Chapter #972

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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       +
+   1991-2009 by Thomas A. Miller.  Any resemblance to any persons        +
+   or characters either real or fictional is utterly coincidental.       +
+   Copying and/or distribution of these stories is permissible under     +
+   the sole condition that no money is made in the process.  In that     +
+   case, I hope you enjoy them!                                          +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+   Belphanior     18th/18th/18th level elven fighter/wizard/thief        +
+   Otto           10th/13th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  11th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        13th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+   Date:          unknown                                                +
+   Time:          unknown                                                +
+   Place:         unknown                                                +
+   Climate:       n/a                                                    +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+   "The only morality in an immoral world is chance."                    +
+                                             - from _The Dark Knight_    +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++





                   CMLXXII.  Out of Time, Out of Space





  After a harrowing adventure that involved the Heart of Darkness, and
then a costly battle with the death knight Gorath, Belphanior and crew
were headed home.  All had been well until the elf uttered a fateful
_Wish_ using his newly-acquired spellcasting knowledge...

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
  us.

  The next thing the elf knew, reality itself shimmered and warped all
around him, the result of the powerful magic of that ultimate spell and
the whims of unknown deities.  The walls of the skyship cabin, and the
concerned face of Neera, vanished instantly as the elf was torn from his
proper time and space and hurtled to parts unknown.  Bizarre shifting
colors and fluctuating sounds bombarded his senses, and he had a strong
feeling of weightlessness mixed with vertigo.  This distortion of reality
packed a powerful punch:  the elf suddenly felt exhausted, and nauseous,
as if he'd been exerting himself for hours on end while being sicker than
he'd ever been.  He closed his eyes to try and block out the bizarre
experience...and then it ended abruptly.  And somewhat painfully.

Belphanior:  (lands on some hard surface)  Ungh!

  It took the elf a few moments to recover enough to open his eyes and
push himself up off the ground, or floor, or whatever it was he had come
to rest upon.  He tried to stand but wasn't able to, so he settled for a
sitting position while he regained his equilibrium and strength.  A low
croak of pain nearby alerted him to the fact that he wasn't alone, and
that others were recovering just as he was.

Skektek:  Urg...
Belphanior:  Are you okay?
Skektek:  Give me...a moment.
Otto:  (sits up)  I feel like crap.
Razor Charlie:  (rolls over onto one elbow, and grimaces)
Ys:  (blinks, rubbing his scaly neck to try and dispel the headache he
  now has)  Ouch.
Belphanior:  (looking around)  Otto...Skektek...Ys...Charlie.  Just the
  five of us.
Skektek:  Where are we?
Belphanior:  (looking around)  That's a damn good question.

  They were sitting on a floor of some hard material, which was a dull
gray in color.  The floor belonged to a hemispherical chamber, about
thirty feet across, its contents illuminated by a soft white glow that
simply emanated from the top of the domed ceiling with no apparent actual
source.  A single exit, which was hemispherical in cross-section and
about ten feet in radius, joined the wall behind the party.  All of the
surfaces and joints of the room and its exit passage were smooth and
seamless.

Ys:  What an odd place.
Otto:  (raps on the floor with a knuckle)  That's not metal, but I don't
  think it's stone either.
Belphanior:  (scanning the room with his crystal eye)  Magical...this
  whole place is magical.
Skektek:  How magical?
Belphanior:  Saturated.
Skektek:  I know that - even I can feel it...it's all over the place.
  (repeating his question)  But where are we?
Belphanior:  Another good question, or course, is where the hell the
  others are...Neera, Jenna, Mongo...hell, the skyship too.
Otto:  I have a bad feeling about this.
Ys:  Agreed.  Something is...not right.
Skektek:  Whoa!
Otto:  (alarmed, he draws his sword and whirls about)  What?
Skektek:  Those magical rings we had to wear to hide ourselves from any
  scrying magic - hey, mine's gone!
Otto:  (checks his finger)  Mine too.
Skektek:  Fucking-A.  (he quickly searches himself)  Well, nothing else
  is missing.  (he finds his thunder ring, which he'd not been able to
  wear due to the anti-scrying ring, and puts the thunder ring back onto
  that finger)  I like this one better anyway.
Razor Charlie:  (notes the absence of his own anti-scrying ring, and
  grimaces again)
Belphanior:  (recalling all the time and effort that went into the
  construction of those rings)  Dammit, dammit, dammit.  (he sighs)  It's
  my own fault.
Skektek:  Huh?
Belphanior:  I did this...
Otto:  (slipping his ring of protection back on)  You got rid of those
  rings?  How's that?  Or maybe a better question is, why?
Belphanior:  (shaking his head)  No, not that.  (he gestures to the odd
  chamber they now stand in)  This...all of this.  I did it.  (he begins
  to cast a spell)
Skektek:  I don't understand.
Belphanior:  I don't understand, either, not really.  But we need to get
  back.  Everyone, gather round - I'm going to teleport us back to our
  hideout in the Pelisso Swamp.
Ys:  Why not the skyship?
Belphanior:  Too risky - it's a moving target, which is never good for a
  spell of teleportation.  The stronghold in the Pelisso is an ideal
  destination for this sort of magic.

  The elf's spellcasting seemed easier than it ever had before - which
he attributed to the newly-acquired Ring of Zaeon - and he finished the
incantation in record time.  Unfortunately, nothing happened.

