Chapter #970

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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                             +
+   stone golem    one of Belphanior's golems                             +
+   Date:          12/28/580 C.Y. (Common Year)                           +
+   Time:          late morning                                           +
+   Place:         the Vale of Death, deep within the Forlorn Forest      +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "That's the problem with people like want results, but      +
+    you never want to get your hands dirty."                             +
+                                                - Jack Bauer, from _24_  +

                   CMLXX.  Heart of Darkness

  Belphanior and the others, seeking the mythical Ring of Zaeon, have
ventured to the aptly-named Vale of Death and struck a deal with the
death knight Gorath.  Now, they stand within the entrance to an ancient
and most dangerous ancient stone archway, whose stonework
still hinted at the intricate designs and impressive architecture it
had displayed in its heyday.  Now, however, that once-grand archway was
worn and dusty from the passage of countless years.  Old, musty cobwebs
filled the entryway, suggesting that nothing - man or otherwise - had
entered the place in a very long time.  Beyond the webs was a gaping
black darkness.

Belphanior:  We might as well get started - it's not even midday yet,
  and I'd rather get this over with before darkness falls.
Otto:  (nods)  Did you ever notice how so many supposedly experienced
  explorers - when faced with a place like this - never get down to
  business until dusk?  For example, vampire hunters...who wait until
  dark to get started.  Stupidity, that.
Mongo:  (cracks his knuckles)  You think there're vampires down there?
Otto:  I have no idea, I was just trying to make a point.  Belphanior's
  right, this is as good a time as any to start our explorations.

  The well-worn stone archway was set into a rock face, and just inside
this entrance, the passage began to gradually slope downward.

Ys:  Well, it certainly looks intimidating right from the start.
Skektek:  I could shoot a lightning bolt down there-
Belphanior:  No need - that's why I brought the golems.

  Some of the party had forgotten all about the two constructs - one of
iron, one of stone - which stood ready to obey the elf's orders.

Belphanior:  (to the stone golem)  You - lead the way down there.  Move
  slowly and attack anything that attacks you.  (to the iron golem)  You,
  bring up the rear behind us, and attack anything that approaches from
  that direction.

  As the huge golems moved to carry out these directives, the flesh-and-
blood members of the party made their preparations:  torches were lit,
weapons were readied, and a loose marching order was determined.  Since
the passage was over ten feet wide, three companions could walk abreast.
First came the stone golem; Belphanior, Skektek, and Mongo formed the
second rank.  The next line was Ys, Jenna, and Otto, while the fourth
rank consisted of Elgon, Neera, and Razor Charlie.  The iron golem, as
ordered, brought up the rear, and the wispy thing flitted about with wild

wispy thing:  (excited)  spaaa!
Razor Charlie:  (eyes the wisp and grimaces)

  Being seasoned adventurers, they wasted no time once they were ready;
not long after Gorath and his undead forces had departed the area, the
party descended into the passage.  Its slope was very gradual, and if
not for the presence of the dwarves, it was likely that nobody would
have realized that they were slowly moving downward into the earth.  The
passage was dry and quite cold; scattered cobwebs blocked the path, at
least until they were swept aside by the stone golem's steady advance.
  As he walked, Belphanior allowed part of his mind to wonder exactly
what Gorath coveted - the Heart of Darkness, Lifetaker, Black Bane,
whatever - and why it was down in the unknown depths ahead.  If this
mysterious and powerful item was indeed the source of the dark magic
that pervaded the Vale, there had to be a damned good reason why Gorath
couldn't have come down here a long time ago and simply taken it.  The
elf frowned, wondering what sort of wards - or danger - were enough to
keep a death knight at bay.
  Based on the first chamber they came upon, there hadn't been much in
the way of wards or danger.  The passage opened into a larger area, a
hemispherical room about twenty feet in radius.  Scattered along the
outer edge of this place were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small
pieces of dry, brittle bone.  There were no signs of battle, no blood -
just the countless shards of bone.  The center of the chamber contained
a ten-foot wide stairway leading straight down into darkness.

Skektek:  Shall we light it up?
Belphanior:  Light, but no heat, if you know what I mean.  We don't know
  what's down there yet.
Skektek:  No fireballs, I promise.  (he quickly conjures up a glowing
  light, shining it down into the cylindrical shaft)

  They were surprised to find that the series of steps only went down
about twenty feet or so; below could be seen a flat stone floor that
appeared to open out into a larger area.

Belphanior:  I don't want to send the golem down first - it would alert
  anyone who could feel the impact of it walking.  Let's just scout
  carefully, to begin with.
wispy thing:  fssss.  (flies down the hole, eager to help)

  By the time he was moving down the stairway, Belphanior was confident
that no immediate danger lurked below, as the wispy thing had returned
and was flitting lazily amidst the group without a care in the world.
The elf was the first to head down, and soon found himself in a large
rectangular room, about thirty feet by forty feet with a twenty-foot
ceiling.  It was immediately apparent that a great battle had once taken
place here; pits of varying size dotted the stone floor, and great chunks
of rock were missing in several places on the walls and floor.  At least
a dozen scars marked the places where steel had once scraped the walls,
perhaps missing foes or perhaps cleaving through them.  Broken bits of
metal and leather, the remains of once-mighty weapons and armor, littered
the floor.  There were also several charred blast marks, indicating that
more than simple physical battle had occurred here.

Skektek:  (looking around the battle-torn chamber)  Wow.
Belphanior:  (notes a single exit, a battered metal door on the western
  wall)  At least we know this wasn't a last stand.  (he carefully picks
  up a severed stone head, noting the stoic features of a mighty warrior)
Otto:  I get the feeling that Gorath didn't tell us everything about this
Jenna:  (working a spell as she gazes about the damaged room)  I sense
  something truly odd...conflicting forces at work here, before and also
Razor Charlie:  (ignoring this babbling, he walks over to the damaged
  metal door and examines it cautiously)
Otto:  (already thinking the same thing, he quickly joins the scarred
  warrior)  No lock...heck, we could probably kick it open.
Belphanior:  Not yet.  Let's do a quick sweep of this chamber, make sure
  we're not missing anything - then we'll move on.  Neera - this would be
  a good time for you to scry for the Ring of Zaeon.  We need to know if
  it's down here before we proceed...and we couldn't exactly let Gorath
  know what we were up to.  The less he knows about why we're here, the
Neera:  Right.

