Chapter #984

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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       +
+   1991-2012 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        +
+   Bosco          12th level halfling thief                              +
+   Hope           16th level female human wizard                         +
+   Jenna          9th level female human priestess of Istus              +
+   Mongo          19th level dwarven fighter                             +
+   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                     +
+                                                                         +
+   REINFORCEMENTS:                                                       +
+     iron golems (2, one is currently on level above)                    +
+     stone golem                                                         +
+     coal golem                                                          +
+                                                                         +
+   SUMMONED HELP:                                                        +
+     berserkers, 3      6th level warriors                               +
+     shambling mound    9' tall, dense, and resistant to undead attacks  +
+     minotaurs, 2       7' tall, heavily-muscled, armed with huge axes   +
+     salamanders, 2     7' long, fiery, armed with shiny spears          +
+     umber hulks, 2     8' tall, 5' wide, powerfully built               +
+   Date:          4/10/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         Xusia's final gateway, exact location unknown          +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Sometimes, not knowing how crazy something a good thing."    +
+                              - from _Pirates of Silicon Valley_ (1999)  +

                   CMLXXXIV.  Secrets Within Secrets

  After a great deal of interesting, often-hazardous, and occasionally-
profitable exploration, the party has cleared the first eight levels of
Xusia's lair...

  armory          1      ____________________|___  ____________|
  barracks        2     |________  ____  __________________|
  gateway         3        _____/ /____\_______#|
  storage         4       |________________  \_____________________ . .
  bestiary        5                  |  ___\_____
                                    /  /         |
                                  /  /           |
                            ____/  /_____________|
  laboratories    6        |___________    ______:_________________ . .
  cells           7          / ____|   |__|
                           /  /
                         /  /   _______         _________________
  sanctuary_______8____/  /____/       \_______|              ___|______
  \__________________________________________________________$_ \_______|
                                                               \ \
                                                                \ \
                                                                / /
                                                               / /

  They now stood at the top of a wide circular stairway leading down into
the unknown gloom.

Bosco:  Gee, it's dark in there.  (he shivers)  And cold.
Skektek:  This doesn't make any sense.  We've already found just about
  everything a dungeon needs, including its ruler's private quarters,
  not to mention a ton of magic items and treasure.
Mongo:  I hear you.  What the hell could be left?
Belphanior:  (props the stone door open with some iron spikes)  There's
  only one way to find out.

  They tried a new approach for their marching order, with less dense
ranks that would allow spellcasters to work their magic over, around,
or between those in front of them.  It made for a long train of people,
creatures, and constructs...but then again, the passage was only ten
feet wide.

                          FRONT OF PARTY
                                / \
                        Mongo    stone golem
                        Belphanior      Otto
                        Ys           Skektek
                            3 berserkers
                        Hope   Bosco   Jenna
                        R. Charlie  S. mound
                       iron golem  coal golem
                           2 salamanders
                           2 umber hulks
                            2 minotaurs
                           REAR OF PARTY

  The spiral stairway descended fifty feet, opening into a short passage
that ended abruptly in a door.

Jenna:  (nearly faints)  Whoa...
Belphanior:  What is it?
Jenna:  Danger...something powerful and sudden
Skektek:  What does that mean?
Bosco:  (eyeing the door, which looks fairly ordinary)  Doesn't look like
Jenna:  Not the door itself...beyond it...

  They could get nothing more out of the priestess, so all weapons and
spells were readied, an array of might that would have been capable of
wiping out a small army.  The door was opened, revealing a long passage
that ended abruptly about thirty feet later, in an unusual and total
blackness, as if opening into a much larger and darker area.  They began
moving forward, but about halfway down the passage, they were alarmed to
note that the far wall didn't open into WAS darkness, like
a tangible wall, that seemed to absorb all of their assorted forms of
illumination.  Just looking at it made one's eyes hurt, and everyone was
vaguely uneasy for no reason they could explain or understand.

Mongo:  (eyeing the blackness ahead)  What the...?
Jenna:  (near panic now)  Oblivion!  That's what it is.  We have to get
  out of here!
Mongo:  (squinting)  That's not a's something within this
Belphanior:  (analyzing the thing ahead with his crystal eye)  It's got
  no aura or's like a void.
Bosco:  (also scrutinizing it, using his ring of x-ray vision)  I can't
  see into it at all, either.
Belphanior:  I've seen something like this once before, long ago-
Skektek:  (his eyes widen with realization)  Holy fucking shit!  That's
  a sphere of annihilation!