Belphanior:  (shakes his head)  Figures.
Otto:  Not to be pushy, but are you ever going to explain any of this
  to the rest of us?
Belphanior:  (sighs)  A short time ago-  well, when we were all on the
  skyship heading home, I was testing some magic thanks to my newfound
  ring.  I wished for us all to no longer be pursued by anyone seeking
  revenge...and I believe that this magic was somehow twisted around to
  achieve what I asked for, but perhaps not the way I would have wanted.
Skektek:  Perhaps?  It's pretty obvious, I'd say.  I've always heard that
  wishes get taken literally...and now I bet we're in a place where no
  one we know can track us.
Belphanior:  The evidence bears this out:  the five of us were really
  the ones who would have been most sought-after by angry parties from
  the past, and our anti-scrying rings were stripped from us, and here
  we are.  (he eyes their odd surroundings)  Wherever "here" is...which
  is probably not Oerth, since my teleportation spell just failed.
Ys:  Should such a spell succeed even across different worlds?
Belphanior:  It should, in most situations...which really worries me.
Skektek:  (pointing his thunder ring at one wall, he launches a tiny
  bolt of lightning, just enough to hit the curved surface with a small
  but loud POP)  Well, we're definitely not in an anti-magic zone.
Razor Charlie:  (quietly wanders over to the blast point of the lightning
  bolt)
Skektek:  Maybe you should try your spell without that ring on...maybe
  it's causing the magic to fail.
Belphanior:  Good idea.  That wouldn't make any sense, but it can't hurt
  to try.  (he removes the ring of Zaeon, and grimaces slightly)  Whoa.
Otto:  What?
Belphanior:  It's like when you wear a belt of strength or boots of
  quickness, and you get used to the item, and then you take it off
  and you're suddenly weaker, or slower.  I just experienced that, but
  it was my...understanding that suffered.  (he grits his teeth)  Bah.
  I have to cast another teleportation spell.
Ys:  It's fortunate that you had two memorized.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  It's best to be prepared.

  The adventurers again prepared themselves for instantaneous magical
transport back to their base of operations...and again, the spell failed
utterly.

Belphanior:  (looks quite exasperated for a moment, then puts the ring
  of Zaeon back on)  Ah, much better.
Skektek:  Well, that's relative.
Razor Charlie:  (gets their attention)  Look here.

  They moved to join the knife-throwing warrior, who was examining the
place where Skektek's miniature lightning bolt hit the domed wall of
this chamber.

Razor Charlie:  (runs a finger along the smooth, dull gray wall)  Not a
  scratch on it...not even warm.
Skektek:  That was a pretty puny lightning bolt - I can easily fire one
  that-
Belphanior:  That's not the point.  Even a stone or metal wall should
  show some trace of damage, or be hot to the touch.
Ys:  Curiouser and curiouser, as they say.
Otto:  (turns to regard the lone exit from the room)  I think our course
  is clear.
Belphanior:  (nods)  We'll take that exit passage and explore this place,
  to learn more about it and find a way home.  (he frowns)  If there is
  one.  (he draws his black blade from its well-worn sheath)  I sense no
  souls nearby.  Let's go.

  And so they left this chamber and entered the passage, marching two
abreast:  Belphanior and Otto in the front, Ys and Skektek in the second
rank, and Razor Charlie bringing up the rear.

Belphanior:  Everyone stay sharp - remember, we don't know where we are
  or who else is here.
Skektek:  (nods)  We're not amateurs.
Belphanior:  Mm.  Sorry.

  The elf had a lot on his mind, and not just their current predicament.
Thanks to the Ring of Zaeon, his abilities - fighting, spellcasting, and
thieving - had now peaked.  The spells of utmost power, which had always
been unattainable for him, were now within his understanding.  During the
last battle with Gorath, he'd felt that his overall swordplay and speed
were extraordinary.  Though he didn't fully understand what the ring was
or how its magic worked, Belphanior was very much pleased with what he
perceived as newly-unlocked potential.
  On the flip side, that potential was largely wasted if he wasn't on
his own world, furthering his own goals and fighting his own enemies.
Wherever he'd inadvertently transported himself and his four companions,
the elf considered it a waste of time, and he felt a burning desire to
get back home.  He was also responsible for his four companions being
here with him, and he was sure that they'd rather be home as well.  To
be sure, traveling to other worlds, while often worthwhile, was best
done when intentionally, carefully planned and prepared.

Belphanior:  (leads the group through the semi-circular passage)

  This corridor was illuminated just like the chamber behind them:  the
soft white glow emanated from the top of the ceiling.  Belphanior found
himself reminded of the fabled City of the Gods, which he'd visited some
years ago and learned that it wasn't just a fable.  In fact, that place
had lived up to its name, eventually rising from the world's surface to
vanish into the heavens.

Belphanior:  (mumbling to himself)  Hope that doesn't happen here too.
Otto:  What's that?
Belphanior:  Nothing...

  The passage had a gradual curvature to the left, such that after fifty
feet or so they could no longer see the room they'd appeared in.  After
another fifty feet, the passage opened into a large spherical chamber,
about a hundred feet across.  Like the previously-explored areas, this
juncture had smooth, seamless joints with no hard edges.  The spherical
chamber was as well-lit as the passage, and again, with no single visible
source of illumination.  There was another exit passage - strangely
enough, at the _bottom_ of the spherical room.  This other passage was
ten feet in radius like the one they'd arrived by, but was completely
round - more of a tube than a passage.

Ys:  Most odd.
Otto:  Well, if all else fails, we can just slide down there.
Belphanior:  (sheathes his sword, and leans over the edge where the
  corridor meets the room, looking around)  Yeah-  Whoa!

  The elf suddenly found himself free of the pull of gravity - he was
floating into the new area, slowly and gently.

Belphanior:  (eyeing the exit passage "below" him)  That explains why
  that exit is a completely round passage.  (he turns to the others but
  finds himself upside-down in relation to them)  Ack.  Someone get some
  rope - let's get tied together before something crazy happens.
Otto:  Already on it.
Belphanior:  Okay.  (he flails his arms, trying to right himself, but
  begins spinning lazily and uncontrollably)  Dammit.

  Just then, a deep, resonating hum filled the entire area...and some
immense force pulled Belphanior from his free-floating position, down
toward the spherical room's other exit.  The elf didn't have a chance
to do anything, such was the power of this unknown suction.  The other
four immediately backed away, but it was too late, as they were all
drawn into the larger spherical area despite their best efforts.

