While Kevin continued soothing Death, the Thralls worked on getting Death Knights back to being alive again, and Marty remained deep in conversation with his elder self, that left Jamie, A’ikana, and the Knights to deal with the (very few) Death Knights that weren’t open to offers to restore their lives and souls or to go and fight elsewhere.
Fortunately, without the authority of Death backing them, the few Death Knights who didn’t like any of those possibilities couldn’t command many of the mindless undead – and five or six stubborn Death Knights were no match for several thousand holy knights.
They had to consult the Church and the House back in Core about where to send the few who wanted to fight. There were plenty of places with endless hordes of hostile “aliens” or “bugs” or what-have-you where anything vaguely human-shaped and willing to fight would be welcome – but picking out one that actually had enough real people present to be worth reinforcing would be the trick.
Besides, they had to consult the Church and the House anyway. They’d need to know that the current version of Death was more-or-less retiring in any case – and they had to get him back to core for a pleasant life and a quiet debriefing.
Kevin suspected that – with Death out of action – the dimensional barriers would either be either severely weakened or coming down shortly anyway.
The Church was pleased, but confused – Death was retiring? – and wanted a FAR more detailed explanation. So did the House. Kevin was just pleased that he’d developed the multi-tracking power; being able to get some information from Death would be a big step forward, and he didn’t want to take his eyes off the man until they had him in a nice secure safehouse being debriefed.
Seeing how busy Kevin was, Marty broke off his conversation with his elder self for a bit and took on answering the knights. He didn’t try to explain in too much detail. Who knew? Maybe they’d find a chance to use the same trick again someday.
(Thawban) “All right… what is going on? How can this whole ordeal be over? And what do you mean Death is retiring?”
(Marty) “Well, Kevin offered him a chance to enjoy himself instead of pursuing worthless revenge and destruction. Kid’s got charisma, I’ll give him that.”
The dumbfounded shock and silence achieved an echoing quality all it’s own, as ripples of silence spread out across groups that hadn’t even been near the conversation and echoed from the distant walls of Jerusalem.
It took a moment before even Thawban could pull himself together enough to argue.
(Thawban) “I find that to be a bit hard to swallow. I was not aware that the lords of the apocalypse could just decide to retire regardless of how nice a life is promised them.”
Marty decided to just claim ignorance. Even if he’d really wanted to explain, it would obviously take a week. This sort of thing was why he often left the explanations up to Kevin and his core-education-system imbued tendency to explain and lecture.
Wait, was this how Kevin usually felt? Maybe it wasn’t just that he liked to confuse people (although it seemed pretty obvious that he did); maybe he just looked at the time it would take to provide a full explanation and just gave it up in favor of the quick brush-off.
(Marty) “I’m not entirely sure how it’s working either, but Kevin had to COMFORT the guy. Lost that horrible aura too.”
(Father Verance, a high-ranking Priest) “Death needed to be comforted?! Now I am really confused. Death is supposed to the the embodiment of Death after all.”
(Marty) “Yeah, I saw him put his skull-face in his bony hands.”
(Father Verance) “And what is he doing now with those Death Knights? It almost looks like he is…. healing them.”
(Marty) “He is.”
(Thawban) “I can’t even begin to describe the number of ways this is blasphemous.”
(Mysterious voice) “Oh please, you still haven’t lightened up yet Sir Thawban?”
Marty started – and then put two and two together. Somehow it looked like Thawban’s least-favorite of all fey might have been the Trickster who’d been following Death.
(Thawban) “I know that voice, a presence I have not felt since -“
At about which point, with a loud popping sound, a humanoid creature appeared laying on it’s side about four feet off the ground…
(Mystery Guest) “Correct, you overly serious human! At least the slightly odd merchant appears to have a sense of humor!”
(Marty) “Hi. Who are you?”
Their mystery guest bowed dramatically – albeit more than a bit clownishly.
“Ah, well I am known by many names and (he glanced at Thawban) epitaphs. However, you may call me Puck.”
Marty was torn… Mess with Thawban? Mess with Puck? Just sit back and watch the fireworks? It was a dilemma right up his alley.
Thawban was not so torn, and ripped his sword from its sheathe with an oath.
(Thawban) “You have an awful lot of nerve showing your face around me again, monster!”
