By Brian Flood
Chapter 57 - Man's Best Friend
Along the Dusk Road
Four Leagues North of Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Late Night, 10th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
It is well past midnight and the second shift of guards - Dolak and Corax - stand watch while their companions sleep. The two adventurers shiver slightly as the north wind blows a cool breeze across the wide-open grassy plain.
The fire flickers slightly. The bundles of grass that have been used to feed the flames simply do not emit the same degree of heat and light as that of normal wood. Around the small campsite there is nothing but darkness. The scant light from the mere sliver of a moon this night is nearly negligible.
Without warning, Lucas suddenly sits upright, throwing off his blanket as he does so.
Lucas rises quickly, gathering his senses. "Quickly wake the others! There is danger nearby," he hisses as he hastily moves to wake Tomar and Ori since he is closest to them.
Dolak hisses back, "Which way?" Toting his axe in hand, the dwarf begins to move clockwise from sleeping figure to sleeping figure, waking them.
Corax stands a watchful guard over the dimly lit campsite as the dwarf and the conjurer work on a converging course - Lucas moving clockwise and Dolak clockwise - to wake the others.
The sleeping companions come awake as either Dolak or Lucas gently shakes them. "Danger approaches," the guards whisper before moving on to the next sleeper. The freshly awoken guards quickly notice that the night is very dark; the slim sliver of a moon provides almost no ambient light. They also feel a shiver from the cool wind that blows from the north.
After Dolak awakens Alani, he moves back to his original guard position. As he does so, Lucas awakens Kjira - the last remaining slumbering adventurer. The other companions slowly, carefully, and quietly ready their weapons as Dolak moves just out of the firelight and takes a knee just to the south of his original guard position, allowing his heat-sensing sight to gaze southward.
Dolak's eyes adjust into his heat-sensing vision. He then detects two small creatures, just at the limit of his sight. Both of the objects are slowly creeping closer, shielded by the three-foot high grasses. The intervening ambient heat of the grass prevents the dwarf from discerning the exact nature of the stalkers.
Dolak whispers back to Darius, "Got two creatures, maybe kobolds, about ten human heights to the south. Maybe more beyond that." Having whispered that, Dolak gets his body as low to the ground as possible to help mask his heat signature. Darius heeds Dolak's words, nods, and prepares a spell in his mind for casting.
Behind the dwarf in the campsite, Kjira asks Lucas softly, "What's coming?" The lady mage shakes off the last vestiges of sleep and readies her mind to cast a spell while she waits.
"Where's your familiar?" she adds to Lucas as an afterthought.
Lucas appears to be concentrating as he stands next to Kjira. "I am trying to contact him now. Give me a moment," he says quietly to Kjira.
Next to Kjira, Cy rubs the sleep from his eyes and drags on his armor then girds his swords.
Grabbing her bow, Alani rolls out of the firelight, using the shadows to conceal her whereabouts. Scanning the area the elven scout tries to see who or what is coming.
As Dolak watches, more heat signatures of more creatures materialize in his vision. As they close to within fifteen yards or so, he can see that they are four-legged animals - most likely wolves or wild dogs, judging by their shape and size. Nearby, Alani sees the same scene with her own heat-sensing sight.
Getting a better idea of what is approaching the party, Alani moves slightly into the firelight. "Nine, maybe more, dogs or wolves coming from the south," she quietly and then disappears into the darkness in the direction of Corax's horse.
Corax mimic's Alani's actions. The half-elven rogue grasps his rapier firmly in hand and crouches low as he slips out of the firelight, headed westward into the waist-high grasses.
"Darius," whispers Dolak, "they're lookin' like yer kin, now. At least nine wolves er dogs, maybe more. Ya wanna talk t' 'em a'fore we have t' start cracking heads?" the dwarf asks.
Once again, Darius nods to Dolak. He keeps the spell handy in his mind and growls quickly to Soft Fang, "<pack>." He then moves ever so slightly toward the edge of the campfire's light.
The druid's growled hail is greeted with a cacaphony of growls and snarls from the shadowy canine pack. The nature priest immediately discerns that this is not normal wolfspeak.
"<Hunger Meat Eat>" those words, though heavily accented with other canine tongues, come through clearly to Darius. Straining his eyes, the druid can barely make out the lead canines where they have halted some twenty or thirty feet away.
Cy prays, "Arvoreen keep us safe this night!"
Moments thereafter, an arcane phrase erupts from Darius' mouth as the druid points into the darkness to the south, in the direction of the canine stalkers.
Darius releases the spell that he has kept ready in his mind and centers it on the pack in front of him. Moments later, the grasses around the canines begin to weave and twist, entrapping the snarling beasts within a maze of vegetation.
Those outside of the campfire's light watch as nearly all of the heat signatures are ensnared by Darius' spell. Near the back of the pack, however, two of the animals struggle free of the encroaching vegetation.
