Chapter #1043

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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       +
+   1991-2020 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                  +
+     Williamson   a young soldier from Fellban                           +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+   Date:          unknown (just over three weeks since arrival)          +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         an unknown land on the far side of the mists           +
+   Climate:       sunny but chilly                                       +
+   "This job...we try to save as many people as we can.  Sometimes,      +
+   that doesn't mean everybody.  But if we can't find a way to live      +
+   with that...then next time...maybe nobody gets saved."                +
+                - Captain America, from _Captain America:  Civil War_    +

                   MXLIII.  New Land, New Problems

  After a harrowing journey through a region of weird mists, the party
has emerged into a new land...

Otto:  (turns and looks behind them, noting that the wall of mists from
  which they emerged has receded about a hundred feet)  Whoa.
Belphanior:  That's odd.  (he regards the area ahead, with its gentle,
  rolling plain dotted with occasional small hills, then looks back at
  the mists again)
Irina:  It almost seems that we're being made to proceed in a certain
  direction.  It's a subtle thing, but yet I sense it.
Skektek:  How do you know that, given that all your abilities aren't
  working in this place?
Irina:  (smiles thinly)  Just because I use powers granted to me by Lady
  Istus...does not imply dependence on them.  When one has performed a
  few hundred divinations by magic, one tends to learn a thing or two
  about intuition and the nature of things.  (she smirks)  Besides, even
  without my magic, I can still fight.  (she pats the handle of the mace
  on her belt)  Can you say the same?
Skektek:  (mutters to himself)
Belphanior:  We may have been guided into this new land...but just getting
  out of Tarkus was progress.  (he frowns)  We'll have to see what this
  place holds in store.

  As had become the normal course of action in these situations, one of
the party cast a spell of flying and ascended high above the ground; from
such an elevated position, it was much easier to scout the surrounding
area and determine the best course of action.

Belphanior:  (airborne, he regards the others several hundred feet below,
  then scans the horizon)

  The others below were both surprised and a bit alarmed to see the elf
descend suddenly, a look of urgency on his thin, angular face.

Otto:  (unconsciously puts his hand on his sword's pommel)  What is it?
  What did you see?  Foes to deal with?
Belphanior:  I'm not sure yet.  In the distance- (he points) - in that
  direction, I spotted what appears to be a caravan under attack.
Skektek:  (cracks his knuckles gleefully)
Irina:  Under attack by what?
Belphanior:  A much larger group of people...maybe fifty.
Otto:  Could be a trap.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces)
Williamson:  I know that I'm new here, but I want to say that there's a
  good chance it's NOT a trap, in which case we should help those people.
Hope:  (regards Poulos, wondering if he, as a fellow new member of the
  party, will voice an opinion)
Poulos:  (just sits there, his huge arms crossed impassively)
Belphanior:  (frowns, thinking)  If we're going to act, we need to do it
  now, else that caravan will be overrun.  (he reaches a decision)  Okay.
  Skektek, you're with me, in the air.
Skektek:  Right.  (begins working a spell of flying)
Belphanior:  Otto, you're driving the wagon; Hope, you ride in it too, in
  order to cast spells from its safety.  Everyone else, stay on horseback
  so you don't get surrounded, and join the battle when or if you see an
  opening.  Skektek and I will even things up with some spells first.
Hope:  (to Skektek, drily)  You should try to remember not to blast any
  of the people we're trying to help.
Skektek:  Bah.
Otto:  (to Williamson)  Since you're mainly a crossbowman, you take the
  riderless horses - Belphanior's and Skektek's - and tie them to your
  own, to keep them from running away.
Williamson:  (busy checking the bowstring on his light crossbow, he nods)
Belphanior:  Okay, let's do it.

  With that, the two wizards took to the sky and soared away in the
direction of the conflict.  The others hastily made their preparations
before following, on horseback or by wagon.