  Using powerful magic of lore and detection - some of which she had
invented herself or with the help of Parekh - Neera cast out unseen and
intangible feelers.  Her knowledge of the Ring (or any object she was
searching for) would serve as the basis for her spells to detect it, if
it was nearby.  It was much the same idea as using a scrap of clothing
to put a dog on the scent of its quarry, except that this was a lot more

Belphanior:  Any luck?
Neera:  Somewhat.  I'm confident that the ring is definitely down here
  somewhere - which is good, as opposed to, say, it being on the death
  knight's finger.  But, the aura is...obscured, for lack of a better
  term.  My scrying is yielding rather vague results.  There may be a
  lot of other magic around...or something else.
Belphanior:  Good enough.

  As for the rectangular room, there was nothing of interest left within.
A few of the ruined bits of armor and weapons had a vague, old magical
aura - clear evidence that they had been enchanted before their long-ago
destruction.  There were no hidden or secret doors, however, which left
only that dented, beaten door at the western end of the chamber.  At this
point, a problem became apparent...

Otto:  Shit.  The golems won't fit through that door.

  It was true; both of the huge constructs were taller and broader than
the doorway ahead, which was sized for humans rather than golems.

Skektek:  (holds up a wand)  We could always make the doorway bigger.
Mongo:  (holds up his hammer)  Yeah-
Belphanior:  No.  We can't just smash holes at every turn, not this
  far underground.
Mongo:  Mm.  (nods)
Otto:  (silently wondering why Mongo didn't think of that)
Belphanior:  The golems will stay here and watch our backs, and engage
  anyone or anything that tries to pass.

  Those instructions were given to the two golems, and the marching
order was modified so that Mongo was the tip of the spear, so to speak.
The wispy thing, as usual, knew exactly what Belphanior wanted it to do
now:  fly ahead of the group and act as a scout.

wispy thing:  spaaa!
Belphanior:  If you say so.

                        wispy thing

               Belphanior   Mongo   Skektek
                  Otto      Jenna      Ys
                  Elgon     Neera   Razor Charlie

  Belphanior, to the left, slowly pulled the door open, and Mongo went
through, leading the party into a 10' by 10' corridor that extended for
at least several hundred feet.  At seemingly-random intervals along its
length were side passages, some of which led nowhere, others opening
into small side chambers.  It took the group the better part of an hour
to fully explore all of this, but they found nothing except dust and
stale air.  The underlying impression was that this place had once been
occupied and contained things of interest, but had been cleared out at
some point.  The main passage, meanwhile, had been gradually sloping
downward, a fact not lost on the dwarves in the party.

Elgon:  Pretty slick, and barely noticeable.  I'd say we're forty or
  fifty feet lower than we were when we entered this corridor.
Otto:  It's definitely gotten colder.
Mongo:  Hmm, I didn't notice.  (he looks around suddenly)  We're into an
  older section now.
Elgon:  Yeah, I just caught that.

  The floors, walls, and ceiling were no longer neatly-cut and square,
but rather rough and jagged at points - even the floor.  It was as if
someone had finished out the stonework to a certain point - a point that
was now behind them - but not gone any farther.  The dust was thicker
now, as were the old cobwebs.  Small rocks and piles of rubble were all
over the floor of the passage, and they had to tread carefully to avoid
this debris.  Thick, ancient wooden beams were spaced more frequently
now, as if this part of the passage had required more support to avoid
a collapse.

Ys:  (looks around dubiously)  One must wonder just how safe this length
  of corridor is...or is not.
Otto:  (pokes a beam with a knife, finding the wood surprisingly strong
  and resistant to the steel blade)  Seems sturdy enough.
Belphanior:  This part of the dungeon seems less-used...but unless we
  missed some other passage, this is the only way to proceed.
Elgon:  And we're still going ever-downward.

  The passage was also no longer straight, but meandered to right and
left with no real pattern or design.  If not for the huge, sturdy beams
that supported the tunnel, there would have been no way to know that
anyone had ever walked this path before.

Neera:  This is quite claustrophobic.
Jenna:  And there's something else...I can't pinpoint exactly what, but
  some fundamental force is awry here.
Razor Charlie:  (confused)  Huh?
Jenna:  Something's just...wrong.
Skektek:  Great.  That's just what we wanted to hear.
Belphanior:  Quiet, everyone.  We knew what we were getting into, and
  we've done it a hundred times before.  Right now, we need to focus on
  where we are and what we're doing.  This tunnel can't go on forever.
Mongo:  You're right about that - look!  (he points)

  The long passage ended ahead, in a massive double door of iron-bound
wood.  Although it was out of place given the rough-hewn tunnel leading
up to it, the door had quite clearly been built specifically to seal
this opening.  It bore numerous marks and gouges, obviously from past
attempts to force it open, but all in all, the thing was still very much
intact and sturdy.

Otto:  It's not quite square...well, that's odd.  No hinges, and no knob
  or any other means to pull it open.
Razor Charlie:  Maybe it pushes open.
Neera:  (analyzing the door, she works a spell)
Jenna:  (examines the door with her scrying magic)
Belphanior:  (scrutinizes the door with his magical eye)

  All of these methods yielded the same conclusions:  the door was very
thick, very strongly enchanted, and meant to be opened only by magic.
It also concealed something that radiated a great aura of negative

Jenna:  Perhaps the strongest I've ever encountered.  We should prepare
Belphanior:  (feeling an urgent pulse from his dark sword, he frowns)

  Blackrazor didn't actually _speak_ to the elf, but rather communicated
via empathy, with generalized emotions that conveyed its desires.  Most
often, those desires had to do with the taking of fresh souls, though
upon occasion the sword had other concerns such as warning its wielder
about something or urging him to take some course of action.  The elf's
superior intelligence and iron will had allowed him to maintain control
and not let the sword own him as it would have a lesser person.  Still,
in all that time and in all the years, Belphanior had never felt the
level of pure, raw emotion that he now felt from his sword:  fear.  To
anyone watching, it would have appeared that the elf furrowed his brow
in concentration, and perhaps a bit of pain.  To be sure, he was now
feeling all of the sword's considerable power as it generated a feeling
of something close to panic; it didn't want to be near that door, much
less go _through_ that door.
  In truth, Blackrazor had been restless ever since they first entered
this dungeon, but Belphanior had ignored that empathic feeling until
now.  As the sword wasn't truly sentient, he couldn't exactly talk to
it and understand the problem, but it was certain that there was going
to be a problem.  Since Belphanior fully intended to explore this place
until he found what he was looking for, he found himself forced to act

Belphanior:  Give me a second here.  (he opens his portable hole and
  removes Blackrazor, still in its sheath, from his belt)  This is for
  your own good.  (he stashes the blade within the extradimensional
  space and quickly selects another from among the dozens of weapons
  stored in the hole)

  The elf closed the portable hole, put it away, and buckled on the
longsword he'd just retrieved.

