Chapter #1070

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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                          +
+   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:          just before dusk                                       +
+   Place:         the dark castle overlooking the town of Holmburg       +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "He had nothing to lose, which was why he was going to win."          +
+                  - from the novelization of _Hard Times_ (1975)         +

                   MLXX.  Renewed Hope

  In an opulent bedchamber within the upper reaches of his castle, Lord
Marek continues a discussion with his newly-acquired captive...

Hope:  (sitting on the edge of the gigantic poster bed, where she woke up
  a short time ago)  Why are you taunting me?
Marek:  I'm not taunting you, I'm explaining things to you.  Such as the
  fact that not all of my...kind spend the entire day slumbering in some
  deep, dark place.  (he contemplates briefly)  I actually haven't slept
  in a coffin in decades.
Hope:  Well, that's nice.
Marek:  It is for me.  I may rest anytime I wish...and your companions
  were not the first to underestimate me in this manner.
Hope:  They're here?
Marek:  They are below, being dealt with by my mistresses.  (he frowns)
  Or perhaps my mistresses are being dealt with by your companions.  In
  which case they are unfit to remain with me.  (he regards her)  Which
  is essentially my intention anyway.  With your magical abilities, you
  will make a far superior companion.
Hope:  So that's it?  You're just going to bite me and be done with it?
Marek:  I am, and quite soon.  (he paces before her)  You must have quite
  a strong will, as well, for my powers did not work on you when I hovered
  outside your window last night, calling to you.
Hope:  (shrugs)  I never was one to listen to fools.  (she stands up and
  begins walking toward the door)
Marek:  (faster than the eye can see, he interposes himself between her
  and the exit, taking her wrist in a powerful, vise-like grip that chills
  her to the bone)  Do not belittle me, woman.
Hope:  (struggles, unable to overcome the much greater strength of the
Marek:  If you are wondering why your life energy isn't waning, know that
  I choose not to take it.  (he releases her)
Hope:  (backs away, rubbing her aching wrist)
Marek:  After you are turned, we shall then destroy that temple, and its
  accursed priest, my old enemy Ocrivus.  My revenge complete, we can then
  figure out how to use the mirror to escape this damned place.
Hope:  I'm not going to help you do any of those things.
Marek:  (whirls, his black cape swirling, and strides boldly toward her)
  Yes, you are.  You'll have no choice.  And I'm tired of waiting.

  Hope retreated, but there was nowhere to go, and the vampire was faster
and stronger than her.  Despite her resistance, Marek's fangs soon neared
her throat, and at the last moment, she closed her eyes to await whatever
unknown pain that foul bite would bring.

Marek:  (sinks his fangs into the sorceress' neck...and then recoils in
  agony)  What?!?
Hope:  (surprised and confused, she puts one hand to her neck, her palm
  coming away lightly streaked with blood)
Marek:  (spits out the few drops of blood that he took)  Ugh!

  In all of the vampire's centuries of life, this was a first; the blood
that should have tasted so sweet and brought such pleasure instead burned
his mouth like acid.

Marek:  How is this possible?!?  (he glares at her)  What _are_ you?

  Hope had no idea what had just happened - or more accurately, what had
just NOT happened.  As her mind raced while Marek fumed and cursed, the
only possible explanation she could think of was that somehow, her past
transformation from vampire to human, via the Moonsword, had somehow
altered her very nature.  It might be possible that she could never again
become an undead creature, and was even immune to such attempts.  Given
the events just now, this seemed fairly likely.

