Word by Word, Section by Section, the epic story of five fellow adventurers grew from local rumour into epic legend. These are the tales that we tell our grandchildren, eyes shining, mouths agape, at bedtime to scare them of the very shadows.

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37. To Toadwallow Caverns
The land around Aernard looked tortured. It was the only way to put it. Aernard rose easily from a crouch and rubbed the dark soil between his fingers. It tumbled back to the ground, a harsh mixture of dirt and char. The smell was faint here in the Dreamscape, but enough to be cloying. Whatever evil wracked this place, it seemed to be attacking the very earth itself, and the large swathe of earth before Aernard had been both scorched and torn with large, jagged rents. More than half a mile long and around 200 feet wide, he imagined it would be like some dark, sinister brush-stroke upon the land. From his high vantage it swept down and away from him, and with his newly acquired lenses, he could see the wilted and burned stalks of grass in startling clarity. He cast a glance back. The rest of the party were only a couple of hundred feet back now, and he raised a hand to signal his presence. Thysper returned the signal and Aernard set westward once again. Behind the party, he could only see the faintest smudge of smoke marking the Weatherall farmstead. He hoped they would remain safe. This strange place held danger. He could feel it in the land itself as though it crouched in fear, awaiting a blow to fall. Their time was growing shorter and something was building. The hand that would strike the blow was drawing back and preparing its fearsome attack. He prayed that they could do something before it landed. He leant down and gave Blinkie a quick pat and took a sip from his flask. The burn in his throat was a welcome warmth. His gave a low whistle and trotted off westward, Blinkie loping easily beside him.

It is a charnel house. The thought pressed uncomfortably at Cedric even before he saw the horror within. Aernard stood sombrely nearby, having signalled the party forward. Alfrigg looked grim, his heavy brows furrowed in distaste. Both were fearsome warriors. They knew war. They knew the risks that soldiers faced each day, taking their lives in to their hands. War brought battle and battle brought death, and each soldier, man or woman, knew what they faced in the name of who they served or the cause they fought for. There was a nobility in it. An honour. The small charred corpse that lay huddled within the arms of another, larger corpse, screamed silent a protest to that thought. This is not war, they said. This is murder. Cedric felt anger at the injustice of it and a wave of tragic loss suddenly rose within him.
“So small and precious a life to lose; my heart mourns for all you did not know. Back to the bosom of the Mothers rose; where the light of your soul shall grow.” Cedric whispered the funeral prayer aloud – unable to keep the sorrow from his voice. He cleared his throat and laid his pack and halberd on the ground.
“I think we should bury them,” he said, and turned to pick up several shovels from the ground nearby. They had not been there moments before, but somehow he knew that the land would grant him what he needed. He handed them out, and they began to dig.
Cedric did not look back as they left the ruined remains of burned farmstead. Behind him a magical light shone brightly, marking the grave of the latest victims of this dark war. A look of steely resolve stole over Cedrics face as he marched westward. Whatever evil they faced, he vowed he would exact at least some reparation for the horrors he had seen this day.

Alfrigg watched in an almost morbid fascination as first Aernard, then Thysper, then Cedric and finally even Selph was suddenly sucked in to the large, transculent dome before them. They raced towards the hemisphere as though falling from a great height before slowing just before entry and sinking in to it as though passing through quicksand. By the stones, he thought, slightly taken aback. What other surprises would this strange place throw up! He looked around wondering what to do next. His skin still stung from his last experience in one of these darned bubbles, and he seriously considered just walking around the blasted thing and meeting the others in Toadwallow! He let out a long sigh, his bristling beard shaking as he exhaled. He couldn't leave the fellow party members to whatever dangers likely lurked within. If more of those fiendish lava-creatures were about, who knew what havoc they would wreak! His mind made up, he began to take a step forward and suddenly the half-sphere pulled at him with a tremendous force, like a great rope had been tied about him and some great figure was trying to reel him in. He resisted, automatically taking a dwarven defensive stance, settling his weight downwards and lowering his centre of gravity. And as soon as it was there it was gone. He had not moved at all and stood in the same place. He looked at the dome again. Suddenly images resolved before him. His brother, dressed in full regalia, beard plaited, weapon aloft, medals proudly fastened to his epaulette. And then next to it, a ghastly and horrid skeleton dressed in the tattered remains of a uniform, mossy water dripping from bleached bones, a vacant and menacing gaze coming from eyeless sockets. In a flash they were gone, as fast as the strange gravity he had felt. In the name of the maker, Alfrigg thought, unsure what was happening. This whole flamin' place was a nightmare!
He took another, hesitant step forward. Nothing happened. He was one step closer to the dome. Right, he thought, finally satisfied that something had worked for once, let's go see what someone's dreaming about.

