Chapter #980

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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       +
+   1991-2011 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        +
+   Bosco          12th level halfling thief                              +
+   Hope           16th level female human wizard                         +
+   Jenna          9th level female human priestess of Istus              +
+   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:          4/1/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          late morning                                           +
+   Place:         unknown                                                +
+   Climate:       cool                                                   +
+   "If you start down this path, where does it end?"                     +
+   "When we've won."                                                     +
+                                        - from _The Bourne Supremacy_    +

                   CMLXXX.  Gateway Redux

  After finding evidence of one of Xusia's teleportation gateways that
had escaped his notice, Belphanior has briefed his group and activated
the portal, stepping through after Hope checked it with a wizard eye...

Belphanior:  (emerges from the mist, sword in hand, senses alert for any
wizard eye:  (its pupil moves, focusing on him)
Belphanior:  (gives the eye a thumbs-up gesture)

  The elf was standing in a hallway, one end of which terminated in the
gateway arch, the other end of which led a short distance before branching
away into other corridors...

           / /
          / /
     ____/ /___
    #____  ____             __
         \ \               |__    10'
          \ \
           \ \              #     gateway arch

  The archway on this end was light green, just like the one in the
Pelisso Swamp gateway he'd just come from, except it contained flecks
of jet-black stone.  Staring at it long enough actually made one's head
ache.  The others arrived while the elf was studying the metal dial on
the right of the stone arch here.  This one was unlike any of the runic
control devices they'd seen in any of the other gateways; it had an
astounding _twenty-three_ runes, which meant twenty-three destinations.
Once Skektek arrived and got oriented, he checked his notes to see what
was what.

Skektek:  Well, at least they're in order.
Otto:  How's that?
Skektek:  The nineteen we knew about are positions one through nineteen
  on the disc here...which leaves four new ones.
Belphanior:  Four new gateways.  Five, counting this one.
Skektek:  Yep.  Without Neera here, I can't translate the meanings of
  these four new runes, but at some point, I'll copy them down for her
  to decipher later.

  As it turned out, the "super-gateway" was the most significant feature
of this place.  The passage to the left ended after about fifty feet, as
if its excavation had never been completed.  Careful examination of this
dead-end revealed nothing of interest - just solid rock.  The passage to
the center led into a small chamber which contained a number of shelves;
upon these were dozens of potion bottles, plus various other containers.
A cursory check of these yielded various spell components, some of them
rare and valuable.

             / /              __
            / /              |__    10'
           / /               #      gateway arch
          / /   ____         ,,     abrupt end of passage
     ____/ /___|    |
    #____  ____     |     <-----    room w/shelves
         \ \   |____|
          \ \
           \ \
            \ \
             \ \        __
              \ \______|  ;,
               \_______     ;     <-----    unfinished room

  The passage to the right extended about sixty feet before turning to
the left and ending in a partially-excavated chamber.  A half-dozen
large skeletons - perhaps 7-8 feet tall - rested here, all of them
garbed in tattered clothes.  Several large shovels and mattocks were
scattered about this room, along with a couple of large wheelbarrows.
Rubble was everywhere, ranging from loose dirt to larger chunks of stone.

Belphanior:  (to Jenna)  Are these undead?
Jenna:  (shakes her head)  No animation magic exists here.  They're just
  normal skeletons.
Belphanior:  Looks like these were miners, left here to die.
Otto:  Bugbears or gnolls, by the look of the remains.
Bosco:  Yeah.  Maybe someone just forgot about these guys.  (he wanders
  toward the nearest of the skeletal remains)

  Examination of the corpses, their tools, and the room revealed nothing
of note except for a few gemstones in one of the dead creatures' tunics,
and a small pouch of nails in the pocket of another.

Belphanior:  (looking around, he scans the chamber's walls with his
  magical eye)  Hmm.
Bosco:  (he mimics Belphanior, scanning the walls thanks to his ring of
  x-ray vision)  All clear!
Belphanior:  (ignores the halfling's antics, turning to Jenna)  Can you
  call upon Istus to divine our location, as you've done in the past?
Jenna:  I can.  (she begins working a spell)
Ys:  This place seems empty.
Hope:  Except for those potions and supplies.
Ys:  True.  (whistling to himself, he goes back to the main juncture of
  passages to double-check that the group isn't missing anything)
Razor Charlie:  (follows the big reptilian)
wispy thing:  (follows Razor Charlie)  fssss.
Bosco:  (looks around, then follows the wisp)
Jenna:  (concentrating as she completes her divination magic)  Hmm...
Belphanior:  You have it?  Where are we?
Jenna:  Nyrond...somewhere in Nyrond.
Otto:  (eyeing the surrounding walls and ceiling)  Or beneath it, anyway.
  By looking at this stone, I'd guess we're about a hundred feet down.
Belphanior:  Maybe Xusia was planning to excavate this place further and
  eventually place troops here.
Skektek:  Or golems.
Belphanior:  (nods)  That's what I'd do if I planned to invade the world
  one day...stage my forces in secret lairs within key enemy lands.  We
  already know that other gateways lead into Furyondy, and Greyhawk, and
  gods knows where else.
Hope:  Using the power of teleportation, it would be trivial to transport
  hundreds, even thousands of troops to any of these places, quickly and
Otto:  (regards her warily)
Hope:  No, I didn't just happen to remember that from my past life.  It's
  a logical observation based on everything I've seen and heard thus far.
Belphanior:  Good observation, then.  (he looks around)  So.  Aside from
  some potions and spell components, this place is useless...except for
  the fact that it can take us to four new gateways.
Skektek:  Seems about right.  Is that our next move?
Belphanior:  Yep.  We'll gather the items in the other room here.  Hope,
  you're in charge of that.  Otto, Bosco - doublecheck every wall, every
  bit of floor in this complex, in case we missed something.  Skektek -
  make a complete accounting of the new runes on the dial in the gateway
  room.  Ys, Charlie - guard the gateway room, just in case.

  Everyone set about their assigned task, which left the priestess Jenna
receiving her directions from Belphanior.

Belphanior:  Sometime soon - probably not today, but soon - we're going
  to return to certain other gateways.  Once at each one, I want you to
  use your divination magic and figure out where each of them is located
  in the world.  Some we know, but others - such as the really cold one,
  the one in the mountains, the one in the jungle - should be identifiable
  to us.  I'm not really concerned with the two in the Underdark or the
  one on the moon, nor the destroyed gateways.  We'd be best served if we
  knew everything we could about these places.
Jenna:  (nods)  Just tell me when and I'll take care of it.

  Shortly, the party was ready to move on.  The final round of searching
and examining had yielded nothing new; the loot, such as it was, was
collected.  After that, they prepared to move on.

