Chapter #995

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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       +
+   1991-2014 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                         +
+   Irina          ??th level female human priestess                      +
+   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:          5/5/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         the sky castle, in the clouds above Oerth's surface    +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is     +
+    not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to     +
+    achieve, to conquer."                                                +
+                                             - Arnold Schwarzenegger     +

                   CMXCV.  Into the Barrier Peaks

  After finding a new priestess for the team, and deciding on a mission
to the distant Barrier Peaks in search of the mythical scrying artifact
known as the Seeking Scroll, the group is ready to depart.

Belphanior:  Everyone ready?

  The elf didn't waste any time; these days, with the immense power of
the Eye of Celestian, it was possible to move the entire group halfway
across the continent (or indeed, even further) in the blink of an eye.
Belphanior was learning the intricacies of the artifact, manipulating
its arcane mechanisms to control exactly who else was teleported.  He
had no doubt that, in time, he'd be able to exercise pinpoint control,
taking certain people while leaving behind others standing right next to
them.  In any event, the range and accuracy of the device's teleportation
powers rivaled that of the mightiest such spell.
  Presently, the group found themselves amidst the knee-high grass of
a lush green plain.  In addition to being quite chilly despite the late-
morning sun, it was rather peaceful.

Skektek:  Where the hell are we?
Belphanior:  (gestures to the immense mountain range in the distance)
  Behold, the Crystalmist Mountains...and beyond them, to the north,
  lie the Barrier Peaks...home to all manner of strange and wondrous
  monsters and lost treasures, if the rumors and legends are true.
Ys:  Some of them are, undoubtedly.
Skektek:  I meant where are we, here and now?  Plains at the feet of the
  mountains?  I'm not really familiar with this area of the world.
Belphanior:  We're in the Grand Duchy of Geoff, about midway between the
  Oyt Wood to the east and the Hornwood to the west...we'll have to make
  our way through the latter forest to reach the mountains, if we take
  the most direct route.  But the capital city of Gorna lies a few hours'
  march to the south, and that's where we need to go first.  Hopefully we
  can find some more information there, clues which will help us find the
  hidden lair of the dragon, somewhere in those peaks.

  They began the long trek south toward Gorna, though some were determined
to have an easier time of it than others...

Skektek:  (summons an unseen floating disc upon which he can ride in
Irina:  (regards the wizard)
Skektek:  What, you want a ride?
Irina:  I'll walk, thanks.
Skektek:  Suit yourself.

  The ride was chilly but not unpleasant, and a couple of hours later,
they entered the expanse of the huge city.  Even the hulking Ys didn't
attract much attention here, for Geoff was a land frequented by numerous
adventurers, all of who sought wondrous riches in the great mountains to
the west.  To tell the truth, the vast majority of these visitors left
the Barrier Peaks empty-handed...if they left at all.  While the great
riches said to be hidden in the peaks were a matter of conjecture, the
plethora of strange and terrible monsters roaming the area were confirmed
to exist.  The Crystalmists, and specifically the Barrier Peaks at their
northern end, were considered to be one of the most dangerous wilderness
areas in all of Oerth.  This was not a journey to be taken lightly.

Belphanior:  We're going to succeed...because that's what we do.
Otto:  It's going to be some work, sorting out the actual leads from the
  dead ends, scams, and such.
Irina:  It will help to have someone who can sense lies.
Belphanior:  All lies, no matter how well-masked?
Irina:  If I was speaking with an archmage, major demon, or the like,
  discerning truth and lies could be challenging.  (she looks around,
  glancing at the people and streets of the large city)  But for dealing
  with the sort of random people found here, it will be fine.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Good to know.  Everyone - you know what to do.

  They were old hands at this by now, and split up to attend to various
assignments.  Ys and Razor Charlie headed away to secure lodgings for the
day and night.  Neera and Skektek went to seek out sages, wizards, and
any other learned sources of potential useful information.  Otto and Hope
began roaming the city and talking with people to try and find the same
sort of information, except from merchants, innkeepers, and other street

Irina:  What are we to do, then?
wispy thing:  aaarp?
Belphanior:  You're going to get me into the temple of Istus here in
  Gorna, and see if they can help us.
Irina:  I am?
Belphanior:  Yep.  I believe in leveraging the abilities and knowledge
  of the people on my team, quickly and effectively.  This seems like a
  worthwhile road to pursue.
Irina:  (shrugs)  If that's what you want to do, then we shall.

