Wednesday, January 29, 2014

[Karazhan's Story] 2.9: What You've Sown

     I had so much fun in the Kelari refuge, and learned many new things about survival, and the present day circumstances in Telara. I'd never really spent much time outdoors until my resurrection as a machineborn Ascended, so the concept of fishing, cooking, and survival skills were a bit foreign to me. In Atia, one had whatever one needed by simply going down to the market. And my days were always filled with scrolls, study, and magical application. I quite like the idea of catching and cooking my own food. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to make a fine meal for myself or someone else. Not that I have any real friends or even acquaintances really in this timeline. Perhaps I should go look up Sylver Valis.

     "See, you're a natural!" Acacia praised, coming up beside me. I had just finishing successfully starting a small fire on the beach for myself to cook my latest catch, a rather large minnow. I grinned at her. The breeze coming off the sea soothed the sweat on my neck from my efforts and I straightened and shielded my eyes against the sun. I'd been here in the refuge...what, two days now? It felt like a lifetime already. But there was always a creeping sensation in the back of my mind that told me I had important tasks to be attending to. Like keeping the world safe from the Blood Storm and their accursed cults. It was nice to have a few days of carefree happiness though. "I have a message from Attis, by the way." Acacia spoke up again, sobering. The smile left my face as well. Here it was. I'm sure there was some danger or trouble they wanted me to see to because of my enhanced abilities and magical skill. Not that I minded. I was far more suited for combat and defending people then any of these lot. Even the Defiant soldiers weren't as adept as I was in battle anymore. I suppose that was the idea, though. I grinned suddenly to myself.

    "Thank you, I'll go see him right away. You're welcome to the fish I caught!" I called the last comment back to her as I took off for the docks, confident in myself and my surroundings by now. I actually liked Freemarch. It was a beautiful seaside field. As I strode along the wooden walkways I couldn't help but catch the tag end of a conversation that had me very intrigued so I slowed to subtly eavesdrop. I'm not above a little eavesdropping to catch some juicy information. It's how I learned what each of the priestesses at the temple was looking for in a student.

     "I heard it's true. The Defiant have actually ascended the Azul Viper!" Said a young Kelari man, making dramatic hand gestures to go with his words. Nothing if not dramatic, we Kelari. I wonder who the Azul Viper is? "I used to hear stories about her when I was just a child on the island, Leander. You wouldn't want to be on her bad side." The man continued earnestly to his friend, named Leander apparently. The other man gulped and glanced around, as if expecting this Azul Viper character to suddenly spring from the shadows. Even though I knew better, I couldn't help reflexively glancing around as well, before scoffing at myself.

    "What, Kira Thanos, resurrected as Ascended?!" Leander exclaimed timidly. "They say she assassinated a High Priest in front of his entire congregation!" Interesting. Kira Thanos...that name did sound familiar. I think I'd heard stories about a famous assassin by that name as well. She'd been nearly legendary with the street urchins and rogues that prowled the streets of the city. Since it would look far too obvious I was listening in if I just continued to stand there, I continued on my way reluctantly. Finally, I actually knew the identity of someone else who has the same affliction as me. Well, affliction is a bit harsh, but I couldn't think of any other word more fitting. She may be a hired assassin but we were fighting for the same team and I would love to have someone else to talk to about my personal experiences so far. I wish I had someone in this time that I could call friend, that I could trust. I sighed heavily as I finally walked up to Attis, who was whittling something out of a piece of driftwood. He looked up and gave me a questioning look, no doubt curious about my heartfelt sigh. I shrugged.

     "Acacia said you wanted to see me, sir?" I asked. Before he could speak, a young, agile Kelari swaggered up, daggers swinging off her hips. In each hand she carried a tiny cage containing a fire squirrel. By the stars, I hadn't seen a fire squirrel since I'd still lived at home on the family estate. Without even thinking, I stepped forward eagerly, leaning down to peer into the cages at the beautiful creatures. Fire squirrels are something that I'd always thought were native to the Isles. They hadn't been found anywhere else in Telara. At least, until now.

