Federation-Apocalypse Session 174 – The Darkness Before the Domination

Lechuguilla Cave (Carlsbad Caverns National Pa...

So which way are we going here?

While Marty was diverted by events across the Manifold, Raphael was working on upgrades for his constructs, and Conley was catching up on his reading – and trying to adjust to the Manifold – Kevin was sending the two hundred and forty-odd “bandit” prisoners off to Kadia… Most of them were rabbits and panthers of course, but there were a scattering of other species – especially from amongst those caravaners who had “just happened” to be in the area. Pretty much all of them of combatant age too. Most of the kids must be hiding somewhere. He’d have to catch them too! Anthro kids made cute Thrall-pets!

In Kadia the prisoners were sent to the after-the-fight carnival party, got the usual introduction-to-Kadia and other briefings (including the escape-briefing on possible places to escape to and their advantages and disadvantages and some subtle conditioning), were set up with a limited monitoring and restraint program, then counselors and social services, then classes and jobs (such as running the carnival rides for Kadia’s 16-hour work week).

Since Kadia undid obedience-conditioning slowly, any really determined ones could keep escape on their minds – but it usually took months or years to pull off an escape, even with the regular meetings of the sponsored escape committees to help out. Most never bothered… Kadia had a lot of advantages, and a lot of people settled in and exploited them until they were good and ready to leave… In practice, it was usually much less trouble to simply either serve your time and get set free with a nest egg or to work hard and buy your way out early – but if some clever fellow managed to get away with a heap of treasure or hijack a ship and sail or fly away or something, good for him or her! Kevin figured that was only fair! After all, they had to be prepared for life in the Manifold before they could be allowed to escape! Escape got easier after they did well in classes for awhile!

Of course that left them with a massive stockpile of magical military gear, “boring” trade goods, and general supplies for staging various attacks in and around the city. A rather excessive pile of munitions for a group of outlaws…

(Kevin) “What do you think Raphael? Should be involved the city authorities now, or wait a bit?”

Marty was for that. It looked more serious than the Cat Clan head had seemed to think it was.

Raphael didn’t see any real reason that they had to call the guard, but it might be nice to tell them if they felt like getting into more legal knots.

Kevin had been thinking more of letting them know that someone had been setting up for a major attack on their city. Being guests there, such a warning seemed sort of obligatory.

He sent the city guard a note informing them that the “cat clan exiles” seemed to have had major weapons stockpiles, external backing, and several hundred fighters. He also noted that there was a teleport block up, and so they’d need to arrive a few hundred feet away.

He left two of his usual three servants – and a few more disguised thralls – to watch the surface camps while they headed into the caverns.

The cavern was a natural limestone cave system. Initially it dropped down alog a hewn staircase and set of minecart rails for a few dozen feet. At the bottom of the stairs there was a rather significant underground lake with a wooden boardwalk across it. There were warning signs posted about not letting anything dangle above the water when crossing the boardwalk. Everlit torches lined the boardwalk as it meanders through the stalactites. The sound of dripping water off the stalagmites seemed to echo through the chamber repeatedly and loudly. The lake itself appeared to be at least 250 feet across, with no discernable current.

Presumably there was some sort of monster in the water. Occasional flickerings of light vaguely reminiscent of lightning could be seen in the murky depths of the water, along with shadows indicative of more normal fish.

There were crudely carved side passages along the walls of the chamber. The stone there looked quite slick and wet – but passable.

Dusty footprints could be seen on the boardwalk, along with signs of a significant force of people having come along one of the passages along the left wall. A few things like knives, coins, food leftovers, a drinking flask, and other items appeared to have been dropped into the lake as a rush went by. Further along that way there appeared to be a significant hollow nook in the wall about a third of the way around the lake from which the tracks along the wall all seemed to emanate.

Well, they’d have to go and have a look!

Kevin elected to follow the trail – but left a few more thralls to keep an eye on the other routes. He strode boldly off. After all, he was pretty sure that most of the kids would be down here – which meant that their parents wouldn’t want anything too horrible in the way of booby traps left out!

The justification for that was kind of vague, but he was in a mood to jump to conclusions today!

Raphael tried to avoid stepping anywhere but on the existing footprints or footprints in the dust to insure that he wouldn’t step on a trigger-plate or a mine or something – slow, but sure, in sharp contrast to Kevin’s confident striding along out in front. HE was assuming that he was in an adventure-game based world where traps would suddenly appear as soon as the normal inhabitants were gone or captured – no matter how silly it would be for them to trap their home.

