House of the Sun, Rochefort
Three months ago
"I still can't believe she passed the trials."
Sir Thoros Brighthammer shrugged at the halfling priestess. "She displayed the gift, and has the potential," he said.
Sunmother Isabelle Beauciel shook her head. "She barely passed any of the theoretical tests. I have never before encountered a paladin who forgot so much of our holy scriptures."
"It's rare, but some of the anointed work more on instinct than knowledge."
"That's what worries me," the Sunmother said. "She carries a darkness within her. A strong desire for revenge."
"Then she will be tested," the senior paladin declared. "She has proven herself to have the potential to carry the light for now. Whether or not Dame Davona passes through whatever crucible that awaits her, stronger or broken, is between her and God."
Onestrio's Trading Post
Windsday, Asmolan 2nd, 108
After what felt like an eternity of painful sleep, Vico woke to a pleasant sense of warmth. The feeling was dashed upon seeing the strangers who defeated his band standing over him, while he sat on the ground bound by rope.
"Listen, cooperate with us, and things will go easier for you," Davona told him.
Vico decided to cooperate. After all, the party defeated them, but kept them alive when anyone else would have just killed them. Maybe he can get out of this alive. It wasn't as if he had any particularly strong loyalty to the Stag Lord…
The information flowed from his mouth quite easily. The leader of this band explained that the bandits work in cells, with information cut off from each other. Even in his own cell, where he was pretty much the second-in-command, Vico did not have a clear idea of how many bandits were in it. Only Ravenna, one of the Stag Lord's lieutenants and leader of his cell, knew.
Vico did know that there were at least eight other bandits in his cell aside from himself and the ones he brought with him. He also told them that cells have a large amount of freedom and low oversight. As long as each cell brought back their goods at the end of the month, they were free to do as they pleased. In fact, Ravenna was not expecting his group back any time soon.
"Ok, let's hold a trial for him and the others," Davona said.
Vico was surprised by that. He did not expect them to bother with such mercy. At least they won't kill them right away. He might have a chance to convince them to let him live.
"So," Davona continued, "he was helpful, but he has been robbing this place for months. So, I think it's only fair that we leave it up to his victim to choose his sentence." And she turned to Onestrio.
Vico was shocked. By the look on Onestrio's face, so was he. And yet, the party's charter granted them full freedom to pass judgement however they wished. If any of the other Evergreen members had any reservations taking such a path, they kept such thoughts to themselves.
Onestrio was taken aback at being given the final say, but, still brimming with anger, simply said: "Kill them. Kill'em all."
Davona drew her blade, and approached Vico, now filled with dread. "I would say that it gives me no pleasure to do this… but that would be a lie."
"Hey! wait a min-urk," was all Vico managed to say before Davona coldly slid her sword through his heart.
As Vico died, so did something within Davona. The caelephilim felt a terrible sense of tearing in her heart, and all that was left was a void. She did not understand what it was. All she could do was bear it as she watched the bandit leader's last breath escape his body.
While Davona stood still and wrestled with the turmoil within her, Cehtin went to Onestrio. With inexplicable motive, the kitsune placed a sword in the man's hand.
"It was your judgement that led to this," the kitsune told him. "If you make a decision, you should be the one to see it through with your own hands." Onestrio, shocked by how quickly the party killed Vico, let himself be led to one of the unconscious and bound bandits.
"Well? You've made your decision, what are you waiting for?" Cethin asked him.
Onestrio stared down at the bandit, thankfully still unconscious. Then, almost without thought, he thrust the blade through the bandit's throat. The bandit gurgled, and blood sprayed out of the wound, some splattering onto Onestrio. The impact of wet, warm blood shocked the tradesman back to his senses. He dropped the sword, stumbled to the side, and threw up.
"Hey, don't go too far, there are still a few more left," Cethin called after him.
"Just… just finish them off, please," Onestrio mumbled, as he stumbled back to the house, where a worried Sabina waited for him. The kitsune watched the tradesman leave with an enigmatic look on his face.
The rest of the party shrugged, and Jupus and Arina went into the storehouse and slit the throats of the remaining bandits. They then piled their corpses outside of the trading post, and set ablaze in a pyre.