  Not only was it, but it was the biggest one any of them had ever seen,
almost ten feet in diameter.  These things - they couldn't accurately be
called items or monsters - were strange rips in the continuity of the
multiverse, voids of nothingness which instantly and utterly consumed
anything they came into contact with.

Mongo:  (angrily)  One of these things killed my first henchman, Flint,
  many years ago.
Skektek:  Don't do anything rash.  If you throw your hammer at it...well,
  that would be the end of your hammer.
Mongo:  (more angrily)  I know.
Hope:  Let's just be glad it's not moving toward us.
Belphanior:  Don't jinx things.  (to Skektek and Hope)  What do we know
  about these?
Skektek:  They leave you alone unless you try to make them move.  It's a
  willpower thing - if a wizard is smart enough and disciplined enough,
  he or she can supposedly cause a sphere to move using just willpower.
  Granted, it's not the kind of thing you can practice easily...anyway,
  I never messed with one of these.  For one thing, they're pretty damn
  rare; for another thing, it's extremely risky, because if you fail to
  take control or keep control, then the sphere comes for _you_.
Bosco:  Eep.
Skektek:   And they move pretty fast...and they obliterate anything in
  their way, disintegrating living and unliving matter alive.  Hell,
  even the most experienced wizard isn't guaranteed to control these
  things - there's always a chance of failure.  And when failure means
  being chased down by something that can wipe you out of existence...
  (he shrugs)  Few people care to deal with such forces.
Otto:  And it's blocking our progress.  And we can't get around it with
  magic, either.
Belphanior:  (shaking his head)  Xusia wouldn't have put something like
  this here, in the middle of a corridor, without some way to move it.
  And he wasn't stupid, and he didn't have a death wish, so logically,
  he'd have had some means of controlling this thing.
Skektek:  Or augmenting his own ability to control it...reducing his
  chance of failure and utter destruction.  (he nods)  Supposedly, there
  are devices that can help one control these things, but they're even
  rarer than the spheres themselves.
Belphanior:  (frowns)
Bosco:  Maybe we should take a few steps back, just in case.  (he eyes
  the ultimate blackness)  I'll tell you, I'm watching that thing.  If
  it does anything - anything! - we need to get the heck out of here.
Razor Charlie:  (has an uneasy mental image of being trapped on this
  side of that big black metal door, with the sphere of annihilation
  closing in)  Aie.

TOP VIEW                                                   *___ --> up

SIDE VIEW                                                (to level 8)
                                                               \ \
                                                                \ \
                                                                / /
                                                            ___/ /
            level 9                                        *____/

  Belphanior had an idea; it was in line with his last great idea down
here, and made a certain kind of sense.

Belphanior:  (looking for something)
Bosco:  Need any help?
Belphanior:  No.  (he grasps one of the items taken from Xusia's chambers
  above...the small rod of gray metal with a wrist-loop)

  The elf could have sworn that the void ahead rippled - just a tiny bit.

Bosco:  Hey!  (he points at the blackness)  It moved!
Belphanior:  Aha.
Skektek:  How did you know?
Belphanior:  If I were Xusia, I would have kept the control device close
  at hand.  Taking it with him elsewhere, away from the sphere itself,
  would have been dumb - if someone broke in somehow and the sphere got
  loose, Xusia's minions and possessions might have gotten destroyed, and
  I didn't think he'd risk that.
Skektek:  Be careful here.  You're dealing with powerful forces, beyond
  all comprehension.
Hope:  Coming from you, that's says something.
Skektek:  (scowls at her)
Belphanior:  He's right.  Everyone get back...far back.  If that damned
  thing starts bearing down on me, I want you to have plenty of time to
  get away.
Otto:  What about you?
Belphanior:  I'll cross that bridge when - if - I come to it.

  With that, Belphanior brandished the talisman and took a step toward
the huge sphere of annihilation, concentrating with all of his might on
forcing it to move away from him.  He closed his eyes and knit his brow,
the effort causing a mild headache to begin.  The elf had a strong will
and, due to his experience with certain spellcasting, was used to having
to muster intense concentration to control magic.  However, this was on
a whole different level; it was a constant and difficult struggle, like
arm-wrestling someone of equal strength and determination to win.

Belphanior:  Ungh...
Bosco:  (about to blurt something out)
Otto:  (covers the halfling's mouth with a hand, glaring intensely)
Bosco:  (realizes that any distraction right now would be a really bad

  At first, nothing seemed to be happening...but then the globe of utter
blackness _did_ move back...just an inch...and then another.

