Thursday, July 04, 2013

[Karazhan's Story] 2.2: Waging War

     I woke to the booming sound of cannons firing, apparently something I needed to get used to in this new reality. Sitting up, I realized that sleeping on the ground makes for an uncomfortably stiff wake up call. I performed some stretches to limber up my muscles, flexing my fingers and stretching my arms and legs. Then I practiced some quick mental exercises I'd been taught in the temple for sharpening my mind.

     With nothing else really to do, but wanting to be of assistance, I wandered back into the cool, dim interior of the Ark of the Ascended. I couldn't help gazing in wonder yet again at the majesty of the place as I approached Sanora and waited politely for her to acknowledge me. Jillian smiled a good morning to me.

     "Ah, good morning Ascended! Karazhan. I trust you slept alright?" Sanora dusted her hands off and clasped my shoulder in a friendly gesture. It warmed me to see that others cared about me.

     "Yes, I am well thanks. Is there anything I can do to help here....?" I asked, eyeing everything around me. "I'm not very familiar with magitech, but I have strong magics, perhaps...?" Sanora gave me a thoughtful look. Another boom shook the stone walls. She frowned at that, than gave me another, more appreciative look.

     "Actually...we are fine here, there are plenty of scientists and scholars lending their hand to the excavation, but you are a powerful Ascended with potent magics available to you. The Guardians have been waging constant war against us since the fall of Port Scion. They blame us, wrongfully, for the death of their last royal line. Their commander, Lord Runeclift, is near invincible without Ascended. If you can find a way to neutralize him, I'd be mighty grateful. He's the one in charge of this..." She trailed off as another boom shook the walls and a shower of pebbles rained down. She gave a half shrug, as if to say, 'see what I mean?' I bit my lip and considered. Well, I did offer after all. I was hoping for something a little less violent, but who was I kidding? This was war after all. Tumultuous times. If I wanted to be part of history, I had to do something.

     "Very well. From what I've observed, I can find this Runeclift up by that half destroyed bridge?" I asked, lifting an eyebrow. Sanora looked so relieved, she sagged. She nodded. "Thank you, Karazhan! We are forever in your debt here." I waved it off.

     "I have been given the chance of a new life, as well as many powerful gifts. It is I who is in the debt of the Defiant." I said in return. I strode back out into the bright morning light and squinted off to the left, where the ground sloped sharply upward. Nodding resolutely, I took off for the broken bridge I'd first seen when I'd arrived.
  At the base of the bridge, a young woman in red and gold knelt on the ground next to a man holding his stomach. She looked up as I approached and gave me a once over.

     "Who are you? Are you the medic I asked for?" Her forehead was creased with worry and there were smudges of blood on her uniform, hardly noticeable against the dark red fabric. I spread my hands.

    "I'm sorry no. My name is Karazhan, and I came to help neutralize these Guardians who are attacking." I said. "Something about a Port Scion and revenge." I didn't really know much of what was going on, actually. I shook my head at myself. I know so little about the new reality I now live in. I needed to fix that.

    "Tell me what happened here. What happened at Port Scion to make these Guardians attack us so viciously?" The woman sat back, patting the shoulder of the wounded man consolingly. She gestured behind her, over the railing of the bridge, where I could see a large inlet. Across the water, a large, verdantly green forest stretched as far as I could see.

     "Port Scion was a neutral city created for all the various cultures and tribes of Telara. After it fell due to betrayal from within, the Guardians went on the offensive. They blamed us, instead of their own treacherous snake, Alsbeth Rothmann. Their goal was to destroy the Ark of the Ascended and then march on Meridian." She scoffed. "As if destroying our city and our magitech would solve all their problems. Instead, we destroyed the bridge between us to prevent their advance. So now they sit on the other side of the broken bridge and launch magical cannon attacks against us. Because of the distance, it isn't that accurate, but it is causing casualties. And they are sending boats across the inlet, last I heard. If only we could get at them." She shook her head, frustrated, then turned back to her patient, waving me away.

     I stood up and stared thoughtfully. Best to see for myself. I thanked the exhausted healer and walked further across the bridge. Not far down the way, I saw the end of our side of it, jagged and crumbling. A handful of Defiant stood at the edge, shaking their weapons and occasionally hurling magic bolts or spears. Nothing came even close to reaching the other end of the broken bridge, where I could see a group of men and woman clad in white and blue and silver. They had a cannon aimed in our direction. I silently approached the Defiant and stood analyzing the distance. It was quite far, that was true. So far that I couldn't even make out features or details on the enemy. But....

