Chapter #1067

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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                        +
+   Judhon         gnome illusionist and unwilling servant of Marek       +
+   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                                                   +
+   "Do we _want_ to go down?"                                            +
+   "Where else can we go?"                                               +
+                  - Dana and Marty, from _the Cabin in the Woods_        +

                   MLXVII.  Marek's Guardians

  The party has infiltrated the main floor of Lord Marek's castle and
found an unexpected ally:  Judhon the gnome, the sole surviving member
of an ill-fated adventuring group from decades past.

Judhon:  (leading the party, now eleven strong, through previously-unseen
  rooms in the castle's main floor)
Belphanior:  How do we get down to these lower floors, and the crypt?
Judhon:  (stops at the intersection of two wide hallways, where one dead-
  ends into the other, and points to a sconce mounted in one wall)  Turn
  that to the left, please.
Belphanior:  (eyes the metal ornament suspiciously)
Ocrivus:  (helpfully)  It is safe.
Judhon:  I'd do it myself, but - to put it bluntly - I lack the height.
Belphanior:  Understood.  (he takes hold of the sconce and rotates it as

  A large section of the wall slid inward, exposing a large chamber.  By
this time, several of the party held lit torches, and Ocrivus had also
cast a spell of light on a branch of wood that someone had picked up on
the way into the castle.

Irina:  (to Judhon)  What exactly did you mean about this wand "not having
  much left" ?
Judhon:  I have a certain aptitude with magic auras...and your wand's is
  quite weak.  I'd guess you have one or two light-spells left, and after
  that you'll need to recharge.
Irina:  Oh.  (she pauses, eyeing the wand)  It's not even mine.
Judhon:  I'm just saying not to count on it to make a whole lot of light
  in a tough situation, that's all.
Irina:  Err...thanks.
Belphanior:  (muttering to himself)  Just where the hell are we now?

  They stood at the top of what was, basically, a giant cylindrical room.
Roughly sixty feet in diameter, its inner twenty feet was a vertical shaft
surrounded by a twenty-foot-wide set of steps winding their way down into
the darkness.  It was much colder here, and smelled even older and mustier
than the other areas of the castle, if that was possible.

Belphanior:  (turns to the gnome)  How far down does this go?
Judhon:  Quite a ways...almost five hundred feet.  Marek just flies down
  the central shaft, but we have to take the stairs.
Skektek:  We don't have to.
Judhon:  (removes a false flagstone from one wall, exposing an iron lever,
  which he pulls, causing strange and distant grinding sounds from below)
  That's up to you, but in any case, the spike traps along the stairway
  are now disarmed.  (he smirks at the looks he's getting from the party)
  There are advantages to being the designer of all the various mechanisms
  and traps here.
Ocrivus:  (peers down into the depths)  Hmm.  I'd have found them, you
  know.  With my magic.
Judhon:  No doubt.
Paige:  (to the gnome)  Just how much work have you done in this castle,
Judhon:  (wearily)  Too much...about twenty years' worth.
Belphanior:  We can't get everyone down there with magic anyway.  I say
  we just stick together for safety and strength.  (to Judhon)  With the
  traps disarmed, is there anything else we need to worry about?
Judhon:  Good question.  I haven't been down there in a long time, ever
  since I installed the traps.
Irina:  Does Marek keep other undead here?  Skeletons, zombies, ghouls?
  Perhaps as guards, or troops?
Judhon:  Not that I know about.
Ocrivus:  If he does...I shall smite them with Athon's holy might!
Belphanior:  You know, you remind me of someone-  (he stops, realizing
  that none of the others present actually knew Ged)
Paige:  And what about other vampires?
Judhon:  I don't know that either.  From time to time, Marek has gone out
  and then brought back someone from one of the nearby villages.  Those
  are always attractive young women.
Paige:  (makes a disgusted face)
Arusha:  (clutches the small holy symbol of Athon which rests on a cord,
  looped around her neck)
Irina:  (tightens her grip on the magical mace, thinking about what it
  would be like to smash the vampire in the head with the weapon)
Judhon:  And I never see any of those women again.  I'm not sure what he
  does with them.
Belphanior:  If he drains their blood entirely, then they're dead.
Ocrivus:  It's also possible that he's turned them into vampires.  (he
  peers down the central shaft again)  Which means they could be down
Belphanior:  Either way, let's find out.  Time's wasting.

  The group began their descent of the massive winding steps, lighting
the way with a combination of torches and magic.  As they moved lower and
lower into the bowels of the castle, the dust and webs became thicker, to
the point where the flaming brands (as well as Paige's sword) had to be
employed to burn away the webs.  That process incinerated more than a few
small spiders that might well have been aggressive and venomous.

