King Maker: Stormvale

The Varnhold Vanishing: Prologue

How do we get Greg’s awesome backstory for Ali into the adventure log when the events all happened during already completed sections? Ham-fisted flashback FTW!

Meric

Meric had sent every guardsman he could spare to escort Brook the remainder of the way back to Stag’s End. He was grateful for the Taldan escort that had departed with her, but he would leave nothing to chance.

Brook entered the castle flanked by two dozen guards. To her left was a mountain of a man. He stood several inches taller than even Dante. His ornate plate armor indicated to Meric that it was a man of some stature. The duke stood and embraced his sister.

“Thank the Gods you’re alright.”

“I wouldn’t be if not for Theodric.” Brook directed her brother’s attention to the man to her left.

“I am in your debt sir.”

“It was my honor your grace. And truly, it was no trouble at all. Assassins are cowards by nature. Once their presence is brought to light, they are worthless in a stand up fight. I was slightly offended in fact! Two, or perhaps three, might have been a challenge for me. Sending only one while Brook was in my estate, and under my protection? The Red Mantis are more foolish than I realized!” The man did not lack for confidence. Though if he easily handled a Red Mantis assassin on his own, perhaps it was justified.

“In light of recent events in Andoran, we can say with certainty they are no fools Theodric.”
“Events in Andoran?” Meric was puzzled.

“You haven’t heard?” Brook seemed greatly surprised at this. “Meric, the entire Andoran congress and the Supreme Elect, have been assassinated. The country no longer has a functioning government.” The duke made no effort to stop his jaw from hanging slack.

“Wait, I thought the Red Mantis didn’t kill leaders of nations?” Dante asked in confusion.
Meric sighed as the answer sunk in while he explained.

“They don’t kill legitimately seated monarchs. Andoran is a republic.”

“Was a republic.” Brook corrected. “Cheliax immediately blockaded the nation’s ports and moved troops across the border. Reports are sketchy but it seems they moved to take several key military installations.”

“Let us move to the council chambers to discuss this further. Theodric, I am forever grateful to you for the service you have done me. The hospitality of my city is yours.” Meric signaled for a servant as he spoke. “Please excuse my abrupt departure, but, My servants will see to whatever needs you may have.“

“Of course your grace I understand. I believe I will stay for some time and see more of Stormvale. I do like what I have seen of it so far.” Theodric looked directly at Brook as he spoke that last part. “I do hope we will be able to see more of each other before I must return to Taldor.”

“I have no doubt we will.” Brook’s answer seemed somewhat curt. Meric would have wondered about the dynamic he had just witnessed, if not for more pressing matters.

Brook filled in the rest of the council on the intelligence that she had received while in Taldor. Reports indicated that Dozens of Red Mantis were sent in a coordinated attack that wiped out Andoran’s government in less than an hour. It was a quiet meeting, filled with forlorn expressions. Meric ultimately dismissed all but his closest allies from the meeting. Brook pulled her brother aside before leaving.

“I saw the letter you sent Meric. Are you out of your mind? What possessed you to pick a fight with the most powerful nation in the inner sea?”

“If you’ll recall, I didn’t start this fight. Assassins came to our home and murder our parents and brother.”

“You have been itching for this fight for as long as I can remember. It was the reason you went after the charter from Brevoy to begin with. If Abrogail can bring down Andoran, she will not even break a sweat in wiping Stormvale off the map. You’re poking a dragon Meric.”

“Abrogail’s cards were already on the table. She knows where we are and has made every effort to kill us. That wasn’t going to change. I made the calculation that exposing her fraudulent rule, and our existence to the rest of the world would weaken her position within Cheliax. Our enemies already know where we are Brook. Now our allies know as well.”

“What allies Meric?!? What cavalry do you expect to come riding in to the rescue?”

“I am the rightful king of Cheliax, and there are plenty who loathe the pretender and her devils. We will have allies Brook. You must trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

“If you’re wrong, every man woman and child in Stormvale will pay the price.” Brook marched off in exasperation.

Meric returned to the council room where Dante, Siv, and Asta remained. The group sat in silence for a moment looking at each other. Siv was the first to speak.

“On the bright side, I’m having a hard time imagining how this could get worse for us.”

“How in the nine hells did Cheliax get the Red Mantis to kill an entire government?” Asta was having trouble accepting what she had been told.

“The cost would be astronomical. What could Abrogail have traded to them that was so valuable?” Meric was also having difficulty wrapping his head around the logistics of the transaction.

“That is an excellent question you grace.” The voice came from a chair along the far wall of the room. Meric recognized it immediately. Rumjal.

Skyyd and Barry growled at the intruder, but Asta and Siv wisely restrained their companions. Meric quickly cast his gaze on Dante, fearful that the Paladin would attack the former duke of hell, without considering the consequences of his actions. The paladin sat in his chair as if he had been stunned by a spell. Meric breathed a sigh of relief.

“Do not worry your grace, young paladins are often staggered in my presence. Few have seen evil in its purest form. He will recover shortly.”

“And to what do we owe the privilege?” Meric hated the way this devil could move with impunity throughout his castle. He made his contempt known through his tone of voice.

“I come to offer advice and counsel your grace.”

“I’ll send for you when it is required.”

“You have survived the Red Mantis a second time. Few can boast such a feat. I assure you, that none survive a third attack. With their work in Andoran done, the Mantis have numerous assets freed up to tie up the loose end of any outstanding contracts."

Meric groaned internally. He too had considered the possibility that the primary reason the Mantis attacks had been limited over the past two years, was that their resources had been dedicated to the Andoran attack. The next attempt would be far worse.

Rumjal continued.