     "Where on Telara did you find these?!" I asked, feasting my eyes. Seeing them made a nostalgic pain go through me and I wished so very much that I was naught but a 50 year old girl again, running along the hedges at the estate, laughing and playing with my older sisters and not a care in the world.

    "Oh, we brought them with us on the ships. Of course we couldn't let such beautiful creatures be abandoned on the island. We brought the best breeding pair that Kosmos here could find." He nudged the large man next to him. "Unfortunately, they bred rather quickly once we arrived and a few of the young managed to escape. This kind lady agreed to round them up for us!" I stopped to actually look over the young rogue who brought the fire squirrels. She was very pretty, with large expressive eyes and long bright blue hair. Just by looking at her, I could tell she had an attitude bigger then she was. There was also something else about her that seemed to call to me....something. I gasped.

     "An Ascended!" I cried. She was like me! I was so delighted. "Hello there! I'm an Ascended to! Sylver created me. Well, I guess he created all of us. Did you come from an alternate future too? How was it?" I realized I was babbling and felt my dark skin heat up. Well that was embarrassing. But still. I waited expectantly, smiling at the shorter girl, and she gave me cool, distrustful eyes. Then slowly, obviously, she raked her eyes over my more bulkier and muscular form, and a sneer came over her lips. I felt my own smile fall. There was a moment of awkward silence as the rogue just stared at me and I shuffled my feet. I was just being polite! Surely she was just as excited to meet a comrade as I was? Or maybe Ascended were meant to be solitary? Was something wrong with me that I desired kinship and friendship among others like me? I bit my lip. Great, an anomaly on all accounts. The souls inside swelled up, filling me with positive, warm emotions and I felt better. Maybe it was just a rogue thing. I never really liked rogues anyway. Always skulking in the shadows and thinking they were better then everyone else. Finally, the girl turned away from me and handed over the tiny cages. The squirrels squeaked happily when they saw Kosmos and I smiled again. They were just adorable!

     "Oh yes, where were we? Kara dear, I have a small request for you if you don't mind?" Attis said, turning his attention back to me. I straightened up. I wonder what he wanted me to do. Maybe I could go catch adorable little critters for him like that stuck up rogue. Or maybe I could help cull some of the predators that always seemed to stray too near the refuge. The howling of the marsh wolves at night was particularly alarming.
     "When we first landed, looking so outlandish and different and unnatural, as you well know by now." Attis began, quirking an eyebrow at his own ceremonial warrior robes. I giggled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rogue snort and saunter off. Fine, I didn't need any other Ascended anyway. I was doing fine on my own. And I had been easily welcomed here at the refuge.
     "The locals distrusted us, I'm afraid. They had their Wardens keep us contained in the refuge. We weren't allowed to leave or venture out past a certain point. Thankfully, our first commander, Cyriac Leighton, made certain we were not mistreated. Times have changed and he has been transferred but I would love to give him a letter of thanks for looking out for us, even though he had no reason to." Attis reached into his robes and pulled out a folded, well worn piece of parchment. It had creases in it where it had obviously been opened and closed many times. Several of the refugees had told me of how it was when they first arrived, how everyone was suspicious of their dark skin and exotic accents. It was good that this Commander Leighton treated them fairly. It made me think highly of him already.

     "I would love to deliver your letter. Commander Leighton sounds like a good man and I would like to meet him. Do you know where he was transferred to?" I took the offered letter and tucked it away into one of my many belt pouches. As a spell caster, you never know when you'll need something, so I tended to carry all manner of things around with me. And now I carried fishing line and tinder around too, so I could fish and cook my own meals when I was out in the wilderness. A fantastic idea that I was glad I'd gone with. I'm also glad I pride myself on being a patient individual, because fishing was a skill that required it in spades.

     "Ah yes, he was sent to....Eliam Fields, I believe it was called. Apparently its a prominent farmstead that was having some trouble. The commander didn't say what kind, but I'm sure it's nothing you couldn't handle, being Ascended and all." Attis waved his hands at me, and I felt my cheeks turning hot, although I welcomed the praise. It was nice to hear kind words about my skill instead of all the harping I'd listened to when studying at the temples.