Hope:  So this is how you explored these before?  Started fresh in the
  morning, traveling to new ones until you found one full of treasure?
Belphanior:  (grimly)  We stopped for the day once we had a battle that
  taxed our strength.
Skektek:  And there were many.
Ys:  Aye.
Otto:  So where are we going next?
Belphanior:  (frowns)  Hmm.
Otto:  Eh?
Belphanior:  (to everyone)  I've changed my mind.  We'll return home,
  rest up and prepare, and have Neera look at these new runes.  There's
  no sense rushing into anything without at least knowing what the runes

  Although some of the party were ready for more exploration and possibly
battle, the elf's logic made sense.  Thus it was that the four potential
new destinations were put off to another day.  The group returned to the
gateway in the Pelisso, and then to the sky castle.  While Neera analyzed
the new Sueloise runes, Belphanior took Ys, Skektek, and Jenna along for
a side mission:  revisiting several gateways whose geographic locations
had been unknown.  In each such case, the appropriate precautions were
taken, the trips were made, and divination magic was used.  Thus it was
that by evening, much had been accomplished.  The "water" gateway - which
had partially flooded during its previous exploration - was determined to
be situated at the bottom of the Azure Sea, in its approximate center.
The hot and humid "tree" rune gateway turned out to be located deep within
the Amedio Jungle.  The "earth" rune gateway was nestled within the Yatil
Mountain range, opening onto the side of a mountain.  Finally, the "ice"
rune gateway was found to be beyond any conventional maps:  it had been
built atop a small isle within the frozen waters north of the Land of
Black Ice.
  With these revelations, only four of the previously-visited gateways'
locations remained unknown (probably because they were deep underground
and/or lacked exits).  These were the "sleep" rune gateway which had
contained all the golems, the "iron" rune gateway which was a one-way
trap with no exit dial, the "darkness" rune gateway which had held
various powerful evil magic items, and the "crystal" or "gem" gateway
which was damaged and had sent the adventurers to random and different
  While the others were exploring, Neera had deciphered the meanings of
the runes corresponding to the four new gateway destinations.  These
were, in order at the end of the dial: "beast", "danger", "war", and

Hope:  "Beast"...that sounds somewhat dangerous.  (she pauses)  Come to
  think of it, they all sound dangerous.
Belphanior:  Most of the gateways are.
Skektek:  Maybe it's a fearsome guardian, protecting some great treasure.
Otto:  Could be.  As always, we won't know until we get there.
Ys:  And as always, certain adventure and danger await.
Belphanior:  On a related topic, it's worth noting that the four gateways
  we revisited today were unchanged from before, and still uninhabited.
  This would seem to confirm our hopes and suspicions that we're the only
  ones with the ability to use the portals now.
Jenna:  So what's next?
Belphanior:  Tonight, we prepare and then rest.  Tomorrow, we're going to
  journey to the "war" gateway.

  The following morning, the group began their new journey.  Belphanior
had worried that Neera would object to being excluded again, but was more
than a little surprised to find that she truly didn't care whether she
went on these explorations or not.  To be fair, her preference was that
_neither_ of them undertake the teleportations through the gateways; she
preferred a quiet life with no direct danger.  However, as Belphanior
had to occasionally remind her, such risks were in his very nature, and
she had known that from the beginning.
  Anyhow, she had no great desire to accompany the group as they ventured
to these new and previously-unknown gateways.  She had plenty of research
to do on duplicating the powers of Mongo's magical helm, and that would
keep her busy for a while.  Gaining such an item - and keeping Neera out
of danger - were more important to Belphanior than any on-site assistance
she might be able to offer.
  Thus it was that, only hours after dawn, the group had journeyed from
the sky castle to the Pelisso gateway, then to the new, buried gateway
in Nyrond with the four new destinations built into its dial.

Bosco:  (to Belphanior)  That sky castle place was pretty neat.  Where'd
  you find it?
Belphanior:  In the clouds, of course.
Bosco:  It's a castle worthy of a halfling ruler...Bosco, Cloud-Walker!
Belphanior:  Bosco, I'll make you a deal.  You keep your mouth shut about
  things like our sky castle, and I'll let you keep coming along on these
  missions of mine.
Bosco:  (catches the red gleam in the elf's eye)  Ulp.
Belphanior:  I know you know this, deep down, but I suspect that sometimes
  you just let me remind you:  these adventures are no time to
  daydream or otherwise stop paying attention.  Every one of my people is
  ready to act on a moment's notice, at the first sign of danger, and you
  had better be ready too.
Bosco:  I am.  I am!
Belphanior:  In fact, today you start earning your pay, so to speak.  In
  the places we'll go over the next few days, we'll need the scouting and
  trap-finding skills of the master thief you claim to be.
Bosco:  And you'll have them.  (his tone grows very serious)  Not only
  will the existence of your sky castle remain a secret with me, but I
  shall prove my worth today - I swear it.  (he pumps his small fist in
  the air with authority)
Belphanior:  Good.  That's all anyone can ask for.

  As noted, there were four new runes at the end of the dial: "beast",
"danger", "war", and "fire."  Belphanior had already stated his intent
to first explore the "war" gateway, and so the runic dial was set to that
destination, the gateway was activated, and the mists appeared...

Belphanior:  (draws his sword and steps boldly forth into the vapors)

  A few moments later, in a place far away, the elf emerged from a mass
of vapors within another stone archway.

Belphanior:  (looks around)  Hmm.

  The stone of this arch was a dull white in color, and the gateway was
set atop a short dais, as several other previously-encountered ones had
been.  The dais was at one edge of a small chamber, which contained a
single door opposite the gateway arch...and nothing else.  Belphanior
verified that even before the second adventurer - Bosco - emerged from
the gateway, but the elf let Bosco check the room anyway.  By the time
all nine of the party members had arrived, Belphanior had lost interest
in this area, and was ready to go through the door.

Belphanior:  Jenna, Bosco - any ideas, before we open it?
Jenna:  I sense no danger.
Bosco:  (squinting at the portal)  The door's metal on this side, but
  stone on the opposite side.  Might be a concealed door on that side.

  As it turned out, this portal was indeed concealed on the other side,
so well that they would have had trouble finding it again, even though
they knew it was there.  The concealed door merged seamlessly into one
side of a circular chamber about a hundred feet in diameter.  A ten-foot
section of floor, about ten feet high, ran around the entire room's
perimeter, like a catwalk of stone; this walkway's inner edge had a
stone lip about five feet high, allowing the adventurers to peek over
the edge - both upward and downward.

Otto:  This isn't a circular room, it's one level of a gigantic cylinder
  with an open central shaft!

