By Brian Flood
Chapter 55 - Hluthvar
The Watchful Eye Inn
Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Early Morning, 9th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The members of the Iron Wolf Company gather for breakfast just as dawn is beginning to break over the horizon. The meal - paid for once again by the party fund - is as bland as the supper the night prior. Fortunately its cost is reflective of its worth.
As the adventurers gulp down their final meal before several more days of trail rations - Tomar estimates that it will be a six day trip to Corm Orp at the wagon's speed - they turn their attention to Lucas. The conjurer - now dressed in the witch's flowing black robes - seems rather gaunt this morning. Apparently, his study of the assassin's spellbook and the subsequent attempts at identifying her magical items took its tool on him.
Looking as if she has spent the night battling demons, Alani moves to the table where the Company has gathered. Acknowledging those gathered with a little more than a grunt, the elven scout serves herself a bowl of the bland porridge as she takes a seat next to Dolak.
Seeing that all eyes are on him as he walks into the dining area, Lucas haggardly walks over and takes a seat next to his fellow adventurers. Taking a deep breath, the now black robed mage with a white sash begins by saying, "Well it was a short rest last night and a long study this morning...but it was well worth it."
Lucas takes a glass and fills it with some water and takes a drink before continuing. "Kjira and I were able to purchase two pearls with our trading. I cast one identification spell on the witch's belongings, but was only able to discern the magical nature of her robe that you see me wearing now. It imbues the wearer with a bit of protection against physical blows beyond what a normal robe would. I would like to lay claim to this item if no one has any objection. I was not able at this time to cast another identify spell as it was too taxing on me. Kjira, I will leave the next one for you," adds Lucas with a wink.
Forcing herself to eat the foul meal, Alani listens as the Lucas discuss the findings of his spell, and simply shrugs as the mage lays claim to the witch's robe.
Cyzicus pauses in glumly eating his porridge to say, "As I said while you were detained Lucas, I have no interest in any of the witch's items." The halfling had arrived at the table fairly chipper, happy with his new armor. And then he saw the morning's fair.
"So this leaves us with three items still to be identified," he continues. "The witch's dagger and two potions. In addition to her items, I was finally able to reveal and study her book that so nastily bite me the last time. I believe that the other spellcasters in the party may find some useful spells, as I did. I studied three spells early this morning and added them to my book. There are seven first rank spells, four second rank spells, and even two third rank spells in the witch's book.
"Kjira, I turn the book over to you so that you may study it next," says Lucas as he pulls a small leather bound book out from under his belt and hands it across the table to Kjira. "There are still a few spells I may still have need for once everyone has a chance to learn from this book. So whoever is last, please see that it returns to me so that I can study it again. Also - when we per chance have a longer break than one day in a spot - I offer my own book to my fellow mystical members of the Iron Wolf Company so that they may have the great opportunity to learn a few of Silverymoon's arcane spells that I carry with me.
"That about sums it up," the conjurer concludes. "I shall recover by the next rising of the sun from my spellcasting, but am fit enough to ride on today. Does anyone have any questions? If not, I shall be ready as soon as I eat some of this delicious looking...hmmm...breakfast."
Dolak hovers at the edge of boredom as he listens to the mages discuss the intricacies and merits of the various spells. He looks briefly at the bland porridge in the bowl before him before indulging in another scoop. He looks back up at the faces of his fellow guards and comments, "I was hopin' fer a somewhat livelier mess this morn. A pity t' travel all this way and not ha'e a large morn meal with all the fixin's a'for settin' out on the trail again."
At the dwarf's mention of breakfast, Cy tells him, "I quite agree. I can only tell you it will be quite different in Com Orp. We can stay with my family. All will be well fed and they may even break out some of the better wine. That's the family business, you know. Some of the best vines in the area, we have."
"Lucas, I dinna ha'e a use fer yer robes," Dolak grins. "I dinna lay claim t' any o' the trinkets we've been yet findin'. I'm lookin' forward t' the next stop along the way. I ha'e been thinkin' o'er some of the events of the last couple o' days. I dinna think this is the right time or place t' be discussin' it, though. Tonight, at camp, should be plenty soon."
Breaking a piece off a nearby loaf of bread, Alani nods, agreeing to Dolak's comment.
Placing his spoon down in his bowl, Dolak rises, stating to everyone, "I need t' be getting' m' cart ready to travel. I'll meet ye outside when yer done."