    "Eliam Fields, eh?" I mused. Interesting! Lord Nicols had mentioned a man named Eliam in his story of Freemarch. I love history. Maybe I'll find out more about Eliam and the March Wardens while I'm at it. I looked around, took a deep breath of salt air, and nodded decisively. I enjoyed my time here immensely, but the itch inside told me that it was indeed time to move on. Maybe I've become somewhat of a traveler. An adventurer. Yes, I dare say I liked the sound of that.

     I  bid everyone at the refuge farewell, promising to come back and visit some more, and Acacia demanded that I tell her in great detail about all the exotic fish I was going to catch in far away lands. Ha, far away lands. I've never even explored all of Freemarch, let alone the distant Iron Pine Peaks or some such place! Although, the idea of visiting those places was very appealing. Maybe, once I'd had my fill of Freemarch and made sure it was safe from the Endless Court and Regulos, I would visit all the various exotic locales that Telara had to offer. I would love to actually see Fortune's Shore, for instance. I'd heard all about it from traders that visited Atia.

     I turned my back on the Kelari refuge and headed down the Longshore Highway once again, this time heading in a westerly direction. Attis had said that Eliam Fields was to the northwest a ways. I was also looking forward to putting my new skill in cooking and camping in the outdoors to use tonight. The souls inside chimed in amusement at my thoughts.

 The Green Hills of Freemarch" was rather catchy, dare I say. I did also meet another Ascended along the road, who was much friendlier then the cold rogue I'd met at the refuge. This one said she'd trained to be a warrior, and was now heading for Meridian to rendezvous with a companion before heading north to investigate some kind of mystery. It sounded dreadfully interesting, and we chatted politely for several minutes before she realized that she was going to be late if she didn't leave right away.
     The weather was beautiful as I finally came within sight of Eliam Fields. There were a few puffy clouds here and there, but the sky was blue and warm, with the sun shining down on Longshore Highway as if reading my cheerful thoughts. As much as I miss my family and friends from...before, I have to admit that I am loving my new "lease on life" as it were. The freedom to go where I please, do what I want, and the magical potential at my fingertips had me veritably skipping down the highway, nodding a greeting to every Defiant soldier or Freemarch citizen I saw. Maybe they thought I was mad. Did I care? Not one whit! Even the knowledge that Telara was facing terrible danger from the return of the Blood Storm and other ilk couldn't dampen my good mood, and I found myself whistling a sea shanty that one of the Kelari at the refuge had taught me. "

     Even though it seemed an ordinary farm from the highway, once I'd gotten closer I realized that this place too, had been touched by the misfortune of the Rifts as well as the tinkering hands of the scientific Eth. The buildings dotting the farm were surrounded by various magitech devices and the telltale blue glow of sourcestone canisters and weaponry lit up the wide porch steps on either side of the main house. Instantly I was curious as to what those machines were for: what could they do? How much sourcestone was used to power that many, and for how long? How effective was it? Why was it better then the hard labor and usual traditions that the peoples of Freemarch always used? Eldritch technology was just so fascinating! With everything on the Isles being Spirit-powered, there wasn't much call for learning how to craft magitech unless simply for scientific curiosity. I suppose here on the continent, where I've heard the Spirits are rare, unapproachable, and weak, the application of magitech was that much more useful.

     A man in military dress carrying a long wickedly curved sword cleared his throat behind me as I stood peering at a particular magitech device. I admit I jumped a bit, than turned around and smiled politely.

     "Greetings. What is your business here, lady Bahmi?" The man asked kindly, but with authority. I blinked, and scrambled for my brains. "Oh, hello! My name is Karazhan Solanta, Ascended from the future. I was recently a guest of the Kelari at the Kelari Refuge and I've brought a message from their leader for a man named Cyriac Leighton. Are you he?" The man nodded, relaxing a little, although still eyeing me. I can't exactly blame him. I stand out just a bit with my coal-dark skin and tall muscular body. It's still taking some getting used to for me after all, and I'm the one with the body! I fished the envelope out of my pouch and handed it over, than waited silently while the man took his eyes off me, opened it and read it.

