Siv was relieved when they came upon the bandit camp on the banks of the Thorn River. It meant that the two men they had killed a few minutes earlier upstream were definitely bandits. There had been some debate on this point when they came upon them. Each bandit they had encountered so far had been somewhat differently equipped. They wore no uniforms for easy identification. Dante had insisted one of them had an aura of evil, but such distinctions meant little to Siv. He wanted to ride out and kill both men without so much as speaking a word.
Meric had managed to convince him to stay back while he rode out and asked the men to identify themselves. Asta ordered Skydd to circle around quietly in case the men attempted to flee. They did. Skydd and Barry chased them down in short order.
Siv tracked the men’s orginal path down the river until they found the camp. She counted five, and quietly pointed them out to the group.
“Six” Asta said as she pointed to one Siv had not seen in the trees. They began to formulate a plan to stealthily take out one or two before engaging the main group. But as they prepared to move out quietly, Dante slipped while attempting to mount his horse, and tumbled into the nearby water. The splash left stealth off the table. Siv let out a sigh.
Shouts emanated from the camp “Up maggots, we have intruders! I want their heads on spikes!” Meric moved quickly to the west to deal with one hiding on a platform in the trees. Dante immediately ran into melee with three bandits. She had to grant him one thing, he had courage. Barry and Skydd followed to aid him, drawing the attention of one bandit each.
Dante was fighting a woman who was larger than he was. She wielded an axe in each hand and was shouting curses with each swing of her blades. She brought one axe down on Dante’s shoulder, he grunted in obvious pain. Siv feared he was in over his head. She sprinted over to him and laid a hand upon his shoulder and released a healing spell. The flow of blood stopped, but the wound was still bad.
But Dante had more fight in him than Siv had anticipated, he quickly placed his own hand on his shoulder and the wound healed almost completely. Without missing a beat, he brought his own hammer down on the woman’s left arm, causing her to yell out in pain. It was only a few seconds more before Dante stuck a mortal blow against his opponent. Siv looked around quickly and realized only the two bandits in the trees were still alive.
They both threw down their weapons and surrendered immediately.
Among the valuables found at the camp was Svetlana’s wedding ring, which had been stolen on the bandit’s first visit. They also found multiple crates of furs that had clearly been stolen from the trading post. It was satisfying to be able to undo some of the damage these bandits had inflicted. Siv was eager to see the looks on the Leveton’s faces upon their return.
Meric began questioning the two prisoners. Siv expected Dante to be right there with him, giving the bandits a healthy helping of shame to go with their humiliation. But he seemed withdrawn, and stood a bit back from the rest of the party.
Fortunately Meric was intimidating enough alone to get the bandits talking. “How many more of you are in the Greenbelt? Who is your leader and where does he make camp?”
The uglier of the two did most of the talking. “Our boss is a monster of a man. Calls himself the Stag Lord.” Siv recalled a silver stag amulet that they had looted from one of the men whom had attacked Oleg’s.
“He has a fort on the northeast shore of the Tuskwater. It’s hard keeping track of who’s working for the boss, so we use a master phrase as a sort of password to get in to the fort. Unless it’s been changed recently, the current phrase is, ‘By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?’ And no, I have no idea who ‘St. Gilmorg’ is.” Siv chuckled at that.
“What else can you tell me about him?” Meric’s manner was a bit odd. He had a venomous look in his eyes. Siv couldn’t tell if it was just for the benefit of the bandits, or if she had missed something that had set him off.
“He’s a deadeye with the bow, and I saw him crush a prisoner’s hand to mush in one fist. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen him without his creepy stag helmet on—some of my friends think he ain’t got no face under it, but not me—I think that creepy helm is his face!”
Asta stepped forward. “Is there anything else you think we should know?” Skydd moved closer to the man and let out a low growl a few inches from his face.