Belphanior:  (gritting his teeth)

  Unbelievably, the sphere was slowly and inexorably being pushed back
along the passage; momentarily, a side alcove was revealed:

TOP VIEW                                                *  ____ --> up
                                                        | |

  Belphanior realized that for someone to actually advance down this
passage, the sensible thing to do would be to "park" the sphere in the
alcove, out of the he pushed it _past_ the alcove, and, despite
the enormous strain he was suffering, called out to Otto to hurry and
check that alcove out, in case something interesting would be hidden
when he placed the sphere there.  Otto investigated it - carefully
avoiding the sphere - but found nothing, so he returned to the rest of
the group while Belphanior pulled the sphere back toward himself and
then sideways into the alcove.  Once it was completely out of the way
and not a direct threat, the group continued along the passage, which
ended a short distance later in a large, simple metal door.

TOP VIEW                                   door -->   :_   ____ --> up
                                                        | |
                                         sphere -->     |*|

Belphanior:  (wordlessly waves the party down the passage, past the side
  alcove containing the deadly globe)

  The others didn't need to be told what to do; Otto, Bosco, and Jenna
worked together to quickly but thoroughly check the door, and then open
it (it was both free of traps and unlocked).  They moved through it to a
much larger chamber, over two hundred feet long, about fifty wide, and
fully thirty high.

                          /                         \
                     ____/                           \ ________
TOP VIEW             ___:    #                        :_   ____ --> up
                         \                           /  | |
            # = statue    \_________________________/   |*| <-- sphere

                          _____________________________________/ /
LEVEL 9:  GUARDIANS      /                          __:_________/
                      __/                          /
                     / :_____#____________________/
                    / /

Belphanior:  (backs through the doorway after all of them, still exerting
  his willpower to keep the deadly sphere in place, and closes the door
  after passing through)  Whew.  (he feels something trickle down his
  face and wipes it, finding blood running from his nose)

  The elf turned around to see what the others had already found:  on
this side of the simple metal door, the passage continued for ten feet,
then its floor became stone steps that descended to the chamber floor
twenty feet below.  This huge space was something between a cavern and
a nice neat room; its walls were rough, crudely-hewn from the countless
tons of surrounding rock.  On the far end of the gigantic space was a
metal door, which was blocked by a massive statue shrouded in old, dusty
cobwebs.  About ten feet high and quite broad, it had some intricate
carvings, the finer detail of which couldn't be made out from here.
Aside from this, the huge chamber was completely empty.

Belphanior:  (points at the statue)  Watch out, everyone.  That thing's
  radiating some damn powerful magic.
Skektek:  I'm not surprised.
Mongo:  What the hell is it?
Belphanior:  I'm not sure.  It's got no soul, but it's radiating plenty
  of magic.
Jenna:  And danger...though it's the sort you'd get from an army of foes,
  as opposed to something like that black sphere from the last room.
Belphanior:  That's actually good.
Skektek:  I'll be ready to blast it, just give the word.
Bosco:  (squinting)  My special vision can't really see anything from
  here.  If I could get closer, I could tell you what's inside.
Otto:  That's not going to be easy.
Bosco:  It never is.

                          FRONT OF PARTY
                                / \
                        Mongo    stone golem
                        Belphanior      Otto
                        Ys           Skektek
                            3 berserkers
                        Hope   Bosco   Jenna
                        R. Charlie  S. mound
                       iron golem  coal golem
                           2 salamanders
                           2 umber hulks
                            2 minotaurs
                           REAR OF PARTY

  The party descended to the floor of the chamber, spreading out a bit
as they made their way toward the far end.  They'd crossed about halfway
when the massive statue came to life; with a sound like the grinding of
metal gears, the broad shape raised one of its massive arms.  Sparks
flew, and then, with a puff of dust, a bolt of pure electricity arced
across the chamber...

Mongo:  (hit directly by the powerful attack, he is saved by his armor,
  though the stone floor beneath his feet is charred and smoking)  Hey!
Otto:  (yelps as residual energy courses through the floor)  Ouch!
Belphanior:  (leaps aside as well, shouting to Skektek)  Hit it!
Skektek:  (successfully switches his plan at the last minute, launching
  a fireball across the room rather than his default lightning bolt)

  Searing flames washed over the statue, bathing it (and that entire end
of the chamber) in bright, burning fire.  Everyone readied their weapons
while the inferno died down; after all, they didn't really expect fire to
destroy a statue made of stone.

Belphanior:  (watching as the smoke clears)  That's not stone...

