"Help! Hellllpppppp!" Wailed a voice from up ahead along the path to Tearfall Run, where I would find the altar to summon Laria. I cautiously peered through the gloom, not wanting to get lured into a trap of some sort. Of course, if some poor citizen needed my aid, I couldn't just take my time about it either. Movement drew my eye to the side of the road and I saw a tall Mathosian man, peering up and down the road as he paced, looking anxious and scared. I kept my face neutral as I approached and the man immediately fixated on me, an expression of hope flitting across his features.
"Oh, please, you have to help me, lady rogue! I'm haunted!" I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow at the man, who stammered to a halt and seemed to look abashed.
"I'm a Guardian sent to investigate the curse on Gloamwood. What do you mean, your haunted? Explain from the beginning please. Starting with your name." My sharp voice seemed to give the man a sense of calm, for he straightened up and nodded, taking a deep breath.
"Thank you m'lady. My name is Ral Teralar. I'm a prospector and a fisher. I spend my time digging up and selling ancient artifacts from around Tearfall Creek. Recently, I found a strange talisman shaped like a teardrop. When I took it back to camp, it seemed that I was suddenly being attacked by ghosts! I don't know what to do!" I gave the man a skeptical glance, pondering the situation. To me, the obvious solution would be to ditch this talisman thing.
"Where is this teardrop shaped talisman?" I asked. The man hastily scrabbled in a backpack and produced a tiny, mud covered object on a dirty chain. I wrinkled my nose. He didn't even bother to clean the thing? I instructed Ral to set the talisman on a tree stump and I poured water over it, careful not to touch it. I definitely had no desire to end up haunted. The clear water worked wonders for cleaning up the talisman and the man suddenly gave a startled gasp. I looked at him, and his eyes were riveted to the talisman. "What's the problem now?" I asked. Ral reverently reached out and picked up the necklace, drying it on his tunic. He held it in front of him, staring as if he'd seen a ghost (no pun intended ha). I made an impatient motion with my hand and he blinked at me.
"Oh! Uh, it's just, this looks so familiar..." He trailed off and frowned at the talisman. I peered at it as well. It was actually quite a pretty gemstone when cleaned. A brilliant blue sapphire set in some kind of silver filigree, attached to a silver chain. There were enchantments carved into the silver. I was by no means an expert on spells and enchantments, but it seemed they weren't meant for ill. Whatever the talisman had been used for, it definitely wasn't evil. "I've seen this before!" Ral exclaimed suddenly, and I barely resisted the urge to jump. I glared at him.
"Well, where's it from? And why was it haunting you?" I asked impatiently after he just stood there like a lump.
"Oh, right! The images here," he pointed to a tiny image at the corner of the point that the teardrop made at the top. I squinted and shrugged. "Well that icon is my family crest! This was a gift from my great grandfather to his bride!" He looked so full of reverence and wonder, that I couldn't help but get caught up in it as well, peering down at the pendant as if it held answers of times long ago.
"That doesn't explain why there are ghosts haunting you though." I pointed out after a moment. Ral nodded, as if that made perfect sense.
"My great grandmother died in these woods, actually. Her body was never found. The spirits could be angered because the talisman has gotten separated from her body. It must be nearby. My great grandfather couldn't find her to give her peace and a final rest, and he spent the rest of his days searching. It's all so tragic!" To my dismay, Ral started sniffling, and wiped at his eyes. I discretely moved a few paces away to let him pull himself together.
"Are you ok?" I asked after a moment. Ral nodded, still sniffling, and I scoffed. "Well, if you wish, I'll help you find your great grandmother's bones and we can consecrate them so she can finally be put to rest and move on to the afterlife." His face lit up with joy and thankfulness the moment the words were out of my mouth, and he hastily grabbed his backpack, nodding.
"Oh thank you my lady!" He exclaimed.
"Ugh, stop that! My name is Raeslyn." I retorted, annoyed.
We used the talisman as a sort of divining rod and were able to find a small cave across the creek, tucked away in a deep, dark alcove where no one would have thought to look otherwise. After a short eternity of slogging through mud and filth to the cave entrance, I stopped Ral and went in alone. Who knows what creepy crawlies would have made the cave home in the years since this happened? Of course, it appears I needn't have bothered. The cave was dry, and empty, and smelled like death and dust. My perfect Ascended sight could easily make out the twisted, painful looking female skeleton splayed out on the cave floor and I winced. Poor Ral. Speaking of, he shuffled up behind me despite my warning, and gasped at the sight of his great grandmother's bones. Reverently, he knelt and placed the talisman atop one twisted claw of a hand, and whispered a final farewell. He stood and stared at me, as if waiting for direction, and I rolled my eyes, before intoning a short, but heartfelt prayer to the gods to keep her soul safe as she passed from one world to the next. As I finished, a flickering, ghostly woman materialized in front of us, hovering over the bones. Ral gasped.
