After wishing the Vampire Lords and Kylar Night Lord well, Kevin picked up a few horses to see what kind of enhancements he could give them – and Marty headed off to see about picking up some of that self-igniting super-hot long-burning oil. It might be useful in other magical universes.
Kevin, of course, wanted to see if he could somehow collect the last few (nine middle-class and eight noble) Thrall-candidates in the city – although he wasn’t going to spend too much time on it. They had things to do elsewhere… Still, he would like to get a chance to make the offer to them; they’d certainly be better off as Thralls than in Gethrid – even as nobles (although he couldn’t expect them to believe that as yet – maybe after rumors had spread, but by that time they’d have to apply at the office).
Well, maybe some of the parents would notice the enhancements he’d given his earlier recruits. That kind of health and vigor might be a powerful argument around here – or it just might make them trust him even less. It was hard to say.
The burning oil was for sale, although they did keep it in specially made containers – and warned Marty about opening it without proper precautions… Marty spent some time negotiating before he bought quite a stock (and some special containers to keep it in, with semi-unbreakable outer shells that you removed before using them). You never knew when something like that would come in handy!
Horses were somewhat expensive, but still easy enough to acquire locally – although most of them were a bit sickly. Grass was plentiful, but even the animals were never quite in the best of health unless they were fed small doses of vampire blood regularly – but doing that led to issues of it’s own given time. While Kevin couldn’t soul-bond them (even the one that had a horse-soul), and they couldn’t handle anything too complex (like witchcraft or most of the other special benefits that Kevin usually handed out), that left lots of room to give them health, self-healing, endurance, speed, a bond with their rider, and other physical boosts. They wouldn’t be quite as good as the Thrall-Horses, but the Thrall-Horses had a lot more powers than actual horses needed – or than they had revealed anyway.
It looked like the local effects would throw in a few odd special requirements for their care given a little time. On the other hand, it didn’t look like it was going to be anything (such as needing life energy infusions, an “Unquenchable Thirst for Human Blood!”, or anything like that) that the nobles couldn’t readily manage or wouldn’t think was worth it. There would be no point in giving them horses that would be a problem later on – and he didn’t want to cheat anyone either.
Still, their abilities would probably provoke rumors and speculations, as well as a lot of questions from the curious if and when they next returned to Necropolis. That might serve their purposes as well as any other form of free publicity.
The Nobles – and some of the Vampires – were willing to pay quite a lot for such animals in some rather precious materials, alchemical concoctions, and minor magical devices – even if most of those boosts probably wouldn’t be hereditary. No wonder there were people who were willing to trade with Necropolis, no matter how risky it was. The place offered immense wealth – almost enough to replenish their coffers after repairing the fleet!
Marty considered helping Kevin out by passing on the rumor that they were headed for another world – that should attract the more thoughtful and protective parents – but he and Kevin decided that it would be kind of cruel to tell the local humans that there were other worlds but that they couldn’t go to them. After all, the only current exit from Necropolis they knew of was in Necrosis’s territory, and it would apparently be pretty suicidal for normal humans to go there.
Kevin had no reason to be cruel after all, he simply wanted to keep new souls showing up indefinitely. The Darkness was a thing of youth – the manifestation of impatience and rage, of the desire for dominance and expansion, of vengefulness and relative short-sightedness. As souls lived over and over again, the slow progression into enlightenment was inevitable; the growth of a soul could never be reversed, even if it did not manifest entirely in any given incarnation. If the Darkness was to survive the next few billion years, it needed to work with and sustain humanity – even if that meant that the Light would grow ever greater as well – and sustaining human expansion by recruiting volunteers was so much easier.
They decided to advertise a bit more directly instead.
Kevin took the rest of the horses and put on a little show. It might lead to questions about the Thralls and possibly access to a few more kids… The Vampire Lords sent an observer in – apparently to make sure that they had the magical-senses report as well as the observations of the nobles – and Kevin made sure that a few of the Thralls parents got a look as well.
Marty had no objections. The locals had obviously figured out that Kevin was no normal local mage, much less a normal human being.
