Chapter #1072

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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        +
+   Hope           16th level female human wizard                         +
+     Poulos        8th level human warrior (currently weakened)          +
+   Irina          14th/7th level female human priestess/warrior          +
+   Neera          12th level female human wizard (sage/astrologer)       +
+   Otto           12th/14th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+                                                                         +
+   Arusha          5th level human female wizard/alchemist               +
+   Judhon          7th level gnomish illusionist                         +
+   Paige          13th level human female warrior                        +
+                                                                         +
+   Mongo          19th level dwarven fighter                             +
+   Date:          7/2/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          late morning                                           +
+   Place:         Parekh's home (exact location unknown)                 +
+   Climate:       pleasant                                               +
+   "They said your team played a dangerous game."                        +
+   "We play to win."                                                     +
+     - from _The Six Million Dollar Man_ episode _Target:  Steve Austin_ +

                   MLXXII.  A Matter of Trust

  A great deal has happened in the last couple of days - the first trip
to the dark castle, the initial meeting with its vampiric ruler, then his
kidnapping of Hope and the subsequent rescue attempt, culminating in the
hasty and unplanned return to Oerth followed by an entire day of rest and
recuperation.  Now, as a new day begins, Belphanior and his group prepare
to depart...but first, the elf needs to have a certain conversation with
his newest companions.

Belphanior:  (having taken Poulos, Paige, Arusha, and Judhon to one side,
  away from everyone else)  It's time for a serious talk.  (after making
  sure he has their undivided attention, he continues)  Up until now,
  we've just been in survival mode, but at this point you're on the cusp
  of stranger things...things that will require a great deal of loyalty,
  and involve a great deal of trust.  If you proceed any farther today,
  it means you're one of us, and will be exposed to higher degrees of
  both risk and reward.  Either you're in, or you're out - but if you're
  in, it's to the death, meaning I expect you to follow my lead and be a
  team player, but also meaning I'll defend you no matter what the cost.
  A good example is the way we came after Hope, when Marek kidnapped her.
  (he regards them, one at a time)  Does this make sense so far?
Poulos:  (crosses his massive arms)  It does.
Paige:  Well, it does, but you need to consider that we know little to
  nothing about you and your group.  What's your story?  What exactly do
  you do, and why do you do it?
Belphanior:  Hmm.

  For some reason, the elf hadn't considered that this would be a two-way
discussion.  However, he was nothing if not adaptable, and so he launched
into an impromptu summary of his group's adventures and other deeds over
the last five years or so.  This included, among other things, the tales
of Helgate, the anti-slavery efforts in the Hold of the Sea Princes, the
epic battle at the Fortress of the Nine, some details about the magical
teleportation gateways across the world and elsewhere, the assault on the
underground vampire city of Skava-Ra, the conflict with the purple dragon
Mesoloth, and others.  Belphanior was careful not to give away any of the
more critical details (like the exact nature of Xusia's gateway system,
or the size of the dragon's hoard) at this time, as he didn't yet know if
some of all of these four would join the team.

Belphanior:  So that's it.  Or at least some of it; I must confess that
  it becomes confusing at times.
Paige:  I'll say.
Arusha:  That...was incredible.
Judhon:  Which one?
Arusha:  Any of them.  _All_ of them.
Poulos:  (silently considers all of this)
Belphanior:  Anyway, there you have it.  Given the brief history I just
  related, you can get a general idea of the sorts of things we tend to
  become involved in.  I can't tell you what comes next - no one knows
  that - but now you know what's come before.  And I now have to ask for
  your thoughts on joining these sorts of efforts.
Judhon:  You'll hear no complaint out of me.  I'm just happy to be here.
Belphanior:  If anyone wants out, now is the time to say so.  We'll take
  you to the Free City of Greyhawk - it's a major center of civilization
  where all kinds of opportunities can be found - and we'll part ways.
  Otherwise, you'll come with us to our home, and become part of the team
  for good.  It's your choice...each of you.
Arusha:  Are we talking about going into battle, and dungeons, and such
  with any great frequency?  Because not all of us are cut out for that
  sort of thing.
Belphanior:  I'd beg to differ - you'd be surprised what you can do in
  certain situations - but the answer is yes for some, and sometimes for
  others.  For example, when we go on adventures across the world, Neera
  often stays behind to do research, which I could see a couple of you
  doing most of the time.  But others, I'd expect to be on the front line
  of the more dangerous ventures.
Paige:  (smirks)  Sounds like fun.  Count me in.
Judhon:  Me too.
Poulos:  And me as well.  Where Hope goes, I go, until my debt to her is
Belphanior:  (to Arusha)  And you?
Arusha:  (frowns)  This sounds like it will be dangerous, and exciting,
  and rewarding...and interesting.  Which is precisely what I need.  I'll
  join your group.
Belphanior:  Very well.  (he takes them back to the main group)
Irina:  (discreetly scrutinizes the new arrivals for a few moments, then
  nods almost imperceptibly to Belphanior)

