In Gethrid, the party had arrived near dawn. While Marty had spent some hours at the local Citadel arranging for the sale of their Corrinum, and Kevin had spent a similar period of time on buying and enthralling twenty-one slaves (fortunately, it had been fairly easy to get word of who had kids they had to sell), it was still a bit short of noon.
Of course, there was still an army of Krul closing in around the city… Should they stay and help defend the city, or get out while the going was good?
Kevin hated to leave people in need of escape without one – and he hated even more to leave potential Thralls behind, especially when the acceptance rate was so good. It looked like the kids in Necropolis assumed that a life as the possession of some protective vampire lord or other power of the darkness was about the best thing that could happen to them.
Oh yes; it also seemed that law required that slaves be collared – although a silk ribbon would do – and for their status to be clearly visible at a glance. Local customs called for them to be dressed, although dressing them opulently was seen as bad form. Well, that was easy enough. He provided a set of Smartclothes with the Thrall-transformation anyway, so all it took was a few instructions. He made sure their slave-status was suitably obvious.
Anyway, Kevin DIDN’T want to create any gateways at the moment – his new Thralls hadn’t had the time to build up any Mana reserves to draw on, and he always tried to maintain his personal reserves for emergencies. Besides… He didn’t want to leave any more direct gates to Necropolis laying around than he could help. The Hoslin had been having enough trouble with one.
Kevin deferred to Marty. Marty was much better at tactics than he was.
(Kevin) “Marty? Do you think it’s wise to stick around overnight? It will be late afternoon before we could get out anyway I suspect; it’s going to take time to unload that metal. Do you think the siege is likely to be timed that closely?”
(Marty) “We’ll have to ask a bit about the Krul. How fast can they move anyway?”
They went to ask the Traders. If they were “stranded” in Gethrid, they probably had a pretty good idea of what they were up against.
Back at the traders pub, the place was abuzz with talk about the upcoming siege. Well, they could hardly ask for a more appropriate topic.
(Marty) “So how long before the Krul get here?”
(An older trader) “I would imagine that they would get here shortly after midnight and then attack almost immediately. That’s if we are lucky and what I hear is true. On the other hand, if we are unlucky, they will arrive sometime after sunrise tomorrow and take their time assaulting the place, or even start a siege.”
(Kevin, on the private link to Marty) “Oh blast it… Why must we ALWAYS arrive at critical moments?
(Marty, also privately) “The universe hates us but wants to make us strong before it has its way with us?”
(Kevin, privately) “Oh well. We’re probably just getting sucked into a local plotline. It happens. I think we’re stuck though. If the siege is going to start tonight, the Krul are probably close enough so that we’d run into them on the way out anyway”
(Marty, still privately) “Dammit. Well, let’s help out.”
Kevin sighed and started dispatching the new Thralls on errands around the town. They’d need a rough survey of the layout and defenses and some information on the local weapons – although he also let the Thralls know that he only needed a rough survey; they weren’t to poke into anything that was considered “classified” locally. Perhaps even more importantly, they’d want to locate any currently-enslaved Thrall-prospects and make offers on them – and note the identities of any other prospects while they were at it.
(Kevin) “Marty? Can you think of anything that might get us access to the middle-class kids and noble kids? Even if there won’t be very many candidates, with this few, every one will help.”
(Marty) “Toys? Candy? Seemingly negative-energy-resistant horses?”
(Kevin) “Well, that might get us in to talk… Hm. It looked like riding horses around the city is restricted to the local nobles, although having them pull carts is legal enough. Well, some of the local nobles will have gotten a good look at them while the Corrinum was being delivered. That will probably produce some queries and openings to talk to the nobles. We’ll just have to see what comes up there.”
In fact, they did start getting some queries from noblemen wanting to either purchase one or more of the horses – or to get their own from wherever Kevin and Marty had purchased them.
They told the nobles inquiring about horses that there were reasons why sales were awkward – but that they might be open to long-term leasing, or to deploying them in the cities defense. They would gladly discuss such things in more detail later. After all, if a siege began there would be time for such things later on.
The nobles appeared to be understanding – and merely asked that Kevin and Marty talk with them before leaving once the siege ended.
(Kevin) “Certainly! I would not miss it!”
Kevin had to wonder… Apparently middle-class kids weren’t normally up for sale, but they were probably often open to apprenticeships – and at least some of the parents might be approachable as to a sale. He’d have the Thralls do a quick probe at the parents of any middle-class prospects and see.
As for the survey of Gethrid itself…
City of Gethrid, Eastern Continent, Necropolis.
Technology: Mediaeval-Renaissance. Basic gunpowder weapons are available, but the locals are not quite up to cartridge systems and bows are still preferred for those with enough training. Armor is expensive; the troops are usually issued chainmail, but fancier armor is reserved for the nobility. Melee weapons are classically mediaeval – swords, maces, knives, and so on.
Government: Feudal, under The Vampire Lords (other cities in Necropolis exist under the rule of a variety of other kinds of undead, although vampires are apparently the most common – and are usually the most protective of their human “flocks”)
Population: 30,000 – including a modest number of sapient undead, and not counting nonsapient or bestial undead (some of which are considered vermin, and some of which are dominated by the Vampire Lords and other higher undead).
Ensoulment Ratio: Slightly over 1%. As usual, the ensouled tend to be concentrated at the upper and lower end of the social spectrum. The percentage is higher than might be expected for such a bleak realm, apparently due to the importation of humans from other realms and to the descendants of visitors. It is easy to reach necropolis (in fact, the energy gradient tends to pull people and spirits through) but leaving again requires fighting that pull, and hence is fairly difficult. For undead, with their negative life force, that situation is reversed – thus gates to Necropolis tend to passing normal people into the realm while spewing forth occasional undead. They’re usually seen as accursed places.
Demographics: Somewhat more than 50% of the population is under age 14, which also the local age of majority (and reasonable enough, since the local children tend to mature early thanks to the rough conditions). Thanks to the environmental problems – primarily disease, lack of food, and the prevalence of negative energy – life expectancy is short and a healthy old age is uncommon. The population thus includes roughly 15,000 children, 6000 men, 6000 women, and less than 3000 elders.