That night, Davona could not rest.
She tossed and turned uncomfortably in her cot. She felt like she was burning up, and a sheen of sweat coated her body. For as long as she could remember, since the death of her mother, she could feel the warm embrace of a comforting presence. On those lonely nights, that presence made her feel that the world was safe.
But now, that presence was gone. All that was left was emptiness, a pit of fear and despair long since unfamiliar to her. No rest would come to Davona this night, nor any other night any time soon.
She suspected, with dread, what she was suffering from, but she did not understand why. Admittedly, her grasp of Kaïdenite teachings was never the most firm, but she had believed that she had made the right call. They held a trial, did they not? And they were bandits, scum of the earth. Was that not more than what they deserved?
Yet, there was now a hollowness in her. One now filled with doubt.
No rest would come to Davona that night.
The next day, a group of new travelers arrived at the Trading Post.
At the head of the group were four men of different races, two humans, a dwarf, and a halfling, but they were well-armed, and wore armor and clothing with matching colors. Another human man followed them, dressed in hunter's garb, but of expensive quality. Finally, a dour-looking rock gnome, unarmed, trailed behind them.
The gates of the trade post were still closed, on account of Onestrio still worried about the rest of the bandits. On the rampart, the tradesman called out to the group to identify themselves.
The lead soldier, a middle-aged but still fit man, replied. "Lorenzo Dinovio, of the Rochefort Freelancer Guild! I come with three other guards to fulfill the contract of one Onestrio Lucelli. We are also accompanied by two travelers originating from Rochefort."
Lorenzo lifts up the contract in the air, one that bears Onestrio's signature and seal. Recognizing it, Onestrio descends to open the gates. Before doing so, he asks the Evergreen Company to be present in the main yard. "Just in case," he said.
Fortunately, such precaution was unnecessary. Onestrio confirmed the writ and the Rochefort Freelancer license upon them being presented by Lorenzo. Onestrio welcomed them into the tradepost, though not without some harsh words.
"I hope your skills are better than your timing. You're a day late to miss out all the action," the tradesman grumbled.
If the mercenary was offended by the comment, he hid it well underneath a disciplined composure. "It seems so. I noticed the burnt corpses outside."
"Yes, the work of these skilled travelers," Onestrio said, motioning to the Evergreen Company standing in the middle of the yard. Lorenzo thought he heard a tinge of trepidation in the man's voice.
Lorenzo nodded to the adventurers. "Fine work," he simply stated. "And what brought you here at this auspicious time?"
Arina stepped forward, and produced the charter. "By the right granted by the Trade Lords of Lurindor, our Evergreen Company is tasked to explore and pacify the Evergreen Plains with the goal to establish a nation here under our rule. I am Arina Seta Ondo, and these are my companions."
Arina proceeded to introduce the other members of the Company one by one. She then explained how they dealt with the bandits harassing the trade post. Onestrio was looking at the ground by the end of the recounting.
"Thank you for your actions," Lorenzo said at the end. Turning to Onestrio, he apologized for not arriving in a more timely manner. Apparently, there was some mix up in the paperwork at the guild that delayed the request from falling into his hands, to which Onestrio vocally cursed out.
"As for you ladies and sirs," Lorenzo said, turning to the Company. "Now that we are here, we will fulfill our duty in guarding the tradepost, and you can freely fulfill your charter without worry."
"A welcomed change. Looking forward to working with you, Mister Lorenzo," Arina said as the two shook hands.
Right after Lorenzo led his men away to get settled in, the fancy hunter, a tall bald man with a thick bushy mustache approached the Company.
"Hullo!" he greeted them enthusiastically. "I am Gaspasi Montilligri, of the Monster Hunter Association of Lurindor. I believe you fine folk and I will have much to discuss. Please allow me to settle in, and I'll come speak with you before your next venture."
Without even pausing for a reply, Gaspasi headed into the main building, leaving the Company somewhat baffled. Davona thought the name of Gaspasi's association sounded familiar to her, but in her fugue state she did not think too deeply on it nor bring it up. All she really wanted was to curl up in bed.
