Thursday, May 23, 2013

[Raeslyn's Story] 2.16: Tokens of a Dragon

     After straightening out the mess with the students and making sure that Scotty didn't actually harm Fiona, since the teachers seemed to think that they needed to duke it out on their own, I remembered that the Guardians asked me to find and slay this Gutter, a notorious goblin leader who seems to be the one behind all the goblin troubles in Silverwood. It would be nice to get rid of him once and for all and free Silverwood from Maelforge's grasp. Of course I'm not na├»ve enough to think that this would solve all the world's problems, or even Silverwood's problems, but ya have to start somewhere, right? After selling off what junk I'd gathered along my travels-seriously, how does my bag get so full all the time?!-I went in search of the goblin hordes.

     After conversing with several Guardian officers on the location of the goblin threats, I worked out a general pattern and realized that the greatest concentration of goblins was up north, by the mountainous edge that marked Gloamwood and Moonshade Highlands. That didn't bode well and meant that the goblins were spilling over into Silverwood from Gloamwood for some reason. Normally I wouldn't think they'd dare be brave enough to attack Silverwood so openly like this, so something must be driving them...but I couldn't worry about that now. Deal with the current problems before moving on to others. As I ventured further and further north, into territory I'd not explored before, I began to see quite a bit of signs that the goblins had set up shop here. There were profane effigies to their malignant ruler, Maelforge, as well as crude bone statues, blood splattered on trees, and other disgusting goblin habits I'd read about but didn't want to analyze too closely. Disgusting creatures. Where'd goblins even come from anyway? I was mildly curious, but not curious or scholarly enough to pick up a book and read about it. I was more of an outdoors, actiony kind of girl. I ducked a low hanging branch as I moved along more slowly now. I could hear a loud commotion along with metallic clanks now, so I guessed I must be nearing their main camp. It was early evening, but I wasn't worried anymore about being out after dark after I'd learned I could see just as effectively as during the day.

     The camp...was horrifying. That's the only word I can use to describe this...horror. Goblins swarmed the area like giant, bloodthirsty ants, fighting with each other, slicing up questionable slabs of meat, stoking fires, sharpening blades, arguing, standing around, and generally looking like the worlds most disorderly army ever. The horrifying part was, interspersed among all the goblins were these tall, wooden poles. Atop each pole was carved a crude likeness of a dragon breathing fire, which I assumed was their representation of Maelforge. The dragon effigies clutched tiny sourcestone beads in their claws, which meant that they actually had power. And tethered to the poles were hapless men and women, mostly human and elven. It took me a moment to realize that these must all the missing travelers I'd heard about that had disappeared from the roads and paths in Silverwood. The Guardian's warnings about staying alert while on my missions gave a whole new meaning. As I watched, one of the bound victims screamed and slumped to the side. A shining mist floated up from the body and was eaten by the Maelforge carving. I stood there, wide-eyed, for who knows how long, just watching all the terrible things happening in this goblin camp. Truthfully, I knew I should attempt to do something about those poor souls, if only to prevent Maelforge from burning them up as fuel for his great power, but I just couldn't find a non risky way of freeing them without exposing myself to the same thing. The place was literally full of goblins and there was no feasible way for me to pass among them unseen. Which presented the same problem when trying to find their leader. How was I to know which was their leader anyway? They all looked the same. Squat, malformed looking creatures with manic expressions and skin the color of old blood. Their clothing barely covered them, hanging off in burnt tatters. No matter how long I looked, I couldn't find a single one that would fit even a loose definition of the word "leader."

     I was about to give up and see if there were other encampments around the mountains when I saw a goblin seemingly appear out of thin air. After a moment of staring I realized he'd climbed out of a cave hole. The goblin looked self-important, preening and strutting around camp, swatting his fellows and laughing at their outrage. Although he was obviously no foot soldier, I had a feeling this wasn't Gutter. But...I turned my gaze back to the cave hole, which I could barely spot from my position on the other side of the camp. I bet that Gutter was in there. Goblins loved dark underground spaces and if  I a goblin leader-perish the thought-I'd have chosen the most ideal spot to set up my own tent, so to speak.

    "Gotcha," I whispered triumphantly. Now to just get to that cave entrance. I considered the distance from my hiding spot to the shadowy dot that was the cave hole. Since I'd been using my abilities, they were coming easier to me, no doubt a perk of my new god given strength, but I wondered if I could keep up my stealth for that long, and avoid coming in close contact with any of the goblins along the way. I'd learned the hard way a few days ago that if one came too close to my invisible body, I was seen. Well, here goes. If this didn't work I was getting a crash course in how my immortality worked. I gave myself an amused head shake. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I pulled upon my Ascended gifts, including the ability to bend the fabric of space around so that it folded over me, leaving me invisible to the naked eye. I didn't know how it worked exactly, but it was a pretty nifty ability that I was always using. It definitely helped my sneaky, assassiny skills. Not wanting to waste any time because I knew that the longer I held onto the invisibility, the harder it became to stay that way, I quickly darted out into the crowd. It took quite some skill to dodge around goblins and their sprawled possessions and I did knock over something roasting on a spit when I had to abruptly dodge two fighting goblins. The one watching the fire didn't seem to react though, busy digging his crooked teeth into something that I didn't look too closely at.

