Chapter #973

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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       +
+   1991-2009 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        +
+   Otto           10th/13th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  11th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        13th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+   Date:          1/3/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          early evening                                          +
+   Place:         a fortress in the clouds above Oerth's surface         +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "Some of us have always lived on is possible to survive     +
+    there if observe rules...just hang on by fingernails and never       +
+    look down"                                                           +
+                                          - Rorschach, from _Watchmen_   +

                   CMLXXIII.  Mysterious Castle

  In the space of a single day, Belphanior and his companions had been
through enough adventure for a lifetime.  First, they'd explored an
ancient and long-sealed dungeon complex in the Vale of Death, and lived
to tell of it...only to face the death knight Gorath.  The victory over
the undead lord had been a hollow one, as they'd suffered the death of
a party member, the deep gnome Elgon.  Nevertheless, things had been
looking up as they headed home - until a badly-worded Wish spell had
catapulted Belphanior and four others into some distant world.  There,
they'd been captured by a strange extra-dimensional being, who apparently
planned to subject them to a bizarre, torturous series of experiments and
examinations.  Upon escaping from that eerie predicament, they'd finally
returned to their home world...only to find themselves within a castle
in the clouds, floating in the sky high above the world below.

Otto:  This really is unbelievable.

  By now, the others had also ascended to the ledge, and were staring
awestruck at the world far, far beneath them.

Skektek:  You can barely make out the cities below...they're just mere
  specks.  Damn, this place is high above the ground.
Ys:  (shrugs, commenting matter-of-factly)  It's a cloud.  Of course
 it's high above the ground.
Belphanior:  Well, at least we're kind of used to this, thanks to all
  those trips in the skyship.
Otto:  So what now?  Surely we could get back to the skyship, or the
  gateway in the Pelisso - by means of teleportation.
Belphanior:  (nods)  We could...but this place intrigues me.  Not only
  is it a mystery, but it's an unusual mystery.  I'd like to explore a
  bit...see what we can find.
Skektek:  I'm all for that, but maybe we should consider resting first,
  maybe even camping for the night.  I've used up quite a few spells
  in today's various escapades, and I need some time to get back up to
  full strength.
Belphanior:  (considers this)  Agreed...but we'll have to find a safe
  place here to hole up for the night.

  The elf didn't mention his main concern, which was that if the group
departed this castle in the sky, they might never get back.  Who knew
if the castle was normally guarded, or if it might move, or whatever...
there was no telling what might prevent them from returning here via a
teleportation spell.  Something like this was not to be taken lightly,
and since they were already here, Belphanior much preferred to deal with
it right away, which meant not letting it out of his sight.
  A brief exploration revealed that the open-air courtyard completely
encircled the castle's central keep, and was in turn surrounded by the
outer wall:

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ clouds ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  The exterior wall was two hundred feet square, with a tower at each
of its four corners.  The wall was twenty feet higher than the floor of
the courtyard, and the towers' top walls were twenty feet higher than
the top of the main outer wall.  The interior side of that wall had a
ten-foot-wide ledge all the way around, about four feet vertically below
the top of the wall.  The four main outer walls each had two narrow stone
stairways leading up to these ledges, and doorways led from the courtyard
floor into each of the four towers, forty feet below their topmost point.

  The massive central keep rose from the middle of the courtyard, its
lower portion built into the castle beneath the courtyard while its upper
portion towered over a hundred feet above the courtyard's dirt floor.
A scant few windows - all of them protected by iron bars - dotted this
keep's wall at heights of approximately forty, sixty, and eighty feet.

  As for the main (outer) castle itself, there was no way of knowing how
tall it truly was; looking down, the exterior wall was visible for about
a hundred feet before clouds shrouded the base of the castle.  These same
clouds extended about two hundred feet out horizontally in all directions
from the castle.

Otto:  (looking down at the cloud cover that obscures the base of the
  castle's outer wall)  So this castle could be a hundred feet high...or
  a thousand.
Skektek:  One thing's for sure:  there are no doors, windows, or other
  openings anywhere on that outer wall.
Belphanior:  Then again, this isn't the sort of place you have to defend
  by conventional means.  (he finds himself wondering if the castle used
  to be a normal castle and then somehow got moved to the clouds...or if
  it was built up here to begin with)

  The central keep had a large pair of sturdy-looking double doors at
ground level, in the center of its east-facing wall.  These twin portals
were fashioned of solid metal, ten feet high and eight feet wide apiece,
and were flush with the stone wall around them.  A lack of any visible
hinges, handles, or keyholes suggested that they opened inward, probably
at the behest of whoever was within the keep.

