Chapter #1034

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                                   +   +
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                               +           +
                             +               +
                           +                   +
                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic V      +
                             +               +
                               +           +
                                 +       +
                                   +   +

+     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       +
+   1991-2020 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!                                          +
+   Belphanior     18th/18th/18th level elven fighter/wizard/thief        +
+   Hope           16th level female human wizard                         +
+     Poulos       gigantic, beefy former slave with scimitar             +
+   Irina          7th/14th level female human warrior/priestess          +
+   Otto           12th/14th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+                                                                         +
+   Williamson     a soldier from Fellban                                 +
+   Date:          unknown                                                +
+   Time:          nighttime                                              +
+   Place:         the plains south of the city of Fellban                +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Seems I...underestimated you."                                       +
+   "Consistently."                                                       +
+                                              - from _Hitman_ (2007)     +

                   MXXXIV.  Tarkus' Folly

  In the dead of night, the advance scouts from Baron Tarkus' horde found
evidence of their quarry's encampment.  It hadn't been difficult at all
for the keen-nosed wolves to follow the scent, especially since it had
been made much more powerful by the bloody entrails that the wagon was
carrying...and which had dripped frequently during the journey, leaving
bits of gore and drops of blood along the entire route.  The prey must
have figured it out at some point, as an entire casket of the stuff was
found left behind earlier in the day - at which point the trail of gore
stopped.  The wolven trackers, of course, were not deterred by that, as
they could still track the horses and wagon with ease.  If the gore had
been intended to make them hungry and wild, it didn't work; the control
exerted by Tarkus was extraordinary, as was the beasts' discipline.
  They reported back, not by howling or any other formal communication,
as Tarkus was able to sense what they sensed, on some primal level, due
to his power.  The wolven scouts stayed far from the encampment, out of
range of their victim's eyes or ears, and waited.  As the main pack of
wolves arrived, they padded silently into the night, soon encircling the
camp to ensure that nobody snuck away into the night.  When the mounted
group arrived, their horses were silent...for these animals had been
bred for generations to know and accept the company of wolves.  Like the
wolves, their discipline was strong, and there were no random neighs of
other sounds that might give away their presence in the dark.
  Not that Baron Tarkus particularly cared about the element of surprise.
He had his foes surrounded and outnumbered, and intended to put an end to
their insolence before the sun rose.

Baron Tarkus:  (dismounts, and takes a few steps forward, his keen eyes
  surveying the encampment)

  Tarkus' guess was that the group had intended to flee into the land of
mists, but hadn't accounted for the terrain or the distance and had thus
been forced to make a choice:  continue through the night and be more
vulnerable to attack, or make camp and have a stronger position.  It had
been the latter, then.  Tarkus smiled to himself, his oversized incisors
prominent in that savage grin.
  The camp had clearly been made with defense in mind.  Its center was a
lone wagon of medium size, around which a number of spears had been set
in the ground at an angle, their points aiming upward and away from both
wagon and ground.  About ten feet beyond the ring of spears, four large
bonfires blazed.  And about fifty feet outside of that, far from the camp
and without any apparent purpose, a half-dozen long wooden poles jutted
up from the ground.  Roughly equidistantly spaced around the camp, these
were each topped with a black container of some sort which had been tied
to the high end of the pole.  Two sentries were visible outside the wagon,
a huge human with a scimitar and another man of more normal size.
  One of his lieutenants (a grizzled werewolf who had been responsible
for the previous attack on this group at the rocky outcropping to the
north, and who had then scouted the wagon train the next night without
ordering an attack) quietly informed him that tonight's camp was the
same basic setup as before, only with fewer wagons.  Tarkus knew that
taking the camp would come at a cost, but he didn't care.  The wolves
reproduced at a steady rate anyway, and he could always create more of
his own lycanthropic kind if necessary.  Only four members of tonight's
horde were werewolves anyway; the rest of the nearly hundred humans were
simply guards and soldiers from his fort.  Leaving almost no one behind
to guard it had been a hard decision, one which he didn't take lightly,
but he didn't fear anyone in this accursed land...and besides, he wanted
to make a statement that the whole barony would heed.  And when the
current conflict was over, Tarkus fully intended to pay a visit to Jaron
Mendenhall in Fellban.  Somehow he sensed the mayor's hand in this whole
business with the strangers, and if that was the case, another example
would be made tomorrow, in Fellban.
  But first things first.  Tonight's quarry was right there...completely
surrounded...outnumbered more than fifty to one...

