Wednesday, July 23, 2014

[Karazhan's Story] 2.15: Running Up That Hill

      When I finally arrived at Gramaton Station, I was quite out of breath. I wasn't exactly sure what I'd find when I arrived, but was relieved to see that the place was still standing, and indeed seemed to have enough manpower to keep it that way. As I watched, a hoard of undead seemed to swarm the far edge of the barracks, only to be repelled by a combined force of wardens and Defiant defense machines. Red lasers shot out and incinerated the zombies while the wardens hacked and slashed their way through the mindless creatures. I grinned, instantly feeling much better. I was half afraid the place would be razed to the ground by the time I arrived. It seems I need to stop underestimating our forces.

    "Halt. This is a Defiant allied station, state your business." Said a no-nonsense voice and a woman in red and silver stepped in front of my view. I stopped and stood up straighter, inclining my head slightly forward in respect.
     "Hello Gramaton Station. My name is Karazhan and I am one of Sylver's Ascended. I've been investigating some unsettling issues down the coast and it came to light that maybe this station might be under siege by the Abyssal. Although it seems that the Endless are also at it." I gave a dry chuckle, and the woman eyed me a moment more before she relaxed and nodded. "Alright then. Hello to you, Karazhan Ascended. We are honored indeed to host such an esteemed person as yourself. Come in to camp." She gestured to a comrade, who removed a piece of the barricade to let me pass. I eyed the tiny metal device embedded in the ground as I walked by, half afraid a laser would shoot out and vaporize me too.

     "So where exactly did you come from? And yes the Endless Court does seem to have sent a sizable force to Freemarch. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how large their armies in Stillmore actually are. That's where they seem to all be coming from. It all seems to circle back to those damn Mathosians and their traitor king." I blinked at the heat in her words, and remembered reading something about a Shade War and a someone or other named King Aedraxis that had started the whole trouble with the planes.
    "Oh, I'd been sent to investigate some strange circumstances in Lakeside. You wouldn't believe what was going on there." I shuddered at the memory. The woman gave me a curious look. "I think it's the kind of news that I should give to your commander first hand." I said apologetically when I saw her looking. She nodded easily enough, shrugging. As a common soldier I guess she was used to not receiving the full information.

    "Hey Vanthil, what's that you dragged in?" Called another armored man from the side. He was working one a pile of glowing sourcestone and a strange metal gadget. The woman at my side shot him a glare. "Have some respect Erik, she's an Ascended." She yelled back sharply. A few more heads turned at that and sized me up. I felt my face heating from all the sudden attention and pasted a tiny smile on my lips.

    As the woman, Vanthil apparently, led me through the camp toward the large elaborate tent in the center, I pressed her for more information on the Endless attacks.
     "Well, the Endless cultists have been amassing across the road on Savage Hill for quite some time, ever since the Defiant first showed up at the station actually. Lucky for us, they seem rather disorganized and the forces they do send against us are easy enough to deal with. Although I'm not sure if that's just because they truly are mindless and disorganized, or if they want to lure use into a false sense of security so they can catch us by surprise later." She paused, both in speech and in step as her face grew serious with concern. "I really hope that's not the case." She finally said.
     "Yes, me too." I replied. "Have you seen or heard anything relating to the Abyssal, or any planar water creatures?" I asked in the next lull of conversation. Vanthil shrugged noncomitedly. "Not that anyone has outright mentioned. Than again, I'm just your average soldier. You can ask Commander Venden though." I thanked her, assuming this Venden person was the man in charge.

     As it turned out I was right. 
     "Commander Venden sir!" Vanthil barked upon entering the tent. She saluted sharply and turned aside so she was almost facing me. "Lady Karazhan the Ascended is here with news from down the coast, sir." The man behind a worn wooden table looked up in surprise, his face tired. He glanced from Vanthil to me, than back. "Very good private. Dismissed." Vanthil saluted, than turned to leave, but not before giving me a tiny encouraging smile. I smiled back in thanks.