Selph reoriented himself quickly, trying to take in the scene about him. Delph had been drawn in to this strange dream projection and who knew what he’d find. He found himself standing in the middle of some tropical jungle; exotic trees with long drooping fronds rose around him, a cacophony of animal and insects sounds echoed around him and a muggy heat pressed suddenly down upon him like a wet blanket. It was all oversized and larger than life; the dream-like imagination of how these things seemed to one who had never experienced them.
Aernard stood just to his side, and moments later, Thysper and Cedric followed, materializing in to the scene as though stepping through an invisible curtain. They each looked furtively about, taking in the same scenes, but then each began to stare intently at a point just 20 ft. ahead or so. Feeling a moment of alarm, Selph quickly searched for the source of their gaze. The air at the point seemed to warp and blur for a moment and then just as quickly, disappeared. They must have left their wits behind, Selph thought, shaking his head in dismay.
Beyond the point which had drawn their attention, Selph heard before he saw, what was at the heart of this projection. So a nightmare then, Selph concluded. He cast a look around for Delph quickly, his familiar the priority of course, but the pseudodragon was nowhere to be seen. Probably chasing a lizard or something, Selph thought with an oddly, lucid calm. Screams echoed through the jungle-like landscape of the nightmare and Selph considered these in the same way he might a mild conversation between friends. This was, after all, just someone’s dream.
Selph could see several human figures, about 50 ft. from his position, huddled and crouched in fear of some massive, shambling plant-like beast, which approached them menacingly. Its huge frame was a tangled heap of vines and foliage; sharpened wooden stakes made deadly fangs in a wide toothy maw and two projections formed massive arms topped in over-sized thorns, deadly slashing talons. The humans screamed again and the thing bellowed back at them in a strange, guttural baritone. Behind the beast, Selph saw more of the mischievous elemental-creatures; the lava-filled magmins seemed to carry some kind of fiery whips that they were using to drive the beast in to a frenzy. Those creatures are here again, Selph thought with interest. Let’s take care of them first. With a wave of his hand, the area around the magmins burst with an icy downpour, pattering the small elementals. They writhed in discomfort, the fat drops of rain hitting their molten hide with a smoky hiss, their fiery whips suddenly dissipating in the torrent. They cackled and burbled in frustration, waving about in confusion. Selph smiled. It was so very easy here. He waved his arms again, melding the dreamscape to his will, delicately painting and sculpting the world around him. The beast next, Selph thought with pleasure. A massive mirror rose from the ground before it, rising silently from the undergrowth, though Selph removed its reflection and the stupid creature stared dumbly at a reflected jungle scene, its prey suddenly gone. Selph couldn’t suppress a giggle in his throat. This world was like clay in his hands and he the master sculptor. He could to anything. Anything at all.
We could do anything. The thought came unbidden in to Selph’s head and was gone as quickly as it had come. What was he saying again? Yes, this world was like clay, and we could do anything at all. Anything.

Thysper clung to his bow with both hands, gripping the wood hard enough for it to creak. His knees felt weak and sweat began to stream from his forehead. It could not be real. This couldn’t be happening. Massive trees towered before him like gigantic wooden pillars, stretching hundreds of feet upwards to a bushy canopy, which hung over the forest like some green, leafy sky. Beautiful buildings of intricate design clung to the massive trunks and delicate bridges arched between houses and trees. It all flowed with natural beauty, as though grown from the land, rather than built. It was a perfection of natural form that only the elves had achieved, at least in this age. And it burned.
Everywhere the flaming tendrils of death wrapped their burning doom around the beautiful scene. The massive trunks of the Great Trees were ablaze, slowly being devoured by the hungry flames. Buildings, bridges, people; they were all being consumed by the burning horror about them. Painful screams echoed in Thysper’s ears, cries and pleas for salvation. The crackling of flame and snapping of branches roared a derisive laughter in return. Tears streamed from Thysper’s eyes as thick, black smoke rose in a cloud before him. He clutched his bow, sobbing pitifully as the world around him burned. Somewhere, a faint voice whispered in the far-away recesses of his mind. This is a nightmare!
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36. The Burning Farmstead
36. The Burning Farmstead

Alfrigg felt, more than heard the sound of the massive, ebony coloured horse striking the ground. It reminded him of the time that his great-father’s chimney had collapsed, scattering a cloud of ash upwards in one massive and gritty wave. Alfrigg coughed and waved a hand to clear away the greyish cloud and felt a brief wash of heat and the creature died as he ran onwards. He only had eyes for the doorway before him and he’d be darned if some infernal, flaming horse was going to get in his way. He’d trust to his fellow party to fell the beast and the bloody tentacle-faced creature astride it. These blasted creatures had boarded up the entire farmstead and left the occupants inside to roast like potatoes in a pan! Alfrigg seethed with anger at the cowardice of it and gripped his axe tighter as moved. That doorway was boarded up good, but luckily for him, he’d brought his own key. 

