Chapter #665

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

+     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                 +
+     Neko           7th level human female thief                         +
+     Skektek       12th level human wizard                               +
+     Zhao           8th level human swordsman (currently petrified)      +
+   Bosco           12th level halfling thief                             +
+   Mongo           18th level dwarven fighter                            +
+     Gorgo          9th level dwarven berserker                          +
+   Date:           3/2/579 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:           morning                                               +
+   Place:          Mount Aeon, on the eastern edge of the Hellfurnaces   +
+   Climate:        cold                                                  +
+   "Over, under, around, or through."                                    +
+                               - Trader, from the _Deathlands_ series    +

                     DCLXV.  The Third Challenge

  After a day of marching and battles against two fearsome monsters, the
party has opted to camp and rest for a night.  Morning finds them moving
up the trail, toward the summit of Mount Aeon and its ever-present crimson

Mongo:  Good thing we got a night's rest...I'm aching all over.  Must be
  getting old...
Belphanior:  (smirks)
Aja:  Did anyone else have...unpleasant dreams?
Neko:  Now that you mention it, yes, I did.
Skektek:  Me too.  I can't remember much, but it wasn't good.
Bosco:  (unsure what they're talking about)  Not me.
Gorgo:  Me either.  I don't dream.  Well, except about food.

  Given the recent battles, they fully expected to come across some great
and fearsome monster as they ascended...but no such foe appeared to menace
them.  In fact, shortly before midday the trail ended in a cliff face of
sheer rock.

Skektek:  Hmm...what do we do now?
Gorgo:  (looks up)  Climb.
Belphanior:  (scanning the rock with his magical eye)  No.  (he steps
  forth and walks _through_ the rock face)

  The effect was instantaneous:  a roughly semi-circular section of the
stone vanished, revealing a passage leading into the mountaintop.

Belphanior:  (turns to regard the others)  Illusion.  A powerful one, but
  just an illusion.
Gorgo:  Hmph.

  They followed the elf, forming a marching order:  Bosco and Belphanior,
then Mongo and Gorgo, Skektek and Aja, with Neko bringing up the rear.
The passage was easily wide enough for two to walk abreast, and didn't
look man-made.  Its walls were rough, the stone cold, and the air was
dry and chilly.  The passage wound about, to left and right, and they
quickly found it necessary to light torches.

Mongo:  This tunnel's also going up...I can feel it.
Gorgo:  (nods)
Belphanior:  We've got to be the top of the mountain and the
Aja:  I sense death here.
Skektek:  Hopefully not our own.
Bosco:  Quiet, everyone!  There's a door ahead.

  So there was:  a small, stout-looking door of dark wood, banded with
strips of iron.  There was neither knob nor keyhole, though some weird
characters had been carved into the wood at eye level.

Bosco:  (flies a couple of feet up, so that the markings are at _his_ eye
Belphanior:  Aside.  (he scans the door)  Can't read these - they're not
  Common, elven, or made in any code of thieves.
Mongo:  Not dwarven either.  Anyone else?
Bosco:  (helpfully)  It's not in the language of halflings either.
Belphanior:  Somehow I'm not surprised.  (he begins spellcasting)  Some
  magic will give us the answers we need.

  Shortly, the elf smiled as the carven words were translated by his

Bephanior:  It says:  "Walk with care in this sacred place.  The darkest
  light will show you the way, but beware your own shadow."
Mongo:  Bah.
Aja:  I wonder if that means there are undead here.
Skektek:  If so, they won't triumph.  I've not seen an undead yet who can
  resist fire.
Neko:  Maybe it's a warning.
Bosco:  Or maybe just nonsense.
Gorgo:  A hollow threat.  Let's bust down that door and see what's what.

  They didn't have to touch the door, though - it opened all by itself!
Their torches cast flickering light on the large cavern beyond.

Belphanior:  Okay, heads up, everyone.  Aja, be ready with your holy
Aja:  Right.
Belphanior:  Hammers, maces, swords - we'll move in, spread out, and check
  the chamber.

  All of this caution ultimately proved unnecessary, however, for the
cavern was nearly empty.  Perhaps fifty feet across, and roughly hemi-
spherical, it had no visible exits or features, save a small pedestal of
stone at its center.  As they moved closer, they saw that a thick black
candle, unlit, rested upon this pedestal.

