In the morning, the caravan was up before dawn, loading up on the barges to set forth into the marsh.
Fortunately, passengers did not have to show up quite so early.
(Marty) “Ah, from one kind of boat to another. Better than slogging through the mud, at any rate!”
Kevin was along, bright, early, and cheerful with his usual trio of aides – and his two new pets.
Raphael, having rested poorly thanks to a procession of bizarre, hostile, robotic musical instruments chasing him through his dreams, was pretty much carried aboard by a robot that was acting as a bed.
Not more than a few minutes after their departure, the fog rolled in and the city behind them disappeared into the mists. As the barge drivers pushed the caravan along through the marsh, the sounds of animals echoed around them – and the vague shadows of trees could be seen nearby in the mists. Occasional flickers of fire and light danced tantalizingly just out of easy visual range.
Kevin looked around to see who else was going!
There was… a trio of mice returning home, a pair of cats looking for potential mercenary work further inland now that they were tired of killing flowers, four enchanter mages looking for work at the rumored Rat/Mice city, and eighteen experienced marsh veterans eager to exploit a new and potentially very lucrative local source of refined steel and other finished goods.
Hm. That did sound like a bit of an industrial revolution there! The case for NIMH was getting a bit stronger!
Kevin and his companions also drew some funny looks. Kevin was too young, his Thrall-aides were even younger! (The two pets were obviously just slaves, even if they were styled about as young as Thralls normally got, and so were disregarded).
It was a few hours later when Marty spotted a pile of glossy white “stones” on a rocky outcropping. Definitely artificial – and the stone of the outcropping didn’t look local. They were surrounded by a swirling, if somewhat vague, aura of conjuration and necromancy – although that seemed to be no more than lingering aftereffects.
He had Elerra try to get a psychic impression off them – putting up mental protections first.
It seemed that chameleons had found a roving band looking for the source of the flower minions – and had killed them, meticulously cleaned and bleached the skulls white, and built a pyre for the death ritual. At that point they’d drawn the dark energies they’d cultivated off into a totem crafted of bone, sinew, leather, and wood. Leaving the now spent remains, they had loaded up their totem and disappeared into the night.
Well, that was just delightful. Some sort of spirit-binding ritual perhaps?
Well, it was probably more like a power-gathering or a summoning; the spirits should have been long gone at that point – but it was hard to tell with necromancy; there were ways of keeping them hanging about for at least a while.
Raphael gathered some power and sent out some Greater Prying Eyes with instructions to do a quick patrol of the area and come back – giving them a variety of enhancements to improve the search.
The nearby woods seemed to be clear of most wildlife – and the flora was a bit more rotted than usual. There were no signs of any chameleons still lingering around, although the eyes did find a set of tracks following a chain of hills and rocks off to the North.
Those definitely looked to be reptilian. Anthropomorphizing the basic structure, it looked like… between 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 feet tall. They occasionally walked on all fours and were avid climbers – at least given how the tracks sometimes went up and across trees.
Well, that sounded like chameleons.
Raphael relayed his information into the rest of the groups smartclothes – along with a map of the area gathered from his Prying Eyes.
Kevin, meanwhile, had left his new pets on guard while he was distracted – and had focused his attention on the Dragonworlds. He had some personal business with the challengers in the cells there – and was beginning to feel like doing something about the Emperor…
(Caravaner) “Wait a minute, are those skulls?”
The caravaner gestured to the pile of skulls they’d been looking at earlier.
(Raphael) “Yes. There was a chameleon here some time ago. (Pointing) The tracks go off that way.”
Marty was wondering… The tracks seemed to be heading roughly towards that village.
(Caravaner) “Chameleons? Around these parts? Are you sure?”
Raphael gave him the information he’d gathered and deduced.
(Mercenary) “Sounds like a chameleon alright. However they are said to have left these parts long ago.”
(Rusty to Limey) “Are these Chameleon things bad?”
(Limey) “They killed all those people and did naughty things to the bodies! I don’t know what Kevin thinks, but they don’t seem very nice.”
