Chapter #621

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                                   +   +
                                 +       +
                               +           +
                             +               +
                           +                   +
                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +      Epic IV      +
                             +               +
                               +           +
                                 +       +
                                   +   +

+     Many of the locations, non-player characters, spells, and other     +
+   terms used in these stories are the property of TSR, Inc.  However,   +
+   TSR has in no way endorsed or authorized their use, and any such      +
+   items contained within these stories are not representative of TSR    +
+   in any fashion.                                                       +
+     The player characters depicted in these stories are copyright       +
+   1991-2000 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!                                          +
+                                                                         +
+                                                      Thomas A. Miller   +
+   Belphanior      14th/14th/14th level elven fighter/wizard/thief       +
+     Aja            9th level human priestess of Wee Jas                 +
+     Eduardo        3rd level human thief                                +
+     Jutokai        8th level human archer                               +
+     Neko           7th level human female thief                         +
+     Razor Charlie  9th level human fighter                              +
+     Skektek       12th level human wizard                               +
+     the wispy thing                                                     +
+     Ys            13th level reptilian fighter                          +
+     Zhao           8th level human swordsman                            +
+   Bosco           12th level halfling thief                             +
+   Mongo           18th level dwarven fighter                            +
+     Gorgo          9th level dwarven berserker                          +
+   Otto             8th/11th level dwarven fighter/thief                 +
+   Victoria        11th level human vampiress/fighter                    +
+   Date:           1/6/579 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:           night                                                 +
+   Place:          the remote mountain town of Helgate                   +
+   Climate:        cold                                                  +
+   "Nobody knows anybody.  Not that well."                               +
+                                            - from _Miller's Crossing_   +

                       DCXXI.  Playing Catchup

  It was well below freezing outside, and the rain had long ago turned to
sleet - which was why the marshals were holed up in their barracks on this
thoroughly miserable night.  Some were officially on duty, while others
were just hanging around.

Razor Charlie:  (eyeing his cards)  Call.
Skektek:  Damn!  I fold.
Eduardo:  (says nothing)
Razor Charlie:  (lays down his cards)  Read 'em and weep, kid.
Eduardo:  (lays down his own cards, grinning widely)
Razor Charlie:  Well, fuck me.
Ys:  I do believe the lad is a natural!
Eduardo:  (scoops up the small pile of coins, raking them into the larger
  pile already in front of him)
Skektek:  (shaking his head)  A month ago, you'd never have come up with
  such a hand.

  Card games weren't the only field the boy was making progress in, either.
Under the careful and persistent tutelage of Otto and Razor Charlie, he'd
been training hard.  His thieving skills had improved, as had his swordplay.
Indeed, little Eduardo had begun to hit maturity, and wasn't so little
anymore.  Wiry muscles were beginning to develop on his body, and he was
already strong enough to wield a shortsword with relative ease.  Seeing
this, Otto had dug through his possessions and come up with an enchanted
shortsword that he'd been keeping as a spare.  Eduardo not only accepted
and treasured the gift, he had also expressed an interest in learning to
hone and oil the weapon; Otto had been only too happy to show the lad.
  Razor Charlie had made his contribution as well, sparring with the boy
when Otto was otherwise occupied.  Charlie had also been teaching him the
deadly art of knife-throwing; the kid wasn't nearly as deadly as the master,
but he could hit a rat at twenty paces more often than not.  All who knew
him were glad to see Eduardo make this sort of progress; after all, he
couldn't be a skinny little street urchin forever.

Eduardo:  Another game.
Razor Charlie:  (shaking his head)
Skektek:  What he said.  I'm not so sure-
Eduardo:  Come on, guys, don't be wimps.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces at the boy)  Deal.

  In a back room, Aja and Jutokai lay in bed together, still sweating from
recent exertions.

