King Maker: Stormvale

The Varnhold Vanishing: Session 3

Sorry for the delay in updates. I’ve been busy writing for an anthology series. Also, football season is starting. And really, I don’t owe you people an ending to this story. You should be satisfied with what you’ve already gotten.

Siv

The group found the tomb at the foot of a cliff, where the beach met the limestone scarp. A dark opening in the stone beckoned the party. It was partially obscured by creepers and dangling foliage. Siv knew that if this entrance had not been used in millennia, it would have been completely grown over. Someone had come and gone from the tomb. And somewhat recently from the tracks she could see.

Upon entering, it was obvious that someone had been looting it. Ceremonial urns had been smashed and their contents taken. Pedestals that had clearly been designed to display objects of significance now laid bare. The group’s suspicions were confirmed. The leaders of Varnhold had found an ancient crypt filled with riches, and must have awoken whatever abomination had been entombed here.

The upper levels had been thoroughly plundered. The journey through the catacombs was largely uneventful. From the images on the walls, as well as other evidence they had found while searching for this place, it was becoming clear that the Nomen Heights had once been the site of a massive empire of Cyclopes. This structure was certainly built for creatures far larger than Humans or Elves.

The group eventually reached a room that they could not pass. All of the doors were sealed with no obvious mechanism for opening them. Siv enjoyed solving puzzles, but there was little to go on. Two stone statues sat facing each other on an alter. Each was shaped liked a demon that Siv could not identify. The Stone figures each held a bowl in their extended hands. A ceremonial dagger sat on each.

“I’ve seen alters like this before.” Amalie stated while focusing intently one of the stone statues.

Siv gave her a sideways look.

“With Kalatrina.” The wizard clarified. “I believe we need to fill these bowls with blood. And then…”

“And then what?” Asta asked, surely suspecting the same thing Siv was.

“Well, there are two possibilities. Either we use the torches here to boil the blood. Or…”

“We have to drink the blood.” Meric said while letting out an exasperated sigh. Amalie nodded.

Siv looked at the bowls. Each could hold a couple of pints of blood. More than one person could spare without healing.

“So how are we doing this? Short straw gets bled out on the demonic alter?” Siv asked playfully.

“The bigger question is, who has to drink the blood?” Dante added while summoning Virgil to his side.

“Let’s at least try to boil the blood first.” Asta suggested.

Dante led Virgil over to one of the bowls and grabbed the dagger.

“What are you doing?!?” Siv was incredulous. Meric and Asta looked at each other in silent shock.

“You’d rather we drain the blood from one of us?” Dante asked with surprise in his voice. He’s a horse Siv, as much as I love him, he’s not as valuable as person. I’ll heal him afterwards”

“Then heal yourself afterwards.”

“What if this ritual weakens the person whose blood is used? Or worse? Should we run into a fight against gods know what in a weakened state? Besides, if one of us has to drink the blood, would you rather it be human, or animal?”

This was rich. The paladin who was always insisting that the group do what was good, now butchering his own horse to spare himself potential pain.

Meric comforted Virgil as Dante opened a small wound in its side, above the bowl. Siv turned away in disgust for the rest of the Ritual. Before long, she could hear the sound of the blood boiling under the torches. A set of doors opened on the far side of the room. The group moved on in silence.

Exploration of the rooms beyond proved fruitful almost immediately. Laying on the ground, battered and malnourished, was a female centaur. Surely the one they were looking for.

“Xemanth?” Siv called out as she knelt beside the girl and put a hand on her side. There was no reaction.

“She’s been paralysed by magic.” Asta declared. “She won’t be able to move a muscle.”

Siv looked at Dante. “Did you memorize any Cure Paralysis spells today?” The paladin shook his head to indicate that he had not. “Neither did I. Damnit.”

Meric stepped in at this point. “We’ll have to come back for her. If we deal with whatever has done this to her, we can then safely cure her tomorrow.” Siv nodded in agreement, and spoke some comforting words to the centaur. They continued their march onward.

A few corridors further and the group arrived in what appeared to be a massive dining hall. A large banquet table sat in the center of the room. It could easily seat 30 large humanoids. Seated there however, were dozens of humans. Their skulls had been bashed open. It was a gruesome sight to behold.

Siv examined the clothing of a nearby victim. It was typical of a commoner from Brevoy.

“We’ve found our first victims from Varnhold.” Siv noted.

The druid could see Meric head to the opposite side of the room. He grabbed a sword from the man who sat at the head of the table. Siv could see this man was dressed like a noble.

“This is Maeger Varn. I can tell by the inscription on his sword.” Meric stated as he observed the state of the man who he might have been, had the swordlords sent him into the Nomen Heights.

“What did this…” Dante’s question was not finished before the answer leapt from the shadows of the far hallway. Four undead Cyclopes attacked the party in an instant. The creatures were large, and attacked with little but brute force.

The party moved with an efficiency that only comes from experience fighting as a group. Meric unleashed fireballs while backing up to a safer distance. The fire temporarily illuminated the room enough for Siv to be able to make out every detail of the decaying forms of these cyclopes. Siv had only encountered the undead a handful of times, but in each incident, she was struck by how disgusting they smelled.

Dante attacked the nearest cyclops to his position. With one blow, he broke the creature’s left leg, bringing it to one knee. With his second attack, he struck it in the mid section, sending it sprawling to the ground. With his third attack, he pulled his hammer back high above his head, and brought it down on the creature’s skull.

Skyyd pounced on a different cyclops. The tiger tore, bit and rended it into pieces. Siv and Ali attacked the fourth Cyclops with a myriad of spells.

The battle was soon over. Siv attempted to put together the pieces of this puzzle.

“So something down here is raising cyclops corpses from the dead. Why?”

“Raising zombie undead like this requires acting before the creature has decayed too much. Thses cyclopes must have been raised ages ago when their empire still existed.” Asta explained.

“None of this explains why we saw no signs of struggle in Varnhold.” Meric observed. “Let’s keep moving. We are getting close to the answer.”

The group continued on. They eventually reached a chamber that stretched forward into darkness. A channel of sulfurous water ran down the center of the chamber into a placid pool tinged in red and surrounded by kneeling forms. Nearby sat a small stone shrine decorated with several freshly severed human heads. Just beyond this grisly altar, a hideous throne made of bones loomed above the pool.

A voice could be heard echoing through the room.

“So far the world has fallen, that insignificant beings such as you should presume to rule over these lands. You, who cowered in caves, using tools made of stone and wood, while my people built the mightiest civilization the world has ever known. I will rebuild our empire atop your tiny corpses.”

Siv scanned every direction, attempting to discern where the voice was coming from.

Meric

Meric felt his entire body go cold and limp, as a sharp pain spread outward from his back. At first he thought he had been stabbed, but as he fell to the floor violently and was unable to bring his arms up to brace himself, he realized he had been hit with a paralysis spell.

His head came to rest on its side, facing his companions. They all turned to face Meric’s attacker. Their expressions did not inspire confidence that his friends would be able to swiftly dispatch their foe. He felt hands grab his shoulders as his body began to slide away from what would soon be a combat zone. It must have been Bishop, as she was the only one he could not see. How could a girl so small drag a full grown man in armor?

The thought was interrupted by Meric’s terror at seeing his assailant. A lich. A Cyclopean lich.

Skyyd and Barry pounced on him, but it was soon apparent that the lich’s flesh was resistant to their claws and teeth. Spells began to fly in all directions. Despite the situation, Em’s magical cackling left Meric unsettled. He hadn’t noticed just how creepy it was in their previous fights. It was likely because he had been so focused on the battles at hand. Now he was merely a spectator.

Without the ability to turn his head, he had only a partial picture of how the battle was unfolding. His sense was that the group was doing poorly. Dante was the only one who could consistently hurt the fiend. His smiting attacks tore deep with each blow. Ali and Siv unloaded everything in their arsenals, but this was a lich, by all rights the group should be dead already. Meric wonder if it was toying with them.

The lich unleashed a wave of negative energy. It healed the undead monster, and wounded all of the living beings in the room. Meric was an exception only in that he could not cry out in pain when it struck him. Bishop scrambled to move him further away from the battle, but she could only drag him so fast. A large attack from the lich might kill him. Meric suddenly thought of his grandfather’s signet ring, and realized that his death was exactly what the group needed. He desperately tried to tell Bishop to stop, but his lips would not move.

She pulled him out into a nearby hallway, but it offered no respite from the next attack of negative energy the lich unleashed. The grunts and cries of pain from the group echoed through the chamber. Even Bishop let out a pained wince. Em fell to the ground in view of Meric. Her body was lifeless. He was sure she was dead. They were running out of time. He could only hope the lich’s next attack would finish him off, and that his understanding of the contingency spell was correct.

The lich suddenly charge into the hallway, seemingly fleeing from Dante. The paladin continued to crush the lich under the power of smite after smite. The lich cast a fireball that headed directly for Meric and Bishop. He could hear his body guard tumble out of its path. If he could move, a smirk would have crossed his face.

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Meric floated for an indeterminate length of time. None of his senses detected any stimuli at all. There was no color, no sound, no odor, no vibration. He couldn’t even feel the pain of his wounds. His thoughts were crowded and unfocused. There was something he had forgotten. Something he must do. What was it?

Eventually he felt heat coming from his hand. It spread quickly across his entire body. Then other sensations followed. There was a cold, hard surface under his back. There were sounds of chaos and fury in front of him. And a name suddenly appeared in his mind.
“Vordakai.”

His eyes snapped open as he remembered. He looked up to see Dante still locked in combat with the lich. The paladin was caught in a cycle of healing his own wounds, and then smiting the lich. Meric raised a hand and aimed for the creature’s back. His fireball sent the abomination flying into a nearby wall. The lich fell in a burning heap.

“Your Grace!” Bishop shouted in pure joy. “I was sure you were dead.”

“I was.” Meric replied, still a bit groggy. He looked down at his signet ring. It no longer radiated magic.

Asta cradled her sister’s body nearby. She was upset, but still holding it together. Skyyd walked up to Asta with his head hanging low. He nudged Em’s hand repeatedly with his head. Siv reassured Asta that the group would have her restored to life as soon as they could go to Brevoy, where such magic could be found. Asta nodded while fighting back tears. They placed Em on Skyyd’s back. The tiger carried her with great care.

Meric stood and appraised their situation. There were plenty of wounds, but he and Em had been the only two casualties. The group wandered deeper into the lich’s sanctum, and managed to find his phylactery. They destroyed it immediately. They eventually reached a room full of large clay jars that radiated magic. Dante verified that they also radiated evil.
Asta approached one of the jars and placed a hand on it.

“There is someone alive in here. I can hear his thoughts.”

Meric peered closer at the jar. “It’s a soul jar.” He stated in astonishment.

His friends gave him confused look. “My grandfather told me about them. Infernalists use them to trap the souls of people for trade. Souls are currency in the lower planes. There are also a number of other uses for souls to an unethical wizard.” He explained.

“How do we free them?” Asta asked.

“If I remember correctly…” Meric removed the lid from a nearby jar. He tipped it over and allowed it to shatter on the floor. A cloud of mist that was released from the jar, quickly materialized into a man. “…like that.”

“Oh good. You just break them. We’re good at breaking things.” Siv quipped.

They rapidly began to free the others from all 42 soul jars. From the materials that could be found in this room, it was apparent that there had originally been far more than 42 jars. Likely hundreds. Meric surmised that Vordakai had either consumed their souls already, or had used them for trade. It was a tragedy, but saving even just these 42, and preventing a lich from engaging in further slaughter was an amazing achievement. The survivors were extremely grateful. They began to explain that several weeks ago, they had all simultaneously felt an un-resistible compulsion to leave their homes and march out into the open. Some could remember the moment when they touched the jars that had entrapped them. Meric was unaware of any compulsion spell that could affect an entire city at once.

Dante had searched the lich’s corpse and brought a clear crystal sphere to the group. It contained a pinpoint of flickering red light at its center. Meric could sense that it radiated powerful magic.

“This was in his eye socket instead of an eye. I don’t know how he could even see us. It’s strange, it shrank when I grabbed it. And it’s warm to the touch.” The paladin stated.

Meric could see a look of confusion hit Dante. Without warning, Dante reach towards his own face and plucked out his left eye with one swift motion. Those present in the room gasped in horror. The paladin then moved to place the crystal in the empty socket. Meric grabbed his arm while Siv helped wrestle him to the ground. They forced Dante to release it, and Meric swiftly placed it in a bag of holding without ever directly touching it.

Siv quickly healed Dante’s eye.

“I don’t know why I did that.” Dante managed to grunt out through the pain.

“This artifact I suspect. We’ll research it in detail later. Until then, no one touches it. Gods know what would have happened if you had actually gotten that thing into your eye socket.” Meric stated.

Asta was now sorting through the other magical items that had been found in the chamber. She quickly discovered a portable hole. Meric walked over as she reached into it and pulled out another soul jar. This one looked different. It was ornately decorated. He put a hand on it and could sense the thoughts of a child. They quickly emptied the contents of the hole, discovering another 54 ornate soul jars. All contained children. The party freed them, and led all of the survivors out of Vordakai’s tomb.

Asta

“So mortal children are completely helpless for the first several years of their lives?” Em asked in disbelief.

Asta nodded at her sister as she continued watching the orphaned children that had been rescued from Vordakai’s tomb, while they played in the park.

“So they are essentially parasites? Leeching off of others for nearly two decades?” Em was having some difficulty accepting this concept.

“I’m not sure that’s the best analogy. Haven’t you encountered children before?” Asta replied.

“A few, but I never assumed them to be so incapable. Some of the smallest fey are among the most powerful. I wouldn’t have naturally associated their small size with incompetence.”

“You know, you were a child once too.”

“Why do mortals tolerate this condition? Have there been no magical efforts made to accelerate the maturation process?”

Asta could only laugh in response. She and Em were getting along much better these days. Ever since Em had been raised from the dead several weeks before. The experience seemed to humble the witch a bit. And Asta found herself appreciating some of the quirks of her sister’s personality that she had once found irritating.

Asta was spending most of her time at the make shift orphanage that had been setup upon the group’s return to Stag’s End. These children had been plucked from all over Avistan. Many were too young to even understand where they were from. Many others had been orphans before they had been taken by Vordakai. Each possessed innate magical talents made their souls particularly potent and valuable. Vordakai must have been gathering them for some weeks.

Each had the potential to be a potent wizard or sorcerer. However none of them had received any formal training. Asta wouldn’t allow them to be thrown into the world unprepared to fend for themselves as she had been.

“Yes, I’m quite certain that I don’t like children.” Em affirmed.

“Well I guess I shouldn’t ask you to be a teacher at the arcane school I’m going to be setting up for these kids then. But I’m going to anyway.” Asta gave her sister a smile.

Em sighed. “You are hopelessly sentimental.”

“Is that a yes?”

“What do you have to gain from this?”

“It’s not always about gaining Em. Don’t you want to give these kids a better start than we were given?”

“People don’t appreciate things that they are given as much as things that they earn for themselves. Our difficult childhoods have left us immensely capable. You would deprive them of all they could learn on their own.”

“Both of us are lucky to still be alive. And neither of us got through it on our own. Father’s actions in giving me Skyyd are the only reason I’ve made it this far. And despite all of her…quirks, the Green Mother protected you through your most vulnerable years. These kids need help. And I can’t think of anyone more qualified than us.”

Em let out another sigh. “Will I have to speak to them?”

“A great deal I’m afraid.”

“And where will we be building this academy?”

“Don’t worry. I know just the place.”

View
The Varnhold Vanishing: Session 2

Meric

Meric always knew where to find Bishop at sunset. She had set up a small shrine to Aroden in the castle, where she could be found praying in accordance with the practices of orthodox Aroden worship. Though her god was dead, her devotion was alive and well. Meric didn’t see the point of it, though he thought it certainly spoke well of the girl’s loyalty. He waited silently for her prayers to be completed.

“Am I needed your Grace?”

“I’m headed into town shortly, and the last time I left the castle without your knowledge, there were injuries. I thought I’d spare the staff the terror this time and invite you along in advance.” Meric’s tone was good humored.

“Apologies again your Grace, I was…overzealous in my duties.”

Meric smiled.

“I can live with a certain amount of zeal in the service of my protection. Shall we head out?”

“Of course your grace. May I ask if the artifact has been dealt with?”

“Hidden in a lead box, which is itself inside a portable hole, which is hidden behind several feet of stone. If that is insufficient to protect it from Abrogail’s spies, then they can have the damn thing.”

Meric altered his appearance to one that would not be recognizable. Bishop gave him a confused look.