(Puck, drifted over so as to put Marty between himself and Thawban) “Aw, a little upset still that the wife was a cheating wench that was wanting to kill you so that she could be with another? You do realize she was doing this long before I arrived, and had she not blown her cover with me, you might not have been here?”
(Marty, shifting so that he was no longer a human shield) “History between you two, huh?”
(Puck, drifting behind Marty again) “Oh a little bit, I was about having a bit of fun about the land and…. inadvertently led his wife to blow her own cover. Now mind you, I was not the cause of it, that could have happened to anyone.”
(Marty) “Could you try NOT to use me as a shield? I can take a lot of stabs, but it’s not fun. And did you really have to cheat with the poor guy’s wife? That was cold!”.
(Puck) “Oh please, you look a lot tougher than you….(frowns) look. Besides, I doubt iron is as poisonous to you as it is to some of us. Cold? Not at all, I mean she was doing it anyway and was planning on offing the poor soul.”
(Marty) “Yeah, but think of Sir Thawban’s feelings!”
Marty went silent for a moment in sheer shock. Had he really just said that? Was hanging around with a consistent – well, totally inconsistent, but always the same pair of shapeshifters – pair of girlfriends changing him?
No, wait, he still took advantage of his opportunities; he was just open about it. Was it KEVIN that was rubbing off on him? Honesty in evil at least as far as everyone ELSE was concerned?
(Marty) “I mean, you don’t know a damn thing about us mortals. So she cheated on him! That doesn’t mean he didn’t love her… Is that true, Sir Thawban?”
(Thawban, while being forcibly restrained by several knights.) “Aye, the foul creature speaks the truth, or a version of it. And I did love her, finding out about the treachery left me a broken man. I swore I would find the one who wronged me and exact my vengeance.”
(Marty) “See? You made him a haunted man, you jerk!”
(Puck) “Vengeance? Against little old me? I swear, you humans do not appreciate a good trick when you see one. Do you not realize you would be dead now by your wife’s hand had someone not blown her cover?”
(Thawban) “Ignorance is bliss, and I would have died happy. I would not have lived to see this veritable Hell on Earth.”
Well, it was pretty obvious that there wasn’t going to be any reasoning with that.
(Marty) “Could you guys let Sir Thawban loose? He’s waited for this day for a long time.”
That wasn’t being quite fair to Puck, since he wasn’t exactly responsible – but he could easily get out of reach, and Thawban deserved SOME sort of catharsis, even if it was just a futile attack and a chance to express his anger and resentment. Catharsis was important. Come to think of it, for a lot of people, his entire WORLD was about catharsis – but most people couldn’t just hack up people who annoyed them like he was used to doing.
The knights looked at Puck, then looked at Thawban, and then let Thawban go…
(Father Verance) “I do suppose the rite of trial by combat has been requested. Thawban wishes to defend his honor against the fey. Does the fey accept the challenge?”
(Puck, sighing) “If he feels so badly about this that he wishes to go this far, then I am afraid I have no choice. (Smiles wickedly) Shall we dance then?”
One of the other knights reluctantly acted as the mediator of combat. A combat circle was drawn, and a rather lengthy set of rules of engagement was read out as quite a lot of the other Knights gathered around to watch. Perhaps fortunately the locals didn’t use seconds except for Kings.
Kevin and A’ikana groaned a bit – united on something at last. At least it was diverting them from asking awkward questions. That was useful…
And it did seem like the dimensional barriers were weakening fairly rapidly. They’d probably be gone completely in a couple of days – which was also a good indication that the other three Horsemen had gone on, and probably wouldn’t come back for a remnant survivor population.
Puck produced a rapier that looked to be made of bright silver – or perhaps some supernatural material. Thawban used a large scimitar and a shield, fighting in a classical mediaeval style, while Puck – not too surprisingly – went in for a more swashbuckling style. Cheering rose from the crowd as the battle began and the blades began to clash with the ring of – well, the ring of steel and whatever-it-was that Puck’s weapon was made from.
Marty was just waiting for the inevitable fey tricks during this “conflict resolution session” – while Jamie was watching in disbelief. Were these people really going to setting a matter of “Honor” – and psychological damage – with swords? How absurd could you get?!!?
It looked like Puck was – true to form – good at distraction and misdirection, but not too hot on actually inflicting any injuries. He’d enchanted his blade to give off spectacular flashes of light whenever it was struck and was clearly trying to take advantage of his superior speed and maneuverability to outwit his opponent. At times, it was very hard to keep an eye on him between the clashes of blades.
