Friday, May 23, 2014

[Karazhan's Story] 2.14: I heard A Storm Was Coming

      After a short chat about my experience in Meridian, I waved at Ziara and headed down to Lakeside. Immediately, I was accosted by a dozen suspicious eyes. All the villagers seem to wander out of their homes and stare at me. I guess that made it easier to talk to them? It was kind of creepy how they all followed my every move with their eyes, as if trying to see into my very soul. Okay, enough of that nonsense, Kara!

     "Hello there." I greeted the first person I came across, a young girl sitting on a barrel and swinging her legs. She'd stared me down as I approached, wary and sharp, but not nervous or afraid. Definitely odd. "Hello above-lander. Do you like jellyfish?" The girl asked, cocking her head sideways. I blinked. She blinked. "Above-lander? What do you mean by that?" I asked finally when she didn't do or say anything else. The girl hopped off the barrel and wandered into the house behind her without answering and I felt mildly insulted. What a brat.

    "Another fine day in the above-land, is it not?" Said a male voice behind me, and I whirled around, magic surging to the forefront of my mind. An old, wrinkled, grey-haired man was standing behind me, having apparently walked up while I was talking to the kid. There it was again, that "above-lander" thing. "What can I do you for in our fine village?" The man asked, and though his question seemed innocent enough, he was carefully watching my face as if trying to sense my true purpose. Either these people were paranoid in the extreme, or something suspect was definitely going down in Lakeside. I placed a hand casually on my hip and made a vague gesture around me with the other.
     "Oh, you know. Just exploring Freemarch. I'm new here, so I just wanted to see all the wonders that the march had to offer." The man squinted at me, as if trying to decide if I was telling the truth or not. I kept my face blank and open, and he grunted. "Well, see ya don't get into any trouble, ya hear? We got enough problems without nosey outsiders!"
    "What do--" but the man ignored me and shuffled away pretty quickly for an elder. I huffed. Looking around the tiny main street, I spied a brightly colored market stall down the way and eagerly made my way toward it. Merchants usually had good gossip about the town they sold their wares in.

     "Hello, I would love some of that tasty looking seafood dish." I said in greeting. The woman, dressed in the usual fare of Freemarch, peered at me from under a wide brimmed hat. She scowled at me. "Don't question me! Nothing is amiss here! Nothing is wrong!" She exclaimed, and sharply turned her back on me, pointedly busying herself with setting out more dishes. I blinked in surprise. Okay, when they said the people of Lakeside weren't friendly to outsiders, they meant it. This was definitely trying my patience, and I'd like to say I had a lot of patience when dealing with people.
     "Alright than." I replied finally, slowly. "Soooo sorry to have bothered you." I gave her one last, confused glance before walking away from the wooden stall. Once I'd left the shade of the awning, the sun beat down on my dark skin again full force. I beginning to get quite frustrated.

     The next villager I came across, I grabbed her by the arm, perhaps a little roughly and forced her to face me.
    "Hello there." I said, too brightly. The woman gave me a black glare. "What do you want, Bahmi? I'm just a normal human doing normal human things." She tried tugging her arm out of my grasp and I tightened my hold, guilt abating somewhat at her sharp tones.
     "Nu uh." I waved a finger in her face. "You see, when you say things like that, before I even get a chance to ask anything, it makes me feel like there's something your hiding from me. Care to tell me what that is, hmm?" I shook her for emphasis, and the woman blanched, glancing around her uneasily. Her eyes grew wide and seemed to glisten. Startled, I let go, thinking maybe she was a sensitive sort and could have sworn that when she blinked, her eyelids crossed her eyes horizontally instead of vertically. Realizing she was free of my grip, the woman turned and dashed off. I sighed, blowing a strand of limp hair off my forehead. Okay, this was getting ridiculous.