The man was too terrified to move. It took him a moment before he found his voice again. “The Stag Lord is a bloody drunk. All that booze under the platform’s for him. He’s half of what he used to be, and ain’t never been right in the head. A few weeks ago he punched my horse for spittin’ in the yard. But even drunk out of his mind he’s still got a fair amount of fight to him. He also keeps a strange old man locked up in the basement. I suspect the old guy might actually be running the show, using the Stag Lord as a puppet, you know. I got a look into the old guy’s eyes once, and it terrified me. He ain’t someone I’d want to cross.”
Meric seemed satisfied and sheathed his weapon. Asta gave him a sideways look. “The charters say the crime for unrepentant banditry is death by sword or rope.”
Both bandits immediately spoke up. “We repent! We are so sorry. What we did was wrong, but we see that now. Please don’t kill us!”
Siv was not the least bit impressed. “How quickly men see the error of their ways when they are looking down the pointy end of the sword. How many victims begged you for their lives when the roles were reversed?” She looked over to Meric. “Asta is right, we should kill them.”
This was enough to bring Dante into the conversation. “We should give them a chance. I don’t sense the taint of evil on them now. They may have done terrible things in the past, but killing them doesn’t accomplish anything.” Siv had not expected that from Dante. Meric added his voice to Dante’s.
“They have given us useful information. We should spare them for now. We can bring them back to Oleg’s under guard of Kesten Garess. Oleg may be able to find use of them as reparation for the harm they’ve done him and others.”
Siv did not approve. But this wasn’t a battle she cared to fight right now.
Meric could at last see Oleg’s off in the distance. He was eager to conclude their business here quickly so that they could immediately ride south for the keep controlled by this ‘Stag Lord’. This man was all that stood between Meric and a kingdom and nothing would stop him now.
That was when the sending came upon him. Words projected into his mind by a distant spellcaster. He vaguely recognized it as originating from a priest from the temple of Pelor in Restov whom he had met once or twice. The message caused his blood to run cold.
Merric it’s Brook
Please return home
Everyone is dead except me
I’m so scared please hurry
His sister Brook was the only member of his family whom he still had any contact with since his father had cast him out. Could this be a trick? An enemy trying to draw him out into the open? He thought of Brook, and decided he had to risk it. He made his reply quietly as to not draw the attention of the others.
On my way
we will have vengeance
He considered whether or not he could trust his new companions enough to ask for their help in this matter. They were formidable, and he didn’t know what dangers he faced on his return to Restov. He didn’t need to tell them everything. Just that he had received a sending and that his sister was in danger. He hoped they would not press him for more information.
They did not. They rode swiftly to Restov after a brief stop at the trading post to return the Leveton’s goods and leave their two prisoners under guard. It was the longest ride of Meric’s life.
His family’s was a modest home outside the walls of the city. Even now it bothered him that his childhood was spent here in hiding instead of ruling from the finest palaces in all of Golarion. As they approached the door, Meric could see his father in his mind, standing at the entrancing screaming for him to leave before his ‘taint’ infected his other children. His father was a stupid man.
It was late, and the house seemed dark. The whole trip Meric had hoped this was some kind of trick. That when he arrived he would find everyone alive and well going about their normal routines. But the house was so dark. He opened the door and cast light on his sword. He had done his best to hide his spell casting from the group, but it had not taken them long to figure out that he was no fighter. There was no point in keeping up pretenses now.
He found no trace of any of his family. “Meric. Over here.” Siv called out to him. As he approached her she looked down at the floor. Meric could see the stain of dried blood covering a large area. Too much for a person to spare and survive. “There are others.” Siv spoke softly. Meric looked across the room and saw two more dried puddles of blood, one for each his father, mother and brother.
Asta looked as though she was going to be sick. Meric’s blood burned like hellfire.
“Where is your sister?” Dante added as tactfully as he could. Meric had almost forgotten. “She’s probably still at the temple of Pelor. We should go quickly.”
