Chapter #986

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

+     Many of the locations, non-player characters, spells, and other     +
+   terms used in these stories are the property of Wizards of the Coast  +
+   which has in no way endorsed or authorized their use.  Any such       +
+   property contained within these stories are not representative of     +
+   Wizards of the Coast in any fashion.                                  +
+     The player characters depicted in these stories are copyright       +
+   1991-2012 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          10th level female human priestess of Istus             +
+   Neera          11th level female human sage/astrologer                +
+   Otto           12th/13th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  11th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+   wispy thing    strange, intangible sentient being                     +
+   Date:          4/17/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          late afternoon                                         +
+   Place:         the sky castle, in the clouds above Oerth's surface    +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "I used to hear about you all the time.  But they never could catch   +
+       you, no matter what you did."                                     +
+   "Sooner or later, they catch everybody."                              +
+                                             - from _Escape From L.A._   +

                   CMLXXXVI.  The Price of Success

  Following a massive dungeon odyssey and the division of impressive
amounts of magical treasure, the group is mostly in a rest-and-relax
mode, while Mongo and Bosco had been returned to the city of Greyhawk
several days ago.  Only Belphanior and Neera have been keeping busy, as
there remain some powerful items to study and learn about...

Belphanior:  The main issue is figuring out which to keep to ourselves
  and which to share with others who may be able to help.
Neera:  And which to leave alone.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Fear not.  I don't intend to consult the Book of
  the Dead anytime soon - it's just too dangerous.  Same for the Hand
  of Oblivion; the power to obliterate a target isn't very useful when
  the cost of doing so is the wielder's own life.
Neera:  I agree, and I'm glad you realize this.
Belphanior:  The difference between those and the Box of Blights is
  that I'll keep the first two...but the box needs to be stashed away
  in a secure place, so I'll give it to Parekh.  That'll also keep her
  from feeling left out.
Neera:  You don't trust her, do you?
Belphanior:  (still unwilling to divulge his re-acquired memory of the
  events in the Hold of the Sea Princes, he improvises)  I just don't
  want to be competing with her for ownership of my own items, under
  the auspices of her needing to study them.  Speaking of which, that's
  likely what she'd want to happen with the Eye of Celestian.
Neera:  Not her - Pallin.  That thing will interest him more than any
  other you could have possibly found.
Belphanior:  Yes, which is why we need to try and solve its mysteries
  ourselves and only turn to Pallin as a last resort.
Neera:  But he could save us so much time and-
Belphanior:  I'd rather work twice as hard and reap all the rewards for
  myself.  Let's just see what happens.  The Loom of Ages is a similar
  case, yet different, because if we can't unravel its mysteries-
Neera:  No pun intended?
Belphanior:  Heh.  If we can't discern its properties, I plan to seek
  the assistance of Kronos.
Neera:  Oh.  Is that wise?
Belphanior:  I think so.  I trust him about as much as I trust Pallin and
  Parekh, and if nothing else, he _is_ an expert in anything having to do
  with time.
Neera:  What about Jenna?
Belphanior:  She follows the goddess of fate, and that's not the same
  thing, as best as I understand.
Neera:  That makes sense.
Belphanior:  Anyhow, one way or another, we'll get the loom figured out.
  Likewise, the spellbook with the true dweomer is something we want to
  tackle on our own, if we can.
Neera:  Do you believe you can command such magic?
Belphanior:  (nods)  Yes, I do.  If I can cast a wish spell, I can learn
  whatever's in that book.  Which reminds me...what sort of spell do you
  think it is?  I know you've got to at least have an inkling about this.
Neera:  It has something to do with the moon and the stars.  I think I'm
  really close to unraveling the truth of it, I just need a little more
Belphanior:  (wondering if perhaps the true dweomer spellbook should be
  physically separated from the material component, the gray rock, just
  as a precaution)
Neera:  We've got so many things to study, and there's just one of me.
Belphanior:  I know.  You're doing a great job, and I really appreciate
  it.  I think we all do.
Neera:  (smiles)  Thanks.
Belphanior:  So what's left?  The little piece of rock?
Neera:  Yes, and I have no idea what the hell it is.  At least with the
  jawbone, there's an aura of evil.  And I have a theory about that.
Belphanior:  I'm listening.
Neera:  I think it's a remnant from some old and very powerful being,
  perhaps a demon.  Studying such things comes at great risk, so I'll
  have to proceed with caution.
Belphanior:  And get Parekh to help.
Neera:  Eh?
Belphanior:  I don't mind letting her assist with things which have no
  direct, simple use for me, or which might be dangerous.  In those
  cases..the more, the merrier.
Neera:  I see.
Belphanior:  I'm sure we'll make some more progress in the next days and
  weeks.  Or you will, at any rate.  I have some other matters to worry
Neera:  Such as?
Belphanior:  One, I have to figure out whether to destroy the evil items,
  including that pool on the tenth level, and if so, how exactly.  We've
  previously discussed the possibility of Rob helping with this, since
  he's a high priest of Good and would know methods for ridding the world
  of such evil items.  (he frowns)  However, I also liked Bosco's more-
  or-less accidental idea about using the sphere of annihilation to rid
  ourselves of things we don't want or can't use.
Neera:  Or shouldn't use.  Like that black pool.