     I kept walking further down the road and saw the docks that the Faceless Man had mentioned. It was an extensive set up, with wooden planks extending out into the bay and several tiers of balcony up the bank. A small shack stood sentry to the side and the whole area abruptly smelt of day old fish. Right away I noticed what was wrong here. Though Lakeside was a fishing town and made its coin by selling what they caught in their nets, it seemed that the docks were full of boats and canoes. You'd think on a fine sunny day such as this, the men would be out casting their nets and poles? Furthermore, there were actually quite a few people on the docks, but none of them seemed to actually be doing anything. Instead, they were mostly lounging around, avidly staring into the water as if waiting for inspiration to strike. Definite warning bells going off there. And then I spotted something I'd seen before. A strange, sinister looking symbol stamped on the side of a pile of wooden crates at the edge of the bank. A bright blue diamond icon with a book and a curled tentacle inside, tiny enough that no one would look twice at if coming to inspect progress in shipment, and yet a huge red flag to someone who had dealings with dragon cults. I stopped cold and stared. Oh my spirits! They were right, the Abyssal were in Lakeside. They had infiltrated the village, and I had no idea how deep it went, or if the village was in on it, or just being used. Should I go to the mayor and confront him? Warn him? Should I warn the poor children in the village who were surely innocent? I gnawed my lip anxiously a minute before realizing that the men on the dock were making note of my presence. Turning on my heel, I walked back through town as casually as I could, feeling the judging eyes of the villagers twice as strongly. Once outside the low town wall, I quickly ducked behind some boulders and crouched down, staying still and quiet to ensure that no one followed me. You can never be too careful and I had no desire to lead the Abyssal back to Ziara, or alert them to the fact that I knew they were here. We had to catch the entire branch of them here, not just a handful of individuals. Not to mention, I'd like to know what they were even doing here in the first place. A tiny fishing village seems rather underwhelming for the actions of the cult. But than again, everyone knew that most of the followers of Akylios were insane, so maybe they didn't need an actual reason to be here causing mischief.

     After several minutes, I confirmed that no one had followed me and quickly made my way to the ledge where Ziara was hiding out, making sure to go a circumspect route instead of using the road, in case the Abyssal were watching.

     "Ziara! It's true, there are Abyssal cult members here!" I exclaimed breathlessly as I climbed up the ledge. I glanced up and noted that the small woman had her gun pointed at me again but moments later she seemed to recognize me and lowered it. She stared at me. "They must be preparing something, but I don't know what. I saw crates with the Abyssal symbols on it. And none of the villagers are acting normally. There's definitely something bad about to go down here and we need to figure out what the Abyssal are doing and fast. I have a feeling their operation is almost complete. We need to possibly evacuate the innocents as well!" I paused and waited for Ziara. She continued to stare at me. I stared back.
     "Uh, hello, Ziara? Are you okay?" I asked, feeling a mounting concern for the slight woman. She startled and shook her head, light coming back to her eyes. "What? Oh, sorry...I can't shake the feeling that I'm being watched. All the time. These eyes watching me." She shivered. I glanced around, catching a bit of her sudden paranoid behavior and half expecting one of the strange townsfolk to jump out at us. When nothing happened I awkwardly coughed. "Did you hear what I said?" I asked gently.

     "What? Oh yes! The cultists you saw at the docks are no doubt just foot soldiers following orders. Those behind the real operation are no doubt elsewhere, hidden. The Abyssal love to stay hidden and watch events from afar." She glanced around and shivered again. "You know, I've seen people slipping out toward the remains of Meadow Farm. It's an old farmstead that burned to the ground last year. Everyone in it died. It was quite tragic." She pointed back behind me and I turned, glancing about. Aha, there. Across the open march I could see the blackened remains of an old farmstead, about a mile from here. "Something terrible approaches, I can feel it." Ziara said suddenly. I stared at her. Yes, she'd definitely been out here long enough, the poor thing. Her investigation had gotten to her. I made a mental note to tell the Faceless Man to consider replacing her and letting her have a rest. Ziara seemed to misinterpret my look, because she frowned at me.
     "What? You can't possibly expect me to go with you? I have to stay here and keep an eye I was ordered to. Besides, I still feel someone watching me. I don't want them to know that I know."

     "Uh, sure." I replied uncertainly. I turned and climbed back down the ledge, keeping an eye on Ziara as I went. It wasn't that I didn't trust her, per se, but...her flighty and confused mannerisms were definite cause for alarm. Ziara's behavior seemed to be growing more erratic by the hour, and I wondered if maybe there was something else going on here. Some outside influence that was causing her to have that reaction. It wasn't a comforting thought and I sincerely hoped the same thing wasn't happening to me. The sooner I could figure out what those cultists were up to, the sooner I could stop them and their strange actions.

     It didn't take me long to figure out what was going on at the Meadow Farm, and it wasn't pretty. Even before I saw it, I could smell the scent of charred, days old corpses. A smell I had grown quite intimate with during my experiences at the end of the world. Breathing shallowly to help mitigate the stench, I crept cautiously up to the main farmhouse. The building was a burnt husk as Ziara had said, with only two walls standing. All windows had been shattered, and blackened timber was scattered across the yard. Belongings and typical farmyard supplies lay scattered around the building, as if dropped suddenly, and yet there was no indication that anyone had even attempted to put out the raging fire that had claimed the farm and the lives of everyone who lived there. The poor family. I automatically murmured a Bahmi chant for the easing of restless ancestral spirits. But that wasn't the true horror of what was going on here.

