Chapter #1094

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                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic VI     +
                             +               +
                               +           +
                                 +       +
                                   +   +

+     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       +
+   1991-2021 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                         +
+     Poulos        8th level human warrior                               +
+   Irina          14th/7th level female human priestess/warrior          +
+   Neera          12th level female human wizard (sage/astrologer)       +
+     Arusha        5th level human female wizard/alchemist               +
+     Judhon        7th level gnomish illusionist                         +
+   Otto           12th/14th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Paige          13th level human female warrior                        +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+   Date:          7/18/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         the Armory, within the northeastern Yatil Mountains    +
+   Climate:       cool and pleasant                                      +
+   "You have no sense of time."                                          +
+   "Of course I do. It's just different than yours."                     +
+                  - From _the Last Witch Hunter_                         +

                   MXCIV.  A New Charge

  Belphanior was in an exceptionally good mood.  Not only had he gotten
an excellent night's sleep, but a number of ideas had come to him in his
dreams, and he now knew what he had to do.

Hope:  You're going to visit Kronos again?
Belphanior:  (nods)  We have unfinished business.
Otto:  Does that mean "need to talk with him" unfinished business, or
  "there's going to be a fight" unfinished business?
Irina:  (already having a feeling that it's the former, due to the powers
  granted her by Istus as well as the elf's calm demeanor right now)
Belphanior:  It's just talk, and handing over a magic item to Kronos.  A
  loose end, really.  I wasn't even planning on taking anyone.
Skektek:  Good.  I don't like that guy...I still can't get over how he
  just whisked me away into his castle that one time.  I barely knew what
  was happening, and then-  BAM  -I was somewhere else.
Paige:  (to Irina, quietly)  What the hell is he complaining about?
Irina:  I'm honestly not sure - it was before my time.
Hope:  And mine.
Otto:  (helpfully, as Skektek continues to complain to Belphanior nearby)
  When we first journeyed to the lich's remote mountain home, Skektek was
  flying around on scout duty, and wasn't with the main party when we all
  got invited into the fortress.  He kind of got grabbed and brought in
  against his will, like one might capture an insect.  (he shrugs)  And
  ever since then, he's disliked the lich.
Paige:  Lich?  What lich?
Hope:  Belphanior...travels in odd circles.
Razor Charlie:  (grimacing)  He damn sure does.
Belphanior:  (making obvious preparations to go do something)
Hope:  See?

  While the elf had technically answered Hope's initial question, there
was an additional purpose for this visit, which only he knew.  While he
did indeed have business with the lich - involving the returning of a
certain lost magical item of considerable power, which he'd already taken
from the armory - there was something else.  Belphanior wanted to discuss
an idea he'd recently come up with.

Belphanior:  I'll be leaving shortly, and back later today.  While I'm
  out and about, I need to stop by Greyhawk to check on some things.
Otto:  (mutters quietly to the elf)  You really shouldn't go alone...just
  in case something happens.  Take someone.  I'll go if you can't find
  another volunteer, although-
Paige:  I'm in.
Belphanior:  Eh?
Paige:  It's not every day that one encounters a lich, especially when
  it's for conversation instead of battle.  This, I've got to see.
Otto:  (glances at Belphanior)
Belphanior:  (frowns)  It's not going to be that exciting, but I suppose
  if you really want to go, you can.
Paige:  As for your other stop, I've already heard a bit about this Free
  City of Greyhawk from some of the team.  Sounds like a center of many
  things, on this I want to see it, too.  (she shrugs)  Plus,
  I'm bored.
Otto:  (having looked forward to a long day of sorting his poisons and
  armaments)  Sounds good to me.
Belphanior:  Very well.  Get prepared - we'll be leaving shortly.  Dress
  warmly.  And I'd suggest bringing some coin - in case you need to buy
  anything in Greyhawk - and also your sword - in case we run into some
  sort of trouble.
Paige:  (pats the sheathed blade on her hip)  That goes without saying.

  Presently, the elf readied the Eye of Celestian, then invoked its power
to transport himself and the warrior-woman far, far across the continent.
One moment, they were in the Yatil Mountains, in the western Flanaess; the
next moment, they were standing in an icy courtyard as a freezing wind
whipped snowflakes through the air around them.

