Meanwhile, back in Kadia, Kelsaru had been spending time in the core overlay zone – and with Kevin’s parents in the overlay zone he’d set up for them. It was a relatively brief experiment, and – even if it didn’t work – it was well worth trying; it wasn’t like the dragons of her world had ever had any luck finding out what made greater dragons so rare. Kevin / Ailill might really have more information; he certainly had more test cases to draw on. There were five times more dragons in his household in the Dragon Empire than there were on her entire home world.
It had been a bit of a shock to confirm that he hadn’t been born in a dragons body – but his spirit was blatantly draconic, and his powers were more than worthy of a dragonlord. Still, meeting his parents, she could see where more than a few of his odder traits came from. Humans, expecting a exceptionally powerful and dominant young male to be monogamous. How silly… Even they knew it was silly when they thought about it, but there was still that attitude underneath.
She hadn’t decided whether or not to introduce Kevin’s parents to his subordinate greater dragon concubines; showing off her status was important, as was firmly establishing Kevin’s power and independence in his parents eyes – but it was going to be important to wait for the right time, when they’d fully settled in to being dragons. Perhaps she should push that along for a bit – or at least help them adjust.
At least they casually accepted the presence of the servants now. They’d apparently never had any living servants before. She’d keep them away from the dragon-stables until they’d fully settled in to being dragons, they might accept the dragon-steeds like they were learning to accept the Thralls – but they might not too.
She’d been keeping an eye on affairs in Kadia and the Dragonworlds for Kevin anyway. There were rather a lot of recruits – mostly from that “Linear Realms” place, but a fair minority from Core, the “Anthropomorphic Worlds”, the “Five Worlds, and other random places as well – ready to be bonded, hopefully Kevin would get back to take care of that soon. The “meme treatments” were going well, although there had been a fair number of incidents until the neodogs had gotten the hang of handling the infected. A reasonable number of visitors were coming by from Core – most of them fairly young, but that was the group that was being selectively invited. Those two dragons who’d come by to visit had apparently gotten the information they’d wanted (or had decided to visit this “Forgotten Realms” place to get it) and had left in fairly short order – not long after Kevin had in fact. The “meme research project” – whatever that was, she hadn’t had the time to look into it beyond finding out that her mate considered it fairly important, but not in need of much supervision – was apparently moving along nicely. The dragon-stables (a bizarre concept, but when you owned as many dragon-slaves as Kevin did, it was practical enough) were operating smoothly; the basic slaves had easy and fairly happy lives giving rides and teaching riders (and goofing off and enjoying the facilities of Kadia when they weren’t on duty), the ones that had been bonded with Thralls were forming comfortable partnerships, and they were all throughly coached on not discussing their origins; most humans just wouldn’t understand.
In Crusader Kingdoms Jerusalem, Kevin was busy getting the fortifications outworks project underway… Fortunately, there was plenty of support in the city for anything that promised to help keep the undead away.
Of course, there were occasional interruptions by mobs who were angry about “soul stealing” (fortunately, he could usually just talk them down), classes in Thrall power-use and in developing local identities to run – although the Thralls he’d brought along could run most of those, except for the final magical charge-up – and for round table meetings. Thawban was usually a pain at those, but that was more or less his thing.
Sadly, it looked like letting the local Thralls pick up “knightly” identities and power-packages would be pretty badly received. Letting the “Adopted Fey” develop anything that could be construed as divine powers would be seen as blasphemous. It was too bad; the knightly abilities were a good fit to the world and fairly powerful – and it would have been useful in his campaign to overthrow some of the local prejudices. Besides, he’d bet that a lot of his recruits had wanted to be knights, and local ID’s always fulfilled something for their owners… Oh well, his control over that was pretty limited in any case, and they mostly seemed to be following the pattern set by the local Fey. That probably came of fulfilling the desire to survive, the Fey were good at that.
Hm… It seemed that the local Fey were tricksters, unseen guardians, caretakers of the land, and manipulators. They were believed to have been at the root of a great many of the pagan religions, although there was no real structure to their society other than membership in the Seelie or Unseelie courts. They were very highly magical arcane creatures, with wildly varying powers but a shared vulnerability to iron. There was supposed to be a prohibition on interference in human affairs in at least one of the courts. Demanding wishes from one is something likely to be twisted to meet the word if not the intent. It was suspected that Puck, Anubis, Odin, the Sirens, the Wyrd Sisters, and assorted other magical creatures from legend had actually been fey.