     "A letter from Attis Resta. Hmm." Leighton muttered as he read. "Oh yes, I remember him. I appreciate his gratitude, but I did what any decent man would do. The refugees were starving and sick. They needed aid, so I supplied it." He shrugged, but pocketed the letter carefully, and I hid a smile. Even the most surely of people like to know they are appreciated. He raked his eyes over me again, this time with a thoughtful gleam, and I stood a little straighter, wanting to appear capable. Since I seem to just be drifting around, I figure I would gladly lend aid where I could as I adventured. If Sir Leighton needed help, I would gladly provide it, not only because it was the right thing to do, but as a silent thank you for helping out the stranded remnants of my former people when they needed it most.

    "Well, since you're here Ascended, perhaps you could help a guy out?" He paused, and I nodded earnestly. "I'm concerned about an expedition that recently went to investigate some strange goings-on at Todrin Estate down yonder. There were rumors of Endless Court activity in the area. I fear that Bintley and his men may have discovered something they couldn't handle. They left yesterday so maybe there's still hope that it's nothing, but better be safe, huh?" He strived to put on a hopeful face, but I knew that he knew that something indeed had gone very wrong with that expedition. I sobered, feeling a dread sink into my belly. It always seemed to hurt seeing death that could have been avoided. Needless death just for the sake of it. That's why I hated Regulos so much and eagerly went out of my way to seek out and destroy any of his zealous followers. How could anyone willingly follow something made of death? Shaking my head to dispel such dark thoughts, I nodded firmly at Leighton.

     "I'll investigate it for you, sir. It would be my honor." I seemed to say the right thing, for he actually softened and smiled at me. "You're a good one, Karazhan. Don't forget that." He said to me. Feeling awkward now, I asked something that had me curious for a while now. "Just what is the deal with the Endless Court here anyway, sir?"

     Leighton waved a hand at me. "Enough with the sirs, young lady, you're making me feel like my old man! It's Cyriac. And what's not with those crazy cultists? The damned cultists think they can take everything I've worked for and use to despoil everything I've ever known or loved. I'm glad your here Karazhan. We could sure use your help in taking back Freemarch. As to the Endless Court themselves. I don't rightly know much. I know they worship Regulos. They have been infiltrating Freemarch and causing nothing but trouble for years now. They take what they want and kill all those who oppose them. In fact, if they want your corpse, they'll take that too!" He gave a dark chuckle, and I politely grinned back. "Be warned, they are involved in the darkest acts that have been committed on Telara, past and present...future too from what you've said." He added the last with a nod at me.

     As Cyriac was speaking, I noticed movement behind him by the building and before I knew it, my staff was in my hand and I was between him and the threat in a blink of an eye, a spell on the tip of my tongue. Cyriac made a strangled sound of protest, than pushed my staff away. The glow that had suffused it slowly dimmed as I relaxed. "Hold on there lady, don't shoot first and ask later, as much as I appreciate you defending my honor and all." Cyriac joked. He waved at the figure on the porch, who appeared to be an older man in farm clothes and carrying a shotgun hung loosely in his arms. His mustache bristled with insult at my stance and he turned an accusing stare onto the soldier beside me. "What's the meaning of this, Leighton? Who's that?" The old man demanded, sounding like every crotchety old farmer the world over.

    "Ah calm down Weaver, she's here in peace. Even offered aid against those damned cultsists! Came from the Refuge, she did. Says she's Ascended." I gave a polite bow, wondering if this 'Weaver' was a relation of Adriana Weaver and dying to ask. Weaver gave me a suspicious once-over, looking skeptical.

    "And you believe everyone who tell you they Ascended?" He scoffed, finally leaning his shotgun up against the doorjamb.

     "Arnold? I heard voices. Who are you lot talking to?" And from around the corner of the building came yet another man, this one a tall, handsome Kelari elf in moss greens with pale skin and wide almond-shaped eyes like all of our race. Well...former race now. Cyriac rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. He gestured to the elf.

