Dreams of Erthe



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 4​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 4​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 2​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 4​

Game Session Date: 18 September 2021

- - -

"So where is this next dreamer supposed to be?" asked Zander Quilson, astride his horse Eddy. He was riding directly behind the mule-driven wagon, since the forest path they were traversing wasn't wide enough to accommodate riding beside it.

"Somewhere in a clearing here in the Darkwood Forest," replied Xandro, who had paid attention last night during their dream session when Mogo explained where they'd be heading next. "An area where two of these roads cross each other, leaving a wide area in the middle. We're apparently on the right road, so we shouldn't be able to miss it."

Up ahead of the wagon, with Wakuren the only one riding in it now that Alewyth had her dire goat Pyrite, Thurloe Pulver sat astride his own hastily-named horse, Horse. He scanned the sides of the trees as they ambled along, his ever-cautious nature making him the perfect point guard to check for an ambush. But it wasn't an ambush the group ran into - not at first, in any case - it was a dire wolf, crouched as bold as you please in the middle of the road ahead. His muzzle was covered in blood as he looked up from the body of the dead deer he'd been eating, locking eyes with Thurloe and growling a warning not to approach any further and try to take the wolf's meal from him. Thurloe brought Horse to an immediate halt and held his hand up to signal Wakuren to do the same; the half-orc pulled on the mules' reins and brought them to a stop, veering them to the left in case any of the others behind him might need to pass. From his vantage point he couldn't see why Thurloe had stopped them, but he assumed it wasn't on a whim.

And Thurloe would have simply had the group turn around and find a side road past the dire wolf and his deer feast had it not been for the humanoid figure lying sprawled on the ground beside the deer. It was the size of a gnome, although beyond that it was hard to make out any features, for the figure was either covered in branches and leaves or else had them growing out of his body. But from the distance between them, Thurloe couldn't tell if the little possible-gnome were even still alive or not. And, of course, Thurloe being Thurloe after all, part of his mind measured the possibility that the gnome guy was in league with the dire wolf and this was some sort of trap.

In one smooth motion, Thurloe dismounted from Horse and brought his bastard sword out from its scabbard over his back. He stepped slowly towards the humanoid figure, sword out and readied but not in an offensive stance; at this point he just wanted to get close enough to see if the gnome guy was still breathing or not. "Easy, big guy, we're not here to hurt you," he said to the dire wolf, hoping the tone of his voice if not his actual words would convey his non-threatening posture.

The dire wolf was having none of it. Standing over his meal, if not technically his kill (for he had come across the three-foot-tall humanoid and the deer shortly after the deer had been brought down by a well-thrown javelin), his growl deepened and his body tensed as if ready to pounce. And it was at this time that Wakuren walked up to see what was going on, tensing at the sight of the downed humanoid and ready to go provide aid to him if he could. Instinctively, he used his paladin training to sense the taint of evil among any of the present group and saw none; the dire wolf was merely a hungry predator attending to his needs and the humanoid was either still alive and not evil or already dead, in which case there would be no evil emanations from him even if he had habitually slain babies and bathed in their blood every day - a corpse was just a corpse.

Since Wakuren had pulled the mules over to the side, beneath the overhanging branches of the trees flanking the narrow road, Alewyth had enough room to ride Pyrite up to see for herself why they'd stopped. Seeing the dire wolf, she cast a bless spell on the group, just in case it was needed. And it most certainly was, for there were now far too many enemies for the dire wolf's liking, too many who might try to take his meal for themselves. He sprang forward, sinking his teeth into the nearest of these enemies. Wakuren had tried to block the lupine head with his shield but merely shunted the beast's muzzle to grip his upper arm; fortunately for the half-orc, his armor held against the wolf's jagged teeth and he managed to keep his balance.

Thurloe was beside Wakuren in a heartbeat, his bastard sword swinging down upon the wolf's flank, causing it to howl in pain and release Wakuren's arm from its grasp. Behind the wagon, Xandro and Zander slipped off of their horses and ran up to see what was going on - some sort of combat, it sounded like. The bard pulled his lute from his back and started the chords of his song of inspirational courage, while the sorcerer cast a mage armor spell upon himself.

And then an unseen attacker entered the fray from an unseen vantage point, attacking an unusual target: from somewhere overhead up in the trees came a flaming javelin to pierce none of the current combatants but rather the downed figure that lay unmoving by the slain deer. The flames on the weapon's tip started the leaves and branches covering the figure ablaze.

And then more of these flaming javelins started raining down from the treetops, two of them hitting Thurloe and Wakuren, causing the fighter's suspicions about an ambush to harden in his mind, although he wasn't sure why the little gnome guy would have been the first target of the attack, since he was probably already dead and thus couldn't have been in on it. Oh well, time enough to figure out the whys and wherefores after combat had been completed - right now, it was more important to stay alive!

Wakuren concentrated his attacks on the massive dire wolf before him, trusting in his plate mail armor to keep him relatively safe from the fire-tipped javelins from above. He brought the bottom edge of his shield crashing down upon the wolf's head, cutting it open with the point. Then he stepped back out of immediate range of his snapping jaws and dared a quick glance up at the trees, unable to see any enemies at all up there but distinctly seeing the evil auras of five different individuals.

Alewyth cast a protection from evil spell on herself as she rode Pyrite closer to the dire wolf, her warhammer Sjondra gripped in one hand. The dire wolf changed targets suddenly and nipped at Thurloe, biting him on the leg but failing to pull the fighter to the ground, where he'd likely have an easier time of killing him. Thurloe retaliated with another swing of his bastard sword, cutting a deep gash in the wolf's shoulder. And now he could hear Xandro's tune behind him, inspiring him to greater acts of courage.

Zander cast a ray of enfeeblement spell at the wounded wolf, draining off a bit of the massive brute's impressive strength. The wolf, at this point, was starting to look very much the worse for wear, but he wasn't the only foe the group had to worry about for another wave of five flaming javelins came streaking down from the treetops; this time they had been better coordinated, with each of the five heroes being targeted by his or her individual missile.

Squinting up into the trees, Wakuren spotted a wooden face among the branches, with twigs and branches growing out of it from all sides. He tried to recall if there were any fey creatures fitting that description and why they might be attacking him and his companions; in the meantime, on a more practical front, he cast an entropic shield spell upon himself, hoping to deflect a couple of those flaming javelins being hurled his way.

Alewyth was also peering up into the treetops, trying to spot who it was hurling flaming javelins down at them. She didn't have much in the way of ranged weaponry - just her sling - and preferred using her spellcraft in any case, but when she saw a wooden face peering down at her she cast a doom spell on him, hoping to mess up his aim at least. Unlike Wakuren, she had no idea how many of these hidden foes were up there, but there had to be at least five, given five javelins had been hurled almost simultaneously.

The dire wolf made a half-hearted snap at Thurloe's leg again and the fighter brought his blade down upon the beast's neck, killing it. Then he looked up into the tree branches above him, trying to pinpoint who these hidden enemies might be. In the meantime, Xandro cast a cure light wounds spell upon Zander Quilson, as the elf was their physically weakest member and was easily taken out in combat, but he was also their most powerful source of offensive combat spells and it was always a good idea to keep him in the fight for as long as possible.

There was a sudden startled cry from behind the wagon and Zander thought it sounded like his horse Eddy. Sure enough, there was another wolf back there attacking his mount! The sorcerer wasn't sure if this was just a normal wolf or perhaps the offspring of the dire wolf but it didn't really matter; that was his horse the wolf was trying to kill! Zander ran toward his horse and raised his hands, channeling a scorching ray through his fingertips and sending the blazing flash of fire cascading into the startled predator. Eddy took the opportunity to flee in terror down a side path, while beside him Xandro's horse White did the same thing. The worg, in the meantime, snarled in fury at the sudden magical onslaught; he'd been trying to pace his master as he went scurrying about in the tree branches and hadn't expected to encounter spellcasters when he came across a pair of what he had thought were unprotected horses!

Another wave of flaming javelins came flying down from all directions above them and this time Wakuren, having spotted one of their tree-borne tormentors, had been able to see how that process worked: the wooden faces all had pipes in their mouths and dipped the tips of their javelins - no doubt coated in some type of flammable oil or something - into them to set them ablaze before hurtling them down at the adventurers. Activating his ring of invisibility, Wakuren vanished from sight and took a few steps to the side so their assailants wouldn't know his exact location.

Sudden inspiration hit Alewyth and she cast a spiritual weapon spell, causing a warhammer of solid force to materialize in the air above her. She had spotted one of these tree-pests and could send her spiritual warhammer to go deal with it while she sought out future targets for it to smash. The force-hammer went streaking into the trees, hitting its target square on and causing it to plummet lifelessly from the branch upon which it had been perched to the ground below. One down: a start, at least!

Thurloe sheathed his blade and brought out his bow, notching an arrow into place and looking up into the trees for a suitable target. Once he spotted movement he shot at the tree-bound foe but failed to bring him down.

Not wanting a repeat of the fire magic that had seared his fur, the worg went sprinting at Zander Quilson, biting down hard up the elf sorcerer's leg and trying to bring him crashing to the ground so he could rip out his throat. But even slightly off balance, Zander had no problem targeting another scorching ray spell directly at the worg at that distance and the creature died immediately, its corpse ablaze.

Four flaming javelins came flying out of the trees above, this time focused solely on Thurloe and Xandro. Wakuren, seeing the success Alewyth was having with her spiritual weapon, cast one of his own, his taking the form of a heavy mace, the weapon the god Cal wielded. It went flying straight for the wooden-faced foe Wakuren had spotted among the trees, killing him instantly and dropping his body to the ground in a heap. In his aura-sensing vision, the half-orc saw one of the remaining sources of evil scampering deeper into the clump of trees from which they had attacked their foes on the ground - he was apparently heading back the way they had come, paralleling the road the adventurers had taken.

Alewyth's force-hammer swung at another of these arboreal foes, smacking it good but failing to drop it. She took the time to lean down and channel a cure light wounds spell on Zander, healing up the jagged gash on his calf where the worg had bitten him. But with the priestess's spiritual warhammer all but pointing at a potential target, Thurloe had no trouble slaying it with his next arrow shot. The dead enemy crashed through the branches to fall to the ground to the accompaniment of Xandro's courage-inspiring tune.

Zander saw a brief flash of light up in the trees and realized it was another javelin being lit on fire right before being thrown; now that he could make out the creature's shape up there, he cast a magic missile spell flashing up there, slaying the assailant before he could let fly with his javelin. Both body and javelin fell to the ground below.

There was now only one of these arboreal enemies left and he was in fast retreat. Knowing he had to get word back to the tribe, he sent his owl familiar on ahead so that if he didn't make it back at least one of the other adepts could learn of this team's slaughter, for the loyal bird would easily be able to lead them back here and if the old stories were true, human marauders just left their slain enemies to rot where they fell.

But as this last survivor leaped and skipped from branch to branch, he didn't realize he was being tracked from the ground. Wakuren was tracking the retreating figure in the branches through his aura of evil, which glowed in the cleric-paladin's vision like a beacon. And that was enough to allow the half-orc to send his spiritual heavy mace slamming into the fleeing figure. In the meantime, the armored half-orc bent down over the burning form of the body by the slain deer the dire wolf had been eating. Wakuren was intrigued by the thought this might be a humanoid plant of some type, like those needlefolk they'd met up in that old abandoned mine. But no, the branches and leaves that had covered the form, now that he had a better look at them (and many of them had been burned away), had merely been sewn to the leather armor of the figure, whose "wooden face" was nothing more than a mask. Flipping the body over with his shield and stamping out the flames still burning the body, he bent over and pulled off the mask, revealing the face of a green-skinned goblin. That was a surprise, for as far as Wakuren knew there weren't any more goblins living out among themselves, they'd all been civilized and could be found as servants in the larger cities. How strange to see a band of goblins running around in the trees, of all places!

Alewyth, in the meantime, had spurred Pyrite to enter the forest proper, skirting around the trees so she could keep her spiritual warhammer actively attacking the last of the assailants; she caught a glimpse of the fleeing figure and her force-hammer gave one final blow before it winked out, the duration of its magic having expired. But that last blow was all that had been necessary, for the tree goblin adept went tumbling off the limb he'd been traversing, falling in a lifeless heap upon the ground. And just that quickly, the attack was over.

The group searched the bodies and found these odd tree goblins had nothing worth taking, merely a handful of javelins each, a lit corncob pipe, and that weird leather armor with leaves and branches interwoven in as camouflage. The wooden masks they wore were crudely made, but the overall effect certainly did what it was supposed to: help them blend into the background while leaping from branch to branch and hiding the fact that these "tree-people" were in fact goblins. The adventurers gathered up their mounts, Alewyth and Wakuren cast healing spells on those who needed them, and then the group moved on, back in the direction they had started, seeking out the crossroads opening in the Darkwood Forest where they were to find the next trapped dreamer.

An hour later they were certain they'd come to the crossroads, for it fit the description Mogo had given them precisely. However, there were no buildings in the area at all to be seen. "Tree house?" guessed Alewyth, shielding her eyes from the sun and scanning the trees for any signs of habitation.

"Watch it's one of those tree goblins, sitting up in a nest at the top of the trees or something," joked Zander.

"Better not be," replied Thurloe, dismounting from Horse and leading him in a clockwise direction around the edge of the clearing; maybe the house was camouflaged or something. The others dismounted and did likewise, with Wakuren pulling the mule-wagon over to one side. Thurloe saw a bunch of prints in the dirt of the intersection, mostly those of a horse without horseshoes and the bare feet of what was likely a young woman, given their size. But no dwellings of any kind that he could see.

In was Xandro who first made contact, although in reality he was the contact recipient, not the instigator. "Hello?" said a shy voice from the other side of a clump of broad-leafed plants. "Have you come to help my friend Belisandre?"

Xandro peered between the leaves and saw the face of a beautiful young woman staring back at him, although it was one seemingly made of living wood. "Well, hello," he said. "Yes, we're here to help your friend - if she's been trapped in a dream, that is. Can you take us to her?" The young woman nodded shyly and stepped forward.

"What is your name?" asked Xandro, looking at the lovely vision stepping from between the undergrowth. It was a woman of his own size and age, although her smooth, brown skin held the lines one found in the rings of trees; her head had a handful of branches erupting out of it in all directions like a crown and green growths of ivy cascaded down from her head like hair. "My name is Nyla, she said, adding (perhaps unnecessarily), "I'm a dryad."

"My name is Xandro," replied the bard, taking her hand and bringing her out into the open to meet his friends.

After introductions had been made, Nyla told the group what she knew. "Belisandre is a dryad, like myself. She has been asleep inside her tree for three weeks now and I have been unable to awaken her." After Alewyth explained how they had been able to help others who had been stuck inside their dreams, she asked if it was possible for Nyla to take them inside Belisandre's tree. "No, I am afraid that is not possible," Nyla said with regret. "As a dryad I can enter her tree as well as any other, but I cannot take others in with me to anywhere but my own tree."

That didn't seem like too much of a problem, though; Alewyth handed over a leather headband holding a dreamstone and asked Nyla to place it around Belisandre's brow, with the dreamstone aligned in the middle of her forehead. "Once that's done, the five of us will sit around her tree and enter the dreamscape, rousing her from her dream. We'll need you to stand watch over our bodies while we do that, though, because here on the Mortal Plane we'll be asleep." Nyla instantly agreed, took the proffered headband, and walked into an oak tree at the edge of the clearing.

Zander activated his figurine of wondrous power and instructed the cooshee to wake him if any danger approached while they were sleeping around the oak tree. Alewyth brought her dire goat over as well, and while she had no way of communicating any instructions to him that he would be able to understand, she was comforted knowing he would be nearby while she slept.

"It is done," Nyla said as she stepped back out from the tree. "Now what?"

"Now," replied Xandro, wearing a headband identical to the one they'd given the dryad, "the five us go inside your friend's dream and bring her back." He flashed the young dryad a smile and received one in return. "I will watch over you," Nyla promised.

One by one, the five dreamwalkers slowed their heartbeats and breathing and entered a dream state. Their minds went immediately to the dreamlands, where they were each met up by their personal moogle guide who led them to the Hall of Dreams. And there, as usual, hovered Mogo, his hand on one particular door in an endless hallway with doors all side by side for as far as the eye could see. "Good luck in there, kupo!" Mogo called as the five dreamwalkers entered the open doorway.

None of the heroes had ever been inside a dryad's home in the middle of a tree before, but they judged that was likely where they were now, for the room they were in had no straight lines or right angles, just a flowing, organic shape. But what was surprising - and not at all what they'd expected to see inside a dryad's living space - was all of the fungus sprouting all over the place. White puffballs grew out of the walls, tangles of bluish-green tendrils dangled from the ceiling like the tentacles of a giant jellyfish, and blobs of green and brown and black mold and spores grew along the floor like overripe melons. Large toadstools were growing all around the edges of the room, some of them extending purplish growths that swayed as if in an unseen breeze. In the middle of the floor lay a pile of hardened growths in the vague shape of a humanoid figure.

Realizing this was all just a dream, Thurloe stepped forward and gave the lumpy growths in the middle of the room a hard kick with his booted foot, receiving a muffled grunt of pain from within the human-shaped mass. "What are you doing?" demanded Alewyth. "That's probably Belisandre in there!"

Zander closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to force the hardened growths to dissolve away with the sheer force of his will. Mogo had told them that with sufficient training, a dreamwalker could eventually shape any dream to suit his own desires - and right now the elf desired the hardened fungus to get off of Belisandre, if that was indeed her underneath all of that. He opened his eyes again and looked down at the vaguely humanoid shape, trying to see if his attempts to alter the dream had had any effect. Maybe? It was kind of hard to tell.

"I'm going to try treating this as a disease," Wakuren decided, casting a cure light wounds spell on the pile of fungus before him. Touching the fungus burned his fingers, but the healing energy of the spell seemed as effective against the intrusive fungus as if it had been undead. Great clumps of it blackened and fell away, exposing a good portion of the sleek, wooden body underneath.

Xandro, in the meantime, had taken his rapier out of its scabbard and was going to town against the puffball fungus. It crumbled and flaked away at the touch of his blade, causing great clouds of choking spores that didn't seem to affect the dream other than making it harder for them to breathe. He quickly stopped doing that.

Then a pair of the toadstools shambled forward, slapping out with their violet tentacles at Xandro and Zander. Alewyth came immediately to Zander's aid, slamming the violet fungus that had been attacking the elf. Thurloe, who had been attacking some of the dangling tendrils (to little effect), saw the commotion and chopped his blade into the "head" of the fungus attacking Xandro. Zander cast a scorching ray at the violet fungus attacking him and it was immediately set ablaze, its violet tendrils waving around feebly as whatever strange life it possessed burned away.

But by now Wakuren had figured that completely freeing the imprisoned dryad was the key to waking her from her ongoing nightmare of decay and suffocation, and he cast another healing spell on the fungus still covering her body, this time using a more powerful cure moderate wounds version. That had the remainder of the rot sloughing off her and crumbling away to nothingness. He held out a hand and helped her to her feet and the room around them started dissolving away as the dryad began to wake up for the first time in three weeks....

One by one, the five dreamwalkers willed themselves back awake (Xandro breathing a sigh of relief at finding out this time there were no difficulties) and back outside the dryad's oak tree. "You did it?" asked Nyla. "You were successful?"

"She should be awake now," Xandro answered, but before the dryad could reply Thurloe interrupted her. "Uh-oh," he said.

"What?" demanded Alewyth, getting to her feet and lifting her warhammer into a defensive stance. She didn't see anything to startle the fighter.

"Thought I saw some movement in the trees across the way,' Thurloe replied, pulling his bow from his back. "Might be nothing but the wind..."

"...or it could be more of those tree goblins," finished Zander. A flaming javelin came streaking across the way to hit him in the arm as if to settle the matter; the elf slapped the weapon away before the flames could catch his robe on fire.

"Back here, by me!" Thurloe commanded, for he was on the far side of Belisandre's oak tree from where the javelin had been thrown. Zander hurried to comply while his cooshee barked his displeasure up at the trees. He raced across the intervening road, barking up at the unseen menaces as if he'd just chased them up there himself, his tail wagging as if complimenting himself upon a job well done. Nyla, in the meantime, raced around the oak tree and hunkered down beside Zander.

But then Belisandre sauntered out of the tree, directly in the line of fire of the tree goblins. "What's going on?" asked the young dryad. "I just had the strangest--"

Her words were cut off as a flaming javelin stabbed her in the stomach and took root, the flames trying to catch hold of her smooth-barked body. With a shriek of surprise and pain, Belisandre tugged the burning weapon from her body as Wakuren pulled her to safety, then activated his magic ring to fade from view. He moved over by Zander to see if he needed any healing from the attack and decided it was probably worthwhile to heal him up while he had the chance.

Xandro had, by this time, pulled out his crossbow and tried to hit one of the well-camouflaged enemies. The bolt skewered its way through numerous leaves but there was no cry of pain by the time it had finished its flight path. Alewyth spotted a tree goblin and instinctively cast an innate ray of frost at it with one hand while she unpacked her sling from a pouch at her belt with the other. The ray struck but didn't do enough damage to slay the tree goblin.

Thurloe's first arrow managed to hit one head on, though, causing it to plummet to the ground with a shaft piercing its wooden mask and the middle of its head. But more incoming javelins came aimed at Thurloe and Xandro; once again the humans seemed to be the goblins' primary targets. Zander cast a magic missile spell at a tree goblin as soon as he could make it out among the surrounding trees, causing the second death in this wave of arboreal attackers.

On the adventurers' recommendation, Belisandre ran back inside her oak tree, while Nyla followed suit. Off in the distance, Wakuren saw one of the tree goblins drop to the ground and run across the dirt road to the clump of trees off to the west. As he didn't have much in the way of ranged attacks available, the half-orc sprinted in the direction of the tree goblin, hoping to catch him while he was still on the ground. The cooshee had also spotted him, it seemed, and was racing over to catch him as well. Wakuren put on a burst of speed and slammed at the fleeing tree goblin with the edge of his shield, missing him but popping back into visibility as he made the attempt. Xandro, seeing the commotion there on the ground, shot at the fleeing goblin as he scampered his way up the nearest tree, but the bolt embedded itself in the tree's trunk, having missed the fleeing creature entirely.

Alewyth sent her sling spinning over her head to build up speed and then sent the stone flinging across the road up into the trees, towards the tree goblin she'd spotted moving among the branches. It didn't sound like she hit him, though - a pity. But Thurloe spotted another one among the branches and took him down with another well-placed arrow. Beside him, Zander scanned the trees, looking for another tree goblin to shoot a spell at, but he couldn't see any. Thurloe and Alewyth had each taken down another tree goblin before the elf found one he could target with a magic missile spell, slaying it instantly. Zander nodded appreciatively to himself, glad to be pulling his own weight in this fight.

The cooshee snapped at the tree goblin rapidly climbing up to the safety of the higher branches over across two dirt roads from Belisandre's oak tree. But from his lofty perch, the tree goblin adept looked down upon the scowling half-orc that had chased him and sent a scorching ray blazing down into its ugly face. That caught Wakuren completely by surprise - he hadn't been aware these little pests could cast spells! Angered beyond measure, Wakuren vowed he was going to climb up that tree and drag the goblin spellcaster down where he could give him the proper beating he deserved. Tree climbing wasn't something Wakuren did often, and certainly not while in plate mail armor and with a heavy steel shield strapped to one forearm, but the cleric-paladin somehow managed it and pulled himself up onto a thick branch.

Of course, by that time, the nimble tree goblin adept had leaped over to a nearby adjoining branch from higher up in the same tree. But Wakuren wasn't going to allow that to stop him; judging the distance between them, he leaped up at the goblin pest, hoping to topple him out of his perch even if it meant taking a tumble himself as well. Unfortunately, tree combat was not the half-orc's forte and he went plummeting face-first back to the ground, without having managed to get a grip on the tree goblin adept who was now calling insults down at him in his Goblin language.

Xandro, having given up on trying to pick off tree goblins he could barely see with his light crossbow, had switched over to his lute and was beginning the song of inspirational courage - if he couldn't take them out himself he'd do what he could to provide magical assistance to those who were having better luck at it than he was. But Alewyth's next sling bullet went wide and she saw why: the tree goblin was scampering away from her, apparently having come to the decision to live to fight another day rather than throw its life away in a battle it couldn't win. After all, by this time there were half a dozen tree goblin bodies scattered beneath the clump of trees by which they approached their targets, and not one of their ground-borne foes had been taken down.

Thurloe shot at another departing tree goblin but missed. Zander saw it just in the nick of time and managed to bring it down with another magic missile spell, but he was about out of those and would soon be limited to his absolutely least powerful combat spells. He sighed; it looked like the battle was just about over.

But over at the clump of trees to the west, battle was still raging. The cooshee was still barking at the tree goblin adept, who seemed to enjoy taunting the elven dog below him. However, at Zander's urging, the cooshee used Wakuren as a springboard and leaped up high enough to get its teeth on the surprised goblin spellcaster, magically ripping a spell from the adept and then running back to his master to infuse it into the sorcerer, tail wagging furiously at what a good boy he was. Zander patted the dog's head and felt the spell energy seep into his being: power enough to fuel another magic missile spell! Now, if he could only find an appropriate target....

There was no movement within the original clump of trees, the few remaining goblins from the assault force having retreated. That left only the spellcaster, but he too had retreated deeper into the clump of trees and Zander couldn't spot him. But Alewyth and Thurloe were determined to bring him down, racing over that way and searching above them for telltale movement. Xandro continued his song, hoping they'd be able to find their foe, while Wakuren cast a badly-needed healing spell upon himself - he'd nearly broken a tusk from his fall! "There!" Alewyth called, sending a sling stone flying to cut a swath through leaf after leaf, to no avail. But Thurloe spotted the fleeing spellcaster, sighted his arrow on him carefully, and let fly. With a cry of pain, the tree goblin adept fell lifelessly to the ground below.

Alewyth and Thurloe exchanged congratulations as the heroes all regrouped. Seeing it was now safe to do so, the dryads exited their tree homes and Belisandre was able to express her thanks for having rescued her, as Nyla had filled her in on what all had happened over the past three weeks. Belisandre gave the group three doses of a healing paste, potions of barkskin, lesser restoration, and remove paralysis, as well as a vial of stone salve and a magical silver dagger with the holy symbol of Feron engraved on the pommel, the latter a gift from a passing druid.

And then the group was back in the saddle, heading off to the location of their next dream victim. "It's a shame we couldn't stay with them for a bit longer," sighed Xandro as they made their way back onto the road they'd been following. "I wouldn't have minded getting to know Nyla a bit better. She seemed nice." Plus, as a bard, Xandro Silverstrings was always looking for ideas and new experiences that could be turned into new songs or ballads - it never hurt to expand one's repertoire.

"Bad idea," called back Thurloe from astride Horse at the front of the expedition. He waited for the bard to object or ask why, and when he did neither Thurloe provided the answer anyway. "You'd get splinters."

- - -

Having finished up "Forest Dreams" in a little over two and a half hours - about half the time we allow ourselves for a Saturday afternoon session - we decided to plunge ahead and go through the next adventure immediately afterwards, as that one was about as long as this one and I figured we could get through it in time.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "Hanes Moore Family Reunion" T-shirt with the silhouette of a tree, representing the oak tree of the dryad Belisandre.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 4​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 4​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 2​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 4​

Game Session Date: 18 September 2021

- - -

"Really? Breaking into a crypt so we can steal a dreamstone?" demanded Alewyth. "I hardly think that would be the best use of our resources - nor is it respectful to the dead entombed in their hallowed resting place."

"You didn't mind gathering up those other dreamstones before, kupo," pointed out Mogo. "And they've been very helpful in freeing all of those people you've already rescued from their dreams, kupo!"

"That was different," argued Alewyth. "Those were just lying about with those flumphs. Here we're talking about breaking and entering--"

"You don't necessarily have to break anything, kupo..."

"--into a family's crypt, to steal something that doesn't belong to us--"

"We could leave behind an equivalent amount of gold equal to the value of the dreamstone," suggested Xandro.

"--and it's something we don't really need," Alewyth finished. "We already have dreamstones - twelve of them."

"Eleven," corrected Thurloe. "We left that one back with the dwarf we were unable to rescue, remember? With the dream about the three-headed dragon that continually kicked our--"

"Yes, I remember," interrupted the dwarven priestess.

"Well, we could very well come across a few more people we're not strong enough to rescue just yet," Thurloe continued. "If we leave a dreamstone behind every time that happens, eventually we're going to need more dreamstones. And it's not like the things grow on trees. We should probably take whatever opportunities there are to harvest more."

"The Queen of Dreams suggested it, kupo. Somebody was dreaming about a large dreamstone on the end of a sword-pommel and she traced it to somewhere there in the forest you're already in, not too far from your present location, kupo."

"It wouldn't hurt to at least check it out," Zander suggested.

Alewyth looked over to Wakuren, a cleric like herself. "What do you think, Wakuren? Are you up for some grave robbing?"

The half-orc frowned and wondered how best to voice his thoughts. "While I can certainly understand your hesitancy to break into a family crypt," he began, "at the same time I agree that if the dreamstone is being used as simple ornamentation on a sword we can put it to much a better use. We will, of course, do whatever we can to make amends to the family, perhaps by leaving behind coins of equal or greater value, like Xandro suggested."

"I didn't suggest greater value," muttered Xandro.

Alewyth's eyes narrowed into slits as she reassessed her feelings towards the half-orc cleric-paladin, having fully expected he'd take her side of the argument. She hoped he wasn't starting to become as gold-greedy as some of the rest of the guys in their little band seemed to be, and then gave a grunt at the thought that it was the dwarf in the party arguing against going after the valuable gemstones...so much for racial stereotypes. "Fine," she finally assented.

"Okay then, if that's settled, I think you should take the rest of the night off so you can be well-rested in the morning, kupo!" suggested Mogo, dismissing them from their dreamwalker training for the rest of the time they were asleep. They were each sent to their own private dreamscapes, where their minds did what all minds did during sleep time, the only difference being these five would wake up the next morning remembering all of their dreams of the night before, unlike the vast majority of the members of the Waking World. That, after all, was what made them so valuable as potential dreamwalkers.

And so the next morning the group packed their gear back up and resumed their trek through the Darkwood Forest. Mogo had explained how to get to the tomb, which was at the northern edge of the forest, closer to the main road ranging from east to west. The crypt, when they got to it, wasn't particularly impressive: a single story tall, 15 feet on a side, made of stone but with no visible seams as if the entire building had been carved from one giant slab of stone. ("Probably built using wall of stone spells," offered up Thurloe.) One side held a set of metal doors; all four sides were covered in ivy growths. It proved necessary to hack away at the ivy obscuring the door, revealing the Tannenheim family emblem engraved into the metal and a keyhole below one of the metal handles.

"Great - anybody got a key?" asked Thurloe. "Lockpick? Knock spell?" Nobody had anything of the sort, including him (as he'd studied Mistress Jandoval's beginner spellbook enough he had mastered some of the easier spells she'd provided him, but knock was not among their number). He looked over to Alewyth. "...Warhammer?" he added, wincing since he knew what her reaction was likely to be.

Wakuren also knew the dwarven priestess of Aerik was not going to be happy about breaking into the crypt in this manner. "I'll do it, if you'll let me borrow your hammer," he offered, holding out his hand.

"Nay, step aside, I'll do it meself," Alewyth frowned. "In fer a penny, in fer a pound." The others couldn't help but notice how her dwarven accent became more pronounced when she was upset. But in her mind, if she was willing to be talked into breaking into a tomb she might as well go in whole hog - it wasn't like she was sinning any less by going along with somebody else breaking into the tomb...plus, it was her warhammer.

Taking a deep breath, Alewyth Putterpye hefted Sjondra and brought it slamming into the metal doors of the crypt. A loud reverberation echoed across the forest but the door held. It held up against her second blow, and against her third...but by her fourth blow the locking mechanism inside the doors gave way and she was able to pull the doors outwards, revealing but a single stone sarcophagus at the back of the room's interior. By its construction she could see the lid hinged upwards to the right, which was no doubt where they'd find the Tannenheim buried with a sword that had a dreamstone attached to its pommel. "Aerik fergive me," she muttered as the others went inside.

Wakuren and Thurloe were standing on the other side of the coffin from the hinges and trying to lift the lid, but it wasn't budging in the least. They strained until the cords in their necks stood out and Thurloe's face turned a bright shade of red, but they couldn't even lift it an inch. Xandro, however, was examining the doors. Along the bottom of each door was a metal arc, more or less showing the path of the doors' edges as they were opened, forming a sort of curved "V" shape that met in the middle and connected in the side of the stone below the level of the floor. The bard experimented and confirmed that the metal arcs were preventing the doors from being opened more than 90 degrees...and, he was fairly sure, was probably latching the coffin lid shut. "Wait a minute, guys," he said, pulling each of the doors closed, the metal arcs disappearing below the floor. With the doors closed it was pitch black inside the crypt until Zander pulled out his everburning torch. "Now try it," Xandro suggested. The lid, much to Thurloe and Wakuren's embarrassment, opened right up. Xandro just grinned at them.

The coffin interior, however, held neither body nor sword but rather a set of stairs leading down into darkness. "Prep spells before we go down there," Thurloe suggested. He'd purposefully left his buckler in one of Horse's saddlebags and cast a shield spell upon himself to compensate. And Mistress Jandoval's notes in the margins had been correct: it was tricky casting spells while wearing his armor! Alewyth cast a trio of spells: protection from evil and detect undead spells upon herself and a bless spell upon the entire group. Wakuren cast a hide from undead spell on himself, Xandro, and Zander, warning them that should any of the three of them attack an undead creature it would cause the spell to dissipate upon all three of them. He then followed up with a shield of faith spell upon himself. Zander Quilson was content with just his standard mage armor spell.

"Is everyone ready?" asked Wakuren. He got nods to the affirmative and then climbed inside the empty coffin, taking the steps down to the true crypt hidden some dozen feet or so below the surface of the forest ground. One by one the others followed him, the passageway too narrow for any to traverse save in single file.

At the bottom of the stairs the passageway opened up into a square room, fifteen feet on a side, with passageways continuing on perpendicularly on either side. But Wakuren's attention was drawn to the niche in the back wall where a throne of sorts had been carved out of the solid rock, upon which was seated a skeletal being in rotting robes. He was covered head to foot in spiderwebs. Instinctively, Wakuren knew this wasn't just a skeleton left in place where he had died, but rather an undead guardian of some sort. Instinctively, he used his paladin training to scan its aura and was surprised to see no tell-tale taint of evil. Perhaps he was wrong, and this wasn't an undead creature after all?

But once Wakuren stepped foot into the room the skeletal being lurched forward in his seat, ripping through the delicate webs and sending a small flurry of tiny spiders scurrying in all directions. Surprisingly, its aura was just as free of evil as it had been before it had animated. "Halt!" the thing cried out. "Who would enter the Tannenheim Crypt?"

"My name is Wakuren and I serve Cal, God of the Air and of Healing. We seek only to fetch a dreamstone mounted on the end of a sword stored somewhere in this crypt, that it can be used to free many people currently trapped in their dreams. In return, we would offer coins of equal or greater value."

"I never said greater!" hissed Xandro.

"Leave this place and never return!" commanded the undead being. "I care nothing for your trapped dreamers - this crypt is for the Tannenheim family and their loyal followers only and you are trespassing upon their property!"

"I'm a member of the Tannenheim family!" called out Thurloe from the fourth spot in the single-file line. He wasn't a Tanneheim by any means but he thought he might have found a loophole that would allow them entry without further questions.

"Liar!" accused the crypt thing, rising now from his seat and sending the spiders scurrying even faster as their webs were torn asunder. He rose an accusing finger at the intruders and a flash of light exploded all around him. In an instant, both Thurloe and Aelwyth (who had been standing directly behind Wakuren) had vanished, leaving the other three to deal with the enraged undead.

In a blink of an eye, Alewyth suddenly found herself elsewhere. Gifted with dwarven darkvision, she could see perfectly fine in the pitch blackness of her new location, which was a wide hallway of sorts with alcoves of crumbling skeletons at waist level against the far wall. There was a sort of splorching sound coming from her right; turning in that direction she saw a smaller tunnel running at a right angle from the larger corridor with the skeleton alcoves. Peering inside, she saw an armory of sorts, with but a scant few weapons; one, a sword, lay in a pool of water in the middle of the room, its blade bubbling as if being eaten by acid. (So maybe that isn't water, the dwarf amended.) She turned back to the larger corridor and found another smaller tunnel some 25 feet or so away, and in the small room it led to she saw Thurloe standing with his back to her. However, while the human could see nothing of the room into which he'd just been teleported, Alewyth could see the stone coffin in the room's center, covered to the top with soil. The stone coffin's lid was off, leaning against a side wall, and the clumps of dirt on the floor by the coffin attested to the fact that whatever was in there occasionally got out.... There was another short tunnel on the far side of the room leading to another room with a sarcophagus in the middle of it - this one with its lid closed - but the dwarven priestess wasn't overly concerned about any other rooms just yet.

"Thurloe - it's Alewyth!" she called into the room. "We've been teleported away from the others!" Thurloe responded by casting a protection from evil spell upon himself, one he felt was even more appropriate as Alewyth started describing what was in the room with them and his mind started filling in all sorts of nasty ideas about what might be in that dirt-filled coffin....

Back on the entry stairs behind Wakuren, Xandro unpacked his lute and started playing his song of courage - in the cramped passageway, it wasn't like he could push past the half-orc and get into the room himself just yet. Wakuren began combat against an undead creature with a tried-and-true combat strategy, casting a cure light wounds spell whose positive energy could knit up cuts and bruises suffered by a living being but which acted like corrosive acid against the undead. Sure enough, the crypt thing's bones started sizzling at the half-orc's touch.

But now that Wakuren had entered the room fully - he'd had to touch the crypt thing to channel his positive energy through it - Xandro and Zander stepped into the room and took position in opposite back corners. The elven sorcerer cast a scorching ray diagonally past Wakuren, hitting the crypt thing square on. Zander knew many skeletal undead creatures were immune to cold energy but he'd never heard of one immune to fire, and indeed this one's bones started charring and burning from the heat of the blazing spell. Wakuren kept his shield arm busy, smashing the metal shield into the crypt thing's body, while Xandro's tune fueled both of his friends on. The crypt thing fought back with its claws, its magical offensive teleport something it could only do but once a day - it just hoped the two trespassers it had managed to send away deeper into the complex were being taken out by the other guardians the Tannenheims had put into place.

Clumps of dirt fell aside from the open coffin as a skeletal figure rose up - a figure only Alewyth could see, for Thurloe was literally in the dark in the lightless chamber. The dwarf saw right away it was some sort of animated skeleton, but one with some sort of weird hair...? No, on second look the dwarven priestess realized that wasn't hair on the top of the creature's skinless skull, it was a mass of writhing earthworms. But Thurloe was closer to the rising grave medusa than Alewyth, and thus it was the fighter who received the undead thing's horrific gaze. Still not aware of what he was facing, Thurloe felt a cold aura wash over him as he was caught up in the grave medusa's unblinking gaze and all of a sudden he felt his limbs grow heavy.

And unseen in the next room over, the gray ooze that had been dissolving the weapons it had discovered in the armory started heading out of the short tunnel to the larger corridor but found its way blocked by something else oozing past. Undeterred, it returned to its metallic meal and blobbed over the sword, its acidic body dissolving the weapon's metal.

Alewyth pushed past Thurloe and sent Sjondra crashing into the side of the grave medusa. The sound of warhammer on bone gave Thurloe an idea of where the enemy was in this lightless room and he brought his bastard sword crashing down upon the location, trusting Alewyth, with her darkvision, would be able to see the blow coming and get out of the way. It also helped that part of the initial sword training he'd received from Dougal Garabedian involved fighting in conditions of absolute darkness. He felt the impact of sword upon bone but was struggling to bring his blade to bear with his usual swiftness - something was slowing him down considerably!

Back in the front chamber, Xandro switched to his light crossbow and sent a bolt twanging at the crypt thing, as Wakuren cast another cure light wounds spell on it, taking it down with positive energy. Zander Quilson blasted it with another scorching ray spell, hoping that would be enough to take it down but the crypt thing fought on, seemingly trying to push its way past the half-orc and escape to one of the side chambers but unable to push Wakuren out of its way. It clawed at Wakuren's face enough that the half-orc finally stepped back and cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending a heavy mace made of pure force enemy to do his close-in fighting for him. Zander pressed on with his spellcasting, now down to magic missile spells, while Xandro peppered the thing with crossbow bolts. Finally, the trio's efforts brought the undead thing down, collapsing into a pile of bones where it stood.

The grave medusa turned its gaze upon Alewyth, hoping to start a transformation in her body in the same way it had done in the human's. But dwarves were made of pretty tough stuff and the gaze attack had no effect. Surprised at the lack of effect, the undead thing took an instinctive step backwards. Alewyth followed, her warhammer swinging in for another powerful blow. Thurloe could hear they had stepped away and reached into his backpack, feeling around for a sunrod. Upon finding one, he activated it at once and was relieved to be able to see what it was they were fighting. Then, once he'd gotten a good look at the grave medusa, he looked back upon the simpler time in life five seconds ago when he'd been blissfully unaware of such creatures. Fortunately, he didn't have to look at it for much longer, for a final blow from Sjondra crushed the creature's ribcage and it fell backwards, its bones clattering against the stone floor and back wall. The worms crawling over its skull were still squirming around, though, and with a disgusted frown on her face Alewyth brought her warhammer up over her head and crushed skull and earthworms flat.

"Are you okay?" Alewyth asked Thurloe, whose limbs by this point were incredibly heavy - he could hardly even lift the weight of his bastard sword. "I--think--" he began, but his sentence was cut off as his skin and armor started turning the same shade of gray. In a matter of seconds he had become a stone statue, the light winking out from the sunrod as it and the fighter's bastard sword likewise petrified. Alewyth was surprised at the light going out and looked over at the fighter - she'd been wiping worm squish from the head of her weapon on the back wall - to find him now a motionless statue. She ran up to him, unsure of what to do...until she recalled the dryad Belisandre had thanked the group for rescuing her from her dream by giving them a small handful of potions and concoctions, one of which had been a vial of stone salve. Opening the little box they'd gotten from the gnome wizard Grimblegrack Fishmelon, she put her hand into its extradimensional space and pulled out the vial of stone salve, rubbing it all over the petrified form of Thurloe.

"What happened?" Thurloe asked, once he'd been restored to his normal flesh and blood. "What was that thing?"

"No idea," admitted Alewyth.

Wakuren walked over to one of the side rooms off the chamber in which they'd just slain the crypt thing. There were three skeletons on each side of the room, lying in state in full plate armor, each gripping a longsword. A quick perusal verified that none of the sword pommels had a dreamstone at the end of it and none of the skeletons gave off any evil auras to the cleric-paladin's senses. Still, Wakuren was all but sure that as soon as they'd traversed the length of the room (or maybe got halfway through it) the half dozen would animate and attack. So he walked the length of the chamber, exited into a wider corridor, then walked back to meet back up with Zander and Xandro. "Seems safe," he said, surprised. Just to be sure, he went in the other direction and saw an identical-looking chamber, also holding six armored skeletons lying in burial niches along the walls, the only difference being which way they were facing.

Still, curiosity compelled Wakuren to experiment further. Walking back to the first chamber, he touched one of the skeletons on its armored chest plate. The reaction was almost instant: it sat up, gauntleted hand gripping its longsword as it swung its feet over the edge of the niche and stood up, swinging its blade at the startled half-orc. Wakuren caught the blow on his shield, noted the aura of evil blazing forth now that the undead skeleton had been brought to unholy life, and then Zander Quilson slew the thing with a magic missile spell. Wakuren spun to face the other skeletons in the room but they remained unmoving in their burial berths.

"Don't touch any of them," he advised the others.

"Wasn't really planning on it," replied Zander.

The three moved into the larger corridor, noting the skeletons lying in niches along the far side. These skeletons were in much worse condition than the heavily-armored dozen in the two mirror-image halls of the honored dead behind them; these wretches must have been the low-ranking soldiers hired by the Tannenheim family, worthy only of short swords and leather armor that had not aged well over the many years they'd laid here in the tomb. But Zander, holding his everburning torch, pointed down the corridor and shouted, "Look out - some kind of bug coming our way!"

"That's Zander!" cried Alewyth, standing in a T-section of narrow passageways leading into two separate rooms each holding a stone sarcophagus, although the one at the bottom of the "T" also held a gargoyle bent over the stone coffin that the dwarf couldn't determine as being either an unliving carving or a living creature waiting to strike. But hearing the elf's call to his companions made her decide to come back to that room later on; in the meantime, she ran through the other sarcophagus room - this one's stone coffin holding a carving depicting a noblewoman - and popped out in the same hallway that Zander was in, casting an aid spell on herself in the process. He was pointing behind her, so she whirled around and saw a carrion crawler almost upon her.

Thurloe stuck his head (and sunrod) out enough to see the advancing grub-thing and called, "Back!" to the dwarven priestess. They raced back into the lady-sarcophagus room, each readying their weapon of choice. And sure enough, the carrion crawler, which had seen Zander and had been heading his way when Alewyth and Thurloe made themselves a closer-to-reach meal, altered course to pursue them instead. Xandro got in a shot at the carrion crawler with his crossbow before it exited the larger corridor, and then Thurloe and Alewyth brought their weapons to bear. The caterpillar-monster died before any of its eight writhing tentacles could try to get a grab on any of its intended prey.

Wakuren went in the other direction, following the wider corridor as it made a right angle and went back, under the entry stairs if the half-orc had his directions correct in his head. He heard the same splorching sound Alewyth had heard earlier, immediately after having been teleported, and he managed to spot the gelatinous cube heading in his direction. He sent a spiritual weapon spell to go slam into it, knowing a floating weapon made of force energy couldn't be dissolved in the cube's acid. Fortunately, while the cube continued its approach without slowing it wasn't traveling at a very fast pace and Wakuren got in a couple of good attacks with his spiritual heavy mace before it winked out, its spell duration having run through its allotted time.

Zander cast another magic missile spell at the approaching gelatinous cube. "Borrow your crossbow?" Wakuren asked, and the bard gladly handed it over while he went back to his lute and his song of courageous inspiration. It took several crossbow bolts and a few more magic missiles (and steadily backing up so the slow-moving cube wouldn't catch up to them), but they finally slew it and it started its slow discorporation as its gelatinous body started losing cohesion.

Alewyth, in the meantime, had found another room from further down the larger corridor and, peeking inside, saw three large chests lined up against the far wall. However, her innate stonecunning ability - an ability shared by all dwarves - warned her that the middle of the floor wasn't really stone. She approached it cautiously and determined it was this wood painted to match the surrounding stone; she'd bet everything she had that anybody steeping foot on that patch of fake stone would be plummeting to a spike-filled pit or something. But as there didn't seem to be any active threats in the room she decided to leave it for later, if at all.

Eventually, all five adventurers stood outside the room with the sarcophagus of what they assumed must be Lord Tannenheim's sarcophagus, given the image carved into the stone lid was that of a man in plate armor wielding a longsword and it had a gargoyle (that Alewyth still glared at suspiciously) bending over from the wall above it.

"I still think that thing's alive," Alewyth insisted.

"Is it breathing?" asked Xandro.

"No, but I'm not sure if that means anything."

"Well, the dreamstone's probably on the hilt of the sword of the main guy in this twisted family, which means the guy who has a gargoyle standing watch over him, which means it's probably inside his coffin with him," reasoned Thurloe. "Zander, you still got any magic missile spells on hand?"

"Just a few, but yeah."

"Okay, keep 'em ready. Wakuren and I will enter the room and lift up the stone lid. Alewyth, you get ready to smack the gargoyle with your hammer if it even twitches. Xandro, you're on grab-the-sword-as-soon-as-we-lift-the-lid detail. Everybody got it?" Everybody did.

Peering warily at the gargoyle the whole time, Wakuren and Thurloe entered the chamber which, fitting the head of the family, was slightly bigger than the other chambers in this crypt. And while the crypt thing had activated as soon as a living person stepped foot into the room, the gargoyle remained perfectly still. Thurloe shrugged; maybe it was just a statue after all.

Alewyth wasn't so sure - she held Sjondra over one shoulder, ready to strike if necessary.

But the gargoyle was tricky; it waited until the half-orc and the human had their hands full lifting the heavy stone lid of Lord Tannenheim's coffin before darting forward. It focused its attacks upon Thurloe, the less-heavily-armored of the two of them. But while it managed to get in a few good strikes with its claws, teeth, and horn against Thurloe who was pretty much stuck in place without the ability to dodge before dropping the lid, it did so at the cost of an immediate magic missile spell in the face - and then Alewyth had leaped up onto the coffin lid (just as Wakuren and Thurloe dropped it back into place to deal with the gargoyle) and swung Sjondra into the winged guardian's face. That made him back off enough that Thurloe was able to grab his bastard sword back up and for Wakuren to place his shield into attack configuration, and then the gargoyle found itself in a three-against-one melee combat with an elven sorcerer lobbing magic missiles at it and a human bard shooting it with a crossbow. Just to shake things up, Zander tried a ray of enfeeblement at the gargoyle, siphoning off some of its strength and diminishing the power of its own attacks. The gargoyle continued focusing its attacks on Thurloe, apparently deciding to bring one foe down before attacking another one, but Alewyth slew it with a final blow from Sjondra before it could take the fighter down.

"I knew it was just faking!" Alewyth swore at the dead guardian. Then Thurloe and Wakuren - after a few moments of the latter casting healing spells on the former - resumed their positions and lifted the stone coffin lid up. Xandro grabbed up the longsword held in the grip of the long-dead Lord Tannenheim and they let the lid crash down back into place. Sure enough, there was a sizable dreamstone on the edge of the sword's hilt.

"Well, we got it," Wakuren said. "Let's get out of here."

"Wait," replied Alewyth. "There's a treasure room just around the corner."

"Wait, what?" Thurloe gasped. "You mean you're okay with looting this crypt now? And not just of the dreamstone?"

Alewyth nodded. "This family, anyone willing to bind their loyal followers into undead forms like that worm-medusa thing or that skeleton in the throne when we came in, they're just plain evil! I've got no qualms about tearing this place apart and stripping it of anything we can use."

"Well, now you're talking!" Thurloe whooped. "Let's go!"

Alewyth not only led the group to the treasure chamber and warned them of the pit trap in the middle of the floor, she personally broke through the locks on the three chests. There wasn't anything in them but coins and gems - to the value of several thousand pieces of gold, in all - but that wasn't too big of a disappointment; Alewyth poured each and every bit of treasure into their extradimensional box.

"Okay," Alewyth said once the last of the coins had been dropped into their box and she'd closed and latched the lid. "Now we can go."

"May I say, you have never looked lovelier than you do right now," pointed out Thurloe, more than a little pleased at her new attitude. Then, recalling how she'd restored him to flesh and blood using the stone salve, he turned to the others and said, "Did I mention she rubbed her hands all over my body when we were separated from you guys?"

"Enough of that!" snarled Alewyth. Thurloe was pleased enough at the extra money they'd snagged from this little plundering session that he gladly let the teasing drop.

- - -

This adventure took about two and a half hours to run through, or maybe just a little over. Joe got a call around 4:50, right as they were about to go into the chamber with the gargoyle; it was his boss, calling to see if Joe would come in to work at 5:30. So then this turned into a speed session, with everybody rolling their attacks and damage dice together and doing everything possible to speed up the combat. I offered to let Joe take off right then and there (he'd have to go get changed at home before going in to work) and I'd drive his parents home (and then they said they could just walk home; it's only like a 10-15-minute walk from their house to mine), but Joe said his boss was cool if he was a little late since it was such short notice.

The grave medusa was a creature I made up after imagining what a skeletal medusa would look like and then realizing earthworms would be more thematically appropriate than skeletal snakes to an undead skeleton who could slowly turn people to stone over the course of three rounds. (And to be clear, a grave medusa isn't an undead medusa but rather something a human can be turned into after death with the appropriate necromantic rituals.) In fact, when creating the grave medusa's stats I realized it was too powerful for this adventure and then made up stats for a lesser grave medusa.

- - -

T-shirt worn: Still my "Hanes Moore Family Reunion" T-shirt with the silhouette of a tree, since it was the same game session as "Forest Dreams." But this time the tree was representing the Tannenheim family tree.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 4​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 2​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 4​

Game Session Date: 2 October 2021

- - -

"I have to turn in my spellbook?" demanded Thurloe. He wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea of releasing custody of the spellbook Mistress Jandoval had given him to practice his novice-level spells, especially now that he'd actually started making sense of them.

"It's the rule," Xandro explained. "Anyone entering Baron's Haven has to turn in all spellbooks and magic scrolls."

The group was far enough back in line that Zander felt he could still pass on his thoughts without being overheard by the armed warriors - hobgoblins, by the look of them, and wearing the tabards of the High King of Armaturia, no less! - who were interrogating everyone passing through the city gates. "Would it fit inside the candy dish?" he asked quietly, referring to the extradimensional chest they'd received from the gnome wizard Grimblegrack Fishmelon. When opened, it gave the appearance of holding nothing more substantial than hard candy.

"Nah," Thurloe answered. "It's too big." Zander had a handful of magic scrolls that would easily fit inside the extradimensional opening but he figured he'd follow Thurloe's lead. Finally the fighter-wizard shrugged and said, "Okay, fine, I guess. I assume we'll get them back when we leave?"

"They'll give you a receipt when you turn them in," Xandro reassured him. He'd been through the city before and knew its ways - in fact, he even knew the innkeeper of the Merry Minstrel, the location of the next dream victim they were to rescue. So when they got to the front of the line, Thurloe handed over his spellbook without argument and received a receipt so he could pick it up when he left the city. Zander did likewise with his arcane scrolls. The hobgoblins informed the group - as they told everyone entering the city - that unauthorized spellcasting was not allowed within the confines of the city's walls, by order of Baron Korvail Devlin himself. Spellcasting could be performed under the supervision of one of the clerics of Delphyne, the Goddess of Magic, or at any of the various temples under proper observation. But any other spellcasting would have consequences, from simple fines to immediate incarceration and confiscation of all worldly goods, permanent banishment from the city, or even death.

"Good to know," Thurloe observed as the group entered the city gates. Then, once they were out of earshot of the hobgoblin security forces, he asked Xandro, "What's the big fear about people casting spells?"

"Nobody knows for sure," the bard replied. "Some say the Baron has had his future foretold, in which it was determined he would most likely be slain by a spell. Others claim he's plagued by recurring nightmares of someone killing him with a spell and has chosen to take matters into his own hands. But I wouldn't want to push the rule - best if we refrain from spellcasting if we can help it."

"They'd seriously kill us for casting a healing spell on someone?" asked Alewyth. That made no sense to the priestess of Aerik.

"Well, obviously the spell being cast would have some bearing on the punishment you receive. I imagine you wouldn't get in as much trouble for having cast a cure light wounds spell on an injured orphan as you would casting a fireball into a crowded marketplace."

Xandro led the group through the winding streets of Baron's Haven until they reached the Merry Minstrel Inn, a large, single-story structure in the better part of the common sector of the city. There was a reliable stable next door where the group's mounts could be cared for and their wagon stored until needed. Then the heroes entered the inn and were met by the white-haired owner, Jorbalee Bennicut. "Xandro Silverstrings!" she said with real delight in her voice. "As I live and breathe! It's been a while since you've been out this way! Are you up for providing some entertainment in the evenings during your stay?"

Xandro agreed at once and then explained the reason for their visit. Jorbalee expressed amazement that they knew of her sleeping guest and had a means to try to wake her from her weeks-long slumber. "You're welcome to give it a shot," she told the group, "but we had a cleric of Cal in here to try to revive her and none of his spells had any effect."

After entering their names into the guest book and handling over their keys, Jorbalee led them to their individual rooms to drop off their gear and then took them to where the dreamer lay. "She's a pretty well-known bard, a traveler like yourself," Jorbalee told Xandro. "Name of Carmen Melodius."

"I've heard of her," Xandro replied. "I've heard she's good."

"Well, I couldn't say as to that," Jorbalee sighed. "I showed her to her room and then sent one of the maids to fetch her when she never showed up for her first session at evening meal. She was passed out cold on her bed and we tried everything to wake her, to no effect." She put the key into the lock of a small room, the size of the rooms each of the heroes had chosen for their own overnight dwellings: a small, square room with walls 10 feet to a side, which contained a single bed and a large chest for holding one's gear. Opening the door, the group got their first look at Carmen Melodius. She was a young woman, with chestnut brown hair that came to the middle of her back. She was human, but with delicate features hinting at the possibility of some elven ancestry somewhere in her family tree. She lay upon her back, breathing quietly. Xandro noted the lute propped up against the room's storage chest; it was nicely made, no doubt of masterwork quality.

"We put her here in one of the smaller rooms once it was obvious she wasn't waking up any time soon," Jorbalee admitted. "And that was nearly a month ago."

Alewyth explained the procedures the group would be using to try to revive the dreamer. "You won't be casting spells, will you?" Jorbalee asked, a note of worry in her voice.

"Not at all," assured the dwarven priestess. "But we'll need a larger room for us to make our attempt, as it works best if we sit around her in a circle and this room is kind of small for that. Is there another room we could use?" Jorbalee offered up a currently vacant room some 15 by 20 feet. "That will do nicely," Alewyth agreed and Wakuren scooped the sleeping bard up in his arms to carry her to the new location.

Once in the larger bedroom, Wakuren laid Carmen on the bed and then he and Thurloe pulled it into the middle of the room. Alewyth placed a leather headband around Carmen's head, in the center of which lay a dreamstone, which she positioned to sit in the middle of her forehead. Then each of the group pulled out their own headband and tied it into place. They took their places around the bed, sitting cross-legged with their backs straight in a meditation posture. "What should I do?" asked Jorbalee.

"If you don't mind, you can stay here and watch over us as we sleep," Wakuren answered her. "And please feel free to wake us up in an emergency." The innkeeper agreed and watched as each of the five closed their eyes, slowed their breathing, and eventually fell asleep in a sitting position. She wasn't quite sure how they accomplished it; that didn't look to be particularly comfortable and she doubted if she'd be able to sit in such a configuration herself at her age.

Carmen's dream was somewhat unusual in that she didn't seem to appear in it; while this wasn't unique in the dreams of the people the five heroes had rescued thus far, in most cases they'd appeared in their own dreams. But the five stepped into the dream side by side, finding themselves in a strange jungle, with trees overhead covered in silvery-green leaves, while two suns beat down overhead in a purple sky.

"Weird place," muttered Zander, looking around.

A sudden crashing sound brought everyone's attention to a section of jungle up ahead and to their right. Trees were being uprooted and tossed aside, while a deep roar echoed from all directions. In a moment, a massive ape stepped into a clearing, contemptuously tossing aside a tree he'd just pulled from the ground for the crime of being in his way. Then he roared again, beating his chest with hands that were each much larger than any of the heroes.

"Weaken him!" suggested Thurloe, holding up a dreamstone in his hand before him as if it could ward off the giant gorilla. The others followed suit, each doing their level best to try to weaken the dream-ape, either by shrinking him down or siphoning off some of his impressive strength. It was difficult to see whether their attempts were having any success, and then the 50-foot-tall gorilla locked eyes with Alewyth and rushed forward, running on his back legs and the knuckles of his enormous hands. He crossed the clearing before Alewyth could even bring Sjondra up to try to ward him off and his closed fist came crashing down upon the dwarven priestess, crushing her flat in one blow.

The others instantly panicked, dropping everything they held in their hands and fleeing at top speed as far away from the ape as they could. But he was too big, too fast - one by one, he scooped them up and crushed them in his hands or stomped them into a pile of shattered bones and torn flesh beneath his feet. In each case, they were snapped back awake as they "died" in the dream.

"Is everything okay?" Jorbalee asked nervously, seeing them flutter their eyelids and snap awake (often with a gasp or a stifled scream).

"It's gone better," admitted Thurloe. Looking around the room and seeing everyone was now awake, he said, "Okay, that didn't work. Let's go in again and this time we'll try to show up at different points in the jungle instead of all clumped together like we were last time." Based on their past experiences, when they went into the same dream on subsequent attempts it would have "reset" to the same point it had been at when they'd first entered.

It took minutes of resettling themselves to readiness for sleep, and then one by one they each arrived back in the Dreamlands. "Didn't work out so well, huh, kupo? asked Mogo.

"We have a new plan," Thurloe assured him as he stepped through the dream doorway and back into Carmen Melodius's dream.

Sure enough, the jungle had been restored and the dream-ape was just now destroying the northeastern section of trees as the other dreamwalkers popped into the jungle at various different points. At least it would take longer for the ape to chase them all down this way - and now that they were prepared, Thurloe hoped they wouldn't be affected by the sudden panic the first sight of the massive ape, ten times taller than a man, had fostered in their hearts.

The ape beat its chest in the clearing and roared its defiance as the five dreamwalkers each tried using their lucid dreaming training to somehow weaken the beast. The ape looked all about him, finally spotting Thurloe and racing his way. "Oh, sh--" the fighter got out before the ape's massive fist crushed him into paste.

Alewyth decided to try a different tactic. Lucid dreaming wasn't always as successful in every dream, as each dreamscape seemed to have its own set of rules, its own internal logic. So she decided to treat this not as a dream to be manipulated to her own desired end state but rather to act as if it were happening in the Mortal World. Thus, she fought it here as she would have fought it there, by casting a spiritual weapon spell. A dwarven warhammer formed of solid force materialized beside the startled gorilla and smashed him in the face. He roared in anger and instinctively swatted at it but it dodged in the air and avoided his grasp.

Wakuren followed Alewyth's lead and a second spiritual weapon took shape, this one a heavy mace, the weapon favored by Cal, God of Air and Healing. It too slammed into the giant gorilla, while Zander tossed his figurine of wondrous power over by the ape. The cooshee took on full-sized elven dog form - and was crushed underfoot almost immediately by the massive simian. Then the dream-ape ran over to Alewyth, scooping her up in one hand, biting off her head, and then spinning and throwing her headless body at Zander Quilson, snapping his neck by the speed of his throw.

Wakuren had activated his ring of invisibility and crept up behind the ape, wondering if it might be possible to somehow crawl up his leg and back, so he could attempt a shield-strike against the back of the ape's skull. But the creature spun around and snatched up the half-orc, who apparently hadn't been as invisible to the ape's senses as he might have hoped. The cleric-paladin was crushed between the ape's hands and his crumpled body tossed to the ground, while the ape looked about until he found Xandro.

"Uh oh," gulped Xandro as the ape sped in his direction. Using the training he'd received by his moogle instructors, the bard willed himself awake before he got to experience "death" again at the hands of the bloodthirsty ape.

"Well, that's no good," Thurloe complained when everyone was back awake. They talked it out among themselves and decided this was another dream well beyond their present ability to handle. Xandro explained their failure to Jorbalee. "We've encountered this once before," he told her. "We'll do with Carmen what we did with the other dreamer we were unable to save: leave a dreamstone in contact with her forehead so she can attune with it over time, and we'll be back later after we've had additional training. Would it be okay if she stays in that other room where her gear was placed?" Jorbalee agreed that would be fine and a dejected Wakuren picked Carmen back up in his arms and carried back to her own smaller room.

That done, the heroes decided to do some shopping now that they were in a decent-sized city, for most of their travels thus far, besides an excursion into a pair of dwarven Underdark cities, had been among smaller villages. They'd each amassed a fair amount of coin and were eager to spend some of it, hopefully on magic items that would make their combats that much easier. But other than a few scant potion shops, they were disappointed to find Baron's Haven hosted no major magic shops at all. Wakuren stopped by the local Temple of Cal and spoke with the clerics there, paying them in advance to craft him a wand of cure light wounds. Thurloe likewise ordered a wand of magic missiles from the wizards at the Temple of Delphyne, who advised them they could craft the wand but would need to deliver it to him outside the confines of the city. In each case, it would take three days of crafting to have the wands ready. Figuring there wasn't a real rush to get to the next dream victim (and with Xandro eager to earn some extra coin playing for the guests at the Merry Minstrel Inn), they agreed to stay in town long enough to take delivery of the wands.

At dinner time that night, the other four were sitting at two tables facing the corner of the dining area, where Xandro played the lute and sang on a raised stage. Jorbalee was bringing over a basket of rolls when all of a sudden she teetered, her eyes rolled up into her head, and she collapsed forward onto the floor, the dinner rolls bouncing along the floor. Zander was the first to notice and he jumped up from the bench to see to her. "She's not responding," he said when he tried waking her up by slapping her gently.

Xandro announced a brief intermission and joined the others in seeing to Jorbalee's condition. It was just like all of the other dream victims they'd dealt with so far, although this was the first time they had heard of someone being affected while awake. But they got one of the servers to fetch them the key to the larger room where they'd tried waking Carmen and Wakuren placed her on the bed, which was pulled back to the middle of the room. With hungry guests to attend to, the server couldn't stick around so Zander activated his figurine of wondrous power and commanded his elven dog to wake him up if there were any disturbances here in the room while the five dreamwalkers tried entering Jorbalee's dream to pull her back to wakefulness.

This time the dream almost seemed familiar, for it took place in some underworld lit only by the streams and rivulets of magma - very similar to the dream of Lady Camilla Middlewich, only instead of the dream-victim being suspended in a web-cocoon and being menaced by a giant spider, Jorbalee's wrists and ankles were bound and she had been thrown over the back of an ebon-skinned horse who was rapidly carrying her away. This was no ordinary horse, though, as evidenced by the flames it had in place of a mane and those encompassing its hooves as it raced across the hellish landscape.

"Weaken it!" Thurloe commanded for the second time that day, raising the dreamstone he held in his hand like a magic talisman. The others did the same, doing what they could to try to weaken the nightmare bearing Jorbalee away from them. And this time it seemed to have an effect, for the creature, who had been running through the air several feet above the surface of the magma-cracked stone beneath it, was forced back down to ground level and its speed noticeably decreased - enough so that Wakuren and Thurloe were able to chase after it, even though that meant jumping across ever-widening streams of liquid magma. Alewyth cast a bless spell on the group and Xandro began his song of courageous inspiration, until the half-orc was close enough to slam his shield against the nightmare's flank, just as Thurloe cut it with his bastard sword from the other side. Zander cast a ray of enfeeblement spell at the hell-beast, weakening it even further. The nightmare lashed out with his flaming hooves, but before too long the heroes had slain it. It vanished immediately upon death, leaving a bound Jorbalee to fall to the ground - but not before Wakuren could leap below her and prevent her from getting burned by the magma. She landed awkwardly upon the cleric-paladin's armored back, as his face was pushed into the burning lava...

...and then the dreamscape vanished all around them and everyone woke back up. They were back in the inn, the cooshee wagging its tail at seeing them back to full wakefulness, Wakuren instinctively feeling his face to make sure it hadn't been burned. "What happened? Why are we here?" asked the innkeeper, a puzzled frown on her face as she tried to recall the dream that was even now starting to fade now that she was back awake. She had been bringing out a basket of rolls, she remembered that....

Alewyth filled her in on what had transpired and then Jorbalee leaped to her feet and rushed back to see to her guests, embarrassed to have fallen asleep on the job as she had. Thurloe and Wakuren pushed the bed back up against the wall while Xandro went back to finish his musical set back in the dining area. The others followed and the rest of the evening was uneventful. And Jorbalee returned the fees for the rooms overnight, furthermore insisting that their dinners were on the house.

It was the next morning, with the group at one of the dining tables eating a decent breakfast, when the next bit of excitement made itself known. Thurloe was devouring his fourth piece of thick bacon when he heard a commotion just outside the inn. There was a crashing sound, the unmistakable sound of horses crying out in fear, and a roar of anger and pain that sounded very much like that of the dream-ape they'd fought - twice - to no avail in the dreamscape of Carmen Melodius. Thurloe leaped up from the bench and ran to the inn's front door, standing on the porch and looking to see what was going on. There, on the street in front of the inn was an overturned wagon, with the enormous wooden crate that had been lashed to it laying in the street with a good chunk of the back side smashed open along the top. The four horses that had been pulling the wagon were in distress, the rear two struggling to get back up onto their legs after the wagon - which looked to have overturned after one wheel hit a rut in the road - had pulled them over as it spilled on its side. The wagon's driver had been thrown some distance and was holding his head in one hand as he struggled to stand up without falling over. And running up from behind the wagon were two men and a mastiff dog. The smaller of the two men was completely bald, carried a wooden staff, and wore a green hooded robe and laced sandals. But he was by no means a small man, only seeming so in contrast to the hulking brute who came up behind him with his mastiff dog, for this hairy peasant looked to be nearly seven feet tall, with thick sideburns.

The bald man ran up to the crate making soothing noises while the large peasant approached the inn, where the other heroes had joined Thurloe to see what was up. "Everything's okay," boomed the peasant. "Sorry for any disturbance, but everything's under control now. Please go back inside - there's nothing to see here."

That seemed particularly fishy to Zander, for everything did not seem to be under control: whatever was inside the wooden crate was still roaring and trying to pound its way out and the horses were still succumbing to panic. On a hunch, the elf activated the true seeing aspect of his scout’s headband. And what he saw surprised him beyond all belief, for under the effects of the headband the elf saw not a towering peasant but a massive gorilla, and not a mastiff dog but a baboon. Both wore collars and the gorilla was still talking, trying to convince everyone that there was no need for anyone to render any assistance.

