When I opened my eyes the next morning, I still saw the dimly lit, dingy walls of the inn at Gloamwood Pines and I sighed heavily. I'd had the most pleasant dream about being back at Quicksilver College, joking with my classmates and learning new moves from my mentor. A fond ache developed below my breastbone and I sighed again and rolled over. My eye caught on the pristine white scroll waiting patiently on the nightstand. Oh right, another assignment from Sanctum and the Guardians. Well, best to see what it said. I carelessly broke the seal and unrolled the parchment.
"We have heard of your success in Gloamwood and wish to
congratulate you on securing the wood once again. You deserve
rest after your recent trials but as they say, 'a heroe's duty is never
done'. I just received word from Scarlet Gorge that our forces
there are under attack by the Endless Court! I know that as an Ascended
warrior of the gods, you wouldn't be able to stand by when people
are in trouble! Since you are our closest asset to Scarlet Gorge, we
implore you to aid the Guardians there in whatever they require. You may
contact Sir Greg Armex for further instructions. Good luck Ascended.
May the Gods be with you!"
Signed Shanik Gunseka
Well, whoever that was, the letter seemed grim. As much as I wanted to head back to Silverwood and relax under a shaded tree, I knew my conscious wouldn't allow it if I had within my power the ability to save lives. So I guess it was off to Scarlet Gorge with me. I squinted at the scroll again as I tried to recall what I knew about the gorge. Bein a fan of my own beloved forest, I thought it a wasted effort to learn about the other, stranger areas outside of it. I vaguely remember one of the other students complaining about how hot it was there, and dusty. Just great. I jumped out of the bed, throwing back the wool blanket, and proceeded to perform my morning stretches and work out routine. A rogue with stiff muscles and non-stretched tendons could be a dead rogue in combat. Near the end of my work out exercise, I fluidly drew my daggers and spun them between my fingers while still twirling, ducking, and diving around the room. It may look odd to outsiders, but I'd been performing this workout routine since I was naught but an elf child.
After I finished, heart beating slightly faster from the exertion, I gathered up my supplies and headed downstairs, making a list of things in my head that I needed to accomplish before I set off for the gorge. First thing was something to eat, as my grumbling tummy reminded me quite forcibly.
"20 silver for the rope, 90 silver for the canteen spelled to keep cool, and 1 plat for the three daggers." The merchant tallied it up as I set the items I wanted on the table in front of him. I scowled at him. That seemed like a pretty steep price, especially for someone who had just saved all their ungrateful hides a few days ago. The merchant smiled at me nervously, as if waiting for me pitch a scene. Which I was tempted to do. I wasn't rich by any stretch of the imagination and the commission I received from Sanctum for my efforts in Gloamwood wasn't anything to brag about. With a reluctant nod, I delved into my coin purse and grudgingly pulled out the appropriate amount, not one coin more. Highway robbery, this was. I muttered a resentful thanks as I walked away with my new belongings, but all the same, I was happy that I could cross them off my list. I knew that this tough tanglevine rope would be ideal if I'd be traipsing all over a gorge for who knows how long, and since it was hot and dusty, I wanted a water flask that would keep my water cool as I traveled. Nothing worse than lukewarm, stale water! The daggers, I always needed. No matter how careful I was, there was always the dagger that I'd lose in a body, that would break, chip, grow too dull, or would become brittle from deflecting magical attacks. All my unusable weaponry were always deposited at a runecrafter's shop to be melted down and salvaged into something else.
After also securing a package of dried and salted meats, a hunk of crusty nutbread, and filling up my new water canteen, I arranged all my supplies about my person and set off down Deepwood Trail, which the signpost assured me would lead to the far edge of Gloamwood, where Scarlet Gorge could be found. I kept my eyes and ears alert to anything out of the ordinary, as once I passed the border of Gloamwood I would be leaving official Guardian territory and could potentially run into the dread Defiant. I had no wish to start a quarrel with a Defiant, but I couldn't be sure any of them would feel the same and if I saw them doing anything suspicious, I'd no doubt feel compelled to protest. So I kept my hands loosely near my daggers strapped at both hips and scanned the hedges and brush that lined the cobblestone path. Occasionally, I heard the cheerful call of a songbird and it lightened my heart to know that even now, so soon after the defeat of the Hag, the wood was becoming more lively and welcoming.
