All chapters completed. Siv section has undergone only minimal spelling and grammar checks.
It had been 7 days since Dante had last seen the sky. It was an unnerving feeling to look up and see only the ceilings of the massive chambers the Dwarves had cut into the mountains. Why did such short people make such big rooms? The journey itself had not been too difficult. Convincing a Dwarven Master to teach him how to smith adamantine was a bit more challenging. Gold ultimately got things moving.
He looked back down at the furnace. The metal shard was glowing the perfect yellow-orange color, indicating it was ready to be worked. He brought it to the anvil and grabbed hold of a hammer the dwarven smiths used. It was twice the weight he was accustomed to.
“Now this piece of metal isn’t going to lie back and let you have your way with it like some tavern wench you got drunk during merry mead. If you want to shape it, you have to use force.”
Dante had no idea what Master Dolgrin was saying, but he thought it best not to ask. This had been a frequent occurrence over the past few days. He had gotten by so far mostly by nodding and smiling whenever the old dwarf made a reference he didn’t understand.
“Each strike must be as if you were smiting an Arch-Demon. All of your might and precision expelled into a single swing of the hammer. “ That one he understood.
He began striking the shard in an attempt to create a 90 degree angle at one end. Each strike of the hammer rang up his arm uncomfortably.
“So you’re a paladin of Kord huh?” Dante nodded but continued to focus on his work. “I knew a priest of Kord once. Tough son of a bitch. I once saw him wrestle a bear! He wasn’t rowing with both oars if you catch my meaning.”
Dante didn’t, but smiled politely. He didn’t think wrestling Barry would be a good idea. Master Dolgrin peered over at Dante’s work so far.
“Yes, much better. You’ve come a long way in just a couple of days. You’ve got the principles down. Now it’s just a matter of practice.” The dwarf paused and seemed to consider Dante carefully. “Do you really believe that shard is part of an angel’s soul?”
He thought back to the dream. It seemed more real every day. “I do.” The old dwarf laughed.
“Well you tell the gods that if they send me anything from heaven, I’d prefer she have a couple of large peaks and low standards.”
“I’m not sure I…oh. I get it.”
Asta set down the heavy book she’d been reading with a sigh. Still nothing. She looked around the small castle room that she had appropriated and saw Skyyd, laying on his back in a sunbeam, and smiled. He looks happy… I know so little about all of this, but I’ve never heard of anything like — Skyyd stretched out a paw lazily and looked over at her with a toothy smile.
“You’re right, Skyyd. This group, this charter. It’s more than we could ever have hoped for. Friends, a home, and finally a chance to maybe find out what all this means. I know that you were kind of thrust on me…” She pauses for a second and a cloud passes over her face, but Skyyd pads over and butts her hand with a whuff, and she smiles again. “And I’m so thankful for the friend that you’ve been. But it’s time for me to start learning what this is all about. It’s time for me to start growing up.”
She looked around again at the books and scrolls she’d gathered around her. Never in all her travels had she had so much knowledge and opportunity at her fingertips. At least Papa taught me how to read, how many girls in the village could say that? And still she hadn’t learned anything more than she already knew about Skyyd, or Summoning. But there were more books out there… She and Skyyd had travelled far, and there might be farther to go. But she’d figure this out.
A light rain fell on Meric’s face as he looked over the ramparts of the castle’s tallest tower – the highest point in Stag’s End. He’d been spending more and more time up here lately, whenever he could free himself from the meetings and trade agreements that had been monopolizing his time over the past several months. Stormvale extended as far as the eye could see in every direction. By now, he’d memorized nearly every one of the rolling hills on the horizon. The work was progressing; the road connecting Stag’s End to Restov was finished, which should bring a fresh wave of settlers and an influx of trade goods. The workers moved with certainty. They were people who had come to build something for themselves.
