Dreams of Erthe

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 33: BIRTH DAY MASSACRE

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: 7 August 2022

- - -

"This is getting ridiculous," griped Xandro dejectedly. "Surely somebody's gotta know where there's someone who's been asleep for a long time and can't be awakened normally!" Since arriving in the village of Basutra, they'd been hitting the normal places - taverns, inns, the constabulary, temples - but they'd had no luck in tracking down the person who Mogo insisted was somewhere in town.

"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," suggested Alewyth. "We ought to go back to the constabulary and see if there have been any missing person cases recently - maybe the dreamer is somewhere nobody's found them." It was as good an idea as any, but it too bore no fruit.

"Let's go check back in with Mogo," Wakuren decided. "Maybe he can help us fine-tune the location." And thus Scarlie Besker, the half-orc recently hired to look after the group's wagon and associated mounts while they were off adventuring, once again found himself performing one of the stranger functions of his new job: watching over an oil lamp that had been left in the back of the wagon, while one by one his bosses disappeared into it. But once inside the extradimensional space of the lamp, the five dreamwalkers prepared themselves for a mid-day nap, slowing their breathing and turning off all thoughts, allowing sleep to overtake them. One by one, they left their physical bodies and emerged in the Dreamlands, where they were met by their individual moogle guides and ushered over to where Mogo had set up camp in the Hall of Dreams, a series of seemingly endless corridors filled with side-by-side doors as far as the eye could see, each door the access point to an individual dream.

"Any way you can get us any closer to where this next dreamer's supposed to be?" Thurloe asked the humanoid kitten with the bat wings and the pom-pom dangling from a forehead antenna.

"In the town of Basutra, kupo!" Mogo repeated, surprised they hadn't been able to find the dreamer yet. After all, Basutra wasn't that big of a town, as far as human dwelling-places went.

"Let's take a look at the dream - maybe it'll give us a clue or something," suggested Zander Quilson.

"Okay, but I think Xandro's going to be a little embarrassed by this one, kupo!" Mogo replied, opening the door to the dream and fluttering back out of the way.

"What do you mean?" asked the bard.

"You'll see, kupo!"

Frowning in puzzlement, Xandro stepped into the dream and found a trio of humans standing all in a line: a teenaged boy flanked by a blond girl on one side and an older, dark-haired lady on the other. The blonde tugged on the boy's arm and said coquettishly, "Come on, Henry! We can use the barn - nobody will see us!"

"Don't waste your time with that one," answered the 30-year-old woman, tugging on Henry's other arm with equal vigor. "She's just a child - she can't possibly love you the way I do!"

"Like Hell I can't!" spat the blond girl, slipping her blouse up and over her head and rubbing up against Henry. "We can do anything you like," she purred, and Henry had a hard time taking his eyes off her.

But then the older woman turned Henry's head her way with her hand, revealing that her top had also disappeared. "She's just so...inexperienced," she told the young man. "Whereas I can teach you pleasures you've never before imagined."

"Don't be an idiot!" Thurloe yelled at the lad. "See if they'll both go to the barn with you!"

"You're the one being an idiot!" scowled Alewyth, swatting the spellsword on the chest in irritation with the back of her hand. "On the one hand, ew! And on the other, we can't interact with the dream since we're not there physically with the dreamer in the Mortal World."

"I'm just trying to help him make the obviously correct choice," Thurloe observed, gaining him another scowl from the dwarven priestess. Then he looked over at Xandro, who had averted his gaze from the trio in embarrassment, as the two young women were now apparently in a race to show their devotion to Henry by proving which one could strip the fastest. "Go ahead and look," Thurloe teased the bard. "You might learn something."

"Well, we've learned nothing about the dreamer's location," observed Wakuren. "But at least we know we're looking for a young human lad named Henry."

"Do we, though?" asked Alewyth. "Either of the girls could be the dreamer."

"Hmm, true enough," conceded the half-orc. "Okay, I think we've seen enough."

"Hey, speak for yourself!" argued Thurloe, who was willing to give this particular dream a lot more of his attention - all day and night, if it came to that. But Alewyth had opened the door back up and was talking to Mogo. "Can you track the dreamer any closer than 'somewhere in Basutra?'" she asked.

"Well, if one of you wants to stay asleep, I can triangulate between this dream and that of the dreamwalker, kupo," suggested Mogo. Wakuren instantly volunteered and the others woke themselves back up, then exited the magic lamp, startling Scarlie, who never had any idea when they were just going to pop back into existence like that. If not for the fact he hadn't had any alcohol that day (it was still only mid-morning), he'd have assumed he'd had too much to drink and was seeing things.

"Can you hear me, kupo?" asked Mogo, this time the voice coming from Alewyth's enchanted dwarven warhammer, Sjondra. The moogles had recently devised a means by which they could communicate with the dreamwalkers through the dreamstones embedded in the signature items they each carried.

"Loud and clear," Alewyth replied.

"You need to go further north from your present location, kupo!" The others climbed onto the saddles of their respective riding mounts and indicated for Scarlie to follow them. Once again thinking how oddly his life had changed since meeting up with these new bosses, the half-orc climbed back into the seat of the wagon and gave the mules a snap of the reins to get them going.

After a few more course corrections, Mogo eventually declared he couldn't get them any closer than he already had. "It's not that easy tracking you guys from an entirely different plane of existence, kupo!" he declared. "But the dreamer's somewhere close by, kupo!"

"I'll wake up now," Wakuren told the others through Sjondra's dreamstones. "Be out in a bit." And sure enough, in half a minute or so the half-orc had reappeared in the seat beside Scarlie, scaring his fellow half-orc half out of his wits. "I need a drink," Scarlie muttered to himself.

"So, where are we?" Wakuren asked the others, having missed out on the traveling through the town the others had experienced while he slept.

"Fancy part of town," Thurloe replied. "Where the noblemen all have their fancy houses." Their little caravan had ended up at a stone-and-wooden manor house, shaped rather like a squashed "H" when viewed from the top, with the southern wing being two full stories tall and the rest of the house just the one. Across the way stood a carriage house and stables. A few steps onto a front landing in the center of the manor house led to a set of double doors, upon which had been carved the Vesperman family crest: a flying wasp about to sting. "How do we want to do this?"

"What do you mean?" asked Zander.

"I mean," Thurloe explained, "if the dreamer's in there, there's gotta be a reason nobody's reported it. Remember, nobody's been to the temples asking the clerics to awaken anybody they can't wake up themselves. That means there's a reason for keeping it secret."

"Simple embarrassment?" guessed Xandro. "Nobody wanting to admit a member of a noble family could have that sort of thing happen to them?"

"Possibly," admitted Alewyth. "But maybe Wakuren and I should go talk to them. People open up to clerics."

"Fine. We'll stay back here with the animals," Thurloe replied. "I'm sure the human nobility will open right up to a half-orc." It was no skin off his nose, in any case; let the clerics do all the explaining. Alewyth and Wakuren walked up the steps and the priestess knocked loudly on the door. They'd both assumed the doors would be opened by a butler or maid and were surprised when it was instead a pair of armed and armored dwarves who answered.

"Whadda you want, orc?" spat one of them while the other got a good look at Alewyth and spoke with a much more cultured tone. "Why good day to you, Miss," he said. "And how may I help you?" The one who'd snarled at Wakuren noticed the dwarven priestess and all thoughts of him were immediately forgotten; the half-orc might have been invisible for all they paid any attention to him (although he had not, in fact, activated his ring).

Realizing their interest in her, Alewyth played it up, giving them her best smile and batting her eyes as she explained why they had come, painting the dream sickness in broad strokes and emphasizing it had struck many people across the continent from all different walks of life. "We're not sure why the Nightmare King is doing this," she added, "but I'm sure a pair of strong warriors like yourselves can see the obvious advantage of defeating an enemy's plans."

"Oh, absolutely," agreed one of the dwarves. "But why here, specifically? There's nobody here been sleeping any longer than normal."

"Are you sure?" Alewyth prompted.

"Positive," the other dwarf added. "So I'm afraid we can't help you...but you know, we get off shift at twilight. If you wanted to swing by then, we could show you a real good time."

The priestess of Aerik, God of Protection, swallowed any outrage and ignored the suggestion, pressing on with her original goal. "Well," she said, "would it be possible for us to see your Lord? I assume a pair of good-looking, fighting dwarves like you must be his bodyguards, am I right?"

"His personal retinue," bragged the first dwarf. "But Lord Vesperman is expecting company and probably wouldn't want to be disturbed."

"Would you mind checking? For me?" Alewyth battered her eyelashes something fierce, and while it had the desired effect - one of the dwarves sent a human maid to see if he'd take a visit by a priestess of Aerik looking for a trapped sleeper - the end result was not what she had hoped for. "Forgive me, Miss," said the maid, curtsying, "but the Lord is not taking visitors at this time."

"Sorry," replied one of the dwarves. "Remember, though: twilight." And he gave Alewyth a wink no doubt meant to make her weak in the knees as he closed the door in the clerics' faces. Instead, it made her want to spit. "Conceited, strutting rooster!" she snarled. But as she and Wakuren started making their way back to the wagon, Thurloe, still astride his horse Horse, heard a whisper coming from the back of the house. "Pssst!" signaled another maid, waving for the spellsword to come over to talk to her. Curious, Thurloe led Horse her way without bothering to dismount.

"What's up?" he asked her once Horse got to the back corner of the house.

"Mrs. Wiggins, the head housekeeper, wishes to speak with your group!" the maid said in a low voice, looking back behind her as if fearing to be found out. "She thinks she can help you find your dreamer!" Thurloe dismounted from his horse and motioned for the others to join him, leaving Scarlie to come fetch Horse's bridle and lead him back to the wagon with the other mounts.

The maid led the group into the back of the manor house, signaling for silence as she opened the door to the kitchen and from there through an adjoining door leading to a laundry room. They were met by an elderly woman, probably close to 60 summers if she hadn't already passed that age, who introduced herself as Mrs. Wiggins. "I think you might be looking for Lady Angelica," she said without preamble. "We'll sneak you upstairs to see her when Lord Andrus is busy with his business partner, who should be arriving any minute now. We'll wait here until they retire to the brandy room; while it's possible Lord Andrus might step into the kitchen to talk to one of the maids, there's no chance he'll come back here to the laundry room. We can talk, if we keep our voices down."

"What makes you think Lady Angelica is the dreamer?" asked Alewyth. "Has she been asleep for an unusually long time?"

"That's just the thing: none of us knows," Mrs. Wiggins replied. "Lord Andrus has forbidden any of us to see her for the past week or more. He takes all of her meals up to her, and we've not even been allowed to fetch her linen or bedclothes. She's with child, their first," she explained.

"How far along?" Alewyth asked.

"Eight and a half months. And she was right as rain up until we were no longer allowed to tend to her, all excited at her new role as a mother. She said she hoped it was a boy, because Lord Andrus wants a son, but all she wants is a healthy, happy baby, like any good mother."

"Why would her husband want to keep her status a secret?" asked Thurloe. "It doesn't make a lot of sense."

"I quite agree. The maids and I are quite worried about her, not having been able to tend to her as before."

"How would you describe Lord Andrus?" asked Wakuren.

"Very much an aristocrat," answered Mrs. Wiggins. "He wants what he wants and won't take 'no' for an answer. I wouldn't exactly say cruel, but determined. And somewhat cold. He spends much of his time traveling on his various business ventures, and when he's at home he spends a lot of time up in his arcane lab." The housekeeper sour expression said she didn't feel a nobleman should be tinkering around with something like spellcraft.

"What's Mrs. Vesperman like?" Thurloe asked abruptly.

"Lady Angelica," Mrs. Wiggins emphasized, "is a very dutiful wife. As I said, she's looking forward to being a mother, and--"

"No, no," interrupted the spellsword. "I mean, what does she look like?" Mrs. Wiggins went on to describe the lady of the manor, and Thurloe's face took on a smirk as the housekeeper described a dark-haired woman in her early thirties who could definitely have been one of the two women fighting over Henry in the dream. "I think we've figured out whose dream it was," he told the others. He didn't want to say anything out loud in front of the hired help, but it seemed Lady Angelica had been having a fling with this teenaged Henry person - and maybe Lord Andrus found out and was none too pleased.

"He's here!" whispered the maid, who had peeked through the door to the kitchen upon hearing a knocking at the front door. They could hear Lord Andrus's footsteps coming down the stairs from above as he met his guest. As anticipated, they went to the northern wing of the building, to the brandy room just off the dining hall.

"Now, we'll need to be quiet," Mrs. Wiggins advised, looking at Wakuren's metal armor and frowning. "We don't want Lord Andrus hearing you clanking up the stairs."

"That won't be a problem," Wakuren promised, as Thurloe passed over his ring of silent spells to the half-orc and then vanished into the oil lamp. One by one, the others likewise entered the extradimensional space inside the lamp Wakuren held, leaving only him, Mrs. Wiggins, and the young maid. Then he and the lamp vanished as well, when he activated his ring of invisibility. "I'm still here," Wakuren's voice announced quietly, "but I'm going to activate another magic ring that will create a zone of silence all around me. Nobody will be able to see me or hear me as I follow you up the stairs," he promised. "And when we get to Lady Angelica, the others will exit the lamp and we'll see what we can do about waking her up." Then he activated Thurloe's ring and, as promised, a zone of absolute silence surrounded the invisible cleric-paladin of Cal.

The maid went about her duties lest she be missed, while Mrs. Wiggins walked silently up the stairs to the second floor of the southern wing. She walked past two doors on either side of the short hallway and headed for the door straight ahead, making as if to insert a key into the keyhole when Wakuren's invisible hand on her wrist suddenly stopped her; fortunately, her startled shriek was absorbed by the silence spell in effect all around the half-orc. But before he let Mrs. Wiggins open the locked door of the master bedroom, Wakuren cast a detect magic spell and confirmed there were no magical wards upon the door. Releasing the housekeeper's hand, he allowed her to open the door, then he looked inside.

There, on the four-poster bed at the back of the room, lay Lady Angelica in a white nightgown, her belly extended in late pregnancy. Her eyes were closed and she rested peacefully. Looking around the room with his still-active detect magic spell, Wakuren noted a pair of dressers, a writing desk and chair, a makeup table with mirror, and doors presumably to a bathroom and a closet. But there were also magical auras glowing in the half-orc's sight: a zone around the foot of the bed which he took to be the trigger area of an alarm spell, as well as a three-dimensional sculpture of the Vesperman family crest, which Wakuren had no doubt would animate if triggered. This put a few wrinkles on their plan, for there was no simple way to get to Lady Angelica without triggering the alarm spell. It didn't look like they'd be able to perform the ritual in the bedroom - there was no way to ensure Lord Andrus would be involved with his business discussion for the length of time it would take to perform the dream-waking ritual - and if they tried to get Lady Angelica into the extradimensional lamp they'd no doubt trigger the alarm spell and activate the foot-long metal wasp from the Vesperman family crest sculpture.

So, it looked like the plan needed some finessing: he'd have to touch Lady Angelica, get her into the lamp with him, then pop back out, grab up the lamp, and cast a gaseous form spell upon himself and the lamp and head back to the wagon. Then they could put some distance between themselves and the Vesperman estate, performing the ritual from inside the lamp if need be. With that thought in mind, Wakuren - still invisible - crossed the room and opened one of the windows on the far wall, giving himself an easy escape route once in cloud form. However, there were several things Wakuren's hastily-modified plan had failed to take into account. While he'd successfully deduced that was an alarm spell trigger surrounding the bed, stepping into it would not activate the metal wasp from the family crest: it was a wasp construct (and, in fact, the familiar of Lord Andrus Vesperman), it was already aware there was someone in the room (having observed first the door open and then the window) and it had already mentally alerted its master via their shared empathic link, so Wakuren avoiding the area of the alarm spell wasn't going to prevent anything from happening that wasn't already going on.

Wakuren was still in the middle of the magical silence effect so he didn't hear the commotion downstairs as Lord Vesperman called for the dwarves to see his business partner back out the front door and then rushed up the stairs, but he did see the wasp construct animate and attack Mrs. Wiggins, the only visible person who wasn't supposed to be there. It stabbed at her with its abdominal stinger, catching her in the side of the neck, causing her to scream aloud (which was also not heard by Wakuren). But he summoned an air element hippogriff to keep the wasp construct at bay as he stepped forward (alarm spell be damned!), placed the lamp under the bed where it hopefully wouldn't be noticed, put his foot upon it to keep in contact, and mentally activated the command word that whisked both him and Lady Angelica into the extradimensional space inside the lamp.

Once inside, Wakuren deactivated the effects of both rings and gave the other heroes a very brief update of what was going on outside. He was not aware, however, that Lord Andrus was now pushing Mrs. Wiggins aside and stepping through the doorway to his bedroom, where he saw his familiar fighting it out against a hippogriff seemingly made of billowing clouds and an empty bed where his paralyzed wife should be. Nor did the half-orc cleric-paladin know that while one dwarf was stomping up the stairs behind his master, the other one, having gotten rid of the visitor, had activated the pair of dread guards standing in the entry foyer and the three were also heading for the stairs. Likewise, he didn't see Lord Andrus summon a creature of his own, a fiendish giant wasp, to help combat the air element hippogriff Wakuren had called forth to keep the wasp construct at bay.

But even had he been aware of all the commotion outside, the events inside the lamp would likewise have commanded all of his attention - as, indeed, was occurring right now. Lady Angelica, having been placed gently on the floor of the lamp just off the landing platform (because once Wakuren said the command word that would send him back outside the lamp, anyone else on the platform would be coming along for the ride), was at first sleeping as gently as she had been on her own bed. But then her eyes opened, she gave a shudder, and cried out in a closed-mouth gasp as her extended belly began undulating. The clean, white nightgown she wore suddenly sprouted a red dot along her belly, which slowly expanded. Her neck muscles taut, she gasped again in pain, trying to scream but hardly able to move.

Alewyth was beside the pregnant noblewoman in a moment. "Just give her minimal healing," Thurloe suggested, not wanting the dwarven priestess to expend her most powerful spells if a cure minor wounds spell would do. Frowning in puzzlement at the odd request, Alewyth did as suggested but had one of her most powerful spells ready to be converted to a blast of healing energy if needed. The cure minor wounds seemed to stabilize Lady Angelica for a moment, but then the stain started spreading again and a bone-white, triangular head burst through the noblewoman's stomach and nightgown. A massive grub burrowed out of the paralyzed woman's belly, streaked in her own blood.

Five involuntary cries of horror erupted from the heroes' throats at the sight of the giant larva crawling out of its warm-blooded host. Zander fled the room, but it was merely to fetch the chest the night hag who had previously owned the magic lamp had kept; dragging it over to the main chamber, he opened its lid and pointed it in the direction of the massive maggot. "Somebody throw it in!" he said, well aware that by being the one holding the magic chest he wasn't going to be the one to have to touch the larval creature.

As the monster grub crawled completely out of Lady Angelica's body, exposing its full twelve inches of length, Alewyth cast a cure serious wounds spell on the noblewoman's chewed-through body, closing up the hole the maggot had eaten open to make its escape from its unwitting host. Thurloe decided he'd have to be the one to take the plunge, so he set aside his bastard sword, grabbed the slimy, wriggling thing up in his hands, and tossed it into the open chest. As soon as its squishy body hit the chest's interior it started shrinking, until it was a mere one-eighth of its true size. Zander wasted no time in slamming the lid shut and Xandro helped him latch it closed.

Shaken by what he'd seen and now wondering just what kind of arcane experimentation Lord Andrus had been performing on his wife, Wakuren realized time was of the essence and reactivated his ring of invisibility before saying the word that shunted him back out into the master bedroom. Ignoring the melee going on over on the other side of the bed, he bent over, picked up the lamp, and cast a gaseous form spell upon himself before floating out the open window as fast as his nephomorphic body would take him. Once outside, he floated over to the wagon before deactivating his spell and telling Scarlie to drive the wagon further away from the manor house. The half-orc driver nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of a disembodied voice giving him orders, but he quickly recognized the voice as belonging to the only other half-orc of their little group and complied. Wakuren deactivated the ring of invisibility, ensured the lamp was secure in the back of the wagon, and said the word that sent him back inside with the others.

"What's going on out there?" demanded Thurloe. Wakuren did his best to catch them all up to speed. Soon after, the paralyzation that had kept Lady Angelica all but immobile wore off and she looked about her with frightened eyes. "Where am I?" she demanded. "Who are you?" And then, looking down at her ripped and bloody nightgown, "Where is my baby?" Alewyth did what she could to calm her down, explaining that they were good people (showing her the dwarf's holy symbol of Aerik helped there) seeking to save her from terrible danger, and - after explaining what she'd see when they opened the lid - did just that, to expose the shrunken, writhing grub to its erstwhile mother for a moment before snapping the lid back shut.

"I don't understand - why is this happening?" sobbed Lady Angelica, distraught at the thought she wouldn't be the mother of her husband's healthy, human son after all.

"Your husband has been subjecting you to some sort of magical experimentation," hazarded Wakuren, before coming to a sudden realization. "And with you rescued and out of the picture--we've got to go back for Mrs. Wiggins and the maids!" The elderly housekeeper was undoubtedly too old for a normal pregnancy, but if the wizardly nobleman was somehow injecting these grubs in people, she'd serve just as well as anyone else as an incubator....

"I'll tell Scarlie to go back," Wakuren told the others, before shunting back outside to the wagon and giving the poor drunkard another near heart attack. In the meantime, Thurloe led the others in casting their get-ready-for-imminent-combat spells. He cast a mage armor spell upon himself and capped it off with a hit from his wand of shield, while Zander Quilson cast mage armor on himself and haste on the group (while realizing that this time Wakuren wouldn't receive the benefit of that second spell - oh well). Alewyth cast a bless spell on the group, shrugging that Wakuren would be missing out on that one as well. Xandro, lacking anything else to do, took out his Dardolian lute and began strumming its strings, beginning the words to his song of inspirational courage. Then, as Alewyth promised Lady Angelica she'd be safe inside the lamp and tucking her into her own bed, Thurloe joined the two half-orcs outside by the wagon.

By this time, Scarlie had wheeled the wagon around and returned to the side of the Vesperman estate. Thurloe had cooked up a plan and raced off to the back kitchen door, where he fished into his coin purse for a gold piece, which he then placed on the ground behind him but off to the side where it would hopefully catch the eye of anyone opening the door - he was counting on it being one of the dwarven bodyguards, and he was likewise counting on the tales of dwarven greed holding true. In the meantime, Wakuren grabbed the lamp - inside which were still Alewyth, Xandro, and Zander, along with a distraught Lady Angelica - and started peeking through the ground floor windows along the southern wing. He found the maids' room first, opening the window and letting himself in, which frightened three of them before the fourth recognized him and reassured the others he was an ally. She explained to Wakuren they had been locked into their room by a furious Lord Andrus, and he in turn told them the command word to the lamp, holding it out so they could join Lady Angelica in a place of safety. Once they were all inside, he crawled back out the window and continued his explorations until he found Mrs. Wiggins locked in her own room. He did the same with her, getting her safely inside before returning to the maids' room - it was bigger and thus better for his purposes. He popped back inside only long enough to fetch the other three heroes, and then set Xandro Silverstrings to picking the lock of the maids' room so they'd have access to the manor's interior, hopefully without Lord Andrus or his dwarven bodyguards being any the wiser.

Thurloe, however, was putting his own scheme into play. Pounding on the back door to the kitchen, he waited until it opened and a scowling, bearded face appeared. "'Scuse me, sir," Thurloe said in his best impression of an inebriated panhandler, "but would you have any change to spare for a man down on his luck?" He staggered a bit to help sell the concept, and made sure to sway away from the gold piece so it would be in full view of the dwarf. But the dwarf didn't take the bait; rather, he called out, "Beat it, bum!" and slammed the door in Thurloe's face.

The spellsword, realizing subterfuge wasn't going to cut it, kicked the door in as he pulled the bastard sword from its sheath on his back. "And what if I don't?" he taunted the dwarf, who met Thurloe's blade with a dwarven waraxe of his own. Just that quickly, there was a life-or-death combat going on in the Vesperman's massive kitchen area. Thurloe got first blood, but the dwarf scowled it off and ignored the pain, swinging with his axe and slicing the side of Thurloe's arm while calling out the estate was under attack. The second dwarf took a moment to activate the two dread guards once again before heading over to the threat in the kitchen. The animated armor took up defensive stances in the foyer, ready to attack any strangers who might enter. And up at the top of the stairs stood Lord Andrus, his wasp construct familiar hovering protectively before him.

