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Dreams of Erthe

The current 3.5 campaign I run as DM, "The Kordovian Adventurers Guild," has only one more session before we close it down. (We should be playing that session on 11 Jul 20.) The campaign before that, "Wing Three," ended with the PCs finding the pieces to a "universe seed," which would allow for the creation of a new universe once their current one got too old, and the deities of that nascent universe were to be patterned after the PCs who had gathered the seed. Then we moved forward 20 years in the "Wing Three" campaign with new 1st-level PCs and ran "The Kordovian Adventurers Guild" for about five years in the same game world.

So, I've decided my next campaign is going to take place in that "future universe," which means this will be the first truly home-brewed campaign I've ever run; my previous D&D 3.5 campaigns have taken place in a modified Greyhawk setting, with tweaks made here and there as needed. But this one I'll be building from the ground up. (At least I already have the pantheon pretty much figured out, as I just had to divvy up the domains among the Wing Three PCs and their prominent NPCs, after whom the gods and goddesses will be patterned.)

The first thing I decided I wanted to do was have dreams play a major role in the campaign. In fact, I intend to have some adventures take place entirely within the Dreamlands, with the PCs in their dream-bodies in a shared dream. I actually plan on the PCs meeting up for the first time in the Dreamlands, as they'll have been gathered together by the Queen of Dreams for the specific purpose of them becoming her agents in the Mortal World, as she exists only in the Dreamlands and has no physical presence. But there's a"dream plague" spreading across the continent, where people fall asleep and enter into a sort of suspended animation coma, stuck in their dreams and unable to escape without outside assistance - which is where the PCs will come in. I envision at least the first half of the campaign involving the PCs traveling the continent, coming to the aid of those stuck in their dreams.

So, the reason the Queen of Dreams chooses the PCs will be because they're special: not only were they born with an inherent ability to cast a 0-level spell (from any spell list, regardless of their starting class) once per day, but they're some of the few people in the Mortal World who can wake up from a night's sleep (even the elves will sleep in this campaign, which is good because one player eventually decided to play an elf PC) having remembered their dreams. This is imperative for an agent of the Queen of Dreams, who can only speak to her minions as they dream; she's had several frustrating attempts with others where she trains them as they sleep and then they don't remember anything about any of their training when they wake up.

So, here are the PCs my players have come up with, in the order of their creation.

My son Logan decided he'd try playing through a D&D 3.5 campaign in "hard mode," so he went with a half-orc cleric/paladin named Wakuren who wields no weapon, merely a shield. Logan wants Wakuren to start out as a 1st-level cleric of Cal (God of the Air and Healing, and the primary god of the pantheon - kind of like Zeus), then take alternating levels of paladin and cleric from that point on. We've decided he'll forgo having any paladin spells at all, but will gain cleric spells as if all of his paladin levels count as cleric levels. (So at level X, he'll cast spells as an X-level cleric.) Wakuren's 0-level ability is disrupt undead.

Here's Wakuren, as envisioned by Logan:

Wakuren.jpg

Next up, my 13-year-old nephew Harry who lives with us decided he wanted to try a human bard who played the lute. He usually needs some help with coming up with a name for his PCs, so together we decided on Xandro Silverstrings. Xandro wields a rapier and has the 0-level ghost sound as his spell-like ability.

Here's the image Harry chose for Xandro:

Xandro Silverstrings 01.jpg

Vicki, our only female player, decided she wanted to try running a dwarven cleric and came up with the name Alewyth Putterpye. She's a cleric of Aerik, the God of Earth and Protection (as are most dwarven clerics in this campaign - he's the primary dwarven deity), but since "cleric of Aerik" sounds silly we decided they prefer being called priests and priestesses. Alewyth's 0-level ability is ray of frost.

Not finding a female dwarf mini she liked, Vicki had one made for her in Hero Forge. Here's the Alewyth mini, which is the image she decided on for her initiative card (note that female dwarves do not have beards in this campaign - Vicki has no desire for her PC to have a beard!):

Aelwyth Putterpye.png

Vicki's husband Dan had an idea he wanted to try out, similar to Logan's cleric/paladin: he wanted to alternate between fighter and wizard, possibly taking a prestige class later on that would advance both his swordsmanship and his arcane spellcasting (right now he's leaning on spellsword). He was originally leaning towards making his PC an elf (as the elven fighter/mage is an old concept from AD&D 1st Edition, which is when he started playing), but then decided on a human named Thurloe Pulver. His 0-level spell-like ability is touch of fatigue and his first level will be as a fighter.

Dan also went with Hero Forge to have a custom-built mini for Thurloe:

Thurloe Pulver.png

And that left Dan and Vicki's 16-year-old son, Joey. Joey has had a history of not being able to decide what he wants to play, and then when he finally gets that ironed out he has a tough time coming up with a name for his PC. Literally months after the other four players had decided on their PCs, Joey finally decided he'd run an elven sorcerer...and then spent another month or so trying to come up with a name for his PC. Finally, during our most recent Kordovian session, I sat him down in our family room with a pile of Scrabble vowel tiles and another pile of Scrabble consonant tiles, all turned over so he couldn't see them. He picked four consonants and two vowels and then started rearranging them to see if he could come up with a name; when he couldn't, we started adding and jettisoning letters. He finally ended up with CWILSON, which he immediately decided to re-spell "QUILSON" (fair enough - the Scrabble tiles were just a prompt to get the creative juices flowing), and then decided on the spot his PC would be named Zander Quilson. Of course, I realized right away that "Zander" was an awful lot like "Xandro," but I think we'll probably have people refer to his elf PC as "Quilson" more so than "Zander." In any case, Zander's 0-level spell-like ability is cure minor wounds.

Joey designed his elven PC via Hero Forge like his parents did. Here's Zander Quilson the elven sorcerer, with a somewhat incongruous patch of beard on his chin (perhaps there's some human blood in his ancestry):

Zander Quilson.png

So, that's our lineup: a pacifistic half-orc cleric/paladin, a human bard, a dwarven cleric, a human fighter/wizard, and an elven sorcerer. Our first gaming session in this new campaign won't be until July (specifically, after the 11 July end to our Kordovian campaign, so probably on 25 July as we usually play on Saturdays and we've been trying to shoot for every other weekend).

One other thing I've decided on for this campaign is to do away with tracking XP; instead, I'll have five adventures at each level from 1st to 20th, making for a nice, even 100 adventures - the same number as our "Wing Three" campaign had. That will likely take some getting used to, but I want to give it a try.

Johnathan
 
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Here's the pantheon of the Erthe campaign, where each of the gods and goddesses is patterned after the prominent PCs and NPCs of the "Wing Three" campaign:

- The primary god is Cal, All-Father and Ruler of the Skies overlooking the entirety of Erthe. He is also the God of Medicine, and those seeking healing often find their way to one of his temples. Cal's domains are Air, Good, Healing, and Strength.

- Aerik is the God of Earth and Stone, built as if carved from solid rock himself. Aerik's primary areas of concern include Protection – for what could protect better than a fortification built of solid stone? – as well as Loyalty, for his dedication to any task he performed was a strong as a rock. Aerik's domains are Earth, Good, Law, and Protection.

- Galrich, the God of the Sea, has two different aspects: at times he is as calm as a lake on a windless day; at others, he roars and rages like a tsunami against a cliff. Galrich is also the God of Combat Prowess; it is said he could slip past his enemies' guard, as unstoppable as a wave. He is often depicted in a form said to be half human, half orca. Galrich's domains are Strength, Travel, War, and Water.

- Often found in Galrich's wake, Clem is the Demigod of both Bravery and Fishing. As it tied in with both of his primary attributes, he is also the Demigod of Bluffing; many a card player whispers a silent prayer to Clem at the gaming table. Clem's domains are Animal, Luck, Trickery, and Water.

- The God of Fire is a gaunt deity named Telgrane with flames burning from his eye sockets. He is associated with the Sun, the ever-burning orb of flames that cross the sky each day, as well as Knowledge, for it is said the desire for knowledge also burns within him. Telgrane's domains are Fire, Knowledge, Magic, and Sun.

- The Goddess of Nature is Feron, Forest-Maiden, Queen of the Harvest. It was she who had first formed life upon the Erthe, and it is she who looks over her creations with a mother's love. Feron's domains are Animal, Healing, Plant, and Sun.

- Delphyne is the Goddess of the Mysteries, the Rune-Queen, who first set forth the ways of magic. It was she who patterned the ley lines across the world, she who reads the future in the shapes of clouds and the patterns of the stars, she who first brought the magic of the written word to the inhabitants of Erthe. Delphyne's domains are Knowledge, Law, Magic, and Travel.

- Rale is the God of Night, the black-clad Master of Shadows and Secrets. He is associated with the Moon and with Stealth; when the fiery orb of the sun sinks below the horizon, Rale's power encompasses all those beneath the midnight sky. Rale's domains are Air, Chaos, Protection, and Trickery.

- Desdemona is a lesser deity, the Demigoddess of Fertility. Farmers pray to her for a good growing season; would-be mothers pray to her for healthy babies to spring up from their bellies. Desdemona's domains are Air, Animal, Earth, and Plant.

- Infernia is the Demigoddess of Love and Burning Desire. She is often depicted as a beautiful woman whose entire body is sheathed in the flames of her passion. Infernia's domains are Fire, Good, Healing, and Luck.

- Farthingale is the Demigod of Wealth and Prosperity. He is often depicted as a cheerful, overweight man and his temples often double as banks, moneylenders, and currency exchanges. Farthingale's domains are Earth, Law, Luck, and Travel.

- But Erthe is no primal paradise. Thunderwolf is the fierce God of War, the Master of Weapons, and soldiers pour libations of blood to him before heading off into battle against their enemies. Thunderwolf's domains are Death, Destruction, Strength, and War.

- Another god tied to a specific aspect of weapons mastery is Chalkan, the Bow-Lord, the God of Archery and Hunting. He is also the God of Innovation, always striving to seek new ways of doing things and combining multiple skills together. Chalkan's domains are Air, Animal, Knowledge, and War.

- The fierce God of Death and Undeath is a skull-faced deity named Akari. It is said he was once a benevolent god of weapons, but fell from grace and turned to evil. As such he has minor sway over both Illusions and Transformation. Akari's domains are Death, Destruction, Evil, and Trickery.

- The evil Kazmira is the Goddess of Theft and Seduction, said to be as capable of stealing a man’s heart as his purse of gold. Kazmira's domains are Chaos, Evil, Travel, and Trickery.

- At Kazmira’s side is often found Gareth, the God of Betrayal. He is the craven personification of Envy, the Maker of Excuses, the Fault-Finder. He is worshiped primary by assassins and those who dare not face their opponents in fair battle. Gareth's domains are Chaos, Death, Destruction, and Evil.

So far, two of the PCs have chosen to play clerics, one of Cal and one of Aerik. Interesting that neither player created a PC dedicated to the god or goddess of their own former PC: Wakuren, who'll be run by Logan, worships Cal, who was run by Dan; Alewyth, who'll be run by Vicki, worships Aerik, who was an NPC follower of Galrich, who was run by Jacob. (Jacob is Dan and Vicki's older son, who no longer plays with us as he moved far enough away that it's easier for him to run his own game with his local friends than travel back home to game with us.)

I've also decided these are all the gods there are in the Erthe campaign. There are no specifically elven or dwarven gods, for example; every race tends to depict the gods to look more like themselves (although Aerik is quite often given a dwarven aspect even by members of other races). So a gnome and a goblin could very well worship their own versions of the very same god, both races praying to the same deity before waging war against the other. I haven't decided about demon lords and archdukes of Hell and so forth; I may keep the titles but there won't be an Orcus, or a Demogorgon, or a Beelzebub, for example. (Definitely no Lolth, as I've also decided the drow were the elven progenitor race, with a fallen, surface-dwelling empire on another continent.)

My son Logan created a variant paladin class for followers of Telgrane (one of his "Wing Three" PCs, who ended up becoming a half-fire elemental): they swap out the ability to turn undead for the ability to spontaneously set themselves ablaze an equal number of times per day, the flames encompassing their bodies extending to their weapons, so they both (bodies and weapons) deal fire damage to those struck. He also decided the holy paladins of Telgrane's healing abilities do not remove burn scars, as they see burn scars as holy and a mark of honor. I fully intend to use a few of these holy paladins of Telgrane in an encounter or two in this campaign; they're too cool of a concept to not use.

Johnathan
 

So my nephew Harry is a big fan of console games, as my grown son Logan introduced him to them years ago and it was love at first sight - in fact, it was the Skylanders game that finally convinced Harry to give D&D a try when we persuaded him Logan could DM a campaign set in the Skylanders universe. So towards the end of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild campaign I added some viera into an adventure; viera are women with bunny ears from one of the Final Fantasy games. (Harry would be able to rattle off which specific edition of the game and which viera are available to join your party in the game and so on; I'm just lucky to remember it was a Final Fantasy game.) But he enjoyed their inclusion (although not so much the fact they were enemies the PCs had to fight), so I decided I'd do something similar in the "Dreams of Erthe" campaign, only on a much bigger scale.

Without a doubt, Harry's favorite race in the Final Fantasy series are moogles. A moogle is a humanoid kitten with tiny little bat wings and a single antenna growing out of its forehead, from which dangles a pom-pom. They usually end their sentences with the word "kupo." Harry thinks they're the cutest things ever. Here's one now:

Moogle 01.png
(Apparently in some Final Fantasy games the moogle has been redesigned to have rabbit features instead of kitten features, and in some games the moogles don't even have any arms! But Harry views those as aberrations: in his mind, a true moogle looks as depicted above.)

So I decided I needed to add moogles into the "Dreams of Erthe" campaign and I felt the best place to put them is in the Dreamlands. Since there are going to almost have to be some obvious similarities between the Queen of Dreams and Dream of the Endless (the main character of Neil Gaiman's excellent Sandman comic book/graphic novel series), I figured there should be some "dream workers" who set up the landscapes for individual dreams, and that's where the moogles will come in - they're the Queen's hirelings and helpers, so to speak. And, just like her, they'll only appear in the Dreamlands, not having any sort of corporeal existence. (That was another design choice on my part to try to differentiate the Queen of Dreams from Dream of the Endless; in addition to making her female, I also heavily scaled back her abilities: Dream of the Endless is more powerful than even the gods and can walk about in the Waking World and affect events as needed. I actually need the Queen of Dreams to not be able to have any direct effect upon the Waking World, so there will be a need for the job the PCs will be tasked with doing.)

So I've already crafted the individuals dreams the PCs will start out in during their first adventure, and each of them involves a moogle. I'm sure Harry will enjoy their inclusion into the campaign, and by keeping them as members of the Dreamlands only I avoid having to take the goofy-looking fuzzballs seriously.

By the way, we're scheduled to finish off our Kordovian campaign this afternoon. So we may well be starting up "Dreams of Erthe" in two weeks!

Johnathan
 
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ADVENTURE 1: GOTTA FIND THE QUEEN OF ALL MY DREAMS

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 1​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 1​

Game Session Date: 25 July 2020

- - -

Xandro stood behind the stage curtain, waiting for the tavernkeeper to announce him. A young man in his early twenties, he'd been up and down the western part of the small continent, stopping off at inns and taverns, paying for his room and board and perhaps a bit of travel coin by performing songs for the customers. A bard by trade, he specialized in the lute and had a prodigious memory of hundreds of songs; he also was pretty good at reading a crowd and performing the songs and ballads they'd best like to hear.

In a booming voice on the other side of the curtain, the tavernkeeper called out, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to have with us here tonight the incomparable Xandro Silverstrings!"

That was his cue. Stepping forward onto the stage, lute in hand, Xandro smiled out at the crowd and was ready to sing the first ballad of the evening. But something was wrong: the audience, instead of settling down in expectant silence, began to laugh. The laughter built up and everyone started pointing at Xandro, some of them laughing so hard now tears were streaming down the sides of their faces.

Looking down, Xandro saw at once what was so funny: he'd apparently forgotten to put on any clothes before tonight's performance – he was standing up on stage completely naked! His face flushed with embarrassment as he found himself suddenly paralyzed with indecision about what to do - should he cover himself as best he could with his lute, or run off stage? How could he have forgotten to get dressed? It didn't make any sense!

"Pssst!" came a sudden voice from behind the curtain. Xandro looked over and saw a strange being hovering in the air: a humanoid figure with kitten features and covered in white fur, with a pair of tiny wings on his shoulders and a large, red ball suspended from a single antenna on his forehead. "Quick, this way, kupo!" the creature called out, holding the curtain aside with one kittenish paw and motioning for the bard to follow him.

Without further hesitation, Xandro rushed off the stage behind the curtain, following behind the flying kitten-thing - only to find the two of them in a meadow filled with colorful butterflies fluttering all around. They flocked to the startled human - how had they gotten here? - merging together into a normal set of clothing as they alighted upon his naked flesh. In mere moments, it was as if Xandro had never forgotten to get dressed before his performance.

"What manner of being are you?" Xandro asked the flying kitten-thing. "Are you...some kind of angel?"

"I'm a moogle, kupo!" replied the strange little being - for had he been standing beside the bard, it's likely the top of his fuzzy little head wouldn't have reached more than halfway up the human's thigh. But he remained hovering in place, his little bat wings flapping furiously.

"Where are we going?" Xandro asked his strange guide as the moogle led him through the meadow.

"We're off to see the Queen of Dreams, kupo!" answered the moogle, as if that explained everything. Oddly enough, it explained enough; Xandro relaxed in the comfort that he hadn't just walked naked onto a stage before an expectant audience after all - it had been (and apparently still was) just a dream. Contentedly, the bard followed the flying moogle across the field of waving grasses.

- - -

Zander Quilson found himself standing in the middle of a field of tall grasses and experienced that odd sensation of having forgotten exactly what it was he had just been doing. Then he raised his hands to the sides of his mouth and called out a name as if expecting to get an answer - but nobody replied. He recognized the name he'd been calling, though: it was the name of a cooshee he'd had years ago as a small child. It was odd that he'd be out here in a meadow looking for him, though - that elven dog had died many years ago.

Suddenly, a sharp, canine bark came from some distance away. Zander recalled how far a cooshee's bark could carry and he called the name out again, hearing a faraway bark in reply.

Suddenly the grasses parted before the astonished elf. While he had fully expected the great head of his childhood cooshee to pop out of the tall grasses, what he saw instead was a kittenish face, with a lone red ball dangling from its sole antenna. The gray-furred creature rose up from the grasses, propelled by rapidly-flitting bat wings.

"Don't worry about your elven dog," replied the moogle, "we're off to go see the Queen of Dreams, kupo!"

Oddly, this didn't seem any less plausible to the elven sorcerer than the far-off call of a cooshee who had been dead for decades, and he allowed the moogle to take him by the hand and lead him out of the meadow.

- - -

Wakuren washed his face from the water in the basin and dried it with a towel. Then, stepping outside the washroom, he took a right and headed for the men's barracks shared by the aspirants seeking to follow Cal's calling and enter the priesthood of the God of the Heavens. Tomorrow, he knew, would be the initiation ceremony, where the new aspirants would be formally entered into the priesthood of Cal.

"Hold up a moment," called a voice from behind the half-orc. Turning, Wakuren saw a trio of the other aspirants in his class climbing up the stairs, all three of them full-blooded humans. They hadn't been friendly to the half-orc during their months of training, barely deeming to talk to him at all; it seemed odd to Wakuren that they wanted to talk to him now.

But talk wasn't apparently on their minds, given one of them threw a sudden punch to Wakuren's face as he turned in their direction. The other two raced to Wakuren's side, flanking him in the wide hallway.

Wakuren had done his best to restrain his orcish heritage; he knew he had a fearsome face and constantly did his best to counterbalance his physical appearance with a calm, pleasant demeanor. But that didn't mean he was a pushover; he countered in kind and smashed his fist into the eminently punchable face of the human who'd just sucker-punched him. Blood flew from his nose as consciousness fled his body; that was one down, Wakuren thought grimly to himself. Two more to go!

But then the two multiplied into four as a pair of burly dwarves exited the room into which Wakuren had been heading: their shared bunkroom during the time they were in training as clerics of Cal. If Wakuren expected any help from this quarter he was in for an immediate reawakening, for they punched at the half-orc with their full strength behind their fists. Under such concentrated attack by so many foes, Wakuren was quickly brought to unconsciousness himself.

But not for long, for he fluttered his eyelids after what seemed like only a moment and saw a strange face looking down at him. This creature was neither human nor dwarf: it had the face of a kitten, with a dangling antenna emerging from his forehead, at the end of which hung a red ball. The moogle hung suspended in the air over the half-orc, wings flapping to keep him in place.

"There you are, kupo!" he said, helping Wakuren to his feet. The half-orc noted with puzzlement he was no longer where he'd been, for the hallway outside the aspirants' barracks in the training quarter of the temple of Cal had given way to an opulent building with elaborate white marble columns; if this was still the temple of Cal it was likely the interior of the head cleric's section, a place Wakuren had never seen before.

"C'mon, we don't want to keep the Queen of Dreams waiting - do we, kupo?" asked the moogle, leading Wakuren down a series of strange corridors to an audience chamber.

- - -

Alewyth Putterpye knew without fear of possible contradiction that she was hopelessly lost. She wasn't sure where she'd taken the wrong turn, but the familiar tunnels of her underground dwarven city had somehow given way to strange corridors that branched off in all different directions. And the doors! There were more doors than she'd ever seen clustered together before; she doubted they could contain anything but narrow, parallel corridors, so closely were they butted up against each other. Worse yet, each seemed to be locked, not that entering them was likely to help her find her way back to her own familiar home tunnels.

No, backtracking the way she'd come seemed eminently more sensible, but every time she turned around and went back the way she'd just come the way seemed strange, completely different from what she'd just seen. She was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with her; thinking back, she tried to recall if she'd been hit on the head or something.

After what seemed like many hours of frustrated wandering, the dwarven woman finally met another living person in the tunnels. But what a strange being this was: an upright kitten with tiny wings on his shoulders and a red ball dangling by an antenna from his forehead.

"There you are, kupo!" the moogle exclaimed, grabbing an astonished Alewyth by the hand. "I've been looking everywhere for you, kupo! Come on, we need to get to the audience chamber before the Queen of Dreams shows up – it wouldn't be very polite of us to be late, now, would it, kupo?" Even more confused now than she'd been mere moments before, the priestess of Aerik allowed the moogle to take her through various twisting, turning tunnels, hoping he at least knew how to get her to where she was supposed to be.

- - -

Thurloe Pulver stepped boldly into the combat circle under the glowering eyes of his combat trainer, Donegal Garabedian. Across the way from him, his opponent stepped over the edge of the circle into the arena. This, Thurloe knew, was the test that would send one of them to the next level of swordsmanship training by the grizzled instructor, and the other one home in disgrace.

The young human glared at his opponent: a man his own age, with roughly the same level of training. He nodded at Thurloe and then, at Donegal's curt "Begin!" pulled the bastard sword smoothly from the scabbard on his back. He took the weapon in a two-handed grip, holding it up straight before him.

Thurloe moved his hand to his opposite shoulder and went to do the same - but grabbed only empty air. With a shock of horror, he realized he'd stepped into the combat ring without bringing his own weapon with him! A quick glance at Donegal showed the instructor's complete disdain for such a boneheaded maneuver and a complete disinterest in stopping the combat to allow Thurloe to go fetch what he should have brought with him in the first place. How could he have been so stupid?

But then all such thoughts had to be pushed to the back of his brain, for Thurloe's opponent was upon him, his blade slashing down at the young fighter. Thurloe just barely managed to dodge out of the way of the slashing blade; it was going to take everything he had to defeat his opponent without the use of his own bastard sword!

However, there was one obvious ploy Thurloe could use. Channeling energy into his hand, he struck out at his opponent, activating the touch of fatigue power into his foe's body. The wince it elicited told Thurloe the maneuver had worked; his enemy would find it just that extra bit harder bringing the full force of his bastard sword into play! Now, if he could somehow maneuver to wrest his foe's sword away from him somehow....

Thurloe dodged another blow, this one coming at him laterally - he was pleased to hear the grunt of effort that accompanied the swing. Thurloe stepped inside the foe's reach, punching him right on the nose. He'd hoped the surprise maneuver would have loosened his opponent's grip upon his sword - enough for Thurloe to pull it away, in any case - but it turned out not to have been necessary: the force of the blow knocked his combat foe into instant unconsciousness, his eyes crossing before they closed and he plummeted to the floor.

Behind the foe, though was another creature: a flying kitten-thing with a large red pom-pom dangling at the end of an antenna jutting from the creature's brow. Incongruously, he held a ceramic flowerpot over his head. "Oh, I thought you needed me to help you - never mind, kupo!" the moogle said, setting down the flower pot he'd been ready to smash over the other swordsman's head at the edge of the combat circle in which Thurloe had just been victorious, without the aid of a weapon of his own.

"In any case, we've got to get going, kupo!" the little moogle said. "We don't want to keep the Queen of Dreams waiting, kupo!" And then, grabbing the fighter's hand, he led Thurloe away from an astonished Donegal Garabedian's training center.

- - -

The five dreamers met up in a large chamber, each of them having been led there by their own personal moogle guide. "Where exactly are we?" asked Zander, looking around him. He couldn't recall when they'd left the meadow and made it indoors.

"We're in the Dreamlands, kupo!" explained his guide.

"Then this is all a dream?" asked Alewyth. That actually explained a lot.

"It sure is, kupo! And we're about to go see the ruler of the Dreamlands - come on, kupo!" A pair of double doors opened up and the ten beings entered the room beyond, half of them by air and the other five on foot. A wide chamber stood on the other side of the doors, with dark marble floors streaked with swirls of colors. Seated upon an elevated white throne in the back of the room was a young woman with delicate features. She wore a silver tiara over her jet-black hair and a fancy gown of midnight blue with a butterfly pattern; it may have only been a trick of the light, but on occasion one or more of these butterflies seemed to flap their wings. Xandro looked down at his own clothes, recalling how a flock of butterflies had merged together to form them, but they appeared to be nothing more than his own normal clothes.

"Welcome," said the woman, smiling down at the five visitors from her lofty perch. "I am the Queen of Dreams. I have brought you here, to my realm, to set you on a task only you – or those like you – can perform in the Waking World."

"Us...Your Majesty?" stammered Alewyth, wondering if that was the proper way to address the Queen of Dreams. Apparently it sufficed, for the dwarf was offered no corrections.

"Yes, the five of you. You may not know it, but each of you is special, a type of person very uncommon among the races of the Waking World. Not only can each of you use a spark of magic in a special way, completely differently than the spellcasting some of you are also capable of performing, but more importantly: you recall your dreams when you awaken in the morning. Not only sometimes, not just on special occasions: always. Is this not true?"

The five looked among themselves and admitted that yes, it was true. "But what of it, Your Majesty?" asked Xandro. "How does this aid us in this task you mentioned?"

"Because you can be trained - here, in the Dreamlands, as your bodies rest in slumber - and upon awakening, you will have retained the lessons you have been taught. I have taught many others in the past, but almost without fail, upon awakening their dreams fade away to nothingness and all the knowledge imparted upon them - gone. It is, I must admit, very frustrating."

"What will we be trained to do while we dream?" asked Thurloe. He wanted to hear more about the specifics of this "task" they were being given.

"There is a strange disease making its way known in the Waking World, one in which people are falling asleep and being trapped in their dreams: they cannot awaken on their own and cannot be forcibly awakened by others, not even by those in the Dreamlands. I know: we have tried. I will have my moogles train you in dream manipulations, so you may enter the dreams on your own and learn to interact with them, perhaps even shape them to your own will and rescue the dreamers caught within like flies in a spider's web."

"Dream warriors," mused Xandro.

"In a manner of speaking, yes. During the night, we will see to your training in dream manipulation, while in the Waking World, you will travel to the sites of those who have already succumbed to the dream-sickness. I believe in many cases it will become necessary for you to enter the dream from the source, at the side of the actual dreamer caught in his or her own dream."

"What else can you tell us about this sickness, Your Majesty?" asked Zander.

"It appears to be confined to your own continent - at least for now. It does not seem to be communicable; you cannot 'catch it' by being in contact with someone already under its influence. And this is a strange thing: those afflicted seem to undergo a sort of stasis - they do not waste away from lack of food, nor do they die of thirst, despite taking in no sustenance at all. But as to how it came to be, we do not know. In time, as you learn to combat the disease, perhaps we will learn more. In the meantime, please approach the throne."

The five did as asked; the moogles all stayed back, apparently realizing the request had not been made to them. Oddly, the walls of the throne room began melting, as the floor began flexing and shifting, bucking up as if in the throes of an earthquake. Alewyth looked up at the ceiling, aware of the dangers of a collapse during an earthquake, but the ceiling was gone; in its place was a vast field of stars and entire galaxies. Then, as the last of the walls melted away, the butterfly wings formed by the throne room floor fluttered and the throne took off into the night sky.

A star-field loomed ahead; as the enraptured visitors watched in awe, the stars each grew in size and took on the appearance of individual bubbles. "Each of these is a separate dream," the Queen explained. "Each an entire world unto itself, playing out in the mind of the one dreaming that particular dream. Come, we will explore."

The butterfly throne pierced the skin of a dream-bubble, disappearing as everyone stepped cautiously into the dream itself. A little girl of about six years old sat swinging back and forth on a swing situated at the very edge of a cliff. She did not appear to see any of the visitors to her dream, content upon her swinging, nor did she seem overly concerned by her proximity to the cliff's edge. "Right now, we are merely observers," the Queen explained. "In time, you will be taught how to enter another's dreams fully, to interact with the dream images directly."

"But what about--" began Wakuren before suddenly vanishing, as if instantly teleported away.

"I see one of you has awoken," the Queen of Dreams said sadly. "Very well, we will continue this another night. In the meantime, it would perhaps be best if you decided among yourselves where you should meet in the Waking World, for it would be to your advantage to travel together as a group. Two of your number – Thurloe and the now-missing Wakuren – are already in Port Duralia, and Aelwyth is headed there directly. I would therefore recommend that be your point of introduction.”

"I'm at an inn ten hours or so away by foot," said Xander.

"Same here," said Zander.

"But I've been to Port Duralia before," added the bard. "Where shall we meet?"

"How about the Pantheonic Temple, under construction?" suggested Thurloe. "Alewyth here's headed there anyway, and it'll be easy for those of you who haven't been there before to find."

"Sounds good," agreed Zander. "But what about the half-orc? He doesn't know where we agreed to meet up."

"That was the holy symbol of Cal around his neck," Alewyth observed. "I'd imagine he's at the temple of Cal, if he's already there in Port Duralia."

"Makes sense," agreed Thurloe. "Okay then, Pantheonic Temple at, say, dinner time?" The others agreed - and just in time, too, for one by one they began disappearing from the Dreamlands.

"What's happening?" asked Zander, finding himself suddenly alone with the still-swinging girl at the edge of the cliff.

"That's easy," said a kittenish voice from behind the elf, "You're all waking up, kupo!"

- - -

The next morning, Xandro got up, dressed, and said his farewells to the tavernkeeper and his wife. He now recalled, while he was awake, that the previous evening's session had gone perfectly well; there had been no neglecting the wearing of clothing during his performance and the tavern owner had been pleased enough by the extra business the bard had brought in that besides the free room and board they'd agreed upon he also handed him a small pile of silver coins. Xandro scooped up his bonus earnings and promised to swing by the tavern for a repeat performance the next time he was passing through this way.

