Chapter #994

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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       +
+   1991-2014 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                         +
+   Neera          12th level female human wizard (sage/astrologer)       +
+   Otto           12th/14th level dwarven fighter/thief                  +
+   Razor Charlie  12th level human fighter                               +
+   Skektek        14th level human wizard                                +
+   Ys             14th level reptilian fighter                           +
+   wispy thing    strange, intangible sentient being                     +
+   Date:          5/4/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          morning                                                +
+   Place:         the sky castle, in the clouds above Oerth's surface    +
+   Climate:       cold outside, cozy inside                              +
+   "Talent alone won't make you a success.  Neither will being in        +
+    the right place at the right time, unless you are ready.  The        +
+    most important question is: 'Are you ready?'"                        +
+                                                  - Johnny Carson        +

                   CMXCIV.  An Odd Recruitment

  The dawn of a new morning has coincided with the dawn of a new idea,
one which Belphanior is presenting to his group over breakfast...

Otto:  Well, that's pretty bold.
Belphanior:  Yeah, but it also makes a lot of sense.  Jenna's powers were
  a good fit, and we need a healer, and we're already in the good graces
  of Istus.
Neera:  Presumably.
Belphanior:  (recalling some of the things Jenna said in the past, and
  the visit from the strange elderly woman on behalf of Istus, shortly
  before the assault on Skava-Ra, and the sizable donation made to Istus'
  temple in Jenna's memory)  Probably.
Hope:  This is kind of a gamble.  One does not just walk into a deity's
  temple and ask for assistance in the form of a priestess lent to one's
  adventuring party.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  One is about to.
Skektek:  (shakes his head doubtfully)

  Later that morning, Greyhawk's great temple of Istus had a visitor.
The elf found it somewhat disconcerting that the guards simply stepped
aside to let him pass into the ornately-decorated interior of the place.

young priestess:  (steps forth to meet the visitor)  Follow me.
Belphanior:  (does so, silently, resisting the urge to keep his hand on
  Blackrazor's pommel)

  He was led to an interior chamber, bereft of windows but well-lit by
dozens of candles, their smoke fragrant and perhaps enchanted.  Ahead,
a single priestess sat in a plush chair; this woman was between young
and middle-aged, as humans went.  Perhaps forty years of age, she was
attractive in a matronly way, with a fair but strong face and long brown
hair arranged in an elaborate series of cascading braids.  Between the
woman herself and various items on her person, Belphanior's crystal eye
detected strong auras of magic.  With a start, the elf realized that the
first priestess was no longer present.

high priestess:  Welcome, Belphanior of the Wild Coast.
Belphanior:  That's not really accurate anymore; I'm from lots of places,
  more or less.
high priestess:  Perhaps, but we can never truly stray from our origins.
Belphanior:  (not really sure what that means, he says nothing)
high priestess:  So, you come here seeking the aid of the Lady of Fate.
Belphanior:  Well, not-
high priestess:  There is no need to deny, or attempt to explain.  Your
  intentions were already known to Our Lady.
Belphanior:  How could you know-  (he spreads his hands, shaking his
  head)  No, nevermind.  Silly question.
high priestess:  Be glad, good elf.  Istus, in her wisdom, has chosen to
  grant your desire and provide the aid you seek.
Belphanior:  What?
high priestess:  Dear, departed Jenna was among our Lady's most favored
  servants, and the work she did with you was considered quite important.
  That void must be filled.  You have much work yet to do, before all is
  said and done.
Belphanior:  You speak in riddles, priestess.
high priestess:  And deal in truths.  Another has been designated to take
  on Jenna's role, and assume those duties.  She has been awaiting your
  arrival for some time now.
Belphanior:  That's...well.  I'm not sure what to say.
high priestess:  Then say nothing.  (she stands)  It's time that you met
  your new companion.