                          _#_               #     gateway arch
                         |   |              .     metal exit door
                     ____|_._|____        ===     ramps up and down
                    / ___________  \
                  /  /           \  \
                /  /               \  \
               |  |                 |  |
               |  |      shaft      |  |
               |  |                 |  |
                \  \               /  /
                  \  \___________/  /

Belphanior:  (walks over toward the inner edge of the circular walkway)
Bosco:  (thoughtfully props the door to the gateway chamber open with an
  iron spike)
Belphanior:  (quickly and carefully peering upward and downward)  Stay
  away from the edge.  I saw people below, and we don't need to announce
  our arrival for no reason.

  As the others heeded his warning, the elf carefully took account of
the cylindrical chamber - and it was massive.  No less than ten floors
could be seen below; each appeared identical to this one, being an open
central space eighty feet across plus 10' of flooring/walkway on either
side.  Above, there was only a single floor, and then a ceiling of stone
capped the top of the cylindrical chamber.

Belphanior:  So we're near the top of...whatever this is.  (to Otto and
  Bosco)  Scout this walkway in each direction.  Be swift and quiet.

  While the two demi-humans snuck off to carry out those directions,
Belphanior scrutinized the shaft and floors below.  Something large and
bright illuminated the cylindrical shaft from far below, bathing the
entire place in a dull orange-reddish glow, but from up here it was
impossible to discern exactly what the light source was.  Some of the
levels below seemed occupied, while others were devoid of activity.
  Otto and Bosco quickly reported the same thing that they'd converged
upon, on the opposite end of the circular walkway:  ramps going up (if
you were moving clockwise around the walkway) or down (if you were moving
counter-clockwise).  Obviously, the descending ramps were right beneath
the ascending ones.

Otto:  It looks like each floor is like this, so if you just run around
  in a clockwise direction, for example, you'd keep moving upward.
Belphanior:  It's going to be tough to explore in two directions, with
  our only known escape route between them.

  Thinking quickly, the elf split his party into two groups.  The main
team (consisting of Belphanior, Bosco, Hope, and Charlie) would descend
in a counterclockwise direction, to get a better idea of what was below
this floor.  The second team (consisting of Otto, Jenna, Skektek, and Ys)
would remain here as rear guard, charged with protecting the gateway and
ensuring that the adventurers could escape if need be.

Skektek:  But-
Belphanior:  Your mighty destructive magic is of more use here, to cover
  us if something happens.  Ditto you, Ys, for your sword-arm.  (he grins)
  Fear not - I don't intend to be gone long.

  Shortly, the quartet approached the rampway leading down.  Belphanior
had put Bosco at point, knowing that the halfling was the best of them
all when it came to sneaking around in the dark.  Like a silent shadow,
he disappeared down the slope, and the other three waited.  It was quite
difficult to be patient, especially given the vague sounds from the many
floors below, but they managed.

Belphanior:  (waits, sword in hand)
Hope:  (thinking about which spells she'll use depending on different
Razor Charlie:  (sits there calmly, confident that he can throw several
  knives, if need be, before anyone else is able to act)
wispy thing:  (hovering near Belphanior, it remains silent)

  Presently, Bosco returned with his scouting report:  the two levels
immediately beneath were vacant, their outer edges lined with shallow
chambers, about 10' x 10' and 5' deep, each carved from the rock.  This
meant that each floor contained about twenty such spaces around its outer
perimeter.  Below these two levels, the very next level was inhabited by
a half-dozen skeletal miners, which were using pickaxes and shovels to
excavate similar hollows on that floor.
  The adventurers carefully moved down one level, to the next descending
ramp below the floor they'd first arrived on, and conferred in hushed

Belphanior:  I don't like the look of reminds me of a gigantic
  anthill, except with undead.  (to Bosco)  What do you think they're up
  to on the levels below?
Bosco:  Mining.  I mean, _someone's_ gotta do that kind of work in places
  like this.  I think they're taking the excavated rubble down to lower
  levels.  I saw one of them with a wheelbarrow, and-

  The halfling suddenly stopped talking, and just pointed to something
over Belphanior's shoulder.

Belphanior:  (turns, facing the open central shaft)

  Hovering there, having floated upward from below, was a pale, cracked
skull.  Instinctively, the four adventurers spread out and prepared to
do battle, as the skull's jawbone dropped...and the thing emitted a deep
and extremely loud moan!

floating skull:  UUUUURRRRRRRRRRRRR...

  Immediately, there was much commotion from the floors below, though
Belphanior didn't yet give the command to retreat, as he wanted to know
what foes lurked in this place.

Belphanior:  First things first.  (he swings his sword, shattering the
  screaming skull into dozens of fragments)
Bosco:  (takes to the air, his winged boots flapping, and peeks over the
  platform's edge)  No more of those things coming.
Razor Charlie:  Too late, though.  (he readies a knife in each hand)
Hope:  We need to be able to see.  (she completes a spell, bathing the
  curved section of passage ahead in bright light)
Belphanior:  Good move.  (he sheathes his sword and begins working a
  spell of his own)
Razor Charlie:  (listening intently)  Won't be long now.

  Soon, a clattering sound heralded the arrival of skeletons from the
floors below.  These were no skeletal warriors - they lacked armor and
true weapons, instead carrying shovels and pickaxes - but there were
almost a dozen of them advancing on the adventurers' location.

Hope:  At last, some excitement!  (she completes another spell, bathing
  a number of undead foes in a sheet of flame from her hands)
skeleton #1:  (burnt into char, it falls apart)
skeleton #2:  (likewise)
skeleton #3:  (likewise)
Belphanior:  (as soon as Hope's fiery attack burns out, he launches a
  barrage of small fiery meteors at the next skeletal attackers)
skeleton #4:  (knocked back and blasted to pieces)
skeleton #5:  (knocked back and damaged)
Bosco:  (swoops down and stabs the thing in the spine, finishing it)
Razor Charlie:  (aided by his boots of speed, he hurls one knife, then
  another at the nearest of the undead assailants)
skeleton #6:  (barely affected by the edged weapons, as it has no soft
  flesh and also feels no pain, it marches on, swinging a pickaxe)
Razor Charlie:  Shit.  (he ducks the attack, grabbing the pickaxe and
  using its butt to crush the foe's skull)  Whoa.  (he steps back to
  dodge the shovel of another skeleton, then swings the pickaxe around)
skeleton #7:  (falls, its ribcage and spine shattered, and drops its
Razor Charlie:  (realizing how clumsy and unwieldy the pickaxe is as a
  fighting weapon, he hurls it at another foe)
skeleton #8:  (staggers as its shoulder is smashed apart)
Razor Charlie:  (grabs the shovel that the other skeleton dropped, and
  swings it around in a great arc)
skeleton #9:  (its skull is swatted away from the rest of its body, and
  it falls)
Bosco:  (hovering above the battle, he watches as the skull sails past)
  Hey!  Watch it - that was close!
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces)  Next time I'll aim.  (he backs away from the
  single remaining skeleton, shovel held high)
Belphanior:  (darts forward, his blade cleaving the thing in two)
skeleton #10:  (its two halves fall to the floor, bones clattering on
  the stone)

  The respite was only momentary, as a swarm of new skeletons appeared
from the darkness of the level below.  The adventurers readied themselves
for another bout of combat, but the first skeleton from the new group
just stood there, quivering in place.

