Campaign Logs

The Sunset Vale Saga

By Brian Flood

Chapter 52 - Trial and Error

Along the Dusk Road

Between Asbravn and Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale

Late Morning, 5th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)

A candlemark or so after they left, the quartet of soldiers and Alani return to the campsite. In the interim, Dolak has completed his work on his axe and Cyzicus' weapons. All the arms now have keen razor sharp edges.

The mounted warriors escort the elven scout who in turn leads Dolak's mule by its reigns. On the cart behind the hitched mule are three freshly slain deer that have not yet been dressed out. The two wolves - Darius and Soft Fang - pad along beside the cart, their muzzles stained with dried blood.

At almost the same time as the hunters' return, a glint of sunlight on steel from the south heralds the return of Corax and Elmont. The two comrades step into the campsite looking fairly grim.

As Corax steps into the small clearing that defines the camp, he drops a dead raven onto the ground and says, "If anyone wants to inspect the bird that Alani killed, here it is. I found it dead and curled up next to the body of the sorceress. And, in case anyone is interested, the man was wearing tailored clothing and seemed to be familiar with his assassin…as his dagger…" at this the rogue produces the corpse's dagger from his pack, " …was still firmly planted in its sheath. As I am not too familiar with the arts arcane, it was my thought that one of the mage's might inspect it to determine if it has any magical qualities."

Upon finishing and handing the dagger to one of the mages, Corax pulls the dry rations from the dead sorceress' pack. He then says, "I see that we have fresh meat for today. But, if no one minds, it seems I'm beginning to run a little short on my rations and, if I am going to continue with Master Tomar - after we talk - I'm probably going to need them." With that the rogue takes the slain woman's rations and places them in his saddlebags. "And I was wondering if you've come to a decision as to what we are to do with our frozen friend… I hope I'm not going to have to bury him too…"

As the rogue speaks, a great horned owl circles the camp and slowly descends. It touches down nearby the spot where the amber-encased Lucas sits concealed by the winter blanket. The bird hops over and pecks at the force field surrounding the mage but is startled when its beak bounces off the amber radiance. It emits a mournful 'Whoooo' as it hops around the stricken conjurer.

"SHOO!" Elmont bellows as he swipes his left armored hand at the bird. His aim is wide, only hoping to scare the bird away. "Perhaps we should cover him with a blanket, as to keep him away from such predators," the large giff advises with a straight face.

Alani leads the pony and the wagon beside off to the side and begins unhitching the mule from its load. Leading the mule to where the other mounts and pack animals are tethered, the elven scout ties off the tired beast.

Returning to the wagon, Alani begins the task of unloading the day's meat from the wagon. "Alright, I did my part. Who gets to clean these things?" she asks merrily as she unloads the last deer.

Moving over to the dead bird, the lass bends down and turns the avian over using a nearby stick. "Hmmm … I could have swore it was a vulture," Alani says almost to herself. Then looking up at Corax she continues, "You said you found it by her body. It must have made its way to her after the battle. When I hit it with my spell, it fell to the ground away from the battle."

The elven scout pauses for a moment in thought then continues, "The bird might have been the witch's familiar. And from the sounds of it, I would guess that the dead man is just some innocent sot that the witch lured out here with seductive promises, and instead used him to bait her trap. The bird's role I would guess was to lure other vultures to the kill or just to be enough of a curiosity to lure some of us away from the main group. But the question is why?" Alani looks back to the raven as if waiting for it to answer.

Soft Fang walks over to the shelter that he slept in the night before, lays down and is soon snoozing. The wolf the rest of the compaions have come to know as Darius pads over to the dead raven and sniffs at it.

Apparently satisfied, the wolf rises up on its hind legs and in a few moments, Darius is standing there. He raises his arms wide with hands over his head in a gesture of thanks, and all in the camp hear him say, "Thanks be to Silvanus."

Turning back to the wagon and deer, Darius asks, "Does anyone else know how to dress the game? I can if need be."

"That would be good," Elmont pronouces. "I am hoping that my troop will be sending word by tomorrow to advise on our next course of action. Or would you like to load up Lucas and contemplate leaving?" Elmont offers to the group.

"Beyond bleeding the deer, I have no knowledge," Alani answers. "Father would never allow me to be around the dressing of deer - he said it wasn't fit for an elven lady. But if you need some help Darius, I would be happy to do what I can and I would love to learn the proper way to dress a deer. The beasts give their lives so we can eat. The least I can do is learn not to waste their precious gift," she says as she moves to the deer, eager to learn a new skill.

Darius nods at Alani. "That is good. The blessings of nature should not be wasted."

"I was thinking," the young elven scout says to Darius, "it was said last night that before the witch died she called the name of her dark god. One whose name I will not mention this day. But do you think it is possible that she was part of the Zhentarim and that Master Tomar might have crossed the organization somehow. We are in an area known to be patrolled by Darkhold are we not?" Alani asks as she hands a sharp knife to Darius.

"I do not know. That is a matter for the mages and those of us interested in such things," replies Darius as he accepts the knife.

"Put the blade here, and gut the creature like thus," Darius says as he continues his lesson to Alani. The druid shows Alani how to properly prepare the animal for eating to get the maximum amount of meat and minimum waste.

Placing the knife near the groin area of the deer, Alani grimaces as she slowly slices the blade to the breastbone of the beast. She jumps back as the insides of the deer spill to the floor of the cart in a bloody heap. She is barley able to stop the contents in her stomach as the stench of the grisly mess assaults senses.

"By the gods that stinks," Alani exclaims as she brings her arm up to shield her nose from the smell. "I will happen to remember to thank my father for keeping me from this as I was growing up," she adds.