(Rusty) “Well, I’ve got some good attack spells, and Feanor has been learning to make Artifacts! We will protect Master Kevin while he’s working elsewhere!”
(Limey) “What were you thinking of doing? I say we give them a nice little shock.”
(Rusty) “Well, I’ve got lots of Fireballs and Lightning Bolts and Toxic Clouds! And Feanor has some good conjurations, and transformations, and can make them last longer! Maybe set some triggered protections around Lord Angkor, and be prepared to hold off an attack?”
(Limey) “Ooh, I ate a really good scroll for that once! It tasted like blueberries!”
What, the kids were talking about… Wandering out into the foggy marsh to hunt down a group of chameleons able to hide themselves against any background so that explosions could be thrown with great proliferation?
Raphael thought that this was a HORRIBLY bad idea. Especially so against known necromancers.
The sailors were watching the two unarmed near-naked slave-children who wanted to go on the attack with complete incredulity. They were pretty obviously crazy, and had probably been made slaves for a very good reason!
Raphael sighed, took a spare Prying Eye, and added a quick sense-sharing divination that would let anyone near it see what it saw without downloading the recorded images – and sent it to stay close to the idiotic youngsters and keep a watch on them in case they DID decide to go and do something. The instant addition of 360 degree vision from another angle might be disorienting, but True Sight was nice for doing stupid things like wondering off to fight invisible monsters.
Marty had thought they were setting up precautionary measures in case somebody attacked their lord and master Kevin/Angkor.
That HAD been quite true; they’d been setting up plans to defend the boat – but with one of the Master’s companions apparently encouraging them to go out and fight by boosting their senses, the mission abruptly went offensive! They DID have all kinds of powers after all!
And Rusty and Feanor haven’t really gotten to play with most of them! They’ve only been Thralls for a week or two…
Limey felt bad for them! Thrall-powers were all kinds of fun, especially when you had an indulgent master like Marty or Kevin! He could go along and show them the ropes! After all, Marty would want him to help out the new guys! Feanor could try flying over someone as a hummingbird and then turning into a hippopotamus!
Limey used his own shapeshifting to turn into a small jet, and took off to do some strafing!
Rusty tried hawk-form! He’d heard that they were pretty fast and could spot things really well!
And the sailors gaped as the three dog-children abruptly turned into two birds and a model jet plane and took off to go strafing at invisible enemies.
At least Limey took a moment along the way to make himself invisible. All the better for training!
(Caravaner to Raphael) “Is it normal for your friends’ slaves to disappear and run off to try and kill potentially powerful necromancers like this? And did your friends get these slaves at a discounted price?”
(Raphael, unwilling to even TRY to explain) “Yes”
(Caravaner) “Well, I suppose that means he won’t be getting a refund then. I vote we continue on, or do you and your companions want to run off to help?”
Meanwhile Limey, Rusty, and Feanor were trying various minor effects and sensory boosts to find dangerous chameleons – which was something of a bust, since they’d apparently completed their business in the area and left days or weeks ago.
(Raphael) “Oh I guess I should ask them, but really it really is not that big of a problem.”
That was what Kevin got for turning his attention elsewhere when he had new Thralls who had no sense or proportion yet in the party! Especially when no one could poke him while staying well back from the assorted magical booby-traps now surrounding him!
(Raphael, speaking loudly from behind Marty and Kevin) “Hey Marty, Limey just ran off to hunt necromancers with Kevin’s new pets. You want to intervene?”
(Marty) “Dammit. Get back here, Limey! Now is not the time for new employee training!”
About that point, occasional random explosions started to go off – mostly whenever Rusty thought that he MIGHT be seeing a Chameleon. Limey was trying to discourage him until he was SURE of a target – but the boy wasn’t listening too closely while engrossed in the joy of making things go “Boom!” Oh well! It was fun! And swamps might as well be made for exploding!
(Limey) “Aw! But the explodings are going so well!”
