Chapter #997

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                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic V      +
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                               +           +
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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:          5/7/581 C.Y. (Common Year)                             +
+   Time:          early morning                                          +
+   Place:         the northeastern reaches of the Crystalmist mountains  +
+   Climate:       cold                                                   +
+   "If you can keep up and don't mind dying...come along."               +
+                                  - from _Clash of the Titans_ (2010)    +

                   CMXCVII.  Crystal Fang

  The party has spent the last couple of days working their way into the
Crystalmist Mountains, and after fighting hill giants yesterday and cave
spiders overnight, they are now ready to delve further into the remote,
misty, peaks...

Belphanior:  Let's get moving.  I'd like to reach the Crystal Fang this
  afternoon.  (to Balthus)  Do you think that's possible?
Balthus:  (nods)  Assuming we keep a steady pace and stay on course, we
  can do it.
Belphanior:  Good.  I want to be well into that old gnoll cave complex
  before nightfall.

  With that, the group set out, heading deeper into the mountain range.
As morning became day, the adventurers made excellent time, for they were
all hardy sorts and used to a brisk pace, even in terrain such as this.
Skektek would have had problems had he been traveling on foot, but he
stayed airborne except for the infrequent breaks the others took for food
or rest.

Irina:  (eyes the flying wizard)  I know scouting is helpful, but the
  only way to build up your endurance is to actually walk.  I wonder if
  he knows that.
Otto:  He does, it's just that he doesn't care.  To his way of thinking,
  he'll never be without his spells, so it's not an issue.  (he shrugs)
Balthus:  Some adventuring parties would no doubt stay in the sky, with
  the use of a flying carpet or some such magical aid...but the trail is
  often concealed from the air, especially the deeper we move into these
  peaks.  And obviously, once we're in the caverns.
Belphanior:  It's fine.  I want to make damn sure we stay on course and
  find that which we seek.
Balthus:  Understood.
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces at a stubby gnarled bush as they walk by)
wispy thing:  (hovers near a brown lizard as it suns itself on a nearby
  rock)  brrrf.
lizard:  (cocks its head, regarding the wisp curiously)

  There were only two incidences of note that morning.  About an hour
after setting out, they came upon the bleached skeleton of a long-dead
giant, surrounded by the ruined and rusted remains of its clothing and
weapons.  And shortly before midday, they found themselves being watched
by a flock of large, dangerous looking birds that seemed agitated at the
presence of people in the mountain wilderness.  After a couple of them
flew too close to Skektek, perhaps (but unwisely) testing him, the wizard
took action.

Skektek:  Enough!  Get the hell away!  (he blasts the nearest avian with
  a small but potent bolt of lightning)
large carnivorous bird #5:  Squawk!  (trailing smoke and burnt feathers,
  it plummets from the sky)
other birds:  (swoop down after their fallen comrade, and soon begin
  tearing its corpse apart and eating it)
Skektek:  Angry birds...bah.

  A lunch break was had, and not long after, they neared the base of the
tall, narrow peak which they sought.

Ys:  It is...difficult to keep a perspective from ground level.  The peak
  is almost equally visible from afar, whether one is merely an hour away,
  or four.
Razor Charlie:  That's for damn sure.

  There were a lot of boulders here, and the terrain sloped upward as
they advanced.  Balthus gradually led them forward through the rubble,
along a path which only he knew.  Eventually, they came around a couple
of hut-sized boulders and beheld a large cavern entrance.

