The dinner with the Cardinals had some fairly intense undercurrents. After all, they pretty much considered Kevin a demon from the outer darkness – or at least a seriously misled young man who was recklessly using dark powers and was leading other youngsters into the same errors. He was semi-acceptable at best. The way he treated making dark pacts with people and binding youngsters souls as a simple business certainly didn’t help.
Marty, of course, came apart as a ruthless amoral businessman; he might have morals beyond “don’t make people want to kill you”, but they could be pretty hard to spot.
A’ikana – one of the Unified Church’s better field agents – was attending as well. The boy was well-shielded, but you could read a lot from body language. He was crabby, but obliging enough. A Lord of Darkness who was looking for… approval? Could that be an act, or was he spreading the darkness over multiple identities? It would account for the level of disassociation he showed between them.
An unfallen Darkling. She would not have believed it possible, even for an Opener. Maybe there was some hope for this mission beyond simple monitoring after all. Perhaps this pair actually could be restrained, or even reformed.
Meanwhile, Kevin was – in his pique and impulsive mischief-making – mostly telling stories over dinner about how his recruiting people had rescued them and saved all the people around them – or at least had kept his recruits alive, out of trouble, and had kept them from leaving mourning parents alive. They were probably expecting that anyway, so he might as well oblige. He filled in with occasional tales of really wild parties, wine, women, and song, just because the Cardinals were supposed to refrain from that sort of thing. That would teach them to consider him unethical!
Well, OK, it wouldn’t – but at least it was a dig back at them for that “people could do worse than you if they really tried” implication, whether or not it had really been there.
Marty mostly talked about how he helped the economy of he Manifold humming. He tried to avoid bringing the more extreme business practices of Battling Business World; he didn’t want to regale the Cardinals with tales of dismemberment and screaming!
A’ikana disliked being judgmental – but the boy was apparently setting out to be a brat, and was taking pride in how naughty he was being – and Marty, who, as a father, really ought to know better, was doing absolutely nothing to stop him. Given her preference, she’d rather not be involved with either of them.
Still, there was no profit in pointing that out, so she buried that reaction for the moment.
Kevin, however, was quite sharp enough to note the slight trace of exasperation.
“Well, A’ikana is it? Don’t like wild parties? You don’t seem to be a Cardinal, do you represent another segment of the Universal Church?”
“Yeah, I was wondering what a Buddhist monk is doing here myself.”
“I was asked to be here. I’m not technically a monk, however”
“For one thing, that’s not a gender-neutral term. Do you like the tea?”
“I usually prefer cola actually – but it’s not gender-neutral? Hey, what’s for dessert?”
Kevin was – as usual – hungry. Marty guessed that THAT came of being stuck at fourteen years old (or whatever the Core equivalent was). HE was wondering when the beatdown was coming; they’d brought in a Buddhist, and all of those bastards were martial arts masters who went around kicking the hell out of people until they fled to Nirvana… Oh wait, this was Core; they might not even all know martial arts! Weird that; in the Battling Business World Orient EVERYONE in the east knew martial arts or was a ninja or something, and they all burst in to combat at the drop of a chopstick! Corporate raiding in Japan’s was no fun at all! They took their seppuku seriously over there! Half the time they’d set up cots in the attic or in hidden rooms, so that every time you killed them they were already in the building to seek revenge the next morning!
“For dessert tonight we have a fine selection of coffees from some of the exotic blends found out in the Manifold, and an ancient mayan recipe for sugary corn cakes covered in cinnamon and with whipped cream.”
“I agree, I need something for this wine hangover.”
“If you don’t have a formal title in the Church Ms A’ikana are you acting as a liaison with another group or something?”
“Right now I’m here to make sure you don’t smash anything too badly”
“Yes, we have had a great deal of success trying to recover cooking recipes that have gone extinct or out of style or were never discovered in Core. Although some of the recipes do require rather exotic ingredients, which – no doubt – will be a lucrative trade opportunity.
“I’d be glad to help you with that. This is some good wine.”
“Now, that is an area of research which ought to be a LOT of fun, and good for everyone. Want an aide or two to help with that when I can spare some? You need liaisons anyway.”
“Ah well thank you, it is a special blend, made from grapes grown in the vineyards of the Courst Estates. He is another Manifold trader.”
“I’d appreciate the help, Kevin.”
“Well, you’re more than welcome Marty!”
“Now what sort of trading do you do? Do you find yourself in competition with that ATE bunch very much?”
“Oh, various things. Mostly I do tours and magic. (Marty provided quite a list of projects) Haven’t had much trouble with them yet. I’ve met their CEO once.”
Kevin chimed in – “Well, metals, supplies of all sorts, magic, creatures – all sorts of things. We don’t compete with ATE much; there are still lots of markets which haven’t even been touched!”
