Chapter #969

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                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic V      +
                             +               +
                               +           +
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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       +
+   1991-2007 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     15th/15th/15th level elven fighter/wizard/thief        +
+   Elgon          8th/9th/11th level deep gnome priest/illusionist/thief +
+   Jenna          9th level human female priestess of Istus              +
+   Mongo          19th level dwarven warrior                             +
+   Neera          11th level human female sage/astrologer                +
+   Otto           10th/13th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  11th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        13th level human wizard                                +
+   wispy thing    strange, intangible sentient being                     +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+   iron golem     one of Belphanior's golems captured from Xusia         +
+   stone golem    one of Belphanior's golems captured from Xusia         +
+   Date:          12/17/580 C.Y. (Common Year)                           +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         an underground complex deep within the Pelisso Swamp   +
+   Climate:       cool and dry                                           +
+   "You never had any patience."                                         +
+   "I don't have time."                                                  +
+                                               - from _Invasion USA_     +

                   CMLXIX.  Return to the Vale

  Two weeks have passed since the conclusion of the adventure into the
frozen north and then beneath the Sea of Dust.  That campaign, executed
with the assistance of the lich Kronos, resulted in the final defeat of
the Suel mummy king Al-arakara and the destruction of his massive
sunken city.  The mission was a great success, as it rid Belphanior
of a powerful potential enemy, and also secured him a possible source
for more magical items in the future.
  Along those lines, the elf has been working diligently with Neera to
remedy one of his long-standing weaknesses...

Neera:  Few people would refer to an inability to cast the most powerful
  spells as a "weakness."
Belphanior:  Well, I am...because it is.  There are certain incantations
  of the highest power - wishes, planar gates, and the like - which have
  long been just beyond my grasp.  This is especially frustrating, as we
  have discussed, because I actually have such mighty spells ready to use
  in spellbooks I've accumulated over the years.  I just can't _cast_ the
Neera:  I've been working on-
Belphanior:  (caught up in his anger)  _Why_ I can't cast them, I don't
  quite understand.  Is it because I devote too much time to fighting,
  or even thievery...the physical skills?  (he shakes his head)  Or are
  such powerful magicks more difficult to achieve for an elf?
Neera:  I seriously doubt that some higher power sits around and makes
  up rules for all of this.  That would be...absurd.
Belphanior:  What's absurd is that I have great magic which I'm unable
  to wield.  (he frowns)  That situation must change.
Neera:  Calm down.  (she looks him in the eye)  This is what I've been
  researching for the last two weeks...including, as you will recall,
  trips to both Greyhawk's libraries and Parekh's.  (sarcastically)
  That's quite a lot of work, for one who was just recently turned to
  stone and then back to flesh.
Belphanior:  You said earlier that you had something.  What is it?
Neera:  I have, at long last, located a minor artifact that may serve
  your purpose, and increase your natural magical aptitude...perhaps
  unlocking whatever unseen barrier prevents you from working the most
  powerful magic.
Belphanior:  (his eyes widen)  What?!?  Outstanding!
Neera:  There are a few caveats, though, that you need to know before
  we discuss this any further.
Belphanior:  What, do I have to give up an eye?
Neera:  (stares at him, oddly)
Belphanior:  I was kidding.  (quietly)  This won't really cost me an
  eye, will it?  Because I'm running out.
Neera:  No, but it will cost you a ring - one of the two you now wear,
  obviously.  The lost treasure I've found is a ring...the ring of Zaeon.
Belphanior:  (holds up both hands, checking the rings he now wears)  One
  for non-detection - as we all have - and the other to store spells.  I
  can live with dropping one of those...hmm, maybe I can convince Peldor
  to extend his loan of the necklace of obscurity...
Neera:  There's more.  I'm forewarning you, this ring may not empower you
  the way you desire - such is the nature of research and lore, things
  aren't always what they sound like from scraps of information we piece
  together on our own.  For all we know, this ring may just be a greater-
  than-normal ring of spell storing, or perhaps a wizardry ring.  I give
  these warnings so that you don't expend significant effort and then
  get upset if the prize doesn't live up to the promise.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Understood.  I won't hold it against you if this
  item isn't what we thought it might be.  Such an item is well worth
  the risk.
Neera:  Well, here's the third thing...the ring's previous owner was
  last known to be journeying into a very bad place...and that was four
  hundred years ago.  Neither this individual nor the ring were ever seen
Belphanior:  Now that sounds interesting.
Neera:  I'm not kidding.  This is a seriously cursed, foul place.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  I've seen my share of those.  What and where are
  we talking about, exactly?
Neera:  Have you ever heard of the Vale of Death?
Belphanior:  (frowns)  Yes...actually, I have.

