the local humans seem to be prejudiced bastards, even if we haven’t met enough of them to be really sure.”
“They’re all phantasms. I think we’ll go with the humans for now.”
“But… we just fed them to the werepuppies! I know it’s not my place to question sir… but is it really all right just because they’re phantasms?”
Marty had to think about that for the moment – and remembered how he valued his phantasms at home.
“Well… Yeah, you’re right. Probably shouldn’t be THAT cruel.”
Besides, they were leaking like a sieve; they’d have to either leave this reality entirely – if they could make it – find an island, or put in along the French coast. There should be several villages with minimal garrisons, although they’d have to get in and get out quickly; the locals would certainly send for aid as they approached!
Heading into the village, the alarm bell rang, and they were met by the local (human) militia under the direction of a few professional (were) soldiers. Their resistance, however, was no match for the Thralls, Limey, Jamie, and Marty – although there were a fair number of minor injuries by the time they were subdued and the soldiers had joined the other werepuppies.
“Right. Now where are ye carpenters! My ship be holeyer than Notre Dame!”
Marty drafted the local woodworkers – and kept a careful eye on them to make sure that they did a passable job. The Thralls could handle the scouting for the moment. The basic – improvised – repairs were half-completed when the scouts reported that a major troop detachment was approaching.
Marty ordered them to try and hold them back long enough for the repairs to be completed. He sent Limey out to provide artillery support, albeit with a couple of thrall-bodyguards and strict orders to run and hide if he got targeted.
The Thralls managed to hold up the column for almost three hours – long enough for the basic repairs – although they almost all died doing it. Limey got overenthusiastic and got an appendixectomy courtesy of grapeshot when he didn’t listen to his bodyguards, both of whom sacrificed themselves to get him out.
“I told you to run! Now look at you! Archivists would weep!”
“OW! OW! OW! HURTS! OW! WAAH! WAAAAHHH! WAAAAHHH! ERROR! FILE NOT FOUND!”
“Oh, for the love of God…”
Oh well, it was his own fault for assuming Limey could be responsible. After all, he was only two and a half months old, and even for a laptop that was pretty young. He glued him back together.
“There. Want me to sing the nursery rhyme again?”
“Sniffle… Snifflee… Is that what it feels like when werepuppies eat their meals? I was mean! Sorry… Want rhymes please.”
“Maybe . . . I don’t know, I think we both got out of hand.”
The surviving Thralls were hurriedly packing up to go and setting sail, although they had collected all of the other werewolves – mostly kids – in the area. It looked like all the adults were routinely drafted into the military.
“Okay. How did it go again? Ah yes, this little laptop went to market…”
Marty bundled up Limey and got aboard. “Loot” was always a word that perked him up a bit!
“Did you hear that? Loot!”
Marty went to look it over while soothing Limey.
“Ooh! Real were-puppies! Cute!”
“Arrr!!! Any of ye kids want to be PIRATES?”
There were a couple of youngsters who were immediately enchanted with the “pirates” idea, more who were just scared or wanted to go home, and a few who objected on the grounds that pirates got hung. Several of the others weren’t paying attention, as the remaining Thralls were busy getting them collared, caged, and branded. As the rest noticed that, the enthusiasm for Piracy picked up quite suddenly.
Well, Marty didn’t see any reason why werewolf-kids couldn’t be Thralls too, as long as they had souls. He had the Thralls check…
What, ALL of them? It… looked like anyone with a soul locally – and only those with souls – got issued an ID as a werecreature or as a human sorcerer. Everyone else was a phantasm. Hm. He’d just hit a motherlode of treasure – and he had a potential crew! He brandished his sword;
“Who’s with me?”
It might not be that big a world – the focus was obviously some weird version of the Napoleonic Wars – but it might be fun. All the thralls were with him, of course, as were the pirate-recruits. The ones in cages really weren’t showing much enthusiasm and several of the Thralls were busy with recall-rituals to get the others back.