Back in the maids' room, Xandro had made quick work of the lock and had stepped back, casting a heroism spell on Wakuren. Zander crawled out the window to go try his luck with Thurloe at the back door to the kitchen, while Wakuren and Alewyth crept down the central hallway of the south wing, headed for the door to the foyer. Xandro followed, but took a side route through the laundry room, ending up in the kitchen where Thurloe and the first bodyguard were fighting it out, with the second dwarf about to enter the kitchen from the foyer. Then things got even more interesting as a few more combatants entered the fray. Zander cast a scorching ray spell at the dwarf Thurloe was fighting, while Wakuren burst through the door to the foyer and summoned a celestial bison at the foot of the stairs. Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and stepped into the foyer, Sjondra at the ready. The two dread guards turned to face the bison and attacked. Now one of the dwarves was fighting a losing battle against Thurloe and Zander while the second turned to swipe at the massive, shaggy-furred bison through the door to the kitchen.

From the top of the stairs came the sound of spellcasting, and suddenly a swarm of angry wasps appeared in the foyer, stinging in a frenzy at the bison. The wasp construct familiar took advantage of the attack to fly over the bison, getting itself lost in the swarm (although it was much larger than a normal wasp) long enough to enter the kitchen through the open doorway. It hovered in the doorway to the dining area, observing the progress of the fight in the kitchen and passing along its findings to its master. But the fight didn't last too much longer for the first dwarf, for Zander slew him with another scorching ray. The second dwarf, seeing the futility of trying to fight a bison through a doorway from another room, decided to cast his fate fighting a threat to which he was more accustomed: namely, Thurloe and Zander, and now Xandro as well as the bard came in through the laundry room door, stepping behind Thurloe and continuing his inspirational song of courage on his lute.

The bison, protected from the worst of the wasp swarm's stings by its shaggy fur, spun in place and stabbed at the nearest dread guard with a massive horn, putting a visible dent in the animated armor. Wakuren took the opportunity to squeeze past the bison's hindquarters, entering the wasp swarm for a moment as he did so, and make his way up the stairs to where Lord Andrus stood like a general overseeing the movements of his troops. The half-orc silently vowed to bring the battle directly to this particular general. Channeling positive energy through his body and into his shield, he slammed the wizard with a smiting attack, deciding to fight him on another front at the same time. "We've got your grub trapped in a secure location," he taunted the nobleman. "And your wife is fine, although you probably don't care a whole lot about her, do you? What a pitiful excuse for nobility you turned out to be!"

Wakuren had dripped scorn into every word of his last sentence, but Lord Andrus was fixated on what the half-orc had said before. "What have you done with my son?" he screamed in frustration, his face a mask of living rage. Below him, Alewyth cast a summoning spell of her own and brought forth a fiendish giant praying mantis, which wasted no time in flashing out with its barbed forearms and grabbing at the second dread guard.

Thurloe swigged down a potion of neutralize poison before the remaining dwarven bodyguard crossed the kitchen to face him; he didn't particularly like the look of that mechanical wasp and didn't trust it not to be filled with some sort of virulent venom. And sure enough, the familiar darted forward, headed not for Thurloe but for Zander, having determined the spellcaster was a bigger potential threat to his master. The wasp's clockwork abdomen thrust forward and a metal stinger pierced the elven sorcerer's flesh, pumping in a dose of venom, but Zander gutted it out and avoided the worst of the poison's effects. Then he counterattacked with a shocking grasp spell, learning in the process that the mechanical insect seemed to be particularly vulnerable to electricity - good to know!

The dread guards had now split up, one taking on the bison and the other concentrating on the fiendish mantis. The wasp swarm expanded, some of them continuing to try to sting the celestial bison while others went over to engulf Alewyth within their swarm. The bison continued to ignore the cloud of insects, continuing its attacks upon the dread guard, whose armor now included a few rents completely through the metal, revealing there was nothing inside the armor at all. Alewyth stepped out of the swarm and swung Sjondra into the side of the dread guard engaged in combat with her summoned mantis. The animated constructs continued fighting their current targets - the bison and mantis - apparently not capable of high-level reasoning to determine the optimal foe on which to concentrate their attacks.

Up on the landing past the staircase, Lord Andrus took a step back from the approaching Wakuren and cast a hold person spell on him, but it had no effect. Wakuren pulled back his right arm and summoned up a lightning bolt from his gauntlet of Cal, flinging the javelin of lightning directly into his foe's chest. Down in the kitchen, Thurloe cut a deep gash across the dwarven bodyguard's chest with his bastard sword and then Xandro stepped up and finished the job with a deep stab of his longsword. The dwarf fell to the kitchen floor, dead. The wasp construct then abandoned the kitchen, flying back over the celestial bison's broad back and up the stairs, attacking Wakuren from behind. But Wakuren ignored the poison's effects as well as Zander had earlier.

Lord Andrus stepped into his bedroom and slammed the door shut, leaning against it to prevent the enraged half-orc from pushing his way through. Still infuriated himself about the capture of his grub, he managed to focus on the words of a much-needed stoneskin spell. And then, most of his useful combat spells already having been cast, he saw no more need to remain in his human form and allowed the change to come over him, returning him to his natural guise....

Zander stepped out of the kitchen and into the foyer, casting a lightning bolt spell that took out most of the wasp swarm, as well as both dread guards, all in one fell swoop. "Nice one, Zander!" Alewyth called from the foyer, her battle foe now a collapsed pile of unmoving armor pieces on the floor before her.

Seeing the foes downstairs had been vanquished and there was no way the celestial bison would fit up the staircase, Wakuren casually dismissed him from service and focused his attention on the door before him. Lord Andrus was no doubt expecting him - a dumb, brutish half-orc, and a member of the common class to boot - to go smashing his way through the bedroom door. And though there was a part of him that very much wanted to do that very thing, Wakuren tamped down the impulse and decided to put his reason to bear. He opened the door to his left and sure enough, it was unlocked. He stepped into a spacious bathroom, with a door on the other side that no doubt led into the bedroom. Crossing the room, he opened the other door and stepped into the bedroom...

...and saw, there in the corner of the room, his massive bulk holding closed the main door of the bedroom, a six-limbed humanoid insect, with black and yellow chitin covering its body. Here at last was Lord Andrus Vesperman in his true form: not that of a human, but of a werewasp. Despite the nobleman's wizardly studies, Wakuren instantly realized the grub that had eaten its way out of the body of Lady Angelica wasn't some sort of arcane experiment but the werewasp's true progeny, the next in his line of insectoid generation.

These thoughts and realizations took but a moment, and then Wakuren was back to letting his rage take the wheel. He raced across the distance and slammed his shield into the werewasp, only then realizing the creature was protected by a stoneskin spell. Still, that wouldn't do anything but prolong the inevitable, the half-orc swore to himself. Lord Andrus spun to face Wakuren, abandoning his attempts at keeping the main door closed, and that allowed Alewyth to enter and attack the werewasp with her enchanted dwarven warhammer. And while she was engaging the lord of the manor, her summoned mantis managed to grab hold of the wasp construct in its serrated claws and break it into several pieces.

Thurloe pounded up the stairs behind Alewyth, opting to go through the bathroom to get into the bedroom, as the dwarf was blocking the more direct entrance. He attacked Lord Andrus with his bastard sword, smashing past the stoneskin protection and managing to cut into the werebeast's chitinous armor. With all the action now going on upstairs, Xandro cautiously walked up the steps and entered the bedroom through the bathroom, his lute back out and the song of inspirational courage being played as loudly as he could.

Lord Andrus looked about him and singled Xandro out as the weakest, no doubt due to his lack of heavy armor and the fact he currently had no weapon at hand. But despite lashing out with the claws of his two larger hands (he had a smaller set of limbs in his hybrid form, growing just beneath his longer set of arms, but they had nowhere near the reach and were typically not used in combat), snapping with his serrated mandibles, and jabbing forward with the sharp stinger poking out from the tip of his abdomen, Xandro expertly dodged each attack as it was made, infuriatingly not even missing a beat from his lute-playing - as if the werewasp were not even a big enough threat to cease playing his tune!

Then Zander came up the stairs behind Alewyth and sent a scorching ray firing over her shoulders to strike the werewasp. Wounded as he'd been from the physical attacks that had chipped away at his stoneskin protection, the blasts of flame were enough to push Lord Andrus over the edge and into death. He fell to the floor of his bedroom, all of his plans dashed. But if the whispering wind spell he'd managed to cast before being slain worked as he'd hoped, he might yet have his revenge....

The battle over, the heroes dragged the bodies of the dead outside into the back yard before allowing the women to exit from the lamp back into the manor house. Mrs. Wiggins and the maids had managed to comfort Lady Angelica in the meantime, and she stood regally and asked to be shown the body of her husband. She frowned in puzzlement at the form of the wasp-thing the heroes showed her, but even as a half-human monstrosity she could see enough of Lord Andrus in the shape of the brow to realize, deep down, that all she was being told was true: her husband was never a human but some sort of hybrid insect-thing, and her marriage was never anything but a means by which he'd use her body as an incubator to grow the next generation of his horrid race. "That white grub thing, that chewed its way out of my body...I want it slain," she declared.

"And we will," Alewyth assured her.

"That still leaves us up in the air about the dreamer," Thurloe pointed out. Wakuren, not wanting the spellsword to start describing the intimate details of the dream itself, stepped in and started describing the young man from the dream. "Why, that's Henry," one of the maids piped up after hearing him described, and Mrs. Wiggins added that Henry was a stable boy in the Vesperman employ, but he was inherently lazy and apparently took off about a week ago. "Probably went off to spend time with that farmer's girl, Glorinna Sputney," she opined. A press for details indicated Glorinna was likely the other girl vying for his carnal attentions in the dream.

A quick search of the stables revealed a large, empty area where the carriage was stored and two of the three horse stalls empty (Mrs. Wiggins explained their butler had taken it to town a few hours ago to fetch supplies), and there, hidden behind the bales of hay in the feed stall, the unconscious form of one Henry Baskindale. Thurloe tossed him over his shoulder and plopped him down in the carriage garage, and then Alewyth explained to the women of the manor what they needed to do to awaken him from his dreams. Lady Angelica and the house staff returned to the manor to start setting things right while the five dreamwalkers went about their ritual. In the end, waking Henry required the heroes to convince him to make a choice between the two women with which he was smitten: the unapproachable Lady Angelica (she was far above Henry's station and had no reciprocal feelings for the servant boy - although Thurloe predictably muddied the waters by pointing out she was now a widow and technically back on the market) or Glorinna the farm-girl, who was his own age and from his own common upbringing. Once Henry, in his dream, made it clear he was going to commit himself to Glorinna the dream started vanishing all around them.

Everyone woke up at about the same time, the five heroes sitting in a circle around the confused stable boy. "You might as well go head on over to Glorinna right now," Thurloe suggested, "because your ass is definitely fired from this job."

"Well, I'm glad that at least ended up fairly well for all involved," said Alewyth as she opened the double doors to the carriage house. In doing so, she heard the unmistakable sound of the flapping of leathery wings, looked up, and saw a horse-sized monstrosity coming in for a landing before her. The creature was a strange amalgamation of dragon and insect: large, bulbous, multifaceted eyes, with alternating bands of scales of yellow and brown down its entire flank giving it the appearance of some sort of insect hybrid. Alewyth judged she had enough time to cast another bless spell (as the original had run its course) before the creature arrived, so she did so.

Thurloe saw a draconic shape coming down from the sky, immediately realized it would likely have a breath weapon of some type, and dashed out the back of the carriage shed, running north. Wakuren ran south for the same reason: not wanting to be all bunched up such that one blast of a breath weapon could encompass the entire group. Xandro started back up with his song of inspirational courage as he backed behind the carriage house and stables, while Zander cast haste on the group before they got too far apart, then went out the back of the building in the opposite direction from that which the bard had gone.

And by then the arsalon had landed, spewing forth its breath weapon. Being one of the stranger types of greater drake, its throat sac was coated in a sweet, nectarlike substance that attracted flying insects and this particular arsalon had a hive of wasps living within its throat bladder. With enough pressure to disturb the hive, the creature ensured a swarm of enraged wasps came barreling out of its mouth at full speed, totally encompassing Alewyth and Henry, who still stood in the middle of the empty carriage parking area. They swatted furiously at the stinging insects but the stable boy was quickly overcome, his body swelling by the numerous stings he'd received from the furious insects. He collapsed onto the floor of the shed, unconscious.

Alewyth bent over and picked him up, dragging him out the back way and kicking the doors shut with her feet; they didn't automatically lock but it was enough for her to stop the swarm's advance. Thurloe, in the meantime, had done an about-face and was now charging the arsalon, now that it had disgorged its breath weapon and the spellsword anticipated he'd have a few seconds before the drake could employ it again. (Little did he know it, but the arsalon had a breath weapon generally employed but the one time, for once the angry wasps evacuated their nest inside the arsalon's throat bladder they generally didn't return until the combat was at an end.) His bastard sword came swinging in from the side, cutting deep into the creature's scales.

Wakuren likewise charged the hive drake from the other direction, using the bottom point of his shield as an offensive weapon that stabbed into its side, just behind its right wing. Xandro continued his song, advancing around the smaller out-building so he could see the combat unfold. Zander, a sorcerer, had no access to healing spells but he did have a way to help stabilize Henry and cast a bear's endurance spell upon the unconscious stable boy; the increased vitality helped him overcome the shock to his system from all of the wasp venom coursing through his body.

The arsalon swung to the right and snapped at Wakuren with its fang-filled mouth, trying to claw him at the same time; the half-orc dodged the one attack and allowed the other to slide harmlessly across his shield. The swarm of wasps, prevented by the closed doors in the back from continuing their attacks upon Alewyth and Henry, veered off in the opposite direction and came flying out of the other doors, quickly engulfing Thurloe. Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending a warhammer made of solid force energy crashing down upon the arsalon's head while Thurloe did his best to attack the creature while nearly blinded by the dozens, if not hundreds, of individual wasps swarming between him and his intended foe.

Wakuren summoned another javelin of lightning into his raised hand and let it fly, blasting the arsalon's side. Then Zander came stepping up into range, his hands held together before him, thumbs touching, as he verbalized the words to the burning hands spell. A sheet of flames encompassed the wasps covering Thurloe (and singeing the spellsword a bit as well, but Zander was sure Thurloe would be fine with a little collateral damage) and burning the arsalon's head as well. By this time, it had pretty much decided to flee, having answered Lord Andrus's whispering wind call but finding the group waiting for it to be a bit more than it was willing to handle. It turned back the way it had come, flapped its leathery wings, and was soon aloft - but Zander wasn't about to let it escape. A lightning bolt spell soon had the arsalon back on the ground, crashing in an ungainly heap as its life was taken from it by the elf sorcerer's spell.

The creature dead and the few remaining wasps from the initial swarm wandering away now that combat was over, Thurloe looked around and said, "Let's get out of here." They checked on Lady Angelica one last time to ensure she'd be all right, and they were given all of Lord Andrus's alchemical equipment from his lab (she wanted nothing to do with his arcane experiments), the weapons and armor from the dwarven bodyguards, plus a sizable sum in gemstones as a reward for having saved her life and those of her retainers, and then the group was off.

And as per her promise to Lady Angelica, that night before retiring for the evening in the lamp, they dumped the werewasp grub from the magic chest and stabbed it to death.

- - -

I want to note this is the second adventure in a row that the players opted to try the "Trojan Horse" gambit with all but one PC inside the magic lamp while the other one carries it where they need to infiltrate, and neither time has it gone exactly as planned. And I named the adventure after a band my son Logan enjoys, "The Birthday Massacre." (I rather like them as well.) But it seemed fitting.

Also, a note about the campaign: we'll be taking a brief hiatus for six weeks or so, while one of our number undergoes some surgery that will require a bit of extensive healing up afterwards. We'll allow that to run its course and will likely pick the campaign back up in mid-October or so.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Spider-Man T-shirt, for the most tenuous of reasons. For one thing, there's a spider wasp that lays its eggs in the bodies of paralyzed spiders, allowing the hatching grubs to have a living meal immediately upon hatching (rather like the unfortunate situation in which Lady Angelica found herself). For another, one of the many members of Spider-Man's rogues gallery is a Nazi scientist named "Swarm" whose vaguely humanoid body is made up of a swarm of bees. But mostly, spiders and wasps are both "bugs," which was all the justification I needed. (Plus, had I worn my "DAD: Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult" T-shirt, which was my original idea, it would have potentially spilled the beans about Lord Andrus not being who he seemed to be.)
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 34: UNDERDARK TRAILS

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​

NPC Roster:
Streggin Cavedelver, dwarf ranger 3​

Game Session Date: 24 September 2022

- - -

"Hey kupo!" Mogo greeted the group of five dreamwalkers as they entered the Hallway of Dreams. "There's another set of dreamstones the Queen of Dreams would like you to fetch, kupo! Only one problem – it's deeper in the Underdark than you've ever been before, kupo!"

Mogo further explained the readings on these particular dreamstones were faint, possibly due to the deepness of the Underdark and possibly because none of the beings around the dreamstones were dreaming about them very often. As a result of the faint trace with this batch of dreamstones, there was no specific path to follow to get to them; the best the moogles could do was provide the correct entrance to the Underdark – and then after that it would be up to the adventurers. One thing Mogo was able to tell them was the pair of dreamstones had been carved into eyes and placed into the statue of a kobold, so it was probably a kobold warren they'd be looking for.

"Every once in a while we can make out an image near the location of the dreamstones, and it's always rows of kobolds lined up and facing the statue, kupo! It's almost like they worship it or something, kupo!"

The Underdark entrance was in the dwarven mining town of Agatesgate, so named because of the gem mines in the nearby mountains, where agates were recovered from beneath the earth. The dwarves were a friendly lot, although they were very focused on riches; not surprisingly, the city's primary deity wasn't Aerik but rather Farthingale, here depicted with dwarven features. The group decided to stock up on the items they envisioned needing on a journey deep underground, whereupon Thurloe, opting to pick up some pitons and a grappling hook, discovered the prices in Agatesgate were considerably higher than in other towns and cities they'd visited since they started wandering the continent coming to the rescue of trapped dreamers. He grumbled at the price increases, but he still made his purchases - to include 10 sunrods, three flasks of oil, and two vials of antitoxin. Like it or not, they weren't going to have the opportunity to make such purchases once they were wandering around in Underdark tunnels, for who knew how long they'd be down there?

"We ought to ask around, see if anybody knows anything about a kobold warren with a statue with eyes carved out of dreamstone," suggested Xandro. As this meant hitting the local watering holes, Thurloe was all for it - although he soon discovered dwarven ale was much stronger than the alcoholic beverages with which he was more familiar. Still, Xandro's good nature and way with people - not to mention Alewyth's presence, which got a lot of the local men talking with her, if not the others - soon led to confirmation that at least one dwarf had seen a kobold statue of the type they described. Sadly, he was dead, but a friend of his had heard the tale enough times before he was able to scratch out a map of the rough location. "Coupla days of travel there," he advised. "As much time as ye need dealin' with th' kobolds, an' then coupla days back. A week, tops."

Another dwarf suggested if they were going to spend a week in the Underdark, they'd be foolish not to hire a guide - and as it happened, his cousin was one of the best. The group agreed to meet with him, and soon enough they had Streggin Cavedelver on the payroll for 25 pieces of gold a day. Streggin had never been to the kobold warren they were looking for, but he looked over the hand-drawn map and suggested everyone pack for a week's journey. When he asked about their willingness to rough it in the wild, he was amazed when they showed him their magic lamp - they wouldn't need to "rough it" quite so much after all!

Naturally, they'd be leaving their animals and wagon behind them, so they got them settled into a stable and Scarlie Besker settled into an inn, with promises they should be back in a week or less. He in turn promised to check on the animals daily and ensure they were being well tended to. Then, deciding it would be best to get a fresh start in the morning, they adjourned to the interior of the magic lamp for a good night's rest.

Meeting up with Streggin in the morning, they entered the agate mine and were escorted to a vertical shaft in the back, which was under constant guard by a quartet of dwarven fighters. "No tellin' what might try t' find its way up here," one of them told Alewyth. "But we're ready fer anythin' might think about poppin' its head up an' botherin' our miners."

Even entering the Underdark led to the group's first decision. The entry hole was about 90 feet down a nearly vertical shaft, in some places narrow enough there wouldn't be room enough for two people side by side. Streggin was all for heading down one at a time - he even volunteered to go down first, in case there were any dangers waiting down there for them - but Wakuren came up with a much simpler solution. "Why don't you all go into the lamp, I'll pick it up, cast a gaseous form spell, and fly on down to the bottom. Then I can dismiss the spell and you can all come on out again."

"Save your spell - we might want it later," Thurloe advised. "I'm a decent climber; you all get into the lamp and I'll carry it down."

"Yeah, but if you fall you could get seriously hurt - and possibly damage the lamp," Wakuren countered.

"Are you doubting my abilities?" Thurloe demanded. "Anyway, I'm already hammering in a piton, see? We can tie our two lengths of rope together and it'll be no problem." And as far as he was concerned, that was the end of it. Wakuren just shrugged and led everyone else into the lamp. Thurloe climbed down without incident, then popped back inside to let everyone know they were at the bottom of the shaft and the way was clear. The dwarven guards above warned him they were pulling the rope back up, but to give them a holler when they were ready to climb back up. "Dinnae wanna make it easy fer any others what might wanna climb on up here!" he advised.

There were two passages from this starting point beneath the agate mines. In the light of Zander Quilson's everburning torch, Wakuren pulled out the hand-drawn map and examined the notes the elderly dwarf had written for them. "It looks like we want the left tunnel," he said, folding the map back up. Streggin nodded and led the way.

The tunnel meandered a bit, veering off one way before darting back the other, and the passageway's width and height varied wildly as well, on occasion opening up into a cavern with a ceiling height beyond the illumination of Zander's everburning torch, while in other places it called for walking single file and hunched over because that was the only way to make any forward progress. But after about 40 minutes, the "sameness" of the Underdark trail was broken by the discovery of a skeleton lying face-down just ahead, in an area where the tunnel made one of its random right-angle turns.

Streggin, as usual, was in the lead and he stopped suddenly when he spotted the skeleton, raising his hand to warn the others to hold up. There were no other creatures visible in the vicinity, but the skeleton had obviously been used as a food source, given the torn pieces of leather scattered about, likely where it had been ripped from the corpse's armor so whatever predator or scavenger had been making a meal of the dead dwarf - even at this range, Streggin could tell the remains were about the size and shape of a dwarf, probably a duergar - could get to the meat beneath. There was a light crossbow lying on the stone floor by the skeleton's side, and a quiver with a dozen or so bolts scattered nearby.

The others, stopping in place as directed by their dwarven scout, took the opportunity for some spellcasting; after all, if the predator was still about there was a good chance they'd be fighting it off soon. Zander cast a mage armor spell upon himself; Thurloe did likewise and then fired off a shield spell from his wand. Streggin had been looking this way and that, and eventually, he pointed up to the ceiling directly above the skeleton. "See that?" he asked his charges.

"What?" asked Thurloe, looking up where the dwarf was pointing. "That bald spot?" The ceiling, which held dripping stalactites of various sizes, had an area directly above the skeletal remains devoid of such hangings - and the ceiling was slightly lower than the surrounding area as well.

"Yep. That 'bald spot' is what we call a lurker above - a fairly large one, too." In the light from Zander Quilson's everburning torch, Thurloe could make out the creature's basic shape - it was rather like a levitating manta ray or something hovering up at the top of the cavern's ceiling.

"We could easily bypass it," pointed out Wakuren. "Everyone could jump into the lamp, and I'll pick it up and cast gaseous form on myself."

"But it'll still be alive when we need to come back this way, after we fetch the dreamstones," argued Alewyth. "And if it killed that dwarf, we know it attacks sentient creatures - it's a menace we should deal with."

Zander cast a mage hand spell and used it to drag the light crossbow from the dead dwarf's side, over to him. He watched the lurker above to see if the movement would trigger an attack, but apparently its senses knew the difference between an inanimate object being pulled away and an actual, living creature directly below it waiting to be attacked and devoured. Perhaps due to the constricting passageways jutting out in two directions from the larger cavern in which it hung about, it was apparently content to wait for prey to pass by beneath it; while it could probably constrict itself somehow and squeeze through the narrower tunnels (and in fact would have had to to have gotten to its present position), that didn't seem to be its first choice in the matter.

Slowly, the heroes all inched forward, weapons drawn and ready to attack if the lurker above made a move for them. Finally, Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon and sent a magical warhammer flying up to smash into the creature's underside. Zander almost immediately followed up with a scorching ray spell, likewise hitting it on the bottom part of its hovering body. Streggin fired his light crossbow at it, while Wakuren activated his gauntlet of Cal and sent a javelin of lightning crashing up against it as well.

