Chapter #996

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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       +
+   1991-2015 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          7th/14th level female human warrior/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                     +
+                                                                         +
+   Balthus        lean, veteran human tracker                            +
+   Date:          5/6/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         the northeastern reaches of the Crystalmist mountains  +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "There are no innocent people...only killers and victims."            +
+                                    - from _Ballistic:  Ecks vs Sever_   +

                   CMXCVI.  Deadly Peaks

  After entering a trail at the bottom of a narrow ravine, the party has
come under attack from hill giants, in the form of boulders being hurled
down from above...

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

  The bombardment was violent but short; soon, the dust began to clear,
revealing a sizable pile of rubble where the group had been.  The giants
made their way there - two from the path ahead, two more from behind, and
a third pair from above.  These brutes averaged fifteen feet in height,
and all carried clubs that resembled (and perhaps were) small logs.  The
giants were smelly, filthy, and dressed in crude furs; the motley crew
was accompanied by a half-dozen dire wolves, which now sniffed at the
rubble and growled.

hill giant chief:    Heh.  Them smashed to mush now.
hill giant #2:  (unhappily)  But mush tough to get, and eat.  Gonna take
  some work-

  A bolt of lightning suddenly arced downward, seemingly from nowhere,
hitting the hill giant chief and then jumping from giant to giant (and
tagging most of the wolves as well.)  The smell of charred flesh was

Skektek:  (still airborne, he now becomes visible, muttering to himself)
  Sorry to interrupt that scintillating conversation, but I had something
  to say too.

  While each hop of the lightning had reduced the potency of the shock a
bit, it was still powerful enough to seriously injure every giant and all
but one of the wolves.

dire wolf #6:  (untouched, it looks around, confused by its random luck)

  Stunned by the unexpected counterattack, the giants and wolves were
even more surprised when the entire party of adventurers - unharmed by
the previous barrage of hurled rocks - now launched an all-out attack
with weapons and spells.  What the giants didn't know, and had no way of
knowing, was that the party had anticipated an ambush and decided to draw
the hidden force of attackers out into the open.  Belphanior's cube
of force had protected the group (except for the previously-invisible,
aerial Skektek) and a couple of particular spells had enabled them to
move through the rubble and free themselves.  Now, the marauding giants
were paying for their mistake, and paying dearly.

Otto:  (fires his crossbow, hitting the giants' chief in the neck)
hill giant chief:  Ow-  (he grabs at the relatively-tiny missile lodged
  in his neck, snapping it in disgust)  Bah.
Belphanior:  (makes a magically-enhanced leap, landing directly behind
  the chief, and swings his sword in a deadly arc)
hill giant chief:  Aaaargh!  (he recoils, clutching at the sudden, deep
  gash in the back of his leg)  Dammit!  (he turns, lashing out with
  surprising speed, his club just clipping Belphanior's shoulder as the
  elf tries to dodge)
Belphanior:  Ungh!  (lands roughly, his shoulder stinging)
hill giant chief:  (inspects the bloody cut across his chest, then looks
  at the nearby elf)  Grrr...
wispy thing:  (flits about in front of the giant's face)  sssss!
hill giant chief:  (swats at this annoying pest, with no effect)
Belphanior:  (assisted by the distraction, he gets to his feet, his left
  shoulder throbbing with pain)  Come on, then.
Razor Charlie:  (hurls a knife, hitting another giant in the neck)
hill giant #2:  Urk!  (he reaches for the tiny blade buried in his neck)
Razor Charlie:  (throws another knife, hitting the foe in the cheek)
hill giant #3:  (swats at the blades in his flesh)
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces, knowing that his knives, while often lethal
  to human foes, will do little harm against opponents of this size, with
  their larger bodies and thicker hides)
hill giant #3:  (takes a step toward the warrior, raising his club)
Ys:  Fear not, small friend.  (he charges forth, his huge broadsword in
hill giant #3:  (barely gets his club up in time, and falls back, sorely
  besieged by the reptilian's furious attack)

  At eight feet in height, Ys was barely half as tall as the giants, but
he was almost as strong, not to mention far more experienced in battle.
Before the larger foe knew what was happening, the gray-skinned reptilian
had scored a deadly wound that cut open the giant's side and caved in
several of its ribs.