The Thralls mostly picked up level four local “Fey” identities, saving the players the trouble of coming up with multiple power-packages. Those got their magic up to allow L3 spells (20 CP), and provided them with +3d0 Hit Dice, for an extra 12 HP and an effective caster level of six.
Back in the crypt under the temple mount (picking up from session seventy), Marty and A’ikana were still listening in on the mysterious doors… two people speculating on current events behind one (that sounded like they might go on for quite awhile). The second door was heavy, locked, and it sounded like someone was breathing behind it – but there wasn’t any conversation going there. It didn’t look like either could be opened without making quite a bit of noise – and his girls could enhance their senses, but weren’t up to clairvoyance or anything like that. A’ikana and one of the girls could do short-range astral projection to take a peak though – at least if there weren’t any mystical barriers or traps. Still, it seemed worth the risk to A’ikana, and Marty was always more than willing to throw his resources behind a pretty lady. Astral projection it was.
On the astral plane, everything was grayscale and translucent, “straight lines” twisted and deformed, the once-straight passage became a winding, curving, hallway and “sounds” – or the thought-fragments and stray currents of psychic energy which passed for them – echoed as if through water. The door that someone was breathing behind was curiously opaque, and there were glowing circular diagrams arranged into a cube around the room itself. The diagrams slowly spun, and give off sounds rather like wind chimes.
A’ikanas sigh added another slight ripple to the astral energies. That wasn’t entirely unexpected. The knights were supposed to be containing a Death Knight of more-or-less unknown potentials (and known to be atypical in any case) down here. The chiming diagrams might be alarms of course – in which case they’d need to get out fast – but they were probably just be wards.
Marty, linked through his second companion, wasn’t so sure. Back home you never knew if the security cameras (or the deliciously deadly potted plants and their spines) were sapient and capable of slapping you around or screaming for security, and the astral plane did seem to involve an awful lot of life force. Still, astral stuff wasn’t his field, so any more checking was up to A’ikana.
Poking their heads through the unwarded door revealed the presence of two standing men, perhaps guards. Each seemed to be radiating a great deal of white light and energy, which formed complex diagrams centered on their feet and also emitted the sounds of ringing chimes – and they seemed to sense the intrusion, slowly turning towards the door. The girls glamour might confuse their perceptions a bit, but it couldn’t cover their presence, it would just make them hard to recognize.
Blast. Marty considered having the girls try for an invisibility effect; it would affect their bodies and not their astral forms – but it was time to get out of the astral anyway (A’ikana had to agree) and it should still help a lot with getting out. The things he’d do for pretty women!
They headed for the water again as quickly as possible; they could hear the sounds of locks and bolts being undone quickly – and talking had all stopped.
Fortunately, between the girls sound-damping, the ability to silence the disturbance of the water, and Marty and A’ikanas personal skills, they could be pretty sneaky… besides, the guards – who ran straight past the fountain to the second door – seemed to be worried about whatever was in the warded room. One of them laid his hand upon it and appeared to concentrate. Perhaps they were worried that some minor mystic or young psychic might have wandered into the wrong place and been eaten by a death knight’s sword?
Too bad they didn’t seem to be going into the warded room – but the distraction and a little illusion should cover their retreat into the water.
The guards at the outer pool were on the alert as well – and were actually watching the pool – and the girls couldn’t keep up the air-bubbles for too much longer. Well, they still had enough reserves for a bit of levitation, and the illusions didn’t cost them much; they could use illusion to cover the water-shift and levitate away, nice and high to avoid any chance of being spotted…
Unfortunately, there turned out to be another ward – an invisible barrier along the outer edge of the Temple Mount complex wall. They managed to avoid dropping out of the sky, but it cut down on the duration of their invisibility-charms a great deal – and made a rather loud thud and sent out a ripple of white energy from where they’d hit.
They dropped to ground level and ran for the nearest gate. The girls could do the minor spells pretty much indefinitely, but their psychic reserves were pretty limited.