     "Karazhan, Jaren. Jaren, Karazhan. There, now we all know each other." The soldier said bluntly. Jaren dipped his head politely, and held up a small circular disc that was emitting a soft pinging noise. "Pleased to meet you. Cyriac, could I trouble you for a moment? I was wondering about the difficulty of setting up a special irrigation system that would help drain the excess life energy from my latest crop." As he drew closer to us, he held up his disc and his words became increasingly hard to follow as they delved into technical babble I knew nothing about. From the looks of it, neither did Cyriac, who just stared blankly. When Jared finally wound down to a halt, blinking expectantly, Cyriac rubbed his face. "You know I don't understand a word of that technobabble you yammer on about. If you can't speak plain Common, I can't help ya." He snorted and stomped off, complaining about crazy scientists that were worse then cultists. Weaver went back in his house, and left me standing with Jared, who turned hopeful eyes on me. I smiled awkwardly.

    "I'm sorry, I don't know much about magitech either." He looked crestfallen, and I added, "yet! I am willing to learn though, if you want to explain it to me?" I tried to appear merely willing instead of incredibly interested and eager. "Weeeeellll." Jared tried to keep skepticism out of his voice. "I'm a fast learner, I promise." I declared to help sway him. Even getting a glimpse into the wonder of magitech would be quite fascinating. "Actually, I do have a bit of a problem, if you wouldn't mind helping out with that." He said, seemingly warming to his idea. I nodded encouragingly. "What do you want me to help with?" He cleared his throat, and I suddenly had the feeling he was going to launch into a lecture. Maybe he was a teacher before being shipwrecked here in Freemarch.

     "Freemarch is a fertile land, but the Endless Court has ravaged the current crops of vegetables in an effort to drive us to desperation. There isn't going to be enough of a harvest to feed the local populace, much less the growing Defiant bastion that Meridian is. We are trying to do what we can to increase the yield from the fields, but the current experiment is clearly out of hand. I am now more concerned that those plants will eat us rather than feed us." He stopped and chuckled, rather nervously in my opinion, and gazed out the dark patch of what was obviously a large garden off by the trees. I turned to look as well, and my eyes automatically adjusted to the distance, bringing into sharp clarity the rich brown earth of the vegetable patch. To my alarm, instead of neat rows of carrots and turnips and pumpkins, I saw snarling, overlarge bulbs of the strangest color, throbbing and pulsing with an inner life. As I watched, a long vine seemed to snake outward onto the grass at the edge of the garden and then suddenly recoil back inward, the panicked form of a rabbit clutched in its coils. I turned a shocked face to Jared, who nodded forlornly. "Yes, it has gotten a bit out of hand, hasn't it?" He lamented.

    "You think?" I blurted out, then blushed. "Sorry. But...what did you do? How did that happen??" I flailed a dark-skinned arm at the garden of flesh-eating plantlife. Jared winced. "Yes well, some experiments are less successful than others." He said, picking at a fingernail. It was now my turn for skepticism. I put my hands on my hips. This is exactly the kind of risks we couldn't afford to take with this power. It was all well and good to have this vast potential with magitech open at our feet, and with the rediscovery of the old Eth knowledge, so much was now available, but we couldn't just rush ahead full speed. Caution definitely pays off, or we'll doom ourselves before Regulos even gets a bite. I said as much out loud and Jared nodded gloomily. "Yes, that's exactly what my superiors told me. Although Sylver Valis told me not to give up, at least." I perked up at the mention of my creator and one-time comrade.

     "So let me get this straight, you have a rampaging harvest out there, and yet you want to create more experiments? I caught the gist of that conversation with Cyriac at least. No more tests until this garden is under control. How do we stop it?" I scowled. It must have worked, because Jared gulped and immediately set aside his contraption. Instead, he went back around the side of the house, and I followed him to find a whole smorgasbord of magitech gadgets and devices. Spinning and whirring cogs and wheels determined the position of metal alloy needles, while tubes snaked through the grass and hooked up to various glass canisters, and jars full of different plants were lorded over by tiny discs that emitted brief bursts of green light. Life energy. That must have been what went wrong with the garden of horrors out there. I amused myself with my own little hypothesis as I watched. He'd obviously injected the seeds with energy from the plane of life, which caused the plants to mutate out of control and take on a "life" of their own, to pardon the pun. They'd obviously done so quite suddenly and quickly, for no one to have stopped it before they grew too big and aggressive. Messing with life magic could be seriously risky. It was the most volatile of all the planar magics.