Hope:  Hmm.
Marek:  (utterly enraged now, he grabs one of the bed's metal posts,
  tearing it loose in his furor and hurling it into a small table, which
  shatters)  DAMN IT!  (he stalks about the room, quickly turning to face
  her again)  If you can't be a mate, or a meal...then I'll just rip you
  limb from limb.
Belphanior:  (having just opened the door to the bedchamber, an action
  that initially went unnoticed by Marek due to his rage-fueled hurling
  of the bedpost into the table at the exact same time)  Not if I have
  anything to say about it.
Marek:  What?!?
Belphanior:  It's a good thing you threw a tantrum - that made it a lot
  easier for us to find you.
Marek:  (brings one fist down on the top of a dresser, splintering it in
  his rage)  AARGH!
Ocrivus:  (possessed of a sudden fury himself, he pushes past Belphanior
  and barges into the room)  Lord Marek!  Face me!
Marek:  YOU?!?
Ocrivus:  None other.
Marek:  (clenches his fists)  It has been a long time.
Ocrivus:  Yes, it has...and this ends now.  (he suddenly brandishes his
  holy symbol)

  Lord Marek had no spellcasting abilities - he had, after all, been a
warrior in his previous life - but he possessed a number of magical items
that he'd acquired over the years.  Some of these, he'd owned before ever
being trapped in this grim world; others, he'd taken from the bodies of
foes slain over the years.  He intended to put them all to use this night.

Marek:  (uses one of his rings to tear the holy symbol from the priest's
  hand before he can invoke it)  Not this time!

  The vampire sent the silver object hurtling through the room, and then
through one window, where it fell to the castle grounds far below.  Next,
he hurled a glass bottle in Belphanior's direction, as hard as he could.

Belphanior:  Whoa.  (he closes the door, just as the container shatters
  on the far side)

  The oil within the bottle instantly ignited, covering the wooden door
and a large portion of the bedchamber in flames!  Both Hope and Ocrivus
moved away  - in different directions - from the sudden, searing fire; by
then, Marek was winding an ornate horn of ebony.  This produced an eerie
keening sound, but also produced eight animated skeletal warriors, their
bony forms covered in rotting clothes.

Marek:  (points to Ocrivus)  Kill him!

  As the skeletons made their way toward the priest, quickly surrounding
him to one side of the room, the burning door cooled, the fires dying out
as a cold-producing wand was applied to the problem from the other side.

Belphanior:  (kicks the charred door open and bursts into the room, the
  others right behind him)  Let's try that again!
Razor Charlie:  (throws the enchanted dagger, hitting Marek in the arm)
Marek:  Argh!
Williamson:  (fires his crossbow, the bolt passing harmlessly through
  Marek's cloaked body)
Paige:  (heading for Marek, her sword blazing)
Belphanior:  No!  Help Ocrivus!  We need his power to defeat Marek!
Paige:  (fuming, she nevertheless veers off and engages the nearest of
  the skeletons in combat)
Irina:  (moves to help with that effort, bashing at another skeleton
  with her mace)
Poulos:  (sees Hope, and immediately heads her way)
skeleton:  (gets in his way, bony hands swiping at the air)
Poulos:  (swings his huge scimitar, shattering the undead foe with a
  single mighty blow)
skeleton:  (sundered, it then falls into many more pieces)
Poulos:  (kicks the fallen bones aside as he reaches Hope)  Are you well?
  (he notices the smeared blood on her neck)  Are you harmed?
Hope:  I'm fine.  He bit me, but it...didn't work.
Marek:  (uses his ring to rip another bedpost free, then sends it flying
  across the room, where it impales Williamson as he reloads his crossbow)
Williamson:  (drops the crossbow and falls to his knees, blood spewing
  from both the horrible wound and his mouth)  Urgh...
Belphanior:  Williamson!  No!
Skektek:  MotherFUCKER.  (he launches a sheet of flame directly at Marek)

  Due to the short range and his certainty that the vampire hadn't been
paying attention to him, the wizard was confident in his spell's success,
but to his astonishment the vampire simply laughed as his body was bathed
in flame.

Marek:  (fully utilizing the power of his second ring, which provides
  substantial resistance to fire and heat, he unsheathes his sword and
  moves toward Skektek)
Skektek:  Oh, shit.
Belphanior:  (leaps in front of the wizard, waving Otto's enchanted short
  sword at the vampire)
Marek:  (his own longsword in hand)  Very well, then.  (he and the elf
  begin trading blows, slashing and parrying in a whirlwind of steel)

  On his own world, with two functional eyes and wielding his own weapon,
Belphanior would have been Marek's equal with a sword.  Unfortunately,
with his limited vision and a smaller weapon - and none of his other
beneficial magical items - the elf was overmatched.  He quickly found
himself fighting defensively; instead of trying to wound the other, he
now had to focus on keeping himself alive.  The vampire's great strength
and quick reflexes never seemed to wane, while Belphanior began to grow
weary, his muscles aching and sweat stinging his eyes.

