Dreams of Erthe



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

Game Session Date: 29 January 2022

- - -

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

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

"We are," Alewyth confirmed hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

"Sure," agreed Alewyth.

"Fifty gold apiece," pointed out Thurloe.

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

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

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

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

"One minute please; I'll see if the Master is taking visitors." The grandfather plaque closed its eyes for a moment, then opened them again and said, "I'm sorry, but there is no response from Rindicane and he left explicit orders not to let anyone in without granting his express permission beforehand."

Wakuren climbed down from the wagon and approached the front door. "Careful," advised Alewyth, who had cast a detect magic spell and was warily eyeing the stone lions. "I'm picking up auras of transmutation magic from those statues - I'd bet you anything they can animate and attack."

"Really?" asked Mandorregan. "I had no idea! Still, it fits - Rindicane was at times somewhat paranoid about his privacy."

Wakuren stepped directly between the lions and stood before the grandfather plaque, where it could get a good look at the holy symbol of Cal he wore around his neck. "I am a cleric and paladin of Cal," he announced while scanning the construct's aura for the signs of evil and finding none. "If you let me inside, I promise to take nothing; I seek only to verify that Rindicane is unharmed."

"I am truly sorry, but I am not allowed to let anyone inside without Rindicane's permission," explained the stone carving on the thick, wooden door. By then Thurloe had dismounted Horse and stood by the half-orc's side. He idly wondered what would happen if they just started busting down the front door. It was pretty sturdily built, but he was sure Alewyth's dwarven warhammer Sjondra would be up to the task....

But Alewyth was nowhere to be seen. She had wandered off to the side of the building, concentrating on keeping her detect magic spell active while walking completely around the building, looking for another way in. When she reached the front again from the other side, she backed up to see as much of the roof as she could - and noticed a chimney flue off to the front left of the roof. That had possibilities....

"Anything?" asked Xandro, having seen what the dwarf was up to.

"The stone lions animate if directed, the grandfather plaque is obviously magic, and I'm getting a pretty powerful aura off that big colored window in the front," Alewyth explained.

"So how do we get in?" whispered Zander, not wanting to be heard by the stubborn grandfather plaque.

"I have a potion of gaseous form," whispered Alewyth. "I should be able to get in through the flue on the roof."

"Good idea," Wakuren agreed. "You do that, while I turn invisible and use my rope of climbing to climb up to the balcony. Maybe the door up there is unlocked."

Thurloe, in the meantime, had taken it upon himself to keep the grandfather plaque's attention focused on himself and he chose to do so by arguing. "What if Rindicane tripped and snapped his neck?" the fighter-wizard theorized. "He could be lying dead in there. Wouldn't you want to know if that was the case?"

"Rindicane left no instructions to let people into his dwelling in the case of his sudden demise," countered the grandfather plaque.

"Well, maybe he's not dead - yet," Thurloe persisted. "Maybe he's got a big gash on his head and he's unconscious and bleeding out. We got two clerics who could heal him - save his life. Isn't that worth taking a chance on letting us in?"

"The Master is an intelligent man," replied the grandfather plaque. "He no doubt took all of that into account when he gave me my orders and chose not to include such a 'what if?' loophole. I can only assume he decided the risk was worth it."

"So you're okay if he's dead."

"I intend to follow his instructions as they were given to me."

Alewyth cast a bless spell on the assembled group and then walked over to the left side of the building - she didn't want to drink down her potion in front of either the grandfather plaque or the stone lions - and smiled at Thurloe's failure to convince the stone servant to do his bidding. Then she drank down the potion and, with Sjondra in one hand, dissipated into a cloud of mist that slowly rose up the side of the building. Once at the rooftop level, her dwarven cloud-form squeezed into a much smaller configuration as she entered the flue and sank down its length back down to the ground floor, this time from inside the building. She was glad to see that the "at times somewhat paranoid" wizard Rindicane hadn't seen fit to seal off his chimney interior from trespassers.

Wakuren, in the meantime, had walked over to the right side of the building and activated his ring of invisibility. He then opened his pack and pulled out his rope of climbing, which was also invisible (as was all of his gear) - and would remain so, he knew, as long as he held one end in his hand. Giving it mental instructions, the rope rose up and attached its far end to the railing around the balcony after having twisted itself around and around such that its entire length was knotted every foot or so for easier climbing. The half-orc gave it a quick tug to verify it would hold his weight and started climbing up to the balcony.

Alewyth popped out of a cold fireplace in what had to be a ground-floor kitchen. There were two open doorways out of the kitchen, one leading to a long dining room which took up the entire back length of the keep's ground floor and the other leading to a foyer. The foyer, Alewyth knew, led to the thick front door upon which the grandfather plaque had been fastened; she need only resume her normal form and open the door from the inside to allow her friends entry. However, two things stopped her from doing so: the suits of plate mail armor standing in the back of the foyer. With her detect magic spell still active, Alewyth could see they each radiated the same transmutation auras as the lions outside, meaning they would likely animate and attack as soon as they detected an intruder in the keep. Hoping her gaseous form wouldn't trigger their activation, she remained in a vaporous state and floated over to the dining room. A set of stairs led up to the second floor and she drifted up them, figuring it might not be a bad idea to check the whole place out before resuming her solid form; maybe she'd find Rindicane fast asleep in a dream coma and would be able to justify to the grandfather plaque that their presence was needed.

Drifting silently from room to room on the second floor, the vaporous Alewyth explored a library (where her spell-enhanced vision allowed her to identify two magical scrolls which would likewise animate and attack any intruders who stepped foot into the room), a laboratory with a closet of supplies, and then another staircase leading to the third floor. The third floor contained Rindicane's bedroom, closet, and bathroom, while the entire front half of that upper level was taken up by a large room with the stained-glass window in the front and a magic circle of some type inscribed in the middle of the floor.

Alewyth drifted over to examine the circle more closely. The circle was covered in runes, the whole thing looking to have been painted onto the floor with some silvery-white substance that glowed slightly in the dwarf's detect magic sight. The circle included six gemstones set into the floor at equal distances around the circle's circumference; each gem was of a different color. There was a leather-bound book lying beside the circle, which radiated no magic; nonetheless, Alewyth opted not to touch it, even in her gaseous form. The window radiated magic as well, and it looked different than from outside somehow. But having now explored the entire keep and not finding Rindicane, Alewyth came to an abrupt conclusion: the window had been modified as some sort of planar gate and the wizard was no longer even on this plane of existence.

Mentally deactivating the effects of the potion of gaseous form right before the door leading to the balcony, Alewyth resumed her solid form and tried opening the door. No luck: it was locked and she saw no mechanism by which to unlock it; furthermore, it too was glowing under her detect magic spell and was likely arcane locked. But then she saw what had bothered her about the window: while drifting throughout the keep in vaporous form, she had been relying upon her innate darkvision to see, for there had been no illumination within the keep's rooms. Now that she was in solid form in a room whose window allowed in ambient sunlight, she could see colors once again - but the window's geometric designs were still all in black, white, and shades of gray.

By this time, Wakuren had made it up to the top of the balcony, verified the door was locked from the outside as well, and peeked through the window into the room beyond. He saw Alewyth inside and tried catching her attention before realizing he was still invisible and she wouldn't be able to see him even if she had managed to look over in his direction. He still held onto the rope of climbing, knowing if he dropped it the rope would return to visibility and alert the grandfather plaque below that they were attempting to infiltrate his master's keep - and who knew what actions that would prompt?

Down below, Thurloe was still arguing with the stone face on the door. "Okay, if you won't let us in, could you at least peek inside each room and tell us if Rindicane is actually in there?"

"Such actions are outside my instructions."

"How about telling us what's in each room, forgetting about Rindicane. If I were to open this door and walk inside, what would I see?"

"I'm sure you understand that giving such information to strangers would not be in the Master's best interests."

"Okay, then tell Mandorregan here - you know him."

"I don't need him to tell me what's in each room," Mandorregan interjected. "I've been inside the keep on many occasions - I already know what's in each room."

Xandro and Zander had been standing behind Thurloe and Mandorregan, amused at watching the fighter get nowhere. But then Wakuren popped back from around the corner of the keep, motioning for the bard to come over by him. Xandro complied, curious to see the half-orc had a coil of knotted rope in his hands. Wakuren took him back around to the side of the keep, handed him the rope and his ring of invisibility, and explained about the arcane locked door on the balcony. "Sounds like a job for you," he told the bard.

Up in the window room, Alewyth thought she heard a noise, a buzzing sound not unlike the sound the giant bee from her amulet made when flying about. This was much quieter in tone, though, and after looking around the room and not seeing anything (or any auras of magic that might be present if there was an invisible entity in the room there with her), the dwarven priestess realized the noise was coming from the other side of the door to the stairwell - the door she had slipped beneath while in gaseous form. Walking as quietly as she could over to the door, she put an ear to it and verified the buzzing sound was coming from the stairwell. Something, it seemed, was flying this way.

Xandro made it up the rope of climbing and pulled himself up onto the balcony. He tried the door and verified it was locked, then pulled out his set of masterwork thieves' tools, still invisible as he was holding it - the same with the rope. This is going to be fun, the bard thought to himself as he felt for the tool he wanted and then inserted it into the lock on the door. I've never tried picking a lock when I can't even see what I'm doing! But after a few missteps he got the feel for invisible lockpicking and the door swung open, arcane lock spell notwithstanding.

"Who's there?" demanded Alewyth, turning to face the now open door to the balcony.

"It's me," Xandro said, deactivating the ring of invisibility. But that also returned the rope of climbing to full visibility, and out of the corner of his eye the grandfather plaque in charge of ensuring his Master was not disturbed saw a knotted rope suddenly pop into view, hanging down from where it was fastened to the balcony railing.

"Distraction tactics!" bellowed the grandfather plaque, sending a quartet of magic missiles blasting into Thurloe's torso. "You've been keeping me distracted so your associates can try to break into the keep!" With another mental command, the bearded stone face activated the twin lion statues and they creaked into life. Mandorregan stepped back behind Thurloe, being the more scholarly type of wizard and not one to engage in combat; he didn't even know any attack or defensive spells, seeing the arcane arts as more properly put to use as a means of gathering more information about the world and all of its inhabitants.

Thurloe hurriedly started the incantations and hand gestures that brought a shield spell into existence, glad to feel it snap into invisible effect despite it having been cast while he was wearing his metal armor. He saw the stone lions approaching and slid his bastard sword from its sheath on his broad back. The lion statue to his left took a swing at him but he dodged the raking claws, but then the winged lion bit at him and caught him on the leg. Zander backed up further, giving his fighter friend enough room to maneuver.

Xandro took Wakuren's borrowed ring and tossed it back down to its owner. "I'm in!" he called down to the half-orc, only then noticing the lions were attacking Thurloe below. Wakuren snatched the ring up from the ground and slipped it back over his finger, activating it and slipping from view. The grandfather plaque blasted Thurloe with another set of magic missiles but they dissipated harmlessly against his shield spell. The grandfather plaque's stone face now held an expression of disappointment and disgust. Xandro walked to the far end of the balcony, saw nothing of interest, and entered the window room where Alewyth was back to listening at the door.

"Let's go!" called Thurloe to the others, running for the rope of climbing and taking a swipe from the winged lion's claws as he ran past it. But then he sheathed his bastard sword on his back and started climbing. Zander was right there behind him and the fighter had assumed Mandorregan would have followed...but when Thurloe ran off, the young wizard became the next closest target and the non-winged lion attacked him. One hit and he was down, bleeding out.

Invisible, Wakuren slipped past the two stone lions who were looking about for potential targets to attack. They apparently disregarded horses, mules, and dire goats as non-aggressors and devoted their time looking for intelligent foes trying to infiltrate Rindicane's keep. The only ones visible to the animated statues were currently climbing up the rope, so they headed over to that direction and batted the rope with their claws, giving Wakuren the opportunity to quickly stabilize Mandorregan so he wouldn't bleed out. He had the opportunity to heal him completely but decided he was probably the safest where he was, unconscious and no longer seen as an active threat. The grandfather plaque called up to the climbing heroes, rather impotently, "I will be sure to inform Rindicane of this treachery when next we speak!"

Up on the top floor of the keep, another invisible creature was in action: in this case, opening the door from the stairwell to the window room. Alewyth quickly slammed it back shut as Xandro readied his crossbow to shoot at whatever might come through the door if it opened again. Then Thurloe climbed over the balcony railing and entered the room; Alewyth quickly caught him up to speed as Zander entered the room behind him. The elf activated his magic headband, granting himself temporary true seeing. "Nothing invisible in here yet," he told the others, then went over to examine the book on the floor by the circle with all the runes.

Wakuren leaped onto one of the stone lions and from there caught the rope and started climbing, pulling the rope up after him once he reached the balcony. He then deactivated his ring and stashed his coiled rope back into his pack before joining the others in the large room. "What'd I miss?" he asked.

"This book is a set of instructions on how the magic circle works," Zander informed him and the rest of the group. "It's currently attuned to the Plane of Shadow. Anyone stepping into the circle is automatically attuned to that plane, and then they can step through the window and cross over to that plane. That's probably where Rindicane went."

"So he isn't even asleep here, like Mandorregan thought!" scoffed Thurloe, walking over to the door to the stairwell. "He still owes us the 250 gold, though." Then he pulled the door open suddenly, revealing nobody there at all. But they could still hear the fluttering of insect wings in the general area.

"Invisible pixie!" Zander called out, looking at the doorway with his true seeing spell still active. Xandro, in the meantime, took the plunge and stepped into the circle; instantly, a burst of black flames engulfed his body for a moment and dissipated at once.

"You can see me!" called a voice from the doorway. At once, Sheela released the invisibility effect that had hidden her from view and flew deeper into the room. "I am a friend of Rindicane's," she explained. "I saw you enter the flue in gaseous form and followed shortly thereafter," she told Alewyth. "I hope you won't be offended, but I scanned your surface thoughts to make sure you weren't intending on burglary as I followed your exploration through the keep."

"We think Rindicane went through his window to the Plane of Shadow," Alewyth told Sheela. "We plan on following, to see if he's all right. Would you like to accompany us?"

Sheela shivered at the thought. "The Plane of Shadow? No, thank you - I will stay here and await his return."

The other adventurers stepped into the circle and were momentarily engulfed in black flames. "I guess we're all attuned to the Plane of Shadow or whatever," Thurloe said. "So let's get this over with."

Zander was the first to cross over to the other plane. It was an odd experience, for it seemed the mere act of stepping through the window robbed the world of all color; the darkness of a star-filled sky overcame the landscape, although there were no stars to be seen, and while the wagon and animals were no longer in view the two stone lions could be seen in their normal perches directly below. Rindicane's tower keep - or a shadowy version of it, in any case - existed here on the Plane of Shadows in the same place as it existed in the Darkwood Forest of their own plane.

"I wonder if the inside of the keep is the same," said Zander, stepping through the door at the end of the balcony and entering the Shadow Keep's version of the window room. The elf noticed a few differences at once: the room's entire interior was now in black and white and shades of gray, not just the window; for that matter, the geometric shapes comprising the window seemed to have rearranged themselves, as had the rune-markings along the magic circle (and there now seemed to be different gems in the six spots along the circle's circumference). But perhaps the biggest difference was the dark-robed man standing in the corner of the room, who looked up at Zander's approach.

"Who are you?" he demanded, starting the words to a combat spell against this intruder.

Zander opted not to answer but replied with a question of his own. "Are you Rindicane?"

"Who wants to know?" snarled the figure, continuing with his spell.

"Mandorregan sent us to check in on you," Zander replied. At the mention of his friend, the dark-robed figure immediately ceased all spellcasting. "Mandorregan? Is he with you? Is he okay?" he asked.

"He's outside - well, outside back in the Material Plane," Zander amended. "The rest of my team said he was knocked out by one of your stone lions, but he's okay. But what about you? You've been missing for three weeks or so."

"Has it been three weeks?" asked Rindicane in a startled voice as the rest of the group followed Zander into the room from the balcony and stared expectantly at the dark-clad wizard. "I had no idea; time must move differently here. But my attuning to this plane worked only too well: as you can see, I have become a shade." He pulled the hood back from his head, revealing his skin was as dark as the midnight sky. "You all will be, too, if you spend too much time here."

"Yeah, that's not going to happen," Thurloe promised the shade. "C'mon, you can come tell Mandorregan the news yourself." He squinted, thinking he'd seen a black dot floating in the air for a moment, but then he lost sight of it as Zander crossed into his field of vision.

"Alas, I cannot," Rindicane replied. "Is it daylight there?" Alewyth confirmed that it was. "I can no longer stand the brightness of sunlight," Rindicane lamented. "But if you could have Mandorregan visit me briefly, I have something to give to him." He provided the adventurers with a pass-code to tell the grandfather plaque they were friends and not to be attacked. The group then went back out onto the balcony of the Shadow Keep, walked through the window back into the Material Plane, and went down the stairs to exit through the front door.

"Relax, Gramps," said Thurloe, voicing the pass code. Then they went over to Mandorregan, where Wakuren roused him with a few healing spells.

"Rindicane is on the Plane of Shadow and wishes to speak with you," Xandro informed him. They went through the front door, back up the stairs, and then got Mandorregan attuned to the Plane of Shadows before having him step through the window. The five dreamwalkers opted to stay behind, none of them sure how much time spent on the Shadow Plane was enough to turn them into a shade and nobody wanting to take the chance.

Mandorregan returned a few minutes later, stepping back through the window. "Rindicane is going to stay there in the Shadow Keep and continue his studies," the young wizard informed them. "He is granting me custody of his keep here on the Material Plane. I have a command word which will transfer the grandfather plaque's loyalty to me."

"He's staying there? Forever?" asked Sheela despondently.

"He said he'll try to visit on dark nights," replied Mandorregan. "But the Shadow Keep is a perfect replica of his keep here, including his library and all of his notes. He's already reconfigured the window in his keep to explore another plane, someplace he calls the Far Realm."

"Never heard of it," replied Xandro.

"In any case, thank you for your help in gaining entry to the keep and checking on Rindicane," the young wizard said. He pulled at a purse at his belt. "I had promised you 250 pieces of gold for your assistance and I insist upon you taking it."

"That won't be a problem," assured Thurloe, taking the proffered purse. "Happy to have been of help."

"I'll continue Rindicane's studies from here," promised Mandorregan, "but I don't intend to alter the current configuration of the window. That way we'll still be able to visit Rindicane on occasion, and he us." That seemed to please Sheela the pixie. "And if you ever pass this way again, please feel free to visit anytime. Should you have need of access to other planes, I'll stand ready to assist in any way I can."

"Thank you," said Wakuren, shaking Mandorregan's hand. "But we must be back on the road. There are many more dream victims out there in need of our help."

"Of course," replied the young wizard. He and Sheela walked with them to the front door and watched as they mounted up. They waved as the group departed back the way they had come.

"That was very nice of them to help," Sheela observed.

"Yes, they seem like very nice people," Mandorregan agreed.

Once he was sure they were well out of earshot, Thurloe said the rest of the group, "That was the easiest 50 gold apiece we're ever likely to see!" He chuckled to himself. "What a sucker!"

- - -

This turned out much differently than I had expected, for Alewyth's potion of gaseous form allowed her to single-handedly explore the entire keep on her own without setting off any of the "lair guardians" I had sprinkled throughout the building: specifically, the dread guards (animated armor) in the foyer and the pair of guardian scrolls in the library. Zander even managed not to get into a fight with the paranoid wizard-shade on the Plane of Shadow by mentioning Mandorregan by name almost immediately. So we finished this adventure in almost exactly two hours - much shorter than I had anticipated.

And speaking of Zander Quilson, while he was there in the window room with Rindicane on the Plane of Shadow, I had Joe roll a d20 for me without explaining what the roll was for; it came up as a natural "1." The implications of that die roll will be revealed somewhere around the 35th adventure or so.

But this, being the 25th adventure in this 100-adventure campaign, meant the PCs leveled up to 6th afterwards. That only took another half hour or so, resulting in a very truncated session. Xandro took a 5th level of bard, Wakuren evened up his cleric/paladin levels (and Thurloe did likewise with his fighter and wizard levels, clearing the way for a first level in the spellsword prestige class when we level up again after five more adventures), and the single-classed Alewyth and Zander each added a level of cleric (priestess) and sorcerer, respectively. Zander continued his continued hit point bad luck streak by once again rolling a "1" for his hit points, bringing him to a grand total of 17 hp at 6th level. (And that after having taken the Toughness feat in desperation at 3rd level!) I think poor Zander might need to stumble across an amulet of health or something fairly soon....

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt, a good representation of the Plane of Shadow.

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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 12 February 2022

- - -

The next dreamer was in a town called Basker's Grove, which was still many hours away. Close to noon, the group came upon the small city of Kesselton, where they purchased some feed for the animals and stopped off in an inn for a hearty lunch. It was after they had finished eating and were loading up the wagon that they were approached by a white-haired gnome with a shockingly pointed moustache and beard. "Good afternoon," he said to the assembled group. "Would I be correct in assuming you are a band of professional adventurers?"

"We are," replied Alewyth, who had just been about to mount her dire goat Pyrite and get back on the road. "Have you need of adventurers?"

"I was rather more concerned with whether you might have a need for my services," replied the gnome. "Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Wangle Turdblossom and I represent a consortium of gnomes involved in the sale of various magic items. Might you be interested in the purchase of a magical item or two?"

Thurloe was interested, but that wasn't his primary concern at the moment. "'Turdblossom?'" he repeated. "Is that your real name?"

"It is indeed," replied Wangle, bowing and apparently well pleased by the human's reaction to his unusual surname. In gnomish culture, it was a sign of great honor for the ridiculousness of one's chosen name to be acknowledged and many gnomes spent months, if not years, deciding upon the perfect name for when they came of age and got to replace their birth name for one of their own choosing.

Thurloe looked around at the others. "Yeah, sure, we'll check out what you've got for sale."

"If you would come this way then, sir," replied Wangle, leading them back into the inn. He walked down a hallway, took a right, and stopped at a door to one of the rooms for rent. Unlike the other doors in the hallway, this one held a door knocker at a height well within reach of the three-foot-tall gnome. He rapped upon it four times, then opened the door and led the others inside. The door, however, did not lead to a guest room as might be expected but rather to an unadorned hallway leading to a small room with a gnome-sized desk and a curtain in the back. Wangle climbed into the chair behind the desk and looked over at the five adventurers who had followed him down the hallway. "Now then, who's first?" he asked.

"Uh, sure, I'll go first," Xandro replied, stepping up to the desk.

Wangle looked at him expectantly. "And what are you hoping to purchase?" he asked.

Xandro looked around at the bare walls of the little room. "I was kind of expecting a showroom or something," he said.

"Ah, you thought we were running a magic item shop!" exclaimed Wangle. "No, no, nothing like that - although we do occasionally run an actual marketplace on occasions, to get rid of specific items we're looking to turn over. But no, the set-up works like this: you put in your order, we find what it is you're after, agree upon a price with the current owner, and bam! - purchase completed. Now then, I repeat: what particular item were you hoping to purchase today?"

"Well," remarked Xandro, "I suppose I could do with a wand of sound burst...."

"A wand!" exclaimed Wangle. "Excellent! I don't deal with wands, though." As Xandro frowned in confusion, Wangle leaned forward and pushed a gemstone embedded in his desktop and leaned over it, saying, "Thaddeus! I have a customer for you!" Within moments, the curtains in the back of the room parted and another gnome stepped forward. "Good afternoon," he said. "I am Thaddeus Blunderbritches at your service, sir. I handle rods, staffs, and wands. If you would be so good as to step this way?" He held the curtain open and Xandro, a look of confusion still apparent on his face, walked through to another office.

"Now then: who's next?" asked Wangle. "You, sir, the half-orc."

Wakuren stepped forward. "I could use an upgrade to my armor," he suggested, but that only caused Wangle to frown in irritation. "Upgrade?" he scoffed. "We don't deal with upgrades - we are involved strictly in the sale of unwanted magic items! I could sell you a more powerful set of magic armor, if you wish - that looks to be full plate, is it?" Wakuren agreed that it was but said he didn't have enough money to purchase a new set of plate mail armor. "I'd be willing to trade this armor in as part of the payment," he suggested.

But that only caused Wangle to frown all the harder. "Barter?" he squeaked. "We don't engage in barter. Cash only, although gemstones are also accepted. Very well, I'll send you to our armor and weapons expert; we'll have Mr. Rection see what he can do for you."

"Misdirection?" asked Wakuren, misunderstanding what the little gnome had just said to him.

"Eh? What?" demanded Wangle, before realizing the half-orc's mistake. "No, no, Mr. Rection," he repeated, before pushing another gemstone on his desk and leaning forward. "Biggie? We have a customer for you." He then looked over at the other three adventurers, all waiting in line. "Next?" he asked, looking up at Zander.

Before he could answer, the curtains parted again and out stepped a burly gnome almost four feet tall. He wore the stereotypical pointed hat most often associated with gnomes but that was about all that was typical about him, for he had a stern, no-nonsense attitude quite different from the carefree and whimsical ways of the average gnome. "You're looking for magical armor?" Biggie Rection demanded of Wakuren. "This way, then." And he led the half-orc through the curtain to his own office.

"I understand there are magic items that can increase my overall level of toughness," Zander said, getting back to Wangle's question to him.

Wangle looked the slender elf over with a practiced eye. "Yes, I can see how that might be desirable," he agreed. "An amulet of health is what you need. They come in three main levels of strength," the gnome advised, then rattled off prices for each. Zander indicated he could only afford the cheapest of the three. "Just as well," Wangle replied, "those are the easiest to get a hold of." He bent over his desk again to summon another gnome to assist the elven sorcerer. "Wangle?" he asked. "We have a customer to see you."

"Wait a minute - I thought you were Wangle," said Zander, brows furrowed in puzzlement.

Wangle looked up at him, smirking at his little joke. "I am!" he cried. "I'll be able to help you with your purchase - it's my area of specialty! But let's get these other two helped first, shall we?" He indicated Alewyth. "What can I help you with?" he asked her.

"I would like to be able to increase my speed," Alewyth answered the gnome.

"Drop you off the side of a cliff?" suggested Wangle, his face betraying no sense of teasing.

"I was actually hoping to move horizontally, not vertically."

"Potion of haste?" Wangle suggested.

"I was hoping for something a bit more permanent."

"Boots of striding and springing? Or is it springing and striding? I can never remember."

"Those sound promising," Alewyth replied. "How much are they?" Wangle rattled off the price, including the traditional 10% finder's fee. "I don't have that much," Alewyth bemoaned. "Anything else?"

"Boots of haste," suggested Wangle at once.

"Those are cheaper?"

"Oh no, they're way, way more expensive."

"Then that doesn't really help me. Any other suggestions, more in my price range?"

"Polymorph you into a cheetah?"

"I wouldn't be able to wield my warhammer as a cheetah, now, would I?"

"I do not recall that being a stipulation. Very well then, it sounds like your best bet is the boots of striding and springing and striding," recommended Wangle, figuring this way he was right either way. "If you want, you can put a down-payment on the boots and you can pick them up when you have the rest of the money."

"I don't know when we'll be by this way again," pointed out Alewyth.

"Pshaw!" scoffed Wangle. Then, to make sure his disdain was fully understood, he added, "Fiddlesticks! Poppycock! No worry at all - we'll deliver them to you." Alewyth was a bit leery and said she'd think it over while Wangle attended to Thurloe.

"Very well," Wangle agreed. "And what can I do for you, sir?"

"I'm interested in two things," Thurloe answered. "First of all, is there any kind of armor that would make it easier to cast arcane spells in? If so, I'd be interested in something like that. Otherwise, a simple wand of shield would do just as well."

"I'm not so sure about the armor," mused Wangle, thinking deeply and tugging on the points of his moustache as he did so. "The wand is a sure thing, though. Perhaps you could do with some Oral?"

"...Say what?" asked Thurloe, uncharacteristically flabbergasted.

"Oral Hijinx," Wangle said, leaning into his desk. "We have a customer for you."

"I thought that Bumblebritches guy handled wands," Thurloe replied.

"Oh, Thaddeus might be our expert on hard-to-find items along those lines, but he's with another customer right now and I think you'll find any from our consortium will be able to handle things to your satisfaction." The curtain parted and a young, female gnome stepped through. "Someone looking for Oral?" she asked, smiling broadly up at the young fighter-wizard. "Here I am." She led Thurloe through the curtain back to her own office.

Eventually, the five heroes ended back in Wangle Turdblossom's office with their purchases. Thurloe had his wand of shield, Zander wore his amulet of health on a gold chain around his neck, and Wakuren's armor now had an iron ward diamond attached to the chest-plate, which Biggie had guaranteed would deflect some of the damage from incoming strikes during combat. Xandro's wand of sound burst was on order but probably wouldn't be available until the next day. "Don't go engaging in any anti-scrying techniques," advised Wangle Turdblossom to the bard. "We'll find your present location and bring the wand out to you, at which time you can pay the other half of the bill." The white-haired gnome looked at Alewyth. "Did you wish to put a down-payment down on those boots?" he asked.

Alewyth looked over at Xandro. "You paid half up front for your wand?" she asked him quietly. "What if they just rip you off?"

"We know where to find them," the bard replied, to which Wangle Turdblossom hid a smile. "Plus, they seem like a good bunch. I trust them."

Alewyth looked over at the gnome. "Do you take Kornakian coins?" she asked. She still had several hundred coins from the Barony of Kornak that weren't exactly popular in other lands.

"My dear lady, we accept coins from all over the world," Wangle assured her. Alewyth pulled out her Kornakian coins and counted them out to the little gnome, who wrote up a document with his signature stating the money was paid as a down-payment for a pair of "boots of springing and striding, or vice-versa, as the case may be." He reiterated his recommendation not to shield themselves from scrying attempts and wished them all a good day.

Once they were back on the road, Alewyth started voicing her doubts. "I hope we didn't just throw our money away," she said to Xandro.

"I doubt it," Xandro replied.

"Do you think that was even a legal establishment?" the dwarven priestess continued. "What if we're involved in trafficking stolen goods?"

"Then we're just innocent customers, taken in by the gnomes' dishonest shenanigans," Thurloe assured her. "They'd be the ones in trouble, not us." He turned to Wakuren, sitting in the front of the mule-driven wagon. "Did you get a chance to detect evil on them?" he asked.

"I suppose I had plenty of opportunities," Wakuren admitted. "But it never occurred to me. Plus, my eyes glow when I do it, so it's something people can see I'm doing, and it seemed insulting to go into a business establishment and pretty much say 'I suspect you might be evil' the first thing I get in there."

"Maybe you ought to buy a pair of magic goggles with shaded lenses," suggested Zander. "Then nobody could see your eyes glowing when you're checking people out for signs of evil."

"Yeah," agreed Wakuren. "There's a thought." And then he focused his attention back on the road, where Mica and Perseverance were plodding along, pulling the wagon behind them.

- - -

The adventure I had planned on running the players through during this session seemed like it could end up a little short, which was something I really wanted to avoid since our last session ended after two hours and only extended to two and a half because the PCs all leveled up to 6th level. So I decided to spring this little shopping excursion as a sort of "Side Trek" before the adventure itself started up. And this was also a solution to a problem I had caused: when designing this campaign, I decided I wanted a different "feel" from our previous two campaigns, which featured magic shops in the larger cities. So I decided there would be no such magic shops in this campaign, just the occasional stalls that sold potions and scrolls - one-shot items, in other words. But the PCs were now at 6th level and had been amassing money without much on which to spend it. So the Hidden Market is a compromise: a gnome-run consortium that deals with clients on an invitation-only basis, fetching magic items the original owners are willing to sell. I have designed some very specific ground rules for the Hidden Market, which all make sense to me but I don't wish to share because it will give away too much that I hope will eventually become apparent over the course of the campaign. But one of the rules is that they only sell previously existing items, they don't upgrade items or create new ones. And another rule is they accept any kinds of coins and gems but are not interested in all at any kind of bartering. And I think that's all I'll say about them for now, other than Harry got a kick out of the gnomes' ridiculous names, which was somewhat of a surprise for me because he usually just groans at my "dad jokes."

- - -

T-shirt worn: A "Duck Dynasty" shirt with the heads of the four most prominent members of the Robertson family, in all their full-bearded glory. It's the closest thing I have to a shirt featuring a bunch of gnomes.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 12 February 2022

- - -

Arriving in the small farming village of Basker's Grove close to dusk, it was apparent there wasn't a whole lot to see there: other than a whole bunch of staggered farmhouses and their associated fields, the central hub seemed to consist of little more than a single tavern and a temple of Desdemona, Goddess of the Harvest.

"What do you think, tavern or temple?" Alewyth asked.

"Let's try the tavern," Xandro replied. "People drinking at the end of a hard day are more likely to be willing to speak freely to strangers."

That turned out to be quite prophetic, for after purchasing drinks for themselves and the few farmers in the tavern they found the villagers more than eager to tell them what they knew about someone being trapped in their sleep for weeks on end. "Oh, you mean Calabar Condaman," replied one leather-skinned farmer of advancing years. "Hard-working folks, the Condamans. Moved in about a year or so ago, after the previous owners got sick and died. Calabar's folks say he went to bed one night a couple of weeks back and nobody's been able to wake him up since, not even the new cleric from the temple."

"New cleric?" asked Xandro.

"Yeah, Father Roballi. He's a nice enough guy - showed up out of the blue after the prior cleric got called away for a family emergency of some sort, said he'd been sent by the Goddess. He's real serious about his duties, and he's tried everything he can to wake poor old Calabar, but no luck."

Other drinkers offered their own opinions. "Y'ask me, it's probably somethin' t'do wit' th' illness what's been goin' around," mentioned a grizzled farm worker with straggly blond hair going to white. He specified a flu that "knocked you off yer feet fer 'bout a week" that had stricken a few of the local farmhands a few weeks back. Under Father Roballi's patient ministrations, they had all recovered. "Not like them other hands what went missing," put in a hefty-sized woman, explaining there had also been a small rash of disappearances recently among some of the younger farmhands. "That wasn't no disease, though, unless you consider laziness and slothfulness a disease - I reckon they just took off to other parts, hoping to avoid work."

