Chapter #1061

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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       +
+   1991-2021 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       massive human ex-slave-turned-warrior                  +
+   Irina          7th/14th level female human warrior/priestess          +
+   Otto           12th/14th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+     Williamson   young human soldier                                    +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+                                                                         +
+   Benjamin       human bricklayer-turned-fighter                        +
+   Paige          human female warrior                                   +
+   Date:          unknown (over three weeks since arrival)               +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         the town of Holmburg, within the land of Wallaris      +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Let them hate, so long as they fear."                                +
+                                   - Emperor Caligula, circa A.D. 37     +

                   MLXI.  An Unexpected Development

  The light of the morning sun began to peek through the room's curtains,
and a tired, bleary-eyed Belphanior glanced over at the sleeping Paige in
her bed...and realized that they had made it through the night without an
attack from Lord Marek.  It seemed that he'd been too paranoid about the
possibility of the vampire coming after Paige so soon, but as always with
such things, it was better to be safe than sorry.  And he could always get
some rest later today, since there wasn't much that needed to get done.

Belphanior:  (yawns quietly)
Paige:  (quietly)  You should probably leave now, and go get some sleep.
Belphanior:  You were awake, after all?
Paige:  Who could sleep at a time like this?  Vampires outside, strange
  people sitting up all night in my'll forgive me for keeping
  one eye open the whole night.
Belphanior:  I'm sure it was a restless night for everyone.

  Indeed, that was confirmed shortly at breakfast, as people showed up one
by one to join the meal.

Irina:  I don't know about anybody else, but I didn't sleep well at all.
  Then again, I often have bad dreams...and good ones.  This comes along
  with my chosen vocation and deity.
Otto:  I barely slept at all - I tossed and turned all night.  But not
  from dreams.  I just didn't sleep.  (he picks at a spot of dried blood
  on his forearm)
Poulos:  It seemed that the wind was howling all night long.
Benjamin:  And maybe something else out there.  I could've sworn I heard
Skektek:  (remembering the previous encounter with wolves, and the wounds
  he received in that battle, he shudders)
Belphanior:  I'm sure any wolves were well outside the town limits.
Irina:  (glances at Otto, thinking that statement won't be true tonight)
Williamson:  I didn't have any dreams, and I slept fine.
Razor Charlie:  Stay with us a while...that'll change.

  The food kept coming, as Belphanior had plenty of coin and also wanted
everyone to be well-fed and in good spirits for whatever was to come next.

Belphanior:  (about to start making plans for how to respond to the offer
  he got last night, he frowns suddenly)  Where's Hope?
Skektek:  She was tired last night, after all the dealings we had with the
  barkeep.  She said she was going to bed early.
Irina:  Which means she should have been up by now.
Otto:  Come to think of it, she misses fewer breakfasts than me, which is
  saying something.
Belphanior:  (getting an uneasy feeling, he nods to Poulos, who is already
  on his feet)
Otto:  I'll come with you-
Belphanior:  It's fine - we can handle it.  We'll be back shortly.

  The elf and the giant warrior headed upstairs, and quickly made their
way to the door of Hope's room.

Belphanior:  (checks the doorknob, finding it locked)
Poulos:  (backs up, as if to charge right through)
Belphanior:  (raises one hand, signaling the other to wait)

  The elf knelt by the lock and produced his set of picks and tools, then
went to work.  His skills were still sharp, and it was a relatively simple
mechanism; within moments, it clicked open.

Belphanior:  (puts the picks away and stands back, one hand on his sword's
Poulos:  (likewise)
Belphanior:  (silently makes hand motions for a count, from one to two to

  The elf opened the door carefully, and led the way into the small room,
which was empty.  The wood in the fireplace had burned low, down to mere
embers, but it wouldn't have mattered because the window was wide open,
its curtains fluttering in the cold wind.  The room was freezing, and if
the papers and such scattered about were any indication, had been exposed
to the cold and wind for many hours.

Poulos:  Where is she?
Belphanior:  (walks over to the window and looks outside)  She sure didn't
  climb down from here.  She either flew...or was taken.
Poulos:  (spots something on one corner of the window's frame)  You said
  that the castle's lord wore all black?
Belphanior:  That's right.  Why?
Poulos:  (removes a tatter of black cloth from the wooden edge where it
  was lodged)
Belphanior:  Oh.  (he pauses, thinking)  Oh, shit.
Poulos:  Her belongings seem to be intact.
Belphanior:  (does a quick check, and realizes that while everything else
  is there, Hope's spellbook is nowhere to be found)  If she was taken,
  and that book was right there on the table, the kidnapper might well
  have grabbed it too.  (rummaging around in a pile of clothes, he finds
  a small sack...which he quickly realizes is magical, as he removes two
  wands, two potions, and a cloak from it)  This has to be the bag that
  Skektek told us about, and it makes sense that she put her other items
  inside it.  (he puts the small bag down)  Well, this settles it.  She'd
  never have left this behind, not knowingly or willingly - no matter what
  her hurry.
Poulos:  (examining the bed and its sheets)  There is no sign of struggle
  at all.  She is just...gone.  (he shakes his head)  I have failed in my
Belphanior:  No, you haven't-

  Their conversation was interrupted by a piercing scream from somewhere
down the hallway.    Belphanior dashed out of Hope's room and headed along
the hall, followed by the somewhat less speedy Poulos.  A second scream
helped them figure out where to go - an open door at the far end of the
hallway.  Both of them now had their swords drawn and ready, but as they
burst into that other room, it quickly became apparent that the time for
fighting had passed.  A maid was leaning against one wall of the room, on
whose floor was a pale, disheveled corpse.