Paige:  Holy shit.  (she draws her cloak more tightly about herself)
Belphanior:  Told you.
Paige:  Where are we?
Belphanior:  The Corusk Mountains, in the northeastern region of Oerik.
Paige:  That sounds far from where we were.  (she shivers)  Feels like it,
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  The other side of the world, more or less.
Paige:  I'm surprised the lich's defenses didn't keep us out.  Your magic
  space-jumping sextant there must be pretty damn powerful.
Belphanior:  It is, but the reason we're here, rather than smashed into
  paste against some mystical barrier or redirected to somewhere a bit
  less friendly, is that I already reached out to Kronos and let him know
  we were coming.
Paige:  Oh.
Belphanior:  It pays to prepare when dealing with such beings.
Paige:  I'll bet.  (she notices a huge white dragon flying past overhead)
  Whoa.  (she prepares to draw her sword)
Belphanior:  Don't.  It's fine.  The lich commands several such dragons,
  as well as a host of rather well-behaved undead.
Paige:  (frowns)  Of course.  Of course he does.  (she looks around)  So
  where is he, anyway?

  Just then, a nearby section of wall shimmered and began glowing, and
then opened up suddenly, revealing a large interior chamber with various
items of furniture, lit by multiple candelabra.

Belphanior:  (without a word, he strides in that direction)
Paige:  Well...okay.  (she finally lets go of her sword-hilt, and quickly
  follows the elf)

  After they stepped through the strange portal, it closed up behind them,
reverting to the thick stone wall it had been before.  They stood in a
large hall with a high, arched ceiling.  While this interior area was free
of snow and wind, it was still cold.

Paige:  (shivers, despite herself)  Plenty of candles, but no fireplace
  with a roaring fire.
Belphanior:  He likes it cold.
Paige:  I can tell.  (she glances at the chamber's walls)  Where are the
Belphanior:  I couldn't tell you.  Kronos is an odd one.
Paige:  I take it we'll be meeting him soon?
Belphanior:  (looking around, using his sword's ability to sense nearby
  souls)  Should be any moment now.

  Indeed, the words had barely left the elf's mouth before the fortress'
master strode into the large chamber.  He looked exactly as Belphanior
remembered him:  a human figure of average height and build, clad in a
simple grey robe with a hood.  His hands and feet, where they protruded
from the garment, were as white as chalk.

Kronos:  Greetings.
Belphanior:  It's been a while.
Kronos:  Undoubtedly not as long as it seemed.  You had quite an escapade
  in a faraway place.  (he regards Paige, as if just now noticing her)
Paige:  You don't seem like a lich.
Kronos:  And what would you expect one to be, child of another world?  A
  rotting husk, perhaps?  Violent?  Insane?  (he waves a hand)  Bah.  My
  magical power, and the nature of my longevity, may fit the term, but I
  was cut from different cloth, so to speak.  My interests are different
  than others of my...kind.  (he locks gazes with her, his blood-red eyes
  seeming to bore into her mind and soul)
Paige:  (unable to maintain the eye contact despite her best efforts, she
  quickly drops her gaze)  I...meant no offense.
Kronos:  None taken.  (he turns to Belphanior)  As you mentioned during
  our brief communication earlier this day, I believe you have something
  for me?
Belphanior:  You told me before that the dragon might have had something
  of yours in its hoard, and you also told me what it was and what it
  looked like, just in case.  As things turned out, it was indeed there;
  as thanks for your assistance guiding us to the wyrm, I've brought this
  item back to you.  (he reaches into a pocket of his tunic, and hands
  over a tiny metal vial)
Kronos:  (takes the item)  Ah, yes.  The Droplets of Eternal Sleep.
Paige:  What are those?  Do they kill you?
Kronos:  A single drop from this vial will induce years of deep, peaceful
  slumber from which the user will not awaken until it is time.  (he sighs
  to himself)  It is...good to reclaim this.
Belphanior:  I guess so.  Honestly, I was surprised that you were after
  something like this.  I figured it would be a powerful magical weapon,
  or a long-lost tome, or something like that.
Kronos:  Not all prized treasures are made for battle.  I doubt you would
  understand, but the contents of this vial greatly ease my condition, and
  my pain.
Belphanior:  (frowns)'re right, I don't understand.  But I'm not
Kronos:  (continues, as if not hearing the elf's words)  When one's flesh
  is meant to constantly die and decay, and one accepts it, things are as
  they should be.  But when one must constantly work to slow and reverse
  that process...there is a great deal of pain.  (he looks from the elf to
  the warrior-woman, and back)  Agony such as neither of you have never
  even dreamt of.
Paige:  (about to say something about how her dreams don't involve pain
  and agony, she thinks twice and decides to hold her tongue)
Belphanior:  I'm quite pleased that I was able to return the item to you,
Kronos:  And you have my sincere thanks.  (he pauses)  Speaking about the
  return of items...if you seek to once again command the skyship, be
  aware that I have not spent much time repairing its damage.  Given that
  you possess the Eye of Celestian, you really have no need of the skyship
Belphanior:  True, I don't...but others of my team could benefit from its
  use.  I'm not suggesting that you forgo other endeavors to restore it,
  but when or if you do, I ask that you consider this.
Kronos:  (ponders this, then nods cryptically)
Paige:  (stands there, silently regretting ever wanting to come here, and
  also wondering when they will be able to leave this frigid place)
Kronos:  You seem distressed.  Perhaps this will help.  (he waves a hand,
  and the temperature in the room changes from cold to pleasantly warm)
Paige:  Whoa.