  The cobwebs and dust were burned away, and the foe was now revealed
for what it truly was:  a massive construct of dull metal, its armored
form scratched and dented in numerous places.  Strange gears and pipes
were visible at some of its joints, and jagged spikes covered much of
its body (including both fists) such that melee combat would prove quite
hazardous to any opponent.  Both arms, as well as the thing's shoulders,
contained various cylindrical tubes and protuberances, some of which were
aimed at the party.

Skektek:  What the hell-

  With a puff of smoke and a popping sound, one of the strange tubes
launched what looked like a small metal sphere over the adventurers.

Belphanior:  (decides that maybe standing in a small group behind the
  tougher members of the party isn't such a good idea)  Spread out,

  The missile exploded with a mighty blast of concussive force, knocking
most of the party off their feet and stunning some of them.  The strange
construct wasted no time following up with other attacks...

metal construct:  (blasts away, launching a variety of attacks from the
  plethora of tubes and cylinders built into its body, each of which
  seems to be able to aim and fire on its own, at a different target)

  A narrow cone of freezing cold hit one of the salamanders, downing it,
while nearby, an umber hulk was struck by a thin green beam and simply
obliterated.  A moment later, a second disintegration beam lanced out
and hit the coal golem (which, admittedly, was an easy target).

coal golem:  (vanishes from existence)
Belphanior:  Holy shit!
minotaur #2:  (hit with a volley of fiery bolts, it falls, huge holes
  burned in its powerful body)  Graaargh!
berserker #1:  (charges forth, battle-axe held high)  Raaaaaaah!
berserker #2:  (likewise)  Yaaaaaaa!
berserker #3:  (follows the other two)  Waaaaah!
metal construct:  (raises one huge arm, and a sheet of flame sprays out
  from a gauntlet-like projection, bathing the three warriors in searing

  The fires quickly died down, revealing three charred skeletons still
in their smoking armor, their weapons now dropped to clatter on the stone
floor of the chamber.

Belphanior:  We have to stop this thing right now-
Mongo:  On it.  (he hurls Stormcrest with all his might)

  The enchanted warhammer hit the metallic construct in the center of
its chest, the impact shaking the floor and driving the foe back a good
five feet.

metal construct:  (staggers, but doesn't fall, then rights itself and
  launches what looks like a meteorite at the dwarf)
Mongo:  (catches his hammer)  What-

  The dwarf became the center of a powerful explosion, of such force
that those around him were knocked away.  One adventurer, however, was
no longer in the vicinity...

Belphanior:  (having used magical means to move around behind the golem,
  he quickly sizes it up, looking for a weakness, and prepares to try
metal construct:  (a tube mounted on one of its shoulders swivels around
  suddenly, aiming at the elf)
Belphanior:  Shit.

  Just then, a gigantic mass of webbing appeared over the construct,
courtesy of Hope; the thick webbing draped itself over the foe, covering
it completely.

Hope:  That won't hold it for very long!
Belphanior:  I won't need very long.

  A cone of blazing flames punched through the webbing, spraying the
ceiling, but that was the only attack the construct had time to mount
before Belphanior stopped time with his powerful magical hourglass.

Belphanior:  (moving quickly, he leaps onto the thing's shoulders and
  begins prying at what looks like a loose plate on its back)

  The panel in question was about a foot square, and half an inch in
thickness, but one corner was bent at an odd angle.  It looked like it
had been damaged in some long-ago battle, and beneath this chink in the
construct's armor, the elf could see moving gears and glowing tubes.
Unfortunately, he didn't have the strength to pull the plate completely
off, and he sensed that his time-stopping magic was almost at an end.

Belphanior:  (desperate, he reaches inside the small opening at the
  corner of the square plate, grabs a random cable, and pulls as hard
  as he can)

  The thick wire broke free from the unknown mechanical part that it had
been attached to; there was a loud "POP", followed by a shower of bright
orange sparks and a powerful electrical shock.  The elf sailed backward
through the air, his body smoking and his hair standing on end.

Belphanior:  (slams into the wall behind the construct, and falls to the
  floor, blood trickling from his nose and ears)  Urrgh...

  The effect of the hourglass ended, and the metal foe began moving once
more, though now it emitted a loud grinding sound, obviously damaged in
some way by Belphanior's efforts.

metal construct:  (targets other members of the attacking party, its
  various weapons firing with wild abandon)

  A lightning bolt destroyed the remaining salamander and the injured
minotaur, in one efficient shot.  A contraption built onto one of the
construct's arms launched a huge glob of dark green acid at the stone
golem.  One wildly-swiveling (and possibly damaged) tube on the thing's
shoulder peppered the room with green disintegration beams, destroying
random sections of the walls, ceiling, and floor - as well as the second
umber hulk, and very nearly, Bosco.

