Dathon the Tamarian, once described my ability to write combat heavy sections this way: “Shaka, when the walls fell.”
“Wait!” Siv screamed as she watched Dante’s steps unfold as if they were happening in slow motion.
The Paladin halted in mid step and looked back at her.
“Those floor tiles are trapped. Back up.” She had only barely noticed them before the group had entered central tower of the abandoned keep. She had been expecting far more traps as they had explored the decrepit fortress, but to her surprise, the evil fey who had taken residence here had done little to secure it. Perhaps they thought no mortals were foolish enough to wander this deeply into the Narlmarches.
‘We have foolishness to spare.’ Siv thought.
“How do we disable it?” Meric spoke with some urgency. Siv suspected the Assassin vine, that attacked them a few minutes ago, had unnerved the Sorcerer a bit.
“The trap is triggered beneath the tiles, I don’t see how we can.” This had been a reoccurring frustration for the group. Siv’s sharp eyes could spot many such dangers, but she had no knowledge of disarming devices such as this. The group stood and pondered the room in front of themselves for a few moments before Dante spoke up.
“Screw it, I’m going in. Everyone stay back.”
“Dante are you mad?!?” Asta shouted in a vain attempt to reason with him. “You have no idea what it does!”
As Dante stepped on the trapped tiles, a green mist rapidly filled the room. The others all took an extra step back to ensure they were out of its range. Siv recognized the spell effect.
Meric grimaced at the thought.
The mist dissipated rapidly. Siv could see Dante still standing in the middle of the room.
“I think we’re clear guys.” He seemed unfazed by the experience.
“We probably shouldn’t make that our ‘go to’ move for disarming traps Dante, But well done.” Meric moved in the room as he spoke. The others followed.
The wide chamber had an impressive vaulted ceiling. Though it was obscured in places by earth and undergrowth, the hall’s floor was crafted of smooth stone tiles in multicolored pastel hues. The walls of the chamber were decorated with faded frescoes of sylvan life, showing scenes of beautiful elves engaged in hunting, feasting, dancing, singing, and a bewildering variety of other idyllic pursuits. To the west, a graceful, filigreed stone staircase, garlanded with flowering vines, climbed to the level above.
“Let’s not keep the leader of these fey waiting. I’m getting hungry.” Dante seemed more eager than he had for the past few days. Siv thought it was likely the result of the clear cut nature of their mission here. Find evil fey, kill evil fey. The group began to ascend the tower.
The stairs ended in a circular room featuring wide windows draped with hanging vines that offered panoramic views of the keep’s overgrown courtyard and the forest beyond. An open circular skylight in the ceiling provided glimpses of the forest canopy overhead. The walls between the windows were carved with exquisite, delicate nature motifs highlighted in gold and silver leaf. A riot of flowers, plants, and bushes sprouted from the thick loam that carpeted the hall’s floor, as if one were walking in a fantastic glade elevated high above the forest floor.
As the group spread out a bit, an alluring, graceful elven woman with alabaster skin, golden hair, and emerald green eyes appeared before them. She wore a flowing white gown of archaic elven style, that was tied at the waist with a blood-red scarf. She began to dance. Siv felt the urge to just stand and stare at the beautiful creature before her. She shook her head to clear it as she sensed the charm effect try to take hold of her.
She looked at her comrades and could see immediately that both Meric and Dante were under the creature’s control. Each stood slack jawed, staring at the fey. Thankfully Asta was unaffected. Siv recognized this fey as a Baobhan Sith. But she couldn’t recall any of the abilities or weakness of this particular type of fey. With astonishing grace, the Baobhan Sith moved on Dante without ever halting her dance. At this range, Siv could see the woman’s large fangs clearly, as they dug into Dante’s neck. The situation went very bad, very quickly.
Neither Siv, Asta, Skyyd or Barry could remove her from their friend. Each time one of them attempted an attack, the creature, would position Dante in between herself and the assailant, as she continued to drain the paladin’s blood. It took nearly a minute for the group to slay the monster. Dante fell to the ground, unable to even move. He was pale as the moon, and Siv had no restoration spells prepared that day. They would have to rest here for the night, and guard Dante until she could begin to heal him in the morning.
As the group settled in for the night, Skyyd and Barry laid on opposite sides of Dante. Skyyd attempted to comfort him by licking his head.
“Ugh. His tongue is like a grindstone.” Dante whined, unable to move away from the well meaning tiger.
