Federation-Apocalypse Session 105 – The Chill of the Night

   So, they’d been traveling across Necropolis to reach Necropolis. Bloody confusing of the realm’s discoverers to simply give the place the name of the first city they’d arrived in there.

   OK, it was hard to blame them for not being interested in extensive exploration given the nature of the realm – but still. It’d just have to be Necropolis, Necropolis, just like New York, New York.

   Anyway, Hoxin was still explaining.

 (Hoxin) “Let’s see, we have the Living Canton and the Sentient Undead Canton. Those two I am familiar with to some extent. I really don’t know much more about the city itself beyond the fact there are a total of six cantons total and the market district. My contact frequents the market place from time to time.”

(Kevin) “Well, off to the market then I presume! A good thing we have some goods to trade…”

(Marty) “Yeah, guess we’ll be dealing with the living first.”

(Hoxin) “Indeed, although I shall suggest that you do not act too spirited outside the Living Canton. It tends to draw attention.”

   It looked like the ensouled population was very low… Perhaps one in a thousand or so at the best. Evidently souls tended to either vacate as soon as possible, or the initial population was not high to begin with. Kevin was disappointed in some ways and relieved in others; with a population of 80-100 thousand, the ones with souls were likely to be out more… There might be 20-30 ensouled kids around at the most; he wouldn’t be recruiting much – but there shouldn’t be too many rescue-offer obligations either.

   The Market area was full of people and shop stalls, and the entire area was lit with natural gas lamps. The people were all quietly trading back and forth… Most of the items being traded appeared to be local magical or psionics charms or metal workings. There was one rather lively individual offering healing services of some sort – but she was tucked away in a back corner of the market.

   They had a couple of the Thralls set up their stall while they – and a few of the other Thralls – checked the place out and had a look at what was for sale – and who was in charge.

   Unsurprisingly, several of the traders, and the local leaders, were the ensouled ones. Not too many on the lower end of things.

   So… There were magical trinkets with a variety of low level spells on them. Psionic protection charms of various sorts. Some booths that were offering “coins” of some sort in exchange for money or goods. Another stall was offering to forge Corrinum into whatever form the buyer choose – and yet another vendor was offering seeds and small plants or fungi of unusual types. No serious slave market, although there were a few around.

   More directly, the food market was very limited, and appeared to be basically limited to two or three commodities – some sort of flour, what seemed to be edible fungi, and what might be some sort of small fruits. All in bulk, and with little apparent variety. Probably provided for no more than the effort of gathering. Otherwise Necrosis would have no experimental subjects left.

   Marty was pleased; evidently their food and spices were going to be appreciated!

   Marty was having a look at the magical trinkets; there were items that would (supposedly) help protect your mind while you slept, or reduce your need to sleep. Lots of convenience items for around the house or while out of the house. One seller with jars of various metallic looking liquids, another with more earrings like the one’s he’d seen before, a third with a set of Corrinum marbles similar to the ones that Kylar had purchased for the gift exchange. Another was selling blood and other parts from creatures not human. One stall was selling small stones with the option of engraving any word on it that the customer wished; common suggestions were offered. Rings of invisibility to undead were probably the most popular item…

   Hm… According to Yorick the magic was valid – but it wasn’t likely to fool anything too powerful. The mindless undead should fall for it, and the weaker sentient undead without unusual senses should be fooled for a while. A lot like the talismans he’d bought at the straits… Of course, the local Thralls could all use some – so he bought a batch of them.

(Hoxin, heading off to mingle with the crowd a little.) “I will be back soon, I doubt we are so lucky to find her shopping today of all days though. Try not to stir up any trouble while I am away though. Creating a disturbance here is likely to draw unwanted attention.”

   Well, hopefully selling food and spices and such wouldn’t be TOO weird. Of course, it was all in highly-condensed forms and laced with Core and magical vitamins and medications and such, but at least the lacing wasn’t obvious… The packaging and source would be a bit harder to explain. Well, perhaps they could simply claim to have found the stuff; there were dimensional links around here.

   They got a line quickly enough. Marty considered selling at cost, or at least as close a conversion as he could manage – but Kevin had to point out that their stock really didn’t have a “price” anyway.