Belphanior:  (eyeing the doors)  These aren't magic - aside from the
  overall magic of this entire place, I mean - but we'd better check
  carefully for traps and such.

  Otto assisted the elf in performing a thorough inspection of the metal
doors; although they found no traps, it was secured from the other side,
probably by a thick beam of some sort.

Belphanior:  We have ways of-

  The elf stepped back suddenly, purely on instinct.  He didn't know why
the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up, but like many veteran
adventurers, he had a sort of sixth sense that warned him when something
wasn't right.

Otto:  (emulates the elf's actions, and they both back away from the
  double doors, swords raised)  What's going on?
Belphanior:  I'm not quite sure...I sense no souls, but rather some weird
  magic..._something_ is on the other side of those doors...something bad.
Skektek:  (readies his thunder ring)
Ys:  (readies his gigantic broadsword)
Razor Charlie:  (readies a throwing knife)

  They didn't have to wait long.  First there was a vague hissing sound
from behind the door...and then a black gas began to issue forth from
the seams around and between the two doors.  At first it was just a wisp
above the door, another beneath, one to the side...but as more of the
gas got through the portal, it began to coalesce into a single, larger
cloud.  The stuff was dull black - a complete lack of color - and it
didn't reflect or admit any light.

Skektek:  I don't like the looks of that thing-
Belphanior:  Then blast it, while it's still coming through the doors!
Skektek:  Right.

  The wizard extended his hand, and a mighty blast of electricity issued
forth.  The black gas-cloud was an easy target, and as the great bolt of
lightning exploded, the cloud was blown apart, hundreds of black tendrils
scattered in every direction.  Some of these fell to the courtyard floor,
and wherever a piece of the gas-cloud touched the grass...the grass was

Otto:  Whoa.
Skektek:  (watching the tendrils of black vapor drift about)  Uh...guys?
  It's not dead.

  Indeed, the scattered "pieces" of the cloud were joining together,
their number diminishing as their aggregate size increased.  At the rate
its pieces were merging, the cloud would be completely reformed in a very
short time.

Belphanior:  Everyone, split up - no point in giving it a single target!
Ys:  What _is_ that thing?
Belphanior:  Some sort of guardian, probably...the perfect guardian.  It
  didn't damage the stone of the castle wall, or the metal in the door,
  but it destroyed the grass on contact.  My guess is that the gas-cloud
  disintegrates anything living that it touches...leaves the surrounding
  area undamaged and intact, but obliterates all people within.
Otto:  That's not good.
Belphanior:  No, it's not.

  The cloud had re-integrated itself, and was moving toward them now at
a brisk pace - certainly fast enough to have some modicum of intelligence
or at least purpose.  As the adventurers spread out, the black cloud of
gas lingered for a brief moment, and then drifted toward Belphanior.

Belphanior:  It must think I'm the most powerful.
Otto:  You were also the closest.

  Veterans of countless battles, the adventurers had positioned themselves
so that each could attack the cloud without having a teammate in the way.

Skektek:  (lets fly with a volley of magical missiles, which blast small
  gaps in the cloud)  Hah!  (he watches as these areas rapidly fill
  themselves in and the cloud advances, unaffected)  Crap.
Belphanior:  Everyone - no swords!  I doubt they'll work on this thing,
  and there's no point putting yourself in harm's way.  (he quickly casts
  a mirror image spell, creating multiple duplicates of himself, spaced
  apart so that they present multiple targets)

  This seemed to give the black cloud pause for a moment...until it then
moved directly toward the actual Belphanior.

Belphanior:  (backing away)  How did it know...?

  The elf was considering his next move and his various options, which
included using his cube of force (pointless, as it wouldn't protect the
others and would also trap him) or perhaps a conjured acid storm.  While
he was thinking, Otto let fly with several crossbow bolts, and Charlie
threw several knives - none of which had any effect on the floating mass
of dark vapors.

Otto:  (fully aware that the main purpose of his attacks was to distract
  the thing from its relentless pursuit of Belphanior, he curses as the
  cloud continues to hound the elf)

  It was relatively easy to move about the courtyard and evade the cloud
for the short term, but that strategy would not work for long.  Some of
the party (Skektek with his ring of flying, Charlie with his bracer of
speed) could avoid the cloud for longer, but the others would eventually
fall victim to it...and everywhere the cloud's body touched the grass of
the outdoor courtyard, that grass withered into nothingness.