A half hour down the road, though, he was accosted by a pair of leather-armored men riding upon horseback. "Well, what have we here?" asked one of the horsemen before answering his own rhetorical question. "Looks like a lone traveler who forgot to pay his tax!"

"What tax?" demanded Xandro, although he was sure he knew what "tax" the man was asking about. The bard knew full well there was no tax levied for using the common roadways between towns and cities in this part of the kingdom.

"How much have you got on you?" demanded the other horseback rider. Xandro didn't fail to notice the rogue's hand had dropped to the hilt of the sword he wore at his belt.

Deciding to play along for now, hoping if he stalled long enough another passer-by might come within sight on the stretch of road, Xander replied, "Ten gold." That was true, too, for besides the ten pieces of silver the tavernkeeper had just given him he had another nine gold crowns in the coin purse he wore at his own belt.

"Well, ain't that a coincidence?" sneered the first horseman. "Ten gold, that's the cost of the tax."

"And that fancy rapier you got," added his partner. "And that dagger, too - you can keep the lute; don't none of us play no lute." If he had any concerns that this "tax increase" completely destroyed any credibility of their status of actual tax collectors, they never actually made it all the way to his brain.

"Well, I'd be more than happy to pay the coins over," replied Xandro, again stalling for time, "but I've never heard of a tax to include weapons."

"Well, this one does," answered the second thief. "Now hand 'em over!"

Down the way a bit, Zander Quilson stepped back from behind a tree, where he'd been relieving himself - "replenishing nature," as he liked to call it. He'd heard the conversation behind him and had no doubts that this was two highway thieves shaking down a poor traveler. More likely than not, if the victim turned over his weapons they'd kill him on the spot so he couldn't pass on their descriptions to the law.

But Xandro had come to a similar conclusion on his own. "Here!" he called, hurling his coin pouch at the first thief's face, who had to duck and swipe at the pouch before it fell from his grasp. And that kept his attention focused long enough for the young bard to whip out his rapier from its place on his belt and send it stabbing at the distracted thief's leg. The robber cried out in pain, then both thieves sent their horses forward, their own short swords in hand ready to strike down the upstart traveler.

Xandro ducked below both sword-strikes as Zander cast a magic missile spell at the thief Xandro had stabbed - the one with the bard's money grasped greedily in his hand. The thief whirled his horse around at this sudden attack, saw the sorcerer standing in the road behind him, and sent his steed charging at him. He leaned over to stab at the elf as he passed, but Zander easily dodged the man's clumsy blade.

The other thief had better luck, his blade cutting a nick across Xandro's sleeve. "Never shoulda fought back," the thief called down to the bard. "Now, we gonna kill ya!" But his bravado was punctured as rapidly as Xandro sent the point of his rapier into the man's meaty thigh, and he squealed like a stuck pig - which, as Xandro thought about it, wasn't an entirely unfair comparison.

Zander brought down the first thief with another casting of a magic missile spell, causing the man to topple off the saddle to land in a lifeless heap on the ground. Zander curbed his immediate impulse to go after the horse, figuring he'd better help the guy the two thieves had been shaking down. The heavier of the two thieves struck down at Xandro with his sword, getting in another successful strike, before Xandro pushed the point of his rapier straight through the man's torso, piercing his heart. "Urk," gurbled the thief, and as last words went it wasn't particularly memorable. He fell off his horse and the bard caught up the horse's reins, calming it as best he could. Seeing all was well, Zander got the other horse back under control and leaped up into the saddle, riding to go see if the other guy was okay. It was only when they met up that they recognized each other.

"Xandro!"

"Zander! Boy, your name's going to be easy to remember! I didn't realize you'd been staying at the same inn as I was!"

"Yeah, that'll make it easier for all of us to get together; at least two of us have managed to join up already."

"And we each got a free horse out of the deal," replied Xandro. "Hang on, I want to go get my coin purse back from that guy. Then we can make much better time to Port Duralia than I'd planned - I know this really nice tavern we can wait in until it's time to go hit the Pantheonic Temple."

"Sounds like a deal," replied Zander.

- - -

Alewyth Putterpye sat in the one-seat cart behind the goat trotting down the road from the north, squinting at the sight before her. A pony, complete with saddle and loaded saddlebags but missing a rider, came trotting up to her from the opposite direction. Just beyond, the dwarf could see a man sitting by the side of the road, wincing in pain and holding the back of his head, his fingers wet with blood. Just beyond the man was a large pile of rocks of various sizes, likely having toppled down the nearly-sheer side of the mountain to the right of the road. A groaning sound seemed to be coming from the rock-pile, if it wasn't coming from the bloody-headed man.

With a word, Alewyth brought the goat to a halt; with another, both goat and cart reverted to their statuette form. The dwarven priestess pocketed the ivory figurine and made calming motions and gestures to the obviously distraught pony, who eventually allowed the dwarf to turn it around and lead it back south towards the bleeding man.

"Are you okay?" Alewyth called to the man. She could see very well that he was not, and while she could very easily stop his bleeding with a simple healing spell she was first and foremost an adherent of Aerik, God of Earth and Protection, and there was no sense in trying to protect anyone else if you couldn't protect yourself first. Alewyth didn't believe this was a form of subterfuge in support of an ambush, but she recognized it as at least a possibility. "What happened?"

"I was headed south, on my pony, when out of nowhere a rock came crashing down in front of us. The pony was startled and reared up; I fell off the back of the fool thing and hit my head." Alewyth had cautiously approached during his tale and now stood by the man's side. His tale was likely true; she could tell, as could any dwarf, just by the sight of the rocks ahead that they'd fallen into that position only recently. She pried the man's fingers away from his head, his hair sticky with his own blood, and cast a cure light wounds spell on the gash. Her cautiousness was now dismissed; this was no ambush but a fellow traveler in need.

But the moaning continued further to the south. Helping the man up and giving him back the reins to his pony, Alewyth walked south with him to find a pair of limbs jutting out from beneath the fallen rocks. The man pinned under the slabs of stone wore nothing more than simple furs, which puzzled the dwarf - the barbarians didn't usually stray this close to the roads, preferring the untamed lands at the continent's center, not along the Shieldwall Mountains that ringed the edges of Armaturia, where the civilized towns and cities were found.

Still, whoever he was, he obviously needed assistance. "Give me a hand with this, if you would," asked Alewyth. The merchant scrambled into place to help, and with a voiced countdown, they lifted a heavy slab of rock off of the fur-clad individual who had been pinned beneath it. With a grunt of effort, they shoved it off to the side.

The figure crawled away and stood up, looking fearfully at the dwarf and the human with darting eyes. He stood hunched over, and with a shock Alewyth realized that, despite the fact this person stood almost a head taller than she did, this was just a child: a hill giant child!

Alewyth had no love for giants; no dwarf did. But this was just a mere boy, probably a lad of no more than a dozen years, if even that. "GYAH!" Aelwyth yelled, raising her arms to make herself seem bigger. It had the intended effect: the young hill giant scampered off, looking up at the steep mountainside to find the best location with which to regain his higher perch. For though his face burned crimson with the thought of it, Jarbok knew this was all his fault: he'd been throwing rocks down at the passersby below and had almost hit the human on the pony, when he lost his footing and came tumbling down the mountainside himself, bringing a landslide of stones with him. But to have been rescued by a dwarf! His clan, he knew, must never hear of this - or he'd never hear the end of it!

Alewyth turned back to the merchant she'd helped. "Just a fool kid," she replied. "You going to be okay, then?"

"I will indeed, thanks to you," he said, opening one of the pony's saddlebags and rummaging around in it. "But here, I want to give you something to repay you for your assistance," he added.

"That's not necessary, sir," Alewyth replied, but the merchant was quite insistent. It ended up being simpler to just accept the man's gift and see him on his way than to try to argue him out of it. But then, once he'd gone his way, the dwarven priestess pulled the ivory goat cart figurine and brought it back to life with a command word. She sat back down in the seat and urged the goat forward. Hidden inside the storage compartment with the rest of her gear was the keystone her Temple had crafted for the Pantheonic Temple of Port Duralia, and the dwarf was eager to get it handed off. Then she could meet up with these other four men - in person this time, not just in a dream - and see what she could do about these people caught up in this dream-sickness. The priestess had never imagined dreams were something from which a person might need protection, but if that was Aerik's will for her she was nothing if not a dutiful dwarf.

- - -

A knock upon the door brought Thurloe begrudgingly back to consciousness. Despite his earlier dream, he'd been quite successful in the elimination arena the day before - he'd brought his bastard sword into the ring with him and everything - and had graduated from Donegal Garabedian's combat school with top honors. To celebrate, the young fighter had perhaps imbibed a bit too much ale last night and now his head pounded. "Hang on, I'm coming!" he called out, rising up from the bed and seeing he was still fully clothed from the night before. Yeah, that seemed about right. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and opened the door to the room he had rented in a tavern in the low quarter of Port Duralia. And there before him stood a goblin.

"Oh, hello, Borlick," Thurloe said. "What are you doing here?"

Borlick held a large book in both hands and passed it over to the human. "Mistress Jandoval expresses her regrets, but she has been suddenly called away for an unknown duration," the goblin stated. "She has left you with this: a book of simple spells, with several annotations as to their practical application. She believes you should have the required ability to train yourself in their use, given sufficient study." The slight sniff the goblin gave at the end of this statement belied the fact he had doubts as to Thuroe's abilities in that regard. Nonetheless, he dutifully passed over the leatherbound tome, then turned and exited the fighter's rented room.

"Yeah, thanks," replied Thurloe, dropping the book on the table and turning back to his bed. He'd no sooner flopped back onto the mattress when he heard signs of a scuffle outside. Groaning in weary resignation, he opened the door back up and looked outside.

A group of kids were amusing themselves by throwing rocks and insults at Borlick and calling him names; they apparently thought he was acting “above his station” given many goblins were slaves and this one was dressed in elegant clothing - as befit the personal servant to a wizard, as he'd been a willing vassal to Mistress Jandoval for as long as Thurloe had known them both. Borlick tried to ward off the blows but steadfastly refused to fight back, no doubt realizing the law wouldn't take his side if he hurt a human child.

"Hey!" yelled Thurloe, stepping outside and waving his bastard sword around threateningly. Then he felt somewhat foolish, for the hand-and-a-half sword was as long as some of these kids were tall and there was no way a fight between a bunch of gutter-rat kids armed with pebbles and an adult human male in his prime wielding a bastard sword was going to make the adult look like anything more than a bully. "Get out of here, you little snots!" he added.

This only had the effect of making him a secondary target, as some of the little snots started throwing rocks his way. "Go on, get in the room," Thurloe called to Borlick, who instantly complied. "I'll handle these weasels!"

"You think?" called back the leader of the kids, this one sporting a long dagger he'd picked up from somewhere. "You and what army?"

Thurloe sprinted forward, his sword on his shoulder as if ready to strike, but then he kicked out - hard - at one of the kids, catching him between the legs with the toe of his boot. The lad crumpled over in white-faced agony as his other two guttersnipe companions high-tailed it. So did the leader, but not without calling back, "Ooh, big man, picking on a bunch of little kids!" as he ran away, brandishing his middle finger towards Thurloe. Thurloe mirrored the gesture right back at him. "...and stay away, if you know what's good for you!" he called back, immediately regretting making threats to a kid not yet old enough to need to shave. Aah, screw it, he needed a drink.

Walking back inside his rented room, Borlick met him with the dry observation, "It's a good thing you have your sword to fall back on, in case your arcane studies prove to be beyond your capabilities."

"Yeah, well, you're welcome," replied the fighter as the goblin butler left his room, closing the door behind him. Then he went back to bed, certain he'd have plenty of time to meet up with the others at the Pantheonic Temple. They weren't scheduled to meet there until dinnertime, after all. Before long, Thurloe was back asleep - and snoring.

- - -

Wakuren woke up with a start – he was sprawled on the floor at the bottom of a set of stairs, being slapped awake by a stern-faced cleric of Cal. “Disgraceful!” sneered the scowling old man, looking down at the wine stains on the half-orc's robes and the empty bottle in his hand.

Frowning, Wakuren struggled to recall what had happened. With dawning awareness, he realized his dream the night before - about being ambushed by the other aspirants to the priesthood of the All-Father, Cal - had been no dream at all. He had been beaten up by the other aspirants and left at the bottom of the stairway; anyone questioning the bruises on his face and body would no doubt assume he'd gotten them from falling down the stairs in a drunken stupor. The half-orc could smell the reek of wine on his clothes and could taste it in his mouth – it had been poured liberally on the front of his robes and the aspirants had no doubt filled his mouth with wine once he was unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.

The old man marched Wakuren straight to the head cleric of the temple and sternly explained how he had found the half-orc, passed out after having gotten drunk on stolen wine and crashing senselessly down the stairs. He passed the empty bottle to the head cleric. "This was in his hand," he told him.

The head cleric, Father Peartree, frowned intently at the half-orc. "I believe," he informed Wakuren, "that under the circumstances it would perhaps be best if you left the temple without undergoing the graduation ritual, which would make you an official cleric of the Church of Cal."

"Don't you wish to hear my side of the story, Holy Father?" asked Wakuren.

"I don't think anything you might say would erase the evidence before our eyes," replied the old cleric who had found the half-orc at the bottom of the stairs, but Father Peartree raised his hand and the man drew silent.

"I don't think it would matter as much as you might imagine," Father Peartree told the half-orc. "On the one hand, you might be a drunkard, drinking yourself into a stupor on stolen wine. If not - if we ignore the evidence before us and assume, as you will no doubt attest, that this was a cruel hoax played upon you by others - it only shows that you are a disruptive influence on the other members of the church. Therefore, for the sake of the overall harmony of this organization, either way the end is the same: it would be best for you to depart from our ranks."

"You know a zone of truth spell is well within the ability of the church," countered Wakuren.

"Indeed it is," agreed Father Peartree. "Even so." And that was apparently that.

Wakuren fought back the indignant fury that threatened to erupt from his orcish frame. Instead, swallowing down the roar of rage he felt wanted to burst from his throat, he merely turned his head to the side and asked, "Would you like to strike the other cheek, before I go?" When that got no response from either of the men, Wakuren merely said, "Karma has a way of returning to the fold." With that, he turned around and made his way back to the aspirants' barracks, back on course on the trip he had started the evening before but had yet to finish. He found he had the place to himself; all the other male aspirants had already dressed and gathered in the main temple in preparation of the ceremony ushering them officially into the Church of Cal.

The half-orc dressed himself in his best robes, wearing his highly-polished armor and picking up his heavy metal shield, also lovingly polished to a high sheen. He wore no weapon at his belt; knowing his fearsome appearance already put others ill at ease he'd sworn he would wield no weapon save his shield, a symbol of defense only. But he wore the holy symbol of the All-Father around his neck just as if he'd been inducted formally into the church; he'd already paid for all of these items with the money he'd earned over the years working for the church, where he'd been abandoned shortly after his birth by a human mother no doubt too ashamed to be associated with a mongrel son she'd never wanted in the first place. Then, all of his other worldly possessions placed into a simple backpack, he straightened his shoulders and walked proudly through the halls of the temple building that had been his home for most of his life. If he was forced to leave this place against his will, then by the All-Father he would walk out with his head held high, and through the front door, daring anyone to try to stop him.

No one dared; the halls were empty, with everyone preparing for the induction ceremony for the other aspirants. Wakuren stepped outside through the front doors, not sure where to go and what to do with himself. He needed to meet up with the others from the Dreamlands, but he'd been pulled from the shared dream when the old cleric had slapped him awake and he had no idea where they'd planned on meeting in person.

On a whim, Wakuren closed his eyes for a moment of silent meditation and then placed his finger in his mouth. Biting down hard, he felt one of his lower tusks pierce the skin and he tasted blood on his tongue. Removing his finger from his mouth, he looked at it for a moment, watching the blood ooze slowly down the side of his finger. Then, with a deep breath, he intoned the litany of a cure minor wounds spell, touching the open cut with the pointer finger of his other hand.

He gave it a moment, then removed his finger from the self-inflicted wound. The wound, as he'd hoped, had sealed up completely. The Church of Cal might have abandoned him but he knew the All-Father had not and that thought, he realized, would see him forward on the path his life would take from this moment on.

- - -

"There's Alewyth!" Thurloe called out as he spotted a goat cart trundling down Temple Lane, the wide road upon which most of Port Duralia's existing churches, temples, and shrines had been built, and was the site of the half-constructed Pantheonic Temple that would give praise to all the known gods and goddesses in equal measure. Alewyth studiously ignored the others until after she'd handed over the keystone of Aerik with which she'd been entrusted - then, her official duties finished, she deactivated her ivory goat cart and headed over to meet up with Thurloe, Xandro, and Zander. "Any sign of Wakuren?" she asked.

"Not yet," Zander replied. "But then, he vanished from the dream before we made our meeting arrangements. I figure we should probably head on over to the Temple of Cal - he's probably there now."

But when they stopped at the Temple of Cal and made inquiries, they were brusquely told that there was no cleric or aspirant at the temple named Wakuren, nor were there any half-orcs there.

"But he used to live here, right?" pressed Thurloe. With a look of irritation, the cleric of Cal admitted that yes, there was a half-orc aspirant named Wakuren who used to study here at the temple. "But he is no longer officially associated with the Church of Cal."

"Any idea where he might be?" Thurloe pressed.

"I really have no idea," replied the cleric sternly. "Now if you will excuse me, I must be about my duties." And he closed the door in their faces.

"Friendly sort," snorted Alewyth.

"Now what?" asked Zander. "How are we going to find him in a city this size?"

"We can always wait until we're all asleep," offered Alewyth. "We're sure to meet up with him in our dreams - those moogle things will probably gather us all together again like they did last night."

"Nah, that'll take too long," countered Xandro. "How many half-orc clerics of Cal can there be in one city? Let's ask around - I know some places we can hit up for local gossip. Somebody's got to have seen him recently." And sure enough, within an hour the friendly bard had tracked down Wakuren to a park, feeding crusts of bread to the pigeons.

"Oh, hey, guys," said the half-orc, looking up at their approach. "There you are." He had a happy, contented look upon his face - it was a look he'd worked hard at mastering, the better to smooth off the rougher edges of his half-orcish countenance, but for once the feeling had come to him naturally. He'd completed his training and was a cleric of the All-Father, induction ceremony or no induction ceremony.

"Yep, the team's all assembled," Thurloe agreed. "Now, let's go find us all some decent lodging and see about starting that dream manipulation stuff!"

- - -

And that was the first adventure of our new campaign. I knew I wanted to give each of the PCs an individual dream, only to have them meet up in the Dreamlands and then have a little solo adventure on the way to meeting up in person; it meant chunks of time when four of the five players were mere spectators, but it was an opportunity to do something different and it worked out just fine, considering it took us only a little over an hour and a half to run through this.

Harry allowed me to borrow his stuffed animal moogle, "Mog," as a prop for the initial dream sequences. And as his dream was first, I had him wait in the hallway to be introduced (I told him we were going to try a bit of live-action role-playing), then instructed the other players, in the game room, to start laughing at him when he first appeared because he was unknowingly walking on stage naked in his dream. Harry was actually okay with that part, especially after I had already assured him ahead of time he wasn't going to have to actually role-play singing on stage - I think that would have been a step too far.

I also got the "that part wasn't really a dream" trick past Logan, which had had me worried; we often kid about the shared "wavelength" between us and I was afraid he'd deduce my trick beforehand. But his backstory for Wakuren was that he'd been abandoned at birth and raised in the temple of Cal, fully expecting to become a cleric when he came of age; he'd decided on Wakuren refusing to wield weapons to counter his fearsome appearance, so I wanted to play upon the fact that he was universally feared and shunned by making him a target of prejudice even among his own ranks. (But I also didn't want to mess up his ability to play his PC as a full-fledged cleric/paladin.) He took it better than I had anticipated, staying well within character despite getting screwed out of an initiation ceremony and official recognition from his own church. (Although there won't be much they can say about the matter when the All-Father grants Wakuren his spells despite their best efforts to keep him out of their temple in an official capacity.)

I had Thurloe be given a spellbook by an absent wizardly mentor to explain how he's going to suddenly gain a level of wizard at second level when he won't have been doing any studying along those lines in the meantime; now that he's graduated from a fighter academy I figure he can be studying his "training spellbook" between adventures. (I plan on the group being on the road, so a wizardly mentor accompanying them would be problematic to explain.)

Alewyth won't get to keep that ivory goat cart - it's a "loaner" from her temple that will need to be returned if she'll be taking a leave of absence from her dwarven home city. (Fortunately it can be sent home on its own.)

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Einstein shirt, with the smoke from his pipe becoming galaxies. It seemed a good representation of the Dreamlands.
 
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ADVENTURE 2: THE SINISTER SCRIPTORIUM

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 1​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 1​

Game Session Date: 25 July 2020

- - -

Sleep came easily to the five new friends and adventuring companions: the previous day had been eventful but they'd found comfortable quarters near those Thurloe had already booked for himself for the duration of his training with Donegal Garabedian. So now they slept, and as they'd each expected, they met up again in the Dreamlands, having been guided by individual moogles who were there waiting for each of them.

"Hey, kupo!" was the greeting each received, before the moogles guided them through the Dreamlands to the throne room of the Queen of Dreams, where they all assembled together as a team. The first thing they noticed was the Queen looked slightly different than she had the previous night: she still wore a gown seemingly fashioned of living butterflies, still carried a silver staff, and still sat upon the same Butterfly Throne, but her hair was blonde now and her face, while recognizably mostly the same as it had been before, was very slightly different: her nose a bit longer, her eyes a touch farther apart.

"Such is the nature of dreams," replied the Queen to their unspoken question. "This is a completely different reality than the Waking World to which you are accustomed and it plays by different rules."

She smiled down at them from her throne. "In the meantime, since last we met I have had my servants" - and here she indicated the kittenish moogles who hovered in place around the throne room, their little batlike wings flapping nearly soundlessly - "make inquiries into the dreams of the mortals near your present physical location, specifically seeking out anyone dreaming about the mineral dreamstone. I believe they have found one dreamer near you who has recently encountered a source; if its dreams are accurate, then I believe there should be a collection of dreamstones inside an underground cavern complex in the mountains to the north of the city in which your bodies currently reside."

Rising from the Butterfly Throne and walking gracefully down the steps before it, she approached a wall of the throne room, which at her touch became a vertical map of the local area to the north of Port Duralia. She indicated a spot on the map along the Shieldwall Mountains.

"Tomorrow, when you awaken, you should make preparations for an excursion into a cavern complex, located here," she said, a thin finger pointing to a location between two peaks. She then opened her other hand, revealing a smooth stone, black with flecks of white and gold. "This," she explained, "is dreamstone. You should try to gather a dozen or so of these. I have an idea as to how they might be used to aid those who have succumbed to the dreaming sickness."

The Queen of Dreams motioned for a moogle to approach. “For now, though, Mogo here will begin your initial training. Mogo, please instruct them as we discussed."

"Sure thing, Your Highness kupo!" agreed the moogle, leading the five dreamers out of the throne room.

Mogo took them down a narrow hall filled with paintings whose figures moved about, giving them the appearance of windows into other places. "What will we be learning tonight?" asked Alewyth eagerly. She wanted to learn everything she could about dream manipulation - it sounded fascinating.

"Tonight we start with the basics: how to fall asleep, kupo!"

"Seriously?" asked Xandro. "We already are asleep - that's how we're even here in the first place."

"Oh, sure, it's easy enough to fall asleep at bedtime, kupo," agreed Mogo. "But the only time you can communicate with the Queen of Dreams or with any of us is when you're dreaming, kupo! Don't you think there are times you might need to ask us questions in the middle of the day or something, kupo?"

"I suppose so," allowed Xandro. Mogo proceeded to instruct them on a calming ritual that would assist them in preparing their minds to fall asleep, even at times when neither their bodies nor their minds yet required the rest of slumber. "Unfortunately, you can't practice this lesson now, kupo!" replied Mogo after going through the paces of the ritual several times. "But you should practice it every night when you go to bed - and then sporadically throughout different times of the day, too, kupo!"

"I suppose practice makes perfect," admitted Alewyth. She was somewhat disappointed that the first lesson was on so mundane a topic, though - she was eager to get to the good stuff!

But the next morning they awoke, refreshed, and set about getting themselves prepared for a journey to the mountains. "We'll want mounts," replied Thurloe.

"Xandro and I already took care of that," answered Zander. "And Alewyth has her goat cart."

"Actually, I don't," interjected the dwarven cleric. "The ivory goat cart was loaned to me just to get the keystone delivered; I sent it back to my temple with a note that I was taking a leave of absence. That was one of my options for after I delivered the stone."

"Well, then the three of us will need mounts," amended Thurloe. "I know a dealer in the area who can give us a good price."

"I do not need a mount," offered up Wakuren. "I can walk."

"Don't be silly - it's a long way to the mountains and a long way back. Plus, with any luck, we'll have some treasure to load up on the trip back - besides the dreamstones, I mean."

Wakuren was silent for a moment, then, not having found a means by which to sidestep the argument, came right to the point: "I do not have any funds with which to purchase a mount. I spent all I had saved on my armor and shield, in preparation for my...becoming a cleric." He'd been about to say "for my initiation ceremony," but he'd been cheated out of that at the last moment.

"Tell you what: I'll buy one for you and you can pay me back later," offered Thurloe. Wakuren tried to argue his way out of it, but the human fighter wasn't having any of it. "If we need to get going somewhere quickly, for whatever reason, a horse'll go a lot faster than a tired half-orc in heavy armor."

"I'm getting a mule," offered up Alewyth. Eventually, Wakuren agreed to allow Thurloe to purchase him a mule, once he learned that mules were less expensive than riding horses. "You sure?" Thurloe asked again. "I'm getting a horse."

"I will take a mule, with thanks - and I will pay you back when I can," agreed Wakuren, and that was that.

Thurloe, never big on sentimentality, ended up picking up a riding horse he simply named "Horse." Alewyth named her mule "Mica" - a good, dwarven name if ever there was one. Wakuren picked out his mule but dithered over a name, eventually deciding he was in no particular hurry and could wait until he found a name he really liked. They purchased saddles for their mounts and saddlebags to go with them.

"Did you guys ever name your horses?" Alewyth asked Xandro and Zander. The horses they'd taken from the thieves who'd tried to rob the bard on his way to Port Duralia were both black, each with a white star on their muzzles.

"I'm calling mine 'Eddy,'" the elf responded.

"I'm naming mine 'White,'" answered Xandro.

"What else will we need?" thought Thurloe aloud. "Rope? Pitons? It's a cave network, right?"

"Some of you are probably going to want light sources," Alewyth pointed out. She and Wakuren had darkvision and thus could make do without any sources of illumination but the two humans and the elf weren't going to get very far without some way of seeing while deep inside a cave network.

"Yeah, good point," agreed Thurloe. "I got a sunrod, but just the one. Okay, let's head this way. I know a shortcut to a place where we can get what we need."

Thurloe's shortcut took them through back alleys, some of them narrow enough they needed to ride single file. But it was in a wider section of alley that they saw a man stagger through a solid wall, blood spraying down his front. He collapsed onto the street in the alleyway, his finger moving erratically as he desperately tried writing a message in his own blood.

Thurloe urged Horse forward at his best speed and leaped from the saddle once he'd approached the dying man. The man's hand trembled one last time as a gurgle of air escaped from his very obviously slit throat, bubbles forming in the blood flowing out of the gash. The fighter saw the exact moment life left the poor man's body.

He also looked down at the street where the man had died and saw his last, desperate message. There, finger-painted in blood, was written the following:

S IN I30I2 N


Thurloe put his hand up against the wall the man had staggered through and was surprised to feel it as solid as...as a solid wall, actually. He'd heard of a spell that allowed you to walk straight through a wall; passwall, he was fairly certain it was called. If that was the means by which the man had exited the one-story brick building, the spell was apparently no longer in effect.

Alewyth dropped down from Mica's saddle and approached the dead man in the alley, saddened to see there was nothing she could do to help him; the cure light wounds spell she'd planned to cast was very obviously not going to do anything for a man clearly already dead. She looked down at the man's message. "Any idea what that means?" she asked Thurloe.

"Address, maybe," Thurloe hazarded.

The others approached and all but Zander dismounted from their own animals. Xandro looked the message over and said, "I'm fairly familiar with this city - I don't think that's an address."

"South in 13012 north?" Zander tried. "That last part isn't an address?"

"I don't think so, no." The bard bent down and lifted the dead man's hand, examining his ring. "Look at this, though: it's a signet ring. That's the crest of the Theringold family; they're minor nobility."

"Not too well off, either," added Alewyth, "judging by the threadbare state of his clothes." Sure enough, the man's outfit was of top quality but it had seen much use; most noblemen wouldn't be seen in a set of clothes that had seen that much apparent prior wear.

Wakuren examined the wall closer, seeking a secret door or something. "There has to be a way in," he guessed. "We all saw him pass right through this wall."

"Passwall spell," suggested Thurloe.

"Then maybe this is the password," reasoned the half-orc, looking down at the message in blood. "S in one-three-zero-one-two N," he said, feeling the continued solidity of the wall. "S in thirteen thousand and twelve, N," he tried, to no avail. Converting the "S" and "N" to "south" and "north" didn't get him anywhere, either.

From the other side of the wall, two robed figures watched the five people near the corpse of the man they'd just slain, one of them - a half-orc wearing the holy symbol of the All-Father around his neck - methodically tapping at the wall. From the inside of the building the wall was transparent, giving the half-orc the appearance of a mime playing "trapped inside an invisible box" tricks. The fact they couldn't hear anything being said outside only enhanced the illusion.

"You think they'll find their way in?" one robed figure asked.

"Doubt it," answered the other. "But I'll go bring up the watchbeast, just in case." He went to go do just that.

"Let's go check the front of the building out," suggested Thurloe. "Maybe whoever owns this place knows how the secret door works." He tied Horse's reins to the dead man's ankle, earning him a glare from Alewyth. "I'll stay here with the mounts," she offered, untying the reins and moving them over to a drain spout. "No respect for the dead," she muttered as the human fighter wandered off around to the front of the building. The other three men followed, Zander the only one remaining on horseback, leaving the dwarven priestess with four steeds and the body of the dead man. He was a human, so that would probably put him at...late twenties, thought Alewyth, mentally translating his appearance into human years. That meant he'd been only a young adult when he'd been killed.

Rounding to the front, Thurloe saw the entire building was one shop: "Sandoval's Scriptorium," according to the sign painted on the front door. Thurloe noted the high, narrow windows above the door and along the front wall that let light into the interior. He and Wakuren entered the building, leaving Xandro and the mounted Zander outside to stand guard.

"Good morning," the young fighter said to the bearded man behind the counter in what was apparently the front of the shop, the only area accessible to customers; there were two doors leading further into the building but they were both behind the wooden counter that stretched across the width of the room.

"Can I help you?" asked the man.

"Are you Sandoval?"

"I am."

"Well, Sandoval, you seem to have a dead man in your back alley."

Sandoval just looked at Thurloe with a bored expression on his face. Once he pegged that the fighter was waiting for a response, he said, "...So?"

"So, don't you want to do anything about it? He looked to have had his throat cut, ear to ear." Thurloe indicated the location of the man's cut with his own finger.

"Nothing to do with me," Sandoval replied. "I run a respectable business. So, are you here for anything? Arcane scrolls, maybe? We offer competitive prices."

"No, we're more interested in your dead guy."

