Federation-Apocalypse Session 76: The Darkness Against The Dead

   Back on the battlefield in the Crusader Kingdoms, the arcane firewall shock attack, the greek-fire laden siege engine assault, and the wave of sacred energies they’d sent rolling across the battlefield had gone well; the massed Knights of Jerusalem and Kevin’s Thralls had suffered few casualties and now locally outnumbered the undead by nearly two to one. Only about fifty Death Knights and some five thousand of the lesser undead were still holding the field, and most of them were severely damaged. On the other hand, the rest of the undead horde – the nearly sixty thousand lesser undead and the one hundred and fifty Death Knights who had been holding the siege of Jerusalem – had taken some damage from the sacred energies erupting form the Temple Mount, but were otherwise unscathed. The nearer elements of that force were already rallying to support their commanders at the besiegers main camp.

   Still, while the Thralls back at the city still had their full supply of spells, as did the forty-odd they’d arrived with (and were holding in reserve), the main force of sixteen hundred that they’d deployed on the field were down to their personal magics. They could continue to conjure enough Celestial Bears to point up the attack (and to slow up the Death Knights attempt to fall back) and to throw various minor offensive and defensive spells, but they didn’t have the power for another massed attack.

   Kevin didn’t have any more battlefield-scale tricks ready to go either, but he was sure that – if he kept his eyes open – some sort of opportunity would come up. If you were clever enough, they almost always did.

   If he’d still had functioning lungs, Maegoren would have sighed… Lord Death wasn’t going to be pleased. There hadn’t been a fiasco like this since the battles of Singular, and perhaps not even then. How had the locals managed to forge an alliance with the fey? Much less with what had to be one or more of their greater nobles to have so many troops to command? Lord War had been supposed to have left enough troops near Avalon to keep most of the fey going in circles – even if the Trickster had not been fooled (and had managed to distract Lord Death enough to foul things up out of all proportion to his importance).

   It was really enough to make him quite cross. How could Yama-Malach, the Specter of Death, the Keeper of the Final Gate, The Dark Angel, Shachath the Destroyer, be such a complete and total nincompoop? What was wrong with the universe?

   At least the Commander was signaling for a retreat; if they could draw the Knights and their fey allies out far enough from the city, they could pin them down with the nearer besieging troops – it was obvious enough that the fey had depleted much of their power with that first assault – and release the accumulated energies of the ritual. Incomplete as it was, it wouldn’t be enough to reverse the local power flows, but it would certainly disrupt them enough to take down Jerusalem’s ward for some time. With the wards down, and the Knights and fey pinned down that far from the city, there would be nothing to keep the remainder of the besieging troops from destroying Jerusalem.

   Even better, if the knights could be drawn close enough to the ritual grounds, discharging the energies they’d accumulated there should be enough to kill many of them – and to banish most of the fey supporting them for a year or more.

   Besides, he had made his choice long ago. He had looked into the skeletal Face of Death – and he had sacrificed his oaths, his honor, and his faith, to choose personal continuation and this unholy mockery of life over passing onwards. Continuation had been dearly purchased, and he was loath to give it up on a fools errand.

   The Knights pressed forward. They had not held the advantage on the open field for some time, and even their commanders would have a difficult time restraining them now.

   Marty was enjoying himself; Everything was better with bears!

   Kevin hoped that they were not all pressing forward into some hideous trap… At least the stunt with the wards had worked better than he’d expected. He had a couple of the Thralls back in the city take bird-form and fly up to take a look at the siege lines and see how much damage had been done to them. Thank goodness for thrall-communication links and for learning to multi-track.

   Hm… The minor undead currently on the field were assaulting the knights positions in an apparent attempt to give the Death Knights time to fall back. The knights were advancing through the lines of undead, but not nearly as quickly as they’d apparently like; there was no way that they could break through to pursue the Death Knights before reinforcements for them started to arrive. The steady supply of Celestial Bears was slowing down the Death Knights – but it obviously wasn’t going to be enough. They’d be able to regroup around their main camp before the knights could reach it.