Belphanior:  Magical...highly so.
Bosco:  Maybe we should take it.
Aja:  Maybe we should light it.
Skektek:  With a fireball.  I don't like the looks of this.
Mongo:  No the hell are we supposed to get where we're going?
Skektek:  Maybe we're not.
Gorgo:  I don't like riddles.
Belphanior:  The darkest light...I suppose we're supposed to light this
  candle then.
Skektek:  Could be a trap.
Belphanior:  (scanning the floor and ceiling)  I don't see anything of that
  sort.  Whatever's going to happen has to be tied into that candle.  (he
  ponders this)  Okay, here's the deal.  I'll light the thing, while the
  rest of you stand back.  If anything happens, act accordingly.
Aja:  Is this wise?
Belphanior:  Probably not, but if we're to play these little games, I'd
  rather just get it over with-

  Conversation stopped, and all eyes turned to the candle, for it had just
come to life!  A tiny flame now flickered upon its wick, its light shining
over the adventurers and casting weird shadows on the walls behind them.

Belphanior:  Well, damn.
Gorgo:  (hefts his spiked mace)  I don't like this.
Aja:  I don't think any of us like it.
Bosco:  That's for sure.

  Unbeknownst to the people gathered around the candle, the shadows on the
wall behind them were slipping away from their natural positions...taking
on a life of their own as they moved toward the adventurers.
  It was Neko who first noticed the dark form sneaking up behind her...

Neko:  Whoa!  (she leaps back)
shadow:  (leaps forward, moving with the exact grace and style that the
  young woman just displayed)
Belphanior:  What the hell-

  Just like that, the battle was on!  They were under attack by their own
shadows, each one having the size and shape of its living counterpart but
possessing hazy dark matter instead of flesh.  Worse, they all had weapons
just like their victims, also fashioned of the same black stuff.

shadow-Belphanior:  (slashes at Belphanior)
Belphanior:  (dodges to one side, parrying with his sword)
shadow-Belphanior:  (anticipates this move and alters its attack, scoring
  a gash across the elf's chest)
Belphanior:  (realizes that he's lucky the blow didn't pierce his heart)

  Fighting against foes who used your own style of attack and defense was
no fun at all, as the others were also learning.  Those adventurers who
favored a lot of parries and sidesteps found their shadowy selves nearly
impossible to hit, while those who were aggressive found their foes to be
fully capable of giving as good as they got.

Mongo:  (smashes his shadowy duplicate across its chest with Stormcrest)
  Take that!
shadow-Mongo:  (returns the blow, its shadowy Stormcrest whacking Mongo
  in the gut)
Mongo:  ARGH!  (he staggers)  Been...a while since I got hit that hard...

  As for Skektek, he was unable to cast any spells because his own shadowy
duplicate was assailing him with blows.  On the positive side, the false
Skektek was just as weak as the real one, meaning that the blows didn't
have much force behind them.  On the negative side, the real Skektek was
not the hardiest of souls, meaning that the blows still hurt like hell.

Skektek:  (flails at his attacker, some of his punches landing but having
  no real effect)  Aaaaaaa!
Aja:  (nearby, she blocks a slashing attack from her double's dark sickle
  just in time, saving herself from decapitation)  Aie!
shadow-Aja:  (moves in, tireless and ruthless, shadowy sickle slicing)

  It was if they could only fight their duplicates to a draw,
a standstill.  Of course, when one was out for blood like Belphanior was,
a draw spelled death for both combatants...

Belphanior:  (stabs his shadow in the chest)  Hah!
shadow-Belphanior:  (grabs Belphanior's wrist, then runs its own blade
  through the elf's shoulder)
Belphanior:  AAAARGH!

  There seemed to be no way to win.  Neko and her counterpart couldn't
dance around all day, evading one another.  If Mongo and his double were
to trade blows equally, both would be pulverized in a very short time.
And so on.

