Federation-Apocalypse Session 70: Return to Darkness

   With the Round Table Conference concluding in favor of launching sorties against the Death Knights and other undead, Kevin settled for campaigning for preparation time. He’d like at least a week to continue quietly recruiting and to get the Thralls ready – especially making sure that they made themselves some protective charms and spell-storing charms and maybe picked up a few of the local powers. A week should be long enough to settle into a decent local ID or upgrade their old ones.

Warding Talismans (1 CP Relics): Immunity to Negative Energy/”Undead Powers”, Common, Major, Major, covering effects of up through level five and providing a +6 bonus on saves against higher level effects, 9 CP (1 CP as a Relic). Kevin had original intended to have them make charms that protected them against having their souls stolen by death knights or their swords (“Immunity to Soul-Stealing”), but his Soulshield power currently protects them against effects like that of up to the eighteenth level anyway – and even Legendary Immunity would only extend that to level twenty.

Sigils of Sorcery (2 CP Relics): Improved Power Words, Specialized and Corrupted/spells from the dark magic of Kevin or other thralls only, requires gestures and a standard action to release rather than a move-equivalent action, both for increased effect, stores up to 27 levels of spells. These will include three Fireballs, a Lightning Bolt, a Sonic Cone, a short-range Dimension Door/Escape spell [only back to Jerusalem], and another three level three spells of choice, all at caster level 12. Fortunately, it only takes a minute per Thrall to get them charged up – so Kevin could work on that in spare moments.

   That would upgrade their ability to blast things quite a lot. The pesky Death Knights were probably resistant, but some might get through, and they’d be very good against the lesser undead.

   The knights agreed that planning, preparation, and observation first was in order – but that they might start sorties as soon as four days if any good opportunities presented themselves.

   Kevin was a bit annoyed at that – but it might be for the best. It wasn’t as if Kevin was much of a tactician, and they presumably were fairly good at it.

   Marty was more of one, and was all for preparations. After all, all the armed men in the world wouldn’t do any good if you didn’t have supplies.

   Hm. How WERE they planning to sortie out? The city was on a spur off of a plateau in the Judean mountains – separated by the valley of Kidron from the Mount of Olives to the east, bordered by the Hinnom ravine to the south, and with riverbeds, farming terraces, and light woods around the rest and between the city and Mount Scopus to the northeast. They were at something like 2500 feet above sea level – discounting the fact that the city itself was a series of concentric walls going up the slope to the temple mount at the inner end of the city. It wasn’t exactly suited to opening the gates for a mounted charge…

   Maybe they could push out some outworks? Routes that were sheltered from the outside, but exposed to fire from the inside – so that they couldn’t be used against the city readily – leading to some basic fortifications? That way they’d have protected forward positions to shoot at the undead from and to launch sallies from. They could even work on some counter siege engines; there didn’t seem to be much of any in use at the moment. Maybe they could use the catacombs? All the holy water would be just as good as a clear field of fire for keeping out the undead.

   He’d need an engineer. Kevin kind of suspected that – with the dominance of the mystic knights – siegecraft was a neglected discipline in the Crusader Kingdoms. Still, there might be some practical engineers in the city. SOMEBODY was doing a decent job of getting the walls fixed and of making sure that the aqueducts ran. Kevin went to look for an engineer (and to quietly organize his recruiting), while Marty and A’ikana went looking for information.

   Currently there was talk about a plan to drive off the invaders, a lot of rumormongering going on about Lichstein, and more and more credit being given to the notion that the supply situation was improving and might even be approaching sustainability – and more rumormongering about a Fey Lord helping the city in exchange for souls. On the direct observation side, with more food and clean water available, people’s health was improving, more was getting done, and morale was improving. There was a lot of work going into mapping out the catacombs too – and a fair amount of holy water being stored up. Maybe they could build a direct tap there: that would take awhile, but it would ensure an accessible source.

   Marty was inclined to help out with the catacombs. After all, the undead might be able to use them to get in.

   The search for an engineer eventually led them to a set of workshops set next to one of the larger city aqueducts. There was a large water overshot wheel turning next to the aqueduct, and the air was filled with the sound of hammers and other crafting processes. The remains of three trebuchets stood in the center of the work area – and a man in a smith’s apron was wandering around yelling at people. He turned and reflexively starts to yell them before catching himself…

“WHAT ARE YOU doing here? Can I help you with something?”

“I suspect so; we’d like to take advantage of the expanded wards by setting up a few strongpoints to attack from – and we need an engineer to help plan them.”

   The smith rubbed his chin thoughtfully…

“Well that is an idea, did you have anything specific in mind?”