Belphanior:  (draws the finely-worked blue steel blade, a weapon that
  he took from the slain foe Dagron Larthos back in his early days in
  Helgate)  This will do for now.  (he sees a spark dance along the
  sword's edge)  Yeah.
Otto:  What's going on?
Belphanior:  (opting not to discuss Blackrazor's peculiarities with the
  others)  I'm not really sure, but I bet we'll understand once we know
  what's on the other side of this door.
wispy thing:  (hovering hear the door, it frowns oddly)  sprrd.
Otto:  (eyeing the massive portal, he frowns)  You know, I think it's
  glowing, or would be if it was dark here.  (he eyes the series of
  brightly-glowing objects that stretch out behind the party)

  This had been an idea of Neera's:  hundreds of tiny iron spheres, each
enchanted with a spell of continual light, dropped at regular intervals
as the group had progressed through the ancient dungeon.  Not only did
these tony balls provide good light, they also provided an easy way to
backtrack if that came to pass.  Neera had suggested spheres because
that shape made them easier to roll into cracks or down slopes, yet on
a level floor, they would still stay put.  The group's wizards had also
enchanted a lesser quantity of nails and caltrops, for use in areas or
passages with unstable footing or other difficult conditions.

Belphanior:  (turns his attention back to the great door)  Hmm.
Mongo:  (hefts Stormcrest)  Want me to smash it down?
Belphanior:  No.  Neera, Jenna, Elgon - start working on getting it open
  with magic.  Otto - watch for physical traps that may be sprung in the
  attempt.  Everyone else take a break.

  The adventurers got to work on their various tasks.  While Neera and
Jenna and Elgon began using spells to try and open the door, and Otto
kept a close eye on these efforts, the wispy thing flitted about, as if
awaiting the fruits of their labors.  Mongo and Belphanior discussed
something quietly, while Skektek tried to convince Razor Charlie that
magic was a better way to blast a door open than brute force.

Razor Charlie:  (grimaces)
Ys:  (seeing fit to interject)  But is a lightning bolt or fireball not
  also brute force, compared to the methods now in use by our three
  companions there?
Skektek:  Well, I suppose so.  I'm just saying that a lightning bolt is
  a more powerful battering ram than Mongo's hammer.
Ys:  (frowns, eyeing the nearby dwarf)  I'm not so sure.

  While these adventurers debated the merits of various entry methods,
Neera and Jenna were debating something else entirely...

Neera:  -ancient carven writing like this has probably been here since
  the portal was created.  Just because you sense something dangerous
  and evil doesn't mean I shouldn't try to decipher these inscriptions.
Belphanior:  (heading away from a bored-looking Mongo, he approaches
  the seer)  You look worried.  What's going on?
Neera:  I'm not worried, just...intrigued.  When we started scrying and
  other magic on the door, some faint symbols were, here,
  and also here.  It's like someone left a message right in the door
  itself, inscribed into the very metal of the bands themselves.
Belphanior:  (eyeing the worn etchings)  More like a whole book, not
  just a message.  This has to mean something.
Neera:  That's what I'm trying to point out.  (to Skektek)  And blasting
  the door open would have obliterated these markings.  Hell, you can
  see how some sections of writing are already gone, no doubt thanks to
  some long-past attempt to open this portral.
Skektek:  (shrugs)
Jenna:  I'm not saying that the writing isn't important - just that it's
  quite possibly a trap, or a trigger, or something dangerous like that.
Neera:  Undoubtedly.  Trust me, I'll be careful.  I'm not exactly a
  novice at this.

  With that, the young woman began studying the inscriptions in depth,
using both magic and experience.  She muttered to herself, eventually
producing a quill and parchment, the former of which began writing on
the latter in response to Neera's words.

Elgon:  (grins)  Magic is so neat sometimes.  This is just as impressive
  as a fireball.
Skektek:  If not as eye-catching...

  It took Neera about half an hour to complete her work, during which
time everyone else readied weapons (including silver and holy water, and
in Elgon's case, his holy symbol.)  Whatever was on the other side of
this portal, they wanted and needed to be fully prepared.

Neera:  Whew.  (she holds up the parchment, which is now completely
  filled, on both sides, with scrawled notes)  Now this is interesting.
Belphanior:  I'll bet.  What's the story here?
Neera:  My translation's not exact, of course, or perfect,
  paraphrase all this-  (she waves her hands vaguely, indicating the
  markings on the door's iron bands)  -we're deep in a vault, a place
  built for one purpose:  to hide and protect the Heart of Darkness.
  This dungeon used to be full of guardians, traps, and other wards.
Otto:  And now it's completely empty...
Neera:  Except for what's behind this mighty door - the only remaining
  protection in this place.
Skektek:  I still don't see why Gorath, with all his power and forces -
  didn't just come in here and get this thing for himself.
Belphanior:  Unless...he _couldn't_.  (to Neera)  Do these writings
  mention anything about exactly how the Heart...what it is, what it can
  do, how it's secured, anything?
Neera:  Not much, if anything...there are references to alternate names
  by which it's been called throughout history - the Black Bane, the
  Lifetaker, and some others I can't decipher or pronounce.  There's a
  vague reference to a "Cradle of Death" but most of that part is wiped
  out, the damaged part of the door.  As for the Heart itself, all signs
  point to it being perhaps the most powerful Death-related artifact in
Ys:  Perhaps that is a warning we should heed.
Jenna:  I concur.
Belphanior:  I understand all that, but if we backed away every time we
  were on the verge of some great power or treasure or mystery or foe,
  we wouldn't be where - or who - we are today.  Now let's get this door
Neera:  (nods)

  It took several spells, of increasingly greater power and complexity,
before the door finally responded, dust seeping from the rough, round
seam where it met the surrounding tunnel mouth.