Kevin called on Shadowweaving to cover up any giveway signs as to the source of his powers while boosting the special effects, with some Thralls on crowd and side-effect control, and a bit of more direct magic thrown in… The crackling sigils, limned in black, in crimson, and in gold, which spun out across the ground and flickered in the air around him might be observed and recorded, but Kevin didn’t believe that they’d really help anyone much; his power was pretty personal and the “ritual” was simply a focus for that power – manifested in symbols that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else.
Of course, Kevin had yet to realize that – as a god – the power nimbus that fueled his Godfire reserve (even if he still had no real idea of how to direct and use that power consciously) could be ritually invoked – and that his personal symbology would be what was used to create his holy symbols and do so. A dark miracle was a miracle nonetheless…
The nobles gave rapt attention to his little show, while at least one of the Magistrates made copious notes in the background. Quite a few of the nobles were more than willing to come forward and ask for their own horses to be included in the next enhancement ritual. More importantly, about half the remaining middle class parents seemed more willing to talk – but the other half seemed less so.
Kevin made sure that the remaining Thrall-candidates, and their parents, were informed that his recruits got long healthy lives and many other benefits – and that both he and Marty would be leaving very shortly. He also noted that most people couldn’t handle the enhancement, which is why only selected individuals could be recruited.
Well, he did get another four from the middle class, if none of the nobles – but the money from selling horses was pretty good anyway. Oh well. At least all the local candidates had gotten the offer of an escape, and if some wanted to turn it down, that was certainly their privilege. Presumably the local noble kids considered their chances pretty good anyway. Most of the noble houses apparently had a vampire or two at the top watching over things – but you never knew what would happen. At least they all now knew that the Thralls were recruiting – and if any of the current noble houses fell to intrigue, some of the noble candidates might soon become available for purchase anyway. It wasn’t like they hadn’t stirred things up a bit… They left the local thralls with instructions to buy if necessary.
Kevin mused… 120 local Thralls. That was really far more than he needed to tow along to Necrosis’s domain. Blast it… He was going to have to set up a gate later, however reluctant he was to make one to Necropolis. Oh well. Most of them could be sent out to recruit more possible Thralls, especially since the traders would be leaving for other cities now. He made arrangements to send groups of Thralls with each departing caravan since some sixteen caravans would be leaving shortly and another twelve were getting set up now that the siege had turned out to be a non-event. He had them split up into the usual teams of three, headed for thirty-two of the other major cities to set up offices and start recruiting. Hmm… It looked like Necropolis ran towards large and isolated cities anyway, since smaller settlements tended to get wiped out. Thirty-two teams, plus a double-team in Gethrid to act as a central office (and cover those promissary notes) should cover things pretty well. That left eighteen to go Necrosis’s territories with them.
They’d leave the kids who’d signed up for apprenticeships with the local office for now and pick them up later on; taking them to visit Necrosis wouldn’t be fair – especially for the four who hadn’t even taken the pacts.
Marty couldn’t resist playing devil’s advocate. After all, taking them to visit Necrosis would be a very good way to show them why taking pacts was wise… That would be more than a bit mean though – if not fatal.
Well, they couldn’t think of any other society-destabilizing things to do before they left – so they got on the road…
The road to Necrosis was overgrown with grass and weeds from disuse. In the aftermath of the Krul invasion, it looked like the local wildlife was beginning to return. Crows, insects, cats, and other creatures could be seen again – although the area had obviously been abandoned long before the invasion. The stone fences along the road were slowly crumbling from lack of maintenance. There was a chill breeze blowing, and it seemed like it was going to snow.
Kevin had brought a few extra “real” – if suitably enhanced – horses along to pull the wagons, but with only six of them, and three wagons (even with two Thralls to manage each wagon), that left them with a shortage of horses… Kevin had another four Thralls shapeshift into horses, that gave them ten Thrall-Horses – and eight Thralls and themselves to ride them. The Thralls wouldn’t be nearly as competent in horse-form, but they’d be less notable targets that way – and their power reserves would build up normally. Hm… He had to wonder if the Thralls were finding it interesting, pleasant, or unpleasant to be horses? Oh well, he’d have to ask them after they were back in human form and sensible enough to evaluate the experience and answer.
Marty was looking at the greenery… He knew it already; this was why he should have bought his battle golf clubs! He hoped that this wasn’t deliciously deadly grass!
