Chapter #1065

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                                   +   +
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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          +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+                                                                         +
+   Arusha         human female wizard/alchemist                          +
+   Benjamin       human bricklayer-turned-fighter                        +
+   Ocrivus        human high priest of Athon                             +
+   Paige          human female warrior                                   +
+   Poulos         massive human ex-slave-turned-warrior                  +
+   Williamson     young human soldier                                    +
+   Date:          unknown (over three weeks since arrival)               +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         the long road from Holmburg up to the dark castle      +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "If we do this, there's no going back."                               +
+   "There never was."                                                    +
+                                            - from _Superfly_ (1972)     +

                   MLXV.  Unwelcome Hindrances

  The party has been in flux due to various events:  Hope's kidnapping at
the hands of the vampiric Lord Marek, Otto being sidelined due to his
recently-acquired lycanthropic condition, and the revelation of several
old secrets about the temple of Athon - secrets now exposed and laid bare.
The adventurers have finally gotten underway, riding as fast as they dare
on the long road that winds from Holmburg up to the dark castle.

Skektek:  You realize that the majority of our party is made up of people
  we've only met in the last month?
Belphanior:  (nods)  I know.  These are crazy times.  But everyone was
  new once, and besides, I like all of them.  (he frowns)  Well, except
  for the one.
Skektek:  Yeah...

  The two of them were staying back, talking amongst themselves while
subtly letting Ocrivus think that he was in charge and leading the way.
The newly-revitalized high priest of Athon hadn't said much since the
group had left the town, but the few words he had uttered already had
most of the party convinced that he was a pompous, self-righteous ass.
It was clear that he had no understanding of the consequences of his
past actions, or the reason that Belphanior and the others were heading
up to the castle.  Ocrivus simply wanted to confront his old nemesis...
and Belphanior was happy to let the revitalized priest do so while the
rest of the party located and rescued the captive Hope.

Belphanior:  Ocrivus and Marek...maybe we'll get lucky and they'll kill
  each other.
Skektek:  One can hope.
Belphanior:  If Otto was here, he'd probably suggest that the priest have
  an accident...slip and tumble down the cliff, something like that.
Skektek:  Ah, Otto.  What do you think will happen to him when the moon
  comes out tonight?
Belphanior:  Hopefully whatever happens, it will only happen in his room.
  You guys tied him down securely, right?
Skektek:  Reasonably securely, yeah.  The trick was to make the ropes as
  tight as possible without injuring him, cutting off blood flow, and so
  on.  Especially if he changes form tonight.
Irina:  (having just reined in her mount, so that she could slow down and
  join them)  If you fed him both of those sleeping potions, that should
  keep him unconscious for an entire day.  He should be safe and secure.
Skektek:  We did, and he is.  Even he - as tough as he is - can't ignore
  the effects of that much sleeping potion.  He'll be out for quite some
Belphanior:  Let's hope.  As I've said, we couldn't just bring him along
  with us.  The risk of him doing something random and dangerous - to us
  or to himself - was too great.
Paige:  (also joins them)  So...I have a strategy question.  Couldn't one
  of you wizards just use a flying spell to get yourselves up there much
  faster?  If nothing else, you could clear the way of any foes that lie
  in wait.
Belphanior:  We're way ahead of you.  I just wanted to get further out of
  town before we started with that.  (he looks back and down the road they
  took from Holmburg, noting that the town looks small from this distance)
  I'll be airborne momentarily.
Skektek:  Should I go too?
Belphanior:  Not yet.  We only need one to scout, and I'd rather you be
  down here so the others have some magic, just in case something attacks.

  In short order, the elf had taken to the air, leaving his horse with
the main party.  Before casting the spell of flying, he'd first cast a
Stoneskin on himself; it couldn't hurt, and would remain intact until
needed, so it was by no means a wasted effort.  He ascended higher and
higher into the sky, then moved ahead of the party hundreds of feet below.
Scouting ahead wouldn't hurt, though when they reached the forested area
before the final road around the spire, he wouldn't be able to see through
the canopy of treetops...although he had a plan to make up for that.
  If the situation were slightly different, Belphanior would simply soar
up to the castle and unleash massive destructive magic upon it, using raw
force to defeat the entrenched foe.  However, this wasn't an option for
three reasons.  First, Belphanior needed the magic mirror intact.  Second,
Marek's very nature would likely allow him to survive such an assault...
and third, Hope was in there somewhere, and would likely not survive such
an assault herself.  No, this would have to be done the old-fashioned way:
swords, sorcery, and strategy.