   Fortunately for the casualties, A’ikana’s local identity included some truly major healing powers – but there were limits to that sort of trick a well. Kevin had given up on major battle magic – the situation was just too fluid, and it took too long (even if it would work in the Crusader Kingdoms, which he wasn’t entirely sure of). He settled for trailing along with the Knight-Commander and bombarding the undead with his own spells. Marty, of course, was leading his own charge along with the bears. He, along with a few knights who were following his lead, would reach the Death Knights main camp about the same time that the reinforcements would.

   Marty had a couple of close calls with fireballs going off nearby and bears being dropped like bombs – but the counterattack was forming up into two groups, the one that he was leading and the other led by the Knight-Commander. Both were quickly converging on the Death Knights main camp and the gathering contingent of Death Knights and supporting troops.

   There were about eighty Death Knights already formed up at the nearest end of the camp at the moment, and more were streaming in as the minor undead slowed up the attack. By the time they got there, there might be a hundred and twenty or more.

   The Knight-Commanders advance was coming at the camp from another angle. It looked like he was – at the very least – trying to carve open a path to the camp. Who knew what he planned to do after that?

   Still, the impromptu pincer maneuver was sensible enough at the moment. The undead would still be outnumbered two to one for at least a few moments so they might as well press the attack while they could. Marty headed for a meeting anyway; splitting the forces for more than a few moments was a bad idea when the enemy had reinforcements on the way.

   Kevin was worrying about that “ritual” thing. It was still possible that it was a giant trap of some sort – although they didn’t have much choice about walking into it. At least the Thralls had an inexhaustible supply of lesser magics to fight with, and they could still throw up a reflexive defense or two if they had to.

   Of course, if they did all get killed at the Death Knights center of power, who knew what would happen after that? The Death Knights were raiding this world for souls after all.

   Even for Marty that was a sobering thought. He was used to waking up in his own bed when he died. Still, in this world they were defending the temple mount with little thought for themselves, and they’d all just been blessed and given absolution. That might help.

   The battle line hit the edge of the Death Knight’s camp and found that the ground there was soggy and yellowed, and the fetid air was filled with the stench of rotting plants and growing molds. Surrounded by the forces of decay, and upon corrupted ground saturated with negative energies, the Death Knights – some 120 now – had formed their line and were preparing for the onslaught.

   Marty felt a presence near the camp… It felt oddly… Familiar? It sent a deep shiver down his spine, and stirred a vague feeling of memories long forgotten.

   Wait, could it be the memories of his past lives from the Rosary of Memory? There had been one where his paladin-father had returned as some sort of “Death Knight” and had touched him. That memory had ended – but not in a normal death.

   It did feel much more personal than a cosmic force given form, although the feeling of death did seem to permeate it.

   The Death Knights were arrayed ahead in ahead in scattered groups of nine, rather than in a true line. At the center was another death knight – wrapped in a long dark cloak and carrying an impossibly large glowing red axe with only one hand. The Thralls various spells were simply bouncing off the groups – and the bears didn’t seem to be able to get too close either; they simply vanished when they tried.

   Probably some sort of antimagical aura or focused negative energy or something. Kevin directed the Thralls to focus their efforts on the incoming reinforcements and on making sure that all the fallen Death Knight’s swords were being destroyed, and tried to counter the negative energy by consecrating the area (which helped with the stench of rotting death and the bog slowing people down) while he thought.

   Hm. They were well past the normal siege engine range – but there was a fair amount of greek fire left. Kevin had the Thralls helping man the outworks in the city use lightening charms on the barrels of greek fire and strengthening spells on the siege engines – while some of the ones with him on the field prepared to use kinetic spells to guide the incoming shots. If the greek fire ran out, there were lots of rocks.

   Yes, that did put the Death Knights position within siege engine range…

   The first volleys of greek fire to land on the death knight’s positions, erupted in a violent series of explosions – and a crackling wave of clashing energies, as black negative energy lightning clashed with the sacred energies of the knights. Kevin and the Thralls with defensive abilities threw up layers of protective spells around themselves and the knights as the burning wave of power washed over them and tried to find a release or grounding point. Despite their bedazzlement, they could see the scattered bodies of the Death Knights ahead, and their swords – some broken, some not – lying about and discharging arcs of black lightning.

