Chapter #1045

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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:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         an unknown land on the far side of the mists           +
+   Climate:       sunny but chilly                                       +
+   "A widespread investigation.....has concluded that the unburied       +
+    dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims."         +
+                               - from _Night of the Living Dead_ (1968)  +

                   MXLV.  Innocent Lives Lost

  The party's midday lunch break has just erupted into bloody chaos...

Helen:  (sits up, her eyes glazed over and her skin pale, and emits a low
  moan as she grabs Judith's arm with both hands, and bites it, tearing a
  large chunk of flesh out)  Uuuuurrr...
Judith:  (screams in terrified agony as blood begins flowing from the
  gruesome wound)
Skektek:  (looking back and forth between the two)  What the hell?!?
Duane:  (Judith's young son, he recoils in surprise and fear)  Mama!
Otto:  (in the process of climbing down from his seat atop the wagon, he
  grabs his crossbow and begins loading it)
Razor Charlie:  (quicker to the draw, he dashes over to the wagon's open
  back, taking a knife from his belt and hurling it in one smooth motion,
  imbedding the sharp blade in the old woman's throat)
Helen:  (recoils slightly from the impact, but continues munching on the
  bloody piece of flesh that she just removed from Judith's arm with her
  teeth)  Grrr...
Judith:  (in a state of shock, she clutches her mangled arm wordlessly)
Belphanior:  (sword in hand, he moves quickly around toward the rear of
  the wagon)
Otto:  (leans down through the roof hatch, hastily aiming his crossbow)

  The dwarf needn't have rushed; the old woman wasn't going anywhere.  In
fact, she didn't seem to have a care in the world aside from devouring the
sizable chunk of meat in her hands.  Fresh blood was smeared freely across
her cheeks and neck, and more oozed from the knife-wound in her neck.

Otto:  (fires at nearly point-blank range, putting a bolt deep into her
Helen:  (drops the chunk of torn flesh, moans weakly, twitches a couple of
  times, and then ceases movement)
Otto:  Everyone out!  Out of the wagon!
Razor Charlie:  (holds another knife ready)  Is it dead?
Otto:  I think so, but let's not take any chances.  (to Williamson)  Lad,
  keep your crossbow trained on her head.  Any sign of movement, you put
  another bolt in her skull.
Williamson:  (nods grimly)
Benjamin:  (helps Judith and Duane out of the wagon)  Easy, now.
Irina:  (takes Judith to one side)  Let me clean and bind your wounds.
Poulos:  (regarding the freshly-wounded woman for a moment, he then takes
  Duane in the other direction)  Come, lad.  Let her tend to your mother.
Hope:  (contemplating magical means of cleaning the bloodstains out of the
  wagon's interior)  Any ideas?
Skektek:  It'd be nice if we could just torch it...scour the inside clean
  with fire or something...but that won't really work.
Hope:  No.  It would still smell bad, but in a different way.

  Nearby, Belphanior and Otto were having an impromptu discussion about
this development...

Otto:  What the hell just happened?
Belphanior:  I'm not sure, but I think what we've got here are zombies
  that infect their victims with their attacks.
Otto:  I also noticed that they can take a lot of damage and still keep
  on coming.  Seems that their heads are their weak points.
Belphanior:  Yeah, there is that.
Irina:  (walks over, shaking her head)
Otto:  How's the woman?
Irina:  She'll live...although our definition of that state may change,
  given recent events.  Damn it.  I should have put this all together
  before now.
Belphanior:  What's that?
Irina:  These zombies are different.  I had a feeling...a vague feeling
  that something was unusual.  (she frowns)  Well, more unusual than the
  dead coming back to life and eating the flesh of the living.  Which is
  my point:  these zombies aren't like the 'normal' kind.  I'm no expert
  and dealing with undead really isn't my specialty, but the ones we've
  encountered here are more dangerous.
Otto:  And tougher to kill.
Belphanior:  And they can spread their condition a lot more easily...any
  victims they infect will become zombies themselves...(he stops talking)
Irina:  (comes to the same sudden realization)  Which means-
Otto:  There were wounded in that caravan, people bitten in the previous
  skirmish.  (he nods in the direction of Helen, whose unmoving form has
  just been removed from the wagon by one of the others)  She...changed
  in a matter of hours.
Irina:  And her wound was minor.  Some of the others, those who stayed
  with the caravan, had worse wounds.  Some had been bitten even before
  we showed up.  (her eyes widen)  It's likely that those people have
  become zombies by now.  Which means that caravan is doomed.
Belphanior:  (sighs)
Otto:  What are you thinking?
Belphanior:  (working a spell)  I know they made their choice...I know
  I warned them...but I can't just leave them to that fate, knowing what
  we know now.  We've got to try.  (he looks around at the rest of the
  party, deciding who else to take with him)
Skektek:  (sensing something amiss, he makes his way over)  What's going
  on now?
Belphanior:  Get yourself airborne.  We're going to try and rescue those
  others, before they fall prey to their own wounded.  (to Otto)  You're
  in command here.  Get everyone ready, and continue westward.  We'll
  catch up to you eventually...once we see what's what with the caravan.
Otto:  Right.