  As with many of the recent finds, the pool would require more time and
work to fully understand.  However, in simplest terms, it appeared to
possess the singular and gruesome property of transforming any living
being immersed in its dark waters into an undead creature.

Belphanior:  Right.  That pool, in particular, should just be destroyed.
  There's no justification for allowing such a thing to exist, given that
  all it does is turn living beings into undead ones.  Hmm...come to
  think of it, that's basically the opposite of what the Moonsword does,
  as we saw yet again in the dungeon.  (he frowns)  Damn that old man.
Neera:  Why are you mad at him?
Belphanior:  Well, what happened with him got me thinking...should I have
  used the sword and brought him back from the dead?  I mean, would he
  have been better off as a wight, if we'd have killed him and been done
  with it?  Did I have an obligation to protect him from harm - even if
  he was a cranky, uncooperative old bastard?
Neera:  I wouldn't say that-
Belphanior:  For that matter, do I have the right to bring anyone back
  to life?  Or summon monsters using the Book of Beasts, only to see
  them die in our adventures?  There's a certain irony in it all.
Neera:  How long has this been bothering you?
Belphanior:  A while, actually.  I'm not exactly obsessing over it, but
  it has been on my mind.  I really should worry about more directly
  relevant questions...for example, why Xusia kept these things hidden
  away, as opposed to carrying them around on his person.
Neera:  Easy.  The Book of the Dead was more of a reference anyway, so
  he didn't need to haul it around with him everywhere.  The true dweomer
  stuff and the Box of Blights are both the sort of thing that you don't
  use lightly, so those were probably being saved for some special time.
  I don't know about the bone fragment, or the little wedge of rock, but
  it's likely that the piece of bone has some evil use, which might well
  put it in the same category as the Box of Blights.  It's quite possible
  that Xusia didn't know what the chunk of rock did either.  As for the
  Loom and the Eye, those aren't exactly portable, and if he couldn't
  keep them with him at all times, it follows that the next-best option
  would have been to hide them away in a place controlled by him.
Belphanior:  (just stares at her, impressed)
Neera:  (shrugs)  It's easy, if you just apply logic.
Belphanior:  (trying for a moment to put himself in Xusia's shoes, with
  the accompanying lack of trust in his undead minions)  I bet few, if
  any, of his lieutenants knew about the vault and its contents.  Which
  reminds me of another potential problem:  that pair of vampires that
  escaped from us on the eighth level.  They could be a problem for us
  down the road.
Neera:  How so?  You drove them out of their home and got their treasure.
Belphanior:  Not all of their treasure...even given everything they left
  behind, you have to figure they also _took_ some things.  Probably the
  more powerful or useful magic items.  But what actually worries me more
  is the other part of what you said:  we drove them from their home.
  That's the sort of thing that people tend to remember...moreso if they
  happen to be powerful, evil spellcasting undead.  I know I'd be pissed
  if I was them.  (he sighs)  It's just a loose end.  And sometimes, for
  every great treasure we unearth, or every great victory we win, a new
  loose end seems to get created.
Neera:  When you put it that way, it _is_ fairly troubling.
Belphanior:  I know.  If only they'd fought us and been destroyed, the
  situation would be much less complicated.
Neera:  Hah.
Belphanior:  But first things first.  I'm going to shut down the entire
  network of gateways, for now, since we're done exploring them.
Neera:  Is there any particular reason to deactivate them?
Belphanior:  Is there any particular reason _not_ to?  It seems that we
  have total control - given that we have the talisman that enables the
  whole thing to work - but I would hate to learn the hard way that a
  second such talisman existed, out there, somewhere.  In any case, the
  real work is done for the moment.  We can always revisit them, should
  the need arise...or should I decide to repair the damaged ones.
