Chapter #989

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                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic V      +
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+     Many of the locations, non-player characters, spells, and other     +
+   terms used in these stories are the property of Wizards of the Coast  +
+   which has in no way endorsed or authorized their use.  Any such       +
+   property contained within these stories are not representative of     +
+   Wizards of the Coast in any fashion.                                  +
+     The player characters depicted in these stories are copyright       +
+   1991-2012 by Thomas A. Miller.  Any resemblance to any persons        +
+   or characters either real or fictional is utterly coincidental.       +
+   Copying and/or distribution of these stories is permissible under     +
+   the sole condition that no money is made in the process.  In that     +
+   case, I hope you enjoy them!                                          +
+   Bram           15th level human ranger, vampire hunter                +
+   Rezzik         13th level human warrior (werewolf)                    +
+   Hrothgar       11th level minotaur berserker                          +
+   Yuki           13th level human female half-vampire warrior           +
+   Janus          12th level quasi-human wizard (Seeker)                 +
+   Melancon       14th level human high priest                           +
+   Elias          intelligent flesh golem                                +
+   Date:          4/18/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          early afternoon                                        +
+   Place:         a ruined castle in the Griff Mountains                 +
+   Climate:       chilly                                                 +
+   "Preemptive action is the only action here."                          +
+                    - Major Stryker, from _X-Men Origins:  Wolverine_    +

                   CMLXXXIX.  A Gathering of Forces

  The party cautiously made its way up the stone steps, ascending to the
higher reaches of the old, decrepit castle's central tower.  Sprawling,
wispy cobwebs, untouched for long years, dotted the hallways and chambers
of this haunted structure.  Outside, the sun was masked by dark clouds
most of the time, as if the castle itself somehow didn't want to be in
the sunlight, and could put a stop to that.  The wind howled, sending
strange and frightening sounds through the cold stones of the castle.  At
least, the sounds would have been frightening to normal individuals, but
not the seven who now trod its dusty passages.  It had taken them a great
deal of time and effort to track the source of the vampire problem to this
remote place...but then again, such things were their business, and the
time had come to complete that business.

Bram:  (adjusts his black, wide-brimmed bat, which matches the color of
  all his other attire)  I'd suspect the lair lies above.  (he turns to
  Janus with a questioning look)

  The wizard looked for all the world like a tall, thin mummy - though
in truth he was something far different.  Through unknown means, his body
had been transformed into vapor, devoid of tangible form but yet able to
speak and cast spells.  This explained the tightly-wound white cloth
wrappings which approximated the size and shape of a physical human body.
Aside from his formidible spellcasting abilities, however, Janus possessed
another powerful ability somehow granted by his altered physiology:  he
was a Seeker, able to mystically sense the presence of certain undead.
In particular, and this was certainly relevant right now, Janus could
unerringly sense the presence and distance of various types of vampires.

Janus:  (nods slightly, speaking in a soft, nearly whispering voice)  A, eleven...right above us.
Bram:  (hefts his ebony cane, its silver tip glimmering in the light of
  the torch borne by the hulking golem at the rear of the party)

