Chapter #675

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                                   +   +
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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                 +
+     Jutokai        8th level human archer                               +
+     Neko           7th level human female thief                         +
+     Otto           8th/11th level dwarven fighter/thief                 +
+     Razor Charlie  9th level human fighter                              +
+     Skektek       12th level human wizard                               +
+     Ys            13th level reptilian fighter                          +
+     Zhao           8th level human swordsman (currently petrified)      +
+   Bosco           12th level halfling thief                             +
+   Mongo           18th level dwarven fighter                            +
+     Gorgo          9th level dwarven berserker                          +
+                                                                         +
+   summoned help:                                                        +
+     umber hulk                                                          +
+     shambling mound                                                     +
+                                                                         +
+   unwanted visitors:                                                    +
+     Bram          enigmatic vampire hunter                              +
+     Boltar        high priest of Pholtus                                +
+     Drak          rather cultured barbarian warrior                     +
+     Ghuust        weird necromantic medium                              +
+     Marko         grizzled warrior                                      +
+     Parekh        dark-skinned female wizard                            +
+                                                                         +
+     Nigel Bloodstone, general of Perrenland                             +
+     Tonga Dun, general of Ket                                           +
+   Date:           3/2/579 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:           early evening                                         +
+   Place:          the remote mountain town of Helgate                   +
+   Climate:        cold                                                  +
+   "The dead know only one thing:  it is better to be alive."            +
+                              - Private Joker, from _Full Metal Jacket_  +

                      DCLXXV.  Casualties of War

  After hours of fighting, magical destruction, and general carnage, the
key surviving players have basically faced off in one place.

Belphanior:  (watching Nigel Bloodstone and about two dozen soldiers
  approach)  Is it just me, or does he look a lot different without
  gleaming armor and a big warhorse?
Skektek:  An accurate statement.
Ys:  Indeed.
Mongo:  (clenches his hand over his hammer)  There won't be any more
  fighting today - Stormcrest and I will see to that.
Bosco:  (his usual lighthearted mood offset somewhat by all of the wanton
  killing and destruction he's seen today)  I'm kind of ready for things
  to settle down too.  (he looks around sadly)  I mean, this used to be
  someone's home.
Belphanior:  It still could be.
Mongo:  (looking around himself, he has his doubts, but decides to keep
  them to himself)
Nigel Bloodstone:  (steps forward, leaving his men ten feet behind)  Four
  hundred of my finest troops...almost all dead now.
Belphanior:  You brought it on yourself.  (he grits his teeth)  What did
  I tell you - you and that other one - before all of this started?  I
  told you that this wouldn't end without a lot of spilled blood.  Well,
Nigel Bloodstone:  I didn't start this fight!
Belphanior:  It doesn't matter - it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't
  been here.
Nigel Bloodstone:  (gazing around at the dead, dying, and wounded people
  and the destroyed buildings, craters in the streets, and rampant fires)

  Meanwhile, Tonga Dun and his men watched the discussion from the cover
of a half-collapsed building.  Much like his counterpart from Perrenland,
the Kettite general had managed to collect a couple dozen surviving men
as he moved through the town.  Unlike Nigel, Tonga still had a wizard and
a priest among his survivors.

Kettite soldier #57:  Let's get them!
Tonga Dun:  Silence!  We'll attack soon enough, but we have to hit them
  as hard and fast as we can.  (he looks at his two surviving spell-
  casters)  Now here's the plan...

  Back amidst the discussion...

Nigel Bloodstone:  It won't end here, whether I live or die, whether we
  take this town today or not.
Belphanior:  It sounds to me like you'd rather rule a barren crater than
  back down from this.
Nigel Bloodstone:  At this point, that's almost right.
Belphanior:  At least half of this town's people are now dead...not to
  mention maybe a thousand between you and the other guy.  Why won't you
  give it up?
Nigel Bloodstone:  (looks around wearily)

  It might have been that the general would have left in peace, and it
might have been that he wouldn't have.  Nobody would ever know, though,
for a wide column of flame appeared suddenly, descending directly on
Belphanior and Nigel!

Ys:  (steps back, seared by the heat)
Skektek:  Argh!
Mongo:  (wondering why his armor didn't absorb _that_ spell)
Bosco:  Whoa!  (he leaps back, then takes to the air)
various Perrenland soldiers:  (either slain, set aflame, or singed, none
  get away unscathed)
umber hulk:  (out of the range of the flames, it begins digging a hole)
shambling mound:  (shambles about, confused about what it's supposed to
  do now)
Bram:  (backs away from the flame-column)  An ambush!
Boltar:  A flame strike...(he looks around)  Aha.  Down the street - do
  you see them?
Parekh:  (spellcasting)  I most certainly do.
Marko:  (having no foes to meet with his steel, he simply watches)
Drak:  (pretty much in the same predicament, he readies his huge maul)
Ghuust:  I sensed that there would be more death afoot.
Bram:  It looks like that idiot general from Ket.

  Tonga Dun was coming, but slowly; his wizard had summoned four gigantic
spiders, which advanced in front of the general and his soldiers.  Parekh
was on the job, though.

shimmering sword of force:  (appears before the spiders)
giant spiders:  (hesitate slightly)
shimmering sword of force:  (slices down at one of the giant arachnids)
giant spider #1:  (cut in half, it perishes messily)
shimmering sword of force:  (moves to attack another giant spider)
Boltar:  (completes his own spell, bringing a spiritual hammer into play
  next to Parekh's sword)
giant spider #3:  (nearly flattened by the hammer's first strike)


Ys:  (watching Bram's group retaliate against Tonga Dun)  Most fortuitous.

  The column of flame was already dying out, revealing a charred but
almost unharmed Nigel Bloodstone and an infuriated Belphanior.

Belphanior:  (still smoking, and fairly badly burned)  Enough!  (using
  one spell-like power from one of his rings, he makes a tremendous leap,
  vaulting over his allies, Bram's people, the magical force-weapons,
  and the giant spiders)

  The elf landed amidst Tonga Dun's group, Blackrazor in hand.  He'd
already used the sword's power to haste himself, and a soldier was dead
before anyone even knew the elf was there.