  The elf followed the priestess from the chamber, through some corridors
and into another, smaller room.  Although he was apparently going to get
exactly what he came here for, it was still somewhat alarming to have it
just handed to him, especially when someone else besides him had done the
planning.  The unnamed priestess motioned him to have a seat on a couch,
and she then did the same.

high priestess:  She will be here momentarily.
Belphanior:  What if this...replacement isn't...well, doesn't have the
  right personality to work with my other people?
high priestess:  (chuckles)  Oh, I don't think that will be a problem.
  (she looks up, then stands)  Ah.

  The woman who had just entered the room wasn't at all what Belphanior
had expected.  Tall and lean, she looked more like a warrior than a high
priestess.  That look was enhanced by the eyepatch that covered her right
eye, and the prominent scar that started just above it and ran down to
the middle of her cheek.  The woman's short black hair barely reached her
shoulders, and was closely cropped in a manner that spoke of function
rather than any worries about appearance.  Her loose tunic did little to
conceal the fine chain mail - perhaps elven armor - beneath.  Belphanior's
cursory inspection with his crystal eye told him that the woman wore or
carried several magical items, a couple of them quite potent.

high priestess:  Belphanior, meet Irina.  She is one of our temple's most
  experienced high priestesses.
Belphanior:  I could have guessed that.  (he locks gazes with the woman,
  finding hers unwavering)  Pleased to make your acquaintance.
Irina:  (nods briefly)  Likewise.
Belphanior:  You don't seem too happy about this.  Are you sure it's a
  good idea?
Irina:  Anything that Our Lady of Fate bids us to do is a good idea.  As
  for my disposition, I take my work very seriously indeed.
Belphanior:  I'm not surprised.
Irina:  You can rest assured that I'm both competent and professional.
  (to both the elf and the other high priestess)  When do we start?
high priestess:  (glances at Belphanior)
Belphanior:  We just did.  You can go and pack your things-
Irina:  (hefts a small backpack)  No need; I've been ready since this
high priestess:  Excellent.  (she puts a hand on Irina's shoulder)  Do
  Istus' work well.
Irina:  (nods)  As always.  (to Belphanior)  Come.  I'll lead you out of
  the temple, and then we can be on our way.

  Shortly, they stood outside in the midday sun, amongst various other
temples and buildings in the Free City.

Irina:  I've been led to understand that you generally travel via magical
Belphanior:  Correct.  That isn't a problem, is it?  Queasiness, or the
Irina:  (smirks, somehow managing to still look serious)  You must be
Belphanior:  You and Razor Charlie are going to get along great.

  The elf had already gotten the supplies he needed from the city, and
now he led the new companion to the nearest city gate, and then beyond.
As a matter of course, he preferred not to utilize the Eye of Celestian
within Greyhawk's city limits; aside from certain laws, he also didn't
want to attract the direct attention of any of the powerful wizards and
such who made their homes in the great city.

Irina:  You could have just departed from within Istus' temple.  That's
  as secure a location as any.
Belphanior:  Maybe next time.  (he brandishes the mighty sextant and
  invokes its power, an action that has definitely grown easier with
  practice)  It'll be a few seconds now.
Irina:  Very well.

  Shortly, they vanished, magically transported to their destination,
the faraway castle amidst the clouds.  Less than an hour later, after
the team's newest member had been introduced to the rest of the group,
Belphanior showed her to her quarters.

Belphanior:  -and you can get settled in at your own pace.
Irina:  (looking around the chamber)
Belphanior:  Is something wrong?
Irina:  Not overtly, but...something bad happened here.
Belphanior:  Well, this was Jenna's room, before.  Damn, I didn't even
  think about that.  It's no big deal, we can find you a different-
Irina:  No, this will be fine.  It's just...a presence.  Fragments of
  the past often linger in places.  It's actually somewhat comforting,
  knowing that it was Jenna here before me.  The presence of others,
  even in the past...well.  It can be distracting to those of us able
  to sense such things.
Belphanior:  (not really understanding)  Okay, whatever you say.  (he
  glances at the patch over her eye, and the jagged scar beneath it)
Irina:  What?
Belphanior:  That's a rather interesting scar you have there.  How did
  you get it?
Irina:  I'll tell you one day.  Maybe.

