All the recruits were clad in the standard armor of the order. They had a dully gleaming breastplate of steely grey color, their arms covered in similarly colored metallic vambraces, their legs with steely greaves and sabatons and their head covered in a simple open faced conical helmet. Their gear was largely unadorned aside from the symbol of the Radiant Sun on their tabard and shield, and they were also rather practical with their otherwise plate equipment assisted with chain and leather portions to retain mobility in important places. The gear was not heavily enchanted, only the simplest enchants that reduced the need for maintenance and weight.
The commander had her own armor, otherwise similar to the recruits, except it was more ornate with engravings and slight gilding. It was still rather practical though. The only two standing out from the group with their equipment were Shunkaha and Dee, who were wearing simple dark leather armor more suited for scouting. It was not the official armor of the order’s scouts, only something scrounged together so the two could fulfill their purpose. As the two had to gather information, it helped if their appearance didn’t scream “paladin!” at everyone. The two also didn’t carry the same shields or weapons as the others, Shunkaha opting to use his trident-spear-halberd hybrid, while Dee was equipped with a bow and throwing daggers. She could always call up her saber when necessary.
The group had already passed through the teleportation gates to a city near the great forest. This was not their real destination, but the smaller towns and cities they were planning to visit didn’t have their own teleportation gates, so the group had to walk the rest of the way. Well, the horses walked for most of them. The recruits had been given steeds to use. This was also training in their use and possibly in mounted combat as well. Hopefully not the latter though as they had little experience and would fair badly against experts in the area.
They were all supposed to be mounted but a problem had emerged near the order’s stables. Every time Dee tried to get close to the damnable animals, they got skittish and wouldn’t calm down. Even out in the open like this, the horses eyed Dee nervously, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. The stablemaster had said that the horses seemed to view Dee as a natural predator for some reason, and were scared. They were trained horses, so even the recruits managed to control them in the open like this when they were not shut inside an enclosed space with their predator, but there was no way Dee would be able to ride one. The poor beast would keel over out of fright.
She preferred to walk anyway. Even in her normal form she was fast enough to outrun the horses and she had more stamina over long distances. Besides, it was nice exercise. She could always assume a more speedy form if it was required. The others suggested taking an extra horse along as a pack animal to handle Dee’s portion of the supplies, but shut up when Dee simply stored her portion of the supplies inside Croestia’s storage space. If you had the ability, why not use it? She didn’t volunteer to handle the other people’s stuff though, and the others didn’t ask as they didn’t know how much storage space Dee had. Usually such storage items had strict limits. If only they knew of the mountain of food and other random sundries Dee was lugging around…
Shunkaha had volunteered to also walk, as he was in a relatively similar position to Dee. He also preferred his own feet and could keep up. He also didn’t want Dee to be singled out. It was also easier to scout ahead when they could remain hidden better without the horses. They had been traveling for a full day now, and were just making camp for the first night. The two had scouted the surroundings but had found nothing out of the ordinary. Shunkaha’s canine senses and Dee’s special sight made for a very effective way to search for danger.
Commander Luthana gathered them all around the campfire to begin the explanation on their mission. “First of all some basics for those completely unaware. The great forest has many inhabitants but the ones we are most interested with is the empire of Tuatha Dé Danann. Tuatha Dé Danann is one of the oldest and most prosperous empires in the entire Pantheon. Some people also call it the elven empire, but that naming is somewhat in error. It is true that the vast majority of the population of the empire is made of the various elven races who also rule the two seasonal courts of Autumn and Spring. However, the true rulers of the empire are the Sidhe of the Winter and Summer courts.”
“To be more precise, the empire is ruled by the pair of Winter Queen and Summer King. The Sidhe of the Summer court are known as the Seelie, and those of the winter court are known as the Unseelie. The two are both members of the Sidhe race, but they are also different in a fashion similar to how High Elves and Dark Elves are different yet the same. The reason why we are here is because the old Summer King is dying. We elves usually live between several hundred years and a few thousand years depending on what type of elf we are, but the Sidhe are practically immortal. Yet the Summer King is dying of old age.” The commander explained.
“That seems contradictory.” One of the recruits pointed out.
“Indeed. The problem comes from the symbol of rule as well as the succession. The Winter court always picks the next queen from a pool of eligible maidens related to the former Winter Queen, and it is not a direct succession. In fact, the ruling couple is unable to bear children. The succession is the same for the Summer court. Both the king and the queen hold a very powerful Authority as a symbol of their rule. These are some of the most powerful Authorities in existence, and give the two the power to match immortals in battle.” The commander continued her explanation. She had always hated court politics, but the four seasonal courts absolutely loved the game of politics.