  It had been over two years since the vampire-hunting ranger had been
buried (along with a number of others) in the collapse of Belphanior's
castle in Helgate.  Unlike any of the others, however, Bram had managed
to crawl free of the wreckage, days after all other combatants had left.
It hadn't been easy, and a man of lesser willpower would have perished,
but Bram was driven by unusually strong instinct to live.  Bloody and
battered, and still suffering from the effects of poison and a mummy's
rotting touch, he'd finally emerged from the rubble amidst the feasting
of determined vultures able to find a scrap of carrion sticking out of
the wreckage.  Following a lengthy period of resting and recuperation
(one that was aided by certain magical items and potions) Bram had begun
the long trek back to civilization - a trek which had seen him overcome
a number of bandits and monstrous foes, all of whom were now skeletal
remains along various mountain and wilderness trails.  From there, he'd
patiently and meticulously formed a new team of vampire hunters - a
process which had only recently been completed.
  The current team was unusual, to say the least, but also effective...
incredibly effective.  The werewolf Rezzik was as fast and strong as any
vampire, and also immune to many of the undead's attack forms; while he
was a dangerous opponent with a sword in hand, he was even more deadly
when in werewolf form.  The minotaur Hrothgar was, simply put, seven and
a half feet of muscled berserker rage.  While none too bright, the huge
warrior was fiercely loyal and did as he was told.  The golden-skinned
and black-haired Yuki, a stealthy warrior (and perhaps assassin) from a
distant western land, also happened to be a half-vampire, the product of
some unholy union of a human and a vampire.  Her strength, while less than
the typical vampire, was greater than that of the typical human.  Yuki's
true gift was her speed and skill with blades; this natural ability, when
combined with years of training plus her vampiric origins, made her faster
than any vampire she had yet to encounter.  The diminutive, lithe woman
had slain more than one vampire with her sword of mystical, black silver,
a weapon which possessed powerful magic against vampires.  Even better,
Yuki could withstand sunlight, holy symbols, garlic, and so on.  She
didn't talk much, and her true motivations weren't known to Bram, but
they appeared to involve the killing of as many vampires as possible -
something that he could definitely understand.
  The stocky, bald high priest Melancon followed an unrevealed faith, but
that was fine with Bram as long as the other's undead-turning and wound-
healing powers were of use to the team.  As for the unusually-named golem
Elias...that one was perhaps more of an enigma than any other member of
the group.  The eight-foot-tall behemoth was constructed of body parts,
stitched together and imbued with tremendous strength and endurance.  He
never tired, and was immune to most spells and any unenchanted weapon.
All of that was typical for a flesh golem; what wasn't involved Elias'
intelligence and ability to speak.  As with most other members of Bram's
current team, Elias' exact origins remained unrevealed, but suffice it
to say that he was capable of surprisingly clear and concise thought and
planning - a quality which had spelled the doom of many a foe.

Rezzik:  (leads the team onto the upper floor, sniffing the musty air)
  They're here-

  Just then, an unnaturally cold wind wafted through the room, and the
huge torch wielded by Elias, at the rear of the party, was extinguished.
The chamber ahead was suddenly plunged into darkness.

Rezzik:  (growls, as the sound of ripping cloth is heard)

  The pack of vampires in this lair could sense that the intruders were
rather unusual, but this didn't diminish their confidence in any way.
After all, these vampires had preyed on the populace of the nearby towns
for years, ever since taking up residence in this abandoned castle and
destroying the ghouls who had lived their previously.  What the vampires
had lost sight of, over all that time, was that their gradual increase in
numbers meant more mysterious deaths in the towns upon which they preyed.
Eventually, one of the victims had been related to a rich baron, who had
gone to work in all three towns and organized a well-funded effort to rid
the area of the vampire problem.  This effort had culminated with the
contract which Bram's team had taken on...and so here they were, in the
dark hallways of a forlorn castle in the middle of nowhere, having come
to do combat with dangerous undead foes.

Elias:  (tosses the smoking, extinguished torch aside, and reaches into
  a pocket, producing a half-dozen small clay spheres)

  Handling the objects with a dexterity unusual for one with a body such
as his, the flesh golem hefted them, then hurled them in a spread pattern
into the room ahead.  As each hit the cold stone of a wall or floor, its
outer shell of hardened clay shattered, revealing the small iron caltrop
within - each of which had been previously enchanted with a powerful spell
of continual light.  In an instant, the pitch-black darkness of the tower
chamber was gone, replaced by bright light from six different points
throughout the room.  The vampire hunters, who had mostly been shielding
their eyes in anticipation of this previously-planned tactic, leapt into
action against the ragged, dirty vampires that were already moving to

Rezzik:  (now covered with fur, a tattered tunic, and nothing else, he
  is already slashing and tearing at a surprised vampire)
vampire #1:  Aaaargh!
Hrothgar:  (drives a vampire back with a great swing of his battleaxe)
vampire #2:  (hits a wall, and quickly climbs up it as a second blow cuts
  a notch into the stone just below)  Hah.
Yuki:  (sprinting, she then executes a superhuman leap, her black blade
  whistling through the air)
vampire #2:  (decapitated, its body remains clinging to the wall while
  its severed head falls to the floor, a look of surprise frozen on its
Yuki:  (lands on the floor without a sound)
vampire #2:  (its body lets go, hitting the stone with a "thump")
vampire #3:  (sails toward the small woman from behind)
Yuki:  (deftly sidesteps, her sword slashing a long cut in the vampire's
vampire #3:  (turns, charging again)
Yuki:  (steps forward, slashes, then steps sideways - all in the span of
  a moment)
vampire #3:  (stops in its tracks, looking surprised, then shocked)
Yuki:  (her face betrays no expression as the vampire's left arm falls
  from its body)
vampire #3:  How...?!?
Yuki:  (glides toward the foe, sword raised)