Baron Tarkus:  (grins, his teeth lengthening slightly as they always do
  when the bloodlust rises)

  The lycanthropic lord of the land gave the command to his lieutenants,
who passed it on to the others.  The plan of attack was simple and direct:
the wolves wound rush in from all sides, bypassing the half-dozen poles
set far from the camp, which were obviously traps of some sort.  The four
large bonfires were also avoided easily enough; such things might be a
valid deterrent for wild animals, but not the wolves of Tarkus.  The thin
wall of spears would claim a few of the beasts, but it wouldn't take much
to knock those aside and create an opening.  It was simple math:  hundreds
against a handful.
  Baron Tarkus was no fool; he was well aware that this camp contained
wizards, and that their magic would make a major difference.  But that
magic would only delay the inevitable, especially since two dozen of his
men were skilled archers with orders to fire on any wizard they saw.  The
mad rush of the wolves was necessary not only to overrun the camp but also
to draw out those magic-using foes - at which time they would learn what
elite bowmen could accomplish.

  Without further delay, it began.  The wolves loped through the darkness,
closing in on the camp from all directions, worked into a frenzy by the
iron will and sheer power of Tarkus.  The defenders had realized that they
were under attack; the two sentries hurriedly readied their weapons, and
two more defenders with crossbows quickly appeared atop the wagon.  As
the element of surprise was no longer needed, the wolves had begun a wild
and unsettling cacophony of howling during their charge.
  And then several things happened at once.  One of the crossbowmen atop
the wagon took careful aim and fired a bolt - not at the mass of wolves
that surrounded the camp, but at one of the long poles more than fifty
feet away...specifically, at the large black container atop that pole.
The thin pottery, which had been completely covered in jet-black paint,
shattered easily from the impact, revealing the small stone glued to its
interior...a stone upon which a simple but powerful spell of light had
previously been cast.  The glow was sudden and brilliant, illuminating
the darkness for sixty feet in all directions, right up to the edge of
the campsite - as planned.  The wolves had sensitive eyes that were tuned
to night vision, and so they were all given pause by the intense light
where there had just been darkness; those closest to the shattered jug
atop the pole were momentarily blinded.  Then, amazingly, the same thing
happened again, on the other side of the camp's perimeter, as the other
crossbow-wielding defender atop the wagon hit another of the painted
jugs with his own bolt.
  Although the wolves were surprised and confused (and unable to see, in
some cases) their momentum carried them forward toward the wagon...until
the first of them fell into a shallow trench in the ground!  This trench
ringed the entire camp at a distance of about thirty feet from the wagon,
and had been concealed by thin netting with a layer of dirt on top.  The
trench wasn't excessively deep or wide, but its bottom had been imbedded
with crude wooden stakes - often just a pole, broken in half, both ends
sharpened.  It didn't make any difference to the wolves, but every single
pointed end had been dipped in molten silver.  What did make a difference
to the wolves was the deadly poison that Otto had carefully, meticulously
applied to the tip of each and every stake throughout the circular trench
right before it had been covered up.  This had been the work of the entire
afternoon and evening:  digging the trench using spells, then fitting out
its bottom with the simple wooden spikes that had been made dangerous to
both werewolves and wolves.  Otto hadn't wanted to take any chances, since
there was no way to know who or what might fall into the trench.  His goal
was death to whatever victims, man or beast, fell for the trap.
  All around the camp, wolves howled in surprise and pain as they dropped
into the trench and were speared on the spikes.  Some were slain instantly
while others were only wounded (it all depended on what body part a spike
hit) but the poison then did its work.  The wolves just behind the first
rank slowed and stopped as they saw what had happened to their fellows
that had led the attack.  However, the trench all around was quickly
filled with dead and dying wolves, and the others - driven by the sheer
will of Tarkus - ran across the bodies of their brethren, or leapt over
them.  Which was precisely when Otto lit and fired a flaming bolt into
a particular section of the circular trench...a section that contained
an unusually high concentration of the oil that filled the bottom of the
entire thing.  A moment later, the entire trench ignited with a loud
WHOOOOOOSH as a ring of fire roared to life, completely encircling the
camp at a thirty-foot distance!  The wolves already in the trench were
instantly set ablaze, as were numerous others already in the process of
crossing.  Meanwhile, the other crossbowman - a young human - had fired
and hit a third of the light-pole devices, shattering its thin cover and
further illuminating the darkness and disorienting the attackers.
  At this point, an invisible and airborne foe above launched a massive
bolt of lightning into the center of the mounted soldiers.  This group
had already begun to spread out to present less of a target for exactly
this sort of attack, but still, more than half of them were fried to a
crisp, and many more wounded.