"Thank you for freeing me." The spirit of Ral's great grandmother said, voice ethereal and soft. "First the rifts, than the slaughter. The creek ran red with blood...I was lost forever....now at least I have the locket that my husband gave me. Perhaps I shall find him again." Her bowed low, before her spirit disappeared, leaving a preternatural hush in the cave. Without saying a word, we both turned and left, trudging back across the small creek and up to the road again.
Finally, in a soft voice, Ral said "Thank you for doing that Raeslyn. Knowing that she has found peace brings closure to an old, unfinished chapter in my family history." He sighed and rubbed a hand across his face, looking older than I'd guess him to be. "This proves that my family owns the mill here in Gloamwood. I know the Guardians were sent here to investigate the curse, and I can only hope that once it's all said and done, I'll have a chance to reclaim my family's property. I know that's what they would have wanted." He gazed across the way, back toward the cave, and I nodded.
"I wish you luck." I said simply, and waved good bye before heading down the road toward my own destination. It felt good to help that man, I thought as I walked. It made me feel good inside, like I'd accomplished something grand. I guess even though people irritated me, it still gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to aid those in need. And that's what the Guardians were all about. Someone had to step up and keep the people of Telara safe, and I wouldn't trust the Defiants to the task, so it had to be us. Me. I smiled to myself.
My uplifted mood didn't last long, unfortunately. As soon as I entered Tearfall Run, Brother Jebiah accosted me.
"Ascended! Come here, I have an important task for you!" He cried, dragging me over to his tent. I jerked away from him and scowled. "What do you want now, Jebiah?" I asked. I'd come here to speak to the spirit of the wood, not this fanatic.
"Don't take that tone of voice with me, missy! You may be Ascended, but I have high rank in the Guardians, so you better watch yourself. The Vigil know their own." I glared at him. Whatever that meant. "We need to figure out what's going on with these werewolves. Why did those mill workers and Waykeepers turn into beasts like that?" He continued in a fervent voice, and I had to admit, that was a good question. I shrugged, and he rubbed his hands together. "To focus the power of the Vigil onto these evil, cursed creatures, we needed a few special ingredients. While you were off gallivanting all over the woodland, I was here creating a holy relic that we can use to destroy the darkness. We can use it to expose who is a werewolf in Gloamwood Pines and remove their taint from this wood finally!"
"Yes, but they aren't just werewolves you know. They are sentient people! Telaran citizens! Under our
protection!" I shot back. I could understand Jebiah's point of view, but how could I, in good conscious, force these people to change into those mindless beasts, and than slay them? That seemed beyond appalling. I don't know what the Vigil thought of that, but I definitely wasn't okay with slaughtering people simply because they'd been unwittingly cursed. "Just....just keep hold of that holy relic ok? I'm not saying I'm refusing to use it, but I would do anything I can to spare these people that fate." I whispered, keeping my voice low so I didn't alarm any of the Waykeepers around the camp. Jebiah stared at me, aghast, as if he couldn't comprehend the concept of finding a cure, or trying to save their souls. I gave him one last warning look before making my way to Laria's altar.
"Welcome back, Raeslyn. I sensed you coming. I know you seek answers to many questions, and I fear I have them." The spirit of Laria looked grave and sad, her ethereal form wavering as if a strong breeze blew it. I nodded at her to continue.
"Years ago, my sister and I lived happily in these woods. Then the Ward was breached. I fought the rifts while my sister bent them to her will. Twisted by death energy, she blamed the people of Gloamwood for my death, rather than the true evil, Regulos. This werewolf curse has the feel of her magic, but I don't know how to unravel it. My sister was always clever, creating new and darker spells as the battle went on. She would always write them down in a special diary. If you can find that, you might have a solution to the curse on Gloamwood. When last I was alive, we lived in Deepwood Cottage, to the southwest. She always worked her magics in the basement. I'm sorry, that is all I can give you." She looked genuinely upset and I cleared my throat.
"No, it's okay Laria. Thank you for the information. I'm sorry to hear about what happened, and that your sister went down a dark path. But...I'm afraid she can't be saved now. I think the darkness has eaten her soul." I felt sad for poor Laria as her ghostly eyes filled with sparkling tears and she faded from sight. I sighed, feeling my spirits dampened. It seems everywhere I turn, Aedraxis has caused heartbreak and misery with his breaking of the Ward. Damn him!
I told Fiona Leone where I was heading, just in case something happened...which I really hoped it didn't. But I wanted her to be caught up on what was going on. When I told her that the diary could contain a cure to lycanthropy, she looked so darn hopeful that I prayed to the Vigil I was right. I headed southwest as Laria instructed, and the tangle of the dark wood grew thicker and darker as I went. It was as if the very forest knew my goal and was trying to prevent it. Well, that could actually be true, I thought grimly. I'd also come to the realization that Laria's sister was the same "Hag" that the citizens of the Pines were so terrified of. It made sense.