Well, the place DID have some built-in silliness, but it wasn’t THAT bad.

Marty flew, since he WAS being a bird – although he tried to approach as quietly as possible.

He did get vague feelings that there was something lurking beneath the murky water as he silently darted around the various stalactites and stalagmites. It almost seemed as if the discharges of light were reacting to his presence somehow… They seemed to just….. prefer to branch in the direction he was flying. The occasional flashing of point lights also seemed to preferentially occur around him.

Raphael was so busy concentrating on where his feet were that he missed the low-hanging stalactite as he walked into it and smacked his head.

Drat the child! Was he just well-attuned to the local narratives, or was he actually burning enough power to bend them around himself without even thinking about it? And was there really any way to tell?

(Marty, privately) “Any idea what the lights might be?”

(Kevin, privately – and a bit facetiously) “Hmm… Laser cave fish? Just think! Laser rangefinding, blind predators, communicate as a massed optical computer, zap people with combined laser beams… There would be many advantages to being a laser cave fish!”

Raphael declined to speculate beyond his data.

Ok… the laser cave fish notion said that Kevin was pulling out of his funk, at least locally. That was something, even if it WAS pretty unhelpful (if not downright silly) otherwise!

Marty reached the nook soon enough, followed shortly by Kevin and Raphael. It looked to be a significant living / work area; there were stockpiles of food, drink, various crafting tools, crates, reddish spheres about 18 inches across, and boxes that disturbingly resembled pine box coffins. There were living quarters off to one side and some sort of magical laboratory off to the other. There were also quite a few spells altering the air content, humidity, and temperature.

There didn’t seem to be anybody home though. Had they seen the flares in the lake and run?

Raphael easily spotted a barracaded doorway in the living quarters. Someone had tried to hide it behind furniture and a few minor illusions. From there, a number of odd muddy footprints led to the workshop area.

They started telekinetically rummaging around, giving some preference to clearing the door…

Marty was actually out of non-regeneration healing for the day, so he was actually being CAREFUL. That last fight had been pretty draining for all of them!

Hmm! Not so long ago, he would never have even conceived of the notion of “caution”!

The workshop… was an odd place. There were a number of worktables set up and many of them had odd, partially completed, statues laying on them. More spheres of the red stuff were stacked in heaps, and there was a large furnance kiln with that looked to be made to hold them. There were more pine boxes are stacked along the wall with various coded stencils on them.

(Kevin) “Weird! Anyone know what the red stuff is?”

(Marty) “No clue!”

Raphael was busy examining the magical traces… The red stuff looked to have been imbued with energies just waiting to be shaped into enchantments by a skilled craftsman.

Four statues of what looked to be craftsmen stood in the corners of the workshop too, hidden behind some of the crates.

Marty went to have a look at those! Were they really statues, craftsmen trapped in statues, or just some kind of automata?

Kevin thought that this was getting creepy. That much raw orichalcum or philosophers stone or whatever they called it? That would have called for a little energy from a LOT of people – or for stealing lots of energy from a few – which usually resulted in cursed items if they were unwilling. Now, if someone was so fanatically persuasive that they had persuaded everyone to sacrifice their kids to make weapons he was going to be quite unhappy with them!

Marty, meanwhile, had turned on a selection of his analytical and sensory boosts…

The statues looked to be made of clay, were enchanted with a number of effects, and were in fact alive – or at least something inside of them was. About the time he realized THAT, the statue started moving.

Whatever or whoever it was had evidently realized that he knew.

(Marty) “Uh… hi.”

(Statue) “Don’t hurt me!”

(Marty) “Let me guess. Trapped?”

(Statue) “Well uh, you are blocking the way out yes.”

Ah! Four craftsmen pretending to be statues!.

(Marty) “So, what’s up with you guys?”

(Statue) “Well, uh, making weapons so that a proxy group can take over the city? What’s up with you guys? I thought you were coming to exterminate the camp and take the survivors back to be slaves or something.”

(2nd Statue) “I think Carnival is a euphemism for some sort of dark torture chamber!”

(Marty) “Nope, it’s a carnival! It even has a Ferris Wheel.”

(Kevin) “Exterminating people is silly and very rude! And there are giant golem battles to watch! And an after-the-fight party!”