Skektek:  If it wasn't for the chance of Hope being down there somewhere,
  I'd have said we should just torch this entire stairway with a fireball.
Paige:  Yes, it does become awful inconvenient when foes have your friends
  as hostages.
Ocrivus:  It is possible we should employ such destructive magic anyway.
Belphanior:  Don't even think about it.

  While emboldened by his recent rejuvenation and the chance to continue
his century-old mission, the high priest was yet shrewd enough to realize
that it would not be wise to push the elf.  Instead he nodded and declined
to retort, knowing that he needed these adventurers in order to find Marek
and have the best chance of destroying him once and for all.  Belphanior,
for his part, was thinking the same thing, only in reverse:  he perceived
Ocrivus as a means to an end.  As long as Hope got rescued, the elf could
care less what the priest did, although it seemed likely that everyone
would be better off with Marek gone.

Belphanior:  One thing at a time...
Ocrivus:  What's that?
Belphanior:  Nothing.

  The attack came when they were about halfway down the giant cylindrical
shaft.  A screeching sound began to emanate from below, and quickly grew
louder as its source got closer.

Razor Charlie:  (quickly lights a second torch with the one he's carrying,
  then tosses the old one down into the open center of the huge chamber,
  revealing what fast approaches)
Belphanior:  Holy-

  A dark mass of bats, surely thousands strong, burst forth from the dark
depths below, surrounding the intruders and making it impossible to take
any action save protecting their faces from potential bites.  All became
chaos as the eleven adventurers focused on defending themselves and not
stepping off the stairway by accident - which was a distinct possibility
since they couldn't see anything right now.

Belphanior:  (shouting in an attempt to be heard over the screeching and
  the flapping of countless small, leathery wings)  Stay in place!  Don't
  wander away!
Skektek:  (unable to cast any spells amid this assault)  Dammit!
Ocrivus:  (likewise, he quickly becomes frustrated and raises his voice
  as he speaks to no one in particular)  Why is Athon's magic not keeping
  these foul creatures at bay?
Irina:  Because they're not evil - they're just animals...animals under
  his control!  (she swings her mace about, knocking a couple of the bats
  to the floor but otherwise having no significant effect on the overall
  mass as a whole)
Benjamin:  (cleaves a bat in two with a well-aimed swing of his sword,
  but realizes that he almost hit Williamson in the process)
Williamson:  Watch it!

  This situation was more or less untenable, and put the party at quite a
significant disadvantage.  While there were a couple of possible ways to
deal with the bats, it was Arusha who acted first.  When the thick mass of
flying attackers had first appeared, she had been next to one curving wall
on the "outside" of the stairway chamber.  Bracing her back against that
stone wall, she did her best to ignore the bats and focused on finding the
small silver flask borrowed from Hope's inventory.  Once she had it, she
unscrewed the stopper and shouted a word of command - one of three such
words that were inscribed on the container.  While the word was from some
language that she (not to mention anyone else present) didn't know, the
enchantment associated with its utterance was still in place.

Arusha:  (pushed back hard against the wall as a geyser of water surges
  forth from the flask)  Ungh!

  Fortunately, she had the forethought to aim the thing upward, instead of
horizontally where the water might have hit one or more of her companions.
As it was, the sudden blast cleared a large area of bats; the flying foes
were knocked away, either dead or stunned, and hundreds of small winged
bodies fell onto the steps or the central shaft.

Arusha:  (turns slightly, the geyser shifting and taking out a wide swath
  of bats)
Belphanior:  Good work!
Arusha:  (pushed sideways against the curved wall by the back pressure
  from the flask, she finds herself quickly becoming unable to aim the
  powerful jet of water)  It's...getting away from me!
Poulos:  (one of the nearest to the slender woman, he quickly lumbers
  over, moving behind her and bracing her as he puts his huge hands over
  hers and gets the geyser back under control)  Steady.

  With the giant warrior's help, Arusha was able to spray more of the
bats and knock them away.  Within moments, the swarm began to disperse,
the survivors flying either up or down the shaft.  Once the adventurers
could see again, Arusha spoke the same word a second time, and the geyser