Thysper took a deep and calming breath. His sharp elvish eyes focused down-range while his thoughts raged inside him. At the corners of his vision he could see the flames burning; dancing with glee, feeding upon the thatch like some hungry and malicious fiend. It was alive. It hungered and fed and consumed all before it. How could it not be alive? Thysper’s heart beat fast in his narrow chest and the irises of his eye’s flickered from purple, to amber, purple to amber. He took another deep breath. Be one with the arrow. There is nothing but the bow. The arrow and target are one. He loosed. The greenish projectile streaked through the air with a faint whizz. Thysper moved, ducking to grab his pack and running towards the flames. He did not look upwards as he ran down the ridge. The beast awaited him, it’s orange tongue flicking like some fiery serpent, it’s flaming maw agape and hungry. He could not see it. He would not fear. In the distance, the wizard fell. 

Cedric moved with what urgency he could as the strange humanoid thumped to the ground ahead of him. Selph looked largely unharmed from the icy blast the tentacle-faced wizard had unleashed, though he had been hit squarely by the spell. The gnomes attempt to counter the arcane magics had been washed aside in the frozen fury of the spell, but the gnome had stood firm, almost defiant. Aernard had not feared so well. Cedric looked upon the frozen form of the ranger – a translucent statue frozen in time, bow-raised against his fiendish foes, as defiant as Selph if not as resilient. Cedric grasped his talisman, the holy symbol already seeming to gather in and reflect the light of the day. He whispered a prayer to Dol Arrah and thanked her for her blessing – a whispered benediction to her who grants solace to all who walk in the light. Moments later a loud crack sounded, followed by a tinkling sound, like glass upon a table.
“F-F-F-F-F-“
“Yes my friend,” Cedric replied as Aernard moved awkwardly out of his frozen prison, shaking and shivering, doing his best to stride forward and raising a hand towards the still burning roof. “Fiends.” 

Selph cast a quick glance at the half-frozen form of Aernard. That word. He was talking nonsense again. Cold? Selph didn’t know what the elf was complaining about? The spell wasn’t that bad. If anything it was getting a little warm standing this close to the fire. Selph watched as the small elemental creatures began to crawl forward towards Alfrigg, scrambling across the ground and roof like some magmatic primates. The building was aflame and only getting worse and if something wasn’t done soon, the dwarf would be pulling well-done corpses from between the charred timbers. As always, it was left to him. Well, if heat was the issue, maybe a little rain would dampen down the conflagration. Selph saw it form in his mind. It was not thought. It was real. He knew it was real. There was no gap between thought and reality. Rain. It fell; thick, fat droplets like the tears of the sky itself. First in smatters, then increasingly heavy, and soon, a mighty torrent like a ship-sinking cemaros in the Sea of Storms. Selph watched, transfixed, a calm and sense of peace coming over him. He marvelled at the creation. The flames danced it fits, drowned by the waters and tamped by the sudden winds. It retreated from the roof with a smoky hiss. Selph watched as the small magmin’s looked up, bemused by the sudden downpour, before rushing forward to swarm Alfrigg, who had made his way to the door. An anger suddenly gripped Selph, growing out of the calm. Darn those creatures and their fiery hearts! He motioned with his hands, slashing them down as though trying to cut the air. The temperature around the house suddenly dropped and a tinkling sound filled the air. The magmin’s squealed as icy spears shot downwards from above, piercing their skulls and popping them like lava-filled bladders. Selph watched as Alfrigg shielded himself from the hot magma. Something felt right about that iciness. Selph reached a hand out again, trying to grip that feeling. He looked at his hand. Turned it over. I look great he thought, the feeling of rightness fading.

Aernard read the strange note over Cedric’s arm as the tall, armoured cleric held it out. Cedric read it aloud in his clear, deep voice, but Aernard gave it only half an ear. He recognised the handwriting. Many a time he had held a similar missive from Rean and his ranged ahead of the unit as a forward scout. Orders in one pocket, a cipher in the other. There was no cipher needed here, but the script was unmistakeable. He looked down from the note to the spread-eagled corpse they surrounded. Venmore. His cowl had fallen back to reveal his face and instead of showing some tentacled monstrosity, the face was now cold, dead eyes above a hollowed-out section, as though his nose and mouth had been scooped from his face. This land continued to throw up the unexpected. He should expect no less for such a hapless soul. If you associated with fiends, your soul was already damned. He gripped the pommel of his short sword, tamping down his anger. He used his foot to raise the cowl again. There were children about and this was not a sight for young eyes. He looked up from the body and caught Selph staring at it. The gnome looked up, some hint of understanding in his eye. Aernard watched the gnome warily. If what his elvish brother said was true, then Selph was hiding something, and a tingle had started to develop in Aernard each time he thought upon it. There was much happening. They were trapped in a strange land, their time short, their task urgent. Danger was all around and they were alone. All they had was each other to rely upon as they sought to face down whatever evil the Gatekeeper spoke of. Aernard took a sip from his flask, using the crimson liquid to warm the coldness he still felt from the wizards spell. Yes, only ourselves to rely on, he thought, casting a glance at Selph, and maybe not even that.  