     "This fumigator should destroy those overgrown spores. I've been working on it ever since they starting taking on a life of their own. But every time I try to get close, they try to eat me. It's just too dangerous! I don't know what to do. If I can't get this under control, Cyriac is threatening to have my research here shut down. This is my life's work! I know I can do good here, if given the chance." Jared hefted a large machine with straps and a metal tube. The tube ended in a nozzle. He clicked a button to demonstrate and a spray of dark mist showered one of his plant experiments, immediately causing it to shrivel up and die. "Looks promising," I replied, taking it from him. "You just leave this to me. I want it done right." I continued, giving him a sharp glance. He looked sheepishly at his now-dead plant. Yes, I can just imagine why his attempts at killing off his erstwhile creations were less then effective. Who take this reedy little scientist seriously? I huffed a low chuckle. He has heart though, I'll give him that much.

     With the ridiculous machine strapped to my back, I strode out to the large garden, praying to the Spirits I wouldn't become plant food. I had to stop and take several deep breaths to push back my new Ascended senses. The reek and taint of planar magic was so strong it was overwhelming me, causing me to feel faint and sick. Some deep rooted instinct that came from some place I didn't even know I had was clamoring for me to destroy. Destroy it all, planar energy everywhere, leaking into my eyes. I shook my head, concentrating on suppressing my powers. It was strange having to reign all that power in, and my head was beginning to ache from it. Quickly, I strode through the garden, easily avoiding the grasping tendrils and spraying anything that so much as twitched. When I reached the end of the area of brown earth, I turned around and began again, making sure I thoroughly saturated everything that grew in the garden. Best not to take chances.

     I felt quite sweaty when I was finally finished and headed back to the house. Funny how they never mention what hard work all this adventuring was in the stories, or how hot and uncomfortable it was. I gladly peeled the device off my back and dropped it by the porch with the other magitech tools scattered there. Jared tisked at my careless handling of his precious machine, but I was tired and thirsty. I plopped down on the steps and took out a waterskin, gulping the cool liquid. The advantages of being a spellcaster: permanently cool water.

     "Your assistance is...appreciated." Jared finally said after inspecting his gear for damage. "I shall have to start my research anew, hopefully with less...exuberant results." He pondered the garden thoughtfully, then considered an overly large boar that lazily wandered onto the tilled earth, rooting among the plants I'd fumigated. The pig, it seemed, had some sense, and left the dying vegetation alone. "It also seems....that the Life Energy Infusers used to grow the experimental food is also affecting the local wildlife." Jared commented after a moment as we both watched the boar. He was speaking slowly and quietly, as if remarking to himself, and I wondered if he even remembered I was here. Scientists weren't called absent-minded for nothing, I supposed. "It's causing them to become very aggressive and grow overly large. The wild boars and wolves native to Freemarch are particularly affected because of their close interaction with the vegetation. We need to find a way to also avoid affecting the wildlife." He turned around seemed to sprout a quill and ink, after which he promptly began scribbling away in a small leather-bound journal perched precariously on the edge of one of the glass canisters. Well alright then. I mumbled, rather loudly, something along the lines of 'You're Welcome', with a huff, and Jared glanced at me, looking puzzled. And hey, he said he'd explain his magitech gadgets. Not that I don't enjoy destroying man-eating plants as much as the next person, but I'd only done it so I could learn something about his work. I glanced across to a smaller building nearby, where Cyriac was conferring with another man in military dress, and sighed forlornly. I really wanted to know more about the technology the Defiants were using, but I gave my word that I would see if Bintley and his men were okay. I hope for Cyriac's sake they were! I poked my head into the house, where after being threatened by Weaver again, I was given curt directions to the Estate I needed to investigate.