Social Classes: Gethrid boasts roughly 6000 slaves, 12,000 members of the “lower class” (laborers, low-status jobs, etc) , 11,000 in the “middle class” (soldiers, mid-level merchants, skilled craftsmen, etc), perhaps 600 nobles (primarily human households associated with various Vampire Lords), and some 400 oddities (visiting merchants and caravan leaders, human magicians, sapient undead, and others).
Layout: Gethrid is roughly circular, albeit bisected by the Relloril River. It’s surrounded by a formidable curtain wall, reinforced by outworks, crenelations, and towers. The central keep itself sits on an island in the river and is connected to the rest of the city via massive stonework bridges. The secondary walls along each bank of the river are somewhat less formidable, but anyone attempting to attack from the river is subject to fire from both banks. The designers were not incredibly brilliant – but they were methodical, experienced, and building for the long term.
- Power Modifications: Inside the city, healing, sacred, and related magics are dampened by one level. Outside it, they are dampened by two levels. The effects of psychic healing and restorative abilities are halved within the city, and quartered outside of it. The effects of other healing powers, such as Grant of Aid, are similarly affected.
- Supplies: Fortunately for the human population of Necropolis, the Vampire Lords tend to horde food and supplies for sieges and times of famine. In general, it will be a fairly long time before supplies run out – considerably longer than any normal siege will endure. That doesn’t mean that the quality or quantity will be all that good however.
Militia: Quite a few of the adult men, some of the adult women, and a fair number of the youngsters, are members of the militia – the environment is hostile enough to demand that almost everyone know how to take care of themselves – but the actual professional military forces are relatively small. The Vampire Lords have found that, while the militia contribute substantially to the defense of the city while fighting from a fortified position and commanded by professional troops, offensive actions are best carried out by professional troops infused with vampiric energies – and they can’t support too many of those.
Hm… The Thralls had been reporting. It looked like a surprisingly high percentage of the middle-class parents would be open to an offer on a kid – at least given some careful persuasion, the likelihood of having to get through a siege, and the prices that Kevin was willing to pay. Large families were common – and enough money to get the rest of the kids though a siege would be a powerful argument. The apprenticeship angle would probably work on quite a few of the other middle-class possibilities.
As far as the lower classes went… It looked like keeping children fed through a siege was pretty difficult, even when the undead started bringing food out of storage to hand out. Disease was always a problem anyway, and – when the quality and quantity of food dropped – it tended to cut a swath through the lower classes. It was especially hard on the children – and the parents would need money desperately during a siege for food and medicine. If a wealthy or powerful buyer could be found, selling one or more of their children was often the best option they had – both for themselves AND for their children. With a siege due to start, most of the lower class families would be trying to offload a child or two. Kevin should be able to pick up most or all of the remaining lower-class prospects fairly easily.
Kevin went out to collect as many Thrall-candidates as possible.
Marty headed for the river walls… It seemed likely that those would be the weakest point in the defenses – especially along the docks, where there would be plenty of things to climb. While sallying forth to fight the undead had been fun in the Crusader Kingdoms, the forces of light had been really strong there. He’d like to take a more subtle approach here, if only to keep the local undead lords off their backs. Kevin’s Thralls were indeed extremely useful – but the kid was over-focused on recruiting more (probably that addiction problem). There were approaches to solving problems other than swamping them with Thralls – and they still didn’t really have enough details on the Krul to plan sensibly. In fact, they didn’t know much of ANYTHING about them.
He started looking for where it would be best to set up – both for himself, for Kevin, and for any Thralls the kid did manage to recruit. As for the Krul… It looked like a hierarchy; the Common Krul were nasty fighters, and competent with weapons, but were stupid and chaotic. The Bonelords were faster and tougher and controlled the normal Krul – but there were fewer of them. Fiends directed Bonelords but were scarce – and Arcanghuls and Night Lords did something or other, probably something magical.
Well, that wasn’t a bad survey for listening to casual gossip in passing.
As far as the riverside defenses went… Marty had to admit that the architects were pretty good. There were any number of good, sheltered, spots to fight from – even if his plasma pistol had turned into an old-style firearm again. Kevin’s probably had too. The ones the Thralls in animal-form normally carried would have changed as well, so there wouldn’t be much point in having them change back in search of more firepower. The locals would have to handle that.
Hm… It looked like he’d better find positions for a reasonable number of Thralls. Judging by what he could get out of Kevin, he was doing pretty well at purchasing candidates – and, while he hadn’t made his pitch yet, in this situation he could probably expect plenty of takers.
The fact that the statement “you get to live” was such a major draw throughout much of the Manifold really made him appreciate some of the basic features of Battling Business World!
Marty’s little tour revealed that preparations for battle were already underway across the city. Most of the gates had been shut and barred, and were being braced with timber and reinforced with metal and stone. Archer and gunpowder units were being assigned to the walls, or getting ammunition placed for easy access. Large vats of some sort of liquid were being prepared in the central square.
Down at the docks, massive chains had been drawn across the river at several points; they’d obviously take quite a lot of effort to remove – and until they were removed, boats wouldn’t be going anywhere. Gates had been closed over the water itself, and bars had been dropped down to the river bed. The walls were angled to provide ample firing angles all along the approaches – and another batch of some sort of liquid was being prepared up on some of the towers. There was some sort of protective spell around it, and ingredients were being added only with really long tongs. No one approached within three feet of the mixture – but there were plenty of people standing around watching. Marty joined them for a few moments.
(Marty) “What is that stuff? Alchemy?”
(Chemist) “Oh this stuff? Nasty stuff, don’t want to get any on you. Creates a hell of a fire, not even water will put it out. Real useful to pour onto the water or any ships. Bad thing about it though is it goes alight the moment it touches air.”
(Marty) “Sounds useful for these sieges. I take it it doesn’t eat through stone?”