“Your position is a difficult one. Killing every Mantis is an impossible task. It would seem that your only choice is the get them to call off the assassination. Such a thing is, nearly without precedence.”

Meric was tired of Rumjal’s games. Part of him wished the devil would speak plainly. Though he knew, if Rumjal actually did, it would only be because he believed it was a better tactic to manipulate him.

Asta asked the question before Meric had to.

“Nearly. Implying that you know of an instance where the Mantis did call off a contract. I have researched the Red Mantis a bit myself. My understanding is that there is no circumstance under which the Mantis are allowed to do such a thing. ”

Rumjal smiled warmly at the half-elf.

“That is because the answer is so obvious that it tends to elude most people. I have always found that the secret to problem solving is asking the right questions. You were on the right track just a moment ago Meric. What could Abrogail trade to the Red Mantis that could be worth so many assassinations?”

“You know what the payment was.” It was not a question but a statement. Meric could already see where Rumjal was going with this.

“If the Mantis were to discover that they had been cheated by Abrogail, that she had not given them what they were promised, they would be very angry indeed.”

“Are you telling me Abrogail was stupid enough to rip off the Red Mantis?”

“No. I am telling you that If the Red Mantis believed that she did, it would garner the same reaction.”

Dante suddenly woke from his stunned state. He observed the devil for only a moment before grabbing his hammer and leaping towards him.

Rumjal spoke a word and the paladin fell back into his chair. Drool began to form at his mouth as he stared blankly out in front of himself. Meric identified the effect as feeblemind.

The devil continued as if the incident never happened.

“Abrogail’s payment was an artifact called the Web of Motes. It allows the user to see all possible futures of a given person. It is such a powerful tool that it requires a constant stream of power to operate. It is also of course, an artifact of Aroden. Thus it lost its power when the God of humanity came to his unfortunate end. Chelish arcanists discovered a way to power the Web by draining the magical energy from a separate artifact of Aroden. This means that the Mantis will have limited uses of the Web, but even a limited ability to see possible futures is an extremely valuable thing.”

Rumjal sat down at the table and continued.

“Steal the artifact that is powering the Web of Motes, and the Mantis will believe they have been lied to by Abrogail. They will call off your assassination, which was included as part of the same deal to kill the leaders of Andoran. They will also seek retribution on Abrogail. They will not kill her, as she is a seated monarch, but her entire inner circle is fair game.”

“Where is this artifact?”

“This one isn’t free Meric. I must ask for something in return.”

Meric could see Siv shift uncomfortably in her chair. He should have known the devil would wait until he had become desperate before trying to make a deal.

“It is a simple thing really. An acquaintance of mine will arrive in Stormvale soon. She desires to perform some magical research within your nation’s borders. Allow her to conduct her experiments without interference, and I will give you the location of the artifact.”

“Specifically what kind of research will she be performing?” Siv inquired.

“Nothing that will offend your sensibilities, I assure you.”

“Can you assure us that no devils or demons will be summoned in the course of these ‘experiments’?” Replied Asta.

“I cannot. But I can guarantee that no summoned creatures will be loosed on Stormvale. I think you would all agree that what I am asking is small when measured against what I offer. Brook and Meric will be safe, and the pretender Abrogail will be on the receiving end of the wrath of the Red Mantis.”

Meric knew he had little choice, but the thought of cutting a deal with a devil made him sick.

“If it would ease your concerns your grace, I would be willing to allow you to draft the agreement.” Rumjal’s smile always seemed so disarming.

Meric looked at the others, and grabbed a piece of parchment and a quill. He kept it short and to the point. Rumjal reviewed it and nodded. They sealed the agreement in blood.

“The artifact you seek is in the tower of Nessus. No it isn’t in hell, but you will find it no easier to enter. It is a tower in the University of Egorian. It has no entrances save for a portal that can only be entered from deep within the castle. You should expect to find powerful magic protecting it.”

With this, Rumjal stood and bowed to the group. Meric suddenly remembered Dante.

“If you would be so kind as to return our comrade to his normal state, it would be greatly appreciated.”

“Of course your grace.”

Siv

“…And so, that will be our purpose. To protect the citizens of Stormvale from the Wild. And to protect the Wild from the citizens of Stormvale."

Siv finished with a smile, and there were a few laughs at her last statement. She could sense their agreement, though, and there was already a sense of camaraderie among the men and women who had answered her call to help her in her duties.

There were sixteen in all. She had already picked out one as the leader – she called him the Sergeant, and it suited him. He was a grizzled fighter who had seen combat as a mercenary before, and was looking for something to which he could truly dedicate himself. The rest were sort of a motley crew. Five rangers – she had expected that – including three humans, an elf and a half-elf. She had also expected the three druids, two of which were twins, with wolf companions from the same litter.

The rest of her new followers were what surprised her. A cleric of Ehlonna made sense, but why agree to follow her? Everyone knew about her distrust of the gods. There were also three more fighters, where she had looked for none, and a monk of all things! But even the monk could not have surprised her more than the the two brothers in the front of the crowd.

They were dwarves. Dwarves. Siv thought all dwarves loathed trees. But here they were, a cleric of Pelor who cared only about healing and his brother, and a rage-filled barbarian who cared only about fighting and his brother. A more ill-matched pair could not have showed up to follow her. Besides, she thought, they’re dwarves.

Suddenly, a woman burst into the clearing, staggering and bleeding.

“They’re…right behind me,” she gasped.

The dwarven cleric rushed to her side, offering his healing. Even as her wounds began to heal, three orcs rushed into the clearing, weapons drawn.

“You picked the wrong clearing, orcs. I suggest you surrender,” Siv spoke calmly.

“Never,” one of the orcs spat. Siv smiled.