     Not long after I'd found the estate (rather hard to miss, I admit) and cautiously approached the outskirts, I had my answer to Cyriac's pressing concerns, and it wasn't pretty. The Todrin Estate was surrounded by a low wall made of firm gray stone that looked similar to that of the rocky shoreline that lined Freemarch. In two places, the wall was bashed in, giant gaping holes making it obvious that something sinister had happened here. Feeling severe trepidation, I eased myself through the large opening in the wall, making sure I stayed on the alert. Something bad had happened here. I knew it. I could feel it in the air. The spirits of the other mages who shared the soul matrix with me were restless. I could almost feel it like a physical sensation. Like spider hairs crawling along my arms and legs. I firmly wrestled myself back in control, relegating the other souls to the far back of my mind, where they were less of a distraction.
     Movement to my left had me flinching back, a shield of solid, shimmering magic bursting into the physical plane to protect me from any harm, but it was only a small blackbird, hopping along the ground, pecking vigorously at a pile of rags amid some churned up earth. The longer I watched, the more I became certain that this wasn't just some random pile of rags. Realization was swift. That was a body. Torn nearly beyond recognition as such, but a body nevertheless. I breathed in my shocked cry and nearly choked on the sudden smell of cloying meat that hit me in the face with the turning of the wind. Oh Spirits. My feet led me to the side of the body, and even though I knew it was rather obvious what his state was, I still mechanically leaned down and pressed two fingers to the figure's mangled throat. The poor man's sightless eyes stared in frozen terror at something he could no longer see, and I silently closed the stiff eyelids. After a few moments, I located his arm, which was several feet away, and from there, I found the second body. And the third. All were mangled nearly beyond recognition. Unfortunately, the red and gold attire that adorned their desecrated bodies made it glaringly apparent who they were. This was Bintley and his lost squadron.

     My shoulders shook and I felt wetness prickle at my eyes. I hadn't even known these men, never met them, and yet, I shared the pain of their tragic passing. They were noble fighters in what was now my fight as well, and they didn't deserve this end. My hands were trembling as I collected their military insignias and badges as something for any family they may have. I think this is actually my first close up look at violent, bloody death. Since my resurrection into the chaotic apocalypse, I've killed, and seen men killed, but never have I witnessed the aftermath. The silent stink of the corpses, the faces of the victims, full of fear, determination, resignation, courage. Death wasn't pretty, and I hoped it wasn't something I'd grow immune or accustomed to. If I'd been here earlier, I might have been able to prevent their deaths. I could have protected them. I clenched my fists as I stood and brushed grass stains absently out of my linens. I can prevent the deaths at least. As soon as I had a chance to visit a town, or even better, Meridian, I was going to train myself as a field medic. I've thought it before of course, but the more death and destruction I saw on Telara, the more determined I was that I wanted to find a way to counter it, however small my contributions were. Even one person can make a difference. And being Ascended had to count for something right? With heavy sadness, feeling the entire world was weighing me down, I trudged back to Eliam Fields to deliver the bad news to Cyriac.

     "Bintley is dead? His entire squad?" Cyriac looked grim but unsurprised when I delivered my report of what I'd found at Todrin Estate. I nodded sadly and handed over the effects I'd taken from their mangled bodies. Cyriac seemed to know what they were for, as he gave me a grateful look, before reverently placing the items behind him on a low table up against the cabin's wall on the porch. He turned back to me, and he looked to have aged five years in the past five minutes. I'd never experienced it, but I can well imagine the sadness he must be feeling at having lost men under his command. I just hope he didn't blame himself. I placed my hand on his shoulder in silent support, and he took a deep breath, before straightening up and giving me a hard look.
     "We must strike back quickly, for Bintley and all the others whose lives were lost. We can't allow those bastard Endless Court monsters to get away with this!" He slammed his fist down on the table, and I jumped slightly at the loud sound.

