Elsewhere in the Manifold events continued to unfold:
In the Crusader Kingdoms, the remaining city-sieges had been broken. While it was still too dangerous to farm without the protection of the Knights, regular patrols had allowed the peasants to begin exploiting the lands near the city walls again while parties gathered supplies. With the help of the locally-recruited Thralls, the natives were pulling through and the Thralls or “Fey-Gifted” were starting to become accepted local fixtures.
In Star Wars ATE and Ryan were working with Kuat Drive Systems – and some Thralls – to try and build a ship to counter the Hellstorm while (simultaneously) he tried to deal with the fact that a lot of his simulacra had run off and with upgrading the defensive architecture in the Linear Realms – which wasn’t going very well. Of course, soon enough, even an engineer as distracted as Ryan was would shortly realize that Kevin had – upon request – sent him fifty youngsters with exactly the specialized talents he’d asked for, and therefore must be recruiting many, many, more.
Also in the Linear Realms, Arthur and the Arrancar had arrived, gotten their own assessment of the local situation underway, and were starting to make plans. Fortunately, quite a few of the local syndicates were perfectly willing to get paid to back him up.
In Core, Jamie and A’ikana were still assisting in Death’s debriefing. The man might not have a lot of direct military information – but he was a goldmine of history and details that went a long ways towards filling out their picture of the opposition.
In the New Imperium, the Hellthunder and Revan continued to gather their forces – infusing defunct ships with enough demonic energy to seize control and get them started on slow self-repair – gathering them into a massive fleet. Sadly, the countless millennia of warfare in the Star Wars universes had left a virtually limitless array of derelict ships drifting about the galaxy.
The search for where Ealor’s missing children was ongoing, and was resulting in some fairly extensive maps of the Anime Realms – regions of the Manifold that had gone almost unmapped for some time; few of the visitors there had been particularly well organized.
In Kadia, the rescue operations, refugee housing, and recruiting operations were in full swing – although the fact that many of the young refugees were from the underbelly of the Linear Realms, and thus were street kids, gang members, and worse (problems that had not existed in Core for many centuries) had been putting a bit of stress on things. Fortunately, Kelsaru, as a dragoness, was more than capable of dealing with some obnoxious children – even if setting up games that allowed the young gangers to settle their differences with violence was likely to have it’s own repercussions later on.
In Core, Kevin’s latest stunt had drawn some special attention. Kevin had participated in moving a world. While that was frightening indeed, it was still within the known capabilities of Openers. Then, of course, not so long afterwards, he had moved another. That was a shock… Moving a world out of Core should have left him drained and unable to violate the laws of nature any more in Core for a considerable period. The first, subtle, attempts at inquiries were partially deflected – the Thralls had queried Kevin about how to respond, and had been told to simply state that Ryan had provided most of the power the first time while Kevin had only observed, and so he’d been able to move the second world – but any more shenanigans would solidify doubts into certainty; the horizons of the possible had expanded once again. (It was, perhaps, a trifle unfair to blame Ryan – but Kevin felt that he had a certain amount of “Blame Credit” to draw on with Ryan in any case).
Meanwhile, back in Necropolis, Marty and Kevin were still dealing with Hoxin… Apparently the notion of having his fill of Power – and the possibility of more benefits to come – was something it found quite attractive.
(Hoxin) “Very well then, what is it you wish to know? You mentioned something about seeking advice in exchange for energy…”
(Kevin) “Well, we’re looking for a realmgate – a weak point leading to another world. Our information is that it should be somewhere around (provide whatever details we’ve got). I can provide you with additional power – and perhaps a longer-term energy source later on if your advice proves good – and in exchange, we’d like to know how to get there with relative safety compared to an unguided trip. If you’d like to come part of the way, you’re welcome to do so; I have plenty of power available.”
(Hoxin) “Well that is troublesome indeed.”
(Marty) “Well, if it helps, we do mean “Relative”! A few battles along the way are only to be expected.”
(Hoxin) “Do you have some means of shielding your life energies? The further you can get without attracting everything you come across, the better you will fare.”
Kevin could, indeed, provide a variety of shielding-spells relatively easily… He shielded their life-forces, their minds, and – while he was at it – set up a spell that would prevent them from dreaming for a time. That would be unhealthy to leave up too long, but it might be useful in the short run…
(Hoxin, Observing) “Yes, that should work well against most of the minor undead that roam around the grounds here… Since you seek a realmgate, you must be familiar with others then I might take it? Your thoughts on the matter are particularly difficult to read.”
