Saturday, August 23, 2014

[Karazhan's Story] 2.16: The Burning City

      "Hey there pretty lady. Name's Tremaine and I'm a Knight Marshal. Anything I you with?" The man who stepped in front of me when I made to enter the command tent was powerfully built and had a voice that demanded you pay attention. I stared at him levelly as he gave me a flirtatious grin. It was flattering to be called pretty in a way, but I also knew he'd deliberately prevented my forward progress. I suppose it was smart to make sure that not just anyone could walk in and kill their leader if they had a mind to it. I stepped back a pace so that I wasn't so close to "Tremaine". He was actually pretty big for an Eth, tall and heavily muscled, wearing heavy armor that was the norm for warriors and paladins. I put on my best "I'm in this war too and I mean business" expression.

     "Hello yourself. I've news for your leader, as well as an offering of aid and I heard he resides in this tent. I wish no one harm and I'm a member of the Defiants." I tilted my head slightly and made a casual motion toward the Defiants insignia on the lapel of my new robes. The red and gold rising phoenix glimmered in the afternoon sun. Tremaine raised one eyebrow and looked me over with a new eye, as if appraising whether I was telling the truth or not. Not that he'd actually be able to, since he wasn't a caster or someone who'd spent years studying the arts like I had. He grunted.
     "As you wish then." He finally said, drawing the words out. He swept aside the tent flap and called out a warning ahead of me before grandly bowing with one hand. "After you, pretty lady." He finished with a grin, waggling his eyebrows. I rolled my eyes. Warriors.
     Inside the tent, the air was slightly cooler and seemed free of smoke. A tiny glowing talisman on a central table was the answer for that. I could sense the magical power emanating from the device and had to stop myself from picking it up and poking at it magically. I was here for something more pressing. The man perusing a scroll to the left of the table had to be March Warden Denegar. He wore several medals and insignias of office and station and his clothing was more ceremonial. He carried a large two-handed sword across his back and looked exhausted. I felt a surge of sympathy for the March Wardens, who were desperately trying to protect their home and who were still conflicted on whether it was a good decision to turn their backs on the Vigil they'd long worshiped in favor of the more heretical and scientifically minded Defiants. He placed the scroll on the table with a grimace as I walked up.

     "Ah, a Defiant." He said. He glanced briefly at Tremaine, who gave a short nod. "I'm March Warden Denegar, but than you probably already know that. If you wouldn't mind introducing yourself my lady?" He smiled politely and distantly at me.
     "Oh yes. My name is Karazhan. I was resurrected by Sylver Valis as one of his engineered Ascended and have been helping with the troubles in Freemarch." I paused a moment as Denegar blinked in surprise at the word Ascended. His face went through several emotions; fear, awe, worry, disappointment. I could understand how he felt. It seemed that suddenly history was being made right here and no matter what happened, we, Sylver's creations, would always be remembered, even if our Guardian counterparts would rather we didn't exist. It made me feel giddy and elated and scared all at once to be part of such an important event in history.

     "Karazhan. A Defiant Ascended." The March Warden said slowly, as if he wasn't sure if he liked the sound of that. I gave a slight shrug, trying to appear casual. "I never thought I'd ever see an Ascended." He continued, and stared me in the eyes for several seconds before looking away. I dropped my own eyes to the magical air clearing device, feeling the sudden awkwardness. I stubbornly refused to let myself feel ashamed for existing. For being an affront to the gods. If they hadn't been so unrelenting and unbending in their views of mortal circumstances, we Kelari would never have broken from them. We wouldn't have gone to the Isles. I would never have been reborn as a constructed being made entirely out of magitech and sourcestone. An abomination in the eyes of the Vigil and the Guardians who followed them. But then, I wonder how different the world would have been if that hadn't happened. If Sylver hadn't made his own engineered Ascended replicated from the Vigil's chosen warriors. Well actually I didn't need to wonder, I already knew. The apocalypse I'd avoided by traveling through time was not something I'd ever forget.
     So I lifted my chin higher and steeled my jaw.

