Chapter #1057

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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        +
+   Irina          7th/14th level female human warrior/priestess          +
+   Otto           12th/14th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+                                                                         +
+   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                                                   +
+   "I'd sit this one out."                                               +
+   "I don't see how I can."                                              +
+         - Black Widow and Captain America, from _The Avengers_ (2012)   +

                   MLVII.  Journey to the Dark Castle

  The carriage picked up speed, moving along the streets of Holmburg with
little apparent regard for anyone who might be in its way.

Otto:  (inside the carriage, muttering)  That driver sure is in a hurry.
  Good thing no one's out on the street...

  This actually wasn't true; townspeople were out and about in the chill
of the early evening.  They were just avoiding the carriage by staying to
the side roads, or waiting until the thing passed before crossing the

Benjamin:  He's lucky no one stepped out in front of us.  I'm not sure he
  would stop.
Paige:  Look at the bright side...we'll get there faster this way.
Irina:  I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.
Razor Charlie:  (peering through one of the carriage's windows and seeing
  the townspeople keeping off of the street, he just grimaces to himself)
Otto:  Still, it's a little faster than I'd drive through a town.

  The good news was that they didn't remain in town very long; before they
knew it, they were out of Holmburg and moving along on a long, flat road
toward the castle.  Or at least they thought they were heading that way;
the wilderness road was unlit save for the pale glow from the three moons
above.  One or two of them vaguely recalled seeing a winding road leading
from the far side of Holmburg up to the rocky spire and castle - similar
to the path they took when arriving on the other side of the valley - but
in the light of the moons, it was impossible to make out details as they
moved.  At this point, the journey had become more than a little unnerving
since they were out of the more familiar town and on a dark road amidst
the unknown wilderness.

Belphanior:  One thing's for sure...the ride is much smoother than I would
  have expected.

  It was true; the carriage was built well and quite comfortable.  Even
the smoothest road always had some bumps and ruts, but the six passengers
weren't aware of them.

Paige:  Either it's really, really well-built...or else it's magical.
Irina:  Or both.
Paige:  I'll tell you what - there's no way that driver is any normal sort
  of person.
Otto:  Because he looked pale and weird?
Paige:  That too, but mainly because no normal person could see in the
  dark as they drove this carriage up a winding road from which we could
  fall to our deaths if he slips up.
Otto:  It's not totally dark - there's light when the clouds aren't hiding
  one or more moons.
Paige:  Right, but when they _are_, it's hard to see...and this is a most
  dangerous road-

  Just then, the vehicle tilted slightly - they were now on a slope and
climbing, presumably along that winding road.  This was evidenced a few
moments later as the carriage made a turn that felt much sharper than it
must have actually been.

Benjamin:  (looks out of a window) I can't see a damn thing.
Paige:  (leans back in her cushioned bench seat, smirking)  We'll have to
  count on that white-skinned driver and his devil-vision.
Irina:  Keep it down.  He might be able to hear us.
Paige:  Heh.
Belphanior:  (also sits back, musing silently to himself)
Benjamin:  (looks back and forth between the elf and Paige, wondering how
  the one can be so calm and the other so flippant in this situation)

  Belphanior wasn't yet sure about Paige - although he suspected her ease
in dealing with stressful situations was the result of a great deal of
experience with such - but for his part, he actually was fairly relaxed
right now.  Not many of the team had been around during the elf's Helgate
days, and thus had not been there to see him in a very similar position to
the master of the castle above.  Belphanior knew what it was like to rule
over a small, remote town from a position of power and fear.  Additionally,
because of his time with Victoria, he also had a great deal of knowledge
and insight into the daily (and nightly) life of a vampire.  While neither
of these things granted him any sure knowledge of Lord Marek's motivations
or desires, they did give the elf an advantage in that he wasn't at all
intimidated by their destination.

Belphanior:  (gazes out the carriage window into the night)

  Unlike the road down into the valley, which they'd used last night, this
one had some sparse plant life on its edges.  Thin, crooked trees - little
more than large bushes, really - dotted the sides of the ascending road.
The wind whistled past outside the carriage; despite its padded interior,
the passengers could feel a slight chill in the air.

Irina:  (shivers despite herself)
Paige:  (draws her cloak a bit more tightly around her shoulders)
Otto:  (peering through a window at the three moons in the night sky, he
  notes that the crimson one is almost full...and feels a strange sense
  of strength and excitement run through his body)
Belphanior:  (feels the carriage take another turn along the path)  We're
  likely nearing the end of the road up from the town to the base of the
  rocky spire.  That means we'll enter the forest soon...and then emerge
  onto the final section of road, leading up to the castle.

  The elf's observations (made mostly on the basis of what he'd seen of
this route during daylight hours) were accurate; a very short time later,
the road leveled off and the carriage entered a dense woodland.  In this
place, the moons' light barely reached through the treetops, and only in
brief slivers when it was visible.  This meant that they were now hurtling
through near-complete darkness, and some of the others were looking a bit
nervous now; he did what he could to reassure them.

Belphanior:  These are tricks and tactics that powerful individuals use
  to intimidate others...throw them off balance.  We have to assume that
  Marek wants to talk with us, which means he wants something, which in
  turn means that we're safe until all of that's out in the open.