He carefully DIDN’T mention the slave trade except under “creatures”, and screened that thought mentally – but he was quite sure that they knew about it anyway. It just wouldn’t help for either side to bring it up.
“Yeah, it’s the Manifold. New markets are being created every second out there.”
(Another Cardinal): “I have heard that you were part of the fighting going on that Arcology world. Is this true?”
“Yes; we’ve been assisting in the defense there. The initial attackers turned out to be pawns from a planet that was nearly destroyed in the conflict previously, but they’ve been safely resettled with some other refugees from their world now.”
“How would you rate the defenders chance, if I might ask? Their situation seems rather precarious.”
“It was precarious when we left. They were fighting pretty hard, though.”
“Doing fairly well as last I heard; the initial assaults had been contained. I haven’t gotten any emergency reports from my agents there in the last couple of days, so that’s something.”
“Well if the defense infrastructure holds, and reinforcements from elsewhere can be brought in fast enough, that should put them in a good position to deal with the Horsemen when they finally make an appearance.”
That got Kevin and Marty’s attention – and the mention of interdimensional warfare had already caught A’ikana’s. While her philosophy was pretty firm on stating that violence was not the answer, it was undeniable that something in her makeup – perhaps some legacy of her fathers – found that prospect exciting and saw it as a something to anticipate.
“I take it you have some indication that they will?”
“It seems to be the general pattern displayed thus far. If the attack on the Arcology world follows the pattern, the initial attacks will have been launched by proxies to destabilize the realm and disrupt the local organizations and defenses. Soon the powers of Plague and Famine will become clear if they haven’t begun working in the background already. War usually follows once several sections start falling. Death almost always ends up appearing at the finish, when the world ends.”
“Well, Plague and Famine can be countered to a considerable extent – although that may be difficult on an arcology-world. War and Death are harder…”
“This will be the first time though that a world under such an attack will be able to draw upon the resources of the Manifold though. So I am hopeful for a happier ending. Indeed, I think it took a talented group of people last time that were willing to trade their humanity for the power they needed to fight. Even then though, I believe they lost their lives in the battle and ended up destroying a good portion of their world.”
“I take it you are familiar with other worlds that have suffered this? Would you mind telling us which ones? There might be a pattern – and there are at least some survivors of Singular – and a few of the Praetorians: they were being used as pawns in the attack on the Linear Realms. .”
A’ikana hadn’t been briefed in the large-scale situation before. She was not happy at the news that people were conspiring to destroy worlds.
“Other places that have suffered attacks that we are aware of include The Crusade Kingdoms, the Great Lakes Trade Colonies, and Lloegyr. All are rather difficult to access at the moment for reasons we still do not understand. Most of the traffic we had has come via sea traders.”
Well those were unfamiliar names. It would be revealing if they were populated with souls from some of the unaccounted-for major disasters.
Marty saw a perfect opportunity to break out the werewolf-pirates and Blackbeard Limey.
The Crusade Kingdoms had been a world where the Christian Crusaders managed to hold onto many territories in the Middle-East for far longer than history showed. The Byzantine Empire there – already troubled by regular Muslim insurrections – was caught between two powerful blocks of Roman Catholics beginning to fragment between those loyal to the Pope and the Knight Orders loyal to the Knight Commander of Jerusalem. The intrigues were more than murderous.
The Great Lakes Trade Colonies were – or had been – another alternate-history realm, where the French had dominated contact with North America – and perhaps the entire New World – and had set up a trading empire and mixed with the Indians rather than pushing them out and settling the land. They had fairly strong shamanistic magic, decent firearms, and plenty of unexplored spaces.
Lloegyr was a world where the Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles had been romanized, and had successfully repulsed the Saxon invaders. There really wasn’t much else available on the place; it had been a near-forgotten backwater even before the barriers went up.
That made Marty rather sad; it sounded like they’d all been interesting places. They probably weren’t totally gone: the Singularites had the power to tear their world to bits, but – lacking that technology and mass media – local belief would keep pockets that didn’t hear about the disasters intact for quite awhile. They’d still be worth investigating, and – at least in the Manifold – lost worlds were never entirely gone, but it would have been more fun to see them at their peak.
It was sort of strange in a way; the ability to effectively fight back also decreased the likelihood of there being survivors.
“Now their may very well still be survivors, but getting their to mount rescues has proven difficult. Our Opener has not managed to establish a link, and the seas of the Manifold are notorious navigational issues.”
Kevin had something to say about that.
“Well, for the seas, I know an expert – and two openers are always better than one. Witnesses may have valuable information in any case, and an effort to keep people away suggests that they might know something very important.”
“I think an expedition is in order; Captain Rata is VERY good at getting into anywhere with seacoasts.”