When all was said and done, the orcs did not last long. They had too many enemies in the clearing, and Siv had grown much in power. I think Barry and I might have taken them ourselves, she thought.

“Well done, everyone. If I did not already trust you, I would now. Split the price of their equipment amongst yourselves. And now lets see what we have here.”

She moved to the young woman, who was just sitting up, still looking exhausted. Siv noticed the pure white hair and started in surprise.

“Ali?” Siv’s thoughts immediately raced back many months.

When Sivileana arrived in Windy Hollow, she immediately knew something was wrong. The small marketplace of the village, normally bustling with the business of a dozen nearby farms and craftsmen, was deserted. There were no children running underfoot, playing and causing mischief. And, perhaps most telling of all, Barry’s hackles rose and basso growl rumbled beneath his brown fur. Ever since she first adopted – or was adopted by – Barry, she had learned to trust his instincts. He could sense a tension in the air that her less primal intuition missed.

“What do you sense, Barry? Where is everyone?” Siv silently wished she had the company of some of her new friends, but they were all at the bandit lord’s keep, continuing to build the city from which Meric – I’ll be damned if I’ll call him “Baron” in my own thoughts – would rule small towns like Windy Hollow. Still, the wilderness and the people living on its edge are my responsibility; she reminded herself, thinking about the new title everyone had decided she was best suited for: Warden. She was jerked out of her ruminations when a loud shout rang out from across the village. She reached down and touched Barry fur, assuring herself she was hardly alone. Her mentor had a reason for naming her companion “Barry” after all. In the language of the wild, it meant “Steadfast.”

“I guess now is when we earn our keep, my friend,” she said, looking across the empty market.

“Let’s go.”

She walked in the direction of the clamor, with her truest companion by her side.

She quickly came upon a scene of chaos, seemingly centered on a large barn at the edge of Windy Hollow. A strong breeze, one of those that gave this particular village its name, blew from behind her, seeming to encourage her course toward the barn. The villagers were all so intent on the barn that none noticed her approach.

“She’s been consortin’ with fiends is what I say! You let us past, Father, and we’ll straighten everythin’ out.” One of the men of the village brandished an axe as he shouted at the lone man standing with his back to barn. Several other villagers loudly voiced their agreement.

“I’ll do no such thing, Martin.” Siv recognized the man who spoke, his voice impressively calm given the crowd of forty or so that faced him. He was Matias, an itinerant priest of Pelor who had begun offering his services in the newly pacified lands of Stormvale. “I agree she is afflicted in some mysterious way, but that does not mean she is evil. Nor that she consorts with dark forces. Ali is a member of your community. Her father sits there,” he pointed to an oddly quiet man who sat, staring at nothing while the argument raged around him, “how can you turn your back on her?”

“She’s no neighbor of mine! She left our community, Father, when she made dark compacts with Hell!” A matronly-looking woman brandished a frying pan as she yelled. The crowd, shouting with their own anger and fear, began to push forward, waving makeshift weapons in the air. Matias began warily backing away, closer to the barn door. The girl’s father sat, seemingly catatonic. Siv decided she had seen enough. She murmured a single word to Barry in Sylvan.

Barry roared.

The volume Barry was able to attain always surprised Siv, no matter how many times she heard it. The villagers had never been so close to an enraged bear. Their struggle immediately halted, and they turned in fear to find the source of the incredible sound. Siv waited for the echoes to die down before she spoke.

“Enough.” Her voice was iron, and no one was spared the displeasure and fury in her eyes. Barry bristled at her side, teeth bared.

“Lady Sivileana!” The man with the axe called, voice shaking only slightly, “Thank the gods you’re here! Father Matias is harboring a devil worshipper in the barn.”

“I said enough” Siv’s voice crackled with anger and power, “I will judge who is in the wrong. Let me pass.”

Without waiting for an answer, she strode forward, confident the crowd would part around her. When she arrived at the door to the barn, Matias moved to bar her way.

“Lady Siv, I truly believe the child is not evil. I cannot let you destroy her without cause.”

“If she is good as you say, Matias, then she is safe in my care. What has sparked this chaos?”

“Something beyond my understanding. Aliandara is afflicted in some way I’ve never encountered. Items move around her of their own volition, sometimes with malevolent purpose. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the affliction came upon her suddenly. A knife from a table near Ali cut Zachareus’s son, and Zachareus took it amiss. He moved to restrain her and a strong wind suddenly blew in between them, distracting him. She took the opportunity to run here. Something bars our way into the barn.”

“It appears the temples do not hold all the world’s knowledge, after all,” Siv frowned pensively.

“Aliandara? I think I remember her. She is hardly more than a girl, with brown hair and eyes, correct? I cared for her through a fever two months ago.”

“That is Ali. Though it surprises me to hear you speak of age, Lady.”

“I am older than I appear, Matias. I will take care of the girl,” Siv turned to the still-silent crowd, “Is there no work to do in Windy Hollow? Leave this place, before I have Barry chase you all home.”

Grumbling, the crowd began to disperse. A few town leaders, including the man with the axe, Zachareus, remained. The girl’s father remained where he was, staring at nothing.

“I know what I saw,” Zachareus said angrily, “She attacked my boy with that knife, and then called the wind to escape me. And now, look! The door is barred by a mysterious force. She consorts with fiends, and is a plague on this village.”

“And you, sir? Have you nothing to say in defense of your daughter?” Siv said to the seated man. He made no sign of hearing anything that went on around him, “Very well. Do not disturb me while I speak to the girl. Barry, guard.”

Siv walked to the door, wondering how she would open the door that had been mysteriously sealed. As she neared the door, she felt a breeze swirl around her feet. The breeze grew stronger as she neared the door, again seeming to encourage her on her way. When she reached the door, the wind died completely, and the door swung inward. Taking a breath, Siv stepped through the open doorway.