  The temple in Gorna wasn't quite the size of its counterpart in the
Free City of Greyhawk, but it was still fairly impressive; they walked
along a cool marble floor within a lavishly-decorated worship chamber,
discussing the situation with one of the temple's matrons.

high priestess:  (gestures to a small table and chairs)  Sit, please.
Belphanior:  (takes a seat, as does Irina)
wispy thing:  (hovering nearby)
random priestess:  (regards the wisp suspiciously)
wispy thing:  (bares its immaterial little fangs)  pffft.
random priestess:  (somewhat alarmed, she finds somewhere else to be)
high priestess:  (shaking her head)  What a strange little beast.
Belphanior:  That's for sure.
Irina:  So...we seek local knowledge of this great dragon, Mesoloth.
high priestess:  (frowns)  I'm afraid I won't be of much help to you,
  beyond what wisdom Our Lady may have already granted you.  We know the
  wyrm exists, and we know it's up there, somewhere in those mountains.
  However, anything more, such as its history or powers, remains veiled.
Belphanior:  (finds himself suddenly growing impatient)  How can you not
  know?  You're priestesses of the goddess of fate!
Irina:  (helpfully)  While Istus herself may know all things, it would
  hardly do for her to impart that knowledge to every single person who
  wants to know something.
Belphanior:  But-
Irina:  Just because there is something one wishes to know...does not
  make it possible, or right, for one to know it.  This is true no matter
  what the perceived importance of the knowing.  The gods do not often
  deign to share their knowledge with mortals.
Belphanior:  (thinking that maybe they should, he finds his mind now
  embarking upon another train of thought, that perhaps another way
  would be for him to actually _become_ such an exalted being)
high priestess:  Not to mention that we really don't know.  Istus' holy
  guidance is most often general in nature...not specific.
Belphanior:  (angrily)  What use is that?
high priestess:  I would think that simply knowing the dragon _is_ in
  fact up there would be enough.  That one singular fact defines the
  entire course of your quest.
Belphanior:  Enough?  Enough for some, perhaps, but not me.  (he thinks
  about eventual possession of the scroll and thus the ability to find
  people, monsters, and things with ease)  No, not enough.  Not yet.
high priestess:  Well, I have a feeling you'll get there eventually.  As
  for the dragon, all I know is that it's supposedly lived somewhere deep
  within the Barrier Peaks for more than a century.  Unlike some dragons,
  it's not exactly kept a high profile, ravaging cities and wiping out
  armies and other such behavior.  I'm not even sure anyone's even seen
  it - or claimed to have seen it - in decades.
Belphanior:  (peering out of a window, he eyes the great peaks in the
  distance and thinks of the fabled artifact that he seeks)  That will
  soon change.

  Soon, the elf and the priestess had departed the temple and were on
their way to regroup with the others.

Irina:  Are you naturally antagonistic, or do you work at it?
Belphanior:  Excuse me?
Irina:  Sometimes you demand, when you should ask.  I can see how some
  people might be...offended.
Belphanior:  That's their problem.  (he pauses)  Point taken, but you
  need to understand that I don't always have the time or patience for
  delays, lies, and such.  I prefer to deal in direct, practical ways.
  And there's nothing wrong with that.
Irina:  No, but if the average person can't function like that-
Belphanior:  That's why they're average, while I work hard every day to
  be more.  Is it so different for you, being a high priestess who can
  close wounds and see the future, yet you could walk around some town
  amongst hundreds of people who can't, and never will, wield such power?
Irina:  (ponders this)
Belphanior:  Anyhow, let's go meet the others and see what they've been
  able to learn.  In particular, I'm curious about the Oracle.
Irina:  Oracle?  What oracle?
Belphanior:  Once, years ago, we needed to translate an ancient tablet
  and find a hidden kingdom from ages past.  To do that, we sought this
  legendary seer, the Oracle of Espyria.  (he frowns)  Although, come to
  think of it, though we started here in Geoff, we ended up venturing a
  good bit south, to the Hellfurnaces, in order to speak with her.
Irina:  That sounds complicated, compared to just seeking the dragon by
  asking around here.
Belphanior:  Agreed, but it's a good option, and it may be worth pursuing
  depending on what clues the others have found.

