Bring me the head of the man who invented grammar!
The festival was a welcome respite from the last few days. Meric and Dante had uncovered the traitor whom gave the Mantis assassin all of the information he needed to attack Meric and Brook in their sleep. Meric had executed the girl just three days ago. The punishment was harsh, but Siv agreed it was necessary. Future attempts by the Red Mantis would find a less cooperative castle staff.
Meric had swung the axe himself, which she thought was a better way than the paid executioners kept by most monarchs. If a leader could not bring himself to bloody his own hands with the act, then perhaps it’s was not justice at all. Siv had done all she could to aid and comfort the girl’s family. But she knew all too well that there were no cures for the loss felt when a loved one is taken from you before their time. The whole situation was awful. Asta had argued fervently that the girl’s life should be spared. Even Dante had at the last moment, made a plea to Meric to stay the execution. The group had never been this strained in all their time together.
The atmosphere of the festival had helped though. It had been something of a last moment decision to hold a festival to celebrate the one year anniversary of the founding of Stormvale, but everything had fallen into place nicely. There was ample food, drink and general merriment. A number of large events with prizes were to be held, including a joust, archery contest, boasting contest as well as “The Gauntlet”. The latter was fascinating to Siv. Created and operated by a gnome inventor, it was part obstacle course, part puzzle solving. It seemed like fun.
The gauntlet had been constructed next to the jousting grounds opposite the stands, in order to provide those watching the joust with a good view of it. It was made of wood, and contained three enclosed rooms as well as one external platform that was used to enter. The entire structure was elevated 10 feet in the air on pylons. Underneath was muddy water that would cushion the fall of those whom failed to clear the various challenges. Falling was apparently the consequence of failure in every room. At the top of the third room, and 30 feet in the air hung a key to a chest that sat near Meric. Obtaining the key won you the prize.
The first contestant had climbed the ladder to the initial platform. Cheers erupted as the man attempted to jump from the first platform across the 10 foot gap to the second. He slipped and fell straight into the water. The cheers turned to laughter. Siv immediately recognized the grease spell that covered the edge of the first platform. Several other contestants fell victim to the same trap. Eventually one man had the for-sight to bring a plank of wood onto the platform and covered the greased area. He made the jump to the second platform successfully, only to be knocked off by a swinging pendulum that was triggered when he landed.
Dante was competing in the joust and had unhorsed his first opponent. He would proceed to the next round. Meric had expressed interest in the story-telling contest that would be held in the evening. She had seen him in action, and felt sorry for the bards who would have to compete with him. She decided they shouldn’t have all of the fun. She might as well give the gauntlet a go.
It was several hours and dozens of failed contestants before Siv got the opportunity. She climbed the ladder to the first platform and wildshaped into a bird. She easily flew over the gap and trapped floor, landing next to the door to the first room. The crowd sat in hushed awe until she transformed back into a half-elf and took an uncharacteristic bow. Siv had never much cared for the crowds and noise of the city, but the thunderous ovation she received scored points with her for city life. She opened the door and proceeded into the first room.
In front of her was an eight foot wide corridor. She could see the door to the next room about 20 feet ahead of her. Only a 5 foot gap in the floor stood between her and the next room. It seemed far too easy. She cast detect magic, and could see an aura of transmutation hanging above the gap. What trap could this be? She knew somehow this would lead to her dropping embarrassingly into the muddy water below. The trivial jump had to be trick. She cast Spider Climb and climbed the wall to her right.
Siv congratulated herself on her cunning just in time for her to feel a tremendous force grab hold of her, causing her to lose her grip on the wall. She didn’t fall down as one would expect. Instead she was hurled upwards towards the ceiling. It was only now that she could see that it was sloped, and thankfully padded. As she collided with the ceiling, the incline and her momentum caused her to slide up the ceiling as one would slide down a ramp if they fell onto one. When she reached the left wall she could feel that the force which had propelled her upward was no longer affecting her. With quick reflexes she was able to grab the wall before falling to the water below.
“Reverse gravity. That was careless Siv.” She mumbled to herself as she caught her breathe.