     The moment I'd carefully climbed over the debris to take a peek inside the shell of the building, I felt dread pool in my belly and my mouth went dry in horror. There were bodies. A whole mountain of bodies. Piled up in the center of the burned out building. And not just what you'd expect for a family that had burned with the house. No, there were dozens of them. And none of them looked burned. Oh spirits. I did something than that I thought I'd never do. I prayed for the doomed souls that had met their gruesome end here. I didn't even see eye to eye with the gods, but it just seemed the appropriate thing to do when witnessing such wholesale slaughter. It looked like a whole village lay dead here! I froze. A whole village...eyes wide, I stared harder and to an ever increasing horror I realized that I knew some of those faces. In fact, that little snot-nosed kid that had acted so rude to me not two hours ago was laying right there, partially covered by another body. Mouth open in terror, body contorted in extreme agony. I couldn't believe my eyes. How had she ended up here, dead? Of course, I knew how, but my mind just wasn't willing to accept it. I was quite intelligent, if I say so myself, but it was like I just couldn't grasp what my eyes were seeing. Somehow, the people of Lakeside were all dead. From the amount of bodies, I'd have to say a good two-thirds of the village lay here, perhaps more. Which means...that those "people" back at the village were...what? Imposters? Cultists? I had no idea the Abyssal cult mages were this skilled at transmogrification. This was definitely not good.

     Quickly I scrambled backward and tripped over a loose board in my haste to get away from the scene. I felt filthy, shaken and unclean, and convulsively wiped my palms on my jerkin. Oh spirits. I couldn't get the sight out of my mind. I backed up into the yard, still staring wide eyed at the burned building. This was definitely a wake up call to the kind of horror and damage that the cults were capable of if not stopped. With a new determination and grim steps, I made my way back to where Ziara was hiding out, not even paying attention to the trip. The spy saw me and immediately her face fell into distress.

    "What, what is it?" She asked, anxiously scanning the surrounding area and rubbing her arms. I quickly explained what I'd seen, putting great emphasis on the gruesome nature of their deaths, and Ziara's already pale face went milk white. She made a sign of the gods, and I wondered idly if she was once a follower of the Vigil, before the Defiants had come to Freemarch.

    "This is way worse than I had feared." Ziara admitted, looking distressed. "I need to report to the Faceless Man as soon as possible. We need to locate the Fathomlord of this group before they complete their goal, whatever that is." I must have looked confused, because Ziara chuckled humorlessly. "A Fathomlord is like an army general. It's a title they give to their leaders. Usually this person has become so maddened by that monster Akylios that they aren't even human anymore, taking on aquatic personalities and physical attributes. They are quite disturbing to look at. But it makes it easier to locate them." She seemed to consider something, tilting her head to the side and listening to who knows what. She nodded after a moment.
     "Yes, I can almost...hear it. I think the Fathomlord is messing with my mind. I think. It's hard to remember things anymore." She trailed off, a soft look of confusion overtaking her face, and I snapped my fingers up near her face. "Hey, focus!" I cried, alarmed.

     Ziara looked startled, than thankful. "Thank you. He's quite powerful. You need to stop him Karazhan. I...don't think it would be a good idea if I came with you. He seems able to...influence me." She seemed to struggle saying that.
     "I'm sorry." I said, not sure what else to say. "I don't know what to do to help. I only know some weather magic and a few healing spells. Nothing about clearing the mind. I promise I will look into it when I get back to Meridian." She gave me a strained smile. "I think if you kill him, it will release his hold on me. I have faith in you. You are a Defiant after all." Her smile became genuine and I smiled in return.

    "Okay, consider this Fathomlord as good as dead. Can you give me a direction?" I glanced at the town angrily. I was itching to put a stop to this monstrous "man" and his followers. How dare he come into my home and mess with my people!
    "Only that he is in that direction. And I'm sorry to say that I think he's located underwater. I hope you can swim." She tried to make it a joke, but it fell flat. I considered it. Could I swim? Before my death and subsequent resurrection as a magitech creature, I would have definitely said yes. Living on an island sort of guaranteed you knew how to swim, or at least be able to stay afloat in deep water. But now, I'd only recently grown familiar enough in this new body to perform the advanced spells I'd learned before and not trip or hit my head when I forgot my new height. I hope I didn't end up floundering in the water. I nodded anyway. I didn't have much choice after all. "Of course yes, I know how." I replied, trying to appear confident.