(Marty) “Raphael is complaining, and I think he’s got a point. Do you want everything in the swamp after us?”
(Limey) “Aw… I guess not! Ok!”
About that time, with a spectacular fireball hit on a bubbling section of water, Limey, Rusty, and Feanor got caught up in a massive fuel-air explosion – as the initial shockwave ripped through the water and released a tremendous quantity of additional methane from the bottom mud.
The blast cleared out the fog for a radius of several miles as the blast wave ripped through the forest. Everyone aboard the barges felt the heat from the blast well before the blast wave hit…
Fortunately for Rusty, Limey, and Feanor, all three of them had been invested with extra power – and Kevin kept adding more to his contract in any case. By now, even a normal Thrall could have survived thanks to their demonic luck.
They did so reliably – but it hurt rather a lot.
Kevin, meanwhile, had reflexively erected a force-barrier to shield the barges from the blast – but it was impressive anyway, and he had to exert himself to stabilize them against the ground shock.
The sounds of birds and frogs ceased. Sawdust, burning foliage, and burning chunks of meat rained down for several minutes. A current formed leading towards the epicenter – and the sound of rushing water became evident.
(Caravaner) “Yep, definitely not getting a refund.”
Raphael was assuming that the necromantic chameleons had set a trap, and had probably avoided all damage while killing off the Thralls; the Thralls probably had not had that kind of firepower to use on the necromancers.
Ah well! He used his own powers to anchor them. No point in getting pulled to the center!
(Mercenary) “Right, do you bunch have any more suicidally insane slaves that need their throats slit now? I’ll do the job for free.”
(Marty) “Not as far as I know.”
(Kevin, now awake, frowning, and slightly scorched from the booby-trap spell he stepped in standing up) “Oh, they’ll be back in a few minutes! I’ll kennel them for the rest of the trip though! They should know better than to do things like that!”
They were still pretty blackened and bedraggled when they got back.
Kevin shook a finger severely at Limey and kenneled HIM too, since Marty wasn’t objecting too much.
(Marty, to Kevin) “For crying out loud, heal the kid first. We don’t want him bleeding all over the kennel, it’s so hard to get out.”
(Marty, to Limey, privately) “Just WHAT were you thinking? That was stupid! You’re lucky I give you some dignity, you know that?”
(Raphael) “To be fair, they did not exactly get a comprehensive instruction manual for being your pets and or body guards to tell them it was a bad idea. you could probably have one written up and link them to the computer where that stuff is stored if you want to avoid this stuff later.”
(Kevin) Hrmp! They can heal themselves given a few minutes!
(Marty) “Well, okay, if you won’t, I will.”
Or at least he’d have one of the girls do it. Wait! Did Kevin even HAVE any major personal healing powers? He seemed to rely on just refusing to admit the effects of tremendous amounts of damage, not on healing it quickly. Was he just saying “No” because it was one of the things that he couldn’t do?
(Kevin) “A manual might be a good idea though – or maybe a couple of weeks training. I’ll assign a few Thralls to come up with something or other along those lines!”
(Marty) “Why don’t you hire somebody who’s actually done it to help out?”
(Kevin, with some surprise) “What, been a Thrall? Oh! You mean write a manual or run a training program?”
(Marty) “Yeah, they can look at it from the outside and think of things you haven’t.”
(Kevin) “But… Even I don’t know what most of them can do! It keeps increasing! And they’re getting more varied – and inventing their own training programs!”
(Raphael) “you could compile lots of those and put them all on one computer system on Kadia and link all the thralls to it so that they could communicate with the computer and each other en mass – and access all the specific training manuals for whatever job you assign them without needing to all memorize every one or remember where the ones with the training are.”
(Kevin) “Hmm… Maybe I could get some of them to do that… Or would it be better to hire somebody? The House of Roses might be able to refer me to somebody…
(Marty) “I’m sure they would help you out.”
There was an odd reluctance there. Was Kevin THAT much against letting anything out of his personal control? Did he feel that there were enough of his operations getting away from him already?
