King Maker: Stormvale

Rivers Run Red: Prologue

Meric

Meric entered the library flanked by two guards, bootheels clacking against the stone floor. He had to admit that the building was rather out of place outside the castle walls, its marble facade a stark contrast to the rough stone buildings surrounding it. Looking up at the rows of bookshelves which dominated the interior, Meric hoped that enough of the people were literate to make good use of it.

“Your lordship. What can I do for you today?” A sage’s apprentice approached Meric, twisting his fingers nervously.

“I’ll need every book you have on Infernalism.”

The apprentice paused. “All of them?”

“…Just how many books on Infernalism do you have here?” The boy gulped.

“Not many, your lordship. Just a moment.” The apprentice scurred off, returning a short time later carrying a stack of four books. “This is everything.”

“Excellent. Redder, let’s get these back to the castle. My thanks.”

“Your lordship? We, ah, do not typically permit the books to be removed-”

“I do not think it prudent to make books on such a subject available on an unrestricted basis. If anyone is interested in studying these, you may send them to inquire with me at the castle.” Meric turned and exited the building, the apprentice stammering behind him.

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In his private chambers, Meric contemplated the books. Destroying them was a bad idea. They might contain information that could be useful in retaking Cheliax. Or… He thought back to the chilling voice that had awoken him on the night of the Red Mantis attack, somehow speaking directly into his mind. Suppressing a shudder, he opened the first book.

“Doing some light reading baron?”

Meric turned to see a man sitting in a nearby chair. He did not know how this intruder had gotten in, but he didn’t hear or see a thing. The man was dressed like a rich noble of Brevoy would be. Closer inspection revealed is a light red tint to his skin, and small horns on his head.

“I apologize for arriving unannounced, but the penalty for Devil worship in your lands is a bit…extreme. I can only imagine what the penalty for being an actual devil is.” He smiled warmly.
“Find anything of interest to you?”

Meric raised both eyebrows in surprise, then leaned back in his chair. “Something about how the only way to determine whether someone is actually communicating with devils or whether they’re insane is through lobotomy. I suppose I’ll have to have faith that you’re actually here.” Meric poured himself a glass of wine and closed the book in front of him.

“Why are you here, incidentally? It seems there are several other members of my family with whom your time would be more constructively spent.”

“I suppose that would depend on what I was trying to accomplish.” The devil stood and bowed formally to Meric. “I am Rumjal. Formally a duke of Malboge, the sixth layer of Baator. Currently I am best described as a free agent.” He began walking slowly towards a nearby window and peered out while speaking.

“Stormvale has grown swiftly. You should be proud. Mighty empires have failed to tame these lands. I expect that it will continue to grow and and become a force in the inner sea.” He looked back at Meric over his shoulder.

“Assuming your cousin doesn’t kill you first.”

Meric took note of the euphemisms that the devil had used – Baator instead of Hell, free agent instead of…outcast?

“It’s good to hear you believe in our abilities,” said Meric dryly. “I assume that what you’re trying to accomplish is not simply reminding me that my cousin is dangerous; I learned that lesson the day she had my family murdered by the Red Mantis.”

“Yes I suppose you did. That was an especially brilliant piece of paranoia on her part. She had no reason to believe you or your family posed even the slightest threat to her. And yet there you were, chartered by Brevoy to claim a nation of your own.” He slowly walked and returned to his original seat.

“Of course she missed the only target that mattered. Tell me Meric, what is your plan for dealing with the Red Mantis? I may not be able to warn you the next time they are coming. I suppose you could simply stay alive long enough to build this Barony into a full fledged nation and become a rightfully seated king. That would solve your problem.” The devil moved one leg so that it was resting on the other and reclined comfortably in the seat.

“But what of dear Brook? The Mantis will not hesitate to keep coming after her.” The devil turned his head to the side slightly as if an idea had suddenly come upon him.

“Unless of course you intend to take her as your queen. Yes that would solve this problem permanently.” His smile walked the line between genuine and mocking.

“All of these sound like my problems. What I’m still not sure about is why they concern you. Unless…did my cousin send you to act as a constant reminder of my situation, to maximize my suffering before I’m killed? She’s more devious than I suspected!”

