Laenaya Niro at Gnarlwood Post helpfully pointed me in the direction of Gloamwood's spirit altar and I quickly made my way over to where it nested at the base of a rather frightening looking tree. The idea of praying at an altar comforted me though, despite its surroundings. Reminds me of my experiences in Silverwood, of which I'm beginning to look back fondly on, ironically. It actually occurs to me that I've not felt or seen any presence of the Vigil since entering this dark wood. A very grim thought. It seems even the holy light of the gods has trouble growing here. All the more reason to put a stop to whatever rot is eating away at the wood.
Aware that just across the main road through the wood, the Waykeepers at Gnarlwood were no doubt trying to spy on me through the twisted undergrowth, I reverently knelt down by the simple wooden altar. It had obviously seen better days. The wood was old and cracked, and long grasses and weeds had grown up around it, not to mention that disturbing, petrified treant towering over the clearing. I half expected the thing to come to life and attack me. I could feel a faint pulse of...something, emanating from the altar, which gave me hope that there was some light still left in the wood. Hesitantly, I reached out and placed my hand on the rough surface. Instantly, a green light seemed to pulse outward from the point where my palm made contact with the wood. I resisted the urge to jerk my arm back, praying to the gods I wouldn't lose some fingers to some twisted dark curse. The green magic swirled outward from the altar and danced in the air before my eyes. Slowly, it took on the shape of a feminine form. I blinked, somewhat surprised. I don't know what I was expecting, but a woman was certainly not it.
"Greetings....lady of the forest." I said, bowing my head in respect. The sheer purity and light that came from the being caused my eyes to water. She turned beautiful glowing eyes to my kneeling form and her smile was like the radiance of the sun. Normally I'm not one for waxing pretty words, but I was stunned by the strength of life magic coming off her form.
The woman smiled at me. "Greetings, young rogue." She said, and her voice had a strange echo, like many voices were speaking at the same time. It kind of reminded me of the Messengers of the Vigil. I shifted nervously and relieved a cramp in my leg muscles. "My name is Laria." The woman continued. "I am the Spirit of the Woods. How may I aid you?" Aha, finally, I could get some answers!
"There is a darkness in Gloamwood, that I can't seem to be rid of. I need to find the source of it. Where the evil is coming from, before Gloamwood can be cleansed." I flexed my palm, but kept it flat on the altar. I had a feeling it was my contact with the sacred wood that allowed me to see Laria.
The glowing woman nodded wisely, as if she expected my words. And who knows, maybe she did? "The memories of this forest are as old as any language, rogue. Neither axe nor fire can tame these ancient woods. Those who die in the wars waged here are reborn among her roots." She paused and gazed at me and I suppressed the urge to say something glib. A history lesson was all well and interesting, but I'd been given a task by the Guardians and I needed to solve this mystery.
"I have been so weak, drained, since the Rifts tore through these woods. It is a great strain to reach out and feel her roots. I perceive so many things; despair of death and joy of life. I remember the Death Rift-servants of Regulos poured forth, killing man, treant, and goblin alike! We were defeated so effortlessly. I failed to protect myself or anyone else from destruction!" To my mortification, Laria began to weep. I shifted. I've never been very comfortable with emotions. What was I supposed to do to comfort a crying spirit? And her information....a Death Rift? Obviously it was a specific one, something happened there. I just know that's the key to this. It happened to so long ago though, I wonder if there's anyone left alive who would remember the events that happened. Except for Laria, who I was beginning to despair of ever giving me any useful intel.
"I am unable to help you further." Laria finished softly, looking sad and forlorn suddenly. I barely resisted the urge to let out a frustrated curse. "My power is limited. But here, take this locket." She reached out an ethereal hand and dropped a locked onto the altar. When it hit the wood, the locket became tangible. I studied it curiously. It was old, the silver pitted and dull. I raised an eyebrow at Laria.
"Inside is the essense of a special magical plant called Amorian Root, just enough to help you continue your hunt for answers in the past." She gently reached out and rested her hand on my shoulder and I shivered at the touch. Way strange.