After finishing their drinks and asking for directions to the Condaman farmhouse, Wakuren was pleased to learn it was just down the road, practically adjacent to the temple of Desdemona. The farmhouse was a single-story affair, the front door off to the right. A length of rosebushes flanked the entire right side of the house, with a well and what looked like a shed further back. Wakuren stepped down from the wagon and was about to go knock on the door when he remembered his fearsome, orcish visage often put people ill at ease at first - although the drinkers at the tavern hadn't seemed overly put off - and allowed Alewyth to do the honors. He stood in the back of the group.

The door opened after Alewyth knocked upon it and there in the doorway stood a human couple, Seth and Anya. Alewyth explained they were here to help their son awaken and the farming couple gladly ushered them inside. Calabar was asleep in his room, undisturbed after nearly four weeks, but his room was much too small for them to perform their ritual so Seth carried him out to the sitting room while the heroes helped Anya push the furniture up against the walls. Seth gently placed his sleeping son down upon the floor and the five dreamwalkers sat in a circle around him. Alewyth explained the procedure as she tied a bandana around Calabar's head, holding a dreamstone in place against his forehead.

Zander activated his jade cooshee and had it stand guard, but that wasn't enough for Thurloe. "Is there anybody else in the house?" he asked, and Anya answered they had two farmhands. Seth explained, after further questions from Thurloe, there was just the one door to the building, the front door through which they had entered, and while there was no lock on the door it could be barred from inside. Upon the fighter's direction, the two farmhands were stationed just outside and the door barred from the inside before Thurloe was satisfied. "It's important we're not disturbed during the ritual," he explained to Seth and Anya, and they were all for taking whatever precautions were necessary if it meant getting their son back. They promised to watch over the six during the ritual and not let anything disturb the dreamwalkers. Alewyth even activated the giant bee from her amulet and stationed it by the front door, knowing full well its limited daily activation time meant it would have returned to her amulet by the time they (hopefully) had rescued Calabar from his dreams.

After that, it was a simple matter of slowing the heart rate, the breathing, and thoughts themselves as each of the five willed themselves to sleep. Once asleep, their minds went straight to the Dreamlands, where they were met by their moogle guides and taken to the Hallway of Dreams. "In you go," said Mogo as they entered the door he opened for them.

Calabar's dream was somewhat odd, for he was practically in the same position in his dream as he was in real life, lying upon his back on the floor with his hands at his sides. However, this dream version was quite obviously awake, for his eyes dashed back and forth until the heroes stepped into view, at which time he looked imploringly at them. His mouth was gagged with a strip of cloth and his wrists had been bound by a rope beneath his back. His ankles were likewise tied together by thick ropes and Calabar wriggled back and forth, desperately trying to escape.

Thurloe had his bastard sword out and spun about in a circle, looking for any potential threat, while Wakuren knelt beside the young man and pulled the cloth from between his lips. "Who did this to you?" he asked.

Rather than answer his question, Calabar just pleaded, "Free me!" Zander cut at the ropes binding Calabar's ankles with his dagger while Alewyth likewise cut the rope tied to each wrist. But though freed from his bindings, Calabar still lay there on the floor, writhing. "Free me!" he continued to plead, now ripping at the skin of his face, his fingernails digging into his cheeks and drawing blood. A lump moved beneath the skin of his stomach, bringing forth memories of fighting the dregworms back in Baron's Haven, although the hostess of those three had been already dead and Calabar seemed quite alive - although in a dream, one could never tell.

"You are free!" countered Alewyth, stepping back in confusion. In her place, Thurloe stepped up, bastard sword at the ready. "Let's see if we can't reset this dream to its beginning," he said, raising his blade above his head. "I want to see the dream from the start - maybe we can see who tied him up in the first place!" And with that, he brought his sword down, cutting into the farm lad's stomach.

Calabar and Alewyth both screamed as one, the priestess in surprise at Thurloe's actions and the farm boy in jubilation. His hands pulled at the slit Thurloe had cut into his stomach, pulling the gap even wider. "Help me!" Calabar pleaded. Not sure he was doing the right thing, Wakuren bent down beside the dark-haired youth and helped him pull the gaping hole in his stomach even wider.

A triangular head poked out of the bleeding gap, its slick-scaled head followed by a seemingly endless length of sinewy body as the full-sized constrictor snake slid out from Calabar's body cavity. "Ahhhh!" sighed the snake, finally free of the last of its confines. "That feels so much better!"

Thurloe was looking all around again, expecting the dream to start over from the beginning so he could see who had bound Calabar, but instead it seemed as if the dream had instead been brought to its final conclusion, for the walls were melting away in the same manner as they'd seen before whenever the dreamer's consciousness was waking back up and returning to the Mortal World. As one, each of the five dreamwalkers began the mental techniques they'd been taught to bring themselves back to full wakefulness back in the Mortal World. All six woke up at pretty much the same time, to see Calabar propped up on his elbows looking around at the heroes sitting in a circle around him and recognizing them instantly while the dream was still fresh in his memory. Seth and Anya gasped in excitement at seeing their son back awake after his nearly month-long slumber.

But Calabar wasn't pleased to be awake again so much as panicked. "Mom! Dad!" he cried out. "They know what we are!"

As the five heroes were still trying to piece together what exactly was going on, the Condamans leaped into instant action. Seth's human body flowed until it became half as thick and twice as long, losing the arms and legs in the process. Now a massive serpent, Seth fell forward onto Wakuren as the half-orc was scrambling to his feet. At the same time, Anya Condaman had undergone a similar transformation and was biting her serpentine fangs into Zander Quilson. Then, her venom injected into his veins, she slithered forward on her belly past the elven dog who was even now snapping at her scaled body with his fangs. She went through the kitchen and into a hallway, on her way to the house's only exit door, still currently barred from the inside.

Calabar began his own transformation, taking on the appearance of the snake from his dreams. Lightning-quick, he darted to the front door and resumed his human form, calling out at the farmhands stationed outside to warn the village they were under attack by foreign bandits. From the other side of the door came promises to get help.

But by now the other dreamwalkers were back up onto their feet and ready for combat, if some of them were still a bit unsure of why it had been initiated in the first place. "They're yuan-ti!" Thurloe called as he swung his bastard sword at the serpent that had been Seth and missing. Alewyth shook her head, that explanation not explaining anything at all to the dwarven priestess - she'd never heard of "yuan-ti" before and had a somewhat limited exposure to snakes in any case as she'd grown up in an Underdark dwarven city. But she trusted Thurloe knew what he was on about and raced over to attack Calabar, swinging at him with Sjondra and catching him unprepared from behind. It felt like a cowardly attack to the good-hearted priestess, but these snake-people had started the fight unprovoked and she was perfectly willing to end it as soon as she could.

Zander was struggling with the poison the snake-Anya had injected into him with her fangs; the increased heartiness brought on by his new amulet of health was being drained away with every moment. But he had the presence of mind to cast a haste spell on the entire group of heroes - including his faithful cooshee, busy chasing after the Anya-serpent and snapping at her with his teeth - since that didn't involve any personal combat on his part. Never one for hand-to-hand combat, the elven sorcerer felt even less fit for it now that at any other point in his life.

Xandro pulled his frost short sword out of its scabbard and stabbed at Calabar, catching him in the lower side just above the beltline and the farmer's son fell over to the floor of the entryway, dead. His body now lay directly against the front door, which he'd managed to unbar but not open before his death.

Wakuren swung the edge of his shield at the Seth-serpent, slicing into a line of scales with its sharpened bottom. The snake-man lashed out, biting the half-orc and injecting venom into his veins, but Wakuren was made of much tougher stuff than Zander and the bite didn't seem to faze the cleric of Cal in the least. The cooshee was also bitten and likewise seemed to ignore the effects of the venom, continuing to bite and claw at Anya in her serpent form. But then a magic missile came screaming from the sitting room and Anya collapsed in serpent-form, dead from the simple spell. Thurloe grinned and lowered the wand he'd just used to slay her. Then, seeing Zander still wincing in pain from his wounds at her fangs, he tossed another wand over to the elf: the wand of shield he'd just purchased from the gnomes in the Hidden Market. Zander snatched the tossed wand from midair and nodded his appreciation, casting the shield spell upon himself to hopefully prevent any other snake-bites. To further add to the likelihood of preventing such a course of action, he staggered over to the kitchen, away from the battle with the only remaining serpent, Seth Condaman. The cooshee ran over to his side now that his own foe had been slain.

Alewyth turned and faced Seth from the entryway, casting a magic circle against evil spell upon herself as she did so. Then, stepping away from Calabar's corpse, she headed Seth's way with her warhammer in hand. Xandro began his inspirational tune on his lute, content to aid from a distance against this remaining venomous foe. And perhaps his tune helped guide Wakuren's next blow with his shield, for the edge came crashing down upon Seth's neck and decapitated the serpent with a single blow.

"It's over!" exclaimed Zander with a sigh of relief - just as he received another bite on the leg from behind. Somehow, a creature had padded silently up a ramp leading from the kitchen down to some sort of root cellar without the elf having heard it. The creature was the size and general build as a dog, but its head - and rather extensive neck - were those of a snake and its otherwise canine body was covered in scales. Zander could feel the venom burning in this new wound and staggered away, back towards the cluttered sitting room and away from the venom dog that had bitten him. The cooshee was quick to interpose his own body between this new threat and his master, allowing Thurloe to cast a shield spell on himself while fishing out a vial of antivenom to pass over to Zander. The elf grabbed the flask and gratefully drank down its contents, but not without first casting a scorching ray spell at the venom dog, killing it instantly and coating its corpse in flames. His faithful elven dog sniffed at the burning body of this strange hybrid creature, obviously not liking the alien scent.

"Those farmhands have gone to get help," Thurloe told the others. "No idea if they're all going to be yuan-ti or not, but we're gonna have to be prepared to fight them off." He cast a protection from evil spell on himself and indicated now would be the time for healing if anybody needed any. Zander drank down a potion of cure serious wounds, sealing up the multiple puncture-wounds where he'd been bitten. He still wasn't at his full strength after having been envenomed, he knew, but he was as in as good a shape as was possible for now. Xandro cast a heroism spell on the elf to hopefully further toughen him up for the battle to come, while Alewyth cast a bless spell on the group. Then Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility and stepped outside.

Sure enough, there were people racing out of both ends of the Temple of Desdemona. some bursting out the front door of the temple and others coming from behind it, over by Father Robelli's dwelling where they'd apparently stopped off to grab up some of the farm implements he kept stored in his own shed there to tend to his personal gardens. It looked to be about a full dozen in all, some armed with scimitars, others wielding only a hoe or rake. There was a dog loping along from the back alongside one of the farmers, apparently a pet; from this distance, Wakuren thought the dog looked perfectly normal and not like that weird snake/dog hybrid Zander had slain back inside the Condamans' home.

And now Father Roballi himself stepped out of the front doors of the temple, calling out to his brethren, "Save the Condamans, before the bandits slay them to steal their hard-earned goods!" The man seemed earnest, eager to come to the aid of the people he'd been sent to oversee, but Wakuren wasn't sure if the cleric of Desdemona knew there were yuan-ti in the midst of his village or if he might even be one of the snake-men himself; after all, Seth, Anya, and Calabar had all seemed perfectly human themselves before transforming into snakes. He cast a protection from evil spell upon himself and moved as silently as he could towards the approaching mob, knowing his ability to detect evil among the auras of people only worked at a certain range.

Thurloe exited the Condaman house, bastard sword in both hands. Zander followed suit, but stepped back, wanting to have the fighter between him and those who seemed eager to do them all harm. The cooshee stood beside his master, growling in anger at the approaching group of angry farmers. Then Alewyth stepped outside and moved forward, towards the mob, stopping beside Thurloe. "They're not likely all evil," she cautioned the human beside her.

"Don't matter," Thurloe informed her. "If they attack me, I'm attacking right back. I got a right to defend myself."

Xandro was the last to exit the house, but he cast an expeditious retreat spell on himself as he did so and then sprinted forward to the head of the dreamwalkers' formation, his lute stowed on his back and his short sword out and ready for business. By then Wakuren had closed enough distance he could tell there was indeed evil present in the mob but he could not yet pinpoint which of the farmers were responsible for the overall miasma of evil he was detecting.

And then the first salvo was cast by the one furthest away from the heroes: Father Roballi himself, still standing at the doors of his temple. But he could easily cast an entangle spell on the "bandits" who had attacked the Condamans, at least according to their farmhands. The grasses underfoot started sprouting at a remarkable speed, intertwining around the heroes' legs - and not just those of the heroes, either, for the Condamans' two farmhands were also within the area of effect of the spell, as was another farmer and his loyal hound. Whether a testament to the cleric's spellcasting prowess or perhaps the distance involved, none of the potential targets were immobilized as had no doubt been intended, although movement through the area of writhing, oversized blades of grass and scraggly weeds was still difficult.

Both farmhands slashed out at Xandro, in the front of the defensive formation, using scimitars the bard hadn't known they possessed. He dodged one strike but was hit by the other, the entangling grasses around his feet slowing his ability to dodge. But then Thurloe trudged up through the grasses, bringing his blade crashing into one of the two farmhands, causing him to hiss in pain. The hiss was identifiably serpentlike enough for the fighter to categorize his opponent as some sort of yuan-ti, and in that assessment Thurloe was not wrong, for both farmhands were of the "tainted one" variety of yuan-ti capable of passing for human but with some tell-tale sign of their true heritage. But before Thurloe could spot any telltale signs of snakehood on his combat opponent the foe was suddenly engulfed in flames from the waist up, Zander having successfully targeted a scorching ray spell at him. The cooshee raced through the entangling grasses to bite the flaming foe's legs and he toppled over, dead from the combined assaults.

Alewyth cast a summoning spell and a celestial bison suddenly appeared behind a group of human farmers approaching the area of entangling grasses where the "bandits" they'd been warned about were gathered. Lowering its impressive horns, it stabbed the closest farmer in the back and flung him forward, stumbling to stay on his feet and keep a grip upon the scimitar in his right hand.

Xandro extricated himself from the confines of the entangle spell and used his spell-enhanced speed to high-tail it all the way to the temple, intending to confront Father Roballi directly; who knew what all other combat spells the cleric could throw their way? But the cleric saw Xandro coming and stepped back, throwing a hold person spell at the bard running his way. Xandro had almost caught up to the cleric when he slowed instantly to a standstill, willing himself to finish the attack but finding his traitorous body unable to do so.

Wakuren cast an obscuring mist spell over the approaching farmers, some of whom he had determined by this time were yuan-ti pure-bloods or tainted ones, the ones capable of successfully passing as human. The dog, in the meantime, had decided it didn't like being attacked by mobile grass and exited the entangle spell's area of effect as quickly as it could, then turning and barking at the strange plants that didn't behave like plants were supposed to.

The second yuan-ti tainted one farmhand from the Condaman household swung his scimitar at Thurloe, neither of the combatants even bothering to try to prevent the grasses from trying to entangle them anymore, each focused solely on the foe before him. The other farmers who had been caught up in the overlapping spells - Father Roballi's entangle and Wakuren's obscuring mist - exited from one side or the other, about half heading in each direction. Those that had gone east found themselves on the left side of the Condaman house and started skirting around it, hoping to catch the bandits from behind. The dog's master was a part of this group so he accompanied them, tail wagging at the excitement but not really sure what all was going on.

Thurloe slew the tainted one he'd been fighting and extricated himself from the entangle spell, heading over to one of the four farmers wielding scimitars. By now, Wakuren's enhanced vision allowed him to determine which farmers were the sources with individual auras of evil and without much surprise it was the ones with the better weapons. "The ones with scimitars are yuan-ti!" he called to the others, while still cloaked in invisibility. Zander cast another scorching ray at the closest pure-blood, not wanting any of them to make it far enough to try to do him harm. The yuan-ti burst into flames, screaming horribly as he burned to death. The cooshee went after another pure-blood, biting at a leg and trying to pull the fake farmer down to the ground.

Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell and sent a solid mass of force energy in the shape of a dwarven warhammer flying at the head of another pure-blood while her celestial bison gored the same foe he'd stabbed earlier with his horn.

Sweat poured down Xandro's brow as he struggled to make his paralyzed body react to his mental commands, but with no luck. "You'll regret having meddled in our affairs!" promised Father Roballi, pulling out a scimitar of his own and swinging it at the immobilized bard. But luck was with Xandro as the blade struck a buckle holding his crossbow in place on his back and was deflected harmlessly to the side. The cleric, apparently not used to hand-to-hand combat, snarled in irritation but then took a step back, for Thurloe had spotted the bard's immobility and was racing to the rescue, even though doing so meant racing past a few farmers more than willing to strike at his as he ran past them.

The other pure-bloods were now advancing on Zander and his elven dog. The cooshee raced forward and bit at the closest while Zander cast another scorching ray spell, this time firing hopelessly high and sending the gout of flames well over his target's head. He stepped back away from the advancing group, whereas Alewyth stepped forward to meet them, very much so willing to have them face her instead of the weakened elven sorcerer. Sjondra came swinging in to crush a pure-blood's kneecap, even as her spiritual warhammer and the celestial bison each finished off the pure-bloods they had been attacking.

The dog and a group of farmers wielding hoes and rakes turned the corner around the Condaman house - past the colorful rose bushes - and one of them yelled, "There's the bandits there!" ruining any possibility of surprising the heroes with an attack from an unexpected direction. "We're not your enemies - we're not bandits!" Zander called as he turned to face this new group of foes. "Some of your villagers are secretly snake-men! The Condamans - they were all snake-men!" That seemed like crazy-talk to the puzzled farmers, who chocked it up to desperate ramblings of an elven bandit trying to talk his way out of the punishment he had coming. And it was then that the farmers learned they weren't the only ones to have gone around the Condaman house to attack the bandits from behind, for the newest arrival to have done so made her own appearance, much to their surprise and fear. This was a yuan-ti abomination, currently in the form of an oversized constrictor snake. It had been sent by Father Roballi to slay the interlopers who had somehow learned of the yuan-ti's secret infiltration of Basker's Grove, replacing the human farmers one by one with those of their own kind. She struck at Zander Quilson and bit him on the arm; fortunately, the antivenom the elf had swallowed earlier helped him fight off this new dose of venom, but the elf nonetheless swore to himself that he couldn't seem to catch a break this night.

With supreme mental effort, Xandro finally managed to free himself from Father Roballi's hold person spell, just as Thurloe arrived and sliced at the cleric with his bastard sword. "We know about your yuan-ti cult," he warned the cleric. "The game's up!"

"Not yet it isn't!" replied the yuan-ti pure-blood cleric, stepping back out of range of the fighter's sword and casting a charm person spell at Xandro, knowing the bard had already failed to initially overcome the casting of one enchantment spell and hoping to pit one human against the other. "Protect me from your friend!" Father Roballi commanded Xandro, hoping this second spell would give him a moment's respite against the fighter's vicious-looking bastard sword.

Xandro looked over at Thurloe, who was forced to keep an eye on both the cleric and the bard, not sure which one would attack him next. "Who, him?" Xandro asked. "Protect you from him? Nah, I don't think so!" Thurloe grinned and slew the cleric with another strike of his blade.

Two of the farmers had seen the slaying of the cleric of their temple, though, and rushed over to avenge his death. "He killed the good father!" one cried in shock, ready to bring his hoe crashing down upon Thurloe's head in retaliation.

"That father of yours wasn't as good as you thought," Thurloe told him, stepping back as the hoe came crashing down at his feet. "He was a snake man, tricking you and your townsfolk!"

"You lying--!" sputtered the first farmer, as Xandro made a show of holding his own blade off to the side, indicating he was not going to try fighting the enraged farmers.

"It's true!" Xandro added. "We successfully woke Calabar Condaman, but he and his parents were all snake-people! We can show you Seth and Anya - both snakes!"

"I'll kill you both!" vowed the farmer, but his partner put a hand on the first one's shoulder and pulled him back. "Now just wait a minute, there, let's hear them out!" he suggested. He didn't want to believe Father Roballi was anything but a kind-hearted priest who took care of his flock...but he also didn't want to go hoe-to-bastard-sword against an armored professional who had just demonstrated his own proficiency with his blade.

Back by the Condaman house, down the road from the temple, Wakuren brought the full force of his shield slamming into the giant snake that had just bit Zander. Zander cast a scorching ray at the serpent and this time the spell hit straight on, but it nevertheless fizzled out upon impact, coming up against an inherent resistance to spells he'd been unable to overcome. The elf frowned in puzzlement; what kind of a snake could resist spells so efficiently? The cooshee bit at the snake, catching it between its teeth but unable to get a grip as the scales caused the thing's body to slide right back out of the elven dog's jaws.

A pair of pure-blood yuan-ti were attacking Alewyth and her celestial bison with limited success; the beast was now dripping blood from a lucky scimitar-strike while the priestess had managed to avoid any hits. A final blow from Sjondra finished off the one Alewyth had been fighting, then the dwarf sent her spiritual warhammer over to aid the bison she'd summoned from the celestial planes.

Xandro's expeditious retreat spell was still in effect and he could see the others fighting off some kind of giant snake; pointing it out to Thurloe and the farmers, the bard rushed off to see what he could do to help. "C'mon," Thurloe called to the two farmers facing him. "Come see for yourselves what these snake-men are up to!" He raced off to follow the bard, the two farmers running behind him.

The giant snake reared up and transformed, suddenly expanding to grow a pair of arms and a wide chest. It flung a scale-covered arm in Wakuren's direction, flinging a baleful polymorph spell at the half-orc that would have turned him into a harmless garter snake. Fortunately, Wakuren was able to avoid the unwanted transformation and the yuan-ti abomination hissed in irritation. It hissed in pain a moment later as the half-orc sent his shield bashing into the serpent's face. Zander took the opportunity to drink down another healing potion, as Wakuren had the snake-thing's full attention and Alewyth was still busy with the last of the pure-bloods. The cooshee bit at the abomination and, barking furiously, the farmer's dog rushed in to bite at this strange thing that it hadn't even seen before yet knew didn't belong here in his master's village.

The last of the pure-bloods was finally slain and Alewyth turned her attention - and her spiritual weapon spell - on the yuan-ti abomination, the celestial bison trailing in her wake. Then Xandro came rushing in from seemingly nowhere, his frost short sword striking at the serpent and cutting a deep gash in her side. The snake-thing reacted by grabbing up the bard in a bear hug, her scales exuding some kind of burning acid as she bit at the bard's neck, sharp fangs piercing Xandro's neck and pumping her venom into his body. But the odds were stacked well against her and once Thurloe arrived with the two farmers once final swing of his bastard sword - empowered by the torc of the titans he wore around his neck - cut the head from her neck and the battle was over.

Alewyth and Wakuren cast healing spells on those who needed them - including a few of the farmers - and examined the bodies of those they had slain. Most could indeed pass for human, but the two Condaman farmhands had patches of skin on their arms - covered by the sleeves of their garments - covered in scales. The farmers confirmed Thurloe's suspicions that the farmhands had both been two of the ones suffering from that week-long "flu" that knocked them off their feet; the fighter explained that was the way the yuan-ti transformed normal people into others of their brood. The heroes also showed the amazed farmers the two serpentine bodies of the elder Condamans and the venom dog they'd had living hidden down in their root cellar. A quick exploration of the root cellar resulted in the discovery of a hidden room just beyond, in which alchemical equipment had been set up, creating distillations of the yuan-ti venom used to create the elixir capable of transforming unwitting humans into yuan-ti. Worse yet were four writhing bodies moaning behind another door, wretched creatures turning into half-human "brood guards" - four of the farmhands from the village who had been assumed to have run off. Thurloe was quick to put them out of their misery.

Next came an exploration of Father Roballi's house, just behind the temple to Desdemona. He had a compost heap by his personal garden, which was apparently mostly for show judging by the contents of his larder just off his kitchen, where several slain rats and mice hung by cords from the ceiling, no doubt future meals for either him or his yuan-ti abomination companion (who, judging from some cast-off skin, apparently lived in serpent form underneath the pure-blood cleric's bed). Wakuren, on a hunch, dug around the compost heap and soon unearthed a few bones from a human skeleton. "This, I fear, is all that's left of your previous temple cleric," he told the villagers.

The villagers thanked the heroes for having saved the town from eventual transformation into yuan-ti - and for "pulling their punches" when fighting off the enraged townsfolk who had been convinced they were nothing more than murderous bandits. The group mounted back up and headed out of town, on towards the next dream victim Mogo had pointed out to them, south of their present location in a town called Caldovia, near the desert lands of the continent's interior. It was already late, but none of the heroes felt it a good idea to spend the night in Basker's Grove, where there was too great a temptation for revenge by those who hadn't seen the truth for themselves (or those who refused to believe it). They camped out on the side of the road a good couple of miles outside of town.

And the next morning, once they were back on the road, there was a familiar face standing in the street when they rounded a corner. "Good morning," said Wangle Turdblossom, pulling something from a back pocket and holding it out to Xandro. "Your wand, as promised." Xandro leaned down from the saddle and paid the gnome the other half of the price they had agreed upon.

"A pleasure doing business with you," the gnome said with a tip of an imaginary cap. He waited until the group had continued down the road before turning back the way he had come and going his own way.

- - -

Yuan-ti were something new to Vicki and Harry (and possibly Joe as well), so this was a cool way to introduce them to a new foe. And this marks twice now that I've used a temple of Desdemona in this campaign, while she was just an NPC in our "Wing Three" campaign (the one after which the gods of Erthe are all patterned). Not to worry, though, for I have adventures planned that will bring some of the other, more prominent faiths from the Erthe pantheon to the forefront.

- - -

T-shirt worn: I was still wearing my "Duck Dynasty" shirt since this was the same game session - which was all for the best, since I don't own anything particularly yuan-ti appropriate.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 26 February 2022

- - -

Wakuren sat at the front of the wagon as usual, the reins to the two mules in his hands as they plodded over the hard-packed dirt road. To either side of the wagon rode Xandro and Zander on their black horses, while just ahead rode Thurloe on his tan horse and Alewyth on her dire goat. They were making their way to their next dream victim in some small village another half hour down the road or so, on the edge of the Centralia Desert that covered a good portion of the small continent's center.

There was another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, a wagon also pulled by two draft beasts, a pair of powerful horses as black as Xandro and Zander's own mounts. The sorcerer and the bard hurried their own mounts forward ahead of the mule-wagon, scooting in to make room for the two wagons to pass each other. As they got nearer they could see the approaching wagon was fully covered with walls and a roof of wood, making it possible the lone driver - a male elf, Zander noted - lived inside of his vehicle. A small bird of prey was perched upon the wagon's rooftop.

And then the desert exploded on the side of the road beside the elf's wagon. A yellow and brown figure burst out of the sand in a blur of motion; by the time any of the heroes had time to register it was a lizard nearly as long from head to tail as the span from the horses' noses to the back of the wagon they pulled, the beast had clamped its jaws around the neck of the leftmost horse and pulled it to the ground. The wagon toppled on its side, throwing the elf to the ground; the other draft horse panicked but was too tangled up in its tethers to escape being pulled to the ground as well. The falcon took immediately to the skies.

Instinctively, Xandro pulled the lute from his back and began his tune of inspirational courage while he steered his horse White with his knees off to the side, out of range of the giant banded lizard. Combat was obviously imminent and this was the best way the bard could help the entire group all at once, he knew. Thurloe pulled his wand from his belt and cast a shield spell upon himself before tossing it over to Zander so the elf could do the same. Then he spurred his horse Horse forward, over to the downed elf; leaning over, he grabbed the man by the arm and helped pull him up onto the saddle behind him before steering Horse away from the lizard as well. Thurloe saw the beast was eagerly chewing up the first horse in bloody gobbets of flesh and wasn't particularly looking for any further combat just yet while it had a meal at the ready; after it finished gobbling up hunks of horse-meat it might be a different story.

Wakuren directed the mules off the road away from the lizard and its grisly meal; neither Mica nor Perseverance needed a whole lot of prompting to put some distance between themselves and the ravenous reptile. Then the half-orc leaped from the wagon, heading over to the downed wagon to see if he could be of any assistance; there could easily be other people inside the wagon needing help. Alewyth was the first to initiate combat with the banded lizard; as she prompted Pyrite forward she cast a spiritual weapon spell that caused a warhammer of solid force energy to materialize before her and go streaking to bash into the side of the great reptile's head. The lizard looked about it for the attacker as it swallowed down its latest mouthful of horse-flesh, not recognizing the force-hammer hovering above its head as the cause of its recent pain.

Xandro cast an expeditious retreat spell on himself and leaped down from his mount, slapping him on his rump to prompt him away from the danger - an act for which White needed no further encouragement. Thurloe rode the unnamed elf wagon-driver far enough away from the lizard to keep him safe, then helped him down out of the saddle while he pulled his bow from his back and nocked an arrow for combat. Then, wheeling Horse around to face their enemy, Thurloe took aim and let fly.

Zander cast a haste spell on the group while they were all still within range, while Wakuren cast a divine favor spell on himself as he raced to attack the giant lizard with his only weapon, his shield. Alewyth likewise cast a divine favor spell upon herself before leaping from her dire goat and sending Pyrite away out of danger. Her spiritual warhammer continued its attack on the lizard, who apparently thought the spell effect to be some kind of flying insect and snapped at it. With the lizard thus distracted, the elven driver ran to the rear of his wagon to open the door in the back, an awkward act given the wagon was on its side.

The lizard had by this time swallowed the chunks of horse-meat it had ripped from the poor wagon-mount's corpse and thus had its mouth free when Wakuren came within range to attack it with the edge of his shield. Quicker than the half-orc would have believed possible, the reptile darted its head forward and snapped him up into its mouth; Wakuren found himself using his shield to block the creature's numerous sharp teeth from piercing him through his armor. Seeing his friend in trouble, Xandro used his spell-enhanced speed to race over to the creature's flank, over by its left back leg (where he hoped he'd be out of immediate range of its wicked teeth) and stabbed at the beast with his frost short sword. Thurloe likewise came running to Wakuren's rescue, dropping his bow and pulling out his bastard sword as he closed the gap between himself and the towering reptile. He drew upon his torc of the titans to add extra strength to his blow, which caused his blade to sink deep between the lizard's banded scales.

Zander knew quite well he was not well-equipped for melee combat and thus held back, casting a magic missile spell at the beast. The lizard was at this point quite flustered at the multiple opponents attacking it from all directions; it had just been hiding in ambush under the sands until it felt the vibrations indicating an approaching pair of horses and an easy meal. Wakuren tried using the lizard's confusion - it had momentarily stopped trying to chew him - to wrest himself free from its maw, to no avail; it might not be actively chewing him but the half-orc lacked the strength to force it to open its mouth wide enough for him to wriggle out.

The spiritual warhammer dipped in for another attack as Alewyth leaped into combat with Sjondra in hand and the elf started pulling weapons out of his wagon: a string of very nicely crafted weapons of all types: longswords, short swords, scimitars, daggers, and axes. He tossed them out with a look of desperation, occasionally looking back over the desert sands, where a plume of dust at the horizon hinted at an approaching group of riders.

The lizard suddenly recalled it had a morsel in its mouth and started trying to chew Wakuren's armored form as it swiped at Thurloe and Alewyth with claws glistening with moisture - likely poison, the dwarven priestess realized. Fortunately, neither of the claw attacks met their mark, although the cries of pain from inside the reptile's mouth indicated Wakuren was not having an easy time of it. Thurloe and Xandro redoubled their efforts with their blades while Zander repositioned himself and cast a scorching ray spell at the massive reptile. The continued onslaught was finally taking its toll and the banded lizard was wobbling on its feet when Wakuren turned his shield upside-down and stabbed upwards with all of his might, sending the pointed tip of the shield's bottom stabbing up into the roof of the lizard's mouth. He was rewarded for his efforts with a gush of blood spilling down upon him and the lizard collapsing down upon the desert floor, dead. It took Thurloe and Alewyth to help tug open the beast's mouth so Wakuren could scramble out, but at least he was finally free.

"Help me!" called the elf from the back of the wagon, prompting the heroes to assume he was under attack from another enemy. But he just wanted help unloading the weapons from his overturned wagon - a wagon which wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, for one of its axles had broken during the spill, one wooden wheel had shattered, and the wall pinned to the ground had been cracked open when the wagon landed on a large stone.

"What's going on?" Thurloe demanded as Alewyth took a handful of weapons from the elf.

"Orc raiding party," the elf replied. "Heading this way from out of the desert. My falcon familiar has confirmed it. But this spot will do as well as any other - I need these weapons lined up in a row beside the wagon."

"Why?" Thurloe persisted as Zander took the weapons from Alewyth and passed them on to Xandro, who in turn handed them over to Wakuren. They made a sort of bucket brigade, handing weapon after weapon down the line as Wakuren lined them up nicely along the ground.

"My family was killed by orc raiders," the elf explained. "I'm a wizard, and I have researched a ritual that allow me to animate these weapons into a living blade barrier spell that will take them out." He closed his eyes and concentrated on the link with his falcon familiar, who was high up in the air and confirming the orcs' numbers. "There is a band of eleven orcs, all riding desert horses," the elf said. "They'll be here in little over a minute, so either help me line up the weapons or at least get out of my way!" Without another word Thurloe went to the back of the line by Wakuren and started lining up the weapons as they were passed his way.