Neera:  Can you?  And what could be gained from that?
Belphanior:  I think we could, but the broken ones aren't in places of
  real significance, so there's no pressing need.  As for the undamaged
  ones, they could be of great use if we wanted a quick and easy way to
  get from point A to point B - or point C or D or P or Q or whatever -
  without having to waste a spell every time, or if the people making
  the trip weren't wizards.
Neera:  Good point.
Belphanior:  So we'll see.  There are potential uses for the gateways,
  but if we're not actively involved in that, I want the whole network
  shut down, because quite simply there's no reason not to.
Neera:  Better safe than sorry, I suppose.  What other odds and ends do
  you intend to deal with in the coming days?
Belphanior:  I actually have quite a list...all sort of things.
Neera:  Do tell.
Belphanior:  Our friend Elgon is deceased, and although it might have
  appeared that his magic items were forgotten about...they weren't.  He
  owned an amulet that allowed him to change into various animal forms,
  as well as a strange ship in a bottle, which we found in the gateway
  chamber on the moon.  I want to know what that latter item does, at
  some point.
Neera:  I'll add that to my list of things to do.  (she sighs)  A list
  which seems to grow faster than things get crossed off of it.
Belphanior:  Well, never fear then, because there are other things that
  don't require your skills.  Obviously, the endeavor to create an item
  to protect me from mental attacks and such can be ceased, since that
  earring we found in the dungeons covers that particular need.  A side
  effect of me now wearing that earring is that I can't wear my older
  earring, the one that detects lies, at the same time.
Neera:  Why don't you just put it in the other earlobe?
Belphanior:  I thought of that, and I will, if its enchantment allows it
  to function while another ring is in the other ear.  Sometimes multiple
  rings interfere with each other, especially if there are too many.  I'll
  look into this.
Neera:  I took fresh inventory of the golems, and also had some time to
  study them recently, while the rest of you were away.  After the loss
  of the coal golem in the dungeon, there are now nineteen golems total.
  Ten are stone, of which six are completed and functional.  Three of the
  six iron golems are functional.  That leaves the diamond golem, the
  black metal golem, and this new one you've brought home.
Belphanior:  I call it the war golem.
Neera:  I'm not even sure if it technically qualifies as a golem.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  It's about as powerful as an iron golem, even if
  none of its weaponry works.  If I can get it repaired, it would be a
  major asset.
Neera:  You have two rather unique ones, at any rate.  The diamond golem
  is incredibly durable and resistant to damage, and rather than emit a
  cloud of gas or flame or such, it possesses the ability to radiate an
  intense flash of light, enough to blind foes, thrice per day.  That
  other one, fashioned from black's actually mithril.
Belphanior:  Ah.
Neera:  I haven't been able to deduce what, if any, additional abilities
  it might have, but if nothing else, it's larger, stronger, and tougher
  than the iron golems.
Belphanior:  (musing to himself)  If I can ever find that adamant golem
  again, my collection will be complete...oh well.  (he turns to leave)
Neera:  Eh?
Belphanior:  I have some errands to run...major errands.  (he kisses her
  goodbye)  I'll be back tonight.

  After some preparations, the elf and his "landing party" set out for
the day's missions...

Skektek:  Where are we going again?
Belphanior:  First, Greyhawk...then we'll visit Parekh...and finally, I
  want to have a talk with an old friend.
Skektek:  Greyhawk, eh?
Hope:  I can't even remember if I've been there before.
Belphanior:  You two are in charge of getting the various items and
  spell components that we all need; you have the list from Neera.  (to
  Otto)  You're going to be doing some fencing.
Otto:  No thanks, I prefer the shortsword.
Belphanior:  Very funny.
Hope:  Where else are we going?
Skektek:  And why?
Belphanior:  All will be clear by tonight.
wispy thing:  (apparently having decided to join Belphanior)  spaaa.