Melancon:  (brandishes a holy symbol of steel, inlaid with silver, and
  steps forward, chanting in some unknown dialect, the arcane symbol
  glowing with powerful whitish light)
vampire #4:  Hsss!  (it is driven away, and retreats into a corner of the
  huge chamber)
vampire #5:  (likewise)
vampire #6:  (likewise)
vampire #7:  (likewise)
vampire #8:  (likewise)
vampire #9:  (faces Janus, unsure of what the strangely-wrapped person
  is)  No matter.  (she gazes into the wizard's eyes, figuring on using
  its charming power)
Janus:  (meets that stare, his own eyes little more than a bluish glow
  from within a slit in the wrappings that contain his gaseous body)
vampire #9:  What?!?  (she angrily grabs the wrappings, intending to rip
   them to shreds to get at whatever's inside)
Janus:  (reaches out, his wrapped hand crackling with tiny arcs of flame,
  and places his palm against the vampire's forehead)

  Janus' hand blazed with intense fire...and then this flame moved from
the wizard _onto_ the foe, setting her hair and in fact her entire head
ablaze with searing magical fire!

vampire #9:  (recoils, clutching at her burning head)  AIEEEEE!

vampire #10:  (reaches out for Bram, but finds itself repelled)  What?
Bram:  Just one of many useful trinkets, monster.  Here's another.  (he
  lashes out with his ebony cane, slashing the vampire across the chest)
vampire #10:  (staggers back as the wound begins to bleed profusely...
  and not heal)  What?!?
Bram:  (smiles grimly, moving in for the kill)
vampire #11:  (leaps at Elias, its powerful hands gripping his thick
  throat)  Eh?
Elias:  (immune to the foe's life-force-sapping attack, and strong enough
  to withstand the grip that would have crushed a regular man's neck, he
  calmly raises the small glass vial he's been holding ready...then brings
  it down onto the vampire's face)
vampire #11:  (stung by the shards of shattered glass, it then shrieks
  in agony as the holy water inside that broken container douses its
  entire face)  Aaargh!  (it falls back, its face smoking and melting)

  With the majority of the vampires repelled, slain, or badly wounded,
it wasn't long before the fight was over.  None of Bram's team had any
problem with slaying vampires who weren't fighting back due to being
turned by a priest, so those five were executed in short order.  Like the
ones already slain, these vampires' bodies vanished, changing into mist
which drifted away.

Yuki:  (using one of the fallen vampires' capes, she wipes the blood from
  her sword)
Bram:  (looking around)  Good work, everyone.
Melancon:  Perhaps.  This pack had no spellcasters...they were little
  more than feral animals, really.  Easy to defeat.
Elias:  Perhaps, but eleven vampires is eleven vampires - not a bad day's
  work by any means.
Hrothgar:  (just grunts)
Rezzik:  (to Bram)  It's not done yet, you know.  Except for the ones
  felled by your cane, the rest turned into mist and are undoubtedly
  heading for their coffins, somewhere nearby.
Bram:  Of course.  (he turns to Janus, inquisitively)
Janus:  (looks around, the blue glow coming from his "eyes", then looks
  down)  The cellar beneath this keep...all of their coffins are there.
  I can lead you directly to them.
Rezzik:  And then we can finish this.
Bram:  Very well.  I'm sure we've got the strength to clear any rubble
  and break through any doors.  (he opens a small pack of holding, and
  begins producing wooden stakes, mallets, and other vampire-killing
  supplies)  Let's get this done before night falls.  Just in case.

  Several hours later, the seven hunters had exited the castle, and made
ready for the two-day march back to the nearest of the towns that had
hired them.  Elias bore a sack that contained eleven freshly-gained
vampire skulls, and overall the group was in good spirits despite facing
a long trek back to the comfort of a warm bed, a hot meal, and a hotter
bath.  Of course, all of these individuals were quite capable of living
without such luxuries, as they were tough and seasoned adventurers.

Janus:  (senses something, and turns)  Bram.
Bram:  (whirls, cane ready, as a shimmering green glow appears ten feet
Yuki:  (sword already in hand, she tenses, preparing to leap to the
Bram:  (holds up a hand)  Wait!  All of you, wait!

  The ranger hadn't seen this particular effect in more than two years,
but he still remembered it well.