   They settled for “reasonable” prices – enough surcharge to be believable for the local conditions and for bringing the stuff into the city – and no mass sales. It would be nice for a lot of the people in the city to get a treat. It was a bit sad to have to tell people that there wasn’t any more available at the moment – but

   Kevin had the Thralls make sure that any ensouled kids got a free food package, while the phantasm kids got some quietly-conjured candy.

   Marty had Yorick use his “kids magic” to transform the wood from the wagons into permanent toys. The locals had stalls, so they had sources for at least some wood anyway.

   Their sales created a bit of a local stir and cheered things up a bit. The kids were running around playing with their new toys, people were sharing or trading the food around, and in general it seemed like the mood had lightened a bit.

   Of course, about then, Hoxin got back, looked around at the small commotion they’d caused and appears to sigh – surely an affectation, considering that he no longer really needed to breathe.

(Hoxin) “It seems we are in luck indeed, my contact has been regularly coming out of the central lab every five days to pick up an order of supplies from a vendor near here. Last time she was around was four days ago, so she should be back tomorrow morning. I suggest finish what shopping you wish to do today and then finding somewhere safe for the night.”

   Kevin shrugged. Better that the locals be a bit excited over the unusual goods than that they be taking a really good look at all of them. They’d already found that – on close inspection – they were all too obvious as outsiders.

   Marty went to scope out a hiding place for the night. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well… It didn’t look like “accommodations for travelers” was on the list of things available in Necropolis proper. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise – but his usual bar-crawling system of gathering information didn’t work here either! The people were there to drink themselves into dreamless unconsciousness and forgetfulness, and every drink was designed to accomplish that as quickly as possible! Even his system couldn’t handle that indefinitely!

   Eventually he was drunk enough to consider falling back on the standard plan for Battling Business World – Get thoroughly plastered, puke into the fountain of whatever liquid that was over there repeatedly until he passed out, drown face-first in the fountain while unconscious, and wake up the next morning at home all safe and sound.

(Marty, to his girls) “What? It works back home!”

   Even in ferret-form, the girls were pretty sure that “drowning” was a bad thing. They got a little frantic and called for help before Marty was too far along with that plan. Sadly, they were too confused as ferrets to actually specify the location – which led to some quick searching…

   Kevin found Marty hunched over a fountain with a sour look on his face.

(Kevin) “Hey Marty! What’s up?”

(Marty) “There’s no goddamn water!”

(Kevin) “I’ve got some here!”

(Marty) “Thanks, pal, you’re a lifesaver!”

   While he was wondering how to get the water into the fountain, and get it working, and then throw up from the drinking.

   Well, OK, it was only that middle part that was awkward. He described his plan to Kevin. Maybe one of the kid’s spells could get the fountain working!

(Kevin, bemusedly) “I think it would take too long to get back from that Marty!

(Marty) “Oh. Damn… (pause) So what’s your idea?”

(Kevin) “Hang out in a bar overnight? I think we can easily skip one nights sleep. We could try the old “Rope Trick” routine as well, but it might attract some notice.”

(Marty) “Maybe there’s an alley or a nook somewhere around here.”

   Those were easy enough to locate. There was a tavern or two that he’d been at earlier that they could go back to as well – but he’d probably made a jerk of himself there. Marty voted for setting up the rope trick in an alley – provided that Hoxin felt that making a dimensional pocket wouldn’t attract too much attention.

(Hoxin) “Keep it small and out of the way and there shouldn’t be any problems. If the pocket has an entrance to somewhere else though, expect trouble quickly.”

(Kevin) “Well, it shouldn’t…”

   They quietly found a corner alley that didn’t seem to get much traffic and started setting up.

   They threw up a selection of magic-concealment and anti-detection spells first – including anti- life detection, psychic detection, and dream detection, as well as some other protections, both over the entrance and over the inside. Hopefully they would get to morning undisturbed.

   They did. While there was apparently no shortage of things hunting, there was plenty of prey that was far easier to find. They slept without dreams, although the night was restless.

   They headed back to the market, but more quietly. There wasn’t much of their original stock, so they left a couple of the Thralls to handle it and to distribute a few more toys and conjured sweets and such (they wouldn’t be terribly nutritious when made with low-level magic, but they would be tasty) – all of which would be a good distraction while they hunted up Hoxin’s contact – if she was in the area.