  This forsaken woodland was one of those sites on Oerth - much like
the Vast Swamp or the Land of Black Ice - where no one wanted to go and
no one wanted to live.  A remote, tangled woodland made up entirely of
dead or dying trees, this fell place was said to contain no animal or
human life.  Over the years, many had entered the forest in search of
its secrets...and none had ever succeeded.

Belphanior:  However, we have entered the place and lived to tell of it.
Neera:  You have?
Belphanior:  Ah, that's right, you had no way of knowing.  It was...(he
  thinks for a moment)...about four years ago.  I had a certain mission
  I was on, and it led me to Death's Vale.
Neera:  Which is, of course, just another name for the Vale of Death.
Belphanior:  Of course.  Anyway, it's basically a dead forest _within_
  a larger forest, the Forlorn...which lies to the north and east of
  the Barrens, and to the west of the Hold of Stonefist.
Neera:  (nods)  That's what I found, as well.  Just getting to the outer
  reaches of the Forlorn Forest will be a challenge, due to the marauding
  nature of the locals.  Or should I say, _would_ be a challenge for any
  normal group.
Belphanior:  We'll take the skyship.  (he doesn't bother to mention that
  he first found the mighty vessel in the same adventure that led him to
  Death's Vale)
Neera:  What did you find within the Vale?  Undead?  A lost tomb or crypt
Belphanior:  Well, basically, the Forlorn is a normal forest, but deep
  in its heart is a small, ancient valley.
Neera:  The legends tell of vague terms, at any rate.  Once
  a lush paradise, the valley supposedly grew dark and dismal thanks to
  some undead lord.  (she glances at Belphanior)  Am I close?
Belphanior:  That sounds about right.  The place is a great sunken area
  within the forest - I guess you could call it a valley - and it was
  marked by wilted, stunted trees and foliage.  It didn't smell natural
  at all, but rather putrid, even decaying.  The vegetation was gray -
  the closest thing, I'd imagine, to undead plant life.  And there were
  no animals or other flesh-and-blood life...not even any insects.  If
  ever a site had been claimed, completely and utterly, by death, that
  place was it.
Neera:  What of the ruler - and cause - of this decay?
Belphanior:  A death Gorath, to be exact.
Neera:  I have heard that name; I'll have to do more research.  Were the
  others with you on that quest?
Belphanior:  From our current group, it was me, Otto, Charlie, Skektek,
  and Ys...and the wisp, too.  (he frowns)  I guess the ones that Gorath
  doesn't know - like Mongo - may be our best advantage in the upcoming
Neera:  That leads to my next question - how exactly did you come upon
  that foul being and survive?
Belphanior:  Because I was headed for a battle with one who was an enemy
  of the death knight as well.  I guess he saw the opportunity for the
  furthering of his own aims - or perhaps simply revenge - and aided me.
Neera:  I assume this death knight is rather powerful?
Belphanior:  Well, we never got to find out, since there was no fight...
  but I'll put it this way:  he exudes evil and power.  All of us who
  were there felt it, and we're hardly unseasoned novices.  I mean, the
  woodland all around his domain was more undead than living.  He's a
  tough opponent for sure...and hopefully one who we won't have to fight
  if it can be avoided.
Neera:  You intend to barter with him?
Belphanior:  It worked with Kronos.  You could say that I have an above-
  average history of bartering with powerful undead.  (he recalls others
  such as Necros and Xusia)  Then again, I have come to blows with more
  of them than most people, as well.
Neera:  Yours is a hazardous profession.  (she wonders when, if ever, the
  elf will change his outlook and his ways)
Belphanior:  So, putting aside the issue of you have any idea
  what we're looking for once we get into the Vale of Death itself?
Neera:  Not really, but we can scry for the Ring of Zaeon.
Belphanior:  Who's Zaeon, anyway?
Neera:  A long-dead elven warlock from many millennia ago.  I suspect
  he had the same problems you're having, with his magic, and discovered
  an answer to that problem.  The ring may have other powers as well, but
  no hard facts exist.  Again, I must stress:  this is a _possibility_
  and nothing more.  The ring could be nothing really special, certainly
  nothing worth the effort.
Belphanior:  Even a possibility is worth the effort.  We leave tomorrow.
Neera:  (wondering if sometimes she's too efficient with her research)