Wakuren stood right behind Zander and he was using his paladin training to try to detect any evil in the area. Sure enough, he was able to sense a source of evil, and while it would take him a moment's concentration to determine its exact location he was pretty sure it was going to be focused on the bald man over by the crate, who wasn't the least bit concerned by the cries of the horses or the bleeding head of the driver but was instead focused on the creature trying to break out of the crate - and just about succeeding, by this time.

Xandro pulled his lute from his back and began a tune quite different from the ones he usually played in combat; rather than inspiring courage in his friends, the better to aim their strikes with weapons and spells, he played a tune designed to fascinate those who might otherwise wish to do him or his friends harm. And the tune worked, almost instantly, for the large peasant stopped talking and the mastiff sat down on his haunches, mesmerized by the bard's tune.

"That big guy's a gorilla," Zander whispered to the others. "And that dog's a baboon."

"I'm going to go check on the driver," Thurloe announced, heading towards the horses, all four of which were now back up on their feet. The driver was on the other side of them, so the fighter was going to have to skirt around them.

"Bald guy's evil!" Wakuren announced, having by this time discerned that he was indeed the source of the emanations of evil he'd been picking up. He wound his way around the fascinated apes in the collars that cloaked them in illusions so they could fit in among the people in a large city without drawing any attention to themselves. The half-orc still wasn't sure what that was all about, but he was more interested in confronting the bald man at this point. As Wakuren approached, Zander stepped down off the porch and threw a thunderstone at the bald man, having assumed he was a spellcaster and hoping to mess up his ability to cast spells by deafening him. The stone exploded in a cacophony of noise but it failed to deafen the bald man, who merely looked annoyed at the attempt. He moved his hands and spoke something that Wakuren, who was fast approaching him at this point, could tell was some sort of spellcasting, although he couldn't determine the exact spell being cast. It wasn't directed at him, in any case, rather at the creature inside the crate.

Only the creature wasn't inside the crate for very much longer. With a final punch, the crate's side gave way and out stepped a dire ape - not as big as the dream-ape in Carmen Melodius's dream, but standing a good nine feet tall. The bald man pointed at Wakuren and the dire ape obliged, smashing a simian fist into the half-orc's face and sending him reeling back. Alewyth stepped down from the inn's porch and almost cast a spell to aid her friend, but looked around warily and saw a number of bystanders accumulating in the area (although one look at the loose dire ape in the city generally spun them about and had them fleeing at top speed). She didn't dare risk it. Instead, grumbling to herself, she fished her old sling from a belt pouch and started making her way towards the brawl.

Thurloe had gone around the horses and was now approaching the bald man from the west. He pulled the composite bow from his back and readied an arrow as he moved forward. Xandro continued his song, knowing full well his power to keep the two apes fascinated would only continue to work for so long - still, it was a way to keep them out of the fight for a bit, so he was determined to make it last as long as he could.

With a look of irritation, the bald druid cast another spell, not in the least bit concerned about who might see him do so. Immediately, thick briars rose up from the ground, forming a full wall of thorns in the street blocking the overturned wagon from the inn. Wakuren was already on the inner side of the curved wall and Thurloe was approaching from the west, but it would keep the others at bay, for it stood 5 feet tall and was twice that in thickness. Alewyth, her path blocked by the thorny barrier, started heading east to go around it. She loaded a thunderstone into her sling instead of a normal sling bullet.

Then the dire ape stood to his full height and Alewyth had a perfect shot lined up even despite the wall of thorns between her and her target, who was pulling the bald druid up onto his shoulder. She wound up and released her thunderstone, which struck the ape's back and exploded in sound, but likewise failed to deafen either the ape or the druid. Still, it had been worth the attempt.

Wakuren, anger stoked, cast a spiritual weapon spell, not caring if anybody saw him do so - this was obviously in the best interests of the city at large and he was sure he could talk his way out of any kind of penalty if it came to that. A heavy mace of solid force manifested by the dire ape's back and the half-orc caused it to go slamming towards the bald spellcaster who was obviously behind this whole situation somehow. But Manu the Awakener dodged the incoming blow and looked contemptuously down at the half-orc. "Do not waste time trying to stop me!" he yelled down to Wakuren at a volume much louder than needed; perhaps the thunderstones had had some sort of an effect after all.

The dire ape roared in pain as it moved away from the overturned wagon, taking a moment to pull out the arrow Thurloe had just sent streaking into his side. Then a cooshee suddenly sprang into being at the dire ape's feet; Zander having just thrown the figurine of wondrous power over the wall of thorns. The elven dog barked furiously at the dire ape, stopping only long enough to bite at a hairy ankle. But then Manu cast another spell and suddenly there was an entire swarm of spiders crawling all around - and over - both the cooshee and Wakuren. Both felt the pinpricks of innumerable bites on their flesh as spider venom started coursing its way through their veins.

But by now Alewyth had reached the eastern end of the wall of thorns and had pulled a tanglefoot bag from her pack. Winding up for a good throw, she hurled it at the dire ape's foot and it exploded in a puff of dust that quickly hardened in the air, adhering the ape's foot and leg to the cobblestone street. With a grunt of surprise and dismay, the dire ape realized he was stuck in place!

Manu looked down to see what was preventing his dominated riding mount from making any progress and in doing so got clobbered by Wakuren's spiritual heavy mace. The half-orc had been chasing after the retreating dire ape, swatting away stray spiders and he ran, and had caught up to him now that the simian's forward progress had been halted. Thurloe shot another arrow at the ape, causing it to roar in fury. By then, Xandro's song had run its course and the two apes who had been fascinated by it snapped out of their lethargy and looked about them at the chaos that had arisen while they hadn't been paying attention. The gorilla - to all but Zander, a large, heavyset peasant - spun about and chased after Wakuren slamming him in the back of his head with a massive fist. Zander chased off after Alewyth, heading for the eastern edge of the wall of thorns.

The cooshee exited the pile of spiders, took a moment to shake off most of the ones crawling in and on his fur, and then bounded after the stuck dire ape, snapping at his other leg as the giant simian broke free of the hardened goo by a massive effort.

And it was at this point the four hobgoblins showed up.

"What's going on?" one demanded as he approached Xandro, who was still over on the front porch of the inn where he'd been playing his lute. "Who's responsible for these thorn bushes?" Another approached Alewyth, stopping her from advancing past the wall of thorns and demanding answers to the same question. Both the bard and the priestess of Aerik gave the same answer, pointing at the bald druid riding on the shoulder of a dire ape - and then, as if to prove his own guilt, he blatantly cast another spell: an animal growth spell that caused the dire ape to expand to twice his already considerable height. With longer legs and a longer stride, it continued its flight from the others and had soon scrambled out of view, taking a corner onto a side street.

Looking back and seeing the hobgoblin guards, Wakuren quietly dismissed his spiritual weapon spell, hoping it hadn't been noticed, and turned to face the peasant who was hitting him in the back. The half-orc knew Zander had said this was really a gorilla, but if it was the illusion was very well crafted, for Wakuren would never have guessed he was fighting off anybody other than a very large human. He brought his shield smashing into the ape's side, and then the baboon - still to all appearances a large mastiff dog - raced up and started biting Wakuren as well.

Thurloe had continued his advance and even though the dire ape and the bald spellcaster had gotten away, he now had two other targets within range. Firing an arrow at the mastiff, he got it in the throat and it fell over, dead. Even in death, though, it retained the illusion of being a large dog.

"Bongo!" cried the "peasant," enraged at the death of his companion. Thurloe was still too far away to punish, but the half-orc was right here so Ngoto continued pummeling Wakuren with his gorilla fists.

"Those two are really apes," Zander explained to one of the hobgoblins, and when the guard looked skeptical the elf took off his magical headband and handed it over. "See for yourself," he offered. The hobgoblin put it on and cried out a crude exclamation of surprise. "He's right!" he called to his three companions as the cooshee helped Wakuren fight off the gorilla as best he could, even though it meant being one of the closest targets to the swarm of spiders, which quickly encompassed the elven dog, Wakuren, and the gorilla - the spiders gave no preferential treatment to the allies of the man who had summoned them here. That was enough for the gorilla, who decided it was time to high-tail it out of here and try to catch back up with Manu; unfortunately, to do so he ran close enough to Thurloe to give him time to pull the bastard sword from his back and bring it swinging down upon the "peasant's" head. He fell to the ground, dead from the fighter's blow - and the illusion-dampening powers of the sword caused it to be revealed as the simian creature it really was.

After that, the hobgoblins started taking statements from the eyewitnesses. Fortunately, nobody had seen any of the heroes casting spells, although there were plenty of eyewitnesses to Manu having done so. Thurloe bent over the body of the "mastiff" and removed its collar, revealing its true baboon form. Once the hobgoblins were satisfied they had enough information, they offered up a reward of 50 gold pieces for slaying the dire ape and 100 pieces of gold for bringing in the bald druid, dead or alive. "We're on it!" answered Thurloe, eager for a second chance of taking the bald guy down.

The heroes headed out in the direction the dire ape had last been seen, picking up sightings by eyewitnesses who eventually led then to the edge of the city, where a bystander had said the ape climbed right over the city walls and was heading into the Darkwood Forest. "We've likely lost them, then," lamented Alewyth.

"Not necessarily," remarked Zander. "Cooshees are excellent trackers."

That certainly ended up being the case. The group headed back to the city gate by which they had entered the previous day and Thurloe and Zander retrieved their spellbook and scrolls, respectively. Then they walked along the outside of the city wall until the cooshee picked up the dire ape's scent - and then he was off like a shot, with the others racing to catch up with him. The ape wasn't particularly difficult to track, either, for his greater weight meant he left quite deep footprints in the dirt and had left a distinctive trail of broken branches and pushed-aside smaller trees in his wake. Eventually, they tracked the dire ape into a clearing after a mere 20 minutes or so of following the trial through the forest.

Zander grabbed his cooshee and held him at bay so the elven dog wouldn't go rushing right up to the bald druid before the others had had time to prepare for combat. But in the meantime, they were puzzling over what he was doing, for the dire ape - now at its original size, a still-respectable nine feet tall - was stretched out on his back upon the forest floor and the druid was in the process of attaching heavy manacles to each limb. The chains connected to the manacles had been fastened to the trunks of sturdy trees. "This is necessary," the druid told his compliant dire ape (for the dominate animal spell he'd cast upon the simian earlier was still in effect), "for the spell I must cast upon you to awaken you to your full intellect takes a full 24 hours. But then you will have gained your full birthright and will join your brothers as one of us." He snapped the third manacle in place around the dire ape's right wrist and moved over to do the same with the creature's other hand. The heroes, watching silently at the edge of the clearing, decided not to do anything until the dire ape had been fully restrained.

Alewyth scanned the area for any other potential allies the bald druid might have hanging around but saw none. There was a simple tent over by a clump of trees, small enough it would only hold the druid and no others. She spotted a few nests on the ground, one large enough for the gorilla and a smaller one likely belonging to the baboon, but they had both been slain in the city and the lack of any other such nests bode well that there weren't any other awakened apes in the vicinity. Over on the other side of the clearing was a mound of dirt with a flat rock somewhat askew at the top of it, but no indications of anyone but the druid that they'd be facing.

In the meantime, Thurloe quietly cast a shield spell upon himself, since he'd left his buckler back in the inn. Then, once the dire ape had been fully chained in place, the fighter gave a nod to Zander and he cast the spell he'd been waiting to use. Instantly, the scorching ray leaped from his fingertips to strike Manu the Awakener, who cried out in pain and surprise at the unexpected attack. Seeing that battle was now on, the cooshee darted forward and bit at Manu's leg. Then, sensing uncast spells in the druid's prepared repertoire, the dog snatched one of them up and ripped it from Manu's inventory. The latent spell energy, he knew, could be converted to be used by his sorcerer master.

Xandro had unpacked his lute during the wait for combat to begin and now he started strumming the chords to his most commonly-used tune, the one inspiring his friends to greater heights of courage. Thurloe had his composite bow out and sent an arrow flying over to strike the druid before he could retaliate with a spell. So far, the three attacks - Zander's spell, the cooshee's spell-ripping bite, and Thurloe's arrow - had all happened in a matter of mere seconds, before the druid had even realized the danger he was in.

But now a flash of movement caught Thurloe's eye. Off to the right, a pair of burly figures stepped into view. The fighter recognized them as bugbears right away, for they'd tangled with one of them back at the old abandoned silver mine where he had ended up taking his bastard sword Spellslicer from the hands of its previous owner, who'd been transformed into a yellow musk zombie. This pair had solemn faces that turned to anger as they looked down at the pile of dirt and the misplaced stone at their feet. Then they stepped forward and each let a javelin fly, one aimed at Thurloe and the other at Zander. Whatever had angered them, they had apparently decided the five heroes were a part of it.

Alewyth cast a bless spell on the group, glad to no longer be under the ridiculous restrictions of Baron's Haven. Wakuren cast a spiritual weapon and sent it hurtling at Manu's head, then activated his ring of invisibility and faded from view. The heavy mace struck the druid on the side of the head, causing him to topple over on his side, unconscious, with his life's blood dripping onto the leaves of the forest floor below him. Behind him, the dire ape struggled against his bonds, but the manacles and chains had been made thick enough to keep him bound. He roared in fury, struggling to free himself to no avail.

But even though Manu, the man they'd been sent to take down, was out of the fight it looked like the two bugbears had stepped up to take his place. Zander, not liking having been targeted by a bugbear javelin (even if it had just barely missed him), cast another scorching ray spell, this time targeted against the one who had thrown his javelin at the elven sorcerer. The bugbear erupted in flame for a brief moment, but luckily for him it hadn't lasted long enough to start his fur blazing.

The cooshee ran up and almost tackled his master in his exuberance, tail wagging furiously as he transferred the spell energy into Zander's frame. The elf knew instinctively that he now had more spell energy than he'd had a moment before, and also how powerful a spell it would allow him to cast. He smiled at the thought that he could now cast one more scorching ray than he'd have been able to cast normally. "Good dog!" he called down to his canine companion.

Xandro was continuing his lute playing when all of a sudden he was attacked from an unexpected direction: a small monkey dropped down from the branches overhead and started clawing at the young bard's face. "Hurt master!" the monkey snarled. Alewyth and Thurloe found themselves in the same predicament, with a snarling, shrieking monkey dropping on their heads and scrambling all around their shoulders and backs, pulling on their hair and scratching them with their claws. Thurloe's adversary bent over and bit him on the ear.

Thurloe wasn't having any of that! Realizing it was a dangerous maneuver and one likely to cause him a rather embarrassing self-inflicted wound if he missed, he dropped his bow at his feet and brought his bastard sword out of the sheath on his back. Then he brought the sharp side of the blade up against the monkey, with enough force to poke into its furry body but not enough power behind it to continue on into the side of his own head. It was, he thought to himself, somewhat like shaving, only he was trying to scrape off a deranged monkey from his face instead of several days' worth of whiskers. Sadly, the monkey was too nimble to have been brushed away with such a slow attack and he perched himself on the top of the fighter's head, one hand pulling on the ear he'd bitten.

Alewyth, with Sjondra in hand, wasn't foolish enough to use it to try to strike the monkey plaguing her - she knew she'd likely only bonk herself in the head in the process. She instead tried grabbing the monkey with her free hand, but it was able to scramble out of the way, scampering across her back and ending up on the other shoulder. It howled profanities in her face, something the dwarven priestess had never before in her life experienced.

Wakuren redirected his still-active spiritual weapon at the bugbear Zander had fried with his spell, and the heavy mace bashed in the side of the creature's skull, slaying him instantly. Zander cast another scorching ray at the other bugbear, but unfortunately for the elf his target managed to duck under the fiery blast at the last moment. But the cooshee snapped his jaws at the bugbear's leg, getting a good grip on his left leg. He tried toppling the bugbear onto his back, but the foe had too stable of a footing for that to occur. Instead, he brought his morningstar crashing down on top of the cooshee's head, causing him to howl in pain and instantly release his grip upon the goblinoid's leg.

Xandro dropped his lute to the ground and tried grabbing the monkey biting his face. He was unable to catch the nimble foe and reached to his belt for the dagger he wore there in a sheath, at this point willing to risk a self-inflicted wound if it would get the hairy enemy to leave him alone. Thurloe was able to catch his monkey with the blade of his sword, causing it to howl in pain. Alewyth had likewise managed to clock her monkey a good one with a dwarven fist, then grabbed an arm and got a good grip on it. But the monkey similarly had a good grip on her hair and wasn't about to be pulled off his victim that easily.

Wakuren had by this time positioned himself behind the remaining bugbear, noticing absently there were words carved into the lopsided stone on the raised pile of dirt. He slammed his shield into the unsuspecting bugbear's back, popping back into visibility as he did so. Zander, deciding the bugbear was likely being sufficiently taken care of by Wakuren and his own elven dog, decided to help the others who were being savaged by the little monkeys. A magic missile spell had three missiles streaking from the elf's fingertips, two of them hitting the monkey on Thurloe's head and killing it outright, the other one hitting the monkey on Xandro, causing it to squeal in outrage and hold still long enough for the bard to get a good grip on it and fling it away. He then pulled the light crossbow from his back and - tempting as it was to target the little tormentor-monkey - sent a bolt crashing into the remaining bugbear.

Heavily wounded, the loyal cooshee snapped at the bugbear again, receiving for his efforts another blow from the bloody morningstar that almost killed him outright. Xandro shot the bugbear again and Thurloe ran up to him and sent a powerful swing of his bastard sword slicing into the goblinoid's side. This was enough to finally kill him; blood spilled from his lips along with some incomprehensible curse in the Goblin tongue.

Zander took care of the remaining two monkeys with another magic missile spell. Scorching ray was a nice spell to have added to his repertoire but sometimes it was best to stick with the classics.

A quick check of the bugbears' bodies revealed they carried nothing on them but their own weapons and armor. However, curiosity compelled Thurloe to pull the flat stone with the writing on it - the characters were in the Goblin tongue, although he couldn't read what it said - and saw a short, vertical shaft leading down to a small chamber where the bandaged body of another bugbear-sized figure had been laid to rest. However, the wrappings had been cut away at the corpse's neck, no doubt to have gained the tomb desecrator access to whatever amulet or necklace had been buried with the body.

"What's that all about?" Alewyth asked.

"I got a feeling our bald guy there's been robbing bugbear tombs," Thurloe answered. "These two have probably been tracking him and just assumed we were in with him when they showed up and found us here with him." He dropped the heavy stone back into place at the top of the vertical shaft, sealing up the burial site of the bugbear entombed below.

Xandro had been checking out the body of Manu and found the key to the manacles on a thin chain around the druid's neck. Thurloe investigated the druid's tent and found a bunch of fruit, which he carefully fed to the bound dire ape - who was hungry enough to be fed by a stranger. Then, having established he was a friend - or at least not an enemy - Thurloe took the key and unlocked the manacles around the dire ape's ankles.

"There's a 50-gold-piece bounty on the big guy," Zander pointed out.

"Yeah, but he's just a dumb animal," Thurloe countered. "He wouldn't have fought us in the city like he did if baldy here hadn't made him." He released one of the dire ape's wrists from the manacle, ready to jump back out of range if the simian took advantage of his near-freedom to attack the fighter. But when he failed to do so, merely held out his manacled other hand, Thurloe approached, unlocked it, and stepped away. The dire ape got on all fours, rubbed each wrist in turn, and then knuckle-walked away.

"And it's not like we're in desperate need of the 50 gold, either," Thurloe observed. "We're already getting 100 pieces for the druid."

"We should probably heal him," Wakuren offered.

"Nope," Thurloe insisted. "He brought all of this on himself. And since he's a druid, we'll let nature decide if he lives or dies." He scooped up the unconscious figure and transferred him to one shoulder. "You guys lead on: I'll take the rear. I don't want any of you healing him when I'm not looking."

And thus, half an hour later, the five heroes returned to Baron's Haven with the corpse of Manu the Awakener.

- - -

This was a rather lengthy session, going almost five hours. I used a King Kong figure I picked up recently (when Godzilla vs. Kong was in the theaters) for the dream ape in Carmen Melodius's dream. And the second dream caused Joe (Zander's player) to speculate that if there was a Queen of Dreams, there might also be a King of Nightmares as well. (An interesting premise, even more interesting in that I already have a "King of Nightmares" initiative card in my inventory for use in an upcoming adventure....) And I had a blast with those awakened monkeys at the end, doing my best howler monkey imitation at full volume to those whose PCs had been targeted by them.

- - -

T-shirt worn: Lacking any shirts with monkeys on them, I wore a "Spider-Man" T-shirt to represent the spider swarm Manu the Awakener cast inside the city to help try to escape his attackers.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 4​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 2​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 4​

Game Session Date: 16 October 2021

- - -

It was noon in the Merry Minstrel Inn and the five adventurers were enjoying a hot meal. Jorbalee Bennicut, the innkeeper herself, was bringing another basket of rolls to the table when she saw a young boy of perhaps eight summers enter the dining area of the inn and approach her guests' table.

"Are you the people who can wake people up who won't wake up by themselves?" he asked, tugging on Xandro's sleeve. The bard couldn't help but notice the boy's eyes kept darting to the food on the table before them.

"Yeah, that's right," he said, handing a roll over to the boy, who grabbed it up and started eating it at once. It was apparent he hadn't eaten in a while and the state of his raggedy clothes hinted at a life at or below the poverty level. "Do you know of someone who needs help waking up?"

"My mom," replied the boy between bites of the roll. "She fell asleep two days ago and I can't wake her up."

"What's your name, honey?" asked Alewyth.


"Well, why don't you come sit over here by me and have some lunch, and then we'll go see about waking up your mom, okay?" That sounded like a great idea to Tommy, who climbed up on the bench beside the dwarven priestess and grabbed up a slice of cheese. He ate remarkably well for someone his age and asked Alewyth if it would be okay of he brought some food back for his mom. The dwarf pulled out a handkerchief and helped him wrap up a nice lunch for Tommy's mom. Then, after paying Jorbalee for the meal and promising to be back in time for dinnertime - during which Xandro would be providing the entertainment with his lute and his songs - they let Tommy lead them back to where he and his mother, Greta, lived.

This turned out to be in the poorer section of town, where the good buildings were made of thin wood and the less sturdy were little more than patchwork tents. Grubby faces stared out at the heroes as they walked beside Tommy; they got the idea the local inhabitants didn't often see anyone with such fine clothing and equipment wandering around in the low section of town. Thurloe stared belligerently at the curious locals, daring them to try anything. Xandro kept a smile on his face so as not to look threatening but made sure his hand was close to the hilt of his rapier, just in case.

Eventually, Tommy led them to his home, a one-room structure of wooden struts, canvas walls, and a roof of thatch. "She's in there," he said, pointing to a thin blanket hanging from a rope strung across the room to form a makeshift wall. Thurloe couldn't help noticing the landfill next door, where all sorts of accumulated refuse had been tossed. Hell of a place to grow up, he thought to himself, but that didn't stop him from giving the place a good once-over to make sure this kid wasn't leading them into an ambush.

Wakuren moved aside the hanging sheet serving as a front door and likewise pushed the hanging blanket aside so he could see to Greta. She was lying motionless on a pile of rags in the corner which apparently served as her bed. In the dark of the room (once the blanket fell back into place) Wakuren knelt beside her and placed a hand on her forehead. He was immediately aware of several things: she was cold to the touch, had apparently been dead for two days, and yet occasionally twitched slightly. He imagined this slight movement had convinced Tommy that his mother was still alive.

"Keep Tommy away from here for now!" Wakuren called to the others and Thurloe dropped a hand on the boy's shoulder and led him off to the side of the hovel. None of the others knew the specifics but the worried tone in the half-orc's voice caused Zander to cast a mage armor spell upon himself and Alewyth to cast a bless spell on the group, each of them anticipating the possibility of combat.

"What are you doing?" Xandro hissed to the two spellcasters. "You're going to be seen!" Belatedly, Zander and Alewyth recalled the prohibition against casting spells within the city of Baron's Haven and guiltily looked around to see if anyone had seen them. Xandro, in the meantime, took out his lute and started the tune that inspired courage.

"Is everything okay?" Tommy asked Thurloe.

"It's going to be," promised Thurloe, "one way or the other."

Inside the building, Greta suddenly lurched upright to a sitting position, her glazed eyes focusing on Wakuren as she pulled herself to a standing position. Then, lurching and staggering as if in a drunken stupor, she slowly headed his way, an arm reaching out to the half-orc as if pleading for contact. Wakuren stepped back, holding forth his holy symbol of Cal and channeling a blast of positive energy through it, hoping to turn the zombie away. Surprisingly, it had no effect, as Greta stepped forward and slammed a stiff arm against the half-orc's armored chest.

Zander could see a little of what was going on inside the hovel through the gaps between the doorway and the sheet hanging in it, enough to determine it might not be a bad idea to activate his figurine of wondrous power. Pulling the statuette from a belt pouch and dropping it to the ground, an elven dog sprang up in its place. The cooshee needed no urging or instruction; it stuck its head into the doorway of the hovel, intrigued by the scent of dead flesh. He bit at Greta's leg as she stumbled by but the woman didn't even seem to notice.

Alewyth stepped past the hanging curtain, saw the zombie attacking Wakuren, and brought her dwarven warhammer Sjondra swinging into Greta's side. And then, to everyone's surprise, a form burst out of Greta's chest, dark and wet and aimed in Wakuren's direction. The half-orc bleated in terror and bashed the giant worm aside; it dropped to the ground and he slammed the edge of his shield down upon the dregworm, crushing it to death.

Tommy was getting worried about all of the screaming and yelling inside his house. "Tell you what," said Thurloe, pulling a silver coin out of a pouch at his belt. "Why don't you take this and go buy some garlic from that marketplace we passed, okay? We'll need it to go help your mom wake up." Glad to have something to do to help his mother, Tommy grabbed up the silver piece and sprinted off.

Greta, now with a gaping hole in her chest, swung a feeble arm at Wakuren but failed to connect; the sudden movement almost sent her crashing to the floor. But then another dregworm came leaping out of the hole to slam against Wakuren's shield, while a separate hole burst open in Greta's side and a third dregworm leaped out at the cooshee. Zander, not worrying at all if anybody was watching, cast a magic missile spell at the slime-coated worm biting at his elven dog, and the cooshee finished the dregworm off with a snap of his teeth.

Alwyth swung Sjondra at the shambling corpse and Greta sprawled in a heap onto the floor of the hovel, still as dead as she had been but now no longer moving. Wakuren crushed the last remaining dregworm with the edge of his shield and then looked over at Greta to see if any more would crawl out of her body. It didn't seem like there were any left.

"Where's Tommy?" Alewyth asked, stepping back out of the dwelling. After Thurloe told her of his ploy with the garlic purchase, she grimaced and asked, "What are we going to tell him when he returns?"

"How about, 'Sorry kid - your mom's dead. Let's go check out the orphanages,'" Thurloe suggested, which got him a lot of "What's wrong with you?" looks.

When Tommy returned with the garlic, Alewyth took him aside and said, "We weren't able to wake up your mom just yet, sweetie. We're going to still try a few things, but do you have any relatives you can stay with in the meantime?" Tommy thought it over and revealed he had an Uncle Willick, his mom's brother. "But we don't see him very much. I don't think he and Mom get along."

"Do you know where he lives?" Alewyth prompted.

"I know where he works: in the temple."

That gave Alewyth a little bit of hope. "Which temple?" she asked.

"The one with the lady." Tommy wasn't able to elaborate any further, but he said he could take them to where his Uncle Willick worked. Alewyth wondered whether it might be the temple of Delphyne, Goddess of Magic, or maybe that of Feron, Goddess of Nature. Either one would be a good environment for a young orphan to be raised in, she mused. And in any case, she'd find out soon enough when they got there.

But they didn't head over to the Godswalk, where the majority of the temples and shrines were to be found in Baron's Haven. Instead, Tommy led them to a run-down brick building in the low part of town. "There's Uncle Willick!" he said, pointing to a fat-bellied man standing outside the building.

"You wait here," suggested Wakuren, walking up to Willick. Thurloe decided he didn't want to miss out on this and went with the half-orc.

"Are you Willick, brother of Greta?" asked Wakuren.

"Yeah, maybe," answered the heavyset man. Wakuren noted he had about three days' growth of beard on his face and smelled heavily of alcohol, despite the early hour. "Who wants to know?"

Wakuren introduced himself and Thurloe and pointed over to Tommy, waiting by the others across the street. "I'm afraid your sister is dead," Wakuren said. "Dregworms - there were probably a few eggs in something she ate. In any case, I assume Tommy's father is no longer around?"

"Died years ago," confirmed Willick. Then sudden realization dawned on him. "Wait -- you're not trying to pawn the kid off on me, are you?"

"I understand you might be his only living relative," Wakuren pointed out.

Willick scratched his stubbly beard as he thought aloud. "Well...yeah, I suppose I could use him here at the temple. I reckon he's old enough to stop shirkin' and start workin'. Yeah, okay, I guess I can make this work."

Wakuren's eyes narrowed. "This...is your temple? Here?" he asked.

"Sure," Willick replied. "We gotta tend to the needs of them what don't got lots of coin. Best way to do that's to serve 'em where they live." At this observation, Thurloe left the others behind and approached the shabby brick building. There was no door on the front face of the structure; he found the sole entrance at the back end of a narrow alley, between it and the neighboring building. There was no writing on the door, merely the silhouette of a well-endowed woman, which Thurloe recognized as the holy symbol of Desdemona, Goddess of Fertility.

Stepping into the building, Thurloe was met by a dark-haired woman in well-worn clothes that were somewhat fashionable years ago, standing behind a wooden counter. The dim lighting in the room was provided by a pair of red-glass lanterns. "Welcome to the Temple of Desdemona," Maria Cuescu greeted the fighter. "Have you come to perform a sacrament in the name of the Lady?"

"I'm here to warn you that a relative of one of your workers was just killed by dregworms," Thurloe answered. "Any of your employees feeling sick or anything?"

"All of our priestesses are clean," Maria replied, brows furrowed in irritation.

"They all willing?" Thurloe pressed.

"I don't think I like your attitude," Maria answered, giving a shrill whistle between her teeth. A pair of hanging curtains parted in the wall behind her and a pair of hungry-looking dogs slinked out into the reception room. "If you're not here to receive the Lady's blessing, I suggest you go elsewhere to stir up trouble."

Thurloe gave her a sarcastic salute and left the way he'd come, wondering what kind of legitimate house of worship kept their guard dogs underfed to increase their aggressiveness. He returned to Wakuren and Willick. "Place is a whorehouse," he announced without preamble.

"It's a legitimate temple of worship, providing a much-needed service--" sputtered Willick.

"We're not interested in hearing your excuses," Wakuren interrupted him. "The boy's not coming to work for you. He'd be better off in an orphanage."

"He's my own flesh and blood," Willick argued. "I'll decide what's best for him."

"You're not pimping out an eight-year-old boy!" snarled Wakuren, his orcish nature getting the better of him despite his best efforts to remain calm. Then he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and slowly counted to three. "All right," he said. "We'll buy him from you. You get a sum of cash up front, and he gets to go on to live a better life than the one you can provide for him."

"I dunno," Thurloe said. "This chump's likely to take your money and then hunt Tommy down anyway."

"There ain't a place in this city I can't get to," promised Willick. "And I got connections - I'll find him if I want to." Then he rubbed his bristly chin again. "But out of curiosity, how much money are we talking?"

Wakuren suddenly strolled away from the two men, walking up to the building, seeming to give the bricks a close inspection. But it wasn't the bricks he was concentrating upon: it was the emanations of evil he was picking up from the other side of the bricks - three separate ones, in fact. He'd already determined Willick's own aura reeked of evil and if anything it was the strongest of the four, although that may have simply been because Wakuren was able to get closer to the man without any intervening walls in the way.

When Wakuren returned, he'd made up his mind. "Okay," he said. "I think we can come to an arrangement. Let's all go inside and work out the details." He motioned for the others to accompany him. Seeing this, Zander pulled out a copper penny from his pocket and gave it to Tommy. "We have to talk with your uncle inside, okay? I'll pay you this coin to stay out here and watch over my dog." In reality, the elf knew it was the other way around: his cooshee would be watching over Tommy to make sure nothing happened to him.

"Okay," Tommy agreed, snatching up the coin before the sorcerer could change his mind. "What's his name?"

"I'm still working on that," Zander admitted. "Maybe you can help me come up with a good one."

Alewyth and Xandro were already walking down the narrow alleyway with Willick, Thurloe, and Wakuren; Zander hurried to catch up. Thinking he had a pretty good idea what Wakuren had planned, Thurloe surreptitiously cast a shield spell while in the alleyway, feeling pretty sure nobody would be able to see him do so.

Once everybody had made it inside the crowded reception area, Wakuren made a quick demand. "I want any 'priestesses' not here of their own free will released immediately," he said.

Maria Cuescu took exception to that. "What gives you the right to just barge in here--" she sputtered, then cut herself off short when Wakuren wheeled on her and bared his teeth. He was not in the mood for any arguments. Cowed, the temple's "house matron" closed her mouth and instead reached down below the counter for something. Wakuren half expected she'd bring out a weapon of some sort and was somewhat curious as to what she thought she could do to him, but to his surprise all she held in her hand was a metal bell. "You'll be sorry, you self-righteous, half-breed bastard!" she sneered, clanging the bell back and forth for all she was worth.

That was apparently an alarm signal, for the door in the back of the room burst open and a pair of burly dwarves stepped up, each clad in studded leather armor and wielding a heavy mace. This was no doubt the "temple's" security force, ensuring the clients didn't sneak off without paying and the "priestesses" didn't try escaping their employment. "Kill them!" demanded Maria and the dwarves just grinned, having been given permission to do their favorite part of their job. Wakuren was not in the least bit surprised to see the dwarves were responsible for two of the auras of evil he'd sensed in the building; more surprising was the fact that Maria's aura barely held any taint of evil - she no doubt believed she was truly taking care of those who worked in her temple and protecting them from intruding interlopers.

Safely inside the building with no witnesses they intended to let live, Zander Quilson felt it safe enough to cast a scorching ray across the room to strike Willick. The pervy lech already had his short sword out and was stabbing it at Thurloe, but the fighter had his bastard sword unsheathed and deflected the smaller blade away from him. A furious growling presaged the appearance of the guard dogs from their curtained cubbyhole, but Xandro's magic longsword - taken from the Tannenheim crypt - stabbed at the first canine to poke his head out. Alewyth likewise felt it safe enough for spellcasting and threw a cause fear spell at Maria Cuescu, but the house matron shrugged off the worst of the spell's effects. Still, possibly out of a sense of self-preservation, she backed out of the reception room through the door to her own private room and pulled the door shut behind her. The sound of latching made it fairly obvious she was locking herself in where she hoped it would be safe while her security forces dealt with this threat to her temple.

Thurloe slashed his blade along Willick's arm, slicing through the man's leather armor and the flesh and muscle of his upper bicep. Willick cursed aloud, making quite specific observations about Thurloe's likely ancestry. The first dog dashed forward and clamped its jaws around Wakuren's leg, trying to topple the half-orc, while the other one maneuvered to get out of their small living area, given as how Willick was blocking the way. But as Wakuren was the closest to the back door, he was also the target of both dwarven guards, and while he caught one heavy mace with his shield the other one got past his defenses and went crashing into the side of the half-orc's armor. Shaking his foot to free it from the guard dog's mouth, Wakuren sent his shield slamming into the face of one of the dwarves.

It being fairly crowded in the reception area, Zander scrambled up onto the counter and over to the other side, where he was nicely lined up to send a scorching ray spell straight at the dwarven guard who had hit Wakuren. The guard cursed aloud as his beard was set ablaze, but then Alewyth sent a spiritual weapon spell his way and the floating warhammer put the flaming dwarf out of his misery. Willick stabbed at Thurloe with his short sword but was then immediately downed, the victim of Thurloe's bastard sword.

Xandro's longsword came slashing down and slew the first of the guard dogs. The other rushed out of its chamber and snapped at Wakuren but failed to catch the half-orc's leg between its jaws. The other dwarf managed to connect with his heavy mace, sending Wakuren reeling from the force of the blow. But then he shook it off and gave back as good as he had taken, slamming his shield into the side of the dwarf's head.

Zander tried opening Matron Maria Cuescu's door but it was firmly locked. Hoping there weren't any other exits from the room she was in, he tossed a tanglefoot bag at the door, gumming it up and with any luck preventing her from being able to open it back up. That, he figured, ought to keep her out of the picture while the heroes dealt with what remained of her security forces.

Xandro tried stabbing the remaining dog but it dodged the point of the bard's blade, growling at the attempt. Instead, it noticed Zander Quilson with his back turned, messing about with the Matron's door. That looked like a much easier target for the vicious dog so he started heading towards the elf - but was then cut down by Xandro's blade, it having been a foolish tactic to give the bard a chance to strike.

Alewyth redirected her spiritual warhammer at the other dwarven guard, who was still concentrating his attacks on Wakuren. She pushed her way to the back of the room with Sjondra in hand, eager to join in the melee herself if possible. But with Willick now dead, Thurloe was able to turn his attention on the remaining dwarven guard as well and the look in the burly bouncer's eyes said he didn't particularly like the way the odds were turning against him. But he swore to Thunderwolf, God of Battle, that he'd go down fighting if that was His will and he swung another blow at Wakuren's head; the half-orc just barely blocked the swing with his shield in time.

And then all of a sudden the dwarf had a combat partner at his side, appearing out of thin air! This was a thick-bodied snake, easily 12 or 15 feet long, with reddish-black scales and a pair of small horns at the top of its eyes. The fiendish constrictor darted out at Wakuren but the half-orc dodged the strike at the last moment. He in turn kept his focus on the dwarf, preferring to concentrate on the already-wounded foe before turning his attention to a creature who had to have just been summoned via a spell and thus whose presence had a definite time limit, depending upon the spellcasting power of the person who had summoned it forth - presumably the other source of evil Wakuren had detected from outside the building. With his paladin training he could detect the aura of evil emanating from the serpent; with his nose, he could detect the sulfurous stench coming off the snake's body.

But Wakuren didn't need to worry about the dwarven fighter for too much longer for a magic missile spell from Zander brought him down, allowing Wakuren to turn his attention to the fiendish serpent. Hoping the snake didn't have a means of detecting him, he activated his ring of invisibility and vanished from view.

Seeing how crowded it was in the back of the reception area, Xandro opted to sheathe his longsword and pull the lute from his back. He began the initial chords of his most common fighting tune, the one that magically inspired his compatriots to greater acts of courage in combat, deeming it the best way for him to contribute to the current fight. Alewyth sent her spiritual warhammer over to swing at the fiendish constrictor, then stepped up to mirror its actions with her own weapon. But it was Thurloe who landed the killing blow, slicing its head from its body with a side-swipe of his bastard sword's blade. Upon its decapitation, both head and body dissolved into stinking mist and dissipated; Thurloe wasn't thrilled by the smell but wished all of the bodies of those he slew cleaned up after themselves in so efficient a manner.

Thurloe crossed the hallway beyond the guards' station and positioned himself on the far side of the door, the logical place for an allied temple spellcaster to have cast the summon monster spell that brought the serpent across the myriad planes and into existence here. He held his sword at the ready, waiting to bring its blade down upon anyone stepping out of the room. Wakuren stepped closer, making sure not to get in Thurloe's way, as he was quite aware the fighter couldn't see him in his present state. Zander stepped through the doorway from the guards' station and readied a thunderstone for throwing, hoping to take out the spellcaster's ability to cast spells if he couldn't accurately hear himself speak. Xandro continued playing his tune of inspirational courage, well aware this fight was not yet over.

Inside the bedroom, Lenulus had taken the time to prepare himself for combat, casting magic circle against law and shield of faith spells upon himself and readying his few combat spells as needed. But Alewyth opted to put her spiritual warhammer to good use before its duration expired and had it smash against the locked door. Once it winked out, she completed the job with Sjondra, stepping through the remains of the shattered door. There wasn't much to the room: a bed, a wooden chest, and a silver mirror and holy symbol of Desdemona hanging on the wall. But standing there in the back corner was the spellcaster they'd been seeking, wearing nothing more protective than woolen robes.

Thurloe rushed inside with his bastard sword swinging, catching Lenulus as he tried stepping to the side to avoid the blade. Zander's thrown thunderstone exploded by the cleric's head but he managed to avoid being deafened more by simple luck than anything else. But then he cast the spell he'd had prepared, sending Thurloe jolting as if struck as the hold person spell took effect (but not before the fighter was able to slash at the cleric again as he cast the spell). Lenulus then used Thurloe as a human shield, hiding behind him as he readied his next attack spell.

However, Lenulus hadn't counted on an invisible half-orc cleric-paladin and Wakuren's shield slammed into the cleric's side as both he and his defensive weapon returned to visibility concurrent with the attack. Zander cast a scorching ray from outside in the hallway, and that was the end of Lenulus. But he died with his greatest secret intact, for none of the heroes bothered disturbing the holy symbol of Desdemona hanging on the wall of his room; had they examined it, they'd have found an unholy symbol of Gareth, God of Betrayal on the other side.

A quick search through his room revealed a minimal amount of coins; what little Lenulus had was added to the silver pieces they took from the bodies of the slain dwarves and given to the six unwilling "priestesses" of the temple of Desdemona, who were each offered the opportunity to leave the temple if they wished to do so and to a woman they took the heroes up on the offer.

"What are we going to do about the woman who ran this joint?" asked Zander now that the security forces had been dealt with and the six young women freed.

"She's not evil," pointed out Wakuren. "A little twisted, perhaps, but not evil - not yet, in any case." Eventually, they decided to leave her where she was, trapped in her room by dint of the hardened tanglefoot goo sealing her door shut; she'd either work her way out or maybe be rescued by the clients who normally attended this "temple" - and her fate, after they found out there were no "priestesses" on hand any more, would be left in their hands. Given the treatment she'd provided to her imprisoned "priestesses" - and her half-starved dogs - none of the heroes gave any further thought to her predicament.

Leaving the "temple," the group caught up with the cooshee, who was heavily invested in a stirring game of "fetch the stick that Tommy throws and bring it back to him" - and judging from the elven dog's wagging tail and the smile plastered on the boy's face, it would be difficult to decide which of the two was enjoying the game more. "Let's go," Thurloe said in his usually brusque manner.

"Where to?" asked Tommy. "I thought I was going to stay with Uncle Willick until you can wake up my mom."

"Yeah, about that--" Thurloe began but Alewyth cut him off before he could spill the beans on either front.

"We're going back to the inn where we got the food," the dwarven priestess said. "I think we can get Jorbalee - the nice lady who brought the meal to our table - to let you stay with her until we get everything figured out." She glared at Thurloe, mentally warning him not to tell Tommy about the deaths of his mother or uncle until they could find a way to do so gently. Thurloe just raised his hands in surrender and let the soft-hearted dwarf have it her way. Sheesh! The mollycoddling Alewyth could perform was almost nauseating! Hell, Thurloe's parents had been killed when he was little and he grew up just fine; he didn't see why telling the kid the news straight out was such a bad thing. But he let the dwarf do it her way.

- - -

It looks like I can add dregworms to the list of monsters my players absolutely loathe (along with the boneless from the adventure "No Bones About It" and the grave medusa from "Down Among the Dead Men"). And now that Willick's not around any more to bother Tommy, he'll be left with Jorbalee to be raised; the elderly widow was more than happy to take in an eight-year-old apprentice, since she and her late husband had never had any children of their own.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, to represent Greta, whose dead body was being piloted by the dregworms.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 4​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 2​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 4​

Game Session Date: 16 October 2021

- - -

"I think you'll be pleased with the way they turned out," said Iriadorrista, the elven gemcutter selected by the group to perform the necessary carving that turned the solid dreamstone they'd taken from the hilt of the longsword buried with Lord Tannenheim in his crypt into the smaller pieces needed to upgrade the heroes' signature items. "If you have the selected items with you, I can get them mounted properly," she added with a smile.

Wakuren smiled back at the young-looking elf, wishing he wasn't as fearsome-looking as he knew he was to most people. But whether through not wanting to insult a paying customer or simply due to an overall pleasant demeanor, the lovely elf didn't seem at all disturbed by having a half-orc in full armor in her shop. At her request, he handed over his shield and watched as she attached a narrow sliver of carved dreamstone, oval in shape but pointed at top and bottom, to the upper part of its front surface. "It won't get jostled off?" he asked warily.

"Sovereign glue," explained Iriadorrista. "It'll take much more than a weapon strike to dislodge it."

In turn, the elven gemsmith attached all of the smaller dreamstone pieces she'd carved from the larger whole into the items as had been directed by the Queen of Dreams. Zander Quilson's figurine of wondrous power, a jade cooshee, had a pair of tiny dreamstone eyes glued into place. A round dreamstone was attached to either side of Alewyth's warhammer Sjondra, on the longer sides where they wouldn't interfere with the business ends of the weapon. Thurloe's bastard sword Spellslicer received a dreamstone along the bottom of the blade, right above the cross guards. And a final dreamstone, cut into the shape of an oval, was mounted at the bottom of Xandro's lute, just below the strings. Well and truly satisfied with the work that had been done, the heroes happily paid over the money they owed Iriadorrista and the elf said she hoped they'd keep her in mind if they ever had any similar gemcutting needs. That had been the last of the day's purchases, for earlier that morning they'd swung by the Temples of Delphyne and Cal and picked up the wands Thurloe and Wakuren had ordered three days ago, a wand of magic missile for the neophyte wizard and a wand of cure light wounds for the half-orc cleric-paladin.

As they exited Iriadorrista's shop, Thurloe almost collided with a man in a hooded robe headed his way. He looked at the group - two humans, a dwarf, an elf, and a half-orc - and nodded to himself as if he'd found the right group. But just to be sure, he asked them, "Excuse me, but are you the dream-wakers?"

"Never heard that exact term before," admitted Thurloe with a smirk, "but yeah, we're them. Why? You got somebody needs waking?"

"Yes, yes we do!" the hooded man exclaimed with relief in his voice. "The head of our temple had heard of your exploits and asked me to find you and bring you back with me. We've had a visitor collapse into sleep and we cannot awaken him."

"Which temple is this?" asked Alewyth. She wouldn't be thrilled to find herself entering another Temple of Desdemona anytime soon.

"The Temple of Akari," the man replied, leading the way and making sure the others were following. The group had worked with the Temple of Akari back in Port Duralia, where they'd overseen the return to life of a member of the minor nobility. Their leader had been a rather impressive sort: "Father Bones," a walking, talking skeleton of a type they called a "lich," as was perfectly reasonable given Akari was the God of Death and Undeath. He wore a distinctive black top hat as a badge of office.

"So what can you tell us about this dreamer?" asked Thurloe as they headed over to the Godswalk, where the majority of the city's shrines and temples were located. "He a regular in your temple?"

"No, quite the opposite: he'd come in once or twice in the past week, but before that we hadn't seen him before. And he never came in during the normal services, just sat himself in a pew and prayed quietly to himself." The Akari cleric provided a description of the man, although he was fairly nondescript: light hair, gray eyes, average build, wearing dark clothes and a hooded cloak.

When they got to the Temple of Akari the cleric led them straight through the chapel and into the rooms in the back. There was an office area off to the left at the back of the building and sitting behind the larger of the two desks was none other than Father Bones himself. "What are you doing here?" sputtered Alewyth despite herself.

"My child, I am the head of this temple," Father Bones replied. Then he realized her confusion. "You have met another Father Bones elsewhere, haven't you?"

"In Port Duralia," the dwarven priestess replied.

"'Father Bones' is a title bestowed upon the head cleric of the God of Death and Undeath," the skeletal being explained. "Every major temple of Akari will have its own Father Bones. But thank you for coming." He stood up from his desk. "We took the sleeping parishioner downstairs so he'd be out of the way. If you'd like to follow me?"

Father Bones led the group through a back door and down a set of winding stairs leading to a level beneath the temple. Wakuren couldn't help himself; while it would have been rude to try to detect evil in the presence of Father Bones in his office, the half-orc cleric-paladin felt more comfortable doing so when the lich's back was turned. As he'd hoped, there was no telltale taint of evil in the head cleric's aura; Wakuren had heard there were good liches as well as those turned to the ways of evil and was pleased this Father Bones was of the former persuasion.

"He's in here," Father Bones said, stepping into the church's morgue. There were four wheeled gurneys in the room, all of them empty. "What?" gasped Father Bones. "Where did he go?"

The others piled into the room. "He was there, on that slab," Father Bones said, pointing to the gurney in the far corner. "I saw him myself not half an hour ago!"

"Are you certain he was asleep?" asked Zander. "Maybe he just woke up."

"He was fast asleep, and we tried everything from remove paralysis to neutralize poison to heal - all with no success."

"Where did you first find him?" asked Thurloe.

"Upstairs, asleep in one of the pews," replied Father Bones. He turned to the cleric who had brought the "dream-wakers" here to the Temple of Akari. "Go back upstairs and see if anyone saw him back awake - and have the brothers search the temple for him." Turning back to the five adventurers, there was an apologetic tone in his voice - Alewyth got the idea he'd be blushing if he'd had any skin on his skull. "I'm terribly sorry about this," he apologized. "I didn't mean to bring you here for nothing."

"Let's look around," suggested Thurloe, looking tellingly at Alewyth and Zander. As a dwarf, Alewyth Putterpye had a preternatural understanding of stone construction and would have a pretty good chance of finding out if the stone walls in the room held any secret passages. And with his keen elven senses, Zander Quilson was also their best bet at discovering any hidden doors in the area - although it was unlikely the room held any hidden passageways unknown to the head of the temple. They found nothing and expanded their search out into the hallway.

"Found something," Alewyth called out at the bottom of the spiral steps.

"Hidden door?" guessed Thurloe.

"Blob of something," Alewyth replied, lifting a dab of something white she'd picked up with her finger. Holding it up close, she grimaced. "It's bat guano!" she complained, wiping it back on the edge of the step where she'd found it.

That got Thurloe thinking. "I think bat guano's used in casting the fireball spell," he said, recalling what he'd read in Mistress Jandoval's beginner's book of spells.

"So what are you thinking, that a wizard came in here and stole the sleeping guy?" asked Xandro.

"It's possible," Thurloe replied.

"It's also possible the wizard has a bat familiar who took a dump on the stairs," added Zander. "That makes more sense than him dropping the spell component to a fireball spell - which he'd have no need of casting in here."

"Nonetheless, it suggests an intruder was present in our temple," said Father Bones. "I will cast a commune spell and see what I can find out." As the casting time for that spell took a good ten minutes, the others had plenty of time to talk among themselves and come up with ten good questions they wanted answered, ten questions being the limit to Father Bones' spellcasting abilities. During that time, the results of the search throughout the temple came back negative: the missing dreamer was not anywhere within the confines of the building, on either of its two levels.

Casting the commune spell was kind of creepy in any case, Alewyth and Wakuren knew, for during the spellcasting the cleric asked his questions and then another entity took temporary control over his body and answered using his own voice. The creepiness factor only intensified when the caster was already an animated skeleton wearing a black robe and a tall, black top hat with a pair of crossed bones on the silk ribbon along its brim.

"Was the sleeper really asleep?" asked Father Bones, reciting the first of his questions. Then he answered himself in a much deeper, booming voice: "YES." Xandro jotted the answer down on a piece of parchment he'd prepared to record the results of the spell interrogation.

"Was the sleeper affected by the dream sickness?" Father Bones asked next, as it was possible he'd just been in some other type of heavy sleep from which waking him was difficult. There was a moment's pause, and then the answer, "YES."

"Is the missing dreamer currently awake?" Again, there was a moment's pause and then Father Bones answered "NO." Xandro jotted down the answer as the head cleric asked his next question.

"Is the missing dreamer within the city of Baron's Haven?" If this had been a simple kidnapping, there was every chance he was still here within the city, given the limited time the kidnapper would have had to work. "NO." Well, that meant there was probably some kind of magic at work - and in a city where unauthorized spellcasting was prohibited.

"Is the missing dreamer still on the Material Plane?" If extraplanar travel were at play here, it would be very difficult to track the hapless dreamer. "YES." That made it somewhat easier.

"Was the missing dreamer forcibly removed from the Temple of Akari?" This was a logical assumption, but it was always a good idea to confirm one's initial beliefs. "YES."

There were four questions remaining to the spell. "Was the missing dreamer taken for nefarious reasons?" Again, it was likely that he had been but it was nice to confirm. "YES."

The next question was a follow-on from the third, which had confirmed the dreamer was no longer asleep, and it had particularly importance to Father Bones. "Is the missing dreamer still alive?" Alewyth found herself leaning forward in anticipation of the answer. "YES." Well, that was a relief!

"Was the missing dreamer taken by a living being?" If they were up against the undead, that would be worth noting. "YES."

For the final question, Father Bones asked, "Did the missing dreamer and the one who took him teleport out of the temple?" After a pause, he answered in the deeper, foreign voice, "NO." The head cleric's skull slumped in weariness as the spell finished, as if it had taken a toll on him.

Xandro read back the questions and answers to the others. "Now what?" asked Alewyth.

"Now we go see if anybody in the local area saw anyone walking out of the temple with a sleeping figure over their shoulder," suggested Xandro. It helped that the Temple of Akari had but the sole entrance, leading out onto the Godswalk. And sure enough, they hit pay dirt almost immediately, for across the street sat a homeless man in the shade in the span between two buildings.

"Yeah, I seen a guy carrying another guy out of the temple," replied Gilfrey. "I seen where he took him, too. What's it worth to you?"

Zander sighed and pulled out a gold coin. "Uh uh uh," Gilfrey replied, shaking a finger at the elf. "You pay me in coins, I get robbed before I can use 'em. Tell you what: I got a craving for some meat. You go take that coin and buy me a pair of chicken legs, and I'll tell you what I know."

"I'll do it," offered Alewyth. Gilfrey gave her directions to a local vendor who sold chicken from a hand cart a few blocks away. When she returned, she had four chicken legs wrapped in a cloth. She handed a pair over to Gilfrey, who gobbled them up as if his life depended on them. And he ate his way down to the bone of each chicken leg, not letting a scrap of edible matter go to waste. Then he wrapped the bones up in a dirty handkerchief and stuffed them in his pocket.

"Okay, then," Gilfrey said, his meal completed. He pointed down the street. "The guy took the other guy there into the Shrine of Delphyne. And there ain't but the one way in or out of the shrine and I haven't seen 'em come back out, so they're still in there, far as I can tell." He gave them a quick description of the man who had been carrying the missing dreamer - dark hair and beard, black clothes with silver skull symbols on his shoulders and knees, dark cloak - and then the group was off towards the Shrine of Delphyne, Alewyth lagging behind just long enough to pass over the other two chicken legs. "You've been very helpful," she told Gilfrey.

The Shrine of Delphyne was fairly small - square, only about ten feet to a side, but two stories high due to the black marble statue of Delphyne in the back of the building. The Goddess of Magic was on her knees before a magic circle inscribed on the floor before her, with a staff in one hand. The statue was about 15 feet tall and floating around in the air before her were several driftglobes, providing illumination as they flitted about (out of range of any would-be thieves). The entire shrine was just one big room with a single open doorway providing access, and it was empty.

"There's nobody here," said Zander, pointing out the obvious.

"Maybe they teleported away," suggested Xandro. "All we know from the commune spell is that they didn't teleport from the Temple of Akari."

Wakuren stepped inside the magic circle to see if it would teleport him somewhere, with no luck. Perhaps it needed a command word or phrase? "Teleport," he tried. "Delphyne. Magic." He tried another couple of words but quickly realized he was grasping at straws.

"Found something!" Alewyth said, examining the back wall of the shrine. "There's a secret passage here - you can see the seam where this wall opens!" However, try as she might she couldn't find the opening mechanism. But after a few moments Zander had found it: a fake brick which hinged open, allowing the secret door mechanism to be activated. The room beyond wasn't very big, though: not even three feet deep, although it spanned the full ten-foot width of the building. It was pitch black inside, save for what light from the temple spilled through the hidden door.

Wakuren went in, as he had no difficulties seeing in little (or even no) light. "There's a book on a pedestal at the end of the passageway," he called back to the others. "Pages are made of metal. There's a picture of a statue of Delphyne - just her head and shoulders - and some words carved above them. He flipped through the book, keeping his finger in the place where it had been left open so he wouldn't lose his place. "The whole book's that way," he said. "Different statues, different words on each page."

"It's a means of teleportation!" hazarded Alewyth. "Bring the book out here, so we can all look at it!"

"I can't," Wakuren explained. "it's chained to the pedestal. Hang on, though, I'll copy the words from the page it was open to." Borrowing parchment and ink pen from Xandro, Wakuren meticulously copied the inscription on the page and brought it back for the others to see. It read:


Wakuren tried reading the words aloud (with several different possible pronunciations, just in case) and got nowhere. "Maybe you have to be touching the book when you say the command phrase," Thurloe suggested, so Wakuren tried that but it didn't help. He tried saying the words backwards, but that was even harder to pronounce.

"We're missing something," Thurloe observed.

"Obviously," added Xandro.

"What are we missing?" the fighter-wizard mused. He tried counting the number of letters in each word and then going to that letter in the alphabet, but that ended up with unpronounceable gibberish. "That alphabet's got to be there for a reason," he thought aloud.

"Delphyne's the Goddess of Magic," Zander observed. "Maybe we need to apply some magic to the puzzle." He cast a detect magic spell on Wakuren's hand-written copy and saw nothing, then realized it would make more sense checking out the original book itself. Bringing along a lit sunrod so he could see better, he looked over the open page and called out, "Hey! Some of the letters are just illusions - they're not really on the page at all! Somebody bring me the parchment!"

Scribbling through the illusory letters - all of which had been in the alphabet section - the parchment now looked like this:


"So..." prompted Thurloe, not seeing how this was any better.

"So if we get rid of the illusory letters in the message below," offered Zander, scribbling through the appropriate letters, "We might get the command phrase!" It looked like he was on to something, for the parchment now read:

-APPA PORT-- --DESTI-- ---LEY -TWO--- --SEVEN--​

"Let's try that!" Zander said, taking the parchment back into the narrow passageway. It looked plausible, for he knew "appaport" was an archaic word for "teleport" and "ley two seven" sounded like a coordinate on a ley line network. "Appaport desti ley two seven" he called out with his hand on the book chained to the pedestal.

Instantly, all five of the heroes disappeared. The hidden door silently slid back into place and locked. To all appearances, nobody had been by to disturb the Shrine of Delphyne.

From the heroes' point of view, however, the Shrine of Delphyne disappeared around them, to be replaced by a similar building. This one, despite having the same basic floor plan, was only a single story tall for the statue of Delphyne in the back was merely a bust, depicting the Goddess of Magic from the shoulders up. It was planted in place on a raided pedestal. Alewyth, Xandro, Wakuren and Thurloe were inside the shrine in the same places they had occupied in the shrine in Baron's Haven they'd just departed; Zander, however, was no longer in the hidden space behind the shrine but in the street just outside the open entrance.

There was a moaning sound behind him. Looking back, he saw a zombie lurching in his direction, a look of undying hunger in the dead thing's eyes. From the moans emanating all around them, the elven sorcerer guessed this wasn't the only zombie stumbling around in this city of the dead. But it made sense that the necromancer who'd stolen the missing dreamer (for whatever unknown purpose) would make his headquarters in a place surrounded by undead forces.

"Guys?" Zander called out to his friends. "We've got a problem...."

- - -

Since "Dregs" had been a short adventure, I figured we would get this far into the adventure that followed and then call it a session. The reason: the rest of this adventure involves exploring a city of the undead, because not only do they need to hunt down the necromancer and the missing dreamer but also the book of teleport command phrases because this Shrine of Delphyne is missing its copy. (The players don't know this for sure, but the necromancer took it with him and has hidden it somewhere nearby to ensure only he can use the teleport network hidden in select Shrines of Delphyne.) I figure this second part of "The Missing Dreamer" will likely go 4-5 hours. Plus, as this is the last planned 4th-level adventure for this campaign; after we finish the adventure next session we'll follow up by advancing the PCs to 5th level.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, to represent the undead in the Deadlands - but mostly because I was still wearing it from the last adventure.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 4​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 2​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 4​

Game Session Date: 20 November 2021

- - -

The corpse shuffled slowly as it meandered over towards Zander Quilson, its rheumy eyes never once dropping from the elf's direction. "Guys...?" the sorcerer repeated, not sure if his friends had heard him the first time.

But they most certainly had. Stepping out of the small Shrine of Delphyne - a completely different one than the one they'd stood in moments before, until the correct passphrase teleported them across unknown miles to this new location - Thurloe saw the zombie staggering towards Zander, its rotting teeth snapping as its gaze refused to leave the elf's neck and the life-blood coursing beneath its surface. Casting a quick protection from evil spell on himself as he stepped forward and unsheathed the bastard sword from his back, Thurloe readied himself for the zombie's approach. He had plenty of time before it would reach them.

Zander wasn't willing to wait, however. Saying the words to a magic missile spell, he pointed at the approaching undead form and a pair of glowing darts burst from his fingertip to streak across the distance and explode into the zombie's chest. It didn't even seem to notice, although there were burn marks where the missiles had struck its undead flesh.

Xandro Silverstrings saw the zombie and while he had full faith in Thurloe's ability to cut it down with his bastard sword, the bard knew where there was one zombie there was likely to be more and he also realized the group he was with tended to dislike fighting the animated remains of dead beings - not that he could blame them! As a result, he pulled the Dardolian Lute from his back and started strumming the strings, beginning the words to a song he'd use to magically inspire courage in his friends, that their blows would strike true and their determination remain strong.

Alewyth took a step outside the Shrine of Delphyne and stood transfixed at the sight immediately before her. Not the combat with the zombie; the others seemed to have that well in hand. No, it was the other open-air shrine directly across from that of Delphyne, Goddess of Magic. If there had ever been any doubt the statue before her, carved as if wearing dwarven armor and gripping a dwarven warhammer in one hand and a raised shield in the other, had originally been a depiction of Aerik, God of Earth, Stone, and Protection, the caption carved along the front face of the platform upon which the statue stood left no room for disbelief. The legend "MAY THE GOD OF PROTECTION PRESERVE THIS CITY AND ALL THOSE WHO WORK AND LIVE WITHIN IT" was carved in the Dwarven runic alphabet for all to see. However, the statue had been defaced - quite literally - in the days since its original erection in the shrine, as evidenced by the pile of gravel on the floor before it; somebody had taken a hammer and chisel to the statue and carved away Aerik's beard and facial features, leaving the semblance of a crude skull in its place. Whoever had performed this act of vandalism had no doubt intended to repurpose this shrine to the worship of Akari, God of Death and Undeath - and he likely didn't read Dwarven or he'd no doubt have defaced the inscription at the bottom as well.

Wakuren ran forward to aid in fighting off the zombie, noticing his paladin ability to detect the auras of evil beings was being overwhelmed by a miasma of evil covering the entire area. He slammed into the bloodthirsty zombie with his shield held before him but while his impact pushed it back a step or two, the half-orc's attack didn't seem to do much to the undead flesh holding the corpse creature mobile. Then Thurloe stepped up beside Wakuren and brought the blade of his bastard sword crashing down on the zombie's head, splitting it open like a ripe melon. It collapsed to the street and moved no more.

But just as sudden, another zombie stepped out between two buildings, perhaps attracted by the noise of the fight against the first one. It bit at Thurloe's arm but the fighter twisted away at the last moment and the rotting teeth merely clacked noisily against each other. Deciding he had no idea how many zombies might be about in this strange city and he'd best conserve his spells for as long as possible, Zander pulled out his wand and activated it, sending a single magic missile streaking into the zombie's chest. He could send two missiles by casting the spell himself, but he had many more charges left in his wand than the number of spells he could cast in a single day.

Having started his song and hopefully filled his friends with enough combat assistance to let them "coast" for awhile, Xando drew his rapier from the scabbard at his belt and stabbed at the zombie. Alewyth, in the meantime, had stepped away from the makeshift Shrine to Akari and saw an abandoned potion shop across the street. Looking over at the others, who seemed to be faring fine with their second zombie, the dwarven priestess stepped inside the potion shop and gave it a quick perusal. The dust on every surface showed there had been nobody in here for some time; passing through a door to the back of the building, she scooped up a handful of finished potions and placed them in her belt pouch before stepping back outside. Then, gripping her dwarven warhammer Sjondra, she sent it crashing into the zombie's head, crushing the rotting flesh and bone to a pulp.

"We had it taken care of," commented Thurloe as he stepped forward, looking down a side street that went from north to south. He saw no other undead forms but he could hear their moans and the sounds of feet shuffling through the dirt of the streets and alleys some distance away. There were apparently plenty more undead they'd need to take care of in this place.

"Didn't mean to imply you hadn't," Alewyth replied. "Just figured I'd land a hand." As she said that, another zombie shuffled forward into view from further south down the main street. With a look of determination, Thurloe stepped forward to meet it. Zander followed but made sure to allow the armored fighter-wizard plenty of lead space so he'd be the zombie's primary target. Thurloe seemed to enjoy hand-to-hand combat; Zander Quilson most adamantly did not. Wakuren followed, casting a spiritual weapon spell that took the form of a heavy mace, the chosen weapon of the half-orc's deity Cal, God of the Air and of Healing.

Xandro continued the tune of courage on his lute, having re-sheathed his rapier now that his own immediate combat was over. He moved forward as well but continued east, heading for the corner of what was apparently one ward of a larger city. He was sure a lone zombie wouldn't cause the others too much trouble and it seemed the sooner they searched this undead city the sooner they'd eventually stumble across the necromancer who had kidnapped the dreamer they were supposed to rescue - and hopefully the missing book from the Shrine of Delphyne which would allow them to teleport back to Baron's Haven. Without it they were screwed, for they had no idea where exactly they were or how to get back to the city they'd left. Xandro didn't want to leave his horse White behind and he knew the others would hate being permanently separated from their own mounts, especially Alewyth, who had developed quite a bond with her new dire goat mount Pyrite.

The lone zombie snapped at Thurloe, seemingly eager to chew the living flesh from his bones, but the swordsman was having none of that. Zander fired another magic missile from his wand at the undead thing as Thurloe's blade sliced into the zombie's side. The floating heavy mace slammed into the zombie's head and Wakuren was pleased to see a magical weapon created of pure force energy seemed to deal much more damage to zombie flesh than did his shield. But he slammed his shield into it regardless once he'd reached the hungry undead and the shield-strike permanently took the creature out of the fight.

Xandro, in the meantime, checked out an oblong building and a smaller one the size of a shed beside it. Neither held the missing necromancer; one was a long-unused bathhouse and the other a place to store towels and various soaps and powders. Alewyth ambled up behind him, curiosity compelling her to check it out. There was a trio of buildings across the street from the bathhouse and she headed over that way to give them a once-over, figuring as long as everyone stayed within shouting distance of each other they should be fine. She put an ear to the door of the building before her and heard the shuffling and moaning that hinted at a zombie inside; leaving that one be she stepped up a short flight of stairs to listen at the door at the top of the steps, another one-room dwelling for rent, it seemed, directly above the other. This too had the earmarks of a single zombie inhabitant no longer containing the intellect to operate the door knob and let itself out into the streets of the city. Alewyth opted to leave both rooms alone, confident that what they were looking for would not be found in a pair of one-room dwellings each with a single zombie inside.

Two more zombies ambled out of a side street, heading toward Thurloe and the other pair of adventurers stepping up behind him. He rushed forward to charge into the first zombie, leading with the blade of his bastard sword. It ripped through the zombie's chest and stuck out its back, sending a wave of gore out behind the thing to spray upon the other approaching zombie. Thurloe kicked his boot up against the zombie's chest to help tug his sword out of the thing's torso. It snapped its teeth at the fighter's foot while it was within range but undead reflexes are notoriously slower than those of the living, at least among corporeal undead with bodies composed of rotting meat.

Zander cast a mage armor spell upon himself, not wanting to take the chance one of these rotting zombies might manage to get up close and personal to the elf. Wakuren managed to swerve his spiritual heavy mace into the side of the first zombie's head before it winked out, the duration of the spell having run its course. Wakuren then led with his shield, using the edge of the metal bottom as a rather dull blade instead of slamming its flat surface against the undead flesh of his opponent. But it was Thurloe's bastard sword that drove in the killing blow, if the term can be truly used against a foe already quite dead at the start of the fight.

The other zombie shambled forward and tried grabbing Thurloe in its bent fingers to pull him in for a bite at his neck, but the fighter easily extracted himself from the creature's grasp before it could sink its rotting teeth into his flesh. Zander abandoned the combat to go check out the door to a large building - a barracks, by the look of it - recalling their real reason for being here was not to rid the city of every wandering zombie inhabiting its streets. The sooner they could find the missing dreamer and be about their normal business the happier the elf sorcerer would be. The heavy door was locked and looked like it hadn't been opened for some time, judging by the dirt and leaves piled up against the door by the wind. Zander opted to leave the barracks doors alone and cast an expeditious retreat spell upon himself, then hurried to catch up with Thurloe and Wakuren.

