"Hello there...Thomas was it?" I asked politely when I was close enough for casual conversation. See, I can be nice when I have need of it. He was lounging by one of the large trees in front of the house. I settled myself on the ground, having no problem with getting dirty. I lived in forests my whole life and felt infinitely more at home sitting on the ground amid the good clean earth than seated in a man or dwarf-made chair. The man, Thomas, nodded at me in greeting, still looking as depressed as he had been yesterday when he'd informed me of the dire straits of the Spirit Guide.
"So what exactly are you doing out here, Thomas? No offense, but you look pretty uncomfortable in your present circumstances." I quirked a brow at him and softened my expression to prove that I genuinely was interested. The man looked, if possible, even more dejected, but began to speak.
"I came to the Sunken Marsh to perform the will of the Vigil. Perhaps if I do all that is asked of me, I will feel their presence once again."
I frowned, and studied him silently for a moment. He's seeking to feel the presence of the gods? That must mean that he hasn't felt their touch in some time. Perhaps being Ascended brings me closer to their divine touch, but I've always felt the Vigil with me as I've travelled through old Mathosia and now Silverwood. I tried recalling if I felt their presence this prominently before my rebirth, but the memories were too hazy. Although I couldn't communicate with them directly, or feel anything definitive, I could feel divine power coursing through me and who else could it come from but the gods? I frowned. Perhaps he was atoning for something? Or seeking guidance? Even though the Vigil had been distant and unreachable since the erecting of the Ward, I doubt they would care overmuch about the inner workings of just one mortal man.
"So why did you come here, if you don't mind my asking? What brought you here, of all places? It can't have been simple chance that led you out here to the edge of the marsh." I pitched my voice low and soft, not wanting to seem nosey or rude. The man took a deep breath and hesitated. He seemed reluctant to speak, but at the same time, there was a light in his eyes, as if he would relish the chance to tell someone his story. I leaned closer and nodded.
"Well. During the Mathosian civil war, my family and I were slain. I Ascended and came back to Telara...but they didn't. Tormented by guilt, I seek redemption every day but the gods are silent. Always silent! Long ago, I had a vision about the Sunken Marsh. I dreamed that the boglings of the marsh would hold the key to why the Vigil has been ignoring my prayers. I was surprised to learn that the creatures were not the virtuous beings I expected, but rather savage looters and thieves. My resolve is unyielding, however. If the Vigil has a plan for the boglings, perhaps they have one for me too."
I blinked, knowing I looked a bit startled but not caring. That's a rather...interesting story. I felt sadness that this man had lost all that he held dear, had been Ascended by the gods to live the rest of his life alone, cut off from his family. It must be horrible...now that I'm thinking about it, it seems somewhat similar to my own plight. Thankfully I have Ascension, a divine gift straight from the Vigil to help me know that I'm not alone and that my path is a righteous one. I shook my head slightly. And this vision? I felt vaguely uneasy about that. Considering what I'd learned about the boglings and their involvement with Greenscale, I wasn't sure what to make of this man's vision. But it seemed to be the only thing keeping him going and I didn't want to take that away from him too. I wasn't sure if I should warn him to be careful or not. It wasn't my business of course, but I'd rather not see any member of the Blood Storm claim another life. I pursed my lips and stood.
"I hope you find what you're looking for Thomas. I truly do. Be wary, though. Some things are not what they appear." Before I could walk off, he held up a hand. I turned back and tilted my head slightly. "Yes?"
"I was wondering, did the Spirit Guide live? Was she rescued? What did she say? There must be a reason for her presence here!" I blinked. Of course, I'd forgotten about that. And he seemed honestly concerned. I stepped back nearer and nodded.
"Yes, I found her and rescued her in time. She was a small, delicate thing, but beautiful in a mystical way. Such power in her eyes...." I trailed off without realizing it, remembering the look of the small doe. She'd looked at me, as if conveying a silent message. As if asking for something. I frowned thoughtfully.
"This might sound silly, but I had the impression she had a message for me, when I freed her. But I couldn't understand it if she did. It was more of an impression. As if she expected something from me. What do you know of the Spirit Guides?" I asked, curious. I assumed that he had knowledge about the Spirit Guides, since he was the one who told me she was in danger. And I was right. Thomas rubbed his chin thoughtfully and straightened his shoulders.