Angry snarls and barks sound from the dark grassland to the south of the campsite. Whatever it is that Darius has done, he has angered the stalking pack of beasts.
"Helluva way to treat yer friends," Dolak grunts cynically to Darius.
Outside of the campsite, Alani crouches down in the high grass and Alani watches the canine pack as it reacts to Darius' spell. Taking two arrows out of her quiver, the elven scout sticks one lightly in the ground for easy access for a second shot if the pack decides to attack. The other arrow she notches as she pulls the string back about half way to her ear and takes aim on the lead wolf.
Moving behind Alani, Corax continues to slip silently toward the west and south. The rogue eyes the pack carefully - especially the two that are free of the spell's effect- as he works toward the canines' flank.
Seeing that he still cannot see the wild animals, Lucas rushes forward, readying a dart. Coming to a halt just outside of the fire's light, he gazes upon the entrapped pack of canines.
As the group begins to react to Darius' spellcasting - the effects of which only some can see, Cyzicus finishes intoning his solemn blessing upon his companions, creating an area near the campfire in which they will receive the blessings of his patron deity.
Seeing the majority of the pack trapped within Darius' spell, Alani changes her target to the free canine closest her. Not wanting to shoot the animal unless it is necessary, the young scout keeps her aim and awaits the beast action, intending to shoot only if the creature makes an attack on the camp.
Kjira mutters an incantation in the mystical language of spellcasting. An instant later, a bulge appears in the back of her robes. With a tearing of fabric, two large, white, angelic wings sprout from her back. The new appendages give her the appearance of a diva or some other extra-planar being.
"What in the Nine Hells....?!" the words leave Ori's mouth before the gnome can regain control of his astonishment.
Standing at the southern edge of the firelight, quickly assessing the situation, Lucas changes his mind and utters an arcane word of power that cuts through the night. Behind the conjurer, Cy draws his swords and advances a few steps closer toward the south.
Darius stands by, exhausted from casting his spell. He looks to see what affect, if any, the spell that Lucas cast has on the remaining two wolves.
Those outside of the campfire see two of the canines collapse, unmoving, to the ground. Both are toward the back of the pack - one is within the grassy prison, the other is one of the unrestrained animals.
The sole remaining free canine has had enough. Tucking its tail between its legs, it runs off into the night to the south - back in the direction from which it came. In its wake, it leaves nine of its comrades. Eight are trapped within the effects of Darius' spell and the other is lying still on the ground.
Off to the west of the imprisoned animals, Corax continues to stealthily make his way through the grass.
Watching the canine run off the way he came, Alai relaxes her aim. Curious as to just what these beasties are, the elven scout stealthy begins to move towards the collapsed creature, being careful not get caught up in the grassy prison of Darius' spell. To Alani's right flank, Corax also continues to slip through the tall grasses.
At the edge of the campsite, Lucas frowns as he sees one of his intended targets running off. He turns towards Darius. "How long will your spell hold them? And can you talk some sense into them so we are not dinner?" inquires the conjurer of the druid.
"The wolves spoke strangely when I first heard them and I'm not sure what to make of it." the druid replies. "The weaving of the grasses will last another several minutes and then it will return to normal."
"Very well then," Lucas replies. "I shall wait a moment to see if you can talk some sense into them, but I shall keep another sleep spell ready should it be needed." The conjurer Lucas takes this pause in the encounter to scan about the area to the south to make sure nothing else approaches.
Darius begins to yip and growl in what the others have come to recognize as the language of the wolves. From dark grassland beyond the fire's light, comes a chorus of angry howls and snarls.
"<Hungry Escape Take Free>" the garbled language of the canines is not nearly as clear and concise as Darius' wolfspeak. Again, the words are heavily accented and are barely intelligible as words in the tongue that the druid is speaking.
While she waits to see if Darius' conversation with their attackers bears fruit, Kjira picks up the nearest lantern or torch she can find. The lady mage manages to carefully grab a piece of smoldering scrub brush that protrudes from the fire.
Cyzicus moves forward to access the situation. When he draws even with Lucas, the halfling sees what the others see. Several creatures - about the size of small wolves or large dogs - are struggling to free themselves from an area of twisting and weaving grasses that has entrapped them.
As she edges nearer to the imprisoned animals, Alani can see just why Darius is having difficulty talking to them. They do not appear to be wolves - at least not full-blooded wolves in the style of Soft Fang. The canines appear to be slightly smaller than Soft Fang. They bear more resemblance to common dogs than wolves.
After getting a good look at the animal, Alani quickly makes her way back to the camp, still being careful to avoid Darius' trap, and reports what she has found.