(Chemist) “Don’t believe the tales they’ll tell you that this stuff will burn through stone. It will leave nasty scorch marks and crack the masonry if too much burns on it, but the stone itself will survive fine.”
(Marty) “Well, that is some handy stuff!”
He might need to make some deals himself before leaving here!
(Chemist) “Indeed, my master came up with the concoction many decades ago, along with that mixture they are preparing in the city square. He is certainly one of the most intelligent lords of the city.”
(Marty) “Is he willing to sell some?”
(Chemist) “Of this stuff, surely he is willing. The other batch though, that is a bit of a state secret I am afraid. Not that finding out the ingredients is hard mind you, since they are mixing it in the middle of the city. But the ingredient list alone won’t help you.”
(Marty) “I’ll see if I can speak with him after the seige, then.”
(Chemist) “His name is Lord Venture. You should see him around this evening after sunset.”
(Marty) “All right then. Thank you for your time.”
Mart made his own preparations – including playing with Limey. He’d kind of expected Limey to turn into a copy of the Necronomicon or something in Necropolis, but he’d actually turned into a talking skull.
(Marty) “Wow! You’re all organic! I’m gonna call you Yorick!”
Hmm, playing with a skull wasn’t much fun, even if it could talk. Oh well. He could juggle him!
Yorick complained of getting motion sickness, and threatened to “blow chunks” on Marty.
(Marty) “Oh, fine, I’ll stop.”
In fact, Limey was delighted to list off some of the new spells he’d acquired as a Skull… It seemed that he’d picked up “Oral Eruption of Virulent Slime” (One of the many spells favored by small children with magical talents), a variant of “Rectal Sound and Fury Signifying Stinkiness.”, “Transform Vegetables to Candy”, “Illusion of being Asleep”, Ventriloquism, Mending, “Illusion of being Too Ill to go to School”, “Compose Scathing Retort” (the “level minus one” version usually gave results along the lines of “Poopy-Head!”, but he had the “level zero” and “level one” versions which provided better results), and he even had “Summon Scholar-Spirit In My Form To Take My Tests” (most kids couldn’t handle that one).
Marty didn’t really want Yorick trying all those out, so he came up with another way of playing with him – mostly re-enacting some famous monologues. Then he made sure that their goods were secure, that the wagons were safe, and got ready for the coming battle.
There had been a few vagrants sniffing around their carts, but the city guards had been patrolling the city and keeping such individuals under control.
Meanwhile, Kevin had been hard at work – making personal approaches where that was required and dispatching agents to make purchases where that was practical. He’d also been using one of his extra communications channels to check on the Horse-Thralls. It looked like they were capable of shapeshifting back to human form at the moment – but they’d need repeated simple instructions to get them to do it. Necropolis didn’t suppress the power, it just suppressed the user’s intelligence while in animal form and threw in animal instincts.
Oh well, as long as it was possible for them to change back without leaving Necropolis, that would do. He didn’t bother actually going to the trouble to change them at the moment; they might be more useful as horses for the time being anyway.
As far as the Thrall candidate-sweep went…
The Thralls had turned up nearly thirty candidates among the existing slaves (including a few ex-noble victims of politics) – and hadn’t really had any trouble buying them, although they’d raised a few eyebrows with how specific their requests had been. They’d gotten quite a few questioning looks and a few actual questions about the new guy with a lot of cash to burn. It seemed that travelers, while usually well off, did not typically buy slaves in quantity.
Of course, they hadn’t bought more than a few in any one location. Evidently the word was getting around pretty quickly – which didn’t seem unreasonable in a “city” of only 30,000.
The nearly forty lower-class candidates the sweep had turned up had been harder in a few cases – calling for Kevin to do the negotiating – but money and the likely siege spoke loudly to the poor, and there hadn’t been too much fuss out of the kids; they’d all known that anyone with the cash and interest could probably buy them. Quite a few of them took it as a likely move up; a wealthy owner who’d paid a remarkably good price for them would want to take care of his or her investment. They were a bit nervous though; most of them had been expecting one of the Vampire Lords to buy them, or one of the noblemen if they were “lucky” (and if anyone did). Quite a few of them were more than a bit scared about what Kevin might be.
As far as the “middle class” candidates went, Kevin was quite pleased. Between the impending siege, having plenty of cash available, the perils of childhood in Necropolis, an assurance of good treatment, and his own thought-sensing, enhanced charisma, and negotiating skills, he’d been able to talk a surprising number of middle-class parents into selling a child or two. It had been quite a shock for some – most – of those youngsters to realize that their parents had called them in to be fitted with a slave-collar, finalize their sale, and turn them over to their new owner. There had been many pleas and protests from them – but he’d made sure that money had already changed hands and that it was a done deal by the time they’d been called. They’d all be much better off as Thralls anyway. Even if they didn’t want to be Thralls, they’d be way better off as slaves in Kadia – or anywhere out of Necropolis – then they would have been if he’d left them in Gethrid.
Another good chunk of the middle-class families had been open to offers of apprenticeships, although roughly 20% of the youngsters simply hadn’t been available – either the parents were adamant about keeping them, they were already apprenticed to someone who didn’t want to be bought out, or they were the eldest, and were being groomed to eventually take over the family trade. Those few were less likely to want to be Thralls – but he was still betting that a fair number would go for it given their environment and the acceptance rate thus far.
He’d let the eight noble kids he was interested in ride the Thrall-Horses if they wanted to (seven of them had wanted to, and had been pleased and impressed), but there wasn’t time to come up with an approach there; trying to gain custody of noble kids would be a lot more complicated – and there were only eight noble possible Thrall-candidates in the entire city anyway.
Not bad: That only left seventeen (discovered) possibles in the city that he wouldn’t get to make an offer to unless there were a few “adults” who might be open to it, since the local range for “adulthood” wasn’t quite out of his limits (a pity he hadn’t thought of that earlier, but he had been in quite a rush). Still, most of the “adults” were already in careers of their own, and weren’t likely to want to sign up with him – at least as of yet. Maybe after they did something impressive.