   The Knights seemed to have survived with only modest casualties, and most of those were only injured. The bulk of them were still up and standing. The grounding spells were quickly bringing the energy outbursts under control. Some of the Death Knights might have escaped, and a few had been blown clear – but it looked like that had accounted for quite a few of them… It also looked like the Death Knights in charge of the besieging troops had lost control of the undead horde, much of which was mindlessly throwing itself at the city walls since the ward had failed.

   Unfortunately, the city would have to care for itself for the moment; they were close to a mile outside of it – out of range to be of any immediate help. At least the defenders there had the walls, the outworks, holy water, greek fire, and four or five hundred Thralls to help out. With that even a bunch of unskilled civilians ought to be able to hold off a swarm of mindless undead.

   The Knights were taking advantage of the lull to turn their efforts towards locating and rescuing the wounded.

   Marty winced. Lost limbs and injuries like that could be real trouble for normal people around here. Well, if they won they could set up medical treatment in another realm. Still, it wasn’t going at all badly so far. They’d accounted for almost two hundred of the Death Knights who had been attacking the city – and it looked like most of the ones who had been directing the besieging forces were pulling back.

   A hundred of them coming in with Death would still be trouble though, and the big Death Knight with the axe didn’t seem to be among the fallen. The Knight-Commander was currently receiving medical treatment from the Hospitalier Knight-Lord, so Marty headed for him..

   According to the reports from the Thralls Kevin had sent up to do a sweep – only a few minutes before – it looked like less than 25,000 of the original 100,000+ horde of undead remained; the ward-push had worked better than they’d thought it would. A lot of those might be destroyed in the battle at the walls too.

   Still… Pretty much all the Death Knights left were out along the circle, and most of those undead would still be fresh. They didn’t have many dead Knights, but they had lots of injuries, fatigue, and depleted resources. Even the city was down about two-thirds of their greek fire supply – and they’d about exhausted their major magics, and almost everything else was running low. It was time to fall back. Hopefully the Knight-Commander would agree, if only to defend the city and to hit the undead currently attacking Jerusalem from behind.

   He did. The general retreat order went out even before they could try to persuade him to issue it.

   Marty had his own companions send some instructions ahead. It wasn’t like the undead were likely to bunch up again any time soon, and it wasn’t like they couldn’t make more greek fire. It was time to use the stuff. He doubted that it would have much effect on Death anyway. He told the defending Thralls to use the same strategy he’d used when he’d faced the temp corporate raiders back home; post people at the chokepoints and whittle them down… Even if normal fire didn’t affect the Death Knights, it seemed to hurt the rest of the minor undead.

   Kevin had been thinking too. They’d better get back fast. If the Death Knights took advantage of the collapse of the ward to try to attack directly, there would only be four Thralls each to try and stop them – although the local priests might help if they had any power at the moment. Still, the priests would all probably be working frantically at the temple to restore the wards – and both sacred AND unholy powers seemed to be pretty unreliable at the moment what with all the disruptions going on.

   Back at the city, the defense of the walls was going rather well. The undead were lacking in siege engines of any sort at the moment – and their current “plan” seemed to be to try to get over the wall by climbing on top of their own fallen. They just didn’t have enough bodies to do that, and their casualties were catastrophic – especially since the remaining stocks of greek fire were in use and the Thralls in the city still had their allotment of major spells stored. Nobody seemed to be in charge of the mindless hordes. Had the Death Knights lost their unholy powers at the moment too?

   The retreat was slower than the party liked. Even with the Thralls levitating casualties and healing the ones who had simple wounds, there were too many with broken bones, lost limbs, and negative-energy traumas for speed by more-or-less conventional travel. The Knight-Commander sent an advance force ahead to assist in the defense of the city, since the reports coming in from the city indicated that the undead seemed to be concentrating their efforts on three sections of the wall. It looked like they might have sufficient numbers to breach the walls, but not enough to do much more than that. The consensus among the Thralls was that – if someone was controlling the mindless undead – whoever-it-was probably wasn’t very smart either.

   That was a worry. There weren’t any reports of Death Knight activity. They all seemed to have disappeared in the commotion. They weren’t the kind to run without reason though. They might have gone to meet up with Death – but what else might they be up to?