   The market had mostly returned to it’s original quiet demeanor, although fewer people were out on the streets this morning – perhaps due to the general chill in the air.

   Uh oh. That might be a sign of Necrosis giving the area some personal attention.

(Hoxin) “I trust you are ready for this then? The Lich Evanescence does not tolerate having her time wasted any more than Necrosis. On the other hand, should you prove of value, she can be considerably more approachable.”

(Kevin) “Ready enough I suppose. We’re often bizarre and whimsical, but we’re rarely a waste of time.”

(Hoxin) “Good, we shall set off to find her. As you can probably gather, it appears she has entered the Canton already.”

(Kevin) “Ah, I thought it seemed a bit subdued.”

(Hoxin) “Let us be off then.”

   Hoxin led them down a complex series of streets, taking abrupt turns every so often. It would have been awfully easy to get lost in the winding alleys and cull-de-sacs without the recording-mapping functions in their Smartclothes… At last they found themselves outside a magical reagent shop, well off the beaten path. A young porter was waiting outside – but the chill in the air was intense, and the morning dew was beginning to frost over everything.

   Kevin had been trying to recall… A lich named Evanescence, associated with Necrosis… Notable as being one of the most powerful known mages? A researcher type from what he recalled.

   Marty recalled something too – from his consultation about possible trade items back in Gethrid – “she” was supposed to be interested in obtaining magical and psionic reagents from the outside world – and from other dimensions – for her experiments.

   They weren’t exactly well stocked with that sort of thing, even if they did have lots of magic available. There might be a few random bits, they could create a few things if necessary, and there were always Thrall-services: they might not have a lot of power, but they did have lots of different options (then he wanted to kick himself again; there he was considering the kids as trade-items again!).

   Hoxin ushered them into the ship – apparently not wanting to be first.

   Inside the shop, the shopkeeper appeared to be sweating profusely – despite the obvious cold… A beautiful, gray-skinned, woman stood in the center of the shop – glowing with a soft violet light. The whites of her eyes had turned black, and her skin was pale and cold. Otherwise she showed few signs of her undeath… There was an air of malice in the air at the moment.

(Evanescence) “So you are telling me that you are unable to deliver the requested items a third time in a row, and you only seek to inform me of this after I have come here again? I do not like wasting my time pandering to the egos of mortals.”

   Well, that was bad luck for the shopkeeper.

(Shopkeeper) “I am sorry, I truly am. But the last gatekeeper I had access to has up and disappeared without a trace, I had hoped he would have returned by now, I swear. My messages to you keep getting collected by those guards at the lab. And making a fuss about it would mean attracting Necrosis’ attention to the matter!”

   Ah, now that was revealing. So Necrosis was either unaware that his “apprentice” was trading with other realms and dealing with things that were beyond his control – or it suited his purposes to pretend to be unaware of those dealings.

(Marty, privately) “Should we see what happened to them?”

(Kevin, also privately) “Oh well. Gatekeepers are hardly all-powerful. They may simply have escaped of course – or been killed in trading with other dimensions. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d run into safety measures at the gates out, just like at the Tomb Archive. Apparently he had access to more than one though, which is somewhat surprising – although they may just have been trading; there’s great wealth to be found in Necropolis; look at the amount of money we’ve made here.”

(Evanescence, tapping her chin thoughtfully) “Indeed, I suppose your ability to get messages to me has been severely compromised lately. I cannot fault you for that, no matter how I may feel about the matter. And with your last gatekeeper having disappeared, I have no further use of your services then.”

   Hm. A test of her intelligence and self-control; would pointless pique win out over possible future utility if one of the gatekeepers he knew turned up again?

(Shopkeeper, eyes going wide) “No, please, I will not speak about this matter to anyone. I have served faithfully all these years and all I ask is for mercy! At least spare my family.”

   Oh dear. Kevin coughed slightly.

(Evanescence) “Indeed, you have served me well, and for that I will grant you mercy. You shall keep your mouth shut regarding our business deals, and in exchange you and yours shall live. In the meantime, I will be forced to revoke privileged status to your family as you are no longer of use to me. Should you find your wayward gatekeeper, we can discuss anew.”

   They heard the sound of the door behind them locking as Evanescence turned her head slightly to get a glimpse of them.