Neera:  All right, it's almost ready - I just have one final ward to
  break, and it will open fully.  (to Mongo and Ys)  We'll still need
  some muscle to actually move it, though.
Mongo:  (touches the door, pushing it tentatively)  Ungh.  This thing's
  a lot heavier than it looks.  (he puts his hammer back in his belt)  I
  can push it open, but let's make sure everyone's ready.
Otto:  So this door has dual protections - magical seals, and then its
  own sheer weight?
Neera:  That's correct.
Belphanior:  (to Mongo)  Ready?
Mongo:  (nods)  Let's do it.
Jenna:  (frowning)  I still think something's not right.
Belphanior:  Meaning?
Jenna:  This portal - it's almost as if it opened too easily.  The power
  that was put into enchanting it to seal this passage - can you not
  sense it?  Either the door itself, or something beyond, is obscuring
  the true nature of things here.
Belphanior:  Well, let's pierce that veil of mystery.  (to Neera)  Time
  to finish the spell, and open the door.
Neera:  (making arcane gestures with her hands, which are glowing with
  a faint blue light)  Here we go.
Mongo:  (puts his shoulder against the great door)

  The final spell was cast, Mongo pushed with all his might, and the
door opened inward (away from the explorers) with a great creaking groan
that caused the floor to tremble slightly.  Beyond was a larger chamber,
hemispherical and about fifty feet across.  In the exact center of this
room was a pedestal of jet-black stone, above which floated a gigantic
black diamond of unearthly clarity and beauty.  Even from this distance,
the adventurers were able to see every perfect line and facet of that
great gemstone.  It emanated a pale light that illuminated the domed
chamber, but in a shadowy way - a strange mix of light and darkness,
both of which came from the same source.  There was just no other way
to describe it...and it dominated the room, and the minds of those who
had just entered that room.
  All this was noted in a fraction of a moment, and the next thing they
experienced was an overpowering aura of negative energy - greater than
anything ever imparted by the touch of any wraith, spectre, lich, or
other undead creature.  Each adventurer found himself or herself unable
to move or act, such was the debilitating effect of the gemstone's dark
radiations.  Their strength, their energy - their very life force - was
flowing toward the center of the room, into that great evil gemstone.
They knew what was happening, but couldn't resist it.

Belphanior:  (clenching his fist, he exerts every bit of his willpower
  to try and raise his sword...but his arm only moves a few inches)

  Even this small achievement was more than most others in the group
were able to one.

Mongo:  (empowered by both his strength-belt and the enchantments of
  Stormcrest, he slowly, painfully cranes his head down to look at the
  glowing item secured at his waist)

  Something flared to life at the dwarf's side then...something that
he'd suspected might be useful to have ready and close at hand.  Mongo
had gained the Holy Torch of Darius in some past adventure (he wasn't
even sure which one anymore.)  He'd once been advised that the torch
was a powerful magical item once borne by a legendary high priest in
his wars against the forces of evil and death - a claim that had been
validated in the great battle against Xusia, when undead were vaporized
by its mere presence.  Such accolades surely wouldn't have been apparent
just from looking at the thing:  it was little more than an old, beaten
silver handle, with a hollow space in one end for straw to be inserted
and lit.
  Acting on Belphanior's advice, Mongo had kept the torch handy before
the group opened the door to this chamber, and that preparation now made
a tremendous difference.

Mongo:  (slowly grabs the torch, holding it aloft as it burns with a
  bright white flame doesn't burn him at all)  Ungh...(he turns back to
  regard the black diamond, which is as large as a man's head)

  The dwarf's companions - who, for all their physical or magical might,
were immobilized by the overpowering life-draining effects of the great
dark artifact - were forgotten for the moment.  Mongo was able to put
one foot in front of the other and slowly, inexorably, force his way
toward the force of evil that rested on the pedestal ahead.

Mongo:  (takes a step forward, and then another)  What...the hell...
  is...this place...?

  Twenty feet became fifteen, and then ten.  The holy torch burned even
brighter as it neared the Heart of Darkness, and the black gemstone's
aura if it was marshaling all of its power to try and
stop the torch from coming closer.

Belphanior:  (find his energy slowly returning, and flexes his hand a
  bit) careful-
Mongo:  (standing before the pulsating dark gemstone now, he holds the
  torch up, gritting his teeth)  This thing...doesn't belong.  It must

  The dwarf was sweating now, as his body became the focal point of
a great struggle between two mighty artifacts, one good and one evil.
Fortunately, Mongo had many powerful protections, and thanks to his
armor and helm and belt and hammer, he was able to stand fast where
another - probably ANY other - would have fallen.  The fierce dwarf
had greater plans, however, than simply standing there.

Mongo:  (raises Stormcrest)  It destroyed!

  The dwarf mustered all of his strength and brought the warhammer down
in one sudden, mighty swing.  The hammer - forged of ore from another
world and swung by one with the strength of a titan - met the dark gem
with an impact that shook the entire the Heart of Darkness
shattered into countless pieces!  The sound was deafening, that of a
thousand windows breaking; the blast of dark light disoriented everyone
present, even if they hadn't been looking.
  All was silent, and that silence was deafening.  An untold amount of
time passed, until, finally, Belphanior opened his eyes.  The elf then
realized that he'd been knocked to the floor by the arcane blast, as
had all of his companions.  Mongo, much closer to the point of impact,
had been driven back into one wall of the chamber with such force that
there were furrows in the stone floor from his feet, and a great crack
in the wall itself from where his armored back had collided.
  Of the destroyed Heart, no trace remained - no fragments, not even
dust, littered the floor.  It was as if the artifact had never existed.
The pedestal upon which it had rested was split into two halves, which
had fallen to either side.

Mongo:  Urrrgh.  (he staggers away from the wall)  What...the hell...
Belphanior:  (looking around, he scans the chamber as his crystal eye's
  powers slowly begin to return to normal)  I'd say that an artifact
  died here today.
Mongo:  I didn't...know if I could destroy it...but I had to try.
Jenna:  How fortunate for us that you decided to destroy it - otherwise
  we'd probably have been slain, or absorbed by evil energies beyond
  mortal comprehension, or-
Mongo:  Yeah.  (he shrugs)  Sometimes you've just gotta do what you've
  gotta do.
Skektek:  Speaking of which, we need to look for the treasure.
Elgon:  (frowns)  I think the gemstone that Mongo just destroyed _was_
  the treasure.
Belphanior:  Maybe to Gorath, but we have other goals here.  (he points
  to the center of the room)
Mongo:  (holds the holy torch aloft, and its light glows brightly again,
  as if it knows that its wielder requires such illumination)

  The white glow from the relic bathed the entire hemispherical chamber
in light as bright as the midday sun, and now the adventurers could see
details that they'd missed before.  The area around the room's center
was littered with debris - some of which was clothing or items.  Most
of the party headed that way, to examine this newfound mystery, while
others found a mystery of their own.

