By Brian Flood
Chapter 56 - A Brief History Lesson
Along the Dusk Road
Four Leagues North of Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Early Morning, 10th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The sun has not yet risen when those manning the last watch - Alani, Lucas, and Darius - wake their companions. By the flickering light of the nearly extinguished campfire, the companions break their fast with portions of their trail rations.
When the meager meal is finished, Cyzicus presents Lucas with four pieces of leather. The halfling informs the conjurer that they have been blessed, as requested. Lucas thanks the priest and packs two of the items away.
The black-robed mage then asks Darius if the druid would like him to cast the protective spell that he discussed last night. After Darius' polite refusal, Lucas merely nods and casts the spell on himself, instead. He packs the third piece of leather into his pouch with the others.
Kjira, meanwhile, hands over the small spellbook to Alani. The lady mage has spent several hours poring over the works within, but unfortunately, the rigors of travel do not offer the proper environment to actually copy any of Zephra's interesting spells into Kjira's own tome. Kjira informs Alani that she will want the book back after the scout has finished her magical deciphering of it.
As the travelers complete the packing and lashing of their mounts and other animals, Lucas' owl returns to the camp. After a brief, silent pause, the conjurer announces that the bird has detected no apparent danger in the immediate vicinity. Armed with that assurance, the party sets out on another day of travel.
* * * * *
Along the Dusk Road
Eight Leagues North of Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Early Evening, 10th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Several hours later, the party has gathered around yet another campfire. Unlike the last campsite, this location is simply a random piece of prairie. Despite the best efforts of the scouts, there is also no natural water source for tonight's camp.
Steam rises from the cloaks of the travelers as the heat from the fire dries the water logged garments - the aftereffect of an afternoon rain shower. Despite the rain, the small caravan still managed to travel four leagues today, closing the distance to Corm Orp but also bringing them closer still to the sinister fortress of Darkhold that lies hidden in the hills to the east.
Three wild quail - brought in earlier by the hunters - supplement tonight's meal. The wolves have already devoured the last of the four-bird catch. Nearly enough to fully satisfy everyone's entire dinner meal, the fresh game birds are a welcome addition to the already dull trail rations.
Kjira raps her knuckles firmly against the kegs on her mule's back. The dull thump that returns reassures her that there was enough to go around - for the evening at least. While miserable to travel through, the rain has at least kept the thirst of the animals quenched throughout the day.
After setting up her tent once more and sipping her customary cup of hot tea, she pulls a solitary pearl out of a pouch and passes it back to Lucas.
"Why don't you hold onto this until we reach town," she says to the other mage. "I can't really use it until then unless the party wants to spend an extra at the same campsite. I'll be too worn to travel...and field rest isn't the best for recuperating, either."
Lucas smiles and nods to Kjira as he accepts the pearl back from the lady mage and places it within his pouch at his belt. "It was pretty taxing on myself, as well. A good thing my masters at Silverymoon prepared me for such rigors of spellcasting...I shall hold it 'til we arrive at Corm Orp for you," he tells Kjira.
Seeing that the fire has not quite gotten his clothes as dry as he likes, Lucas mutters a mystical word that cuts through the air and gestures over his robes. The black-robed mage then smiles as his robe appears not as soggy as before. "Much better," he says as he settles down to listen to what the others have to say this evening before settling down to rest.
Finishing her simple meal, Alani stands and stretches. "I would like to thank you again, Kjira, for letting me look at the witch's spellbook," Alani says to the lady sorceress. "I will get it back to you in the morning."
Going to the wagons, Alani gets her backpack and bedroll and then returns to the fire, again finding her a dry spot near the fire to benefit from its heat and light. Going through her pack, the elven lass takes out the witch's book and a small crystal prism. With crystal in hand, Alani closes her eyes and makes a few mystic gestures over the spellbook while mumbling a few cryptic phrases. Opening her eyes, and opening the spellbook, the elven woman smiles as she begins to make out the mystic writings in the tome.