Belphanior:  We've got to end this now.
Skektek:  Agreed.  (he drops a web on top of the cloud, but it simply
  wafts upward between the strands, not even sticking to them)
Belphanior:  (hits the cloud with a magical gust of wind, which actually
  forces the vaporous enemy away from the party and into one corner of
  the courtyard, near a tower)  That should buy us some time...
Otto:  (winds his mithril horn, intending to summon allies to help in
  this fight)

  Unfortunately, the horn failed to function - no fierce, well-armored
mystical warriors appeared from elsewhere to help the adventurers deal
with their bizarre foe.

Otto:  Crap.
Skektek:  Let's try cooking the thing outright.  (he lets fly with a
  fireball, which explodes directly on the cloud while it's still away
  from the adventurers, pushed into the corner of the courtyard by the
  gust of wind)

  The ground beneath their feet shook with the force of the fiery blast,
and that entire corner and tower were temporarily obscured by the flames
and smoke.

Skektek:  Any gas, no matter how magical, can be evaporated by a good
Ys:  This is no time to be smug - look.
Skektek:  Dammit!  You've got to be kidding me!

  The black cloud had been dispersed into hundreds of smaller pieces,
just like before with the lightning bolt...and just like before, it was
gathering, re-assembling itself through some malevolent will or force.

Belphanior:  Stand back, everyone.

  The next offensive tactic, set up during Skektek's fireball, was a
storm of acid from Belphanior's; as the elf completed his spell, great
drops of corrosive green rain smothered the black cloud, sending acrid
fumes into the air.

Skektek:  It's working!
Belphanior:  Wait...(he watches with a mix of shock and awe as black
  tendrils of vapor become visible from within the miniature storm of
  acid)  This is beginning to border on the inconceivable.

  The green droplets of acidic rain were now being swallowed up by the
dark cloud, which began to billow forth yet again.  It moved out of the
courtyard's corner and headed toward Belphanior yet again.

Belphanior:  By the gods, is this thing unstoppable?
Skektek:  Maybe, but then maybe it can be banished.  Let's find out...
  (he casts a Dispel Magic upon the cloud of gas)

  This spell stood the best chance yet - in theory - of destroying the
black cloud...but it, too, failed to have any effect.

Skektek:  Shit.  I figured we could dispel it for sure.
Belphanior:  Unless...(he scrutinizes the black cloud more closely,
  really focusing on it for the first time)  Unless it's not actually
  magical at all...
Otto:  What are you-
Belphanior:  (pumps his fist)  Hah!  (shouting)  Stop the thing, slow it
  down, whatever!  I just need a little time!
Skektek:  Check.  (he launches another bolt of lightning, which explodes
  and breaks the gas-cloud into many fragments, just like before)
Belphanior:  Everyone, back away!

  As the strange cloud re-formed, Belphanior was ready.  The sand in
his enchanted hourglass was almost entirely in the bottom section, which
meant that the item's vast powers were almost depleted.  The hourglass'
power would replenish itself, but gradually - which meant that the elf
had perhaps one more chance in the near future to use the item.  He had
to make that chance count.

Belphanior:  (approaches the temporarily-stationary cloud, his right
  hand grasping the hourglass of Kronos)  Now we'll see.  (he speaks the
  artifact's command word)

  Time stopped in a small area around the elf - an area which included
the black cloud.  Working quickly, Belphanior stashed the hourglass and
raised his left hand high, brandishing the equally-powerful item held
within...a small metal bottle.

Belphanior:  (speaks one arcane word of power, removes the stopper from
  the container, then utters another command word)

  The immobile black cloud was instantly drawn into the iron flask, which
the elf immediately sealed.

Belphanior:  There.
Otto:  Whoa.
Skektek:  Well done...but what if it hadn't worked as you hoped?
Belphanior:  Then I would have tried a spell of disintegration.
Ys:  Not to interrupt, but I believe we now have another issue to deal

  The huge reptilian motioned with his broadsword to the immobile body
that had appeared on the ground above the gas-cloud's previous location.
It was a slender woman of average height but extraordinary beauty; she
was perhaps thirty or thirty-five years of age.  Her straight, shoulder-
length black hair fell about pale white shoulders.  The woman was clad
in a simple tunic and appeared to be sleeping peacefully.  Her wrists
were secured by a pair of thin iron manacles.