It was as if a tornado was trapped inside the walls of the barn. Siv’s sharp eyes could barely pick out the dark-haired girl huddling at the center of the maelstrom, but it was difficult to see through the straw and tools flying around the room. Siv ducked quickly under what she thought was a pitchfork, and shouted to the frightened girl.

“Aliandara! Are you hurt?”

“Who…? Is that Lady Sivileana?” Aliandara spoke in a small, scared voice, barely discernible above the sound of the indoor storm, “Please……help me…”

Siv tried to get closer to the girl, but she couldn’t find a safe path to the eye of the storm. She took a step back, to relative safety, and took stock using senses beyond the norm. Casting Detect Magic, she could tell there was a mystical energy swirling around the room, animating the debris. Further, the energy was divine rather than arcane, and Aliandara appeared to be the source. No…that’s not quite right. She isn’t the source. She is more of a focus, or a conduit. The energy is coming from somewhere else, and focusing on her. Still, if the energy flows through her, she should be able to control it somehow.

“Aliandara!” Siv shouted to the girl, “Only you can stop what’s happening. You must exert your will on the winds around us. This is your power. You can stop this!”

“What? How is that possible? Am I cursed?” Aliandara’s voice still quavered with fear, but there was something else there. She seemed to sense that what Siv was saying was the truth.

“This power belongs to you. I sense nothing evil about this power.” Siv had no power to sense good or evil, but she was confident that this power wasn’t evil. It felt…wild…neither good nor evil. “You must accept this, and exert your will over the energy you feel in the air around you.”

“I…I’ll try.” Aliandara stood slowly, still shaking slightly from the fear. “What should I do? Do I need to…make gestures or something?”

“I’ve never encountered a power like this one, " Siv said thoughtfully, “Try to feel the energy flowing through you. It has manifested powerfully – I believe once you master your fear and feel the energy within you, you will know instinctively what to do.”

Siv could see Aliandara steel herself to face the whirlwind. It was then she realized the girl had more strength within her than the average villager. She is destined for more than some farmer’s son. She serve what is good in this world, if she chooses. The girl closed her eyes and breathed deeply to calm herself. As she did so, she grew visibly calmer, and seemed to lose herself in her inward focus. She raised her hands to the room around her. And screamed.

The wind swirled still more strongly, picking up heavier debris and filling the air with straw, so that Siv could no longer see the girl at the storm’s center. She heard Aliandara scream again, this time in pain.

“Aliandara!” Siv struggled to move closer to the girl, putting her full weight into her movements.

Aliandara screamed a third time, but the sound was somehow different. A cry of defiance rather than pain or fear. Siv’s supernatural senses, honed through her training and recent adventures, sensed something change in the energy spinning around the room.

The wind stopped.

Siv fell, her previously ineffectual momentum carrying her forward and onto her hands and knees. She looked up, fearing to see what had happened to the girl.

Aliandara appeared healthy – mostly. Two cuts mirrored each other on each of her cheeks. They bled freely. But her minor wounds were not what concerned Siv. When Siv had cared for Aliandara before, she had looked much as the other young women in the village, dark of hair and eye. Indeed, she had the same coloring when Siv has entered the barns scant minutes before.

But now…Her eyes shone in her face, electric blue. Her long hair, previously a drab brown, now shined brightly in the dimness of the barn. It was a pure, silvery white. Though the wind had died, Siv could see her hair drifting around her face, as if touched by an otherworldly breeze.

“I did it?” Aliandara made it a question, her expression half of fear, half of triumph.

“You did it,” Siv agreed, “well done, Aliandara.” Siv walked swiftly to her side, healing the minor wounds on her face.

“Call me Ali, everyone does.”

“Ali then. Listen, you need to know something before we go out and face your neighbors.” Siv reached into one of her pockets, finding a small mirror she used occasionally in spell casting. She handed to the girl. Ali looked at her uncertainly, then down at the hand mirror. Her eyes widened in shock, and then darted to Siv.

“What does this mean?”

“I do not know, perhaps the library at Stag’s End holds answers. I have never encountered a power like yours before.”

“Am I cursed?” The question was far different in tone from the one she had posed just minutes before.

“What do you think?”

“I…I’m not sure. I don’t think so. It doesn’t feel evil. The power, I mean. It just…it makes me feel free, and strong.”

“I also do not think you are cursed.”

“What will my friends think? My father?”

“I do not know.”

Siv saw something, then. A flash in Ali’s startlingly blue eyes. The mysterious wind stirred her hair further and the girl turned her face, though she could not possibly have known it, to where her father sat, unresponsive on the ground outside.

“I think I do.”

Siv opened the door, leading Ali into the bright sunlight of Windy Hollow.

“See!” Zachareus screamed at the sight of the transformed girl, “How else do you explain that?! She has been consortin’ with evil powers! Demons, if I had to guess. Get her, lads!”

There was no time for reasoned discourse. Barry quickly stepped in front of Ali, sensing Siv’s purpose, and Siv began muttering in Druidic. Making a few gestures with a sprig of holly as focus, Siv completed the spell, and the grasses around the feet of the would-be mob visibly grew several feet, wrapping around the legs of the villagers. They could not move forward, however they struggled against their bonds.

“Stop. Be still, and the plants will shrink in a short time,” Siv commanded the villagers, “The girl has done no wrong. Nor has she consorted with evil powers of any kind.”

“Pelor be praised! You brought her out safely!”

“Pelor had nothing to do with it, Matias. Ali saved herself.”

