The storm off in the distance was beautiful, but strange. A number of locals had told Asta that the spring storms in the River Kingdoms tended to come in isolated, powerful cells. She still couldn’t get over how she could see both edges of the storm so clearly. Nor could she understand how such a small storm could produce such a torrential downpour. It looked as though if two men were standing 50 feet apart at the edge of the storm, one would be drenched and the other completely dry. The clear skies over the party made the violent sounds of thunder off in the distance a bit unsettling.
Not as unsettling though as the cave the group was about to enter. There was a broken down sign on the ground near the entrance that read ‘Oaktop Silver Mine’. Siv had recognized the writing style as originating from Taldor. Their empire had once extended this far north and it seemed reasonable that this mine might have been abandoned suddenly as opposed to mined empty. It had to be investigated.
But unexplored cave networks are no place for the untrained, and the group faced a real dilemma with what to do with Brook. Taking her inside did not seem to be an option. But leaving her outside was not much safer. The wilderness of the Stolen Lands was full of bandits and predators. Meric ultimately had cast an illusion spell near a rock formation that would hopefully fool any who happened past to only see more rocks, instead of Brook’s hiding spot. It fooled Asta, but both Dante and Siv had seen through it. She hoped it would be enough. The thought of what these bandits would do to a girl as beautiful as Brook sickened her. They would have to explore the caves quickly.
A crack of thunder rumbled in the background. Skydd looked uneasy. His head hung low and he kept looking back at Asta for reassurance that everything was alright.
“Are you suddenly afraid of thunder?” It had never bothered him before.
His only response was to nuzzle his head into Asta’s stomach. She pet him comfortingly.
“Alright, let’s head in. Dante, you take point. Asta, you and Skydd bring up the rear.” Meric had become something of the unofficial leader of the group over the past few days. He didn’t try to boss people around; he just planned out details that the others might forget. It didn’t seem to bother anyone.
The cave themselves appeared lived in. Someone had rigged up 3 pit traps that the group had to deactivate before moving on. It wasn’t long before they found themselves under attack by Kobolds. The fighting didn’t last long and the group suffered no serious wounds. Further exploration led the group to a strange temple of sorts. The walls of this room of the cave had been smeared with what appeared to be charcoal and blood to depict multiple representations in red and black of a looming, sharp-toothed reptilian devil. Two low stone tables sat in the middle of the room, one was stained with blood. Siv spoke first.
“Well that’s kind of grim.” Siv moved closer to the stone. “I think the sacrifice was a Kobold. I wonder how many of their own they’ve thrown away like this.”
Eventually the group found their way to the center of the cave network, and had to do battle with the entire remnants of the tribe. The fighting was more intense, but the group was more than a match for them. Exploring the cave confirmed there was still much silver to be had.
Asta wondered where the women and children of this tribe were. She supposed she might not be able to tell the women from the men, but assumed she would be able to identify children by at least being smaller than the adults. The group found no eggs either. Did Kobolds lay eggs? Either way, it appeared to be a group of adults who worshipped some strange demon. It was surely for the best that they were driven from the land. She wondered what the others would have done if this had been a peaceful clan with children who occupied this valuable resource.
The Stag Lord’s fort sat perhaps one hundred feet from the shores of lake Tuskwater. There was only one entrance. Siv was wracking her brain trying to come up with a good plan for getting beyond its walls. They had ‘A’ plan, just not a good one. It split the party and relied heavily on Meric’s ability to Bullshit people. She was not convinced.
Meric had told Asta and Siv the idea away from Dante. As a Paladin of Kord, sneaking into your opponent’s base and killing them while they slept was probably the cardinal sin. The plan was to use the pass phrase the group had been given from one of the captured bandits. Once inside, they could offer the liquor they had found at the previous bandit camp as an offering to the stag lord and as a means to get the men inside the fort drunk. Eventually they could silently kill some while they slept, then open the doors of the fort for Dante and Barry who waited outside.