Once the weapons were laid out to the elf's satisfaction, he pulled out a sheet of parchment and began muttering arcane syllables, beginning the ritual. "We got time for some preparations of our own," offered up Thurloe, attempting to cast a protection from evil spell on himself in his full armor but messing it up and swearing as it dissipated to nothingness. In the meantime, Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell on herself, followed by a bless spell on the assembled group. Wakuren cast bull's strength spells on himself and Thurloe, a cure serious wounds spell upon himself (using his magic ring to increase the amount of healing energy he was able to channel), and a bear's endurance spell upon Zander before activating his other ring and becoming invisible. Xandro cast a cure light wounds spell through his lute on the half-orc before he disappeared from view, for the bard could see Wakuren still had some visible wounds from the lizard's sharp teeth.

"Here they come," Alewyth noted as the orcs rode into view, clouds of dust rising behind their horses' hooves. They were spread out in a wide line and headed directly for the overturned wagon. Morisar Nemertel - Zander had recognized the elf wizard's proffered name as meaning "deathseeker slainheart" in the Elven tongue and imagined it was the name he had given himself after the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of orc raiders as the wizard had been bound and forced to watch - had his back turned to the orcs, reading from the notes he held in his left hand while he reached for a handaxe at his belt with his right. The heroes had dropped back behind the wagon for cover and were looking worriedly at the wizard, hoping he'd get the ritual finished up in time before the orcs got too much closer. And wouldn't it have made more sense to have lined the weapons up behind the wagon?

The orc leader, an adept whose owl familiar had flown ahead of the orcs and had scoped out the giant banded lizard they'd been tracking for days had already been slain by a band of warriors, merely merely saw that as a bonus: new weapons and armor for their own band in addition to the flesh, teeth, and claws of the reptile they'd been after. He cast a protection from good spell upon himself while absently wondering what that elf was up to with his back turned to him. Was this some sort of show of fearlessness? And what was the line of gleaming metal at his feet? Then his owl reported on the five heroes off to the side and he grinned an evil grin: he and his ten men could easily take on a group of six adventurers!

The orcs continued their advance and the desert horses increased their speed as their prey came into view. But then Xandro pointed his wand of sound burst at a group of the orcs and fired off a shot. He got three of the orc riders and their mounts with his attack and one of the horses was stunned into immobility, sending his barbarian rider flying over his head to come to an abrupt halt face-first in the sand. Zander followed suit with a spell-attack of his own; he'd deduced the adept as some kind of spellcaster based on his hand-gestures when casting the protection from good spell on himself and further deduced he was the sole spellcaster among the group based on him being the only one whose hair was adorned with feathers, a frequent display of spellcasting prestige among the desert orcs. Thus, Zander cast his scorching ray spell at the adept, sending a gout of flames to explode at the orc's chest. It identified Zander as a fellow spellcaster and certainly made him a target, but the elf had no doubt he was already high up on their list given his elven heritage; elves were particularly hated by the orcish race.

Wakuren raced forward towards the approaching raiders, confident in his ring of invisibility to keep him safe - and fully forgetting he was leaving footprints behind him in the sand as he ran. But he got close enough to cast a bane spell on a group of close-quarters orcs that included the adept, all four barbarians, and one of the two rangers riding off to the side, as well as all of their desert mounts. Despite his father having been of the orcish race, Wakuren had little knowledge of the creatures himself - he didn't even speak their language, nor did he have much of a desire to learn to do so. If these orcs were in the habit of performing acts like Morisar had said, he wanted nothing to do with them.

Alewyth moved over to the other side of the wizard's wagon and cast a summoning spell that caused a celestial bison to manifest directly in the path of one of the advancing orc fighters. It lowered its bulky head and charged, its horn tearing into the orc's makeshift armor and cutting a furrow through the flesh beneath. The orc rangers veered toward the new threat, throwing javelins into the bison's side. It grunted as its only acknowledgement of the pain caused by the weapons and carried on its attack.

Thurloe took the opportunity to try a new spell, mirror image. He cast it successfully and now there were five Thurloes wandering around, the real one and four illusory duplicates. All five of them had an identical bastard sword in hand but fumbled at their belts and pulled out identical wands. The five of them all started heading over by Alewyth.

Another scorching ray went coursing across the battlefield, but this one had been cast by the adept and targeted against the celestial bison. Two of the orc barbarians wheeled their horses up against the white-furred beast and stabbed at it with their falchions, staining its snowy fur red with blood as it staggered to the desert sands and disappeared, its slain body returning to the celestial realms from which it had been summoned. The other two barbarians both took a swing at where they had figured Wakuren was standing, although they had no idea the invisible foe had orcish blood flowing through his veins. Wakuren dodged one blow but the other struck him on the side and it was only then he realized his tracks in the sand had given him away.

Xandro picked up his tune of inspirational courage while all five Thurloes aimed their wands of magic missile at the orcish spellcaster. Fifteen individual missiles went shrieking across the desert sands to strike the orc, only three of them doing any real harm. Zander ran to the far side of the overturned wagon and dropped his jade cooshee to the ground, calling out the command word that brought the elven dog to life. The cooshee didn't need any orders from his master; it dashed out across the desert sands in a bee-line for the mounted adept, its magic-enhanced eyesight showing that particular orc to be the only one holding spells his master might put to better use. But two orcish fighters swung their weapon at the canine as he rushed past, heedless of his own safety, and as a result the poor dog was too weak to be able to snag a spell from the adept's mind as he had intended.

Knowing the orcs all about him had a way of detecting his location, the still-invisible Wakuren cast an obscuring mist spell around himself, encompassing the adept and the four barbarians, one of the latter still unmounted since his spill from his dazed horse. Behind him to his right, the four orc fighters raced up to Zander Quilson and Xandro, their blades swinging for blood. But back by the line of weapons, Morisar drew his own blood in a quite unexpected fashion as he brought his right hand up and the hatchet it held swung down to sever his left hand at the wrist. Blood spurted from his stump and the wizard aimed it at the line of weapons, walking down its length, spilling his blood upon each blade in turn. Then he began calling out the words to bring his living spell to life: "Morath ennavari--"

That's as far as he got, for at that point his throat was pierced by a javelin thrown by one of the orc rangers and he fell to the desert sands as all about him the bloody weapons rose up of their own accord and started dancing about in rhythmic patterns. Another hurled javelin pierced the elf wizard in the back where he lay and he died, the final word of his ritual unspoken on his lips. Thus, the full set of intended instructions, "death to each living orc," had been truncated to "death to each living." Brought to unholy life, the living blade barrier spell sent its weapons clashing and whirling as it sensed all around it for lives to slay. It found a nearby target and wriggled its way over to Thurloe, its numerous blades cutting through his armor and causing one of his mirror-duplicates to pop like a soap bubble.

Alewyth cast another spiritual weapon and sent the force-hammer crashing into the side of one of the orc fighters attacking Zander, nearly spilling him from his mount. The dwarf looked over to what Thurloe was yelling about and was surprised to see him - and three others looking just as bedraggled - limping away from a wall of whirling weapons.

The orcs inside the obscuring mist spell decided to get out of there as soon as possible so they could see normally again. Each led their horse in a random direction until they emerged once more under the desert sun. The cooshee followed the orc adept and his mount, leaping up at the spellcaster and trying to fetch a spell slot for his master. But the adept was as well-armed as his other men and cut the dog down with a slash of his falchion and the jade cooshee fell to the sand with a soft thud. Then the adept turned his horse towards his fighters and sped forward.

The three mounted barbarians made it out of the area of darkness without incident but the one on foot found himself facing a wall of whirling blades once he was back out in the sunlight. He quickly dodged off to his left, heading towards the relative safety of the orc fighters.

Xandro charged one of the fighters, slashing at him with his frost short sword. Thurloe decided he needed to added maneuverability and speed Horse provided and fled back to his mount, leaping up into the saddle with practiced ease. Of course, that meant his three remaining mirror images followed suit, so when Thurloe sent Horse speeding towards the mounted orc fighters he was flanked on either side by an ever-shifting gaggle of three other Thurloes hovering around him - which kind of gave the game away as to which one was the real one and which three the illusory images. Alewyth came to a similar realization about increased mobility and ran back to Pyrite, climbing up onto the dire goat's saddle and spurring him forward in to battle against the nearest orc fighter while her spiritual warhammer slew another fighter and sent him falling from his saddle.

Zander cast another magic missile at the approaching adept, partly wanting to take him out of the fight because he wasn't sure just how powerful his spellcasting ability was but also partly in retaliation for having slain his elven dog, even though he knew he'd be able to summon him back to life again the next day. Then he found himself dodging the incoming falchion-blows of a pair of enraged orc fighters, the other two focusing their attacks on Xandro for the moment.

Wakuren sped out of the obscuring mist and took a barbarian by surprise by slamming him with his shield, nearly spilling him from his horse. That brought the half-orc back into full visibility once again, but invisibility wasn't all it was cracked up to be in the desert sands.

The two rangers spurred their horses around what they both assumed to be a static blade barrier spell and were surprised beyond belief when it lurched to cut them off. Dozens of razor-sharp blades cut the rangers and their mounts to ribbons; neither of the four made it out of the living spell alive.

The orc adept cast his last scorching ray of the day at Alewyth, engulfing the dwarven priestess in a gout of flame. He felt the rage building up inside him, that these upstarts would dare to fight back against his raiders after having first stolen the giant banded lizard kill from them after they'd spent two days tracking it! He'd make sure they all paid for their effrontery!

Wakuren soon found himself pinned between two mounted orc barbarians, who called taunts out at him in a language he didn't understand as their blades came swinging in against what they considered a race-traitor. A half-orc throwing in his lot with a pair of elves? Unforgivable! The barbarian on foot reached one of the riderless mounts and leaped up upon it, steering it back into battle. But another barbarian had stopped his mount cold at the sight of the living blade barrier spell chewing up the two rangers and their horses like they were nothing. If these adventurers were capable of such magic, perhaps it would be best to allow them to keep the banded lizard for themselves and seek their next targets a bit more wisely!

Xandro's frost blade took the life of another of the orc fighters, his lifeless body dropping to the desert sands and the now-unencumbered horse high-tailing it out of the area. Thurloe (and his hovering triplets) charged another fighter, nearly decapitating him with his bastard sword - another raider down! Zander slew another of the barbarians with a scorching ray spell and all of a sudden the fight was no longer as lopsided as it had been at the start. Wakuren killed a barbarian, pushing him from his mount and then crushing his windpipe with the edge of his shield before the orc could rise up from where he'd fallen prone. Riderless horses ran this way and that as their erstwhile masters were slain.

A fighter came rushing at Alewyth, his falchion striking a glancing blow off her armor before she retaliated with a blow of her own with Sjondra. Then the orc was taken from behind by a mass of flying blades as the living spell crept up behind the unwary raider. Alewyth pulled Pyrite farther away from the mass of whirling blades, realizing when their fight with the orcs was over they'd still have to deal with Morisar's deadly spell-monster lest it continue its random swath of death and destruction into the homes of the nearest village.

The orc adept was still in the fight, but only because he'd taken the time to cast a few healing spells upon himself to seal up the worst of his wounds. But his body pulsated with power and he was eager for vengeance against those who had slain so many of his men. As he watched, Wakuren held his shield up to deflect a series of blows from one of the adept's strongest barbarian warriors, only to have the lanky human with the musical instrument strapped to his back stab the orc in the back and then step back as the barbarian fell face-first into the sand, dead from the bard's blow. The adept roared with frustration and looked to see who he could vent his anger upon.

The closest enemy was riding straight towards the orc spellcaster and for some reason he had three others who looked just like him hovering around him. The adept raised his falchion and spurred his own desert horse forward, eager to match blades with this strange warrior with the acrobatic duplicates. But then the four identical Thurloes each raised a wand and pointed it at the wounded adept and the magic missile spell slew the orc before the horses met up. Relieved of the burden from his back, the orc's mount veered off and left the field of battle.

The lone barbarian had been watching this debacle unfold. Now it seemed he was the last survivor of his band and no longer under the sway of the adept, whose orders had been more and more erratic over the past few weeks. Shaking his head in sadness at the loss of his brothers-in-arms, the sole remaining member of the Tribe of the Lost's raiding party turned his horse back the way they'd come and raced away.

"We need to take out those flying weapons!" Alewyth called to the others as she pointed to the living blade barrier spell.

"Ranged weapons and spells!" advised Thurloe, who had seen first-hand what happened when one ventured too close to the living spell. He fetched his bow and started shooting arrows at the living spell while Zander peppered it with magic missiles and scorching rays. Alewyth's spiritual warhammer finally winked out and she was left scavenging the bodies of the orc raiders for their javelins. It was slow going, but eventually they wore down the living spell and its weapons all went flying in all directions as the magic binding them together was sundered. Thurloe rode up to the nearest of the scattered weapons and snorted in disgust; despite having been of quite masterwork quality when they'd lined them all up in the sand for Morisar, they were now all nicked and grooved from constant contact with each other as they flew about and were virtually worthless.

However, there were a few goods to be retrieved. The orc adept had the only item of magical value among the orcs, a necklace of the teeth of desert predators that Alewyth's detect magic spell indicated toughened the skin of the wearer. Morisar's cloak was likewise magical, suffused in an aura of abjuration that protected the wearer with a limited ability to deflect damage. Recovered from the wagon's interior were a quill of transcription which wrote down the words spoken by the owner; a flask of elixir of dreamless sleep with six doses remaining (for poor Morisar apparently suffered from repeated nightmares of the deaths of his wife and daughter); a silver holy symbol of Akari, God of Death and Undeath, with rubies in place of the skull's eyes; and a pair of ivory cameos, side views of elven ladies, no doubt his slain family members. Alewyth insisted upon giving the slain elf wizard a proper burial, there by the side of the road where he'd been killed seeking his vengeance against the orcs. Of his falcon familiar there was no sight; it had apparently flown off upon its master's death.

The orcs were left to rot in the sun where they'd been slain. Wakuren had been the one to fetch the adept's necklace of teeth and he swore he felt a shudder of revulsion course through his skin upon touching the body of the slain leader of the raiders. The necklace had been given to Xandro; Wakuren had wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, he took Morisar's cloak, promising the elf's spirit he would long remember his courage and dedication in seeking his vengeance.

"Let's be gone from here," Wakuren sighed once Morisar had been put to rest.

"Caldovia should be about a half hour down the road," pointed out Thurloe, pulling himself up onto Horse's saddle and leading the way to the town where they were to find their next dream victim.

Caldovia was indeed not that far away, but the reception they received was not all they had expected. Upon seeing Wakuren at the front of the mule wagon, a half dozen villagers picked up clubs and hammers - whatever weapon they could grab up, pretty much - and blocked the way. Wakuren pulled back on the mules' reins as the others came to a halt beside him. "What seems to be the problem?" he asked pleasantly.

One of the villagers spit on the ground before answering. "Exactly what you'd expect, orc!" he sneered. "You got a lot of nerve riding into town after all the times your kind came raiding in from the desert. And you!" - here he pointed a finger at the others on their riding mounts - "Orc sympathizers, are you? You ought to be ashamed!"

"First one of you comes at me with their weapons dies here in the street," promised Thurloe, hefting his bastard sword at the ready over one shoulder.

"Hold on," demanded Alewyth. "Can you not see the mark of Cal on Wakuren's armor and shield? He's a holy man!"

"Don't mean nothing," replied the leader of the six men. "Orcs'll wear any armor, wield any weapons they can scavenge. Everybody knows that." He looked ready to attack, but kept glancing nervously at Thurloe and seemed to be waiting for one of his men to make the first move. Alewyth took advantage of the man's hesitation to cast a calm emotions spell on the assembled villagers. Then, once everyone had calmed down, she personally vouched for Wakuren's good character and explained why they were in town in the first place.

Caldovia was a small enough village that everybody knew exactly who the adventurers were looking for: Jingo Pebble-Brain, who worked odd jobs for those who needed them done. "He's big as a mountain and dumb as a brick, but a nice enough guy" was the common opinion but while he had last been seen at McGillicuddy's Inn, nobody was quite sure of his current whereabouts - until they met up with an elderly woman who gave them a better idea of Jingo's current predicament. "It's horrible what that nasty old skinflint has done with poor Jingo. I suggest you check out the stables behind McGillicuddy's Inn, and bless you all if you can put a stop to it."

That warranted a trip to McGillicuddy's Inn. Wakuren activated his ring of invisibility and headed directly to the stables while the others decided to confront the innkeeper. "Jingo?" replied McGillicuddy. "Yeah, I hire him now and again when I got work for him, but I haven't seen him in a couple of weeks now. Probably wandered off again and got hisself lost - the boy's not all there upstairs, you know what I mean?"

"So you have no idea where he is?" pushed Alewyth.

"That's what I said. Now, you folk interested in renting some rooms or purchasing a meal or something to drink? 'Cause otherwise, I don't think we got anything further to discuss."

"I found him," came Wakuren's whispered voice in Alewyth's ear. The dwarf said that would be all for now and turned to leave, the other three following suit. Wakuren canceled his invisibility once back over at the stables. "He's here, in a stall at the back," he said, his voice hardened with anger.

A few horses nickered in their stalls as Wakuren went all the way to the back of the stables. There, in the farthest stall to the right, lay an enormous man - probably six and a half feet tall when standing - propped up in the corner, fast asleep. His bald head glistened with wetness; he lay in a puddle of urine and his clothes all reeked of the stuff. A tin cup along the wall held a few silver pieces; apparently McGillicuddy had found a way to earn some money from his handyman while he was trapped in a dream coma, by offering the opportunity to the townsfolk to relieve their bladders on Jingo as he slept.

"That little weasel!" fumed Alewyth. "We can't perform the ritual here, with Jingo like that!" She cast a produce water spell that cleaned the worst of the urine off of his skin and clothes, then they lifted him up and placed him in their wagon.

"Where's a safe place to do the ritual?" Xandro asked. They decided to go back to find the elderly lady who had told them where Jingo could be found. Sure enough, she allowed the group to bring Jingo inside and lay him down on her living room floor. Once they explained the ritual they'd be performing, the lady agreed to watch over them as they all slept and ensure they weren't disturbed.

Jingo's dream was almost sad in its purity. He was on his hands and knees, building a tower out of painted wooden blocks. A handful of children, four or five years old, were gathered and watched him with rapt attention. Once he had used up all the blocks, the kids clapped and Jingo beamed at his construction. "Whose turn to knock it over?" he asked.

"Me!" cried one of the girls, and Jingo watched as she knocked it over, dancing with excitement at the collapsing tower.

"I'm next!" one of the little boys cried. "Build it again, Jingo!" Jingo scooped the blocks together in a pile and started painstakingly building another tower. His tongue poked out the side of his mouth as he concentrated.

"Oh, the poor guy," Alewyth sighed. "I almost hate to have to wake him. His life here in the dream is so much better than the one he's stuck with in the real world." She turned to the others. "Do you think we might just leave him?"

"I don't know if that's a good idea," replied Wakuren. "Whatever reason the Nightmare King has for trapping people in their dreams, it's best if we stop him when we can." There were already two dreamers the group had been unable to wake from their dreams, a dwarf in an underground city and a bard back in Baron's Haven.

"Then how do we wake Jingo from this dream?" asked Zander.

"I could try killing him," suggested Thurloe, unsheathing his bastard sword. Then, seeing the scathing looks his friends were giving him, he asked, "What? This is just a dream! Killing him here won't kill him back in the real world!" If Jingo heard any of their talk of killing him he gave it no notice - he was focused on building his tower.

"We're not killing him - what's wrong with you?" chided Alewyth.

"I could try killing the kids - maybe he'll wake up without an audience." When Alewyth turned on the fighter the look on his face told he had said that just to provoke a reaction out of her. She chose not to give him the satisfaction. Instead, she turned to Jingo and said, "That's a nice building, Jingo, but we have to go now."

"Okay," said Jingo at once, getting to his feet and leaving his building half-constructed. He waved to the kids, who all waved back at him. "Maybe I can come back later," he said hopefully. Then Alewyth led him out of the door to his dream and the others followed. Jingo disappeared from the dreamlands upon exiting his dream; the dreamwalkers all willed themselves back to wakefulness and found themselves back in the elderly woman's living room, sitting in a ring around Jingo, who was struggling to a sitting position. "Hello," he said bashfully upon seeing the strangers positioned all around him.

"Hello, Jingo," Alewyth said, smiling at the bald man. "How do you feel?"

Jingo took a quick stock of the situation. "I'm all wet," he said. "And something stinks." He rubbed his tongue on his sleeve as if trying to get rid of a bad taste in his mouth.

"I'll help you get cleaned up," offered the old woman. "And you can stay here with me, if you'd like. I have an extra bedroom in the back that isn't being used."

"Okay," agreed Jingo. The group talked it over quietly among themselves and agreed this was probably the best situation Jingo could hope for. Alewyth gathered up some of their funds and set the coins down on an end table. "This ought to help you with expenses for a few months," the dwarven priestess explained.

"Why, bless you - bless you all!" replied the elderly lady. And then the dreamwalkers returned to their wagon and mounts outside, ready to leave Caldovia behind and head to their next dream victim.

"Where do you think you're all going?" demanded Thurloe. "We're not done here in town just yet." He explained how he intended to kill McGillicuddy for what he'd done to Jingo. "Guy like that's gotta be irredeemably evil," he reasoned.

"Nobody's irredeemably evil," countered Wakuren.

"You use your aura-sight on him?"

"Yes, and he is in fact evil," admitted Wakuren. "But if you kill everyone because they're evil you prevent them from turning their life around. There's no possibility for redemption, then."

"You think McGillicuddy's gonna turn his life around?" demanded Thurloe, forcing Wakuren to concede it wasn't likely.

"We can't come riding into town and kill people we don't like - no matter how much they deserve it," added Alewyth. "That'd make us no better than the orc raiders who come riding into town and taking what they want, killing anyone who gets in their way." She talked Thurloe out of his killing mood by agreeing they'd take vengeance on the innkeeper, as long as they kept it to the nonlethal variety.

And thus it was that the next morning, after the dreamwalkers had long since left Caldovia, McGillicuddy was found drunken and naked in a goat pen in town; to all appearances he'd been enjoying himself with the goats and had slept it off when he finished his partying. That's the story that made it across town, in any case, and nobody believed his stories of having been abducted in the middle of the night and force-fed bottles of his own ale until he passed out.

- - -

I had a good time prepping the minis for this adventure the night before we played. After gathering up an appropriate amount of orc minis - an adept, two rangers, four barbarians, and four fighters - and an equal number of horses (many of them from Toobs collections), I spent a good half-hour or so using rather small rubber bands (the ones used to hold a ponytail in place, which my granddaughter suggested I purchase to keep my hair out of my face back when I did water aerobics) to keep the orc minis balanced on the back of the horse minis. That ended up working out just fine as a visual, and in the few cases where an orc was dismounted it was easy enough to remove the rubber band and split them up. (The horses usually wandered away from the active fighting when they had no rider spurring them on to battle.)

Jingo had been intended as a recurring NPC - I statted him out as an NPC hireling who could join the group so they'd have someone to tend to their animals, much like the NPC "Old Clem" did back in our "Wing Three" campaign. But the players didn't want to have to be responsible for him so they set him up with the kindly old lady who had found out how McGillicuddy had been misusing him.

- - -

T-shirt worn: Given the orcs' traditional chaotic evil nature, my "Chaotic Evil Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry" T-shirt was the most appropriate, so that's what I went with.



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 30 April 2022

- - -

"This sucks," remarked Thurloe from his perch in Horse's saddle.

"The next dreamer happens to be in the middle of the Centralia Desert," commented Wakuren, sitting in his customary seat in the wagon, the reins to both mules in his hands. "And if you'll recall, I did offer to cast an endure elements spell on you," the half-orc reminded Thurloe. He, Alewyth, and Xandro had all had the spell cast upon them, keeping them relatively comfortable in the heat of the burning sun - so much so they still wore their armor. Zander Quilson had eschewed the spell as he wore no armor, merely robes - and opted to keep the hood of his robe over his head to protect him from sunburn. Thurloe had opted instead to do without his armor, which he had stashed in the back of the wagon. He'd also insisted he didn't need an endure elements spell and his attitude at the time had strongly hinted the others were somewhat weak in relying upon spellpower for mere comfort. Now he wiped sweat from his brow with a rag for the umpteenth time that morning. Wakuren was pretty sure it was merely pure stubbornness and a refusal to admit he'd been wrong preventing Thurloe from asking for an endure elements spell to be cast upon him. Either that or he didn't want to look weaker than Zander, who seemed to be doing just fine without it.

Thurloe said nothing but just grunted in irritation, making another pass across the back of his neck with his rag.

Then there was a sudden bit of movement off to their left and before Zander could warn the others a black-armored scorpion larger than any of their horses skittered up from between a clump of low cactus plants, its pincer-claws open wide for an attack. It was aiming either for Alewyth on her dire goat mount, Pyrite, or the left-most of the mules, Perseverance. As the dwarven priestess urged her goat forward out of range, Zander cast a haste spell upon the five heroes and Thurloe's horse, figuring of the various mounts Thurloe's was the one most likely to be brought directly into battle against the monstrous scorpion. Alewyth cast a spell of her own once Pyrite was out of immediate danger and a spiritual warhammer appeared in the air above her head, hovered for a brief moment, and then went streaking over to strike the scorpion's hardened carapace.

Thurloe cast a quick mage armor spell on himself to take the place of his own armor and pulled the bastard sword from its sheath on his back. Unnoticed, the rag he'd been using to wipe away sweat fell from his hand and fluttered to the hard-packed dirt of the desert as he spurred Horse around the wagon and positioned him for a charge into battle.

The scorpion's claws snapped shut near Perseverance's left rear leg, but Wakuren had steered the mules away to the right and the claw missed its target. Zander pulled back on Eddy's reins so he wouldn't be struck by the mule-wagon as it crossed directly in front of them, then sent a magic missile spell darting over the back of the wagon to strike the scorpion at the base of its venomous tail, already raised to strike. Then Alewyth leaped down from her mount and raced across the desert sands with a speed greatly enhanced by Zander's haste spell, to bring Sjondra crashing into the arachnid's left legs. She felt one of them snap under the force of her blow, then her spiritual weapon slammed down upon its back with another strike. But it was Thurloe, charging in upon Horse from the other side of the scorpion, who slew it with a blow from his bastard sword. The heavy body crashed to the ground, the venom-dripping tail stinger not having been able to be brought to bear even once.

"Everybody okay?" Wakuren asked. Alewyth returned to Pyrite's saddle as her spiritual warhammer winked back out of existence. Thurloe wiped the arachnid's ichor off his blade and resheathed it. "How much longer you figure it is to the dreamer?" he asked. They'd been traveling through the desert for two days now and he had seen enough hard-packed earth and scraggly cactus plants for a lifetime.

"Probably no more than a couple of hours," guessed Wakuren, steering the mules back into the direction they'd been traveling before the sudden ambush. The others assembled back into their standard formation.

"This sucks," repeated Thurloe, his opinion of the situation not having changed any by the scorpion's attack. But in another two hours they saw the first signs of habitation they'd seen for the last couple of days: a thin line of smoke rising up into the desert sky. "I'll bet that's it up ahead," hazarded Wakuren, hoping to get Thurloe out of his grumpiness.

"Better be," the fighter-wizard grumbled.

As they approached, they saw the smoke rose from the chimney of a dwelling made of hard-packed mud, a large, rectangular building with the corners rounded off. There were two hemispherical structures off to the right of the building, each about 20 feet in diameter, but Wakuren's attention was caught by the woman who had stepped outside upon their approach. She was human, wearing a cloth garment covering her entire body, with a wrapping over her head that looked to be a long scarf wound into a loose turban of some sort. She was unarmed but looked suspiciously at the approaching group - and focused fearfully upon the half-orc exclusively once she got a good look at him.

Wakuren wasn't offended, having spent his whole life with people judging him by his fearsome appearance. So he brought his favorite weapon to bear, flashing a wide smile that showed a bit of teeth but none of his small tusks, while raising both hands to show he was unarmed. "Good afternoon," he said, beaming. "We have come because we believe there is someone trapped in their dreams here - and we have a means to help them."

"How--?" stammered the woman. "How did you know?"

"Then there is someone here asleep? And unable to be awakened?" asked Alewyth.

"There is, yes - my brother, Jazaar. But forgive me. My name is Djamila. You look like you have traveled far. Please, come in - I offer you the hospitality of our home." She pulled aside the rug hanging over the sole doorway into her mud-baked home. "Please enter, and my sisters will fetch you fresh water and cactus fruit before you try to wake our brother."

Alewyth entered the dwelling, noting the floor was stone, recently swept. She didn't fail to notice the four spears leaning against the wall near the entryway, a handy form of defense against intruders (although she absently wondered if they were so concerned about intruders why they didn't have a proper door instead of just a hanging carpet to keep out the blowing sand and dust). The others followed after ensuring the reins of their various mounts were tied to the wagon so they wouldn't wander about. Wakuren was the last to enter the dwelling, bowing low to Djamila in an effort to show even half-breed orcs could be trained to have good manners.

Once inside, Djamila introduced her two sisters, Maheen and Suhana, while Alewyth likewise introduced the members of her own small band. Suhana passed around a plate of cactus fruit while Maheen served the heroes drinking horns of water poured from a large gourd. Once their guests had been properly refreshed, Djamila began her tale. "There is not much to tell," she admitted. "One morning, several weeks ago, Jazaar could not be awakened from his sleeping pallet. We did everything we could to awaken him, but nothing worked. And yet, he does not seem to suffer from loss of food or lack or water and he does not waste away as we would have thought. We have no explanation for how this came to be, unless it is some sort of magical curse. So tell me, how can you awaken him?"

Alewyth explained the ritual they had performed with much success many times over the past few months. Djamila feared there was not enough space in Jazaar's room for them to all sit around him and had her sisters push the tables and pillows (used to sit upon in place of chairs) in the communal room up against the walls so Wakuren and Thurloe could lift Jazaar's sleeping pallet from his bedroom into the larger living space. Jazaar's pet serval, Hunter, padded along, curious as to what these strangers were doing with his master.

"Is there anything we can do to assist?" Djamila asked. Alewyth handed her a dreamstone and a leather headband and had her tie it around her brother's forehead, while the dreamwalkers all did likewise with their own dreamstone headbands. Zander activated his jade cooshee and had him stand guard over the five as they slept, and Djamila and her sisters agreed to ensure the dreamwalkers were not interrupted during the ritual. "With any luck, all six of us will be waking up together," Wakuren told the sisters before closing his eyes and slowing his breathing as he performed the mental rituals to prepare his body for sleep.

As always, it took everyone several minutes to all fall asleep and join back up together in the Dreamlands - led by their individual moogle guides, who took them to the Hall of Dreams where Mogo repositioned the hallways of endless doors until he came to the relevant one. "Here's the dream you're looking for - good luck, kupo!" he told the group as they opened the dream-door and stepped inside the dreamscape.

The dream looked very much like the desert outside, save for the lack of cacti and the strange, purple-and-lavender-streaked sky. But there was movement directly ahead in the almost featureless landscape, a wriggling mass that became apparent as an enormous, brown caterpillar some 40 feet long. Its pliant body undulated as its many legs skittered it across the desert wasteland.

Alewyth looked around. "I don't see Jazaar anywhere," she observed.

"Neither do I," agreed Xandro. "Maybe the bug got him."

Alewyth raised the second dreamstone she held in her hand back on the Mortal Plane - and thus had with her here in the Dreamlands. Holding it before her as she would her holy symbol of Aerik had she been trying to turn undead before her, she channeled her will through it in an attempt to weaken the monster-worm. At her side, Wakuren raised his own dreamstone and followed suit. "Does it seem to be doing anything?" asked the half-orc.

"Doesn't look like it," admitted Alewyth. Zander looked worriedly at the size of the approaching caterpillar and cast a mage armor spell upon himself.

"This is stupid," grumbled Thurloe. "How are we supposed--" His complaining came to an abrupt halt when he saw the creature's side bulge out and a blade emerge from its rubbery skin. The blade became a falchion, gripped in a strong hand covered in blood and gore.

"Never mind," Thurloe amended. "I assume that's Jazaar there." He held out his dreamstone and tried using it to "home in" on Jazaar, with no effect.

The arm holding the falchion completely emerged from the gash it had cut through the side of the caterpillar's body, followed quickly by a long-haired head and a powerful, muscular body clad in mismatched hides. The figure was covered in blood, presumably that of the monster worm he'd just cut his way out of.

"Not unless Jazaar's an orc," observed Zander, for the figure spinning about to face the great caterpillar was undoubtedly a member of a desert orcish tribe of raiders - much like the members they'd encountered just days ago. But while this fellow could have easily passed as a member of the horse-riding raiders they'd fought, none of the dreamwalkers could identify him as anyone they'd seen before - and as far as they knew only one of the orc raiders had survived the attack upon Morisar Nemertel after the heroes had helped save him from the attack of a giant banded lizard. This orc was definitely not the one they'd encountered earlier.

But then the caterpillar spun the front half of its body around, opened its mouthparts, and swallowed the orc up again before he had an opportunity to bring his weapon to bear against it. Just that quickly, it was just the five dreamwalkers and the giant caterpillar alone in the desert wasteland. And as for the caterpillar, having eaten its meal again, it continued crawling forward in the same direction it had been going, ignoring the five armed figures before it.

"What's going on?" Zander asked. Then he put a hand to his head as if experiencing a sudden headache.

"Are you okay?" asked Alewyth, watching Zander wince in confusion. Then she noticed Thurloe and Xandro doing the same. "Guys? What's up?"

"Nothing much," the bard answered. "Just felt like something tried contacting me mentally or something." He looked suspiciously over at the caterpillar but it was steadfastly ignoring the group. Then a gash erupted on its other side and once again the orc cut his way out to a moment's freedom before being swallowed back up again.

Xandro and Zander Quilson each winced again, putting a hand to their foreheads. "Something's affecting the three of them, but not us," Wakuren observed, looking at Alewyth. "I haven't felt anything. You?"

"Nothing," answered Alewyth. "Maybe the fact that we're clerics?" she guessed.