Belphanior:  (sucking in the life force, his wounds heal muchly)  Ahhhhh.
  (he whirls, blocking another soldier's blow, then leaps at the Kettite
Kettite wizard #8:  Aie!
Belphanior:  (lops the man's right arm off)
Kettite wizard #8:  AAARGH!
Belphanior:  (spins about, sinking his blade in the wizard's heart)  Yes!

  Almost fully healed now, and riding a wave of life-force, the elf found
himself facing a half-dozen of the soldiers.

Belphanior:  (grins)

  On the other side of things, the monsters summoned by Belphanior were
still without direction, so they did what came naturally, within the
bounds of what little orders Belphanior had given them.

umber hulk:  (grabs a wounded Perrenland soldier and bites the man's head
  off)  Gronk!
shambling mound:  (wanders away, toward Helgate's swamp)  Blrk.
Skektek:  Hey!  They can't do that!
Ys:  That may be, but are you going to tell them that?
Skektek:  No.  (he surveys Belphanior's end of things, seeing the elf
  busy fighting five foes, and also seeing Tonga Dun preparing to do
  something)  I'm gonna get that bastard.  (pointing at the Kettite
  general, the wizard invokes a power of his thunder ring)

  A thin but powerful bolt of lightning arced out, zeroing in on Tonga

Tonga Dun:  What?!?  (struck by the electricity, he is blown back a good
  thirty feet)
Bosco:  (flying about, he drops one of his gas-globes down into the midst
  of a dozen soldiers who are behind the giant spiders)
Kettite soldiers:  (almost all of them fall asleep)
Bosco:  Yeah, that's the ticket!  (he sails off toward Belphanior's fight
  with the other soldiers)

  As if things weren't complicated enough, a mob of about fifty skeletons
and zombies, dripping with dirt and rot, came ambling from a side street.
It had taken Aja far, far longer than she'd planned or intended to raise
the force of undead; old Oswald had actually watched and asked questions
until he saw what was happening.  At that point, he'd fled, screaming, to
parts unknown.

Aja:  (walking along behind her undead force, she quickly realizes that
  she is too late to make any real impact)  Damn.

  Others, however, couldn't help but notice the fifty stinking, shambling
dead who walked toward them.

Parekh:  (having just finished chopping up the last of the giant spiders
  in the distance)  Eh?
Marko:  What the hell...?
Drak:  (sighs)  I guess I'll handle this.
Ghuust:  I shall deal with the dead...and their animator.

  The man seemed to glide toward the undead, his body not quite corporeal.
At the very sight of him, those skeletons and zombies in the lead stopped
in their tracks, trembling.

Aja:  What is this?  Go get him!
Ghuust:  (smiles, ever so thinly, and begins talking to the undead in a
  language that is definitely far from human)
Aja:  (frowns)

  The undead began shrieking, despite the fact that most of them didn't
have vocal cords, tongues, or throats for that matter.  The wailing reached
a high crescendo that caused other combatants to look over, and even caused
some of the unconscious to awaken.

Otto:  (sits up weakly)  What in the name of all the gods is that noise?

  Aja was just asking herself the same question, as Ghuust strode through
the ranks of her undead - who had parted to allow him passage.  The thin,
pale man with the scythe walked calmly toward her.

Aja:  Wh- what did you do to them?
Ghuust:  I simply made them aware of their true nature and what lies in
  store.  Most of their kind can't handle the truth.  But enough about
  them - it is you who I crave.
Aja:  (not liking the sound of that)  Not another pervert...
Ghuust:  (frowns)  I simply wish to bring you over to that which you
Aja:  I don't have to _die_ to worship a power of death!
Ghuust:  Actually, yes, you do.  (he swings his scythe)

  Lacking any weapon or skill to parry the larger weapon and its greater
reach, Aja stumbled back, the scythe's curved blade missing her by a mere
foot.  As the metal passed close, Aja felt a chill unlike anything she'd
ever felt before.

Ghuust:  It is inevitable.  Accept it.
Aja:  Never!

  Nearby, as the skeletons and zombies just stood there, doing nothing,
Boltar made his move.  The priest's holy symbol was held high, and his
chanting worked with the symbol to create a bright, holy light which
bathed the undead.  Each creature touched by the holy glow dissolved
into dust...and the odd thing was, they seemed almost happy about it.

  Elsewhere, Belphanior was unstoppable.  Between his greater-than-normal
strength, enhanced speed, and augmented power from those he slew, the elf
had made quick work of the soldiers he faced.  Even now, he charged at
Tonga Dun, who had just gotten back to his feet, axe in hand.

Tonga Dun:  After I get through with you, that Perrenlander's next.
Belphanior:  Funny, I was about to say the same thing.  But you won't get
  through me.
Tonga Dun:  We'll see about that.  (he leaps forward)

  The general had no intention of engaging his foe in a long, drawn-out
melee.  His first blow was aimed to kill, and it would have done so with
almost any other foe.  Belphanior, however, was at the top of his game
right now, and he sidestepped the lethal blow.

Belphanior:  (suffers only a minor nick along his side, then buries his
  sword in the other's heart)  Hah!
Tonga Dun:  (staggers back, impaled through the heart by Blackrazor...and
  begins to laugh)  Ha ha ha!
Belphanior:  Uh-oh.
Tonga Dun:  (with a sudden twist, he wrenches the blade from Belphanior's
  grip, lashing out again with his axe)
Belphanior:  (cut along his upper arm)  Argh!

  The elf's magical periapt went to work, helping these wounds to close
faster, but still, he didn't have his sword...and worse, Tonga Dun was
still laughing.

Tonga Dun:  Hah, hah, hah-

  Stormcrest smashed into the general's back with a satisfying crunching
sound, knocking the foe down.

Mongo:  (about fifty feet away, he waves to Belphanior)
Belphanior:  (waves back as he walks over to Tonga, grabs the hilt of
  his sword, and pulls it out)

  The elf came closer to dying than he had in a long while, for the
general stood suddenly, his axe swinging in a deadly arc.