Ys:  (trying to get a grip on the passage's wall, a pointless exercise
  since it's completely smooth and seamless)  Whoa!

  Within moments, all four of them had been pulled into the weightless
room, and then down and out via the exit passage.

  A short distance ahead of them, Belphanior was torn between trying to
stop his motion through the tube - which was transparent - and trying to
comprehend the surroundings _outside_ the tube - which were bizarre and
unearthly.  Of course, it was difficult to even think about taking any
action (much less acting on such thoughts) when one was hurtling along
at a high rate of speed.  And then there was the scenery...for the thin
conduit through which he passed was completely surrounded by a purplish-
black void, within which were distant specks of light and also various
other objects...colored clouds of vapor, weird misshapen chunks of rock,
spheres of different sizes and hues, amorphous clouds of dim embers, and
much, much more.  At one point, he briefly saw what appeared to be some
sort of sleek metallic vessel passed by in the distance, but it was hard
to know for sure due to his own movement and the unfamiliarity of these
surroundings.  In fact, all of this was far more than even his keen mind
could readily comprehend, even if he hadn't been hurtling through the
narrow tube at a high rate of speed.
  That brought up an interesting question, though:  why was he moving so
rapidly yet smoothly through this strange passage, never touching its
walls?  Belphanior decided that whatever power was responsible for his
motion - and possibly this entire place - probably had a purpose, which
would be revealed eventually.  He stopped worrying about that and tried
to get an idea of where he was going, but the transparent tube had many
twists and turns, and it was impossible to determine anything.  The tube
was like an artery in a vastly larger body, and there was just no way to
get a sense of scale.  And then, just like that, the strange trip ended
as abruptly as it had begun.

Belphanior:  (ejected from the tube, into a glass-like cylinder which
  seals instantly, he lands with much less force than he should have,
  as if his motion through the tube was somehow diminished at the end
  of that journey)  Ooomph!

  The cylinder was perhaps four feet across and eight feet high - not
much room to move around or do much of anything.  Within moments, his
four companions had been similarly deposited - in fact, the cylinders
containing the five of them were all in a row, and there were more
cylinders further down the line.  Each cylinder was spaced several feet
apart.  Otto was trapped to one side of Belphanior, but the container
immediately to the elf's other side contained some sort of large, opaque
green jelly, which was slowly moving and writhing in its tube.  Beyond
that was something that looked like a diminutive black-skinned beholder
with silver eyes, and the third cylinder past Belphanior held a stony,
golem-like being.  It was impossible to discern anything definite in any
of the cylindrical containers beyond that.  In the other direction, the
first cylinder contained the disheveled form of Otto.

Belphanior:  (looks at Otto)  Are you okay?

  Whatever the glassy material of the cylinders was, it wasn't quite
soundproof.  Their voices were muffled somewhat, but the occupants of
nearby containers could hear one another speak.

Otto:  (nods)  Bruised and battered...and very, very confused.  But okay.
  Did you see that weird shit back there?
Belphanior:  I did, and it worries me even more now.  We're definitely
  nowhere near home.  (he looks around)  In fact, I really don't like
  the looks of this.  Check on the others, would you?

  Otto was able to talk to Razor Charlie on his other side - not that the
knife-thrower had much to say - and beyond him was Ys, and then Skektek.
Given that last one's temper, it was probably good that he was at the end
of the line so that nobody could hear his cursing.  It was interesting to
note that the tube holding Ys was a bit wider and taller, as if it had
somehow been customized for his larger size.

  The row of transparent cylinders was lined up against a long wall
within a large chamber with many walls and corners.  Several tables of
the same pseudo-metallic material as the rest of this place were arrayed
in the middle of the room, which was perhaps a hundred feet square in
its large central area; two of the tables were angled away from the line
of cylinders containing the adventurers, such that they couldn't see
whatever was on those tables.  The ceiling was high, about twenty feet,
and from it emanated the same soft white light that they'd seen in the
first parts of this place.

Belphanior:  (begins examining the cylinder surrounding himself)  Hmm.

  It was pretty simple:  the cylinder tapered into a domed top, while
its bottom was flat.  He and the others were completely enclosed in the
transparent containers.

Belphanior:  Caged.  (he pulls out a small dagger)

  He was reminded of glassteel as he tapped and then hit the barrier
hard with the butt of the dagger.  The cylinder wall showed no sign of
the impact - which meant that breaking it would be difficult, if not
impossible, without magic.

Belphanior:  (realizing that the substance isn't glass or metal, judging
  from the sound of the impact)  Hmm.  (he uses his dagger's tip to try
  and scratch the transparent material, unsuccessfully)

  His next idea was to try fire, or lightning, or something like that.
However, the tubes that imprisoned them all were a simple but ingenious
deterrent to such attempts...for anyone within a tube would suffer the
full brunt of any magical energies they were able to bring to bear.  In
the same way, Belphanior was hesitant to use his wand of acidic spheres,
because he had no way to avoid the acid.  It occurred to him to levitate
or fly, to stay above the floor while the acid was released.  However,
if the acid didn't burn through the glass or the floor, it would create
a deathtrap within the sealed tube, not to mention its acidic vapors
potentially being lethal in such a confined space.
  Besides, Belphanior had a hunch that neither fire, acid, nor lightning
would break through the transparent cylinders that were quite obviously
prisons.

Belphanior:  Physical force isn't the answer here.
voice:  There is no answer, at least not for you.
Belphanior:  Who the hell...?