But Wakuren saw a possible answer to the questions of why there was no Jazaar in the dream, why the giant caterpillar was ignoring them completely and didn't seem to be affected by their attempts to weaken it with their dreamstones, and why Thurloe, Xandro, and Zander - the three best-looking males among the visitors to the three sisters' home - were somehow being affected by some outside factor. "We're in the wrong dream!" Wakuren deduced. "The sisters are doing something to the others while they're sleeping! Everyone, as fast as you can--wake up!"

"But the cooshee's guarding over us!" argued Zander, but it was too late - Wakuren had already woken himself up and had disappeared from the dreamscape. As the elf sorcerer looked, Alewyth vanished as well. Well, he might as well join them....

Wakuren woke up in the same position he'd been in when he fell asleep at the beginning of the ritual: sitting upright in the lotus position the moogles had taught them was most conducive to lucid dreaming, with his hands resting upon his knees. The crafty half-orc gave no indication he had woken up, peering cautiously from between mostly-closed eyes. He saw Alewyth sitting cross-legged across from her, Sjondra sitting by her side; she was following his lead and giving no outward indication that she was anything but fast asleep.

But the two clerics were the only dreamwalkers still sitting around Jazaar's sleeping pallet, for the three desert women had each lifted up their own personal target - Djamila carrying Zander, Maheen lifting Xandro, and Suhana cradling Thurloe - and were carrying them off to separate rooms as if the grown men weighed no more than small children. The elven dog, tail wagging furiously in delight, followed Djamila as she carried his master off to her bedroom, apparently as some sort of game; the woman hadn't harmed Zander so the cooshee followed to see if she wanted to play. None of the bedrooms had doors, merely hanging blankets cutting them off from the common area of the dwelling. Wakuren watched as Djamila carried Zander Quilson past a hanging blanket, the cooshee trailing happily. One doorway over, Suhana carried Thurloe over the threshold to her own sleeping room, while Maheen took a sleeping Xandro into Jazaar's room. Hunter, the serval, sat where he was and watched the proceedings with feline indifference.

And then Jazaar sprang up from his sleeping pallet and ran over to Wakuren, placing a powerful right hand over the half-orc's mouth and nose as he tried suffocating the cleric of Cal into unconsciousness, his left arm pinned around Wakuren's windpipe. Wakuren immediately gave up all pretenses of still being asleep and fought back as best he could. Fortunately, Alewyth was there in a heartbeat, Sjondra crashing into Jazaar's back in an effort to get him to release Wakuren.

Thurloe awoke from the dreamlands to find himself lying upon a low sleeping pallet large enough for two, with the scabbard holding his bastard sword already on the ground alongside his belt with its housing for his two wands, his torc of the titans off from around his neck, and to see Suhana looming over him, pulling off his magical ring of protection. Xandro awoke to a similar situation, with Maheen removing the items of value from his person and making a nice pile on a folded blanket that had earlier served as the serval's bed. And Zander Quilson had Djamila bending over him as he lay upon her double-sized sleeping pallet while she made an ever-growing pile comprised of his dagger, scout's headband, and magical ring, wand, amulet, and brooch. Worse yet, his trusty cooshee was watching her do this, tail wagging happily as he watched his master's valuables being stolen.

Alewyth felt a set of claws rip along the backs of her legs; having concentrated exclusively upon fighting off Jazaar she'd ignored the serval who was now springing into action against his master's attacker. Wakuren managed to extricate himself from Jazaar's clutches and belatedly used his paladin training to detect for evil in the general area; he wasn't the least bit surprised to find out there was indeed evil about. He grabbed up his shield from the floor at his side and crashed it into the side of the desert-dweller's head, spinning him about. But Jazaar took that as an opportunity to attack Alewyth, who was momentarily distracted by the serval's attacks. Jazaar didn't look to be armed, but it felt like a massive slab of heavy wood had just coming crashing down upon her head.

Hearing the fight going on in the common area, the sisters decided to press their attacks as well. Djamila grabbed at Zander Quilson but the elf rolled off the far side of the sleeping pallet; sadly, this bought him only a moment's respite before she had caught him up in her arms and pinned him tightly to her body. The elf tried to free himself to no avail, clearly overpowered by a slight human woman not even as tall as himself. But the cooshee, now aware that playtime had somehow ended and this woman, who had only bent over and kissed Zander while he sat in a circle in the other room with his friends before scooping him up and taking him to this other room, was now trying to hurt his master. Barking furiously for her to stop, the elven hound clawed at her with his front paws but failed to get her to release Zander from her crushing grasp. The elf saw black spots before his eyes and realized he was mere moments away from passing out; he couldn't get in any air as she crushed him between her powerful arms.

The next room over, Suhana slashed at Thurloe with her own claws and caught him up in a bear hug from which he was surprised to find he could not escape. But then the fighter-wizard was no longer there; having activated his anklet of translocation - an item she hadn't yet gotten around to removing - Thurloe teleported the ten feet to his pile of belongings and scooped up his bastard sword, pulling it from its sheath and aiming it at the slight woman in the desert robes before him. She clawed at him with her fingernails but couldn't get close enough to grapple him in a bear hug with the blade pointed at her.

And in Jazaar's room Maheen was likewise crushing Xandro to her as the bard did his best to struggle free from her grasp, to no avail. It was bad enough being bested in a combat of strength, but to fail against a slight woman much smaller than himself just added insult to injury.

"He's evil!" Wakuren called out to Alewyth, reporting the results of his ability to detect the evil of a person's aura - which wasn't anything other than what she had supposed in any case. Still, she backed away from combat long enough to cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself, which only opened her up to more attacks from the damned serval, whose claws didn't cut that deep but certainly left painful scratches on her legs. Wakuren channeled power from his god into his shield and sent it crashing into Jazaar with a smiting attack that briefly made it seem as if the half-orc were fighting a slightly larger creature than the dark-haired human male before him. Concentrating on his foe, Wakuren managed to see the hideous form hidden beneath the veil spell: a bald, warty-skinned humanoid with bandy legs that made the cleric wonder if this Jazaar didn't have some sort of troll's blood in his ancestry or something. Whatever he was, it wasn't the handsome desert human his illusory appearance indicated.

But then Jazaar called out a few words in some strange, guttural language none of the heroes spoke as he swung his arms at Wakuren and the half-orc felt the blow against his shield as if it had just been struck by a massive greatclub. But then Alewyth was after him again, swinging Sjondra at his back and sending him crashing into Wakuren's shield. Then Thurloe exited the bedroom he'd awakened in and joined the two clerics in the main room. He moved north towards the front doorway, keeping himself out of combat for a moment while he caught his breath and got his bearings. It sounded like Xandro was struggling behind the curtain leading to Jazaar's room, while the serval scratched at Alewyth while she attacked Jazaar, who was currently engaged in combat with Wakuren.

And then three more combatants entered the main room. One of these was Suhana, who had followed Thurloe out of her room but not until after she'd put on his torc of the titans for her own use. The other two figures came from behind a carpet-hung doorway leading to the back of the building, and these were animated skeletons, stooped in posture and with sloping foreheads making them likely the remains of a pair of orcs. They made for Alewyth and Wakuren, scratching with their claws, for they had no weapons or armor that they might have had when still alive. Alewyth stepped away from them and held her holy symbol of Aerik aloft, channeling positive energy through it which shattered the skeletons' bones into shards and dust.

Zander Quilson finally succumbed to blessed unconsciousness and was dropped unceremoniously to the floor, while Djamila spun in place and fought back against the elven dog that had refused to stop attacking the human woman trying to hurt his master. Wicked claws slashed at the side of the cooshee, drawing blood. Maheen likewise dropped Xandro Silverstrings into unconsciousness at her feet, where he fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Wakuren finally slew Jazaar with a side-swipe of his shield, whose edge caught the cleric's foe in the throat. At about the same time, Thurloe brought his bastard sword's blade crashing into Maheen as she stepped out of Jazaar's room, and the blade's anti-illusion abilities carved right through the woman's veil spell, revealing Maheen's true form: she was no slight desert woman but rather an 8-foot-tall crone with a stooped posture - a dune hag. She snarled in pain and irritation at her true form being revealed. But then Suhana rushed up and attacked Thurloe from the other side, using his magical torc to increase the power of her strikes and the damage they did. Seeing the jig was up, she released the illusion covering her, revealing herself to be no more a human woman than her other sisters were - this was a coven of three dune hags, and Jazaar wasn't their brother but the hagspawn son of Maheen.

The cooshee kept up its attacks against Djamila, even managing to trip her and knock her prone, but its valiant efforts were eventually fruitless, for the dune hag coven leader managed to get back up to her feet and rip out the poor elven dog's throat with her wicked claws. Fortunately, while this slew the cooshee outright, all it really did was force it back into its statuette form, from which it could be resummoned to life another day. But now, looking down and seeing Zander Quilson lying still bleeding on the floor, she stormed out of her bedroom to aid her sisters.

Thurloe, by this time, had taken quite a bit of damage from the two hags he'd been fighting and decided he no longer wanted to be in the middle of a dune hag sandwich, so he broke off from combat and rushed to the south end of the room to get a moment's respite (and hopefully find enough time to guzzle down a healing potion). Wakuren, well aware that Djamila had carried Zander into her room and worried that she had now reappeared without him, rushed into her bedroom while she moved over to harry Thurloe (who wasn't getting the breather he had hoped for, as he belatedly realized his belt with the potions on it were still back on the floor in Suhana's room). There the half-orc found Zander bleeding on the floor and administered a cure serious wounds spell on the wounded elf, sealing up the worst of his cuts. Zander stirred and sat up and that was good enough for Wakuren, who rushed back out into the main room, shield raised before him.

Alewyth had made a similar realization about Xandro and had entered Jazaar's room, taking an attack from Maheen to do so. She ignored her own wounds - she was, after all, still standing, unlike Xandro - and cast a cure serious wounds spell on the unconscious bard. Then she had no further time to focus upon him, for Maheen had followed her into the hagspawn's bedroom and was attacking her with teeth and claws. On the one hand it was always better to see what you were actually up against, Alewyth thought to herself, but she greatly preferred the illusions of the beautiful human women they had been greeted with upon first entering this coven-space. By the gods, these hags were ugly!

Alewyth was surprised to see the serval hadn't forgotten about her, either, as it followed her into the bedroom and slashed out at her with its claws. She took a long-overdue moment away from combat with Maheen to deal with this troublesome threat, and after a single bash from Sjondra crushed in the desert cat's skull she no longer had it to worry about.

Thurloe was holding his own against Djamila when Zander exited the room. He cast a scorching ray spell at the dune hag but missed, his gout of fire striking instead the hardened wall of sunbaked mud of the building's structure. But Wakuren was there, attacking Djamila from behind with his shield while her focus was upon Thurloe. While Maheen continued her attacks upon Alewyth, Suhana broke ranks to go chase down Zander, for she wanted no truck with an arcane spellcaster in their midst, flinging attack spells around willy-nilly.

And then Maheen felt an attack from an unexpected direction: Alewyth's spell of healing had revived Xandro and he had grabbed up his frost short sword and stabbed it up at her kidney from a near-prone position on the floor; she hadn't even been aware of the bard's return to consciousness.

Djamila was the first of the dune hags to fall, slain by a blow to the head from the edge of Wakuren's shield. Thurloe, bleeding from a dozen gashes by this time, had used his magical anklet to dimension door out of range of the coven leader's wicked claws and when she had spun about looking for her erstwhile prey the half-orc had let her have it. She fell lifelessly to the stone floor. Zander cast a haste spell on the group of heroes, figuring the extra speed it granted would hopefully give the heroes the edge they needed against these powerful hags, for it was taking their all to have gotten this far, dropping the hagspawn and one of the trio of dune hags. Most of the heroes were just about on their last legs themselves.

Maheen continued her attacks upon Alewyth while Suhana concentrated on Wakuren, the vile half-breed who had taken out their leader. But Maheen had more than the dwarven priestess to worry about and it was Xandro who finally slew her with his magic sword. At the same moment he saw her drop to the floor he spun to gather up the rest of the items she had taken from him while he'd been sleeping, attempting to awaken what they had thought was a brother to the three human sisters who lived here.

Alewyth rushed to Wakuren's side and added her hammer to his shield as they both pressed the attack against the sole remaining hag, Suhana. Zander cast a magic missile spell directly at the dune hag and was surprised to see it fizzle out when it reached her; she must have some sort of inherent spell resistance, he figured. Thurloe opted to stay out of this combat and limped back over to Suhana's bedroom where his pile of belongings had been stripped from him, eager to fetch one of his healing potions before anything else - although regaining his torc of the titans was a top priority once he felt he wasn't about to fall over at any moment.

The current wearer of the torc, Suhana, slashed at Wakuren with her claws, but the half-orc managed to deflect the attack with his shield. Then Xandro entered the battle against her, all of his gear back in place; he stabbed at the remaining dune hag with his frost short sword and she recognized the magic weapon as dangerous enough for her to give it special heed; unfortunately, that meant dropping her guard against Wakuren slightly and the cleric of Cal took full advantage of her distraction, cutting her down as he'd slain Djamila and the hagspawn Jazaar.

And with that, combat was concluded and the heroes all took a moment to catch their breath.

After Thurloe and Zander recovered the items that had been taken from them, the five gave the whole dwelling a good looking over. There was a bit of treasure in the bedrooms - including a magical gauntlet with the holy symbol of Cal carved on the back, no doubt taken from someone of Cal's faith who had had the misfortune of crossing paths with the dune hag coven earlier, and which Wakuren swore to put to good use in the further service of his deity - but the back third of the building was horrific. They got a preview of the hags' intentions for them, for hanging in the larder on a nasty metal hook was the upper half of a slain desert orc, missing one arm and everything below the waist; apparently he was their current source of meat and the heroes would have merely added to their future stores.

"Speaking of which, where's that orc from the dream?" asked Xandro. "He's got to be around here somewhere."

"Yeah, and how exactly did we end up in his dream instead of Jazaar's?" Zander asked. "How did they even know to fake him being asleep?"

"Hag stone," answered Thurloe, whose magical studies had included details about other creatures who used magic for their own purposes. "That ruby Djamila wore around her neck? It let the others see and hear whatever she did. So when we showed up, explaining why we were here..."

"And giving them a heads-up that we were going to all fall asleep right there in their house in front of them!" gasped Alewyth as the realization sunk in.

"Yeah," agreed Thurloe. "Too good a deal to pass up. But c'mon - we've searched the house, let's go see what's in those two domes outside."

The first dome was a hollow structure covering a sloping natural ramp leading down into darkness. There was the sound of running water coming from below, so Zander activated his scout's headband and gave himself darkvision. He could see two piles of vegetation on a ledge just before an underground stream, each with a pair of small boulders nearby, but not seeing anything worth taking he decided not to explore the area - best to leave it for the morning, when they'd all had a chance to heal up.

The other dome had no opening on its side, so Xandro stripped off his extraneous gear and went running at it, scrambling to the top where sure enough there was a hole in the center of the roof. Peering down inside, he saw the prone form of a desert orc raider. It was too dark for him to make out much in the way of details, but the bard was fairly certain he'd discovered the source of the dream of the giant caterpillar. But he too would wait until the next day; the group decided to spend the night in the hags' dwelling (after dragging their bodies far enough away from the building that the inevitable desert scavengers wouldn't bother the heroes overnight), bringing their animals inside and blocking the entrance with their overturned wagon. (Thurloe's anklet of translocation came in handy for getting back inside after moving it into position from the outside.)

The next morning, they used Wakuren's rope of climbing to climb down to fetch the orcish dreamer, pulling him up and out of the dome and carrying him into the hags' dwelling. Then, with the cooshee once again performing guard duty, they securely bound the orc and performed the ritual to enter his dream. They once again found themselves in a desert wasteland with a massive caterpillar, but this time their dreamstones worked as normal to weaken the giant beast and it fell quickly to their weapons and spells. The orc was surprised at the aid he'd been given in slaying the hungry larva, but the dream dissolved around him before he could express any gratitude.

All six woke up at about the same time, the orc struggling briefly to escape his bindings but giving up when it was apparent he wasn't going to get anywhere - and there were five armed people sitting in a ring around him. Wakuren pulled the orc to a sitting position and the bound captive spoke a few words in his own language.

"Sorry, I don't speak any of the Orcish tongue," Wakuren replied in Common; having been dropped off anonymously at the Temple of Cal as a baby by his human mother, he had never had the opportunity to learn his unknown father's language. "Do you speak Common?"

"Some," replied the orc.

"Well good," interjected Thurloe, squatting down before the bound orc. "So, we're not a big fan of orc raiders - ran into about a dozen of them a few days ago and slew them after they attacked us. But we don't have any particular beef against you" - and here he looked over to Wakuren, who nodded that he had detected the taint of evil in the orc's aura - "so we're going to give you a chance at walking out of here alive." The orc looked straight at Thurloe, obviously eager to hear more.

"We're gonna untie you," Thurloe continued, indicating it was okay for Alewyth to start to do so. "We're not gonna give you any weapons - no point in taking any chances, I'm sure you'll understand - but we will give you a waterskin and let you fill it up so you'll have a chance of making it back to your people alive." Alewyth removed the last of his bindings and everyone backed off as he stood up, rubbing his wrists. Xandro tossed him an empty waterskin, one of the things they'd found in the hags' dwelling the day before. Then, surrounded by five wary foes with weapons drawn and ready for immediate use, the orc was allowed to walk outside to the first of the two domes.

"Off you go, then," Thurloe prompted, emphasizing it with the point of his bastard sword. The orc started warily down the sloping stone ramp. Alewyth and Wakuren watched his progress with their darkvision. As the orc approached the underground stream, the two piles of rotting vegetation rose up and took vaguely humanoid forms, as the four small "boulders" rose up into the air, tails unfurling behind them. Then the shambling mounds attacked the unarmed orc while the hovering volts stabbed out with the tips of their electrical tails. The orc didn't last long against the half-dozen enemies.

"Well, that explains that," Thurloe observed. "Lair guardians for the hags' source of water."

"Do we want to go take them out?" asked Alewyth, Sjondra gripped in hand.

"See any treasure down there?" Thurloe asked.

"Nope," replied Alewyth and Wakuren in unison.

"Then nope," replied Thurloe, turning away from the sloping entrance to the underground stream. "Let's get out of here and back to some sort of civilization."

"It'll be another two days of riding through the desert to get to the next town," Wakuren reminded the group at large.

"Ugh!" grumbled Thurloe. "That's gonna suck!"

- - -

I threw the Large monstrous scorpion encounter into the mix at the last moment, figuring the players would appreciate a "warm-up" combat to help them get readjusted to running these PCs, as we've been temporarily on hold for two months. And that turned out to be just about right; we finished this game session after about three and a half hours - not too much sitting at one stretch for our player recovering from surgery.

The gauntlet of Cal is an item I created specifically for Wakuren, who had no "traditional" weapons (on purpose): it allows the wielder (who must be a follower of Cal) to call forth three javelins of lightning per day, which is fairly thematically appropriate given Cal's primary domains include Air as well as Healing.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "Moore-Hanes Family Reunion" T-shirt, since the three desert hags and the hagspawn son of one of them formed a family out there in the Centralia Desert. (A thoroughly evil family, but still.)



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 14 May 2022

- - -

It took another two days getting back out of the Centralia Desert, heading in a northeasterly direction to get them back on the road to civilization and to the city - Devlinshire - where the moogles had said there was not one but two separate dreamers trapped in their dreams. Horse got a bit of a break during those two days, for his reins were tied to the rear of the wagon and he ambled along without Thurloe's weight on his back, as the swordsman had decided to wrangle with some of the spellbooks he'd appropriated during his adventuring career and see if he could make sense of a few of the spells annotated within. He made enough progress during those two days that when the group finally left the desert and made it back to actual roads, with another two days of travel ahead of them to get to the city, he opted to continue with his studies in the back of the wagon and by the time Devlinshire appeared in the distance he'd mastered four new spells.

Devlinshire proved to be a fairly large city, comparable in size to Baron's Haven and also ruled by a noble of the same bloodline - not unexpectedly, for the Devlin family was the single-most powerful family in all of Armaturia, with King Eovard Devlin the current ruler of the whole continent. Fortunately, Devlinshire did not have any prohibitions against spellcasting as did Baron's Haven and they had several potion shops where Thurloe picked up a few items: a potion of neutralize poison and two vials of antitoxin. They wandered around and found Smiths Avenue, where Alewyth paid to have the magical protection on her chain mail upgraded and Xandro sold his own chain mail, using the money received to help fund the purchase a set of magical chain mail quite similar to Alewyth's.

"I thought you were saving up for those magical boots," Xandro pointed out to the dwarven priestess.

"I am."

"Didn't you even put a down-payment on them with those gnomes?"

"I did."

"You're not going to be able to buy those boots if you spend your money on armor upgrades," pointed out the bard.

"I'm aware."

"I don't see how you're even going to get in contact with those gnomes once you do gather up the rest of the money," Thurloe added. "You ask me, that down-payment you gave them was money you'll never see again."

"I didn't ask you," pointed out Alewyth, but the swordsman's point was something that had been gnawing at her nonetheless, despite the gnomes' insistence that they'd find her when she was ready to make the purchase. Either they were lying and she'd never see that money again or they were telling the truth and were somehow spying on her - neither possibility was particularly pleasant to consider.

While they'd been making their purchases, the heroes had also been chatting with the shopkeepers and armorers, asking if there were any rumors in the city about anyone being unable to be awakened from a long sleep. Several of the townsfolk had steered them toward the Temple of Telgrane, where there was a paladin, Drakkar Pyropus, who was said to have been sleeping now for weeks on end. And worse yet, none of the clerics' spells had been able to do anything to awaken the young man - local rumor was it was some type of a curse, but remove curse spells had been as ineffective as anything else the spellcasters had tried. "Reckon a wish spell might do it, but I never heard of nobody capable of casting so powerful a spell - not exceptin' in legends of the old days, in any case," added a grizzled hammersmith.

Since all of the rumors they were able to pick up led to the Temple of Telgrane - nobody had any ideas about a second sleeper in the city unable to be awakened - the heroes got directions and headed there at once. The temple was rather distinctive in that just outside its gate, in place of a fountain, a column of permanent flame rose up a dozen or more feet - an appropriate gesture to a temple devoted to the God of Fire and Knowledge.

The clerics were curious as to what these travelers thought they could do where their most powerful spellcasters had failed, but Alewyth assured them they'd had many successes in the previous months at waking those trapped in their dreams. After giving Wakuren more than a few suspicious stares (half-orcs were not often seen wearing the armor of Cal, the God of Air and Healing), followed by assurances that he was not at all like the desert orc raiders that plagued the lands to the south, the group was allowed entry into the temple and ushered to a back room, where Drakkar lay sleeping on a simple cot. They passed several clerics and paladins in the halls, quite a few of them sporting horrendous-looking burn scars on their exposed skin. "Do not be alarmed," their cleric guide assured them. "The paladins of our faith learn to set their bodies ablaze with Telgrane's holy fire. The burns they receive during such occurrences are considered holy and remain in place when the damage is otherwise healed. Here in the sanctity of our own temple the paladins do not cover their scars, but when outside dealing with others they often wear masks and gloves, the better to shield their burns from the eyes of those outside our faith, who often view such scars as...troubling."

"Yeah, no kidding," agreed Telgane.

The cleric led the group into the room where Drakkar lay sleeping on a cot. Despite having earned the rank of a paladin, Drakkar wore a simple sleep shift and was covered with a single blanket. His skin was unblemished, apparently not having reached the level of training where he could self-immolate. "This room is normally reserved for those resting after an illness or injury," the temple's head cleric informed the group, having joined the visitors after news of their presence had been brought to his attention. "We placed him here, where we can keep an eye on him, after our attempts to wake him bore no fruit. What, exactly, do you propose to do?"

Alewyth explained their procedures and the clerics agreed to move Drakkar to a larger room reserved for meditation, where the dreamwalkers would have enough room to sit around him in a circle. The dwarven priestess placed the dreamstone-headband upon the young paladin's brow, then took her position in the circle around him. The five dreamwalkers sat at the five points of a star, each sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, and each wearing a dreamstone upon his or her own forehead, held in place by a leather headband crafted by Thurloe's Uncle Marten. A few clerics - and Zander's jade cooshee, once activated - stood at the back of the room to observe and ensure there were no interruptions. Then the heroes slowed their breathing, stilled their minds, and drifted off to sleep.

Mogo was there to guide them to the appropriate door in the seemingly-endless Hall of Dreams. "Good luck, kupo!" he told them as they stepped inside Drakkar's dreamscape.

At first, the dream looked very much like the last dream they'd entered, that of the orc raider captured by the trio of dune hags down in the desert: an endless wasteland of parched earth, with a few scattered plants scratching out a determined existence. The heroes looked all about them but they were the only five figures at all in the dreamscape.

Then they heard the cries above them. Looking up, they saw two reptilian bodies engaged in combat. One was a bat-winged serpent, the other a bronze dragon. The serpent shrieked in anger and brought its sinuous tail up and across the dragon's back, dislodging a rider the heroes hadn't noticed until he was hurtling to the ground. However, just as he was about to make a splat-stain on the hard-packed desert earth he suddenly stopped a few inches above the ground, hovered for a moment, and then went flying back up to the back of the dragon he'd just been riding. The serpent reversed its combat shriek as the two aerial foes unflapped their wings and backed up from each other - the entire dream reversing until the combatants were in their original positions when the heroes first entered the dreamscape. Then time started moving forward again, with the dragon and the serpent flying toward each other, the flying snake's tail swatting the rider, who toppled from his draconic perch and plummeted nearly to the ground again, before the dream started rewinding once more.

"What's going on?" demanded Alewyth. "This makes no sense!"

"That's gotta be Drakkar," reasoned Zander. "He's got the holy symbol of Telgrane painted on his shield." The dragon-rider was in full armor, however, with a helmet that covered his entire face so they were unable to confirm it was the same individual they'd left sleeping in a cot in the meditation room in the Temple of Telgrane.

"Let's see if we can weaken the beast," Xandro suggested, raising the dreamstone he held in his hand both back on the Mortal World and here in the Dreamlands. Concentrating on the bat-winged serpent, he imagined its strength siphoning off and dissipating into the winds. Beside him, Alewyth, Wakuren and Zander did likewise, while Thurloe took a different approach and tried doing nearly the opposite, using his lucid dreaming training to try to increase the paladin's physical dexterity, hopefully to the point he could dodge the incoming serpentine tail on its next pass.

"This isn't working!" complained Thurloe as the paladin was once again swatted from the back of the bronze dragon and sent plummeting to his death - a finish he was spared at the last second when time stopped once again and rewound for him. None of the dreamwalkers was affected by the sudden reversal of the dream's time-stream; they were immune to the effect as the two aerial figures backed up in the sky once again and resumed their starting positions.

"I'm going to try something," Wakuren announced. He well knew his own shield of Cal had a feather fall effect that worked for whoever held it; this being a dream, where anything could happen, he used his lucid dreaming training to cause the shield to fly out of his hands and go streaking up to the paladin, while at the same time the paladin's shield came dropping down to the half-orc. "Let's see if swapping shields has any effect," he told the others. By this time the serpent's tail had struck the armored figure once again and he fell from his draconic mount - and sure enough, the paladin's fall was slowed by the feather fall effect, such that it was taking him much longer to fall all the way down to the ground.

Alewyth cast a calm emotions spell up at the three figures, hoping to get them to cease their aerial combat. It had as much effect as their dreamstones, which is to say none at all.

"I'm going to try something, too," replied Thurloe, rising up into the air. This was just a dream, he figured - no reason he couldn't fly through the air as gracefully as any dragon or winged serpent. He pulled the bastard sword from its sheath on his back as he approached the bat-winged snake. Xandro and Zander followed suit, although they opted not to fly up to the giant serpent but rather over to where the paladin was engaged in his slow-motion plummet to the ground. And although the paladin's face was mostly covered by his helmet, as Zander approached he was able to better judge the figure's overall size and build, as well as the shape of his eyes through the visor. "This is an elf!" he called to the others.

Thurloe backed away from the bat-snake as it bit into the dragon's neck, at the same time the dragon's front claws ripped furrows across the serpent's scales - each having gained extra "combat time" by the slowed effect of the elven paladin's fall. Rather than attack the dragon's foe, Thurloe held out his dreamstone again like a holy symbol and concentrated on it, focusing on identifying the dreamer of this strange back-and-forth dream. Surprisingly, his focus directed him not to the paladin slow-falling below him but to the dragon he'd been riding before being knocked from his perch.

"That's not Drakkar!" Thurloe called to the others. "Drakkar's dreaming he's the dragon!"

Alewyth kept her feet firmly planted on the ground, not wanting to fly through the air even in just a dream, and cast a spiritual weapon spell that sent a hammer-shaped field of force flying straight up to smash the winged serpent in the head. Its reaction was immediate: with eyes glowing a hellish red, a pair of beams exploded out of his eyes and struck Alewyth, dissipating her dream-body to motes of light that were quickly extinguished. Just like that, Alewyth had been slain (and woke with a gasp back in the Temple of Telgrane).

"Are you all right?" asked one of the Telgranian clerics overseeing the silent ritual.

"We're...experiencing a bit more difficulty than expected," admitted Alewyth. This was further evidenced when Thurloe gasped aloud and came to a sudden wakefulness by her side, the angry serpent's eyebeams having exploded his dream-self to nonexistence as well. The other three woke themselves voluntarily, realizing they weren't going to be able to defeat the winged serpent on their own.

The cleric looked down at the sleeping figure of Drakkar Pyropus, who hadn't stirred at all during the ritual. "He seems unaffected," he observed.

"Yes, I'm afraid we were unsuccessful," admitted Alewyth with a sigh. "This has happened twice before. We'll suggest to you what we suggested to those looking after the other two: leave the dreamstone secured at Drakkar's forehead" - the dwarf removed the leather headband they used on the dream victims and replaced it with a cloth scarf she tied in place around his head. "It will bond with him over time. We'll return later to try again, after the dreamstone has had to attune itself to him a bit. Perhaps then we'll be able to awaken him." The head cleric was of two minds of the heroes' failure to wake their young paladin: on the one hand, disappointment that their charge still remained trapped in his dream; on the other (admittedly selfish) hand, a slight relief that these strangers hadn't succeeded where they themselves had failed, which would have cast a pall upon the church's abilities to look after their own.

"There's supposed to be another dream victim somewhere in the city," remarked Xandro as the group gathered up their things and said their farewells (and made their apologies) to the temple clerics. "You wouldn't know anything about who that might be, or where they could be found, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," replied the head cleric. "One of our retired paladins, Sir Marcus Brightflame, has a grand-niece, Amelia Candlecraft, who fell asleep a week or so ago and, just like Drakkar, could not be awakened. We have tried the same approaches on her as we did on Drakkar, with no success. Perhaps you will be more successful there than you have been here." He gave them directions on how to find the Brightflame estate and the group departed the temple.

The estate was easy enough to find; Alewyth knocked upon the front door of the single-story building and waited for an answer. It took some time in coming, but eventually they could hear shuffling footsteps and the tap of a cane approaching the front door from the other side. Then the door opened and Sir Marcus Brightflame stood before them.

The man was of average height, with a slightly stooped posture as he leaned upon a metal cane. Both hands were covered in black gloves that extended up into the sleeves of his shirt, and his face was entirely covered by a wooden mask with mere slits for eyes. "May I help you?" he asked, then took an involuntary step back at the sight of Wakuren, raising the cane behind him as if ready to strike the half-orc if needed.

Wakuren had half-expected such a reaction; not many were used to the idea of a non-aggressive person with the blood of an orc running through his veins. He held his hands up to demonstrate he was not armed and gave the old man his best smile. "Good afternoon. My name is Wakuren and I am not a threat," he said by way of introduction. "I am a cleric/paladin of Cal."

"Would you be terribly offended if I detected you for evil?" asked Sir Marcus.

"By all means," agreed Wakuren, keeping his hands raised where the elderly paladin could keep them in his sight.

"Well, I'll be," remarked Sir Marcus after staring at the half-orc before him for a moment or two. "Forgive me, but old habits die hard and old prejudices are even harder to dispel. Now then, how may I help you?"

"Actually," replied Alewyth, "we've come to see if we could assist you. I understand you have a grand-niece who's fallen asleep and has resisted all attempts to awaken?"

At that, Sir Marcus's shoulders drooped as he sighed in sadness. "I'm afraid you're too late," he informed them. "Amelia died three days ago. But please, come in - we need not stand here in the doorway." He stepped aside as the five dreamwalkers entered his foyer, a wide room with the ornamental displays of two sets of plate mail, the holy symbol of Telgrane emblazoned on each chest-piece and shield. Then, closing the front door, he shuffled off to a hallway to the east, leading them into a comfortable sitting room.

"I'm sorry to hear of the loss of your grand-niece," commiserated Alewyth. "May I ask how she died?"

"She was here visiting," Sir Marcus replied. "Not quite a week ago I was unable to wake her up, but she was quite alive. I brought in clerics from the temple and they did their best to revive her, but nothing they tried had any effect. I checked on her periodically and she was fine...and then, three days ago, I went to check on her in the morning and she was cold, no pulse. She must have died at some point during the night, poor girl."

The dreamwalkers looked worried at each other. "This is a new wrinkle," Xandro observed. "We've never seen one die before."

"Is this part of the Nightmare King's plan, do you think?" asked Zander.

"I'm sorry - what?" asked an obviously perplexed Sir Marcus. Alewyth informed him of the dream plague that was seemingly sweeping the continent, and of their successes - and failures - in waking those caught up in a dream coma. "We met up with the Nightmare King in the Dreamlands," the dwarven priestess declared. "We're still not sure why he's trapping people in their dreams, but so far everyone stuck in their dreams has been in a kind of magical stasis - no need for food or water, no wasting away due to starvation - so we assume the Nightmare King has a reason for keeping them alive."

"Could be this is the next step of the plan," observed Thurloe. "Maybe he's been stocking them up like firewood and now he's starting to use them."