"He's not my dead guy. Take it up with the city guard; they'll deal with cleaning up the alley of any dead bodies hanging around. Now then, you here to buy something, or are you just wasting my time?"

"Somebody's wasting somebody's time, all right," Wakuren said, jumping up onto the counter and swinging his legs around. He landed beside Sandoval and headed for the door to the east.

"Hey, you can't be back here!" complained Sandoval. At the half-orc's ankle, a hissing sound announced the presence of Sandoval's weasel familiar, Sleek. Wakuren ignored both of them, kicking in the door. The room beyond, however, was merely a storage area, with a writing desk and chair along one wall and a bookshelf containing all manners of scrolls and parchments, many of them rolled into leather tubes and stacked in neat rows. Vials of ink and quill pens were stacked neatly on the desktop, beside piles of clean parchment.

Pushing himself past Sandoval, the burly half-orc approached the door at the other end of the counter; this one faced south and would lead further into the building. Opening it, Wakuren found a short hallway with another door right beside this one, along the north wall. He opened this door as well, exposing a bedroom likely belonging to the scribe. The only other door in the room was in the northwest corner, and the area behind it was small enough it likely led to either a closet or a privy. Growling softly to himself, Wakuren realized he'd just seen the entirety of the front of the building and found no way to get farther back into it, closer to the wall abutting the alleyway.

As the half-orc turned to retrace his steps, he missed the homunculus crawling out from beneath Sandoval's bed. The thing leaped into the air and let its wings carry it across the room, striking out to bite at Wakuren. Fortunately, the cleric of Cal heard the drone of the wings at the last moment and spun about, the homunculus's sharp teeth just missing snapping down on the half-orc's cheek.

"Out of the way, old man!" snarled Thurloe, as Sandoval tried blocking his access to the door Wakuren had just gone through. He lifted the flap of the counter allowing one to move from the customer area to the back as he pulled the bastard sword from its scabbard on his back; then, when the scribe tried grabbing the fighter's hands he brought the blade down upon him. Thurloe had no qualms about attacking this man in his own shop, for he was already convinced Sandoval was complicit in the murder of the Theringold nobleman in the back alley.

Shoving the now-bleeding scribe to fall on the floor beside his familiar, Thurloe pushed his way through the door and found Wakuren in combat with some little bat-winged thing that was flying in his face and trying to bite him with needle-sharp teeth. It was a tight squeeze, as the narrow corridor was short and the half-orc stood in the doorway of the bedroom to the north, but Thurloe tried stabbing at the homunculus with the tip of his sword's blade over the half-orc's shoulder.

In the meantime, the robed figures - back together again now that the one who'd gone downstairs had returned with the watchbeast - saw Alewyth's back was turned as she said some last rites over the foolish human who had tried mounting a rescue attempt and ended up with his throat slit for his efforts. This was too good of an opportunity to miss, for the dwarven cleric was alone in the alleyway save for four mounts and a corpse. With short swords drawn, they said the command word that activated the passwall effect and stabbed through the wall at the dwarven woman. Literally stabbed in the back twice at once, Alewyth collapsed into unconsciousness and began bleeding out.

Zander's keen elven ears had picked up Alewyth's startled cry from the other side of the building; kicking speed into Eddy, he rode the horse around the side of the building, Xandro running behind in his wake. The elf turned the corner just in time to see Alewyth's body being dragged inside the building through what had been a solid wall. "What in the--?" he cried as he leaped from Eddy's saddle and rushed over to the wall, but it was still perfectly solid from this side. He slapped the bricks in frustration. Inside the building, the robed figures let Alewyth's bleeding body fall to the floor and readied their weapons to attack the elf if he should be able to pierce their magic wall.

Wakuren brought his shield crashing down upon the homunculus, but it flapped over to the side, flew up, and bit the half-orc on the side of the face. The bite burned with a stinging sensation Wakuren figured was probably poison, but whatever effect had been intended the half-orc's rugged constitution prevent any further debilitation on his part. But the attacks had forced Wakuren to step further into the bedroom, giving Thurloe enough space to enter the room himself. With the extra room to swing his blade, he brought his bastard sword down upon the flying homunculus, practically cutting it into two.

"You okay?" he asked the cleric.

"I'll be fine," replied Wakuren. "There's got to be a secret door or something leading to the back end of the building - help me find it." He began slamming his fist against the southern wall, trying to hear if there were any hollow spots or anything that sounded different that might indicate a hidden passageway. Thurloe started doing likewise.

"Where's that elf?" he asked. "He's better suited to this sort of thing."

But Zander Quilson was in the back alley, frustrated at his inability to get through the solid wall through which Alewyth had been dragged. He looked back to the finger-drawn message in blood at his feet, beside the corpse of the man who had written it. "This has got to be the way in!" he reasoned.

Xandro examined it as well. "The guy was dying," he said. "It's very possible he didn't have the coordination he would have had otherwise. What if we ignore the spacing between the letters and numbers? Maybe it's all supposed to be one word."

"A word with numbers?" argued Zander, but then applying Xandro's reasoning, if the spacing between the "1" and "3" were ignored, and likewise with the "1" and "2," and if that zero was actually an "o"....

"Sinborn!" cried Zander, slapping his hand against the wall. It passed right through.

"Uh oh," said one of the robed figures inside the room beyond. "Incoming!"

As Zander stepped through the wall he was immediately attacked by two robed figures wielding short swords. The sorcerer instinctively dodged one of the blows and the other only grazed him along one arm. But then Xandro had leaped through the wall beside him, his rapier in hand and flashing out at the one who had managed to cut Zander's arm. Alewyth was unconscious on the floor beside the two men in robes, but there was some sort of large, predatory cat sniffing at her as if checking out its newest meal - not good!

The robed figures struck out as one, each choosing a target and sticking with him. Xandro managed to put up a good fight with his rapier; Zander, armed only with a dagger, was at a disadvantage in a blade-fight due to the smaller reach of his weapon. But he had no intention of meeting his foe in melee combat, not when he had the power of spellcraft behind him! Stepping backwards, down a narrow hallway ending in a closed door to the east, he put enough distance between himself and his assailant to cast a magic missile spell that struck his foe right in the face.

And what a face! As the creature involuntarily flinched his head backwards from the magical attack, the hood of his robe flapped back and Zander saw the face of the man he'd been fighting. From the nose down, his skin was green and he sported rather orcish features, whereas the left side of his face was covered with an orange-reddish skin and the right side seemed almost armor-plated. Worse yet, his right eye grew at the end of a short stalk, like one you might find on a snail or a slug - or, Zander belatedly realized, a crab, which would explain the carapace around that eyestalk. What kind of mishmash creatures were they fighting?

Xandro had gotten a glimpse of his own hooded foe's physical abnormalities, for the the man's right arm was much shorter than his left and the left side of his head bulged out disturbingly, as if someone had tried making one head out of the halves of an ogre and a satyr; Xandro noted the small horn growing out of the right side of his enemy's temple. But despite the oddities of his form, the creature had apparently adapted to the reality of his misshapen body, for he wielded his short sword with the adeptness of a professional. It was all Xandro could do keep the malformed rogue's short sword at bay with his own rapier.

Not having found any hidden passageways in the bedroom, Thurloe had moved back into the short hallway and discovered the western wall likely held a secret door - he just couldn't find the triggering mechanism. So, deciding to make his own doorway, he brought his bastard sword crashing down into the wall, cutting a deep slice into the camouflaged wooden door. Hearing the noise caused by such activities, the mongrelman who'd been fighting Xandro backed off to go deal with this new threat, calling for their trained krenshar to attack the rapier-wielding human with the lute strapped to his back.

The krenshar growled, hunched as if getting ready to pounce at Xandro, and then - quite disturbingly - the skin around its face flipped up, revealing a feline skull covered in bands of sinewy muscle. The bard didn't feel fear so much as disgust, but the distraction was enough to allow the krenshar to get a grip on the bard's left leg with its powerful jaws. Xandro stabbed down at the beast's neck with the tip of his rapier, causing the hyena-sized creature to roar in pain and release his leg.

Zander sped past his foe and touched Alewyth's unmoving form, concerned she might be slipping closer to death with every passing second. He activated his own unique spell-like ability, channeling a small burst of positive energy into the unconscious priestess, enough to close up her wounds and prevent any further bleeding.

Wakuren took over the door-making procedure, smashing his metal shield into the hole Thurloe had started with his bastard sword. Then, kicking away fragments of the hidden door, he had enough of a hole to step through. But there was a strange, hooded man waiting there for him, stabbing out with his short sword. Wakuren managed to deflect the thrust with his shield, then stepped fully into the room, Thurloe entering behind him.

The mongrelmen each attacked their intended foes again; Wakuren deflected the blow successfully but Zander wasn't as lucky. Still, he was better off than the mongrelman attacking Wakuren, for Thurloe's bastard sword - held in a two-handed grip that allowed the fighter to put the full force of his not-inconsiderable strength behind it - cut him down.

The krenshar cringed, growled, and then sprung again at Xandro, toppling him backwards and causing him to hit his head on the floor as he fell; unconsciousness swept over him almost instantly. The skull-faced beast started chewing on the bard's leg, seeing no reason to wait for his prey to actually die before making him its next meal.

Zander knew he'd be following Xandro into unconsciousness if he let his mongrelman foe continue to attack him. So, since the door behind him was locked, he saw the transparent wall he'd walked through to get into the building and, not sure if the command word was still in effect, called out "Sinborn!" and dashed back through the wall and into the alleyway with the horses and mules. He allowed the words to another casting of the magic missile spell come to the forefront of his mind, ready to send flying into the mongrelman rogue if he dared to follow the sorcerer back outside.

Wakuren dashed over to the fallen Alewyth and the unconscious Xandro and determined the bard was currently worse off - a rather easy determination, considering the krenshar was chomping on his leg like a chew toy. The half-orc cleric cast a cure light wounds spell on the downed bard, slapping at the krenshar with his shield in an attempt to drive him off. The krenshar growled its anger at having been separated from his meal, but then he was slain by an overhand blow from Thurloe's bastard sword. Xandro sat up, rubbing his sore leg but finding he was able to stand upon it. "Thanks," he said to the half-orc cleric of Cal.

The remaining mongrelman ran outside through the wall in pursuit of Zander and the magic missile spell hit him unerringly in the chest as soon as he entered the alleyway. He stabbed at the sorcerer with his blade, hoping to cut him down, but the nimble elf backed up and kept his distance. He blasted the rogue with another magic missile and that was enough to send him crashing lifelessly to the alley ground, not far from the nobleman the mongrelman had slain just minutes earlier.

Wakuren knelt and healed Alewyth, bringing her back to consciousness with another casting of the cure light wounds spell. Looking around and seeing no further combatants needing to be dealt with, Thurloe announced his intentions to go see to Sandoval and backtracked his way through the hole he and Wakuren had carved through the hallway wall. Sandoval was in a lot of pain but he was still conscious, his weasel familiar doing his best to lick his master back to good health (or perhaps he just enjoyed the taste of his master's blood). But the scribe cringed upon Thurloe's return, thinking the fighter was there to finish him off. "I've got powerful connections!" Sandoval cried out, thinking to prevent Thurloe from slaying him if he thought the guild of thieves with which he was associated would avenge him. But Thurloe wasn't in a murdering mood; instead, he bound the scribe tightly with rope from his backpack.

"Now, I'm going to ask you again about the dead guy in the alley," began the fighter.

"Screw the dead guy in the alley!" spat Sandoval. "I didn't have anything to do with anything like that! I'm a scribe - I create scrolls, documents, okay, maybe the occasional forgeries if the price is right! But that's it!"

"There were two...mishmash monster guys and a skull-faced hyena-thing in the back of your building who likely killed the guy in the alley. You have to be aware of who they are."

"Hey, if the guild says let some of their members bunk in the back, who am I to argue? I just run the scribe shop - that's it! Now let me go and get out of here, if you know what's good for you! Or I'll have the thieves guild on you so fast it'll make your head spin!"

Thurloe was getting tired of the same old protestations of innocence from a man who was obviously involved up to his eyeballs. Before either of the good-hearted clerics interfered with his own sense of justice, Thurloe ran Sandoval through with his blade; it turned out he was in a murdering mood after all.

A quick examination of the ground level of the scriptorium building revealed a dining hall and a set of stairs leading down to a basement level. But there was also the locked door Zander had found. Unable to open it via normal methods - Sandoval didn't carry a key to the door on his person, nor could Thurloe find one behind the front counter - Alewyth took matters into her own hands by smashing through the wooden door with her warhammer. A shriek of surprise accompanied her initial swings, but by the time she'd smashed all the way through and into the room, the startled screams had died down. Entering the room, the group found a line of cells along the eastern wall. They were all empty save for the northernmost one, which held a young woman in her late twenties.

"Who are you?" asked Alewyth, surprised to find a human woman in a cage inside this scriptorium manned by weird mongrelmen.

"My name is Teresa Theringold," replied the young woman. "Did my brother Bertram send you?" she asked, hope in her eyes.

"Uhhh," began Alewyth, then realized there was no good way to deliver the information. "I'm afraid he's dead, outside, in the alleyway. But he had apparently tracked you down and was attempting to rescue you from here. Why were you taken, may I ask?"

Teresa broke down into tears at the announcement of the death of her brother. "R-ransom," she finally replied. "They said if my family didn't pay them 15,000 pieces of gold by the end of the week, I'd be sold into slavery." She took a moment to try to recover her composure. "I'm afraid we no longer have that kind of money...my father has squandered most of it away, gambling."

"Well, don't you worry - we'll have you out of there in a jiffy," promised Alewyth, striking the cell door with her warhammer. But the metal bars of the cell were much sturdier than the wooden door she'd smashed through to gain entrance into the room and she soon realized she wasn't going to be able to break the door to the cell down.

"I'm afraid we'll have to come back for you, after we find the key to your cell," Alewyth amended her promise. "But we won't leave without you, this I swear."

Wakuren asked Teresa who had taken her hostage and who had been tending to her since - bringing her food and water, for example. "Monsters," Teresa replied with a shudder. "Stitched-together abominations from some mad wizard's lab." That would be the mongrelmen, Wakuren reasoned. And it explained the password controlling the back wall, as "sinborn" was a slang term for the patchwork creatures, many people believing anyone born as a mongrelfolk was being punished for sins committed in a prior life.

The group promised Teresa they'd be back and headed over to the stairs, which were lined up along the western wall of the building. Alewyth cast a protection from evil spell upon herself, sure that anyone they'd meet would likely be of an evil bent. Seeing not even the faintest illumination coming from the lower level, Zander cast a dancing lights spell that sent several marble-sized balls of illumination dancing around the top of his head. And then they went down the stairs.

About halfway down, Thurloe activated his sunrod and threw it down the stairs, to have it skitter along the floor and roll forward down a hallway. As he approached the lower level he picked up the distinct scent of cat urine; no doubt the krenshar normally spent most of its time down here. He also held up his hand, signaling the others behind him to stop, and strained to focus on what he thought he'd heard: the labored breathing of someone hiding in one of the rooms nearby. Moving forward again as quietly as he could go, Thurloe reached the floor and stepped into an open room with several open doorways. The smell of cat-piss was strong here and the scattered bones of previous victims - humans and elves, by the looks of them - indicated they'd found the krenshar's lair.

But that wasn't all of note. The room at the bottom of the stairs was at the northwestern corner of the basement level, with the doorways opening into some sort of maze network or something. The walls of the maze were ten feet tall and made of stone, but there was a wooden set of rafters at the 15-foot mark, and the ceiling stood a good five feet above them, a full 20 feet above the floor. A triangular platform of wood sat directly overhead, sitting in the corner of the rafter network.

Cautiously, Thurloe entered the maze, heading south to follow the path of the sunrod he'd tossed in that direction. This was also the direction of the heavy breathing sound, and as the fighter approached a side passageway in the maze the source of the wheezing made itself visible: a bearded mongrelman with patches of green scales on the side of its face and a crab claw in the place of its left hand. Almost without conscious thought, Thurloe swung his bastard sword at the abomination as it in turn snapped out with its claw; the fighter dodged the pincer but the mongrelman fell to the ground, dead. One down, thought Thurloe, wondering how many more of these "sinborn" were down here in this maze.

Alewyth stepped into the krenshar's lair and headed east. Zander followed in Thurloe's direction and cast a detect magic spell, wondering if there were any magic weapons being used against them; if so, he might get a bit of a heads up from the casting of the spell. Turning slowly to face different parts of the basement level, he got a magical "ping" from the wooden triangle in the northeastern corner; there was something magical stored up there!

Xandro was the next to enter the krenshar's lair and he pulled the lute from his back and began singing a ballad about a brave band of heroes facing their enemies, thinking his friends could probably use a boost to their own courage in this dark labyrinth. He wove magic into the words of his song, inspiring courage into the minds of the fledgling heroes exploring this dark lair.

Wakuren brought up the rear and he also headed east, but by a different path than that chosen by Alewyth. He soon ran into another mongrelfolk, this one sporting facial features reminiscent of both gnolls and lizardfolk. He bashed it with his metal shield, dropping the sinborn to its knees, then using the side of the shield to crush its windpipe. It fell dead to the floor.

But now the remaining mongrelfolk exploded into action, attacking the heroes from all directions. Another crab-clawed sinborn snapped at Thurloe with its pincer, but this was just a distraction allowing him to strike the fighter with a wooden club the creature held in a hairy fist. A stumpy sinborn with one normal-sized eye and the other three times the size of its neighbor slammed a wooden club over Wakuren's head from behind and the half-orc fell forward into unconsciousness, his metal shield striking the ground with a clatter.

However, there were more than mongrelfolk down here in this labyrinth; the four triangular corners of the rafters each held the nest of a kenku: a humanoid crow covered in black feathers and with talonlike claws on both hands and feet. One kenku - the one from the northeastern nest - rose from its bed and crept cautiously across the wooden rafters, dipping an arrow into the glass vial of centipede venom it wore on its belt and nocking it into its shortbow as it did so. It saw Alewyth creeping forward, oblivious to the kenku's position, and fired down at the dwarf. The arrow struck true, piercing the cleric's shoulder and sending a burning sensation through the wound. But dwarves are a hearty race and Alewyth was able to shrug off the effects of the venom.

The other kenku awoke from the sounds of battle and grabbed up its own shortbow from its nest in the southeastern corner. The black-feathered rogue bounded across the rafters in a low crouch, gaining the central area of the labyrinth from where it could see Xandro playing his lute. The kenku fired, hitting the bard a glancing blow that was fortunately not deep enough for the centipede venom to enter Xandro's bloodstream.

Thurloe slew the crab-clawed mongrelfolk who'd hit him with the club and rounded a corner of the maze; fortunately, with Zander's dancing lights floating above his head there was enough illumination to reveal the kenku up on the rafters and the fighter called out a warning to beware of archers from above. Alewyth moved forward to try to revive Wakuren, realizing the two of them were the group's primary source of healing and as such it was up to her to bring him back to consciousness. However, she not only had to contend with the kenku firing from the rafters above her but also a hulking mongrelman whose torso, right arm, and lower face seemed to be composed of primarily ogrish traits. It limped forward on mismatched legs, one of them sporting the scales and clawed toes of a lizardfolk, and swung its wooden club at the dwarf. She dodged the blow and maneuvered herself such that the burly sinborn stood in the way of the kenku's bow-shots, hoping he'd move off - for she needed to slay this mongrelman to get to Wakuren but as soon as her "mongrelman shield" dropped she'd be in the sights of the kenku's arrows again.

Zander moved up to give Alewyth what assistance he could, but he was almost out of his more powerful spells and had pulled out his dagger, fearing he'd have to engage in hand-to-hand combat, his least-preferred method of fighting. As he traveled east along the northernmost passage, his elven senses picked up the fact there was a hidden door along the left wall - no, make that two of them, spaced fairly closely together. He also got a magical "ping" from the kenku nest in the northeastern corner; apparently these kenku liked to keep magic items stored away! Having to ignore the secret doors for now - it sounded like Alewyth needed any help she could get, and quickly! - Zander vowed to remember to scramble up to the 15-foot-high perches to check out what all treasure the kenku had stashed about once this combat was done.

Xandro had to stop playing his lute and give more attention to his rapier, for another crab-clawed mongrelman stepped out to attack him. He handily dispatched him and opted to swing the lute back over his shoulder by its strap for now, content that the magical effect it had provided his friends would linger for a bit once the music itself had stopped. Then he darted forward into the maze, seeking out enemies - and making sure to check the rafters above him for the darting kenku. Fortunately, despite the fact there was a nest in each corner only two kenku seemed to be about; it was possible the other two were off on some mission for the thieves guild with which these animal-men seemed to be associated.

Straddling the unconscious Wakuren, the ogrish mongrelman attacked Alewyth again. And now, from a side-passage of the twisting maze, another sinborn stepped forward, this one feature a large, multifaceted insect eye growing out of the right side of his face. Fortunately, the clomp of his right foot - which was hoofed, like that of a satyr or minotaur - provided the priestess enough warning to avoid the swing of his club. But now she faced mongrelfolk on two sides and she still couldn't reach the downed half-orc cleric.

Fortunately, the kenku above her still couldn't get in a good shot, so he scampered over the haphazard rafters, looking for a better angle from which to assault these interlopers below. He got in a good shot against Thurloe, firing his arrow into the fighter's upper chest. Thurloe grunted in pain but remained on his feet, although he was now seriously thinking this might just be a fight they couldn't win at present. This view was only reinforced when the other kenku hopped along the rafters and got in a good shot at Alewyth, hitting her in the upper arm from above and to the side.

Zander shot his final magic missile of the day at the bug-eyed mongrelman, distracting it from Alewyth; this allowed Xandro to come up from behind it and run it through with his rapier, the point sticking out of the thing's chest before the bard pulled it back out and the sinborn fell lifelessly to the floor of the maze. But the ogrish one kept up his attacks on the priestess of Aerik and the kenku above fired down another arrow into her back; she was now on her last legs and knew it, realizing also that if she were to fall in battle it would likely mean not only her life but possibly Wakuren's as well.

The other kenku, from his higher perch, fired another arrow at Thurloe, hitting him in the top of his shoulder. That was it for the fighter; with a bellowed cry of "Retreat!" he followed his own advice, backing to the stairs leading to the upper level of the scriptorium and taking a moment to pluck the arrows from his body, crying out on pain as he pulled out the one piercing his chest. But several steps up the stairs he was out of bow-shot range from the kenku archer; the angle was all wrong for the rafter-bound kenku to be firing up a slope.

However, Thurloe grimaced when Xandro called back, from deeper inside the maze, "Wakuren's down!" Crap, that meant retreat wasn't really an option, then. Steeling himself, he grabbed up his bastard sword and readied to run back into battle.

Fortunately, Alewyth managed to take out the ogre-blooded mongrelfolk with a desperate strike of her warhammer, which allowed her to scramble forward and cast a much-needed cure light wounds spell on Wakuren, bringing the half-orc cleric to flickering consciousness. Zander kept the nearest kenku engaged by casting a ray of frost spell up at it, covering the priestess's ministrations. Xandro also found the point of his rapier could reach up at the kenku's feet and he stabbed at it, causing the bird-man to leap and scramble away.

The other kenku, having lost Thurloe as his target, was leaping from rafter to rafter across the maze to line up another shot. It wasn't yet in position, but it was gaining fast on those in the maze below. But then, with a war-scream at his lips, Thurloe raced back into the maze and leaped into the air, bringing his bastard sword swinging wildly at the first kenku at the top of his jump. The blade cut the legs out from the startled avian and he fell backwards off the rafters to land, lifelessly, in an empty passageway on the other side of a maze wall from the fighter.

There was now only the sole remaining kenku facing the five heroes, but he still had the advantage of height and a ranged weapon with which he could shoot down at them, whereas the five on the ground were better geared toward hand-to-hand combat than ranged attacks. The kenku was also in a better position maneuverability-wise, for he could race across the rafters in pretty much any direction he wanted, whereas the ground-based heroes were forced to meander around the twisting passageways of the maze.

Zander, dagger in hand, started following Thurloe's earlier advice and began heading for the stairway. Xandro saw the kenku approaching and stabbed up with his rapier, causing the archer to squawk in frustration and dart off in a slightly different direction before stopping, taking aim, and firing an arrow down at the troublesome bard. Wakuren, back on his feet, took a moment to cast a healing spell upon Alewyth in return and then stalked through the maze, heading towards the kenku on the rafters above. It was difficult for the kenku, even with his higher elevation, to keep track of all five of his enemies below, and eventually he strayed too close to Thurloe, who repeated his earlier maneuver and cut the archer a deep gash in the leg with his bastard sword from below, causing him to fall from his perch onto the maze floor beneath the rafters. The others hurried to get to him before he could scramble back up the wall and onto the rafters, but when they got to the kenku it was already dead, its neck in an unnatural position from when he had fallen.

"Well, good," Thurloe replied with a weary sigh before heading off to find one of the clerics for some much-needed healing.

Their enemies dead, the five heroes set about seeing if there was anything of value to be found among the corpses of those they'd slain and, more importantly, up in the kenku nests. They boosted Zander up - he was the lightest of the group - and he tossed down the various treasures the kenku rogues had accumulated. The magic items the sorcerer had detected were mostly utilitarian in nature - two healing potions, an everburning torch wrapped in a blanket - but they also snagged a tanglefoot bag, some tindertwigs and a candle, a vial of antitoxin, a smattering of coinage, and most importantly, a bunch of keys on a metal ring. These proved to be the keys to the cells in the room in which Teresa Theringold was being kept prisoner and she was grateful when the five returned to free her.

But before they did that, Zander wanted to check out what was behind the secret doors he'd sensed. One led to a small room with a terrarium filled with several centipedes as long as the elf's arm, along with heavy gloves and metal tongs that were apparently used in venom extraction; this was where the kenku got the poison for their arrows, it seemed. Another tunnel led to what appeared as a shrine of some sort, missing only the statue of the god to which it would normally have been consecrated; nevertheless, the assembled treasure of the mongrelfolk was apparently stored here, meager as it might be. Then, further down the wall, Zander discovered yet another hidden passageway he hadn't noticed before; this one led to the sewers even lower down and likely served as a means for the misshapen sinborn to move about the city unseen. But it served a different purpose this day, for at Thurloe's direction all of the kenku and mongrelfolk corpses got dragged to the sewer access hole and dropped down the shaft, to disappear into the rancid waters below.

Once freed, Teresa asked to be taken to the body of her brother immediately. Taking her through the oddly transparent wall (transparent from the inside only, as became evident once outside in the alleyway), Teresa identified the body laying there as her brother Bertram. "If you would help transport his body back to our estate, I will pay you what I can," Teresa offered. The group lifted Bertram's body and placed it across the broad back of Mica the mule and Alewyth walked her mount beside Teresa, who led them to the Theringold estate. There she insisted upon paying the group 500 pieces of gold for their assistance, Wakuren insisted that they needed no such payment, and Thurloe insisted that Wakuren was being a dumbass and of course they were happy to help but equally happy to be paid for their services.

And then the group mounted their horses and mules and returned the way they had originally been going, to stock up on the other supplies they'd need for their trek into the mountains, to try to find the dreamstones they'd been briefed about in the Dreamlands.

"You think of a name for your mule yet?" Xandro asked Wakuren.

"I'm thinking 'Perseverance,'" Wakuren replied.

- - -

This was an opportunity for me to put the PCs in combat against some creatures who might reasonably be expected to be found inside a city, since I imagine the vast majority of the campaign will be spent on the move, as the PCs travel about the continent coming to the aid of those who have fallen victim to the dream-sickness. But as they still need training on dream manipulation, I wanted to keep them in Port Duralia for a bit and this was a means to have an adventure take place entirely within its confines. I'll be sending them on the road before too long, which will make it difficult to have many repeat visits by established NPCs. Now at least they have earned the respect of a minor noble family; I may be able to do something with that in the future.

I figure Bertram Theringold had tracked down one of the two kenku who had kidnapped his sister and tortured the location and password out of him before killing him. That explains how he tracked down his sister's whereabouts, made it through the passwall, and got himself killed - but at least had the presence of mind to try to write the password to the wall down before he died.

Incidentally, Harry absolutely hated the fact that I had given Sandoval a weasel familiar and had the audacity to use the same mini he had used for his own half-orc sorcerer's familiar in our previous campaign. Harry demanded we kill Sleek for the simple crime of not being Wezhley.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Einstein shirt, as it was the same game session as the first adventure.
 
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ADVENTURE 3: THE DREAMSTONE CAVERNS

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 1​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 1​

Game Session Date: 1 August 2020

- - -

Suddenly finding themselves with more money to spend, the group decided to forego their immediate departure to the mountains north of Port Duralia and further stock up on supplies. With his share of the reward for rescuing Teresa Theringold, Zander purchased a sturdy wooden wagon and the tack needed to hitch up the two mules, Mica and Perseverance. Of course, that meant Alewyth and Wakuren were suddenly without riding mounts. "No problem," Zander replied. "You guys get to ride in the wagon. Better that the two clerics capable of keeping the rest of us hale and hearty get to ride around in style!"

If either if the clerics doubted that riding in a mule-drawn wagon was considered "riding around in style," they didn't mention it to the overeager elven sorcerer.

Thurloe thought it a good idea to pick up a few healing potions, just in case anybody needed immediate healing and had gotten separated from the clerics. "I know a guy," he promised, but when he led them to the potion-maker's shop he found it closed and locked. "Never mind," he said. "He's probably out making the rounds on his cart. C'mon, let's try some of his usual stops."

Finding the potion-maker was presaged with the laughter of children. Riding into a cul-de-sac, the group spotted a little gnome sitting behind an odd contraption: the front half looked rather like a large desk on wheels, and the back half had a place for the gnome to sit above a large wheel and gears he pedaled with his feet to get the vehicle to move. But the contraption was currently parked and the gnome was doing a brisk business selling penny candy to a cluster of eager children holding up their copper coins.

"You buy your potions from a candy man?" Alewyth asked, puzzled.

"Oh, yeah - Aenus is one of the best in the business. He sells the normal stuff - potions, oils, salves, and the like - or you can get the same stuff in candy form or sometimes even chewing gum. The chewy stuff kicks in right away, but some of the hard candies have a spell effect in them that lasts for as long as you keep sucking on the candy."

"The guy's name is 'Anus?'" Xandro asked, wanting to make sure he'd heard correctly. But by that time they'd ridden into earshot of the gnome, and he turned to introduce himself.

"Aenus Feysputter, at your service," he said with a mock bow from the seat of his vehicle, lifting a flap on the top of his "desk" area and pulling out a piece of toffee, which he exchanged with a small child for his copper piece. At the bard's confused expression, the gnome pointed to the side of his vehicle. "Like it's spelled, not like it sounds," he grinned, for he was pretty sure the human had heard his name as "Anus Face-Butter."

Aenus took another child's order, took his penny and gave him his candy, and watched as the flock of children scampered away. "Now then, what can I get for you?"

"Two potions of cure light wounds, for a start," Thurloe answered.

"Very well: liquid or toffee?" Aenus asked.

Thurloe thought it over. "Potion vial," he replied, then added on a vial of oil of bless weapon and a potion of shield of faith as well, which pretty much took up the majority of his share of the earnings from their exploration of Sandoval's Scriptorium. A few of the others purchased a potion or two from the gnome's cart, then he was off, pedaling his contraption to the next part of town where he often did his business.