Thawban, however, was clearly getting the hang of anticipating Puck’s maneuvers. All that real combat practice – against truly threatening opponents – was clearly paying off. His blows were coming closer and closer to Puck – until, with a final bright flash and an apparent teleport on Puck’s part, Marty found himself looking at Thawban with his blade embedded in Puck’s chest.
Wait, Puck was an immortal, and a master of illusion.
The crowd sent up a roaring cheer – but after a few moments “Puck” proceeded to turn into a Puck-shaped tree stump – sending Thawban into a rage as he frantically yanked at his swordhilt to try and retrieve his weapon.
(Thawban) “What trickery is this?!!! Come back you coward!!!!! Come back and fight me like a man!!!”
Marty – barely – managed to stifle the urge to laugh, but the crowd roared in anger and a great many of them ran off, trying to find out where Puck had gotten to. Still, it looked like the fight was over.
All the fuss had reminded Kevin and A’ikana to check with the Death Knights to find out what Puck had done to Death to get him so upset.
It hadn’t actually been anything particularly sophisticated apparently. Numerous taunts about his stature and how he was “compensating” (for something unspecified), ridiculing his incompetence as a general, and some pies to the face.
Unfortunately, the fight hadn’t diverted the Priests and the Archmage, and they were headed (at the head of quite a delegation) for Kevin and A’ikana – both of whom had Death Knights to heal.
Well, actually, Kevin was mostly keeping an eye on Death. The Thralls were up to doing most of the healing anyway; their local magic wasn’t quite as powerful as his, but it wasn’t really that far behind him outside of his specialities – and healing and body-reconstruction wasn’t one of them.
(High Priest) “My brethren tell me you have managed to defeat the embodiment of Death itself. Now I would have thought this would have required a massive battle of biblical proportions. And yet here you are having readily pacified him. It all seems (and he sighs) rather anticlimatic if you ask me.”
(Kevin) “Well, it does lead to a lot fewer casualties. Always best to find a point of vulnerability, rather than confronting things power to power.”
(High Priest) “Oh quite, and I am not complaining, it just came as a rather shock to us. How did you do it and how did you know to do it?”
(Kevin) “I guessed. It seemed fairly obvious that – to make someone the Embodiment of Death – it was necessary to take away most of his humanity. Ergo, I tried giving it back. If it didn’t work I had a few other notions of ways to limit the damage, but it certainly seemed worth trying first.”
(Archmage) “Embodiment of Death… Are you saying then that this…. person was once mortal?”
(Kevin) “Oh yes. And still is, as much as anyone is.”
(High Priest) “And you are saying you managed to restore his humanity to him?”
(Kevin) “Essentially. Now, I’ll need to take him somewhere for additional counseling, but that way we can be certain that he won’t be a problem here. Whoever recruited him may be able to find another victim – but it may not be worth coming back here at all, and even if it is, my forces will already be here and all the power that went into this iteration will be lost to them. Besides, meanwhile, we can get the Death Knights who’s souls are still available back to living normally.”
(High Priest) “You can do this?! Such powers are reserved for only the most holy men of the church!!!”
(Archmage) “Most intriguing.”
(Lesser Priest) “Stay out of this mage!”
(Kevin) “Fortunately, it’s a lot easier when their souls are already present. Getting a body fixed up is relatively simple.”
(Archmage) “Oh come now, we are going to have to accept the fact that they are not from here and so are not governed by the same laws and pacts we ourselves are.”
(Kevin) “Well, I did tell them that. I must admit, that you, Sir, are the only one who really seems to have listened and thought about it.”
(Priest) “Accept?! Are you claiming God’s power and presence is not absolute? That elsewhere heretics and heathens can wield powers like the highest priests?”
(Archmage) “No, what I am suggesting, is that what defines a heathen where they come from is vastly different than what you or I would call one.”
Several of the priests were taken aback at that – including the High Priest.
(Kevin) “Who said it’s not absolute? God is infinite, your comprehension of him is not – ergo, for everything you know, there are an endless number of things that you do not – and all the things you know, are almost certain to be only a greatly simplified version of reality.”
