Chapter #979

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                                   +   +
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                           +                   +
                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic V      +
                             +               +
                               +           +
                                 +       +
                                   +   +

+     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:          3/20/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          early evening                                          +
+   Place:         the Free City of Greyhawk                              +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Hope for the best, plan for the worst."                              +
+     "Is that your motto?"                                               +
+       "One of many."                                                    +
+                                     - from _61 Hours_, by Lee Child     +

                   CMLXXIX.  Bolstering Resources

  Belphanior had been busy.  Over the course of the last few weeks, he
had gained a powerful magical earring that allowed him to know any lie
spoken in his presence, repaired his altered memory to gain complete
awareness of the alterations worked on it, learned that a former foe was
now part of Parekh's Cabal, also learned that she had tried but failed
to recruit the lich Kronos, and traded a mighty artifact that he couldn't
use to the dark elf Alindyar in return for that one's silence.  After
accomplishing all of that, Belphanior had realized that resuming his war
against the Sea Princes was pointless at this time, as was any sort of
confrontation with Rob or Parekh about the memory-tampering.  As more
time passed since he'd regained his full memory, he had decided that
knowing what happened was at least as important as getting revenge, and
the best part about him knowing was that they didn't know he knew.  In
fact, he didn't plan to share it with anyone - not even Otto or Neera -
for their own protection as well as his.  No, Belphanior would simply
bide his time and wait for the right opportunity to unfold.
  Actually, he wouldn't wait around just for that.  No, he had other
initiatives to pursue, some of which had already been put into motion.
As he walked through the bustling streets of Greyhawk, Belphanior's mind
drifted back to the conversation he'd just had with Peldor in the Green
Dragon Inn's private room...

  Peldor: you see, the question isn't _when_ Whisper will speak
    with you, but _if_.
  Belphanior:  I didn't know he operated exclusively in the service of
  Peldor:  He doesn't.  A select few leaders within this city, including
    me, can initiate the seeking of a contract that is in the interests
    of Greyhawk; I'd note that whatever you have in mind probably doesn't
    fit that description.
  Belphanior:  (nods)  You're right.
  Peldor:  It is rumored that a handful of other individuals - ones not
    affiliated with Greyhawk - know how to contact the assassin directly.
    Anyway, I can submit your request, as a personal and private favor
    to you; we can assume that, should he be interested, Whisper will
    contact you somehow.
  Belphanior:  (hands over a sealed tube containing a parchment)  That's
    all I can ask.  I really appreciate this.
  Peldor:  (shrugs)  As I said, keep this just between us.
  Belphanior:  Don't worry.  For what I have in mind, the fewer who know,
    the better.
  Peldor:  (wonders who the elf wants killed)
  Belphanior:  I should get going.
  Peldor:  Stay in Greyhawk for a few days.  That way, Whisper can find
    you, should he choose to.
  Belphanior:  (remembering past encounters with the master assassin, he
    shudders inwardly)  Uh...right.

  After he'd taken his leave of Peldor, Belphanior now tried to analyze
his apprehension about dealing with Whisper...tried, and failed.  There
was no logical reason why the elf - an accomplished warrior and mage who
had faced hundreds of perils and foes that would weaken the knees of a
normal person - should fear any individual.  However, Whisper's deeds
were legendary (some would say nightmarish) and his fearsome prowess was
not to be taken lightly.  Belphanior was reminded of this firsthand one
night later, while having a quiet supper in a back corner of a tavern
within Greyhawk's Market Quarter.  The slight, nondescript figure seemed
to appear from nowhere, sliding into a chair across from Belphanior
before the elf's hand reached his sword-hilt.

Belphanior:  (considering the various courses of action available to
  him right now)
nondescript fellow:  Relax.  I'm here to discuss a potential contract.
  You initiated this meeting.
Belphanior:  Oh.  (he regards the other)  Ah.