"I believe it is just a pack of wild dogs, though the one I got a look at might have had wolf in its blood," Alani announces while looking at the wings the lady mage grew in her absence. Smiling, the elven scout makes a mental note to ask Kjira about them.
Turning her attention back to the matter at hand, Alani turns to Darius. "One got away. Corax is scouting the area to make sure no more dogs are around, I think. Do you think the trapped dogs will leave when the spell wears off?" she asks, looking towards the trapped pack.
Thinking hard, the young druid looks around at the grasses and the entangle animals within it. "They seem to be wild dogs, not wolves, and are very hungry. I do not think that they will just leave when the entangle runs out, so we need to be ready for a fight," he replies to Alani.
"It appears we have two options then," announces Lucas. "We can attack them while they are held fast or be ready to fight them should they attack once your spell ends. I may be able to scare or stop some more with a different spell. My color spray will create a multihued wedge that will render some unconscious and might scare some away, as well."
"I don't know Lucas, it seems an awful lot of trouble for a pack of dogs," Alani says while she scratches her chin. Pausing for a few moments, the young elf ponders the situation - not wanting to fight the pack.
"I believe we can scare them off if everyone takes up a lit torch and stand united when the spell wears off," she proposes. "I am sure we should be able to scare them off without having to fight them. Most animals I know of are afraid of fire."
Looking to the druid, Alani asks, "What do you think Darius?" She then pauses to give the sandy haired man time to answer.
"Normally, yes, fire would drive them away," the druid responds, "but these are exceedingly hungry and while some may run, others may not. I do not like killing animals trapped by fire, so perhaps doing both - having fire ready and Lucas' spell - will drive them off," he says with a heavy voice. It is clear that he hopes the animals will flee after the entanglement spell is gone.
As the others discuss tactics and prepare for a fight, Cyzicus feels a sudden twinge. He realizes that his prayer of blessing has expired.
Seeing the young druid's concern, Alani places a hand on his shoulder as she speak. "I am sure they will realize that there is much easier prey than us, Darius. I counted ten dogs; you caught the majority of them your spell, one other collapsed and one took off. That leaves nine of them against nine of us."
Pausing for a moment to let her words sink in, she continues, "I am pretty sure the dogs will leave, but you are right - it wouldn't hurt to be ready for a fight," the scout assures the young man.
"They may be exceedingly hungry," Kjira grumbles after listening to the others debate the next course of action, "but I'm exceedingly sleepy."
She starts to flap her wings softly, testing them for something else. "But even if we scare them off for a while, how can we be sure they won't return a little later and catch us off guard? After all, if they're hungry enough not to run now, after all of this, how much further are they likely to hunt for food?"
"And why are they so hungry?" the lady mage continues. "Surely we're not the only 'game' in the area?"
Turning to Kjira, Alani replies, "You bring up a good point. I suppose the really isn't much we can do to keep them from returning without harming them. We will just have to be more alert to their presence."
"Most of the small game has more than likely started bedding down for the coming winter," the scout continues, "and the larger game has migrated to better feeding grounds to the south by now. Darius and I are barley able to bring in enough meat to feed them, let alone a pack of ten."
Lucas takes the opportunity to speak, saying to no one in particular, "I don't like to kill needlessly either - especially just hungry animals - but we need to be ready just in case our scare tactics don't cause them to go seek other prey besides us. I say we make or use brands of fire to help scare them while we have a few minutes and then I and the other spellcasters will provide magical assistance. I shall stand in the center and prepare my color spray should it be needed. I say we shout and yell as well to help frighten them as well," says Lucas as he moves to stand next to Darius. After concentrating for a moment to contact his owl, Lucas begins to ready his spell.
Dolak nods his head in the darkness at the idea of using firebrands to ward the dogs away. He returns to the fire and grabs a burning brand in his right hand. In his left, he carries his battle-axe. "I'll be holdin' the left," he says to Lucas.
"Agreed, I will tell the others," Alani says as she moves towards Tomar and Ori.
"We are going to try to scare the dogs away when Darius' spell wears off," she tells the two. "We need to get some torches lit and show a strong front when the dogs are free."
Moving about the camp, the young scout begins to prepare for the upcoming confrontation. Like Dolak and Kjira, she finds that the scraggly brush used to fuel the fire is usable as makeshift, but rather feeble torches. She pulls a branch from the fire for her use.
Darius grips his spear tightly and calls to Soft Fang to come to his side. The wolf complies, doing the best it can to squeeze next to the young druid who stands adjacent to Dolak's wooden cart.
Looking out over the field of entanglement, Darius thinks back to the days when he and Florin would talk about how to be one with nature. Reviewing the lessons in his mind, he sighs softly and reaches down to scratch Soft Fang behind the ear.
In wolfspeak, he tells his companion, "<May kill brothers. Try scare them off. When spell done, Howl, stay put if they run.>." The wolf growls softly, indicating his understanding.