  That evening, Belphanior briefed the others on this new mission...

Skektek:  So basically we're heading into parts unknown in search of a
Belphanior:  Basically, yes, we are - though I wouldn't exactly call it
  "parts unknown."  And bear in mind that this ring, if it does what it's
  rumored to do, will be of no use to anyone here except me.
Skektek:  Oh.
Belphanior:  However, there is, of course, the probability that the final
  resting place of such a ring will also hold other treasures, of both
  the magical and the monetary type.
Mongo:  And enemies to smash, and battles to win, and glory for all.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces at the dwarf)
Otto:  So we leave in the morning?
Belphanior:  (nods)  I'd recommend stocking up on supplies, especially
  oil, holy water, silver and other undead-fighting tools.  A place by
  the name of Death's Vale all but promises to contain the living dead,
  even if Gorath wasn't there.
Elgon:  Gotcha.

  As the group dispersed to make their preparations and retire for the
night, Jenna lingered, a look of concern on her face.

Belphanior:  What is it?
Jenna:  Istus has spoken to me recently, and I am most uneasy.
Belphanior:  What?  Why?
Jenna:  I believe that this latest quest is more dangerous than you may
  think.  I'd advise against rushing into it-
Belphanior:  (frowns)  I appreciate your scrying and efforts, but time
  is short and I want this item, this ring of Zaeon.  With it, I can
  finally unlock the secrets of the mightiest spells...perhaps even the
  coveted Wish...
Jenna:  Coveting something shouldn't mean rushing blindly into danger
  to get it.
Belphanior:  (holds up a hand)  Again, I thank you for the insight, but
  my mind is made up.  You, as well as all the others, have the option
  to simply not come along, should you fear whatever we may find.
Jenna:  I don't fear it, I'm just concerned.  More concerned than usual,
  which should tell you something.
Belphanior:  I ask you to focus your divinations on specific dangers and
  situations once we're in the Vale - not preliminary impressions that
  have no real meaning yet.  (he turns and leaves)  You must excuse me
  now; I have much preparation to do.
Jenna:  (left behind, she sighs)
Neera:  (having quietly observed the conversation, she finally speaks)
  Don't worry - I'll try to talk some sense into him.
Jenna:  (shakes her head)  It won't work.  His determination is strong,
  and admirable...but it seems to blind him to any danger.
Neera:  He's been that way for as long as I've known him, and I doubt
  he'll ever change.
Jenna:  (frowns)  Let's hope that doesn't prove to be his undoing...
Neera:  Well, bear in mind that he's collected a top-notch group of
  helpers - us - to help ensure that any challenge he takes on won't
  prove to be his undoing.

  By the following morning, any worries and doubts were cast aside (or
at least forgotten for the time being) as the group soared through the
sky in the mighty enchanted ship.  The air was cold, the sky was clear,
and most everyone was in a good mood.