Imitating the sandy-headed druid as he separates the intestines from the inner arse of the deer, Alani responds to Elmont's earlier inquiries. "I really don't think that moving on tomorrow is going to be an option Elmont."

Pausing long enough to find a clean spot to clean the blood on her hands, the scout continues, "Even if our healers can heal Master Tomar, it would be wise to give them another night to refresh their spells. As for Lucas, I don't think covering him up will make a difference. I believe it will take more than a peck from an owl to hurt his prison." With that, Alani returns to her lesson.

Cy adds his thoughts, saying, "We should be able to move on in the morning. Both I and Darius saved a spell for Tomar. As for the Zhents, yes - they do make there base in Darkhold in this area. And, unfortunately from personal experience, I can tell they are a plague on the area. Whether or not she was a member of the organization, she was obviously one of their agents, as the medallion plainly shows." He holds up a medallion with the witch's sigil on one side and the symbol for Darkhold on the other. "They are curse to my home town of Corm Orp," the halfling continues.

Finishing her work at cleaning out the carcass of the deer, Alani steps back to let Darius inspect her work. "I have never had any dealing with the Zhentarim," she says as she again wipes the blood from her hand on the grass. "But from the stories I have heard from merchants passing through Everseka, the Zhents are a plague in most all of Faerun.

Staring at the medallion as Cyzicus holds it aloft, Alani eyes light up as she remembers something from her past. "I also remember a saying the merchants always used. 'Beware the Zhentilar, for they have three eyes. The two on their head, and the one that watches from afar.' I wonder if that witch had a third eye."

"You are correct, young lady," Elmont says in response to the question. "My troops and I have been patrolling this area for some time now, after a caravan was attacked and looted by the Zhentilar. Luckily, there was a survivor of the attack and the magistrates of Hluthvar thought it was to prevent any unlawful entry into the Vale," Elmont explains to Alani.

Turning to the giff, Alani listens closely as he tells of the Zhentilar activities. When Elmont pause in his explanation, Alani interrupts before the giff can continue. "When was this caravan attacked? And were there any similarities between that attack and this one? Sorry for the questions sir, I don't mean to pry into your duties, but I believe there is more behind this ambush than simple roadside banditry." While waiting for an answer from Elmont, Alani looks back to see how Darius has judged her first gutting.

Darius nods to Alani, and continues to work on the deer he is dressing. He goes slowly so that Alani can observe and then follow suit on her deer.

"Not a problem," Elmont says in response to Alani's question. " I can appreciate your desire for investigation. But the two incidents are unrelated. The caravan ambushed by a Zhent raiding party was carrying an ample amount of art objects. It was to be taken to the Royal Court of Azoun IV to be shown. It was from the elves of Evereska and they are none too pleased at its disappearance. Only from the lone survivor were we able to piece together what had occurred," he explains.

Perhaps you are correct about there being more to this attack than meets the eye," the giff continues. "But we have already discovered that the wizardess was hired to stop Master Tomar and in effect, eliminate his companions, meaning you. But you have successfully stopped her at that. Now, we must assume that there will be other attempts to follow," Elmont explains to the young lady.

Dolak steps back from the sharpening stone to inspect the renewed edge on his axe. Satisfied with the work, he slips the leather thong around the beak of the axe and then straps it onto his back. He takes note of the current flow of the conversation and strolls closer to where Alani is hacking at the carcass.

"I dinna know much about the Zhents, either." he says. "I hope Master Tomar isna of too import for the Zhents, though. The lady mage was almost too much for us. If they set a more resourceful killer on our trail, we may be burying some of our comrades instead o' her. Alani, if I can ha'e yer blade now, I'll touch it up a bit."

Smiling at Darius' approving nod, Alani unbuckles her sword belt and hands it to Dolak. She also unsheaths her dagger, handing to Dolak hilt first. "It looks as if you better sharpen this first," the elven scouts says, pointing to Darius as the druid begins to skin the hollow carcass of the deer. "From what I have heard, you need a good sharp blade to skin with."

Pausing for a moment to let the dwarf's analysis of the battle sink in, the young scout adds her comments. "So, let us assume that the Black Network is looking for something. Let us also assume that they think Master Tomar has or knows of this something."

Looking to each member gathered in the campsite, Alani pauses to let each draw his or her own conclusions. After a moment of silence, the young scout continues. "Has anyone had a chance to go through the witch's belongings besides the spellbook? Maybe there are more clues to what her mission was?"

Cy is the first to respond to Alani's question. "Aye, that be where we found this trinket," he says, showing the medallion again. "As well as a contract for Master Tomar's death, and our own if we interfered."

"That explains why Master Tomar is paying so well," Alani says, not at all happy about the contract.

Moving over to get a better view of Darius' work, Alani watches as the druid cuts a seam along the back of the right fore leg, slicing only down to the muscle. Beginning at the hoof, the sandy haired druid begins to separate the skin from the meat, slowly slicing away the sinew and tissue that holds the skin to the muscle.

"How long until Master Tomar will be well enough to speak Cy?" the scout asks, looking to Cyzicus, the frown still marring her elven features. "We need to know just what is going on here if we are to better prepare. When whoever finds out that we defeated their assassin, I am sure they won't be happy - and I am willing to bet that they will send another. One more competent than the witch we defeated."

Cy reponds to Alani saying, "I should be able to bring him to consciousness this afternoon. I'm sure we all have many questions of the master."

Muttering a few choice curses under her breath, the dark haired scout retrieves the knife she used to gut the first deer and moves to the final carcass to repeat the process while Dolak puts an edge on her dagger appropriate for skinning. As Alani tends to her grisly task, she is unusually quiet as her thoughts mull the news of the contract and of the Zhent attack on the caravan.