“Why haven’t they been taken from the empire by force?” Dee asked astutely. “Surely the communities near the center of the city have the strength to do so, and a couple more immortals would help them.”
The commander nodded. “Indeed they do have the power to do so. However, these two Authorities come with some severe downsides. They rely on the life-force of their bearers, and even the almost eternal Sidhe have their life reduced to a couple thousand years. There’s another problem. The two only work as a pair. When the bearer of one of the Authorities dies, the bearer of the other one dies as well. The Winter Queen is in great health, but will die along with the Summer King despite this. This is something that has helped keep the two courts together for such a long time, but the unity is somewhat forced, and is now breaking.”
“Something has changed.” Dee pointed out, not really asking.
“Indeed. More precisely the heir apparent for the position of Winter Queen. She has no interest in marrying a man she does not love, which happens to include the entire male portion of the Summer court, but the heir apparent for the kingship especially. He in turn has made no secret of his love and desire for her, but she is not interested. That wouldn’t be so problematic, as they could just pick another girl usually. Someone would take the chance at the power. However there are two big problems. First is that the heir apparent for kingship has made his intent for the queen’s identity clear and isn’t willing to negotiate. Can you guess the other?” The commander tested the recruits with her question.
The recruits though for a while without coming up with an obvious answer. They had guesses, but they didn’t want to be wrong. Finally Dee took a stab at it. “The heir apparent for the queen’s position is too powerful to pass over?” It seemed the most logical answer to Dee.
The commander nodded. “Exactly. That’s a problem for many reasons. She is already an immortal, and in a few years might be able to match the power from the Authority with her own power alone. She refuses to take on the Authority as well, because she sees it as a downgrade, which it admittedly might be considering it would only somewhat increase her power currently while cutting her life short. The thing is, the ruling couple can’t have a power like that competing with them, especially with the politics of the courts and the competitor being part of the royal family. Even if she had no intention of rebelling, the others might use her as a rallying point against her will. Many of the nobility are not happy with the situation as it stands, especially in the Autumn and Spring Courts. They seem likely to take the chance to drive for a shift in power.”
“So we have a probable succession struggle on our hands. Still doesn’t quite explain why we are here. What’s the order’s stake in all this?” Shunkaha asked.
“Aside from many of our number coming from the empire, our grandmaster included, the empire of Tuatha Dé Danann is something of a bulwark against many belligerent forces. The forest itself is filled with dangerous creatures while on the flipside being full of precious resources, but the surroundings are also filled with hostile forces. Some races when entering Pantheon are not satisfied with splintering into communities and living in relative peace and limited competition. Many of the more hostile races have settled in the vicinity of the great forest due to terrain and plentiful resources. As an example, on the other side of the forest lie the great plains that are home to many nomadic races that are held in check by the presence of the empire. The centaurs in particular are very belligerent. The Autumn court actually spends majority of their time and effort fighting off these hostile races. They happen to enjoy it due to their own warlike nature so they do it willingly, but…” The commander allowed her voice to trail off.
Dee interjected. “I’m also guessing that there are factions within the courts that would be more than happy to also extend their power outside the forest?”
“Quite right.” The commander affirmed. “The Unseelie of the Winter court in particular have long held that the empire’s stance to its surroundings is too isolationist. The best way to defend against threats is to pre-emptively take them out, according to them at least. At the very least they want to take a much more aggressive stance in expanding their influence. The Summer court had fought against this, preferring to stick to the great forest.”
“So why are we here?” Shunkaha repeated his question.
“Well, the forest isn’t exactly the perfect environment for all things. More specifically farming and grazing cattle. There are various races and communities outside the forest that are under the empire’s “protection” that supply the empire with these goods and many others. This protection is beneficial to them, but not always voluntary. With the empire on the brink of a civil war, the outlying races and communities are seeing this as an opportunity.” The commander explained.
“Which side are we on?” Shunkaha asked sharply. “Are we here to enforce their suppression or to help them get free?” The beastmen were often targets of forced suppression due to their physical abilities. Bondage and even slavery were much more common on other worlds and not unknown in Pantheon either, and Shunkaha didn’t take very kindly to the idea of enforcing the same on other people.
“Neither actually. If the outlying communities want freedom, that’s their business. If the empire wants to enforce their suppression then that’s theirs. We are here to monitor the situation. The order will most likely take steps to limit the damage, but hopefully that is not our problem quite yet. We are here to take the temperature of the situation and report back. We are also here to apprehend those that are taking a darker interest in things and taking advantage of the situation for their own benefits. For example, if the communities themselves want freedom, then that’s on them, but if there are third parties here inciting rebellion where there otherwise would be none…” The commander once again let her voice trail off.
