Tuesday, April 22, 2014

[Raeslyn's Story] 3.8: Death's Defense

 Location: Gloamwood-Tearfall Run
Time: After Midnight
Date: Year 1509, 9th Moon

     "Yes, I'm back. Again." I exclaimed in exasperation as the Waykeepers once again scrutinized me when I approached Tearfall Run. Honestly, they were acting like I was some strange intruder. Again. You'd think they'd remember I was here only this morning. I huffed as they finally, grudgingly, let me up the path that led to the main encampment. Not wanting to waste time, I strode right for Fiona Leone, who was seated placidly on a crate reading a leather-bound tome. She glanced up and blinked as I stood over her. She was a Mathosian, young and pretty with long dark hair. Her robes were dark colored and strange magical artifacts hung from her belt. She smelled faintly of dark magic, which didn't please me in the slightest. I did not like working with magic users. At all.

     "Fiona Leone, right?" I asked her up front. I'd rather not be in her company any longer than required to ensure she was fine and that her spellwork to help Gloamwood was progressing. Fiona's face seemed to crinkle in confusion, before awe slowly filled it and she scrambled hastily to her feet, patting and brushing at her robes as if trying to make them more presentable.

    "By the gods, you're the Ascended!" She blurted out, face shining with fervent excitement. I sighed and crossed my arms. "Yes I am. My name is Raeslyn and I was sent to secure Gloamwood and find out what darkness has befallen it. Specifically though, I'm here on Marshal Oakheart's orders to....check up on you." I said the last bit with a wrinkled nose, not really sure how else to phrase it without making it seem like I'd been dispatched to babysit her. But to my surprise, Fiona didn't seem mad or insulted. She laughed, a low dark chuckle.
     "Why thank you, Raeslyn. I'm glad Oakheart sent you. As you can see, I'm alive and well. I'm sure he was concerned because of the lack of updates but well..." She gestured around her helplessly and I raised an eyebrow. But well what? What was her excuse for not sending reports on her progress? I waited, resisting the urge to tap my wolf-hide boots and red spots appeared on her cheeks. She ducked her head, looking sheepish. "Well...I'm at a bit of an impasse. I've gotten to the point where I feel like I can make a practical demonstration of the defense shield I'm crafting to go around the town and keep out the dark magic, but I need some very specific samples from some very specific sources. Specifically, I need the flesh of the undead, and the anima of a spirit." She shrugged, looking frustrated, and I tried to keep my face blank as prickles of disgust wormed their way through me. Using death magic was so against everything I believed in that I wanted to get as far away from this mage as possible.

     "Okay, so what's the problem? How come you can't just go fetch these things?" I demanded finally when she just stood there staring at me expectantly. She then looked off to the side and I saw two Sanctuary Guards lounging on crates a bit behind her. They both appeared casual but had Fiona in their sights. I frowned. I still didn't see the problem here. I opened my mouth to voice this when Fiona spoke up again. "My ....uh, escorts, say that it is unsafe for me to be out in the wood alone. Especially after what happened last time. They don't think they are sufficient protection against the undead that swarm over the mill. But I need those samples! To create a defense against death magic, I need to be able to study its effect on creatures from the other planes. Certain creatures are resistant to death magic around here and I need samples of their flesh for my protective spells. I know I'm on the verge of a breakthrough here, but I can't go any further until I have those samples!" She wrung her hands, genuinely distraught over not being able to get her hands on the death magic samples she wanted. Sadly, I could see where this was leading, and my shoulders stooped.

     "Fine. I'll go get your bloody samples." I snapped out, feeling extremely aggravated. If it wasn't for the fact that Oakheart seemed to think she could be successful with this defensive shield, I'd have said forget it.