  With that, she began unpacking the few possessions she'd brought with
her, and Belphanior left her to settle in, figuring he could give her a
complete tour of the castle later that day.  The elf returned to the
dining hall, where the others were already sharing their opinions of the
new recruit...

Skektek:  She's kind of a bitch.  (he glances around slyly)
Hope:  Don't say it.  Don't even think it.
Skektek:  (innocently)  What?
Razor Charlie:  She looks like she's been around the block, that's for
  damn sure.
Skektek:  From a man of as few words as you, that's practically a ringing
Hope:  (glares at the wizard)  You should consider the possibility that
  the priestess of Istus can sense the gist of your thoughts, and is
  therefore aware of your attitude toward her.
Skektek:  So what?
Hope:  (shakes her head in frustration)
Ys:  I think you're all missing the point.  We needed a healer, and trust
  is hard to come by in our line of work.  We could do a lot worse for a
  new member than what Irina offers, or at least seems to offer.  Perhaps
  we'd be best advised to stop complaining and worrying, and just give
  the woman a chance to prove herself.
Hope:  Well said.
Razor Charlie:  (nods)
wispy thing:  (flitting about aimlessly)  brrrd.
Belphanior:  Everybody has their own way to contribute to the good of
  the team.  We need a priest, both for curative magic and to deal with
  undead and such.  If she can sense danger or...other things worth
  sensing, so much the better.
Otto:  And at first, Jenna's usefulness was in doubt, as some of you may
  remember.  But she proved her worth on more than one occasion.  Irina
  deserves the same chance.
Neera:  She mentioned something about specializing in scrying magic...if
  that skill extends to reading the auras and purpose of magical items,
  I could really use that kind of help.  It's not easy, doing what I do
  to discern the nature of all the magical items you people always bring
  back after your adventures.  Just because I can usually give accurate
  information...doesn't mean it's easy.  A lot of time and effort make
  those results possible.  All of which to say, if she can just help us
  with that, she's got my vote.
Otto:  If she can heal our wounded and dying in the middle of some deep,
  dark dungeon, she's got my vote.
Razor Charlie:  If she can just survive what we do, she's got my vote.
Belphanior:  Time will tell.  (he stands)  And in the meantime, we've got
  work to do.
Skektek:  Eh?
Belphanior:  We - all of us, so I'll let Irina know - will discuss it at
  dinner tonight, and leave tomorrow.  I'd suggest spending the rest of
  today preparing for some travel and exploration tomorrow...and almost
  certainly some fighting.  (he heads out of the chamber)  I'll see all
  of you at suppertime.

  This was somewhat cryptic, but by now the companions were used to such
vague directives, and so they set about readying themselves for whatever
lay ahead.  The warriors checked their weapons and armor...the thieves
checked their equipment and stretched...the wizards carefully reviewed
their spellbooks and chose particular spells to prepare...and the new
priestess silently sought guidance from her deity, to best prepare her
for tomorrow's endeavors.
  As afternoon became evening, the companions regrouped at the supper
table.  While each of them had a different reaction to the upcoming
briefing from Belphanior - ranging from careful preparation to general
anticipation to unbridled excitement - they were all ready to hear the
latest idea or goal, and then participate in the making of the plan to
achieve it.

Belphanior:  (enters the dining hall, finding everyone there and most of
  the others already nibbling at their food)  Ah, excellent.  (to Irina)
  Settled in comfortably?
Irina:  Quite.  Thanks for asking.

