Chapter #1056

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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       +
+   1991-2021 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 human soldier                                  +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+                                                                         +
+   Benjamin       a human bricklayer-turned-fighter                      +
+   Paige          a human female warrior                                 +
+   Date:          unknown (over three weeks since arrival)               +
+   Time:          early evening                                          +
+   Place:         the town of Holmburg, within a new land                +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Half of everything is luck."                                         +
+   "And the other half?"                                                 +
+   "Fate."                                                               +
+                                                 - from _Goldeneye_      +

                   MLVI.  Unplanned Resourcefulness

  Belphanior had spent a fair amount of time deciding which six people
would attend the dinner the group had been invited to, in the castle that
loomed above the town of Holmburg.  He knew that no matter who was chosen
to go, the others would complain...and he was right.  The elf himself was
a given, of course - as was Otto, who had made a remarkable recovery now,
after several hours of rest.  Apparently a major part of this turnaround
stemmed from some concoction of herbs and spices that the dwarf had made
up for himself; poisons weren't his only area of specialty when it came
to mixing strange and potent ingredients.  Regardless, the dwarf seemed
a whole lot better now, and Belphanior knew from long experience that his
diminutive lieutenant tended to notice things everyone else had missed.
  Previous sickness or not, if he was able, then Belphanior wanted Otto at
this dinner.  As for the others...even without her goddess-granted powers,
Irina's experience and ability to read people and sense things would come
in handy, so she was in too.  After much internal deliberation, Belphanior
had selected Razor Charlie, Benjamin, and Paige for the last three spots.

Belphanior:  And that's final.  We need a substantial amount of magical
  capability here, as a backup - I don't want all of our wizards there.
  Or even two of them.  And I have to go, so you and you- (he points to
  Skektek and Hope) - are staying.  Razor Charlie has had some experience
  with vampires before.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces, remembering the attack in the sky castle and
  the murder of Jenna)
Skektek:  (annoyed at not being part of the group headed to the castle,
  he puts on the ring Hope got him)  Well, at least I'll be nice and warm
  while waiting here.
Belphanior:  And I divided the other warriors' skillsets as I deemed best.
  Hold the fort here, and if all goes well, we'll be back later.

  There weren't many properly-fashioned silver-headed crossbow bolts, but
Otto improvised by melting some silver coins in a small crucible and then
dipping their tips in the molten metal.

Otto:  (to Williamson)  Not ideal, but better than nothing.  The real ones
  should be ready tomorrow.  Once they cool, we'll split them between us.
Williamson:  (nods grimly)  I'll be ready if I need to use any of these.
Razor Charlie:  (checking his supply of throwing knives, both silver and
Otto:  (holds one of the newly-silver-tipped bolts close to his face, to
  examine it...and feels a sudden wave of mild nausea)  Uugh.
Williamson:  What?
Otto:  (puts the bolt down, and immediately feels better)  Huh.
Williamson:  Are you okay?
Otto:  I'm fine, thanks.  (he eyes the bolts)  Just keep an eye on these
  until they're ready.
Benjamin:  (to Belphanior)  You're sure you want me along for this?
Belphanior:  You'll be fine.
Paige:  (checks her sword's edge, finding it suitably sharp)  Damn, but
  we could really use a priest.  (to Irina)  No offense.
Irina:  (secures her mace on her belt)  Don't worry.  None taken.
Otto:  (to Belphanior)  I hope he won't be surprised when we show up with
  weapons and spells ready.
Belphanior:  Believe me, I'm going to be ready to fight at any time.  I've
  already armored up with a stoneskin spell.  (to those who are going)
  Let's get down to the common room, so we'll be ready when the carriage
  shows up.

  As the adventurers moved out, either downstairs or to their rooms, the
elf spoke briefly and quietly with Skektek.