"Long ago, the followers of Tavril placed altars across the forest to see the reflection of their true selves through the eyes of the gods. If the Vigil sent the Spirit Guide to you, praying before these altars of reflection might reveal that to you." As he finished, the knowledge came back to me. I remembered coming across one such altar in my travels around the wood. The Altars of Reflection were for the Elves to communicate with Tavril through guides and signs. It helped remind my people of what we stood for. That would be the perfect place. It felt good to have a goal and I was very much eager to meditate for Tavril again. Having to constantly remind myself that she was part of the Vigil now was tiring. At least in this, I could focus completely on my patron goddess.
"Thanks, Thomas. I wish you luck in your quest." I stood and gave one last glance around. I narrowed my eyes at the tall male elf by the side of the Marsh House as a silent warning. He was fiddling with some sort of rod. It was his experiments, along with Nora's knowledge, that had led to poor Maffle becoming crazed and unstable. I headed into the woods behind the little hut, going over my mental map of Silverwood for the closest altar that I knew of.
To my surprise, there happened to be an altar of reflection conveniently located not far from the Marsh. I quickly estimated how long it would take to get there and was pleased. Breaking into a paced jog, I loped through the forest. The trees here by the marsh were taller and greener, no doubt due to the oxygen-rich nutrients being generated and the extra water available.
The Altar of Reflection was located in a small, symmetrical clearing. The physical presence of the altar infused the clearing with a sense of ancient wisdom and peace that instantly had me relaxing as I approached. I knelt respectfully before the altar and murmured a quick prayer to the gods, Tavril in particular. Studying the altar carefully, as I'd never actually had need to visit an altar of reflection before, I noticed that there was a sun disc floating as if by magic on the flat surface. The sun beams were being filtered directly through the mirror and made a curious design on the surface of the altar. I leaned closer to better inspect the design. The golden sunlight outlined an icon, but the lines were indistinct and blurred so I couldn't make out who's icon it was. The odds were, it was probably Tavril's holy symbol. That would make the most sense.
Hesitantly, I placed my fingers on the sun disc, tracing the contours gently and reverently. I could practically feel the presence of the goddess, Tavril, in the glade. As I'd been taught all my life, I reached down and flipped the sun disc, activating the magic inherent in the altar. If the Spirit Guide was for me, she would appear before me now. I waited but a moment before shining light engulfed the altar. The light floated away and coalesced above the ground to my left. I stepped back, somewhat awed by this spectacle, and watched the light form into the now familiar shape of the Spirit Guide. The young doe, shining with an inner holy light, shook herself and pawed the ground. Than she lifted her head and gazed at me silently.
"What do you need from me, Guide?" I asked quietly. For some reason, I hesitated to speak over a whisper. The Spirit Guide tossed her head. She gave me one, soulful look, than turned abruptly and faced the other direction, back toward the Marsh House. I frowned. What? I'd just come from there...
"You want me to go back to the Marsh House?" I asked rhetorically. The doe nodded her head, than shook it. I considered. "You want me to head back to Thomas Penthas perhaps?" I asked, keeping my voice soft. This time the doe nodded confidently, bobbing her arched neck gracefully. I tried not to become annoyed by this, but it was hard. I'd just come from there, all the way to the nearest Altar of Reflection, to speak to the Spirit Guide, only to have her tell me that I needed to go back and talk to that bloody Mathosian again. Arg!
Taking a deep breath, I inclined my head in a respectful manner at the doe. She cocked her head, contemplating me, than slowly became transparent. Soon, there was nothing in her place but motes of shining light, which drifted back into the altar. I snorted. Fine. I complained to myself the entire trip back to the Marsh House.
"So, the Spirit Guide was for you after all? I envy you, Raeslyn. May the Vigil bless your path through this forest. When our paths cross again, I hope to find their light shines upon us both."
I rolled my eyes at Thomas's flowery greeting when I explained what had happened at the Alter of Reflection. Of course, everyone at the Marsh House had been quite curious to see me come back here, having assumed I had important tasks to complete elsewhere. Well, apparently I still had unfinished business here.
"Well, the Spirit Guide didn't say much to me. In fact, she didn't say anything at all." I said, rather crossly. I resisted the urge to tap my fingers on my dagger hilt. I hate wasting my time and going back and forth between the Spirit Guide and the marsh and the Marsh House was trying my patience. "Apparently though, you have some interesting information that could be of importance in my quest to cleanse Silverwood. So out with it." I waggled my eyebrows at Thomas to soften my sharp words some, although I was feeling quite annoyed.
Thomas blinked and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I don't see how I can help...oh!" He snapped his fingers and I raised an eyebrow.
"Yes?" I asked impatiently.