“We’re meeting with Lily, and it is best if no one knows that she acts as a spy for me.”

Bishop nodded, and they headed out. Several minutes later they arrived at Lily Teskerton’s home. She invited both them in with no questions asked.

“Your Grace, fancy meeting you here.”

“What do you have for me today Lily?”

“Not much. Your Paladin friend broke up the initial meetings of what was likely to become Stag’s End’s first thieves’ guild. They’ll reorganize, but it will take some time.”

“Any news from abroad then?”

Lily paused for a moment before replying.

“I have heard a few rumors that Varnhold has gone dark. Trade caravans to Restov seemed to have stopped about a week ago. One man claimed that he passed through the town a few days ago, only to find it completely deserted.”

Meric’s brow furrowed.

“Attacked?”

“Deserted. The man seemed quite spooked. So I take it this wasn’t your doing then?”

Meric gave Lily a brief glare before continuing.

“Anything else I should know?”

“Yeah, pick a different appearance next time before coming to see me. You look too much like an ex-boyfriend of mine. And you might want to make sure your alias isn’t wearing the Duke’s sigil on his finger. Kind of tips your hand.” Lily gave Meric a grin.

Meric looked down and noticed that his grandfather’s ring had not been suppressed by his spell. Suppressing items with a magical charge typically required a bit of extra effort, particularly where the enchantment was as potent as the one contained in that ring. Meric suppressed a curse as he modified the spell to give the ring the appearance of a cloudy gemstone.

“Charming as always Lily. I’ll be in touch.”

Meric and Bishop exited the house and began the slow walk back to the castle. Meric liked to take odd routes through the city to familiarize himself with every alley and shop in Stag’s End. He stopped at a low-ceilinged tavern and bought a skin of wine and a meat pie from a tubby halfling.

“Will we be investigating Varnhold personally your Grace?”

“Possibly. I’d like to know a bit more before we jump in the middle of this situation.”

Meric could hear his bodyguard praying quietly under her breathe

“I thought your next prayer wasn’t until just before you went to sleep.”

“A prayer for those who are missing from Varnhold.”

“A prayer to Aroden?”

“Yes.”

Meric had always avoided potentially offending Bishop’s beliefs before, but decided to ask the question this time.

“And what will a dead god do for the people of Varnhold?”

Bishop looked at Meric with penetrating eyes. She always stood just a tad too close to other people. As if she was making a conscious effort to inform them that they had no personal space as far as she was concerned.

“The rightful king of Cheliax should not be so quick to dismiss He that raised our nation into an empire.”

Meric decided not to press the girl further.

Dante

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” Dante spoke as contritely as possible.

“It would be worth very little if we had both been consumed in hellfire.” Amalie shot back.

Dante thought it best to remain silent

“Just promise me you won’t try something like that again.”

Again, Dante thought it best to remain silent. Amalie sighed.

“At least promise me that you’ll have a better plan next time. Or even just something that resembles a plan.”

“I understand that I screwed up Amalie. It’s just not in my nature to back down from a fight.”

This time it was Amalie who remained silent. Before Dante could speak again, Meric and the others entered the council room. Once everyone was seated, the Duke spoke.

“Over the past few days, we have received a number of reports that Varnhold, our neighboring barony to the east, has gone silent. Today, we received a message from Restov.” Meric pulled a letter from his pocket and began to read from it.

Greetings from Restov and congratulations on your triumphs. I hope that we are entering a time in which these lands will be called stolen only in history texts! Yet it would seem that for all your victories, your fellow colonists to the east have met with trouble. The settlers of Varnhold are not responding to messengers—and indeed, some envoys have gone missing as well. You may have noticed this on your own, but as the political climate here in Restov grows more turbulent, we find ourselves increasingly limited in the amount of aid we can send. Certainly, we cannot send troops south to Varnhold to investigate without our overly watchful lords to the north misinterpreting the act. And so it falls to you, I fear, to investigate the Varnhold mystery. For if something dire has befallen the colony, you must realize that your own could be next!

Trusting in your discretion and expedience,
Jamandi Aldori—Swordlord of Restov

“Needless to say, this situation is delicate.” Meric continued. “I’m not eager to appear to be taking orders from Restov. However, their assessment of their situation in Brevoy is correct. They cannot send troops south to Varnhold without provoking Issa. And they are right about our situation as well. Our lands now border Varnhold’s. If Varnhold came under attack, we are in danger as well. We can’t afford to sit back and hope for the best. We go in.”

“Should we raise an army in case it was an attack?” Dante feared the worst with this situation.

“It could send a bad message if we march an army to a neighboring state, even if it is only to help. The eight of us go. We assess the situation, and if an army is required, we will return to Stormvale and raise one.” Meric replied.

Asta asked the only other question.

“When are we leaving?”

“In the morning. Make whatever preparations you must tonight. We ride straight through to Varnhold tomorrow.”

The group dispersed to their individual quarters to prepare. Dante spent some time walking the Castle’s ramparts, while reflecting on the past few weeks. His ability to sense evil had caused him fits ever since he was chosen by Kord to walk the path of a paladin. But Rumjal was different. He wasn’t a being who had committed acts of evil, which had tainted his aura. He was evil. His entire body was made of it. With his sense, Dante could see that there was no Rumjal, only a manifestation of malice and cruelty, which wore a disarming smile. His very existence was an affront to all that was good.

And yet he was hardly unique in the outer planes. An infinite number of devils and demons lay just on the outside of reality, waiting for an opportunity to enter the material plane and wreak havoc. Would he hurl himself suicidaly at them all? How long could the hordes of the abyss, and the tyrants of the nine hells be kept at bay? It was like attempting to hold back an ocean.

Dante looked out on Stag’s End one last time before heading inside.

Asta

The silence of Varnhold was deafening. The city wasn’t as large as Stag’s End, but clearly housed thousands of settlers. Yet Asta had seen not a single person since they had arrived. She had prepared herself for the worst, but the worst involved thousands of civilians lying dead in the streets.

Instead, the party encountered a ghost town. There was simply no trace of the people who resided here. No signs of violence or invasion. The homes and shops appeared to be unlooted. The entire situation sent chills down her spine.

“Should we search door to door?” Siv asked the party as a whole.

“Not yet. If there were any survivors holed up somewhere, the fort is the most likely place. Let’s check it as a group before we begin searching the buildings.” Meric replied

Asta’s hope of finding survivors within vanished rapidly, as she saw the gate hanging wide open. Dante stopped suddenly in his tracks.

“There’s evil on the other side of the wall.” The Paladin declared as he drew his weapon. The others followed suit. Dante, Skyyd and Barry took point as they entered.

Inside were a half dozen orcs. They attacked the group immediately. What followed could hardly be classified as a fight. The marshal prowess of the group alone was enough to overpower their foes in seconds, without any magic being needed. A search of the rest of the fort yielded no further clues.

“Six orcs couldn’t have done all of this.” Asta observed.

“Maybe there were more. Maybe the rest moved on already.” Dante commented.

“Without looting the city? And they would have no reason to remove all of the bodies. Besides, where is the blood from the battle? Where are the burning buildings? It seems more likely that these orcs moved in after whatever tragedy befell the city.” Meric added.

Asta could see Siv following the tracks of the orcs.

“I think Meric is right. I only see the tracks of these six.” Asta could see that Siv’s entire countenance had changed. She now seemed extremely angry. She would need to ask the druid about what had happened once there was a quiet moment.

“Let’s split up into pairs and search the buildings.” Meric suggested.

Asta, Em and Skyyd headed to the inn. The interior of the establishment showed no signs of distress. No overturned furniture, no signs of struggle at all. Asta wasn’t sure what was more disturbing: the fact that the people of this city had been taken, or that they never had a chance to fight back.

They headed upstairs and began searching rooms. Asta found nothing out of the ordinary in the first few.

“What’s this?” Em asked as she held up a book titled ‘ The Lusty Elven Maid ’

“That is…not relevant to the disappearances.” Asta stated awkwardly as she grabbed the book from Em’s hand. Her sister gave her a suspicious look.

“Let’s check the last few rooms.” Asta moved quickly out of the door as she spoke.
The largest room in the inn remained unsearched. Asta opened the doorand almost fell backwards when she saw an orc standing with its weapon drawn. After several seconds, it became apparent that the creature was not moving at all.

“Immobilized by some sort of magic.” Em guessed.

Asta scanned the room and saw many books and notes scattered about. It would take some time to go through all of it.

“Em, go find the others and bring them back here. I’ll see what I can find.”

“Don’t strain my abilities or anything.” Her sister declared as she exited the room.

Asta rolled her eyes. Their relationship needed work.

Skyyd advanced on the orc and tapped on it with his paw. He looked to Asta waiting to follow her lead.

“Just watch him Skyyd. I don’t think he’s dangerous right now.” The tiger sat down and stared at his prey.

Asta poked through the desk of the room, looking for clues. Whoever was staying here had been doing some sort of archaeological research. She grabbed a book that was open on the desk, and began reading from the page that was currently exposed.

And so it was, high upon the Torres and well above the Vale’s Stairs, where rises from the high water a stony isle of dire report. Known as Vordakai’s Island to those that do live thereabout, some legend of its name doth come down through the locals. For they speak of a guardian that doth destroy all who would set foot upon its accursed shores. They did name no fewer than a twelvecount of their hero-knights who had left their bones upon its rocky shores over the years after having tested their mettle against its dread warden, ’til none would any longer go there for fear of its hidden terrors. And the name of this terror was given unto this Island.

“Vordakai?” Asta whispered to herself. The name meant nothing to her. She sensed she would be doing a great deal of reading for the rest of this expedition.

Siv

The Nomen Heights were not Siv’s preferred natural environment. The mountains were cold and largely lifeless. For days the party had scoured them for Vordakai’s island, which had been mentioned in book Asta found. “High above the Torres”, had implied it was positioned somewhere in the mountains to the south. But the area was vast, and the party’s efforts bore no fruit.

Aside from the location, the group didn’t really know what they were looking for. Their best guess had been that someone in Varnhold had unearthed something dangerous in an ancient tomb, and that the people had fallen victim to whatever had been unleashed. Yet with no further clues, there was little point in continuing to wander aimlessly through the mountains. They had headed north to the Dunsward. It was an area of largely flat plains, located within Varnhold’s borders. If they found no further clues or survivors from Varnhold, they would return home to Stormvale with no answers.

Siv had noticed a large number of Mammoth tracks ever since they had entered the Dunsward. She had never seen one before, and was excited by the prospect. Her first opportunity was not all she had hoped for.

“That’s an enormous carcus.” Ali observed. “What killed it? Are there any animals that prey on mammoths?”

“People.” Several members of the party observed simultaneously.

Siv began to look for the tracks of the hunters. She saw numerous horse tracks, but nothing else.

“Whoever they are, I don’t think they ever dismounted their horses.” Siv commented.

“Then how did they gut and skin the animal?” Asta replied.

The answer was not readily apparent. Meric urged the group onward, following the tracks of the hunting party. Siv had a constant sense that she was forgetting something. That something was off about the tracks. But she couldn’t identify a reason for her sense, so she remained silent.

Eventually the party came to a village. Tents and campfires dotted the landscape. Siv could now see her mistake. The hunters had not dismounted because they simply couldn’t. They had found a tribe of nomadic Centaurs. A war-band rode out towards the party and demanded the group identify themselves.

“I am Duke Meric Thorn of Stormvale. We come in goodwill. A human settlement to the east of here has fallen to some sort of disaster. We are trying to determine the cause. We are searching the surrounding lands for clues. Would you or any of your people know anything that could help us?”

“The humans encroached on our lands. Why should we care if they encroached on someone else’s and invited disaster on themselves? The Nomen Centaurs own the Dunsward. Be off Humans.”

‘Half-Elf. It makes no more sense to refer me as Human than, it would for me to refer to you as a human…or a horse.’ Siv thought but didn’t say to the centaur. She left the diplomacy to Meric. There was always the potential for an ugly misunderstanding in these first encounters with other races on Stormvale’s borders. But Siv never worried anymore. Meric handled these encounters better than anyone she had ever met. He would get them inside the village asking questions in just a few minutes.

“Varnhold is a mere 30 miles from this village. If something destroyed them, it can destroy you as well. As I said, we are only here to help. Allow me to speak with your leader. We will abide by all of your rules while we are here, and not cause you any disturbances.” Meric’s golden tongue continued to work for the party.

The centaurs relented and escorted the party to their village. They were brought to a large tent, and warned to show only the upmost respect while in the presence of Mother Moon Aecora. The little Siv knew of centaurs told her that their leader’s role was likely more that of a war-priestess than a queen. One of the centaurs entered ahead of them, presumably to inform her that an audience was requested. After a few minutes they were granted entrance.

They were escorted by all eight of the centaur war-band that had met them as they approached the settlement. In front of them stood a female centaur dressed in armor. She had long red hair that flowed down each side of her head in two large braids. One of the other centaurs spoke.

“Now explain to Mother Moon why you have encroached upon our lands.”

Meric patiently explained the situation much as he had earlier. Mother Moon appeared impassive. He went on to expain that they were looking for an island named Vordakai.

Aecora grew solemn at the mention of this name. After a moment, she admitted that the name was not unknown to her. According to their traditions, ‘Vordakai’ was a “slumbering warlord from the time of the mother tribes.” Siv took this to mean that this Vordakai was an ancient, powerful figure from a point in the distant past.

She apologized for being unable to give the group more information, as their tribe had lost much of its history in the years since they had been dispersed by Taldor’s armies.

“There is a place you might go to learn more—although it is a place that I fear may be your doom if you travel there. To the west is Olah-Kakanket—the Valley of the Dead. The name ‘Vordakai’ is associated with a narrow trail that leads up into the mountains from its far end. I believe that the valley is a graveyard, and that this trail leads to Vordakai’s tomb. This place is forbidden to the Nomens, but our traditions also dictate that we must watch the valley for signs of disturbance or strange awakenings. One of our huntresses recently disappeared while investigating a disturbance near Olah-Kakanket. She has not been seen in days. We would be eternally grateful if you could bring us any news of her.”

Mother Moon Aecora signaled to one of the nearby centaurs.

“I will send a guide with you who will lead you to the trail. He will not follow you up the mountain.”

Meric thanked the War-Priestess for all of her aid. As they turned to exit the tent, Aecora spoke again.

“Our missing Huntress…she is my daughter. Please find her.”

View
The Varnhold Vanishing: Session 1

Meric

Abrogail struggled desperately to escape her bonds, blood running down her face.

“For crimes against the crown of Cheliax and its people, I hereby sentence you to death, to be carried out immediately. May your infernal masters take great pleasure in tormenting your soul for all eternity.” Abrogail attempted to respond, but the lack of a tongue made speaking difficult. Meric raised a hand and gestured toward the pile of kindling at Abrogail’s feet.

Your grace…
Meric looked around, irritated, as though a fly were circling his head. This was the dream he had dreamed at least twice a week for the past two years, ever since the deaths of his parents and brother, but this voice was new. He chose to ignore it, and a fireball exploded at the base of Abrogail’s pyre. She screamed a bloody scream, and Meric smiled.

Your grace, please…
Meric stopped smiling, his hand going to the sword at his side. It’s time.
“Your grace!”

Meric opened his eyes. Less than six inches away, an icy blue pair of eyes stared into his own. He drew in a breath, the power drawing itself together inside him -

“Please don’t, your grace. Killing you is certainly not my intention.” Meric exhaled, only then noticing that there was a knife pressed against his throat. He let the magical energies go, forcing himself to relax. He was in his bedchambers, alone but for a blonde girl of no more than sixteen years straddling his chest, the aforementioned knife in her hand. Meric kept silent.

“This won’t do, your grace. It’s a wonder the Red Mantis haven’t gotten you.” She seemed to relax ever so slightly.

“I’m afraid you have me at a loss.” He smiled disarmingly…he hoped. She did not return the smile, though she did sit up.

“I apologize, your grace. I had to make my point.”

“And that point would be…?”

“That you need me, your grace. My protection. If there is any hope for Cheliax, you must be safeguarded.” She sheathed the knife. “My life, and my death, are yours to command.”

Meric raised himself to one elbow on the bed, his brow furrowing at this dangerous teenager. For once, he was speechless.

Bishop

There were too many entrances to Meric’s throne room for Bishop’s taste. She saw no fewer than twelve weaknesses a skilled assassin could exploit to reach the Duke before anyone could assist him. Changes would be needed, though the Captain of the guard was hesitant to take any of her advice despite Meric’s orders. No doubt he disliked a girl half his age telling him how to do his job. Meric held open court on most of the days he was present in Stag’s End. If he was to insist on spending so much time in such a vulnerable spot, precautions would need to be taken.

