Covered in thin white webbing, spider guts, and dirt, I determinedly made my way through the thick foliage. There had to be a clue around here somewhere as to why the spiders were acting this way, and how to stop them. I wasn't concerned with getting lost, thankfully. My Elven heritage assured that I could find my way out of any natural place in the world, and if that failed, I just had to use common sense to find the path again and then follow it back to Gloamwood Pines. I viciously slashed through another shroud of webbing that covered two trees in front of me, giving the dagger a swift flick to remove the stuff. Despite how dark and oppressive it was here, my Ascended eyes had no trouble seeing through the gloom and darkness. The spiders were more wary of me now, keeping back and merely watching. I could feel their multiple beady eyes staring as I moved. Not a comforting thought, that's for sure.
One of the spiders darted forward, braver then the rest, and I quickly sliced it up into mincemeat. No way was I some easy target for the fiends of this forest. I considered my options as I hesitantly backed away from the mass of spiders converging in front of me. It was almost like they were herding me. But to where? Maybe the "leader" for lack of a better word. The head spider...what do you call that anyway? Mother! Ya the mother of the spiders. Because obviously these things had to come from somewhere. Although the fact that these were just the young wasn't very assuring. As I swiftly made my way through the tangle of branches and webs, I looked for any hint that would lead me to the spider mother. She'd no doubt have a large, well hidden lair to lay her brood, where she could be easily protected by both her young and the natural formations around her. I caught sight of a darkness near the roots of an extremely large tree. Aha. I didn't believe in coincidences and seeing the opening to what was no doubt some kind of underground cavern led me to quite firmly believe that this was the broodmother's lair. Got you now, I thought vindictively, sprinting the rest of the way to the spot. The spiders around me rustled and hissed, agitated at my actions, but I ignored them. They were no match for my skills, just pathetic creatures. Even though they were spiders. I really hate spiders. A lot. I shuddered when I saw that the entire opening into the underground lair was filmed over with yet more webs, this time tightly woven into a sort of twisting tunnel of white silk. I shuddered. Holy light of the gods. I was so demanding a king's ransom in gold from the town mayor for this!
After I'd squirmed my way into the broodmother's lair (and I so didn't want to think about it), it took a few moments to orient myself in the underground cavern. The air was damp and musty and heavy. It smelled horrid, like a cross between a dried up corpse and the smell of a shed snakeskin. Not something I'd prefer to keep breathing in for long. So, kill the broodmother, then get out of here. Sounded like a good plan! I was relieved to see that there weren't any overgrown spiders in the cave, but unfortunately, there were plenty of tiny little spiders. They hung from webbing covering the ceiling and skittered underfoot and I tried my hardest to avoid letting them climb on me. If I wasn't a big tough Ascended I may have screamed like a girl when I felt prickly legs on my leg, under my leathers. I was so going to have serious psychological trauma after this...
I ducked a twisted tree root that punched through the ceiling of dirt overhead and tried not to think too much on how many dozens of baby spiders I saw clinging to it. I took in a sharp breath as I saw a long, wrapped bundle laying on the ground against the cave wall. It looked....exactly the shape of a humanoid creature. Taking a deep breath, I silently walked up to the cocoon, and knelt down. There didn't seem to be any movement or signs of life, but I wasn't sure if the spiders paralyzed their victims first or did who knows what kinds of horrors to them before wrapping them up as a midnight snack. Cautiously, keeping my eye out for any spider threats, I reached out and used my dagger to part the cocoon. I really hoped it was actually a victim and not some horrendous spider mutant just waiting to chomp on my face. I was careful not to cut too deeply because I didn't want to injure whatever or whoever was inside, which made it slower then I would have liked. Eventually, I parted the last bit of silk webbing and saw a tall man wrapped inside. His face was pinched as if in pain and his eyes were closed. There wasn't any movement, but I slowly reached out and tapped the guy the on the forehead with my dagger.
