Chapter #1066

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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        +
+   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:          late afternoon                                         +
+   Place:         the dark castle overlooking the town of Holmburg       +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Why do you help all these people?"                                   +
+   "There's two kinds of people in this world...people who help          +
+    and people who need help.  It's a choice."                           +
+                  - from _Stingray_ (1986-1987) episode _The Neniwa_     +

                   MLXVI.  An Unexpected Ally

  After a long, perilous ride up the winding road, the party has arrived
at the mountaintop castle of Lord Marek.  While it is still daylight, a
great deal of time has been lost due to the ascent and multiple attacks
from the vampire's minions.

Belphanior:  (regards the archway into the castle's courtyard, secured
  behind the massive portcullis)  Well, let's not waste any more time.

  The elf's spell of flying was still in effect, and he sailed over the
twenty-foot wall, landing inside the courtyard.  Ignoring the scattered
debris within, he walked over to the interior side of the portcullis,
and quickly found the means to open the thing.  Far to one side of the
heavy grille was a large, notched iron wheel mounted into a stone base.
This notched disc was attached to a series of chains which vanished out
of sight into the courtyard wall itself.  Belphanior found that he was
able to grasp the wheel's handle and, with a fair bit of exertion, turn
it to slowly raise the portcullis and lock it into a raised position.
After this was done, the others rode into the open-air area and began
to dismount, stretching their limbs and easing muscles sore from hours
in the saddle.

Irina:  (walks over to the rusty metal wheel)  An interesting mechanism.
Belphanior:  Yes.  It's some kind of pulley system that allows a single
  person to raise a heavy object - in this case the gate there.  Without
  it, I'd have had to get some help in order to open the gate.  (he nods
  to Poulos)
Arusha:  (frowns)
Belphanior:  What's the matter?  Could it be some sort of trap?
Arusha:  No, it's not that.  This...just isn't the sort of device that
  Marek would be able to design or build, given what I know of his past.
  He was always a fierce warrior, with a keen military mind, but this...
  (she shakes her head)  A new mystery, this.
Paige:  Maybe the gate, and the castle, predate the vampire?
Irina:  (to Ocrivus)  What do you think?
Ocrivus:  I am not sure.  When I first encountered him, he was already
  the ruler of this place.  I cannot say what happened before then.
Belphanior:  (checks the position of the sun in the sky, again)  Well, I
  can say what's going to happen now.  (he strides toward the short, wide
  staircase of gray stone leading from the courtyard floor up to the pair
  of ornate wooden doors)
Ocrivus:  (follows the elf)  Beware traps - for such a creature as Marek
  is wont to use them.
Belphanior:  (wondering how long Otto would have been able to tolerate
  this priest, he stops walking, letting the other take the lead as they
  approach the castle's main entrance)  Of course.  (he instead turns his
  attention to the battlement above the front doors, checking it for the
  guards that would be there in any normal castle)
Paige:  (gazing around the courtyard, then up at the castle which looms
  above)  I'll tell you what, this place is just as dark and foreboding
  in the daytime as it was at night.

  The warrior-woman's observation was accurate.  Despite the sun's light,
sections of the courtyard still seemed to be cloaked in shadows.  Cobwebs
clung to various parts of the stonework, and dead leaves drifted about as
the cold wind cast its chilly breath over everything and everyone.  Some-
where in the distance, below the castle, a wolf howled...then another,
and another, the strange and wild cacophony giving even these seasoned
adventurers pause.

Belphanior:  Let's get inside the castle.

  Ocrivus worked his magic, and then began casting his gaze all about...
first upon the handful of wide steps leading up to the doors, then upon
the doors themselves, and then all about the courtyard.

Ocrivus:  The way is clear.  (he grasps the doors' wrought-iron handles
  and pulls...without success, as the twin portals don't budge)  Ungh.
Poulos:  (steps up)  Let me try.

  The huge warrior was easily the strongest of the current party, and he
took hold of one door's handle, confident that he would succeed where the
middle-aged priest had failed.

Poulos:  (pulls, casually at first and then with greater effort)  Unnngh.
Ocrivus:  (smirks)  It is magically sealed somehow.
Arusha:  (walks up to the door)  Allow me.

  The slender young woman began casting a spell, and moments later both
of the doors swung open with a loud creaking sound.