Dolak looks to Lucas and then the rest of the guards. "I'm not one t' harp, but I've been mullin' o'er in m' brain somewhat was said about the caravan Master Tomar has been inquirin' about. Given what Master Tomar says is true about his intentions," Dolak gives a friendly, but toothy smile to Tomar, "I'm thinkin' that caravan is of some import t' the Zhents - especially those at the top. It, ahh," he pauses for a moment before voicing his conclusion, "might offer a wee bit o' adventure should we be able t' become part o' this caravan. That is t' say if we could find this caravan, after all." Dolak looks about the group to measure their facial reactions, especially Tomar's.
Tomar nods his head. "Indeed, it would be intriguing to discover just what is so special about this caravan that the Zhentarim would seek to slay for its knowledge. As such, I propose we continue our progress toward Hill's Edge. It is that town that was rumored to be the origin for the caravan. It would be a shame to arrive after it has departed."
Looking up from the book, Alani stares at the merchant and Dolak as they talk about the Zhent caravan. "You two can't be serious. Unless you have forgotten the last few days, I would like to remind you that they want us DEAD. Just because Tomar inquired about it!" Alani exclaims, barely able to control her anger.
Taking a few moments to calm down the young elf continues, "I really don't think the Zhents will be to happy about giving us a job as caravan guards. More than likely, they would be more apt at collecting on the bounty," Alani says calmly, trying to talk some sense into the dwarf and her employer.
Staring at Tomar for a few moments a crooked smile crosses her lips. "I am curious Master Tomar. If you are so interested in Ancient Nethril, why do you risk your life trying to join up with the Black Network instead of just going to the Great Desert yourself?" Alani asks.
Cy responds, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I have a price on my head from the local head of the Zhentarium, for nothing. I might as well give them a reason. My family is in Corm Orp. I'm not leaving the area and I'm not sticking my head in the ground like an ostrich. If I did either, I would lose the respect of Arvoreen, and hence have not reason for living.
Watching Alani's tirade with interest as she addresses Dolak and Tomar, Lucas smirks. "As an elf Alani, you really do amaze me with how easily things set you off. I have always thought you sylvan folk were more lighthearted and carefree. My experience is that Dolak's kin were always one of the more 'energetic' and vocal races...maybe I was wrong," the mage adds with a chuckle. "But all jests aside, I am too concerned about having a bounty on my head."
"Aye Lucas my people are a bit flighty," Alani says in answer to the black-robed mage. "And if you ask me, that is why they have lost all that they have. I believe that if my people wouldn't have been so light hearted and carefree as you put it, they wouldn't have had to retreat to the Island Kingdom of Evermeet. Or hide high in the mountains I Evereska."
Turning to address Tomar, Lucas then asks, "Is it possible that you have upset the Zhents in your dealings, Tomar? Have you slighted or perhaps bought some rare tome from under some Zhentarim Wizard or Lordling to spite him? Something surely has them stirred up to resort to hiring wizard assassins to deal with you."
"Another thing has me thinking. What more can you elaborate on about the comment about having dealings with 'Those that Harp?' " The black robed mage pauses in setting up his camp spot and listens for Tomar's response.
But Kjira preempts any response the merchant may have given. "Unless we can pull off a fantastic group disguise," she says, "I think getting the Zhents to hire us would be the least of our problems. We'd have to avoid getting killed first."
"And if Tomar received such a warm reception for merely asking about the caravan, can you imagine how they'd react to a group of adventurers volunteering to guard it?" Kjira says to the lively debaters around the fire.
"I think we need to concentrate on getting Tomar and his merchandise to their proper destination in one piece. Let us only hope the Zhents don't dispatch some of their own forces from Darkhold as we pass near. One hired assassin was almost enough to do us in - can you imagine if they send three or four?"