Sighing loudly, the elven scout shakes her head. "I fear the days ahead are going to be interesting to say the least," Alani says as she throws a handful of innards out of the camp.

* * * * *


Mid Afternoon, 5th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)

Several hours later, the small band of guards, travelers and soldiers has devoured the first portions of the freshly slain deer. Many of the group lies about in the mid-afternoon sun, quickly becoming tired as the sun beats down on their full bellies.

Leaning against the wagon, Alani's mood seems to have lighten after eating her fill of the deer she and Darius brought down from their earlier hunt. After eating, the young elven scout has spent the rest of the morning tending to her bow and arrows.

Twice now, the horned owl has returned. Both times it has attempted to land on Lucas only to find itself repelled by the amber force field that surrounds the conjurer. And twice, Elmont has shooed the avian away with his large, armored gauntlet.

Then, with a slight moan, Tomar begins to regain consciousness. Lying on the hastily assembled bed in the back of his wagon, the merchant slowly stirs to wakefulness. His eyes blink rapidly as they adjust to the sunlight. He looks around the campsite and his eyes grow wide as he takes in the armored soldiers that stand picket around the small clearing. The his eyes alight on Elmont's huge, armored form.

"Aaarrgh!" Tomar screams. "What in the name of the gods is THAT? And where is the sorceress?"

At the first sound of alarm, Elmont spins around and grabs for his massive blade. Once he realizes it is not an attack, he visibly relaxes his guard.

"Calm down Master Tomar," Darius intones. "The sorceress is dead, and 'that' is Elmont who has help stand watch and protect us whilst you were unconscious," the druid explains. "Now sit still for a moment so I can heal you a bit."

When Tomar quiets down, Darius prays to Silvanus for healing, and then casts a cure light wounds on the party's injured employer. The familiar aura of the nature diety's power covers the merchant for an instant. When it has disipated, Tomar's injuries have closed slightly, but he remains critically wounded.

Having heard Master Tomar yell out as he was startled by the sight of Elmont, Alani chuckles as she moves closer to the merchant's makeshift bed. She watches as Darius uses his healing magic to mend some of the wounds that Tomar suffered from the attack from the lady mage the day before.

"I believe that some of the others have questions for you about this sorceress," Darius says when the spell is complete. "But be calm and don't move around too much."

Once Darius is finished with the healing magic, Elmont approaches the merchant, "Greeting Master Tomar. I am Lieutenant Elmont Stryker of the Hluthvar militia. My troops and I came across your caravan and offered help. How are you feeling? I have a few questions for you as soon as you are able to answer," the giff says, all business all the time.

Seeing that the magic was somewhat successful, Alani, trying to hold her anger, speaks. "Yes, Master Tomar, the witch is dead, but from her death we were presented with a riddle you might be able to help us answer. Why would the Zhentarim put out a death warrant for a simple book merchant?" Staring at the human merchant, Alani patiently awaits an answer.

Kjira looks around for Ori. "Did the gnome ever answer us if it was alright to put Lucas on the book wagon?" she asks the others while she tries to track Tomar's assistant down.

As Tomar glances from Darius to Elmont and back to Alani, Ori appears from the other side of the wagon. "Aye," the gnome says, "once we get Master Tomar out of the back we should be able to put the mage in. That's assumin' we can lift him!"

Meanwhile, Tomar seems to have somewhat regained his composure from his initial reaction to Elmont. "Zhentarim? Death warrant? What are you talking about?"

"It seems the witch we battled yesterday was hired to kill you," Alani explains as she watches the merchant for any body language that might show that he was expecting the attack. "Along with us, if we interfered in her attempt. Now unless the Zhents are looking to expand their libraries and art collections, which I seriously doubt, I think it is real strange that they would send an accomplished sorceress to do away with a seller of books. Don't you?" asks the elven scout with an impish grin on her lips.

Seeing that the merchant still is not in good health, Cyzicus moves to Tomar and calls on Arvoreen's aid. With the halfling priest's aid, the merchant's wounds close even further but still remain.

"Now none of that Master Tomar," Cyzicus goes on to say. "The sorceress had a death contract for you for putting your nose where it doesn't belong. As we were included in this contract for protecting you, I believe we deserve an explanation."

Tomar frowns as he considers how to answer the questions of the elf and halfling. "Apparently they took some offense to some inquiries I made back in Berdusk. I heard rumors of a large caravan being assembled to cross Anauroch - the great desert. I have always held a great interest about the Parched Sea, as it covers much of the ancient civilizations of Netheril." The merchant winces slightly, apparently feeling the continued pain of his wounds. "The history of Netheril is somewhat of a hobby for me, you see."

Seeing that their employer is in better health, Darius moves over towards Lucas. He looks for the owl that has been hanging around, meaning to befriend it. Seeing that the avian is absent at the moment, the druid checks on Soft Fang who is sleeping under their shelter, and then walk around the perimeter of the camp. He also checks the fire pit and makes sure the area around it is clear of any new debris or brush. He keeps an eye out for the owl's return hoping to befriend it should it visit again.

"Must have been some pretty serious inquiries you were making to warrant your death," Alani says, not quite believing that Tomar is telling the group everything. Looking towards the amber prison that holds Lucas, the elven scout shakes her head then looks back to Tomar. "I have heard that the Black Network is an overzealous bunch. Nevertheless, I don't believe that they would send one with the skills such as that witch. Not for a merchant asking questions."

Bringing her hand up to her chin and scratching while she speaks Alani continues. "Now if that merchant found some answers he wasn't supposed to, well then I say that would be reason enough."