Hour upon hour of travel through the desolation did absolutely nothing for anyone’s mood. It rapidly reached the point where the periodic attacks by minor undead (albeit nothing that was any real menace to the group) were more of a relief than anything else… The snow soon began to fall in earnest, gently laying a blanket of white across the land – which at least served to conceal the desolation. Fortunately, their Smartclothes (or collars or harnesses depending on current form) had no difficulty keeping them warm.
Finally they saw a lone figure standing in the road ahead of them – and something started probing at their mental shields, albeit without all that much success. Kevin quickly threw up some extra shielding to cover those who didn’t have shields of their own, although at least it didn’t look like the horses were being probed…
Ahead of them, the lone figure’s form became more distinct… A sense of dread seemed to fill the air – and Marty saw Abigail with a frying pan while Kevin saw his mother looking at him disapprovingly.
Marty fell back into old habits… Don’t show weakness . . . don’t show weakness . . . don’t show weakness . . . Wait, how the hell would Abigail get here?
(Abigail) “Employing slavers to bring you more concubines?! I knew you were low, but this is a new level of depravity for you! You are not a father I want around my daughter ever again!”
(Marty) “Bu . . . But . . . oh, dammit!”
Kevin wasn’t happy either – and the apparition of his Mother certainly made him feel apologetic. On the other hand, he was pretty sure that his Mother wasn’t here and that this was just someone picking strong images out of his head! Heck, last time he’d seen her, she’d been semi-approving – and enjoying being a dragon! Besides… it wasn’t like he hadn’t been through this before… This was a favored game amongst the fey – and they’d all been through it with Yoda and that pesky dark-side cavern guardian anyway!
Meanwhile, Marty was engaged in lots and lots of cursing, fuming, and sputtering attempts to explain. He couldn’t be entirely sure that Abigail HADN’T found a way here, after all!
Kevin picked that up from context pretty quickly. It was kind of obvious that they weren’t seeing the same thing!
(Kevin) “I really doubt that Abigail would bring Julia alone long enough to come to Necropolis Marty!”
(Marty) “She’s got thrall babysitters! But you do have a point . . .
(Kevin’s mother) “Child slavery, employing criminals to kidnap children from their homes and sell them to you in a state of forced bondage! A disappoint really.”
(Kevin) “In fact, this sort of thing is beginning to PISS ME OFF! Remember that stupid cave in the Old Empire!”
Marty thought back for a moment…
(Marty) “Yeah, let’s get them!”
(Kevin) “Aright, who are you and what’s the point and is there ANY reason I shouldn’t start experimenting with nasty spells?”
(Kevin’s mother) “I am your conscience!. That part of you that makes you a moral human being that you have been suppressing while you indulge in teenage fantasies.”
(Abigail) “Get me? Dear me, do you really think you can defeat me? I have a frying pan with your name on it right here.”
(Marty) “Really? Let’s have a look!”
Marty deliberately set himself up for a shot.
(Abigail, holding up her frying pan) “See, right here, I had it engraved with your name some time back, I plan to hang it on the wall once I put your face print embedded on it too.”
(Marty) “Heh, you even got my signature right!”
(Abigail) “And I will get your face right too! Now hold still! (She swung the frying pan back for a roundhouse swing) I won’t let your depravity near my daughter again you monster!”
(Marty, dodging) “Me? Hold still?”
Kevin started spewing minor curses – they should be good for a week or two, and he could keep them up all day – and he could make them pretty hard to resist. If some pest was going to harass them, he could play that game – and there was no reason to escalate yet…
(Kevin) “May using your powers cause an annoying ringing in your ears!”
There! If it really – by some obnoxious miracle – was his Mother, she didn’t have any powers that she was used to using, so it wouldn’t bother her much!
Marty didn’t have the means to affect psychic entities like Kevin did, and he wasn’t sure that Elera and Minel were up to doing much with their current ferret brains. It was time for Limey…
(Marty) “Yorick, turn her blue!”
Maybe irritation would do something, especially if Kevin’s curses worked.
For a brief moment the image of Kevin’s Mother wavered, losing definition – although it recovered in moments – apparently annoyed.
(Kevin’s Mother) “My what a naughty child, cursing his own mother no less, it is well past time for you to be disciplined. If only you could have ended up like your brother.”