Belphanior:  What the-
skeleton:  (explodes suddenly, spraying the adventurers with dozens of
  fragments of sharp bone)

  Belphanior took the brunt of the blast due to his position; while his
stoneskin deflected a number of the deadly shards, more than a dozen
others were imbedded in his body, and he fell, bleeding and weakened.
Hope, who had been almost directly behind him, avoided serious injury.

Hope:  (slashed along one arm by a piece of the shattered foe)  Aaaah!
  (she staggers, but remains on her feet)
Razor Charlie:  (due to his speed and reflexes, he only suffers a couple
  of minor gashes)  Ungh!  Urgh!
Bosco:  (hovering in the air, he completely escapes harm)  Whoa!

  With Belphanior knocked down for the moment (and the spell he'd been
casting ruined) and Hope wounded, the next wave of skeletons surged ahead
to do battle with the adventurers.  Fortunately, none of them appeared to
be of the exploding variety, and most weren't even armed with excavation
tools like the previous ones.

Belphanior:  (despite his wounds, he gets his second wind, surging forth
  with sword and dagger flashing)

  The elf's attack was so sudden and furious that he drove back the two
skeletons closest to him; one had a split skull and the other now lacked
an arm.  Razor Charlie built upon this momentum by leaping forward and
using his shovel to force the next few skeletons away, buying time for
Belphanior to recover further or perhaps cast a spell.  The wispy thing
got in on the fight as well...

wispy thing:  (flies around the face of the nearest standing skeleton)
skeleton:  (swats ineffectually at the intangible irritant)

  While this was happening, other skeletons moved around Belphanior and
Razor Charlie, intent on reaching the wounded Hope...

Hope:  (her previous spell ruined by the splinter of bone that cut her,
  she backpedals, struggling to cast another spell before the skeletons
  get their bony hands on her)  Damn-
Bosco:  (swoops down, his boots' wings flapping furiously, and grabs her
  in the nick of time, whisking her out of harm's way)
Hope:  What?!?  (she looks around, realizing what just happened)  Whew!
  You have my thanks.
Bosco:  It was nothing - I'm always glad to help.
Hope:  (looking behind them)  Oh, no...there are dozens more coming up
  from below...hundreds!
Bosco:  And to think I was starting to worry.

  The halfling dropped the woman off at a safe distance (for the time
being) of about thirty feet behind the skeletons' front line, then flew
back over the slope upon which they were ascending from below.

Bosco:  (pulling a small item from one of his many pockets)  This is my
  last one...can't waste it.  (he hurls a small item down into the mob
  of advancing skeletons)

  His aim was perfect; the enchanted glass marble hit the stone floor of
the ramp and instantly multiplied.  One marble became two, which almost
immediately became four, and so on.  Within moments, a score of skeletons
was sliding back down the ramp in a tangled heap, impeding the progress
of all behind them.

Bosco:  (shaking a small fist in the air)  Yeah!  (he thinks for a moment)
  I guess I really have lost all my marbles now.

  Meanwhile, several floors above, the other four adventurers had heard
the commotion, right when it began...

Skektek:  Damn - something's happening down there!  (he uses his ring's
  powers to take to the air)  I'll get down there and-
Otto:  No!  Belphanior wanted us to stand guard here for a reason:  to
  defend our escape route.  If we run off into combat, we can't defend
Skektek:  But he may need our help!
Otto:  (suddenly raises his crossbow)  Down!

  The argument was instantly forgotten as Skektek, used to working with
Otto in combat situations, obeyed the command and ducked.  Otto fired
over Skektek's position, his first bolt spearing a floating skull right
through the forehead, the pale white bone cracking with the impact.  The
thing's mouth opened, but a second bolt hit shortly after the first, and
the skull split apart, its pieces falling out of sight.

Ys:  I'd just like to point out that yonder skull came from _above_...I
  saw it descend and was about to act, but Otto was faster.
Otto:  (holds up his crossbow as it reloads itself magically, and walks
  to the ledge overlooking the 80' wide central shaft, looking upward
  and then downward)  I don't see any more of those damn things floating
  around out here.
Jenna:  That's good, because something else is coming at us from above.
Ys:  (looking around)  Where?  I don't see anything?
Jenna:  (concentrating)  I can sense it.  About one level above and
  moving around the walkway toward the ramp down to this level.
Otto:  (to all)  Quickly - move that way!  We need to gain some ground
  so that if we're driven back, we don't get pushed past the gateway!
  (to Skektek)  Stay airborne, and behind us.  If we see large numbers
  of foes, blast them.
Skektek:  Right.
Otto:  Ys, you're the front line.  I'll be right there next to you, for
  cover fire.  Jenna, be ready with a spell, once we know what we're
  facing here.
Jenna:  Got it.
Ys:  (steps forward, his huge sword ready)  We should waste no time
  closing with the enemy.  (with that, he lumbers around the walkway
  toward the ramp leading upward, and the others rush to follow him)
Otto:  (cocks his arm back and rolls a light-pebble out into the darkness
  ahead, the thing's outer coating of dried clay breaking off as it rolls
  and bathing the curved area ahead in bright light)

  It wasn't long - about halfway around the level, with the ascending
ramp in sight - before they encountered their foe.  Or, in this case,
foes:  a horde of decaying humanoid forms, their advance toward the
adventurers slow but steady.

Skektek:  Zombies!  I can-
Ys:  (charges forth, his gigantic blade cleaving through the entire
  front rank of undead)
Skektek:  Dammit.
Jenna:  (begins a prayer to her mysterious goddess)

  The high priestess of Istus had other specialties besides the turning
of undead, and so her power to do so wasn't nearly as great as that of
the followers of certain other deities.  Nevertheless, she was able to
cause about ten of the rotting foes to crumble into stinking ooze.

Jenna:  Istus be praised!
Otto:  (firing bolt after bolt at any target of opportunity that gets
  by Ys)  Maybe we should praise Ys too.