     "You know, when the Defiants arrived in Freemarch, they offered their help against the cult." Denegar spoke, filling the strained silence that followed. I quirked an eyebrow. He grimaced and looked older and more exhausted than before and I felt another surge of sympathy despite his almost unfriendly comment. "But I dismissed them. Why would we need help? We rose up against Jakub the Tyrant in the olden times and we retook our lands then. We were strong and we ruled ourselves justly. I was aghast at the Defiant's talk of the gods' failure. Such heresy I thought! And now..." He trailed off and gestured helplessly around him. He didn't have to say anything more. I knew what Freemarch faced. Of course, how was he to know all this would happen? And how to react to the ever changing circumstances of the world's politics.
     "Freemarch isn't alone anymore." I said in reply when he didn't say anything more. "The Defiant are your allies, and I'm here to help you take back Smith's Haven. So what can I do?" I put the offer out there bluntly, willing him to see the deadly sincerity in my voice and in my eyes. I wanted to protect the people of Freemarch just as much as he did. I couldn't bear to just watch the suffering of so many innocent people when I could do something to help. March Warden Denegar chuckled with grim amusement.
     "What an age this is. The Age of the Ascended." He mused, speaking barely loud enough to be heard. My greater sense of hearing picked out the words clearly though and I rolled the words around in my mind. The Age of Ascended, huh? I liked the sound of that. Indeed it was our age. And we'd show those crazed Blood Storm gods that we wouldn't tolerate their manipulation and wickedness anymore.

     "I thank you for coming to help Smith's Haven, Karazhan. You may not be the Ascended we were foretold would come, but you have stepped in to aid us, where the Guardians and the Vigil did not. While we managed to get many of the city's civilians to safety, others are still trapped inside. My second in command is also in there. We haven't been able to keep in touch with those still trapped behind the enemy lines, but if I know Ted Powell, he'll have holed up in the supply cave we carved into the side of the hill a long time ago. If you could help him get the remaining people back here to safety, we can attack the enemy in the city without concern of hurting our own." I frowned thoughtfully. Denegar stooped down over the map and began pointing out positions on the city map, letting me know where his scouts had reported the heaviest concentration of cultists, where the supply cave was, and what buildings were so damaged that to venture near them was too dangerous. I mapped out a route that would take me to the cave, and a possible escape route back out, but it was hard to predict an accurate escape route when I didn't know how many people were trapped inside and in what condition they were in. Denegar also didn't know if any were injured, or elderly. Apparently the takeover of Smith's Haven was so brutal and fast that the wardens were left scrambling to retreat.

     "Alright. It seems straight forward, and I know what to do. If I see any of those cultists or any undead I'll make sure to say hi for you." I said neutrally. Denegar grinned in approval. "You're alright, for a Defiant." He said finally. I felt my lips stretch into a wide smile. "I'm so glad you approve." I quipped back. I straightened up and stretched, feeling sore muscles loosen up a bit. Even Ascended needed rest now and again apparently, I thought ruefully. Denegar saw my wince. "Rest up a bit first and get something to eat. It wouldn't do to wander into that death trap without being on full alert." I agreed gratefully and wandered back outside. Knight Marshal Tremaine followed me out and took up a stance outside the tent flap again, giving me a jaunty wave as I moved over to a communal soup cauldron in the center of the camp. Since it was mainly a military camp, I wasn't expecting much in the way of nourishment but I vowed I wouldn't be fussy as long as it was hot. After all, they had to feed all these poor refugees from the city as well, and who knows what kind of state their supplies were in and when they would get any relief or aid from neighboring towns or Meridian. I remember vaguely that one of the Unseen had made mention that there were reports of Smith's Haven burning, so they had gotten the news before I left, but it was still a day's travel at least to way out here. I know they have those portal ways that allowed travel in the blink of an eye but I would imagine arriving in the middle of a burning city wasn't ideal so they had to travel the mundane way to reach the city.

     "A bowl of the soup please." I requested of the middle aged woman pouring bowls of soup for people. There were black smudges on her face and her skirt was half burnt away, but her eyes were fierce and determined. The people of Freemarch were brave and hardy. She handed me a crudely made wooden bowl of some type of vegetable soup. It didn't look like the best meal I'd ever eaten, but it was hot and it smelled good, so I settled down under a patch of shade, resting my staff at my side.

     After I'd eaten my fill--downed too quickly to truly enjoy it since the sight of the burning city instilled haste in my actions--I washed off my utensils with water from my flask and handed it back to the woman at the cauldron with a murmur of thanks. I walked toward the little bridge and destroyed gate that led to Smith's Haven and studied it, considering if it was best to try and dash through the flames licking at the gate, or if I should just climb up the wall. Both prospects seemed like a great deal of effort. The Endless Court sure knew what they were doing by starting the fires closest to the gate to make it nearly impossible for anyone to get in or out.

