Shaking my head firmly to remove any lingering distractions, I concentrated on my inner power like I'd done earlier, enabling myself to vanish for a short period of time. The benefits of my new unique status were endless! Using my newly adapted skill, I snuck up behind one of the unsuspecting Aelfwar scouts and slit his throat. He fell without a sound, which is just what I was going for, as I so didn't want the rest of the camp to be alerted to my presence. I stared down at the Aelfwar scout for a few mournful moments. He could have been my age, he looked so young. In fact, that could have been me, if I'd stayed with the Aelfwar. I bent down swiftly and rifled through his belongings. I know that seems cold, but I'm not one to let goods go to waste. He'd been carrying a small, slightly wrinkled apple in one pocket, which I left. Who knows if it's tainted with life-magic or not. He also had a few coins that I added to my own pouch. Ascended I may be, but that did not make me rich. I had to earn my coin like any other citizen of Telara. As I was standing up, something winked in the sunlight and caught my eye.
"What have we here?" I murmured to myself, bending down again. Tied around the dead scout's neck was a thick silver chain. I tugged the chain out of his tunic and examined it. Dangling from the end was an odd, icicle-shaped chunk of emerald colored Sourcestone. I blinked. Here was proof. The Aelfwar were utilizing planar life-magic to increase their power, using Faetouched shards. Perhaps if I could gather enough of these shards, I could get a better idea of what Prince Hylas is plotting. Feeling a tremor of excitement and dread work its way through me, I quickly stood, glancing around reflexively. Seeing as the nearby scouts and conjurers hadn't noticed anything amiss yet, I stuffed the necklace with its glaring evidence in my pack and moved away, effortlessly blending with the shadows and background colors of the wood around Silver Landing.
With a soft ring of metal on flesh, another Aelfwar fell, soundlessly slain without warning. I again bent down and inspected the contents of this one's pockets, happy to find this one had even more coin. This one also had a Faetouched shard on a necklace. My hands shook as I lifted it off the scout and stood. Now, finally, I can help bring about the downfall of House Aelfwar, who had stood for everything we Elves believed in but now teem with twisted, unnatural power and a horrid disregard for nature.
I was now much closer to the edge of the woodland, where it met the Silver Coast. To my right I could see a well-worn path that led down the escarpment to the beachhead. Down there was Commander Falem, the man I needed to confront. None of the Aelfwar should be allowed to have such a powerful talisman such as the one he had in his clutches. Who knows what terrible feat he could accomplish with that thorn. It was time I confronted him and took it back. I smirked. With a last inspection of my arsenal of weapons, I headed toward the path that led to the beach. There was a conjurer pacing along the path that led downward, gazing about warily and fingering her staff. I'd rather not fight a mage of that caliber unless I had to, but I again focused on my powers, immediately flashing invisible. It wasn't that I was afraid of magic-users. Indeed, I'd killed them before. I'd just rather not fight one unless I had no choice. They could be nasty with their magics and I had no desire to test the resiliency of my Ascended body. I carefully crept around the blue-clad individual, holding my breath in the off chance that she'd be able to hear it. Mages had sharp senses, being so attuned to the ley lines and magic of the world. I quickly made it past the conjurer and paced down the rest of the path toward the beach. The further down the bank I went, the more it became apparent that the sea was right there. Firm, grassy soil gradually gave ground to a fine, sparkling sand. Less vegetation grew down at the waterline as well. The air also grew suddenly sharper, colder, cleaner. The tang of salt and sea life also became immediately stronger, like opening a door. I knew I couldn't maintain my stealth trick for long, but I couldn't help pausing to gaze out over the wide expanse of deep, blue water. It looked so mysterious, so beautiful. So terrifying. I couldn't imagine being in a ship way out there, with no way to defend yourself against nature if the seas and winds became unmanageable. I shivered.
Commander Falem was right where Isilwyn said he would be and I couldn't help a small, satisfied smirk as I saw him. He looked like a pompous, noble fool. He was dressed in many layers of fine cloth, all color-coordinated, and carried himself tall and straight. His expression was one of perpetual disdain, as if he knew he was better than his followers and wanted them to know it too. He was the sort of noble blood that set my teeth on edge. We were all equal under the gods, but a few of the Aelfwar House believed themselves better than the rest, to be above the younger, untrained generation. Thankfully, because of his sense of self-importance, he paced alone on a small, covered platform. It would be absurdly easy to catch him alone without risk of incurring the wrath of his followers. I didn't want to have to fight multiple Aelfwar if I could help it.