He threw in a few more options than usual when he made his offer to the assembled candidates.
The eighty-seven slaves got offered a choice between Thralldom, a set of minor Pacts that would let them wind up in Kadia (and indentured) if they got killed, and simply staying slaves.
The sixteen who were there to be apprenticed got to choose between Thralldom, the minor Pacts and a trade-apprenticeship, and a simple trade-apprenticeship (provided they survived the Siege). After all, there were plenty of normal staff positions available.
All the slaves, and eight of the sixteen apprenticeship-seekers went for Thralldom. The other eight split between pacts and apprenticeship and simple apprenticeship.
That gave them… 116 local Thralls. A worthwhile force, if not enough to really defend the city or launch any major offensives. Hopefully they wouldn’t upset the local authorities too much – but they had more to worry about at the moment than a weird merchant buying and enchanting a hundred-odd kids.
Night would be falling shortly. The defensive preparations were mostly complete, although the locals were still getting noncombatants relocated into safety and sending out the last round of scouts.
The group volunteered the services of their horses for the scouts – at least as long as the scouts were willing to let the horses run if they sensed something wrong. They advised the prospective riders that the horses were really quite alert – and Kevin put a movement-enhancement spell on them. Between that and their basic enhancements they should be two or three times as fast as any normal horse.
The scouts were grateful to be loaned such sturdy steads.
Kevin and Marty amused themselves by watching the scouts initial reactions and considering how big a shock they were probably going to be in for later on. They probably wouldn’t realize that the horses possessed powers beyond endurance and speed unless they were seriously unlucky. After all, the horses could hold them in the saddle with telekinesis and heal them enough to keep them from losing any more blood if they took a hit, but for the most part their defensive and evasive powers were less obvious and should suffice.
The scouts began returning at nightfall. The vampires had awoken, and were gathering in the main city square – where the scouts were beginning to give a report to the gathered undead. It was a public venue, and there seemed to be no objection to everyone listening in.
The scouts had to field a few queries about how they got so far and so fast – and the Vampires seemed a bit startled that they’d gotten so far and all made it back; scouting was normally a pretty risky business.
Kevin and Marty weren’t at all startled; the Thrall-Horses might not be too bright at the moment, but they didn’t want to get hurt – and they still had all their special advantages.
Some of the elder vampires started asking some detailed questions – but the Scouts simply referred them to Kevin and Marty, saying that it was their horses that they’d been using.
(Vampire Nobleman to Kevin) “Most impressive horses indeed, I have not seen any so fine – or with such speed – in many centuries. How did you happen upon such fine animals?”
(Kevin) “I enhanced their abilities a bit. It makes travel and trade much safer. It is something of a speciality of mine, although it seems to be a rare talent.”
(Vampire Nobleman) “Even enhancement spells have a limit based on the health of the base creature. Curious, we may have much to discuss once this battle is over. In the meantime, we need to hear the full report. (Turns to the scout) You may continue.”
(Scout #1) “The Krul seem endless. They appear to be making efforts to hit every town, farm and village on their way here. As a rough indication of their strength, I counted about two dozen fiends and saw Arcanghuls in two locations. I am certain the two were different ones and not the same Arcanghul.”
(The Vampire Captain swore loudly) “Well, blast that is two armies right there. And that probably means that there is a Night Lord running about too then. Any sighting of it?”
(Scout #1) “No, my lord. I can give accounts on distributions of the higher Krul as you asked for, it does appear that we may be the first or second major city they have come across. I saw no sign of siege weaponry or of any firearms among them. It seems that the records were accurate.”
(Vampire Captain) “Well, that is one less concern to have to worry about. Without siege weaponry, they are utterly dependent on the Bone Lords and higher Krul for magical support to get them past the walls. About the best thing they could hope for under normal conditions is to siege the place, a decidedly suicidal tactic for Krul. (He sighed) It looks like they may well go into a direct assault on the walls come sunrise.”
(Captain) “How have the ordered preparations gone today?”
(Administrator) “The walls are fully stocked as requested, all of the mortal guard have taken the Oath for added strength. The Nightpaste should be ready within minutes. Evacuating the noncombatants to shelters is ongoing and about 60% complete. Current estimates on food is 270 days worth should we go into stores. About one month without dipping into stores. Clean water is now being pumped into the tanks as you requested, and the tanks should be well protected from magical tampering.”
(Another Vampire) “Any word on the effects of Krul blood on Vampires?”
Kevin was busy speculating… “The Oath”? Binding oaths most likely, probably blood-based and administered by the vampires, it may allow the human guards to share some of their lords vampyric advantages – and that would fit in with the binding properties of the Bloodmark. Nightpaste… Perhaps bestowing nightsight? It could be a variant on the classic faerie ointment.
(Scholar) “Decidedly little record unfortunately. It should function similarly to human blood, but the magic of the Stranger’s spirit is sure to make things dangerous.”
Stranger’s? Oh, yes; the exotic spirits that were animating the Krul.
(Vampire) “Well that is not good. I guess that using their blood is a tactic of last resort then. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
(Captain) “Alright everyone remember, ignore the basic Krul and let them destroy themselves against the wall. Focus your efforts on the Daemons, Bone Lords, and Fiends. And if you come across a Arcanghul, report the location so we can send a specially prepared squad after it. And, hell forbid, should you encounter the Night Lord, flee on sight and report the location. Any questions?”
(Human guard) “If they don’t have siege equipment and the mages among them will be busy with the Vampires, how the do Krul expect to get over the wall?”
(Extremely calm Vampire you suspect to be really old) “Expect them to use the bodies of the fallen as a ramp over the wall itself. That is about the closest the animals come to building anything. Don’t let their ability to speak and make rudimentary plans fool you. They are animals and nothing more.”
Kevin and Marty considered some questions – but they didn’t yet know if the Krul needed to breathe even. They might be quasi-living (especially since they apparently had blood that a vampire could drink), although – since the Strangers could move into “slain” undead bodies – that seemed unlikely unless the spirit rebuild the body entirely. Of course, they did seem to mutate those bodies… Did they just need a framework? Could they walk in underwater? It didn’t seem likely that the locals could keep the river on fire forever. Oh well.