Pausing for a moment to gauge Tomar's demeanor Alani sighs and gets right to the point. "Master Tomar is there anything else you might need to tell us, now would be a good time. The road you have chosen will take us dangerously close to Darkhold and I am sure that those who want you dead won't give up that easy. For us to properly protect you, we need to know what we might be up against or we will all end up like poor Lucas there, or worse." Alani's eyes fix on the book merchant as she awaits Tomar's reply.

"As I said," Tomar insists, "I was merely making inquiries into a caravan that was to cross Anauroch. I did not hear anything that would interest the Zhentarim; from what I gathered, it was to carry farming implements and foodstuffs to a destination somewhere on the eastern border of the desert."

Then the merchant looks over Alani's shoulder at Lucas' amber containment field - which is still partially covered by the blanket. "What happened to the mage?" he asks.

"He too went sticking his nose where it didn't belong," Alani answers, her visage and mood softening. "The sorceress had her book trapped to keep out unwanted eyes. Lucas there opened it without checking it first. Unfortunately, we don't know how to get him out. From what I know of such spells, they are designed to hold the victim for capture and usually need the original caster to end the spell. Let us hope this one has a duration also. If not, well … " Alani shrugs her shoulders, not wanting to finish her sentence.

Dolak walks over from the cart he has been packing tight with the elements of his portable workshop. He casually glances at Alani after her comment about Lucas. "Master Tomar, it is a right good thing t' see you hobblin' about. Lucas willna get better out here. I dinna have room aboard me cart few Lucas, so I ask if ya have room in yer wagon to haul him t' the next town. I kin ask about there fer a mage t' help Lucas out."

Tomar answers the dwarf, saying, "That should not be a problem. We can move some items inside the wagon to make room for him. But I am concerned about this force which holds your friend. Have you tried to move him yet?"

"No sir, we haven't tried to move him. I am not sure if it is safe too," Alani says in answer to Tomar.

Looking to Kjira the elven scout inquires, "Kjira do you know anything of this prison that has Lucas captive? I have never come across such spell in my studies." Walking over to the confined mage, Alani studies the amber force as she awaits Kjira's answer.

"I fear I know little about poor Lucas''predicament," Kjira laments at Alani's question. "I think it would be safe to move him, however...remember the bird that kept trying to reach him? It showed no apparent harm at touching the translucent field."

"Perhaps our friend Elmont, with all his strength, could move our hasty mage onto Tomar's wagon..." Kjira looks to see if the giff agrees.

Looking to the incased mage, Alani consider Kjira's analyses. "I don't know, Kjira. It looked to me that the owl could not touch the field, which makes sense." Looking back to Kjira the elven scout continues by asking rhetorically, "What good is a trap if one could easily escape from it?"

Moving closer to Lucas' prison, the elven scouts pulls out her short sword and prods at the amber barrier. With a slight nudge, the field repels her sword. She quickly finds she is unable to penetrate -- or even touch -- the force field.

"I wonder if he is alive in there?" Alani queries. "If we can't get him out of there, poor Lucas just might himself in someone's garden scaring away birds," the elf adds dryly as she inspects the amber prison and the ground around it.

Glumly, Cy pronounces, "It seems we have no choice but to abandon Lucas. If we can't touch him, we can't move him. Though it pains me greatly to say so."

Alani furrows her brow as the amber prison repels her sword away with the same force that the elven scout applies. "Now what are we to do?" Alani exclaims as she tries to touch the field containing Lucas only to be pushed away. "We can't even touch the thing, let alone load it on the wagon."

Alani bends to her knees to see if the field also repels itself away from the ground. "He has been trapped in there for a full day now and it doesn't look as if this field has weakened any."

Getting off of her knees the young elf moves around to the back of the amber field to see if she can see anything in the opened book in Lucas' hands. "Cy, was the death contract the only parchments that the witch had on her?" Alani asks as she tries to focus on the book's writing.

Cy replies, "No, I believe Kjira has some others she was attempting to identify."

"We can't give up on Lucas yet Cy, we have to try every option open to us first." Alani implores to the halfling priest. Then, when she digests the halfling's mention of the other parchments, Alani turns to Kjira. "Did you find anything that might help in them, Kjira?" the elf asks the mage.

Cy responds with, "I don't wish to give up on him, I just don't see an alternative. Unless Kjira has found a dispel magic scroll, which we won't know until tomorrow. She didn't memorize read magic today. Or so she said when we asked about the scrolls this morning. Unless you have read magic memorized, Alani."

"Unfortunately I don not have it mesmerized either." Alani replies to the halfling. "But I will tell you this. After this situation, I will make sure that I have it from here on out," the scout vows as she tries to get as close as she can to the field without being pushed away.

Alani finds that the field that surrounds Lucas is form-fitting and appears to be a fraction of an inch in thickness and a like distance from the mage's body. It is translucent, allowing a very hazy view of the prisoner within. Concentrating, Alani fails to see any movement on the mage's behalf - he does not appear to breathe, blink, sweat, or anything else. He is apparently frozen in complete stasis within the amber prison. The less-than-transparent quality of the force field also denies Alani the ability to read anything on the small spellbook that the Lucas holds open on his lap.

"You've got to be the most unimaginative bunch I've ever traveled with," Kjira moans as the others announce their readiness to abandon Lucas. "So we can't actually touch him or the field directly. Let's wrap it in a few blankets and carry it that way."

She moves over to the frozen sorcerer and points the ground behind him. "Here. Lay a blanket lengthwise behind Lucas. We'll use another blanket to go around him and topple him and the field onto the blanket on the ground. Then we can attempt to pick up both sides of the blanket like a stretcher...carry him to the back of the wagon."