In moments I'd teleported up the platform, into a corner where he wouldn't be able to readily detect me. I sized up my opponent, automatically inspecting weaknesses and points to exploit. He was much taller than me and looked physically stronger as well. But I was Ascended, so blows that would have broken my arm before would just leave a bruise now. And I'd gained in skill since my resurrection. I felt more confident in my abilities now. A chime in my head alerted me to the fact that my cloak of invisibility had faded. Commander Falem, alerted to some danger, whirled around to face me, holding aloft a long, crooked and malicious looking sword. I quickly ducked the long reach of the sword, pacing to the side. Falem scowled at me, but didn't look startled at my presence. Of course, he had to know that eventually the Guardians would send someone to deal with the problem. He eyed me up and down and sneered, dismissing my small, slight body as not much of a threat. I smirked inwardly. First mistake. I darted in, daggers leading, only to have them harmlessly deflected by the flat of his sword. I bared me teeth at him.
"We will destroy those weak Guardian pretenders and restore Prince Hylas to the throne!" Commander Falem's voice was full of the eager fanaticism that I'd become accustomed to hearing from the Aelfwar of late. I felt my face go blank, my lips thinning. Instead of responding, I just pressed my attacks, a flurry of blades and whirling daggers. Commander Falem was hard-pressed to keep the daggers from scoring a hit and his expression eventually morphed into a frustrated scowl as he realized I was more of a threat that he originally thought. I snorted. Men were always underestimating me. As the fight wore on, I felt my muscles becoming a bit sore, Ascended or not. But I knew that Falem must be feeling it worse. He was but an ordinary mortal, hopped up on power or not. In fact, I could see the thorn dangling from his, like some obscene bloated tick. It even seemed to be pulsing as he swung his weapon. It was horrific, how far and how quickly the House of Aelfwar had fallen. A burning fire along my arm alerted me to the fact that I'd let me mind wander. Falem stepped back with a satisfied grin and I glanced downward. There was a long line of red along my inner arm. As I stared at it, the pain suddenly flared brighter. I wondered absently why that was. The pain always seemed more distant, disconnected, until you looked at the wound. A trickle of bright red blood made a trail down my arm. I flexed my hand, testing the wound and found that it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd first feared. Just a shallow slice. Or perhaps my body was repairing the damage already. Regardless, it was a sign that I needed to focus better and pay more attention to the real threat. I flicked my hand out, sending small droplets of blood away and crouched into a ready stance. Falem sneered at my lack of reaction to the wound. He was becoming a bit desperate. Although I had yet to score a hit on him, he was indeed tiring and it would only be a matter of time. He no doubt would have fled by now but for his arrogance and sense of importance. He didn't want his underlings to know he'd fled from a girl. He'd rather die than have that humiliation. Which was what I was betting on. But just in case, I softly moved to the left, putting my back to the platform's stairs and effectively blocking his escape.
Falem charged me, sword high. In fact, he held it a bit too high. I grinned, the grin of a feline who senses weakness, and dove forward. As he lifted his arms to strike, Falem left a wide opening, leaving his unprotected middle for my blades. Taking full advantage of this, I slashed along his ribs and side with both daggers, dragging the blades up with a sharp twist of the wrist. The Aelfwar man staggered and choked, suddenly unable to draw breath. He stumbled past me, dropping his deadly sword and falling to the floor. I turned and gazed out at the sea while he struggled behind me. Eventually, it was still, and I turned back to stare into his glassy eyes. I was satisfied, but I didn't feel elation at the killing. Just a weary sense of a duty accomplished. I wish, of course, that it wasn't like this. I wish that the Aelfwar still were the same. I wish that Prince Hylas hadn't stayed behind in Silverwood while his lover went to war with Prince Zareph. Or perhaps I wished that Shyla Starhearth had stayed. Either way, I didn't want things to be as they were now. But they were and I had to right the wrongs that the Aelfwar were committing. If that meant slaying even Prince Hylas himself, I would do it. I trembled at that, as I searched Commander Falem. Mechanics aside, could I even bring myself to slay my longtime Prince? If it came to that? I'd spent so long admiring and looking up to him. I quickly clamped down on that thought, forcing it from my mind. I'd rather not think about that right now, or ever if I had a say in the matter. Just focus on the here and now.
Commander Falem also had coin aplenty that went into my pouch, along with a few odds and ends I might find handy later. The last thing I removed from his lifeless body was the bracelet with the thorn on it. I wrapped it in a piece of cloth from my pack before putting it away, loathe to have it touch any of my own possessions. As I placed it in my pack, I took a deep breath, feeling the salty tang of the sea burn my nostrils. Hopefully, with the thorn and those Faetouched shards I'd found on the other Aelfwar, I'd have proof of their ties to Greenscale and of their sinister plot in Silverwood. It was only a matter of time before the House put their plans into motion and I needed to figure out what they were planning before that, to be able to stop them.