  An hour later, the group was in Greyhawk, where several things were
accomplished.  While the others stocked up on various supplies and also
liquidated certain lesser monetary treasures, Belphanior made significant
disbursements to Peldor.

Peldor:  (eyeing the huge pile of coins and gems on the table, in his
  private quarters within the Green Dragon Inn)  Damn.  Bosco wasn't
  exaggerating, for once.  You've been busy.
Belphanior:  (nods)  I'd like this invested in a similar fashion to the
  previous monies I've brought you.
Peldor:  I'll take care of it.  At the rate you're going, you'll be a
  primary landowner in the Greyhawk region.
Belphanior:  Hah.  Actually, I'm happy to offer you a cut of these monies
  for all your help, or some of the land.
Peldor:  (waves him off)  Thanks, but I've got plenty of money.
Belphanior:  Are you sure?
Peldo  It's really no problem.  (he frowns)  What else is new?
Belphanior:  (sighs)  In short, we found some items that could tip the
  balance of power in the world.
Peldor:  I said "new."
Belphanior:  (nods)  And I meant new.  Some of these we just obtained are
  really and truly powerful.  Like "gods might use them" powerful.  It's
  actually kind of scary...but significant victories are never achieved
  by the meek.
Peldor:  That's for sure.

  An hour after that, the group found themselves in Parekh's home, a
mysterious place whose exact location was unknown.

Parekh:  (takes the box that Belphanior just handed her)  Uh...thanks?
Belphanior:  Be careful with it.  As I just told you, Neera advises that
  the Box of Blights should never be opened.
Parekh:  I'll make sure it's kept safe.
Belphanior:  I have no doubt.
Parekh:  Did you find anything else of interest in your recent travels?
Belphanior:  A few things...we're working on them, and may consult you
  for help at some point.
Parekh:  (wondering what the elf might have found)  What sorts of things?
Belphanior:  (really enjoying this)  Oh, nothing of too much interest...
  a book concerning the undead, the cursed box I just loaned to you for
  safekeeping.  (he yawns)  A few other things.
Parekh:  Hmm.
Belphanior:  And this.  (he hands her the small, triangular rock from
  Xusia's vaults)
wispy thing:  (hovers near the stone as it's handed over)  pfsss...
Parekh:  (examines the thing, curious)  What is it?
Belphanior:  That's what I was hoping you could help us determine.  Thus
  far, Neera's drawn a complete blank, so I figured you might want a crack
  at it.
Parekh:  (nods)  I'll see what I can do.  (she realizes, more by what
  Belphanior hasn't said than by what he has, that her help with this
  effort will likely earn her the chance to examine other rare, wondrous
  treasures in the near future)
Belphanior:  And now, we must leave, for I have many things to do.  (he
  goes to fetch his three companions from the room next door)

  And an hour after _that_, the four adventurers found themselves in a
cold, remote mountaintop fortress speaking with an unusual undead being
of no small power...

Kronos:  Contacting me for transport here was not a problem - indeed,
  that is the reason I advised you how to do so when last we met.  Of
  course, I hope that you have a good reason for doing so.
Belphanior:  Oh, I think I do.
Hope:  (having never been here before, she gazes about in wonder)  This
  is amazing.  (she watches the pair of white dragons fly past the spire
  in which they currently stand)
Skektek:  (smugly)  Told you.
Hope:  And he invented the sky-ship?
Otto:  Yep...and the hourglass Belphanior carries.  He's a master of
  all things having to do with time.
wispy thing:  (floating near an ancient stone statue of a fully-armored
  skeletal warrior)  pffft.
statue:  (emits a very, very low groan, the barest whisper)  ...
wispy thing:  sprrd.  (it flies away)

  The three of them simply waited to the side while Belphanior discussed
business with Kronos.  Since Hope hadn't been with the group when they
were here several months ago, Otto and Skektek filled her in regarding
the backstory of Kronos and the battle with Al-arakara deep beneath the
Sea of Dust.