"Odd guy," Zander remarked. "Hey, is there anywhere around here I could pick up a couple of scrolls?" Thurloe knew of a respectable arcane scroll scribe and led the group to his shop. And then, all of their goods and provisions loaded into the wagon, they headed out of Port Duralia and north up the trade road for nearly seven hours. They met several merchants headed both ways, for Port Duralia was a major trade hub on the western shores of Armaturia and the goods brought in by sea were sent via caravans along the trade routes to towns and villages all along the small continent.

At the sixth hour the group diverged off the main road, vectoring off to the left, headed to a gap between two mountains that made up this part of the Shieldwall Range ringing the continent. Alewyth led the mules without hesitation, sure that this was the way they were to take, for she'd studied the map in the throne room of the Queen of Dreams very thoroughly.

A short hour later, the priestess of Aerik pulled the mule-drawn wagon to a stop at the foot of a mountain of stone. There was a cave just ahead, the opening about seven feet wide and maybe five feet high, if that. But with her darkvision Alewyth could see the cavern walls inside seemed to rise higher than the cave opening; likely the ceiling height would permit them to stand normally once inside the cave.

The three men on horseback drew their mounts to a halt, then leaped down from their saddles and tied their horses' reins to the spokes of the wagon wheels. Alewyth and Wakuren stepped down from the wagon and everyone cautiously approached the cave, weapons drawn and ready.

"You're sure this is the right place?" asked Xandro.

"It looks like a cave opening, in the right place the Queen said it'd be," replied Alewyth. "Pretty sure it's the right one, but if it isn't we can scout around a bit and see if there's another one nearby."

"Ladies first," offered Thurloe, waving the priestess ahead of him. She scowled at him, thinking he was merely offering to allow her to be attacked first by anything that might be guarding this cave, but then she decided it made sense that one of the group's two clerics should be the first to enter the cave: they were the only two capable of seeing perfectly fine in absolute darkness and there was no light coming from inside the cave. It was probably only about five hours or so past noon, but the mountains cast plenty of shadows and there was not a whole lot of light available with which to see inside dark cavern openings.

"All I see so far is a bunch of scattered bones," she whispered to those behind her as she approached the cave.

"Human?" asked Xandro.

"Nah, smaller: bunnies and squirrels, more likely." By now, though, Alewyth could detect a distinct animal musk emanating from the cave - that, and the unmistakable coppery scent of blood. She gripped her warhammer tighter and stepped fully inside, ducking her head as she did so to ensure she didn't bonk her metal helmet on the top of the cave opening.

There was a growl from the right; spinning in place, the dwarven priestess saw a pair of timber wolves in the back of the cave. Both were growling now, the fur on their backs standing up, one of them approaching. Then that one - the male, Alewyth surmised - pounced to the attack, trying to bite her leg and drag her to the stone floor where he could more easily rip out her exposed throat.

Xandro and Thurloe raced forward into the cave at the snarls and growls, followed by Wakuren, although it was a tight fit getting them all inside for the entryway was somewhat small. From outside the cave, Zander saw the timber wolf try to bite Alewyth and, with a good line of sight on the beast due to his low-light vision, the elf cast a magic missile spell, sending a dart of pure energy striking the wolf in the side of the head.

Wakuren decided he didn't necessarily want to kill the wolf; this was, after all, his own den and the half-orc assumed the other wolf was his mate and the adventurers were the ones trespassing into the wolves' den. So rather than bring the side of his shield crashing down on the wolf's skull, he tried punching it with a gauntleted hand, hoping merely to knock the thing senseless rather than slay it outright. The wolf let out an involuntary whimper at the half-orc's blow, sounding more like a dog than Wakuren was comfortable with.

Alewyth, however, was the one getting bit and she had no compunctions about fighting back with all of her might. Her warhammer came crashing down upon the wolf's head, knocking it in a heap upon the stone floor of his own den. Wakuren noted the wolf was still breathing and turned to look at the other one. This was apparently a female, for her belly seemed swollen in pregnancy. She belatedly leaped to the attack now that her mate was down, determined to fight for her unborn litter. Her teeth bit at Alewyth, the nearest foe and the one who had struck her mate into unconsciousness.

Xandro stepped forward, rapier in hand, and thrust his blade into the wolf's flank. Thurloe stepped up beside and mirrored the maneuver, but his bastard sword was a much heavier weapon and the blade slew the female instantly. She collapsed to the floor in a pool of expanding blood, causing Wakuren to wince in empathetic pain.

The wolves taken care of, Zander walked around the perimeter of the cavern interior, looking for secret passageways. "I hope this is the right place after all," he said. "But I don't see any dreamstones lying around."

It was Alewyth, with her darkvision, who spotted the way forward. "Up there," she said, pointing to the east side of the cave, but higher up the nearly vertical wall. About 20 feet up, the stone wall looked to level off, with a ceiling some 15 feet or so higher than this upper ledge. The dwarf could see stalactites hanging from this higher ceiling; the wolves' den didn't seem to have much in the way of stalactites.

After some discussion, the group came to their first decision: Thurloe would climb the stone wall with the everburning torch providing him the illumination he needed on the way up; once there, he'd hammer a piton into place and lower a rope for the others to climb their way up. Wakuren went to fetch the fighter's silk rope from the wagon, and while the half-orc was out of visual range Xandro stabbed the male wolf in the head with the point of his rapier, killing it. "Just thinking ahead," he told Zander. "We'll want to bring the mounts in here while we go looking for those dreamstones, and we can't have the wolf waking up and deciding to eat our horses." Zander nodded in agreement.

Thurloe resheathed his bastard sword, looped the coils of rope over one shoulder, tucked the everburning torch between his armor and the leather strap holding his bastard sword scabbard on his back, and looked about for the best hand- and footholds. Then, plotting his course, he began climbing up. He took his time; there was no hurry and no reason for a careless fall from a great height because he was going faster than he needed to. It took him some time - during which his new friends worriedly watched his progress, Wakuren standing directly beneath him so he could try to catch him if he slipped - but the determined fighter made it to the top without incident and pulled himself over the edge. Then, on the sloped rise, he pulled out a piton and attached one end of the silk rope to it. He tossed the other end over the edge into the wolf den to get it out of his way, positioned the piton in a solid area where he could pound it in good and secure, and started hammering it into place.

The bats roosting among the stalactites up there above him did not like his hammering at all.

An entire swarm of bats dropped from their ceiling perches and flew about in a panicked frenzy. Thurloe, very much aware he was balanced at the edge of a 20-foot drop, hunkered down low on the stone floor of the elevated area and started crawling away from the edge. Down below, Alewyth heard the frenzied screeches of the bat swarm and cast a sanctuary spell upon herself, ensuring she'd not be a victim to their mad rush to attack anybody and everybody in the area. Thurloe made it to the side wall and crawled further east, while the bats flitted about above him in a blind panic. Eventually, instinct if nothing else led them down to the wolf den, which was their normal exit into the outside air; it was earlier than they normally went out to hunt but the light wasn't bright enough to bother them; the dreamstone hunters wisely dropped to the cave floor and let the bats exit without incident. Then, once they'd all trickled out in waves, Alewyth called up to the higher ledge, "Are you all right up there, Thurloe?"

"I'm fine!" he called back. "You guys can start climbing up!"

They sent Zander up first as he was the lightest, while Wakuren and Xandro went to go fetch the horses. They dragged the bodies of the wolves outside and far enough away from the cave entrance that carrion eaters hopefully wouldn't find their way back to the cave, then untied the horses' bridles from the wagon wheel and brought them inside the cave. The mules were used to maneuver the wagon adjacent to the cave opening, then unhitched from the vehicle and brought inside as well. Finally, Wakuren and Xandro tipped the wagon over, blocking the cave entrance, then scrambled over it to climb their way back inside. It was crowded, but hopefully the steeds would be safe inside from any predator who might show up while the adventurers were inside the cave network. With any luck, they'd pop inside, find the dreamstones, and be back before that became an issue.

One by one, the remaining three climbed up the rope after Zander and followed Thurloe east so he could show them what he'd discovered: the bat ledge connected the wolf den to a much larger cavern, with a natural vertical tunnel plunging down into darkness. A series of natural stone steps wound around the interior of the shaft, looking very much like simple elevation changes worn about by water over the centuries but just a little too even to consider that some guiding intelligence hadn't influenced the design of the winding stairway. "Could be there was mining done down here at some point," suggested Alewyth.

"There's no telling what all we might find down in these lower depths," warned Wakuren, looking over the edge of the vertical shaft and seeing it went straight down for almost 50 feet before flattening out at the bottom. He could see a pile of bones on the floor in the center of the shaft; obviously, others had come this way before and not made it back out. "I think it might be best if we readied our magical protection." So saying, he cast a shield of faith spell upon himself. Thurloe drank down his potion with the same effect, then spent a moment rubbing his oil of bless weapon onto the blade of his bastard sword. Alewyth, in the meantime, cast a bless spell upon the assembled group. "May Aerik's watchful eye guide our attacks, that they be true," she intoned.

After checking around this upper cave for dreamstones and finding none, Wakuren led the expedition down the winding slope. Aelwyth walked directly behind him, the only two with darkvision taking the lead. Xandro came next, his lute on his back and his light crossbow in hand, armed with a quarrel and ready for action should it be needed. Then came Thurloe, providing illumination with the everburning torch for those who needed it, while Zander brought up the rear. The steps made several full clockwise circuits around the central shaft before Wakuren got close enough to the thin strands to see what had been all but invisible from the top of the shaft: a spider's web, spanning the entirety of the vertical tunnel about 10 feet above the floor below.

"Spider web," he called back to the others, then looked at the single strand of webbing stretched across the twisting passageway, right where he'd been about to step. The web's crafter, no doubt, used this to trip any prey who didn't otherwise fall into its web. Not wanting anyone to trip over it, he stepped over the all-but-invisible trip-line and then bent down to break it in his hands.

But breaking the trip-line was, to the spider who had laid it there, the same as having potential prey trip over it as intended: it caused the whole web to quiver from the impact, alerting the arachnid there was prey at hand. It scurried up from its hiding place, on the ceiling of a section of spiraling passageway the heroes had yet to traverse, and came scrabbling towards Wakuren.

Alewyth cast a magic stone spell on the handful of sling stones she pulled from a pouch at her belt, dropping the first into her sling and whirling it about her head, ready to fire. Xandro raised his light crossbow and tried to make out the black form of the spider against the deep shadows of the vertical shaft and the steps spiraling down its inner surface. Thurloe resheathed his bastard sword, activated a sunrod and tossed it into the center of the web - a light source not in constant movement like his everburning torch would help them all see the spider they were about to fight - and readied his own shortbow, nocking an arrow and pulling back the bow, sighting along the arrow's length to line up his shot.

But the spider dashed up to Wakuren faster than the half-orc had expected a creature that size to be able to move; its torso was about as long as he was tall, with long, spindly legs adding to its overall bulk. The half-orc's torso was crushed in the spider's mandibles and poison dribbled into the wounds pierced by its sharp mouth-parts. Wakuren could feel the strength start to leave his limbs but vowed not to be slain by a giant spider, of all things.

With a series of arcane syllables, a magic missile spell went streaking from Zander's finger to strike the spider's bloated abdomen. Wakuren slammed the bottom point of his shield into the top of the spider's cephalothorax, right between some of the smaller eyes ranging above the central, forward-pointing pair. Alewyth's magic sling stone went flying into the spider's side, just above the junction where its legs grew out of the underside of its abdomen, while a crossbow bolt shot into the spider's side at full force, burying itself up to the feathers on the end of the shaft. Then Thurloe's arrow followed Xandro's crossbow bolt and the spider died from its many wounds, what passed for blood in its arachnid body leaking out of the many rents in its shiny, black exoskeleton.

"Are you okay?" Alewyth asked Wakuren as he extricated himself from the dead spider's mandibles.

"I will be," answered the half-orc, pulling out a scroll of cure light wounds he'd purchased earlier in the day, back at Port Duralia.

"Do you want the vial of antivenom we found in the kenku nest?' she asked.

"No, thank you - we'll save that for some time when we really need it; that spider's venom didn't do that much damage to me." And he was right: while he wasn't up to his full strength he was already feeling pretty much like his old self now that he'd healed himself from the scroll.

Continuing their spiraling journey down to the bottom of the cavern floor, the group examined the pile of bones and assorted junk that had been piled at the bottom of the vertical shaft. There was a rusty sword and a backpack covered in mildew; even the bones were glistening with wetness. That in itself was odd, for although Zander's elven hearing picked up the distant sounds of water dripping, it was from some distance away and the area here at the bottom of the spiraling slope was otherwise completely dry. "I don't like those bones," he muttered to the others.

"What? Why?" asked Thurloe. "They're just bones. Probably former victims of the spider."

"You just watch: they'll animate or something as soon as our backs are turned."

Wakuren raised his hands to his holy symbol, preparing to channel a wave of positive energy through it should the skeletons turn out to be undead, but after nothing seemed to happen he turned to the nervous elf. "I think you're just being--" he began.

"It moved!" Zander called, pointing.

Wakuren turned his head and sure enough, there was some slight movement over in the pile of bones. One human arm was rising up, setting its hand down as a support as if to pull itself upright. Wakuren raised his holy symbol but then noticed something: the skeleton getting to its feet was completely covered in a thick, translucent slime. He recalled having heard of these things in his training: while turning undead was a powerful weapon in any combat cleric's arsenal, there were some creatures who gave every indication of being undead but were not and one of these "false undead" was a translucent slime-beast that used skeletons as a means of getting around faster and approaching new prey.

Alewyth, however, had readied her sling to attack the skeleton and she let fly with her second magic stone, not particularly caring whether this thing was truly undead or not. The stone hit true, splashing through the nearly-invisible goo coating the thing's skull and striking bone. Xandro shot his crossbow at it and Thurloe fired off an arrow from his shortbow, both shafts hitting their marks as well. Zander cast an acid splash spell at the thing, not realizing the translucent goo was itself acidic in nature and the creature was immune.

By then, the goop ghoul had gotten its skeleton mount fully standing and it swiveled it in place, swinging a bony arm at Wakuren, who happened to be the closest. The half-orc easily blocked the simple attack with his shield. Then he used his shield as a weapon, bringing it crashing down upon the skeleton's skull, crushing the neck that supported it and smashing into the translucent slime granting the thing its mobility. The slime lost its cohesiveness, causing the individual bones to scatter in a pile.

Making sure there were no other goop ghouls in among the other bones, Thurloe eventually declared it safe and stepped into the pile to root around for possible treasure; after all, a spider wouldn't have the sense to value the items left behind by its previous victims. The others gave him a hand, unearthing a well-crafted dagger, a small coin pouch filled with several dozen copper pennies, and a gem looking to be much more valuable. ("A dreamstone?" asked Xandro, but it was not.) Then, seeing nothing else of value, Thurloe called for the group to move on.

There was a slight illumination coming from around the corner to the right of the cavern they were currently occupying. Alewyth led the group around the corner, but Zander was squinting up the cavern wall just ahead. He called Wakuren over. "Is that a cave or something up there?" he asked, pointing.

Wakuren, with his darkvision, was able to confirm it was. The opening was an area of darkness about 25 feet up the cavern wall, a wall about as steep as the one Thurloe had climbed to get them into the bat cave which had led them all here. Wakuren brought the cave to Thurloe's attention as Alewyth and Xandro continued on around the corner. But then, seeing the commotion going on behind them, they returned to the others.

"What's up?" asked Alewyth.

"There's a cave up there," Thurloe replied. "I want to check it out." Zander had another coil of rope from his own gear that he passed over to Thurloe and the fighter pulled out another piton and his hammer and shoved them into his belt. Then, everburning torch still in place with the strap to his bastard sword, he found his initial footholds and started his careful ascent.

Wakuren and Alewyth each decided they'd give climbing a try as well; they had darkvision and would have a much easier time seeing the rock face than either Xandro or Zander would. But climbing - without a rope to guide them - proved to be much more difficult than it looked, and after each fell after ascending only a few feet they decided to let Thurloe handle it; he'd already proven he could climb nearly sheer vertical stone surfaces before, after all.

Alewyth, however, soon got bored watching Thurloe's slow and cautious ascent and decided to go check out the illumination; it was coming from the same direction as the occasional drippings sounds. As she walked down the corridor, a beetle popped around the corner, exposing itself as the source of the illumination: glowing glands on its carapace and at the ends of its antenna were giving off a ghostly, white light. The thing was smaller than the spider had been but was still as big as a decent-sized dog and it skittered towards the dwarf in hungry anticipation of an easy meal.

But its meal was not to be, for Zander cast a magic missile spell at it and the thing was slain immediately. "Wow, that thing's not very tough," he said.

As if summoned by the elf's disdain, two more fire beetles skittered around the corner, speeding down the corridor towards all but Thurloe, who by now was halfway up the slope. Alewyth used her third and final magic stone, sending a pebble crashing into the lead fire beetle's head, right between its glowing antennae. This wasn't enough to kill it, though, and it continued its hungry approach. Xandro slew it moments thereafter with a well-placed shot from his light crossbow.

Zander cast another acid splash spell, coating the head of the last beetle in corrosive fluid, but again it kept on coming. This one actually made it to the line of adventurers, biting Alewyth on the leg with a set of strong mandibles. But that just put it close enough to her for her to bring her warhammer smashing down upon the middle of its back, snapping its carapace and crushing its internal organs. It oozed fluids as its legs twitched spasmodically in death.

Thurloe was almost to the top of the ledge immediately outside the cave opening when he heard a word being echoed inside the chambers beyond. It sounded like, "Doom!" being repeated by numerous voices, as if this were some sort of battle chant. But the voices increased in volume rapidly - more rapidly, in fact, than the fighter could pull himself fully up onto the ledge. He had his arms straightened out and his waist level with the floor, about ready to try to swing up a leg, when the creatures rounded a corner and were upon him.

At first Thurloe thought these were more kenku, like the archers they'd fought in the basement beneath Sandoval's Scriptorium. But while the kenku wore clothing to disguise their avian build, these creatures were completely naked. Thurloe decided whatever they were they were probably still part of the kenku family tree, for their avian bodies were covered with oily, black feathers and their heads looked very much like those of ravens or crows, but these creatures had bulging chests and powerful arms - if they were kenku they were the primitive, savage part of the line - and they seemed incapable of saying anything other than, "Doom! Doom!"

But it looked like there were at least three of them rushing him and Thurloe didn't want any part of trying to fight off barbarian kenku while balanced at the edge of a 25-foot drop, so he lowered himself back down, found the footing he'd just left, and started climbing back down again. He started his descent just in time, for two sets of avian claws grabbed at his head; had he been a few seconds later he'd likely have been raked on both sides of his face.

Just as the fighter was congratulating himself on avoiding a whole lot of pain, a whole lot of pain came to visit him. One of the dire corbies, intent upon not letting this human interloper invade its nest, leaped forward onto Thurloe, clawing at his back and shoulders. Thurloe doubted he could hold both of their weight for long and realized he had but a split second to make a choice: drop from the wall and hope he could finagle a midair twist such that the kenku barbarian took the brunt of the landing, or cling to the wall and hope the bird-man fell off.

Almost without conscious thought, Thurloe instinctively went for the clinging-to-the-wall option. That turned out not to be the optimal course of action, for he couldn't support the weight of the dire corby as well as his own and his fingers lost their purchase. Both figures plummeted the 20 feet to the hard floor below, the dire corby turning it into some sort of acrobatic roll that ended up with him stumbling but at least still remaining on his clawed feet, while Thurloe just fell straight down and was knocked unconscious instantly from the impact.

Up at the cave opening, two more dire corbies fell to their feathered bellies and started climbing down the sheer rock face - but unlike Thurloe, they climbed down head first in the manner of lizards. This was quite a disturbing sight for Xandro and Zander, who had never seen these dire corbies before and had expected them to act more like the kenku they resembled. These things didn't even seem to have any weapons!

Alewyth and Wakuren, by this time, had wandered down the corridor in the direction the fire beetles had come from. There was a sort of T-intersection up ahead; to the right was a clear pool, the source of the dripping sounds they'd heard (every few seconds another drop of water plummeted from the small stalactites overhead), while the left passageway opened up into a vast cavern covered in various stalks of mushrooms and other fungi. A large rock sat in the middle of this fungal cavern, swirls of light and dark forming patterns along its surface; Wakuren wondered idly if this might be one massive chunk of dreamstone and if so, how they were ever going to get the thing back to Port Duralia, for it was wider than the half-orc was tall.

Xandro called to their clerics for help as he stabbed his rapier forward at the dire corby before him. Zander cast an acid splash spell at a fourth dire corby that had just appeared in the cave entrance and was flopping on its belly in preparation of beginning its headfirst climb down the cliff-side; the elf had hoped he might startle it into falling over the edge, but no such luck. These things seemed much tougher than the kenku they'd fought earlier; the one Xandro stabbed merely cawed "Doom!" in his face and swiped at the bard with a set of sharp talons at the end of his hand.

The two dire corbies climbing down leaped to the ground and took up positions on either side of the one Xandro was facing off against, and now two more had taken their place climbing down the cliff wall. With a look of despair, Zander saw a sixth creature appear at the top of the upper cave opening. These things were not only tougher than the kenku, but they outnumbered the adventurers as well - and would have had Thurloe still been up and about to aid their side.

But at least Wakuren and Alewyth were running back to help. By the time they caught back up, Xandro had managed to kill the first dire corby with another stab of his rapier, this time through the thing's heart - but still the others continued crying, "Doom, doom, DOOM!" Zander bent low and grabbed the unconscious fighter by the strap of his bastard sword, dragging him farther back and out of the reach of the two other dire corbies already on the ground. But these two had leaped forward to attack Alewyth and Xandro, slashing out with the talons on their hands, while behind them the next two leaped to the floor and advanced, one slashing out at Zander while he was preoccupied with his task.

Then Wakuren ran forward into a slide, slamming next to Thurloe's unmoving form and casting a cure light wounds spell upon him. The fighter shook his pounding head and looked about him, momentarily forgetting exactly where he was and what he'd been doing. (The cries of "Doom! Doom!" quickly refreshed his memories on that score.) While Alewyth swung her warhammer into the one who'd attacked her and Xandro did likewise with his rapier, Thurloe whipped out his bastard sword and stabbed at the one who'd attacked Zander. The elf, for his part, backed up even further away and cast an acid splash spell at the one who'd clawed at him, wishing he had more powerful spells still at hand.

Still calling out "Doom!" the dire corbies rushed forward again, clawing at their enemies. Xandro got hit with both claws from his foe and the dire corby rent his talons across the bard, cutting open deep gashes that spilled forth his blood. He collapsed onto the hard floor, bleeding out at a horrendous rate.

Seeing this, Wakuren pulled out another of his cure light wounds scrolls, casting it upon Xandro and seeing the bard's wounds heal up. But still the bard lay there unmoving, causing the cleric of Cal to worry he'd been too late for his friend, only to belatedly realize Xandro was faking, hoping to catch the bird-men unawares.

Alewyth continued swinging her warhammer for all it was worth, wishing these stupid avians had bones as light as most other birds did. But no luck; these dire corbies had long ago lost the power of flight and their wings had formed into arms, their bones apparently hardening up at the same time.

There were now five living dire corbies on the ground with the heroes, arranged in an arc surrounding their foes. Xandro suddenly stabbed upward at a dire corby almost standing over his prone form, apparently having fallen for the bard's ruse and believing him to be dead. The point of his rapier went deep into the avian's body, causing him to squawk something other than "Doom!" for a change as he staggered backwards with a cry of pain, allowing Xandro to regain his feet and step backwards out of immediate range of any retaliatory strikes. Thurloe swung his bastard sword with his full might, cursing the dire corbies' blasted resilience - why wouldn't they fall? Zander stepped even further back out of range, realizing of the five of them he was the one probably least suited to physical combat; worse yet, he was rapidly running out of even his acid splash spells and before too long was going to have to rely upon his dagger, something he did not look forward to at all.

And still the dire corbies surged forward, sending drops of the heroes' blood flying with each slash of their talons. Realizing they were hopelessly outclassed, Wakuren cast an obscuring mist over the entire area - maybe they could manage to get out while they were still all alive and mobile. Immediately figuring out the half-orc cleric's stratagem, Thurloe called out "Retreat back to the stairs!" at the top of his lungs and hoped the damned barbaric kenku didn't understand the Common tongue - very likely, if all they could say was "Doom!"

Alewyth connected a solid hit with her warhammer against the dire corby directly in front of her and then stepped back and to the side; the dire corby vanished immediately into the dark mist. Xandro couldn't see any of the avians but had a good idea where the stairs were, so he resheathed his rapier in his belt and pulled the lute from his back, playing an inspiring ballad that would hopefully grant an extra bit of courage to his friends - and hoping against hope that the music reverberating and echoing off the cave walls would help obscure his exact location to the dire corbies, who he figured couldn't see him since he couldn't see them.

The obscuring mist took the dire corbies off their stride, since they couldn't spot their foes and spent some time stumbling around searching them out. But every moment they spent seeking the heroes was a moment they weren't actively attacking, and the heroes could use as many of those moments as they could get. Xandro's music fought against the dire corbies' continued cries of "Doom!" and both echoed across the cavern.

But then some of the cries of "Doom!" were cut short, as if the dire corbies were being hit hard. As none of the heroes could see each other, each was glad at least someone from their team was able to get in a few good hits during their tactical retreat. But one by one, they exited the confines of the obscuring mist spell and still the sounds of combat came from within the dark cloud. "Are they hitting themselves?" asked Alewyth.

"Who knows, who cares?" replied Thurloe, heading for the ramp, hit everburning torch lighting the way for the others - although his activated sunrod was still sitting in the middle of the spider's web above, where he'd left it.

A hulking dire corby stepped out of the obscuring mist, his talons dripping with blood - probably Xandro's. "Doom!" he cried, heading straight for Alewyth who, judging herself the least wounded of the five, had taken up a guard spot at the base of the sloping ramp while her friends started their cyclical ascent. The priestess of Aerik readied herself for the avian's attack, warhammer held out laterally before her like a shield.

But before the dire corby could attack her, a disk floated out of the mist. This was a strange disk indeed, unlike anything the young priestess had ever seen before in her life. As it flitted laterally through the air towards the dire corby, she could see the underside held what looked like tiny stalactites in miniature, although some of these wobbled and shifted and she realized those ones were actually tentacles. Two more slender tentacles rose up from the top of the disk, an unblinking eye poised at the tip of each. And the disk sped forward, only to drop down upon the dire corby's head, the stalactite-spikes piercing the avian's skull. His repeated cries of "Doom!" came to an abrupt halt - as did his forward motion - as he turned to look at what had just attacked him from above. But the flumph had jetted straight up after its initial assault, well out of range of the dire corby's swinging talons.

Another dire corby stepped out of the obscuring mist, but it was followed by an entire line of flumphs, hovering at about an 8-foot height and speeding forward with powerful blasts of air from a series of holes centered along the edges of the rims of their disk-like bodies. These new arrivals, Alewyth noted, were a pasty white in color, whereas the first one had been of a more greenish-yellow tint.

The white flumphs dropped down upon the dire corby pair, breaking up into two flying wedges of three flumphs each and attacking in sequence. The dire corbies swatted at the flumphs and tried raking them with their talons, to little effect. Thurloe, seeing they now had reinforcements, took advantage of the dire corbies' attention being diverted by the flumphs to stab a dire corby through the torso with his bastard sword, dropping him instantly. Alewyth attacked the other one with her warhammer, crushing his skull as he fended off the flumphs' assault. And then the heroes looked expectantly back at the obscuring mist, waiting for more of the dire corbies to emerge.

None came. Gulping in a mouthful of air, the yellowish flumph spat out a few words in a rather squeaky voice. "No more. All dead," it said.

Wakuren dismissed the obscuring mist spell and saw the greenish-yellow flumph had spoken true: the other dire corbies lay dead on the stone floor of the cavern, their skulls pierced by the flumphs' spikes. A few of the white flumphs maneuvered over to the dead avians, dribbling acid onto their bodies from their hollow tentacles and slurping up the slurried remains as the acid broke down their skin and muscle tissue.

Another gulp of air by the yellowish flumph and a query was squeaked out of one of its rim-holes. "Why here?"

Alewyth stepped forward and decided to be their spokesperson. "We were sent to find a pile of dreamstones said to be somewhere within this cave network," she answered. She opted not to get into the whole deal with the Queen of Dreams - it would require far too much explaining if she started down that path.

Another gulp of air. "Describe dreamstones."

"Black stones, smooth, with flecks of white and gold," the priestess replied, basing her description on the ones the Queen of Dreams had shown them in the Dreamlands.

Another gulp of air, and then, "Dreamstones yours. We fetch." The flumph swung its eye-stalks around to encompass each of the heroes in turn. It waggled its tentacles about a bit and announced, "detecting good" - and Alewyth realized she was facing some type of cleric! She absently wondered what god the flumphs might worship.

The flumph cleric lowered in elevation and approached Xandro. "Not good," it squeaked, causing the bard to back away, wondering if this strange little creature was about to attack him. But after some further tentacle-wiggling, it announced, "Not evil" in its squeaky little voice and was apparently satisfied.

Upon some unspoken communication that seemed to be a sort of tentacular sign language, the six white flumphs jetted up to the dire corbies' cave and had a look about, returning shortly thereafter and giving their report to the yellowish-green leader. Their findings - likely that the dire corbies had all been taken out by the combined efforts of the flumphs and the heroes - were received with apparent satisfaction. "Follow us," the flumph cleric squeaked, leading the heroes back towards the large stone Wakuren and Alewyth had spotted in the vast fungal cavern around the corner to the northwest.

Once there, the group saw the "large stone" had been in fact the calciferous shell of a flail snail, who had extended its head back out and was busily devouring a choice growth of lichen with a raspy tongue. "Wait here," the flumph cleric squeaked, while the six flumphs darted high up into the cavern and disappeared for a few minutes inside a pair of narrow openings near the top of the cavern wall to the north.

When they returned, each of the six dropped two dreamstones onto the floor before the feet of the heroes. "Dreamstones yours," the flumph cleric reiterated.

While the others bent down to gather up the objects of their quest, Wakuren looked over to the far wall to the west, for he'd noticed movement. What he had at first taken to be lumpy outgrowths of stone from the side of the cave wall had likewise proven to be snail shells, only the creatures who bore them were not flail snails but snailfolk, human-sized gastropods who could maneuver their pliable bodies into the semblance of arms and legs. They ambled over to say hello, emboldened by the fact their flumph guardians showed no fear before these five newcomers. After having been told the heroes had slain the dire corbies who occasionally preyed upon the snailfolk, each insisted upon thanking each hero in turn, a process which involved placing a slime-coated right hand upon the heroes' left shoulder. Alewyth looked at the sticky spot in distaste but kept any looks of disgust from her face.

"There are a full dozen," Zander reported back, taking stock of the dreamstones. "Just like the Queen said."

"Then we should get back," prompted Thurloe, not wanting to spend any more time in these fungal caves - no telling what kind of nasty spores might be floating around. They said their goodbyes and returned the way they'd come.

"Too late in the day for the full ride back," Xandro observed when they'd returned to the wolf den. "We want to just camp out here for the night?"

"It's kind of cramped, isn't it?" asked Alewyth, frowning. It was plenty spacious for five adventurers, but when you added five riding mounts into the mix....