Belphanior:  (somehow ducks at the last minute, and the axe's head merely
  grazes his scalp)  Whoa!
Tonga Dun:  (still laughing heartily)
Belphanior:  What _are_ you?
Tonga Dun:  Invincible.  (he chops at his foe again, almost knocking
  Blackrazor from Belphanior's hand, such is the force of the blow)
Belphanior:  Dammit!  (he steps back, trying to figure out how to find a
  moment or two to try some other form of attack)
Tonga Dun:  (hurls his axe suddenly, an awkward move that wouldn't work
  at long range, but in this case takes Belphanior by surprise)  Hah!
Belphanior:  (hit in the chest by the axe, he falls, coughing up blood)
  Aghk!  (he drops Blackrazor, looking down at the huge gash in his chest)
  Urk...(he falls onto his back, blood spraying from the gruesome wound)
Tonga Dun:  (retrieves his axe, grinning as he prepares to deliver a death-
  blow)  You see, I bear my own special weapon can harm
  me.  (he raises his axe)  Too bad for you.
Mongo:  (grabs the axe, tearing it from the general's hands)  No, too bad
  for _you_.
Tonga Dun:  What-
Mongo:  (punches the general in the face, knocking out teeth and splitting
  both of the foe's lips)  You shouldn't brag about your powers.  Even I'm
  not deaf, you know.  (he grabs Tonga in a bearhug)  Much less stupid.
Tonga Dun:  Argh!
Mongo:  (squeezing with all his might, he feels ribs crack)  You'll notice
  that I'm not using a weapon on you.
Tonga Dun:  (spits blood)  Argh!  (he hammers at the dwarf with his fists)
Mongo:  (ignores the blows, maintaining his grip)
Tonga Dun:  Aaaargh!
Mongo:  (feeling the man's spine giving, he redoubles his efforts)  Now...
Tonga Dun:  <CRACK>  (he goes limp)
Mongo:  Dumbass.  (he drops the body, then has a second thought and grabs
  Tonga's head, ripping it clean off with a single gory pull)  Not taking
  any chances with a bastard like this.

  The dwarf regarded the grisly trophy for a moment, then hurled it into
a burning building before turning to Belphanior, who was badly hurt but
not quite dead.

Mongo:  I don't have any healing potions or anything...
Belphanior:  That's okay...(he coughs up blood)  Just get me back to the
  others.  (he rips off a piece of his tunic and stuffs the cloth into
  his chest wound)  Hurry.
Mongo:  Uh...right.


Parekh:  That's all for the spiders.  (she looks past the spider corpses)
  And the Kettite soldiers.  (she looks past those corpses)  And their
Drak:  I didn't even get to fight this time.  I suppose I should be upset.
Parekh:  (points to the undead, which Boltar is almost done destroying)
  What's going on over there?
Drak:  Undead destruction.  You know that.
Parekh:  No, I mean with that woman and Ghuust.

  Aja was at the end of her strength and she knew it.  She wasn't used to
physical combat, especially not without her companions to back her up.
Worse, there was something about this odd foe...something that caused the
priestess of death to tremble with fear.

Ghuust:  (almost exultant)  Yessssss.
Bosco:  (flies down, backstabbing)  Noooooo.
Ghuust:  (having had to become material in order to attack Aja, he reels
  as his back is sliced open)  Urr.
Bosco:  Oh, dear.

  Whatever Ghuust was, he wasn't fully human.  No blood spurted from the
wound, which should have been lethal.  In fact, the skin just closed back
up as if the cut hadn't ever been there!

Ghuust:  Ah.
Bosco:  Holy shit.
Ghuust:  (turns to face Bosco)
Bosco:  Uh...
Ys:  Let me try, friend Bosco.

  The reptilian's huge sword cut the freak in two from head to foot,
gouging a foot-deep trench in the street as well.

Ghuust:  (falls into two halves)  Sssss.
Bosco:  Thanks.
Ys:  My pleasure.  (he extends a hand toward Aja)  Are you well?
Aja:  (pointing wordlessly to something behind Ys)
Ys:  Eh?  (he turns)
Ghuust:  (standing there, looking none the worse for wear)
Bosco:  I didn't even _see_ that!
Ghuust:  (swings his scythe at Ys)
Ys:  (blocks the weapon with his sword...and feels a paralyzing chill in
  his sword-arm)  Aie!  (his mighty weapon drops from fingers that can't
  feel it anymore)  What...?
Ghuust:  (ignores the reptilian, walking right by him and advancing on
Aja:  (standing there in a trancelike state)
Ghuust:  (puzzled)  Eh?
Bosco:  (flying down again)  Man, I don't know why you've got such a thing
  for her, but I can't allow it-
Ghuust:  (half-turns, reaching up and touching the halfling lightly on the
Bosco:  Aaaaaagh!  (his mind fills with terrifying visions of death, and
  he falls from the air, landing on his rump before curling up into a
  little ball)  Brrr.
Ghuust:  (scythe held ready, he approaches Aja)  Fear not, my child.
  Your time has come.
Aja:  (smiling grimly)  Oh, I don't think so.

  While Ghuust had been occupied with Aja's allies, the priestess had
retrieved a thin circlet of blackest metal.  This item, picked up
some time ago in a foul place of evil, had never been seen by any of her
companions.  Ever since that day, it had exerted its considerable power
and influence on the priestess, intruding into her mind and causing her
to do strange things as it sought to gain total control.
  Today - thanks to a combination of Aja's weariness, stress, and fear -
it had finally triumphed.  As Aja donned the circlet, tiny arcs of black
energy danced around the item, forming a weird nimbus around its wearer's

Ghuust:  (his eyes widen) can't be!
Aja:  (points at the foe)

  A beam of black light shot from the priestess' fingertip, hitting Ghuust
and engulfing him in a sheath of dark flames.

Ghuust:  (screams, but no sound comes out of his mouth)

  The eldritch fires consumed their victim, and within moments, he was
gone - body, clothes, scythe, and all.

Aja:  (smiles to herself, then floats into the air)

  Meanwhile, Belphanior's people had all regrouped - or more accurately,
been regrouped by others who were in better shape.  Belphanior was direly
wounded, and would probably be dead by now if not for his periapt of wound
closure.  Ys was just now regaining feeling in his sword-arm, and Bosco
was essentially catatonic.  Gorgo, Jutokai, Razor Charlie, and Otto had
all finally regained consciousness, but were all quite weakened.  Neko was
still nowhere to be found, having been absent since jumping off of the
building before it was turned to mud.
  And there was another major combatant, for yet again, Nigel Bloodstone
had persevered.  Ragged, bloody, and dirty, the general still stood tall
and proud.  The dozen Perrenland soldiers who were still alive took heart
from their leader, and stood at his side, ready to live or die with him,
though the latter outcome seemed more likely.