Arusha:  (smiles thinly, pleased that her magic is proving useful today)
Belphanior:  (addresses the entire group)  For those of you who possess
  potions, or can cast spells on yourselves or is the time.

  To be sure, they actually had quite a wide variety of such.  The elf
took a sip from his potion of speed, and then readied the enchanted rod
in one hand while keeping his sword in the other.  His stoneskin spell
from before was still in effect, as well, as would be his flying magic
for a bit longer.  Razor Charlie had a similar potion, and also took a
small sip from it, intent on benefitting from its effects for as long as
possible.  Benjamin drank half of his potion of heroism, then offered the
remainder to Williamson; the potent draught invigorated them both, making
them more confident and prepared for whatever they would soon face.
  Hope's magical items were divided (on loan, of course, as Belphanior
fully intended that she'd soon be getting them back) among those best
suited to use them.  Her wand of frost was given to Skektek, her wand of
illumination was held by Irina, and her protective cloak was now worn by
Arusha.  From the small magical bag, the ointment bottle was in Irina's
possession, while the stoppered silver flask was loaned to Arusha.  The
magical shortsword Otto had acquired was in Benjamin's hands.  Last but
not least, Ocrivus created a protective ward upon himself, although its
aura extended for ten feet around him; he also cast another blessing upon
the entire party.

Ocrivus:  Athon protect us...
Belphanior:  Everyone ready?  (he steps through the double entry doors,
  leading the way)

  The castle's interior was much as they remembered it:  the grand, two-
story entry hall, the ornate metal lamp-holders, the rich dark brown wood
throughout, the musty old smell, the cobwebs everywhere.

Poulos:  Where is the vampire?
Belphanior:  I have no idea.  He could be anywhere.  (to Ocrivus)  You've
  been here before.  Where is his lair, his sleeping-place?
Ocrivus:  (frowns, rubbing his temples)  I...don't know.  That was a long
  time ago, and not all of my memories have come back to me.
Paige:  (scoffs)
Skektek:  I know.
Arusha:  (glares at Ocrivus, wondering about the effectiveness of the
  potion she researched and crafted over a long period of time)  I've
  never been here, but typically vampires will take their rest within
  a coffin, so maybe there's a crypt somewhere?  Did you see such a place
  during your previous visit?
Belphanior:  No.  The next room is some kind of chapel, with a high and
  pointed ceiling...then there's a small library that's seen better days.
  The place is a lot like a maze, but I was paying attention last time.
  I think I can get us to the dining room, and from there the tower with
  the mirror...but I have no idea about a crypt or other such place.

  They moved into the chapel, and noted that where it had been lit by
moonlight in the earlier visit, now it was lit by a similarly narrow
sliver of sunlight, which shone down from somewhere above and cast the
room in a dim glow.  As this chamber had no exits save the one leading
into the next room, they headed that way, entering the library in its
state of disrepair and decay.  Of course, neither Marek nor his captive
were here, and so they advanced into the next chamber.  Unlike the first
three, this one had multiple exits which led away in different directions.

Benjamin:  (wondering if they should be making a map or something)
Skektek:  I know I wasn't here before, but except for that last chamber,
  this whole place is really dark and gloomy.  Even though it's daytime
  outside, you wouldn't know in here since there are no windows.
Belphanior:  (wondering how he missed this the first time)  I _knew_ that
  something wasn't right before...I just couldn't figure out what it was.
Paige:  With the lamps lit, it's a subtle thing, and easy to miss.  (she
  frowns)  Or perhaps there's magic at work.
Arusha:  It's possible.  We should be ready for all of these lamps to go
  out suddenly, plunging everything into darkness.
Irina:  (holds up Hope's wand)  I think we can do something about that.
  I'll light up some object from each room we walk through, and that way
  we'll be able to see everywhere.
voice:  I wouldn't do that.  It would be a waste of your wand's magic.

  They turned, weapons ready, but the speaker was elderly, diminutive,
and didn't look like much of a threat.

gnome:  Even from here, I can see that it doesn't have much left.
Belphanior:  (recognizes the servant from the previous visit, when he'd
  been carrying a large stack of plates)  Who are you?
gnome:  (holds up both hands, palms out, in a gesture likely meant to
  placate the group)  My name is Judhon.

