Chapter #1156

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                           +                   +
                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +      Epic VI      +
                             +               +
                               +           +
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                                   +   +

+     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       +
+   1991-2024 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!                                          +
+                                                                         +
+   THE BRIGHT ALLIANCE                                                   +
+                                                                         +
+   Alindyar       18th level dark elven wizard                           +
+     Lyra         14th level female drow wizard                          +
+   Belphanior     18th/18th/18th level elven fighter/wizard/thief        +
+   Cespedes       19th level human wizard, elementalist                  +
+   Dexitheseus    17th level human wizard, jack of all trades            +
+   Kronos         ancient lich wizard                                    +
+   Pallin         18th level grey elven wizard of Celestian, teleporter  +
+   Parekh         18th level female human wizard, innovator              +
+   Wu             18th level human wizard, transmuter                    +
+                                                                         +
+   Date:          6/25/586 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         the Brass Hills, within the Bright Desert              +
+   Climate:       hot and dry                                            +
+   "With great powers such as ours come equally great responsibilities,  +
+    but we've never fully faced up to that fact."                        +
+                  - Hyperion, from _Squadron Supreme_ (1985)             +

                   MCLVI.  Taming the Bright Desert

  The Brass Hills, at the approximate center of the wasteland known as
the Bright Desert, spanned an area of over three hundred square leagues.
These hills had certainly seen their share of interesting events over
the last two millennia, dating back to the heyday of the fallen kingdom
of Sulm.  More recently, they had seen the arrival of the tower of the
renegade archmage Rary, the rise of a larger stronghold around that tower,
and then the fall of both before his plans could reach fruition.  Now,
atop one particularly flat hill amidst the range roughly a league north
of the ruined remnants of Rary's ambition, stood a small but stout fort
made of adamantine.  This highly magical redoubt, bolstered by powerful
supplementary enchantments and wards, served as the temporary base of
operations for nine extremely powerful wizards...a base where they now
discuss recent progress and future challenges.

  The most obvious progress was also the most impressive:  the foundation
of a massive outer wall had been started two weeks ago, and was actively
under construction now, all day, every day.  This huge protective rampart
would eventually encircle an entire city, including the massive fortress
that would lie within.  The overall plan was a project of truly epic
proportions, matching the deeds and ambitions of the wizards who occupied
this land.  The total area of the future megapolis would rival or exceed
that of capital cities elsewhere in the Flanaess, encompassing portions
of both the hills and the flat desert landscape below -- all protected
within a barrier more than twenty feet thick and two hundred feet high.
Over the last couple of weeks, under the dual leadership of the learned
elven architect Talathion Undiviel and the dwarven master builder Vogric
Stoneshaper, a significant segment of the great wall's base had been

Cespedes:  From the air, one can begin to see the overall shape of the
  wall, and thus the future city.
Dexitheseus:  I can't believe those two are working together so well.
Parekh:  I can.  I admit, I had concerns before I brought them together
  here, but they are both driven, each in his own way.  After the initial
  shock of having to work with the other, and the expected bickering over
  details, and once the actual design and construction started...they put
  their petty quarrels aside in pursuit of a greater goal.  (she smiles)
  Just as I suspected they would.
Belphanior:  It helped that over the last week, we brought in a couple
  hundred dwarven miners and masons from the Good Hills area.  My friend
  Mongo Thunderhead certainly delivered on that promise.
Pallin:  It also helped that we brought in countless tons of rock, either
  from the nearby ruins of Rary's stronghold or the elemental plane of
Cespedes:  Not to mention elementals to do the heavy lifting and shaping.
Belphanior:  Of course.  I did not mean to stress any one contribution
  over any other.  Well done on all accounts!
Parekh:  (nods)  We secured everything needed for to design
  and turn the basic idea we provided into a plan, one to lead the actual
  construction work, massive quantities of raw materials, skilled labor.
  At the rate things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a
  complete wall - or at least its base - in place within a month.
Cespedes:  That is the stated goal of the dwarf Vogric.  The key to that
  was directing the elementals to obey his instructions.  (he frowns)  And
  the key to _that_ was making him understand the benefit of having such
  heavy laborers available.  (he folds his robed arms)  At any rate, all
  is well underway.
Dexitheseus:  And as work continues and progress is made, we will begin
  bringing in Tenha refugees who have been staying in Urnst, and Sterish
  refugees who have been displaced to other kingdoms.  As things stand now
  for them, they are overcrowded and unhappy, and for the most part have
  nothing to do - at least until their homelands are liberated.  Bringing
  any willing workers or soldiers here, where they and their families can
  earn good coin in return for hard work, will benefit everyone - those
  people themselves, the kingdoms where they now languish, and us.
Belphanior:  (nods)  And we can transport them here in mass numbers using
  teleportation spells.  (he glances at Pallin)
Pallin:  (sighs)  Very well.  I can help, when the time comes.
Parekh:  (to Belphanior)  One thing, before we move on.  You had mentioned
  that the help of the dwarven laborers came with a price.
Belphanior:  Yes, it did.  Does.  (he pauses briefly)  Mongo and others in
  that area are soon going to assault the giants and such that have taken
  over Sterich and Geoff and plundered them all to hell.  That army could
  use some magical help from us.
Lyra:  They lack wizards?
Belphanior:  They have wizards.  They lack archmagi.  (he scans the room)
  A small amount of focused, dedicated assistance from this group would
  mean an immense advantage in their fight to liberate the fallen lands.
  I, for one, will be there to help him.
Dexitheseus:  (nods)  Makes sense.  And it's nothing we shouldn't be doing
  anyway, given what we've said we intend to do right here.
Wu:  They help us, we help them...same end goal to defeat evil.  Anywhere,
  not just here.
Kronos:  A compelling argument.  I would posit that we wait until after
  this discussion, and then determine who is available for a foray into
Parekh:  Agreed.
Belphanior:  Excellent.
Alindyar:  What news from the mines?
Belphanior:  Almost a week ago, my agents came to a temporary agreement
  with the one called Father Eye, who is of course a beholder.  I'm not
  sure who he thought he was fooling when he came up with that name for
Alindyar:  Aye.
Lyra:  (glances at him, amused)
Alindyar:  What?
Belphanior:  At any rate, we've made some progress.