Marty decided to head for Kadia, where the thralls could explain Kevin’s contract. It was totally voluntary of course, but he STRONGLY recommended if for members of his crew who were kids. He offered the two actual adults positions at Amarant Solutions. Most of the actual were-combatants seemed to be teenage boys, although there didn’t seem to be that much formal sex-discrimination in this realm. Presumably the same went for the English mages, although they seemed to spend most of their time making talismans to enhance the regular Eglish troops
The recruitment success rate was pretty good; all the weres knew that they were going to be drafted into the military at ten or so anyway. Looked like the French were heavy on werewolves and the English were heavy on mages.
“Don’t worry about people staring at you when I take you to headquarters. The guy filling my local position is a flaming hellbeast. And no one even notices! But he’s a really great guy once you get to know him, and a tough fighter!”
Besides, in Kadia surely the computers would know how to do proper repairs. They had to have files. Next time he’d be ready for piracy with a crew of Thralls and Werewolves and Werewolf-Thralls!
Limey still needed cuddling though. It was the first time the little guy had been hurt – and he was responsible. He was still upset and inclined to sniffle. On the other hand, he was also showing some sympathy for others – which was a definite sign of personal growth. “Pain” had just acquired meaning for him.
“Aw, this isn’t so bad. Death’s much worse. But we’re lucky. We just wake up the next morning. Well, you boot up, but it’s the same thing.”
“They don’t?!? That’s REALLY mean of SOMEBODY! Make them quit!”
“I don’t know how. (Marty snuggled Limey) But I’m trying.”
It looked like Limey would have a few scars for a bit, but they’d fade as he worked more healing magic on himself. He had to do each page individually, like repairing damaged files.
“And guess what? You can remove those booboos! Most people can’t do that either!”
“SOMEONE out there is REALLY REALLY REALLY MEAN!”
“I know. If I find them, I’ll beat them up.”
“Hey, I know what will cheer you up! Let’s go to the arcade and talk to the machines!”
Marty infused some of the machines with sentience. The racing game still let him play it, although the other racers fought back a bit harder, and when he crashed the machine stomped on his foot and gave him a bloody nose.
Limey and the other machines were conspiring to acquire extra quarters by selling the players extra lives, to buy out the arcade owner, and to go into business for themselves.
Marty decided not to get involved with that.
The new recruits were enjoying Kadia, although they were somewhat flabbergasted. Some of them were a bit resentful to be told that – if they did’t want to be recruited – they were going to be indentured for a period since they had been brought in as slave-captives, but most of them were pretty obviously aware that it could be a lot worse.
Well, it wasn’t like Marty and Jamie were nice guys in that realm – and even if they had been, Kadia offered many many benefits and they wouldn’t age there even if they did get 50-year indentures. It was probably still better than the French army; a lot of them would die in the fighting in their home realm whether they were weres or not. It wasn’t like the opposition didn’t know what they were fighting
That reminded him about asking them how long the French had been recruiting werewolves.
It seemed that werewolves had first emerged about eighteen years ago, when magic suddenly started working. There were a few other types – but almost all the shapeshifters in Europe were werewolves. England had cracked down on them when they first appeared, and so had a few other countries. Napoleon was a were, and had been leading the shapeshifters to their “natural place” as the rulers of Europe. Human mages were somewhat more powerful than the Werewolves overall, but were a lot more fragile and needed a lot of training: the shapeshifters powers tend to be instinctive.
England and company tended to chain the shapeshifters up and put them to work at heavy, nasty, dangerous jobs – things where regeneration, boosted strength, and boosted durability made them most useful. The were’s really did have violent tendencies sometimes – especially early on and (most importantly) if untaught as to how to control things or if left without the aid and guidance of older weres. They’d gotten a really bad reputation with the initial ones, who had no one to guide them.
“Well hell, you’d fit right in where I’m from. We just don’t change into wolves!”
