Thursday, April 17, 2014

[Raeslyn's Story] 3.7: The Beast of Greybriar Hollow

      The crack of dawn saw me preparing to head out and do some hunting around Greybriar Hollow. I wasn't sure if I was hoping that the barghests there were this "Beast" I'd been told about or not. On the one hand, that meant that something powerful was twisting these creatures into unnatural predators and I had no idea how to stop it, but I could easily kill the creature and be done with it. If the barghest alpha isn't the one making off with Gloamwood citizens, than I was back to square one of this mystery with no real information on where to find it and what it even was. Oh joy.

     I wasn't an expert tracker by any sense of the word, but my mentor had made sure to teach me how to recognize track and spoor. So it was obvious before I'd even found the creature's den that there were quite a few of the animals roaming around in the hollow. Which was unusual. Barghests were rather solitary creatures, preferring to hunt their prey solo. I crouched at the base of a dark tree, peering through the foliage at the dark mouth of a cave and the barghest males that were prowling around in front of it. They weren't acting at all like normal wild predators. Idly, I plucked a moon blossom bud that was growing by the tree root and chewed on a petal. Moon blossoms were known for their potent healing properties as well as other, more amorous attributes. They didn't usually grow so abundantly in forest areas though. Funny, seeing them in Gloamwood.

     I chewed the blossom as I sat there silently. No doubt the alpha was down in the cave. I could wait here for it to come out, but that seemed rather tedious and I wasn't a very patient person to begin with. Who knows how long it would take for the alpha to stir itself from its lair, especially if the others had dragged food in for it. If I wanted to go in after it though, I'd have to get by those pups out front. They didn't look all that mature, listlessly roving in front of the cave, but they were still quite large and weighed quit a bit. I'd no wish to tangle with them if I could avoid it. I haven't tried my shadow melding trick on an animal yet, and wondered if it would work. Beasts had heightened senses. Well, time to find out! I didn't want to be waiting around here all day. Mentally I turned over the switch that would allow me to basically become invisible to the naked eye. Don't ask me how it really works, I've no idea. It's just like, I knew the ability was there and I just had to reach out mentally and access it. It required a lot of concentration though and I could only hold it for a certain amount of time before the strain became too much and the pain in my head forced me to drop the stealth, becoming visible again. Sometimes it happened at the most inconvenient time, although I'd noticed that I could hold it for longer lately. Maybe it was like exercising a muscle. After I confirmed that I was indeed camouflaged, I crept on silent toes from shadow to shadow, staying near the trees as I snuck up on the cave. A few of the barghest pups stopped and sniffed the air, growling in confusion and staring in my direction, and I stopped, holding my breath. I would rather not kill them if I could help it. The alpha was no doubt twisted and mutated and seemed to have some influence over this younger pack and my hopes were once I'd done away with it, the rest of the creatures would just naturally drift off back into their solitary existence and cease to be a threat to the town. That was my hope anyway. If it turned out otherwise, I'd have to slay them as well, and I hoped that Tavril forgave me for that.

     I stopped by the edge of the cave opening and peered inside, feeling the strain of holding myself invisible in the shadows start to wear at the edges of my mind. A strange mist seeped out of the cave and crawled over the ground like a living thing, and the smell of death and darkness was heavy on the air. Yep, something was definitely wrong here. Many pawprints were beaten into the soft earth of the cave's floor, and I searched for any larger ones. There was one set of prints that was twice the size or more of the pups that seemed a few days old, entering only. I couldn't find where the set had left the cave, so I had confirmation that the alpha barghest was still in the cave, unless there was another way out. Well, only one way to find out. I stepped into the darkness of the cave, dropping the invisibility as I left the immediate view of the pups outside. Immediately, it was as if a pressure lifted from my mind and I rubbed at my temple irritably. Being chosen by the gods shouldn't be so hard, I complained to myself. Unsheathing my two longest and sharpest daggers, I crept further into the cave, tense and wary for any sudden attacks.