Baron Tarkus:  (having moved some distance away from the soldiers before,
  he escapes unharmed, and spots the wizard now visible in the sky over
  the battle)  Archers!  (he points upward)  Fire!
Skektek:  (flying above)  Uh-oh.

  The illumination from the magical light-poles actually hurt Skektek in
this case; he wasn't easily visible, but the light below plus the skill
and number of the archers worked against him.  A volley of arrows whizzed
up toward the airborne adventurer...

Skektek:  Aie!  (he finds himself hit by first one arrow, then a second
  and a third, as a dozen more sail by, near-misses)

  His previously-cast stoneskin spell deflected the first missiles, but
it wouldn't hold out forever, and so he flew both away and higher, trying
to get out of range before an unlucky arrow actually punctured his flesh.

  On the ground below, all six of the magically-created, painted light-
poles had now been activated, and the entire area was bathed in bright
light.  This illumination helped the two crossbow-wielding defenders atop
the wagon - and the smaller of the two on foot on the ground, who threw
knife after knife into wolves inside the blazing circular trench.  These
three picked off a number of wolves that had gotten past the ring of
fire...a ring that had burned fiercely but was now starting to die out.
  The surviving archers, having driven Skektek away for the time being,
turned their attention to the wagon's defenders, which now included a
female wizard with whitish-blonde hair who stood atop the wagon working
some spell.  The bowmen unleashed a fusillade of deadly arrows in that
direction - only to watch in disbelief as every single missile was turned
away by some unseen barrier around each of the targets.

Hope:  (smiles thinly as she works a spell)

  The sorceress had protected each of the ground-based defenders with this
spell, which would render conventional arrows, bolts, and such harmless
to the subject of the spell.  She hadn't been able to protect the entire
party, but it had seemed a prudent defense for those on the wagon.  She
herself also had a stoneskin spell like Skektek, which would help if the
battle got bad.

Hope:  (completes her spell, turning the ground under the majority of the
  mounted archers into mud, causing them to sink rapidly)

Baron Tarkus:  (bellows with anger)  Onward, my legions!  Take them!

  As the wolves closed in on the wagon, smelling blood and victory, there
was another unpleasant surprise waiting for them:  a second trench!  This
one was closer in, about fifteen feet outside the wagon; like the first,
it completely circled the camp and was full of sharp spikes whose tips had
been dipped in silver and then coated with poison.  And like the first,
this deadly trap claimed a large number of wolves as they piled into it,
pushed by those behind them.

Poulos:  (cuts down a wolf as it leaps across the second ditch, then
  flinches needlessly as an arrow deflects away just before hitting him)
Irina:  (now standing next to him, she raises her mace and faces the
  approaching wolves defiantly)  Okay, then, let's see what this weapon
  can do.

  At roughly the same time, a gigantic disembodied fist appeared directly
above the remaining archers, driving down and smashing several of them
with great force.