  The high priestess of Istus had already resolved to say as little as
possible, opting instead to watch and listen carefully, that she might
learn about her new companions based on their behavior during tonight's
planning session.  Despite what anyone present might have thought of her,
Irina was fairly pleased to be here.  Both the path she'd walked in the
past and her personality weren't really suited for a quiet life within
a temple.  Her superiors, undoubtedly knowing this, had found her this
assignment, which was much better suited for her.  How much of that back-
history she shared with Belphanior and the others, of course, remained
to be seen.

Skektek:  So what's the next mission?  Blasting a castle of undead into
  dust, maybe?  Or crushing a small kingdom.
Irina:  (ignoring the chaotic wizard, who she's already dismissed as a
  blowhard who will say whatever he thinks will impress others)
Belphanior:  Here it is, then.  (he sits down and pours himself a glass
  of fiery brandy, taking a sip before he starts)  I've been thinking.
  We now possess an item that allows us to travel anywhere.  And we also
  have an item that allows us to peer back in time and view past events.
  (he looks around the table, frowning)  So what's missing?
Skektek:  Err...I'm not sure where you're going with this.
Otto:  Whatever you're thinking of, it must be something tactically
Belphanior:  We need a means of locating anyone or anything, wherever
  they might be.  If we had that...we could do anything.  We could find
  anyone, anything...venture with the "who" or learn the
  history of the "what"...such a device would round out our capabilities
  nicely and neatly.
Hope:  How can you be sure that someone's ever built something like that?
Belphanior:  Everything gets built, sooner or later and given the rich
  history of Oerth, I've got no doubt that it's already happened.  Every
  wizard worth his or her robes has a crystal ball...and in the past, my
  old adventuring party utilized a compass that would point the way to
  any specified quarry, be it a person, place, or thing.  While my memory
  is hazy as to exact details, I'm pretty sure that Parekh or Pallin, if
  not Alindyar, already possesses a scrying item of even greater power.
  (he cracks his knuckles)  But I want something better than what they
  have...I want the _most_ powerful such item of this sort, whatever and
  wherever it may be.
Otto:  What about the "whoever has it" part?
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Skektek:  (to Razor Charlie)  Burn it, more likely.
Razor Charlie:  (just grimaces)
Hope:  So that's it?  You want to find a find more things?
Belphanior:  I want to find the thing that lets me find anything.
Ys:  A sensible notion, but how can you know what such an item is, or
  where it might be found?  That will require quite a bit of research.
Belphanior:  (smirks)  Indeed.  Which is why Neera's been working on this
  for the last few days.  (he turns to the slender, dark-haired woman)
Neera:  I have a few leads here, based on the various legends and lore
  I've researched.  There are three possibilities that I've been able to
  identify.  We just have to review the available information and make
  our best guess as to which item is most worth pursuing.
Skektek:  Do you mean "item" or "artifact"?  (he spreads his hands)  Just
  so we're clear.
Neera:  Artifacts, most definitely.  Artifacts all.  (she clears her
  throat before continuing)  The first possibility is the All-Seeing
  Eye, a crystal ball of seemingly unsurpassed power.  It was created
  ages ago by an evil wizard bent on ruling the world, that he might
  seek out allies and enemies alike.
Otto:  To recruit, or to destroy.
Neera:  (nods)  That seems to have been the idea.  The thing passed from
  owner to owner over the millennia, usually violently; the last mention
  of it that I can find has it being owned by an archmage who journeyed
  into the Dramidj Ocean, west of the lands of the Tiger Nomads, seeking
  a lost island said to have gemstones strewn about like fruit fallen
  from trees, and inhabited by dragons the likes of which have never
  been seen elsewhere.
Skektek:  Sounds like fun.
Otto:  Sounds dangerous.
Razor Charlie:  This wizard - whatever happened to him?
Neera:  Unknown.  One would presume that he never came back.  Next, we
  have the Throne of the Gods.  This artifact is probably just what the
  name indicates; enough said.  According to legend, whoever sits upon
  it can see and know all things.
