Chapter #976

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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       +
+   1991-2010 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        +
+   Hope           16th level female human wizard                         +
+   Jenna          9th level female human priestess of Istus              +
+   Neera          11th level female human sage/astrologer                +
+   Otto           10th/13th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  11th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        13th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+   wispy thing    strange, intangible sentient being                     +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+   Date:          2/25/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         the sky castle, in the clouds above Oerth's surface    +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+   "That's not a problem - that's an opportunity."                       +
+              - from _Heroes_ episode 4.8, _Once Upon a Time in Texas_   +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++





                   CMLXXVI.  Mysteries and Answers





  Three weeks had passed since the epic battle with the Seven Sleepers,
and the wounded and afflicted members of Belphanior's group had finally
recovered.  Razor Charlie, aged to the brink of death by one of those
strange foes, had required multiple restorative spells by high priests.
Fortunately, his role in the battle had earned him this measure of very
powerful assistance.  After a few days of "getting used to feeling like
normal again", the lean knife-thrower had resumed his regular regimen
of activity - which pretty much meant physical training and eating for
most of his waking hours.  Ys, who had been seized by insanity courtesy
of a different Sleeper, had actually required the power of a healing
artifact owned by one of the mighty high priests who had participated
in the conflict.  Unlike Razor Charlie, the big reptilian had been fine
right away, requiring no additional recovery time once the benevolent
magic had finally done its work.
  As for the others who were somehow wounded in that great battle, all
were on the path to recovery, though the details weren't known or even
pertinent to Belphanior and his small group; they only truly cared about
their own members.  The net loss of perhaps saving the world from the
menace of the Sleepers had been the bone golem; the odd construct had
fallen to pieces during the battle, and those pieces had subsequently
broken down into fine dust.  This didn't particularly trouble Belphanior,
though, as he preferred "solid" golems of iron or stone to unusual ones
anyway.

  The last few weeks had seen much work, maintenance and otherwise.  One
key event that _didn't_ happen involved the teleportation devices that
Parekh and Pallin had installed in the skyship.  A ring of silver runes
on the cabin's aft exterior wall allowed teleportation to one of Parekh's
unspecified laboratories, while a ring of black runes on that same wall
were linked to a length of magical black cord.  If this cord was placed
somewhere in a loop, its two ends touching, a mystical portal would open
between it and the black runes aboard the skyship.  To make a long story
short, Belphanior had considered removing these additions to the ship,
because he didn't like the idea of Parekh and Pallin having a direct link
into the vessel.  However, that "risk" had to be balanced against all the
potential benefits - and also, Belphanior didn't want those two to suspect
that he was bothered by their actions.  The teleportation devices would
remain for now, but Belphanior had studied them and worked out a method
to remove them when the time came.
  The elf had also investigated the possibility of installing some heavy
weaponry on the skyship - such as a handful of deck-mounted ballistae
capable of firing large, heavy bolts at distant targets.  This would have
proven useful aboard a conventional vessel that engaged in conventional
warfare, but the skyship was neither.  Skektek had summed it up best by
saying "why would you waste what little deck space the ship has with a
weapon that fires a gigantic bolt, when you or I could launch a fireball
that's much more destructive?"  The elf always valued the opinions of his
people, and the wizard had been correct.  Therefore, a simple compromise
solution had been used:  three small but high-quality ballistae were now
in the vessel's hold, able to be brought above-decks relatively, if ever
needed.  With Otto and Skektek's help, Belphanior had fashioned special
ballista bolts whose pointed heads were hollow, could be filled with
liquids, and were designed to break apart upon any significant impact.
The applications were endless, and all destructive:  these odd missiles
could be loaded with highly flammable oil, acid, poison, or any other
payload that would make life unpleasant for a target.  The elf wasn't
sure when or if this weaponry could be tested, but at least the option
now existed...and might prove advantageous in a situation where magic
wasn't plausible.  One would think that the only enemies encountered this
high up in the sky would be dragons, air elementals, and the like - but
Belphanior preferred to have choices when it came to battle.