  Earlier, they had decided on a particular rendezvous place and time, and
as dusk approached, they settled into the rooms that Ys and Razor Charlie
had secured them, in a fairly nice, upscale inn.  Belphanior and Neera,
of course, shared one, with Ys and Charlie sharing another, Otto and
Skektek a third, and Hope and Irina in the fourth room.

Hope:  (not really eager to bunk with the new person, she quietly wishes
  that someone had asked her if this was okay before making the decision)
wispy thing:  pfsss?  (it flies into the front grille of a small wood
  stove, emerging from a pipe a few moments later)

  They had gathered in the largest of the four rooms to compare notes and
discuss their next move.

Belphanior:  Thanks to Irina and her colleagues at the temple of Istus
  here in town, we know that the dragon Mesoloth is up there in those
  mountains...somewhere.  Its history and powers remain a mystery-
Otto:  Mystery, hell.  Hope and I couldn't even find two people who agree
  what _color_ the damned thing is!
Belphanior:  -but simply knowing that it's up there is a good start.
Neera:  We can forget about obtaining any guidance from the Oracle of
  Espyria - she's been gone for years now, it seems.  Dead or relocated,
  no one is sure, but her absence is fairly well-known in these parts.
  I'd suggest we not pursue that course of action.
Belphanior:  Damn.
Otto:  So we'll have to do this the hard way.
Skektek:  On the bright side, anyone with an opinion around here says
  the same thing:  the dragon's lair lies somewhere in the juncture
  between the northern tip of the Crystalmists and the southern reaches
  of the Barrier Peaks.
Neera:  Of course, they also said that seeking the dragon out is sheer
  insanity, akin to suicide.
Skektek:  (frowns)  Hmm, yeah, they did say that.
Ys:  That wording applies to most endeavors we undertake.
Belphanior:  As do the words "power", "wealth", and so on.  On a map,
  that "juncture" spans a lot of ground, but I'm confident that with
  enough planning and effort, we'll find what we seek.
Ys:  (shrugs)  I was not complaining.
Hope:  (helpfully)  Otto and I not only heard the same tales from a
  number of innkeepers and merchants, but also stocked up on supplies
  for this journey.
Belphanior:  Good work.
Ys:  (silently wonders if this trip's rations will be any better with a
  female involved in their provisioning)

  Using maps and other information, the group spent the next hour or so
plotting a basic course toward the area they'd need to search.  From the
capital city of Gorna, they would ride northward, crossing the plains
between two small forests (the Hornwood and the Oyt Wood) and then moving
through central Geoff.  This leg of the journey would take a few days,
and then they'd arrive at the edge of the northern reaches of the great
Crystalmist Mountain range.  From there, a north-and-westerly course
would point them in the general direction they wanted to which
point they would have to rely on their skill, powers, and some luck to
find their quarry.

Belphanior:  I'll put it this way...if this group, with our abilities
  and experience, can't find the dragon, then no one can.
Ys:  Many others have doubtless said the same thing.
Belphanior:  Perhaps, but they weren't us.

  As it was evening now, Belphanior opted to have everyone retire early
and get a good night's rest, in preparation to begin the explorations
proper on the morrow.  The night passed uneventfully, and dawn saw the
group riding out of Gorna on the horses that Ys and Razor Charlie had
procured the day before.

Skektek:  (riding a magical floating disc of force, he sighs)
Ys:  I thank you for the most generous loan of your enchanted stone
  horse.  No normal animal can bear my weight for long.
Skektek:  The item is for barter, if you come across something that I
  can use more, like a powerful wand or ring or scroll.
Ys:  (nods)  Quite possible.
Otto:  Stone horse, real horse, whatever.  It's just nice to actually
  ride on the world's surface for a change, as opposed to all this
  flying and teleporting around.
Belphanior:  It's efficient.
Otto:  But not natural.
Neera:  But more efficient.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces)
Skektek:  (sits on his floating disc with his arms crossed, looking smug)
Hope:  Of course, riding horses is only marginally more efficient than
  riding a floating disc, when compared to teleportation.
Skektek:  (glares at her)
Hope:  Technically speaking, of course.

  The sky was clear and the weather pleasantly cool, and they made good
time all morning long.  However, something came up, as often happened in
these situations...

Otto:  (spurs his mount closer to Belphanior)  We're being followed, you
Belphanior:  Yep, for several minutes now.  Lone rider, behind us and
  almost far enough away for us to miss.  (he doesn't turn or give any
  other sort of indication that he's aware of this)
Otto:  He's good, but not good enough.  What do you want to do?
Belphanior:  We'll let it go for now, since it's just one person.  If
  night falls and we still have this...follower, then we can take the
  necessary measures.