Nigel Bloodstone:  (looks around wearily)
Belphanior:  (trying to decide what to do next)
Mongo:  (in a hushed voice)  Otto wants to talk to you, right now - said
  it's "condition red" whatever that means.
Belphanior:  (makes his way over to the dwarf's side)  Otto?
Otto:  (barely able to sit up, he motions for the elf to lean over, then
  whispers something in his ear)

  Meanwhile, Bram and his four companions had also regrouped, preparing
to defend themselves against Aja, who was flying toward all of these
gathered survivors, black flames dancing around her body.  The wind that
preceded her was cold indeed, and everyone - from stoutest warrior to
grimmest killer - couldn't help but look up at the priestess' approach.

Nigel Bloodstone:  (eyes the floating figure, knowing trouble when he
  sees it)  Men, stand behind me.
Bram:  (to his people)  I think we have a problem.
Aja:  (smiles grimly)
Belphanior:  (wondering what trick his priestess has up her sleeve)
Aja:  Thanks to you - all of you - my army is now a thousand strong.
Otto:  Whoa.

  The voice was not the one that those in Helgate had grown used to over
the years.  Though feminine, it was deeper and stronger than it should
have been.  It also had a tinge of cruelty...of evil.

Otto:  (weakly, to Belphanior)  That's not the Wee Jas voice we heard
  that time in her temple...
Belphanior:  No, it isn't, and I bet we're in deep shit.
Skektek:  Uh...Aja?
Aja:  (regarding them all through eyes that have turned jet-black)  The
  one you knew as Aja is gone.  I am in control now.
Belphanior:  Oh, fuck.  She's possessed.
Aja:  No.  "Possession" implies that one's original self still exists in
  some form.  That is most definitely not the case.  (raises her arms,
  chanting words that make no sense to any of those present, be they
  humans, elves, dwarves, magi, or priests)

  The woman's figure was quickly sheathed in a cocoon of black energy,
which several present put to the test, sending arrows, spears, and bolts
of magical energy at it.  None of the attacks penetrated the black fire
that all but obscured Aja's floating body from view.  The watchers on the
ground backed away, not sure what to do next.

Belphanior:  What the hell is going on?
Nigel Bloodstone:  Whatever it is, it can't be good.
Boltar:  On the contrary, it reeks of the foulest evil.
Parekh:  (looking around as she casts a defensive spell upon herself)
  Something is happening.
Otto:  Well, no shit.
Parekh:  (shoots the dwarf an angry glance)
Mongo:  (to Belphanior)  Do you want me to try and hit her with my
Belphanior:  Uh...
Otto:  Do it, and hurry.  No telling what she's up to.
Jutokai:  No!

  The debate was ended by Aja herself - or whatever she now was - as
she began "glowing" with black light.  Even looking at her was painful
to say the least, but she wasn't being still anymore.  Dark tendrils
of energy spread out from her, arcing hundreds of feet through the air
to the farthest reaches of Helgate.

Boltar:  (puts his hands to his temples)  Argh!
Bram:  What is it?
Boltar:  Evil...strong evil...painfully strong...(he sinks to his knees)
Belphanior:  (shouting to be heard over the crackling of the dark
  energies)  Aja!
Aja:  (in the center of the dark magic, she ignores the elf, if she can
  even hear him)
Otto:  You should have let Mongo take her out...
Aja:  (speaking in the same deep voice as before, but much louder, even
  more so than a spell of shouting)  AJA IS GONE...GONE FOREVER.  IT WAS
Jutokai:  (sighs sadly)  Well, this sure does explain some things.
Belphanior:  (yells up at the floating figure)  Who...what _are_ you?
Aja:  (ignores the question, instead looking around, in all directions)

  There was a terrible sound then, the sum of the wailing of a thousand
lost souls.  Throughout the town, corpses had risen; some were relatively
whole, while others were in pieces.  Yet they came, one and all, walking
or dragging themselves toward the town's center...the reanimated bodies
of two armies and one town, coming to take their revenge on the living.
  As the walking corpses closed in, Aja floated above the living foes at
the center of the ever-tightening circle of the dead, black flames dancing
around her in an evil cacophony of death.

Ys:  This is _not_ good.

  Meanwhile, high above Helgate, in the dark castle that served as
Belphanior's home, Victoria had just risen for the evening.  It didn't
take her long to notice the multiple plumes of smoke that were rising
from the town below.

Victoria:  (looking out of a window)  Hmm.
Eduardo:  Told you!

  The lad, sent up to the castle hours ago, had made quite an effort to
find and awaken the vampiress.  However, bright and competent as he was,
he didn't have the physical or magical power to get into the area where
Victoria slept by day.  Thus, he'd settled for beating on the bedchamber
door until the vampiress emerged.

Victoria:  Don't worry about it.  You did fine.
Eduardo:  (still unconvinced, he examines the shortsword that Otto gave
  him some time ago)  We need to do something.
Victoria:  I will.
Eduardo:  What about me?
Victoria:  I need you to stay here and look after Daphne and Phoebe.
Eduardo:  Dammit, not again-
Victoria:  (glares at the youth)
Eduardo:  (ceases his protests, sulking)
Victoria:  (opens one of the sitting room's ornate windows)  I'll be
  back.  (she prepares to leap out into the mists)
Eduardo:  (shakes his head)
Daphne:  (emerges from the next room, plainly scared)  What's going on?
Phoebe:  Are we going to be okay?
Eduardo:  (sighs)

  Before Victoria could depart, however, she was suddenly struck by a
wave of...something.  She wasn't sure exactly what it was, because the
sheer force of it knocked her to the floor.  The power she'd just felt
resembled the somewhat unpleasant feeling that accompanied a priest's
attempts to turn her, but it also resembled the similarly unpleasant
feeling that accompanied an evil priest's attempts to control her.