Arusha:  (replaces the stopper on the flask)  Whew.  That was...intense.
Belphanior:  Quick thinking, is what that was.  Damn good work.
Paige:  Definitely.  How did you know what that bottle could do?
Arusha:  I'm a quick study.  Of course, I'd have preferred to test that
  particular function first, in a less stressful situation, but...(she
  shrugs)  By the way, a large group of bats is called a 'cauldron' in
  case anyone didn't know.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces at this news)
Irina:  As was said, good job.  (she nods to the young woman)  You're fast
  proving your worth.
Arusha:  (nods, grateful for the praise and to have been of help)
Skektek:  (to Judhon)  Are there any more surprises we need to know about?
Judhon:  I didn't know about the bats - I swear.
Paige:  At least they didn't tear us up too badly.  They were small, but
  in those numbers...(she shudders)
Skektek:  Maybe I should have used a fireball, after all.
Benjamin:  (seeing a twitching bat on the floor, he steps on it, hard)
Ocrivus:  (sensing something amiss, via one of the spells he cast earlier,
  he looks around just as Belphanior speaks)
Belphanior:  (peering down the stairway's wide central shaft)  Well.  With
  those bats gone, let's-

  The elf stopped in mid-sentence as he turned away from the open center
of the cylindrical chamber - for the group was no longer alone here...and
the new arrivals weren't bats, either.

woman #1:  (attractive, with curly dark brown hair and unusually red lips,
  she wears a thin white nightgown and nothing else)  You have come here
  only to find death...

  Her voice was unusually and powerfully alluring, and the material of her
gown fluttered gently about her pale form, despite the absence of any wind
or other breeze.

woman #2:  (standing, like the first woman, about twenty feet down the
  stairway from the party's current location, and most definitely blocking
  their continued progress)  Although some of you may find a new life with
  us.  (she smiles, revealing small, pointed fangs)

  The second woman was garbed in simple clothes, like those a commoner
might wear; she had short, blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.  The two
women had arrived on the stairway without any sound or other sign; one
moment they hadn't been there, and the next moment, they were.

Belphanior:  (yelling)  Beware - don't meet their gaze!

  Even as he shouted this warning to the others, the elf realized that it
came too late.  Williamson had stopped moving or acting as the first woman
whispered to him; his crossbow hung limply in one hand.  The second woman
had locked eyes with Benjamin, and while the man was clearly fighting her
magical gaze, he wasn't going to win.

Ocrivus:  (removes the holy symbol from around his neck)  We must-

voice:  You'll do nothing.
Ocrivus:  What?  (like several others, he whirls to face this new foe on
  the steps _above_ the party)
woman #3:  (tall and well-dressed in the manner of a noblewoman, she has
  long black hair and speaks with a tone of authority)  How dare you come
  here, priest?
Ocrivus:  I don't know who you are, but you'll not ensnare me with your
  foul magicks.  (he brandishes his holy symbol)
woman #3:  I won't need to.
woman #4:  (dressed in tattered rags, she drops from the shadows in the
  ceiling above, landing on the priest and knocking him to the stairway

  Like the first two women, these had appeared without any warning; now
that the battle was underway, things happened fast.

Ocrivus:  (struggling with the thrashing, clawing woman-creature on his
vampiress #4:  (attempting to get to the priest's neck so she can bite
Razor Charlie:  (throws a silver knife at the vampire, but it simply goes
  through the creature's body)  Huh.
vampire woman #3:  (with astonishing speed, she leaps at Poulos, who is
  the nearest intruder to her)

  Despite the vampire's inhuman strength, she was unable to do more than
knock the massive warrior back a foot or so, for he was a little stronger
and a lot heavier.  However, despite his curved sword being unsheathed
and ready, he was unable to bring the weapon to bear since the attacker
was already too close.  He instead found himself fighting to keep sharp
fingernails and teeth from finding his neck or face; his thick arms were
all that protected him from the vampire's furious attacks.

Poulos:  (as one wrist is caught in the creature's grip, he finds himself
  slowly weakening)
Irina:  We've got to-
Paige:  On it.  (being closest to the besieged warrior, she runs forth
  and slashes the vampire across the back, only missing the head by inches
  as the woman shifts position while wrestling with Poulos)
vampiress #3:  (screams as a long, deep gash appears across her back
  thanks to the powerfully-enchanted blade)  You'll pay for that!  (she
  releases her first victim and whirls, now stalking Paige)
Paige:  (holds up her flaming sword)  Bring it on.
Williamson:  (under the influence of the first vampiress)
vampiress #1:  You must defend me from your companions...

  To those not ensorcelled by her charms, the creature's words sounded
flat and perhaps out of place.  But to the young warrior, there could not
have been any higher purpose at that time than to obey the commands.

Williamson:  Yes...(he raises his crossbow, taking aim at Belphanior)
Belphanior:  Crap.  (using the magical rod, he summons a giant glowing
  fist, swinging at the foe)
vampiress #1:  (dances out of the way of the giant fist, laughing)
Williamson:  (fires his weapon, putting a bolt into Belphanior's shoulder)
Belphanior:  Argh!  (realizes that the bats' attacks, while relatively
  harmless, did wear away his Stoneskin spell)  Damn.
Williamson:  (begins reloading)
Judhon:  (completes a spell, and a bright glow appears just behind the
  vampiress)  Damn it.