"To what purpose, though?" asked Alewyth.

"Guys," interrupted Zander. "We're all missing something here: the moogles said there were still two dreamers here in Devlinshire. But if Amelia's been dead for three days..."

Alewyth looked over at Sir Marcus. "Forgive the question, sir, but...are you absolutely sure your grand-niece is dead?"

"Quite sure."

"Can we see the body?" demanded Thurloe, gruff as always.

"If you wish," replied Sir Marcus, pointing to the mantle. "She's right there, in the urn."

The heroes looked up at the urn on the top of the mantlepiece. "Well, that's rather conclusive," agreed Xandro.

"I performed the cremation myself, in accordance with our traditions," replied the paladin of Telgrane, God of Fire.

"Maybe there's somebody else stuck in their dreams," suggested Wakuren. "Somebody new, I mean. The moogles can't always tell specifically who's having the dream, just where they're located on the Mortal World...if someone else started their dream coma around the same time as Amelia died...."

"We should check out the dream," Alewyth decided. She turned to Sir Marcus. "Would it be too much of a bother if we took a quick nap here in your sitting room?" she asked. "I know it sounds like an odd request, but we'd like to talk with our...advisers in the dreamlands." She decided it was best not to describe the moogles to the elderly paladin; their story was already difficult for most people to believe.

"By all means," replied Sir Marcus, leaning on his cane to rise to his feet. "I'll go start a pot of tea, so it'll be ready for when you awaken."

"Don't you have someone to help you with that?" Alewyth asked.

"Pshaw!" scoffed Sir Marcus. "I used to have servants here, but I released them from service when I retired. I don't need anyone doing everything for me, now that I'm home here all day. You go have your chat, and afterwards I have a proposal I'd like to make to you." And with that, the elderly paladin ambled off down the hall to the kitchen.

One by one, the five dreamwalkers stilled themselves to sleep and were met by their individual moogle guides. They all converged in the Hall of Dreams once again, where they were met by Mogo. "Are you ready to see the second dream already, kupo?" he asked, opening the door to the dream in question. It was a forest dream this time, Zander noted with approval - he was getting tired of dreams taking place in barren wastelands.

Stepping into the dream-forest, the group found a frightened young woman hurrying along a path, her way lit only by the light of the moon above. There were crashes behind her as something made its way noisily through the trees and bushes. Xandro instinctively went over to the woman to assure her that they'd help but she gave no indication she was even aware of his presence; belatedly, he realized his ability to interact with the woman's dream-self was limited in that they weren't by her side on the Mortal World, nor was she wearing a dreamstone upon her brow.

The woman continued down the forest path, nervously glancing behind her. The dreamwalkers waited around long enough for whatever it was that was pursuing her to make an appearance, and despite the fact it had sounded like some monstrous beast crashing through the trees, when it finally stepped out between the trees and onto the forest path in her wake it was nothing more than a black-clad man, a serrated dagger in his hand. He, like her, gave no indication he could see any of the intruders into this dreamscape but silently pursued his target.

"This is definitely weird," observed Wakuren. "Is it possible for a dream to continue when the dreamer's been slain?"

"Let's ask Mogo," suggested Alewyth, opening the door from the dream and stepping back outside into the endless corridor, where their primary moogle dream instructor waited for them.

"That was quick, kupo!" the moogle observed, his tiny wings flapping to keep him at head level to the much taller dreamwalkers.

Alewyth asked him if it was possible for a dream to continue without a living dreamer. "It's hard to say, kupo!" he replied. "We only get to see the dreams themselves, not the dreamers, kupo!"

"But this particular dream - it still has a dreamer attached to it? And that dreamer is still in Devlinshire?" pressed Xandro.

"Let's go find out, kupo!" Mogo led them through the endless hallways and into a room with a map of the continent of Armaturia displayed on a table. Concentrating on the dream he'd just witnessed, the moogle caused a pinpoint of light to glow on the map. Then, causing the map to focus in on that area, the glow sat in the center of the city of Devlinshire, roughly in the part of the city where the Brightflame estate stood. "This is definitely weird," Wakuren sighed.

They woke back up in Sir Marcus's sitting room as the elderly paladin was making his way back into the room with a teapot and five cups balanced on a tray in one hand, his other hand gripping the cane he leaned upon. Alewyth sprang up from her comfortable chair and took the tray from him, setting it down upon a low table. She started pouring the tea into the cups and passing them around, while asking, "Can you describe Amelia for us?"

The paladin gave a description of his grand-niece that perfectly matched the woman in the dream. "It seems that's definitely her dream, then," Wakuren mused aloud. "Again, I'm not sure how that can be."

"You said you had some sort of proposal for us?" Alewyth asked, wanting to move the conversation on from Amelia, for fear of causing the elderly paladin further pain. She belatedly realized he had only brought five cups, then realized he likely hadn't planned on drinking with them, for he'd have to remove his mask to do so - it had no opening at the mouth to allow him to drink.

"Indeed I do. I would like you to slay the ghost who is haunting this house."

That prompted quite a few follow-up questions. Sir Marcus explained the ghost had first appeared three nights ago - "So the night Amelia died?" Thurloe asked, and was answered in the affirmative - suddenly appearing in his kitchen and attacking him. "He wore Telgranian armor," Sir Marcus admitted, "of the type worn by the paladins of my order. I can only assume it was the ghost of Dardolio, an infamous paladin of Telgrane who fell from grace, allowing a love of earthly pleasures - good food, women, and money, not necessarily in that order - corrupt him. He became a blackguard and was slain by a force of paladins sent out to stop him. I was not part of that group and have never even met the man while he was alive; I can only assume he has a vendetta against Telgranian paladins and decided to start with me, thinking me well past my prime."

"And you fought him off?" prompted Zander.

"I did, yes. Paladins of my order cannot turn undead, so I was forced to fight him off with my cane, using it like a mace. I was fortunate enough to drive him away that first night, and I had a cleric of Telgrane with me the following night in case he showed up again. He did, and the cleric turned him, but that didn't stop the ghost from returning again the next evening, when I was forced to fight him off again. I'm guessing his having been a member of the Telgranian order - and his apparent hatred of us - has somehow prevented him from being put to rest by a member of my order. With any luck, you two, being clerics of Cal and Aerik, will be able to deal with Dardolio on a more permanent basis. I have a thousand pieces of gold if you are able to destroy the ghost permanently; killing me is no great loss, for I have lived a full life and am well past my prime, but I fear if he slays me he'll then move on to others of my order. Will you help me?"

The heroes looked at each other and nodded, and Alewyth gave him their unified assent. "Very good," said Sir Marcus, gathering up their cups and collecting them onto the tray. "The ghost appears when the sun comes down, so you have several hours to prepare if you need to gather any supplies or anything. Otherwise, you are welcome to make use of the servants' quarters on the far side of the entry hall if you'd like to stay."

Wakuren had a practical question to ask: "Does the ghost appear in the same place each time?"

"No, just wherever I happen to be. The first night it was in the kitchen, the next night in the hallway, and last evening it was in my study. He manifests and immediately tries to kill me." Then Sir Marcus got up and started making his way back to the kitchen to wash the cups and teapot, shooing away Alewyth when she offered to help.

It was a lengthy wait until sundown, but none of the heroes needed anything in the way of additional supplies; Alewyth and Wakuren would both try to turn the ghost using their respective holy symbols, while the others used their weapons or spells if it came to that; after all, Sir Marcus had managed to fight off the ghost twice now with his metal cane so they were fairly certain the five of them could handle the undead spirit. But just as the sun was about to go down, they had Sir Marcus gather in the sitting room with them so the ghost would show up right before the assembled group, at which point they'd all pounce. Alewyth prepared for the upcoming battle by casting a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and a bless spell on the group. Wakuren cast a protection from evil spell upon himself and a virtue spell upon Zander Quilson, to give him that extra bit of staying power in the fight to come. Thurloe cast a mage armor spell upon himself, then used his wand to follow it up with a shield spell. He then passed the wand over to Zander so the elf could do likewise, and Zander cast a haste spell on the group after he had done so. Finally, Xandro cast a heroism spell upon Zander, then got out his lute and started playing his song of inspirational courage; when the ghost appeared they'd all be ready for it.

And then they waited.

Surprisingly, the ghost did not immediately appear, even though a quick peek through the sitting room window indicated the sun had fully set and the world outside was cloaked in full darkness. The interior of the Brightflame estate was lit by everburning torches, but after a few minutes of waiting a different type of illumination came into the sitting room through its sole entrance, an open doorway leading into the hall. The light got brighter as a humanoid figure, bathed in illumination like bright moonlight, stepped through the doorway. It was a man clad in the armor of a Telgranian paladin, with the God of Fire's holy symbol emblazoned upon his armor and shield. He held a longsword in his right hand but made no move to use it; in fact, his gaze seemed to slide off the assembled heroes as he did a quick scan around the room and then turned to go back the way he had come.

"He didn't attack," observed Wakuren, frowning.

"Neither did any of you!" replied Sir Marcus, clearly agitated. "You're to put the evil wretch down!"

"Perhaps he sensed our protective spells," suggested Alewyth.

"Let's see what he's up to," said Thurloe, following the ghostly figure into the hallway leading to the back of the estate. "He may be circling around so he can attack us through the wall or something." But the ghost did no such thing; rather, he walked to the next room, the formal dining room, and skirted the table as if it were an impediment to his incorporeal body. Then, upon reaching the door to the kitchen, he actually opened the door instead of simply passing through it. There was an open doorway exiting the kitchen back into the main hallway and after a moment the ghost stepped through it, turning to open the door to the privy and then closing it again.

"He's looking for something," Alewyth observed, having stepped forward as far as the dining room with Xandro, Zander, and Wakuren, with Sir Marcus starting to hobble their way to catch up to them. Thurloe was still back by the sitting room, muttering to himself. "It's almost as if he's Sir Marcus, looking for his missing grand-niece," he grumbled, then starting turning the idea around in his head. If that were indeed the case, then who was the guy who answered the door and why would he be trying to pass himself off as the retired paladin? But Sir Marcus, wearing a mask that hid his face and gloves that hid his hands, would be a particularly easy target to impersonate without arousing suspicion...and it would explain why Amelia was still around to be dreaming her dream of being chased by an assassin in the forest.... Thurloe caught up to Sir Marcus and tapped him with the flat of his blade, encouraging him to speed up - but really testing to see if he was under some sort of an illusion, for his bastard sword had the ability to carve through illusions with but a touch. Nothing changed about Sir Marcus's appearance; if this wasn't in fact the elderly paladin the impostor was using a mundane disguise.

Zander's keen elven hearing had picked up Thurloe's muttered speculation and he quickly passed the idea on to Wakuren before "Sir Marcus" - if that were indeed really him - got close enough to them to overhear. Wakuren immediately ducked into the dining room and activated his ring of invisibility, fading immediately from view. Zander, for his part, activated his scout's headband, granting himself true seeing which allowed him to see the now-invisible half-orc just fine. Wakuren pantomimed he was going to pull the mask off of "Sir Marcus" as he passed and Zander gave him a subtle nod to show he understood the plan.

Thurloe, however, had no idea what those two were scheming and came up with a way to determine the elderly paladin's true nature on his own: by attacking him from behind when he wasn't expecting it, just to see his reaction. He cast a ray of exhaustion spell that struck the masked man in the back, sapping him of a portion of his physical strength. "Sir Marcus" didn't know who had just attacked him, merely that he'd been hit from behind. He spun about and saw only Thurloe standing there. Zander, not wanting their suspicions to be out in the open just yet, tried covering for Thurloe's impetuous attack by calling out, "He's been possessed by the ghost!" and running back towards Thurloe, casting a color spray spell at his friend that he knew would be largely ineffective - but which he hoped would put "Sir Marcus" back at ease. In passing, his true seeing had also confirmed to the elven sorcerer the elderly paladin hadn't been employing any illusion magic.

But since the figure holding the metal cane now had his back turned to the invisible half-orc...Wakuren popped suddenly back into view, the man's mask in his hands. The face beneath the mask was not the least bit scarred from having been burned by holy immolation, nor was it the face of a man in his 60s or older. This was an impostor, a 30-something man named Conviolos with greasy, black hair and a sneer already forming on his face. "So that's how it is, huh?" he snarled. Then at the top of his lungs, he yelled, "ALL FORCES: ATTACK!" This he followed up with a searing light spell cast directly at Wakuren, revealing himself not as a paladin or even blackguard but a cleric, although the half-orc had no idea which god the impostor served. (Later, the heroes would find an unholy symbol of Gareth, God of Betrayal, hidden beneath Conviolos's shirt.)

Thurloe, basking in the glow of an "I was right!" feeling of superiority, heard the clank of metal to his left and looked over to the entry hall, where sure enough the two suits of Telgranian plate mail armor were coming to halting life, lifting their shields before them and raising their longswords. They stepped from their places in the corner of the entryway and marched over to the side hallway, ready to attack. Zander stepped away, allowing Thurloe to cast a magic missile spell at the closest of the two suits of armor; he wasn't at all surprised he hit it, but he was rather surprised to see that one hit was all it took to take the armor completely out, for it collapsed into a pile of clattering metal at his feet. Thurloe couldn't help but notice the bones visible between the pieces of armor and realized these "animated suits of armor" were actually animated skeletons wearing suits of armor. That made him doubt himself for a moment, wondering if one of the skeletons might have been Amelia after all.

"Fall back!" Wakuren called to Thurloe as the cleric of Cal stepped past Zander, and for once the swordsman obeyed without question, ducking back into the entrance of the sitting room, leaving an open path between Wakuren and the second armor-clad skeleton when it stepped into the hallway to pursue Thurloe. Wakuren activated his gauntlet of Cal and caused a javelin of lightning to manifest into his raised right hand; the bolt was enough to take out the armored skeleton in one blow.

But now Alewyth was back around the corner after having followed the ghost as he fruitlessly searched first the guest bedroom and then the study; she brought Sjondra crashing into Conviolos's back. He spun about to face this new attacker, only to have Xandro plunge his frost short sword straight through the deceiver's belly. Conviolos spat out blood from his mouth as the bard's blade stuck out from his back; when Xandro pulled it free the cleric of Gareth fell to the floor, quite dead.

"This way, guys!" Alewyth called to the others, leading them to a closed door at the end of the hallway, a door the ghost had approached and then left without opening. Xandro tried the door and found it to be locked; the ghost - now believed to be the spirit of the real Sir Marcus - opened the door to the courtyard at the center of the building and explored the stables, then went through to the other side and started searching the now-vacant servants' quarters. In the meantime, Zander had removed the holy symbol from the door that had apparently kept the ghost from entering the bedroom and Xandro put his lockpicks to good use and painstakingly worked on opening the lock. Alewyth had returned to the guest bedroom - thinking it would have been where Amelia would have stayed - and found signs of recent disturbance: a gash-mark along the wall above the bed, looking to be where a sword slashed along the wall, as well as a drop or two of dried blood on the floor just beneath the bed, in a place easily missed by someone cleaning up the evidence of the place where Sir Marcus Brightflame had likely been slain.

Xandro finished his work and the door opened. Zander rushed inside, looking about and seeing a canopy bed along the far wall. He couldn't see the bed's contents for the hanging draperies were closed, but he did see a bearskin rug on the floor before the bed and a lengthy dresser and mirror along the side wall. He cast a quick detect magic spell and noted four points of abjuration magic, one each at the top of each of the four posters of the canopy bed and an aura of transmutation around the rug - which then dispelled all doubt as to its magical nature as it animated and attacked the elven sorcerer.

Zander had had his hand upon the cloth barrier hanging from the bed when the bearskin rug attacked, slashing at him with the claws of one flattened paw. The attack jostled the elf to the side and he pulled the curtain away from the bed, revealing the unclothed form of Amelia Candlecraft lying asleep and whole on the bed. But he had no time for the implications of her location in the bed of her slain great-uncle to sink in as he found himself in mortal combat with the animated pelt of a grizzly bear.

Zander Quilson was not the group's most adept member when it came to melee combat and everyone was well aware of that fact. Xandro raced into the room to try to draw the bear's attention away from the frail elven sorcerer, while Wakuren summoned an air element wolf into the room to attack the rug. The rug focused its attention on the bard, scratching at him with its fully-functional claws and wrapping its pliant form around Xandro's face, trying to smother him. Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending a dwarven warhammer made of pure force slamming into the part of the rug not currently wrapped around Xandro. Wakuren followed up his first summoning spell with another, this time bringing forth a celestial fire beetle. But it was Thurloe who finished off the animated bearskin rug, slicing it nearly in half with a swipe of his bastard sword. Xandro pulled the now-limp half off of his face and gasped in deep breaths.

"Look away!" commanded Alewyth, seeing Amelia's nakedness and quickly covering her with a blanket. "Make yourselves useful and find me her clothes!" A set of women's clothes were found in the bottom drawer of the dresser, apparently where Conviolos had stashed them once he had realized the full implications of a beautiful young woman helpless in a dream coma. In fact, it was the rumor of such an occurrence that had led him to the Brightflame estate in the first place, where a little snooping about revealed the only people inside had been Sir Marcus, Amelia, and the traveling maid who had accompanied Miss Candlecraft on her journey to visit her elder relative. Waiting until Sir Marcus had departed the house and leaving Amelia in the temporary care of her maid, Conviolos had approached the house in the guise of a healer sent by the temple of Telgrane to try a new method of awakening Amelia from her slumber. Conviolos sent the maid off with a bag of coins to the marketplace to purchase some rare herbs - herbs rare enough he was certain she'd be gone for more than enough time to allow the cleric of Gareth to implement his evil plans. Of course, he hadn't counted on Sir Marcus's early return home, to find the greasy-haired pervert bent over the unyielding figure of his grand-niece, his breeches down around his ankles. They had fought, but the younger man was a much better combatant than the elderly paladin, whose days of combat prowess were sadly years behind him, and the end result was never much in doubt. Conviolos easily overpowered Sir Marcus and slew him, then realized he had quite an opportunity here: by wearing the paladin's mask and taking on his identity, he need only deal with the unwitting maid upon her return and he'd be practically set for life, with Amelia providing him with as much pleasure as he desired.

And once dead, Sir Marcus and the maid even provided their skeletons for animation as an additional means of defense, should there ever be any problems on that front. Of course, Conviolos had likewise not anticipated the arrival of Sir Marcus's ghost....

Once Alewyth had dressed Amelia back in her own clothes, she had the men return to the bedroom and help place her in the middle of the floor, where they repeated their dream ritual, this time with much more success. The assassin chasing her through the forest was easily dealt with, at which time Amelia awoke from her week asleep - only to be told by a sad-faced, good-hearted dwarven woman that both her great-uncle and the maid she had traveled with were both dead.

And then the room brightened even more than the illumination provided by the everburning torches hanging from sconces around the room. The ghost of Sir Marcus Brightflame entered the room and took off his helmet, revealing a face scarred with puckered burns - flame-wounds caused by his own voluntary immolation in the service of the God of Fire many years back. A single tear rolled down his scarred face at the sight of his grand-niece awake once more, and then he started fading from view. "Uncle Marcus!" cried Amelia, reaching out to the fading figure from her seated position on the floor - but he was gone, passing on to the next world. Everything the dwarven woman had said was apparently true.

Amelia covered her face with her hands and wept, unsure if the wound in her heart would ever heal.

- - -

This was definitely a creepy one, with an enemy the players all loved to hate once they realized the extent of his depravity. I figured that in a whole series of dream-victims, each of which was basically in a magical form of suspended animation, somewhere along the line somebody was going to take advantage of the situation. (In fact, I'd done something similar with Jingo Pebble-Brain a few adventures back.) And it was great seeing the realization kick in when the players all realized they'd been duped by "Sir Marcus Brightflame," who had a logical answer for everything even though most of what he'd told them were lies. (He'd also cast an undetectable alignment spell upon himself before answering the door, then faked attempting to detect evil in Wakuren's aura, something he wasn't at all capable of doing (but Sir Marcus would have been able to do). I was especially proud of the fact I'd (temporarily at least) pulled the wool over Dan's eyes, as he's easily my most distrustful player and his PCs generally never trust anybody in-game if they can help it. (I suspect he played with a lot of "screw the players over whenever possible" DMs early in his gaming career.) Incidentally, the gems above the four-poster bed were a hide from undead spell effect that would have prevented the ghost of Sir Marcus from being able to find his grand-niece even if he had made it into the room.

The players were a bit bummed to have to leave another dreamer (Drakkar Pyropus) unawakened, but I did point out the other two times this occurred they never even made it inside the "real" dream, as Dream Ghidorah and Dream Kong had both killed the PCs before they could even get a glimpse of the "real" dreams they were guarding. At least this time, while Dream Warbat (using a plastic toy Warbat from the recent "Godzilla vs. Kong" movie I bought at Wal-Mart) prevented them from waking the dreamer, they were able to get far enough into his dream to actually see him, even though he was dreaming of being the bronze dragon mount of an elven paladin from Telgranian history. So it's a form of progress, and once the dreamstones have all had plenty of time to attune to the dreamers for a matter of months the PCs are anticipating having a better run of it.

- - -

T-shirt worn: I was tempted to wear my "DAD: Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult" T-shirt as it would be very appropriate given Conviolos's impersonation of Sir Marcus Brightflame, but that would have let my my players know ahead of time something was up and somebody wasn't really who they claimed to be. I also have several shirts with various undead on them (mostly skeletons and zombies), but I was likewise hesitant to let them know they'd be up against some sort of undead in the adventure. So I eventually chose to wear one of my dragon shirts, the black T-shirt with a green dragon on it, to represent the bronze dragon in Drakkar Pyropus's dream.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 6​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 3​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 1​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 6​

Game Session Date: 18 June 2022

- - -

"Well, at least this time it's a short trip," pointed out Alewyth. Having dealt with two individual dreamers inside the confines of the city of Devlinshire, they had learned the next dreamer was in a compound only about four miles out of the city. "That beats the multiple-day journeys we've been used to."

"Yeah, but the people living there seem kind of weird," argued Thurloe. They had asked around Devlinshire before they left the city, seeing what they could learn about the inhabitants of the walled complex they were heading to.

"Some weird couple lives out that way. Always wearing black robes and stuff, hardly ever come into town. They pretty much keep to themselves," reported one merchant. Another added, "I don't think I've ever seen the man. The woman's rather nice looking, although she's always dressed in black and insists on wearing that silly top hat."

"I think they're healers or something," pointed out another local. "I know I've seen wounded soldiers being sent to them now and again."

"You ever seen the wounded come back out again?" prompted Thurloe.

"Now that you mention it, no."

"That says wonders about their healing abilities," Thurloe scoffed. But it being such a short trip, they didn't have long to wait to find out for themselves. The complex the couple lived in was surrounded by 10-foot-tall walls, made of solid, sturdy-looking stone. A single gate of thick, wooden doors stood at the southern side, apparently the only way in. But in the middle of the complex stood a two-story tower, also made of stone and apparently designed without any windows - not any that could be seen from outside the walls, in any case. On the ground just in front of the gate was a circle inscribed in the stone, ringed with magical runes. Wakuren brought the mules to a halt and stepped down from the wagon, walking into the magical circle without hesitation. Then, seeing no knocker or other way of announcing their presence, he pounded loudly on the wooden gate with his gauntleted fist.

"You hear that?" he asked as Thurloe came up to stand beside him. The others dismounted from their own horses (or dire goat in the case of Alewyth) but gave the circle a wide berth, in case there was any funny business going on.

"Yeah. Sounds like guys marching," the fighter-wizard replied. Indeed, the sound of tramping boots, all in step, could be heard from the other side of the wall, as well as the occasional clink of armor. It sounded like there was a contingent of at least a dozen soldiers inside the compound.

"Hey! open up!" Thurloe called to the soldiers marching inside the compound. They gave no answer, continuing their maneuvers - without the benefit of anyone calling out the cadence, Thurloe noted. But then, after about a minute had passed, a feminine voice from the air above the gate called out, "Who's there?"

Wakuren took the lead from Thurloe, knowing how impatient and insensitive the young human could be. "My name is Wakuren," he called up to the empty air at the top of the wall, where the voice had seemingly come from. "I have four others with me, and we came to see if perhaps there was someone inside your complex who had fallen asleep and has been unable to be awakened."

"What--?" gasped the woman's voice. "How could you possibly know that?"

"Then there is someone asleep and trapped in their dreams? We've been traveling the continent, pulling people from the dreams they have been trapped in. The specifics of the situation are still unknown, but we have been trained in the ritual that helps them escape and have had many more successes than failures. Would you let us in, so we can help?"

"Hang on," replied the woman's voice. "I'll be right there."

"Prep spells," suggested Thurloe.

"Why?" demanded Xandro. "She sounded reasonable enough."

"Yeah, and those yuan-ti looked like normal farmers, and those desert babes looked perfectly human until we woke up and found out they were hags and we were on the menu. Prep spells." He pulled out his wand of shield and cast the spell on himself; since devoting himself to arcane spellcasting he'd done without his heavy armor, which hampered the movements he needed to perform to successfully cast spells. Wakuren, perhaps seeing the logic in Thurloe's reasoning, cast a divine favor spell upon himself and followed it up with a bull's strength that increased his physical prowess - a useful attribute if it came to a fight. Alewyth cast a bless spell on the assembled group and then a shield of faith and a magic circle against evil spell on herself. Zander equipped himself with a mage armor spell and a bear's endurance spell, then cast haste on the group.

"You really think that's necessary?" Alewyth asked the elf sorcerer. "It's liable to run out before we even get a chance to use it."

"Then I can always cast another," argued Zander.

But then there was no time for further discussion, for the woman's voice called out, "Halt!" and the sounds of marching immediately ceased. "You two: open the gate!" she called and there were the sounds of a heavy bar being dragged out of place. Shortly thereafter the two doors swung inwards, revealing the presence of a young human woman dressed in a black skirt that came down to her booted heels, a black blouse, and a black top hat, all of which accentuated her black hair rather nicely and set off her pale features. As the two soldiers stood awaiting further orders, she turned to the group of soldiers as a whole and called out, "Slay each of these people if you ever see them inside this complex without being accompanied by me!" She then smiled at her visitors and bid them to enter. “No point in not being cautious," she smirked. Once the five had set foot inside the complex she had the two soldiers close the doors and put the heavy bar back in place, then resume their places in the formation. The soldiers stood in rows of four and none of the heroes missed out on the sickly-sweet smell of decay in the air, as if something had died here recently. Getting a good look at the undead flesh of the armed and armored soldiers, it wasn't too difficult to pinpoint the sources of the scent of death surrounding the area.

"I'm Mellistra," said the woman in the top hat. "Dellios is inside. This way." Without another word she pivoted on her heels and headed to the keep, whose door faced the front gate. While her back was turned, Wakuren focused his senses and confirmed that she, and the soldiers all around them, were radiating distinct auras of evil. She opened the door, ushered the five visitors inside, and then returned her attention to the unmoving soldiers standing in their ranks. "Resume!" she called out, and at once they began marching once again, moving in a counterclockwise direction around the keep.

Mellistra led the five dreamwalkers past the open doorway of a side room that contained six empty metal gurneys, each large enough to hold a body, and went up a set of stairs to the upper level. The keep's interior was lit by a series of everburning torches set in sconces along the walls. Alewyth's frown said all she needed to express her feelings about the quality of people they were here to help but she held her tongue.

Thurloe, however, was never one not to speak his mind. "So, you got a bunch of zombies marching around out there, huh?"

"Not zombies, no - they're dread warriors," Mellistra corrected him. "They move as fast as they did in life and retain all of their previous combat training. They're on special order from Duke Virgil Devlin himself, so I don't want to hear any lecturing about the 'evils' of raising the dead for personal use. You got any problems with what we're doing, you take it up with him, not with us. Everything we're doing here is strictly above-board." At the top of the stairs she turned to her left and opened a door. "Dellios is in here," she said. Zander, intrigued by the woman's top hat and wondering if it might be magical in nature, activated his scout's headband, granting himself true seeing. To his disappointment, the top hat was apparently nothing more than an odd fashion accessory; it had no inherent magical properties.

The bedroom beyond was of a decent size, with a bed for two upon which was lying a man in his early thirties, wearing his nightclothes. An unholy symbol of Akari, Lord of Death and Undeath, hung on a thin chain around his neck; a larger version was attached to the wall over the bed. There was a door to a bathroom at the far side of the room and a pair of sliding doors meeting at a corner, apparently leading to a closet. Standing motionlessly in front of the closet doors was what looked to be a human skeleton holding a longsword; this was actually a baneguard, one of two providing internal security on this level of the keep. (The other was in the next room over, an arcane library.)

Alewyth explained the process by which they would rescue Dellios from his dream. As she tied the headband in place around the sleeping cleric's temple, Mellistra said, "I want to come with you."

"Inside his dream?" asked Xandro. "I'm afraid that's not possible - not without the proper training, in any case."

"Hmmph!" sighed the woman in the top hat. "Then I'll be right here, watching."

"That will not be necessary," Zander suggested. "Perhaps you'd like to wait outside?"

"I'll wait right here, making sure everything's on the up-and-up," Mellistra countered. She indicated the baneguard standing in the corner. "We both will."

"Very well, then - let's make it three," replied the elf sorcerer, pulling the jade cooshee figurine from his robes and bringing the elven dog to life with the utterance of a command word. "You stand on guard duty too," he commanded the cooshee, who wagged his tail in understanding. Then, after dragging the bed into the middle of the room so the five dreamwalkers could sit in a circle around him, they each slowed their breathing and entered the dreamlands. As usual, each was met by his or her personal moogle guide, who led them through the ever-changing world of dreams into the Dream Corridor, where Mogo was waiting for them. "Ready, kupo?" he asked, opening a specific door in the near-endless halls of similar-looking doors, each one a distinct dream of a specific dreamer. "Good luck, kupo!" he called as the five dreamwalkers entered the cleric's dream.

Dellios was there, fully armored and sitting at a table, a chessboard before him. Sitting across from him was a skeletal being wearing robes, idly holding a scythe in His skeletal left hand while His right moved a black chess piece. "CHECK," Akari intoned, causing Dellios to frown down at the board. A drop of nervous sweat dripped down the side of his face.

Stepping forward and looking at the chessboard, the dreamwalkers could see things were not looking good for Dellios; his forces were hopelessly outnumbered and Akari had amassed a slew of the cleric's pawns and a few more powerful pieces, which sat at the side of the table. Dellios had, by this point in the game, managed to take a mere two pawns from Akari's army.

"I'm not real comfortable with this," Alewyth admitted. "Do we really want to wake up a guy who's been creating undead monstrosities?"

"If the Nightmare King has him trapped here in his dream, it's no doubt in our best interests to release him - that's got to work against our adversary," pointed out Wakuren.

"So let's get on with it - let's go kill him," suggested Thurloe.

"Slaying a god will not be easy, even in a dream," warned Wakuren. "And I'd imagine it's even more difficult slaying the God of Death."

"Who says I was talking about killing the Bone Guy?" demanded Thurloe, pulling his bastard sword from its scabbard on his back. "Let's kill Dellios and see what happens."

"That'll probably just loop us back to the beginning of the dream," argued Alewyth. "Let's see what we can do about helping him win his chess match." Touching her hand to the dreamstone she wore in a leather headband about her own brow, she concentrated on altering the dream as they'd been taught by Mogo and one of the black bishops disappeared from the board - the very bishop that had been putting the white king in check.

"Fine," grumbled Thurloe. "We'll do it your way." He concentrated as well and one of the black knights disappeared from the board. The other three followed suit, removing Akari's queen and the other bishop and knight, leaving the God of Death with only his king, rooks, and a half-dozen pawns, most of which were currently blocking the rooks from any useful moves. With the new board layout, Dellios had a much better chance of winning the game and he proved that was true by doing so a dozen moves later. Without a word, Akari stood up from his chair, made a silent bow in the direction of His servant, and disappeared from view. After he left, the walls in the room started fading from view as well. "He's waking up," Alewyth pointed out. "Let's go!"

The six figures all woke at about the same time, the heroes getting up from their lotus positions and stretching, while Dellios sat upright in bed and looked around him in confusion. "You're awake!" cried Mellistra happily.

"What's going on?" demanded Dellios. "Who are these people?"

"They woke you up," Mellistra explained. "You've been asleep for like two and a half weeks - almost three!"

"What? How--?" sputtered the cleric. Then realization hit him and his eyes nearly bugged out in shock. "The Duke's project! We'll be weeks behind!"

"I took care of it," Mellistra assured her husband.

"Well, it seems as if our job here is done," Thurloe said, eager to get out of the keep surrounded by 16 dread warriors programmed to kill them. "If you'd like to escort us back outside your walls, we'll let you get back to it."

"They know about the warriors!" Dellios gasped.

"Yeah, but it's fine," soothed Mellistra. "Our project is legitimate and well within the law; even these goody-goody types can't very well complain."

Wakuren held up his hands in a placating gesture. "We're just glad we were able to awaken you, and in so doing damage that much more of the overall plans of the Nightmare King," he assured Dellios. While the half-orc had been training as a cleric-paladin of Cal and personally found undead to be anathema, he couldn't very well break the laws of the Duke's lands; if the Duke allowed the creation of an undead army there was little Wakuren could do about it.

"We'll not be causing any trouble with the Duke," added Alewyth, whose views on the undead mirrored Wakuren's.

"See?" said Mellistra. "You're awake, they're leaving, and we can get back to business as usual." His wife's words seemed to finally penetrate and Dellios visibly relaxed.

And then a white-haired servant girl entered the room. "That's all very well and good," she said, looking over the heroes and allowing her gaze to focus upon Thurloe. "But I would remind you both that you're already behind schedule, the Duke is getting impatient, and that one" - here she pointed at Thurloe - "is a suitable candidate for the conversion process."

Mellistra gave Thurloe an appraising lookover and was nodding her head in appreciation, when Dellios said something that surprised the heroes. "And just who the Hell are you?" He had apparently never seen this young lady before.