Baron Tarkus:  (scans the sky above, but sees no sign of spellcasting)

  There would be no sign, thanks to Belphanior's decision to use this new
magic item that he'd taken from Vorkos.  Unlike the casting of a lightning
bolt, fireball, or similar spells, the use of the rod provided no obvious
source which could then be targeted.  As other archers panicked, their
shots going wild, the massive magical fist swept another knot of them off
their horses with bone-crushing force.

Baron Tarkus:  (realizes that his forces' efforts are being split up by
  multiple attackers, and roars in pure rage, pointing at the wagon in
  the center of the fight)  TO THE WAGON!  KILL THEM ALL!

  Baron Tarkus was beginning to understand what his minion Vorkos had
learned too late:  these people were not easy prey.  Still, he had the
advantage of numbers on his side, and there could be no more hidden
trenches full of spikes - there simply wasn't enough room around the
wagon.  As well, the second trench had apparently not contained oil to
be set ablaze, presumably because such a fire would be too close to the
wagon they were defending.  No, at this point it was just a matter of
overwhelming the defenders.  The cost would be high, as much of his force
would perish in this final push, but it would be worth it.
  All of his remaining minions - wolves, soldiers on horseback, soldiers
who'd lost their mounts, and the four lieutenants who he'd given the gift
of lycanthropy - now rushed the wagon.  The second, innermost trench was
vaulted, the spears set in the ground were knocked aside, and all of the
defenders had just taken refuge inside their wagon...for what little good
it would do them.

  Unbeknownst to any of the attackers, the retreat into the wagon hadn't
been for protection.

Hope:  Hurry!  (she checks that everyone's hands are linked, and completes
  her spell, teleporting the six of them out of the wagon)

  Their destination was a pre-prepared area several thousand feet to the
south, an area which Hope had previously marked and studied carefully to
be sure that she could teleport there reliably and safely.  She'd figured
that once the enemy force came upon the camp, they'd not travel very far
past it; even if they did, they'd only find a barren area of plain, with
nothing of interest there.  Transporting five additional people tested the
limits of Hope's magic, which was one reason Belphanior and Skektek were
participating in the battle from the sky high above.  Of course, there was
one other reason...

Belphanior:  (flying several hundred feet over the ground, he works his
  spell as the wolves tear open the fabric covering the wagon's sides,
  only to find nobody inside)

  A moment later, a small tongue of flame launched from the elf's finger,
streaking almost straight down...until it hit the wagon and detonated into
a massive fireball.  The immense burst of flame shook the ground, echoing
across the plains - and was quickly followed by a second, even louder
explosion as the contents of the wagon ignited.  Those contents had been
very carefully prepared and packed into the wagon:  in the center were the
dozen barrels of oil, and all around them were sacks of iron spikes, all
of which had been quickly dipped in molten silver like everything else.
The wagon's solid iron top hadn't just been to provide a stable shooting
platform for Otto and Williamson - it had also been there to help direct
the second explosion horizontally, in all directions.
  The combined effect of the magical fireball, plus the shaped blast of
the burning oil and shrapnel, on Tarkus' forces was completely and utterly
devastating.  Every combatant within fifty feet of the wagon was instantly
obliterated, and those within a hundred feet were roasted, shredded, or
both; none of that second group would be able to fight anymore, and almost
all would die of their wounds.  Even those attackers further out were
badly wounded; all in all, very, very few of Tarkus' force escaped the
trap without injury.  And those that did were in no shape to fight...

Baron Tarkus:  (lying on the ground, his form charred and smoking, he
  stirs weakly)
Belphanior:  (descends from the sky, hovering about twenty feet above the
  fallen ruler)  You brought this on yourself, first by appointing Vorkos
  back in that other town and then by pursuing us.  (he begins working a
  spell)  It may have been a hundred years coming, but you got what you
  deserved, and now I'm going to finish it for you-