Brook was sitting in one of the front pews, sobbing uncontrollably when he arrived. He embraced her, and the two of them sat in silence holding each other. Dante, Siv and Asta all waited at the rear of the temple. Eventually Brook gained enough composure to speak.
“I had snuck out during the night. When I returned…they were all dead. Blood was everywhere.” Meric struggled to contain his rage but did for his sister’s sake. She continued. “I fled immediately. I didn’t even call the city watch. Whoever killed them must have intended to kill me as well. I ran straight here and contacted you.” Smart girl. If Cheliax had sent assassins, their orders were surely to kill the entire family. Meric knew his name was surely on their list as well. He had so many questions, but he couldn’t burden her with them all of them now.
“Who moved their bodies? We went to the house and they were gone.”
“The high priest of the temple here, the one who sent the sending. I had to tell him what happened in order for him to send the message. After he was done he asked me who our family worshipped and made arrangements to have their bodies brought to a shrine of Aroden that still exists in the city. He didn’t tell anyone I was here.” Brook’s lip began to quiver. “I thought that’s where Mother and Father would want to be brought. I was too afraid to go see them.”
“You were right not to. You did everything right Brook. None of this is your fault. Let’s go to the shrine now. We won’t be able to stay for the burial, but we should go see them.”
He hardly recognized his father. It had been years since he had seen him, and he had grown old and fat. His Mother hadn’t changed a bit. His younger brother Nikolai was the hardest to see. He was only twelve and had grown so much since Meric had last seen him. Each had their throat slit. It was clearly the work of a professional assassin.
Asta stepped forward and asked the question that he knew would come sooner or later. “Who would want your family dead? Do you have enemies Meric?”
He and Brook looked in each other’s eyes, pondering the same question without saying a word. Their entire lives there was one rule. Do not tell ANYONE who you really are. It had been drilled into them since they were small. Neither was sure now was the time to break that rule.
“I can’t say with certainty who did this. We should investigate near the house. Someone might have seen something.” He hadn’t really answered her question, but she did not press him on it. For that he was grateful.
It did not surprise Meric greatly when their inquiries yielded nothing but people who claimed to have seen nothing. He was about to give up when Siv approached.
“There is a small boy over there who hasn’t taken his eyes off us since we arrived and started asking questions. In my experience, children usually notice when something is out of place.”
It was better than any lead Meric had gotten. “Let’s see what we can glean from this boy.”
The boy did not feel talkative. Asta, Siv and Dante tried everything including bribing him with candy, but he said not a word. Meric grew tired of this. The boy was clearly traumatized by what he saw. Even if he began to talk, he might burst into tears while recalling the incident. Meric cast a Charm spell on him.
This did not escape either Asta’s or Siv’s notice.
The boy began talking. He had seen a man leaving the house that night. He wore red, and carried two curved blades that he said ‘looked like teeth’. A chill came over Meric who looked at his companions. From Asta’s expression, it seemed she came to the same conclusion he did. This was far worse than he feared. Why in the nine hells would his cousin contract the Red Mantis? It was like using a trebuchet to kill a mouse.
Meric purchased a horse for Brook along with a bed roll and some other provisions she would need. He was afraid to let her out of his sight. She would have to travel with them. The Mantis were relentless. Once you were marked they did not stop until you were dead. And even then, they kept tabs on you. Should you be restored to life by magical means, they returned to deliver you back into death’s arms. For the first time in his adult life, Meric was genuinely afraid. As they made their way back to the Greenbelt, Meric knew he had to come clean with the others. Their lives were in enormous jeopardy by helping him. They rode at a slow pace all packed together so they could hear him speak.
“My real name is not Thorn. It’s Thrune.” By their reactions, Siv and Asta immediately grasped what this meant. Dante seemed not to. “My grandfather was Almeric Thrune, the leader of house Thrune of Cheliax. After the death of Aroden, Celiax fell into disarray. There was thirty years of civil war and chaos. Over the years, my grandfather had been making alliances amongst the other houses and eventually gained enough support to claim the throne. There was peace in Cheliax for the first time in decades. But it did not last long. His sister Abrogail was an infernalist. She conspired with devils and with their help, launch an all-out assault on my grandfather and his allies. They were no match for infernal armies and magic. My grandfather was forced to flee and go into hiding. He came to Brevoy and changed his name to Thorn.