The Company were collectively startled when they heard a cough right next to them. They had to look down (well, except for Jupus) to finally notice the last of the newcomers. He was a gnome with grey and blueish skin, with wild white hair. He was topless and barefoot, wearing only trousers. Although scrawny and long limbed, his less than fully clothed state revealed a compact, muscular body.
"Minchdoya," the rock gnome simply said.
The members of the Company glanced at each other. "Is… that some form of greeting?" Arina hesitantly asked.
"My name," the gnome replied without much emotion.
"Ah, well, well met, Minchdoya," Jupus told him.
Minchdoya nodded, then hobbled further into the tradepost. The Company shrugged, then went about their business. Who were they to call out odd characters?
Davona had gone to bed early, so it was only with the three other members of the Company did Gaspasi speak to about his offer.
"The MHAL is interested in sponsoring hunts for renown beasts and monsters in the Viridian Marches," he told them. "It is what the Association is all about. If there are any who could accomplish such feats in the Association's name, our prestige will increase, and we would handsomely reward such brave folk."
"And you're suggesting that we take up these hunts?" Arina asked.
"Only if you so wish it, my lady. The reward goes to the first to make the kill, but I have the feeling that your group will likely have the best opportunity to do so."
While not particularly enthused about hunting, the Evergreen Company had no issue with taking part with the hunt should the opportunity come across their path. Gaspasi informed them of four creatures of significant repute in the Evergreen Plains: a powerful hodag, the turtle menace known as Old Crackjaw, the dangerous dire boar Tuskgutter, and of a powerful tatzlwyrm.
The next day, Lorenzo was found setting up a bulletin board in the trading post, and pinned posters to it. He explained to the party that several requests were made by the Châteaufoy Trade House in regards to some problems in the Evergreen Plains.
First, the Trade House put up a reward to significantly curb the amount of bandit activity in the Evergreen. If any persons manage to bring proof that they had defeated over two dozen bandits, they would receive a reward of 800 gold lurins.
Secondly, there was a tribe of kobolds in the Evegreen Plains known as the Sootscales. They were never much of a problem before, but recently, something had stirred them up. The Châteaufoy Trade House would reward any party that manage to pacify the kobolds by any means necessary.
"Hey, is your company willing to take on other jobs while you're out there?" Lorenzo asked Arina.
"We are," Arina replied. "You have something in mind?"
"Aye. There's this former merc that I knew, goes by the name Fredo Stasi." Lorenzo spat on the ground at his name.
"Long story short, I worked with Fredo on a job a while back, but the scumbag stole the whole company's pay at the end. Last I heard, he fled south. Since then, I heard of stories about the bandits down here, and their descriptions matched Stasi: light tone skin, grey beard shaved head, and more tellingly, part of his right ear cut off. Courtesy of yours truly before he escaped."
"Now, due to my duties, I can't go gallivanting on my own personal hunt out there. Merc honour and all that. But merc honour also demands payback against those who break it. I have a reward for you if you manage to bring Stasi back, and a little extra if he's still alive to face justice himself."
The Evergreen Company agreed to keep an eye out for Stasi. If he had joined the Stag Lord's bandits, then they will be killing two birds with one stone.
Afterwards, Lorenzo met up with his men. The three had set up some semi-permanent shelters within the trading post.
"Welcome back, boss," Roark the dwarf said. "Camp's set. Cozy enough 'til we build something more permanent."
"Good job," Lorenzo told them as he put away his tools.
"Saw you talking to the explorers, sir," Marcel the halfling said while tending to their supper over the fire. "What were they like?"
Lorenzo took a moment to consider his response. "They're an eclectic bunch. Pretty much what you'd expect from adventurers. But they seem skilled and capable. Took care of those bandits easily enough it seemed."
The middle-aged human Vecchio harrumphed. "Pretty grisly business, that. They're the 'take-no-prisoner' type of folk?"
"Well… from what Onestrio told me, they did take them prisoner. Initially." The mercenary leader sat down near the fire. "Seemed that they held a quick trial for them. Well, I say trial, but it seemed they just let Onestrio decide their fates."
"Let me guess," the grizzled veteran said, "he called for their heads."