Bosco:  (eyeing the chunk of suddenly-missing floor right next to his
  feet)  Eep.  (he takes to the air, winged boots flapping)

  The adventurers now counterattacked, though, beginning with a mighty
bolt of lightning from Skektek.

metal construct:  (hit by the tremendous blast, it just stands there in
  place, the electricity crackling around it...and then launches three
  lightning bolts from various places, knocking down Ys, Jenna, and the
  remaining minotaur)
Skektek:  Damn!
Otto:  Maybe lightning doesn't hurt it.
Mongo:  (having recovered from the impact of the blazing meteorite, he
  stands shakily, readying his hammer)  Step aside.

  The hammer flew through the air, but the armored dwarf was in motion
even before he threw the potent weapon, charging forth like an armored
battering ram.

metal construct:  (smashed in the head by the enchanted warhammer, it
  is knocked back again, and nearly topples over)

  Even as Mongo caught the returning weapon, his allies were providing
cover fire, bombarding the reeling war-golem with everything they had.

Hope:  (launches a thin beam of freezing cold, hitting the thing in the
  chest and sheathing it in a coating of frost)
war-golem:  (actually moves slower now, as if its joints and various
  attack devices are frozen)
Otto:  (fires his crossbow, the bolt glancing off of the foe's armored
Skektek:  (launches a volley of magic missiles, which pelt the construct
  without apparent effect)  Son of a...

  With these distractions, Mongo was able to reach the foe safely, and
he tackled it, barreling into the thick metal legs.  Although it seemed
ridiculous that such a smaller attacker could do much against the stout
construct, Mongo was possessed of strength greater than the strongest
giant, and he knocked the war-golem from its feet!

Mongo:  (hefts his hammer, and begins pummeling the foe with great blows)
  Take that!  And that!  And th-

  A massive metal fist swung up, knocking the dwarf away, and the war-
golem clambered to its feet.  So far, it had resisted everything the
party had thrown at it, and slain or incapacitated many of their number.
Although its body was dented, scratched, and scorched (both from today's
battle and past ones) it was still quite able to fight.

war-golem:  (turns toward Mongo)
Mongo:  (stands up, shaking his head)  Bring it on, fucker.
war-golem:  (levels numerous weapons at the dwarf)

  Suddenly, the construct began to tremble erratically, and wisps of
oily smoke trickled from its joints.  Then a shower of sparks exploded
from its back, and the thing just froze in place, emitting a loud hum
which gradually lowered to a soft hum...and then nothing.

war-golem:  (unmoving)
Mongo:  What the hell?
Bosco:  (appears, standing atop the thing's shoulders, his hair smoking
  and a jumble of wires clutched in his burned hands)  I...I did it...

  With that, the halfling lapsed into unconsciousness, falling from his
perch and hitting the floor with a soft "thud."

Hope:  Um...what the hell just happened?
Skektek:  Bosco saved the day.  I think.

  The adventurers took stock of their casualties:  Ys, Jenna, Bosco, and
the remaining minotaur were all injured and unconscious.  Aside from that
minotaur and the shambling mound, all other summoned monsters were slain,
as well as the coal golem.  Also, the stone golem had suffered significant
acid damage and no longer appeared to be functional.  Mongo and Belphanior
were both hurt but conscious.  Jenna was revived with a potion, and then
began working her magic on others.
  As for the war-golem, it was now inert, as Bosco had finished the job
started by Belphanior.

Bosco:  ...actually, my ring of see-through vision really helped me grab
  a whole bunch of wires and yank 'em out, instead of just groping around
  blindly inside that thing.  And I wouldn't have been able to get that
  close if not for all of your other attacks.  Plus I got the idea from
  Belphanior, earlier in the fight-
Belphanior:  Enough with the victory speech.  (he looks around)  Well,
  so much for the reinforcements.