Belphanior:  (as he moves through the air, he notices a small but dense
  bank of clouds coming his way fast)  Eh?

  As the mass got closer, the elf realized that it wasn't clouds at all -
it was a rolling bank of fog, and it was getting closer.  He called upon
his flying magic to move up and to the right in a sudden sharp maneuver,
but the fog shifted its course and continued to close in on him.  Another
quick evasive move was similarly matched by the mist, and there was now
no doubt:  the bank of fog was definitely targeting him.  Belphanior flew
up and down, left and right, while backing away from the strange mists...
and realized that they were moving just a bit faster than he was.  As he
continued to flit about, he also wondered what unknown danger lay within
the bank of fog...was it poisonous?  Or perhaps acidic?  Or something even
worse, such as being capable of draining a victim's life force?
  And then, purely by accident as he abruptly dipped lower in the sky in
another evasive move...he noted that the cloud had stopped tracking and
following him.

Belphanior:  Whoa.  (he quickly flies backward, at the same altitude, to
  put some space between himself and the thing)

  The cloud didn't move at all, simply maintaining its position in the

Belphanior:  Hmm.  (with a greater margin of safety now, he slowly rises
  higher into the air)

  After he'd climbed a few feet, he saw that the fog was reacting, once
again heading his way.  He dropped altitude again - and it stopped coming
toward him.

Belphanior:  Well, well, well.

  The elf's Stoneskin was, of course, still in effect and would probably
afford him some measure of protection against the cloud of fog.  However,
he didn't want to take any chances, so he quickly descended to rejoin the
others.  As he retreated, a quick glance upward revealed no sign of the
fog-bank now; the sky was clear, if a bit gray due to the normal clouds
further above.

Skektek:  What the hell was that all about?
Belphanior:  Marek, it seems, has some kind of defense mechanism...banks
  of unknown fog that move with purpose.
Irina:  I've also seen several bats flitting about, ahead of us and far
  above, in the distance.  I'm sure there will be entire flocks of them
  later, as we draw closer to the castle.
Arusha:  He knows we're coming.  Even when dormant, he knows.  As do his
  minions...and they will move to defend their master and his home.
Belphanior:  And we'll move to attack it.  (remembering the incident with
  Jenna being murdered, and Neera abducted, by vampires)  Marek shouldn't
  have taken Hope.
Skektek:  And we still don't know why he did.
Arusha:  Having considered everything you've told me, I now think that
  Marek took your sorceress because he wants a woman AND a wizard.  With
  her, he gets both things at once, and with a minimum of effort.
Belphanior:  But why a wizard?  He's not one himself.
Arusha:  Exactly.  He probably thinks she can unlock the secrets of that
  enchanted mirror - something he can't do on his own.  Either way, with
  her on his side, life will only get worse for every person in Holmburg
  and, eventually, the other nearby towns.  Especially if they mate.
Irina:  (frowns)  Let's not allow that to happen.
Belphanior:  (spurs his horse on, anxious to reach the distant castle)

  The attack came when they were about two-thirds of the way up the long,
winding road between the town and the forest.  At first, the adventurers
heard a distant squeaking sound...which gradually got louder and louder
until its source became visible.

Belphanior:  Rats...

  The pack of rodents covered the entire road as they advanced downhill
toward the group; it was like a huge shifting carpet made up of hundreds
if not thousands of the creatures.  Even the confident hubris of Ocrivus
didn't stop the priest from stopping his horse, turning, and fleeing the
way he'd come.

Ocrivus:  (heading back toward the rest of the adventurers)  Rats!  An
  army of rats!
Skektek:  (drily)  I'll remember this moment forever.
Irina:  To be fair, it's not really his fault.  There aren't a lot of
  clerical spells that would work to clear a road of this many rats.
Belphanior:  Fortunately, we also have other magic.  Skektek?
Skektek:  On it.  (he casts a spell as the army of rats draws nearer and

  The wizard waited until the front of the rodent horde rounded the bend
in the road ahead, several hundred feet away...and then launched his
fireball on the trajectory (and with the detonation point) he calculated
would utterly annihilate the creatures while sparing the adventurers from
the searing flames.  As he'd done this many dozens of times before, his
estimations were - as expected - quite accurate...and deadly.  The army
of rats was incinerated; even those in the rear of the huge pack were
unable to escape the powerful and fiery blast.
  To be sure, Belphanior could have done the same thing...but had directed
Skektek to handle it for two reasons.  First and most obvious, the latter
was more experienced with fireballs and their effects; with him doing the
spellcasting, there was a better chance of destroying all the rats while
not harming any of the party.  Second (and more subtle) was the idea that
somewhere, somehow, other minions of Marek were watching...and Belphanior
didn't see any reason to tip the foe off that he also had powerful magic
at his disposal.