     I wasn't exactly sure what I was expecting in the barghest alpha, but what I did see certainly surprised me. The creature was huge. Like half the size of my horse huge! It was gray, like all barghest, but this one's skin was a strange, sickly color, like curdled milk almost. It also had bright red eyes that seemed lit by some inner fire. All in all, it was very creepy. The monstrosity was sitting on its haunches lapping at a puddle of liquid. Unfortunately, the puddle was a result of a body laying to one side. After looking more closely in the gloom, I realized with relief that the body was actually that of a goblin, not some poor ravaged innocent townsperson like I feared. Despite that, the beast wasn't just some innocent animal. I was deeply saddened, but it would have to be destroyed so that it wouldn't ever be a threat to the town. I sighed, considered how best to kill it with the least amount of suffering. Heart or throat would be best, I just had to see how to go about that without getting myself mauled in the meantime. As I considered my options, the monstrous beast heaved itself to its feet and sniffed the air, turning its massive head as if trying to catch an elusive scent. Great, now it could smell me. Slowly, it began padding closer to my shelter, still sniffing the air with loud snuffling sounds. I shifted to the side as it drew nearer, readying myself for the attack. I had to time it just so. I bolted out of my spot in the shadows, lunging with all my strength. One dagger sank to the hilt into the beast's fur right behind the front leg, where I knew the heart was located. The barghest yelped in surprised pain and thrashed. It sank large canines into the arm I was using to try to keep it from biting my face off, but thankfully it wasn't deep and before it could get a better hold in which to rip my arm off, death reached it and faltered, sinking heavily to the cavern floor with a last hateful snarl. Its eyes seemed to glare at me accusingly and I gently pulled my dagger out, closing its dark eyes. Another creature of Tavril, mutated and twisted by the evil running rampant throughout Telara. Outside, an unearthly howl took up, and I spun, listening intently and praying that the pack wasn't seconds away from bursting in here and devouring me whole in revenge. After several tense moments, I gathered the shadows around myself as a cloak and vanished from sight, leaving behind the still cooling body of the barghest alpha.

     I cautiously backtracked out of the hollow and jogged back to the main highway that dissected Gloamwood. Glancing around to catch my bearings, I realized that I was actually conveniently close to that second altar that Duskenleaf wanted me to investigate. Since I was still feeling off about having to slay the alpha barghest, I marched in that direction, hoping to have some solid information on what was happening in the wood. I poured some clean water on my daggers to get the blood off as I walked.

     Quite suddenly I came across another Waykeeper's camp. They seemed to be everywhere here in the wood. An old wooden sign pointing toward the camp proclaimed that this was Tearfall Run. Interesting name, if a bit dark. A tall man with hard eyes carrying a torch stood guard by the path, peering suspiciously into the gloom. Whene he caught sight of me, he gave me a sharp appraisal before stepping forward, seemingly unafraid.

     "Afternoon, ma'am." He said politely, but in frosty tones. I nodded at him in return. "What brings you to Tearfall Run?" He asked, getting straight to the point. I could respect that.

     "I've been sent by Gwyddon Duskenleaf in Gloamwood Pines to investigate a dark matter. There is supposed to be a sacred forest altar here that I need to commune with." I held myself in a neutral stance, hands away from my daggers. No sense in provoking the local authority. The man continued to stare at me for a moment, as if trying to judge the truthfulness of my statement, before grunting and gesturing further up the path.