  The bulk of the efforts - and the most significant - involved further
explorations and discoveries in the sky castle.  Belphanior had already
found the strange mithril-bound tome that detailed various properties
of the unique fortress, as well as the special key that allowed one to
operate the control panel on the fifth floor of the castle's keep.  One
important thing that could be thusly controlled was the raising/lowering
of the magical shield around the castle - a shield that was apparently
impervious to physical and magical penetration.  Belphanior and company
had tested this barrier thoroughly in recent weeks, and found it to be
quite powerful indeed:  it repelled physical missiles (even those from
catapults and ballistae) as well as magical attacks.  The mightiest
fireballs and lightning bolts of Belphanior and Skektek had bounced off
of the invisible, spherical barrier with no effect.  They'd tried these
attacks from all possible angles, without any luck.  One side-effect of
launching a fireball at the base of the castle wall had been a temporary
burning-away of the cloud cover there, revealing a great mass of rock
beneath the castle.  A scant few moments later, the clouds had crept
back up around the castle's base, drifting gradually to fill the void
left by the fireball's blast.  This test had been repeated from directly
beneath the castle, revealing only the bottom side of that same huge
mass of rock before the cloud cover re-formed.  Physical exploration
followed, and they learned that the invisible spherical field was large
enough to cover the entire mass of rock upon which the castle rested,
as well as the castle itself.  This gave the "protected" sphere a total
diameter of about six hundred feet, the bottom half of which was rock.
  Also as noted previously, the protective barrier blocked teleportation
and similar transportation methods, as well as all forms of summoning
magic.  Further testing confirmed the barrier's effectiveness in these
respects.  It was noteworthy that magical transportation was possible
_within_ the barrier, for example from level to level in the castle.

  With all of this tested and verified, the next step was to physically
explore, in more detail, the castle's exterior environs.  This was done
primarily via spells or items of flying, with the effort led by Otto
(who had the most knowledge of stonework).  These explorations revealed
that the "ground" outside the outer wall, at its base, was about 200'
below the top of the wall - or 100' below the visible cloud cover.  Some
simple math led Belphanior to deduce that the mass of rock beneath the
castle was no less than 300' deep.  As noted previously, the bottom and
sides of this huge chunk were obscured by clouds, which extended up to
100' below the top of the outer wall.
  This discovery (or perhaps more accurately, measurement) then prompted
Belphanior's next question:  exactly what lay beneath the floor of the
open courtyard, at the ground level of the keep?  The mithril-bound tome
yielded the answer - an answer that the adventurers probably would have
found on their own eventually, through trial, error, and experimentation.
If one held the special four-sided key (which, incidentally, they had
realized was fashioned of mithril like the covers of the odd tome) and
approached the northwest corner of the first-floor armory, a section of
floor sunk down, forming a wide ramp that led down into a lower level.





SIDE VIEW:
                           ________
                         /          \
                        |            |
                        |            |
                        |     o      |
                        |            |
                        | O       O  |
                        |            |
     |___|              |  O       O |              |___|
     |   |______________|____________|______________|   |
     |   |              |            |              |   |
     |   |_ _ _ _ _ _ _ |_ _ _ _ _ _ |_ _ _ _ _ _ _ |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |                                          |   |
     |   |          (ROCK BASE BELOW CASTLE)        |   |





TOP VIEW of keep's first subterranean floor:

         |             ________________             |
         |            |                |            |      N
         |            |                |            |     W+E
         |            |   vv           |            |      S
         |            |   vv           |            |
         |            |        *       |            |   _| = 10'
         |            |                |            |
         |            |                |            |   v  = ramp up
         |            |                |            |
         |            |________________|            |   *  = spiral
         |                                          |         staircase
         |                                          |          down





  This basement was a bit larger than the floor above, and like that
level, was one large room.  It had a twenty-foot ceiling and was utterly
empty, save for a 10' diameter spiral staircase in the center of the
chamber, its steps leading down.  Belphanior and his companions figured
this level to be a second armory, given its design and the easy access
to the floor above.
  The spiral stairway was metal, and descended quite a distance, about
a hundred feet.  The steps finally opened into a small chamber with a
round hatch in the east wall.  This entire room was lined with metal -
walls, floor, and ceiling - as was the hatch; it had a handle to the left
side and a small keyhole in the center.  The mithril key fit perfectly
into this slot, and enabled the hatch to be opened.
  The hatch room turned out to be completely enclosed within a larger
chamber, which was cylindrical, a hundred feet across, and about forty
feet high.  The outer perimeter of this room was lined with two dozen
wide cylinders, each one about ten feet wide and spaced equidistantly
apart, with a gap of a few feet in-between.  Each cylinder spanned the
entire height of the room, and appeared to extend down into the floor
as well as up into the ceiling.  They were constructed of some thick,
clear substance like glasteel, within which could be seen a thick blue
gas, constantly swirling about.  All of the cylinders were set halfway
into the wall, such that it was impossible to get behind any of them;
numerous metal pipes connected them with each other or snaked away into
the metal wall.





