Watching the power-fountain in the temple – and the wave of sacred energy pouring out over the city – A’ikana sighed. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she hadn’t known Kevin and Marty very long, and that blatant plans and actions were the most obvious – but it was really beginning to look like one of their major strategies was “wander around at random, and when a problem of some sort pops up, hit it with the biggest available hammer and hope for the best”. Had the boy had the FAINTEST idea of what might happen when he hauled those two artifacts into the Temple? It looked like they’d been fairly generic artifacts of light, but if they’d had some more specific purpose, or been strongly aligned with a particular faith, the consequences might have been disastrous!
On the other hand, the boy bounced from dimension and situation to dimension and situation like a pinball – and holy relics that powerful generally had purposes, and ways of manipulating events, of their own. It wasn’t really likely that two of them would simply fall into his hands by accident.
Well, even if there was some higher purpose behind it, she still couldn’t approve of the way that he was binding other youngsters to himself. Temporary or not, it was still an affront to human dignity. Still, she’d limit herself to disapproval at the moment: given the overall situation, Kevin was still – by far – the lesser of the available evils.
Kevin was wondering himself; while it looked like the rest of the Horsemen had moved on, Death might still be around – and that little display just might draw his attention in person. Were they ready for that?
Marty was considering Lichstein. After being that sicko’s medical experiment, he wanted to make sure that there was no more of that sort of thing – especially involving normal people. He still wasn’t entirely used to the fact that most people didn’t come back to life in the morning if they were killed. Wait: hadn’t Lichstein mentioned that he’d killed at least five hundred people? OK, some of them were probably dying to begin with since he did take emergency cases, and a fair casualty rate was apparently expected with the state of medical practices in this setting, but wasn’t that an awful lot to pass without an investigation? Had someone higher up been covering for the lunatic? He’d have to look into that.
Meanwhile, there was some excitement on the Temple Mount after the Silmaril’s little display. The pulse had soothed most of what little panic it had started – it looked like most of what had been seen outside had been over too quickly to stir up much – but the event had still drawn a lot of attention. The first to arrive was the trio of clergymen – looked like two priests and a rabbi – who’d been attending the temple at the moment. No big surprise there. They wanted to know who Kevin was and what those items he had were. Kevin sighed.
“In another world, in another realm, in the twilight before the light was divided from the darkness, the Creator sent forth his children beneath the stars. One of those children, Feanor, a mighty craftsman and wise before he later fell to folly, bore witness with his kin to the first light of creation. He wrought mightily, and preserved a part of that light within three gems – the Silmarils. Two of them passed into my keeping some time ago – and you have need of that light here, in this world, where the darkness rises from the Quilopothic planes.”
Well, after all, if you were going to cause chaos, debate, and confusion, you might as well go all out.
Marty, who’d followed along to watch the potential fireworks could read that thought really easily; it was one of Kevin’s usual tactics – throw everyone off-balance, make them feel that the discussion went far beyond what they understood, and then either get out or run straight over the top of them before they got their brain working again. He’d done it… well, practically everywhere they’d been, all the way back to… well, the first mission they’d been on. He had to admit that no one caused chaos and confusion better than they did, and that Kevin was the best they had at it – but maybe he ought to get a new strategy sometime. It wasn’t ALWAYS the best way to go about things.
“Holy artifacts from another realm? Handy to have although how you managed to get your hands on them piques my curiosity. It does look like whatever they did helped strengthen the ward and for that we are grateful.”
“You are welcome.”
Back in Core, a faint and near-forgotten link tugged at Ryan O’Malley; he had once taken the role’ of Feanor, and never had discharged Feanor’s Oath. Instead he had – under a flag of truce – met with Melkor in the center of his armies and there used his power as a Opener to warp the local reality until he could detonate a strategic fusion bomb – blasting Melkor into darkness from which he would take an age to return, the Silmarils into the Manifold, much of Melkor’s forces into nothingness – and himself before Iluvatar, from whence he would – as an Opener – return, if strangely changed.
The Oath had little power beyond the Silmaril Wars of Middle Earth, and less over an Opener of such power, but it had patience without end, and subtlety, and it’s own slowly-corrosive essence.
Kevin quietly bowed to the presence lamp and departed ahead of the people outside headed for the temple, leaving the speculators to their own devices and the priests to seek answers in their own ways. The changes in the warding would keep the priests more than occupied for the moment in any case.