     With my magical senses, I probed the distance, wondering if I could indeed cast a spell that would reach that far. I've never even dreamed of casting a spell over even half this distance before. But things were different now. I am Ascended now. I flexed my fingers and spread my feet. A man on my left turned and eyed me curiously. He nudged his fellow and then the whole group of Defiant were gawking at me. I shot them a playful smirk. The leader blinked at me. He opened his mouth and I put a finger to my lips. Turning back, I gave the group across the way my full attention. Taking a deep breath, I called up my control of the elements and the weather. The air began to crackle around me. I could feel my hair lift of its own accord. I absolutely loved the feel of my magic. Not many had such skill and control over the elements as I had, back on Atia. I locked onto my target and licked my lips, straining my magical connection as far as I could. I grinned as a fork of lightning suddenly coalesced over their heads and danced from body to body. From this distance, all I could really see was sparks of light and jagged streaks of magic as the lightning arced between the group, doing devastating electrocuting damage to the entire group. They staggered and fell, and still the lightning rained down. It seemed like it took forever, but in fact mere moments passed. I stepped back, aware that the eyes of the whole Defiant force at the end of the bridge were now staring at me wide eyed, looking a little uneasy.

     "Relax, I'm on your side." I said, smiling. I made an elaborate, overly dramatic bow and spun on my heel, striding back down the bridge. As I walked back to the land, I gazed out over the sea. Just at the edge of my sight, I could make out the skeleton shape of a ship, listed to the side and grounded on a tiny island, far out in the ocean, but close enough to know it was a large, seafaring vessel. The colors even looked similar to something I'd seen before. I squinted, but the distance was too far.

     Back at the military camp set up outside the Ark, a woman approached me. She eyed me up and down like everyone seemed accustomed to doing here. I gave her a polite nod.

     "That was an excellent control on your magic you displayed up there." She said. "Of course, I'm not surprised. You are one of the machineborn after all." I tilted my head. How did she know? The woman chuckled. "I have informants everywhere dear. Come, let's discuss some things that have come to my attention." She walked across the yard and I followed.

     "I am Optica Fairna Oaks." I am one of the military advisors between the Wardens and the Defiant army stationed here." I nodded, although I didn't really know who the Wardens were. I'm assuming the native defense of this land. "Freemarch belongs to the Wardens, although we are grateful for the aid of the Defiant of course." She continued, answering my question.

     She stopped walking and turned, putting her hands on her hips. She was short, as were most people to a Bahmi, and had the looks of an Ethian who'd lived a hard life. "I admit, I find you a bit...hard to conceive. A powerful, created Defiant sent back in time from a doomed future to save us? I didn't think I'd ever believe what those scientists were saying, let alone live to see it happen. But I am very grateful for it." She smiled, and her eyes crinkled at the corners. I smiled back. She turned and gestured widely around her. "This is the fair land of Freemarch. What do you think of it? Not so fair anymore though. It used to be beautiful, emerald green, bountiful." Her voice darkened. "Worshippers of Regulos, calling themselves the Endless Court, have attacked these lands, wreaking havoc everywhere! That's why the Defiant is here. They've offered their aid in defense of Freemarch and the surrounding lands in return for the city of Meridian and free reign of our lands. A small price to pay, most of us thought."

     She gave me a long look. "Lately, the clashes with the Endless Court have been worse. They have dared to attack us here at the Ark, and are swarming all over out there beyond the valley. The more we kill, the more that come. I can't understand it. There must be some portal somewhere, allowing them to arrive here so quickly. If only--" She was interrupted as a man in a long red coat rushed up to her, saluted and then held still, as if waiting for recognition.

     "Yes?" Fairna asked.

    "Ma'am. Dame Sigga wants a status report, ma'am." The man bowed as he finished, glancing fleetingly at me, before focusing back on Fairna, who nodded. "Tell her we've had heavy rift activity, plus multiple skirmishes with cultists along the sea borders. We are holding for now, but we need reinforcements to keep the Ark secure." The courier bowed. "I'll pass the word ma'am." He said curtly, before turning and running off. I frowned. Things didn't sound all that great.

     "I will be truthful here, Ascended." Fairna said suddenly. "You've easily beaten back those Guardians, securing the Ark from their invasion in just a handful of minutes. We could use your help against another threat-the minions of Regulos. Would you lend your considerable skill and ability to protecting Freemarch? It as much your home now as ours." I blinked, taken aback by her direct approach. I had suspected she would ask for my aid. Things must be troubling indeed. Of course there were plenty of benefits to aiding these people here. For one, like I'd said to Sanora, I owed everything I had and am to the Defiant. I had no goals or direction in this new world. While I could of course go off and make a name for myself, or find a calling as  a mercenary or an adventurer, there was something that appealed to me about being the Defiant's protector. Their sword of justice, if you will. So without thinking about it anymore, I bent into a graceful and respectful bow, keeping the position but lifting my head and looking into Fairna's hopeful eyes.

     "I would gladly protect Freemarch from the evil of Regulos and his Endless Court." I said formally, then smiled. "I've a bone to pick with him anyway." Fairna laughed at that comment, although I'd been serious. I could still feel the part of my self, my soul, that had been torn from me...from us...when I'd been created by Sylver Valis.

     At that moment, a tall woman with long legs and the grace of an assassin stalked up to us. She had the arrogant swagger that I'd come to associate with assassins and rogues. She gave a nod to Optica Fairna, then focused on me.