TOP VIEW of keep's deep subterranean floor:

         |              _______________             |
         |             /               \            |      N
         |            /                 \           |     W+E
         |           |       _____       |          |      S
         |           |      |     |      |          |
         |           |      |  *  #      |          |   _| = 10'
         |           |      |_____|      |          |
         |           |                   |          |   #  = metal hatch
         |            \                 /           |
         |             \_______________/            |   *  = spiral
         |                                          |         staircase
         |                                          |          up





  According to the portions of the mithril tome which Belphanior and
Neera had been able to understand, the blue vapors somehow provided the
magical power necessary to keep the castle and its rocky foundation aloft
in the clouds.  At this time, knowing of the existence of this chamber
and its powerful properties was enough for Belphanior; he didn't need
to know _how_ it worked, just that it did.  If it wasn't broken, he
certainly wasn't going to tamper with it.
  Not long after discovering these subterranean chambers, he began to
study the controls on the castle's fifth level, in the context of the
notations in the mithril tome.  It seemed that the castle was able to
move, changing its location above the world below, but the methods of
controlling this weren't quite clear.  Since Belphanior already had a
good, reliable means of moving quickly through the air - the skyship -
he saw no need to move the castle at this time.  Further research and
experimentation would determine the ease (or difficulty) of this course
of action.
  One thing that he _was_ able to figure out was how to raise the mighty
protective barrier while leaving a small hole in it.  The location and
size of this hole could be varied using the arcane levers, dials, and
such in the control panel.  This was a useful capability if the barrier
needed to be active all around the castle, while allowing occupants to
venture out for some reason.
  It had already been determined, of course, that the skyship could be
moored near the castle and still be within the barrier.
  Other controls concerned the gigantic glass mirror, thirty feet wide
and ten feet high, which covered the entire eastern wall of the castle's
fifth floor.  This was a magical scrying device which showed the outside
of the castle, from various angles; the viewpoint could be adjusted with
the controls.  This sounded exciting but was actually boring after a short
time, as there was nothing flying around anywhere outside the castle.

  With the mysteries of the sky castle solved, or at least partially
solved, Belphanior decided that it was time to turn his attention to
some other mysteries that he'd been holding onto for quite some time.

Belphanior:  It's time to make a full accounting of Drusilla's journal
  and every single secret within.

  Some of these things were already known to Belphanior.  For example,
the operation of Xusia's network of teleportation gateways was no longer
a secret (and no longer Xusia's, to be sure).  The continuing blackmail
of Greyhawk's Sental Nurev by agents of evil had already been undone,
dealt with in a violent and final manner.  Similarly, the existence and
some history of Xusia's fourth-in-command - the mummy-king Al-arakara
the Damned - had been exploited, resulting in the destruction of that
mighty foe.  Another Xusia ally on Drusilla's list had been eliminated
long before the final battle with Xusia and the subsequent discovery of
the gateways:  Baron Albert, of the Sinking Plain.  A fourth - a female
drow high priestess named Selene - had also been slain in the battle at
the Fortress of the Nine.  Selene had apparently been Xusia's contact
point in an alliance he was forming with the dark elves of Oerth (the
notes made it clear that this was an endeavor to be pursued very, very
carefully due to the presence of the dark goddess Lolth in the power
structure of the drow).
  Some other beings were also listed in the journal, and two seemed tied
to gateways explored many months ago.  One Witherhusk - a yellow dragon
who inhabited a remote region of the Bright Desert - was almost certainly
the same dragon encountered and slain in the hot, dry desert gateway.
The other individual was not named, but rather described:  the ruler of
Skava-Ra, fabled City of Vampires...he who sat upon the Blood Throne...
the oldest vampire on Oerth, a fabled god-king whose age was measured in
millennia, and whose powers were tremendous.  Drusilla's notes indicated
that Xusia had long been considering an alliance with this dark monarch,
but no progress had ever been made.