Belphanior:  (holding his folded-shut portable hole in his hands)  Before
  we discuss what I've got in here, we need to talk, openly and honestly,
  about something else.
Kronos:  (displaying the patience that comes from many centuries of
  existence)  Very well.
Belphanior:  I am aware that an archmagus, Parekh, has been in contact
  with you regarding her secret cabal of wizards.
Kronos:  She has.  And I declined their offer.
Belphanior:  Why would you do that?  They are powerful allies, and they
  command a wide array of magic and resources.
Kronos:  I have no need of their help, certainly not as part of any long-
  term arrangement.  (he regards the elf, his blood-red eyes boring out
  like twin embers from within that hooded, chalk-white face)  Why does
  this concern you?
Belphanior:  (chooses his next words carefully, and according to a well-
  thought-out plan)  I am...annoyed with them.  Insulted, even.  With my
  experience, my magic, and especially my collection of magic items and
  artifacts, I expected an open invitation.  Instead, I have been kept
  as a mere acquaintance, even a minion.  They identify things that they
  want done, and feed me enough information to pique my interest, which
  results in me going out and taking care of they don't have
  to do the tasks themselves.

  The elf wasn't lying, but he also wasn't being completely truthful in
his choice of words.  Although he was somewhat annoyed at his exclusion
from Parekh's group, the truth was that he placed no value on official
membership in the cabal of wizards, but acting as if he did masked his
true issue with that group:  the potential hoarding of secrets and the
deceptions they might commit against Belphanior, pursuant to their own
agendas.  Belphanior didn't think that his words to Kronos would ever be
repeated by the lich, but if they were, the elf wanted to control that
information - which he was doing by having this conversation.
  As an unexpected bonus, Belphanior had just learned something of Kronos'
attitude toward being part of a larger group on a long-term basis.

Kronos:  What you have said is understandable, at least for a mortal such
  as yourself.  Now...please explain to me what your feelings have to do
  with the as-yet-unrevealed treasure you now carry.
Belphanior:  (opens the portable hole)  I just didn't want this to fall
  into their hands by proxy...although if it's what I think it is, you
  won't want to discuss it with anyone.
Kronos:  (gazes upon the silvery loom with the fine golden thread)  Oh.

  The lich's features softened a bit, perhaps the first time Belphanior
had seen this in the short while they'd been acquainted.

Belphanior:  Do you know what this is?
Kronos:  It is the one powerful time-oriented item whose construction I
  wasn't personally involved with.  Although it has several names, it
  is most commonly known as the Loom of Ages.  (he regards the artifact)
Belphanior:  (nods)  Go ahead, you can examine it.
Kronos:  (takes the loom)  Incredible...this is absolutely incredible.
  (he turns to Belphanior)  How did you obtain this?
Belphanior:  It was buried deep within one of Xusia's hidden lairs.  Its
  recovery came only with great effort, and risk.
Kronos:  Recovering this item was well worth any danger, trust me.  (he
  holds the thing in his pale hands, reverently)  Do you have any idea
  what the Loom can do?
Belphanior:  No, but I knew you would, and I'm offering it to you, as
  part of a deal.
Kronos:  (regards the elf, his crimson eyes blazing)  What makes you
  think I won't just destroy you and take the thing anyway?
Belphanior:  (thinking about the Hand of Oblivion, which is also stashed
  within the portable hole, where hopefully it remains undetected by the
  lich, in his fervor over the Loom)  Well, for one thing, you have a
  strong sense of honor, based on our...collaboration before.  And for
  another thing, I've proven that I can be of value to you.
Kronos:  What is the difference between that and the manner in which
  Parekh's group treats you?
Belphanior:  The difference is that in this case, _I_ made the decisions
  and initiated the negotiations.
Kronos:  I see.  (he frowns)  My question was rhetorical, at any rate.
  You have indeed proven a useful and valuable ally, and doing battle
  with you would serve little purpose.  (he regards Belphanior's three
  companions, on the other side of the room, then turns back to the elf)
  What, exactly, is it that you want?
Belphanior:  You get the Loom, and you figure out how to use it, which
  I've got no doubt you can do more quickly and accurately than I could.
  In the future, I want occasional use of its powers, if they suit any
  goal of mine.  And I want your help identifying the mysteries of some
  other artifacts, to be determined later, but which I will retain for
Kronos:  Hm.
Belphanior:  And I also want all of this to remain unknown to Parekh and
  her crew.  Our dealings, you and I, are not for others to know or care
Kronos:  I see.
Belphanior:  I think that's all a relatively small price to pay for the
  acquisition of the most powerful artifact in existence that pertains
  to your area of interest.
Kronos:  If you don't know its powers, how can you be sure it is actually
  the most powerful such artifact?
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  If it was lesser, I'd have figured it out already.
Kronos:  A very bold move on your part...but, I must admit, also quite
 intriguing.  Very well, I accept this offer.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Excellent.