Belphanior:  (standing at the helm of the skyship as it sails along,
  just beneath the clouds)  It's days like this that everything we've
  been through seems worth it.
Mongo:  Huh?
Belphanior:  Think about it.  We're sailing far above the world and all
  of the normal, unaware people down there, crossing kingdoms in the
  same time that it takes them to walk the length of the city they dwell
  in.  This is life, the way it was meant to be lived!
Ys:  (grinning toothily as he scans the puffy white clouds above the
  ship, and the ground so far below it)  I couldn't agree with you more;
  this is marvelous.
Mongo:  Speak for yourself.  All of you know damn well that this sky
  travel makes me sick.
Skektek:  (about to retort with a wisecrack, he catches the look in the
  dwarf's eye and decides to keep quiet)

  Based on the distances involved and the cruising speed of the skyship,
this journey would take about nine days.  Belphanior hated to do it, but
he made periodic stops in which some of the group ventured down to the
surface of the world.  The spoken reason was to re-stock on food, drink,
and supplies, but the unspoken reason was to get Mongo off of the ship,
if only for a few hours at a time.  Belphanior knew that he needed the
dwarf's sheer power on this mission, and wanted to do everything he could
to keep Mongo agreeable.  Therefore, they progressed northward, stopping
at various points along the way, usually small towns or settlements where
the skyship was less likely to be detected by random powerful wizards.
Also important was the maintenance of a low profile, which meant keeping
a low risk of any locals spotting a group of people teleporting into
existence from nowhere.
  In this manner, the monotony of the trip was broken up, Mongo was kept
from going over the edge, and the group's meals were always fresh.  Nine
days passed (Belphanior pushed the skyship a little bit faster to make
up for the lost time) and on the morning of the ninth day, they found
themselves looking down on a tiny green dot far below...

Belphanior:  The Forlorn Forest, within which lies the Vale of Death.
wispy thing:  sprrd.
Skektek:  If I remember correctly, the valley we seek should be fairly
  easy to find from up here.
Otto:  Yeah.  (he nods)  I'm betting that, plus certain potential combat
  considerations, is why we just happened to arrive here at the beginning
  of a nice, sunny day.
Belphanior:  Right you are.  (he looks over the skyship's rail)  If we
  have to do battle with undead, I'd rather have daylight on our side.
  Of course, we'll have a shortcut we didn't have last time...we'll use
  magic to get down there and into the Vale, as opposed to last time when
  we had to walk into the place.

  Shortly, the group stood at the valley's floor, which was just like
those who had been there previously (Belphanior, Otto, Charlie, Skektek,
Ys, and the wispy thing) remembered it.  The trees and plants were gray
and wilted, stunted by some power far greater than nature.  Absent were
the noises of birds, insects, or animals.  The adventurers stood at the
mouth of the valley, from where a dark stream issued, its black water
flowing from some underground source, up and out into the valley floor.

Jenna:  (eyeing the foul, tar-colored water in disgust)  Yuk.
skeletal frog:  (pokes its bony, fleshless head above the water's
  surface)  Mgrk.
wispy thing:  (quickly flies over to investigate this bizarre creature)
skeletal frog:  (eyes the wisp)  Rkbrrp.
wispy thing:  (floats right above the undead amphibian, grimacing a
  toothy challenge)  Spork!
small skeletal animal:  (slowly turns and shuffles away)
wispy thing:  (excited, it flies after the thing)  Spfff!
Ys:  (commenting to nobody in particular)  Unfinished business...
Elgon:  That was odd.
Jenna:  (to Belphanior)  And you were right.  This place reeks of death,
  literally of course, as well as in its auras.  There is strong, dark,
  negative magic throughout this region.  Corrupting a forest into...this
  is not easy to do.  Mighty, evil forces are at work here.
Elgon:  (nods)
Belphanior:  We need to keep on our toes - those forces and their minions
  roam freely in this region.  They're undead and they definitely won't
  be friendly.
Mongo:  Oh, really?  (he hefts his warhammer)  Like what?
Otto:  Judging from our last trip, I'd expect bloated corpse-things and
  floating severed heads to attack any time now.
Jenna:  Ugh.
Ys:  (frowns)  And the heads might burp forth a noxious green gas.
Elgon:  Great.  What other fun can we expect to find here?
Belphanior:  Well, any summoned or created monsters will likely not only
  be undead, but also uncontrollable.  Of course, since-

  The elf turned suddenly, sensing a vaguely familiar presence suddenly
nearby and getting closer.  Jenna sensed it too, and her gaze followed
Belphanior's westward, away from the mouth of the valley...where a dark
figure approached, closing in rather quickly.