     "An Ascended eh?" The commander stepped around the table and reached out a hand. I shook it carefully, not wanting to let my augmented strength do any harm.
     "Yes that's right." I replied. "Well what can I do for you....Karazhan was it? We're mighty busy here, in case you didn't see the army of undead filth across the road. Damn cultists and their accursed riftspawn allies." He glared at the table, and I looked down as well, curious. There was a detailed map of this side of Freemarch laid out across the table with markers and tiny colored squares dotting its surface. It took me a few swift seconds to recognize where the station was on the map, and I realized that they were indeed outnumbered by the Endless here. Vanthil's comments from earlier came to me and I wondered why indeed the cultists didn't just swarm the station.
     "I know that you have your hands full here and I'm sorry to bring more trouble, but I've recently just come from Lakeside and uncovered some very disturbing information about the Abyssal cult's presence in Freemarch." The commander rubbed at his lip as he thought, than crossed his arms. "The Abyssal? Those crazy clerics are always up to no good. Still...Lakeside is our closest neighbor. What information exactly did you uncover?"
     I took a deep breath, trying to keep the images of all those tortured dead bodies out of my head. "It was quite...horrifying. All of Lakeside seems to be under the sway of the Abyssal. An ally, a spy for the Unsseen order, has sent for reinforcements from Meridian as we speak to help deal with the cultists who have infiltrated the village. I also found deeper motivation behind their occupation there and their goal seems to be to attack this station so they can decimate the forces here and render aid to the rest of Freemarch impossible. Obviously this is just a step in their plan to aggressively take over the march. I've dealt with that cabal's leader, but who knows if there are others lurking around here, not to mention the one I slew was just a Fathomlord, one of the lower ranking riftspawn. We still need to locate and deal with the Tidelord, which I heard runs the cabal. Have you seen any Abyssal activity here?" I almost wanted him to say no, because that would mean my suspicions were correct, but if he did say no, that meant that the Abyssal had a different agenda that I didn't know about. I pushed the worries out of my mind.

     "We've been harassed by Abyssal monsters here off and on for weeks, actually. I never thought anything of it, since the attacks seemed random and unrelated. But if what you say is true...I'm glad you've slain this Fathomlord. Perhaps the beasts will go back to the deeps now that their master is dead and that will be the end of it? Regardless, I have more immediate problems to deal with, with these undead." He waved a hand in emphasis over the map and I frowned, reluctant to dismiss the Abyssal problem so easily. "I know it probably seems more serious to you, but you don't understand the situation we're in. I've received several pleas for help from Smith's Haven, which I can't respond to because those bloody zombies block and harry our every effort to send men to the city. Smith's Haven is our capital, Karazhan, and I will do all in my power to help her." I absorbed this new information. Smith's Haven. I tried recalling in my mind's eye where that would be in Freemarch and vaguely placed the city somewhere off to the northeast of where I was now. So Smith's Haven was under attack as well. It seemed there was no end to the cultists mischief. I wondered how long it took the cults to set this sort of coup up, and why they hadn't been detected before it was too late.

     A harried looking young man dashed into the tent in the ensuing silence and saluted. The commander waved a hand at him. "Yes, what news?" The young man looked overly grave, eyes wide in his young face. "Sir! From what the scouts say, Smith's Haven is burning! It's...sir, permission to send troops!" The young man's face fell into worry and fear, and I wondered if maybe he had family in the city. Commander Venden looked even more tired and worn as he shook his head. "I'm sorry son, we can't risk sending any more troops. If we leave the station vulnerable, the undead will surely overwhelm us. Not to mention they attack and harry any forces I try to send, forcing them to retreat back here. It just doesn't seem possible to send a sizable force until we deal with those damn Endless." He slammed his fist down on the table and a small black square fell over from the impact. The young man looked agonized.

     "I know you said that any force you try to send can't seem to get through." I spoke up, and both men startled, as if forgetting I was there. I felt a moment of affront. I was a tall, sturdily built Bahmi, for spirit's sake. I'm not exactly some tiny mouse off in a corner. "What if you sent me instead?" The young scout's eyes bulged and he gawked at me, eyes flitting over my form as if looking for some hidden bomb or weapon that would indicate that I was able to successfully single-handedly relieve the beleaguered forces at Smith's Haven. The commander on the other hand, looked thoughtful and hopeful. "Can you do that Ascended? Would you do that?" He placed both hands, palms out, on the table on either side of the map, and gazed at it, as if analyzing the battlefield with the new equation of an Ascended in the mix. The young scout, I noticed, had gone rigid with shock at the word Ascended. He couldn't seem to peel his eyes off me. I smiled warmly at him.

