Chapter #662

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                                   +   +
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                           +                   +
                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +      Epic IV      +
                             +               +
                               +           +
                                 +       +
                                   +   +

+     Many of the locations, non-player characters, spells, and other     +
+   terms used in these stories are the property of TSR, Inc.  However,   +
+   TSR has in no way endorsed or authorized their use, and any such      +
+   items contained within these stories are not representative of TSR    +
+   in any fashion.                                                       +
+     The player characters depicted in these stories are copyright       +
+   1991-2000 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!                                          +
+                                                                         +
+                                                      Thomas A. Miller   +
+   Belphanior      14th/14th/14th level elven fighter/wizard/thief       +
+     Aja            9th level human priestess of Wee Jas                 +
+     Neko           7th level human female thief                         +
+     Skektek       12th level human wizard                               +
+     Zhao           8th level human swordsman                            +
+   Bosco           12th level halfling thief                             +
+   Mongo           18th level dwarven fighter                            +
+     Gorgo          9th level dwarven berserker                          +
+                                                                         +
+   Dave-O          local guide                                           +
+   Date:           2/28/579 C.Y. (Common Year)                           +
+   Time:           mid-morning                                           +
+   Place:          Mount Aeon, on the eastern edge of the Hellfurnaces   +
+   Climate:        cold                                                  +
+   "You only have one life.  If you value it, go home."                  +
+                                   - Connor MacLeod, from _Highlander_   +

                        DCLXII.  Gatekeeper

  After a battle with hill giants and a night's rest, the party is now
making its way up the fabled and dreaded Mount Aeon.

Gorgo:  Man, that guy wasn't kidding about the red smoke...

  Though they needed Dave-O to find the fastest path up the mountain in
the shortest length of time, the crimson mists that leaked from this
particular peak would have led them to it sooner or later.  It wasn't
an active volcano, apparently, but rather a dormant one that constantly
vented steam.

Belphanior:  Red steam.  Wonder if it's natural.
Mongo:  Maybe, maybe not.  Such things coming about naturally aren't
  unheard of.
Aja:  (shudders)  I remember the last time we encountered red mists...
Zhao:  Eh?
Skektek:  Before your time, kid.
Neko:  (looking around)  We're pretty high up...making good time.

  It was true; they were making excellent time.  Of course, some of the
adventurers were flying so that others didn't have to double up on the

Bosco:  (airborne, his little boot-wings flapping)  I'm going to go and
  scout ahead again.
Belphanior:  (also hovering above the ground, thanks to a spell)  I'll
  join you - let's go.
Dave-O:  (to Neko)  Why do they have to scout ahead when they've got me
  to show the way?
Neko:  Gee, I wonder.
Dave-O:  Say, what're you doing after this adventure business is all
  wrapped up-
Neko:  No.
Dave-O:  Huh?
Gorgo:  (helpfully interposes himself between the two)  Did I ever tell
  you about the time I invaded an orcish feast...
Dave-O:  What?  Why the hell would anyone want to do that?!?
Gorgo:  (begins relating the mentioned tale, in his own unique way)
Neko:  (shoots Gorgo a grateful glance, then rides ahead, to go talk to
  someone else...anyone else besides Dave-O)

  They continued up the mountain, the time seeming to fly by.  The trail
wasn't easy - it was uphill, always uphill, and there were rocks and
rubble everywhere.  A cold wind nipped at them, and the air seemed to
be thinner than it should have been.  Above, the sky was vaguely crimson
as it filtered through the mist from the peak above.
  Onward the adventurers went, the hours of the day passing as they
ascended.  They stopped only once, for a midday meal, and by midafternoon
they were able to look down on the barren slopes beneath their current
position.  Unlike most mountains, the Hellfurnaces were largely devoid
of trees; only scrub brush and weeds poked through the rock and dirt.

Mongo:  It seems awful funny that there's such a good, well-used trail
Belphanior:  Probably made by all the people who've come to see the Oracle
  over the years.
Dave-O:  Well, then, why do so many of them never come back?
Aja:  They were probably eaten by monsters.
Dave-O:  (pales)

  Just then, something roared loudly, from the trail ahead and above.
The noise was as primal as it was loud, and the listeners couldn't help
but feel a tremor of fear.

Dave-O:  (swoons)
Aja:  Oh, my.
Gorgo:  (looking around nervously)  What in the bloody hell was that?!?
Skektek:  Whatever it is, it sounds big and pissed-off.
Bosco:  (draws his sword)  I guess it falls to those of us with wings
  to fly ahead and have a look.
Neko:  You don't really have wings.
Bosco:  (shrugs)  Might as well.
Neko:  Whatever.
Belphanior:  Here's the plan.  Bosco and I will scout ahead.  The rest
  of you, proceed as normal.  I'd suggest that Mongo have his hammer
  ready and Skektek have a spell ready.
Bosco:  Something that won't blast an area, in case you come around a
  bend in the road and find me and Belphanior fighting some beastie.
Skektek:  Check.
Mongo:  Now wait just one damn-  You can't tell me to stay back and let
  others start the battle!
Belphanior:  Scouts, my friend.  Scouts.  Remember the usefulness of
  Peldor, way back in the beginning?
Mongo:  (grumbling, because he knows that Belphanior is right)
Belphanior:  Rest assured, we won't get that far ahead.  If something
  wants to fight us, you'll have your chance to join the fray.
Mongo:  Damn right!
Zhao:  (wondering how his blades and acrobatics will fare against non-
  humanoid foes, if that's what lies ahead)

  Having made his plan, Belphanior flew ahead, Bosco at his heels.  The
others rode on, ready for anything...or so they thought.  However, no
sounds of battle came from the trail ahead, nor were there any signs
of trouble, shouts of alarm, or the like.  In fact, the encounter was
almost anticlimactic when it finally happened...