“Isn’t it wonderful, Samson.” Matias turned to the lone sitting man, who did not respond. Ali did not seem to even hear the commotion between Siv and her neighbors. She was walking toward the sitting man.

“Father?” He did not move.

“Will you just accept her back then, Samson?!” Zachareus yelled from where he was stuck, “She has been changed! I care not for what Lady Siv says, Ali is evil! She has made dark compacts in exchange for dangerous power.” Many of the men entangled with Zachareus muttered darkly.

“Daddy…please”

“Don’t call me that.” The man spoke dully, without looking at his daughter.

“But…you heard the Lady…”

“Enough!” Samson growled, rousing finally, to anger, “You have shamed me. You have shamed my good name. Look at you!” He gestured wildly, at her hair and eyes, and the small rocks that still seemed to move sightly around her. “You are cursed! I want no part of this. You are no longer my daughter.” He stood and turned away.

“I have no daughter.”

Samson walked away from the crowd, never turning back.

A silence grew as Ali watched her father walk away from her, tears streaming unchecked down her face. The villagers stopped struggling against their bonds, and Siv, too, was silent as her heart broke for the girl.

Barry padded quietly to her side. Gently pushing his head under the hand at her side, he let out a pleading rumble, tongue lolling. Starting she looked down at him, smiled a little, and began to pet him.

“I’ll talk to him!” Matias broke the silence, “He can not abandon his daughter this way! It is displeasing to Pelor.”

“Don’t bother,” Ali looked at the priest, “He will not budge. His pride is all he has.”

“Ali,” Siv said gently, “You cannot stay here. I cannot protect you once I leave.”

“I have nowhere else to go, Lady.”

“I travel to Stag’s End. Come with me, I will find a place for you there.”

Ali looked around a final time, soaking in Windy Hollow on what she suddenly knew was her last day there.

“So be it. I am Aliandara Stormcursed, and I will come with you, Lady Siv.”

“Siv. If we are to travel together, we can dispense with all the ‘ladies.’ We just have one stop before he get to Stag’s End.”

Three days later, Siv and Ali began to set up camp. The routine was becoming familiar to them, though Ali still stumbled in the preparations here and there. She has borne up well, Siv found herself thinking. She has been morose, but she travels and works without complaint. She is stronger than she knows. Still, Siv knew she needed something more than a maid’s job at the castle. She needed purpose in her life. She thought she had an idea of how to give her that.

“Why here, Siv?” Ali asked, gesturing at the worn statue of Ehlonna in the clearing where they were setting up camp, “Everyone knows you do not respect the gods.”

“I respect the gods,” Siv said, “If you do not respect a goblin dog, it will bite you. You must treat it with caution. Keep it at arm’s length. I’m not about to ask it for advice, though. It is the same with dogs and gods.”

Ali giggled a little at that. Siv smiled, it was good to hear her laugh. Barry, sensing Ali’s mood shift, pushed himself up on the hind legs and put his forepaws on Ali’s shoulders. He gave her a sloppy kiss before returning to all fours. Ali’s giggles turned to laughter, and Siv also chuckled.

“This clearing was once my home, Ali. I was born beneath this statue, and my mother was Ehlonna’s priestess.”

Ali looked up, fascinated.

“Was?”

“She was killed, when I was little more than a girl. Raiding orcs while I was out playing.”

“Gods, Siv. I never knew.”

“Very few people do. Follow me.”

Ali looked puzzled, but followed as Siv led her deeper into the Narlmarches. She looked surprised when Barry stayed behind to guard the camp, but said nothing. It took a little more than an hour, but when they arrived at their destination, Ali knew before Siv stopped her.

“What happened here?” It was scene of devastation. From one step to the next, the landscape changed from lush forest to dead earth.

“An evil fey lived here for a full year, killing all life in a ring around her. It stopped when we destroyed her, but the forest is slow to return. Ali, listen to me a moment.” As Siv spoke, she looked out over the desolate land in front of her, occasionally turning to Ali adding weight to her words.

“When my mother was killed, I thought I would never recover. I thought of nothing but revenge, which, of course, would have meant my end as well. My life, I thought, had been completely destroyed. Much like the land here.

“A friend of my mother’s held me back. He was a old druid, and wise, though I did not wish to listen. He offered to train me in the druidic ways. At first, I thought to learn from him, and use my power to track down my mother’s murderers. But I slowly began to see how important this power is. How beautiful and fragile the wild places are, and how much they need protection. I also, of course, befriended Barry. Slowly, with my mentor’s help, I built my life back up, with new values and purposes.

“When he died, of old age, it was much easier on me than my mother’s death. I had a new purpose, but I knew I was still missing something. My purpose was not enough, I needed to be part of something. A community. One that would support me, and argue with me. Vex me and make me laugh. I found that in the Baron and our other companions.

“Over these past few days, it has occurred to me that such a group would do you good as well. If you are agreeable, I would recommend you to one of the many groups of adventurers that are forming in Stag’s End. Perhaps you will find what I have described with them. Perhaps you will even discover your purpose. What do you think?”

“I think…I think I would like that. I have been given this power for a reason. It’s like you said, I think I need to travel freely to discover that reason.” Ali then looked thoughtful, “Siv, why did you bring me here to tell me this?”

“Look at this devastation,” anger crept into Siv’s voice, “It is complete, total. And yet, I believe it will be as lush as the rest of this forest within five years. Do you believe me?”

Ali was skeptical, but then she looked at Siv. Really looked. There was determination there, and power.

“I believe you.”

Siv turned and looked at Ali, placing her hand on the young woman’s shoulder.

“So it will be with you.”

Siv again looked down at the young woman.

“Ali?” She repeated.