"Thank you, Laria, Spirit of the Wood." I said formally, and bowed my head to her. "Hopefully I'll be able to stop this evil from spreading and lift its stranglehold on Gloamwood. Laria nodded sadly at me and slowly faded from view. I lifted my hand off the altar and the green mist sank back into the altar. I rubbed my hand, even though it didn't hurt. I just hoped there wasn't any secondary effects from being in close contact with that much magic. Well, nothing for it then, it's time to head back to that creepy Apothecary guy. He seems to be the one with the most information on what's going on around here. Not to mention the only one who is actually cooperating with me. The citizens of Gloamwood are definitely under the effects of the evil aura in the woods.
Tiredly, I trudged back to town, killing any random goblins that happened to get too near the longroad. No sense borrowing more trouble with those pesky creatures preying on innocent travelers. Not that I've seen very many travelers in the wood. Or any for that matter. No wonder everyone was so suspicious of me. When I walked back into town, everyone stopped their work and stared silently at me. This felt different from the judgemental, resentful glares I'd gotten when I'd first arrived. This time, I could literally feel their curiosity and grudging admiration. Apparently all the hard work I've been doing here has finally been noticed and appreciated. Finally. I've yet to see a town give such a lackluster greeting to an Ascended as Gloamwood Pines. As I sauntered into the town square, the sheriff caught my eye and beckoned me over and I heaved a heavy sigh. Now what? Right now I needed to find out what was going in Gloamwood. And to do that, I needed to speak to...whatever his name was, the Apothecary. So I had a bad memory for names.
"Ascended. I would like a word." The sheriff said as I got closer. Well that much was obvious when she called me over, I thought sarcastically to myself, but merely nodded at her. She hitched her weapon higher on her shoulder, and glanced around, before wiping absently at her mouth. She looked like she swallowed something sour. Oh, this should be good.
"Ascended. It has come to my attention....of certain activities you've been engaged in lately. I...we'd like to thank you for clearing out the highway of the spider infestation. As well as your eradication of the goblin problem that has been plaguing the Waykeepers. And I commend you on your efforts to lift our curse. As hopeless as it may be." I quirked an eyebrow. Just full of optimism and thankfulness, aren't they?
"It was no problem. Just performing my duty as a member of the Guardians. It's our job to keep the land free of riftspawn and other evils." I said evenly, making an effort to sound sincere. Now that I've finally gotten some recognition, I didn't want to antagonize them. I made to walk past the woman, and she held out a large hand.
"Wait. The mayor would like to speak to you, Ascended. Furtho Dragomir has heard about your success and would like to commend you personally." She wrinkled her nose, and I wondered if it was at the idea of my being honored by the mayor, or if it was the mayor himself that bothered her. I almost asked, but it wasn't worth the effort. There were so many secrets and strange happenings in this town. I was heartily sick of it and couldn't wait to finish my task and return to Sanctum for some much needed sunbathing. I could almost smell the floral scents of Silverwood's lilacs as I lounged by one of its many streams, stretched out on a soft blanket with a cup of iced watermelon juice. Oh, the sheriff was giving me one of those looks....I smiled blankly and nodded.
"Thank you. I guess I'll go see him now then. Uh, where can I find Mister ....Dragonmire?" I'm pretty sure that wasn't his name, but it was hardly like I had to become his best friend. The sheriff looked disgruntled, but gave me directions to the mayor's office, which of course was at the top of the tallest tree in the Pines. In fact, standing at the base of it and staring upward, I could stay its the tallest tree I've seen. Ever. And that's saying something. It was huge. And not just tall, but in girth as well. Fifteen men easy could link arms and wouldn't even reach around the whole thing. I wasn't that impressed by the mayor though, to make himself at home towering above everyone else in the town. Oh well, wasn't my business. Apparently the only way to the mayor was a winding, fancy ropebridge/staircase that wound around the outside of the tree in a dizzying spiral. I took a deep breath. Don't look down, I reminded myself. I'd...probably...survive a fall from the tree, but I'd rather not add that to my list of Ascended deaths, thank you very much. It wasn't that I was scared of heights per se.....it just made me very nervous to be so very high up off the ground. It felt unnatural. Okay I'll admit it, I was scared of heights. Halfway up, I made the unfortunate mistake of glancing over the edge. My legs went all rubbery and I felt myself suddenly start to sweat. I latched onto the railing with clammy fingers until the feeling of vertigo passed, hoping that no one noticed the mighty immortal Ascended having a panic attack. Not good for the image. After several deep, fortifying breaths to get my heartbeat under control, I slowly began inching my way up the staircase again. By the time I reached the end of the stairs, I was feeling very hateful.