The left wall jutted outward around the pit. Had she climbed this wall instead, she would have been able to avoid the trap entirely. She climbed to the other side with ease and proceeded through the next door. This room was fifteen feet by fifteen feet. There were no obvious obstacles between her and the door to the next room. It had a picture of the full moon painted it, as well as symbols of a lion, a bear and a wolf. There was however no handle, and when she pushed on it she confirmed it was locked shut solidly. She would have to solve some kind of puzzle to get through.
On each of the three walls she could see four symbols, as well as a handle which pointed to one of them. The left wall had symbols of a lion, antelope, minotaur and whale. The back wall had symbols of a wolf, hare, gorilla and griffin. Finally the right wall had symbols of a bear, fish, dragon and an elephant. The floor of the room was segmented into nine sections with wide grooves between them. Siv suspected that failure to align the symbols correctly would lead to the floor tiles dropping out from under her.
She examined the symbols again and noticed that each contained an animal that could be described as prey for one of the animals on the door. She adjusted the handles on each wall until they pointed at the prey anmials. Everytime it passed an animal that was not prey, a section of floor opened. Fortunately she stood on none of them when they gave way. Once all three were in place, the far door opened.
The final room was essentially a large pit. A rope dangled 5 foot away from the edge, and hung from the same beam as the victory key. With spider climb, she could easily jump to it and hold on, but she knew there would be more to this test than climbing ability. She reached out with her staff and pulled the robe to her. As she began to tug at it, she found it had an enormous amount of slack, 30 feet worth in fact. Any fool who jumped to it would find themselves landing in the muddy waters below.
Once she had pulled the rope taught, she began to climb with ease. Once she reached a point 5 feet from the key, she felt spider climb dispel and she began to slip. Siv barely held on. Feets of strength were not her forte, but her only hope was to finish the climb without magical assistance. Driven by a need to not be humiliated by a fall into the mud in front of half of Stag’s End, she willed herself to the top and grabbed the key.
Cheers erupted as the crowd saw her hand reach the key through the opening at the top. She emerged from the structure moments later and made her way to the prize.
Meric had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. The boasting contest had been immensely entertaining, but had become far more so when Meric took the stage. He told an… interesting version of the group’s assault on the Stag Lord’s keep. Asta had especially enjoyed watching Dante’s confused expression as Meric described himself riding gallantly, head long into the keep, as opposed to bluffing their way in.
She found she didn’t mind the exaggerations of Meric’s heroism. In truth, he had been instrumental in their success that day. He had talked them into the fort, and protected her and Siv from the advances of the bandits with nothing but words. If they had not been able to take out the majority of the bandits as they slept, Things would have gone poorly for them.
“All of my allies were badly wounded. Your general Dante courageously charged the Stag Lord. But alas, he was no match for this monster pretending to be a man. As the Stag Lord hurled his unconscious body down the stairs I called out a challenge to him ‘Come and face me you coward!’ I dodged several of his arrows before striking the killing blow.”
Aside from the verbal challenge, nothing in that statement had been a lie. Asta couldn’t help but laugh. She needed one after everything that had happened the past few days. Siv had been enjoying Meric’s version of history from across the room, but now approached Asta.
“I think I like his version better than the real story.” Siv offered in amused fashion.
“They do seem to be enjoying it. What are you going to do with your winnings from the gauntlet?” Asta had been afraid to broach the subject earlier, but was fearful about how it would look if the leaders of the kingdom kept winnings from the events.
“I was thinking of using it to build a park in Stag’s End. If Meric pools some of his winnings with me, we should have enough.”
“I think that’s a great idea.” Asta breathed a sigh of relief.
Meric had completed his story to thunderous ovation. He was clearly the winner and the prize money was brought to him. To Asta’s surprise, the chest was unusually large for the 4,000 gold pieces she knew it to be. He opened it and began tossing silver coins out to the crowd. Siv laughed out loud.
“He had it given to him in silver just so he’d have more coins to toss to the crowd.” Siv remarked.
“Meric can definitely work a crowd.” Asta replied as she looked over at Skyyd who was curled up in the far corner of the building. Skyyd and Barry were such a frequent sight around the castle and city that the average folk were no longer frightened by them. She and Siv were able to take them everywhere now.
“So how is your research going?” Siv stated as if she had read Asta’s mind.
“I’ve found a lead, but the trail seems to be going cold. There is such little information on Summoners and Eidolons. I’ve read every book in the library on the planes, but I’ve found only one reference to them. I’m going to need resources beyond what we have available in the library.”