Cy says, "I don't know if that will work, we can try it. Everything appears to be unable to contact the field. His owl, Alani, her sword, everything tried so far."

"Precisely the point of this exercise, Cy," Kjira replies. "We may not be able to actually touch it, but by wrapping a blanket or rope around whatever 'it' is, we can certainly topple it and lift it with a blanket."

"Won't hurt to try I guess," shrugs Alani as she takes the blanket that covers the entrapped mage, spreading it out on the ground behind him. Moving over to her bedroll, the elven girl gets her blankets and returns.

Rolling one of the blankets up width-wise Alani puts it around the neck area of the mage, allowing the ends to hang down the front. Rolling the second blanket in the same fashion, the scout places it around the neck with the ends hanging down the back.

"Lieutenant Elmont, could you lend us your strength? I figure Kjira and I can pull Lucas back and you could hold it from the front to keep him from slamming to the ground." Moving to the left side of the mage and the blanket on the ground, Alani takes up one end of the blanket and awaits her companions' help.

Waiting for the large giff to take up the blanket, Alani looks to Kjira. "Did you have any luck ascertaining any more information for the sorceress' belongings? There has to be something we are missing." The dark haired elf sighs as she awaits the answer from Kjira.

Smiling appreciatively at the women's' ingenuity, Elmont follows Alani's direction and leans over to move the amber covered mage with all of his strength. Surprisingly, as soon as the adventurers apply increased pressure against the field - by pulling against it with the blankets - it repels them with equal force, nullifying their efforts. After several minutes, they have not succeeded in moving the mage even a fraction of an inch.

Clearly frustrated, Cy cries, "Now what?!! Do we sit out here until we starve?"

"DAMN," Elmont curses as he slams his huge fist on the partially covered amber prison. When his hand bounces off the shield, he snarls and contemplates charging the amber globe, but then reason overcomes him and he desists his assault.

"We are going about this in the wrong way," Alani announces as she drops her end of the blanket. Squatting down, the young elf folds her arms across her knees and contemplates the problem. After a few seconds go by, the familiar impish smile crosses her lips.

"If we can't pull or push it over, maybe the forces of nature can." Looking to Tomar, the scout asks, "Do we have any digging tools?" Then looking to Kjira and Tomar, she says, "I am thinking that if we dig away the ground, starting from the back and moving forward underneath the prison, it should fall backwards when we pass the halfway point. Of course before it falls, if it works, we should back a wagon up to catch it." Smiling, Alani awaits comments from the others.

"I have some small tools," Ori answers. "But it's only a small shovel, me pick, and a sifting plate."

The gnome jumps into the back of the wagon and rummages through his pack. After a few minutes, he produces a small pick, and a small spade. He also produces an ivory wand. "Of course, we could always just use this to excavate around 'im, as well," he announces.

Tomar's eyes narrow as his henchman discloses his ownership of the wand. Then he clears his throat. "Or, if you care to wait as long as tomorrow, I may be able to move your friend using some other … arcane … means."

"We shouldn't use magic unless we have no other choice," Alani says as she moves to retrieve the pick and shovel. "No, we should save our magic to defend against any other assassins that may be sent."

Looking to the wand as she gets closer to the gnome, Alani continues. "Though if the wand can help speed the job up - and if it has enough magic in it to spare - I don't see any reason why we can't use it."

As Alani makes her way back to the imprisoned mage, she looks to Darius as he is tending to Soft Fang. "Darius, do you have any seeds that we can use to replant the area if this happens to work?" the scout inquires.

Kneeling down beside the amber prison, the elven lass begins to break the ground around the back side with the pick. "Ori, would you be a dear and back the wagon in to position," she says pointing to an area a few feet away behind where she is digging.

While Alani digs, Elmont tries to get his arms around Lucas' prison, and to lift it or move it by direct contact, even to rock it back and forth to see if it will move. He quickly discovers that any force he exerts against the shield is repelled in equal proportions in the exact opposite direction.

Watching as the large giff appears to be losing his wrestling match with the amber field, the elven scout continues at her chore as she speaks. "Come now Lieutenant, not all problems can be solved by brute force." She pauses to dig out some of the earth she has broken loose.

"Really?" Elmont replies in mock surprise. "Most can," the large giff adds as he smiles. "It will take a long - very long - time for you to move him that way," he predicts.

Brushing her hands off on her pant leg, Alani looks to Elmont as she points to the entrapped mage. "Instead of focusing on the problem, let us focus on the solution," she says merrily. The scout picks up the pick axe, and goes back to her chore.

After digging for a few minutes, Alani realizes that it will take much longer to move enough earth for her plan to work. Looking up to see the sun beginning its decent, she turns to Ori and in a quizzically tone asks, "If you don't mind, good Ori, what is it the wand can do to help in excavating the dirt?" Alani smiles as she awaits a response.

"This," the gnome replies as he points the wand. He utters a brief, arcane word or two and then suddenly the dirt behind Lucas begins to fly up and away as a hole is magically excavated. Alani steps back as the dirt around her begins to relocate. After about five minutes, during which time Ori keeps the wand pointed at the growing crater, a hole that measures about six feet long by three feet wide, with a depth of about one and a half feet, stretches out behind the imprisoned mage.

"That may do it!" Elmont says, nodding appreciatively.

"There," Ori announces. "Now all you have to do is chip away at the dirt he is resting on - if I understood yer plan."

Watching in amazement as the dirt is magically removed by the gnome's wand, Alani claps her hands as the job is finished in no time. "Excellent Ori. That will work perfectly, thank you," Alani says as she hops into the freshly dug hole.

"That is the plan Ori. Now, if you could back the wagon over the hole as I chip away at the dirt. If all goes well it should just fall right into the back of the wagon." Picking up the axe the elven scout begins to chip away at the dirt under the trapped mage.