Belphanior:  (airborne, as is Skektek, he gazes down on the scene below)
Skektek:  Are those...?
Belphanior:  Zombies.  They've got to be.  Nothing else would move that
Skektek:  There sure are a lot of them.

  Belphanior's estimate had been a bit low.  No less than four score of
the shambling undead now surrounded the small caravan, which consisted
of three wagons.  One of these had been overrun, while the other two had
a ring of defenders with weapons and torches.  A number of these people
had already fallen, and it was apparent that the wagons would be overrun
any moment now.

Belphanior:  (holding the silver rod tipped the metallic fist)  As we
  discussed on the way here.
Skektek:  Yep.  (begins working a spell)

  A few moments later, a gigantic shimmering hand of force appeared just
behind the front rank of the largest concentration of attacking zombies.
As the rotting creatures mindlessly tried to advance, the magical hand
pushed a number of them back, away from the caravan's besieged wagons.
The isolated undead were thus easy prey for Skektek's sheet of searing
flames, which struck from above to roast them in their tracks - while
not touching those protecting the wagons.  The smell was horrible, but
the respite greatly helped the defenders, who took advantage of the
opportunity to rally and finish off the few remaining attackers on their
side of the smoldering heap of zombie flesh.  They didn't know who these
new combatants were, or why they were helping, but they weren't about to
waste the opportunity provided by the unexpected assistance.

Belphanior:  (quickly guides the disembodied hand to the next-highest
  concentration of zombies)
Skektek:  (prepares another spell, a volley of acid arrows)

  Some spells might have been more effective at taking out large numbers
of the undead, had they simply been massed nearby rather than surrounding
their intended victims.  However, the strategy employed by the airborne
wizards was effective, and gradually made an impact on the battle.  Their
efforts were soon bolstered by the arrival of the others, who made easy
attacks on the stragglers in the zombies' rear ranks...

Williamson:  (on horseback, he lines up a shot and fires)
zombie #38:  (reels, a bolt suddenly protruding from one eye-socket)
Otto:  (having brought the wagon to a stop, he aims and fires his own
  crossbow, putting a bolt through another zombie's skull)
Hope:  (hits five more of the undead with magic missiles, each mystical
  bolt taking out a knee and toppling a zombie to the ground)
Poulos:  (rides toward another zombie, his gigantic scimitar held easily
  in one huge hand)
zombie #24:  (momentarily finds itself cut in two, from its left shoulder
  to the right side of its waist)
Razor Charlie:  (throws first one knife, then another, both of the keen
  blades sinking into soft, putrid flesh)

  For the lean, scarred warrior, this wasn't even a contest.  He was used
to employing his weapons against opponents who were moving, and usually
actively trying to avoid the hurled blades.  The zombies were not only
slow-moving, but also made no attempt to block or dodge attacks.  Every
one of Razor Charlie's thrown knives found a target, exactly where he'd
aimed; it was almost too easy.
  Meanwhile, above the fray, Belphanior was quickly growing increasingly
more comfortable using the rod taken from Vorkos the Red.  He now used
the disembodied magical hand more boldly, scooping up entire handfuls of
zombies at one time and all but flinging them away from the wagons.  The
decaying foes were then quickly dispatched by one destructive spell or
another, courtesy of Skektek.  The other adventurers continued to chip
away at the undead ranks from the rear, using bolts, knives, or melee

Irina:  (bashes a zombie's rotten head in, the powerful mace crushing the
  skull with little effort)  Ugh.  (she backs away as a couple more of
  the creatures lurch toward her)
Poulos:  (steps forth past the priestess and decapitates both of the foes
  with a single swipe)
Hope:  (drops a giant web over almost a dozen zombies massed on another
  flank, quickly immobilizing them)
Otto:  (spotting this, he measures the throw and then tosses a bottle of
  oil that way, which shatters, dousing the trapped foes with the highly
  flammable liquid)
Skektek:  (hits the webbed zombies with a magical tongue of fire, igniting
  the oil and turning the webbed creatures into a blazing inferno)  Yeah!
  (he pumps a fist in the air)  Now _that's_ fucking teamwork!