     Fiona looked over the moon at my offer, not even seeming to notice my sudden bad mood or irritation. She clapped her hands and whirled around, snatching up a tiny notebook and flipping open its cover. "Okay, this is what I need!" She gushed, and darted over to my side. I was taller than her by a good half foot, and glared down my nose as she barged into my personal space and shoved the journal at me. "Right here is the formula that requires the anima essence. My studies show that the death magic sample will react favorably with the siltreaver glands I've harvested from planar water creatures. They are the most resistant to death magic, you know. Quite fascinating actually. One wonders why they are so resistant. Perhaps it has to do with the rumored madness of...."she trailed off as she finally noticed my impatient scowl.

    "I don't need a lecture on magic, or your personal experiments, I just need to know what I'm looking for so you can finish your shield spell and I can bring the formula for it back to the Marshal. I can only hope that it is as powerful as you say it is." Fiona's face feel slightly at my brusque dismissal of her passion, but she nodded.
     "I've trekked across the realm studying the lasting effects of the rifts, you know. Gloamwood is so saturated in death magic that I've made extensive advances in my research in just the little time I've spent here. I'm confident I can create a powerful enough shield that it will keep out any creature touched by the plane of death." She set down her journal. "Okay, what I need is perhaps..." she glanced off into space, a small frown between her eyes as she considered. "several fingerbones from an undead creature. Preferably a humanoid one, as the magic is more potent in them. Thankfully, the nearby mill appears to be a magnet for the fiends and they have been congregating there for the past few nights. You should be able to easily gather up quite a few bones. I also require a spirit anima, but I have one of my guards fetching that." I nodded, then something occurred to me.

     "Wait, what? What do you mean, the undead are congregating to this mill? What mill?" I glanced around as if I could spot the pack of undead from here. Fiona shrugged, not seeming to be bothered by the fact that she was surrounded by undead.

     "I'm not sure why they are here. They just showed up. I'm not sure what scares me more, the hordes of undead just beyond our camp or the fact they are interested in something other then attacking us! Millrush Pond, where the mill is, has always been rumored to be filled with dark magic and curses, even back before it was abandoned. Now it's filled with angry souls and elusive spirits. The mill used to belong to the Mathosian nobles who lived at that old keep? The locals call it Shadefallen Keep now. I don't know if it had a different name. Scary, huh?" She grinned at me and I frowned. Well, that was worrisome news. On top of all the other things going wrong in Gloamwood, now we have a horde of undead who are just...milling around doing nothing? No pun intended...Well one thing at a time. Get Fiona her silly samples so she can finish creating this defense magic she says will protect Gloamwood Pines. If it works, I'm hoping it will cleanse the town and from there we can find the source of the dark cloud of evil that seems to choke the forest. I've never had any trouble dispatching the undead minions of the Endless Court so it shouldn't be a problem now. After a few more lectures from Fiona on what to look for and how to properly stow the samples, I left the camp carrying a small, spell crafted sac to place my gruesome samples in. I shuddered. Good thing I had decided against becoming a caster when I was younger. Well other then the fact that I had no affinity for magic.

     Seeing the mill for the first time, I could believe that there was something sinister at work here. It was huge, creepy and dark. A large, stonework building with only three walls and all manner of machinery strewn about, the whole area gave off a feeling of wrongness. I didn't like it one bit, and my Ascended sense was prickling at the back of my neck that bad things had happened here. Were happening still. And just like Fiona said, there were undead fiends everywhere! They just seemed to be wandering around, never straying far from the walls of the mill. Every once in a while, one would suddenly turn and viciously hack at some small woodland animal that was unfortunate enough to get too close, or even swing at each other. But for the most part, they just seemed like empty shells. Or...puppets. Waiting for their master to come and take up the strings. Now I felt even colder. I just knew that this tied in with all the other strange and dark tidings of Gloamwood, but I couldn't yet see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together yet. Something was still missing.