  While the gnome's intention had been to blind the vampiress by casting
the spell of light directly on her eyes, it hadn't worked - but at least
it distracted her.

vampiress #1:  (turns instinctively, surprised by the sudden light)
Belphanior:  (bleeding from his shoulder and unable to remove the bolt,
  he uses the summoned fist to sweep the charmed Williamson aside, hard
  enough to stun him or perhaps knock him out, hopefully without seriously
  injuring him)
Williamson:  (smashed into the curved wall, he falls and drops his
  crossbow, groaning in pain)
Benjamin:  (now under the influence of vampiress #2, he charges at the
  spellcasting Skektek)
Skektek:  Wha-  (faced with the raised blade of a charging attacker, he
  instinctively changes targets for his spell, and the five magic missiles
  pummel Benjamin instead of the vampiress as originally planned)
Benjamin:  (knocked from his feet, with five fresh and smoking wounds,
  he falls, landing roughly on the stone steps)
vampiress #2:  (cackling merrily at this development, she moves in on

  To be sure, the battlefield was even more hazardous because there was
no level Irina learned to her dismay.

Irina:  (charging at the foe menacing Skektek, she unexpectedly rolls an
  ankle on one of the stone steps, and falls due to the sharp pain)  Argh!
Arusha:  (intending to use the water-flask again, she tries to get into
  a position where her back will be braced against a wall)
vampiress #3:  (swipes at Paige, but recoils due to the flaming sword)
  Cursed weapon...
Paige:  (playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the foe, she does
  her best to keep the stairway's outer wall behind her, as otherwise she
  could end up forced back into the central shaft)
Poulos:  (regains his footing, and although somewhat weakened from the
  vampiress' grip, he finds the strength to swing his sword at her from
  behind as she faces Paige)
vampiress #3:  (ignores the curved blade as it passes through her neck
Paige:  (lunges in for a quick stabbing attack, without success)
vampiress #3:  Your blood will flow tonight.
Paige:  (keeping her fiery blade between them)  Don't be so sure.
vampiress #4:  (still wrestling with Ocrivus)  Give up, holy man.  Your
  powers are too weak-
Ocrivus:  Never!  (despite being overmatched by the woman's unnatural
  strength, he fights on, trying to bring his holy symbol to bear)
Razor Charlie:  (hurls one of the vials of holy water that he'd brought

  The glass bottle was no throwing knife, but the lean warrior had a
strong arm and a good aim.  The vial hit the back of the vampiress' head
and shattered...and her hair and skin began to burn!

vampiress #4:  Aieee!!  (she lets go of Ocrivus, reeling in pain as her
  head smokes, the holy water burning her like acid)  AieeeeEEEEE!
vampiress #1:  (continues to dodge the large magical fist controlled by
  Belphanior, staying one step ahead of the thing while cackling and
  taunting him)  Too slow...far too slow.
Belphanior:  We'll see.
vampiress #1:  (intending to leap at the elf, she notices something to
  her left)  What?
Arusha:  (having braced herself sufficiently, she activates the magical
  flask once more, and a torrent of water hits the vampiress)
vampiress #1:  AAAARGH!  (she is driven back, away from Belphanior and
  over the edge of the central shaft, where she falls out of sight)
vampiress #2:  (rushes in at Skektek, who is spellcasting)
Skektek:  (completes his spell just in the nick of time, blasting the
  creature at nearly point-blank range with a sheet of flames)
vampiress #2:  (her hair and clothes now on fire, she recoils, shrieking)
vampiress #3:  (suffers a shallow cut from Paige's sword, wincing, but
  gets close enough to slap the warrior-woman across the face, knocking
  her away thanks to the fearsome strength behind the blow)
Paige:  (hits the steps, painfully, but manages to keep her sword in her
  hand, and leaps to her feet quickly thanks to her enchanted boots)  Try
  that again, bitch.
Benjamin:  (back on his feet, he staggers about, sword in hand)
vampiress #3:  (grabs the man, then flings him aside...and right into the
  central shaft)
Benjamin:  (cries out, the sound fading as he falls)
vampiress #1:  (now in the form of a giant bat, she avoids the falling
  Benjamin and flies over the edge of the shaft, changing back into her
  human form and landing gracefully on the steps)
Paige:  Benjamin...damn.
vampiress #3:  Don't worry, it will be over soon.  (she frowns as a very
  bright light comes into being behind her)
Ocrivus:  (from nearby)  You're right about that.

