The next morning dawned bright and sunny. A light fog hung over the city, which was common due to its location. I woke up early enough that the sun had only just risen as I left the Inn I'd stayed at. As I wandered back through the city I purchased some supplies for the road, including a skinning knife and some salt so I could make use of animal hides for extra coin and perhaps some armor if I could find an outfitter.
Next up, I stopped by the stables to get my mare, Naesa. I was quite pleased that I wouldn't have to be walking all over. The damage to Telara left in the wake of the Shade Wars was so extensive I feared I'd have to do much travelling to right all the evil and imbalance. It would be less of a trial if I wasn't exhausted from running from place to place. After selling a few artifacts and odds and ends I'd gathered along my journey so far, I had enough coin left to purchase a new set of leather gloves, an enchanted bracer that promised some resistance against elemental magic, and a few extra daggers. It was a little before midday as I set Naesa to a quick pace across the bridge to Sanctum and out into Silverwood. From my higher perch atop the horse, I could see better into the forest and was able to easily avoid dangers on the road. I remember Ramis Twistroot wanting me to investigate the connection between the Fae and the Aelfwar, so I set out for Wayward Thicket, a notorious hang out spot for the local troublemaking Fae that slipped through the rifts. As well as being troublesome to the trade routes in and out of Sanctum, I'd heard rumor that the satyrs had allied with Greenscale, that horrid beast from the Plane of Life that had been imprisoned with the other Blood Storm long ago. If allies of Greenscale were now acting up and stirring up violence and mayhem, there had to be a reason and it probably wasn't a good one.
After leaving Naesa by the side of the main road, I quietly crept into the thicket, keeping my eyes and ears strained for any sign of the Fae. Fae were a tricksome and bothersome lot. You shouldn't ever trust one, or turn your back on one, even if they seem sincere. They had innocent, cherubic features, soft crooning voices, and beautiful bodies to trick the unwary traveler into all kinds of mischief, even injury and death. I muttered curses against the little beasts as I crept through the undergrowth. I really didn't like Fae.
When I actually did come across one, I don't know who was more shocked, her or me. We both kind of stared at each other blankly for a moment, before the faerie hissed in outrage, wings beating furiously behind her. I can't think of anything I'd done personally to tick off a faerie so I guess they must recognize me as Ascended and a threat. I smirked. As well they should. The faerie attacked me head on, claws outstretched, and I easily dodged to the side, flipping my dagger in my hand and ending her life in one quick jab. The fae fell soundlessly to the ground, wings limp and crumpled, and I confess to feeling just a little bit horrible as I stared at her childlike body. It was creepy, ok? I scowled, staring at the body for a few minutes, before sighing and bending to rifle through the faerie's belongings for any clue as to what they were doing here so close to the main road into Sanctum. Shockingly enough, I did find something. A scroll, to be exact, written in the Elven language, and signed in...was that...yep it was definitely Aelfwar blood. Gross. I wrinkled my nose in disgust and rolled up the scroll, tucking it gingerly away in my pack. That elf at Sanctum Watch will definitely want to see this. This confirms that the Aelfwar and Hylas had allied with the Fae, for some reason, and seemed to be working toward some kind of goal. I felt chilled wondering what that could be. Looking around, I spotted a small ring of red capped mushrooms at the base of a tree. Faerie rings were notorious for being gateways into pocket dimensions, where everything was the same, yet different, and you never made it out alive. Although how it was known what they were if no one survived is beyond me.
Seeing as I had irrefutable evidence of a pact between the Fae and the Aelfwar in hand, I didn't see anymore reason to go hunting down more fae. For one, I didn't want to cause more trouble than was necessary and alert them to my discovery, but I also didn't relish cutting down more of the dainty creatures. Ya, I know they are evil little buggers and were actively working to destroy Telara, but they just looked so innocent and mystical. Must be all those stories and legends I'd been told as a kid of the Age of Legends.
I stood, dusted myself off, and crept quietly back to the road, where Naesa waited patiently, chewing on some grass she stood on.
Back at Sanctum Watch, I handed over the scroll I'd found to Ramis, idly flicking tree particles off my shoulder as I watched his reaction to the news.