Under the combined onslaught, the lurker above finally deemed to act. Flapping its two "wings" and spinning in place to face these attackers, it shot forward - but Thurloe blasted it with his wand of magic missiles and it died on its way down, its body hitting short of any of its intended targets. Its corpse did land upon the skeletal dwarf, forcing the group to lift one wing high enough for Zander to scramble beneath it to fetch the quiver, which held a total of eleven bolts. A quick detect magic spell confirmed the dead dwarf's light crossbow had a minor enchantment guiding the bolts fired from it, and as a result both it and the quiver of bolts were given to Xandro, who was fairly lacking in the ranged attack department. The threat handily dealt with, the group trekked on, Streggin Cavedelver leading the way.

After another hour or more of travel, the narrow passageway led into a much wider tunnel leading from side to side. There was another dwarven body lying upon the ground, with dwarven runes carved into the wall above him and off to the left a bit. Alewyth moved forward to examine the runes while Wakuren went over to look at the corpse. It was a duergar, no doubt about it, and unlike the one the lurker above had been eating this one had been slain fairly recently - within the past hour, by the half-orc's estimation. Streggin examined the corpse, noting something the others hadn't noticed: he was wearing chain mail armor and had a heavy steel shield at his side and a light crossbow strapped to his back, but no melee weapon. "Looks to be a typical duergar guard," the dwarven scout explained, "but any duergar in his right mind would have some sort of weapon at hand for hand-to-hand fighting."

"How'd he die?" Thurloe asked.

"Blow to the head," Streggin answered, rolling the body over so the spellsword could see the caved-in part of the gray dwarf's skull. "Simple bludgeoning weapon, likely: a hammer or club'd be my guess."

Alewyth returned to the others. "Dwarven runes," she said. "It's a warning that there's a duergar slave city that way." She pointed off to the left.

"That's not the way we need to go, is it?" Zander asked. Wakuren got out the map and they examined it in the elf's magic torchlight. "Nope, we go the other way," Streggin answered.

"Let's go, then," suggested Thurloe.

They headed off to the right, the wider passageway allowing them to spread out a bit instead of the single file they'd been forced to follow for a large section of the trip thus far. The passageway led into an enormous cavern ahead, from which the sounds of dripping water could be heard. But the closer they got to the cavern, the worse the air started to smell. It wasn't the odor of bad gas, or toxic fumes - more in the line of an animal stench, similar to that produced by the troglodytes they'd faced the last time they went delving into the Underdark, although this stench wasn't quite like that: it was less reptilian and more insectile. The reason for this became abundantly clear once they actually entered the cavern proper, and saw a few giant cockroaches in the light of the everburning torch. Alewyth, Wakuren, and Streggin could see much farther than the light's illumination and they saw a full nine of the giant insects - plus the fact that three of them were being ridden by large, shaggy-furred individuals, humanoid in build but with features slightly reminiscent of bears.

"Quaggoths!" swore Streggin under his breath, apparently much more familiar with the creatures than was Alewyth, who'd never seen such beings before. Fortunately, the quaggoths all had their backs turned, examining the various smaller exits from the tunnel, as if deciding which one to take. This gave Wakuren enough time to discern their auras and confirm that while the cockroaches bore no stain of evil, the shaggy-furred quaggoths certainly did.

Not liking the prospects of having to fight giant bugs, Thurloe unstoppered a vial of antitoxin and swigged down its contents, certain there was likely some sort of toxin or poison involved in the stomach-churning stanch the cockroaches put off. Before any of them got too far away from each other - and knowing that happened all too often once combat began - Zander cast a haste spell on the assembled group. Streggin already had a bolt loaded into his crossbow and was cautiously moving up, Xandro mirroring the dwarf ranger's actions with his own new light crossbow. Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself as she advanced, Sjondra in hand.

But before any of them could attack, one of the quaggoths turned around and noticed the light and called out a warning to the others. All three mounted quaggoths spun their insectile mounts about, and they no doubt warned the other six using some subtle pheromones or antennae movements, for the other cockroaches spun about in place to face the heroes as well. The quaggoths nudged their mounts forward into a charge, and Wakuren and the dwarves couldn't help but notice that while two of the white-furred creatures wielded what looked like broken-off stalagmites as clubs, the third had a warhammer of likely duergar make; it seemed as if the heroes had found the ones responsible for the dead duergar guard whose remains they'd discovered in the wide tunnel behind them.

Before the charging giant cockroaches could reach them, Wakuren cast a summoning spell and a celestial bison appeared in the middle of the cavern. Without waiting for instructions from its summoner, the shaggy bovine slammed its great, horned head into the side of one of the mounted quaggoths. But then the cockroaches reached their targets, one biting at Thurloe, three going for Alewyth, and four ganging up on the celestial bison. The stench only increased as a result of their actions, and Xandro, Zander, and Streggin found their stomachs churning in turmoil as a result of the horrific stench. They could only guess the quaggoths either had some natural immunity, had built up a tolerance, or just had iron stomachs, for none of them seemed discomfited in the least.

Thurloe brought his magical bastard sword slashing down into the hardened carapace of the giant cockroach before him, one of the six not currently being ridden. Alewyth, seeing the logic behind Wakuren's summoning, took a step back from the cockroach attacking her and summoned a celestial bison of her own. But by then two of the quaggoths advanced upon her, striking at her with stone greatclub and duergar-forged warhammer, and it was all she could do to block the blows with Sjondra. The other quaggoth was fighting back against the bison Wakuren had summoned, but it retaliated with a smiting attack with holy energy channeled through its horns.

The half-orc leapt into battle, swinging his shield onto the side of one of the quaggoths attacking Alewyth and almost knocking him from the giant cockroach's back, for Wakuren could see these shaggy riders used no saddles. Thurloe kept swinging his bastard sword against the cockroach trying to make a meal of him, looking back in disdain at Streggin and the two members of his own team who were currently nauseated by the cockroach stench to the point they couldn't contribute to the battle at hand. "Shake it off!" he yelled at the vomiting trio, not understanding why everyone wasn't as tough as he was. Obviously, they just weren't trying hard enough, that was the problem!

Alewyth's Sjondra took out one of the quaggoths with a well-targeted blow to the side of its shaggy head; it slumped to the ground in a lifeless heap while its insectoid mount tried biting at the dwarven priestess. But the other quaggoth - the probable leader, given he was the one wielding the duregar warhammer - got in a good blow of his own, nearly dropping Alewyth to her knees. Wakuren wasn't close enough to reach the other quaggoth, so he used the full amount of strength coursing through his half-orc body to bring the bottom point of his shield crashing down upon the mount of the quaggoth Alewyth had just slain. It gashed the side of the insect's head, slicing through a shiny, domed eye.

The other quaggoth was still focused upon fighting off a celestial bison, and the shaggy beast in turn seemed intent to slay that particular quaggoth. The other bison, in the meantime, satisfied itself with goring any and all giant cockroaches within reach. The insects, for their part, snapped their horrible mouthparts at any foe they could reach. But Thurloe's sword sliced deep into the carapace of the one he'd been fighting, nearly killing it, just as the nauseous trio started coming around. Zander hobbled forward and lined up a lightning bolt spell that not only slew the cockroach Thurloe had been fighting but also dealt some heavy damage to two others further back in the cavern. Streggin's crossbow twanged and a bolt stuck out from another cockroach's eye as its twin antennae whipped about in pain and fury. Alewyth almost knocked down her remaining quaggoth foe from his insectoid mount's carapaced back with a hearty blow from Sjondra. And then from the back of the cavern, the inspiring sounds of Xandro's favorite courage-inducing song could be heard, buoying the spirits of the heroes who were being wordlessly reminded of all of the various other foes they'd overcome in the past. Xandro had come to the conclusion his magic song would aid the group's battle overall much better than could another light crossbow being brought to bear; while the song wasn't creating any direct damage on its own, it was allowing his friends to each do better in their own fights: striking faster, with more power behind each strike.

The two quaggoths, perhaps fearing the eventual end result of this skirmish, started an all-out attack on their foes, one raining blows down upon Alewyth and the other finally slaying the first celestial bison that had been summoned to the fight. But by then Wakuren had made it to his fellow cleric's side and, fury blazing in his eyes, the powerful blow from his shield slew the offending quaggoth outright.

That seemed to be the turning point in the battle. Thurloe waded up and killed another wounded giant cockroach with his bastard sword, while the remaining bison crushed another beneath its stomping hooves. Streggin and Alewyth started attacking giant cockroaches as well once another scorching ray cast by Zander took out the last remaining quaggoth. Even Xandro decided he'd done enough support work with his music and, sliding the strap of his Dardolian lute back over his shoulder, drew his frost short sword and charged to the attack.

But that's when four more foes entered the combat. These were a pair of enormous spiders, much like tarantulas in build, but ridden by a pair of gray dwarves: a pair of duergar kavalrachni, or steeder-mounted cavalry, having been appointed to hunt down the escaped quaggoth slaves responsible for the death of the duergar guard the heroes had discovered. And while the kavalrachni could already see the quaggoth slaves had been slain, there looked to be a handful of various humanoids - a couple of surface dwarves, a pair of humans, a skinny elf, and some sort of mongrel orc - that could easily be gathered up to take their places.

Wakuren could see by the evil grins on the gray dwarves' faces - to say nothing of the evil suffusing their auras - their intentions toward him and decided to toss another javelin of lightning their way. As the spider-riders were lined up single file as they entered the cavern from a side tunnel, he managed to get all four with his blast of electricity. By this point, the giant cockroaches had all decided to flee the scene, although one passed close enough to both Thurloe and Wakuren that their reflexive attacks on it as it passed slew the giant bug outright.

As the steeders advanced, their hairy, banded legs moving like pistons, Thurloe shot at one of the duergar kavalrachni with his wand of magic missile. Zander cast a scorching ray spell, splitting the bolts between the two duergar, killing one of them (although the special saddles each steeder wore into battle kept the corpse in place). Alewyth centered an order's wrath spell to hit both steeders, both duergar, and one fleeing giant cockroach, causing no small amount of damage to each. The sole remaining celestial bison, farther away from the approaching kavalrachni than the scurrying cockroaches, stabbed at the nearest insect and slew it with its horns before its time on the Material Plane expired and it returned to its home in the Heavens.

One steeder climbed up the side of the cavern wall, temporarily out of melee combat range, while the other one, its rider dead and no longer giving it battle-prompts, scrambled over to the nearest dead cockroach and started dripping digestive acids upon its carapaced corpse. Then the one on the wall leaped forward and landed beside Alewyth, the duergar swinging at her leg with a battleaxe, hoping to lame her so she could more easily be taken as a slave. But Alewyth managed to step away from the axe in time for it to go swishing harmlessly before her. But he hadn't counted on Wakuren's battle-lust; the half-orc, as bloodthirsty as any of the orc raiders they'd fought in the desert weeks before, sent the edge of his shield slamming into the kavalrach's neck with every ounce of strength he possessed and the duergar's spine snapped under the onslaught. That left only the two steeders (for the giant cockroaches still alive had managed to scramble out of side-passageways from the cavern by that time), and Zander and Thurloe took them down with a few spells.

Wakuren felt his heartrate slow down now that combat was over and, his mind once again better able to focus on the priorities at hand, helped Alewyth cast healing spells upon those who needed them. Then, once a quick detect magic spell determined none of the equipment wielded by the duergar or quaggoths had been magical, the group pressed on, exiting through one of the passageways a few of the fleeing cockroaches had taken. But the panicked insects must have taken a few side branches after that, for the group never did see any of them again as they followed the path prescribed on their hand-drawn map.

Their next encounter wasn't until hours later, after they'd opted to take a quick break inside the magic lamp to take a meal. With Streggin once again taking the lead (for the passageway had narrowed a bit again), they came upon a junction with a wider tunnel and there before them stood a gray-skinned stone giant and a cave bear - a bruin easily twice or even three times larger than any bear the heroes had seen on the surface world. The stone giant carried a massive greatclub made of solid rock and wore an expression of weariness upon his craggy brow as he turned toward the sudden source of illumination.

Fortunately, Thurloe - often one of the first to leap into battle - picked up on the giant's expression and saw in it a willingness not to fight, if that were at all possible. "Greetings," he called to the giant before him. "Do you speak this language?"

"Some. Enough," replied the giant, shifting his grip on his weapon in case it became necessary to use it.

"Are you okay?" Thurloe asked.

"Hungry," admitted the giant, which did nothing to convince the others that battle wasn't on the table after all. But then he continued, "All day, hunting cavern lizard, track him to lair. But hole too small. Can't reach him."

Thurloe saw the obvious solution and voiced it on behalf of the group. "We don't want to have to fight you, we just want to pass by and be on our way. But what if we help you get that lizard you're after?"

"I have a soften earth and stone spell at hand," Alewyth proffered up. "I could widen the hole for you." The stone giant, Lorgar Borgusson, agreed at once and held back his cave bear, Brienda, who seemed perfectly willing to dine upon one of these strangers instead of the cavern lizard they'd been tracking all day. But after Alewyth cast her spell, widening the hole to the lizard's den, the group decided to slay the lizard on the giant's behalf and get even further on his good side. This worked wonders, and once they'd told Lorgar where they were headed, he had even better news for them: not only were they going to be allowed to pass by unharmed, he could even give them pointers on where to find the kobold warren they were searching for, for he'd been that way and seen the statue for himself, some time ago. Looking over their map, he agreed the path as drawn would get them there, but he added a few details on what type of landmarks to look for before each of the required turns into a new tunnel. "Got another six, maybe seven hours of travel ahead of you," Lorgar advised, not exactly sure how fast these little people could travel.

Thanking the stone giant and allowing him to enjoy the cavern lizard repast with his cave bear pet, the group moved on. And it was several hours later that they met with the last of that day's encounters. It wasn't a particularly dangerous encounter, but it was definitely the most puzzling and one that would cause them a considerable amount of worry. The passageway narrowed again and started twisting back and forth like a snake, so it wasn't possible to see very far ahead of where they were going. With Streggin once more in the lead and Zander - and his everburning torch - safely in the middle of the formation, the group moved on and almost bumped into a svirfneblin woman who had been moving down the tunnel toward them, apparently lost in her own thoughts.

"Eep!" she said upon turning the corner and seeing Streggin Cavedelver standing immediately before her. Behind the dwarf stood Thurloe and Wakuren, then Zander, and finally Alewyth and Xandro bringing up the rear. Her eyes grew wide at the sight of the assembled group and a shudder raced down her body. A strange word, likely of Gnomish origin, spilled from her lips - followed almost immediately by a flow of blood. More blood dripped from each of her nostrils and from her ears, as she began leaking tears of blood as well. She immediately staggered to one knee, then fell onto her side, her hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically.

"What's happening?" demanded Alewyth from the back of the group, unable to see past the press of bodies before her. But Thurloe was at the little svirfneblin's side in a moment, pulling the cork stopper to a healing potion as he knelt beside the young woman's body, ready to pour its contents down her throat. Wakuren knelt by her side, the words to his most powerful healing spell coming to his tongue. But the deep gnome's body gave a final shudder and Wakuren could see it was too late for any healing spells - the svirfneblin woman was dead. He told Thurloe not to bother with his potion.

"What just happened?" Thurloe demanded, looking all about him for an unseen attacker. "How'd she die, that quick?" With a sudden horrific thought, he pulled his cloak forward to cover his own face and demanded, "Is it poison gas? Are we under attack?"

"I don't think so," Alewyth replied, casting a detect poison spell and looking around the group, knowing full well some gases couldn't be seen by the naked eye. But while the air around them was clear, the svirfneblin's body was definitely full of poison.

"What was that word she said?" Wakuren asked. "Did anybody catch it?"

"It were Gnomish, all right," Streggin replied. Thinking of how best to translate it into the Common tongue, he finally settled on "deathborn."

"Deathborn?" repeated Thurloe. "What's that - the name of the poison that killed her?"

"That, I couldn't say," Streggin admitted.

"I don't like this," Zander admitted.

"Me neither," added Xandro.

"We'd best press on," suggested Streggin. Alewyth felt sorry for the svirfneblin and wanted to bury her, but the ranger advised against it - especially since her body was riddled with whatever virulent poison caused her to spill out her life's blood from each of her facial orifices. The dwarven priestess finally bowed to the inevitable and pressed on.

The group put another hour or two of travel behind them before deciding to camp out in the lamp overnight. "At this rate, we'll be at the kobold warren before mid-day meal," advised Streggin. It didn't cheer up any of the heroes much; they were still worried about what had caused the svirfbneblin to die like that right in front of them with no apparent cause.

- - -

I had warned the group that this adventure was just a "travel" adventure: a series of Underdark encounters with a few creatures they hadn't met up with before. (Well, with the possible exception of Dan, who had played AD&D first edition as a kid and likely had met up with a lurker above and/or quaggoths in past campaigns.) And Harry came through: as a result of his excellent Gather Information rolls in Agatesgate, he not only got word of Streggin Cavedelver as a potential guide but also got them a map to follow. (Without the map, they'd have had to decide which way to go on several occasions, which would have resulted in other encounters they were able to bypass. So they avoided combats with darkmantles, piercers, a phantom fungus, and a choker.) And because those avoided encounters lessened the length of time it took for us to go through this adventure, we had time to go through the next one as well, in which the PCs met up with the kobold warren and found the statue with the dreamstone eyes they'd been sent to fetch.

By the way, this was the first time we played since Joe went off to college, so his dad, Dan, ran Zander Quilson as well as his own PC, Thurloe. I did up stats for Streggin as well, and Logan opted to run him. But apparently the next time we play - on 8 October - Joe will be joining us, so he'll be back to running his own PC for at least that one session. In the meantime, I'll write up the second adventure we played this session, "Dreamstone Vision," hopefully posting it before we play one week from today.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My USA shirt, with fireworks on the top and a symbol somewhat reminiscent of Captain America's original (non-round) shield below. I chose it because the T-shirt itself is gray - a good representation of the stone passageways in the Underdark the PCs would be traversing - and also because I mentally gave the acronym a different meaning: "Underdark Survival Adventure."
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 35: DREAMSTONE VISION

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​

NPC Roster:
Streggin Cavedelver, dwarf ranger 3​

Game Session Date: 24 September 2022

- - -

"That's the three-column landmark," Streggin observed, pointing to a clump of three stalactites who hung down so low from the cavern ceiling they had merged with the three stalagmites directly below, forming three lumpy columns reaching from floor to cavern ceiling. "Just like Lorgar said. That side tunnel on the left leads directly into the kobold warren."

The group approached cautiously, with weapons drawn and combat spells ready to fire. Turning the corner, however, was somewhat anti-climatic, for the corridor was empty - and rather than leading directly into a kobold worship cavern with a statue whose eyes were made of solid dreamstones, there was instead a solid wall of absolute blackness. Of course, that didn't mean there wasn't the kobold statue on the other side of the deeper darkness spell, just that it couldn't be seen.

"You hear that?" Zander asked, cocking his head. The others strained their ears and there was indeed some sort of rhythmic chanting going on, in a squeaky language none of the group could understand. It came from the other side of the magical darkness. The elf sorcerer cast a mage armor spell on himself, predicting imminent combat now that they were finally here. After all, he couldn't very well believe the kobolds were just going to hand over the dreamstones the Queen of Dreams had sent her five dreamwalkers to fetch and return to the surface world.

Thurloe cast a mage armor spell on himself as well and took a few hesitant steps forward. "Odd that they don't have any guards posted," he whispered to the others.

Alewyth was already tired of all of this pussy-footing around. It seemed to her as if none of the men wanted to be the first to step forward into the magical darkness. Of course, if what people said about kobolds was true - that they were devious, nasty trap-makers with a penchant for evil - their cautiousness was probably warranted. But her dwarven temperament wasn't geared for putting off the inevitable; if there was a trap ahead, the best way to deal with it was to press on ahead and trust in Aerik's protection to keep her safe from harm. With that thought in mind, she boldly stepped forward, Sjondra in hand.

Before she reached the zone of darkness, though, a pair of reptilian heads popped out of the wall at her side, mouths opened wide and long, venomous fangs exposed as they bit at her. She managed to dodge one of the snakes but the other got a grip on her arm with its jaws and the priestess could feel the venom being pumped into her system. But dwarves were a hardy lot and she gritted her teeth, ignored the pain of the bite, and willed the poison to dissipate harmlessly into her system. Unfortunately, these snakes were quick, and as she spun about to face them head on one of the two got in another poisonous bite. Alewyth grunted in pain and could actually feel the double-dose of venom start to have an effect on her vitality.

Streggin stepped forward, crossbow pointed at the snakes but they were gone - their striking heads had darted back through the seemingly solid wall of the tunnel. Still, the dwarven ranger had heard of these kinds of illusory tricks before, and even though he couldn't see through the illusion, he fired his weapon blindly into the illusory wall spell, hoping for the best.

Wakuren took the concept one step further, by stepping forward and sticking his head completely through the illusory wall spell, where he was the first to see that both snakes were actually the two ends of a single creature. He slammed his shield into the amphisbaena, causing it to hiss in pain from the powerful blow.

Xandro figured any attempts at quietly sneaking into the kobold warren were probably moot by this time, and decided if they were already making the sounds of combat likely to alert the kobolds, he might as well add to the cacophony with a tune of inspirational courage on his Dardolian lute. That way, his friends and allies would at least get the benefit of his magical music inspiring them to greater efforts.

Zander was worried there was going to be an army of kobolds spilling out of the magical darkness at any moment and wanted to be able to warn the others if this was about to occur. Activating the full power of his scout's headband, he granted himself the ability to magically pierce the deeper darkness via a true seeing effect, which allowed him to verify there was indeed the cavern they had hoped for on the other side of the darkness. And on the far side of the open chamber was the kobold statue they sought, raised on a natural outcropping of stone that elevated the 10-foot-tall statue even higher. As the moogles had surmised, the kobolds apparently worshiped this statue as a god, for there must have been 50 or so of the little reptiles, all facing the statue in ragged rows, their backs turned to the darkness. They stood in place, each with a spear in their left hand while their right hand thumped rhythmically on their chests. If they heard any of the sounds of battle coming from outside, they gave absolutely no indication of it. Perhaps, Zander mused, they were gearing themselves up into a religious frenzy, where the outside world no longer mattered to them. But then, with his true seeing enhancing his vision, he noted something he hadn't paid attention to himself at first - the kobolds, all 50 of them, were illusions! That made absolutely no sense to the elf sorcerer - why in the world would you craft an illusion of false worshipers? Were they really trying to pull a fast one on their statue god?

Thurloe, in the meantime, followed Wakuren's lead and stepped through the illusory wall, bringing his bastard sword crashing into the side of the amphisbaena's scaled body. He noted the light from Zander's everburning torch had no trouble illuminating this side of the illusion spell; he gave a moment's thought about canceling the illusory wall spell with his sword, Spellslicer being particularly useful in that regard. But then he decided not to let the kobolds know the adventurers had already tumbled upon one of their secrets. Alewyth stepped through the false wall and brought her warhammer Sjondra crashing down upon one of the dual-headed serpent's skulls, crushing it instantly. The remaining head hissed in pain and the creature's long, serpentine body lowered itself to the cold, stone floor of its lair cavern as it died.

Streggin, hearing the sounds of combat die down, closed his eyes and cast his dwarven senses about - if there was one illusory wall around here, it only made sense there could well be another. His inherent dwarven stonecunning allowed him to sense an opening behind him that, when he opened his eyes and spun about, wasn't at all visible to the ranger. But trusting his senses, he stepped forward and passed through the fake wall, finding himself in a narrow passageway sloping down and turning to the right. He backed up into the main tunnel and explained his findings to the others. Zander took the opportunity to tell the rest of the group of his own discovery about what was on the other side of the deeper darkness.

"The little buggers sure like their illusions, don't they?" Alewyth scoffed.

Wakuren took a moment to cast a light spell upon his shield of Cal. "Now we've got two sources of illumination, if we want to split up," he suggested. Xandro continued playing his tune while the others decided their next move.

"I'm going to check out the chapel," Zander told the others, stepping forward into the zone of darkness. It lasted only about 10 feet or so, and then he was in the large cavern with the fake kobold parishioners worshiping their stone god. He stepped up until he was level with the back row of illusory kobolds, continuing to beat their chests and grunt in their doggy language. Thurloe followed, and on a whim decided to use Spellslicer's ability to dissipate illusions by touching his blade to the head of one of the back-row worshipers. To the spellsword's surprise, the entire row of five kobolds popped like a bubble. There were five rows of kobolds, with a passageway down the middle of them; now the back row only consisted of the three kobolds on the other side of the central aisle. "Weird," Thurloe commented to himself.