"Isilwyn Alrai, a former member of the High Elf Council is investigating Aelfwar activity at Silver Landing. He sent me a message asking if I would be interested in coming down to help him with his investigations. You should go talk to him. I know he'd be extremely grateful if you could be of aid and I bet that's what the Spirit Guide meant. That's the only thing I can think of that would be significant. Those Aelfwar are out of control."
I went cold. Aelfwar. The last time I'd tangled with that order I'd been slain. I fought to keep any expression off my face, and nodded thoughtfully, as if pretending to think it over. My mind was a flurry. The Aelfwar were openly attacking now? No, they can't be, or I'd have heard about it. Perhaps they were setting plans in motion though. This could be the beginning of something. Thomas was right, I needed to investigate this. I found it was my duty, as a member of that society, to do what I could to mitigate the damage the Aelfwar were doing to my beloved forest. The familiar guilt ate at me as I turned without a word and numbly walked away. I knew where Silver Landing was of course. Down the coastline further, where the inlet was. It shouldn't take more than a few hours to reach if I traveled swiftly.
I couldn't help but think of my last living memory as my old self, a simple young rogue, just learning my trade, loyally following my mentor through the forest as we rushed to reach Mathosian lands and warn Shyla of Hylas's treachery. But of course, they had known, hadn't they? Had ambushed us before we'd even left Silverwood. Where was my mentor? My heart ached with the loss. I increased my pace to block out the thoughts, the emotions. But I couldn't outrun myself, mores the pity. I retreated back within my mind and was relieved when the other souls that shared my body sensed my distress. Gently, a maternal hand was placed in mine, and control was shunted off to someone else. I lay quiet in my own head and let someone else be the guide for once. It was still my body, and I knew I was still the one in control. But I'd let someone else steer for a little while.
I became aware again when I realized there was trouble up ahead. Slight movement among the trees alerted me, bringing me back to my senses. I slowed, glancing around cautiously. My fine elven sight picked out a tall form moving easily in the undergrowth. Aelfwar. I narrowed my eyes, drawing my daggers silently. If I want to take down the Aelfwar, I couldn't just go around slaying any I found at random, but I hungered so sharply to slit this one's throat that I was trembling. I'd never felt bloodthirst or fury of this magnitude before and it might have frightened me once. But my experiences since resurrection had changed me. Drawing on the knowledge of my brethren souls, I took a deep breath and concentrated upon my Ascended connection. I was going to try a new trick.
Concentrating on what I wanted, I opened my mind to the sensation of the power and felt a give in the power somewhere. With a small, almost musical sound, I vanished from view. I knew I was there. But I couldn't see anything about my figure except a vague, blurred outline if I concentrated. The effect was rather distracting and dizzying, but I didn't dwell on it long. I focused back on the Aelfwar. Holding myself invisible in this new stealth technique was immensely draining and I instinctively felt I wouldn't have long to stay this way. If I wanted to catch this Aelfwar scout by surprise, I needed to act fast. Considering, I wondered if I'd be able to do that flash forward teleport I'd pulled off in Mathosia. I hadn't thought about it recently because I'd seen no use for it, but it would be quite handy in this instance. Gritting my teeth, I called up that technique and remembered how I'd done it. The other souls inside me lent me their abilities and I teleported through the dimensions, arriving instantly at the Aelfwar's back. The scout, a young willowy woman in brown and gray leathers with a mask over her fine features, seemed to sense something amiss. She whirled about, glancing around the wood suspiciously. Her arm drew back over her shoulder, fingering the fletching of an arrow. A giddy thrill surged through me when I realized she indeed couldn't see me. I grinned, displaying teeth.
Without warning, I exploded out of my shell of invisibility, ambushing her from behind with a lethal knife strike between the shoulder blades. The woman cried out, a strangled sound, and pitched forward. Like any good soldier, she turned her fall into a timed tumble, coming up with arrow knocked to her bow. Anticipating this, I rolled to the side, thrusting my daggers under her raised arm and scoring a hit along her ribs. Again she cried out, breath hitching. A small part of me wailed at what I was doing my kinsman, but the hard-headed Ascended half knew I had to do this. I couldn't let these scouts report back to their leader what they learned about this area. They couldn't be allowed to know Silverwood's strengths and the outposts of the Guardians. I may have belonged to the Aelfwar once, but no longer. Now I was a Guardian.