I set a fast pace, eating up fourteen miles* before I noticed any difference in terrain. Gradually the trees grew thinner and shorter, and I became warmer as the thinner tree cover allowed more sunshine through to the forest floor. I stopped to rest under the shade of a sycamore tree, taking a small sip of my flask and was satisfied to discover that the cooling enchantment did indeed keep the water cool and fresh. It was another 3 miles before the forest abruptly ended on a grassy plateau and I was treated to a visually stunning view of the gorge. With the sun setting low in the far west, the entire gorge looked on fire.
"Guess that's where the name comes from, huh?" I chuckled to myself dryly. Speaking of dry, I could practically feel the heat leeching all the moisture out of the air from here. Stepping closer to the edge of the gorge, I was quite relieved to see that the cobblestone path extended downward, cut into the side of the canyon with plenty of room for even a cart to safely get down to the gorge floor. A wooden signpost that looked to have seen better days back during the Blood Storm wars valiantly stood against the heat and the dust being blown across the flat rock, proclaiming that several villages could be found ahead in the gorge. Well at least there was civilization down there, although I had no way of knowing if they were sympathetic to the Guardian's cause, or would react in a hostile manner to a Guardian Ascended.
I headed down the path, which lost it's earthy, yellow tones the further I descended, taking on the dark red color of the stone surroundings. The air was so dusty that I found myself having to tie a scarf around my head to protect my nose, mouth and long sensitive ears. I already loathed Scarlet Gorge and I've only been here for 5 minutes. After several hours of following the winding path down the side of the gorge, I finally reached what appeared to the bottom of the canyon. I paused and glanced back up the way I came, squinting against the red haze that hovered over the gorge. From here, you could barely discern there was a path up the sheer rock wall. I gulped. I'm so glad that the path wasn't nearly as terrifying as it looked from below, or I may have just said screw orders and went back to Sanctum anyway. A stiff continuous breeze ran through the gorge, rustling dry scrub brush and scraggly blooming plants that stubbornly poked up through cracks in the rock and sediment. I admired their tenacity, but it seemed a lost cause. How could anything living even want to live down here anyway? High on rock ledge jutting out from the side of the canyon wall stood a lone goat, large curling horns pointed majestically at the sky. I gave the ram a jaunty salute before considering my route from here. The road split here, with several paths leading off to the left, carelessly winding their way around large outcroppings of rock and disappearing off into the distance around corners, while a singular, wider path led right, jumping over a small stream and continuing on in a relatively straight line along the length of the gorge. My orders hadn't given any sort of hint of where this Sir Greg Armex guy was, and for all I knew, he could even be dead, murdered by the Endless Court attackers already. The left path seemed the more traveled, and promised to lead to people, so I decided on that one, setting off in that direction after adjusting my gloves and dusting off my leathers. Not that would do much good, since this entire bloody gorge seemed to thrive on dust. I sighed heartily.
Just when I was beginning to think I was the only sentient being in the entire gorge, I rounded a large tumble of boulders and spotted a ramshackle little house tucked neatly under a shelf of dusty red stone. Two sharply blue banners flew on either side of the doorway and I broke into a grin upon seeing the silver gauntlet symbol of the Guardians. I picked up my plodding pace, unconsciously squaring my shoulders as new energy filled me. Thank the gods I'd finally be able get somewhere on this mission. Several men dressed in the silver and blue livery of the Guardians came out of the shadows as I neared, shading their eyes against the sun to inspect me.
"Hey there!" I called out, keeping my hands in the open. I really had no desire to be shot by my own side after just recently getting my armor mended from the tussle with the Hag. A young man next to a stone well, who'd been drawing up a pail of water, paused and gawked at me as if I was some strange and exotic creature from one of the planes. Seeing the pail full of clear-and I can imagine cold-water made me suddenly realize how immensely dehydrated I was from traveling the gorge, and I resisted the temptation to run over and snatch the bucket from the man's hands. An older bald man strolled from around the side of the shack, toting a gun loosely in the crook of his elbow. He squinted at me, mouth set in a grim line.