  The voice was neither male nor female, though it was slightly reedy
and high-pitched, and somewhat condescending.  It belonged to a tall,
thin humanoid with an enlarged, bulbous head and pale white skin.  This
being was clad in a thin, silvery-white robe; as it walked slowly and
gracefully into the room, it regarded the five prisoners and then spoke
again.

being:  My actual name is incomprehensible to such as you, and I shall
  not bother to translate.  Indeed, the only reason you can understand
  my words at all is because I have chosen to communicate with you on
  your own primitive level.
Otto:  Well, thanks a lot-
being:  (raises a slender hand, which contains a light blue wand)
  Enough.  (it waves the wand indignantly, and some sort of mighty
  electrical shock courses through the tube holding the dwarf)
Otto:  (thrashes about wildly as the energy shocks him)  AAAARGH!
being:  I will not tolerate such attitudes, much less disobedience.  You
  would do well to learn this.
Belphanior:  Enough!  You've made your point.
being:  (watches Otto dance and jerk in pain for a few more moments,
  then slowly lowers the wand)

  The electrical effect ceased, and Otto collapsed to the floor of his
transparent prison, his flesh seared and smoking.

being:  I trust that this lesson was not wasted on your companions.
Belphanior:  Doubtful.  Can I ask what exactly you want from us?
being:  I suspect that your behavior may prove less chaotic, and thus
  more interesting, if you understand something of your situation now,
  so I will deign to speak of this.
Belphanior:  (controlling his every destructive urge, he clenches his
  fists tightly)

  Given that this powerful being could shock him - or all of them - at
will, before they could mount any sort of escape attempt or attack, the
elf knew that the best course of action was to listen and learn.  This
had the secondary effect of stalling for time, which meant Otto could
begin to regenerate his burned flesh.

being:  You are no longer in your own world.  Think of me as a collector
  of sorts...often, when beings travel amidst the planes without any
  idea of where they are going or how, they are easy to find and divert
  from their destination.  In rare cases like yours, powerful magic gone
  awry will literally deposit you into my domain.
Belphanior:  That first room was some kind of...interplanar collecting
  net?
being:  A crude analogy, but it will do...especially since you are as
  insects to one such as myself.
Belphanior:  (incredulous)  Insects?
being:  My interest lies in...examining various forms of life.  Observe.

  With another wave of the blue wand in its pale, long-fingered hand,
the strange being caused one of the tables to rotate so that its angled
surface faced the prisoners within the transparent cylinders.

Belphanior:  By the gods...!

  Fastened to the surface of the table was a massive, half-dissected
form whose thick, armored red skin had been sliced open and folded back
like paper.  In life, this monster must have stood twelve feet tall
and possessed the power to knock down walls; the massive musculature was
still apparent despite the missing sections of skin, flesh, sinew, and
bone.  Various internal organs had been removed and set aside next to
the corpse, and all that remained of its head was a stub of bone and
about half a brain still intact atop that stub.  A nearby jar was filled
with black blood, and a tube led from this jar into some unseen section
of the body.  Another tube snaked away to a nearby table.

Belphanior:  What the...hell...is this...?
being:  Behold this creature, which possessed strength and resilience
  far greater than yours.  (the being uses its blue wand to levitate a
  large, glistening green object from the table)  Now, its body yields
  some most fascinating knowledge.  This organ, for example, secretes a
  liquid that neutralizes fatigue toxins, thus increasing stamina.
Belphanior:  (watching the demonstration in horror)
being:  I sense your revulsion.
Belphanior:  That's putting it mildly.  This is just...wrong.
being:  (shrugs)  Does a being of superior intellect give even a passing
  thought to the whims and ways of lower forms of life?
Belphanior:  We're not lower forms of life!  We-
being:  Compared to me, you are insignificant.  I possess knowledge and
  power you cannot even comprehend.  I shall do what I wish.  (it lowers
  the green organ to the table)  And each of you, in turn, shall lie on
  this table and be thoroughly studied, to see what secrets you hold.

  Belphanior reached two definitive conclusions right then and there.
The first was that this being, whatever it was, was not that advanced
or intelligent, compared to the adventurers.  If it had been, it would
not have felt the need to explain its actions or repeatedly declare its
superiority.  The current situation was just a glorified case of someone
holding the upper hand over someone else...for the time being.  The elf
was confident that, were he and his friends not trapped in the glassy
cylinders, the being before them wouldn't be quite so smug.
  The second conclusion was much more simple:  the being had to die.

Belphanior:  (slumps back against the wall of his transparent prison,
  looking utterly defeated)

  The other four followed his lead; it was an unspoken rule among the
group that in a predicament like this, if Belphanior wasn't taking any
action, he was thinking and planning.  In that case, they all knew to
simply stand by and wait for something to happen.

being:  (crosses its arms)  Excellent.  You have realized the futility
  of further struggle or discussion.
Belphanior:  (slowly sinks to the floor of his cell, his head hung)
being:  Escape is impossible; any force you bring to bear from within
  your containment vessels simply amplifies the holding power of those
  vessels.  The stronger a subject is, the stronger their prison will
  become if they attempt to escape.  As for magic of spatial movement
  or other-planar summoning, be aware that your cells will not allow
  such energies to pass.  (it spreads its long-fingered hands)  Like
  many others before you, you are mere specimens now.  Nothing more,
  nothing less.  You may await your fate in any way you see fit.  I
  shall return when it interests me to do so.

  With that, the haughty being turned and walked out of the chamber,
exiting through a sturdy-looking oval portal which opened at its mere
approach.

Belphanior:  (watches as the doorway closes behind the departed foe)

  The elf didn't think their strange captor would be somehow monitoring
them - the being honestly didn't seem capable of considering that - but
regardless, he waited quite some time before speaking.