Meanwhile, the sailors had seen the three young slaves return from the heart of that disaster, heal themselves up, get scolded – and get put into kennels – as the conversation preceded.
They’d also LISTENED to the conversation – and were now variously amazed, dismayed, terrified, and wondering what they had gotten themselves into.
Marty had to smile slightly. People tended to have that reaction to them!
They were still sure that the “pets” had been enslaved for very good reasons – like massive destructive powers and no impulse control – but what did that say about the owners? Crazy? Just too silly to invest in adequate leashes?
Kevin caught that one! That was probably a good idea for the rest of the trip; kenneled AND leashed. For that matter, with some anti-magical muzzles too!
Both the sailors and Marty thought that was a good idea – at least for the sake of the symbolism – although Raphael was against it; they were sapient, and that was just going too far!
The sailors were firmly of the opinion “Too dumb to live, and too dangerous to keep around” – and weren’t too happy with just kenneling. Muzzling them all would help prevent a shipboard revolt.
The kids needed some serious nap time anyway. They’d burned through a good deal of their power reserves in that sortie…
Marty promised to have the muzzle “slip off” after Limey’s nap though.
Kevin made sure to get some good pictures of Rusty with his collar, leash, and muzzle on – and with a clear view of his modifications – in his kennel; it would make a great provocation for his father!
There wasn’t much left in the area that was willing or able to come and bother them at the moment. After the waters settled down again (which took quite some time) the barges continued on. The fog slowly started to creep back in towards the end of the day when the barges come to a brief halt next to a rickety wooden dock on the edge of a small island. A crude path led from the dock further into the marshes and glowing fungi propped onto stone cairns marked and lit the path.)
(Trader) “Along this path lies Shen Haldren. The totems and fetishes mark the edge of what they claim as their land. I recommend not messing with them.” (He glanced at kennels as he said the last part.)
Meanwhile, Kevin’s usual three aides were sneering at Rusty and Feanor, the inexperienced newbies who had messed up, in their kennels.
Of course, they were sound asleep and didn’t notice.
They sneered at Limey a bit too. HE should know better! THEY hardly EVER did anything they weren’t ordered to do! (Except on their own time and their days off of course). They thought that they were much better trained and far superior Thralls!
It was long after nightfall when the barges come in sight of a number of burning torches atop the walls of some stone fortifications in the marsh – evidently some sort of rebuilt ruin. A cry of challenge came from the wall above them as they approached a steel portcullis followed by a response from the lead trader. After a few moments, the sound of massive mechanical mechanisms churning could be heard as the steel gate rose into the wall and opened the way into the interior of the fortifications.)
Oh dear! Yet ANOTHER fortified city, surrounded by possible enemies in concealment?
Lights from hidden prisms washed over the barges as they entered the gateway. As the barges continued on past the wall, it was obvious that the marshy water was being replaced with a stone lined canal with a current flowing inwards. They came to a stop at a set of moorings on the edge of the canal, as a number of well armed and armored guards lined the surrounding walls. A trio of those guards walked down a set of stairs and came to greet the traders, enchanters, and mercenaries in turn. Soon enough it was their turn…
(Guard) “Ah and who might you bunch be?”
(Kevin) “Angkor Shadowfang, Martin of Clan McCaw, Rafe of the Kitsune, and our servants!”
(Guard) “I see, and your business in our fair town of Rastafan?”
(Kevin) “Trade and Research mostly!”
Hm… Too close a match for hand-workmanship on the pole-handles! Automated lathes there! From the evenness of the thread-packing in the cloth he’d bet on a power loom (no uneven bands there on a quick magnified scan). The prisms betrayed either massive natural sources of crystal or good glass-making technology and sophisticated mirror-surfacing techniques, as well as at least a basic knowledge of optics. Probable hydraulics, and some other systems…
Not local then. The locals were quite capable of matching all those things if they’d wanted to bother – but they’d use heartstones and magic for it where they cared and would be far more likely to see each guard personalizing his or her own gear with a bit of magic. The odds were up again on NIMH!