“You’ll find the answers you’re looking for. It’s only a matter of time. In the meantime, try to have some fun these next few days. After the festival, we have a large area of land to the south that we have to explore. It will take several weeks. Plenty of time for you to bury yourself in arcane tombs.”
Asta smiled in reply. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that the answers she sought would change things for the worse. Skyyd stretched out on the floor and yawned widely. He tucked his paws under himself and went to sleep.
The joust had been a rousing success. The population of Stagsend could hardly speak of anything else. The field had been winnowed to its final four contestants. Both of the knights from Restov had advanced, and Meric harbored some fear that Stormvale’s first tourney would be won by a foreigner. However Kesten and Dante had been equally impressive in their victories thus far.
The first match of the day was between sir Alexei of Restov and Keston Garess. Alexei was a young, attractive knight, and the ladies of the Kingdom waited with bated breath to see whom he would hand his flower to. He rode up to the crowd and offered the token to Asta, who seemed shocked. She thanked him and smiled. The knight was about to speak to her but, was startled by a growling Skyyd, who didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture. Alexei rode back to his starting position a bit confused and somewhat frightened.
Kesten closed his helmet without handing out a flower, indicating he was ready to go.
“All business I guess.” Meric muttered to himself.
The two competitors each broke a lance on the other in their first run. Their second and third runs produced no points. The contestants each rode before Meric, who was responsible breaking ties. He could simply pick a winner, but he honestly thought the two men had fought with equal skill.
“You will continue the fight on foot. The winner advances.” He called out loud enough for the crowd to hear. Cheers erupted.
The fighting was intense. At first Kesten’s strength seem too much for the young knight. But as time went on, Kesten began to tire and Alexei pressed his advantage. It could have gone either way, but in the end Kesten remained standing. The crowd cheered loudly for their captain of the guard. Meric breathed a sigh of relief that at least one of the participants of the final would be of Stormvale.
The second semi-final pitted Dante against Sir Pavel of Restov. Pavel rode out in front of the crowd and handed a flower to a beautiful, young woman who Meric did not know. He rode back to his starting position and waited for Dante. Meric suddenly wondered if Dante knew the protocols for an event such as this. Perhaps he should have spent some time prepping the lad before the tournament.
Thankfully, Dante grabbed the flower from the squire and rode towards the crowd. He had surprised Meric by unhorsing all of his first three opponents. He had tried not to react too much to each of his victories, but had been internally rooting for his friend to win the tournament. Meric smiled wondering who Dante would hand the flower to.
Dante rode up close to Meric’s booth and preceded to hand the flower to Brook. She blushed as she accepted it. Meric’s smile vanished. He found himself visualizing sir Pavel knocking Dante on his ass.
The opposite happened. Dante was victorious again. Meric gave an obligatory clap.
There would be an hour break for Kesten and Dante to rest before the Final bout. Meric was considering sending for food when Sariah arrived.
“You’ve been busy My Lord. Do you have a moment to talk?” Sariah tapped her hand on a satchel that hung at her waist as she spoke. Meric could see it contained several maps. The smile returned to his face.
“Of course. My tent behind the tournament grounds has a large table. This way please.”
Sariah did not disappoint. She had successfully scouted the entirety of the Nomen Heights.
“The settlement is called Varnhold. Strangely, they haven’t settled anywhere east of the mountains, though they were chartered quite a bit of that land. They have only one city, and it lags behind Stagsend in every way. They don’t seem very concerned with expansion.”
“Any notable defenses? “ Meric saw no tactful way of asking the question so he simply asked it.
“They have a fort in the mountains that blocks the only pass to the western side of the range. The only other way there is north through Brevoy to get around the Heights, then turning south.”
“If they are not contesting any of the land east of the mountains, then we shouldn’t have any conflicts.” It was a half truth, but Meric knew any potential conflicts wouldn’t come in the short term.
“I mapped the terrain fairly extensively. Most of it is going to take some work to be made safe, but you’ve been good at that so far.”
“I’ll have you payment ready by tonight. I am extremely grateful for your assistance Sariah, and I’m certain I will need you again in the future.”
“I’ll be around. “
“You know there is an archery contest taking place all festival. There is still time for you to go get your shots in.”