  As it turned out, those measures weren't necessary.  When the group
stopped to rest and have a short lunch, whoever was following them used
the opportunity to officially make their presence known, riding slowly
and cautiously toward the adventurers' camp.  The unknown individual
seemed to be taking great care to act non-threatening, although every
single person in Belphanior's party nevertheless readied weapons, items,
or spells.  At a distance of a few hundred feet, the rider dismounted,
taking its horse's reins in one hand while approaching on foot.

Belphanior:  Time to see who our visitor is and what they want.  (he
  turns to Irina)  Come with me.
Irina:  Right.
Belphanior:  (to the others)  I'm not really too worried, but everyone
  else be ready, just in case.

  In short order, the pair of adventurers closed the distance to the
stranger, getting their first good look at him.  The man was slightly
above-average in height, with a lean and muscular build; both his long
hair and short beard were dark brown in color and unkempt in appearance.
He was most likely in his forties, with a weatherbeaten face that spoke
of more than a little experience.  His attire and gear - leather armor,
longsword, and a longbow - marked him as some sort of scout or ranger.

man:  (holds up both hands, palms out)  I come in peace.
Belphanior:  That remains to be seen.  Who are you, and why are you
  following us?
man:  I am Balthus, a resident of these parts.  I've been roaming these
  mountains for many years.  To answer your second question...well, when
  you walk around the city asking about the great wyrm Mesoloth, that
  sort of thing tends to attract attention.
Belphanior:  (draws his dark sword)  Have a care where you direct such
  attention, woodsman.
Balthus:  (takes a step back, eyes wide)  Whoa!

  Though the stranger might not have realized it, he was now targeted
by the elf's companions as well; should the need arise, he would be hit
by a crossbow bolt, several throwing knives, and a lightning bolt - at
the bare minimum.

Belphanior:  (inches forward, sword held easily in front of him)  Give
  me a good reason why we shouldn't just kill you right now.
Balthus:  I can give you two.  First, you don't need to worry about me,
  not when half the rogues in Gorna are now aware that you're heading
  out into the wilds to seek the dragon's hoard.  Others are doubtless
  following you; I'm just faster and a better tracker, so I got here
Irina:  (grips her mace, idly examining its sharp spikes)  And the
  second reason?
Balthus:  The second reason is that I know where the dragon's lair is.
Belphanior:  (clearly surprised)  Do tell.
Balthus:  I promise you, no one else can make that claim.  I've seen a
  lot of people come and go, over the years, trying to find that wyrm.
  Most were idiots, or not nearly skilled enough to challenge the beast,
  but you look like a competent bunch, and that interests me.  If you
  can beat the dragon and seize its hoard, I'm definitely interested...
  and more importantly, can get you there.
Belphanior:  You make a very interesting case.  (he sheathes his sword)
  Wait here.  I will confer with my companions about this.
Balthus:  (shrugs)  Very well.  (he sits on a small grassy hillock and
  begins to munch on some jerky)
Belphanior:  (he and Irina head back toward the others, out of earshot
  of the stranger)
Irina:  I'm guessing that you don't truly need to confer with anyone,
  but just want to know what I was able to discern about that fellow.
Belphanior:  (nods)  Right you are.
Irina:  Well, nothing he said was a lie, and he's giving off a fairly
  strong aura of magic, I'd guess due to enchanted armor, items, and
  such.  I sense that his desire to help us find the dragon is genuine,
  albeit for his own financial gain.
Belphanior:  Which is fine...I'm prepared to deal with that.
Irina:  You'd kill him once he led us to the beast?
Belphanior:  (shakes his head)  No.  Not unless he betrayed us, ran off
  with more than his share of the hoard, something like that.  Honestly,
  all I really care about is getting that Seeking Scroll artifact.  The
  rest of it, especially the money, is secondary.  If he can get us where
  we need to go, he can have an equal share of the treasure.  I've got no
  problem with that.
Irina:  Very well.
Belphanior:  As I said, the key is whether he's telling the truth about
  knowing where the wyrm's lair is.  (he regards her)  You're sure?
Irina:  (nods)  Positive.  That man is sincere; he can and will lead us
  to Mesoloth.
Belphanior:  Good enough.