hill giant #3:  (falls, shouting in pain and rage)  AAAARGH!
Razor Charlie:  (darts in and hurls another knife, burying it in the
  giant's left eye)
hill giant #3:  (thrashes about, gravely injured)
Ys:  (turns to face the next, nearest giant)
hill giant #2:  (lumbers toward the reptilian)  I smash you!
Ys:  (raises his bloody sword, the sight of which gives the larger foe
  pause)  You can try.
Neera:  (blasts five different wolves with a single magical bolt each,
  causing them to writhe and howl in pain)
dire wolf #6:  (still the sole non-wounded one, it bounds toward Irina,
  who is not only the nearest target but also one who seems to be easy

  The nearby Razor Charlie managed to hit the charging wolf in the neck
with a hasty but well-aimed blade, but the huge beast was already in
motion, and the wound didn't slow its charge.  However, Irina had stepped
forth to meet the wolf, swinging her spiked mace in a skillful and deadly
arc.  The monster leaped, its wicked claws poised...

dire wolf #6:  (smashed in the side of the head by the weapon, it yelps
  and falls to the ground, twitching)
Irina:  (staggers a bit)

  An uninformed spectator might have thought Irina dangerously careless,
as her bold and potent attack had exposed her to some extent, allowing
one of the wolf's paws to rake her left side.  However, beneath her torn
tunic could be seen gleaming links of chain mail, which had protected
her from those sharp talons.

Irina:  (raises her mace, then brings it down on the wolf's head as the
  beast struggles to rise)
dire wolf #6:  (ceases to move, a dark puddle now spreading from beneath
  its crushed skull)
Irina:  (hefts her gory weapon and moves toward the nearest foe)
hill giant #4:  (moves to attack her)
hill giant #5:  (spies Hope, who is stepping back, and takes the bait,
  lumbering toward the thin woman)  C'mere, you.  Time for dinner.
Hope:  (shoots the filthy giant a disgusted glance as she raises both
  palms toward the oncoming foe)
hill giant #5:  Uh-oh-

  A sheet of searing flame burst forth from the sorceress' outstretched
hands, engulfing the giant and immediately setting it ablaze.  Further,
there was another giant standing almost directly behind that one - which
was why Hope had stepped back and subtly shifted her position - and that
foe also fell victim to the fiery spell.

hill giant #6:  (on fire, he blunders right into the other flaming giant,
  and they both go down in a burning heap)
Balthus:  (draws his sword and approaches, intending to finish off the
  giants)  Aie.  (he backs off, finding the flames too hot to safely
  approach)  Well, then.  (he turns to one of the other giants instead,
  and engages it in battle)
hill giant #4:  (swings and misses as Irina leaps back)  Get over here!
Irina:  (strikes a glancing blow on the off-balance giant, gashing its
hill giant #4:  Aaargh!
Balthus:  (slashes the giant in the back of one leg, hamstringing it and
  causing it to fall to one knee)
hill giant chief:  (fighting Belphanior, he swings and misses for the
  second time in a row, then pauses, seeing stars)  Huh?
Belphanior:  (seizes the opportunity, darting in and stabbing the foe in
  the throat)
hill giant chief:  Gurk...(he staggers forward with blood spurting from
  his ruined throat, and tries to grab the elf)
Belphanior:  (deftly leaps back to safety)
hill giant chief:  Hrk...hrk...(he falls, dying)
Belphanior:  (grasps Blackrazor as the life energy flows from the slain
  giant into him)  Ahhhhhh...

  Moments later, the elf flexed his shoulder, which was no longer bruised
and sore.  By now, the fight was pretty much over; the adventurers were
nothing if not efficient.  Once a battle had turned in their favor, they
had a tendency to finish off their opponents quickly and brutally.

Razor Charlie:  (casually knifes a dying wolf in the neck, finishing it)
Otto:  (eyeing the slain hill giant chief)
Belphanior:  Poisoned crossbow bolt?
Otto:  You bet.  Most of my poisons had gotten old and stale recently, so
  I prepared some new ones before this trip.  I'm happy to see that they
  still work.
Belphanior:  (eyeing Irina, who is cleaning the blood off of her mace,
  and the wispy thing, who is casually inspecting slain foes)  I'd say
  everything worked in this battle.  I'm pleased.
Balthus:  (steps forth)  You should be.  This is a well-honed fighting
  group you've got here.
Belphanior:  Well, giants aren't the smartest of opponents.
Balthus:  But they're still dangerous.  (he looks to the peaks that loom
  overhead)  And I have to be honest with you, they're surely not the
  most dangerous foes we'll find in these mountains.
Belphanior:  (grimly)  I don't doubt that.
Irina:  (cleans her mace on the cloak of a slain giant)
Otto:  Good work, in both fights.
Irina:  Eh?
Otto:  Nothing against past companions, but it's...refreshing to see a
  holy person who can wield a weapon like a soldier.  And you weren't
  just competent, you were damn good.  Do you mind if I ask...what's
  your story?
Irina:  In the past - long ago, before I ever knew of Istus - I wanted
  to be a warrior, and pursued that path for many years, fighting and
  training extensively.  Even when I became a priestess, I had quite a
  difficult time because I couldn't help but use my fighting skills at
  every turn.  It was a long and grueling road that I walked to become
  a high priestess.  (she shrugs)  I guess you could say I kept the old
  skills sharp.  You never know when they'll come in handy.
Razor Charlie:  (nods)  No shit.