Marek:  (suddenly knocks his foe's blade to one side, then lunges forth,
  his own weapon stabbing into the elf's leg)
Belphanior:  Argh!  (he hobbles back, barely keeping the attacker from
  scoring a second blow)
Paige:  (having dispatched a couple of the skeletons already, she spots
  the elf's plight and uses her enchanted boots to leap to his side, her
  flaming sword catching one of Marek's slashing attacks)  Try me.
Marek:  With pleasure.  You might even make a decent mistress.
Paige:  That'll be the fucking day.  (she parries another blow, and then
  tries one of her own, catching the vampire by surprise)
Marek:  Almost.  (he backs up, nodding as he twirls his sword)  You're
Paige:  Damn right.

  This was a much more equal contest, for the warrior-woman was skilled
in battle and also possessed magical items with which she was used to
fighting.  They traded several blows, each trying to strike inside the
other's guard, and soon they each bore several minor wounds.  While the
combatants were about evenly matched in sheer skill, Paige actually had
a slight advantage in strength thanks to her magical gauntlets, whereas
Marek was somewhat faster - and he also healed quickly thanks to his
vampiric nature.  The various cuts and scrapes he had suffered were even
now fading with every passing moment.

Marek:  (steps back again)  This is the best challenge I've had in quite
  some time.  But it needs to end before you people get lucky.  (he lets
  go of his longsword suddenly)

  Much to Paige's amazement, the weapon floated in the air before Marek
for a moment...and then began attacking her, with no one wielding it!

Paige:  (begins parrying the disembodied sword's blows, which are coming
  with the same ferocity and level of skill that they had when Marek held
  the weapon)  Shit.
Marek:  (draws a second blade, this one a short sword, and moves to fight
  Belphanior again)

  Meanwhile, on the other side of the spacious (but still quite crowded)
bedchamber, Irina was holding her own against the remaining skeletons...
but now four of the things surrounded her, and Ocrivus had been of little
help...thus far.

Ocrivus:  (suddenly stands, boldly advancing on the undead, his hands now
  glowing)  Begone, unholy ones...Athon's power commands it!
Irina:  (recoils as all four skeletons are blasted into dust)  Whoa.
Ocrivus:  (helpfully)  A holy symbol is just that...a symbol.  It helps
  to focus the power of a deity, but is not necessary for actually using
  that power.
Irina:  A good lesson.
Ocrivus:  (turns in the direction of Marek)

  Nearby, all but forgotten by both the vampire and her own companions,
Hope had recovered from the bite, gathered her wits,  and decided to join
the fight...for she still had a spell or two memorized.

Hope:  (chanting, as she eyes the ceiling above Marek)

  As Marek closed in on the wounded Belphanior, the section of ceiling
directly above him suddenly changed into thick mud and dropped onto him,
burying him in a large, oozing heap.

Belphanior:  What?  (he turns to Hope)  Welcome back!
Hope:  I was never gone.  I was just...indisposed.
Razor Charlie:  (looks up at the large, amorphous hole where the room's
  ceiling used to be, through which another chamber is now visible)  Huh.
Poulos:  (notices a cloud of mist forming above the pile of thick mud)

  The mist floated up, through the gaping hole and into the room above.