                          FRONT OF PARTY
                                / \
                       Mongo      iron golem
                       Belphanior       Otto
                       Ys            Skektek
                       Hope   Bosco    Jenna
                       R. Charlie   S. mound
                           REAR OF PARTY

  The metal door at the end of the large chamber was a simple 10' square
with no traps or locks that they could detect.  It led to a stairway
identical to the last one, spiraling down fifty feet before opening into
a short section of passage that ended in another metal door.

  armory          1      ____________________|___  ____________|
  barracks        2     |________  ____  __________________|
  gateway         3        _____/ /____\_______#|
  storage         4       |________________  \_____________________ . .
  bestiary        5                  |  ___\_____
                                    /  /         |
                                  /  /           |
                            ____/  /_____________|
  laboratories    6        |___________    ______:_________________ . .
  cells           7          / ____|   |__|
                           /  /
                         /  /   _______         _________________
  sanctuary_______8____/  /____/       \_______|              ___|______
  \__________________________________________________________$_ \_______|
                                                               \ \
                                                                \ \
                                                                / /
                          _____________________________________/ /
  guardians       9      /                          __:_________/
                      __/                          /
                     / :__________________________/
                    / /
                   / /
                   \ \
                    \ \_____
                 10  \______:

Otto:  (eyeing the stone walls as the group nears the lower door)  Hmm.
  (he taps one wall with a knuckle)
Belphanior:  What is it?
Otto:  I think there's metal built into this stonework.  (using the tip
  of a knife, he pokes and prods the wall)  Yeah.  (he examines the tiny
  bit of metal he just gouged out)
Bosco:  (uses his ring's special vision to scan the wall)  I think it's
  a mixture of two substances...rock and metal.
Otto:  (holds up his knife)  I think it's lead.
Belphanior:  (to Skektek)  Teleport block.
Skektek:  Not just that - it's an _everything_ block.  Fifty feet of
  lead-lined walls means no magical travel, no nothing.

  The dull gray metal door at the bottom of the shaft was, like the last
portal, found to be free of traps and dangers, and unlocked.  Unlike the
previous door, however, this one had a pull ring mounted in its center,
five feet above the floor.

Otto:  This door's made of solid lead.
Skektek:  In my opinion, this entire area was built to keep anyone and
  everyone from finding whatever's down here.
Otto:  Agreed.
Hope:  Not to mention everything we had to fight or bypass just to get
  to this point.
Belphanior:  (nods)  A hiding place...perhaps the ultimate hiding place.
  Let's see what's worth all of this security.  (he steps forth and grabs
  the large ring in the door's center)

  The elf quickly found that the huge leaden door was far too heavy for
him to pull open using the inset ring.

Belphanior:  Unnnngh...shit.  A little help here?
Ys:  (realizing that Mongo's too short to effectively pull the ring
  without risking tearing it off the door, he grabs hold of it)  Gladly.
  (after bracing himself, he pulls with all his might)

  It was difficult, but the huge reptilian was able to pull the heavy
door open, a bit at a time.  After Ys had the door partially open, Mongo
grabbed the edge and contributed his strength, revealing the area beyond.

Bosco:  If I'm keeping count right, we're now officially on the tenth
  level of this dungeon.
Ys:  Hmm.
Bosco:  Just sayin'...

  Beyond the door was a large square chamber, about seventy feet square
with a twenty-foot ceiling.  Nine doors of dull grey metal were set at
nearly-precise intervals around the room's periphery; each was ten feet
high and five feet wide.  Like the main door, each of these interior ones
had a large pull ring set in its exact center.  Aside from these portals
and the entry door, all other surfaces in this area were fashioned of
smooth, polished purple stone.  All of the seams and intersections were
perfect right angles...

                                ___..______..___      ..  : = lead doors
                               |                |
                               :                :
                      ______ __|                |
       stairs up   <<<______:__                 :
                               |                |
                               :                :

Mongo:  (looking around, impressed with the precise stonecutting of the
  architecture)  What is this place?
Bosco:  It's a vault.
Razor Charlie:  Huh?
Bosco:  A vault.  Look there...lead doors, probably opening into lead
  rooms.  And we had to pass through an awful lot of lead-containing
  rock to get down here.  Lead everywhere...and lead blocks magical
  radiations, which is why people use it when they build places to hold
  their powerful magic treasures.
Ys:  That is an amazing deduction, Bosco.
Bosco:  I'm not done.  We're also way, way beneath the surface of the least two hundred feet along based on the depth of this
Otto:  More like two hundred and fifty, actually.
Hope:  (regards him quizzically)
Otto:  (shrugs)  I've been keeping track.
Bosco:  Right...and who knows how far down the topmost level is?  So
  all that rock - rock that's special, since we know it blocks magical
  travel.  And then there's the defenses, which have gotten stronger
  the farther down we've descended.  (he grins)  This is a vault, and
  if I had to guess, I'd say that there's some valuable stuff hidden
  away down here.
Belphanior:  My thoughts exactly.  So let's see what sorts of treasure
  warrant all of this.