Skektek:  (gazing upon the charred remains of thousands of rats, strewn
  all over the road ahead of the temporarily-halted party)  Yeahhhh.
Ocrivus:  (somewhat sobered by the display of power)  You may not need me
  for this mission, if you can do THAT.
Belphanior:  (catering fully to the other's senses of purpose and might,
  he replies instantly)  Oh, we need you.  Only your holy magic can stop
  the vampire once and for all.  We will clear his servants out of the
  path, paving the way for you to meet him in final battle.
Ocrivus:  (his eyes gleam)  Yes...indeed I shall.  (he holds his chin high
  and prepares to spur his horse onward)
Paige:  Mind the remains of the rats...they've not cooled yet.
Ocrivus:  (regards the charred, smoking road ahead)  Hm.
Irina:  (to Belphanior)  I hope that spell wasn't one we could need later
  today...or tonight.
Belphanior:  (shakes his head)  Doubtful, since we're not assaulting the
  castle or anything like that.  Yes, the fireball might have been a bit
  of overkill, but time is as important a resource right now as magical
  power.  It was a good tradeoff.
Paige:  And it also substantially reduced the rat population for the

  Once the road had cooled sufficiently, the group resumed their ride up
the winding path, and the dense forest at the base of the rocky spire was
now in sight.

Skektek:  Looks dark.
Irina:  It will be.  And we need to be ready.
Belphanior:  We are.  (to Skektek)  The tactic worked once before...and
  it will serve us again, if in a different way.
Skektek:  Right.  And this forest isn't nearly as big, won't
  take as long.

  Belphanior was betting on the forest being full of creatures ready to
ambush and attack them.  He was also betting on the fact that whatever
they were and however loyal they might be to Marek...they would still
fear fire, and run from it.  Once the group was a fair distance into the
woodland, but before anything happened, Belphanior gave Skektek the word.
The wizard launched his second fireball of the day, setting the forest
ablaze _behind_ them.  As they spurred their mounts and rode like hell
toward the castle - the smell of burning trees and the sounds of panicked
animals both evident now - some of the others questioned this plan.

Skektek:  (looking back at the spreading blaze)
Ocrivus:  Fire is not the solution to all problems, my son.
Skektek:  Why not?
Ocrivus:  Well, because you cannot just burn anything you want.
Skektek:  Why not?
Ocrivus:  (sighs)
Benjamin:  How, exactly, is this a smart thing to do?  Any foes could
  just trap us between themselves and the our escape route
  is now cut off.
Belphanior:  I'm counting on "any foes" being animals - because of what
  I know about vampires, and the fact that it's daytime - and besides,
  if the forest is burning, they'll flee.  As for escaping, I have no
  intention of fleeing back down this route before the embers cool down.
  Either Marek perishes today...or we do.  Either way, this ends now.
Ocrivus:  At last, something we agree on.
Belphanior:  The outcome justifies the tactics.  I'm sure you agree with
  that too.
Ocrivus:  Indeed.
Arusha:  (her eyes darken, for just a brief moment)

  Belphanior's strategy was validated, as a number of wolves could now
be seen, moving in parallel with the mounted adventurers but fleeing the
burning section of the woodland rather than attacking.

Irina:  One wonders what will happen when we all emerge at the far end,
  at the same time.
Razor Charlie:  (not wondering much about that himself, he grimaces and
  checks his coat full of throwing knives)

  They found out in short order, as their steeds burst from the forest
and the raging fire that was quickly spreading within.  Some of the huge
wolves had run further along the road as it continued up and around the
spire, toward the castle above.  Others were waiting for the party at the
base of that rocky peak, several hundred feet past the edge of the doomed
forest, their fangs bared.  The beasts had enough sense not to cluster
together and present an easy target; they were scattered about, some on
the road while others paced about nearby.  There were about three dozen
wolves, and they were clearly going to fight to the death to stop these
intruders into their master's land from advancing any further.
  Or at least, the wolves would _try_ to stop the ten intruders...