  At the same time, a small table had appeared in the center of the room;
it appeared to have been fashioned from a single huge piece of jet-black
wood.  A trio of well-worm leather chairs were arrayed around the table,
and without asking the others, the lich took a seat.

Belphanior:  (follows suit, as does Paige)
Paige:  (marveling at how the chair is much more comfortable than would
  be expected from its appearance)
Belphanior:  So, let me-
Kronos:  (suddenly interrupts the elf)  I sense that you have something on
  your mind, but there is another matter we must discuss, one of greater
  importance...critical importance, to be sure.
Belphanior:  Really?  Hmm.
Kronos:  (glances at Paige)
Belphanior:  There are no secrets here.  I trust her as I would trust any
  of my group.
Paige:  (nods, pleased at the vote of confidence from the elf)
Belphanior:  Please proceed.
Kronos:  Very well.  I have recently become aware of an...effort, one
  which must be stopped at all costs.
Belphanior:  (thinking of Xusia and the Fortress of the Nine, and the grim
  vampire city of Skava-Ra, and other such past escapades and foes)  I do
  seem to thrive on those.
Kronos:  This is no joking matter.  I am discussing this with you because
  you are here, but it was my intention to contact Parekh and those others
  in the next day or two.  It may take all of us to deal with what I have
  learned - and its success rests in large part upon an item you possess.
Belphanior:  (frowns, then leans forward, intrigued)  Okay, you've got my
  attention.  Who or what are we dealing with here?
Kronos:  The Crimson Blades.
Belphanior:  (sighs)  Them.
Kronos:  I believe you have had dealings with that group.
Belphanior:  We have...if you count a three-way battle against them and a
  bunch of re-awakened beings from myth and legend, who were intent on the
  complete destruction of the world.
Paige:  (muttering)  Sounds like I missed all the good stuff.
Belphanior:  (continues talking, absorbed in his memories)  They actually
  showed up at a good time, because they drew the Sleepers' attention away
  from my team, which gave us time to recover and figure out how best to
Kronos:  I see.  And the outcome?
Belphanior:  Well, obviously, I survived...but some of my group, and some
  of the Blades, did not.  I think six or seven of them got away when all
  was said and done.  They left, as did we, after the whole place began to
  cave in.  (he doesn't mention the fact that he gave the order that led
  to that collapse, nor the fact that he possesses a journal with various
  notes about the Crimson Blades)  I wonder where they are now, and what
  they're doing.  That was on my short list of things to investigate,
  before other matters got in the way.
Kronos:  They survive, and they always have.  In many ways,
  they are the dark side of other adventuring groups, thriving on battle
  and pain and evil.  Which is why their base of operations lies in the
  Great Kingdom of Aerdy.
Belphanior:  I'd heard that.  So what are they doing that's such an urgent
  problem for us, here and now?
Kronos:  The Loom of Ages is not the only item in existence that allows
  its bearer to peer through time, into the past - and potentially travel
Belphanior:  Travel back in time?  And tamper with history?
Kronos:  It's not that simple, but basically...yes.  The wizard Chargrim
  has recently acquired an artifact known as the Key of Fate, which - if
  used properly - will enable him to journey to the center of time.  This
  cannot be allowed - the harm he could do there would potentially be
Belphanior:  Can he actually alter history - undo things that have already
Kronos:  Alter, erase, rewrite.  (his eyes shine a bit brighter, the red
  glow casting weird shadows across his hooded face)  Yes.
Belphanior:  (shakes his head)  I thought you once told me that the past
  _couldn't_ be changed.
Kronos:  This is...difficult to explain.  Time is linear, just as a path
  from one place to another in this world, but it is not normally possible
  to move backward along that path.  Not without the aid of unique and
  powerful items or magic, at least.  But when one can accomplish that -
  if they possess an item such as the Loom of Ages or the Key of Fate -
  they can interrupt the flow of previous events, by re-entering the
  timeline earlier.  This then spins off a divergent, parallel reality
  from that point, like a tree growing another branch.
Paige:  (falling behind in this conversation, she shakes her head)  This
  is giving me a headache.
Belphanior:  (ignores her, addressing Kronos)  So you're saying that each