Bosco:  (engaged in a swordfight with his dark twin, he slips up, and
  gets a sliced thigh for his trouble)  Eyaaaargh!
Belphanior:  (wondering if maybe, just maybe, they should try to fall
  back and retreat)

  It was an impossible task, having to basically beat oneself in a melee
duel.  Oddly enough, it was Gorgo who broke the pattern; while regaining
his footing after a smashing blow from his double, he instinctively lashed
out at the false Skektek as the dark form moved past him.

shadow-Skektek:  (staggers, obviously weakened from the glancing blow
  dealt by the dwarf's spiked mace)
Gorgo:  (has a sudden flash of inspiration)  Attack someone else's twin!
  (impulsively, he charges at the fallen foe, swinging his mace in wild
shadow-Skektek:  (hit in its shadowy head by the next blow, it explodes
  into wisps of dark matter)
Gorgo:  Got him!
Mongo:  Damn good idea!  (he hurls Stormcrest at the false Bosco, felling
  that one with the blow)
Bosco:  (watches his shadowy twin dissolve into nothingness)  Hey, thanks.
Mongo:  No problem-  (he staggers under a blow from his own duplicate)
Bosco:  (flies over and tags the false Mongo with a swipe of his sword,
  distracting the foe)
Mongo:  (regains his footing)  Ungh...
shadow-Mongo:  (preparing to hurl his shadowy hammer at Mongo once again)
Gorgo:  (from one side, he tackles the duplicate, knocking it to the
  ground)  Raaaargh!
Bosco:  (taking the opportunity, he zips in and stabs the other Mongo in
  the shoulder)  Gotcha!

  This tactic seemed to throw the remaining shadow-duplicates off, for
they seemed almost inept when facing anyone other than their "designated"
foe.  Fortunately, the adventurers caught on rather quickly; Belphanior
unleashed a volley of sword-blows on the shadow-Mongo, his speed easily
giving him the advantage over the slower, clumsier foe.  Neko and Bosco
teamed up against the shadow-Gorgo, tag-teaming the latter and wearing
it down.  So it went, the adventurers attacking foes other than those
who matched them.  Had there been more time to ponder the issue, some of
them might have wondered why the shadow-Mongo (for example) didn't just
pulverize Skektek (for example) - but there wasn't time to think about
issues like this.  There was only time to slice...slash...cut...maim...
and kill.
  When it was over, not one of the adventurers was untouched.  Belphanior
had been stabbed through one shoulder, slashed across the chest, and cut
on an arm and a leg.  Bosco had a bad cut on his leg, and his head was
cut, bleeding badly.  Mongo was a mass of bruises, the wounds typical of
those inflicted by warhammers whose impact was spread over a larger area
due to fine armor.  The others had suffered similarly serious injuries,
and Aja was sorely taxed.

Aja:  Well, I just don't have enough healing magic to take care of all
  of us.
Mongo:  Don't worry about me - I heal fast.
Belphanior:  As would I, if there were foes with souls anywhere around.
  I guess you'll just have to spread the wealth, so to speak.
Aja:  I hope that's not a play on words.
Belphanior:  (smirks)  Not a chance.  That reminds me, though...I want to
  get back to Helgate, maybe take a break from all this running around,
  fighting, and such.  I need some off-time with Victoria.
Mongo:  Huh?
Belphanior:  I'm just talking about a break from the quest.  Not a long
  break, mind you...just a break.
Mongo:  Great.  Just great.
Belphanior:  We'll worry about that later.  For now...let's just find
  this damned oracle and learn what we came here to learn.
Mongo:  (pauses for a long moment)  ...fine.

  When someone thought to look, it was found that the black candle -
along with the pedestal that it had rested on - was gone.  Nobody could
recall seeing it vanish, but nevertheless, it was no longer there.  In
a similar vein, an exit had appeared at the opposite end of the cavern
from the passage they'd entered by.

Belphanior:  How fortuitous.
Gorgo:  Huh?
Belphanior:  Don't worry about it.
Mongo:  (thinking that if Alindyar was here, Gorgo would be really
Aja:  I'm guessing that the passage there leads the Oracle,
Skektek:  Good guess.
Bosco:  (still trying to figure out where the pedestal and candle went,
  he scratches his head)

  Shortly, they entered the new passage, which was similar in appearance
to the entrance passage.  No sooner had they begun traversing its length
than a voice from everywhere - and nowhere - resounded all around them.


next:      a break, as Victoria finds herself in a compromising position
released:  8/14/00
notes:     I'm actually tired of this quest, but as always, that is subject
  to change.  Next episode should be a good treat - the beginning of the
  end for the Helgate paradigm.

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