The northeastern corner of the city ward having been a bust, Xandro and Alewyth started back the way they came and headed south down the street the others had taken. Wakuren opened the large doors to a stable while Thurloe slew the remaining zombie with his blade. Not surprisingly, the stables held a trio of ponies, each stinking of rotting meat and mostly skeletal in nature; they'd apparently been starved to death in the stables and remained here waiting for someone to open up the doors to their individual stalls. Wakuren chose not to be that someone and closed the door to the stables back up. Another nearby building held similar results, this larger construction holding eight horse stalls, half of them containing undead horses mostly skeletal with but a few scraps of flesh hanging down from their bones. The nearest moved its head over the door of its stall and snapped at the half-orc but then Wakuren slammed the stable door back shut and moved on further south through the city.

"This looks more promising!" Thurloe declared upon seeing a large building just ahead, its construction of solid stone rather than the flimsy wood of most of the other buildings in the neighborhood. The door was of sturdy wood with iron bands across the top and bottom. Trying it, Thurloe confirmed it was locked. "Over here!" Wakuren called to Xandro and Alewyth, hurrying to catch up. Then, realizing he was also probably alerting the necromancer with his calls - if indeed this was the building in which he'd taken residence, a likely supposition given it was the largest and most solidly-constructed they'd seen thus far - the half-orc added, "You six cast invisibility spells on yourselves before we break in!" Hopefully that would give the necromancer something to worry about! Then Wakuren applied himself to bursting through the door, slamming at it again and again with his shield. The wood creaked and groaned with each burst.

The others were focused on Wakuren's steady - and rather noisy - efforts, and thus they almost missed spotting the shadowy figure rise up out of the street's surface at the edge of the keep. The ethereal being drifted over towards the group and Zander called out a warning as the shadow closed the gap between them. He fired off a magic missile from his wand, secure in the knowledge that force energy should affect the incorporeal shadow.

Xandro had reached the others by then and still had the Dardolian Lute in hand, playing his song of courage. He altered the lyrics, using one of the magical lute's secret abilities, allowing the bard to weave actual spells into his melodies. A cure moderate wounds spell was infused into the lute and Xandro pushed the instrument's neck into the body of the insubstantial shadow, the positive energy of the spell firing into the undead form and weakening its necromantic structure. Alewyth, still catching up, cast a protection from evil spell upon herself as she ran.

Seeing the efficacy of force energy against the shadow, Wakuren took time out from his door-smashing and cast a second spiritual weapon spell, sending the heavy mace crashing into the shadow's weakened structure. That was enough to dissipate it into nothingness. "Nice job!" enthused Thurloe, then picked up where the half-orc had left off on gaining them entry into the stone keep. He kicked at a weakened spot with his hard-soled boot and the door splintered inwards.

There were two skeletons inside waiting for him, clad in rusty mail and wielding longswords. They sped forward at once, springing to the attack, but Thurloe managed to fend them off with his bastard sword. Zander blasted one with another charge from his wand of magic missile, while Xandro, unable to get through the broken door (there was room enough for but one and Thurloe was currently occupying that space) contented himself with hanging back and playing his song of courageous inspiration. Wakuren likewise couldn't fit through the partially-shattered door with Thurloe in the way - but he had no problem sending in his spiritual heavy mace. It flew in over Thurloe's head and came crashing down on the first skeleton, obliterating it to a pile of clattering bones.

Thurloe stepped fully into the room and brought his bastard sword in at the skeleton in a sideways slash. Wakuren entered behind him, slamming the skeleton with his shield now that he had room to do so. But it was Thurloe's blade which destroyed the skeleton warrior with a final slice that severed its spine. Then the fighter went south into what looked to be a kitchen, Zander following in his wake. The elf sorcerer opened a door to a pantry and noted the foodstuff stored there was all in edible condition, with a barrel of fresh water sitting upright on the floor. This was all a good sign that there was somebody alive in the keep, someone still taking regular meals.

Xandro entered the building and headed north into a dusty living room that gave the opposite indication: it didn't look as if anybody had spent any time in here for months, if not years. Wakuren and Alewyth went that way with the bard, crossing over to an arcane library whose walls were covered in shelves containing all manners of tomes and volumes detailing a number of arcane topics: the outer planes, various summoning rituals, and other magical esoterica. Alewyth made a note to point out what looked to be a set of spellbooks to Thurloe after they'd done what they came here to do; maybe he could use them in his own magical self-tutoring.

Thurloe passed through an unlocked door in the back of the pantry and found himself in a bathroom, complete with a privy and a small metal tub. A door on the far wall entered into a bedroom with an unmade bed and a closet filled with a variety of black robes. He smiled to himself at this discovery, as these were exactly the types of garment likely to be popular with a necromancer.

The other three, in the meantime, left the library and entered an arcane laboratory, with several tables containing a variety of magical projects in various stages of completion. Xandro headed toward a cabinet to take a peek inside when a voice suddenly exploded into his head. It was Father Bones casting a message spell: <Undead creation scrolls stolen from temple. Possible missing dreamer was involved. If found, return immediately. Do not allow them to fall into the hands of evil.>

Before Xandro could tell the others about the message spell a door at the far end opened, but it was only Zander; the two groups had made a circuit around the keep's rooms in opposite directions and now there was only the middle of the building yet to be accounted for. The elf stepped into the lab and opened the door leading into the center of the keep and there he found what the group had been seeking.

The center of the room contained a magic circle inscribed in silver on the floor, in the center of which lay a black-clad adult male human, fast asleep. In a corner of the room stood the necromancer Vargendraal, frantically flipping through a book he held in his hands and muttering to himself. Belatedly, he noted the door opening and saw an elven face peering into the room from the arcane laboratory of the keep's original owner, an unknown wizard who had likely died when whatever event transformed the city into a dwelling-place of the undead.

"How did you get in here?" demanded Vargendraal. "My skeletons--" He was cut off as a scorching ray spell blasted him in the front of his robes; Zander wasn't in the mood for answering questions or asking any of his own. Vargendraal snarled in pain and retaliated with a vampiric touch spell, siphoning off some of the elf's life energy and using it to heal up the wounds the necromancer had just received as a result of the sorcerer's fire-based spell attack. Zander staggered on his feet, weakened by the draining attack. Vargendraal cast another quick spell upon himself and it wasn't until Thurloe entered and swung his bastard sword into the necromancer's body that anyone learned what exactly it was: a burst of necromantic energy was channeled through Vargendraal's death armor spell, down the length of the sword, and into Thurloe's body. It was difficult to see which of the two had suffered more from the result of the sword-strike.

But Zander wasn't done with casting scorching ray spells just yet. Stepping fully into the room and stepping around the still-sleeping body of Pietro Manicaldrian, he sent another blast of fire energy at Vargendraal. The necromancer's stolen energy was depleted in the attack and he too found himself woozy on his feet. Surprisingly, it was Xandro who slew the evil wizard with a quick thrust of his magic longsword; Vargendraal had turned to face Thurloe and Zander and hadn't even noticed the bard's entrance into the summoning chamber.

Thurloe was quick to examine the necromancer's corpse for potential magic items, removing a ring that looked like it might hold some sort of arcane effect. Alewyth examined the book Vangendraal had been referencing, finding a diagram of a skull-shaped pendant that matched the one the sleeping thief had around his neck. Reading through the pages of the text, she explained what the necromancer had been doing. "That skull pendant on our dreamer is linked to an extradimensional space," she explained. "To retrieve whatever was placed in it, you have to touch one of the rubies in its eyes and say the command word. The problem is, if you touch the wrong eye gem, whatever's in the extradimensional space gets dumped into the Astral Plane instead."

"So the wizard had a 50-50 shot of getting it right," Zander said.

"Must have been something important enough to not want to take the chance," Thurloe mused. Then he started chuckling. "That's probably why he came to fetch this guy in the first place: he was probably hired to steal something and stash it away, and then got caught up in the dream-plague before he could return with his goods. That must have been irritating for our necromancer friend!"

"I wonder what's in there?" Alewyth asked.

"I think I know," replied Xandro and filled the rest of the group in on Father Bones' message spell.

"Well, let's tie him up," decided Thurloe, pulling the skull pendant from around Pietro's neck and placing it in a belt pouch. "We'll bring him back to Father Bones, give him the pendant, and try to wake Mr. Sleepy from there."

"You're forgetting: we have no way to get back until we find the Book of Delphyne," Wakuren chimed in. So while Thurloe busied himself binding Pietro's arms and legs to his satisfaction, the others searched the keep for the missing Book of Delphyne. They eventually found it in a desk drawer. Wakuren flipped to the page with the statue from the shrine in Baron's Haven and read the inscription beneath it. It read:


"Make anything of it?" Alewyth asked as she packed up the spellbooks of the necromancer they'd just slain and also those of the keep's original wizard inhabitant. Wakuren traced the letters with his finger and finally exclaimed, "Got it! You just bounce up and down between the two lines, from right to left and then back again from left to right. 'Baron's Haven Ley One Eight.' It must be some sort of ley-line coordinates or something."

"Good," replied Thurloe, stepping into the library with a tightly-bound Pietro tossed over one shoulder. "Let's get back; this guy's kind of heavy."

There were two zombies just outside the keep but the group made short work of them. They made their way back to the Shrine of Delphyne without any serious opposition, and then everyone touched the shoulder of the person in front of them while Wakuren pried open the secret door and placed the Book of Delphyne on its dais. "Baron's Haven Ley One Eight," he intoned...and the group was instantly teleported back to the Shrine of Delphyne in the city in which they had started. The homeless beggar Gilfrey was still sitting in the alley across from the Temple of Akari where they'd left him. "Got your guy, I see," he said.

"Thanks to you," Alewyth answered, slipping him a few coins.

Father Bones was overjoyed to see the adventurers again. "Yes, he's the parishioner who fell asleep in our pew," he said upon seeing Pietro. "Did you happen to find the Black Scrolls?" Thurloe passed over the skull pendant while Alewyth explained its workings. "I'm sure a divination spell will tell you which eye gem is the right one to touch," she advised her fellow cleric. She then explained what all would be required for the group to rescue the thief from his dreams and Father Bones immediately agreed to stand watch over their sleeping bodies as they entered Pietro's dreams. He had a few of the other clerics join them to ensure there were no interruptions.

Alewyth placed a dreamstone headband around Pietro's brow as the five adventurers sat around him in a circle, each wearing their own similar headband and carrying a second dreamstone in their hand. Then, one by one, they slowed their breathing and entered a dream state. Their moogle guides were there to meet them in the Dreamlands and escorted them to the Hallway of Dreams. "It's this one, kupo!" explained Mogo, opening a particular door.

Stepping through the dream-door, the five entered a dusty plane of whipping winds. They could see Pietro quite clearly, running across a dusty field in a panicked frenzy. The reason for this was quite evident, for following behind him was a pile of bouncing bones. It was a strange thing to be worried about, but by now the group understood that while inside a dream, logic often took a backseat.

"How do we wake him?" asked Zander. "Defeat a pile of bones?"

"Look!" Alewyth said, pointing to the bones trailing the fleeing thief. As they bounced around in a line behind him, occasionally two bones would bump into each other and remain attached. This happened more and more as time went by and soon the loose pile of bones had organized itself into the skeleton of a giant cat.

"Let's go!" commanded Thurloe, in pursuit of the skeletal cat. He raised the dreamstone in his hand and focused his will through it, attempting to weaken the skeletal cat. The other four followed his lead and the cat, which had picked up quite a burst of speed once fully assembled into skeletal form, slowed down considerably, to the point Pietro was able to maintain his distance. "That's better!" Thurloe said, pulling his bastard sword from the scabbard on his back. "Now let's go get it!" Not wanting to wait until he reached the cat he dredged up the spellcasting abilities he'd been working on and sent a magic missile spell streaking to hit the feline skeleton. Despite it not having any vocal apparatus, it yowled in pain at the attack and whirled to face the five adventurers running its way.

But then it hissed its annoyance at them and returned to its original goal of running down Pietro. The thief had turned to see what the commotion had been about and was amazed to see five rescuers in his dream; in his amazement, he stopped running until he saw the skeletal cat bearing down on him once again. Turning to flee, he tripped and landed face-first on the ground and the cat pounced upon his back, raking him with its foreclaws.

Zander cast a scorching ray spell at the cat, causing it to spin about again; Pietro took the opportunity to pull himself to his feet and resume his panicked flight. "Over here!" Alewyth called, indicating he should run to them so they could better protect him; her dwarven legs were never going to allow her to catch up with him otherwise. (How she wished Pyrite was here with her in the dreamscape!) In the meantime, she cast a spiritual weapon spell and sent the force-warhammer flying over to strike at the skeletal cat.

Xandro used a stratagem he'd just used for the first time in the city the group had taken to referring as "the Deadlands" - using the Dardolian Lute as a means of channeling a cure moderate wounds spell through his music. The healing energy of the spell acted like acid against the undead cat, causing its bones to blacken and blister. Wakuren cast a cure moderate wounds spell directly from his fingertips to the skeletal cat's bones, furthering the damage.

Then Thurloe brought his bastard sword into play and was disappointed to see a skeleton in the dreamlands was as difficult to hurt with a blade as it was in real life. But if nothing else it focused the cat's attention on him, for its claws scratched furrows across the chest plate of his armor and it caught the fighter's left arm in its teeth. With the cat focused on these intruders to the dreamscape, Pietro made it successfully to Alewyth, panting from his exertions. "Th-thank you," he gasped, bending over with his hands on his knees and trying to catch his breath.

Zander finished off the skeletal cat with another scorching ray spell, and this time the blackened bones collapsed back into a pile but did no further dancing about. He turned to look over at Pietro, but the thief was already fading away like a ghost. "That did it - he's waking up!" the elf announced to the others.

"Yeah, no kidding," replied Thurloe, sheathing his sword as the dreamscape started fading around them. One by one, the dreamwalkers woke themselves up and were back in their normal bodies, sitting in a circle around the bound - but quite awake - Pietro Manicaldrian.

"What's happening? What's going on?" demanded the bound thief.

"You have been a very naughty boy," replied Thurloe, bending over Pietro who was struggling to get out of the ropes binding his ankles and wrists. "Stealing from a church...very, very naughty indeed."

"Hey, no offense intended," Pietro whined. "A job's a job, right? Gotta go where the money's at, you know?"

"Oh, I know exactly what you're talking about," cooed Thurloe. "The problem is, you didn't steal from me -- you stole from him!" And he stood back up and pointed over to Father Bones. Pietro's gaze followed to where Thurloe was pointing and he saw a skeletal being clad in black robes bending over him.

"I am Father Bones," intoned the temple's leader in as deep a voice as he could muster. "You have stolen from the God of Death and Undeath! Do you know the punishment for such a deed?"

"Think we're finished here," Thurloe said to the others in his group. "We'll leave the lich to deal with his scroll-robber."

"I don't envy him," said Zander, his face drained of blood.

"Good thing we don't cross those in charge of the afterlife," Wakuren observed. "You really don't want to get on their bad side." Pietro's screams of terror only emphasized the half-orc's point.

- - -

And it doesn't hurt getting on the good side of those in charge of the afterlife, either; Father Bones rewarded the PCs with 100 gp and a potion of cure serious wounds each.

This ended up being a much shorter session than I had anticipated, in part because I had built a random encounter table for the wandering undead in the the Deadlands and then scrupulously adhered to the die rolls at the start of each round. That gave the group quite a breather when I rolled "no encounter" like three rounds in a row. In hindsight, I should have piled on a nice group of 5-6 bloodthirsty zombies all at once; if you're going to have a custom-made city overrun by undead you probably should take advantage of the opportunity when you have it. Oh well, maybe later in the campaign there will be another reason to enter the Deadlands.

The PCs all reached 5th level at the end of this adventure. Wakuren took another level in paladin, Thurloe took his second wizard level, and Harry - getting a little bit bored of the "support role" of the bard - decided he'd start multiclassing Xandro Silverstrings into a bard/rogue. Alewyth and Zander are now our only single-classed PCs.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, as that seemed the most appropriate for the adventure - and due to scheduling constraints, it had been five weeks since we played through part one of the adventure, plenty of time for it to have been through the laundry in the meantime (as I had also worn it during our previous game session).
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 5​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 5​

Game Session Date: 4 December 2021

- - -

"All rise! The Honorable Magistrate Jondir Duprayne presiding!"

Everyone in the courtroom immediately stood up as Magistrate Duprayne entered and took his seat behind the desk on the elevated platform at the back of the room. He banged the gavel three times in rapid succession on the desk before him. "This court is now in session," he intoned. "Who's first this morning?" he asked his bailiff.

"These five, Your Honor," replied his bailiff, a burly-looking man who looked like he could handle his own in a fight. He indicated the five adventurers who had been taken away from a hearty breakfast at the Merry Minstrel Inn that morning by a band of hobgoblin city guards. They'd been escorted into the courtroom, where a page had explained to them the courtroom had a permanent zone of truth spell effect cast upon it, preventing anyone within its confines from telling a lie. "They were observed casting spells within the city limits on several occasions."

Magistrate Duprayne glared down at the five. Then his attention was diverted to Wakuren. "Did you steal that armor?" he demanded.

"No, sir," Wakuren replied.

"You will address the Magistrate as 'Your Honor,'" chided the bailiff.

"No, Your Honor," amended Wakuren.

"Then you're really a cleric of Cal?" The symbol of the High-Father was prominently displayed on the half-orc's armor and shield.

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Hmm. You don't see that every day." Then he turned back to the group as a whole. "When you first entered the city, were you briefed on the prohibitions against spellcasting within the city walls unless under the direct supervision of one of the city's clerics?"

Thurloe took it upon himself to answer for the group. "We were, Your Honor."

Magistrate Duprayne looked down at a sheet of parchment before. "It says you were seen casting spells in the streets outside the Merry Minstrel Inn several days ago, and then again in the poorer section of town over by the dumps. Is this correct?"

Wakuren confessed to having cast a spiritual weapon spell against the druid who had unleashed dire apes upon the city and argued that it was done only in the interests of neutralizing a dangerous threat that could have harmed innocent townsfolk. Alewyth likewise explained she had merely cast a bless spell and Zander had cast a mage armor spell before entering combat with the corpse of a woman who had been animated by a trio of dregworms that had inhabited her body - again, with the best interests of the city at heart. The dwarven priestess felt she had made her case when a balding man in the back row stood up and addressed the Magistrate directly.

"If it please the court?" he asked, waiting for permission to continue.

"Yes?" asked Magistrate Duprayne.

"Your Honor, my name is Byram Herschfeld and I'm a structural engineer for the city. I've been put in charge of clearing out the rubble from the wizard's tower that exploded last week. I have a half-dozen laborers working for me and we've discovered there's a level below the keep. One of the rooms we found down there indicates the wizard may have been associating with devils and now none of my men will go down there anymore. City regulations require at least a two-man team exploring potentially dangerous areas. I could greatly use people with the adventuring experience of these five. Given the nature of the spells they cast - in the defense of the city's inhabitants, it bears repeating - I feel we can trust them into my care. With Your Honor's permission and agreement, I would like to recommend they be sentenced to aiding me in clearing out the underground level of any potential dangers to the city."

"How long do you think it would take?" asked the Magistrate.

"I have no idea how extensive the underground level might be, Your Honor, or if there are any other levels beneath the one we've discovered thus far. I would imagine probably a day or two - three at the very most - would be sufficient."

"Very well." He turned to the five adventurers before him. "You will each have a lesser geas spell placed upon you, the duration to last no longer than a full week's time or until Byram reports back that any dangers to the city in the tunnels below the wizard's tower have been dealt with, whichever comes first. Case dismissed."

"I hope you don't mind me butting in like that," Byram said to his new group of workers as they were escorted to a side room where a cleric would be casting the required lesser geas spells upon them. "Magistrate Duprayne has a reputation for coming down hard on spellcasting offenders - this job is likely a much better deal for you than whatever his original punishment was likely to be. And I get the help I need to check out the lower level beneath the tower."

"Win-win," Thurloe agreed, not without a trace of suspicion in his voice. This Byram fellow was certainly winning, but Thurloe wasn't entirely thrilled with any sort of magical compulsion - especially if it meant potentially being forced to fight devils. He viewed this whole setup as a form of robbery - robbing the dreamwalkers of their liberty - and the fact that the ones doing the robbing were the law of the city didn't make it feel like any less of a violation. Still, what was the option: take on an entire city, just the five of them? Thurloe knew where that particular trail led. Best to just get this whole thing over with and move on to the next town as soon as possible.

By the time they'd had their lesser geas spells cast upon them and Byram led them across town to the site of the collapsed tower, Thurloe was feeling a little better. The wizard's tower wasn't that big: a mere 30 feet to a side and all of two stories tall before the upper level collapsed down onto the ground level a week ago after some sort of explosion in the middle of the night. With a keep that small, maybe the dungeon level would be similarly small and this task would be completed quickly, so the group could be on their way.

The workers were already in place and hard at it, lugging chunks of stone from the site and tossing them onto various piles out on the yard. "How's it going, Toby?" asked Byram.

"We got a mostly clear path off to the room on the right," the worker replied. He looked over at the new recruits, all suited up in their adventuring gear. "You takin' them downstairs?" he asked Byram. Upon his boss's acknowledgement, Toby stared Thurloe right in the eye. "You be careful down there," he admonished. "I don't care what anybody says. I saw that devil move. I saw it move!" And with that, he turned back to his work, lugging a chunk of broken stone out of one of the gaps in what ground floor walls still stood after the collapse of the tower.

"Just exactly what happened here?" asked Alewyth, looking at the rubble and wreckage.

"Not sure exactly," replied Byram as he lit the end of a torch on fire. "Middle of the night a week or so ago, there was a big explosion and the top of the building collapsed down upon the floor below it. Owner was a wizard, an aloof sort name of Revellius Bonesaw, kept pretty much to himself. Nobody's seen him since, so it's possible he was killed in the explosion, not that we've come across his body yet. But if it's under there" - and here he pointed at the piles of collapsed stone still waiting to be removed from the area where the tower once stood - "we'll get to it eventually. It's not like it'll be going anywhere." He picked up a small cage, inside of which sat a canary. "You folks ready to go on down?"

"We'd like to cast a few spells first, if that's okay with you," Thurloe replied. Back at the Magistrate's courtroom, it was explained that Byram Herschfeld, as an employee of the city, was being made their official city representative and had the power to grant permission for the casting of spells as he saw fit in the accomplishment of the task to which he'd been appointed.

"By all means. In fact, consider this an open invitation to cast whatever spells you need while we're downstairs. We get ourselves into any kind of danger, I want you to be able to respond quickly without having to check with me first."

"Well, that's more like it!" Thurloe said and began casting a protection from evil spell upon himself, an eminently practical spell if there was any chance they'd end up fighting devils below the wizard's tower. Zander cast both a mage armor and a bear's endurance spell upon himself, then rifled through his scrolls until he found one containing an expeditious retreat spell and cast that upon himself as well. Wakuren cast a virtue spell on the elven sorcerer, then activated his ring of invisibility and faded from view. Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and then a bless spell upon the whole group.

"Nothing for you?" Byram asked Xandro.

"I'm good," replied the bard.

"Well, let's head on down then," suggested the structural engineer, lifting the canary cage and holding the torch before him. "I'll lead us down to the room that caused all the fuss - we never did get to explore it very much." He led the group through a clear path in the rubble, heading over to a set of stairs in the back corner of the keep - what was likely once the kitchen. The stairs led down into an alchemist's lab, lit only by Byram's torch. Thurloe activated a sunrod from his pack so he'd have his own handy source of illumination. The lab contained a couple tables with various alchemical apparatus on it, none of it disturbed by the collapse of the tower above. There was another door on the far side of the room and Byram headed straight for it.

"Here you go, see for yourself," he said, opening the door and stepping back.

Wakuren and Alewyth were the first to stick their heads into the doorway, for their darkvision allowed them to see just fine without any illumination. One the floor before them, taking up most of the center of the room, was a silvery pentagram etched into the floor. There was no furniture in the room and only what looked to be a closet door at the south end of the room, but that just made for plenty of wall space to devote to murals. And of murals there were plenty: every available inch of wall-space had been painstakingly painted in exquisite detail, with scenes of leering devils torturing panicked humans and Hellscapes in the background: fire raining down from the skies, lakes of flame, horrible horned serpents and worse crawling in the background. And Wakuren couldn't help but believe he had seen one or more of the devils move in his peripheral vision, as if it had turned his head towards the half-orc and then moved back into place once Wakuren turned his gaze that way. "You see anything funny about these paintings?" he asked Alewyth.

"Funny? Certainly not." She saw nothing but depravity in the scenes depicted on the walls and didn't blame the workers above one bit for not wanting to enter the room.

But Thurloe followed them into the room and caught motion out of the corner of his eye, just as he'd been warned about by the worker upstairs. Zander activated his scout's headband and used up all of its daily power at once to grant himself true seeing for a full minute. "These paintings are all illusions!" he declared.

Thurlough pulled his bastard sword from its scabbard on his back and poked the blade into the middle of the head of a painted devil, one which the fighter-wizard could swear he'd seen move but a moment earlier. One of the properties of his blade was the destruction of illusions it touched, and sure enough when he touched the blade to the devil it not only stopped moving but disappeared altogether. Touching his blade to other parts of the walls caused the images to fade from view as well. "Sure enough: these scenes are all just illusions," he announced.

"To what end?" asked Xandro.

"Who knows? Just for fun? To scare intruders into not wanting to venture any further?" Thurloe hazarded.

"There's not much further to go, though," said Wakuren, still invisible but obviously the one who was opening the closet in the back. Unfortunately, it was filled with shelves containing spell components and a wide variety of small statuettes of various devils. Wakuren tried pulling on the statues, hoping to trigger a secret door release mechanism, but none of the figures were attached to the shelves upon which they were arranged. He picked up a statuette of what looked to be a shapely succubus with feathered wings instead of those of a bat, looking it over; to the others, they saw the statuette rising from the shelf seemingly of its own accord and hovering in the air. Only Zander could see through Wakuren's invisibility, but then he focused his attention on the magic pentagram on the floor, looking to see (as Thurloe suggested) if there might be some secret way to raise it up and find a secret set of stairs below it or something. That didn't pan out, but then Zander looked closer at the closet interior and noticed the thin slots along the floor at the closet's front and back: a sure sign that the whole closet had a way of moving to the side. Sure enough, by merely pushing on the eastern wall of the closet, the whole thing moved about three feet to the area directly beneath the stairs leading up to the ground level.

Scrambling through the opening, Zander saw a corridor heading east almost immediately upon exiting the back of the closet. But there were niches on either side of the narrow corridor about 15 feet down, and in each niche stood a suit of full plate armor holding a longsword pointed at its feet. Zander knew what that likely meant: a pair of guardian constructs that would animate and attack as soon as anyone tried passing between them unless they gave the proper command word or wore the correct ring or something like that. Not wanting to test his theory, he merely backtracked the way he had come and let the others know what he had found.

Thurloe pushed his way through the narrow passageway and advanced up to the suits of armor, examining them with his sunrod in one hand and his bastard sword in the other. Sure enough, there were runes on the helmets, chests, and shoulders of the armor and if the young wizard was recalling his lessons correctly they had something to do with transmutation magic. "These things are gonna attack anyone who tries passing by them," he said.

"Let's test that," suggested the still-invisible Wakuren, still carrying the statuette of the erinyes devil. He passed between the armor without incident, the "floating" statuette seeing to fly right past their heads with no response.

Zander took that as a possible good sign and ran past the suits of armor as well. However, while they hadn't detected Wakuren's invisible form and had dismissed the "flying" statuette as harmless, an elven stranger in the master's secret underground level was enough of a trigger to jolt them to a semblance of instant life. They brought their swords up and out to swing at the passing elf, one of the blades getting in a lucky strike against Zander's shin as he raced by. But then Thurloe was upon them with his own blade, allowing Zander to flee further down the tunnel and out of range of the dread guards.

Alewyth advanced down the corridor behind Thurloe and tried casting a dispel magic spell at the one not currently trading blows with Thurloe (as it was the only one she could see at the moment). Her spell didn't seem to have any effect. Behind her, Xandro sent a crossbow bolt flying over her head to strike the same dread guard in the helmet.

But then the first dread guard stepped out of its niche and blocked any further traffic through the corridor. It attacked Thurloe, standing directly in front of it, but the fighter dodged the thing's blow. Byram entered the tunnel from the narrow passageway in the back of the summoning room's closet, but as instructed earlier he held himself back out of danger, allowing the trained professionals to deal with the real threats.

Wakuren spun around and went flying back down the tunnel the way he had come, slamming his shield into the back of the dread guard facing Thurloe. His shield bash attack returned him to full visibility and it was enough - after Thurloe's successful blows - to reduce the guardian to a pile of loose pieces of armor which spilled apart and rolled around on the tunnel floor.

Despite the combat going on behind him, Zander decided his best course of action was to leave the combat to those better suited to it than the elven sorcerer; besides, he had a clock ticking on his true seeing abilities and he'd best get the most mileage from it as he could! With that in mind, he reached a cross-tunnel just ahead and turned north, poking his head into what could only be a sacrificial chamber - judging from the bloodstained altar in the middle of the room before a life-sized statue of some horned devil in the back of the room - and here he was immediately rewarded for the cleverness of his ploy for he could see the sacrificial dagger lying upon the altar was not just any old dagger but rather a bearded devil polymorphed into that form.

However, since the dagger was just sitting there lifelessly, Zander judged it to be harmless for the moment and retraced his way back to the intersection and this time went south, opening a door into a library. This had shelves of books and tomes, with a jumble of scroll tubes spilling out of a case and statues of devils carved into the very walls between the shelves. But of the more immediate notice was the robed figure slumped over onto a table in the middle of the room, as if he'd fallen asleep reading the tome open before him. However, on closer inspection, Zander could see the edges of the pages in the book the figure - who now that he paid closer attention wasn't breathing - had been reading were blackened and charred. But then all thoughts of the robed man and his possible fate were dashed aside when a glowing figure rose up out of the floor beside the corpse. It wore a robe remarkably similar to the one the dead wizard was wearing, and that told Zander this was probably the man's ghost or spirit or something - nothing he wanted to get involved with, in any case! Hoping the undead spirit would constrain itself to the arcane library, Zander closed the door behind him and ran back to the intersection. There was another door to the east but the elf opted to head back west, closer to his adventuring companions.

There was door there as well, just past the spot where the dread guards had stood their tireless watch and where one even now traded blows with Wakuren and Thurloe. Zander opened the door, saw it was a small room containing three small cells, and deduced this was where Revellius Bonesaw kept his victims before sacrificing them on the altar in the first room he'd unearthed. But as there didn't seem to be anything interesting in the cell room, he turned back without bothering to close the door.

That was a particularly bad idea, for there was an iron cobra behind the door and Zander had basically just set it free to attack him and his companions. It came slithering out of the open doorway and bit at the unsuspecting elf, who at least had the good fortune of hearing the sounds it made as its iron body slithered across the stone floor of the underground level and thus had enough forewarning to avoid its sudden strike.

A dwarven warhammer suddenly manifested in the air above Thurloe's head and came smashing down upon the sole remaining dread guard. While its attention was directed at the spiritual weapon, Thurloe got in another good strike with his bastard sword. Xandro sent another crossbow bolt flying over Alewyth's head into the armored helmet of the guardian construct. It lashed out again at Thurloe, its original target, as Wakuren slammed into its back with his shield.

But then, with everyone focusing on their current foe, the wraith flew out of the wall and sent a clawed hand into Zander Quilson's body, sending a wave of cold coursing through the elf. Zander dropped the figurine of wondrous power from his fingertips and said the activation word, allowing the elven dog to form into its full, living size. "Take care of the cobra for me!" he commanded as he spun to face the wraith. The cooshee leaped to the attack at once, snapping at the serpentine construct's iron body with his teeth.

Alewyth's spiritual weapon drove the final blow on the dread guard and it too fell to pieces on the stone floor of the corridor. The way now clear, she started heading towards the east, for Zander had said something about a sacrificial dagger that needed destroying and that certainly sounded like a job well suited to her dwarven warhammer, Sjondra. Thurloe, in the meantime, had lowered his sword and pointed a finger of his other hand at the wraith, calling out the words to a magic missile spell as he did so. The bolt of force energy hit true - as the fighter-wizard knew it would - sending a flurry of energy erupting through the incorporeal creature's body.

Stuck behind both Thurloe and Alewyth in the narrow corridor, Xandro put away his light crossbow and pulled out his Dardolian Lute, starting the tune of his inspirational courage; it was one way he could contribute to the fights against enemies he at the moment couldn't reach himself.

The iron cobra, metal hood flaring, darted in at the cooshee and caught him in the throat with its envenomed bite. The rank poison started coursing through the elven dog's body, affecting him as it would any other creature of living flesh. The cooshee felt his muscles weakening as a result but determinedly fought on.

Wakuren activated his other ring, channeling an extra burst of healing energy into his hand in addition to the cure moderate wounds spell he called into being. Then he rushed at the wraith, hoping to send a massive burst of positive energy at it all at once. In this he was unfortunately disappointed for his body passed right through the undead spirit without affecting it at the least; always a danger when fighting incorporeal foes. But the wraith darted a hand out and siphoned energy from the half-orc's body, causing an involuntary snarl of hatred to burst from Wakuren's fanged mouth. Fortunately, the soldier of Cal managed to connect with his second strike, sending the accumulated positive energy cascading across the wraith's incorporeal frame, eliciting a howling wail of pain that brought a smile to Wakuren's lips.

The wraith was clearly on its last legs. It dashed at Wakuren again, its face a rictus of hatred. The half-orc felt his body go cold against the undead creature's touch but he fought off the worst of the effects and sent his shield swishing through the wraith's incorporeal body; it didn't do any good but it made Wakuren feel better to do so. And then a second magic missile spell, this one from Zander, sent the wraith's body dissipating to nothingness. Off to the side of the elf, the iron cobra and the cooshee snapped at each other, mostly in vain.

Alewyth redirected her spiritual weapon spell to attack the iron cobra as she entered the sacrificial chamber and scowled at the statue of the leering devil along the far wall. Then she hefted Sjondra, lifted it behind her head for an overhead swing, and brought it crashing down onto the sacrificial altar, right where the dagger had lain...but was there no longer. It was now somehow hanging in the air on the other side of the altar, much like the erinyes statue had seemed to fly when an invisible Wakuren had carried it around. Alewyth scrambled up onto the altar and swung at the dagger again but it dodged in midair, darting around out of the way of the dwarf's warhammer. Wakuren entered the chamber behind Alewyth and saw her predicament; he climbed up onto the altar beside her and tried swatting the flying dagger with his shield.

In the meantime, the battle with the iron cobra was raging and it now not only involved the cooshee and the metal serpent snapping at each other but also Alewyth's spiritual weapon spell, Xandro shooting crossbow bolts at the iron cobra, and Zander casting a shocking grasp spell from a scroll and then trying to touch the rapidly-swaying automaton with no success. As this was all happening in a short side-corridor leading to the room of cells, Byram moved past the commotion to head over towards Alewyth and Wakuren, while Thurloe decided everyone else had their respective battles in hand so he might as well go check out that door at the eastern dead-end corridor.

As soon as he touched his hand to the doorknob Thurloe realized he'd made a mistake, for there was some sort of glyph inscribed above the handle and as soon as he even glanced at it it triggered. The symbol of pain sent a magical wave bursting throughout the underground complex, wracking all but Thurloe and Byram with agonizing pain. The fighter had managed to fight of the worst of the spell's effects and looked back at the others with a half-apologetic grin on his face, then decided he might as well see what was worth protecting with so powerful a ward. The corridor beyond the door continued for a dozen feet or so before spilling into a deep pit; looking over the lip, Thurloe saw half a dozen chests lined up along the pit's edge, in the center of which was a pile of human bones - no doubt the remains of those sacrificed in the chamber Alewyth and Wakuren were in - and a mass of goop that was likely all that was left of them besides the bones. As the pit was a good 40 feet deep, Thurloe decided to leave it for last, as there was no point in climbing down there to check out the chests until all of the other dangers had been dealt with. Therefore, he sauntered back out of the pit room (leaving the door wide open) and headed over to the sacrificial chamber to see if the two clerics needed any help in swatting down a flying dagger.

It turned out they had made almost no progress at all, for it was still doing aerial maneuvers around the room while the two clerics tried hitting it with their shield and with Sjondra, respectively. But then, as Thurloe entered (he had to push past Byram to do so, who had stood in the intersection of hallways as if transfixed), a voice called out from the direction of the pit room, "Infernicus!" This turned out to have been the command word which transformed the flying dagger back into its bearded devil form, and it had been uttered by the invisible imp Thurloe had just released from the treasure pit. Desecrus had been playing his favorite game - taunting the ochre jelly his late master Revellius had placed inside the treasure pit as a guardian - when a stranger had gazed down over the edge of the pit; investigating this intrusion, the imp had been delighted to see a half-dozen strangers engaged in combat with several of the dungeon's inhabitants. This, he thought, was going to be fun!

The iron cobra managed to get past the cooshee's defenses and gotten a firm grip onto Zander's thigh, pumping a dose of its venom into the elf's leg. Zander grimaced but the attack gave him an opportunity to discharge the shocking grasp spell he'd channeled into his right hand and arcs of electricity rippled down the construct's iron body. The cooshee scraped his front claws against the thing's head and Xandro hit it again with a crossbow bolt and eventually their combined efforts took their toll and the iron cobra collapsed to the stone floor to move no more.

But in the sacrificial chamber, things were just heating up. The bearded devil, a crafty smile upon his lips, said aloud the single word, "Agreed" as he swung his glaive at Wakuren, nearly toppling the half-orc from his altar-top perch. Alewyth, now attacking a much larger target than a flying dagger, connected with a swing of Sjondra, hitting the devil in his broad chest. Thurloe, now committed to helping the clerics fight an honest-to-goodness devil, ran around the side of the sacrificial altar and struck at the fiend with his bastard sword. "Alewyth!" he called as he attacked. "Apply the silversheen to your weapon - it's one of his vulnerabilities!"

Zander saw the invisible imp flying down the corridor and hit him with a magic missile spell, causing it to squawk in surprise that somebody had seen it at all. Then the cooshee ran down the corridor, turning to snap at the imp after it had clawed at him and made itself visible in doing so. Now it was trapped with a cooshee on one side and an elven spellcaster on the other. Xandro didn't dare try to shoot at the imp with Zander in the way so he went back to playing his inspirational song of courage - maybe it would help counteract the effects of the symbol of pain Thurloe had triggered.

As if suddenly cold, Byram flipped the hood of his cloak up over his head and retreated to the safety of the library containing the dead body of Revellius Bonesaw, closing the door behind him. Zander thought that was a bit odd but didn't have time to dwell on it as he was still fighting the imp. Its tail stinger hit the elf on the shoulder but it was fortunately a glancing blow and not a lot of the devil's venom made it into the wound, little enough that Zander hoped he could avoid the worst of whatever effects it might bring. But he retaliated with another magic missile spell, then ducked around the corner of the intersection, towards the arcane library, while his cooshee carried on the attack.

The bearded devil stabbed at Wakuren with his glaive, opening an infernal wound in the half-orc's side which hurt almost as much as the agony the symbol of pain had delivered. Alewyth stepped back from combat just long enough to pull out a vial of silversheen from her pack and apply it quickly to the striking surfaces of her dwarven warhammer. Thurloe hit the devil again with his bastard sword and then tried to retreat, forgetting the extra reach the fiend had with his glaive. It was all he could do to avoid the fiendish blade stabbing his way as he retreated to the doorway.

The cooshee suddenly yowled out in pain, for it was unaware of what the imp had seen coming: the ochre jelly had oozed its way up the side of the pit and had entered the passageway through the open door. Its acidic coating burned at the elven dog's feet as it slowly engulfed him like an approaching wave. But with Zander around the corner Xandro now had room to enter physical combat himself and he did so by charging at the imp, leading with the point of his magic longsword. The blade stabbed into the imp's back and skewered him right through the belly, killing him instantly. But unlike summoned creatures whose bodies vanished when they died, Desecrus remained skewered on the bard's sword and he had to take a boot to the little devil's body to pull his sword back out of his nasty little hide.

Wakuren attacked the bearded devil with the bottom edge of his shield, where it came to a point. The blow opened a wound on the devil's frame but he merely seemed amused by the damage. He retaliated with another blow of his glaive, opening another infernal wound in the half-orc's battered body. Alewyth saw her fellow cleric's predicament and rushed in, not to rejoin the combat but to cast a cure moderate wounds spell on Wakuren, which healed all but the two infernal wounds the bearded devil had inflicted upon him. Thurloe took the opportunity to try to cast a shield spell on himself before re-entering the combat but he messed up the somatic component to the spell in his heavy armor and the shield spell dissipated before taking effect. He snarled in irritation but headed back into the chamber, bastard sword in hand.

Zander had popped his head back around the corner and saw the ochre jelly attacking his faithful (although as-yet-unnamed) elven hound. The sorcerer cast a scorching ray at the jelly, burning its acidic body as it had burned the cooshee. Instinctively, the elven dog whirled and bit and clawed at the ooze monster, learning only after the fact that attacking a pliant blob coated in acid burned even when you attacked it.

The ochre jelly repositioned its body mass, forming a pseudopod that lashed out at the beleaguered elven dog, finally killing it. Of course, the cooshee's death merely resulted in it reverting to its statuette form, which plopped into the jelly's mass. Before Xandro even gave it much thought, he darted his hand in and grabbed at the figurine of wondrous power, afraid of having the jade statuette get eaten away by the jelly's acid. He turned to hand it to Zander, but the elf was now following Byram into the arcane library, to see what he was up to. Xandro just gave a cursory wipe of the statue on the leg of his pants and dropped it into a pouch, hoping he'd gotten rid of most of the acid coating it.

Wakuren managed to finally land the killing blow on the bearded devil after a furious three-against-one fight. Then he and Alewyth took a moment to apply healing spells among the three as needed, the half-orc concentrating closely on his spellcasting and managing to seal up the two infernal wounds the bearded devil had inflicted upon him. Then, looking to see where everyone else had gotten off to, they crossed the intersecting corridors and saw the ochre jelly making its steady way in their direction. Alewyth now had a silvered weapon but didn't want to risk using it against an acidic creature so she cast a second spiritual weapon and allowed it to strike the ooze in her stead. Thurloe flung a magic missile at it in passing, then headed to the arcane library where everyone else seemed to have headed. The ooze moved slow enough they could take a moment's breather while it caught up to them.

Inside the library, there was a bit of confusion going on. Byram was frantically searching through the scroll tubes, while Zander was accusing him of something to do with his hair. That was weird; the structural engineer had his hood up but Thurloe could see there was a thick body of hair on the top of the formerly balding man's head, strands of it peeking out from underneath the hood. Zander lifted the corpse of Revellius Bonesaw to get a good look at his face, wondering if maybe the dead wizard had somehow taken over Byram, but while Revellius had a full head of hair and a neatly-trimmed beard, his hair looked nothing like that which Byram was suddenly sporting.

Alewyth stopped at the intersection long enough to see her spiritual weapon tearing into the ochre jelly; it was quivering enough to make her believe the thing was almost dead. Trusting in the temporary covering of the silversheen she'd applied to the weapon's head to keep it safe from acid, she brought Sjondra down in what turned out to be the killing blow. Then she joined the men in the library.

Thurloe had entered and dropped a hand on Byram's shoulder, channeling a touch of fatigue into the engineer's wiry frame. The two were standing next to an intricate carving of an erinyes devil and Thurloe noted there was a seam along one side of the carving that might indicate a hidden door. Byram tore his shoulder from the fighter's grasp and snarled a warning at him; after this uncharacteristic behavior, Xandro aimed his crossbow at the engineer as a warning but held off on actually attacking for now.

It was only when Wakuren entered the library and saw the commotion that he opted to do a quick detect evil check. Sure enough, there was now an aura of evil surrounding Byram Herschfeld - but oddly, the aura seemed confined only to the top of his head. "He's got evil hair!" the half-orc cried out and crossed the room to bring a vicious slap to the back of the engineer's head. Zander Quilson, knowing how precisely a magic missile spell could be targeted, fired a spell at Byram's hair, killing it instantly. It fell forward, dropping past the astonished engineer's face and falling to the stone floor of the library. Byram took a step away from it as if afraid it would try to climb back onto him, but the animated hairpiece was no longer mobile; whatever animating force had given it energy was now gone.

"Oh thank goodness!" Byram gushed, stepping even further away from the now-harmless toupee.

"What in the world happened here?" Wakuren demanded.

Byram only blushed in response. "It was back in the intersection, when you were still fighting the dagger," Byram explained. "There was a voice in my head, offering to give me anything I wanted. I..." He placed a hand on his bald head. "I immediately thought about how I'd had a nice head of hair in my younger days...and then, all of a sudden, there was hair on my head and a new voice in my thoughts, taking full control of my body. I was helpless to stop it!" He looked over at the pile of scrolls. "It was looking for a specific scroll, I think...and it had plans for me to trap you into the secret summoning chamber behind this wall."

"Where?" demanded Xandro.

"Here, I think," replied Thurloe, tugging at the carving of the erinyes in the wall. Sure enough, it hinged forwards, revealing a short passageway into a round room taken up entirely with a five-pointed pentagram inside a magic circle inscribed on the floor. At equal distances around the circle were five carved statues: a barbed devil, a bearded devil, an erinyes devil, a chain devil, and a red abishai, the latter looking rather like a draconic gargoyle. Each of the statues had gemstones in place of their eyes, but were otherwise carved out of black marble.

"So," Xandro said, "now what?"

At Thurloe's insistence, their next move was to go explore the treasure pit, where they discovered Revellius had apparently placed most of his stock in the ochre jelly and the difficulties in even getting down there safely (Wakuren's rope of climbing was put to good use, while Byram theorized Revellius likely used a fly spell) in keeping his treasure secure, for there weren't even any locks on the chests. Two chests contained gold coins; one a bunch of gemstones; a fourth trade bars of silver; and the last two were devoted to miscellaneous magical items and rows of various magical potions and elixirs. Byram made an inventory list of everything but insisted on leaving the items in place. "They'll want to bring the items out under guard, no doubt," Byram explained. "No sense in bringing these all out into the open, to tempt the workers doing all that back-breaking labor hefting away stones."

But upon having Alewyth and Zander give every room a thorough once-over and detecting no other hidden doors or secret passageways, Byram declared the underground level to be free of danger - except for the contents of the arcane library. "We'll have clerics from the Temple of Delphyne come take a look at the magical writings and such," Byram declared. "Some they'll probably want to keep; some will probably be burned. I'm sure Revellius had some rather nasty magics in that library, considering the things he got up to down there."

"So how did he die?" Alewyth asked. "And what caused the tower to explode? A rival wizard or something?"

"Probably explosive runes or some other kind of magic in that book he was reading," Thurloe explained. "And trusting guy that he was, I wouldn't be surprised if he hadn't figured a way of blowing up his tower in the event of his death to make sure nobody got to his stuff. There are contingency spells that can do stuff like that." It was as likely an explanation as any.

- - -

And that ended up that adventure. The PCs were each awarded 1,000 gp by Magistrate Duprayne upon Byram's testimony on their behalf. Xandro opted to spend his reward money on a pair of magic gloves from the treasure pit; they allow their wearer to change the energy type of a magic weapon three times per day. (Xandro recently gained a +1 frost short sword which he can now use to change to deal fire damage, or acid damage, or so on for one round at a time.)

During our last gaming session in this campaign I had told the players the name of this adventure, but they of course had assumed I had said "Hell to Pay," which made sense given the opening sequence was them standing before a magistrate for having broken the city's laws about spellcasting. Then, when there was the whole "trafficking with devils" aspect to Revellius's past, the name seemed even more appropriate. It wasn't until they confronted Byram - now with an inexplicable full head of hair - that I asked them if they remembered what the adventure was called.

"Hell to Pay," they replied.

"What was it?" I prompted, showing them the initial initiative card I had made for Byram Herschfeld and then the other one I had made and switched during gameplay without any of them noticing. When Joe had been surprised at Byram having hair I showed him the initiative card, pretending it was the same one I had started with. When Dan had the same suspicions, I did likewise, playing it off as if they just must not have noticed his hair when they first met him (and when I had showed them the initial card with his bald head featured prominently).

"Hell Toupee," they grumbled, nowhere near as pleased with my trickery as I was.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "Duck Dynasty" T-shirt with four bearded men - not only to represent the bearded devil, but because together the four beards have the US flag colors superimposed on them and this was a good representation of "strange hair on one's head - like the "Hell toupee."



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 5​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 5​

Game Session Date: 18 December 2021

- - -

"Hey, kupo!" said Mogo as the dreamwalkers assembled for their nightly session of training. "Want to see the next dream you'll be entering, kupo?" He led them through a door in the Corridor of Dreams. This latest dream was pretty much absent of background details - as was often the case when a dream was focused solely on what was occurring within - but there was a wide circle on the ground and in the middle of it were two combatants: a trim-bearded human and a black bear, each engaged in trying to wrestle each other into submission.

"You're going down!" promised the man, his biceps bulging as he tried to push the bear back out of the circle and thus win the match.

"Don't count on it!" countered the bear.

"How long has this dream been going on?" asked Alewyth, watching the combatants struggling to no avail - they seemed pretty evenly matched.

"Only a couple of days, kupo. But while there are other dreamers who have been caught in their dreams for longer than this one, the one dreaming this dream is the closest to your present location, kupo." Using his impressive ability to shape dreams, he caused a map to appear out of nowhere and indicated where the dreamer was located: in a cave along the edge of the Darkwood Forest just to the east of the city of Baron's Haven.

"So that's where we'll find him?" asked Zander.

"You betcha, kupo!"

However, the group was in for a bit of a surprise the following morning when they said their goodbyes to Jorbalee Bennicut and her new ward Tommy and departed from the Merry Minstrel Inn. The cave wasn't at all difficult to find, but lounging on a large rock before the cave entrance was a large tiger lazing in the sun. It languidly raised its head at the sounds of the group's approach, then hopped off the rock and ambled into the cave, becoming almost immediately swallowed by the darkness within. As Wakuren brought the mule-driven wagon to a halt, he saw a brief legend carved onto the rock the tiger had been laying upon. It read simply, "THE LEAGUE OF BEASTS." Off to the right about 30 feet or so was a smaller cave opening in which a horse stood eating hay from a pile before him, apparently unconcerned by the nearby presence of a large feline predator.

"What do you think?" Xandro asked. "Druid? Ranger?"

"Let's find out," Thurloe said, dropping down from his horse Horse and pulling his bastard sword from its scabbard - no point in taking any chances with a full-grown tiger in the area. But as the others likewise climbed off their respective mounts (or the wagon in Wakuren's case), a figure stepped out from the cave the tiger had entered. It was, inexplicably, the trim-bearded man from the dream they'd observed the previous night, dressed in combat leathers with a longbow and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back. A golden-feathered owl sat perched upon his left shoulder.

"You're awake!" Thurloe gasped in surprise.

"I...am indeed," admitted the man, puzzled at the stranger's surprise that he should be awake - it was, after all, late morning. "How may Viktor the Beastlord aid you? Have you need of the League of Beasts?"

"We had come to wake you up," admitted Alewyth. "We had reason to believe you had become trapped in your dreams." She gave the ranger a quick explanation of the dream-sickness that had been crossing the small continent and their role in helping awaken those trapped in their dreams. "Is there perhaps anyone else inside the cave that might be asleep?"

"Well, there's Bobo," Viktor admitted. "And yes, a couple of days ago he started a rather early hibernation. I thought nothing of it at the time." He led the group into the cave network, past a timber wolf that looked at them warily and into a back cave where a black bear dozed. After explaining their procedure, the five dreamwalkers wrapped a headband containing a dreamstone around the dozing bruin's temple, then sat around him in a circle. As Viktor and his timber wolf Moonshadow stood guard, the five adventurers slipped into a gentle slumber, their minds slipping through the dimensions to the Dreamlands.

Mogo was there waiting for them and escorted them to the proper door in the Corridor of Dreams. "Good luck, kupo!" he said.

Bobo and the dream version of Viktor were still at it. "You're wearing down!" the ranger taunted. "You're tiring out!"

"That's not what your mom said last night!" Bobo taunted right back. The two figures were engaged in a shoulder hug as each tried dragging the other to the edge of the circle, so they could be thrown out and declared the loser of the match.

"Hey! Bobo! C'mere a minute!" yelled Thurloe, trying to get the bear's attention.

"In a bit!" called back Bobo. "First I gotta throw this fool from the ring!"

"'Fool,' huh?" demanded the dream-Viktor. "It is you who are foolish if you think to vanquish me!"

Alewyth rustled around in her pack, bringing out a few muffins wrapped in a piece of fresh linen. "I've got honey muffins!" she announced. "Come and get them, if you're hungry!" Bobo's head snapped in the dwarf's direction and he was sorely tempted, but at the last moment he concentrated back on the task at hand, pushing Viktor back a few steps towards the edge of the circle. But the ranger turned to the side and they merely pivoted, remaining pretty much in place.

"How do we wake him?" asked Zander.

"It's pretty obvious he's dreaming about winning the match but he's having a hard time of it," Xandro observed. "Maybe we should help him to win."

"That would be cheating!" pointed out Wakuren, frowning.

"It's just a dream!" chided Thurloe, activating his touch of fatigue as he patted Viktor on the shoulder. "Go get 'im, Viktor!" he pretended to cheer as the strength was drained from the wrestling ranger. Following the logic - and seeing that the dream-Viktor hadn't apparently noticed Thurloe's interference in the match, Zander cast a ray of enfeeblement at the ranger, hitting him broadly in the back. Viktor seemed to slump and Bobo took full advantage of his foe's weakness to scoot him closer to the edge of the circle. Wakuren shrugged and cast a doom spell on the ranger as well.

All in all, the attempts at interference piled up and Bobo was able to push his opponent out of the circle, where he fell on his back and didn't get back up. Alewyth at first feared he might have been hurt but then noticed he was fading from view - as was what little background there was in this dream. Bobo was waking up and his dream was dissipating all around them like smoke.

One by one the dreamwalkers awakened back in the cave. Bobo was rousing, although in the manner of most bruins he was taking his time about it. That was perfectly fine for the adventurers, who all got to their feet and readied their weapons in case the black bear awoke in a less than agreeable disposition - it was never safe to assume with wild animals. Zander looked over to the cave entrance for Viktor, but neither the ranger nor his wolf animal companion was there where they'd stood guard as the five dreamwalkers went to rescue Bobo from his dreams. Instead, on the floor of the cave where the ranger had stood, was a piece of paper. Zander picked it up and read it aloud. It read:

Got word of a recent attack - witnesses described a pair of winged lions making off with a couple from the city. They were heading for the mountains to the north in the general area of Windgate Pass. Heading there now - join us if you can.


"Where's Windgate Pass? Anybody know?" asked Thurloe. Everyone looked expectantly at Xandro, as the bard had been a wanderer before being brought into service to the Queen of Dreams. But this was further east than Xandro had ever been and the bard shrugged and shook his head. "Why would he assume we knew where that was?" growled Thurloe, irritated at Viktor for having left them in the dark.

"I think he left the message for me," replied Bobo, yawning and stretching. "Hey! I just had a dream about you guys! ...And something about honey muffins." A few of the adventurers were taken aback that Bobo spoke just as well in real life as he did in dreams; apparently Viktor or someone else had applied the awaken spell to the black bear at some point in the past, raising him up to human intelligence.

"It sounds like Viktor might need our help," Alewyth replied. "Do you know where this Windgate Pass is?" Bobo did and he led the way, giving directions from the back of the mule cart as Wakuren drove the mules forward. Alewyth rode her dire goat Pyrite and the men rode their horses, leaving the dwarf priestess's horse Mica to follow the wagon led by a rope tied to her bridle. They went north along the road, up and over hills that got progressively higher the further north they went.

"I didn't see a wagon or anything when we first approached," Alewyth commented. "Just a horse, and he was gone when we left."

"Yeah, Viktor rides Blaze and the rest of us keep up on foot." He named the other members of the League of Beasts: besides himself and the timber wolf Moonshadow there was Amber the tigress and Celeste the owl. After a few moments, Bobo said, "This is Windgate Pass coming up."

As they climbed the steep road they were met by Amber the tigress coming back down from higher up. "We were ambushed," she said and at this point none of the adventurers was surprised to note she was speaking aloud in perfect Common. "Blaze is dead. Viktor's either dead or captured. The rest of us scattered - we thought it best to escape and regroup; maybe we can attack when they're not expecting it. But they seemed to know we were coming." The tiger had long gashes down the side of her left shoulder, from which a pool of blood had matted her fur. Alewyth immediately dropped from Pyrite's saddle and cast a healing spell on the tigress. Amber told them the winged lions' cave was just ahead and the group decided they could trust the wounded tigress with their own animals while they went to the cave of the winged lions to go rescue Viktor and the couple taken from the road in the first place.

"Prep spells before we go in," cautioned Thurloe, casting a shield spell upon himself. Zander cast a mage armor spell followed by an expeditious retreat spell he cast from a scroll. Wakuren cast the traditional virtue spell upon the frail elf and then activated his ring of invisibility, sliding out of the visible light spectrum. Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and then a protection from evil spell on Zander, their weakest member when it came to hand-to-hand combat - anything they could do to keep him in the fight they usually did. Then, deciding they were all ready, they climbed up the slope of the mountain from the side of the road, up to where they could see the shadows of a cave opening ahead. Bobo accompanied them while Amber lounged in the back of the wagon, her head up and her ears alert for the sounds of danger.

Alewyth heard a low, moaning sound as they got closer to the cave. It was coming from somewhere either in the cave or nearby but was difficult to pinpoint exactly, for it wasn't constant, but rather started and stopped in random intervals. Thurloe, bastard sword in hand, stepped boldly into the dark cave and as he did so he could see a ghostly form rise up from the floor, a glowing skeleton covered in tattered robes that flapped in a wind that wasn't present there inside the cave. The moaning and wailing continued, but now that Thurloe was inside the cave the wails almost sounded like they were coming from somewhere outside.

As a matter of fact, they were - as Bobo quickly figured out. There was a glass bottle buried in the dirt along the side of the rock wall of the cave opening, and the wind blowing past its narrow lip caused the eerie moaning sounds. Xandro followed the bear and plugged the top of the lip with a clump of dirt. The moaning stopped immediately. "It's a hoax!" he called to the others.

Thurloe had come to the same conclusion himself as the "ghost" rose completely out of the cave floor but then just stood there looking menacing. He stepped right up to it and poked it with the point of his bastard sword and the blade's illusion-dampening properties caused the undead figure to pop like a soap bubble. "Just a triggered illusion," he said. "Probably just meant to keep the locals away." Zander stepped up beside him and activated the full power of his headband, granting him not only true seeing but the ability to see perfectly fine in absolute darkness. Thurloe, not so equipped, lit a torch form his pack; he'd used up the last of his sunrods and hadn't thought to replenish his stock. They could each see there were two passageways lowering down further into other caves in the cavern network, one to the north and one to the west.

But there was also another smaller cave entrance to the north and from it poked a tawny-colored head. Its feline eyes narrowed at the sight of Xandro and Bobo messing around with its master's bottle and just that quickly it was off and running, charging straight at the bard. The mountain lion leaped at Xandro, crashing down upon him in a flurry of fangs and claws. Wakuren popped back into visibility as his shield came crashing down upon the mountain lion's back, allowing Xandro to crawl out from beneath it and struggle back up to his feet. He pulled out his magic short sword and went on the attack. Alewyth, in the meantime, regretted having left her sure-footed dire goat behind and whistled for it to come to her. Pyrite, hearing his mistress's call, departed from the group of riding mounts under Amber's overall protection and the tigress allowed it, knowing the dire goat was a part of this other group in the same way she was a part of the League of Beasts. Once Pyrite ambled up, Alewyth wasted no time leaping back up into the saddle; with her innate dwarven darkvision she'd have no trouble seeing inside the lightless cave network and now she'd be moving at a much faster speed than her own dwarven legs could ever hope to carry her.

The mountain lion had turned its attention to Wakuren but couldn't get a good grip on the half-orc's metal armor, nor could it find a way past the holy warrior's shield. Bobo was adding his own teeth and claws to the mix so Xandro backed off, trading his sword for his Dardolian Lute, beginning the chords to his song of courageous inspiration. Wakuren finally killed the lion by stabbing down upon its head with the pointed bottom of his badge-shaped shield, piercing its skull and slaying it instantly.

Zander started down the natural stone steps to the west, with Thurloe following directly behind and Alewyth astride Pyrite not too far behind them. Xandro, Wakuren, and Bobo in the meantime checked out the mountain lion's cave, finding it too held a sloping passageway in the back that eventually led them to the same cave to which the northern passageway from the "ghost" cave led.

Turning a natural curve down the passageway, a scene of carnage appeared in Zander's magic-enhanced view: a pair of winged lions bent over the dead form of Blaze, Viktor's horse. As they ripped hunks of bloody flesh from the horse's carcass, the elf saw the human features on the lion-beasts; that, plus the batlike style of the creatures' wings and the spikes jutting out from the tips of their tails identified the "winged lions" as manticores. As only one had a shaggy mane flowing seamlessly into a thick beard, the sorcerer took these to be a mated pair. Without making a sound, Zander reached inside a pocket of his robes and pulled out his figurine of wondrous power, dropping it on the soft leather of his boot rather than have it make noise clacking onto the stone steps before him and alert the hungry manticores. The cooshee expanded to its full, living size in an instant and needed no prompting about his role in this upcoming battle.

"I can smell Viktor - he came this way!" Bobo said at the bottom of the natural stone steps leading into the cave to the north of the one currently occupied by feasting manticores. There were two more passageways leading further down from this central cave, and according to the black bear's nose Viktor had been brought down the one to the west. Wakuren and Xandro followed as Bobo sought out the ranger leader of the League of Beasts.

But the manticores by now had noticed the intrusion into their cave network. The male was the closest to the natural steps and leaped up them, eager to tear into Zander. But there was a cooshee in the way determined not to let that happen and the two clawed at each other in wordless fury. Seeing the narrowness of the passageway - there would be no getting past the manticore to enter fully into the cavern where Blaze's body now lay - Alewyth activated the amber amulet of vermin she wore around her neck, causing a giant bee to manifest in the air before her. "Attack!" she called out to the bee and its wings buzzed furiously as it flew over the cooshee to try to impale the male manticore with its stinger. Thurloe didn't care how cramped the fighting space was; he stepped up behind the cooshee, ready to strike with his bastard sword as soon as he found an opening to do so. Zander sent a scorching ray spell over the fighter-wizard's head, crashing into the manticore and eliciting a roar of fury. But Alewyth saw it a lost cause trying to get in there to aid any further in this particular battle and urged Pyrite forward, heading down the northern passageway to meet up with the others.

"There he is!" called out Bobo, rushing over to one of two cages along the back walls of the cave to which his sense of smell had led him. Viktor lay unconscious inside the cage, built of sturdy limbs and branches bound tightly with ropes and vines. Another cage held a human woman, also unconscious but with a manacle around one ankle, binding her to the bars of her cage by a chain. Bobo started chewing at the vines, trying to free his friend. Wakuren approached, somewhat worried that the captors hadn't place a manacle around Viktor's ankle - might that mean he was dead? But then why place him in a cage? He reached a hand in between the bars and touched the ranger's throat, giving a sigh of relief when he felt a pulse. He then channeled a healing spell through his hand, healing the worst of the ranger's wounds. This also had the effect of waking him up and he sat up, confused in the flickering light of Xandro's torch - for of the members of his own group assembled in the cave, the bard was the only one who couldn't see in the dark and had lit a torch to remedy that problem.

"Wha--?" sputtered Viktor, looking around. "Where'm I? Where's Celeste?" Alewyth approached about that time and started breaking through the young woman's cage with Sjondra. After smashing through it enough that she could release that end of the chain, she fed a healing potion to the unconscious woman and learned her name was Jacinda. "Where's Lurec?" the young woman asked immediately, explaining Lurec was her husband and they had both been taken by the winged lions together. Alewyth promised they'd look for him but was silently discouraged that he hadn't been placed in either cage; she wondered if the manticores might have already eaten him before starting in on the horse. Bobo, in the meantime, promised Viktor he'd have him out of the cage soon. "Celeste's out looking for help," the bear explained. "She'll be back soon."

"Want Celeste," Viktor whined. Wakuren frowned, as this was not at all the demeanor of the battle-hardened ranger they'd met earlier that morning.

The male manticore, by this time, was almost dead. He'd been trading claw-scratches with the cooshee and would have already slain the elven dog if he had been the only foe to worry about. But even though getting hit by a few flung spikes from the female manticore in the cave below, Thurloe had been doing a fine job carving up the bearded male with his bastard sword and Zander had been casting ranged spells from far enough back he was in little danger himself. Then there was that blasted bee, flying about the manticore's head and trying to sting him; it hadn't succeeded yet but it was quite distracting. The manticore made the mistake of trying to swat it out of the air with a massive forepaw and while his attention was thus diverted - even just for a moment - Thurloe stabbed his blade into the beast's heart, killing him.

As the male crashed to the ground, Zander had a nice shot of the female manticore and let fly with another scorching ray spell, catching her in the flaming blast straight on and causing her fur to singe from the blazing heat. Without missing a beat the cooshee scrambled over the male manticore's corpse and charged at its mate, his fangs bared. The female manticore found herself grappling with the elven dog as Thurloe ran down the stone steps to join in the fight, the blade of his sword red with the blood of her slain mate.

Zander didn't give the female manticore much time to live and decided he'd likewise do fine to move on, leaving the cleanup of this particular battle to the trained fighter, the elven dog, and the giant bee. He followed the other passageway north and caught sight of the others helping free the people in the cages - and was then hit in the shoulder by an arrow that came whizzing up from another passageway leading north from the cage chamber. With the darkvision provided by his magic headband he could see the sniper was an elf like himself, only one garbed more like Viktor in leather armor. "We've got intruders!" the archer called back in Elven to someone in the cave down there with him.

Wakuren had moved on to explore a farther passageway, turning himself invisible again through the power of his ring. The passageway was narrow, not wide enough to allow two people to walk side by side, and all of a sudden there was a blur ahead of him as a night-black creature came bounding up the stone steps to crash into Wakuren, not even knowing the invisible half-orc had been there. Wakuren brought his shield crashing down onto the back of the summoned yeth hound, bringing himself to full visibility again in doing so. Xandro, alerted to the sounds of combat from that direction, followed Wakuren's path and soon saw the two of them struggling to slay each other.

Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending a warhammer of solid force flying down the passageway to crash into the elven archer who had just shot Zander. She slapped Pyrite's flank as she did so, telling the dire goat to return back to the other animals. She'd dismounted to free Jacinda from her cage, but now that there was full-blown combat afoot she didn't want her goat to be slain.

Thurloe finally slew the second manticore after a fierce battle, cutting a sideways gash along the beast's neck that proved to be her undoing. Then, seeing nothing of interest in the manticores' den besides the half-eaten corpse of Viktor's horse Blaze, he followed the side passageway to the cavern with the cages. The cooshee and the giant bee followed. Once there, the elven dog raced down the passageway, eager to tear into the elven archer. However, there was a hidden pit trap on the floor just before where the archer, Randalvael, stood, covered in an illusion that blended seamlessly with the rest of the cavern floor. Landing on a section of floor that wasn't actually there, the cooshee plummet down 20 feet to the bottom of the pit, his fall somewhat broken by the bodies of the swarm of spiders lairing down there. Randalvael hadn't taken any chances on the spiders escaping, either; a permanent repel vermin spell along the top of the pit's interior walls took care of that.

The cooshee howled in pain as dozens, if not hundreds of venomous spiders bit at his flesh; Zander stopped the pain by calling out the command word to revert his trusty elven hound back to his statuette form. He'd have to remember to go pull him back out of the pit after they'd dealt with this elven ranger who was apparently in league somehow with the manticores.

Randalvael shot arrows at Alewyth, trying to either slay her outright or at least prevent her from casting any more offensive spells at him. But in the meantime, his sister Kaernadasha followed the course of the yeth hound she'd summoned and saw Wakuren and Xandro fighting off the ebony canine - and now Thurloe came into view as well, attracted to the sounds of combat. That was too good of an opportunity to miss out on, so she cast a lightning bolt spell up the passageway, over the yeth hound's back but blasting into both Wakuren and Thurloe, the bard having dodged out of range at the last moment. Then, to add insult to injury, the little follow-on arcs of electricity still flashing across his metal armor, Wakuren felt the yeth hound grab up his ankle in its teeth and bear down, trying to trip the half-orc into a prone position where it would have a better time ripping out the cleric-paladin's throat. But Thurloe slew the yeth hound before it had a chance and the summoned creature departed the Material Plane for its own infernal regions. Xandro applied some healing to the fighter, whose numerous bleeding wounds indicated he could undoubtedly use it.