But Thurloe wasn't overly concerned with white-haired serving girls being hired on while Dellios had been sleeping; he was more interested in being an unwilling volunteer for this conversion process. Thinking this whole thing was a setup, he spun about and fired a ray of enfeeblement spell directly at Dellios, who was just now climbing out of bed in his nightshirt. "Hey!" he cried as the strength left his body, causing him to drop back down upon the mattress of his bed.

Seeing they were apparently fighting their way out of the keep - and idly wondering what their plans were once they had to cross the compound and pull off the heavy bar on the double doors of the gate, all while fighting off 16 dread warriors; hopefully Thurloe had some thoughts on the matter when they got that far - Xandro pulled his frost short sword from its scabbard and stabbed it deep into Dellios's side. It seemed strange to the bard to rescue a person from their dream and then turn around and try to kill them, but so be it; he wasn't the one that decided to reward the five dreamwalkers for rescuing Dellios by turning Thurloe into a dread warrior.

Zander Quilson raced across the room before everyone else realized there was a combat ensuing, preferring to get to the relative safety at the side of his cooshee. As he did so, he recast the haste spell upon himself and his friends (and his dog), since the original spell had already run its course. But the white-haired servant was already well aware of the combat and dropped her human form in order to attack the elven sorcerer as he fled past her, stinging him in the side with the tip of her tail. In doing so, she revealed herself in her true form: a humanoid reptile with white scales, a draconic face, and dragon's wings sprouting from her back. Wakuren was not at all surprised to denote the white abishai as yet another source of evil inside this keep. Quick as a wink (and aided by the haste spell), he swung his shield at her, catching her with its edge.

The cooshee responded to the start of combat by biting and clawing at Mellistra, who was standing beside the dog. He easily pulled her down to the floor, pinning her in place with a paw on her arm. She responded by casting a vampiric touch spell, imbuing her right hand with sparkling black energy, and trying to touch the dog to drain away some of his life energy. But the cooshee was well-versed in the ways of spells - part of his design allowed him to snatch away spell energy from those his master had targeted for "fetch" and he dodged her reach, knocking her back down with a side-swipe of his paw. She fell back down upon the floor, cursing in a quite unladylike manner, the vampiric touch spell still active in her hand.

Alewyth swung Sjondra into the white abishai's side, while Dellios called out for the baneguard to attack everyone in the room save him and Mellistra. Then, realizing his unpreparedness for combat while wearing only his nightshirt, he cast a shield of faith spell upon himself, one hand still holding his side where Xandro had just stabbed him.

But then Thurloe swung his bastard sword into the white abishai and nearly cut her in two. She flopped to the floor and he grunted in pulling his blade free from her torso. And then Wakuren called out in his loudest voice, "TRUCE! LET THERE BE NO MORE FIGHTING!"

"You started it!" yelled Dellios, pointing a finger at Thurloe. "You attacked me with a spell, and then you" - here he spun and stabbed a pointing finger at Xandro - "you stabbed me! But fine, hold off your attacks - for the moment," he said to the baneguard, who had taken a step towards Alewyth with its sword raised. The undead skeleton lowered its weapon, awaiting further orders.

"Let's all take a calming breath," Wakuren suggested. "It was this white dragon-thing that was advocating for an attack upon Thurloe. With her out of the way, I think we can all agree that we'll go our separate ways without any further bloodshed. And I can heal that wound for you."

"Don't bother - I can do it myself," grumbled Dellios, casting a cure moderate wounds spell upon the gash in his side, healing it completely. Then, turning to his wife, he asked, "And just who exactly was she - and what was she doing here?"

"Well, you were asleep, and you're the only one who can cast create undead!" Mellistra countered. "I had to make...additional arrangements." Dellios just shrugged angrily at her, his expression asking in a non-verbal way, "And...?" Mellistra hesitated, then admitted, "I used some planar ally scrolls, did a little summoning, and brought forth some allies who could animate the dead bodies for us." She spun on her husband. "What else was I supposed to do? You were asleep for who-knows-how-long-it-was-going-to-be, and the Duke was breathing down my neck, so I was the one left holding the bag...."

"Wait a minute," interrupted Xandro. "You said, 'allies' - there are more of them? Here in the keep?" He looked nervously about him.

"Well yeah, but only two, and they're not the exact same...one's black and one's green."

"If they're demons or devils, they're probably gonna have telepathy," Thurloe warned the others. "They're likely on their way up here right now."

As indeed they were. Upon having received the telepathic call from their white abishai counterpart, the green and black abishais had started heading up the sloped ramp from the underground level - the level containing the summoning circle. Seeing as how the white abishai had already revealed its true self to the mortals, these two saw no sense in wearing their human guises.

"Okay, truce?" asked Thurloe. He looked down at the body of the creature he had slain and noticed it was already regenerating the damage he had dealt it. Apparently killing the abishais wasn't even a permanent solution.

"Temporary truce," amended Mellistra. "Once we deal with the abishais, you guys get out and leave us alone!" Dellios just shook his head at how out of hand the situation had become while he had been trapped in his dreams. He walked over to the closet and started pulling on his armor.

Wakuren positioned himself at the top of the stairs, planning on being an obstacle the abishais would need to overcome to get to the others. Thurloe stood immediately behind him, bastard sword at the ready. Zander positioned himself in the library (where he soon found the other baneguard, which creeped him out) with Alewyth, whose magic circle against evil spell encompassed the four of them. Xandro was still in the bedroom but he pulled out his lute and began playing his song of courageous inspiration, while Thurloe passed his wand of shield over to Zander so the elf could use it and pass it back. The cooshee, in the meantime, had dragged the regenerating white abishai's corpse over to the bathroom and into the tub, where his job was to keep chewing on her and give her something to have to regenerate anew. After all, they didn't want her rising back to life to attack them all from behind while they were focused on safeguarding the stairs below them.

But the telepathic abishai were well aware of the heroes' plans. As a result, neither stepped around the corner to the bottom of the stairs where they would be able to be seen, but remained in hiding in the general living area. The black abishai focused her powers on Wakuren, hoping to charm him into attacking his companions, but he was safely ensconced in Alewyth's magic circle against evil and the spell protected his mind from such magical attacks. The green abishai then attempted to telepathically command Alewyth to come downstairs and talk under a flag of truce, but that had no effect either. Once it became apparent the heroes upstairs were fully shielded against their mental attacks, the green abishai changed tactics. "Very well then," she said. "We'll try this another way." She went over to the front door of the keep, opened it wide, and stepped outside. "Slay everyone inside this keep who doesn't have wings!" she commanded, and the ranks of dread warriors altered course and headed inside the keep.

"What? No! Don't! I countermand those orders!" called down Dellios, still buckling on his armor with his wife's assistance. But from the sounds of the tromping footsteps below, the dread warriors fully accepted the green abishai as outranking Dellios - after all, many of them had been animated by her directly while the cleric of Akari slept on. "This is all your fault, you know!" accused Dellios to Mellistra.

"How was I to know this was going to happen?" countered the necromancer. "They were just supposed to animate the dead guys and turn them into dread warriors - you know, the job you were supposed to be doing instead of taking a three-week nap!"

Despite the plans of making the top of the stairs the single point of defense, Thurloe changed tactics when he heard the dread warriors spilling into the living area downstairs and hoped to be able to prevent the rest from getting in. Thus, he pushed past Wakuren and raced down the stairs, bastard sword out and ready for action. The first of the undead were just now entering the keep's interior but the black abishai was right there around the corner from the stairs, so she became the fighter-wizard's first target. Thurloe grunted as he swung his blade with all his might, catching the draconic devil in the side of the torso. But it wasn't a killing blow - far from it - and she retaliated in kind, ripping with her front talons, snapping with her dragon-teeth, and sending the tip of her scorpionlike tail stabbing at the mortal foe before her. The tail strike failed to hit, so Thurloe luckily didn't get the opportunity to experience firsthand how it felt to have acidic venom pumped directly into his bloodstream - but there would be plenty of other chances in the very near future, he well knew.

Zander, confused on why Thurloe was bringing the fight to the opposing forces when he thought the whole point was to be fighting them at a bottleneck, readied a magic missile spell in case anyone made it up the stairwell. But then the dread warriors made it as far as Thurloe and attacked, each carrying a battleaxe and well trained in its use. Wakuren, saddened at the sudden loss of their strategy, raced down the stairs to join battle rather than leave Thurloe there alone to fight against overwhelming odds. Raising his holy symbol of Cal before him, he channeled positive energy through the focus and blasted the undead in a wide arc, affecting the first six to have entered the keep. In an attempt to flee from the cleric-paladin of Cal, four of them tried fitting into the side room where the six metal gurneys were stored, while the other two turned around and tried getting back out through the front door, being prevented from doing that by the wave of other dread warriors trying to get in.

From outside the keep, the green abishai gathered up the required mystical energy and summoned forth a quintet of lemures, four of them appearing inside the keep and the fifth stuck outside with her due to lack of available elbow room - the keep's interior was getting crowded! It became even more so when Alewyth summoned a celestial bison at the bottom of the stairs. It gored the first undead figure before it, one of the six Wakuren had just sent fleeing. Thurloe slew the black abishai with another well-placed blow of his bastard sword, but just as with its white cohort upstairs, death was nothing more than an inconvenient - and temporary - time out for it, as its wounds started immediately to seal up. From the top of the stairs, Xandro's inspirational tune got louder as the bard advanced to see if he could see the battle raging below.

Zander finally went downstairs, spotting a bit of green outside from his view just below the celestial bison's legs, so he cast a magic missile at what he knew to be the green-scaled abishai. He then whipped out the dagger from his belt and stabbed at a dread warrior as it hurried past him, trying to get inside the room with the gurneys as it fled Wakuren's holy power.

But now other dread warriors were rushing into the keep. Wakuren ran to the front door and raised his holy symbol, sending forth a second blast of positive energy and turning another group of the undead into panicked flight. However, he was now within striking distance of the green abishai and she went after him with a vengeance. Behind him, a few of the lemures tried attacking him and Thurloe but found a mysterious, unseen force (Alewyth's magic circle against evil spell) preventing the summoned creatures from being able to even touch their intended targets, for the dwarf had run down the stairs after having summoned her celestial bison from the Upper Planes to aid the heroes in fighting off the hordes of evil. The bison charged forward, trampling over the bodies of the dread warriors in its way, until it burst out the front door and spun about once outside, goring another undead warrior with its horns. The green abishai just barely managed to fly up out of range as the shaggy beast did his best to slay the evil creatures before him.

Thurloe made quick work of the nearest lemure, its body exploding in a puff of rancid gas as it was slain. Xandro stepped cautiously down the stairs, still playing his song of inspirational courage on the Dardolian lute. Zander spread his fingers before him and cast a burning hands spell that caught nearly half a dozen dread warriors in its flames. And while some of the dread warriors had made it back outside and were fleeing, more of those who had been stuck outside trying to get in had a suitable victim in their sights, namely the celestial bison who had been so diligently trying to pare down their ranks. The green abishai attacked the noble beast from above, her tail stabbing down at its head and injecting her vicious, strength-draining venom into his system.

Wakuren slew another of the lemures with his shield, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the smell the thing's death caused. Having gone on the offensive against them, he was no longer protected by the magic circle against evil spell, but that was a tradeoff the half-orc was willing to make, for the lemures were definitely on the "kill list" - the dread warriors being kind of a gray area, since they had been commissioned by Duke Virgil Devlin. Still, if they only killed the dread warriors in self-defense, the Duke could hardly take offense, right?

Alewyth ran up to stand beside Wakuren and channeled her own positive energy through her holy symbol of Aerik, causing more of the dread warriors to flee. Outside, the celestial bison had managed to stab the flying green abishai with one of his horns, causing the draconic devil to cry out in pain. Thurloe killed another lemure and stepped up to the doorway, knowing the worst of their enemies were still outside. (In the back of his mind he was aware the black abishai's body was regenerating, but he figured he had cut her up enough it was going to be some time before she was back in action.)

Xandro decided he'd done enough with his lute and set it aside, drawing forth his longsword and attacking the nearest dread warrior with it. Zander cast another burning hands spell, the fan of flames burning three of the undead soldiers to a crisp. But outside, the celestial bison was finally overcome by the small horde of undead soldiers attacking it with their battleaxes and it disappeared, not with an explosion of rancid gas like the slain lemures but the pleasant scent of roses.

Wakuren stepped outside, ignoring the fleeing dread warriors which had been turned away by the waves of positive energy being sent in their direction, and channeled more of his god's power through his shield, using it to smite the green abishai, apparently the leader of the three devils Mellistra had brought forth with her desperate spells. The devil tried commanding the half-orc into serving her, but despite the fact he was now well outside Alewyth's protective magic circle against evil spell, Wakuren was having none of it. There were now only two lemures left of the five the green abishai had summoned to her aid, and the one outside with her attempted to hit Wakuren for the sake of its mistress, but the cleric of Cal avoided its clumsy blow. And then Thurloe's bastard sword cut the right wing from the green devil, causing her to fall to the ground where she quickly fell victim to another blow from his sword, this one cutting through scales, muscle, and bones and piercing her heart. Xandro and Wakuren made short work of the two remaining lemures.

Alewyth stepped outside herself and cast her last turn undead of the day toward the group still forming up to try to get inside the keep, causing panic and confusion in their ranks as some tried to flee and those further back tried pressing on. By then, Dellios and Mellistra came barreling down the stairs, finally ready for battle themselves now that the cleric had his armor on. "Don't kill the dread warriors!" he called out to the others, worried about how behind schedule this was going to put him with the Duke.

"Settle down, lad," calmed Alewyth. "Most of these have just been turned - there's no real harm come to them." She knew Zander had killed a couple of the ones inside but wasn't exactly sure of their number. With the abishais all slain, Dellios was able to assert control of the dread warriors, getting them lined back up in formation outside.

"Well, this is just lovely," Dellios complained. "We're down to just thirteen. I don't know how we're going to be able to make up the difference." Mellistra looked appraisingly back over to Thurloe, but he cut her off with a pointed finger and a warning: "Don't even think about it, you crazy broad!"

"This one's regenerating!" Xandro called from inside the keep, stabbing his longsword into the black abishai to give her more to have to fix up in her battered body. "Anybody know how to get them to stay dead?"

"You brought them forth," Dellios pointed out to his wife.

"I know, I know!" replied Mellistra. Then she listed off what would prevent them from regenerating: "Holy water. Holy weapons. Blessed weapons. I think that's about it."

Dellios turned to the five heroes. "I don't suppose any of you has any holy water?" he asked.

"Not on me," Wakuren answered. "I could create some, but I don't have the spell ready at hand - it would take me until tomorrow to cast it."

"Same here," added Alewyth.

"Well, you're not staying here until tomorrow," announced Mellistra. "I want you five out of here, pronto."

"Works for me, you damned loony," Thurloe snarled. "C'mon guys, we'll let them figure it out."

"But what about those undead monstrosities?" asked Zander, who had by this time collected his jade cooshee and dragged the white abishai's body outside with the other two. The dread warriors continued attacking the regenerating corpses as a stop-gap measure, long enough for someone to head back into the city and purchase enough vials of holy water to completely douse the three abishais, ensuring they stayed dead.

"Not our problem," answered Thurloe.

"Perhaps this situation will convince the Duke putting together a platoon of undead soldiers is not ideal," suggested Wakuren. "I'd like to take them all out, but I also don't want the Duke's forces hunting us down for, like it or not, breaking the law."

"What about the three you killed already?" demanded Mellistra. "You owe us for them, at least. I don't see why we can't have just the one of you to help make up the difference!"

"I hear any more talk about me joining their ranks and you're gonna have to start doing some regenerating yourself, lady!" warned Thurloe.

"Enough," interjected Dellios, starting to wish he'd never been awakened from his dream. "Mellistra, go into town and pick up some holy water. I'll stay here and oversee the situation until your return. As for the five of you, thank you for your assistance, but I think it would be best of you were on your way."

"Suits me fine," snarled Thurloe, walking over to the front gate. "Hey, Wakuren, give me a hand with this, would you?" Together, they lifted the bar away from the gate and swung the heavy wooden doors open.

"Why do I have to go get the holy water?" Mellistra groused to her husband.

"Because you were the one who brought those devils into this situation!" answered Dellios.

"Only because you were sleeping when you were supposed to be animating the bodies!"

"Well, it's not like I chose to get stuck in my nightmare, now, was it? And you don't know how bad that nightmare was! Sheer torment, let me tell you!"

Thurloe couldn't let that one pass. "He was playing chess!" he called over to Mellistra.

"Oh, chess, was it? So while you were off playing a game, I was stuck dealing with the Duke wondering why we were so far behind schedule!"

Thurloe and Wakuren pulled the doors to the gate shut behind them. They had no way to put the bar back in place, but that wasn't their immediate concern. Instead, they remounted their riding mounts and Wakuren climbed into the wagon, grabbing up the reins of their two mules.

"Was that absolutely necessary?" chided Alewyth.

"Necessary? No," admitted Thurloe. "But fun? Yes. I hope they both enjoy their marital bliss." As they continued on down the road, Dellios and Mellistra's argument eventually faded from earshot behind them.

- - -

This adventure took us about three and a half hours to run through, after which time I handed out the players' upgrade checklists, because everyone advanced to 7th level. Harry decided to add a second level of rogue to Xandro, Logan gave Wakuren a 4th level of paladin, and Dan started Thurloe off with his first level in the spellsword prestige class; Alewyth and Zander are continuing on as our only single-class PCs. But each of their signature items got a power-up as well - the moogles have set up a communication station in the Dreamlands, and now besides their own individual moogle guides, there will be a moogle assigned to the communication station at all times, through which messages can be passed through the dreamstones in the PCs' signature items to the moogle on duty. In this way, the PCs can ask questions of the moogles, pass on messages to the Queen of Dreams, and receive answers without having to go to all the trouble of one of them falling asleep and visiting the Dreamlands "in person," as it were.

I also added something extra to Logan's upgrade checklist. For no apparent reason, Wakuren just gained an inherent +2 bonus to his Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores. His initial thought was this might have been some sort of atunement bonus from wielding both the shield of Cal and the gauntlet of Cal. We'll have to wait to see if he's right.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, given the nature of the dread warriors.
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 7​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 7​

Game Session Date: 9 July 2022

- - -

The heroes were about an hour down the road from Devlinshire when they heard the furious pounding of hoofbeats behind them. Thurloe and Xandro wheeled their horses around to face the approaching riders; they were a pair of guardsmen wearing the uniforms of the Devlinshire city patrol. Alewyth looked back behind her with a look of worry on her face, wondering if they'd have to fight these men and not particularly looking forward to the battle if they were, for the men were the official representatives of the Dukedom, with all the power of Duke Virgil Devlin himself behind them. Alewyth certainly did not want to find herself on the wrong side of the law, even if she didn't particularly agree with the law in this case.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," said Wakuren pleasantly as he brought Mica and Perseverance to a halt at the side of the road, allowing the two guardsmen to pass. And pass they did, but immediately thereafter they spun their mounts about so they were facing the five dreamwalkers and their various mounts.

"Good afternoon, folks," replied one of the guardsman, holding a hand before his eyes as if trying to block out the sun. "Man, it sure is bright out today, huh?" Zander's brows furrowed in puzzlement, for the day was somewhat overcast.

"We've come with a warning," said the other guardsman, likewise holding up his hand as if shielding his eyes from the nonexistent glare of the sun, currently hidden behind a cloud. "Apparently there's a band of ruffians about - we've been sent to look for them and to warn those we meet to be on the lookout."

"Ruffians?" echoed Alewyth.

"That's right, ma'am. Two humans, an elf, a dwarven woman, and a half-orc broke into a compound just outside the city and destroyed a couple of undead critters animated at the orders of the Duke himself. Now, you and I might not see anything particularly wrong about killing undead abominations, but the Duke's mighty upset and has branded this band of five as terrorists. You five keep an eye out, now, you hear? They should be fairly easy to spot - the dwarf woman's apparently riding around on a large goat of some sort." Squinting at Alewyth, astride her dire goat mount Pyrite, the guardsman added, "That's a mighty fine horse you've got there, ma'am - what I can make out of it in this blasted sunlight!"

"I-- thank you," replied Alewyth.

"The Duke's special hobgoblin forces are being sent out to scour the surrounding area as well as us, so you might consider taking some of the back roads if at all possible," suggested the other guardsman. "Them hobbers, they don't always differentiate between the races all too well - why, they might not even recognize the five of you as all being human, like we do."

"So you folks take care," the other guard added, spinning his horse back around. The other followed suit and then the two of them spurred their mounts on and were off, racing down the road at a full gallop.

"What was that all about?" demanded Alewyth.

"They're off doing their job, only it's a job they don't particularly want to do - bring us in for killing those three dread warriors," Thurloe explained. "This was them giving us a heads up about the Duke's hobgoblin forces. I'd say we'd do best to hurry on our way and take the first side road we come to!" He brought Horse to a full gallop and the others followed suit.

About another twenty minutes down the road they met up with another rider, this one approaching them from ahead. It was an elderly woman dressed in a noblewoman's riding gear, sitting rigidly upright upon a pure white horse that trotted leisurely down the road. She sent her mount off to one side of the road so the two parties could pass each other and the five dreamwalkers slowed down their own mounts so as not to crash into her. As she got to within a dozen feet of Thurloe - who was at the head of his group's procession - she asked him, "Excuse me, can you tell me how far away Devlinshire might be? I have some business there, but I've never been this far west before."

"It's probably a couple thousand miles behind you," Thurloe replied with a grin. "But, if you keep on heading the way you're heading, it's only about an hour and a half away."

"Very droll," replied the nobleman with the barest hint of a smile. She produced a gold coin from a purse at her belt and passed it to the young swordsman. "But thank you." Thurloe took the proffered coin and gave it a quick lookover: it had a man with a pointed beard on one side and a lit torch on the other; not the common currency used in these parts, but likely as spendable as any other golden coin. He absently dropped it into his own coin purse and kicked Horse back into motion. However, he let the mount amble forward instead of continue the full-out run they'd started before, Thurloe not wanting to appear to be in a hurry while the noblewoman might take notice.

"What's up?" asked Zander, bringing Eddy up to the spellsword.

"That lady's heading to Devlinshire," Thurloe explained. "She meets up with any hobgoblin guardsmen, she'll be able to give them a good description of the lot of us - and there's not likely to be too many groups riding around with our particular makeup." He looked over at Wakuren as he said the latter, for in truth there weren't too many half-orc cleric/paladins of Cal on the entire continent, Wakuren likely being the only one. "Reckon we'd best find some side roads, pronto."

"Looks like there's one up ahead," Xandro offered, squinting into the distance. "And it looks like it heads north, which is kind of where we want to go anyway." Their next dream victim, according to Mogo, was to be found in the small village of Snail Valley, northeast of their present location. The side road followed the course of a small brook for a bit, and although it likely added a half hour to their travel time, they found themselves in Snail Valley a good four hours later. At least that was what the wooden sign on the side of the road declared: "Welcome to Snail Valley" it read, with a picture of several rather happy-looking snails painted along the edges for good measure.

Finding the specific location of the dream victim was easy, as Snail Valley was a small community and everyone knew little six-year-old Rosie Picklemeyer had fallen asleep about two weeks ago and hadn't been able to be awakened since. The valley's druid, Abitha Crow-Talker, had done what she could but determined there was something magical going on beyond her abilities and had suggested waiting to see if Rosie came out of it in her own, for she didn't seem to be suffering any deleterious effects from the prolonged sleep. Riding up to the Picklemeyer cottage, Alewyth knocked on the door and was met by Rosie's parents, Jarko and Petunia Picklemeyer, who gave the strangers puzzled looks at first but welcomed them into their home with open arms once the dwarven priestess explained they had come to waken Rosie from her sleep.

Xandro brought Rosie out into the common room, wrapped in a blanket, while the others took their places in a circle around her and Wakuren explained the process. Zander activated his jade cooshee and set him up on watch detail; they'd had one too many surprises in the past and didn't want anything happening to their sleeping bodies while they were in the Dreamlands freeing Rosie. In fact, Thurloe kept silently indicating to Wakuren he wanted the half-orc to check out the Picklemeyers' auras to see if they were evil, and Wakuren gave Thurloe a frown and a silent head shake. However, Thurloe wasn't sure if that meant "No, they aren't evil" or "No, I'm not going to check because that would be embarrassing and just what's wrong with you, anyway?" Knowing Wakuren, it was probably that last one.

Once everything was set up - Rosie's brow now adorned with a too-large leather headband holding a dreamstone to her temple to aid in the dreamwaking procedure - each of the five calmed their breathing and fell asleep. Jarko and Petunia looked at each other, hopeful but puzzled how this was going to help their daughter, but neither wanted to make any noise to wake these strangers up if they could possibly wake Rosie.

One by one, the dreamwalkers found themselves in the Dreamlands, being met by their individual dream guides. "Hey, kupo!" cried Calliope upon seeing Alewyth appear in a dream about baking in a kitchen. "Are we ready for the next dreamer already, kupo?" asked Mogchamp to Xandro as he began dreaming about throwing rocks into a creek. Similarly, Moki met up with Zander and Kupek greeted Wakuren, then they all met up together at the Hall of Doors, a visualization of endless hallways filled with individual dreams. There hovered Mog, their dream moogle trainer, and beside him Doc, Thurloe's moogle dream guide. But of Thurloe there was no sight.

"Where's the other one, kupo?" Mogo demanded.

"No idea, kupo," replied Doc. "I felt the others going off to meet up with their dreamwalkers, so I hung around waiting for Thurloe, but he never showed, kupo."

"Maybe he's having trouble falling asleep," suggested Wakuren.

"Maybe that isn't really him - maybe he's been replaced by a doppelganger," suggested Zander Quilson, coming up with a ridiculous suggestion just to scare the others but then realizing it was a distinct - if unlikely - possibility.

"We should wait for him," decided Alewyth, but as the minutes went on and the spellsword didn't show, she began to get worried. "Do you think something happened to him back on the Material Plane?" she asked.

"The cooshee's there to look after him," Zander pointed out. "If the Picklemeyers decided to attack him or something, he'd wake the rest of us up."

"We'd better go check on him," suggested Xandro. "But as long as we're here, we might as well take a peek at Rosie's dream and see what it is we'll be getting into."

"In you go then, kupo!" replied Mogo as he opened the door to Rosie's dream and the four dreamwalkers stepped inside.

"Hello," Rosie greeted them as they walked into her dream. She was wearing her mother's dress clothes, including a bonnet that kept falling down over her eyes that she kept pushing back out of the way. "Mr. Bear and I were just about to start our tea party. Would you care to join us?"

"She makes really good tea," put in Mr. Bear, a stuffed animal Rosie's mother had made for her when she was born but which here, in her dreams, was as alive as any of the newcomers to her dream.

"Perhaps just a quick sip," suggested Alewyth, "but then we should see about getting you back home. Your parents are very--" But then she was cut off by a horrible wailing coming from the next room.

"Oh no!" cried Rosie. "One of the snail babies is awake!" She rushed into the next room, Mr. Bear dutifully following at her heels. The room held seven cribs, inside each of which was a snail the size of a pillow, with the face of a human baby. One of them was crying something fierce, causing the others to start to stir out of their own slumber. "We need to rock him back to sleep before he wakes up the others!"

Rosie bent over the crib and picked up the crying snail baby, starting to rock it back and forth, but the damage was already done - all seven of the creatures were now wide awake and bawling fiercely. The little girl looked frantically at the four dreamwalkers - whom she'd never seen before but had instantly accepted as belonging in her dream - and did a quick count. "We don't have enough!" she cried.

"Play a lullaby on your lute of something!" Alewyth suggested to Xandro, looking down at the horrid face of a crying human baby grafted onto the slimy neck of a large snail.

"That won't work!" Rosie chided. "You have to rock them back to sleep, like this!" She demonstrated with the one she held in her arms, but with six other snails wailing there was no way she was going to be able to get this one to fall asleep.

"We need Thurloe," Alewyth deduced and Xandro was all too glad to use that as an excuse to depart Rosie's dream - he, too, was bothered by the sight of these snail/human baby hybrid monsters. "We'll go get someone else to help us get them all back to sleep," he promised Rosie, before opening the door that allowed them to exit the little girl's dream.

"If Thurloe had been here," pointed out Zander, "you know what his suggestion would have been: slaughter all the snail babies and get on with the damn tea party, if that's what it takes to wake her up."

"Probably," agreed Alewyth. "But let's all wake up ourselves and see what's up with Thurloe."

"Good luck, kupo!" encouraged Mogo as the four dreamwalkers all forced themselves awake. One after the other, each suddenly just disappeared from the Dreamlands and awoke back up in their own bodies.

The four heroes saw Mr. and Mrs. Picklemeyer start as the dreamwalkers started rising from their lotus positions. They looked over to their daughter, but Rosie was still sound asleep in her blanket. "What happened? Is everything all right?" asked Petunia.

"We had a slight problem," admitted Alewyth, bending down over Thurloe, who still sat in the lotus position, sound asleep. "Nothing to worry about, though." I hope, the dwarf added silently to herself.

"Check out his aura, just in case," suggested Zander.

"Doppelgangers wouldn't necessarily have an evil aura," pointed out Wakuren, but he focused his attention on Thurloe anyway. "He's clean," he reported back to the others. Then he slapped Thurloe lightly on the side of the face. "Wakey-wakey," he told the sleeping spellsword.

"Huh--what?" gasped Thurloe as he was slapped awake and the first thing he saw was Wakuren's half-orc visage smack dab in his field of vision. "What's going on?"

"Where were you?" demanded Wakuren.

"What do you mean?"

"You never showed in the Dreamlands. What were you doing, wandering about? Exploring on your own or something?"

"What? No..." Thurloe answered, his brows lowering in a frown. "I don't think so...." It was puzzling, for the whole reason these five had been chosen by the Queen of Dreams as her personal representatives on the Material Plane in the first place was because they had perfect recall of their time spent in the Dreamlands - but Thurloe couldn't remember anything that had happened since he first fell asleep at Rosie's side.

"Let me try something," Wakuren suggested, casting a protection from evil spell upon Thurloe and then ushering everyone back into position to try again. But this time was the same as before: the other four dreamwalkers showed up in the Dreamlands and were met by their moogle guides, but Doc was left hanging out by himself as Thurloe was nowhere to be seen. Once it was apparent he wasn't going to show up any time soon, they woke themselves back up again and slapped Thurloe back awake as well.

"Maybe something's wrong with your dreamstone?" suggested Xandro, grasping at straws. Just to be sure, though, Thurloe and Wakuren swapped headbands and they all tried a third time, with the same results. "Well, that wasn't it," the bard admitted. "You don't think the Nightmare King has found a way to separate us somehow when we're dreaming...?"

"We need to see where Thurloe's going when he falls asleep," Alewyth suggested, scooting everyone into a circle around Thurloe instead of Rosie. "Wait a minute, this won't work," pointed out Xandro. "There are only four of us around him - we need five!"

"We can put a dreamstone on the cooshee," Zander suggested, and the elven dog wagged his tail at hearing himself mentioned.

"He's not a trained dreamwalker," scoffed Thurloe. "But I'll tell you what: let's give me the 'target' dreamstone as well as the one I normally wear - maybe that'll give me a boost." He added Rosie's headband to his own and they all tried a fourth time, with predictable results. The other four were in the Dreamlands as usual, and Thurloe was nowhere to be seen. "Any ideas?" Xandro asked Mogo, explaining everything they'd tried thus far.

"Something's changed since last night, when Thurloe was last in the Dreamlands, kupo," the moogle observed. "Is he sleeping now, kupo?" Alewyth assured the moogle that Thurloe was sound asleep in the Picklemeyers' cottage. "Then let's see if we can find his dream, kupo!" said the moogle, turning to the Hall of Doors. The halls started flashing by sideways, moving at incredible speeds as the moogle dreamwalking trainer flipped through hallway after hallway. Doors sped by at increasing speeds, causing Alewyth to turn a bit green from motion sickness even though she was standing perfectly still. But eventually the doors slowed down and the hallways stopped reconfiguring themselves to Mogo's specifications and the trainer sighed, "He's not here, kupo!"

"How is that possible?" asked Alewyth.

Mogo shrugged his little kittenish shoulders. "If I had to hazard a guess, it sounds like he's been taken by a night hag, kupo," Mogo replied. He went on to explain that night hags were horrible creatures from the Lower Planes, who attached themselves to a victim and then haunted their nightmares, riding them all night long and draining them of their physical vitality each night. Eventually, with the victim getting weaker and weaker, he was transformed into a creature called a larva, which the night hag then sold to devils or demons for their own horrific use.

"But why can't we find him, if he's asleep?" asked Zander.

"Think of the Dreamlands as a large field, kupo," suggested Mogo. "Whenever anyone dreams, their dream takes place in a little section of the field, kupo. But a night hag, she digs a little hole in the field - like a gopher hole - and covers the top of it with a clump of dirt, so you can look all over the field and you won't ever find her, kupo. If a night hag has gotten hold of Thurloe, then every time he dreams he'll end up in a hidden pocket somewhere where we can't detect him, kupo."

This was horrible news, but they needed to do what they could to put a stop to it and the first thing was letting Thurloe know what was happening. They thanked Mogo, promised to keep him up to date, and returned to their physical bodies once again, where they explained to the puzzled Picklemeyers that they wouldn't be able to wake up Rosie that night after all. "We've run into a temporary problem with one of our dreamwalkers, but we'll have him fixed up soon and we'll come back to wake up Rosie as soon as we can!" Alewyth promised them.

They found lodging in one of the inns and made the best of the evening, Thurloe finally falling asleep with some trepidation knowing what was in store for him. He slept fitfully, and there was no sight of him in the Dreamlands. Unwilling to continue training only four of his five students, Mogo gave the others the night off as a free exercise to practice the dreamwalking techniques he'd already shown them. And in the morning, when they gathered together, Thurloe looked terrible: bloodshot eyes with dark bags beneath, as if he hadn't gotten any sleep at all. "Do you remember anything?" Alewyth prompted.