Jutokai:  Whew.  I'm drained.
Aja:  You'd better rest up and regain your strength.
Jutokai:  Again?!?
Aja:  (smiles evilly)

  These two had done little else in their spare time, not for months.
Actually, that wasn't entirely true.  Aja found her own spare time, which
no one else knew about, and used it to practice her dark arts.  In fact,
the graveyard on the far end of Helgate now held more than two score
potential servants...allies...minions.  The only question was what Aja
was going to do with them.
  Jutokai, like everyone else in town, knew nothing of this.  As far as
he was concerned, Aja was the only thing keeping Helgate from being
boring.  If it hadn't been for the attentions of the priestess, the
archer from the far West probably would have left Belphanior's service
by now.  As it was, he had been getting soft and lazy, finding less and
less time to practice and keep his skills honed.  Well, except for those
skills practiced in the privacy of the bedroom.

  The quiet and mysterious swordsman, Zhao, had initially suffered from
the same problem as Jutokai:  boredom.  Like the archer, Zhao needed more
action than the routine barroom brawl or robbery to keep him happy and
satisfied with his life.  Unlike the archer, Zhao had retained his rigid
discipline, practicing his dual-sword style for several hours daily.  He
also kept himself busy studying literature and art - what little he could
find in Helgate, at any rate.  Nevertheless, if a major battle came, the
strange little man with the twin swords would be more than ready.

  Neko, on the other hand, was leading a happy-go-lucky life.  Within a
few weeks of settling down in Helgate, she'd gained the reputation of
being able to drink any man under the table.  A rambunctious sort, she
spent a good bit of her off-duty time in the town's taverns, drinking
and making merry.  Many were those who tried to get her attentions...
and many were those who failed.  In fact, several of the male marshals
had a running bet going as to who'd be the first to come up with solid
evidence that the young woman had actually taken a man home with her.
The evidence to the contrary was, of course, scattered throughout the
town:  broken hearts and failed crushes, and in a few cases, scars and
aches.  Neko had no patience for the overly flirtatious - a double
standard, to be sure, but such was her way.

  As for Victoria...well, she had finally gotten over the fact that
Belphanior sometimes made decisions on her behalf without consulting
her first.  The truth - a truth which she could not seem to get him to
understand - was that she _enjoyed_ what she was...the power, the fear
she inspired in others, the immortality.  The only problem was that she
had all of these things only at night; however, she had been dealing
with that for much longer than anyone around her had been alive, and
she was used to the drawbacks of her vampirism.  One such drawback,
however, was quickly escalating into a major problem:  the handful of
small towns within a half-night's flight from Helgate had started to
catch on.  There were times now when she found doors and windows
securely shut and locked, protected by holy symbols or garlic.  Not
all of these methods could necessarily keep her out, but that wasn't
the point.  The point was that these towns were aware of a vampire in
their vicinity, despite all the careful precautions she had taken.
Had she slipped up, once or twice or perhaps more often?  All of her
feeding flights tended to blur together, and the truth eluded even
her long memory.  Something had to be done, though, before she flew
into some village for dinner and found a priest or, worse, a vampire
hunter waiting for her.
  She had considered feeding exclusively in Helgate, but she knew that
Belphanior would not tolerate it.  Unfortunately, she was running out
of options of late.

  The wispy thing did what it always did:  flew about, watching (and
interfering, in its usually minor way.)  Sometimes it interacted with
Belphanior, those in his castle, or his marshals.  Sometimes it flew
off to scare strangers or farm animals or pets.  Once in a while, it
sailed out into the mountain sky, tailing Victoria as her bat-form
flew away from town.  Basically, the wisp did whatever amused it at
any given moment.

  Early the next morning, it was Ys and Skektek who were on duty in
the barracks' common room when Belphanior returned, four others in
tow.  The marshals had known and worked for Belphanior long enough
to know that the elf meant business, the moment he walked through
the door.

Belphanior:  All-hands meeting in one hour.  We're going to wage war
  on an old enemy.

next:      to Blackmoor they go
released:  3/13/00
notes:     Sometimes I wonder if Skektek might actually be a specialist
  wizard, an invoker.  It's possible, you know.

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