(2nd Statue) “Oooh, I heard about those. Very nasty, you get lashed to one and they spin it around and do all sorts of nasty stuff.”

(Raphael, sighing) “As silly as it is, it is no euphimism”

(Marty) “Not a wheel of pain, a Ferris wheel. Like this!”

He used an illusion to illustrate.

(Kevin) “I think the ones that hurt you are wheels of misfortune! Ferris Wheels are mostly so you can see where to visit next!”

(Statue) “Are you sure you are doing it right, because that doesn’t look like it would hurt at all.”

(Marty) “That’s because it doesn’t!”

(Kevin) “Well, that’s right for a Ferris Wheel! It’s a minor amusement, not a torture device! And where are you getting all this stuff?”

Kevin – and a few Thralls – were keeping a careful eye out for people trying to sneak out while they were distracted.

(3rd Statue) “What sort of weird people are you? You attack people and then send them off to various amusements? I thought the ones doing the capturing were the ones supposed to amuse themselves with the captured.”

(Kevin) “So where is everybody? It’s time to capture them all and to make sure they know their contacts on the escape committee! That way we can play again another time!”

(4th Statue) “Uhh, clay, it comes out of the mountain. We enchant it using the metal bars sent to us over the lake, and then discard the refuse by selling it to the caravans. Sometimes we enchant stuff for the soldiers they are training, but there hasn’t been much of that lately. As for where the others are hiding, the rest of our people are behind that door you found. We thought we hid it pretty well, but you found it anyway. And you even have escape committees for your prisoners? Is this like those cities that fight battles by seeing who can plant the flag in the most advantageous location each day?”

(1st Statue) “Oh I remember that place! The armies would go out and march all over the place putting various flags in the ground and engaging in “maneuvers”.”

(Kevin) “That’s fairly close! It’s the best way to have wars! Nobody gets hurt, everyone gets good practice and exercise, and the after-the-battle-party is always fun!”

(2nd Statue) “Uhh, so you aren’t here to kill us, but you want to send us to a land full of amusements and then have a big party afterwards?”

(Marty) “Well, yeah, that is what he was offering.”

(Kevin) “Well, we could go in for the mass destruction and such, but that’s no fun for anyone!”

(3rd Statue) “Well so much for the Dark Lord out enslaving children, destroying buildings, destroying bandit camps, throwing around dark and terrible magics, and complaining about the females ruining his vacation.”

(Kevin) “Hey, that can happen! Some of them can get really bossy!”

(4th Statue) “But we saw him unleash terrible magics, have enchanted magical children enslaved to his will, and destroy the bandit camp! Now the destroying buildings in his fury is thus far unsubstantiated…”

(3rd Statue) “Well, of course it’s unsubstantiated! There isn’t a building out here for miles for him to destroy.”

(2nd Statue) “Build him one and see if he destroys it?”

(Kevin) “Hey, if anyone is interested in the enslavement program, I have a brochure around here somewhere…” (He rummaged briefly).

(1st Statue) “Now that would be an odd form of triggered aggression: only against artificial structures.”

Raphael almost had to laugh. For dark conquerers, Kevin and Marty were VERY easily diverted into conversations!

(3rd Statue) “Wait, you advertise the enslavement program? That seems rather counter-intuitive. I thought you sold the slaves once you captured them.”

(Kevin) “They can be rented sometimes, but the program needs to be advertised to the prospective slaves! It does have to be voluntary and limited-term after all or it wouldn’t work!”

Raphael was is far more interested in the construction of the golems than anything else so far – but he had to admit that the “Is he a dark lord?” was pretty entertaining. Maybe the kid should get himself a certificate of Dark Lordship?

(4th Statue) “Why would anyone voluntarily enslave themselves? It would be like purposefully neutering yourself or something.”

Kevin produced and handed him a pamphlet.

(3rd Statue) “Hey some of the locals do that here! They will neuter themselves to gain greater magical power, or purposefully have sterile offspring for that purpose!”

(Kevin, absently) “I think there are usually better ways!”

(Marty) “It is a lot like that, but less painful.”

Raphael saw that… the golems were fairly standard clay golems made to resemble various species. The most unusual thing about them was the large opening in the chest cavity and the lack of a magical program animating it. It looked like the different symbols inscribed into the crates signify what sort of enchantments and species the golem had.

