Chapter #1036

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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             +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+   Date:          unknown (three weeks since arrival)                    +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         a fort at the foot of the mountains to the north       +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Turns out fear is a powerful motivator, even more powerful           +
+    than greed."                                                         +
+               - Boyd Crowder, from an unknown episode of _Justified_    +

                   MXXXVI.  Fort Tarkus

  After reaching the now-deceased Baron Tarkus' fort the night before, and
camping nearby, the party is ready to explore the place.

Belphanior:  (eyes the fort before them as they approach cautiously)

  There was a large portcullis set in the center of the fort's south side,
behind which was an immense door of dark wood, bolstered by metal bands
riveted into the wood.  Before the party even had time to think about how
to get these portals open, another problem presented itself.

archer:  (appears in the small window just above the fort's entrance, bow
  at the ready)  Begone!
Belphanior:  (holds his arm up, stopping his group's march toward the door
  at a distance of about twenty feet away, and addresses the man in the
  window)  Ho, there!
archer:  I said, begone!  This is the domain of the great and mighty Baron
Belphanior:  I have something for you!  (he hefts a short wooden pole,
  both ends of which have been sharpened to deadly points)
archer:  I warn you, fellow!  I can put an arrow through your heart before
  you hurl that spear!
Belphanior:  This isn't for you.  (he steps forth and drives the pole into
  the soft ground, then speaks to the archer again, in a loud, confident

  The elf had every reason to be confident, for just before leaving the
campsite outside the keep's grounds, he'd cast two different protective
spells upon himself.  As it so happened, both of them were relevant to
this particular situation.

Belphanior:  Tarkus, you say?
archer:  Aye!  None may enter without his word, and until he returns-

  The man ceased his talking as Belphanior removed something from a thick
sack that one of his companions held open for him.  The elf lifted the
item overhead, then brought it down firmly onto the other end of the pole
set in the ground.  The archer in the window couldn't hear the sound made
by this process, but its result was now clearly visible in the courtyard:
the head of Baron Tarkus, his eyes and mouth still open in death, dried
blood covering much of the ragged lower portion.

Belphanior:  Now he has returned.  And I would suggest you let us in.
  You have my word that none inside will be harmed, if they surrender
  and come out now.
Hope:  (in a low voice)  You realize, of course, that there's a good
  chance they won't.  For all they know, people who killed their lord
  and brought back his severed head aren't the sort to spare them.
Skektek:  She's got a point...just saying...
Razor Charlie:  (regards the severed head, grimacing)
Belphanior:  I do realize that, but I needed to make a statement.  (he
  regards the severed head)  A very clear statement.
Poulos:  (gazing upward)  He seems to be thinking about it.  His bow is
Belphanior:  (shouts up to the archer in the window)  Know that we have
  the power to blast this fort down with magic, if necessary!  Again, I
  give you my promise:  any of you who present themselves will be spared
  and allowed to leave!  After that chance, anyone we find inside will
  be treated as a foe!

  The archer appeared to be talking with unseen others behind him, in his
second-floor room.  Belphanior gave him some time, as such decisions were
not to be made quickly or rashly.  The elf was prepared to take the place
by force if necessary - Jaron Mendenhall's wishes be damned - but ideally
there would be no violence here today.

Hope:  (studying the fort's main door, windows, and general structure)
  They could be using this time to prepare last-ditch defenses.
Skektek:  (rubbing his hands together)  I kind of hope they are.
Belphanior:  We'll see.  (he nods toward the head mounted on the pole)
  That was their baron for their entire lives, most likely.  And he
  almost certainly ruled them with an iron fist and a great deal of
  violence and cruelty.  I'd imagine our terms are the best offer these
  people have ever had.
Hope:  Not to mention, they're probably not his best soldiers, since he'd
  have taken those south in pursuit of us.  If these are the dregs, they
  ought to surrender peacefully.
Skektek:  Especially with that bloody head staring up at them.
Belphanior:  Ten years ago, I'd have cast a spell to make its eyes glow
  red.  Whereas now, I'll use more powerful spells to decimate the fort
  and its occupants, if necessary.  (he considers that ten years in the
  future, he might wield even more powerful magic)

  As it turned out, those in the fort decided that their duty to the
Baron had ended at roughly the time his head had been separated from his
body.  A surprisingly small number of people - a dozen, all told - now
marched out of the fort's main door, most of them regarding the five
adventurers with a mixture of suspicion and fear.  Half of these people
were obviously soldiers, including the archer who had addressed them from
above; the rest appeared to be servants.