Belphanior:  Is this it?
Balthus:  This is it.
Belphanior:  (to the group)  Everyone take a few moments to rest, and
  ready yourselves for the caverns.  (to Balthus)  What's your plan for
  navigating the caverns?
Balthus:  (checks a pocket in his vest, pulling out a small, worn roll
  of parchment)  The first time I was here, I had to find my own way
  through the caves, which was a long, tedious, and dangerous process.
  So the next time, I used my memory of the first trip to map a route
  through the mountain's base.
Otto:  Is it "a" route, or "the" route?
Balthus:  (holds up the map)  This is one route.  There may be others,
  but my goal was to get through the mountain, not to fully explore it.
  There are surely side passages and caverns here that I've never seen.
Irina:  So why exactly _were_ you here before?  Surely it wasn't just a
  matter of passing through...
Balthus:  Of course not.  (he shrugs)  I've been looking for the dragon's
  hoard for years.  As I have yet to find it, I keep trying, whenever I
  get a good chance.
Skektek:  Meaning a strong adventuring party, to better your odds of
  survival if you ever do find the wyrm.
Balthus:  (nods)  Well, that _is_ the deal we made.
Otto:  What happened to your companions the other times?
Ys:  And how many times were there?
Balthus:  The first time, I had to find my own way out after everyone
  else fell prey to undead gnolls.  The second time, I made sure that
  the group had several priests, and we got through the caverns fine,
  but fell afoul of a gorgimera.  Only three of us survived the battle,
  and that was the end of that adventuring party.  The third group I
  took through the Fang subsequently spent a week combing the mountains
  beyond, with no luck, so they decided to head north without me, toward
  Ull and the Plains of the Paynims.  I heard later that they all met a
  most unfortunate end while exploring a vampire's tower.
Belphanior:  (glances at Irina, seeking her opinion about the truth or
  falsehood of these statements)
Irina:  (nods to the elf, almost imperceptibly, a prearranged signal for
  her belief that the truth is being told)
Otto: told us before that you knew where the dragon's lair
  was, but so far your tale doesn't indicate that.
Balthus:  I was getting to that part.  After that last group moved on and
  I headed back southward, I tried a new route, to save time.  Along that
  route I discovered a footprint, in the mud near a small lake.
Skektek:  So?
Balthus:  The print was the length of a grown man, with three huge talons
  for toes.  Only one thing makes that kind of print.
Skektek:  Oh.
Balthus:  I quickly found more prints there, and they were recent enough
  to prove that the beast had been there in the last few days.
Belphanior:  So unable to fight a dragon by yourself, you returned to
  civilization, there to wait for the right opportunity?
Balthus:  (shrugs)  As I already said, that's the deal we made.  I mean,
  I wanted that treasure - I still do - but I'm not suicidal.  (he eyes
  the group)  Having said that, I'll also say that you folks seem to have
  a good chance to beat that dragon, once we find it...a better chance
  than anyone else I've ever seen come through these parts.
Skektek:  (holds up one finger, from which a tiny spark of electricity
  arcs)  Well, we like to think so.
wispy thing:  (flits by the wizard)  zzzzp!
Hope:  (already thinking about what spells might be best when facing such
  a foe)
Razor Charlie:  (already thinking about whether his knives can even play
  a real part in a battle like that)
Belphanior:  This all sounds good, but one thing at a time.  Right now,
  let's focus on getting through these caverns.

  The large outer cave was perhaps two hundred feet across, with a half
dozen passages leading further inward.  Torches and magical light were
readied, and a single-file marching order set per Balthus' assertion that
the majority of the route ahead consisted of narrow passages.

Balthus:  Some of them are naturally that way, while others were once
  just fissures, widened by the hands and picks of the different tribes
  of humanoids who have lived here over the years.

  For most of the party, it didn't matter how many dungeons they'd been
in, or how many deep passages they'd followed into the depths of the
world - there was always that same claustrophobic feeling that came from
leaving behind the sun and the trees and the fresh air and the sounds of
nature.  Only Otto (who had grown up underground) and Belphanior (who
seemed to maintain his calm no matter what) didn't appear to be nervous
as the party ventured through the caverns.  Belphanior went first, with
Otto right behind him, and then Balthus with his map, guiding them at
each new intersection.  More than one of the adventurers silently hoped
that their trust in the tracker was not misplaced, that his map had been
made accurately, and that no cave-ins had rendered the map dangerously
outdated since the man's last time in these dark tunnels.
  They constantly saw evidence of the previous inhabitants:  bones,
tools, everyday items, and the like.  All were rotted, rusted, damaged,
or otherwise of no practical use.  Sometimes the passages would abruptly
open into larger chambers, areas once used for living or storage, but
inevitably the explorers would find themselves back in another narrow