  They checked the giants' corpses for worthwhile treasure (which in this
case amounted to a small bag's worth of coins and cheap gemstones, three
battered bars of silver, and a magical knife.)

Razor Charlie:  (examining the blade with an experienced eye)  Not bad.
Belphanior:  Perhaps, but I'm expecting more when we find that dragon.
  Much, much more.

  After being searched, the dead giants (along with the dead wolves) were
piled into a heap for the scavengers.

Skektek:  I get this feeling that we should burn them.
Irina:  Why?
Skektek:  (shrugs)  Just because we can.
Belphanior:  No burning.  The vermin and scavengers of the wild need to
  eat too, and the smoke from a fire would be a dead giveaway to our
Skektek:  Hmm.  (he begins thinking about one day inventing a spell that
  instantly burns the target to ashes, without prolonged fire or smoke)

  Since it was now early afternoon and they hadn't eaten in many hours,
they decided to take a lunch break before resuming their journey through
the ravine.

Belphanior:  We'll march for a few hundred feet, to get away from the
  site of the battle, and the smell of death.  After that, eat fast - I
  want to get back on the trail.
Otto:  (apparently not content to wait, he munches on a piece of dried
  meat while they walk)
Hope:  How can you eat at a time like this...after we just dealt with
  all that blood and gore?
Otto:  (shrugs)  Because I'm hungry.
Balthus:  (smirks, amused)

  Their meal was quick and uneventful, and by mid-afternoon they had
made good progress, eventually emerging from the ravine and taking an
uphill path deeper into the mountains.

Belphanior:  (to Balthus)  What lies ahead now?  Any known tribes of
  humanoids, or giants, or anything else?  Do you know a place we can
  make camp for the night?
Balthus:  (looks around, checking their position amidst the peaks)  In
  a couple hours' time - and if we encounter no delays - we'll reach an
  abandoned goblin village.  A short distance past that are some shallow
  caves, which is where I'd suggest we stay the night.  We'll need to be
  cautious, and post guards.  (he eyes the surroundings grimly)  This
  isn't the sort of region where you _might_ have to worry about roaming
  beasts at night - it's the sort where you _will_.
Belphanior:  Point taken.  And after that?
Balthus:  One day at a time.  As I said before, I don't want to reveal
  everything I know all at once.  I will tell you that, barring any
  unexpected problems, we should reach the peak they call Crystal Fang
  late tomorrow.  We'll make our way through the old gnoll caverns in
  its base, and hopefully emerge the day after tomorrow.
Otto:  (frowns)  Hopefully?
Balthus:  (sets his jaw)  It's widely known that those caverns lead all
  the way through the mountain...but it's also widely known that someone
  or something drove the gnolls out, a decade ago.
Belphanior:  We'll soon see.

  Aside from scattered wildlife, they encountered nothing on the trek
to the old goblin camp.  Skektek again provided aerial scouting, though
there were points when someone in the air couldn't maintain a constant
line of sight with those on the ground.  Nevertheless, he did the best
he could, and his presence above provided a great deal of additional
comfort for the others.
  Shortly before dusk, they arrived at the old goblin village; from the
looks of things, it had been not only abandoned, but also sacked.  There
was, literally, nothing intact in the entire place.  Small buildings lay
in ruins, lacking roofs and with huge chunks missing from the walls.
Pieces of furniture, tools, and other items were strewn about, the metal
parts rusted and the wooden pieces long since rotted away.  The nearby
caves (which were apparently also once inhabited by the goblins) weren't
in any better shape, but at least they seemed to provide a secure place
to make camp for the night.