  Prior to the discussion with the four potential additions to the team,
Belphanior had taken the priestess of Istus aside and directed her to
employ a measure they'd discussed briefly yesterday evening.  He needed
to know whether any of the new companions might have any unscrupulous
intentions, specifically whether they might steal from the party and then
run, once they were shown the subterranean vault.  There was, of course,
no absolute way to be sure (at least not yet, the elf had joked, as he
didn't possess a magical item that could read the hearts and minds of
others).  His gut instinct told him that all four of the recent additions
to the party truly were sincere and trustworthy, but it couldn't hurt to
surreptitiously use magic to try and verify this.  As a servant of the
goddess of fate, Irina had several different spells at her disposal that
could help with this.  Thus, while Belphanior had been talking with the
foursome, Irina had cast her most potent such spell.
  Subsequently, she could detect no major issues or looming betrayals on
the part of the four new members of the party.  Each did have his or her
own aura, shaped by their different and unique combinations of emotions.
For example, Arusha was still somewhat upset and agitated, likely due to
her unwilling journey to Oerth - but she had no malicious or treacherous
thoughts.  Judhon seemed indifferent, merely happy to have something to
do while in control of his own life once more.  Poulos' mindset was very
similar, Irina's magic told her; if anything, the warrior was grateful to
Hope and the others for rescuing him from his former servitude.  As for
Paige, she was the hardest to read - possibly due to her greater life
experience - but she seemed to be doing a good job of adapting to the
changing circumstances, and regarding each new event as simply the next
step in the ongoing adventure that was her life.

Belphanior:  (to Parekh and Pallin)  My thanks, again.  For a while I was
  beginning to doubt that we'd ever find a way back to Oerth - and I don't
  think it would have been possible without your assistance on this end.
Parekh:  Thank Neera.  She did most of the work, and only came to us to
  hammer out the kinks in the process, and increase the chances that her
  efforts would be successful.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Very well.  (he readies the Eye of Celestian, the
  large brass sextant gleaming in the light of the morning sun)  Until
  next time, then.

  The others had gathered nearby, and the elf joined them, soon invoking
the powerful artifact to transport the group away.  One instant, they were
standing right there; the next instant, they had vanished to...elsewhere,
wherever that might be.

Parekh:  (quietly)  Only the elf knows.
Pallin:  Eh?
Parekh:  I wonder where his new base of operations is located.  (she
  smiles thinly)  When sky castles come crashing to the ground, certain
  people do take note of the event.
Pallin:  (shrugs)  He's up to something, you know.
Parekh:  He's always up to something.  And honestly, if you were trapped
  in another world for a while and didn't think you'd ever make it back...
  wouldn't you have a long list of things to do when you _did_ make it
Pallin:  Fair point.  (a dour look crosses his thin face)
Parekh:  Are you still bothered by him having the Eye of Celestian?
Pallin:  I am.  Not that I need it, but I want it.  As a follower of the
  same deity that empowers the thing, how could I not?
Parekh:  That makes sense...but as with so many other such items, he was
  in the right place at the right time, with the right mindset.
Pallin:  (simply nods sadly)
Parekh:  (wonders just how much power the elf can responsibly handle, and
  what he might do with that power)

  Meanwhile, elsewhere, the thirteen adventurers magically appeared on a
rough but flat ledge of rock, on the side of an immense mountain.  Below
the ledge (which was about twenty feet deep and forty across) was a sheer
slope that dropped down a very, very long way.  Far below, at the base of
the mountain, the tops of trees were visible.  Most of the group had seen
this place in the past, but to some of them it was new, as was the method
by which they'd arrived here.

Poulos:  (somewhat disoriented, he looks around)  Hm.
Judhon:  Wow.
Arusha:  (shivers involuntarily due to the cold wind that lashes across
  the mountainside)  I need more clothes.
Paige:  (to Belphanior)  Neat trick.  You people don't use horses much,
  do you?
Belphanior:  We do sometimes.  (he regards the enchanted sextant in his
  hands, before putting it away)  Well, not as much lately.
Mongo:  (eyeing the stone surface, he thinks about all the treasure that
  lies below, and his eyes light up)
Belphanior:  (to Neera)  Want to take us in?  At this point, you're much
  more familiar with the path, and the safeguards.
Neera:  No problem.

