The next evening, Skald

Much of what I am now about to record was told to me by my fellow adventurers. Our final (I hope) and dramatic confrontation with Doctor Dominiani, The Good and Kind Fiend from Hell amazingly left all of us alive, though I am embarrassed to admit that I slept through some of it. Even now, I can hardly believe what happened.
After watching Dominiani disappear into the mausoleum, we hurried back to the chamber where we'd originally fought him to wait out yet another night. In vain, we attempted to sleep in shifts. Thibor paced with frustrated rage, periodically kicking at the bits of shattered sarcophagi. All of us were tense and discouraged, not to mention in pain from our many wounds.
But we had to rest. Lisha and I took the first shift, both of us remaining alert and watchful. We'd once again piled the heavy chests in front of the door, and I was relieved for the precaution when the flock of bats again attempted to gain entrance. Thankfully, nothing worse bothered us during those few, nerve-wracking hours.
Later, I awoke from a fitful sleep to hear Demetrius screaming. As I sat up, I heard a pounding thud against the doorway, and saw the top chest rock a little.
"Something's trying to get in!" Demetrius shouted as we all stood and peered sleepily at the door.
"Really?" said Vanth.
Lisha rushed over to where Demetrius was holding the chests in place and moved to help him.
"We can handle this," she announced calmly after a moment. "Why don't the rest of you go back to sleep." Demetrius frowned at her, but said nothing.
Thibor blinked at her in astonishment. I shook my head, amazed and not a little envious of Lisha's uncanny ability to handle the most bizarre and frightening encounters with cool aplomb.
"What if you get tired?" Alanna protested.
"We'll yell for help."
"Well, all right," Thibor conceded. He was obviously uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping while the fighters did all the work. But they were the only ones strong enough to hold the barrier in place. So the rest of us lay back down, huddled against the far wall, and tried to sleep.
Some time later, we were again awakened by Demetrius screaming. Looking in his direction, we saw with alarm a familiar-looking cloud of green smoke pouring in beneath the doorway.
"He's getting in!" Demetrius screamed.
"Attack him!" Thibor cried. "Don't let him reform!"
We all rushed towards the vampire with weapons drawn, attempting to connect with the strange mist. Finally, Lisha connected with her quarterstaff and the mist dissipated, slipping back out the door.
THUD! Before we could even breathe a sigh of relief, something else tried to break down our barrier. Lisha and Demetrius hurried over, quickly righting the chest that had been about to topple over.

THUD! The door frame shook again, and we could hear the sound of wood cracking. Lisha shrieked as the chests began to fall.
"We can't hold it!" Demetrius cried. Hastily, Thibor and I rushed over to help them. As the creature tried to break in again, the force of the blow nearly knocked us down.
"What the Hell is out there?" Demetrius swore.
"I don't want to know," I said.
"We'll never be able to hold this for long," said Thibor. "Alanna, do you have a spell that will block the entrance?"
Alanna considered. "Um, um..."
THUD! The chests shook, and I fell down. "Hurry!" Demetrius screamed.
The illusionist practically hopped up and down in desperation as she mentally reviewed her spells.
"Um, wait... Let me think. Um..."
THUD! This time the top chest slipped forward, and we barely managed to push it back before the other followed.
"I've got it!" Alanna cried at last.
"Got what?" Thibor asked angrily, unable to spare a glance back at the magic user. "Whatever it is, do it. Fast!"
"Good grief," I heard Vanth say from behind us. Suddenly, we were roughly shouldered aside as a huge, lumbering creature with walrus-like tusks moved in to take our place at the barrier.
"What the Hell?" said Demetrius.
"She drank a potion," Vanth explained, "and turned into that creature."
"Oh," I said, remembering. "The potion of polymorph." I couldn't even remember what creature's den we'd picked that up from. But I was certainly grateful that we had it. Alanna the umber hulk was holding up the barrier with no difficulty at all.
With Alanna blocking the entrance, there was no chance of anything breaking down the barrier. But we hardly felt secure. It was obvious that Dominiani had come for us at last, and the fiend would not be stopped this easily. Thibor, Vanth, the fighters and I arranged ourselves back to back in the center of the room, weapons drawn and eyes peeled for any signs of strangely behaved vapors. We waited for many long minutes, our breathing (especially the umber hulk's) loud in the otherwise quiet room.