A few questions got flung at Marty and A’ikana – if only because they’d been in the area – but Marty wasn’t forthcoming –
“My friend apparently had some holy relics and wanted to take them to the Temple. I’m not sure after that. I think God approved.”
– and A’ikana was even more terse. Perhaps fortunately, there were other distractions. Reports were starting to trickle in of big supply caches being found around the city and of an abrupt improvement in the power of the sacred wards around the city. It was even being reported that the battlefield had been affected as well, and quite a few of the knights were heading to the walls to see what was happening there.
Kevin settled down to taking thrall-reports with his multi-tracking power and passing on summaries to Marty, A’ikana, and Jamie; he wanted to know what was going on at the walls, at “Crazy Lichstein’s Bargain Basement of Undead”, and situation around the city, in roughly that order – and he had Thralls in all those places to tell him.
Meanwhile, Marty headed off to the closest taverns to try and rustle up some information in his own fashion.
A’ikana was keeping an eye on some of the odder religious figures: the knights were odd enough – at least by the current standards of the Core and the Unified Church – but some of the people she was seeing around were just plain weird – and an awful lot of people seemed to want to be on the Council, were trying to exploit any shift in the local power structure to get there, and saw them as a possible way to accomplish that goal.
Out at the walls, the situation had changed dramatically: The warding had expanded quite a bit – to better than half a mile beyond the outer walls in most directions. It had swept over, and destroyed, quite a few of the undead and turned many of them that had been further out. The Death Knights had pulled back the line about half a mile, and were trying to regain control of the horde. They apparently hadn’t liked it personally, although it didn’t seem to have destroyed any of them.
It was too bad they couldn’t meaningfully exploit it at the moment; the turned undead had gotten out of range to be easily attacked pretty quickly of course, although the people on the walls had gotten in some good shots when they broke cover to flee. Who knew? Maybe they’d have to call in a horseman in person – although none of them were at all sure that they were up to that.
There were a lot of dead bodies in the Catacombs, but the place was relatively quiet. The few dry rooms full of Lichstein’s creations had been cleaned out by the Knights – a project which had also revealed that the old roman water system was more extensive than had been previously believed, and had flooded quite a lot of the tunnels underneath the city with 2-3 inches of – holy – water.
Well, that was handy! Very handy indeed! They set a few of the Thralls to getting the locals lots of bottles. It would be really embarrasing for a death knight to be bombarded to death by peasants with waterskins.
Reports of new supply stockpiles were coming in from all over the city. There had been some initial confusion as reports had come in from different locations, leading many to conclude that it was simple rumor-mongering – but confirmation had improved morale considerably.
On Marty’s end, the story of Lichstein had broken across the city – and their involvement had been implied on more a a few occasions in breaking up the plot. Rumors had also spread of another party’s involvement, possibly in the plot itself. No one was naming names, but they were referring to the “whoever” as “the abomination”, “traitor”, “Knight-Commander’s pet”, and with various other derogatory terms. That was interesting… Had a major, independent, undead joined with the inhabitants of the city in defiance of the Death Knights?
There were also rumors that a major Fey Lord had shown up and was offering to help the city break the siege – possibly in exchange for souls (well, that was semi-true, but Kevin just wanted to rent them for awhile, not to try and trade for them and keep them; that never worked anyway) – and that there had been a major shouting match at the latest Round Table Conference over religious differences.
There were even some rumors that a major event had taken place at the Temple Mount, and that the Ward was either stronger or that it had failed entirely. That was a little weird actually; even at the speed of rumor, that hadn’t been more than twenty minutes ago! Perhaps those rumors had been floating around earlier and weren’t even related?
There were more rumors – of massive undead armies coming to reinforce the siege, of the Final Army coming back to crush the resistance, rumors of secret religious or factional strife, conspiracy theories of ancient Roman cults secretly controlling things, and other even more unlikely stories – but that was nothing to worry about; it was just the locals scraping the bottom of the ale-barrel. The Final Army coming back was vaguely possible, but it probably had better things to do in other worlds – especially considering how the defensive preparations were coming along in the Linear Realms
Meanwhile, A’ikana had been thinking… She’d like to show some of the local peasants how to defend themselves more effectively – including collecting some of that holy water – but that would take a bit more than two hours, even if she (sigh…) drafted a few of Kevin’s Thralls to help out, since he apparently included some martial arts in his package (even if they didn’t really know how to teach them). Best to check on some of the odder local orders in the meantime and start getting classes set up after the conference.