  The elf thought back to a couple of conversations that had taken place
in recent days.  Otto had debriefed Peyton, learning all of the details
of the assault, defeat, and his conversation with He Chak and then the
beholder.  In the end, Otto had ultimately commended the gnome for taking
risks, thinking on his feet, bluffing the foes, and stalling for more
time.  After that, he had then shared the tale with Belphanior, who had
in turn commended Otto for handling things without having to involve
Belphanior himself (as the elf had been busy elsewhere).  Otto had also
suggested, and Belphanior had agreed, that if push had come to shove, the
team on site could likely have overcome the monster, given the magical
prowess of Hope and the fighting prowess of the Ys, Paige, and the rest
of the group - combined with the scouting that Peyton's team had done.
  But for now, in the short term, there would have to be negotiations
with the monster.

Kronos:  A beholder, in those hills?  Interesting.
Lyra:  What in the world does it want?
Belphanior:  The eye tyrant wishes to rule the mines, and stay there, but
  it apparently needs some help against something somewhere below.  In
  return, it offers gold and silver - and something much more valuable
  to us:  knowledge about the desert.
Kronos:  (nods to himself)
Parekh:  It wants help?  Help to fight its foes, perhaps?
Alindyar:  If said foes actually lurk beneath the mines, the Underdark is
  likely their home...they could be illithids, or derro, or perhaps other,
  even stranger things.
Belphanior:  We won't know until we know.  Regardless, all we have to do
  is go back to the mine entrance, and the discussions will resume.
Parekh:  Right.  So that's two imminent side missions thus far.
Wu:  For those who are counting.
Cespedes:  What of the treasure of Rary?  Approximately a month past, we
  took an initial look at it, and paid out certain allies, but what of
  the effort to more fully count and catalog the hoard?
Lyra:  (nods)  I tallied up all of the coinage, using spells to count and
  verify, and then organized the funds in a series of chests which each
  contain the same number of a given type of coinage.  All told, Rary had
  amassed quite a fortune...about a million copper pieces, and another
  million silver pieces, and over half a million gold pieces.
Dexitheseus:  (whistles)
Lyra:  I'm not done.  He also had a hundred thousand electrum pieces, and
  almost half that in platinum pieces.  Not to mention several hundred
  gemstones, the least of which was of far better than average quality.
Parekh:  This is about what I expected.
Lyra:  He also had a couple dozen objects of fine art, which appear to be
  from lands all over the Flanaess.  Those would likely be worth a couple
  hundred thousand gold pieces, total, if we ever sold them.  (she frowns)
  Anyway, as discussed before, all of this has been secured and pooled for
  use in the upcoming work on the fortress and city - mostly for housing,
  feeding, and paying the workers Belphanior brought in.  I'm sure you all
  saw the numerous tents in and around the construction area.
Dexitheseus:  It's a good thing we don't have to feed the elementals and
Cespedes:  (smiles thinly)  The elementals consume rock and dirt.
Dexitheseus:  Ah.
Cespedes:  No, really.
Alindyar:  How interesting.
Lyra:  As Cespedes pointed out, we did have to pay a small share to some
  allies, such as coinage to Bosco and giving Tenser back some of his own
  magic items which Rary had stolen after the chaos in Greyhawk a couple
  of years ago.
Kronos:  (nods impassively)  Which seemed only fair.
Lyra:  There's also the matter of pay for Lord Marcus' mercenaries, and
  the various guards and troops of Rary who we now employ.
Pallin:  This brings up another concern we will have to deal with long-
  term...that of generating our own goods and revenue, and becoming more
  self-sufficient here.
Lyra:  That will come in time, when there are farmlands and herds which
  can be employed for such purposes.  For now, we will have to use Rary's
  treasure.  (she sits back)  Which, based on the totals I just shared,
  will last us for quite some time to come.
Belphanior:  (clears his throat)  I want to add that I've also donated a
  portion of my own fortune - another hundred thousand gold pieces - to
  this fund.
Dexitheseus:  (his eyes widen)  That...was generous of you.
Belphanior:  I can think of no better use for my extra money.
Pallin:  (annoyed)  Surely you do not expect the rest of us to give from
  our own pockets toward this effort.
Belphanior:  Settle down.  I'm not implying that anyone else should do
  what I chose to do.  I was simply pointing out that, after reflection,
  I realized I didn't need to hoard every single coin I owned.  You see,
  I've been doing that for years...more than a decade.  And some of that
  treasure has literally not been touched in all that time.  Which caused
  me to think, why am I simply _keeping_ it to gather dust, when instead
  I could be putting it to use...a use that benefits others, not only in
  the short term but also over the long term?
Cespedes:  A valid analysis, to be sure.
