Chapter #988

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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       +
+   1991-2012 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!                                          +
+   Date:          4/18/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          inconsequential                                        +
+   Place:         the deep subterranean city of Skava-Ra                 +
+   Climate:       chilly                                                 +
+   "Do you always live in the dark?"                                     +
+   "Well, you meet a better class of people in the dark sometimes."      +
+                                          - from _Magnum Force_ (1973)   +

                   CMLXXXVIII.  Dark Days Ahead

  Deep beneath the surface of the world, in the ancient and hidden city
of Skava-Ra, ominous events were about which only a
select few were to learn, but which bore grave implications for the
mortal world above.  This dark city had existed for millenia, and was
home to many thousands of vampires who thrived in its sunless climate.
The sprawling city contained hundreds of buildings and towers, connected
by both narrow sky bridges and cold streets, its architecture as unique as
its populace.  The city proper rested within a great wall of black stone,
and all around this great rampart were fields of underground grass and
mold.  This entire area was in turn ensconced within a gigantic cavern
whose enchanted roof, thousands of feet above the city, resembled a night
sky at any given hour.
  The highest structure in the dark city was the Imperial Tower, from
which the god-king Yegyar ruled.  While not quite as old as Skava-Ra
itself, this ancient vampire was in fact the oldest such creature in
existence.  As such, he possessed many mighty powers and abilities, some
of which were unknown even to the wisest of sages and vampire experts.
  From his seat atop the Blood Throne, Yegyar was the undisputed master
of Skava-Ra and everyone within and around it.  His decisions were handed
down, implemented, and enforced by the Council:  six vampire lords of
various origins and personalities, with assorted responsibilities.  This
group gathered periodically to discuss matters of import and debate the
things beneath the notice of their vampire god-king.  Upon occasion, the
monarch joined them if there was some matter of great import to discuss.
  This was one of those times.

Yegyar:  (sitting on the seat of black stone known as the Blood Throne,
  he presides over the large multi-pointed table with its six ornate

  The god-king was a strange figure.  Though physically of average height
and slight build, he somehow seemed to loom over everything else in the
room, even while seated.  His thin, wizened body had chalk-white skin,
little of which could be seen beneath the black robes he always wore.
Both he and his garments were perpetually sheathed in shadows; whether
this was an effect of his robes or his body itself remained a mystery.
Yegyar's power, however, was no mystery; his dominance over his subjects
was total, despite his advanced age and apparent physical frailty.  Since
his rise to power almost two thousand years ago, the vampire monarch had
rebuffed no less than a dozen attempts to usurp his throne, the most
recent taking place over three centuries ago.  None of these had ever
come close to being successful, and not a single individual involved
with any of them had survived the conflict.  Yegyar never left the city
anymore, and in fact hadn't even left his tower in many years; while his
might was fearsome to behold, the truth was that he couldn't wield his
full power for long anymore.  Whenever he exerted himself, he had to rest
for long periods of time.  Still, if any of his council suspected this
or sought to use it to usurp their lord, they didn't dare to speak it.

Yegyar:  As you are all no doubt aware by now, the mission to the
  world above was a success.  We have the item.
Ulruk:  (nods grimly)

  At six feet eight inches in height, and broadly built, Ulruk was the
most physically imposing vampire in the council.  He had been a warrior
in his prime at the time he became a vampire, and as a veteran of many
battles, this powerful and imposing individual possessed a great deal of
fighting experience and tactical knowledge.  Ulruk's long, straight black
hair cascaded down around his wide shoulders; though he eschewed armor
except in those now-rare mass battle situations, he was never without a
red steel bastard sword with dire magical powers.  As the general over
all of Skava-Ra's fighting forces, Ulruk was in charge of all military
matters, including the guarding and defense of the city.  For the past
two years, he had called the tall vampiress/warrior Victoria his consort,
and they made a fitting - not to mention intimidating - couple.

Yegyar:  And our two agents met with some resistance, yes?
Ulruk:  They did, my lord, but it was futile.  The defenders were soon
  overcome, and the item safely retrieved...though its exact nature and
  purpose yet elude me.
Yegyar:  (gestures to another of the seated figures)
Varnath:  (stands, with great difficulty)

  The high priest Varnath looked just like he had in life:  a morbidly
obese, elderly fellow with mottled, sickly-looking skin.  The man was
garbed in robes that could have covered a small couch.  Due to his age
and his bulk, Varnath didn't move around much (and certainly didn't move
very fast when he was active) but his magical prowess and unholy powers
were quite useful.

Varnath:  (holds up a small case of glasteel, with plush red padding on
  the inside, cushioning most of a jawbone, with many sharp teeth still
  intact)  Behold:  the Sacred Shard of Nyyx!

  There was a collective gasp from the others seated at the table, as
they beheld the indisputably most revered magical relic in the vampire
world.  Only Yegyar remained unsurprised; then again, he was the king
of his kind, and had been the one to perceive this item when it first
became perceivable several days ago, emerging from some unbelievably-
powerful form of hiding which had masked its unique aura.  From that
point, it had been fairly trivial to follow the aura to its source, and
then plan and execute a raid to recover the item.