"Ah, the Ascended is here!" Exclaimed what was no doubt one of the mayor's bodyguards. A big muscled Mathosian stood outside a beautifully carved red door in the side of the tree. I gave him the frostiest glare I could manage while feeling queasy. The deck that the stairway opened up onto was fairly large and solidly built, snug against the bark of the tree. There were expansive, elaborate railings and several hand-carved tables. Which was all well and good, but I knew I was way too high up and feeling more anxious by the minute. Determined to not look around and notice just how high up we actually were, I brushed past the guard without a word and entered the mayor's office. The light was fairly dim inside, and my eyes adjusted easily. I blinked a few times, instantly feeling better now that the height wasn't so obvious. Out of sight, out of mind, I chanted to myself. The rooms inside were surprisingly spacious and tastefully decorated with earthy tones. A wide desk was against one wall, where a swarthy man dressed in fancy garb was scribbling away on parchment. He glanced up when I walked in, and beamed at me.
"Raeslyn?" He asked, canting his head to the side. It reminded me of a dog. Feeling determined to not like him, I gave a grudging nod. He smiled, pleased, and neatly set his feather quill on the desk before moving around it, hand outstretched.
"Welcome to our fair town!" He exclaimed. I eyed his hand for several long moments, before giving it a quick shake and backing up a few paces. He frowned at me slightly, but went on, turning to pace as he talked. "So, you are the legendary rogue Ascended I've been hearing about? I've already heard a hundred different accounts of how you foiled the goblin plot both in Silverwood and here in Gloamwood and even put a damper on the spider threat. But its not the means that are important, its the ends. With the goblins on the run, the people of Gloamwood can breathe easier." He paused in his pacing to give me an assessing glance. I shrugged.
"Just doing my duty, sir." I said neutrally. The mayor nodded, as if I'd said what he wanted to hear.
"Your deeds have been talked about in the town square all day, you know. It's just what this town needs. Something to look forward to. Something to give them hope! They need to take their mind off the stress and despair that seems to cover everything." I almost said 'So you noticed that huh?' but held my tongue. Remember Rae, be a good representative of the Guardians. Except actually...maybe if I was so nasty and unapproachable, the Guardians would stop electing me for their missions. I'm sure there were other, more eager Ascended that could go save the world. Which doesn't sound like something that a follower of the Vigil would say, but I'd been raised to protect my Silverwood, to the exclusion of all else, and I wouldn't mind being stationed closer to home, in a more permanent setting. Something to look into, at least. Belatedly, I realized I'd tuned the mayor out, and dread filled me as I registered what he'd just said.
"--calls for a celebration, friend! It's been too long since we had cause to celebrate. It will do the people good to see you up there, with our town symbol." I blinked, bug eyed. Say what? The mayor smiled benignly on me, and I growled. No way. I wasn't some figurehead he could wave around and proclaim to all as if it was by his hand that I was here. Dragomir twisted toward his desk and grabbed something off it. He walked toward me and held out the item expectantly. I stared at his hand. He shook his hand mildly in a 'take it' gesture, and soft tinkling filled the air. How odd, a bell. I gazed coolly at the mayor's face, until his smile fell slightly and he looked perplexed. By the gods, why me? I reached out and snatched the small bell before he could say anything else.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked, trying to keep my voice as civil as possible. I suppose I failed since the mayor was still frowning at me as if I'd kicked his puppy.
"Well.....please Raeslyn, allow me to express the gratitude of all the citizens of Gloamwood Pines. Take the Gloam Bell-it's a symbol of our people. Ring it from the top of the balcony outside so that all of Gloamwood Pines knows that there are still heroes who will stand against the darkness." By the end of his little speech, the proud smile was back on his face and I sighed.