   The Death Knights were arrogant and overconfident, not stupid. With the ward down, if the holy water had been denatured in the powerstorm, the tunnels would be open to them – and they could be headed for the temple.

   Blast… Kevin sent six hundred of the Thralls ahead in bird-form to guard the temple and had another six hundred scoop up a bunch of the unwounded knights with telekinetic effects and follow. A couple of telekinetic shuttle runs wouldn’t leave the Thralls with much in the way of psychic reserves – but it would get them and the Knights all back inside the walls in mere minutes. If they were wrong about the Death Knights, the Thralls and Knights would all have the night to rest up in anyway. If not, they’d be needed desperately.

   The Knight-Commander agreed: he had a bad feeling about the situation too… He included himself, and most of the Knight-Lords, in the initial party. They should be able to make it to the temple pretty quickly, and the Thralls there hadn’t reported an emergency yet. Hopefully they could beat any Death Knights who were slogging through the tunnels.

   As they arrived at the Temple Mount they could feel the Wards discharging randomly as the power level slowly built back up. The Thralls – having started a bit earlier – were already forming a defensive perimeter.

   Kevin had a couple of the diviners take a peek under the Temple Mount while the wards were down, following the water and then spreading out their clairvoyant search to look for the Death Knights.

   There were a series of successively older and older tunnels and chambers deep beneath the city and the temple complex. At what looked to be one of the deepest levels, nearly three hundred feet down, there was a large artificial lake or pool with an island or an altar in the center – and there was at least one (and possibly more) major holy artifacts on it. That was where the water got so holy… The place reeked of arcane, psionic, and holy energies, all roiling and cascading violently.

   And yes, there were Death Knights in the tunnel network. It looked like they were moving through a section that would take them into the tunnels in the walls of the Temple Mount Complex. They’d be arriving in two or three minutes at a guess, in four or five at the most.

   They’d have quite a lot of the knights inside by that time, but it wasn’t much time to put together a defense. At least the Knights powers were working; they’d lost a little potency with the ongoing disruptions, but they were still going strong.

   Collapse the tunnels? Pour fire into them? Marty thought that property damage was always fun – and that it was too bad that they didn’t have any acid. It was always fun to watch things flail around and dissolve in it. Could the Thralls make acid?

   Kevin had to confirm that they could – but multi-tracking had limits and if they poured acid under the city they might wind up in trouble. All the water mixed down there and they didn’t have any way to purge the place afterwards. There was the stash of gunpowder if they wanted to sent a blastwave down the tunnels. That might work pretty nicely, especially if they blocked the front end with a force-barrier.

   Unfortunately, they couldn’t come up with anything they could do inside of two minutes outside of getting a lot of the Thralls and some of the healthier Knights ready to meet the attack.

   They deployed the forty youngsters they’d came with and had been holding in reserve and put up a set of illusions to conceal themselves – focusing on mystical senses especially.

   At least none of the Death Knights seemed to be headed for the holy artifacts and the pool. Of course, they probably didn’t know about them.

   Final reserves versus final attack… Well, until Death arrived in person in a day or so. Hm. If the Death Knights spread out before surfacing, they wouldn’t be able to focus their magical attacks, but the Knights had said that they could handle a few at a time by concentrating a group on them. If they all came up at once, they might be able to blast enough of them to get them down to something manageable. Either way, the odds of being able to handle it weren’t too bad.

   They wound up with about 800 knights and 1000 thralls concentrated around the section of wall where the death knights were about to pop out.

   Holy auras started popping up as the knights finished powering up again. The Thralls spun more illusions to cover things up. Images of there being nothing there but a few cowering humans, to sight, hearing, scent, magic-detection, life-sense, mystical senses, and more.

   They’d barely finished preparing when the wall began to crack. It was small at first, but swiftly grew larger and larger – the very stone crumbling and rotting away as the cracks filled with dark energy.

   Then the wall imploded, leaving a hole fifteen feet wide leading into the tunnels – and revealing a couple of dozen death knights just behind the wall and more further in. They glanced around the plaza, the ones in the lead motioned to the others behind them, and they began clambering out.