Asta looked at Meric’s sigil. It was a wagon wheel with thorns growing through it. She suddenly understood it’s significance. “So let’s get this straight…you’re the rightful king of Cheliax?”
Suddenly Dante grasped the magnitude of what was happening and his jaw fell slack. Brook looked concerned. As if this secret that she had kept her whole life was now loose and could kill her at any moment.
Meric nodded in response to Asta. “My cousin must have found us. She must consider us a threat to the legitimacy of her rule. The assassin…you should all know that I believe he was Red Mantis. We are in enormous danger. They have spies everywhere and will not stop until Brook and I are dead. I would understand if you did not want to travel with us anymore.”
Asta pondered this for a moment before asking a question. “Just to be clear, your side of the family, doesn’t support using devils right?”
“We despise them. I want nothing more than to see them driven from my homeland.”
The rest of the ride was mostly silent.
The group knew where the Stag Lord was, but thought it best to proceed with caution through the Greenbelt. They took their time, exploring in a southerly direction. It also gave Meric and Brook time to grieve. Asta knew what it was like to lose a parent, and her heart went out to them. At least they had each other to lean on during this time. It was more than Asta had.
Brook was a beautiful girl. Asta felt terrible for her on this journey. There were no beds in the Greenbelt. She had to sleep out under the stars with everyone else. There was nowhere to bath regularly, and only trail rations or whatever food Siv could manage to forage from the local terrain. This included far too high a percentage of radishes for Asta’s taste.
She looked down expecting Skydd to be nearby as he always was when she hadn’t specifically ordered him away. But he was not there. She began looking around. A small sense of panic hit her. She scanned the horizon for him but saw nothing. Then Dante laughed and spoke.
“I think Skydd is going to need a bath.”
Asta was confused. “Skydd doesn’t need baths.”
Dante nodded in the direction of the forest. Asta could see Skydd rolling around in the grass on his back. She was utterly perplexed. Dante clarified what he meant.
“I had a dog who would roll around like that whenever he found some awful scent. I don’t know what it is with animals and foul odors, but they seem to love them. I’m glad I don’t have to bathe a five hundred pound tiger.”
Asta’s confusion was mounting. Skydd never behaved like this. She rode over to him and dismounted. He stopped rolling around and walked up to her and shoved his head gently into her neck. He laid down and placed his head in her lap like a kitten. A kitten whose head was cutting off circulation to Asta’s leg. She pet him gently between his ears. He purred in response. She had no idea what was happening. He wasn’t a normal animal. She had come to grips with this fact years ago. He rolled onto his back and pulled his paws up close to his face. Asta could have cried. She pet his belly and he let out a low groan that Asta took to mean he liked it. It was the happiest she had been in years.
She wore a bit of a smile for the rest of the day. They continued south through the rolling plains just east of the Narlmarches. Eventually they came upon a particularly rocky crag that rose from the hills. Siv stopped as they rode past it, and went over for a closer look. She called back to the group. When Asta came close she could see a 5-foot-wide crack at the crag’s base. The group looked down and in the midday sun, caught the unmistakable glitter of a gold vein.
Some luck at last Asta thought. The group was long over do some.
As the group gathered around the fire at the camp, Dante found he had no appetite. It wasn’t just that he had already eaten the last radish he ever wanted to see, it was mostly the events of the past few days weighing down on him.
Dante had fought men before. He had bloodied them in combat. But before the Thorn River bandit camp, he had never killed one. He had seen plenty of carnage. Skydd and Barry went for the jugular every time they attacked. But there was something different about killing a man with your own weapon. When he killed the leader of that camp, he could feel it down his hand and arm, into his very core. He felt the hammer tear through muscles and tendons, and shatter bone. He could acutely feel his insides as he watched the life leave that woman’s eyes.