Alewyth's spiritual warhammer continued swatting at Randalvael, giving the dwarven priestess time to approach him with her own warhammer in hand. Keeping mentally aware of the pit trap's location, she brought Sjondra slamming into the elf's side. He grunted, tossed his longbow to the side, and pulled out a melee weapon of his own: a gleaming, black-bladed longsword that somehow managed to look evil. Behind her, Zander read the words to a shocking grasp spell from one of his many purchased scrolls, imbuing his hand with electrical energy he could deliver at a mere touch. He stepped beside Alewyth and lashed out at the enemy elf, but Randalvael easily avoided the sorcerer's touch, bringing his blade into Zander's side as he did so. The elf felt not only the pain of the wound but a familiar energy-sapping sensation as the sword channeled some of Zander's life-energy into Randalvael. The evil ranger's equally evil smile distinctively told what Randalvael thought about having a magic sword that provided him with the stolen life-energy of his opponents.

With the yeth hound gone, there was nothing preventing Wakuren from rushing down the steps and bringing his shield slamming into Kaernadasha. She took the slam with much better grace than the half-orc would have thought possible for a skinny elven wizard, until he realized she'd probably had time to enhance herself with a stoneskin spell. Thurloe was down into the lower chamber right after Wakuren, but he was immediately brought to immobility by a hold person spell cast by the elven wizard.

Knowing his mistress's hold person spell was a temporary measure at best, Podkin stepped through the illusory wall hiding the cave in which the elven siblings stored their treasure and flew up to the frozen fighter's shoulder, biting at his neck and hoping to inject enough venom into Thurloe's system to send him crashing to the floor, asleep. But Thurloe, even immobilized, was made of tough stuff and the homunculus's venom failed to force him into undesired slumber.

Alewyth knew a one-on-one fight against a foe whose life-draining weapon put the odds in his favor was a losing proposition, so she brought Sjondra swinging in against the ranger's vampiric blade, hoping to sunder it away. Her first attempt failed, as did her second, and to make things worse Randalvael not only kept a knowing smirk on his face while he evaded her blows, he got in a couple of hits himself, healing his own wounds from those he was inflicting upon the dwarven priestess. But at least her spiritual weapon managed to clock the arrogant elf a few times before it winked out, its duration spent.

Xandro followed Thurloe's path into the elves' den. Wakuren cast a cure light wounds spell upon himself and maneuvered into position so the bard could catch the wizard between the two of them. But then Kaernadasha cast a Melf's acid arrow spell at the burly half-orc, catching him full-on in the chest and stomach, coating his armor and the skin at his neck in burning acid. Wakuren cried out in agony as the acid burned through his flesh and he hurriedly cast more curative spells on himself in a desperate battle to outpace the damage the long-lasting acid was doing to his skin. This kept him preoccupied long enough that - coupled with Thurloe's inability to overcome the hold person spell by force of will - left Xandro up against the elven wizard and her homunculus familiar all by himself.

Zander finally managed to touch Randalvael and discharge his shocking grasp spell into the evil ranger. However, the vampiric blade flashed out again, drawing sustenance from one elf and channeling it into the other and most of the sorcerer's work had been undone in that short a moment. Alewyth tried swatting the weapon from his hand again to no avail and convinced herself she'd have to take him out the much harder way, by beating him in battle without first depriving him of his vampiric weapon. Disappointed in how quickly his shocking grasp spell had been neutralized - and realized staying in close-quarters combat with the elven ranger was just offering himself up as a source of stolen life energy - Zander backed off, opting to go with much safer strategy of lobbing magic missile spells at the ranger from a distance. But that just allowed Randalvael to concentrate more fully on attacking Alewyth with his vampiric blade.

Xandro dodged around Kaernadasha, getting in a strike from his frost short sword from an unexpected angle and making it through her stoneskin defense. The wizard staggered back and cast a bear's endurance spell on herself, something she'd normally do before entering battle, but this time she'd not had enough forewarning. And to be caught fighting in melee against a hated human, of all things - disgusting! It was bad enough they bred like rabbits and had pushed the other races out of the way when quietly taking over the continent, but having to stoop to combat with what looked to be a human bard, of all things?

Podkin switched over to attack Xandro, seeing him as more of a threat to his mistress than the still-immobilized Thurloe, whose forehead was now dripping with sweat at the attempts to unlock his own mobility from the spell that damned elf had cast on him. The homunculus snapped its teeth at Xandro's throat but the nimble bard managed to duck aside just in time. Wakuren, still staggering from the acid coating him, shambled into a half-hearted attempt to strike the author of his misery with his shield and that allowed Xandro to sneak in again with a rapid thrust of his blade, once again chopping away at the elven wizard's stoneskin defense. At this pace, he hoped to have whittled it away to nothing in no time at all.

Another flurry of magic missiles came flying at Randalvael, who cursed at Zander in their shared tongue, little liking the fact he had no defenses against the spell while still having to deal with the dwarven priestess before him. Zander's magic missile spells were doing a fairly good job at balancing the scales against the ranger's vampiric blade, for the sorcerer's spells were dealing out more damage than Randalvael could replenish through attacking Alewyth with his black-bladed longsword. And over on the other side of the cavern, Wakuren breathed a sigh of relief as the Melf's acid arrow spell finally ran its course, allowing him to concentrate on the attack once again. He brought his shield slamming into the wizard, finally overcoming the last of her stoneskin protection. Wanting now nothing more so much as to escape this horrid melee combat, Kaernadasha cast a fly spell in preparation to seeking safety in the skies outside the cavern network she and her brother had set up as a means of capturing humans and selling them as slaves to races near and far - bugbears, gnolls, it mattered not to the elves. Xandro and Wakuren each attacked her as she flew past them, heading for the passageway her summoned yeth hound had taken. Podkin followed, snapping ineffectually one more time at Xandro as he passed the bard.

But then, just as it seemed they were going to get away, Thurloe finally freed himself from the wizard's accursed spell. She was too far away for him to be able to catch up to her, but she was still within visual range in his torchlight, so he raised a hand, pointed at her flying form, and cast a magic missile spell of his own, to the accompaniment of Xandro's tune of courageous inspiration, for once the wizard had gotten past him the bard decided his best role was to aid his friends who could still fight their attackers. Kaernadasha fell to the stone floor of the cavern in a lifeless heap, much to Thurloe's pleasure. With a gasp, her homunculus followed suit, its unholy life dependent upon the life force of its mistress.

Alewyth was still relying upon Sjondra to try to take out Randalvael, and the elf was starting to look the worse for wear, but then he activated an as-yet-unused power of his vampiric sword and the blade infused his whole body with positive energy, healing him completely. Astonishment - perhaps even bordering closely on despair - crossed Alewyth's face as she realized they were effectively starting their combat all over again, with all the work they'd put into wearing him down having been for naught.

Zander reacted by upping his combat spells from magic missile to his last scorching ray of the day. He howled in disappointment as the rays struck the side of the stone wall of the passageway, missing the ranger entirely. Randalvael laughed aloud at the frustration on the faces of his foes. "What do you expect, hanging out with humans?" he taunted in Elvish, dripping disdain upon the final word in his sentence.

But now that Kaernadasha had been taken out, Wakuren had nothing preventing him from making his way to Randalvael and attacking him from the other side. The evil ranger found himself in the middle of a pincer maneuver, with Wakuren's shield slamming him in his back (and very nearly toppling him into the spider pit, but the ranger kept his balance at the last moment) while Alewyth kept up the assault with Sjondra at his front. And now Thurloe cast another magic missile spell of his own at the ranger. He was still new enough to wizardry that he could only manage a single missile per casting but he deemed it him doing his part from so far away.

Xandro continue playing his lute; it was getting pretty crowded around the ranger slaver. And Randalvael knew just how close he'd been to falling into the spider pit. Wheeling around to face Wakuren, he sent his black blade cutting into the acid-scarred half-orc. "I see the blood of humanity has made you even less worthy of life!" he snarled in the Elven tongue, but his words were meaningless to Wakuren, who didn't even understand the language of his unknown orcish father's people, let alone Elven. He pretty much figured out the ranger's overall meaning, however, just from the look of disgust on his face. He tried grabbing the ranger's wrists to see if he could fling him into the pit, but Randalvael was too nimble for such a slow-moving attack by a man in heavy armor for it to have too much of a chance of success.

But Randalvael soon learned that turning his back upon Alewyth was a bad idea. She lowered Sjondra to her side and charged at the ranger's back, hitting him just above the beltline with her shoulder. He dropped his sword as he plummeted into the pit of spiders and only Wakuren grabbing Alewyth by the shoulder prevented her from falling down after him. He cursed and shrieked as the spiders swarmed over his body, biting him countless times in mere seconds.

"We can throw you down a rope and haul you out of there," Wakuren offered. "But we'll be turning you over to the authorities in Baron's Haven for your kidnapping scheme." He received only Elven cursing for a response. Thurloe wandered over to the edge of the pit and added, "And we killed the woman with you, in case you were wondering." Randalvael's response was cut short by the spiders climbing into his mouth as he tried to talk. Judging by the silence that followed, it didn't take long for the venom to claim his life.

Alewyth picked up the vampiric sword and brought it with her over in the cave the elven siblings had used as their own personal lair, judging from the two cots lined up along the back. She dropped it on the stone floor of the cave, then used Sjondra to sunder it into pieces. The magic warhammer not only shattered the blade into shards, it absorbed them into itself. Alewyth knew that as it absorbed magic weapons it would slowly be gaining in power itself, although the abilities of the weapons it destroyed in that fashion would have no bearing on its own future powers.

Thurloe scraped his bastard sword along the back wall until it found and shut down the illusory wall spell that had been hiding the siblings' treasure cave. While he and Xandro went inside to see what all it might contain, the other three looked at the other few items in the outer cave. There was a small table and two chairs, upon which sat a journal of some sort and a magic wand in the middle of being recharged. The writing in the book was in the Elven script; skimming through it, Zander saw it was a record of transactions the elves had made selling human slaves to various other races - some of them apparently living on nearby islands off the coast of the small continent of Armaturia.

Alewyth, however, was more interested in the small barrel along the wall opposite the cots. Lifting the lid, she was surprised to see it about a third full of water - and half a dozen frogs. A detect magic spell showed the frogs were all magical in nature somehow, which didn't make a whole lot of sense until Zander worked it out from notations in the journal: Kaernadasha used baleful polymorph spells to turn their human captives into frogs, which were then delivered to their new buyers, at which time she would undo the effects of the magic. Among the chests of coins, spellbooks, and the gear just recently confiscated from Viktor (the latter of which would be returned to the ranger), Thurloe and Xandro discovered a transport device made of a wooden bucket with a sealable lid, no doubt the means by which the frogs were carried by the manticore to their new masters before Kaernadasha returned them to human form - and a life of slavery. Unfortunately, while the journal detailed the humans by number and how much they were sold for, no specific names or their current locations were provided.

On the plus side, the wand was able to restore the six frogs back to human form. One of them was Lurec, Jacinda's missing husband. He was the most recent addition to the barrel of frogs; Kaernadasha's current mastery of wizardly spells only allowed her to cast one baleful polymorph spell each day.

By the time the group returned back to the cage cavern - now accompanied by six additional people - Bobo had chewed through the vines keeping Viktor imprisoned inside the cage. He stood dazed and blinking in confusion, until an owl flew into the cavern and alit upon his shoulder. "Celeste!" Viktor cried out in obvious relief, returning to his normal self now that his owl friend had returned. "I found Moonshadow," the owl said and sure enough the wolf trotted into the cavern. "And Amber told us you were already in here." The rescued humans huddled behind the adventurers in fear at the presence of the lupine carnivore, but Moonshadow just sighed. "Quit worrying," he said. "I don't eat people."

Celeste explained Viktor's condition to the adventurers as the rescued captives gathered together around Jacinda (the young woman especially pleased to see her husband safe and sound) and Xandro removed the manacle from around her ankle with the aid of his newly-purchased lockpicks. Viktor, it turned out, had suffered a head injury beyond their ability to heal properly and since then had suffered from a much diminished intellect. Fortunately, Celeste was not only a celestial owl but had studied wizardry and was able to telepathically communicate with the ranger, feeding him his lines to the point where he seemed almost like he was before the accident. Of course, this was only possible as long as the celestial owl maintained contact with the ranger; once separated, Viktor was without his advisor and reverted to his lower level of intellect.

"I think it high time we returned these good people to Baron's Haven!" declared Viktor, once more seeming like his own self. The group departed the cave network, glad to be out of its shadows and once more under the bright sun. They got a bit of a surprise when the tigress who was supposed to be guarding their riding mounts was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a short-haired blonde woman, wrapped in a blanket. But then she dropped the blanket and pitched forward out of the wagon, landing on all fours and once again resuming her tigress form. Alewyth had heard of druids of sufficient power and training being able to attain the forms of animals - she was pretty sure it was called "wildshaping." The weretiger thought she could guess the dwarf's assumptions about her but said nothing.

The captives were loaded into the back of the wagon and Wakuren turned the mules around back the way they had come, in the direction of Baron's Haven.

- - -

The authorities of Baron's Haven gave a reward of 2,000 gp for the rescue of the captives and the taking down of the elven slavers, which was split evenly between the two groups. Viktor allowed the adventurers to keep the elves' loot taken from their cave as a reward for having rescued him, which contained two vials of Keoghtom's ointment. Zander was also sure to retrieve his jade cooshee from the spider pit, and they also managed to claim Randalvael's boots of elvenkind and cloak of elvenkind. The players haven't decided who gets what yet, but while it would probably cause Randalvael to roll over in his grave if they allowed one or both of the humans to make use of the elven racist's items, Zander will likely end up with both. We'll see.

- - -

T-shirt worn: I have a shirt with a wolf superimposed on an American flag in the background, so that was the one that made the most sense to wear during a session involving a league made up primarily of beasts, especially when one of them was an awakened timber wolf.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 5​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 5​

NPC Roster:
Calliope, moogle guide​
Doc, moogle guide​
Kupek, moogle guide​
Mogchamp, moogle guide​
Moki, moogle guide​

Game Session Date: 1 January 2022

- - -

As was the norm during their nighttime training sessions in the Dreamlands, as each member of the five-person band fell asleep and had their consciousness make the automatic transition to the Realm of Dreams, they were each met by their particular moogle guide: Calliope meeting up with the dwarven priestess Alewyth Putterpye; the goateed moogle Doc greeting the human Thurloe Pulver, who was versed in arcane magics as well as handy with a bastard sword; Kupek approaching Wakuren as the half-orc cleric-paladin entered the Dreamlands; Mogchamp leading the human bard-rogue Xandro Silverstrings to their normal meeting place; and Moki doing likewise with the elven sorcerer Zander Quilson. However, while normally the moogles would bring their respective charges together to be taught the nightly dreamwalking lessons by the head moogle, Mogo, this time they hung around with the dream versions of the five mortals in the service of the Queen of Dreams.

"Tonight we're going to do something different, kupo!" Mogo remarked once the five dreamwalkers were gathered together with their moogle guides. "Twice now you've come up against dreams that resisted your best efforts to rescue the dreamer, kupo. With any luck, the dreamstones you left on the dreamers' foreheads will charge up, allowing you to go back later on and have better luck - but we can't count on that, kupo! So we're going to try going into the heart of the Dreamlands, kupo!"

Mogo explained that the heart of the Dreamlands lie past the vast ocean of dream-bubbles representing individual dreams of individual dreamers and was a land of fairly stable geography that resisted the reshaping efforts of those entering the land - unlike individual dreams, which could be altered by a sufficiently trained dreamwalker, the heart of the Dreamlands was immutable. Some said this was due to it actually being the dream of a sleeping god, someone much more powerful than the moogles or their trained visitors from the Material Plane. But Mogo hoped the stable nature of the area would work to their benefit, for there was a place there in the heart of the Dreamlands where any individual dream could be called up and analyzed; with luck, by observing the two dreams of giant monsters - a three-headed gorynych in one and a massive gorilla in the other - they might learn how best to overcome the dreams and free the two people trapped by them.

"But because the heart of the Dreamlands is so stable, there's a change I need to make here before you embark on your journey, kupo!" declared Mogo, waving a kittenish paw before the bodies of the five dreamwalkers. As he did so, their bodies changed, altering from their normal mortal frames and taking on the appearances of moogles themselves. Each now sported a humanoid body covered in downy fur, with a pair of batlike wings growing from their shoulders and a single pom-pom dangling at the end of an antenna growing out of their foreheads. They were each now about half their normal height, but with enough wing-flapping they could maintain an aerial position where their eyes were about where they'd have been before their transformations. They found wing-flapping to grow easily tiring, however, and thus frequently dropped to the ground for a rest before trying it again. Their moogle guides all seemed to have no trouble maintaining their altitudes, so apparently with enough training the polymorphed mortals would pick up the hang of it.

"You're going to the land of the wild moogles, kupo!" Mogo informed the group at large. "They're not as smart as we are, but they know enough not to attack a fellow moogle so they should all leave you alone, kupo! But you'll need to be careful, because not everyone in the heart of the Dreamlands is a fan of moogles, kupo!"

"Interesting," observed Xandro, giving his new wings a try. He was glad to see his equipment was all the same; despite now wearing the form of a moogle he still had his Dardolian Lute strapped to his back and his sword belted at his hip. He looked over at the others and saw the same held true for them as well; despite their new forms the bard knew he'd have no trouble telling them apart.

"It'll take forever to go through the oceans of dream-bubbles, so we'll take the shortcut, kupo!" announced Mogo, leading the group of ten other moogles to the Corridor of Dreams. This was a maze of door-filled hallways but the primary moogle instructor had no trouble finding the exact door he sought. He opened it and it led not to a dream but to a set of stairs going down. "It's much quicker if we go through the basement, kupo!"

The basement level was another set of seemingly endless corridors, but Mogo led the group to a dead-end hallway that sported a thick, wooden door looking much older than the others and somehow even a bit weather-beaten. He opened it and flew to one side. "I won't be going with you, kupo - I have too many other duties here - but your guides know the way, kupo! I'll expect you to report back what you find upon your return, kupo!" And with that he ushered the ten moogles through the open doorway, closing it behind them once they had all passed through.

On the other side of the door was an ancient city now in ruins. The ten moogles were at street level among a vast array of crumbling walls and fallen pillars, all of it covered in tangling vines and thick growths of ivy and weeds. The buildings around them were all of a single level; in the distance a few structures of two or even three stories could be seen.

"We need to head toward the mountains, kupo!" said Calliope, leading the way forward through the ruins of the fallen city.

"Hang on," said Zander. "I want to cast a few spells before we go any further."

"Kupo!" cried Moki in a stern voice.

Zander was taken aback. "What?" he asked. "Isn't spellcasting allowed here?"

"KUPO!" echoed all five of the moogle guides. "Remember to say 'kupo' at the end of your sentences, kupo! There's no point in disguising you as a moogle if you're just going to give yourself away, kupo!" chided Moki, before answering his assigned mortal's question. "But yes, you can cast spells here, kupo."

Zander hurriedly cast a mage armor spell upon himself. Xandro cast a tongues spell on himself, not certain what types of creatures they might find in the land of the wild moogles and deciding it would be nice to be able to communicate with whoever they might encounter. Thurloe tried casting a shield spell but fumbled it; he was still getting used to being able to cast arcane spells while wearing armor and this wasn't the first time he'd messed up this same spell. He cursed quietly to himself, then remembered to add a "kupo" at the end. Then the group moved on, the five moogle guides remaining airborne on their tiny little wings and the other five alternately flying and walking in fits and bursts as their wings gave out. Collectively, they decided it would be best if they didn't try to fly too high off the ground until they got the hang of it a little better.

As the ten moogles ambled down the silent streets of the long-dead city, a form strode into the intersection ahead of them. It was simian in shape, maybe a foot and a half or two feet long, and when it turned its head in their direction they saw it looked somewhat like that of a mole with stubby, dangling tentacles hanging from its mouth area. Unlike a mole, its eyes were rather large and they glowed fiercely as the creature gazed at the ten moogles - and then it charged.

"Uh oh - it's a zoog, kupo!" called out Calliope, flying up higher out of reach of the furry creature. It bit Thurloe on the leg and the fighter-wizard in moogle form felt the zoog's unseen teeth dig deep into his flesh - the creature wasn't all that big, but its bite certainly hurt! He kicked the creature away and felt a trail of blood oozing down his leg from the bite wound. He brought his bastard sword out and down upon the zoog's head, cutting it deeply and dealing it much more damage than it had managed to inflict upon him, he felt. But the thing was still in the fight, hissing fiercely. Beside Thurloe, Doc followed Calliope's lead in flying straight up, but he continued on whereas the female moogle had just wanted to avoid the zoog's reach; Doc wanted a good aerial view of the area to make sure there weren't any other threats converging on them. For Doc well knew where there was one zoog there were quite often others around....

Zander cast a magic missile from his wand and slew the zoog before it had a chance to do any further damage. He moved up beside Thurloe, who was reaching down to feel the bite wound on his leg. "Damn thing's still bleeding...kupo," he added at the last moment.

"Might be something in the saliva, kupo," Alewyth added, moving closer to look at Thurloe's wound. Wakuren flew up and landed on the fighter's other side, while his moogle guide Kupek joined Doc in scanning the local area from a high vantage point. Xandro stayed in the back but pulled out his Dardolian Lute and began strumming the opening chords to his song of inspirational courage, for Mogchamp had warned the bard there were probably more of the zoogs around, waiting to strike.

And sure enough there were: eight of the little creatures spilled out of an L-shaped building to the group's left front while another half-dozen came rushing out of a gap in the wall of the crumbling building to their right. They swarmed over Thurloe, five of them biting at him with teeth hidden by their stubbly little facial tentacles while two other pairs bit at Wakuren and Zander, those snapping at the elf fortunately missing entirely. Thurloe's sword stabbed at one of the pests attacking him then took a step back, temporarily out of range. He now had three or four new wounds to add to his original one, blood from all of them flowing freely.

Zander also took a step back and tossed a tanglefoot bag at two of the zoogs, hoping to pin them in place. But the zoogs were quick little buggers and they avoided the bag; it exploded around them and some sticky particles got caught up in their fur, causing them only the minor inconvenience of not being able to move quite as rapidly as before. Alewyth brought Sjondra down on the head of one of the ones biting at Thurloe and it squeaked in pain and irritation.

"I've got a sound burst spell ready if you all step back, kupo!" called out Wakuren, looking around him and worrying that were he to cast his spell right then, in order to affect the maximum number of zoogs he'd have to include quite a few of his friends in the spell's area of effect. In the meantime, he swung the edge of his shield at one of the little pests, striking it a glancing blow.

Xandro continued his song as Thurloe hit another zoog and backed up out of range. Alewyth did likewise, conking a zoog with her warhammer before retreating beside Thurloe. Zander cast an expeditious retreat spell on himself and darted away through a rent in the wall of a building on the other side of the street, putting a stone wall between himself and Wakuren's intended spell-effect area. Then Wakuren cast his spell, the sonic wave blasting through the bodies of all but the two zoogs the farthest away and stunning over half of them - quite effective for a rather low-level spell, the half-orc thought to himself.

Doc and Kupek, however, saw another figure in a street one block over. It was a human girl dressed in rags, looking to be only about six or seven years old. Fearing she might hear the commotion and wander into danger, Kupek flew over her way and landed on the street before her. "Be careful kupo--" he started to say but the sudden appearance of the moogle apparently frightened the girl, who gave a little shriek and then turned and bolted back the way she had come, dodging into a small building through a rent in its wall.

Xandro rushed forward, his frost short sword in hand, and skewered one of the stunned zoogs, killing it. He got bitten for his trouble by another zoog, as a few of those not stunned by Wakuren's sound burst spell likewise snapped at Alewyth, Thurloe, and Wakuren. Now all but Zander Quilson sported bleeding wounds, the nimble elf having managed not to even have gotten bitten once yet. But he sped through the building in which he'd been hiding, popping out of a northern entrance and catching six zoogs in a burning hands spell, frying them all to a crisp. Thurloe and Alewyth each killed another with their respective weapons, as did Wakuren and Xandro a moment later. Then Alewyth and Wakuren backed off, allowing the others to slay the remaining zoogs while they cast healing spells on those who needed them, for zoog bites didn't deal a whole lot of damage at first but the continued blood loss - from each individual wound - certainly started adding up in no time at all.

Kupek reported to the others what he'd seen of the little girl and led the rest of the moogles to the building she'd ducked into. "She went in there, kupo," he said, pointing with a kittenish paw. The building was partially in ruins, with three entrances in all. The moogles spilt up and covered each of the entrances. "Are you okay in there, kupo?" called Thurloe into the darkness within. "We're not going to hurt you - we just want to make sure you're okay, kupo!" There was no answer.

Doc peeked his head inside the ruined structure and didn't see any little girl - but he did spot a spider on the ceiling along the north wall and quickly told the others. Wakuren poked his own head inside and saw the aranea just fine with his darkvision. Using his paladin training to check her aura for evil, he found none. "We'll leave you alone, kupo," Wakuren said. "If you've a taste for zoogs, there's over a dozen dead ones a block or so to the southwest, kupo." And with that, the group continued on their trek.

They made it through the rest of the ruined city without incident, reaching at last the base of the mountains. It would have been an arduous climb ahead of them had it not been for the set of wide stairs carved into the side of the mountain. "It's up this way, kupo!" said Calliope, leading the way.

Of course, even a nice, 20-foot-wide set of stairs started becoming a bit arduous after the first half mile or so. Each of the five adventurers started giving their moogle wings a good workout, if only because the steps had been built at a scale more comfortable for their mortal forms, not these half-sized moogle bodies they were currently inhabiting. Little moogle legs got pretty tired climbing step after step after step. There were statues on alternating sides every 40 feet or so, but these had been subject to the effects of time, for some were missing a head or an arm and others had had their features weathered away over the centuries. There were spaces where the stairs had worn away or had otherwise been broken, making for the occasional patches of somewhat problematic terrain. But that's where moogle wings came in handy.

"Uh oh - look there, kupo!" called out Mogchamp, pointing off to the open air to the right of their position - the mountain they were laboriously climbing stood to their left - where five flying figures could be seen. They were headed straight for the group of moogles.

"What are they, kupo?" asked Zander.

"Nightgaunts, kupo!" answered Moki. As the figures got closer, the group could see they looked somewhat like slender gargoyles - only gargoyles without any facial features whatsoever, their faces as smooth as some of the wind-scoured statues on the steps they'd passed. Each also sported a lengthy tail as black as the rest of the smooth-skinned creature.

"Are they normally found around here, kupo?" asked Alewyth as Thurloe frantically cast an expeditious retreat spell upon himself, wanting the extra mobility and not trusting his little moogle wings to reliably provide it.

"Not until recently, kupo!" Calliope answered, and then there was no more time for further discussion as the five nightgaunts barreled in to the attack.

There were twice as many moogles as there were nightgaunts but despite having no visible sensory organs the nightgaunts seemed to have no trouble at all differentiating which of the moogles before them were real and which were impostors. Without exception, each of the black-skinned gargoyles made a bee-line for the five dreamwalkers in temporary moogle disguise. Each struck out with a clawed hand ending in fearsome talons. Those attacking Alewyth and Xandro managed to scoop their victims into a tight embrace, leaving them all but helpless to attack and unlikely to break free from the much-stronger nightgaunts. Thurloe, Zander, and Wakuren managed to avoid being swept up, but not all avoided the initial talon-swipe that drew first blood in this sudden melee.

Zander managed to stagger to the side away from his attacker and cast a scorching ray spell into it, blasting it in a gout of flame. Thurloe attacked his with his bastard sword, drawing blood but no indication of pain on the nightgaunt's part - without facial features it didn't wince or grimace at the wound inflicted upon it by the fighter's blade. Alewyth and Xandro tried unsuccessfully to wrest free of their abductors' grasp, while Wakuren took a moment to examine the auras of the nightgaunts. Seeing them devoid of the taint of evil, he called out to them, "Can you communicate with us?" He had forgotten to add the "kupo" but at this point it was fairly evident they could tell true moogle from fake in any case. He got no response but when he saw the two embracing Alewyth and Xandro take back off the way they had come, the half-orc realized there would be no point in fighting off the remaining three - best they all stayed together. As a result, he lowered his shield to his side and stood rigid, telling the nightgaunt, "There's no need for us to fight. We surrender. Go ahead and take us where you will." He allowed the nightgaunt to wrap its arms around him and fly off, headed in the same direction as the other two.

Zander looked over at Thurloe, not sure if he liked this idea. "Are we doing this?" he asked.

Thurloe estimated the speed at which the nightgaunts were flying and determined it was faster than the moogles could fly - and he didn't trust either his or Zander's ability to stay aloft for very long in any case, plus it was a long way down to the ground from this altitude. He sighed and sheathed his sword. "Yeah, I guess we are," he said, allowing the nightgaunt to gather him up and fly away with him. Zander did likewise and the nightgaunt he'd burned with his spell wrapped his arms around the sorcerer and flew off with him. The five moogle guides followed at their best speed, and after a little while it became apparent the nightgaunts had slowed their own speed to allow the moogles to catch up with them.

After a brief flight, which the adventurers spent with their faces crushed to the chests of their nightgaunt captors, they were deposited on a ledge overlooking a mountaintop. The five moogles fluttered to a halt beside them as the nightgaunts flapped their leathery wings and took to the air again, their mission complete. They soon disappeared behind another mountain peak, lost to view.

"Hey, wait a minute, kupo!" cried Calliope, looking around. "This is where we were headed in any case, kupo! The dream-viewing pillars are inside that cave there, kupo!" She pointed at a cave opening at the other side of the ledge, a full 15 feet wide and about 10 feet tall, leading into darkness.

And then a figure stepped out of the darkness of the cave opening. As he advanced into the sunlight, all five moogle guides gave a unified gasp of surprise and disbelief. The figure stood a good eight feet tall, with crooked antlers spreading out like a crown of tree limbs around his vaguely bull-like head. He wore metal armor around his massive chest, while the lower part of his body was obscured by cloth robes that reached to his cloven-hooved feet.

"The Nightmare King, kupo!" gasped Calliope.

The antlered figure ignored this outburst, looking over at the five interlopers to the Dreamlands. He waved his hand in the same manner as Mogo had earlier and the moogle disguises were rent asunder; each adventurer now stood looking like they did back on the Mortal Plane. "You work for the Queen," snarled the Nightmare King, a sneer of contempt on his black lips. "Your efforts will prove ineffectual against me," he warned. "But by all means, go inside and see for yourselves. You will at least learn something of what you're up against, for all the good it will do you." And then he crossed his arms against his barrellike chest and faded from view, leaving only a hearty laugh behind which echoed for a moment and then was silent.

"So who's this Nightmare King?" demanded Thurloe.

"He's...we thought he was only a legend, kupo," admitted Doc, gulping nervously. "Every so often, a herd of nightmares - those black horses with the flaming manes and hooves - goes racing through the ocean of dream-bubbles, turning the dreams into frightful, menacing nightmares for the dreamers involved, kupo. There's always been talk that there was a Nightmare King behind it all, but the Queen of Dreams has always believed it to be just that, a legend and nothing more, kupo."

"We'll have to let her know it's more than a legend, kupo," pointed out Moki.

"Definitely, kupo," confirmed Mogchamp.

"Well, let's go see what's in the cave," decided Thurloe. "If we're going to report back to her, it might as well be a full report." He took a step towards the cave and stopped at the entrance, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Without being asked, Doc cast a dancing lights spell over the fighter's head, causing little balls of illumination to circle in place above his head like a halo. The other four moogles did likewise for their own counterpart dreamwalkers.

Thurloe stepped into the cave, his bastard sword back in hand. Off to his right was a pile of well-chewed bones, while straight ahead the floor dipped in a series of natural flowing steps, leading further down into darkness. "Be carful, kupo," warned Doc, following his mortal partner. Then, his innate darkvision allowing him to see farther into the cave than could Thurloe's human eyes, he called out, "Two wild moogles, kupo!"

"Where?" demanded Thurloe, who couldn't see them in the darkness at the back of the cave.

"There and there, kupo!" answered Doc, pointing with his kittenish paws. "They won't attack us, but you five no longer look like moogles, kupo!"

Zander moved up beside Thurloe, Moki hovering right behind him. The elven sorcerer cast a bear's endurance spell upon himself, anticipating a near-future need. He squinted into the cave, struggling to use his innate elven low-light vision to see further into the cavern than Thurloe could. He could make out some sort of feline form - and then it was upon him!

The two wild moogles - a mated pair - rushed forward, charging into Thurloe and Zander. Each was about the size of a black panther, albeit one sporting a pair of batlike wings and a single pom-pom from a thin antenna sprouting from the forehead. Unlike the kittenish moogle guides, these seemed to be of no more than animal intelligence - and hungry animals at that. Sharp claws ripped across the two dreamwalkers' chests. those ripping through Zander's robes dealing more damage than those scraping across Thurloe's heavier armor.

Alewyth and Wakuren reacted immediately with the same response and a pair of spiritual weapons manifested in the air in front of them and then raced to attack the two feline foes, the warhammer from Alewyth striking the male attacking Thurloe and the heavy mace from Wakuren swinging (and missing) the female attacking Zander. Seeing the somewhat cramped fighting space along the natural stone steps leading down into the larger cavern, Xandro started his song of inspirational courage on his Dardolian lute.

Thurloe's bastard sword swung into the male wild moogle's shoulder, eliciting a yowl of pain from the winged panther. Zander had cried out in a yowl of pain himself from the female's attack with her claws; dropping the figurine of wondrous power at his feet and barking out the command word, he stepped back as the jade cooshee grew instantly to life and protected his elven master.

The male, angered at the sword-slice he had received, batted its claws at Thurloe and bit at him with the impressive set of fangs in its wide mouth. The female did likewise to the cooshee before it, drawing parallel grooves of blood across the elven dog's back and side and clamping down on its neck with its wicked teeth. In a matter of mere seconds the cooshee was already on its last legs.

Alewyth's spiritual warhammer dipped down and struck at the male wild moogle, just barely missing. The dwarven priestess opted to add another spell to the combat, casting a summon nature's ally III spell that brought a celestial black bear into being directly behind the female currently savaging the poor cooshee. The bear swiped its claws against the female wild moogle's flank, causing it to howl in surprise and pain.

Wakuren slipped past the wild moogles, accepting a strike from the female's claws as the price for him to get where he wanted to be: namely, directly behind them. Then, positioned where he figured it would do the most good, he cast an obscuring mist spell, enveloping both wild moogles on the edges of the spell's area of effect. That, he figured, would make it more difficult for the winged felines to see their intended prey. In the meantime the half-orc's spiritual heavy mace swung and missed the female wild moogle for a second time.

Xandro brought out his light crossbow and sighted a shot at the male wild moogle, catching it in the shoulder. Thurloe compounded its pain with another well-placed strike with his bastard sword, then stepped back, forcing the wild moogle to come to him to continue his own attacks with tooth and claw. Zander cast a scorching ray spell at the female who had clawed him up, while his loyal cooshee pressed on with his own attacks despite his terrible wounds. But the elven dog's attacks were his last, as the wild moogle ripped his throat out a moment later and he collapsed back into his jade cooshee form.

Alewyth's spiritual warhammer clonked the male wild moogle but good on the head while she cast a bless spell on the assembled group. "You guys are doing great, kupo!" called out Calliope from the back ranks where the five moogle guides had assembled, staying well out of range of the combat. They, after all, were mere dream guides, not used to having to fight for their lives.

The celestial bear attacked the female wild moogle again, causing her to leap fully out of the area of obscuring mist and whatever unknown creature lived within there. She focused her attacks upon Alewyth, who now stood before her. Wakuren took a moment to heal himself with a cure light wounds spell enhanced by the power of his ring, then dismissed his obscuring mist spell which wasn't quite the impediment he had hoped it to be. With the mist dissolved and his own dancing lights spell orbiting above his head, he could see a pool of clear water off to his right. Thurloe by this time had taken an incredible amount of damage from the wild moogle's teeth and claws and Xandro stepped forward, casting a healing spell though his Dardolian Lute to seal up the worst of the fighter's wounds. Thurloe stepped further back and cast a magic missile spell at the wild moogle while he caught his breath.

Another scorching ray flashed out from Zander's fingertips, hitting the male wild moogle this time. The celestial bear stepped forward, continuing its attacks upon the female wild moogle. Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility and tried slipping past the wild moogles again, hopefully to set himself up for a flanking maneuver with one of his friends. It was then he learned that wild moogles have quite excellent senses, for despite his invisibility the female was able to discern his exact location and claw him along his side as he moved past into position. His spiritual heavy mace swung and missed for a final time before winking out, causing the half-orc to swear at its complete uselessness during this particular casting of the spell.

His healing successfully completed, Xandro stepped back and grabbed up his crossbow again, shooting another bolt into the male wild moogle. Thurloe then struck the killing blow with his bastard sword, glad to have finally seen the end of the vile beast. Zander cast a magic missile spell at the remaining wild moogle while her focus was still on Alewyth, who was now facing the snarling beast with Sjondra while her spiritual warhammer got in a final blow before winking out as well, its duration having expired. Wakuren popped back into visibility as he brought his shield crashing down on the female wild moogle, even as the celestial bear clawed her from the other side. Xandro shot a bolt into her side and then Thurloe once again gave the killing blow, his bastard sword cutting deep into her flesh. She crashed to the stone floor of the cavern as the celestial bear vanished from sight, returning to whatever heavenly plane it had come from in answer to Alewyth's summons.

"Great job, kupo!" enthused Moki as Alewyth and Wakuren cast healing spells upon the wounded. Calliope led the moogles into the lower cavern, where a small opening on the far side of the pool of water led to the cave they sought. Wakuren caused his rope of climbing to attach from a stalagmite next to the pool of water with one end to a hanging stalagmite in the far cave with the other, providing a means of entry for those not currently sporting moogle wings. Alewyth, not trusting herself climbing along a rope, guzzled down a potion of gaseous form, drifting across the pool and sliding through the opening to enter the far cave.

Thurloe and Doc were the first ones into the cave and the moogle gave out a cry of disbelief. "It's been shattered, kupo!" Sure enough, the back half of the cave was covered in shards of broken rock and there were two flat-topped ovals showing where the dream-viewing pillars had once stood. A pair of sheared-off projections from the ceiling directly overhead showed where the pillars once connected. "The Nightmare King made sure we couldn't use the pillars to affect those two dreams, kupo!" Anguish was clearly noticeable in the elderly moogle guide's voice.

And then as Thurloe stepped fully into the cave and Wakuren came in, invisibly, behind him, Doc called out a much quieter warning: "I saw something moving over behind the ruins of the farthest pillar, kupo!" Thurloe looked to where the moogle had indicated and saw the shape of a reptilian head glide to the side. As it slithered forward and raised its head, Doc called out, "It's a hypnalis viper, kupo!" Knowing these to be of mere animal-level intellect as well, Doc used a speak with animals spell to communicate with the serpent. "Why are you here, kupo?" he asked.

"I am the reception committee of the Nightmare King," replied the serpent. "I am here to give the Queen's interlopers the reception they deserve." And then the serpent lashed out, striking forward with such speed it almost seemed to float across the room, snapping its venom-dripping fangs at Thurloe, who only managed to barely avoid the creature's bite.

By then Zander had climbed into the cave and cast a magic missile spell at the serpent. Wakuren leaped forward and brought the bottom edge of his shield crashing down upon the serpent's back, returning himself to visibility as he did so. Xandro entered the cave behind the elf and took up his song of inspirational courage, hoping to boost the combat prowess of those already involved in fighting off the massive snake.

Thurloe felt the bard's magic aim his strike as he brought the blade of his bastard sword slicing through the serpent's scales. But then the snake was upon him, biting his neck and sending its venom coursing through the fighter's blood. Worse yet, it kept its hold on Thurloe's neck and wrapped him up in the coils of its sinuous body, squeezing the very life out of him in the manner of a constrictor snake.

Zander cast a ray of enfeeblement spell at the hypnalis viper, hoping to weaken its grip upon Thurloe, but the ray missed the writhing snake altogether. Alewyth maneuvered her cloudlike body directly over the snake and released the gaseous form spell effect, returning her to solid matter and allowing gravity to boost her swing of Sjondra at the snake's head. It was a good thought, but the warhammer also missed its mark as the serpent thrashed around with its prey.

Wakuren slammed his shield into the snake again and Xandro stepped up to the fight with his frost short sword before the snake's prey simply...wasn't there any more. Pinned tightly by coils of muscle he knew he couldn't overcome, Thurloe had used his magical anklet of translocation to dimension door himself 10 feet away from the serpent. But the serpent wasn't particularly picky about its targets and randomly chose Xandro as its next victim. It struck at the bard with the quickness of a cobra, injecting venom into his neck as it wrapped the coils of its body around the bard and started squeezing the breath from Xandro's body. While part of Xandro's mind was reminding him this was all just happening in the Dreamlands and if he was "killed" here he'd likely just wake back up on the Mortal Plane, it was one thing to know that dispassionately and another thing entirely not to want to panic at the inexorable crushing of the hypnalis viper's sinuous coils....

Zander cast another magic missile at the serpent, falling back on a spell he knew he couldn't accidentally miss with. Alewyth hit it with Sjondra as Wakuren bashed it with the edge of his shield and Thurloe applied his own weapon to the fight. And eventually their combined efforts were successful and the hypnalis viper lay dead before them, its muscles relaxing in death to the extent Xandro was able to pull himself free. He held a hand to the wounds at his neck, where the viper had bitten him and injected him with its venom. "Let me look at that, kupo," said Mogchamp, frowning at Xandro's wounds.

The moogle guides spent a lot of time examining the viper's fangs (and the drops of venom dripping from them), as well as Xandro and Thurloe's wounds, to the point they had Alewyth and Wakuren hold off casting healing spells on the two until their examinations were complete. "What's the concern?' asked Thurloe, frowning in puzzlement.

"This isn't good, kupo," replied Doc. "This isn't good at all, kupo."

Calliope pulled the snake's mouth back so the others could get a good look at its fangs. "Do you have something we can put some of the venom in, kupo?" she asked and Alewyth unpacked an empty glass vial that had once held a magical potion. As the two women busied themselves extracting venom for further study, Moki picked up the discourse. "You know how dreamstones are found on the Mortal Plane but can affect things here in the Dreamlands, kupo? Well, it seems the Nightmare King has found a way to create a creature whose venom, here in the Dreamlands, can affect people in the Mortal World, kupo."

"You mean--?" broke off Xandro, holding a hand to his neck wounds.

"I mean, kupo, that if that venom had run its course there's a very good chance you'd have ended up in a dream coma like the other victims you've been rescuing, kupo," replied Mogchamp.

"Then heal me!" cried Xandro, and at Calliope's nodded acceptance Alewyth cast a healing spell on the bard's wounds. Wakuren meanwhile did likewise to Thurloe's wounds. Then, no longer bearing any puncture wounds on their necks and hoping the injected venom had done all it was going to do - Xandro felt a little woozy but not all that much the worse for wear - they decided they'd seen all they needed to see here. It was time to return back to the Queen of Dreams and report back what they'd seen.

"She's not going to believe this, kupo," Kupek said.

"We all saw what we saw, kupo," Moki replied. "She'll believe us, kupo."

"And at least we now know what's causing the dream sickness," Alewyth added. "But what's the Nightmare King getting from all of this? And how do we stop him?"

Those were good questions, but nobody had any answers for now.

- - -

This turned out to be a good adventure to run on New Year's Day, as it gave some answers to what's been going on in the first quarter of the campaign. And it was different enough - an adventure taking place entirely in the Dreamlands - that running it on our traditional New Year's Day session made it kind of special. I printed out NPC stats for the five moogle guides, so for this adventure each player ran their normal PC as well as their own moogle guides. And I made up special initiative cards for this adventure, too, incorporating the PCs' heads cropped onto a moogle body.

The zoogs were a lot more fun than I had anticipated, for despite their bite only dealing 1 point of damage (1d3-2), they continued to bleed for 1 point per round until healed and each wound added separate damage. Thurloe took the record by having a condition of "bleed 6" at one point, so it became necessary to break off combat for a round to apply healing to those who might otherwise bleed out - that was a fun aspect that hasn't really come into play before.

And after we were done playing through the adventure and packing up, we headed upstairs to our living room and did our Christmas gift exchange, as has been our ritual for the past dozen years or so. (Dan and Vicki and family usually spend Christmas with various out-of-state relatives.) So all in all it was a good session, although we got the worst snow of the winter thus far and needed to shovel the driveway so Dan, Vicki, and Joe could head on home afterwards.)

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Einstein shirt, which has him blowing colored smoke from a pipe which forms galaxies above his head - it's my "go to" shirt to represent the Dreamlands.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 5​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 5​

Game Session Date: 15 January 2022

- - -

"I'm just saying," Thurloe Pulver continued. He was sitting in the front of the wagon beside Wakuren, who held the reins to the mules. Thurloe's horse, Horse, was tethered to the back of the vehicle by a rope and was plodding along, while the others rode their own mounts behind the wagon. The road was little more than a mere suggestion by this point; Wakuren steered the mules over a shallow creek to stick to the smoothest section of land in a small gorge. On either side of them, some distance away, the rocks rose up ten feet or so. Scrub brush was everywhere, as well as a few stunted trees here and there.

Thurloe pressed on with his argument. "Lots of adventurers have a name for their groups. I just think we need a name for ourselves."

"I'm not inherently opposed to the idea," Wakuren said. "I just don't know if I want us to be known by that particular name."

"Why not? 'The Pulverizers' is a great name!"

"For one thing, it makes it sound like you're our leader," piped up Alewyth from her dire goat mount. "And I'm not sure if you realize it, but you're not."

"It also sounds inherently violent," Wakuren added.

"We are!" countered Thurloe.

"Some of us try not to be. I don't even carry a weapon for that very reason."

Fortunately for the half-orc, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a little girl calling from behind a clump of heavy scrub ahead and to the right. "Hey, come over here and take a look at what I found!" the voice said. "Leave your animals and weapons behind, you won't need them - it's safe!" Along with the little girl's words, the heroes could feel a distinct twinge in their minds, trying to compel them to obey the implanted suggestion.

But the minds of the five dreamwalkers were tougher than that. "Well, that's not at all suspicious!" scoffed Thurloe, pulling the bastard sword from the scabbard on his back. Xandro notched a bolt into his crossbow and steered his horse White over to the right, since there was no room to pass it on the left. Off to his right was another clump of thick scrub brush and it was from behind there that the first wave of ambushers made their presence known. A humanoid hyena-man rode astride a dire hyena the size of a draft horse while behind him ran a hyena of a more standard size. Xandro got a shot off at the gnoll as the dire hyena bit at White, catching the upper part of the horse's right front leg in its jaws. Its bite prevented White from bucking but the dire hyena was unable to bring the horse to the ground. At the same time, the gnoll was busy making hand gestures and barking out gruff syllables that the bard recognized as some sort of spellcasting; sure enough, a dire badger suddenly appeared before the mules and bit at Mica's legs.

And that was apparently the signal for the rest of the ambushers to make themselves known. Up on a ledge to the right, eight gnolls popped up from behind a ring of boulders and scrambled to the tops of the rocks, pointing their shortbows down at the adventurers and their mounts. Four arrows went flying down at the wagon, narrowly missing both Wakuren and Thurloe. Two more gnolls dropped the clumps of brush they'd been holding up to shield themselves from view up on the ledge to the left and brought their own shortbows to bear. Another arrow went whizzing past Thurloe's ear while one more actually hit Wakuren, only to be deflected by the half-orc's metal armor.

Zander pulled the jade cooshee from his pocket and dropped it to the ground, activating it with a command word. The elven dog sprang to life, took in the situation in a moment, and raced for the dire hyena. His master brought his horse Eddy around to the right of the wagon to get himself into a better position. Thurloe, in the meantime, leaped down from the wagon - which Wakuren had brought to a halt given the dire badger in the way of their progress - and raced into battle, bringing his blade down on the summoned creature clawing at Mica. He activated his magical torc of the titans to increase the power of his swing. The dire badger hissed in pain at the blow and foamed at the mouth in outrage.

Alewyth jumped down from Pyrite and slapped her dire goat on his hindquarters to get him to flee back the way they'd come - she wanted him out of danger, especially given the presence of several carnivorous predators. Then she made a quick prayer to Aerik, God of Protection, for a bless spell to guide her friends' attacks against these gnolls and their animal companions.

It was at this point the "little girl" made an appearance: dashing out from behind the camouflaging bushes came a hideous creature with the head of a badger, the body of a hyena, and the legs of a stag, the whole thing as big as a riding horse. "None of you came to see what I found!" it pouted in its eerie, little-girl voice. Then its voice changed to sound more like that of one of its gnoll companions. "So I guess we'll have to do this the hard way!" It pranced forward, making a bee-line for Thurloe, still in combat with the summoned dire badger.

Wakuren cast a spiritual weapon spell and sent the heavy mace of force energy flying up to harass the gnoll archers up on the left ledge. Mica kicked out at the dire badger as the hyena bit at White, just as the horse had extricated himself from the jaws of the larger beast while the dire hyena fended off the attacks from the cooshee. Xandro, fearing his mount was soon to be wrestled to the ground and not wanting to be thrown prone as well, leaped from the saddle onto the back of the wagon. White panicked and fled, joining Pyrite out of harm's way - and Xandro breathed a sigh of relief. But then the gnoll druid leaped from his dire hyena mount and followed the bard into scampering up onto the back of the wagon, foregoing any spellcasting to bring his battleaxe swinging into the bard. Xandro just barely ducked in time, while Zander cast a magic missile spell at the gnoll druid.

The dire hyena bit the elven dog and grappled him down to the ground, tearing at the cooshee's throat, while behind them the dire badger took another bite at Mica's leg. Thurloe, Wakuren, and Xandro all found themselves targeted by the gnoll archers on the ledge to the right, some of them coming a bit too close for comfort. With a mighty struggle, the cooshee regained his footing - only to have his throat ripped out by the dire hyena's powerful jaws. But if the massive beast had been looking for a meal he was out of luck, for the cooshee merely reverted back to its statuette form and fell to the hard-packed earth. It didn't get long to mourn its lost meal, however, for Alewyth was upon it, striking with her dwarven warhammer Sjondra.

Tapping into the power of his magical torc again, Thurloe slew the dire badger with his bastard sword; as a summoned creature, it disappeared back to wherever it had been called from by the gnoll druid. It was no longer blocking the path of the mules but neither of them was eager to move forward and close the distance with the approaching leucrotta; on top of that, Mica's right front leg was bleeding heavily where it had been savaged by the badger's teeth and he hobbled awkwardly in place.

Thurloe and Wakuren were each hit by an arrow shot by the archers on the the ledge to the left (one of them fleeing to the side to avoid the half-orc's spiritual heavy mace); Wakuren managed to deflect the arrow off his shield. But by then the leucrotta had crossed the span and was snapping its wicked teeth at Thurloe, who was hard-pressed to keep it at bay. Wakuren turned his attention to the eight gnoll archers over on the far ledge and cast a wind wall spell across the front edge of the embankment, just in front of the boulders upon which the gnolls were perched.

Alewyth now found herself in the unenviable position of being the primary target for both the hyena and his larger cousin; she wisely focused her attention on the greater threat, making sure those wicked jaws didn't get a hold on her. Over on the wagon, Xandro spun about and stabbed the druid through the midsection with his frost short sword, killing him instantly; he pitched off the side of the wagon to fall dead in the dirt.

Another volley of arrows came streaming from the eight gnolls to the right, only to have them suddenly swerve upwards as a result of the wind wall spell Wakuren had cast. The gnolls grumbled at the unseen effect; unable to determine how far the spell extended they stowed their shortbows and grabbed up their battleaxes, snarling in anger all the while. Then they leaped down from their boulders and started lowering themselves down the steep slope of the gorge, those passing through the wind wall effect yelping in startlement as their fur was ruffled in the passing.

Zander cast a scorching ray spell at the dire hyena and it fell over to the ground, its fur aflame as it died. Alewyth took the opportunity to focus her attacks on the druid's hyena companion and crushed its skull with Sjondra. Thurloe used his magic torc for the last time that day to put every iota of power he could into his swing, sending his blade deep into the side of the leucrotta, who spit blood and cried out in what the fighter had to assume was its natural voice, for it was no longer attempting to sound like a little girl or one of its gnoll compatriots. It snapped its jaws at Thurloe and lashed out at him with his front hooves, but the attacks were slow and sluggish as the creature's life-blood poured out of its side. But then another volley of arrows came flying down at Wakuren and Thurloe from the left. "Can't you do something about them?" groused the fighter as an arrow struck him in the arm and veered off, leaving a trail of blood along his bicep.

"I did all I could," Wakuren replied as his spiritual heavy mace took a final swing at one of the gnoll archers, killing him, and then winked out of existence. "I don't have another wind wall spell prepared!" But the half-orc ran around to the back of the leucrotta, hoping to catch it in a pincer maneuver while its focus was on Thurloe and his deadly bastard sword. Xandro wasn't particularly overeager to leave the relative safety of the wagon so he pulled out his Dardolian lute and began strumming his song of courageous inspiration, allowing the magic of his song to guide his friends' weapon-strikes. It looked like they'd be needing it soon, too, for the gnolls had scrambled down from the rise and were now racing over towards those of the heroes on foot in front of and to the side of the wagon.

Zander was still astride his horse Eddy and sent a magic missile at one of the approaching gnolls; it hit him straight on but the gnoll kept coming. Thurloe finished off the leucrotta in time to whirl about and face the approaching gnolls, each wielding a battleaxe and wearing a look of battle lust on its muzzled face. Then Thurloe took another arrow to the shoulder, cursed, and plucked it from his arm. Alewyth saw the glare Thurloe passed Wakuren's way and cast a spiritual weapon spell of her own, the force-weapon taking the shape of a dwarven war axe. She sent it flying up at the remaining gnoll archer on the left ridge that was sniping at Thurloe.

Wakuren faced the charging gnolls and cast a sound burst in their midst, causing three of them to slow and stumble to a dazed halt, stunned into inaction. Xandro set his lute aside in the back of the wagon and leaped back down from it, running up to the gnoll Zander had just hit with a magic missile. His lateral sword-slice almost decapitated the gnoll at the neck and it fell to the ground in an unmoving heap. But then the other gnolls struck, three of them surrounding Wakuren, the sound of their axe-heads crashing against the half-orc's shield causing a cacophony that echoed throughout the gorge. Two more gnolls took on Thurloe, but his bastard sword's extra reach managed to keep them at bay. Zander cast another magic missile at one of the ones fighting Thurloe, merely because he was the closest. Thurloe's blade wheeled on the other one attacking him, bringing him crashing to the ground in a dead heap.

Another arrow came flying down from the left ledge as the archer there got a shot off between dodging Alewyth's spiritual weapon spell. It missed Thurloe by no more than a hair's breadth and he swore again. But then the dwarven priestess charged into battle with Sjondra gripped tightly in her hand, slaying the gnoll Zander had just shot. Thurloe nodded his appreciation at the assist and turned to help Wakuren take down the three he was fighting.

It took a little longer - especially after the trio Wakuren had momentarily stunned snapped out of it and showed up as a sort of reserve force - but between a scorching ray spell from Zander, Alewyth's warhammer, Thurloe's bastard sword, Xandro's short sword, and Wakuren's shield, the last remaining gnoll ended up being the second sniper up on the ledge to the left. Seeing the one-sided pile of dead on the ground below him, he opted to high-tail it as fast as he could, fleeing along the ledge in the direction the mule-wagon had been going. Alewyth's spiritual war axe followed him for as far as the priestess could see him, then returned to her side once the fleeing gnoll was out of sight.

Alewyth went after her dire goat and Xandro fetched White. Healing spells were applied not only to the heroes in need of them, but also to Mica and White, both of whom had incurred serious wounds during the ambush. "So now what?" asked Zander.

"What?" asked Thurloe.

"Do we just go on the way we were going, or do we track down that remaining gnoll, the one who escaped?"

"What's one gnoll going to do?" countered Thurloe.

"We don't know there's just the one of them," pointed out Alewyth. "This might have just been a raiding party from a larger group, and if they're ambushing travelers...."

"Plus, there's those elven slavers," Xandro added. "They were selling human slaves to other races in the general area. Could be the gnolls were customers."

"...Fine," grumbled Thurloe. He was eager to get on with their original goal, to head over to the next dream victim, but he supposed checking out the remaining gnoll wasn't going to take too long. For one thing, he'd been bleeding from the spiritual weapon strikes from Alewyth's spell; for another, none of the gnolls had been particularly interested in covering their tracks and it wasn't difficult at all to backtrack the way they'd come. Their trail led inexorably to the mountains in the distance, trailing the main road. Wakuren was pleased for the mules' sakes that their trail paralleled the road, making pulling their wagon no greater of a burden than necessary.

Eventually, a stone structure came into view at the base of the Shieldwall Mountains. It was mostly oval in shape, with two main entrances the group could see: a standard-sized one along the long edge of the oval and a much larger set of doors off to the south end. "It's an arena," Alewyth said. As they got closer to it and could make out more details, she added, "Dwarven construction, several centuries old. And consecrated to Thunderwolf, it looks like - makes sense." Thunderwolf was the God of War, so it was perfectly logical a combat arena would be built in His honor.

"I don't see any guards," said Zander, shielding his eyes from the sun and scanning the arena from one end to the other.

"Gnolls tend to be lazy," Thurloe pointed out. "Probably think nobody'd dare attack them in their lair."

That turned out to be the case. The group abandoned their wagon and animals down the road from the arena and cautiously made their way to the dwarven structure. On the way, Wakuren removed his ring of invisibility and handed it to Xandro. "Here," he said. "You've been practicing being sneaky - you ought to wear this." It was true; Xandro had been expanding his repertoire beyond just singing and playing the lute and the boots and cloak of elvenkind he'd taken from Randalvael the elven slaver were certain to aid him in his sneaking about. But doing so while invisible was an even better deal, so the bard took the proffered ring and slipped it onto his finger, activating it and slipping from the visible spectrum.

After a brief discussion, the group decided against the larger set of doors to the south, figuring that was the entrance the dire hyena and leucrotta probably used; if there were any more of those beasts around they'd rather not deal with them right away. The front entrance was flanked by what the group assumed were ticket booths: small rooms jutting out with barred open windows where presumably, when the arena had been active, one could purchase a seat to watch the gladiatorial combats inside. The doors were stone and neither locked nor barred; Wakuren was able to pull them open without any fuss. Then the group split up, with Thurloe and Alewyth heading south and the other three heading north. They ended up on opposite ends of a long hallway and decided to check out the doors accessible along that corridor, discovering a storage area; a sealed treasure vault with mostly empty lockboxes stored along the back wall (although Xandro found one whose contents, for whatever reason, hadn't been emptied after he managed to pick the lock to the vault's door); and an armory where the gladiator weapons were stored. It was obvious from the empty slots in the weapon racks that the gnolls had raided the armory and were using the dwarven-crafter weapons for their own.

But then the group decided to stick together and went back north. They found the baths, filled with brackish water, and then, around the corner, a room that had been modified since the dwarves had built the arena long ago: it now had a crude bar preventing the door from being opened from the inside. Thurloe pulled the bar away and Wakuren opened the door, only to find three human women who were shocked to see someone other than their gnoll captors opening the door. They explained they were from Baron's Haven and had been captured by the manticores in league with the elven slavers, then sold to the gnolls. There were three men in a similar room just down the hallway, on the other side of the northern door to the arena.

All of this explanation was given in hushed voices, for the entire southern wall of the women's slave chamber was open to the arena and covered in metal bars to prevent actual access there. But from the vantage point the group could see another eight gnolls on the arena sands, six of them curled up in sleep along the curved wall of the arena, with the other two talking to each other at the far side of the sands. Another dire hyena sat near them, while at least two gnoll archers patrolled the stadium seating. "There's also the Pack Leader," whispered one of the slaves, "but we haven't actually seen her for days now. She's made the royal box her personal lair." The royal box jutted out on the west side of the arena, providing the best view of the combats that would have occurred below.

"So what do the gnolls have you do?" asked Zander.

"We prepare their food for them, when they let us out to do so," whispered one of the slaves.

"And when they've been successful in their hunting," another added. "When the food gets low, they...just take one of us as their next meal." She shuddered at the memory of the few times she'd seen that occur since her own captivity.

"Well, we're getting you all out of here, and that's a promise," said Alewyth.

"Yeah, eventually," chimed in Thurloe. "For right now, though, you ladies stay put right where you are. It's safer here until we deal with the rest of the pack."

"What's the plan?" Xandro asked.

"I think Alewyth and I are going back to the south entrance, ready to pop through the south gate there when we hear the fighting begin. Zander, you stay here with the women - I assume you can cast your spells through the bars here?" Zander assured him he could. "Then Wakuren, you wait here at the door, and Zander'll warn you when he sees the first of the archers go down."

"And me?" asked Xandro.

"You're going to find your way up to the stadium seats there, invisible, and kill the archer. That'll be the signal for the rest of us to attack." Alewyth cast protection from evil spells on herself and Thurloe as the two made their way back down the corridor they'd explored earlier and found their way to the south gate. "And now we wait," whispered Thurloe.

Xandro backtracked the way they'd come, for there was a set of stairs leading up that he was pretty sure led up to the rows of stadium seating. Sure enough they did, and a quick perusal showed there were just the two gnoll archers among the stone bleachers, the only show of defensive force the gnolls had even bothered with. He slowly made his way around the stadium counterclockwise, with his frost short sword in his hand and ready for action, counting on his boots of elvenkind and Wakuren's ring of invisibility to keep him from being noticed.

The gnoll archers weren't particularly attentive to their duties; they had their bows out and a quiver of arrows at their backs but neither one had an arrow ready for firing, apparently under the mistaken belief that no one would dare try to infiltrate an entire pack of gnolls and their allied beasts. The one Xandro was sneaking up on sighed impatiently, hoping the raiding party would be back soon with some food for the larder, because he was getting hungry again and they'd just about finished the last horse they'd been eating. But then he cried out in pain as a blade pierced his torso, twisted, and was pulled back out again. The gnoll dropped his bow and staggered forward, fumbling to grab up his battleaxe, as the human who'd stabbed him went in for another sword-strike.

Zander saw the attack from between the bars of the women's cell and whispered to Wakuren that the attack had started. The half-orc dashed away from the doorway where he'd been waiting and pushed open the doors of the north gate to the arena. Then the elf took aim and cast a magic missile spell at the other archer over by the south gate. His sudden cry of pain alerted the two awake gnolls on the arena sands and the dire hyena that something was up; more importantly, Alewyth and Thurloe heard it from behind the south gate arena entrance and pushed the heavy doors open, spilling onto the sands themselves.

There was a sleeping gnoll huddled along the arena wall to Alewyth's right as she entered, and she took the opportunity thus presented to bash his head with Sjondra. But then the dire hyena was on her, snapping with its slavering jaws. Thurloe had moved to the left when he entered and slew another gnoll who had been sleeping on the warm sands. Then he too was under attack, in his case by the gnoll archer in the stands above him. The arrow came close but missed its mark.

The other archer was making a feeble attempt at fighting back against Xandro but the bard's initial attack had all but drained the fight out of him. Xandro killed him quickly with another stroke of his blade, then looked down to the arena below. Most of the other sleeping gnolls were awake and grabbing up their weapons (all but one, who was apparently a very sound sleeper), and Alewyth finished off the gnoll she had originally attacked as he tried to rise to a standing position. Then she had to divert her full attention to the dire hyena. But Wakuren had made his entrance and three of the gnolls were headed in his direction, battleaxes ready for combat.

Zander fired off another magic missile at the gnoll archer, deeming his ranged attacks made him the bigger threat at the moment. Alewyth struck the dire hyena with Sjondra, causing it to shake its head in an effort to stop the world form spinning around so much. Then it was back to snapping at the dwarven priestess with its wicked teeth. But in its fierce concentration on bringing down the dwarf it failed to see Thurloe stepping up behind it, and the fighter's bastard sword cut deeply into its back, severing its spine and killing it.

The gnoll archer couldn't see who was shooting at it with those accursed spells, so he continued focusing his attention on trying to kill Thurloe, who had just slain their beloved animal compatriot. A pair of gnolls pressed their attacks on Alewyth and another on Thurloe, while over on the other side of the ring Wakuren was fending off three rushing gnolls. The deep sleeper gnoll had by this time finally awakened and was scrambling to find where he had put his weapons before his nap.

Xandro leaped over the side of the arena wall and landed safely in the sands, then ran over to help Wakuren - who, admittedly, had been doing fine on his own, dodging the incoming axe-strikes or deflecting them off his shield, only to turn his shield into a weapon as needed, either striking with the flat surface in a bludgeoning blow or hitting with the pointed bottom edge. But the half-orc wasn't at all displeased to receive assistance and Xandro quickly flanked a gnoll and slew him with one blow from his sword.

Zander continued lobbing magic missile spells at the sole remaining archer, while Alewyth and Thurloe each dispatched one of the gnolls focused on them. By now the sands of the arena were stained with blood, very possibly the first blood spilled in combat the arena had seen since its disuse many decades ago. The remaining gnolls gave it their all but it was apparent they didn't have the combat experience of the five intruders. Those on the sands were soon taken out by hammer, shield, and blades, while Zander finally slew the archer with a scorching ray spell. And just that quickly, combat seemed to be over. Zander told the female slaves to remain there just to be safe and ran onto the arena to join his friends.

"What about the pack leader?" he asked them. "She's supposed to be up there in the royal box. Anybody seen her?"

Nobody had. But the reason for this became readily apparent once they had found the way to the royal box and there found a larger, female gnoll fast asleep. Thurloe, bastard sword in hand and pointed at the pack leader's throat, kicked her in the shoulder to wake her up, but she continued to sleep on. He tried again, with no better luck. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me," he said. "She's caught in the dream plague?"

"So now what?" asked Wakuren. "We can't just kill her."

"And why not?" demanded Thurloe. "One: she's the head of a bunch of gnolls who attack travelers and buy slaves. Two: we don't know why the Nightmare King is trapping people in their dreams, but if we kill her we deprive him of whatever he's getting out of the deal."

"By that logic," argued Alewyth, "we should just kill everyone caught in the dream plague. Surely you're not suggesting that?"

Thurloe actually gave it a moment's thought; it would actually be somewhat easier.... But finally common sense won over and he admitted, "Okay, no. But I'm not gonna free her from her dreams just so she can beat us awake and kill us!"

"We'll take precautions," promised Wakuren, pulling out his rope of climbing and binding the pack leader's hands behind her back, before doing likewise with her feet, leaving her hog-tied in the center of the royal box.

"We'll probably want someone guarding us, in case we missed any gnolls," Zander pointed out, and he went to go fetch the slaves. There were three men and three women, all very pleased to have been freed from servitude and more than happy to guard the dreamwalkers while they performed their ritual, especially after they had been armed with dwarven weapons from the arena's armory.

"Now no attacking the gnoll while we're performing the ritual," Wakuren warned the newly-freed slaves. "We're hoping to get some answers from her, so we need her alive."

"For now," added Thurloe. Then the five took their places around the sleeping gnoll, the dreamstones centered on their foreheads and kept in place by the leather headbands Thurloe's Uncle Marten had crafted for them. Another dreamstone was held in place at the gnoll's forehead with a bandana. After that, it was a simple matter of slowing one's breathing, one's thoughts, and entering a state of slumber, where the dreamwalkers' minds left their bodies and drifted into the Dreamlands....

"Hey, kupo!" greeted their moogle guides upon their arrival. They each escorted their respective dreamwalker to the Corridor of Dreams, where Mogo was waiting for them. "In you go, kupo!" he said, ushering them through the doorway.

At first, they worried that something had gone wrong, for they were right back on the sands of the arena. But now the seats were all filled with bloodthirsty dwarves, yelling and screaming at the combat being played out in the middle of the arena. There, bloody battleaxe in hand, stood the pack leader, surrounded by a dozen hyenas who kept dodging in and biting her. Already, she had bloody patches on her fur where previous bite attacks had succeeded.

And then they noticed something unusual: the pack leader swung her axe and cleaved the skull of a hyena, slaying it instantly. It fell to the ground, dead, and was they absorbed into the arena sands. At the same time, another hyena manifested on the outskirts of the battle and darted in to join the pack in worrying their prey.

"When she kills one, a replacement just pops back up," pointed out Alewyth. "At this rate, she'll never finish fighting!"

"We'd better go help her!" said Wakuren as he ran into battle, slamming his shield into the nearest hyena and sending it flying off to the side. It yelped in pain but then rejoined the attack against the pack leader. Some of the closer ones diverted their attacks to the half-orc now in their midst, however. Thurloe was in no mood to go risk his life to save some stupid bloody gnoll, but now that Wakuren was equally in danger.... "Fine!" the fighter sighed, swinging his bastard sword into the side of the nearest hyena. He was pleased to see it cut nearly in twain, and even more pleased to see no new hyena showed up as an automatic replacement. "Looks like when we kill them, they stay dead!" Thurloe called to the others.

"But not when I!" cried the gnoll in frustration as she killed another hyena, just for a new one to arrive at the outskirts of the combat. They were a bit surprised to hear the pack leader capable of speaking the Common tongue, but whether this was just part of the dream or if she could speak it in the real world was still a matter of conjecture. "Why they attacking me?"