  The elf turned to the first lead door, ahead and to the left.  While
it had no traps or enchantments - which was expected based on all that
the party had seen and concluded - it was as solid and sturdy as the
main entrance into this area.  Once the door was open, Belphanior took
a look inside the chamber beyond and then made some quick decisions.

Belphanior:  We need better light here.
Hope:  I'll handle it.  (she begins spellcasting, quickly conjuring up a
  small, bright ball of light which she situates in the center of the
  main chamber's ceiling)
Belphanior:  (speaks to the minotaur using the power of the Book of
  Beasts)  You're on guard duty.  Stay out here and fight anyone else
  who shows up.  Pay close attention to those stairs we used to get down
minotaur:  (nods, hefting its battleaxe and moving to the center of the
  large main chamber)
Belphanior:  (to the iron golem)  You, stand in this doorway and block
  the door from closing.  Just in case.
iron golem:  (obeys)

  At only ten feet on each side, the room behind the lead door was far
too small for the entire party to occupy, so only Belphanior, Bosco,
Otto, and Jenna went in.  The floor, walls, and ceiling of the tiny
chamber were made of lead, just like the door.

                                __|..|_____..___      ..  : = lead doors
                               |                |
                               :                :
                      ______ __|                |
       stairs up   <<<______:__                 :
                               |                |
                               :                :

Jenna:  (turns nervously to Belphanior)  Do you sense that...?
Belphanior:  (nods)  Magical power, and a lot of it.
Jenna:  Dangerous magical power.  (she shudders)  I don't think this is
  any common magical item.

  A stone pedestal in the center of the small room held a small rod of
dull black metal.  About a foot long, it also had a narrower tip that
curved around in numerous odd directions, such that merely looking at
it induced dizziness and vertigo.  This unusual item rested on a small
felt pillow of crimson fabric.
  Whatever it was, the object emanated a magical aura more powerful than
any that either Belphanior or Jenna had ever experienced.

Jenna:  It's not evil...just...STRONG.  The kind of power that shatters
  anything in its path...perhaps even gods.  (she leans on a wall for
  support)  Whoa.
Bosco:  (eyeing the wall nearest him)  This is at least as thick as the
  door...maybe more so.  (he looks around)  This whole area is basically
  the ultimate proof against magical detection.
Belphanior:  (breathlessly)  We've only found a single treasure so far,
  yet it's more powerful than anything we've ever seen before...(he eyes
  the central chamber of the vault complex)  Let's get on with it, then.

  With that in mind, they began a thorough inspection of each of the nine
vaults, opening each carefully and noting what rested within.  For now,
none of the items were touched, or even approached closely; Belphanior
simply wished to gaze upon them.
  Moving clockwise around the chamber, starting with the one they had
just opened, the group examined the contents of the other vaults.  The
second such chamber contained a pedestal identical to the first, upon
which rested a thin spellbook with a black leather cover and a small jar
containing a crumbling piece of light gray rock.  The third vault also
had a pedestal - in fact, all of them did, with one exception - although
this one was empty.  The fourth vault's pedestal held a small box, about
five inches by four inches, and two inches high; this item was fashioned
from ivory or bleached bone and had a small built-in fastening mechanism.
In the fifth vault was a small case of transparent material, most likely
glasteel, with plush red padding visible on the inside.  This padding
cushioned a sizable piece of bone containing a number of sharp teeth.
  The sixth vault had no pedestal, but rather opened into a short passage
leading down a shallow slope into a cavern containing a pool.  This area
was a roughly spherical space, like a large geode, about fifteen feet in
diameter; its bottom half was filled with dark, brackish water.  The
stone path ended at the edge of the pool, which gave off an overpowering
stench of decay; the adventurers couldn't even approach it without
becoming badly nauseous.  Accordingly, they avoided this chamber for the
time being, focusing instead on the other vaults and their treasures.
  The seventh vault held a large, shiny brass sextant, an arcane tool
used for advanced navigation purposes.  The next of the vaults contained
a small, simple loom, apparently made from silver and with golden thread.
The ninth and final vault's pedestal held only a small, triangular piece
of stone.

  All of these items emanated overwhelmingly strong auras of magic; in
addition, several (the small box, the jawbone, and the entire pool) were
also quite evil.