Lucas nods to the 'magnificent' Dolak as the dwarf heads out to get his cart ready to depart. Turning to Kjira with a sly grin, he then says, "I think what Dolak needs is another round of greatness." Lucas chuckles. "I hope the next stop will afford the mysterious crier an opportunity to present our 'magnificent' smith whose motto is 'No task to small!' " Lucas stops talking and eating his porridge at the same time before he chokes on it as he laughs heartily at the thoughts of the last stop where Dolak plied his wares.
When Lucas tells his 'small joke', Cyzicus gets a dark look on his face. He rises from the table and says coldly, "If you will excuse me, I wish to tell Simon goodbye before we leave." With that, he gathers his equipment and exits the inn without saying another word.
* * * * *
The House of the Guardian
Cyzicus returns to the temple and inquires where he can find the new initiates. After being led through the silent stone corridors, the halfling finds the young boy just rising. Simon is clad in a simple scarlet and gray robe.
To say his good-byes, Simon presents Simon with his parting gift - a short sword. "Here is a sword of your own Simon," the halfling warrior-priest intones. "Now learn your lessons well and you will need never hide again. Instead you can defend those you love."
Cyzicus gives Simon a long hug. Then, leaving the new initiate of Helm, the halfling returns to the group just a little happier than when he left.
* * * * *
The Watchful Eye Inn
After finishing his jest, Lucas turns to address the more priestly members of the Iron Wolf Company. "As we travel down the road to our next destination, I have need of your assistance in blessing some leather for me so that I can cast my protection spells upon myself and any in our group who may need it. I don't want to drain all of your resources at once, so maybe just one blessing an evening so that you have plenty of spell power in reserve should the need arise. If any of you can aid me, please let me know as we set up camp this eve."
With that said, Lucas rises and gathers his belongings and fastens his woodland cloak over his newly acquired black robes. Then he heads out to assist Dolak in preparation to move out.
Finishing her simple meal, Alani pours herself a glass of water, taking a large drink she swishes the water in her mouth, ensuring that she washes the rest of the awful gruel from her taste. Finishing off the contents of the glass, the elven scout sets down the glass, pushes her bowl away from her, and stands. She brushes the crumbs off of her shirt and scoots her seat back under the table.
"Well let us see how`many unanswered questions we can dig up today," Alani grumbles as she heads for the door.
* * * * *
The party reunites in the open town market a few candlemarks later when all are ready. Cyzicus climbs into the saddle of his pony, Charger, looking quite pleased - despite his earlier annoyance at Lucas' careless remarks.
At Cyzicus' side, Corax sits upon his large black warhorse, Doom. The half-elven rogue has been rather quiet as of late, perhaps an after effect of the burial detail he performed on the bodies of the slain stranger and the mage-assassin.
Kjira follows behind this pair of mounted adventures on foot. The lady mage looks thoughtful this morning. She leads her mule, Bartholomule, by his halter while concentrating on the ground ahead of her. She no doubt is anxious to make the evening's camp and start to read the assassin's spellbook, which Lucas found so enlightening.
Next in the order of march comes Tomar and his wagon. The merchant and his gnome henchman, Ori, both sit on the exposed bench seat of the wagon. As is their norm, they have elected to retain the canvas cover that protects the contents of the wagon's bed from the elements and from unwanted inspection.
Lucas has magically summoned his light warhorse once more. The man's constant owl companion flutters down from the sky to perch upon Lucas' shoulder. With a wide-eyed once-over of the group, the bird closes its eyes to rest. The conjurer guides his mount effortlessly behind Tomar's wagon.
Riding to Lucas' right side, Dolak sits upon his own riding pony and trails his mule's halter in his hands. The mule, in turn, is hitched securely to the dwarf's cart that holds his portable forge as well as the non-magical and non-monetary items that formerly belonged to the assassin, Zephra.
At the front of the party, Alani and Darius - with Soft Fang at his side - lead the way out of the city and back onto the Dusk Road. The sky is clear and blue as the two scouts guide the small caravan northward toward Corm Orp.
* * * * *
Along the Dusk Road
Twelve Miles North of Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Late Afternoon, 9th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
It has been a rather uneventful day. Besides the scattering of travelers and farmers taking fresh produce to market, there has been little of interest on the trade road. As the sun sets low toward the western horizon, Alani and Darius lead the caravan to an abandoned homestead located just off of the western side of the road.
The site has been long abandoned. The tall grasses that populate the untamed areas of the Sunset Vale have grown up to partially hide the charred remains of the stone foundation. The low stone wall - barely coming to the waists of the human adventurers - offers some scant protection against the chilly autumn breezes that are becoming more common at night as the seasons move toward winter. These stone walls cover an area that is about twenty feet wide by thirty feet long - just enough for the two merchants, their seven guards, and the lone wolf to sleep comfortably within. Outside of the stone perimeter, a deep pit surrounded by a smaller, circular stone wall suggests the remains of the homestead's well. Unfortunately, the hoist and the bucket are no longer present.