Belphanior:  (readies his sword, then changes his mind and sheathes the
  weapon before readying the silver rod tipped with the small fist)
Irina:  (hefts her seven-sided mace, clenching her jaw)
Razor Charlie:  (readies a sharp, gleaming knife in each hand)
Skektek:  (prepares a Burning Hands spell)
Arusha:  (working some spell yet to be determined)
Benjamin:  (unsheathes the magical sword that Belphanior loaned him from
  Otto's possessions)
Ocrivus:  (conjures a large, glowing blue hammer of force, interposing
  it between the party and the wolves)
Paige:  (points her shortsword in the direction of the wolves, and flame
  suddenly appears along the length of the blade)
Poulos:  (swings his giant curved sword back and forth menacingly)
Williamson:  (readies his loaded crossbow and checks his quiver of bolts)

  The battle was short, fierce, and decisive.  The spells and distance
weapons were employed initially, after which it came to actual physical
combat.  When the fighting was over, all of the wolves had been slain
(or wounded and then slain) as had two of the party's horses.  Most of
the adventurers had wounds from claw and fang (and in one case a painful
fall from a horse as it was attacked)...which provided Ocrivus a prime
opportunity to again prove his power, and his worth.  Surprisingly, he
wasted no time casting healing spells on all of the injured.

Ocrivus:  (his hands glowing, he mends a triple row of gashes in one of
  Poulos' huge arms)  Fine warriors, all of you.  We'll need such bravery
  and skill when we face Marek.
Irina:  (sets Williamson's broken leg, in preparation for the high priest
  of Athon to use his magic on that was well)

  While Irina wasn't happy about her diminished role, she did her part
without complaint, binding wounds and otherwise preparing people for the
powerful curative magic wielded by Ocrivus.  Belphanior noted that she
handled all of this while still bleeding from a fairly serious wound of
her own, and quietly made sure to point this out to Ocrivus.

Skektek:  (to Arusha)  I saw you cast a spell that slowed down a number
  of the wolves - that was good work.
Arusha:  (nods briefly)  Thank you.  I may not command the pure offensive
  magic that the rest of you do, but the other sorts of spells came more
  naturally to me.
Skektek:  You said you're self-taught?
Arusha:  I am - out of necessity - and it has taken many years of hard
  work.  I've often wondered how much faster I could learn magic, given
  proper resources.
Skektek:  Once this is over, we can find out.
Paige:  (quietly, to Irina)  Is he hitting on her?
Irina:  Maybe.  Who knows?
Paige:  He's old enough to be her father.
Irina:  She seems to be a clever girl...I doubt there will be an issue.
Paige:  (regarding the skinny wizard)  He's definitely not my type.  (she
  glances at Irina briefly, but the priestess is now busy cleaning a minor
  bite wound on Williamson's leg)
Poulos:  (to Williamson)  Are you good?
Williamson:  (nods)  I took out two of the beasts.
Poulos:  Good head shots, too.  You never panicked.  (to Benjamin)  Nor
  did you.
Benjamin:  (wiping his bloody sword on a dead wolf's fur)  No.  I thought
  I would, but when they attacked, I just...did what had to be done.  It
  was scary, yet exciting at the same time.  Moreso than with the zombies
  before, even.
Irina:  It takes time to become truly comfortable with combat.
Poulos:  That it does.
Razor Charlie:  (recovering his thrown knives from their targets, more out
  of habit than any practical reason)
Belphanior:  (taking stock of the party, and the position of the sun in
  the sky)

  Everyone would be patched up and able to resume the journey before much
longer.  The elf had previously advised his team not to use their healing
potions unless absolutely necessary; he preferred not to rely on Ocrivus
and his magic later on, when they were in the castle above.  If something
were to happen to the high priest, it would be helpful to still have their
potions available for use.  The goal right now was to bring as strong a
group as possible up the thin mountain spire and into the vampire's lair.
  Speaking of which, it was now past midday and they still had that final
ascent ahead of them.  He figured it would be helpful to have some way to
clear the path ahead as they climbed, winding their way around and around
the spire.  To this end, he advised the others of his plan.

Belphanior:  -and so, riding a bit ahead of the main group, I'll use this
  enchanted rod to keep a giant force-hand moving ahead of us, and sweep
  the road clean as we advance.  I got this idea from the account of the
  war-wagon trip back in the land of the flesh-eating zombies, or more
  specifically the way Hope dealt with the wandering ones...and it seemed
  like a good tactic to use here as well.  I believe the hand can cover
  the entire road, since it's so narrow, and I'll be able to sweep any
  foes off the side of the mountain.  (he looks up at the castle looming
  above, which seems ominous and shadowy despite the fact that it's only
  midday)  Let's get going, then.  If we ride hard, we can get up there
  by mid-afternoon.
Paige:  We're two horses short, now.
Belphanior:  Ah, yes.  (he sizes up the party, deciding who the lightest
  members are)
Poulos:  (confident that he won't be affected by this decision, he keeps
  his massive arms crossed as he gazes up at the dark castle ahead)
Belphanior:  Arusha, you ride with Irina...
Skektek:  (quietly stifles his disappointment)
Belphanior:  ...and Skektek, you're with Williamson.
Skektek:  (now doubly disappointed)
Belphanior:  No arguments, people.  It's a matter of who weighs the least,
  and besides, you'll only have to double up for a short time.  (he helps
  the others shift their saddlebags and change horses)
Irina:  It's a bit disheartening that we're gradually losing daylight
  while we deal with all these distractions.
Arusha:  I'd expect nothing less from Marek.
Ocrivus:  It won't save him, in the end.