(Captain) “Any other questions? I am sure some of the mortals here have something they wish to ask? Fear not, we will not feed on you unless it is too stupid.”
(Kevin) “Would any of the men who are going to be manning the walls like a snack? I have some excellent lightweight rations I’m willing to contribute.”
The vampires looked at him a bit oddly, but realized that the question wasn’t even addressed to them.
Most of the human fighters went for that, something to eat would get their minds off the coming battle. Kevin and Marty provided a meal and a ration packet for them to carry with them. You never could tell when they might get a minute to eat. Besides, they’d packed the food with as much as possible in the way of nourishment, energy-supplements, vitamins, health-boosters, and so on – both technical and magical since they’d had the stuff produced in Kadia. Hopefully it would have translated well.
Hm… It looked like the Vampire Lords were using normal messengers to co-ordinate things. They assigned the Thrall-Horses to the city messengers.
Everyone dispersed to their assigned (or, in Kevin and Marty’s case), chosen locations.
Kevin had sent the eight youngsters who hadn’t signed up as Thralls to the shelters with the rest of the noncombatants – but he had to deal with a few people asking why he had the rest of the Thralls hanging around the walls. There were odd looks and occasional questions as to whether or not he understood what war was like and what it took to be a fighter.
Marty had to laugh under his breath. They were going to get such a surprise…
(Kevin) “I think they can make a contribution!”
(Fighter) “Well kid, maybe you will surprise us. Just remember, enhancements do not a fighter make. You would do well to remember that.”
Hm. Evidently the locals had recognized that Kevin was enhancing his slaves. Not too surprising given reasonable intelligence and his answer to the questions about the horses… Hopefully they could get by without revealing all their abilities though. They should be as good or better than most of the men manning the walls.
So; 116 local Thralls. Kevin set eighty along the river – forty on each bank – and sent six each to each quadrant of the city walls, six to the central keep, and six to move around the city – keeping an eye open and monitoring the underground passages and such. He gave them instructions to support the defenders, to report back promptly if there was a breach or major problem – and to stay back if possible, since they were his eyes and ears out there. They really wouldn’t have too many other options with only six of them on each quadrant anyway.
As for the Thralls they’d brought along… Their usual companions would be sticking with them of course, and the Thrall-Horses had already been assigned to assist the messengers. Sadly, the girls in Ferret-form were going to be rather unreliable at the moment.
Marty had been expecting that, considering the local problems with animal shapeshifting. It looked like it was up to him and Limey – er, Yorick – to protect themselves this time!
The Vampires and mortals were concentrating the city militia and their professional military forces along the main walls, leaving a large support group in the center of the city to respond to breakthroughs and sudden demands. Apparently the Vampire Mages would be working rituals in the central keep – no surprise there, as usual, ritual magic was a lot easier to learn (and often a lot more useful outside of battle) than the “blow things up NOW” style typical of adventurers.
They waited with the other defenders. Hopefully the humans had all enjoyed their meal. It might, after all, be their last one in this life.
The final scouts announced the approach of the Krul army – and the men formed up. It looked like the main assault would be launched at daybreak, with the sun behind the enemy army – and the Vampire Lords at their weakest.
Daybreak came quickly – along with an army of nearly sixty thousand Krul, far outnumbering the defenders.
The city’s artillery fire – catapults, trebuchets, scorpions, mangonels, onagers, a selection of primitive mortars and bombards, and a (very) few magical implements had begun to cut loose. Not bad, even if it was obviously insufficient compared to the horde.
Kevin and Gerald saw flashes of indistinct movement on the field before sections of the Krul line suddenly began to stagger. Marty – more perceptive and use dto looking for fast-moving opponents – could see what looked to be a few dozen human shapes jumping from the walls and running across the field at a blinding pace before leaping over many of the Krul and specifically decapitating the strange white-colored Krul that were further back. That maneuver seemed to cause the normal-looking Krul in front to either stop or scatter wildly.
Vampiric stealth operatives? After the “Arcanghul” things? Had that been the “specially prepared squads” in action there? Probably humans imbued with a big dose of vampire-boosts, and likely either unable to sustain that kind of thing more than once or twice or a big drain on the vampires backing them or the army would be no worry.
Sadly, it looked like the Krul figured out what was going on within minutes. More white Krul arrived – and pressed their hands together. Each of them seemed to bring thirteen of the normal Krul back under control… Meanwhile, much bigger and faster ones covered in bone began trying to chase down those ultra-fast attackers.
On the defender’s side, the artillery bombardment was continuing.
Hm. The ones covered in Bone were probably “Bone Lords”. A really big but human-looking Krul with large bat-like wings and wielding a flaming weapon seemed to be shouting directions (one of the soldiers said that it was a “Fiend”, which at least identified another type). Still, they didn’t know what an “Arcanghul” or a “Night Lord” was. Hm… The “Fiend” didn’t actually seem to be a demon (although perhaps “Deamon” was another name for the type? Those had been mentioned earlier). That was probably a good thing – even if a genuine demon would have been something identifiable.
The general rush of normal Krul at the main wall began – and entered bow and gun range. Hm… It looked like arrows and such worked on Krul normally – even if there weren’t enough being fired to really make that big a dent when the attackers outnumbered the defenders by better than ten to one (and the professional troops by more like a hundred to one). Kevin and Marty began to hope that they hadn’t chosen the wrong place!
Impressively, the Fiend got an arrow between the eyes and went down. That appeared to cause a significant disruption to the line for a few seconds, although then something happened and the charge began again. Another fiend took over command perhaps?
Meanwhile, down at the river, some of the guards were pointing at the river and shouting.
It looked like… thirteen fiends, two winged elvish-looking creatures, and a smaller man in black hooded clothing running magically on the water towards the river gate. The locals dumped out some of their horrible fire concoction – and the fiends and winged elven creatures went to the sides and onto the river banks. The one in black looked like he or she was going to run straight the stuff through.