  Shortly, Balthus rode alongside the party, as Belphanior laid out the
details of the partnership.

Belphanior:  There are eight of us-
wispy thing:  aaarp?
Belphanior:  You don't count.  (to Balthus)  Eight of us, and you make
  nine, so once you lead us to the dragon, and provided you don't turn
  and run when we encounter it, you'll be due for one-ninth of the total
Balthus:  (sets his jaw, looking determined)  I won't flee.  You have
  my word on it.
Belphanior:  Good.  So where exactly is the wyrm's lair?
Balthus:  (shakes his head)  Sorry, but I can't tell you that...since
  the moment I did, you'd no longer need me.  It's nothing personal, but
  I just met you people, I really don't know you at all, and so I have
  to protect myself here.
Belphanior:  (stares at him)
Balthus:  Think about it.  In my position, you'd do exactly the same
  thing.  In fact, following that line of reasoning, I also can't divulge
  how I came by the location of the dragon's lair.
Belphanior:  That...makes sense.  I can't fault your logic.
Balthus:  Besides, you should have nothing to worry about from
  outnumber me severely.
Belphanior:  I'm not worried about it.  What I _do_ worry about is the
  possibility that, while you can get us to our destination, you have
  accomplices lying in wait along the way.
Balthus:  I do not.  However, as I already mentioned, there are doubtless
  others from Gorna who took interest in your little quest.  You - we -
  would do well to watch our backs.
Skektek:  Or we could just wait, and kill them as they come.
Otto:  Set a trap, maybe...a nice little ambush.
Belphanior:  We'll see.
Balthus:  You also need to be aware that there are many perils along the
  way, especially once we get into the mountains proper.  Some are known
  to me, while others may not be.  (he frowns)  I just don't want to be
  under suspicion every time some wandering monster attacks us; if that's
  how things will be, I'll just go back to Gorna now.
Belphanior:  (raises one hand)  Calm down, fellow.  It's okay.  (he casts
  an unseen glance at Irina)
Irina:  (nods, almost imperceptibly)
Belphanior:  Lead us to the dragon, and we'll take care of any obstacles
  along the way, and you'll get your fair share of the treasure.
Balthus:  Very well, I accept.  (he raises a small metal flask in toast)
  To your health, then.

  They rode hard through the afternoon, making good time as their new
companion kept them on course.  It appeared that they were still headed
in the same general direction, and would still enter the mountains (most
likely late tomorrow) but Balthus said there were specific landmarks he
would use to keep to the path.

Balthus:  The dragon's lair is nestled deep within the mountain peaks,
  and can't be found if one doesn't know exactly where to look.  (he
  shakes his head)  Otherwise, there would be many more tales of the
  beast, and those who encountered it.
Belphanior:  Undoubtedly.  (he eyes the early-evening sky)  Dusk will
  be here soon.  We should start looking for a site to bed down for the

  Within the hour, they had made camp alongside a small formation of
boulders and were eating supper.  A perimeter had been set, as had a
rotation of sentry duty.  All was quiet except for the sounds of insects
and birds, and soon the weary travelers were enjoying some much-needed

  Several hours later, under the cover of night, sinister forms made
their stealthy approach through the wilderness...

bandit leader:  (silently signals to his men to surround the campsite)

  The bandit party was two dozen strong, which their chief thought more
than enough to overwhelm any adventuring party, especially with the dark
wizard who'd joined the bandits' ranks a few weeks ago.  The group had
done fairly well over the past few months, preying on many of the groups
heading north in search of treasure.  Of course, the bandits couldn't
ply their trade too close to the capital city of Gorna, but out here in
the wilderness, all bets were off.  The chief had eyes and ears scattered
throughout the city, and any time he got word of someone arriving in town
and preparing to venture into the mountains, he assessed that party's
strength and made a decision about whether or not to follow and attack
them.  With five triumphs thus far, against no losses, the bandits had a
perfect record...and there were a lot of unmarked graves out here in the
  The eight they were tailing now had seemed competent, and it was fairly
obvious that they had plenty of magical items, but the potential reward
seemed worth the risk.  As his wizard had put it, the group of visiting
adventurers were carrying "enough magical auras for us to retire early."
The trick, of course, was to surprise and overwhelm the victims...which
was why the chief had become quite annoyed when the tracker Balthus had
somehow reached the group first.  Now, perhaps, they would be on their
guard, and thus harder to defeat.  Accordingly, the usual plan had been
modified a bit.