                                2  __      __  3
                                __|..|____|..|__      ..  : = lead doors
LEVEL 10:  VAULT             __|                |__
                         1  |__:                :__|  4
                      ______ __|                |__
       stairs up   <<<______:__                 :__|  5
                             __|                |____
                         9  |__:                :__  \
                               |__ .. ____ .. __|  \  \  6
                                  |__|    |__|      \  \__
                                   8       7        /     \_
                                                   /   ***  \
                                                   \___ **  /


  armory          1      ____________________|___  ____________|
  barracks        2     |________  ____  __________________|
  gateway         3        _____/ /____\_______#|
  storage         4       |________________  \_____________________ . .
  bestiary        5                  |  ___\_____
                                    /  /         |
                                  /  /           |
                            ____/  /_____________|
  laboratories    6        |___________    ______:_________________ . .
  cells           7          / ____|   |__|
                           /  /
                         /  /   _______         _________________
  sanctuary_______8____/  /____/       \_______|              ___|______
  \__________________________________________________________$_ \_______|
                                                               \ \
                                                                \ \
                                                                / /
                          _____________________________________/ /
  guardians       9      /                          __:_________/
                      __/                          /
                     / :__________________________/
                    / /
                   / /
                   \ \        _____________________
                    \ \______|                     |
  vault          10  \______:_____________________ |_________
                                                  \____   __/

  #1 - black metal rod with weirdly curved tip
  #2 - thin spellbook and glass jar containing crumbling gray stone
  #3 - (empty)
  #4 - small, sealed box fashioned of bleached bone with carven runes
  #5 - padded glasteel case containing half of an ancient fanged jawbone
  #6 - passage leading down slight slope to pool of black water
  #7 - large brass sextant
  #8 - silver loom
  #9 - triangular piece of stone

Bosco:  I wonder why there are nine vaults, and not just one vault with
  nine pedestals.
Belphanior:  My guess is that these items needed to be separated...when
  it comes to powerful artifacts and relics, you can never be too safe.
  I'd have probably done the same thing.
Bosco:  And why is the one vault empty?  That doesn't make any sense.
Belphanior:  It could...if Xusia didn't have anything to put in there.
Otto:  Or if he moved something out of here.
Skektek:  Or if he was actually _using_ them in a battle or something...
Belphanior:  True.
Hope:  Really, there's no reason that he'd have the exact same number
  of treasures as he did vaults.  I'd be worried if they _did_ match up
  exactly, nine for nine.
Otto:  Can't complain about finding eight, that's for sure.
Belphanior:  Nine.
Otto:  Eh?
Belphanior:  That war-golem upstairs...I intend to claim it, understand
  it, repair it, and command it myself.  It represents far too much
  destructive power to simply leave behind here.
Skektek:  (grins)  That's the kind of talk I like to hear.
Belphanior:  Indeed.  So, whatever the case...let's search the empty
  vault thoroughly, just in case.  And we've already answered the other
Bosco:  (moving in to examine the empty vault in more detail)  What
  question is that?
Belphanior:  It's been at least two years since we fought Xusia at the
  fortress of the Nine, and he was pretty firmly entrenched there.  So
  that begs the question:  why would he maintain _this_ lair if he had
  _that_ one?
Bosco:  (thinking hard)
Belphanior: immovable artifact.  I think that's what the
  black pool is, some sort of unique place with great powers of evil.
  Xusia must have found it, long ago, and since he couldn't transport
  it, he just built this dungeon all around it.
Skektek:  (nods)  Makes sense.  And that begs a question from me.
Belphanior:  Shoot.
Skektek:  This whole time, you seem to have been a step ahead of Xusia,
  or at least his defenses.  What's the deal with that?
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  Many a wise man has said "know thy enemy."   Even
  though the lich is no longer with us, his defenses in order
  to gain some insight into how he thought, I did extensive research on
  everything I could.  I've been studying various history, tales, and
  other lore for many months now, and for a while now I've felt that I
  could predict the ways in which Xusia would have done certain things.
  (he smirks)  And all that work was validated, before and especially
  now, in this place.  (with a sweeping gesture, he indicates the vaults
  all around the party)  We won.  We got his greatest treasures...items
  that, if they're as powerful as we think they are, can be used to great
  effect in the near future.

next:       consequences
released:   3/16/2012
notes:      I'm done with gateways and their hidden treasures.  There's
  just nothing left to find.  The stuff they got in this dungeon is the
  cream of the crop - as you will see, some of these artifacts and relics
  possess powers to rival anything Oerth has ever seen or heard of (and
  at least two are of greater scope than just Oerth!)
    So now, the focus of these stories must - as was inevitable - change
  from the _finding_ of such the _using_ of them.

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