“A very handy trait to have, especially with these worlds. I must warn you though, that beyond these descriptions we just gave you, our knowledge is very much limited to nonexistent.”
“Think they could be much worse than that negative energy realm, Kevin?”
“Well, that’s half the fun of it! And I doubt they’d be any worse than basically hovering on the conceptual event horizon of a giant black hole. Come to think of it, I suspect that that galactic black hole may actually be a gateway to he negative energy realm. I bet that negative energy realms merge a lot; it comes of being featureless.”
“Quite possible, although trying to go the other way through such a gate is nigh-impossible I’ve heard.”
“It was pretty awkward to get out of there.”
“Ah, been there I take it?”
“I trust it was an accident then?”
“Actually, it was part of our first mission together, wasn’t it?”
“Yes – although I suspect that the route was needlessly roundabout.”
“Fascinating, few ever get out of such realms.”
The Cardinals were pretty much locked in a tie as to which realm to try first; they really didn’t have much to go on, so it came down to personal preferences. Marty kind of thought that the Crusade Kingdoms sounded interesting, Kevin was fine with that, and A’ikana preferred the Crusade Kingdoms or Lloegyr, so Crusade Kingdoms it was.
Wait, how had A’ikana wound up voting with Kevin and Marty rather than as part of the Unified Church block? Yes, she was coming along as the Church observer and advisor, but… Wait again! How had that been arranged?
Those blasted Cardinals were pretty good at being authorities and at quietly assuming that things would go as they wanted. They jumped right past the “agreement” stage and into “details” so smoothly that you had to be watching pretty closely to spot it. A good tactic if what you wanted was more or less reasonable anyway.
Well, that left two major options – blasting a gateway through with raw power, or trying to be subtle and going by sea.
In the interests of getting information, the vote – including A’ikana’s – went for subtlety. Marty was kind of disappointed by that; in his experience Buddhist Monks usually went in for flying jump kicks, chi blasts, and karate chops! “Subtle” was not usually a part of their vocabulary!
OK, subtle would probably work better this time – and, at least by Battling Business World standards, Marty was trained for subtlety – but he always liked watching someone with a different style at work. Besides, everyone always misunderstood; after subtly accomplishing the mission, the random violence was for DESSERT!
Kevin got in touch with Captain Rata. His having several Thralls in his crew made that pretty easy. They could use the ship Marty had acquired as well; two ships were better than one when you were in uncharted regions of the Manifold seas. There hadn’t been much time for repairs yet – but it wasn’t like Kadia was short of resources or workers, and it should be done shortly. Marty got in touch with his new crew… Whee! A trip on the high seas! Yarr!
And they already had a Church liaison for the mission.
“A’ikana? Should I assign you an aide? They’re quite handy to have around.”
Marty interjected; “Yeah, they cast magic, help protect you, get drinks… very useful.”
“I can do that myself. Thanks, though.”
“As you like: I still think it’s advisable to have someone to watch your back while you’re out in the Manifold.”
A’ikana raised an eyebrow skeptically at Kevin; “I’ll be with you folks, won’t I?”
“True, enough – but an aide wouldn’t be paying any attention to anyone else, and it’s not like they can be killed or anything.”
A’ikana didn’t quite smile; “You make a good argument. No however.”
“As you wish then: we’ll try to keep an eye out for you, but don’t blame me if something goes wrong!”
“Yeah, we’ll definitely help out.”
“Believe me, I won’t.”
They didn’t have any other urgent business in Core, so it was off to Kadia – which was bustling at the moment; people coming and going, neodogs serving, and dragons wandering about, pretty much as they’d left it.
A’ikana raised an eyebrow at Kadia too, and was not impressed; it was pretty blatantly a teenagers notion of paradise – malls, amusement parks, activities, and wildernesses – rather than a proper afterlife. Instead of contemplation of your physical life, meditation, and self-evaluation, they had Mecha Battle Arenas. Yes, they had martial arts training – but they focused on the Arts as combat techniques, not on their philosophies and meanings. Really, it was all quite boring – although she had to admit that her standards were a bit different from most people’s.
For their part, Kevin and Marty were a bit startled at the dragons. They didn’t seem to be from the dragon-stables, they certainly weren’t Kevin’s parents, they didn’t seem to be Thralls who’d chosen Draconic ID’s, they hadn’t seen them around before (and they didn’t seem to be phantasms that had come with the realm), and Kadia was supposed to be limited-access (mostly by invitation) at the moment – although a quick check of the gate-records showed that this pair HAD come in by one of the usual gates.
They seemed to be perusing the list of available services and arguing about what to do. Marty decided to be direct.
“Hey, who are you guys? I haven’t seen you around before.”
“Isn’t it obvious? We are visitors.”
“Now dear, be nice to the poor human.”
“I am being nice, I haven’t vaporized him yet. I haven’t vaporized anyone yet.”