     "Of course I'll help." I stated. "I know that most of the Ascended are all off fighting the rifts and the planar assaults, but it's just as important to keep our homes safe from the cultists and the other monsters. And I'm here already. I still want to figure out where this Abyssal cult threat leads, but the situation at Smith's Haven seems pretty serious. What kind of allies would we Defiant be if we let the citizens of Freemarch perish under our noses?" The young man's face transformed into something akin to hero worship and I almost chuckled. Silly impressionable young men. The commander as well was impressed. "Well spoken, Ascended. I'm honored to have met you. Admittedly I've not laid eyes on an Ascended before, only heard of them, but if they are all as noble and brave as you, than Telara is in good hands." His blue eyes sparkled warmly at me. I felt a strong emotion surge through me, exulting and freeing. It was a wonderful feeling. I felt incredibly proud to be Defiant, and that Freemarch was our home.
     "Last I'd heard, March Warden Denegar has his forces stationed outside the gates of Smith's Haven. They're already calling the place Denegar's Stand, for gods sake." The commander looked rueful. "I can only pray that he hasn't been overrun. Denegar is a brave warden, but his stewardship of Freemarch has never been tested before, and I fear he won't be able to hold Smith's Haven for long."
     "Okay, I'll go see what I can do to help. Might have to beat up some cultists." I quipped. The commander chuckled.

      I saluted to Commander Venden, turned and gave a smaller, jaunty salute to the scout, and left the tent. Behind me, I heard the scout's young voice start up immediately with questions about Ascended and grinned. Once outside the tent, I gazed around. If I squinted, I could just make out darkened clouds to the northeast that indicated the black smoke above Smith's Haven. It was indeed burning. A tight knot of worry clenched itself around my insides. A burning city was never good. A clenching of a different sort reminded me that I hadn't eaten in some hours. Not since my impromptu lunch with Ziara. Opening a flap on my pack, I peered inside and wrinkled my nose. Most of what I'd had, I'd shared with Ziara. I'd even left her extra supplies so she wouldn't have to eat just straight military rations. That had left me with a much lighter supply pack and I recalled that I'd been intent on doing some fishing when I had the time, but circumstances being what they were, I'd ended up rushing from place to place with no time to sit down and enjoy a few peaceful hours of fishing. My time at the Kelari refuge came back to me and I longed to just sit on the docks in the sun, idly casting my line and bantering with my fellow Kelari. I shook myself.

    "Excuse me miss?" I glanced up and noticed an older man peering at me. I quirked a dark eyebrow. "Sorry, yes?" I asked neutrally, tying the knot on my pack and slinging it back over my shoulder. The man seemed to shrink a bit under my direct gaze and glanced behind him. I noticed that a few other wardens and soldiers were gathered close by. Apparently they had designated him the spokesperson. "Is it true, you're an Ascended?" The man blurted out. He dropped his eyes.
     "Yes, I am. But you don't have to act like your meeting the queen. I'm just a normal person like you. I feel the same, act the same, have the same hopes and desires. And we are all allied with the Defiant. My name is Karazhan." The man brightened. He looked amazed and relieved. "Thank you Lady Karazhan. You are a blessing to us. We've all heard the stories of the amazing feats the Ascended have accomplished abroad. Closing rifts to the planes and destroying planar creatures! I've even heard rumors that some of the cult leaders were vanquished." I raised an eyebrow. I'd also heard such tales in Meridian from merchants and traveling traders who'd encountered Ascended on the road. It made me somewhat sad that we seemed engineered to be a solitary lot, like some kind of wandering hero. I wonder what we could accomplish if we teamed up. I bet we could even challenge the dragons themselves. I shook my head. No sense thinking of such things now. Perhaps down the road. Hells, I might even be one of those Ascended.
     "Are you here to help?" Asked the man eagerly. "Please, I have a young nephew in Smith's Haven, up the Fortress Road. Please, I beg you, can you go to Smith's Haven? We have orders here and it won't do any good anyway, with those Endless cultists lurking across the road like vultures. But you're an Ascended! I bet you could get to Smith's Haven with no trouble. I just want my family to be safe." As the man said that, the others all suddenly found a voice and added their pleas and concerns to the list. I lifted a hand.
     "Yes, I'm going to see what the situation is at Smith's Haven and see if there's anything I can do to help. No, don't give me individual names or directions to your homes. I'm there strictly to flush out the cultists and help restore order to the city. I don't know how long it will take to secure Smith's Haven, but as soon as the March Wardens have it under control, I'll make sure they send men to aid Gramaton Station and let you all know about your families." The others grumbled, but conceded, knowing that was fair. "Now uh...I'm a bit low on food supplies..." I added, feeling embarrassed, and a few women plied me with some tasty morsels. I was given a small woven basket of stuffed mushrooms, several exotic fruits, and a wrapped package of smoked boar meat which smelled delicious. A rind of fresh cheese topped it off. I offered coin to pay for the meal, but the wardens all insisted it was a gift as thanks for offering to aid Smith's Haven.