Ys:  (draws his great sword)  Here comes trouble.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces, checking his new silver-steel-alloy knives
  that he had commissioned on a trip to a major city, some time ago)
Belphanior:  This is just like last time.  (he looks around quickly)
  Everyone spread out and get ready - but don't attack or do anything
  unless I attack...or something happens to me.
Neera:  What are you doing?
Belphanior:  (sets his jaw grimly)  I'm going forth to parley with the
  death knight.  The farther the rest of you are from me, the better, in
  case something happens.

  The elf marched forth to meet the approaching menace.  He would have
preferred to be in a saddle, although no horse could have equalled the
death knight's mount.  The primary reason for this was the fact that
the gigantic, jet-black steed had huge wings that even now propelled it
through the air, perhaps twenty feet above the ground.  Astride this
fearsome beast was Gorath, the death knight:  a powerful seven-foot
warrior clad in gleaming black plate mail armor.  The figure bore a
great sword in one hand and a large, square shield in the other.  Its
helmet tapered into a row of spikes at the top, and even through the
lowered visor, a strong red glow emanated.
  As the dark steed and its rider neared, they also descended, finally
touching down a short distance from Belphanior.  The death knight didn't
bother to dismount, but rather remained in the saddle, arms crossed

Belphanior:  (taking the initiative, he speaks first)  It's been a good
  long while since you and I have spoken.
Gorath:  (speaking in a deep, hollow voice that resounds with both raw
  power and a sort of refined authority)  Time passes much differently
  for some of us.  (he regards the elf)  Again you seek out my remote,
  forbidden home, and again you bring others to aid you.  (he turns to
  look at the others, who stand back about forty feet behind Belphanior)
  Although this group is a bit more powerful than those who accompanied
  you on your last visit here.
Belphanior:  As you know, last time I sought out Xusia, to put an end to
  him and reclaim-
Gorath:  The demise of the arch-lich is known to me, and while I was
  muchly pleased with that outcome, it does not in any way obligate me
  to you or your allies.  (the dim red glow from behind his helm's visor
  intensifies, ever so slightly)  Let us dispense with niceties and get
  right to the point:  why have you returned here?
Belphanior:  I seek a certain magical item - one of great use to me, but
  of no use to most anyone else, including you.  Its bearer vanished
  mysteriously, four centuries ago...vanished into this very Vale that
  you now call home.
Gorath:  I see.  And you seek to recover this item.

  It was a statement, not a question, and Belphanior recalled Gorath's
uncanny ability to read others' emotions and figure things out.  The
death knight's glowing red eyes, hidden behind that visor, projected an
aura of fear that would have repelled a lesser being.  Even the elf,
willful and seasoned veteran that he was, felt an involuntary shudder
creep through his body and mind every now and then, while he was talking
with the undead lord.  In their previous encounter, Belphanior had found
it best to simply be direct