"Hello there stranger. What can I do ya for?" He said slowly, while his eyes darted around behind me, looking for any signs of a trick or reinforcements. I resisted the urge to glance behind me as well out of reflex. I cleared my throat, wincing at how dry it felt.
"My name is Raeslyn Windrose, and I was sent by Sanctum to investigate claims of Endless Court presense in Scarlet Gorge. I am to assist a Sir Greg Armex in his investigations into cult activity and possibly uncover what they are doing here." I said this calmly and diplomatically, trying to sound official. The man blinked at me, his eyes widening slightly in surprise. He focused completely on me, eyeing my dusty form up and down, before one skeptical bushy eyebrow lifted, as if saying 'some little girl gonna do all that?'. I bristled at the implied insult. "I am an Ascended Guardian blessed by the Vigil themselves to carry out their will on Telara. Your name and rank please." I said, more forcefully, opening my vest and flashing my Guardian medallion that I'd been given for freeing Silverwood. All the men gasped, and a few of them knelt. I shifted my feet, rolling my eyes in irritation. Just for good measure, I unwound the dusty scarf from my head, allowing them to see my full face. The bald man shrewdly eyed me a few more minutes in silence, before he grunted, seemingly satisfied.
"Welcome to Scarlet Gorge then, Ascended. I'm Sergeant Fyvel. I was stationed here at Overwatch to protect the goods that the miners shipped through Gloamwood and on to Sanctum, but there hasn't been anything mined here in weeks. The miners who made their living here are long gone. Scared off or dead. The Endless Court murdered the locals and took control of the mines." He paused, looking grave and sad. I felt my mouth open, but didn't say anything. This was bad. Very bad. If the Endless Court had control of the mining operations in Scarlet Gorge, they must know about the Sourcestone veins running throughout the canyon and how powerful it was here. How could they have gained such a hold on the gorge so quickly? How come no one said anything sooner? I scowled.
"That's absurd! How in the hells did the Endless Court gain that much control here?" I demanded sharply, gesturing around me as I spoke.
Fyvel slumped, looking depressed. I almost felt sorry for him, all the way out here in this burning hole, far from home. "They came down from the Demon Steps, across the gorge. We're stationed way over here, far from the main events, but I've heard that Sir Armex has already marshalled the remaining forces of the gorge to move against the cult. That was days ago though. We haven't heard anything since, not even a call for aid. We could certainly use your assistance, Miss Windrose if you'd be willing to lend aid to the main Guardian camp." He pointed further down the path I'd been traveling and I gazed that way, as if I could somehow visualize what was happening right now. I wiped sweat beads from my forehead, already gathering from the brief exposure I've had to the sun bleached air. Ugh, I hate this blasted, trapped heat down here! At least it seemed to be relenting slightly as it gets darker. Thank the gods for small mercies.
"Of course I'll help. I am a Guardian and I would never just stand by when I'm needed." I nodded sharply and Fyvel gave me look of such grateful hope that I felt secondhand embarrassment for him. "You and your men here need to stay on the alert. Who knows what has happened since the last communication you had. When I find out, I'll send a missive to update you on events. Keep sentry, and don't let even one cultist slip by you. You said something about a Demon Steps? Am I assured that these steps, and the path I just took are the only ways out of the gorge?" I asked, narrowing my eyes up at the sheer cliff walls to either side. Sergeant Fyvel rubbed his jaw, smearing a grime track through the dust on his skin. I cringed. "Aye, I believe so. I've not investigated the gorge, but I would say you're right on that. Got ideas?" I grinned. "Of course, I always have ideas. I'll be off to find Armex now. Do you know his last known location?"
Fyvel nodded earnestly and pivoted to gesture. "He's holed up at Crimson Wash last we knew. Down the gorge. There's a lift down the path that will take ya to the bottom safely. Just tell Private Patril you're on my orders." I gawked at him and croaked out a sound of protest.