Skektek:  I need more time.  This book...isn't the easiest reading. 
Belphanior:  Understood.  You'll have all evening tonight, for sure.
Skektek:  That should be enough time.  So far, I've learned things that
  we already know...he's going to change when the moon is full, he won't
  be in control of himself, he'll be hungry, and can only be stopped by
  wolfsbane or silver.  Well, more accurately, deterred by wolfsbane and
  killed by silver, or magic weapons.
Belphanior:  We're not going to kill him.
Skektek:  I agree.  Which is why I sent Paige out to the marketplace to
  find some wolfsbane...and she did.  (he presents a small pouch full of
  dried purple flowers)
Belphanior:  Is it real?
Skektek:  Far as I know.  Guess we'll find out.
Belphanior:  Hopefully not tonight.  I know I'm taking a chance, bringing
  him along, but he seems much better now...and I really need him there.
  (he nods to the wizard)  Just like I need you and Hope here, in case
  something goes wrong during our visit with Lord Marek.  If we're not
  back tonight, you and Hope bring your power to bear on the morrow.
Skektek:  I will, if it comes to that - but I'm expecting all of you to
  return later tonight.  We all are.
Belphanior:  That's the plan.

  Moments later, the elf headed down to join the others already waiting;
they were there only briefly before Lord Marek's carriage arrived.  They
didn't hear it or see it at first, but rather simply _felt_ its presence
outside.  Truth be told, the thing was as opulently magnificent as it was
ominous:  a large carriage of finely-worked dark wood, drawn by six huge
black horses, it dominated the street and drew the nervous stares of all
present.  None of the townspeople spent long looking at it, either - they
all found other things to do...things that were taking place elsewhere.
  Atop and to the front of the ornate wagon, on the narrow bench behind
the team of horses, a tall and gaunt driver was seated, the reins held in
his gloved hands.  Clad entirely in fine black clothes, he simply stared
at them before gesturing to the large door in the carriage's side.

Belphanior:  (steps up to grab the polished wooden handle and open the
  door...but pauses as it opens all by itself, revealing a plush and
  spacious cabin within)
Irina:  (notes how the interior fabric's off-white color contrasts quite
  sharply with the outside of the carriage)
Otto:  (hops up into the thing)  It'll be nice to not have to drive for
  a change.
Razor Charlie:  (glancing at the silent driver as he boards, he grimaces)
Benjamin:  (extends a hand to help Paige step up)
Paige:  (ignores the offered assistance) I can manage, thanks.
Belphanior:  (not at all surprised when the carriage door slowly closes
  on its own)

  As the regal old wagon moved away, pulled by the powerful ebon horses,
different parties had different reactions to its departure.  Inside the
inn, the four remaining adventurers could only wonder exactly what their
companions were getting into, and what would happen to them.  The scant
few townspeople in the street nearby had a more definite idea about those
six passengers' fates:  the fools were surely doomed.  In fact, some such
locals in the Coat of Arms inn wasted no time conveying their opinions to
Skektek and the others.