She had initially hoped to lure most of the bandits out a few at a time and ambush them once they were out of sight of the fort. But only a single group had headed out in the time since they had arrived, and no other group was sent to investigate when they didn’t return.
She eventually agreed to go along with the plan. Meric, Asta and herself approached the fort minus Barry and Skydd. Barry remained outside with Dante; whereas Asta would summon Skydd to her once they found a quiet place inside the fort. As they approached, she was prepared to run as fast as she could away when their ruse didn’t hold up
“Who goes there!” Even though she was expecting it, the shout from the fort caused her insides to jump.
“By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?” Siv didn’t even recognize Meric as he spoke. His voice and mannerism had transformed into a carbon copy of the bandits they had encountered so far.
The gates opened. So far so good.
“I don’t recognize any of you.” Siv could feel the stares of a half-dozen bandits on her and Asta. Meric began handing out a few bottles of wine to the surrounding men.
“We’ve just come from the camp at the thorn river. We took down a wagon that was carrying a few cases of these. Can somebody bring this one to the Stag Lord?”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?” Came a comment from one of the now dozen men who surrounded them. Siv Wondered exactly what Meric was playing at here.
“No way. Last time I saw the Stag Lord he punched my horse for ‘spitting in the yard’. No way I’m doing it. Besides I carried the booze half way across the Stolen Lands, someone else can bring them to the Stag Lord’s door.” Meric was an uncanny liar. If Siv had not heard that story from one of the bandits they captured, she would have believed him.
One of the men yelled out after taking a swig from a bottle. “Donnel, take that case to the Stag Lord. Our friend here has earned a break.” Siv breathed a sigh of relief.
The rest of the evening was filled with smelly, disgusting, drunk bandits making lewd overtures to herself and Asta. One in particular began trying to grope her. Siv pulled a dagger and did her best to scare the man off. But he was loaded up on liquid courage, and shoved her dagger away. She was prepared to kill him when she heard Meric yell.
“Hey! Both of them are mine! “ Meric had his sword drawn in one hand and held an empty bottle in the other. All night he had cast minor illusions to make it look as if the bottle was full and that he was drinking along with the others.
“Find your own unless you want to find my blade up your ass!”
“Hey I didn’t know! Calm down! They’re yours I got it!” The man backed down. Siv was astounded at Meric’s ability to think on his feet.
Things went smoothly after that. There were twelve bandits in the courtyard of the fort. They couldn’t get inside to see how many were within. As they bedded down for the night, four remained on watch near the gate. Asta went to the rear of the fort and summoned Skydd. What followed was a brutal and methodical massacre. The bandits slept all around the ruins of the fort, and it was simple to go to them a few at a time and slit their throats as they slept.
Things almost went bad when Meric’s dagger slipped and he failed to kill the bandit he hovered over in one strike. But before the bandit could even shout, Meric put his hands to the man’s face and drained the heat from him. It was enough to finish him.
Only the four at the gate remained. Meric ran to it in a panic and signaled for them.
“Someone got into the fort and is killing everyone! Get over here quick!” He’s definitely not lying Siv thought. The panic on his face was so convincing that the bandits did not notice the blood on his armor. They ran to were Meric signaled and began to panic themselves.
“Holy shit they’re dead!”
Siv and Asta quickly opened the front door to the fort. Dante and Barry were inside before the Bandits realized what had happened. Meric’s plan worked like a charm. All that was left was to mop up and find this Stag Lord.
On queue a door to one of the upper areas of the keep opened and out walked a massive man where a stag’s head for a helmet. From a door on the ground level, three other men entered the courtyard. Chaos ensued.
Barry and Skydd were on the original bandits in a flash. Dante ran for the stairs to challenge the Stag Lord directly. Unfortunately for Siv, the Stag Lord stuck her with two arrows which severely wounded her. She took cover and healed herself.