Not fast enough, he thought. At this rate, they’d never be a threat to his cousin. Hells, the entire barony was barely the size of one Chelish legion. He had to push Stormvale’s boundaries as far as possible, as fast as possible – it was the only way to avenge his parents, his grandfather, everyone in Cheliax killed during the Pretender’s rebellion. He could feel his fingernails digging into his palms. Raindrops began turning to steam as they struck his bare flesh.
“M’lord?” A serving girl, her green hood raised against the rain. It was coming down harder now. “Your council is asking after you.” He sighed and nodded. The girl came closer to the ramparts.
“I think you’ve got a few more minutes. Lady Siv’s bear got into the kitchens and gave the scullery maids quite a fright. It will take a while to get everyone calmed down.” A grin crept across Meric’s face, almost against his will.
“Not to worry; he isn’t dangerous.” Meric had once seen Barry eat a man’s face. “My thanks for the warning…”
“Jess. It’s my pleasure, m’lord.”
“You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
She turned and looked out at the hills. “Westcrown.”
“_What?_ Really?…What’s it like?” The maid bit her lip and squinted.
“I don’t…it’s nice, in a way. The buildings all match. Everywhere smells of flowers. It hums. There’s a humming.” She paused. “I like it better here.”
“Uh…that’s good to hear.” Listen to me. I’ve never even been there. They stood and looked out at Stormvale together in the rain.
“Seriso synr asanm. Mallik nonsomnys.” The words rang out in Meric’s mind as if they had been shouted. He comprehended them immediately, but it took a moment longer to realize they were spoken in infernal. “Awake young lord. The mantis does not sleep tonight.” A sense of dread overcame him. Scanning the room he perceived no one. He dressed swiftly and ran to his door. Both guards he had stationed there stood attentively. He ordered the first to go rouse Dante, Siv and Asta while the other followed him to Brook’s room.
His heart dropped when he rounded the corner to her door and saw both of Brook’s guards dead, their throats slit. He threw open her door expecting the worst. She was nowhere to be found. Meric found himself thanking the gods for Brook’s insomnia. There might still be time.
He scrambled to the outer walls which would afford him a view of nearly the entire castle. Perhaps 40 feet in front of him stood Brook. Unharmed and staring off across Stag’s End. Relief was replaced with terror as shadowy figure dropped down behind her and silently withdrew a long saber-toothed sword.
Meric couldn’t close the distance in time. The Red Mantis raised his blade. Both were caught off guard when Dante tackled the assassin to the ground. The mantis quickly flipped back to his feet. Dante stood between him and Brook. Meric’s priority was getting her out of harm’s way. He ran and cast invisibility on her.
He turned back to the fight to see Dante take a swing with his hammer that the Mantis ducked under with ease. This assassin moved like liquid. He carried his momentum from dodging the attack into getting behind Dante. He buried one of his blades deep into Dante’s back. Meric used Ray of frost. Dante’s hammer began to glow blue and he smote the assassin repeatedly. Meric was impressed by Dante’s improvement, but he couldn’t defeat a red mantis. This fight wasn’t going to last long if they didn’t get help.
Help came all at once. Skyyd and Barry galloped up the stairs towards them, and a huge Roc flew up and began attack the Mantis from above. He assumed it to be a wild-shaped Siv. It was astonishing how long the assassin stood his ground against the onslaught. Eventually, the wounded Mantis leapt from the Castle wall. Dante did not hesitate, and jumped to follow. Meric didn’t have time to warn him that the Assassin had cast safe-fall before leaping. He cringed as he heard Dante hit the ground with a thud. The others began to jump as well, most managing to land more gracefully than the Paladin.
In a desperation move, the Mantis cast a spell that surrounded him with fog. But there were no nearby structures he could use to give the group the slip. Meric couldn’t see through the fog whether it had been Skyyd or Barry who had delivered the killing blow. But he did see what came after. The assassin’s body vaporized into a red mist. All of its equipment remained, but gone was any hope of interrogating him to learn more about the Red Mantis.
“Is Brook ok?” said Asta with concern. Brook had already been made invisible before she arrived to the fight.