It took some acrobatics and more stealth, but Marty and A’ikana managed to avoid colliding with the squad of knights running into the temple complex. They slipped out into the city as quietly as possible while the alarm went around the city.
Well, at least they hadn’t been identified that they knew of. On the other hand, the heightened security wasn’t going to help them gather information. Ah well. It would have been nice to have more information on the Death Knights, but if it wasn’t practical, it wasn’t practical. It was good to know that the knights had decent security anyway.
They headed back to their little “embassy” to consult with Kevin.
Perhaps fortunately, the local priests had yet to agree on what they thought Kevin was up to. He’d heard from several of them in the streets or in minor confrontations of course – the nosiest and most opinionated ones – but there didn’t seem to be any unity yet.
Some thought that the Thralls had become fey, and thereby there are fewer humans – an offense against God, as humans were God’s chosen. Others felt that it was consorting with evil, dark powers and damned them to hell. Still more felt that no Fey could destroy a soul – although they might be able to drive it out – and that the difference between a human and a fey was that fey had no souls (which would be an interesting way for a realm to handle phantasms; “All phantasms go to Avalon perhaps?). That group wasn’t sure WHAT Kevin was doing except that he had to be violating the natural order somehow.
Unity or not, it wasn’t long before Kevin had a contingent of concerned clergymen wanting to know what he was doing to the children who signed up with him. Was he destroying their souls? Stealing them for some horrific purpose or to somehow transfer them to the fey? Bonding them with Fey so that the Fey could escape the end of the world and be carried into heaven with their hosts? (Now THERE was an ingenious notion! Kevin had to wonder if any of the Fey were trying anything like that elsewhere!). Was he actually killing the children and transforming their soulless bodies into Fey simulacra crafted in their image? Was he damning them – and probably everyone who permitted his operations to continue, for surely there could be no forgiveness for standing by and allowing such a fate to befall the innocent – to eternal darkness? (Most did not believe that God, in his mercy, would permit such a thing – but there were always a few with more extreme views).
Well, there was no reason not to talk to them. They were mostly more reasonable than the mobs.
“I am informed you wanted to see me? How can I help you?”
“We have great… concerns for those children you have been taking into your charge. Rarely do the fey interfere so blatantly in human affairs and the stories of previous encounters do not put us at ease.”
“What do you wish to know about them? Or are you more interested in finding out about me?”
“Well we have a number of questions… First off, what is happening to the souls of the children? The stories indicate that the souls are taken from them to further fuel your magic and power. In turn, the shell becomes a conduit itself for such power.”
“I understand your fear, but it is incorrect; their souls are indeed bound to me for the duration of their indenture. That way I can channel power to them, protect them, and return them to life if they are killed. Once their indenture is up, they are free to go their own way. It will require several centuries for most youngsters to complete their indentures, but that is why I grant them youth, health, and healing abilities in the meantime.”
“Indenture? So this is temporary? Or do they remain as they are now indefinitely then?”
“The powers are theirs perpetually. The link with me will fade in time, as they master the powers and learn to generate them themselves.”
“Curious indeed… This is most unlike the stories told through the ages. Such things usually have a more… immediate price. Indeed everything the fey do comes with a price. And I can’t help but look at the “assistance” you have been giving us and wonder what price will we end up paying for your help?”
“Your world will be touched by other worlds. I am not from Avalon – but many worlds are threatened, and I have need of agents to defend them.”
That seemed to startle the two most senior priests considerably;
“Not from Avalon? Preposterous, all fey are from Avalon. It is the way of the world. It would be like me siring a minotaur on a peasant girl. And all fey answer to Oberon or Mab.”
“Threatened? You mean the threat of the horsemen is not just limited to here? And that you, a fey, are opposing them on other worlds? I wonder if that means the Horsemen are fey as well then.”
“I doubt that I entirely fit your classification schemes. But yes, the Horsemen are a small aspect of the War, and other worlds are threatened.”
“Curiouser and curiouser. So the way of things that has held for nearly 1700 years is becoming irrelevant. The end of the world has come and appears to have passed us by to be cleaned up at our enemies leisure. And you, a fey from outside the world, the way of things, has come to us in our time of need. You want something from us for this “greater war” you are facing and I want to know what it is.”