Otto:  (notices some more runic inscriptions on the inside of the door
  to this chamber)  Neera, did you see these?
Neera:  I didn't get a chance.  (she walks back to the door, and begins
  scrutinizing the markings)  These shouldn't be too difficult, since I
  already cracked the code on the outside.

  As for the center of the room, it was an odd situation, best described
as a dozen dead people, only without the bodies.  There were boots and
pants, belts and breeches, shirts and cloaks and capes...weapons and
jewelry...but no physical bodies.

Belphanior:  Maybe they dissolved.
Jenna:  Or were somehow absorbed by that dark gem.
wispy thing:  (having re-appeared after staying out of sight when this
  chamber was first opened)  nrrrf.
Razor Charlie:  You don't say.
Belphanior:  (scanning the items with his enchanted crystal eye)  Well,
  at least some of them are magical.  (he spots a ring and wand, both
  next to one sleeve of a red cloak)  Aha.
Skektek:  Is that it - the ring which you seek?
Belphanior:  I don't know, but it's got a strong aura of magic.  Maybe
  Neera can tell me-
Neera:  I can top that.  (she turns to face the party)  Mystery solved,
  thanks to these runes which I just deciphered, and which no one else
  had probably ever had the chance to decipher.
Belphanior:  Do tell.
Neera:  The Cradle of Death - which was fashioned specifically to hold
  the Heart of Darkness - wasn't that pedestal that now lies in halves
  over there.  No, the Cradle of Death is this very chamber in which we
Skektek:  (looks around nervously)
Neera:  Don't worry.  It was magical, or still might be in a way, but
  that magic was inherently connected to the Heart itself.  That evil
  gemstone was hidden down here a long, long time ago, in this chamber
  built to keep it safe, and to keep the outside world safe from it.
  Thus, the portal and the difficulty in opening it...and all of those
  upper chambers once held fearsome guardians.
Otto:  That would explain the debris we found, and the signs of battle.
Neera:  (nods)  This place was once a "real" dungeon, filled with untold
  monsters, traps, and other wards.  All of those much have been found
  and conquered, either by one single adventuring party or more than one.
  It's certain, however, that only one made it through this door and into
  this chamber...where the Heart was waiting, insatiably hungry after
  such a long period of imprisonment.  I think that it sucked the life-
  force right out of whoever made it this far; these are probably the
  remains of that group in the center of the room.  The door then shut
  once more, sealing the chamber...but the Heart had regained enough
  power to slowly, inexorably corrupt the surrounding area, starting
  with the dungeon and eventually spreading out into the surrounding
  valley, and then the forest.
Belphanior:  That all makes sense - as much as anything else in this
  crazy world - but why didn't Gorath come down here and take the thing
  away, long ago?
Neera:  For the same reason you couldn't bring Blackrazor anywhere near
  the Heart:  it consumed life-force, but it _also_ consumed the dark
  energy that fuels the undead.  I'm not sure if this was the intention
  of whoever fashioned the damned thing; it might have been related to
  the Cradle - this chamber - as well, kind of a fail-safe against any
  undead creatures coming and taking the Heart out of here.  Or perhaps
  the unholy relic simply grew stronger over the long years, reaching a
  "critical mass" at which point it began to exert its influence over
  the surrounding area.
Skektek:  So you're saying that it basically created an ideal habitat
  for undead, but they couldn't get too close, lest they be consumed by
Neera:  Something like that.
Elgon:  Wow, that's deep.
Ys:  Alarming, that's what it is.  (he nods to Mongo)  I for one am glad
  the Heart of Darkness is no more.
Mongo:  You're welcome.
Belphanior:  (frowns)  I doubt that Gorath will feel the same way.  (he
  looks around)  Okay, let's check this area, just in case we missed any
  hidden doors or treasures...and then let's get the hell out of here.

  The magical and monetary prizes from the remains around the sundered
pedestal were claimed and stored, to be divided later.  There were no
further chambers or passages - as expected, the hemispherical chamber
truly was the end of this dungeon.  A short time later, the party made
their way out of the ancient stone archway and back into an overcast
mid-afternoon day.
  Naturally, the death knight and his retinue were waiting just outside
the dungeon entrance.

Gorath:  (sitting atop his skeletal winged horse, his gauntleted arms
  crossed)  Something has happened.

  It was not a question.  The undead lord was not pleased, and the eye-
slits in his great black helm glowed crimson.  The horde of undead that
stood amassed on either side seemed ready to pounce at a moment's notice.
Belphanior had anticipated this, and instructed the others to remain
calm if confronted by the death knight.  The elf had always found it
best, in situations like this, to let an antagonist talk himself out.

Gorath:  The Heart is gone.
Belphanior:  Destroyed.
Gorath:  I must have been mistaken...I thought we had an understanding.
Belphanior:  We did, but circumstances changed when your damned gemstone
  tried to drain the life-force out of us.  A little warning about that
  would have been nice.
Gorath:  (shrugs impassively)  Even I - after all these years in this
  Vale of Death - was never sure exactly how the Heart functioned, or
  what its powers were.
Belphanior:  Because you couldn't get close enough, which is why you
  needed someone besides your undead forces to go down there and solve
  the mystery for you.
Gorath:  And recover the Heart...which you have not only failed to do,
  but destroyed it as well.  (he clenches one mailed fist)  I needed
  that item.
Mongo:  (steps forth)  Enough of this!  Nobody needed that damned thing.
  It had no good use, and it tried to kill us, or worse.  Nobody on this
  world is going to tell me that I don't have the right to defend myself
  and save my own life.
Gorath:  How impudent.  (he unclenches his fist, which is now filled
  with a miniature purple ball of fire)  It appears that a lesson is in
Mongo:  (angrily)  You're right about that.