"Wait, what? The bottom of the gorge? You mean this isn't the bottom?! For Vigil's sake, this place is torture!" Fyvel chuckled at my complaint and agreed with me. After a few more parting words and filling up my canteen at their little stone well, I set off down the path, feeling even more irritated to learn that the gorge went down even further. I already felt like I was inches from the center of the world. I was very much not looking forward to descending further into this pit of hell. I was very grateful for being Ascended as the air grew progressively more oppressive and heated, as my exalted status provided a measure of protection against heat stroke and dehydration. I can just imagine my spirit conversing with the winged being who lifted my soul to safety and allowed it's return to my body. "How'd I die, you ask? Keeled over from heatstroke while walking through a gorge. Harhar...." I snorted.
The "lift" that Fyvel explained to me was no more then a rickety set of wooden poles lashed together and connected to a pulley system and a small platform that supposedly lowered you safely to the bottom of the gorge. Supposedly. Private Patil gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder which I returned with a death glare, as I stood on the uneven boards and tensely waited to be lowered down, trying to assure myself that I wasn't going to fall to my death. My fists were clenched so tight my fingers began to ache as the private and his companion activated the pulley, allowing the platform to jolt and shudder. A loud creaking sound accompanied its slow descent and I stared straight ahead, wide-eyed, praying to the gods that I wasn't going to die. This is ridiculous. There has to be better methods than this to get to the bottom. I swore to myself that there was no way I was going back up the same way I came down. Quicker than I thought, I reached the end, and the platform shuddered to a stop unevenly on a wooden dais. I stepped off and it began it's creaking way back up again. With a last distasteful look, I stepped off onto solid, if somewhat dusty, ground. To my pleasure, the air was cooler and less dusty way down here, and I noticed that at the angle the sun was, its rays couldn't even reach all the way down here unless it was shining directly overhead. Things were definitely looking up. Looking around, I noticed another helpful sign pointing the way toward Crimson Wash. I set off at a fast pace in that direction, imagining I was back at Quicksilver having a nice swim in the cool shady glade out back.
As I walked, the sound of rushing water grew apparent, and I eagerly strained my eyes. The sluggish stream I'd noticed earlier was picking up steam and was now verily rushing down the gorge, foaming and surging in its haste. A fence sprung up along the road, lining it I would assume as a precaution against falling into the fast rushing river. The path stopped as it curved suddenly, turning into a forked path. One road led over a neatly maintained little bridge that crossed the river, while another continued along the side of the gorge, hugging the far rocky wall. A sign betwixt the two paths told me the bridge led to Crimson Wash while the other path led to Riverfell. As I crossed the bridge, I slowed to watch the rushing water and was pleased to see silver flashes as fish darted along the shoals.
Across the bridge, it was like a village suddenly sprang up before my eyes. I even saw a porticulum nestled among the red rocks. Dozens of tiny, dusty wooden houses dotted the terrain, interspersed among the rocks and scrub brush. I also began to see people, all dressed in muted colors, most with scarves over their heads like I had done. I would guess from their weathered and care worn looks that these must be locals of the gorge, although why anyone would willingly live in this godsforsaken place was beyond me. As I walked, most of them paused and gaped at me, as if not believing their eyes. Travelers must be few here, I mused. Again, why would anyone willingly come here anyway? The houses grew more frequent until I spotted a larger, more official looking building waving the Guardian colors from its porch. Aha, the Guardian outpost. Excellent. I bet I'd find Armex here. I was exhausted from walking all day, dreadfully thirsty again, and now quite hungry. I couldn't wait to get inside that building out of the heat and sit. Just sit. Even for a few moments. And get the dust off me. I bet I've gathered half my weight in sand since entering Scarlet Gorge.
*Google informs me that the athletic fit person who walks often can cover from 12-20 miles even in hilly terrain.
Hey Rae, when's Soulee gona enter the story lol. Just kidding. Love it so far.ReplyDelete