"This is grave news indeed, Raeslyn. If the Aelfwar have allied with the Fae, I fear something terrible may be coming. It seems that even though he's kept holed up in Overwatch Keep, Hylas has been at work. He has harnassed treants from the plane of life using blasphemous magic. We have to find a way to break his hold on the creatures!" Ramis clenched his fist around the scroll, crinkling it as he gazed out at Silverwood. I nodded, even though he wasn't paying attention to me.
"I agree. I think I'll head out and investigate some more. I want to see if I can find a way to remove those slivers of magic that keep the treants in check. Anything to lesson House Aelfwar's hold on Silverwood." I said this bitterly, flicking my eyes down to the ground. I felt Ramis turn his attention back to me.
"Thank you, my lady Raeslyn. May the gods bless you." I smirked. "They already have," I replied as I turned and grabbed Naesa's reins. "Can you watch her while I'm gone? I don't want the treants or anyone to know I'm coming so I move quieter on my own. Actually.....never mind." I waved my hand, as Ramis raised an eyebrow. I think it would be better to just leave Naesa back in Sanctum after all, at least while I was in Silverwood. The forest was just too....wild for me to ride around realistically. I felt kind of bad, leaving her behind in the city again, but she was well cared for. So after heading back into the city again to leave Naesa at the stables, with a generous supply of coin to keep her happy, I again set out, this time heading north, deeper into the wilds of Silverwood, where I knew the treants were active. Sure enough, I did find treants running amok in the northern forests. They were destroying perfectly healthy trees, terrorizing the wildlife, and attacking anything that ventured too near. In general, acting not all like a treant should act. I shook my head. How low can the Aelfwar stoop? Don't they realize yet that what they are doing is wrong? Or maybe they are so far lost in their own delusion that they see themselves as bringing good? I shrugged. Who knows how they think. I've been so far removed from Aelfwar society since even before my resurrection that it just mystifies me.
To my intense relief, I realized that the treants were actually sloughing off slivers of the tainted magical organism that was being used to control them, kind of like leaving segments of parasites behind. Disgusting, no? But it was preferable to killing the creatures, as I was uneasy destroying something that was treasured by Tavril. I quickly moved around the treants, gathering up slivers that were strewn about the forest floor and avoiding coming into direct conflict with the cursed....uh...beings? Individuals? What exactly is a treant anyway? I shook the stray thought away. So not important right now, Rae! As I was cramming what I decided was the last fae sliver I needed for analyzing, I caught a strange glow out of the corner of my eye and when I glanced over, I could see a soft yellow light shining through some brush to the left. I melded into the shadows to remain unseen, lest it was some trick, and crept closer. It was actually easier to shift into the shadows the more I practiced the trick and I was getting stronger at it too, able to stay concealed for longer, and even able to use a certain number of my abilities at the same time as maintaining a grip on the invisibility.
Lo and behold, there was another Altar of Reflection sitting behind the bush, merely humming and glowing away as you please like some cosmic telegraph. And it seems the letter is for me. I glanced around the little clearing carefully before placing my daggers at my hips and bending down to activate the altar. The air crackled with divine energy and a Spirit Guide leaped out of the ether, shaking itself as it landed softly on the forest floor, dainty hooves splayed just so to keep balance. I dipped my head in respect, then waited quietly for what it had to say. The Spirit Guide turned immediately to me and stared into me with eyes of liquid gold. Words formed in my head, not unlike the method that the messengers used to communicate.
"This wood weeps at the evil Prince Hylas has unlashed, Raeslyn Ascended. You have done good work here in Silverwood, restoring Tavril's will over the land, but there is worse to come, we are afraid." I snorted at that. Big surprise. "Even as we speak, the Aelfwar plot to use magic grafts to bring the entirety of the treant species and their natural magic under their control. You must disrupt these rituals! The Aelfwar must not gain complete control of the treants! Alas, three of the treant elders have been corrupted and must be killed. Deeproot, Elderwood and Wildthorn have all turned their back on Tavril. Destroy the profane ritual and put an end to these treants' misery, please Raeslyn!" The Spirit Guide pawed the ground, than turned and looked to the west. I turned as well but could see nothing but more forest. I turned back to the Spirit Guide, but she was no longer there. Figures. These divine messengers of the gods were all about business.