     I did lament the fact that I had no way to free those poor trapped souls, but it was either risk myself freeing them or kill Gutter and drive out the goblin threat once and for all. Not to mention, who knows if I'd be successful. I might end up right there beside them if I got caught, and that was not something I was willing to risk. I may be an Ascended, sworn to the Vigil, but I did have a healthy dose of self preservation. I think all assassins do.

     I was right, it was a cave hole. Whew, that's a relief. Imagine my embarrassment if I realized that the shadow the goblin had emerged from earlier was nothing more than a tree he'd taken a leak behind. Just as I reached the cooler shadow of the cave's entrance, my cloaking pattern failed me, leaving me standing with nothing but a few daggers. Thankfully the darkness of the interior seemed to effectively hide me from view of the camp, and there weren't any sentries posted inside the tunnel. I snorted. Goblins, so full of themselves. Or maybe just stupid. Probably both. Still, I unsheathed my daggers and moved silently on the balls of my feet down the slanting tunnel. Instead of getting cooler as I went down, the tunnel seemed oddly to be getting hotter. With a feel of planar energy to it. So the Guardian's spies were right, the goblins did have something of Maelforge in their greedy paws. Well, time to put an end to that. I reached the bottom of the dirty little cave and saw immediately that Gutter was the only one here. Perfect. He was a large goblin, easily a foot taller than the rest of his brethren, and I wondered why that was. No matter, he was still shorter than me and would die just as easily as his friends. Incredibly, he was oblivious to my presence, gazing at something red in his hand. Two torches stood on either side of him and a painting depicting a flying dragon made a macabre backdrop, no doubt painted with blood. I was debating whether I should try sneaking up on him or just rushing him when he conveniently turned and regarded the painting on the wall. Taking advantage of this, I rushed forward, knives flashing in the light of the torches. I managed to sink one dagger into the creature's back before he was able to twist around and dislodge me. I let go of the dagger to avoid being dragged off my feet and pulled out another one. I'd just retrieve the lost one off his corpse, I thought grimly.

     The goblin sneered at me with hate filled eyes, not at all startled or horrified to see me standing there. "The red dragon hungers for the ashes of this world! I will feed him your charred bones to keep him sated for now!" The goblin wrested one of the torches out of the ground and brandished it like a sword. I nearly laughed. This was the best the goblins had to offer? No wonder they hadn't actually made any headway in Silverwood. If there weren't so damn many of them, they wouldn't pose any threat at all. But because there were so many of them, and being directed by something so potent as an actual physical representation of Maelforge, I needed to put a stop to them as quickly as possible.

     "I'd like to see you try, scum!" I snarled back him. Gutter growled at me and swung the torch in a clumsy arc. Although I could have avoided it, I wanted this over quickly so steeled myself and stepped closer. The torch slammed into my left arm as I plunged my dagger into his chest. The goblin gave a choked, hateful cry of rage as he stumbled back, dropping the torch. Knowing he was done for, I stepped backward and cradled my damaged arm to my chest. By the Vigil that had hurt more than I thought. I hoped it wasn't broken. As Gutter gurgled his last, his hand spasmed and the red thing he was looking at earlier tumbled onto the dirt floor of the cave. It came to rest at my boot and I stared down at what looked to be a wicked sharp claw or talon. A talon of Maelforge. I backed up from the item, not trusting its innocent appearance. I tiptoed around the talon, bent and retrieved my daggers from Gutter's corpse. I wiped the ichor off on the goblin's tattered tunic and sheathed them all. I ripped a piece of linen off the goblin and used it to gingerly pick up the talon. I wrapped it tightly in several layers before hesitantly placed it in the bottom of my pack, not wanting to accidentally touch it while rummaging for something else. Mission accomplished, I stepped back from it all and silently crept back up the tilted tunnel that led out of the cave. The oppressive, overly hot atmosphere was causing my back to feel prickly with sweat and the malignance was making me dizzy. Time to get out of here.

     Outside, the camp went about as it had before, completely ignorant to the fact that their leader was dead. I wonder how long it would take them to realize that the terrifying force keeping them together as a unit was gone. They would break up into smaller groups, attack and kill each other, and eventually could be easily hunted down by the non-Ascended members of the Guardian faction. The only thing I regretted was having to leave those poor trapped travelers and students to the mercy of the goblins. Maybe I could alert the guard at Argent Glade to their plight and a contingent of men could come free them. That seemed like a good idea. Reaching out, I again wrapped the layers of air around me, although it was harder this time after it's recent use. After making sure that I was indeed invisible, I darted back through the camp and didn't even breathe until I was nearly a mile from the camp. Then I broke into a run and made good time back to Argent.