Belphanior:  By the same token, I've invested other monies into various
  tracts of land around the Greyhawk area, dating back to the time before
  the wars.  I suspect that those who maintain the deeds and records would
  be quite surprised if they ever pieced together just how much of their
  surrounding land is actually in my name.
Pallin:  What use is land near that city, if you are focused on efforts
Belphanior:  Over time - and especially now, after the wars - all of that
  land has increased greatly in value.  I could, and probably will, sell
  it at a profit.  Or if they can't pay me in coin, they will have to pay
  with some other currency, such as magical items or power or favors.  Or
  I'll just keep the land until they really need it and have to pay even
  more to get it.  No matter the mechanism, I win.  I put my spare funds
  to work - funds that I didn't need for anything else, as I have plenty
  of money - and now I'll come out ahead.  (he crosses his arms and leans
  back in his chair)
Parekh:  A point well-made.  (she looks around at the others)  We should
  all consider Belphanior's strategy here, and the lesson therein.
Alindyar:  (almost allows himself to smile, as he and Lyra have also made
  substantial investments within the Free City)  Aye.
Kronos:  Enough about funds and expenses, and the coinage of the slain
  Rary.  What of the magical items - both those previously belonging to
  others, and those owned by the wizard himself?
Belphanior:  As mentioned, Tenser was back given those belongings that had
  been taken from him.  My team and I had much more stolen, the bulk of
  which were apparently dispersed by Rary to various minions or officers.
  Or else traded, or sold.  (he frowns)  Since we were away and five years
  passed here on Oerth, he had plenty of time to make such deals.
Parekh:  That is unfortunate.  You lost a great deal of magical treasures.
Belphanior:  We did, but I've accepted it.  I will say that the bulk of
  the lost items were arms and armor...many dozens of them, none of which
  I was even familiar with beyond seeing them on shelves or racks a time
  or two.  I see no way to track down and recover each and every one.  On
  the bright side, it seems that Rary kept most of the other magical items
  for himself - those things that weren't simple weapons, armor, and such.

  The elf had recovered, inventoried, and secured these items, which were
numerous:  eight pairs of magical boots, eight rings, four staves, ten
wands, more than six dozen potions, a crystal ball, a helm of telepathy,
a pair of bracers of defense, a girdle of hill giant strength, a belt of
flying, two rods of cancellation, rings of regeneration and telekinesis
and spell storing, a two-person flying carpet, and the ghost mask.  There
was also the powerful weapon known as the Fork of Doom, which he'd given
to the centaur chieftain Strongbow.

Dexitheseus:  Wow.  That's quite a haul.
Belphanior:  It was even greater before the wizard plundered it and let
  half of it get away.  (he signs)  From what we found in his tower, it
  appears that he actually utilized one powerful tome of mine - a Libram
  of Ineffable Damnation - to increase his power and experience even
Wu:  It did not save him in the end.
Belphanior:  True.  It also looks like he disassembled the one golem I
  had left, a strange one of black metal.  He apparently utilized some
  of its pieces and their magicks to help build that big silver dragon
  we found.  (he shakes his head)  It feels like only yesterday when I
  actually had a small army of various golems...and now I have none.
Cespedes:  We can build more.
Pallin:  (regards the other wizard)
Cespedes:  (shrugs)  I am simply pointing out that it would be a fairly
  trivial undertaking, especially with the collective resources and power
  of this group.
Belphanior:  We will see.
Dexitheseus:  How do you think Rary found your hidden vault in the first
  place, years ago?
Belphanior:  We'd been wondering he found it, and whether he
  was able to do so because of all its contents.  Neera's theory is that
  somehow the site's magical protections and wards were damaged, probably
  when we almost collapsed the whole complex by accident when we first
  found it.  And then later, while most of us were away in those haunted
  lands, Neera actually removed the dragon's protective enchantment from
  the vault.  Those actions could well have rendered the place - actually
  its contents - visible to whoever might have happened to be looking in
  that area.  There's evidence that Rary was searching for magic across
  the world, in multiple places.  Most likely, one or more of the things
  we did simply happened at the wrong time, and so he detected the hoard,
  and then sought it out.  (he shrugs)  Without being able to ask him, we
  may never know.  (to Kronos)  Although if the Loom of Ages can ever be
  repaired, perhaps it can be used to peer back in time and get these
Kronos:  Noted.
Belphanior:  Here's the good news...aside from all the magic items that
  were _recovered_ from Rary's stronghold, there are also those _gained_
  from it.  (he exchanges glances with the others, a gleam in his eye)