  There were indeed more wolves lying in wait ahead, but the elf's plan
worked even better than he'd expected.  The animals didn't have any real
cover to hide behind, and with Belphanior alertly and deftly using the
magically-summoned hand to clear the path ahead of himself, they didn't
really have a chance.  A couple of times, he had to move the giant hand
to one side or the other to catch a darting wolf...but in the end, they
all ended up pushed over the edge, to go tumbling down the sheer side of
the mountain peak, their howls fading as they fell.  As he made steady
progress upward, Belphanior found himself idly thinking about the fact
that the rod had to have come here from Oerth - perhaps carried by some
other unwilling traveler, years or decades ago.  He could only wonder at
the unknown history of the item and all those who had carried it before
Vorkos the Red and now himself.

Belphanior:  (uses the conjured hand to smack another wolf off the road)
huge wolf:  (emits a howl, which quickly grows more faint as it falls)

  At some point, as he led the group around and around, higher and higher,
the attacks stopped.  Either the wolves had all perished, or the survivors
had fled to the castle.  Belphanior figured they'd soon know; regardless,
he didn't allow his focus to lapse as he kept the magical hand ready, just
ahead of him as he continued to ascend.  As he wound his way up the path
toward their destination, the elf couldn't shake the feeling that the same
trip had gone much faster when they were riding in Marek's carriage as his
invited guests.  It was as if the terrain and the beasts of the wild were
doing everything possible to hinder the adventurers.
  Belphanior wouldn't have been surprised if a huge flock of bats had come
from above and assaulted the group as they made their way up the path, but
fortunately bats were nocturnal creatures by nature...or so the elf kept
telling himself.  The swooping, diving attacks of many hundreds of bats
would have been a very real danger anywhere, but much more so on the high
and narrow road that snaked around the stone peak.  Spells and maybe even
weapons would have taken out some of the things, but many more would have
had ample opportunity to bite the intruders and perhaps even cause some
to fall to their deaths.

Belphanior:  (comes around a final turn and sees the courtyard at the
  castle's base, as before...and breathes a sigh of relief)

  The one other time he'd been here, it had been nighttime, so now he had
a somewhat different perspective.  The castle loomed a good five hundred
feet above the courtyard, the closest window at least two hundred feet up
and secured by iron bars outside the glass shutters.  In fact, all visible
windows were thusly secured, and the archway leading into the courtyard
was now protected by the lowered portcullis.  Through the gaps in its bars
could be seen the black carriage in which some of the group had traveled
here previously, although no horses or driver were visible.
  The elf turned as the others arrived, reining in their horses as they
stopped to regard the imposing sight ahead and above.

Skektek:  Yikes.
Poulos:  Hope is in there, somewhere.
Belphanior:  She is, and we'll get her out, fear not.
Arusha:  (nods determinedly)
Ocrivus:  (musing, perhaps, to himself)  Marek is growing overconfident,
  if he thinks that rats and wolves could stop us and our mission.
Belphanior:  (gazes at the late afternoon sun, up in the sky, thinking
  about the hours of daylight that have been wasted)  They weren't meant
  to stop us...just to slow us down.

next:       into the castle they go
released:   3/12/2021
notes:      At some point, I decided not to explicitly show every battle
  on the way up, kind of like how I decided that experienced adventurers
  might utilize some unconventional tactics to hasten their journey.  It
  wasn't a cop-out - I just didn't think showing all my work was truly
  necessary, as long as I could convey that every battle had a cost in
  injuries and time, and that some things (like the mere idea of a huge
  swarm of bats attacking them on the side of the mountain) could even
  be scary without even needing to happen.
    Anyway, the party's greatest resource here was daylight, and so the
  vampire's greatest advantage was whittling down that huge lead that
  the party started out with, as far as having the whole day.  As always
  happens in these situations, the sun will go down awfully fast now.
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