Gradually, a foul, rotting smell assailed our nostrils, and a thick, black smoke began pouring in from beneath the sarcophagi. Coughing and nearly retching from the odor, we covered our faces with rags and smothered the sarcophagi with blankets from our packs. Our eyes were tearing, and I thought the horrible vapors would be the end of us all. But the smoke stopped pouring in, and gradually the air cleared.
"Whew," said Demetrius, pulling his scarf from his face, "that's a relief."
"Don't relax yet," Thibor warned. "This isn't the end of it."
I shuddered, wondering what foul poison Dominiani would throw at us next. It wasn't long before we found out. With a hiss like steam, a wispy, yellowish smoke began rising up from the floor. Once again we covered our mouths and tried not to breathe deeply. But the smoke kept pouring in despite our attempts to stop it. I felt my eyelids grow heavy, and I saw Lisha slump to the ground, her quarterstaff rattling onto the floor and rolling into the far wall.
"Get up!" Thibor shouted, kicking her hard. "This is no time to fall asleep."
That was the last thing I heard as I lost my grip on my weapons and slumped to the ground, sound asleep. (But Thibor and the others were careful to fill me in later, insistent that the truth of our encounter not be lost to posterity. And so I will record the events as they occurred.)
Thibor gave up his attempts to kick me and Lisha awake (I still have the bruises) when a line of familiar-looking green mist appeared, seeping up from a tiny hole in the wall opposite the umber-hulk guarded entrance.
"Quick!" Demetrius shouted, "Vanth -- grab Lisha's quarterstaff. Chase him!"
Vanth hastily obeyed, grabbing the staff and chasing the mist back and forth across the room, the wood held up among the mist so that the vampire could not assume his true form. But eventually the thief grew tired and stumbled. A moment was all it took. Suddenly, the mist became solid flesh, and Dominiani stood before us, grinning evilly. As Vanth backed away, Thibor and Demetrius, standing behind me and next to Lisha, turned to face him.
There we were, alone in the room with the vampire, a fully regenerated vampire. All of us were terribly wounded, Lisha and I were asleep, and Alanna could not cast spells as an umber hulk. The Horn of Hannah, our most powerful magic item, had its limits. It could only be used so many times a week, and Thibor had already reached the maximum. We were all painfully aware of this. But, in a moment of brave desperation, the cleric decided to gamble that Dominiani was not.
As soon as the vampire took a step forward, Thibor raised the Horn to his lips. "One step closer," he warned, "and I'll use it."
The angry red eyes of the fiend met the pale grey eyes of the cleric. For a long minute, neither blinked.
Still holding Thibor's gaze, Dominiani snarled. "Drop your horn."
Thibor sneered. "Back off."
"You are trapped here," Dominiani said at last, his voice soft and sibilant, the sweet promise of death. "Like rats in a cage. Give me the Crown, and I will let you go free."
Thibor raised the horn threateningly. "Step back or I blow the horn."
Dominiani's face twisted into a grotesque mask of rage. Sure that the vampire was about to call our bluff, Demetrius prepared to strike with Scray. But, still glaring at Thibor, the vampire took a tiny step back.
Thibor allowed himself a smile, gloating at the vampire. "We're leaving," he said. "With the Crown."
Dominiani's answering smile mocked us. "You'll never leave my keep alive. Are you willing to die for something for which you have no use? I can offer you much for it." His voice became rich, seductive. "What would you have? Power? Wealth? Immortality ?"
Thibor and Demetrius exchanged glances.
"We're not interested in your promises," said Demetrius.
The vampire hissed. "Are you interested in death?"
"Don't threaten us," Thibor said coldly. "You're afraid of us, afraid of this ." He shook the horn. "If you weren't, you'd just kill us and take the Crown. But the fact is, you know you can't."
Dominiani took a step towards the party, shaking with rage. "This is my keep. You are intruders here. Give me what I want, and I will let you go free. Refuse me, and I will destroy you."
But Thibor refused to be intimidated. He gestured to me and Lisha. "Wake my friends. Then we'll make a decision."