Belphanior:  (nods)  I can't know its exact powers - and whether they'll
  truly aid me - until I have the item, but I have to try.
Gorath:  (folds his gauntleted arms)  Thus you need two things from me:
  Firstly, you must determine exactly where in this region the original
  bearer of your item ventured, and was lost.  Secondly, you require my
  leave to search for that item.
Belphanior:  More or less, yeah, that's right.
Gorath:  That will make _three_ debts that you owe me.
Belphanior:  Not-  (he frowns)  Wait, you know where the item is?
Gorath:  I have a fairly good idea.  Any item powerful enough to cause
  one such as you to venture here in search of it...such an item cannot
  have escaped my notice for all this time.  There is only one place in
  this entire vale that I have not fully explored, and it is the exact
  sort of place that people would foolishly try to explore...especially
  four centuries ago.
Belphanior:  (keeps his expression blank, hiding his excitement at this
  news, which conceivably puts him one step closer to finding the ring
  of Zaeon)
Gorath:  The place you seek is a dungeon, carved into the very rock of
  this valley's floor.  It is deep and holds many secrets and dangers.
  It also happens to be the source of the energies that have changed
  the physical nature of the vale, the surrounding forest, and all life
Belphanior:  Including you?
Gorath:  Do not be foolish.  I was leading armies and conquering foes
  long before this valley became corrupted.  I am here simply because...
  no, never mind that.  (he glares at the elf through his visor)  These
  are my terms:  I will lead you to this place, and you will venture
  into it.  If you survive, you are free to take any items you find in
  those depths, save for one, which you will find and bring back to me.
Belphanior:  Fair enough.  What is it?
Gorath:  I am not certain what its exact appearance will be, but you will
  know it when you find it.  I require the soul of this vale, the source
  of all the death energy that pervades this place.  Such an item exists
  in the legends and the lore...the Heart of Darkness, the Lifetaker, the
  Black Bane.  (he clenches his fist)  It exists in the myths, and I am
  convinced that it also exists in this vale, somewhere down in that
Belphanior:  (frowns, wondering something)  No problem, but why haven't
  you just gone down there and rec-
Gorath:  No questions.  My business is my own.  I have made my offer; if
  you accept it, and if you deliver that fell item to me, all else in the
  place is yours, and our debts are completed.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Then I'll do it.
Gorath:  I want your word.
Belphanior:  You figure it's worth something?
Gorath:  (simply stares at the elf, the red glow still emanating from
  his helmet)
Belphanior:  Fine.  I give you my word that I'll do everything in my
  power to recover the item you seek.
Gorath:  Very well.  (he reins in his nightmarish steed, which has begun
  to claw the ground restlessly)  When do you wish to begin?
Belphanior:  We're ready right now.

  As always, the elf's portable hole was stocked with every conceivable
weapon, item, or tool the group would need in any conceivable situation.
Whether they'd come upon a dungeon or needed to assault a castle, there
would have been no need to go back to the skyship for supplies.  Gorath
didn't even appear to question Belphanior's readiness; instead, the death
knight simply turned his mount to the west and spurred it along, neither
slowly nor rapidly.

Gorath:  Come.
Belphanior:  (turns and motions to his companions, who quickly move to
  join him)

  They let Gorath get a fair distance ahead of them, which enabled
Belphanior to brief the others...

Otto:  (shaking his head)  There's something he's not telling us.
Skektek:  No shit.
Belphanior:  This can't be very easy, or he'd have gone in there and
  found this thing a long time ago.
Skektek:  Only one way to find out, isn't there?
Mongo:  (pats his hammer's handle)  Damn right.
Belphanior:  (to Jenna)  Any impressions or premonitions about any of
Jenna:  (shakes her head)  Just the same thing I've felt since we came
  down from the skyship to this place:  it's evil and it's powerful.
  We must proceed with extreme caution in everything we do here.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces to himself)
Belphanior:  (to Neera)  What about you?  Does this things he's looking
  for ring any bells?
Neera:  No, but I didn't research it since we didn't know about it.  I
  did some background work on the Vale of Death itself, but its origin
  has always been a mystery.  I think it's safe to say, given all the
  evidence we've seen and heard, that something in this area is causing
  the "death effect" we've seen on the animals and plant life.
Jenna:  Which brings up something I've been vaguely worried about since
  we arrived here:  there's a chance that, if we remain here long enough,
  the intense auras of this place may sap our strength, or perhaps turn
  us into undead.
Skektek:  Can that happen?  I mean, is it possible?
Jenna:  I'm afraid it is.  Strong concentrations of negative energy, or
  long exposure to such, have been known to sap life from the living.
Belphanior:  Well, we're all still fine right now, so here's the plan:
  we'll get in there and we'll hurry as best as we can while still being
  safe.  No time-wasting, no unnecessary rest breaks.  Let's move through
  this dungeon and get what we came for.  (he eyes the death knight who
  rides ahead of them)  And what he seeks as well.
Ys:  An unusual agreement, that.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  Putting aside for now the unknown reason for him
  not finding this item himself, I'm rather happy with this deal.  He's
  basically given us license to hunt for what we want, and all we have
  to do is hunt for something he wants.
Elgon:  Whatever else may be going on, we'll know soon enough.  Look.