Since she had gained the Duke’s trust, her priority had been assessing potential threats from within the castle. After all, most monarchs are killed by their own domestics, not an external enemy. The staff was loyal if somewhat oblivious. The castle’s guards left much to be desired.

Meric was alive only because of the exceptional abilities of he and his closest allies. She wondered if they could be trusted long term, or if any of them would attempt to wrestle power away from her liege. She would need plans to deal with each of them should the worst occur.

Keston Garess entered the room leading a pair of men whom Bishop did not recognize. She noticed immediately the sigil of Cheliax on their armor. She moved closer to Meric and placed her hands on her daggers.

“Your Grace. Twenty seven men arrived this morning wearing armor that bears the sigil of Cheliax. They claim to have come to swear fealty to you. I am sure it was simply a ruse to attempt to get close enough to attack you, but I thought it best to bring the leaders before you so that you may question them yourself.”

Could that be true? Or a Red Mantis trick…? Bishop could not decide.
Meric furrowed, his brow and glanced at the two men.

“Thank you, Keston.” Meric raised his voice slightly. “What brings you to our fair city?”

“Your Grace.” The man dropped to one knee before Meric. He appeared to be in his late 30s. He looked quite formidable.

“I am Grachius Albus. I lead a mercenary company that operates out of Cheliax. Abrogail’s minions attempted to suppress the news of your letter, but it spread too quickly among the population. My men and I had to come see you to confirm it.”

Albus looked at Meric for a moment before smiling.

“I have seen a protrait of your grandfather, I swear you look exactly like him. Your claim is valid. My father served as a guard to house Thrune when Merric ruled. When your grandfather fled, my father managed to save a few items from the manor before the fires consumed it. He defied Abrogail’s new laws and kept copies of the true histories, not the manufactured ones that she and her devils have re-written and distributed to the population. He taught me the truth from these books.”

His expression turned to one of almost despair.

“Have you ever been to Cheliax your Grace?”

“I have not. My family has lived in exile since the coup. I plan to remedy that deficiency in the very near future, however.”

“It is worse than any outsider has imagined. The entire population lives in fear. Devils walk the streets freely. They act as Abrogail’s secret police, disguising themselves using foul magic. They infiltrate every organization and noble family. They sniff out those who are even the slightest bit disloyal and execute them in barbaric fashion as a lesson to others. Tieflings now make up 15% of the population. In some areas, it’s more like 20%. Soon there will be nothing left of your homeland worth saving Meric.”

“There are still patriots though. I brought 27 of my men, but that is not all of them. Word has been sent to the others. They are retrieving supplies and equipment that we had stashed for just such an occasion. We have no families back in Cheliax for Abrogail and her devils to use as leverage against us. We swear allegiance to you Meric Thorn. We will give our lives to see Cheliax redeemed.”

All of the man’s words about Chelix rang true to Bishop. She had lived through the same.

Meric sat back, a grin spreading across his face. “Bring this man a cup of wine. Captain, I do not hesitate to say that I believe your allegiance will be tested in short order; we have no shortage of threats here in Stag’s End.”

Bishop was not sure what to make of these mercenaries. Her lord was prudent, but the agents of Abrogail were masters of deceit. She trusted no one yet save herself and the rightful king of Cheliax. That was unlikely to change anytime soon.

Em

The fey despised the breach scars, but Em always found them somewhat comforting. This was surely because she was not fey. The island of stability they produced seemed somehow…right to her. She often sought them out when she wished to be alone, as the fey generally kept their distance from them.

She knew the breach scars were entrances to another plane of existence. A strange one, where the terrain was consistent, and time flowed at an even rate for all. The fey had many horror stories about the dreary and unimaginative beings that lived there. She was unsure how much of it was true, and how much of it had been made up to shame her about her heritage. Many of the denizens of the First World were quite cruel.

Today however, her peaceful respite of stability was interrupted by something most random. Four creatures emerged from the breach scar. They were mortals like her. She sat with her hand lazily dangling in the stream next to her. She saw no reason to fear them. They had a confused look about them.

They spoke in the common tongue, which Em had learned as an attempt to learn more about mortals. It was a strange and rigid language. She preferred the Sylvan used by the fey. It had a lyrical quality to it that she found lacking in all other languages she had encountered.

One of the women attempted to converse with Em in common. She pretended not to understand. It was bad form to enter another realm and expect the natives to accommodate you. Perhaps the woman was surprised to find a mortal in the First World, and assumed Em would speak common. The fact that she could was beside the point.

The other woman addressed her in Sylvan.

“Greetings. My name is Sivileana. My friends and I have come from the material plane in the hopes that we can convince a nymph to aid us in repairing the damage done to our lands by one of the unseelie court.” Sivileana spoke with a thick accent in her Sylvan, but Em could understand her.

“It seems unlikely that you could convince a nymph to risk her immortality by leaving the First World.”

“Never the less, we must try. Could you be so kind as to point us in the direction of one?”
Em smiled. They didn’t understand. Of course, this world must seem quite strange to them.
She could see the confused faces of Sivileana’s three companions, and decided it was rude to continue speaking in a language they could not understand.

“You do not navigate the First World by direction. You navigate it by will. If you wish to find a nymph, simply find one.”

The comely man with black hair responded first.

“Are you saying that by wishing it to be so, we can make it so?”

“No, I am saying that by making it so you can make it so. You traverse the First World by bending it to your will.”

“We are not experienced in such things. It may prove difficult for us. Would you be willing to help us…I’m sorry, I never asked for your name.” Sivileana had manners that Em was unaccustomed to. She approved.

“Emreal. I can take you to someone who can help. But the fey do not suffer the presence of mortals without taking at least some measure of amusement from them. You should exercise caution for the duration of your stay.”

Em led the group towards the Green Mother. She thought it unwise to take them directly to any of the nymphs who lived in the Mother’s domain, without first getting the elder’s consent.

As they traveled, she learned the names of the others, Meric, Dante and Asta. Several of them commented that she and Asta looked very much alike. She didn’t see the resemblance. They were both Half-Elf females, but she thought they looked no more similar than Meric and Dante.

Before long, Asta began to talk slower and slower. Her movements slowed to that of a fraction of the others. This was such a commonplace occurrence, that Em thought nothing of it. Asta’s companions panicked.

“What’s happening to her?” Dante shouted.

“Time is not a fixed concept here. It can fluctuate from person to person.”

“Will it return to normal for her?”

“From Asta’s perspective, we are all moving incredibly fast. Who’s to say which perspective, if
either, is normal?”

“It will be difficult for us to work together like this. What can we do to align our time streams?” Meric asked somewhat impatiently.

“Will it to be so.” Em wondered why they were having so much difficulty with this concept.

Sivileana focused on Asta for a moment and closed her eyes. Em could sense her exert her will on their surroundings. Asta began to speed up until she matched the others.

“That was a bizarre experience.” Asta stated.

Em hurried the group along to the court of the Green Mother. Fortunately, the many Nixies and Sprites kept their distance from the party. They likely didn’t know what to make of seeing Em acting as their escort. Em didn’t believe the mortals would be successful in their attempt to convince the elder to part with one of her nymph subjects, but the Green Mother was capricious. Her mood at the moment would be the deciding factor.

“Emreal my dear! So good to see you! And I see you have brought guests. Such an attractive group of mortals too.”

“They have come from the material plane with a request Green Mother. I thought it best to bring them before you.”

“Excellent! Come, tell me what it is you seek?”

Sivileana addressed the elder fey, And explained the situation. The Green Mother seemed
dismissive.

“No nymph will agree to such a request. I’m afraid you waste your time mortals.”
Em suddenly had a thought.

“Actually mother, I believe Nyrissia would be willing to make such a journey.”

“Perhaps you are right. But I couldn’t possibly part with Nyrissia! I could never grant such a request, even temporarily. Unless…” The Green Mother spent a moment sizing up Meric before smiling and gesturing in his direction. “A trade could be arranged. You take Nyrissia and leave that one behind for me for the duration of her stay on the material plane.”

Em knew Meric did not speak Sylvan and could not have understood the Green Mother. This did not prevent him from detecting the elder’s baser intent merely from the way she was looking at him. He returned her smile flirtaciously. Em wondered how his countenance would change if he understood that the Mother intended to keep him for a decade.

“We cannot spare him for that long Green Mother.” Siv responded diplomatically. “Is there perhaps another favor we can do for you?”

“There is one thing, though I am sure you will all be killed in attempting it.”

“We are willing to try Green Mother.” Sivileana’s determination impressed Em. She thought the two of them had very much in common.

“Very well, you have been warned. There is a particularly deadly Satyr hunter in my domain wreaking havoc. Kill him, and I will arrange for Nyrissia to join you on the material plane.” The Green Mother then gestured to Asta as she spoke to Em. “Oh and Emreal, it will be dangerous. Do go with them, sisters should look out for each other.”

“Huh?” Em found herself at a lack for eloquent words.

“That girl had the same mother and father as you did dear. That makes her your sister. Do try to keep up Emreal. It would be a shame for you to meet her only to have her killed on the same day.”

Em took another long look at Asta. She still could not see the resemblance.

Asta

Asta could definitely see the resemblance between herself and Em. The necklace Em wore futher confirmed what they had been told. It was the symbol of their mother’s elven family, and matched the one Asta had carried since she was a child. The Green Mother had refused to answer any further questions on the subject, and sent them off to kill the Horned Huntsman. The encounter had nearly cost Dante his life, but they were successful. Siv had renewed focus now that the Narlmarches were being repaired by the presence of the Nymph.

Asta was overjoyed when her new found sister decided to leave the First World and accompany them back to the material plane. She had spent much of their journey to Cheliax peppering the girl with questions. She didn’t see how it was possible for them to share the same father, as Em was only a few years younger than Asta, and their mother had abandoned their father a decade before the point when Em would have had to have been conceived. Em suggested that the flow of time in the First World could easily account for her having aged faster than expected.

This raised other difficult questions. How did Em end up in the land of the Fey in the first place? Where was their mother now? She needed to make answering these questions a priority…just not today.

A chill went down her spine as a pair of Hell Knights past her and Em on the street. She was unnerved every time she saw them. It didn’t help that she had to keep Skyyd unsummoned. She felt almost naked without him. They were only doing reconnaissance on the tower, and she reminded herself that there would be no fighting today. Yet every time one of the agents of Cheliax glanced in her direction, she couldn’t help but feel that they could see right through her.

Egorian was full of people, and yet simultaneously lifeless. The city itself was beautiful. But at all times, one could sense that the spirit of the citizens was completely broken. Numerous tieflings walked the streets. Asta had met tieflings before and knew they were no more likely disposed to evil than other mortals. But the sheer number of them present in a city controlled by devils, gave the impression that the devils were slowly breeding out the native population.

“What a dreadful place.” Em commented

“We haven’t nearly seen the worst of it. Hopefully we won’t have to.” The sooner they left this place the happier Asta would be.

“Will Stag’s End be like this one day?”

“We’d never let that happen.”

“Maybe you won’t be able to stop it. What if Meric’s heir is incompetent, or cruel? You already have an infernal benefactor.”

Asta shot Em a dirty look.

“This topic makes you uncomfortable. Very well, I will desist.“

They arrived at the University of Egorian. Bishop had explained that most of the building was open to the public, but that it would be best if they split up on their way there as to not attract attention. The party was quite large at this point. Meric’s new body guard Bishop was a constant companion. As was Ali, the girl whom Siv had taken under her wing. Adding to the total were Em and Amalie. They each brought new talents to the group, and Asta knew they would need all the help they could get on this mission. Yet part of her missed the days when it was just the four of them in the wilds, fighting their way through bandits.

They entered the building without incident and found the others gathered in the public library. Asta took a few moments to scan some of the available volumes. None of the traditional history books were present. In their place stood the government sanctioned versions, updated by the Chelish regime yearly. Despite its appearances, this was not a place of learning. Asta had a hard time masking her disgust.

“Follow me.” Asta nearly jumped as Bishop suddenly spoke from directly behind her. The girl had a way of sneaking up on everyone.

Bishop led the group through the hallways of the university. They were asked by a few people what they were doing, but each time Meric easily persuaded the questioner that their presence was innocent and expected. Eventually they reached the center of the structure. They were now directly underneath the tower.

“If we can find a point that is adjacent to the tower walls, I could possibly stone shape a hole for us.” Siv offered.

“That gets us in, but how do we get out?” Asta replied.

“One thing at a time.” Meric countered. “How do we get up there?”

Amalie spoke up. “The tower has to be recessed into the ceiling quite a bit. There should be open spaces in the ceiling above us where the masons laid the foundation for the tower. Get to one of those openings and we’ll be right beside the tower.”

Dante was surprised by this. “How do you know so much about architecture?”

“I read.” Amalie seemed embarrassed. “A lot…”

It took only a couple of minutes to find an access point to the space between the ceiling and the roof of the building. Once they located the tower wall, they began a barrage of magical inquiries. Numerous magical auras were detected. It seemed likely that the tower was dimensionally locked. Teleporting in or out would not be an option. Some of the other auras were likely alarm spells. Meric used clairvoyance and determined that there were two guards inside. Neither was a Hell Knight.

“I think we can do this, but what’s our escape plan?” Dante stated. Asta suddenly had an idea.

“Only the tower is dimensionally locked. If we buy a scroll of teleportation, I can probably teleport three of us out with the artifact as soon as we are outside of the tower.”

“What do you mean by probably?” Meric responded.

“What do you mean by three of us? I count eight.” Em added.

“There is a chance of failure. My arcane skill is insufficient to guarantee success. And my limit would be three people.” Asta stated disappointedly.

“That’s not a problem. I can cast a fortune hex on you. It won’t guarantee the spell will work, but it will increase the odds substantially. I’m more concerned about the five people that would be left behind.” If Em was nervous, you could not discern it from her voice. Asta was always so timid until recently. Em seemed confident in all situations. Despite being sisters, they were very different.

“I say we do it. If you can get Meric and the artifact out of Cheliax, it makes it easier for the other five of us to escape.” Asta was grateful for Siv’s vote of confidence.

“Agreed. We’ll be fine. Though we probably need some tricks up our sleeves ourselves in case things go badly.” Dante sounded confident as well. Asta supposed that all of the long odds the group had overcome over the past couple of years had left them certain they could overcome any obstacle. She hoped it wasn’t over confidence.

“So how do we fight our way through, and disable the wards without drawing any attention?” Asta was looking directly at Meric as she spoke. The Duke smiled before responding.

“I have a plan.”

Siv

Siv knew it was too late to turn back now. But she had serious doubts about the group’s plan. She fully expected to have to fight their way through the tower in order to find the artifact. If Meric pulled this off without violence, there would be no need to exaggerate this tale at next year’s Stag’s End day.

Meric nodded to the others, and the buffs began to fly. He altered himself to appear as a Hell Knight. Heroism, Moment of Greatness, Eagle’s splendor and a Fortune Hex were cast. He drank a potion of glibness, and put on a circlet of persuasion. Shield and Protection from Evil were added in case things didn’t go as planned.

Siv transformed into a mouse and hid in one of Meric’s pockets. She would be there in case the guards didn’t buy Meric’s ruse, and the situation escalated to combat before the others could enter the room. This was particularly amusing to her, because she had her armor enchanted with the hostelling ability, which allowed her to magically store Barry in her armor. This enabled her to bring him with her anywhere in Cheliax. She smiled thinking of the Hell Knights reactions to a Half-Elf leaping from the pocket of Meric, only to have a full grown bear jump from the armor of the Half-Elf.

She cast stone shape, and removed enough of the tower wall for Meric to pass through. He stepped forward into the chamber. Siv braced herself for the worst.

There were two Hell Knights inside. She cursed the group’s luck. They both reached for their weapons. Meric seemed unphased. He immediately went into character, and began breathing heavily, as if he had been running.

“I’m going to speak quickly. The fate of Cheliax may rest on your listening closely and following my instructions without question.

“The castle is under attack by Andoran Eagle Knights. The other side of that portal has been compromised. I’ve been sent to bring the artifact to safety – I had to use this entrance to the tower to prevent the Andorans from learning the location of the portal, as the other side has been shielded by illusion. I need one of you to go up and get the artifact along with anything else of value which should be prevented from falling into their hands. You must make sure that the alarm does not go off – that is the signal that I need reinforcements, and if the queen sends assistance to us needlessly it could cost her life.

“You must now set up a defensive position on this side of the portal – if they find the other entrance, be ready to defend this position with your lives. You must buy me as much time as possible to get this artifact away from here. In Asmodeus’ name.”