Alewyth stepped forward into the darkness and emerged inside the chapel with Thurloe and Zander. "What's this all about?" she asked the others.

"We're still trying to figure that out," admitted Zander.

There was a sudden commotion behind them, and as the trio of adventurers spun around to face the back of the chapel, two feeble, wooden crates were tossed down on them by a quartet of kobolds from a sort of natural balcony off to their right and about 20 feet up. One hit Alewyth on the top of her head, while the other crashed to the floor at Thurloe's feet. But both crates shattered to splinters upon impact, almost causing Thurloe to utter a snide remark about kobold craftsmanship - until the swarms of scorpions skittering out from the crates' remains made it perfectly clear the crates had been built shoddily on purpose. Dozens, scores, hundreds of scorpions crawled along the floor in all directions, some of them scampering up Alewyth and Thurloe's legs, their venomous stingers doing the kobolds' work for them. Alewyth, already weakened from the amphisbaena's venomous bites, felt her vaunted dwarven constitution failing her as she succumbed to dozens of stings. Her body seemed sluggish, although her mental faculties were still all up to par and she realized she needed to get free of these pesky arachnids.

Wakuren and Xandro, in the meantime, offered to follow Streggin down the other tunnel and see where it led, the bard continuing his tune of inspirational courage. The tunnel descended as it curved to the right, and in a larger cave at the end of the sloping passageway stood two kobold sentries, each armed with a light crossbow. Streggin got off the first shot, skewering one of the kobolds in the throat, killing him instantly. The other got off a shot which went over the ranger's head, then both raced to be the first to reload. Streggin won that contest by a fraction of a second, but it was enough to fire off a shot at the other kobold, killing him as well.

Zander Quilson, realizing his true seeing had a limited duration, looked all around to see if there was anything else of note in the chapel. He started walking slowly down the aisle between the kobold illusions, paying special attention to the 10-foot-tall kobold statue at the far end. It, however, was exactly what it appeared to be: a carved stone statue of an enormous kobold, whose eyes were definitely dreamstones and not carved from the rock of the rest of the statue - they had to have been carved separately, or perhaps the stone of the kobold's head was shaped around the existing dreamstones. In any case, there didn't seem to be any other illusions or other types of magical auras in the vicinity.

Thurloe leapt out of the swarm of scorpions surrounding him, brushed off a few that were crawling up his body, and cast a scorching ray spell, sending one blazing blast at each of the two swarms. Alewyth also stepped away from the scorpion swarm surrounding her and fished out a tanglefoot bag from her backpack. Tossing it directly into the mass of scorpions that had flowed out of the crate that had bonked her on the head, the gooey mass flowed over the scorpions, pinning them into place. The scorpions weren't particularly harmed by this process, but they were immobilized and would eventually starve to death, she reasoned. In any case, short of someone lying down upon the glued-into-place mass of arachnids, they were effectively out of the combat. She thought of repeating the maneuver against Thurloe's swarm, but by then they had spread out too much to make a second tanglefoot bag an effective strategy.

From the balcony above, the four kobold scorpion wranglers pulled out slings and sent stones flying down at Alewyth and Thurloe. But their attacks missed; they'd already used up their "big guns" with the scorpions and were no longer much of a threat. The remaining scorpion swarm capable of mobility surged forward to encompass Thurloe and Zander, stabbing and pinching, much to the two heroes' annoyance.

Down in the lower side tunnel, Wakuren stepped forward towards the dead kobolds, for there were other passageways in the back of the small guard station he wanted to check out. Unfortunately, a section of floor just before him was an open pit, its presence masked by a horizontal illusory wall spell making that section look no different than the rest of the stone floor. Putting his weight down on a foot where there was suddenly no solid floor beneath him sent the half-orc plummeting into the pit. Fortunately. with the shield of Cal strapped to his arm, its innate feather fall abilities kicked in at once, so Wakuren had no concerns about falling for any great distance and injuring himself. What did concern him, however, was both the smell wafting up from the bottom of the pit and what he saw waiting there for him at the bottom: the kobolds used this 20-foot-deep pit not only as a trap for unwary invaders, but also as a latrine. Wakuren desperately wished the shield of Cal had a reverse setting allowing him to slowly rise instead of fall, or that the walls of the latrine pit were less smooth so he could grab hold of an outcropping or something and stop his leisurely descent. But such was not the case, and Wakuren steeled himself to the fact he was about to ruin his boots.

"You need any help down there?" Xandro called, cautiously sticking his head through the illusory wall spell so he could try to see if Wakuren was okay. By then the half-orc had landed in a pool of kobold wastes, much to his own disgust.

"No, I'll just use gaseous form to float back out of here," Wakuren answered.

Zander wandered to the front of the illusory kobold worshipers until he was at the foot of the statue's raised stone floor, then turned around to check out the back of the chapel. There was, he saw, a second balcony over on the left side of the chapel, across the span where the four kobolds were tossing sling stones down at Alewyth and Thurloe. Fortunately, there were no other kobolds in place there to toss down crates of scorpions; if it was intended as a higher ground from which kobolds could attack intruders from above, it was currently unmanned.

However, while Zander's attention was on the balconies in the back of the chamber, he failed to notice some movement from within the kobold illusions. There were six narrow holes in the floor scattered beneath six of the 51 (now only 46, thanks to Thurloe's experiment with Spellslicer) illusions, and scrambling up through these holes were six kobold warriors, each more or less identical to their illusory versions. They mirrored the movements of the illusions around them, blending in fairly well from "inside" the illusions, and then they each struck, tossing their spears at Zander. Two of them hit the sorcerer directly, one in the shoulder and one in the thigh, while the others either missed outright or just skimmed along an arm and harmlessly fell to the side. But the surprise - and fear - on Zander's face from this unexpected assault was genuine, and he plucked the spears from his body while frantically looking around to see where they had come from. With his true seeing still in place he was able to see the six real kobolds standing inside the rows of illusory kobolds, and he could also see six more spears being handed to them from someone directly below where they stood. The kobolds looked at the elf with smirking looks upon their reptilian faces.

Thurloe, in avoiding the mobile swarm, stepped onto the one encased in hardened tanglefoot glue, his hard boots crunching the immobilized scorpions beneath his tread, as he cast another scorching ray spell, this time focusing both fiery blasts at the still-mobile scorpions. Alewyth, in the meantime, cast a spiritual weapon spell up at the kobold slingers, slamming a dwarven warhammer made of solid force energy their way. The first blow killed its kobold victim outright; Alewyth was learning these reptilian beasts were not very powerful when it came to physical combat, which is probably why they relied so much upon devious trickery.

Not wanting to be the next victim of the spiritual warhammer, one of the kobold slingers raced down a sloping passageway that led up to the balcony (and the cave behind it where the scorpions had been raised) - and promptly found himself staring down Streggin Cavedelver, who had his light crossbow loaded and ready to fire. The kobold soon had a crossbow bolt embedded in the space between his eyes, and he fell to the ground, dead. Then, as Wakuren floated up out of the latrine pit in gaseous form and resumed a more solid existence, Streggin looked about and saw where the several other passageways led. Two, directly ahead of him, looked like they led underneath the central "chapel" cavern, but they were low and narrow - easily traversed by a three-foot-tall kobold, but more of a tight fit for a good-sized dwarf. Another passageway kept more or less to the same level, and it led into what looked to be a fungal garden. There was always the likelihood of some dangerous growths in there - violet fungus, perhaps, or an ascomoid - but the ranger figured it was more likely a food supply for the kobold warren, and therefore probably perfectly safe. He voiced his reasoning to the others and Xandro decided that was likely the best option.

Stepping into the cave with Wakuren - and the light from his shield - behind him, Xandro quickly learned the fungal cavern wasn't entirely safe, for there were two kobolds in there, harvesting fungal growths. They were armed with slings and several stones came hurtling his way, but he easily dodged the little missiles and then prepared a counterattack.

The remaining scorpions skittered over to Alewyth, the nearest warm-blooded target now that their dander was up and they were in a combative mood. But while she was dealing with avoiding them, Thurloe, near the entrance to the chapel, was facing the statue - and saw a reptilian head pop up from the ground by the statue's feet. It dropped down as quickly as it had risen up, but during that time Zander felt a magical attack trying to block his vision - a blindness/deafness spell, no doubt. Looking about and not seeing any likely spellcasters (just the six kobolds grabbing up spears being handed to them from below), the elf decided discretion was the better part of valor and went racing down the central aisle between the illusory kobolds, past Alewyth and Thurloe, through the deeper darkness spell effect area, and back over to the entry tunnel where the group had fought off the amphisbaena. Hoping he'd have better luck going down the other tunnel, he passed through the illusory wall spell and started following the path Streggin, Wakuren, and Xandro had taken. There, on the floor before him (with his true seeing still in effect), he saw the illusory wall spell covering the open pit Wakuren had fallen into earlier. He cast a prestidigitation spell that altered the coloration of the stone floor to make the square stand out, so any of his friends would know to avoid it. Then, giving the square a wide berth, Zander pressed on. He cast a bear's endurance spell upon himself, hoping to buoy up his physical fortitude after having taken those two hits from the kobolds' spears. It wasn't the same as an actual healing spell or potion, but it was what he had on hand at the moment and would have to do.

With Zander gone from the chapel, the six hidden kobolds spun around and threw their second spears at Alewyth and Thurloe, dividing the targets up evenly between them. Thurloe finished off the remaining scorpions with a well-placed scorching ray, much to Alewyth's relief, but then she signaled for Thurloe to join her in following Zander's path. "Splittin' up was probably not our best idea," she said. Thurloe shrugged and followed, while Alewyth fished around in her backpack and applied a dose of Keoghtom's ointment to her many stings, the magical paste helping neutralize the venom coursing through her system. Her still-active spiritual weapon floated beside her once she could no longer see any foes to which to send it to the attack.

They caught up to Streggin before long; the dwarf had stationed himself in front of the two narrow passageways leading below the chapel, light crossbow at the ready. "Anything pops its head out of either tunnel, it's getting a bolt to the face," he promised. "Xandro and Wakuren are in the fungal cave behind me."

Unseen by any of the others, the dark naga allied with the kobolds - and who had popped its head up from a narrow, corkscrewing tunnel at the foot of the kobold statue to cast a blindness/deafness spell at Zander, to no avail - crawled down from its sentry point and back into its own lair. It cast a mage armor spell upon itself, preparing for combat with the intruders it could hear in the fungal cavern, one short passageway distant. But then it was seen by Wakuren, whose darkvision was just as sharp as its own, and the armored half-orc came charging at the serpentine foe, shield raised and ready to deploy as a weapon. Xandro, in the meantime, had slain one of the kobolds in the fungal cave with his frost short sword. The twang of Streggin's crossbow and the startled cry of a slain kobold indicated the little buggers had tried exiting the cavern beneath the chapel, to no avail. But now Thurloe and Alewyth were within sight of the dwarven ranger, and Alewyth sent her spiritual weapon spell ahead to take out another kobold exiting the second of the to narrow tunnels.

After Wakuren's shield slammed into the dark naga's side, it opted to retaliate physically at first before employing any of its offensive spells. In the manner of a true serpent, it unhinged its jaws and bit at the half-orc, who managed to get his shield up in time to deflect the attempted bite attack. But the bite had been mostly a feint, allowing the sharp stinger at the tip of the dark naga's tail to strike just as quickly and pierce the half-orc's neck. The venom injected into Wakuren's system worked almost instantly; the half-orc staggered, then fell crashing over onto his side, poisoned into a nightmare-wracked sleep.

Seeing this, Alewyth passed her vial of Keoghtom's ointment over to Thurloe and pointed to the dark naga slithering over Wakuren's recumbent form; fortunately, the light spell was still in effect upon the shield of Cal so Thurloe, with his limited human vision, could see the threat for what it was. He took the vial from Alewyth and, bastard sword in his right hand, advanced cautiously towards the dark-scaled serpent with the disturbingly-humanlike head. Alewyth killed the other fungal-gathering kobold with Sjondra, dealing with the last threat in the fungal cavern.

Streggin took out another kobold in the rightmost tunnel, then rushed to reload before any of the others behind the newly-slain one could reach him. A flurry of kobold spears came flying up at him, but they had been thrown in hasty panic and none of them hit the dwarf. Alewyth's spiritual warhammer took out another kobold coming out of the leftmost tunnel as Streggin got his crossbow up again in time to shoot another kobold emerging from the tunnel to the right.

Xandro pulled out his Dardolian lute and started playing an intricate tune. This was not his song of inspirational courage, the tune he most often employed in combat - instead, this was a tune he'd only used once before, when he'd fascinated a pair of awakened apes in Baron's Haven who had been magically disguised by illusion magic to appear as a commoner and a large dog. But playing for all he was worth, he slowly, in a non-threatening fashion, started walking toward the dark naga, not a trace of fear on his face as he approached.

The dark naga wasn't quite sure of what to make of this strange behavior - but it was, there was no denying it, quite fascinating.

Having caught the dark naga up in his musical spell, Xandro entered the dark naga's cavern lair and circled around the serpentine beast; it followed his movements, turning its back on the fungal cavern passageway. This allowed Thurloe, quietly sheathing his bastard sword, to enter the cavern, pick up Wakuren, and bring him quietly back into the relative safety of the fungal cavern, where he applied Keoghtom's ointment to the stab-wound in the cleric-paladin's neck. Wakuren's eyelids fluttered as he woke back up from his nightmarish sleep, the venom from the dark naga's stinger having been fully neutralized from his system. In a whisper, Thurloe filled him in on the current state of affairs: Streggin and Alewyth's spiritual warhammer taking care of the advancing kobolds, while Xandro held the dark naga enthralled by his music.

"Then let's get him while he's helpless," suggested Wakuren, activating his ring of invisibility and stepping quietly back into the dark naga's cavern lair. Thurloe motioned for Zander and Alewyth to join them, and they each quietly entered the naga's lair, weapons and spells at the ready. Streggin was left alone to deal with the kobolds - Alewyth's spiritual weapon spell finally ran its course and disappeared from existence - but he managed to hold his own even when they charged him and he had to drop his light crossbow and deal with them using his handaxe. But then the dreamwalkers attacked all at once, Thurloe slicing deep into the dark naga's serpentine body with his bastard sword, Alewyth slamming Sjondra in a bone-crunching overhead swing that shattered several vertebrae, Zander blasting it with a scorching ray spell, and Wakuren bringing the point of his shield crashing down upon its skull (and reverting him to full visibility as a result). Against such a coordinated attack, the dark naga didn't stand a chance; it died on the spot.

"Nice one, Xandro!" Zander called out.

"Hey, what's this?" asked Alewyth, looking at a pile of stones up against a wall. The base was made up of a ring of ordinary stones, but they were used to prop up a larger stone, this one black with flecks of white and gold interspersed throughout. "Is that dreamstone?"

Closer inspection confirmed it was indeed, and a much larger chunk than they'd ever seen before. The group decided it must be tied in to the ones in the kobold statue in the chapel outside, and in that they were correct - the dark naga had learned to focus upon the dreamstone as it fell asleep, in such a fashion it was able to look out of the dreamstone eyes in the kobold statue, thus keeping an eye over the kobold chapel even while it slept. And it found the lucid dreams, from the statue's visual point of view, to be very appealing, with dozens of kobolds chanting in unison as they seemingly worshiped the dark naga. It was as close to godhood as the dark naga was ever going to get.

Zander saw a pool of water in a cavern to the north, with a short connecting passageway from the naga's lair. To the east from this pool cavern was another sloping passageway, this one rising up higher than the chapel level. "That's likely where the leaders of this kobold warren live," surmised the elf.

"Let's find out," suggested Wakuren, casting a summoning spell that brought an air-element hippogriff into existence, hovering over the pool. With a pointed finger, Wakuren directed the hippogriff, whose body was composed of compressed winds from the Elemental Plane of Air, into the cavern. The shrieks and yips that emanated revealed the accuracy of Zander's supposition, as the hippogriff made short work of the kobold leaders who had opted to remain in hiding while their lower, expendable minions dealt with the incursion into their warren.

Grabbing up the dreamstone from the naga's lair, Wakuren backtracked back to the temple, the others following. They picked up Streggin along the way once the ranger had determined there were no more kobolds coming out to attack him from either tunnel. Then, facing the kobold statue, Alewyth used a soften earth and stone spell to more or less "melt" the carved kobold's head into clay, allowing them to pluck the chunks of dreamstone that had been embedded into the statue out. The Queen of Dreams had sent them to fetch the two dreamstones and they'd be returning with three; not a bad haul! Zander, being the skinniest of the group, made his way up a narrow kobold tunnel to check out the leaders' cavern, where he verified they'd all been slain by Wakuren's hippogriff; he also found quite a bit of treasure stashed up there, including a coveted magical haversack that held more than its external dimensions would indicate. "That'll make hauling the dreamstones back even that much easier!" the elf sorcerer enthused. Thurloe realized they already had the magical lamp, which was an extradimensional space, but didn't say anything to dampen the elf's enthusiasm.

"Now we just need to retrace our way back to the surface," Alewyth asserted.

"Sounds like a plan," Streggin agreed, ready to be off. But Thurloe held him off with an alternate idea. "This place has fresh water," he pointed out. "It's fairly defensible, with plenty of ways to exit if anything comes heading our way we can't handle. We might as well hold up here for the day, and get off on a fresh start in the morning. That way we all start off with a full day's allotment of spells. You never know when that will come in handy."

Streggin didn't mind; it meant another day's pay for him. And there were blind fish in the pool of water he wouldn't mind having a go at catching; fresh fish while delving about in the Underdark was a rare treat.

And, as it turned out, the group would be plenty happy to have a full complement each of their spells in the morning, for the way back home wasn't going to be as easy as they might have hoped.

- - -

I'm glad we had time to go through this adventure in the same gaming session as "Underdark Trails," because this, I felt, was a more "proper" adventure, whereas the first one was just a series of unrelated encounters taking advantage of an environment in which the PCs didn't get to spend a whole lot of time: deep underground. And I had already planned that the next adventure would introduce them to a bunch of other creatures I was fairly certain none of them had ever encountered before - even Dan, who like me had been gaming since the AD&D first edition days.

Everyone leveled up to 8th level at the conclusion of this adventure.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My USA shirt, because we went through this adventure on the same session as the previous one.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 36: THE TEMPLE OF BURNING DESIRE

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 8​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 4/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 6/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 8​

NPC Roster:
Streggin Cavedelver, dwarf ranger 3​
Game Session Date: 8 October 2022

- - -

"Let's go," said Thurloe, gathering up his pack and heading back out of the kobold warren. "The sooner we get on our way, the sooner we're back to the surface." It had been his idea yesterday to spend the rest of the day and the subsequent night in the kobold warren, to rest up and allow the spellcasters to regain a full complement of spells in the morning - and he'd even spent the day poring over the spellbooks he'd gathered over his adventuring career, making sense enough of the summon monster II spell to figure out how to cast it on his own - but now it was the start of a new day and he was eager to leave the Underdark behind.

Besides, the kobold corpses were starting to stink.

Streggin, as their guide, led the way out of the warren, past the deeper darkness zone and into the tunnel that went sideways, both north and south. They'd come from the south and he led then back that way for only a short while before he held his hand up suddenly and brought the procession to an immediate halt.

"What is it?" asked Alewyth in a whisper.

"Thought I heard something ahead," Streggin replied. Then, pointing down the corridor, he said in a hiss, "There!"

With her dwarven darkvision, Alewyth was able to see exactly what the ranger had been pointing at - a pair of duergar kavalrachni, mounted on the horse-sized spiders called steeders, crawling down the corridor and headed in their direction. Then, looking up at the cavern ceiling above the two kavalrachni, Alewyth saw two more, the duergar and their mounts hanging upside-down from the ceiling and looking rather like an inverted reflection of the pair below. But recent experience with these spider-riders had shown the duergar kavalrachni used an intricate saddle that kept them belted into place so that traveling along the ceiling was no more dangerous than riding right-side-up on the cavern floor.

The duergar had darkvision as keen as any surface dwarf and they spotted the six adventurers at the same time Streggin and Alewyth had noted them. "There they are!" yelled one of them in the Dwarven tongue. "Get them!"

"What's that?" asked Zander, who had heard the shout but hadn't made out what was being said, nor could he see who was down the corridor yelling at them. Alewyth quickly brought those without the benefit of darkvision up to speed. "More of those duergar riding giant spiders," she said. "Four of each, headed this way." Getting a grip on Sjondra, she faced the approaching gray dwarves without flinching, showing them she wasn't afraid.

Thurloe cast a mage armor spell upon himself and stepped forward as he squinted past the edge of the illumination provided by Zander's everburning torch. Xandro unpacked his Dardolian lute and began playing his song of inspirational courage; after all, the enemy already knew where they were so a little music wasn't going to give away their position or anything. And he knew the team fought better when buoyed up by the power of his song. But unlike Thurloe, the bard took a few steps back, wanting to put a few of his friends - those better suited to hand-to-hand fighting - between him and the approaching foes.

The steeders moved forward with implacable determination. As they entered the circle of illumination, Xandro and Thurloe could see each duergar had a lance projected in front of the steeder he rode but also carried a battleaxe in his right hand. And as they got closer to the six heroes, the two on the ceiling each circled down along a different wall, falling into place behind the other pair of kavalrachni. After all, there wasn't room for more than two of the steeders side-by-side in the tunnel, nor would hand-to-hand fighting be possible from the tunnel's ceiling.

The lead steeders rushed at Thurloe, their duergar riders leaning forward and swinging with their battleaxes as the spellsword raced forward himself, dodging the lances and purposefully getting in too close for the lengthy weapons to be able to be a factor. But one battleaxe got past Thurloe's defense and he ended up with a gash along one arm.

Zander was even less of a melee combatant that Xandro; he cast a haste spell while they were all close enough for him to still affect everyone, then stepped back out of immediate range of the spiders and their gray dwarf riders. Alewyth also cast a spell on the assembled group - in her case, bless - and then stepped forward to come to Thurloe's aid. Streggin shot a crossbow bolt at one of the duergar attacking Thurloe, hitting him in the side.

Wakuren saw an opportunity and took it. Raising his right hand, upon which he wore the gauntlet of Cal, he invoked the power of his god and a javelin of lightning appeared in his upraised hand. Hurling the weapon down the corridor, the lightning bolt hit two steeders and the two duergar riding them, one of the gray dwarves being the one Streggin had just hit with his bolt. That one died from the magical assault, but his special saddle kept him upright despite his death.

The two steeders bit at Thurloe; the spellsword successfully avoided one but couldn't prevent the other from getting its fangs into him. He felt a burning sensation at the site of entry of the creature's mandibles and could already feel the venom start its work, making him feel sluggish, the weight of his bastard sword seemingly heavier in his hands. But there was a way to overcome that; the spellsword activated his torc of the titans and felt his missing strength return, if only for a brief moment - but long enough for him to swing his blade at the living duergar still within range. In the meantime, another steeder crawled up the side wall to get to Wakuren, the fourth one following behind it.

Xandro pulled his frost short sword from its scabbard and charged the spider whose rider had been slain, his blade slicing deep within a hairy, twitching leg. The three duergar were quick to react with strikes from their battleaxes at Alewyth, Thurloe, and Wakuren. Zander cast a lightning bolt through two of the steeders and their riders, slaying the spider with the already-dead duergar and killing the duergar riding the spider behind that one. That left only half of the duergar still alive with their mounts, as well as one extra steeder whose rider was now dead.

Streggin focused his aim at one of the remaining duergar, hitting him in the shoulder with a crossbow bolt. Alewyth attacked the other one with Sjondra, her warhammer striking the gray dwarf in the side of his helmeted head. Wakuren focused his attention - and the pointed bottom of his shield - on the head of the "extra" steeder, deeming the giant arachnids the bigger threat because of their venomous bites. With the full power of an enraged half-orc behind it, the shield buried itself deep into the steeder's head and it died, legs twitching spasmodically.

Xandro got bitten by one of the two remaining steeders, while the other went after Thurloe but failed to get a grip on him with its venom-dripping mandibles. But Thurloe took advantage of the steeder's nearness to activate another charge from his torc and lash out at its rider with his bastard sword, Spellslicer cutting through the base of the duergar's throat and causing his life-blood to go spilling down his torso. He slumped in the saddle, dead, but the oblivious steeder fought on.