Victoria:  (gets to her feet, fighting nausea)  Oh...
Eduardo:  (rushes over to help)  What's wrong?
Victoria:  (weakly)  I...don't know...

  Meanwhile, in what was left of Helgate, all hell had broken loose -
literally.  With almost all of Belphanior's group injured, weakened,
or both, it fell to the few to protect the many...

Ys:  (swings his sword, his weakened arm still more than enough to
  shatter a skeleton and also knock a zombie back with a split head)
  Damn...were I not weakened...
Mongo:  (wallops an entire wave of oncoming undead foes with a swing
  of Stormcrest)  No time to worry about that now!

  Nearby, Nigel Bloodstone and his handful of soldiers fought with skill
and bravery to rival any of Belphanior's people.  The general was an
experienced swordsman and a strong fellow, and his magical sword, shield,
and armor made him damn near unstoppable.  His men fought on either side
of him, taking on their share of the undead as they made sure that their
leader wasn't outflanked.

Nigel Bloodstone:  (swings his sword at a ghoul, severing its arm at the
ghoul:  Aaaaaaaieee!  (it falls, but still claws its way toward the
  general)  Grrrr...
Perrenland soldier #1:  (decapitates the thing as it moves along the
  bloodstained ground)
Perrenland soldier #2:  (knocks a zombie back with a split head)

  The survivors from Perrenland fought alongside Belphanior's people,
battling the common foe.  No words had been spoken; rather, both sides
simply understood and acted, helping one another.

Perrenland soldier #3:  (seeing a skeleton lurching toward Otto, he
  slashes at the bony foe, felling it)
ghoul:  (charges in behind the skeleton, filthy claws raking the air)
Perrenland soldier #4:  (cuts the thing in two with his battleaxe)
Perrenland soldier #5:  (stabs a zombie in the face)

  Bram's people were no slouches, either.  They had come prepared to
fight a vampire, but they were fully capable of holding their own
against other undead...

Bram:  (whacks a ghoul across the head with his black cane)
ghoul:  (screams from the cut on its grimy scalp, then screams again as
  its skin begins to smolder...and burn)

  Bram turned, knocking a skeleton back, the same effect being visited
on that foe - for his cane was more than just a walking stick with a
silver tip.  Any unliving being touched by the item suffered as if
doused in holy water, an unusual but indisputably useful property.
  As for Boltar, the priest didn't even bother with weaponplay; his
morningstar _was_ his holy symbol, and that made it a conduit for the
holy light of Pholtus, as the undead quickly learned to their dismay...

Boltar:  Away, spawn of Hell!

  The pure white light issuing from the weapon was bright enough to make
the priest's allies uncomfortable.  To the undead, it was downright
lethal.  Rotting flesh and chalky bone melted before the holy power of
Pholtus, channeled through the morningstar.  Skeleton, zombie, ghoul,
wight - it didn't matter; within moments, all foes within thirty feet
of the priest had ceased to exist.
  Others, of course, had their own ways...

Drak:  (looming over all other combatants, he stands alone, the better
  to mash undead into paste without having to worry about hitting any
  of his allies)
wight:  (rakes at the man's leg)
Drak:  Argh!  (he wallops the thing with his maul, pulverizing it)  Take
  that, you bastard!
zombie:  (tries to sneak in and attack, but being a zombie, it just isn't
  that sneaky)
Drak:  (swats the foe, knocking it away in a heap)  Bah!

  Parekh was busy plying her magic, as Marko stayed close, keeping her
safe from random undead attacks.

Marko:  (meets a charging ghoul with his sword)
ghoul:  (its head sails back as its body keeps moving forward)
Marko:  (simply sidesteps the blood-spewing corpse)
Parekh:  (completes her spell)  Ah.

  Amidst the ranks of the undead - which were plentiful - there appeared
an array of red steel blades.  Perhaps a hundred all told, these swords
were of all sizes and makes.  As those foes nearest to this phenomenon
watched, unsure of its meaning, the mass of blades began moving...dancing
around one another.  It didn't take long for them to reach blinding - and
deadly - speeds, generating a loud noise that resembled both whistling
and humming.

Boltar:  A blade barrier!
Parekh:  No, better.

  Suddenly, the array of blades _moved_, surging right into the massed
ranks of the undead!

zombie:  (shredded)
skeleton:  (chopped)
ghoul:  (diced)

  It was a can't-miss situation; there were so many undead, and they were
unable to move fast enough to escape the blades.  Within moments, almost
a hundred foes were slain, cut to pieces as the blades cleared a large
area of the street.

Skektek:  (lying there, half-conscious and trying to muster the strength
  to stand and cast a spell)  Wow...
Parekh:  (smiles smugly)

  Despite their courage, skill, and power, these various newly-allied
living combatants were still completely surrounded by many hundreds of
undead foes, and were lucky to still be alive at all.  They hadn't had
the time to get into any kind of proper defensive formation, or to
summon more allies, or to work up any kind of magical defenses.  Worse,
Aja - or more accurately, whatever had taken her form - was working
some new and undoubtedly sinister incantation, dark energies flowing
about her floating figure.
  It didn't look good for the forces of the living...which was why
Belphanior was working out another solution.  Still weak from the
horrendous chest wound he'd suffered while fighting Tonga Dun, the
elf had nevertheless gotten to his feet and cast a spell.  His allies
had no idea what was happening until they were suddenly whisked from
Helgate's main street and transported into a large sitting room within
a castle...

Bram:  What the hell...?!
Parekh:  Teleportation.  (she turns to Belphanior)  Somewhere far
  from there, I hope?
Belphanior:  (wipes sweat and blood from his brow)  Actually, we're
  in my castle, right above town.
Parekh:  Oh.
Belphanior:  Trust me, it's the best place to be right now.
Nigel Bloodstone:  (looks around, mentally studying the castle's
  layout and potential fortification options)
Drak:  Why'd you bring us here?  Not that I'm complaining, but...
Belphanior:  I could have left you...any of you.  (he nods to Nigel)
  Even him.  So nobody should be complaining.
Nigel Bloodstone:  (about to retort, he smells something foul, and
skinny zombie:  (standing there trying to be inconspicuous)  Gleep?
Nigel Bloodstone:  (dispatches the thing with a single blow of his
  sword)  Must have gotten pulled into the spell with the rest of
Bram:  Well, you have our thanks for pulling us from the fray.
Belphanior:  It didn't seem like a battle that we could win, so I
  bought us some time.  Not to mention that I've got people in this
  castle who I care about.
Boltar:  (remarking more to himself than anyone else)  That was an
  awfully big mob of undead.  I don't think I've ever seen so many

  Just then, Victoria staggered into the room, assisted by Eduardo and
trailed by the servant girls Daphne and Phoebe.  It was impossible to
say who was more surprised to see the other:  the vampiress or the
vampire hunters.