  The list of potential (but apparently not yet secured) allies included
Iuz (evil demigod and ruler of the land of the same name), a handful of
Hierarchs in the Horned Society, and the mysterious ruler of the Scarlet
Brotherhood, the "Father of Obedience."  A footnote below that entry
also suggested some clues as to the location of the hidden monastery
from which that enigmatic figure supposedly ruled the Brotherhood.
  On a more personal note (at least as far as Belphanior was concerned)
the list ended with a page of notes about the group of powerful, evil
adventurers known as the Crimson Blades - a band of foes who had fought
against Belphanior's group in the dungeons of Panagaea, just before the
Sleepers had been awakened.  Drusilla, who had apparently valued good,
accurate research, had a paragraph of notes on each of the twelve known
members of the Crimson Blades - which was especially interesting given
that only nine or ten of these individuals had been at Panagaea.  Better
yet, the vampiress had collected data, put it together, and made careful
speculations on three possible locations of Crimson Blade strongholds.
Belphanior found this information particularly valuable in case he ever
wanted to mount an assault on these foes, if indeed he decided that they
were actually foes who needed to be eliminated.

  Drusilla's journal also had notes about some of Xusia's enemies.  The
group already had recent experience with two such individuals:  the lich
Kronos and the death knight Gorath.  The former had been a one-time ally
in the final battle against the mummy-king Al-arakara, while the latter
had been fought and destroyed in the Vale of Death.  A third member of
this list of Xusia's foes enabled Belphanior to finally put a name with
a face...the face of the mighty winged being who had been imprisoned on
the moon Luna, reached by one of the gateways.  This being was indeed a
solar, as Neera had speculated; his name was Helios, and apparently his
capture had been the culmination of decades of planning and plotting on
Xusia's part.  A footnote suggested that the arch-lich had actually been
fearful of the solar's power, yet thought he could gain something from
imprisoning the divine being.  Details about what Xusia stood to gain by
that course of action (or how) were unfortunately lacking.
  This section of the notes also contained some information about past
and current incarnations of the Circle of Eight.  First came the Citadel
of Eight, which lasted from 561 to 569 C.Y. and included the personages
Mordenkainen, Bigby, Robilar, Riggby, Yrag, Tenser, Serten, and Otis.  It
was followed by the Circle of Eight, founded in 571 C.Y. by Mordenkainen
and consisting of himself, Bigby, and the wizards Bucknard, Drawmij,
Leomund, Nystul, Otto, and Rary.  A few years later, Leomund was replaced
by Tenser.  In 576 C.Y. the group was joined by Otiluke, while Bucknard
disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 579 C.Y. and was replaced
by Jallarzi Sallivarian.  Thus, the current membership of the Circle
consisted of:  Bigby, Drawmij, Jallarzi, Mordenkainen, Nystul, Otiluke,
Otto, Rary, and Tenser.  Technically there were _nine_ members but it
seemed that Mordenkainen was in a leadership role and stood outside the
ranks of the actual "Eight."
  There was also a list of the rulers of every single kingdom, free city,
or other region in the Flanaess; many of these names (particularly the
"good" or benevolent ones) had additional notes geared toward getting
close to that particular individual and assassinating them.  There was
really no telling whether Xusia had planned to carry out any of these
murders, but this evidence certainly showed that he was considering it.

  There was also some information about several of the great mysteries
of the world of Oerth.  A larger, detached map (folded up and placed
within the pages of the journal) detailed the shape of the entire Oerik
continent, well beyond the various regions that were commonly known.  It
was apparent from this map - if its contents were accurate - that there
was a lot of world to explore beyond the Flanaess.
  The journal also detailed the nine deities whom the insane archmage
Zagig had once imprisoned in the dungeons deep beneath Castle Greyhawk
as the final part of his apotheosis, or ascension to godhood.  This all
happened more than seventy years ago, and most of those captives had been
demigods:  Iuz, Syrul, Hextor, Rudd, Zuoken, Wastri, Ye'Cind, Johydee,
and Merikka (in Hextor's case, he had somehow gained power and risen
within the divine hierarchy after his imprisonment and later escape).
The nine deities, as a group, represented an exact and equal combination
of all alignments; Drusilla had done a bit of speculation as to how an
archmage was able to imprison nine gods, as well as the qualifications
for (and process of) divine ascension.  Belphanior found these notes to
be very interesting indeed.  Anyhow, the history of this event also
mentioned the divine captives later being inadvertently freed through
the actions of the adventurers Robilar and Riggby, in 570 C.Y. - just
over a decade ago!  Their intention had been to free the trapped deities
one at a time and then slay them, but the pair of foolish ones had no
way of knowing that freeing one would free all nine.  The ensuing battle
was mighty beyond compare, and resulted in a hasty retreat for the two
adventurers, and the loosing back upon the world of the nine deities.
Aside from any direct gain that this information might offer Belphanior,
he was pleased just to have it, as he figured that only a handful of
other people in the world were aware of the entire story of the nine
individuals who had once been imprisoned deep beneath Castle Greyhawk.
  On a side note, the capture of these nine apparently hadn't been the
mad archmage Zagyg's first such endeavor:  long before, he had managed
to imprison the demon lord Fraz-Urb'luu, also beneath Castle Greyhawk;
that one had remained trapped for over two centuries before being freed
by an unnamed wizard and cleric.  The part of this that really piqued
Belphanior's interest was the idea that mortals could somehow imprison
gods...and he vowed to look into this further when time and resources
permitted.