  Unlike more conventional combatants might have, the zombies didn't give
up, retreat, or surrender.  They simply continued to advance and grope or
bite at any living person nearby...and they continued to get burned,
slashed, or crushed by the combined forces of the adventurers and the
caravan's few surviving defenders.  There was no question about it:  the
adventurers' arrival had turned the tide of the battle...a battle which
was now effectively over.  All that remained was the unpleasant work of
roaming the area and dealing with any undead that still moved.

Poulos:  (spotting a zombie that consists of only a torso, intact from
  the waist up)
zombie #63:  (pulls itself along slowly, its decayed teeth gnashing as
  it crawls in the direction of the huge warrior's booted feet)
Poulos:  (brings his curved blade down on the creature's neck, severing
  its head from the half-body)
Irina:  (walks up to another zombie with only one arm, which is slowly
  but surely making its way toward a group of caravan defenders)  Istus
  willing, I'll someday be able to simply turn such into dust.  (she
  swings her mace, crushing the thing's skull)
Belphanior:  (lands on the ground, surveying the destruction)  Not bad.
  (he heads toward the group from the caravan)
Skektek:  (preferring not to have his boots touch the ground just yet, he
  slowly flies overhead, using magic missiles to blast still-moving foes)
Williamson:  (employs his crossbow to much the same effect, albeit with
  razor-sharp steel bolts rather than ones composed of magical energy)
Razor Charlie:  (prowls the nearby area, using knives to help dispatch
  the undead as necessary)
Otto:  (keeps the party's wagon well clear of any remaining undead, or
  pieces of them, just for the safety of the horses)  Aha.  (he sees a
  zombie with one leg missing struggling to stand up, and puts a bolt
  through its other leg's knee joint, dropping it)
Poulos:  (heads that way to finish the thing off)  Eh?

  The immense warrior had noticed something at the edge of his vision,
and he turned, then quickly realized what it was.  The zombie whose head
Poulos had severed a short time ago...was still moving about.  Or more
accurately, its head was; while the body was now still and showed no
signs of unlife, the head was still animated and active, at least to the
extent that a severed head could be.

zombie #63's severed head:  (twitches on the ground, its eyes fixed on
  the nearby warrior, its teeth grinding in futile biting motions)
Poulos:  Well, that's odd.  (he walks over, raises his scimitar, then
  cleaves the head nearly in half, spraying the nearby ground with gore)
zombie #63's severed head:  (quivers briefly, then becomes inert)
Poulos:  Better.

  Meanwhile, nearby, Belphanior had begun talking with the people of the

man:  -never seen anything like this before!  Bandits, sure - from time
  to time, if they get bold or desperate.  But corpses walking around...
  such a thing is unheard of.
other man:  (nods in agreement)
third man:  (staring at a twitching zombie body, he recoils as it begins
  creeping toward him, trailing blood and organs as it moves along)
Hope:  (walks over and blasts the thing's head point-blank with a volley
  of magic missiles)  There.
third man:  Uh...thanks...(he still appears somewhat dazed)

  Most of these people seemed to be in some sort of shock; they'd stepped
up and fought when forced to, but with the fighting over, they were now
coming to grips with the gruesome truth of what they'd just faced.  It
wasn't helping that more than half of their original number had perished
in the battle, including some women and children.  Belphanior counted just
over a dozen survivors - seven men, plus three women and five children.
Several of these people had wounds suffered in the battle, and Irina moved
to help clean and bind those.  Otto and Poulos marshaled some of the other
survivors and helped organize them to gather their dead for burial.  This
was no easy task, physically or emotionally, and the adventurers found
themselves doing most of the work as the others wailed in anguish.