"Guess they're probably a good judge of character!" Thurloe answered, but he continued aiding the pack leader by swinging his bastard sword into as many of the hyenas as he could, one after the next. The gnoll continued slaying hyenas as well, but hers kept coming back; only those slain by the adventurers were permanently removed from the arena. Eventually, all of the hyenas had been slain and the dream started to fade away, first with the cheering dwarves dissipating, then the stadium itself, until the group was standing on an ever-shrinking piece of sand....

When they all awoke, the pack leader was still tied up and still, but her former slaves had resisted the impulse to kill her. The five dreamwalkers snapped back awake, one at a time, and Thurloe went to examine their prisoner. "You able to speak our language?" he asked her.

"Yes, some." She looked up at the fighter and a look of recognition was caught in her eyes. "You were there. In dream. Fighting."

"Yeah, you're welcome for that, by the way."

"Was there ever a big snake in the arena, in your dream?" asked Wakuren. He was eager to find out if the dreamers actually ever saw the hypnalis viper the Nightmare King apparently slipped into people's dreams to put them into the dream coma.

"No, no snake - only hyenas," replied the pack leader. Then, muttering to herself, she said, "Is a sign. Hyenas shouldn't attack. Should be allies. Something very wrong."

"You think there was no viper, or she just didn't see it?" asked Zander.

"No way to tell," replied Xandro. "It could have attacked her from her blind side, or it might not have even looked like a viper at the time. Maybe it took the form of one of the hyenas."

"Well, what are we going to do with her now?" Alewyth asked. "I won't kill a bound enemy." And then, as Thurloe opened his mouth to offer his services, the dwarf cut him off with "And I won't let you, either."

"Fine," replied Thurloe. "So we let her loose in the arena and cut her down there."

"I don't think that will be necessary," Wakuren said, reaching over to untie the ropes binding their captive. "I sense a crisis of faith occurring." As the others steeled their weapons for the inevitable attack once the half-orc released the pack leader from her bonds, Wakuren just smiled and said, "I don't think we have anything to worry about from her."

He turned to face the gnoll leader. "If we let you go free, I don't expect to hear you've taken up your old ways," he informed her.

"No," agreed the gnoll. "Dream say to me: you on wrong path. We return to the old ways: hunt for our food, follow the game." She looked around the royal box. "No arena. No slaves. No...lazy ways."

"And no tribe, either," Thurloe pointed out. "We killed all of your pack. You're on your own, sweetheart." The gnoll flinched at that, but getting to her feet and looking down over the arena sands to the signs of the carnage below gave her ample evidence the human wasn't kidding.

"Then I go," she said, and Wakuren made the others allow her to leave.

"You're just too soft-hearted," Thurloe chided him. "She hooks up with another pack of gnolls, she'll be right back to her old ways."

"I don't think so," countered Wakuren. "With any luck, she'll convert them to her new way of thinking." Then he turned to the slaves they'd freed. "Where are you from?" he asked them. The majority of them were from Baron's Haven, or heading in that direction. The adventurers took them with them when they exited the arena, then showed them which way to go when they came up to the main road leading to Baron's Haven.

"Our way leads in the other direction," Wakuren told them as they headed east. The six thanked the group again for their rescue (and their dwarven weapons), and then the two groups went their separate ways.

"So," Thurloe said to Wakuren as the mules pulled the wagon to the east. "Where were we?"

"What do you mean?" asked the half-orc, incomprehension on his puzzled face.

"'The Pulverizers' as our adventuring name!" Thurloe gushed. "It's great! It shows we mean business, that we're not to be trifled with!"

"That one of us has an entirely too high opinion of himself," added Alewyth from her dire goat.

"I'm not using it in any of my ballads," Xandro pointed out.

"You guys have no sense of taste," grumbled Thurloe, and was thankfully silent for the next hour or so.

- - -

I used two separate Paizo Flip-Maps for this adventure: one of the "Ambush Sites Multi-Pack" and an old arena map I'd never used before. Of course, I had to design the ground-level support rooms that led to the arena itself, but that was kind of fun. The adventure was just "okay," though, in my mind, in no small part because of the very limited monster palette I used. In hindsight, I probably should have figured a way to incorporate a few different other monsters so they weren't fighting the same stuff all session, but the group seemed to like it okay.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "Chaotic evil means never having to say you're sorry" T-shirt, which represented the chaotic evil gnolls.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 5​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 2/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 4/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 5​

Game Session Date: 29 January 2022

- - -

The sounds of pounding hooves on the road behind them caused Alewyth to wheel her dire goat Pyrite around. Wakuren sat at the front of the wagon with the reins of the two mules in his hands, while Xandro, Thurloe, and Zander each sat astride their respective horses. But any concerns that this might be an attack were diminished at the sight of the man riding up to them: he was a thin human, dressed in the robes of a wizard, but young enough it was unlikely he had gotten very high up in the ranks of the arcane spellcasters and his bookish demeanor hinted he was more at ease inside a library than out combatting adventurers like themselves. Still, their hands strayed close to their weapons and Zander brought the words of a magic missile spell to the forefront of his brain, ready to fire if the man made any threatening moves towards them.

But the stranger did not. Instead, bringing his horse to a slow trot beside them, he called out, "Are you by any chance the people who know how to wake others from their dreams?"

"We are," Alewyth confirmed hesitantly.

"Ah, very good!" cried the man. "My name is Mandorregan. I believe I may have need of your services, then! I have 250 pieces of gold if you would be so kind as to accompany me to my friend Rindicane's keep, where I fear he may have fallen into one of those dream-coma things you're so adept at overcoming."

"We're on our way to awaken our next dream victim," Wakuren replied. "Where is this keep?" Mandorregan explained it was about two miles from their present location, in the Darkwood Forest to the south. Wakuren frowned, for their way led further east; it wasn't like the moogles to have missed a dream victim. "Are you sure he's in a dream coma?" the half-orc asked the young wizard.

"In truth, I am not. However, I have tried contacting Rindicane for the past several weeks, with no luck. His servant is unable to contact him, and Rindicane would never leave for a great length of time without informing his servant of his intentions or his whereabouts. I heard about your exploits in Baron's Haven, where I learned of the dream sickness. It would explain his inability to reply to whispering wind spells."

Wakuren looked over at the others. "What do you think?" he asked them.

"Sure," agreed Alewyth.

"Fifty gold apiece," pointed out Thurloe.

It was soon agreed they would accompany Mandorregan to Rindicane's keep and see if they could find him and wake him. On the way there, the young wizard filled them in on what he could of his friend. Rindicane was a studious wizard like himself, although he was particularly interested in the creatures existing on other planes. And his keep was protected by his servant, a stone face on the door he referred to as a grandfather plaque. "I've argued with it until I'm blue in the face," complained Mandorregan, "but it refuses to allow me entry, even though I've pointed out Rindicane might very well need our help."

When they approached Rindicane's keep, several things stood out about it at once. First of all, there was a pair of stone lions in the front of the building, each life-sized, the one on the left looking quite normal and the one on the right sporting a pair of feathery wings. There was an indentation in the front surface of the ground floor of the building between the two stone lions, and hanging on the door inside that recession was another stone carving, this one of the face of an elderly gentleman, bald but with a full beard. And at the top of the building, in the middle of its third floor, was a large window of stained glass, seemingly a myriad of overlapping geometric shapes colored in all shades of the rainbow. The top floor had a balcony that jutted out just below the window, with a metal rail preventing those on the balcony from falling off. A closed door leading into the building could be seen on the right side of the balcony.

As Wakuren brought the mules to a halt before the stone lions the grandfather plaque open its eyes. "Hello, Mandorregan," it said in a pleasant voice. "What can I do for you?"

"You can let me in so I can see if Rindicane is okay," the young wizard replied.

"One minute please; I'll see if the Master is taking visitors." The grandfather plaque closed its eyes for a moment, then opened them again and said, "I'm sorry, but there is no response from Rindicane and he left explicit orders not to let anyone in without granting his express permission beforehand."

Wakuren climbed down from the wagon and approached the front door. "Careful," advised Alewyth, who had cast a detect magic spell and was warily eyeing the stone lions. "I'm picking up auras of transmutation magic from those statues - I'd bet you anything they can animate and attack."

"Really?" asked Mandorregan. "I had no idea! Still, it fits - Rindicane was at times somewhat paranoid about his privacy."

Wakuren stepped directly between the lions and stood before the grandfather plaque, where it could get a good look at the holy symbol of Cal he wore around his neck. "I am a cleric and paladin of Cal," he announced while scanning the construct's aura for the signs of evil and finding none. "If you let me inside, I promise to take nothing; I seek only to verify that Rindicane is unharmed."

"I am truly sorry, but I am not allowed to let anyone inside without Rindicane's permission," explained the stone carving on the thick, wooden door. By then Thurloe had dismounted Horse and stood by the half-orc's side. He idly wondered what would happen if they just started busting down the front door. It was pretty sturdily built, but he was sure Alewyth's dwarven warhammer Sjondra would be up to the task....

But Alewyth was nowhere to be seen. She had wandered off to the side of the building, concentrating on keeping her detect magic spell active while walking completely around the building, looking for another way in. When she reached the front again from the other side, she backed up to see as much of the roof as she could - and noticed a chimney flue off to the front left of the roof. That had possibilities....

"Anything?" asked Xandro, having seen what the dwarf was up to.

"The stone lions animate if directed, the grandfather plaque is obviously magic, and I'm getting a pretty powerful aura off that big colored window in the front," Alewyth explained.

"So how do we get in?" whispered Zander, not wanting to be heard by the stubborn grandfather plaque.

"I have a potion of gaseous form," whispered Alewyth. "I should be able to get in through the flue on the roof."

"Good idea," Wakuren agreed. "You do that, while I turn invisible and use my rope of climbing to climb up to the balcony. Maybe the door up there is unlocked."

Thurloe, in the meantime, had taken it upon himself to keep the grandfather plaque's attention focused on himself and he chose to do so by arguing. "What if Rindicane tripped and snapped his neck?" the fighter-wizard theorized. "He could be lying dead in there. Wouldn't you want to know if that was the case?"

"Rindicane left no instructions to let people into his dwelling in the case of his sudden demise," countered the grandfather plaque.

"Well, maybe he's not dead - yet," Thurloe persisted. "Maybe he's got a big gash on his head and he's unconscious and bleeding out. We got two clerics who could heal him - save his life. Isn't that worth taking a chance on letting us in?"

"The Master is an intelligent man," replied the grandfather plaque. "He no doubt took all of that into account when he gave me my orders and chose not to include such a 'what if?' loophole. I can only assume he decided the risk was worth it."

"So you're okay if he's dead."

"I intend to follow his instructions as they were given to me."

Alewyth cast a bless spell on the assembled group and then walked over to the left side of the building - she didn't want to drink down her potion in front of either the grandfather plaque or the stone lions - and smiled at Thurloe's failure to convince the stone servant to do his bidding. Then she drank down the potion and, with Sjondra in one hand, dissipated into a cloud of mist that slowly rose up the side of the building. Once at the rooftop level, her dwarven cloud-form squeezed into a much smaller configuration as she entered the flue and sank down its length back down to the ground floor, this time from inside the building. She was glad to see that the "at times somewhat paranoid" wizard Rindicane hadn't seen fit to seal off his chimney interior from trespassers.

Wakuren, in the meantime, had walked over to the right side of the building and activated his ring of invisibility. He then opened his pack and pulled out his rope of climbing, which was also invisible (as was all of his gear) - and would remain so, he knew, as long as he held one end in his hand. Giving it mental instructions, the rope rose up and attached its far end to the railing around the balcony after having twisted itself around and around such that its entire length was knotted every foot or so for easier climbing. The half-orc gave it a quick tug to verify it would hold his weight and started climbing up to the balcony.

Alewyth popped out of a cold fireplace in what had to be a ground-floor kitchen. There were two open doorways out of the kitchen, one leading to a long dining room which took up the entire back length of the keep's ground floor and the other leading to a foyer. The foyer, Alewyth knew, led to the thick front door upon which the grandfather plaque had been fastened; she need only resume her normal form and open the door from the inside to allow her friends entry. However, two things stopped her from doing so: the suits of plate mail armor standing in the back of the foyer. With her detect magic spell still active, Alewyth could see they each radiated the same transmutation auras as the lions outside, meaning they would likely animate and attack as soon as they detected an intruder in the keep. Hoping her gaseous form wouldn't trigger their activation, she remained in a vaporous state and floated over to the dining room. A set of stairs led up to the second floor and she drifted up them, figuring it might not be a bad idea to check the whole place out before resuming her solid form; maybe she'd find Rindicane fast asleep in a dream coma and would be able to justify to the grandfather plaque that their presence was needed.

Drifting silently from room to room on the second floor, the vaporous Alewyth explored a library (where her spell-enhanced vision allowed her to identify two magical scrolls which would likewise animate and attack any intruders who stepped foot into the room), a laboratory with a closet of supplies, and then another staircase leading to the third floor. The third floor contained Rindicane's bedroom, closet, and bathroom, while the entire front half of that upper level was taken up by a large room with the stained-glass window in the front and a magic circle of some type inscribed in the middle of the floor.

Alewyth drifted over to examine the circle more closely. The circle was covered in runes, the whole thing looking to have been painted onto the floor with some silvery-white substance that glowed slightly in the dwarf's detect magic sight. The circle included six gemstones set into the floor at equal distances around the circle's circumference; each gem was of a different color. There was a leather-bound book lying beside the circle, which radiated no magic; nonetheless, Alewyth opted not to touch it, even in her gaseous form. The window radiated magic as well, and it looked different than from outside somehow. But having now explored the entire keep and not finding Rindicane, Alewyth came to an abrupt conclusion: the window had been modified as some sort of planar gate and the wizard was no longer even on this plane of existence.

Mentally deactivating the effects of the potion of gaseous form right before the door leading to the balcony, Alewyth resumed her solid form and tried opening the door. No luck: it was locked and she saw no mechanism by which to unlock it; furthermore, it too was glowing under her detect magic spell and was likely arcane locked. But then she saw what had bothered her about the window: while drifting throughout the keep in vaporous form, she had been relying upon her innate darkvision to see, for there had been no illumination within the keep's rooms. Now that she was in solid form in a room whose window allowed in ambient sunlight, she could see colors once again - but the window's geometric designs were still all in black, white, and shades of gray.

By this time, Wakuren had made it up to the top of the balcony, verified the door was locked from the outside as well, and peeked through the window into the room beyond. He saw Alewyth inside and tried catching her attention before realizing he was still invisible and she wouldn't be able to see him even if she had managed to look over in his direction. He still held onto the rope of climbing, knowing if he dropped it the rope would return to visibility and alert the grandfather plaque below that they were attempting to infiltrate his master's keep - and who knew what actions that would prompt?

Down below, Thurloe was still arguing with the stone face on the door. "Okay, if you won't let us in, could you at least peek inside each room and tell us if Rindicane is actually in there?"

"Such actions are outside my instructions."

"How about telling us what's in each room, forgetting about Rindicane. If I were to open this door and walk inside, what would I see?"

"I'm sure you understand that giving such information to strangers would not be in the Master's best interests."

"Okay, then tell Mandorregan here - you know him."

"I don't need him to tell me what's in each room," Mandorregan interjected. "I've been inside the keep on many occasions - I already know what's in each room."

Xandro and Zander had been standing behind Thurloe and Mandorregan, amused at watching the fighter get nowhere. But then Wakuren popped back from around the corner of the keep, motioning for the bard to come over by him. Xandro complied, curious to see the half-orc had a coil of knotted rope in his hands. Wakuren took him back around to the side of the keep, handed him the rope and his ring of invisibility, and explained about the arcane locked door on the balcony. "Sounds like a job for you," he told the bard.

Up in the window room, Alewyth thought she heard a noise, a buzzing sound not unlike the sound the giant bee from her amulet made when flying about. This was much quieter in tone, though, and after looking around the room and not seeing anything (or any auras of magic that might be present if there was an invisible entity in the room there with her), the dwarven priestess realized the noise was coming from the other side of the door to the stairwell - the door she had slipped beneath while in gaseous form. Walking as quietly as she could over to the door, she put an ear to it and verified the buzzing sound was coming from the stairwell. Something, it seemed, was flying this way.

Xandro made it up the rope of climbing and pulled himself up onto the balcony. He tried the door and verified it was locked, then pulled out his set of masterwork thieves' tools, still invisible as he was holding it - the same with the rope. This is going to be fun, the bard thought to himself as he felt for the tool he wanted and then inserted it into the lock on the door. I've never tried picking a lock when I can't even see what I'm doing! But after a few missteps he got the feel for invisible lockpicking and the door swung open, arcane lock spell notwithstanding.

"Who's there?" demanded Alewyth, turning to face the now open door to the balcony.

"It's me," Xandro said, deactivating the ring of invisibility. But that also returned the rope of climbing to full visibility, and out of the corner of his eye the grandfather plaque in charge of ensuring his Master was not disturbed saw a knotted rope suddenly pop into view, hanging down from where it was fastened to the balcony railing.

"Distraction tactics!" bellowed the grandfather plaque, sending a quartet of magic missiles blasting into Thurloe's torso. "You've been keeping me distracted so your associates can try to break into the keep!" With another mental command, the bearded stone face activated the twin lion statues and they creaked into life. Mandorregan stepped back behind Thurloe, being the more scholarly type of wizard and not one to engage in combat; he didn't even know any attack or defensive spells, seeing the arcane arts as more properly put to use as a means of gathering more information about the world and all of its inhabitants.

Thurloe hurriedly started the incantations and hand gestures that brought a shield spell into existence, glad to feel it snap into invisible effect despite it having been cast while he was wearing his metal armor. He saw the stone lions approaching and slid his bastard sword from its sheath on his broad back. The lion statue to his left took a swing at him but he dodged the raking claws, but then the winged lion bit at him and caught him on the leg. Zander backed up further, giving his fighter friend enough room to maneuver.

Xandro took Wakuren's borrowed ring and tossed it back down to its owner. "I'm in!" he called down to the half-orc, only then noticing the lions were attacking Thurloe below. Wakuren snatched the ring up from the ground and slipped it back over his finger, activating it and slipping from view. The grandfather plaque blasted Thurloe with another set of magic missiles but they dissipated harmlessly against his shield spell. The grandfather plaque's stone face now held an expression of disappointment and disgust. Xandro walked to the far end of the balcony, saw nothing of interest, and entered the window room where Alewyth was back to listening at the door.

"Let's go!" called Thurloe to the others, running for the rope of climbing and taking a swipe from the winged lion's claws as he ran past it. But then he sheathed his bastard sword on his back and started climbing. Zander was right there behind him and the fighter had assumed Mandorregan would have followed...but when Thurloe ran off, the young wizard became the next closest target and the non-winged lion attacked him. One hit and he was down, bleeding out.

Invisible, Wakuren slipped past the two stone lions who were looking about for potential targets to attack. They apparently disregarded horses, mules, and dire goats as non-aggressors and devoted their time looking for intelligent foes trying to infiltrate Rindicane's keep. The only ones visible to the animated statues were currently climbing up the rope, so they headed over to that direction and batted the rope with their claws, giving Wakuren the opportunity to quickly stabilize Mandorregan so he wouldn't bleed out. He had the opportunity to heal him completely but decided he was probably the safest where he was, unconscious and no longer seen as an active threat. The grandfather plaque called up to the climbing heroes, rather impotently, "I will be sure to inform Rindicane of this treachery when next we speak!"

Up on the top floor of the keep, another invisible creature was in action: in this case, opening the door from the stairwell to the window room. Alewyth quickly slammed it back shut as Xandro readied his crossbow to shoot at whatever might come through the door if it opened again. Then Thurloe climbed over the balcony railing and entered the room; Alewyth quickly caught him up to speed as Zander entered the room behind him. The elf activated his magic headband, granting himself temporary true seeing. "Nothing invisible in here yet," he told the others, then went over to examine the book on the floor by the circle with all the runes.

Wakuren leaped onto one of the stone lions and from there caught the rope and started climbing, pulling the rope up after him once he reached the balcony. He then deactivated his ring and stashed his coiled rope back into his pack before joining the others in the large room. "What'd I miss?" he asked.

"This book is a set of instructions on how the magic circle works," Zander informed him and the rest of the group. "It's currently attuned to the Plane of Shadow. Anyone stepping into the circle is automatically attuned to that plane, and then they can step through the window and cross over to that plane. That's probably where Rindicane went."

"So he isn't even asleep here, like Mandorregan thought!" scoffed Thurloe, walking over to the door to the stairwell. "He still owes us the 250 gold, though." Then he pulled the door open suddenly, revealing nobody there at all. But they could still hear the fluttering of insect wings in the general area.

"Invisible pixie!" Zander called out, looking at the doorway with his true seeing spell still active. Xandro, in the meantime, took the plunge and stepped into the circle; instantly, a burst of black flames engulfed his body for a moment and dissipated at once.

"You can see me!" called a voice from the doorway. At once, Sheela released the invisibility effect that had hidden her from view and flew deeper into the room. "I am a friend of Rindicane's," she explained. "I saw you enter the flue in gaseous form and followed shortly thereafter," she told Alewyth. "I hope you won't be offended, but I scanned your surface thoughts to make sure you weren't intending on burglary as I followed your exploration through the keep."

"We think Rindicane went through his window to the Plane of Shadow," Alewyth told Sheela. "We plan on following, to see if he's all right. Would you like to accompany us?"

Sheela shivered at the thought. "The Plane of Shadow? No, thank you - I will stay here and await his return."

The other adventurers stepped into the circle and were momentarily engulfed in black flames. "I guess we're all attuned to the Plane of Shadow or whatever," Thurloe said. "So let's get this over with."

Zander was the first to cross over to the other plane. It was an odd experience, for it seemed the mere act of stepping through the window robbed the world of all color; the darkness of a star-filled sky overcame the landscape, although there were no stars to be seen, and while the wagon and animals were no longer in view the two stone lions could be seen in their normal perches directly below. Rindicane's tower keep - or a shadowy version of it, in any case - existed here on the Plane of Shadows in the same place as it existed in the Darkwood Forest of their own plane.

"I wonder if the inside of the keep is the same," said Zander, stepping through the door at the end of the balcony and entering the Shadow Keep's version of the window room. The elf noticed a few differences at once: the room's entire interior was now in black and white and shades of gray, not just the window; for that matter, the geometric shapes comprising the window seemed to have rearranged themselves, as had the rune-markings along the magic circle (and there now seemed to be different gems in the six spots along the circle's circumference). But perhaps the biggest difference was the dark-robed man standing in the corner of the room, who looked up at Zander's approach.

"Who are you?" he demanded, starting the words to a combat spell against this intruder.

Zander opted not to answer but replied with a question of his own. "Are you Rindicane?"

"Who wants to know?" snarled the figure, continuing with his spell.

"Mandorregan sent us to check in on you," Zander replied. At the mention of his friend, the dark-robed figure immediately ceased all spellcasting. "Mandorregan? Is he with you? Is he okay?" he asked.

"He's outside - well, outside back in the Material Plane," Zander amended. "The rest of my team said he was knocked out by one of your stone lions, but he's okay. But what about you? You've been missing for three weeks or so."

"Has it been three weeks?" asked Rindicane in a startled voice as the rest of the group followed Zander into the room from the balcony and stared expectantly at the dark-clad wizard. "I had no idea; time must move differently here. But my attuning to this plane worked only too well: as you can see, I have become a shade." He pulled the hood back from his head, revealing his skin was as dark as the midnight sky. "You all will be, too, if you spend too much time here."

"Yeah, that's not going to happen," Thurloe promised the shade. "C'mon, you can come tell Mandorregan the news yourself." He squinted, thinking he'd seen a black dot floating in the air for a moment, but then he lost sight of it as Zander crossed into his field of vision.

"Alas, I cannot," Rindicane replied. "Is it daylight there?" Alewyth confirmed that it was. "I can no longer stand the brightness of sunlight," Rindicane lamented. "But if you could have Mandorregan visit me briefly, I have something to give to him." He provided the adventurers with a pass-code to tell the grandfather plaque they were friends and not to be attacked. The group then went back out onto the balcony of the Shadow Keep, walked through the window back into the Material Plane, and went down the stairs to exit through the front door.

"Relax, Gramps," said Thurloe, voicing the pass code. Then they went over to Mandorregan, where Wakuren roused him with a few healing spells.

"Rindicane is on the Plane of Shadow and wishes to speak with you," Xandro informed him. They went through the front door, back up the stairs, and then got Mandorregan attuned to the Plane of Shadows before having him step through the window. The five dreamwalkers opted to stay behind, none of them sure how much time spent on the Shadow Plane was enough to turn them into a shade and nobody wanting to take the chance.

Mandorregan returned a few minutes later, stepping back through the window. "Rindicane is going to stay there in the Shadow Keep and continue his studies," the young wizard informed them. "He is granting me custody of his keep here on the Material Plane. I have a command word which will transfer the grandfather plaque's loyalty to me."

"He's staying there? Forever?" asked Sheela despondently.

"He said he'll try to visit on dark nights," replied Mandorregan. "But the Shadow Keep is a perfect replica of his keep here, including his library and all of his notes. He's already reconfigured the window in his keep to explore another plane, someplace he calls the Far Realm."

"Never heard of it," replied Xandro.

"In any case, thank you for your help in gaining entry to the keep and checking on Rindicane," the young wizard said. He pulled at a purse at his belt. "I had promised you 250 pieces of gold for your assistance and I insist upon you taking it."

"That won't be a problem," assured Thurloe, taking the proffered purse. "Happy to have been of help."

"I'll continue Rindicane's studies from here," promised Mandorregan, "but I don't intend to alter the current configuration of the window. That way we'll still be able to visit Rindicane on occasion, and he us." That seemed to please Sheela the pixie. "And if you ever pass this way again, please feel free to visit anytime. Should you have need of access to other planes, I'll stand ready to assist in any way I can."

"Thank you," said Wakuren, shaking Mandorregan's hand. "But we must be back on the road. There are many more dream victims out there in need of our help."

"Of course," replied the young wizard. He and Sheela walked with them to the front door and watched as they mounted up. They waved as the group departed back the way they had come.

"That was very nice of them to help," Sheela observed.

"Yes, they seem like very nice people," Mandorregan agreed.

Once he was sure they were well out of earshot, Thurloe said the rest of the group, "That was the easiest 50 gold apiece we're ever likely to see!" He chuckled to himself. "What a sucker!"

- - -

This turned out much differently than I had expected, for Alewyth's potion of gaseous form allowed her to single-handedly explore the entire keep on her own without setting off any of the "lair guardians" I had sprinkled throughout the building: specifically, the dread guards (animated armor) in the foyer and the pair of guardian scrolls in the library. Zander even managed not to get into a fight with the paranoid wizard-shade on the Plane of Shadow by mentioning Mandorregan by name almost immediately. So we finished this adventure in almost exactly two hours - much shorter than I had anticipated.

And speaking of Zander Quilson, while he was there in the window room with Rindicane on the Plane of Shadow, I had Joe roll a d20 for me without explaining what the roll was for; it came up as a natural "1." The implications of that die roll will be revealed somewhere around the 35th adventure or so.

But this, being the 25th adventure in this 100-adventure campaign, meant the PCs leveled up to 6th afterwards. That only took another half hour or so, resulting in a very truncated session. Xandro took a 5th level of bard, Wakuren evened up his cleric/paladin levels (and Thurloe did likewise with his fighter and wizard levels, clearing the way for a first level in the spellsword prestige class when we level up again after five more adventures), and the single-classed Alewyth and Zander each added a level of cleric (priestess) and sorcerer, respectively. Zander continued his continued hit point bad luck streak by once again rolling a "1" for his hit points, bringing him to a grand total of 17 hp at 6th level. (And that after having taken the Toughness feat in desperation at 3rd level!) I think poor Zander might need to stumble across an amulet of health or something fairly soon....

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt, a good representation of the Plane of Shadow.



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 12 February 2022

- - -

The next dreamer was in a town called Basker's Grove, which was still many hours away. Close to noon, the group came upon the small city of Kesselton, where they purchased some feed for the animals and stopped off in an inn for a hearty lunch. It was after they had finished eating and were loading up the wagon that they were approached by a white-haired gnome with a shockingly pointed moustache and beard. "Good afternoon," he said to the assembled group. "Would I be correct in assuming you are a band of professional adventurers?"

"We are," replied Alewyth, who had just been about to mount her dire goat Pyrite and get back on the road. "Have you need of adventurers?"

"I was rather more concerned with whether you might have a need for my services," replied the gnome. "Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Wangle Turdblossom and I represent a consortium of gnomes involved in the sale of various magic items. Might you be interested in the purchase of a magical item or two?"

Thurloe was interested, but that wasn't his primary concern at the moment. "'Turdblossom?'" he repeated. "Is that your real name?"

"It is indeed," replied Wangle, bowing and apparently well pleased by the human's reaction to his unusual surname. In gnomish culture, it was a sign of great honor for the ridiculousness of one's chosen name to be acknowledged and many gnomes spent months, if not years, deciding upon the perfect name for when they came of age and got to replace their birth name for one of their own choosing.

Thurloe looked around at the others. "Yeah, sure, we'll check out what you've got for sale."

"If you would come this way then, sir," replied Wangle, leading them back into the inn. He walked down a hallway, took a right, and stopped at a door to one of the rooms for rent. Unlike the other doors in the hallway, this one held a door knocker at a height well within reach of the three-foot-tall gnome. He rapped upon it four times, then opened the door and led the others inside. The door, however, did not lead to a guest room as might be expected but rather to an unadorned hallway leading to a small room with a gnome-sized desk and a curtain in the back. Wangle climbed into the chair behind the desk and looked over at the five adventurers who had followed him down the hallway. "Now then, who's first?" he asked.

"Uh, sure, I'll go first," Xandro replied, stepping up to the desk.

Wangle looked at him expectantly. "And what are you hoping to purchase?" he asked.

Xandro looked around at the bare walls of the little room. "I was kind of expecting a showroom or something," he said.

"Ah, you thought we were running a magic item shop!" exclaimed Wangle. "No, no, nothing like that - although we do occasionally run an actual marketplace on occasions, to get rid of specific items we're looking to turn over. But no, the set-up works like this: you put in your order, we find what it is you're after, agree upon a price with the current owner, and bam! - purchase completed. Now then, I repeat: what particular item were you hoping to purchase today?"

"Well," remarked Xandro, "I suppose I could do with a wand of sound burst...."

"A wand!" exclaimed Wangle. "Excellent! I don't deal with wands, though." As Xandro frowned in confusion, Wangle leaned forward and pushed a gemstone embedded in his desktop and leaned over it, saying, "Thaddeus! I have a customer for you!" Within moments, the curtains in the back of the room parted and another gnome stepped forward. "Good afternoon," he said. "I am Thaddeus Blunderbritches at your service, sir. I handle rods, staffs, and wands. If you would be so good as to step this way?" He held the curtain open and Xandro, a look of confusion still apparent on his face, walked through to another office.

"Now then: who's next?" asked Wangle. "You, sir, the half-orc."

Wakuren stepped forward. "I could use an upgrade to my armor," he suggested, but that only caused Wangle to frown in irritation. "Upgrade?" he scoffed. "We don't deal with upgrades - we are involved strictly in the sale of unwanted magic items! I could sell you a more powerful set of magic armor, if you wish - that looks to be full plate, is it?" Wakuren agreed that it was but said he didn't have enough money to purchase a new set of plate mail armor. "I'd be willing to trade this armor in as part of the payment," he suggested.

But that only caused Wangle to frown all the harder. "Barter?" he squeaked. "We don't engage in barter. Cash only, although gemstones are also accepted. Very well, I'll send you to our armor and weapons expert; we'll have Mr. Rection see what he can do for you."

"Misdirection?" asked Wakuren, misunderstanding what the little gnome had just said to him.

"Eh? What?" demanded Wangle, before realizing the half-orc's mistake. "No, no, Mr. Rection," he repeated, before pushing another gemstone on his desk and leaning forward. "Biggie? We have a customer for you." He then looked over at the other three adventurers, all waiting in line. "Next?" he asked, looking up at Zander.

Before he could answer, the curtains parted again and out stepped a burly gnome almost four feet tall. He wore the stereotypical pointed hat most often associated with gnomes but that was about all that was typical about him, for he had a stern, no-nonsense attitude quite different from the carefree and whimsical ways of the average gnome. "You're looking for magical armor?" Biggie Rection demanded of Wakuren. "This way, then." And he led the half-orc through the curtain to his own office.

"I understand there are magic items that can increase my overall level of toughness," Zander said, getting back to Wangle's question to him.

Wangle looked the slender elf over with a practiced eye. "Yes, I can see how that might be desirable," he agreed. "An amulet of health is what you need. They come in three main levels of strength," the gnome advised, then rattled off prices for each. Zander indicated he could only afford the cheapest of the three. "Just as well," Wangle replied, "those are the easiest to get a hold of." He bent over his desk again to summon another gnome to assist the elven sorcerer. "Wangle?" he asked. "We have a customer to see you."

"Wait a minute - I thought you were Wangle," said Zander, brows furrowed in puzzlement.

Wangle looked up at him, smirking at his little joke. "I am!" he cried. "I'll be able to help you with your purchase - it's my area of specialty! But let's get these other two helped first, shall we?" He indicated Alewyth. "What can I help you with?" he asked her.

"I would like to be able to increase my speed," Alewyth answered the gnome.

"Drop you off the side of a cliff?" suggested Wangle, his face betraying no sense of teasing.

"I was actually hoping to move horizontally, not vertically."

"Potion of haste?" Wangle suggested.

"I was hoping for something a bit more permanent."

"Boots of striding and springing? Or is it springing and striding? I can never remember."

"Those sound promising," Alewyth replied. "How much are they?" Wangle rattled off the price, including the traditional 10% finder's fee. "I don't have that much," Alewyth bemoaned. "Anything else?"

"Boots of haste," suggested Wangle at once.

"Those are cheaper?"

"Oh no, they're way, way more expensive."

"Then that doesn't really help me. Any other suggestions, more in my price range?"

"Polymorph you into a cheetah?"

"I wouldn't be able to wield my warhammer as a cheetah, now, would I?"

"I do not recall that being a stipulation. Very well then, it sounds like your best bet is the boots of striding and springing and striding," recommended Wangle, figuring this way he was right either way. "If you want, you can put a down-payment on the boots and you can pick them up when you have the rest of the money."

"I don't know when we'll be by this way again," pointed out Alewyth.

"Pshaw!" scoffed Wangle. Then, to make sure his disdain was fully understood, he added, "Fiddlesticks! Poppycock! No worry at all - we'll deliver them to you." Alewyth was a bit leery and said she'd think it over while Wangle attended to Thurloe.

"Very well," Wangle agreed. "And what can I do for you, sir?"

"I'm interested in two things," Thurloe answered. "First of all, is there any kind of armor that would make it easier to cast arcane spells in? If so, I'd be interested in something like that. Otherwise, a simple wand of shield would do just as well."

"I'm not so sure about the armor," mused Wangle, thinking deeply and tugging on the points of his moustache as he did so. "The wand is a sure thing, though. Perhaps you could do with some Oral?"

"...Say what?" asked Thurloe, uncharacteristically flabbergasted.

"Oral Hijinx," Wangle said, leaning into his desk. "We have a customer for you."

"I thought that Bumblebritches guy handled wands," Thurloe replied.

"Oh, Thaddeus might be our expert on hard-to-find items along those lines, but he's with another customer right now and I think you'll find any from our consortium will be able to handle things to your satisfaction." The curtain parted and a young, female gnome stepped through. "Someone looking for Oral?" she asked, smiling broadly up at the young fighter-wizard. "Here I am." She led Thurloe through the curtain back to her own office.

Eventually, the five heroes ended back in Wangle Turdblossom's office with their purchases. Thurloe had his wand of shield, Zander wore his amulet of health on a gold chain around his neck, and Wakuren's armor now had an iron ward diamond attached to the chest-plate, which Biggie had guaranteed would deflect some of the damage from incoming strikes during combat. Xandro's wand of sound burst was on order but probably wouldn't be available until the next day. "Don't go engaging in any anti-scrying techniques," advised Wangle Turdblossom to the bard. "We'll find your present location and bring the wand out to you, at which time you can pay the other half of the bill." The white-haired gnome looked at Alewyth. "Did you wish to put a down-payment down on those boots?" he asked.

Alewyth looked over at Xandro. "You paid half up front for your wand?" she asked him quietly. "What if they just rip you off?"

"We know where to find them," the bard replied, to which Wangle Turdblossom hid a smile. "Plus, they seem like a good bunch. I trust them."

Alewyth looked over at the gnome. "Do you take Kornakian coins?" she asked. She still had several hundred coins from the Barony of Kornak that weren't exactly popular in other lands.

"My dear lady, we accept coins from all over the world," Wangle assured her. Alewyth pulled out her Kornakian coins and counted them out to the little gnome, who wrote up a document with his signature stating the money was paid as a down-payment for a pair of "boots of springing and striding, or vice-versa, as the case may be." He reiterated his recommendation not to shield themselves from scrying attempts and wished them all a good day.

Once they were back on the road, Alewyth started voicing her doubts. "I hope we didn't just throw our money away," she said to Xandro.

"I doubt it," Xandro replied.

"Do you think that was even a legal establishment?" the dwarven priestess continued. "What if we're involved in trafficking stolen goods?"

"Then we're just innocent customers, taken in by the gnomes' dishonest shenanigans," Thurloe assured her. "They'd be the ones in trouble, not us." He turned to Wakuren, sitting in the front of the mule-driven wagon. "Did you get a chance to detect evil on them?" he asked.

"I suppose I had plenty of opportunities," Wakuren admitted. "But it never occurred to me. Plus, my eyes glow when I do it, so it's something people can see I'm doing, and it seemed insulting to go into a business establishment and pretty much say 'I suspect you might be evil' the first thing I get in there."

"Maybe you ought to buy a pair of magic goggles with shaded lenses," suggested Zander. "Then nobody could see your eyes glowing when you're checking people out for signs of evil."

"Yeah," agreed Wakuren. "There's a thought." And then he focused his attention back on the road, where Mica and Perseverance were plodding along, pulling the wagon behind them.

- - -

The adventure I had planned on running the players through during this session seemed like it could end up a little short, which was something I really wanted to avoid since our last session ended after two hours and only extended to two and a half because the PCs all leveled up to 6th level. So I decided to spring this little shopping excursion as a sort of "Side Trek" before the adventure itself started up. And this was also a solution to a problem I had caused: when designing this campaign, I decided I wanted a different "feel" from our previous two campaigns, which featured magic shops in the larger cities. So I decided there would be no such magic shops in this campaign, just the occasional stalls that sold potions and scrolls - one-shot items, in other words. But the PCs were now at 6th level and had been amassing money without much on which to spend it. So the Hidden Market is a compromise: a gnome-run consortium that deals with clients on an invitation-only basis, fetching magic items the original owners are willing to sell. I have designed some very specific ground rules for the Hidden Market, which all make sense to me but I don't wish to share because it will give away too much that I hope will eventually become apparent over the course of the campaign. But one of the rules is that they only sell previously existing items, they don't upgrade items or create new ones. And another rule is they accept any kinds of coins and gems but are not interested in all at any kind of bartering. And I think that's all I'll say about them for now, other than Harry got a kick out of the gnomes' ridiculous names, which was somewhat of a surprise for me because he usually just groans at my "dad jokes."

- - -

T-shirt worn: A "Duck Dynasty" shirt with the heads of the four most prominent members of the Robertson family, in all their full-bearded glory. It's the closest thing I have to a shirt featuring a bunch of gnomes.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 12 February 2022

- - -

Arriving in the small farming village of Basker's Grove close to dusk, it was apparent there wasn't a whole lot to see there: other than a whole bunch of staggered farmhouses and their associated fields, the central hub seemed to consist of little more than a single tavern and a temple of Desdemona, Goddess of the Harvest.

"What do you think, tavern or temple?" Alewyth asked.

"Let's try the tavern," Xandro replied. "People drinking at the end of a hard day are more likely to be willing to speak freely to strangers."

That turned out to be quite prophetic, for after purchasing drinks for themselves and the few farmers in the tavern they found the villagers more than eager to tell them what they knew about someone being trapped in their sleep for weeks on end. "Oh, you mean Calabar Condaman," replied one leather-skinned farmer of advancing years. "Hard-working folks, the Condamans. Moved in about a year or so ago, after the previous owners got sick and died. Calabar's folks say he went to bed one night a couple of weeks back and nobody's been able to wake him up since, not even the new cleric from the temple."

"New cleric?" asked Xandro.

"Yeah, Father Roballi. He's a nice enough guy - showed up out of the blue after the prior cleric got called away for a family emergency of some sort, said he'd been sent by the Goddess. He's real serious about his duties, and he's tried everything he can to wake poor old Calabar, but no luck."

Other drinkers offered their own opinions. "Y'ask me, it's probably somethin' t'do wit' th' illness what's been goin' around," mentioned a grizzled farm worker with straggly blond hair going to white. He specified a flu that "knocked you off yer feet fer 'bout a week" that had stricken a few of the local farmhands a few weeks back. Under Father Roballi's patient ministrations, they had all recovered. "Not like them other hands what went missing," put in a hefty-sized woman, explaining there had also been a small rash of disappearances recently among some of the younger farmhands. "That wasn't no disease, though, unless you consider laziness and slothfulness a disease - I reckon they just took off to other parts, hoping to avoid work."

After finishing their drinks and asking for directions to the Condaman farmhouse, Wakuren was pleased to learn it was just down the road, practically adjacent to the temple of Desdemona. The farmhouse was a single-story affair, the front door off to the right. A length of rosebushes flanked the entire right side of the house, with a well and what looked like a shed further back. Wakuren stepped down from the wagon and was about to go knock on the door when he remembered his fearsome, orcish visage often put people ill at ease at first - although the drinkers at the tavern hadn't seemed overly put off - and allowed Alewyth to do the honors. He stood in the back of the group.

The door opened after Alewyth knocked upon it and there in the doorway stood a human couple, Seth and Anya. Alewyth explained they were here to help their son awaken and the farming couple gladly ushered them inside. Calabar was asleep in his room, undisturbed after nearly four weeks, but his room was much too small for them to perform their ritual so Seth carried him out to the sitting room while the heroes helped Anya push the furniture up against the walls. Seth gently placed his sleeping son down upon the floor and the five dreamwalkers sat in a circle around him. Alewyth explained the procedure as she tied a bandana around Calabar's head, holding a dreamstone in place against his forehead.

Zander activated his jade cooshee and had it stand guard, but that wasn't enough for Thurloe. "Is there anybody else in the house?" he asked, and Anya answered they had two farmhands. Seth explained, after further questions from Thurloe, there was just the one door to the building, the front door through which they had entered, and while there was no lock on the door it could be barred from inside. Upon the fighter's direction, the two farmhands were stationed just outside and the door barred from the inside before Thurloe was satisfied. "It's important we're not disturbed during the ritual," he explained to Seth and Anya, and they were all for taking whatever precautions were necessary if it meant getting their son back. They promised to watch over the six during the ritual and not let anything disturb the dreamwalkers. Alewyth even activated the giant bee from her amulet and stationed it by the front door, knowing full well its limited daily activation time meant it would have returned to her amulet by the time they (hopefully) had rescued Calabar from his dreams.

After that, it was a simple matter of slowing the heart rate, the breathing, and thoughts themselves as each of the five willed themselves to sleep. Once asleep, their minds went straight to the Dreamlands, where they were met by their moogle guides and taken to the Hallway of Dreams. "In you go," said Mogo as they entered the door he opened for them.

Calabar's dream was somewhat odd, for he was practically in the same position in his dream as he was in real life, lying upon his back on the floor with his hands at his sides. However, this dream version was quite obviously awake, for his eyes dashed back and forth until the heroes stepped into view, at which time he looked imploringly at them. His mouth was gagged with a strip of cloth and his wrists had been bound by a rope beneath his back. His ankles were likewise tied together by thick ropes and Calabar wriggled back and forth, desperately trying to escape.

Thurloe had his bastard sword out and spun about in a circle, looking for any potential threat, while Wakuren knelt beside the young man and pulled the cloth from between his lips. "Who did this to you?" he asked.

Rather than answer his question, Calabar just pleaded, "Free me!" Zander cut at the ropes binding Calabar's ankles with his dagger while Alewyth likewise cut the rope tied to each wrist. But though freed from his bindings, Calabar still lay there on the floor, writhing. "Free me!" he continued to plead, now ripping at the skin of his face, his fingernails digging into his cheeks and drawing blood. A lump moved beneath the skin of his stomach, bringing forth memories of fighting the dregworms back in Baron's Haven, although the hostess of those three had been already dead and Calabar seemed quite alive - although in a dream, one could never tell.

"You are free!" countered Alewyth, stepping back in confusion. In her place, Thurloe stepped up, bastard sword at the ready. "Let's see if we can't reset this dream to its beginning," he said, raising his blade above his head. "I want to see the dream from the start - maybe we can see who tied him up in the first place!" And with that, he brought his sword down, cutting into the farm lad's stomach.

Calabar and Alewyth both screamed as one, the priestess in surprise at Thurloe's actions and the farm boy in jubilation. His hands pulled at the slit Thurloe had cut into his stomach, pulling the gap even wider. "Help me!" Calabar pleaded. Not sure he was doing the right thing, Wakuren bent down beside the dark-haired youth and helped him pull the gaping hole in his stomach even wider.

A triangular head poked out of the bleeding gap, its slick-scaled head followed by a seemingly endless length of sinewy body as the full-sized constrictor snake slid out from Calabar's body cavity. "Ahhhh!" sighed the snake, finally free of the last of its confines. "That feels so much better!"

Thurloe was looking all around again, expecting the dream to start over from the beginning so he could see who had bound Calabar, but instead it seemed as if the dream had instead been brought to its final conclusion, for the walls were melting away in the same manner as they'd seen before whenever the dreamer's consciousness was waking back up and returning to the Mortal World. As one, each of the five dreamwalkers began the mental techniques they'd been taught to bring themselves back to full wakefulness back in the Mortal World. All six woke up at pretty much the same time, to see Calabar propped up on his elbows looking around at the heroes sitting in a circle around him and recognizing them instantly while the dream was still fresh in his memory. Seth and Anya gasped in excitement at seeing their son back awake after his nearly month-long slumber.

But Calabar wasn't pleased to be awake again so much as panicked. "Mom! Dad!" he cried out. "They know what we are!"

As the five heroes were still trying to piece together what exactly was going on, the Condamans leaped into instant action. Seth's human body flowed until it became half as thick and twice as long, losing the arms and legs in the process. Now a massive serpent, Seth fell forward onto Wakuren as the half-orc was scrambling to his feet. At the same time, Anya Condaman had undergone a similar transformation and was biting her serpentine fangs into Zander Quilson. Then, her venom injected into his veins, she slithered forward on her belly past the elven dog who was even now snapping at her scaled body with his fangs. She went through the kitchen and into a hallway, on her way to the house's only exit door, still currently barred from the inside.

Calabar began his own transformation, taking on the appearance of the snake from his dreams. Lightning-quick, he darted to the front door and resumed his human form, calling out at the farmhands stationed outside to warn the village they were under attack by foreign bandits. From the other side of the door came promises to get help.

But by now the other dreamwalkers were back up onto their feet and ready for combat, if some of them were still a bit unsure of why it had been initiated in the first place. "They're yuan-ti!" Thurloe called as he swung his bastard sword at the serpent that had been Seth and missing. Alewyth shook her head, that explanation not explaining anything at all to the dwarven priestess - she'd never heard of "yuan-ti" before and had a somewhat limited exposure to snakes in any case as she'd grown up in an Underdark dwarven city. But she trusted Thurloe knew what he was on about and raced over to attack Calabar, swinging at him with Sjondra and catching him unprepared from behind. It felt like a cowardly attack to the good-hearted priestess, but these snake-people had started the fight unprovoked and she was perfectly willing to end it as soon as she could.

Zander was struggling with the poison the snake-Anya had injected into him with her fangs; the increased heartiness brought on by his new amulet of health was being drained away with every moment. But he had the presence of mind to cast a haste spell on the entire group of heroes - including his faithful cooshee, busy chasing after the Anya-serpent and snapping at her with his teeth - since that didn't involve any personal combat on his part. Never one for hand-to-hand combat, the elven sorcerer felt even less fit for it now that at any other point in his life.

Xandro pulled his frost short sword out of its scabbard and stabbed at Calabar, catching him in the lower side just above the beltline and the farmer's son fell over to the floor of the entryway, dead. His body now lay directly against the front door, which he'd managed to unbar but not open before his death.

Wakuren swung the edge of his shield at the Seth-serpent, slicing into a line of scales with its sharpened bottom. The snake-man lashed out, biting the half-orc and injecting venom into his veins, but Wakuren was made of much tougher stuff than Zander and the bite didn't seem to faze the cleric of Cal in the least. The cooshee was also bitten and likewise seemed to ignore the effects of the venom, continuing to bite and claw at Anya in her serpent form. But then a magic missile came screaming from the sitting room and Anya collapsed in serpent-form, dead from the simple spell. Thurloe grinned and lowered the wand he'd just used to slay her. Then, seeing Zander still wincing in pain from his wounds at her fangs, he tossed another wand over to the elf: the wand of shield he'd just purchased from the gnomes in the Hidden Market. Zander snatched the tossed wand from midair and nodded his appreciation, casting the shield spell upon himself to hopefully prevent any other snake-bites. To further add to the likelihood of preventing such a course of action, he staggered over to the kitchen, away from the battle with the only remaining serpent, Seth Condaman. The cooshee ran over to his side now that his own foe had been slain.

Alewyth turned and faced Seth from the entryway, casting a magic circle against evil spell upon herself as she did so. Then, stepping away from Calabar's corpse, she headed Seth's way with her warhammer in hand. Xandro began his inspirational tune on his lute, content to aid from a distance against this remaining venomous foe. And perhaps his tune helped guide Wakuren's next blow with his shield, for the edge came crashing down upon Seth's neck and decapitated the serpent with a single blow.

"It's over!" exclaimed Zander with a sigh of relief - just as he received another bite on the leg from behind. Somehow, a creature had padded silently up a ramp leading from the kitchen down to some sort of root cellar without the elf having heard it. The creature was the size and general build as a dog, but its head - and rather extensive neck - were those of a snake and its otherwise canine body was covered in scales. Zander could feel the venom burning in this new wound and staggered away, back towards the cluttered sitting room and away from the venom dog that had bitten him. The cooshee was quick to interpose his own body between this new threat and his master, allowing Thurloe to cast a shield spell on himself while fishing out a vial of antivenom to pass over to Zander. The elf grabbed the flask and gratefully drank down its contents, but not without first casting a scorching ray spell at the venom dog, killing it instantly and coating its corpse in flames. His faithful elven dog sniffed at the burning body of this strange hybrid creature, obviously not liking the alien scent.

"Those farmhands have gone to get help," Thurloe told the others. "No idea if they're all going to be yuan-ti or not, but we're gonna have to be prepared to fight them off." He cast a protection from evil spell on himself and indicated now would be the time for healing if anybody needed any. Zander drank down a potion of cure serious wounds, sealing up the multiple puncture-wounds where he'd been bitten. He still wasn't at his full strength after having been envenomed, he knew, but he was as in as good a shape as was possible for now. Xandro cast a heroism spell on the elf to hopefully further toughen him up for the battle to come, while Alewyth cast a bless spell on the group. Then Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility and stepped outside.

Sure enough, there were people racing out of both ends of the Temple of Desdemona. some bursting out the front door of the temple and others coming from behind it, over by Father Robelli's dwelling where they'd apparently stopped off to grab up some of the farm implements he kept stored in his own shed there to tend to his personal gardens. It looked to be about a full dozen in all, some armed with scimitars, others wielding only a hoe or rake. There was a dog loping along from the back alongside one of the farmers, apparently a pet; from this distance, Wakuren thought the dog looked perfectly normal and not like that weird snake/dog hybrid Zander had slain back inside the Condamans' home.

And now Father Roballi himself stepped out of the front doors of the temple, calling out to his brethren, "Save the Condamans, before the bandits slay them to steal their hard-earned goods!" The man seemed earnest, eager to come to the aid of the people he'd been sent to oversee, but Wakuren wasn't sure if the cleric of Desdemona knew there were yuan-ti in the midst of his village or if he might even be one of the snake-men himself; after all, Seth, Anya, and Calabar had all seemed perfectly human themselves before transforming into snakes. He cast a protection from evil spell upon himself and moved as silently as he could towards the approaching mob, knowing his ability to detect evil among the auras of people only worked at a certain range.

Thurloe exited the Condaman house, bastard sword in both hands. Zander followed suit, but stepped back, wanting to have the fighter between him and those who seemed eager to do them all harm. The cooshee stood beside his master, growling in anger at the approaching group of angry farmers. Then Alewyth stepped outside and moved forward, towards the mob, stopping beside Thurloe. "They're not likely all evil," she cautioned the human beside her.

"Don't matter," Thurloe informed her. "If they attack me, I'm attacking right back. I got a right to defend myself."

Xandro was the last to exit the house, but he cast an expeditious retreat spell on himself as he did so and then sprinted forward to the head of the dreamwalkers' formation, his lute stowed on his back and his short sword out and ready for business. By then Wakuren had closed enough distance he could tell there was indeed evil present in the mob but he could not yet pinpoint which of the farmers were responsible for the overall miasma of evil he was detecting.

And then the first salvo was cast by the one furthest away from the heroes: Father Roballi himself, still standing at the doors of his temple. But he could easily cast an entangle spell on the "bandits" who had attacked the Condamans, at least according to their farmhands. The grasses underfoot started sprouting at a remarkable speed, intertwining around the heroes' legs - and not just those of the heroes, either, for the Condamans' two farmhands were also within the area of effect of the spell, as was another farmer and his loyal hound. Whether a testament to the cleric's spellcasting prowess or perhaps the distance involved, none of the potential targets were immobilized as had no doubt been intended, although movement through the area of writhing, oversized blades of grass and scraggly weeds was still difficult.

Both farmhands slashed out at Xandro, in the front of the defensive formation, using scimitars the bard hadn't known they possessed. He dodged one strike but was hit by the other, the entangling grasses around his feet slowing his ability to dodge. But then Thurloe trudged up through the grasses, bringing his blade crashing into one of the two farmhands, causing him to hiss in pain. The hiss was identifiably serpentlike enough for the fighter to categorize his opponent as some sort of yuan-ti, and in that assessment Thurloe was not wrong, for both farmhands were of the "tainted one" variety of yuan-ti capable of passing for human but with some tell-tale sign of their true heritage. But before Thurloe could spot any telltale signs of snakehood on his combat opponent the foe was suddenly engulfed in flames from the waist up, Zander having successfully targeted a scorching ray spell at him. The cooshee raced through the entangling grasses to bite the flaming foe's legs and he toppled over, dead from the combined assaults.

Alewyth cast a summoning spell and a celestial bison suddenly appeared behind a group of human farmers approaching the area of entangling grasses where the "bandits" they'd been warned about were gathered. Lowering its impressive horns, it stabbed the closest farmer in the back and flung him forward, stumbling to stay on his feet and keep a grip upon the scimitar in his right hand.

Xandro extricated himself from the confines of the entangle spell and used his spell-enhanced speed to high-tail it all the way to the temple, intending to confront Father Roballi directly; who knew what all other combat spells the cleric could throw their way? But the cleric saw Xandro coming and stepped back, throwing a hold person spell at the bard running his way. Xandro had almost caught up to the cleric when he slowed instantly to a standstill, willing himself to finish the attack but finding his traitorous body unable to do so.

Wakuren cast an obscuring mist spell over the approaching farmers, some of whom he had determined by this time were yuan-ti pure-bloods or tainted ones, the ones capable of successfully passing as human. The dog, in the meantime, had decided it didn't like being attacked by mobile grass and exited the entangle spell's area of effect as quickly as it could, then turning and barking at the strange plants that didn't behave like plants were supposed to.

The second yuan-ti tainted one farmhand from the Condaman household swung his scimitar at Thurloe, neither of the combatants even bothering to try to prevent the grasses from trying to entangle them anymore, each focused solely on the foe before him. The other farmers who had been caught up in the overlapping spells - Father Roballi's entangle and Wakuren's obscuring mist - exited from one side or the other, about half heading in each direction. Those that had gone east found themselves on the left side of the Condaman house and started skirting around it, hoping to catch the bandits from behind. The dog's master was a part of this group so he accompanied them, tail wagging at the excitement but not really sure what all was going on.

Thurloe slew the tainted one he'd been fighting and extricated himself from the entangle spell, heading over to one of the four farmers wielding scimitars. By now, Wakuren's enhanced vision allowed him to determine which farmers were the sources with individual auras of evil and without much surprise it was the ones with the better weapons. "The ones with scimitars are yuan-ti!" he called to the others, while still cloaked in invisibility. Zander cast another scorching ray at the closest pure-blood, not wanting any of them to make it far enough to try to do him harm. The yuan-ti burst into flames, screaming horribly as he burned to death. The cooshee went after another pure-blood, biting at a leg and trying to pull the fake farmer down to the ground.

Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell and sent a solid mass of force energy in the shape of a dwarven warhammer flying at the head of another pure-blood while her celestial bison gored the same foe he'd stabbed earlier with his horn.

Sweat poured down Xandro's brow as he struggled to make his paralyzed body react to his mental commands, but with no luck. "You'll regret having meddled in our affairs!" promised Father Roballi, pulling out a scimitar of his own and swinging it at the immobilized bard. But luck was with Xandro as the blade struck a buckle holding his crossbow in place on his back and was deflected harmlessly to the side. The cleric, apparently not used to hand-to-hand combat, snarled in irritation but then took a step back, for Thurloe had spotted the bard's immobility and was racing to the rescue, even though doing so meant racing past a few farmers more than willing to strike at his as he ran past them.

The other pure-bloods were now advancing on Zander and his elven dog. The cooshee raced forward and bit at the closest while Zander cast another scorching ray spell, this time firing hopelessly high and sending the gout of flames well over his target's head. He stepped back away from the advancing group, whereas Alewyth stepped forward to meet them, very much so willing to have them face her instead of the weakened elven sorcerer. Sjondra came swinging in to crush a pure-blood's kneecap, even as her spiritual warhammer and the celestial bison each finished off the pure-bloods they had been attacking.

The dog and a group of farmers wielding hoes and rakes turned the corner around the Condaman house - past the colorful rose bushes - and one of them yelled, "There's the bandits there!" ruining any possibility of surprising the heroes with an attack from an unexpected direction. "We're not your enemies - we're not bandits!" Zander called as he turned to face this new group of foes. "Some of your villagers are secretly snake-men! The Condamans - they were all snake-men!" That seemed like crazy-talk to the puzzled farmers, who chocked it up to desperate ramblings of an elven bandit trying to talk his way out of the punishment he had coming. And it was then that the farmers learned they weren't the only ones to have gone around the Condaman house to attack the bandits from behind, for the newest arrival to have done so made her own appearance, much to their surprise and fear. This was a yuan-ti abomination, currently in the form of an oversized constrictor snake. It had been sent by Father Roballi to slay the interlopers who had somehow learned of the yuan-ti's secret infiltration of Basker's Grove, replacing the human farmers one by one with those of their own kind. She struck at Zander Quilson and bit him on the arm; fortunately, the antivenom the elf had swallowed earlier helped him fight off this new dose of venom, but the elf nonetheless swore to himself that he couldn't seem to catch a break this night.

With supreme mental effort, Xandro finally managed to free himself from Father Roballi's hold person spell, just as Thurloe arrived and sliced at the cleric with his bastard sword. "We know about your yuan-ti cult," he warned the cleric. "The game's up!"

"Not yet it isn't!" replied the yuan-ti pure-blood cleric, stepping back out of range of the fighter's sword and casting a charm person spell at Xandro, knowing the bard had already failed to initially overcome the casting of one enchantment spell and hoping to pit one human against the other. "Protect me from your friend!" Father Roballi commanded Xandro, hoping this second spell would give him a moment's respite against the fighter's vicious-looking bastard sword.

Xandro looked over at Thurloe, who was forced to keep an eye on both the cleric and the bard, not sure which one would attack him next. "Who, him?" Xandro asked. "Protect you from him? Nah, I don't think so!" Thurloe grinned and slew the cleric with another strike of his blade.

Two of the farmers had seen the slaying of the cleric of their temple, though, and rushed over to avenge his death. "He killed the good father!" one cried in shock, ready to bring his hoe crashing down upon Thurloe's head in retaliation.

"That father of yours wasn't as good as you thought," Thurloe told him, stepping back as the hoe came crashing down at his feet. "He was a snake man, tricking you and your townsfolk!"

"You lying--!" sputtered the first farmer, as Xandro made a show of holding his own blade off to the side, indicating he was not going to try fighting the enraged farmers.

"It's true!" Xandro added. "We successfully woke Calabar Condaman, but he and his parents were all snake-people! We can show you Seth and Anya - both snakes!"

"I'll kill you both!" vowed the farmer, but his partner put a hand on the first one's shoulder and pulled him back. "Now just wait a minute, there, let's hear them out!" he suggested. He didn't want to believe Father Roballi was anything but a kind-hearted priest who took care of his flock...but he also didn't want to go hoe-to-bastard-sword against an armored professional who had just demonstrated his own proficiency with his blade.

Back by the Condaman house, down the road from the temple, Wakuren brought the full force of his shield slamming into the giant snake that had just bit Zander. Zander cast a scorching ray at the serpent and this time the spell hit straight on, but it nevertheless fizzled out upon impact, coming up against an inherent resistance to spells he'd been unable to overcome. The elf frowned in puzzlement; what kind of a snake could resist spells so efficiently? The cooshee bit at the snake, catching it between its teeth but unable to get a grip as the scales caused the thing's body to slide right back out of the elven dog's jaws.

A pair of pure-blood yuan-ti were attacking Alewyth and her celestial bison with limited success; the beast was now dripping blood from a lucky scimitar-strike while the priestess had managed to avoid any hits. A final blow from Sjondra finished off the one Alewyth had been fighting, then the dwarf sent her spiritual warhammer over to aid the bison she'd summoned from the celestial planes.

Xandro's expeditious retreat spell was still in effect and he could see the others fighting off some kind of giant snake; pointing it out to Thurloe and the farmers, the bard rushed off to see what he could do to help. "C'mon," Thurloe called to the two farmers facing him. "Come see for yourselves what these snake-men are up to!" He raced off to follow the bard, the two farmers running behind him.

The giant snake reared up and transformed, suddenly expanding to grow a pair of arms and a wide chest. It flung a scale-covered arm in Wakuren's direction, flinging a baleful polymorph spell at the half-orc that would have turned him into a harmless garter snake. Fortunately, Wakuren was able to avoid the unwanted transformation and the yuan-ti abomination hissed in irritation. It hissed in pain a moment later as the half-orc sent his shield bashing into the serpent's face. Zander took the opportunity to drink down another healing potion, as Wakuren had the snake-thing's full attention and Alewyth was still busy with the last of the pure-bloods. The cooshee bit at the abomination and, barking furiously, the farmer's dog rushed in to bite at this strange thing that it hadn't even seen before yet knew didn't belong here in his master's village.

The last of the pure-bloods was finally slain and Alewyth turned her attention - and her spiritual weapon spell - on the yuan-ti abomination, the celestial bison trailing in her wake. Then Xandro came rushing in from seemingly nowhere, his frost short sword striking at the serpent and cutting a deep gash in her side. The snake-thing reacted by grabbing up the bard in a bear hug, her scales exuding some kind of burning acid as she bit at the bard's neck, sharp fangs piercing Xandro's neck and pumping her venom into his body. But the odds were stacked well against her and once Thurloe arrived with the two farmers once final swing of his bastard sword - empowered by the torc of the titans he wore around his neck - cut the head from her neck and the battle was over.

Alewyth and Wakuren cast healing spells on those who needed them - including a few of the farmers - and examined the bodies of those they had slain. Most could indeed pass for human, but the two Condaman farmhands had patches of skin on their arms - covered by the sleeves of their garments - covered in scales. The farmers confirmed Thurloe's suspicions that the farmhands had both been two of the ones suffering from that week-long "flu" that knocked them off their feet; the fighter explained that was the way the yuan-ti transformed normal people into others of their brood. The heroes also showed the amazed farmers the two serpentine bodies of the elder Condamans and the venom dog they'd had living hidden down in their root cellar. A quick exploration of the root cellar resulted in the discovery of a hidden room just beyond, in which alchemical equipment had been set up, creating distillations of the yuan-ti venom used to create the elixir capable of transforming unwitting humans into yuan-ti. Worse yet were four writhing bodies moaning behind another door, wretched creatures turning into half-human "brood guards" - four of the farmhands from the village who had been assumed to have run off. Thurloe was quick to put them out of their misery.

Next came an exploration of Father Roballi's house, just behind the temple to Desdemona. He had a compost heap by his personal garden, which was apparently mostly for show judging by the contents of his larder just off his kitchen, where several slain rats and mice hung by cords from the ceiling, no doubt future meals for either him or his yuan-ti abomination companion (who, judging from some cast-off skin, apparently lived in serpent form underneath the pure-blood cleric's bed). Wakuren, on a hunch, dug around the compost heap and soon unearthed a few bones from a human skeleton. "This, I fear, is all that's left of your previous temple cleric," he told the villagers.

The villagers thanked the heroes for having saved the town from eventual transformation into yuan-ti - and for "pulling their punches" when fighting off the enraged townsfolk who had been convinced they were nothing more than murderous bandits. The group mounted back up and headed out of town, on towards the next dream victim Mogo had pointed out to them, south of their present location in a town called Caldovia, near the desert lands of the continent's interior. It was already late, but none of the heroes felt it a good idea to spend the night in Basker's Grove, where there was too great a temptation for revenge by those who hadn't seen the truth for themselves (or those who refused to believe it). They camped out on the side of the road a good couple of miles outside of town.

And the next morning, once they were back on the road, there was a familiar face standing in the street when they rounded a corner. "Good morning," said Wangle Turdblossom, pulling something from a back pocket and holding it out to Xandro. "Your wand, as promised." Xandro leaned down from the saddle and paid the gnome the other half of the price they had agreed upon.

"A pleasure doing business with you," the gnome said with a tip of an imaginary cap. He waited until the group had continued down the road before turning back the way he had come and going his own way.

- - -

Yuan-ti were something new to Vicki and Harry (and possibly Joe as well), so this was a cool way to introduce them to a new foe. And this marks twice now that I've used a temple of Desdemona in this campaign, while she was just an NPC in our "Wing Three" campaign (the one after which the gods of Erthe are all patterned). Not to worry, though, for I have adventures planned that will bring some of the other, more prominent faiths from the Erthe pantheon to the forefront.

- - -

T-shirt worn: I was still wearing my "Duck Dynasty" shirt since this was the same game session - which was all for the best, since I don't own anything particularly yuan-ti appropriate.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 26 February 2022

- - -

Wakuren sat at the front of the wagon as usual, the reins to the two mules in his hands as they plodded over the hard-packed dirt road. To either side of the wagon rode Xandro and Zander on their black horses, while just ahead rode Thurloe on his tan horse and Alewyth on her dire goat. They were making their way to their next dream victim in some small village another half hour down the road or so, on the edge of the Centralia Desert that covered a good portion of the small continent's center.

There was another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, a wagon also pulled by two draft beasts, a pair of powerful horses as black as Xandro and Zander's own mounts. The sorcerer and the bard hurried their own mounts forward ahead of the mule-wagon, scooting in to make room for the two wagons to pass each other. As they got nearer they could see the approaching wagon was fully covered with walls and a roof of wood, making it possible the lone driver - a male elf, Zander noted - lived inside of his vehicle. A small bird of prey was perched upon the wagon's rooftop.

And then the desert exploded on the side of the road beside the elf's wagon. A yellow and brown figure burst out of the sand in a blur of motion; by the time any of the heroes had time to register it was a lizard nearly as long from head to tail as the span from the horses' noses to the back of the wagon they pulled, the beast had clamped its jaws around the neck of the leftmost horse and pulled it to the ground. The wagon toppled on its side, throwing the elf to the ground; the other draft horse panicked but was too tangled up in its tethers to escape being pulled to the ground as well. The falcon took immediately to the skies.

Instinctively, Xandro pulled the lute from his back and began his tune of inspirational courage while he steered his horse White with his knees off to the side, out of range of the giant banded lizard. Combat was obviously imminent and this was the best way the bard could help the entire group all at once, he knew. Thurloe pulled his wand from his belt and cast a shield spell upon himself before tossing it over to Zander so the elf could do the same. Then he spurred his horse Horse forward, over to the downed elf; leaning over, he grabbed the man by the arm and helped pull him up onto the saddle behind him before steering Horse away from the lizard as well. Thurloe saw the beast was eagerly chewing up the first horse in bloody gobbets of flesh and wasn't particularly looking for any further combat just yet while it had a meal at the ready; after it finished gobbling up hunks of horse-meat it might be a different story.