Ocrivus:  (looking up)  Where did he go?  We have to get up there!
Belphanior:  I'm not charging blindly into an ambush.  He could be three
  rooms away by now, and we don't know this castle like he does.  We need
  to heal poor Williamson, and then we need to regroup and track Marek
Ocrivus:  (angrily)  No!  We need to follow him before he gets away!  (he
  begins floating upward, toward the hole created by Hope)
Belphanior:  You can do what you want, but we're going to take some time
  and think this through.  (he realizes that Ocrivus is already gone into
  the chamber above)  Well.
Arusha:  I never really thought he would listen, once he found Marek.
  And his refusal to use his magic to heal your companion...(she shakes
  her head, turning to Williamson's impaled body)

  Irina was already there, examining the long, narrow piece of metal that
transfixed the young warrior's body.

Belphanior:  How is he?
Irina:  Could be worse.  The bedpost seems to have actually missed the
  center of his torso, but we'll need to pull it out before using any of
  our healing potions.  And we need to work quickly.  (she readies her
  potion)  Can someone...?

  Belphanior and Poulos quickly braced Williamson, then removed the spike
with a single motion.  Paige had some wadded pieces of cloth ready, and
held one over the front side of the wound while Arusha did the same on the
back side.  Irina slowly, carefully poured the magical liquid into the
wounded man's mouth, and this was followed by a second potion donated by
Paige.  After that, some color returned to Williamson's face, so Irina
bound his wound tightly.

Irina:  He may be out for a while.  We'll have to carry him.
Poulos:  I can handle that, but then I will not be able to help in any
  sudden fights.
Belphanior:  That's fine.  (to Arusha)  Can you track the vampire?
Arusha:  No.  Ocrivus can - and apparently is - so we'll have to follow
  him, or else choose another course.
Belphanior:  (thinking about how long it would take to get the entire
  group up there, and the fact that Ocrivus isn't inclined to wait for
  them or work with them, and the fact that this is Marek's home)  No.
Paige:  No?
Belphanior:  We were here for two things:  Hope and the magic mirror, in
  that order.  We've got one, so let's go get the other.  After that, we
  can find a way to fight Marek on our terms, rather than his.  (he turns
  to regard Judhon)  Can you lead us to the room with the mirror?  I paid
  good attention before, but that was only for the route from the dining
  hall to the observatory, and we're in an entirely different area of the
  castle now from what I can tell.
Judhon:  (nods)  I'll get you there.  Let's go, while Marek is busy being
  chased by that priest.

  The gnome led the adventurers through the charred, shattered door and
out of the bedchamber, through some other halls and across an outdoor
walkway between two towers.  Soon, at the intersection of two wide and
arched hallways, he pushed a section of wall away to access a familiar-
looking spiral staircase.

Judhon:  We're about halfway up.  I think you've been here before.
Belphanior:  Damn, this place is full of secret doors and passages.
Judhon:  I know.  I built many of them myself, for Marek.

  As before, the narrow staircase ended in a stout wooden door.  A short
distance from the top, Judhon took hold of a random stone in the wall,
pulling it out so that he could disarm some unseen trap.

Judhon:  That would have dumped acid on us from above...a special acid
  that has no effect on stone or metal, but eats flesh faster than any
  ooze monster you've ever seen.
Belphanior:  Thanks.
Judhon:  Oh, you're welcome.  My time serving Marek had to end some-
Belphanior:  No, really, I mean _thanks_.  You didn't have to help us
  like this, no matter what you thought of him.
Judhon:  At this point, I think we need to destroy him, or else he'll do
  the same to all of us.
Belphanior:  Let's get the mirror first, then we can deal with Marek.

  They opened the door and started to enter the observatory; the small,
round room looked the same as before.  Its single, narrow arched window
afforded a view of the night sky, using the telescope mounted on its
little table.  The two plush chairs were also still there, as was the
most important piece of furniture in the chamber:  the large, ornate
mirror.  Its silken veil had slipped off and lay pooled on the floor at
the mirror's base.