  The big reptilian was singlehandedly demolishing the undead ranks, as
every sweep of his great sword, backed by his prodigious strength, tore
through the zombies like a knife through butter.  Already the remains of
dozens of the undead foes, mostly in pieces, were piling up before Ys,
actually blocking the mindless advance of their fellows in the ranks

Skektek:  Ys - step back!  Quickly!
Ys:  (does so, intent on avoiding whatever fiery or lightning attack the
  wizard is about to unleash)

  However, Skektek surprised everyone.  Rather than using any of the
numerous destructive magic at his disposal, he simply conjured into being
a thick iron barrier.  It appeared from nowhere, wedging itself into the
passage ahead of Ys and sealing it off from any further advance by the

Ys:  Eh?  (he listens at the wall)  I hear them on the other side, but
  just barely.
Otto:  Will that wall hold?
Skektek:  It'll hold.  They'd have to have a giant, or two, to break the
  wall down.  This way, we're spared further combat, our rear flank is
  secured, and we can still go the other way and help Belphanior and the
Jenna:  (nods)  Ingenious!  I didn't think you had it in you.
Skektek:  (slyly)  I don't just blast every foe with fireballs and bolts
  of lightning, you know.  There are other ways to win battles.
Otto:  Good work.  (he turns)  We need to go see what the other team's
  gotten themselves into.  Normally I wouldn't abandon this position,
  per Belphanior's instructions, but I have faith in your iron wall.
Skektek:  (nods)

  Meanwhile, several floors below, Belphanior's team had made good use
of the time bought by Bosco's barrage of marbles, regouping and defeating
the few skeletons already at the top of the ramp.  Now, however, all of
the marbles had bounced or rolled down to the lower level, and dozens of
skeletons ascended the ramp anew, ready to overwhelm their living foes.
These weren't miners, but rather warrior skeletons, armed with a variety
of weapons ranging from short swords to maces, axes to flails.  A few of
the things wore battered, rusty helmets or random pieces of armor.  This
had the appearance of a ramshackle force, but still, they did have the
advantage of numbers...

Razor Charlie:  (fending off multiple skeletons, he is assisted by the
  flying Bosco)
Bosco:  (soars down, dodging a pickaxe, and severs the skeletal hand
  that swing it)  That got him!
Razor Charlie:  Good.  We need to buy Belphanior a little more time.
Hope:  I can't use any of my big spells, like incendiary cloud or rock
  to mud, because it might fry us or collapse the ceiling on us!
Belphanior:  It's okay.  (having retreated for the moment, he finishes
  an incantation from the Book of Beasts, summoning forth a gigantic,
  two-headed troll)
giant two-headed troll:  (looks left and right)  Rrrrr?
Belphanior:  (points to the mob of skeletons)  Crush them all.
giant two-headed troll:  Rrrrr...(it charges forth, its huge fists held
  high, ready to destroy)  RRRAAAAARGH!
Razor Charlie:  (leaps to one side as the humanoid lopes past, barreling
  into the skeletons with tremendous force)

  The undead combatants were simply unable to deal with the sheer might
of the troll.  Their weapons, ill-suited for combat to begin with, were
all but ineffective against the big humanoid.  On the other hand, every
one of its blows smashed or at least incapacitated a skeletal foe.  By
the time that Razor Charlie and Belphanior had gotten close enough to
assist in the battle, the troll had cleared this floor and the ramp of
enemies, and now stood below at the bottom of the incline, demolishing
skeletons there with wild abandon.  Around this time, the other group

Otto:  Is everything okay?  We heard quite a commotion down here.  (he
  looks around, noting the huge troll smashing through the horde of
  skeletons, and shrugs)
Belphanior:  All is well for the time being.  (he frowns)  But aren't
  you supposed to be guarding the gateway entrance?
Otto:  We did - fought some zombies, too.  For now, that area's protected
  by a wall of iron, thanks to Skektek.
Belphanior:  Oh.  (he looks around)  Zombies above, skeletons below, and
  we've explored just a couple of the dozen or more levels here.
Otto:  Swell.
Bosco:  And some of the skeletons explode, so watch out for that.
Otto:  From a tactical point of view, we really need to forge on and
  clear this place out.
Skektek:  Sounds good to me.
Otto:  If we go home and come back later, the forces here will have time
  to regroup and put together some defenses.
Belphanior:  Agreed.  We should have brought some golems, though I didn't
  want them around if we didn't need them, to avoid complications.
Bosco:  (thinking about offering the use of his magical chess set and
  the reinforcements it can summon)  Um-
Belphanior:  Not now, Bosco.  (to the others)  Make sure none of the foes
  slip through, past the troll.  I need to concentrate here.

  The elf wasted no time, using his magical book to summon additional
help:  ten kobolds, clad in metal armor and bearing small axes or swords.

kobolds:  (looking around menacingly as they await orders)
Ys:  They're small...but they're fierce.
Belphanior:  (to the kobolds)  Stand fast - we'll march to battle soon.
Hope:  Not bad.
Belphanior:  Sometimes I forget that you're new to the team.  I'm not
  done yet.

  He proceeded to use every single monster-summoning spell that the book
was capable of casting; in short order, the ranks of the monsters were
bolstered by three giant killer frogs, a huge crocodile, two hell hounds,
a minotaur, three humanoid salamanders, and a pair of hill giants.

Hope:  (completely taken aback)
Belphanior:  (leans against a wall, exhausted)
Otto:  You okay?
Belphanior:  Just...give me a moment.  I've never used that much of the
  book's power at one time.
Skektek:  Well, let me just say it was worth it.  This is quite a force
  to help us in the battle.
Bosco:  (glances at the minotaur)  You know, he reminds me of someone...
wispy thing:  (hovering above the giant crocodile's head)  pfsss.
giant crocodile:  (rolls one eye upward, lazily, glancing at the wisp)
wispy thing:  (loses interest and flies away)

  Due to the powers of the Book of Beasts, Belphanior was automatically
able to communicate with all of the creatures he'd just summoned, and he
arranged them in a rough marching order...


          salamander  salamander  salamander
            hell hound          hell hound
          frog           frog           frog
            hill giant          hill giant
                     10x kobolds


Belphanior:  (rubbing his chin)  Hmm, something's missing here...(he
  turns to the giant crocodile)  You.  Go first and stay in front of
  our party.
giant crocodile:  (lumbers toward the descending slope, its tail moving
  back and forth, almost knocking some of the other creatures aside)
Otto:  We almost have too many monstrous allies here.
Belphanior:  I'm sure that won't last long.
Razor Charlie:  Is it a good idea to have the kobolds at our backs?
Belphanior:  Better them than the crocodile.  (he addresses everyone)
  Okay, we'll work our way down.  The monsters will lead the way, while
  Skektek and I will stay airborne in the center of the shaft and provide
  scouting and support that way.  We need to hurry - the monsters won't
  be here forever.
Otto:  What about the two-headed troll that ran down there already?
Belphanior:  It's safe to say that he'll clear a path through the foes
  as long as he can...until they overwhelm him, anyway.  We'll deal with
  it as we go.