"We're plenty safe in here," remarked Zander. "And the horses and mules are safe as well. We probably won't even need to post a guard - we'll hear anything trying to get past the wagon." That seemed true, so the group spent their first night "in the field" camped in a crowded cave with a bunch of animals. They practiced their meditative "fall asleep" rituals and were out like lights, reporting back to the Queen of Dreams of their success and sleeping contentedly until the bats returned in the wee hours of dawn, flying over the upturned wagon and into the wolf den, to flap up to their own nesting area to sleep the daylight hours away.

That was as good a signal as any for the group to reattach the mules to the wagon and start back to their own homes themselves.

- - -

We played this in a short session: just over three hours, in fact. I had thought it might run short so I had the fourth adventure all prepped - as that one was definitely a short one, probably playable in a little over an hour. However, Vicki had hurt her back two days earlier and was still rather sore; when I offered up a short adventure to follow this one, she admitted she'd really rather go back home and take some more of her pain meds. So next time we play we'll probably run through adventures four and five in one go.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" shirt, to represent the goop ghoul. It would have also fit in nicely with the short adventure I had planned to run after this adventure, but we opted not to do that this same game session.
 
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...There will now be an intermission of unknown duration: this campaign is being put on indefinite hold due to the COVID-19 situation.

Here's the situation: this campaign contains five players and a DM from two families living in the same small town. Both families have been more or less quarantined at home since March, and Dan and I are already exposed to each other at work (although we take all the normal precautions: masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, ranged temperature scans upon entering our work building, etc.), so we had decided cross-contact between two otherwise quarantined family groups was presenting no further danger to each other and continued playing through our two campaigns. And that was all fine and dandy...but next week both Harry and Joey start school.

Now granted, they'll be taking their own precautions at their respective schools, but there will now be a lot more opportunities for either one of them to pick up germs and bring them home to pass them on to their families. And I have a doubly at-risk wife at home: she's 72 years old (high risk category) with on-going medical conditions (higher risk category). So as much as we've enjoyed being able to continue on with our D&D campaigns, it's not worth risking my wife's life to keep playing. And thus our hiatus.

I'm not sure how long we'll put these campaigns on hold. We might be able to get in a game at the end of Christmas break, if it's long enough (and the two schools sync up their vacations) that we can get in a two-week quarantine period at our individual homes to ensure everyone's still doing fine and then fit in a game session towards the end. Failing that, we'll probably start up in May again, once the schools have let out for the summer.

But school starting back up is going to affect us more than just putting our D&D campaigns on hold. We're also going to have to break into two camps here at the Richards household; Logan's going to have to be the one with direct contact with my wife Mary (getting her pills, etc.) since they'll be the only ones at home while Harry's in school and I'm at work (right now, I work one week and then telework the next week), while I'll be the one in direct contact with Harry, since we'll need to limit his contact with Mary and also with Logan, as he'll be in direct contact with Mary. (Harry's school does offer an option to do classes on-line but he's not eligible as he's in a special needs program and they want the continued daily physical presence with the special education teachers.) So we've got some massive changes coming up over the horizon.

In any case, thanks for reading and hopefully I'll be in a position to continue this Story Hour before too long.

Johnathan
 

Azmarck

Villager
Just wanted to say I wish you, your family and Dan's family a safe and healthy hiatus. I will miss reading your wonderful posts, but I totally agree that risking your wife's health just isn't worth the risk. Thank you for all of the time and effort that you have made to bring us stories so far. Time to start some re-reads!

Best wishes,

A
 

ADVENTURE 4: INVISIBLE STALKER

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 1​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 1​

Game Session Date: 30 December 2020

- - -

Thurloe stood up and stretched, his back stiff and sore from a night lying upon the cold, hard stone of a cave floor. As he climbed over the wagon, tipped on its side the day before to keep predators away from the cave's entrance, Wakuren woke up and saw him. “Where are you going?” the half-orc asked.

“Takin' a leak. Be right back,” Thurloe promised.

By the time he returned, the others had all awakened as well and Wakuren, Xandro, and Zander were carefully tipping the wagon back over to its normal orientation. Then Alewyth led the two mules, Mica and Perseverance, out of the cramped cave and into the restraints that allowed them to pull the wagon behind them. The three horses, White, Eddy, and Horse (Thurloe didn't believe in wasting a lot of time on sentimentality when it came to naming beasts of burden), seemed glad to have been freed from the close confines of the cave in which the adventurers had all spent the night and they eagerly went grazing nearby while the others geared up in their armor and loaded up the wagon.

It was a seven-hour trip back south to Port Duralia, but the group wasn't in any particular hurry and let the animals trudge along at a comfortable speed. Once they left the mountains and got back on the main road, they saw plenty of traffic; not unusual, for Port Duralia was a major merchant hub and goods brought in from sea were sent elsewhere throughout Armaturia via the numerous Trade Roads. After stopping by the roadside for a mid-day meal (and several stops at the roadside stopping points that sported small shrines and – more importantly – covered latrines) they rolled into their home city just as the sun was about to go down.

The group had taken rooms in an inn Thurloe had recommended and they were headed that way when all of a sudden a white-garbed form came crashing into their midst, screaming in fear. This was a young woman of some twenty-odd summers, with dark, brown hair and a white nightgown reaching down to her ankles.

“Help!” she cried. “He's going to kill me!”

Wakuren slipped down from his perch in the front of the wagon and helped the young woman to her feet. She looked in fear for a moment at his orcish features but then saw the holy symbol of Cal around his neck and painted on the front of his shield and any such fears were instantly dissipated. Instead, she clung to his arm and looked fearfully back at the building she had just fled. “He was there – in my room!” she cried.

The others slipped out of their saddles and formed a protective ring around the frightened young lady. “Who's trying to kill you?” asked Alewyth.

With a deep breath – somewhat calmer now that she had five seasoned adventurers, two of them even clerics no doubt best suited to dealing with ghosts – Jolinda calmed noticeably and began her tale.

“It began several weeks ago. A man approached me in the street and started making advances. I told him I wasn't interested but he wouldn't leave me alone. I ran back to the shop - I own a dressmaker's shop - and locked the door. I thought that would be the end of it, but he began following me. I would look out the window of my shop and he would be there, across the street, watching me. I would go to the market and he would follow me - always at a discrete distance but close enough that I was aware of his presence.

"Last week, I don't know whether he got tired of waiting or felt that the time was right at last, but he grabbed me as I was returning from the market, put a hand over my mouth, and dragged me into a back alley at knife point. I struggled and tried to pull away. He grappled with me, trying to pull me to the ground. I managed to wriggle away and when I looked back-- the knife was sticking out of his neck! He was dead!

“I-- I ran. I didn't know what else to do! I locked myself in my room and stayed there until the next morning. Later that day, I informed the city guard what had happened but by then the body had been taken from the alley.

"Several times since then, I could swear I've felt him nearby, watching me, or imagined I heard his voice, whispering to me. I put it down to my imagination, ignored it, and tried to go on with my life.

"Then, tonight, after I closed up shop, I went upstairs and got ready for bed. I was brushing my hair, when-- when I looked up in the mirror and saw him appear - THERE IN MY ROOM! He said, 'I have come for you, Jolinda,' in a ghastly whisper and he held out his arms as if to grab me! I ran - right into you! Please, please, you must save me from him! You must!"

“So you killed this guy, and now he wants to kill you right back,” Thurloe observed. Alewyth gave him a stern look of displeasure; in her mind, Jolinda's accidental slaying of the man who had attacked her was completely justified.

“Where were you when the ghost appeared?” asked the dwarven priestess.

“Upstairs, in my room.”

“Can you show us?”

“Yes, if you'll be there with me,” replied Jolinda. She led them back the way she'd come, through the front door of her shop - “JOLINDA – DRESSMAKER” was painted on the wood of the door, to the right of a display window with four mannequins displaying the quality of her work – and gave them all a quick tour of the place, half expecting to see the ghost pop out at any moment. The lower level was the shop itself, with a payment counter up front, a work table in the middle of the room, a smaller room to the northwest where finished articles of clothing (some Jolinda had made herself, others that had been brought in for repair) hung on racks, a pair of fitting rooms, a fabric storage closet, and a small room under the stairs where she kept some of her supplies. An unlit fireplace sat in the back of the room, beside a door that led out to an alleyway behind the building. Up the stairs there was a small kitchen and pantry, Jolinda's bedroom, a bathroom, and a door to a rooftop garden that took up the western half of the building's upper level. There were two windows on the upper level, one in the bedroom and one in the kitchen, but while neither had any glass they both had strong shutters and were barred from the inside. Thurloe opened each in turn and looked outside; there was no ledge on which to stand so anyone breaking in through the window would have to do so while hanging precariously from the rooftop.

“A ghost wouldn't need to come in through the window,” pointed out Alewyth. “It could just fly through the walls.”

“Is that what it did?” Thurloe asked the dressmaker. “Fly through the wall?”

“No,” admitted Jolinda. “I was here, at my desk, brushing my hair” - and here she indicated a mirror atop a small desk along the eastern wall of her bedroom - “when he just sort of...appeared behind me, out of thin air!”

Zander had cast a detect magic spell and was giving the entire building interior a thorough once-over with his enhanced eyesight, while Alewyth had done the same thing with a detect undead spell. Neither one saw anything out of the ordinary.

But Xandro had a bit more luck in his investigations. On a whim, he stepped outside into the back alley and examined the lock on the back door. Sure enough, there were recent scratch marks on the lock – it looked as if it had been picked by someone trained in the arts of thievery.

“So what does this mean?” asked Jolinda. “It's not a ghost trying to kill me? But the way he just appeared--”

“I think your stalker's still alive,” Thurloe cut her off, then followed up with a question of his own. “Are you sure you killed him in the alley?”

“Well, his knife was sticking out of his neck, and there was blood all around....”

“So he could have survived. And there was no body there the next day.”

“No, but I just assumed it had been taken away by the city guardsmen....”

“A knife wound like that, it could have done some damage to his vocal cords,” pointed out Xandro. “You said he was speaking in a ghostly whisper – maybe that's as loud as he can talk now.”

“But he appeared out of thin air,” argued Jolinda.

“That's easily explained by invisibility,” countered Thurloe. “Maybe a potion, maybe a spell, maybe even a ring or something. But no, I don't think we're dealing with a ghost here. A ghost wouldn't need to pick a lock.”

“Then he isn't after me for killing him...” began Jolinda.

“No, it sounds like he's still coming after you for the same reason as before,” sighed Alewyth, shaking her head.

“Let's make sure the place is secure,” said Thurloe, leading Wakuren and Xandro back downstairs to check the doors. The door leading out to the rooftop garden suddenly swung open, as if by a strong gust of wind, and a ghostly voice no louder than a whisper came from outside. “I will have you before the night is out, Jolinda. Any that get in my way, will die!"

Zander sped forward to the doorway, activating another detect magic spell, hoping to catch the outline of somebody using invisibility magic. But he saw nothing; if the “ghost” had been there on the rooftop he wasn't there any longer. The elf walked over to the metal railing ringing the rooftop area and looked down at the bricks of the building, recognizing that a trained thief would likely have little difficulty in scaling them.

And sure enough, while Zander looked over the western wall directly across from the doorway into Jolinda's living quarters, Ialgo was climbing down the northern wall, lowering himself down to the back alley. So, the little wench had gotten herself some protection, had she? Well, two could play at that game! Ialgo would go round up a few of his most trusted lads; they'd do whatever he said, especially it if meant they'd get to have a go at Jolinda after he was done with her! With an invisible smirk on his invisible face, he headed down the alleyway to go gather his reinforcements.

Jolinda's guardians, in the meantime, were doing what they could to reinforce the security of the building. The two doors on the ground level were both closed and locked and they started up a nice, blazing fire in the fireplaces on both levels, for they shared a chimney and while Xandro judged a man could fit down the chimney and enter the dwelling by that method, it wouldn't be a very good idea to try it with smoke rising up the narrow chimney and a fire waiting for him at both floors. Wakuren had a small pile of caltrops, which he scattered on the floor in front of the back door, given that had apparently been the prior means of entry. Upstairs, Alewyth and Zander had stacked a pile of furniture in front of the door to the rooftop, so even if the “ghost” managed to open the door he couldn't just rush right in.

And then they waited. At Zander's insistence, Jolinda stepped into the pantry and closed the door; the elf stationed himself at the top of the stairs where he could keep an eye on the pantry door. The dressmaker's cat, Mr. Frisky, was placed in the bathroom where he was out of the way, but his indignant howls let everyone know what he thought about this particular plan. Alewyth stood in the kitchen, a final guard against anyone trying to get to Jolinda's hiding spot in the pantry, the dwarf's warhammer out and ready for business. From her position she had a good view of the door to the rooftop. Thurloe stood at the bottom of the stairs, a tanglefoot bag in hand ready to throw and his bastard sword strapped to his back where he could reach it at once. Xandro stood, rapier in hand and lute hanging on his back, facing the back door, while Wakuren was over by the front door – more specifically, he stood by the front counter.

Many minutes later, all at once as if by some pre-arranged signal, the heroes heard slight scratching sounds at the various doors; the intruders were making a multi-pronged attack, it seemed. Zander quickly cast a mage armor spell upon himself, now that combat seemed imminent.

The rooftop door swung open and the dark-clad rogue standing there swore quietly to himself at the pile of furniture blocking his way. At the same time, the furtive scratching at the front door continued; apparently the thief trying to pick the front lock was having a bit of difficulty. But not so the thief in the back, who opened the door and stepped boldly inside – only to trod upon a set of caltrops that pierced the soles of his shoes and caused him to yelp aloud in pain. His leaping around caused Thurloe's thrown tanglefoot bag to go wide; with a snarl the fighter pulled the bastard sword from his back as another human male stepped in behind the hapless rogue who had stumbled into the caltrop trap; forewarned, the lowlife streetfighter in studded leather armor stepped to the side, avoiding the hazards as he brought his longsword out to threaten the dress-shop defenders, heading towards Xandro. Wakuren stepped up beside Thurloe and cast a shield of faith spell upon his friend, certain it would come in handy in the upcoming fight. The half-orc edged past the fighter, deciding he'd best check upstairs to see if the intruders were coming from that direction as well. But by then the rogue at the front door had mastered the lock and barged into the room, the glint of a dagger shining by the light of the fireplace across the room. He raced along the stairwell to slash his blade at Thurloe, who handily dodged.

As the rogue upstairs started climbing over the side of Jolinda's propped-up bed, Alewyth stepped forward and swung at the intruder with the full weight of her dwarven warhammer. The head of the weapon collided with the head of the dark-clad rogue, crushing in the side of his skull with one blow. He collapsed in a heap and Alewyth only noted too late the sounds of someone else – someone unseen – scrambling over the furniture they'd placed as an obstacle before the back door.

A silent prayer on her lips, Alewyth swung her weapon at the spot from where she thought the sounds were coming; Aerik, God of Protection must have hear her unvoiced prayers for her warhammer struck true a second time, hitting the invisible rogue attempting to fight his way to Jolinda, wherever she might be.

Bastard sword out, Thurloe stabbed it into the caltrop victim, piercing the man's clothing and slicing a wide gash along the side of his ribs, but the man was still in the fight, although not doing much but frantically trying to pull the spikes from the bottoms of his feet. Xandro ran him through with his rapier, killing him, but then took a hit himself from the man's fighter compatriot, whose longsword blade slashed along the bard's left arm, drawing blood.

Zander saw a humanoid outline in his detect magic-enhanced vision and cast a magic missile spell at the invisible assassin; Ialgo was surprised at the magical assault when he thought he was undetectable. Hearing the sounds of combat from above, Wakuren raced up the stairs, looking about for foes but seeing only the dead form of the rogue Alewyth had slain. But then Ialgo popped into full visibility as he sent his dagger stabbing into Alewyth's side. The priestess winced in pain and dropped a hand over the wound, where blood was pooling between her fingers. But rather than allow herself the relative luxury of a healing spell, the dwarven priestess of Aerik counterattacked, swinging her warhammer at her now-visible foe, clocking him a good one that nearly sent him sprawling. Even knowing he was fully flesh and blood, the rogue had an unearthly look about him, his flesh very pale and his hair practically white despite his young age; it was no wonder Jolinda had so easily believed he was a ghost!

The intruders downstairs were having trouble hitting their respective targets, for the fighter was constantly wary (to the point of distraction) of not stepping on any of the nearby caltrops that had helped do in his friend, while Thurloe was just faster than the rogue had expected and his dagger continued to just miss. With a practiced swing of his heavy blade, Thurloe skewered the rogue through the midsection, then pulled out his blade and watched as the man dropped lifelessly to the floor. Xandro managed to hit his own foe with the tip of his rapier, drawing a line of blood across the fighter's cheek, but he hadn't yet managed to finish him off. With a snarl of rage, the fighter swung his blade at the bard, but Xandro nimbly leapt aside in time. And that allowed Thurloe to run the fighter in through his back, the blade erupting from the man's stomach in a spray of blood that drenched the front of Xandro's clothes.

Seeing how weak Ialgo looked after the dwarf's attack, Zander opted to cast an acid splash spell at Jolinda's tormentor; his spell struck true but failed to drop the black-clad rogue, although he did look like he was barely managing to stand on his own at this point. Staggering away from his foes, Ialgo reactivated the power of the magic ring he wore and once again disappeared from view, hoping the cover of invisibility would allow him to escape this deathtrap. No stupid dame, not even one as good-looking as the dressmaker, was worth his life!

Wakuren surged forward, grabbing at where Ialgo had been when he turned invisible. The half-orc's grasping hands grabbed nothing but air. He could hear the panicked rogue climbing over the furniture again, desperately trying to gain the freedom of the rooftop garden.

Alewyth did some mental calculations in her head and cast her ray of frost – the special ability she'd apparently been born with, and which set her apart from her fellow dwarves, even those from the temple – at a likely area where Ialgo might be. But no such luck; Ialgo had by that time staggered off to the side from the spot where the dwarf had aimed.

Wiping the worst of the blood away as he raced over to the stairs – careful not to step on any errant caltrops along the way - Xandro headed up to the second floor, Thurloe following in his wake. There they saw Alewyth and Zander swinging wildly at the air in the doorway, Wakuren right behind them. They rushed to follow the rest of the team outside onto the rooftop, where a lucky swing by Thurloe's bastard sword cut down the invisible rogue before he could stumble over the railing and make his escape. Popping back into visibility as he died, Ialgo's body was saved an ignominious drop to the alleyway below by a quick snatch of the rogue's collar by Thurloe. Then the fighter dragged Ialgo's lifeless body down onto the rooftop floor.

Alewyth turned back immediately and returned to the building interior, to tell Jolinda the danger was over and let her out of the pantry. Mr. Frisky's frantic yowls from behind the bathroom door demanded he be extended the same courtesy, but the group decided to let Jolinda field that one.

In the meantime, Thurloe bent down at Ialgo's side and pulled an expensive-looking ring from the dead man's finger. “Yep,” the fighter announced. “Figured it would be something like that.” He tossed the ring over to Wakuren. “You might want to claim this,” he advised. “Might not be a bad idea for us to have an invisible source of healing on the team,” he suggested.

“Well, there also Alewyth...” began the half-orc, not wanting to claim what he recognized was a very valuable bit of magical treasure for his own without allowing the others on the team to stake their own claim.

“Don't take this the wrong way,” replied the young fighter, “but she's much more of a bad-ass than you are. I think we'll let you stick to the healing and let her go crazy with that hammer of hers.”

Even Wakuren couldn't argue against that logic.

- - -

Jolinda wasn't wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but she insisted on paying the group 50 gp for their assistance and offered to do any mending they might ever need for free.

Incidentally, we're planning on getting in as much gaming as possible between now and 11 Jan 21 (when Joey returns to school and we have to start worrying about COVID contamination again). So I'm cranking out the “skeleton” write-ups the day of the gaming session but won't necessarily get around to writing up the Story Hour segments until later on; after all, we'll have another COVID break from 11 Jan 21 until two weeks after both Harry and Joey get out of school in May or June, so there will be plenty of time to write up the goings-on of the adventures we go through now (in both this campaign and my son Logan's “Raiders of the Overreach” campaign) during the enforced break.

- - -

T-shirt worn: I had originally planned to wear one of my “Walking Dead” T-shirts for this adventure (and the next one, as it would have been appropriate for both), but in the ended decided to wear a Duck Dynasty shirt with the image of Phil Robinson and his favorite saying, “Happy Happy Happy.” I thought it was a particularly good representation of the feeling we all had that we were once again gaming together, after an absence of gaming since August.
 
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ADVENTURE 5: RACE AGAINST THE MOON

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 1​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 1​

Game Session Date: 30 December 2020

- - -

“I have determined the gemcutter best suited to carve the dreamstones you have gathered,” advised the Queen of Dreams. “While his name is unknown to me – most people do not announce their names while dreaming – I have been able to determine the location of where he sleeps.” She gave an address in Port Duralia, one Xandro recognized as being in a neighborhood of the upper classes. “He is, by appearance, a dwarven gentleman who shaves the sides of his beard, leaving only the spaces around his mouth unshaven. You should be able to track him down. I will visit his dreams and reinforce the idea he should aid you, but alas I have no control over how much of it will be retained once he awakens.”

She walked over to a table that hadn't been there a mere moment before – for such were the ways of things in the Dreamlands – and highlighted an elaborate diagram showing the ways in which the dreamstones were to be cut and what runes should be etched into them. “You will need a copy of this made in the Waking World,” the Queen of Dreams informed the group. She looked over at Thurloe, who even in his dreams appeared in his full armor and with his bastard sword in its sheath upon his back. Despite his appearance, though, the Queen of Dreams was well aware he had been studying the arcane arts in addition to swordcraft in his spare time, through a tome of magical spells his wizardly mentor had left for him before her sudden departure. “As your magical studies make you the most familiar with carefully inscribing arcane writings, you will perform the copying,” she informed him, pulling back a chair from the table and indicating he should be seated.

At her urging, Thurloe sat down at the table and reached for the quill, parchment, and inkwell waiting for him there. “Do your best to make an exact duplicate,” the Queen of Dreams instructed him.

“How exactly is this going to help?” asked Thurloe, studying the diagram and carefully inscribing a duplicate on the blank sheet of parchment. “Is this supposed to help me remember it in detail, so I can redraw it when I wake up?”

The Queen suppressed a quiet smirk. “Not exactly,” she said. “Those of you capable of recalling the memory of your time spent in the Dreamlands upon awakening have several other abilities as well. One is your ability to tap into the dream energy of this plane to cast your special abilities, like your own touch of fatigue. Another is the ability to have your body in the Mortal World mirror the actions you take here in the Dreaming Lands.”

“You mean, like sleepwalking?” asked Alewyth.

“Very much so,” smiled the Queen of Dreams. “Thurloe, in the Mortal World, has risen from his bed and is drawing a diagram quite exactly like the one he's drawing here.” Thurloe looked down at the parchment before him and took extra care to get everything right in his duplicate.

“Take care with the handwriting,” advised Zander. “We want to be able to read what it is you're writing.”

“Shut up and get out of my light,” grumbled the fighter, concentrating hard on his task. The others left him to his drawing.

The next morning, sure enough when Thurloe awoke there was a completed diagram, in his own handwriting, on a sheet of parchment at the writing table in his room. It looked, to his eyes, to be identical to the one he recalled inscribing in his dreams last night. "That's pretty weird," he said to himself as he got dressed for the day.

Once everyone had gathered together and eaten a quick breakfast, and Alewyth and Wakuren had completed their morning prayers and prepared their spells for the day, the group as a whole mounted their horses and the mule-driven wagon and headed over to the house of the dwarven gemcutter, going by the memory of the location on the Queen's map in the Dreamlands. Xandro, well-versed in the layout of the city of Port Duralia, had no trouble finding the exact building: a one-story stone dwelling in a good neighborhood. The house was a small manor home, with a sturdy-looking wooden door at the building's front. Everyone dismounted and Alewyth knocked boldly at the door, the group having decided to make her their official spokeswoman since they'd be dealing with a dwarven gemcutter. Wakuren stood at the back of the group, not wanting his orcish features to be the first thing the dwarf might see upon opening the door. But his gesture was for naught, for there was no answer to Alewyth's knocks.

"Nobody's home," Zander observed. "Now what?"

Xandro made a circuit around the building, to make sure the dwarf wasn't out back or anything. He returned, shaking his head. "Nobody home," he acknowledged. "Let's go talk to the neighbors."

The dwarf's neighbors were more than willing to talk to Alewyth, once they saw her holy symbol of Aerik and she explained they were worried about him. They learned the man's name was Kerndell Lapidarius, he had lived there for at least the last 30 years, he owned a jewelry shop on the Trade Way, he'd been looking a bit haggard the last couple of days (something to do with a brother or cousin, the neighbor recalled), and his jewelry shop had been closed for the last three days. They were more than happy to give Alewyth directions to Kerndell's shop, so that was the next place they hit up.

However, the shop was still closed, with a handwritten sign attached to the front door with a nail stating the shop was closed due to a family emergency. No further details were given.

"Bummer," groused Thurloe. "We're getting nowhere."

"So what do we do? Break in and look for clues?" asked Zander.

"I'll not be breaking into a jewelry store," asserted Alewyth. "That's a good way to be thrown into the city dungeons!" Thurloe started rolling his eyes at the dwarf's good nature, but then she surprised him by adding, "...We'd be better off breaking into his house and looking around - we'd be more likely able to talk our way out of trouble there than breaking into a place of business."

However, upon returning to the Lapidarius home, it turned out that breaking in was no longer required; Alewyth knocked again at the door just in case and this time after a half minute or so an elderly human woman answered the door. "May I help you?" asked Mrs. Applegate, a widowed housekeeper under Mr. Lapidarius's employ. After they explained their prior visit, Mrs. Applegate apologized for not having been there earlier for she'd just now returned from the market with the day's purchases. "But come in, come in," she said, leading the group into a well-maintained sitting room. "I'm afraid Mr. Lapidarius is not at home, however - he appears to have stepped out this morning. Skipped his breakfast and everything."

"Do you happen to know where he might have gone?" asked Alewyth.

"No, I'm afraid not. Something to do with his cousin, I imagine." Mrs. Applegate gave them the details of Kerndell's recent activities: three days ago, his cousin Jorndell Craghammer, a dwarven warrior, showed up to consult with Kerndell about something. Jorndell's right arm was wrapped in bloody bandages, and whatever they talked about had seemed to upset Kerndell greatly. They argued and Jorndell left; since then, Kerndell had been very agitated but Mrs. Applegate didn't know any specifics. "You might try asking at the Temple, though," she suggested. "Mr. Lapidarius is a frequent visitor and a firm supporter of the Temple of Aerik." She gifted Alewyth with a wide smile, which the dwarven priestess returned.

"Thank you very much, Mrs. Applegate," said Alewyth. "We will make inquiries at the Temple, then."

The temple clerics were more than happy to tell Alewyth, a fellow adherent of their faith, what they could. "Brother Kerndell made some inquiries into the disease of lyncanthropy," the head cleric informed her. "We lent him a tome on the subject, as he has been a strong supporter of the temple for many years."

"Did he mention why he was interested in lycanthropy?" pressed Xandro, although he was fairly certain it had something to do with Jorndell's wounded arm.

"No, but we did explain to him how the disease could be prevented and cured," the priest replied. He explained to the group what he had told Kerndell earlier: a remove disease or heal spell cast upon the afflicted within three days of the bite that caused the disease would prevent it from transforming the poor victim into a werebeast; failing that, it would take a remove curse or break enchantment spell cast upon the victim on one of the three days of the full moon.

"When's the next full moon?" asked Zander.

"Tonight," replied the head cleric, grimly.

Heading back to the Lapidarius home, the group discussed what had likely happened. "Jorndell gets himself bitten by a werebeast of some type, tells Kerndell about it, and now he's trying to get him cured before the full moon rises tonight," summarized Xandro.

"So where is he now?" asked Alewyth.

"And what were he and his cousin fighting about?" Wakuren wanted to know.

"Maybe Jorndell doesn't believe anything'll happen to him," suggested Zander. "Or, worse yet, maybe he wants to become a werebeast." The others gave him querulous looks. "What? I could see some people thinking it might be a good thing, being stronger, faster, tougher."

"Yeah, and turning into an unthinking beast three nights out of the month," scoffed Thurloe.

"Not everybody thinks these things all the way through," observed Wakuren.

Mrs. Applegate ushered them back into the sitting room upon their return to the missing dwarf's house and they filled her in on what they had learned. She had put the groceries away by that time and pointed out she'd found one of the knives missing from the kitchen. It was one of a set of six, all with silver blades. "He's out hunting the werebeasts that did this to his cousin," suggested Wakuren.

"Oh dear!" gasped Mrs. Applegate at the thought of her mild-mannered jeweler engaging in a fight with a lycanthrope.

"The temple clerics told us he had borrowed a book on lycanthropes," prompted Alewyth. "Would you happen to know where Mr. Lapidarius might have it?"

"It'll be downstairs in his study, more than likely," guessed the elderly housekeeper, grabbing a candle and leading the way down a long set of stairs. The one-story house was aboveground but Kerndell Lapidarius, a dwarf, preferred spending his free time under the ground level. An extensive basement under the house above contained his bedroom, study, and a cellar stocked with kegs of dwarven ale, while Mrs. Applegate's living quarters were upstairs. But the borrowed book was downstairs on a low table before a sofa. Several pages had been bookmarked; Alewyth quickly noted these dealt with wererats in particular.

Wakuren, in the meantime, had found another book lying open on the table and looked at it. It depicted the sewers beneath the city of Port Duralia, with two different sections circled with a question mark nearby. "Looks like he's been narrowing down possible lair locations for the wererats who bit his cousin."

"It seems kind of risky, a gemcutter going into a wererat lair armed with a silver kitchen knife," pointed out Thurloe. "Is he that much of a vengeance guy?"

"I should say not!" huffed Mrs. Applegate.

"More likely, he's gone to get his cousin back from the wererats and drag him to the Temple of Aerik to get cured," surmised Alewyth. She turned to the housekeeper. "Mrs. Applegate, do you think it would be possible for us to borrow the rest of the knives in your set?"

"Certainly, if it will help you bring back Mr. Lapidarius safe and sound."

"Thank you. We have a dozen dreamstones we'll leave here as collateral," she said, handing over the small pouch containing the gems they'd gathered in the mountains to the north and which they'd hoped Kerdndell Lapidarius could carve into shape for them. "Got a good idea where we should start looking?" the priestess asked Wakuren and Xandro, who were studying the sewer maps.

The bard put his finger down on one of the two circled areas. "We ought to start here," he said. "It's situated below a rougher section of town - it would make sense that the wererats would lair there. Quite a lot of them are thieves; they'd have a better time of it blending in when they're in their human forms."

"Human?" Alewyth asked.

"Human, dwarven, elven - whatever. As far as I know, anybody bitten by a wererat has a chance of becoming one."

The group said their farewells to the worried housekeeper and headed to the rough part of town, where the sewer map showed the wererat lair was likely to be located. "No open flames," advised Thurloe. He activated a sunrod and Zander removed the everburning torch he'd recovered from a kenku nest, secure in the knowledge that its flames were merely illusory. Then Thurloe pulled open a manhole cover and started climbing the ladder down into the sewers. Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility while Zander followed the fighter down into the sewers, casting a mage armor spell upon himself as he did so. Xandro followed the dwarf, unstrapping his lute from his back and playing a melody meant to inspire courage among his team. He was glad to see that although the sewer waters were high, they didn't reach the ledge to which the ladder had led them. Alewyth and the now-invisible Wakuren followed down the vertical shaft, the half-orc pulling the manhole closed above him before descending the rusting metal ladder.