Balthus:  I'd suggest that cave, near the rosemary bush-
Belphanior:  No, that one is open to too many other caves, and would be
  harder to defend.  (he walks along the front of the cavern system's
  entrances)  This one,'s isolated from the others and has a
  narrow entrance atop a slope.  This is where we'll camp.  We'll come
  up with a sentry rotation involving all non-spellcasters, with two at
  any given time, and-
Irina:  I can take sentry duty too.
Belphanior:  You're not primarily a warrior, plus you need to pray to
  your goddess for your spells.
Irina:  That will be done before bedtime, and I can take the last watch
  if it makes you feel better.  As for fighting skill...I believe I've
  more than aptly demonstrated that already.
Otto:  (to Belphanior)  She's got a point.  And we do need six, not five.
Irina:  I insist.  I've stood watch dozens of times in the past.  Old
  habits - and skills - die hard.  And you'll never have to worry about
  me falling asleep while on guard duty.
Belphanior:  (shrugs)  So be it.

  They soon worked out a sentry rotation that had the party's warriors
(Balthus, Belphanior, Irina, Otto, Razor Charlie, and Ys) paired off, in
three-hour shifts.  An old fire-pit was soon cleared and a fire built,
which would provide warmth while not directly visible from outside the
cave.  The group would also set up a perimeter of outward-facing wooden
spikes at the cavern's edge, plus some traps just outside.

Balthus:  I can set traps - I've done that many times, both to snare game
  and for defensive purposes.  And it'll be easy with us being at the top
  of this slope.
Otto:  (nods)  We'll set the traps first, then everyone needs to come
  back into the cave and stay there.  (he holds up a small jar)  I'll be
  poisoning the spikes, and one scratch could well prove lethal, healing
  magic notwithstanding.  Let's not have any needless accidents.

  As everyone got to work, Belphanior waited until a good opportunity
presented itself, and then discreetly took Hope and Neera to one side.

Ys:  (notices this, and makes sure to quietly position himself directly
  between them and Balthus)
Neera:  What is it?
Belphanior:  In addition to the posted sentries and physical traps we're
  putting into place - and the soul-sensing power of my sword - I want
  some magical wards, or at least alarms.
Hope:  Is there a reason you're telling just us about this?
Belphanior:  (eyeing Balthus, who is busy nearby, sharpening sticks into
  spikes with Otto)  I don't trust anybody I just met yesterday.  Irina
  is an exception because she came recommended.
Neera:  We can cast some spells.  Fear not.

  Within the hour, the cave had been thoroughly inspected and completely
fortified.  A quick supper was had, bedrolls were set out, the wizards
studied their spellbooks, Irina meditated for a bit, and the first guard
rotation (Belphanior and Balthus) prepared themselves.  Not long after
darkness had fallen, the majority of the party was asleep.

wispy thing:  (requiring no sleep in the normal sense, it simply hovers
  just inside and above the cave entrance, its immaterial eyes narrowed
  to slits, perhaps pretending to rest)  nrrrf.

  The attack came about halfway into the second guard shift.  The traps
and spikes on the ground didn't provide any deterrent, but a spell cast
by one of the wizards served its purpose, detecting an intrusion into
the outer perimeter of the camp.  A brief but piercing whistling sound
was accompanied by the activation of a powerful light spell, which shone
away from the sleepers to avoid blinding them while potentially blinding
whatever interlopers set off the spell.

giant mountain spider #1:  (about two feet across, double that counting
  its legs, it blinks from its upside-down perch on the ceiling of the
  cavern entrance, surprised and a bit dazed by the sudden light)
giant mountain spider #2:  (just to the left of, and behind, the first)
giant mountain spider #3:  (to the right of the other spiders)
Razor Charlie:  (one of the current sentries, he looks up, alarmed, as
  he realizes that silent death was almost upon him)  Shit.  (he backs
  up, a knife appearing in his hand as if by magic)
Ys:  (the other lookout, he draws his gigantic sword with surprising

  By the time the big reptilian's blade had cleared its sheath, Charlie
had put two knives into the nearest spider.

giant mountain spider #1:  (twitches as one of the two blades pierces
  its head)
Ys:  (drives his sword straight upward, spearing the spider through its
giant mountain spider #1:  (spasms wildly, green fluid oozing from its
giant mountain spider #2:  (moving in a flash, it advances into the cave
  and heads for the others)

  Not a one of the party - all of them seasoned veterans who always slept
lightly in the wilderness and could awaken in a hurry - was less than
fully-functional in the moments since the alarm had been raised.

  Otto put a crossbow bolt into the second spider's body, causing it to
let go of the rocky ceiling as it dropped toward the dwarf, venomous
fangs quivering...only to meet Irina's spiked mace.  The blow not only
gouged the thing's dark body but also knocked it a few feet away, where
it somehow landed right-side-up and immediately scuttled toward the
nearest potential victim.