Kevin was having the Thralls set up illusions of them being more undead, since he couldn’t do illusions particularly well – as well as appointing some to keep an eye on his spells and remind him to renew them when they were starting to run out.
(Kevin) “Yes, we are familiar with a number of other realms. I presume you haven’t run across that very often before?”
(Hoxin) “The few around here that I know of are difficult to access or have such ardent defenses on the far side to make travel difficult. On the other hand, merely having knowledge of them or what might be on the other side can be valuable currency if you know who to sell to… Come then and follow, you’d best be speaking the truth, as my contact does not like it’s time wasted.”
Kevin spent a few more minutes as they started off providing more Power for Hoxin – but his limits only took a few minutes to reach. Fortunately, that would probably hold him for quite some time however; if he needed that much very often, he would have starved long ago haunting such an empty territory and untraveled route.
Marty continued to keep an eye out for roving undead.
Hoxin halted them for some minutes several times, holding up his hand and motioning for them to stop while he sniffed at the air and darted glances around before once more signaling he “all clear” and motioning them forward.
(Hoxin) “One cannot be too careful around here, living or dead. There are things wandering around that cannot be readily seen yet would be unpleasant to run across. Best to let them pass first.”
(Kevin) “Thank you for the warning. Hopefully our meeting will prove mutually profitable…”
(Hoxin) “I suppose it might be best to inform you anyways. As you are probably well aware, reality is thin around here. Things from elsewhere come through, roving nightmares that will land you in a scenario that you have to escape from while suffering grievous duress. I met a man that swore he witnessed he found himself in a prison camp, forced to starve regularly and be beaten before he managed to escape. Once he found his way out he found that only moments had passed in the real world… Sadly for him, I ate him shortly thereafter. (Turns to look at the bunch of you and smiles.) Best be careful.”
Marty did his best not to look intimidated, but had to admit to himself that he was probably tastier then Kevin on the psychic level. That Core education again… The boy had such self-control and awareness of his own drives and instincts that his emotions almost never overrule his common sense!
It really did seem a bit boring to live like that to him though.
(Kevin, setting to work on more anti-dreaming and anti mental influence protective spells) “That sounds most unpleasant.”
(Hoxin) “Indeed, let us hope we do not run across the things. (Hoxin motioned for them to leave the road) We must head off into the hills, there is a tunnel that leads down into the “city” such as it is. Do not touch the red cells, no matter what enticing things it may promise to hold. The road will only lead to the sinkhole the city fell into long ago. No way down from there save magic or going back, one attracts unwanted attention and the other wastes time that could lead to being found.”
Hm. It looked like trade might be less important to Necrosis than they’d been informed – unless it mostly passed through gates or the difficulties of the route were recent. Otherwise, it might well be that the rumor of wealth through trade was merely a lure to bring in additional prey. Well, they would simply abandon the carts if that proved necessary. It was only food, It was sealed well enough to keep out animals, and if some desperate human found it – good for them. Marty would hate to arrive with nothing to trade again, but he had to admit that they probably wouldn’t need it on the far side of the gate.
For that matter, even Kevin would kind of hate to arrive with nothing but a credit rating – it sort of went against the entire “Trade” philosophy they’d been building on – but if they must, they must.
Even Hoxin had an opinion on that…
(Hoxin) “Let us see how well the wagons hold up, throwing too much magic around will bring out nasty surprises though. So if the wagons get irretrievably stuck, then lose them instead of resorting to throwing great power around.”
Fortunately, Marty wasn’t a bad driver (even if he was more used to automobiles), and the enhanced horses were strong, agile, and sure-footed. It was still slow though; they had to keep rerouting to go around ditches, rocky terrain, and other barriers…
For a moment, an image came to mind of some horse-drawn wagons passing before the moon, but they would have enough trouble without being THAT conspicuous!
(Marty) “I’m SURE it will work!”
(Kevin) “Oh well. “Bringing supplies to the city” is still a reasonable cover. We were fairly reliably informed that they needed at least some, and somehow I doubt that they’ve got many sources… Still, while the Thralls have more than enough massed telekinesis to fly the wagons, it really doesn’t seem like a good idea in Necropolis! Maybe in the next world…”
As they discussed the merits of the latest hill as a ramp or an obstacle to go around, Hoxin raised his hand for silence once again.