"Which way?" asked Zander. Thurloe started heading west and soon found a wooden board laying on the ledge. From the light of his sunrod, he could see another ledge on the other side of the sewer waters; the board looked to be at least 12 feet long, long enough to span the 10-foot width of the sewers to get to the other side. Judging this to be a makeshift bridge, he maneuvered the board into place and crossed over to the other side of the sewer waters, the slightly soggy board easily supporting his weight. There was another board of similar size along the new ledge leading south, no doubt a similarly temporary bridge used by those traveling the other way. There was a wooden door in the wall just ahead, beads of moisture coating its surface; Thurloe crept up to it, wary for enemies. Wakuren crossed the bridge and slid past the fighter, scanning the area with his natural darkvision. This new ledge went south for 30 feet or more and then rounded a corner, Heading to the corner, Wakuren spotted a pair of zombies standing on either side of a more permanent bridge leading further south. These zombies were motionless and not at all human; while humanoid in build their heads were those of large frogs or toads. Each stared directly ahead and was quite motionless, obviously unaware of the invisible Wakuren's presence. The half-orc cleric called over to Thurloe and told him of his discovery.

"Guards, huh?" murmured the fighter. "Might be an indication we're in the right place." He then kicked through the soggy-looking door before him, having already determined it was locked. The door smashed inward in splinters, revealing a large room just beyond filled with crates, boxes, and assorted stolen goods - and a pair of startled wererats in their hybrid forms, humanoid rats wielding short swords. Among them stood a dwarf holding a battleaxe, a dirty bandage with days-old bloodstains wrapped around his left arm.

By then, Zander had crossed the bridge and could see one of the wererats in the light of Thurloe's sunrod from his position just behind the human fighter. The elven sorcerer cast a magic missile at the wererat, still too startled to react to the smashing in of the door to their hidden lair. The darting energy shocked the wererat into action and it leapt at Thurloe, short sword out and swinging. Thurloe caught the blade with his own bastard sword and pushed it off to the side.

The other wererat grabbed a crossbow from his back and dashed away to the south, out through a doorway leading to the bridge whose southern edge was guarded by the pair of bullywug zombies. The wererat leaned over the western edge of the bridge's stone rails, but he couldn't see the intruders on the ledge outside the door Thurloe had smashed through; the walls of the lair were blocking his sight. (Wakuren saw him just fine, though: the wererat headed south past the zombies and went west up to another, much wider bridge that spanned a wider section of sewer waters rolling beneath, from where he'd most definitely be able to see the adventurers on the ledge.)

Alewyth and Xandro stepped across the makeshift bridge to stand behind Zander, waiting an opportunity to enter the room once Thurloe got out of the doorway. But the fighter was now not only battling the sword-wielding wererat but Jorndell as well, who was swinging his axe for all it was worth. Defending against two foes at once, it wasn't surprising that Jorndell's axe made it past Thurloe's defenses, but Wakuren had sidled up behind the fighter in the meantime and cast a cure light wounds spell upon Thurloe that healed up the worst of his damage thus far.

But the mere fact that he'd been attacked by the dumbass dwarf who Kerndell had apparently tried to rescue in the first place (which raised the question in the fighter's mind: just where was Kerndell, after all?) was enough to cause Thurloe to see red. Ignoring the wererat for the moment, Thurloe rounded on the dwarven warrior and brought his bastard sword crashing down upon him, dropping him unconscious and bleeding out with one powerful stroke of his blade. Zander took the opportunity to scoot past his friend and fully enter the lair, casting a second magic missile spell at the wererat he'd hit before with such a spell. Hissing in pain, the wererat lunged at the elven sorcerer, stabbing out with the blade of his short sword. The elf managed to avoid the strike - but it had been close!

The second wererat was climbing the steps to the longer bridge as a squeaking sound was heard by Alewyth and Xandro, still standing along the ledge outside the lair's western entrance door, now in smithereens. Looking aghast at the filthy sewer waters behind them, they saw what could only be hundreds - if not thousands - of rats swimming determinedly through the nasty waters like a great, furry mass. They were being propelled forward not only by their own efforts but also by the sluggish current of the sewer waters, coming from the west and then heading south past the wererat lair. Alewyth's mouth curled in distaste at the thought of the rat swarm advancing upon her and covering her in a multitude of sewer-drenched vermin.

But then a half dozen tiny spears came hurling in her direction, some of them hitting her and some striking Xandro, who had been continuing his tune upon his lute. Squinting at the approaching mass of swimming rats, the dwarven priestess saw a half dozen tiny little men riding upon the backs of a few of the rats in the teeming swarm, their hairless bodies seemingly misshapen and covered in wrinkles. Each of these jermlaine had plenty more weapons strapped to their backs and with evil grins each pulled out another tiny spear, ready to launch them at the enemies of their wererat allies as needed. Alewyth cast a protection from evil spell upon herself, certain of the approaching swarm's evil intents. Xandro crossed back over the wooden plank bridge, getting back to the original ledge. He continued playing his lute, hoping the magical effects would prove beneficial to his friends in the combats ongoing and to soon follow.

The wererat fighting Zander backed away in a tactical retreat, the magic missiles seemingly haven taken a bit of the fight out of him. But by now his partner was at the top of the southernmost bridge and had a good view of Thurloe's broad back. He fired his light crossbow and hissed in irritation as the bolt went wide, striking the side of the brick structure to the right of the doorway. Wakuren, still invisible, stepped into the room and stabilized the unconscious Jorndell with a cure minor wounds spell, just enough to close up his wounds but not enough to restore him to consciousness just yet - the half-orc wisely decided it was best if he remained out of the rest of the fight if possible.

Thurloe, unaware of the botched crossbow bolt attack behind him, crossed the room and brought his bastard sword crashing into the wounded wererat cowering in the corner. It cried out in pain, collapsed to the floor, and reverted to its human form upon death. "One down!" Thurloe called to his companions. Zander scooted over to stand beside the fallen wererat; it was away from combat and the sorcerer would greatly prefer not getting involved in any direct melee conflicts if he could help it. While looking around for potential hidden enemies, Zander noticed a silver knife on the floor, looking suspiciously similar to the one he himself held. Closer examination showed they were both from the same cutlery set - Kerndell must have made it at least this far.

As Alewyth had expected, the rat swarm veered sideways from the current and headed in her direction, already dozens of furry bodies crawling up from the slimy sewer water and onto the ledge upon which she stood. She had her warhammer out and was crushing the soaked bodies as fast as she could, but with every one she smashed it seemed another three took its place. She felt the bites of multiple teeth piercing the skin of her legs through her armor and winced at the thought of the disease many of the rats were likely carrying - she'd just have to hope her sturdy dwarven constitution was up to the task of fighting off whatever bugs these filthy rats might carry. But the jermlaine were still active, hurling their tiny weapons at both Alewyth and Xandro, almost causing the bard to stop his song in frustration. There were now enough rats on the ledge around Alewyth that heading back over by her side was no longer an option; he was pretty much stuck here.

Seeing the rats likely had the others taken care of, the second wererat ran back the way he'd come and raced to defend his lair, ordering the bullywug zombies to accompany him. They complied wordlessly, stumbling after the wererat over the smaller bridge leading to their stash of stolen goods.

Unseen by any of the current combatants, another force was fast approaching the wererat lair by a different side tunnel than the ones the rats and jermlaine had taken; this one ran parallel but was some 30-40 feet south. Down its length swam a quintet of bullywugs, nearly all but their bulging eyes below the surface of the sewer waters. They entered the south-flowing stretch of water and swam determinedly to the east, over to a section below the bridge the wererat and zombies were just now traversing, to a different entry door into the room of loot than the one Thurloe had smashed open, this one in the southeastern corner of the room. The wererats and bullywugs had been fighting for ages it seemed, each wanting to rule over the sewers beneath the city and neither fully able to defeat the other, but now the wererats had taken it too far, for bullywug scouts had reported the wererats had had their own fallen dead reanimated as zombie corpses. Using their own dead against them - that was going too far! The bullywug cleric and his four fighters would see an end to these wererat vermin once and for all!

Wakuren had gone back outside to the ledge - just barely missing the last of the bullywugs as they swam on by - at the sound of Alewyth's cries. Bringing his shield to bear, he used it to full advantage, crushing rat bodies beneath it with each swing. The attacks against the swarming vermin canceled out his magical invisibility, but the half-orc wasn't concerned - it was more important aiding his friends.

With battle having stopped for now in the loot room, Thurloe looked around and saw a pair of silver candlesticks - probably worth a bit of coin in their own right, but also decent bludgeoning weapons to be used against any other wererats they might happen to encounter in this den. Zander dragged the wererat corpse out of the door Thurloe smashed in, thinking perhaps if there was "free food" available the rat swarm would take advantage of it instead of trying to eat them. But the rats were into a frenzy already, biting at Alewyth and now Wakuren as well. However, the jermlaine had mostly stopped throwing their spears at the heroes, for they'd spotted the bullywugs and knew them to be a much-hated enemy of their wererat allies; they directed their javelin attacks toward the bullywugs instead. Xandro swapped his lute for his crossbow, sending a bolt into the furry mass, fully realizing it wasn't going to do the swarm as a whole much damage but it was at least something - he felt helpless, trapped on this side of the far ledge but unwilling to wade into the mass of furry bodies. Fortunately, a few of the rats at the southern edge of the swarm had discovered the lifeless form of the slain wererat and decided to go chew on him for a bit. Alewyth took advantage of their redirected attention to slay one of the jermlaine with her warhammer and that was all it took for the other jermlaine to decide they'd had enough: at their direction, five rats broke off from the swarm and swam south, each ridden by one of the wrinkly-skinned humanoids.

The lone remaining wererat and his zombie guards didn't see the approaching bullywugs on their way back into the loot room. Upon the wererat's orders, the shambling zombies preceded him into the den. Zander was the first to spot them and called out a warning; Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility again and headed back towards the loot room, confident that Alewyth and Xandro could deal with the rat swarm and their jermlaine allies. Thurloe held his bastard sword at the ready by the doorway and waited for a zombie to stumble into range - it wasn't as if these things were known for their tactical brilliance. He didn't have long to wait, either - but long enough to try to recall at the last minute whether zombies were easier taken down with slashing or bludgeoning weapons. At the last minute, he sheathed his bastard sword and used a candlestick as a club to bash into the skull of the first bullywug zombie to enter the room. The side of the skull caved in a bit but the undead thing barely seemed to notice, continuing its stagger into the room. With a curse, Thurloe recalled it was skeletons who didn't like bludgeoning damage, not zombies - before you actually entered combat with such undead yourselves, it was hard to remember this kind of stuff!

The wererat leaped into combat behind his zombie, striking at Thurloe with his short sword. Alewyth, having heard Zander's warning about approaching zombies, waded through rat bodies and entered the room past the smashed-in door, her holy symbol of Aerik held before her. She tried turning them, blasting them with Aerik's holy energy, but she failed to focus her attention correctly the first time and the attempt failed. Xandro continued shooting at the rats and eventually they lost interest, although a few of them took a few nibbles out of the corpse of the dead wererat before departing back into the filthy waters and following their jermlaine leaders out of combat. Breathing a sigh of relief at their departure, the bard crossed back over the makeshift bridge to meet back up with the rest of his group.

By the time Wakuren, now invisible once again, had re-entered the wererat den the bullywugs outside had all crawled up onto the southern ledge and surrounded the door. But inside the room, the combat was blazing hot and furious. Zander stabbed forward with his silver knife at the wererat, ignoring his distaste for hand-to-hand combat because he wanted to pull his own weight in this battle (and fearful of casting his last magic missile spell - he had just enough arcane energy remaining for one final use of the spell - in case he might need it later). The silver blade sliced open a wound in the wererat's fur that seemed to burn the lycanthrope. Thurloe wheeled on the rat-man and clonked him a good one on the side of his furry muzzle with his silver candlestick, knocking loose a tooth or two in the process. But then the first zombie brought a web-fingered hand slamming into Thurloe's head, knocking him off to the side for a moment as the second bullywug zombie staggered into the room. But then Alewyth tried turning the zombies a second time and this time it worked: with low moans, the undead forms flinched from her holy symbol and slouched away, back the way they'd come.

Wakuren popped back into sudden visibility, a silver knife sticking into the side of the astonished wererat, who spat blood from his mouth and fell to the floor, his body still very much furred and his pink tail sticking out of his breeches, indicating he was merely unconscious, not yet dead.

"That looks like it!" crowed Thurloe, glad to have finally overcome their foes. But his celebration was premature, for at that very moment the southern door of the lair exploded inwards and five burly bullywugs stepped into the cluttered room. "Kill everyone!" bellowed the bullywug cleric. "They're likely wererats!"

Wakuren stepped forward, his shield held to the side and his bloody knife, with which he had just brought down the second wererat, held out before him by its silver blade. "We are not your enemies!" he called to the bullywugs. "Look: the silver of this blade does me no harm! And we have just slain the two wererats we found lairing here!"

"Well, we almost have," countered Thurloe, standing above the fallen wererat who had yet to revert to human form. But with one final swipe of his bastard sward, the fighter parted the wererat's head from its body and both changed form in an instant. He tossed the now-human head over to the bullywug cleric. "Here you go," he said. "A token of our good intentions. We got nothing against you guys."

"Where is cleric?" demanded the mudlord - the bullywug spellcaster leading the small troupe of frog-man fighters. "These rats" - here he indicated the two dead humans on the floor before him, each of them apparently known to him personally - "didn't have the power to raise our dead as zombies!"

"As to that, we cannot say," Wakuren promised the mudlord. "Perhaps he is elsewhere. But we have encountered no cleric allied with the wererats we slew." The mudlord narrowed his bulging eyes, huffed in irritation, but spun about and indicated for his troops to follow him. "We leave," he announced to the heroes. He fully intended to track down the bullywug zombies Alewyth had turned and put them out of their miserable undead states, so they could be returned to the soothing sewer waters of their birth.

Combat having been averted, the heroes gathered together and the two clerics tended to the wounds of those who had been hurt. Zander pointed out the knife he'd found, opining it was undoubtedly Kerndell's. "He's got to be around here somewhere," the elf stated.

As a group, the heroes headed south the way the wererat and his zombie bodyguards had come, turning west at the end of the smaller overpass and then going over the larger bridge spanning the flowing sewer waters. There was a side room just ahead and Wakuren, in the lead, spotted a pair of skeletal frog-men standing guard before a metal door. "Good thing those bullywugs didn't know about this," he told the others. They'd been itching for a fight and Wakuren was well aware fighting off five unharmed bullywugs might have been more than the group would have been able to handle after their previous sewer battles.

"So what's the plan?" Zander asked.

"Bludgeoning weapons is the way to go against skeletons," Thurloe advised, wanting to get full credit for that piece of knowledge.

"We could just turn 'em," suggested Alewyth. "That worked fine against the zombies." Eventually it was decided Wakuren would enter the room invisibly, get into position on the far side, and then try turning them from there - so that when they tried to flee, they'd exit from the side doorway which looked to be the only way into or out of the room. "And we can all give 'em a good whacking as they try to pass on by," chuckled Alewyth.

It was a good plan - but one that failed once Wakuren's first attempt to turn them failed, just as Alewyth's first turning attempt against the zombies hadn't worked out. Turning undead, it seemed, was something that took a bit of practice when you weren't used to it.

"Guess we'll do this the old-fashioned way," commented Thurloe wryly as he stepped into the room and sent a silver candlestick crashing into the skull of one of the bullywug skeletons. The sudden attack caused the skeleton to collapse into a pile of unmoving bones, whatever necromantic energy had been holding the thing together dissipating upon the creature's "death" - if you wanted to call it that. (Thurlo certainly did; "causing a skeleton's death" sounded so much cooler than "causing a skeleton to fall apart.") The other skeleton surged forward at Wakuren, the half-orc now fully visible after his turning attempt, swinging a rusty scimitar at the cleric's head. Wakuren deflected the blow off of his shield. Then Zander stepped up and slew the skeleton with the other silver candlestick, which Thurloe had handed to him since he lacked a good bludgeoning weapon.

Xandro entered the room and saw the door was locked. Looking about, he spotted a keyring on a hook in the far corner and used it to open the door. Inside, as expected, was Kerndell Lapidarius, his combat expertise nowhere near his skills as a gemcutter, and though he'd successfully tracked the wererats to their lair he had been unable to overpower them and rescue his cousin - who, it had turned out, didn't want anything to do with "rescue" in any case, as he fully planned on joining the wererats as a hired sword and saw lycanthropy as a set of bonus powers gained as an admission rite in joining a select group.

"Your cousin's an idiot," Thurloe told the gemcutter.

"In this, I fear, we are in full agreement," replied Kerndell. "But he's okay?"

"He's unconscious but still alive," Alewyth promised him as she helped him from the cramped cell in which he'd been imprisoned since his capture. Jorndell had at least argued against killing his cousin, but only because he'd convinced the wererats there might be a way to get some money off of him - he was a well-respected jeweler, after all.

The group returned to the room with the stolen goods and they maneuvered Jorndell's limp form onto Wakuren's heavy steel shield so they could carry him back to the ladder to the surface. Then they'd help Kerndell bring his cousin to the Temple of Aerik to be cured of his lycanthropy - and just in time, too, for the full moon would be rising this very night.

"Sounds like you guys ought to be able to take it from here," Thurloe told Alewyth and Wakuren, seeing them off with Kerndell and his unconscious cousin. "We'll catch up with you later!"

"What's going on?" Zander asked once the clerics had departed with the dwarven cousins.

"We're going back down there!" the fighter informed the other two. "There's some good stuff in there among the stolen loot - no sense in it going to waste! Xandro, you go get the mules and the wagon and bring 'em back here while Quilson and I start piling up the good stuff on the ledge by the ladder!"

"Alewyth and Wakuren aren't going to like this," Xandro pointed out.

"Yeah, well, that's why they're not here!" Thurloe replied. "Now get going!"

- - -

In gratitude for helping him save his cousin, Kerndell Lapidarius agreed to carve runes onto dreamstones as indicated in the hand-drawn diagrams with which Thurloe provided him. The gemcutter told the group they'd be ready in two days and refused to discuss any offers of payment.

And after this, having been the fifth adventure in my new "let's not track experience points" experimental campaign, we then proceeded to upgrade the PCs to 2nd level. Joey tempted Fate by pointing out how sucky it would be to roll a "1" for his new hit points and then did just that, bringing Zander Quilson up from a 1st-level sorcerer with 4 hp to a 2nd-level sorcerer with 5 hp. (Fate apparently doesn't like being mocked!) Dan decided to have Thurloe continue on as a fighter; he'll pick up his wizard levels later (possibly much later) before becoming a spellsword, having decided this party could use a tough front-line fighter more than another spellcaster. Logan had Wakuren add a level of paladin, and I realized I had originally misunderstood (or forgotten) his concept: he'll only be adding half of his paladin levels when determining Wakuren's clerical spellcasting level. So now, as a Cleric 1/Paladin 1, Wakuren casts cleric spells as a 1st-level cleric; he'll cast cleric spells as a 2nd-level cleric at 3rd level (Clr2/Pal1), but then at 4th level (Clr2/Pal2) he'll cast cleric spells as a 3rd-level cleric. All clear? It took me a while to grasp the concept, too.

- - -

T-shirt worn: It was still the same gaming session as adventure #4, so I was still wearing my “Happy Happy Happy” T-shirt.
 

ADVENTURE 6: FOX HUNT

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 2
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 2
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1/paladin 1
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 2
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 2​

Game Session Date: 9 January 2021

- - -

The five adventurers stood in a forest clearing, the full moon shining down upon them. Dark shapes loomed overhead on either side of them, ancient trees pooling shadows on the ground below their branches, leaving the dirt path standing out in the moonlight.

Suddenly, a man turned the corner on the path just ahead. He wore the robes of a wizard and had a look of abject terror on his bearded face. "Run!" he cried as he veered off on a side path before the fledgling heroes. "It's coming!"

Thurloe stood in the front of the group's huddled formation, his bastard sword out and in a defensive position before him. He heard a rustling in the woods to his left and then suddenly, appearing as if by magic before him on the moon-lit path, stood a fox. It cocked its head as if surprised to see the heroes, then surged forward with remarkable speed - one moment it was a good twenty feet away and then the next it was leaping up at Thurloe and clamping its jaws around the startled fighter's throat. Belatedly, Thurloe swung his sword at the fox but by then it had released its grip, dropped back to the forest path, and dashed off to the pool of shadows beneath the trees to Thurloe's left.

Xandro had his lute out and immediately began singing his most inspiring song, hoping to give the members of his team a much-needed boost of courage when fighting against such a supernatural foe. He hung back a bit from the others, realizing his song was effective as long as the others could hear it, which meant he didn't need to be in the front lines. Zander saw a blur of motion as the fox darted from one group of trees to another and cast a magic missile spell at the swift form. He thought he heard a faint, barely audible yelp of pain and surprise but couldn't swear it was more than his hopeful imagination.

Alewyth said the words to a bless spell, granting the group Aerik's combat blessings, hopefully helping to protect them in the most direct fashion possible: by aiding them in defeating their enemy quickly. The fox dashed by Wakuren and the half-orc scrambled to bring the bottom edge of his shield crashing down upon it, but his foe was too quick for him - and too quick for Thurloe's reflexes as well, for his bastard sword came slicing down on the space the fox had inhabited a fraction of a second before its jaws were clamped on the fighter's left arm, causing blood to run down his forearm. In the span of a few heartbeats, Thurloe Pulver - perhaps the group's toughest member - had been brought down to staggering about and trying to remain standing upright. And the fox had once again dashed off into a stand of trees, its reddish fur obscured by the deep shadows beneath the oaken branches.

Zander turned his head, straining to hear the fox among the undergrowth and hoping to be able to pinpoint its location. In the meantime, Alewyth stepped up to Thurloe and cast a healing spell upon him. Glad at receiving the dwarven cleric's healing, Thurloe opted to enhance it even further by drinking down one of his own healing potions, recently purchased from his gnomish supplier, Aenus Feysputter, when back in Port Duralia. Wakuren, in the meantime, went sprinting off on his own, chasing after the fleeing wizard who had warned them of the fox's coming approach. "You can help us to defeat this foe!" the half-orc called into the trees. "Fight against it!"

In a blur of motion, the fox sprung out from a stand of trees and ripped Zander Quilson's throat out, dashing back to the safety of the shadows as the elven sorcerer fell to the ground, blood spilling down the front of his robes. That was enough for Xandro to stop his song of courage; he put the lute back over his shoulder by its strap and pulled out his rapier; it seemed weapons would be more useful than any inspiration he might be able to give. Alewyth gripped her own warhammer tightly, coming to the same conclusion. They needed to kill this damned fox - and the sooner, the better!

Wakuren caught up to the panicked wizard. "Why is this fox after you?" he asked.

"I've no idea!" gasped the mage, stopping to catch his breath, bending forward and supporting himself with his hands on his knees. "It just came after me, out of nowhere!"

"We'll protect you," Wakuren promised, unaware that one of their number had already been slain.

But that number almost immediately rose to two, for the fox dashed out from beneath the undergrowth and ripped out Xandro's unprotected throat before he even had the time to raise his rapier in a defensive position. He fell backwards, smashing the lute he'd no longer be able to play as he landed lifelssly on the forest path. Alewyth was the next to fall, the fox leaping out from behind her and dropping her prone to the ground, where it snapped at the back of her neck and severed her spine, dashing off back into the trees before Thurloe could hit it with his bastard sword. The fighter fell next, the fox exploding from the trees with a grin on its muzzle - as if enjoying taking these heroes down, one by one - to leap straight at him, twist in midair as Thurloe brought his sword to bear, dash away, and somehow get behind him before he could spin about to face his foe again. The fox knocked Thurloe's feet out from beneath him and he landed hard on his back. His throat was exposed for just a moment - but a moment was all the fox needed.

Wakuren and the unknown wizard stood side by side in a clearing when the fox ambled up, no longer needing to use its impressive speed, a bloody grin on its muzzle. It faked to the half-orc's left, Wakuren held up his shield to ward off the attack, and then the fox was suddenly there at the cleric's right, snapping at his arm and dragging him to the ground. Wakuren struggled to breathe as his throat was suddenly filled with blood, and then--

--Wakuren sat upright in bed, a scream strangled in his throat. He was covered in a sheen of sweat and it felt like his heart was going to explode in his chest, but after a few moments of quiet, calming breaths and a repetition of a mantra the dream-guide moogle Mogo had taught him, he settled down enough to be able to lie his head back down on the pillow of his room at the inn and will himself back to sleep.

His personal moogle guide, Kupek, was there to meet him. "How'd it go, kupo?" he asked Wakuren.

"Got myself killed," the half-orc grunted.

"Yeah, that happens sometimes, kupo," the moogle agreed and led the cleric back to meet up with the rest of his group in the dreamlands. The rest of his team had each been met in the dreamlands by their personal moogle guide - Alewyth by Calliope, Thurloe by Doc, Xandro by Mogchamp, and Zander by Moki - and taken to Mogo, the moogle assigned by the Queen of Dreams to train them in dream manipulations.

"Well, that wasn't very impressive, but it hopefully taught you all two things: that dying in a dream doesn't really cause you any physical harm, and that there could be times when you might want to wake up at will on your own, right, kupo? Let's work on that second point first, okay, kupo?" The rest of the night's lessons consisted of the moogle training his proteges how to force themselves awake, then use the training they'd learned earlier to force themselves to fall back to sleep. As a result, none of the five got a very good night's sleep that night, as it came in small chunks. Their training ended with another session in the same dream in which they'd all been killed: it even started off in the same way, with the five heroes on the forest path and the frightened wizard warning them that "it" was coming and to flee. He gave no indications of recognizing any of the heroes - and didn't even acknowledge the fact this time there was a bat-winged kitten hanging in the air beside them.

"See, kupo?" asked Mogo. "The dream just starts over again each time - it's been about a month now, kupo!" He gave a heavy sigh. "It looks like we're going to need those dreamstones after all, kupo."

In the morning, Thurloe was awakened by a knock on the door to his room at the inn where they were staying. He opened it to see one of the messenger boys who earned a bit of coin delivering letters around the city. The lad held out a piece of folded parchment, sealed with a blob of wax. "Got a message for you, if you're Thurloe Pulver," the boy said.

"I am - give it here," Thurloe demanded, reaching for the message.

"It's traditional to tip your messenger," the boy pointed out, holding out his other hand expectantly. Thurloe well knew the lad had likely been paid by whoever sent the message, but he dropped a silver coin into his hand and snatched the message away before there could be any further argument. The boy frowned at his meager reward but turned away, realizing that was all he was likely to get from the cheapskate. Thurloe closed the door and looked at what had been brought to him.

The emblem embedded in the wax looked familiar, and it took the fighter a moment to recall where he'd seen it before: it was the Theringold family crest, the same one they'd found on the ring worn by Bertram Theringold, the poor sap who got his throat slit while trying to rescue his sister Teresa from the thieves guild who had kidnapped her and imprisoned her inside the scriptorium building. He broke the seal, opened the letter, and read:
I beg of you – please come to the Theringold estate at once. I have immediate need of your services. Please hurry – my brother's life is at stake!

Teresa Theringold
Another brother in trouble? Thurloe thought to himself as he went outside to the hallway and pounded on the doors of the rooms his friends had taken.

Everyone gathered together in the fighter's room and read the letter. "Could be a trap," Thurloe warned.

"That is the Theringold crest," Xandro pointed out. "Although..." The bard rubbed his chin in silent thought.

"What?" Alewyth prompted.

"I don't recall for sure," Xandro admitted, "but I'm fairly certain Teresa only had the one brother, Bertram." As a bard, Xandro made it a habit to learn as much as he could about the local nobility in whatever city he spent any amount of time in, and Port Duralia was no exception.

"The dead one."

"Yep," the bard replied to the ever-suspicious fighter.

"Let's go see what the story is," suggested Wakuren, and the group gathered up their armor and weapons and departed for the Theringold mansion. Despite having learned the Theringolds were having some financial difficulties, none of that was evident in the appearance of the manor, which was in one of the higher-class sections of the city. However, upon knocking upon the mansion's sturdy wooden double doors, it was somewhat telling that Teresa herself answered the door, not a servant - for the Theringolds had been forced to let all their servants go recently, not that that was common knowledge around town.

"Thank you all so much for coming so promptly," Teresa Theringold said, ushering the group inside and leading them to the library, where there were enough seats for them all to talk comfortably. "You were so very helpful in rescuing me from those kidnappers, and bringing Bertram's body home after he'd been slain. Now I must ask for your aid again, if you are willing to help me."

"What seems to be the problem?" asked Wakuren.

Teresa explained that despite the current state of her family's finances, she had managed to scrounge up 5,000 pieces of gold and used it to purchase fine diamonds, which Father Bones, the head cleric at the Temple of Akari, God of the Dead and Undead, had assured her was required to be able to raise her brother from the dead. But there was a catch: he had to be raised soon, for there was a limit in how long after death a body could be restored to life. His body was currently stored under the effects of a gentle repose spell at the Temple of Akari, but she'd need to get the diamonds there in the next two days or it would be beyond the clerics' abilities to raise Bertram.

"I had finally managed to purchase enough diamonds last night," Teresa explained. "I was going to bring them to Father Bones this morning - but when I awoke, they were gone!"

"Where were they kept?" Thurloe demanded.

"In my top dresser drawer, in my bedroom," Teresa explained.

"In your--?" the fighter spluttered, aghast at the carelessness and stupidity of aristocrats. But Wakuren put a warning hand on the fighter's shoulder and addressed Teresa. "Perhaps you can show us?" he suggested.

"Certainly," agreed the young noblewoman, leading them to the back half of the manor house where her bedroom sat, sandwiched between those of her late brother and her father. While Alewyth examined the stonework of the outer wall and Zander made himself busy searching for possible secret doors, Teresa explained further. "I turned to you because my father has forbidden me from alerting the city guard of the theft - he doesn't want our current situation to be made public knowledge. But I thought I could reach out to you, as you already know about our current financial difficulties."

"Who knew you had the diamonds here?" queried Thurloe.

"No one, not even my father," Teresa replied.

"Well, the Temple of Akari knew you were raising the money to have your brother raised, so they could have suspected you'd have the money on hand," Thurloe theorized. "They could have sent someone to burglarize your bedroom last night...."

"What's this?" called out Wakuren suddenly. He'd been searching Teresa's dresser drawers and was holding up what looked to be a playing card. But instead of any of the traditional cards of a standard deck, this one had what looked to be a paw print drawn on it in black ink.

"Let me see that," Xandro asked. Wakuren handed it over. "I found it in her top drawer, where she said she had kept the diamonds overnight," the half-orc explained.

"What's it mean?" Alewyth asked.

"It's the paw print of a fox," Xandro explained. "This is a calling card - these have been left at the sites of burglaries all around the city, usually among the nobility," he added. "They call the thief 'The Fox,' but nobody knows what he looks like. He's never been spotted, let alone caught."

"The Fox, huh?" replied Thurloe. "You think this has anything to do with that fox we fought in the dreamscape? Maybe he takes human form or something."

"That seems unlikely," Zander contributed.

"It's a theory I'm still working out," replied Thurloe. "Lemme think on this some more."

"Well, somebody - presumably this Fox character - snuck in here and stole the diamonds, that much is obvious," reiterated Wakuren. "The question is: why here? And why now? Was this random, or is someone out to harm your family?"

"Does your father have any enemies?" suggested Zander.