  With that, the group headed down the ramp to the level below.  The
shattered remains of dozens of skeletons were strewn about everywhere;
some of the pieces were still moving, but lacked the ability to do any
real harm.  The group proceeded counter-clockwise around this level of
the gargantuan cylindrical chamber; after a complete circumnavigation
of the floor, they found the next ramp leading down, directly below the
last such one they'd taken.  The giant two-headed troll had demolished
more skeletons (and apparently some zombies as well) on this floor.  In
fact, it wasn't done yet:  somewhere below, perhaps a level or two under
their present location, the din of battle could still be heard.
  As the bulk of the party descended in this manner, a level at a time,
Belphanior and Skektek remained in the hollow central shaft, using their
flying magic to descend in their own manner.

Skektek:  Do we have to limit our pace because of the others?  We could
  fly right down there and help the troll, maybe clear out some of the
  enemies that lie ahead.
Belphanior:  That's fine.  I'll do that, and you stay back a bit and
  cover me in case something happens.

     vertical cross-section of large cylindrical chamber:


     |          |
     |_        _|     <--- level above (with zombies)
     |_        _|     <--- ENTRY LEVEL (with Skektek's wall of iron)
     |_        _|     <--- first level down
     |_        _|     <--- second level down (party's current location)
     |_        _|
     |_        _|     <--- fourth level down (troll's current location)
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
     |_        _|

  Two levels below the main party's current location, Belphanior found
the giant two-headed troll.  A number of cuts now adorned its powerful
body, oozing dark green blood, but the beast was still fighting at near-
maximum strength.

giant two-headed troll:  RAAARGH!  (it swats a skeleton, smashing the
  thing to pieces)
other skeleton:  (swings a sword, slashing the troll)
giant two-headed troll:  GRRAAAARGH!  (it grabs the undead foe, snapping
  its bony body in half like a twig, and hurling the pieces aside)

  Normally, Belphanior wouldn't have interfered since the humanoid was
doing a great job of plowing through the undead ranks.  However, a trio
of new enemies were fast approaching; these skeletons must have formerly
been small giants of some sort (which meant they towered over the troll).
Worse, they were fully-armored and bore large swords or axes.  Behind the
three larger skeletons were a score of smaller ones, also better-armed
and armored.

Belphanior:  A higher quality of skeleton, eh?  (without further delay,
  he fires a lightning bolt, carefully aimed to first hit the larger
  foes and then continue past them into the smaller ones and downward
  to the level below)

  The tactic worked perfectly; the giant skeletons were blasted to bits,
as were the human-sized ones behind them, as were whatever other foes
marched further back.  In fact, the lightning bounced off of the curved
wall as it descended, lighting up the darkness.

Skektek:  Hey!  That's my trick!
Belphanior:  (smirks)
giant two-headed troll:  (looking around, confused, it then proceeds
  onward and downward, kicking aside the smoldering remains of various
  skeletons)  GRRRR...
Belphanior:  (spots something and frowns, addressing Skektek)  We've
  got trouble, flying up from below.
Skektek:  I see them.

  About twenty feet below their current altitude, a pair of oversized,
disembodied ghostly heads floated upward toward the two intruders at a
rapid rate of speed.  Each looked like a human corpse's head, but was
about a foot high; a piece of broken spine protruded from the bottom of
each head.  The creatures, whatever they were, shone translucently in
the light from below.

Belphanior:  Well, this is new.
Skektek:  (fires a volley of magical missiles at the two things)

  The missiles passed right through the floating, severed heads as if
they weren't even there!

Skektek:  Crap.
Belphanior:  Let's see if a physical attack works.  (waving one of his
  wands, he launches acidic spheres at the two creatures)

  The globs of acid had no more effect that Skektek's magic missiles,
sailing right through the floating ghost-heads and falling down into the
shaft and out of sight, presumably landing on someone or something far

floating head #1:  (facing Skektek, it opens its mouth, emitting a low
  moaning sound)  URRRR...
Skektek:  (loses his concentration and grabs his head, putting his hands
  over his ears to try and block the wailing)  Aieee!
Belphanior:  (quickly flies backward and to the side)
floating head #2:  (also begins moaning)  URRRR...

  Perhaps because he'd had more time to react after seeing this method
of attack, Belphanior didn't find himself afflicted by whatever symptoms
Skektek was experiencing.  While he was pondering his next course of
action, Jenna appeared at the stone railing of the level the main party
was on, brandishing her holy symbol of Istus and chanting.

floating head #1:  (having almost reached Skektek, it stop, then turns
  and descends into the depths of the central shaft)
floating head #2:  (likewise)
Skektek:  (regains his composure, looking around)  What the hell...?
Jenna:  I thought it best that I turn that undead, whatever it was,
  before it took a bite out of you.
Skektek:  (shakes his head, trying to forget the weird keening sound)
  It was like having a headache, dizziness, and nausea all at once.
Jenna:  The rest of us heard the moaning sound, but not like
  must have been a directed attack, as the floating head faced you.
Belphanior:  Good work.  What were those things?
Jenna:  I have no idea.
Skektek:  (to Belphanior)  Maybe it's best if I just send a fireball
  down to the bottom of the shaft...just to be sure.
Belphanior:  Maybe...let me think about it.  I'd hate for any passages
  and treasure down there to get destroyed.  (he ponders to himself
  about the usefulness of a fireball that incinerates all living things
  but doesn't damage unliving matter such as walls or magic items)
Skektek:  Well, let me know.