  When the time had come to take Ys and Mongo and seek the aid of Pallin
and Parekh, the young woman had done everything possible to secure and
protect the vault's entrance.  This had included reactivating many of the
traps and wards that Belphanior had initially disarmed when they first
came here.

Belphanior:  (shakes his head)  It's hard to believe we first found this
  place only a month ago.
Judhon:  (runs one gnarled hand along the cool stone of the mountainside)
  There's something about the rock here...(he closes his eyes, deep in
  concentration)  This place is special.
Paige:  Where are we, exactly?
Neera:  Roughly halfway across the continent.
Paige:  Oh.
Belphanior:  This is why I had that talk with you before we left.  There
  was no sense in bringing you here if you weren't committed.  This place
  is unlike anything you've ever seen.
Judhon:  Don't be so sure...I've seen it all.  (to Arusha)  This ought to
  be good.
Arusha:  (genuinely curious about where they're headed, she simply nods)

  As Neera cast her spell of passage and the group made its way through
the rock face, Belphanior thought back to the brief conversation that he
and Neera had last night, in the privacy of their guest chambers.  She'd
explained to him how she took the magic mirror from Mesoloth's hoard with
her to Parekh's home, so that she could ask for help without revealing
the wondrous vault to her former teacher.  This had been an intentional
move to protect Belphanior's secrets and the many magic items stored in
the place.  And of course, she'd used every spell and item at her disposal
to safeguard the former dragon's lair.  Further, she had kept all of the
most powerful items with her - which Belphanior had already deduced since
she had the Eye of Celestian with her when he and the others returned to

Belphanior:  (smiles thinly to himself, pleased at both the loyalty and
  the resourcefulness of his companion and lover)

  A short time later, the various obstacles and wards had been dealt with
(and the path sealed behind the group) and they once more re-entered the
massive underground vault, stepping out onto its topmost floor.

Judhon:  (whistles)  Okay, I retract what I said before.  I hadn't seen
  it all...until now.

  Belphanior was pleased to see that the tri-level library/showcase was
intact, along with all its treasures...for the last time he'd been here,
the underground vault had seemed close to falling apart.

Belphanior:  (to Neera)  I don't see any sign of damage.  Who repaired
  this place?
Neera:  It seemed to have repaired itself, that very night.
Mongo:  Damndest thing I've ever seen.  There had to be a dwarf's hand
  in that magic.
Judhon:  (chuckles)  Or a gnome's.
Mongo:  (casts a sidelong glance at the other demihuman)
Paige:  Are those magic items, all along the shelves on the levels below?
Skektek:  They are.  Isn't it great?
Paige:  This is amazing.
Belphanior:  Don't touch anything.  This place has ways of...reacting to
  disturbances.  And we don't have time for that sort of problem, since
  we're going to be pretty busy inventorying everything.  And we'll also
  need to check out that bedchamber area that Mongo and Ys found.
Hope:  We also need to take stock of all the enchanted items we found
  and brought back from that other realm.
Belphanior:  (thinks about the swords, rings, and such that belonged to
  Marek but had to be left behind, and sighs)

  Despite the items that hadn't been brought back with them, the list of
those that _had_ was still impressive:

     potions of speed, 2 (Belphanior, Razor Charlie)
     potion of clairvoyance (Hope)
     potion of fire breath (Skektek)
     potion of gaseous form, slightly used (Skektek)
     potions of healing (11)
     potion of invisibility (Otto)
     potion of anti-magic (Belphanior)

     ring of shocking grasp (Skektek)
     ring of warmth (Skektek)

     wand of frost (Hope)
     wand of illumination, almost depleted (Hope)
     wand of treasure finding (Belphanior)

     cloak of protection +1 (Hope)

     bag of holding, small (Hope)
       contains dagger +1, Keoghtom's ointment, decanter of endless water

     dagger +2 (Razor Charlie)
     footman's mace +3 (Irina)
     shortsword +1 (Otto)

Belphanior:  I'm thinking that we probably don't need all of these items,
  and can redistribute some of them as we deal with the overall hoard
Skektek:  It could take us a while to do that.  The dragon's vault is-
Belphanior:  No.  _Our_ vault.  It's ours now.  (he looks around)  Damn,
  but we've got our work cut out for us.  It's going to be a busy couple
  of days.

next:       more wrap-up
released:   4/30/2021
notes:      So I decided to add a third part to the wrap-up.  My mind
  sometimes breaks these things into certain pieces, following some odd
  logic that even I don't understand.
    Time warp time:  I'm writing this on 12/20/2020 and you'll be reading
  it on 4/30/2021.  I'm more than four months ahead of schedule - that's
  19 episodes at this time.  I'd sure like to keep up the writing pace,
  and the lead, for as long as I can.
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