Ys:  That sounds like a better option than the first one.
Neera:  Agreed, but there are drawbacks, the main one being that legend
  also holds that only the worthy can sit upon the throne.  The unworthy
  will be slain instantly.
Belphanior:  Who defines "worthy" in this case?
Neera:  Your guess is as good as mine.  The gods, I suppose.
Belphanior:  (shaking his head)
Neera:  Also, the throne is immobile - wherever it is, that's where it
  stays.  Lack of portability means that we'd have to set up our home
  around it, rather than take it with us.
Hope:  And just where is it?
Neera:  That's the third problem.  No one knows exactly where the thing
  is.  The only clue we have is that it's supposedly located deep within
  a large mountain range.
Otto:  Well, damn.  That could describe a half-dozen or more places on
  this continent.
Neera:  (nods)  So that's the second option.
Belphanior:  How many are there?
Neera:  Three.  Our third possibility is the Seeking Scroll, a vaguely-
  known item with supposedly mighty powers of detection.
Ys:  A scroll?  How would such an item function?
Neera:  No one knows.  I'm just giving you abbreviated summaries of lore,
  hearsay, and facts, mixed together from centuries of recorded history.
Hope:  Mm.  Point taken.
Neera:  This is an imprecise science.  If it's even a science.
Otto:  This scroll...where is it supposed to be?
Neera:  Now that really took some digging - figuratively, not literally,
  of course.  I can't guarantee it, but the thing is most likely to be
  found within the treasure hoard of the great dragon Mesoloth, somewhere
  within the Barrier Peaks.
Skektek:  Well, at least we know where to go.  That's convenient.
Neera:  I wouldn't be so happy about it.  I surmise that the scroll is
  there because it was last known to be in the possession of a great
  wizard-sage who was part of an adventuring band that sought out the
  dragon...and never returned.  I dug a little deeper to find out what
  I could about this dragon - without any luck.  At all.  Apparently,
  no one has encountered it and returned to tell the tale.  So if that's
  the chosen course, the dragon and its treasure will have to be tracked
  the hard way.
Belphanior:  (nods)  So we have three different options here.
Razor Charlie:  All sound dangerous.
Ys:  Look at the bright side, at least we're spoilt for choice.
Neera:  There was a fourth possibility, a holy relic possessed by a god
  of mysteries and the unknown.
Skektek:  Hey, that doesn't sound so bad.
Neera:  This god still has his relic, though, and also dwells on some
  outer plane full of beings of similar power.
Skektek:  Oh.  Well, cross that one off the list.
Belphanior:  (thinking of the powers of the Eye of Celestian, he mutters
  to himself)  Technically, we could...
Irina:  (quietly)  The dragon.
Belphanior:  What's that?
Irina:  Our chances are best with the Scroll, and the dragon; both are
  genuine.  The Eye isn't in the Dramidj Ocean, and doesn't do exactly
  what you want anyway.  And the Throne may not function for any of us,
  plus it has...complications.  So, the most direct path to success lies
  with the Seeking Scroll, although that also isn't the easiest course.
Skektek:  How the hell do you know all this?
Irina:  Because Istus just granted me a vision.
Ys:  (frowns doubtfully)
Otto:  But-
Belphanior:  (holds up a hand, and turns to the high priestess)  Forgive
  us for being skeptical, but why would she tell you the answer we need,
  just like that?
Irina:  I would presume that my goddess wishes you to find what you seek,
  but she doesn't explain herself to me.
Neera:  (hopefully)  Perhaps you could find out more...about the dragon
  and its exact location within the Barrier-
Irina:  (shakes her head)  I have been serving Istus for over a dozen
  years.  In that time, I have had exactly two visions of this magnitude,
  counting this one.  Istus has told me everything she wished to tell me,
  and the rest is up to me.  (she looks around)  Us.
Belphanior:  You're asking for a lot of trust here.
Irina:  So were you, when you came to my Lady's temple seeking aid.  I
  cannot expect you to believe what was just imparted to me, but I do
  believe it myself, and I'd wager my life on that belief.  If you choose
  to, as well, I'll do everything in my power to help you achieve your
  goal.  (she shrugs)  If not, you can pursue one of the other artifacts,
  and I'll still aid you to the best of my ability, but you'll be wasting
Belphanior:  Hmm.