"Hello? Anyone home?" I asked softly, cringing at my words. I could of at least pretended to feel for the guy I suppose. To my complete astonishment, the man gave a great gasp and his eyes flew open. I yelped in undignified surprise and fell back on my butt. I actually wasn't expecting any of the spider victims to be still alive. "Uh, ha. Um, here hold still and I'll get you out." I said awkwardly as the man began to panic. Not that I'd blame him. I'd panic too if I woke up inside a dark cave wrapped in a cocoon like lunch and being stared down by a strange girl with daggers. Quickly I used my daggers to part the rest of the webbing and the man immediately stood up, wobbling slightly.
"Thank you!" He exclaimed, searching my face as if looking for recognition. "I can never repay you, miss...?" He trailed off and frowned at me. "Oh. Raeslyn. You can call me Raeslyn. I'm new here. New to Gloamwood. Was sent by the Guardians to do some investigating. Looks like I came just in time eh?" I slapped the guy on the back, nearly sending him face first into the ground, and he sulked. "How do I...?" He gestured around him and I blinked. Oh, he wanted out of here. Of course, I would too if I was him. I pointed out the exit that I'd used to get down here and idly wondered if I should warn him about the dozens of pony sized spiders milling around in the forest outside. Nah, wouldn't want to scare the poor guy even more, would I?
To my chagrin, I did find several other spider victims that I then rescued and sent on their way. I wonder how many of Gloamwood Pines's citizens were experiencing the thrill of spider cocoons. It seemed an awful lot. You'd think they'd have done something. Anything. Even taking torches to this part of the wood and burning the spiders to death seemed like a viable option, although I cringed at the thought of destroying such ancient wood. But I think that there is a darkness in this wood that won't be easily removed and maybe fire would be the only option. But alas, there's just me. Time to kill that momma spider.
Up ahead, the cavern opened up into a kind of large "room" for lack of a better word. The ground dipped down into a pit, and the webbing and the smell became even more pervasive. Aha, found her.
The broodmother spider was enormous. Like war horse sized. And fat. Incredibly bloated. Her eight legs, which I could barely see, were short and spindly, obviously not something she used often. Better for me. The large bloated spider swiveled to stare at me as I came closer, but made no threatening moves. Just stared at me with its tiny, creepy little eyes. I was going to have nightmares. I knew it. Cautiously, I approached the beast, alert to the smallest movement. She tried to shift to keep me in sight as I circled and ended up squashing a few dozen of her baby spiders. Actually killing the broodmother seemed to be quite easy, since she couldn't move and had no other means of defense other then her overlarge pinchers, but as long as I stayed out of reach, I just had to make mincemeat out of the creature's back and voila, dead spider queen. I put thought to action and leaped onto the spider's grotesque back from the edge of the pit. The spider mother heaved upward valiantly, making a creepy, grunting noise. But it takes more then that to deter an Ascended and I quickly began ripping chunks of ichor out of her hairy back. Disgusting. I held my breath as strange green stuff began oozing out and the spider queen let out an unearthly sounding wail. Hmmm, that was probably her version of a scream for help. It was so loud I'm sure the young spiders on the surface could hear it. No doubt they'll be down here in moments to defend their mother, so I needed to be done and gone before that happened. No way did I want to die in a spider cave.
After I'd literally ripped into the broodmother's back and sides with my longest daggers, I used my fire-encased dagger to set the green ichor alight. Before long, the spider was burning merrily. Her squels became less and the baby spiders all scattered in wild panic as the ichor dripped onto them, setting them alight as well. When they ran, they left behind flaming paths of ooze that also caught other baby spiders on fire. I grinned wickedly, lips widening in feral satisfaction. Ha, take that spiders! I quickly climbed out of the pit and cloaked shadows around my form so I was invisible to their eyes. And just in time too as the older surface spiders came pouring into the cave, running up to the pit and making strange chittering noises as they helplessly circled it. Those that ventured closer caught on fire and spread the flames to their brethren. The air was filling up with acrid smoke and it was becoming harder to concentrate on my ability to stay stealthed, let alone breath. I made for the exit, squirming my way back up the hole and into the wood. Never was I so glad to breath fresh air, even the heavy, sinister air of Gloamwood. I bent over, hands on knees, coughing and hacking.