He had been in a bit of a daze after that. Far less talkative, and with little appetite. Seeing Meric’s family murdered like that made it worse. This wasn’t anything like he thought it would be. That woman had a potent aura of evil about her. She had murdered before and would certainly murder again. She had to be stopped. But He didn’t feel like a hero.
He had lied to the Swordlords when he told them he was eighteen. He knew they would never grant a charter to a sixteen year old. He thought it didn’t matter, that he was a grown man and ready to face anything the world could throw at him. He was wrong. He suddenly felt like a child who had more growing up to do.
He laid down to sleep early that night, hopeful rest would bring him some peace.
Dante awoke to a bizarre sight. Instead of the star filled night sky that he gazed upon before falling asleep, he saw an inferno. As if off at some indeterminable distance, the very air burned. He sat up quickly and noticed his companions still nearby, asleep. The immediate vicinity of the camp appeared undisturbed. But as he looked off into the horizon, he saw the soft rolling plains of the River kingdoms had been transformed.
The landscape was a random mix of both familiar terrain and a hellish landscape that could only exist in nightmares. Jagged rock formations, devoid of any trees plants or grass dotted the terrain. Off in the distance he could see the tree line of the Narlmarches still intact, and the Thorn River continued to flow near the camp, but now dropped off the edge of an impossibly deep canyon that now existed nearby. It was as if some hellish plane had invaded the world and the two dimensions fought to a draw, leaving a scarred and insane hybrid of the two.
Before he was able to react, he realized that perhaps 50 feet from him hovered a being in gleaming gold plate armor. Large white wings spread from his back. He was perhaps 9 feet tall, and radiated goodness that calmed his nerves despite his unease at the situation. Suddenly he noticed a creature enter his field of vision across from the angel. It radiated evil of an intensity that Dante did not think was possible. It stood taller than the angel despite the fact that the angel hovered several feet off the ground. His body was red and large bat-like wings extend from his back. A constant plume of smoke rose from between them. He held a massive sword in his left hand and an equally massive whip in his right. Both were wreathed in flames. The demon spoke.
[Demon] “You are far from Celestia Uriel.
[Uriel] “The path to the prime will remain closed to you Severik. Tell you master he risks the full fury of the Host by continuing this course.”
[Severik] “Do we ordinarily see only your partial fury? Do you hold back a bit in every engagement against us? “ The demon’s grotesque face appeared to form a smile. “The hordes of the abyss are infinite, and your wrath, however mighty, is finite. Why don’t you tell YOUR master that?”
[Uriel] “You will not take the prime. Your kind was driven from it eons ago and the gods will not yield it to you now. Go back to the pit that spawned you and make war on each other for all eternity.” The angel’s face turned from stoic to what could almost be describe as amused. “It would be more productive.”
From above Dante could see a flock of birds…no not birds…monsters, circling above the angel. From both sides of Severik appeared demons of numerous types. Each more vile than the last, all palpably evil. The angel stood utterly alone.
[Severik] “The boundries have weakened. You are attempting to hold back an ocean.”
[Uriel] “The response to such an incursion will be far beyond anything your master has considered in his machinations. Cascades will commence in his domain, his defenses will lie in ruins, and his legions will be scattered where not outright annihilated.”
[Severik] “You could empty all of the Heavens and not be able to successfully hold even a single layer of the abyss.”
[Uriel] “Occupation is unnecessary. How many minutes after the host retreats will your master’s enemies in the abyss wait before converging to claim what is his?“
The demon appeared to pause. The flames that surrounded his body intensified in response to the rage that stirred within him.
[Uriel] “The path to the prime will remain closed to you Severik. Inform your master accordingly.”