barkeep:  -crazy, I say.  No one in their right mind would go up there
  anyway, but especially not when asked.
drunk man:  What were they gonna do, ignore the one asking?  (he burps
second drunk man:  Yeah, but we've all heard the tale of what happened to
  the last group who went up there.
Skektek:  I haven't heard that tale.
second drunk man:  (turns his head, eyeing the wizard through bloodshot
Hope:  (signals the barkeep to refill the fellow's tankard of beer)  We'll
  hear that tale now.
second drunk man:  (looks back and forth between the scowling Skektek, the
  attractive Hope, and the fresh beer that just appeared in front of him)
  Aye, I guess you will, at that.
first drunk man:  (leans in, somehow enthralled despite presumably having
  heard this story before)
second drunk man:  It was more'n twenty years ago...a bunch of dungeon-
  crawlin' adventurers showed up suddenly, just like you lot.  I think
  there was eight o' them.
first drunk man:  Nine!
second drunk man:  Eight, didn't matter none in the end.  That
  one up there in the castle, he asked 'em to come up and pay him a visit
  in that dark place...but they flat-out refused.  Said that'd be stupid.
  (he suddenly realizes that Poulos is looming over him)
Poulos:  (arms crossed, he looks down at the man impassively)
second drunk man:  No offenses meant!
Hope:  Continue, please.
second drunk man:  Anyways, they didn't go....not that night.  It were the
  next night, or maybe the night after that...(he scratches his head)
first drunk man:  You're messing the story up!
second drunk man:  (hiccups)  Sorry!  If you think you'cn tell it better, just go right ahead!  (he sits back smugly, and teeters atop
  his barstool)
Poulos:  (plants a massive hand on the man's shoulder, steadying him)
second drunk man:  Thankshhh.  (he takes a giant swig from his beer, then
  blinks sleepily)
first drunk man:  (not quite as drunk as his friend)  Right, then.  I'll
  take it from here.  That band of adventuring folks didn't accept Lord
  Marek's invitation that night, but decided to head up there the morning
  after.  Guess they figured they had all day and they'd be safe.  They
  readied their horses, gathered their supplies, all that...made a big
  show of it, right outside this very inn!
second drunk man:  (puffs his chest out proudly)  I was there.
first drunk man:  You were a snot-nosed little brat!
second drunk man:  Maybe so, but I was still there.  I 'member it clear as
  if it was today...(he waves his hands in the air)  Sharp swords!  Shiny
  armor!  Glowing spells!  (he belches loudly)
first drunk man:  You're my best buddy, but I swear, you can't tell a damn
  story to save your life.
second drunk man:  (mumbling, he takes another swig of his beer, spilling
  some on the bartop)
first drunk man:  (points a thumb at his friend)  Sorry about him.  Means
  well, but he can't hold his drink.
Skektek:  As long as one of you can finish the story.
first drunk man:  Can do.  There isn't much left to tell.  The group went
  up to that gloomy, spooky place...and that's it.
Skektek:  What happened to them?
first drunk man:  (shrugs)  No one knows.  But they sure didn't come back
second drunk man:  Never came back!
Hope:  Maybe they dealt with Marek and then departed the land?
first drunk man:  Story is, they'd paid for their rooms for a week, and
  left all sorts of clothes and money and stuff there.  No one would do
  that.  (he shakes his head)  It's commonly accepted that Marek slew the
  whole lot of them...slew them or worse!
second drunk man:  Some say-  (he looks around and lowers his voice as
  if telling the greatest of secrets)  -some say that a few of 'em still
  live on up there, as un-dead...creatures of the night!  (he shudders)
first drunk man:  So don't be surprised if your friends never return from
  their little trip.  No one in town would bet that they do, anyway.
Hope:  (to Skektek)  Let's retreat to a more private table...the four of
  us.  We...must confer.
Skektek:  (nods, and they quickly secure a table in one corner, out of
  easy earshot of any strangers)
Hope:  Well, that was interesting.
Skektek:  Somewhat.
Williamson:  Are you kidding?  This is just about the most exciting thing
  that I've ever seen.  (he pauses)  Well, after the fight with Tarkus
  and his wolves.
Skektek:  You're young.  You'll learn.
Williamson:  So are we going up after them, to help them out?
Skektek:  I'm sorely tempted, but it's best to follow Belphanior's orders.
  He has a plan - he always has a plan.
Hope:  Plus, while interesting, that story wasn't anything we couldn't
  have guessed might have happened.  Except now instead of "I bet that
  once happened" it's "we now know that once happened."
Poulos:  (quietly) Something has occurred to me.
Skektek:  Really?
Poulos:  (glares at the skinny wizard, who he outweighs by a factor of
  at least four)
Hope:  What is it?
Poulos:  If that story is true, then the owner of this place inherited
  all the unused possessions of that adventuring group, after they failed
  to return.  Assuming that barkeep is also the owner - which I believe
  is the case from our previous meals down here - then he might well have
  some items we can use.
Skektek:  (his eyes light up)  Yeahhhh...
Poulos:  But I'm sure you thought of this already.
Hope:  (stifles a snicker)
Skektek:  (waves a hand dismissively, though he avoids meeting the huge
  man's eyes)  Fine, fine.  It's a great point.  Now let's talk to that
  barkeep-owner about this, and find out for sure.
Hope:  Not yet.  It's too crowded in here.  This discussion needs to be
  more private.
Poulos:  Then let us have dinner.  I, for one, am famished.