(Evanescence) “You had best have a good reason to be here right now. If you wish to speak to me, then speak quickly. Otherwise, I may have to take measures to ensure your silence.”

(Kevin) “We wish to discuss some gates. You apparently wish to engage in a bit of cross-dimensional trade. Given that we operate a fair number of such enterprises, this might appear mutually profitable.”

(Evanescence turned to get a full look at the group, her eyes narrowing) “I am listening.”

   They explained that they wished to locate a gate to the “Jesus Realms” that was said to be somewhere in the area, provided a basic description of the realm – and inquired as to what materials she needed.

(Evanescence) “My material needs change frequently. Although currently I seek something called transuranics. Are you perhaps familiar with the term?”

   Marty raised an eyebrow at Kevin. He was pretty sure that he didn’t know – but while Kevin might not really have a technical education he was a product of the Core educational systems and he had been knocking around the worlds for decades. His fund of general information was pretty good.

(Kevin) “Elements with superheavy nuclei. In technical worlds, normally produced in supernova in very small quantities. Easier to get in some magical universes – if you can find the right magical material to translate. Do you know which ones you might need, or are you simply experimenting with their properties, possibly as amplified with or through Corrinum? In that case, a selection would be most useful.”

(Evanescence) “Indeed, the sample I received some time ago has displayed interesting magical and metallurgical properties. If there are several varieties then I would like to receive quantities of each. Since you seem familiar with the substances, literature on them is probably available is it not?”

   Well, Ryan had been importing sizeable quantities of Transuranics (enough to fuel a technological revolution) into Core for decades, so there were modest amounts available in Core and Kadia. Literature certainly was… Kevin had the Thralls in Kadia start getting some samples and literature printouts available.

(Kevin) “Yes – although, again, mostly with respect to their technical uses.”

(Kevin, privately to Marty) “Marty? What should we include here? Literature and small experimental samples?”

(Evanescence) “It is of no matter what the studied uses are, merely that studies comparing their properties to those of more conventional materials are available. And in response to your question, yes I am aware of such a gateway. Necrosis occasionally tries experiments with it to find a way through it. The location is deep within the lab though.”

(Marty, privately to Kevin) “That sounds like a good start. Maybe give her what stats we know on the stuff. Perhaps we should see if she wants whatever we have right now of the created stuff?”

(Kevin, privately to Marty) “There might be some very small amounts in some of the equipment – the better power-packs, forceblades, effector modules, and so on use the stuff in tiny quantities – but the quantities are minuscule, and it is handy to have equipment; I’d vote for not unless she asks.”

(Kevin) “That is awkward. Still, I would hate to have to find another route after coming all this way. Are there any other gates around? Hopefully I can find a shorter route to ship your materials over.”

(Evanescence) “It may be possible to sneak you into the lab, on the matter of other nearby gates, the only one inside the city is the one in the lab. Near the city, there are four that I know of, but I do not know where they lead save that whatever passes through never returns. That could be locals with sturdy defenses, or it could be realms far more hostile than here. Who is to tell?”

(Kevin) “Well, there are some probes that can be run.”

   They started checking their data… It seemed likely that gates to Necropolis might have plenty of warnings on them elsewhere – or be notable as origin points for undead. Hm… one of the gates mentioned might align with the listed location of a transition point to the Victorian Mental Asylum realm – a place where all kinds of madness-entities ran loose and doctors with all sorts of crazed and barbaric ideas on the proper method of treatment for insanity were completely unrestrained. There were the ones trying to cure the patients – and then there were the ones using the opportunity to run all sorts of unethical experiments. The place was also known as “Arkham” – apparently it overlapped with the Lovecraft-Cthulhu realms AND the classic Mictlantecutli-“Batman” mythos.

   They might be able to ship stuff through there with reasonable speed, but they’d need a rather highly specialized team to do it – and they’d run into the issue that whoever did it would need to do it repeatedly to get good at it – but prolonged exposure to the realm seemed to have serious side effects mentally.

(Kevin) “Hm. The only one I seem to have a match on at the moment runs through a madness dimension. That’s probably not too practical.”

(Evanescence) “No, I must say it is not.”

(Kevin) “We could probe the others; that is quietest. Opening magical or reality-shaping gates is far more conspicuous.”