Parekh:  (appears, along with a cloaked male elf who Bram doesn't know)
  Greetings.  It certainly has been a while.
Bram:  You!  But how...?
Parekh:  Fear not, old friend.  I would have prised you from the ruins
  of that castle, in time, had I not magically discerned that you were
  alive and well.
Bram:  Indeed.  (to the others)  This is Parekh, a former companion in
  our line of work.  (he eyes the elf)  Him, I don't know.
elf:  I am Pallin, a follower of Celestian.
Bram:  (looks slightly confused)
Parekh:  Drak is still about, he's just busy right now.  Pallin is but
  one of many new allies I've gained since the Helgate debacle.
Bram:  (nods)  What brings you here?  And why?  Obviously you sought me
  out, despite this rather bleak setting.  (he gestures at the ruined
  castle)  Hunting vampires tends to bring one to odd places.
Parekh:  (nods grimly)  You have no idea.  Allow us to magically take
  you back to wherever you're going to claim your bounty...and then, let
  us talk of another bounty, and another commission...

+   Date:          4/19/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         Parekh's home (exact location unknown)                 +
+   Climate:       temperate                                              +

Belphanior:  (stands up, facing the assembled group that sits around a
  large wooden table which Parekh somehow produced)

  The elf was weary, and it showed in his face and his movements.  After
an extremely busy day, two days ago, he'd returned home to find the sky
castle breached, his people there slain or injured, and his companion
Neera missing - not just missing, but in fact taken by vampires!  Since
this unpleasant surprise, he'd been awake and stressed for most of the
last day and a half, figuring things out and assessing and planning all
sorts of things.  After those many restless hours, and multiple magical
communications and transportations, the sky castle was locked up tight
with its defensive barrier active.  Belphanior had, of course, gotten
help from several parties, for which he was immensely grateful.  All of
those who had provided that help, as well as others who they had brought,
were now gathered at Parekh's home to hear the elf's words...

Belphanior:  Most of you I know; others were brought here due to your
  experience, or power, or skills, or knowledge, or perhaps for glory
  or money.  Whatever the reason, I thank you for being here.

  As always, the elf tended to thrive under pressure, in that he could
think rationally, organize capably, and generally rise to the occasion
as he was doing now with this impromptu speech.

Belphanior:  I'm going to review what we know.  After that, we can deal
  with questions and such - just please let me get through this.  (he
  cracks his neck, then begins speaking again)  Two nights ago, while I
  was away, my home was attacked by vampires.  Aside from killing one of
  my companions and almost killing several others, they have taken my
  woman, the sage and wizard Neera...taken her back to their lair in the
  underground city of vampires, Skava-Ra.

  He could see the irate reactions from some of those at the table, as
he had assumed he would, so he quickly continued with his explanation.

Belphanior:  I would venture there by myself if necessary - a suicidal
  undertaking, most likely - to try and rescue her, but I'd never ask
  anyone else to accompany me in such a quest.  No, I'm afraid there's
  a more important reason why these vampires must now be confronted and
  stopped.  (he sighs)  Evidence incidates that they came looking for
  one specific item which I possessed, unaware of what it was at that
  time:  the jawbone from the first vampire ever to exist in this world.

  This statement drew some gasps and generated some low muttering from
some in the room, but that ceased when the elf resumed his briefing.

Belphanior:  While this unholy relic will surely augment the power of
  whatever vampire possesses it, I regret to say that something else was
  stolen...something that has even more dire implications.

  The looks of anger from some of those assembled sidetracked the elf
for a bit, as he offered yet another pre-prepared explanation.

Belphanior:  I'm sure you're wondering why I didn't have these items
  secured...well, I did.  I had a magical barrier, and numerous golems,
  and my slain priestess Jenna not only found herself unable to turn
  these particular vampires, but had her holy symbol melted by them.  I
  don't yet know how the vampires got past my defenses, or entered my
  home uninvited, but since they obviously did, that's spilt milk at
  this point.  Or spilt blood, to be more accurate.

  He thought briefly of the fallen Jenna.  Although the others had
survived their wounds from the attack, Jenna had not, and nothing that
Belphanior or any of his allies - including the high priest Rob - tried
had been successful in bringing her back.

Belphanior:  Anyway, these were obviously vampires of unusual power and
  ability, guided to these items by some yet greater force.  I've moved
  on to the strategy of dealing with the problem, and the problem is a
  big one.  For those knowledgeable about the ways of magic, you may have
  heard rumors or legends about true dweomers.  (he pauses for effect)
  The second stolen item was the mechanism to cast one such spell.

  There was more reaction from the assembled individuals, only a few of
whom had ever seen evidence of such powerful magic, but most of whom at
least accepted that it could exist.