Belphanior:  Well, it's heavy and bulky, but we should be able to carry
  it out of here.
Judhon:  Carry it out?  Oh, no, you can't.
Belphanior:  What?  Why not?
Judhon:  When you said you were going to go get it, I thought you meant
  that figuratively.  But you can't take it, because it won't work outside
  of this room.
Belphanior:  (shaking his head, exasperated)  Explain.
Judhon:  The mirror is a portal, but it needs to be here to function.  I
  mean right here- (he points to the window) -where the moons can shine
  their light on it.  Its powers have something to do with them and their
  alignment.  If you remove it, it won't work.
Belphanior:  (grits his teeth)

  As more of the party entered the room, another trap was activated, this
one unknown to Judhon and thus not disarmed.  Marek lacked any skill with
mechanisms, triggers, and such...but one magical item he'd gotten from a
long-dead foe had been designed for something like this.  Beneath a loose
stone in the observatory's floor, unseen, a tiny cauldron began to emit
noxious green gas - which very quickly filled the small room and also the
top of the narrow stairway!  The gas seared their noses and throats and
burned their eyes, and there was literally nowhere to go to escape from
it.  Several of the group were instantly overcome by the fumes, passing
out where they stood after a brief period of coughing and choking.  Only
those who stood farthest from the small chamber's entrance when the trap
was sprung had any time to act, and even then, that window of opportunity
would be limited indeed...measured in just a scant few moments.

Belphanior:  (speaking an arcane command word even as he begins coughing
  uncontrollably, he uses the silver rod to summon a giant magical fist,
  which promptly punches through the observatory's sole window, opening
  a large hole which immediately starts venting the green gas)

  They were within the top of a spire high up in the sky, and this was a
windy night, so it didn't take long for the room to clear.  The problem
was, the gas was still issuing forth from somewhere beneath the floor.
The elf used a scrap of cloth to cover his nose and mouth while he found
the loose floor-stone, removed it, and grabbed the tiny black cauldron
which was still spouting forth a steady stream of the noxious green gas.

Belphanior:  (hurls the thing through the hole he made in the wall, and
  it quickly vanishes into the night, presumably to shatter somewhere far
  below)  Whew.  (he looks around, taking stock of the party now that he
  can see clearly again)

  Things were most definitely not looking good.  The majority of the
adventurers had been standing on or near the trap's focal point, and all
of those - Hope, Skektek, Razor Charlie, Paige, Arusha, Williamson - were
unconscious.  Only a handful - those lucky few who had been furthest into
the room or else at the rear of the group - were still on their feet.

Poulos:  (still coughing a bit as he now draws in great breaths of cold,
  clean air)  What...was that?
Irina:  Some sort of odd magic item.  (she wipes her eyes on one sleeve,
  then examines several of her unconscious companions)  We are fortunate
  to be alive.
Judhon:  My best guess is that Marek wanted any of this trap's victims
  intact, so that he had the option of making them vampires.  I think the
  gas was similar to that breathed by green dragons, but not as potent.
  (he looks around)  In a confined space such as this, even a tiny amount
  of such fumes can be potent indeed.
Belphanior:  At least the mirror's still intact.  Now if only we could
  use it.
Judhon:  But you can!  Why not summon a portal and just...leave?  The four
  of us can get the others through, and-
Belphanior:  Because one of us isn't here - he's still down there in the
  town - and I'm not leaving anyone behind.
Irina:  (grimly)  Then we have to find Marek, and destroy-  (she sees
  something behind Belphanior)  Oh.
Belphanior:  (whirls, sword drawn)

  Marek was standing on the jagged edge of the hole in the chamber wall,
his black cloak flapping in the icy wind.  In one hand, he held a severed
head whose face was familiar; the head had once belonged to Ocrivus!  The
high priest's eyes had rolled up in death, and trickles of dried blood ran
from his nose and mouth.  The torn flesh around his neck suggested that
his beheading had been sudden and forceful, without the use of an edged

Marek:  At last...I have my revenge.  (he tosses the bloody head over his
  shoulder, and it disappears into the night)  And now...(he takes a few
  steps toward the adventurers on the other side of the chamber)

  It appeared that Ocrivus had not gone down without a fight, for the
vampire bore several wounds, some of which would take a while to heal.
One side of his face, including an eye and an ear, had been seared by
some sort of magic.  The arm on that side of his body also hung limply
at his side, and his fine clothes and great cloak were badly torn and