Lorenzo nodded. "Aye, and Davona, the bright girl that's currently bed-ridden, killed the man in an instant."
Roark shook his head. "Some trial," he muttered.
"After that, they finished off the rest while they were unconscious," Lorenzo continued. He leaned in close to the others, and lowered his voice. "Apparently, the fox-man convinced Onestrio to finish off one of the bandits. Some sort of life lesson for the man or something, since he was the one who made the judgement."
Marcel was aghast at that. "I-I don't understand. I had heard that their charter gave them full authority over the law in the region. Why would they do this?"
Lorenzo shrugged. He was around long enough to have seen a lot of things. "Like I said, eclectic. Just stay out of their way as long as they don't interfere with our duties, and you'll be fine."
"World's a harsh place, kid," Vecchio told the young halfling.
"Anyways, they've only just started, so we'll see soon enough what they'll make of this region." And Lorenzo knew that if it was not good, at least they can get back to Lurindor in no time.
Before the end of the day, Onestrio approached the party. The burly man seemed haggard. He had bags underneath his eyes, and Arina suspected he had not gotten much sleep. Jupus thought he caught a whiff of alcohol off of him.
"Pardons, ladies and sirs, but I have a request to make of you." Onestrio seems ill-at-ease, and was frequently checking his surroundings, though he seemed to actively avoid looking at Cethin.
"Go ahead and speak, Onestrio," Arina prompted him.
"It's… it's about my wife's wedding ring," Onestrio began. "She's hiding it, but I know her too well. Y'see, when that bitch Ravenna first came, she took Sabina's wedding ring from her. I tried to stop her, but the bitch swung her axe at me, nearly slicing me leg off."
Onestrio looked down at the ground for a moment. Perhaps out of shame? Cethin wondered.
The moment passed, and the tradesman continued. "I'm asking, since you'll be going up against them, could you keep an eye out for my wife's ring? I don't have much to give, but I can give you a line of credit that can be exchanged for goods. Say, a thousand gold coins worth?"
Eager at the prospect of free goods, the party happily agreed to retrieve the ring, which Onestrio described as a simple gold ring with his and Sabina's initials engraved on the inside.
After agreeing to the terms, Onestrio turned to leave, then paused. Not quite looking at the Company, he muttered "Thank you" under his breath.
In an ironic twist, the priest could hardly believe the sight before him. The outpost looked exactly how Joram Kaerny, servant of Deianeira, saw it in his dreams. Upon entering the outpost, he was met with the Evergreen Company who was keeping watch for any more bandit sightings. minus Davona who remained bed-ridden. Joram quickly introduced himself as a traveling priest of the Frontier Goddess.
"I had heard of the new expedition efforts in the region, and as a servant of the Frontier Goddess, I wish to offer my services," he claimed.
The three present Company members glanced at each other before responding. "It's good fortune, then, that you showed up as you did. One of our companions is in need of spiritual aid," Arina replied.
Joram was led to Davona. On the way, the Company asked him about where he hailed from, and what prompted him to travel all this way on his own.
"I come from a small village out east, in the lands of Valendar," Joram told them. "As to why, well, you can say I was hit with a glimpse of divine inspiration."
While Joram examined Davona, the other three Company members quietly discussed the newcomer while keeping a close eye on him. Each of them had their own reasons to be on guard of any newcomer, even beyond the current situation with the bandits. And each of them felt there was something suspicious about Father Joram, and how he responded to their questions. They did not get a hostile feeling from him, but he was definitely hiding something.
Joram finished examining Davona. "Your friend's suffering is spiritual in nature, not physical, although the former is causing the latter. She will need to confront the trauma that has led her to this state, and may need counseling for it."
After exiting the room, the Company confronted Joram. "We know you're not telling us everything," Jupus told him.
"You can't trick a trickster. You might as well come clean," Cethin added.
"We can tell that you mean us no harm, but you must understand, we cannot have any doubt in this situation," Arina said more diplomatically.
Already uncomfortable with trying to deceive people, Joram decided to come clean. He actually was a priest of Deianeira, but one that was almost excommunicated from the church. In his home village, there were several murders that were believed to be perpetrated by a werewolf, and Joram led the lynch mob that hanged their primary suspect.