Meanwhile, Yorick spit an enormous paintball and turned Abigail a brilliant shade of blue – although she did not seem to notice or care.
(Marty) “Hah! You’re no ex-wife of mine! She cares about her appearance! You’re messing with my head!”
(Abigail) “Oh like you have anything in there, you think using something else.”
(MARTY) “Hey, I do not think with THAT all the time! Only most of it!”
Abigail swung her frying pan mere inches from Marty’s face as she spoke.
(Kevin) “You really are a good mind reader! May all of your illusions and telepathic impressions have minor flaws!”
(Marty, with air quotes around the last word) “You’ve made one important mistake, honey.”
(Abigail) “Marrying you?”
(Marty) “OTHER than that.”
The images of Abigail and Kevin’s mother begin to waver and lose definition…
Marty made a classic “Kissy face”. It wasn’t like he couldn’t fix it if she connected, and “Abigail” already wanted to smack him in the face anyway!
The frying pan struck with a solid thud, sending Marty flying – but causing no damage…
(Kevin) “May your powers weaken! May you be endlessly distracted! I can keep this up all day you know! Want to talk?”
Marty was pretty sure that Abigail hit harder than that, even considering how much his defenses had improved lately.
(Marty) “Been eating too much of your food, haven’t you? You’ll be as plump as me before you know it!”
Marty smiled angelically.
“Abigail’s” form began to ripple – and then faded away to reveal a gray skinny figure only vaguely resembling a human in form – although it was currently holding it’s head.
Kevin had been working on “May whatever your source of power become repulsive to you!” to make it’s unlife a misery, but decided not to bother.
A voice filled their heads as the thing looked at their group…
(Hoxin) “You are most formidable. Such obvious angles of attack and yet you still managed to resist the effect. Lesser creatures fall prey to their nightmares more easily.”
(Marty) “We’re too bull-headed for that.”
(Kevin) “Well, it’s not like we haven’t been through this sort of thing repeatedly!.. Anyway, you apparently know our names already, but I’m Kevin and this is Marty.”
(Hoxin) “Hard to read that deep with you. You are well protected against reading, all I can get is the strongest images and feelings… I am Hoxin. Your kind does not come this way very often.”
(Kevin) “Well, we wished to do a little trading and visit a particular location in this area…”
(Hoxin) “Very foolish then, few who come here leave again, and do not think your ability to overcome me makes you powerful enough to survive.”
(Kevin) “Well, we trade: since you don’t seem adverse to general offering advice, what would you like in exchange for getting specific?”
(Hoxin) “I feed on the suffering and nightmares of the living. After they are slain, I take the knowledge I have gleaned from them and add it to my own. I doubt you have much to offer me of that.”
(Kevin) “So you draw psychic energies from their minds, using emotional pain and personal fears as a channel.”
(Hoxin) “Indeed I do, it does wonders against those with no specific protections against it. Even those with basic protections typically cannot shield themselves fully.”
(Kevin) “Can you absorb freely offered psychic energies? If you’re out haunting the roads, I suspect that resources are scarce – say, perhaps, other and stronger creatures are monopolizing the local population centers, such as they are.”
(Hoxin) “Indeed I can, although few are willing to offer their energies. And competing against the major powers around here by myself is a fool’s game. Better to take my chances of starving out here than to face the major powers.”
(Marty, on the private links) “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Kevin?”
(Kevin, also privately) “I suspect I am. of Power we have plenty – and we could certainly use a local guide.”
(Kevin) “And how much power can you absorb?”
(Hoxin) “I am not certain, I have never had a chance to reach my upper limit. A caravan was well within my limits not long ago.”
Kevin considered… A Caravan sounded impressive, but it might not mean all that much; normal people might not really yield much psychic energy each. Hm. Transmuting magical energy into psychic energy wasn’t all that efficient, but he could tap into magical energy pretty much perpetually…
He provided a modest flow of energy for a minute or so.
(Kevin) “Is that a significant fraction of your requirements?”
(Hoxin) “Indeed it is, some more of that and I would have my fill for some time. You do have some power it seems.”
(Kevin) “Well, would you like some more? We’d like your advice, but there’s nothing wrong with paying in advance.”
(Hoxin) “Very well then, I will accept your offer.”