    "Well, I reckon there's an old forest altar up there aways, behind the camp I think. Always been there as far as I can recall. Might be what your lookin' for?" I followed his pointing finger with my eyes and nodded again.
     "Yes, that sounds like it. Thanks." I tacked on the last as an afterthought, trying to be polite. He grunted again, eyes still narrowed at me. "See you don't cause no trouble, you hear? Keep them daggers to yourself while in this camp." I gave him a jaunty salute as I headed up the path. Yep, same old trustworthy Waykeepers.
     "Hey wait!" The man suddenly called and I tensed, stopping but not turning around.
     "You haven't seen a young dwarf bumbling around out there on the road have you?" He asked, seemingly a random question. I turned around and arched an eyebrow. "I think his name was Scotty." The man continued, and I felt my mouth fall open. "He ran off with my spare torch, the darn idiot." The man scowled, looking back out at the road, and I tried to rein in my shock. Scotty, here? What on Telara was that foolish dwarf up to here in Gloamwood? I really hope he hadn't gotten into trouble again. To the man I said, "Nope, haven't seen any dwarves. Tough luck on your torch, though. I'll keep an eye out." I turned back around and continued on to the camp. Whereupon I stopped in renewed shock. Someone I hadn't seen since I'd defeated the Avatar of Regulos on Thedeor Field, Brother Jebiah, was sitting, cool as you please, in the center of the camp, deep in conversation with a young elf. He had that same fanatical look as back then, and I shook my head in amazement. How on earth did he end up here of all places? By no means was he my favorite dwarf and I skirted around him, hoping he wouldn't notice me. Alas, seeing as how I was a newcomer to the camp, and a stranger to boot, everyone seemed to focus on me. I sighed as Jebiah raised himself to his short height and approached me. Great.

     "Be wary, rogue." Jebiah said, voice full of righteous wrath and censor, saying the word rogue like I was a dirty cultist or something. I worked to keep my face neutral. He was a heroic fighter during that battle, after all, must remain respectful. "Sin can be found everywhere. If you hope to be saved from the cleansing fire, renounce evil in all its forms!" Jebiah continued, pointing a large finger at me. I gave the finger a scowl, but stayed silent and moved past him. Right, whatever you say, crazy dwarf.

    The altar was located at the base of an old tree, and looked like an exact replica of the other one, complete with old, overgrown surface. The Waykeepers all regarded me curiously as I approached and I tried to tune them out. It was distracting knowing I had an audience for this. I knelt down by the altar, whispering a prayer to Tavril. I stretched out my hand and laid it on the altar's surface, and immediately my hand grew warm, the wood vibrating with strong magic just like before. Behind me, I could collective gasps as the glowing form of Laria appeared, the bright golden light shining like a beacon in the gloom. I bowed to her formally and she smiled when she saw me.
     "Welcome Raeslyn! It's good to see you again." She said, her voice warm and soothing. "You have come for more information, I trust. Since you reawakened my memories, I began to explore this wood again, so changed by the rifts it is! In my wanderings, I found a momento of my past, a keepsake of my mother's. Someone hid it in the Millrush Pond for reasons I know not. Athana's crystal should not have just been left there for anyone to stumble across. It's power is not dimmed by time." She hummed to herself as she took something from around her neck and held it out to me. The item was a large, beautiful white crystal. It hummed with divine power, so strong that I itched to hold it. Laria looked sad as she stared at it. "Athana's crystal many times I watched my mother use this in rituals to commune with the forest. Holding this again fills me with a strength I feared was lost forever." I nodded. Laria drifted toward me and I held myself still as she gently placed the crystal around my neck. "I gift this to you, Raeslyn, to aid you in your quest to heal Gloamwood. I sense the power within you, and I believe you will do many great things for Telara. My mother would have wanted this." I felt like I should protest. After all, it was all she had left of her mother...but the soothing power of the crystal washed over me and I felt so light and peaceful. So instead, I nodded dreamily. Laria slowly drifted from view, and I shook my head.

     "Wait, Laria!" I cried. "What is going on with the wood? How do I put an end to the dark curse on the forest?" But she just shook her head, looking sad, and disappeared. I slammed my fist on the altar in frustration. Another useless lead. At least with the crystal, maybe I could find something else out, or feel the different energies. Who knows. I stood up wearily, ignoring the way the Waykeepers of Tearfall Run parted from me, staring with awe-filled looks as I walked back to the road and trudged down the highway toward Gloamwood Pines, once again with no real lead on what was going on in Gloamwood. I was nearly ready to believe that the wood would always just be this way, dark and oppressive and malevolent, but I'd seen something in Laria's eyes. A fear of something. She might not know what was happening, but she knew it was something that needed to be stopped.