  The dwarf - who had been hasted by Belphanior shortly before the
group exited the dungeon - now moved with a speed which took the death
knight and his minions by utter surprise.  Gorath had never really seen
Mongo (or, for that matter, Jenna or Elgon or Neera) before today, and
he certainly had no idea of the dwarf's extraordinary might of late.
He also didn't know about the Holy Torch of Darius or its powers, which
meant that when Mongo suddenly brandished the relic and brought its
blazing white fire into play, the undead (ruler as well as minions)
barely had time to be surprised.  A dozen skeletons - some armed with
various weapons, others "naked", and one with sharpened arm-bones rather
than hands - were instantly reduced to dust.  Twoscore zombies found
their rotting flesh melted away in a heartbeat, leaving smoking piles
of rotten offal on the ground.  Seventeen ghouls and eleven ghasts were
incinerated, burned to ash on the spot.  A force of nine wraiths simply
ceased to exist, their noncorporeal forms dispelled by the holy relic's
power.  A half-dozen floating skulls, with fangs like those of vampires
and green glowing eyesockets, were reduced to dust right where they
hovered in the air.  A handful of shadows (including a couple that
resembled wild beasts more than people) were blasted into tiny black
fragments that quickly burned themselves out of existence.  And so on.
Even Gorath himself was forced to look away from the burning light which
seared his undead flesh, despite the black armor he wore.

Gorath:  (looks to the left and right, realizing that every single one
  of the minions he brought to this fight has been destroyed in mere
  moments)  Impressive...most impressive.  (he draws his great black
Mongo:  (hurls Stormcrest, directly at the undead lord and from short

  If Gorath was surprised by Mongo's use of the holy torch, he was
completely overwhelmed by the enchanted weapon which hit him with the
force of a cannonball - and brought a mighty bolt of lightning behind
it.  The impact, a great gonging sound of metal hitting metal, shook
the earth beneath their feet and was painful to hear.  As the hammer
returned to Mongo's hand, Gorath had been knocked off of his weird mount
and twenty feet back, and lay sprawled on the ground.  The chest-plate
of his black armor had a gigantic dent in it, a dent which would have
caved in the ribs of a normal opponent.  The ground around the death
knight was scorched from the power of the great lightning bolt that had
accompanied the hurled warhammer's flight.

Gorath:  (sits up)  That...hurt.
Mongo:  This is gonna hurt a lot more.  (he throws his warhammer at the
  foe a second time)

  This time, however, the death knight was ready:  he brought his large,
curved shield up, and a most curious thing happened.

Mongo:  (watches in amazement as his hammer rebounds off of the shield
  and flies right back _toward_ him)  What the hell?

  Due to the enchantments of Gorath's shield, Stormcrest came back and
hit Mongo with the exact same amount of force the dwarf had put into
the throw.

Mongo:  (hit in the shoulder by the ricocheting hammer)  UNGH!  (he is
  knocked back a few feet)
Gorath:  (waves his sword, and bolts of dark energy issue forth to hit
  the nearest and most dangerous foes)

  Each bolt was about the size and shape of a magic missile, but with
perhaps five times the concussive force.  Belphanior, Ys, and Skektek
were all hit, the latter finding his spell-in-progress ruined by the

Otto:  (fires a bolt from his enchanted crossbow, the well-aimed shot
  finding its way through the death lord's helm's eye-slit)
Gorath:  Urgh...
Elgon:  (holding his holy symbol aloft and chanting, he approaches the
  death knight)  Back to hell, foul one-
Belphanior:  Elgon, no!  You can't possibly-
Gorath:  Bah.  (he swings his great sword, decapitating the gnome)
Otto:  Shit!  (he fires again, but the bolt hits the death knight's
  shield and comes right back at him)  Whoa-  (he gasps as the sharp
  missile lodges in his thigh)  Argh!
Razor Charlie:  (having been watching, and seeking to avoid the same
  mistake, he throws a silver knife at the foe's sword-arm, but it just
  bounces off of the death knight's armor)
Skektek:  (aiming a wand at the death knight)
Gorath:  (speaks a word of power, stunning the wizard)
Skektek:  (finds himself unable to move, and his attack thwarted)

  At this point, Belphanior had had enough.  While his allies had kept
Gorath occupied, the elf had retrieved his magical hourglass, and he now
brought the powerful item to bear, stopping time all around himself.

Belphanior:  Whoa.

  Everything that had been in progress - spells, physical attacks, and
movement - was temporarily, magically frozen.  For the next minute, only
the elf was free to move and act; everyone else (most importantly the
dangerous death knight) was still and unmoving.  This was a situation
that Belphanior had been in, and in fact engineered, several other times
in the past.

Belphanior:  Much better.  (dashes over toward Gorath, eyeing the now-
  immobilized death knight warily as he begins working a very powerful

  Once before, in this sort of scenario, Belphanior had tried and failed
to slay the arch-lich Xusia, due to previously-cast magical protections
that one had placed on himself before the battle.  He was a bit worried
that the same sort of problem would present itself now, and that the
remaining stopped-time he had wouldn't be enough to do the job.  Thus,
it was with a certain sense of exultation that he completed his spell
and invoked the magic of disintegration.  A thin green ray shot from
the elf's finger, hitting Gorath and bathing him in a green aura...which
caused the death knight's body and possessions to suddenly vanish into

Belphanior:  Whew.

  Moments later, the time-stopping effect ceased and everyone else was
more than a little surprised to find Belphanior standing where the foe
had been, and the foe nowhere to be seen.