Kevin set the Thralls to doing a random mixture of minor spell attacks on the Fiends and elvish things (hopefully they’d find something that worked on whatever they were) and to scooping up some of the flaming stuff with Telekinesis and dumping it on the creatures – after all, they were trying to avoid it, so it seemed reasonable not to let them – while he tried dispelling whatever-it-was that was protecting the one in black from the fire.
Marty had Yorick throw in a few Fireballs (and then put him back in his pocket), while he fired away with arrows. Arrows weren’t really his thing, but the attacking Krul weren’t close enough for knives yet.
The combination of flames, flaming arrows, guns, cannons, and spells was pushing the fiends back or into tighter formation with the elvish-looking things – but those seemed to have erected some sort of magical barrier that was keeping most of the attacks at bay.
The fiends were occasionally popping out from behind the ward and shooting at the defenders on the wall. Meanwhile, the spells that were being hurled against the one in black seemed dissipate just before hitting, and the flames on the river were actually being sucked into him.
(Marty) “That’s not good!”
Marty focused on bombarding the Fiends and “elvish” creatures for the moment. They were right below the walls now, and so made handy targets.
Kevin was focused on counterspelling the “elvish” creatures magical barrier for the moment – but everyone could feel the magical power gathering on the river below as the alchemical fire was seemingly sucked into the body of the black-roped hooded figure and he, she, or it became surrounded by an aura of blue energy. Kevin continued with his focus on the barrier – but had the Thralls switch to basic defensive spells and an illusion: since the battle was mobile, the Fiends and elvish things were looking around a lot. That meant that the illusionists among the Thralls could rotate the apparent directions of the walls a bit from the point of view of the Fiends and elvish things – and thus lure them into launching a lot of their attacks uselessly up and down the stream.
Well, that seemed to be working.
As for the barrier… Hm… It felt like a fairly straightforward magical energy barrier. He put a little power [Gamespeak; Abjuration/Negative Energy effect, level four] behind a spell to drain it away – or at least weaken it – and it went down. The look of shock on the face of the elvish things powering it was quite satisfactory. A massive hail of fire from the defenders scattered the fiends very nicely, and inflicted some pretty heavy damage on them and the elvish things.
Kevin wondered about that look of shock… Hm. Perhaps the local magic tended to kill mortal magicians who weren’t very careful very quickly. Necropolis certainly seemed to lean that way in any case.
Marty was wondering what else to have the Thralls do… there were quite a few with nothing to do at the moment except throw minor spell attacks, and that was mostly just harassment. Perhaps illusions of more, uncontrolled, undead? That would at least distract them. Still, he didn’t want to suggest illusions while the subtle terrain-twisting one was still working. Ah. They could muck up the terrain a bit and churn up the river under the guy in black. He probably couldn’t absorb indirect effects.
He set some to indirectly harassing the guy in black and went on with missile fire. Considering that it seemed to be medieval/early Renaissance warfare, he’d probably have a chance to bring out the knife sooner or later.
Meanwhile, beyond the main walls, the ground had begun to shake – and across the battlefield the Thralls on the walls reported minor undead clawing their way out of the ground – zombies, skeletons, ghouls, and more. Meanwhile a small section of the enemy army was piling up against the walls further to the north. It looked like they were literally trying to climb over the corpses of their fallen and were inadvertently making a ramp in the process. That was impressive in a stupid and wasteful way; they had to have even more “men” than the initial estimates had indicated – as well as no compunction about throwing them away.
Marty had the Thralls begin exerting their telekinetic powers on the bodies in the “ramp” to scatter the corpses. That didn’t take much power at all – although they still couldn’t keep it up indefinitely. The men on the wall seemed to appreciate it, even if they weren’t entirely sure what was happening. Still, if the undead were reinforcing the Krul, they’d be in trouble. An indefinite supply of hostile reinforcements would be bad news… On the other hand, if the Krul could raise an indefinite supply of undead to turn into more Krul, why hadn’t they? The undead had to be either temporary conjurations or reinforcements for their side or both… Perhaps it was one of the Vampire Lords tactics?
Back at the river, the waters surface was churning wildly under the influence of the Thralls minor spells, and the creature in black was sliding around on the surface, appearing annoyed – then, through a stunning series of acrobatics, the creature used the force of one of the churning waves to leap over another and land directly in front of the river gate.
Blast! Very powerful, acrobatic, magic negating or absorbing, a probable melee specialist. Very high probability of him being a high-end path of the dragon specialist. Well, that told Marty who he’d probably be dueling very shortly…
Kevin was annoyed. Spell-absorbers were a definite pain as far as magical attacks went.
Back at the main walls, the rising undead had begun to attack the Krul already at the wall from behind. Evidently they really were a ploy of the Vampire Lords… The Thralls at the walls could see some of the Bone Lords trying to hit the undead from behind to ease pressure on the Krul at the walls – but to little effect. The stealthy high-speed warriors were picking them off to quickly.
At the river gate, Kevin and Marty suddenly heard the sounds of groaning metal – and felt vibrations through the floor. One of the guards at the gate itself was shouting…
(Guard) “He is tearing off the gate! Call for reinforcements!”
(Another Guard – before screaming as he was apparently is torn to shreds) “Night Lord!”
That’d be the guy in black. Oh well; Kevin and Marty headed down to the gate – as the metal gate that had been blocking the surface of the river was thrown downstream several hundred feet before landing with a considerable splash.
(Kevin) “Dear me. A lot of strength in that fellow.”
Ahead and below, at the docks, they could see men running or keeping a significant distance. The man in black was currently wiping his hands off with some cloth while surveying the area calmly.
Behind them, the massed fire of the defenders was steadily whittling away at the Fiends and the elvish-looking things. Half the fiends were dead, one of the elvish things was nearly dead – and the remainder were all gravely wounded. At least the Nightlord wasn’t going to have much backup.
(Night Lord) “Well it does look like someone informed them of the smart thing to do. And it also looks like I will not be getting reinforcements for a while either. I suppose it is up to me then. Now if I were the one in charge, where would I be?”