The number of people running around the Temple Mount at the moment certainly gave her enough potential prospects for conversation. A few quiet moments sitting in the outer precincts of the Temple watching people come and go revealed a pattern – at least to her heightened senses. About one priest in twenty was armed – and armed very curiously, with daggers, heavy metal bracers, very fine chainmail under their robes, and crossbows. Also, curiously enough, those priests were not participating in prayer services. They all looked to be fairly young and fit. A wandering trio of them had been steadily receiving what appeared to be reports from others wandering the city. Hadn’t there been a group like that once? The “Hashasheen” of Alamut who had given their name to Assassins?
A’ikana passed that interesting tidbit on to Marty before finding an opportunity to chat with one that was alone for the moment. Marty wasn’t sure if he wanted to fight them or train under them if that was the case. In this realm they probably had all their legendary skills!
“And what can I do for you child?”
“Begging your pardon, sir, in a matter that might be sensitive in these days, but may I ask you a question?”
“Certainly. Go ahead child.”
“For what reason do some of your brothers not attend services?”
“Ah you see that is because we are a reclusive order of monks and as such, our prayer services are very much a private manner. That does not mean we do not feel the importance of the services to the masses. We just feel…. that such matters are best left to the professionals. We do try to keep an eye on things here and help out where we are needed though.”
Hm. Well, they could be guarding the place or they could be up to something malign – but there were enough of them that other people would probably have noticed something weird going on if they weren’t supposed to be there unless there was major magic at work. He didn’t sem to be lying outright at least, although he was definitely leaving a lot unsaid and was choosing his words very carefully. A’ikana tried to play up youth, innocence, and inexperience – even if it was a bit of a stretch.
“I see. You are aware, at least, that you would be welcome?”
“Oh yes, I suspect we need to participate a bit more in such manners if we are to fit into society here at all well. You see there was a time when, outside of our monastery, there hardly ever more than five of us in the same city at the same time. Because of that and other matters, we have been a very insular society. Now matters have become as they have and we find what is left of our order is here in Jerusalem with all the other survivors of the war.”
“Is there anything we can do to aid you in this fitting in?”
Marty’s opinion was a bit more definite: this guy certainly didn’t seem like a normal priest or monk. His gut told him that this was a well-trained killer. Possibly a member of an order of monk-assassins. Come to think of it, he’d seen a priest guest sitting in on the Round Table Conference garbed similarly.
“Well would you know of any good social events that are taking place soon? I am afraid I do not know where to look when it comes to social gatherings.”
OK, now THAT was an outright lie. Either he’d thrown that out to fool her or he wasn’t shielded against her telepathic talents. A’ikana suggested a few safe things to try and keep him talking.
“Well I shall certainly check those out. I think it would do me well to try and fit in better with the local populace. Have you heard much about the disturbances here at the Temple Mount recently? From what I have heard, a major Fey Lord showed up, waved his hand and significantly strengthened the wards around the city. Now I was under the impression that Fey magics did not interact well with Holy magics like those of the wards. So I am a bit skeptical about those stories myself.”
“I would agree with you; and I have seen no sort of Fey, Lord or not. I do wish that folk would more easily ascribe the work of miracles to God, rather than to malicious entities, but I suppose paranoia seems the order of the day when besieged.”
Marty – listening in over the link – had to grin at that one. Poor Kevin, demoted from “Demon Prince/Knight of the Unseelie Fey/Cosmic Menace” to “Naughty Teenager”. Of course, he’d probably never been anything else in A’ikana’s eyes, but it would still be a shot in the ego if he ever heard it.
“Nevertheless, something has strengthened the wards, or so I am told by people more knowledgeable about such things. Such a thing can only be good as I see it, so I am quite willing to ascribe it to the works of God. And today is looking like a good day for miracles. I hear they found more supplies out in the city too.”
A’ikana had to smile – with genuine cheer – at that one.
“It does indeed… and I have heard of the supplies as well.”
“Hopefully that will help with the unrest in the city. The Knights have been having a hard time keeping a lid on things. Some good news can only help their situation.”
A’ikana was concluding that – even if they were the original murderous order of assassins, they were basically sane, and didn’t want to be killed by an undead horde. You had to be pretty crazy to be on the wrong side of “the end of the world”. Probably best to stay on their good side.
“An optimistic perspective can help, as well. I’m afraid I have an appointment soon, however, so unless there is anything else, sir, I bid you good day.”
“And a good day to you as well child.”
It was about time for the conference to be starting again, and they were expected to attend.