    The direction Ziara indicated led to what is known as the Lake of Solace, a little inlet between Freemarch, Shimmersand, and Droughtlands. It was sheltered and protected by the elements by the rocky expanse of those regions and the waters were always calm, albeit cold. I'd read some interesting things about the lake, how there is a legend of an ancient city buried in its depths from long ago that contained secrets to vast power. That the lake bed was littered with relics and artifacts of another age, but no one dared to excavate them because of the vicious creatures guarding it and the powerful currents that would sweep an unsuspecting explorer out to sea before they could even cry out. All in all, not very encouraging. At the edge of the bitter cold water, I gazed out to the far side of the lake, where I could just make out the far bank of Shimmersand. Picturing that beautiful desert brought a pang of sadness from the other souls. I suppose one or two were desert dwellers. I took a deep breath. No more stalling.

     Despite how cold the water seemed, I didn't end up even shivering as I waded out until I could no longer touch bottom and waved my arms and legs to stay afloat. The water was clear and smelled fishy like most sea water, lapping gently about my chin. My braids clung to my neck in wet clumps. I took a deep breath and plunged under, hesitantly opening my eyes. I really hoped I didn't get any gunk in them. To my surprise, I could see just as clearly underwater as above. Huh. It felt like there was a thin film over my eyes, protecting them from the water and its contents, and even the pressure that builds in the lungs after a few minutes holding your breath seemed nominal. The perks of being an immortal creation just seemed to keep on coming. Not that I was complaining. I swiftly gained my bearings and dove deeper under the water, heading in the general direction Ziara had indicated. As I swam ever outward, the ground kept dropping away and I thought maybe I had to be half a mile underwater now. This lake was deep! The pressure in my lungs became more noticeable, and I took a break to swim to the surface for another deep lungful.

    Down again, and I began to notice strange pillars among the weeds and fauna. Large oblong stones, as tall as the pillars along the wall of Meridian. I felt dwarfed by their immense size. Strange glowing runes pulsed faintly along the columns. I stopped next to one and took a few moments to memorize the layout of the runes. Maybe there was some truth to the legends after all. I felt excited to be seeing this. Witnessing such a fascinating historical find. But first, I needed to put a stop to that fiend. Where in the hells was I supposed to find him, anyway? The pillars became more frequent, along with the crumbling remains of other structures, and I found the Fathomlord between four such columns. He was analyzing one of them himself, running "fingers" over the carved runes. I use the term fingers very loosely because as Ziara had warned, he definitely looked more monster than human, sporting a tail, bulbous eyes, and webbed hands. He was also slightly greenish. He seemed to sense he wasn't alone, for he whirled around, incredibly fast in the water, and his eyes widened when he saw me. He snarled. To my surprise, he opened his mouth full of jagged teeth and I actually heard the words.

     "Who dares approach a Fathomlord! You'll suffer a fate worse than death, fool, for staring into the depths of the Abyss. Akylios wills it." His words seemed to ripple and echo oddly underwater and I took a moment to marvel over the fact that I could even hear the spoken word underwater, or that he could speak it without getting a mouthful of water instead. I've never fought underwater, and I froze suddenly. Would I even be able to cast spells underwater? Stupid of me to not try to find this out earlier...

     Pumping my legs to keep myself level in the water, I grasped my staff in one hand and concentrated on calling up magic in another. What spell would be effective underwater? I panicked. Fire was an obvious no go, would anything water based even be effective enough when surrounded by the element? I swallowed. The Fathomlord chanted something and a wall of force crashed into me, propelling me backward. Bubbles of air burst out as I hit a pillar. Thank the spirits the water created a cushioning effect or I'd likely have broken something important. Calling up the first thing that came to mind in a desperate attempt to keep him off balance and prevent him from casting, I threw my arm out and my spell...didn't exactly work as I'd intended. But it cleaved through the water and hit the Fathomlord. He made a squealing sound and I saw a red mist suddenly form in the water around him. The cultist became enraged and threw a rapid assault of spells at me.
     Thankfully I was more prepared this time and cast a net of magic around me, preventing the enemy magic from landing a blow. I could feel the mental strain of holding up the shield though. It was twice as difficult to perform magic underwater. I remembered all those poor innocent villagers, laying in a sacrilegious pile at the Meadow Farm, with no one to mourn them or even know they were gone, and the fury burned through me, giving me strength I didn't know I had. My next spell surprised even me. A sharp gale of watery wind burst forth like an underwater tornado and smashed into the Fathomlord, who'd seen it coming and had attempted to swim away. The wound I'd given him prevented him from reacting in time and the tornado tossed him brutally around in erratic circles. Blood began misting into the water in earnest and I grimaced. I regretted how cruel the spell was, but I didn't regret the deed. The Fathomlord gave a last wail before his long scaly body went limp. The tornado continued to fling the body around for several more moments, the spell having been fueled by my anger and sorrow. Emotions always amplified spellwork in unpredictable ways, which was why the priestesses had always warned against getting overly emotional about, well...anything really. Be like stone. Another thing I'd failed at in my training.