“Siv. Thank all the gods, you’re here. I thought you would be, but I couldn’t be sure. The wind seemed to guide me here,” she looked up haggardly, “And thank you, too,” she added, obviously remembering Siv’s own dislike of the gods.

“What happened? What are you doing here? And where is the rest of your party?”

A look of remembered horror and depression flitted over Ali’s face.

“They’re dead. All of them. I couldn’t save them.” She burst out crying.

Siv gathered her into her arms, and Barry added his weight at her back, his muzzle still damp with orc blood.

“It’s OK, Ali. You are safe now. And you will stay with me. We have a chance to build something good here. You will help us. Your life will have purpose, and I will keep you safe.

Dante

Dante awoke to find the roof of the castle missing. The walls to his room were partially demolished. He sprang to his feet and could see out a gaping hole in the wall, but did not see Stag’s End. Instead he could see a breathtaking landscape. A verdant sliver of land balanced between sweeping panoramic mountains and a lush ocean cast red under a heart-stirring sunset. The castle itself appeared to have been over taken by an immense marble palace of domed towers and skylit courtyards.

As he stared out across the scene, a woman approached from behind and stood next to him, also surveying the scenery. Her presence startled him, and he took several rapid steps back from her. As he stare at her, two things became apparent. She was by far the most beautiful being he had ever seen, and she radiateded pure evil. Both of these traits left him somewhat stunned in her presence. She continued looking off into the distance without acknowledging him for sometime before speaking.

“You are sure?” her voice was like honey to his ears.

Dante was about to open his mouth to respond ‘sure of what?’ when another voice spoke up from behind both of them.

“Beyond any doubt. The gate will not open in Shendilavri. It has not yet stabilized. The weakness of the planar barriers is a temporary effect. We could move perhaps a few hundred of your followers through, not nearly a fraction of what would be required to hold the exit.”

Dante turned to see a demon. She had long flowing green hair and yellow skin. Her legs hoofed like a satyrs. Four tail like appendages protrude from the middle of her back. Dante suspected she was a lilitu. Neither she or the first woman seemed to notice his presence.

“I suppose it is for the best. Preferable to be on the outside manipulating the one who gains control of it. It would have painted a rather large target on my back. I trust you have more for me than simply a location where the gate will not manifest?”

“No one knows where it will settle Mistress. For now all we can do is eliminate possibilities. It is increasingly likely that it will not fall anywhere in the Abyss. Carceri, Pandamonium and numerous demi-planes in between all remain possibilities.”

“Graz’zt and Orcus will move in force the instant they know the location. Perhaps Demogorgon as well. We will stay out of the fighting for now.”

“As you wish Mistress.” The lilitu bowed and began to walk away.

“One last thing Emerald.” The lilitu turned back to face her Mistress.

“My cult in the new human kingdom is being rebuilt. See to it they have adequate protection.”

“Of course Mistress.”

As the lilitu exited the room, the woman’s face turned to one of concern. She tilted her head in Dante’s general direction and squinted. She turned and took a step towards him reaching out with a hand. Dante quickly scrambled across the room, out of her line of sight. It seemed that she couldn’t really see him, yet somehow had a faint perception of his presence.

“Come out, Come out where ever you are.” Her voice changed to a playful one. Dante felt a sickening mix of revulsion and desire towards her.

“It is rude to spy on people you know. I suppose I’ll have to think up a suitable punishment for you once I find you.” Dante continued to back away from her slowly, unsure of the best course of action.

“Playing hard to get I see. A mystery admirer powerful enough to spy on the queen of the succubi in her own fortress? Congratulations, you’ve peeked my interest.” Dante could see a grin creep across her face as she turned to face him and look him directly in the eyes.

“There you are.” She held his gaze for only an instant, but in that time, Dante felt his will begin to crumble to a compulsion.

Before she could finish, his terror woke him from the dream. Dante jumped out of bed and grabbed his hammer. He scanned the room in fear that at any moment the woman would find him and attack.

Another vision, why me? I wonder if it is the same cult that we once rooted out in our kingdom. It has to be. There is also the issue with that devil working in our lands. Could it be that it is a gateway they are working on?

Dante spent the entire night standing with his hammer poised to attack any threat. It was quite some time before he could rest again. When he did, he slept in his armor.

Asta

Asta had struggled to maintain focus during council meetings in recent days. Between planning a heist that would take place in the capital city of Cheliax, and Siv’s plan to go to the First World to find a nymph, in order to repair the damage done to the narlmarches by the unseelie nymph, Asta’s mind was constantly spinning. The group simply had too many balls in the air. One of them was bound to be dropped.

As the meeting drew to a close, a woman was escorted into the room. Her hair was black and her skin somewhat pale. She wore an expensive and fashionable dress. She curtsied before Meric.
“Your grace. I am Kalatrina Plossen. A mutual acquaintance of ours informed me that I had permission to perform my research on your lands. I wish to express my gratitude. I was also led to believe I would have a chaperone. If so, may I request that we leave tomorrow morning. I am eager to begin.” Her manner was extremely polite.

Asta leaned over to Meric and spoke quietly.

“I know that the duties of the realm will be keeping you busy the next few weeks, perhaps I could assist? I’d be interested to see what she’s up to, especially if it involves extra-planar research. And with Skyyd along I should be able to learn something and still remain safe.”

“Your assistance would be much appreciated. Dante has volunteered for this task, but he may chafe at having to allow her to work without restriction. I’d rather not forfeit my soul due to an outburst of zeal.

Asta frowned slightly, taking another look at Kalatrina and remembering the meeting with Rumjal.
Dante entered the room with great haste. Dark circles were visible around his eyes. He seemed oblivious to the Kalatrina’s presence.

“Have any of you heard the names Emerald, Graz’zt, or Orcus, before?”