     Suddenly another wave of undead Endless swarmed the camp and the wardens sprang into action, grabbing their weapons and hacking at the attackers. One rot-eyed fiend lurched my way and I was so frustrated and sick of the cultists harrying the people of Freemarch that my bolt of lightning burst right through the creature and jumped to a nearby cluster of undead. All sizzled and snapped from the heat of the electricity, their non-lives snuffed out from the sheer power of the bolt. The forks of lightning continued to dance from undead to undead, the power growing weaker as it arced from their blackened flesh. Still, my spell devastated the attack force, doing twice as much damage as the defenders. When the strain of keeping the spell active grew too much and the resulting headache forced me to drop the incantation, I saw that the wardens were all gaping at me in awe and even fear. I forced a casual smile. Even though they all cheered, they kept casting uneasy glances at me, as if I were a wild creature who had, for the time being, followed the same course as them but would turn against them if the winds changed. I should have felt angry and insulted, but I only felt a slight sadness and hurt. No matter my talk about being a normal person like the rest, I couldn't refute the fact that I was different. I had the deadly power and potential to level the whole station if I was inclined to expend so much of my energy. It might leave me unconscious and weak as a kitten for a few weeks, but I could do it.

     Several wardens began dragging the charred undead corpses out of camp to a scorched section of land, where they no doubt burned all the cultists to ash so they wouldn't rise again. That was smart. I stood there in the center of the busy camp, feeling so very isolated and outlandish. Finally I shook myself, firmly telling myself to not let it bother me. The other souls hummed softly, a gentle and reassuring presence at the back of my mind, like having the support of friends. I almost wished they were living beings with their own bodies, instead of impressions of souls woven into the matrix of my own. Surrounded by allies and fellows all reaching toward the same goals, on the same side, I'd never felt so alone.

     I wasn't sure what to expect when I reached the city of Smith's Haven, but the chaos outside its gates definitely surprised me. The smell of burning wood and even bodies was so thick in the air that it hurt my throat and great clouds of blue-black smoke billowed out from behind the thick wall surrounding the town. To my dismay, what buildings I could see over the top of the wall looked sunken and broken; soulless. Across a quaint little wooden bridge, a large makeshift outpost had been set up and I figured this must be the "Denegar's Stand" that Commander Venden mentioned. Several tall leafy trees provided shade from the blistering heat of the sun. Dozens of white cots had been stretched out under the trees, and I was saddened to see that all were occupied by injured men and women. To my further dismay, not all of the injured wore military dress. Several white robed men and women darted between the rows of cots, the gentle wave of green or blue healing magic dancing around their fingers. The entire camp was bristling with color. The gray and white banner of the wardens fluttered in the breeze alongside the red and gold of the Defiants. Several gray and white command tents dominated the sizable camp, and I figured that's where I should go if I wanted information what was going on as well as how best to help out. And they definitely looked like they could use some help.

     Movement from the corner of my eye drew me up short and I noticed a woman in the traditional garb of the scientists of Meridian tinkering with a device on the road. She straightened up, wiped sweat from her brow, and froze when she caught sight of me. She stormed over, hands on her hips.
     "Took you long enough! I've been waiting ages." The woman snapped. I was so startled by her that I didn't resist when she grabbed my arm and dragged me over to the magitech device she was working on. The eldtrich machine hummed and whirred, but a slight hitch in the hum betrayed that it wasn't working properly. The woman arched an eyebrow at me and jutted a finger out at the machine. "It's been giving me trouble all day. Ever since those accursed Abyssal monsters attacked us. I just can't figure out how to recalibrate the focus settings to match up with the array so we...are you even listening to me?" She glared at me suspiciously.