Belphanior:  (raises his head, a lethal gleam in his eye)
Otto:  (stirs, ever so slightly)
Belphanior:  (to Otto)  Are you recovering?
Otto:  I'm fine.  What's the plan?
Belphanior:  Get out of these cages, kill that motherfucker, and find
  a way home.  In that order.
Otto:  Absolutely.
Belphanior:  This...being has made several mistakes already, which is
  why I'm glad I paid attention.  Number one, it's got quite an ego; it
  thinks it's better than us and that we pose no threat, just because
  we're its prisoners, which only happened because we walked into its
  prearranged trap and it got the drop on us.  That's a serious under-
  estimation of our powers and abilities - and will to live - and when
  we get out of these cells, we can really exploit this grave tactical
  error on our captor's part.  Mistake number two was its explanation
  of what's going on and where we are.  If it hadn't said anything, I'd
  have thought it was some kind of god that controlled its own plane.
  Now, I realize that it's a sentient being, with an ego, that wants
  and needs to be heard and understood, and that makes mistakes just
  like anyone.  Knowing that it's not omnipotent is half the battle.
  Its third mistake was letting us know that all of its demonstrated
  powers stem from that blue scepter.  Oh, I realize that the being
  never directly admitted that, but it might as well have.  When you
  have the upper hand, it's never a good idea to talk too much or give
  away your secrets.

  Otto nodded; the others couldn't hear the elf's words, but judging by
their expressions and body language, they understood the gist of what
he was saying:  that they could and would find a way out of this mess.

Belphanior:  It probably could have killed us, but I'm guessing it wants
  subjects alive for a while, maybe to study them or learn whatever they
  know under torture.  (he frowns)  And it didn't take our items, which
  probably means it couldn't do so without risking its own neck.  Better
  to surprise us - since we didn't know where we were or that a hostile
  power was lurking here - and toss us in these damned cells.  Speaking
  of which, that's mistake number four, because our captor mentioned the
  properties of these tubes we're trapped in...which leads me to believe
  that while they're totally impervious to any efforts from within,
  someone on the outside could probably deal with them pretty easily.
Otto:  That's good logic.  How can we test it?  The only other people
  here are the prisoners who were here before us, if any of them are
  alive.  (he glances past Belphanior, at the green amoeba-like thing
  in the container beyond the elf's)  Or intelligent.
Belphanior:  And there are no guards out there to somehow trick into
  somehow freeing us.  (he looks around, surveying the room, and then
  raises an eyebrow)  Hmmmm.

  Meanwhile, each of the other adventurers had been considering their
options.  Skektek had all sorts of destructive magic (and items that
generated destructive magic) at his disposal, but without any certainty
of such methods breaking the transparent barrier, their use would mean
certain death.  Lightning or fire would incinerate him within the
cylinder; generating a quantity of stone or a wall of any sort might
conceivable shatter the prison, but before that, Skektek himself would
be smashed to a pulp since his body was of far softer material than the
barrier itself.  Despite their captor's assurances that the cells were
impervious to "movement" magic, Skektek had attempted a dimension door
spell anyway, without success.

Skektek:  (sits there, sulking and trying to see what the others are
  up to)

  Ys had already tried using his great strength to smash his prison...
and then he'd tried chipping away at its surface with his weapons...and
then he'd thrown his huge body against one wall, trying to see if the
cylinder could be tipped over.  Nothing worked, and the big reptilian
wasn't accustomed to encountering a problem that couldn't be solved by
physical means.  Razor Charlie was in the same predicament:  every item
and skill he possessed relied on him being able to move about and use
his speed, which wasn't possible at the moment.
  Otto had considered utilizing one of his water-generating marbles to
fill his tank and perhaps burst it from within.  His magical necklace of
adaptation would certainly enable him to survive in that situation, but
the whole idea seemed pointless the more he thought about it.  In other
surroundings, his mithril horn of valhalla would have worked to summon
warriors, but that clearly wasn't going to work here.
  As for Belphanior, he'd been thinking about everything the being had
said, and everything the elf himself had noticed about their odd cells
and the surrounding room.  The solution had just popped into his head
unbidden, as answers to problems often did.

Belphanior:  Aha.  (he regards an ancient flute of grayish-white bone)

  This item had previously been claimed by Otto from the spoils of one
of the group's many campaigns, but Belphanior had traded something else
to the dwarf to acquire the flute.  Neera had called it "the flute of
the dead" and it possessed a single, simple power...one that should
theoretically be effective despite the transparent cylinders that
imprisoned the party.

Belphanior:  (puts the flute to his lips, causing a haunting dirge to
  begin playing)

  Some magical instruments required actual skill, while others simply
functioned.  For a long moment, the elf wondered if his theory would
prove right...and then his heart nearly stopped as he realized that he
_had_ been right!

half-dissected monster corpse:  (lurches off of the slab, knocking its
  own removed parts as well as various equipment to the floor)

  The prisoners in their cylindrical cages could only watch as the huge
and hideously-maimed creature, in the throes of reanimated rage, flailed
blindly about, knocking over a table and then a shelf.  It had no way to
see or hear, but that didn't stop it from trying to destroy everything
it came in contact with.  It didn't take long for this to achieve the
effect Belphanior was hoping for.

half-dissected monster corpse:  (tosses a heavy table aside...and the
  object skids right into the cylinder containing Otto)
Otto:  Whoa-  <CRACK>

  The dwarf's transparent cell was knocked on its side, a large crack
now running from top to bottom.

Otto:  (recovers his senses quickly, he hefts a knife immediately, prying
  at the crack)

  Meanwhile, the half-dissected monster's corpse continued to rampage
through the room; it plowed into a large tank of clear fluid, bursting
it and soaking an entire half of the room.  Next, it collided with a
wall, fell back, got up...and charged right into some of the tubes down
the row from those holding the adventurers.  Several were shattered,
their occupants suddenly free.

small, hairy bestial being:  (grabs a chunk of debris and begins running
  around smashing things, screaming like a wild monkey)  BRAAAAAK!
white-skinned, four-armed being:  (lies unmoving amidst the remnants of
  its smashed prison)
headless black-furred being:  (prances away amongst the wreckage of the
  room)
stony, golem-like being:  (flexes its thick arms)
diminutive, black-skinned beholder-like being with silver eyes:  (flies
  toward the center of the room)
amoeba-like green jelly being:  (flows away behind the row of cylinders)
half-dissected monster corpse:  (still running amok, it plows into one
  wall, shaking the entire room)

  However, that wasn't all.  Two other smashed cylinders had contained
corpses of dead prisoners, and these creatures - within range of the
death flute's tune, and thus reanimated by its power - were now free to
move about and join in the chaos...

wild boar-like beast:  (snorts as best as it can with its collapsed
  lungs)  HRRRONK!
giant bear-like creature:  (raises its great clawed paws and roars with
  all its might)  GRAAAAARGH!
wild boar-like beast:  (turns, sees the bear-like thing, and charges
  right at it)  HRRRRR-ONK!