  The elf never would have thought any man or beast could leap that high
into the air, and was quite surprised when Tarkus did it.  The foe was
obviously not as hurt as he'd appeared to be...but he was also changing
from man into something else, not quite a man and not quite a wolf either.
For his part, Tarkus no longer required the light of a full moon to effect
such changes; due to his unusually long time as a werewolf, he could make
the transformation very quickly.  The thing that leaped straight up into
the air and grabbed Belphanior's ankle was nearly seven feet tall, thickly
muscled, and covered in coarse black fur with streaks of gray.

were-Tarkus:  (pulls Belphanior down with him, hurling him into the hard
  ground with tremendous force)
Belphanior:  Ungh!  (he rolls over, drawing the silver longsword in a
  reflex action)

  The monster that Tarkus had become didn't give the elf a chance to take
to the air and escape, instead leaping toward him while raising curved
claws that could disembowel a foe with one deadly swipe.  It took every
bit of Belphanior's remaining strength and willpower to roll aside; his
ribs felt bruised if not broken, and his left shoulder ached.  Fortunately
for him, he was right-handed.

Belphanior:  (quickly rolls to his feet, the silver-tinged blade between
  him and the werewolf)  Not fast enough, beast!  (he waves the sword at
  the opponent)
were-Tarkus:  (lunges in again, roaring)

  The elf stood his ground, counting on the sword to do its job as he
swung it in a quick diagonal slashing motion.  Some primal instinct kept
Tarkus from committing fully to the attack, and he suffered only a shallow
gash across his chest...a gash that still hurt like hell due to the silver
in the blade.

were-Tarkus:  GRAAAAARGH!  (he recoils, eyes blazing, long fangs drooling
  with a combination of bloodlust and rage)

  This form was more powerful than either human or wolf, but at the cost
of somewhat diminished faculties.  Still, Tarkus recognized that the sword
in the elf's hands was far more dangerous than any regular weapon, and he
shifted his tactics, subtly and slightly.

were-Tarkus:  (begins circling his foe, flexing powerful hairy arms, the
  sharp claws clicking against each other)
Belphanior:  (waits for the inevitable attack)

  And it came, and was over, just like that.  Tarkus bounded forth, and
Belphanior sliced out with the sword...but the beast feinted and changed
its approach at the last instant, rolling in on Belphanior's left side -
the side without an eye.  The elf, unused to fighting half-blind, was
taken by surprise as the beast swatted at his sword-arm hard enough to
break it.

Belphanior:  (loses his grip, drops the sword, then finds himself flung
  to the ground, stunning him)
were-Tarkus:  (puts one clawed foot on the elf's chest, pinning him in
Belphanior:  Unnnngh...
were-Tarkus:  (picks up the silver sword, examining it briefly)

  The huge monster then grabbed the tip of the blade with his other hand
(an act which caused him great pain and cut that hand) before raising the
leg that trapped Belphanior - and breaking the blade over his knee!

Belphanior:  (looks up at this, his eye wide)
were-Tarkus:  (returns his foot to the elf's chest, forcefully)
Belphanior:  UNGH!
were-Tarkus:  (regards the elf for a moment before removing his foot and
  picking the injured foe up like a rag doll)
Belphanior:  Urgh...(he struggles to reach the dagger in his boot)
were-Tarkus:  GRRRRRRRR...(opens his jaws wide enough to fit the elf's
  entire head within)

  Suddenly, a barrage of magical missiles pelted the beast about its face
and neck.

Skektek:  (flying about forty feet above, having witnessed the monster's
  leap just moments before)  Let him go!
were-Tarkus:  (his fur smoking in five places from the spell's impacts,
  he shakes off the pain and prepares to chomp Belphanior's head)

  This was a tough situation for the elf's allies, who were now catching
up to this final fight as fast as they could.  The wizards had a number of
spells that would hurt Tarkus badly enough to make him release Belphanior,
but almost all of those spells would also hurt or even kill the elf.  And
he would be mauled in the next few moments, so time was short.

were-Tarkus:  (reels as a silver knife imbeds itself in one eye)
Razor Charlie:  (hurls a second knife, that one sinking into the beast's
  thick neck)

  The werewolf let out a howl of rage and pain so primal that it shook
every one of the adventurers to the bone.  And still, he did not release
the elf.