Belphanior:  (gesturing to them, the enchanted rod from Vorkos held in
  one hand)  Out you go.  You can keep your weapons - you'll need them
  to defend yourselves after you're gone from here, and they won't harm
  us anyway.
Hope:  (similarly has her wand of frost ready, just in case)
Belphanior:  I don't care where you go, but we'd better not find you
  making trouble, preying on travelers, that sort of thing.  (he spots
  the archer who he'd been conversing with earlier, and motions him out
  of the line)  You.  Over here.
archer:  (suddenly looks quite worried)
Belphanior:  (loudly)  I'm not going to harm you, I just want to talk
  briefly...then you can be on your way.
archer:  (head down, he walks toward the adventurers)
Belphanior:  That's everyone?  Nobody's hiding in there, no traps or
  anything nasty like that?
archer:  (fearfully)  No, no.  This is all of us.  The Baron took almost
  everyone on his wild ride south...(he glances at the impaled head)  We
  aren't cowards, but we're not going to fight for a dead man.  (he waves
  an arm in the direction of the fort behind him)  You can have it.  Most
  of us just want to get away from here and have a normal life.  Only the
  six of us are soldiers anyway - those others are cooks and servants.
Belphanior:  What's inside?  Give me a brief overview, and then you can
archer:  Well, the bottom floor holds stables and quarters for soldiers-
Belphanior:  (shaking his head)  Tarkus had a lot more men in his force
  than this fort can house.
archer:  (nodding)  Many of them live elsewhere, nearby.  He summoned all
  of them after he got mad, which was after he found out what happened in
Belphanior:  (quickly decides that dealing with all of that can be Jaron's
  problem)  I see.
archer:  Only twenty men resided here, all of them on that bottom floor.
  Those were his elite guards, including those few who could...change, as
  he himself could.  (he pauses)  The second floor has a dining hall and
  kitchen for those men, as well as some storage areas and quarters for
  the cooks and servants.  (he eyes the elf warily)  Understand, we were
  the ones who normally manned guardposts further out, like the ones you
  must have passed to get here.  When the Baron took all his men, he moved
  us into to the fort here, and ordered us to guard it until he returned.
Belphanior:  (nodding to the severed head on its pole)  Well, he has.
archer:  (looks at the thing yet again, and recoils)
Belphanior:  And the third floor?
archer:  The Baron's chambers.  No one but him ever goes - went - there,
  including those of us left here to guard the fort.  (he shudders)  Well,
  except for the occasional woman he took from Worgenfeld...and none of
  them ever left this place.
Belphanior:  It's fine.  He's no longer going to be their problem...or
  your problem, or anyone else's problem.  (he regards the archer's
  companions, who are all standing nearby waiting to see what happens)
  Leave this place now.
archer:  (does so, hurriedly)
Belphanior:  And stay out of trouble.

  Within moments, the group was walking away as fast as they could, most
likely pleased to be alive and in one piece.

Skektek:  "Stay out of trouble" ?
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  I was trying to bring some humor to the situation.
Hope:  They have quite a long walk ahead of them, through the wilderness.
  They'll need all the humor they can get.
Belphanior:  That's unfortunate, but Tarkus must not have left them any
  horses, since he didn't bring that up just now.  And we're not giving
  them any of ours.
Skektek:  To be honest, given the circumstances, they should be happy to
  walk out of here at all.
Belphanior:  Agreed.  (he turns to the fort)  Let's do this.

  Thus it was that the five adventurers walked right into the fort of the
former Baron Tarkus without any bloodshed.  The first two floors were as
described:  a number of empty stables and some cramped quarters, a small
armory/workroom, storage areas, a fairly well-furnished kitchen adjacent
to a dining hall that could hold two dozen men...and stone steps leading
upward to the third floor.

Belphanior:  We'll take those crossbow bolts from the armory, for Otto.
  And the dried meat and some other foodstuffs from the kitchen.  Not to
  mention those barrels of wine or water, or whatever's in them.
Poulos:  The Baron ate well, it would seem.  Better than Vorkos.
Belphanior:  I'd guess he and his men hunted a lot, for fresh meat.  And
  took whatever else they needed from Worgenfeld.
Hope:  (peering out a window that faces north)  There's a fairly sizable
  garden down there, on the far side from the fort's entrance.
Skektek:  The baron didn't seem like the sort to eat a lot of fruits and
  vegetables.  Maybe the garden was for seasonings...or other people who
  didn't eat like a werewolf.  (he snickers)
Razor Charlie:  (ignoring the wizard's dry attempt at humor, he keeps a
  cautious eye on the stairway leading up)
Belphanior:  (catches the warrior's gaze)  Yeah.  (he draws his sword
  once more)  Time to see what the good Baron left for us.

next:       the chambers of Tarkus
released:   8/21/20
notes:      When I started writing this one, I would've bet money that
  some sort of battle was inevitable.  It might have been short but it
  would have been bloody.  And then...I realized that truly powerful,
  experienced people don't have to prove it all the time.  They simply
  have to project it...the confidence that comes from great competence.
  You tend to see this in elite military units/people and other alpha
  people; often, little or no actual proof is required.
    Although a severed head mounted on a giant stake does kind of speak
  for itself.
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