     As I entered the town gates, the Waykeepers all stopped and waved at me respectfully, and I spared a moment to give them annoyed looks as I passed. Psh, so now they decide I'm something worth being respectful to. After I've done all the hard work of making them safe. Figures. After wandering around town and not finding that tracker Drusk, I gave up and just reported the death of the barghest alpha to Marshal Oakheart, who saluted me and gave me a hefty bag of coin in return for my "services". I felt a bit uncomfortable accepting it, but I was low on funds and new weapons and protective clothing wasn't going to buy itself. Oakheart clapped me on the shoulder and grinned. "I knew you'd come through, Raeslyn. It seems that we can always count on you to get a job done! With this threat ended, peace should return to Gloamwood Pines. The townsfolk will hopefully rest easy once again. The mayor may have been reluctant about having the Guardians in Gloamwood, but he can't argue with results!" I mumbled something along the lines of agreeing, and was about to walk off when he hailed me back.

    "Say, Raeslyn, would you do me a favor, while your here? It would be an awful big weight off my mind if you looked into this, seeing how successful you've been so far with the handling of things."

    "Sure, Marshal. What did you need me to do?" I asked, walking back up to the large armored man. I mean, why not. I've helped every other bloody person in this gods forsaken forest so far. Besides, he was a member of the Guardians and an officer. I wasn't exactly sure what my rank in the Guardians was, but it seemed beyond rude to refuse.

     "Thanks, Raeslyn. I knew I could count on you! A short time ago, I sent a platoon to guard a priestess of the undead in northern Gloamwood. She's working on a ritual against death magic-which as you know is a potent tool for our enemies. I haven't heard from them, or her, in a while and I fear the worst. Could you look into it?"
     I frowned. If he hasn't heard from them, they were likely dead or some other gruesome fate has befallen them, but I kept silent, seeing as Oakheart still held out hope. So instead, I shrugged. "Sure, Marshal, I can go check up on them if you need me to. It's easier for me, alone, to travel safely, without a whole entourage to alert the enemy in the forest. And I can handle any threat." I grinned cockily and the Marshal chuckled.
     "Be that as it may, you rash young rogue, be careful! Her name is Fiona Leore and you can find her out by Tearfall Run, I do believe. That is where the last communication came from, anyway. She's a young Mathosian woman wearing a dark robe, last we saw her." I rolled my eyes. Tearfall Run? Really? I literally just came from there. Running Oakheart's description through my mind, I actually was even pretty sure I'd seen her at the Waykeeper's camp, now that I think about it. Or at least, I think that was her. The woman at the camp didn't look too pleased, though. I guess I'd better go back there and make absolute sure it was actually this Fiona woman before I put Oakheart's mind at ease that she was alive and well. Funny though, I hadn't seen any Guardians at the camp.

     I stopped at the Inn to have some spiced wine and a hearty stew that tasted delicious. I even indulged myself with a slice of apple pie afterward. Feeling full and satisfied, I went outside to a cleared area to practice some moves with my daggers to keep myself sharp. My mentor always nagged me that I had to train every day or my mind would grow dull and stagnant and I would be easier to overcome. Being Ascended made me nearly invincible, but habits die hard, and besides, I still remembered my 'death' at Overwatch Keep.

     Even though it was getting on toward evening and the dark shadows of the forest were lengthening and darkening, I walked back out to Tearfall Run. My augmented eyes could see just as clearly at night as they could during daylight hours, so the darkness didn't bother me, and anything that felt brave enough to assault my deceptively waifish form would soon find that I was not some easy victim to go silently into the night.

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