(3rd Statue) “Wait, how the hell do you instill this much power into the slaves? There is no way you can access to this much enchantment capability on your own. No mortal mage has that kind of power. Are you just shoving various animal spirits into them or something? That would explain the shapeshifting I suppose…”

(Kevin) “Mortality is kind of subjective! Besides, most of that just happens!”

(Raphael, sighing again) “Absolutely! No MORTAL could; did you notice the part about imortality in there?”

(2nd State leaning over the 3rd to read the pamphlet too) “What sort of animal spirit would you have to use to grant immortality? A sponge?”

(Kevin) “That would never work! Sponges can be burned up and killed in lots of ways!”

Marty was just waiting for their reactions when they finished reading the pamphlet and got to the contract details. It really wasn’t much of a secret any longer!

(2nd Statue) “Hmm, right. Cats having nine lives is largely annecdotal too. Maybe a dragon?”

(1st Statue) “Wouldn’t that grant them fire breathing instead?”

(Kevin) “No no… For that you just anchor their souls in a dimension where death is impossible!”

(All four statues in unison) “Oooooooooh…… wait……”

(1st Statue) “Anchor their souls to a dimension where death is impossible….. wouldn’t that be some sort of afterlife or something?”

(Marty) “Well yeah, that’s EXACTLY what it is.”

(Kevin) “Oh yes! But you just arrange for them to be re-embodied there, and they can head on out again! Once you handle that, the rapid healing, agelessness, immunities, and other benefits are easy!”

(1st Statue) “Of course! Now it all makes sense! The various enchantments and abilities would then follow from there! It’s so simple! Why didn’t we think of this before?!”

(2nd Statue) “Because we don’t know how to make an afterlife?”

(4th Statue) “That would do it.”

(3rd Statue) “So in actuality that just reshapes the problem without solving anything. You can make something immortal, but you would have to make an afterlife as a key ingredient.”

(Kevin) “Oh, they aren’t too hard! You just have to envision it properly and then will it into being!”

(Marty) “Who are you guys other than statues, anyway? You seem really knowledgeable about this stuff.”

(1st Statue) “Us? Oh, we’re people just like you are. The shells are just useful ways to alter our skillsets and increase our physical abilities. A bit like golem armor in some ways, but not so primitive.”

Meanwhile, the Thralls had the door clear and were poking through it. Kevin still wanted to capture the panther kids; they were cute!

They knocked first – and a child’s voice announced that “no one is here!” before being hushed.

In the interests of expediency, Kevin went for oratory again – explaining that they were in no danger and why they might as well come out.

There were one hundred and thirty six youngsters in there – including a number of familiar-looking lizard-like children, and an egg in the mix as well.

Ah, lizard-assassins? Then perhaps the ones running the golem-statues were the males! Marty checked with a little “x-ray vision” – and saw a lizard-like creature inside the statue. It was small – about the size of a hobbit – and it is rather firmly embedded in the clay of the statue, which wrapped tightly around it’s limbs and much of the torso.

Raphael smiled. So; the kid was probably just good at adapting; otherwise reality might well have reshaped itself to make his early belief – that the statues were remote-operated through the spheres – have been accurate.

(2nd Statue) “We’re from across the sea. Things work differently there, but I am not entirely clear on why though.”

(Raphael) “Oh that is probably a grafted realm. nothing to worry about now.”

(2nd Statue) “I mean, how a boat ride results in ending up in a location that operates according to different rules and such seems a bit odd to me. I’ve ridden on boats down a river or across a lake and nothing like that ever happened.”

(Kevin) “Oh, you probably crossed a dimensional boundary! A lot of subrealms have been incorporated into this one!”

(3rd Statue) “Wait, those can occur naturally? I thought it took large amounts of magic just to create a portal. What would it take to create a boundary zone?”

(4th Statue) “A reality horizon then? Perhaps that is just how things are structured…”

(Marty) “Just happens, I think. Angkor and Raphe know more than me.”

(1st Statue) “Interesting, then those zones with natural laws more conducive to expanding the boundaries will naturally grow over time and incorporate and assimilate any other zones it comes across.”

(Kevin) “Oh yes! But new realms are spawned all the time, so there are endless numbers to choose from at any given time!”

(2nd statue) “At least until zones appear resistant to assimilation.”

(3rd statue) “Ah, so we crossed from one to another then. Or did we get assimilated?”

(4th statue) “How would you tell?”