Belphanior:  So, what now?
Marek:  (slowly gazes at the adventurers, noting that the majority have
  fallen to his trap) will all meet a most painful and bloody
  end.  Or perhaps I will recreate your group as vampiric minions, made
  to do my bidding as I see fit.
Irina:  (hears an odd sound from the stairway below, and hesitates, not
  sure how to investigate it with Marek now threatening them)
Marek:  You people defied me, and thus cost me a great deal of time and
  effort...and for that, you'll pay.  (using his ring, he grabs a random
  unconscious foe, pulling that unfortunate person across the floor and
  right through the gaping hole in the wall)
Williamson:  (mercifully unconscious, he goes over the edge without even
  a cry, and falls unseen into the night)
Marek:  (shrugs)  Or some of you, I'll just kill, as I did to the priest
  and whoever that was just now.
Belphanior:  (gritting his teeth, he points his sword at the foe)  You'll
  pay for that, I promise you.  (he prepares to use the silver rod to
  summon a giant fist to smite the foe)
Marek:  (uses his ring to yank the rod from the elf's hand and discard
  it into the night)  I think not.  (he points at Judhon, frowning)  You,
  especially, will pay for betraying me.
Judhon:  (quietly clenching his fists to quell his fear and keep his voice
  level)  You slew my friends and forced me into servitude for more than
  twenty years.  No more.  No matter what happens, it ends tonight.
Marek:  You ungrateful-

  The vampire's next words were cut off as a furry, snarling form leapt
out of the stairway - bounding over the unconscious adventurers and right
past the surprised Irina - and then barreled into him!  The gigantic wolf
tore at the castle's ruler with its claws and fangs, gouging deep wounds
in the unliving flesh.  Marek yelled in pain and rage, and beat at the
savage beast with his fists, crushing flesh and breaking bone due to his
unnatural strength.  However, the wolf was clearly possessed of some sort
of primal fury, and ignored the pain as it continued to rip at the wounded
vampire with its natural weapons - weapons that were doing significant

Irina:  (gaping)  Is that...Otto?
Belphanior:  (pauses, regarding the coloring of the fur about the wolf's
  head and its green eyes, and then nods)  It is.  Somehow, he must have
  changed, broken free, and then made his way up here.
Judhon:  (astonished)  You know that thing?
Belphanior:  That...thing is our friend.  Hopefully something of his own
  mind remains within this form.
Poulos:  Should we help him?
Belphanior:  If we can, yes - but be careful not to hit him with any

  This was easier said than done, for the wolf and the vampire wrestled
about, smashing furniture and almost falling out of the gaping hole in
the chamber wall at one point.  Poulos and Irina found that it was damn
near impossible to hit Marek with their weapons without risk of hitting
the wolf instead, such was the chaotic nature of their struggle.  Poulos
did save the giant mirror from falling, though, after the thrashing
combatants collided with it and knocked it over.

Poulos:  (catches the thing, straining to set it back upright as the two
  strange foes smash into one of the plush chairs, toppling it as they
  land in a heap on the floor)
Judhon:  (casts one of the simplest spells known, but to potent effect,
  blinding Marek by targeting his eyes with the spell of illumination)
Marek:  (barely notices this, as he fends off the slavering jaws of the
  gigantic wolf)

  Between the fight with Ocrivus and now the struggle with this werewolf,
Marek was badly injured and weakened.  His only desire now was to change
into his mist-form, escape into the night, and make his way to one of the
several resting-places he had hidden throughout the castle.  He initiated
the transformation - and never completed it, as Belphanior darted in with
a wooden stake and mallet he'd just taken from Arusha's satchel.  In one
fluid motion, the elf lined up the stake and swung the hammer, driving
the stake's sharp tip into the vampire's chest!  Dark red blood welled up
from the wound, staining the foe's shirt.