  At this, every wizard in the room nodded - as well they should have.
The magical items from Rary's hoard had been collected a month ago and
laid out before the group, at which time they had divided everything
nine ways.  Coinage was one thing, but when it came to actual enchanted
items (particularly the collection of one of the most powerful wizards
in the world) there had been an overwhelming vote to allow those most
responsible for winning those keep them.  And so, each of the
group had gained a handful of potent new magical treasures.
  And there had been yet more, though its value was measured in other

Parekh:  The library, too, was of no small significance.
Belphanior:  Indeed.  Next to all of my team's stolen tomes, spellbooks,
  and scrolls were all of Rary's - a repository of spells most likely
  unrivaled in the world.  There were also, or course, his extensive
  and detailed notes on the Bright Desert, its history dating back to
  its time as the Kingdom of Sulm, and also Rary's findings and guesses
  about some of the buried or lost sites within.  Neera has been hard at
  work poring over those, to see what she can learn of the region's many
  mysteries.  Even before we toppled Rary from power, she had done much
  preliminary research on this area using Greyhawk's resources.
Parekh:  (nods)  None doubt her skill and determination.  Already, her
  work has helped us make good progress on some of the wasteland's many
  unusual sites and the challenges they present.
Kronos:  And that knowledge, coupled with whatever we can learn from
  Father Eye and Shemeya, will certainly point the way to the Scorpion
  Crown.  (he nods and folds his pale arms, or at least what can be seen
  of them within his robe's sleeves)
Belphanior:  Before we move on from the topic of magical items, I want
  to share yet more good news, though this piece comes from me rather
  than Rary and his hoard.  (he pauses)  The bulk of my magical items
  which were recovered...will be made available for any of this group's
  various henchpeople or forces who have need of them.  That can also
  include equipping any military commanders who work for us, like the
  centaur chieftain Strongbow and the trident-scepter I gifted him.
Pallin:  (frowns)  That is rather generous of you.
Belphanior:  (thinking of certain slain foes from the past)  What I said
  about money holds true for magical treasure too.  Hoarding such things
  rather than putting them to use makes little to no sense.  Thus, going
  forward, I intend to think more tactically about these matters.
Cespedes:  (nods)  I agree with that idea.  Deploying force multipliers
  of this sort will be immensely advantageous for us.
Kronos:  I believe there were a couple of odds and ends that specific
  members of our number plan to study further.  (to Pallin)  You have
  a greater interest in the teleportation-disks that Rary had scattered
  about his tower?
Pallin:  I do.  Once I have some free time to more fully study them and
  reverse-engineer their magic, I should be able to employ the concept
  to create permanent portals within this domain.
Dexitheseus:  And then we wouldn't have to use our own magic to teleport
  all over the place.
Pallin:  Exactly.  Contrary to what some may think, traveling via such
  spells is neither easy nor free of risk.  The frequent casting of such
  magic - even when one is a master of the form - is quite taxing.  (he
  smirks)  A permanent system of teleportation devices within our domain
  will be a great boon.
Cespedes:  I imagine that it would be trivial to restrict use of such a
  system to only authorized users.
Pallin:  Of course.  As I said...once I have some time to focus on this
  work, I expect some useful results.
Kronos:  This is excellent news.  (he turns his crimson gaze to Cespedes)
  As for Rary's impossibly-gigantic silver dragon, can it be completed
  and put to use as a weapon?
Cespedes:  (somewhat dejectedly)  While some excellent tomes and scrolls
  concerning automata and their construction were recovered, there was
  nothing specific to the mechanical dragon.  I recognize its potential,
  but without the missing information - and with the construct in its
  present damaged state - there seems no chance that it will ever walk
  the earth and strike fear into people, as Rary doubtless intended it
  to one day do.
Belphanior:  Yes, that is unfortunate.  Who knows what such a weapon could
  have been used for.
Cespedes:  Exactly.  (he perks up somewhat)  I do, however, intend to
  continue seeking the missing schematics and formulae, when I have time.
  I would also like to excavate the mostly-buried construct once more
  pressing things are dealt with.  No doubt there is much to learn from
  it, whether or not it is functional.
Wu:  (frowns, saying nothing)
Parekh:  So I believe that our next order of business should be taking
  a fresh accounting of all military outposts and their troop strengths.
Kronos:  Followed by a similar accounting of the various other places of
  interest in the desert and its environs.
Dexitheseus:  I can cover the first thing, as I've worked closely with
  Lord Marcus at most of those locations.  (he removes a large map from
  a hollow tube, and it unrolls itself on the table, then remains flat)