  The elf was scrutinizing the other with all of the powers of his
enchanted crystal eye, but there wasn't much he could discern aside
from the extremely powerful aura of magic around the man...or to be
more precise, multiple powerful auras.  Belphanior realized that the
one seated across from him was wearing or bearing a number of magical
items of great strength.  In addition, he was just about as average-
looking as a person could be, which meant some sort of physical or
magical disguise was at play, or perhaps both.

fellow:  Is something the matter?  Are you unwell?
Belphanior:  You look different every time one of us encounters you.
fellow:  (shrugs)  Disguise and deception are useful tools.
Belphanior:  Agreed.  I guess I never expected you to talk with me in
  a tavern...but rather, a location of your choosing.
fellow:  (drily)  This _is_ a location of my choosing.
Belphanior:  Point.  (he pauses, then gets right to business)  So you're
  not on an assignment from the Free City at the moment?
fellow:  (matter-of-factly)  I am not "on assignment" from anyone.  Not
  ever.  I take only those contracts that I choose to take.  Speaking
  of which, the one you offer is, shall we say, unusual.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Despite what some people think of me, I'm not one
  to have somebody slain simply because they once belonged to a larger
  group that once did battle with a larger group which I was in.
fellow:  Of course.
Belphanior:  I don't want the man dead - not yet.  He's likely somewhere
  far away, just minding his own business and harboring no ill intentions
  toward me or anyone I know.  However, I can't leave this to chance.
fellow:  So you want this individual found, and his activities watched
  and studied.
Belphanior:  Exactly.  And, as you should know already, I'm willing to
  pay an obscene amount of money to get that information.
fellow:  Indeed you are.
Belphanior:  I have a small bit of information about the quarry, which
  unfortunately does not include hints as to his possible location.  I
  also have no timeframe for this job; I just need it done.  I figured
  that if anyone could succeed, it was you.  (he regards the other with
  a serious gaze)  So...are you interested?
fellow:  I'll take the job.  If you're not aware already, my payment is
  always due beforehand.
Belphanior:  (puts a large, bulging pouch on the table)  Because you can
  be trusted, I assume?
fellow:  Because I never fail.  One advantage of my reputation is that
  I am able to negotiate my own terms.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  Not a problem, I was just curious.  (he slides
  the pouch over)  It's all there, just as I was advised to bring it...
  large, uncut diamonds and rubies.  I haven't had them all appraised,
  but they will bring at least the sum I named, if not more.
fellow:  (makes the pouch of gemstones disappear from sight)
Belphanior:  You're not going to check them?
fellow:  Do I need to?  (he stands)  I understand that you are typcally
  rather...difficult to find.  I shall leave word with your friend the
  Guildmaster when I know something.  (he turns and leaves)
Belphanior:  (pushing his plate away, as he is no longer hungry, he leans
  back, crosses his fingers behind his head)  Ah, Fenris...last of the
  Nine.  You can't hide forever...

  With this piece of business concluded, the elf wasted no time returning
to the sky castle.  Truth be told, there had been two possible targets
for which he could have hired Whisper.  Fenris, being a sole individual
and a non-wizard, seemed an easier quarry than the multiple surviving
members of the Crimson Blades, last seen during the great final battle
at Panagaea, several years ago.  Given that the notes in Drusilla's
journal pinpointed suspected locations of several of these individuals,
it seemed feasible that they could be located and dealt with in the near
future.  The wizard Chargrim might have a home in Rauxes, capital of the
Great Kingdom, as might the evil high priest Kalenon and the massive,
armored warrior Rammstein.  Those three had been seen in and around the
great sprawling capital city on numerous occasions, according to those
spies who had served Xusia and reported to him, years ago.  Belphanior
found himself wondering what those agents had done when communication
from their foul master abruptly ceased, since he had perished suddenly
in the assault upon his mighty fortress.
  Anyhow, Drusilla's notes gave a brief background of the evil group, a
band of adventurers known, respected, and feared throughout the region.
In a sense, they were the eastern lands' answer to Greyhawk's Circle of
Eight - except, of course, that not all of them were wizards.  It was
the Blades who had spearheaded the assault against the giants and drow,
that conflict ranging from Sterich to the Jotens to the Hellfurnaces,
before a climactic final battle against the demoness Lolth, in the Abyss.
That campaign had played a pivotal role in the world's future, yet it was
largely unknown to the average person, for much of the grim work done by
the Blades went largely unheralded and uncelebrated.  They were heroes,
perhaps, but not in the conventional sense.  They were content to save
the weak from certain doom, that they might have someone to rule over.
Dungeons and foes weren't just obstacles to be defeated in the name of
making the world a better place, but also ready sources of wealth and
magic, which they would then use to further their own ends.  Kings and
kingdoms weren't there to be helped and saved, but rather to be bargained
with, to gain favors short, to use as needed to gain what was
needed.  Of course, the Crimson Blades had annihilated more than one
kingdom that stood in the way of their strange and terrible plans.
  The group had suffered two casualties in the Panagaea campaign:  the
twisted little evil halfling Yorgi and the haunted dark muse Laryn.  That
left eight who were known to have survived the battle with the Sleepers:
the wizard Chargrim, the high priest Kalenon, the warrior Rammstein, the
female master thief Sydaar, the chaotic dwarf Orgthrok, the shadowy and
lethal assassin Snake, the mysterious elven mage Galil-Gildur, and the
primal hunter Krom.  In addition, Drusilla's notes named two additional
members not seen at Panagaea:  the enigmatic master monk Yu-Tong and the
strange psionicist Akaazoth.
  Drusilla's writings strongly suggested that several of the group made
their homes in Rauxes, and that those members who didn't actually call
the city home still seemed to spend a lot of time there, or nearby.  The
question Belphanior needed to answer was just how, exactly, he could
defeat these foes once he found them.  It would be a daunting task, even
if he somehow had the combined help of Mongo, Alindyar, Peldor, and the
rest - and he didn't.  No, this particular mission, when and if he pursued
it, would require a lot of other assistance, perhaps of greater strength
than his former adventuring band.