     I gathered shadows to my form and bent reality until I'd disappeared from sight and crept silently and quickly through the undead throng. Fiona said she needed as powerful a sample as she could get, and I was looking with my Ascended sight, testing the auras around the undead minions. Many were only weakly attuned with the death plane, barely given enough to animate them, and I didn't think that would work. Then my senses lit upon a beacon of death magic, a glowing torch of evil black taint by the mill wall. This one looked different from the others, and wasn't wandering. It stood still, ramrod-straight, staring off into nothing with unseeing eyes and a rusted sword across its back. It wore fine clothing that didn't look too badly damaged by the passage of time. Alright, showtime. I tensed my muscles and pulled at the fabric of the universe using my attuned senses, and felt the painful sensation of my body being dragged through time and space to appear directly behind the undead man. It was something that I was sure I would never have been able to do without the special augmentation that Ascendancy had given me. In the blink of an eye, I could travel short distances. It was most beneficial when I needed to appear quickly to dispatch an enemy without being detected too soon, or at all. It made it excellent for finishing blows.
     With one swift and sudden thrust, I sank my longest dagger into the undead's back, piercing straight out his chest. The creature had enough awareness to make a small grunt and grapple at the blade feebly, as if trying to pull it out or somehow seal the wound, but what would merely anger an undead planar minion if I were a mere mortal soldier caused the creatures abrupt and final demise with an Ascended. There was just something about my Ascended status that made me particularly lethal to planar beings. I'm not sure what it is, or even if I want to know how it works, but it definitely makes my mission to protect Telara much easier.

     The undead minion sank to the ground with a strange moan, the unhallowed light dimming from its eye sockets. I stared down at the skeletal body and muttered a few choice curses. This is revolting. And totally beneath me. I nudged the pile of fleshy bones with the toe of one boot, then squatted down and used one of my least favored daggers to begin hacking away at one dried up wrist, turning my head in disgust. Ugh, yuck. This spell of hers better work, damn it. I wasn't exactly sure what Fiona's idea of a good sample was, so I just stuffed the entire skeletal hand into the sac. A tingle of dark magic seemed to shimmer along the bag's opening when I drew it shut, sealing the hand inside in a kind of stasis so that it wouldn't deteriorate before Fiona could use it. I will-grudgingly-admit that magic did have its uses, like stasis spells on food and drink so it wouldn't go stale or spoil. Or protective enchantments on armor to keep one safe. Not that I'd ever admit this.

     Suddenly I heard a very peculiar sound. It took me too long to remember where it was from. It was the kind of sound that always accompanied my return to the visible spectrum after cloaking myself in shadows. Since I was already visible and kneeling down by the body, it had to be someone else. I gasped in acute surprise and immediately let instinct take over, diving to the side and rolling, before expertly flipping to my feet, daggers drawn and held in front of me in a protective stance. I was shocked to see that some undead creature was now standing in front of me. It stared down at the mutilated undead I'd killed, then turned red eyes on me. This one was very different from the other undead around here. It seemed to possess self-awareness, and at least some semblance of skill. And how was it able to meld into the shadows like I do? I wasn't aware that was something that non-Ascended could do. I felt cold just thinking about it.