After I'd dealt with the Aelfwar commander, I glanced around cautiously. Blair had said that the shipwreck was off the coast, south of Silver Landing. That put it right around here, no doubt offshore. But hopefully not too far offshore, because I didn't have much desire to go for a long swim. Although it was my duty as a High Elf sworn to the Covenant to investigate such matters, I wasn't a fan of water and I was not looking forward to getting my armor wet. Leather was so uncomfortable when wet. I sighed, feeling vexed. Not to mention the shore was crawling with Aelfwar scouts and I didn't want to have any more run ins with them. I thought I'd feel justified and content to kill them, vengeance for what they'd done, for what we'd done, but I only felt sorrow for each of their deaths. If only I could have done something more!
I shook my head to rid myself of such thoughts. Foolish to think of the what ifs now, when it's too late to do anything about it. Summoning my inner power to my command, I cloaked myself in shadows once again and stealthily made my way down the beach. I was silent and quick and the Aelfwar were none the wiser that I moved among them. I loved the feeling of being invisible. Like I could do anything. Unfortunately, the ability never lasted long, as maintaining the invisibility drained my mind.
Eventually I stopped at one sandy point, staring out to sea. By shading my eyes, I could just make out what looked like the outline of a ship, though at an odd angle. No doubt that must be the wreck of the Galena. The odd angle explained its position, snug against a small rocky island. I wondered why the ship was so close to shore. Surely they'd know that the waters would be shallow this close in? And didn't they have a navigator? Usually one strong in water magic helped direct the ship and navigate it around shoals and shallow areas. Something sinister must have happened, the elf woman was right. I could sense a tingling down my neck staring at the ship's outline. Well, nothing for it; I'd have to swim out there to further investigate the ship. It was too far for me to make anything out from here. I quickly searched through my pack and belongings, making sure everything was secure and wouldn't be ruined from my excursion into the water. When that was over with, I couldn't find another reason to delay anymore and balefully glared at the innocent looking waves, calmly lapping at the sand. I hate water. The longer I stared, the faster my heart beat. Finally I took a deep breath, knowing I had to get this over with. With my eyes fixed on the ship's outline, I plunged into the water. I braced myself, expecting it to be icy cold. After all, it was getting on toward fall. To my shock, the water was quite pleasant. It wasn't warm, by any means, but it wasn't biting cold either. It also became deep very quickly and I soon found myself moving my arms and legs to stay afloat. Knowing that if I stopped to think about it, I'd most likely become alarmed, I quickly swam toward the distant shipwreck. Have I mentioned that I hate water? Or perhaps it would be better to say that I'm...afraid of it. Which is silly I know, it's just water. But I can't help but imagine all kinds of horrible things down in the depths, eyeing me hungrily while I flounder around on the surface. And I've seen the kind of things that make the deep waters their home, so my fears aren't unfounded either. None of which was helping me right now of course...
With one eye on the waters around me and one on the looming shipwreck, it seemed like I reached the small island in record time. Once I realized that I could feel solid ground beneath my feet again, I scrambled out of the water, flinging droplets everywhere. Only to gasp when I came face to face with an Aelfwar Elf. I backpedaled, clawing my dagger out of its sheath. The Aelfwar sneered, although he looked just as startled as I did. Before he could react I smashed him in the face with my butt of my dagger and then slashed his throat when he reeled sideways. As the man fell soundlessly, I leaned over to catch my breath. What were Aelfwar doing on the island? Did they have something to do with the wreck? What's the connection? The questions spun through my mind as I glanced around. The island was small, could easily be walked in under five minutes. At the far side, facing seaward, the large shell of the ship lay like a beached sea creature. The sails were in tatters, the hull was smashed, and there were bodies everywhere. Debris lay strewn about the island and floated in the eddies around the island. I shook my head. I needed to find Blair's scout, the one she sent to investigate this disaster to begin with. Although from the look of things, I'd say that the scout is dead. I stood up straighter and glanced around cautiously.
There were a few more Aelfwar going through various flotsam around the island's edge. If I was careful, I looked enough like them to avoid detection. I'd try to find the scout, figure out what the hell happened here, and get back to mainland. Sounded like a good plan. Keeping alert, I strode further onto the island. It took me several minutes to notice a most disturbing thing. All of the bodies that lay strewn about seemed to be tangled up in some kind of exotic looking red root or vine. It was a thick vine, covered in sharp thorns that seemed to jut from the island itself, which is odd because I've never seen it anywhere else. I didn't want to look too suspicious, so I didn't linger over the corpses too long, but I did get a good enough look to remember to describe them later. They reminded me of Commander Falem's thorn bracelet. Same color and appearance. Maybe it's all connected.
Immediately, almost without being consciously aware of it, I turned and teleported through space, my daggers a whirlwind of death. The Aelfwar I'd targeted fell without making a sound, instantly slain. I took a deep breath to calm myself down, knowing that allowing myself to just run rampant through their ranks would just foolishly endanger myself and I needed to get the information I'd discovered back to Silver Landing as quickly and safely as possible. I couldn't become sidetracked by a desire for vengeance as much as I wished to. I could still see the crumpled body of that poor scout, her face frozen in fear. It's so hard to comprehend that my own people had fallen so far into shadow.