  Moments later, the two wizards were merely distant specks in the sky,
headed eastward on what was probably a hopeless mission.  This left Otto
and the others with a tough decision.

Otto:  (considers the wounded Judith, who is sitting nearby, leaning back
  against one wheel of the wagon)
Benjamin:  (quietly)  What are we going to do with her?
Otto:  I honestly don't know.  (he catches Irina's attention, and she
  walks over)
Irina:  (eyes Judith for a moment)  Yeah.
Otto:  Can she be cured?
Irina:  If I had Istus' magic?  Maybe.  We don't really know about this
  infection, how it spreads, how it can be stopped.  (she sighs)  But
  without spells...truthfully, it's not looking good.
Otto:  How long does she have?
Irina:  Based on how fast the older woman turned, I'd say it's a matter
  of case.  Her wound is fairly deep - that bite went down
  to the bone.
Benjamin:  What about fire?  Could we burn the wound, maybe save her that
Irina:  I doubt that will work, and if it could have, we'd have had to
  apply fire immediately after she was bitten.  By now, whatever foul
  effect is happening, it's most likely spread beyond the bite wound.
  Same goes for chopping off the arm - it would probably be a waste of
  time at this point.
Otto:  Well, she's got nothing to lose then.  (he absentmindedly puts his
  hand on the hilt of the sword at his side)
Irina:  I don't agree with this.  And if you go through with it, I'm not
  sure I can stop the bleeding.
Otto:  That's what fire is for.  (he turns, drawing his sword)
Irina:  Let's wait and think about this for a-
Otto:  We can't risk it.
Benjamin:  (sets his jaw, his intentions known only to himself)

  Whatever its natural conclusion might have turned out to be, the tense
situation took a sudden turn then, one that absolved Otto of any decision
or consequences.

Judith:  (still sitting against the wagon-wheel, her skin a nasty shade
  of gray, she begins convulsing)
Hope:  What now?
Poulos:  (moves to put himself between her and the sick woman)
Benjamin:  (also draws his sword)  Is she...?
Poulos:  I think so.
Hope:  (to Irina)  Isn't there anything you can do?
Irina:  (hefts her mace)  There is.
Razor Charlie:  (realizing that Duane is nowhere to be seen, he looks
  around, but sees no sign of the boy)  Hmm.
Williamson:  (watching the nearby Judith, who is now twitching every
  couple of moments, he speaks quietly to Otto)  What now?
Otto:  Get that crossbow ready.

  Suddenly, a small form appeared next to the afflicted woman.  It was
Duane, who had moved around the wagon to avoid the adventurers' scrutiny,
and then darted underneath it to reach his mother.

Duane:  Mama!  (he hugs her tightly)
Judith:  (puts her arms around the boy...and then regards him with eyes
  that have glazed over and taken on a sickly grayish-white hue)  Urr.
Duane:  (lets go for a moment, but finds himself still wrapped in her
  embrace)  Mama?
Judith:  Urrrrrrrrrrr...(she leans her head forward slightly, and then
  bites deeply into her son's neck, ripping it open)
Duane:  (struggles as blood sprays from the horrific wound)  Aaaaaaagh!
Judith:  (begins chewing on the piece of flesh that she just tore out)
Otto:  Now!

  Williamson hastily aimed and fired his crossbow, impaling the newly-
undead woman's head with a bolt and pinning it to the wooden wagon wheel.
This caused her to let go of her son, and her movements gradually became
slower and less frequent.

Otto:  We're not taking any chances.  Someone get a fire going; there's
  plenty of oil stored inside the wagon.  These things need to be burned.
Irina:  What about the boy?

  Duane was lying on the ground, stirring only weakly at this point, his
neck a bloody mess.  It was apparent to everyone that his wound would be
fatal, and without healing magic or potions, he could not be saved.  It
was also apparent that they now faced the same choice with him as they
had with his mother, just moments ago.

Poulos:  (crosses his massive arms, watching the boy grimly)
Hope:  Oh, this is sad.
Benjamin:  So, is he going to...?
Otto:  He is.  Just like his mother, just like that older woman, just
  like, I'm sure, every other person who's been bitten today.  (turns
  to Irina as he raises his sword)  Do you have anything to say?
Irina:  Do it.

  The dwarf did, and that was that.  This was one of those situations
where someone had to be the one to swing the blade, and Otto figured the
hard duty fell to him, as the current leader of the group.  Whatever it
might mean later, as far as guilt or remorse or sadness, he would bear
the burden that no one else had to.
  The three bodies were moved, piled, and burned in short order, and in
silence.  No one much felt like talking at the moment; once the bonfire
had done its work, the group closed the wagon, saddled up, and resumed
their journey west without a word.

Razor Charlie:  (on horseback, he turns and looks back at the roaring
  fire that marks the final resting place of three innocent people who
  were alive and well when the sun rose this morning...and grimaces)

next:       Belphanior and Skektek learn the final fate of the caravan
released:   10/23/20
notes:      That final bit was a lot harder to write than I thought it
  would be.  It even made me despair as I wrote it, which hopefully helps
  to convey the mood I'm trying to set here.
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