Hope:  (lending a hand to Irina as she binds wounds)  I can't say I blame
  them.  It can't be easy to think about burying a loved one, especially
  when you just lost them.
Irina:  (nods grimly, as she uses a wine-soaked cloth to clean a bite mark
  on one young woman's arm)
young woman:  (winces)  Thank you for helping us.  I don't know what we'd
  have done all happened so fast.
Hope:  What did happen, exactly?

  The woman gave her brief account of the last hour's events:  during the
caravan's stop for lunch and rest, a man had approached, wandering out of
the wilderness as if dazed and confused.  Only when he got close had they
realized something was wrong with him, and only when he'd taken a big bite
out of one of their horses had they realized that something was _really_
wrong with him.  Attempts to subdue him had resulted in two people being
bitten as well...and about that time, more of the creatures had shambled
toward the campsite, from all directions.  Things had quickly gotten worse
from there, as the people then found themselves not only surprised, but
also badly outnumbered by the zombies.

young woman:  It was horrible...just horrible!  My husband Jonny was one
  of the first breaks down crying)
Irina:  (regards the woman impassively)
Hope:  Uh...
Irina:  (checks the crude bandage she just applied, then moves on to the
  next of the wounded)
Hope:  (with one last look at the crying woman, she then follows Irina)
Irina:  Some deities' priests counsel people about such things.  Istus,
  however, is not one of those deities.  Nor am I inclined to such things.
Hope:  I wasn't judging...or asking.
Irina:  My interests - and my skills - lie in just two areas:  divination
  and combat.  I'll do what I can about helping see to their wounds, but
  beyond that, I have neither the words nor the desire to comfort these
Hope:  I understand.  (she eyes the surrounding area uneasily, wondering
  if more zombies lurk out there somewhere)
Irina:  I know.  We would do well not to tarry in this area.

  Belphanior was already thinking the same thing, and was attempting to
make the remains of the caravan understand as well.

Belphanior:  I know you just suffered some terrible losses, but you can't
  just stay here.  In my experience, where there are some undead, there
  are usually more undead.
Cooper:  These people need some time to rest and recover.  And we can't
  just leave our dead, without a proper burial.  (he scowls)  Besides,
  what experience do you have with such things, exactly?  We've never
  even seen you people in town.

  This man had assumed the role of speaker for the caravan survivors,
although Belphanior wasn't sure all of them agreed.  A merchant whose
goods filled an entire wagon in the caravan, Cooper was loud, brash, and
argumentative; it was quite possible that the man simply wanted to be in
charge of something.  In Belphanior's opinion, this was not the time,
place, or situation for Cooper to assert any authority.

Belphanior:  You have a funny way of saying "thank you"...
Cooper:  We are grateful for your help, but you can't just start telling
  us what to do.
Belphanior:  And you can?
Cooper:  Why not?  I own almost all the contents of these wagons, and the
  bulk of these workers and guards are in my employ.
random man:  Your domain has shrunk considerably in the last hour, then.

  The speaker was a tall, lean man of about thirty, with dark skin and
strong features.  He still held a bloody sword from the recent battle,
and had a capable look about him.

man:  And I didn't see you helping during the fighting.
Cooper:  I'm a merchant.  I don't fight.  I pay others to fight for me-
Belphanior:  (growing irritated)

  Between the grim look on the elf's face and the firm tone of his voice,
Cooper got the point and stopped talking.

Belphanior:  (raises his voice, so that everyone can hear him)  I'm not
  trying to take charge of you people.  I don't care about whatever goods
  are in these wagons.  I don't even care what you do now.  We helped you
  because it was the right thing to do, but we're not going to sit here
  and wait around while more of those things might gather and make their
  way here.
Cooper:  (fuming)
Belphanior:  (continues)  We fought for you, and now we've rendered aid
  to the wounded...but now we're leaving in just a few moments.  Any who
  wish can come with us.  Otherwise, you can throw in your lot with him.
  (he gestures to Cooper)

  The people began talking among themselves, most of them clearly unsure
what to do.