Belphanior:  (idly begins considering ways in which he could trick Parekh
  and friends into becoming involved in such an endeavor)

  Back in the sky castle, the elf took stock of his companions, who were
all busy with various activities.

  Jenna was in her quarters with the door closed, but emerged just as
Belphanior walked by.

Belphanior:  Whoa-
Belphanior:  Did you know I was walking by?
Jenna:  (nonchalantly)  Of course.
Belphanior:  (removes some items from his portable hole, handing them
  to her)  I was able to get everything you asked for while I was in
  Greyhawk.  Some of these items are unusual, but...(he shrugs)
Jenna:  Istus' magic is unusual.  It often requires rare and special
  components.  (she holds up a bottle of wine)  This is for drinking,
  though.  I trust that cost wasn't an issue?
Belphanior:  Not at all.
Jenna:  My thanks, then.  (she retreats back into her chamber with the
  various items, closing the door)

  Belphanior had an extremely relaxed attitude toward money and spending.
It was possible that this stemmed from him now having more money than he
could ever spend; regardless, he not only kept his people paid well, but
he also tended to cover the cost of any supplies or items they asked for.
Given their many years of service, it had become apparent that the elf's
companions didn't stay with him for the money anyway.
  To make life easier (and perhaps more relaxed) in the sky castle, its
new occupants had transported a large quantity of wood, stone blocks,
and tools to the place.  These were now stored in the basement armory,
which had been empty and thus a logical place to store things.  In that
same room were barrels of wine, crates of long-lasting rations and other
foodstuffs, bolts of silk, piles of leather, and similar items.  If one
of his people needed something, Belphanior wanted to be able to make it
without having to leave the sky castle.  This same thought applied to the
repair of common items as well - thus the tools and raw materials.
  The first floor armory still held the majority of the golems (3 iron,
2 stone, 1 coal, 1 glass, 1 black metal) and four more stone golems were
stationed outside the main entrance to the castle.  The bone golem had,
of course, been destroyed in the battle with the Seven Sleepers, and an
additional seven unfinished golems (four stone and three iron) currently
occupied the armory.  Belphanior found the wizard Skektek here, as well
as the wispy thing.