Eventually, the path became so narrow and convoluted and overgrown that I lost track of time and space. I was following little more than a deer trail, but there was no way I was giving up now, so close to having a real solution. Finally, I had to resort to using my least favorite daggers to cut my way through the undergrowth. Would it kill the witch to mow her lawn once in a while?
I took a swipe with my dagger and met unresisting air, and was so startled, I tumbled out into a clearing. Looking around, I realized that I'd cut my way through the wood and seemed to have found a small, but well kept pathway. The pathway led up to an old, run down looking cottage, surrounded by what had to be at some point an incredibly beautiful garden. Now though, weeds, strange deadly looking plants, and small creatures made the ancient ruins their home. Even though the area was open to the sky, it still seemed thick and oppressive in the clearing, as if a darkness lay over the cottage that even broad daylight couldn't dispel. Well, this is it. I took a step, and was swept off my feet by a snarling savage animal bigger than I was. Panicked, I instinctively used my abilities and teleported through the planes to several feet away. I spun and saw a large, maddened werewolf with red eyes leering at me. Idiot! I cursed myself. Of course she'd have guards on her dwelling. I felt like an amateur.
The werewolf stood up on its hind legs and sniffed the air. I eyed the long, five inch claws, and sincerely hoped that the lycanthropy curse couldn't be spread by the infected. My arm was stinging and I glanced down absently, shocked to see large tears in my jerkin. Blood sluggishly seeped through and dripped down my arm. Well, that explained the stinging. Now that I'd noticed it, the wound began throbbing in earnest. Ouch. I gingerly touched it, but then had to roll to the side to avoid another lunge by the werewolf. No time to tend the injury, I'd just have to let my Ascended nature heal it as best it could while I dealt with this threat. I threw aside the dagger I'd used on the forest; it was now dull and useless and sticky with tree sap, and drew my two favorite daggers, both gleaming with a fresh new coat of venom I'd painted on while in town. This werewolf might have once been a loved mother or son, but it wasn't anymore, and I needed to put an end to its misery. This time when it came at me, I spun to the side, daggers leading, and was satisfied when the beast gave a howl of agony. I kicked off it with my feet and landed sure footed higher up the path. Eyeing my dagger, I was quite satisfied to see a generous quantity of blood dripping off the blade. The beast roared in confusion and fury, but didn't lunge at my again, as if sensing the threat. Not as dumb as it looked, than. I feinted right, and the werewolf snarled, rushing at me. At the last moment, I turned left instead, and the creature's momentum ensured my dagger planted itself in its furred chest to the hilt. Still, it snarled and whipped toward me, lightning fast. A clawed arm bashed me across the face and I went flying backwards. My impromptu flight ended when I collided with a low hanging tree. All the air whooshed out of me and I saw stars.
"Ah gods, that hurt." I moaned, and rolled over onto my side. I spit blood out from where I'd bitten my lip and groaned, blinking rapidly to dispel the dark spots in my vision. A dark growl nearby alerted me to the werewolf and I coughed, hastily scrambling to my feet. My entire body protested this idea, but I bulled through the pain until I was standing. I was relieved to see I was still holding onto my daggers. A lifetime of having it drilled into my head that a rogue without a weapon was a dead rogue ensured that nothing short of death would make me give them up. And even then, it wasn't a sure thing.
The werewolf was weaving in place, snarling and digging at the wound in its chest, as if not quite understanding why there was pain. I didn't want the creature to suffer any more, but I didn't think I wanted to take another trip through the air, or get within reach of those deadly claws. Suddenly, the beast seized up, claws stiffening and curling inward. It gave a shudder, and collapsed forward. I stood a moment, unsure if it was really dead. The fur shimmered, before melting away, leaving a bloody human in its place. Well, now I know for sure it was dead. They always reverted back upon death. Slowly, achingly, I sheathed my daggers, and bent to pick up the dulled one. My ribs gave a painful twinge as I did so, a reminder that, Ascended I may be, but that didn't make me immune to damage. I peered again at my arm. The bleeding was slowing down to nearly nothing, and the gaping slices seemed to be slowly closing. Thank the Vigil for that. I grabbed a spare piece of linen out of my belt pouch and tied it around my arm to help it along, before approaching the former werewolf. The now woman's lips were tinged a dark purple, as well as the open eyes, a symptom of the particular poison I favor. I squatted down and dropped another piece of linen over her eyes, whispering a prayer to the Vigil. Twisted by the curse she may be, but she was still a child of the gods. Now more than ever, I couldn't wait to get my hands on that diary.