     "You're not thinking of going in there, are you?" Asked a somewhat disbelieving voice behind me. I turned around and spotted a fairly young Kelari maiden standing a little to my left. She was wearing long red robes like the Meridian scientists but hers had no markings or badges of rank. An apprentice perhaps? I smiled at her.
     "Maybe I am. Someone needs to show the Endless that we're not just going to sit down and take this." I replied. The girl looked gleeful and worried all at once and I felt touched that she was concerned for me.
     "Just don't get in trouble cause we won't even be able to hear you scream for help, k?" The girl said, and a corner of her mouth quirked up. I smiled back. "Oh hey, here take this!" She added on suddenly, and stepped up to me, pressing a large cold canister into my hands. I stared down at it. It was a strangely shaped jar, ice cold to the touch and seemed to be fogged up with condensation.
     "What is it?" I asked the girl after studying the object a moment. She was shorter than me by quite a bit and I ended up looking down at her, which made me uncomfortable. I stepped back a pace.
     "It's a holding canister for water elementals. It's my research project for Meridian. If we could capture the weaker elemental creatures and keep them contained until required for something specific, it would be very beneficial to the war effort." The girl said this in a straight, earnest voice, rattling off the sentence as if she'd practiced it. I studied the jar again. An elemental? "This one is a water elemental. I captured it on the way here when a rift into the plane of water exploded around us. The Wardens are pretty good at fighting off planar foes and while they were busy I scooped this one up and sealed it in that canister. It might be mad when it gets out though, but the opposing elements seem attracted to each other like magnets so if you release it inside the city, the elemental will be drawn to the fires and you can use it to maybe put out some fires if your in trouble, or to help someone who might be trapped by burning debris."
     "Wow. Color me impressed!" I exclaimed after her little explanation. "This'll be very helpful, thank you." I added sincerely. The girl beamed.
     "Good luck! You're going to need it. I hope you can get the rest of them out to safety." She waved at me and walked away from the searing heat coming from the gate.

     I tucked the elemental vial into my belt and scowled at the blazing doors. Being from the hot tropical isles inured me to heat and high temperatures, but this was on another level and already I felt uncomfortable.

    Once I'd gingerly picked my way past the burning wreckage of the town gate, I recalled the map to mind and stayed left, following the main streets as much as possible. The visibility was low due to smoke and flames and there was debris and burning buildings on either side. Every so often I forced myself to stop and stand still despite the oppressive heat and listen for any cries of help or anything suspicious. I dreaded the possibility that there were poor victims still trapped inside any of those buildings, helplessly burning alive when I could have done something. It made me very cold inside down to my toes despite the incredible heat bearing down on me. Despite the heavy smoke, I found that breathing wasn't too difficult as long as I took slow breaths. It must have been something to do with the nature of my new sourcestone body. I didn't complain. Having smoke inhalation problems on top of everything else seemed like a recipe for disaster. And a horrible way to die.

     I passed several tall buildings, one of them looked to be an Inn. The stables for the horses and other mounts was nothing but a towering inferno of yellow hot flames. I really hoped there were no animals inside. Finally I stopped in a relatively clear area, when the main road had gotten smaller and seemed to weave between houses instead of holding a firm straight line. I called up my magic and attuned my senses to my surroundings. Using just the raw essence of the magic, I quested out, searching for signs of life. To my dismay I found plenty of dark dots around the town. They were dark violet at the core, denoting that their souls were tainted by evil. Those must be the damn cultists. Searching further, I widened my inner gaze and brushed up against the rocky mountains that bisected Freemarch here. Aha, Denegar had said the refugees were trapped within a supply cave carved into the side of the hill. I "felt" along the hill with my magic until I finally found a whole mess of life signatures. Most of the dots were in hues of gold and white, denoting good, honest souls. Found them.

     I recalled my magic back to myself and felt a slight twinge in my temples. Using raw magic that way always took a lot out of the caster. I'd learned the trick a long time ago by accident when I'd been part of a search for a lost child in the jungle outside Atia. Since than I'd learned to hone the skill. It made it very handy in finding signs of life in areas, but it was also very strenuous on the mind so I didn't like to use it often. Apparently even being Ascended didn't make me immune to the rigors of magic use. I rubbed my temples to help relieve the ache. At least I knew that the townsfolk still seemed to be alive and ok. Just trapped in the cave since the town was crawling with cultists and ordinary townspeople were trained to fight, let alone fight a bunch of insane Regulos worshippers and their undead pets.