Razor Charlie:  (grimaces hatefully at the woman's limp form)
Skektek:  It's that Drusilla witch-vampire-sorceress, from the first
  teleportation gateway we explored, in the Pelisso Swamp.
Otto:  (about to wonder aloud why the vampiress isn't burning to ashes,
  he realizes that the sun has gone down and it's evening now)
Ys:  What is she doing here?
Belphanior:  The iron flask can only hold one prisoner at a time; when
  the black cloud entered, the previous occupant was...expelled.  (he
  begins rummaging around in his portable hole)
Otto:  Drusilla, huh?  If I recall correctly, she's now lacking a mind,
  since Jenna's spell wiped it clean.
Skektek:  Mind or not, she's still quite dangerous...even unwittingly,
  her touch will still drain life energy.  I shudder to think what
  might happen if she wakes up and walks around mindlessly.
Razor Charlie:  That'll be tough, since she's wearing my holy manacles
  of vampire-stopping.  (he frowns, muttering to himself)  Which I'd
  forgotten I even owned...
Belphanior:  (hefting a glowing longsword fashioned from some sort of
  white metal)  Manacles or no manacles, it won't matter.

  And with that, the elf stabbed the unconscious vampiress in the heart
with the glowing blade!

Skektek:  Hmm.  Ruthless, and definitely a bit sudden...but effective.
Belphanior:  We'll see.

  The strike was perfect, a guaranteed lethal blow, especially against
a defenseless and immobile foe.  Dark red blood, almost black in color
and very thick in composition, welled from the fatal wound after the elf
removed the sword.

Belphanior:  (notes that not a single drop of Drusilla's blood remains
  on the sword)
Otto:  (notes that the vampiress' wound is glowing with a pure, white

Belphanior:  Pay attention now.  This should be interesting.

  The dark blood stopped flowing, and the horrible wound closed itself.
The strong, clean white light now surrounded Drusilla's entire corpse,
and even the non-spellcasters could sense powerful forces at work.  The
radiance grew so powerful that they had to avert their eyes...and then,
just like that, the light was gone.
  And Drusilla was changed.  Her straight shoulder-length hair, formerly
jet-black, was now so blond that it bordered on white.  Her skin, which
had been extremely pale and pallid before, now shone with a healthy
luster.  Most significantly, the woman's chest rose and fell with every
breath she now took.

Skektek:  (gaping in wonder and confusion)  What the hell just happened?
Belphanior:  I just tested something that needed testing...and, I'd
  wager, we just witnessed the transformation of an undead creature into
  a living woman of flesh and blood once more.
Otto:  This is too much.  (he sits down)  After all we've been through
  today, I just don't think I can take any more weirdness.
Belphanior:  (hefts the white blade)  This sword, which we found in one
  of the gateways along with some other mighty artifacts, is called the
  Moonsword.  Legend has it that any undead being slain by this blade
  will be reborn as a living, breathing mortal.  Neera told me this long
  ago, and it was confirmed by Alindyar's wife Lyra.  (he sheathes the
  weapon and prepares to put it away within the portable hole)  All that
  remained, you see, was a practical test, which became possible today
  after the imprisonment of that gas-creature.
Otto:  Speaking of which...if we were smart, we'd bury that flask in a
  deep, dark place where nobody will ever find it.  The gas-cloud is too
  dangerous to risk having around - just think what would happen if it
  ever escaped.
Belphanior:  (nods)  I agree with your point, but as with anything really
  dangerous, the gas-creature might come in handy at some point.
Skektek:  (gesturing to the sleeping woman)  What about her?
Razor Charlie:  (checking her mouth for fangs)  Looks normal, but you
  never can tell.
Otto:  (glancing at the evening sky)  We'll find out for sure in the
  morning, when the sun comes up.
Belphanior:  In the meantime, the holy manacles are still on if
  she's still a vampire, she's secured, so if she's still dangerous when
  she wakes up, she can't do anything out of the ordinary.
Skektek:  Assuming she has any consciousness left.
Belphanior:  Time will tell.

  The next question at hand was where they could all rest in safety and
peace.  Everyone was exhausted, magic was running low, they were short
on healing potions and had no healing magic.  In other words, the time
had come to call it a day and stop exploring and fighting.  The double
doors to the central keep were out of the question, as no one knew what
further guardians lurked beyond those twin portals.  The open courtyard
was a possibility, but it was vast and thus difficult to defend.  Any of
the four castle towers offered the protection of thick, sturdy walls,
but they still had multiple entrances:  one door at the courtyard level,
another twenty feet higher at the ledge level, and then the open roof
which could allow a flying attacker to land and make its way down into
the tower.
  On the bright side, Belphanior's sword detected no souls anywhere
nearby, which meant that any actual intelligent denizens (or guardians)
of this place were far below, in the depths of the castle.  Naturally,
some sort of sentry would have to be posted, in case another foe like
the gas-cloud showed up.