When it later turned out that the murders were done by a pack of worgs, the church investigated Joram, and found him at fault. Only the fact that the former suspect was actually a spy for a band of raiders that were planning to attack the village saved Joram from full excommunication. Instead, he was exiled to wander the lands in search for redemption over his overzealous actions.
"I was, and still am, ashamed of my actions; it is not something I wished to speak about. But I spoke true when I said I was led here by divine inspiration," he said. "On the first night after entering Lurindor, I had a dream. It was one of an abandoned temple of Deianeira, in ruins and overgrown within a forest. A large and angry bear guarded it. Since having that dream, I have felt a pull towards the Evergreen Plains. I believed that my Lady was showing me a way to redeem myself. However, once I arrived at the Plains, I no longer have those dreams nor do I feel any pull. I suspect that my Lady is now testing me."
"What will you do now, then?" Arina asked.
"Unfortunately, these lands are dangerous, and I am no longer a spry young man. I had hoped to ask for your help, to keep an eye out for that ruined temple. Not without compensation, of course!" Joram quickly added. "While you search for the temple, I offer my services as a healer and pastor freely to you and the folk of this outpost, and even after you find the temple. To start, I can help counsel your companion."
The Company did not take long to mull it over; it was a good deal and they sensed no further deception from the man. They agreed to help Joram find his ruined temple. In response, Joram closed his eyes, almost coming to tears. He bowed before the Company.
"Thank you. And I promise you I will do everything to help your friend recover."
In the evening, the Company sat at the long table, being served supper by Sabina.
"I apologize for the meal, good ladies and sirs," she said.
"What for?" Jupus inquired.
"Well, I'm afraid that you'll find tonight's meal, and those in the foreseeable future, somewhat lackluster in taste. You see, we've run out of exotic goods to flavour them. Normally, it wouldn't be a problem, but with the bandits around…"
Sabina shook her head, and continued serving supper, but the Company sensed her hesitation. They prompted her to speak freely.
"Well, y'see, one of the great goods around these parts are these moon radishes. Got a unique taste to them, and they don't grow too far away, but it's gotten too dangerous now to collect them. I know you folks have bigger matters to deal with, but those radishes have a great value themselves, and if you manage to bring some back, I can guarantee a sizable store credit for every bushel that you bring back!”
The Company, eager for some tasty meals and increasing their store credit, happily agreed.
The next day, the Evergreen Company felt ready to start exploring the region.
"Davona? You still look ill," Arina remarked to the caelephilim. "Are you sure you are up for exploring the wilds?"
The caelephilim shook her head and waved away the noblewoman's concern. "Not fully, but I should be fully recovered by the time we are well on the road."
"You want to talk about it?" Jupus asked.
"No," was the curt reply.
Not really caring anyway in the first place, Jupus let the matter lie. From the side, Cethin looked on with some amusement. He suspected what was going on, but kept silent. To him, seeing how things will unfold from afar was far more interesting.
"You're going out?" The Evergreen Company turned around. Behind them was the rock gnome Minchdoya. The members of the company exchanged looks with each other all the while the blue-skinned gnome regarded them all with a tilted head.
"Yes," Arina told him. "We've been tasked to survey and pacify the lands of the Evergreen Plains."
"Then Minchdoya will join you. My purpose does not end here," the gnome stated as a matter-of-factly. "Look, I've written down what I have learned about this land from the others."
Minchdoya presented a tattered cloth parchment with scribblings written in a foreign language unfamiliar to the rest of the party. The party looked at the parchment, then at each other.
Davona looked confused. Cethin was entertained. Jupus shrugged. Sighing, Arina turned to Minchdoya. "Very well, you may join us on our venture, assuming you can take care of yourself."
The gnome bobbed his head up and down. "Oh, yes, I carry no weapons, for I am one myself."
With a new companion in tow, the Evergreen Company spent the first couple of days exploring and surveying in peace. However, on the third day, they noticed movement in the distance.
The movement was heading towards them. As it came closer, the Company could make out a figure. Whoever it was was not alone. Other figures followed behind. A chase was afoot.