I hissed in fury as I again slashed at the Aelfwar woman, leaving bloody lines along her shoulder and chest. An arrow whistled by me, so close it ruffled my leathers. I kept my eyes on the woman, refusing to be distracted by the arrows. I could heal most damage inflicted, I was confident of that. Another arrow narrowly missed my arm as I circled around the woman. She was fast with her bow, I'll give her that much. Time to finish this. I moved in, pivoting on one foot to avoid yet another arrow. With my left hand leading, I struck, sinking a dagger to the hilt in her back, just behind the shoulder blade. The woman jerked and stiffened. Without a sound she pitched forward.
Grimly, I pulled my dagger out and wiped it on her tunic. I studiously avoided looking at the body as I sheathed both my daggers. I did pick up the arrows though. One can never have too many weapons.
After that first kill, I was able to keep myself in check when I encountered other Aelfwar. Although I did find it necessary to slay several more scouts who had ventured too close to Silver Landing for my liking. I did see several coastal roving wolves as well, which was odd, since I'd thought they kept their distance from any presence of the mortal races. Unless the Aelfwar had somehow put a hold on some of the wild brethren. I wouldn't put it past them, subverting the wild creatures of Telara for their own gain.
Silver Landing was a small, coastal outpost, sparsely manned, that had been set up more as a retreat for elves who wanted to escape from the politics of the council and the rift between Shyla and Hylas than out of any need for sentries along the coast. Although now it looked like it was a good strategic location if the Aelfwar did get a hold of it. There were several vigilant defenders standing at alert by the base of the main building. They eyed me warily as I approached, hands up to signify I meant no threat. The defenders, both Mathosian, nodded at me.
"Raeslyn the Ascended. I'm here to see Isilwyn Alraie." I said loudly. A tall, pale elf exited the building as I spoke and beckoned me up. I assumed he was the one I needed to see.
"You've risked much coming here. I am impressed, stranger." I scoffed. For an Ascended, the threat of the Aelfwar wasn't as high. Though there did seem to be quite a number of them roaming the woods around here.
"This is Blair Rheese and Elenas Kerilan." Isilwyn pointed out the two other occupants of the dwelling to me, two young elven women. I nodded at both.
"It is good that my old friend Penthas had the foresight to send you to me. There are forces unsettling the Silver Coast and I need your help to thwart their plans."
"Commander Falem, the Aelfwar officer in this area, is wielding a piece of the forest that is imbued with planar magic. I have seen him admiring a great thorn he was wearing around his wrist. That thorn will serve as our last piece of evidence against the Aelfwar. If we have it, we can take it to the council and take steps to remove the head from the Aelfwar snake. Retrieve the Faetouched thorn from Commander Falem. He was last seen down along the coastline. He's set up his command post in an old fishing hut to the southeast. My men can't seem to get near him."
I frowned thoughtfully. A Faetouched thorn? I wonder...I didn't know the Aelfwar were involved with the Fae, but now that I think about it, it makes a kind of sense. I had heard odd lilting music throughout the wood in my time before my resurrection. I'd often attributed it to some random elf maiden nearby, but I'd never actually found the source of the music. If it was Fae in origin, I wouldn't either. This was very bad indeed if the Fae were involved. I knew very little about that race of magical beings, or big of a threat they were to Silverwood's stability. I definitely needed to get a hold of this thorn.
"I'll retrieve the thorn." I said, standing and nodding. Isilwyn looked relieved and smiled at me. "That is good news, thank you Ascended. Also, if you wouldn't mind, could you look into some trouble my companion seems to be having? Blair, if you please?" He gestured to the pretty blonde elf and I turned, lifting an eyebrow at her. I admit, the more I delve into the problems of Silverwood, the more curious I get. And I am having a lot of fun solving these little problems. I smirked to myself. Raeslyn, problem-solver extraordinaire, freeing the world from evil one quest at a time.
Blair gave me a dainty, hesitant smile, but I wasn't fooled. She might look like a delicate china doll, but like all High Elves, she was strong, capable, and ruthless when she needed to be. I inclined my head to her.
"A few days ago, a Guardian ship crashed just off the Silver Coast. Fearing the Aelfwar may be responsible, I sent a scout, Indra Grenwode, to investigate, but she hasn't returned yet. Could you perhaps investigate this shipwreck for yourself and search for her? I would very much like to know what happened to my scout and also...the ship. It is called the Galena and you should find it to the south of here, just off the coastline. It can't be coincidence that it crashed here, where the Aelfwar threat appears strongest."
I nodded, silently considering. A ship crashes off the coast, an Aelfwar commander is carrying a Faetouched talisman...the Aelfwar in general are becoming more active. What does it all mean? I'm sure there's some connection, but what? I shook my head. I needed to finish these tasks and perhaps the answers will become apparent.