"Can we not alert some authority in Hill's Edge about this mysterious caravan?" the lady mage asks. "Perhaps 'Those Who Harp' have representatives in the city that can take action if we notify them..."
Returning to the witch's spellbook, Alani half listens as Lucas poses his question to the book merchant about the Harpers. Looking up again when Kjira adds her comments, Alani smiles. 'It seems that the brains went to the women of the human race also,' the elven scouts thinks to herself as she stifles her giggle before it has a chance to be heard.
Dolak grins somewhat at the lively discussion about the caravan. "I was only speculatin' about what might happen. We need t' be lookin' to our contract with our employer. Get him t' Hill's Edge safely. Course, once we're there, we'll be lookin' for new contracts, or new caravans t' hire on with. I dinna know much about this caravan Master Tomar is a' speakin' of. I suspect he's the only one that does. Might not even be a Zhentarim caravan. Could be just a regular caravan the Zhents are using in some way the folks in the caravan dinna know about. Could be just a regular caravan lookin' for a regular smith t' help mend their shoes and wheels. But o'course, that's all a bit o' speculation. Hill's Edge is still somewhat in the distance."
Tomar nods sagely at Dolak's words. "You make an interesting point, good smith. It is quite likely that the caravan itself is not Zhentarim in origin. And, if it is a large caravan - such as one organized by a coster or other trading company - it may have several independent carriers in its make-up."
Then merchant's eyes narrow as he turns to Alani. His voice drops to a low and sonorous tone, and a bit of anger - or perhaps restrained power leaks out through his glare. "I never suggested that I planned to join the Zhentarim for any purpose, my lady. And just how long do you think one lone merchant and his drover could survive in the desert, if I did decide to make some foolhardy escapade on my own?"
Without giving the elf a chance to respond, Tomar turns to Lucas. "Surely you understand, as someone from such a learned city as Silverymoon would, that 'Those that Harp' keep their identities, dealings and interests secret. As to whether or not I have had any dealings with them in the past, that is something which I will neither confirm nor deny so as to make no pretenses about my relationships with a group such as theirs."
From his seated position near Dolak's wagon, Lucas responds to Tomar's comments. "Aye, I understand well about keeping secrets. We of Silverymoon have quite a few of our own that we hold near and dear. But it would seem in this case Master Tomar, that your identity, dealings, and interests have not been kept so secret...or else why would the Zhents be sending assassins to do some wet work with a mere book seller. I merely voice my concerns because this involves us all since we are your protectors on this journey. If we are to protect you from harm, knowing any and all pertinent facts might aid us in keeping you safe."
Pausing a moment to let his concerns sink in, Lucas turns his head skyward and appears to concentrate a moment before turning back to address Tomar. "We have proven our loyalty in service to you and your cause so far without too much prying. I only hope that if and when the time comes, we won't be caught short due to lack of information that could have been shared. We of the Iron Wolf Company are slowly building a bond of trust and honor amongst ourselves through our actions together. I hope this trust can expand both ways. I think I can speak for the others when I say that any secret shared would not be freely given without the original giver's permission." With that said, Lucas returns his gaze skyward and listens to the night.
Again turning her attention to the witch's book, the elven woman forces her mind to the task at hand. 'So much like my father you are, book merchant.' The thought forces its way into the young elf's thoughts. 'He too had secrets, and you will find out as he did that secrets have a way of being found out.' Smiling as the thought passes, Alani focus returns to the book of arcane writings.
Closing the book as the spell runs it course, Alani stands and walks to Kjira, handing the lady mage the spellbook. "Thank you Kjira, I too will have to wait till we are in a more suitable environment to copy any of the spells into my own spellbook," the elven scout says gratefully.
Leaving Kjira to her studies Alani returns to her bedroll and listens as the men talk. As the group begins to settle down for the night, Alani turns to Tomar and in a calm tone speaks to the man. "Master Tomar, I am sorry for my last comment. I didn't mean to insinuate that you wanted to join the Zhentarim. I was just curious to why you couldn't hire people to go with you to The Great Desert or maybe one of those Bedine guides I have heard rumors of?" She ask as she puts some wood on the fire.