    "I agree." I said softly. "But we can't just go rushing off to the Estate in revenge. They will no doubt be anticipating retaliation and will probably have a trap set up." He blinked at me, as if startled that I could have thought that far ahead, and I shrugged, somewhat embarrassed. " I assume anyway. I've never actually had any experience with military tactics and suchlike." I waved my hand, and felt my cheeks warming. Cyriac smiled. "No, no, you're right. It just makes me so damn furious. They were good men. They didn't deserve...that." He took a deep breath, and growled. "I've sent a messenger to Meridian requesting aid, but it will be several days, at the earliest, before we receive any reply about what actions to take. Without orders, I can't act against the citizens at Todrin Estate. They are lawful citizens of Freemarch, and it's touchy enough as it is between the Defiant militia and the Wardens, that if we attack one of their prominent holdings, who knows what kind of uprising will happen. Freemarch is a proud state. Sometimes I wish I was younger.....bold and rash." He chuckled, then turned a discerning eye to me, and rubbed his chin. I raised an eyebrow.

    "Ya know...."He trailed off, and I rolled my eyes. I bet I knew what he was thinking. But I stayed quiet, waiting to see what he'd say. " are Ascended, right? Kind of like a....wild card, you could say. Someone who's part of the Defiant by default, but a free agent in a way. When it comes down to it, you answer to no one but your own conscious." I tilted my head. I hadn't really thought about it in those terms before, but that summed it up, actually. I nodded thoughtfully, as I considered the possibilities behind those seemingly innocent words. I knew he wanted me to take action on his behalf against those murderous cultists holed up at Todrin Estate, but his words affected me more deeply than that. I've been operating all along as if I owed the Defiant this entire time. True of course, if it wasn't for them, and for Sylver Valis in particular, I would still be nothing but a bodiless, consciousness entity bobbing along in the endless Soulstream, or worse, food for Regulos, but I was my own person. Well, except for having about eight or nine souls sparkling inside this machine-made body of mine. I was exactly what he said. A free agent. I could do what I desired. Of course, what did I desire, exactly? To help these people, certainly. Especially Cyriac now that I've met him, and seen the bodies of those men. To help the Defiant? Well, I didn't really have much choice in that did I? It was either that, or strike out on my own, and I've learned that no matter how powerful you were, you always needed allies at your back. And from what I've learned so far, the biggest players in Telara right now were the Defiant, who had caused my rebirth and new empowered existence, the Guardians, who would no doubt happily roast me on a spit or throw me to the cultists just for existing, and the cultists themselves, who were so completely opposite from what I believed in and knew to be right that I couldn't even pretend to consider joining their horrendous nightmarish cause. What it all came to was yes, I could go about my merry way as I pleased, enjoying my newfound lease on life, adventuring, exploring, soaking up all the wonderful new things of this era, but I'd always remember what I'd seen of the war-torn future I'd been born into, and I'd always remember the hungry promise of death in Regulos's eyes as he stared me down, and I knew that burying my head in the sand wasn't going to work. So, fight it was.

     Cyriac was staring at me with an open, hopeful expression, as if mentally urging me to go slaughter all those cultists. It did sound tempting. I was torn. I didn't want to end up like them, killing because I could, but I couldn't just let them get away with that kind of act, especially with the awareness that they weren't going to stop, and might even become bold enough to attack innocent travelers on the road, or even strike here. So I nodded. I wouldn't kill them in cold blood, but I would go investigate the deaths more fully, and if they attacked me, I would defend myself. It made me feel better, at least.
     "Thank you, my lady." Cyriac said solemnly, as if he knew my inner struggle. "Not only for them, but we need to find a way to stop them before they get out of hand. I've no doubt they have something planned, and Todrin Estate is a rather key feature in this area. If they continue to occupy it, it will be a matter of time before they feel bold enough to attack other settlements and farms of innocents. I have an idea, actually. Todrin Estate is known for their prize beef. They keep a number of steers on the estate that they send off to the sea market. We could cause a considerable amount of trouble if say, those steers were to stampede." At this, he winked at me and gave a wicked smirk, and I could see the little boy inside who had a love of blowing things up and making trouble.
     "What do you say, my lady, feel like causing a little chaos?" I laughed at the phrase, and how he uttered it, with evil glee.

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