Siv giggled as she went to the window of the tower and looked out over the keep. The dryad Tiressia had warned her that the barriers between the Material plane and the First world were particularly weak near the keep. The abundance of fey had confirmed this. She thought back to the area of Narlmarches that had been destroyed by the Unseelie Nymph, and a plan began to formulate in her mind.
They party had tracked several Lizardman hunting parties over the past few days. So it was no surprise when they came upon an encampment of them on a muddy island in the middle of a particularly swampy stretch of the Murque River. Meric wanted to handle the situation with some delicacy. He’d had some success in the past with negotiating peaceful relations with the humanoid races that resided in the Narlmarches, and he hoped a similar result here.
Siv had wild shaped into a bird and went ahead to scout the village. It was only a few minutes before she returned and assumed her half-elf shape again.
“The village has been raided. I didn’t see any survivors.”
“By who? What could you see?” This village was only 30 miles from Stag’s End. Meric’s concern was obvious.
“I didn’t get close enough to search for tracks Meric. I couldn’t be certain that whoever was responsible wasn’t lying in wait nearby. I thought it best if we all went in together.”
Meric nodded, and the party headed for the village.
A low, muddy hummock protruded from the middle of the widening river, surrounded by a palisade of outward-facing, sharpened wooden stakes. Inside, smoke rose from every building. The simple wooden gate on the eastern side of the hummock seemed to be the only entrance to the fortified island. It was completely demolished.
Inside, dozens of slain lizardmen were found. Several of their huts had been smashed into splinters. The others were burned. Siv wasted no time in identifying the culprits.
“Trolls. At least four of them. Their tracks head west.”
“We should follow. The last thing we need is a band of marauding trolls raiding our lands.” Asta added.
“Agreed. Let’s move out quickly, I don’t want any lizardmen to return from a hunting trip to find us in the middle of all this and draw the wrong conclusion.” Meric took a last look at the gaping hole in the wooden palisade wall. It was likely that it had been creating by a single swing of a troll’s club. He imagined the damage it would do to any of the structures in his city.
The group followed the tracks for nearly 12 hours before taking a rest. The trolls must have moved with extraordinary speed to have eluded them so far. Meric’s feet were killing him. He sat down on a log a bit away from the others to adjust his boots.
Meric had suffered many wounds in his life, but the dagger that was suddenly shoved into his back trumped all of them. Pain shot through him like lightning. He turned to see the crazy old hermit whom they had saved from Dante a couple of weeks ago. The man cackled with glee.
“Dante’s never going to let us hear the end of this.” Were Meric’s only words as the man pulled the dagger away and attempted another strike.
Meric unleased a Scorching Ray that staggered the hermit. His pet puma leaped at Meric, but was tackled in mid air by Skyyd. Each cat let out a roar before attacking the other. Barry quickly came to his aid, and the puma was instantly over matched. The hermit stabbed Meric once more before Dante came from behind him and smote the man with his hammer. Siv attacked him with her flame blade, and the hermit fell to the ground.
Dante quickly healed Meric’s wounds. The young Baron preemptively cut him off.
“Don’t even say it.”
“I don’t think I have to.” The paladin replied with a smile.
Siv led the group up a narrow path that wound its way up a hill. There was a steep cliff face on one side and a sheer drop-off on the other. At the top, the path followed a wide ledge, where the corner of a weathered stone building jutted from the side of the hill.
“That’s it. From the number of tracks I’d guess there could be over a dozen trolls in that den.” Siv’s eyes betrayed concern with the situation.
“Only one way to find out.” Meric flashed Siv a smile as he spoke. She needed no further hints. She sighed before responding.
“I knew you were going to say that.” Without another word she wild shaped into a bird and flew up and around the entrance for a moment before heading in. The others sat in silence waiting for a sign from the druid.
“So am I allowed to attack any evil trolls we find in here? Or do I have to wait until one of them stabs Meric in the back?”
Asta exchanged an irritated look with Meric before Siv returned from the den.
“I saw two trolls near the entrance, but I couldn’t explore the entire cave network. There could be more, further in.”
“Two at the entrance is manageable. Let’s go before their odds improve.” Meric was eager to be done with this task. They were now a good sixty miles from Stag’s End and memories of Grigori stirring dissent in his city had made him wary of being gone for so long.