(3rd statue) “I am not sure.”

(Kevin) “So long as people like where they are on both sides, it usually stops as a boundary! It’s a sort of unconscious democracy!”

(4th Statue) “So it’s driven by people? Now that is interesting.”

(3rd Statue) “If it’s driven by people, I imagine there must be some really silly and stupid places out there then.”

(Kevin) “All the dimensions except the Core are driven by people. After all, it’s people who create them! And yes, there are some REALLY silly and stupid places!… Anyway, want to go to the party? The kids are mostly being escorted there now.”

(Marty) “Should be fun, Angkor throws good parties. Maybe the bounce chamber is still up!”

(1st Statue) “The children? Oh dear, if anything happens to that egg, my mate is going to kill me!”

(Kevin) “Fortunately, nothing is allowed to happen to anyone at my parties!”

(2nd Statue) “Oh come now. Put the egg in the incubator and bring it along. If she gets upset, tell her it was smarter to go along to a party than to fight and get caught unwillingly like she did.”

(1st Statue) “Ok, fine. Let me swap to something more suitable though.”

With that the statue walked over to one of the crates and started reading labels aloud to himself.

Meanwhile, the city guard had arrived – and was most unhappy with the news of the scale of the operation found here, the power displayed by the defenders, and the power displayed by the attackers. Major battles just outside their city between numerous high powered and well equipped adventurers was stirring them up into a major fit.

(Kevin) “Oh don’t have such a fuss! You don’t have to worry about the attackers any more, we were defending your city, and we didn’t have to call you in!”

Eventually the statue found what it is looking for, pulled out a crate, and opened it up on the floor to reveal a statue of a raccoon-person. The craftman statue then seemed to peel open in the chest cavity to reveal the Saurian. The Saurian climbed out of the craftsman statue and into the one laying in the box. Quickly enough the clay sealed around the saurian and the texture changed to that of hair and clothing. It looked quite alive and “natural”.

(Guard Captain, looking at the teleport-and-minor-spell-block) “I don’t think even the Legendary Eight-and-a-Half-Tails can throw around that much spell power… What ARE you Angkor?”

(2nd Statue to Marty) “Do the mates of your species have similar attitudes?”

(Marty) “Yeah, more or less. I don’t think it matters what they are, they want to protect the kids. Or eggs. Whatever. Heck, I even hear hairless apes are like that?”

(2nd Statue) “Now the hairless apes are a weird bunch. There are none around here though.”

(Marty) “What do you know about them?”

(2nd Statue) “Not much, all I ever saw of them was a few of their mages and artificers. They like to subject us to all sorts of tests and such all the time. Their talking artifacts did much of the work teaching us.”

(Marty) “Talking artifacts I take it? And where did you run into these apes?”

(Raphael) “They weren’t trying to push that damn teacher program on you like the core guys like to push on everyone were they? It kills originality and makes you far too much like a machine.”

(Kevin, giving Raphael a dirty look) “Hey, I studied with Teacher!”

(3rd Statue) “The walls, floors, ceilings, and little floating and rolling artifacts would all talk to us. Those things were quite nice and helpful, but the apes weren’t so much. And we ran into them across the sea where we were hatched. Supposedly they claimed to have created us, but I’ve never seen any indications that a mage or artificer could actually create life. Modify it yes – create it? No.”

(Marty) “Definitely sounds like Core tech.”

(Raphael to Kevin) “Yes – but as I recall you ran away to somewhere else for education halfway through”

(4th Statue) “Well yeah, they aren’t very bright when it comes to others being smart. They were so confident in their abilities they never even considered that we might master some of them without training. And so many of us escaped and found a place to live elsewhere. That’s when we met the archmage.”

Ah, they might finally have a link back to Merlin! If he was using creatures that someone else had made that would explain a lot!

(Marty) “So what was this archmage like?”

(1st Statue) “Very powerful. He was able to find a number of “restraints” that had been placed upon us by the hairless apes to keep us from having eggs and feeling well. He taught us more about magic, powers of the mind, and how to make things ourselves.”

(Marty) “Huh. Was he an animal-person or something else?”

(3rd Statue) “Animal person? You mean there is another type? He took the form of a bear, but claimed to be a great and powerful dragon taking that form for the purposes of convenience.”

(Marty) “Interesting.”

Hmm. That DID sound like Merlin – or at least another really powerful mage.

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