Xandro cast a magic missile spell at the steeders, splitting the attack between the two. The missiles all hit, but the bard was disappointed to see neither steeder drop as a result. The sole surviving duergar swung his battleaxe into Alewyth's side, her armor absorbing some - but not all - of the blow. But then Zander took him out with a magic missile spell and the two remaining steeders no longer had anyone guiding their actions with the control rods kavalrachni employed to tell their mounts where they wanted them to go. Streggin shot at one steeder while Alewyth attacked the other with her warhammer. Wakuren ran up beside her and added his shield to the assault, then cocked his head to one side - despite the battle going on all around him, he thought he could hear footsteps approaching from further down the tunnel, from the direction these four steeders had come. Zander confirmed his findings with a shouted, "More gray dwarves on the way - lots of 'em!" to his friends, having picked up the sounds of the tramping of dozens, if not hundreds, of pairs of booted feet marching in unison.

"We need to retreat - this way!" shouted Streggin, pointing back the way they'd come; the map had them going back to the south but now that way was blocked by a duergar slaver army, so north would have to do. Of course, none of the passageways to the north of the kobold warren were on the map the elderly dwarf from Agatesgate had hastily drawn up, so Streggin would have to rely upon his instincts to find them an alternate way back to the surface.

The steeders bit at Xandro and Thurloe again, but the two were already starting to retreat back the way they'd come. "Hang on!" called back Thurloe to the others. "Let's take these steeders out quick so they can't follow us! They've got to be faster than duergar on foot!" In this, he was absolutely correct, for the duergar were of dwarven stock and weren't able to move as fast as a human or an elf, let alone an eight-legged spider the size of a large horse. Activating the last daily charge of his torc, the spellsword swung his bastard sword for all he was worth, killing the steeder that had been trying to bite him. As it crashed to the stone floor of the tunnel, Thurloe turned and started to sprint to the north. Xandro started jogging backwards away from the other steeder, casting a magic missile spell at it and only turning to sprint after Thurloe once he saw the giant spider had been slain by his spell. The others ran to follow, Streggin a bit distraught to note of the six people in his group, he was the slowest among them. But that was alright, for they stopped at each fork in the tunnel to allow him to catch up and determine which way they should go next. The sounds of pursuit were never far behind, though, and the dwarven ranger was well aware that what the gray dwarves lacked in speed they more than made up for in knowledge of the local terrain. While Streggin was making his best educated guesses about which way was the best to go, the duergar no doubt knew exactly which passageways went where - and likely knew of any shortcuts that might allow them to cut the heroes off as they fled. That was not a pleasant thought!

"We can hide in the lamp!" suggested Wakuren.

"Too risky," shot down Thurloe. "If they find it, we're done for. And we don't have any way of seeing if the coast is clear when we're all inside. We'd never know when it was safe to come back out."

"Then you all get inside and I'll pick up the lamp, turn invisible, and use gaseous form to fly past them."

"If the whole slaver army's out," Streggin advised, "they're bound to have spellcasters. They could likely detect you and probably dispel your magic. Then we'd get to spend the rest of our lives as duergar slaves. Better we keep running."

"What if we run into a dead end?" Wakuren countered.

"Then we can give your plan a try," suggested Streggin. Wakuren just shrugged and kept running.

They had been running for at least a half an hour and could still hear the marching footsteps behind them when there was a reddish light from the tunnel ahead. "Wait a minute - I think I know where we are!" Streggin wheezed, slowing to get his bearings and catch his breath.

"You've been here before?" prompted Alewyth.

"No, but I've heard of it. A temple, carved among pools of magma."

"It's a way out?" asked Zander, whose frail constitution was already tired of all the running they'd been doing - he had a stitch in his side something fierce. But Streggin was forced to admit he didn't know.

But the duergar apparently did. "Hold up!" the group heard one of the gray dwarf leaders call back to his men. "The temple denizens will make quick work of those surface-scum who killed our soldiers - and if not, they've got nowhere else to go but right back here, where we'll be ready for them!"

"Well, crap," said Thurloe, not liking the "temple denizens" part of that prediction. Still, there was no way he wanted to face down an entire duergar slaver army; better to take their chances with whatever "temple denizens" might be around. "Streggin, any idea what we'll be facing?"

"Nothing for certain," admitted the dwarf. "But this is the Temple of Burning Desire - a shrine to Infernia, said to have been built centuries ago by a powerful wizard. He built it here because there's supposed to be weak areas here between the Mortal World and the Elemental Plane of Fire."

"So we can expect to see fire creatures: elementals, that sort of thing?" surmised Alewyth.

"That would be my guess."

"Well, crap," Thurloe muttered again, going over a mental inventory of the spells he'd prepared that morning before setting out. Nothing in the way of protection from fire, or even cold-based attack spells, which would likely be especially dangerous to creatures made of living flame. Still, they might as well check the place out; maybe they'd get lucky and the elementals would have all gone home or something. He pulled a potion of neutralize poison from his belt and drank down its contents, so if any of the unknown dangers they'd be facing in this Temple of Burning Desire were venomous, he'd at least have a leg up in surviving the encounter.

Xandro, in the meantime, took the opportunity to cast a cure light wounds spell on himself now that he had a moment's respite from the constant running. The cuts in his skin where the steeder's mandibles pierced him and injected their venom healed up nicely. Zander, his earlier haste spell having worn off, cast an expeditious retreat spell upon himself. It was always to his benefit to be able to run faster than anything likely to be chasing him.

"Well, let's see what we're up against," suggested Streggin, leading the group into the natural caverns that comprised the Temple of Burning Desire. There was a leaf-shaped pool of magma off to the left, and the tunnel curved off to the right just past it, and just beyond the turn there were another two long pits of magma, one on either side of the tunnel. The passageway then opened up into a wider cavern, from which a much larger pool of magma to the southeast spilled into the larger space through a pair of jagged cracks in the floor. The level of the magma was within a foot of the cavern's floor.

There was a blur of motion from the right as Streggin advanced past the turn in the tunnel; before he could spin in place and aim his crossbow at the small, gargoylelike figure flying down from the cavern ceiling above the magma pool, it dropped to his level, opened its maw wide, and let loose with a cone of steaming vapors, engulfing the dwarven ranger and Thurloe, who had followed him closely as he advanced. Seeing combat was already starting this close to the entrance to the Temple, Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and moved up to join the others. Wakuren did likewise, casting a bull's strength spell upon himself and feeling the enhanced power flow through his muscles. He'd already felt more physically powerful in recent days and wondered if Cal was sending him enhanced strength to deal with the travails he dealt with on a nearly daily basis as an adventurer.

From the pool behind them to the left, an impish figure rose up from the magma, its body seemingly composed of fluid, black rock with driblets of magma dripping through the cracks. It also belched forth a breath weapon, this one a cone of magma spray that covered Wakuren's back, charring his armor and causing burning welts to rise up from his exposed skin. He roared in pain and surprise, mentally chiding himself for not having given the magma pools a more careful visual examination as he passed them.

Another, similar creature dropped down from the cavern ceiling above the magma pool on the left just past the turn in the tunnel, only this creature seemed the most likely to be a fire elemental of sorts, for its gargoyle-shaped form was made up of living flame. The fire mephit breathed forth a cone of flames that briefly encompassed Zander, singeing his robes and his hair.

However, once the initial surprise of these unexpected attacks had worn off, the adventurers quickly gave back as much or more than they'd taken. Thurloe's bastard sword cleaved the steam mephit's body in two, causing it to lose full cohesion and scatter to the hazy air of the ceiling. In the back ranks, Xandro cast a heroism spell upon himself and moved up, ready for combat. Zander cast another magic missile spell, splitting the arcane projectiles between the magma and fire mephits, slaying both at the same time. He then congratulated himself on a job well done in taking out two-thirds of this initial attack force all by himself, as Streggin pushed on ahead, crossbow still at the ready.

It turned out, though, that the elf's self-congratulation was a bit premature, for the three mephits were just the initial strike force, to "test the waters," as it were. Three more steam mephits descended from the ceiling of the magma-flooded cavern from which the first one had come, surrounding Thurloe and blasting him with three cascades of steaming breath. As Alewyth and Wakuren moved up, three more magma mephits arose from their pool of molten rock and sprayed their lava-breath at Xandro, Alewyth, and Thurloe, while a trio of fire mephits dropped down from the ceiling of their own side-cavern and concentrated their fire (quite literally) on the dwarven priestess. None of the creatures was that much of a threat to the group singly, but in greater numbers their attacks were much more dangerous.

Thurloe's bastard sword killed another steam mephit, and then the spellsword took a step to the side, getting away from the deadly arc the three had formed around him. Xandro's frost short sword slew the closest magma mephit, whose fiery body froze up in death as it sank below the magma of its pool, never to rise again. Zandro, whose greater speed had placed him in the far front of the group's formation, spun about and had a perfect lightning bolt path lined up - only Thurloe was in the way. "Thurloe - move to your left!" the elf called out, and as soon as the spellsword complied he let loose with his spell, slaying one each of the three types of mephit in one fell swoop.

Streggin shot at a magma mephit and hit, but was disappointed to see the creature yank the bolt from its shoulder and toss it disdainfully into the pool of magma from which it was emerging. Thurloe cried out in sudden pain as a rainstorm of boiling water suddenly formed above him; he knew its cause by the sudden, evil gleam in the eyes of the pair of steam mephits still flying around the tunnel. Alewyth killed a fire mephit with Sjondra, the mighty warhammer easily crushing its fiery body into embers and sending them flying from the force of the priestess's blow. Wakuren slew a steam mephit with the side of his shield.

Having exhausted their most powerful attacks - which they could only use so often before needing to recharge - the two remaining magma mephits flew out of their pool and swiped their burning claws at Xandro. The two fire mephits continued their attacks upon Alewyth, each sending a scorching ray her way - one of which she was able to successfully dodge. It seemed the heroes would be able to make short work of these mephits after all.

And then four more creatures entered the fray. These four were each twice the size of the mephits, with glistening, hairless bodies dripping with magma as they rose out of the larger pool ahead to the right. Each of the four spit a hunk of burning lava into its hand and then threw the burning mass at their nearest target: Wakuren. This caused the lava children to giggle with frenzied delight at Wakuren's roars of pain as the hurled globules burned his flesh even more.

Thurloe didn't like the sheer numbers of enemies they were facing and decided to take out the ones in the back first so they couldn't attack the group from behind. Casting a magic missile spell from his wand, he slew the sole remaining magma mephit, causing it to fall lifelessly back into the pool from which it had come. Zander, in the meantime, was much closer to the lava children and cast another magic missile spell, splitting the projectiles between the two in the first row. Streggin's follow-up crossbow bolt slew one of those two and it too sunk beneath the burning magma pool from which it had risen.

Alewyth took the time to cast a prayer spell, aiding her allies' attacks while hindering those of their enemies. Wakuren cast a divine favor spell upon himself, boosting his combat abilities - and he was more than ready to dish out some physical damage to these creatures of fire! Infernia might be a Goddess of Love, but his heart held nothing but hatred and contempt for the creatures infesting her Temple. His hatred only intensified when the three remaining lava children rushed up out of the magma pool, clawing at the enraged half-orc with their burning claws. Thurloe slew one of the bald, glistening menaces with another blast from his wand of magic missile.

Xandro stabbed at the last of the fire mephits with his frost blade, but missed outright. It fled for the safety of the magma pool, diving beneath the molten rock where the heroes couldn't follow (and, over time, it could heal the wounds it had suffered at their hands). "I'll get him if he resurfaces!" Streggin promised, pointing his crossbow at the spot where the fire mephit had submerged. The bard, in the meantime, cast another of his cure light wounds spells upon his burned and battered body.

Just beyond the cavern in which he, Wakuren, and Thurloe stood, Zander saw a natural stone bridge rise over another long magma pool, the bridge leading to a smaller cavern in which burned a blazing bonfire. Off to the right of this cavern was an obviously carved passageway, inside of which sat a serpentine creature whose body blazed in flames, its upper torso not that dissimilar from that of an elf or a human, although it seemed to have a fin of flames running down its spine. It carried a metal spear, glowing red-hot from the heat of the creature wielding it. Zander was pretty sure he'd heard of these creatures before: salamanders, they were called, although they were nothing like the newtlike creatures of the same name with which the elf was much more familiar. Fortunately, the salamander's back was turned to the elf, nor did it seem to hear the sounds of combat behind it; its full attention was focused upon a black disk embedded in the wall of the small chamber in which he sat.

Beyond the chamber with the bonfire, the stone floor ramped down into a much larger pool of magma, at the far side of which rose up a sort of "island" of stone, upon which had been carved an obsidian statue of the burning form of Infernia, identifiable by her body sheathed in flames and the two great, curving horns projecting from her forehead. She had been carved leaning forward, holding out a bottle in one hand.

Alewyth advanced, catching up to the lava children right as Wakuren killed one with the sharp edge of his shield. The other two each took a final swipe at the half-orc before fleeing back towards the relative safety of their magma pool. But before either one of them could make it to safety, Thurloe slew one with another charge from his wand of magic missile, focusing all of the arcane projectiles into the one target. Xandro stepped up to the spellsword and, seeing his wounds, cast a cure moderate wounds spell upon him. Alewyth took the moment's respite to cast a similar spell upon herself.

Looking around the magma pool ahead and the bridge that spanned it (the elf noticed that unlike a manufactured bridge, this natural span had no "handrails" or anything preventing someone from falling over the side to their death) and saw a pair of creatures flying around at the top of the ceiling. These were no steam mephits like before, though: they were skeletal from the waist up, their lower bodies ending in trails of mist and sparking embers. The cinder ghouls dropped in elevation, coming down lower, the elf sorcerer feared, so they could attack the intruders in this Temple of Burning Desire. "It will do you no good," one cinder ghoul whispered in the Dwarven tongue. "There are too many guardians, too many defenses. If you try to reach the bottle in the statue's hand and gain your wish, you will be slain...like us." Zander, who understood the dwarven language, surmised these apparitions were some sort of undead creatures that had likely been duergar in life, which could possibly explain the duergar army's hesitance to follow the group into the confines of the Temple.

Wakuren raced after the remaining lava child, trying to smash its skull in with his shield before it could escape back into the magma pool, and this time the half-orc's rage worked against him, for he swung too soon and sent himself reeling off to the side, off-balance as a result of the swing and the miss. The lava child, just to be nasty, took a final moment to claw parallel lines of pain down the half-orc's arm before diving into the magma pool. Wakuren roared in frustration.

The two cinder ghouls surrounded Zander, one dissipating into a cloud of smoky vapors and flying directly at his face, entering the sorcerer's body through his nostrils and mouth. Zander immediately fell into a coughing fit at this intrusion, making him unable to prevent the other one from attacking him with its claws and stealing away some of his vitality. Seeing this, Thurloe cast a protection from evil spell upon himself and ran up to help his elven friend. Xandro pulled out his Dardolian lute and began the chords to his song of inspirational courage. Eventually, Zander managed to cough the cinder ghoul's vaporous form out of his lungs and staggered away weakly, casting a magic missile spell at the other one, who had thus far maintained its partially-solid, skeletal form.

Alewyth presented her holy symbol of Aerik and called out, "Begone, foul beings!" as she tried turning the two undead forms, channeling positive energy through her body and sending it across the chamber to the floating cinder ghouls. But her attempt met only in failure; undeterred, the dwarven priestess advanced, Sjondra held in her other hand. If one weapon failed, she'd give the other a try....

Wakuren raced up and brought his shield of Cal smashing through the vaporous form of the cinder ghoul who had trespassed into Zander's lungs, just as it was regaining a more solid form (at least from the waist up). The attack sent the newly-reformed bones of its skeletal torso flying in all directions and the half-orc congratulated himself on having slain one of these two strange types of undead. The other cinder ghoul tried clawing at him, but Wakuren caught the attack on the flat of his shield.

However, the lava child popped its head up from its magma pool at that point, spit into his hand, and tossed the glob of molten rock at Alewyth, who happened to be a closer target than Wakuren. It was a move generated out of hatred for the intruders, and it was one that cost the lava child his life, for Zander blasted him with a lightning bolt and he died with a wicked grin still plastered on his face at the success of his surprise attack against Alewyth. Thurloe cast a shield spell upon himself from his wand, while Xandro used his frost short sword against the cinder ghoul attacking Wakuren and discovered these vaporous creatures didn't like the cold energy from his blade any more than had any of the other fire-based creatures they'd met up with thus far in the Temple.

Closer now to her target, Alewyth tried another turning attempt, and this time the positive energy she channeled through her holy symbol had the desired effect: the cinder ghoul jolted as if physically struck, turned to face the priestess, and then fled at full speed across the ramp into the larger magma pool, to cower against the wall to the left of the statue of Infernia.

But as all of this had taken place on the natural stone bridge cresting over the magma pool just to the south of the blazing bonfire, the salamander finally became aware of the commotion outside his extraplanar chamber, where the black disk he'd been staring at occasionally opened up to the Elemental Plane of Fire, the place to which he desperately wished to return - it was cold here, and while his curiosity had drawn him to explore this strange world, he'd had quite enough of it. But, curiosity once again compelling him, he slithered out of the chamber and saw a group of a half-dozen local denizens of this world. A look of confusion crossed his features: now what? There had been sporadic incursions from the locals into the Temple during the weeks the salamander had been here, some seeking treasure, others seemingly content just to slay whatever creatures they could find. He raised his spear, pointing it towards the closest of these intruders.

Thurloe's actions didn't do anything to allay the salamander's suspicions about the ruthlessness of the local denizens of this mortal plane: the spellsword cast a ray of enfeeblement spell that struck the salamander in the chest and immediately robbed him of his physical vigor. Xandro cast a cure light wounds spell on Zander, and then the elf sorcerer followed up with a ray of enfeeblement spell of his own, such that the weary salamander could now barely even lift the metal spear he relied upon as his primary weapon and means of defense.

Fortunately for the salamander, the next attack upon his person was a spell from Alewyth: a dismissal spell that returned him to his own plane of existence. Upon realizing the effect of this "attack," the words - in the Ignan language, which sounded like nothing so much as the sounds of crackling flames to the dwarven priestess - "Thank you" spilled from the salamander's lips as he vanished from the mortal plane. There had been no telling how much longer he'd have had to wait for the planar gate to open back up to the Elemental Plane of Fire; this way was so much easier.

As the salamander was now gone and the only remaining cinder ghoul was cringing along the back wall, Wakuren took a moment to cast a cure moderate wounds spell upon himself, healing over the worst of the burns and gashes he'd received. Thurloe approached the bonfire, suspicious as was his nature, for he saw nothing fueling the flames. He was well aware the Underdark had a distinct scarcity of trees like the surface world, and he also knew there were magical ways to generate a burning flame like the one before him, but he also knew this could also be some sort of trap, if not some sort of flame-based creature itself. But, having attended to Zander's wounds, Xandro stepped up behind the spellsword and cast a cure light wounds spell on him.

Zander activated the full power of his scout's headband and looked around, his vision now powered with true seeing. With the ability to now see things as they truly were, he could see perfectly well that the bonfire was indeed a large fire elemental, but one content to just remain in place and not bother anyone. He stepped forward by the large pool of magma and saw three shapes beneath its surface, two of them about his own size and one much, much larger.

Voicing what he'd seen to the others, Zander stepped aside as Wakuren walked boldly down the ramp, stopping just short of entering the molten rock. The two smaller shapes were the first to break the surface; these were humanoid in build but covered in molten lava and burning flames. They each took tentative steps towards the half-orc, hands outraised as if trying to grab him up into their fiery embrace.

As Xandro picked back up his song of inspirational courage, Thurloe cast a magic missile spell at the first of the fire phantoms. Alewyth summoned forth a spiritual weapon, causing the warhammer of solid force to go crashing into the fiery body of the second phantom. Neither attack stopped them from moving forward, but fortunately they didn't move all that fast and Wakuren was able to stay out of the grasp of them both. Then, taking a step backwards up the sloping ramp, Wakuren cast his own spiritual weapon spell, sending his heavy mace crashing into the face of the one Thurloe had hit with his magic missile spell. And it was then that the third form rose up out of the magma, directly in front of the half-orc.

The creature had the shape of a giant snake, or perhaps it was more like a sea serpent, for all the heroes could see of it was a long neck and a wedge-shaped head with a mouth full on sharp teeth. It darted forward at Wakuren, snapping its black teeth at him, but he dodged back in time and the jaws snapped shut on empty air.

Thurloe continued his magic missile assault on the fire phantom he'd originally targeted, while Xandro continued playing his inspirational tune on his magic lute, well back from the fiery attackers. Zander cast a bear's endurance spell upon himself and backed up out of range himself. Then, in a sudden burst of speed, the fire elemental lunged out and grabbed at Alewyth, having been instructed to do so by the silent mental summons of the serpentine lava weird from the magma pool before it. Alewyth rolled to the side and summoned an elemental of her own to protect her, this one from the Elemental Plane of Earth. It wasn't particularly impressive, standing not even as tall as the dwarf, but it positioned itself between her and the fire elemental and was ready to give its all to see to her protection. And behind her, Alewyth's spiritual warhammer continued its attack upon the fire phantom it had first attacked, not having been given any orders to the contrary.

One of the fire phantoms waded up onto the sloping ramp and approached Alewyth. In a flash that belied its small size, the earth elemental interposed itself between this new threat and its mistress, slamming the flaming undead thing with its stony fists. The fire phantom returned the attacks, although the elemental's rocky build was not particularly flammable and it had not much to fear from the flames engulfing the undead foe. The other fire phantom reached up at Wakuren, but he managed to block the attack on his shield.

To the cleric-paladin of Cal, however, the fire phantom was a mere distraction: Wakuren wanted to take out the lava weird that had tried to bite him. Channeling all of his prodigious strength into an overhead blow, he brought his shield down upon the lava weird's head, cracking open its rocky outer surface and causing it to leak lava, which the half-orc hoped was the equivalent of a bleeding head wound that had opened up his foe's skull. The lava weird snapped its jaws at its half-orc foe but once again Wakuren was quick enough to avoid being bitten.

Thurloe pumped another magic missile spell into the fire phantom he'd been fighting, as Xandro pulled out his frost short sword and stabbed it deep into the fire elemental intent upon attacking Alewyth. Zander aided the bard's efforts with a magic missile spell of his own, but not before the burning creature brought its flaming fists down upon the dwarven priestess, hitting her hard and setting her cloak ablaze. But the dwarf took that all in stride, spinning about and slamming the fire elemental with Sjondra before taking the time to release the cloak's clasp and let it fall to the stone floor behind her. Also behind her, the small earth elemental continued pounding on the fire phantom intent upon reaching Alewyth.

The fire phantoms continued their own attacks with their flaming fists, one still trying to get to Wakuren and the other fighting the earth elemental. Wakuren ignored the attack from the flaming humanoid, concentrating on another devastating strike with the pointed bottom of his shield, which hit the lava weird on the top of its already-damaged head and split the rent there even farther. Wakuren had to dance back up the ramp as the lava weird collapsed onto the sloping ramp before him, then slowly slid back into the magma pool, unmoving and no longer alive.

Thurloe's next magic missile spell killed the fire phantom engaged in battle with Alewyth's earth elemental, at just about the same time Xandro's frost blade took out the fire elemental, which seemed to go out like a campfire doused by a bucket of water.

Despite most of the fiery foes having been taken care of, Zander was feeling particularly vulnerable, so he cast a new spell for the first time: stoneskin, which covered him in a protective sheath that would deflect the majority of most physical attacks made against him. He would discover later just how expensive a spell that would prove to be, as casting it devoured all of the diamond dust he carried in his spell component pouch.

The earth elemental continued its attacks on the sole remaining fire phantom, and with a bit of redirection there were now two spiritual weapons focused upon taking it out as well. Wakuren, still stoked at having slain the lava weird by himself, turned his attention on the undead thing beside him and provided the killing blow to it. Thurloe killed the cowering cinder ghoul with a magic missile spell just so they wouldn't have to worry about it snapping out of its fear of Aerik's holy symbol.

And then the heroes found themselves no longer in combat for the first time since stepping into the Temple of Burning Desire.

"So now what?" asked Alewyth. "This looks t' be a dead end. Are we going to have to turn around and face that duergar army after all?"

"Maybe not," replied Zander, telling the others what the cinder ghouls had whispered to him about the "wish" in the bottle in the hand of the statue of Infernia. Looking across the magma pool, they could see there was in fact some sort of bottle held in her outstretched hand.

"I'll send me bee t' go fetch it!" announced Alewyth, summoning forth the giant bee imprisoned in her amber amulet of vermin. The bee manifested in the air and at Alewyth's direction flew over to the statue and landed on the bottle. "Bring it back here!" Alewyth directed, but the insect just crawled back and forth over the bottle (and Infernia's hand), as if in puzzlement.