  This map, while it didn't float in the air or anything fancy like that,
was still magical; as the wizard discussed specific places in the desert,
the corresponding locations on the map animated and changed colors.

Dexitheseus:  At this time, there is only one established commerce route
  in and out of this region...Knife's Edge Pass to the north.  It cuts
  through the Abbor-Alz hills and connects us with the Urnst states which
  lie beyond the hills.  This is one we'll want people to use regularly,
  which is why we rendered it safe, largely through the destruction of
  the bandits who inhabited the Griffon's Nest fortress.  That small but
  formidable redoubt is now manned by two hundred of Lord Marcus' men as
  well as a hundred of the hill barbarians.  (he nods to Belphanior)  The
  cooperation of the hillfolks' chieftain Orm was key in this alliance.
  They feel much better about the fortress now that they have a stake in
  its operation, and they see the potential of the commerce route.
Belphanior:  Glad to hear it.  Diplomacy can be as useful as magic and
Lyra:  (ESPing to Alindyar)  I never thought I'd hear him say things like
Alindyar:  (ESPing to Lyra)  Aye.
Dexitheseus:  Whilst exploring and politicking in Knife's Edge Pass and
  its environs, Lord Marcus and I made note of several key locations and
  their inhabitants, along or near the route up into the Duchy of Urnst.
  Where the desert ends and the pass starts, between the rougher hills, a
  powerful bastion of good lies roughly ten leagues to the west.  This is
  Karistyne Castle, home to a paladin of the same name and her adventurer
  friends.  They seek out and slay monsters in the area - their better-
  known successes include clearing out a valley full of lamia and dealing
  with a huge gathering of ogres a few years back.  Aside from all that,
  they have no love for the Free City of Greyhawk, and may prove useful
  allies for us.
Parekh:  Interesting.
Dexitheseus:  There's also a small lake near the pass, and a camp nearby,
  called Marstefel.  That might be a place worth fortifying and eventually
  developing further.  Also, on the other side of the mountain range just
  beyond the hills, somewhere north of the mines of Father Eye, is Storm
  Keep.  This place houses the Mountaineer Militia, who use griffons to
  fly above the hills, scouting and mapping and watching for danger.  The
  rumor is that they're working for Greyhawk, which we should be somewhat
  concerned about.  And finally, in the mountains north and slightly east
  of where Knife's Edge pass finally opens into Urnst, there is a dwarven
  fortress known as Dumadan.  (he pauses)
Belphanior:  And all of these places are scattered through the Abbor-Alz
  hills to the north of the desert?  How did we miss these?
Dexitheseus:  (shrugs)  There are only so many of us, and we've been more
  than a little busy.  I think we can all relate.
Belphanior:  (wondering what else has been "missed" in the planning)
Dexitheseus:  Of note...all of these locations in the hills know about
  each other, and are on friendly terms.
Parekh:  At some point, we need to forge formal alliances with them all,
  to avoid any issues later.
Kronos:  (nods)  They can continue to do what they do, but they also must
  understand that the desert is becoming something else.
Belphanior:  My thoughts exactly.
Parekh:  (motions to Dexitheseus)  What else?
Dexitheseus:  On the southern front, past these very hills, we have the
  relatively recent fortress of Kalki's Leap.  With thick walls of solid
  granite and surrounded by steep canyons, that place is impregnable, at
  least to conventional forces.  Once we eventually bolster it with some
  unconventional ones, it could be even better.  The hundred and fifty
  assorted cavalry there are now on our payroll, and have been bolstered
  by the same number of soldiers from Lord Marcus.  He chose to leave
  overall authority in this fortress to the existing commander, a veteran
  from the western lands named Chukai.
Belphanior:  Sounds like this will be our primary garrison to the south.
  (he peers at the map)  Unless we someday establish a port on the coast,
  facing the Sea of Gearnat.
Parekh:  That's a good idea.  We'll eventually need merchants and trade
  via water as well as land.
Dexitheseus:  (waggles a crooked finger, and a small blue question mark
  appears on the map along the coast)
Wu:  If only it was so easy.
Parekh:  With our power, it could be.  (to Dexitheseus)  What else?
Dexitheseus:  The third and final military installation of any note is
  Fort Whiterock, which is north and east of here, in the direction of
  the centaurs' lands.