The vampire sneered. "Do you honestly mean that you, a holy man ," he spat out the words like an insult, "rely upon the opinions of a half-wit fighter and a foolish minstrel?"
"You have a point," said Thibor. "But we still want them awake."
Dominiani shook his head, began pacing back and forth. "I can not wake them. The sleeping gas will wear off naturally in an hour or so."
"How do we know you're telling the truth?" asked Demetrius.
Dominiani chuckled, a cruel and chilling sound coming from his long-dead throat. "I don't care if you believe me or not." He continued pacing, his footfalls eerily silent along the stone floor.
"Fine," said Thibor, still gripping the Horn in a threatening manner. "But the rest of us would discuss this."
The vampire smiled and spread his hands. "Go ahead, mortal. I have all the time in the world." He chuckled again and continued pacing.
Thibor, Vanth and Demetrius backed up to stand by the umber hulk. The cleric kept an eye on the vampire, who continued pacing back and forth, graceful as a cat.
"What should we do?" asked Vanth.
"I don't want to give up the Crown to that fiend," said Thibor. "Somehow, we have to find a way to stall him until dawn. Then we can find a way out of here."
Demetrius was surprised. "You mean you don't want to destroy Dominiani any more?"
"Of course I do," Thibor snarled. "The fiend is the blackest sort of evil, and he deserves to rot in Hell. But Alanna and the crazy bard were right -- we can't risk him getting the Crown. After it's destroyed, then we can come back and kill him."
"Good idea," said Vanth with his usual sarcasm. "But what do we do now ?"
"We can't give it to him," Demetrius repeated. "But if we don't offer him something, he's gonna slaughter us."
Thibor turned to the umber hulk. "Alanna, what do you think?"
Vanth studied the tusked creature curiously. "Thibor, I don't think umber hulks are good at charades."
"Oh, right. Alanna, do you think we should sell out and give the fiend the Crown, forever damning our souls to Hell for such an evil act?"
The umber hulk rolled its eyes. Then, Alanna nodded carefully.
"Yes?" Thibor hissed, appalled. "You can't mean it."
Alanna nodded again. Then, leaning forward, she tapped the sleeping Lisha with her quarterstaff.
"Alanna," Demetrius explained, "she ain't waking up. We already tried that."
The umber hulk glared at Demetrius, then tapped the fighter more forcefully. She winced a little when her unaccustomed strength left a nasty mark on Lisha's arm.
Finally, Vanth realized what the illusionist was getting at. "I see what she means," said the thief. "We should give him the Crown." Turning his back to the vampire, Vanth winked at Thibor.
Thibor started to protest, then his eyes widened as he realized what Vanth was trying to say. We could afford to give the vampire the Crown -- we had an extra.
As they turned around to face Dominiani, Demetrius noticed that the vampire's pacing had taken him within inches of the spot where I still slept. Angry, he reached out to pull me closer to the wall.
"Leave the minstrel there!" Dominiani shouted, stopping in his tracks and glaring at Demetrius. The fighter glared back, then reached for me again. The vampire took a threatening step in my direction and both men stopped moving, gazes locked.
Taking a determined step towards the fiend, Thibor raised the Horn of Hannah to his lips.

"Back off," he ordered.
The vampire's gaze shifted from Demetrius to the albino. Thibor met his gaze without flinching, daring the fiend to try his fabled charm powers, and knowing that his will was strong enough to resist. Finally, the vampire took a grudging step backward.
"I know what you're thinking," Dominiani said. "That you have a duty to keep the Crown from me, that I will do great evil with it. And perhaps I will. Perhaps humans will die. But I ask you, what concern is that to you? You're adventurers; sell-swords, concerned only with your own fortunes. As you should be."
The fiend smiled. "Why should you care if a few peasants die? Why should you give your lives for them? They mistrust you, fear you as they do not fear me. They will not thank you for your sacrifice.
"But I can offer you much. I can offer you power. Not the weak power of that accursed horn or your paltry weapons, but true power. Power that binds mortals to your will, that allows you to rule over them. Power that lasts forever. Would you give that up for a Crown that you can not hope to use?"