Wakuren directed the mules off the road away from the lizard and its grisly meal; neither Mica nor Perseverance needed a whole lot of prompting to put some distance between themselves and the ravenous reptile. Then the half-orc leaped from the wagon, heading over to the downed wagon to see if he could be of any assistance; there could easily be other people inside the wagon needing help. Alewyth was the first to initiate combat with the banded lizard; as she prompted Pyrite forward she cast a spiritual weapon spell that caused a warhammer of solid force energy to materialize before her and go streaking to bash into the side of the great reptile's head. The lizard looked about it for the attacker as it swallowed down its latest mouthful of horse-flesh, not recognizing the force-hammer hovering above its head as the cause of its recent pain.

Xandro cast an expeditious retreat spell on himself and leaped down from his mount, slapping him on his rump to prompt him away from the danger - an act for which White needed no further encouragement. Thurloe rode the unnamed elf wagon-driver far enough away from the lizard to keep him safe, then helped him down out of the saddle while he pulled his bow from his back and nocked an arrow for combat. Then, wheeling Horse around to face their enemy, Thurloe took aim and let fly.

Zander cast a haste spell on the group while they were all still within range, while Wakuren cast a divine favor spell on himself as he raced to attack the giant lizard with his only weapon, his shield. Alewyth likewise cast a divine favor spell upon herself before leaping from her dire goat and sending Pyrite away out of danger. Her spiritual warhammer continued its attack on the lizard, who apparently thought the spell effect to be some kind of flying insect and snapped at it. With the lizard thus distracted, the elven driver ran to the rear of his wagon to open the door in the back, an awkward act given the wagon was on its side.

The lizard had by this time swallowed the chunks of horse-meat it had ripped from the poor wagon-mount's corpse and thus had its mouth free when Wakuren came within range to attack it with the edge of his shield. Quicker than the half-orc would have believed possible, the reptile darted its head forward and snapped him up into its mouth; Wakuren found himself using his shield to block the creature's numerous sharp teeth from piercing him through his armor. Seeing his friend in trouble, Xandro used his spell-enhanced speed to race over to the creature's flank, over by its left back leg (where he hoped he'd be out of immediate range of its wicked teeth) and stabbed at the beast with his frost short sword. Thurloe likewise came running to Wakuren's rescue, dropping his bow and pulling out his bastard sword as he closed the gap between himself and the towering reptile. He drew upon his torc of the titans to add extra strength to his blow, which caused his blade to sink deep between the lizard's banded scales.

Zander knew quite well he was not well-equipped for melee combat and thus held back, casting a magic missile spell at the beast. The lizard was at this point quite flustered at the multiple opponents attacking it from all directions; it had just been hiding in ambush under the sands until it felt the vibrations indicating an approaching pair of horses and an easy meal. Wakuren tried using the lizard's confusion - it had momentarily stopped trying to chew him - to wrest himself free from its maw, to no avail; it might not be actively chewing him but the half-orc lacked the strength to force it to open its mouth wide enough for him to wriggle out.

The spiritual warhammer dipped in for another attack as Alewyth leaped into combat with Sjondra in hand and the elf started pulling weapons out of his wagon: a string of very nicely crafted weapons of all types: longswords, short swords, scimitars, daggers, and axes. He tossed them out with a look of desperation, occasionally looking back over the desert sands, where a plume of dust at the horizon hinted at an approaching group of riders.

The lizard suddenly recalled it had a morsel in its mouth and started trying to chew Wakuren's armored form as it swiped at Thurloe and Alewyth with claws glistening with moisture - likely poison, the dwarven priestess realized. Fortunately, neither of the claw attacks met their mark, although the cries of pain from inside the reptile's mouth indicated Wakuren was not having an easy time of it. Thurloe and Xandro redoubled their efforts with their blades while Zander repositioned himself and cast a scorching ray spell at the massive reptile. The continued onslaught was finally taking its toll and the banded lizard was wobbling on its feet when Wakuren turned his shield upside-down and stabbed upwards with all of his might, sending the pointed tip of the shield's bottom stabbing up into the roof of the lizard's mouth. He was rewarded for his efforts with a gush of blood spilling down upon him and the lizard collapsing down upon the desert floor, dead. It took Thurloe and Alewyth to help tug open the beast's mouth so Wakuren could scramble out, but at least he was finally free.

"Help me!" called the elf from the back of the wagon, prompting the heroes to assume he was under attack from another enemy. But he just wanted help unloading the weapons from his overturned wagon - a wagon which wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, for one of its axles had broken during the spill, one wooden wheel had shattered, and the wall pinned to the ground had been cracked open when the wagon landed on a large stone.

"What's going on?" Thurloe demanded as Alewyth took a handful of weapons from the elf.

"Orc raiding party," the elf replied. "Heading this way from out of the desert. My falcon familiar has confirmed it. But this spot will do as well as any other - I need these weapons lined up in a row beside the wagon."

"Why?" Thurloe persisted as Zander took the weapons from Alewyth and passed them on to Xandro, who in turn handed them over to Wakuren. They made a sort of bucket brigade, handing weapon after weapon down the line as Wakuren lined them up nicely along the ground.

"My family was killed by orc raiders," the elf explained. "I'm a wizard, and I have researched a ritual that allow me to animate these weapons into a living blade barrier spell that will take them out." He closed his eyes and concentrated on the link with his falcon familiar, who was high up in the air and confirming the orcs' numbers. "There is a band of eleven orcs, all riding desert horses," the elf said. "They'll be here in little over a minute, so either help me line up the weapons or at least get out of my way!" Without another word Thurloe went to the back of the line by Wakuren and started lining up the weapons as they were passed his way.

Once the weapons were laid out to the elf's satisfaction, he pulled out a sheet of parchment and began muttering arcane syllables, beginning the ritual. "We got time for some preparations of our own," offered up Thurloe, attempting to cast a protection from evil spell on himself in his full armor but messing it up and swearing as it dissipated to nothingness. In the meantime, Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell on herself, followed by a bless spell on the assembled group. Wakuren cast bull's strength spells on himself and Thurloe, a cure serious wounds spell upon himself (using his magic ring to increase the amount of healing energy he was able to channel), and a bear's endurance spell upon Zander before activating his other ring and becoming invisible. Xandro cast a cure light wounds spell through his lute on the half-orc before he disappeared from view, for the bard could see Wakuren still had some visible wounds from the lizard's sharp teeth.

"Here they come," Alewyth noted as the orcs rode into view, clouds of dust rising behind their horses' hooves. They were spread out in a wide line and headed directly for the overturned wagon. Morisar Nemertel - Zander had recognized the elf wizard's proffered name as meaning "deathseeker slainheart" in the Elven tongue and imagined it was the name he had given himself after the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of orc raiders as the wizard had been bound and forced to watch - had his back turned to the orcs, reading from the notes he held in his left hand while he reached for a handaxe at his belt with his right. The heroes had dropped back behind the wagon for cover and were looking worriedly at the wizard, hoping he'd get the ritual finished up in time before the orcs got too much closer. And wouldn't it have made more sense to have lined the weapons up behind the wagon?

The orc leader, an adept whose owl familiar had flown ahead of the orcs and had scoped out the giant banded lizard they'd been tracking for days had already been slain by a band of warriors, merely merely saw that as a bonus: new weapons and armor for their own band in addition to the flesh, teeth, and claws of the reptile they'd been after. He cast a protection from good spell upon himself while absently wondering what that elf was up to with his back turned to him. Was this some sort of show of fearlessness? And what was the line of gleaming metal at his feet? Then his owl reported on the five heroes off to the side and he grinned an evil grin: he and his ten men could easily take on a group of six adventurers!

The orcs continued their advance and the desert horses increased their speed as their prey came into view. But then Xandro pointed his wand of sound burst at a group of the orcs and fired off a shot. He got three of the orc riders and their mounts with his attack and one of the horses was stunned into immobility, sending his barbarian rider flying over his head to come to an abrupt halt face-first in the sand. Zander followed suit with a spell-attack of his own; he'd deduced the adept as some kind of spellcaster based on his hand-gestures when casting the protection from good spell on himself and further deduced he was the sole spellcaster among the group based on him being the only one whose hair was adorned with feathers, a frequent display of spellcasting prestige among the desert orcs. Thus, Zander cast his scorching ray spell at the adept, sending a gout of flames to explode at the orc's chest. It identified Zander as a fellow spellcaster and certainly made him a target, but the elf had no doubt he was already high up on their list given his elven heritage; elves were particularly hated by the orcish race.

Wakuren raced forward towards the approaching raiders, confident in his ring of invisibility to keep him safe - and fully forgetting he was leaving footprints behind him in the sand as he ran. But he got close enough to cast a bane spell on a group of close-quarters orcs that included the adept, all four barbarians, and one of the two rangers riding off to the side, as well as all of their desert mounts. Despite his father having been of the orcish race, Wakuren had little knowledge of the creatures himself - he didn't even speak their language, nor did he have much of a desire to learn to do so. If these orcs were in the habit of performing acts like Morisar had said, he wanted nothing to do with them.

Alewyth moved over to the other side of the wizard's wagon and cast a summoning spell that caused a celestial bison to manifest directly in the path of one of the advancing orc fighters. It lowered its bulky head and charged, its horn tearing into the orc's makeshift armor and cutting a furrow through the flesh beneath. The orc rangers veered toward the new threat, throwing javelins into the bison's side. It grunted as its only acknowledgement of the pain caused by the weapons and carried on its attack.

Thurloe took the opportunity to try a new spell, mirror image. He cast it successfully and now there were five Thurloes wandering around, the real one and four illusory duplicates. All five of them had an identical bastard sword in hand but fumbled at their belts and pulled out identical wands. The five of them all started heading over by Alewyth.

Another scorching ray went coursing across the battlefield, but this one had been cast by the adept and targeted against the celestial bison. Two of the orc barbarians wheeled their horses up against the white-furred beast and stabbed at it with their falchions, staining its snowy fur red with blood as it staggered to the desert sands and disappeared, its slain body returning to the celestial realms from which it had been summoned. The other two barbarians both took a swing at where they had figured Wakuren was standing, although they had no idea the invisible foe had orcish blood flowing through his veins. Wakuren dodged one blow but the other struck him on the side and it was only then he realized his tracks in the sand had given him away.

Xandro picked up his tune of inspirational courage while all five Thurloes aimed their wands of magic missile at the orcish spellcaster. Fifteen individual missiles went shrieking across the desert sands to strike the orc, only three of them doing any real harm. Zander ran to the far side of the overturned wagon and dropped his jade cooshee to the ground, calling out the command word that brought the elven dog to life. The cooshee didn't need any orders from his master; it dashed out across the desert sands in a bee-line for the mounted adept, its magic-enhanced eyesight showing that particular orc to be the only one holding spells his master might put to better use. But two orcish fighters swung their weapon at the canine as he rushed past, heedless of his own safety, and as a result the poor dog was too weak to be able to snag a spell from the adept's mind as he had intended.

Knowing the orcs all about him had a way of detecting his location, the still-invisible Wakuren cast an obscuring mist spell around himself, encompassing the adept and the four barbarians, one of the latter still unmounted since his spill from his dazed horse. Behind him to his right, the four orc fighters raced up to Zander Quilson and Xandro, their blades swinging for blood. But back by the line of weapons, Morisar drew his own blood in a quite unexpected fashion as he brought his right hand up and the hatchet it held swung down to sever his left hand at the wrist. Blood spurted from his stump and the wizard aimed it at the line of weapons, walking down its length, spilling his blood upon each blade in turn. Then he began calling out the words to bring his living spell to life: "Morath ennavari--"

That's as far as he got, for at that point his throat was pierced by a javelin thrown by one of the orc rangers and he fell to the desert sands as all about him the bloody weapons rose up of their own accord and started dancing about in rhythmic patterns. Another hurled javelin pierced the elf wizard in the back where he lay and he died, the final word of his ritual unspoken on his lips. Thus, the full set of intended instructions, "death to each living orc," had been truncated to "death to each living." Brought to unholy life, the living blade barrier spell sent its weapons clashing and whirling as it sensed all around it for lives to slay. It found a nearby target and wriggled its way over to Thurloe, its numerous blades cutting through his armor and causing one of his mirror-duplicates to pop like a soap bubble.

Alewyth cast another spiritual weapon and sent the force-hammer crashing into the side of one of the orc fighters attacking Zander, nearly spilling him from his mount. The dwarf looked over to what Thurloe was yelling about and was surprised to see him - and three others looking just as bedraggled - limping away from a wall of whirling weapons.

The orcs inside the obscuring mist spell decided to get out of there as soon as possible so they could see normally again. Each led their horse in a random direction until they emerged once more under the desert sun. The cooshee followed the orc adept and his mount, leaping up at the spellcaster and trying to fetch a spell slot for his master. But the adept was as well-armed as his other men and cut the dog down with a slash of his falchion and the jade cooshee fell to the sand with a soft thud. Then the adept turned his horse towards his fighters and sped forward.

The three mounted barbarians made it out of the area of darkness without incident but the one on foot found himself facing a wall of whirling blades once he was back out in the sunlight. He quickly dodged off to his left, heading towards the relative safety of the orc fighters.

Xandro charged one of the fighters, slashing at him with his frost short sword. Thurloe decided he needed to added maneuverability and speed Horse provided and fled back to his mount, leaping up into the saddle with practiced ease. Of course, that meant his three remaining mirror images followed suit, so when Thurloe sent Horse speeding towards the mounted orc fighters he was flanked on either side by an ever-shifting gaggle of three other Thurloes hovering around him - which kind of gave the game away as to which one was the real one and which three the illusory images. Alewyth came to a similar realization about increased mobility and ran back to Pyrite, climbing up onto the dire goat's saddle and spurring him forward in to battle against the nearest orc fighter while her spiritual warhammer slew another fighter and sent him falling from his saddle.

Zander cast another magic missile at the approaching adept, partly wanting to take him out of the fight because he wasn't sure just how powerful his spellcasting ability was but also partly in retaliation for having slain his elven dog, even though he knew he'd be able to summon him back to life again the next day. Then he found himself dodging the incoming falchion-blows of a pair of enraged orc fighters, the other two focusing their attacks on Xandro for the moment.

Wakuren sped out of the obscuring mist and took a barbarian by surprise by slamming him with his shield, nearly spilling him from his horse. That brought the half-orc back into full visibility once again, but invisibility wasn't all it was cracked up to be in the desert sands.

The two rangers spurred their horses around what they both assumed to be a static blade barrier spell and were surprised beyond belief when it lurched to cut them off. Dozens of razor-sharp blades cut the rangers and their mounts to ribbons; neither of the four made it out of the living spell alive.

The orc adept cast his last scorching ray of the day at Alewyth, engulfing the dwarven priestess in a gout of flame. He felt the rage building up inside him, that these upstarts would dare to fight back against his raiders after having first stolen the giant banded lizard kill from them after they'd spent two days tracking it! He'd make sure they all paid for their effrontery!

Wakuren soon found himself pinned between two mounted orc barbarians, who called taunts out at him in a language he didn't understand as their blades came swinging in against what they considered a race-traitor. A half-orc throwing in his lot with a pair of elves? Unforgivable! The barbarian on foot reached one of the riderless mounts and leaped up upon it, steering it back into battle. But another barbarian had stopped his mount cold at the sight of the living blade barrier spell chewing up the two rangers and their horses like they were nothing. If these adventurers were capable of such magic, perhaps it would be best to allow them to keep the banded lizard for themselves and seek their next targets a bit more wisely!

Xandro's frost blade took the life of another of the orc fighters, his lifeless body dropping to the desert sands and the now-unencumbered horse high-tailing it out of the area. Thurloe (and his hovering triplets) charged another fighter, nearly decapitating him with his bastard sword - another raider down! Zander slew another of the barbarians with a scorching ray spell and all of a sudden the fight was no longer as lopsided as it had been at the start. Wakuren killed a barbarian, pushing him from his mount and then crushing his windpipe with the edge of his shield before the orc could rise up from where he'd fallen prone. Riderless horses ran this way and that as their erstwhile masters were slain.

A fighter came rushing at Alewyth, his falchion striking a glancing blow off her armor before she retaliated with a blow of her own with Sjondra. Then the orc was taken from behind by a mass of flying blades as the living spell crept up behind the unwary raider. Alewyth pulled Pyrite farther away from the mass of whirling blades, realizing when their fight with the orcs was over they'd still have to deal with Morisar's deadly spell-monster lest it continue its random swath of death and destruction into the homes of the nearest village.

The orc adept was still in the fight, but only because he'd taken the time to cast a few healing spells upon himself to seal up the worst of his wounds. But his body pulsated with power and he was eager for vengeance against those who had slain so many of his men. As he watched, Wakuren held his shield up to deflect a series of blows from one of the adept's strongest barbarian warriors, only to have the lanky human with the musical instrument strapped to his back stab the orc in the back and then step back as the barbarian fell face-first into the sand, dead from the bard's blow. The adept roared with frustration and looked to see who he could vent his anger upon.

The closest enemy was riding straight towards the orc spellcaster and for some reason he had three others who looked just like him hovering around him. The adept raised his falchion and spurred his own desert horse forward, eager to match blades with this strange warrior with the acrobatic duplicates. But then the four identical Thurloes each raised a wand and pointed it at the wounded adept and the magic missile spell slew the orc before the horses met up. Relieved of the burden from his back, the orc's mount veered off and left the field of battle.

The lone barbarian had been watching this debacle unfold. Now it seemed he was the last survivor of his band and no longer under the sway of the adept, whose orders had been more and more erratic over the past few weeks. Shaking his head in sadness at the loss of his brothers-in-arms, the sole remaining member of the Tribe of the Lost's raiding party turned his horse back the way they'd come and raced away.

"We need to take out those flying weapons!" Alewyth called to the others as she pointed to the living blade barrier spell.

"Ranged weapons and spells!" advised Thurloe, who had seen first-hand what happened when one ventured too close to the living spell. He fetched his bow and started shooting arrows at the living spell while Zander peppered it with magic missiles and scorching rays. Alewyth's spiritual warhammer finally winked out and she was left scavenging the bodies of the orc raiders for their javelins. It was slow going, but eventually they wore down the living spell and its weapons all went flying in all directions as the magic binding them together was sundered. Thurloe rode up to the nearest of the scattered weapons and snorted in disgust; despite having been of quite masterwork quality when they'd lined them all up in the sand for Morisar, they were now all nicked and grooved from constant contact with each other as they flew about and were virtually worthless.

However, there were a few goods to be retrieved. The orc adept had the only item of magical value among the orcs, a necklace of the teeth of desert predators that Alewyth's detect magic spell indicated toughened the skin of the wearer. Morisar's cloak was likewise magical, suffused in an aura of abjuration that protected the wearer with a limited ability to deflect damage. Recovered from the wagon's interior were a quill of transcription which wrote down the words spoken by the owner; a flask of elixir of dreamless sleep with six doses remaining (for poor Morisar apparently suffered from repeated nightmares of the deaths of his wife and daughter); a silver holy symbol of Akari, God of Death and Undeath, with rubies in place of the skull's eyes; and a pair of ivory cameos, side views of elven ladies, no doubt his slain family members. Alewyth insisted upon giving the slain elf wizard a proper burial, there by the side of the road where he'd been killed seeking his vengeance against the orcs. Of his falcon familiar there was no sight; it had apparently flown off upon its master's death.

The orcs were left to rot in the sun where they'd been slain. Wakuren had been the one to fetch the adept's necklace of teeth and he swore he felt a shudder of revulsion course through his skin upon touching the body of the slain leader of the raiders. The necklace had been given to Xandro; Wakuren had wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, he took Morisar's cloak, promising the elf's spirit he would long remember his courage and dedication in seeking his vengeance.

"Let's be gone from here," Wakuren sighed once Morisar had been put to rest.

"Caldovia should be about a half hour down the road," pointed out Thurloe, pulling himself up onto Horse's saddle and leading the way to the town where they were to find their next dream victim.

Caldovia was indeed not that far away, but the reception they received was not all they had expected. Upon seeing Wakuren at the front of the mule wagon, a half dozen villagers picked up clubs and hammers - whatever weapon they could grab up, pretty much - and blocked the way. Wakuren pulled back on the mules' reins as the others came to a halt beside him. "What seems to be the problem?" he asked pleasantly.

One of the villagers spit on the ground before answering. "Exactly what you'd expect, orc!" he sneered. "You got a lot of nerve riding into town after all the times your kind came raiding in from the desert. And you!" - here he pointed a finger at the others on their riding mounts - "Orc sympathizers, are you? You ought to be ashamed!"

"First one of you comes at me with their weapons dies here in the street," promised Thurloe, hefting his bastard sword at the ready over one shoulder.

"Hold on," demanded Alewyth. "Can you not see the mark of Cal on Wakuren's armor and shield? He's a holy man!"

"Don't mean nothing," replied the leader of the six men. "Orcs'll wear any armor, wield any weapons they can scavenge. Everybody knows that." He looked ready to attack, but kept glancing nervously at Thurloe and seemed to be waiting for one of his men to make the first move. Alewyth took advantage of the man's hesitation to cast a calm emotions spell on the assembled villagers. Then, once everyone had calmed down, she personally vouched for Wakuren's good character and explained why they were in town in the first place.

Caldovia was a small enough village that everybody knew exactly who the adventurers were looking for: Jingo Pebble-Brain, who worked odd jobs for those who needed them done. "He's big as a mountain and dumb as a brick, but a nice enough guy" was the common opinion but while he had last been seen at McGillicuddy's Inn, nobody was quite sure of his current whereabouts - until they met up with an elderly woman who gave them a better idea of Jingo's current predicament. "It's horrible what that nasty old skinflint has done with poor Jingo. I suggest you check out the stables behind McGillicuddy's Inn, and bless you all if you can put a stop to it."

That warranted a trip to McGillicuddy's Inn. Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility and headed directly to the stables while the others decided to confront the innkeeper. "Jingo?" replied McGillicuddy. "Yeah, I hire him now and again when I got work for him, but I haven't seen him in a couple of weeks now. Probably wandered off again and got hisself lost - the boy's not all there upstairs, you know what I mean?"

"So you have no idea where he is?" pushed Alewyth.

"That's what I said. Now, you folk interested in renting some rooms or purchasing a meal or something to drink? 'Cause otherwise, I don't think we got anything further to discuss."

"I found him," came Wakuren's whispered voice in Alewyth's ear. The dwarf said that would be all for now and turned to leave, the other three following suit. Wakuren canceled his invisibility once back over at the stables. "He's here, in a stall at the back," he said, his voice hardened with anger.

A few horses nickered in their stalls as Wakuren went all the way to the back of the stables. There, in the farthest stall to the right, lay an enormous man - probably six and a half feet tall when standing - propped up in the corner, fast asleep. His bald head glistened with wetness; he lay in a puddle of urine and his clothes all reeked of the stuff. A tin cup along the wall held a few silver pieces; apparently McGillicuddy had found a way to earn some money from his handyman while he was trapped in a dream coma, by offering the opportunity to the townsfolk to relieve their bladders on Jingo as he slept.

"That little weasel!" fumed Alewyth. "We can't perform the ritual here, with Jingo like that!" She cast a produce water spell that cleaned the worst of the urine off of his skin and clothes, then they lifted him up and placed him in their wagon.

"Where's a safe place to do the ritual?" Xandro asked. They decided to go back to find the elderly lady who had told them where Jingo could be found. Sure enough, she allowed the group to bring Jingo inside and lay him down on her living room floor. Once they explained the ritual they'd be performing, the lady agreed to watch over them as they all slept and ensure they weren't disturbed.

Jingo's dream was almost sad in its purity. He was on his hands and knees, building a tower out of painted wooden blocks. A handful of children, four or five years old, were gathered and watched him with rapt attention. Once he had used up all the blocks, the kids clapped and Jingo beamed at his construction. "Whose turn to knock it over?" he asked.

"Me!" cried one of the girls, and Jingo watched as she knocked it over, dancing with excitement at the collapsing tower.

"I'm next!" one of the little boys cried. "Build it again, Jingo!" Jingo scooped the blocks together in a pile and started painstakingly building another tower. His tongue poked out the side of his mouth as he concentrated.

"Oh, the poor guy," Alewyth sighed. "I almost hate to have to wake him. His life here in the dream is so much better than the one he's stuck with in the real world." She turned to the others. "Do you think we might just leave him?"

"I don't know if that's a good idea," replied Wakuren. "Whatever reason the Nightmare King has for trapping people in their dreams, it's best if we stop him when we can." There were already two dreamers the group had been unable to wake from their dreams, a dwarf in an underground city and a bard back in Baron's Haven.

"Then how do we wake Jingo from this dream?" asked Zander.

"I could try killing him," suggested Thurloe, unsheathing his bastard sword. Then, seeing the scathing looks his friends were giving him, he asked, "What? This is just a dream! Killing him here won't kill him back in the real world!" If Jingo heard any of their talk of killing him he gave it no notice - he was focused on building his tower.

"We're not killing him - what's wrong with you?" chided Alewyth.

"I could try killing the kids - maybe he'll wake up without an audience." When Alewyth turned on the fighter the look on his face told he had said that just to provoke a reaction out of her. She chose not to give him the satisfaction. Instead, she turned to Jingo and said, "That's a nice building, Jingo, but we have to go now."

"Okay," said Jingo at once, getting to his feet and leaving his building half-constructed. He waved to the kids, who all waved back at him. "Maybe I can come back later," he said hopefully. Then Alewyth led him out of the door to his dream and the others followed. Jingo disappeared from the dreamlands upon exiting his dream; the dreamwalkers all willed themselves back to wakefulness and found themselves back in the elderly woman's living room, sitting in a ring around Jingo, who was struggling to a sitting position. "Hello," he said bashfully upon seeing the strangers positioned all around him.

"Hello, Jingo," Alewyth said, smiling at the bald man. "How do you feel?"

Jingo took a quick stock of the situation. "I'm all wet," he said. "And something stinks." He rubbed his tongue on his sleeve as if trying to get rid of a bad taste in his mouth.

"I'll help you get cleaned up," offered the old woman. "And you can stay here with me, if you'd like. I have an extra bedroom in the back that isn't being used."

"Okay," agreed Jingo. The group talked it over quietly among themselves and agreed this was probably the best situation Jingo could hope for. Alewyth gathered up some of their funds and set the coins down on an end table. "This ought to help you with expenses for a few months," the dwarven priestess explained.

"Why, bless you - bless you all!" replied the elderly lady. And then the dreamwalkers returned to their wagon and mounts outside, ready to leave Caldovia behind and head to their next dream victim.

"Where do you think you're all going?" demanded Thurloe. "We're not done here in town just yet." He explained how he intended to kill McGillicuddy for what he'd done to Jingo. "Guy like that's gotta be irredeemably evil," he reasoned.

"Nobody's irredeemably evil," countered Wakuren.

"You use your aura-sight on him?"

"Yes, and he is in fact evil," admitted Wakuren. "But if you kill everyone because they're evil you prevent them from turning their life around. There's no possibility for redemption, then."

"You think McGillicuddy's gonna turn his life around?" demanded Thurloe, forcing Wakuren to concede it wasn't likely.

"We can't come riding into town and kill people we don't like - no matter how much they deserve it," added Alewyth. "That'd make us no better than the orc raiders who come riding into town and taking what they want, killing anyone who gets in their way." She talked Thurloe out of his killing mood by agreeing they'd take vengeance on the innkeeper, as long as they kept it to the nonlethal variety.

And thus it was that the next morning, after the dreamwalkers had long since left Caldovia, McGillicuddy was found drunken and naked in a goat pen in town; to all appearances he'd been enjoying himself with the goats and had slept it off when he finished his partying. That's the story that made it across town, in any case, and nobody believed his stories of having been abducted in the middle of the night and force-fed bottles of his own ale until he passed out.

- - -

I had a good time prepping the minis for this adventure the night before we played. After gathering up an appropriate amount of orc minis - an adept, two rangers, four barbarians, and four fighters - and an equal number of horses (many of them from Toobs collections), I spent a good half-hour or so using rather small rubber bands (the ones used to hold a ponytail in place, which my granddaughter suggested I purchase to keep my hair out of my face back when I did water aerobics) to keep the orc minis balanced on the back of the horse minis. That ended up working out just fine as a visual, and in the few cases where an orc was dismounted it was easy enough to remove the rubber band and split them up. (The horses usually wandered away from the active fighting when they had no rider spurring them on to battle.)

Jingo had been intended as a recurring NPC - I statted him out as an NPC hireling who could join the group so they'd have someone to tend to their animals, much like the NPC "Old Clem" did back in our "Wing Three" campaign. But the players didn't want to have to be responsible for him so they set him up with the kindly old lady who had found out how McGillicuddy had been misusing him.

- - -

T-shirt worn: Given the orcs' traditional chaotic evil nature, my "Chaotic Evil Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry" T-shirt was the most appropriate, so that's what I went with.



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 30 April 2022

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"This sucks," remarked Thurloe from his perch in Horse's saddle.

"The next dreamer happens to be in the middle of the Centralia Desert," commented Wakuren, sitting in his customary seat in the wagon, the reins to both mules in his hands. "And if you'll recall, I did offer to cast an endure elements spell on you," the half-orc reminded Thurloe. He, Alewyth, and Xandro had all had the spell cast upon them, keeping them relatively comfortable in the heat of the burning sun - so much so they still wore their armor. Zander Quilson had eschewed the spell as he wore no armor, merely robes - and opted to keep the hood of his robe over his head to protect him from sunburn. Thurloe had opted instead to do without his armor, which he had stashed in the back of the wagon. He'd also insisted he didn't need an endure elements spell and his attitude at the time had strongly hinted the others were somewhat weak in relying upon spellpower for mere comfort. Now he wiped sweat from his brow with a rag for the umpteenth time that morning. Wakuren was pretty sure it was merely pure stubbornness and a refusal to admit he'd been wrong preventing Thurloe from asking for an endure elements spell to be cast upon him. Either that or he didn't want to look weaker than Zander, who seemed to be doing just fine without it.

Thurloe said nothing but just grunted in irritation, making another pass across the back of his neck with his rag.

Then there was a sudden bit of movement off to their left and before Zander could warn the others a black-armored scorpion larger than any of their horses skittered up from between a clump of low cactus plants, its pincer-claws open wide for an attack. It was aiming either for Alewyth on her dire goat mount, Pyrite, or the left-most of the mules, Perseverance. As the dwarven priestess urged her goat forward out of range, Zander cast a haste spell upon the five heroes and Thurloe's horse, figuring of the various mounts Thurloe's was the one most likely to be brought directly into battle against the monstrous scorpion. Alewyth cast a spell of her own once Pyrite was out of immediate danger and a spiritual warhammer appeared in the air above her head, hovered for a brief moment, and then went streaking over to strike the scorpion's hardened carapace.

Thurloe cast a quick mage armor spell on himself to take the place of his own armor and pulled the bastard sword from its sheath on his back. Unnoticed, the rag he'd been using to wipe away sweat fell from his hand and fluttered to the hard-packed dirt of the desert as he spurred Horse around the wagon and positioned him for a charge into battle.

The scorpion's claws snapped shut near Perseverance's left rear leg, but Wakuren had steered the mules away to the right and the claw missed its target. Zander pulled back on Eddy's reins so he wouldn't be struck by the mule-wagon as it crossed directly in front of them, then sent a magic missile spell darting over the back of the wagon to strike the scorpion at the base of its venomous tail, already raised to strike. Then Alewyth leaped down from her mount and raced across the desert sands with a speed greatly enhanced by Zander's haste spell, to bring Sjondra crashing into the arachnid's left legs. She felt one of them snap under the force of her blow, then her spiritual weapon slammed down upon its back with another strike. But it was Thurloe, charging in upon Horse from the other side of the scorpion, who slew it with a blow from his bastard sword. The heavy body crashed to the ground, the venom-dripping tail stinger not having been able to be brought to bear even once.

"Everybody okay?" Wakuren asked. Alewyth returned to Pyrite's saddle as her spiritual warhammer winked back out of existence. Thurloe wiped the arachnid's ichor off his blade and resheathed it. "How much longer you figure it is to the dreamer?" he asked. They'd been traveling through the desert for two days now and he had seen enough hard-packed earth and scraggly cactus plants for a lifetime.

"Probably no more than a couple of hours," guessed Wakuren, steering the mules back into the direction they'd been traveling before the sudden ambush. The others assembled back into their standard formation.

"This sucks," repeated Thurloe, his opinion of the situation not having changed any by the scorpion's attack. But in another two hours they saw the first signs of habitation they'd seen for the last couple of days: a thin line of smoke rising up into the desert sky. "I'll bet that's it up ahead," hazarded Wakuren, hoping to get Thurloe out of his grumpiness.

"Better be," the fighter-wizard grumbled.

As they approached, they saw the smoke rose from the chimney of a dwelling made of hard-packed mud, a large, rectangular building with the corners rounded off. There were two hemispherical structures off to the right of the building, each about 20 feet in diameter, but Wakuren's attention was caught by the woman who had stepped outside upon their approach. She was human, wearing a cloth garment covering her entire body, with a wrapping over her head that looked to be a long scarf wound into a loose turban of some sort. She was unarmed but looked suspiciously at the approaching group - and focused fearfully upon the half-orc exclusively once she got a good look at him.

Wakuren wasn't offended, having spent his whole life with people judging him by his fearsome appearance. So he brought his favorite weapon to bear, flashing a wide smile that showed a bit of teeth but none of his small tusks, while raising both hands to show he was unarmed. "Good afternoon," he said, beaming. "We have come because we believe there is someone trapped in their dreams here - and we have a means to help them."

"How--?" stammered the woman. "How did you know?"

"Then there is someone here asleep? And unable to be awakened?" asked Alewyth.

"There is, yes - my brother, Jazaar. But forgive me. My name is Djamila. You look like you have traveled far. Please, come in - I offer you the hospitality of our home." She pulled aside the rug hanging over the sole doorway into her mud-baked home. "Please enter, and my sisters will fetch you fresh water and cactus fruit before you try to wake our brother."

Alewyth entered the dwelling, noting the floor was stone, recently swept. She didn't fail to notice the four spears leaning against the wall near the entryway, a handy form of defense against intruders (although she absently wondered if they were so concerned about intruders why they didn't have a proper door instead of just a hanging carpet to keep out the blowing sand and dust). The others followed after ensuring the reins of their various mounts were tied to the wagon so they wouldn't wander about. Wakuren was the last to enter the dwelling, bowing low to Djamila in an effort to show even half-breed orcs could be trained to have good manners.

Once inside, Djamila introduced her two sisters, Maheen and Suhana, while Alewyth likewise introduced the members of her own small band. Suhana passed around a plate of cactus fruit while Maheen served the heroes drinking horns of water poured from a large gourd. Once their guests had been properly refreshed, Djamila began her tale. "There is not much to tell," she admitted. "One morning, several weeks ago, Jazaar could not be awakened from his sleeping pallet. We did everything we could to awaken him, but nothing worked. And yet, he does not seem to suffer from loss of food or lack or water and he does not waste away as we would have thought. We have no explanation for how this came to be, unless it is some sort of magical curse. So tell me, how can you awaken him?"

Alewyth explained the ritual they had performed with much success many times over the past few months. Djamila feared there was not enough space in Jazaar's room for them to all sit around him and had her sisters push the tables and pillows (used to sit upon in place of chairs) in the communal room up against the walls so Wakuren and Thurloe could lift Jazaar's sleeping pallet from his bedroom into the larger living space. Jazaar's pet serval, Hunter, padded along, curious as to what these strangers were doing with his master.

"Is there anything we can do to assist?" Djamila asked. Alewyth handed her a dreamstone and a leather headband and had her tie it around her brother's forehead, while the dreamwalkers all did likewise with their own dreamstone headbands. Zander activated his jade cooshee and had him stand guard over the five as they slept, and Djamila and her sisters agreed to ensure the dreamwalkers were not interrupted during the ritual. "With any luck, all six of us will be waking up together," Wakuren told the sisters before closing his eyes and slowing his breathing as he performed the mental rituals to prepare his body for sleep.

As always, it took everyone several minutes to all fall asleep and join back up together in the Dreamlands - led by their individual moogle guides, who took them to the Hall of Dreams where Mogo repositioned the hallways of endless doors until he came to the relevant one. "Here's the dream you're looking for - good luck, kupo!" he told the group as they opened the dream-door and stepped inside the dreamscape.

The dream looked very much like the desert outside, save for the lack of cacti and the strange, purple-and-lavender-streaked sky. But there was movement directly ahead in the almost featureless landscape, a wriggling mass that became apparent as an enormous, brown caterpillar some 40 feet long. Its pliant body undulated as its many legs skittered it across the desert wasteland.

Alewyth looked around. "I don't see Jazaar anywhere," she observed.

"Neither do I," agreed Xandro. "Maybe the bug got him."

Alewyth raised the second dreamstone she held in her hand back on the Mortal Plane - and thus had with her here in the Dreamlands. Holding it before her as she would her holy symbol of Aerik had she been trying to turn undead before her, she channeled her will through it in an attempt to weaken the monster-worm. At her side, Wakuren raised his own dreamstone and followed suit. "Does it seem to be doing anything?" asked the half-orc.

"Doesn't look like it," admitted Alewyth. Zander looked worriedly at the size of the approaching caterpillar and cast a mage armor spell upon himself.

"This is stupid," grumbled Thurloe. "How are we supposed--" His complaining came to an abrupt halt when he saw the creature's side bulge out and a blade emerge from its rubbery skin. The blade became a falchion, gripped in a strong hand covered in blood and gore.

"Never mind," Thurloe amended. "I assume that's Jazaar there." He held out his dreamstone and tried using it to "home in" on Jazaar, with no effect.

The arm holding the falchion completely emerged from the gash it had cut through the side of the caterpillar's body, followed quickly by a long-haired head and a powerful, muscular body clad in mismatched hides. The figure was covered in blood, presumably that of the monster worm he'd just cut his way out of.

"Not unless Jazaar's an orc," observed Zander, for the figure spinning about to face the great caterpillar was undoubtedly a member of a desert orcish tribe of raiders - much like the members they'd encountered just days ago. But while this fellow could have easily passed as a member of the horse-riding raiders they'd fought, none of the dreamwalkers could identify him as anyone they'd seen before - and as far as they knew only one of the orc raiders had survived the attack upon Morisar Nemertel after the heroes had helped save him from the attack of a giant banded lizard. This orc was definitely not the one they'd encountered earlier.

But then the caterpillar spun the front half of its body around, opened its mouthparts, and swallowed the orc up again before he had an opportunity to bring his weapon to bear against it. Just that quickly, it was just the five dreamwalkers and the giant caterpillar alone in the desert wasteland. And as for the caterpillar, having eaten its meal again, it continued crawling forward in the same direction it had been going, ignoring the five armed figures before it.

"What's going on?" Zander asked. Then he put a hand to his head as if experiencing a sudden headache.

"Are you okay?" asked Alewyth, watching Zander wince in confusion. Then she noticed Thurloe and Xandro doing the same. "Guys? What's up?"

"Nothing much," the bard answered. "Just felt like something tried contacting me mentally or something." He looked suspiciously over at the caterpillar but it was steadfastly ignoring the group. Then a gash erupted on its other side and once again the orc cut his way out to a moment's freedom before being swallowed back up again.

Xandro and Zander Quilson each winced again, putting a hand to their foreheads. "Something's affecting the three of them, but not us," Wakuren observed, looking at Alewyth. "I haven't felt anything. You?"

"Nothing," answered Alewyth. "Maybe the fact that we're clerics?" she guessed.

But Wakuren saw a possible answer to the questions of why there was no Jazaar in the dream, why the giant caterpillar was ignoring them completely and didn't seem to be affected by their attempts to weaken it with their dreamstones, and why Thurloe, Xandro, and Zander - the three best-looking males among the visitors to the three sisters' home - were somehow being affected by some outside factor. "We're in the wrong dream!" Wakuren deduced. "The sisters are doing something to the others while they're sleeping! Everyone, as fast as you can--wake up!"

"But the cooshee's guarding over us!" argued Zander, but it was too late - Wakuren had already woken himself up and had disappeared from the dreamscape. As the elf sorcerer looked, Alewyth vanished as well. Well, he might as well join them....

Wakuren woke up in the same position he'd been in when he fell asleep at the beginning of the ritual: sitting upright in the lotus position the moogles had taught them was most conducive to lucid dreaming, with his hands resting upon his knees. The crafty half-orc gave no indication he had woken up, peering cautiously from between mostly-closed eyes. He saw Alewyth sitting cross-legged across from her, Sjondra sitting by her side; she was following his lead and giving no outward indication that she was anything but fast asleep.

But the two clerics were the only dreamwalkers still sitting around Jazaar's sleeping pallet, for the three desert women had each lifted up their own personal target - Djamila carrying Zander, Maheen lifting Xandro, and Suhana cradling Thurloe - and were carrying them off to separate rooms as if the grown men weighed no more than small children. The elven dog, tail wagging furiously in delight, followed Djamila as she carried his master off to her bedroom, apparently as some sort of game; the woman hadn't harmed Zander so the cooshee followed to see if she wanted to play. None of the bedrooms had doors, merely hanging blankets cutting them off from the common area of the dwelling. Wakuren watched as Djamila carried Zander Quilson past a hanging blanket, the cooshee trailing happily. One doorway over, Suhana carried Thurloe over the threshold to her own sleeping room, while Maheen took a sleeping Xandro into Jazaar's room. Hunter, the serval, sat where he was and watched the proceedings with feline indifference.

And then Jazaar sprang up from his sleeping pallet and ran over to Wakuren, placing a powerful right hand over the half-orc's mouth and nose as he tried suffocating the cleric of Cal into unconsciousness, his left arm pinned around Wakuren's windpipe. Wakuren immediately gave up all pretenses of still being asleep and fought back as best he could. Fortunately, Alewyth was there in a heartbeat, Sjondra crashing into Jazaar's back in an effort to get him to release Wakuren.

Thurloe awoke from the dreamlands to find himself lying upon a low sleeping pallet large enough for two, with the scabbard holding his bastard sword already on the ground alongside his belt with its housing for his two wands, his torc of the titans off from around his neck, and to see Suhana looming over him, pulling off his magical ring of protection. Xandro awoke to a similar situation, with Maheen removing the items of value from his person and making a nice pile on a folded blanket that had earlier served as the serval's bed. And Zander Quilson had Djamila bending over him as he lay upon her double-sized sleeping pallet while she made an ever-growing pile comprised of his dagger, scout's headband, and magical ring, wand, amulet, and brooch. Worse yet, his trusty cooshee was watching her do this, tail wagging happily as he watched his master's valuables being stolen.

Alewyth felt a set of claws rip along the backs of her legs; having concentrated exclusively upon fighting off Jazaar she'd ignored the serval who was now springing into action against his master's attacker. Wakuren managed to extricate himself from Jazaar's clutches and belatedly used his paladin training to detect for evil in the general area; he wasn't the least bit surprised to find out there was indeed evil about. He grabbed up his shield from the floor at his side and crashed it into the side of the desert-dweller's head, spinning him about. But Jazaar took that as an opportunity to attack Alewyth, who was momentarily distracted by the serval's attacks. Jazaar didn't look to be armed, but it felt like a massive slab of heavy wood had just coming crashing down upon her head.

Hearing the fight going on in the common area, the sisters decided to press their attacks as well. Djamila grabbed at Zander Quilson but the elf rolled off the far side of the sleeping pallet; sadly, this bought him only a moment's respite before she had caught him up in her arms and pinned him tightly to her body. The elf tried to free himself to no avail, clearly overpowered by a slight human woman not even as tall as himself. But the cooshee, now aware that playtime had somehow ended and this woman, who had only bent over and kissed Zander while he sat in a circle in the other room with his friends before scooping him up and taking him to this other room, was now trying to hurt his master. Barking furiously for her to stop, the elven hound clawed at her with his front paws but failed to get her to release Zander from her crushing grasp. The elf saw black spots before his eyes and realized he was mere moments away from passing out; he couldn't get in any air as she crushed him between her powerful arms.

The next room over, Suhana slashed at Thurloe with her own claws and caught him up in a bear hug from which he was surprised to find he could not escape. But then the fighter-wizard was no longer there; having activated his anklet of translocation - an item she hadn't yet gotten around to removing - Thurloe teleported the ten feet to his pile of belongings and scooped up his bastard sword, pulling it from its sheath and aiming it at the slight woman in the desert robes before him. She clawed at him with her fingernails but couldn't get close enough to grapple him in a bear hug with the blade pointed at her.

And in Jazaar's room Maheen was likewise crushing Xandro to her as the bard did his best to struggle free from her grasp, to no avail. It was bad enough being bested in a combat of strength, but to fail against a slight woman much smaller than himself just added insult to injury.

"He's evil!" Wakuren called out to Alewyth, reporting the results of his ability to detect the evil of a person's aura - which wasn't anything other than what she had supposed in any case. Still, she backed away from combat long enough to cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself, which only opened her up to more attacks from the damned serval, whose claws didn't cut that deep but certainly left painful scratches on her legs. Wakuren channeled power from his god into his shield and sent it crashing into Jazaar with a smiting attack that briefly made it seem as if the half-orc were fighting a slightly larger creature than the dark-haired human male before him. Concentrating on his foe, Wakuren managed to see the hideous form hidden beneath the veil spell: a bald, warty-skinned humanoid with bandy legs that made the cleric wonder if this Jazaar didn't have some sort of troll's blood in his ancestry or something. Whatever he was, it wasn't the handsome desert human his illusory appearance indicated.

But then Jazaar called out a few words in some strange, guttural language none of the heroes spoke as he swung his arms at Wakuren and the half-orc felt the blow against his shield as if it had just been struck by a massive greatclub. But then Alewyth was after him again, swinging Sjondra at his back and sending him crashing into Wakuren's shield. Then Thurloe exited the bedroom he'd awakened in and joined the two clerics in the main room. He moved north towards the front doorway, keeping himself out of combat for a moment while he caught his breath and got his bearings. It sounded like Xandro was struggling behind the curtain leading to Jazaar's room, while the serval scratched at Alewyth while she attacked Jazaar, who was currently engaged in combat with Wakuren.

And then three more combatants entered the main room. One of these was Suhana, who had followed Thurloe out of her room but not until after she'd put on his torc of the titans for her own use. The other two figures came from behind a carpet-hung doorway leading to the back of the building, and these were animated skeletons, stooped in posture and with sloping foreheads making them likely the remains of a pair of orcs. They made for Alewyth and Wakuren, scratching with their claws, for they had no weapons or armor that they might have had when still alive. Alewyth stepped away from them and held her holy symbol of Aerik aloft, channeling positive energy through it which shattered the skeletons' bones into shards and dust.

Zander Quilson finally succumbed to blessed unconsciousness and was dropped unceremoniously to the floor, while Djamila spun in place and fought back against the elven dog that had refused to stop attacking the human woman trying to hurt his master. Wicked claws slashed at the side of the cooshee, drawing blood. Maheen likewise dropped Xandro Silverstrings into unconsciousness at her feet, where he fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Wakuren finally slew Jazaar with a side-swipe of his shield, whose edge caught the cleric's foe in the throat. At about the same time, Thurloe brought his bastard sword's blade crashing into Maheen as she stepped out of Jazaar's room, and the blade's anti-illusion abilities carved right through the woman's veil spell, revealing Maheen's true form: she was no slight desert woman but rather an 8-foot-tall crone with a stooped posture - a dune hag. She snarled in pain and irritation at her true form being revealed. But then Suhana rushed up and attacked Thurloe from the other side, using his magical torc to increase the power of her strikes and the damage they did. Seeing the jig was up, she released the illusion covering her, revealing herself to be no more a human woman than her other sisters were - this was a coven of three dune hags, and Jazaar wasn't their brother but the hagspawn son of Maheen.

The cooshee kept up its attacks against Djamila, even managing to trip her and knock her prone, but its valiant efforts were eventually fruitless, for the dune hag coven leader managed to get back up to her feet and rip out the poor elven dog's throat with her wicked claws. Fortunately, while this slew the cooshee outright, all it really did was force it back into its statuette form, from which it could be resummoned to life another day. But now, looking down and seeing Zander Quilson lying still bleeding on the floor, she stormed out of her bedroom to aid her sisters.

Thurloe, by this time, had taken quite a bit of damage from the two hags he'd been fighting and decided he no longer wanted to be in the middle of a dune hag sandwich, so he broke off from combat and rushed to the south end of the room to get a moment's respite (and hopefully find enough time to guzzle down a healing potion). Wakuren, well aware that Djamila had carried Zander into her room and worried that she had now reappeared without him, rushed into her bedroom while she moved over to harry Thurloe (who wasn't getting the breather he had hoped for, as he belatedly realized his belt with the potions on it were still back on the floor in Suhana's room). There the half-orc found Zander bleeding on the floor and administered a cure serious wounds spell on the wounded elf, sealing up the worst of his cuts. Zander stirred and sat up and that was good enough for Wakuren, who rushed back out into the main room, shield raised before him.

Alewyth had made a similar realization about Xandro and had entered Jazaar's room, taking an attack from Maheen to do so. She ignored her own wounds - she was, after all, still standing, unlike Xandro - and cast a cure serious wounds spell on the unconscious bard. Then she had no further time to focus upon him, for Maheen had followed her into the hagspawn's bedroom and was attacking her with teeth and claws. On the one hand it was always better to see what you were actually up against, Alewyth thought to herself, but she greatly preferred the illusions of the beautiful human women they had been greeted with upon first entering this coven-space. By the gods, these hags were ugly!

Alewyth was surprised to see the serval hadn't forgotten about her, either, as it followed her into the bedroom and slashed out at her with its claws. She took a long-overdue moment away from combat with Maheen to deal with this troublesome threat, and after a single bash from Sjondra crushed in the desert cat's skull she no longer had it to worry about.

Thurloe was holding his own against Djamila when Zander exited the room. He cast a scorching ray spell at the dune hag but missed, his gout of fire striking instead the hardened wall of sunbaked mud of the building's structure. But Wakuren was there, attacking Djamila from behind with his shield while her focus was upon Thurloe. While Maheen continued her attacks upon Alewyth, Suhana broke ranks to go chase down Zander, for she wanted no truck with an arcane spellcaster in their midst, flinging attack spells around willy-nilly.

And then Maheen felt an attack from an unexpected direction: Alewyth's spell of healing had revived Xandro and he had grabbed up his frost short sword and stabbed it up at her kidney from a near-prone position on the floor; she hadn't even been aware of the bard's return to consciousness.

Djamila was the first of the dune hags to fall, slain by a blow to the head from the edge of Wakuren's shield. Thurloe, bleeding from a dozen gashes by this time, had used his magical anklet to dimension door out of range of the coven leader's wicked claws and when she had spun about looking for her erstwhile prey the half-orc had let her have it. She fell lifelessly to the stone floor. Zander cast a haste spell on the group of heroes, figuring the extra speed it granted would hopefully give the heroes the edge they needed against these powerful hags, for it was taking their all to have gotten this far, dropping the hagspawn and one of the trio of dune hags. Most of the heroes were just about on their last legs themselves.

Maheen continued her attacks upon Alewyth while Suhana concentrated on Wakuren, the vile half-breed who had taken out their leader. But Maheen had more than the dwarven priestess to worry about and it was Xandro who finally slew her with his magic sword. At the same moment he saw her drop to the floor he spun to gather up the rest of the items she had taken from him while he'd been sleeping, attempting to awaken what they had thought was a brother to the three human sisters who lived here.

Alewyth rushed to Wakuren's side and added her hammer to his shield as they both pressed the attack against the sole remaining hag, Suhana. Zander cast a magic missile spell directly at the dune hag and was surprised to see it fizzle out when it reached her; she must have some sort of inherent spell resistance, he figured. Thurloe opted to stay out of this combat and limped back over to Suhana's bedroom where his pile of belongings had been stripped from him, eager to fetch one of his healing potions before anything else - although regaining his torc of the titans was a top priority once he felt he wasn't about to fall over at any moment.

The current wearer of the torc, Suhana, slashed at Wakuren with her claws, but the half-orc managed to deflect the attack with his shield. Then Xandro entered the battle against her, all of his gear back in place; he stabbed at the remaining dune hag with his frost short sword and she recognized the magic weapon as dangerous enough for her to give it special heed; unfortunately, that meant dropping her guard against Wakuren slightly and the cleric of Cal took full advantage of her distraction, cutting her down as he'd slain Djamila and the hagspawn Jazaar.

And with that, combat was concluded and the heroes all took a moment to catch their breath.

After Thurloe and Zander recovered the items that had been taken from them, the five gave the whole dwelling a good looking over. There was a bit of treasure in the bedrooms - including a magical gauntlet with the holy symbol of Cal carved on the back, no doubt taken from someone of Cal's faith who had had the misfortune of crossing paths with the dune hag coven earlier, and which Wakuren swore to put to good use in the further service of his deity - but the back third of the building was horrific. They got a preview of the hags' intentions for them, for hanging in the larder on a nasty metal hook was the upper half of a slain desert orc, missing one arm and everything below the waist; apparently he was their current source of meat and the heroes would have merely added to their future stores.

"Speaking of which, where's that orc from the dream?" asked Xandro. "He's got to be around here somewhere."

"Yeah, and how exactly did we end up in his dream instead of Jazaar's?" Zander asked. "How did they even know to fake him being asleep?"

"Hag stone," answered Thurloe, whose magical studies had included details about other creatures who used magic for their own purposes. "That ruby Djamila wore around her neck? It let the others see and hear whatever she did. So when we showed up, explaining why we were here..."

"And giving them a heads-up that we were going to all fall asleep right there in their house in front of them!" gasped Alewyth as the realization sunk in.

"Yeah," agreed Thurloe. "Too good a deal to pass up. But c'mon - we've searched the house, let's go see what's in those two domes outside."

The first dome was a hollow structure covering a sloping natural ramp leading down into darkness. There was the sound of running water coming from below, so Zander activated his scout's headband and gave himself darkvision. He could see two piles of vegetation on a ledge just before an underground stream, each with a pair of small boulders nearby, but not seeing anything worth taking he decided not to explore the area - best to leave it for the morning, when they'd all had a chance to heal up.

The other dome had no opening on its side, so Xandro stripped off his extraneous gear and went running at it, scrambling to the top where sure enough there was a hole in the center of the roof. Peering down inside, he saw the prone form of a desert orc raider. It was too dark for him to make out much in the way of details, but the bard was fairly certain he'd discovered the source of the dream of the giant caterpillar. But he too would wait until the next day; the group decided to spend the night in the hags' dwelling (after dragging their bodies far enough away from the building that the inevitable desert scavengers wouldn't bother the heroes overnight), bringing their animals inside and blocking the entrance with their overturned wagon. (Thurloe's anklet of translocation came in handy for getting back inside after moving it into position from the outside.)

The next morning, they used Wakuren's rope of climbing to climb down to fetch the orcish dreamer, pulling him up and out of the dome and carrying him into the hags' dwelling. Then, with the cooshee once again performing guard duty, they securely bound the orc and performed the ritual to enter his dream. They once again found themselves in a desert wasteland with a massive caterpillar, but this time their dreamstones worked as normal to weaken the giant beast and it fell quickly to their weapons and spells. The orc was surprised at the aid he'd been given in slaying the hungry larva, but the dream dissolved around him before he could express any gratitude.

All six woke up at about the same time, the orc struggling briefly to escape his bindings but giving up when it was apparent he wasn't going to get anywhere - and there were five armed people sitting in a ring around him. Wakuren pulled the orc to a sitting position and the bound captive spoke a few words in his own language.

"Sorry, I don't speak any of the Orcish tongue," Wakuren replied in Common; having been dropped off anonymously at the Temple of Cal as a baby by his human mother, he had never had the opportunity to learn his unknown father's language. "Do you speak Common?"

"Some," replied the orc.

"Well good," interjected Thurloe, squatting down before the bound orc. "So, we're not a big fan of orc raiders - ran into about a dozen of them a few days ago and slew them after they attacked us. But we don't have any particular beef against you" - and here he looked over to Wakuren, who nodded that he had detected the taint of evil in the orc's aura - "so we're going to give you a chance at walking out of here alive." The orc looked straight at Thurloe, obviously eager to hear more.

"We're gonna untie you," Thurloe continued, indicating it was okay for Alewyth to start to do so. "We're not gonna give you any weapons - no point in taking any chances, I'm sure you'll understand - but we will give you a waterskin and let you fill it up so you'll have a chance of making it back to your people alive." Alewyth removed the last of his bindings and everyone backed off as he stood up, rubbing his wrists. Xandro tossed him an empty waterskin, one of the things they'd found in the hags' dwelling the day before. Then, surrounded by five wary foes with weapons drawn and ready for immediate use, the orc was allowed to walk outside to the first of the two domes.

"Off you go, then," Thurloe prompted, emphasizing it with the point of his bastard sword. The orc started warily down the sloping stone ramp. Alewyth and Wakuren watched his progress with their darkvision. As the orc approached the underground stream, the two piles of rotting vegetation rose up and took vaguely humanoid forms, as the four small "boulders" rose up into the air, tails unfurling behind them. Then the shambling mounds attacked the unarmed orc while the hovering volts stabbed out with the tips of their electrical tails. The orc didn't last long against the half-dozen enemies.

"Well, that explains that," Thurloe observed. "Lair guardians for the hags' source of water."

"Do we want to go take them out?" asked Alewyth, Sjondra gripped in hand.

"See any treasure down there?" Thurloe asked.

"Nope," replied Alewyth and Wakuren in unison.

"Then nope," replied Thurloe, turning away from the sloping entrance to the underground stream. "Let's get out of here and back to some sort of civilization."

"It'll be another two days of riding through the desert to get to the next town," Wakuren reminded the group at large.

"Ugh!" grumbled Thurloe. "That's gonna suck!"

- - -

I threw the Large monstrous scorpion encounter into the mix at the last moment, figuring the players would appreciate a "warm-up" combat to help them get readjusted to running these PCs, as we've been temporarily on hold for two months. And that turned out to be just about right; we finished this game session after about three and a half hours - not too much sitting at one stretch for our player recovering from surgery.

The gauntlet of Cal is an item I created specifically for Wakuren, who had no "traditional" weapons (on purpose): it allows the wielder (who must be a follower of Cal) to call forth three javelins of lightning per day, which is fairly thematically appropriate given Cal's primary domains include Air as well as Healing.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "Moore-Hanes Family Reunion" T-shirt, since the three desert hags and the hagspawn son of one of them formed a family out there in the Centralia Desert. (A thoroughly evil family, but still.)



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 14 May 2022

- - -

It took another two days getting back out of the Centralia Desert, heading in a northeasterly direction to get them back on the road to civilization and to the city - Devlinshire - where the moogles had said there was not one but two separate dreamers trapped in their dreams. Horse got a bit of a break during those two days, for his reins were tied to the rear of the wagon and he ambled along without Thurloe's weight on his back, as the swordsman had decided to wrangle with some of the spellbooks he'd appropriated during his adventuring career and see if he could make sense of a few of the spells annotated within. He made enough progress during those two days that when the group finally left the desert and made it back to actual roads, with another two days of travel ahead of them to get to the city, he opted to continue with his studies in the back of the wagon and by the time Devlinshire appeared in the distance he'd mastered four new spells.

Devlinshire proved to be a fairly large city, comparable in size to Baron's Haven and also ruled by a noble of the same bloodline - not unexpectedly, for the Devlin family was the single-most powerful family in all of Armaturia, with King Eovard Devlin the current ruler of the whole continent. Fortunately, Devlinshire did not have any prohibitions against spellcasting as did Baron's Haven and they had several potion shops where Thurloe picked up a few items: a potion of neutralize poison and two vials of antitoxin. They wandered around and found Smiths Avenue, where Alewyth paid to have the magical protection on her chain mail upgraded and Xandro sold his own chain mail, using the money received to help fund the purchase a set of magical chain mail quite similar to Alewyth's.

"I thought you were saving up for those magical boots," Xandro pointed out to the dwarven priestess.

"I am."

"Didn't you even put a down-payment on them with those gnomes?"

"I did."

"You're not going to be able to buy those boots if you spend your money on armor upgrades," pointed out the bard.

"I'm aware."

"I don't see how you're even going to get in contact with those gnomes once you do gather up the rest of the money," Thurloe added. "You ask me, that down-payment you gave them was money you'll never see again."

"I didn't ask you," pointed out Alewyth, but the swordsman's point was something that had been gnawing at her nonetheless, despite the gnomes' insistence that they'd find her when she was ready to make the purchase. Either they were lying and she'd never see that money again or they were telling the truth and were somehow spying on her - neither possibility was particularly pleasant to consider.

While they'd been making their purchases, the heroes had also been chatting with the shopkeepers and armorers, asking if there were any rumors in the city about anyone being unable to be awakened from a long sleep. Several of the townsfolk had steered them toward the Temple of Telgrane, where there was a paladin, Drakkar Pyropus, who was said to have been sleeping now for weeks on end. And worse yet, none of the clerics' spells had been able to do anything to awaken the young man - local rumor was it was some type of a curse, but remove curse spells had been as ineffective as anything else the spellcasters had tried. "Reckon a wish spell might do it, but I never heard of nobody capable of casting so powerful a spell - not exceptin' in legends of the old days, in any case," added a grizzled hammersmith.

Since all of the rumors they were able to pick up led to the Temple of Telgrane - nobody had any ideas about a second sleeper in the city unable to be awakened - the heroes got directions and headed there at once. The temple was rather distinctive in that just outside its gate, in place of a fountain, a column of permanent flame rose up a dozen or more feet - an appropriate gesture to a temple devoted to the God of Fire and Knowledge.

The clerics were curious as to what these travelers thought they could do where their most powerful spellcasters had failed, but Alewyth assured them they'd had many successes in the previous months at waking those trapped in their dreams. After giving Wakuren more than a few suspicious stares (half-orcs were not often seen wearing the armor of Cal, the God of Air and Healing), followed by assurances that he was not at all like the desert orc raiders that plagued the lands to the south, the group was allowed entry into the temple and ushered to a back room, where Drakkar lay sleeping on a simple cot. They passed several clerics and paladins in the halls, quite a few of them sporting horrendous-looking burn scars on their exposed skin. "Do not be alarmed," their cleric guide assured them. "The paladins of our faith learn to set their bodies ablaze with Telgrane's holy fire. The burns they receive during such occurrences are considered holy and remain in place when the damage is otherwise healed. Here in the sanctity of our own temple the paladins do not cover their scars, but when outside dealing with others they often wear masks and gloves, the better to shield their burns from the eyes of those outside our faith, who often view such scars as...troubling."

"Yeah, no kidding," agreed Telgane.

The cleric led the group into the room where Drakkar lay sleeping on a cot. Despite having earned the rank of a paladin, Drakkar wore a simple sleep shift and was covered with a single blanket. His skin was unblemished, apparently not having reached the level of training where he could self-immolate. "This room is normally reserved for those resting after an illness or injury," the temple's head cleric informed the group, having joined the visitors after news of their presence had been brought to his attention. "We placed him here, where we can keep an eye on him, after our attempts to wake him bore no fruit. What, exactly, do you propose to do?"

Alewyth explained their procedures and the clerics agreed to move Drakkar to a larger room reserved for meditation, where the dreamwalkers would have enough room to sit around him in a circle. The dwarven priestess placed the dreamstone-headband upon the young paladin's brow, then took her position in the circle around him. The five dreamwalkers sat at the five points of a star, each sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, and each wearing a dreamstone upon his or her own forehead, held in place by a leather headband crafted by Thurloe's Uncle Marten. A few clerics - and Zander's jade cooshee, once activated - stood at the back of the room to observe and ensure there were no interruptions. Then the heroes slowed their breathing, stilled their minds, and drifted off to sleep.

Mogo was there to guide them to the appropriate door in the seemingly-endless Hall of Dreams. "Good luck, kupo!" he told them as they stepped inside Drakkar's dreamscape.

At first, the dream looked very much like the last dream they'd entered, that of the orc raider captured by the trio of dune hags down in the desert: an endless wasteland of parched earth, with a few scattered plants scratching out a determined existence. The heroes looked all about them but they were the only five figures at all in the dreamscape.

Then they heard the cries above them. Looking up, they saw two reptilian bodies engaged in combat. One was a bat-winged serpent, the other a bronze dragon. The serpent shrieked in anger and brought its sinuous tail up and across the dragon's back, dislodging a rider the heroes hadn't noticed until he was hurtling to the ground. However, just as he was about to make a splat-stain on the hard-packed desert earth he suddenly stopped a few inches above the ground, hovered for a moment, and then went flying back up to the back of the dragon he'd just been riding. The serpent reversed its combat shriek as the two aerial foes unflapped their wings and backed up from each other - the entire dream reversing until the combatants were in their original positions when the heroes first entered the dreamscape. Then time started moving forward again, with the dragon and the serpent flying toward each other, the flying snake's tail swatting the rider, who toppled from his draconic perch and plummeted nearly to the ground again, before the dream started rewinding once more.

"What's going on?" demanded Alewyth. "This makes no sense!"

"That's gotta be Drakkar," reasoned Zander. "He's got the holy symbol of Telgrane painted on his shield." The dragon-rider was in full armor, however, with a helmet that covered his entire face so they were unable to confirm it was the same individual they'd left sleeping in a cot in the meditation room in the Temple of Telgrane.

"Let's see if we can weaken the beast," Xandro suggested, raising the dreamstone he held in his hand both back on the Mortal World and here in the Dreamlands. Concentrating on the bat-winged serpent, he imagined its strength siphoning off and dissipating into the winds. Beside him, Alewyth, Wakuren and Zander did likewise, while Thurloe took a different approach and tried doing nearly the opposite, using his lucid dreaming training to try to increase the paladin's physical dexterity, hopefully to the point he could dodge the incoming serpentine tail on its next pass.

"This isn't working!" complained Thurloe as the paladin was once again swatted from the back of the bronze dragon and sent plummeting to his death - a finish he was spared at the last second when time stopped once again and rewound for him. None of the dreamwalkers was affected by the sudden reversal of the dream's time-stream; they were immune to the effect as the two aerial figures backed up in the sky once again and resumed their starting positions.

"I'm going to try something," Wakuren announced. He well knew his own shield of Cal had a feather fall effect that worked for whoever held it; this being a dream, where anything could happen, he used his lucid dreaming training to cause the shield to fly out of his hands and go streaking up to the paladin, while at the same time the paladin's shield came dropping down to the half-orc. "Let's see if swapping shields has any effect," he told the others. By this time the serpent's tail had struck the armored figure once again and he fell from his draconic mount - and sure enough, the paladin's fall was slowed by the feather fall effect, such that it was taking him much longer to fall all the way down to the ground.

Alewyth cast a calm emotions spell up at the three figures, hoping to get them to cease their aerial combat. It had as much effect as their dreamstones, which is to say none at all.

"I'm going to try something, too," replied Thurloe, rising up into the air. This was just a dream, he figured - no reason he couldn't fly through the air as gracefully as any dragon or winged serpent. He pulled the bastard sword from its sheath on his back as he approached the bat-winged snake. Xandro and Zander followed suit, although they opted not to fly up to the giant serpent but rather over to where the paladin was engaged in his slow-motion plummet to the ground. And although the paladin's face was mostly covered by his helmet, as Zander approached he was able to better judge the figure's overall size and build, as well as the shape of his eyes through the visor. "This is an elf!" he called to the others.

Thurloe backed away from the bat-snake as it bit into the dragon's neck, at the same time the dragon's front claws ripped furrows across the serpent's scales - each having gained extra "combat time" by the slowed effect of the elven paladin's fall. Rather than attack the dragon's foe, Thurloe held out his dreamstone again like a holy symbol and concentrated on it, focusing on identifying the dreamer of this strange back-and-forth dream. Surprisingly, his focus directed him not to the paladin slow-falling below him but to the dragon he'd been riding before being knocked from his perch.

"That's not Drakkar!" Thurloe called to the others. "Drakkar's dreaming he's the dragon!"

Alewyth kept her feet firmly planted on the ground, not wanting to fly through the air even in just a dream, and cast a spiritual weapon spell that sent a hammer-shaped field of force flying straight up to smash the winged serpent in the head. Its reaction was immediate: with eyes glowing a hellish red, a pair of beams exploded out of his eyes and struck Alewyth, dissipating her dream-body to motes of light that were quickly extinguished. Just like that, Alewyth had been slain (and woke with a gasp back in the Temple of Telgrane).

"Are you all right?" asked one of the Telgranian clerics overseeing the silent ritual.

"We're...experiencing a bit more difficulty than expected," admitted Alewyth. This was further evidenced when Thurloe gasped aloud and came to a sudden wakefulness by her side, the angry serpent's eyebeams having exploded his dream-self to nonexistence as well. The other three woke themselves voluntarily, realizing they weren't going to be able to defeat the winged serpent on their own.

The cleric looked down at the sleeping figure of Drakkar Pyropus, who hadn't stirred at all during the ritual. "He seems unaffected," he observed.

"Yes, I'm afraid we were unsuccessful," admitted Alewyth with a sigh. "This has happened twice before. We'll suggest to you what we suggested to those looking after the other two: leave the dreamstone secured at Drakkar's forehead" - the dwarf removed the leather headband they used on the dream victims and replaced it with a cloth scarf she tied in place around his head. "It will bond with him over time. We'll return later to try again, after the dreamstone has had to attune itself to him a bit. Perhaps then we'll be able to awaken him." The head cleric was of two minds of the heroes' failure to wake their young paladin: on the one hand, disappointment that their charge still remained trapped in his dream; on the other (admittedly selfish) hand, a slight relief that these strangers hadn't succeeded where they themselves had failed, which would have cast a pall upon the church's abilities to look after their own.