  They agreed to meet in the near future to discuss the Loom and other
things, and within an hour of striking this unusual (but potentially very
beneficial) deal, Belphanior and the others had returned to the castle
in the clouds.  It was well after nightfall, and although the skyship
would have been the classically stylish way to reach the island of rock
far above the world's surface, the wizards had long since realized that
teleportation was far faster and more efficient.  They appeared outside
the castle's main gate, marching past the four stone golems and entering
via the large double doors.  It wasn't until they reached the second
floor that they spotted signs of trouble.  A melted lump of silver,
vaguely resembling a holy symbol of Istus, rested on the floor outside
Jenna's room.  The wall here - both inside the room and in the hallway,
as well as in the stairway leading upward - bore several cracked, damaged
sections, as if a heavy weapon had smashed the stone.  In addition, a
large burn mark in the middle of Jenna's room suggested that something
powerful and intensely fiery had taken place there.

wispy thing:  (hovering in place in the hallway, agitated)  braaaaft.
Belphanior:  What...the FUCK?  (he concentrates briefly, touching the
  pommel of his dark sword, using it to check for life above)  Let's go.
  (he draws the sword, quickly but cautiously leading the way up the
  stone steps)

  In addition to more large, cracked dents in the walls and floor of the
stairway, they found numerous bloodstains, all of which were dark blue.
This evidence suggested that Ys had participated in a terrific battle

Otto:  (touches one of the odd bloodstains with a finger)  Not completely
  dry...whatever happened here didn't happen very long ago.

  The third floor bore further signs of recent battle:  for one thing, a
large portion of the ceiling was gone, apparently turned to mud and having
fallen down onto the floor.  Several of Razor Charlie's throwing knives
were scattered about, including one whose tip was actually imbedded in the
stone wall.  Here and there could be seen the telltale blast marks made by
flaming blasts; some of these scorched areas dotted the ceiling as well.

Otto:  (touches one of the soot-covered spots)  Still kinda warm...
Skektek:  (points at some icy residue elsewhere in the hall)  Five gets
  you ten that was a cone of cold.  And those marks over there look like
  magic missile blasts.  There was a hell of a fight here.
Otto:  (notes a large red bloodstain on one wall)  That doesn't belong
  to Ys.
Belphanior:  (looking around, he channels the fearsome powers of his
  black blade)  I detect a soul...(he looks around briefly) there!

  The elf was pointing with his sword to Razor Charlie's quarters.  As
they approached, they noted that the thick wooden door was splintered
into kindling - and the room beyond was a wreck.  One of the windows had
been completely demolished, frame and all, leaving a gaping hole in the
wall through which cool air blew.  All of the furniture in the room
appeared to have been tossed about; in fact, most of it lay in a mangled
heap on one end of the chamber.  A weak groan of pain came from within
that pile of debris.

Otto:  (dashes over to investigate)  Charlie?  Is that you?
voice:  Ungh...

  While Skektek stood watch, the others quickly worked to clear the
debris and uncover their friend.  Razor Charlie was badly bruised and
bloodied, with a black eye, a split lip, a nasty cut atop his head, a
broken arm, and more.

Otto:  By the gods...someone really fucked him up.
Belphanior:  But he's alive.
Hope:  (having wandered over to the huge hole in the keep's wall, she
  peers outside at the courtyard sixty feet below, spying a broken form
  lying in a small crater in the soft earth)  Well, I found Ys.
Belphanior:  Good work.  Get down there and check on him.  (he hands her
  a powerful healing potion)  Use this if necessary.
Hope:  Got it.  (she heads down in a hurry)
Belphanior:  (turns to Razor Charlie)

  The lean, scarred warrior wore an amulet that healed his wounds, but
even with its powers, he was in rough shape.  A potion of healing, given
quickly and directly, put him in a better state for talking.