Though Siv knew every word was a lie, she found herself almost believing it.

The two Hell knights stood in disbelief for several moments before one turned to the other and spoke.

“You heard him! Get the artifact!” The second Hell Knight immediately ran towards the upper level of the tower.

I can’t believe this is going to work.

Several minutes past before the Hell knight returned, holding a locked chest.
“Where are we taking it?” The second Hell knight asked.

“I already explained that I need you to remain here to buy me time.”

Both Hell Knights were beginning to seem unsure. Meric walked over and grabbed the chest from the first Hell Knight, who made no effort to stop him. If Meric could just talk them into remaining, the group would be home free.

“What is the meaning of this?” Siv turned and could see an Erinyes Devil had entered the tower.

So much for a clean getaway.

Meric bolted for the hole in the tower and Asta wasted no time attempting the teleportation. Soon, Asta, Meric and Em vanished from sight. Siv stone shaped the hole in the tower closed, and transformed back into her natural form.

Each member of the group that remained cracked their snapleaf, and was made instantly invisible.
They ran through the university with tremendous urgency. Several people inside possessed the ability to see invisible creatures, and each gave a confused look as the group ran by. But none tried to stop them. Siv knew that woudn’t last. When they reached the exit, she told the others to split up and head for the safe house.

It was a half mile back to the house. It belonged to one of the men who had sworn fealty to Meric. Once they had regrouped, they could make for the nearest exit and get clear of the city. Siv arrived first, and waited impatiently as the others trickled in. Dante was the last to arrive. Siv had feared he had been unable to resist the urge to attack Infernal pursuers. Fortunately, he made it without incident.

“Thankfully they didn’t see any of our faces. We should be able to move to an exit without issue if we leave now.” Siv’s adrenaline was still pumping as she spoke.

“I don’t think that’s true Lady Siv.” Amalie stated nervously.

“What do you mean?”

“Those Hell Knights in the tower. I peaked at them with my familiar. They had the symbol of the Order of the Scourge. They can see through stone. Both of them likely saw us through the wall after Meric entered.”

“We should leave now then before they can spread our descriptions around.” Siv moved for the door, when suddenly Ali’s body flew backwards and hit the floor.

“Ali!” Siv ran to her side. Ali reached a hand up to Siv’s shoulder. The girl’s eyes glowed a brilliant white as she spoke.

“You can’t go…they’ll see.”

Ali

The power faded from Ali as quickly as it had arrived. She fought back tears that were welling up in response to her persistent inability to control her powers.

“I’m alright.”

Siv wildshaped into and earth elemental and dissappeard into the stone of the chimney. She returned a few moments later and reassumed her Half-elf form.

“Erinyes devils. I can see five of them in visual range of the house.”

Ali Could see Dante grab his hammer.

“Do they know we are here?” The paladin sounded as if he was eager to face them.

“No. I think they are just spreading out over the entire city in a search pattern. If we leave they will spot us.”

“We go underground then.” Bishop stated matter of factly. “There are sewer entrances a block from here. I can lead us out of the city through them.”

“How do we get into the sewers without being spotted?” Amalie sounded as nervous as Ali felt.

“We dig. I can memorize multiple stone shape spells tomorrow to dig us a hole directly to sewers.” Siv sounded as if she was in complete command of the situation.

“So we have to stay here all night? What if they start searching door to door?” Ali asked nervously.

“It’s a big city. They don’t have the resources in place to go door to door tonight. We can afford to wait until the morning if it allows us to remain hidden.”

“I hate hiding.” Dante moaned as he laid down his hammer and shield.

Ali wandered into a far room of the house to be alone, but Siv followed. The druid placed her hands on Ali’s shoulders.

“Are you really alright?”

“I’m fine. It just caught me off guard.”

“It caught us all off guard. What happened? How did you know it was dangerous to leave the house?”

“I don’t know. It’s as if a force took control of body for a few moments. Like it shoved me to the side and used my body to communicate with you.” Ali couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. “Who is doing this to me?”

Siv’s eyes had their usual steely resolve.

“We’re going to find out Ali. I promise you.”

Dante

Crawling through the sewers of Cheliax was not what he had in mind when they had formulated their plan to take the fight to the heart of the Evil Empire. His fortitude was substantial, but holding back from vomiting was difficult.

Bishop led the group for an hour before they could see daylight. She paused and turned to Dante and Siv.

“There is an Erinyes and a Hell Knight at the exit of the sewer.”

“Well they certainly are thorough aren’t they?” Siv replied.

“We can’t allow them to signal for help. We must kill them quickly.” There was something about Bishop that unsettled Dante. She was an unusual girl, and she always spoke of killing like it was task akin to going to the market.

“We take down the Erinyes first then. Follow my lead.” Dante moved as quickly as he could through the pipe towards his targets. As he cleared the confined space, he leapt at the Devil and smote it with all of his power. It shrieked in pain.

The Hell Knight sized Dante up and cursed him out loud.

“You reek of chaos. I will see the law upheld.” The Hell Knight reached back and his Blade began to glow a vibrant yellow. He brought it down on Dante’s shoulder with tremendous force. It was the first time the Paladin had ever been on the receiving end of a Smite. He didn’t enjoy the experience.

Barry jumped from the Hostel of Siv’s armor and attacked as the druid summoned a flaming sphere and began calling lighting down on the devil. Ali hit it with a searing light spell.
Bishop began striking the Hell Knight from behind. Amalie cast Haste on the group.

Dante checked the Hell Knight’s aura and detected to his surprise that he wasn’t evil. He retaliated against the Hell Knight, but found that as they exchanged blows, he could not match him while the knight could Smite him and he could not. Fortunately he could heal the majority of the wounds the Hell Knight could inflict, before it could strike the next blow.

The combined efforts of Barry, Bishop and Dante wore down the Hell Knight to the point where Dante could strike the killing blow. As he turned to face the devil, his armor began to glow and an Astral Deva appeared in front of him and charged the Erinyes Devil. It smote the fiend mightily before fading from existence. Dante launched furious series of attacks that finished off monster.

As he turned towards his companions, all of their eyes were upon him.

“Where did that angel come from?” Asked Amalie. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Dante looked down at the Gold design in his armor.

“Neither did I.”

Amalie

The atmosphere in the Castle was downright jubilant after their success in Cheliax. Meric had held a small feast in celebration. Amalie hadn’t believed a small group of individuals could accomplish something so significant until she saw it with their own eyes. Optimists is not the word she would have used to describe the leaders of Stormvale before their mission to steal the artifact. Since then, no word fit better.

There were still loose ends of course. None of them had been able to identify the artifact, and none knew what to do with it. It appeared to be little more than four large pieces of stone, that radiated powerful magic. Meric had called a meeting with his three closest advisors and their cohorts to discuss precisely what to do about.

Before they could get underway, a devil teleported into the room. Amalie immediately recognized him as Rumjal. Kalatrina had known him well and as such, Amalie had encountered him frequently. She had hoped to be free of his kind when she left Kalatrina’s service.

“I have heard a rumor that a heist took place in Egorian recently. The tale goes that a man walked into the Tower of Nessus, and talked the Hell Knight guards into simply handing over an artifact of tremendous value. The queen is said to be enraged.”

Meric steepled his fingers and smirked.

“Well, I’m sure I wouldn’t know anything about that. Though the person that could get away with something so brazen sounds like a dangerous man. Certainly not someone to be trifled with.”

“Amazing what a man can accomplish when he has the right advisers.” The devil smiled deviously.

“I have sent word through Mantis channels that they have been ripped off by Abrogail. You should have no more trouble with the assassins. Be advised that she will no doubt employ all of the magic at her disposal to locate the artifact. If you don’t want a small army of Hell Knights outside your gates in a week, I’d advise hiding it somewhere beyond the range of any magical means of discernment.”

The devil continued.

“To your great disappointment I’m sure, I shall have to leave you all for a time. With the mantis threat neutralized, I have no doubt you will be fine on your own. Just remember that your cousin isn’t the most rational monarch. With her forces committed to Andoran, and the Red Mantis attacks that will soon begin against her inner circle, she would be well advised to ignore you for the moment. I doubt she will.”

Rumjal began to turn away from the party when Dante suddenly grabbed his hammer and lunged for the ex-Duke of Hell.

“To hell with you!” The Paladin shouted.

Amalie was terrified. Could Dante really be so stupid? She couldn’t leave him to face Rumjal alone. She cast Protection from Evil on him, while bracing to be annihilated at any second by the devil. At the very least it would protect him from being mentally dominated by Rumjal.

The devil responded by casting dispel magic on Dante, removing the Protection spell that Amalie had just cast. With incredible speed the devil then cast Dominate Monster on the paladin.

“Sit at the table please.” Dante complied with the order.

Amalie was not sure what to do. In a moment of panic, she recast Protection from Evil on Dante, knowing it would temporarily enable him to resist the compulsion.

Rumjal seemed amused by this, and again used a dispel on Dante. The devil stared back at Amalie, seemingly daring her to try that again.

Amalie’s frustration was mounting, and she didn’t want to escalate the situation. She threw her Quarterstaff at Dante and shouted at him for several moments for his rash and foolish actions before regaining her composure.

“On that note, I will take my leave.” Rumjal teleported away without further incident.

Amalie looked over at Meric, who sat in silence as all of the chaos was happening. At this point he stood while addressing Dante.

“The next time you attempt suicide, Dante, do us a favor and get it over with by jumping in the lake! I have no desire to be murdered in my own castle by a devil now that I’ve finally gotten these assassins off my back.” Both of his palms pressed against the table, as he clenched his jaw. Amalie could detect the faint smell of burning wood.

“You fear assassins and devils? Drowning is a much better fate than what I truly face. You do not have to face the wrath of Kord for your actions. Dying by a devil’s whim is kind to what can happen to my soul.”

“I did not ask for assistance in engaging Rumjal, I’m willing to sacrifice myself if it means keeping him from killing my friends. My decisions are for life, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them hindering, I break them. As well as answering directly to a god, I know that I alone am responsible for everything I do. "

“Consider carefully before you condemn me for my actions. Have I been wrong? The old man stabbing you in the back, the man killing a woman’s husband? The succubi worshipers? You yourself have sought my council. Are you but a man who only seeks council when it benefits your desires? Seeking myself for actions that are deemed moral, and devils for aught else? I am not your toy to be used only when you seek to justify executions, or do you plan to surround yourself with devils just as your sister has? Are you no different than her?”

“All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing. I still consider you a good man Meric, and my friend. Please, do not change that.”

The muscles in Meric’s jawline twitched at the mention of Abrogail, and a wisp of smoke escaped from beneath his fingers.

“How dare you compare me to my cousin? Because of my actions, a blow has been struck against the most profane regime ever to stain the surface of Golarion. Even now the Red Mantis are moving to weaken her unholy grip on Cheliax. I am every day building a country where my people can live in safety and prosperity. Because of what you did today…a devil is amused at your pluck. I ask you: which of us has done more to make this world a better place?”

“I don’t condemn your desire to kill Rumjal. I condemn the reckless way you acted against him. You say your decisions are made for life, yet we are alive now in spite of your actions, not because of them. Rumjal could easily have summoned a pit fiend to slaughter us all without even dirtying his own hands. Do you understand me? You jeopardized our lives and all of Stormvale for the sake of an attack that had no chance of success! You think your god would have punished you for leaving him alone? Then let me send you into the Nine Hells; there are plenty of devils down there for you, and each second you delay in attacking them must only enrage him further.”

Meric angrily stalked to the door of the chamber, leaving partial handprints of burnt wood on the table. “Gods, Dante, you’re supposed to be a general. Would you sacrifice the lives of men at your command to prove a point to Kord as lightly?” Meric didn’t wait for a reply.

View
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.”

View
Rivers Run Red: Session 3

Dathon the Tamarian, once described my ability to write combat heavy sections this way: “Shaka, when the walls fell.”

Siv

“Wait!” Siv screamed as she watched Dante’s steps unfold as if they were happening in slow motion.

The Paladin halted in mid step and looked back at her.

“Those floor tiles are trapped. Back up.” She had only barely noticed them before the group had entered central tower of the abandoned keep. She had been expecting far more traps as they had explored the decrepit fortress, but to her surprise, the evil fey who had taken residence here had done little to secure it. Perhaps they thought no mortals were foolish enough to wander this deeply into the Narlmarches.

‘We have foolishness to spare.’ Siv thought.

“How do we disable it?” Meric spoke with some urgency. Siv suspected the Assassin vine, that attacked them a few minutes ago, had unnerved the Sorcerer a bit.

“The trap is triggered beneath the tiles, I don’t see how we can.” This had been a reoccurring frustration for the group. Siv’s sharp eyes could spot many such dangers, but she had no knowledge of disarming devices such as this. The group stood and pondered the room in front of themselves for a few moments before Dante spoke up.

“Screw it, I’m going in. Everyone stay back.”

“Dante are you mad?!?” Asta shouted in a vain attempt to reason with him. “You have no idea what it does!”

As Dante stepped on the trapped tiles, a green mist rapidly filled the room. The others all took an extra step back to ensure they were out of its range. Siv recognized the spell effect.

“Insanity Mist…”

Meric grimaced at the thought.

The mist dissipated rapidly. Siv could see Dante still standing in the middle of the room.

“I think we’re clear guys.” He seemed unfazed by the experience.

“We probably shouldn’t make that our ‘go to’ move for disarming traps Dante, But well done.” Meric moved in the room as he spoke. The others followed.

The wide chamber had an impressive vaulted ceiling. Though it was obscured in places by earth and undergrowth, the hall’s floor was crafted of smooth stone tiles in multicolored pastel hues. The walls of the chamber were decorated with faded frescoes of sylvan life, showing scenes of beautiful elves engaged in hunting, feasting, dancing, singing, and a bewildering variety of other idyllic pursuits. To the west, a graceful, filigreed stone staircase, garlanded with flowering vines, climbed to the level above.

“Let’s not keep the leader of these fey waiting. I’m getting hungry.” Dante seemed more eager than he had for the past few days. Siv thought it was likely the result of the clear cut nature of their mission here. Find evil fey, kill evil fey. The group began to ascend the tower.

The stairs ended in a circular room featuring wide windows draped with hanging vines that offered panoramic views of the keep’s overgrown courtyard and the forest beyond. An open circular skylight in the ceiling provided glimpses of the forest canopy overhead. The walls between the windows were carved with exquisite, delicate nature motifs highlighted in gold and silver leaf. A riot of flowers, plants, and bushes sprouted from the thick loam that carpeted the hall’s floor, as if one were walking in a fantastic glade elevated high above the forest floor.

As the group spread out a bit, an alluring, graceful elven woman with alabaster skin, golden hair, and emerald green eyes appeared before them. She wore a flowing white gown of archaic elven style, that was tied at the waist with a blood-red scarf. She began to dance. Siv felt the urge to just stand and stare at the beautiful creature before her. She shook her head to clear it as she sensed the charm effect try to take hold of her.

She looked at her comrades and could see immediately that both Meric and Dante were under the creature’s control. Each stood slack jawed, staring at the fey. Thankfully Asta was unaffected. Siv recognized this fey as a Baobhan Sith. But she couldn’t recall any of the abilities or weakness of this particular type of fey. With astonishing grace, the Baobhan Sith moved on Dante without ever halting her dance. At this range, Siv could see the woman’s large fangs clearly, as they dug into Dante’s neck. The situation went very bad, very quickly.

Neither Siv, Asta, Skyyd or Barry could remove her from their friend. Each time one of them attempted an attack, the creature, would position Dante in between herself and the assailant, as she continued to drain the paladin’s blood. It took nearly a minute for the group to slay the monster. Dante fell to the ground, unable to even move. He was pale as the moon, and Siv had no restoration spells prepared that day. They would have to rest here for the night, and guard Dante until she could begin to heal him in the morning.

As the group settled in for the night, Skyyd and Barry laid on opposite sides of Dante. Skyyd attempted to comfort him by licking his head.

“Ugh. His tongue is like a grindstone.” Dante whined, unable to move away from the well meaning tiger.

Siv giggled as she went to the window of the tower and looked out over the keep. The dryad Tiressia had warned her that the barriers between the Material plane and the First world were particularly weak near the keep. The abundance of fey had confirmed this. She thought back to the area of Narlmarches that had been destroyed by the Unseelie Nymph, and a plan began to formulate in her mind.

Meric

They party had tracked several Lizardman hunting parties over the past few days. So it was no surprise when they came upon an encampment of them on a muddy island in the middle of a particularly swampy stretch of the Murque River. Meric wanted to handle the situation with some delicacy. He’d had some success in the past with negotiating peaceful relations with the humanoid races that resided in the Narlmarches, and he hoped a similar result here.