Belphanior:  Okay, here's the deal:  we'll camp in one of the towers,
  barricading the roof hatch and both doors with physical and magical
  methods.  And we'll post a sentry and rotate that shift throughout
  the night.  That's about the best we can do.

  The elf eventually thought of something else he could do, which was to
use the Book of Beasts to summon multiple monsters to serve as additional
guardians so the party could better rest.  Unfortunately, every one of
the book's summoning spells failed!

Belphanior:  It figures.
Skektek:  Well, Otto's horn of warrior-summoning didn't work either.  I
  had thought that might be somehow due to the black cloud, but maybe
  it's a property of this place itself...
Belphanior:  (raises one eyebrow)  That could be.  (he looks around)
  Given the evidence, I'm betting that this place is protected by some
  sort of anti-teleportation magic or effect.  Nothing gets in, nothing
  gets out, and that's why the summoning spells failed.  And also, in
  theory, it's why a teleportation spell would fail.
Skektek:  But if you're wrong, and you teleport out of here, you have the
  same problem you mentioned earlier:  you might not be able to get back
  here, say, if the anti-teleportation effect was only one-way.
Belphanior:  Right.  (he sighs)  But it doesn't really matter at the
  moment, because I can't cast any more teleportation spells today.  I
  think the time has come to camp, set up guards and wards, and get some
Otto:  The towers are about twenty feet square on the inside, which is
  plenty of room, and not too tough to fortify.  We've got all kinds of
  defenses to bring into play.  (having run a length of thick chain
  through Drusilla's manacles, he searches for something to secure the
  chain to)
Ys:  (produces a huge iron spike and a gigantic hammer, secures the loose
  end of the chain to the spike, and pounds it into the ground of the
  courtyard)  There.
Otto:  (nods)  That gives her a five-foot roaming range, if she wakes up.
  And with her out here and us in the tower nearby, she can't reach us
  while we sleep.
Belphanior:  Good work.  Whoever's on guard at any particular time needs
  to keep an eye on her too.
Razor Charlie:  Don't worry.
Skektek:  What if she _is_ still a vampire and the morning sun comes up
  out there?  She'll be burned to ashes.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  If she's still a vampire, she's too dangerous to
  have around anyway.  The sun will save us the trouble of staking her.
Otto:  (nods)

  Thanks to walls of force, spells of alarm, and other spells - plus
strategically placed caltrops and noisemakers, not to mention the lack
of further guardians such as the black gas-cloud - they had a safe night
and got the rest they needed.  Everyone felt much better the following

Belphanior:  (stretching as the sun rises on a new day, filling the
  tower with light)  Damn, I needed that.
Otto:  We all did.
Razor Charlie:  (gestures with one thumb to the still-sleeping Drusilla,
  whose body is awash in the morning sunlight, with no ill effect)  She's
  definitely not a vampire any more.
Belphanior:  (frowns)  I didn't think she'd be.  We'll give her a little
  more time to wake up.  Leave her there for now - she's secured and we
  have work to do.
Skektek:  What's the next order of business?  Explore this place?
Belphanior:  Yup.
Otto:  Any guards still within must not know we're here.  Maybe they're
  passive, or automated.
Belphanior:  If there are any.
Ys:  Surely you don't think a place like this is completely abandoned?
Belphanior:  Not at all.  My guess would be that this upper area isn't
  important enough to patrol.  Of course, the fact that the castle is
  high up in the sky might mean that its inhabitants aren't used to
  visitors, and thus have no need of guards.
Otto:  Or it might mean that we're no threat to them at all.
Skektek:  (flashing his thunder ring)  I'm always a threat to someone.
Belphanior:  To be honest, I'm wondering if that damned unstoppable gas-
  cloud _was_ the guardian.  Something's not right here, but we won't
  learn what it is until we look around a bit.