  The priest was standing again, his holy symbol finally brought to bear
and emanating a powerful glow.  The priest was facing the raven-haired
vampiress, but his words were directed at all of them.

Ocrivus:  By the power of Athon, I command you...BEGONE!

  All four of the vampire-women recoiled in pain and fear, unable to
remain in the priest's presence.  They retreated toward the chamber's
central shaft as Ocrivus and his holy symbol advanced.

vampiress #1:  (simply walks over the edge, dropping out of sight)
vampiress #2:  (stares balefully at the party, then follows suit)
vampiress #3:  (baring her teeth as she backs toward the shaft)  This
  is not over - we will meet again.  (she turns to step off like the
  first two)
Paige:  (employs the powers of her boots to make a sudden leap directly
  at the vampiress, ending the move with a mighty overhead sword-blow
  that splits the creature's head all the way down to the neck)
vampiress #3:  (changes into mist, which quickly drifts over the edge of
  the shaft, and down into its depths)
vampiress #4:  (simply leaps off, and is gone)
Paige:  (looks down into the shaft, as her sword's flames fade out and
  then cease altogether)
Ocrivus:  (turns to Paige, upset)  Why did you do that?  They retreated
  due to Athon's holy power!  You could have caused them to resist my
  efforts and instead attack us again.  You should have left them alone!
Skektek:  Yeah, that's what most people would have done.
Paige:  (casually brandishes her sword before sheathing it)  I'm not most

  They quickly took stock of things:  Williamson was back to normal, if a
little banged-up.  Many of the others had minor cuts and scrapes, Poulos
was in a weakened state, and of course Benjamin was gone, presumably a
broken corpse somewhere far below.

Belphanior:  (to Ocrivus)  Can you help with either of those situations?
Ocrivus:  (shakes his head)  Athon's power, while great, will not serve
  to renew life force - or life. sorry.
Arusha:  (wondering if the priest is telling the truth)

  As it turned out, in Benjamin's case, it didn't matter.  When they got
to the bottom of the huge cylindrical stairway, a short time later, the
man's body seemed shattered beyond all hope of recovery - and his head
was gone.

Skektek:  Did one of those vampire-women do this on their way out?
Belphanior:  I have no idea.  (he recovers Otto's enchanted shortsword,
  which is somehow intact, and keeps it for himself since his own blade
  bears no enchantment)
Ocrivus:  Who can know the ways of the undead?
Poulos:  (staggers a bit as he marches)
Paige:  Are you okay?
Poulos:  (grimly and wearily)  I'll be fine.

  At the very bottom of the stairway shaft, a high and wide arched hall
led away into the darkness.  Although the three surviving vampires had
certainly passed this way, the corridor was still filled with cobwebs,
and a faint smell of decay filled the air here.

Judhon:  I've definitely never been down here while doing Marek's vile
  bidding.  (he frowns)  Thankfully.
Ocrivus:  Their lair is close...I can sense it.  (he points down the
  hallway)  There.
Paige:  (brandishes her sword again, the blade coming to life with flame
  once more)

  They took no chances at this point:  those with magical weapons (Paige,
Irina, Belphanior) led the way, with Ocrivus in the second rank.  The
high priest had his holy symbol ready, and would do his best to deal with
any more undead while protected by the party's first rank.  Skektek stayed
in the rear of the party, just in case an attack came from that direction.

Skektek:  (muttering)  And I could even use a fireball, since no allies
  are behind us.

  The arched hallway came to an end about fifty feet from the cylindrical
stairway chamber, where a simple wooden door blocked further progress.
It was ancient, its wood appearing rotted in some places and its rusted
iron bands seemingly barely holding the portal together.  Nevertheless, it
was closed and locked, and so it had to be dealt with.
  Thanks to Ocrivus, they knew that the door bore no traps or protective
enchantments.  Thanks to Arusha, they got it opened without having to use
physical means.  The heavy, old door swung inward...revealing a small and
dark chamber, perhaps thirty feet wide and fifteen deep.  Five coffins
rested in here - four of brown wood, the fifth of jet-black wood (and of
higher quality and workmanship).  All were surrounded by cobwebs, and all
were closed.

Ocrivus:  (smiles grimly)  At last...the vampires' lair.

next:       what lurks in the night
released:   3/26/2021
notes:      Did you know that the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual says that
  non-magical weapons pass right through a vampire's body?  I didn't.  I
  don't even know if that was the case in 1st Edition.  I guess I could
  look it up, but I'm not sure what box holds all of my old rulebooks.
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