Belphanior:  The vampires now possess the means to invoke this terrible
  magic, and terrible indeed would be its effects:  a permanent eclipse,
  blocking the rays of the sun from our world forever.  (he silences the
  renewed muttering with a wave of his hand)  Whether the actual thieves
  know what it was or how to use it is inconsequential...for in that
  dark, buried city, there surely exists at least one elder vampire who
  _will_ be able to utilize the formula and components and cast that
  spell.  (he looks across the various faces...human and demihuman and
  nonhuman...warriors and wizards and priests and thieves...long-time
  companions and singular acquaintances and even a couple of former
  enemies)  And that's why we have to invade Skava-Ra and stop these
  vampires:  if we don't, they'll eventually usher in a nightfall that
  will never end, and that will allow them to end the world as we know

  When put this way, his words had the desired effect on those assembled
here:  there were nods and murmurs of agreement.  Whatever any particular
individual cared about - vanquishing evil, killing vampires, saving the
world, or just getting paid - there was no denying that this needed to be

Belphanior:  The trick, of course, is to gather enough raw power and
  talent to pull this off.  After all, we're talking about declaring
  war on an entire city of vampires.  (he gestures around the table)
  Fortunately, those of you who heeded this call to arms are among the
  best the world has to offer.  From my own team, we have my second-in-
  command Otto, the wizards Skektek and Hope, the warriors Ys and Razor
  Charlie, and the immaterial wispy thing.  I can also bring to bear,
  thanks to some hasty assistance to complete some of them, ten stone
  golems and six iron golems.  Some of my oldest adventuring companions
  have offered their services as well.  The dark elf Alindyar is total
  master of illusions, and his mate Lyra is a powerful wizard as well.
  Mongo Thunderhead has the strength of a titan, a hammer that can level
  buildings and returns when thrown, and indestructible armor.  Parekh
  and Pallin are powerful wizards, and Drak there can wield the hammer
  of giants as well as bring their size and strength to bear.  Rob is
  a high priest of Trithereon, perhaps the most powerful follower of his
  deity in the world.  And don't judge Bosco there by his size - he's one
  of the best thieves and scouts I've ever known.

  This summed up all those who Belphanior knew well and had worked with
on multiple occasions in the past, but there were more.  A lot more.

Belphanior:  Parekh and Pallin have brought us several other wizards:
  Dexitheseus and Wu and...Cespedes.  (he glares at that one for a brief
  moment)  Sir Drexel and his twin brother Sir Dremel are holy warriors
  of peerless faith and might.  (both nod at him, causing him to pause)
  I just wish I knew which was which.  Newly returned from the brink of
  death, apparently thanks to an epic quest, Sir Drexel brings with him
  his loyal elven wizard/priest henchman Limbor.  Thanks to the efforts
  of those two, and Dexitheseus, and Mongo, we also have the exalted
  dwarven king Yod Ironbeard, a legendary warrior who wields the Axe of
  the Dwarvish Lords.
Yod Ironbeard:  (smacks the handle of his axe on the table)  Aye!
Mongo:  Heh.
Belphanior:  Saint Wilhelm is a devout and powerful servant of Saint
  Cuthbert.  Bram is an accomplished vampire hunter who knows all of
  their tricks; his six companions there, who I've not yet met, are all
  experienced in such conflicts as well, and will doubtless have much
  intelligence to share with us before we set out.
Bram:  (tips the brim of his hat)
Belphanior:  And have no doubt, we'll need all the intelligence and
  information we can gather.  The vampires aren't stupid, and they'll
  likely know we're coming...if not who and how many, at least that an
  attack of some sort is imminent.  But we've got mighty forces that
  are well-armed and have great motivation to succeed.  Now, all we
  need is one hell of a plan...

next:       it begins
released:   10/31/2012
notes:      After writing nothing in over two months, since 988 back in
  August, I sat down and wrote this episode from scratch in about five
  hours.  Since Halloween is coming up, I decided to produce some work
  with a spooky setting and some monsters, and that fortunately tied in
  with plans I had to get Belphanior some help for what lies ahead.
    And then the second half of this episode was, as previously promised,
  the good guys' turn to assess, organize, and plan.  I think I covered
  enough of that here to be able to get to Skava-Ra in the next episode.
  Incidentally, there are other allies who haven't been named just yet...

    Some of you are undoubtedly asking things like "how did Sir Drexel
  get brought back from his soul-less state?" and "why would all of these
  people follow Belphanior into this?" - those are good questions, and
  they'll be addressed in dialogue next episode.  For now, for this one,
  I just wanted to set the stage.
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