Assured that Soft Fang knows to howl when the spell ends, the druid looks around at the rest of the party and comments, "Soft Fang is going to howl when the entangle ends and hopefully that and the fire and perhaps Lucas' spell will scare them off. Stand ready."
For his part, Lucas stands firm. The black-robed conjurer readies his spell should the wild dogs charge the party once Darius' spell wears off.
Taking up her makeshift brand Alani moves into position. "I'll cover the right," she announces.
Drawing her sword, the scout moves to cover the party's right flank. As she does, she whispers a short prayer to Solonor, hoping he will give the dogs the wisdom to leave.
Looking slightly disgusted, Cyzicus stands his ground. The seemingly disgruntled halfling holds his two short swords in his hands as he tries without success to see past the pale halo provided by Alani's torch.
Standing slightly behind the others, Kjira remains in her present position. She holds a burning bush in her and hand and awaits a definite turn of events.
A little less than a minute later, the lady mage's wish is granted. Without a sound, the angelic wings that sprout from her back disappear. In their wake, they leave only the large tear in the back of her robe.
Kjira chooses to ignore the occurrence and continues to focus her attention southward. Her companions do the same. Their perception of events is very limited, however. The glow of the torches prevents any of them - with the exception of Lucas -- from seeing the pack of wild dogs or the effects of the previous spells.
Less than a half-minute after the lady mage's wings disappear, Lucas spies a new development. To the south of the entrapped pack, the single dog that evaded Darius' spell rises to its feet and shakes itself as it wakes from its slumber. Seeing its companions still trapped, the animal tucks its tail between its legs and turns to trot off in the direction from which the pack first came.
Without turning to address anyone in particular, Lucas speaks aloud to the party. "The wild dog that I had put to sleep with my earlier spell has risen and fled away back from where they came. Stand ready as the entangle spell should end very soon." The black robed mage readies his spell and watches the wild dogs still held fast in the wall of vegetation.
Hearing Lucas, Alani adds, "I sure hope so - if not, we will look awful funny standing here with smoking sticks." Looking back to the darkness Alani listens for any signs of the spell ending.
"Aye," Cy agrees while trying vainly to see beyond the torch light.
Kjira continues to hold her position and wait for whatever spell Darius had cast to break. Looking at the puny piece of burning brush in her hand she wished someone had the common sense to light a lantern that night.
Several more minutes pass. The companions stand their ground restlessly, waiting for the unseen (to most) effects of Darius' spell to end.
Finally, Lucas - the only adventurer whose night vision is not adversely affected by the torches - sees the web of vegetation subside. Immediately thereafter, with a chorus of frightened yips and snarls, the pack of canines retreats to the south.
Keeping his guard, Lucas speaks to his fellow members of the Iron Wolf Company as he watches to the south. "The dogs are turning tail and fleeing southward. Let us keep up our vigil a little longer 'til we know for sure that they are not coming back."
Hearing Lucas report on the whereabouts of the dogs, Alani holds her ground.
Lucas concentrates and appears to enter a trance for a few moments while he communicates with his familiar. He instructs the owl to follow the dog pack southward for about a mile to make sure they are not coming back. After several more minutes, the familiar responds that the canines are still fleeing.
"It is safe now. They are still heading away," Lucas reports.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Alani moves back into the camp proper. "Thank Solonar they decided to leave. I would have hated to hurt the poor things," the elven scout declares, her relief evident in her voice.
Darius' face shows his relief that the animals chose to flee and not continue their quest for food. He reaches down to Soft Fang and hugs the wolf around the neck for a moment and then stands. "I am surprised a bit that they fled, but happy," the driud says to no one in particular. "It is time to return to our watches."
"<Sleep>," the druid growls at Soft Fang and then he and the wolf pad back to their places near the campfire and turn in, intending to rest until the last watch.
Seeing that things are hopefully back to normal - or as normal as they can get in the wilderness - Lucas heads back to his camp spot. Once there, he tries to get back to sleep until his turn for watch.
Kjira turns somewhat sideways and glances at the newly-ripped hole in her robe. She figures that she will have to fix in somehow in the morning, but now is not the time. Hopefully, the dog-beasts would leave them alone for the remainder of the night.
Happy that the dogs did not choose to attack, Cyzicus gives thanks to Arvoreen for protecting he and his companions this night. Then returns to his bed, where he removes his chain and tries to get what sleep he can. Morning prayers will come all too soon.
Noting that the others are returning to their places, Alani adds a couple of pieces of wood to the fire then returns to her own bedroll. Staring up at the autumn night sky, she drifts off to sleep as she waits her turn to watch.
Dolak and Corax also return to their pre-incident duties. The two on-duty guards ensure that all of the party's mounts and pack animals are securely tethered before resuming their watch shift.
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