bandit wizard:  (conjures up a large cloud of poisonous gas, dropping
  it onto the campsite)
bandit chief:  Will this work?  Better than a burst of fire or blast of
  lightning, I mean?
bandit wizard:  We can't risk destroying or damaging whatever magical
  treasures they have.  This way, they die, the prizes are intact, and
  everybody wins.  Well, everybody but them.
bandit chief:  (smirks)
bandit wizard:  (using magically-enhanced night vision, he watches the
  cloud hover within the campsite)  That's odd.  I'd have expected at
  least a couple of them to come staggering out of there, coughing.
bandit chief:  (signals to his men, all of whom are training longbows
  or crossbows at the camp from various angles)

  Something unexpected and terrible happened next, as the deadly vapors
began to drift _out_ of the campsite and toward several of the bandits!
As they couldn't see in the dark like their wizard, they had no idea the
poisonous gas was headed their way until it was upon them.

bandit #5:  (falls, eyes wide, clutching his throat and gagging)  Urk.
bandit #6:  (drops his crossbow and falls, coughing)  Hhhhhk!
bandit #7:  (likewise)  Ghak!
bandit #8:  (staggers back, eyes watering and bow held loosely in one
  hand)  Urrrgh...
bandit chief:  (turns to the wizard)  Why didn't you warn them-
bandit wizard:  (quickly working another spell)  Because then the enemy
  would know where I was.  It seems that our ambush has been turned back
  on us, so let's light things up a bit.  (he fires several large sparks
  from his fingertips, into the sky)

  The magical sparks shot straight up into the air, well over a hundred
feet, before spreading out and exploding, bathing the entire area in
bright light.  It quickly became apparent that none of the bandits'
intended victims were actually within the campsite.

bandit #13:  (reels, a crossbow bolt suddenly protruding from his neck)
  Argh!  (he falls, bleeding profusely)
Otto:  (calmly reloads as other foes' attention turns to him)

  Another group of assailants had little warning before seeing a cone of
flame erupt from the hands of the now-exposed Neera.

bandit #17:  (takes the brunt of the blast, dying almost instantly)
bandit #18:  (also engulfed by the flames, he falls)  Yaieeee!
bandit #19:  (set aflame, he begins shrieking)  Aaaaaaargh!
bandit #20:  (finds his cloak ablaze, and begins running around trying
  to put it out)
bandit #16:  (turns, aiming and firing his crossbow in one smooth motion)
Neera:  (ignores the missile as it is turned away by the mystical powers
  of the brooch she wears)
bandit #16:  What?!?
Razor Charlie:  (throws a knife at the man)
bandit #16:  (falls with a blade in one eye)
Razor Charlie:  (turns and hurls another knife at the bandit who's on
  fire, hitting him in the back)
bandit #20:  (falls)
bandit wizard:  (having spotted the airborne Skektek and immediately
  identified him as a spellcaster, he launches a lightning bolt at the
  flying target)
Skektek:  (laughs off the attack thanks to the arcane properties of his
  thunder ring, and points a finger at the other wizard)  Right back at
bandit wizard:  Noo-  (incinerated by the more powerful counterattack)

  This still left almost a dozen bandits, counting the chief, but other
members of the party were already moving to engage them...

Belphanior:  (leaps into the midst of the foes, sword slashing furiously)
bandit #14:  (hits the ground, almost decapitated)
bandit #15:  (drops his bow and draws his sword, but falls moments later
  thanks to the elf's superior swordplay)
Belphanior:  (drinks in the life energy as it channels through his dark
  sword)  Ahhhhh.
Ys:  (wades through another knot of bandits, slaying one and driving the
  others back)
bandit #1:  (falls, cut in half)
bandit #2:  (reels, his arm broken thanks to a graze from the reptilian's
  gigantic sword)
Balthus:  (engages another bandit, trading several blows with the man
  before downing him with a sudden strike to the head)
bandit #9:  (falls, his skull split)
Belphanior:  Not bad.
Balthus:  I've done this a few times.  (he leaps to attack another foe)
bandit #11:  (charges at Irina, sword held high)
Irina:  (calmly readies her spiked mace)