  The two combatants immediately locked horn and claw, fangs and tusks
as they rolled about in what looked like one solid mass of writhing,
furred muscle and sinew.  Their struggle immediately took out a shelf
full of small metal tools and implements, and then they slammed into one
wall.  Both beasts continued to tear at each other as congealed blood
began to seep and chunks of dead flesh began to fly.

bulbous-headed being:  (enters the room via the same oval portal it left
  through earlier)  Oh, my.

  The robed one pointed its ever-present blue wand at the nearest of the
escapees...

giant bear-like creature:  (hit by a sizzling, crackling blue beam, it
  is incinerated, leaving behind a large pile of ashes)
wild boar-like beast:  (immediately turns and charges at the being with
  the wand)  HRRR-

  A second blue beam reduced the boar-like creature to mere cinders, but
the bulbous-headed captor was far from done.

bulbous-headed being:  (aims the wand a third time)
diminutive, black-skinned beholder-like being with silver eyes:  (hit
  by another deadly beam, it becomes an airborne mass of ashes, which
  quickly drift to the floor)
bulbous-headed being:  Enough of this!  All of you, back-

  The being stuttered in alarm as the small, hairy bestial being charged
right toward it, brandishing a broken sliver of the transparent cage
material.

small, hairy bestial being:  BRAAAAK!
bulbous-headed being:  (points its wand again)
small, hairy bestial being:  (burned into nothingness by the deadly beam
  from the wand)
bulbous-headed being:  (turns as a large shadow looms overhead)

  The hulking, stony being dwarfed the wand-carrying captor, and even as
that latter pointed its wand upward, the larger adversary engulfed the
wand in one huge, rocky claw.

stony, golem-like being:  (closes its great claw, crushing the blue wand)
bulbous-headed being:  No, you fool-

  There was a bright flash and a crackling explosion as the wand was
destroyed.  Unfortunately for the stony creature, it too was destroyed
in the blast, its entire upper half melting into slag, leaving only two
thick legs and half a torso.  This result, however, sent the antagonist
into somewhat of a frenzy...

bulbous-headed being:  (looking really worried now, it backs away toward
  the oval exit portal, ignored by the remaining newly-freed creatures)

  The half-dissected monster corpse had become buried in a large pile
of metallic pipes which it had run into, on the far side of the room.
The headless black-furred creature and the amoeba-like green jelly were
nowhere to be seen.  The white-skinned, four-armed being was still lying
lifeless amidst the remains of its tube.

bulbous-headed being:  (standing before the exit, it raises a pale hand
  as the portal opens)  This must end now.

  Suddenly, the being froze in mid-sentence, one thin arm raised, one
leg about to take the first step of escape through that door.

Belphanior:  You've got that right.  (he approaches, his magical hour-
  glass in one hand, his drawn sword in the other)

  The elf quickly put the time-stopping hourglass away as he reached
the immobilized, unwitting foe.  Some people in his position would have
talked, or found a way to incapacitate the bulbous-headed being, or
perhaps even sought to reason with it once the effects of the hourglass
wore off.  Some would have...but not Belphanior.

Belphanior:  (with one swift and precise swing of his black blade, he
  beheads the foe, perhaps the greatest decapitation ever in terms of
  sheer cranial volume)

  The elf held his dark blade tightly as the other's life energy flowed
through the weapon, damning the slain one to a final and permanent death
with no hope of recovery.

Belphanior:  Ahhh...
Ys:  (lumbering around, sword in hand)  Free at last...though it seems
  I missed all the action.
Otto:  Sorry.  After I escaped, I had to get Belphanior out next.  (he
  gestures to the headless corpse at their feet)  And that's why.
Razor Charlie:  (a knife in each hand, he simply sneers menacingly at
  the body)
Belphanior:  Whew.  That was a close one.
Otto:  Yeah.  I'm glad I traded that flute to you way back when.  And
  that was a good trick, bringing that big goon back to life.
Skektek:  How'd you know it would work?
Belphanior:  Well, it was obvious that sound could get through those
  cylinder walls, and all the flute really does is make music, right?
  Sometimes, simple is best.
Otto:  It never pays to underestimate your opponents...or overestimate
  yourself.  (he kicks the bulbous head, which sprays the floor with
  blue blood as it rolls, coming to rest against a wall)
Belphanior:  We should dispose of that, just in case.
Skektek:  Consider it done.  (uses his ring to generate a concentrated
  bolt of lightning, incinerating the severed head)  Hmm.  (he eyes the
  body, then repeats the feat, reducing all remnants of the foe to ashes)
Belphanior:  Excellent.
Otto:  (looking around)  Not many things left around here to fight...
  they either got killed by that lumpy-headed bastard or by each other.
Skektek:  What now?  (he eyes the half-dissected monster corpse on the
  other end of the large room, as it tries to stand but keeps slipping
  on the scattered pipes)
Belphanior:  Now, we get out of this damned laboratory or whatever it
  is, and find out how to go home.  (he looks around)  But first...we
  open all the rest of these tubes.  I don't care what happens to all
  of our fellow ex-prisoners, but I'm not going to leave them here to
  rot.