The wreck of the Galena loomed large and sinister in the waning afternoon light, painting monstrous shadows across the small rocky island. It wasn't that cold, being mid summer, but I found myself shivering regardless and wrapped my leather tunic more tightly about my frame. I'd found what I needed here, time to make myself scarce. I smirked as I cleaned my daggers on the dead Aelfwar at my feet. That's one less to cause trouble. Although they would just keep coming until we dealt with the main problem. I have a serious desire to confront Prince Hylas himself and demand an explanation. Why would he do this? What changed? What evil insinuated itself into his mind that he would sanction this kind of violation of the Covenant? Focusing inward in my natural rogue talents, I was able to camouflage myself and stealth back through the milling camp of Aelfwar, turning my nose up with scorn at them. Like sheep, following the shepherd. Except that this shepherd had strayed off the path and was now trying to destroy everything that the rest of us held dear.
I splashed back ashore onto mainland, more grateful than I can explain to be among the beautiful trees of the Silverwood. I took a deep breath and stopped once I'd gotten off the beach. Slowly I turned and gazed back out to see. The sinking sun lined the Galena in a pearlescent glow. It was a beautiful ship, that was obvious from the shape. I wondered idly what had brought it's crew here. I wonder what their destination had been, and who had been on that ship? Something about it seems quite odd. I shrugged absently as I turned away and stepped purposely in the direction of Silver Landing. I know the fate of the scout that Blair Rheese had sent me, and was all that my mission asked for. Something poked into my hip as I walked and I reached in my pack to investigate. Seeing the Thorn inside reminded me of my other task from Isilwyn and I hurried my pace, wanting to inform him of my findings and my suspicions.
Isilwyn and Blair were having a heated discussion when I walked up, but both stopped upon sighting me and turned with expectant looks.
"You all look so happy to see me!" I called with a lopsided smirk. Blair frowned and Isilwyn cracked a slight smile. I leaped up the stairs to the balcony and addressed Isilwyn first.
"You were right, there is something else going on among the Aelfwar. I found this Thorn on the commander just like you said. It has a resonance about it like Life magic. I don't like the feel of it." I handed said object over to Isilwyn as I spoke. He frowned and silently looked the small object over. Finally he glanced up and his eyes held untold worry. I felt my heart sink. It can't be anything good...
"This Faetouched thorn seems to be a very strong artifact of the dread dragon Greenscale. I have no idea how Commander Fallem came to possess this, but this is very bad news indeed. I will have to send this to be analyzed by the experts in Sanctum and hopefully they can figure out a way to undo this virulent magic." He looked into my eyes and some warmth seeped into his face. "Excellent work Raeslyn, I'm quite grateful for your skills." I felt my face and ears heat up and glanced at my leather boots, waving a hand absently.
"Nonsense, it is my duty to the Guardians and to the Vigil to ensure that our world is protected and I'll do what I must to stop the Aelfwar from fulfilling their plans. I may not feel worthy of the gift that the gods bestowed upon me, but I'll make sure I live up to their expectations." I balled my hand into a fist as I finished and nodded sharply. Isilwyn eyed me with renewed interest and respect and nodded back. "Well said, Ascended."
"Did you find anything about Indra? What happened?" Blair's worried voice drew me to glance at the woman, noting her worried expression. I felt my shoulders sag a little as I remembered the poor scout, lying dead by the wreck. I shook my head at Blair slowly and breathed out, launching into my explanation of what I'd seen and done at the wreck.
"The area was crawling with Aelfwar? Poor Indra, she was only there because of me! I was curious about the wreck and I wanted information....the note that you found on her body, may I see it?" I quietly handed over the bloodstained dispatch, being careful not to smudge the ink. Blair read the letter silently, eyes darting over the page. When she was finished she lowered her hand and there was fury in her eyes. It reminded me of my own brief anger when I'd first seen Indra's body. I wasn't sure what to do or say to comfort Blair, so I just gazed at her, hoping that my feelings shone clearly in my eyes. Mouth tight, Blair glanced between Isilwyn and I and shook her head.
"This just proves beyond a doubt that my suspicions were correct. What you've discovered here and what Isilwyn has found out can only mean one thing. House Aelfwar has indeed turned down the path of corruption. There can be no redeeming them. They must pay for what they've done to our beloved Silverwood!" She focused on me, as if daring me to refute her comment. I nodded, keeping silent. Despite my own mixed feelings and hesitation, I knew Blair was right. House Aelfwar and Prince Hylas mustn't be allowed to continue their plans. And the horrible thing was that they actually thought they were in the right, that what they were doing was in the best interest of Telara.