“Understood.” Dee replied simply. “We know what to look for then.”
The group had already visited three cities and villages on their trip without running into trouble. The three had been relatively happy with their lot in life, and they were simple agricultural communities that actually wanted the empire’s protection. However, as soon as she slipped inside the fourth fairly large city, Dee realized that this time would be different. She walked around the city talking to some local people and observed the dealings in the city to confirm her suspicions. It didn’t take someone of her skill to sense the tense air in the city.
She noted another difference when compared to the previous three cities. This city had a fair sized contingent of soldiers bearing the uniform of the empire. The contingent was only about a hundred strong from Dee’s estimation, but just their presence raised alarm in her mind. The soldiers were far from an elite group, but they were still heavily armed and keeping their eyes open, in a way quite different from normal city guards.
Dee caught Shunkaha’s eyes and gave a string of prearranged signs as a warning of trouble. Shunkaha in turn went to warn the group that this city was different from the others. In the meantime Dee tried to get a better picture of the situation and took to the roofs of the city to get a better vantage point. She also employed her stealth skills as she followed several individuals of interest as they peered around suspiciously.
She followed one such group to a warehouse on the side of the city, and found several things inside that confirmed her suspicions. Another group lead her to a production facility of a certain substance, which provided her with the final piece of the puzzle. She decided it was time to report to the commander.
Sneaking out of the city was simple, especially since the guards seemed more interested in what was going on inside the city. “What did you find?” The commander asked once Dee rejoined the group.
“The city in on the verge of armed rebellion.” Dee replied simply.
The commander frowned. “Explain.”
“The empire holds a special interest in the city and from what I see has held them in a much tighter grip than other cities for a while now. There are some elements fermenting rebellion, and there are several hidden caches of arms around the city. From the nervous air I sensed, I’m guessing the thing will blow up soon, maybe inside a week. I don’t know if the whole thing was home brewn or caused by a third party, but if it was a third party, then the agitators are either gone or very well hidden.” Dee explained.
“Why does the empire hold a special interest here, and what’s in here worthy enough to draw third party interest so soon?” The commander asked. It seemed odd that the empire would pay special attention here, seeing as the surroundings were not strategically important and the city was unremarkable.
“The city seems to be a major center of production for upper inks. There’s also about a hundred soldiers in the city protecting that interest.” Dee pointed out.
Upper inks were magical drugs with varying purposes. The most common purpose was a general performance enhancer. You could either ingest it in diluted form for a short burst of energy, improved focus, and hyperactivity, or use the undiluted stuff to make a tattoo that conferred a slightly lesser effect until the tattoo faded a month or two later. All factors that improved productivity. It was very popular in certain circles, though extended period of use carried rather nasty side effects. The practice was frowned upon by most communities.
The commander’s scowl deepened. “Uppers? Are you sure?”
“Quite certain. There are several cleverly disguised gardens around the city producing moocha leaves that are the main ingredient in uppers. I also stalked a particular group to a production facility. A rather large production facility.” Dee explained.
The commander thought for a while and then asked Dee’s opinion. “Speculations on what is going to happen?”
Dee had already prepared an answer. “The citizens are riled up enough to rebel, most likely within few days from now. The contingent of elven guards in not large enough to even begin to suppress such rebellion, they are here only to safeguard the operation. They will be quashed. The empire will respond violently. The exact degree of violence will depend on the commander of the responding force. However, with the upper interest they will reply swiftly and violently. They will be tempted to make an example here, assuming it is the first city to go into open rebellion. Wholesale razing of the town seems unlikely considering their interest though. A controlled sack of the city and plenty of executions seem the most likely response, but the leader might decide to either be lenient or to take even more extreme measures.”
“What will we do?” Shunkaha asked, rather heatedly. He once again stood on the side of those controlled and was not very fond of the idea of them getting made into an example.
The commander shook her head. “We can’t really make a large difference in either direction, but our presence might discourage the responding commander from taking a too harsh stance. We can’t afford to get into a battle with either side, but just our mere presence as observers and witnesses will temper things somewhat. The rebellion here is doomed anyway. We might also get a chance to find out more about possible agitators if we stay.”
Dee signaled that she wanted to speak, and got the permission. “Might I suggest we leave someone outside the city in case things go badly? We will be in regular contact with that person, and if the contact is not coming, then that person can report our fate to the order.”
“Sounds like a plan.” The commander agreed. She didn’t like the possibility of getting the group of recruits killed, but they were here and any reinforcements would be too late. Just leaving would be a dishonorable thing to do as well.