Bram:  You.
Victoria:  You!
Marko:  YOU!
Belphanior:  (to Victoria)  You?
Otto:  (croaks something incoherent)
Drak:  In the midst of all this, we've found the vampire...amazing.
  (he starts to increase in size, then stops to avoid hitting his head
  on the ceiling)
Boltar:  She's in league with that woman in the town below, no doubt.
Parekh:  Or else soon will be.
Victoria:  (snarls at the outsiders)  I don't know what you're talking
  about, but I'll gut the first one of you bastards who tries anything.
Bram:  Harsh words, from a vampire without a hostage.
Nigel Bloodstone:  (looking around at the various participants in this
  situation)  Forgive me for being just a little confused, but...what
  in the name of all Hells is going on?
Boltar:  We're about to put a vampire out of our misery, that's what.
Belphanior:  (speaks with surprising strength)  No.
Bram:  Pardon?
Belphanior:  I said no.  She's an ally, and a trusted one....definitely
  more than any of you.
Boltar:  That matters not-
Belphanior:  (slowly turning his sword over in his hands)  Oh, I think
  it does.
Nigel Bloodstone:  People, we don't have time for this!  It won't take
  long for our foes to figure out where we are and come looking.
Mongo:  (wipes some black blood from his arm)  Well said.
Nigel Bloodstone:  (nods at the dwarf)
Bram:  If you think we're going to just tolerate this vampire woman...
Mongo:  That's exactly what you're going to do.
Marko:  Says who?
Mongo:  Says me, because if you make any trouble, I'm gonna let my
  hammer do the talking...and as you've probably noticed, it talks
  pretty damn loud.  (he turns to Belphanior, then Bram)  I'm an
  outsider here, but even I can see one thing clearly:  we've all got
  a bigger, meaner enemy on the way, and if we're going to make it
  through this, we have to work together.  No more damn bullshit, no
  more stupid squabbling!
Belphanior:  Well...yeah.
Nigel Bloodstone:  It's pretty obvious...what sort of idiot wouldn't
  see that?
Bram:  (shrugs)  Much as I don't like it, that makes sense.  A truce,
  for now.
Victoria:  And later?
Mongo:  We'll worry about later if we make it.
Parekh:  (having had more than enough of this)  I'm teleporting home.
  This isn't my fight at all.  (she begins working a spell)
Belphanior:  (instantly suspecting a double-cross, he realizes from
  her spellcasting semantics that she actually _is_ teleporting away)
Drak:  (already at her side, he is quickly joined by Bram, Marko, and
  even Boltar)
Mongo:  Cowards.
Belphanior:  (just watches them, coldly)
Parekh:  (to Belphanior)  As you just said...whatever.  (she completes
  her spell)  Farewell for now.

  Nothing happened.

Parekh: that's odd.
Marko:  I don't get it.
Belphanior:  (at the window, he regards the view)  I think I do.

  Outside, the night sky was crisscrossed with undulating tendrils of
dark energy, just like those that had fluctuated around Aja's form
not too long ago.

Parekh:  (eyes wide)  Powerful magic indeed, this!
Belphanior:  Somehow, she's cut us off from the outside.
Mongo:  Can she do that?
Bram:  Considering that we don't know exactly what "she" is, it's fairly
  likely.  Boltar?
Boltar:  (shrugs)  I've never seen anyone - undead or priest or wizard -
  pull anything like this.
Parekh:  Me either.
Drak:  So we're all stuck here with each other, whether we like it or
Marko:  (always the practical warrior, he turns to Belphanior)  What's
  the best way to block the entrances?  Windows, doors, and such?
Nigel Bloodstone: tell.

  Somewhere below, the possessed Aja planned its next move.  Had the
force in control been an actual living (or even unliving) being, the
logical thing to do would have been flight, hiding out somewhere dark
and quiet and remote while building a power base.  However, the circlet
of black metal atop Aja's head wasn't a true, distinct being - it was
an evil relic, created in times past by a grim god of death.  The item
was automatically drawn to the host body most suited for it.  From the
day of its initial unearthing until now, that host body had been Aja's.
  Today, however, it had sensed several even more powerful host bodies
in its vicinity.  Simply enough, it was drawn to them; this was in its
very nature.  It would take the most powerful of them, just as it had
taken Aja's physical form.  Any given body was just a stepping-stone to
another, more powerful one.  The fact that such stepping-stones were
burned out along the way meant nothing to the evil relic.
  Thus it was that the possessed form of the priestess made its way up
to the castle atop Helgate, followed by many hundreds of undead lackeys.

  When the attack came, however, it was nothing like what the defenders
had prepared for, with their carefully-laid ambushes and traps and magic
protections.  All of the contingencies they'd planned for, prepared for,
and summoned extra help for didn't take place.  What _did_ happen was as
simple as it was unexpected:  some huge force smashed into the side of
the castle, collapsing about four floors' worth of outer wall and parts
of the interior structure as well.  For most of those inside, the attack
was as rude a surprise as it was a nasty one.  Jutokai, Razor Charlie,
Skektek, Marko, and two of the Perrenland soldiers, as well as both
Daphne and Phoebe, were smashed by rubble large and small, all of them
knocked unconscious at the very least.  Bosco only suffered a small hit
on the head, mostly because he was standing behind the armored Mongo.

Mongo:  (battered by some rocks, but otherwise okay, he hefts his hammer)
  Damn, they blew a hole in the fucking wall...
Bosco:  (staggering about, bleeding from the cut on his scalp)  Whoah...