Dante, Skyyd, and Barry charged in first and engaged the trolls. Meric and Siv launched several fire spells to halt the regeneration of the creatures. With the element of surprise on their side, the trolls stood no chance. After several minutes of exploration, the group found a room where the ceiling of the cavern arched thirty feet overhead. A wagon with its wheels removed sat against the eastern wall, heaped with smelly furs, and a single barrel stood in the southwest corner. Against the northern wall, a crude throne carved from a giant tree stump sat atop a makeshift dais made of boulders, with a large bearskin spread on the floor before it.
“I don’t want to question your math Siv, but I only saw two Trolls. Are you sure about the number of tracks?” Asta asked slightly teasingly.
Meric noticed a map tacked to the western wall of the cavern. It was drawn on the back of a thylacine hide, and appeared to be of the Greenbelt. Several locations were marked with a large X, along with several arrows and other marks. Meric suspected it showed planned raids and routes of attack. His heart sank when he saw an arrow through Stag’s End.
“There were definitely more than two trolls living here. The rest must be out raiding a caravan or another village.” Dante observed.
“Or a city.” Meric replied mechanically.
Realization dawned on the others.
Virgil could sense Dante’s urgency as they rode. The paladin had to continually reign him back, as none of the other horses could keep pace with Virgil at full gallop. The rain made the travel all the more treacherous and slow. They had ridden continuously for nine hours, all the while praying they weren’t too late. It wasn’t in Dante’s nature to ask much of Kord, but he pleaded with his deity for the group to catch the trolls before they reached Stag’s End.
Their first sight of the city confirmed this wasn’t to be.
Smoke rose from building fires staggered throughout the streets. As they drew closer, screams could be heard. Dante cursed himself for not pushing the others to prioritize walling in the town. The city watch had to have been completely outmatched from the onset of the attack.
Thunder roared as the storm intensified. They followed the path of destruction through the streets, finding several bodies strewn about the rubble. They followed it until they found a pair of troll corpses. Above them, stood a blood stained Keston Garess. How much of it was his own, and how much had belonged to the trolls was not easy to ascertain. Several bodies of City watch members were scattered about the street nearby.
Dante could see several arrows sticking out of both of the beast’s corpses, as well as numerous stabs wounds to their backs. He spotted their source shortly thereafter. Both Sariah and the rogue Talia whom Meric had hired, entered his view. Dante was proud of the fight they had put up.
“My lord, thank the gods you’ve returned.”
“Report.” Was Meric’s only response.
“A dozen trolls attacked about four hours ago. They completely overwhelmed us. I ordered all of the civilians evacuated to the castle. They have been attempting to break in ever since.”
Dante was grateful for Keston’s quick thinking. It had surely save hundreds of lives.
“It’s only a matter of time until they break the gate down. So I led a small force out of the castle to attack them from the rear and draw them away.” The captain of the guard looked down at his fallen men with sorrow.
“We were only somewhat effective.” Keston was clutching his wounded side as he spoke. Dante laid a hand upon it, and the wound closed.
“You’ve done extremely well Captain.” Meric turned to face the others. The look in his eyes was one of steely resolve.
“These monsters would destroy everything we’ve worked to build over the past year and a half.” Meric drew his weapon as he spoke.
“Let’s show them what we think about that.”
The group pressed forward towards the castle. Dante could see the ten remaining trolls attacking the structure. Some were hurling large pieces of debris at soldiers who fired arrows down on them from the walls. Others were trying to destroy the gate. Dante saw a troll standing near the gate, who was wearing heavier armor than the rest. He couched his lance and spurred Virgil forward.
The usefulness and pettiness of tournament jousting struck him all at once as he closed in on his target for real. The troll heard the gallop of Virgil and turned to face them just as Dante’s lance made contact. It glanced off his armor doing minimal damage. The troll responded by striking Dante across the torso with his Morningstar. The paladin was thrown from his horse and landed violently on the ground. He could see Virgil rear back and strike the troll with both hooves, giving him a moment to roll clear of the beast’s next attack.
As he scrambled up from the ground, he could see Skyyd and Barry charge into the fray, each leaping at the neck of separate trolls. The heavily armored troll began to shout in a language Dante couldn’t understand. He assumed this one to be their leader. The monster radiated a strong aura of evil. Dante called upon Kord’s strength, and his hammer began to glow blue with divine power. He brought his weapon down on the leader and smote him with all of his might, bashing a severe wound in his opponent’s arm.
His victory was short lived though, as he could almost immediately see the wound begin to heal. Troll regeneration was legendary. The group would have to focus their efforts to be victorious.