The bandit at the Thorn river camped had not lied, the Stag Lord was a deadeye with a bow. Siv’s companions were learning that lesson the hard way. Fortunately Dante was able to harm him enough to grab his full attention. Skydd and Barry attacked the new comers. Meric used a charge of burning hands from a wand they had found previously. Siv launched a Flaming Sphere at the Stag Lord, but he was often able to evade it. Skydd was wounded, but Asta healed him. One of the Bandits struck Barry over the head with a club. He collapsed with a muted roar.
“BARRY!” Siv was enraged. But she couldn’t move from cover for fear of the Stag Lord’s aim. She summoned a wolf to aid Dante and distract the leader of the bandits. By now Skydd had killed a bandit who wielded a rapier, and had jumped onto another who wore chainmail and carried a shield. Siv ran to stabilize Barry.
Dante had stood strong against the Stag lord, but in the end he couldn’t match up one on one. He fell unconscious with multiple arrows visible sticking out of his armor. He had repeatedly healed himself during the fight, but the Stag Lord was a monster of a man. The hideous bandit wielding a club struck Asta with great force wounding her. Things looked bad for the group.
Thinking quickly, Meric cast an illusion that looked like Skydd running towards the Stag Lord. In his drunken stupor, he could not see through it. The remaining bandits fell. A final ray of frost from Meric sealed the Stag Lord’s fate. His corpse tumbled from the stair case.
Siv ran to heal Dante. He was still alive thankfully. She definitely couldn’t question his courage. It took them all a few minutes to take stock. It had been a close thing, but they had succeeded against all odds. The bandits of the Greenbelt had been decimated. The lands were safe. It was time to build a nation.
Dante held his scale armor in front of himself and put his finger through each of the six holes the Stag Lord had put in it. His armor was ruined. But with the funds they had received from the keep as well as the rewards from Restov for ending the bandit scourge, he could afford the materials for far better.
Of greater concern to him were the six holes that the Stag Lord had put in his chest. They had been healed days ago, but the memory of being bested had stuck with him. It was similar to the Thorn River bandit encounter. Dante had abandoned the foe in front of him and charged the leader. Though he defeated the woman there, he had been seriously wounded. Had her initial blow been an inch higher he could have lost his head.
His determination and persistence had paid off in many of their battles. But against the elite foes, he found himself outclassed in terms of raw skill. Being rendered unconscious was humiliating. How could this be prevented in the future? He would certainly improve in skill, but there would always be battles where he was at the disadvantage. He mediated on this for some time each day.
Since their return to Restov, things had been frantic. Approval was given for colonization and a stipend of 200,000 Gold worth of Material, skilled workers and money were granted to the group and were heading to the Greenbelt tomorrow in a caravan. Dante had concluded most of his business in the city already. But had one thing left to do.
He took the piece of metal that he found after his dream and put it into the fire at the forge. None of the smith’s in town could identify it. The priests of the various temples could all detect magic emanating from it. But each was baffled by how they could not detect a specific school of magic as being responsible for it. The only lead he had came from the temple of Heironeous. There they had many tomes about the heavens and the servants of the gods. Uriel was a known angel. It referred to him as “Heironeous’ strong right arm”.
The dream haunted his waking thoughts. In the past whenever he awoke from a nightmare, the inconsistencies of the dream were always obvious. As he would reflect on everything that happened, he would inevitably wonder how he could have ever believed it was real. This dream was different. It was vivid and it was consistent. He increasingly believed that everything he saw was real. The shard of metal was even further proof.
He had made the decision to try and forge the shard into his new armor. This would keep it safe if nothing else. He pulled the shard from the fire and brought it to the anvil to hammer. It wasn’t red at all. He put a hand close to the metal and felt no heat emanating from it. His finger grazed the surface to confirm this. The metal was still completely cool.
Baffled but not deterred, he put the shard back in the fire and increased the heat of the coals as much as was possible. He left it there for twice as long as normal. When he withdrew it the metal was hot, but not nearly enough to be worked.