Marty left Jamie to get the crew organized and went to check in with Limey and Julia.
Julia’s dragon had eaten her three times, but had been quite subdued since then. Both Abigail and Julia had beaten it for that. Lots and lots.
Apparently the bindings and such didn’t hold it nearly as tightly in Battling Business World as in the Dragonworlds. The place was probably strongly aligned with freedom and chaos. Still, it was nicely subdued now though. It was good to see that they were handling it just fine. Maybe when it got older it could fly Julia to school. She was already breaking it in, although she wanted a saddle.
“I’ll bring one next time I visit, okay?”
“OK! I’ll have him all ready for riding then!”
Abigail wanted to know about vaccinations, proper diet, veterinary care, and WHAT THE HELL MARTY HAD BEEN THINKING!
Well, the first bit was easy enough: the thing was a normal slave-purchase from the Dragonworlds; it’s vaccinations were covered, its diet was pretty much like humans plus some basic metals and rocks, veterinary care was minimal (and would be covered by Kevin), and it had been obedience-conditioned, marked, fitted with tracking and restraint chips, and fixed.
“It was a unique gift and a real deal!”
Abigail wasn’t really pleased at most of that. While the information on food relieved a worry and the free vet care was useful, she wasn’t so sure about allowing Julia to own it, or about it having been fixed. It was clearly intelligent, even if it was a bit dim.
“It calmed down when you two showed it who’s boss, right?”
“Yes – which kind of demonstrates at least a bit of intelligence. More importantly, it talks! It reasons, and it pleads! It’s not RIGHT to keep it as a pet!”
“Well, think of it more as a playmate. Much more fun than a dog or cat! It can read, write, and play games with her! You’d never need a babysitter again. And who’d want to go through it to do anything to her?”
“All very nice! But it seems to be a child itself, and it’s intelligent, and it’s being treated like a dog! What kind of example is that setting for her? Would you like to see that being done to her?”
Marty had to think about that for a moment. Abigail didn’t know about phantasms of course – but still…
“Ah, well . . . gah, you’ve always been more level-headed than me! Of course not! Maybe if we treated it as a guest… Thing’s trained to be loyal to her anyway.”
“Well, that would be something anyway!”
She wasn’t hitting him because she just didn’t think it would do any good at this point. Was she concluding that he was hopeless? That REALLY hurt!
“Well, it’s always nice to see the little one. Hey Limey, want to meet my daughter?”
“Hi! How do you like your dragon? Has it been being good? I caught some werepuppies!”
“Yes, you were a big help.”
“Wanna be a dragon? Marty tried being a dragon! He was Green! I have Polymorph if you want to try!”
“No, Limey, that’s okay. The ex-wife has enough on her hands with one, I think.”
Marty settled down to watch them play and smiled sheepishly.
“I certainly do! Although it hasn’t actually been much trouble. Things have been oddly calm, even if there are a lot of squirrels around… Wait, have you got something to do with that somehow?”
“Squirrels? Honey, you know I grew up in the middle of Brooklyn! I didn’t even know what a squirrel was until we bought this house! Are they eating the woodwork? Clogging up the gutters?”
“No, but I keep seeing them on the roof, and looking in the windows, and everywhere! I think they’re… FORMING A UNION!”
Marty feigned horrific shock!
“Oh. My. God… I knew there was something behind those beady little eyes! I bet they were responsible for that attack on the INS!”
He told Limey to be quiet about that through the link; he was NOT to say anything about his involvement! Or, for that matter, Martys!
“I’ll start setting some traps! If the come back inside that tree, we can just nail it up and they’ll be trapped!”
“Good thinking. We’ve got to be careful in case they start demanding birdhouse rights!”
Marty got to work setting up traps. They should be no real trouble for the Thralls to circumvent. The Thralls would be more careful anyway; they hadn’t thought that anyone paid any attention to squirrels.