A crack of thunder could be heard directly above the melee. Dante could See a Wild-Shaped Siv circling above, in the form of a Roc. The bird screeched, and lighting streaked towards one of the trolls, its shriek of pain was something out of a nightmare. Meric hurled a scorching ray, as Skyyd dragged one of the trolls to the ground. A separate troll slammed the tiger across the side with his club, opening a large gash. Asta moved in to heal him.
Dante blocked the leader’s next attack with his shield. The impact vibrated up his arm with an unbelievable amount of force. He fought to suppress the pain as he retaliated with an attack of his own. The troll brought his morning star down across his right side and pierced the paladin’s armor in multiple places. Dante quickly healed himself and gave no ground.
Meric webbed the ground out to the right, preventing a pair of trolls from moving to aid the main group by the gate. One threw a large piece of debris at the Sorcerer, who dodged it with ease. Keston Garess, Sariah and Talia Collectively brought down a troll out to the left. Siv dropped a flaming sphere in the middle the central group of trolls. She continued to call down lighting while moving the sphere into their foes.
Again Dante was rocked by a vicious blow from the leader’s morningstar. He healed himself and braced for the next attack. Dante could see Meric hurl a ray of enfeeblement at his combatant. It stuck true, and the troll’s next attack on the paladin felt significantly weaker. Skyyd and Barry each killed a troll and moved on to others. Skyyd suffered another severe wound, and Dante could see the wound almost instantly close on the tiger, and open on Asta. Siv created a flame blade, and began striking the creatures with it from above.
The lesser trolls began to fall rapidly. Eventually only Dante’s opponent was left standing. The paladin Dante brought his hammer down again on his foe, but the stubborn troll continued to regenerate at supernatural levels. It wounded Dante badly again, and once more he healed much of the damage. He could see in the troll’s eyes, a frustration at the stalemate that equaled his own.
With the combined efforts of the whole party, the troll dropped to one knee. It lunged one last time for Dante, just as a scorching ray from Meric struck it in the face. It did not get back up.
Cheers erupted from the soldiers on the walls. Siv and Dante went about healing the wounds they could with the magical reserves they had left. A damage assessment could wait for the morning. Those whose homes had been destroyed in the attack, could spent the night in either the castle or the town hall.
Despite all of their successes over the past eighteen months, their position in the world seemed more fragile than ever to Dante. Stormvale wouldn’t survive unless it had the best men defending it. He vowed to make that happen.
The rain continued unabated for hours.
Asta tried to keep from falling asleep as Oleg discussed the current state of the treasury. She had been up late for the past several nights, consistently losing track of time while doing research. She fought to suppress a yawn. Skyyd on the other hand, was sleeping sprawled out on ground in front of the door to the council room.
The rebuilding of the structures damage by the troll attack had taken several months. The cost had been high, but the trolls had collected many valuable supplies in their raids and had stored them in their lair. It had covered most of the cost. As Stormvale closed in its second anniversary, things were getting back to normal.
The borders of the fledgling nation had continued to expand. It could no longer be accurately described as a barony. Meric had taken the title of Duke to reflect this, and pushed the others to expand even more rapidly. Though she couldn’t read his mind, Asta suspected he feared for the long term survival of Stormvale, if it did not grow to a size that could resist Cheliax or one of its proxy states. Asta believed that the shear distance between themselves and the devil kingdom, would make it difficult for Abrogail to do anything more than continue to send assassins after Meric.
Skyyd suddenly rose to his feet, and began to growl while looking down the hallway. His posture told Asta that he was not playing. She turned to face Meric, who had noticed the same behavior from the tiger. They exchanged a look that told each of them that they were thinking the same thing.
Both Dante and Keston stood and their hands moved to their weapons. Meric ordered the rest of the council to remain in the room, with Keston Garess staying behind to guard them. Asta moved behind Skyyd and the pair walked slowly down the hallway, with Dante following close behind. Meric was next in line. Siv wildshaped into the form of a bear, and brought up the rear with Barry in behind her.
The hallway was long and narrow, and Asta suddenly realized the disadvantages of the group being single file if they encountered a Red Mantis before reaching the main chamber. No sooner did the thought occur, than a saber toothed sword swung out from around a corner and struck Skyyd. Asta healed her Eidolon’s wound.
Dante attempted to take a swing at the assassin, but the tight hallway left no room for him to maneuver. There were too many bodies in front of Meric for him to be able to loose a scorching ray. Siv and Barry were also powerless to aid those at the front. Skyyd bit and slashed the attacker violently.
At this point, Asta heard the door to the council room slam shut. She turned in time to see Meric Fall to the ground screaming in pain. An arrow stuck straight out of his back. She saw no attacker behind the group.