Neera:  Gross.  (she blasts the giant arachnid with a volley of magical
  missiles, burning chunks out of its body and giving it serious pause)

  The third spider had moved toward some of the others, but Belphanior
didn't wait for it to drop or attack.  Charging forth, he slashed at it
with Blackrazor, opening a huge gash in its back and causing it to turn
and attempt to flee.

Skektek:  (about to fire some sort of lightning attack at it, he saves
  the spell when Otto hits it with a bolt, causing it to fall to the
  cavern floor, where Balthus immediately dispatches it with a couple
  of quick sword-strokes)
Balthus:  Damn spiders.  I hate spiders.

  Meanwhile, Ys had tried to retract his sword from the spider he'd
pinned to the ceiling...but the thing let go, and was now impaled on
the blade, wriggling furiously.

Ys: disgusting.  (he walks over to the campfire and puts
  sword-tip and spider into the flames)
giant mountain spider #1:  (roasts)
Hope:  No, THAT is disgusting.
Belphanior:  Neera!  Back away!  (dashing over to assist her, he hacks
  at the second spider before it can attack her or anyone else, nearly
  severing its head)
giant mountain spider #2:  (trembles, dying)
Belphanior:  (hits it again, finishing it)
Irina:  (checks the spider Balthus killed, just to be sure)
Balthus:  Eh?
Irina:  No offense...just old habits again.

  They got rid of the spiders' corpses as best as they could (which was
a little messy in all cases, but especially for Ys) and then discussed
the attack.

Belphanior:  (pleased that none of his long-time companions mentioned
  the soul-sensing power of his dark blade, and how it didn't detect the
  spiders because the things possessed no souls)

  While the elf had taken one of the hill giants' souls in the previous
battle, Balthus had been fighting with another foe at the time and thus
hadn't noticed, which saved Belphanior the trouble of either explaining
or just making up some story.

Belphanior:  That was pretty damn clever...they completely bypassed our
  traps by moving along the ceiling, into the cavern.  Or trying to.
  (he nods in the direction of Hope and Neera)  Good work.
Otto:  They were probably going to sneak in here and sting us one at a
  time, then wrap us up in webbing.  I've heard of that happening to
  many a dwarf while in hostile regions.
Razor Charlie:  (idly cleaning the knives he retrieved from the corpses)
  That's no way to die.
Otto:  Hell, no.
Skektek:  (looking irritated)
Balthus:  Are you well, friend?
Hope:  He's just pouting because he didn't get to blast anything.
Ys:  For once.
Skektek:  They moved too fast, as did all of you.  It's not fair!
Razor Charlie:  Heh.
Skektek:  (sighs)
Otto:  (claps the wizard on the back)  Maybe next time.
Skektek:  (thinking that next time he'll employ extra firepower to make
  up for this time)
Belphanior:  (thinking that "next time" will probably come sooner rather
  than later)
wispy thing:  (thinking that there's no way the party will ever know that
  the magical alarm sounded just a moment before the wisp was about to
  alert its companions to the presence of the spiders)
Neera:  (thinking that she needs to invent a spell that completely blocks
  a door or cave mouth for a night, preventing any intrusion)
Balthus:  (thinking that this might just be the most powerful group of
  adventurers he's ever worked with)

next:       the Crystal Fang
released:   2/13/2015
notes:      After more than two decades, here's an Adventurers first:
  Portions of this episode were written from 36,000 feet, in first class
  no less.  (I don't do this every time, but for last November's Vegas
  trip, I'd splurged.)  This episode had been sitting around for a while
  and I decided to stir it while on my way to vacation (and, as it turned
  out, during vacation as well, which is saying something when you're in
  Vegas.)  Unfortunately, my drive to actually finish the episode waned,
  for months, and life got busy.
    Trust me, it really bothers me sometimes to think about how I used to
  release AN EPISODE A DAY...and now it's sometimes months.  In the case
  of this one, 996, it was almost six months.  That's insane.  I do need
  to also say that it's not like I've been sitting around doing nothing,
  though.  Since softball ended in November, I've been working out more
  than ever before, and I won a promotion at work to start the new year.
  Anyway, enough of the non-story talk; 996 is out and now you've read
  it.  I hope to get 997 out fairly quickly after this, but we'll see.

    So in game terms (which for me are still AD&D 2nd Edition as I am,
  apparently, hopelessly trapped in the past) our new priestess Irina is
  dual-classed.  She started her professional career as a warrior, made
  it to 7th level (allowing her to have weapon specialization with that
  footman's mace, if you're worrying about the rules, which I do) and
  then she switched professions and became a priestess, which is her
  current path and in which she can continue to gain levels.
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