   The creature than smiled, displaying a full set of jagged, yellow teeth with rotten flecks of flesh in the creases. By the gods....what was this fiend? "I am Morticus the Unholy!" The creature spat out, as if answering my thoughts. The voice sounded strange, hollow and echoing. "When you get to the Plane of Death, tell them I sent you! You can get a group discount!" He seemed to laugh, a choking, guttural thing, and I felt my eyes widen in disbelief. It was mocking me? This thing was so dead. I hissed back at it, showing I wasn't impressed, and the creature roared, rushing at me with daggers of its own. It must have been trained in the arts of assassination as well, I mused as we clashed, daggers a blur. I spun and ducked, trying to get in a mortal strike on the fiend, while it seemed merely to be toying with me, as if it thought I wasn't even worth the effort. Ha, underestimating your opponent was the best way to get yourself killed. I'd learned that at an early age. Steel rang loudly off the stone walls of the mill as we fought and ducked and rolled and stabbed. Morticus slashed open the inside of my arm, a deep gash along my elbow, and I felt a cold burn in my arm as the death magic began fighting with my Ascended ability to regenerate, but I wasn't worried. I'd survived death, after all. So I gritted my teeth and ignored the pain, as well as the burn of exhaustion in my muscles and the blood that dripped in my eye from a cut on my brow, and continued trying to find an opening. The creature was a good fighter, I'll give him that much, but undeath had done him no favors and the fiend was slower to react and had no armor to protect himself. And my daggers had been with me so long now that they had become imbued with the same inherent power that my body had upon resurrection. All I needed was one good opportunity...there! Morticus lifted up his arm to stab down into my shoulder and I easily twisted in too close for his weapon to effectively get a good purchase. Instead, his dagger glanced off the hardened leather shoulder pads I wore to protect my collarbone. By doing so, he left his left side vulnerable. The fiend seemed to realize this too late, death-touched eyes widening in fury, before I was able to sink both daggers into his chest, right through his rotten unbeating heart. The creature wailed, ad a strange dark mist emptied out of his mouth. I quickly scrambled back to avoid being touched by it and he toppled headlong to the churned up ground. I leaned over and panted, hands on my knees, and felt my vision blur slightly. After a few seconds when I could breathe properly again, I rummaged in my bag for some fresh linen strips and bandaged my arm up. The cut was clearly healing, but it still looked angry and red and was slowly weeping blood. I didn't need any more trouble by attracting who knows what with the scent of blood. I felt so tired and my eyes kept wanting to shut. Using my Ascended abilities in a fight always seemed to exhaust me afterward. Thankfully sleep and a good meal always made me physically and mentally as good as new within a few hours. Because the undead rogue alarmed me, and I was feeling resentful, I hacked off his hand too and added it to the sac.

     As I turned to leave the mill, I heard the strangest high pitched sound. A hair-raising keen that seemed to originate from the large pond just beyond the mill. The sound came again, followed by splashing of what sounded like something rather large. The eerie keening shriek coupled with the undead-littered mill grounds made for a very harrowing experience and I'm not one to scare easy but even I was getting uncomfortable out here. I wouldn't ever admit it, but I made the trek back to Tearfall Run in half the time, eyes scanning the undergrowth along the road as I went. The samples I gathered will just have to do, because I just couldn't imagine myself going back there without an actual, serious reason.

     "Here, Fiona." I said gruffly, shoving the sac of undead bones at her. She grabbed it, eyes going wide with anticipating. She yanked open the drawstrings and peered inside, and exclaimed in delight, then sobered and looked back up at me. "Thank you, Raeslyn. The risk you took getting these samples will pay off, I promise. You have a knack for this sort of work. You wouldn't want to work with me on a more permanent basis, would you?" I stared at her, aghast, and she chuckled wryly. "Ah well, that's a shame." She said, and gave a lop-sided grin. I snorted, then settled on the ground cross-legged to clean my daggers and watch out of the corner of my eye as Fiona examined the undead bones I'd brought her. The death taint made me uneasy, even now.

    Several hours later, when I was becoming increasingly drowsy and debating whether I should just stay the remainder of the night here or head back to Gloamwood Pines, Fiona suddenly gave a cheer from somewhere off to my right. I jerked back upright and turned to glare at her. Several others around the camp all gave her varying looks of irritation, resentment, and resignation, as if this was a common occurrence they'd had to endure. Another good reason to not get involved with mages and clerics. They were always obsessing over some scholarly assignment and waking you up at gods-forsaken hours with their excitement. I sighed and climbed to my feet, approaching Fiona silently.