   The group cheerily did a little basic sketching – admitting that they weren’t engineers or tactical experts, but also noting that there were tacticians in plenty around – but not too many engineers.

“Hmm, looks good. We may have to watch out for where we put the trenches. Damn Romans left the place littered with all sorts of catacombs, tunnels, chambers, and water channels. Dig a trench in the wrong place or too far deep and you could plummet 30 feet into you own tomb surrounded by governors long gone. We may have to requisition steel and bronze from the stores though. It’s hard to come by these days.”

“Well, hopefully we can get a fair amount of mileage out of stone and lumber, which are easier to come by.”

“Ya, we can probably get by with mainly stone, lumber and earth. There are just some components that I would prefer being steel or bronze, at least if I was behind them. I will have to see what I can do there. You may want to start recruiting some unskilled labor when I do this. And if you can get a map of the catacombs they’re making then that would help too.”

“We shall.”

“Anything else you need? We’ve got a lot of people doing armor repair and sword sharpening right now.”

   Marty cheerily took advantage of knife sharpening.

“I think that’s a large enough project to organize for the moment – although we might be able to get you some naphtha, bitumen, pitch, and sulfur if you have any need for such things.”

“If you can manage to get your hands on that stuff, than that will help a lot.”

   Kevin assigned a few Thralls; the stuff was less complex than food – so a Thrall with the talent for supplies could produce six hundred gallons or so per hour. That should be plenty for almost any small-scale project. Besides, he could probably find other uses for their talents too; telekinesis was REALLY helpful at assembling stuff, especially at the “one hours light work per minute” rate – even if they could only do that for about twenty minutes a day.

   The Smith was pretty pleased at that. They could see his eyes light up at the possibilities – and he hadn’t even gotten past the raw materials possibilities yet.

   It looked like recruits were coming in at about two hundred per day, despite people occasionally showing up to try and harass the meetings; typical religious and racial intolerance springing up from rumors of soul stealing. Kevin tried to tell them that it was a long, but still limited-term, indenture – but, unfortunately, that was pretty near impossible to prove to them. Still, it was enough to handle the basic supplies and build up a stockpile, to provide a decent supply of war materials and enough luxuries to build up morale, and to dispatch a few scouts in avian forms to check out other cities. It seemed likely that the biggest army would be around Jerusalem. It was the central power-focus of the entire realm, and if it was really destroyed and desecrated, there wouldn’t be much left elsewhere for long.

   Kevin sent out a few Thralls in long-range bird forms with anti-divination, anti-soul-sight, anti mind-sensing, and other protective/concealment charms to check on the other major cities and fortresses of the world, making sure that they got high enough to be in cloud cover before leaving the Jerusalem wards. Up and down the holy land of course, Rome and Constantinople, Persia, London, Masada, Paris, Cairo, Baghdad, Antioch, Alexandria, Meccas, and a look at Avalon if it was possible. It looked like the “Far East” or, judging from the variety of places reported, the “Far Easts”, were probably actually other realms. Regardless, normal birds could manage 40-50 MPH for most of a day while migrating – sometimes for several days in a row. Thralls – with witchcraft and magic to help them – might be able to improve on that, and could certainly keep it up a lot longer. He should start getting reports back in a day or so. That would tell them if anyone else was left – or if they were likely to see a million undead coming to reinforce the siege anytime soon.

   And there were still plenty left to help with fortification-construction, do healing, and help A’ikana drill martial arts students!

   A’ikana sighed, compromised her principles slightly by allowing the Thralls to help her out (and resolved to keep a careful eye on herself, and not let that ease and convenience lead her to a slide into complacent acceptance and corruption of her ethics), and started the martial arts courses. Not too bad really… The locals might not be too well trained in self-defense, but they were in surprisingly good physical shape.

   Marty decided to try to find out a bit more about Thawban. Why was he so down on dealing with elves?

   It looked like he’d been the leader of a group of Knights based out of Bagdad, and was widely recognized as an expert tactician. He’d had numerous “skirmishes” with Holy Land Knights over the years and had a long history of religious intolerance. He’d come to the aid of Crusade Kingdom forces as they’d came under attack from the Final Army, and had fought a series of guerilla campaigns in their support – but he’d finally been caught with the Final Army between his forces and Bagdad. Given the situation, he’d opted to fall back on Jerusalem – but he hadn’t been happy about it. He’d apparently been married once, but details on the matter were sparse in the general community.

   Informative, but the Muslim community should have more details. He could go into the Muslim quarter and start digging around there – but that was a bit problematic; he was obviously European and wasn’t at all versed in Arabic.