Dante turned and healed Meric. The Duke continued to bleed profusely. Barry turned and began striking at the air. Asta assumed he could smell an invisible attacker. Another arrow shot out, striking Meric in the leg. Siv turned to heal him as Dante continued to do the same. The paladin raised his shield in front of the sorcerer in an effort to protect him from the unseen Mantis.
Skyyd continued to tear at the assassin to the front of the group. Eventually he dragged it to the ground and began to rend. Kesten Garess managed to break through the door in an effort to help. However the invisible mantis took the opportunity to bull rush the captain, and make an escape. Meric quickly stood and webbed all of the windows, blocking its only exits from the room.
Within in seconds, both assassins were dead. Both of their bodies vanished, just as the first one had. There would be no one to question. A terrible thought suddenly entered Asta’s mind.
Meric’s sister had been sent to Taldor on a diplomatic assignment. Her guards would have been no match for the Red Mantis. Meric rushed out of the room. Asta followed him to Brother Jhod, whom Meric had cast a sending.
BROOK YOU ARE IN DANGER
RED MANTIS ASSASINS ATTACKED ME
GET TO A SAFE PLACE
Her response was reassuring, if confusing.
IT’S ALRIGHT I’M SAFE
IT WAS A CLOSE THING
BUT THE RED MANTIS ARE DEAD
“We have to find a way to stop these attacks Meric. We can’t keep this up.”
Meric left the room without responding to her.
The following day was nerve wracking. Meric had tripled the guard at the castle, and closed himself in his room for the remainder of the evening. Asta had spent the time researching the Red Mantis. The little information she could find, was not promising. No matter how many times they failed, the assassins would keep coming. To them, it was not a business transaction, but a divine mandate. They were religious zealots. Only Meric and Brook’s permanent deaths would end their quest.
A servant entered Asta’s chambers.
“Lady Asta, Duke Meric has requested your presence in the throne room.”
“Did he say what it was regarding?”
“He did not my lady. Only that I was to notify Sir Dante and Lady Siv as well.”
“Thank you. I will head there at once.”
Asta hoped Meric had come up with a plan. She could see him sitting on his throne as she entered the room. Dante and Siv were already present.
“Good, I wanted to inform you all of a letter I wrote to all of the leaders of the inner sea. “ Meric gestured, and a servant handed copies of a letter to each of them.
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alumeric Thorn. I am the rightful King of Cheliax. I understand that your time is valuable, and so I will keep this brief. Following the fall of Aroden and the death of the last true King of Cheliax, Abrogail sold her soul, her country, and her people to Asmodeus for the promise of power. This infernal power she used to depose the rightful heir, Alumeric Thrune, and to slaughter thousands of loyal Chelish people that fought in his name. Alumeric Thrune was not killed in that struggle, as Abrogail claimed. Instead, he settled in Brevoy under an assumed name and died in that alien land.
You may wonder why I have chosen this point in time to publish my claim to the throne of my homeland. Up until two years ago, I lived under the relative security of anonymity. That changed when Abrogail II sent Red Mantis assassins to finish the work started by her grandmother. My sister and I were the only survivors of the assassins’ attack. I vowed on that day to put an end to Abrogail II’s perfidious reign.
This is the true purpose of my declaration. I write to you not to ask for assistance, but to state my intentions. I am the true king of Cheliax, and I mean to take the throne back from Abrogail the Usurper. Abrogail has enslaved her people to the worship of devils, soulless creatures bent on the subjugation of all mankind. Do not think that her foul masters will be content behind the borders of Cheliax. They will not rest until hellish legions march along the streets of Almas, corrupt the forests of Kyonin, and foul the Stormspear Mountains. The Usurper and her infernal lords must be stopped, and the nation of Cheliax returned to its former stature.
I have established a duchy called Stormvale in southern Brevoy. I can be located in the city of Stag’s End with any inquiries.
Alumeric Thorn, Rightful King of Cheliax and Duke of Stormvale
Asta’s jaw nearly hit the floor. She could see that even Dante had been taken aback by what he had read. This was a rash decision. They had to find a way to talk him out of sending this before the situation escalated out of control.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea Meric. If Abrogail is willing to send assassins after you now, what will she be willing to do when you attack the legitimacy of her rule in front of the entire world?” Siv was clearly not thrilled with the idea either.
“When were you planning on sending this?” Dante added.
“Sending? Dante, I sent it last night.”