"Shall we hunt together, Alani?" Darius queries after the camp has been set up. "Soft Fang and I are getting hungry," he says, chuckling. "And although I we can make a meal of these berries", he continues, patting the new pouches hung at his waist, "fresh game is always better."
"Aye Darius, it will be my pleasure to hunt with you and Soft Fang," Alani replies as she grabs up her bow. Making sure her arrows are in their place in the quiver, the elven woman continues, "It wouldn't hurt to get some fresh meat to help stretch out our rations. But I suggest we go after small game, rabbits quails and such. Also, I think we shouldn't travel too far from camp and should be back by dark."
"Yes, that would be fine and gives us a while to hunt," the druid replies. Darius bends forward and in moments the others see the large grey wolf that they have come to recognize as Darius while in wolf form. He and Soft Fang pad from the camp, into the wind, sniffing for game and alert for other things as well. Alani, bow in hand, follows close behind.
Kjira looks pleased as the party stops for the evening. Though it isn't much, the site offers more protection from the elements than the prairie scrub they've been sleeping on.
Before tying her mule for the night, the lady mage leads him over to the low stone foundation where she pulls off her tent and a few other items. Setting them aside for the moment, she leads Bartholomule back to the other animals and sees that his needs are met for the night.
Meanwhile, Lucas sends his owl flying skyward as he moves into the campsite. Seeing that Alani, Darius and Soft Fang are going hunting, Lucas drops his ruck next to Dolak's wagon. Turning to the others still in camp the black robed mage announces, "I shall forage close to the campsite for about an hour for any useful herbs or foodstuffs that I can gather." With that said, Lucas moves outward from the campsite and starts foraging.
Kjira takes advantage of the remaining daylight to set up her small tent just inside the stone foundation where the wall would provide some additional protection from the wind. Finished with that, she takes a coil of rope and the kettle from her mess kit over to the abandoned well to see if it is large enough to allow the kettle down. Though she carries enough water for her own use, the animals still need refreshment as well.
Finding the kettle sized perfectly to fit into the well, Kjira ties one end of her rope snugly around it and lowers the kettle downward into the well, hoping to find water to with which to bed the animals down. She is successful and spends the next few candlemarks retrieving water for the party's mounts and pack animals.
A little over an hour later, Lucas and the hunting party are back in the campsite. Lucas carries a small sack filled with berries and roots - enough to feed either two people or simply a supplement for all, he announces. The hunters have had limited success. They managed to bring down two rabbits - just enough to feed the wolves but not enough to spread amongst the entire group.
And so the Iron Wolf Company and their employer settle down for another meal of trail rations. Dolak and Kjira both help the others in using Lucas' foraged supplements to bring some life to the otherwise uninteresting meal.
After all have finished eating and are preparing for the guard shift and rest, Lucas approaches Darius. "Darius," he begins, "can I ask a boon of you? I need to have these four pieces of leather blessed," requests the conjurer as he holds out what appears to be four pieces of cured leather. "Is it possible that you can pray to your deity and help me over the next few days and bless them for me? I can offer to use one of them in casting a protective spell over yourself or Soft Fang in appreciation for your blessings."
The large grey wolf shifts form back to the young druid. "It will take another day for me to fulfill your request Lucas, as I do not normally ask Silvanus for that particular blessing. Perhaps if you ask Cyzicus?" Darius suggests. "He may have it that blessing today, as Avoreen is the Defender for his people."
Cy overhears the conversation between Lucas and Darius and stares coldly at Lucas while slowly releasing his breath. Then he moves away to the edge of camp, thinking to himself, 'Hmph! Insulted twice in one day!'
Nodding to Darius, Lucas replies, "I shall try and ask Cy then. I am not really strong enough on others religions to know their specialties. My thanks," adds Lucas with a bow.
The conjurer moves back over towards the halfling and stops before him as he is setting up his camp spot. "Cy, Darius explained to me that your deity is famous for being the Defender of his people. I am sorry if you took offense at my jest earlier, but no pun or insult was intended. It was all in good fun as I was trying to get everyone though the bland breakfast and back into a travelling mood. As you probably heard, I am in need of getting a blessing on these four pieces of leather," says Lucas as he holds up the items in question. "If you can, I would be greatly appreciative and offer to cast a protection on you - though I doubt it would help with the fine chain armor you just procured. Can you assist me?" asks Lucas of Cy with a smile.