  This wasn't surprising; ever since first meeting the massive warrior in
the Barony of Tarkus, the others had noticed that he ate about three times
as much - and usually three times as often - as anyone else.  Fortunately,
the feast was worthy of such an appetite:  their table was soon laden with
plates of meat, loaves of bread, bowls of soup, hunks of cheese, and much
more.  They enjoyed the hearty meal, pacing themselves as they discussed
various topics to pass the time (and avoid talking about the one that was
really on their minds.)  Finally, hours later, the crowd had died down
enough (and the four adventurers were impatient enough) to head over and
initiate the discussion at one end of the bar.

barkeep:  (busy wiping a section of the wooden surface clean)  More wine?
  I've got some older bottles in the cellar-
Skektek:  (to the barkeep)  So...we see you here every morning, every day,
  and every night.  You're surely the owner of this place?
barkeep:  (proudly)  Yup.  And my father before me, and his father before
  him.  It's a proud family tradition.
Skektek:  (nods)  Perfect.
barkeep:  I'm not following...
Hope:  That one drunken fellow said something about a long-ago group's
  items and such being left here when they ventured to the castle but
  didn't return.  It stands to reason, then, that you - or your father,
  perhaps - took all of those items...and must still have them.
barkeep:  Err...uhh...
Skektek:  We'll get right to it.  We'd like a chance to look them over,
  and borrow or buy anything we can use.
barkeep:  (sighs)  You do realize that this is a losing proposition for
  me, no matter what I do.
Skektek:  How's that?
barkeep:  If I don't help you, you'll cause trouble.  If I do help you,
  and Lord Marek finds out - and he WILL find out - then I'm in even more
Hope:  You've forgotten one other possible help us, we stop
  Lord Marek, and you get rich.
barkeep:  (frowns, thinking this fairly unlikely given what little he has
  seen from this group)  No, I hadn't considered that one.
Hope:  Consider it now.  (she takes several thick golden coins from her
  money-purse and lays them on the counter)  That's just to let us look.
Skektek:  We just need to see what's case it can help give us
  an edge, that's all.  We will pay you a fair price for anything we can
barkeep:  (rubs his stubbled jaw, then shakes his head reluctantly)  All
  right.  Fine.  But just you two - your friends stay up here.  I don't
  want to make a scene.  (he signals to a barmaid)  Take over for a while.

  The middle-aged fellow motioned for Skektek and Hope to follow him as
he headed through a doorway into a room behind the bar.  After that, he
turned left into a narrow passage and followed it for about fifteen feet
until it ended in a small storeroom.

barkeep:  The big guy wouldn't have fit through there anyhow.  (he moves
  some empty barrels out of the way, then slides some old sheets of wood
  aside, revealing a small room beyond)  We'll need where did
  I put that oil lamp...?
Hope:  I've got it.  (she retrieves her recently-acquired wand and waves
  it, causing its tip to glow brightly)
barkeep:  Whoa.  (he brushes away some cobwebs with one arm, clearing a
  path to the large wooden chest in one corner of the room)  That's it...
  everything those doomed ones didn't take with them when they went up to
  the castle that fateful day, twenty years ago.
Hope:  Here.  (she hands the wand of illumination to Skektek, freeing her
  hands to cast a spell)
barkeep:  What are you doing now?
Hope:  Helping us to be able to see what may be of value.  (she completes
  the spell)  Ah.  (to Skektek)  Well, this is...different.