     "Well, what is it?" I asked. I admit, I was, well, mildly curious. Fiona turned to me, her eyes fever-bright. "This is it Raeslyn! I think I have finally figured out a way to repel magic from the Death Plane! This death shield is made from the materials you brought me in addition to some other reagents and a very complex net of magic spells..."she trailed off at my glare and cleared her throat. "Yes, well, I think I've finally got it! Now we just need to test it. No time like the present, right?" She jumped off her crate and made her way to the center of camp. Seemingly without being aware of it, everyone else, myself included, followed her, where she knelt and began clearing away a patch of earth. She drew strange symbols into the dirt, and they began pulsing with magic, brighter and brighter as she continued. She finished creating a small circle of glowing runes, then stood and took out a rather macabre looking object that seemed to be a mash of undead parts, some kind of black sludge, plant seeds, and a few other things I didn't recognize. Not that I wanted to. I took a hasty step back as she approached me with the mass outstretched.

    "Here Raeslyn, I think you should have the honor of testing it! It was only because of you that I was able to perfect my spell." She beamed at me, unaware of my disgust. I shook my head firmly and crossed my arms, taking another step back. "Nope, I don't mess with this magic business. This is all yours, Fiona. Besides, all I did was kill some undead. Not even a challenge. You did the real work." I tried to sound sincere, as if casting the spell was the honor Fiona deserved. And hey, it was. It was her creation. If it worked, this was a big breakthrough for Gloamwood. She deserved the honors. Fiona gazed at me for a moment, then nodded, looking proud. She turned back to her casting, and settled the mass of spell components in the center. She than murmured a few words and I tensed as the atmosphere seemed to change, becoming heavier, laced with magic. The runes on the ground began to pulse as if to a heartbeat, and lines radiated outward from it, forming a circle of glowing white all around the camp. Shimmering walls of light sprang into being, the brilliance bringing tears to my eyes. It was so bright, brighter than moonlight even. The shining bright white seemed to burn away the shadows and darkness that shrouded the camp, and everyone unconsciously stood a little straighter. Like a great weight they didn't know was there had been lifted. Peace, light, holy energy danced around the camp.

     Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an undead wander over from the across the field by the mill, as if drawn by the beacon of pure white light surrounding Tearfall Run. Everyone tensed as the undead shambled into camp. Or rather, tried to. The moment it touched the translucent barrier, the undead was instantly turned to ash. The holy light flared up even brighter, and the Waykeepers all cheered. Even I clapped slowly, impressed by the strength of Fiona's spell. She was a powerful spellcaster, that was for sure.

    I walked up to Fiona and held out my hand for her to shake. "Well done, Fiona. I shall inform Marshal Oakheart of your success." I said, and smiled at her. She beamed back at me and curtsied. "I can't believe this!" She gushed, whirling to glance at her handiwork. "The shield is working even better than I hoped!" I glanced around as well, nodding, impressed despite myself.

     "Ya, that's right ya filthy undead!" Shouted one of the Gloamwood locals, shaking his fist out at the forest. Than, as I watched, he clutched at his head and swayed on the spot. I frowned. What was wrong with the man? Maybe the light was making him dizzy? I sharpened my focus on him and made to walk over and ask when he groaned and bent forward. To my horror, the man began ripping at his face and back. The familiar dark aura of a death-touched minion shimmered into being around him. Fur sprouted where his nails gouged, and I realized that his fingernails were now becoming talons. This was all horrifyingly familiar. The same thing had happened to that man Michael in the goblin city! He'd turned into a ravening beast. Oh gods. I unsheathed my daggers. There'd been no reasoning with Michael once he'd shifted into the werewolf, and I knew the same would happen here. One of the Waykeepers approached the man, looking horrified and concerned. Before I could warn him to stay back, the Waykeeper dropped to the ground and moaned, clutching his own head. Behind me, a long, wavering howl broke the silence, and I spun, only to see several more Waykeepers collapsing and tearing at their bodies. Oh no...this was bad. I don't understand how this was happening. It was well past the night hours, coming on to dawn, and the moon was no where visible. How on earth.....of course, the spell! The blinding white light worked just like the moonlight. But how were these men all affected? I don't understand. Did the spell force this on them, or were they already infected beforehand?