Belphanior:  What happened?
maid:  I came in to change the sheets and clean the room...and...she's
  dead!  (she looks around hysterically)

  At first, Belphanior had been vaguely worried that the dead woman on the
floor might be Hope, but he could now see that it clearly wasn't.  This
woman - almost certainly a guest at the inn - had brown hair and was much
younger than Hope, not to mention a fair bit plumper.  She was also nearly
bone-white, and the reason was obvious at a closer glance:  her neck had a
pair of tiny holes, near which a few drops of blood had leaked and dried.
There were a few more such drops on the wooden floor.  And, like the last
room they'd found a surprise in, this one's windows were also wide open,
which had caused the room's temperature to drop significantly.

Belphanior:  (grits his teeth)  Marek.

  By this time, a small crowd had gathered, including the old innkeeper
who doubled as the barkeep.  The man was horrified that this had happened
in his establishment, and after the maid had told her story, Belphanior
and Poulos made themselves scarce, retreating down to the common room to
rejoin the others.  They found Otto already on his way up the stairs, no
doubt alarmed by the ruckus and wondering what it was all about.

Otto:  Whoa.  Is everything okay?
Belphanior:  (points downstairs)  Let's talk there, not here.
Otto:  (turns and heads back down the steps, and the three soon sit down
  at a corner table with their companions)
Paige:  You people sure do seem to like corner tables.
Razor Charlie:  Safer that way.
Skektek:  (to Belphanior)  When you said you could handle it, you didn't
  mention any screaming or...what the hell's going on, anyway?
Belphanior:  We've got a problem.

  The elf gave a short but detailed summary of the situation upstairs -
both Hope's vacant room and the bloodless corpse down the hall.

Belphanior:  -so I figure it went down something like this.  Marek came
  to Holmburg for some feed, or to learn more about those of
  our group who he didn't meet last night, or maybe to target them while
  the six of us were having our long carriage ride down.  Yeah, that would
  make the most sense, leaving his castle right after we did.  He'd have
  had a couple of hours here before we got back.  Hell, we may never know.
  Anyway, he wasn't able to get into Hope's room for whatever reason, so
  instead he found someone else...probably someone of weaker strength, or
  will...someone who couldn't resist his powers, and then she opened her
  own window to let him in.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces)
Otto:  From there, it would have been a simple matter to get into any of
  the other rooms.
Belphanior:  (nods)  He probably changed into mist - that's why Hope's
  door was still locked, with no signs of forced entry.
Paige:  So wait...he never really wanted me?  (she frowns)  That sounded
  weird.  I wasn't complaining.
Belphanior:  I think he _did_...until he saw someone he wanted even more.
Irina:  Hope.
Belphanior:  Yep.  (he rubs his temples)  The question is, why?
Skektek:  Maybe he's got a thing for girls with green eyes.
Otto:  Or blonde hair.  Or pale skin.  Or magical power.
Belphanior:  That last one actually makes the most sense.
Poulos:  We can learn that answer when we go up there and chop him into
  small pieces.  (he hefts his gigantic scimitar)  When do we leave?
Otto:  It's not that easy.
Poulos:  (eyes the massive curved weapon critically)  Why not?  My blade
  is surely sharp enough.
Belphanior:  What he means is, we have to properly prepare first.
Otto:  On the bright side - no pun intended - we have a major advantage.
  Or at least the least possible disadvantage.
Williamson:  What's that?
Otto:  The sun just came up.  So we have all day to get up there and root
  around in that castle until we find both Hope and Marek.  (helpfully)
  See, usually in this sort of situation, people fart around for most of
  the day and don't actually get to a vampire's home until dusk, or just
  before.  And then they can't catch the vampire while it's sleeping.
Williamson:  Oh.
Otto:  Yup.
Benjamin:  You've done this before?
Otto:  After a fashion, yeah.
Belphanior:  There's something else we need as part of our preparation,
  and that's a great deal more aid from someone who should have already
  been helping us.  (he clenches his jaw)  We're going to pay another
  visit to the priests at the temple of Athon.

next:       old secrets
released:   2/12/2021
notes:      I'll say it again:  for this arc, I plotted everything out
  well ahead of time, and in gory detail.  Not my usual tactic, but it
  has really helped me write this arc more efficiently.
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