  Similarly, Gorgo would have been flattened by a huge chunk of stone,
save for the fact that Drak happened to be right in front of him.

Drak:  (his in the chest by the rock)  Ungh!

  The barbarian's giant-level strength alone enabled him to survive this
impact, though his ribs were badly bruised and he was knocked back into
Gorgo, slashing his back in a few places thanks to the latter's spiked
armor.  Both warriors went down in a cursing heap.  Not five feet from
this, the third of the five Perrenland soldiers watched in amazement as
a slab of rock whizzed right past him, knocking a hole in the wall behind.
  Victoria deftly dodged a jagged chunk of rock, even as Eduardo tackled
the still-weakened Otto, knocking him down and out of the path of the same
deadly missile.  Ys was not so fortunate; he wasn't seriously hurt by the
debris from the initial blast, but then he went down beneath a collapsing
piece of the ceiling above.  Nigel Bloodstone was hit by several smaller
chunks of flying rock, but his armor (and some measure of luck) saved him.
As for the others - Belphanior, Bram, Boltar, and the other two soldiers
from Perrenland - they had the good fortune to be standing close to the
dark-skinned Parekh.  The sorceress had some sort of automatically-invoked
protection, for rubble bounced away from her in a sizable radius.

Parekh:  (already working a spell)
Belphanior:  (pointing at the gaping hole in the side of the castle)  Here
  they come...
Boltar:  (picks up his morningstar, which he had dropped when the entire
  castle was shaken by the explosion of impact)  I stand ready.
Perrenland soldier #5:  For that?!?

  There was no sign of Aja, but a great horde of undead foes funneled
through the huge gap.  Many of them weren't the minor sorts battled
earlier this day, but rather the intelligent, more dangerous varieties.

mummy:  (lurches toward the adventurers)  Gg-ggg-gggggg...
vampire:  (sails into the castle, cloak billowing behind him)  Ah.
wraith:  (floats through the hole in the outer wall)  Souls...more souls!
ghost:  (right behind the wraith)  Ooooooo.
skeletal giant:  (clambers over the broken wall, waving a gigantic club
  of jagged bone)
Belphanior:  Damn...
Boltar:  How is she _doing_ this?!?  I've never seen such evil power, not
  like this...

  Of course, there were dozens of lesser undead preceding the others,
the better to occupy the defenders and keep them from targeting the more
powerful undead.  There seemed no end to them - they just poured in,
pushing those ahead of them, filling the chamber.  And of course, the
confrontation wouldn't have been complete without the possessed Aja, who
finally floated in behind all of these other forces.

Aja-being:  (hovers, grinning evilly, dark energies flickering all about
  her form)
Nigel Bloodstone:  (to his three soldiers who are still able)  Take
  heart, men!  This battle will be the stuff that legends are made of!
Drak:  (gets back to his feet)  Hopefully not the bad kind.
Belphanior:  (smirks, then hastes himself with Blackrazor)
Angus:  (having been positioned across the room when the great blast took
  place, he lumbers in the direction of the foes)

  The floor, however, was badly weakened, and gave way beneath the great
weight of the iron golem.  Angus fell, immediately disappearing from view
as he smashed through the next floor as well.

  The events that followed were chaotic and practically unaccountable.
The giant-sized Drak, no longer hindered by a low ceiling, traded blows
with the skeletal colossus.  Nigel Bloodstone led his men in a toe-to-toe
melee with the mummy and three ghouls.  Otto let bolts fly at targets of
choice, sometimes wounding them, sometimes making no impact.  Gorgo went
ripping into the mob, shredding rotten flesh and smashing fetid skulls
at every turn.  Boltar let fly with rays of searing light, burning more
than a dozen undead foes to dust at once.  Mongo took out the flickering
wraith with a single blow of Stormcrest, after withstanding the foe's
chilling touch.  Bram invoked a power of the boots he wore and leapt into
the air, taking on the vampire all by himself.  Parekh unleashed a wave
of fire, burning a score of the undead and clearing her side some much-
needed breathing room.  Bosco flitted about, slashing and stabbing at
targets of opportunity.  Even Eduardo got in on the action, gutting a
zombie with his enchanted shortsword, then facing off against a skeleton.
  It was Victoria, however, who went right for the proverbial jugular,
sailing up into the air to meet Aja one-on-one.

Aja:  Yessssss...
Victoria:'re the source of all this power I felt.
Aja:  Join me!  Together we can rule this place...and then, the world...
Victoria:  Aren't you forgetting that you have to win the battle first?
  (she slashes at the other woman)
Aja:  (protected by dark tendrils of energy that intercept the weapon
  and deflect its strike)  It is as good as won.  (she locks gazes with
  the vampiress)
Victoria:  Ack!

  The intangible force that Aja (or more accurately, the dark circlet on
her head) exerted was as primal as it was strong.  Victoria, however,
was an old and powerful undead being, and didn't immediately fall under
the mental control being applied by the foe.  However, it took every bit
of willpower she could muster to resist the evil force...

Victoria:  (falls to the ground, her teeth gritted)  Rrrrr...rrr...

  Mongo, meanwhile, had seen this out of the corner of his eye, and he
reckoned that maybe, just maybe, Aja might be more vulnerable to attack
while occupied with the vampiress.  It seemed an effort worth making...

Mongo:  (hurls Stormcrest with all his might)
Aja:  (although the flickering black energies shield her, she reacts as
  if hit)  Ungh!
Mongo:  Whoa...(he catches the hammer)  Get her, guys - get her now!
Otto:  (gets his crossbow reloaded, just as a wight charges at him)
wight:  Hsssss!
Nigel Bloodstone:  (splits the thing's skull with a swing of his sword)
  Get the one in the air - I'll cover you down here!
Otto:  Right.  (he whirls, aiming his weapon at the floating Aja)

  The bolt was magical, as Otto hadn't had time to pick and choose when
grabbing for ammunition in the heat of battle.  Amazingly, it passed
between the arcs of dark energy and stuck in Aja's thigh!

Aja:  Argh!
Otto:  Yeah!
Mongo:  Pour it on!  (he hurls his hammer again)

  The hammer still didn't make direct contact, but its force impacted on
the target's mystical defenses, staggering her again.