  As it turned out, there were only four other tubes that were occupied
with living prisoners (seven more held corpses, most of which were in
advanced stages of decay, and so those tubes were left alone.)  The first
three held a wolf-like creature, a large bat-like thing, and an amorphous
cloud of light gray mist.  These were freed by Ys while the others had
their weapons ready, as it was impossible to know if the freed prisoners
would attack or not.  All three of them fled, however, in the direction
opposite the oval exit portal.

Otto:  What a strange trio.
Ys:  They almost seem to know each other.  But that would, of course, be
  preposterous.
Belphanior:  No telling what other place they were brought here from.
  (he eyes the exit, which is still ajar from when the bulbous-headed
  being opened it)
Otto:  I'm getting nervous too...what if it somehow closes and won't open
  again?
Ys:  (takes a large piece of debris and hauls it into the portal, thus
  blocking it and preventing it from closing)  Better?
Otto:  Thanks.  Now let's break out the last prisoner so we can get the
  hell out-  Whoa.
Belphanior:  This may require some careful consideration.

  The last occupied glassy cylinder contained a being that looked just
like the headless one who'd been their captor, except that it wore a
faded gray robe which was tattered in places.

second bulbous-headed being:  (regards the adventurers)
Belphanior:  Can you understand us?
second bulbous-headed being:  Mgok cpaari nrgll.
Skektek:  Doesn't seem like he does.  Maybe we should just leave him.
Belphanior:  Maybe.  (he frowns)  The question is, is he another hostile
  one like the first, or not?
Otto:  He could be imprisoned because he was an enemy of the other one,
  or he could be in here because he's worse.
Razor Charlie:  Maybe he's rabid, like a wild dog or something.
Ys:  (stifles a chuckle)
Belphanior:  Generally, I've found that the enemy of my enemy is my
  friend.
Otto:  But it's also true that sometimes the problem at hand is the
  lesser of two evils.
second bulbous-headed being:  Xluass brlawp tmut yuu have nothing to fear
  from me.
Skektek:  Hey, it deciphered itself!
second bulbous-headed being:  I only needed a short time, and some sort
  of physical presence, to decode your communications.
Belphanior:  (to the captive in the transparent tube)  Explain yourself.
second bulbous-headed being:  I am the crewmate of the one you slew.  We
  control this vessel.
Belphanior:  (conscious of the being's use of the word "the" rather than
  the word "a" when mentioning its crewmate)  How many of you are there?
second bulbous-headed being:  Just myself now.
Belphanior:  Why are you imprisoned here?  What was the other one up to
  anyway?
second bulbous-headed being:  (shakes its massive head sadly)  We came
  here for other purposes, but my crewmate gradually had other ideas and
  decided to pursue them.  When I objected, there was a confrontation.
  I lost.
Belphanior:  So it seems.  Where is "here" anyway?
second bulbous-headed being:  (spreads its thin hands)  We are currently
  hovering in the space between worlds, in which no single alignment of
  dimensional fluctuation means-
Belphanior:  Enough of that.  How can we get to _our_ world?
second bulbous-headed being:  It is a simple matter of reconfiguring
  your spatial co-ordinates.
Belphanior:  (wondering where Alindyar is, as he would get along well
  with this individual)  So you can return us to our own world?
second bulbous-headed being:  With ease.  Of course, you will need to
  release me first.
Belphanior:  (thinks about it briefly, then nods to Ys)

  The giant reptilian raised his sword, then hit the cylinder with its
pommel, punching a hole in the material, from which multiple cracks
spread.  Momentarily, the prisoner with the oversized head was free.

Otto:  (casually keeps his crossbow trained on the being's head)  This
  really, truly is a can't-miss shot, all things considered.
Belphanior:  (to the being)  What now?
second bulbous-headed being:  Now we proceed to the transport chamber.
  You can return to your home, and I can then return to mine.  Our
  mission was practically a complete waste, but I shall salvage what I
  can.  (it looks around the nearly-destroyed room, almost sadly)

  They passed through the oval exit portal (after Ys moved the chunk of
debris) and then found themselves in another rounded passage like those
encountered previously.

Belphanior:  What now?
second bulbous-headed being:  Follow me.

  The creature led them a short distance down the corridor, which then
split into two, one leading left, the other leading right.  They took
the left-hand passage for about fifty feet, and then proceeded down yet
another side passage.

Otto:  (trying to keep track of these twists and turns, just in case)

  The latest passage ended in another oval door, which opened to admit
them.  The being led them into a small chamber, at the center of which
was a series of floating, glowing rings, stacked vertically.  These were
ever-shifting and didn't appear to be made of solid matter.

Belphanior:  (scrutinizing the rings with his magical eye, he senses
  strong magic of teleportation, but doesn't share that information, as
  he's curious to see what their strange host has to say)
second bulbous-headed being:  This device can transport items - living
  or otherwise - between worlds.  Or perhaps I should say, from this
  inter-world location to any of the worlds it now touches.
Razor Charlie:  (regards the strange being critically)
second bulbous-headed being:  It is rather difficult to explain.
Belphanior:  Don't explain it, then.  Will this journey be as unpleasant
  as the one we had to get here?
second bulbous-headed being:  Definitely not.  Before, you were...
  collected, for lack of a better term.  This is a simple matter
  displacement along the grid of planar-spatial alignment.
Belphanior:  Naturally.  How does it work?  (he holds up a hand)  Never
  mind that.  What must we do?
second bulbous-headed being:  (steps over to a panel built into a small
  pedestal between the entry door and the strange energy-rings)  I must
  locate your world.  (it begins manipulating various arcane controls)
  Fortunately, that will be trivial, as this device has the co-ordinates
  from your arrival here.

  A semi-transparent image flickered into being above the series of
rings; it depicted what looked like a night sky full of tiny twinkling
stars.  As the bulbous-headed one continued to operate its controls,
the image changed several times, each brief instance showing a different
setting.  First was a one that looked much like the Flanaess, except
that the people were all blue-skinned and seven feet tall, and seemed
to get around by riding two-legged bird-like mounts.  Then came a world
covered completely in water, where the denizens lived on large floating
islands fashioned of wood, and traveled about on boats of all sizes and
shapes.  Next came a barren, volcanic wasteland, in which dark, iron
cities dotted the landscape.