After I could breath without gagging, I sheathed all my daggers and headed back to the road that meandered through the pass. Up ahead, I saw a bouncing ball of fire at around shoulder level and for half a second I was afraid that a spider had come after me. But as I got closer I realized it was a Waykeeper. He held the torch high in one hand and a long slim sword in the other and was scanning the nearby trees with cautious distaste. When I dropped down onto the path in front of him, he gasped and nearly dropped his torch.
"What?! Who are you? Where did you come from? What are you doing here?" He demanded sharply once he'd seen that I was merely an elf and not an eight legged monster. I held out my hands in a sign of peace and grinned.
"Raeslyn. The woods. Killing spiders." I said, literally answering his questions. The man frowned, looking bewildered, and I chuckled. "What are you doing here yourself? I heard in the town that everyone is too afraid to come out here. Even the Waykeepers." I gestured around me. "It's not exactly the most ideal of vacationing spots."
The man glanced around him and shuddered. "That's for sure. Well, Raeslyn, you're welcome to come back to the outpost with me. We could use a brave adventurer against the spiders in the wood." He began walking again. I cocked my head, considering. Outpost? Did the Waykeepers have an outpost out here? No one had mentioned it to me. Interesting. I fell into step with the man and listened to him tell stories of Silkweb Pass as we walked. Soon, we took a small, barely visible path from the main road and I noticed other blobs of fire through the trees. Rounding some thick webbing and underbrush, I was surprised to see a fairly large camp situated in a clearing in the wood. A perimeter of burning torches kept the spiders and webs at bay, and there were small tents set up for living in. A large bonfire roared in the center of the camp. Sentries eyed me curiously as we entered the camp. I was surprised to see a Sanctuary guard here as well, a stern looking man named Captain Trebian who asked me the same questions as the Waykeeper. For some reason he didn't believe that I had come out here to kill spiders. Huh, fancy that.
"You came looking to end the spider threat?" said a soft voice to the side after I'd been dismissed by the captain finally. I turned and saw a young Mathosian man in long dark robes. He was standing beside a crude makeshift table that was overfilling with parchments and glass vials and random strange items. I raised an eyebrow and wandered over. "Ya, it's my duty. I am part of the Guardians and we needed to secure Gloamwood against the evils threatening Telara. Gloamwood never used to be this way and I'll do whatever it takes to make sure it becomes a pure, healthy forest again. The man smiled gently at me, as if he thought my words were nothing but grand words.
"Others have tried, you know." he said softly. I shrugged and pointed to the table. "So, what are you up to here then?" I asked, more to dispel the awkward atmosphere then out of any real curiosity. The man's face lit up like I'd just told him Fae Yule was coming early.
"Oh this? Well, my name is Caleb Matson, and I'm an apprentice apothecary. I came out here to try to find something that can dissolve the spider webbing without harming anything else. It's quite the challenge though. And unfortunately, I need the expertise of my master on whether this is a successful batch or not. But I can't just leave this outpost. The poor men and women here need me in case of spider attacks or if we find spider victims. I'm their only healer. Of course I don't know any healing magic, but I have plenty of poultices and potions I can use." He gave me a cunning look and I frowned. Obviously if he's an apprentice, his master must be that elf Duskenleaf in town. And I think I can suspect what he's going to ask next.
"If you wouldn't mind, Raeslyn, I would greatly appreciate it if you could take this potion into town to my master so he can validate my research as an actual cure. I really hope I found it, we need some hope now more than ever!" He blinked at me, looking so earnest, that I sighed gustily.
"Fine, fine. I'll take this to your grumpy master." He frowned at me. I waved a hand grandly as I tucked the vial of potion into my belt. "Oh, we've met before, Duskenleaf and I. I'll tell him what you said and give him the potion." The apprentice thanked me profusely and I left him to his baubles after his words started to annoy me. As I stood by the fire warming my hands, I listened as one of the older Waykeepers told a story to one of the rookies.
"Legends say that all the spiders in the pass are children of the br
oodmother, and that she grows fat on the travelers that they drag, kicking and screaming into her lair. Only by slaying her will we retake this pass!" He waved his fingers in the air dramatically. I glanced over.