  The deep gnome was pointing to a series of tunnels on either side of
the valley walls ahead.  Within these tunnels lurked all sorts of pale,
undead creatures; Belphanior was thinking that one of these tunnels would
be the entrance to the dungeon, but the death knight didn't stop or make
any effort to explain.

Neera:  These caves must be home to all of the undead that he controls
  in this region.
Otto:  They're also wandering around, up on the valley walls and amidst
  the trees...they're everywhere.
Jenna:  (notes one large tunnel, whose mouth is blocked by a huge door
  of black metal, bearing the same insignia as Gorath's shield, a red
  lion over a white castle)
Ys:  Hmm.
Belphanior:  Now why did I ever assume that he lived in a castle?
Gorath:  (turns around, his voice deep and commanding)  Stay close, and
  take care not to disturb any of my minions.
Skektek:  (muttering)  They look disturbed enough as it is...

  The march along the valley was like something out of a nightmare; on
every side were undead, of all types (including some that none of the
adventurers had ever seen before.)  From the way these monsters looked
and acted, it was readily apparent that they would have preferred to
swarm the party - and the only thing holding them back was the death
knight.  It was everything that Belphanior could do to keep the others
moving along, doing their best to ignore the undead all around them.

Mongo:  (muttering to Belphanior)  This is bullshit.  We should be
  fighting these things.
Belphanior:   Then we'd never find what we came here for, and all that
  time in the skyship would be wasted.
Mongo:  Still...
Belphanior:  It can't be much further-
Gorath:  (stops suddenly, his mount grunting and looking back at the
  adventurers)  Here.

  They now faced an ancient stone archway, beyond which was darkness.
This portal was much more finely-worked than the other tunnels they had
passed, yet it was also old and worn-down.

Gorath:  Any unclaimed treasure left in this valley lies within this
  dungeon.  (he turns to regard the adventurers)  At first you will find
  few or no dangers, for there have been previous forays into the place.
  Do not grow careless, however...for deeper in the place, there lurk
  formidable foes and lethal traps.  If any of you have gods, it would
  be best to make your peace with them, just in case.

  With that, the death knight spurred his dark steed, turning to leave.

Belphanior:  That's it?
Gorath:  That is all.  You can make camp anywhere near the entrance,
  where you will remain least from my forces.  Good

  Gorath rode away, followed by the various undead minions, some of whom
cast angry (or perhaps hungry) looks back at the intruders.

Belphanior:  (regards them for a moment, then turns back to the ancient
  archway)  Well, I suppose it's time to see what secrets this dungeon

next:       into the dungeon!
released:   11/21/07
notes:      This episode's premise is, I suppose, my way of addressing
  the issue of racial level limits and the gripes that some players have
  with them.  I don't really care about the rules (and as you know, I've
  been striving to get _away_ from them for quite some time now) but this
  is just one of those things.  I can assure you that Belphanior's player
  would have tried very, very hard to boost his character's spellcasting
  power ceiling long before now.
    This is also the first story I've released since 5/4/07.  The reasons
  for this delay were explained then, and unfortunately they still apply;
  I'm very, very busy.  Anyway, my new approach is exactly what I've said
  already:  I'll release larger episodes, but just much less often.  This
  one, for example, is four times the size of a standard "old" episode.
  This is about the only way I can cram all the necessary tales into the
  final 30 episodes.  I truly think it's better this way - these final
  episodes need to be well thought-out and -paced, something I couldn't
  do under the one-per-week time constraint.

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