Dante went to his former master Iban who had no answers. His only suggestion was that some Dwarven smiths worked strong metals such as adamantine in specially designed furnaces. Furnaces that could generate far more heat than any Dante could find in these lands. He would have to make the journey to the Five Kings Mountains to have any chance of learning these techniques. Siv interrupted his train of thought.
“Dante, Meric wants to go over some things with us in preparation for tomorrow.”
“I’ll be right there.” Dante thought back to the two druids whom they had fought in the Greenbelt. Siv had recently learned to wild shape. He began to wonder if all druids end up as crazy hermits who spend the majority of their time as an animal.
His thoughts turned back to the shard. A journey to the dwarves would have to wait. The caravan needed protecting and this fledgling kingdom would be fragile for some time. He looked down at the golden piece of metal. It almost seemed to glow.
The nuances of agricultural trade agreements made Meric long for the days when he knew nothing of agricultural trade agreements. He had been working with New Stetven on an arrangement to import enough food to keep his people fed until the farmlands made the country self-sufficient. It would have been easier to reach such an agreement with Restov, but Meric knew he had to build strong relationships with all of the regional powers. Striking a deal with New Stetven would be a first step towards being able to claim neutrality if Brevoy fell into civil war.
Organizing even this small kingdom was an enormous endeavor, and the group had quickly realized they needed to delegate many tasks in order to simply get by each day. He had planned to spend much of his time over seeing new construction and expansion. Yet the majority of his day was simply spent resolving disputes between the commoners and seeing to a multitude of administrative tasks. It was not exactly how he had pictured ruling a nation.
They had formed a leadership council made up of the best they could find. The best they could find however was at most, adequate. Oleg had been a merchant his whole life and neither Meric or his companions had any experience in book keeping. And so Oleg became the treasurer of this still unnamed nation. Kesten Garess was made Marshall and charged with keeping the peace here in the new capital of the Greenbelt, Stag’s End. Garess was likely the finest soldier in the kingdom. Dante had sparred with him a number of times over the past few months and to date Garess had won every bout. He was doing a fine job, but he was chosen in desperation in the first days of construction because Meric had no better options. He hated having no alternative options.
There was one pleasant surprise to come from those early days however. Lily Teskerton was a beautiful woman whom many of the men fawned over. Meric had initially ignored her as just a useless local flirt. Talking with her however revealed that she knew more about the workings of his kingdom than he did. Men were always trying to impress her, and so they talked non-stop about themselves and their plans. She helped Meric identify a thief who had been sneaking into the construction sites at night and stealing valuable material. She also dug up some dirt on a few men who Meric thought it would be advantageous to have some leverage over. She was a valuable resource and best of all; no one would suspect she was acting as a spy for the ruler of the nation.
There had been no news since leaving Restov about the other kingdoms started in the stolen lands. All of them had been explored and made safe prior to the Greenbelt. And all had received caravans of resources and workers as Meric had. The nation needed to focus on building and expansion, but Meric knew conflicts would eventually arise on their borders. The entirety of the Stolen Lands would be insufficient to challenge Cheliax, let alone just the Greenbelt. They had to expand aggressively and hope the other fledgling nations were making the mistake of thinking that the charters from Restov alone would protect their lands.
The nation also needed a damn name. The council had spent an hour at their last meeting throwing out ideas, but each either didn’t fit the character of the nation, or wouldn’t inspire the reaction in enemies that he desired. He looked out the window of his chambers in the castle and could see all of the new construction in Stag’s End. Things were progressing nicely. Perhaps it was time to send for Shireen. The thought brought a smile to his face.
Thunder crackled in the distance. Every afternoon during the spring and early summer, a storm would pass within a few miles of the city. These lands had a temper. They had rejected every attempt to civilize them across the centuries. Meric understood how fragile their position in the world was. Surviving the coming months and years would be like weathering one of these super storms. But he would not be stopped. He would emerge from the tempest stronger than ever, and these challenges would forge him and his country into the weapon that would drive the devils from his rightful home. He pictured banners flying above his troops as they entered Egorian, and suddenly he knew what country they represented. Stormvale.