The gnome's face contorts as he ponders Alani's request. "First of all," he begins, "I'm not sure how much experience you have with draft animals, but it'll be … difficult to BACK UP two of these behemoths!" The diminutive drover points two the two huge draft horses that pull the wagon.

"Secondly," he continues, "The back o' the wagon is about three er four feet high. Yer friend is sittin' down. If he falls, he'll probably either just hit his 'ead er pass right below the wagon!"

As Ori points out the flaw in her plan, Alani steps out of the hole and silently swears to herself for not seeing the misjudgment earlier. "You are right Ori, I should have thought this out a little more."

Moving to the end of the hole, the young elf takes her usual squatting position that the party has come to learn is a habit of her's when thinking. "Backing the wagon wouldn't be all that hard. We could always unhitch the team and back it into position ourselves."

Staring into the hole, Alani begins muttering to herself as she tries to figure a way to load the mage on the wagon. After a few minutes of contemplation, the young scout begins to speak to nobody in particular. "What if we made the hole wide enough for the whole wagon to fit in and slope the hole down towards Lucas so the back of the wagon is lower than he is?" Alani looks up from the hole to the group for input on the situation.

"Why not lie a blanket or two behind the amber globe and dig underneath it, so it falls on the blankets and then we can pull the ends up to carry him?" Elmont asks.

"Because the same forces that stopped that idea from working before, would probably do so again," Cy states rather matter-of-factly. The halfling then wanders away grumbling to himself. After a while, he yells to Simon, "We might as well make use of this time. Let's get you some training in."

Ori's eyes, however, light up at Alani's suggestion. He pats his leather armor - which the party now notices is covered with pouches and tabs - and then finds what he is looking for. From one pouch he withdraws a piece of parchment and from the other a quill and an ink well. He squats on the ground and begins sketching out Alani's proposal.

As he writes, he mumbles, "It'll have to be about six feet deep at the back, probably about ten feet wide and … about twenty feet long …" He sketches out a rectangle in three dimensions and then, with a stroke of the quill, cuts it into two triangular wedges. "That'll require us to remove about six hundred cubic feet of earth."

He pauses at that point and frowns. He gestures Tomar down to him and the two have an animated but whispered discussion. Finally, they finish and Tomar clears his throat to speak.

"Ahem. This is going to require my companion here to use several charges from his wand," the merchant begins. "Since, according to Ori, your friend was not actively doing anything to protect the caravan when he was imprisoned, I would say this falls outside the realm of simple service. Ori will use his wand to help you … but only if all of you agree to decline payment for this leg - Asbravn to Hluthvar - of the journey."

The gnome tugs on Tomar's pants leg and the merchant bends down to listen to him whisper again. Then he straightens back up to add, "And - since there is the possibility of the wand being completely expended in this action, we would ask that Ori be given the witch's dagger. Apparently, from what he has said, Miss Kjira here has determined that it is enchanted. One magical item for such a significant usage of another seems like a fair trade. What say you?" the merchant asks, finishing his bargaining speech.

Darius, who has looked longingly at the dagger from afar, shrugs his shoulders as he hears Tomar's request for the weapon. The druid then goes back to sitting next to Soft Fang as he listens to the others bargain.

Cy responds first to the merchant by saying, "Master Tomar, it is time to reopen negotiations. You didn't plan on using your wand and we didn't plan on having the whole of the Zhentarim on us for simple caravan duty. As it stands, now we may have a price on our heads for the rest of our lives. We killed one of their valued agents in protecting you."

"Why that certainly sounds fair, Master Tomar," Kjira then adds a little sharply. "Of course, you do realize that you are indebted to several of our party's healers for their services. After all, we only contracted on as guards - not nurses and healers as well."

She pauses for a moment before continuing. "While we would not expect you to spend your coin in ridding Lucas of this amber atrocity, I don't think it fair that you withhold other resources that might help him."

"After all," the lady mage continues, "none of us have asked to be reimbursed for spell components or other supplies we've expended along the way despite their use going beyond mere guarding a caravan. We can all return to using plain weapons, if that would be more convenient for you - though I shudder to think of your survival chances should another witch be sent after you..."

The merchant's eyes narrow at Kjira's response. "I see," he says. "I am beginning to fear that I may have hired you in error, then. I seem to remember hiring you to protect my goods and I. One would think that 'protecting' may involve fighting those that threaten your charge - be they orcs, bandits or some crazed mage. Now, you apparently expect further compensation or some such thing for healing spells you used to aid me! Ironic indeed, since I was almost killed by your incompetence so thus I should obviously have to give you more payment for saving the life which you were hired to protect in the first place! As well, you further expect my companion here to possibly expend his valuable and rare wand to aid in freeing your companion … who was harmed in the course of doing absolutely nothing that relates to protecting me or my goods."

He grunts cynically and continues, "Oh, I suppose one could make the argument that he thought something in that book would help in his task … but then, this is the same man who asked to peruse my valuable wares for free so that he could find helpful information. Helpful to his personal advancement, it would seem."

"You are correct in saying I may not survive in the face of this new threat should you decide to reserve your more … effective … spells and weapons. But then, your own survival might be forfeit as well if you choose to use anything less than the required force to defeat the foes we may encounter. And since such personalities as High Priest Asgar and Captain Crassius now know that you are in my employ, my untimely demise would surely not aid your reputation within the Western Heartlands for the next several years to come!"

"And if you would like to discuss performing outside of your original duties," Tomar continues, now almost seething with rage, "I seem to recall testifying on your behalf back in Asbravn. Or, perhaps, you would have rather preferred to enjoy that quaint little town while populating their stockade in punishment for your part in the destruction of their town square!"