     I don't know how long it actually took me to reach the little cave where the trapped citizens were hiding out. A few times I ran into cultists and had to quickly end them before they could call out and warn others that I was here. It wasn't exactly a pleasant task. They were still people after all, but they had sided with the Destroyer so their fate was sealed. I also quickly threw nets of power and electric magic at the many undead I came across, disabling them and ending their miserable caricature of living. I think of all the vast and evil threats to the world, the undead bothered me the most. They truly were abominations on Telara. Not alive, not truly dead, they had no right to even exist. That the cultists used them like well trained hounds bothered me even more, and I had to hope that their souls weren't somehow buried deep in their rotting flesh, yoked to mindless slavery for their dark cause.

    When I climbed over the makeshift barricade barring entrance into the cave, I found myself face to face with a whole lot of spears and pitchforks. Immediately I put both hands in the air and froze.

    "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Demanded their leader, a tall dark skinned man in warden colors.

    "Hi, I'm Karazhan, a Defiant. Are you Ted Powell? I was sent in here by March Warden Denegar to help get the rest of the civilians out of Smith's Haven so they can commence their attack. I'm on your side, I swear." I said by way of greeting. I kept my expression open and earnest. The warden peered at me with narrowed eyes, before slowly lowering his beautifully carved spear. Everyone else had rather crude weapons that looked to have been hastily strung together from whatever supplies they could scavenge.

     "The March Warden sent you? Than he got out ok?" Ted exclaimed. His face looked ten times younger when he suddenly grinned in relief. "Boy am I glad to hear that! And thank you for coming to our aid. I was beginning to think we'd been forgotten about. But..." he trailed off and peered behind me a moment, looking perplexed. I chuckled at his confusion.
     "Don't worry, I'm all you need. I can protect us while we escape." I said in a neutral tone of voice. It wasn't boasting after all if it was true. Ted peered at me again, looking wary and suspicious. Then his eyes widened.
     "Oh! You're one of those engineered Ascended?! We'd just gotten word from Meridian of Sylver's success when we were attacked by the Endless Court. Wow, a real life Ascended." He tried to casually dust off his torn and burnt clothes, as if trying to make a good impression on me.
     "Trust me, it's not as glamorous as it seems." I offered wryly. "Now how many people do you have here, and when do you want to leave, cause frankly, I'm sick of this place already." I asked, lifting one eyebrow and gesturing behind me. Ted considered the cave entrance a moment as he mentally counted.
     "We have about fifteen of us. There's a few kids and elderly though and everyone's been effected by the smoke. We need to get them out of here before it gets worse." Ted replied grimly, down to business. I nodded gravely in understanding. He led me to the back of the cave where the rest of them were and I glanced among them. All the civilians seemed to perk up upon spotting me, most of them scrambling to their feet with hope on their dirty faces. I put on a confident smile for them.

     "Hello everyone. I know you've had a hard couple of days, but it isn't over yet. We're going to be leaving now and going to a camp that March Warden Denegar has set up outside Smith's Haven. There you can get fresh food and water as well as have medics tend to your injuries. We just need to get there first. I won't lie, it's going to be risky. There's a lot of cultists between there and here, but if we stick together and protect each other, we should be fine. This is our only chance, so are you ready?" I meant the question rhetorically, because whether they were ready or not, we were leaving, but the roar of approval that greeted me was a bit startling. I felt a tight feeling inside, kind of like pride, and my smile grew wider. I nodded at Ted and went to stand by their little barricade as he organized the group for travel. He knew them better then I did and would be able to better equip them and prepare them for the run through the burning city.

     After some time Ted came up beside me and informed me they were ready. I took a deep breath.
     "Stay close everyone, and look out for each other. Keep an eye on those nearby and make sure they don't get into trouble. If something happens, keep your voice low but try to alert the rest of us as soon as possible. It's going to be dangerous, but you are people of Freemarch and I know you're brave souls. Your ancestors beat Jakub the Tyrant after all. Don't hesitate to use your weapons to defend your friends." I glanced among them, memorizing their dirty uplifted faces, than turned and slipped between the barricade with ease. My strength and agility had definitely increased since being placed in this new body. A lot of it was in fact the body itself, but the addition of the sourcestone matrix and the power of the other souls lent me increased physical attributes that I'd never had before, being a scholarly, indoor mage type.