“Dear we discussed this, no killing them in their realms. It is construed as bad manners.”
(The male grumbled) “Hello, we are here visiting and heard this was a nice place from a bunch of kids we ran across earlier.”
“Oh, okay. Yeah, you’ll like it here. It’s fun.”
“Well, Welcome to Kadia! We don’t have too many dragons here yet. Is there anything you’re needing and where are you from?”
“Oh at the moment we are just looking for a fun time and a chance to interact with humans more. Such unusual creatures you are. We are from Excession, a world rather unlike this.”
“What’s that place like?”
“A fairly young world, the mortal races haven’t arrived yet. We have gotten premonitions that the first elven and human settlers might be arriving, and so thought it a good idea to learn more about them so that we can try to shape the world accordingly. As the Draconic caretakers of the world, it is sort of our duty to make it hospitable. And we thought that the best way to learn what humans and elves need to thrive was to go visit among them and learn.”
“Only wise. Here’s probably one of the better places to do it. Or you could go to Faerun. They’ve got lots of elves there.”
“And a lot less reliance on technology, which will take awhile to build up. On the other hand, they tend to be fussier about dragons there: too many of them have been hostile or domineering. Anyway, it’s always nice to see visitors having an interesting time. “
“Yeah, they’ve got sun elves, moon elves, drow, and a lot of other kinds.”
“Interesting, so many varieties of humans and elves. Probably some issues with certain combinations too isn’t there?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Yes, there are quite a few varieties. I’m afraid the issues don’t come so much with types as with numbers: get too many humans in one place, and they tend to break up into hostile factions. I think it’s a leftover from the hunter-gatherer period: a tribe that got too big would overhunt the area and then starve. Ergo, the ones that split up when they were getting too large were the ones that left descendants.”
“Interesting, we definitely need to research this a bit then.”
Well, they didn’t seem to be a problem – so Kevin left to check on his Parents while Marty went to check on the ship repairs and see how Limey was doing. They wanted the ship ready to go as soon as Captain Rata got back to them on a place to meet anyway.
Kevin’s parents had had their quality time together, and were idly paying games with Eogam – who had apparently decided that this wasn’t so bad. Apparently, however, they were more than willing to take a fairly long vacation in Kadia; they were hardly short of time, it was a lot of fun, their work was being covered – and being a dragon for a few months was being interesting. They were even beginning to take having servants on call as entirely natural.
They hadn’t ever established an Identity before, much less a powerful nonhuman one. They were pretty deeply into it.
Well, that should make it easier for them to accept dragon customs if Kevin was ever forced to expose them to some of the darker ones.
Limey seemed to be doing pretty well;
“Are your files mending okay, little buddy?”
“Ya,I had to do a restore from backup on some of them, but the others managed to heal on their own.”
Captain Rata met them in the port Marty’s ship was in. Kadia had some of course – you needed them for the oceanic fishing, and cruises, and water sports – but they were supposed to be sealed off by the dimensional barriers.
Oh well, the ability to reach almost anywhere was what they wanted him for.
“Marty? A’ikana? Jamie? I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine: Captain Rata. Captain Rata left Egypt in Core on a voyage of exploration close to three thousand years ago now.”
Marty, A’ikana, and Jamie found that moderately impressive. The good captain was, however, up to date, both as to handshaking and languages.
“A pleasure to meet ya. I never forget a name or a face. So where are we off to? A jaunt to the World’s End? A traipse around the Isles of the Kiln? Or a leisurely cruise to the Land of the Lost?”
“The Crusade Kingdoms (Kevin filled in the rest of the description and the known difficulties). The people who’ve been attacking worlds have gone to a lot of trouble to seal them off, so we’d like to sneak in and find out what they’re up to – and blasting our way in with raw power would alert them.”
“Hmm tricky bit there. The route is likely to be long and have a lot of false leads. I am not saying those waters are completely uncharted, but the maps are certainly not the best.”
“Well, we should be able to make it worthwhile – and think of the new places and new markets that might be there!”
“Oh aye, should be plenty of lucrative trade to be had.”
“Then let’s go as soon as we’re supplied!”
They drastically overpaid, up front, in supplies, credits, information, and trade goods, without really trying to bargain very hard. Captain Rata was the among the best, and his services were well worth it – and they might want to hire him again some day.
Fortunately, the good captain wasn’t that exploitative about it.
“Alright, we ready to sail then? We be wastin good winds right now!”
“I believe we are!”
“Raise the anchor and hoist the sails!”
A’ikana wasn’t particularly pleased to find that most of the crew were soul-bound adolescents – and that Kevin, Marty, and Jamie were so used to that sort of thing that they didn’t even think about using them off in front of an emissary of the Unified Church. Did they have no respect at all for the dignity of the soul?