(Kevin, who had now arrived with Marty) “Oh, probably in the local citadel. Commanders are like that. I take it you are here to, as they say, Kick Butt and Take Names, and you’re all out of notebooks?”
(Night Lord) “A castle? Yes, that does seem like the proper place for a Lord of a city. Now to find the front gate, probably along one of those bridges perhaps?”
(Marty) “Not notebooks, Kierroth, BUBBLE GUM… Oh wait, I get it now.”
(Kevin) “Are you sure it’s bubble gum? How to you take notes with that? Anyway (to Night Lord) is there some point to this? Oh, and we haven’t been introduced; I’m Kierroth, and this is Marty.”
(Night Lord, turning to regard them) “Well I wouldn’t say there is a point per se, so much as it is my thing I do. Much like you mortals must live, breed, drink and eat, so must I create more Krul. And the only way to create more Krul is to destroy the living and undead. Nothing personal really… And my name, such as it is, is Kylar.”
(Kevin, since this didn’t look like the guy they’d met on the road. In hindsight, that was probably one of the Daemons/Fiends or a Bone Lord) “Ah well, pleased to meet you”
(Kylar) “As am I. Now, these compulsions are rather annoying, shall we get on with this, or would you rather wait until I am done with the others first?”
(Kevin) “May I point out that – after you’ve killed everyone – you’ll never be able to create any more Krul again?”
(Marty) “Yeah, and that would suck. For you.”
(Kylar) “Yes, a most annoying set of circumstances indeed.”
(Kevin) “Whereas, if you supply food to the cities, they’ll breed more humans, and there will be an endless supply of bodies – since all humans die – and you can create more Krul until the end of time.”
(Marty) “We could also give you food until the end of time, if you want. See? We can make it so EVERYBODY wins!”
Kylar looked completely blank for a moment. Evidently this was an entirely new approach.
Marty grinned. Their attempts to turn everything into a trade arrangement had stunned even this fellow – but they were BUSINESSMEN. They were SUPPOSED to do that (and kill them when they refused).
(Kylar, recovering) “Interesting, I suppose this could be an attempt to stall until the Vampire Lords arrive and you can overwhelm me with sheer numbers. On the other hand, hmm… So what your are saying is that in exchange for leaving this city alone, you will supply me with corpses and food?”
(Kevin – although this hadn’t been quite where he was going, talking was almost always better than fighting) “Hm. What sort of food do you need? If it’s human-style, there would have to be special arrangements. If it’s something else, that will probably be easier.”
Marty was wondering on the private link… Did they have a ready supply of corpses? He’d read Kevin’s statement as “feed people, wait for them to die, and THEN take the corpses,” and he rather thought that Kylar was trying to hoodwink them – or that he’d misunderstood.
Kevin suspected that he’d understood perfectly well, but was just trying “misunderstanding” as a negotiating tactic to look for further concessions. Why would he give up an advantage in bargaining until he’d heard their best offer? Besides… if he didn’t, or wouldn’t, negotiate, of demanded the impossible – well, they could always fall back on fighting.
(Kylar) “Well, tell you what human, while our nutritional needs are very similar to humans, I am willing to cut the requirements down. On the tradeoff, I would like access to all the corpses created today.”
(Kevin) “Hm. Do you have any success in farming around here? You must have some skill, or – after getting rid of the humans – you’d all starve anyway.”
(Kylar, looking startled again) “You know, that is a good question. One second while I consult the capabilities of the minions… (Kylar cocked his head slightly) Strangely enough, they do not. What do you know? It seems that the type of spirit bound is incompatible with that type of skill set. Now that will make things really annoying. (He appeared to be deep in thought.)”
Kevin and Marty were cautiously pleased… They’d just established that the Krul needed a living population of humans; that would almost certainly make negotiationss MUCH easier.
(Kylar) “Excuse me a second, I wish to try something.”
Kylar walked over to one of the corpses.
(Kevin) “We’ll wait.”
Kylar kicked the corpse over so that it faced upwards, stabbed it though the chest with a dagger and then pulled it out, smearing blood onto his fingers… He then drew a circle around the corpse in blood – and an arc of dark power leapt from his finger to empower the circle.
(Kylar) “We shall see what modifying the ritual does. I must admit, I have never tried this before.”
Marty was a bit apprehensive – but Kevin voted for “wait and see”. After all, the situation was definitely in the “bad” category, so a random change should have a decent chance of improving matters – besides, he was curious.
Besides, this was only the second time he’d gotten a look at the Krul-creation rituals, and the first time he’d gotten to see one from the beginning. He might be able to tell something…
It looked like the ritual was a variation on a resurrection-effect, mixed with a summoning. The flesh was being brought back to life – and a spirit from elsewhere was being bound into it in the place of a soul – or the energies of a phantasm. The body would then begin to take the shape of the bound spirit. Kylar wasn’t calling spirits from Hell, that much was clear. Where they were being called from was difficult to determine – although what he was summoning seemed like something somehow akin to an insect spirit.
Within seconds, the skin began to stretch and bend in unnatural ways. Black wings like a bats sprang forth from the back, and a flaming sword materialized out of thin air. Shortly the creature rose to stand over twelve feet tall – towering over Kylar. Weird; that was certainly a classical demonic form, but it still didn’t seem particularly hellish. Perhaps it had been cast out? It could be something very old that humans have ancestral memories of, but something like that should be in it’s own manifold – and be really hard to reach. It didn’t match any mythology Kevin could think of… It could be any of a million obscure fictions though.
(Kylar) “Do you know why I have called you?”
(Fiend) “You wish me to destroy and lead the lesser Krul on your behalf do you not?
(Kylar) “Not precisely. Do you know how to farm? I specifically altered the ritual to see if you can have the appropriate skills. It seems to work with other skills and talents.”
(Fiend) “Farm? Surely you jest, do you not comprehend what it means to be a Krul? Are you not a Night Lord? One for whom 28,561 by the human counting must be slain before you can be raised? One whom answers only to a Titan? And yet you wish to discuss FARMING?”