  The operative issue now was how to proceed with the exploration of the
castle.  The towers offered no access to the portion of the castle below
the courtyard's floor - that was also the floor of the towers.  They were
only functional near the top, as opposed to any normal castle in which
exterior towers would serve a defensive purpose from the ground level all
the way up.  The outdoor courtyard's floor was dirt and grass, with no
access to anything except the four corner towers, and the double doors
leading into the central keep.  As noted before, these twin portals were
fashioned of solid metal, ten feet high and eight feet wide apiece, and
were flush with the stone wall all around them.  The lack of any visible
hinges, handles, or keyholes implied that the doors opened inward.
  As discerned before, the doors weren't any more (or less) magical than
any other part of this castle in the sky, and they also didn't have any

Otto:  Well, technically the gas-cloud counted as a trap.
Belphanior:  It was worse than a trap.  For people without our magic and
  other resources, the cloud would have been _the_ trap...the kind you
  don't walk away from.

  The double doors were secured by a beam or similar device on the far
side, but this was quickly overcome using magic...and the massive double
doors opened, squeaking on rusty hinges that hadn't seen use in a long
time.  Beyond was a single gigantic chamber - the entire ground level of
the keep was one large space!

TOP VIEW of keep's ground floor:

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        |                ____________                |       N
        |               |            |               |      W+E
        |               |            |/              |       S
        |               |                            |
        |               |                            |    _| = 10'
        |               |#           |\              |
        |               |###_________|               |    #  = stairs up
        |                                            |
        |                                            |

  More than fifty feet across, this large square chamber had five-foot
thick walls of solid stone, and a thirty-foot ceiling.  In the far left
(southwestern) corner was a stone stairway built into the wall, leading
upward to a higher floor.
  This chamber was filled with an amazing assortment of weaponry, all
lined up in neat rows.  Catapults and ballistae rested next to small
wagons full of the appropriate ammunition for each...and there were
more than one kind.  Besides the normal large, round stones used for
catapults, there were also spiked metal spheres, clay jars that could be
filled with liquids, and so on.  In addition to the standard spear-like
ballista projectiles, there were others with multiple heads, or coils of
rope attached, or nets.  The weapons cache didn't just consist of large-
scale war machinery, though - racks against one wall held a wide variety
of swords, spears, pikes, axes, and such - while another wall seemed to
be devoted to bows, crossbows, and huge quantities of ammunition.

Otto:  (his eyes alight)  If you had to get ready for a great battle,
  this is the kind of room you retreat to.
Belphanior:  And, judging by the condition and arrangement of everything
  here, the occupants of this place never had their great battle.
Razor Charlie:  Should we search here?
Belphanior:  Not right now.  There are no souls nearby, and since no
  aggressive clouds of lethal gas have appeared, it's probably safe to
  assume this room's deserted.  (he glances at the stone steps in the
  far corner)  Let's keep moving - I want to see what's up there.

  Before they could do that, they came across a pile of clothes on the
bottom section of the stone stairway.

Belphanior:  (poking at some breeches with his sword)  Hmm.
Otto:  I also see sandals and a tunic.
Belphanior:  (his crystal eye glowing mildly)  Those sandals are magical,
  though not overly so.  Someone collect them so we have a stock of all
  magical treasure.
Skektek:  Why would someone just leave their clothes lying around?
Belphanior:  Maybe we'll find out soon enough.  Let's go.

  The steps led upward, through a thick ceiling, and onto the next floor
of the keep.  This level had a fifteen-foot ceiling, four smaller rooms
with barred windows, and a staircase tucked between two of the rooms, the
steps leading up yet again, to a third floor.

TOP VIEW of keep's second floor:

        |                                            |
        |                __.______.__                |       N
        |               |     |#|    |               |      W+E
        |               :     |#|    :               |       S
        |               |___ _|#|_  _|               |
        |               |  _  __   __|               |    _| = 10'
        |                 |    |     :               |
        |                 |.___|__.__|               |    .  = window
        |                                            |    :  = window
        |                                            |    #  = stairs up

  The four chambers on this level appeared to be living quarters, simply
and functionally furnished.  Each had a large bed, wardrobe, washbasin,
chamberpot, and a small desk with a chair.  One of the rooms' beds was
rumpled, and when they examined it, the adventurers found a night-robe
in the bed, under the covers.

Skektek:  I hope this isn't some kind of nudist-castle-in-the-sky, you
Belphanior:  I seriously doubt it.
Otto:  Well, you know what they say about some gods...they get bored...
Skektek:  (smirks)
Belphanior:  (eyeing the room's washbasin, which like those in the other
  rooms is an elaborate stone affair)  Hmm, this is magical.  (he begins
  examining the basin)  Though too large to cart away...