  Jenna rejoined the main party, and they continued to descend, with
Belphanior and Skektek keeping pace while flying in the center of the
gigantic cylindrical chamber.  Within two more floors, the group on
foot caught up with the giant two-headed troll, and then the fun truly
started.  Of course, some would have called it chaos.  A steady wave of
undead foes attacked, and it was apparent by now that they were coming
out of the small niches (about twenty per floor) that ringed the outer
edge of each level.  Some of the undead now in the fight were stronger
sorts, too:  ghouls, ghasts, and wights now augmented the larger numbers
of skeletons and zombies.  Unfortunately for them all, they were simply
outmatched here.  The troll and the crocodile provided brute force,
which was complemented by the fire-based attacks of the salamanders and
the hell hounds.  The few foes that got past these ranks were quickly
and harshly dealt with by the minotaur and the hill giants.  Most of
the adventurers helped out as well, using missile fire and spells to
pick off any targets of opportunity.  Belphanior and Skektek kept pace
in the central shaft, aerially launching magical attacks as necessary
and weakening the undead defenders.  Their efforts definitely helped
the giant troll on the front lines, sparing it from a number of attacks
and giving it that much more time to regenerate wounds.
  It was a brutal, bloody that continued for six entire
floors, until the party had finally reached the bottom of the chamber.

     vertical cross-section of large cylindrical chamber:


     |          |
     |_        _|     <--- level above (with zombies)
     |_        _|     <--- ENTRY LEVEL (with Skektek's wall of iron)
     |_        _|     <--- first level down
     |_        _|     <--- second level down (party's current location)
     |_        _|
     |_        _|     <--- fourth level down (troll's current location)
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
     |_        _|
  ___|_        _|
  _____        _|     <--- tenth level down (bottom)
       |______|     <--- platform at bottom of shaft

  There was no ramp on this level leading downward; rather, a passage
led away to the west.  No undead defended this area; it appeared that
all of those from the chambers above had come out to fight, and been
vanquished.  In addition to the passage leading westward, the central
shaft continued downward for another ten feet, ending in a circular
platform of reddish-orange stone.  This disc was 80' across and fit
the upper area of the shaft precisely; it was also apparent that the
stone itself glowed, explaining the light they'd first seen upon their
arrival a hundred feet above.

Belphanior:  (scrutinizing the platform with his eye)  Hmm.  If I had
  to guess, I'd say that's a magical platform that can be made to rise
  and sink.  It could quickly and easily move the undead from their
  hidey-holes on each of these levels up to the top.
Otto:  ...where they could go through the gateway and wherever they were
Belphanior:  That's what this place is, essentially:  a barracks, where
  Xusia's undead troops could be stationed, awaiting whatever campaign
  he had planned.
Razor Charlie:  (kicks the remains of a skeleton that toppled over the
  ledge during the battle)  No more troops, now.
Bosco:  (notes a couple of pits on the wall)  Hey, I bet this is where
Otto:  (notes the two floating, severed heads from before, at the bottom
  of the shaft)  Jenna, are those things still trying to run away from
Jenna:  Yes, and they will be until Istus' power fades.  (she holds her
  head up proudly)  At which point I'll simply repel them again.

  They took stock of their casualties; despite the successful descent
through the chamber's many levels, the party had lost one salamander and
one of the giant frogs.  The troll had been badly wounded, but just in
the time spent standing there, its wounds had healed to a large extent.
The big crocodile had a few minor scrapes in its thick green hide, but
nothing serious.  Belphanior moved the minotaur up to the second row,
tightened the other ranks, and then the revised marching order was ready
to explore the bottom level...


      giant two-headed troll     giant crocodile
         salamander    minotaur    salamander
            hell hound          hell hound
              frog                  frog
            hill giant          hill giant
                    8x Adventurers
                     10x kobolds


  The passage leading west was ten feet wide and ten feet high, its
dark stone smooth and decorated with rotting tapestries depicting many
different sorts of undead creatures.  It extended for about fifty feet
before ending in a massive black metal door.

                         ____________/   (bottom of
                        #____________    cylindrical
                                     \   chamber)

Belphanior:  (eyeing the portal)  I can sense the magic from here...and
  the traps.
Jenna:  Those glyphs and sigils contain various warding magic.  We must
  proceed with caution.

  Many minutes (and two Dispel Magic spells, two Erase spells, one
carefully-disarmed trap, and one picked lock) later, the party pulled
the huge door open.  Beyond was a spacious hall, lit by torches placed
in sconces along the walls.  The chamber was about a hundred feet wide
and a little more in length, with a ceiling perhaps fifty feet high.
At its far end was a raised dais, atop which rested a throne of black

     |                    |                   |_ = 10'
     |                    |__
     |_                      |
     | \                     |____________/   (bottom of
     |O )                    #____________    cylindrical
     |_/                     |            \   chamber)
     |                     __|
     |                    |

  On this throne sat a figure cloaked in shadows, with a black crown
atop its head and a staff of bone held in one hand.  It appeared to be
some sort of wraith-like being; red eyes glowed from within the recesses
of its hood.  The creature beckoned them to come closer.

wraith-thing:  You may approach.  (it stands suddenly)  Drusilla?  What
  are _you_ doing here?
Hope:  (thinking quickly)  I've been sent to...consolidate all of the
  remaining forces.
wraith-thing:  Sent by whom?  And why is your approach preceded by a
  menagerie of beasts and rabble, who do battle with my forces?

  Belphanior could wait no longer; any deception and element of surprise
was going to be lost momentarily, and he'd always felt that the best
defense was a good offense.

Belphanior:  (nods to Skektek)  Now.
Skektek:  (launches a great bolt of lightning across the hall)

  The mighty electrical attack arced toward the throne and the one who
sat there...and was suddenly turned away, breaking up into smaller bolts
that dissipated harmlessly into the stone floor or the air itself.

Skektek:  He's got some kind of barrier!
Belphanior:  I can see that.  (he retrieves something from a pocket)

  The wraith-thing pointed its staff of bone and chanted something, and
a massive globe of ice jetted forth, landing right in the middle of the
party with a huge explosion of snow and frost.  A moment later, the wall
to the right of the throne slide aside, and a giant skeletal snake made
its way toward the adventurers.  The thing was at least fifty feet long
and just looked bizarre, like a long string of bones, as it clattered
along the floor.  Its huge, tooth-filled jaws snapped in anticipation
of battle, though many of the invaders had fallen after the icy attack
from the wraith-thing...

giant two-headed troll:  RRRR?  (it stands shakily, amidst the frozen
  remains of salamanders, hell hounds, frogs, and kobolds)
minotaur:  (likewise)
giant crocodile:  (just sits there, unmoving and possibly dead because
  of the extreme blast of cold)
hill giant #1:  (looking around)  What happened?
hill giant #2:  (brushes snow off of its shoulder)  Everyone's gone.

  With surprising speed, the huge skeletal snake moved forward and then
pounced upon the minotaur, crushing the humanoid in its fanged jaws.

minotaur:  Argh!  (it flails weakly, then perishes, nearly bitten in
giant two-headed troll:  GRAAARGH!  (it charges forward, grabbing the
  snake's bony body)
giant skeletal snake:  (thrashes about, knocking the still-dazed troll
hill giant #1:  (smashes its club into the snake's body, just behind
  the head, snapping some bones loose)
hill giant #2:  (hits the snake's skull with its sword, a glancing blow
  that has little impact)

  Behind this battle, a mass of white snow quivered...and then collapsed
to reveal eight adventurers!