Tomar nods to Alani. "Apology accepted," he says, much more congenially then when he addressed the elf earlier. "As for your question, I would have to be very sure of a group before I hired them for such a long and arduous trek. As well, one does not meet many Bedine guides on the streets of Iriaebor!"
Nodding her acceptance to the man's answer, Alani stares into the fire for a moment. Looking back to the merchant, the girl again inquires. "So why the interest in Nethril? From the stories I have heard, they are the cause of the desert."
"I hope you don't mind me asking," she continues, pausing for a breath, "but I am tired of talking and thinking about Zhents and their activities, it is giving me a head ache." Looking around the camp as everyone settles in, she adds, "And it wouldn't hurt to hear stories about far away places, might make for some fanciful dreams." The girl smiles innocently, hoping Tomar is inclined to talk.
"No bother at all," Tomar replies, with a slight smile on his face. "I simply find the whole idea of the Netherese state to be fascinating," he explains. "For a nation so strong in magic that it eventually destroys itself, is a tragedy that I believe should be studied and understood. So too, would I like to find information on the survivor states - those nations and city-states that Mystra saved from the disaster that claimed the better part of Netheril."
The merchant's minor history lesson continues. He tells of how the Netherese thirst for powerful magic - the likes of which has not been seen in Faerun, since. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, their magical experiments were brought to the attention of a race of evil Underdark denizens known as the Phaerimm. To fight the incursion of the potent magic-using humans into their realms, the Phaerimm developed a developed powerful magical spell of their own. It came to become known as the lifedrain.
The spell sapped the lifeforce from the very land itself, destroying the crops and creatures that the Netherese needed to survive. Simultaneously, the Phaerimm mounted a tremendous spell war against the humans. Bit by bit, the Phaerimm destroyed the mages of Netheril. And in the course of the war, the wizards were kept from battling the countless lifedrain spells that the Phaerimm had cast.
The land began to die. Animals and crop land were starved to death by the lack of nutrients. Enormous dust storms grew out of the dead areas, driven by powerful magical winds and fueled by the parched soil that formerly provided sustenance to the citizens of Netheril.
By this time, the Netherese had degenerated into a self-interested, wealthy, and corrupt society. Its citizens, having no will to fight, fled. First to go were the commoners. They were followed in short order by the merchants and the wealthy, who brought what they could carry but abandoned many priceless magical and mundane artifacts in the dead land behind them. Last to flee were the wizards themselves.
But the lifedrain had achieved a momentum of its own. It swept across the lands, devouring all vestiges of life from the soil as it spread unconfined like some sort of massive virus. Some survivor states and city-states arose from the desolation, saved by the goddess Mystra in recognition of the Netherese prowess for magic. But even these eventually fell, as well.
Fortunately for the other inhabitants of Toril, another ancient race dwelt beneath the lands of Netheril. These were the Sharn, and they were ancient enemies of the Phaerimm. Powerful magic-users in their own right, the Sharn cast spells to contain the lifedrain. This invisible barrier stopped the spread of the devastating spells but could not revitalize the lands. As well, this barrier succeeded in imprisoning the vast majority of the Phaerimm under the sands of the desolate land above.
Now, hundreds of years later, that devastated land has come to be known as the Great Desert of Anauroch. Bands of nomadic Bedine as a handful of other varied but hardy races dwell within the sands of this desolate territory. And somewhere, hidden below the sands, and forgotten by time, lie the cities of the Netherese. And within the walls of those lost cities lies unimaginable wealth and magic.
Their heads swimming with this information, the adventurers of the Iron Wolf Company lie down and prepare for sleep. As the first watch stands guard, the others fall into a deep slumber. Dreams of wealth and magical artifacts follow shortly thereafter.
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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