"I don't think the bottle detaches," observed Xandro.

"Hang on," replied Wakuren, fetching the rope of climbing from his pack. Holding onto one end, he commanded the magic rope to go attach itself to Infernia's outstretched wrist. While it did so, Thurloe began pounding a piton into the ground by the top of the sloping ramp and securely tied the end of the rope of climbing in place. Then, once it was secure, he used his own length of rope to attach around his waist and the rope of climbing. Finally, with precautions in place to prevent him from falling into the magma pool if he lost his grip, Thurloe climbed over to the statue of Infernia.

"Bottle's attached to the statue," Thurloe called over to the others. "But it's got a removable stopper."

"You know what this is?" asked Xandro. "It's a genie bottle! Release the genie, make a wish to get back to the surface!"

"In this place, probably an efreet," corrected Thurloe - and that proved to be the case. After having decided upon what exact wording to use (for wish-granting creatures like genies were often said to warp the wishes of foolish mortals when possible), Thurloe pulled the cork from the iron flask embedded into the Infernia statue and was immediately rewarded by a blast of smoke shooting directly into his face. Thurloe winced but held his grip, and the smoke flew out into the open air above the magma pool and coalesced into the form of a hovering, red-skinned giant with horns protruding from his head.

"WHAT IS YOUR WISH?" demanded the efreet, glaring down at the mortals gathered below him.

"The six of us wish to be teleported, safely, along with all of our possessions and gear, back up to the dwarven surface city of Agatesgate," Thurloe replied.

"SIMPLICITY ITSELF," scoffed the efreet, waving his hand as if shooing away an irritating insect. Just that quickly, the five heroes, their dwarven ranger guide, the rope of climbing and the giant bee, even Thurloe's piton - all vanished from the area. Looking over his handiwork with an appraising eye, the efreet nodded to himself in approval, turned back into a column of smoke, and returned to the iron flask in Infernia's outstretched hand.

- - -

I wrote this adventure with two goals in mind: I wanted to force the PCs to find a different way back to the surface (it's not a whole lot of fun and excitement going back the same way you came, having already cleared the path of any obstacles two days ago) and it gave me an opportunity to use some fire-based creatures the players had never met up with before. And my son Logan has a 5-inch tall female fire elemental miniature based on the same image he'd used for Infernia back in our Wing Three campaign (when she was the fire elemental familiar of his wizard Telgrane), which I used for the Infernia statue at the end of the Temple of Burning Desire.

We had a bit of a surprise during this game session, as not only did Joe join us (it was a three-day weekend so he drove home to his parents' house and decided he'd run his own PC, Zander Quilson, instead of having his dad run him for him as we did the previous session), but Joe's older brother Jacob also came to see how we were all doing. Jacob gamed with us during the Wing Three and Kordovian Adventurers Guild days, so we turned over the Streggin NPC sheet for him to use. He stuck around until the fight with the mephits, then had to leave to go deal with some scheduled stuff at his old work (turning in a laptop, I believe), but I could tell gaming with us again had him remembering how much fun our two families have together. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a bit more of Jacob in the days to come, now that he's living back in the same general area as the rest of us. (He quit our campaigns when he moved off to college, and now that's all behind him.)

- - -

T-shirt worn: My TSR 25th Anniversary T-shirt, for two reasons: it's gray, like the stone of the Underdark, and one of the D&D monsters depicted on it is a salamander.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 37: THE BLOOD DIAMOND

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 8​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 4/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 6/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 8​

Game Session Date: 22 October 2022

- - -

Once again back in the dwarven mining city of Agatesgate, the five heroes paid Streggin Cavedelver for his services and went off to find Scarlie Besker. He was in the inn where they'd rented a room for him, enjoying a dwarven ale. "Hey, you're back!" he said, finishing up his drink. "We ready to move on to the next village?"

"Not quite," replied Alewyth. "We need to head back to Basutra."

"Back? Why? Somebody else fall asleep there and get stuck in their dreams?"

"No, but there's a shrine of Delphyne there and we can use it to teleport back to Baron's Haven, where we have some business there that will likely take a couple of days at the very least. But I'm afraid we can't take the wagon or animals with us, so we'll need you to stay behind with them again in Basutra."

"Hey, if they got ale in Basutra, I'll be fine holing up there for as long as you need." Alewyth frowned at the half-orc's obvious addiction to alcoholic beverages, but she loosened up when they went to the stables to retrieve their wagon and animals and she saw he'd taken good care of Pyrite and the horses and mules. Saddling up, they turned about and headed back the way they had come, returning to Basutra, the city where they'd had the run-in with the werewasp. Thurloe spent the day in the back of the wagon, poring over the various spellbooks he'd acquired from the evil wizards they'd fought over his short adventuring career, trying to make sense of them. By the time they hit Basutra two days later, he had the grasp of a new summoning spell which would allow him to draw forth a creature from another entire plane of existence to serve him for a brief period of time. He'd seen Wakuren and Alewyth summon celestial bison and the half-orc had even figured out some way to bring forth a hippogriff made up of elemental winds; Thurloe was eager to be able to wield such magic himself.

Once they got the animals stabled and Scarlie tucked away into a comfortable inn (where he immediately went to the bar and ordered the first of no doubt many beers), the five made their way to the shrine to Delphyne, Goddess of Magic. Opening the hidden door behind the statue of the goddess, they flipped through the pages of the book attached to a podium until they found the one showing the statue of Delphyne in her shrine in Baron's Haven. Below the drawing were the following letters:

B H R I N E H O V E N
T A G O E S N A Y E L

Fortunately, they already knew the trick to this particular passphrase. Starting with the "B" in the top left corner and "bouncing" up and down from left to right until hitting the end and returning back the other way, the group found the passphrase. Alewyth said aloud, "Baron's Haven ley one eight" and the five of them disappeared, stepping out into the Temple of Delphyne in Baron's Haven.

"Now remember, they don't allow public spellcasting here," Zander told the others.

"You already reminded us," Thurloe groused. "That's why I'm wearing my breastplate instead of relying upon a mage armor spell I won't be allowed to cast." Despite having been initially trained to fight with his bastard sword while wearing armor, since learning the spellsword arts he'd gone without, as the armor sometimes made it more difficult to cast spells. But he figured here in this backwards city he wouldn't be casting any spells in any case - he didn't want to get hauled before the magistrate again and sentenced to clearing out rubble from collapsed wizards' towers or anything. Once had been enough of that!

"But we're forgetting something else," Xandro pointed out. "We're wanted criminals here, remember? Apparently the Baron was none too pleased about us killing a bunch of his undead soldiers."

"Oh, yeah," Alewyth recalled.

"We should be fine," Thurloe scoffed. "As long as we stay out of sight of the hobgoblin guards the Baron sent after us, it seems like the local human population was quite okay with us taking down a bunch of undead abominations. Remember that 'warning' we got from those human guards as we were leaving town?"

"All the same, I stand out like a sore thumb," replied Wakuren - as indeed he did, being no doubt the only half-orc in the whole city (if not the continent) parading around in the armor and tabard of a cleric-paladin of Cal, God of the Air and of Healing. Activating his ring of invisibility, he disappeared from view. "The four of you blend in a lot better without me," he told the others.

"And you know, you look a lot better this way!" joked Thurloe. As the half-orc was invisible, the spellsword was unable to see the momentary look of fury crossing Wakuren's unseen face before he was able to master his anger.

They recalled the location of Iriadorrista's shop, for the elven gemcutter had done the carving on the smaller dreamstones they'd each had incorporated into their primary items: Thurloe's bastard sword Spellslicer; Alewyth's dwarven warhammer Sjondra; Zander Quilson's jade cooshee; Wakuren's shield of Cal; and Xandro's Dardolian lute. But Iriadorrista apparently remembered them just as well, for her face broke into a welcoming smile when she saw them enter her shop. "You're back!" she said. "But there's one less of you!"

"I'm right here," Wakuren said, dismissing his invisibility and finding himself inordinately pleased that the good-looking elf maiden had recognized his absence. Alewyth removed the Haggoth's handy haversack from her back and pulled out the three dreamstones they'd rescued from the kobold warren. Thurloe also retrieved the drawings he'd made while sound asleep, his body on the Mortal Plane mirroring the actions he took in the Dreamlands under the supervision of the Queen of Dreams herself. The parchment drawing showed how the three rough dreamstone chunks were to be sliced into five roughly petal shapes, and the runes to be carved into each. Iriadorrista took them into a side room where she often consulted with clients and looked over the drawings and the three chunks of dreamstone. "I can do this, sure," she agreed. "They'll be ready the day after tomorrow, if that works for you."

"That will be fine," Wakuren replied, giving the elf his best smile - one where his lips covered the slight tusks growing up from his lower jaw, which often caused others a bit of fright.

"In return, I wonder if you might be willing to do me a little favor," Iriadorrista asked. She then explained an issue she had with a recent customer. "This man came in yesterday with a blood diamond," she said. "He asked me to carve a rune into it, we agreed upon a price, and I told him it would be done today by noon. However, after I closed the shop yesterday and went to begin work on his gemstone, the very touch of it made me feel...uncomfortable. It was as if...as if the thing were emanating a palpable sense of evil. I know that sounds silly...."

"Not at all," reassured Wakuren.

"In any case, I decided I wouldn't be doing the work after all. He should be here in the next half hour or so, and while I have Hal here for security" - here she indicated the human security guard who stood in the front corner of the shop to deter theft - "I wouldn't mind it at all if there were five seasoned adventurers like yourselves on hand when I tell the wizard I won't be doing his job like I had said."

"We'd be happy to help," Wakuren replied on behalf of the entire group, his chest puffed out at having been described as a "seasoned adventurer" - he certainly liked the sound of that! "May we see this blood diamond?" he asked.

"Certainly," Iriadorrista answered, nipping off to the back room where she did the actual gemcutting and returning with a small, wooden box. She opened it up, revealing a red diamond the size of a thumbnail. "This is what he wanted carved onto it," she added, holing out a sheet of folded parchment.

Thurloe grabbed up the sheet, opened it, and grunted. "This rune - it means 'life eternal,'" he told the others. "Wizard dude's probably got plans to turn himself into a lich, and this, no doubt, is to be his phylactery."

"It's evil," Wakuren said, having actually winced at the level of evil emanating from the red gem.

"Do you have any other red diamonds you could swap with this one?" Zander asked.

Iriadorrista shook her head. "Blood diamonds are very rare," she explained. "I have diamonds this size, but they aren't red like this one. And I have red gemstones, but they aren't diamonds. I'm afraid if we tried exchanging this for another, he'll see right through the attempt."

"If he's somehow infused this with evil, he'll know any fake we give him isn't the same gemstone," Wakuren agreed. "You said he'll be here soon?" The gemcutter agreed, then further agreed to allow the five heroes to use the conference room off to the side of the shop to make their preparations. In the meantime, she had her salesgirl, a young elf named Kiirinarra, help her bring the dreamstones into the workshop through the door behind the sales counter.

Inside the conference room, with the door closed, the heroes made their "preparations" all right - but they consisted of spellcasting they didn't want either of the elven women to see them perform; better they have plausible deniability if the heroes were accused of illegal spellcasting within the city limits. But once they had all cast the spells they wanted in place, Wakuren opened the door again so they could see the sales counter. Iriadorrista and Kiirinarra took their places and waited the customer's return.

They didn't have long to wait. No more than five minutes later, a bald man with a dark moustache and goatee walked boldly into the shop, heading directly to the counter. He didn't even bother glancing over at Hal, the human guard, nor did he look over at the conference room where the five heroes stood, ready for trouble. "Do you have my blood diamond?" he demanded, reaching down for a coin purse at his belt.

"I have it right here," Iriadorrista replied, taking the wooden box from the shelf behind the counter and placing it within reach, along with the folded parchment. "But I'm afraid I will not be able to perform the work we had discussed."

"What? Why ever not?" demanded Corbin Mallaxus, his dark eyebrows furrowed in anger.

"It doesn't matter why not," replied Wakuren, stepping forward. "The lady will not be preparing your phylactery for you. And I would like to discuss your intentions as they might pertain to lichdom." A quick perusal of the man's aura confirmed to the half-orc he was every bit as evil as the blood diamond he had brought to the shop.

"My intentions are none of your business!" retorted Corbin, snatching up his wooden box and his parchment. He didn't even bother opening the box to ensure his blood diamond was in there; he either trusted the shopkeeper wouldn't have tried anything or had some way to sense its presence unseen. But the other four heroes stepped out of the conference room, hands on weapons. Corbin, apparently not liking the five-to-one odds (six-to-one if you counted Hal), turned back to face Iriadorrista. "I shall have to take my business to a more reputable gemcutter, I see!" he snorted in disgust, then turned on his heels and made to depart the store. Wakuren placed a hand on the wizard's shoulder but it was brushed away.

"Quick - inside the lamp!" demanded Wakuren, placing it on the floor. As the others touched the lamp and said "eintret," they were immediately shunted into the extradimensional interior of the living quarters originally crafted by the night hag Hesperna. Then Wakuren scooped up the lamp and, activating his ring of invisibility, faded from view. He stepped outside the gem shop just in time to see Corbin Mallaxus turn the corner into an alleyway. But by the time Wakuren had run to the corner, the wizard was gone - no doubt having followed their own course of action and cast a spell within the city limits once in a place he wouldn't be seen doing so. Wakuren couldn't be sure of what spell had been cast - teleport? dimension door? - but whatever it was, there was no way to follow Corbin Mallaxus now. Wakuren set down the lamp, deactivated his ring, and entered the lamp to tell the others they could come out now and that Mallaxus had eluded the half-orc.

Returning to Iriadorrista's shop, they reported what had happened and suggested she send word to the other gemcutters in the city about Mallaxus and his evil blood diamond. "Good idea: I'll write up some quick notes and have them delivered by messenger," she promised. Then, with two days to kill, the heroes made their way back to the Merry Minstrel Inn, where they'd stayed the last time they were in town. Xandro was friends with the owner, Jorbalee Bennicut, and she was more than happy to get him a single room (as they'd all really be staying inside the lamp's extradimensional interior) and hire his services as the evening's entertainment. They found out Tommy, the orphan they'd rescued from his uncle and put into Jorbalee's care, was doing fine in his new circumstances. "He's been a bit help," Jorbalee assured them.

At their request, Jorbalee opened the small room in which she'd placed the famed bard Carmen Melodius, one of the three dreamers the five dreamwalkers had thus far been unable to awaken. She was still asleep, the leather headband they'd put around her temple to keep the dreamstone in place on her forehead exactly as they'd placed it. "Shall we give it another shot?" asked Alewyth. "It's been a month or so since we last tried."

"Worth a shot, I suppose," admitted Thurloe, and the five took their places around Carmen's bed, sitting in a circle and slowing their breathing, each wearing a dreamstone on their own brow. Within moments, they were all asleep and back in the Dreamlands.

"Good luck, kupo!" said Mogo after his dreamwalker students told him what they wanted to do. But while they had indeed grown a bit in power since the last time they had entered Carmen's ongoing dream, the end result was still the same: the giant ape made quick work of them, tearing their dream-bodies apart with his bare hands and his massive teeth, causing them to be forced awake. After two further attempts, they gave it up. "Still got a way to go, I guess," sighed Zander.

"We should try to find out what we can about that bald wizard," Alewyth suggested. "I don't like the idea of him becoming a lich." At her prompting, they asked around if anybody knew the wizard and eventually Xandro hit pay dirt, not only finding out the wizard's name but the address where he lived. It was in the better part of town, among the more well-to-do. "Let's go check it out!" the bard enthused. Wakuren once again faded from view as they walked the streets of Baron's Haven into the more respectable part of the city. And they did find the Mallaxus estate: it was rather hard to miss, for the ten-foot-tall hedges flanking his property were distinctive enough to call attention to it. There was but a single entrance: a pair of tall, thick gates that bore the Mallaxus family crest. But trying to peek through the thick hedges was problematic, giving only the barest view of what seemed to be a single-story structure in the middle of the property. "I kind of expected a tall, wizard's tower," Alewyth admitted.

"Guy likes his privacy," Thurloe grunted.

"Let's go check it out," Wakuren said from behind them. Hesperna's lamp suddenly appeared on the street beside them, the invisible half-orc having placed it there and stepped away. "I have a gaseous form spell that will get me over the hedges," he said. "We can take a peek through his house, see what all he's up to. If he's planning lichdom, he's probably up to something no good."

"That's technically illegal," Zander pointed out. "We don't have any authorization to go sneaking into his house."

"We're already technically outlaws here," Xandro replied. The bard touched the lamp and, saying the command word, disappeared inside. Sighing, the elf followed suit, with Alewyth and Thurloe right behind him. When all four of them were inside, Xandro added, "The bad thing about this type of plan is we have no way of seeing what's going on outside while Wakuren goes exploring."

"We could stay behind," Alewyth pointed out, "but then if he runs into any trouble we wouldn't be there to come to his aid."

"But we wouldn't even know to come to his aid in the first place," argued Xandro. "That's the whole problem with this setup."

Wakuren, however, saw no problem with his plan. Casting his spell right there on the street (while invisible, so he was fairly certain he wouldn't get caught), he - and the lamp he held in his hands - turned to a vaporous gas and wafted over the thick hedges flanking Corbin Mallaxus's property. As he lowered his elevation onto the grounds surrounding the little dwelling, Wakuren saw the wizard employed a set of guards. This pair stood motionlessly, one on either side of the house. Curious, the gaseous half-orc altered his path to get a close-up look at one of them.

At first, Wakuren thought he was dealing with a mummy, for the figure was wrapped head to toe in linen bandages. But as he got closer, he saw not only flesh beneath the bandages that showed an unhealthy coloration, but a great deal of stitches holding the skin together. The fact the "mummy" gave off no aura of evil whatsoever led Wakuren to the belief he was looking not at an undead mummy but a bandage-wrapped flesh golem. Both were made of reanimated flesh, but a flesh golem was given life by an elemental spirit rather than that of the person who had once worn that dead flesh. In any case, Wakuren had no desire to deal with the flesh golem guardians and instead made a full circuit around the house, finding only a front door and another to the side - no windows at all in his house; that was a bit suspicious! Given the building was a single structure flanked on all sides by 10-foot-tall hedges, it certainly seemed as if Corbin Mallaxus didn't want any neighbors seeing what he was up to.

Wakuren sent his vaporous form gliding underneath the front door, glad to see it wasn't airtight. Looking about, he saw he was in a main room lit by everburning torches, which made sense given the wizard's human visual limitations and the lack of natural light brought about by the total lack of windows. There was an open doorway to a kitchen to the left and beyond that a dining area; Wakuren checked them both out but they were empty. Retracing his path, he flowed underneath another door, this time finding himself in a simple bedroom. The bedroom was austere, with a single bed trunk, and a garderobe along one wall; the half-orc was glad the gaseous form spell prevented him from being able to smell, for he doubted the bedroom smelled very nice while connected to a latrine pit. There was another door at the northeastern corner of the room, which if Wakuren was picturing things correctly, lined up rather nicely with the side door, attached to a short projection along the eastern side of the building he suspected led to a stairwell leading down to a lower level. Instinctively sensing for evil, he was surprised when he got a strong reading coming from the other side of the door, this one just as strong as the auras from Corbin Mallaxus and his blood diamond.

Wakuren backtracked the way he had come, exiting the dwelling by flowing out underneath the front door and floating around to the side door. He got the same reading from this door and idly wondered if there was some sort of trap in place. If so, there was only one way to find out: flowing underneath the door, Wakuren got his answer, for standing there at the top of the stairs was a thin-bodied creature with large, batlike ears and a pair of wings equally suited to a bat, although this being had a separate pair of humanoid arms ending in clawed fingers. Wakuren couldn't recall if this was an imp or a quasit; then, noting the creature's greenish-gray coloration (and vaguely recalling imps as having red skin), he settled into the assumption (for now) that this was a quasit, and Corbin's familiar. He'd have to check with Thurloe to find out for sure; the spellsword studied such things.

Then Wakuren noted something he should have paid attention to right away: the quasit, or whatever it was, seemed to be staring right at him with a quizzical expression on its face. Could it see him, even though he was fully invisible and under the effects of a gaseous form spell? Experimentally, Wakuren shifted to the left and then to the right; the homunculus followed his every move. Well, that answered that, then - although there wasn't much Wakuren could do about it. Wordlessly, he allowed himself to float down the stairs to the lower level, the homunculus following behind inquisitively.

The room at the bottom of the steps was a library, complete with a small desk containing a book bound in black leather. There were two closed doors leading into other rooms; heading south, Wakuren slid his vaporous body beneath the door and found himself in a workroom of sorts, with several tables containing various projects in different states of completion. There was a skeleton standing in an open doorway, wearing what at first Wakuren took to be a purple feather boa - but then he realized they were three separate sections of intestine-like appendages, one along each forearm and another coiled up in the skeleton's ribcage. A mohrg, the half-orc realized, and turned back to exit the room the way he'd come - only to find the door now wide open and the homunculus hovering in the air, watching him.

Returning to the library, Wakuren slid beneath the other closed door, only to have the homunculus open it behind him and follow. This room was just as sinister despite being empty, for there were three empty cells along the north wall, each containing a wooden bench and an old bucket. Despite there not being any prisoners stored here at present, Wakuren could only imagine this was where Mallaxus kept the "components" for his flesh golems outside before they were slain and experimented upon.

There was another door from the room of cells, this one leading to an operating room of sorts where Wakuren imagined the flesh golems had been crafted, if the dried bloodstains on the central table and the row of surgical implements on the smaller table against the south wall were any indication. There was but one more door from this room - besides an open doorway leading to the workshop, for Wakuren could see the mohrg's bony back standing at the end of it - and it proved to be an empty room of a much notably lower temperature: a cold storage room for corpses, no doubt. Again, the current lack of dead bodies didn't give the half-orc any feelings of relief, for he was certain the room had been put to use before and would be again.

Since that seemed to be the entirety of the lower level, Wakuren retraced his path back to the stairwell and started rising up it - only to see the homunculus following his every move. This, he realized, was going to be problematic, for the little creature's wings allowed it to fly at a much faster speed than he could manage while in gaseous form. Still, there didn't seem to be much Wakuren could do about it at the moment, so he made his way outside, flew over the hedges, and landed on a back street behind the Mallaxus estate, where he dismissed the gaseous form spell and returned to solid - though still invisible - form.

But as soon as the half-orc had retained solid form, the homunculus moved in to attack, snapping at him with its wicked teeth. He dodged the blow and instinctively returned the attack with a swipe of his shield, which had the effect of dismissing his invisibility. He at least had the satisfaction of having slammed the shield directly into the homunculus's body, but it staggered away, wings flapping rapidly in an attempt to gain an altitude higher than Wakuren could reach with his shield. Having attained such a safe height, the homunculus took a moment to taunt the intruder into his master's house. "You're dead, half-orc!" he said. "You hear me? You're dead!" It grinned evilly at the thought of what Corbin Mallaxus would do to someone who had blatantly invaded his home, especially when the homunculus was able to give him such a good description of what Wakuren looked like. But Wakuren wasn't particularly concerned, for the vile creature couldn't report back if it were already dead. Raising his right hand, upon which he wore the gauntlet of Cal, he summoned a javelin of lightning into his hand and sent it flying up at the winged beast. The homunculus squawked in pain and outrage as the lightning bolt struck true, then turned and flew back to his master's home as quickly as it could. Wakuren growled in irritation when he realized he wouldn't have the opportunity for a second such attack, for the wizard's familiar was already over the hedge and out of view.

Grumbling to himself, Wakuren entered the lamp and briefed the others on what he'd seen. From the description he gave of the familiar, Thurloe was able to state confidently that was likely a homunculus Wakuren had fought, and almost certainly Corbin's familiar.

"But now what?" asked Alewyth. "Can we report this to the guards?"

"Not without admitting that Wakuren cast a gaseous form spell upon himself and then trespassed into a citizen's home," Thurloe pointed out. "That won't get Mallaxus in trouble so much as us. Face it: there's not a lot we can do about this. Hopefully Iriadorrista's messages made sure any other local gemcutters won't be carving up that blood diamond of his into a phylactery any time soon." They returned to the Merry Minstrel Inn, where they enjoyed a hearty dinner and listened to Xandro's performance on the Dardolian lute before calling it a night. Thurloe opted to stay in the inn's room for the night, with the lamp beneath the bed and the others safely inside its extradimensional spaces. Wakuren, for one, wanted the extra protection being on an entirely different plane of existence would afford him, knowing the homunculus would report back his intrusion into Corbin's house.