(Kevin) “Evidently not then. Sadly the Undead can have the skills – but something about them (perhaps the negative energy auras) – makes it impossible for them to farm effectively either. “
(Kylar very calmly) “Yes, I am, and I do. And I would suggest you not take that tone with me again. Now, do you or do you not have the requisite skills or know how to attain them?”
(Fiend) “I do not, and you must surely not be a true Night Lord if you bother me with such nonsense. (It reared up with it’s sword held high.)”
Kevin and Marty guessed that such an attempt would not go well for the fiend.
As the Fiend’s blade swung down, Kylar caught the blade – which lost it’s fire aura.
(Kylar) “I merely asked a question and you dare to strike at me? Know your place. Now, please hold still. (As he pressed his hand to the Fiend’s chest.) Now, normally Krul do not feel any pain whatsoever, you on the other will because I will it. And now as I tear the flesh from your bones and devour it, you can reflect on the mistake you have made here.”
There were inhuman screams as the Fiend’s flesh was literally sucked off its bones and into the palm of Kylar’s hand. The scream seemed to reverberate across the city and echo off the walls. They could hear some of the guards watching beginning to vomit – and even the vampires that had shown up seemed a little disturbed.
(Kevin) “Well, that is dramatic. Rather silly of it to doubt you when you’d just summoned it though.”
(Kylar) “I apologize for the distraction there, I thought I might render part of your point moot by altering what I summon. Apparently I do not have sufficient leeway. They are big on power. but not on brains I am afraid. Power and intelligence goes with rank – and this one was two beneath myself. But nonetheless, it does look like we will need food and a continual supply of corpses as you suggest. And I might have to eliminate the Krul outside, at least from the Fiends downwards. I seriously doubt they will accept a truce at this point. Hmm, it does look like you managed to kill the two Arcanghuls too.”
(Kevin) “Well, the primary problem with human farming is the constant attacks by minor undead – the spontaneous ones that arise in the countryside. Without that, it would be relatively easy for them to both produce more food and to breed. Since it doesn’t matter what shape their bodies are in for you, and the number of bodies available is controlled by the birth rate – not by how long they live – there’s no reason not to wait for them to die of old age. Sorry about the Arcanghuls, but there was a battle going on. Those are always hard to put on hold.”
(Kevin, on the private line to Marty). “I suppose, given how fundamentally the Manifold relies on humans, that it’s not surprising to see that reflected almost everywhere”.
(Kylar) “Indeed, and it appears my ability to actually stop them from attacking while targets still exist is rather limited. And I agree with your assessment, although the critical problem is finding a source of spirits that I can properly bind into Krul to make them not attack. (Deep in thought again)”
(One of the newly-arrived Vampires next to Kevin and Marty, whispering) “Alright, how did you manage to get one to stop and talk?”
(Marty) “We made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
(Kevin, whispering back) “Did you ever try? Saying hello worked.”
(Vampire) “Well the others were typically too fixated on destruction and mayhem to really negotiate with.”
(Kylar) “Well the way I see it, we face two problems. 1) I am under compulsion to create more Krul. 2) I can only create Krul that can only destroy anything they come across.”
(Kevin, to the Vampire) “Well, I started by answering his question…”
(Kylar) “Now if we can fix either of those, I suspect we may have a deal here young one. I just tried summoning a Krul with a mindset different from the others to little effect. While I might be able to work around that with time, this instinct is strong. I wonder if I can alter my instincts?”
(Kevin) “Hm. That is awkward. We can work on finding another source of spirits of course. As an interim thing, do you care what happens to them after you create them? There are some horrific monsters around I think. I could try to remove the compulsion, but I don’t know if you’d trust me that far and it might be beyond me anyway.”
(Kylar) “I do not care what happens really after they are created. It is not like we feel for one another. They are merely tools for creating more.”
(Kevin, to the Vampire Lord) “Are there not some horrors around that will not cooperate in civilization and which entire armies have failed to take out?”
(Vampire) “Indeed I can think of a few, even one or two that I have been meaning to annoy for some time.”
(Kevin) “And if they are occupied, the humans can farm more, and have more offspring, and things will be better for them, better for you, and Kylar here can produce endless swarms of Krul to send into battle – also using up bodies to avoid spawning so much undead competition for those of you who are already here. This sounds profitable all around!”
(Marty) “Oh yeah.”
(Vampire) “Let’s see, there is that annoying shapeshifter that lives in the caves to the west. Likes eating children no less. Plus two others I can name off the top of my head.”
(Another Vampire) “Well that sounds reasonable at least for now. I am sure the Count would like a say in this though. What say you Kylar to this proposal?”
(Kylar) “This proposal sounds reasonable for the time being.”
Well, that was probably about the best they could expect from a bunch of undead.
(Vampire) “Well, can you at least do something to disrupt the Krul out there and give us a hand before I take you before the Count to negotiate formally?”
(Kylar) “Fine, I shall see if I can direct them to attack each other instead of the defenders, but I seriously doubt it will be completely effective.”
Meanwhile, Kevin was re-allocating Thralls. No serious casualties so far… eighty along the river, and they should have some reserves left… Twelve to reinforce each wall, leave twelve on each side of the river, and set eight to start getting the river gate put back.
(Vampire) “Very well then, once a sufficient guard arrives, we shall head to the palace and conduct formal negotiations. (Turns to Kevin and Marty) Since you were party to these talks, I must ask that you attend as well.”
(Marty) “Oh, no problem.”
Hm… It looked like the walls would be fine, especially now that there was so much confusion among the attackers. There had been a fair number of casualties among the humans manning the outer walls, but few deaths. Apparently vampire blood had excellent regenerative powers when it was applied to a mortal. That was good.
There might be some regrets amongst the people who had sold Kevin children after this though; they had been expecting a massive siege that never materialized, and there would likely be some guilt and seller’s remorse. Oh well, they were all Thralls, now, and he wasn’t selling them back. They were all better off as Thralls than as normal kids in Necropolis anyway.