I managed to avoid gaining the attention of other werewolf sentries, and several traps no doubt set by the Hag to catch unwary visitors, and entered the dark interior of the cottage. The place smelled horrid, like old must and death. Not a pleasant place to live, that's for sure. The cottage was simply designed so it was easy to take a quick glance around to discover the door that led to the basement. It creaked open and I winced. Hopefully no one heard that. As I descended the old stone steps, the temperature seemed to plummet drastically and I half expected to see my breath with each exhalation. On the bottom step, I glanced around. The basement was just a single stone room, very crude. There was a large demonic circle painted into the center of the floor, and a creepy looking altar against one wall. Bookshelves also lined the walls, and bones were strewn across the floor. I didn't look too closely at that last bit. Carefully I walked across to the altar, and spied an ancient, worn looking book sitting on the very edge. Aha! That must be it. I reached for the diary, but hesitated. It seemed so easy suddenly. I stared hard at the diary, the altar, around the room. I tried calling up my Ascended powers to try and find any hidden trap or snare. Nothing. Still, I felt like there was something sinister at work here. Slowly, I grabbed hold of the diary, and than danced away from the altar, as if expecting it to burst into flames, or for the floor to give way. When nothing happened, my rapidly beating heart slowed and I let out the breath I'd been holding. I tucked the diary firmly into the bottom of my belt pouch and raced back up the stairs, suddenly inexplicably eager to be gone from this place. At the top of the basement steps, I crashed to a halt when I realized that there was a fire glowing merrily in the hearth across the way. There hadn't been a fire when I'd first entered the cottage. As if in slow motion, my eyes moved to the left, and dread abruptly washed over me. There was an old woman dressed all in black standing beside the fire.
"Oh gods." I murmured. I drew my daggers and edged toward the door, keeping my eyes on the figure. The old woman seemed to watch me with amiable disinterest, that is, until I reached the doorway. Her voice rent the still air of the cottage, nearly causing me to yelp.
"Welcome dearie. You look lost. Why don't you please come closer? My eyes aren't what they used to be, after all." Despite the rather innocent sounding words, a sharp steel seemed to thread through her voice, as if she dared me to make a break for the exit. I hesitated, every instinct screaming to make a run for it. But this ancient woman knew curses and hexes that I'd never even dreamed of, and I really didn't want any aimed at me. Besides, I had to confess to a certain....curiosity. Cursing myself for a fool, I slowly walked across the room to stand on the other side of the fire. The old woman peered at me with eyes that looked as sharp as mine. "There now, isn't that better, young one?" She asked, a mocking edge in her tone. I kept my expression blank and stared back silently. The woman croaked out a laugh and gestured to a table.
"Can I interest you in a cup of hot gloamseed tea perhaps?" Her eyes glittered with cold malevolence. "That is...if you're brave enough to have a drink with a strange old woman." Her gaze pinned me and I had to wrench my eyes away to look down at the table, where two cups of steaming hot liquid sat innocently. A trap! This was a trap all along. Of course she'd know if someone entered her sacred home. And now she was just toying with me. I swallowed, feeling my mouth go dry. Her dark aura was very strong indeed, making me uneasy. The diary seemed to weigh twice as much in my pack. Feeling like my feet were leaden, I took a step backward. The woman watched me, looking amused. Suddenly, her expression changed to one of wicked intent, a sneer pulling her wrinkled lips upward.
"Let me commend you for your efforts in the wood, but I'm afraid I can't let you go any further. Oh, don't fret dearie, I have something special planned for you, something that will make those pathetic worms in Gloamwood Pines thankful that the curses they bear are not yours." I felt my eyes go wide and I dredged up the energy to take another step back. Oh gods, oh gods, need to get out of here! I turned and ran for the door, just as a wave of dark magic washed over me. I stumbled out and kept running for the treeline, my mind running through all sorts of horrible scenarios involving dark magic. What had she done to me? I hated magic! And this is why!
I was deep into the thick woods before I slowed and managed to get a handle on myself. Panting, I glanced behind, and tried my best to listen for any pursuit. Although why would she bother when she'd already attacked. I realized my hands were shaking and I clenched them into fists, smacking a nearby leafy tree. I felt weird. Not like she'd described, but definitely weird. Furious for no real reason. My skin felt prickly. Itchy and superheated. My fingers felt numb. What had that wretched hag done to me?
'Come on Rae, pull yourself together.'
I commanded myself, and rubbed my face, then winced suddenly when I felt my nails drag and catch on the skin of my cheek. Pulling my hand away, I stared in horror. My nails were longer. And pointed. And holy messengers of the Vigil, was that fur on my knuckles?? I lurched forward and fell to my knees. No, no, no! I was not
going to turn into one of those mindless werewolves. No! But despite my wishes to the contrary, I watched with fearful fascination as my hands slowly sprouted thick brown fur while my nails lengthened into wicked looking claws. How the hells was I supposed to explain this to the Guardians?