Marek:  (screams in fury, finding himself unable to change forms or move
  at all)
Belphanior:  (locks eyes with the gigantic wolf as he raises the mallet
  again)  It's time to end Marek.
Otto-wolf:  (simply blinks)
Belphanior:  (brings the mallet down, driving the stake in deeper...and
  then quickly hits it a third time, and a fourth)

  After this was done, and the vampire's body had withered into little
more than a skeleton in clothes, the elf again rummaged through Arusha's
satchel.  Once he found the holy wafers that he'd seen her use before, he
returned to the vampire's corpse.

Poulos:  (already waiting, his curved sword held ready)  I can remove
  his head, if you wish.
Belphanior:  (smiles thinly)  Be my guest.

  The massive warrior cut off Marek's head with a single stroke of his
blade, and then Belphanior put the wafers into the gaping mouth...and
the body began to disintegrate, much like the female vampires had in the
vault beneath the castle.  Flesh withered and shrunk around the bones of
the skeleton, eventually flaking off, the flakes then decomposing further
into dust, which scattered as a cold wind blew through the chamber atop
the tower.

Belphanior:  Finally, we're rid of him.
Irina:  And Ocrivus.  Unless we want to go all the way down and find his
  head and try to put him back together when we get home.
Belphanior:  Maybe.  And we'll need to go back and get Williamson's body,
  and also Benjamin's.  But we'll revisit all that.  (watching the wolven
  form of his longtime companion, he gets to his feet and backs away very
Otto-wolf:  Grrrr...

  With a shake of his massive head, the wolf turned and padded away,
retreating to the opposite side of the chamber where it lay down on the
stone floor, regarding the others.

Irina:  Whew.  There must be something of him left in there.  Maybe his
  willpower is sufficiently strong that he retained some control while in
  this form.
Belphanior:  If so, thank the gods for that.  (he turns to Poulos)  Let's
  get that mirror put back exactly where it was before.
Poulos:  (nods)

  Just then, they felt a very slight tremor in the stone beneath their

Belphanior:  What was that?
Irina:  Nothing, I hope.
Belphanior:  You don't look optimistic.
Irina:  I was thinking that maybe - just maybe - the castle was somehow
  linked to the vampire...and with one gone, the other may follow.
Judhon:  It's quite possible.  This was his home for centuries...and the
  gods of this realm are a strange and fickle lot.  (he leans on a wall
  as the tower trembles again, more strongly this time)
Belphanior:  I'd say it's more than possible.  (to them all)  We need to
  hurry!  (he helps Poulos move the mirror)
Judhon:  I know the command words.  (he frowns)  I've always been afraid
  to use them, thanks to Marek, but I do know them.
Belphanior:  Then let's use them, and see if we can escape this damned

  The mirror was righted, the gnome spoke the necessary words of power,
and the elf focused his thoughts on a place familiar to him...this time,
the vault of Mesoloth.  As before, the glass showed an image, hazy at
first before it coalesced into something more lucid...and familiar.  The
image within the mirror showed the triple floors of that treasure vault
as clear as if they were standing next to it.
  Unfortunately, the vault appeared to be empty.

Belphanior:  Where are they?  Does this mean they escaped?
Judhon:  I don't know.  But we have to hurry, before-

  The image within the mirror became hazy then, shifting and changing to
something else.  Belphanior was the only one familiar with every one of
the faces he now saw in the glass of the mirror.  In addition to Neera
(who could obviously see him, as she was pointing and shouting although
no sound was audible from the other side of the portal) he also noted the
presence of Ys, Mongo...and Parekh and Pallin.

Belphanior:  What the hell is going on here?

  Suddenly, the image blurred for a moment, before becoming clear again.
Neera looked directly at him and shouted one simple word, a word which he
could now hear and which carried an immense amount of concern and worry
behind it.

Neera:  (clearly beckoning for him to come toward her)  HURRY!

  The elf didn't know exactly what was happening; in addition to whatever
effort Neera and the others were making on the other side of the window or
portal or whatever it was, there were also forces at work here that were
beyond his comprehension.  However, he trusted Neera implicitly, and knew
that there had to be a good reason for her to say what she'd just said.
And another tremor beneath his feet - one which caused some of the loose
flagstones around the gaping hole in the tower wall to fall away into the
darkness - confirmed the decision he had pretty much already made.