Cy looks at Lucas then says, "Apparently that field affected your memory as well, as I have mentioned it several times," he says with a smile. Continuing he says, "Aye, I would be honored to help in the defense of the group. If you like, you can still share the blessing with Darius. As you say, I hardly need it. Just leave the leather with me and I will have it ready for you by morning."
"Perhaps this may seem simplistic, friend Lucas," Kjira begins after listening to the exchange between the halfling and the Silverymoon mage. "But wouldn't it have been easier and just as effective to bless one large piece of leather and then cut it into separate, smaller pieces?"
Looking over at Kjira as she asks her question, Lucas smiles. "I see your mentors were not as thorough as my Masters at Silverymoon. A spell component must be prepared in accordance with which it is intended to be used. Seeing that a certain spell requires specially prepared component in which this one is 'Blessed', it must be blessed for that one purpose only and not as simply a large slab of animal hide to be later sliced up at the convenience of the component seeker. Thus, each future component piece must be carefully sliced and prepared BEFORE any blessing can occur. I hope that helps..." Lucas offers as he stops lecturing and returns his attention back to Cyzicus.
Smiling and bowing to the halfling, Lucas says, "My thanks good priest. You honor me and your god by giving his blessing for our protection. I shall offer Darius what protection I can offer in the morning, should he require what I can offer."
Lucas moves back to his camp spot next to Dolak's wagon and makes sure his rucksack is firmly attached to the side of the vehicle. Before settling down to rest, Lucas walks to the edge of the campsite and stands still while offering his arm up skyward. The others hear a flutter of wings above the camp with and then a horned owl alights on Lucas' arm.
After a few moments, Lucas sends his owl skyward once more and the group can see it fly off from the camp towards the north. Lucas stands still in apparent meditation for a few minutes then returns to his bedroll by Dolak's wagon.
"Good night all," announces the conjurer before laying down to rest before his turn at watch.
Finishing her meal, Alani leans back, listening to the black robed mage as he graciously apologizes to the halfling priest for his earlier remark. Chuckling when Kjira comments on the blessing of leather, the elven woman suddenly realizes that she had forgotten to get her own leather for her spell.
'By the gods girl, you have to focus at the job at hand.' Alani silently curses herself for her forgetfulness. The assassination attempt a few days ago and then learning that the head wizard of Darkhold was the one who hired the assassin has been on the forefront of the young elf's mind all day. Watching as the others go through their nightly routine, Alani shakes her head, not understanding how everyone else seems to act so nonchalantly about the events of the last few days.
Unable to hold her thoughts in any longer, the elven woman stands and with hands on hips speaks her mind. "You know, this may be my first trip beyond the mountains of Evereska, and I may not be as seasoned as you folk seem to be. But to me, having a price on my head is not a good thing."
Staring into the fire, Alani pauses for a moment as she contemplates her next words. Sighing, the young woman continues, "We survived one attempt - all that did was raise the price on our head, I bet and the higher the price the more skilled the assassin."
Again pausing for dramatic effect, Alani looks to each man, woman, dwarf, and gnome before continuing, "We got lucky the last attempt, but luck will not always be with us. We will be passing dangerously close to Darkhold so the chances of us meeting a much stronger force are good."
Scratching her chin, the scout thinks for a moment then suggests, "It might be safer for us to travel the roads less traveled. With Master Tomar's approval, I suggest we leave the main road and travel overland. I believe Darius and I could blaze a trail." Alani says pausing for the groups reaction.
Cy responds to Alani. "Oh, I have not forgotten the price on our heads thanks to our friend the inquisitive 'book merchant'," he says with a sidelong glance at Master Tomar. "However I don't think your idea will help, as it will slow us down considerably and leave a trail a blind man could follow. I mean, you are talking about a trail for all of us, plus two ponies, four mules, a cart and a wagon."
He continues, "All we can do is remain on our guard and make such preparations as Lucas is trying to do. I myself have changed spells since that day."
Tomar nods his head in agreement with Cyzicus. "The priest speaks truly. Right now, we are barely making twelve miles per day with my wagon. It will takes us six days, all told, to make this leg of the journey toward Corm Orp. If we were to leave the trade road, that pace would be cut in half and we would not even make Hill's Edge before the end of the month!"
"As well," the merchant adds, "the trade road is patrolled by militias and the like - at least within a certain distance of their home town. Their presence deters brigands and the like from taking risks against caravans. There are no such patrols in the open plains."