Kalatrina raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Asta sighed at the Paladin’s lack of discretion.
Dante suddenly noticed the woman and remembered his manners. “Welcome to our kingdom. I am Dante chosen champion of Kord.”

“Thank you for your hospitality. I promise there will be no disturbances in Stormvale as a result of my work.”

Asta could not see any visible symbols or signet on her clothing or jewelry. A cursory glance at the equipment that her half-elf assistant carried seemed to confirm that Kalatrina was an Arcane spell caster.

“An escort will depart with you in the morning.” Meric replied cordially. May I ask specifically where you will be performing your research?”

“An island approximately 20 miles to the West of here. I believe the locals call it Candlemere.
Asta raised an eyebrow.

Page break

Kalatrina was a pleasant travel companion. She had an affable manner and a good sense of humor. Asta wondered how she came to be an ally of the devil Rumjal. What dark secrets might she be hiding behind her pleasant façade? She decided these thoughts were a bit harsh. After all, she and the others had themselves made a deal with Rumjal, and she didn’t consider anything they had done to be evil.

The only oddity about Kalatrina’s behavior, was her rather poor treatment of her half-elf assistant Amalie. She scolded her for making even small mistakes, and was generally dismissive of her. Asta felt bad for the girl, but there was no need to comfort her. Dante had that covered. The paladin seemed smitten with her. He spent the majority of the journey chatting with her and telling her stories of the battles that group had fought. Dante’s versions of these tales were more accurate, if less entertaining than Meric’s.

Eventually they came to the shore of lake Candlemere. It was late afternoon and Kalatrina decided they should wait to cross until the morning.

“Allow me to handle our shelter for the night.” Kalatrina began to cast a spell. Asta recognized the effect as Mage’s Magnificent Mansion. The interior was massive. Asta began to grasp just how powerful a wizard Kalatrina really was.

“You are all welcome to take some rest inside, or stay for now and observe my evening’s research.” Asta remained, watching with great anticipation.
Kalatrina began casting an assortment of summon monster spells. She observed her cast all of them up to Summon Monster VII.

Some of the creatures she summoned one at a time, and others in groups. She ordered them to simply remain in place for the duration of the spell, waiting to be returned to their home plane. Kalatrina took notes the entire time. Asta could not be sure what the wizard was recording. But each time she used a summon spell, Kalatrina would cast a spell that Asta could not identify. Asta could only discern it was of the divination school.

She summoned only outsiders. Hound Archons, Vrocks, Erinyes, Bralani azata, and several others. Asta watched in awe, knowing that Kalatrina’s abilities with magic far outpaced her own. The things she must know about summoning, and the other planes…

Eventually Kalatrina was satisfied with her work, and headed into the mansion to sleep.

The next morning over breakfast Asta attempted to engage her in conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice the summoning that you were doing yesterday, you seem to have incredible skill with it. I’ve been doing some research of my own, trying to understand the nature of my… bond… with Skyyd here. Have you encountered anything like it in your travels?”

Kalatrina examined Skyyd and the rune on Asta’s forehead for some time before speaking.
“There are many oddities in the multiverse. Few are fully understood.” She took a bite of her breakfast before she continued speaking.

“I do have some knowledge of natural summoners. I attempt to research every planar phenomenon I can. As to the nature of your bond, it is difficult to say. I tend to leave the ‘why’ questions to philosophers. I’m far more interested in the how.”

“Though I suppose you are more interested in exactly what your friend here is. I must admit, I have been surprised by his behavior in our time together. All of the texts on the subject spoke of the Eidolon as a creature devoid of personal desires and will. Yours behaves like a kitten when you are not threatened. Most unusual.”

“The short answer is, no one knows what he is. In fact I’ve never even read a theory that stands up to basic scrutiny. We understand so little of the fundamental nature of the outer planes, there are innumerable undiscovered creatures from eons past. He could be anything. Not the answer you were looking for I’m sure. But such is the nature of arcane studies.”

She paused to consider something before speaking again.

“I can point you to a text…though I make no promises that it will be anything but a dead end. At the peak of the Taldan empire, they possessed a large university for magical studies. It was abandoned centuries ago. The magical texts it once contained have long since been sold off or stolen. But some books are so dry that even the thieves don’t want them.”

“The Magisters kept detailed records of their various administrative meetings and tasks. I recall reading about a certain member of their order being censured for his unscientific research into Eidolons. The volumes are ordered by year. I believe I found it in a volume somewhere between 3750 AR and 3800 AR. If you can find the name of this Wizard, you can potentially track down some of his personal journals and research.”

“Of course he might have been completely off base with his research. But when studying such a specific aspect of Arcana, you can’t be too picky with your sources.”

Asta sat in silence for a minute, considering Kalatrina’s words. “Thank you for your advice, I believe I will have to seek out these texts to learn what I can. Skyyd does seem to be unique, and I am very interested in discovering more about the ‘how’, as you say. Perhaps along the way the ‘why’ will become clearer.”

After another period of silence, Asta spoke up again. “May I ask what are your goals with your research here? Perhaps there is a way that we could assist.”

“There are many places of power in this world. Places where magical energy is enhanced or otherwise modified.” She gestured off to the island before continuing.

“Candlemere is such a place. There are planar experiments I can perform here that would be impossible almost anywhere else. The ruins on that island are so ancient that I cannot say with certainty who built them. For thousands of years it has been used by numerous arcanists who were gifted enough to sense it’s power. It will allow me a far greater understanding of the rules that govern the great beyond.”

“And what rules have you discovered so far?” Asta carefully walked the line between inquisitive and nosey.

Kalatrina smiled at Asta.