(Another lesser Priest) “Nonetheless, we could learn a great deal of valuable information from this creature (gestures at Death) should he prove cooperative. I suspect the ones behind this apocalypse are motivated by more petty concerns than biblical prophecy.”
A’ikana was about tapped out for the moment as far as major healing went – but this was too good to interrupt. It wasn’t fair of course – Kevin had been given a decent education in Core – but watching the throughly naughty child debate with the local priests was just too amusing.
(Kevin) “And I intend to share that information with you. One reason I came here was in hopes of obtaining information; as I have mentioned, yours is not the only world under attack.”
(A third Priest chimed in) “Agreed, arguing over theology of other worlds in creation can best be left for another time.”
A’ikana was mildly surprised… It looked like at least some of the local priests did understand that there WERE other worlds. She really HAD to find out how much some of he locals knew; they might be ready to join the Unified Church after all.
Meanwhile, Marty was helping Thawban pry his sword out of the tree stump. It was a lot of work – they had to almost reduce the tree stump to a mass of splinters in the end – but Marty, Thawban, and the other Knights did manage to free the sword eventually – and Marty had actually gotten quite sweaty and cross in the process.
(Marty) “Now where is that slippery bastard?!”
As far as anyone could tell, Puck had disappeared from the battlefield – leaving Thawban the victor by default. A bit of a hollow win, but probably somewhat better than nothing in the long run. At least he’d “proven” himself “in the right”.
He obviously didn’t find it very satisfying at the moment, and was busily trying to organize the priests and knights under his command to hunt down the fey. That would probably amuse Puck no end – if he wasn’t currently impersonating Thawban’s sword.
Still, at least the man was taking care to limit things to Puck, not to fey in general.
Marty had Elera and Minel do some scanes of the area… After a few scans, Minel pointed out a young knight busily cleaning up some of the (very few) bodies on the battlefield. There was an arcane illusion of some sort over him – so Marty headed on over.
(Marty) “Hello there! Have we met?”
(The Young Hospitalier) “In a roundabout way, yes. Although not formally I think.”
(Marty) “Wouldn’t you like to pursue that fey? We can have the peasants clean this up, and Sir Thawban would appreciate an extra sword arm.”
(Young Hospitalier, Smiling) “Oh I think not, I am quite sure that scoundrel has gotten away. Or at least has escaped the snare. (He looked at Marty slyly) What do you think?”
(Marty) “I have no idea. He is powerful. He could be all the way in Asia by now.”
(Young Hospitalier) “Oh I think our visitor was trying to do his best under the limitations placed upon him by circumstances beyond his control, but since he couldn’t be more direct with his efforts, he is misunderstood. And you are aware we are in Asia?”
(Marty) “Ah, I meant the far eastern portion, not the western part we are in. It’s been a long day… I’m going to see if the fey hunters need any supplies. (With a sad look) I haven’t made a single sale today.”
(Young Hospitalier) “Ah, I have never been that far I am afraid, the world gets a little fuzzy there… Oh, and what do you sell, might I ask?”
(Marty) “Oh, boring things. Food, supplies, the occasional sword or valuable item. Things which they will need. Nice speaking with you though.”
(Young Hospitalier) “Interesting. Always a market for those kinds of things. Nice speaking with you as well.”
Marty headed off to check on Thawban – who was becoming increasingly irritated and engaging in more violent outbursts as the search seemed more and more futile…
Marty decided to tell Thawban about the Hospitaler. Thawban looked at him blankly for a moment – and then took off for the hospitalier at a dead run.
Marty hoped that he was right, as the other knights looked dumbfounded at this behavior and then gave chase. Marty went along too, just to keep an eye on them.
Oh blast, they were chasing the Trickster. If that was Puck, he’d probably just tossed an illusion on some other fellow to give him that appearance and changed himself again… Marty had the girls keep scanning – and tried to update Thawban when it looked like the youngster was no longer showing an aura of illusion and a destination-masked teleport went off elsewhere.
The hospitalier, busy digging, suddenly looked puzzled – and then quite shocked – and quickly dodged to the side as Thawban’s sword came down next to him.
(Young Hospitalier) “What are you doing, Knight-Lord?!”
A small sword fight broke out as the hospitaliers rallied to their fellow’s aid while the Muslim Knights rushed to Thawban’s.