"Not a thing," Thurloe replied. "But I feel like crap." Wakuren tried casting a lesser restoration spell upon the spellsword, but it didn't seem to have any effect.

Alewyth and Wakuren prepared their day's spells, and the dwarven priestess of Aerik selected a divination spell to see if it could help them determine what was happening to Thurloe when he slept. Casting the spell, Alewyth received the following cryptic reply to her question, "What will happen to Thurloe when he next goes to sleep?" The answer came from the air above her,

"In spider's web, the night hag boasts,​
She'll ride her prey in the land of ghosts."​

"The land of ghosts: that's the Ethereal Plane," observed Wakuren. "She's got her trap set in the Ethereal Plane."

"How does that help us?" snarled Thurloe. "We can't get to the Ethereal Plane."

"No, we can't," Alewyth admitted. "But I'll bet a cleric of Delphyne, Goddess of Magic could get us there. And they'd probably know a lot more about night hags than we do."

"Where's the nearest cleric of Delphyne?" Zander asked. "I doubt they have one hanging around Snail Valley."

"There's a temple of Delphyne back in Baron's Haven," Xandro recalled. "But that's at least a week behind us. Our best bet's probably Devlinshire."

"...Where we're wanted criminals," pointed out Alewyth.

"True, true," Xandro admitted, "but they'll be looking for the full five of us, and we do rather stand out. But if just one of us were to return to the city...."

"Two of us," Wakurn countered. "I can be invisible, right beside you."

"And the rest of us?" asked Zander.

"We can be inside a rope trick," Thurloe answered. "I can cast it underneath the wagon. It'll work. Let's go, then." He was eager to be free of this night hag, if this was how he was going to feel after each night spent with her. They decided to have Xandro steer the wagon into town, with Wakuren invisible in the seat next to him. Xandro, a wandering bard, had the best reason for entering the city and also had the quickest wit when it came to talking himself out of situations, if there were any suspicions at the city gates. But his silver tongue wasn't needed; the guards asked him no questions and he steered the wagon down the street of temples, seeking out Delphyne's holy symbol on the buildings as they drove past. Wakuren spotted it and Xandro brought the mules to a halt before the structure, while Wakuren ducked under the wagon, stuck his head into the extradimensional space where the other three were hiding, and they made their way surreptitiously into the temple of Delphyne.

Their meeting with the clerics there was both good and bad. Good, in that they knew some lore about night hags and had spellcasters capable of casting a plane shift spell for them (for a suitable donation, of course); bad in that none of the clerics powerful enough to cast that spell currently had it on hand - the group would have to meet again the next day to have the spell cast upon them. In the meantime, they'd prepare a scroll of plane shift so the five heroes would be able to return to the Material Plane when their extraplanar business had been completed. That meant another night's depredations at the hands of the night hag, but it couldn't be helped - and at least Thurloe had no memories of his time spent in the night hag's dream trap. He opted to sleep inside the extradimensional space of a rope trick spell, hoping against hope the night hag wouldn't be able to find him if he fell asleep in an entirely different dimension, but he awoke the next morning knowing that nothing had changed: he felt even worse, with aching joints and bones as if he were sick with the flu.

But at least today they'd hopefully be able to deal with the situation at hand. They returned to the temple of Delphyne ready to do battle with the night hag and get Thurloe released from her thrall. They paid over the money requested by the clerics, the lead cleric cast the spell herself, and the five heroes were shunted through the planes to end up on the Ethereal Plane. And although the Ethereal Plane was in theory endless, the head cleric had theorized that since the night hag's "dream trap" was attuned to Thurloe, his arrival on the plane - even in physical form - should be at least nearby where they wanted to be.

And such indeed seemed to be the case, for the five heroes found themselves in a misty world with an enormous black structure before them. It seemed to be carved from an immense, black gemstone, rectangular in shape but with the four corners cut off on the diagonal, forming a lozenge shape. The structure stood a good 20 feet tall and was more than twice that wide and four times as long. A pair of solid-looking doors sat in the middle of one of the shorter sides of the structure, and as the others started casting their standard array of "prepare for combat" spells, Xandro pulled out his lockpicking tools and applied himself in earnest to the task of getting past the locking mechanism.

Alewyth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself, following it up with a bless spell upon the assembled group. Thurloe cast a mage armor spell on himself, used his wand to cast a shield spell upon himself, and then passed the wand over to Zander so the elf could do likewise. Zander also cast a mage armor spell upon himself, then cast two bear's endurance spells, one on himself and one on Wakuren, before casting a haste spell on the group. Wakuren, in the meantime, contented himself with a protection from evil spell and the invisibility provided to him from his magic ring.

"How's that lock coming?" asked Thurloe, eager to get on with it.

"Just got it...now!" replied Xandro, opening the door and putting away his tools. However, there were two guardians on the other side of the doors and they charged forward at the intruders to their mistress's secret realm. These were vaguely reptilian creatures, with scales of an iridescent blue and complicated, three-part jaws that allowed their trifold mouths to open wide and snatch up prey. The first one sprinted in a dash for Xandro, but Thurloe cut it down with his bastard sword as soon as it stuck its head out of the door. It crashed to the ground at the spellsword's feet. The other one snapped at Thurloe, but he managed to duck back from its snapping teeth and stabbed forward with the blade of his sword, skewering it through the chest. Just that quickly, both ethereal marauders were slain. Alewyth stepped up, Sjondra at the ready in case there were any more of these strange creatures, but it looked like there had just been the two. Warily, she stepped inside the structure.

Ahead, in the interior of the rectangular building, stood what at first looked to be a giant igloo, although closer examination showed it had been crafted of webbing, not ice. Most of it sat in the back of the building, a 40-foot-diamter hemisphere with a long, sloped projection sticking out towards the doors of the gemlike structure. Unseen by any of the heroes - who weren't in a position to be able to see the interior sides of the upper dome on either side of the "entry tunnel" - a pair of phase spiders, each the size of a large horse, hung upside-down ready to pounce on anyone who entered their lair.

Thurloe advanced down the entry tunnel cautiously - the interior was murkily lit in some unknown fashion, but he was getting a disturbing sense of déjà vu, as if he'd been inside this dome before. And if this was indeed the night hag's dream trap, then it made sense that he had in fact been here; he just had no conscious memory of it.

Zander stood at the beginning of the tunnel, not yet ready to enter. He brought the words to a lightning bolt spell to the forefront of his brain, ready to cast the spell if anything were to show up and look menacing. The Delphynian clerics had warned the group that fire and cold were useless against a night hag, so he was hoping a blast of electricity would be just the thing. Xandro, in the meantime, pulled the Dardolian lute from his back and began playing his song of inspirational courage. If ever there was a need to set fears to bay, this creepy place was it!

Alewyth cast an aid spell on herself as she stepped forward down the entry tunnel. But Wakuren was there ahead of her, stepping boldly into the dome and examining the 10-foot-diameter metal disk he found on the floor in the center of the curved structure. It had arcane runes along its surface and probably served some sort of purpose similar to a teleportation circle, he guessed - maybe this was how the hag entered the structure, although that wouldn't explain why the front door was locked. If there was a lock on the door, you would expect she'd have the key. Perhaps, he ruminated, this was the device that lured Thurloe to this specific destination when he fell asleep. He turned to ask Thurloe if that had been the case, and was surprised to see not only the spellsword right there behind him - the half-orc hadn't heard him approach - but a pair of giant spiders drop down from the ceiling and attack, mandibles dripping with venom.

Of course, as Wakuren was still hidden behind the invisibility spell of his ring, both spiders attacked Thurloe, the only foe they saw. But Wakuren popped back into view as he brought the bottom of his shield crashing down upon the mottled abdomen of the nearest spider. Back at the entrance, Zander took a step to the side to better line up his field of vision and cast the lightning bolt he'd had ready to fire. It zapped through the first phase spider to have successfully bitten Thurloe, but then the second one scrabbled up and bit the spellsword as well. Thurloe's bastard sword came crashing down upon the head of that one, cleaving it through, right between its largest pair of eyes, and it fell to the ground, eight legs twitching spasmodically. Alewyth ran up to the remaining spider and slammed it with Sjondra, and then Zander finished it off with a scorching ray spell, figuring the night hag might be immune to fire magic but a giant spider likely wasn't.

The spiders slain, Thurloe went back to examining the plate on the floor. "I remember this," he said. "I didn't before, but now that I'm here, I remember this whole dome thing, and this plate on the floor. This is where I'd end up when I fell asleep." He turned and faced the back of the dome. "And the night hag would come for me from the back, over there." Everyone looked around the dome, but there was no sign of the night hag. And then Zander's keen elven vision picked up a bit of metal tucked in among the webbing at the base of the dome, along the floor. Pulling away at the strands keeping it in place, he saw it was a metal oil lamp, of the kind stories attributed to magic genies and the like.

"Yes!" Thurloe cried when he saw the lamp. "She'd touch it, and she'd say something, and then we were someplace else - inside the lamp, no doubt."

"What did she say?" prompted Alewyth.

"Hang on, I'm thinking. 'Entrer,' 'antrar,' 'eintrar'..."eintret!' She said 'eintret!'"

"Gather together," Wakuren told the others. "This probably works like a teleport spell - we should all be in contact with each other." Huddling together, Thurloe touched the lamp and said "Eintret" - and suddenly, they were elsewhere.

Thurloe was standing on another round, metal plate on the floor, much the same size and shape as the one in the middle of the phase spider dome, and this too was in the middle of a domelike structure overhead, but there were three openings and one closed door along the cardinal points around this dome, which was not constructed of webbing but rather seemed to have been carved out of a pocket of stone. It had the same rough dimensions as the web-dome, though: about 20 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter. The hemisphere looked vaguely familiar, but then Thurloe didn't have any more time for sight-seeing as they were under attack.

Xandro had been standing to Thurloe's left when they teleported into this extradimensional space, and as a result he had been the closest to the open stables on the eastern side of the reception area. Charging out of the straw-filled stables came a pitch-black horse with a flaming mane and hooves, snorting steam from its flared nostrils. It raced forward and reared up, striking the bard with a flaming hoof that sent him staggering backwards a step or two. The group recognized the creature as a nightmare, having met up with one before in a dream.

Thurloe stepped away from the nightmare, not out of fear but out of recognition: the closed door, he now recalled, led to the night hag's bedroom, where she would ride him all night long, cackling in glee at his pain. Nightmare be damned, the others could deal with the hag's horse - he wanted payback from the evil fiend who had been sapping his physical vitality for two nights! Knowing instinctively the door was unlocked, Thurloe flung it open while casting a mirror image spell upon himself, causing there to be not one spellsword but four identical ones crowding the doorway. Thurloe couldn't help himself; he called out, "Hi, honey - I'm home!"

"Why, indeed you are, dearie - couldn't stay away, could you? And you brought friends! Oh, this is going to be quite an interesting session, I can already tell!"

Zander Quilson cast a reliable standby, magic missile, at the nightmare rearing and kicking at Xandro. As expected, the missiles struck unerringly into the monster horse's flank. Wakuren ran around to the back of the beast, putting all of his considerable strength into the force of his swing as he brought the pointed bottom edge of his shield of Cal stabbing into the horse's side, causing it to scream in pain. The attack brought the half-orc back to full visibility, but that had been a good trade-off as far as Wakuren was concerned. On the other side of the nightmare, Xandro stabbed at the beast with his longsword, catching it just behind its front leg. In return, it focused its attention on the bard, lashing out at him with its flaming hooves and snapping at him with its wicked teeth, which were far sharper than the teeth of a horse had any right to be.

Alewyth cast a spiritual weapon spell and sent the dwarven warhammer flying at the night hag, where it shattered upon her innate spell resistance, much to the surprise and consternation of the dwarven priestess. The night hag, Hesperna Vanderdaark, ignored the shattering weapon and came in close to grab at Thurloe, but the image she grabbed was one of the spell effects and it popped into nothingness at her touch. "Playing hard to get, are we, sweetie?" she crooned at Thurloe, giving him a smile that put his hair on edge. He channeled his torc of the titans to put some extra power behind his swing - for her nightly depredations had left him fatigued - and sent his bastard sword slicing into her age-hardened skin.

Zander dropped his jade cooshee on the floor and called out the command word that brought it to life. "Go help Thurloe!" he told it, and it dashed off to do his master's bidding, snapping at Hesperna, to admittedly little effect. But then Alewyth pushed past Thurloe and swung Sjondra into the night hag's side, trusting this dwarven warhammer at least wouldn't shatter upon the night hag's touch. Then she stepped back and remembered the spell she'd prepared to ensure the night hag didn't get away; fortunately, her dimensional anchor spell took full effect, trapping Hesperna right here in the room with the rest of them - if she wanted to escape, she'd have to push her way past the entire group and get to the disk on the floor of the reception dome.

Wakuren slew the nightmare with another bone-breaking blow of his shield upon the flaming equine's spine, and with the ebony-skinned beast out of the picture Xandro fell back to playing his song of inspirational courage on his lute. After all, it was getting crowded there in the hag's bedroom. Hesperna, tired of playing around with Thurloe, took a step back and flung out four magic missiles, hitting him (although that missile was harmlessly absorbed into his shield spell), popping his two remaining mirror images into nonexistence, and causing the cooshee to yelp in pain as a side bonus. But Thurloe stepped forward and used another dose of enhanced strength from his magical torc to power another swing of his bastard sword. Zander cast a lightning bolt spell at Hesperna, but it too had no effect as it was absorbed be her hefty resistance to most spells. The cooshee continued nipping at her ankles, trying to trip her to the floor, but she was having none of it. Alewyth pressed the attack with Sjondra and now Wakuren entered the room, slamming his shield into the night hag's side.

That finally made up Hesperna's mind. She'd arrogantly thought she could handle Thurloe and his band of companions, but now too many of their attacks were getting through her defenses. As much as she hated to admit it - or put her long-earned treasures on the line - she needed help, and fast. With that realization, she darted back to her bed, yanked out a footlocker from beneath it, and popped open the lid. Alewyth was close enough to see what was inside it: nearly half a dozen writhing worms, each about the size of her forearm.

Thurloe pressed on the attack, as a close grouping of magic missiles flew over his shoulder to break apart into nothingness when they reached Hesperna, another victim of her innate resistance to spells. Alewyth swung again with her warhammer, but hardly made enough of an attack for the night hag to even notice. Her focus was on Thurloe, her current project and, with any luck, the sixth of her larvae, after which she'd be off to the Lower Planes to sell them off for a good deal of coin. But first she had to survive, trapped as she was on this plane and unable to simply plane shift away to the Material Plane. She gave serious thought toward abandoning her magic lamp and escaping back to the Ethereal Plane, where she could likely lose these five heroes in the mists.

But then Wakuren made the whole issue moot by bringing the edge of his shield crashing into her face, driving her nose up into her brain while simultaneously snapping her neck. Hesperna coughed up a bubble of blackish blood and fell to a heap in her own extradimensional bedroom.

However, that didn't mean the fight was all the way finished just yet. One of the larval creatures wriggled out of the footlocker, inadvertently exposing one of the chest's magical properties, for as soon as it was out it grew eightfold until it was as long as a man. It opened wide its circular mouth and spewed forth a small rain of wriggling maggots at Thurloe, covering the spellsword in flyspawn. He involuntarily stepped back and started brushing the maggots off of him, while Xandro stepped forward and slammed the lid back down, imprisoning the other four larvae. Alewyth killed the one that had gotten free with her dwarven warhammer.

"Is that it?" Thurloe asked, still wiping maggots off of his body and crushing them underfoot with his boots. Alewyth aided him in his task.

"It looks like it," Zander answered. "The rest of the stable's empty, and all I see in the other rooms are a bunch of tables and a pool of water." A quick search confirmed the rest of the extradimensional space was clear of enemies. Closer examination of the lab revealed a few magical items Hesperna had apparently crafted there in her lab - a bag of dust of illusion, a vial of elixir of truth, and a vial of salve of slipperiness - and a brief check-out of the pool revealed it not only cleaned the bodies and clothes of anyone entering its waters, but full submersion resulted in gaining the equivalent sustenance as if one had just consumed an entire meal. And Hesperna had a second, smaller chest stored under her bed, this one filled with gems and coins, including several of the gold coins with the pointy-bearded man on one side and a lit torch on the other.

"Guys," said Xandro excitedly. "Do you know what this means? Mobile headquarters!"

"It'll need some cleaning out, first," muttered Alewyth, looking at the squashed maggots on the floor of Hesperna's bedroom and the full-size corpses of the slain larva, nightmare, and of Hesperna herself. She gave a shiver of disgust.

Figuring out how to leave was easy enough, as the word "AUSSTEIG" was carved in the middle of the metal disk in the reception dome. Sure enough, by stepping on the plate and saying the command word, one was shunted to stand adjacent to the magic lamp, in this case back under the web-dome inside the black lozenge-shaped building. Alewyth and Xandro had brought the footlocker with them, and they allowed the other larvae out one at a time for the sole purpose of slaying them. But that done, they opted to keep the footlocker - one never knew when you might need to crawl inside and get shrunken down to one-eighth your normal size. It would be a good way to smuggle a bunch of people out of a building or something, that was for sure, even if it didn't seem to have any effect on non-living matter placed into the chest.

"Let's get out of here," Thurloe said, eager to be back to the Material Plane. More than anything else, he was eager to get back to the Dreamlands, just to prove to himself he could. But Xandro held him off for a bit. "You know," he said, "phase spider silk can be sold for a hefty sum to those interested in making magic items. Portable holes, for instance." Even Thurloe, eager as he was to see the end of this place, had no compunctions about hanging around long enough to cut down chunks of the phase spider silk that made up the "igloo dome." It was just a shame they wouldn't be able to return back here once they left, since the scroll of plane shift Alewyth had received from the clerics of Delphyne was only good for one trip back to the Mortal World.

Once they'd cut and stowed all they could carry, Alewyth unrolled the scroll, read the words contained therein, and the five of them returned to the Material World, back inside the temple of Delphyne. There, they got directions to a few local businesses where they might be able to sell phase spider silk, and hurried off to load up the wagon with the handfuls they had been able to take with them (and the footlocker, which they had stuffed full as well). Then, it was back to invisibility for Wakuren, back to the interior of the magic lamp for Zander, Alewyth, and Thurloe (where the dwarven priestess quickly put the men on cleaning detail), and Xandro was back to driving the wagon out of Devlinshire and back over to Snail Valley.

The Picklemeyers were happy to hear that the "slight issue" had been taken care of and that the five dreamwalkers were certain they could awaken their daughter Rosie for sure this time. And, after each of the dreamwalkers got to experience for him- or herself the "joys" of rocking a crying, baby-faced snail to sleep in their arms, they all enjoyed a quick cup of pretend tea with Rosie and Mr. Bear, after which time the dream started collapsing around them. "Time to wake up!" called out Wakuren, and the six woke back up on the Material Plane all at once.

"Where's Mr. Bear?" Rosie asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Jarko dashed back into her room to grab the stuffed animal while Petunia grabbed her daughter up into her arms and buried her in a hug.

"We can't thank you enough," Jarko told the five dreamwalkers as they prepared to depart.

"Here, I'd like you to have this," Petunia said, handing over a silver ring. "It's been in my family for three generations and it's got some kind of magic in it, but it's only of any use to a spellcaster and I don't have any such abilities. Perhaps you can use it." Wakuren tried declining, but Petunia was adamant. "We've not much else to pay you with," she insisted. "Please. Put it to good use." Eventually, Wakuren agreed, if only to make the Picklemeyers feel better.

"What's your deal?" complained Thurloe when they were back outside heading to their wagon and the riding animals. "When somebody insists on giving you payment, you take payment!"

"Kind of like that gold coin that 'noblewoman' gave you on the road?" Wakuren asked.

"Yeah, I suppose."

"You realize that noblewoman was the night hag in human form, and the coin was probably some sort of focus device that allowed her to reel you in like a fish," the half-orc pointed out.

"What? Did you read her aura? Was she evil?"

"I didn't look," admitted Wakuren. "It's not polite to go around assuming everyone's a potential source of evil."

"I quite agree," said the little gnome sitting on the front seat of the wagon. He held a burlap sack on his lap.

"Wangle!" exclaimed Alewyth. "What are you doing here?"

"Possible delivery," he replied. "Were you still interested in that pair of boots of striding and springing you put a down-payment on? I understand you've come into some money recently." Alewyth chose not to press how the gnome knew so much about her personal business, but she answered in the affirmative. Wangle Turdblossom reminded her of how much she still owed on the boots, she turned over the coins from her share of Hesperna's treasure and the money they'd made off of the phase spider silk, and the gnome handed over the burlap sack. "Wear them in good health," he advised, then scooted down from the wagon and ambled away, whistling a merry tune.

"He's a strange little fellow," Wakuren observed.

"Gnomes, taken as a whole, generally are," Alewyth remarked.

- - -

In all of my years of gaming, I don't think I'd ever used a night hag before, so I specifically wrote this adventure just to be able to use one - especially since the night hag's "dream haunting" ability meshed so nicely with the main concept of this campaign. Since night hags target evil and/or chaotic individuals for their larva conversion, Thurloe became the only logical target, since we don't have any evil PCs and he's the only one with a chaotic component to his alignment.

For Rosie's dream sequence, I had seven tabs open to YouTube on my computer, each ready to play an hour of the sound of a baby crying. As soon as the first snail baby started crying, I activated one such link, then started playing the other six when the one's crying woke up the others. It was a marvelous cacophony, but one the players begged me not to use again when they returned to Rosie's dream after getting Thurloe rescued from the night hag.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My solid gray T-shirt (to represent the Ethereal Plane).
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PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 7
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 1
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 4
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 2
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 7​

Game Session Date: 23 July 2022

- - -

The group was several days out of Snail Valley and Zander Quilson had been very quiet and introspective. Thurloe had also been very quiet, giving Horse a break by having him follow along behind the mule-driven wagon, his reins tied to the back while Thurloe sat in the back of the wagon and pored over his various captured spellbooks, trying to puzzle out how to cast some of the spells he had yet to master. Zander had no such excuse for his silence, though, for he wasn't actively engaged in anything like magical research; he just found he was easily distracted, his thoughts whirling from one distant memory to another.

The group had taken to using their extradimensional lamp as a mobile headquarters (and a means by which they saved money on inn rooms). If they stopped in a small village or town, Xandro Silverstrings always sought out the local taverns and inns to see if they'd be interested in hiring him on to play and sing during their evening meal and into the night, often just for room and board, occasionally for a bit of coin on top of that. But that at least got him a room for the night, and if he brought in the lamp - with the others in the group, to include the animals and the wagon already stashed inside the extradimensional space - that saved a considerable amount on rooms and stabling costs.

This particular night, the group had settled in for the evening, with Alewyth claiming the one bed they had in the night hag's bedroom and Wakuren bunking down on his bedroll in the same room, Thurloe camping out in the alchemy lab, Xandro sleeping in the back of the wagon (which they left in the main entrance room, as the wagon was too big to go anywhere else), and Zander had laid out his bedroll in the same main entryway, along the curved wall of the hemispherical chamber. The elf was just settling himself down to sleep when he suddenly heard a voice in his head.

<...hear me?> it said. At first, Zander wasn't sure he'd heard anything at all, for the voice was very faint. Then he wondered if it might have been one of the moogles in the Dreamlands, as they'd found a way for them to communicate with the dreamwalkers through the dreamstones embedded in particular pieces of the heroes' equipment - Zander's jade cooshee, for example, now had eyes made of the strange stones. But no, the elf realized if it had been a moogle speaking to him, the last word would have invariably been "kupo."

<Can you hear me?> the voice repeated, and Zander sat up in his bedroll. "I can hear you," he replied, causing Xandro to sit up from the back of the wagon and see what was going on. "Lights on," the bard commanded and the unseen source of illumination bathed the area in its soft glow. "What's going on, Zander?" he asked.

"Are you hearing anybody talking telepathically?" the elf asked.

<You'll be the only one who can hear me,> the voice informed Zander, <since I'm living inside you.>

"You're what?" demanded the elf.

"What's going on?" demanded Thurloe, the light from the entry dome spilling into the alchemy lab where he'd been just about asleep. "What are you clowns up to?"

"Zander's getting some kind of telepathic message," Xandro informed the grumpy swordsman.

<Now, I don't want you to freak out,> said the voice in Zander's head. <You're not going to freak out, are you? Take some calming breasts...no, that's not right...what's the word? Yes, breaths! Do that breathing thing you do.>

"Who are you?" demanded Zander, starting to hyperventilate. "How did you get in me?" This course of conversation had Thurloe and Xander, both now wide awake, looking at each other in confusion.

<I'm actually a part of a larger being from another entirely different plane of existence, and I sent a portion of my body into your world, where I happened to latch onto you. I've spent the last few weeks growing throughout your body until now I've finally expanded into a large enough network that I'm capable of communicating with you. Now, have you been doing that breathing thing? Are you all nice and calm?>

"As calm as can be expected."

"Okay then, look down at your right leg. No, the front leg. Arm! That's what it's called! Look down at your right arm. And remember what I said about not freaking out.>

As instructed, Zander rolled up his sleeve and looked down at his right arm. On the forearm, just below the elbow, there was a small, brown discoloration - a beauty mark, they were called. Zander didn't remember ever noticing he had a beauty mark in that particular place before.

And then the "beauty mark" cracked open and the elf found himself looking down at a tiny eye on his arm that was staring right back up at him. Quite the contrary to his instructions, Zander found himself freaking out. <Calm down!> the voice repeated. <Deep breaths! I'm not going to hurt you! Hey! Are you listening to me?> Zander was crying out in a panicked voice, and when the beauty mark extended itself a good eighteen inches on a thin, flexible tendril extruding from the elf's forearm so the eye could stare directly into Zander's face, the effect did nothing but increase the panic he was feeling.

Eventually, though, his heart stopped racing and he realized although this was certainly a strange turn of events, no real harm had come to him: the creature wasn't able to control his body, nor was he feeling any kind of pain from having this thing living inside of him. "Why are you here?" he asked the eye, which had retracted itself painlessly back into Zander's forearm once he had started calming down.

<I'm an explorer,> the voice said. <This process gives me the opportunity to see other worlds. And this is a pretty boring world so far. I mean, those trees you have here? All they do is move a little bit on their tops when it's windy - they never seem to levitate in the air, or explode into a flock of fish or anything. Your whole world seems pretty...static, is that the word?> Zander agreed that it was. Over the next few minutes, he and the creature inside him - the part of the larger creature, apparently called a nibish-riule, which was from a place called the Far Realm - discussed how their merging had come about. Back up in Rindicane's tower, Zander had stepped from the tower's balcony on the Plane of Shadows and into the room with the magic window, which Rindicane had readjusted to open into the Far Realm. The nibish-riule, intrigued by this window into another world, extended a piece of itself through the window (quite nice not having to pierce the planes itself) and adhered onto Zander's body, where it grew into a full network in a matter of weeks. Zander now had six of these "beauty marks" on his body, each capable of extending on the tip of a thin tendril to look about it. One thing the elf quickly latched upon was the fact that the nibish-riule could be put on guard duty if needed; Zander could be sound asleep and the six tendrils could be extended in all directions to look for danger, as the nibish-riule needed no sleep. However, it would need to be trained on what did and did not constitute a threat in this world, lest it awaken Zander at the approach of a mouse or a dragonfly. Zander also had to explain the concept of sleep to the extradimensional creature, who during its weeks of silent observation had merely assumed the elf died for a while each night and then returned to life. The creature found the concept of sleep to be something of an oddity, but certainly more mundane than continually dying and returning to life. It figured; this world seemed to go out of its way to be boring.

It had hundreds of questions with which to pester Zander, but the elf convinced it he needed to sleep and they could talk again in the morning. He was somewhat surprised when the creature agreed; he'd been expecting it to put up more of an argument. <That's okay,> it said amicably, <we have the rest of your life to talk....> That didn't put Zander any at ease!

- - -

This was a plot point I had been planning on springing when the PCs all leveled up to 8th, but I fast-forwarded it a bit when I came to the realization that Zander's player, Joe, will be leaving for college shortly and we only have two regular sessions with him before Zander becomes a temporary NPC who's passed around among the other players to see who'll be running him (in addition to their own PC) each session. I wanted the introduction of the "worry-wart" (as the "beauty mark" extensions of the nibish-riule are often called, given the creature's concerns for the well-being of its host, since if the host dies the nibish-riule loses its interesting window into the strange, new world it's being allowed to see) to occur with Joe "at the helm," so to speak. And since this had no real bearing on the adventure we played through the session, I decided to just write it up as an interlude.



PC Roster:
Alewyth Putterpye, dwarf priestess of Aerik 7​
Thurloe Pulver, human fighter 3/wizard 3/spellsword 1​
Wakuren, half-orc cleric of Cal 3/paladin 4​
Xandro Silverstrings, human bard 5/rogue 2​
Zander Quilson, elf sorcerer 7​

Game Session Date: 23 July 2022

- - -

That night, in the Dreamlands, Zander explained all about the nibish-riule to Alewyth and Wakuren, who had missed all the excitement right before the other three made it to sleep. They were astonished (and Alewyth more than a bit repulsed) at the thought of this extradimensional creature living inside their elven friend. But it didn't seem to be doing him any harm, and Wakuren saw no alteration to Zander's aura, so they decided not to worry a whole lot about it. Thurloe, however, decided the next chance he got he'd try to do some research on these nibish-riule things, to see if there was some way to get rid of it. Dismissal was always an option, as was banishment, although both of those particular spells were currently beyond his ability to cast. Still, it bore checking out, just in case....

The moogles had no information on nibish-riules, claiming they didn't seem to dream. In fact, while Zander was able to talk to the worry-wart on his arm and it extended and retracted at his request, he was well aware that this was just a dream and he was merely dreaming the worry-wart's actions. There was no actual telepathic communication going on; apparently the nibish-riule couldn't contact Zander while the elf was sleeping. But it did seem to like the concept of dreams and it certainly enjoyed poring through the elf's memories of past dreams, for the occasional strangeness of dreams was much more like the chaotic Far Realm from which the extradimensional creature hailed.

"We should probably check out the next dream-victim's dream," suggested Wakuren. "We should hit Portersville late tomorrow morning."

"Right this way, kupo!" exclaimed Mogo, hovering at eye level to the half-orc and opening the door to the dream. Without being right there by the dreamer's side - and without being able to place a dreamstone upon the sleeping victim's brow to aid in the process - Wakuren well knew they wouldn't be able to conquer this dream and free the dreamer, but it would at least give them some idea of what to expect. He stepped through the doorway, the other four dreamwalkers following behind him.

They now stood in an alley, with a half-orc dressed in rags and holding a bloody short sword standing over the dead bodies of a well-to-do human woman and a rakish-looking human man. A trio of human guards rushed down the alleyway and wrestled the half-orc to the ground.

"I think there's more to this dream, but he keeps going over this part again and again, kupo," observed Mogo, who for once had entered the dream with his trainees. Indeed, as they watched the half-orc was suddenly standing over the two dead victims once again and the trio of guardsman started running down the alleyway at him. The same sequence kept looping over and over.

"Not much point in hanging around here, then," decided Thurloe, stepping back out of the dream. "So we're probably looking for a half-orc, then. Good to know."

As expected, the group pulled into the small town of Portersville shortly before lunchtime. As had become their custom - because it so often bore fruit - they hit the taverns, asking if anyone had heard of somebody in town having been unable to be awakened from their sleep for a matter of days or weeks. But this time, to their surprise, the well was completely dry: all they got for their efforts were puzzled looks and questioning stares. Some even accused the heroes of making up nonsensical tales. "Well, this approach isn't working," Xandro observed. "Let's go try the town hall and see if we can talk to some of the guardsmen directly."

The guard station was of little help, as nobody there was able to recall anybody being trapped in a sleeping state. Thurloe took a different approach, wondering if perhaps there was a guard who hadn't shown up for work in some time, for he reasoned it was entirely possible the dreamer wasn't the half-orc being arrested but one of the officers taking him into custody. But that didn't get him anywhere, either - they hadn't had any no-shows among their duty roster.

"Do you have any half-orcs currently in custody?" Wakuren asked, and was told they'd have to go check at the prison. The guards they were talking with gave them directions to Bleakstone Prison, on the outskirts of town.

Bleakstone Prison was ringed by 12-foot-tall stone walls that had but a single opening: a thick, wooden door set into the front wall. Naturally, this door was locked, but there was a bell hanging on a pole that could be rung to alert the guards inside of visitors. Wakuren pulled on the bell-rope and after a minute or so, a sliding door at eye level opened in the door and a voice called out from the other side, "Who's there? What do you want?"

Wakuren briefly explained why the group was there. The guards, however, replied there was nobody inside the prison who'd been asleep for weeks, whether guards or inmates. Thurloe said they wanted to talk to the prison administrator and hinted at a surprise health inspection; the guard told him to wait while one of them went back inside to see if Administrator Morbhen was willing to see them. Closing the peek-hole sliding door in the meantime, he waited for his partner to return and this gave the heroes a moment to whisper quietly to each other.

"Health inspection?" hissed Wakuren. "Why are you always so quick to lie to people?"

"Because it works!" Thurloe hissed back. "You watch: they're going to let us in, and I'll bet you anything it's because the Administrator doesn't want to get in trouble by failing to allow health inspectors in to check out his facility!"

"But we're not health inspectors!" replied Wakuren. "He'll see right through us! If you stick to telling the truth, you don't find yourself in positions like this!"

Any reply Thurloe might have been about to make was cut off by the return of the first guard. The sliding eye-level door was opened back up and the other guard told them, "Administrator Morbhen has agreed to let you in. But normal rules apply: no weapons, no contraband, horses and wagons stay outside the fenced area. Let me know when you're ready to enter, and you will be searched before being allowed access into the prison areas, so don't try hiding anything - we know all of the tricks." Then he closed the window again and awaited notification that they were ready to enter.