“Soldiers. Once your world is no longer endangered, many of those I have recruited here can help defend other worlds.”
That suddenly seemed to place things on more familiar ground – and to judge by the speed with which the priests turned to it, they seemed to be desperately in need of some familiar ground.
“Soldiers eh? While I do have concerns for you taking the next generation from us when there are so few of us left, I do believe this is a matter we can come to an agreement upon. For we have engaged in mercenary contracts in the past and might be willing to agree to more in the future should things here settle down.”
“To be fair, they remain perfectly capable of having children, will remain so indefinitely, and are entitled to visit home at times. Unhappy recruits do not turn in their best performances. The war is centuries old already, soldiers in it are entitled to a decade or so’s leave on occasion.”
The priests seemed to ponder that a bit… A decade’s leave? If this Fey lordling was telling the truth, serving him for a time might actually be acceptable – but the price of an error might be quite unspeakable. Still, for centuries the great orders of knighthood had guarded the kingdoms of God. Perhaps some could be persuaded to accompany “Kevin” (and what sort of name was that for a Fey anyway?) on one of his campaigns and evaluate the situation…
“Agreeable, but I do think we might be able to stir up some volunteers from the knights to serve in other worlds for a time given the assistance you have already provided. Plus it might do well to appease the populace if they see Knights in this as a partnership. Now of course, there would have to be some sort of agreement made and signed to show for this.”
“That would not be particularly difficult.”
“Ah good then. I can see what I can do about getting the appropriate representatives together and work out a contract once current engagements have been settled.”
Perhaps fortunately, A’ikana refrained from pointing out that Kevin was actually entirely human, if overpowered and more than a bit naughty – if not precisely “young” (he might have stopped aging, but he was still better than sixty years old). She’d settled for rolling her eyes at Kevin at appropriate moments. It was quite remarkable how the boy could tell most of the truth and still be so completely misleading. He wasn’t even TRYING to fight the idea that he was Fey, even if it would be a bit difficult to explain!
“Excellent, although I suspect you should tread carefully until things settle down. The old agreements have many followers and some have a vested interest in the status quo, regardless of the state of affairs.”
“I fear I have learned to always expect as much.”
The priest-horde departed – a few satisfied, many still doubtful, and a a few believing that Kevin was a very smooth lying-faerie-demon-thing. They’d be bringing some of the best negotiators and lawyers they could find to the next meeting…Well, it looked like the siege really did have most of the local clergy working together; they’d put together a strongly united front there.
Marty needed a drink. Fortunately, they had some excellent wine around the place, part of the stuff they’d gotten from that Merchant.
Outside, the alarm bells continued to toll for about three hours, and they could hear knights running through the streets at regular intervals, combing the city.
That actually made Marty feel a bit guilty about breaking someone’s security for once. They’d be extra paranoid now. On the other hand, they couldn’t say that a bit of extra vigilance was a bad thing at the moment.
It might not help in gaining their trust either – but that would have been a bit much to expect in any case. Still, as long as it helped them defend themselves, that was all that mattered.
Kevin had some wine too, but A’ikana restricted herself to fresh fruit juice.
Over the next three days the recruiting continued to bring in about two hundred new Thralls a day, the outworks began going up (pretty rapidly; they’d been given a pretty high priority), siege engines were built, supplies of “greek fire” and holy water were laid in, lessons in basic archery (and how to load arrows with holy water and greek fire) and martial arts were given, and Thralls were loaded up with more powerful spells.
The intelligence reports also came in from out in the greater multiverse.
A.T.E. in Crusader had been attacked in what appeared to have been a part of a larger attack on the Grand Central Station dimensional transit network.
The Linear Realms were trying to put down a developing insurgency in the linear arcologies, but the first drums of war were beginning to be heard.
The Singularites on Ealor were looking to hire third party search and rescue teams (and were currently negotiating with Amarant Solutions about a major search and a longer-term contract) and the Empire had sent in a high level official to oversee matters.
The Core computer response to the ongoing meme attacks had improved substantially.