Siv had wild shaped into a bird and went ahead to scout the village. It was only a few minutes before she returned and assumed her half-elf shape again.

“The village has been raided. I didn’t see any survivors.”

“By who? What could you see?” This village was only 30 miles from Stag’s End. Meric’s concern was obvious.

“I didn’t get close enough to search for tracks Meric. I couldn’t be certain that whoever was responsible wasn’t lying in wait nearby. I thought it best if we all went in together.”

Meric nodded, and the party headed for the village.

A low, muddy hummock protruded from the middle of the widening river, surrounded by a palisade of outward-facing, sharpened wooden stakes. Inside, smoke rose from every building. The simple wooden gate on the eastern side of the hummock seemed to be the only entrance to the fortified island. It was completely demolished.

Inside, dozens of slain lizardmen were found. Several of their huts had been smashed into splinters. The others were burned. Siv wasted no time in identifying the culprits.

“Trolls. At least four of them. Their tracks head west.”

“We should follow. The last thing we need is a band of marauding trolls raiding our lands.” Asta added.

“Agreed. Let’s move out quickly, I don’t want any lizardmen to return from a hunting trip to find us in the middle of all this and draw the wrong conclusion.” Meric took a last look at the gaping hole in the wooden palisade wall. It was likely that it had been creating by a single swing of a troll’s club. He imagined the damage it would do to any of the structures in his city.

The group followed the tracks for nearly 12 hours before taking a rest. The trolls must have moved with extraordinary speed to have eluded them so far. Meric’s feet were killing him. He sat down on a log a bit away from the others to adjust his boots.

Meric had suffered many wounds in his life, but the dagger that was suddenly shoved into his back trumped all of them. Pain shot through him like lightning. He turned to see the crazy old hermit whom they had saved from Dante a couple of weeks ago. The man cackled with glee.

“Dante’s never going to let us hear the end of this.” Were Meric’s only words as the man pulled the dagger away and attempted another strike.

Meric unleased a Scorching Ray that staggered the hermit. His pet puma leaped at Meric, but was tackled in mid air by Skyyd. Each cat let out a roar before attacking the other. Barry quickly came to his aid, and the puma was instantly over matched. The hermit stabbed Meric once more before Dante came from behind him and smote the man with his hammer. Siv attacked him with her flame blade, and the hermit fell to the ground.

Dante quickly healed Meric’s wounds. The young Baron preemptively cut him off.

“Don’t even say it.”

“I don’t think I have to.” The paladin replied with a smile.

Page break

Siv led the group up a narrow path that wound its way up a hill. There was a steep cliff face on one side and a sheer drop-off on the other. At the top, the path followed a wide ledge, where the corner of a weathered stone building jutted from the side of the hill.

“That’s it. From the number of tracks I’d guess there could be over a dozen trolls in that den.” Siv’s eyes betrayed concern with the situation.

“Only one way to find out.” Meric flashed Siv a smile as he spoke. She needed no further hints. She sighed before responding.

“I knew you were going to say that.” Without another word she wild shaped into a bird and flew up and around the entrance for a moment before heading in. The others sat in silence waiting for a sign from the druid.

“So am I allowed to attack any evil trolls we find in here? Or do I have to wait until one of them stabs Meric in the back?”

Asta exchanged an irritated look with Meric before Siv returned from the den.

“I saw two trolls near the entrance, but I couldn’t explore the entire cave network. There could be more, further in.”

“Two at the entrance is manageable. Let’s go before their odds improve.” Meric was eager to be done with this task. They were now a good sixty miles from Stag’s End and memories of Grigori stirring dissent in his city had made him wary of being gone for so long.

Dante, Skyyd, and Barry charged in first and engaged the trolls. Meric and Siv launched several fire spells to halt the regeneration of the creatures. With the element of surprise on their side, the trolls stood no chance. After several minutes of exploration, the group found a room where the ceiling of the cavern arched thirty feet overhead. A wagon with its wheels removed sat against the eastern wall, heaped with smelly furs, and a single barrel stood in the southwest corner. Against the northern wall, a crude throne carved from a giant tree stump sat atop a makeshift dais made of boulders, with a large bearskin spread on the floor before it.

“I don’t want to question your math Siv, but I only saw two Trolls. Are you sure about the number of tracks?” Asta asked slightly teasingly.

Meric noticed a map tacked to the western wall of the cavern. It was drawn on the back of a thylacine hide, and appeared to be of the Greenbelt. Several locations were marked with a large X, along with several arrows and other marks. Meric suspected it showed planned raids and routes of attack. His heart sank when he saw an arrow through Stag’s End.

“There were definitely more than two trolls living here. The rest must be out raiding a caravan or another village.” Dante observed.

“Or a city.” Meric replied mechanically.

Realization dawned on the others.

“Oh crap.”

Dante

Virgil could sense Dante’s urgency as they rode. The paladin had to continually reign him back, as none of the other horses could keep pace with Virgil at full gallop. The rain made the travel all the more treacherous and slow. They had ridden continuously for nine hours, all the while praying they weren’t too late. It wasn’t in Dante’s nature to ask much of Kord, but he pleaded with his deity for the group to catch the trolls before they reached Stag’s End.

Their first sight of the city confirmed this wasn’t to be.

Smoke rose from building fires staggered throughout the streets. As they drew closer, screams could be heard. Dante cursed himself for not pushing the others to prioritize walling in the town. The city watch had to have been completely outmatched from the onset of the attack.

Thunder roared as the storm intensified. They followed the path of destruction through the streets, finding several bodies strewn about the rubble. They followed it until they found a pair of troll corpses. Above them, stood a blood stained Keston Garess. How much of it was his own, and how much had belonged to the trolls was not easy to ascertain. Several bodies of City watch members were scattered about the street nearby.

Dante could see several arrows sticking out of both of the beast’s corpses, as well as numerous stabs wounds to their backs. He spotted their source shortly thereafter. Both Sariah and the rogue Talia whom Meric had hired, entered his view. Dante was proud of the fight they had put up.

“My lord, thank the gods you’ve returned.”

“Report.” Was Meric’s only response.

“A dozen trolls attacked about four hours ago. They completely overwhelmed us. I ordered all of the civilians evacuated to the castle. They have been attempting to break in ever since.”

Dante was grateful for Keston’s quick thinking. It had surely save hundreds of lives.

“It’s only a matter of time until they break the gate down. So I led a small force out of the castle to attack them from the rear and draw them away.” The captain of the guard looked down at his fallen men with sorrow.

“We were only somewhat effective.” Keston was clutching his wounded side as he spoke. Dante laid a hand upon it, and the wound closed.

“You’ve done extremely well Captain.” Meric turned to face the others. The look in his eyes was one of steely resolve.

“These monsters would destroy everything we’ve worked to build over the past year and a half.” Meric drew his weapon as he spoke.

“Let’s show them what we think about that.”

The group pressed forward towards the castle. Dante could see the ten remaining trolls attacking the structure. Some were hurling large pieces of debris at soldiers who fired arrows down on them from the walls. Others were trying to destroy the gate. Dante saw a troll standing near the gate, who was wearing heavier armor than the rest. He couched his lance and spurred Virgil forward.

The usefulness and pettiness of tournament jousting struck him all at once as he closed in on his target for real. The troll heard the gallop of Virgil and turned to face them just as Dante’s lance made contact. It glanced off his armor doing minimal damage. The troll responded by striking Dante across the torso with his Morningstar. The paladin was thrown from his horse and landed violently on the ground. He could see Virgil rear back and strike the troll with both hooves, giving him a moment to roll clear of the beast’s next attack.

As he scrambled up from the ground, he could see Skyyd and Barry charge into the fray, each leaping at the neck of separate trolls. The heavily armored troll began to shout in a language Dante couldn’t understand. He assumed this one to be their leader. The monster radiated a strong aura of evil. Dante called upon Kord’s strength, and his hammer began to glow blue with divine power. He brought his weapon down on the leader and smote him with all of his might, bashing a severe wound in his opponent’s arm.

His victory was short lived though, as he could almost immediately see the wound begin to heal. Troll regeneration was legendary. The group would have to focus their efforts to be victorious.

A crack of thunder could be heard directly above the melee. Dante could See a Wild-Shaped Siv circling above, in the form of a Roc. The bird screeched, and lighting streaked towards one of the trolls, its shriek of pain was something out of a nightmare. Meric hurled a scorching ray, as Skyyd dragged one of the trolls to the ground. A separate troll slammed the tiger across the side with his club, opening a large gash. Asta moved in to heal him.

Dante blocked the leader’s next attack with his shield. The impact vibrated up his arm with an unbelievable amount of force. He fought to suppress the pain as he retaliated with an attack of his own. The troll brought his morning star down across his right side and pierced the paladin’s armor in multiple places. Dante quickly healed himself and gave no ground.

Meric webbed the ground out to the right, preventing a pair of trolls from moving to aid the main group by the gate. One threw a large piece of debris at the Sorcerer, who dodged it with ease. Keston Garess, Sariah and Talia Collectively brought down a troll out to the left. Siv dropped a flaming sphere in the middle the central group of trolls. She continued to call down lighting while moving the sphere into their foes.

Again Dante was rocked by a vicious blow from the leader’s morningstar. He healed himself and braced for the next attack. Dante could see Meric hurl a ray of enfeeblement at his combatant. It stuck true, and the troll’s next attack on the paladin felt significantly weaker. Skyyd and Barry each killed a troll and moved on to others. Skyyd suffered another severe wound, and Dante could see the wound almost instantly close on the tiger, and open on Asta. Siv created a flame blade, and began striking the creatures with it from above.

The lesser trolls began to fall rapidly. Eventually only Dante’s opponent was left standing. The paladin Dante brought his hammer down again on his foe, but the stubborn troll continued to regenerate at supernatural levels. It wounded Dante badly again, and once more he healed much of the damage. He could see in the troll’s eyes, a frustration at the stalemate that equaled his own.

With the combined efforts of the whole party, the troll dropped to one knee. It lunged one last time for Dante, just as a scorching ray from Meric struck it in the face. It did not get back up.

Cheers erupted from the soldiers on the walls. Siv and Dante went about healing the wounds they could with the magical reserves they had left. A damage assessment could wait for the morning. Those whose homes had been destroyed in the attack, could spent the night in either the castle or the town hall.

Despite all of their successes over the past eighteen months, their position in the world seemed more fragile than ever to Dante. Stormvale wouldn’t survive unless it had the best men defending it. He vowed to make that happen.

The rain continued unabated for hours.

Asta

Asta tried to keep from falling asleep as Oleg discussed the current state of the treasury. She had been up late for the past several nights, consistently losing track of time while doing research. She fought to suppress a yawn. Skyyd on the other hand, was sleeping sprawled out on ground in front of the door to the council room.

The rebuilding of the structures damage by the troll attack had taken several months. The cost had been high, but the trolls had collected many valuable supplies in their raids and had stored them in their lair. It had covered most of the cost. As Stormvale closed in its second anniversary, things were getting back to normal.

The borders of the fledgling nation had continued to expand. It could no longer be accurately described as a barony. Meric had taken the title of Duke to reflect this, and pushed the others to expand even more rapidly. Though she couldn’t read his mind, Asta suspected he feared for the long term survival of Stormvale, if it did not grow to a size that could resist Cheliax or one of its proxy states. Asta believed that the shear distance between themselves and the devil kingdom, would make it difficult for Abrogail to do anything more than continue to send assassins after Meric.

Skyyd suddenly rose to his feet, and began to growl while looking down the hallway. His posture told Asta that he was not playing. She turned to face Meric, who had noticed the same behavior from the tiger. They exchanged a look that told each of them that they were thinking the same thing.

Both Dante and Keston stood and their hands moved to their weapons. Meric ordered the rest of the council to remain in the room, with Keston Garess staying behind to guard them. Asta moved behind Skyyd and the pair walked slowly down the hallway, with Dante following close behind. Meric was next in line. Siv wildshaped into the form of a bear, and brought up the rear with Barry in behind her.

The hallway was long and narrow, and Asta suddenly realized the disadvantages of the group being single file if they encountered a Red Mantis before reaching the main chamber. No sooner did the thought occur, than a saber toothed sword swung out from around a corner and struck Skyyd. Asta healed her Eidolon’s wound.

Dante attempted to take a swing at the assassin, but the tight hallway left no room for him to maneuver. There were too many bodies in front of Meric for him to be able to loose a scorching ray. Siv and Barry were also powerless to aid those at the front. Skyyd bit and slashed the attacker violently.

At this point, Asta heard the door to the council room slam shut. She turned in time to see Meric Fall to the ground screaming in pain. An arrow stuck straight out of his back. She saw no attacker behind the group.

Dante turned and healed Meric. The Duke continued to bleed profusely. Barry turned and began striking at the air. Asta assumed he could smell an invisible attacker. Another arrow shot out, striking Meric in the leg. Siv turned to heal him as Dante continued to do the same. The paladin raised his shield in front of the sorcerer in an effort to protect him from the unseen Mantis.

Skyyd continued to tear at the assassin to the front of the group. Eventually he dragged it to the ground and began to rend. Kesten Garess managed to break through the door in an effort to help. However the invisible mantis took the opportunity to bull rush the captain, and make an escape. Meric quickly stood and webbed all of the windows, blocking its only exits from the room.

Within in seconds, both assassins were dead. Both of their bodies vanished, just as the first one had. There would be no one to question. A terrible thought suddenly entered Asta’s mind.

“Brook…”

Meric’s sister had been sent to Taldor on a diplomatic assignment. Her guards would have been no match for the Red Mantis. Meric rushed out of the room. Asta followed him to Brother Jhod, whom Meric had cast a sending.

BROOK YOU ARE IN DANGER
RED MANTIS ASSASINS ATTACKED ME
GET TO A SAFE PLACE

Her response was reassuring, if confusing.

IT’S ALRIGHT I’M SAFE
IT WAS A CLOSE THING
BUT THE RED MANTIS ARE DEAD

“We have to find a way to stop these attacks Meric. We can’t keep this up.”

Meric left the room without responding to her.

Page break

The following day was nerve wracking. Meric had tripled the guard at the castle, and closed himself in his room for the remainder of the evening. Asta had spent the time researching the Red Mantis. The little information she could find, was not promising. No matter how many times they failed, the assassins would keep coming. To them, it was not a business transaction, but a divine mandate. They were religious zealots. Only Meric and Brook’s permanent deaths would end their quest.

A servant entered Asta’s chambers.

“Lady Asta, Duke Meric has requested your presence in the throne room.”

“Did he say what it was regarding?”

“He did not my lady. Only that I was to notify Sir Dante and Lady Siv as well.”

“Thank you. I will head there at once.”

Asta hoped Meric had come up with a plan. She could see him sitting on his throne as she entered the room. Dante and Siv were already present.

“Good, I wanted to inform you all of a letter I wrote to all of the leaders of the inner sea. “ Meric gestured, and a servant handed copies of a letter to each of them.

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alumeric Thorn. I am the rightful King of Cheliax. I understand that your time is valuable, and so I will keep this brief. Following the fall of Aroden and the death of the last true King of Cheliax, Abrogail sold her soul, her country, and her people to Asmodeus for the promise of power. This infernal power she used to depose the rightful heir, Alumeric Thrune, and to slaughter thousands of loyal Chelish people that fought in his name. Alumeric Thrune was not killed in that struggle, as Abrogail claimed. Instead, he settled in Brevoy under an assumed name and died in that alien land.

You may wonder why I have chosen this point in time to publish my claim to the throne of my homeland. Up until two years ago, I lived under the relative security of anonymity. That changed when Abrogail II sent Red Mantis assassins to finish the work started by her grandmother. My sister and I were the only survivors of the assassins’ attack. I vowed on that day to put an end to Abrogail II’s perfidious reign.

This is the true purpose of my declaration. I write to you not to ask for assistance, but to state my intentions. I am the true king of Cheliax, and I mean to take the throne back from Abrogail the Usurper. Abrogail has enslaved her people to the worship of devils, soulless creatures bent on the subjugation of all mankind. Do not think that her foul masters will be content behind the borders of Cheliax. They will not rest until hellish legions march along the streets of Almas, corrupt the forests of Kyonin, and foul the Stormspear Mountains. The Usurper and her infernal lords must be stopped, and the nation of Cheliax returned to its former stature.

I have established a duchy called Stormvale in southern Brevoy. I can be located in the city of Stag’s End with any inquiries.