Belphanior:  None of these is our home world.
second bulbous-headed being:  I am aware of that.  (it continues to
  manipulate the arcane device)

  The image changed to that of the Free City of Greyhawk, with its daily
bustle of activity...people milling about in the marketplace, soldiers
guarding the city's gates, a hodgepodge of great towers mixed with small
hovels...a happily familiar location, and exactly what Belphanior and the
others wanted to see.

Belphanior:  Now that's more like it.  (he frowns)  How is it that your
  mechanism here chose this particular city as a representation of our
  home?
second bulbous-headed being:  The city we see before us is some sort of
  focal point of the very essence of your world.  I cannot guarantee that
  you shall arrive precisely in that city, though.  Unseen sites of power
  and the intangible conduits which link them - all of which you commonly
  refer to as "magic" - are scattered about this world, and all worlds.
  Your arrival will coincide with them somewhere, but even I cannot say
  precisely where.
Skektek:  That's just wonderful.
Belphanior:  But very interesting.

  The elf was thinking back to depictions of Oerth that he'd seen in the
past...and the places of importance that had been highlighted...and what
had at the time seemed like meaningless lines connecting these sites to
one another.  Now it all made sense, and gave Belphanior plenty of ideas.

Belphanior:  I don't suppose you have a diagram of these places and the
  links amongst them?
second bulbous-headed being:  (appearing annoyed)  I do not.  Why would
  I?  This world is but one of a countless array.
Belphanior:  Oh well.  Couldn't hurt to ask.
second bulbous-headed being:  And now, if you please...it is time to
  return you to whence you came, so that I may begin the long process of
  returning whence _I_ came.
Belphanior:  Sure thing.  What do we need to do?
second bulbous-headed being:  Simply walk into the transportation device.
  (it gestures to the ever-shifting stack of glowing rings)
Belphanior:  Alrighty then.  Thanks for your help.
second bulbous-headed being:  I should thank you.  My crewmate had run
  amok, and without your actions, I would still be a prisoner of that
  insane one.
Belphanior:  Believe me, the pleasure was all mine.

  Without another word, the elf stepped up to the glowing rings...and
into them, vanishing instantly.  The image above the rings instantly
changed, depicting the elf now standing in the spacious but empty
courtyard of some castle.

Otto:  Is that where he is now?
second bulbous-headed being:  Yes.  The view does change briefly to show
  the most recent destination.
Otto:  Good enough.  (he leads the other three adventurers through the
  portal, and they vanish as well)

  The bulbous-headed being was now alone in its abode, left to its own
thoughts.  Those thoughts dwelled only briefly on the individuals who'd
just departed...for there was work to be done, as the being wanted and
needed to return to its home world.  By the time it left the chamber,
the being had forgotten all about Belphanior and the others.





  Elsewhere...

Belphanior:  (watches the others arrive)  Good news, people.  I've used
  my magic to check, and we are definitely back in our home plane.
Skektek:  Technically, this isn't our home, it's someone else's castle.
  (he looks up at the clear, sunny sky above)
Otto:  Well, we didn't appear in the middle of a shit situation, and
  that counts for something.
Belphanior:  Yeah.  (he frowns)  It's time to be more careful.  This
  last escapade had taught me something I should have known already...
  that with greater power comes greater risk.
Skektek:  That's the way life goes.  There's something to be said for
  not sitting around your whole life, waiting for something to happen,
  trusting in other people to keep the peace and make the world right.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces)  Damn straight.
Belphanior:  Good point, I'm just saying that a more calculated approach
  is called for at times.  (he looks around, one hand on his sword's
  pommel)  No souls whatsoever.
Ys:  It's most odd that this castle is deserted.  I wonder where we are.
Otto:  (walks to a nearby ladder, which leads to the ledge at the top of
  the castle's wall, perhaps twenty feet above)  Let's see.  (he begins
  climbing up)
Skektek:  (at the same time, having the same idea, he simply flies up
  above the ground of the courtyard)

  Otto was a fast climber, and Skektek wasn't trying to beat him, so
they both reached the level of the ledge at the same time...and beheld
the same amazing sight.

Skektek:  Holy shit.
Otto:  I'm not imagining this, am I?
Skektek:  Holy shit.  (he remembers the dwarf)  Did you say something?

  First, they were at the topmost level of a much larger castle; the
ledge twenty feet above the courtyard was just the topmost portion of
an overall exterior wall that was at least a hundred feet high.  Below
and beyond the castle walls was a thick white substance which completely
surrounded the castle's bottom.  This material only extended about two
hundred feet from the base of the castle wall...and beyond that was the
open sky...and far, far below that, the distant surface of the world.

Otto:  This is unbelievable.
Skektek:  Yeah...we're in a castle on top of a cloud, floating in the
  sky.





next:       the mysteries of the sky castle
gateways:   http://www.peldor.com/misc/gateways.php?chapter=972
ftp:        ftp.peldor.com
www:        http://www.peldor.com/download.html
homepage:   http://www.peldor.com/
email:      tmiller@peldor.com
released:   2/27/09
notes:      You may have noticed that Belphanior's levels all jumped.
  This is the ring of Zaeon's power, rules-wise:  it raises the racial
  level limits.  In practical terms for my stories, it means Belphanior
  can now cast a wish.  An important accompaniment to that is him now
  realizing that such power must be used carefully, not casually.

    I'm sorry it's taken me so long to produce another episode since
  the last one.  If it's any consolation, in that 2+ month span, I moved,
  and dealt with engagement and impending wedding.  In fact, by the time
  you read this, it'll be less than two weeks away from the wedding.

    Also, this episode weighs in at over 50K, which is about five times
  the length of an episode in the old days.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++




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