Jenna:  (looking around matter-of-factly)  He's gone.
Belphanior:  Not just gone...slain.
Otto:  He had to die...or un-die...or whatever.  One like that was too
Belphanior:  It didn't have to be that way, but he chose to fight...and
  once someone raises a weapon against me, I don't have to be told twice
  how to deal with the problem.
Ys:  (mumbling to himself)  We finally battle that one, and all I got to
  do was be blasted with a magical bolt.  It's not fair, Charlie.
Razor Charlie:  (just grimaces)
Neera:  (to Belphanior)  I suppose the time-stopping effect was the most
  efficient method.
Belphanior:  Well, I couldn't use Blackrazor against an opponent like
  that - those beings who thrive on negative energy cannot be killed by
  my sword.  And it's important that I'm able to kill them, truly kill
Otto:  Too bad we couldn't get his sword and armor.
Belphanior:  I thought about taking those while time was stopped, before
  using the disintegration...but it was too risky, I might have run out
  of time.
Otto:  (nods)  I'm glad you played it the way you did.
Skektek:  (recovering from the stunning magic)  Ow.
Mongo:  (hefts his hammer in one hand, and his torch in the other)  We'd
  better be on the lookout for any more undead.  No chance we killed all
  of them.
Belphanior:  I doubt they'll come anywhere near us as long as you've got
  that torch out.
Mongo:  (grins)  True.
Jenna:  (having moved to the headless body of Elgon, she is working her
Ys:  Can you heal him?
Jenna:  I can't bring him back from the dead, though certain other high
  priests might be able to.  (she frowns)  But I think we have another
  problem here.
Belphanior:  Why's that?
Jenna:  (quietly)  Because his soul is gone.
Belphanior:  What?!?
Jenna:  My guess would be that big sword that the death knight fought
  with, but there's no trace of Elgon's soul, nothing whatsoever.
Belphanior:  Are you saying that there's another Blackrazor out there?
Neera:  Well, not any more, since Gorath's sword was disintegrated along
  with the rest of him.  We'll never really know.
Belphanior:  Dammit.  I hate losing people.

  The elf held up the arcane ring he'd just acquired in the dungeon far
below, and looked at the headless corpse that used to be one of his
group, and wondered if it was all worthwhile.

Belphanior:  (scowls angrily)
Otto:  Uh...
Belphanior:  What?
Otto:  Skektek and I were just thinking that the death knight must have
  had some treasures or wealth stashed away here, somewhere, and that
  we'd be smart to look for such.  We didn't want you to forget.
Belphanior:  Ah.  (he nods)  Okay, everyone prepare to return to the
  skyship.  Jenna, we'll likely need your scrying magic to locate
  Gorath's lair.  The question we've got to ask ourselves is where a
  noble - even an undead one - would make his home...(he notices the
  nearby, large mausoleom-type structure built into the very rock of
  the valley's side, much like the dungeon they recently exited)...or
  THAT could be it.
Mongo:  (holds the holy torch high as they begin to head that way)  No
  sense wasting our time with any small fry who might still be skulking
  around here.

  Several minutes' walk later, the adventurers stood before the crypt.
A large double door of stone protected the place, but this was quickly
breached, admitting them into what was basically a miniature mansion,
without windows, built inside the protective stone shell.  It appeared
that the death knight had enjoyed lavish surroundings, for the chambers
of his home were filled with ornate furniture, lavish decorations, and
so on.

Jenna:  Interesting.
Skektek:  What's that?
Jenna:  It doesn't even stink in here.  You'd think that the home of a
  living dead being would smell of rot and decay, but it's not that bad.
Belphanior:  Gorath is - was - an unusual sort.

  It seemed that the death knight's various minions had been housed in
various caverns or crude dungeons, built into the walls along the length
of the valley.  From what they now saw in the crypt, only Gorath himself
had inhabited this place.  It had three floors, and on the topmost they
found a gigantic bedroom whose bed didn't appear to have ever been used.
The antechamber next to it was a sizable office, and it was here, amidst
the large stone desk and ancient leather chair, that they discovered the
death knight's valuables.  Despite extensive searching, they only found
a relatively small number of magical items, which suggested that Gorath
had kept the more useful ones on his person - meaning that they were now
lost forever.  However, a hidden (and trapped, and eventually disarmed)
floor safe turned out to contain a small cache of high-quality gemstones
and several sacks of gold coins.

Mongo:  He didn't really need this stuff, but we can use it.
Belphanior:  (thinking of the far greater mass of coins and gemstones
  currently in his portable hole and other places, he silently keeps his
  doubts to himself)

  The elf had recently begun to wonder what one could spend an untold
fortune on...for just his own share of the loot from dozens upon dozens
of adventures was enough to retire and live a life of luxury a hundred
times over.  On top of that (literally) he was still keeping much of his
henchpeoples' wealth as well.  In the early days of treasure-finding, he
had been diligent about saving as much as possible, never flaunting his
money, and so on.  Now, he was worried that if he didn't spend or invest
it somehow, then it might all be lost if something bad were to happen,
like his portable hole being destroyed by dragon breath.

Mongo:  -you know?
Belphanior:  (stops daydreaming)  Uh, right.  (he looks around)  Let's
  take all this stuff and get back up to the ship.
Skektek:  Should we torch this house?
Ys:  It is stone, and would not burn.
Skektek:  (grins)  Wanna bet?  Actually, I could liquefy the stone...
  reduce the whole place to a pile of mush.
Belphanior:  Actually, that's a good idea - it'd cover our tracks.  Do
  the same to the dungeon entrance back there, too.
Skektek:  (nods)  Consider it done, as soon as we're all clear.
Belphanior:  (still upset about Elgon, he ponders the deep gnome's death
  and the possibility that a resurrection is impossible)  Damn it...

  These same thoughts were still with him that evening, after the party
had boarded the skyship and was making ready to cast off.

Belphanior:  (goes into his cabin alone, and shuts the door)
Mongo:  Is he okay?
Neera:  Probably, but let's just give him some time.
Skektek:  (looking at the dark forest, far below)  I wonder what will
  become of the Vale of Death?
Jenna:  My guess is that, without the evil artifact corrupting the area
  and its inhabitants, the regular forest and animals will slowly take
  over.  In a few years, people may never know that there was anything
  amiss in that will only live on in memory.
Neera:  (realizes that she's in a unique position to add a chapter to
  the history books, by chronicling these recent events)  Hmm.

  The voyage home, which took more than a week, afforded them ample time
to analyze and divide the magical treasure from the adventure.  There
had only been a handful of functional enchanted items, which were divided

  item            source    powers/properties              recipient
  ring of Zaeon   D         boosts magical potential?      Belphanior
  wand            D         frost magic                    Skektek
  red cloak       D         invisibility                   Otto
  small shield    D         standard magical shield        Ys
  dagger          D         standard magical dagger        Razor Charlie
  circlet         D         protective magic               Neera
  stone vessel    G         refills with unholy water      (destroyed)
  robes           G         protection                     Jenna
  battleaxe       G         standard magical battleaxe     Mongo
  crucible        G         for wizards/alchemists         Belphanior
  small cube      G         ?                              Ys
  black book      G         nonmagical (Gorath's journal)  Belphanior/

  (D = from dungeon)
  (G = from Gorath's crypt)

  The most important of these, obviously, was the ring; all of Neera's
preliminary scryings proved that it was, in fact, the legendary ring of
the elven mage Zaeon.  A simple band of blue metal, it was inscribed on
the outer side with ancient elven runes, and emitted a fairly hefty aura
of magical power consistent with Neera's previous description of it as a
"minor artifact."  All that remained was for Belphanior to put the ring
on and see if his magical horizons would somehow expand...which was the
way Neera explained it to him later that day.