King Arthur I – the somewhat ominous ruler of the Commonwealth Realms – had called for a gathering of the Round Table. He might be preparing for war…
Fighting in the Battletech Realms was escalating, which was fairly normal for that realm, even if it now involved extradimensional backers on pretty much every side. The Battletech Realms did just sort of suck you into a constant stream of skirmishes if you weren’t REALLY careful. It was just their nature… Marty had to wonder; if the fighting in the Battletech Realms escalated long enough, would it create a Mass Conflict Singularity?
The House of Roses had gotten Vekxin thoroughly ensnared, but were busy wearing through the defensive line he’d created. Still, they expected to break though in a couple of weeks.
Kevin’s purchase program had acquired all the available property-class NeoDogs, and Kelsaru had been handling things in Kadia; there were quite a few recruits available there now – which was a good thing – it looked like they’d be needed soon. On the other hand, Kevin needed to get back there to induct them. He couldn’t put that off too much longer if things were going towards outright war. Besides… It was almost time for Kelsaru to clutch, and he really needed to be there for that.
Well, there were still a fair number of Thralls in reserve, so he could send a few more to the Linear Realms and a couple of teams to the Singularites, and deploy some more to the House of Roses if they needed them – and there were always the NeoDogs for emergency reserves.
“Marty? I think we need to finish up here within the next few days – or at least get it to the point where we can try and break the barriers and go elsewhere for a bit.”
“Sounds good to me. Things can’t last like this much longer.”
It’d been four days – and it would only be three more until the knights started launching assaults. The outworks were coming along nicely though, almost two thirds of them were complete and the remainder should be finished within two days. The people of Jerusalem had rallied and made a remarkable effort. With it’s core refusing to submit, and the local Thralls to provide support, it wasn’t likely that this realm would fall even if Kevin, Marty, Jamie, and A’ikana left now…
There hadn’t been any major attacks from either side yet. That would probably change about the time the outworks are finished; at that point the attackers would have had enough time to pull in any reserves they had (and it looked like they had some, but not nearly as many as had been feared) – and it would be obvious that the salley-attacks were about to start. Maybe they should start them a day early just for shock value.
Would they get Death in person, or just a notable general?
Kevin’s scouting reports were coming in; several cities up and down the holy land appeared to have been sacked, burned and deserted. Masada still stood – and quite a few of the other cities further afield were still standing. Evidently the attack had been focused on the holy land. There was a good chance that the majority of the undead and death knights were besieging Jerusalem already – and that made taking out the undead horde look a lot more possible.
Locally, recruiting was still running at roughly two hundred per day; rising opposition was holding things back, but the word was getting around more – roughly cancelling each other out – and the 200,000+ pool of possible recruits was large enough that they hadn’t seriously impacted it yet. By the time it was time to start sallying out they might have 1800 or so…
“Sounds about right to me. Holy hell, that’s a lot of magical power.”
“Well, we’ll still be outnumbered by undead at something like one hundred to one. Even stocking everyone up with area-effect attack spells and the local boosts, that’s not good. Plus they’ve got 300 death knights with magic of their own.”
“Still, it couldn’t hurt.”
“We should be able to do plenty of damage before falling back anyway – and if anything will make them bring out the big guns, that would do it. Want to try looking under the temple first? We’ve got the catacombs fairly well mapped now I think – although there are still several blank places on the map.”
“Yeah. Security shouldn’t be quite as good down there as it is above.”
The major blank places included around where the aqueduct was known to bring in water below the city, beneath the temple mount complex itself, and near the gate which was being repaired. None of those sites were particularly surprising. Perhaps the aqueduct one was where it became holy water… The one right below the temple would probably be where some major holy artifact or place is buried – the one the Silmarils responded too. That could be the third Silmaril, but it was rather more likely to be the Ark of the Covenant or some other local artifact(s); the locals had been trying to collect them.
“I’m not sure I want to brave the Temple Mount again so soon. Want to hit the aqueduct?”
“I’d really like to know what’s in both locations – but I’m not sure that it’s likely to help with the battle coming up. Should we do the battle first and check afterwards?”
“Sure. Security’ll be weaker then, if only because of battle losses.”
They tried pitching the “attack before the outworks are quite ready and catch the death knights by surprise if possible” plan at the next round table conference. The outworks were well stocked with trebuchets and greek fire barrels and such by now; they’d want to cover the retreat with real physical fires and such if they could – and they were a good spot for the semi-combatants.