     I floated a few feet off the lake bed, staring in morbid fascination as my air spell slowly dissipated and the waters calmed once more. I hadn't even known what that spell was. Did that worry me? Yes it did. But I was grateful for it nonetheless. Finally the need for air drove me to the surface and I sucked in a deep lung full of it after breaking the surface. I blinked water out of my eyes and gazed around. Although usually I'd discovered I had a supernatural sense of direction since my new rebirth, I'd gotten distracted by the fight. I zeroed in on Freemarch's shore and headed for the strip of beach to the side of the docks so I wouldn't end up right in the arms of the Abyssal. I have no idea how long it will take them to realize that their leader was no longer around, but until then they were still an efficient unit. I'd realized that if you removed the head of each nest of cultists, the rest just sort of fell into disarray and infighting. All the better for us defenders that they seemed to be so disorganized.

     I noticed the difference in Ziara the second I approached her. She was less fidgety and paranoid and seemed far more relaxed, kind of how she was when I first met her. We took a few minutes to enjoy the fact that the leader was dealt with, but Ziara sobered quickly. "Thank you Karazhan, for dealing with the Fathomlord. I felt like my mind was unraveling! The good news was, right before you killed him, I was able to actually see what he was planning. It seems he's using Lakeside as a base of operations to attack Gramaton Station."
     "Gramaton Station? I'm not familiar with that." I confessed. Ziara nodded. "Well, you're not native to Freemarch so that makes sense. It's the training station for the Freemarch Wardens. It's where the Wardens are stationed. Their main forces and the barracks are there." We both paused and I tapped my staff in thought.
     "Hmm. They must have been planning a surprise attack to take out the station, thus leaving the other towns and outposts in Freemarch vulnerable and unable to call for aid. If they could take out the bulk of the Wardens, that would be a severe blow to the army in Freemarch. And to the Defiants. They...we...are relying on the Wardens as allies to help protect our own base of operations. This is bad news indeed. Do you think the slaying of the Fathomlord stopped it?" My hopes were dashed when Ziara firmly shook her head.
     "Unfortunately, no. He'd already given the orders. In fact, I'd be pretty confident in saying they may already be sending forces to attack the station and keep them from sending out couriers." She chewed her lip and looked torn. Obviously she wanted to go help the Wardens but her duties to the Unseen had been clear. Stay at Lakeside and spy on the villagers. Even though the Fathomlord had been slain, the Abyssal were still active in the area. It would take at least several more days until enough forces could be sent to clear out the Abyssal nest located here. Of course, I could, in theory, try to neutralize their threat as well by taking them out one by one as secretly as I could so the rest didn't catch on, but that would take time, and someone needed to warn Gramaton Station, or aid them if it was already too late.

     "Okay, you continue to monitor the Abyssal here, and send for back up to help deal with the remainder of the force. I'll go to the station and help out as much as I can." I said finally, decisively. Ziara slumped in relief. I stood and dusted myself off, casually slinging my staff into the straps on my back.
     "Thank you Karazhan. You truly are what we need." Ziara said, a new reverent tone in her voice. I scoffed. "I'm just the same as anyone else who wants to protect their home. I was just given powerful tools in which to do that. I'll send a message to Meridian as soon as I can just in case you end up facing trouble. I hate to think of you out here all alone." I grinned at the spy and she waved a hand.
     "All in a days work." She quipped. I was relieved to see her normal carefree spirit coming back.

     We said our farewells and I wasted no time in setting my feet back on the highway heading toward the Gramaton Station. Ziara had explained where it was and approximately how big their force was. As I strode down the dusty highway my mind drifted back to what I'd seen under the lake. Those runed pillars were quite the enigma. I'd love to explore more extensively at some point. Perhaps I could unravel their mystery and write my own research paper on it! I wonder what the scholars of Meridian would think of that.

No comments:

Post a Comment