  The good news was that the chest contained a sizable little trove.  The
bad news was that every item in that trove was something that someone had
judged irrelevant to hunting, fighting, and killing a vampire.  In rough
order of most to least powerful dweomer, the old chest contained:

  broken bastard sword
  small bag (probably of holding)
  scroll (containing four druidic spells)
  ring (probably of swimming)
  large shield
  matching hood and cloak (probably of elvenkind)
  heavy spear
  tiny hand axe
  small hand saw
  boots (probably of varied tracks)
  potion (probably gaseous form)
  potion (probably water breathing)
  oil (probably slipperiness)
  potion (probably of delusion)
  (6) bottles filled with barely- or non-magical liquid

Hope:  (frowning)  I'm not sure how much of this stuff we can use, at
  least not in this situation.
Skektek:  Ugh.  Agreed.
Hope:  (noting the unusually strong enchantment on the small bag, she
  turns to the barkeep)  I could use that bag, though.  (she holds up
  the empty-looking sack, which fortunately isn't too heavy)
barkeep:  (shrugs)  It's not a weapon, but whatever.  Since I'm at risk
  here, I'll have to ask a hefty price.
Hope:  (finds and hands over a handful of gold coins)
barkeep:   Heftier.
Hope:  (adds a small but quality gemstone)
barkeep:  Heftier, yet.
Hope:  That's all I have...and my patience is wearing thin.  You now have
  more than this bag is likely worth...and I'm out of coins and gemstones.
  What you now hold in your hand is probably a month's worth of profits,
  if I had to guess.  Not bad for something that's been sitting in this
  chest for many years, and that you have no idea how to use.  So that's
  my offer...take it or leave it.   
barkeep:  (considers the value of the coins and gemstone, then regards the
  worn old sack)  Okay, you've got a deal.
Hope:  And no one - no one - is to hear of this...else they might learn
  that you did business with us.  I'll put it this way:  if I hear about
  it, then soon everyone will hear about it.
barkeep:  (nods)  Silence is golden.

  With that, the barkeep closed the chest, replaced the items that hid
the small room from view, and led them back into the inn's common room.
From there, they regrouped with the others and collectively decided to
turn in for the night.  Once back in her own room, Hope barred the door,
pulled the curtains, and sat down to inspect her prize.

Hope:  (carefully sets the bag on her bed, and prepares to open it)

  The clever and resourceful sorceress was ready and willing to keep some
things to herself, and also bend the truth or pressure others when such
behavior suited her needs.  She'd kept quiet about her small stash of
coins and gemstones...she'd convinced the barkeep into parting with the
bag for the love of money...and she'd neglected to tell him (or Skektek
for that matter) about the powerful dweomer she sensed coming from the
enchanted bag.  Then again, she'd used her money already (in addition to
the spell formulas traded) to acquire magical items for the party's other
wizards.  She certainly felt that she had the right to invest her money,
especially when she was taking all the risk.
  As in the case of this bag.

Hope:  (opens the neck of the old cloth sack, finding a handful of items

  The bag contained about two dozen loose coins of gold, a small glass
jar containing a pleasant-smelling salve, a tightly-stoppered silver
flask, and a dagger.  The latter three items were magical, none to any
exceptional degree but with combined auras strong enough to make the
bag appear noteworthy.  And the bag itself was obviously magical - some
low-capacity holding item, of minimal weight and bulk.

Hope:  Interesting.

  She stashed the four magical items among her other possessions, then
readied herself for bed.  Since she hadn't expended much magic today,
her study time tonight was minimal.  When that was done, she realized
that they still hadn't heard from Belphanior and the others.  Walking
across the room, she opened the curtains a bit, just enough to gaze up
into the night sky at the dark castle that loomed over Holmburg.  The
large red moon cast a menacing glow through the night sky, and made the
imposing structure appear even more ominous.  Sighing, Hope pulled the
curtains closed once more and prepared to sleep.

next:       the others' journey to the dark castle
released:   1/8/2021
notes:      Every time I need to write about a great feast or hearty meal,
  my go-to inspiration is this place:
    If you know what it is, then you understand.  If you don't, I highly
  encourage you to investigate.  Not every city has one of these; here in
  Atlanta we're blessed with two (plus at least two other big-name
  churrascaria restaurants, and a dozen smaller, unique ones.)
    About this episode:  it was supposed to be the sub-group of six on
  their way up to the castle, and maybe meeting Lord Marek too.  Then I
  decided to spend a little time with those who _didn't_ go...and before
  I knew it, I had a whole episode of them.  This sort of things happens
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