Belphanior:  (to Cooper, quietly)  They can do what they want, and after
  that, you can do what you want...but right now, don't say a fucking
  word, or I'll bury my sword in your chest before you're done speaking
  your last words ever.
Cooper:  (gulps)

  There was, of course, one person who had already decided what he was
going to do.

dark-skinned fellow:  (approaches Belphanior)  I'm with you.
Belphanior:  Just like that?
fellow:  (nods)  Just like that.  I joined this caravan to get out of
  town and start fresh somewhere else, but there's no way in hell I'm
  going to continue on, not with that idiot in charge.
Belphanior:  (extends a hand)  Belphanior.
fellow:  (clasps hands with the elf, his grip firm and strong)  Benjamin.
Belphanior:  Pleased to meet you.  What's your occupation?  Warrior?
Benjamin:  (chuckles)  Not me.  I'm a laborer by trade...a bricklayer.
Belphanior:  (somewhat surprised)  You've had no experience in battle
  before today?  I saw you wielding that sword against the zombies, and
  you seemed to know what you were doing.
Benjamin:  (shakes his head)  Someone had to do something.  I wasn't just
  going to stand there and let them overrun us.  Someone else dropped the
  sword, I picked it up.  That's that.  I had no idea what I was doing.
  (he grins)  Besides, those things moved pretty slow; it didn't really
  take much to dodge their attacks or fight back.
Belphanior:  Maybe, maybe not.  There's a word for what you did, and that
  word is "bravery."  Anyhow, you're welcome to join us.  Let's find you
  a horse, or you can ride in the wagon.
Benjamin:  Sounds good.  (he heads over to talk to Otto, who just nodded
  to him, having witnessed this entire conversation)

  Despite talking with Cooper first, and now Benjamin, Belphanior wasn't
done having conversations today.  As the others went about the business
of preparing to get the war-wagon moving away from here, the elf wandered
over to another of his group.

Poulos:  (finishes lining up the last of the caravan's dead)
Belphanior:  A word.
Poulos:  Certainly.  (they step aside)  Is something wrong?
Belphanior:  Have you had experience with undead before?  You waded into
  that battle bravely.  Or are such creatures common?  They aren't where
  I come from, and most are afraid of them.
Poulos:  (impassively)  No, I am no seasoned undead-fighter.  I just did
  what needed to be done.  Yes, they can be terrifying, and could surely
  have overrun me, or any warrior no matter how strong, if allowed to do
  so.  Which is why I took the offensive and started cutting them down as
  quickly as I could.
Belphanior:  (nods)  I see.
Poulos:  Can I suggest that we finish this conversation another time?  It
  seems...imprudent to sit here and wait around while more of those things
  might gather and make their way here.
Belphanior:  (frowns)
Poulos:  Your words, I believe.
Belphanior:  Very well.  (he turns and walks away)

  The elf was merely curious, and sometimes his curiosity got the better
of him and he forgot to also be patient.  He actually had no real concerns
about either the loyalty or the fighting ability of the immense ex-slave;
he was glad to have such a fellow on his team.  And the same went for the
new fellow, he who had only been a bricklayer until today, when he'd shown
potential to excel in a new whose tool wasn't the trowel,
but rather the sword.  Benjamin seemed to be the kind of individual - one
who said and did the right things under duress - that Belphanior was
always looking for as a possible new member for his team.  The question
of whether such potential new companions would want to leave these lands
(assuming they survived any adventures leading up to the point of escape)
would have to be addressed later.

Belphanior:  (as his own team prepares to depart, he looks around at the
  caravan's survivors, wondering how many of them will choose to accompany
  the adventurers...and what will happen to the ones who don't)

next:       a turn of events
released:   10/9/20
notes:      This episode contains a couple of Easter eggs for fans of
  zombie movies.  One's easy...the other, not so much.
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