     "Uh." I replied. "I'm sorry, I think you might have me confused with someone else." I finally said awkwardly. The woman narrowed her eyes. "You're not the scientist I sent for from Meridian?" She asked, almost accusingly. I sheepishly shook my head and her face darkened in irritation and disappointment. "Fine. Why were you just standing in the middle of the highway like a witless fool then?" I felt my mouth drop open. Since my rebirth no one had spoken to me with anything short of fawning respect or fearful adoration. I didn't know what to make of this. Somehow it brought to mind one of the priestesses at the temple in Atia, who had such a wicked sharp tongue and mean sarcasm that others went out of their way to avoid her. I'd always enjoyed her no-nonsense way of speaking though and she'd taught me so much that the other priestesses hadn't bothered to.
     "I was just surprised by the state of things." I answered her simply, too amazed to say anything but the truth under her sharp gaze. The scientist gave me one more shrewd glance, then turned and looked around her. She nodded. "Yes, it's not a pretty sight, is it? It all quickly. I was out here already you see, conducting an experiment with my trusty companion here." She patted the machine as if it was a loyal pet. I nodded, feeling a spark of interest. I'd love some details on what happened. "By the way, name's Nalise," the woman continued. "Anyway, one night my machine went off like crazy. I heard shouting and screams and saw people spilling out of Smith's Haven like ants out of an anthill. Many were bloody, and it was hard to see what was going on, since the moon was behind clouds. When I could see....well. There were undead crawling all over the city. Apparently they crept in when it was dark, using foul dark magic to disable the defenses and kill the sentries. I heard they were betrayed from within. The undead swept through the city, systematically killing everyone they could find. It wasn't until they were nearly done that someone of authority figured out what was happening and roused a defense against them. March Warden Denegar fought back and helped get everyone outside the gate. Well most everyone. I've heard there are still people trapped inside, but it's nearly impossible to get past the burning debris and undead sorcerers inside. That was only the day before yesterday." The woman, Nalise, shivered, as if she could still hear the screams, and I put a sympathetic hand on her arm.
     "That sounds absolutely horrifying." I said sincerely.
     "Yes, it was. So if you're not the assistant I requested, what are you doing here anyway? I'd guess you're here to aid the city except...there's only one of you. Unless your a scout? Or maybe your a spy?" She squinted her almond shaped eyes down the road that I'd walked up, before crossing her arms in a "you better confess right now" stance. It was so reminiscent of my novice days that I nearly laughed. Instead I kept a straight face.
     "No, I'm not a spy, or any threat. And yes I am here to help. My name is Karazhan and I'm an Ascended." The woman looked taken aback. "An Ascended? But...Oh! One of Sylver's creations?" I winced at being called a "creation" like I was one of those constructs the Defiants were always working on. I guess that was better than being called an experiment. "For a moment there, I thought you meant you were one of them." The woman continued. I must have looked as confused as I felt, because she elaborated with "You know, a Guardian."
     "Ah. Yeah, no. I'm Defiant, and proud of it." I grinned, and the woman grinned back. "Darn straight." She replied. She tilted her head to the side, eyes crinkling with humor. "Well, what are you hanging around me for? I thought you were here to help! Go help!" She made shooing motions. I grinned and saluted sarcastically at her. "Yes ma'am!" I shot back and walked over to the camp.

     No one looked at me twice as I maneuvered through the camp, avoiding soldiers, medics, officers and civilians. Time to find March Warden Denegar and figure out how to put an end to the Endless cult problem once and for all. Somehow I knew that the tyrant Jakub was behind this, and Alsbeth's plotting was behind him. Even if I couldn't reach her, I was going to put an end to Jakub and his wretched forces. Nalise had said just days ago. That coincided too closely with the resurrection of Jakub to even be considered a coincidence, and I knew that sacking Smith's Haven was a prime goal for the start of his revenge on the people of Freemarch for defying him all those years ago. Well he'll find that the people of Freemarch have more then just the Wardens protecting them now!

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