   The Thralls filled the tunnel with fireballs, lesser physical conjurations designed to bypass magical defenses, and a variety of other more-or-less random supernatural assaults.

   The repeated explosions in the tunnels went off like a cannon. Several death knights were blown out of the tunnel and into the open air of the plaza, smelling of roasted decaying flesh. Still more were flung into the line of Knights, Thralls and party members. Sadly, that broke the illusions – and left the Death Knights in position to try to break the defensive line one they’d regained their feet.

   Kellian uttered a curse from the depths of his blackened soul and infernal power, a phrase so foul that nearby plants writhed in agony as the splattering venom of his words blackened the air and burned away the stone beneath his feet. Anticipated? The Knight’s forces rallied so quickly? Had the locals somehow managed to garner the support of an Oracle as well as a Fey Lordling? But such foresight was greatly limited in battle. More, these could not be reserves, too many showed signs of recent battle. So; someone had deduced their likely reaction to the debacle beyond the walls, recognized that the water in the tunnels might no longer be a barrier, anticipated their target, had commanded the divinatory power to locate where they would emerge, and had somehow recalled the troops, spun illusions to cover their presence, and organized an ambush, all in the time it had taken them to reach and negotiate the tunnels.

   Whoever it was thought fast and well – and either had plenty of magical power or plenty of allies who possessed it. Perhaps Nuada or Odin? It was too bad that he might well never know – but he would focus on escaping if he could. Let the others throw away their immortality on a lost battle; unlike them, he had been a strategist – and he was not so foolish as to believe that “mere mortals” could never prevail, especially when it was obvious that they had forged an alliance with beings who were far more than “mere mortals”.

   Kevin threw his construct-armor enhancement around Marty and the Knight-Commander.

   Marty was filled with cheer… Two good fights in one day! Even the creepy deja vu couldn’t dampen his mood! Even better, he could smack them while they were trying to get up!

   The first one – already badly damaged – was relatively easy to deal with. The other one, however, proved to be more of a challenge. “He” was phenomenally strong. It looked like he’d been in excess of three hundred pounds in life, and none of it fat. Even with the construct-armor, they were on more or less even terms in a grappel. Breaking the bear hug left him with massively bruised arms despite the armor.

   Meanwhile, A’ikana was contributing her power to the attempt to get the wards up again. The Death Knights had poured a tremendous blast of dark power into the area, but – in the end – the darkness could be no match for the light. She was only one among many, but every bit of holy power would help.

   Kevin was trying to keep casualties down with supporting spells and – once again – pushing the limits of his multi-tasking talent. The clairvoyants were seeing that they’d taken out another twenty-six Death Knights with their initial attack, twenty-eight more were currently engaged in the plaza, and twenty-one more were either looking for another route or trying to clamber out over the rubble to join the fight

   Blast it, they were going to be popping up all over the city – and anywhere from twenty to thirty were completely unaccounted for. Hopefully they weren’t cloaked somehow and going for somewhere critical that they hadn’t anticipated. Maybe they’d just gone off to meet Death?

   Meanwhile, Marty’s Death Knight stepped back a bit then raised a big spiky fist, sending unholy energies crackling about his knuckles – before repeatedly smashing them into Marty’s face and breaking his nose DESPITE his construct-armor.

“Jerk!”

   Marty reflexively healed his nose – causing it to snap dramatically back into it’s proper place – before launching his own attacks, erupting into a whirlwind of spinning blades and leaving neat gashes in his opponents armor and what was left of his flesh. The crackle of energy around Marty was becoming intense as the unholy energies his opponent was emitting began to interact with the sacred energies of his construct-armor. Black ichor flowed onto the ground, giving off a sickening steam as it ate into the stone of the plaza.

   The Death Knight pulled out an enormous hammer that looked like it had been crafted from an entire steel I-beam. The unholy energies from his hands engulfed the hammer, swirling about it as he brought it down in a mighty swing – disrupting the construct-armor in a single bow and smashing Marty to the ground. Fortunately, it looked like he’d exhausted much of his power in that attack; hopefully he would not be able to do that again.