“The nine hells are known for many things Meric but I assure you that consensus is not one of them. For every plot weaved that would benefit from the success of your cousin, there are three that would benefit from her failure. Let it suffice to say that it is in my interest to see you and your nation succeed. To that end, I shall offer you aid where I can. I fully understand your hesitation in accepting any advise from a devil so I will make this easy on you.” Rumjal stood and straightened his vest.

“Events are going to begin unfolding rapidly in the Stolen Lands. This little scrap of no where you have claimed is far more valuable than it appears at first glance. Numerous parties are moving to establish a foothold. As an act of good faith, I offer you this free of charge. There is a demonic cult operating out of Stag’s End. You will want to eliminate it before things get out of hand. I suggest you begin your search in the brothel.” He begans to walk away, but then turned back to Meric.

“One last thing. The Mantis have spies in every city.” The devil looked around briefly in all directions. “Even brand new ones. You have given them reason to pause before another assault. Eliminating their informant in the castle would give them further reason to delay. Might I suggest that accepting a bribe from an assassin to aid in murder is an objectively evil act.” Rumjal smiled and began to walk away. After a few steps he vanished from sight.

Siv

Bokken was like a jittery bird. He seemed to be full of nervous energy that was constantly battling to escape. Siv had noticed it a year ago when the group had first met him at his little hut, but it seemed more pronounced now. It was the way his head snapped back and forth between whatever was dividing his attention.

He didn’t like visitors, and seemed eager to quickly end any conversation that Siv tried to engage him in. Fortunately he did like gold, which enabled her to make use of his expertise in potions. She had found an unusual patch of flowers while traveling near the Oak-Top Silver mine. They were a large rose like flower with huge thorns. From these thorns dripped a rather nasty poison.

They clearly were not native to the area. Yet despite Siv’s expertise in plant life, she could not identify them. Stag End’s library and the resources of Stormvale’s priests also turned up no information. She had brought a sample to Bokken in hopes that he could shed some light on this mystery.

“Where did you find this?” was his only reply when she showed him the flower. He didn’t wait for an answer before taking the sample to a work bench and carefully extracting some of the poison for testing. Siv had been waiting for several hours for him to finish his analysis.

“I cannot help you identify this flower. I have never seen it before. But I can tell you what the poison is. The Tears of death. One of the rarest and nastiest poisons in existence.”

“Doesn’t knowing the poison tell you what flower it came from? If it’s a known poison then it must have a known source.”

“It does. The Tears of Death is a man-made poison. It is created by combining a half dozen rare venoms under precise conditions. It’s not made from any flower.”

Siv was annoyed. “Clearly it is. I just handed you one.”

“I’ve told you everything I know. The poison is man-made. I trust that ends our transaction.” With that Bokken retreated to his hut. Siv was left with more questions than answers.

Asta

A Treatise of Interplanar Travel and Summoning
Menas, first magister of Taldor Year:3250

Chapter 12: Unanswered questions of the Great Beyond

Of all the planar phenomenon I have encountered in the world, few have vexed me as much as the case of Alexite and his Eidolon. I had no knowledge of the term before my encounter with him in the wilderness of Cheliax forty years ago. He was a spellcaster of considerable power and an invaluable ally against the orc hordes of Belkzen that terrorized central Avistan at the time.

Alexite’s primary strength was in the summoning of interplanar creatures. In all my years since, I have never encountered his match in this discipline. The outsiders he called were unique in the shear length of time they would remain bound to his service on this plane. I consider myself to be among the world’s foremost experts in this regard, Yet Alexite’s summoned creatures would remain for ten times the length of my own. But this was nothing compared to the impossible behaviors of his Eidolon.

The Eidolon was a beast in Alexite’s service that he called from another plane. However it could remain on the prime indefinitely. Upon death, the beast would not be permanently slain as is seen with every other outsider of the known categories. The creature also did not conform to traditional classification. None of the beastiaries in the Taldan empire contain a creature from any plane bearing identical properties. To the onlooker it appeared to be a type of dragon. Yet magical inquiries confirmed it to be no such thing. Alexite himself explained that he had not invented the term Eidolon. It had been taught to him by his father, whom the creature had apparently served before him. He also had almost no insight into the nature of the beast.