"There's supposed to be another dream victim somewhere in the city," remarked Xandro as the group gathered up their things and said their farewells (and made their apologies) to the temple clerics. "You wouldn't know anything about who that might be, or where they could be found, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," replied the head cleric. "One of our retired paladins, Sir Marcus Brightflame, has a grand-niece, Amelia Candlecraft, who fell asleep a week or so ago and, just like Drakkar, could not be awakened. We have tried the same approaches on her as we did on Drakkar, with no success. Perhaps you will be more successful there than you have been here." He gave them directions on how to find the Brightflame estate and the group departed the temple.

The estate was easy enough to find; Alewyth knocked upon the front door of the single-story building and waited for an answer. It took some time in coming, but eventually they could hear shuffling footsteps and the tap of a cane approaching the front door from the other side. Then the door opened and Sir Marcus Brightflame stood before them.

The man was of average height, with a slightly stooped posture as he leaned upon a metal cane. Both hands were covered in black gloves that extended up into the sleeves of his shirt, and his face was entirely covered by a wooden mask with mere slits for eyes. "May I help you?" he asked, then took an involuntary step back at the sight of Wakuren, raising the cane behind him as if ready to strike the half-orc if needed.

Wakuren had half-expected such a reaction; not many were used to the idea of a non-aggressive person with the blood of an orc running through his veins. He held his hands up to demonstrate he was not armed and gave the old man his best smile. "Good afternoon. My name is Wakuren and I am not a threat," he said by way of introduction. "I am a cleric/paladin of Cal."

"Would you be terribly offended if I detected you for evil?" asked Sir Marcus.

"By all means," agreed Wakuren, keeping his hands raised where the elderly paladin could keep them in his sight.

"Well, I'll be," remarked Sir Marcus after staring at the half-orc before him for a moment or two. "Forgive me, but old habits die hard and old prejudices are even harder to dispel. Now then, how may I help you?"

"Actually," replied Alewyth, "we've come to see if we could assist you. I understand you have a grand-niece who's fallen asleep and has resisted all attempts to awaken?"

At that, Sir Marcus's shoulders drooped as he sighed in sadness. "I'm afraid you're too late," he informed them. "Amelia died three days ago. But please, come in - we need not stand here in the doorway." He stepped aside as the five dreamwalkers entered his foyer, a wide room with the ornamental displays of two sets of plate mail, the holy symbol of Telgrane emblazoned on each chest-piece and shield. Then, closing the front door, he shuffled off to a hallway to the east, leading them into a comfortable sitting room.

"I'm sorry to hear of the loss of your grand-niece," commiserated Alewyth. "May I ask how she died?"

"She was here visiting," Sir Marcus replied. "Not quite a week ago I was unable to wake her up, but she was quite alive. I brought in clerics from the temple and they did their best to revive her, but nothing they tried had any effect. I checked on her periodically and she was fine...and then, three days ago, I went to check on her in the morning and she was cold, no pulse. She must have died at some point during the night, poor girl."

The dreamwalkers looked worried at each other. "This is a new wrinkle," Xandro observed. "We've never seen one die before."

"Is this part of the Nightmare King's plan, do you think?" asked Zander.

"I'm sorry - what?" asked an obviously perplexed Sir Marcus. Alewyth informed him of the dream plague that was seemingly sweeping the continent, and of their successes - and failures - in waking those caught up in a dream coma. "We met up with the Nightmare King in the Dreamlands," the dwarven priestess declared. "We're still not sure why he's trapping people in their dreams, but so far everyone stuck in their dreams has been in a kind of magical stasis - no need for food or water, no wasting away due to starvation - so we assume the Nightmare King has a reason for keeping them alive."

"Could be this is the next step of the plan," observed Thurloe. "Maybe he's been stocking them up like firewood and now he's starting to use them."

"To what purpose, though?" asked Alewyth.

"Guys," interrupted Zander. "We're all missing something here: the moogles said there were still two dreamers here in Devlinshire. But if Amelia's been dead for three days..."

Alewyth looked over at Sir Marcus. "Forgive the question, sir, but...are you absolutely sure your grand-niece is dead?"

"Quite sure."

"Can we see the body?" demanded Thurloe, gruff as always.

"If you wish," replied Sir Marcus, pointing to the mantle. "She's right there, in the urn."

The heroes looked up at the urn on the top of the mantlepiece. "Well, that's rather conclusive," agreed Xandro.

"I performed the cremation myself, in accordance with our traditions," replied the paladin of Telgrane, God of Fire.

"Maybe there's somebody else stuck in their dreams," suggested Wakuren. "Somebody new, I mean. The moogles can't always tell specifically who's having the dream, just where they're located on the Mortal World...if someone else started their dream coma around the same time as Amelia died...."

"We should check out the dream," Alewyth decided. She turned to Sir Marcus. "Would it be too much of a bother if we took a quick nap here in your sitting room?" she asked. "I know it sounds like an odd request, but we'd like to talk with our...advisers in the dreamlands." She decided it was best not to describe the moogles to the elderly paladin; their story was already difficult for most people to believe.

"By all means," replied Sir Marcus, leaning on his cane to rise to his feet. "I'll go start a pot of tea, so it'll be ready for when you awaken."

"Don't you have someone to help you with that?" Alewyth asked.

"Pshaw!" scoffed Sir Marcus. "I used to have servants here, but I released them from service when I retired. I don't need anyone doing everything for me, now that I'm home here all day. You go have your chat, and afterwards I have a proposal I'd like to make to you." And with that, the elderly paladin ambled off down the hall to the kitchen.

One by one, the five dreamwalkers stilled themselves to sleep and were met by their individual moogle guides. They all converged in the Hall of Dreams once again, where they were met by Mogo. "Are you ready to see the second dream already, kupo?" he asked, opening the door to the dream in question. It was a forest dream this time, Zander noted with approval - he was getting tired of dreams taking place in barren wastelands.

Stepping into the dream-forest, the group found a frightened young woman hurrying along a path, her way lit only by the light of the moon above. There were crashes behind her as something made its way noisily through the trees and bushes. Xandro instinctively went over to the woman to assure her that they'd help but she gave no indication she was even aware of his presence; belatedly, he realized his ability to interact with the woman's dream-self was limited in that they weren't by her side on the Mortal World, nor was she wearing a dreamstone upon her brow.

The woman continued down the forest path, nervously glancing behind her. The dreamwalkers waited around long enough for whatever it was that was pursuing her to make an appearance, and despite the fact it had sounded like some monstrous beast crashing through the trees, when it finally stepped out between the trees and onto the forest path in her wake it was nothing more than a black-clad man, a serrated dagger in his hand. He, like her, gave no indication he could see any of the intruders into this dreamscape but silently pursued his target.

"This is definitely weird," observed Wakuren. "Is it possible for a dream to continue when the dreamer's been slain?"

"Let's ask Mogo," suggested Alewyth, opening the door from the dream and stepping back outside into the endless corridor, where their primary moogle dream instructor waited for them.

"That was quick, kupo!" the moogle observed, his tiny wings flapping to keep him at head level to the much taller dreamwalkers.

Alewyth asked him if it was possible for a dream to continue without a living dreamer. "It's hard to say, kupo!" he replied. "We only get to see the dreams themselves, not the dreamers, kupo!"

"But this particular dream - it still has a dreamer attached to it? And that dreamer is still in Devlinshire?" pressed Xandro.

"Let's go find out, kupo!" Mogo led them through the endless hallways and into a room with a map of the continent of Armaturia displayed on a table. Concentrating on the dream he'd just witnessed, the moogle caused a pinpoint of light to glow on the map. Then, causing the map to focus in on that area, the glow sat in the center of the city of Devlinshire, roughly in the part of the city where the Brightflame estate stood. "This is definitely weird," Wakuren sighed.

They woke back up in Sir Marcus's sitting room as the elderly paladin was making his way back into the room with a teapot and five cups balanced on a tray in one hand, his other hand gripping the cane he leaned upon. Alewyth sprang up from her comfortable chair and took the tray from him, setting it down upon a low table. She started pouring the tea into the cups and passing them around, while asking, "Can you describe Amelia for us?"

The paladin gave a description of his grand-niece that perfectly matched the woman in the dream. "It seems that's definitely her dream, then," Wakuren mused aloud. "Again, I'm not sure how that can be."

"You said you had some sort of proposal for us?" Alewyth asked, wanting to move the conversation on from Amelia, for fear of causing the elderly paladin further pain. She belatedly realized he had only brought five cups, then realized he likely hadn't planned on drinking with them, for he'd have to remove his mask to do so - it had no opening at the mouth to allow him to drink.

"Indeed I do. I would like you to slay the ghost who is haunting this house."

That prompted quite a few follow-up questions. Sir Marcus explained the ghost had first appeared three nights ago - "So the night Amelia died?" Thurloe asked, and was answered in the affirmative - suddenly appearing in his kitchen and attacking him. "He wore Telgranian armor," Sir Marcus admitted, "of the type worn by the paladins of my order. I can only assume it was the ghost of Dardolio, an infamous paladin of Telgrane who fell from grace, allowing a love of earthly pleasures - good food, women, and money, not necessarily in that order - corrupt him. He became a blackguard and was slain by a force of paladins sent out to stop him. I was not part of that group and have never even met the man while he was alive; I can only assume he has a vendetta against Telgranian paladins and decided to start with me, thinking me well past my prime."

"And you fought him off?" prompted Zander.

"I did, yes. Paladins of my order cannot turn undead, so I was forced to fight him off with my cane, using it like a mace. I was fortunate enough to drive him away that first night, and I had a cleric of Telgrane with me the following night in case he showed up again. He did, and the cleric turned him, but that didn't stop the ghost from returning again the next evening, when I was forced to fight him off again. I'm guessing his having been a member of the Telgranian order - and his apparent hatred of us - has somehow prevented him from being put to rest by a member of my order. With any luck, you two, being clerics of Cal and Aerik, will be able to deal with Dardolio on a more permanent basis. I have a thousand pieces of gold if you are able to destroy the ghost permanently; killing me is no great loss, for I have lived a full life and am well past my prime, but I fear if he slays me he'll then move on to others of my order. Will you help me?"

The heroes looked at each other and nodded, and Alewyth gave him their unified assent. "Very good," said Sir Marcus, gathering up their cups and collecting them onto the tray. "The ghost appears when the sun comes down, so you have several hours to prepare if you need to gather any supplies or anything. Otherwise, you are welcome to make use of the servants' quarters on the far side of the entry hall if you'd like to stay."

Wakuren had a practical question to ask: "Does the ghost appear in the same place each time?"

"No, just wherever I happen to be. The first night it was in the kitchen, the next night in the hallway, and last evening it was in my study. He manifests and immediately tries to kill me." Then Sir Marcus got up and started making his way back to the kitchen to wash the cups and teapot, shooing away Alewyth when she offered to help.

It was a lengthy wait until sundown, but none of the heroes needed anything in the way of additional supplies; Alewyth and Wakuren would both try to turn the ghost using their respective holy symbols, while the others used their weapons or spells if it came to that; after all, Sir Marcus had managed to fight off the ghost twice now with his metal cane so they were fairly certain the five of them could handle the undead spirit. But just as the sun was about to go down, they had Sir Marcus gather in the sitting room with them so the ghost would show up right before the assembled group, at which point they'd all pounce. Alewyth prepared for the upcoming battle by casting a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and a bless spell on the group. Wakuren cast a protection from evil spell upon himself and a virtue spell upon Zander Quilson, to give him that extra bit of staying power in the fight to come. Thurloe cast a mage armor spell upon himself, then used his wand to follow it up with a shield spell. He then passed the wand over to Zander so the elf could do likewise, and Zander cast a haste spell on the group after he had done so. Finally, Xandro cast a heroism spell upon Zander, then got out his lute and started playing his song of inspirational courage; when the ghost appeared they'd all be ready for it.

And then they waited.

Surprisingly, the ghost did not immediately appear, even though a quick peek through the sitting room window indicated the sun had fully set and the world outside was cloaked in full darkness. The interior of the Brightflame estate was lit by everburning torches, but after a few minutes of waiting a different type of illumination came into the sitting room through its sole entrance, an open doorway leading into the hall. The light got brighter as a humanoid figure, bathed in illumination like bright moonlight, stepped through the doorway. It was a man clad in the armor of a Telgranian paladin, with the God of Fire's holy symbol emblazoned upon his armor and shield. He held a longsword in his right hand but made no move to use it; in fact, his gaze seemed to slide off the assembled heroes as he did a quick scan around the room and then turned to go back the way he had come.

"He didn't attack," observed Wakuren, frowning.

"Neither did any of you!" replied Sir Marcus, clearly agitated. "You're to put the evil wretch down!"

"Perhaps he sensed our protective spells," suggested Alewyth.

"Let's see what he's up to," said Thurloe, following the ghostly figure into the hallway leading to the back of the estate. "He may be circling around so he can attack us through the wall or something." But the ghost did no such thing; rather, he walked to the next room, the formal dining room, and skirted the table as if it were an impediment to his incorporeal body. Then, upon reaching the door to the kitchen, he actually opened the door instead of simply passing through it. There was an open doorway exiting the kitchen back into the main hallway and after a moment the ghost stepped through it, turning to open the door to the privy and then closing it again.

"He's looking for something," Alewyth observed, having stepped forward as far as the dining room with Xandro, Zander, and Wakuren, with Sir Marcus starting to hobble their way to catch up to them. Thurloe was still back by the sitting room, muttering to himself. "It's almost as if he's Sir Marcus, looking for his missing grand-niece," he grumbled, then starting turning the idea around in his head. If that were indeed the case, then who was the guy who answered the door and why would he be trying to pass himself off as the retired paladin? But Sir Marcus, wearing a mask that hid his face and gloves that hid his hands, would be a particularly easy target to impersonate without arousing suspicion...and it would explain why Amelia was still around to be dreaming her dream of being chased by an assassin in the forest.... Thurloe caught up to Sir Marcus and tapped him with the flat of his blade, encouraging him to speed up - but really testing to see if he was under some sort of an illusion, for his bastard sword had the ability to carve through illusions with but a touch. Nothing changed about Sir Marcus's appearance; if this wasn't in fact the elderly paladin the impostor was using a mundane disguise.

Zander's keen elven hearing had picked up Thurloe's muttered speculation and he quickly passed the idea on to Wakuren before "Sir Marcus" - if that were indeed really him - got close enough to them to overhear. Wakuren immediately ducked into the dining room and activated his ring of invisibility, fading immediately from view. Zander, for his part, activated his scout's headband, granting himself true seeing which allowed him to see the now-invisible half-orc just fine. Wakuren pantomimed he was going to pull the mask off of "Sir Marcus" as he passed and Zander gave him a subtle nod to show he understood the plan.

Thurloe, however, had no idea what those two were scheming and came up with a way to determine the elderly paladin's true nature on his own: by attacking him from behind when he wasn't expecting it, just to see his reaction. He cast a ray of exhaustion spell that struck the masked man in the back, sapping him of a portion of his physical strength. "Sir Marcus" didn't know who had just attacked him, merely that he'd been hit from behind. He spun about and saw only Thurloe standing there. Zander, not wanting their suspicions to be out in the open just yet, tried covering for Thurloe's impetuous attack by calling out, "He's been possessed by the ghost!" and running back towards Thurloe, casting a color spray spell at his friend that he knew would be largely ineffective - but which he hoped would put "Sir Marcus" back at ease. In passing, his true seeing had also confirmed to the elven sorcerer the elderly paladin hadn't been employing any illusion magic.

But since the figure holding the metal cane now had his back turned to the invisible half-orc...Wakuren popped suddenly back into view, the man's mask in his hands. The face beneath the mask was not the least bit scarred from having been burned by holy immolation, nor was it the face of a man in his 60s or older. This was an impostor, a 30-something man named Conviolos with greasy, black hair and a sneer already forming on his face. "So that's how it is, huh?" he snarled. Then at the top of his lungs, he yelled, "ALL FORCES: ATTACK!" This he followed up with a searing light spell cast directly at Wakuren, revealing himself not as a paladin or even blackguard but a cleric, although the half-orc had no idea which god the impostor served. (Later, the heroes would find an unholy symbol of Gareth, God of Betrayal, hidden beneath Conviolos's shirt.)

Thurloe, basking in the glow of an "I was right!" feeling of superiority, heard the clank of metal to his left and looked over to the entry hall, where sure enough the two suits of Telgranian plate mail armor were coming to halting life, lifting their shields before them and raising their longswords. They stepped from their places in the corner of the entryway and marched over to the side hallway, ready to attack. Zander stepped away, allowing Thurloe to cast a magic missile spell at the closest of the two suits of armor; he wasn't at all surprised he hit it, but he was rather surprised to see that one hit was all it took to take the armor completely out, for it collapsed into a pile of clattering metal at his feet. Thurloe couldn't help but notice the bones visible between the pieces of armor and realized these "animated suits of armor" were actually animated skeletons wearing suits of armor. That made him doubt himself for a moment, wondering if one of the skeletons might have been Amelia after all.

"Fall back!" Wakuren called to Thurloe as the cleric of Cal stepped past Zander, and for once the swordsman obeyed without question, ducking back into the entrance of the sitting room, leaving an open path between Wakuren and the second armor-clad skeleton when it stepped into the hallway to pursue Thurloe. Wakuren activated his gauntlet of Cal and caused a javelin of lightning to manifest into his raised right hand; the bolt was enough to take out the armored skeleton in one blow.

But now Alewyth was back around the corner after having followed the ghost as he fruitlessly searched first the guest bedroom and then the study; she brought Sjondra crashing into Conviolos's back. He spun about to face this new attacker, only to have Xandro plunge his frost short sword straight through the deceiver's belly. Conviolos spat out blood from his mouth as the bard's blade stuck out from his back; when Xandro pulled it free the cleric of Gareth fell to the floor, quite dead.

"This way, guys!" Alewyth called to the others, leading them to a closed door at the end of the hallway, a door the ghost had approached and then left without opening. Xandro tried the door and found it to be locked; the ghost - now believed to be the spirit of the real Sir Marcus - opened the door to the courtyard at the center of the building and explored the stables, then went through to the other side and started searching the now-vacant servants' quarters. In the meantime, Zander had removed the holy symbol from the door that had apparently kept the ghost from entering the bedroom and Xandro put his lockpicks to good use and painstakingly worked on opening the lock. Alewyth had returned to the guest bedroom - thinking it would have been where Amelia would have stayed - and found signs of recent disturbance: a gash-mark along the wall above the bed, looking to be where a sword slashed along the wall, as well as a drop or two of dried blood on the floor just beneath the bed, in a place easily missed by someone cleaning up the evidence of the place where Sir Marcus Brightflame had likely been slain.

Xandro finished his work and the door opened. Zander rushed inside, looking about and seeing a canopy bed along the far wall. He couldn't see the bed's contents for the hanging draperies were closed, but he did see a bearskin rug on the floor before the bed and a lengthy dresser and mirror along the side wall. He cast a quick detect magic spell and noted four points of abjuration magic, one each at the top of each of the four posters of the canopy bed and an aura of transmutation around the rug - which then dispelled all doubt as to its magical nature as it animated and attacked the elven sorcerer.

Zander had had his hand upon the cloth barrier hanging from the bed when the bearskin rug attacked, slashing at him with the claws of one flattened paw. The attack jostled the elf to the side and he pulled the curtain away from the bed, revealing the unclothed form of Amelia Candlecraft lying asleep and whole on the bed. But he had no time for the implications of her location in the bed of her slain great-uncle to sink in as he found himself in mortal combat with the animated pelt of a grizzly bear.

Zander Quilson was not the group's most adept member when it came to melee combat and everyone was well aware of that fact. Xandro raced into the room to try to draw the bear's attention away from the frail elven sorcerer, while Wakuren summoned an air element wolf into the room to attack the rug. The rug focused its attention on the bard, scratching at him with its fully-functional claws and wrapping its pliant form around Xandro's face, trying to smother him. Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending a dwarven warhammer made of pure force slamming into the part of the rug not currently wrapped around Xandro. Wakuren followed up his first summoning spell with another, this time bringing forth a celestial fire beetle. But it was Thurloe who finished off the animated bearskin rug, slicing it nearly in half with a swipe of his bastard sword. Xandro pulled the now-limp half off of his face and gasped in deep breaths.

"Look away!" commanded Alewyth, seeing Amelia's nakedness and quickly covering her with a blanket. "Make yourselves useful and find me her clothes!" A set of women's clothes were found in the bottom drawer of the dresser, apparently where Conviolos had stashed them once he had realized the full implications of a beautiful young woman helpless in a dream coma. In fact, it was the rumor of such an occurrence that had led him to the Brightflame estate in the first place, where a little snooping about revealed the only people inside had been Sir Marcus, Amelia, and the traveling maid who had accompanied Miss Candlecraft on her journey to visit her elder relative. Waiting until Sir Marcus had departed the house and leaving Amelia in the temporary care of her maid, Conviolos had approached the house in the guise of a healer sent by the temple of Telgrane to try a new method of awakening Amelia from her slumber. Conviolos sent the maid off with a bag of coins to the marketplace to purchase some rare herbs - herbs rare enough he was certain she'd be gone for more than enough time to allow the cleric of Gareth to implement his evil plans. Of course, he hadn't counted on Sir Marcus's early return home, to find the greasy-haired pervert bent over the unyielding figure of his grand-niece, his breeches down around his ankles. They had fought, but the younger man was a much better combatant than the elderly paladin, whose days of combat prowess were sadly years behind him, and the end result was never much in doubt. Conviolos easily overpowered Sir Marcus and slew him, then realized he had quite an opportunity here: by wearing the paladin's mask and taking on his identity, he need only deal with the unwitting maid upon her return and he'd be practically set for life, with Amelia providing him with as much pleasure as he desired.

And once dead, Sir Marcus and the maid even provided their skeletons for animation as an additional means of defense, should there ever be any problems on that front. Of course, Conviolos had likewise not anticipated the arrival of Sir Marcus's ghost....

Once Alewyth had dressed Amelia back in her own clothes, she had the men return to the bedroom and help place her in the middle of the floor, where they repeated their dream ritual, this time with much more success. The assassin chasing her through the forest was easily dealt with, at which time Amelia awoke from her week asleep - only to be told by a sad-faced, good-hearted dwarven woman that both her great-uncle and the maid she had traveled with were both dead.

And then the room brightened even more than the illumination provided by the everburning torches hanging from sconces around the room. The ghost of Sir Marcus Brightflame entered the room and took off his helmet, revealing a face scarred with puckered burns - flame-wounds caused by his own voluntary immolation in the service of the God of Fire many years back. A single tear rolled down his scarred face at the sight of his grand-niece awake once more, and then he started fading from view. "Uncle Marcus!" cried Amelia, reaching out to the fading figure from her seated position on the floor - but he was gone, passing on to the next world. Everything the dwarven woman had said was apparently true.

Amelia covered her face with her hands and wept, unsure if the wound in her heart would ever heal.

- - -

This was definitely a creepy one, with an enemy the players all loved to hate once they realized the extent of his depravity. I figured that in a whole series of dream-victims, each of which was basically in a magical form of suspended animation, somewhere along the line somebody was going to take advantage of the situation. (In fact, I'd done something similar with Jingo Pebble-Brain a few adventures back.) And it was great seeing the realization kick in when the players all realized they'd been duped by "Sir Marcus Brightflame," who had a logical answer for everything even though most of what he'd told them were lies. (He'd also cast an undetectable alignment spell upon himself before answering the door, then faked attempting to detect evil in Wakuren's aura, something he wasn't at all capable of doing (but Sir Marcus would have been able to do). I was especially proud of the fact I'd (temporarily at least) pulled the wool over Dan's eyes, as he's easily my most distrustful player and his PCs generally never trust anybody in-game if they can help it. (I suspect he played with a lot of "screw the players over whenever possible" DMs early in his gaming career.) Incidentally, the gems above the four-poster bed were a hide from undead spell effect that would have prevented the ghost of Sir Marcus from being able to find his grand-niece even if he had made it into the room.

The players were a bit bummed to have to leave another dreamer (Drakkar Pyropus) unawakened, but I did point out the other two times this occurred they never even made it inside the "real" dream, as Dream Ghidorah and Dream Kong had both killed the PCs before they could even get a glimpse of the "real" dreams they were guarding. At least this time, while Dream Warbat (using a plastic toy Warbat from the recent "Godzilla vs. Kong" movie I bought at Wal-Mart) prevented them from waking the dreamer, they were able to get far enough into his dream to actually see him, even though he was dreaming of being the bronze dragon mount of an elven paladin from Telgranian history. So it's a form of progress, and once the dreamstones have all had plenty of time to attune to the dreamers for a matter of months the PCs are anticipating having a better run of it.

- - -

T-shirt worn: I was tempted to wear my "DAD: Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult" T-shirt as it would be very appropriate given Conviolos's impersonation of Sir Marcus Brightflame, but that would have let my my players know ahead of time something was up and somebody wasn't really who they claimed to be. I also have several shirts with various undead on them (mostly skeletons and zombies), but I was likewise hesitant to let them know they'd be up against some sort of undead in the adventure. So I eventually chose to wear one of my dragon shirts, the black T-shirt with a green dragon on it, to represent the bronze dragon in Drakkar Pyropus's dream.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 18 June 2022

- - -

"Well, at least this time it's a short trip," pointed out Alewyth. Having dealt with two individual dreamers inside the confines of the city of Devlinshire, they had learned the next dreamer was in a compound only about four miles out of the city. "That beats the multiple-day journeys we've been used to."

"Yeah, but the people living there seem kind of weird," argued Thurloe. They had asked around Devlinshire before they left the city, seeing what they could learn about the inhabitants of the walled complex they were heading to.

"Some weird couple lives out that way. Always wearing black robes and stuff, hardly ever come into town. They pretty much keep to themselves," reported one merchant. Another added, "I don't think I've ever seen the man. The woman's rather nice looking, although she's always dressed in black and insists on wearing that silly top hat."

"I think they're healers or something," pointed out another local. "I know I've seen wounded soldiers being sent to them now and again."

"You ever seen the wounded come back out again?" prompted Thurloe.

"Now that you mention it, no."

"That says wonders about their healing abilities," Thurloe scoffed. But it being such a short trip, they didn't have long to wait to find out for themselves. The complex the couple lived in was surrounded by 10-foot-tall walls, made of solid, sturdy-looking stone. A single gate of thick, wooden doors stood at the southern side, apparently the only way in. But in the middle of the complex stood a two-story tower, also made of stone and apparently designed without any windows - not any that could be seen from outside the walls, in any case. On the ground just in front of the gate was a circle inscribed in the stone, ringed with magical runes. Wakuren brought the mules to a halt and stepped down from the wagon, walking into the magical circle without hesitation. Then, seeing no knocker or other way of announcing their presence, he pounded loudly on the wooden gate with his gauntleted fist.

"You hear that?" he asked as Thurloe came up to stand beside him. The others dismounted from their own horses (or dire goat in the case of Alewyth) but gave the circle a wide berth, in case there was any funny business going on.

"Yeah. Sounds like guys marching," the fighter-wizard replied. Indeed, the sound of tramping boots, all in step, could be heard from the other side of the wall, as well as the occasional clink of armor. It sounded like there was a contingent of at least a dozen soldiers inside the compound.

"Hey! open up!" Thurloe called to the soldiers marching inside the compound. They gave no answer, continuing their maneuvers - without the benefit of anyone calling out the cadence, Thurloe noted. But then, after about a minute had passed, a feminine voice from the air above the gate called out, "Who's there?"

Wakuren took the lead from Thurloe, knowing how impatient and insensitive the young human could be. "My name is Wakuren," he called up to the empty air at the top of the wall, where the voice had seemingly come from. "I have four others with me, and we came to see if perhaps there was someone inside your complex who had fallen asleep and has been unable to be awakened."

"What--?" gasped the woman's voice. "How could you possibly know that?"

"Then there is someone asleep and trapped in their dreams? We've been traveling the continent, pulling people from the dreams they have been trapped in. The specifics of the situation are still unknown, but we have been trained in the ritual that helps them escape and have had many more successes than failures. Would you let us in, so we can help?"

"Hang on," replied the woman's voice. "I'll be right there."

"Prep spells," suggested Thurloe.

"Why?" demanded Xandro. "She sounded reasonable enough."

"Yeah, and those yuan-ti looked like normal farmers, and those desert babes looked perfectly human until we woke up and found out they were hags and we were on the menu. Prep spells." He pulled out his wand of shield and cast the spell on himself; since devoting himself to arcane spellcasting he'd done without his heavy armor, which hampered the movements he needed to perform to successfully cast spells. Wakuren, perhaps seeing the logic in Thurloe's reasoning, cast a divine favor spell upon himself and followed it up with a bull's strength that increased his physical prowess - a useful attribute if it came to a fight. Alewyth cast a bless spell on the assembled group and then a shield of faith and a magic circle against evil spell on herself. Zander equipped himself with a mage armor spell and a bear's endurance spell, then cast haste on the group.

"You really think that's necessary?" Alewyth asked the elf sorcerer. "It's liable to run out before we even get a chance to use it."

"Then I can always cast another," argued Zander.

But then there was no time for further discussion, for the woman's voice called out, "Halt!" and the sounds of marching immediately ceased. "You two: open the gate!" she called and there were the sounds of a heavy bar being dragged out of place. Shortly thereafter the two doors swung inwards, revealing the presence of a young human woman dressed in a black skirt that came down to her booted heels, a black blouse, and a black top hat, all of which accentuated her black hair rather nicely and set off her pale features. As the two soldiers stood awaiting further orders, she turned to the group of soldiers as a whole and called out, "Slay each of these people if you ever see them inside this complex without being accompanied by me!" She then smiled at her visitors and bid them to enter. “No point in not being cautious," she smirked. Once the five had set foot inside the complex she had the two soldiers close the doors and put the heavy bar back in place, then resume their places in the formation. The soldiers stood in rows of four and none of the heroes missed out on the sickly-sweet smell of decay in the air, as if something had died here recently. Getting a good look at the undead flesh of the armed and armored soldiers, it wasn't too difficult to pinpoint the sources of the scent of death surrounding the area.

"I'm Mellistra," said the woman in the top hat. "Dellios is inside. This way." Without another word she pivoted on her heels and headed to the keep, whose door faced the front gate. While her back was turned, Wakuren focused his senses and confirmed that she, and the soldiers all around them, were radiating distinct auras of evil. She opened the door, ushered the five visitors inside, and then returned her attention to the unmoving soldiers standing in their ranks. "Resume!" she called out, and at once they began marching once again, moving in a counterclockwise direction around the keep.

Mellistra led the five dreamwalkers past the open doorway of a side room that contained six empty metal gurneys, each large enough to hold a body, and went up a set of stairs to the upper level. The keep's interior was lit by a series of everburning torches set in sconces along the walls. Alewyth's frown said all she needed to express her feelings about the quality of people they were here to help but she held her tongue.

Thurloe, however, was never one not to speak his mind. "So, you got a bunch of zombies marching around out there, huh?"

"Not zombies, no - they're dread warriors," Mellistra corrected him. "They move as fast as they did in life and retain all of their previous combat training. They're on special order from Duke Virgil Devlin himself, so I don't want to hear any lecturing about the 'evils' of raising the dead for personal use. You got any problems with what we're doing, you take it up with him, not with us. Everything we're doing here is strictly above-board." At the top of the stairs she turned to her left and opened a door. "Dellios is in here," she said. Zander, intrigued by the woman's top hat and wondering if it might be magical in nature, activated his scout's headband, granting himself true seeing. To his disappointment, the top hat was apparently nothing more than an odd fashion accessory; it had no inherent magical properties.

The bedroom beyond was of a decent size, with a bed for two upon which was lying a man in his early thirties, wearing his nightclothes. An unholy symbol of Akari, Lord of Death and Undeath, hung on a thin chain around his neck; a larger version was attached to the wall over the bed. There was a door to a bathroom at the far side of the room and a pair of sliding doors meeting at a corner, apparently leading to a closet. Standing motionlessly in front of the closet doors was what looked to be a human skeleton holding a longsword; this was actually a baneguard, one of two providing internal security on this level of the keep. (The other was in the next room over, an arcane library.)

Alewyth explained the process by which they would rescue Dellios from his dream. As she tied the headband in place around the sleeping cleric's temple, Mellistra said, "I want to come with you."

"Inside his dream?" asked Xandro. "I'm afraid that's not possible - not without the proper training, in any case."

"Hmmph!" sighed the woman in the top hat. "Then I'll be right here, watching."

"That will not be necessary," Zander suggested. "Perhaps you'd like to wait outside?"

"I'll wait right here, making sure everything's on the up-and-up," Mellistra countered. She indicated the baneguard standing in the corner. "We both will."

"Very well, then - let's make it three," replied the elf sorcerer, pulling the jade cooshee figurine from his robes and bringing the elven dog to life with the utterance of a command word. "You stand on guard duty too," he commanded the cooshee, who wagged his tail in understanding. Then, after dragging the bed into the middle of the room so the five dreamwalkers could sit in a circle around him, they each slowed their breathing and entered the dreamlands. As usual, each was met by his or her personal moogle guide, who led them through the ever-changing world of dreams into the Dream Corridor, where Mogo was waiting for them. "Ready, kupo?" he asked, opening a specific door in the near-endless halls of similar-looking doors, each one a distinct dream of a specific dreamer. "Good luck, kupo!" he called as the five dreamwalkers entered the cleric's dream.

Dellios was there, fully armored and sitting at a table, a chessboard before him. Sitting across from him was a skeletal being wearing robes, idly holding a scythe in His skeletal left hand while His right moved a black chess piece. "CHECK," Akari intoned, causing Dellios to frown down at the board. A drop of nervous sweat dripped down the side of his face.

Stepping forward and looking at the chessboard, the dreamwalkers could see things were not looking good for Dellios; his forces were hopelessly outnumbered and Akari had amassed a slew of the cleric's pawns and a few more powerful pieces, which sat at the side of the table. Dellios had, by this point in the game, managed to take a mere two pawns from Akari's army.

"I'm not real comfortable with this," Alewyth admitted. "Do we really want to wake up a guy who's been creating undead monstrosities?"

"If the Nightmare King has him trapped here in his dream, it's no doubt in our best interests to release him - that's got to work against our adversary," pointed out Wakuren.

"So let's get on with it - let's go kill him," suggested Thurloe.

"Slaying a god will not be easy, even in a dream," warned Wakuren. "And I'd imagine it's even more difficult slaying the God of Death."

"Who says I was talking about killing the Bone Guy?" demanded Thurloe, pulling his bastard sword from its scabbard on his back. "Let's kill Dellios and see what happens."

"That'll probably just loop us back to the beginning of the dream," argued Alewyth. "Let's see what we can do about helping him win his chess match." Touching her hand to the dreamstone she wore in a leather headband about her own brow, she concentrated on altering the dream as they'd been taught by Mogo and one of the black bishops disappeared from the board - the very bishop that had been putting the white king in check.

"Fine," grumbled Thurloe. "We'll do it your way." He concentrated as well and one of the black knights disappeared from the board. The other three followed suit, removing Akari's queen and the other bishop and knight, leaving the God of Death with only his king, rooks, and a half-dozen pawns, most of which were currently blocking the rooks from any useful moves. With the new board layout, Dellios had a much better chance of winning the game and he proved that was true by doing so a dozen moves later. Without a word, Akari stood up from his chair, made a silent bow in the direction of His servant, and disappeared from view. After he left, the walls in the room started fading from view as well. "He's waking up," Alewyth pointed out. "Let's go!"

The six figures all woke at about the same time, the heroes getting up from their lotus positions and stretching, while Dellios sat upright in bed and looked around him in confusion. "You're awake!" cried Mellistra happily.

"What's going on?" demanded Dellios. "Who are these people?"

"They woke you up," Mellistra explained. "You've been asleep for like two and a half weeks - almost three!"

"What? How--?" sputtered the cleric. Then realization hit him and his eyes nearly bugged out in shock. "The Duke's project! We'll be weeks behind!"

"I took care of it," Mellistra assured her husband.

"Well, it seems as if our job here is done," Thurloe said, eager to get out of the keep surrounded by 16 dread warriors programmed to kill them. "If you'd like to escort us back outside your walls, we'll let you get back to it."

"They know about the warriors!" Dellios gasped.

"Yeah, but it's fine," soothed Mellistra. "Our project is legitimate and well within the law; even these goody-goody types can't very well complain."

Wakuren held up his hands in a placating gesture. "We're just glad we were able to awaken you, and in so doing damage that much more of the overall plans of the Nightmare King," he assured Dellios. While the half-orc had been training as a cleric-paladin of Cal and personally found undead to be anathema, he couldn't very well break the laws of the Duke's lands; if the Duke allowed the creation of an undead army there was little Wakuren could do about it.

"We'll not be causing any trouble with the Duke," added Alewyth, whose views on the undead mirrored Wakuren's.

"See?" said Mellistra. "You're awake, they're leaving, and we can get back to business as usual." His wife's words seemed to finally penetrate and Dellios visibly relaxed.

And then a white-haired servant girl entered the room. "That's all very well and good," she said, looking over the heroes and allowing her gaze to focus upon Thurloe. "But I would remind you both that you're already behind schedule, the Duke is getting impatient, and that one" - here she pointed at Thurloe - "is a suitable candidate for the conversion process."

Mellistra gave Thurloe an appraising lookover and was nodding her head in appreciation, when Dellios said something that surprised the heroes. "And just who the Hell are you?" He had apparently never seen this young lady before.

But Thurloe wasn't overly concerned with white-haired serving girls being hired on while Dellios had been sleeping; he was more interested in being an unwilling volunteer for this conversion process. Thinking this whole thing was a setup, he spun about and fired a ray of enfeeblement spell directly at Dellios, who was just now climbing out of bed in his nightshirt. "Hey!" he cried as the strength left his body, causing him to drop back down upon the mattress of his bed.

Seeing they were apparently fighting their way out of the keep - and idly wondering what their plans were once they had to cross the compound and pull off the heavy bar on the double doors of the gate, all while fighting off 16 dread warriors; hopefully Thurloe had some thoughts on the matter when they got that far - Xandro pulled his frost short sword from its scabbard and stabbed it deep into Dellios's side. It seemed strange to the bard to rescue a person from their dream and then turn around and try to kill them, but so be it; he wasn't the one that decided to reward the five dreamwalkers for rescuing Dellios by turning Thurloe into a dread warrior.

Zander Quilson raced across the room before everyone else realized there was a combat ensuing, preferring to get to the relative safety at the side of his cooshee. As he did so, he recast the haste spell upon himself and his friends (and his dog), since the original spell had already run its course. But the white-haired servant was already well aware of the combat and dropped her human form in order to attack the elven sorcerer as he fled past her, stinging him in the side with the tip of her tail. In doing so, she revealed herself in her true form: a humanoid reptile with white scales, a draconic face, and dragon's wings sprouting from her back. Wakuren was not at all surprised to denote the white abishai as yet another source of evil inside this keep. Quick as a wink (and aided by the haste spell), he swung his shield at her, catching her with its edge.

The cooshee responded to the start of combat by biting and clawing at Mellistra, who was standing beside the dog. He easily pulled her down to the floor, pinning her in place with a paw on her arm. She responded by casting a vampiric touch spell, imbuing her right hand with sparkling black energy, and trying to touch the dog to drain away some of his life energy. But the cooshee was well-versed in the ways of spells - part of his design allowed him to snatch away spell energy from those his master had targeted for "fetch" and he dodged her reach, knocking her back down with a side-swipe of his paw. She fell back down upon the floor, cursing in a quite unladylike manner, the vampiric touch spell still active in her hand.

Alewyth swung Sjondra into the white abishai's side, while Dellios called out for the baneguard to attack everyone in the room save him and Mellistra. Then, realizing his unpreparedness for combat while wearing only his nightshirt, he cast a shield of faith spell upon himself, one hand still holding his side where Xandro had just stabbed him.

But then Thurloe swung his bastard sword into the white abishai and nearly cut her in two. She flopped to the floor and he grunted in pulling his blade free from her torso. And then Wakuren called out in his loudest voice, "TRUCE! LET THERE BE NO MORE FIGHTING!"

"You started it!" yelled Dellios, pointing a finger at Thurloe. "You attacked me with a spell, and then you" - here he spun and stabbed a pointing finger at Xandro - "you stabbed me! But fine, hold off your attacks - for the moment," he said to the baneguard, who had taken a step towards Alewyth with its sword raised. The undead skeleton lowered its weapon, awaiting further orders.

"Let's all take a calming breath," Wakuren suggested. "It was this white dragon-thing that was advocating for an attack upon Thurloe. With her out of the way, I think we can all agree that we'll go our separate ways without any further bloodshed. And I can heal that wound for you."

"Don't bother - I can do it myself," grumbled Dellios, casting a cure moderate wounds spell upon the gash in his side, healing it completely. Then, turning to his wife, he asked, "And just who exactly was she - and what was she doing here?"

"Well, you were asleep, and you're the only one who can cast create undead!" Mellistra countered. "I had to make...additional arrangements." Dellios just shrugged angrily at her, his expression asking in a non-verbal way, "And...?" Mellistra hesitated, then admitted, "I used some planar ally scrolls, did a little summoning, and brought forth some allies who could animate the dead bodies for us." She spun on her husband. "What else was I supposed to do? You were asleep for who-knows-how-long-it-was-going-to-be, and the Duke was breathing down my neck, so I was the one left holding the bag...."

"Wait a minute," interrupted Xandro. "You said, 'allies' - there are more of them? Here in the keep?" He looked nervously about him.

"Well yeah, but only two, and they're not the exact same...one's black and one's green."

"If they're demons or devils, they're probably gonna have telepathy," Thurloe warned the others. "They're likely on their way up here right now."

As indeed they were. Upon having received the telepathic call from their white abishai counterpart, the green and black abishais had started heading up the sloped ramp from the underground level - the level containing the summoning circle. Seeing as how the white abishai had already revealed its true self to the mortals, these two saw no sense in wearing their human guises.

"Okay, truce?" asked Thurloe. He looked down at the body of the creature he had slain and noticed it was already regenerating the damage he had dealt it. Apparently killing the abishais wasn't even a permanent solution.

"Temporary truce," amended Mellistra. "Once we deal with the abishais, you guys get out and leave us alone!" Dellios just shook his head at how out of hand the situation had become while he had been trapped in his dreams. He walked over to the closet and started pulling on his armor.

Wakuren positioned himself at the top of the stairs, planning on being an obstacle the abishais would need to overcome to get to the others. Thurloe stood immediately behind him, bastard sword at the ready. Zander positioned himself in the library (where he soon found the other baneguard, which creeped him out) with Alewyth, whose magic circle against evil spell encompassed the four of them. Xandro was still in the bedroom but he pulled out his lute and began playing his song of courageous inspiration, while Thurloe passed his wand of shield over to Zander so the elf could use it and pass it back. The cooshee, in the meantime, had dragged the regenerating white abishai's corpse over to the bathroom and into the tub, where his job was to keep chewing on her and give her something to have to regenerate anew. After all, they didn't want her rising back to life to attack them all from behind while they were focused on safeguarding the stairs below them.

But the telepathic abishai were well aware of the heroes' plans. As a result, neither stepped around the corner to the bottom of the stairs where they would be able to be seen, but remained in hiding in the general living area. The black abishai focused her powers on Wakuren, hoping to charm him into attacking his companions, but he was safely ensconced in Alewyth's magic circle against evil and the spell protected his mind from such magical attacks. The green abishai then attempted to telepathically command Alewyth to come downstairs and talk under a flag of truce, but that had no effect either. Once it became apparent the heroes upstairs were fully shielded against their mental attacks, the green abishai changed tactics. "Very well then," she said. "We'll try this another way." She went over to the front door of the keep, opened it wide, and stepped outside. "Slay everyone inside this keep who doesn't have wings!" she commanded, and the ranks of dread warriors altered course and headed inside the keep.

"What? No! Don't! I countermand those orders!" called down Dellios, still buckling on his armor with his wife's assistance. But from the sounds of the tromping footsteps below, the dread warriors fully accepted the green abishai as outranking Dellios - after all, many of them had been animated by her directly while the cleric of Akari slept on. "This is all your fault, you know!" accused Dellios to Mellistra.

"How was I to know this was going to happen?" countered the necromancer. "They were just supposed to animate the dead guys and turn them into dread warriors - you know, the job you were supposed to be doing instead of taking a three-week nap!"

Despite the plans of making the top of the stairs the single point of defense, Thurloe changed tactics when he heard the dread warriors spilling into the living area downstairs and hoped to be able to prevent the rest from getting in. Thus, he pushed past Wakuren and raced down the stairs, bastard sword out and ready for action. The first of the undead were just now entering the keep's interior but the black abishai was right there around the corner from the stairs, so she became the fighter-wizard's first target. Thurloe grunted as he swung his blade with all his might, catching the draconic devil in the side of the torso. But it wasn't a killing blow - far from it - and she retaliated in kind, ripping with her front talons, snapping with her dragon-teeth, and sending the tip of her scorpionlike tail stabbing at the mortal foe before her. The tail strike failed to hit, so Thurloe luckily didn't get the opportunity to experience firsthand how it felt to have acidic venom pumped directly into his bloodstream - but there would be plenty of other chances in the very near future, he well knew.

Zander, confused on why Thurloe was bringing the fight to the opposing forces when he thought the whole point was to be fighting them at a bottleneck, readied a magic missile spell in case anyone made it up the stairwell. But then the dread warriors made it as far as Thurloe and attacked, each carrying a battleaxe and well trained in its use. Wakuren, saddened at the sudden loss of their strategy, raced down the stairs to join battle rather than leave Thurloe there alone to fight against overwhelming odds. Raising his holy symbol of Cal before him, he channeled positive energy through the focus and blasted the undead in a wide arc, affecting the first six to have entered the keep. In an attempt to flee from the cleric-paladin of Cal, four of them tried fitting into the side room where the six metal gurneys were stored, while the other two turned around and tried getting back out through the front door, being prevented from doing that by the wave of other dread warriors trying to get in.

From outside the keep, the green abishai gathered up the required mystical energy and summoned forth a quintet of lemures, four of them appearing inside the keep and the fifth stuck outside with her due to lack of available elbow room - the keep's interior was getting crowded! It became even more so when Alewyth summoned a celestial bison at the bottom of the stairs. It gored the first undead figure before it, one of the six Wakuren had just sent fleeing. Thurloe slew the black abishai with another well-placed blow of his bastard sword, but just as with its white cohort upstairs, death was nothing more than an inconvenient - and temporary - time out for it, as its wounds started immediately to seal up. From the top of the stairs, Xandro's inspirational tune got louder as the bard advanced to see if he could see the battle raging below.

Zander finally went downstairs, spotting a bit of green outside from his view just below the celestial bison's legs, so he cast a magic missile at what he knew to be the green-scaled abishai. He then whipped out the dagger from his belt and stabbed at a dread warrior as it hurried past him, trying to get inside the room with the gurneys as it fled Wakuren's holy power.

But now other dread warriors were rushing into the keep. Wakuren ran to the front door and raised his holy symbol, sending forth a second blast of positive energy and turning another group of the undead into panicked flight. However, he was now within striking distance of the green abishai and she went after him with a vengeance. Behind him, a few of the lemures tried attacking him and Thurloe but found a mysterious, unseen force (Alewyth's magic circle against evil spell) preventing the summoned creatures from being able to even touch their intended targets, for the dwarf had run down the stairs after having summoned her celestial bison from the Upper Planes to aid the heroes in fighting off the hordes of evil. The bison charged forward, trampling over the bodies of the dread warriors in its way, until it burst out the front door and spun about once outside, goring another undead warrior with its horns. The green abishai just barely managed to fly up out of range as the shaggy beast did his best to slay the evil creatures before him.

Thurloe made quick work of the nearest lemure, its body exploding in a puff of rancid gas as it was slain. Xandro stepped cautiously down the stairs, still playing his song of inspirational courage on the Dardolian lute. Zander spread his fingers before him and cast a burning hands spell that caught nearly half a dozen dread warriors in its flames. And while some of the dread warriors had made it back outside and were fleeing, more of those who had been stuck outside trying to get in had a suitable victim in their sights, namely the celestial bison who had been so diligently trying to pare down their ranks. The green abishai attacked the noble beast from above, her tail stabbing down at its head and injecting her vicious, strength-draining venom into his system.

Wakuren slew another of the lemures with his shield, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the smell the thing's death caused. Having gone on the offensive against them, he was no longer protected by the magic circle against evil spell, but that was a tradeoff the half-orc was willing to make, for the lemures were definitely on the "kill list" - the dread warriors being kind of a gray area, since they had been commissioned by Duke Virgil Devlin. Still, if they only killed the dread warriors in self-defense, the Duke could hardly take offense, right?

Alewyth ran up to stand beside Wakuren and channeled her own positive energy through her holy symbol of Aerik, causing more of the dread warriors to flee. Outside, the celestial bison had managed to stab the flying green abishai with one of his horns, causing the draconic devil to cry out in pain. Thurloe killed another lemure and stepped up to the doorway, knowing the worst of their enemies were still outside. (In the back of his mind he was aware the black abishai's body was regenerating, but he figured he had cut her up enough it was going to be some time before she was back in action.)

Xandro decided he'd done enough with his lute and set it aside, drawing forth his longsword and attacking the nearest dread warrior with it. Zander cast another burning hands spell, the fan of flames burning three of the undead soldiers to a crisp. But outside, the celestial bison was finally overcome by the small horde of undead soldiers attacking it with their battleaxes and it disappeared, not with an explosion of rancid gas like the slain lemures but the pleasant scent of roses.

Wakuren stepped outside, ignoring the fleeing dread warriors which had been turned away by the waves of positive energy being sent in their direction, and channeled more of his god's power through his shield, using it to smite the green abishai, apparently the leader of the three devils Mellistra had brought forth with her desperate spells. The devil tried commanding the half-orc into serving her, but despite the fact he was now well outside Alewyth's protective magic circle against evil spell, Wakuren was having none of it. There were now only two lemures left of the five the green abishai had summoned to her aid, and the one outside with her attempted to hit Wakuren for the sake of its mistress, but the cleric of Cal avoided its clumsy blow. And then Thurloe's bastard sword cut the right wing from the green devil, causing her to fall to the ground where she quickly fell victim to another blow from his sword, this one cutting through scales, muscle, and bones and piercing her heart. Xandro and Wakuren made short work of the two remaining lemures.

Alewyth stepped outside herself and cast her last turn undead of the day toward the group still forming up to try to get inside the keep, causing panic and confusion in their ranks as some tried to flee and those further back tried pressing on. By then, Dellios and Mellistra came barreling down the stairs, finally ready for battle themselves now that the cleric had his armor on. "Don't kill the dread warriors!" he called out to the others, worried about how behind schedule this was going to put him with the Duke.

"Settle down, lad," calmed Alewyth. "Most of these have just been turned - there's no real harm come to them." She knew Zander had killed a couple of the ones inside but wasn't exactly sure of their number. With the abishais all slain, Dellios was able to assert control of the dread warriors, getting them lined back up in formation outside.

"Well, this is just lovely," Dellios complained. "We're down to just thirteen. I don't know how we're going to be able to make up the difference." Mellistra looked appraisingly back over to Thurloe, but he cut her off with a pointed finger and a warning: "Don't even think about it, you crazy broad!"

"This one's regenerating!" Xandro called from inside the keep, stabbing his longsword into the black abishai to give her more to have to fix up in her battered body. "Anybody know how to get them to stay dead?"

"You brought them forth," Dellios pointed out to his wife.

"I know, I know!" replied Mellistra. Then she listed off what would prevent them from regenerating: "Holy water. Holy weapons. Blessed weapons. I think that's about it."

Dellios turned to the five heroes. "I don't suppose any of you has any holy water?" he asked.

"Not on me," Wakuren answered. "I could create some, but I don't have the spell ready at hand - it would take me until tomorrow to cast it."

"Same here," added Alewyth.

"Well, you're not staying here until tomorrow," announced Mellistra. "I want you five out of here, pronto."

"Works for me, you damned loony," Thurloe snarled. "C'mon guys, we'll let them figure it out."

"But what about those undead monstrosities?" asked Zander, who had by this time collected his jade cooshee and dragged the white abishai's body outside with the other two. The dread warriors continued attacking the regenerating corpses as a stop-gap measure, long enough for someone to head back into the city and purchase enough vials of holy water to completely douse the three abishais, ensuring they stayed dead.

"Not our problem," answered Thurloe.

"Perhaps this situation will convince the Duke putting together a platoon of undead soldiers is not ideal," suggested Wakuren. "I'd like to take them all out, but I also don't want the Duke's forces hunting us down for, like it or not, breaking the law."

"What about the three you killed already?" demanded Mellistra. "You owe us for them, at least. I don't see why we can't have just the one of you to help make up the difference!"

"I hear any more talk about me joining their ranks and you're gonna have to start doing some regenerating yourself, lady!" warned Thurloe.

"Enough," interjected Dellios, starting to wish he'd never been awakened from his dream. "Mellistra, go into town and pick up some holy water. I'll stay here and oversee the situation until your return. As for the five of you, thank you for your assistance, but I think it would be best of you were on your way."

"Suits me fine," snarled Thurloe, walking over to the front gate. "Hey, Wakuren, give me a hand with this, would you?" Together, they lifted the bar away from the gate and swung the heavy wooden doors open.

"Why do I have to go get the holy water?" Mellistra groused to her husband.

"Because you were the one who brought those devils into this situation!" answered Dellios.

"Only because you were sleeping when you were supposed to be animating the bodies!"

"Well, it's not like I chose to get stuck in my nightmare, now, was it? And you don't know how bad that nightmare was! Sheer torment, let me tell you!"

Thurloe couldn't let that one pass. "He was playing chess!" he called over to Mellistra.

"Oh, chess, was it? So while you were off playing a game, I was stuck dealing with the Duke wondering why we were so far behind schedule!"

Thurloe and Wakuren pulled the doors to the gate shut behind them. They had no way to put the bar back in place, but that wasn't their immediate concern. Instead, they remounted their riding mounts and Wakuren climbed into the wagon, grabbing up the reins of their two mules.

"Was that absolutely necessary?" chided Alewyth.

"Necessary? No," admitted Thurloe. "But fun? Yes. I hope they both enjoy their marital bliss." As they continued on down the road, Dellios and Mellistra's argument eventually faded from earshot behind them.

- - -

This adventure took us about three and a half hours to run through, after which time I handed out the players' upgrade checklists, because everyone advanced to 7th level. Harry decided to add a second level of rogue to Xandro, Logan gave Wakuren a 4th level of paladin, and Dan started Thurloe off with his first level in the spellsword prestige class; Alewyth and Zander are continuing on as our only single-class PCs. But each of their signature items got a power-up as well - the moogles have set up a communication station in the Dreamlands, and now besides their own individual moogle guides, there will be a moogle assigned to the communication station at all times, through which messages can be passed through the dreamstones in the PCs' signature items to the moogle on duty. In this way, the PCs can ask questions of the moogles, pass on messages to the Queen of Dreams, and receive answers without having to go to all the trouble of one of them falling asleep and visiting the Dreamlands "in person," as it were.

I also added something extra to Logan's upgrade checklist. For no apparent reason, Wakuren just gained an inherent +2 bonus to his Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores. His initial thought was this might have been some sort of atunement bonus from wielding both the shield of Cal and the gauntlet of Cal. We'll have to wait to see if he's right.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, given the nature of the dread warriors.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 7​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 7​

Game Session Date: 9 July 2022

- - -

The heroes were about an hour down the road from Devlinshire when they heard the furious pounding of hoofbeats behind them. Thurloe and Xandro wheeled their horses around to face the approaching riders; they were a pair of guardsmen wearing the uniforms of the Devlinshire city patrol. Alewyth looked back behind her with a look of worry on her face, wondering if they'd have to fight these men and not particularly looking forward to the battle if they were, for the men were the official representatives of the Dukedom, with all the power of Duke Virgil Devlin himself behind them. Alewyth certainly did not want to find herself on the wrong side of the law, even if she didn't particularly agree with the law in this case.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," said Wakuren pleasantly as he brought Mica and Perseverance to a halt at the side of the road, allowing the two guardsmen to pass. And pass they did, but immediately thereafter they spun their mounts about so they were facing the five dreamwalkers and their various mounts.

"Good afternoon, folks," replied one of the guardsman, holding a hand before his eyes as if trying to block out the sun. "Man, it sure is bright out today, huh?" Zander's brows furrowed in puzzlement, for the day was somewhat overcast.

"We've come with a warning," said the other guardsman, likewise holding up his hand as if shielding his eyes from the nonexistent glare of the sun, currently hidden behind a cloud. "Apparently there's a band of ruffians about - we've been sent to look for them and to warn those we meet to be on the lookout."

"Ruffians?" echoed Alewyth.

"That's right, ma'am. Two humans, an elf, a dwarven woman, and a half-orc broke into a compound just outside the city and destroyed a couple of undead critters animated at the orders of the Duke himself. Now, you and I might not see anything particularly wrong about killing undead abominations, but the Duke's mighty upset and has branded this band of five as terrorists. You five keep an eye out, now, you hear? They should be fairly easy to spot - the dwarf woman's apparently riding around on a large goat of some sort." Squinting at Alewyth, astride her dire goat mount Pyrite, the guardsman added, "That's a mighty fine horse you've got there, ma'am - what I can make out of it in this blasted sunlight!"

"I-- thank you," replied Alewyth.

"The Duke's special hobgoblin forces are being sent out to scour the surrounding area as well as us, so you might consider taking some of the back roads if at all possible," suggested the other guardsman. "Them hobbers, they don't always differentiate between the races all too well - why, they might not even recognize the five of you as all being human, like we do."

"So you folks take care," the other guard added, spinning his horse back around. The other followed suit and then the two of them spurred their mounts on and were off, racing down the road at a full gallop.

"What was that all about?" demanded Alewyth.

"They're off doing their job, only it's a job they don't particularly want to do - bring us in for killing those three dread warriors," Thurloe explained. "This was them giving us a heads up about the Duke's hobgoblin forces. I'd say we'd do best to hurry on our way and take the first side road we come to!" He brought Horse to a full gallop and the others followed suit.

About another twenty minutes down the road they met up with another rider, this one approaching them from ahead. It was an elderly woman dressed in a noblewoman's riding gear, sitting rigidly upright upon a pure white horse that trotted leisurely down the road. She sent her mount off to one side of the road so the two parties could pass each other and the five dreamwalkers slowed down their own mounts so as not to crash into her. As she got to within a dozen feet of Thurloe - who was at the head of his group's procession - she asked him, "Excuse me, can you tell me how far away Devlinshire might be? I have some business there, but I've never been this far west before."

"It's probably a couple thousand miles behind you," Thurloe replied with a grin. "But, if you keep on heading the way you're heading, it's only about an hour and a half away."

"Very droll," replied the nobleman with the barest hint of a smile. She produced a gold coin from a purse at her belt and passed it to the young swordsman. "But thank you." Thurloe took the proffered coin and gave it a quick lookover: it had a man with a pointed beard on one side and a lit torch on the other; not the common currency used in these parts, but likely as spendable as any other golden coin. He absently dropped it into his own coin purse and kicked Horse back into motion. However, he let the mount amble forward instead of continue the full-out run they'd started before, Thurloe not wanting to appear to be in a hurry while the noblewoman might take notice.

"What's up?" asked Zander, bringing Eddy up to the spellsword.

"That lady's heading to Devlinshire," Thurloe explained. "She meets up with any hobgoblin guardsmen, she'll be able to give them a good description of the lot of us - and there's not likely to be too many groups riding around with our particular makeup." He looked over at Wakuren as he said the latter, for in truth there weren't too many half-orc cleric/paladins of Cal on the entire continent, Wakuren likely being the only one. "Reckon we'd best find some side roads, pronto."

"Looks like there's one up ahead," Xandro offered, squinting into the distance. "And it looks like it heads north, which is kind of where we want to go anyway." Their next dream victim, according to Mogo, was to be found in the small village of Snail Valley, northeast of their present location. The side road followed the course of a small brook for a bit, and although it likely added a half hour to their travel time, they found themselves in Snail Valley a good four hours later. At least that was what the wooden sign on the side of the road declared: "Welcome to Snail Valley" it read, with a picture of several rather happy-looking snails painted along the edges for good measure.

Finding the specific location of the dream victim was easy, as Snail Valley was a small community and everyone knew little six-year-old Rosie Picklemeyer had fallen asleep about two weeks ago and hadn't been able to be awakened since. The valley's druid, Abitha Crow-Talker, had done what she could but determined there was something magical going on beyond her abilities and had suggested waiting to see if Rosie came out of it in her own, for she didn't seem to be suffering any deleterious effects from the prolonged sleep. Riding up to the Picklemeyer cottage, Alewyth knocked on the door and was met by Rosie's parents, Jarko and Petunia Picklemeyer, who gave the strangers puzzled looks at first but welcomed them into their home with open arms once the dwarven priestess explained they had come to waken Rosie from her sleep.

Xandro brought Rosie out into the common room, wrapped in a blanket, while the others took their places in a circle around her and Wakuren explained the process. Zander activated his jade cooshee and set him up on watch detail; they'd had one too many surprises in the past and didn't want anything happening to their sleeping bodies while they were in the Dreamlands freeing Rosie. In fact, Thurloe kept silently indicating to Wakuren he wanted the half-orc to check out the Picklemeyers' auras to see if they were evil, and Wakuren gave Thurloe a frown and a silent head shake. However, Thurloe wasn't sure if that meant "No, they aren't evil" or "No, I'm not going to check because that would be embarrassing and just what's wrong with you, anyway?" Knowing Wakuren, it was probably that last one.

Once everything was set up - Rosie's brow now adorned with a too-large leather headband holding a dreamstone to her temple to aid in the dreamwaking procedure - each of the five calmed their breathing and fell asleep. Jarko and Petunia looked at each other, hopeful but puzzled how this was going to help their daughter, but neither wanted to make any noise to wake these strangers up if they could possibly wake Rosie.

One by one, the dreamwalkers found themselves in the Dreamlands, being met by their individual dream guides. "Hey, kupo!" cried Calliope upon seeing Alewyth appear in a dream about baking in a kitchen. "Are we ready for the next dreamer already, kupo?" asked Mogchamp to Xandro as he began dreaming about throwing rocks into a creek. Similarly, Moki met up with Zander and Kupek greeted Wakuren, then they all met up together at the Hall of Doors, a visualization of endless hallways filled with individual dreams. There hovered Mog, their dream moogle trainer, and beside him Doc, Thurloe's moogle dream guide. But of Thurloe there was no sight.

"Where's the other one, kupo?" Mogo demanded.

"No idea, kupo," replied Doc. "I felt the others going off to meet up with their dreamwalkers, so I hung around waiting for Thurloe, but he never showed, kupo."

"Maybe he's having trouble falling asleep," suggested Wakuren.

"Maybe that isn't really him - maybe he's been replaced by a doppelganger," suggested Zander Quilson, coming up with a ridiculous suggestion just to scare the others but then realizing it was a distinct - if unlikely - possibility.

"We should wait for him," decided Alewyth, but as the minutes went on and the spellsword didn't show, she began to get worried. "Do you think something happened to him back on the Material Plane?" she asked.

"The cooshee's there to look after him," Zander pointed out. "If the Picklemeyers decided to attack him or something, he'd wake the rest of us up."

"We'd better go check on him," suggested Xandro. "But as long as we're here, we might as well take a peek at Rosie's dream and see what it is we'll be getting into."

"In you go then, kupo!" replied Mogo as he opened the door to Rosie's dream and the four dreamwalkers stepped inside.

"Hello," Rosie greeted them as they walked into her dream. She was wearing her mother's dress clothes, including a bonnet that kept falling down over her eyes that she kept pushing back out of the way. "Mr. Bear and I were just about to start our tea party. Would you care to join us?"

"She makes really good tea," put in Mr. Bear, a stuffed animal Rosie's mother had made for her when she was born but which here, in her dreams, was as alive as any of the newcomers to her dream.

"Perhaps just a quick sip," suggested Alewyth, "but then we should see about getting you back home. Your parents are very--" But then she was cut off by a horrible wailing coming from the next room.

"Oh no!" cried Rosie. "One of the snail babies is awake!" She rushed into the next room, Mr. Bear dutifully following at her heels. The room held seven cribs, inside each of which was a snail the size of a pillow, with the face of a human baby. One of them was crying something fierce, causing the others to start to stir out of their own slumber. "We need to rock him back to sleep before he wakes up the others!"

Rosie bent over the crib and picked up the crying snail baby, starting to rock it back and forth, but the damage was already done - all seven of the creatures were now wide awake and bawling fiercely. The little girl looked frantically at the four dreamwalkers - whom she'd never seen before but had instantly accepted as belonging in her dream - and did a quick count. "We don't have enough!" she cried.

"Play a lullaby on your lute of something!" Alewyth suggested to Xandro, looking down at the horrid face of a crying human baby grafted onto the slimy neck of a large snail.

"That won't work!" Rosie chided. "You have to rock them back to sleep, like this!" She demonstrated with the one she held in her arms, but with six other snails wailing there was no way she was going to be able to get this one to fall asleep.

"We need Thurloe," Alewyth deduced and Xandro was all too glad to use that as an excuse to depart Rosie's dream - he, too, was bothered by the sight of these snail/human baby hybrid monsters. "We'll go get someone else to help us get them all back to sleep," he promised Rosie, before opening the door that allowed them to exit the little girl's dream.

"If Thurloe had been here," pointed out Zander, "you know what his suggestion would have been: slaughter all the snail babies and get on with the damn tea party, if that's what it takes to wake her up."

"Probably," agreed Alewyth. "But let's all wake up ourselves and see what's up with Thurloe."

"Good luck, kupo!" encouraged Mogo as the four dreamwalkers all forced themselves awake. One after the other, each suddenly just disappeared from the Dreamlands and awoke back up in their own bodies.

The four heroes saw Mr. and Mrs. Picklemeyer start as the dreamwalkers started rising from their lotus positions. They looked over to their daughter, but Rosie was still sound asleep in her blanket. "What happened? Is everything all right?" asked Petunia.

"We had a slight problem," admitted Alewyth, bending down over Thurloe, who still sat in the lotus position, sound asleep. "Nothing to worry about, though." I hope, the dwarf added silently to herself.

"Check out his aura, just in case," suggested Zander.

"Doppelgangers wouldn't necessarily have an evil aura," pointed out Wakuren, but he focused his attention on Thurloe anyway. "He's clean," he reported back to the others. Then he slapped Thurloe lightly on the side of the face. "Wakey-wakey," he told the sleeping spellsword.

"Huh--what?" gasped Thurloe as he was slapped awake and the first thing he saw was Wakuren's half-orc visage smack dab in his field of vision. "What's going on?"

"Where were you?" demanded Wakuren.

"What do you mean?"

"You never showed in the Dreamlands. What were you doing, wandering about? Exploring on your own or something?"

"What? No..." Thurloe answered, his brows lowering in a frown. "I don't think so...." It was puzzling, for the whole reason these five had been chosen by the Queen of Dreams as her personal representatives on the Material Plane in the first place was because they had perfect recall of their time spent in the Dreamlands - but Thurloe couldn't remember anything that had happened since he first fell asleep at Rosie's side.

"Let me try something," Wakuren suggested, casting a protection from evil spell upon Thurloe and then ushering everyone back into position to try again. But this time was the same as before: the other four dreamwalkers showed up in the Dreamlands and were met by their moogle guides, but Doc was left hanging out by himself as Thurloe was nowhere to be seen. Once it was apparent he wasn't going to show up any time soon, they woke themselves back up again and slapped Thurloe back awake as well.

"Maybe something's wrong with your dreamstone?" suggested Xandro, grasping at straws. Just to be sure, though, Thurloe and Wakuren swapped headbands and they all tried a third time, with the same results. "Well, that wasn't it," the bard admitted. "You don't think the Nightmare King has found a way to separate us somehow when we're dreaming...?"

"We need to see where Thurloe's going when he falls asleep," Alewyth suggested, scooting everyone into a circle around Thurloe instead of Rosie. "Wait a minute, this won't work," pointed out Xandro. "There are only four of us around him - we need five!"

"We can put a dreamstone on the cooshee," Zander suggested, and the elven dog wagged his tail at hearing himself mentioned.

"He's not a trained dreamwalker," scoffed Thurloe. "But I'll tell you what: let's give me the 'target' dreamstone as well as the one I normally wear - maybe that'll give me a boost." He added Rosie's headband to his own and they all tried a fourth time, with predictable results. The other four were in the Dreamlands as usual, and Thurloe was nowhere to be seen. "Any ideas?" Xandro asked Mogo, explaining everything they'd tried thus far.