Ulruk:  (nearly whispering, an unusual action for such a physically
  powerful individual) cannot be...
Varnath:  But it is!  This piece of jawbone is all that remains of the
  forefather of us all...the first vampire!  Its lineage is completely
  and utterly sacred...its history is the very earliest lore of our
  kind...its powers are-
Yegyar:  Are mine to command.  (he smiles thinly within the dark folds
  of his hood)  With this most unholy of links to our very origin, my
  power shall grow even greater than ever before!

  The other vampires in the chamber shuddered silently.  It had been a
long, long time since they had seen their monarch this excited and this
energetic.  And truly, with all the might he already wielded, it was
certain that anything bringing him even more power was a monstrously
powerful item indeed.

Drakov:  (adjusts his cloak)  What fell, untold powers might it possess?
Yegyar:  I shall keep that to myself at this time.  Suffice it to say
  that once certain unholy rituals have been completed, and the blessings
  of the dark powers are given, none shall stand before us.
Drakov:  (frowns, more than a little concerned about the potential chaos
  and upheaval that this mighty relic could bring to life in Skava-Ra)

  A handsome, regal, well-dressed aristocrat, Drakov had been accustomed
to plenty of money and luxury while mortal - and still possessed these
traits now.  His manor house in Skava-Ra contained lavish trappings and
decorations, as well as numerous servants.  For Drakov, it didn't matter
where he lived this lifestyle - above or below ground - as long as he
lived it.  He had been one of the most successful of the vampire lords
inhabiting the surface world, reigning for many decades until finally
being undone by the diligent and concerted efforts of a powerful few.
While those would-be heroes - he scoffed at the term! - thought they had
destroyed him, the true outcome of that conflict had simply been Drakov's
retreat into the dark depths of the Skava-ra.  His role here
was akin to that of a city administrator; he organized and ran aspects
of the city's day-to-day existence and maintenance, making sure that all
of the myriad and necessary things got done.

Yegyar:  There is no need to feel ill at ease, good Drakov.  Any actions
  taken with the power of the Shard will be well-planned and serve the
  greater good of all.
Drakov:  (spreads his well-manicured hands)  Of course, my lord.
Ossok:  (glares at the well-dressed Drakov, hissing)

  Count Ossok was a true nosferatu, the basest of vampires:  his bald
head, pale hairless skin, and rat-like fangs made him appear to be more
animal than human.  Worse, he actually slept in filthy, worm-infested
dirt and was equally content drinking the blood of animals as people.
Ossok didn't care about luxury, the arts, or having mortal slaves; he
was simply a primal undead creature that wasn't ready to perish yet, and
so continued to exist simply for the sake of existing.  Despite his odd
appearance and horrific habits, this tall, thin vampire lord was still
one of the oldest members of the Council - perhaps second only to Yegyar
himself - and his experience and counsel were valuable.  He also had an
affinity for talking with and controlling certain wild beasts, which was
helpful for scouting and patrolling those areas around Skava-Ra that the
vampires considered beneath their notice.

Ossok:  (bares his fangs, hissing again)
Drakov:  (ignores the other vampire, whom he considers beneath him)
Sadira:  (trying her best to ignore Ossok, she finds herself unable to
  conceal her utter disgust)
Ossok:  (almost smiles, as he enjoys having this effect on others)

  In stark contrast to the dirty and bestial Ossok, lithe Sadira was a
stunningly beautiful female vampire.  This auburn-tressed vixen's
interests were dark magic and pleasures of the flesh - a rather morbid
combination for anyone, but moreso for a vampire.  As the individual in
charge of all aspects of the slave pens, she had virtually unlimited use
of these unfortunates - and she used that privilege often.  Sadira kept
a stable of servants, both male and female, which required frequent
replenishment; her appetites - for blood, flesh, and magic - were truly
notorious even in a city full of vampires.

Sadira:  (rolls her eyes)
Cagan:  (giggles, the child's laugh being completely out of place in this

  Last, but certainly not least, was the child-vampire Cagan.  This red-
haired lad appeared to be about ten years old, but was in actuality a
powerful vampire who had existed for over six centuries.  Having been
turned while still a child, he was physically weaker than other vampires.
However, he had spent many long years studying magic to compensate for
being eternally trapped in the body of a child.  In addition to an
extraordinary level of expertise in most forms of wizardly magic, this
volatile vampire's temper was quick to ignite and terrible to behold.

Yegyar:  And yet...and yet, let us not forget the finding of the second
  mighty treasure, one which lay right next to the sacred remains of our
  progenitor.  (he stands, brandishing a thin book in one hand and a small
  jar in the other)  This book...contains the means for us to emerge once
  and for all from Skava-Ra, and conquer the world above...for in my
  hands now are the arcane formula and the material component necessary
  to invoke an actual true dweomer:  a permanent eclipse.  (he gazes upon
  each of their faces, savoring the moment as they each realize exactly
  what he's saying)  Yes...we can negate the hateful rays of the sun,
  forever!  As eternal night falls on the lands above, our kind will
  claim total mastery of the world!