“Why do you thing I got back today?” She smiled as she exited the tent.
“Excuse me My Lord.” Kesten Garess had arrived in the tent just as Sariah was leaving. “There are a few urgent matters that have been brought to my attention. I’ll need a few minutes of your time after the joust has concluded.”
“Of course Kesten. I’ll find you straight away after the bout.”
“Most appreciated My Lord.” Kesten turned to exit the tent, when Meric spoke again.
“One last thing Kesten.”
“Yes My Lord?”
“Beat Dante. I don’t want you to hold back at all. Beat him.”
Kesten was greatly confused. “I’ll do my best My Lord.”
It had been standing room only at the tournament grounds for the entire festival, but somehow even more people had squeezed their way in for the final joust. Dante was definitely feeling some nerves with all of those eyes on him. Thankfully, Virgil was calm.
It had only been a few weeks since he had found his horse. Or did his horse find him? He wasn’t sure but, it was a match made in heaven. Literally made in heaven according to brother Jhod. Apparently all Paladins eventually form a magical bond with a mount. Virgil could sense what Dante wanted the very instant he thought about it. He rarely even had to direct the horse with the reigns. Virgil just seemed to know where Dante wanted him at all times.
The bond had propelled Dante to far more success in the joust then he had in his practice leading up to the tournament. He hadn’t been knocked from his saddle since he began riding Virgil. The announcer had finished the introductions and Kesten saluted Dante from across tournament grounds. Dante returned his salute and lowered his visor. Both men began to ride.
After the first two runs, neither man had broken a lance. Each had deflected the others weapon off their shield in expert fashion. Kesten was the best he had ever faced. Dante knew he had to be more aggressive on the third run. He urged virgil forward one last time, and lined up his lance so that Kesten had no chance of deflecting it high or to his left.
Dante felt the world spin end over end, just before hitting the ground with a thud. It took him a moment to take stock of what had happened. He heard cheers erupt from the crowd with chants of “GARESS! GARESS! GARESS!”
Dante let his head lay back on the ground. He tilted it to his left and looked toward Meric’s booth. He could of sworn he saw his friend laughing hysterically.
Dante was somewhat bitter for the rest of the day. He said nothing to Meric, but made his displeasure known through his actions and general countenance. The group had to make a trip to the brothel. They had put it off until after the tournament had ended, and now had to deal with the problem.
Meric had recounted the details of his visit from the devil Rumjal to the others. Though Meric didn’t trust him, he said he felt they couldn’t ignore the warning of a demonic cult operating out of the brothel. Dante would have totally dismissed the words of the devil, except for his own dream of a demonic invasion. They had to investigate.
Dante could see the woman in charge of the brothel had an aura of evil. He told Meric and the group immediately began to search the premises for evidence of demonic activity despite her objectives. Dante noticed Asta open the door to more than one “occupied” room before shutting it suddenly and moving on with an embarrassed look on her face.
Siv had little such shame, and carried out her search as if nothing was happening. Eventually, she found an amulet in the shape of a pair of feminine lips with a nail piercing them. Siv showed it to Asta, who had done the most planar research of any in the group. She stared at it for several minutes before recalling where she had seen it.
“Malcanthet. Queen of the succubi. It the symbol of her cult.” Asta answered, glad at first that she had remembered, than concerned at the implications.
“Succubus worshippers in the brothel. How unoriginal.” Meric replied drily. “Dante, can you sense any other evil auras from the staff?”
“A few, we should gather them for questioning.” Dante sensed more executions coming in the near future.
“Agreed.” Meric already seemed lost in thought as he replied.
Several hours later, they had identified the house where the cult performed it’s grotesque rituals. It turned out that all of Malcanthet’s cultists were female. Men were used only as sacrifices to her. The abundance of dried up blood in the house made it clear to Dante that several men had been. Truth spells had extracted the names of all of the cult members. They had apparently done some minor summoning of succubi, but had never released one into the material plane.
The entire situation made Dante sick. These cultists committed brutal crimes in exchange for a promise from demons, to be made part demon. Why anyone would find such an arrangement appealing was beyond his comprehension. He went back to the castle with a pit in his stomach. No thoughts of the tournament entered his mind for the rest of the night.