  The elf believed his own words - mostly.  There was always the chance
that the as-yet-unseen ruler of the castle and its environs didn't really
want or need to talk to them, in which case this entire trip was a farce
and there would be a sudden battle any time now.  But Belphanior doubted
this was the case; no intelligent being would go to so much trouble if it
lacked an ulterior motive.  Besides, the elf had a lot of confidence in
his abilities and those of his companions.  He already knew exactly which
spells (and in what particular situations) he would use if a conflict did
break out, and he also had the magical rod that could conjure the various
animated hand spells.  Otto and Razor Charlie, with their silver weapons,
provided reliable distance attacks, while Irina and Paige were seasoned
warriors with enchanted weapons.

Belphanior:  (glances at the well-worn grip and pommel of the shortsword
  at Paige's side)

  During a brief discussion earlier today, the warrior-woman had advised
the elf that she possessed several magical items of her own.  Gained from
long years of adventures, these included boots that allowed her to march
quickly and make great leaps, gauntlets that increased her strength, and
a handful of useful potions.  Last but definitely not least was her sword,
which could shed both light and flame upon command and was also a potent
weapon against undead.  She'd explained that there had been no need to use
the weapon's special powers thus far, but given the current situation it
had seemed prudent to finally inform Belphanior of her full capabilities.
Her revelation had much to do with her selection to join the group bound
for the dark castle.
  As for Benjamin, he lacked the experience or more effective weaponry of
the others, but had proven himself in battle thus far.  Belphanior knew
the only way for the young man to increase his confidence and ability was
to test himself against ever-greater challenges.

Belphanior:  (gazing out into the deep, dark forest on either side of the
  carriage, he wonders if the moving shadows and brief glimpses of glowing
  eyes are real, or just tricks of the night)
Otto:  (quietly)  They're real.
Belphanior:  I sometimes forget how sharp your eyes are.
Otto:  Yeah, but it's not just that.  I can..._sense_ them out there.
Belphanior:  Wolves?
Otto:  (nods wordlessly)
Belphanior:  Listen, you don't need to worry-
Otto:  It's not going to happen tonight.  The red moon isn't yet full.
  Tomorrow's the night.  (he sighs, absentmindedly rubbing the site of
  the scar from the horrific wound inflicted by Tarkus)  We'll talk about
  this tomorrow, in the daylight, and figure out the best thing to do.
Belphanior:  Fair enough.
Razor Charlie:  (without thinking about it, he silently tightens his grip
  on one of the silver knives in his vest, wondering what would happen if
  the dwarf were to turn on them sometime soon)

  The ride through the forest was by no means a silent one; aside from the
steady sound of the horses' hooves and the creaking of the wagon-wheels,
occasional howls could be heard from somewhere out there in the night.

Otto:  (stares out the window, mesmerized)

  After what was likely a relatively short time but felt like much longer,
the carriage suddenly broke free of the trees and was on open road again.
The six passengers were unsettled by the nature of that road, however; it
wound around the rocky spire as it ascended.  This meant that there was
always a rock face just to the vehicle's left, seemingly just inches from
the window...while, to the right, an alarmingly short distance from the
carriage's wheels, a sheer drop faded into unknown darkness.

Paige:  (smirks)  Well, if the driver intends to drop us off the side of
  this mountain and into the abyss below, now is the time.  (she notices
  Irina's ashen-faced expression)  What's with you?
Irina:  (gripping an armrest tightly)  I don't like heights.
Paige:  Oh.  Sorry.
Belphanior:  (leans over to Irina)  We'll be fine.  Trust me.
Irina:  Thanks.  I'll be fine only when this wild ride is over.

  Around and around the moons-lit spire they went, the carriage's team of
horses seemingly without fear.  Either they had made this trip numerous
times before, or they were in some way supernatural.

Belphanior:  (muttering to himself)  Probably both, if I had to guess.

  As they traveled further and further up the jagged spire of rock, the
dark castle above came into view intermittently.  From their perspective
below it, the place was even larger and more ominous than it had appeared
from a distance.  Some castles were built to show and project strength
and power; this one was not one of those.  It seemed precariously - almost
impossibly - perched atop the narrow column of mountainous stone...and the
only things it emanated were gloom and foreboding.

Belphanior:  (peering out of the window nearest to him, which is on the
  carriage's right side)  Heads up, everyone.  I think we're there.

  The winding road veered left, away from the sheer drop (which was now
at least a thousand feet) and into a small courtyard that abutted the
base of the castle.  The carriage's door opened, and one by one they got

carriage-driver:  (still in his seat atop the vehicle, he simply points
  to the far end of the courtyard)

  The fellow's thin arm and gloved hand made the guests' destination
clear, for the other side of the open-air area contained an ornate pair
of large wooden doors.  A short, wide staircase of gray stone led from
the courtyard floor up to the base of these doors; the rock was old and
worn, with withered brown leaves scattered across the steps.  A sudden
gust of cold wind set the dead leaves into motion, and they danced about
the stairs with a life of their own.  The huge doorway was arched, its
two doors' upper portions curved and narrowing to a point roughly ten
feet above the top step.

Belphanior:  (looks around, taking all of this in for a few long moments
  before acting)  Well, let's do this.  (he walks toward the stairs)

next:       Lord Marek
released:   1/15/2021
notes:      This one was written on Halloween day 2020, with the following
  background music in no particular order:
  - Dracula (1979) soundtrack (by John Williams!)
  - John Carpenter Anthology (movie themes 1974-1998) (John Carpenter)
  - Halloween (2018) soundtrack (John and Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies)
  - Castlevania soundtrack (Netflix series) (Trevor Morris)
  - sound clips from various Hammer Dracula films from the 1950s-1970s

    I've always found background music to be helpful, and while I usually
  listen to other sorts of things, this day (and story) demanded something
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