Mongo:  (leading the others around a bend in the path)  What the hell?

  Belphanior and Bosco were busy chatting with a strange-looking beast.
The thing was a sphinx, no doubt about it...but it was unlike any other
sphinx that any of them had ever seen or heard of.  Greater than ten
feet in length, the creature had the body of a lion, the wings of an
eagle, and the head of a human, but with a helmet-like flare on either
side.  It was impossible to tell whether the "helmet" was actually part
of the sphinx's head or an actual external piece of armor.

Belphanior:  (turns to look at the others, waving one hand)  Come on
  over.  It's safe.
Bosco:  For now.


sphinx:  It is required that every living being who walks this path
  receive the warning.
Belphanior:  Required by who?  The Oracle?
sphinx:  Required by the one whom you undoubtedly seek, if you come
Belphanior:  You speak in riddles...
sphinx:  (yawns)  Of course.  I am a sphinx.
Mongo:  So why the warning?
sphinx:  The gods of death prefer their new arrivals to make the
  choice willingly.
Aja:  (seemingly fascinated)  Indeed.
Belphanior:  You're saying that we've been warned, and we may soon
sphinx:  Probably so.  Not all who walk this path die, though most
Gorgo:  Not us!
sphinx:  (cocks its head, its face remaining an expressionless mask)
  As you wish.  The way is clear, and open.
Belphanior:  And that's it?
sphinx:  Not hardly.  You must face and overcome three challenges to
  reach the summit of Mount Aeon.  Each trial will be more difficult
  than the last.  Should you triumph all three times, you will have
  your rewards.
Bosco:  (his eyes light up)  Rewards, eh?  And if we don't triumph?
sphinx:  Then the lords of death shall have some new subjects.
Bosco:  Uh...right.
Dave-O:  (meekly)  Can I go home now?
Belphanior:  No.  You've been paid, and you're seeing this through
  with the rest of us.
Dave-O:  (sways on his feet)
Gorgo:  (irritated)  Dammit...grow a spine, man!
Dave-O:  (not hearing the dwarf's words)
Neko:  (to Zhao)  It figures.
Zhao:  (shrugs)  Not every man can be a hero.
sphinx:  The path beckons.
Belphanior:  And what of you?
sphinx:  I shall maintain my always.
Skektek:  (wondering why this particular sphinx has no riddle for them)
Gorgo:  (wondering what glorious monsters lurk ahead, lying in wait for
  his spiked mace)
Belphanior:  (considers attacking and killing the thing, but can't
  find any real reason to)  ...very well.  (to his companions)  Let's
  get moving.
Bosco:  (to the sphinx)  See ya around.
sphinx:  (simply sits there, impassive)

  They rode on, soon leaving the enigmatic sphinx behind.  Hours passed,
and dusk found them still unmolested and in need of making camp.

Belphanior:  Best to stop here, or nearby...make camp, eat, rest, and
  face the first challenge tomorrow when we're fresh.
Gorgo:  (to Mongo)  I want to fight _now_.
Mongo:  I know, but have patience.  The battle will come soon enough, I
Gorgo:  Bah.
Bosco:  (he does a cursory search of the vicinity, to make sure that some
  foul beast's lair isn't anywhere close)
Neko:  (she and Zhao work to set up a basic defensive perimeter, a short
  way to the side of the trail, while Skektek and Aja gather firewood)
Skektek:  (to Aja)  I wonder how the others are doing, back in Helgate.
Aja:  (shrugs)  I am far more interested in these "gods of death" that
  the sphinx mentioned.  I wonder...
Skektek:  (disdainfully)  Oh.
Aja:  What?
Skektek:  You don't miss Jutokai?
Aja:  Not particularly.  Why, should I?
Skektek:  Whoa.  (he puts his hands up)  None of my business.
Aja:  Keep it that way.


Belphanior:  (to Mongo, who he has taken aside)  We're getting close now.
  Can you feel it?
Mongo: too, huh?
Belphanior:  Danger...power...the unknown.  Hell, it's like the old days.
Mongo:  Sometimes I miss the old days...but then I get to thinking...(he
  shakes his head)
Belphanior:  That not everyone lives as long as us?
Mongo:  Right.  Peldor...Rillen...Arnold...those guys have to settle down
  and have kids and stuff, while we're still in our wandering days.
Belphanior:  (ponders this)
Mongo:  Well, you're practically settled down, yourself.
Belphanior:  Don't bet on it.
Mongo:  Huh?
Belphanior:  I've had this feeling now, for a while...that change is in
  the air.  And I don't think it's going to be good.
Mongo:  A battle?  Death?
Belphanior:  I'm really not sure.  I might ask this Oracle...if we make
  it, and if there is an Oracle up there.
Mongo:  There'd better be.
Belphanior:  True.  (he gazes into the night sky)  True.

next:      the first challenge
released:  8/3/00
notes:     The sphinx in this episode was a hybrid of my own creation, and
  doesn't appear in any monster manual or similar book.

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