The demon looked upon the angel with a hatred so intense, Dante feared it might snuff out his life. The surrounding demons began moving towards the angel.
[Severik] “You are far from Celestia Uriel.”
Without a word, the angel drew his bow and loosed 4 arrows at the balor. All found their mark, two striking him in the throat sending him reeling. The flying demons converged, tearing and biting with their razor sharp teeth and talons. With movements swifter and more fluid than Dante had ever witnessed, the angel continued to fire. Two of the flying demons were dead in an instant. Two others manage to drag the angel to the ground where a mass of smaller demons proceed to pile on him.
Dante was gripped with fear at the prospect witnessing this champion of good torn limb from limb by these monsters, but before he had much time to consider the scene in front of him, a holy word was spoken. Dante could not understand it’s meaning, but he sensed it was a profound statement of truth. At that moment, all of the demons within several feet of Uriel were annihilated. He rose and renewed his volleys against the horde that stood before him.
At that moment, the balor moved with a speed no creature that large should possess, and brought his blade down on the Angel. Sparks flew as the unholy blade penetrated Uriel’s armor. The wound was deep, but the angel betrayed no signs of pain. Uriel reached for a greatsword that was strapped to his back, and the two titans exchange blows at close range. The balor’s blade cut deep, the angel’s cut deeper. There was no doubt in Dante’s mind who would have won a stand up fight between these two.
The remaining demons largely stayed back from the fight, but one, a hideous woman like creature with the lower body of a snake and 6 arms, joined the fray. She attacked Uriel from behind, all 6 blades found their mark. The angel fell to one knee. The balor sneered when he spoke.
[Severik] “Heironieous has always favored you. He would no doubt restore you if I were to kill you. No matter, there are fates worse than death”
He struck Uriel through the chest with his sword, piercing clean through to the other side. He uttered a profane word that shook Dante to his very core. The Angel’s body was consumed by primal evil and chaos, and soon nothing remained but a gold ball of light, hovering dimly in front of Severik. He smiled and moved to collect the orb when Dante saw his expression change to one of confusion. The ball of light began to solidify. At first it appeared to change into a liquid, and then hardened into a vibrant gold metal. Realization dawned on Severik as he teleported away.
The ball exploded with a force that knocked Dante onto his back. Shrapnel from it flew in all directions, ripping numerous demons to pieces. One large piece flew end over end towards Dante’s head, nearly striking him. It landed just a few feet past his bedroll.
Severik reappeared. He was unable contain his rage and lashed out at the nearest demon, cleaving it in half. After a moment he controlled himself and began to cast a spell. Soon all of the pieces of the gold ball begin coalescing in front of him. Every tiny piece returned to him and reshaped the sphere, save for one long gash in the ball that was unaccounted for. The balor began scanning the surroundings for the missing piece, suddenly his eyes scanned in Dante’s direction, and he was certain the demon perceived him.
Dante awoke with a shout. As he looked out into the distance, he saw nothing unusual. He had been dreaming. But it was like no dream he had ever had before. He reached out with his power and could sense the faint presence of evil surrounding the entire area. The others were waking now. Asta spoke first.
“Dante what’s wrong?
He looked at them with a face he knew was showing obvious terror. Could a demonic army really be about to invade this realm? He feared they would think he was crazy. But he felt compelled to tell them the whole story.
After he finished, the group looked at him with what would best be described as skepticism. Meric had never completely gotten out of his bedroll after waking up. He did not seem convinced.
“With any luck the Red Mantis will kill us before the demons get to us.” He said in an annoyed tone. He rolled back over and went back to sleep. The others ultimately did the same.
Dante was too afraid to try and sleep again that night, but went to lay back down all the same. To his shock, he saw the same piece of metal he had seen in his dream, buried in the ground behind his bedroll. He picked it up and examined it. It looked like gold, but clearly wasn’t.
He glanced back at the now snoring Meric. Maybe it was best if the Red Mantis killed them. Apparently, there were fates worse than death.