"Uh huh." I walked outside and glanced around. The guard beside the door waved at me. I cut him an annoyed glance and rolled my shoulders to shake loose some tension. The little bell gave a sharp jangle and the guard gazed at my hand with an awe filled glance as if I held one of the holy artifacts of the Vigil instead of a beat up old bell. "So, where should I stand and ring this?" I asked since he was staring. The man instantly pointed straight ahead. Ah, of course. At the very edge of the deck there was a raised platform. Reluctantly I walked over to it, and cringed. If I stood on that thing, I'd see the entire town from here. That was not something I could handle without doing something embarrassing. Like fainting. Did Ascended faint? Carefully, ever so carefully, I turned around so my back was to the railing. I lifted up one foot and then the other and stood on the platform. The guard was giving me strange looks. I backed up a few paces, until I felt my back hit the railing, and I felt my heartrate increase. This was so on my list of places to never visit again. Ever. With shaky fingers, I raised up the stupid bell and gave it a good hearty shake. I don't know what I was expecting, but the sudden loud chilling sound almost gave me a heart attack. The bell was impossibly loud for something so tiny and seemed to echo in every nook and cranny of the town, reverberating back at me for several long minutes. It didn't sound cheerful or celebratory at all. In fact, it sounded like a death knell. The hairs on my neck prickled. I stood still for several more moments, before striding forward and tossing the bell underhand at the guard, who frantically fumbled forward to catch it.
I descended the tree stairs so fast it felt like flying. To my utter dismay, a whole throng of townsfolk had gathered at the foot of the tree. The second they saw me, they burst into cheers and clapping. Great. The Sheriff and Marshal Oakheart stood in the fore clapping along with the rest. I walked up to them and nodded.
"We suffered heavy loss to the goblin hoards and the spiders. You have our eternal thanks Ascended. The mayor has instructed me to let you choose from our armory whatever weapon or armor you desire." Sheriff Cosmin squared her shoulders. "Whenever you wish, I can take you there and you can choose your reward." Somehow, the way she said it sounded ominous.
"My thanks, sheriff." I replied. Marshal Oakheart strode forward and for a moment I thought he was going to want to shake my hand. But he just clenched his fist instead.
"Ascended. I would ask for your aid." I quirked a brow. What now? "When one threat dies, another rises in its place." The Marshal spoke in a low, serious voice, and I leaned forward, interested despite myself. I admit to actually enjoying a good challenge. "Have you heard of the "Beast" in the wood? The townsfolk are reluctant to speak of it, but something is attacking and carrying off people. Furtho called in a hunter, but he's having trouble with this one. I'm sure Drusk will appreciate your aid." I blinked. Furtho? I guess that must be the mayor. I'm assuming Drusk is the hunter he hired....but wait, attacking and carrying people off???? And I'm just hearing about this now? By the Vigil, the people of Gloamwood have some serious communication issues. As he spoke, the sheriff kept the locals from getting too close and hearing about this "Beast", whatever it was. Mustn't let the sheep panic after all.
"Right. Disappearing townsfolk. Mysterious beast. I'll talk to this Drusk guy." I agreed. "First though, I need to give something to someone." As I'd listened to the marshal, my eyes had roved over the crowd and I'd spotted the Inn behind them, which reminded me about poor Janina Solemn and what I'd learned about her family. Nothing good. But I had to tell her. And I wanted to speak to Gwyddon Duskenleaf about Laria and what she meant about that Death Rift. It seemed that the problems in Gloamwood grew instead of diminished in the past few days. I sighed. Okay, first things first.
I went with Sheriff Cosmin to the town's armory. Although armory was a bit strong of a word for their closet of cast off items of war. Digging around amongst the chaotic jumble, I came across a powerful amulet. It seemed to whisper of strong protective magic. While normally I shunned magic, I think that this amulet would be a perfect reward for me. If it did what my senses told me it would, I should have some protection now against magical attacks. Something I've always had trouble with. After I'd placed the amulet around my neck and tucked it into my tunic, I also snatched up a set of good quality vambraces. They said I could choose what I want. Well, I want both of these. I strode out of the armory feeling quite satisfied. Next on the list, talk to Gwyddon. I made my way to his shop, avoiding the overly inquisitive eyes of the townspeople who stopped and stared as I walked by. Yes, I'm an Ascended. Yes, I saved your puny town. Get over it.
"This locket is given to protectors of the forest. It's very strong magic." Duskenleaf said gravely as he held the locket reverently in his hand. His eyes grew misty as he gazed at it. "My own was passed down through generations. It has served as a constant reminder to repay a debt...." He drifted off, staring into space, and I felt my mouth open, dozens of questions suddenly springing to mind. But I kept silent, hoping to hear more information. I've learned that the people of Gloamwood talk more when you just leave them to it. "Laria's locket may unlock the mystery of what happened to her family. This must be my chance to uphold my family's promise!" I blinked, curiosity brimming inside. I knew his family had to be old from the name. Duskenleaf is an old elvish name.