   Wait! The girls could disguise him and do a language shift. He could do without Portuguese for the duration… He’d take a fairly average look for a native of Jerusalem. With a million people gathered in the city within the last few weeks, most of them were going to be strangers. He’d have to watch out for customs though; he’d have to have the girls do a little thought-receiving to pick up and strong expectations and relay them to him.

   Inconceivable! MUSLIMS DIDN’T HAVE BARS!!!

   Well, they did have large marketplaces and forums with plenty of impassioned speakers around the place making speeches to the crowd. A lot of people were eating, talking, and listening to the speakers. The general mood was positive, mostly due to the improved supply situation – although some speakers were complaining about consorting with the fey, the presence of unbelievers on the Temple Mount and in the Holy Land, about the lack of Sharia Law, and other grievances. There were spirited debates going on between some of the speakers in fact… Marty listened to the discussions to get a better gauge on what topics to avoid. After all, he came from a Christian background, and he didn’t even pay much attention to that religion’s doctrines!

   Once he had a handle on the situation, he tried asking around about Thawban again… They couldn’t do much with objections-on-principles, but if it was son-lured-away-by-the-fey or something, they might be able to work around it.

   Interestingly, it looked like the moderates weren’t very vocal – but they were definitely in the majority. The speakers against the current situation were not attracting the kind of support that he’d feared. Of course, it was only human to be fine with any OTHER religious factions kids joining up.

   Thawban had apparently had an incident a while back when a fey traveled through the area. It seemed that his young wife had been seduced by the creature, had an affair, and had attempted to have Thawban killed by framing him for a crime so that she could get out of the marriage. She, in turn, had been caught – and it had come out that she had been straying for years. Thawban had found out that “his” children weren’t his – and the fey had vanished from his cell in the middle of the night. She’d been executed, and he’d been raising other people’s kids ever since.

   Oh, he was going to be fun to deal with – although he might want to get rid of the kids. On the other hand, he might be over-responsible for them out of dutiful compensation. They’d just have to see which if any of them happened to be in Jerusalem.

   Since then, Thawban had been working hard to maintain the pride and dignity of his order. He’d led skirmishes against the Holy Land knights for years, and had developed quite a streak of religious intolerance during those campaigns. He had a very strong sense of duty though, and many of the locals believed that he’d been clinging to that to hold himself together through it all. He strongly disliked all non-muslims, but seemed to feel a strong urge to protect the defenseless. Major Knights and such however were fair game until recent events.

   The catacombs – what with the recent activity – were another major topic. They were known to go pretty deep. There were at least five levels in some sections and maybe more. Some dated to the times of the Romans, but others appeared to date back even further. The water down there was believed to come from the aqueducts, but how it got there and where it went from there was unknown. The chambers beneath the Temple Mount were some of the oldest known, and were said to have been sealed since the destruction of the Second Temple of Solomon. It was rumored that the Mithraists performed their rituals down there, and that there might even be entire hidden shrines and temples beneath the city. As for the Holy Water… they could only believe that it had something to do with the Temple Mount complex, as nothing else could instill that kind of holy light into that much water. The Romans certainly could not.

   Oh, now that sounded interesting. Secret temples of ancient treasures and the Seal of Solomon! Underground Mithraeums! Wine!

   Interestingly, despite the Muslim prohibition on the use of supernatural powers, they didn’t seem to count “sages” and such as being magic-users – especially if they’d made several pilgramages to Mecca. There were divine channelers around, and some sages who might be arcane specialists – although they viewed it as a part of the creation that Allah had made, and therefore as a part of his divine power.

   Seemed like enough general information for the moment – and besides, he needed a drink.

   Meanwhile, A’ikana – seeing that the basic martial arts classes were going well – had gone to do a little research on the Death Knights and the local fey. Did they have any known weaknesses? Too bad she couldn’t reach the Library of Alexandria – even if it would be mostly as it had been imagined, rather than as it was. Still there should be some things that were known at the time and since lost.

   The priests were willing enough to talk, but their information was limited: the Death Knights were definitely dead, and appeared to be soulless. They did seem to be the remains of people who had actually died, as opposed to generic creations. They were intimately bound to their swords; speculation centered on the idea that the sword might actually be the death knight and that their bodies were merely shells used for interaction with the physical world. They appeared to be weak to fire and holy energies, but were resistant or immune to cold. They seemed to come in three varieties reflected in the colors of their blades: blue for cold specialists, green for unholy energies, and red for vampiric abilities. It seemed that the process of becoming a death knight was very selective; not everyone was suitable for it, and they had to be captured alive to be changed into one. Knights seemed to be preferred, but others had been observed being used for the process.