Aja:  ENOUGH.  (she makes hand motions, and a low roaring sound begins)

  In the air above the possessed priestess, a small sphere of blackness
had materialized...and was growing in size.

Mongo:  (remembering how his henchman Flint met his end, years ago)
  Shit!  Is that one of those killer-sphere things?
Parekh:  Annihilation?  I don't think so...more like a gateway.
Bram:  But to where?
Boltar:  Nowhere good, I'd wager.

  Though the dark sphere was barely ten feet across, that was still
sufficient to allow things to pass through from the other side.  A huge
skeletal snake issued forth, at least thirty feet long, its skull that
of a human but with prominent pointed fangs.

skeletal snake:  Sssssss...(with blinding speed, it lashes at Gorgo, fangs
Gorgo:  What the hell?!?  (he meets the thing's skull with his spiked
skeletal snake:  (rebounds, never pausing for a moment as it strikes at
  the next closest foe)
Bram:  (bitten in the torso)  ARGH!  (he goes down, the twin holes in his
  chest bubbling with some foul venom)
Mongo:  Dammit!  (he whacks the snake with his hammer, punching a hole in
  its skull)
skeletal snake:  (thrashes about wildly, spewing bits of shattered bone)
Drak:  (grabs the thing by the tail and swings it, knocking several undead
  foes out of the way)  Bastards!  (he lets the snake-thing go, and it
  slams into a wall)
Boltar:  (rushes to the side of the fallen Bram, who is bleeding profusely
  as well as writhing in extreme pain)  Poison...just be still.  (he works
  a spell)

  Just then, another weird creature emerged from the dark portal.  The
thing was tall and humanoid, with a body composed of what appeared to be
solid shadow.  Two pale yellow "eyes" glowed from within the being's head.

shadow-thing:  (glides toward Gorgo)
Gorgo:  Huh?  (he swings his spiked mace, tearing shadowy bits from the
  foe's body)
shadow-thing:  (reaches out and touches the dwarf)
Gorgo:  (falls as if poleaxed)
Mongo:  Gorgo!  (he charges at the shadowy creature, dragging a ghoul
  that just grabbed onto his arm)
ghoul:  Bla-aa-aa-aa...
gigantic six-armed skeletal warrior:  (lumbers out of the portal, heading
  right for Drak, its six swords and axes raised in unison)
Drak:  Whoa.  (he brings his great hammer up and around, but the attack
  is blocked by two of the foe's six blades)
gigantic six-armed skeletal warrior:  (two of its other arms bring their
  weapons to bear)
Drak:  (impaled by a sword and chopped by an axe, he falls, blood gushing
  from his wounds)  Argh!
Parekh:  DRAK!  (with a wave of her hand, she sends a blast of fire into
  the six-armed skeleton, scorching it and knocking it away)
mummy with black bandages:  (emerges from the portal, bearing down on
  Bram, who has just gotten to his feet in time to meet the attack of a
  wraith)  Gl-gl-glk!
Bram:  Eh?  (he tries to sidestep the attack while still avoiding the
  wraith's attacks, but he is a fraction too slow)
black-wrapped mummy:  (grabs the man by the throat, throttling him)
Bram:  (his flesh begins to decay and flake off)  AaaaaaAAAAAAAARGH!
Boltar:  No!  Bram!

  Belphanior had seen enough.  Even if the allies were able to defeat
the undead who were present right now - and that was looking like a big
"if" - there was no telling what else might still come through that

Belphanior:  No more...(he speaks a few simple command words)

  Quite some time ago, the elf had set up the ultimate fallback plan,
one that would drastically change the course of any battle in which
it was used...and quite possibly not for the better.  A simple lever,
triggered from afar, caused a bar to snap, allowing a counterweight
to lower, which in turn opened the lid on a certain arcane box...thus
unleashing the magic-negating power of the anti-magic sphere gained
from Lao Khan's island so long ago and brought to Helgate in more
recent times.

  No one - not Belphanior, any other spellcaster present, or the
possessed Aja - could have predicted what happened next.  In fact, it
might have made a good one-time experiment and study by some insane
wizard.  The portal that Aja had opened to some grim nether plane was
instantly negated, collapsing upon itself with a space-bending release
of power.  It took all of its denizens with it; every undead being that
had come through that gateway was sucked back into it as it closed.  As
well, the source of the gateway - Aja's magical circlet - was torn from
its wearer's head.  Some flesh and hair came with it, such was the force
exerted on the unholy relic; it was pulled through the portal, vanishing
from sight just as the black sphere disappeared.
  The ensuing effect on Aja was sudden and terrible.

Aja:  (her skin and flesh begin to crack and crumble)  AaaaiieeEEEEE!
Belphanior:  Good gods...
Aja:  (falls apart into a pile of bloody dust)
Boltar:  Ugh.
Otto:  (hearing a deep creaking sound, he looks up)  Uh-oh.
Parekh:  (gesturing wildly)  It's going to-

  Already weakened by the previous blast, the castle's upper floors came
tumbling down.  The entire structure collapsed in a massive heap of rock,
rubble, and dust, burying everyone and everything that was still within.
There were a few assorted undead scattered about, here and there, but
they were now without purpose or direction.  Some would go on to live in
the remnants of the town below, while others would wander off into the
mountains, never to be seen again.
  The dust settled, and silence reigned over the ruin of the castle from
which Helgate had been ruled for the last four years.

  Outside the town, a sole figure watched the castle's fall with a sigh.

Neko:  Well...that's that.

  The young woman turned her horse, spurring it away from Helgate and
the destruction within.  Her immediate plans weren't set yet, but she
knew that they didn't involve anything that remained in the ruins of the
remote town.

next:      aftermath
released:  9/18/00
notes:     Whether you liked this story or not, you should know something:
  I have come to despise the writing of overly complicated ones like this
  turned out to be.  I HATE having so many characters (friends and foes
  alike) running around.  I'm really going to try not to do this any more.
    Please don't send me mail asking what happened to Belphanior, his
  marshals, his allies, his foes, or anyone else - because I won't tell
  you.  Please don't send me mail with suggestions as to their fates -
  because I already know, I'm just keeping you in suspense for a while.

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