Warmest regards,
Alumeric Thorn, Rightful King of Cheliax and Duke of Stormvale

Asta’s jaw nearly hit the floor. She could see that even Dante had been taken aback by what he had read. This was a rash decision. They had to find a way to talk him out of sending this before the situation escalated out of control.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea Meric. If Abrogail is willing to send assassins after you now, what will she be willing to do when you attack the legitimacy of her rule in front of the entire world?” Siv was clearly not thrilled with the idea either.

“When were you planning on sending this?” Dante added.

“Sending? Dante, I sent it last night.”

View
Rivers Run Red: Session 2

I don’t like words.

Dante

The situation was the most bizarre stand-off Dante had ever encountered. Several angry loggers brandishing weapons at a nixie who held two of their comrades thrall with a charm spell. He thought that he probably should have been more pre-occupied with finding a resolution to the dispute as Meric and the others were, but he couldn’t get over how strange this all was.

“The nixie attacked my men unprovoked! How is a decent man to make a living with all of these damnable fairies in the woods?” It was the first sentence spoken by Corax, the leader of the lumberjacks, that wasn’t liberally laced with profanity.

“I politely asked them to leave but, I was forced to charm two of them after he threatened to hang me from the nearest tree to ‘drip dry.’ ” Every time the nixie spoke Dante had to fight the urge to giggle. Her voice was so high pitched that he had a hard time taking her seriously.

“The trees they’ve already cut down had been growing next to my pool for over 200 years and they deserved a far better fate than serving as some grubby peasant’s slop table.” The Nixie was growing irritated.

“Melianse, you need to release those two men before we can resolve this situation. We won’t let them attack you I swear.” Siv said firmly.

The fairy hesitated, but ultimately relented. Meric took the opportunity to reason with the loggers.

“Is there no where else you men can log? The Narlmarches are quite large you know.”

“The coachwood trees here are far more valuable than any other spot I’ve found. We can’t just pick up and move after all the time and money we’ve invested in this location!”

“I am Meric Thorn, Baron of Stormvale. If you are willing to relocate, I would be willing to grant you a favorable deal for your lumber.” Meric continued to negotiate with Corax for several minutes before the situation was fully defused.

“What about my trees! They need to replace them!”

“We will find replacements for your trees Melianse. Just let them leave and we will take care of it.” Siv replied.

Dante was impressed by the balance Meric and Siv had reached in their time together. He knew that deep down Meric wished to side with the loggers and Siv wished to side with Melianse. Yet each not only sought a compromise, but expended their effort in talking down the person whom they most agreed with. He thought the two of them might be at each other’s throats by now, arguing about the best uses of land in Stormvale. But each knew what lines not to cross.

With the situation resolved, the group headed off for other unexplored regions of the narlmarches.

“Well I think we’ve had our fill of crazy for today.” Dante offered.

Siv

“This guy is completely crazy.” Siv whispered to Asta.

Before them stood an old hermit and his pet puma. Siv guessed by his appearance and companion that he was a druid, but he had hardly spoken a coherent sentence since they encountered him.

“Cat! Ignore those people, none of them are real anyway.” The hermit called out to his animal companion.

“I think he named his cat ‘cat’.” Asta remarked.

“Siv’s got a bear named Barry.” Meric offered.

“Barry is sylvan for ‘steadfast’.” Siv sighed as she spoke.

“Huh. What does ‘cat’ mean in sylvan?” Meric replied.

She ignored him.

“So we are leaving the crazy old hermit alone right?” Asta asked.

“He seems harmless enough.” Crazy, but harmless Siv thought.

“He’s evil.” Dante’s voice startled her. He had been scouting some of the more open terrain of this area on Virgil. She hadn’t heard him return.

“Dante we’ve been over this. We can’t arrest men based solely on your ability to sense evil.” Meric spoke firmly.

“We can’t let him go. He’s hurt people before. He’ll do it again.” Dante’s seemed resolved to not give this one up.

“What did he do Dante? Can you tell us what crime he’s committed?” Siv was losing patience for the paladin’s insistence on applying his views of good and evil to the entire world.

“He hasn’t done anything to us. We have to leave him be.” Asta was almost pleading with him.

“No. Not this time. I can’t ignore men like this anymore.” Dante began to stroll towards the hermit and drew his weapon.

Siv quickly considered her options for subduing the paladin without hurting him. None were great.

As Dante approached the man, his puma reacted by attacking him. Dante blocked the animal with his shield and reached back for an attack of his own. Before he could strike, Skyyd pounced on him and wrestled him to the ground.

The Hermit and his cat left at Meric’s urging, before Asta ordered Skyyd to release Dante. He got up without speaking a word, and began to make camp. Siv tried to reason with him.

“You can’t keep doing this. You can’t attack people unprovoked.”

“You’ll regret letting him go. Innocent people will suffer because of it.”

“I’m judging this man by his actions. He did nothing to threaten us in any way. He ate some bark, pet his cat and went on his merry way. Of the two of you, only one of you attempted to assault the other. Try to remember that Dante.”

“Your judging him by the actions you saw him take. I’m judging him by the actions we haven’t seen him take. So terrible that they have left his soul tainted with evil. If you could see what I see you wouldn’t have stopped me.”

Siv feared for what this would lead to when they returned to Stagsend. They had to find a way to reach him on this issue.

“Maybe. But I’d be just as wrong as you are.”

Dinner was eaten in silence.

Asta

Asta struggled to contain her excitement as they entered the boats. For weeks she had stared at the map of the southern greenbelt and looked forward to exploring the island on lake Candlemere. Its location just screamed “magic tower goes here.” She hadn’t mentioned it to the others, but she increasingly desired to establish a school for the magically gifted. It would be a place where young people from the region who discover they process amazing abilities, could go to learn about their powers in safety.

Candlemere was notorious in the Stolen Lands for being haunted. Stories from fishermen, explorers, bandits, and tradesmen alike supported these legends with eerie tales of strange lights dancing upon the waters, blood-curdling cries from what could be lost souls, and mysterious sightings of shapes rippling in the lake’s dark waters.

The rumors did not deter Asta one bit. When the group made camp along the eastern shore the previous night, they had all seen the “Candlemere Lights” for themselves. Flickering spheres of color that danced over the waves and along the island’s shores. Far from fear, the lights evoked fascination in Asta. They were a mystery that she was eager to solve and another reason for her excitement as they approached the island.

The island itself was covered with thick brambles and stinging nettles; moving through it was difficult. After several minutes, the group approached the low-summit where a lonely tower stood. The tower itself was a crumbling ruin—nothing remained but a half-collapsed, 40-foot-tall stone cylinder and a swath of rubble within and without. The stones of the tower were ancient. Asta guessed that these ruins were far older than any others in the area and could even date from the Age of Destiny. Faint carvings of strange symbols were barely visible in some of the tower’s stones. None of the group could identify the language, however the name of the old god “Yog-Sothoth” was found. It sent a chill down Asta’s spine. Skyyd had been on edge ever since they had departed for the island. He often growled while seemingly staring off at nothing. She tried to calm him by petting his head gently.

As the group entered the center of the tower, All but Dante felt as if something unseen was watching or waiting and that intruders to this area were distinctly unwelcome. The feeling was staggering, but each member of the group was able to hold their fear in check. From her periphery, Asta could see the now familiar flickering lights had grown in intensity. She turned and immediately solved the mystery of the Candlemere Lights. The island was covered in willow-wisps.

Sensing its evil aura, Dante smote the creature immediately. Skyyd and Barry pounced. The fighting was over in seconds.

“It could take hours to clear this island of those things. Maybe we should just post a sign for people to stay away.” Siv complained

“No. We are making this island safe.” Asta stated it as fact.

Some looks of confusion were exchanged among the others. Meric, ever the pragmatist, was the first to speak.

“So it would seem.”

That evening, no lights could be seen on lake Candlemere.

Meric

The sight of Stag’s End caused Meric to internally cheer. Weeks in the wilds left him constantly missing his bed, baths, and any kind of variety in his meals. The exploration was a necessary but, tiresome responsibility. He hated leaving the city without its leader for so long.

As the party approached the town square, Meric could see a fairly large crowd had gathered there. They appeared to be listening to a speaker of considerable charisma, as well as girth.

“This is the result of gross negligence on the part of your leaders. Abandoning the town to go gallivanting through the Narlmarches on fool’s errands and leaving you exposed to banditry, monster attacks, and worse!”

Meric quickly tried to recall any examples of a monster attacking the populace. He was drawing a blank.

“Unless he’s counting the werewolf incident.” Meric muttered under his breath.

“Only a few week ago, a werewolf murder two citizens, including a child! But your “leaders” could not be bothered to leave their games for two days! And when they did finally respond, what action did they take? They released the creature back into the wilderness!”

Boos and derogatory shouts could be heard. Meric was beyond annoyed. Word of the werewolf attacks had reached him only after both of the killings had occurred. He and the others had left immediately and captured the creature that night, before it could hurt anyone else. Once it was contained, they were able to determine the man was infected with a disease, and had no memory of anything that happened when he transformed into a werewolf. He was as much a victim as the two who had been killed. They had cured the man, and allowed him to go on his way.

“I also suspect that their wilderness explorations are what drove the monster into the more civilized areas. Who knows what manner of horrors your Baron will unleash on you as he continues to provoke the beasts of the Stolen Lands!”

Meric had heard enough. He moved to approach the man. As he did, the orator recognized him and began to speak with greater fervor.

“Behold! The baron graces us common folk with his presence. Come to silence your critics my lord? Do you fear the truth being spoken openly? Do not let him intimidate you good people of Stag’s end. Let your voices be heard!”

Many members of the crowd began to shout insults at Meric. He suppressed the urge to pummel the windbag before him.

“Forgive me I am unacquainted with you. May I know your name?”

“Grigori.”

“Well Grigori, it seems you have been busy.” Meric turned to address the crowd.

“Citizens of Stormvale. Think back on the past eighteen months. Since you came to this land in search of hope and opportunity, have you ever once felt oppressed by your leaders? Are not your taxes the lowest of any kingdom for a thousand miles? Do you not enjoy freedoms that most citizens of our world can only dream of? The city watch is honorable and effective. You endure none of the corruption that plagues other cities.”

“Soaring rhetoric my lord, but corruption takes many forms. You and your cabal have acquired much wealth during your adventures, but you have used it only to enrich yourselves, not to aid the town or its citizens.”

“For the past year and a half, the founders of Stormvale have taken no pay from the nation’s coffers. Virtually all of the money raised by the treasury goes directly back into building your businesses and the roads you rely on for trade.” Meric recognized several shop owners in the crowd.

“You are new to our lands Grigori, so allow me to illuminate your ignorance. Yakim, how did you get the funds to build your tannery?”

The man was surprised by the question and paused before answering. “From you my lord.”

“And Andrei, how did you acquire the funds to build your brewery?”

“From you my lord.”

He was winning over the crowd now and had no intention of stopping.

“Grigori is correct about one thing. My comrades and I have spent a great deal of time in the wilderness battling monsters. Not for wealth or glory, but to ensure the safety of our people. I am your baron, but unlike most rulers I have bled for each one of you. I have faced down the dangers of the Stolen lands so that you and your families do not have to. What would this provocateur have us do? Confine ourselves in this city, with no knowledge of what dangers wait on our doorstep?”

Many in the crowd yelled in agreement with their Baron.

“The people of Stormvale have done nothing to provoke the denizens of the Narlmarches. But you have traveled as much as 60 miles into the wilderness on your little adventures. When the kin of those you’ve slain realize what you have done, how long until they come here seeking retribution?”

Again, many in the crowd shouted in agreement with Grigori.

“And as for your self-lauded generosity, I say that anyone who has seen the opulence of your castle can attest that you are generous with only a tiny fraction of the resources you have at your disposal. The walls and floors of the castle are decorated in the finest tapestries and carpets this side of Taldor. You serve the finest wine, and host extravagant banquets for the eilite of the city. You prosper while your people struggle to put bread on the table each day. I ask you good people of Stormvale, is this fair?”

A resounding “No!” could be heard from the crowd. Meric suddenly realized the disadvantage he was facing. Grigori was using Bardic performance magic to force large numbers of individuals in the crowd to agree with his position. No argument Meric could make would persuade them while they were effectively being charmed by Grigori. He could arrest the man, but he knew it would only make the situation worse. At least if it were done publically. He altered his goal for his next argument.

“I find it interesting Grigori, that you choose to stir this dissent while I was away. I hold open court most days that I am present within the city. If you were to bring your concerns before me then, you would have the ears of the entire council. If your desire is truly reform that improves the lives of the citizenry, it would seem more effect than your present course which is only capable of starting a riot that would cause property damage and violence. Those who you claim to fight for would suffer the worst of it.”

Grigori was clearly irritated.

“I bring my concerns directly to the people because you will simply ignore them!”

“This outsider has no interest in your well being my friends. His only desire is to cause strife amongst us. I ask you to go home and with a clear head, consider all you have heard today. I think you will find his arguments unconvincing after a good night’s rest.”

Grigori shot Meric a dirty look at that last comment. Meric returned it with a smirk.

The crowd slowly began to disperse. Meric knew they were heavily divided. He had to remove Grigori from the city in such a way that it would not point back to himself. He began to formulate a plan.

Page break

The city watch kept tabs on Grigori and notified Meric at nightfall that the bard had settle in at the Black Flagon Inn. Meric headed there immediately. He wanted to observe the man and see if he could gather any information which he could use to discredit him. Barring that, he looked for an opening to quietly capture the blowhard.

To this end, he casted alter self before entering the tavern, and found a quiet corner to sit in. He would have to refresh the spell every few minutes, so he chose a table next to a support beam that he could hide behind.

Grigori was clearly already drunk. He spoke so loudly that no magic was needed for Meric to do his eaves dropping. Grigori loved the ladies, but his advances were spurned at every turn. Eventually he had chased away nearly every woman in the establishment who did not work there. One remained at the bar near him.

“Let me buy you a drink my dear.” Meric pitied the woman as Grigori moved in closer to her.

“You’ll lose any part of you that touches me.” Meric liked her already.

“No one should drink alone. Come now, I don’t bite.”

In one swift move, the woman grabbed Grigori by his collar and slammed his head against the bar. With her other hand she had pulled a dagger and jammed it through his tunic and into the bar, an inch in front of his face. He clumsily struggle to stand, but to no avail. Blood trickled out of his nose and forehead.

“I do.” She stood up from the bar moved to an empty table.

Meric had to jump on this opportunity. He swiftly moved to the bar while grasping a dagger in his right hand.

“Come friend, let’s get you cleaned up and taken care of.” Meric subtly slammed the hilt of his dagger into the back of Grigori’s head as he used his other hand to remove the one that kept him pinned to the bar. He tossed a few gold towards the bartender.

“That should handle his tab. Please forgive my friend, he never quite knows when to stop.”

Meric lifted the dazed bard’s arm over his shoulder, and began to lead him out of the bar. He stopped briefly in front of the woman and placed her dagger on the table. Clearly she was a trained fighter of considerable skill.

“I believe this belongs to you. You seem to be a person of considerable talents. I sometimes have work for talented people. Would it be acceptable if I were to come by at some point in the future with a job opportunity?”

“I’ll be around for a few days. I’m sure you can come find me if you look hard enough.” She smiled and returned her attention to her drink.

Page break

“I demand you release me at once! I have broken no laws.”

Grigori had sobered up quickly once he had been thrown in a cell beneath the castle. Meric had let him sit for several hours before returning to question him.

“Come now Grigori, there is no crowd to work here. You are no champion of the people. Who sent you?”

“Parties interested in seeing your little nation fail.” Grigori snorted back.

“I trust these parties have names?”

“People do not hire men like me in such a fashion that can lead back to them. I don’t know who hired me. You waste your breathe.”

“I am prepared to stop wasting it. You will be executed in the morning. Good night Grigori.” Meric headed for the exit. It had the desired effect.

“Wait! Surely there is some kind of arrangement we can come to. I will leave Stormvale and never return! I swear it!”

“I think you can do better than that.”

Page break

The crowd that had gathered was massive. Word had spread of the public debate between Meric and Grigori from the previous day, and many showed up to see the encore. They were greatly surprised by what they were witnessing.

“My friends, I have made an egregious error. I must beg your forgiveness. For the past few days I have lambasted Baron Thorn and your other leaders for what I considered to be valid grievances. How wrong I have been! Last night, Meric came to me, and we spent most of the night discussing my concerns in great detail.”

Meric stood passively nearby.

“I spoke from ignorance. Your Baron is a good and honorable man. Any doubts I held about his motives and competence have been erased. He acts, always with your best interest at the forefront of his mind. I have stood in the great hall of the castle, where the heads of many of the foul beasts he and his companions have slain are displayed. Ferocious monsters, that would terrify even the bravest of men and that seek only destruction. Your baron has stared into the very face of evil, and did not blink.”