“There are no short cuts to understanding concepts as complex as cosmology. If you wish to know what I have learned, it will require years of study. But pay close attention over the next few days, and I’m sure you’ll learn something new.”

Asta smiled back and resolved to watch closely, both for the realm and for her own studies.

Page break

Kalatrina set up shop right in the middle of the ruined tower. She proceeded to create an intricate circle of protection against evil.

“I would like to take this opportunity to remind you all that there is no danger, and that no creatures will be released into the material plane. I trust you will show restraint as I conduct my research.” Kalatrina seemed to be looking directly at Dante as she said this.

She then proceeded to cast Gate. Asta made no effort to conceal her shock at the revelation of Kalatrina’s full power. After a few moments, A succubus traveled through the gate. She was completely naked and looked at the group with a smile.

“Are these all for me? Kalatrina, you shouldn’t have!”

“I didn’t. I need you to take a little trip Lucricia.”

“I do love to travel. Where am I off to? Somewhere tropical?”

“Carceri and Pandemonium. Any location within each will do.”

The succubus frowned.

“How dreary. Since you can’t control me once I return to the Abyss, save your breathe. I’m not interested.” The succubus looked off at the group again and her smile returned. “Although I could be persuaded to change my mind if the right…payment were found.”

“You would be biting off more than you could chew with these mortals Lucricia. Let’s stick to standard payment.” Kalatrina handed the demon several small items the size of coins. They were grey in color. Asta was able to identify them as mortal soul fragments, the currency of most of the underworld.

“Very well, am I to do anything specific at these locations?” The succubus sounded bored by the task.

Kalatrina handed her a series of scrolls.

“Cast this once you return to the Abyss, and again in each of the other planes.”

Lucricia studied the scrolls for a moment, before her jaw dropped in shock.

“You’ve been a busy girl. Does Graz’zt know what you’re up to?”

“I suppose he will when you tell him. After you’ve completed my tasks.”

“I’m not sure if he’ll be enraged or delighted. Either way he won’t stop until he gets this information from you. You are unwise to involve me.”

“Perhaps I’m counting on him knowing what I’m up to.”

The succubus sighed.

“You plot like a devil. I care not for your schemes. I will complete your task momentarily. But just tell me one thing. When is it going to happen?”

“Good bye Lucricia.”

“You tease.”

The Demon vanished.

Over the next hour or so, Kalatrina sat with a book open in front of her. The pages, as far as Asta could see, were blank. After about twenty minutes, the book began to glow and writing filled many of its pages. What Asta could see of the text was numerous equations and diagrams.
Once the book stopped glowing, Kalatrina turned the pages until she reached a blank one and waited patiently. Several minutes later the book began to glow again and once more, blank pages were instantly filled a dizzying array of complex equations.

This process was repeated once more time before she closed the book and stood.
“Who’s hungry?” She cast Mage’s Magnificent Mansion once more, to create a comfortable shelter for the party and entered.

Dante did not wait long during they’re meal before speaking up.

“Kalatrina, what is Lucricia was referring to when asking “when is it going to happen” have anything to do with gates opening? If so, I might be willing to exchange some information with you. I’m no ordinary mortal."

“How few of us are ordinary mortals these days. As for the event in question, allow me to assure you I have not initiated it and it is unaffected by any summoning I am doing here. I am merely trying to understand it.”

She raised a hand to stop Dante before he could respond.

“Knowledge is power my young paladin. Unless everyone knows it, in which case the advantage is lost. As agreeable as you all are, I have no intention of tipping my hand to you. If I might also be so bold as to offer some advice. If you and your comrades have learned something important that I or Rumjal or the brat Abrogail are not aware of, do not be swift to trade it. In the coming days you will need every advantage you can get.”
She took a sip of wine.

“I must return to my work.”

Dante seemed shaken by Kalatrina’s words. As the wizard exited the mansion, He immediately turned to Amalie.

“Amalie, help us, and I will do anything I can to better your situation. Ask anything you wish of me.”

“I’m sorry Dante but I shouldn’t say anything more than Kalatrina has already. And even if I did, she doesn’t keep me advised as to her plans. There is not much for me to tell.”

Asta put down her plate and exited the mansion. She followed Kalatrina back to the ruined tower and observed the wizard for several hours. For the rest of the day, Kalatrina went through a summoning routine similar to the one she had done the previous day. What became obvious to Asta immediately, was that whenever she summoned multiple creatures, she ended up with more than the spells should allow.

Asta’s mind spun with the implications of what she was witnessing. She headed off to the far side of the Island to conduct some research of her own. She dismissed Skyyd, something she rarely ever did, but it was necessary if she was going to utilize her innate ability to cast summoned monster spells.

She summoned a celestial dog. The spell should allow for anywhere from two to five to be called. 5 were summoned. She found this unusual. Kalatrina was using the same spells yet getting a dramatically different result.

“Not exactly the same”

Asta attempted the same spell but instead summoned fiendish dogs. Again, the expectations of the spell would be two to five. Seven were conjured. Asta continued down this train of thought and summoned lemure devils, expecting one to three. Four appeared. Finally she attempted to summon dretch demons. Where one to three should have been, there were six. All remained for fourteen minutes, or double the amount of time the spell should have allowed.

She looked back at the ruined tower. It was vital that she convince the others to rebuild it and secure the surrounding area.

Asta was certain others would come seeking the power of this place. She doubted they would be as amiable as Kalatrina.

After a few more days of research Kalatrina was satisfied. She thanked the group for keeping their end of the agreement.

Asta smiled at Kalatrina as the party left the mansion for the last time.

“And thank you for holding up your end. I think that we have all learned some interesting lessons, and thank you again for the information about those texts. Take care on your travels.”

Comments

Atraiyu

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.