(Evanescence) “Ah, you have an Opener at your disposal?”

   She was better informed than they’d expected… Kevin consulted with Marty; should he admit that he was an Opener? Evanescence might bring substantial pressures to bear.

   Marty had his own notion in mind to deal with that.

(Marty) “I’m an Opener. I’ll need to be close to the gates, but I can definitely tell where they go.”

   The probe-spell was fairly simple, but it would work best at short range – say thirty or forty feet.

(Evanescence, finally looking at them closely) “You are an opener? Impressive, you appear more talented than I had expected for one looking as such. (She walked towards them, focusing on Marty – and put a well-manicured finger under Marty’s chin, bringing his eyes up to look at hers. The finger was not nearly as cold as Marty had thought it would be.) Such a thing could be very…. valuable, don’t you think. (Smiles)

   Marty was fairly sure that his first reaction (“Why, Ms. Lich, are you trying to seduce me or hire me?”) was not what she had in mind. Of course, she was rather long-distant from humanity – if she even had a soul (that seemed fairly likely, but they hadn’t bothered checking. In this case it didn’t seem likely to matter much). He decided to just be noncomittal…

(Marty) “Yes, ma’am.”

(Evanescence, dropping her hand back to her side.) “Good, I expect to hear some reports from your explorations soon enough. In the meantime, I shall see about making preparation to bring you into the lab.”

   She provided the gate locations – and made arrangements for a meeting the following morning before departing.

   Well, that gave them about twenty-four hours – and a bit of business of their own.

(Kevin, to the Shopkeeper – who seemed to be ensouled) “Now, you may also have some information on what’s past the gates. You are also in need of the services of a Gatekeeper on occasion; those can be provided.”

(Shopkeeper) “Yes, I do know some of what is past those gates.”

(Marty) “Really?”

(Kevin) “Well, if you will provide that information, I will provide the services of a Gatekeeper on occasion. While you may be suspicious, you are already aware that we are not from our world – and that if we don’t have at least one gatekeeper available, that information would be of no use to us anyway.”

   The shopkeeper hesitated – but a cough made the difference. The boy had risked diverting the attention of an annoyed lich to himself to get a complete stranger out of a corner.

(Shopkeeper) “Very well then, the one to the North leads to a realm of machines that have learned to use humans for spare parts. Having weaponry and commonsense I am told is sufficient to get through there. The one to the East leads to some sort of hospital for the insane or such. Not much gets through there unscathed. To the Northeast is a gate to a world of sand and stone pyramids. They largely seem to have their monsters sealed within the pyramids or elaborate tombs. Sadly the gate also appears to be sealed within one. The one to the Southeast leads to a place of nightmares and dreams made real. Reality itself is supposedly fragile there I am told.”

   Well, north sounded closest to the Jesus World… At least it would get them into the right genre, even if it did sound like ancient “sci-fi” horror, like the Matrix or the Borg or some such. The one to the northwest might be one of the Ancient Egyptian – or perhaps Mayan – worlds. Of course, it could also be one of the hundreds of fictional worlds more-or-less loosely based on one of them. Southeast could be a lot of places; dreamworlds could be hard to tell apart even while you were in them, much less from a few words of description.

   Still, that gave them more data for the gate search…

   The Egyptian/Mayan one was probably not going to be too hard to find – or for Thralls to get past. The shopkeeper had shipped stuff through there fairly regularly – so it couldn’t be all THAT hard to get out of the pyramid. In fact, according to Mr Shopkeeper, the place had tales of Mummies and such coming out of some of the pyramids on a frequent basis.

   From the other end, Kevin had some teams of Thralls dispatched to sail the various Nile River Systems (even if the name did change depending on where you were) to find the right one. That might take a bit, but the route should be easiest to use once found… The one to the Southeast might very well be to one of the outer circle realms – but that really didn’t help much. The runaway robots using humans as parts was probably in the Science Fiction Horror section of the First Circle. It might even be Apollo Era based on the details provided.

(Kevin, privately) “Well Marty – shall we offer the man and his family an out? Or start with just a trading contact?”

(Marty, privately) “I say we offer him an out, considering what losing that privileged status means.”

(Kevin, privately) “Fair enough!”