   It was hypothesized that the blades were some sort of energy sink. Things containing energy tended to be drawn into the blades; they’d been observed cutting through low level wards, draining artifacts, stealing souls, and slowly draining heat from rooms. The local magi had suggested they might be “flaws” of some sort.

   Perhaps a pocket-dimension trap or linked to the negative plane? It seemed to hold souls and force them to combine somehow.

   Anyway, current estimates were that around 70-80 had been destroyed during the siege, possibly another 400 or so during the guerilla war prior to the siege. Numbers were hard to get ahold of for the earlier battles, as the need to break their blades hadn’t been widely known at the time.

   That wasn’t not bad at all; if they weren’t being replaced, getting rid of them all looked quite possible.

   Wait, what was that? “If they would only let us study the one that defected”? The priest was looking a bit embarrassed and trying to change the subject. Something important? The “knight-commanders pet” or the “traitor” perhaps?

“Defected, sir?”

“I really don’t know the details myself, and I really am not supposed to talk about it either. But supposedly one of the Death Knights knew the Knight-Commander before the war. After he was “changed” he fought against us in the war. I am not sure of the circumstances that led him here other than that a lot of people are upset and those who know are supposed to keep quiet about it. They aren’t letting us study him at all, and are doing a good job keeping him under tight security.”

“Thank you; would it be a problem for you to say if you know where he’s being kept?”

“I would imagine at or near the Temple Mount, as that would be the easiest place to restrain or subdue him. But that is purely speculation on my part.”

“Thank you.”

   Now that would be an interesting interview. Clearly this called for an infiltration mission. She’d need Marty… Not Kevin. There might be worse monsters out there, but that was no excuse for him!

   Marty was quite willing: A’ikana was the only attractive woman in the party! He’d be happy to purge his hangover and come help!

   A’ikana sighed. Marty might be a total drunken lecher, but at least he still knew not to hit on jailbait with kung fu powers. That was more sense than half he people she met.

   They cased the Temple Mount from a belltower – part of a Jewish Academy that seemed to be shut down for the duration – so there was no one there but a few staff members. It was easy enough to sneak past and climb the tower for a look. Locks were no barriers to Marty’s friends!

   Quite a view. Most of the city, much of the battlefield, and the Temple Mount. People milling around like ants. The undead were making a halfhearted assault on one of the city gates. They didn’t seem to have the numbers to really threaten the defenses in that attack. Just keeping up the tension perhaps? The Temple Mount was pretty crowded of course. People praying, various types of priests, plenty of knightly guards, and the council itself. Large open plaza. The Round Table Conference Building, a series of pagodas and gardens, some small shrines built for the various faiths, and a large fountain.

   Plus no way of knowing exactly where they wanted to go. Still, getting in would be no problem.

   They snuck out and went back to try a little ground-level reconnaissance. Hmm… the Temple itself was well guarded. The Round Table Conference Building wasn’t public, but it wasn’t really large enough to hide someone in with the spaces they’d already seen inside. The garden and pagoda had a lot more guards milling about seemed warranted though. They weren’t especially holy or anything – although there was a garden dedicated to lilies. They were associated with funerals and the dead locally… Ok, it wasn’t much to go on, but it might be worth a shot. The guards moved around a lot, but there were set patterns – and very few gaps. Still, any guard pattern had SOME gaps. Every fifteen minutes or so there was a decent space.

   Marty and A’ikana slipped in with transformation-disguises. No reason to make trouble for themselves if they were spotted. The garden was roughly square, surrounding a central pool – with a ladder going down quite a long ways. They took a peek down (nothing much visible), set up some oxygen-spells, quietly slid into the water, and headed down. The flowers would provide plenty of cover.

   Bronze steps going down another twenty feet and a good-sized side passage at the bottom heading off to the north. Much more recent construction than the roman infrastructure. It as several hundred feet before they found some light, another shaft going up, and more steps that came up in another pool – this time surrounded by brick, good, solid, masonry, and a small fountain. A lantern hanging over the pool pointed them up – and revealed a modest chamber. Fortunately, there was no one standing guard to take advantage of that precaution.

   There were doors to the left and right. It seemed like there were people in both sets of rooms, at least judging from the sounds of people talking. They were discussing recent events in the city and the upcoming plan to attack the undead besieging the city. The voices couldn’t be made out though… Allies, spies, internal schismatics, or traitors?

   They kept talking about the siege and what might happen if it was broken – and soon turned to speculation about whether or not other organized groups of survivors might be out there somewhere.

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