Much as it pained them, they shut up.
A ghostly army of what seemed to be armored warriors marched by, and shudder ran through their bodies as the already freezing air took on a supernatural chill. As they watched the army seemed to flicker in and out of existence, as if it kept shifting between two planes of existence as it moved. The line of soldiers marched by only feet from them – but paid them no heed at the moment. They stood by quietly. No need to provoke a confrontation…
Then some ghostly horsemen come galloping along the marching line – and would pretty obviously pass right through their position. They heard Hoxin’s voice in their heads.
(Hoxin) “Take cover quickly, don’t let one of them touch you or they all will detect us!”
Kevin, noting an oncoming pair of horses coming in his direction, nonchalantly steped aside as they horses galloped past – but Marty was a bit too busy gaping (ghosts were a real novelty in Battling Business World!) And was barely able to roll to the side as a horseman leaped over the tree stump he had been standing not too far from mere moments before.
The three Thralls in the line also managed to dodge nimbly – but Marty had the bad luck to wind up in the way twice more. Worse, while he casually twirled around the first one and then flipped onto the tree stump, posed dramatically, and said “Ta-da!”, he then turned around to see what (for a moment) looked like the biggest horse he’d ever seen about to collide with his face.
In the back of the line, they could hear Hoxin doing a face-palm.
Fortunately, a couple of the Thralls saw the danger in time – and managed to react swiftly enough to give Marty a telekinetic push. Their combined effort landed him in the icy much face-first – but it was better than being detected.
Marty mused… well, THAT was the last time he tried anything flashy outside of a fight… at least until they got to the next realm!
Kevin marked the two alert Thralls down for something special in the way of a goodie later.
Meanwhile, Marty was tasting mud, with a little bit of ice to it, but all the spectral trampling had managed to melted some of that. But most of all, he tasted mud.
(Marty) “Bleah! I can’t believe I liked this stuff when I was a kid!
A couple of the thralls were finding it hard to stifle snickers.
Fortunately, the horsemen had passed and the final ranks of the army were passing at last.
Marty got out of the muck and let the Smartclothes get to work on cleaning themselves up… He was a mess! He looked like he’d spent a career pig farming without bathing given how thickly he was caked with the stinking mud! He grumbled to himself a bit. Maybe when they’d gotten to somewhere with better cover he could change his clothes. He wasn’t going to feel entirely clean until he’d bathed!
Meanwhile, Hoxin had just become aware that ALL the people in this group possessed powers – and he was trying to quietly probe the minds of everyone there, horses included.
(Hoxin) “Those are not normal horses are they?”
(Kevin) ” Oh, the ones on the wagons are more-or-less normal. I wanted the servants free to maneuver. Same for the hounds of course.”
It didn’t look like Hoxin could quite buy that…
(Hoxin) “Nonetheless, (he looked at Marty) maybe you can save the posturing for once this trip is done? Or do you need to get it out of your system now? We do have a lovely stand for you and a soft batch of earth for you to fall in repeatedly if needed.”
(Marty, smiling sheepishly) “Sorry. Old habits die hard. I’m fine now.”
(Hoxin) “Let us continue on then, and hopefully there will be no more mishaps.”
Further along the way to the tunnel they passed a zombie clutching an empty skull to it’s mouth while shambling along whimpering quietly – and they began to see the red orbs that they’d been warned against earlier dotting the land.
Kevin felt a bit bad. Even the Zombies were starving! And around here they might be just aware enough to be miserable!
The red orbs seemed to quietly sparkle every so often as they went past. They could catch occasional glimpses of things hidden deep within their depths. The things cried out for them to take a closer look…
They resisted the temptation.
Must… not… look…
Kevin didn’t even send a Thrall. They were semi-expendable, and he could satisfy his curiosity by proxy easily enough – but it was almost certainly a bait-illusion, they were powerful enough that they might well attract attention even if a “catch” would normally pass unnoticed, and it would be both stupid and unfair to lose one to being trapped in nightmare for a few decades!
(Hoxin) “I believe the tunnel itself is around here somewhere. It may take a few moments to find it though (a slight delay)… Ah, here we go, it looks like this particular tunnel hasn’t been used in some time either. Also looks to be wide enough for the wagons as well. This may well be part of the old tunnel network even.”
(Kevin) “Now that is handy… Although, as I recall, you did not wish to risk confronting the powers that live in the city?”