The merchant clears his throat and struggles for a few seconds to regain his composure. Then he announces, "My companion merely asks for the witch's dagger in return for use of his own magical item. If you feel that a simple enchanted dagger is worth more than your friend's life, you are most welcome to continue your attempts to free him by hand. That would also include returning Ori's hand spade and pick, of course."

Looking back and forth between the Tomar and Kjira, Alani throws down the pick and spade and steps between the two. "Stop it both of you!" Alani shouts, her face contorted in anger.

Turning in the direction of Kjira, the elven female points her finger in an accusing matter. "What in the nine hells is wrong with you? What if that was you trapped in that amber prison? Bet you wouldn't have any complaints then! Ori was nice enough to offer the use of his wand, so I think it is fair that he gets the witch's dagger - especially if he uses all of the magic."

"By the Gods Kjira, Lucas is our friend and a fellow practitioner of the Arts. Five gold pieces says he would give it up if it was you or anyone else trapped as he is."

Completing an about face, the elven scout then confronts her employer. "And you. Do we mean so little to you, just hired hands? I take it that if I had to answer the call of nature and I fell and broke my leg, I wouldn't get paid because me going to the privy didn't have anything to do with guarding your goods? Well, if that is the way you see it, then you can have my pay for the rest of the trip, if only to use Ori's pick and spade to help my FRIEND!" Emphasizing her last word, the angry elf spins on her heels and returns to the chore of widening the hole, muttering and cussing as she works.

Elmont stands to the edge and watches the verbal melee amongst the group. He shakes his head slowly, a look of pity on his face.

"I did not mean it thus," Tomar replies to Alani. "However, if you were to ask for MORE pay simply because you broke your leg going to the privy, then, yes, I would refuse to increase your pay. I was, perhaps, a bit too hasty in asking you to surrender your pay for this portion of the journey. You obviously performed well enough to allow all of us to survive the witch's ambuscade."

"So," he says in compromise, "I am willing to lower the terms. If you simply give the dagger to Ori, we will see what we can do to help free your friend. You will not need to relinquish your monetary reward for this leg."

The features of the elven girl face soften as Tomar speaks of the compromise. "It is a fair deal I say."

Turning to the female sorceress, Alani asks, "What say you Kjira? You would be no worse off then you were about this time yesterday. If you were in Tomar's shoes, wouldn't you expect payment for your services?"

She holds up her hand to cut off Kjira's protests. "We were hired to guard Tomar and his goods. We all knew going in this that is wasn't going to be stroll through the wilderness. Sure, having a price on our head will make life interesting to say the least, but that is the price we pay for our line of work. But to be so foolish as to charge extra for materials use in the course of doing your job …" she shakes her head. "One would think with your prestige would be above such foolishness." Holding out her hand, Alani looks to Kjira to hand her the dagger.

Dolak listens to the outbursts from atop his cart. He crawls down off the cart and turns to face the angry confrontation. Somewhat as a voice of mellow reason calling out from the wilderness Dolak bellows, "Clamp yer tongues a'fore I knock all yer heads about! We're not here t' be fightin' amongst ourselves or figurin' new contracts."

He draws near to Alani and Tomar to add his own point of view. "Alani, Ori's said he dinna know how many charges he's got left in his wand. Are ya sure we'll be able t' dig yer hole? He might have but the one charge left. I seem t' remember Corax sayin' that all but one o' the pages o' paper Lucas found on the witch was blank. The other'n was magic. Did ya have a go at that one yet?"

Turning his eyes t' Tomar, the dwarf adds, "Just a bit o' advice for future caravans yer hirin'. Dinna ever call yer guards incompetent while yer in the wilds. At best, they just may leave ya. At worst, they just may leave ya dead. Also, if yer needin' to hire bodyguards and not caravan guards, make sure yer guards know that too. Protecting a caravan from bandits and random threats from the wild is a bit different than protectin' someone who has an enemy determined t' kill 'im."

"Ya canna play the fool with me, Master Tomar," the dwarf warns. "Someone who's stepped afoul o' the Zhents will know it, unless he is a fool. If ya want t' stay alive longer, ya'd better be tellin' us of other surprises we kin expect. If I dinna know there is a dragon out there ya stole a book from, I canna keep ya alive. Yer choice, just depends on how much ya really like livin' in this world."

Having said his piece, Dolak turns and trudges over to the cart. He pulls the tarp taut and starts to weave the tie-down rope around the hooks to hold his load on the cart.

Elmont approaches Dolak and begins to help him, tired of the inactivity of the day. As the two work together, Elmont offers, "If this chaotic life ever bores you, I would be honored to have you amongst the men in the militia! You are smart, quick on your feet, and possess a no-nonsense attitude that makes the difference between who lives and who dies out here," the giff tells Dolak.

Dolak pauses a moment to consider Elmont's offer. "I'm honored yer askin' me, and 'tis somethin' I'll consider. Yer lot looks t' be a steady bunch ya kin rely on. Right now, though, I've a contract with Master Tomar and I aim t' see it through."

Tomar, meanwhile, nods at the dwarf's earlier words to him. "Well said, Master Dolak. I assure you, however, that I did not know of the price on our heads before I hired you. This is news to me as much as it is to you. It would seem the Zhentarim are rather … concerned … about this caravan I inquired about."

Then, addressing Alani and Kjira, he continues. "Our offer still stands; the dagger for use - and possible draining - of the wand. However, if you wish to explore other options," the merchant adds, indicating Dolak, "then we shall await your decision."

In the wake of the merchant's renewed offer, Darius just sits on the ground with Soft Fang and listens in, as he had been for several minutes. The druid does not offer anything to the conversation.