Belphanior:  (holds the faintly-glowing ring out, eyeing it critically)
  I can't imagine that this will actually work.
Neera:  If I've done my research properly, it _will_ work.
Belphanior:  Let's find out.  (he slips the ring on one finger)

  The change was instantaneous and significant:  the elf felt as if
his head had suddenly cleared of cobwebs and distractions he didn't
know were there.  He imagined that he could now think faster and more
efficiently, and things made more sense.

Belphanior:  All kinds of things...(he retrieves one of his spellbooks
  from his ever-present portable hold, and begins flipping through pages
  he's never spent much time with before now)  Oh, yes.

  Incantations that were never clear before now made perfect sense.  He
could comprehend the ways in which Abi-palzim's Horrid Wilting actually
achieved its horrid, wilting effects.  The ignition methods of the
Incendiary Cloud were now crystal-clear.  The secrets of how to Charm
a mass amount of people made perfect sense.  The methods of magically
constructing the myriad layers of a Prismatic Wall were revealed to
the elf's mind.  The elusive trick to opening a Gate to another plane
of existence was plain as day.  The exact mechanism to summon a fiery
swarm of meteors from the very heavens was now unlocked.  And so on.

Belphanior:  Amazing.  (to Neera)  It's all making perfect sense now!
Neera:  So the ring's powers were just as told in the lore...
Belphanior:  At least as mighty.  (he turns a few more pages)  Time to
  find out if this _really_ worked.  I'm going to attempt a spell that
  I've never been able to cast.

  Always practical - and even more so since putting on the long-lost
ring of Zaeon - the elf was also hoping to accomplish a secondary goal
while conducting his test...

Belphanior:  (clears his throat, then speaks quickly and clearly)  I
  wish that I, and everyone else present on this skyship right now, no
  longer had to worry about being pursued by anyone seeking revenge on

  The elf's intention had been genuine, but wishes were as tricky as
they were powerful, their wording ever-subject to interpretation by the
unnamed deities who granted them.  The reality-warping magic of the wish
just uttered had three distinct effects.
  First, a number of people across the world suddenly forgot that they
had ever been seeking Belphanior.  These were mostly long-suffering
agents of the Sea Princes who had long ago been tasked with finding and
apprehending (or slaying) the elf, though three others were upset with
him over various lesser offenses.  All had failed because they simply
couldn't keep up with their quarry, and in truth, most of them had given
up the chase some time ago, moving on with their lives.
  Second, all of the "anti-scrying" rings on the fingers of the various
party members aboard the skyship vanished, as they were no longer needed
due to the first result of the wish.
  Third, Belphanior and certain others instantly disappeared.

Neera:  Whoa!  (she looks around)  Belphanior?

  There was no sign of the elf - he'd just blinked out of existence in
the instant following his Wish magic.  Alarmed, Neera ran to the cabin
door and flung it open, intending to let the others know what had just
happened and enlist their help.  However, that now appeared to be a
problem too.

Neera:  (gazes out upon the vacant deck, which is devoid of any of the
  other adventurers)  Hello?  Anyone?

  She was surprisingly relieved to hear another voice, which at first
she'd worried was an echo; it came from the other end of the skyship.

Jenna:  (dashes out of the front steering-cabin, in a state of near-
  panic)  What just happened?  Where is everybody?
Neera:  I'm not sure.  We'd better search the ship.
Jenna:  Shouldn't we stop it first?  (she frowns)  Do we even know _how_
  to stop it?
Neera:  Hmm, good question.

  The vessel was moving through the sky, but at a leisurely pace, and
it was still daylight, plus it wasn't like there was anything up here
for the ship to collide with.

Neera:  I think we'll be fine for a while.  Let's go see if we can find
  anyone else.

  The ship wasn't that big, so their search didn't take very long.  The
results were strange, to say the least:  Mongo was asleep in his cabin
(he slept a lot when in the skyship, as it eased his discomfort from not
being on solid earth.)  They also found the two golems in the cargo hold
where they'd been left since boarding, and the wispy thing was still
  However, as for Belphanior, Otto, Razor Charlie, Skektek, and Ys...
all were gone, without a trace.

Neera:  This can't be good.
Jenna:  No.  (working some scrying magic)  Let's see what traces of their
  auras yet remain...those will give us an idea of where they are now,
  and how to find them.

  Moments later, however, the priestess of Istus frowned, appearing to
be confused about something.

Jenna:  That's odd.
Neera:  What?
Jenna:  They're not here.
Neera:  Well, obviously.
Jenna:  No, I mean they're _not here_.  As in, NOT IN THIS WORLD.

next:       Neera and Jenna deal with the aftermath of all this
released:   10/10/08
notes:      I see the Heart of Darkness as a sort of negative-energy
  black exerts its pull out to a certain point, outside which
  nobody knows it exists.  And if you get too close, it's all over.  As
  for Gorath...I try to write interesting "the reader doesn't _really_
  want them to get killed" evil characters, and Gorath was just that for
  a very long time, but sooner or later, there had to be a confrontation
  like this.  It really was inevitable.

    So, here we are...more than 10 months since I released the last
  episode, 969, on 11/21/2007.  I won't go into the reasons why, but I
  have stayed extremely busy, and that will continue for a while yet.
  My plan is to work on new stories as I have time, which means less
  frequent releases than weekly.  Beyond that, I just don't know.  One
  thing I can promise is that every single one of them will be jumbo-
  sized (this one, for example, is over 60K in length, which is the
  size of 4-5 of the old "standard" stories.  If I can write one of
  these jumbo ones each month, you'd really be getting the same amount
  of material per month as before, just all in one big whopping dose.
  One other major advantage of the king-sized stories:  it's pretty
  much guaranteed that SOMETHING MAJOR WILL HAPPEN in each and every

    That's all for now.  I strongly encourage you to watch and follow
  the following good TV that I've gotten into since last Thanksgiving:
  Heroes, Terminator, Lost.  Especially Heroes.

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