Belphanior:  What news?
Skektek:  Well, the bad news is that some spells are still necessary to
  animate each of these golems, and I don't have the necessary magical
  prowess to complete some of the enchantments.
wispy thing:  yrrrp.
Skektek:  (regards the wisp with slight annoyance)
Belphanior:  And the good news?
Skektek:  You do have that prowess.  (he hands the elf a parchment)  The
  necessary information was in Drusilla's notes, and I've summarized it
  for you here.
Belphanior:  (reading the list of spells)  We can do this...between you
  and Hope and myself, we have all of these, I'm pretty sure.  This can
  be addressed as we have time.  Good work.
Skektek:  Thanks.  (he gestures to the inert golems)  Once these seven
  are infused with the necessary magic, they'll be ready for action.
  The sculpting and forging of the raw materials was already complete,
  thanks to Xusia or Drusilla or whoever worked on these before.
wispy thing:  (hovering near the face of one of the iron golems)  pfsss?
Belphanior:  What's with the wisp?
Skektek:  I have no idea.  (he points at the immaterial being, who is
  now orbiting the golem's head lazily)
wispy thing:  spaaa!
Skektek:  He's been following me around all day - not just down here with
  the golems, but everywhere.  Yesterday it was Ys, and the day before
  that it was Charlie.
wispy thing: pfsss.  (it flies away toward the far corner of the room,
  then turns and begins exploring one of the stone golems)  brrrd.
Belphanior:  (somewhat amused, he smirks)
Skektek:  Anyway, I'm guessing we have Drusilla to thank for the previous
  work with the raw materials of these golems, based on what she'd noted
  in her journal.
Belphanior:  I see.  I'll get to work on these sometime in the next day
  or two.  Having seven more golems will come in handy.  (he eyes the
  eight other golems already present in the chamber)  Relatively.
Skektek:  Heh.
Belphanior:  Good work.
Skektek:  Thanks.  I'll finish up here, and then I'm going upstairs to
  get a hot meal...and some beer.
Belphanior:  Very good.  (he heads up the stairway, to the second floor)

  The elf found Hope's room open, the door held ajar by a small magical
doorstop which the sorceress had created, and which would open or close
the door upon her command.  This minor enchantment was typical of the
magic which the newest member of the team had quickly mastered (or, more
accurately, re-mastered.)  The walls of her living quarters were a light
blue hue, though last week they had been a forest green color.  As for
the ceiling, it was a color so nondescript that it was easy to forget
that a ceiling was there at all.  Numerous plants rested on small but
sturdy wooden shelves beneath the windows, these seeming to blend right
into the stone of the castle.  Ever-burning sticks of incense filled the
chamber with wisps of smoke and strange scents.

Belphanior:  (produces a large package wrapped in silk)  I got you more
  incense, and the other things you wanted.
Hope:  My thanks.
Belphanior:  It appears that you've got a good grasp of your magic now.
Hope:  Indeed I do.  I was hoping to put it to more...challenging use
Belphanior:  (nods)  You'll get the chance, I promise.  I've got a bunch
  of potential missions in the planning stage.  Trust me on this.
Hope:  Very well.

  Ascending to the third floor, Belphanior found Razor Charlie doing
chin-ups on a metal bar he'd installed in his living chamber.  A half-
destroyed piece of thick wood, about six feet by three feet, rested
outside his door.  It was covered with hundreds of holes and gouges,
the vast majority of which were in the same two spots.

Razor Charlie:  Sorry.  Been meaning to get rid of that.
Belphanior:  No problem.  If nothing else, we can use it for firewood.
  Been practicing your knife-throwing again?
Razor Charlie:  (doesn't pause at all with his exercise)  Every day.
Belphanior:  Right.  (he heads for the next room, which is Otto's)

  In an initiative similar to Charlie's, Otto had built himself a number
of targets so that he could practice shooting his crossbow while in his
quarters.  Like Charlie, Otto was a fellow of few possessions, so having
a spacious room to live in meant that it could double as a training site.

Belphanior:  Any luck?
Otto:  (examining a bolt with a rather large, barbed tip)  Some.  If we
  can find the right metal, and forge the bolt-tips just right, I think
  it's possible to make bolts that'll punch through the thickest armor,
  maybe even stone too.  (he puts the bolt down and grabs another, which
  has only a sharpened wooden tip)  This one's a vampire-killer, or will
  be as soon as I soak it in holy water and have it blessed by a priest.
Belphanior:  Good thinking.
Otto:  Thanks.  (he doesn't bother to mention that he's been thinking
  about such unusual ammunition since Victoria first joined the group in
  Helgate, years ago)

  The last chamber on this level belonged to the Ys.  At almost seven
hundred pounds, the big reptilian had required a special bed - one which
the wizards had fabricated for him using their magic plus some of the raw
building materials downstairs.  Ys' other "special need" was dietary in
nature:  he consumed almost as much food as everyone else in the castle