Bosco:  Thanks for shielding us from that cold attack.
Belphanior:  (holding his cube of force in one hand)  Good thing I was
  overly cautious.  Now let's get into this fight!
Ys:  (lumbers forth, his sword swinging, and lands a mighty blow to the
  giant skeletal snake's neck)
Otto:  (crossbow ready, he ponders his next move)  Huh?

  Three floating skulls were moving around the snake, headed toward the
party.  This was actually better for Otto and Charlie, as their attacks
would have had very little effect on the giant skeletal snake.

Otto:  Flying skulls are another matter.  (he aims and fires, sending
  a bolt into the nearest skull)
Razor Charlie:  (throws one knife, and then another, hitting the same
  skull with both blades)
floating skull #1:  (shatters, its bony shards falling to the floor)
floating skull #2:  (floats onward)
floating skull #3:  (likewise)
wispy thing:  (sails forth, gnashing immaterial teeth as it confronts
  the soaring skulls)  pffft!
floating skull #2:  (pauses for a moment, unsure what to think of the
floating skull #3:  (likewise)
Jenna:  (approaches the things, chanting and brandishing her holy symbol
  of Istus)
floating skull #2:  (crumbles into dust)
floating skull #3:  (likewise)
Bosco:  Hey!  That was good work!
Jenna:  Too bad I can't do that to the snake.

  Meanwhile, Hope had set her sights on more important targets...

Hope:  (correctly deducing that the wraith-thing's protective barrier is
  a globe of invulnerability, since the foe has remained stationary, she
  also knows that certain spells can penetrate such a barrier, and works
  such a spell now)  There.

  The stone floor beneath the wraith-thing changed into mud; the entire
dais - throne and all - was now gone, and the undead foe sunk down into
the mud.

  Near the snake...

Skektek:  (blasts the thing's head with a lightning bolt, causing it to
  explode)  And that's that.
giant two-headed troll:  (continues to pound mindlessly at the creature's
  body, smashing it to bits)
Ys:  Perhaps Belphanior can tell it to stop fighting.  (he looks around)
  Where _is_ Belphanior?

  The elf had flown over to the newly-created mud-pit, landed, walked
through the protective globe of invulnerability, and was now waiting for
the inevitable emergence of the wraith-thing from the mud.  And emerge
it did - only to be met with a flame strike from the elf's outstretched

wraith-thing:  Aieeee!  (partially aflame, it hovers in the air)

  Today had not been a good day for this minor undead lord, one of the
lesser lieutenants of Xusia.  After biding his time for years, waiting
for some sort of communication from anyone higher-ranked than himself,
the wraith had eventually given up on having more and better troops in
this complex.  Xusia's original plan had called for greater numbers and
more powerful undead to be stationed here - which would have elevated
the prestige of the wraith's position - but that had never come to pass.
The wraith had become frustrated and bitter in recent months, and now
this...the invasion of his command and the total destruction of his
entire undead force.  No, this wasn't the way he'd expected things to
turn out, and now he'd had enough.

wraith-thing:  (raises its staff of bone and faces Belphanior)  Enough
  of this meaninglessness.  There is more than one way to win a battle,
  elf.  (it holds the staff high above its head, chanting)
Belphanior:  (readying his hourglass, he races against the foe's as-yet-
  unknown attack)

  Two things happened at roughly the same time then.  First, a vague,
translucent bubble came into being around the wraithly creature.  Then,
just a split-second later, the thing brought its staff down upon its
robed knee, breaking it in two!  This action unleashed a tremendous
burst of magical energy, whose blazing fury...was completely contained
within the wall of force that now surrounded the undead foe.

Belphanior:  (watches as the wraith-thing is incinerated)  Who...?
Skektek:  (flies over)  That would be me.  I know a retributive strike
  when I see one, and it was obvious that's what the thing was about to
  do.  I figured I'd try to contain the blast...and I timed it perfectly.
Belphanior:  You sure did.  Good work.  (he looks around)  I think the
  fighting's done for today.

  Soon, everyone had recovered.  Belphanior congratulated the troll and
the giants on surviving a campaign with the party, as that was actually
a rare outcome.  They soon vanished, via the same magical means that had
brought them here in the first place.  A thorough search of the great
hall was made, revealing a large but empty chamber to the right of the
dais (from which the snake had emerged) and a small empty chamber to the
left of the dais.  This latter area contained shelves of rotted rags,
unholy water, and other similarly useless miscellany.

Belphanior:  Crap.
Skektek:  Seems that way.
Otto:  Look at the bright side:  if this _was_ a barracks and staging
  area for Xusia's troops, then us finding no treasure isn't exactly a
Bosco:  (somewhat confused)  I'd say that not finding treasure is always
  a disappointment-
Otto:  The point is, the treasure's somewhere else...yet to be found.
Belphanior:  And we have three more new gateways to explore.  (he looks
  around wearily)  Okay.  We'll go back up, finish off the single floor
  full of zombies, search the area around the gateway arch one more time,
  and then go home and rest for a day or so.
Razor Charlie:  Good plan.

next:       another new (and far more dangerous) gateway
released:   3/25/2011
notes:      A lot has happened since I began writing this one in late
  December 2010.  The low points include my wife's father having a bad
  stroke and passing away, and an MRI on my back revealing a badly-
  degenerated disk (and thereby explaining the unprecedented back pain
  I've been experiencing since last October and which is now destined
  to be part of my life forever).  The "neither good nor bad" points
  include an ever-increasing workload at my job, while we now enter our
  fourth year without raises.  The reason this isn't all bad is that
  such a workplace climate provides many opportunities to shine.  The
  reason this isn't all good is that you can only squeeze a fixed amount
  of excellence out of any worker before they're just empty.


    The early portion of this episode was written during what the local
  media referred to as "the great Atlanta snow storm of 2011" or other,
  similar terms.  We don't get a lot of snow down here, and so the 4-6
  inches that Atlanta got on Sunday 1/9 and Monday 1/10, and subsequent
  sleet and re-freezing, shut down the majority of our government and
  business operations for three days.  I know this is nothing compared
  to winter weather in the northern U.S. and some other countries, but
  for Georgia, it was a big deal.  It was also a lot of fun to just see
  and enjoy.

    It occurred to me, while writing this story, that for 900+ episodes
  now, I've utterly de-emphasized the use of material components while
  spells were cast.  Sorry about that; it falls into the same category
  as "everyone apparently speaks common" and "we never see anyone using
  the bathroom."  Some things do actually happen, but can just remain in
  the background.

    See the above (new) gateway file for a list that reflects the new
  ones, and new data learned about existing ones.

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