Lucas sits up from his resting spot and listens to Alani, Cyzicus, and Tomar discuss leaving the trail. "Aye, Cyzicus is correct. We would leave such a trail that a blind person could follow if we were to leave the road. We would also have a higher chance of breaking down with the wagon and cart over the rougher terrain. And yes, though few, there are sometimes patrols along the road that may aid us should need arise, just like the other day when we were ambushed by the witch. I say we should stick to the road, but prepare ourselves accordingly to remain ever prepared since we are getting closer to Darkhold, as Alani stated."
"I agree also, there is no need to destroy anymore of the woodland when there are roads already in place" the druid chimes in.
Kjira listens intently to Alani and the others debate the morning's course of action as she gently spoons a silvery infuser around in a cup of steaming water. "It's a pity we can't simply cloak the entire party with invisibility," she sighs as she finally removes the infuser and takes a sip of the hot, fresh tea. "While Master Tomar has a point - that it would take us forever to reach our destination traveling overland - we'll need to be extremely cautious on the road to ensure our arrival, as well."
"I was hoping time wasn't going to be a factor," Alani laments. "So it seems trailblazing is out of the question," she concludes as she stares into the fire once more.
Picking up a nearby stick, the elven scout begins poking at the fire, causing small embers to float into the air only to glow until they are snuffed out as they leave the heat of the fire. Watching Darius as he strokes Soft Fang's fur, Alani smiles as a past memory enters her head.
"Darius, I have heard tales that followers of the Oak Father can take on the shape of birds also. If that is true, don't you think it would be prudent that you take the form of a bird of prey tomorrow when we scout ahead? Soft Fang and I can work the ground, and you could be our eyes overhead. That should give us some advantage," Alani suggests to the sandy-headed druid.
"Someday," answers Darius, "if Silvanus grants it to me, I will become an eagle and soar with he birds. Until then, my lord has granted me the ability to look like, and speak with my friends, the wolves. I do not know why he chose me for this path. Maybe it is because he wants me to take over for Florin when he moves on and the ability to become a wolf will help me in taking care of the grove west of Berdusk. I know that my father was even more surprised then I was when the first change took place," he says, while scratching behind Soft Fang's ears, just where he likes it. "So, I will scout in human form with you on the morrow."
"That will be a pleasant change," Alani says, smiling. "But having eyes in the sky would be a great asset."
Looking to Lucas, Alani asks, " How about your owl Lucas? Do you think it might be up to a little aerial reconnaissance tomorrow?"
Looking up from his preparation of his bedroll, Lucas nods to Alani. "I am always having my familiar reconnoiter the area around us...at least when he is not resting or hunting. I can communicate with him, and he has warned us in the past of dangers to the party."
Lucas stops as he remembers something and then digs into his pack and produces a small item. "Kjira, you may need this," the conjurer says as he holds up what appears to be a small pearl.
Lucas stands up, walks over, and hands the pearl to Kjira. "Good luck! May Mystara smile upon you," he adds as he walks back over to his bedroll and resumes his preparations to rest.
"Excellent," Alani exclaims, "between your owl, Darius and I, we should have a small advantage. But I still like Kjira's idea. If only we could make the lot of us invisible," Alani says as she sits in her customary squat.
With her head resting in her hands, the young elf stares into the fire as she ponders the many ideas running through her head. "It would be nice just to make one wagon invisible, or at least change its look, then we could disguise the other wagon."
Shrugging her shoulders Alani stands. "Well, I guess we can worry about that tomorrow. I have the early watch, so I had best be getting some sleep, night all," Alani says to the others as she gathers her bedroll and finds her a spot near enough to the fire to feel its heat.
And so, the party proceeds with its camp activities. As the other adventurers ready their bedrolls and fall into a travel-induced slumber, Cyzicus and Kjira assume the first watch.
After finishing her tea, Kjira moves over to where she has erected her shelter. Lighting a candle from her pack, she makes herself comfortable and retrieves the captured travelling spellbook that Lucas so generously (and gregariously) gave to her, earlier. With a flick of her wrist and some whispered arcane incantations, the lady mage begins to delve into the magical knowledge of the Zephra, the vanquished mage-assassin.
Cyzicus stands watch while Kjira reads the book. When the mage declares she has finished that task, the two switch duties so that Cyzicus can perform some required tasks. The diminutive adventurer invokes the blessings of his patron, Arvoreen the Defender. The halfling warrior-priest then bestows his deity's blessings on two of Lucas' leather scraps. Electing to save his remaining prayers for nighttime contingencies, Cyzicus returns his attentions to standing watch over his sleeping comrades.
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