(Guard) “Fair enough. All are welcome. Respect the laws and there shouldn’t be any problems.”
(Marty) “Which are?”
Kevin was betting on “no blowing up the swamp or bringing in slaves who can do so” – at least if word had run ahead of them. They probably didn’t approve of slavery at all though – very odd for this world – since unloading three leashed and muzzled kids sleeping in cages was getting some rather hostile looks!
At least the kids were all healed up now, and it was just a power-recovery nap!
Marty’s quick check on the relevant laws – not too big a stretch on Contract Magic – revealed a late 20th Century/Early 21st Century North American or European structure. It looked like the locals were big on equality – the laws were the same for every adult – and on the rights of minorities under a rule of the majority, due process, and a lot of similar, rather-familiar looking, ideas – some of them not too practical in a seriously magical world!
Well, that was as big a give-away as far as HE was concerned as Kevin’s technological notions were for HIM. That kind of law? In THIS kind of world? Where the various species were blatantly unequal, where there were gross imbalances of personal power, and where the gods themselves often commanded overrunning the neighboring species? It was like trying to import… Well, it was like trying to import pacifism to Battling Business World!
It didn’t say so, but he presumed that blowing up the swamp or town was highly frowned upon and was likely to result in being locked up or banished.
The regulations on bringing in slaves were still in dispute; it had been decided that they could not free outside slaves brought in by others, but neither would they allow the enslavement of anyone on their territory (which would probably disappoint Kevin). The current legal battles were debating what rights slaves who entered with their masters should have – and under what cases of abuse were they obligated to step in.
The debate was quite fierce.
Marty sighed. And yet another place entered the Thrall-debate without even knowing it.
A number of the guards were showing visible disgust at the treatment the Thralls in the kennels were receiving – but were thus far making no move to intervene.
The expressions got a lot more complex as they spoke to a few of the sailors and the gestures in the kids direction got wilder. Kevin grinned – and got everyone headed into town before the guards could start asking pointed questions about either “weapons of mass destruction” OR the within-the-last-few-days modifications…
Even Limey was still sound asleep; he must have blown a LOT of power on that mess… Oh well! If they didn’t wake up by the time they found a place to stay, they could simply conjure up a doggie-bed and pile them on it… They were pack-bonding, and that would help!
The town itself had obviously been built on – and in some part of – an outcropping of the local bedrock. The stone walls / canal boundaries / building foundations extended a good deal of the distance to the center of the town – providing a formidable series of defensive walls along the way. Massive islands of stone blocks – footings for buildings and efficiently-organized gardens – had been built up above the canals which criss-crossed the land, and soaring bridges of wood and rope provided passage between them.
There was an ongoing excavation/construction project on the far side of the town, and there was what looked to be a large elevator system that went down into the earth below the town. Towers with rotating ballista turrets were visible – along with odd pipes with a small flame coming out the end.
(Kevin) “Flamethrowers, swivel-mounted, possibly repeating, ballistas, big walls… Outpost in the unknown or active problems with the flower power?… Also, some pretty good pumps or sealing methods if they need an elevator going down in a swamp.”
(Marty) “Wouldn’t be out of the question.”
In the center of town there was an inn, shops, and a good deal of farming and construction equipment (possibly indicating a bit of a push towards expansion coming up?). The rats and mice were continuing about their business, only stopping to glance at the group and nodding in acknowledgment – at least now that the kennels were out of sight in with the other luggage. There were a few mildly interested or startled expressions when they saw Kevin’s usual aides levitating all that stuff along – but not astonishment. Probably little personal magic save what came with local ID’s , but enough to be familiar with the concepts.
Near the central elevator system they could see puffs of steam and a small set of rail tracks leading towards the largest of the canals.
They headed over to get rooms at the Inn.
(Innkeeper) “Ah, you must be new arrivals! Arrived as part of that caravan did you?”