Belphanior:  What the hell happened here?!?
Otto:  Easy there - he's half-dead.
Razor Charlie:  It's...okay.  (he shakes his head to try and clear out
  the cobwebs)  W- we got attacked.
Belphanior:  All the way up here in the sky?  Who or what could do that?

  Even as he asked that question aloud, Belphanior realized that he'd
made a terrible mistake.  In the three months since they'd settled into
the sky castle, the continual raising and lowering of the magical shield
had not only become tedious, but impractical.  Since only one item could
activate or deactivate the barrier, securing the castle as he departed
meant trapping anyone staying behind within, until he returned.  It had
seemed pointless to raise that shield every single time Belphanior needed
to run the smallest, quickest errand...and so, upon occasion, he'd just
left the barrier inactive for short periods of time.  And now, that had
cost them, perhaps dearly.

Belphanior:  All the way up here in the sky?  Who or what could do that?
Razor Charlie:  Vampires.  (he blinks)  Jenna...Ys...Neera!  (he spits
  up blood)  They're upstairs.  We've got to get...upstairs...
Belphanior:  Dammit!

  Throwing caution to the wind, the elf stood and sprinted out of the
room, down the hallway, and up the stairs to the floor above.  Skektek
followed, while Otto headed back downstairs to get outside and help Hope
deal with Ys.  The recovering Razor Charlie was left to recover further
on his own, for time was of the essence, and Belphanior's gut filled with
a terrible sense of dread.

Belphanior:  (dashes up the stairs to the fourth floor)
Skektek:  (struggling to keep up)

  At the top of the steps, they found Jenna...or more accurately, what
was left of her.  She'd been pinned to the stone wall outside Belphanior
and Neera's suite by a thick shard of wood through her stomach.  Her head
was missing and appeared to have been torn off, judging from the horrific
wound.  While blood splattered the walls, floor, and ceiling, there didn't
seem to be enough of it, suggesting that the vampires had fed on Jenna.

Belphanior:  (moves quickly through the shattered remains of the door to
  his quarters)  Neera!

  A quick search seemed to confirm the elf's worst fears:  there was no
sign of his companion.  Belphanior's sword confirmed that no other souls
occupied the keep.

Skektek:  (not sure what to say, he remains silent)
Belphanior:  (stalking about the room)  NEERA !!!
Razor Charlie:  (having slowly, painfully made his way up the steps, he
  leans on a wall, exhausted)  She's gone.  I heard them talking after
  they buried me...the vampires took Neera with them.

next:       terrible truths
released:   7/13/2012
notes:      One purpose of this episode was to recap the loose ends and
  questions (ethics of using the Moonsword, what to do with the really
  evil items, the escaped vampire couple from the dungeon, why Xusia
  stashed away so many powerful artifacts, etc.)  I know I've mentioned
  this before, but ever since the X-Men comics of the 1980s, I've never
  liked seeing loose ends accumulate, as a reader.  But now, as an author
  of a long-running and complicated body of work, I find that the loose
  ends are practically unavoidable.


    This story had another purpose, one which I was originally saving
  for a while yet but which I eventually decided to merge with the other
  purposes listed just above.  Ever since I came up with the idea for a
  great vault filled with mighty artifacts, I knew that using them - that
  just HAVING them - would bring consequences.  I figured out a way to
  wrap that concept neatly with some old enemies and some rather serious
  potential plotlines, and the overall idea has been cooking in my head
  for more than a year.
    Until now.  The pot is at a boil and the story arc is underway.  It
  will be one of the most serious ever, perhaps a game-changer.  We'll
  see.  I have to write carefully, so that I don't work myself into any
  holes; ideally, I'd write far ahead of what's actually been released,
  so that the final arc is tight and logical (I already know it will be
  entertaining.)  As I write this, 987 is partially complete too; it
  will tie in closely with this one, and I basically had to write them
  simultaneously.  You'll see why.
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