"Something's changed since last night, when Thurloe was last in the Dreamlands, kupo," the moogle observed. "Is he sleeping now, kupo?" Alewyth assured the moogle that Thurloe was sound asleep in the Picklemeyers' cottage. "Then let's see if we can find his dream, kupo!" said the moogle, turning to the Hall of Doors. The halls started flashing by sideways, moving at incredible speeds as the moogle dreamwalking trainer flipped through hallway after hallway. Doors sped by at increasing speeds, causing Alewyth to turn a bit green from motion sickness even though she was standing perfectly still. But eventually the doors slowed down and the hallways stopped reconfiguring themselves to Mogo's specifications and the trainer sighed, "He's not here, kupo!"

"How is that possible?" asked Alewyth.

Mogo shrugged his little kittenish shoulders. "If I had to hazard a guess, it sounds like he's been taken by a night hag, kupo," Mogo replied. He went on to explain that night hags were horrible creatures from the Lower Planes, who attached themselves to a victim and then haunted their nightmares, riding them all night long and draining them of their physical vitality each night. Eventually, with the victim getting weaker and weaker, he was transformed into a creature called a larva, which the night hag then sold to devils or demons for their own horrific use.

"But why can't we find him, if he's asleep?" asked Zander.

"Think of the Dreamlands as a large field, kupo," suggested Mogo. "Whenever anyone dreams, their dream takes place in a little section of the field, kupo. But a night hag, she digs a little hole in the field - like a gopher hole - and covers the top of it with a clump of dirt, so you can look all over the field and you won't ever find her, kupo. If a night hag has gotten hold of Thurloe, then every time he dreams he'll end up in a hidden pocket somewhere where we can't detect him, kupo."

This was horrible news, but they needed to do what they could to put a stop to it and the first thing was letting Thurloe know what was happening. They thanked Mogo, promised to keep him up to date, and returned to their physical bodies once again, where they explained to the puzzled Picklemeyers that they wouldn't be able to wake up Rosie that night after all. "We've run into a temporary problem with one of our dreamwalkers, but we'll have him fixed up soon and we'll come back to wake up Rosie as soon as we can!" Alewyth promised them.

They found lodging in one of the inns and made the best of the evening, Thurloe finally falling asleep with some trepidation knowing what was in store for him. He slept fitfully, and there was no sight of him in the Dreamlands. Unwilling to continue training only four of his five students, Mogo gave the others the night off as a free exercise to practice the dreamwalking techniques he'd already shown them. And in the morning, when they gathered together, Thurloe looked terrible: bloodshot eyes with dark bags beneath, as if he hadn't gotten any sleep at all. "Do you remember anything?" Alewyth prompted.

"Not a thing," Thurloe replied. "But I feel like crap." Wakuren tried casting a lesser restoration spell upon the spellsword, but it didn't seem to have any effect.

Alewyth and Wakuren prepared their day's spells, and the dwarven priestess of Aerik selected a divination spell to see if it could help them determine what was happening to Thurloe when he slept. Casting the spell, Alewyth received the following cryptic reply to her question, "What will happen to Thurloe when he next goes to sleep?" The answer came from the air above her,

"In spider's web, the night hag boasts,​
She'll ride her prey in the land of ghosts."​

"The land of ghosts: that's the Ethereal Plane," observed Wakuren. "She's got her trap set in the Ethereal Plane."

"How does that help us?" snarled Thurloe. "We can't get to the Ethereal Plane."

"No, we can't," Alewyth admitted. "But I'll bet a cleric of Delphyne, Goddess of Magic could get us there. And they'd probably know a lot more about night hags than we do."

"Where's the nearest cleric of Delphyne?" Zander asked. "I doubt they have one hanging around Snail Valley."

"There's a temple of Delphyne back in Baron's Haven," Xandro recalled. "But that's at least a week behind us. Our best bet's probably Devlinshire."

"...Where we're wanted criminals," pointed out Alewyth.

"True, true," Xandro admitted, "but they'll be looking for the full five of us, and we do rather stand out. But if just one of us were to return to the city...."

"Two of us," Wakurn countered. "I can be invisible, right beside you."

"And the rest of us?" asked Zander.

"We can be inside a rope trick," Thurloe answered. "I can cast it underneath the wagon. It'll work. Let's go, then." He was eager to be free of this night hag, if this was how he was going to feel after each night spent with her. They decided to have Xandro steer the wagon into town, with Wakuren invisible in the seat next to him. Xandro, a wandering bard, had the best reason for entering the city and also had the quickest wit when it came to talking himself out of situations, if there were any suspicions at the city gates. But his silver tongue wasn't needed; the guards asked him no questions and he steered the wagon down the street of temples, seeking out Delphyne's holy symbol on the buildings as they drove past. Wakuren spotted it and Xandro brought the mules to a halt before the structure, while Wakuren ducked under the wagon, stuck his head into the extradimensional space where the other three were hiding, and they made their way surreptitiously into the temple of Delphyne.

Their meeting with the clerics there was both good and bad. Good, in that they knew some lore about night hags and had spellcasters capable of casting a plane shift spell for them (for a suitable donation, of course); bad in that none of the clerics powerful enough to cast that spell currently had it on hand - the group would have to meet again the next day to have the spell cast upon them. In the meantime, they'd prepare a scroll of plane shift so the five heroes would be able to return to the Material Plane when their extraplanar business had been completed. That meant another night's depredations at the hands of the night hag, but it couldn't be helped - and at least Thurloe had no memories of his time spent in the night hag's dream trap. He opted to sleep inside the extradimensional space of a rope trick spell, hoping against hope the night hag wouldn't be able to find him if he fell asleep in an entirely different dimension, but he awoke the next morning knowing that nothing had changed: he felt even worse, with aching joints and bones as if he were sick with the flu.

But at least today they'd hopefully be able to deal with the situation at hand. They returned to the temple of Delphyne ready to do battle with the night hag and get Thurloe released from her thrall. They paid over the money requested by the clerics, the lead cleric cast the spell herself, and the five heroes were shunted through the planes to end up on the Ethereal Plane. And although the Ethereal Plane was in theory endless, the head cleric had theorized that since the night hag's "dream trap" was attuned to Thurloe, his arrival on the plane - even in physical form - should be at least nearby where they wanted to be.

And such indeed seemed to be the case, for the five heroes found themselves in a misty world with an enormous black structure before them. It seemed to be carved from an immense, black gemstone, rectangular in shape but with the four corners cut off on the diagonal, forming a lozenge shape. The structure stood a good 20 feet tall and was more than twice that wide and four times as long. A pair of solid-looking doors sat in the middle of one of the shorter sides of the structure, and as the others started casting their standard array of "prepare for combat" spells, Xandro pulled out his lockpicking tools and applied himself in earnest to the task of getting past the locking mechanism.

Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself, following it up with a bless spell upon the assembled group. Thurloe cast a mage armor spell on himself, used his wand to cast a shield spell upon himself, and then passed the wand over to Zander so the elf could do likewise. Zander also cast a mage armor spell upon himself, then cast two bear's endurance spells, one on himself and one on Wakuren, before casting a haste spell on the group. Wakuren, in the meantime, contented himself with a protection from evil spell and the invisibility provided to him from his magic ring.

"How's that lock coming?" asked Thurloe, eager to get on with it.

"Just got it...now!" replied Xandro, opening the door and putting away his tools. However, there were two guardians on the other side of the doors and they charged forward at the intruders to their mistress's secret realm. These were vaguely reptilian creatures, with scales of an iridescent blue and complicated, three-part jaws that allowed their trifold mouths to open wide and snatch up prey. The first one sprinted in a dash for Xandro, but Thurloe cut it down with his bastard sword as soon as it stuck its head out of the door. It crashed to the ground at the spellsword's feet. The other one snapped at Thurloe, but he managed to duck back from its snapping teeth and stabbed forward with the blade of his sword, skewering it through the chest. Just that quickly, both ethereal marauders were slain. Alewyth stepped up, Sjondra at the ready in case there were any more of these strange creatures, but it looked like there had just been the two. Warily, she stepped inside the structure.

Ahead, in the interior of the rectangular building, stood what at first looked to be a giant igloo, although closer examination showed it had been crafted of webbing, not ice. Most of it sat in the back of the building, a 40-foot-diamter hemisphere with a long, sloped projection sticking out towards the doors of the gemlike structure. Unseen by any of the heroes - who weren't in a position to be able to see the interior sides of the upper dome on either side of the "entry tunnel" - a pair of phase spiders, each the size of a large horse, hung upside-down ready to pounce on anyone who entered their lair.

Thurloe advanced down the entry tunnel cautiously - the interior was murkily lit in some unknown fashion, but he was getting a disturbing sense of déjà vu, as if he'd been inside this dome before. And if this was indeed the night hag's dream trap, then it made sense that he had in fact been here; he just had no conscious memory of it.

Zander stood at the beginning of the tunnel, not yet ready to enter. He brought the words to a lightning bolt spell to the forefront of his brain, ready to cast the spell if anything were to show up and look menacing. The Delphynian clerics had warned the group that fire and cold were useless against a night hag, so he was hoping a blast of electricity would be just the thing. Xandro, in the meantime, pulled the Dardolian lute from his back and began playing his song of inspirational courage. If ever there was a need to set fears to bay, this creepy place was it!

Alewyth cast an aid spell on herself as she stepped forward down the entry tunnel. But Wakuren was there ahead of her, stepping boldly into the dome and examining the 10-foot-diameter metal disk he found on the floor in the center of the curved structure. It had arcane runes along its surface and probably served some sort of purpose similar to a teleportation circle, he guessed - maybe this was how the hag entered the structure, although that wouldn't explain why the front door was locked. If there was a lock on the door, you would expect she'd have the key. Perhaps, he ruminated, this was the device that lured Thurloe to this specific destination when he fell asleep. He turned to ask Thurloe if that had been the case, and was surprised to see not only the spellsword right there behind him - the half-orc hadn't heard him approach - but a pair of giant spiders drop down from the ceiling and attack, mandibles dripping with venom.

Of course, as Wakuren was still hidden behind the invisibility spell of his ring, both spiders attacked Thurloe, the only foe they saw. But Wakuren popped back into view as he brought the bottom of his shield crashing down upon the mottled abdomen of the nearest spider. Back at the entrance, Zander took a step to the side to better line up his field of vision and cast the lightning bolt he'd had ready to fire. It zapped through the first phase spider to have successfully bitten Thurloe, but then the second one scrabbled up and bit the spellsword as well. Thurloe's bastard sword came crashing down upon the head of that one, cleaving it through, right between its largest pair of eyes, and it fell to the ground, eight legs twitching spasmodically. Alewyth ran up to the remaining spider and slammed it with Sjondra, and then Zander finished it off with a scorching ray spell, figuring the night hag might be immune to fire magic but a giant spider likely wasn't.

The spiders slain, Thurloe went back to examining the plate on the floor. "I remember this," he said. "I didn't before, but now that I'm here, I remember this whole dome thing, and this plate on the floor. This is where I'd end up when I fell asleep." He turned and faced the back of the dome. "And the night hag would come for me from the back, over there." Everyone looked around the dome, but there was no sign of the night hag. And then Zander's keen elven vision picked up a bit of metal tucked in among the webbing at the base of the dome, along the floor. Pulling away at the strands keeping it in place, he saw it was a metal oil lamp, of the kind stories attributed to magic genies and the like.

"Yes!" Thurloe cried when he saw the lamp. "She'd touch it, and she'd say something, and then we were someplace else - inside the lamp, no doubt."

"What did she say?" prompted Alewyth.

"Hang on, I'm thinking. 'Entrer,' 'antrar,' 'eintrar'..."eintret!' She said 'eintret!'"

"Gather together," Wakuren told the others. "This probably works like a teleport spell - we should all be in contact with each other." Huddling together, Thurloe touched the lamp and said "Eintret" - and suddenly, they were elsewhere.

Thurloe was standing on another round, metal plate on the floor, much the same size and shape as the one in the middle of the phase spider dome, and this too was in the middle of a domelike structure overhead, but there were three openings and one closed door along the cardinal points around this dome, which was not constructed of webbing but rather seemed to have been carved out of a pocket of stone. It had the same rough dimensions as the web-dome, though: about 20 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter. The hemisphere looked vaguely familiar, but then Thurloe didn't have any more time for sight-seeing as they were under attack.

Xandro had been standing to Thurloe's left when they teleported into this extradimensional space, and as a result he had been the closest to the open stables on the eastern side of the reception area. Charging out of the straw-filled stables came a pitch-black horse with a flaming mane and hooves, snorting steam from its flared nostrils. It raced forward and reared up, striking the bard with a flaming hoof that sent him staggering backwards a step or two. The group recognized the creature as a nightmare, having met up with one before in a dream.

Thurloe stepped away from the nightmare, not out of fear but out of recognition: the closed door, he now recalled, led to the night hag's bedroom, where she would ride him all night long, cackling in glee at his pain. Nightmare be damned, the others could deal with the hag's horse - he wanted payback from the evil fiend who had been sapping his physical vitality for two nights! Knowing instinctively the door was unlocked, Thurloe flung it open while casting a mirror image spell upon himself, causing there to be not one spellsword but four identical ones crowding the doorway. Thurloe couldn't help himself; he called out, "Hi, honey - I'm home!"

"Why, indeed you are, dearie - couldn't stay away, could you? And you brought friends! Oh, this is going to be quite an interesting session, I can already tell!"

Zander Quilson cast a reliable standby, magic missile, at the nightmare rearing and kicking at Xandro. As expected, the missiles struck unerringly into the monster horse's flank. Wakuren ran around to the back of the beast, putting all of his considerable strength into the force of his swing as he brought the pointed bottom edge of his shield of Cal stabbing into the horse's side, causing it to scream in pain. The attack brought the half-orc back to full visibility, but that had been a good trade-off as far as Wakuren was concerned. On the other side of the nightmare, Xandro stabbed at the beast with his longsword, catching it just behind its front leg. In return, it focused its attention on the bard, lashing out at him with its flaming hooves and snapping at him with its wicked teeth, which were far sharper than the teeth of a horse had any right to be.

Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell and sent the dwarven warhammer flying at the night hag, where it shattered upon her innate spell resistance, much to the surprise and consternation of the dwarven priestess. The night hag, Hesperna Vanderdaark, ignored the shattering weapon and came in close to grab at Thurloe, but the image she grabbed was one of the spell effects and it popped into nothingness at her touch. "Playing hard to get, are we, sweetie?" she crooned at Thurloe, giving him a smile that put his hair on edge. He channeled his torc of the titans to put some extra power behind his swing - for her nightly depredations had left him fatigued - and sent his bastard sword slicing into her age-hardened skin.

Zander dropped his jade cooshee on the floor and called out the command word that brought it to life. "Go help Thurloe!" he told it, and it dashed off to do his master's bidding, snapping at Hesperna, to admittedly little effect. But then Alewyth pushed past Thurloe and swung Sjondra into the night hag's side, trusting this dwarven warhammer at least wouldn't shatter upon the night hag's touch. Then she stepped back and remembered the spell she'd prepared to ensure the night hag didn't get away; fortunately, her dimensional anchor spell took full effect, trapping Hesperna right here in the room with the rest of them - if she wanted to escape, she'd have to push her way past the entire group and get to the disk on the floor of the reception dome.

Wakuren slew the nightmare with another bone-breaking blow of his shield upon the flaming equine's spine, and with the ebony-skinned beast out of the picture Xandro fell back to playing his song of inspirational courage on his lute. After all, it was getting crowded there in the hag's bedroom. Hesperna, tired of playing around with Thurloe, took a step back and flung out four magic missiles, hitting him (although that missile was harmlessly absorbed into his shield spell), popping his two remaining mirror images into nonexistence, and causing the cooshee to yelp in pain as a side bonus. But Thurloe stepped forward and used another dose of enhanced strength from his magical torc to power another swing of his bastard sword. Zander cast a lightning bolt spell at Hesperna, but it too had no effect as it was absorbed be her hefty resistance to most spells. The cooshee continued nipping at her ankles, trying to trip her to the floor, but she was having none of it. Alewyth pressed the attack with Sjondra and now Wakuren entered the room, slamming his shield into the night hag's side.

That finally made up Hesperna's mind. She'd arrogantly thought she could handle Thurloe and his band of companions, but now too many of their attacks were getting through her defenses. As much as she hated to admit it - or put her long-earned treasures on the line - she needed help, and fast. With that realization, she darted back to her bed, yanked out a footlocker from beneath it, and popped open the lid. Alewyth was close enough to see what was inside it: nearly half a dozen writhing worms, each about the size of her forearm.

Thurloe pressed on the attack, as a close grouping of magic missiles flew over his shoulder to break apart into nothingness when they reached Hesperna, another victim of her innate resistance to spells. Alewyth swung again with her warhammer, but hardly made enough of an attack for the night hag to even notice. Her focus was on Thurloe, her current project and, with any luck, the sixth of her larvae, after which she'd be off to the Lower Planes to sell them off for a good deal of coin. But first she had to survive, trapped as she was on this plane and unable to simply plane shift away to the Material Plane. She gave serious thought toward abandoning her magic lamp and escaping back to the Ethereal Plane, where she could likely lose these five heroes in the mists.

But then Wakuren made the whole issue moot by bringing the edge of his shield crashing into her face, driving her nose up into her brain while simultaneously snapping her neck. Hesperna coughed up a bubble of blackish blood and fell to a heap in her own extradimensional bedroom.

However, that didn't mean the fight was all the way finished just yet. One of the larval creatures wriggled out of the footlocker, inadvertently exposing one of the chest's magical properties, for as soon as it was out it grew eightfold until it was as long as a man. It opened wide its circular mouth and spewed forth a small rain of wriggling maggots at Thurloe, covering the spellsword in flyspawn. He involuntarily stepped back and started brushing the maggots off of him, while Xandro stepped forward and slammed the lid back down, imprisoning the other four larvae. Alewyth killed the one that had gotten free with her dwarven warhammer.

"Is that it?" Thurloe asked, still wiping maggots off of his body and crushing them underfoot with his boots. Alewyth aided him in his task.

"It looks like it," Zander answered. "The rest of the stable's empty, and all I see in the other rooms are a bunch of tables and a pool of water." A quick search confirmed the rest of the extradimensional space was clear of enemies. Closer examination of the lab revealed a few magical items Hesperna had apparently crafted there in her lab - a bag of dust of illusion, a vial of elixir of truth, and a vial of salve of slipperiness - and a brief check-out of the pool revealed it not only cleaned the bodies and clothes of anyone entering its waters, but full submersion resulted in gaining the equivalent sustenance as if one had just consumed an entire meal. And Hesperna had a second, smaller chest stored under her bed, this one filled with gems and coins, including several of the gold coins with the pointy-bearded man on one side and a lit torch on the other.

"Guys," said Xandro excitedly. "Do you know what this means? Mobile headquarters!"

"It'll need some cleaning out, first," muttered Alewyth, looking at the squashed maggots on the floor of Hesperna's bedroom and the full-size corpses of the slain larva, nightmare, and of Hesperna herself. She gave a shiver of disgust.

Figuring out how to leave was easy enough, as the word "AUSSTEIG" was carved in the middle of the metal disk in the reception dome. Sure enough, by stepping on the plate and saying the command word, one was shunted to stand adjacent to the magic lamp, in this case back under the web-dome inside the black lozenge-shaped building. Alewyth and Xandro had brought the footlocker with them, and they allowed the other larvae out one at a time for the sole purpose of slaying them. But that done, they opted to keep the footlocker - one never knew when you might need to crawl inside and get shrunken down to one-eighth your normal size. It would be a good way to smuggle a bunch of people out of a building or something, that was for sure, even if it didn't seem to have any effect on non-living matter placed into the chest.

"Let's get out of here," Thurloe said, eager to be back to the Material Plane. More than anything else, he was eager to get back to the Dreamlands, just to prove to himself he could. But Xandro held him off for a bit. "You know," he said, "phase spider silk can be sold for a hefty sum to those interested in making magic items. Portable holes, for instance." Even Thurloe, eager as he was to see the end of this place, had no compunctions about hanging around long enough to cut down chunks of the phase spider silk that made up the "igloo dome." It was just a shame they wouldn't be able to return back here once they left, since the scroll of plane shift Alewyth had received from the clerics of Delphyne was only good for one trip back to the Mortal World.

Once they'd cut and stowed all they could carry, Alewyth unrolled the scroll, read the words contained therein, and the five of them returned to the Material World, back inside the temple of Delphyne. There, they got directions to a few local businesses where they might be able to sell phase spider silk, and hurried off to load up the wagon with the handfuls they had been able to take with them (and the footlocker, which they had stuffed full as well). Then, it was back to invisibility for Wakuren, back to the interior of the magic lamp for Zander, Alewyth, and Thurloe (where the dwarven priestess quickly put the men on cleaning detail), and Xandro was back to driving the wagon out of Devlinshire and back over to Snail Valley.

The Picklemeyers were happy to hear that the "slight issue" had been taken care of and that the five dreamwalkers were certain they could awaken their daughter Rosie for sure this time. And, after each of the dreamwalkers got to experience for him- or herself the "joys" of rocking a crying, baby-faced snail to sleep in their arms, they all enjoyed a quick cup of pretend tea with Rosie and Mr. Bear, after which time the dream started collapsing around them. "Time to wake up!" called out Wakuren, and the six woke back up on the Material Plane all at once.

"Where's Mr. Bear?" Rosie asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Jarko dashed back into her room to grab the stuffed animal while Petunia grabbed her daughter up into her arms and buried her in a hug.

"We can't thank you enough," Jarko told the five dreamwalkers as they prepared to depart.

"Here, I'd like you to have this," Petunia said, handing over a silver ring. "It's been in my family for three generations and it's got some kind of magic in it, but it's only of any use to a spellcaster and I don't have any such abilities. Perhaps you can use it." Wakuren tried declining, but Petunia was adamant. "We've not much else to pay you with," she insisted. "Please. Put it to good use." Eventually, Wakuren agreed, if only to make the Picklemeyers feel better.

"What's your deal?" complained Thurloe when they were back outside heading to their wagon and the riding animals. "When somebody insists on giving you payment, you take payment!"

"Kind of like that gold coin that 'noblewoman' gave you on the road?" Wakuren asked.

"Yeah, I suppose."

"You realize that noblewoman was the night hag in human form, and the coin was probably some sort of focus device that allowed her to reel you in like a fish," the half-orc pointed out.

"What? Did you read her aura? Was she evil?"

"I didn't look," admitted Wakuren. "It's not polite to go around assuming everyone's a potential source of evil."

"I quite agree," said the little gnome sitting on the front seat of the wagon. He held a burlap sack on his lap.

"Wangle!" exclaimed Alewyth. "What are you doing here?"

"Possible delivery," he replied. "Were you still interested in that pair of boots of striding and springing you put a down-payment on? I understand you've come into some money recently." Alewyth chose not to press how the gnome knew so much about her personal business, but she answered in the affirmative. Wangle Turdblossom reminded her of how much she still owed on the boots, she turned over the coins from her share of Hesperna's treasure and the money they'd made off of the phase spider silk, and the gnome handed over the burlap sack. "Wear them in good health," he advised, then scooted down from the wagon and ambled away, whistling a merry tune.

"He's a strange little fellow," Wakuren observed.

"Gnomes, taken as a whole, generally are," Alewyth remarked.

- - -

In all of my years of gaming, I don't think I'd ever used a night hag before, so I specifically wrote this adventure just to be able to use one - especially since the night hag's "dream haunting" ability meshed so nicely with the main concept of this campaign. Since night hags target evil and/or chaotic individuals for their larva conversion, Thurloe became the only logical target, since we don't have any evil PCs and he's the only one with a chaotic component to his alignment.

For Rosie's dream sequence, I had seven tabs open to YouTube on my computer, each ready to play an hour of the sound of a baby crying. As soon as the first snail baby started crying, I activated one such link, then started playing the other six when the one's crying woke up the others. It was a marvelous cacophony, but one the players begged me not to use again when they returned to Rosie's dream after getting Thurloe rescued from the night hag.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My solid gray T-shirt (to represent the Ethereal Plane).
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 7
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 1
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 4
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 2
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 7​

Game Session Date: 23 July 2022

- - -

The group was several days out of Snail Valley and Zander Quilson had been very quiet and introspective. Thurloe had also been very quiet, giving Horse a break by having him follow along behind the mule-driven wagon, his reins tied to the back while Thurloe sat in the back of the wagon and pored over his various captured spellbooks, trying to puzzle out how to cast some of the spells he had yet to master. Zander had no such excuse for his silence, though, for he wasn't actively engaged in anything like magical research; he just found he was easily distracted, his thoughts whirling from one distant memory to another.

The group had taken to using their extradimensional lamp as a mobile headquarters (and a means by which they saved money on inn rooms). If they stopped in a small village or town, Xandro Silverstrings always sought out the local taverns and inns to see if they'd be interested in hiring him on to play and sing during their evening meal and into the night, often just for room and board, occasionally for a bit of coin on top of that. But that at least got him a room for the night, and if he brought in the lamp - with the others in the group, to include the animals and the wagon already stashed inside the extradimensional space - that saved a considerable amount on rooms and stabling costs.

This particular night, the group had settled in for the evening, with Alewyth claiming the one bed they had in the night hag's bedroom and Wakuren bunking down on his bedroll in the same room, Thurloe camping out in the alchemy lab, Xandro sleeping in the back of the wagon (which they left in the main entrance room, as the wagon was too big to go anywhere else), and Zander had laid out his bedroll in the same main entryway, along the curved wall of the hemispherical chamber. The elf was just settling himself down to sleep when he suddenly heard a voice in his head.

<...hear me?> it said. At first, Zander wasn't sure he'd heard anything at all, for the voice was very faint. Then he wondered if it might have been one of the moogles in the Dreamlands, as they'd found a way for them to communicate with the dreamwalkers through the dreamstones embedded in particular pieces of the heroes' equipment - Zander's jade cooshee, for example, now had eyes made of the strange stones. But no, the elf realized if it had been a moogle speaking to him, the last word would have invariably been "kupo."

<Can you hear me?> the voice repeated, and Zander sat up in his bedroll. "I can hear you," he replied, causing Xandro to sit up from the back of the wagon and see what was going on. "Lights on," the bard commanded and the unseen source of illumination bathed the area in its soft glow. "What's going on, Zander?" he asked.

"Are you hearing anybody talking telepathically?" the elf asked.

<You'll be the only one who can hear me,> the voice informed Zander, <since I'm living inside you.>

"You're what?" demanded the elf.

"What's going on?" demanded Thurloe, the light from the entry dome spilling into the alchemy lab where he'd been just about asleep. "What are you clowns up to?"

"Zander's getting some kind of telepathic message," Xandro informed the grumpy swordsman.

<Now, I don't want you to freak out,> said the voice in Zander's head. <You're not going to freak out, are you? Take some calming breasts...no, that's not right...what's the word? Yes, breaths! Do that breathing thing you do.>

"Who are you?" demanded Zander, starting to hyperventilate. "How did you get in me?" This course of conversation had Thurloe and Xander, both now wide awake, looking at each other in confusion.

<I'm actually a part of a larger being from another entirely different plane of existence, and I sent a portion of my body into your world, where I happened to latch onto you. I've spent the last few weeks growing throughout your body until now I've finally expanded into a large enough network that I'm capable of communicating with you. Now, have you been doing that breathing thing? Are you all nice and calm?>

"As calm as can be expected."

"Okay then, look down at your right leg. No, the front leg. Arm! That's what it's called! Look down at your right arm. And remember what I said about not freaking out.>

As instructed, Zander rolled up his sleeve and looked down at his right arm. On the forearm, just below the elbow, there was a small, brown discoloration - a beauty mark, they were called. Zander didn't remember ever noticing he had a beauty mark in that particular place before.

And then the "beauty mark" cracked open and the elf found himself looking down at a tiny eye on his arm that was staring right back up at him. Quite the contrary to his instructions, Zander found himself freaking out. <Calm down!> the voice repeated. <Deep breaths! I'm not going to hurt you! Hey! Are you listening to me?> Zander was crying out in a panicked voice, and when the beauty mark extended itself a good eighteen inches on a thin, flexible tendril extruding from the elf's forearm so the eye could stare directly into Zander's face, the effect did nothing but increase the panic he was feeling.

Eventually, though, his heart stopped racing and he realized although this was certainly a strange turn of events, no real harm had come to him: the creature wasn't able to control his body, nor was he feeling any kind of pain from having this thing living inside of him. "Why are you here?" he asked the eye, which had retracted itself painlessly back into Zander's forearm once he had started calming down.

<I'm an explorer,> the voice said. <This process gives me the opportunity to see other worlds. And this is a pretty boring world so far. I mean, those trees you have here? All they do is move a little bit on their tops when it's windy - they never seem to levitate in the air, or explode into a flock of fish or anything. Your whole world seems pretty...static, is that the word?> Zander agreed that it was. Over the next few minutes, he and the creature inside him - the part of the larger creature, apparently called a nibish-riule, which was from a place called the Far Realm - discussed how their merging had come about. Back up in Rindicane's tower, Zander had stepped from the tower's balcony on the Plane of Shadows and into the room with the magic window, which Rindicane had readjusted to open into the Far Realm. The nibish-riule, intrigued by this window into another world, extended a piece of itself through the window (quite nice not having to pierce the planes itself) and adhered onto Zander's body, where it grew into a full network in a matter of weeks. Zander now had six of these "beauty marks" on his body, each capable of extending on the tip of a thin tendril to look about it. One thing the elf quickly latched upon was the fact that the nibish-riule could be put on guard duty if needed; Zander could be sound asleep and the six tendrils could be extended in all directions to look for danger, as the nibish-riule needed no sleep. However, it would need to be trained on what did and did not constitute a threat in this world, lest it awaken Zander at the approach of a mouse or a dragonfly. Zander also had to explain the concept of sleep to the extradimensional creature, who during its weeks of silent observation had merely assumed the elf died for a while each night and then returned to life. The creature found the concept of sleep to be something of an oddity, but certainly more mundane than continually dying and returning to life. It figured; this world seemed to go out of its way to be boring.

It had hundreds of questions with which to pester Zander, but the elf convinced it he needed to sleep and they could talk again in the morning. He was somewhat surprised when the creature agreed; he'd been expecting it to put up more of an argument. <That's okay,> it said amicably, <we have the rest of your life to talk....> That didn't put Zander any at ease!

- - -

This was a plot point I had been planning on springing when the PCs all leveled up to 8th, but I fast-forwarded it a bit when I came to the realization that Zander's player, Joe, will be leaving for college shortly and we only have two regular sessions with him before Zander becomes a temporary NPC who's passed around among the other players to see who'll be running him (in addition to their own PC) each session. I wanted the introduction of the "worry-wart" (as the "beauty mark" extensions of the nibish-riule are often called, given the creature's concerns for the well-being of its host, since if the host dies the nibish-riule loses its interesting window into the strange, new world it's being allowed to see) to occur with Joe "at the helm," so to speak. And since this had no real bearing on the adventure we played through the session, I decided to just write it up as an interlude.



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 7​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 7​

Game Session Date: 23 July 2022

- - -

That night, in the Dreamlands, Zander explained all about the nibish-riule to Alewyth and Wakuren, who had missed all the excitement right before the other three made it to sleep. They were astonished (and Alewyth more than a bit repulsed) at the thought of this extradimensional creature living inside their elven friend. But it didn't seem to be doing him any harm, and Wakuren saw no alteration to Zander's aura, so they decided not to worry a whole lot about it. Thurloe, however, decided the next chance he got he'd try to do some research on these nibish-riule things, to see if there was some way to get rid of it. Dismissal was always an option, as was banishment, although both of those particular spells were currently beyond his ability to cast. Still, it bore checking out, just in case....

The moogles had no information on nibish-riules, claiming they didn't seem to dream. In fact, while Zander was able to talk to the worry-wart on his arm and it extended and retracted at his request, he was well aware that this was just a dream and he was merely dreaming the worry-wart's actions. There was no actual telepathic communication going on; apparently the nibish-riule couldn't contact Zander while the elf was sleeping. But it did seem to like the concept of dreams and it certainly enjoyed poring through the elf's memories of past dreams, for the occasional strangeness of dreams was much more like the chaotic Far Realm from which the extradimensional creature hailed.

"We should probably check out the next dream-victim's dream," suggested Wakuren. "We should hit Portersville late tomorrow morning."

"Right this way, kupo!" exclaimed Mogo, hovering at eye level to the half-orc and opening the door to the dream. Without being right there by the dreamer's side - and without being able to place a dreamstone upon the sleeping victim's brow to aid in the process - Wakuren well knew they wouldn't be able to conquer this dream and free the dreamer, but it would at least give them some idea of what to expect. He stepped through the doorway, the other four dreamwalkers following behind him.

They now stood in an alley, with a half-orc dressed in rags and holding a bloody short sword standing over the dead bodies of a well-to-do human woman and a rakish-looking human man. A trio of human guards rushed down the alleyway and wrestled the half-orc to the ground.

"I think there's more to this dream, but he keeps going over this part again and again, kupo," observed Mogo, who for once had entered the dream with his trainees. Indeed, as they watched the half-orc was suddenly standing over the two dead victims once again and the trio of guardsman started running down the alleyway at him. The same sequence kept looping over and over.

"Not much point in hanging around here, then," decided Thurloe, stepping back out of the dream. "So we're probably looking for a half-orc, then. Good to know."

As expected, the group pulled into the small town of Portersville shortly before lunchtime. As had become their custom - because it so often bore fruit - they hit the taverns, asking if anyone had heard of somebody in town having been unable to be awakened from their sleep for a matter of days or weeks. But this time, to their surprise, the well was completely dry: all they got for their efforts were puzzled looks and questioning stares. Some even accused the heroes of making up nonsensical tales. "Well, this approach isn't working," Xandro observed. "Let's go try the town hall and see if we can talk to some of the guardsmen directly."

The guard station was of little help, as nobody there was able to recall anybody being trapped in a sleeping state. Thurloe took a different approach, wondering if perhaps there was a guard who hadn't shown up for work in some time, for he reasoned it was entirely possible the dreamer wasn't the half-orc being arrested but one of the officers taking him into custody. But that didn't get him anywhere, either - they hadn't had any no-shows among their duty roster.

"Do you have any half-orcs currently in custody?" Wakuren asked, and was told they'd have to go check at the prison. The guards they were talking with gave them directions to Bleakstone Prison, on the outskirts of town.

Bleakstone Prison was ringed by 12-foot-tall stone walls that had but a single opening: a thick, wooden door set into the front wall. Naturally, this door was locked, but there was a bell hanging on a pole that could be rung to alert the guards inside of visitors. Wakuren pulled on the bell-rope and after a minute or so, a sliding door at eye level opened in the door and a voice called out from the other side, "Who's there? What do you want?"

Wakuren briefly explained why the group was there. The guards, however, replied there was nobody inside the prison who'd been asleep for weeks, whether guards or inmates. Thurloe said they wanted to talk to the prison administrator and hinted at a surprise health inspection; the guard told him to wait while one of them went back inside to see if Administrator Morbhen was willing to see them. Closing the peek-hole sliding door in the meantime, he waited for his partner to return and this gave the heroes a moment to whisper quietly to each other.

"Health inspection?" hissed Wakuren. "Why are you always so quick to lie to people?"

"Because it works!" Thurloe hissed back. "You watch: they're going to let us in, and I'll bet you anything it's because the Administrator doesn't want to get in trouble by failing to allow health inspectors in to check out his facility!"

"But we're not health inspectors!" replied Wakuren. "He'll see right through us! If you stick to telling the truth, you don't find yourself in positions like this!"

Any reply Thurloe might have been about to make was cut off by the return of the first guard. The sliding eye-level door was opened back up and the other guard told them, "Administrator Morbhen has agreed to let you in. But normal rules apply: no weapons, no contraband, horses and wagons stay outside the fenced area. Let me know when you're ready to enter, and you will be searched before being allowed access into the prison areas, so don't try hiding anything - we know all of the tricks." Then he closed the window again and awaited notification that they were ready to enter.

"No weapons?" asked Alewyth, hefting her dwarven warhammer Sjondra. "That'll make things more interesting if we run into any trouble."

"No weapons, Hell," answered Thurloe, putting a hand upon the magic lamp and signaling for everyone to gather together. When they were all in contact, he said "eintret" and everyone teleported into the entry dome in the lamp's extradimensional interior. "Leave everything we can't take into the prison here," he said.

"So you're planning on--" began Wakuren.

"--taking the lamp with all of our stuff into the prison, yeah," answered Thurloe for him. "We might need this stuff - better we've got it at hand. They might make us leave the lantern in a holding area or something, but it'll be a lot closer than outside the walls in the back of the wagon." Wakuren took a deep breath to calm himself but left his shield on the floor as the rest of the group disarmed and left most of their gear behind.

"Are we keeping our armor?" asked Alewyth.

"Sure - why not?" answered Thurloe.

"All health inspectors wear full armor during their no-notice inspections," Wakuren pointed out sarcastically. Thurloe just ignored him. But he noticed the half-orc had opted to keep his gauntlet of Cal on his hand rather than leave it behind, no doubt thinking he might be allowed to wear it inside the prison, and its ability to hurl javelins of lightning could indeed prove to be useful in a fight.

Once everyone had divested themselves of items they didn't think they'd be allowed to bring inside the prison, they returned to the Material Plane and informed the guards they were ready. The door creaked open just enough to allow them to enter the outer courtyard around the prison building one by one, then the guards pulled the door shut again and locked it with a key on a large ring. "This way, then," said one of the two guards, walking them across the open area and up to the front door of the prison, which required another key to unlock and open. "Step inside," the guard told them, "and empty all pouches, pockets, and the like. Then line up to be frisked." Alewyth couldn't help but notice both guards kept darting glances in her direction; she finally chocked it up to the fact they probably didn't get a whole lot of women inside this men's prison. It still didn't help her feel any less uncomfortable about their frequent stares, though - and she wasn't particularly looking forward to the frisking to come.

One guard held open a visitor's log and had each of the five write their names in the book, then they started the inspection of their items. Wakuren and Alewyth were allowed to keep their holy symbols and the half-orc was pleased to note they didn't have any means for detecting for magic items; as a result, he got to keep his gauntlet of Cal and similarly Thurloe got to keep his torc of the titans. But all potions had to be stored away in boxes, as the guards pointed out the glass vials could be broken and used as a makeshift dagger or such. Apparently such things had been tried before.

As the others were being searched, Xandro took a moment to look around. In the right corner as one entered the prison, there was a holding cell with metal bars reaching from floor to ceiling; the cell was 10 feet on a side and was currently empty, with benches along two walls and a hole in the floor that could only be a public latrine. The two guards each had their own desk and chair, and there was another narrow desk with a rack of shelves where the heroes' items (including, Thurloe was sad to see, their magic lamp) were temporarily stored in boxes. The spellsword made a point to memorize which box the lamp had been placed in, if they should need to quickly fetch their weapons.

Once the guards were satisfied the items the group was being allowed to bring into the prison were harmless, one of them unlocked the door in the back that led to the mess hall. "The administrator's office is in the back," the guard said as the other one relocked the door they had just passed through. Along the way, they saw a rather bored-looking cook behind the counter where apparently the meals were served, and then three long tables and benches where the convicts ate their meals; currently, there were only four other guards sitting at one of the tables, playing cards. The convicts were no doubt all in their cells, which were presumably behind the closed and locked iron door on the right side of the mess hall.

Arriving at the appropriate door, the guard rapped twice and received a curt "Come in" as a response. There, sitting behind his desk, was Administrator Morbhen. He opted not to rise as the five visitors walked into his spacious office, and Zander and Alewyth took the two seats facing his desk. The other three, having no other options, chose to stand.

Wakuren started explaining the whole story about the Nightmare King and the dream sickness that was spreading across the land, and although the administrator said nothing and tried to keep a neutral expression on his face, Wakuren got the distinct impression that the high elf did not approve of half-orcs in the least. Still, he pressed on and then asked if there was anyone at the prison who had been asleep for a matter of days or weeks and who was unable to be awakened.

"Certainly not," replied Administrator Morbhen. "I run a tight ship here - any employee missing work due to excess sleeping would have been terminated on the spot."

"What about the prisoners?" asked Alewyth.

"They likewise have their daily schedules to maintain. They are awakened, their cells inspected, receive their mandatory exercise," - and the administrator's face let out a hint about what he thought about that particular policy - "and fed their meals. There is no one in this facility asleep for longer than they should be."

"Do you have any half-orc prisoners?" asked Thurloe.

"No. Our prisoners are all humans. Given the human predilection for crime and depravity, this is perhaps not too surprising." He managed to glare at both Thurloe and Xandro, as if trying to determine how long before either of them would end up behind bars.

"But you've had half-orc prisoners in here before? Recently?" Thurloe pressed.

"We have had a half-orc prisoner in here recently, yes," agreed Administrator Morbhan. "He is no longer with us."

"Rehabilitated?" guessed Wakuren.

"Dead. He was stabbed to death by a human inmate who managed to smuggle a spoon into his cell and sharpen it into a crude blade. Humans can be rather clever when it comes to doing what they do best."

"You don't seem to hold that high an opinion of humans," observed Thurloe. "And yet all of your guards are human. Why might that be?"

"One does one's best with the tools at hand. You'll notice Portersville is predominantly made up of a human population."

"What happened to the half-orc prisoner who was stabbed here?" asked Alewyth. "Was he buried here at the prison? Is there a prison graveyard?" She had a sudden premonition that the half-orc might have been buried alive if he was in a dream-induced coma and gave every indication of being dead. If that had happened, they'd have to convince the administrator to allow them to dig him up to see if he could be revived - a prospect she could see would take some doing.

Administrator Morbhan's disdain for his visitors didn't seem to apply to the dwarven priestess or the elven sorcerer. As such, he answered her directly without any sneering or looks of distaste at having to deal with a member of a lesser race. "Bleakstone Prison has no graveyard, Miss. The body was taken away by the town councilors, to do with what they normally do in such cases. Cremation is most likely, I believe, if the former inmate had no immediate family at hand." He turned his head to address the entire group at large. "Now then, I believe that answers your questions. I'll have one of the guards escort you out." He dismissed them with a glance and Xandro took the hint, opening the door and stepping outside.

"Thank you for your time," Wakuren said pleasantly as he and the rest of the group followed Xandro and the guard who had brought them here, who had been waiting outside the door during their visit.

"Tell me you did a reading," Thurloe said to Wakuren, and the half-orc knew exactly what he had been referring to: the administrator's aura.

"Exactly as you no doubt would have expected," Wakuren replied, not wanting to broadcast "He's evil" in front of the guard leading them back the way they'd come.

But they only made it halfway across the mess hall when there was a commotion at the door leading to the in-processing area. With a fumbling of keys, the other guard who had stayed in the front area burst open through the door, a panicked look on his face. The reason for this was immediately behind him: a menacing form made up of a filthy sheet, which floated several inches above the floor. The linen had no doubt once been white, but now it was gray from lack of recent cleaning with streaks of what looked - and smelled - like fecal matter covering it in rough stripes along its length. A pair of glowing, greenish eyes glared out at the guard as he stumbled through the doorway, eager to escape the sheet phantom approaching him with evil intent.

Thurloe rushed forward, instinctively reaching for the bastard sword that was no longer on a scabbard on his back. "Clear the way!" called Wakuren, and Thurloe and the guard both stepped to the side, giving the cleric-paladin of Cal a clear shot when he summoned forth a javelin of lightning into the gauntlet of Cal he wore on his right hand. Throwing the bolt of electricity across the room, it blasted into the sheet phantom and burned a hole in the front part of the sheet - revealing there was nothing underneath the sheet, even though its shape conformed to that of a person wearing a sheet over his body.

Most of Xandro's bardic powers and spells required him to play music, and the Dardolian lute had been left behind in a box in the front room - after all, it could be used as a blunt instrument by a prisoner looking for a convenient weapon. So he used a spell he'd never had the need to cast before: summon instrument, which caused a non-magical lute to appear in his hands, summoned from who-knows-where. But Xandro Silverstrings began the first chords of his song of inspirational courage, knowing his partners would need every advantage they could get, what with just about all of their weapons having been stored away in the room just beyond the open door - and which was now blocked by a filth-covered sheet phantom.

The guards who had been playing cards rushed up and drew their weapons, as did the one escorting the heroes back out of the prison; the one fleeing from the sheet phantom took refuge behind Thurloe, although what safety he thought the unarmed spellsword could provide him, only he knew. However, Thurloe provided nothing less than a perfectly good target for the sheet phantom's attack, as he was now the closest living person to the undead sheet of soiled linen. It swooped over at Thurloe, its sheet spreading out like a net to try to encompass the spellsword, but Thurloe managed to drop low and dodge beneath the attack. He then took the opportunity to run through the doorway, over to the box where he knew the group's magic lamp was stored. He called out "eintret" as soon as he got his hands on the lamp's surface, and found himself inside the extradimensional interior, where he grabbed up his bastard sword and potion belt, plus Sjondra for Alewyth and Wakuren's magic shield, both of which he knew their owners would find handy to have on hand.

Alewyth was stepping forward to see what she could do to help when the administrator's door slammed open. "What's going on out here?" the elf demanded, hearing a ruckus in the jail he insisted upon keeping on an even keel. He saw Wakuren make a few gestures with his hands and suddenly there was a greataxe floating in the air above the sheet phantom, which flew down at the undead thing and cut it into two pieces. Ripped nearly in half by the power of the spiritual weapon, the sheet fell limply to the floor.

"It rose up out of the latrine hole in the holding cell!" the panicked guard replied in answer to his boss's question. "Flew right at me from between the bars!"

Thurloe popped his head around the doorway and saw the angry administrator glaring at the guards for allowing this calamity to occur in his prison. "Would you be all right with us bringing weapons into the prison now, sir?" he asked.

"Get out!" demanded Administrator Morbhen, fury turning his face red. "I find it curious that we are attacked by this...undead thing during your visit! Guards, I want them out of here at once!"

"Yessir!" the guards replied, and they made all haste getting the heroes their gear and taking them back outside the main gate, where their wagon and animals awaited them. Once they were all outside the fenced area, the guards closed and locked the gate once again.

"Well, that was a bust," Zander commented. "Now what?"

<That was at least a bit of excitement on this boring plane of yours,> piped up the nibish-riule living partially inside the elf's body, but Zander told him now was not the time for this discussion.

"Now," answered Wakuren, "we go right back in again, but we do it in a way that they won't even know we're there." He outlined his plan to the others, who agreed it was their best bet to see for themselves what all was going on inside the prison, given they hadn't been allowed to see the prisoners for themselves. For all they knew, there was a half-orc inmate asleep in his cell for the past few weeks, and Administrator Morbhen was lying to them about it...his aura certainly indicated the elf was evil, although part of Wakuren wondered if that was the sort of person who'd want to run herd over a group of killers in the first place. Perhaps it came with the territory.

Part one of Wakuren's plan involved the other four heroes safely inside the lamp, ready to pop back out on his signal...which would have to be when he popped back inside the lamp and told them so directly, for they had no way to communicate between the dimensions. But once they were all inside, Wakuren picked up the lamp, activated his ring (which turned him invisible, along with everything he was wearing and carrying). Then he cast a gaseous form spell upon himself and became a cloud of vapors, which was still covered by the invisibility effect of his ring. As silent as a cloud, Wakuren forced his vaporous form over the prison wall and along the right side, fully expecting to see some barred windows leading into the cell block.

And in that Wakuren was not mistaken. Drifting up to the windows, the half-orc was surprised to see the 15 or so inmates - a quick count showed 18 different cells, of which only a few were unmanned - were thrashing about on their bunks or yanking on the bars of the cells, trying to free themselves. But it was obvious to the half-orc that none of the inmates were still alive; their pale, pasty skin and yellowing eyes gave that initial impression and the fact that none of them was breathing sealed the deal. And even though the half-orc's body was currently an invisible mass of cloudy vapors, he could still pick up the scent of death, commingled with the unmistakable odor of ghoul stench. Somehow, the prisoners had all been turned into either ghouls or ghasts.

One cell in the southeast corner contained an unmoving corpse who - unlike the ghouls, who wore prisoner garb - was dressed in the uniform of one of the prison's guards. He lay on his back, eyes bulging out in frozen terror, with a mass of stringy webbing hanging on his face and clothes. If this had been the work of some giant spider, Wakuren couldn't see any other evidence of the arachnid's presence.

Flowing underneath the iron door, Wakuren entered the mess hall, where the four guards had taken their card game back up. Wakuren spotted the administrator's door and studiously ignored it, wanting instead to check out what was behind the other two doors in the corner of the mess hall. The door to the south led to a 30-foot-by-30-foot open chamber with 12-foot-tall walls but no ceiling. A large circle had been painted on the stone floor and at first Wakuren assumed this was some sort of magic circle, but closer inspection revealed no runes or glyphs along the circle's circumference; this was likely nothing more than an exercise yard, where the prisoners could be marched around in a circle for some fresh air and exercise - neither of which was of any benefit to a ghoul. Wakuren seeped back into the mess hall and drifted over to the other door, squeezing his vaporous body underneath its bottom edge and into an unlit hallway with stairs leading down into darkness.

Fortunately, darkness posed no hardship for a half-orc, even one currently under the effects of a gaseous form spell. Wakuren spilled down the stairs, which ended in a T-intersection veering off a short distance to the east and west. Each ended in a solid door. Choosing the west door at random, Wakuren oozed under it and saw a circular chamber just beyond, with a circular pit in its center that dropped down a good 20 feet. Standing at the bottom of this pit was another ghoul or ghast, this one with runes covering his arms and chest. He was studiously scratching his ragged fingernails - claws, really - in the side of the stone pit, working on carving away grooves deep enough to allow him to climb out of the pit. But Wakuren could tell he had a long way to go still and thus ignored the spell-stitched ghast for now, realizing he posed no immediate threat and wouldn't for some time. Instead, he backed out under the door and checked out the door to the east. He wasn't the least bit surprised to find it a mirror image of the other chamber, with an equally deep pit of the same dimensions. Wakuren was likewise not that surprised to find a half-orc lying motionlessly at the bottom of the pit; it seemed Administrator Morbhen had indeed been lying about the half-orc prisoner having been slain and his body taken away - this, no doubt, was the dreamer for which they had been looking.

Wakuren drifted over to the side of the pit's top edge and deactivated the gaseous form spell, returning to a more physical form. Then he likewise deactivated his invisibility, so that when he set down the lamp and entered its extradimensional space to brief his friends on his findings, they'd be able to see it was him.

Xandro Silverstrings exited the lamp and went to work on the door with his lockpicks; in assuming solid form Wakuren had committed them all to having to find another way out of the prison, for he had no second gaseous form spell prepared. Fortunately, they could still have one person walk out of the place invisibly, carrying the lamp in which the others all hid, but they'd have to do so on foot - and Xandro would need to work his magic on the locked doors. While the bard got the door open, the others used the rope of climbing to have Thurloe go down to the bottom of the pit and fetch the sleeping half-orc, tying one end of the rope around his chest so the others could drag him back up. They opted to bring him into the extradimensional space inside the magic lamp and leave him there - after all, they could perform the dreamwalking ritual at any time; right now it was more important finding a way back out of the prison and putting a stop to whatever plan Administrator Morbhen had hatched that required over a dozen criminal ghouls and ghasts.

"You're our quietest guy," Wakuren told Xandro, taking off his ring of invisibility and handing it over. As an added bonus, Thurloe also passed over the ring they'd received from Mrs. Picklemeyer back in Snail Valley, which allowed the bard to cast a silence spell centered on himself. "That ought to help with any squeaky doors," the spellsword advised, before returning to the lamp's interior with Alewyth, Wakuren, and Zander.

"Here goes nothing," said Xandro, picking up the lamp and activating both rings. Now both invisible and inaudible, he picked up the everburning torch Zander had left on the floor for him, which allowed him to see what he was doing as he climbed back up the stairs and when picking the lock to the door leading back into the mess hall. Once he felt the lock unlatch, he packed away his gear, put the everburning torch into his backpack, picked up the lamp, and then reactivated the ring of invisibility (as he'd deactivated it so he could see what he was doing when picking the door's lock). Then, fully invisible and inaudible once again - and with no illumination spilling out from an unseen source - he opened the door just enough to step out into the room.

The four guards were engrossed in their card game, as the bard had hoped would be the case. He shut the door to the lower level - leading to what he assumed were solitary confinement pits - without drawing their attention, and the bard allowed himself to let out an inaudible "Whew!" of relief. But his silent celebration was premature, for although the guards had paid no attention to the door opening and closing on its own, the action had been observed by the invisible quasit in centipede form - Administrator Morbhen's familiar - perched in the southwestern corner of the mess hall where he could observe the whole room (and make sure the charm person spells his master had cast upon the human guards showed no signs of wearing off). Instinctively, the quasit used its inherent ability to detect good and got a "ping" in an area right in front of the door leading to the lower level. He immediately upchanneled this information telepathically to his master, and within seconds Administrator Morbhen had dashed out of his office and was staring more or less in Xandro's direction, demanding, "Who's there?"

Xandro was spooked and instinctively made a dash for it, silently voicing the command word "eintret" and teleporting into the lamp's interior. (Fortunately, the silence spell, although preventing his utterance from being heard, still allowed the command word to take effect; apparently the lamp accepted the command word mentally as well as verbally, so long as the lamp was in physical contact with the person saying the word.) Of course, Xandro entering the lamp meant he was no longer holding onto it, so it became visible at the same time it crashed to the floor of the prison's mess hall.

"Guys!" Xandro called to the others once he'd removed Thurloe's ring of silent spells so they could hear him. "The jig's up!"

Zander called "On it!" and stepped upon the disk in the middle of the floor of the central hemisphere of the lamp's extradimensional interior, calling out "Aussteig!" and disappearing from view. He ended up next to the lamp, as usual, but it was now in the hands of Administrator Morbhen, who had bent over to pick it up and was looking at it curiously. Well, that's no good, the elf thought to himself, for he'd planned on grappling with the Administrator and teleporting with him back into the lamp where they could take him with five-to-one odds. He lunged at the evil elf but Morbhen wrested free from the sorcerer's grasp - but not before recognizing Zander as one of the five visitors from earlier that day. Zander touched the lamp, said the command word (hopefully in a low enough voice that he wasn't overheard by any of the others), and returned to the interior to report his failed plan to the others. "Yeah, I'm not so on it after all," he admitted.

<That person you grabbed had ears like yours,> the nibish-riule observed telepathically to its host. <Was that some sort of mating ritual?>

"Not now!" Zander shooshed him.

"Now what do we do?" asked Alewyth.

"We'd better get out there," Wakuren said, stepping onto the disk.

"Not so fast!" Thurloe replied, putting a restraining hand upon the half-orc's shoulder. "If we're going out there, we'd better be ready for a fight!" The spellsword began casting a mage armor spell upon himself, following it up with a shield spell from his wand. Zander cast a mage armor spell upon himself and a haste spell upon the assembled group, while Alewyth went with her traditional bless and magic circle against evil spells, the former on everyone and the latter centered upon herself. Xandro pulled out his Dardolian lute and started his song of inspirational courage, while Wakuren came up with another of his spur-of-the-moment plans.

"Everyone back off the disk!" he called, and they stepped back to give him room. The half-orc then cast a summoning spell that brought a celestial bison across the planes and onto the metal disk; the shaggy beast took up most of the space on the platform. He then placed the ring of invisibility back on his finger, activated it, stepped onto the disk, and called out "Aussteig!" - and he and the bison were gone.

As usual, they re-entered the Material Plane adjacent to the magic lamp, but a few things had changed during the time the heroes had remained inside the lamp, making plans and casting "getting-ready-for-combat" spells upon themselves. For one thing, the lamp had been placed upon one of the mess hall tables - and one that couldn't handle the sudden weight of a full-grown celestial bison. The legs gave out and the tabletop crashed to the ground. Wakuren materialized on one of the benches, which survived the sudden addition of his weight just fine. But the other change had a greater impact: Administrator Morbhen, recognizing the intruders as the earlier visitors and deducing they were here to stop his plans, decided he should implement them immediately while he still could. As a result, he was now over by the iron door to the cell block, which was wide open, and he'd activated the master switch which unlocked all of the cell doors at once. Already, gibbering ghouls and ghasts were spilling out of the doorway. "Slay everyone but me in the building!" Morbhen called, knowing the guards - mere humans, after all - had always been an expendable part of his plan.

With a snort, the celestial bison charged forward, horns lowered to smite the evil Administrator Morbhen. Wakuren, nothing more than an invisible voice at this point to the guards (who, as an unseen consequence of Morbhen's orders to his undead forces, were snapping out of the charm person spells they'd been under), called out "Touch the lamp and say 'eintret!'" The startled guards needed no further prompting, and the metal platform inside the lamp suddenly became very crowded, for the other four heroes had stepped into place, ready to exit the lamp themselves. "Go! Get off the disk!" Thurloe yelled at them, and then told one of them to give him the key to open the door to the front rooms of the prison. The guard hurriedly complied, asking no questions. Thurloe then called out "Aussteig!" and just like that, the heroes were gone.

"Where the Hell are we?" one guard asked the others. "What's going on?" But none of them had any real clue.

When the other heroes suddenly teleported around the lamp, the mess hall was already a place of chaos. Three ghouls were attacking the celestial bison, who swatted at them with its massive horns. Xandro continued playing his lute, but stepped off to the side, out of the way, giving himself some distance from the undead monstrosities that had once been prison inmates. Zander cast a summon swarm spell and suddenly there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of spiders crawling over Administrator Morbhen and a few of the nearby ghouls; the elf sorcerer noted with a bit of disappointment the spiders didn't seem to want anything to do with the undead flesh of the foul-smelling creatures and abandoned them almost immediately. But Administrator Morbhen likewise didn't appreciate being covered in hungry spiders and cast a dimension door spell that landed him in the relative safety of a hallway in the cell block. The dead body of the web-covered guard shambled by him; unbeknownst to the Administrator, there had been two sheet phantoms created by dying prisoners, and while one of them had hidden in the sewers connecting the various prison toilets the other had slain a guard, whose body had been stuffed into an unused cell for the time being. But the sheet phantom and the slain corpse had merged, resulting in a sheet ghoul; Morbhen had failed to notice any of this since neither he nor any of the living guards had been in the cell block for over a week before today. That had been the plan, after all: after charming the entire prison staff, he'd slain an inmate, carved him up, and presented it to the cook as ham to be used for the prisoners' next meal. Once they'd each been coaxed into unknowing cannibalism, they'd then been locked into their cells and starved to death, for Morbhen - an inspiring necromancer with a burning hatred for the human race that had first showed up on Armaturia's shores two thousand years earlier and who had in those two millennia driven the elves from their lands and proclaimed one of their own race as Emperor of the entire continent - well knew that those who had eaten the flesh of their own race (or possibly the flesh of any intelligent race; details differed in the necromantic texts he'd studied) would rise as ghouls and ghasts upon their deaths. Once the whole inmate population had succumbed to undeath, he'd unleash them - led by the spellstitched ghast he had created downstairs - upon the unsuspecting populace of Portersville, confident that when the undead had taken out the humans, the elves would be able to take out the ghouls and ghasts in turn, with the end result a purging of the hated humans in at least one of the many human villages. And Portersville was merely a test case; if this worked as planned the concept could be replicated in other villages, and even in the bigger cities. Administrator Morbhen dreamed of a day when the hated humans would be extinguished from the land, in much the same way the gnome population had all but died out when the humans were first making their appearances on the continent.

Alewyth stepped forward, channeling positive energy through her holy symbol of Aerik, which blasted two of the ghouls directly before her into nothingness and caused a ghast just coming through the doorway from the cellblock to turn around and flee in terror. Thurloe grabbed up the lamp and made a bee-line for the kitchen, where the cook was hiding behind his serving line. "Quick! Over here!" Thurloe called to him. "Touch the lamp and say 'eintrat' if you want to make it out of here alive!" The cook wasted no time doing as the spellsword said and soon found himself inside the lamp, surrounded by four prison guards.

Wakuren followed Alewyth's lead and channeled a blast of positive energy through his own upraised holy symbol of Cal. He wasn't as powerful a cleric as the dwarven priestess, but he managed to turn three ghasts, sending them fleeing. Then, upon his orders, the celestial bison stamped on a bunch of spiders while moving over to place his shaggy body to block the doorway to the cell block, making it more difficult for any more of the undead to enter the mess hall. The ghouls advanced, clawing at the horned beast with the glowing horns.

Xandro continued playing his inspirational song, hoping to buoy his friends' combat abilities with the power of his magical tune. But then the celestial bison froze up, paralyzed by the claws of a ghast trying to scratch its way out into the mess hall. The bison could no longer attack but at least it had a solid, four-footed stance and didn't fall over or anything as a result of his paralyzation; in this manner he was at least serving as some sort of impediment against the approaching undead.

Zander moved into position such that he could see Administrator Morbhen from between the bison's legs. A look was all it took to lock on a magic missile spell and send a quartet of glowing bolts of energy streaking through the open doorway to hit the enemy elf. Morbhen snarled and cast a protective spell on himself, still brushing off the occasional spider from the swarm Zander had summoned earlier, but which were now spreading out - some of them heading over toward Wakuren.

"We ought to go back out there and help," said one of the guards, feeling a bit guilty over hiding inside the magic lamp in safety while the strangers fought off these ghouls who had somehow made it into the prison. "Anybody remember what word the sword guy said to go back out?" One of the other guards recalled the word "Aussteig" and just that quickly they were back in the kitchen with Thurloe. The cook, not surprisingly, decided he was just fine with staying inside where it was safe.

Administrator Morbhen cast a false life spell upon himself to boost his combat capabilities. As about the same time, his familiar popped back into visibility when it struck out at Wakuren, clawing and biting at him with a ferocity that outpaced his small form. Alewyth sent another blast of positive energy through the doorway, causing more ghasts to flee; they were too tough for her to be able to cause their undead bodies to explode into dust, but she'd take forcing them away from combat as a win.

Thurloe had by this time run over to the front door and unlocked it with one of the keys on the ring the guard had given him. "Out!" he indicated to the guards. "We've got this!" The guards looked back at the combat, saw the fleeing ghasts and the celestial bison who had been summoned out of thin air, and apparently saw the wisdom of the spellsword's statement. As one, they headed for the door, where they met up with the two guards in the front station, surprised to hear all the ruckus with the door wide open.

The celestial bison was now as much an impediment to the heroes as it was to the undead so Wakuren dismissed it from service and it shifted back to its home plane as the half-orc dodged the quasit's attacks and stepped away from it. Almost immediately, the cleric-paladin of Cal summoned an air element hippogriff in its place, giving it orders to keep the turned ghasts at bay. Then the half-orc stepped through the door, entering the cell block and looking to put an end to Administrator Morbhen. Xandro raced forward, setting aside his lute for his magic longsword and swinging it at the flying quasit, catching the little fiend in the side with his blade. At the same time Zander targeted the demon familiar with a lightning bolt spell, but that happened to have been one of the weakest castings in the elven sorcerer's adventuring career, for there seemed to be very little electrical energy behind it. The quasit survived both attacks, but it seemed to be on its last legs.

Alewyth turned undead for the third time that day and sent another group of ghasts fleeing. By this time, most of the spiders from the summoned swarm had all just about gone their own separate ways as well, making them hardly a nuisance. The way clear, Thurloe raced back to the cell block and entered, finding himself behind Wakuren, who was facing down the sheet ghoul; behind that strange creature stood Administrator Morbhen. Wakuren slammed his shield down upon the sheet ghoul, who belched forth a stream of caustic acid in turn, burning the half-orc's face and giving him an even fiercer appearance than normal.

Xandro pierced the quasit through the belly and watched as it died on his blade. Zander then focused his attention back on Morbhen, hitting him with another magic missile spell. The elven necromancer retaliated with a cloudkill spell, sending a billowing cloud of choking vapors to encompass the sheet ghoul, Wakuren, Thurloe, and Zander in turn. Being a walking corpse, the spell had no effect upon the sheet ghoul, but all three of the living targets began coughing and retching as the vapors took their toll on their bodies.

But Alewyth was out of range of the spell thus far and was able to toss a holy smite spell through the open doorway such that she could pretty much guarantee Morbhen would be within its area of effect, even if he was currently obscured by the cloudkill spell. The spell's holy energy took a toll on the elven necromancer and dealt a fair amount of damage to the sheet ghoul as an added benefit. Thurloe was able to step past Wakuren and slay the sheet ghoul with a single blow of his bastard sword. And then Wakuren brought his shield down - hard - upon the necromancer's head, breaking past the stoneskin spell he'd cast upon himself for protection and still crushing the elf's skull with the power of his blow.

After that, it was a fairly simple matter to pick off the remaining ghouls and ghasts one by one, as most of them were still trying to flee from the clerics' holy energies in a room with no other exits. By then, the guards had made it outside the prison's gates and assuaged their guilt a little by setting themselves up as a reserve force, ready to attack any undead monstrosities that might make it out this far. But there were no undead remaining in their freakish semblance of life by the time the heroes met back up with the guards, after Wakuren popped back inside the lamp to tell the cook it was safe to come out now. "We'll leave the cleanup and the explanations for you," Thurloe told the guards, handing the one back his ring of keys. "Bottom line, your boss was an evil wizard who turned the inmates into ghouls and was planning on sending them against the citizens of your village. You're welcome."

The guards, fortunately, retained their memories now that the charm person spells had been broken and were able to recall what all Administrator Morbhen had done. They had no trouble allowing the heroes to remount their animals and drive their wagon out of Portersville.

"What about the half-orc prisoner still trapped in his dreams?" asked Alewyth. "We should try to wake him up."

"That can wait," replied Thurloe. "I want to put some miles between us and this town in case they get it into their heads that we need to be brought in for questioning or anything." But an hour down the road he deemed it safe enough, so Wakuren brought the mule-driven wagon to a halt and everyone tied up their mounts to a bunch of trees on a side road that looked like it didn't see a whole lot of traffic. Then they reconvened inside the lamp, where they placed a dreamstone headband upon the half-orc and sat in the customary circle around him, each dreamwalker wearing his or her own leather headband.

"Ready to wake this one up, kupo?" Mogo asked as he once again opened the door to the half-orc's dream, this time with the expectation his five students would be able to put an end to the dream running on a seemingly endless loop. However, perhaps because of the presence of the dreamstones, this time they got to see the dream in its entirety. It began with the half-orc, staggering down the street in a half-drunken stupor, shake himself to a state of semi-sobriety at the sound of a woman's scream. Looking over to his left, he saw a roguish young man dragging a wealthy-looking woman into an alleyway, no doubt with intentions to rob her of her riches - or perhaps even to do something even worse. "Hey," slurred the half-orc. "Hey!" He followed the two deeper into the alley, where the man had a short sword aimed at the woman's stomach as she fearfully removed her necklace and rings. The man spun at the half-orc's approach, stabbing the woman in the stomach in the process. She fell to the ground of the filthy alleyway, a pool of blood spreading slowly from where she lay. The thief whirled on the half-orc, who put up a defense that cost him a slice on his raised left forearm. But then he got his right hand over the thief's and the two struggled to gain control of the blade. They wrestled back and forth, and eventually the tip of the blade found its way in the thief's own belly as the half-orc grabbed it from his grasp. "You okay, lady?" he asked, staggering over to the woman's now-cooling corpse, which lay where it had fallen. But there were cries over from the street and the half-orc turned to face them: it was a trio of guardsmen racing at the half-orc, who stood over the bodies of two humans with the bloody blade that had killed them in his hand.

"This is where we came in last time," Thurloe said as he stepped in front of the half-orc and used the blade of his bastard sword to parry the first strike of the closest town guardsman.

"He's innocent!" Wakuren called to the security forces, blocking the second guard's blade-strike with his shield. But Thurloe shook his head at the half-orc's naïve insistence of trying to get others to see reason. "This is just a dream, remember!" he said, sending his blade stabbing directly through the heart of the guardsman he was fighting. "We're not hurting any real people," he said as he lopped the head off the third guardsman, who had stepped up to take the place of the first one Thurloe had slain.

"Good point," said Alewyth, bringing Sjondra crashing down to crush the skull of the last remaining guardsman. As he fell to the ground, quite obviously dead, the drunken half-orc blinked in surprise at this sudden turn of events and then looked in puzzlement as the walls of the alleyway started dripping away like spilled paint.

"He's waking up," Xandro pointed out. "We'd best do the same."

Six figures came to full wakefulness at about the same time, inside the extradimensional space of the night hag's lamp. "Are you all right?" asked Alewyth.

"Think so," said the half-orc, looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

"Do you have any family in Portersville?" asked Wakuren.

"Family? No, I got no family."

"What's your name?"

"Scarlie Besker."

"Well, Scarlie, considering you were sent to prison for a crime you didn't commit and we more or less broke you out of Bleakstone Prison, do you have any objections to traveling with us for a bit? We can pay you to take care of our mounts and draft animals, if you're of a mind."

"That sounds great to me," replied Scarlie. "Say, I don't suppose any of you has anything to drink...?"

- - -

And with that, the PCs hired their first full-time NPC hireling in this campaign, which I surprisingly did not see coming as I had tried setting them up with someone (Jingo Pebblebrain) who could take care of their horses, mules, and dire goat while they were off adventuring and they didn't want any part of it. But after this adventure was over I did up some quick stats for Scarlie Besker and found an image I liked so I could build him an initiative card, so now should he ever get involved in any of their adventures he's all set to go.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, since that's what Administrator Morbhen was creating out of his prisoner charges.
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