  Drusilla had apparently consolidated numerous other notes (and perhaps
musings of Xusia himself) into a seven-page history of the Suel-Bakluni
war.  This account actually contained some tidbits that Belphanior had
never heard before (and that he doubted that any sages had ever heard
before either).
  The next section of the vampiress' journal explicitly stated which of
the Nine had survived the great battle at Xusia's fortress:  Fenris the
master thief, Cespedes the wizard, and Ythuus the ultradaemon.  The first
two had vanished to parts unknown, while the third had returned to its
home plane, elsewhere.  Drusilla's writings indicated that she believed
the dark elf Selene to be truly slain, a hypothesis she had verified with
her magic.  Belphanior was pleased to learn this, as no one had actually
witnessed that one's demise during the fighting.

  The final portion of the journal detailed some alarming machinations
of Xusia, involving the vanished-and-later-returned demigod known as Iuz
the Evil.  While Iuz had been imprisoned for more than sixty years, the
forces left behind had been patient, holding onto their lands and their
power...waiting.  Their wait was rewarded, for their ruler was freed and
had returned to his dark kingdom and begun to build his armies anew...a
process that had been underway for more than a decade.  For reasons that
remained unknown (for they were not given in Drusilla's notes) Xusia had
suspected that Iuz was plotting some great misdeed, and had attempted to
learn more - without success.  An emissary had been sent to the lands of
Iuz to parley and perhaps begin the forging of an alliance - also without
success.  The emissary had never returned, and Xusia had not yet decided
upon his next step at the time of his demise.
  It didn't take a genius to detect a possible link between various
elements contained in these notes:  the list of kingdoms' rulers, the
massing of Iuz' forces, the potential alliances with the Horned Society
and the Scarlet Brotherhood.  Any possible mixture of these pieces could
result in something dire indeed.





  Belphanior had spent a day and a half in seclusion, reading Drusilla's
journal and learning all of these things.  He had shared them with no one
yet - for in truth, he wasn't quite sure which information he could use
and which he should (or could) act upon.  Some mysteries had been solved,
but new ones had been uncovered; previous loose ends and promising quests
still existed as well.  It was just a question of what to do next.





next:       something completely different
gateways:   http://www.peldor.com/misc/gateways.php?chapter=976
ftp:        ftp.peldor.com
www:        http://www.peldor.com/download.html
homepage:   http://www.peldor.com/
email:      tmiller@peldor.com
released:   4/30/10
notes:      Look at that - an entire episode without any dialogue!

    In other news, the website updates took much, much longer than anyone
  expected, partially due to real-life crises great and small.
    By the time you read this, the sky castle will have its own entry in
  peldor.com's magical items page, if you ever need to reference that:
         http://www.peldor.com/misc/inventory.html#ART08

    The contents of Drusilla's journal will tie in a number of classic
  Greyhawk references to my stories and their canon.  I've done hours of
  research (via my own modules/accessories as well as online lore) and
  my head's filled with shreds of Gary Gygax's campaign and characters
  from the 1970s.  Almost everything you just read is canon or semi-canon
  that I got from either TSR/Wizards of the Coast or else from the mouths
  of Gygax et al. themselves via the internet.

    I'll need to address the Greyhawk Wars soon.  I debated whether I
  even should, but one thing's for sure:  if I am going to incorporate
  them, it needs to happen pretty soon to keep the dates consistent.  My
  feeling is that I _will_ use them.  One particularly excellent summary
  exists in several places online, and I'll probably just copy and paste
  it into a future episode (with the appropriate credits of course) and
  then detail what each of our adventuring friends was up to during that
  chaotic time.

    Go see "The Losers" - highly recommended, as is the source material
  (a comic book series of finite length, published under DC's Vertigo
  imprint for mature readers).
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++



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