Belphanior:  Lands which I'll discuss in a moment.
Dexitheseus:  Right.  The place is fashioned from rather pale granite,
  hence the name; the stone has also been augmented by magic.  This fort
  now holds a hundred of Rary's former troops, plus a hundred of Lord
  Marcus' troops.  As with the other stronghold, he chose to leave the
  overall command of this one to its existing officer - a Captain Zhora.
  who was once a guardsman in Greyhawk and knows what's what.
Parekh:  Guardswoman?
Dexitheseus:  Semantics.  She can fight, knows how to lead and motivate
  troops, and is on board with the new rule here in the desert.
Pallin:  Can she be trusted?  Can the other one, in the other fort?
Dexitheseus:  In both places, Lord Marcus has begun the integration of
  old and new soldiers, and entrusted the former commanders with the job
  of seeing it through.  He is a damn good judge of officers and their
  capabilities, and I can tell you from experience that it usually works
  out well in the end...and if it doesn't, he knows how to deal with any
  problems swiftly and efficiently.
Pallin:  I see.
Dexitheseus:  We are all masters of magic, and people trust us in those
  roles.  Marcus is a master of war and fighting and the building of
  armies...and we should trust him in that role.  (he smiles)  I do.
Belphanior:  On a tangential note, it's worth mentioning that Whiterock
  was under some scrutiny by certain among the centaurs.  They didn't
  like Rary and wanted war.  Now we're here, and we need to do better.
  To that end, I've put a lot of effort into allying us with Strongbow,
  and I think it's paying off.  He's dealt with the insurgents among his
  people - rather harshly, so I heard - and we now have an agreement in
  place.  (he gestures to certain regions of the map, which conveniently
  glow as he mentions them, thanks to Dexitheseus' magic)  Here to the
  east of Fort Whiterock, we have Gai Hur which is a sacred meeting place
  for the centaurs.  The terms of our alliance with them are simple:  we
  are not to venture into the desert east of Gai Hur, as those are their
  ancestral lands.  Other than that, both parties are equals, and so there
  can be discussions as needed, and also possible alliances in times of
  trouble.  (he remembers something, and frowns)  Oh, and also...those
  folk will only speak with me or my lieutenant Otto, or our designate.
Pallin:  How bold of them.
Belphanior:  They have the right - they've survived here for centuries.
  And they can be powerful allies.  I'm not sure Rary truly understood
  that, or perhaps he didn't care.  At any rate, we met them and spent
  the time and effort to talk with them, and so that's how it is now.
Parekh:  It's good work.  (she glances at Pallin)  Very good work.  Do
  not take this the wrong way by any means, but how did you - with your
  particular temperament - manage to convince these various hillfolk and
  centaurs to hear you out and then become allies?
Alindyar:  (nearly spits out the wine he just sipped)
Parekh:  No offense meant-
Belphanior:  (waves a hand dismissively)  No, it's fine.  It's a valid
  question, given my history.
Lyra:  To be honest, I was actually wondering the same thing myself, and
  I've known you for more than a decade.
Belphanior:  I told the centaurs the same thing I told the hillfolk,
  which is the same point I'll make to anyone I talk to.  I'm an elf,
  and so I can afford to think in terms of decades and even centuries.
  The restoration of this place will take a long, long time...but we're
  creating something generational here, that their children and their
  children's children can benefit from.  It's a barren desert wasteland
  now, but if we render it fertile, it could have plains and grass and
  water - and will eventually be self-sufficient.  No one can fail to
  see the value in that.  (he pauses)  Especially if getting rid of all
  the scorpions and other dangers is part of the process.
Parekh:  (nods slowly) amazing, if I'm being honest.
Dexitheseus:  Damn fine job.
Alindyar:  Aye.
Kronos:  One question.  If we are not to venture eastward into their
  lands, how will we be able to explore the buried Necropolis of Unaagh?
Belphanior:  For that - for that one thing, specifically - they said we
  can have free passage.  They only demand that in those explorations,
  we do not unleash swarms of rampaging undead into the desert.
Kronos:  Fair enough.
Lyra:  So that's three fortresses, all of them fairly substantial and
  well-manned, all of them at solid strategic locations.  The question
  is, how many more are needed?
Belphanior:  I would suggest at least two, maybe three.  There ought to