Even by Marty’s standards, this was getting a bit out of control. This could bring down the entire coalition… He had a lot of the Thralls throw in a mess of nausea-gas and stench spells to break it up. It was hard to fight while you were busy retching.
A whisper carried by the wind reached Marty’s ears.
(Puck) “Now that wasn’t very nice, they were finally putting aside their differences and working together and here you had to implicate one of them as a fey.”
Marty lost his temper a bit, and scowled.
(Marty) “Sir Thawban, he’s gone. His last location was that way.”
Thawban appeared to be ready to explode in from pure anger, and spent some time screaming for Puck to come back before collapsing in exhaustion.
Marty, still in the grip of sympathy – not something he was usually that vulnerable too – attempted to comfort Thawban.
(Marty) “Well, he made a fool out of me, too. Hopefully we’ll have another chance.”
Marty didn’t like being made a fool of. Making fools of people was normally HIS job! This had actually become kind of personal! Besides… Puck probably operated in a lot of dimensions! It was about time he got a Nemesis! All the upper-class corporate raiders got one! Besides… He’d become kind of grudgingly fond of Thawban.
(Thawban) “Swear a blood oath to that then?”
(Marty) “Yeah, I don’t like being made a damn fool of.”
The blood oath was sealed and witnessed by several knights. A few of the priests tried to object, but were dismissed by Thawban.
Oddly enough, Marty took a Blood Oath at least as seriously as Thawban did. After all, in Battling Business World, an Oath of Vengeance was a lifelong committment that might come up every few days. Even closer than a Oath of Brotherhood.
Hey, that was kind of neat; the wound in his palm from which the blood had been drawn had healed of course – but it had left a scar in the shape of a Catholic Cross. Evidently the local powers were indeed paying attention. He’d help Thawban against Puck. After all, it was both revenge and a professional rivalry – and in Battling Business World, the two were almost always the same!
Meanwhile, the Priests had made a strategic withdrawal back towards Jerusalem to talk with A’ikana and to compose questions about other worlds – allowing Kevin to stand vigil over Death (and continue to exert his influence by talking to him), even if the Archmage and a few of the assassin-priests had opted to stay nearby to keep an eye on them both.
The man might be able to detect the fact that Kevin was continuing to probe at the dimensional barriers – still weakening fast – but he probably couldn’t tell that Kevin was continuing to use the Thrall-links to make arrangements with Core to handle Death – consulting the Church and the House of Roses. He’d have called the military too, but – while the Church and House agreed that the Military should be involved, they preferred to handle hat particular discussion through more official channels.
The House was pretty pleased. It looked like this would class as a major victory and a real coup for the defense. They were sending representatives to the Church to help coordinate efforts – and, in the meantime, wanted to know when the group would become available.
Kevin told them that he could probably breach the barriers right now, although working with the Church Opener would probably make it a lot easier.
They understood that – and agreed with the group; getting Death secured was an absolute priority.
After that, they’d like the group to head for the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms. It seemed that the siege to capture Vekxin was escalating – and a promotion was in line for their efforts thus far.
Unfortunately, the Church wanted to wait a bit. While they were certain that Kevin could overpower the weakening barrier, they were worried about the possible results of throwing that much raw power into a dimensional anomaly. They recommended waiting for at least a day, and better a day and a half from their estimates of how rapidly the barriers were coming down.
Well, at least the Church clearly realized that Kevin could draw on more than his personal reserves. Kevin wasn’t sure if anyone in the House past “M” really understood that.
On the scouting report side, the sieges around the other surviving cities were starting to break down – or at least were starting to collapse into random mindless assaults. It looked like the apparent defeat of Death was curtailing the massive hordes of undead and were somewhat limiting the powers of the Death Knights, even if they weren’t nearly as badly impacted as the mindless undead hordes.
Well, Kevin had gotten another 826 recruits after the first battle. Leaving them in Jerusalem to get their basic training would still let him send out six hundred Thralls – in groups of fifty or so in bird-form – to start trying to relieve some of the other sieges at the surviving major cities. The main pressure had been on Jerusalem, but they should be able to help elsewhere just as well.
It was just possible that the fewer unnaturally-bound souls there were in the Crusader Kingdoms, the faster the dimensional barriers would weaken. They might well be related effects since they both entrapped souls. Sadly, he was firmly rooted at the moment himself; he had to stick close to Death and try to make sure that nothing went wrong.