I requested that he show me the ritual which he used summoned this Eidolon in order to perform an in-depth analysis of the summoning circle. Experience had taught me that all inter planar magic worked on the same principles. All summoning circles contain two lines. The outer line that acts as a barrier to keep the creature bound, and the inner line that designates the plane the creature to be called originates from. Studying the pattern in the center always provides the positioning of the plane in question in relation to the prime. But to my dismay, no circle was involved in the summoning.

Instead, a rune on Alexite’s forehead began to glow and after a minute, his Eidolon materialized before him. The rune itself provided few insights into the ritual. It did not identify any plane of which I am aware. All my attempts to ascertain its origination point ended in failure.
The creature itself confounded me further. It seemed to contain no will of its own. All of the creatures of the outer planes display at least basic survival instincts and primal urges. His Eidolon did not. It acted as Alexite’s guardian and companion and nothing else.

In the decades since, none of my travels through the inner sea have provided me any futher clarity in this matter. I came to believe that Alexite acted as the portal through which the Eidolon entered the world. This was bolstered when he was rendered unconscious in a battle and his Eidolon was instantly banished. This would explain how the Eidolon can remain on the prime for such extended periods of time. It does not however give us any insight into how when the creature is slain, it can simply be resummoned the following day. There is only one phenomenon in the outer plains that mimics this behavior, but it differs so greatly in practical effect and consequences that it would be madness to seek any wisdom from a comparison of the two concepts.

For now the Eidolon is a mystery. It is obscured by both rarity and an inability of traditional magical inquiries to provide useful information.

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Asta’s eyes were just beginning to droop as her head suddenly jerked up. What? She quickly re-read the section again. Finally something about Eidolons! It was strange how few details and accounts there seemed to be out there. She’d never thought to research her relationship with Skyyd before, but still she hadn’t expected there to be so little information. But finally, something concrete!

She read through the treatise chapter again, more carefully this time. Alexite’s experience seemed to mirror her own, at least up to a point. But I wonder what’s caused Skyyd to act so differently lately? Alexite’s Eidolon was a personality-less guardian. Just like Skyyd used to be, she thought with a frown. I’m so thankful that he’s becoming happy, but I can’t help but wonder why, and why now…

A passage near the end caught her eye — “There is only one phenomenon in the outer plains that mimics this behavior…”. It’s vague, but it’s better than nothing. She remembered the glorious new library that Merric had commissioned in the city and turned to smile at Skyyd. “It means more research, but at least we have a lead now!” She scratched behind his ears as they left the castle, heading to the city in search of more answers.

Dante

Meric seemed a bit on edge. He hid it well, but Dante had known him long enough sense when something had unnerved him.

“Dante, I’ve been thinking about the attempt on my life that took place several months ago. My hope is that none of my staff was complicit in the attack, but I cannot explain how the assassin would have been able to carry it out otherwise. I’d like you to assist me in verifying the loyalty of the staff.” Meric strolled along the edge of a pond on the castle grounds, absently tossing a rock and catching it.

“I’ve been planning on awarding a small bonus to the staff and castle guard in preparation for our anniversary festival. The staff and guard will be gathered in one place at that point; if you can read them for traces of evil, we may be able to locate any potential traitors.”

The thought that he could fail to notice a traitor living under their very nose, greatly bothered him. Surely he would have detected the taint of evil on them already. His first instinct was to argue that there likely was no insider aiding the assassin. But what if he had missed something? He began to think of every servant who moved in and out of the castle every day. Had he really paid enough attention to each? How many worked shifts while he was asleep?

“I’ve also learned a spell that could help us. Truth Telling. As its rather unimaginative name implies, it compels a person to speak the truth. If there is a traitor, we’ll find him Meric.”

“Let us hope I’m wrong.” Dante could see from Meric’s expression that he was sure he wasn’t.