     The run back through the city became a blur to my memory. It was just one jumbled haze of fire and smoke and worry. At one point, the young Kelari scientists elemental canister saved us when a burning building exploded next to us, showing flames and burning wood down among the group. A young child and a man ended up pinned by flaming beams and half the group was trapped behind a wall of fire. The water elemental, when released, almost attacked me but the pull of fire, it's direct opposite in elemental power, lured it toward the flames and the water elemental smothered the flames, allowing myself and Ted and two others to pull the beam off the injured townsfolk and gather up our scattered group. We couldn't treat the injuries there, not with no supplies and in the open in what was now enemy territory, but none were life threatening so we just continued on. To my great regret, we did lose someone. A young boy who had been struggling to the side of the group, coughing from black smoke. An undead fiend with red eyes leapt out of a shadowy alcove and snatched up the boy, impaling him on a rusted sword before anyone could even realize the attack had happened. Of course all the townsfolk descended upon the fiend, stabbing and slashing, before my pure weather magic ended its abominable existence. We spent a few moments in hushed mourning before the risk of staying grew too great and we were forced to press onward, leaving the tiny mangled body behind. Even though he was the only life lost, I felt such bitter regret when we finally reached the town gate and I could smell the fresh air. Tears prickled my eyelids. That poor innocent little soul. I've never hated anything so much in life as I did the Endless Court right than. Them, Regulos, and that horrid snake Alsbeth. If she had appeared right then in front of me, I would have done my best to rent her limb from limb, no matter what anyone thought or her pleas for mercy.

    "I'm so sorry." I said to Ted as I led him toward Denegar's tent. We'd deposited the citizens in the capable hands of the warden's military healers and they were now being treated for their various injuries. Smoke inhalation seemed to be the most serious, although the man who'd been pinned by the beam ended up with a pretty bad concussion and a broken arm as well as bruised ribs. He was lucky. Again I felt grief well up as I saw the boy in my mind's eye. Ted clapped me on the arm and his face grew serious and grave.
     "Karazhan, don't be. You saved us. If you hadn't gone in there and led us back out, who even knows if any of us would have survived. It wasn't your fault, what happened, and I'm just grateful the rest of us are safe. Thank you." He peered into my dark eyes and I took a deep breath of the clean air. The nearby river, fed by the sea, brought the smell of brine and salt with the breeze, clearing my lungs of the heavy smoke-filled air.
    "Still..." I shook my head. No matter I knew Ted's words were true, I couldn't help the self-disgust I felt. I'd had a job and I felt like I'd failed it, failed them, failed myself. Just the very idea of losing even one person to those accursed cults made hot anger and bitter sorrow well up within me. Warm and comforting touches seemed to press upon my mind and I dropped my mental shields slightly to allow the other souls to comfort me as best they could.

     "March Warden, I've returned." I announced when I entered the tent after winking at Knight Marshal Tremaine outside. He'd gawked at me and Ted, as if shocked to even see me alive, let alone that I'd succeeded. Denegar's head jerked up at my voice and he immediately rounded the table, hugging Ted like they were old comrades. And maybe they were. This town, in fact all of Freemarch, had a history that I hadn't been part of. I shook the thought away before it made me feel even more depressed. Did Ascended have issues with mental health? I wonder if the medics had experience with dealing with mentally scarred, depressed Ascended beings.
    I shook my head again and brought myself firmly back to the present, in time to hear the last of Ted's explanation of what had happened in Smith's Haven. Denegar looked saddened at the loss of the boy, but turned a grateful smile on me.

    "Thank you so very much, Lady Karazhan." March Warden Denegar praised me. He came forward and stuck out his hand in the southern custom. I awkwardly shook it, before inclining my head politely.
     "You're welcome. You're people are very brave, March Warden. You should be proud of them." I offered, surprised that I actually meant it. They had been brave. And loyal. None had run or hid when the building had exploded, or when the fiend had attacked. "But I'm sick of just reacting. I'm sick of those cultists thinking they can just do whatever the hells they please with our land. I won't allow Freemarch to fall to Regulos. It's time I take this fight directly to them. And I know now where they are." I turned my eyes outside the tent flap, where the towering dark spires of the Iron Fortress seemed to loom in sinister silence over the fallen city.

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