  The gnome was short, even for one of his race.  Barely three feet in
height, he was stooped from middle age and wore a long but neatly-kept
beard which matched his shoulder-length gray hair.  His garments were of
high quality, and he bore no obvious weapons.

Belphanior:  Are you a servant of Marek?
Judhon:  (regards the elf, and the others, with tired eyes)  In a sense,
  yes.  But I'll offer you my assistance.
Skektek:  (instantly suspicious)  Or waste our time until night falls.
Ocrivus:  The power of Athon tells me that this gnome means us no harm.
  We should hear him out.
Skektek:  (scowls at the priest)
Judhon:  My story is a sad one, but there's not really time to explain-
Belphanior:  Make time.  (he looks around, wondering where the sun now
  stands in the sky, and how much time they have until dusk)  But make
  it quick.
Judhon:  (sighs)  Two decades ago, I was one of a party of adventurers
  brought here from another world.  After some time in Holmburg, we then
  decided to deal with Marek, and ventured up here.  Sadly, that didn't
  work out.  We fought the good fight, and destroyed many of his minions
  and servants...but we all perished.  Aric...Krondo...Buudajuj...and the
  others.  (he shakes his head)  All but me.
Belphanior:  (to Ocrivus)  What's your god's read on all this?
Ocrivus:  He speaks the truth.  I will let you know if it is otherwise.
Belphanior:  So how are you still alive?
Judhon:  Our other wizard was slain, as was our priest.  And as powerful
  as he is, Marek cannot raise the dead.  I was wounded, and was the only
  one left with magical ability...and Marek needs that.  He needs someone
  to make the mirror work for him, so he can escape.
Arusha:  (nods slowly)  That...makes sense.
Belphanior:  So you're a wizard?
Judhon:  I'm an illusionist, of modest ability.  I don't have the power
  or knowledge to give Marek what he wants, but I've been trying, I really
  have.  For twenty years.  Twenty...long...years.  (he sighs again)  But
  I fear he is finally running out of patience...especially after taking
  your sorceress.
Paige:  Wait, how'd you know about that?
Judhon:  I watch, and listen, and know things.  After enough time, even a
  vampire ceases to care about trying to keep secrets.  (to Belphanior)
  The she powerful?
Belphanior:  Very much so.
Judhon:  Then my days are numbered.  I have found other ways to be of use
  here - creating food and drink when needed, and my skills working with
  metal, stone, and wood - but once he turns her, he won't need me.  (he
  looks ill, all of a sudden)
Ocrivus:  Why did you help the vampire at all?  After he killed all of
  your companions?
Judhon:  (slumps to the ground, his face in his hands)  I...I just wanted
  to live.  (tears begin streaming down his face)  Is that so wrong?  Is
  that too much to ask?  To simply want to live?
Ocrivus:  Pathetic.  You should be-
Belphanior:  (steps between the priest and the sobbing gnome on the floor)
  That's enough.
Irina:  (moves to comfort the gnome, as does Arusha)
Arusha:  That portcullis winch...that was you?
Judhon:  It was...along with some other defenses.  (he wipes his bleary
  eyes)  Defenses which I'm ready to disarm for you.
Irina:  Why?
Judhon:  I've been waiting...biding my time, until I could get a chance
  for revenge on Marek, and to escape this living hell of servitude and
  loneliness.  Well, I'm tired of always waiting, and now seems like as
  good a chance as any.
Arusha:  (nods)  I know the feeling.
Belphanior:  (walks over)  What's this about disarming defenses?  Can you
  take us to Hop-  to our abducted friend?  And to Marek?
Judhon:  (gets to his feet again, and sets his jaw)  I can.  I know where
  everything is - the observatory tower, far above, which holds the magic
  mirror...and the crypt below us, where Marek rests during the day.  It
  seems that you have a choice to make.
Belphanior:  There's no choice at all.  We're going to rescue our friend
  and kill that vampire.  (he squats down so that he can look the gnome
  squarely in the eye)  Take us to the crypt.

next:       the crypt below
released:   3/19/2021
notes:      Thanksgiving 2020:  no huge meal, no venturing out, and no
  laptops or writing.  I took a break and recharged (although my battery
  was fairly strong beforehand anyway).
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