This continued for some time. Grigori spoke as if his life depended on his performance. When he was done, Meric was treated to an ovation. Grigori came over to shake Meric’s hand. Meric leaned over to whisper into the bard’s ear.

“If you ever return, I will have you executed.” The two men exchanged a smile for the crowd.

View
Rivers Run Red: Session 1

Bring me the head of the man who invented grammar!

Siv

The festival was a welcome respite from the last few days. Meric and Dante had uncovered the traitor whom gave the Mantis assassin all of the information he needed to attack Meric and Brook in their sleep. Meric had executed the girl just three days ago. The punishment was harsh, but Siv agreed it was necessary. Future attempts by the Red Mantis would find a less cooperative castle staff.

Meric had swung the axe himself, which she thought was a better way than the paid executioners kept by most monarchs. If a leader could not bring himself to bloody his own hands with the act, then perhaps it’s was not justice at all. Siv had done all she could to aid and comfort the girl’s family. But she knew all too well that there were no cures for the loss felt when a loved one is taken from you before their time. The whole situation was awful. Asta had argued fervently that the girl’s life should be spared. Even Dante had at the last moment, made a plea to Meric to stay the execution. The group had never been this strained in all their time together.

The atmosphere of the festival had helped though. It had been something of a last moment decision to hold a festival to celebrate the one year anniversary of the founding of Stormvale, but everything had fallen into place nicely. There was ample food, drink and general merriment. A number of large events with prizes were to be held, including a joust, archery contest, boasting contest as well as “The Gauntlet”. The latter was fascinating to Siv. Created and operated by a gnome inventor, it was part obstacle course, part puzzle solving. It seemed like fun.

The gauntlet had been constructed next to the jousting grounds opposite the stands, in order to provide those watching the joust with a good view of it. It was made of wood, and contained three enclosed rooms as well as one external platform that was used to enter. The entire structure was elevated 10 feet in the air on pylons. Underneath was muddy water that would cushion the fall of those whom failed to clear the various challenges. Falling was apparently the consequence of failure in every room. At the top of the third room, and 30 feet in the air hung a key to a chest that sat near Meric. Obtaining the key won you the prize.

The first contestant had climbed the ladder to the initial platform. Cheers erupted as the man attempted to jump from the first platform across the 10 foot gap to the second. He slipped and fell straight into the water. The cheers turned to laughter. Siv immediately recognized the grease spell that covered the edge of the first platform. Several other contestants fell victim to the same trap. Eventually one man had the for-sight to bring a plank of wood onto the platform and covered the greased area. He made the jump to the second platform successfully, only to be knocked off by a swinging pendulum that was triggered when he landed.

Dante was competing in the joust and had unhorsed his first opponent. He would proceed to the next round. Meric had expressed interest in the story-telling contest that would be held in the evening. She had seen him in action, and felt sorry for the bards who would have to compete with him. She decided they shouldn’t have all of the fun. She might as well give the gauntlet a go.

It was several hours and dozens of failed contestants before Siv got the opportunity. She climbed the ladder to the first platform and wildshaped into a bird. She easily flew over the gap and trapped floor, landing next to the door to the first room. The crowd sat in hushed awe until she transformed back into a half-elf and took an uncharacteristic bow. Siv had never much cared for the crowds and noise of the city, but the thunderous ovation she received scored points with her for city life. She opened the door and proceeded into the first room.

In front of her was an eight foot wide corridor. She could see the door to the next room about 20 feet ahead of her. Only a 5 foot gap in the floor stood between her and the next room. It seemed far too easy. She cast detect magic, and could see an aura of transmutation hanging above the gap. What trap could this be? She knew somehow this would lead to her dropping embarrassingly into the muddy water below. The trivial jump had to be trick. She cast Spider Climb and climbed the wall to her right.

Siv congratulated herself on her cunning just in time for her to feel a tremendous force grab hold of her, causing her to lose her grip on the wall. She didn’t fall down as one would expect. Instead she was hurled upwards towards the ceiling. It was only now that she could see that it was sloped, and thankfully padded. As she collided with the ceiling, the incline and her momentum caused her to slide up the ceiling as one would slide down a ramp if they fell onto one. When she reached the left wall she could feel that the force which had propelled her upward was no longer affecting her. With quick reflexes she was able to grab the wall before falling to the water below.

“Reverse gravity. That was careless Siv.” She mumbled to herself as she caught her breathe.

The left wall jutted outward around the pit. Had she climbed this wall instead, she would have been able to avoid the trap entirely. She climbed to the other side with ease and proceeded through the next door. This room was fifteen feet by fifteen feet. There were no obvious obstacles between her and the door to the next room. It had a picture of the full moon painted it, as well as symbols of a lion, a bear and a wolf. There was however no handle, and when she pushed on it she confirmed it was locked shut solidly. She would have to solve some kind of puzzle to get through.

On each of the three walls she could see four symbols, as well as a handle which pointed to one of them. The left wall had symbols of a lion, antelope, minotaur and whale. The back wall had symbols of a wolf, hare, gorilla and griffin. Finally the right wall had symbols of a bear, fish, dragon and an elephant. The floor of the room was segmented into nine sections with wide grooves between them. Siv suspected that failure to align the symbols correctly would lead to the floor tiles dropping out from under her.

She examined the symbols again and noticed that each contained an animal that could be described as prey for one of the animals on the door. She adjusted the handles on each wall until they pointed at the prey anmials. Everytime it passed an animal that was not prey, a section of floor opened. Fortunately she stood on none of them when they gave way. Once all three were in place, the far door opened.

The final room was essentially a large pit. A rope dangled 5 foot away from the edge, and hung from the same beam as the victory key. With spider climb, she could easily jump to it and hold on, but she knew there would be more to this test than climbing ability. She reached out with her staff and pulled the robe to her. As she began to tug at it, she found it had an enormous amount of slack, 30 feet worth in fact. Any fool who jumped to it would find themselves landing in the muddy waters below.

Once she had pulled the rope taught, she began to climb with ease. Once she reached a point 5 feet from the key, she felt spider climb dispel and she began to slip. Siv barely held on. Feets of strength were not her forte, but her only hope was to finish the climb without magical assistance. Driven by a need to not be humiliated by a fall into the mud in front of half of Stag’s End, she willed herself to the top and grabbed the key.

Cheers erupted as the crowd saw her hand reach the key through the opening at the top. She emerged from the structure moments later and made her way to the prize.

Asta

Meric had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. The boasting contest had been immensely entertaining, but had become far more so when Meric took the stage. He told an… interesting version of the group’s assault on the Stag Lord’s keep. Asta had especially enjoyed watching Dante’s confused expression as Meric described himself riding gallantly, head long into the keep, as opposed to bluffing their way in.

She found she didn’t mind the exaggerations of Meric’s heroism. In truth, he had been instrumental in their success that day. He had talked them into the fort, and protected her and Siv from the advances of the bandits with nothing but words. If they had not been able to take out the majority of the bandits as they slept, Things would have gone poorly for them.

“All of my allies were badly wounded. Your general Dante courageously charged the Stag Lord. But alas, he was no match for this monster pretending to be a man. As the Stag Lord hurled his unconscious body down the stairs I called out a challenge to him ‘Come and face me you coward!’ I dodged several of his arrows before striking the killing blow.”

Aside from the verbal challenge, nothing in that statement had been a lie. Asta couldn’t help but laugh. She needed one after everything that had happened the past few days. Siv had been enjoying Meric’s version of history from across the room, but now approached Asta.

“I think I like his version better than the real story.” Siv offered in amused fashion.

“They do seem to be enjoying it. What are you going to do with your winnings from the gauntlet?” Asta had been afraid to broach the subject earlier, but was fearful about how it would look if the leaders of the kingdom kept winnings from the events.

“I was thinking of using it to build a park in Stag’s End. If Meric pools some of his winnings with me, we should have enough.”

“I think that’s a great idea.” Asta breathed a sigh of relief.

Meric had completed his story to thunderous ovation. He was clearly the winner and the prize money was brought to him. To Asta’s surprise, the chest was unusually large for the 4,000 gold pieces she knew it to be. He opened it and began tossing silver coins out to the crowd. Siv laughed out loud.

“He had it given to him in silver just so he’d have more coins to toss to the crowd.” Siv remarked.

“Meric can definitely work a crowd.” Asta replied as she looked over at Skyyd who was curled up in the far corner of the building. Skyyd and Barry were such a frequent sight around the castle and city that the average folk were no longer frightened by them. She and Siv were able to take them everywhere now.

“So how is your research going?” Siv stated as if she had read Asta’s mind.

“I’ve found a lead, but the trail seems to be going cold. There is such little information on Summoners and Eidolons. I’ve read every book in the library on the planes, but I’ve found only one reference to them. I’m going to need resources beyond what we have available in the library.”

“You’ll find the answers you’re looking for. It’s only a matter of time. In the meantime, try to have some fun these next few days. After the festival, we have a large area of land to the south that we have to explore. It will take several weeks. Plenty of time for you to bury yourself in arcane tombs.”

Asta smiled in reply. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that the answers she sought would change things for the worse. Skyyd stretched out on the floor and yawned widely. He tucked his paws under himself and went to sleep.

Meric

The joust had been a rousing success. The population of Stagsend could hardly speak of anything else. The field had been winnowed to its final four contestants. Both of the knights from Restov had advanced, and Meric harbored some fear that Stormvale’s first tourney would be won by a foreigner. However Kesten and Dante had been equally impressive in their victories thus far.

The first match of the day was between sir Alexei of Restov and Keston Garess. Alexei was a young, attractive knight, and the ladies of the Kingdom waited with bated breath to see whom he would hand his flower to. He rode up to the crowd and offered the token to Asta, who seemed shocked. She thanked him and smiled. The knight was about to speak to her but, was startled by a growling Skyyd, who didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture. Alexei rode back to his starting position a bit confused and somewhat frightened.

Kesten closed his helmet without handing out a flower, indicating he was ready to go.

“All business I guess.” Meric muttered to himself.

The two competitors each broke a lance on the other in their first run. Their second and third runs produced no points. The contestants each rode before Meric, who was responsible breaking ties. He could simply pick a winner, but he honestly thought the two men had fought with equal skill.

“You will continue the fight on foot. The winner advances.” He called out loud enough for the crowd to hear. Cheers erupted.

The fighting was intense. At first Kesten’s strength seem too much for the young knight. But as time went on, Kesten began to tire and Alexei pressed his advantage. It could have gone either way, but in the end Kesten remained standing. The crowd cheered loudly for their captain of the guard. Meric breathed a sigh of relief that at least one of the participants of the final would be of Stormvale.

The second semi-final pitted Dante against Sir Pavel of Restov. Pavel rode out in front of the crowd and handed a flower to a beautiful, young woman who Meric did not know. He rode back to his starting position and waited for Dante. Meric suddenly wondered if Dante knew the protocols for an event such as this. Perhaps he should have spent some time prepping the lad before the tournament.

Thankfully, Dante grabbed the flower from the squire and rode towards the crowd. He had surprised Meric by unhorsing all of his first three opponents. He had tried not to react too much to each of his victories, but had been internally rooting for his friend to win the tournament. Meric smiled wondering who Dante would hand the flower to.

Dante rode up close to Meric’s booth and preceded to hand the flower to Brook. She blushed as she accepted it. Meric’s smile vanished. He found himself visualizing sir Pavel knocking Dante on his ass.

The opposite happened. Dante was victorious again. Meric gave an obligatory clap.

Page break

There would be an hour break for Kesten and Dante to rest before the Final bout. Meric was considering sending for food when Sariah arrived.

“You’ve been busy My Lord. Do you have a moment to talk?” Sariah tapped her hand on a satchel that hung at her waist as she spoke. Meric could see it contained several maps. The smile returned to his face.

“Of course. My tent behind the tournament grounds has a large table. This way please.”

Sariah did not disappoint. She had successfully scouted the entirety of the Nomen Heights.

“The settlement is called Varnhold. Strangely, they haven’t settled anywhere east of the mountains, though they were chartered quite a bit of that land. They have only one city, and it lags behind Stagsend in every way. They don’t seem very concerned with expansion.”

“Any notable defenses? “ Meric saw no tactful way of asking the question so he simply asked it.

“They have a fort in the mountains that blocks the only pass to the western side of the range. The only other way there is north through Brevoy to get around the Heights, then turning south.”

“If they are not contesting any of the land east of the mountains, then we shouldn’t have any conflicts.” It was a half truth, but Meric knew any potential conflicts wouldn’t come in the short term.

“I mapped the terrain fairly extensively. Most of it is going to take some work to be made safe, but you’ve been good at that so far.”

“I’ll have you payment ready by tonight. I am extremely grateful for your assistance Sariah, and I’m certain I will need you again in the future.”

“I’ll be around. “

“You know there is an archery contest taking place all festival. There is still time for you to go get your shots in.”

“Why do you thing I got back today?” She smiled as she exited the tent.

“Excuse me My Lord.” Kesten Garess had arrived in the tent just as Sariah was leaving. “There are a few urgent matters that have been brought to my attention. I’ll need a few minutes of your time after the joust has concluded.”

“Of course Kesten. I’ll find you straight away after the bout.”

“Most appreciated My Lord.” Kesten turned to exit the tent, when Meric spoke again.

“One last thing Kesten.”

“Yes My Lord?”

“Beat Dante. I don’t want you to hold back at all. Beat him.”

Kesten was greatly confused. “I’ll do my best My Lord.”

Dante

It had been standing room only at the tournament grounds for the entire festival, but somehow even more people had squeezed their way in for the final joust. Dante was definitely feeling some nerves with all of those eyes on him. Thankfully, Virgil was calm.

It had only been a few weeks since he had found his horse. Or did his horse find him? He wasn’t sure but, it was a match made in heaven. Literally made in heaven according to brother Jhod. Apparently all Paladins eventually form a magical bond with a mount. Virgil could sense what Dante wanted the very instant he thought about it. He rarely even had to direct the horse with the reigns. Virgil just seemed to know where Dante wanted him at all times.

The bond had propelled Dante to far more success in the joust then he had in his practice leading up to the tournament. He hadn’t been knocked from his saddle since he began riding Virgil. The announcer had finished the introductions and Kesten saluted Dante from across tournament grounds. Dante returned his salute and lowered his visor. Both men began to ride.

After the first two runs, neither man had broken a lance. Each had deflected the others weapon off their shield in expert fashion. Kesten was the best he had ever faced. Dante knew he had to be more aggressive on the third run. He urged virgil forward one last time, and lined up his lance so that Kesten had no chance of deflecting it high or to his left.

Dante felt the world spin end over end, just before hitting the ground with a thud. It took him a moment to take stock of what had happened. He heard cheers erupt from the crowd with chants of “GARESS! GARESS! GARESS!”

Dante let his head lay back on the ground. He tilted it to his left and looked toward Meric’s booth. He could of sworn he saw his friend laughing hysterically.

Page break

Dante was somewhat bitter for the rest of the day. He said nothing to Meric, but made his displeasure known through his actions and general countenance. The group had to make a trip to the brothel. They had put it off until after the tournament had ended, and now had to deal with the problem.

Meric had recounted the details of his visit from the devil Rumjal to the others. Though Meric didn’t trust him, he said he felt they couldn’t ignore the warning of a demonic cult operating out of the brothel. Dante would have totally dismissed the words of the devil, except for his own dream of a demonic invasion. They had to investigate.

Dante could see the woman in charge of the brothel had an aura of evil. He told Meric and the group immediately began to search the premises for evidence of demonic activity despite her objectives. Dante noticed Asta open the door to more than one “occupied” room before shutting it suddenly and moving on with an embarrassed look on her face.

Siv had little such shame, and carried out her search as if nothing was happening. Eventually, she found an amulet in the shape of a pair of feminine lips with a nail piercing them. Siv showed it to Asta, who had done the most planar research of any in the group. She stared at it for several minutes before recalling where she had seen it.

“Malcanthet. Queen of the succubi. It the symbol of her cult.” Asta answered, glad at first that she had remembered, than concerned at the implications.

“Succubus worshippers in the brothel. How unoriginal.” Meric replied drily. “Dante, can you sense any other evil auras from the staff?”

“A few, we should gather them for questioning.” Dante sensed more executions coming in the near future.

“Agreed.” Meric already seemed lost in thought as he replied.