Ys:  (examining a couple of oddly-shaped, lumpy vegetables as Belphanior
  walks by)  Ho.
Belphanior:  What've you got there?  Don't tell me you actually made a
  garden in the courtyard outside, and planted crops?
Ys:  Of course I did.
Belphanior:  (unfolds his portable hold, pulling out several crates of
  foodstuffs and handing them to the reptilian)  I thought you might
  have been joking.
Ys:  I never joke.  I must inform you, however, that this garden will not
  solve my food problem.  Vegetables such as this are good for seasonings
  and flavoring, but I must still eat real food...meat and fish.  (he
  takes the heavy crates from the elf, lifting them effortlessly as he
  piles them against one wall)
Belphanior:  I don't think this sky castle would make a good farm, nor
  can we create a lake here.  (he sighs as he folds the portable hole
  back up)  For now, I guess we'll just keep bringing fresh food in
  every couple of days, though it's a quite inefficient use of spells.
Ys:  (shrugs his massive, gray-scaled shoulders)  Sorry.
Belphanior:  We'll figure something out.  (he departs)

  Ascending to the fourth floor, Belphanior entered the suite that was
now home to himself and Neera.  The young woman was busy at work, reading
over some scrolls and tomes at her new desk.  Next to this was a sturdy
bookshelf, which was already half-filled with books she'd picked up here
and there, whenever she found one she wanted.

Neera:  Welcome home.  (she pouts)  At last.
Belphanior:  I had a lot to do...but I didn't forget anything.  (he opens
  up the portable hole, removing numerous items)  Rare and expensive
  liquor...fresh pastries...material components...  blank scrolls...
  quills and ink...tons of books for you...whew.
Neera:  Outstanding.  Thank you!
Belphanior:  My pleasure.
Neera:  Were you able to borrow the helm?
Belphanior:  No, but I did talk to Mongo briefly while in Greyhawk.  He
  said he'd be happy to let you examine it for an hour or two, as long as
  he's nearby, we come to him, and we do this soon.  (he shrugs)  Those
  were his words.
Neera:  Did you have to offer to help him in return?
Belphanior:  I did.  Part of the deal is that you have to figure out just
  what his fire-ring is and how he can use it.  Apparently it's more than
  a "mere" ring of fire resistance.
Neera:  I can do that.
Belphanior:  Anyway, I figure we need to prepare ahead of time - spells
  of scrying and such - and then make another trip to Greyhawk to deal
  with this.  If we can capture the secrets to constructing a item that
  protects the mind from attack, like his helm, I'd be most pleased.
Neera:  It will take some time.  Not the scrying, that's a matter of a
  few hours, I'd guess...but the building of such a device, with those
  powers.  I'd imagine that certain spells would need to be cast upon
  the helm as it was being forged.
Belphanior:  I don't want a helm - it's not my style.  I was hoping for
  something much smaller and more convenient to wear or carry.
Neera:  (sighs)  We shall see.  I don't _build_ magic items, I analyze
  them.  But enough of that.  (she heads for him)

  The remainder of that evening was devoted to making up for lost time,
as Belphanior and Neera had been apart for much of the last few weeks.

  The next morning found Belphanior, Skektek, and Hope working to finish
the seven inert golems.  Between the three of them, they possessed the
necessary magic; after spending several days casting various spells based
on the guidance in Drusilla's journal, they were rewarded with successful
animation of the final seven golems from Xusia's armory.  This brought
the total strength of Belphanior's golem army to nineteen:  six iron,
ten stone, one coal, one glass, and one black metal.  Belphanior replaced
two of the stone golems outside the sky-castle's front door with iron
golems.  His thought was that if anything did attack, it might help to
have two different types of golems out there, as opposed to only one.
This still left fifteen of the mighty constructs - including four of the
more powerful iron golems - available for interior defense, missions, and
other work.

Skektek:  (looking around)  Damn, this is a lot of golems.  Most wizards
  are lucky to only see a single golem in their lifetime.
Hope:  Or unlucky, perhaps.
Skektek:  (nods)  And we have nineteen.  (he whistles)  _Nineteen_.
Belphanior:  (grins)  Isn't it great?

  With the golem situation finally resolved, Belphanior wanted to turn
his attention to another of his recently-realized aspirations:  somehow
creating another magical item like Mongo's silvery helm, a mighty defense
versus all forms of mental attacks.  Since the key component of this
endeavor was a thorough analysis of the helm itself, another trip to
Greyhawk would be necessary, and Neera would need to be present.  She'd
been excluded from the trip Belphanior had just made because he hadn't
wanted her anywhere near him when he dealt with Whisper.
  So it was that, later that afternoon, Belphanior announced a day-long
Greyhawk trip the following day, for any who wished to go.  Not a single
inhabitant of the sky castle said no to the opportunity.

wispy thing:  spaaa!