  The bandit wasn't overconfident, but he wasn't overcautious either;
his blade swung in a practiced, deadly arc...but the priestess wasn't
there.  She had stepped back out of the range of the attack, and raised
her footman's mace, a fairly heavy weapon with a number of sharp spikes
on its cylindrical head.  When the foe's blade whizzed by, Irina darted
forth and brought her mace down on the back of the bandit's head.  It was
an expert blow, and a killing one as well.

bandit #11:  (collapses, twitching)
bandit #12:  (charges in, intending to strike while Irina is otherwise
Irina:  (whirls, blocking the foe's blade with her mace, then kicks the
  fellow in the groin)
bandit #12:  Urrrrgh.  (he staggers)
Irina:  (whirls her mace around, bashing the other in the neck)
bandit #12:  (falls, blood spurting from a ghastly wound in his torn
  throat)  Glrk.
Irina:  (hefts her weapon in a fighting stance, looking around for more
Belphanior:  (his eyes widen, as he hadn't suspected the priestess was
  particularly skilled in battle)  Damn.
Irina:  (smirks)  Like good Balthus, this isn't my first fight.
Belphanior:  (thinking about how useful a priest who can also fight like
  this will be)  No, it certainly isn't.

  Nearby, the bandit leader - who had realized to his dismay that he'd
chosen the wrong party of adventurers to attack - was trying to make a
stealthy retreat while he still had even a small chance of getting away.
Unfortunately for him, the airborne Skektek had already spotted him, and
now launched a powerful bolt of lightning toward the ground.

bandit chief:  (blasted into a smoking pile of bone, ash, and metal)
Neera:  Good shot...although it would have been nice to be able to
  question him.
Skektek:  (shrugs)  Sorry.
Belphanior:  Maybe we can interrogate someone else.  (he looks around,
  taking stock of the situation)

  By then, however, Balthus had dispatched the last of the wounded; to
be fair, he was only continuing what Otto and Razor Charlie had already
started a few moments earlier.

Balthus:  (wipes the blood from his sword, using a slain foe's tunic)
Belphanior:  You're no ranger.
Balthus:  I never said I was.  Not all who can track and survive in the
  wilderness are benevolent and merciful.  Besides, you people didn't
  really strike me as the sort who leave enemies around to cause trouble
  later...especially when you're hunting dragon treasure.

  The elf couldn't argue with this logic.  He certainly didn't want any
foes returning with reinforcements, perhaps to hound them deep into the
mountains.  He also didn't want any loose tongues that might tell others
what the elf and his companions were up to; the memory of the Crimson
Blades and their shadowing of his party to the lost isle of Panagaea
still burned in his mind from time to time.

Belphanior:  Not to worry.  Every land has its bandits who try to take
  what others have rightfully earned.  It is fortunate that we were
  alerted to their presence before they attacked.
Balthus:  (proudly)  I could tell that we were being followed.
Belphanior:  (doesn't mention that his enchanted eye also detected the
  bandits, albeit when they were much closer)

  After the heat of battle calmed down, the party settled down to get
some sleep for the second time that night.  They didn't assume that
they were in the clear, and kept a diligent watch all night long, but
there were no further incidents.  Morning brought an early rise, a quick
breakfast, and then resumption of their journey to the northwest, where
the Crystalmists could be seen in the background.  The day of riding was
long and arduous, but the climate cool and the day sunny, so overall the
trip wasn't altogether unpleasant.  Balthus kept them steered toward a
rather narrow mountain peak, which he always kept in the front and center
of their path.

Balthus:  In times past, the locals called that the Crystal Fang.  Its
  base used to be the lair of a particularly large and aggressive band
  of gnolls.
Skektek:  Heh.
Balthus:  Although that was a decade ago, and now it's rumored that the
  warren of caverns is home to much more dangerous monsters.
Otto:  (eyeing the ominous mountains)  I'm sure it's more than a rumor.

  As they rode on, the terrain gradually got rougher as the plain became
a slope and small hills began to appear.  By late afternoon they were
navigating around boulders and outcroppings.

Balthus:  We'll find a path shortly, an old goblin trail that winds up
  through the mountains.
Hope:  And presumably we'll find goblins as well.
Skektek:  (idly examines one fingertip, upon which a tiny spark of
  electricity dances)
Balthus:  Actually, we're more likely to find whatever drove the goblins
  out, years ago.  We should keep the talk down...because someone or
  something might be listening.
Belphanior:  (tightens his grip on Blackrazor, confident that the dark
  sword's powers will give him ample warning of hidden attackers)

  They soon found the trail mentioned by Balthus; it was about ten feet
wide, and wound onward and upward through the rocky terrain.  The path
through a narrow ravine whose sloping walls rose hundreds of feet to
either side.