Belphanior:  (to the others)  Get everyone through, and I mean FAST!

  It had crossed the elf's mind (somewhere in the part not concerned with
the group's immediate peril and how to survive it) that by rushing through
this portal, the group would lose any items they didn't already have with
them.  They would also lose any items and treasures that Marek had on his
person, or anywhere else in this castle.  And also, Paige and Arusha had
not been consulted as to whether or not they wanted to leave this world
to venture to another.
  Unfortunately, there was no time, and if they were left here, they very
well might die as the dark castle fell apart and collapsed.  Simply put,
it was better to be alive and unhappy than to be dead.

Belphanior:  Hurry, hurry, HURRY!
Irina:  I'll go first - someone needs to tell those on the other side
  what we're doing, and also...explain about Otto.  (she regards the
  portal for a moment, then sighs and walks through, now appearing with
  the others in the image shown on the mirror's surface)
Belphanior:  And now-
Poulos:  Right.

  The massive warrior was especially useful here; despite being weakened
by the earlier vampiric attack, he was able to pick up the unconscious
companions and pass them through the portal, where those on the far side
took them.  Aided by Belphanior, he did this with great efficiency, and
just moments later, only the four of them remained in the chamber.

Poulos:  The doorway seems to have gotten smaller than before.
Belphanior:  I noticed that.  (he turns to the gigantic wolven form of
  Otto)  You need to-
Otto-wolf:  (gets to its feet and bounds through the mirror's surface)
Belphanior:  Alrighty, then.  Poulos, you'd better go next, before the
  thing shrinks even more.  Assuming you want to leave this world?
Poulos:  My debt to Hope is not yet paid.  (he steps up and goes through,
  which is only barely possible now due to his size and the diminishing
  dimensions of the portal)
Belphanior:  (to Judhon)  There's literally no time to talk about this.
  You can either come to our world in the next few moments, or remain
  here and take your chances.  I wish you luck, whatever you decide to
  do.  (he leaps into the mirror's surface, the portal portion of which
  is now just two feet in diameter)
Judhon:  (sighs, and dives through as the portal grows even smaller)

  Just a couple of moments later, the opening to the other world was gone,
shrunken into nothingness...and the mirror's surface cracked, and then it
shattered.  At the same time, the castle itself shook violently, its very
stone emitting a deep, sustained groaning sound.  It didn't take long for
its foundation to weaken, shift...and then give way.  The castle proceeded
to collapse upon itself, the rubble quickly piling up and producing a huge
cloud of dust that drifted into the night sky, blocking out the light of
the moons.
  Perhaps someday, someone would make their way to ruins of the castle and
explore it, and wonder what had taken place here.  Or maybe not.  Whatever
happened next - and in the years to come - would be at the whims of the
mysterious dark powers that ruled this realm.

next:       massive amounts of explanation and wrap-up
released:   4/16/2021
notes:      And that's it, folks.  A mega-arc that lasted for 60 episodes
  (1011-1070) spanning more than FOUR AND A HALF YEARS of real time for
  the writing (10/7/2016 to 4/16/21) is now concluded.
    Going into even further detail of the slow writing pace, episode 1014
  was released on 11/24/2017 and then episode 1015 was written two years
  later, and just days before the pandemic really took effect, and was
  released on 3/13/2020.  And then 1016-1070 (this one) all got written
  over the next nine months (as I type this, it's 12/16/2020.)
    What this essentially means is that the first five episodes in this
  mega-arc took me just over a year to write, and then I took a two-year
  break, and then the next fifty-five episodes to advance and finish the
  arc all got done in nine months.
    Conclusion:  the pandemic, for all its ill effects, actually spurred
  my writing for some reason.  It's really to be expected:  when it's no
  longer possible to do most things, one tends to find oneself with much
  more free time.  I hope that you readers enjoyed my use of some of my
  newly-found free time in 2020.
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