I kinda knew what an Aelfwar ritual altar would look like, having been part of their society. Well, I probably knew what it looked like. So I wandered to the west where the Spirit Guide was indicating, keeping my eyes open for any kind of hinky ritual showdown type thing. And I was right. It was easy to spot the altar where the Aelfwar were performing their mind control voodoo on the local demi-humans. Unfortunately, the altar was being guarded by two Aelfwar archers. Well....unfortunately for them. By this point, I wasn't cringing too badly as I concealed myself in the shadows, silently approached the one archer, and slit her throat before she even knew what happened. The second archer was pretty quick on the draw, I'll give him that much. Literally. He had an arrow knocked and flying my way before you could you say 'holy mother of Regulos!' What? It's a catchy phrase. Thankfully, the archer had reacted more out of instinct than actual aim and the arrow missed me..by that
much...I felt the displaced air as it wizzed by my ear, inches from my eye. I really didn't want to know firsthand if Ascended grew back things like eyes. With a flash of steel, I charged at the sentry, daggers leading. Grim faced, he quickly reached into his quiver for another arrow, but my dagger got there first. He had time for one curse word and a glare of hate before he slumped to the forest floor. Panting, I glanced between the two. A shameful loss of elven life, this was. But the Aelfwar had to be stopped. What they were doing was wrong, on many levels, and it was past reasoning with them. I'd heard all about Shyla and the council's pleas for reason and truce. Hylas just wasn't in the mood to listen.
With a prayer for the sentries' souls, I turned and studied the altar. An ornate bowl of deep burgundy liquid took center stage, with remnants of some kind of organic material littered around it, and a twisted root to one side. A few magical implements I recognized, most I did not. Want to know the best way to disrupt a ritual? Smash it to bits. I made a fist and scattered the items on the altar, overturning the bowl and smashing the delicate wood specimens. I overturned the altar, stomped on the arcane symbols, and generally desecrated their little magic trick. Have I mentioned that I don't like magic? Too much potential for harm and evil.
A sudden roar that seemed to shake the trees raised the hair on my neck and I jumped clear in the air. I whirled around...and glanced up...and up. The biggest treant I'd ever seen was now towering over me, with the angriest expression I'd ever seen on anything, human or otherwise. It was staring at the ruined altar. I gulped and gave a weak chuckle, backing up so the altar was between me and it.
"Uh, heh heh, let me guess, you must be one of the elder treants? I'm um...sorry about the altar." I clutched my daggers tighter as the treant zeroed in on me. Uh oh. Great, how does one kill a giant walking tree? Somehow that was never covered in my magical wildlife class. Tree equals wood. Wood burns, right? Hmmm. I considered for a moment, going over the attacks and forms I'd learned, both from my mentor and from the helpful rogue in Divine Landing, back in "Old Mathosia" as I'd taken to calling it. Actually, there was one ability. Well, a spell really, that I'd never found much use for, not being comfortable around magic and all. A spell my mentor used to call hellfire blades,
which lit up my daggers with magical flames and was supposedly able to increase my effectiveness with my weapons. But I hadn't been a fan of carrying around knives coated in a kind of magic fire. I kind of have this thing about being caught on fire by my own weapon...not to mention that's got to be hell on the blade, dulling it and all; no pun intended. But that might be just the edge I needed against tall, dark and leafy here. I was able to easily recall how to perform the spell, another perk of Ascendency I suppose.