"No weapons?" asked Alewyth, hefting her dwarven warhammer Sjondra. "That'll make things more interesting if we run into any trouble."

"No weapons, Hell," answered Thurloe, putting a hand upon the magic lamp and signaling for everyone to gather together. When they were all in contact, he said "eintret" and everyone teleported into the entry dome in the lamp's extradimensional interior. "Leave everything we can't take into the prison here," he said.

"So you're planning on--" began Wakuren.

"--taking the lamp with all of our stuff into the prison, yeah," answered Thurloe for him. "We might need this stuff - better we've got it at hand. They might make us leave the lantern in a holding area or something, but it'll be a lot closer than outside the walls in the back of the wagon." Wakuren took a deep breath to calm himself but left his shield on the floor as the rest of the group disarmed and left most of their gear behind.

"Are we keeping our armor?" asked Alewyth.

"Sure - why not?" answered Thurloe.

"All health inspectors wear full armor during their no-notice inspections," Wakuren pointed out sarcastically. Thurloe just ignored him. But he noticed the half-orc had opted to keep his gauntlet of Cal on his hand rather than leave it behind, no doubt thinking he might be allowed to wear it inside the prison, and its ability to hurl javelins of lightning could indeed prove to be useful in a fight.

Once everyone had divested themselves of items they didn't think they'd be allowed to bring inside the prison, they returned to the Material Plane and informed the guards they were ready. The door creaked open just enough to allow them to enter the outer courtyard around the prison building one by one, then the guards pulled the door shut again and locked it with a key on a large ring. "This way, then," said one of the two guards, walking them across the open area and up to the front door of the prison, which required another key to unlock and open. "Step inside," the guard told them, "and empty all pouches, pockets, and the like. Then line up to be frisked." Alewyth couldn't help but notice both guards kept darting glances in her direction; she finally chocked it up to the fact they probably didn't get a whole lot of women inside this men's prison. It still didn't help her feel any less uncomfortable about their frequent stares, though - and she wasn't particularly looking forward to the frisking to come.

One guard held open a visitor's log and had each of the five write their names in the book, then they started the inspection of their items. Wakuren and Alewyth were allowed to keep their holy symbols and the half-orc was pleased to note they didn't have any means for detecting for magic items; as a result, he got to keep his gauntlet of Cal and similarly Thurloe got to keep his torc of the titans. But all potions had to be stored away in boxes, as the guards pointed out the glass vials could be broken and used as a makeshift dagger or such. Apparently such things had been tried before.

As the others were being searched, Xandro took a moment to look around. In the right corner as one entered the prison, there was a holding cell with metal bars reaching from floor to ceiling; the cell was 10 feet on a side and was currently empty, with benches along two walls and a hole in the floor that could only be a public latrine. The two guards each had their own desk and chair, and there was another narrow desk with a rack of shelves where the heroes' items (including, Thurloe was sad to see, their magic lamp) were temporarily stored in boxes. The spellsword made a point to memorize which box the lamp had been placed in, if they should need to quickly fetch their weapons.

Once the guards were satisfied the items the group was being allowed to bring into the prison were harmless, one of them unlocked the door in the back that led to the mess hall. "The administrator's office is in the back," the guard said as the other one relocked the door they had just passed through. Along the way, they saw a rather bored-looking cook behind the counter where apparently the meals were served, and then three long tables and benches where the convicts ate their meals; currently, there were only four other guards sitting at one of the tables, playing cards. The convicts were no doubt all in their cells, which were presumably behind the closed and locked iron door on the right side of the mess hall.

Arriving at the appropriate door, the guard rapped twice and received a curt "Come in" as a response. There, sitting behind his desk, was Administrator Morbhen. He opted not to rise as the five visitors walked into his spacious office, and Zander and Alewyth took the two seats facing his desk. The other three, having no other options, chose to stand.

Wakuren started explaining the whole story about the Nightmare King and the dream sickness that was spreading across the land, and although the administrator said nothing and tried to keep a neutral expression on his face, Wakuren got the distinct impression that the high elf did not approve of half-orcs in the least. Still, he pressed on and then asked if there was anyone at the prison who had been asleep for a matter of days or weeks and who was unable to be awakened.

"Certainly not," replied Administrator Morbhen. "I run a tight ship here - any employee missing work due to excess sleeping would have been terminated on the spot."

"What about the prisoners?" asked Alewyth.

"They likewise have their daily schedules to maintain. They are awakened, their cells inspected, receive their mandatory exercise," - and the administrator's face let out a hint about what he thought about that particular policy - "and fed their meals. There is no one in this facility asleep for longer than they should be."

"Do you have any half-orc prisoners?" asked Thurloe.

"No. Our prisoners are all humans. Given the human predilection for crime and depravity, this is perhaps not too surprising." He managed to glare at both Thurloe and Xandro, as if trying to determine how long before either of them would end up behind bars.

"But you've had half-orc prisoners in here before? Recently?" Thurloe pressed.

"We have had a half-orc prisoner in here recently, yes," agreed Administrator Morbhan. "He is no longer with us."

"Rehabilitated?" guessed Wakuren.

"Dead. He was stabbed to death by a human inmate who managed to smuggle a spoon into his cell and sharpen it into a crude blade. Humans can be rather clever when it comes to doing what they do best."

"You don't seem to hold that high an opinion of humans," observed Thurloe. "And yet all of your guards are human. Why might that be?"

"One does one's best with the tools at hand. You'll notice Portersville is predominantly made up of a human population."

"What happened to the half-orc prisoner who was stabbed here?" asked Alewyth. "Was he buried here at the prison? Is there a prison graveyard?" She had a sudden premonition that the half-orc might have been buried alive if he was in a dream-induced coma and gave every indication of being dead. If that had happened, they'd have to convince the administrator to allow them to dig him up to see if he could be revived - a prospect she could see would take some doing.

Administrator Morbhan's disdain for his visitors didn't seem to apply to the dwarven priestess or the elven sorcerer. As such, he answered her directly without any sneering or looks of distaste at having to deal with a member of a lesser race. "Bleakstone Prison has no graveyard, Miss. The body was taken away by the town councilors, to do with what they normally do in such cases. Cremation is most likely, I believe, if the former inmate had no immediate family at hand." He turned his head to address the entire group at large. "Now then, I believe that answers your questions. I'll have one of the guards escort you out." He dismissed them with a glance and Xandro took the hint, opening the door and stepping outside.

"Thank you for your time," Wakuren said pleasantly as he and the rest of the group followed Xandro and the guard who had brought them here, who had been waiting outside the door during their visit.

"Tell me you did a reading," Thurloe said to Wakuren, and the half-orc knew exactly what he had been referring to: the administrator's aura.

"Exactly as you no doubt would have expected," Wakuren replied, not wanting to broadcast "He's evil" in front of the guard leading them back the way they'd come.

But they only made it halfway across the mess hall when there was a commotion at the door leading to the in-processing area. With a fumbling of keys, the other guard who had stayed in the front area burst open through the door, a panicked look on his face. The reason for this was immediately behind him: a menacing form made up of a filthy sheet, which floated several inches above the floor. The linen had no doubt once been white, but now it was gray from lack of recent cleaning with streaks of what looked - and smelled - like fecal matter covering it in rough stripes along its length. A pair of glowing, greenish eyes glared out at the guard as he stumbled through the doorway, eager to escape the sheet phantom approaching him with evil intent.

Thurloe rushed forward, instinctively reaching for the bastard sword that was no longer on a scabbard on his back. "Clear the way!" called Wakuren, and Thurloe and the guard both stepped to the side, giving the cleric-paladin of Cal a clear shot when he summoned forth a javelin of lightning into the gauntlet of Cal he wore on his right hand. Throwing the bolt of electricity across the room, it blasted into the sheet phantom and burned a hole in the front part of the sheet - revealing there was nothing underneath the sheet, even though its shape conformed to that of a person wearing a sheet over his body.

Most of Xandro's bardic powers and spells required him to play music, and the Dardolian lute had been left behind in a box in the front room - after all, it could be used as a blunt instrument by a prisoner looking for a convenient weapon. So he used a spell he'd never had the need to cast before: summon instrument, which caused a non-magical lute to appear in his hands, summoned from who-knows-where. But Xandro Silverstrings began the first chords of his song of inspirational courage, knowing his partners would need every advantage they could get, what with just about all of their weapons having been stored away in the room just beyond the open door - and which was now blocked by a filth-covered sheet phantom.

The guards who had been playing cards rushed up and drew their weapons, as did the one escorting the heroes back out of the prison; the one fleeing from the sheet phantom took refuge behind Thurloe, although what safety he thought the unarmed spellsword could provide him, only he knew. However, Thurloe provided nothing less than a perfectly good target for the sheet phantom's attack, as he was now the closest living person to the undead sheet of soiled linen. It swooped over at Thurloe, its sheet spreading out like a net to try to encompass the spellsword, but Thurloe managed to drop low and dodge beneath the attack. He then took the opportunity to run through the doorway, over to the box where he knew the group's magic lamp was stored. He called out "eintret" as soon as he got his hands on the lamp's surface, and found himself inside the extradimensional interior, where he grabbed up his bastard sword and potion belt, plus Sjondra for Alewyth and Wakuren's magic shield, both of which he knew their owners would find handy to have on hand.

Alewyth was stepping forward to see what she could do to help when the administrator's door slammed open. "What's going on out here?" the elf demanded, hearing a ruckus in the jail he insisted upon keeping on an even keel. He saw Wakuren make a few gestures with his hands and suddenly there was a greataxe floating in the air above the sheet phantom, which flew down at the undead thing and cut it into two pieces. Ripped nearly in half by the power of the spiritual weapon, the sheet fell limply to the floor.

"It rose up out of the latrine hole in the holding cell!" the panicked guard replied in answer to his boss's question. "Flew right at me from between the bars!"

Thurloe popped his head around the doorway and saw the angry administrator glaring at the guards for allowing this calamity to occur in his prison. "Would you be all right with us bringing weapons into the prison now, sir?" he asked.

"Get out!" demanded Administrator Morbhen, fury turning his face red. "I find it curious that we are attacked by this...undead thing during your visit! Guards, I want them out of here at once!"

"Yessir!" the guards replied, and they made all haste getting the heroes their gear and taking them back outside the main gate, where their wagon and animals awaited them. Once they were all outside the fenced area, the guards closed and locked the gate once again.

"Well, that was a bust," Zander commented. "Now what?"

<That was at least a bit of excitement on this boring plane of yours,> piped up the nibish-riule living partially inside the elf's body, but Zander told him now was not the time for this discussion.

"Now," answered Wakuren, "we go right back in again, but we do it in a way that they won't even know we're there." He outlined his plan to the others, who agreed it was their best bet to see for themselves what all was going on inside the prison, given they hadn't been allowed to see the prisoners for themselves. For all they knew, there was a half-orc inmate asleep in his cell for the past few weeks, and Administrator Morbhen was lying to them about it...his aura certainly indicated the elf was evil, although part of Wakuren wondered if that was the sort of person who'd want to run herd over a group of killers in the first place. Perhaps it came with the territory.

Part one of Wakuren's plan involved the other four heroes safely inside the lamp, ready to pop back out on his signal...which would have to be when he popped back inside the lamp and told them so directly, for they had no way to communicate between the dimensions. But once they were all inside, Wakuren picked up the lamp, activated his ring (which turned him invisible, along with everything he was wearing and carrying). Then he cast a gaseous form spell upon himself and became a cloud of vapors, which was still covered by the invisibility effect of his ring. As silent as a cloud, Wakuren forced his vaporous form over the prison wall and along the right side, fully expecting to see some barred windows leading into the cell block.

And in that Wakuren was not mistaken. Drifting up to the windows, the half-orc was surprised to see the 15 or so inmates - a quick count showed 18 different cells, of which only a few were unmanned - were thrashing about on their bunks or yanking on the bars of the cells, trying to free themselves. But it was obvious to the half-orc that none of the inmates were still alive; their pale, pasty skin and yellowing eyes gave that initial impression and the fact that none of them was breathing sealed the deal. And even though the half-orc's body was currently an invisible mass of cloudy vapors, he could still pick up the scent of death, commingled with the unmistakable odor of ghoul stench. Somehow, the prisoners had all been turned into either ghouls or ghasts.

One cell in the southeast corner contained an unmoving corpse who - unlike the ghouls, who wore prisoner garb - was dressed in the uniform of one of the prison's guards. He lay on his back, eyes bulging out in frozen terror, with a mass of stringy webbing hanging on his face and clothes. If this had been the work of some giant spider, Wakuren couldn't see any other evidence of the arachnid's presence.

Flowing underneath the iron door, Wakuren entered the mess hall, where the four guards had taken their card game back up. Wakuren spotted the administrator's door and studiously ignored it, wanting instead to check out what was behind the other two doors in the corner of the mess hall. The door to the south led to a 30-foot-by-30-foot open chamber with 12-foot-tall walls but no ceiling. A large circle had been painted on the stone floor and at first Wakuren assumed this was some sort of magic circle, but closer inspection revealed no runes or glyphs along the circle's circumference; this was likely nothing more than an exercise yard, where the prisoners could be marched around in a circle for some fresh air and exercise - neither of which was of any benefit to a ghoul. Wakuren seeped back into the mess hall and drifted over to the other door, squeezing his vaporous body underneath its bottom edge and into an unlit hallway with stairs leading down into darkness.

Fortunately, darkness posed no hardship for a half-orc, even one currently under the effects of a gaseous form spell. Wakuren spilled down the stairs, which ended in a T-intersection veering off a short distance to the east and west. Each ended in a solid door. Choosing the west door at random, Wakuren oozed under it and saw a circular chamber just beyond, with a circular pit in its center that dropped down a good 20 feet. Standing at the bottom of this pit was another ghoul or ghast, this one with runes covering his arms and chest. He was studiously scratching his ragged fingernails - claws, really - in the side of the stone pit, working on carving away grooves deep enough to allow him to climb out of the pit. But Wakuren could tell he had a long way to go still and thus ignored the spell-stitched ghast for now, realizing he posed no immediate threat and wouldn't for some time. Instead, he backed out under the door and checked out the door to the east. He wasn't the least bit surprised to find it a mirror image of the other chamber, with an equally deep pit of the same dimensions. Wakuren was likewise not that surprised to find a half-orc lying motionlessly at the bottom of the pit; it seemed Administrator Morbhen had indeed been lying about the half-orc prisoner having been slain and his body taken away - this, no doubt, was the dreamer for which they had been looking.

Wakuren drifted over to the side of the pit's top edge and deactivated the gaseous form spell, returning to a more physical form. Then he likewise deactivated his invisibility, so that when he set down the lamp and entered its extradimensional space to brief his friends on his findings, they'd be able to see it was him.

Xandro Silverstrings exited the lamp and went to work on the door with his lockpicks; in assuming solid form Wakuren had committed them all to having to find another way out of the prison, for he had no second gaseous form spell prepared. Fortunately, they could still have one person walk out of the place invisibly, carrying the lamp in which the others all hid, but they'd have to do so on foot - and Xandro would need to work his magic on the locked doors. While the bard got the door open, the others used the rope of climbing to have Thurloe go down to the bottom of the pit and fetch the sleeping half-orc, tying one end of the rope around his chest so the others could drag him back up. They opted to bring him into the extradimensional space inside the magic lamp and leave him there - after all, they could perform the dreamwalking ritual at any time; right now it was more important finding a way back out of the prison and putting a stop to whatever plan Administrator Morbhen had hatched that required over a dozen criminal ghouls and ghasts.

"You're our quietest guy," Wakuren told Xandro, taking off his ring of invisibility and handing it over. As an added bonus, Thurloe also passed over the ring they'd received from Mrs. Picklemeyer back in Snail Valley, which allowed the bard to cast a silence spell centered on himself. "That ought to help with any squeaky doors," the spellsword advised, before returning to the lamp's interior with Alewyth, Wakuren, and Zander.

"Here goes nothing," said Xandro, picking up the lamp and activating both rings. Now both invisible and inaudible, he picked up the everburning torch Zander had left on the floor for him, which allowed him to see what he was doing as he climbed back up the stairs and when picking the lock to the door leading back into the mess hall. Once he felt the lock unlatch, he packed away his gear, put the everburning torch into his backpack, picked up the lamp, and then reactivated the ring of invisibility (as he'd deactivated it so he could see what he was doing when picking the door's lock). Then, fully invisible and inaudible once again - and with no illumination spilling out from an unseen source - he opened the door just enough to step out into the room.

The four guards were engrossed in their card game, as the bard had hoped would be the case. He shut the door to the lower level - leading to what he assumed were solitary confinement pits - without drawing their attention, and the bard allowed himself to let out an inaudible "Whew!" of relief. But his silent celebration was premature, for although the guards had paid no attention to the door opening and closing on its own, the action had been observed by the invisible quasit in centipede form - Administrator Morbhen's familiar - perched in the southwestern corner of the mess hall where he could observe the whole room (and make sure the charm person spells his master had cast upon the human guards showed no signs of wearing off). Instinctively, the quasit used its inherent ability to detect good and got a "ping" in an area right in front of the door leading to the lower level. He immediately upchanneled this information telepathically to his master, and within seconds Administrator Morbhen had dashed out of his office and was staring more or less in Xandro's direction, demanding, "Who's there?"

Xandro was spooked and instinctively made a dash for it, silently voicing the command word "eintret" and teleporting into the lamp's interior. (Fortunately, the silence spell, although preventing his utterance from being heard, still allowed the command word to take effect; apparently the lamp accepted the command word mentally as well as verbally, so long as the lamp was in physical contact with the person saying the word.) Of course, Xandro entering the lamp meant he was no longer holding onto it, so it became visible at the same time it crashed to the floor of the prison's mess hall.

"Guys!" Xandro called to the others once he'd removed Thurloe's ring of silent spells so they could hear him. "The jig's up!"

Zander called "On it!" and stepped upon the disk in the middle of the floor of the central hemisphere of the lamp's extradimensional interior, calling out "Aussteig!" and disappearing from view. He ended up next to the lamp, as usual, but it was now in the hands of Administrator Morbhen, who had bent over to pick it up and was looking at it curiously. Well, that's no good, the elf thought to himself, for he'd planned on grappling with the Administrator and teleporting with him back into the lamp where they could take him with five-to-one odds. He lunged at the evil elf but Morbhen wrested free from the sorcerer's grasp - but not before recognizing Zander as one of the five visitors from earlier that day. Zander touched the lamp, said the command word (hopefully in a low enough voice that he wasn't overheard by any of the others), and returned to the interior to report his failed plan to the others. "Yeah, I'm not so on it after all," he admitted.

<That person you grabbed had ears like yours,> the nibish-riule observed telepathically to its host. <Was that some sort of mating ritual?>

"Not now!" Zander shooshed him.

"Now what do we do?" asked Alewyth.

"We'd better get out there," Wakuren said, stepping onto the disk.

"Not so fast!" Thurloe replied, putting a restraining hand upon the half-orc's shoulder. "If we're going out there, we'd better be ready for a fight!" The spellsword began casting a mage armor spell upon himself, following it up with a shield spell from his wand. Zander cast a mage armor spell upon himself and a haste spell upon the assembled group, while Alewyth went with her traditional bless and magic circle against evil spells, the former on everyone and the latter centered upon herself. Xandro pulled out his Dardolian lute and started his song of inspirational courage, while Wakuren came up with another of his spur-of-the-moment plans.

"Everyone back off the disk!" he called, and they stepped back to give him room. The half-orc then cast a summoning spell that brought a celestial bison across the planes and onto the metal disk; the shaggy beast took up most of the space on the platform. He then placed the ring of invisibility back on his finger, activated it, stepped onto the disk, and called out "Aussteig!" - and he and the bison were gone.

As usual, they re-entered the Material Plane adjacent to the magic lamp, but a few things had changed during the time the heroes had remained inside the lamp, making plans and casting "getting-ready-for-combat" spells upon themselves. For one thing, the lamp had been placed upon one of the mess hall tables - and one that couldn't handle the sudden weight of a full-grown celestial bison. The legs gave out and the tabletop crashed to the ground. Wakuren materialized on one of the benches, which survived the sudden addition of his weight just fine. But the other change had a greater impact: Administrator Morbhen, recognizing the intruders as the earlier visitors and deducing they were here to stop his plans, decided he should implement them immediately while he still could. As a result, he was now over by the iron door to the cell block, which was wide open, and he'd activated the master switch which unlocked all of the cell doors at once. Already, gibbering ghouls and ghasts were spilling out of the doorway. "Slay everyone but me in the building!" Morbhen called, knowing the guards - mere humans, after all - had always been an expendable part of his plan.

With a snort, the celestial bison charged forward, horns lowered to smite the evil Administrator Morbhen. Wakuren, nothing more than an invisible voice at this point to the guards (who, as an unseen consequence of Morbhen's orders to his undead forces, were snapping out of the charm person spells they'd been under), called out "Touch the lamp and say 'eintret!'" The startled guards needed no further prompting, and the metal platform inside the lamp suddenly became very crowded, for the other four heroes had stepped into place, ready to exit the lamp themselves. "Go! Get off the disk!" Thurloe yelled at them, and then told one of them to give him the key to open the door to the front rooms of the prison. The guard hurriedly complied, asking no questions. Thurloe then called out "Aussteig!" and just like that, the heroes were gone.

"Where the Hell are we?" one guard asked the others. "What's going on?" But none of them had any real clue.

When the other heroes suddenly teleported around the lamp, the mess hall was already a place of chaos. Three ghouls were attacking the celestial bison, who swatted at them with its massive horns. Xandro continued playing his lute, but stepped off to the side, out of the way, giving himself some distance from the undead monstrosities that had once been prison inmates. Zander cast a summon swarm spell and suddenly there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of spiders crawling over Administrator Morbhen and a few of the nearby ghouls; the elf sorcerer noted with a bit of disappointment the spiders didn't seem to want anything to do with the undead flesh of the foul-smelling creatures and abandoned them almost immediately. But Administrator Morbhen likewise didn't appreciate being covered in hungry spiders and cast a dimension door spell that landed him in the relative safety of a hallway in the cell block. The dead body of the web-covered guard shambled by him; unbeknownst to the Administrator, there had been two sheet phantoms created by dying prisoners, and while one of them had hidden in the sewers connecting the various prison toilets the other had slain a guard, whose body had been stuffed into an unused cell for the time being. But the sheet phantom and the slain corpse had merged, resulting in a sheet ghoul; Morbhen had failed to notice any of this since neither he nor any of the living guards had been in the cell block for over a week before today. That had been the plan, after all: after charming the entire prison staff, he'd slain an inmate, carved him up, and presented it to the cook as ham to be used for the prisoners' next meal. Once they'd each been coaxed into unknowing cannibalism, they'd then been locked into their cells and starved to death, for Morbhen - an inspiring necromancer with a burning hatred for the human race that had first showed up on Armaturia's shores two thousand years earlier and who had in those two millennia driven the elves from their lands and proclaimed one of their own race as Emperor of the entire continent - well knew that those who had eaten the flesh of their own race (or possibly the flesh of any intelligent race; details differed in the necromantic texts he'd studied) would rise as ghouls and ghasts upon their deaths. Once the whole inmate population had succumbed to undeath, he'd unleash them - led by the spellstitched ghast he had created downstairs - upon the unsuspecting populace of Portersville, confident that when the undead had taken out the humans, the elves would be able to take out the ghouls and ghasts in turn, with the end result a purging of the hated humans in at least one of the many human villages. And Portersville was merely a test case; if this worked as planned the concept could be replicated in other villages, and even in the bigger cities. Administrator Morbhen dreamed of a day when the hated humans would be extinguished from the land, in much the same way the gnome population had all but died out when the humans were first making their appearances on the continent.

Alewyth stepped forward, channeling positive energy through her holy symbol of Aerik, which blasted two of the ghouls directly before her into nothingness and caused a ghast just coming through the doorway from the cellblock to turn around and flee in terror. Thurloe grabbed up the lamp and made a bee-line for the kitchen, where the cook was hiding behind his serving line. "Quick! Over here!" Thurloe called to him. "Touch the lamp and say 'eintrat' if you want to make it out of here alive!" The cook wasted no time doing as the spellsword said and soon found himself inside the lamp, surrounded by four prison guards.

Wakuren followed Alewyth's lead and channeled a blast of positive energy through his own upraised holy symbol of Cal. He wasn't as powerful a cleric as the dwarven priestess, but he managed to turn three ghasts, sending them fleeing. Then, upon his orders, the celestial bison stamped on a bunch of spiders while moving over to place his shaggy body to block the doorway to the cell block, making it more difficult for any more of the undead to enter the mess hall. The ghouls advanced, clawing at the horned beast with the glowing horns.

Xandro continued playing his inspirational song, hoping to buoy his friends' combat abilities with the power of his magical tune. But then the celestial bison froze up, paralyzed by the claws of a ghast trying to scratch its way out into the mess hall. The bison could no longer attack but at least it had a solid, four-footed stance and didn't fall over or anything as a result of his paralyzation; in this manner he was at least serving as some sort of impediment against the approaching undead.

Zander moved into position such that he could see Administrator Morbhen from between the bison's legs. A look was all it took to lock on a magic missile spell and send a quartet of glowing bolts of energy streaking through the open doorway to hit the enemy elf. Morbhen snarled and cast a protective spell on himself, still brushing off the occasional spider from the swarm Zander had summoned earlier, but which were now spreading out - some of them heading over toward Wakuren.

"We ought to go back out there and help," said one of the guards, feeling a bit guilty over hiding inside the magic lamp in safety while the strangers fought off these ghouls who had somehow made it into the prison. "Anybody remember what word the sword guy said to go back out?" One of the other guards recalled the word "Aussteig" and just that quickly they were back in the kitchen with Thurloe. The cook, not surprisingly, decided he was just fine with staying inside where it was safe.

Administrator Morbhen cast a false life spell upon himself to boost his combat capabilities. As about the same time, his familiar popped back into visibility when it struck out at Wakuren, clawing and biting at him with a ferocity that outpaced his small form. Alewyth sent another blast of positive energy through the doorway, causing more ghasts to flee; they were too tough for her to be able to cause their undead bodies to explode into dust, but she'd take forcing them away from combat as a win.

Thurloe had by this time run over to the front door and unlocked it with one of the keys on the ring the guard had given him. "Out!" he indicated to the guards. "We've got this!" The guards looked back at the combat, saw the fleeing ghasts and the celestial bison who had been summoned out of thin air, and apparently saw the wisdom of the spellsword's statement. As one, they headed for the door, where they met up with the two guards in the front station, surprised to hear all the ruckus with the door wide open.

The celestial bison was now as much an impediment to the heroes as it was to the undead so Wakuren dismissed it from service and it shifted back to its home plane as the half-orc dodged the quasit's attacks and stepped away from it. Almost immediately, the cleric-paladin of Cal summoned an air element hippogriff in its place, giving it orders to keep the turned ghasts at bay. Then the half-orc stepped through the door, entering the cell block and looking to put an end to Administrator Morbhen. Xandro raced forward, setting aside his lute for his magic longsword and swinging it at the flying quasit, catching the little fiend in the side with his blade. At the same time Zander targeted the demon familiar with a lightning bolt spell, but that happened to have been one of the weakest castings in the elven sorcerer's adventuring career, for there seemed to be very little electrical energy behind it. The quasit survived both attacks, but it seemed to be on its last legs.

Alewyth turned undead for the third time that day and sent another group of ghasts fleeing. By this time, most of the spiders from the summoned swarm had all just about gone their own separate ways as well, making them hardly a nuisance. The way clear, Thurloe raced back to the cell block and entered, finding himself behind Wakuren, who was facing down the sheet ghoul; behind that strange creature stood Administrator Morbhen. Wakuren slammed his shield down upon the sheet ghoul, who belched forth a stream of caustic acid in turn, burning the half-orc's face and giving him an even fiercer appearance than normal.

Xandro pierced the quasit through the belly and watched as it died on his blade. Zander then focused his attention back on Morbhen, hitting him with another magic missile spell. The elven necromancer retaliated with a cloudkill spell, sending a billowing cloud of choking vapors to encompass the sheet ghoul, Wakuren, Thurloe, and Zander in turn. Being a walking corpse, the spell had no effect upon the sheet ghoul, but all three of the living targets began coughing and retching as the vapors took their toll on their bodies.

But Alewyth was out of range of the spell thus far and was able to toss a holy smite spell through the open doorway such that she could pretty much guarantee Morbhen would be within its area of effect, even if he was currently obscured by the cloudkill spell. The spell's holy energy took a toll on the elven necromancer and dealt a fair amount of damage to the sheet ghoul as an added benefit. Thurloe was able to step past Wakuren and slay the sheet ghoul with a single blow of his bastard sword. And then Wakuren brought his shield down - hard - upon the necromancer's head, breaking past the stoneskin spell he'd cast upon himself for protection and still crushing the elf's skull with the power of his blow.

After that, it was a fairly simple matter to pick off the remaining ghouls and ghasts one by one, as most of them were still trying to flee from the clerics' holy energies in a room with no other exits. By then, the guards had made it outside the prison's gates and assuaged their guilt a little by setting themselves up as a reserve force, ready to attack any undead monstrosities that might make it out this far. But there were no undead remaining in their freakish semblance of life by the time the heroes met back up with the guards, after Wakuren popped back inside the lamp to tell the cook it was safe to come out now. "We'll leave the cleanup and the explanations for you," Thurloe told the guards, handing the one back his ring of keys. "Bottom line, your boss was an evil wizard who turned the inmates into ghouls and was planning on sending them against the citizens of your village. You're welcome."

The guards, fortunately, retained their memories now that the charm person spells had been broken and were able to recall what all Administrator Morbhen had done. They had no trouble allowing the heroes to remount their animals and drive their wagon out of Portersville.

"What about the half-orc prisoner still trapped in his dreams?" asked Alewyth. "We should try to wake him up."

"That can wait," replied Thurloe. "I want to put some miles between us and this town in case they get it into their heads that we need to be brought in for questioning or anything." But an hour down the road he deemed it safe enough, so Wakuren brought the mule-driven wagon to a halt and everyone tied up their mounts to a bunch of trees on a side road that looked like it didn't see a whole lot of traffic. Then they reconvened inside the lamp, where they placed a dreamstone headband upon the half-orc and sat in the customary circle around him, each dreamwalker wearing his or her own leather headband.

"Ready to wake this one up, kupo?" Mogo asked as he once again opened the door to the half-orc's dream, this time with the expectation his five students would be able to put an end to the dream running on a seemingly endless loop. However, perhaps because of the presence of the dreamstones, this time they got to see the dream in its entirety. It began with the half-orc, staggering down the street in a half-drunken stupor, shake himself to a state of semi-sobriety at the sound of a woman's scream. Looking over to his left, he saw a roguish young man dragging a wealthy-looking woman into an alleyway, no doubt with intentions to rob her of her riches - or perhaps even to do something even worse. "Hey," slurred the half-orc. "Hey!" He followed the two deeper into the alley, where the man had a short sword aimed at the woman's stomach as she fearfully removed her necklace and rings. The man spun at the half-orc's approach, stabbing the woman in the stomach in the process. She fell to the ground of the filthy alleyway, a pool of blood spreading slowly from where she lay. The thief whirled on the half-orc, who put up a defense that cost him a slice on his raised left forearm. But then he got his right hand over the thief's and the two struggled to gain control of the blade. They wrestled back and forth, and eventually the tip of the blade found its way in the thief's own belly as the half-orc grabbed it from his grasp. "You okay, lady?" he asked, staggering over to the woman's now-cooling corpse, which lay where it had fallen. But there were cries over from the street and the half-orc turned to face them: it was a trio of guardsmen racing at the half-orc, who stood over the bodies of two humans with the bloody blade that had killed them in his hand.

"This is where we came in last time," Thurloe said as he stepped in front of the half-orc and used the blade of his bastard sword to parry the first strike of the closest town guardsman.

"He's innocent!" Wakuren called to the security forces, blocking the second guard's blade-strike with his shield. But Thurloe shook his head at the half-orc's naïve insistence of trying to get others to see reason. "This is just a dream, remember!" he said, sending his blade stabbing directly through the heart of the guardsman he was fighting. "We're not hurting any real people," he said as he lopped the head off the third guardsman, who had stepped up to take the place of the first one Thurloe had slain.

"Good point," said Alewyth, bringing Sjondra crashing down to crush the skull of the last remaining guardsman. As he fell to the ground, quite obviously dead, the drunken half-orc blinked in surprise at this sudden turn of events and then looked in puzzlement as the walls of the alleyway started dripping away like spilled paint.

"He's waking up," Xandro pointed out. "We'd best do the same."

Six figures came to full wakefulness at about the same time, inside the extradimensional space of the night hag's lamp. "Are you all right?" asked Alewyth.

"Think so," said the half-orc, looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

"Do you have any family in Portersville?" asked Wakuren.

"Family? No, I got no family."

"What's your name?"

"Scarlie Besker."

"Well, Scarlie, considering you were sent to prison for a crime you didn't commit and we more or less broke you out of Bleakstone Prison, do you have any objections to traveling with us for a bit? We can pay you to take care of our mounts and draft animals, if you're of a mind."

"That sounds great to me," replied Scarlie. "Say, I don't suppose any of you has anything to drink...?"

- - -

And with that, the PCs hired their first full-time NPC hireling in this campaign, which I surprisingly did not see coming as I had tried setting them up with someone (Jingo Pebblebrain) who could take care of their horses, mules, and dire goat while they were off adventuring and they didn't want any part of it. But after this adventure was over I did up some quick stats for Scarlie Besker and found an image I liked so I could build him an initiative card, so now should he ever get involved in any of their adventures he's all set to go.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" T-shirt, since that's what Administrator Morbhen was creating out of his prisoner charges.
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