"Well, my father's never been the most pleasant person to deal with," admitted Teresa. "And he's been increasingly stressed out of late. He seemed in something of a panic this morning: jumpy and jittery, looking all around him as if for enemies. I imagine he's worried that somebody got into the house - what with my own recent kidnapping, he's likely worried someone will do the same to him. But actual enemies? None that I can think of. Just a few people at his club he managed to get mad at him."

"Where is he now?" demanded Thurloe.

"At his club," Teresa replied. "He spends quite a lot of time there - too much, if you ask me, because he gambles a lot there and that's been the cause of our change in fortune." She looked down, embarrassed to have admitted this to mere adventurers, but knowing that providing them with everything that might have any bearing on the theft might be necessary for her to recover the stolen diamonds in time. "He had run up quite a gambling debt there, but I think he's made good with all of his debts thus far."

"Where is this club?" asked Xandro.

"It's the Black Eagle - it's within walking distance, but it's for members of the nobility only. Men only, though; I wouldn't even be allowed in."

"No, but they might let an enterprising young bard in who was angling for a job as a musician," Xandro guessed. "Let's go!"

The group set off, leaving Teresa behind; she didn't want to run into her father at the club and have him raise any questions about her prersence there. Fortunately, he'd never met the adventurers when they brought Bertram's body back from the alleyway outside the scriptorium where he'd been slain. They approached the building, saw a fine-dressed dooorman standing outside and realized he'd never let the likes of them in, so they skirted around the building to find a back door. There was one - there would almost have to be one, Xandro realized, to allow for deliveries and the like, as well as a means for the workers to arrive without getting in the way of the aristocracy. He knocked loudly on the door. Wakuren, on a sudden impulse, activated his ring of invisibility and disappeared before the employee manager opened the door and asked the group their business.

"I was wondering if you might be hiring musicians," Xandro said, giving the manager his best smile and pulling the lute from his back.

The manager thought it over. "Well, we are a man short today," he admitted. "Tell you what: we'll try you out on a provisional basis. You go on in and play quietly in the background. No singing, though: the noblemen don't want to be disturbed at their business with a bunch of tawdry tavern songs!"

"Very well," agreed Xandro, and was ushered through the door into the lounge. Unseen, Wakuren snuch in behind him before the door closed. As Xandro headed east to the roaring fireplace, playing a quiet tune upon his lute, Wakuren went the opposite direction, over by the bar where he could stand in the corner and hopefully not get bumped into by anyone. They were both well aware that at the table in the middle of the room, one of about four, sat none other than Berthold Theringold, playing cards with another nobleman. The dark scowl on his face told he wasn't having much luck at the game. Both listened intently to hear what they could of any discussions; maybe they'd pick up something worthwhile.

Thurloe, however, was ready for a more direct approach. "I understand Lord Theringold is a member of this club," he said to the employee manager.

"That is correct."

"We've done some work for him in the past," the fighter admitted, not bothering to go into details. "He's quite the character." He smiled and shook his head, as if in disbelief. "Is he as bad at cards as I've heard he is?"

Jumping at the chance to engage in some gossip about the members of the upper class, the manager led the three heroes into a side room - a storage closet, where they could talk more privately. "You don't know the half of it!" he smirked. He's lost quite a considerable sum to Lord Baskindale over the past several weeks. He finally threatened to have Theringold barred from the club if he didn't pay up what he owed, and he finally did that just recently."

"You'd almost be forgiven for assuming he wasn't a noble at all!" Zander suggested.

"I know! Have you seen the state of his clothing? His clothes haven't been pressed in some time, and he's gotten stingy in his food and drink purchases here at the club - almost like he's suddenly become hard-pressed for money. There's even a rumor," the manager said, his voice dropping down to a mere whisper, "that Lord Theringold has been spotted at a lesser gaming establishment, open to commoners! It seems he's become somewhat desperate of late to gather up some extra coin! In fact--" but then the manager caught himself, as if wondering whether spreading gossip about the members of the club for which he worked was in his best interests.

Thurloe saw his hesitation and reached into his coin purse, holding out five gold pieces. "I'm really interested in hearing what you were going to say," he told the manager. "Please, this has been most interesting - I'd be willing to pay you to hear more."

The manager snatched up the proffered coins and had them tucked away in the pocket of his jacket in a well-practiced move, continuing on with his gossip as if he hadn't interrupted himself. "Word is that Lord Theringold lost several thousand pieces of gold to Lady Arabella Vulpina at that very establishment just yesterday! She's every bit as good at cards as lord Theringold believes himself to be - why, if the Black Eagle allowed women members, she'd likely clean up in here, or that's what I've been told. But in any case, there was a bit of a scene when he decided he'd finally had enough and didn't have the cash on hand to pay what he had wagered. She chewed him out but good, and he promised her he was good for the money, but it didn't look like she was very impressed with his promises."

Xandro returned to the employee back area soon thereafter, his lute back in place over his shoulder. Wakuren, seeing the bard head for the door to the back area, quietly approached behind him and slid through the open door as well. "I'm afraid I broke a string," the bard apologized to the employee manager. "Another day, perhaps." The group went back outside the Black Eagle Gentlemen's Club and compared notes. "Sounds like the Vulpina Estate is next on our list," Xandro said. "I know where it is - it isn't far. Lady Arabella lives there with her parents."

"Let's swing by and fetch Lady Teresa," suggested Alewyth. "We might do better with her with us. They'll be more likely to let us enter the mansion if we have a noblewoman with us."

Twenty minutes later, the group of six was knocking upon the front doors of the Vulpina Estate. "'Vulpina' means 'foxlike,'" pointed out Zander. "I'm just saying."

Before anyone could respond, the doors opened and a servant stood there, asking them their business. They asked for an audience with Lady Arabella if she was available, and the sevrant ushered them into the library to wait. This library was easily twice the size of the one in the Theringold manor, and the books here were all top quality volumes (whereas Berthold Theringold purchased his books in quantity, not quality - he was more interested in having shelves of books visible in his home than actually reading any of them). A maid brought in a tray of fruit, cheeses, and tea and said Lady Arabella would be there shortly.

"You think Lord Vulpina's the Fox?" asked Thurloe once they were alone again in the library.

"No reason it has to be the father," pointed out Alewyth. "If nobody's seen the Fox, they couldn't say if it was a man or a woman. For all we know, Lady Arabella herself--" she stopped herself in mid-sentence as the library doors opened and Lady Arabella Vulpina stepped into the room. She was a young woman in her mid-twenties, perhaps a half decade or so older than Teresa, with a striking head of red hair. She wore an elegant gown and took a seat at one end of the table.

"How may I help you?" she asked, looking around the table at her visitors. She focused on Lady Teresa, who made the introductions, and who let on that the adventurers were her personal bodyguards. Lady Arabella was silent throughout the introductions, but once they were done she got straight to the point and asked, "Are you here about the money your father owes me?" Her face was flushed at the memories of what she considered to be boorish behavioir: gambling without being able to immediately pay his losses. To her credit, she allowed Teresa to tell her full story, about her recent abduction, her brother's death in trying to rescue her, the group now serving as her bodyguards having rescued her, the theft of the diamonds she had collected to have her brother restored to life, and the time limit before the raise dead spell would no longer be a viable option.

"How much were the diamonds worth?" asked Lady Arabella. Upon being given the figure, her eyes flashed in anger. "You mean Lord Theringold had five thousand pieces of gold in diamonds and refused to pay me the three thousand he owes me?"

"No, I had the diamonds," corrected Teresa. "He didn't know I had purchased them. I used my own money, selling some of my own possessions."

"And why are you here, then? I am sorry to hear about your brother, but do you expect me to pay for the return to life of the son of the man who has swindled me?"

"Oh, no, not at all!" assured Teresa. "I just thought...we were looking into who might...." Her voice gave out, clearly embarrassed to be seeming to accuse Lady Arabella of any wrongdoing.

Xandro came to her assistance. He pulled out the fox print card that had been left behind in Teresa's dresser drawer. "This was left in place of the diamonds," the bard explained.

"And?" prompted Lady Arabella. "Are you insinuating there's some connection between that card and my family?" A dawning look of comprehension crossed her face. "Ah! 'The Fox,' is it?" She stared at Xandro, the fierceness of her gaze seeming to bore a hole through him. "If you are implying this 'Fox' is in any way associated with the Vulpina family, I do hope you have some proof to back up your baseless accusations, because that kind of scarrulous talk against a noble family could quite easily land a person like you in jail!"

Xandro quickly placed the card back into his belt pouch. "No, my lady - nothing like that," he hastily assured her.

However, a smirk crossed Lady Arabella's face. "However," she said, "all this talk of cards has given me an idea. We'll let Fate decide." She rang a bell sitting on an end table and a maid entered the room. "Bring me a deck of cards," she told the servant, who nodded her head and hurried off to comply. Upon her return, Lady Arabella handed the deck to Xandro. "Please: shuffle it and cut the deck."

"What are you proposing?" the bard asked as he did as she requested.

"One round of cards, between Lady Teresa and myself. If she wins, I will forgive the money her father owes her, and pay for her brother's restoration to life as well." Teresa's eyes lit up at the offer.

"And if you win?" asked Teresa. She was no gambler, although she knew the basics of a number of card games.

Lady Arabella smirked all the harder. "Should I win, I shall want your bodyguards to picket outside the Black Eagle Gentlemen's Club - naked - carrying signs stating 'Lord Berthold Theringold is a welcher.'"

"That'll likely get us arrested!" pointed out Alewyth.

"I'm not stripping down naked for anyone!" Thurloe announced. "I'm not part of this bet!"

Wakuren silently removed the ring of invisibility from his hand and palmed it, passing it over to Thurloe in the act of shaking his hand. "Then maybe you had best wait for us outside," he suggested. Thurloe felt the ring and immedaitely guessed the half-orc cleric's intentions: that he wear the ring and observe the hand of cards without Lady Arabella aware of his presence. He thought the cleric of Cal might have been suggesting he use his invisibility as a means of reading Lady Arabella's hand of cards and somehow passing that information to Lady Teresa without being detected, but he wasn't sure how exactly he was going to do that - it would have been nice if they had had time to plan this all out ahead of time! But he found himself being ushered outside by a butler and just barely had time to activate the ring when the man's back was turned and sneak back in through the door before it closed. Then the fighter waited for the butler to leave the entry hallway and go about his duties before he tiptoed back over to the library, glad for the sound-dampening carpet in the room.

By then, the other four heroes had convinced Teresa to take the bet. She didn't like the fact that they were taking all of the risks, but it warrred with her obvious desire to be able to have her brother raised from the dead. "Go ahead," pleaded Alewyth. "We'll all be watching, to make sure there isn't any funny business." If Lady Arabella took offense at the suggestion she might somehow try to cheat, she didn't let it show on her face.

"All right," Teresa said.

Everyone leaned forward as Lady Arabella dealt out a hand of cards to the two noblewomen. Wakuren had been studying Lady Arabella and had a good feealing about her; it was hard to put his finger on it exactly, but she somehow seemed to be like one of them...sure, she was a member of the nobility, but she seemed more down-to-earth than some of the stuffed shirts in the upper classes. Much like Lady Teresa, the Vulpina daughter seemed like she was okay.

Alewyth had been studying Lady Arabella closely, but with a different purpose in mind: she wanted to make sure she wasn't doing anything with the cards as she dealt them out. The cleric frowned; it had almost looked like Lady Arabella had done some fancy finger-work when dealing. Had she pulled a card from other than the top of the deck while dealing? It was hard to tell for sure. Belatedly, the dwarven cleric wished she knew more about card games; such things weren't really part of a hard-working dwarf's background.

But any worry Alewyth had about any sleight of hand shenanigans the noblewoman dealer might have tried to pull were unfounded; flipping over their cards, Lady Teresa had easily won the hand. "Very well," Lady Arabella replied, if anything smirking all the harder. "Congratulations, Lady Teresa. You have won, but I have bought with my money a quite vivid and amusing mental image. I will have the monies delivered to your family's estate this very afternoon - and you will find the Vulpina family pays its debts." With that, she stood, an indication that the visitation was over. A servant escorted the group back to the front door, an invisible Thurloe following behind.

"Whew!" sighed Teresa Theringold upon standing back outside on the street. "I'm glad that's over! Could I prevail upon you to wait with me for the delivery, and then escort me to the jewelers and the Temple of Akari? I'd hate for anything to happen to the money in the meantime!" Wakuren assured her that they'd be happy to help her.

While waiting in the much less impressive Theringold library, the six made small talk among themselves and found out Teresa had gone to Kerndell Lapidarius to purchase the diamonds that had been stolen. "I wonder if that idiot Jorndell is involved in this somehow?" Thurloe mused aloud.

"You like throwing accusations all over the place, don't you?" asked Zander. But then, before the fighter could answer, the elf asked, "What was that?"

"What was what?"

"I thought I heard something. A door opening." He turned to Teresa. "We're here alone, aren't we?"

"Yes," Teresa relied, looking frightened - understandable, given she'd been kidnapped not too long ago.

Thurloe pulled the bastard sword out from its scabbard on his back and advanced down the hallway to the west, where Zander said he'd heard the noise. There was another hallway perpendicular to the one leading from the library, with the southern end of that one leading to the front doors. Thurloe verified they were still both closed and locked, as Xandro exited the library, his lute out and ready to support his magic.

A door straight ahead - which according to Teresa led to the kitchen area and a side door to the manor house - suddenly opened and a pair of dark forms stepped forward, each holding a shortbow at the ready. They matched gazes with Thurloe and Xandro and the two heroes identified them immediately as kenku, just like the pair of thieves they'd fought in the basement level of Sandoval's Scriptorium. (They didn't realize it yet, but this pair was indeed the two kenku whose lair nests the heroes had plundered after slaying the other two kenku and their mongrelmen associates.)

Xandro ducked back around a corner and began playing an inspiring tune upon his lute, as the kenku both fired their shortbows at Thurloe. The fighter tried to dodge, but the arrows went whizzing by, slicing lines of blood across his left arm as they passed. Worse, the heads had been envenomed, but the fighter was able to shake off whatever effects the poisoned arrows might have had.

Hearing sounds of combat, Wakuren activated the ring of invisibility - Thurloe had returned it after they had left the Vulpina estate - and strode down the hall. Zander popped his head out of the library doorway, saw the kenku pair, and fired off a magic missile spell at one of the dark-feathered bird-men. Then two more figures approached, a man and a woman, both wearing black combat leathers and wielding short swords in their hands. "What the Hell?" complained the male rogue, seeing the heroes assembled before him. "Theringold's hired bodyguards now, has he? Bad enough he sold us his daughter and then had her stolen back from us somehow, now he's trying to keep us from what's rightfully ours?"

"We'll add him to our list," promised his female counterpart. "Let's take these hirelings out, get the girl back, and then we can deal with him!"

Alewyth had been in the middle of casting a bless spell upon her team when she heard the rogues' chatter. A look of fury crossed her dwarven features and she practically snarled in rage. Her warhammer gripped in one fist, she stormed forward, ready to deal some serious damage to these kidnapping thieves. But Thurloe was there before she was, swinging his bastard sword for all it was worth. The male thief ducked back beneath the swing, though, the blade passing by him and leaving him unharmed. Thurloe swore in irritation.

Both kenku fired their bows again, this time aiming at Alewyth and Zander. Of the two, the one striking Zander was a slightly better aim, hitting the sorcerer squarely in the shoulder and getting the venom coated liberally on the arrowhead well within his system. A combination of a slightly less centered hit and the cleric's rugged dwarven constitution ensured the venom did nothing to hinder Alewyth's steady progress down the hallway, her eyes blazing in fury.

Wakuren cast an obscuring mist spell centered in the area where the two perpendicular hallways met, then stepped into the edge of the spell's area of effect. He wasn't concerned that the mist would give away his location; although he was invisible and thus was forming a humanoid shaped "gap" in the swirling mists, anyone looking at him would see straight through his invisible body and the mists on the other side of him, effectively shielding him. He was pleased with his strategy, for now the archers couldn't fire their arrows at anyone, not being able to see their targets.

Of course, this meant Zander couldn't see his targets either, but he took a moment to pull the arrow from his shoulder first in any case, grimacing in pain as he did so. Then, unable to do much else at the moment, he cast a mage armor spell upon himself, hoping the protective spell would shield him from any further arrows that might end up heading his way. Thus girded, the sorcerer braved the mists ahead.

The human rogues inched forward cautiously in the thick fog, both catching sight of Thurloe when they were almost upon him and stabbing out straight with their blades. Thurloe grunted in pain as their attacks pierced through his armor and he counterattacked the male rogue. Hitting only air with his strike - the nimble bugger had ducked back in time again! - he backed up around the corner, headed north, directly away from the front doors. Off to his left, Alewyth advanced, her warhammer ready to strike as soon as she could find a target, for her innate darkvision wasn't able to pierce the obscuring mist spell any better than could the eyesight of a human.

Xandro continued playing his tune upon his lute, the bardic magic aiding his companions in their combat efforts. The kenku advanced slowly through the dark mists, one of them obliviously passing right bedside Wakuren. The half-orc raised his shield and brought it crashing down upon the avian rogue, the attack undoing his invisibility but well worth it, Wakuren thought. The other kenku advanced until he and Alewyth almost ran into each other; both attacked immediately but Alewyth's warhammer caught the kenku a second before his own blade could stab out at her, for in the dark mists the avian rogues had both realized their shortbows were all but useless. Wakuren spun about and brought his shield crashing down upon the first kenku's head, staggering him where he stood.

Both of the human rogues stepped forward, side by side, their blades slashing out at Thurloe now that they knew where he was. The numerous cuts were starting to take their toll, blood now dripped from several wounds the fighter had taken and he could feel his strength starting to wane. He backed up further, suddenly finding himself completely out of the radius of the obscuring mist spell. Hurriedly, he fumbled at a healing potion from his belt and guzzled it down while the rogues were still stepping cautiously forward, unsure yet of exactly where the spell's effects ended.

Alewyth slammed the kenku before her again with her warhammer, enjoying the solid connection of her metal weapon against the bird-man's feathers, flesh, and bone. Beside her, Xandro stepped forward, his lute now swapped out for his rapier, trusting in the ongoing effects his bardic music would sustain for a bit longer even after he had stopped playing. He found the male rogue and thrust the point of his weapon into the leather-clad kidnapper's body until it exited from the other side; when he pulled it back out, the man fell to the floor, dead.

The kenku backed furiously away from the crazy dwarven woman before him, stepping deeper into the obscuring vapors and making a bee-line for where he believed the front doors to be. But he ended up right next to Wakuren, and the half-orc brought his shield down upon this kenku's head in the same fashion as he'd done to his partner. Zander, hearing the commotion in the darkness of the spell's effects, started cautiously heading that way as well.

The female rogue stepped out of the obscuring mist, saw Thurloe before her, and charged him. Despite having healed some of his earlier wounds by drinking down a potion, her newest attack sent the burly fighter falling backwards, unconscious and bleeding out, the hilt of his bastard sword spilling from his unfeeling fingers. Afraid of allowing any of the other heroes to get the drop on her, she spun in place and faced the swirling mists blocking the rest of the hallway before her, ready to attack any who might follow her back into an area of full visibility. As it turned out it was a good call, for Alewyth came stomping out of the mist, warhammer in hand, and headed her way. The rogue charged at the dwarven cleric and their weapons came striking out at each other, but at the end of the encounter Alewyth had gained a new cut in her side - easily healed - while the rogue had taken the worst of the deal, barely managing to stay on her feet. Zander stepped out of the mist behind Alewyth and finished the rogue off with a magic missile spell.

Xandro stabbed at a kenku he had nearly bumped into while searching for enemies inside the obscuring mist. And then, in the midst of battle, there was an incongruous knock upon the front door. The kenku raced towards the sound of the knock - for it indicated the way to freedom - but Wakuren caught up with him and brought him down with another smash of his shield. Then he opened the door, dark mists spilling out of the doorway as he saw a liveried servant standing before him, holding a small box. "I have a package for Lady Teresa Theringold," he announced.

"I'll send her right out," Wakuren promised. "Please wait here - we're in the middle of something." Then he closed the door and started feeling his way down the hallway, finding his way back to the library. "Anybody still in combat?" he called out, for he couldn't hear the clash of weapons anymore. After hearing that the four rogues had all been slain, he escorted Teresa out of the library and over to the front door, steering her around the dead bodies in the hallway. As expected, the package was from Lady Arabella, which included a note explaining she'd opted to pay her in diamonds, knowing that was Lady Teresa's final intentions. She thanked the servant and sent him on his way.

By then, the obscuring mist spell had run its course and the group told the young noblewoman what they'd learned: that she hadn't been kidnapped, her father had actually sold her to the rogues in a desperate bid for money to pay off his gambling debts. "I don't think you're safe here any more," Alewyth advised. Zander ran back to fetch the mules and wagon while the others helped Lady Teresa pack up her meager belongings. Then, her bags of clothing loaded onto the wagon, the group took her to the Temple of Akari to have her brother raised.

Father Bones himself presided over the ceremony. He was a strange figure: a walking skeleton wearing black robes and a black top hat. Word was he was a lich, a type of undead spellcaster who continued serving his god after his own mortal life had come to an end. He accepted the pouch of diamonds and had several of his clerics wheel the preserved corpse of Bertram Theringold out on a cart.

"My Lord Akari does not idly allow the dead to return to the lands of the living," Father Bones intoned. "Two deaths in exchange for one life - that is the tally He demands in this case." He nodded off to the side and two prisoners were escorted forward, each wearing shackles and leg-irons. They stared fearfully at Father Bones as he lifted a black-bladed sacrificial knife from the proffering tray held by one of his clerical subordinates. With a practiced efficiency, Father Bones slew the prisoners, who slumped to the ground. Almost at once, Bertram's wrist started flickering with movement and he soon after sat up, dazed at his current surroundings. Teresa ran up to her brother's side, hugging the one family member willing to risk his life to see to her safety - as opposed to sell her off to pay his gambling debts.

Father Bones nodded to the small group who had assembled and stepped back inside the temple. His aides followed.

"You did a good thing here today," said a voice behind them. Turning, the heroes saw none other than Lady Arabella Vulpina, dressed all in black and raising a veil from her face. "I will keep your names in mind should I ever find myself in need of capable adventurers. In the meantime, please accept these as retainers." She passed over a series of small envelopes, smiled a farewell, and walked away. Opening them, the heroes saw each contained a small gem valued at a thousand pieces of gold.

"What are we going to do about Lord Theringold?" asked Zander.

"Us? Nothing," replied Xandro. "We're not nobles. We can't go accusing a nobleman of selling his daughter into slavery, especially without any proof but the word of a member of a thieves guild. But don't worry, I'm sure things will take care of themselves." The bard looked over at the adult Theringold children and the looks of astonishment and then burning anger crossing the face of Bertram.

- - -

Eventually, Teresa was brought to Kerndell Lapidarius and the dwarven gemcutter agreed to hire her on as an assistant housekeeper, under the tutelage of Mrs. Applegate.

We had enough time to squeeze in a second adventure during this game session (knowing full well this was it for our group until May or June), so we pressed on immediately with the next one.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My blue shirt that reads, "Dad: cleverly disguised as a responsible adult." I picked it for several reasons: Teresa's dad played a prominent role in this adventure, plus there's the whole "disguised" aspect of the notorious thief, "the Fox."
 

ADVENTURE 7: WITH MINIMAL DANGER

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 2
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 2
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 1/paladin 1
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 2
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 2​

Game Session Date: 9 January 2021

- - -

The five adventurers stood in a forest clearing, the full moon shining down upon them. Dark shapes loomed overhead on either side of them, ancient trees pooling shadows on the ground below their branches, leaving the dirt path standing out in the moonlight.

Suddenly, a man turned the corner on the path just ahead. He wore the robes of a wizard and had a look of abject terror on his bearded face. "Run!" he cried as he veered off on a side path before the fledgling heroes. "It's coming!"

To the five adventurers, this was an almost identical repeat of the dream sequence they'd been in earlier, but the frightened wizard seemed to have no recollection at all of ever having seen them before, nor did he pay any attention to the moogle fluttering beside Thurloe's shoulder. In a panicked frenzy, the wizard darted off along a path to the group's right, just as the dream fox came popping out of the forest undergrowth ahead at such a speed as if suddenly appearing by magic.

"It's the same thing, over and over again, kupo," observed Mogo as the dream fox tilted its head curiously - it, too, apparently had no recollection of meeting up with the group of dream explorers before. "You can try killing him again, but it won't do any good - the dream just always starts over, kupo. But now that the dreamstones have been carved and are ready to go, if you show up at the side of the sleeping wizard having this dream and enter the dream from there, you'll have a much better chance of waking him, kupo!" Quick as a wink, the fox darted forward and snapped at Thurloe's unprotected neck; the fighter swung his bastard sword at the beast but it had already dashed off to the forest shadows beneath the overhanging branches to the fighter's left.

Mogo waved a paw and the dreamscape vanished, to be replaced by a richly-furnished study. The moogle indicated a map on the table before them. "Here's where he's located, kupo," Mogo said, indicating a point on the map in the mountains several days north of Port Duralia. He then explained how the group should approach the dreamer and enter his dream: by placing a dreamstone upon the sleeping wizard's forehead to help him focus and then surround the dreamer on all sides, in a circle, with each of the adventurers holding a dreamstone in his or her hands to help focus their own power over the dreamscape. "That ought to give you enough of an edge to slay the dream fox, hopefully for good, kupo!" Mogo informed them.

As to what they'd try next if that failed to wake the wizard, Mogo was silent - hopefully the plan would work as envisioned.

Upon awakening in the morning, the group saddled up their horses and hitched the two mules to the wagon, then headed off to the north with their provisions and gear. Thurloe spent a good part of the time sitting in the back of the wagon reading through the beginner's spellbook his arcane instructor had left with him, practicing the hand gestures needed to cast the most basics of cantrips. It soon became apparent to the young fighter that mastering spellcraft was going to be as difficult, if not more so, than mastering the use of his bastard sword.

The three days passed by rather uneventfully - save for a curious dire badger poking about looking for food on the second night's camping out - and in the late afternoon of the third day the group saw a stone structure ahead on the mountain pass they'd taken, the building long and low for most of its length save for a two-story tower off to the right. Two sets of double doors to the far left hinted at stables and possibly wagon storage or the like, but the front door was right in the middle of the structure. Glad to be done with traveling for now and eager to put her dreamwalker training to good use, Alewyth strode boldly to the front door and pounded upon it with her fist. It took nearly a minute before the door was opened, revealing a rather rotund halfling dressed in a butler's finery. "May I help you?" he asked.

"It's possible we may be able to help you - or rather, the wizard who dwells here. Has your master been in a state of sleep for the better part of a month, by any chance?"

The butler gasped, surprised at the dwarf's knowledge. "Why--why, yes," he exclaimed. "How ever did you know?"

"It's been happening all across the continent," Alewyth explained as the butler stepped back and bid them to enter. "We've been sent to try to free the dreamers from their sleep."

"Have you had any success?" asked the butler, one Humberto Bugcatcher who went by the nickname "Humbug".

"Not yet - but this is our first case," Alewyth informed him.

Humbug led the group down a hallway, into a small library, and from there into a bedroom, in which slept a bearded human the adventurers immediately recognized as the wizard being chased by the dream fox they had met up with several times already in the Dreamlands. "My master, the wizard Grimboldt," Humbug announced.

"We should pull the bed into the middle of the room," suggested Wakuren, grabbing the foot of the bed. Thurloe took the head of the bed and they did just that. Alewyth opened the bag of dreamstones and pulled one out, placing it onto the center of Grimboldt's forehead. The wizard whined in a low tone, frightened of something he was experiencing in his dream - but being constantly stalked by a vicious fox for four weeks was likely to do that to you. Fearful that his movements might dislodge the stone from his head, Alewyth wrapped a piece of cloth around his temple like a headband, binding the dreamstone in place. She then passed a gem to each of the four men beside her.

"What should I do?" asked Humbug, looking nervously around at the five strangers who had showed up out of the blue and were apparently about to work some magic on his employer. He belatedly began worrying that he only had their word they were trying to aid Grimboldt - perhaps he shouldn't have let them into the manor so quickly, as that half-orc looked particularly fearsome.

"You can make sure nobody bothers us," Thurloe replied, as the five strangers each took a seat around the bed, sitting around it at the five points of a star. They had their eyes closed and looked as if they were meditating.

"Very well," answered Humbug, closing the bedroom door behind him as he stepped back into the library. He supposed this ritual - or whatever it was - would take a bit of time to complete; perhaps he should use that time cleaning up the mess in the master's arcane laboratory. After all, four weeks with a comatose master had given him plenty of time to root around in the wizard's lab, experimenting with his various arcane items of power....

One by one, the adventurers succumbed to sleep, their training coming into play. As each entered the Dreamlands, he or she was met by their assigned moogle guide, who led them to Mogo. "Is everybody ready, kupo?" he asked, standing in a hallway of doors and opening one door in particular ushering them in. "Good luck, kupo!"

The five adventurers stepped through the doorway and into a forest clearing, the full moon shining down upon them. Not surprisingly, dark shapes loomed overhead on either side of them, ancient trees pooling shadows on the ground below their branches, leaving the dirt path standing out in the moonlight.

On cue, Grimboldt turned the corner on the path just ahead. He wore the robes of a wizard and had a look of abject terror on his bearded face. "Run!" he cried as he veered off on a side path before the fledgling heroes. "It's coming!"

The heroes already had their weapons out and spells at the ready, but even here in Grimboldt's recurring dream they each also wielded the dreamstone they held back on the Material Plane in their hands. They held these stones up as protective wards when the dream fox made its sudden appearance on the path before them.

Once again, it cocked its head in puzzlement at the sudden arrival of these strangers, but this time it was more than just their unexpected intrusion into the dream; it was also the strange sluggishness that was passing over its body. Without any discernable source, the strength seemed to drain from its limbs, its unnatural quickness depleted somehow, leaving it hardly any faster or stronger than a normal fox of its size. Soundlessly, it shook its head as if trying to dissipate the weakness by waking up from a dream of its own, but the attempt was fruitless.

While it was puzzling out its new state of being, Thurloe dashed forward - he was now about as quick as the fox - and sent his bastard sword crashing down upon its fur-covered body, the blade drawing a line of red pain across its back and side. It yelped and dashed off into the undergrowth, giving Alewyth the time to cast a bless spell upon the group. "We got first blood this time," she pointed out. "Surely that's a good sign!"

The fox dashed out at the heroes again, noticeably much slower than in previous visits to this particular dream, and Zander was ready with a magic missile spell that struck it in its vulpine muzzle. Xandro stabbed forward with his rapier, piercing its shoulder as Wakuren cast a doom spell upon their foe. He wasn't sure exactly how the fox had kept Grimboldt imprisoned here in his own nightmare for a month, but so far things were looking like they'd be able to defeat the fox in combat without any difficulties. This belief of the half-orc cleric's was only reinforced when the fox snapped its jaws at Thurloe and the fighter managed to successfully dodge out of the way. That certainly beat having your throat ripped out! the fighter thought to himself as he brought his bastard sword crashing down upon the fox for a second time.