(Kevin) “Yep! And with an entourage, so how many rooms do you have? And what’s the price for the finest?”
(Innkeeper) “Currently I have a hundred different rooms available, depending on the stature of our guests. Our finest lodgings are below ground and are available for a mere 150 Zenni a night. That includes a number of benefits like an unlimited pass on the local transit system and excellent meals!”
(Kevin) “Ah, that will do nicely! Four of your finest suites and full services! I shall pay for ten days in advance!”
(Innkeeper, attempting to conceal some surprise) “Very well then! Here are the keys to your rooms, maps of the town, and a menu of what our kitchens have to offer. Our staff is available at all hours to handle your needs and we can help direct your to whatever you might be looking for. Is there anything immediate that I can help you with?”
(Kevin) “We were principally looking for information on the swamp tribes, a little trade, and some information on you – since much of your city looks quite familiar indeed! Building deep underground in a swamp requires either a great deal of magic – far more than it is worth – or some quite sophisticated techniques!”
Marty personally noted that it suggested that there was a damned good reason to make doing so worth it too – but didn’t say it out loud.
(Innkeeper) “Ah, for that you would best speak with our diplomatic offices and some of our scholars that specialize in anthropological studies. Their offices can be found here, and here on your map. For trade, there are the shops on the surface, and then there are the more specialized manufacturies and forges deep underground. We do take a great deal of pride in our knowledge and techniques, having learned a great deal of it from the original masters of such things.
(Marty) “Original masters?”
(Innkeeper) “A race of creatures with great prowess with the knowledge of the world around them that even allowed them to create other thinking creatures without the aid of magic. You can still find them out there doing all sorts of amazing things, although we settle for staying out of the way and discreetly intervening only when necessary.”
(Kevin) “Ah. You are relatively new to this realm then I take it?”
(Innkeeper) “Yes, although we’ve had an outpost here for some time. It was only when they found precious metals and other useful items deep below that colonists started coming through in large numbers. We are growing quite rapidly these days as more arrive.”
Well, Kevin took that as near-confirmation. NIMH was in town!
Of course, their diplomats might recognize him – but would it be by reputation as a terrible dark lord, or by his activities in their world?
Raphael mused… Societies that accepted Kevin’s Thrall-recruiting would – inevitably – hold a trade-and-travel advantage over those that did not. Was that one of Kevin’s subtle-evils-that-were-hard-to-tell-from-good, neither good nor evil, or an indication that – in the end – the practice was at worst merely species-survival pragmatism and at best was simply a new stage of childhood that would ultimately be good for everyone?
Yes, a Thrall COULD get the short end of the stick – Rusty and Feanor might be becoming the poster children for that (or would have been if they didn’t seem so HAPPY) – but the worst that could happen to a Thrall before adulthood was basically… some temporary aches and pains and later embarrassment. Considering what they got in exchange – and compared to most of history – that was unimaginably good fortune.
Drat the child! He was either incredibly insidious, utterly transparent (perhaps in the sense of “something you couldn’t see at all”), or totally blatant, and it was hard to tell which! How could he be running the largest humanitarian organization in history – providing food, search-and-rescue, medical services, defense assistance, disaster relief and evacuation, trade support, and a thousand other services, under a… bright, rainbow-colored, smiley-faced, banner of evil? Even if he did provide an option to “work for me for awhile in exchange for high pay and extremely superior benefits”?
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 186a – The Wailing of the Damned Bagpipes from Emergence Campaign Weblog (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 185b – Orders and Laws (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 185a – The Power of the Flowers (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 184a – Vampires or Lawyers? Vampires please! (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 183a – A Darkness Upon The Deep (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 178b – the Monks of Meanderment (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation Apocalypse Session 175 – The Darkness Wandering (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apcalypse, Session 176a – Nine Tales and the Darkness (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 169b – Egging Them On (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Federation-Apocalypse Session 183b – With an Order of Mushrooms (ruscumag.wordpress.com)