Marty had the feeling that they we’re about to get roped into local politics again.
(Hoxin) “Indeed, although there is one you can sometimes find in the markets that may be willing to cooperate given the right price.”
(Kevin) “Ah. Then I take it you intend to guide us a bit further. I shall have to come up with something more useful to you than a temporary infusion of power.”
(Hoxin) “As you wish then, shall we continue? The tunnels will likely be safer than the fields up here.”
They did – but after some time attempting to navigate the tunnels, which seemed to split and merge with no pattern, Hoxin appeared to start becoming frustrated.
(Hoxin) “Well this is not going as well as I anticipated.”
(Marty) “What’s the trouble?”
(Hoxin) “The tunnels seemingly loop back on themselves. I can see my claw marks on the floor and walls where we have passed before to no avail. Something is actively distorting the path.”
Kevin sighed – and had the Thralls with divination start running basic detections – magic, illusion, life, etc – while he did some magic-concealment effects.
Marty had Yorick give it a try as well.
Hm… It looked to be a variation on the classic Maze spell – but instead of transporting them to another dimension, it transported pieces of the local space elsewhere as required to make the tunnels. Had they tripped some sort of threat-warning, if only by not being noted before? They would have assumed that Necrosis would normally want people to come in. Perhaps he liked to drain them slowly though? This kind of security measure would reduce the rare chance of people getting rescued.
They spun some illusions to try and tell the spell that they were “authorized to pass” – and looked for magical directions or signs, focusing on looking with life-detection and psychic energy detections which might correspond to the special senses of the undead.
Hm… There seemed to be slightly higher concentrations of lichen on some of the rocks at one of the tunnel entrances. When viewed with a “Detect Life” effect it did seem slightly brighter than the rest of the ground in the area.
They opted to follow those signs. Presumably those were normally only apparent to undead – unless they were leading them into a subtle double-trap meant to catch the overly clever and sneaky. They couldn’t put that past Necrosis.
At each turn they saw another patch of the lichen at one of the intersecting tunnels. It looked like they needed to follow the correct series perfectly; a single wrong turn would lead them right back to the entry chamber – and there were twenty turns before they found themselves and the wagons at the entrance to a side alley opening up into a dark, dank, and moldy street. The area seemed to be lit by gas lamps that lined the streets.
(Hoxin) “Well that appears to have gotten us into the city proper. I would avoid trying to sleep anywhere inside the city if you can help it. I think we are in the live experiment section of the city though which should be safer than most. The city is divided into cantons based on the type and nature of the experiment. The living specimens are housed here. Undead ones in another section of the city. And then you have various other types that I do not adequately understand in other sections. They all are constantly trying to undermine each other and show themselves to be the true and worthy experiment of Necrosis himself. He sits at the top of the mess and hardly intervenes save on a whim. I suspect the politics in here is another one of his experiments. How many people there are depends on your definition of alive. If you include those whose minds have died, then the numbers are into the hundreds of thousands. If you don’t count them, then the population is probably only 80 to 100 thousand at best.”
Hm. That was still quite a population. They had to wonder how the natives were being fed. Was Necrosis importing food from elsewhere or was he using pure magic – or did he have some necromantic version of hydroponics or perpetually regenerating creatures or vats of flesh to butcher endlessly?
(Marty) “Can you give us an overview of the politics?”
(Hoxin) “Certainly, although understand my knowledge is limited. The living specimens live here, and this area is the best around for being able to eat, sleep and live to see tomorrow. Each canton is largely governed internally, and each is constantly striving to kill some of the more hostile experiments running loose. The residents here do not trust anything at first, and always keep a knife on them. Their biggest goal that I know of – besides simple survival – is collecting the red orbs. The mindless undead are usually kept in large pits where failed experiments are thrown in.”
(Kevin) “What do they want the red orbs for?
(Hoxin) “It is my understanding that they believe those house the minds of their comrades lost in the nightmares. They hope to revive the ones who have suffered mind-death to live again. I do not know how well that works, or even if it does.”
(Marty) “So he’s stuck them down here in a futile effort to free their friends? Must be confident he can keep them in there.”
(Kevin) “They may – but matching those minds to bodies, releasing them without sending them onwards, getting them back into the bodies, and then treating their near-certain insanity, sounds like a daunting project. I suspect they have few other hopes.”
They set forth into the city.