  Nothing noteworthy happened until the elf put a hand inside the tub,
at which point it began to magically fill with warm water.

Belphanior:  (withdraws his hand, and the tub stops filling)  How very
Skektek:  Hey, if the chamberpots are magical like that too, let's not
  experiment with them right now, okay?
Belphanior:  Don't worry.  We have more exploring to do, upstairs.

  The next level also had a fifteen-foot ceiling, and four more rooms
like the last floor (though they were laid out differently.)  The stairs
up to the level above were tucked directly under the stairs leading down.

TOP VIEW of keep's third floor:

        |                                            |
        |                __.______.__                |       N
        |               |   |  __    |               |      W+E
        |               :     |#|    :               |       S
        |               |   | |#|____|               |
        |               |___| ____  _|               |    _| = 10'
        |               |      |     :               |
        |               |__.___|__.__|               |    .  = window
        |                                            |    :  = window
        |                                            |    #  = stairs up

  They found the same furniture here as on the second floor, including
the magical water-generating basins.

Skektek:  Someone went to a lot of trouble to make quarters where those
  within would feel comfortable.
Otto:  (examining the bars on one of the windows)  These are thick, and
Belphanior:  Also magical, at least as far as being resistant to damage
  and removal, I'd wager.  (he looks around, muttering to himself)  This
  is as nice a home as anyone could ask for.

  Perhaps not unsurprisingly, they found sets of clothes in two of the
rooms here - one was piled atop a bed, while the other was strewn about
the floor of a different room, as if the owner of the clothes had been
lying on the floor...and then just vanished.  One of the rooms with the
clothes had an enchanted ring in the bed, while the other room had a wand
in the desk's drawer.  Both of these items were collected.
  The level above - the fourth floor - was obviously the living quarters
for the master of the castle.  Coming up the steps, they turned to their
left, finding stone steps leading upward;  A short distance past this
stairway, the passage ended with a nice, ornate wooden door on the left.

TOP VIEW of keep's fourth floor:

        |                                            |       N
        |                ____________                |      W+E
        |               |,,_    | () |               |       S
        |               |_  |#|_|_  _|               |
        |               |            |               |    _| = 10'
        |               :            :               |
        |               |            |               |   ,,  = door
        |               |_____.._____|               |    .  = window
        |                                            |    :  = window
        |                                            |    #  = stairs up

  This door was locked (by non-magical means) but that was quickly
bypassed, revealing what could only be described as a suite.  A 10' x 20'
antechamber led into a much larger room which was well over two thousand
square feet.  The entire floor was covered in thick, plush carpet whose
quality was among the highest they'd ever seen.  The furniture - a huge
bed, a wardrobe, a dresser, a desk, two tables, six chairs, and a large
trunk - was a little on the rich side as far as they were concerned.

Otto:  (poking a table leg, which wobbles)  Cheap.  It's all for show,
  not function.
Ys:  Then again, who are we to judge the taste of this castle's owners?
Belphanior:  (quietly)  As far as I'm concerned, we _are_ the castle's
  owners now.

  To the northeast, a separate chamber contained a huge marble tub and
more ornate furniture of the sort typically found in bathing chambers.
A few of the items in this suite were magical, but only moderately so,
and Belphanior guessed that these were merely other creature comforts
like the washbasins in the quarters below.  The large trunk, however, was
of more interest...

Belphanior:  It's got many different auras...probably contains multiple
  magic items.  Also some sort of protective magic or magics...I can't
  believe I'm saying this, but let's come back for those - I don't feel
  like pausing in our search to deal with a locked and possibly trapped
Skektek:  (disappointed)  Nuts.
Belphanior:  (thinking about the stairway leading upward)  We've got to
  be near the top of the keep now.
Skektek:  About eighty feet, if I've been keeping track correctly.
Belphanior:  Let's keep moving up.  We can explore everything in detail
  later - I want to finish looking around first.

  The fifth level was a bit smaller than the lower ones, as the keep
tapered a bit at the top.  Its ceiling was 15' high, but it was only
50' in diameter, and had no windows.  Directly across from the stairway
was a large metallic table, around which were eight sturdy, comfortable-
looking wooden chairs.  Oddly enough, three of these chairs were lying
on their side.