“Yes, we got to her just in time.” He grabbed the assassin’s helmet and stared at it. They would never stop hunting him and Brook. They would both be dead now if not for the warning he had received in his sleep. An infernal warning. His blood ran cold.
The others seemed irritable, but Siv couldn’t muster much sympathy for them. They had put off the task of fully exploring the Narlmarches to the west of the kingdom for too long already. In the 7 months since founding Stag’s End the group had grown a little soft. None of the others had slept outside on the ground during that time, and it was clear they were missing their beds.
Dante was openly bemoaning the quality of food she was foraging for the group daily. And though he was suffering silently, it was clear Meric was miserable outside of the comforts of the city.
The role reversal did amuse her somewhat. She had been given fine quarters in the castle, but hated sleeping where she couldn’t see the stars. She usually stayed in the courtyard with Barry on the nights she spent in Stag’s End. If she could stand months in the city, they could stand a week in the woods.
“Something just bit me again.” Dante complained while swatting at his neck.
“Don’t worry. It’s definitely probably not fatal.” Asta quipped.
“Right. There are only 37 species of insect on this continent that inject lethal poison upon biting. The odds that it was one of them are really low. Not more than 1 in 10.” Siv teased.
“Haha. You guys are hilarious.” Was Dante’s only reply.
“Is it normal for there to be a yellow ring developing around the bite?” Meric stated matter of factly while examining Dante’s neck.
“What?!?” Dante whipped his head around saw Meric smiling broadly.
“You guys are jerks. Skyyd is the only one who understands me.” The tiger never missed an opportunity for attention these days and responded to hearing his name by moving next to Dante and ramming his head into the paladin’s hand.
A feeling of Déjà vu came over Siv. This place felt familiar. She stopped and listened for a time. They were close to the glade where she and her mother lived in her youth. After traveling a half mile west, the group found a statue to Ehlonna. The others had remained quiet as she had led them here, but now Asta spoke up.
“Where are we Siv?”
“This is where I was raised by my mother. She was a priestess of Ehlonna. This was our home.” She found it hard to get the words out. Being in this place made many of the emotions she felt as a child bubble back to the surface.
“She was murdered by a tribe of orcs that invaded the area. After that a druid found me and took me in. He taught me everything I know.” No one pressed her for more information.
She scanned the horizon to the south and notice something was amiss. The Narlmarches were green. Everywhere you looked, nothing but every shade of green. To the south the landscape was scorched black. A wildfire seemed unlikely given how soaked these woods were year round. They moved to investigate.
The forest was dying. Death was radiating out from a point several miles to the south. Every plant, every tree and every insect was dead. What remained was a foul lifeless swamp. A number of small animal corpses could also be found. It took all of her willpower to not scream.
“There’s a dead horse over there.” Dante pointed in the direction of the animal’s corpse.
Siv immediately saw Dante’s mistake. “That’s not a horse. It’s a unicorn. Its horn has been cut off.”
“That will fetch some scavenger a hefty price.” Meric added. “What could do all this?”
“I don’t know but, we’re going to find out.” Siv could barely contain her rage as she spoke. It nearly blinded her to the stranger in the tree’s a hundred feet behind them who had trained a bow in the group’s direction.
“We have company. At the treeline. Human female aiming a bow right at us.” Siv avoided looking directly at the woman as she informed the others.
“How long has she been there?” Meric inquired.
“Long enough that I don’t think she intends to start a fight.” Siv thought it a reasonable conclusion, but reading a strangers motives was always tricky.
“Let’s find out.” Meric moved a few feet in the woman’s direction and called out. “I am Meric Thorn, Baron of Stormvale. We have no quarrel with you. I would appreciate it if you did not train your weapon on my allies and myself.”
The woman considered his words for a moment before lowering her bow and stepping out into the open. She did not un-nock the arrow. Siv guessed her to be a ranger. “I take it you’re not responsible for all of this then. Hard to see how a baron could profit from destroying his own lands in this manner.”
“We only just arrived. What do you know of what’s happening here?” Meric replied.