"Well, that's true." I said glibly, and they both looked at me. "She was indeed quite fat. And there were travelers in cocoons waiting to be eaten." I added. The onlookers all looked horrified while the older Waykeeper looked awed at me.
"You....you saw her? Wait...was? You killed her!?" He sputtered, looking even more awed and shocked, as if he couldn't be sure whether to believe me or not.
"Well, I'd best be off. Got some errands to run for the lad over there." I pointed to Caleb, before waving at everyone in general and sauntering off down the slight path that led back to Gloamwood Pines. I could hear shocked voices behind me and I chuckled.
While searching in my bags for some jerky to eat on the steps of the Inn, I saw the beautiful jewelry I'd found in the pass and remembered that I was going to return it for some coin. So I searched out John Tintan and explained to him where and how I'd found his precious shipment.
"My shipment! You're a lifesaver, rogue! These necklaces will be perfect in warding off all manner of ill intent in the Pines. Here's a generous reward for finding them." He plopped a large bag of coin into my eager hands and I grinned, thanked him, and walked off. Now that's what I'm talking about. Gratitude in the form of currency. Things weren't exactly cheap after all, and I needed to keep up maintainance on my daggers and my clothing, as well as keep paying for my mare to be stabled.
Unfortunately, after that I had to see Gwyddon Duskenleaf. He was right where I found him last time, exclaiming over the animal parts I'd brought him before. When I walked in, he frowned at me, as if trying to figure out what I was. You and me both, I thought to myself.
"People are already talking about your heroics at Silkweb Pass, you know. Although mostly it's how you were able to survive the journey there and back again that has them intrigued. You've got the makings of a great hero, Raeslyn, and if you survive Gloamwood, the rest of the world will get to see just how high you can go." His soft voice made the words more mocking than sincere.
"Uh...thanks. I think?" I muttered, glancing to the side awkwardly. "Soooo...."
Gwyddon waved me closer and I gave him the vial, explaining what I'd done and seen in the pass. As he performed whatever test he did on the vial, he continued talking. "My ancestors were defenders of this forest, and I returned to Gloamwood to find out how they died upholding their duty. I want you to travel to a forest alter they used to draw upon the magic of the woods. If we can get a hint of what happened here long ago, we may be able to lift the curse on the wood." I gaped at him. There actually was
a curse on the wood? That wasn't just superstition. And his ancestors lived here and died here? Wow. This was a lot to take in. Despite myself, curiosity was thrumming through me and I wanted to solve the mystery of Gloamwood now more than ever. So I nodded in agreement and Duskenleaf explained to me what to do.
Ass I passed the Inn on my way to Gnarlwood Post, where the altar was located, a woman that looked vaguely familiar darted out of its shadows and approached me. As she came closer I realized she was the woman who took my name down in the guest roster when I stayed there the other night. I wonder what she wanted.
"Please, Raeslyn, you have to help me!" She implored, wringing her hands in desperation. "I heard that you were an Ascended, and I've been told stories about the Ascended being prophesied saviors and champions of good! I need your help! Only you have the strength to destroy the curse on my brother." I felt my eyes widen in startlement despite my efforts. Another curse? By the Vigil, what is it with Gloamwood and curses? Still, I nodded for her to go on.
"My family lived on Solemn Outlook for generations. We were cursed long ago, but no one knows how or why. I am Janina Solemn and my brother was the latest to succumb to the curse. After we die, we become ghosts and lose our sanity. We become evil, crazed spirits that hunt down the rest of our family. I need you to find a way to save my brother from this fate!" I placed my hands gently on her shoulders to calm her down and stared into her tear stained eyes.
"Ok. I'll help you. Chin up, you're a strong woman Janina. Don't give in to despair. When I come back to town I'll let know you know what happened, ok?" She was so grateful, offering up so many words of thanks, and even offered me a bouquet of flowers. As if I needed flowers.
As I once again headed out of town, I pondered on what all I'd learned so far. Apparently Gloamwood was in dire trouble indeed. Curses and mutated animals and the strange darkness that always hung over the forest. It seemed that when I fixed one problem, two more sprang up in its stead.