were-Tarkus:  (determined to kill this foe, he opens his jaws again)
Belphanior:  (having finally gotten hold of his boot-dagger, he brings
  it up between their bodies, then drives it into the beast's massive
were-Tarkus:  (roars in pain, as this dagger was also dipped in silver,
  then pulls the elf's throat toward its jaws)
Belphanior:  (grabbing the dagger sunk into the thing's chest, he uses
  its leverage to try and keep the wild foe at bay, as the muscles in his
  arms ache and scream with the effort)

  Even wounded, the werewolf was stronger, and it was going to win this
contest...until a searing pain stabbed into its shoulder, and then tore
an agonizing path all the way down the length of its back.

were-Tarkus:  (hurls Belphanior aside, and whirls, facing Otto, who took
  the half of the broken silver sword with the hilt and executed a deadly
  backstabbing attack)  GRAAAARGH!  (he leaps at Otto, claws slashing and
  fangs gnashing)
Otto:  (stabbing madly, he goes down beneath the massive form)

  Tarkus' motions slowed abruptly then, for he had impaled himself on the
broken sword, which now pierced his chest, its jagged edge just barely
protruding from the werewolf's back.  The others rushed in to help, ready
with spells, but it was not necessary.

Poulos:  (about to grab the werewolf and pull him off of Otto, he notices
  the foe's body shifting and changing, the hair shortening, the limbs
  losing the extra size and muscle)  Oh, that's disgusting.  (he finally
  takes hold of one arm and quickly rolls the corpse over)

  Tarkus was dead, his heart pierced by the ruined (but still silver, and
still sharp) blade.  Otto bled profusely from a deep bite wound to one
shoulder, which Irina immediately got to work cleaning and bandaging.
Both the dwarf and Belphanior were seriously wounded, a condition which
was partially dealt with using all four of the party's healing potions.
Meanwhile, Skektek flew around, using offensive spells to deal with the
few surviving foes.  A few surviving wolves had already fled, presumably
to return to natural lives free of the influence of a powerful werewolf.
Roaming the battle site, the group's warriors attended to other matters.

Poulos:  (to Williamson)  It is over, lad.
Williamson:  (wide-eyed)  I can't believe it...after all these years of
  the Baron's rule, it's over.  Just like that.
Poulos:  Life is strange sometimes.
Razor Charlie:  (to Poulos)  Need your sword, and your strength.
Poulos:  For what?
Razor Charlie:  (gestures to the corpse of Tarkus)

  Nearby, Irina conferred with Hope about the necessary course of action
for their wounded companions.

Irina:  We're going to need clean water and beds.  (she locks gazes with
  Hope)  We need to get them back to the city.
Hope:  Not a problem.  I memorized a pair of teleportation spells, just
  in case something went wrong in the battle.  I can get most of the group
  back in short order.  (she gazes at Otto's now-bound wounds, and the
  blood that covers much of his body)  Is he going to...?
Irina:  We'll deal with that later.  First things first, let's get them
  both out of here.

next:       recovery
released:   8/7/20
notes:      There are a lot of spells that seem silly or puny, but I'd
  contend that any spell can have great impact if used in the right way,
  in the right situation.
    I'm not sure what you readers will think of this battle.  I thought
  it was pretty good (or at least entertaining and cool) but people need
  to understand that the more of these stories I write, with the ever-
  increasing power levels of the characters, the more and more difficult
  it becomes to write good, realistic, challenging battles.  There are
  only a few of the "classic" AD&D monsters that the party hasn't ever
  fought, and then the framing of some of those battles was bigger than
  anything I could ever do again against the same opponent.  One example
  is the vampire city of Skava-Ra.  Sure, it was fun, ridiculously fun,
  to have the party go up against an entire underground city of vampires
  after years of hinting and teasing it.  But's going to
  be tough if not impossible to ever again portray vampires in a menacing
  way, after an entire city of them.
    Just some musings.  If I worry too much about this sort of thing, my
  desire to write will go away, so I try my best NOT to worry about it.
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