But the night passed without incident, and the next morning the five heroes ate breakfast in the inn, Tommy proudly bringing a basket of breakfast rolls to their table. However, once they had completed their meal, they were at a loss as to what to do with the day - for the dreamstones wouldn't be finished until the following day, as per Iriadorrista's announced schedule. Still, they decided to swing by her shop to see how progress was going on their project.

Kiirinarra was there at the shop, as was Hal, but the clerk was nervously wringing her hands. She breathed a big sigh of relief when the five heroes stepped into the shop, and she raced from behind the counter to fill them in. "Iriadorrista's missing!" she blurted out. "She's normally here to open the shop, but it was still locked up when I got in, but I have a key so I opened it myself, but there's no answer at Iriadorrista's door, and that man came back at the end of the day yesterday--"

"Hold on - slow down!" commanded Thurloe. "What man? The bald wizard, Mallaxus?"

"Yes, him!" replied Kiirinarra. "He showed back up at the end of the day, right before we were about to close up for the night. He had a wooden box with him - a bigger one, not the one he kept the blood diamond in - and he opened it to show Iriadorrista what was in it, and then she went all white and grabbed up her tools from the back room and went off with him. And we haven't seen her since!"

"What would have been in the box?" queried Zander.

Wakuren had an idea. "It could easily have been the finger of someone she cares about," he theorized. "I could see him threatening her family with further harm if she didn't cooperate." He turned to the elven shop clerk. "Does Iriadorrista have any family living here in the city?"

"Her mother, yes." Kiirinarra told them the street she lived on, but she was unsure of her exact address. Wakuren was ready to go racing off to see the gemcutter's mother at once, but before he could do so Xandro asked a few pertinent questions. "You say Iriadorrista is normally here first thing in the morning," he told the elven clerk. "So she lives nearby?" Kiirinarra pointed to a door from the workshop. "The other half of the building is her apartment," she explained. The door was locked, but Kiirinarra said under the circumstances she was sure her boss would have no problems with the bard picking the lock to her living quarters. It took him less than a minute to get the lock open, and then they went through her quarters; as expected, they were empty, her bed still made and obviously not having been slept in.

"The bastard kidnapped her," Alewyth muttered.

"Let's go," Xandro said, leading the group towards the Mallaxus estate. Fortunately, to get there they had to pass by the street where Iriadorrista's mother, Avaranella, lived. Xandro was able to ascertain her address by a couple of friendly questions of the people in the neighborhood; Wakuren did his part by remaining invisible so his half-orc countenance didn't scare off the locals.

Knocking on the door, Xandro called out, "Avaranella? Are you home? It's very important."

"Go away," came a woman's fearful voice from the other side of the door.

"It's about your daughter, Iriadorrista. We think someone's taken her, and we're on our way to go get her back. But we wanted to make sure you're okay. Did anyone come by yesterday evening, making threats?"

There was the sound of locks being undone on the other side of the door, and then it opened and in the doorway stood the gemcutter's mother. "He did more than make threats," Avaranella replied, holding forth the bandaged stump where her right hand had been. "But you say Iri's been kidnapped? By that horrible man?"

"We're going to get her back," Alewyth promised.

"He said if I said anything, he'd be back to kill me," the elven woman said, shuddering. "But you already know...." She looked up at the four adventurers standing on her porch (as Wakuren was still invisible). "Please, if you can save her from that monster...."

"You close this door back up and keep it locked," Thurloe told the woman. "We'll be back with your daughter." And after hearing her lock the closed door back up, the group rushed over to the Mallaxus estate with all haste. "Same deal as yesterday," Thurloe told the others, once they were all inside the lamp, on the street behind the Mallaxus estate, where nobody would witness them casting spells within the city limits of Baron's Haven without the proper authorization. Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself, following it up with a magic vestment spell on her armor and a bless spell on the group at large. Wakuren beefed himself up with more spells than he'd ever cast upon himself at one time before, with owl's wisdom, bull's strength, and eagle's splendor increasing his overall personal combat effectiveness, followed by shield of faith and entropic shield spells to make it harder for Corbin and his homunculus and mohrg allies to deal the half-orc any serious damage. Xandro even pitched in by casting a heroism spell on the cleric-paladin of Cal. Thurloe made do with a charge from his wand of shield, before passing it over to Zander so the elf sorcerer could do the same. Zander also cast a mage armor spell on himself and a haste spell on the group. Then Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility, stepped on the platform in the center of the lamp's extradimensional space and said the command word, "aussteig" - which shunted him back outside by the physical lamp. Then he picked up the lamp and cast a gaseous form spell upon himself, once again taking on the substance of invisible fumes. He floated up and over the hedge and flowed around the house to slide beneath the front door.

However, having been alerted to the half-orc's previous intrusion the day before, Corbin Mallaxus had been able to make some preparations. As Wakuren's invisible, vaporous body seeped beneath the front door, his living life force activated an alarm spell that made a raucous racket that had to have instantly alerted Corbin of the intrusion. Wakuren flowed over to the dining room, assumed solid form, set down the lamp, and said the command word that shunted him back inside. "Triggered an alarm spell," he told the others. "No need to try sneaking around - he's got to know we're here."

Advancing up to the bedroom door, they found it locked - but it took Xandro longer to unpack his lockpicks than it did to overcome the simple lock in the door. The bedroom was empty, but by now Alewyth was impatient and eager to get downstairs where she was sure Iriadorrista was being held. She crossed the room and, finding the door to the stairs locked as she had expected, brought Sjondra crashing into the locked door, sundering it from its hinges. Xandro just shrugged and rolled his lockpicking tools back up into their bundle, then stowed them on his belt.

Wakuren, still invisible, crept down the stairs as quietly as his armor would allow. The homunculus was squatting on the table in the library, gathering up the black-leather-bound tome, when the half-orc slammed his shield into the familiar's head, channeling Cal's smiting power through it as it struck home. The homunculus dropped the book and reeled drunkenly in the air, trying to regain his equilibrium, when a magic missile spell from Zander from the bottom of the stairs slew it outright. It crashed to the library floor in an unliving heap. Two rooms away, Corbin Mallaxus swore quietly to himself as he felt the link to his familiar go dead. But he carried on, casting defensive spells upon himself in preparation for the fight to come.

Xandro, in the meantime, took the opportunity to send the point of his frost short sword into the skull of the homunculus, just to make sure it was truly dead. Satisfied, he then pulled the Dardolian lute from his back and began the initial chords to his song of inspirational courage. Thurloe brushed past him, bastard sword out and ready for action, and opened the door to the workroom. Sure enough, there was Iriadorrista sitting in a wooden chair, bent over the blood diamond with a loupe on one eye and her gemcutting instruments in hand. But that wasn't all of note in the workshop: besides the mohrg, which still stood in the doorway on guard duty, there was a right hand crawling about on its fingertips on top of a smaller table in the corner; Thurloe couldn't help but notice the severed hand was wearing a tiger's eye ring on one finger that gave it the appearance of some cyclopean overseer watching the gemcutter's work. But as Corbin didn't appear to be in the room, Thurloe moved over to the other door from the library, which he recalled led to the room with the three cells.

Alewyth stepped into the workshop, her holy symbol of Aerik held before her. As she sent a blast of positive energy through Aerik's icon (hoping to cause the mohrg to crumble away to dust or at least flee the scene; to the priestess's disappointment, it did neither), Alewyth couldn't help but notice the manacle around Iriadorrista's left ankle, from which was attached a length of heavy chain mounted to the stone floor beneath the table at which she sat. Judging from the chain's apparent length, it seemed she had the full range of the workshop but that was about it. But the elf looked up from her work at the Alewyth's approach, and a look of relief passed over her face.

Wakuren pocketed the black tome the homunculus was gathering up and stepped into the workshop behind Alewyth, casting a spell that summoned an air element hippogriff into being. It immediately attacked the mohrg, its front talons clawing their way across the skeletal being's skull. It retaliated at once, sending its clawed "tongue" shooting forth from its open jaws; the slimy appendage hit the hippogriff, but its paralytic secretions had no effect upon a creature whose body was composed of the swirling winds from the Elemental Plane of Air. Not liking its nearness to this elemental force, the crawling claw - animated the night before, using Avaranella's severed hand - skittered to the far side of the table upon which it crouched, and the air elemental hippogriff, seeing the motion, instinctively swatted at it with its right front talons. That was enough to slay the crawling claw in one blow; it fell to the floor, landing upside down and preventing Corbin Mallaxus from seeing anything if he tried scrying through the tiger's eye ring it wore, using the linked amulet around his neck.

Then Zander ran into the workshop, scooting the long way around the table at which Iriadorrista sat, until he had a good line of sight on the mohrg. Then he sent a scorching ray spell blasting across the room to hit the undead thing square on with one fiery stream. (The other one, unfortunately, missed completely.)

Anticipating imminent contact with the enemy, Corbin cast a summoning spell of his own and set a bearded devil immediately before the door linking the construct lab - in which he stood - to the room with the three cells. It was just in time, too, for Thurloe opened the door immediately after having cast a mirror image spell on himself. He was surprised to see a bearded devil standing before him in the doorway (and Corbin standing at the back of the room, behind the devil), while the fiend was just as surprised to see six identical spellswords facing him through the doorway. Overcoming his initial surprise, the devil stabbed forward with his glaive, but the Thurloes successfully dodged out of the way.

Alewyth pulled Iriadorrista away from the mohrg and the hippogriff, admonishing her to hold still as she brought Sjondra crashing down upon the chain by the elf's foot. Several links broke under the assault, and the gemcutter found herself free, a mere half-dozen links jangling from the manacle around her left foot. "Run!" Alewyth called to her, and Iriadorrista did as she was told, rushing out of the workshop and into the safety of the arcane library. "Don't leave the house, though!" Alewyth amended, not wanting the gemcutter to run afoul of the two flesh golems roaming around the necromancer's yard. Back in the workshop, the mohrg and the hippogriff traded blows, the elemental creature getting the better of the deal, for all of its attacks could harm the undead thing, whereas the mohrg's paralytic attacks were useless against the being born of winds.

Zander cast a magic missile spell at the mohrg, trading a lower damage output (compared to a scorching ray spell like he'd tried using earlier) for a guaranteed successful strike. Corbin sidled over to the cooler chamber, casting another summoning spell before closing the door and cutting himself from view. But the yeth hound he'd summoned from the Fiendish Planes manifested behind the six Thurloes, snapping at the nearest with his teeth - and, surprisingly, missing entirely as the multiple images shifted back and forth in a rather confusing pattern. The bearded devil was having a similar problem stabbing out with his glaive and striking nothing but empty air.

Thurloe, taking inspiration from Xandro's magical tune, activated his torc of the titans and brought his bastard sword swinging at the bearded devil with all he was worth. The blade hit the fiend in the side of the torso and went in deep, but not as deep as the spellsword would have expected; he's forgotten to take into account the devil's insanely thick skin, granting it a level of protection against mortal weapons that only silver or holy magic could overcome. Wakuren departed the workshop in search of Corbin and approached Thurloe from the library, hitting the devil in the doorway with the side of his shield.

While the air element hippogriff and the mohrg each did their best to take the other out, Alewyth cast a searing light spell at the undead abomination. Unfortunately, due to their jostling about as they struggled to slay each other, the dwarf priestess missed with her spell. Zander took a chance and attempted another scorching ray spell, this time managing to hit the mohrg with both rays of flame.

Corbin, by this time, had come to an unfortunate conclusion: the odds were against him and it was in his best interests to escape the current combat in his house and restart his machinations elsewhere. He hated to give up his blood diamond, but he knew perfectly well the ritual to infuse a diamond with the slain souls of tortured captives; another blood diamond could easily be crafted in the days to come. But with his familiar dead, the necromancer needed the black tome the homunculus had been sent to fetch for his master, for it had the intricate ceremonies and rituals needed to ensure the successful transformation into an undying lich. Corbin need only fetch the tome before he could use the scroll of teleport he held in his left hand to ensure his successful getaway from these meddling heroes. And he knew exactly where the tome had been left: on the table in the library, and hopefully the others would be too busy fighting off his allies for them to notice his sudden appearance in the arcane library before he would be on his way to safety.

With these thoughts in mind, Corbin Mallaxus said the words to a dimension door spell and appeared standing next to the table in his library - where he saw, to his horror, the black tome was missing! Who had taken it? He looked on the floor by the body of his slain homunculus, hoping the loyal familiar might have dropped it at his side in his death, but no, it wasn't there either! Fury rose in the necromancer: who had dared to take what he needed to ascend to lichdom?

Iriadorrista screamed at the necromancer's sudden appearance by her side. She fled to the stairs, while Xandro was surprised to see he was now merely steps away from the foul wizard who'd cut off Iriadorrista's mother's hand just to force the gemcutter to do his bidding. "Guys!" he called out, breaking the flow of his song. "He's here in the library - come quick!" But then he thrust at the necromancer with his frost short sword, the blade cutting into Corbin's side and eliciting a yelp of surprise and pain.

The bearded devil, tired of being the target for Thurloe's blade, decided to teleport behind all five of the mirror images and the real thing, for he was having a difficult time sorting them out and had thus far been unable to land his glaive into any of them. However, Wakuren slammed his shield sideways into the fiend's throat right as he was about to begin his teleport maneuver, and as a result when he did pop behind the foes facing him in the doorway, it was only to collapse onto the floor with a crushed throat. Beside the bearded devil, the yeth hound snapped at one of the mirror images, but all six of the apparent Thurloes had by this time spun about to face the fiendish threats, and the hound's jaws snapped closed on empty air once again. But the real spellsword's blade came crashing down upon the yeth hound's back, cutting deep and pulling back before the confused creature could recall which of the six identical Spellslicer blades had been the real one.

Alewyth swung Sjondra into the side of the mohrg, who thus far had been gradually whittled away by the attacks from the air element hippogriff and Zander's spells. The undead thing's bones were cracked in several locations, and the dwarf got the feeling it wouldn't be long before they had brought about its destruction. And indeed, after it struck at the hippogriff and the hippogriff returned the favor, Zander brought the mohrg down with a final magic missile spell.

Wakuren left the yeth hound to Thurloe and his mirror images and ran over to aid Xandro in the library. As Corbin was standing behind the table, the half orc leaped up upon it and from that vantage point brought his shield slamming down upon the necromancer with all of his considerable strength. Corbin staggered away sidewise, somewhat dazed, which gave Wakuren the opportunity to leap down from the tabletop and bring his shield crashing sideways into the evil wizard's side. But Mallaxus wasn't out of the fight yet: frantically scrabbling backwards a step or two to get out of the reach of Wakuren's shield, he cast a chain lightning spell directly into the half-orc's face, the initial burst of electricity sending another arc flashing over to strike Xandro as well. The bard stepped back after the blast, sheathing his blade and returning to his song of inspirational courage on his lute. Let those more geared toward melee combat deal with such things!

The yeth hound snapped at another mirror image and once again missed. Thurloe, however, did not miss with his blade, and another deep gash opened up on the fiendish hound's body. It voiced a cry of pain that sounded surprisingly human.

But with the mohrg taken care of, Alewyth was now free to join the fight against Corbin Mallaxus. Returning to the library, she cast a hold person spell on the necromancer and was pleased to see him unable to shake it off. His body froze, his fingers up and in the midst of some sort of spellcasting, and Wakuren broke into a rather evil grin once he saw Corbin was - temporarily at least - out of the fight. Grabbing the back of the wizard's bald head, the half-orc spun him around and sent his face full-force into the side of the stone stairs leading up to the ground level of his home. He heard the sound of Corbin's nose breaking and a gush of blood poured from his wounded face, but Wakuren refused to release his grip. Instead, he pulled Corbin's head back (at which point a cluster of magic missiles came streaking in from the doorway to the workshop, courtesy of Zander), and then - just as he could feel Corbin begin to shrug off the effects of the hold person spell, sent his face crashing once again into solid stone.

One room over, the yeth hound made a final ineffectual bite at a random Thurloe before the real one cut his spine in two with his bastard sword. With a final howl of despair, the yeth hound vanished, returning to the foul plane from which he had been summoned. Over by the stairs, Alewyth shielded Iriadorrista with her own stocky body, not to keep her safe from harm but to prevent her from seeing the spectacle occurring in the arcane library, for Corbin was already quite dead but Wakuren, a look of fury blazing on his orcish features, continued pounding the wizard's face into the stone, again and again and again. By this time the necromancer didn't really have much of a face at all, merely a pulpy mess where his face used to be, and the red stain on the side of the stairs continued to grow with each slam. Finally, Thurloe put a stop to it by laying a hand on Wakuren's shoulder; the half-orc nearly responded by turning his fury upon the spellsword until he saw who it was and forcibly calmed himself down. He let Mallaxus's limp body fall to the floor when he released the back of his head.

The group then went about recovering what they could from the wizard's dwelling: the arcane scroll of teleport with which he'd planned on making his escape; the tiger's eye ring from Avaranella's severed and animated hand and the amulet from around Mallaxus's neck that had allowed him to scry through it; the contents of his arcane library (Thurloe had already discovered the necromancer's spellbooks and was flipping through them, seeing if there was anything there that caught his interest); and, of course, the blood diamond. Iriadorrista hadn't had time to finish the carving Corbin had forced her to begin and thus far it just held the rune for "life," without the corresponding "eternal" to go with it. Wakuren, now that his temporary rage had abated, offered up that the clerics at the local Temple of Cal could probably cleanse it of the evil with which it had been suffused, leaving behind a quite valuable gem. Iriadorrista agreed at once, vowing to use the money from the sale of the gem to pay to have her mother's severed hand regenerated, with the rest being paid to the five heroes as a reward for having saved her from Corbin Mallaxus. And she further vowed to accept no payment for the carving of the dreamstones.

"Are you sure?" asked Alewyth, not wanting to take advantage of the elf for having done something she considered to be part of her job.

Thurloe slapped the dwarf's thigh with the back of his hand. "Of course she's sure!" he hissed, amazed at the stupidity of someone turning down an offer of free services. And here he thought dwarves were supposed to have a good head for money!

Two days later, once the dreamstones had been finished up - the three rough chunks having been carved into a set of five petal-shaped pieces of roughly the same size and shape, each with arcane runes carved upon the upper faces - and carefully placed inside Alewyth's extradimensional haversack for safekeeping, the five heroes checked out of the Merry Minstrel Inn, said their goodbyes to Jorbalee and Tommy, and returned to the Shrine of Delphyne.

"I hope Scarlie's sober," commented Zander as Alewyth deciphered the code phrase to return them to Basutra. "I don't know how he manages to put away all the ale he drinks." Just then, a tendril extended from his forearm and the tiny eye at its tip pointed at the elf's face. <I've been focusing my attention on several other hosts in other worlds,> it admitted telepathically. <Has anything of interest happened on this world in the past several of your days?>

"Nah," scoffed Zander to his extraplanar symbiote. "Just the same old boring stuff."

<Figures!> scoffed the nibish-riule.

- - -

This was a fun adventure to run - and once again, the players' favorite plan of "Wakuren carrying everyone else inside the lamp while he flies around in gaseous form while invisible" went slightly astray when he couldn't shake the homunculus after rolling three natural 1s in a row when trying to be sneaky. (We joked that while in gaseous form, the only way he knew to move around must be by making fart noises - and especially loud ones when squeezing his vaporous body underneath doors.) However, I inadvertently helped them out a bit on that front, as if Wakuren's wearing the tiger's-eye ring while invisible and one of the other PCs wears the amulet of scrying while inside the lamp, they'll at least have some idea of what's going on in the outside world while he's carrying them around.

And there at the end, Logan came up with Wakuren's plan for taking out Corbin once and for all by announcing, "I Power Attack the stone wall with the necromancer's face!"

- - -

T-shirt worn: One of my two Red Cross T-shirts I got for donating blood, as it tied in nicely to the blood diamond Corbin tried to use as his phylactery.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 38: NEST QUEST

PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 8​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 2​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 4/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 6/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 8​

Game Session Date: 5 November 2022

- - -

"Hey kupo," Mogo greeted the five dreamwalkers at the beginning of their nightly Dreamlands training session. There was a man standing beside the moogle, someone they'd never seen before, a burly human with shaggy, brown hair and long sideburns. "This is Garth Mankin, kupo. Tomorrow morning, before you start off towards the location of the next dream victim, he'll meet up with you and you'll give the dreamstones to him and he'll take them to where they're needed, kupo.” Grant said nothing, just stood there looking impassive, with his arms crossed and his feet shoulder-length apart, as if awaiting his next orders.

Mogo explained that Garth was a dreamwalker like them, but not an adventurer, so while he could be given instructions in the Dreamlands he wasn't being trained to interact in other people's dreams like they were.

"What are the dreamstones being used for?" asked Xandro. Mogo explained the Queen of Dreams was trying an experiment that might make it easier for them to stop the dream sickness. They'd know in the months to follow if the five newly-carved dreamstones were having any effect.

In the meantime, their training session that night involved entering an individual's dreams and changing the environment around them without being noticed by the dreamer. Garth, having seen the five dreamwalkers and thus able to recognize them when he met up with them in the Waking World the next day, nodded and took his leave; he was not needed in the night's dreamwalker training session.

But sure enough, when the group finished up their breakfast in the inn they'd stayed at the night before, Garth Mankin was there as promised. He took custody of the five carved dreamstones, packing each in soft linens so they wouldn't jostle in the back of his pony-driven cart. Then, without a word, he gave them a final nod and was on his way. The adventurers followed for a short while, but once out of town the heroes continued east while Garth turned to the south.

"Chatty fellow," scoffed Thurloe - during the entire time they'd met with him, in both the Dreamlands and the Waking World, he hadn't said a single word.

"Maybe he's shy," suggested Zander.

"Maybe he's mute," countered Alewyth.

"Maybe he's a monk having taken a vow of silence," added Xandro.

"Maybe I don't really care," answered Thurloe. "So, just how far is this next dreamer?"

"We've got about three days of travel ahead of us," answered Wakuren. "It's a small farming village called Sun Valley." Then, anticipating the spellsword's real reason for having asked the question in the first place, the half-orc added, "So there's no reason you can't sit in the wagon and study those spellbooks of Corbin's."

"That's what I thought," Thurloe replied, tying Horse's reins to the rear of the wagon and leaping into the back.

The first day was uneventful. But it was nearing noon on the second day of travel that they met up with a human paladin wearing the tabard of Cal over her armor. She sat astride a horse, having just ridden into the middle of the road via a side-road, and raised her hand to bring the small caravan to a halt. As Scarlie brought the mules to a stop and the heroes riding their own mounts alongside and behind the wagon followed suit, the woman called out, "I would have words with you, paladin!" to Wakuren.

"Is she evil?" Thurloe prompted in a low voice from Horse's saddle over on one side of the wagon. After having been kidnapped by the night hag Hesperna shortly after encountering her in human form on horseback, the spellsword didn't like making any assumptions about any strangers they met on the road.

"She's wearing the trappings of Cal," Wakuren answered back. "Surely she's--oh, wait, yeah, she's evil." He had trained his paladin senses upon the stranger and was definitely getting waves of evil from her aura. The half-orc growled under his breath, although it wasn't apparent which bothered him more: a pretender wearing the armor and trappings of the God of Healing and Air, or the fact that Thurloe was once again right in not trusting anyone he met for the first time.

"There is something I would discuss with you in private," the woman continued. "Will you accompany me around the bend? I do not know your companions, but what I have to say is for the ears of a member of the Church of Cal. I will leave it to you to decide whether to share what I have to say to you with them, after the fact."

"You want me to go with you out of earshot?" Wakuren confirmed. He looked over at Thurloe. "I will have one of my companions accompany us," he said. "Anything you wish to say to me can be said in front of him as well."

The woman clearly wasn't a fan of this plan. She scowled at Thurloe for a moment, then returned her gaze to Wakuren. "You do not trust me?" she asked. Then, as if realization had just dawned on her, she said, "You've detected evil in my aura, haven't you?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"That's part of what I wish to discuss with you. I, likewise, am detecting your aura as evil in nature. It's a problem that's become more prevalent in the church and we don't know what's causing it. However..." She paused as if weighing whether or not to talk about the issue in front of the others, but then finally relented. "Divinations have shown the answer to the problem lies with a half-orc paladin of Cal. I had not even known there to be a half-orc paladin of Cal, until I started hearing about your little band here, traveling from town to town. So I've been seeking you out."