   Of course, like any other cartoon character, Marty simply popped back up to his feet. He couldn’t take another shot like that – but hopefully he wouldn’t need to.

“How can you still be alive after that?! That should have flattened any mortal!”

“I don’t know when to quit!”

   Fortunately, Kevin had enough power left to renew Marty’s construct-armor – but they’d better wind things up fast: he didn’t have the power reserve for much more of that.

   Marty’s assault staggered the Death Knight. The ground seemed to shake as the massive figure stomped around trying to steady himself. The hammer evaporated into smoke and energy – but the Death Knight raised his fists angrily and hammered back at Marty, once again managing to drive a fair amount of damage right through the construct-armor.

“Ow!”

   Marty’s healing powers were starting to slow… Toonworlders were tough, but Marty was beginning to wonder if even Gelman could take this level of punishment for long!

“Damn it! You are too fleshy to be able to take this kind of punishment! What in the nine hells is keeping you alive?!”

   Marty started to laugh.

“I’m… crazy!”

   Around the two of them the battle was raging, but it looked like the knights were gaining the upper hand – at least over the ones that had come out of the tunnels, including the ones that had scrambled over the bodies of their fellows. The casualties had been pretty minimal so far too. Marty’s battle was shaping up to be the centerpoint of the what combat was left.

   Well, the Death Knights were damaged, weakened by being near the Temple Mount, and there were a thousand Thralls and eight hundred knights standing ready to disrupt the actions of a mere fifty-odd attackers who’d trickled out a few at a time. It might be reasonable. The mere press of bodies was likely to keep the Death Knights from working up any really good attack and it looked like the Knights and Thralls would carry the day easily.

   Marty was still having trouble with his opponent though. Just his luck to get the most powerful one in the batch all to himself. Still, he was continuing to slash holes in it…

   Kevin was focusing more on coordinating the search for the other Death Knights at the moment. The defenders seemed to be doing just fine without his direct intervention. He sent a few Thralls to get down to the relic room and defend it if they could, made sure the rear guard at the temple was ready for trouble, and kept the diviners scanning the tunnels and around the walls. Perhaps they were after the one in the crypt? Death Knights were just too dangerous for him to be at all comfortable with losing track of twenty or thirty of them – and it wasn’t too likely that they’d all been destroyed and simply been overlooked in the melee!

   Marty finally managed to crack the armor in enough places for his opponents body to start falling apart.

“Impressive, most impressive. To think to have found such a worthy foe in one such as you. You have my respect fleshy one.”

   What was with these guys? Had they boiled all emotion down to “I don’t like live people” and “I respect anyone who can stand up to me”?

   The armor crumbled, leaving only a pair of gauntlets that fell to the ground with a resounding thud. They left a small crater and actually seemed to sink into the stone a bit. It looked like this one used gauntlets for his focus instead of a sword. Perhaps a survivor from the conquest of an earlier world with different symbolism?

“Anybody have tongs? And ale? Let’s get these bad boys contained”

   The Thralls could easily get the gauntlets sealed away for the moment. The battle was winding down – and that left them with only the 20-30 unaccounted-for Death Knights. Presumably some of the most powerful ones though.

   The Knight-Commander was under treatment again – positive energy overload and not physical injuries this time – and was trying to cool down. Most of the rest of the knights were heading out into the city to assist with the mindless undead still attacking the wall and to try and chase down straggler Death Knights in the tunnels.

   Where were the last of the Death Knights? If they escaped, that would be annoying, but could be dealt with later. What could they do that couldn’t be?

   Only two places where they could really do critical damage came to mind; the Temple Mount and the priests who normally maintained the ward (to try and keep it from being put back up and the consecrations renewed) – and the relic room down below. The locals had been cremating all the bodies, so there wasn’t any graveyard for the Death Knights to get reinforcements from, letting in the last of the undead from outside wouldn’t get them very far at this point, and nobody would be able to drive a wedge between the knights for awhile now. It’d only been five or ten minutes since they’d been spotted coming in, and the Thralls in the tunnels were just coming up on the relic room now. The Temple Mount already had plenty of defenders.

   The group headed for the relic room. The temple was probably the one target that the Death Knights knew about, but the relic room might be more fundamental.

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