   be something to the southeast, perhaps at or near Histak.
Parekh:  That's the small village south of the Var Oasis, the one with the
  healers who aided both sides in the previous conflicts between Rary and
  the nomads?
Dexitheseus:  (speaks up helpfully)  That's the one.  I ventured there a
  week ago to see what was what; the village is run by a ranger, Kamuk,
  who had been able to maintain its neutrality.  He also led a number of
  priests in tending to injured, no matter their allegiance.  We had some
  discussions, and I made sure to stress to him that the fighting is over
  due to our actions here.  I also outlined our basic plan to eliminate
  hostiles and monsters in the entire desert, and bring peace, stability,
  and eventually prosperity to the region over the long term.
Belphanior:  What did he say?
Dexitheseus:  He actually offered the assistance of those healers, once
  we begin our efforts and tackle the more dangerous challenges that lie
  waiting in the wasteland.  I thanked him and told him we would return
  when the time was right.  And I made sure that the village was fully-
  provisioned and lacked for nothing, which will only help.  (he nods to
  Lyra)  The idea to use magical means to travel to distant places for
  our food, drink, and supplies was a good one.
Lyra:  (shrugs)  Creating a pipeline of this sort was the fastest and
  easiest option.
Dexitheseus:  I also took a small force and dealt with a handful of the
  other, less critical places.  The village of Kalundi, a short distance
  to the east of us, is doing well.  Ever since they ceased having to pay
  protection money to Rary, they've been happy; Lord Marcus and I talked
  with them and committed a small force to help them with some needs they
  have.  And then there are four oases.  The Var, Tulwar, and Kolum oases
  are all at least semi-friendly now, and again we've provided both troops
  for protection and supplies for the locals, and are taking the time to
  talk with them, hear their concerns, and reassure them about what we're
  planning.  The same holds for the Shembai Oasis, which thanks to Wu is
  now free of the horrific monsters that were coming at night to steal the
  unwary.  Putting an end to that problem gained us considerable goodwill
  with the locals there.
Wu:  (casually)  Demons.  Which is why I have a six-demon bag.
Dexitheseus:  Err...right.  Of note, the Kolum Oasis does have some ruins
  nearby, which might one day be worth exploring.
Belphanior:  I can task that out to Peyton or someone else, if we don't
  want to deal with it directly.
Parekh:  We will see.  Places such as that are lower priority.
Kronos:  And on that note, we need to move on and discuss the other areas
  that could benefit from having forts and soldiers...?
Belphanior:  Right.  We probably need another one on the opposite side of
  the desert from Histak - to the northwest, somewhere near or north of Ul
  Bakak.  That would help protect any future route between this region and
  Hardby...a route which I think is inevitable.  I've visited that area
  several times, and can tell you that we might have to clear out a couple
  of places in that area, places that for now are lower priority based on
  our previous discussions...the Ghost Tower of Inverness, and the Pits of
  Akaz-Kil.  Speaking of which, we missed a place of interest, or at least
  we didn't mention it by name, when compiling our list before:  the Ruins
  of Zarak, nestled in the hills less than a day's ride north and west of
  Ul Bakak.  The place was a small dwarven port city during the heyday of
  Azak-Kil, over half a century ago.  It's supposedly abandoned, but that
  bears verification.
Parekh:  I imagine all of that would be dealt with in one master effort,
  when we're ready to establish that path to Hardby.
Belphanior:  (thinking of Peyton's team, and the possibility that he may
  need additional help for such initiatives)
Lyra:  You mentioned a possible third site for a future fortress?
Belphanior:  Yep, I was thinking about that large peninsula, about fifty
  leagues almost due west of here, the one that juts out into the Woolly
  Bay.  We need some a military outpost and strength there - especially
  if we do establish a port city there or anywhere in the vicinity.
Parekh:  Yet another thing to be determined later...there sure are a lot
  of those.
Belphanior:  No one said it would be easy.  But it will be rewarding; we
  are building something better, and permanent, here.  It's an investment,
  one which will take great effort and some time, but it can be done  (he
  smiles thinly)  Especially given the combined power of the nine of us.