The local alternative proposals were (1) to wait until further preparations had been completed, (2) to use the small stash of sanctified gunpowder that remained to blow open a hole near the enemy encampment from underneath and assault it in the confusion, and (3) to lead a calvary charge out and try and take out as many of the minor undead as possible while avoiding the death knights.
Well, the undead wanted to take Jerusalem, and as far as they knew the city must be running low on supplies. Perhaps they’d assemble for a final battle? They could send out a Herald who’d stay inside the ward. Chivalric last stands were very classic, and they could easily give the impression that they were trying to buy a chance for the people in the city to escape – and why would the undead care about that? If they wiped out the knights, the people could be hunted down at leisure and Jerusalem would fall. It seemed likely that they’d assemble their forces for that chance.
Just to perk things up, they threw in the information that quite a lot of other places were still holding out.
Thawban was pretty doubtful…
“Survivors you say? Dare I ask how you came upon this knowledge?”
“I sent out some scouts: do remember that all of my recruits gain the ability to shapeshift among their other powers. Since they are all linked to me, they can simply pass their observations back.”
That stirred up quite a commotion…
(Hans) “Well this is excellent news indeed! It seems that if we can break the siege here and move out to assist the others, we might be able to turn back this infestation of our lands.”
(Thawban) “Shapeshift, eh? I really shouldn’t be surprised. It is the kind of thing your kind is known for.”
(Kevin) “I do realize that you dislike me, however, the abilities I bestow were both covered in the discussion and demonstrated a mere five days ago. They are part of the resources available, and it is unwise to leave them unconsidered.”
(Knight Commander) “Do you have any idea of numbers? Or of additional enemy forces? We must remember that the Final Army is still out there everyone and could return at any time.”
Kevin filled in what he could – and noted that the Final Army had yet to be sighted; it might well have moved on to another world.
(Gilad) “Well that is encouraging news. It seems the guerilla campaign we fought reduced their numbers heavily. A sufficiently large push now could be enough to break out and give us the initiative back. We could overwhelm the attackers at each of the cities in turn.”
Kevin, Marty, and A’ikana (Jamie still refused to have anything to do with overall strategy) were pleased: it looked like the Knights were going where they’d wanted them to anyway.
(Orthodox) “All well and good, but we can’t just attempt to salle out now. If that could have worked we would have done it by now. We will need to whittle down their forces until they can no longer effectively maintain the siege and that will take weeks or months.”
(Kevin) “I suspect that the Death Knights believe that we will complete the outworks, and then begin a campaign of assaulting them and falling back. I would suggest one of two strategies: either launching an attack a little early to exploit what surprise can be achieved or setting up what looks like a massive attack supported from some of the completed outworks – with signs that we are preparing to attempt to allow the population to escape on the far side of the city. That may lead them to bring most of their forces together.”
Marty preferred the first option, especially if they could somehow humiliate them in the process. Kevin, of course, would prefer to get them as massed as possible for a fireball bombardment; that should take out an awful lot of the lesser undead; Of course, launching a few sallies first, then getting them lined up for a mass attack might work best of all. The could probably leave the gunpowder out of it; with that many Thralls, each stocked up with full-power fireballs and lightning bolts, a little gunpowder wouldn’t help much. Better to leave it for the cannons.
The council wound up with a composite plan; a series of sallies from the ruined gate and the outworks along that side of the city. Make it appear that the bulk of the reserves and defensive forces that can be spared were massing at the outworks to launch an assault on the main enemy camp. Bombard the enemy as much as possible and then assault if looks practical, otherwise retreat to outworks or possibly the walls. Kevin got them to provisionally include the Thralls as squires and support; officially they’d evaluate their effectiveness during the sallies and then expand or cut back as the evidence came in.
The plan passed thirteen to zero.
Of course, the council didn’t know about the fire-and-lightning stockpile – and the group wasn’t giving them any details: there might well be a leak somewhere. The Thralls had shielded minds; most of the knights and ordinary forces around did not. Kevin issued his own private instructions; he’d try to make sure that – for the final big attack – they’d be included regardless, but until then they should stick with the more individual stuff. They could still be extremely helpful that way anyway…