  The next day found Belphanior and Neera conferring with Mongo in a
private room within the Green Dragon Inn in Greyhawk...

Mongo:  (holding his ring up to the light)  So what the hell is this
  thing, exactly?
Neera:  It's most commonly called a ring of fire elemental command...not
  that these are very common.  I doubt that a dozen exist.  The ring is
  attuned to the Elemental Plane of Fire, though it will simply convey
  a resistance to fire until some unusual condition is met.
Mongo:  In my case, that was being blasted by a wave of fire from a demon
Neera:  (regards the dwarf warily)
Mongo:  I'm serious!
Neera:  Well, I guess that qualifies as an unusual condition.
Mongo:  It sure did.
Neera:  ...anyhow, typical powers of such rings include the ability to
  converse with elementals and other beings from the related Elemental
  Plane - fire, in your case.  Also, such creatures cannot come within
  five feet of the ring's bearer.  You can forgo this protection and
  attempt to charm the creature-
Mongo:  Forget that.  I don't do things like that.  What else?
Neera:  If such beings do choose to attack you, they will do so at a
  disadvantage, due to the power of the ring.  Also, any weapon you
  wield - even one bearing no enchantment - will be able to injure fiery
Mongo:  I'll remember that if I'm fighting one and Stormcrest doesn't
  come back to my throwing hand.
Neera:  The ring also confers some spell-like attack powers having to
  to with fire:  burning hands, pyrotechnics, flame strikes, creation
  of a wall of fire.
Mongo:  Bah.  I've got no need of such tricks.
Neera:  You say that now, but it's still worth knowing.  You may be in
  combat against a horde of ice monsters one day, and these powers could
  even the odds.
Mongo:  (nods)  Good point.  Thanks.
Neera:  Finally, you have a great resistance to heat and fire of all
  kinds - I think you know that - and a slight weakness against attacks
  based on cold or water.
Mongo:  No problem.  I can deal with that.
Neera:  Very well, then.
Mongo:  Is that all?
Neera:  Yes.
Mongo:  What about summoning the fire elemental lord?
Neera:  What fire elemental lord?
Mongo:  When I got hit by that big fire-wave and the ring...woke up, a
  big, powerful fire elemental showed up and did what I said, which was
  to kill a bunch of demons.
Belphanior:  Interesting.
Mongo:  That's one way to put it.  Anyway, after the fighting was done,
  he said he could help me once every moon.  All I have to do is think
  really hard.
Neera:  And have you tested this power since then?
Mongo:  No.  He also said that I shouldn't summon him for anything that
  wasn't really important.  (to Belphanior)  No offense, but none of the
  battles we've been in recently seemed that important to me.  (to Neera)
  I'm really trying hard to stay on the good side of the fire elemental
  lord, you see.
Neera:  It's to be expected.  I've never heard of such rings being able
  to summon such a being.  This one may be unique in that aspect.  At
  any rate, congratulations on owning such a powerful magical item.  I'd
  qualify it as a minor artifact, really.
Mongo:  One of many...
Belphanior:  Speaking of which, can we borrow your helm now?  Neera can
  do the necessary scrying and analysis; I've already secured the use of
  this back room in the Green Dragon Inn, which means we can have a huge
  lunch and talk about adventures past, present, and future.
Mongo:  Sounds good.  I'm damn hungry anyway.  (he squints at the elf)
  Wait a minute...adventures "future" ?
Belphanior:  I've got some ideas and leads...ones that might lead to
  great treasure, glory, or both.  I figured you'd want a chance to get
  involved in that.
Mongo:  Hell yeah!  Let's go eat.
Peldor:  (appears)  Count me in too.
Mongo:  You bet...just don't let Bosco in.  He'll eat too much of my share
  of the food.