  instance of someone interfering in time...creates a parallel existence,
  or world, or whatever - that begins at the point of the interference?
Kronos:  Basically.
Belphanior:  It seems like things would get messy...multiple realities,
  each with different versions of the people, the items...everything.
Kronos:  It would quickly become a convoluted mess of epic proportions.
  Using the analogy of the tree, imagine adding more and more branches
  to a main branch that can only bear so much weight.  At some point, the
  root branch simply...snaps.  The worlds further down that branch would
  be thrown into turmoil, and the very fabric of reality endangered.  And
  this is precisely why it is unwise to journey back in time.  _Looking_
  is fine, but _changing_ is not.  Enough meddling could cause all reality
  to warp, perhaps even collapse.
Belphanior:  Then why is Chargrim going to make this attempt?
Kronos:  He only recently obtained the Key of Fate, and only more recently
  learned exactly what it was and what it could do.  He seeks power, and
  thinks the Key will secure it for him in the least time, with the least
  effort.  (he frowns)  And he might be right, for the Key's primary use
  is to transport its bearer to the Center of Time.
Belphanior:  But if this thing is so powerful, and so dangerous, why the
  hell didn't you just deal with it before now?
Kronos:  Because I thought it destroyed.  (he sighs)  Clearly I was wrong.
  (quietly)  Despite what I have found in the ancient lore of worlds, it
  seems that the only way to truly and permanently destroy the Key is to
  actually immerse it in the Center of Time.
Belphanior:  Wait, is this a general term - the center of time - or an
  actual place - the Center of Time?
Kronos:  The is a central core, a hub...a nexus from which
  all other points in time can be reached.
Belphanior:  And this is the same Center of Time that the thing takes its
  owner to?  I don't understand.
Paige:  For what it's worth, neither do I.
Belphanior:  Why would anyone create an item whose main purpose is also
  tied to the only means of putting an end to it?
Kronos:  (shrugs)  The whims of the gods, I suppose.  Some of them are
  quite mad, you know.
Belphanior:  So...we need to travel there, and stop Chargrim, and perhaps
  destroy this Key of Fate while we're at it?  (he frowns)  I get the idea
  that none of those things will be trivial.
Kronos:  It won't just be Chargrim.  The dangers there are too great, and
  it seems likely that he will bring some or all of the others with him.
  (he sits up straight)  Which is why we need to maximize our forces as
Belphanior:  "We" ?
Kronos:  Yes. and your team...Parekh and her companions.
  Everyone.  There will only be one chance to stop this madness, and we
  must increase our odds as much as is reasonably possible.
Belphanior:  I'm more than a little hesitant about this new mission, given
  all the challenges and ordeals that my group recently suffered through.
  Are you certain?
Kronos:  I have no wish to deal with this either, but we must...else the
  wizard, and indeed all of the Crimson Blades, may gain enough power to
  rule this world...or perhaps others.  Trying to stop them at that point
  will be even more difficult.  (his red eyes glow a bit brighter)  The
  time is _now_.
Belphanior:  Can you convince Parekh and that whole crew?  I'm sure they
  all have other things they're busy with at the moment.
Kronos:  Leave that to me.
Belphanior:  (sighs)  We'll go back and inform the others.  What's the
  next step?
Kronos:  I shall contact you, likely in a day's time.
Belphanior:  (stands, turning to Paige)  Let's get back.  There's much to
  be done.
Paige:  I guess this means we're not going to Greyhawk.

next:       assemblage
released:   10/1/2021
notes:      I may have tried to explain my viewpoint on time travel in a
  previous episode, at some point, but basically this was it.  There is
  not a single timeline that can be altered via time travel to the past.
  If you mess with things, an alternate timeline/world gets split off at
  that point, and then it unfolds however it will given whatever change
  was introduced that spawned it.  Too much of this can destroy the whole
  universe, which is why you shouldn't mess with it.  Unfortunately, our
  friend Chargrim doesn't know this, and so they have to stop him.
    I have to be careful here; time travel can get confusing, and I don't
  want to write myself into a corner, or worse, end up being inconsistent.
  Ideally this arc will touch on time without getting too deep into the
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