Stalling for time, Thibor pretended to consider the offer. It was then that I awoke. Dizzy and disoriented, I stirred and sat up. Only to find the vampire standing inches away, looming over me like a wolf before a lamb and gloating with those evil, red eyes.
"Good evening, minstrel," he said as I stared in shock and stopped myself from screaming. "Your friends and I were just having a little chat."
I crawled hastily away from him, then stood up and cowered behind Thibor. Too unnerved to speak, I looked questioningly at the albino.
Thibor leaned closer to me. "Don't look him in the eyes, oh weak-willed one."
I stared at the floor.
"What say you minstrel?" asked the vampire, his voice cold and mocking. "What would you have in exchange for the Crown? I can give you life everlasting. Every woman you meet will be helpless before you, charmed by your power."
Confused as I was, I knew what the fiend was implying. He was offering to make us vampires, like him. The prospect horrified me.
"No thanks," I muttered, not meeting his gaze. "I can charm women already." And I don't have to drink their blood to do it, I thought.
Dominiani sneered.
"All right," Thibor said abruptly. "You can have the Crown. But we do this our way. We go out to the fountain in your courtyard, one minute before dawn. You wait across the courtyard. We leave the Crown there, and go."
Dominiani smiled triumphantly. "You are wise beyond your pitiful years, holy man. I accept your deal."
"And well you should." Thibor turned to the umber hulk. "Alanna, take Lisha and carry her out to the fountain. Vanth and Temmer will follow -- they climb well enough to get down alone. When everybody's at the fountain, you come back for me and Demetrius. We'll stay here to make sure this fiend doesn't try anything."
I hesitated, exchanging a glance with Thibor. The Horn wouldn't be usable again until dawn. If the vampire attacked, Thibor and Demetrius would have to fight him alone. But Thibor was confident that he could continue the bluff. It had worked so far. He practically pushed me and Vanth through the opening after Alanna.
The four of us encountered nothing in the long and difficult trip to the fountain. As soon as Vanth and I got there, Alanna dropped the sleeping Lisha and, the potion wearing off, reverted to her normal form.
"Nice to see you back to your old self again," said Vanth.
"Oh, I don't know," replied the illusionist. "It was kind of fun being an umber hulk. I was so strong."
Nervous, I suggested she not waste any time in levitating back up for Thibor and Demetrius, and Alanna readily complied. She returned a few minutes later, explaining that she'd left her boots with the other two, who wanted to watch over the vampire's descent.
As we waited tensely, Alanna wandered over to peer at the fountain. "You know, Demetrius said that Scray detected strong magic from this thing. I wonder what it does."
I frowned. "Probably summons other vampires to come feast on foolish adventurers." Gloomy, I turned my attention back to Lisha, who still would not wake up.
Alanna continued to stare at the fountain. Suddenly, a bright moonbeam shot down from the heavens to strike the red window in the keep. Terrified, Vanth and I hit the dirt. But nothing else happened. I turned to Alanna, who was pale and shaking.
"What the Hell did you do?" I asked.
"I -- I looked into the fountain and thought of Akriel. Next thing I knew, I heard her speaking in my mind. She was asking for someone named Daclaud."
Vanth and I exchanged glances. "Let's not tell Thibor about this," I suggested.
Alanna heartily agreed.
Meanwhile, up above in that bat-infested tower, Demetrius and Thibor bargained with the devil. At the time, the rest of us had only our own fearful imaginations to tell us what transpired, and our two friends have yet to speak of the matter. Whatever happened, they bought us the time we so desperately needed. When the two of them backed into the courtyard, followed by the vampire, we had perhaps ten minutes left until dawn.
Still holding the Horn of Hannah to his lips, Thibor glanced over to where we were all gathered by the fountain. Alanna nervously gripped the onyx lion, and Vanth's pack containing both real and false crowns rested at our feet. The cleric's eyes flickered to the sleeping Lisha.
"Temmer, get her out of here. Now."
Our eyes met. Thibor had no chance to explain, with the vampire hovering nearby, but there was no need. Dominiani's reaction, once he realized he'd been tricked, was easily predictable. And when all Hell broke loose, we'd need to run -- fast. Nodding at Thibor, I hefted Lisha over my shoulder (she's heavy, for a woman), and took off.