"We have another forest altar, near the Guardian encampment in Tearfall Run. It could be another way to communicate with Laria, or maybe her sister, Delilah. Perhaps the Vigil would bless your presence there like they did the last and give us a glimpse into what happened those years past..." He handed the locket back to me and I automatically pocketed it, too shocked to think of anything to say. Suddenly this mystery got a lot more...mysterious. I couldn't wait to seek out the other altar and commune with Laria again. Maybe in Tearfall Run she would be stronger. Or maybe I can talk to this Delilah, whoever she is.
I left the apothecary shop and sought out the hunter, Drusk Nightclaw. What strange names, trackers chose for themselves. I knew Nightclaw wasn't his real last name. Usually, the really good trackers and hunters earned a name for themselves because of their skill. He was also the strangest dressed person I've ever seen. All decked out in bright reds and blues, heavy chainmail armor. He was literally armed to the teeth. With a getup like that, no wonder he hadn't caught anything. I'd imagine "the beast" easily evaded his garish figure. Of course, I was smart enough to keep that comment to myself as I talked to him.
"Greetings Ascended. So you're the rogue that cleaned up the spider nest eh? Ha! I expected you to be taller." I rolled my eyes, but I kinda liked his brash manner. No fawning or pointless babbling, and I liked his sense of humor. I grinned at him.
"Yup, that was little old me." I quipped back. Drusk guffawed at me as if I'd made a grand joke, slapping his knee. Then he sobered. "I'm right thankful you're taking time to help me track this beast. It's quite disturbing really, how its able to evade being seen. It's almost as if it has sentient intelligence. I've got a lead on the creature and I could use a woman of your caliber on this hunt. What do you say?" He raised a rather ridiculously bushy red eyebrow and waggled it at me. I smirked.
"I'd love to join you. Would it be too much to ask if we start at first light though? I have a few tasks to complete here in town still, and I'm exhausted from everything today." Until I said it, I hadn't realized how exhausted I felt. But my bones ached. I hadn't felt this since my Ascension and I wondered if somehow the oppressive atmosphere was affecting even me.
Drusk eyed me closely before giving a nod. "That I can do. Scouts found a brutishly large barghest in the cave at Greybriar Hollow, along with many cubs. We can't allow their nightly attacks to go on, and I've an inkling it's them that's causing the attacks. I promised the mayor I'd keep the town safe or I'd go after them myself. If you could go put an end to their threat, that would be mighty helpful. Try to confirm if it was the barghest that are attacking the town, would ya?" I scoffed. So much for teaming up. He wanted me to go take care of his pressing problem all on his own. No doubt he'd take all the credit for it too. My goodwill toward the man soured slightly. But he was so easygoing, it was hard to stay annoyed. I made a few final promises to look into it tomorrow at first light, and then made my way to the Inn to speak to Janina and then get a good night's rest. I could already feel my bed calling to me.
The second I entered the heavily populated Inn, Janina pounced on me with questions about her brother. I took a moment in responding, letting myself look around the common room first. It was something I did automatically. Assess any threat in the room, keep an eye on the exits, the sort of thing that any good rogue knows to do by reflex. Finally, I gave my full attention back to Janina, who looked on the verge of tears. The grim look in my eyes told her all she needed to know. Wordlessly, I took out the family heirloom that her brother wanted her to have.
"May it serve you better." I said, echoing his words. Sniffling, Janina tenderly scooped up the tiny trinket and held it to her chest.
"Thank you Raeslyn. My brother's protective instincts are a bit strong." She laughed, no doubt at some bittersweet memory, and then choked out a sob. "My family is cursed, I accept that. but I won't give up on finding a cure. I won't rest while my brother roams our ancestral land in agony." She turned away, rubbing her finger along the filigree of the trinket.
A few patrons raised their mugs of ale in salute to me as I paid for a room and a meal. I settled myself at a far table that faced the entrance and before I knew it, I was surrounded by boisterous townsfolk who suddenly treated me like a long lost friend and plied me with ale all the while asking for tales of my adventures. And I was complaining about treated like the evil stepsister before? Can't a girl eat in peace? It was going to be a long night.