  Later that day, everything was settled.  After hours of work, Neera had
realized that she needed more time to study the helm.  While Belphanior
had intended to ask the dwarven warrior to join the next mission, the
dwarf refused to leave his newest magic item behind.  Thus, it had been
decided that the dwarf, his helm, and Neera would all remain in Greyhawk
while Belphanior led his team on his next endeavor.  Under the guise of
this compromise, Belphanior got two things he wanted:  completion of the
scrying and analysis of the mighty helm, and Neera kept out of harm's way
by not coming along.  She'd put up a slight argument, but Belphanior knew
that in the grand scheme of things, the sage was just as happy studying
in Greyhawk as she would have been exploring perilous dungeons.
  Some of his team had asked the obvious question, namely which perilous
dungeons they were about to explore.  To answer that question, Belphanior
had taken the group back to the launching point of so many adventures...
the small underground complex in the Pelisso Swamp.  Now empty, this place
had served as a temporary lair, and it also contained the first magical
teleportation gateway that they'd used.  From here, the group had ventured
to more than a dozen distant places, finding deadly monsters and wondrous

Hope:  (looks around)  This place seems...familiar.
Belphanior:  It should - it was a secret lair of yours, in your former
Bosco:  (confused by this)  Former life?  Huh?
Hope:  You need not concern yourself with it, small one.
Bosco:  Well, if you say so.  I was just asking.

  Despite Mongo's wishes during the recent trip to Greyhawk, Bosco had
indeed found his way to the lunch table.  After eating almost as much food
as Mongo himself, the halfling had offered his services to Belphanior for
any upcoming adventures.  It seemed that the halfling hadn't had any sort
of vacation in a while, and was some halflings often were.
Belphanior had considered the offer, and after laying down some ground
rules, had agreed to allow Bosco to lend his talents in the days to come.
The key, as he'd explained to the halfling, was that this was no vacation
and Belphanior's orders were to be followed at all times.  While some of
the others might have been dubious about Bosco's value, Belphanior knew
that he could trust the small thief in battle (if not in the plundering
of treasure) and also that Bosco had a number of useful magical items to
bring to any situation.

Otto:  I still don't get it.  Why are we back here?
Belphanior:  Because I think we missed something...something so simple,
  so obvious that we completely overlooked it.
Skektek:  (trades glances with Ys)
Ys:  (shrugs, in his odd way)
Razor Charlie:  Don't see how we could've missed anything.  When we moved
  out, we took everything.
Belphanior:  Not that.  (to Jenna)  I need you to scry this place, from
  top to bottom.
Jenna:  We've already done that-
Belphanior:  I know.  Just do it again.  What I'm about to tell you will
  put a new twist on your efforts.  (he turns to face the others)  Let's
  go look at that gateway.

  Shortly, they stood before the strange arch of stone, imbued by arcane
powers with the property of teleportation.  Inset on the arch's right
side was a red stone, which was surrounded by a dull metal disc.  This
was inlaid with nineteen ancient runes, which they had more or less
translated and used to guess the corresponding destinations.

Belphanior:  As we know, the metal rune-disc can be rotated so that any
  of the runes are lined up with the stone mark at the top; this controls
  which gateway we end up at.
Hope:  Actually, I didn't know that.  But this is fascinating - please go
Belphanior:  Once you choose a destination, you simply push the red stone
  and a one-way portal is opened to the other end, lasting about a minute.
Hope:  (nods in amazement)
Belphanior:  So that's all you need to know to actually use these things.
  Now, none of the other gateways have all of the nineteen options, since
  their metal dials contain fewer runes.  In fact, some gateways only had
  a handful of runes.  Anyway, we theorized that this one was a master
  gateway, linked to every single one of the other ones.
Skektek:  Yes, and I still don't see where you're going with this.
Belphanior:  (points to the third rune on the metal disc)  This marking
  translates to "muck" or "mud" and we figured it matches this gateway.
Skektek:  (nods)  And it does.  We used that same setting numerous times,
  to return to this gateway.
Belphanior:  Right!  But let me ask you this.  (he points to the rune
  again)  Why would a master gateway - one that links to all others - have
  a link to _itself_?

  There was silence in the small chamber, as each of the adventurers
processed this question and its possible answers.  Predictably, Skektek
figured it out first.