Belphanior:  (eyeing the way ahead with concern, he turns to Balthus)  Is
  there no other way?
Balthus:  No other way that won't cost us hours, and with even
  rougher terrain.
Belphanior:  I don't like it.
Otto:  (nods)  It's a perfect ambush site.
Balthus:  (shrugs)  Well, it's not like I'm not also going in there with
Belphanior:  Everyone spread out, so we're not all bunched together.
  (he eyes the cliffs overhead, knowing that any attackers hidden there
  could well be out of the range of his sword's power to sense souls)
  We have to be ready.  (he reaches into a pouch, seeking a particular
  magical item)  Skektek, take to the air, to cover the group from up
Skektek:  (already casting a spell of flying)  I'll do you one better...
  I'm going invisible too.
Belphanior:  Excellent.

  They entered the ravine, weapons and spells at the ready, signifying
their general uneasiness with the situation.  If anyone was lurking up
there, they were well-hidden and patient; five hundred feet into the
ravine, nothing had happened and the adventurers were starting to wonder
if their concerns had been unfounded.  And then...they were no longer
alone, if they ever had been.

gigantic wolf:  (appears in the trail ahead, about fifty feet from the
  party)  Grrr...
Razor Charlie:  That's a big-ass wolf.

  The knife-throwing warrior wasn't kidding; the lean, rangy beast was
around ten feet in length, significantly larger than the common example
of its species.  Its teeth seemed unusually large, and oozed the frothy
drool of a hungry wild animal that intended to feast soon.

Balthus:  (readies his sword)  It's a dire wolf.
Otto:  (nods)  These are sort of...ancestors of regular wolves.  They
  tend to live in the mountains, and also tend to be bigger and meaner
  than your common wolf.
gigantic wolf:  (just stands there, regarding the party)  Grrr...
Hope:  That thing is not happy.
Neera:  (thinking about Skektek, invisible and airborne somewhere nearby)
  Should we blast it?
Belphanior:  No.  Not yet, anyway.  That would make a commotion-
gigantic wolf:  (raises its head and begins howling, a terrifying sound
  even to the seasoned adventurers)

  Several things happened at once then.  First, a pair of giants, almost
thrice the height of a normal man joined the wolf in the path ahead.  At
the same time, another pair of giants moved into place behind the party.
And from somewhere far above, huge boulders began to rain down upon the
group now trapped at the bottom of the ravine.

Otto:  Look out-  (his words are drowned out by the impact of heavy rock
  smashing violently down from above, even as rubble flies everywhere and
  a huge cloud of dust billows out)

next:       into the heart of the mountains
released:   9/12/2014
notes:      A couple of sequences in this one mirrored personal thoughts
  or views that I have in real life.  Belphanior's discussion about being
  direct and results-oriented (amidst a world of people who generally
  aren't) actually reflects my view on life a lot of the time, especially
  at work.  Hope's quiet reflection about wanting to have been asked her
  opinion before being assigned a roommate reflects a pet peeve of mine
  in which some third party just assumes and makes rooming assumptions
  and decisions, without consulting me first.  This was a problem back
  when I was a student, but fortunately these days money isn't one of my
  issues and so I get my own room during trips and vacations.  I think
  that over the years, a lot of my mentality has crept into my writing,
  especially through Belphanior and Otto's thoughts, words, and actions.
    The quote I chose for the top of this episode really, really reflects
  what I think of the core mentality of most of the Adventurers, and have
  referenced in the past:  they are the elite of the elite.  One person
  out of ten has what it takes to be above-average, and one of every ten
  of those has what it takes to be exceptional.  This carries over into
  attitude too...some people who have a lot of money or power just sit
  around making plans that they never execute.  That is not Belphanior,
  and never will be.  When he gains some powerful artifact (especially
  after a lot of hard work and risk) he thinks about how it can help him
  gain another such item.

    This one was originally supposed to be ready in August 2014, but I
  had a couple of trips to take, and then I lost the entire second half
  of the episode due to a file copying error, and had to rewrite it from
  scratch.  I didn't get it done in time for Labor Day weekend but it's
  going out a couple weeks later in September.
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