The gate took them to a construction village for the Great Wall of China. There were – of course – swarms of peasants lugging materials and tools back and forth. They’d best keep an eye out to make sure that no shorthanded official tried to put them into a construction crew. Still, they should seem more than prosperous enough to avoid any serious risk of that unless they’d been pushed into a role…
A quick check showed that they probably hadn’t been. It hadn’t been likely anyway. “Traveling Merchants” fit well enough into almost any realm to pass – and they looked like merchants or courtiers from one of the larger and wealthier clans. They should be fine.
Imperial China was one the more heavily-populated and largerly-ensouled realms – it had gotten regular infusions of souls for several thousand years – and one that Amarant Solutions had several offices in.
They checked… It looked like the slave-purchasing and general recruitment efforts were going really well locally; one of the major clans had gotten caught up in a bit of intrigue and more or less imploded from the legal and political consequences. After that, mass purchases had been easy to arrange. Recruitment had been going very well too, as the new round of wall building was making the local kids consider other career options.
Marty was still considering ways they could do something for the local kids other than recruitment… Still, it was Imperial China – and roughly 95% of the population consisted of poor peasants / serfs who were bound to the land unless they were sold into slavery outright by their parents or by the people who owned the villages. There didn’t seem to be much they could do about it unless they tried to rebuild the entire realm.
Kevin pointed out that there would always be more phantasm-peasants, so they could simply try to buy as many of the ensouled ones as possible. Otherwise they could try to start a new dynasty – but they’d better stick to the private links if they wanted to talk about that. The current dynasty was likely to take strong exception to that particular topic.
Marty decided that they were involved in too many things already… Imperial China would just have to take care of itself. They’d have to be content with buying up the ensouled slaves. Even if Kevin did give all the possible recruits his spiel, in situations like this it was usually only a small percentage that actually opted to sign up; it wasn’t like the Thralls targeted recruiting. There would be plenty to employ elsewhere. They’d have to step up the local operations – but fortunately they had lots of new agents to assign already.
Hm… It looked like the “Treacherous Mountain Pass” was just beyond the mountain quarry that the locals were getting their stone from. They’d head that way unless there was some REALLY urgent diversion – a bunch of ongoing executions, or a raid, or something else which they could deal with in short order.
It looked like most of the mass executions and such had been in the immediate aftermath of the clan implosion. The local offices had bought up a lot of the younger members of the clan at that time… The noble kids would probably be easy recruits; they’d really want to stay out of the “basic slave” category given their observations of slavery in Imperial China. They were already being shipped to Kadia for the recruiting spiel…
The locals did warn them that it was suicide to venture through the pass. An evil and powerful supernatural creature was said to watch over it – the restless spirit of a widow who had used to run an orphanage in he hills. Bandits had slaughtered the children in front of her for sport and then raped her repeatedly. She had been left to die in the mountain snows in nothing more than a shift. Her spirit had since wandered the pass, hunting down bandits and travelers who dared to venture through the pass in order to take her revenge.
Hm. Dealing with vengeful Chinese ghosts wasn’t exactly their speciality. Too bad that A’ikana had stayed in Core to help out with Death. Could they put her to rest? She might want vengeance, might need to be defeated, or might need to be propriated or have some goal accomplished. Asking around a bit said that spirits traditionally hung around to seek the vengeance or simply because they needed help to pass on to the next world.
They told the guards that they knew the risks and headed in with their usual plans – improvise if necessary, try and talk, and blast with raw power if they couldn’t think of anything better.
The pass was – of course – covered with a deep blanket of snow. The wind was howling, the echoes mocked every sound, and the chill went right to their bones. The sun could not be seen behind the thick clouds.
Kevin wrapped his cloak around himself dramatically, clutched his walking staff, and strode forward – sending a couple of the Thralls out on point of course.
Hm. Spooky whispering voices on the wind;
(Spooky voices) “Turn back…. you must….. you can never go back…. only death awaits those….”
The wind began to pick up as snow fell thickly.
(Kevin) “We’ve already met Death, thank you! He’s back home with a couple of cute girls waiting on him!”
The cold turned supernatural, bypassing their winter clothing… Their defenses hardly seemed to matter – but it was easy enough to heal the instant frostbite.
(Marty, healing himself reflexively) “Hey, you stop that!”
(Kevin) “Now cut that out!”