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The staff gathered as Meric planned. He announced that the bonus would be included in their pay the following week. Under normal circumstances, it would have warmed Dante’s heart to hear their cheers of joy at the news. Instead, rage burned within him as he detected auras of evil on two of the staff. As the group dispersed, Dante order the guard to take them both into custody.

Anton was a member of the guard who frequently stood watch in the castle. Anya was a servant who worked in the kitchen. Meric decided to interrogate them separately. He had Anton kept under the guard of Keston Garess, while Anya was brought in for questioning first. Meric placed the Red Mantis helmet on the table in front of the girl. She seemed terrified. She was no older the nineteen.

Dante cast the Truth Telling spell on her. No knowledge of magic is required to recognize a truth compulsion, and horror crossed the girl’s face with the realization that she would not be able to lie her way out of this situation.

“Have you ever seen this before?” Meric gestured to the Red Mantis helmet as he spoke.

“No.” came her tepid reply. It was the truth, but Dante doubted the assassin would run around town in his full assassin’s garb while doing his spying.

“Did you ever take money in exchange for information about myself or my sister?” Meric’s tone was harsh.

Anya began to tremble. Dante could see she was trying to find a way out of this without lying. She began to weep and nodded. She managed a few words through her tears.

“I didn’t know he was going to try and kill you.” She was telling the truth. But for her not to realize what was happening was naïve even by Dante’s standards.

“You may not have known, but you suspected. In any case, you knew nothing but harm could befall me if you gave information to this man.” Meric was incredulous.

“I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t done this. I’ve regretted it ever since I took the money.” Again, Dante knew she was telling the truth. Her remorse moved him, but the aura of evil that hung over her was a constantly sobering reminder that at the time her transgression occurred, she understood what she was doing was evil, and did it anyway.

“We’re done here. Take her away” Meric gestured for a guard to remove Anya. She began to sob uncontrollably as she was dragged to the cells beneath the castle.

“Bring in the other one.” Dante had forgotten about the guard Anton until Meric called for him. He didn’t recognize the man. He suspected that Anton worked shifts in the evening when Dante was asleep. The man’s aura hung even heavier with evil than Anya’s had. They repeated the process.

Dante cast truth telling on him, but Anton looked upon him with confusion, as opposed to the shock that Anya had expressed. Meric began again.

“Did you ever take money in exchange for information about myself or my sister?”

“No my lord. I would never betray you!” Dante began to doubt that the spell was having the desired effect. Was Anton’s will strong enough to resist it? Meric eyed Dante before continuing.

“So you had no knowledge of the assassin who made an attempt on my life?”

“No my lord. Not until the following day when I was told about it. I took an oath to serve you Baron, I would never break my oath.” Dante had grown adept at reading people, and his instincts told him that Anton was being truthful. But then why did radiate evil?

“What crime did you commit?” It came out louder than Dante had intended and seemed to catch Meric off guard.

“Excuse me sir…but what are you talking about?” Dante still had trouble reading this man.

“You’ve done something terrible. And recently. What was it? What evil act did you commit?” Dante had lost all patience for this exercise.

“Nothing sir! I haven’t committed any crime! I swear!” Dante could see the man wasn’t being truthful. He must have resisted the spell. Dante was furious. He drew his weapon and leveled it at Anton. Meric spoke before Dante could.

“You’re free to go Anton. Enjoy the festival.” Dante shot daggers at Meric with his stare.

“Thank you my lord.” Anton was out the door in a flash. Dante couldn’t help but yell at Meric.

“What were you doing?!? That man was evil! He should be locked up!”

“And charged with what Dante? Shall we make it standard practice to arrest and punish citizens on nothing but the word of one man who swears they are evil. How long do you think we could carry on like that before the population strings us up?”

“I’m not making this up Meric. That man did something terrible and we let him walk free!”

“We don’t even know what he did! What evidence do you have Dante? What evidence that us non-paladins can independently confirm? If you want to investigate him, be my guest. But don’t arrest him without evidence and don’t harass him for the sake of it. Nothing good will come from it.”

Dante stormed out of the room. The practice dummies in the castle courtyard were on the receiving end of his rage for the rest of the afternoon.

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