“Whatever this is, it’s radiating out in a circle. It spreads a few feet every day.” The ranger knelt down to the ground at the edge of where everything had turned black. She pulled some grass from the ground and held it up for the group to see. It was brown and dry though it was the middle of summer and still the rainy season. “It’s already dying. By month’s end it will have spread to the glade just to the north of here.”
Siv’s anger rose again. “If it’s radiating out in a circle then there is a center. Did you try to find the source?” Immediately after she said it she realized it was a bit harsh.
“I’m not in a habit of rushing alone into regions where every living thing has been killed by unknown means.” Siv could hardly argue with the woman’s point.
“I’m sorry. This is just a lot to take in.”
“You’re a druid aren’t you?” Siv only nodded in reply. “Well if you didn’t get angry about this sort of thing you’d be a pretty lousy one. My name is Sariah. I sometimes travel through this region and am pretty familiar with the Narlmarches. If you’re going to investigate this, I’d like to help.”
“Thank you.” Siv looked up to the rest of the group. “We need to hurry. I will not see any more of my home destroyed.”
“Lead the way Siv.” With those words from Meric they headed south at an accelerated pace. After several hours the group reached the point they approximated to be the center of the destruction. Sariah scouted a bit ahead of the others. Despite the circumstances, Siv was glad to have someone else around who appreciated the wild places. Sariah swiftly ran back to the group. Siv could only assume she had spotted something.
“There are four men on the other side of that hill, possibly bandits. They’re the only living thing for miles besides us. Something is terribly wrong here.” Sariah sounded genuinely unnerved. Meric began to speak.
“Let’s not give our position away to them yet. Let’s go to the top of the hill and take a look. Quietly everyone.” Easy for him to say. He’s probably going to make himself invisible again like during the wyvern incident.
Siv crawled to a point on the hill where she could glance over the edge with only the slightest portion of her head being visible. Just as Sariah had explained, four men sat in the middle of nowhere equipped similarly to the bandits whom had been in service to the Stag Lord.
“What are they doing here? It doesn’t make sense. There’s no food or shelter, and certainly nothing to steal.” Asta whispered.
At this, Meric stood and shouted to the men. “Hail!” The four men were startled and immediately reached for their weapons. They began to charge towards the hill. Meric turned back to the group. “Well, they’re not very friendly are they?”
“I don’t have time for this.” Siv stood and began to cast Stone Call. Small rocks began to rain on the men like hail. All four were knocked to the ground by the bombardment. When it ended, there was no movement from any of them.
“There’s no way those guys were the cause of all this.” Sariah said, stating the obvious.
“There’s something evil nearby.” Dante began looking around trying to identify the location of the presence he was sensing. His expression changed to one of surprise when he turned to face behind the party.
Siv pivoted to see what appeared to be a beautiful elf with bright red hair and pale, almost grey skin. A feeling that this woman was a trusted friend passed over, and nearly overwhelmed her will. She recognized the effect of the charm spell and shook it off. Meric, Asta and Sariah all stared at the woman with loving expressions. Asta began to walk forward towards her, but Skyyd gently grabbed a strap on the back of her armor with his mouth and held her from moving. Dante was shaking his head trying to clear it.
Siv was now sure this was an Unseelie Nymph. Their presence drains the beauty from everything around them. Killing her would allow the forest to begin to heal. Unseelie nymphs rely on the protection of their charmed victims. Once she attacked, Siv knew the others whom had been charmed would come to the creature’s aid. Barry growled at the nymph and charged. Siv unleashed an attack of her own. The nymph had no time to call her charmed allies to defend her. The fight was over in seconds.
Those whom had been charmed were immediately freed of the effect. Siv stared at the devastation left in the creature’s wake.
She must have been here for more than a year. If we had scouted this area sooner, we could have prevented all of this.
Siv was upset with herself for not pushing the group to explore the rest of the Narlmarches sooner. She would never let something like this happen again. The wild areas were under her protection. Those who threatened them would regret it.