I quickly murmured the words and ran my fingers over my two main daggers, backing up to give myself more time. The treant took one step and was in my face. Fire flared along my daggers, and not a moment too soon as the demi-human reached down with a loud creaking noise and tried to squish me like a bug. Since it was so big, I just rolled between its legs, throwing my left arm out in an expert move that sliced along its leg as I went. I didn't stick around to see if my technique was successful, which was good cause I'd have been stomped to death as the creature roared in pain and raised its foot up, shaking and stomping. I rolled clear, coming easily to my feet, and was pretty darn proud of my handiwork. The wound wasn't bleeding, which would have been weird actually, but the "flesh" was seared and blackened and smoke wafted off it. Yummy. Now the treant knew I was a serious threat though. Time to hurry up and torch this guy. I waded in, sending fiery spikes of flame this way and that, trying to sear as much bark as I could reach while dodging grasping hands and stomping feet. Not as easy as it sounds, trust me. Not for the first time I wondered if perhaps I should have studied the bow rather than the blades. But wait, I'm Ascended now. I have all the time in the world to learn a new weapon skill. I cackled to myself, and was glad I was alone. Wouldn't want anyone to think their saviour was nuts, now would we?
With a satisfying groan, the elder treant crashed to its knees, than facedown on the forest floor. Most of its form was covered in blackened chunks of peeling wood, and it smelled like charred forest. I stood, breathing heavily, for a few seconds as I let my heartbeat return to normal. Ascended or not, I was not a fan of throwing myself into danger like that. Finally, I eyed my daggers thoughtfully. Now that I wasn't in immediate combat, the hellfire seemed to have dimmed, almost to nothing. Like banked coals. Huh, neat trick. Maybe I will keep the spell active after all. It definitely helps do more damage, especially to wayward treants. Speaking of, I still needed to kill two more of the things. What were their names again? Meh, I guess it didn't really matter, as long as they were neutralized. Since disrupting the altar brought the attention of only this one, I was led to believe that there was an altar tied to each of the elder treants. I suppose it was a stronger tie to their essence, making it easier to corrupt them. Sheathing my daggers, I dug at the treant with a boot just to make absolutely, sure, before lightly melting into the shadows of the forest in search of the other two altars.
After I'd dispatched the other elders, whatever their names were, I headed back to Sanctum Watch with the slivers I'd gathered and the news that the treant threat had also been dealt with...at least for now. Until we got to the root of the problem...haha I'm full of puns today....Hylas was just going to find another way to control them and cause mayhem. He needed to be stopped and his Aelfwar needed to be dissolved. We are all part of the Guardians now. We are too few and too scattered to have separate agendas and affiliates. Even if Hylas wasn't consorting with the planar creatures.
"Prince Hylas seems desperate to control the beings of the Plane of Life." Maris Telluria commented, turning over the sliver of corrupted root in her hand. "This madness can only end in tragedy for us all. You did well in following the Spirit Guide's advice. Disrupting the profane rituals could very well have saved the forest and its dwellers from great suffering." She held it out for her comrade, Ramis, to inspect. Ever curious, the man leaned over.
"Yup, that's me. Raeslyn the Ascended, saving the world, one forest critter at a time." I pawned off the rest of the slivers on Ramis, slightly amused when he stood there with his arms full and a perplexed expression on his face. Finally, one of his assistants took pity on him and relieved him of the slivers, taking them off to study or something. Ramis grimaced and dusted his hands, giving me a reproachful look. I rolled my eyes in response.
"Nevertheless, Raeslyn. We can be certain House Aelfwar's plans don't stop at raising treants to do their bidding. There must be something more at work here. Some deeper agenda. If only we could see what the forest sees." I raised an eyebrow. See what the forest sees? There wasn't any way to do that...unless? I scowled. Of course I have to do it. But on the other hand....how exciting!
"You want me to go on a vision quest, don't you?" I said, more statement than question. Maris seemed delighted, as if I'd volunteered. "What an excellent idea, lady Raeslyn! I know a shaman who can help you undertake the vision. Do you know of Dalin Erst?" He waited for my careful nod, than continued "Go speak to him about entering into a vision quest. And hopefully then we can discern the nature of the Aelfwar threat." I barely refrained from saying who cares, just put a stop to it! But that was easier said than done, I know. And we couldn't just march up to Overwatch and bang on the door and demand that Hylas surrender. Overwatch was a well fortified keep and they could withstand a siege for weeks if not months. We didn't have that kind of time, or forces to spare for that kind of battle, what with the Defiant on one side and the uprising of the cults and the planes on the other.