  The elf had to admit that the priestess' logic made sense; in addition,
he considered himself a pretty good judge of people, and he was confident
that she was telling the truth.  Not only would she have no reason to lie,
but her life was at risk just like theirs.

Belphanior:  What do the rest of you think?  Scroll and dragon...or orb
  and island...or throne and mountains...or rod and god?
Otto:  (realizing that the underlying issue here is whether Irina's
  information is accurate or not, and remembering all the unique and
  effective clerical feats that Jenna did during her time with the
  team, and considering that Jenna and Irina share the blessing of the
  same goddess, he rubs his short beard thoughtfully)  I say...scroll
  and dragon.
Irina:  You already know what I think.
wispy thing:  rnnrr.
Irina:  (regards the wisp curiously)
Skektek:  The throne, that's my vote.  That thing just sounds impressive.
Hope:  I'm sure it is, but sitting in it and perishing won't be.  I'm
  for either the scroll or the orb, I feel equally about either.
Neera:  I don't like dragons, and I may not be going, but the scroll
  makes the most sense to me, especially given the new information.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces, twirling a knife in the fingers of one hand)
  I really don't care.
Belphanior:  Ys?
Ys:  I'm no wizard, so I'll trust your judgment on this matter.
Belphanior:  All right, then.  (he stands)  The Barrier Peaks it is...
  the Seeking Scroll, and the dragon.  (he frowns)  This trip could last
  for days or even weeks, and it'll be cold in those mountains, so dress
  and pack accordingly.  We leave at dawn.

  After everyone else had filed out of the room, only Otto remained with
the elf.

Belphanior:  What's on your mind?
Otto:  We're trusting her a lot here.  My gut tells me it's the right
  move, but as with any big gamble, you still have to stop for a moment
  and think about what you're about to do.
Belphanior:  Agreed.  Bear in mind that just about everything we've ever
  achieved was the result of such gambles...and we came out ahead, much
  more often than not.
Otto:  There were times when we made our own luck...stacked the deck in
  our favor.
Belphanior:  Which still holds true with the gambling analogy.  I have
  a feeling it'll work out.  What do you think?
Otto:  A grizzled old warrior in Perrenland once told me that there are
  two places where new companions can truly bond and build some level of
  trust.  One is the supper table.  The other is the battlefield.  What
  do I think?  I think that one way or another, we'll know tomorrow.

next:       to the Barrier Peaks!
released:   4/25/2014
notes:      If you were around to read _The Uncanny X-Men_ in the early
  1980s, you may remember the character Callisto.  That's kind of the
  physical appearance I had in my mind as I developed and fleshed out
  Irina.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, it's okay; just
  look here:
    I've been pondering the issue of what kind of priest would want to
  join Belphanior's group, and go on those sorts of adventures, and also
  have the blessing of their deity.  The conclusion I ended up with was
  that Istus made a lot of sense...maybe not the most sense, but still
  a lot of sense.  We'll see how it goes; I never know which characters
  will grow and become easy to write, over time, and which ones won't.
    The other thing I realized recently - and it's the impetus of this
  plot arc - is that it makes sense for Belphanior to seek new power to
  complement that which he already has...and in fact USE what he has as
  a means of getting what he doesn't yet have.  Some people would just
  sit back and be content once they had amassed something (money, power,
  whatever) while others would be ever-hungry for more, so that they
  could accomplish greater things.  To reference my personal D&D "wretch
  theory" which I've mentioned in the past, this constant hunger to do
  more and achieve more is why Belphanior's not a level zero individual.
    Anyway, enough philosophizing.  I have a lot of action and cool stuff
  planned for next episode!
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