    "Ascended? I have a message for you. We've captured a member of the Endless Court alive for information. He refuses to speak, even under duress, except that he wishes to see you. Only then will he talk." The woman cocked her hip to the side and settled her hand on a long dagger strapped to her thigh. She watched me as if I was an interesting specimen she'd like to take apart. No doubt with her blades. I kept my face blank, but looked to Fairna. The shorter woman shrugged. "It's up to you Ascended. You don't have to if you don't want to."

     "Very well." I said after a moment of silence. "Take me to this prisoner." It seems I was involved with the fight in Freemarch whether I wished it or not anyway. We crossed under the wooden bridge to where a circular platform stood next to a red tent. The platform was surrounded by red beams of electrical current, powered by some kind of magitech device to the side. The captive knelt within, with barely any room to maneuver. I would have felt sorry for him if I didn't have memories of my time spent in the future, at the end of the world. Just thinking that sent shivers down my spine. Schooling my features to indifference, I peered at the prisoner, who stared back at me with red, fanatical eyes.

     "Well, what is it you want from me?" I asked boldly. The captive smiled slowly, revealing blackened, pointy teeth. I almost recoiled backward in reflex. No, Kara, hold steady, he just wants a reaction out of you.

     When he spoke, his voice was like nails on stone. "I am sent by my master Alsbeth. She is the chosen of Regulos, the harbinger of death-and she bade me deliver this message to the one from the future. 'Regulos will consume this world. It is inevitable. Accept his embrace and become one with oblivion or be torn apart with the rest of the Defiants.'"

     I stared at the man as my thoughts whirled around each other. That was no empty threat. I knew from my experience in the future that Regulos had the power to tear the world asunder. Did he have the power to end me as well? A terrifying feeling, to be the target of a being so ancient and evil. And this Alsbeth. It had to be the same mad woman from the future who'd confronted us at the death rift. Who'd attacked Asha....Asha! Angrily I hissed at the prisoner.

     "I will NEVER bow my neck to Regulos the destroyer and his filthy slave Alsbeth! As long as I draw breath, there will always be hope for light to triumph over darkness." I spat the words out, knowing they expressed exactly how I felt in my heart. Never would I bow to such an evil. I was just like everyone else on Telara. I had moments of weakness. I feared for my own life. I wasn't sure what I would do if faced with the ultimate choice of sacrifice, but I knew that I could never, ever, in good conscious, willingly side with Regulos, or any of the Blood Storm. That was something I could never even comprehend doing. Despite my speech, the prisoner just smiled wider. His eyes flashed white for a second and I backed up uneasily.

     "You are a fool to reject Alsbeth's generous offer, Ascended. When Regulos devours this world, only those who serve the Endless Court will be spared." He said 'Ascended' like it was a dirty thing.

     "I've already thwarted him once." I said simply, spinning on my heel and walking away before my anger got the better of me. Sparks of lightning danced along my fisted fingers. I walked back up to Fairna, who wasn't even making an effort to conceal her curiosity.

     I explained what had transpired and she looked pleased, to my irritation. "Don't you see Ascended? This is good news. If Alsbeth sent that man specifically to offer you this deal, it's only because she's afraid of what you might become. Of what you might do." Another shiver coursed down my back at her words. I had a sense of premonition, or deja vu, that suddenly swept over me. It was a feeling I couldn't explain. "But one thing at a time eh?" She laughed. Well at least someone's good spirits have returned, I thought, somewhat uneasy still.

     "You agreed to help us. Many of the Endless Court cultists and their bomani defenders carry unique markers. One of our technicians, Da Vidmoore, believes that these objects are used to power portals to the Death Plane, allowing them to ferry more of them into Freemarch and thus supply them with an endless supply of troops. We need to find a way to close those portals. The bomani are clever and don't come close enough for us to engage them, instead preferring to stay behind the line of cultists. With your control of weather magic and lightning, you should be a devastating force out there. We'd appreciate getting our hands on those markers." I nodded. I could do that. I had no problem dealing out death to the deathless after what I'd just endured.

     "Do you require anything?" Fairna asked, gesturing toward me, as if she wasn't sure if Ascended needed anything other then their bare hands to destroy the enemy.

     I gave the question serious consideration, thoughtfully staring at the garb I'd been reborn in. The Defiant had done a passing job of making armor that was ideal for my body. It was fluid, strong, flexible, and protected with potent magics, allowing a final defense if I was physically assaulted. It could use some updating and tweaking, but something I wanted to do for myself.

    "Thank you but no. I am fine for now." Fairna nodded. "Very well Ascended. I wish you the best of luck. Give em a taste of Defiant might." She clasped my hand formally and I walked outward, under the wooden bridge again. I took a deep breath, tasting the salt of the sea, the lush grasses of the March, and the cloying taste of death and dark magic. I may be a woman out of time, in a body created with machines and magic, put together using the legendary Sourcestone of the Planes, but I have never felt more alive, more confident, and more myself then ever before. Watch out Regulos, here I come.

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