Alewyth attacked the creature with her warhammer, but the bedraggled beast managed to avoid her blow. There was no dodging another magic missile spell from Zander, however, although the fox just barely avoided subsequent attacks from Wakuren's shield and Xandros' rapier. In a sudden panic, the fox looked all about him for a way out of this fight, dashing at its best current speed past its attackers in an attempt to hunt down Grimboldt, its original target. It snapped at Zander when he cast a third magic missile spell at him, the time it took for the fox to do so allowing Alewyth's hammer and Thurloe's sword to deal additional harm to the beast. Seemingly on its last legs, it leaped up at Zander as if determined to bring at least one of these heroes down with it before it fell, but the elf was still on his feet - if wobbling somewhat - when Alewyth's warhammer crushed the fox's skull, slaying it at long last.

Everyone immediately assumed a defensive position, looking about to see if the dream would reset again as it had in the past. Thurloe looked ahead at the path, half expecting Grimboldt to run towards him warning that "it" was coming. But instead, the moonlight intensified as one by one the trees of the forest started fading away to nothingness. Then the stars started going out as the rest of the dreamscape surrounding them vanished, leaving the heroes standing once again in a hallway filled with doors as far as the eye could see. "Great job, kupo!" Mogo said in uncommon praise.

The heroes each put one of their latest lessons to good use and concentrated on waking themselves up. One by one, they snapped awake, finding themselves back in Grimboldt's bedroom, where a rather puzzled-looking wizard sat up in bed, looking at them. "You were there," he said. "I saw you, in my dream!"

"That was quite a dream, too," Wakuren agreed, standing up and making the introductions as the others joined them in wakefulness. The bedroom door opened and there was Humbug, alerted by the unmistakable sound of his master's voice. "You're awake!" he gasped in surprise. These strangers had done exactly as they had said they would.

"Humbug: make preparations!" Grimboldt exclaimed. "We're having guests over for dinner!"

Over dinner, Wakuren described the sleeping sickness beginning to spread across the land and how they had been recruited to try to put a stop to it. Grimboldt exclaimed once again, "I cannot thank you enough!" But over the course of the meal - which was quite excellent, considering Humbug had had little advance notice that not only would his master be awakened but they'd have five additional guests - it became quite evident the wizard was exhausted by his ordeals. "I know it doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he admitted, "but despite having been asleep for the better part of a month, I'm wiped out!"

"It makes perfect sense," Alewyth replied. "Being hunted by a dream fox does not make for restful sleep at all."

"I will have Humbug put you up in the guest rooms in the tower," Grimboldt declared. "In the morning, I insist upon rewarding you for what you have done for me this day! In my earlier days I, too, was an adventurer and I have some items I think would suit you all well. I'll have Humbug help me find them - they're packed away. But if you will please excuse me...?" The halfling butler helped his master out of his chair and back to his bedroom. "I'm actually a little afraid of falling back asleep," Grimboldt added as he was led back into his room.

"We'll be here in the morning to help you if you have any troubles waking from your dreams," Alewyth promised the wizard.

There were only four guest bedrooms, each with a single bed, so Humbug insisted upon giving up his own room upon the second floor. "I will be fine on the sofa in the library for one night," he insisted. "It's the least I can do to express my thanks. I've made the beds with fresh linen. If you need anything, please just call me - you all know where the library is located." And with a smile, he bid them a good night and headed back down the stairs.

Humbug's bed was fitted for a human or a dwarf, in any case - the only halfling-sized furniture in his room was a desk and a chair - and the dwarven priestess volunteered to take his bedroom for the night. "I'll see you all in the morning," she said, closing Humbug's bedroom door while the others all picked their own rooms and got ready for sleep themselves.

As expected, they were in for another night of training during their own dreams. After reporting their first success to the Queen of Dreams and having her congratulate and thank them for their initial efforts, she released them to Mogo for the night's instruction. "Tonight we're going to learn how to enter the space between dreams, kupo!" the moogle exclaimed. He then showed them the different ways the individual dream-bubbles could be visualized: either as open space, as they saw when the Queen of Dreams flew her butterfly throne through the cloud of dream-bubbles, or as the series of hallways filled with doors Alewyth herself had accidentally discovered before first encountering a moogle. "Eventually you'll learn how to differentiate which dream is which before entering it, but that's for later, kupo!" Mogo told them. The rest of the night's dream-time was spent going from a random dream back to the space between dreams - sometimes in the endless hallways of doors, sometimes in what seemed like in a cloud of bubbles. But eventually the night's training session came to an end and Mogo released them to continue their own individual dreams until they woke up on their own - naturally, or in the manner in which they had learned they could force themselves awake. None of them chose to force themselves awake; it had been a hard three days of travel and they luxuriated in the opportunity to sleep as late as they wanted in Grimboldt's guest bedrooms.

However, when they did awaken on their own, things were not as they had expected them to be.

Zander awoke with a strange feeling in his head, almost as if he had been drinking heavily the night before. But that made no sense - they'd each had but a single glass of wine with the evening's dinner, nothing more. Sitting up groggily, the elf was surprised to find himself on the hard floor, in a room he didn't recognize at all. That wasn't all that was unrecognizable, either, for the sorcerer was clad in a poncho-like garment, a white square with a hole in the center where his head stuck out, the rest of it folded around him and tied at the waist like a toga. "What...?" he croaked to himself, thoroughly confused.

He wasn't the only one to awaken in such a state, however; in separate rooms in this strange building with no furniture, each of the other adventurers woke up in a similar state, all dressed in the same manner. Alewyth's hand went to her throat at the realization she was in a strange garment; her holy symbol of Aerik, God of Protection, which she habitually wore around her neck since the day she had been confirmed as a priestess, was missing! Looking around at the otherwise empty room, she saw no sign of her other items: her armor, her warhammer, her pack - all were missing as well.

None of the rooms had doors, merely doorways. As one, the group stumbled out into a larger, central room and took stock of the situation. "Anybody know what happened?" Thurloe asked the room at large.

"I don't think we're on the Material Plane anymore," Wakuren theorized, lifting his arms and letting them fall. "The gravity seems different."

"What plane are we on, then?" asked Xandro - as a bard, he focused his area of expertise upon the cities and towns he visited, not on any of the myriad other planes of existence that were said to abound outside the Mortal Realm.

Thurloe had his eyes closed and was concentrating hard. He opened them back up and looked around. "I don't think we're dreaming," he said. "At least, if we are I can't seem to wake myself back up."

"You don't think we're all stuck inside a dream, like Grimboldt was, do you?" gasped Alewyth. She too tried using the training she'd received from Mogo to try to wake up, to no avail.

But then a voice boomed from outside the building. "ARISE, MORTALS!" it demanded. "EXIT YOUR DWELLING AND STAND BEFORE THE TITAN KORDIAN!"

"The who now?" asked Thurloe, but he led the group outside the front doorway and got a good look at the local area outside the building they'd all been in when they awakened. Seated before them, across a wide plane of stone, was the titan who had called out to them. This Kordian was an imposing figure, seated upon an elaborately carved wooden throne, wearing a toga of much more intricate design than the simple tied-off ponchos the adventurers wore. His muscular legs were wrapped in leather straps leading down to his sandals; upon his brow he wore a wreath of leaves. His every feature was of utmost perfection as he looked down upon his audience of five. Behind him, a massive stone wall encircled the floor in all directions, leaving an open sky of vivid blue with white clouds drifting lazily by. Thurloe took his best guess at the distance between the titan and them, then used that to try to gauge Kordian's size. He had to be at least 25, maybe even 30 feet tall! He looked over at his companions, a "What's going on?" expression plastered on his face.

"I HAVE LIFTED YOU FROM THE DRUDGERY OF THE MORTAL REALM TO LIVE HERE WITH ME IN THE OVERWORLD," Kordian announced. "HERE YOU WILL NOT AGE OR GROW INFIRM; YOU NEED ONLY BASK IN MY RADIANT GLORY AND SING ME SONGS OF WORSHIP."

Everyone looked expectantly at Xandro. "I don't have my lute," he choked out.

"Can't you summon one?" hissed Zander. "Let's not get the giant guy mad at us!"

Xandro cleared his mind and activated a summon instrument spell, which would in theory cause a lute to appear magically in his hands. He'd never had cause to cast the spell before since becoming an adventurer, but it was one of the first bard spells he had learned and had used it several times before initially meeting the others. However, to his surprise, nothing happened. Embarrassed at his failure, he turned to Kordian and admitted, "I don't have my lute with me, nor can I seem to summon one."

"NO MATTER!" boomed Kordian, a smile on his face. "YOUR VOICES WILL SUFFICE! SING ME A TALE OF THE EARLY DAYS OF MANKIND, WHEN I HELPED RAISE YOU TO YOUR CURRENT POITION OF PROMINENCE IN THE WORLD!"

"I, uh, I'm afraid I don't know any songs...about you," Xandro replied.

"WHAT?" boomed Kordian, a stern look crossing the perfect features of his face. "DO YOU NOT KNOW HOW I SLEW THE MONSTER-GIANTS, PAVING WAY FOR THE GODS WHO CAME AFTER ME? OR HOW I CRAFTED THE SHIELDWALL MOUNTAINS, RISING THEM UP TO KEEP THE MORTAL RACES SAFE FROM THE INVADERS ACROSS THE SEA? OR HOW I--AAAH! KILL IT! KILLITKILLIKILLIT!" These last instructions were given as Kordian leaped up from his seat and jumped up to stand upon the throne, pointing in panic at the ground between him and his five new worshipers. There, wandering absently was a fat-bodied spider, maybe three feet around, counting its leg-span. It seemed to notice neither the five assembled heroes nor the panicked titan, who was still pointing down at it and demanding the spider be killed at once.

None of the heroes had their weapons or armor at hand; none of the spellcasters had any of their component pouches or holy symbols. Still, Thurloe decided he'd rather fight a three-foot spider barehanded than a titan who could easily stomp him underfoot. He sprinted forward, catching up to the plump arachnid from behind and slamming his fist into its bloated abdomen with every ounce of strength he could muster. He found Alewyth had come to the same conclusion and sprinted forward beside him, adding her own dwarven fist to the mix. Zander, however, did a quick mental inventory and realized most of the spells he was able to cast required only the correct verbal and somatic components, and thus cast a detect magic spell on his eyes, examining the spider intensely. Was there something special about this arachnid, to put so much fear into a titan? But despite his scrutiny, there was nothing inherently magical about the eight-legged creature. The elf shrugged to himself - this day was turning out to be all kinds of weird.

Xandro, worried about not getting the titan any angrier at him than he had already seemed to be, ran up beside Thurloe and Alewyth and likewise punched the spider, wishing he had some kind of a weapon - any kind, really. But Wakuren was there beside the bard punching at the arachnid's bloated abdomen as well, and the spider's legs faltered as the beast fell over to its side. Not ever having been this close to a giant spider before, Xandro wasn't sure if it was dead or merely stunned, but he was willing to bet it was just the latter, for the four heroes had only been able to punch it a couple times with their fists - surely that wouldn't have slain it, would it have?

Still, dead or only knocked out, the motionlessness of the spider was enough to get Kordian to step down from on top of his throne. "DRAG IT AWAY!" he demanded, pointing off to the side of the dwelling from which the heroes had emerged. The four each grabbed a spindly leg and lugged the arachnid away as indicated.

But that was apparently it for the day's titan adoration session, for Kordian immediately ordered everyone back into the house. They obeyed at once, barely making it into the central chamber before the whole structure dipped to the side, spilling several of them to the floor. There was a weird sensation in everyone's stomach as the house was lifted into the air and carried away.

The house trembled and shook as Kordian walked away with the structure in his hands; inside, it felt very much like the heroes were experiencing an earthquake. But finally there was a soft thud as the house hit ground - again spilling everyone to the floor - and all movement stopped. They could hear the sounds of footsteps echoing away; after several minutes of relative silence, Wakuren dared to peek his head out the front doorway to the exterior of the building.

They were no longer in the stone receiving area with the open skies above; now they were in a field of dirt, with several leafy plants towering above them. Exploring the area, they found they were imprisoned in a rectangular box of invisible walls on three sides, with a solid wooden wall behind them. Looking up, they could see no sky overhead but rather the faraway ceiling, a slanted structure made of metal struts and enormous panes of glass. Xandro made a go of trying to climb up one of the plants and it supported his weight just fine, but it wasn't anywhere near tall enough for him to reach the top of the walls, which the bard could see were topped with a walkway of sorts or what might be wood - it was too far away to tell for sure.

"You know where we are?" Thurloe asked the others. "We're in a terrarium!"

"But how'd we get here?" Alewyth demanded. "That titan couldn't have taken us like he said he did, could he have?"

"I really don't think that was a titan," Wakuren pointed out. "Scared of what would have been a little spider to him? I doubt it."

"So if that wasn't a titan, who was it?" asked Zander. "What else is that big? A cloud giant? A giant wouldn't be afraid of a little spider, either, would it?"

"I don't think he's that big at all," Wakuren said. "I think we're small!" He turned around, indicating the terrarium all around them. "And I don't think this is a giant terrarium, either - it's probably no bigger than any other terrarium you've ever seen before. I'd bet we're all probably just a couple inches tall." He held his arms out to the side and let them drop. "That would explain the funky gravity, too," he surmised. "It would feel different at this size."

Some time later, after Xandro had pulled a couple of leaves off one of the plants and tossed them down to the others, deciding they looked safe enough to eat, there was a thunk as something hard hit the rooftop of their building. Looking up, they could see there was now some sort of giant wooden pole - rather like an uncarved totem pole, Xandro decided - lodged diagonally from the rooftop to the upper edge of the front wall. "Hey!" he called to the others. "If we can get to the rooftop, we can climb up that pole and get to the top of the terrarium!" Wakuren and Thurloe helped the lithe bard climb up onto their shoulders and he grabbed hold of the top of the roof. Then he struggled to pull himself up - until he saw the face of a giant, white-furred rat looking down at him from the top of the pole. Then he scrambled back down to the ground as quickly as he could go.

"Giant rat!" Xandro said, pointing up at the top of the pole. The others backed away so they could see, but there was no rat visible. "It was right there!" the bard insisted.

Zander, being rather slender himself, was the next to try to climb to the rooftop once Xandro declared he wasn't going up there with a giant rat somewhere about. The elf cautiously grabbed the top of the roof and pulled himself up. He stood up, looking up along the edge of the terrarium wall - no rat. "It's clear!" he called down to the others, just seconds before the giant rat reappeared. This time it had several slender bits of metal in its mouth. Scurrying along the top of the terrarium wall, it peered down at the heroes and scampered along the pole onto the roof - causing Zander to leap back down to the safety of the ground just as Xandro had done. The rat poked his head over the side of the roof, opened his mouth wide, and allowed the metal rods to fall over the roof's edge, landing in a loose pile in the dirt. It then waited patiently as the group cautiously approached the metal rods. Each was the size of a shortspear, with an oblong hole in the side opposite the pointy end.

"These...are needles," Alewyth said, lifting one and feeling its heft. "Yep, we've been shrunk, all right." She passed the weapons out to each of the other heroes, not at all surprised to see there were exactly five needles in all. She looked back up to the rooftop and said, "And that's not a giant white rat. I'll bet that's a little white mouse - probably Grimboldt's familiar." She waved up at the white-furred rodent; after a moment, Squeaky Cheeser waved back. Then he busied himself tugging the pole down from the edge of the terrarium wall until it angled down from the rooftop to the ground below. Everyone backed away and gave the mouse plenty of room as he scampered down the pole's length and plopped down on the ground.

"Can you understand us?" Alewyth asked, her needle-spear held at her side in a nonthreatening way. Squeaky Cheeser nodded in reply. Then, hesitantly, he approached the group and began drawing figures in the dirt. The first was a simple stick figure of a man, then an arrow leading from him to a much smaller stick figure. "We were shrunk," Alewyth guessed. The mouse nodded again and resumed drawing.

His second drawing was of a stick figure reclining in bed. "That's us, sleeping," Xandro guessed. The mouse then added a blanket over the sleeping figure, then pointed back to the shrunken stick figure from the first drawing. "The blanket shrunk us," Wakuren guessed. "But who did this?"

Squeaky Cheeser began another stick figure drawing; this one had a beard. "Grimboldt shrunk us?" snarled Thurloe in disbelief. Of all the ungrateful...!

But the mouse was shaking his head vigorously from side to side. Next to the stick figure of his master he drew another one, this one about half the size. This one he circled.

"Humbug!" the heroes cried out as one.

"I'll bet that was him disguised as the titan!" Zander added. "All it would take was an alter person spell - not even a spell, he could have just drank down a potion. Why, that little weasel!" He silently kicked himself for not focusing his attention on the "titan" when he'd cast his detect magic spell activated to check out the spider.

"Where's Grimboldt?" Alewyth asked. "Is he okay?" That led to another drawing, this time of just a stick figure head - complete with a beard, indicating it was the familiar's master - sticking his tongue out. Then Squeaky Cheeser drew a slash across the tongue before erasing it by rubbing his front paw over the part of the dirt in which it had been drawn. He drew another tongue off to the side of Grimboldt's head.

Thurloe caught on at once. "Humbug cut his tongue out, so he couldn't cast spells," he told the others. "Was he shrunk as well?" The mouse nodded in the affirmative.

"Where is he now?" Alewyth repeated. In response, Squeaky Cheeser drew a rectangle in the dirt, then another beside it, and another. He pointed to each of the group in turn, then stuck his paw on the first rectangle. Then he pointed to the Grimboldt stick-figure head and over to the farthest rectangle. "...He's in a terrarium two over from the one we're in," she translated.

"We need to go get him," Wakuren said. "But then what?"

Squeaky Cheeser answered with more drawings in the dirt. He drew a hand, then put a ring on one finger, and then drew a bookshelf filled with books. Pointing to the ring and then a book on the top shelf, the group figured out there was a magic ring hidden in one of the books in Grimboldt's library. When the mouse pointed to the ring and then drew Grimboldt's tongue back in his mouth, the group figured the ring would allow the wizard to be restored, after which time he'd certainly be able to undo the size reduction to which the heroes had all been involuntarily subjected.

Done with his stick-figure drawings, Squeaky Cheeser pushed Alewyth's needle-spear in the dirt touching the tip of the wooden pole leading up to the roof. Then, motioning for Zander to follow him, he scampered up the pole. Once the elf had followed, the mouse pointed out a series of letters carved into the side of the wooden pole. When Zander spoke the word thus formed aloud, there was a zap of energy and Alewyth called up to him that her needle was glowing slightly. It didn't take Zander long to work out that the "pole" was a wooden wand of magic weapon and that Squeaky Cheeser had not only found a way to arm the miniscule heroes, but to provide them magic weapons as well - even if the magic had a time limit. Zander tossed his own needle-spear back down to the others and then used four more charges from the wand to enhance all five of the makeshift weapons. Then, one by one, the heroes climbed up onto the roof and helped maneuver the wand back up to the edge of the terrarium wall.

The view from the very top edge of the terrarium helped the group see exactly where they were. It was a long greenhouse of sorts, filled with a row of terraria on either side of the long, central aisle and a large fish tank at the far end. They could even see some of the creatures in the glass cages on the other side of the aisle from them: a trio of cows and a bull directly across from them and what looked to be a black bear in the one beside that. The animals looked to be "normal" sized to the shrunken heroes, meaning they too had likely been reduced in size by whatever magic Humbug had employed during the night while the heroes slept.

Crossing from one terrarium to another wasn't that difficult due to their close proximity; Squeaky Cheeser had managed it without any makeshift bridges. The edge of the glass wall was as wide as a balance beam - easily crossed if you didn't look down or think about what might be down in the terrarium below you. (Thurloe peeked: it was a boar, not something he'd want to fight with only a needle-as-shortspear, magic weapon spell notwithstanding.) One by one they made their way across the boar's glass prison and over to the next one after that. This one had a lot of plants in it, but close scrutiny allowed the group to spot not only Grimboldt, perched in what looked to be a small tree (but which had to be some kind of smaller plant, likely a fern or something), but also the crocodile waiting for him at the bottom of the plant should he - or any of them - happen to fall. Grimboldt looked to be unconscious, with a smattering of blood smeared around his mouth.

"He's too far down for us to reach him from here," Thurloe pointed out. "Suggestions?"

"We need rope or something," Wakuren suggested. He looked down at the belt holding his poncho-toga closed. "Do you think if we tied these together...?" he hazarded.

"What is this anyway - thread?" asked Alewyth, examining her own "belt." "Do you think it would be strong enough?" But Squeaky Cheeser, hearing their requests, scampered off the way he had come, along the edges of the terraria. Several minutes later, he returned - this time with a length of yarn in his mouth; apparently he'd partially unraveled a scarf or something. But Zander, being the lightest of the group, was lowered down with his foot in a loop at one end of the yarn until he was level with Grimboldt; then, stepping off onto the plant's branches beside the wizard, he carefully woke him up and tied the yarn around the wizard's waist. The others heaved him up to their level, then lowered the yarn loop back down to Zander and helped pull him back up as well.

"Now we need to get down off of here and over to the library," Xandro said. "Any ideas?" Squeaky Cheeser had the answer to that as well: skirting over to the front of the terrarium, he pitched himself over the ledge, landing on the floor below. While from this height it looked like several stories down, Thurloe figured he was only at about shoulder height at his normal size - maybe four feet? Less than five, in any case. Shrugging, he tossed his needle-spear down before him and then followed the little white mouse over the edge and rolled when he landed.

"It's okay!" he called back up to the others. "At this size, it's not as bad as it looks!"

The others leaped over the edge as well and everyone made it in one piece, Grimboldt included. Then Squeaky Cheeser led the group back toward the rest of the manor - for the greenhouse area had been tacked on to the dwelling years after its initial construction - and through a hole in the wainscoting, into the wizard's arcane lab. From there they were able to squeeze beneath the door and make it into a hallway leading to Grimboldt's bedroom. Then it was a simple matter to crawl under the door into the library.

"We're here," Xandro announced. "Now, where's that book with the ring?"

There were several bookshelves in the room; Grimboldt pointed to the leftmost one of a set of three set side by side. The shelves were each a bit taller than twice the size of any of the heroes in their current size. "How are we going to get up there?" Zander asked.

Thurloe gave it some thought. Climbing up onto the bottom shelf, he examined the sides of the bookcase. They were in luck: the shelves were adjustable, each wooden shelf balanced on four metal pegs placed in holes along the inner sides; the unused holes would make it easy to climb, using them as hand- and footholds - at least until they hit the shelf above. But Thurloe figured out the best way to approach that hazard as well: if two people climbed up one side, one behind the other, the bottommost could help steady the topmost while he released the holes with his hands and got a good grip on the edge of the shelf to pull himself up. Then, once firmly on the ledge, he could reach down and help pull up his climbing partner. Thurloe was the group's best climber so he was definitely going to make the ascent; Wakuren volunteered to go with him. Alewyth and Xandro opted to give it a go on the other side of the bookshelf, with Zander staying with Grimboldt and Squeaky Cheeser to keep watch.

The bookcase they were climbing had six shelves; the ring was hidden in a hollow book on the top shelf. (Grimboldt had never imagined he'd only be several inches tall when he'd need to fetch it.) Thurloe and Xandro had made it to the third shelf from the bottom and were leaning over to help Wakuren and Alewyth up when Zander gave a startled cry from below. He, Grimboldt, and Squeaky Cheeser had climbed up onto a footstool across the room so they could see better and they had spotted an intruder enter the library on a multitude of legs: a centipede, probably a normal one but much longer than the heroes in their current state.

The centipede didn't seem to notice the trio on the footstool, but made a beeline for the bookshelves and started climbing up the front of the bookcase the other four heroes were ascending. Warned by Zander's frantic cries, Alewyth and Wakuren were pulled up onto the shelf and the four grabbed up their needle-spears. Looking over the edge, Thurloe saw the shiny, black head of the centipede as the otherwise red-bodied creature scampered up the side of the bookcase. He stabbed at its head with his needle as soon as it got within range and it stiffened and dropped to the library floor. The fighter was surprised at how easily he'd slain it, unaware that Zander had brought it down with a magic missile spell from his footstool perch. Despite his current size, he channeled as much energy in a magic missile spell as he did at his normal height and the centipede hadn't been able to survive the arcane assault.

Seeing no other threats at the moment, the four heroes continued their bookcase ascent.

Once all four of them had made it to the top shelf, Grimboldt pantomimed whether they needed to go left or right until they hit the correct book. Thurloe boosted Xandro up to the top of the books, where he helped wrest it free from its place on the shelf. Alewyth, Thurloe, and Wakuren managed to turn it in place and set it down flat; then, opening the top cover, they saw the pages were blank but a hole had been cut into the pages, creating a space for a ring to be hidden. The ring was the size of a dinner plate, but knowing it had to be magical in nature and most magic rings resized to fit the wearer, Wakuren stuck his finger into the middle of the ring's interior and smiled in satisfaction as the ring shrunk down to fit his tiny finger. Once in place, the magic of the ring revealed to the half-orc its true power: it wasn't a ring of regeneration as he had at first thought, but a ring of three wishes with but a single wish remaining.

Immediately, thoughts of other potential wishes crossed the cleric's mind - but then he brushed them off. Better to stick to the original plan, he decided. "I wish Grimboldt's tongue was restored," he said. The four on the top shelf looked down over the edge at the trio on the footstool.

"Thank you once again," Grimboldt called up to them. "Climb on back down, and we'll see about getting ourselves restored to our original size."

Climbing down carefully - for none of the heroes was willing to risk what looked like an eight-story drop - the four made their way back down the bookcase and gathered together with the others once back on the library floor. "We'll likely have a difficult time with the stairs," Grimboldt advised, saying the words to a teleport spell. Immediately, the group found themselves in one of the guest bedrooms.

"Humbug used the sheets of shrinking I used to create my minimals - minimized animals, the creatures I keep in the terraria in the greenhouse - to reduce us to one-twelfth of our normal size," Grimboldt said. "One at a time, I can restore us all to our normal sizes. Climb up underneath the sheet and remove this...toga-garment thing, for the size change only affects living tissue." Alewyth volunteered to go first and was restored to normal size. She wrapped herself in a blanket and lifted the next person onto the bed to be restored, then went off to get dressed in her normal clothes and armor. Fortunately, all of her gear was still in place in Humbug's room; the halfling butler apparently hadn't gotten around to going through their stuff yet.

Once restored to normal and geared back up, the group made their way back down the stairs, where they could hear whistling coming from the kitchen. Humbug was in the midst of kneading a ball of dough, no doubt the beginnings of a halfling bread loaf, when his wizardly master and the five visitors stepped into view. Humbug's eyes grew wide with shock as he realized the jig was up.

Xandro couldn't help saying, "Hello, Kordian - how are things in the Overworld?"

"I--" Humbug began, but couldn't think of anything to follow; there was really no excuse he could give for the things he had done to his master and the five guests who had come to aid him. But then Grimboldt touched the halfling butler on the shoulder, invoking a few choice arcane syllables. The halfling found himself suddenly being reduced in size - not only that, but changing his physical shape as well during the process. By the time Humbug had reached his new size, he'd attained his new shape as well: that of a bullfrog, which Grimboldt scooped up before he could hop away. "I think you'll go into one of the plant terraria for now," he told his erstwhile employee. Then he smiled. "It would seem 'Bugcatcher' was a somewhat prophetic surname," he said.

Returning from the greenhouse, Grimboldt led the heroes back into his arcane laboratory. "It would seem Humbug was playing about in here while I was trapped in my dreams," he said, looking around the lab and seeing how things had been moved around during his recent absence. "Nonetheless, I have a few items I would like to pass on to you." He gave Alewyth a lesser metamagic rod of silent spells, explaining its use to the priestess. To Thurloe he gave a torc of the titans, a thick metal band worn about the neck that would allow him to channel extra power through his sword-strikes several times a day (and, the fighter considered, protect him from having his throat ripped out by dream foxes...). Wakuren received an item once used by one of Grimboldt's adventuring cleric friends, a ring of mystic healing that allowed a cleric to channel more healing energy through his cure spells. Xandro was given a pair of true strike gauntlets that would guide the point of his rapier when he absolutely needed it. Zander was given a scout's headband, which enhanced the wearer's eyesight in a variety of possible different ways. He also gave them each a small pile of gemstones valued at 2,000 pieces of gold.

"I can never thank you enough for what you've done for me, literally saving me twice in less than 24 hours!" he said. "If you ever pass this way again, by all means stop by - you'll always be welcome here." He turned to Thurloe. "And if you ever decide to spend some time delving into arcane spellcasting and would like a mentor, I will make myself available."

"I'll keep that in mind," Thurloe promised the wizard. "For now, though, I think my sword is of better use to the group at large - we've got the elf for arcane spells."

"And the bard!" piped up Xandro.

"Yeah, and the bard," agreed Thurloe.

- - -

Knowing this was going to be our last gaming session for several months, after we finished up running through "Fox Hunt" we decided to plow through the next adventure as well. However, with time as an issue, I kind of fast-forwarded through some of this adventure. There was a travel encounter with a dire badger I just hand-waved away; it had been intended as a combat with something they hadn't fought before but had no real bearing on the adventure as a whole.

The sheets of shrinking were a standard magic item in earlier versions of the game; for whatever reason they seem to not have made it to 3rd Edition. (Neither, incidentally, were minimals, which originally appeared in the AD&D 1E Monster Manual II.) But I liked them enough to build a whole adventure around them. In fact, "With Minimal Danger" was originally an AD&D 2E adventure I wrote up for submission to Dungeon magazine, but it didn't make it past the query stage, especially when it became apparent to the editors that the spellcasters would be seriously nerfed once they'd been shrunk and would lose the ability to cast any spells requiring material components. (By the way, the reason Xandro's summon instrument failed was the spell would have summoned a full-size lute into existence, which at Xandro's current six-inch height was more than he could manage.) But I no longer had any of the work I had done on the original version, so I rewrote the adventure (and redesigned the maps) from scratch.

There would have been Balance checks to avoid falling into a terrarium, but I hand-waved those away in the interests of saving time. I also made Grimboldt's location in the crocodile terrarium closer to the PCs' terrarium than originally intended, again just to speed things up. So nobody had the opportunity to fall into a terrarium and have to fight the "minimals" kept there, which could have been the crocodile, timber wolves, boars, a black bear, cows and a bull, or light horses. (Some of the other tanks just had plants in them.)

For the bookcase climbing section, I passed out some of Harry's Marvel superhero action figures to represent the PCs (Black Widow for Alewyth; Punisher for Thurloe; Iron Man for Wakuren; Hawkeye for Xandro; Doctor Strange for Zander) and had them stage their exact locations on the bookcases in the man-cave where we play. The action figures were all more or less the "actual size" of the PCs at that point in time. (The ring of wishes was stashed inside Scott Adams's Dilbert book, "The Joy of Work.")

By the way, Humbug's cooking expertise allowed him to add a slow-acting poison to the meal he served, causing a deep slumber several hours after having been imbibed. That allowed him to shrink each of the heroes (and his master), dress them in his modified handkerchiefs, and place them in the "travel house" where they woke up the next morning without any worries they might wake up earlier than he had anticipated. The "Overworld" was just the roof of the tower of Grimboldt's dwelling. And had Alewyth investigated Humbug's desk (she didn't), she'd have found a book on the titans, whom Humbug revered for their power and size.

And now we're back on COVID hold until May or June. But at least the heroes have one dream-success under their belts; for the next big chunk of the campaign, I envision them roaming the continent helping dream victims escape from their dreams, while they slowly try to figure out what's causing this unusual plague.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My blue shirt that reads, "Dad: cleverly disguised as a responsible adult," mostly because we played this adventure immediately after the previous one, but it was also thematically appropriate in that Humbug was "cleverly disguised" as the titan Kordian.
 

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