Wakuren looked over again at Thurloe, who shrugged, as if to say, "Your call." "Very well, then," Wakuren said, rising up and stepping down from the wagon. "I will hear what you have to say." As he walked over to the female paladin, Thurloe kept pace with him on Horse. When they got to the branch in the road, Thurloe backed his mount off the road about 20 feet or so. "You should be able to talk in private," he said, and the paladin looked down at Wakuren, standing beside her own horse. She didn't dismount, but rather said, "I need to see your hands. Unshod." Wakuren removed his gauntlet of Cal from his right hand and placed it on the ground beside his shield of Cal. He held out his hands so she could see his palms.

The paladin held her own hands out to her side and touched Wakuren's, palm to palm. She closed her eyes as if concentrating. "There's some disturbance," she said.

"Disturbance?" echoed Wakuren.

"I'm trying to divine how you fit into this whole puzzle," the paladin explained. She opened her eyes back up and stared down at him. "Those rings you wear: are they magical? That might be causing the interference." It was a logical explanation, but it sure sounded awfully convenient, especially to the other heroes who had been stealthily eavesdropping on the conversation. Xandro was pretty sure this was a trick to try to get Wakuren to remove his magic rings - his ring of invisibility and his ring of mystic healing - and he led his horse White up to the front of the wagon, indicating for Zander to do the same. Alewyth guided her dire goat Pyrite off the road and into the scrub forest to the south of the road. She could see the mounted human paladin on the other side of a row of hedges and cast a detect evil spell of her own. Sure enough, there was evil coming from the two of them, and with enough concentration the dwarven priestess could determine it was coming from the human, not Wakuren.

"And I suppose you'd like me to take them off," Wakuren said, a tone of suspicion in his voice.

"It might help."

"I've got a better idea," remarked Thurloe. "How about we all head over to the nearest Temple of Cal and talk this all over with the clerics there? That sound like a good plan to you?"

The woman looked over at Thurloe with a look of irritation. "That's the problem," she said. "It could very well be someone from inside the church who's causing the effect. We'd have no way of knowing who we could trust."

"I'm not so sure I trust you, given you're emanating evil and Wakuren isn't," piped up Alewyth.

"Your senses might be off because you know him well and I'm a stranger to you," suggested the paladin. "You wouldn't be the first person to make a mistake like that." But she didn't like the way the dwarf was peering at her suspiciously, nor how the spellsword looked eager to cut her to pieces with his bastard sword the first time she made a wrong move. What a pity! They hadn't peered past her disguise self spell to see her true form, and the foolish half-orc hadn't even registered that when they touched hands she'd surreptitiously siphoned off a bit of his mental energy, but the draining process took time and she didn't like the odds. That was a real shame, too, since she'd really wanted the ring the half-orc wore on his left hand, since her detect magic spell had hinted there was a very strong possibility of it being a coveted ring of invisibility - how she'd have been able to put that to good use!

Still, maybe she could still get away with something for her troubles! The horse obediently bending low to the ground so she could snatch up Wakuren's gauntlet of Cal from the ground, she made a grab for it but missed; then, the jig quite up, she went fleeing southward, down the side road from which she'd come. Not too far away was an opening between the trees into which she could lose these "heroes" in the forest.

But Thurloe wasn't having any of it. Casting a ray of enfeeblement at the fleeing paladin, he hit her square in the back and she flinched as if struck with a solid object. Xandro began a tactic that had worked very well on the dark naga in the kobold warren and began playing his song of fascination, hoping to entrance the fleeing paladin - or maybe even her horse. But this was not to be, for in the very initial chords of the song a string broke on the Dardolian lute, making any such attempts at magical fascination a fool's errand.

But then Zander rode up to the intersection, astride his horse Eddy. He cast a lightning bolt spell, which struck the fleeing paladin and the horse she rode with a blast of electrical energy. This likewise caused her to arch her back in pain, and in so doing it became apparent she was not really a human woman astride a horse, for horse and woman were both part of the same beast: from the waist up, she had the appearance of a human woman (with features very similar to that of the paladin - why concentrate on altering features that were fine as they were?), only from the waist down she had the centaurian build of a lioness. Zander had heard of such creatures: lamias!

Wakuren picked up his gauntlet of Cal and placed it back over his right hand. Then, reaching up with it, he summoned a javelin of lightning into his hand. "You wanted to steal my gauntlet?" he called to the fleeing lamia. "Well, here it is!" And with that, he hurled the lightning bolt her way; it crashed into her hindquarters and caused her to cry out in pain yet again. This was definitely not how she had envisioned events unfolding!

Alewyth spurred on Pyrite and cut the lamia off at the edge of the row of shrubs growing along the side of the road. She swung Sjondra with all of her strength, bringing the dwarven warhammer crashing into the side of her human ribs, likely breaking a few of them with the force of her blow. Crying out in pain, the lamia fled from Alewyth, crashing into the brush much sooner than at the clearing for which she had been heading. She scrambled to make her getaway, confident she could make her way through the forest better than a bunch of cityfolk riding horses. But Zander didn't need to enter the forest on the eastern side of the side-road; all he needed was to be able to see the lamia's location to target her with another lightning bolt spell. She screamed in pain again and looked to be on her last legs; Thurloe finished her off with a blast from his wand of magic missile.

"See?" he said, looking back at Wakuren. "It pays to detect evil on everyone, no matter what they look like!" Wakuren just growled under his breath, not liking being talked down to in that fashion.

But fortunately, that was all the excitement that day's travel had for the group. Come nightfall, they made camp on the side of the road, Scarlie volunteering to sleep in the abandoned wagon under the stars while everyone else - riding mounts included - went into the extradimensional lamp they'd gotten from the night hag Hesperna. Scarlie promised to enter the lamp and warn them if he ran into any trouble; he even wore the tiger's eye ring that allowed another person to scry through it from inside the lamp using the amulet of scrying they'd taken from Corbin Mallaxus.

It was early morning the third and final day of travel when they ran into their next bit of trouble. They'd been on the road for less than an hour, with the Shieldwall Mountains off to their left as their little caravan ambled on down the road, heading east. The road had picked up a lengthy fence off to the left, a short distance away from the road, and on the other side of the fence were about a dozen cows, placidly grazing on the green grass at their feet. Not so placid were the four farmers racing their way, each wielding a pitchfork. "Those damn ants are back again, after the cows!" one yelled.

Wakuren looked over at the cows, puzzled - how were mere ants going to be a problem for a herd of such large creatures? Then he got a look at the ants approaching from the direction of the mountains. The first wave consisted of eight ants, each about the size of a large mastiff, and behind them came another wave of eight giant ants, as big if not even larger. The cows, busy with the important task of choosing which particular bite of grass to feed upon next, were unaware of the giant insects' approach until they were upon them, and then their frenzied moos caused the whole herd to panic.

Zander cast a mage armor spell upon himself as he sent Eddy over by the fence, although he was hesitant to jump into the fray just quite yet. Thurloe also cast a mage armor spell upon himself, but he leapt off of Horse and sprinted over to the fence, ready to clamber over it and take on the giant ants. Alewyth cast a bless spell on the group and sent Pyrite over by the fence, but stayed in her dire goat's saddle for now. But Wakuren wasn't wasting any time: he cast a summon monster III spell as he ran to the fence and scrambled over it; by the time her was on the far side of the fence a celestial bison had manifested behind the first wave of giant ants, as the second wave approached. Lowering its shaggy head, it ran towards the nearest ant in the second wave - made up entirely of soldier ants, the first wave being mere workers who lacked the soldiers' sting - and sent a horn piercing the soldier ant's carapace. From even farther back, four more insectoid figures approached, but right now everyone was so busy focusing on the ants and cows that they weren't even noticed.

Wicked mandibles closed around the necks of frightened cows; panicked bovines tore away from the pincers and made frenzied dashes for safety. The farmers advanced, waving their pitchforks and yelling at the giant ants to scram. Xandro, still on the safe side of the fence separating him from all of the action, pulled the Dardolian lute from his back and started playing his song of inspirational courage. After all, it was a wide, open field - no need for him to be in the middle of all the danger for his music to have an effect.

Then, in a sudden rush, the soldiers scurried forward, three of them focusing upon the celestial bison in their midst while the others chased down fleeing cows. Zander climbed off Eddy, scampered over the fence, and lined himself up such that a quick casting of a lightning bolt spell took out three of the worker ants and two soldiers. Thurloe cast a shield spell upon himself and then, deeming himself ready for combat, climbed over the fence and pulled the bastard sword from its scabbard on his back.

Alewyth pulled on Pyrite's reins and had her dire goat flee back the way they had come. But this wasn't some sudden act of cowardice; upon reaching far enough away from the fence, she wheeled her riding mount back again and had him sprint for the fence-line, leaping over the barrier and landing in the field surrounded by panicking cows and giant ants. She also cast a summoning spell and suddenly a second celestial bison was there in the field beside her. It stabbed at the nearest soldier ant with an impressive set of horns.

Wakuren cast a bull's strength spell upon himself as he moved toward the closest ant, shield at the ready to immediately switch from a defensive tool to an attack weapon. The bison he'd summoned slew the soldier ant it had just gored, flinging its head from one side to the other to dislodge its carcass from his horn. The shaggy beast felt a magical attack upon his bovine mind but fended it off; looking about to see who had just tried to dominate him, he saw the line of four larger insects approaching - it had been one of them. These creatures were also antlike in build, but their bodies bent between thorax and abdomen, leaving four legs for walking while the forward set served the function of arms. These centaurian ants were members of the formian race, from an extraplanar hive seeking to expand into these new lands on the Material Plane. Formians had different castes, just like ants, and these four were taskmasters, built to dominate the local life forms and bend them to the formians' will.

Now the farmers found themselves under attack by a trio of worker ants, for the taskmasters didn't care which of the local life forms were slain to provide nourishment for the hive; humans would serve just as easily as cows. The farmers fought bravely back with their pitchforks, but it was quite easy to see they had no experience fighting off giant ants using only farm implements normally used to gather up hay. Feeling a little guilty at remaining behind out of danger, Xandro stepped onto the rail-post fence and climbed up it using only his legs, both arms busy playing the lute. He swung a leg over the top rail and leaped back down on the other side, not having missed a beat of his inspirational song.

The soldier ants swarmed over the cows they could chase down, while two continued the attack upon Wakuren's celestial bison. Zander, having spotted the taskmasters and deciding their greater size made them likely the biggest threat (he wasn't sure at this point if they were just bigger ants or some other creature entirely), cast a summon swarm spell that had a cloud of bats flying in to surround one of the taskmasters, nipping and biting at the insect with their sharp teeth. Thurloe, still too far away to bring his sword to bear, chose a taskmaster and targeted a ray of enfeeblement spell at it, but the shot went astray. Alewyth, not sure just what these larger ants were all about, cast a magic circle against evil just in case. As it happened, neither the formians nor the giant ants were of an evil nature, but the spell had the beneficial side effect of keeping the dwarven priestess - and anyone within 10 feet of her - safe from the effects of any attempts at mind-control.

Alewyth's celestial bison slew a soldier ant, ripping through its carapace with her horns and then stomping on it with her hooves. By now, Wakuren was close enough to be able to charge another soldier ant, crushing its carapaced head with the edge of his shield. The celestial bison he'd summoned killed another soldier ant and moved forward to take on the nearest formian taskmaster.

Two of the farmers suddenly spasmed as their minds were successfully dominated by a pair of the taskmasters, one of them bleeding from dozens of wounds as it extricated itself momentarily from the swarm of bats surrounding it. The farmers stopped trying to fight off the worker ants and the ants stopped trying to bite those particular farmers; the two were now part of the same slave force. A third taskmaster tried to dominate Wakuren, but he was having none of it. The fourth had no such opportunity, for it was fighting for its life against the half-orc's summoned celestial bison, stabbing the bovine creature with its tail stinger while scratching its shaggy fur with both sets of front claws. One of the farmers still possessing his own faculties stabbed at a worker ant with his pitchfork, while the other was grabbed up by the two of his co-workers now under the taskmasters' mental dominance. "Hey!" he cried. "Lemme go!" Xandro, still playing his tune, started heading in the farmers' direction, dodging fleeing cows as he did so.

Another of Zander's lightning bolts hit two taskmasters in a row, one of them being the one besieged by biting bats. The bats refocused their efforts, diving back in at the one who had just escaped their swarm; the taskmaster was now dying a death of a thousand cuts, as blood dripped from numerous wounds in his carapace. Thurloe cast a magic missile spell at another of the taskmasters, for it was fairly obvious now that these larger bugs were the masterminds behind this entire raiding operation.

Pyrite ran down a soldier ant and Alewyth leaned over to one side, swinging her dwarven warhammer Sjondra full-force into the giant ant's head, crushing it to jelly. Her summoned celestial bison slew another worker, while Wakuren rushed a taskmaster and slammed his shield against it. The bison he had summoned from the celestial realms slew one of the taskmasters, bringing their number down to just three. With the creature dead, several of the ants stopped their attacks and seemed to look around frantically, as if just now realizing where they were and what was going on around them.

One of the remaining taskmasters bent its will to taking over Wakuren's mind, but the stubborn half-orc's mind was now a red haze of battle lust and the process was not as easy as the insect overlord had hoped it might be. The bat-covered formian scrambled away from its tormentors, just in time to die from its wounds. But the third one managed to overcome the mental defenses of the celestial bison Wakuren had summoned and it dutifully obeyed its new instructions, running over to the farmers, who were still being mentally controlled by the formians. The sole remaining farmer with a weapon - for the two dominated farmers had dropped their pitchforks to wrestle the free-willed farmer, who had likewise lost his impromptu weapon - stabbed at the worker ant still trying to catch him between its wicked mandibles. His pitchfork caught the ant between its bulbous eyes, stabbing into its head, and it dropped to the ground of the field, dead. Then, looking about for his friends, he found them climbing onto the back of a shaggy bison, two of them pulling a struggling third up between them.

Alewyth found herself under attack by a soldier ant and she leaped down from Pyrite to meet the attack head on, figuring she was better able to deal with it than her trusty mount, who was not trained in the ways of battle. Zander cast another lightning bolt spell at a taskmaster, even though doing so meant the blast of electricity went through his bat swarm as well. Fried bats fell from the sky around the taskmaster, and Thurloe followed up with another magic missile aimed at the same formian. And still it refused to fall!

After having slain the soldier ant she was fighting, Alewyth cast a hold person spell on one of the dominated farmers keeping his friend held in place upon Wakuren's bison. This gave the free-willed farmer enough of an opening to wriggle free from his dominated friends and leap down from the bison's back, while at the same time Alewyth's bison slew the last of the worker ants that had still been trying to bring down a cow. Wakuren slammed the edge of his shield at one of the remaining taskmasters, while another one managed to successfully dominate the farmer who had just gotten himself free from his friends' grasp and was looking for his dropped pitchfork in the grasses of the grazing field. Then a final lightning bolt spell from Zander slew one of the two remaining taskmasters, while Thurloe took out the other one with a magic missile barrage. The taskmasters now all slain, the formerly dominated mind-slaves found themselves with their own faculties back, and the farmers still on the back of the celestial bison climbed back down - and just in time, too, for shortly thereafter it vanished, returning to the celestial plane from which it had been summoned.

"Is everyone okay?" Alewyth asked the farmers. A score of insectoid bodies littered the field, but remarkably all ten cows had made it through the attack alive.

"We're fine, Miss, all thanks to you," one of the farmers replied.

"You said the ants were back," Wakuren said. "They had attacked before?"

"Yeah, two days ago," answered one of the farmers. "There were less of them, but they managed to kill two cows and drag them away."

"It wouldn't be very difficult to track them," pointed out Xandro, putting the Dardolian lute on his back now that the combat was over. "Two big, heavy cows being dragged along the ground, back toward the mountains...." He pointed off in the distance, where signs of such drag-marks were still evident, two days later.

"Tomorrow," Thurloe decided. "We've used up a bunch of our spells today and I wouldn't mind being at full strength if we're going to track those mind-controller bugs back to their nest. Those celestial bison were plenty handy in soaking up attacks that otherwise would have come our way, and they did their fair share of killing as well. Plus, I want to make sure we're all protected from being taken over. I don't want to be some bug-slave the rest of my life!"

"Would it be possible for you to put us up for the night?" asked Alewyth. "We'd be fine in a barn with our animals." The farmers readily agreed, feeling it was the least they could do for these wandering heroes who had just put their lives on the line for the four of them and their small herd. Of course, they didn't know the heroes were going to be sleeping in slightly more luxurious conditions than a pile of hay in a barn; they'd be inside the extradimensional lamp.

The next morning, fresh and relaxed - and, more importantly, with a full spell repertoire at the ready - the group returned to the field, surprised to see a few of the corpses from the previous day's battle missing. Fresh drag marks paralleled the ones from the first attack, when two cows had been slain by a smaller force of giant ants. It looked like two of the formian taskmaster corpses had been singled out, whether because they were the biggest (and thus would provide the most meat) or to hide their involvement (which would mean another task force would be sent to fetch the two other corpses soon enough) was unclear. But the group decided unanimously not to wait for the next wave of ants and formians to show up, but to backtrack them to their nest.

The way was not difficult, with the multiple drag marks all pointing the way the insects had gone to return to the nest. The ground was level for the most part, although it got slightly hilly as they approached the edges of the Shieldwall Mountains. But the drag-marks ended when the grass did; fortunately, there were spots of blood and scraped hide to show which way the cattle corpses had been dragged, and it wasn't too difficult to guess their eventual destination once the two columns came into view.

Two pillars rose up from the stone ground, one on either side of a wide, open cave in the side of the nearest mountain. All indications showed the cows had been dragged straight into the cave entrance. "How do we want to do this?" Xandro asked.

"We buff up, we go in," suggested Thurloe. He didn't want to hear any suggestions from Wakuren involving Hesperna's lamp, the half-orc's ring of invisibility, and a gaseous form spell. If the spellsword was going in, he wanted to be able to see what all he was getting into.

The preparatory spellcasting took some time, making sure everyone was covered with either a magic circle against evil or a protection from evil spell, to ensure nobody would be falling sway to a taskmaster's domination effect. Thurloe and Zander covered themselves in their standard mage armor and shield spells; Alewyth cast an entropic shield spell on herself and Wakuren followed suit; the half-orc followed it up with a shield of faith spell, bull's strength, eagle's splendor, and heroism, and only then signaled he was ready. "Then let's go," suggested Thurloe, leading the way up the hill towards the cave. Xandro cast a heroism spell on the spellsword as they headed toward the cave entrance.

As Alewyth and Wakuren approached, their innate darkvision allowed them to see inside the unlit cave's interior, and thus they were the only two to see the formian at the back of the cave. It was even larger than a taskmaster, but fortunately it had its back to the approaching heroes and didn't seem aware of their presence. But it had a quiver of a half-dozen javelins strapped over one shoulder, while it held some sort of slightly glowing stone in one hand.

But that wasn't the only thing they noticed as they got closer to the cave opening. There was a steady tone, rather like a single note being played by a flute. Looking up at the stone pillars flanking the cave, whose straight lines and sharp angles showed they had been carved or built into their forms instead of arriving in their shapes naturally, the heroes could see that near the top of each 25-foot column was an angled gap, and the wind coming down from the mountain blew past these gaps, causing the tone. They could see no effect coming from the pillars other than the noise and couldn't figure out its purpose: as a warning, perhaps? A means for the scouts and food-gathering parties to find their way back to the nest?

But then the wind died down, the noise stopped, and the cave opening winked out as if popped like a bubble. The group of five, who had been stealthily approaching the cave opening, now found themselves stealthily approaching the blank side of a mountain.

"Um, what?" asked Zander from the rear of the formation. But soon after the wind picked back up, the tone started back up, and like a shimmering mirage the cave opening was back in place. Thurloe thought he knew what was going on, but they were too close to the cave opening now to allow talk amongst themselves without potentially alerting the formian myrmarch of their presence. So, using hand signals only, he indicated for them to silently sneak onto the cave and take out the giant formian with the javelins.

Unfortunately for the heroes, there were two side passageways coming from the central cave chamber, and from the corridor to the right scrambled the familiar form of a formian taskmaster. It spotted the heroes, sent some telepathic signal of warning to the myrmarch (for the larger insect spun about to face them, glowing stone in hand), and tried dominating Thurloe, to no avail - his protection from evil spell kept him safe on that front.

Then the myrmarch waved a hand in the direction of the cave opening and a dictum spell exploded around the heroes. Neither Alewyth nor Wakuren were the least bit affected by the magical attack, whereas Thurloe, Xandro, and Zander all found themselves deafened and under a slow effect. But even though he couldn't hear himself speak, Thurloe decided to cut their losses. "Everybody out!!" he called back to his friends. "Alewyth - take out the pillars!"

Scrambling back out of the cave in an unaccustomed retreat, Alewyth looked up at the pillar to the left of the cave. It was too angular to be natural, that much was certain, but as she examined its texture she could see it hadn't been carved from an existing chunk of stone; rather, it had been assembled, likely by creatures chewing up stone into a pulpy mess and then shaping it, inch by patient inch. (She was correct in her assessment, but hadn't taken into account the other materials added to the chewed stone: the remains of local denizens, whose pulped bones and dried blood helped anchor the structure together.) But seeing as it wasn't unworked stone, her soften earth and stone spell would be ineffective if she cast it directly upon the pillar itself - so she cast it at the ground upon which the pillar was anchored. And then she ran at the pillar, toppling it over to fall to the ground and shatter.

The cave opening, with a battle-ready formian taskmaster and myrmarch still inside, winked out of existence at the moment the shattered pillar stopped adding its wind-tone to the other one. Not having a second soften earth and stone spell prepared, Alewyth made do with attacking the other pillar with Sjondra, and soon it too lay in ruins.

"Explanations?" asked Zander, once the deafness had left his ears.

"The other side of the cave opening, past those pillars - all that was on another plane of existence," Thurloe explained. "When the wind blew, it aligned the extraplanar gateway from the nest, so it could more or less open a door to our world. With the pillars smashed, they don't have a means to come back here. The rest of the nest is fine, on whatever plane it's on, but now they can't come back here."

"Then how did they get here in the first place?" demanded Alewyth.

"Easy: they opened up a planar gateway that just happened to end up here, pushed through a couple formian workers, and they got busy building those pillars. They'd serve as a sort of 'homing device,' so when the nest opened up another gate, it would lock in to this location. They can still open up a gate from the nest - that might even be what that shining stone the big guy was holding was all about - but they have no way of opening it at any specific location."

"So it'll just open up somewhere else in the world?" Alewyth pushed. "So we just made it somebody else's problem?"

"No guarantees the gate would even open up anywhere on this world at all," Thurloe argued. "The Material Plane is a really big place, and our planet is just one of who knows how many a planar gate could link up to."

"Still, maybe we should have taken care of the whole nest while we had the chance," Alewyth continued. "They could show up anywhere, maybe where there wouldn't be anyone to stop them like we could have."

"I got news for you, sister," Thurloe replied. "There's no way we could have taken down an entire nest of those things. Do you have any idea how many of those bugs there are in a full-blown nest? And that big one we saw, that deafened us? That's not even the most powerful type of those bugs there are. Believe me, this was the best solution."

"I guess," Alewyth sighed.

- - -

This was a pretty short session, lasting just about three hours. I had designed four chambers in the nest before the big door which led to the main nest, which was far beyond the PCs' abilities to handle. I didn't even bother designing the nest beyond the security doors, either, instead beefing up the security there to make it quite evident the PCs were in over their heads. But they didn't even need to enter the nest to figure out the importance of the pillars (the concept of which I got from an old movie, "Phase Four," about a nest of super-intelligent mutant ants out in the desert, although their pillars were sonic weapons, I believe).

I did introduce once change in procedures, though: before this session, I made initiative cards and flat tokens of the monsters typically summoned by the spellcasters. So when Zander used summon swarm to call forth a swarm of bats, I had a "Zander's summoned bat swarm" initiative card to place into the initiative deck and a 2-inch-by-2-inch "swarm of bats" token (with a "Z" in one corner to tell it apart from any other bat swarms that might be in play; Thurloe knows the summon swarm spell, for instance, so I made up a separate initiative card and token for his own bat swarm) to place on the battle board. After the session, I had Vicki go through her summon monster I-IV spells and pick out a couple from each list, the ones she'd most likely be summoning, so I could have them at the ready. (She's already summoned a celestial bison and Small earth elementals several times, so I already had those ready.) In any case, I think it should streamline play, so we're not coming to a crashing halt to gather up the stats for a summoned creature whenever such a spell comes into play.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Einstein shirt, as it has the smoke from his pipe expanding into galaxies. It's my go-to shirt for depicting any of the Outer Planes.
 
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