During the debate about the wand and dagger, Darius sits and pays attention to the human interaction between the participants. Musing to himself, he wonders if these are the kind of insights that Florin wanted him to learn about. Are all humans so territorial with their possessions? It's only a dagger or a wand. Why is Tomar so insistent on getting payment for helping a member of the pack? Why is Kjira not willing to share for the health of the pack?

Darius feels that this conversation is important in his learning of the ways of the world. If humans - and gnomes, elves, half-elves and the like - are so worried about items rather than the pack, this could be important when it is time to take care of the grove and deal with others. At least orcs and their ilk are set in their ways and can be taught to leave the forest alone. Humankind and the others seem to have no common way of looking at the world and are so unpredictable.

In the epicenter of the debate, meanwhile, Alani looks to Dolak , saying, "I asked twice if there was anything else found on the witch and Cy said something about Kjira having some other papers. But when I asked her about them, she changed the subject to using our imagination to help Lucas. I just figured that nothing else was found."

Alani next addresses the party's lady mage. "This magical scroll, did it have anything that would help?" Alani asks Kjira.

"There were several things found on the witch," Kjira tells Alani, "though we haven't finished inspecting them. Corax here got everyone worked up when it was discovered the sorceress was a paid Zhent assassin…"

"There was another magical scroll with her stuff," the lady mage admits, "but we'll need to examine it first."

"Maybe it would be best to have a look at this scroll," says Alani. "It may have a spell on it that will free Lucas from his prison." Looking back towards Lucas, then back to the group, she continues, "If not, we may have to trade the dagger to Ori or dig the hole ourselves. Time is money to Master Tomar and I am sure that he will not wait around for us to dig a hole with these," she states, holding up the small spade and pick axe.

"But one things for sure; I am not leaving Lucas behind," the elven scout states firmly. "I will stay here myself if I have to. It is no less than I would do for anyone here, and would hope that you would do the same."

Cyzicus, returning from training Simon, hears this last bit and sighs. "That would create two problems Alani. One, we would have to break our contract with Master Tomar. Two, we would starve after depleting the game from the area. Which I doubt Darius would allow in the first place."

Laughing at Cy's comment on eating, Alani retorts by saying, "Aye Cy, gods know we wouldn't want that!" The elven lass winks as she smiles to the halfling. "Then we had best make up our minds on what to do. I could take a look at the scroll, maybe I can tell if there is anything on it," she suggests nonchalantly.

With Elmont's help, Dolak finishes with the tie downs and then walks over to the others to join in the conversation again. Looking to Alani he responds, "There was one that was magic, I remember that. I dinna know who ended up with it. I dinna think anyone was able t' read it, though. Perhaps you kin."

Looking over the rest of the crowd, Dolak asks, "Who's still got th' scroll we got off the Zhent Mage? Alani might be able t' make hammers er axes of it."

Even as Dolak speaks, Cy walks up to Lucas and draws his short sword and dagger, frustrated by all this inactivity. Then he attacks the field like a dervish.

As with the earlier attempts by the owl, Elmont and Alani, the halfling's attacks are repelled with force equal to that which he exerts against the field. As his attacks increase in ferocity, so does the force with which his wrists and arms are spasmodically repulsed in the opposite direction. After a short period of such futile effort, Cyzicus succeeds only in making a fool of himself - especially given his priestly vocation which advocates wisdom over brute strength.

Laughing heartily at the antics of the halfling priest, Alani moves over to the pile of items that were taken off the Zhentarim witch. First, she picks up the dagger found on the body of the dead man and examines it, looking for any marks or design that might give the elven scout any clue to who the man was. After looking the dagger over and finding nothing out of the ordinary, Alani puts it to the side for further examination.

Next, the scout sifts through the papers until she comes across the scroll that the group says had a magical aura. Opening the scroll, Alani tries to determine if the scroll will be of any help. She immediately finds that the scroll is written in arcane script. It will take a spell to decipher the writings.

Dolak looks inquisitively at Alani. "Kin ya make hammers er axes of it?"

Shaking her head as she looks at the scroll, Alani rolls it back up. "Sorry Dolak - I don't have the spell needed to read the scroll this day." Cursing herself for not memorizing the spell needed Alani continues, "Unless Kjira has the spell needed, we are back to the original plan. We either trade Ori the dagger for the use of his wand or we leave Lucas behind."

Alani glances from the trapped mage then back to the group. "As far as I am concern the latter is not an option."

Looking towards Kjira, the elven scout locks eyes with the female spellcaster. "So Kjira, what will it be? If the scroll can't help us, are you willing to give up the dagger?" Alani asks, frustrated by the sorceress' reluctance to surrender the dagger.

Kjira takes the scroll back from Alani and sighs. "We can only hope it hasn't been protected in the same fashion as the witch's spellbook."

Kjira proceeds with the motions of the spellcasting and arcane letters and notations of the slain witch become clear to her. Scanning the pages, she finds that the scroll contains three enchantments; a spell for dispelling magic and two others that she reads but does not yet divulge to the others.

After a few minutes of arcane mumbling followed by a close inspection of the script in front of her, Kjira smiles slightly and looks up at the others in the group. "I think, my friends, that we shall retain the dagger after all … provided this works as expected, anyway," she says.

Carrying the scroll with her, she moves to stand in front of the amber-encapsulated Lucas. She begins to read a magical litany carefully from the parchment.

Alani steps back so as not to disturb Kjira as she is in the midst of spell casting. She silently hopes that the spell on the scroll will free Lucas from his prison.

The content of The Sunset Vale Saga are the property and copyright of Brian Flood, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.

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