Several hours later, they had identified the house where the cult performed it’s grotesque rituals. It turned out that all of Malcanthet’s cultists were female. Men were used only as sacrifices to her. The abundance of dried up blood in the house made it clear to Dante that several men had been. Truth spells had extracted the names of all of the cult members. They had apparently done some minor summoning of succubi, but had never released one into the material plane.

The entire situation made Dante sick. These cultists committed brutal crimes in exchange for a promise from demons, to be made part demon. Why anyone would find such an arrangement appealing was beyond his comprehension. He went back to the castle with a pit in his stomach. No thoughts of the tournament entered his mind for the rest of the night.

View
Rivers Run Red: Prologue

Meric

Meric entered the library flanked by two guards, bootheels clacking against the stone floor. He had to admit that the building was rather out of place outside the castle walls, its marble facade a stark contrast to the rough stone buildings surrounding it. Looking up at the rows of bookshelves which dominated the interior, Meric hoped that enough of the people were literate to make good use of it.

“Your lordship. What can I do for you today?” A sage’s apprentice approached Meric, twisting his fingers nervously.

“I’ll need every book you have on Infernalism.”

The apprentice paused. “All of them?”

“…Just how many books on Infernalism do you have here?” The boy gulped.

“Not many, your lordship. Just a moment.” The apprentice scurred off, returning a short time later carrying a stack of four books. “This is everything.”

“Excellent. Redder, let’s get these back to the castle. My thanks.”

“Your lordship? We, ah, do not typically permit the books to be removed-”

“I do not think it prudent to make books on such a subject available on an unrestricted basis. If anyone is interested in studying these, you may send them to inquire with me at the castle.” Meric turned and exited the building, the apprentice stammering behind him.

Page break

In his private chambers, Meric contemplated the books. Destroying them was a bad idea. They might contain information that could be useful in retaking Cheliax. Or… He thought back to the chilling voice that had awoken him on the night of the Red Mantis attack, somehow speaking directly into his mind. Suppressing a shudder, he opened the first book.

“Doing some light reading baron?”

Meric turned to see a man sitting in a nearby chair. He did not know how this intruder had gotten in, but he didn’t hear or see a thing. The man was dressed like a rich noble of Brevoy would be. Closer inspection revealed is a light red tint to his skin, and small horns on his head.

“I apologize for arriving unannounced, but the penalty for Devil worship in your lands is a bit…extreme. I can only imagine what the penalty for being an actual devil is.” He smiled warmly.
“Find anything of interest to you?”

Meric raised both eyebrows in surprise, then leaned back in his chair. “Something about how the only way to determine whether someone is actually communicating with devils or whether they’re insane is through lobotomy. I suppose I’ll have to have faith that you’re actually here.” Meric poured himself a glass of wine and closed the book in front of him.

“Why are you here, incidentally? It seems there are several other members of my family with whom your time would be more constructively spent.”

“I suppose that would depend on what I was trying to accomplish.” The devil stood and bowed formally to Meric. “I am Rumjal. Formally a duke of Malboge, the sixth layer of Baator. Currently I am best described as a free agent.” He began walking slowly towards a nearby window and peered out while speaking.

“Stormvale has grown swiftly. You should be proud. Mighty empires have failed to tame these lands. I expect that it will continue to grow and and become a force in the inner sea.” He looked back at Meric over his shoulder.

“Assuming your cousin doesn’t kill you first.”

Meric took note of the euphemisms that the devil had used – Baator instead of Hell, free agent instead of…outcast?

“It’s good to hear you believe in our abilities,” said Meric dryly. “I assume that what you’re trying to accomplish is not simply reminding me that my cousin is dangerous; I learned that lesson the day she had my family murdered by the Red Mantis.”

“Yes I suppose you did. That was an especially brilliant piece of paranoia on her part. She had no reason to believe you or your family posed even the slightest threat to her. And yet there you were, chartered by Brevoy to claim a nation of your own.” He slowly walked and returned to his original seat.

“Of course she missed the only target that mattered. Tell me Meric, what is your plan for dealing with the Red Mantis? I may not be able to warn you the next time they are coming. I suppose you could simply stay alive long enough to build this Barony into a full fledged nation and become a rightfully seated king. That would solve your problem.” The devil moved one leg so that it was resting on the other and reclined comfortably in the seat.

“But what of dear Brook? The Mantis will not hesitate to keep coming after her.” The devil turned his head to the side slightly as if an idea had suddenly come upon him.

“Unless of course you intend to take her as your queen. Yes that would solve this problem permanently.” His smile walked the line between genuine and mocking.

“All of these sound like my problems. What I’m still not sure about is why they concern you. Unless…did my cousin send you to act as a constant reminder of my situation, to maximize my suffering before I’m killed? She’s more devious than I suspected!”

“The nine hells are known for many things Meric but I assure you that consensus is not one of them. For every plot weaved that would benefit from the success of your cousin, there are three that would benefit from her failure. Let it suffice to say that it is in my interest to see you and your nation succeed. To that end, I shall offer you aid where I can. I fully understand your hesitation in accepting any advise from a devil so I will make this easy on you.” Rumjal stood and straightened his vest.

“Events are going to begin unfolding rapidly in the Stolen Lands. This little scrap of no where you have claimed is far more valuable than it appears at first glance. Numerous parties are moving to establish a foothold. As an act of good faith, I offer you this free of charge. There is a demonic cult operating out of Stag’s End. You will want to eliminate it before things get out of hand. I suggest you begin your search in the brothel.” He begans to walk away, but then turned back to Meric.

“One last thing. The Mantis have spies in every city.” The devil looked around briefly in all directions. “Even brand new ones. You have given them reason to pause before another assault. Eliminating their informant in the castle would give them further reason to delay. Might I suggest that accepting a bribe from an assassin to aid in murder is an objectively evil act.” Rumjal smiled and began to walk away. After a few steps he vanished from sight.

Siv

Bokken was like a jittery bird. He seemed to be full of nervous energy that was constantly battling to escape. Siv had noticed it a year ago when the group had first met him at his little hut, but it seemed more pronounced now. It was the way his head snapped back and forth between whatever was dividing his attention.

He didn’t like visitors, and seemed eager to quickly end any conversation that Siv tried to engage him in. Fortunately he did like gold, which enabled her to make use of his expertise in potions. She had found an unusual patch of flowers while traveling near the Oak-Top Silver mine. They were a large rose like flower with huge thorns. From these thorns dripped a rather nasty poison.

They clearly were not native to the area. Yet despite Siv’s expertise in plant life, she could not identify them. Stag End’s library and the resources of Stormvale’s priests also turned up no information. She had brought a sample to Bokken in hopes that he could shed some light on this mystery.

“Where did you find this?” was his only reply when she showed him the flower. He didn’t wait for an answer before taking the sample to a work bench and carefully extracting some of the poison for testing. Siv had been waiting for several hours for him to finish his analysis.

“I cannot help you identify this flower. I have never seen it before. But I can tell you what the poison is. The Tears of death. One of the rarest and nastiest poisons in existence.”

“Doesn’t knowing the poison tell you what flower it came from? If it’s a known poison then it must have a known source.”

“It does. The Tears of Death is a man-made poison. It is created by combining a half dozen rare venoms under precise conditions. It’s not made from any flower.”

Siv was annoyed. “Clearly it is. I just handed you one.”

“I’ve told you everything I know. The poison is man-made. I trust that ends our transaction.” With that Bokken retreated to his hut. Siv was left with more questions than answers.

Asta

A Treatise of Interplanar Travel and Summoning
Menas, first magister of Taldor Year:3250

Chapter 12: Unanswered questions of the Great Beyond

Of all the planar phenomenon I have encountered in the world, few have vexed me as much as the case of Alexite and his Eidolon. I had no knowledge of the term before my encounter with him in the wilderness of Cheliax forty years ago. He was a spellcaster of considerable power and an invaluable ally against the orc hordes of Belkzen that terrorized central Avistan at the time.

Alexite’s primary strength was in the summoning of interplanar creatures. In all my years since, I have never encountered his match in this discipline. The outsiders he called were unique in the shear length of time they would remain bound to his service on this plane. I consider myself to be among the world’s foremost experts in this regard, Yet Alexite’s summoned creatures would remain for ten times the length of my own. But this was nothing compared to the impossible behaviors of his Eidolon.

The Eidolon was a beast in Alexite’s service that he called from another plane. However it could remain on the prime indefinitely. Upon death, the beast would not be permanently slain as is seen with every other outsider of the known categories. The creature also did not conform to traditional classification. None of the beastiaries in the Taldan empire contain a creature from any plane bearing identical properties. To the onlooker it appeared to be a type of dragon. Yet magical inquiries confirmed it to be no such thing. Alexite himself explained that he had not invented the term Eidolon. It had been taught to him by his father, whom the creature had apparently served before him. He also had almost no insight into the nature of the beast.

I requested that he show me the ritual which he used summoned this Eidolon in order to perform an in-depth analysis of the summoning circle. Experience had taught me that all inter planar magic worked on the same principles. All summoning circles contain two lines. The outer line that acts as a barrier to keep the creature bound, and the inner line that designates the plane the creature to be called originates from. Studying the pattern in the center always provides the positioning of the plane in question in relation to the prime. But to my dismay, no circle was involved in the summoning.

Instead, a rune on Alexite’s forehead began to glow and after a minute, his Eidolon materialized before him. The rune itself provided few insights into the ritual. It did not identify any plane of which I am aware. All my attempts to ascertain its origination point ended in failure.
The creature itself confounded me further. It seemed to contain no will of its own. All of the creatures of the outer planes display at least basic survival instincts and primal urges. His Eidolon did not. It acted as Alexite’s guardian and companion and nothing else.

In the decades since, none of my travels through the inner sea have provided me any futher clarity in this matter. I came to believe that Alexite acted as the portal through which the Eidolon entered the world. This was bolstered when he was rendered unconscious in a battle and his Eidolon was instantly banished. This would explain how the Eidolon can remain on the prime for such extended periods of time. It does not however give us any insight into how when the creature is slain, it can simply be resummoned the following day. There is only one phenomenon in the outer plains that mimics this behavior, but it differs so greatly in practical effect and consequences that it would be madness to seek any wisdom from a comparison of the two concepts.

For now the Eidolon is a mystery. It is obscured by both rarity and an inability of traditional magical inquiries to provide useful information.

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Asta’s eyes were just beginning to droop as her head suddenly jerked up. What? She quickly re-read the section again. Finally something about Eidolons! It was strange how few details and accounts there seemed to be out there. She’d never thought to research her relationship with Skyyd before, but still she hadn’t expected there to be so little information. But finally, something concrete!

She read through the treatise chapter again, more carefully this time. Alexite’s experience seemed to mirror her own, at least up to a point. But I wonder what’s caused Skyyd to act so differently lately? Alexite’s Eidolon was a personality-less guardian. Just like Skyyd used to be, she thought with a frown. I’m so thankful that he’s becoming happy, but I can’t help but wonder why, and why now…

A passage near the end caught her eye — “There is only one phenomenon in the outer plains that mimics this behavior…”. It’s vague, but it’s better than nothing. She remembered the glorious new library that Merric had commissioned in the city and turned to smile at Skyyd. “It means more research, but at least we have a lead now!” She scratched behind his ears as they left the castle, heading to the city in search of more answers.

Dante

Meric seemed a bit on edge. He hid it well, but Dante had known him long enough sense when something had unnerved him.

“Dante, I’ve been thinking about the attempt on my life that took place several months ago. My hope is that none of my staff was complicit in the attack, but I cannot explain how the assassin would have been able to carry it out otherwise. I’d like you to assist me in verifying the loyalty of the staff.” Meric strolled along the edge of a pond on the castle grounds, absently tossing a rock and catching it.

“I’ve been planning on awarding a small bonus to the staff and castle guard in preparation for our anniversary festival. The staff and guard will be gathered in one place at that point; if you can read them for traces of evil, we may be able to locate any potential traitors.”

The thought that he could fail to notice a traitor living under their very nose, greatly bothered him. Surely he would have detected the taint of evil on them already. His first instinct was to argue that there likely was no insider aiding the assassin. But what if he had missed something? He began to think of every servant who moved in and out of the castle every day. Had he really paid enough attention to each? How many worked shifts while he was asleep?

“I’ve also learned a spell that could help us. Truth Telling. As its rather unimaginative name implies, it compels a person to speak the truth. If there is a traitor, we’ll find him Meric.”

“Let us hope I’m wrong.” Dante could see from Meric’s expression that he was sure he wasn’t.

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The staff gathered as Meric planned. He announced that the bonus would be included in their pay the following week. Under normal circumstances, it would have warmed Dante’s heart to hear their cheers of joy at the news. Instead, rage burned within him as he detected auras of evil on two of the staff. As the group dispersed, Dante order the guard to take them both into custody.

Anton was a member of the guard who frequently stood watch in the castle. Anya was a servant who worked in the kitchen. Meric decided to interrogate them separately. He had Anton kept under the guard of Keston Garess, while Anya was brought in for questioning first. Meric placed the Red Mantis helmet on the table in front of the girl. She seemed terrified. She was no older the nineteen.

Dante cast the Truth Telling spell on her. No knowledge of magic is required to recognize a truth compulsion, and horror crossed the girl’s face with the realization that she would not be able to lie her way out of this situation.

“Have you ever seen this before?” Meric gestured to the Red Mantis helmet as he spoke.

“No.” came her tepid reply. It was the truth, but Dante doubted the assassin would run around town in his full assassin’s garb while doing his spying.

“Did you ever take money in exchange for information about myself or my sister?” Meric’s tone was harsh.

Anya began to tremble. Dante could see she was trying to find a way out of this without lying. She began to weep and nodded. She managed a few words through her tears.

“I didn’t know he was going to try and kill you.” She was telling the truth. But for her not to realize what was happening was naïve even by Dante’s standards.

“You may not have known, but you suspected. In any case, you knew nothing but harm could befall me if you gave information to this man.” Meric was incredulous.

“I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t done this. I’ve regretted it ever since I took the money.” Again, Dante knew she was telling the truth. Her remorse moved him, but the aura of evil that hung over her was a constantly sobering reminder that at the time her transgression occurred, she understood what she was doing was evil, and did it anyway.

“We’re done here. Take her away” Meric gestured for a guard to remove Anya. She began to sob uncontrollably as she was dragged to the cells beneath the castle.

“Bring in the other one.” Dante had forgotten about the guard Anton until Meric called for him. He didn’t recognize the man. He suspected that Anton worked shifts in the evening when Dante was asleep. The man’s aura hung even heavier with evil than Anya’s had. They repeated the process.

Dante cast truth telling on him, but Anton looked upon him with confusion, as opposed to the shock that Anya had expressed. Meric began again.

“Did you ever take money in exchange for information about myself or my sister?”

“No my lord. I would never betray you!” Dante began to doubt that the spell was having the desired effect. Was Anton’s will strong enough to resist it? Meric eyed Dante before continuing.

“So you had no knowledge of the assassin who made an attempt on my life?”

“No my lord. Not until the following day when I was told about it. I took an oath to serve you Baron, I would never break my oath.” Dante had grown adept at reading people, and his instincts told him that Anton was being truthful. But then why did radiate evil?

“What crime did you commit?” It came out louder than Dante had intended and seemed to catch Meric off guard.

“Excuse me sir…but what are you talking about?” Dante still had trouble reading this man.

“You’ve done something terrible. And recently. What was it? What evil act did you commit?” Dante had lost all patience for this exercise.

“Nothing sir! I haven’t committed any crime! I swear!” Dante could see the man wasn’t being truthful. He must have resisted the spell. Dante was furious. He drew his weapon and leveled it at Anton. Meric spoke before Dante could.

“You’re free to go Anton. Enjoy the festival.” Dante shot daggers at Meric with his stare.

“Thank you my lord.” Anton was out the door in a flash. Dante couldn’t help but yell at Meric.

“What were you doing?!? That man was evil! He should be locked up!”

“And charged with what Dante? Shall we make it standard practice to arrest and punish citizens on nothing but the word of one man who swears they are evil. How long do you think we could carry on like that before the population strings us up?”

“I’m not making this up Meric. That man did something terrible and we let him walk free!”

“We don’t even know what he did! What evidence do you have Dante? What evidence that us non-paladins can independently confirm? If you want to investigate him, be my guest. But don’t arrest him without evidence and don’t harass him for the sake of it. Nothing good will come from it.”

Dante stormed out of the room. The practice dummies in the castle courtyard were on the receiving end of his rage for the rest of the afternoon.

View
Stolen Land: Session 4

All chapters completed. Siv section has undergone only minimal spelling and grammar checks.

Dante

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

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.

Meric

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.

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“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.

“Run!”

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.

Siv

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.

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