TOP VIEW of keep's fifth floor:

        |                                            |      N
        |                   _______                  |     W+E
        |                 /  _     \                 |      S
        |                |  |^|   _||                |
        |                |        _||                |   _| = 10'
        |                |   ##    ||                |
        |                 \________/                 |   ^  = stairs down
        |                                            |   ## = table
        |                                            |

Otto:  (spots something next to one of the toppled chairs)  What's that?
Belphanior:  Don't touch it!  (he walks over, scrutinizing the object
  with his enchanted eye)

  They were looking at a large, ornate metal key with four rows of pins,
lined up in four neat rows near its tip.  The "handle" end of the key
contained a small, clear gemstone.

Belphanior:  It's magical, and of great power...and may have protective
Otto:  Oh, okay.  Thanks.

  The dwarf turned his attention to the other things on the stone floor,
and there were several.  Most prominent were the three rumpled sets of
clothes that were strewn about.  These were complete outfits - boots,
pants, shirts, and in one case a robe, in another a belt with a sword
and a dagger.  A shattered goblet was also on the floor near one of the
empty outfits which was simply lying there, while the other two were a
bit farther away from the table.

Otto:  As if they'd been in the process of fleeing.  Hell, the position
  of the key from the arm of that one robe suggests that it was dropped.
Skektek:  (examining the clothes)  Nothing's gone except the people who
  wore them.  (his eyes light up)  I betcha these were victims of that
  cloud of black gas!
Ys:  Precisely my thoughts.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Look there, on the table.

  On the table's surface were two halves of a small, jet-black stone
sphere, which had obviously been hollow.  A black powder was spilled
on the table around the two pieces.

Belphanior:  (theorizing aloud)  So the gas was some sort of guardian
  or maybe just something in the sphere.  Somehow, it got loose in here
  and ate all the people...and then made its way downstairs and ate all
  those people...and it's just been floating around this keep ever since,
  waiting for more victims.
Otto:  (shudders)  That's fucking spooky.  I still say you should get
  rid of the thing...the gas in your iron flask.  It's way too dangerous
  to have around.
Belphanior:  I think of it as a doomsday weapon.  And those, no matter
  how dangerous, have their uses.
Ys:  It certainly spelled the doomsday of the former residents of this
Belphanior:  (having returned his attention to the key on the floor, he
  decides that it isn't trapped, but simply discarded, and picks it up)

  There were other things of interest in this chamber.  For example, the
bulk of one entire wall was taken up by a gigantic glass mirror, larger
than any mirror any of them had ever seen; its lower edge was five feet
above the floor, while its top edge was at the fifteen-foot ceiling, and
it was nearly thirty feet wide.

Skektek:  That's no mirror - it isn't reflecting anything.
Belphanior:  So I see.  (he examines some of the other contents of the

  In front of the mirror, at its left-right center, was a semicircular
desk-like apparatus, shaped like a reverse "C" and with its surface a
good four feet above the floor.  It was constructed of some dull gray
metal, and it was covered with all sorts of arcane levers, knobs, and
buttons - most of which had neat rows of crystals arranged near them.
These crystals were of several different colors, and some of them glowed
while others were dark.
  Attached to the floor, within the reverse "C" shaped apparatus, was a
comfortable-looking chair of black leather.

Belphanior:  (sits down in the chair)  Ahh...think of the possibilities.
Otto:  Like what?
Belphanior:  (notices a peculiar "+" shaped slot in the semicircular
  surface before him, and eyes the key he found on the floor)  Perfect
  fit, it looks like.  (he turns to the others)  I've seen enough weird
  and arcane things to know a control panel when I see one.
Ys:  But how will we be able to comprehend it?
Belphanior:  Time and study, my friend...time and study.  (to the others)
  Many years ago, I would have just started pulling levers and turning
  knobs...but those days are behind me.
Skektek:  What's the plan, then?
Belphanior:  Let me put it this way, people:  why live in a dungeon under
  a swamp, when we can live in a castle above the clouds?

next:       moving day?
released:   6/19/09
notes:      This episode, so long in the making, is another example of
  my belief that _something_ significant should happen in every single
  episode of the final few dozen.  In this case, of course, multiple
  significant things ideas popped into my head, some new
  possibilities appeared, and I wanted to explore them.  I'm just sorry
  it took so long.  Between work and softball and spending quality time
  with my (relatively new) wife, I'm hellaciously busy and stressed.

    The Drusilla bit was a sudden and unplanned byproduct of the iron
  flask's use, which was also a spontaneous idea.  Sometimes you just
  have to go with the flow of the ideas.  We hadn't seen or heard of
  Drusilla since episode 812 (about 8 months of story time) when she
  first got put in the iron flask.

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