  There had previously been some discussion of a name for this group, as
their recent emergence and growing prominence now meant that "the Cabal"
no longer seemed appropriate.  After much debate, the group had eventually
settled on "The Bright Alliance" to describe themselves.

Parekh:  Thank goodness that none of us have a problem with that.  (she
  shakes her head)  I recall a while back, when we were but eight in
  number...someone commented "That makes us eight" and my response was
  that wouldn't do at all.  Fortunately we are nine strong now.
Pallin:  (drily)  We could have called ourselves "The Circle of Nine"...
Belphanior:  That would have been a rich joke.
Parekh:  (smirks)  Not to some.
Kronos:  (consulting some notes on a parchment, notes that have been
  writing themselves this entire time, per his mental commands)  Given
  all of this we've discussed here today, we have the endgame - finding
  and destroying the Scorpion Crown - and then a few other places we've
  not yet dealt with.  On the former topic, we need only determine where
  the crown lies buried - which could be the Palace of Shattados, or the
  Ruins of the capital city Utaa, which may be one and the same...there
  are also the Necropolis of Unaagh and the ruins of Darkbridge Temple.
  One of those three or four places likely holds the crown.  And in just
  over three weeks, I will again confer with Shemeya and press her for
  that answer.
Belphanior:  Which means that any information we get on that subject from
  Father Eye needs to come before then...else we may not need him at all.
Kronos:  To be blunt, it may serve some purpose to placate the beholder
  and convince it to remain in the mines as their ruler.  First, it keeps
  him there, and not out here.  Second, he will serve as a buffer between
  the desert outside and whatever dwells down there beneath the mines.
Belphanior:  Excellent points.
Parekh:  Agreed.  And so, short term, that leaves us with...?
Belphanior:  Aside from dealing with Father Eye and the mines, and helping
  Mongo...there's Geshtai's Spring, whose nomad occupants don't want any
Cespedes:  Easily dealt with, one way or another.
Belphanior:  True, but we don't want to agitate other nomads by attacking
  their brethren there.  This is a minor site with no significance, and so
  it can wait.  There's also the Plain of Spears, in the eastern part of
  the desert.  That haunted ruin from a long-past battle might be worth a
  look at some point, but it's another of low priority compared to places
  with occupants.  Speaking of which-  (he points to another spot on the
  large map)  -we have that spire, Dagger Rock, and its large and scaly
  occupant.  (to Cespedes)  You made some headway there before, I think.
Cespedes:  (nods)  The wyrm Volte will be a bit of a challenge.  It has
  made its home high atop that stone monolith, far from any conventional
  challengers.  Being a dragon, and an old dragon, and an evil dragon...
  it most likely will not want to leave, nor will it obey any directives
  about not eating random travelers in the desert.
Parekh:  We may have our hands full with that one.  (she frowns)  Has it
  done anything significant since you first talked to it, weeks ago?
Cespedes:  Not that we can tell.
Belphanior:  If only there was some way to trick it and the beholder into
  facing off against each other.  (he smirks)  But that would be as silly
  as it would be improbable.  So I'd say we leave the dragon alone for now
  and focus on the other, more pressing items.

  After all of this back-and-forth, the various locations and needs were
put into three categories:

    1)  continue work on fortress in Brass Hills (Cespedes, Pallin)
    1a) bring in refugees from Tenh and Sterich (Dexitheseus, Pallin)
    2)  help Mongo (Belphanior + ???)
    3)  deadline to go to mines and talk with Father Eye (???)

    4)  next appearance of Shemeya's tower on 7/12 (Kronos)
    5)  pending outcome of #4, seek the Scorpion Crown (TBD)

    *   deal with Volte
    *   scout out 3x locations for new fortresses

Belphanior:  With me, and my team, aiding Mongo...I (and they) won't be
  able to venture to the mines to deal with that business.
Alindyar:  Lyra and I will handle it.  Can we take the mercenaries led by
  the gnome Peyton, to assist?
Belphanior:  Done.
Kronos:  I have some things I must deal with back in the Corusk Mountains,
  and also a good deal of research.  I can be available to assist in any
  of these endeavors, but only if absolutely needed.
Parekh:  No problem.  (to Belphanior)  Drak and I will accompany you to
  help in Sterich.
Wu:  As will I.  (he nods)  It will be good to get out and do battle with
  giants and such.
Belphanior:  (smiles to himself, happy that he can being such powerful
  allies to come to the aid of Mongo and his army)

next:        unexpected visitors
released:    6/28/2024
notes:       Note the newer version of the Bright Desert map, with its
  slightly different filename.  This one reflects some of the progress
  discussed in this episode (an episode which took me more than a week,
  working an average of 1-4 hours a day during that span, to complete).
  There's just so much in the way of notes, loose ends, and various other
  background material.  My past research hadn't even caught the parties
  of interest in the hills to the north of the desert, so they got rolled
  into the discussion this time.  Anyhow, the new shows all of
  the unexplored sites in red font, which should help.  I also fixed some
  typos in existing site names.  (Actually, I didn't do shit - my wife
  did all the work, using her Photoshop skills and experience.)
    I've gotten a few portions of the website updated, too.  The timeline
  is now current, the Rogues' Gallery has updates to certain individuals
  (Rob, Neera, Al-arakara, Kronos, Ulruk, Victoria) and also Neera's list
  of unique spells has been updated.  The next phase, which I don't have
  the fortitude to tackle right now, is the utterly chaotic state of all
  of Belphanior's group's magical items...because over the last couple
  hundred episodes, so much has been gained, lost, regained, destroyed
  (some on purpose since they were evil), forgotten's become
  a complete mess and even I don't know what's what anymore.  I do know
  that anything currently in their character sheets is valid - my concern
  is what may be missing.  Worst case, we can assume such items were lost
  or destroyed in one of the many story arcs.
    Random other thought:  perhaps it's time that Belphanior's alignment
  shifted from Chaotic Neutral to Neutral.  Just an idea based on recent
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