The Round Table Conference was much the same as it had been a few hours before, although Marty was asked to check his weapons again. (Kevin KNEW he had forgotten to pick something up! Hopefully no one had tried to draw it: it was still enchanted with Fire and Lightning, it seemed like that sort of thing would work just fine in this world, and if somebody had been startled enough to drop it they might have set the place on fire or something).
Knight-Lord Jurin Hans, Knight Lord Gilad and the Knight-Commander were already there and discussing some matter when they arrived.
“(Jurin Hans) Ah, greetings, again! Hope you enjoyed the brief recess. Being locked into these meetings can be such a strain on the soul of a man. Now I am not sure what you did to the wards, but well done. You have made the besiegers time much more difficult. That coupled with the reports I am hearing about supplies is very good news indeed.”
“You’re quite welcome, and it’s always good to take a break and let tempers cool when everyone is under such stress.”
“Yes and tempers have been running high lately. I would ask that you try not to antagonize Knight-Lord Thawban in the future, but I suspect that is like asking oil and water to mix. He has his reasons for not likely what you represent, and while I disagree with him, he is also a fellow member of the Conference.”
“I shall try to avoid it. Perhaps Marty or Abbess Esther (A’ikana’s local alias) will have more success than I; I have a weakness for tying people up in rhetorical knots.”
“Sadly even in these dark time politics finds it’s way into everything. I am afraid the Knight-Commander is having trouble with this as well. Not being of noble birth has…. deprived him of certain lessons that wold do him well in these circumstances. Luckily he has a good head on his shoulders and has many friends and allies.”
Shortly thereafter, the other Knight-Lords and guests begin to arrive. Arch-Mage Lurstrin arrived, gave them all a big smile, and sat down next to them again.
“I trust the investigation went well Arch-Mage?”
“Oh yes indeed. Still a few minor matters need to be wrapped up, but that is what assistants are for.”
The Knight-Commander got things in order…
“Round Table Conference is now in session again after recess. Will Knight Lord Matthias of the Hospitaliers please give us an update on the supply situation?”
(Matthias) “Currently we are still trying to estimate the totals “found” (he looked over at Kevin, Marty, and A’ikana with that one). But we do believe that given the current stores and the rates at which new supplies can be made that we can hold the siege much longer than the estimates given earlier today would indicate. It is even possible that we could hold indefinitely now. Even if current rates are insufficient to meet with long term demand, we have ample demonstration that production can be readily scaled up as needed.”
(Knight-Commander) “Understood, will Knight-Lord Jurin Hans of the Knights Templar please give an update on the effects of the ward reinforcement on the siege?”
“(Jurin Hans) Certainly, it seems that the reinforcement of the wards around the city have expanded the radius by approximately 0.6 miles. At this time, all sections of the wall are now within the wards and the undead have been forced to retreat back that same distance. We have reports of approximately 5% of the undead forces being destroyed and another 10% sent fleeing. The Death Knights appear to have been caught unawares and spent a good deal of time trying to regain control of their forces. Limited assaults by our Knights appear to have been of moderate success. Given more preparation and warning, we could have killed several more Death Knights in the chaos, but such are missed opportunities.”
Oh well. It was hard to give prior notice when you didn’t know what was going to happen.
“With that said, repairs are continuing on the Gate of Zion and giving the reprieve we may be able to actually get the defenses there back on par with the rest of the wall.”
(Knight-Commander) “Very good then. As is stands, we have a good likelihood of lasting indefinitely, but so do our enemies. I, for one, do not like such a precariously balanced situation. So the floor is now open to proposals on further operations.”
The group settled back to watch. Since they were not council members they’d have to at least start off from what they proposed: hopefully it would be something useful.
(Thawban) “Well the enemy line is going to be stretched much thinner now as they have to stay outside the ward most of the time. With that fact comes the realization that the Death Knights will be spread thinner as a consequence. Basic tactics suggest that we try and concentrate our forces where theirs are scattered. If more Hospitaliers can be spared now for the defense as opposed to supplies, we might be able to overwhelm the Death Knights at several locations simultaneously then retreat back behind the wall before they can respond.”
They were in luck! Reasonably good sense from the most – or at least the most blatantly – hostile knight on the council!
(Hospitalier) “It has not been determined if or when we might be able to reallocate Hospitaliers yet. So right now, any battle plans will have to presume Hospitaliers will be needed still in the city interior.”
(Rathon, the Orthodox Knight-Lord) “Alright, given no more Hospitaliers, how many Knights can we scrounge up while leaving enough for the defense?”