The wind swirled the snow, coalescing into the shape of a young woman. Her form was indistinct of course, given that her form was the snowstorm.
(Specter) “You shall pay for the atrocities you have visited here upon the weak and helpless! Fear not, the snows will mark your grave, as they have done for those who came before you!”
(Kevin) “Ah, my dear… I think you’re looking for bandits – and most of them long dead. We’re simply travelers, and we rescue quite a lot of children.”
(Marty) “Yeah. Besides, we just go home when we die. We’ll just be back tomorrow.”
(Specter) “Travelers? None but bandits come this way anymore. Thinking to brave the snows to hide from the guards.”
(Kevin) “I’m afraid were actually headed out of this world. Is it vengeance you’re after, or to protect others, or what?”
(Specter) “Passing through then? The last one to pass through was the Winter King, and you do not look to be like him in kind. We shared the same goal of bringing the wicked to justice and protecting the less fortunate, so I let him pass. What is it that you seek?”
Kevin was still guessing that the Winter King was Arthur II.
(Marty) “We seek the Shaolin Temple on the other side. My associate wishes to speak to someone there.”
(Kevin) “No one has ever simply asked… I am the Darkness-that-Defends, the Light of the Abyss and the Angel of Nightfall. In the darkness is the rage of the oppressed, the wrath of the injured, and the vengeance of the bereaved. It is the drive for survival and dominion. I will not permit the fall of the Core worlds or for the race to fail it’s destiny – no matter what that requires.
Marty gave Kevin a sideways glance at that one… Was that a local identity speaking? The Light or the Darkness or some Celestial Force? Sometimes – most of the time – there seemed to be Kevin-the-teenager, and other times something shone briefly through and there was Kevin-the-Power, an avatar of the massed will of the race.
Or he might just be play-acting again, winding himself up in yet another transitory identity. There really was no way to tell.
(Specter, chuckling to herself) “You do not seem the type to seek enlightenment. (Looks at Kevin intently) Since you have spoken truthfully and hold no great malice in your heart, I will let you pass. But be warned, the darkness finds other outlets for it’s powers.”
The winds let up, and the cold ceased to be so oppressive.
Kevin shrugged… He’d never believed that HE was the only, or even the major, channel for the dark powers, and there were far worse and crueler lords of darkness than himself. He still suspected that it might involve some of his old fellow-students from Hogwarts; they might not have been openers, but they could still be conduits that would allow the demonic powers at least limitd access to the Core.
(Kevin) “Is there anything we can do for you? I can’t guarantee that it will be practical, but you never know.”
(Specter) “The children and I were never lain to rest properly in the aftermath of the bandit’s raid. I would ask that you find all the bodies and give them the proper respects.”
The specter faded away after that… Marty was up for a few burials, even if the whole concept of permanent death and ghosts made him a bit queasy. They had enough Thralls with minor divinatory powers around that the search shouldn’t be too bad…
It wasn’t. There weren’t too many suitable locations for an orphanage in the pass anyway. The children’s bodies were all located within the burnt out shell of the building. The widow’s body took a bit longer to find, as she’d been left on a overlook above the orphanage – but it only took an hour or so.
They had the local office bring in a local priest to remote-coach them through the appropriate burial ritual. Kevin did it; he was pretty good at oratory and theology – and Marty was generous about the burial-offerings; they probably wouldn’t actually need the trade-goods anyway.
(A whisper over the wind) “You have done well, but the warning still stands…”
The gateway at the end of the pass dropped them at the bottom of a giant staircase that led up to a mountain temple. The faint smell of incense filled the air – which was a good deal more temperate too.
They headed up, leaving most of the Thralls – and the apparently mostly unneeded trade goods – at the bottom. The climb seemed to go on forever – making Marty wonder why the monks hadn’t put in an escalator. By the time they all reached the top, sheer exhaustion forced them to sit for a few minutes and catch a breather.
It looked like… Yep… The novices trotted up and down ten times a day to do the gardening and fetch water. No wonder the Shao-Lin had such a reputation!
(Marty) “I think I just had a heart attack!” (Marty frowned for a moment and made a face.) “All better!”
With the temple doors behind them as they sat on the top of the stairs they could see the young monks in training out in the yard Fortunately for sanity, most of them started off walking up and down the stairs, rather than running Others were about doing chores in the yard and surrounding complex.