     Fiona gave a horrified scream and I concentrated on protecting her and the remaining people who hadn't had the misfortune to succumb to lycanthropy. The non-shifted men rallied around me, and together we fought off the ravening beasts, who blindly threw themselves on our swords and daggers in a frenzy of bloodlust and hate. Their eyes were empty of anything that may have resembled sentience. Nothing but a maddened, rabid animal remained. I warned the others not to let the monsters scratch them, as I'd read that a werewolf's claws could transmit the disease to another. At my back, Brother Jebiah smote the beasts with powerful clerical magic, all the while muttering nonsense about righteousness and evil, and I rolled my eyes even as I stabbed and slashed at the beasts myself.

     Finally, there was stillness and all the creatures lay slain on the bloodied ground. Not long after that, Fiona's spell finally exhausted itself and blinked out. Fiona herself began weeping, kneeling by one of the fallen werewolves. They'd reverted back to their former selves in death. "Why didn't the shield work? What's going on?!" Fiona cried, wringing her hands. "I'm so sorry. Gods save us all..." She whispered over the fallen man's tortured body. I put a hand on her shoulder in an attempt at comfort. Brother Jebiah planted his staff in the ground and glowered at me, as if it was my fault. "Once again, the might of the Vigil has conquered the forces of evil!" He proclaimed in an arrogant voice, spitting on the ground. I gave him my darkest glare. Get over yourself already, I thought to myself in disgust as I helped Fiona up.

     "It wasn't your fault Fiona. Something else is going on here." I said to her as I drew her over to sit down on a crate that wasn't smashed. She gazed up at me, looking shaken and dazed. "But, what just happened then? Did death energy get through the shield and corrupt them? Obviously the ritual must have been flawed. I'll have to return to the beginning and see if I can figure out what went wrong..." She trailed off and reached for her notebook, eyes wide still. I frowned. I wasn't sure if more meddling in the magic of Gloamwood was actually a good idea right now. It seemed that the more we tried to cure the forest, the more the forest fought back.

     Jebiah came over and grabbed my arm, yanking me down to his much shorter height. The dwarf looked positively fanatical. "So, the beast is revealed!" He yelled in my ear, and I jerked myself out of his hold, giving him a look that dared him to try that again. He waved a hand in the air, and his eyes narrowed. "I knew this would happen! Oakheart's barghest alpha wasn't the culprit. I knew it! I don't believe that fool Drusk is part of this, but I know Doctor Oswell is in on it." He rubbed his hands together and I frowned.

     "What on Telara are you going on about?" I demanded. Doctor Oswell? In on what? The lycanthropy mystery? Did Jebiah know more than he'd let on? I was so sick of everyone keeping secrets. "Tell me what you know, dwarf. Now."
     "I only know this: Doctor Oswell in Gloamwood Pines, has been investigating some bodies that seem to have been bitten by large rabid beasts. The bite marks are unlike any beast found in Gloamwood, and yet he says it was nothing more than a rogue barghest attack. Obviously he knows more than he's letting on. I can't go against orders and leave Tearfall Run vulnerable, but you better go make yourself useful and investigate why Oswell's making fake reports on these "infected" victims." Brother Jebiah gave me a stern look, which I threw back at him. If I didn't want to find out what's going on, I would have definitely challenged him. As it was, I let a flare of my Ascended aura touch his clerical magic, overpowering it briefly. Brother Jebiah's eyes widened and he hastily stepped away from me, hands up and muttering about righteous fire and staying on the path of good. I scoffed and turned my back on the little menace. Yes I believe in the holiness of the Vigil but I wasn't a blind fool like Jebiah that saw the world only in black and white. Well, at least I had a direction for this werewolf problem. Who knows, maybe this will lead me finally to a solution on cleansing Glaomwood of its evil taint. Time to pay the good doctor a visit.

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