(Alman, another Jewish Knight) “Currently we have a reserve force of sixty-four knights. It won’t be enough to raid their main camp, but we could definitely get the lone stragglers spread around the wall.”
(Knight Commander) “How many Death Knights are left?”
(Jurin Hans) “We estimate 297 right now. We are still trying to confirm casualties from today’s venture though so we might be able to account for another two there.”
(Gilad) “If we can eliminate the Death Knights, the remaining undead are going to be easy to handle. We have proven that before.”
(Knight-Commander) “Right then, does anyone else in attendance have further suggestions or comments to add to the plan in discussion?”
It looked like the basic plan was going to be to put together a force, ride out, take out some death knights, fall back, and repeat as possible. Since there hadn’t been any serious discussion of the capabilities of the individual Death Knights, they probably had fairly standardized power sets – possibly three basic variants, since they seemed to like operating in groups of three. It might be to cover for each other’s weaknesses with their own special abilities. No mention of using the Thralls as backup – but they really didn’t know much about their abilities other than as healers and producers of supplies yet. Still, they were opening the floor.
Kevin elected to keep his mouth shut for the moment. He’d provoked them a bit much the first time around, and it had only been two hours ago.
Marty got himself updated – and made sure that everyone was on the same page – by going over the situation at the walls and where they could get them repaired again. No way of knowing how long the Wards would remain powered-up.
The weakest point in the Walls was at the Gate of Zion. There’d been a major assault there, the walls had been damaged significantly, and – until a couple of hours ago – that section of the walls was outside the ward proper.
From Marty’s point of view, that also made it the best section to strike from. Closest to the undead, so they’d have the cover of the walls until they rode out and the undead would have the least time to respond, and striking from weakness was always a good way to take the enemy by surprise anyway.
A’ikana stayed out of it. Tactics was not her subject.
Kevin did have to speak:
“I must point out that every one of the youngsters I empower acquires some degree of offensive, defensive, and healing abilities, as well as a selection of other powers – but only about three-eighths of them acquire the ability to create supplies. The others acquire other specialities, and can assist in other ways.”
(Gilad) “Impressive, nonetheless, I must ask if you think they are capable of standing against Death Knights? Even we Knights typically have to swarm them with superior numbers to ensure victory. Although I am sure we can find other uses for their talents here in the city. Healing and defensive abilities are most welcome.”
Thawban was clearly keeping his mouth shut with some effort.
“Individually? I do not think they would stand much of a chance. Their ability to handle power is limited. They can, however, assist your men – as well as shapeshift to perform aerial scouting and carry messages.”
Another Muslim Knight – clearly shocked again – spoke up:
“Shapeshift?! That is… a most… rare talent indeed. I could see many potential uses out there for support like that. I am for the idea. The more bodies we can throw at this and bring back intact is fewer the enemy can use.”
Kevin spoke up again; He’d like to give the new Thralls a few days to practice, make their relics, and develop their local identities before they went into battle – and he might be able to recruit more along the way.
“Would you care to spend a few hours working with some of them? That way you will have a better idea of their abilities.”
(Asad Ghazi , a Muslim Knight) “I would certainly be interested in seeing more of the abilities of these youngsters.”
They agreed to take some time to evaluate the new forces in play and work on more detailed tactics.
(Knight-Commander) “Very well then. All in favor of the proposal as outlined? All against? Motion passes 10:1 with 1 abstain. I believe this is a good point to break open session for today. Guests are dismissed and we shall continue certain other discussions behind closed doors.”
The reaction to the evaluation was mixed: the youngsters powers were quite creditable and very versatile – but there was some prejudice against “fey magics” on the part of several of the sects, although – since the commanders were approving the venture – they went along with it, albeit grudgingly. Some of the others, namely the Zoroastrian, Pagan, and Mithraic groups, were quite pleased and fascinated by it all. It looked like quiet recruiting – if not rally- or revival-style – would be tolerated.
“Their abilities will increase somewhat with a week or so’s practice, and a little more when there is time to give them proper training in their use. After that, improvements are very slow, but will continue.”
(Knight-Lord Asad Ghazi) “A week then? Fair enough, I’ve known many youngsters that took longer than that to learn to properly hold a sword. Some still don’t (he smiled at that thought). Nevertheless, we have a big job ahead of us and we will need all the help we can get. I still wonder if there are other survivors out there and if we can get to them in time.”
With any luck, the place would hold together for another week.