After a few minutes, one of the instructors dismissed his students and wandered over casually.
(Monk) “May I help you? You do not seem the type that normally visits.”
They explained that they were looking for the Winter King – and found that he might well like to see some visitors; his studies had not been going well and the distraction should prove most productive. The monk took them to the meditation chamber – through the large set of doors into the main building, around some groups in training, and through another set of doors. There they found an elderly monk on a raised platform looking in exasperation at a young man with golden hair and sitting in a meditation position humming an awful tune.
Ah yes. Arthur II, from the Negative Energy Zone.
(Arthur) “Why hello there! Let’s see now, Kevin and Marty was it? Good to see you again friends.”
(Marty) “Nice to see you again, too.”
(Kevin) “Ah, nice to see you again as well! This is a more congenial venue at the least.”
(Arthur) “True true, although I am afraid I am wearing out my welcome, although my hosts are kind enough not to complain. So what brings you here to this fine establishment? I am afraid the local wares are probably not to your tastes though. Food isn’t half bad, despite the lack of variety.”
(Kevin) “Ah well, we were advised by a prophet of sorts to seek you out.”
(Arthur, surprised) “Really? Pray tell was this prophet named Merlin? I have been wondering where he has gotten himself these days. Although he always did tend to wander off.”
(Marty) “Huh. It WOULD be like Merlin to play as a Jedi schoolmaster.”
(Kevin) “Jedi Master Tindale actually – although it may be related to one of the alternate versions of Merlin, and of yourself.”
(Arthur) “Hmm, don’t recall him ever using the alias Tindale. May be worth looking into though. Merlin always did say he wanted to teach talented students. Said he never got much chance for that. So did Jedi Master Tindale go into any detail on why you should seek me out or is he as good as being cryptic as most prophets?”
(Kevin) “Totally cryptic I fear. All he said was that it would be good if we could find you and establish an alliance – although the fact that we’re currently up against a most unpleasant version of Merlin and yourself may be related.”
(Arthur, sighing) “Typical. Well that does suggest a start. Please fill me in on most of what is going on in your endeavors and I will see where I might fit into this mess.”
They did so.
(Arthur) “Well, that certainly seems like a right mess. Reminds me of the days back in Dummonia when I was trying to unite the Britons against the Saxons. I suppose it is a testament to my faith in humanity that I still trust anyone after that debacle. These Linear Realms sound to be in a similar pickle though and in need of leadership, wouldn’t you say?”
(Arthur) “I mean, you can’t go round expecting the people to have faith in your leadership when you present a face of near panic to a population that has little clue what is going on. They look for scapegoats for the fear they feel, and rightfully or wrongly will lash out at whatever they can. The fact that so few of them have actual work is only compounding the issues.”
(Kevin) ” I can’t argue. And – while my techniques have their uses – they’re really not suitable for inspiring a realm.”
(Monk) “Arthur, you must give up these worldly concerns to seek true enlightenment. It is your concern with these mortal things that has prevented you from making any progress in your meditations.”
(Arthur) “Is that what I’ve been doing wrong? (Taps his chin thoughtfully) Well, when I was told to come here looking for purpose, it did seem a bit strange at first, but I figured with enough enthusiasm I can overcome anything. And I have plenty of enthusiasm. Oh well, I guess meditations are not for me. But it did help the Arrancar I had with me, so it can’t be a total loss. Right Marty? And I also got a chance to run into you guys while here too.”
(Marty) “Yeah, it did.”
(Kevin) “Oh, I’d say no experience is ever a total loss.”
(Arthur) “Quite true, I have had a great number of experiences and would only take two of them back if I had the chance. But that is the past and what makes me who I am. Any thoughts on contacts in the Linear Realms to get in touch with or someplace I can get a primer on some of the local knowledge? It appears a great number of realms have capabilities far beyond that I grew up with.”
(Marty) “There was that FBI agent and that one scientist.”
(Kevin) “Well, I can easily assign you some local aides, and briefings are available.”
(Arthur) “Ah good, that would be of great help.”
Kevin issued a few orders… A couple of hundred local Thralls, and a briefing, should help a lot. They’d need to ensure that he wasn’t exposed to the bloody memes though – or that he was able to resist their effects. A good thing. They’d been NEEDING someone to focus on the Linear Realms.