"Where are they going?" I heard the vampire demand as I left.
Thibor's reply was cold, mocking. "That's none of your concern, fiend." He gestured to the far end of the courtyard. "You will wait there until the appointed time."
The vampire's eyes narrowed, and a sharp hiss escaped his cold lips as he glared at the albino cleric. But Thibor raised the Horn, and with a final angry look the vampire stepped gracefully to the far end of the courtyard.
Thibor glanced up at the sky, where the faintest rosy hue had begun to stain the horizon. Minutes remained until dawn. Thibor and Demetrius, eyes still on Dominiani, backed up to stand beside the others at the fountain.
"As soon as it's time," Thibor whispered, "Vanth will get out of here... with his pack. Don't stop for anything. I want everyone else ready to attack. Just in case."
The others nodded grimly. Still gripping her lion, Alanna unrolled and began studying a powerful scroll that would strike the enemy with lightning. Demetrius had a mysterious potion that he would hurl at Dominiani. And Thibor, of course, still had the Horn.
"We're ready," said Demetrius.
The cleric nodded approvingly, then turned around to stare at Dominiani. The vampire paced restlessly and cast occasional, hate-filled glances at the lightening sky.
Thibor smiled at his discomfort. "You grow anxious, fiend?" The vampire stopped pacing to turn cold eyes on Thibor. "Tell me, how can an immortal being who claimed that time meant nothing suddenly be growing impatient? I thought that was a human weakness."
The vampire's eyes flashed. "It is time. Place the Crown on the fountain."
Thibor hesitated a moment, deliberately provoking Dominiani. "We have a few minutes yet."
Dominiani took a step forward, menacing. "The time is now ."
Thibor leaned closer to Vanth. "All right, put the Crown on the fountain," he whispered, "then everyone back up slowly towards the gate. As soon as we're there, run like Hell."
Everyone nodded. Vanth stepped closer to the fountain and, with shaking hands, took out the false Crown. Knowing that Dominiani's eyes watched his every move, the thief made a great show of handling the item with great reverence as he placed it on the marble fountain. Then he turned and, picking up the pack that held the real Crown, walked away.
"You stay there until we're out of sight," said Thibor, pointing a finger at the vampire as they backed off.

But they'd no sooner passed through the gate and began running after Vanth when they heard a roar of rage and anger from the courtyard. Suddenly, a shadow blocked out the light of the half-risen sun.
As they spared a glance over their shoulders, they were horrified by the monstrosity that greeted them. Wearing Dominiani's fanged and enraged features was a giant bat, easily the size of a small dragon.
Vanth kept running. But Thibor, Demetrius and Alanna skidded to a halt as they launched a desperate defense. Thibor blew the Horn of Hannah, freshly empowered by the new day, and Dominiani shrieked in pain. Demetrius threw his potion, which bounced harmlessly off the man-bat's leathery hide, and Alanna sent a bolt of lightning smoking through one huge wing.
But still Dominiani came on, heading for the cleric with death in his eyes. Desperate, Thibor blew the Horn again, and a column of flame shot down from the heavens to engulf the giant bat. It would have been enough to kill most creatures.
But not the vampire. The fiend emerged from the air-born inferno, trailing smoke and flames and flying straight at Thibor. Knocked off his feet by a gust of wind from the bat's great wings, Thibor could only stare up in impotent fury as Death came for him.
But a roar sounded from behind him as the words Unk, unk bomangani were shouted by a voice nearly choked with terror. Suddenly, in the few inches that remained between cleric and vampire, a snarling mass of feline muscle appeared, knocking the vampire to the ground.
Wasting no time to watch the screeching combatants, Demetrius hauled Thibor to his feet and the three of them ran towards the rising sun. Reaching the security of a patch of daylight that bathed the ground like a blessing from above, they turned just in time to see a cloud of green fog appear around the bewildered and bloody lion.
As the fog turned and headed back towards the keep, Alanna and Demetrius shouted for joy. But Thibor had to have the last word.
"For a super-intelligent being of supreme evil," he yelled, "you're awfully stupid." And then he fell to his knees and hugged the lion.
Smiling, Demetrius helped Thibor to his feet.

"I love that cat," said the cleric.
"Don't we all."

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