Neera:  (in the middle of the party, she comments to Hope)  I've been
  working on a variant of the wizard eye spell, one in which the magical
  floating eye not only scouts ahead, but learns and makes choices based
  on what it has encountered, such that it can later lead you down the
  right path when necessary)
Hope:  That sounds complicated, but good luck with it.
Razor Charlie:  (near the rear of the party and definitely out of the
  sight of Balthus, he makes notes on his own piece of parchment, as
  a backup measure in case they later need to retrace their steps but
  don't have Balthus around to guide them)
Ys:  (at the very back of the party, he holds his torch high, both to
  make Charlie's task easier and to keep the surrounding area well-

  Here and there, as the hours dragged on, they found evidence of past
battles:  skeletons with crushed and broken bones, smears of blood on
the floor, charred sections of stony passage, and the like.  What they
did not find...were any living creatures.

Balthus:  This is odd.  We're nearly through the complex, and nothing
  has attacked us or otherwise shown itself?  (he looks around, shaking
  his head)  Doesn't feel right.
Belphanior:  The way my mind works, that means something more powerful
  came along and killed everything else here.  We'd better be ready.
Otto:  Maybe we haven't seen it because it's too big to fit in these
  passages...maybe it either lives in one of the larger caverns, or just
  outside the exit of this place.
Neera:  Or maybe there is no monster.
Balthus:  (checking his map)  We'll know within the hour, because we're
  almost through the mountain-

  The passage and surrounding earth started trembling then, causing dirt
and small rubble to fall from the ceiling.  Purely on instinct, they ran
forward, because even that seemed better than just standing in a narrow
passage that might be in danger of collapse.  Around the time they burst
forth into a larger cavern, the earthquake (or whatever it was) gradually

Skektek:  What the hell was that?!?
Otto:  I'm not sure.  Didn't seem natural.
Belphanior:  Let's move fast.  I'd rather be out of these caverns than
  in them.
Balthus:  Agreed.
Belphanior:  Be fast, but still be careful.  I've got a bad feeling here.

  The elf detected no souls nearby, but he was still uneasy.  Despite
all of the party's spells and magic items, a collapsed underground path
could still be lethal.  The party was on edge, and they all wanted to be
out of these tunnels and caverns.

Balthus:  (leading the group toward an intersection ahead, where their
  one passage forks into three)  What the...?
Belphanior:  Eh?
Balthus:  There's a third tunnel up there...and it's not on my map.
  There should be two.  That one on the right is new.
Otto:  (regards the intersection as they approach)  That's not natural,
  or mined.  It's-

  The surrounding rock began to shake again, stronger than before, this
time raining dirt on everyone and threatening to knock people from their

Ys:  (still at the back of the party, he hears a noise from the way they
  came and turns, sword drawn and held in one hand, his torch held in the
  other)  Hark!  Something comes-

  With unbelievable speed, a gigantic purple form slid through the dark
passage, hurtling toward the party.  There was only time to see that it
filled the entire width of the tunnel, and had a round fanged maw as wide
as Ys was tall.  An instant later, the reptilian was gone, swallowed by
the monster, which paused momentarily, barely ten feet from the next
adventurer in line.

purple worm:  (opens its gigantic maw, which is ringed by dozens of sharp
  triangular teeth)
Razor Charlie:  (grimaces at his impending doom)

next:       worm food?  or purple steaks?
released:   3/20/2015
notes:      I will add Irina to the character stat sheets on
  after this story arc concludes, assuming she survives.

    In this episode, I thought hard about what it would actually be like
  to get deep into the underground, with a mountain above you.  Threats
  of monsters aside, what about the ever-present danger of collapse?
  What about getting lost?  What about running out of air?  Obviously
  dwarves and gnomes wouldn't mind, but what about regular people used
  to living above?  I'm no caver, never have been and doubt I ever will
  be, but it seems like it would be scary for the vast majority of the
  regular people.  So I tried to convey some of that here.  If you think
  about it, this sense of dread at simply being underground was present
  in every single one of their adventures that took place underground in
  some dungeon - even if I didn't point it out every time.
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