(Kevin) “Well, it looks like the sands-and-pyramid gate will be easiest to use; we’ll have a transport team coming through there – sooner if I can put an agent through there to set up a beacon or link out. Presuming that proves possible, would you like to get set up as a local shipping agent, or would you like to get yourself and your family out entirely?”

(Shopkeeper) “I think I would rather be able to leave this place. Living here is a death sentence in the long run without something of value to offer someone, and even then, powerful individuals get angry at the slightest things frequently. I am sure I could some way to make myself useful to you elsewhere though.”

(Kevin) “Easy enough.”

   Kevin had to give Marty a sidelong glance though… It looked like Marty was becoming more public-spirited; he kept having them overpay for everything voluntarily, and he was pretty sure that overpaying for ANYTHING was against his personal religion. Evidently he was serious about trying to be a nicer person!

   Well, they’d been going to visit the gates for some probing anyway. They gathered up the Thralls, headed for the gates (leaving the city turned out to be fairly easy now that they knew the path) – and sent some through. They didn’t even have any notable zombie trouble. Poor starving zombies… It would probably have been unhealthy for them to try anyway.

   The probes mostly provided general information on the environment, magic levels, and similar factors – but they all looked survivable enough for normal humans, much less for Thralls.

   They’d arrived with eighteen local thralls, the six spares he’d brought along, and he and Marty’s usual companions – so there were plenty to send six each through the quasi-Egyptian and to the hostile robot realm. They sent all ten of the ones in horse-form. They’d have an easier time changing back in another realm.

   First priority for the quasi-Egyptian realm was to have the Thralls check the local magic for any oddities and set up a beacon. It went smoothly enough.

   It looked like there were fairly high magic levels, especially if you used the appropriate invocations. Getting out of the pyramid would be a modest pain (as expected); the seal on the place was fairly tough. There was a massive sarcophagus wrapped in chains in the middle of the main tomb though. Whatever had been sealed in there was still in there, and didn’t seem happy. On the other hand, the beacon effect didn’t seem to be blocked at all.

   Well, if they didn’t find something better, they’d gate through in person and see about setting up a magical gate from there to conserve mana. That would only work between highly magical realms – but it was worth a try, and it would let them get a shipment for Mrs Lich quickly if it worked.

   Marty decided that he’d handle the gate operation for the shipment if he could; he didn’t have that much personal mana yet – but he did want to help Kevin with the gates now that he could do it.

   The Thralls that went through to the sci-fi horror realm found that their kits transformed back to normal. The smartclothes had been working anyway (they were so assumed in core these days that they worked almost anywhere), but their plasma pistols, forceblades, medical kits, and other items went back to normal. It looked like a section of the first circle, probably based on the ancient “classic sci-fi b movies”. The theme of this one seemed to be that the Apollo astronauts had found a long-destroyed human civilization on the moon. Further probing by the astronauts had revealed that the locals had been wiped out by the AI’s that they’d built. The thing had run wild (surprise surprise). Parts from the Lunar Lander module had allowed the robots to repair their ship and head to Earth in search of more spare parts, and utter chaos had ensued.

   The Thralls reported that the robots weren’t very intelligent or sturdy, and could easily be fought given modern weaponry and half a brain. It did look like the next gate from there was on the moon though. There was a local resistance of course, full of plucky heroes and wacky scientists routinely pulling off miracles

   Well, that was mildly awkward, but probably manageable. Kevin told the Thralls to fight to the death rather than allow themselves to be captured of course – but that, given the nature of the place, having fun was primary and locating a route was secondary (pretty much the opposite of the instructions for the Egyptian-themed place). Marty had to grin… That sounded like his kind of world!

   Well, that left a fair chunk of time available before it would be time to meet Mrs Lich. She hadn’t actually said whether she’d be expecting her package then – in fact, they hadn’t actually said that they’d try to get her anything, only that they’d look into shipping routes.

   Considering her likely ego, she probably hadn’t even considered the possibility that they wouldn’t necessarily be going all out to get her the stuff she’d wanted – but, even so, she almost certainly wasn’t really expecting it to arrive in one day. She’d probably want to try to pressure them with their “failure to live up to expectations”. Ah well, if putting up with that kind of game would placate her, it would be well worthwhile.

   Now, if they had the stuff, and could produce it and point out that they hadn’t actually agreed to get it for her, they might be able to turn that around.