Skektek:  Because it's not a link to itself - it's a link to another
  gateway, one we haven't seen!
Belphanior:  (nods)  Like I said, it was so obvious that we missed it.
  (he looks around slyly)  We all missed it.
Jenna:  You could be wrong.  What if all of the gateways were built from
  a single template, and the metal dials all the same?
Skektek:  (excited)  Not all, but some...the ones with all of the runes.
  I'll have to check my notes-
Belphanior:  No you won't.  I wouldn't have brought all of us here if
  I wasn't sure; I checked my copy of your notes last night, and found
  that none of the other gateways - not a single one - had their own
  location among their selectable destinations.  (he smirks triumphantly)
  Just this one.
Jenna:  Why didn't Drusilla mention this hidden gateway?
Belphanior:  Hard to say, but I'd guess it's because we didn't explicitly
  ask her, or perhaps it was a twisting of the question or the answer...
  or maybe she just didn't know.
Razor Charlie:  (eyes Hope suspiciously)
Hope:  Don't look at me.  Whatever happened before was beyond my control.
Bosco:  (wandering toward the archway of light green stone)
Otto:  Bosco, stay away from there-
Belphanior:  No need to worry - even Bosco can't make it work, not yet
  anyway.  (he produces the small talisman of red stone)  After our last
  adventures with these things, I used Xusia's talisman to disable the
  entire series of gateways.  No one's able to use them until we activate
  them again.
Bosco:  Oh.  I was just looking...that dial is neat.
Otto:  It may be, but don't even think about trying to take it.
Bosco:  Me take something?  Never!
wispy thing:  (hovering near Bosco)  sprrd.
Bosco:  You don't say.
Belphanior:  So, this is what I suggest:  if we re-activate the gateway
  network, set this one's dial to the "muck" or "mud" rune, and use the
  portal...we'll find a new, unknown destination.
Skektek:  I concur.  (he pauses)  We're going, right?
Belphanior:  Of course we are.  That's why I asked all of you to equip
  and arm yourselves this morning, before we came here.

  The group took some time to check their armaments and such; several of
them had acquired some new items while in Greyhawk.  Otto had stocked up
on holy water, using nearly-unbreakable metal vials to store the stuff.
Charlie had commissioned some special throwing knives, shaped and weighted
to his specifications; these were iron but had silver tips and edges.  It
wasn't that either of the warriors suspected undead foes ahead, but rather
just a coincidence - both had been meaning to acquire these items for some
time, and Greyhawk provided a good chance to finally do so.

  Once everyone was ready, Belphanior held the talisman in front of the
red stone in the center of the metal dial, causing the stone to glow and
emit a low humming sound.

Belphanior:  (puts the talisman away, turns the dial so that the desired
  rune is at the top, then pushes the red stone with one hand)

  The air within the stone archway began to glow and crackle...and then
it slowly filled with a thick, colorless mist.

Belphanior:  (nods)  This proves my point - it has to lead somewhere else.
Hope:  Interesting.  And you're just going to walk into that?
Belphanior:  Yep.  (he steps forward)
Hope:  (puts a hand on his shoulder)  Wait.  That's insane.  (she works
  a spell)
Belphanior:  But the gateway will close-
Hope:  Then just open it up again.  It seems trivial to do.

  The mage completed her spell, bringing into existence a small floating
eye at about the same time the mists vanished.

Hope:  Open it again and I'll send this wizard eye through.
Belphanior:  (does so, shaking his head)  Now why didn't I think of this,
  long ago when we first found these things?
Hope:  Maybe you got so used to using the gateways that you couldn't see
  the inherent danger in them.  (she sends the eye through the re-opened
Skektek:  Is it working?
Hope:  (concentrating)  Yes...I see a hallway, branching away into more
  hallways.  No people or guards.
Belphanior:  Good deal.  (leading by example, he walks forth and vanishes
  into the swirling mists)

next:       action!  (I promise)
released:   12/24/10
notes:      I know I'm not writing these fast enough to keep the interest
  of most readers, but I'm doing the best I can.  Think of it this way:
  my times of high output happened in my 20s and 30s when most people are
  busy getting married, having kids, etc.  I put those things off and did
  other things (like write a vast quantity of material) and now it's time
  for me to experience the real-life things.  As I said, I'm doing the
  best I can.

    I actually have a ton of great ideas - for example I've figured out
  how to have Belphanior et al do battle with the vampire city (including
  four different lead-ins to that conflict and a couple dozen vampire-
  fighting weapons, spells, creatures, and tactics.)  The only problem is
  that there's no logical way for our heroes to triumph after such an
  encounter.  So the plotline is on the shelf.

    In other news, you can reference episode 865 to relive Mongo's first
  real use of his ring's true fiery powers.

    If you like good thrillers, you should read the "Reacher" series by
  Lee Child (source of this episode's quote at the top.)  They feature a
  powerful, efficient, and genuinely interesting protagonist and are both
  easy and enjoyable to read.  If you like my stories, you'll like Child's
  stories.  You can learn more at:

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