  Later, in his private chambers, General Ulruk was relaying this rather
exciting (if still secret to the vast majority of Skava-Ra's inhabitants)
news to Victoria, when something he said made the vampiress bolt upright
in shock.

Ulruk:  What?
Victoria:  (shaking her head, incredulous)  Your agents TOOK A PRISONER
  from the elf's lair?!?

  Being privy to certain details, she knew already that the Shard of Nyyx
had been taken from Belphanior's home - some careful advance scouting had
provided details which meant more to her than any of her fellow vampires.
Upon recognizing Belphanior and certain of his companions from the scouts'
descriptions, she had warned Ulruk to proceed with caution, had even tried
to convince him that any move against the elf would be most unwise.
  Ulruk's reaction now mirrored his reaction when they'd discussed this

Ulruk:  (roars with laughter)  Of course they took a prisoner.  We take
  what we want - and why shouldn't we?  We are their superiors.
Victoria:  I must see her.
Ulruk:  Why in the-
Victoria:  NOW.
Ulruk:  Very well.

  As the tall vampiric warrior who'd been on the raid was one of his top
lieutenants, Ulruk knew exactly where the captive was being held, and a
short while later, he and Victoria were peering through a cell door at
the unconscious form of Neera, shackled to a ring set into the thick wall
nearby.  She had been stripped to just her tunic, and all of her magical
items taken; the dirty, scratched, and bruised woman in the cell bore
little resemblance to the well-dressed, bookish sage that Victoria had
met, in passing, almost two years ago.

Victoria:  Have they tasted her blood yet...?
Ulruk:  Of course not.  All such spoils are mine by default, a fact I'm
  sure they remembered upon returning here.  She was presented as a gift
  to me.  (he frowns)  Come to think of it, I grow rather hungry.  (he
  reaches for the cell door)

  Victoria moved between the hulking warrior and the cell door with such
speed that even mighty Ulruk was surprised.  Her tone of voice was another

Victoria:  I wouldn't suggest that.
Ulruk:  And why not?
Victoria:  Because it would be sheer folly to kill a hostage, a bargaining
  chip.  And we might well need her.
Ulruk:  Nonsense!  She is food, just like the rest of them, cattle, nothing
Victoria:  (eyes narrowed, she speaks in a low but powerful whisper)
  Listen to me very carefully, my love.  I spent a long, long time in the
  world above, and I know their ways, and I especially know this elf's
  ways.  Had only an item or two been taken, he might not have worried so
  much, gone through the effort to find and recover it.  But this - but
  the fact that they took HER - changes everything.
Ulruk:  (chuckling)  With all due respect, you overestimate this elf.
Victoria:  I wish I did.  This is one who has triumphed over demons, over
  dragons, over untold foes of no mean skill.  He once gouged his own eye
  out simply for the promise of power.  Once, when he was attacked, he not
  only slew those who dared that, but tracked them back to their employers
  and slew them too.  When I was sought out by vampire hunters bent on my
  destruction, he became even more deadly and determined.  And I'd only
  known him for a short time.  He has been with this women - his _mate_,
  I'd venture to guess - for years.  Do you understand what I'm saying?
Ulruk:  Of course, but-
Victoria:  What would you do if someone came here and somehow took me
  away, possibly to be instantly slain in the worst possible way?
Ulruk:  (clenches one huge fist, knuckles cracking)  I would find them,
  and I would kill them!
Victoria:  (nods)  And now Belphanior is in that exact position.  He has
  powerful weapons, powerful magic, and powerful friends...friends who
  have, on more than one occasion, answered the call to arms immediately,
  on his behalf.  I know that this city is supposedly impregnable, and
  that its denizens are among the mightiest of all beings, and that our
  ruler demanded the retrieval of the jawbone at any cost.  But...(she
  shakes her head)  The elf is as cunning as he is ruthless - moreso than
  many of our kind, even.  And his thirst for revenge can border on the
  insane.  And in his eyes, we - Skava-Ra - have invaded his home, stolen
  his property, slain at least one of his loyal companions, and taken his
Ulruk:  (frowns)
Victoria:  He WILL come here.  I can damn well guarantee it.  He'll come
  here, and he'll go to war with us all.  And given his history and his
  assets and his allies, our city - as unbelievable as this sounds - may
  well be doomed.

next:       Belphanior takes stock of the situation
released:   8/10/2012
notes:      After the dual-viewpoint episodes 986 and 987 (in which the
  events actually occurred) there were two things I had to do.  One was
  to show the reactions/planning of Belphanior and company after their
  home was attacked, one companion slain and another one taken, and some
  items stolen.  The other thing was to show the flip side, the point of
  view of the antagonists.  I wrestled for a while with figuring which
  needed to come first and which second, and ultimately decided that the
  vampires' perspective had to come first.  I also threw in some details
  about the city's ruling body, just 'cause I could.
    Speaking of which, if you read between the lines, most of the members
  of Skava-Ra's Council correspond to historic archetypes.  I'll let you
  figure them out.
    By the end of 989, I plan for Belphanior (and some friends) to have
  thoroughly analyzed the situation, figured out what happened and what's
  missing, who's alive and who's dead, who did it all, and what to do for
  rescue and retaliation.
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