     It was well after dark and I was exhausted when I eventually made it back to Argent Glade. Knowing that the college would be closed for the night and everyone in bed, I followed that idea and went to sleep myself.
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    "With Gutter defeated and the talon of Maelforge removed from their clutches, the goblins will retreat to where they came from hopefully. I'll have the talon sent on to Sanctum with a few trusted men to be placed in stasis in blessed crystal since it cannot be destroyed." Professor Bedstraw said. The next morning I'd taken the token of Maelforge to him and explained all that had happened. He'd also promised to see if anything could be done about the poor victims trapped in the camp. I nodded half heartedly at his words and the professor smiled gently. "You can't save everyone, dear one. Maelforge's power over Telara has been lessoned because of you, remember this, because the people of Silverwood will." I felt my spirits lift more at his words and gave him a grateful nod.
 
     "Thanks." I said, feeling awkward with all the attention. Bedstraw fiddled thoughtfully with the talon, before passing it on to a guard captain standing at alert nearby.
 
     "What if...just as Maelforge's talon was a physical artifact of his power, there was one for the Fae to use as well, tied to Greenscale? We already know that Hylas was given a very important gift by Lord Twyl. Our scouts confirm this. I'm beginning to suspect that his commanders also carry such potent tokens of Greenscale's power. Each of these artifacts must be collected and sealed away so that Greenscale does not gain any more power on Telara. If he were to break free of his prison..." The professor shuddered. He glanced at me to see if I was following and I nodded in agreement. It made sense. Dividing up the powerful artifacts among his commanders allowed Hylas to secure their loyalty by entrusting them with such important items, and it also spread out Greenscale's aura, allowing it to cloak a wider area.
 
     "We need to find these artifacts and get them away from the Aelfwar," I said thoughtfully. "I haven't been in Silverwood long enough to know where any of his commanders would be. I'd guess Overwatch, but it's too heavily fortified to just attack it outright...." Bedstraw was shaking his head and I raised an eyebrow.

     "I've received news yesterday that Marshal Rowen, one of Hylas's most trusted commanders, has recently been spotted at the Palisade up north. He carries the most effective of the Fae artifacts. If we can get a hold of that, it would be a great blow we could deal to the Aelfwar." I tried to keep my face blank of emotion as Bedstraw mentioned Marshal Rowen. Oh gods, I knew him! This is what I dreaded most, having to face off against someone among the Aelfwar that I actually had a passing acquaintance with.
 
     "I see." I finally managed to get out past my dry throat when Bedstraw looked at me expectantly. He frowned and I looked away, studying the gray walls that surrounded Quicksilver. The morning light shone down upon the courtyard, covering everything with a warm sunny glow so completely opposite of what I was feeling right now. I ignored the concerned look Bedstraw was now giving me as my mind swept me back to memories of years ago...before my death...before the Aelfwar had gone against their oaths...back when the world was a simpler place. What I wouldn't give to be back in that time again. I can clearly picture Marshal Rowen's kind face as he praised me on my footwork, having walked by as I was sparring with one of the other students at the Keep. In between my lessons at Quicksilver, my mentor had taught me the basics of hand to hand fighting, defending myself, and stealthy attacks with daggers. Marshal Rowen had laughingly said that he'd better watch his back, I was getting so skilled at daggers that he was concerned I'd murder them all in their beds. The other soldiers watching had laughed.....oh how true his words were turning out to be. Grief surged in my heart, and bitter resentment. Why had they turned from the gods? Why had they forsaken their ages old oaths to Tavril? Their covenant to protect and watch over the land? Did Hylas truly believe he was doing what was best for Telara?
 
     I became aware that Bedstraw was talking to me in a loud voice. "Raeslyn? Lady Ascended? Are you alright?" He waved one of the nearby students to fetch a glass of water. I shook myself and reigned in my emotions, picturing a still pond like my mentor trained me to, and dumping all my feelings into it, to slide beneath the surface...there, now I could think clearer. I straightened from my hunched posture and pasted my customary look of mild impatience back on.

     "Yes. Yes I'm fine." I said, a little sharply to cover up any weakness there might otherwise have been in my voice. "The Palisade? I remember where that is, actually. I'll fetch this Fae artifact." I turned on my heel and calmly walked off, head held high, before anyone could question me further. The student with the glass of water ran up to Bedstraw just as I was leaving and I saw him take the glass and thank her out of the corner of my eye. Both student and professor watched me walk away but I didn't turn around or pause. Just treat this like any other task. I can do this. For Silverwood.

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