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35. Dreams and Nightmares
Cedric stared down at his hand as he walked upon the ever-changing grasses of the Harkenwold and its undulating plains. He couldn’t really deny it and in his heart he had needed no confirmation from Khali or the Barghest. Somewhere deep within he could feel his life-force flicker like a candle in the wind, the flame dancing about, almost to the point of being extinguished, then grimly holding on and burning again. Even the comfort of Dol Arrah seem muted in this strange place. She is the sun, he thought sagaciously, but she shines in a sky of darkening cloud.
‘Blessed are those who walk in the light’ he whispered to himself, reciting the prayer by rote and clenching his fist. His hand didn’t really feel any different. If anything, the emptiness was deep inside, like some memory of a gnawing hunger that grew by the hour. Khali’s words left little doubt for Cedric that whilst the entire parties time was short, his alone was maybe shorter than most.

Alfrigg sheathed the mighty axe at his back and watched Cedric from the corner of his eye. The priest’s normally erect and confident posture had wilted ever so slightly, like the sagging roof in a watery cavern. He was already a little hard to look upon, his form occasionally rippling with a faint translucence but to see the brave clerics resolve bending more and more each day made it even harder. Alfrigg knew that even the mightiest and hardiest of stone would eventually give way to the weight of the water above. Better him than me, Alfrigg thought fatalistically and then suddenly wondered where the thought had come from. Loyalty and honour were the foundations to any life and Alfrigg would protect his fellow party members with all the dogged determination and grit a dwarf could muster. Must be this strange place, he thought. Without realising it, Alfrigg had unsheathed his axe once again and caressed the hilt softly as he walked.

Aernard watched Alfrigg pull the axe from his sheath only a few moments after putting it away, but thought little of it. It was a beast of weapon – like trying to swing a bloody tree trunk about, but Alfrigg seemed to have taken to it. Alfrigg can fondle his weapon as often as he wants, he thought with a grin. He thought he might share that wee quip with the rest of the party, but on reflection, he doubted many were in the laughing mood. He pulled his flask from his coat pocket and took a draught. The liquid burned pleasantly down his throat and he savoured the feeling, closing his eyes and concentrating on the warmth that flowed down in to his stomach. Ah, the world may change beyond recognition but you…you my friend will always stay the same. Aernard resisted taking another swig and stowed the flask, patting the breast pocket where he kept it and left his hand resting upon it. What a strange place this is, he wondered idly, the shine of the alcohol he had imbibed starting to infuse his head now.
A slight growl from his side caught his attention and he could see Blinkie’s hackle’s rise.
“What is-“ and Aernard caught the smell. The thick and acrid smell of smoke wafted upon the breeze. To Aernard it smelled desperate, like the land itself had expelled a furtive breath. He drew deep on the smell, fed it in to his lungs and reached out to the feeling of it, the message within.
“FIENDS!” he growled, unaware that he had already begun striding towards a grey, skeletal column ahead.

Thysper unlimbered his bow as Aernard strode past, determination in his gate and hatred in his eyes. Little seemed to elicit such passion from his elfish brother, not while sober anyway, but the Outsiders, as Aernard often referred to them, were some sharp point of pain, like a thorn that pushed unexpectedly in to skin while reaching for a flower. Thysper shadowed Aernard and he noted that the party followed. Thysper glanced surreptiously at Selph; the small gnome wore a strange and anticipatory grin on his face and hid his hands inside his robes. He could not see his eyes. A part of him did not want to, least they see again the thing that should not be. Something was hidden in those depths. Something he feared. Something he hated. His body shuddered slightly and the hairs on his arms stood up, almost in anticipation. He fought it down. That had been easier of late. Resisting the call was never something he had mastered well – he had always assumed those forms with barely a thought – but of late, strange visions played in his head. Horrible memories that bubbled to the surface like miasmas from the bottom of a dark swamp. But even in their horror, the visions provided some anchor, something on which to grip and hold on to his true self. Thysper did not know what to make of it, but a new fear gripped him. A new fear and an old fear. He did not know what to do.
He marched on towards the column of smoke, unaware that within the depths of his boar helm, his eyes changed colour almost constantly.

Selph cast a quick glance at Thysper, using his illusions with subtlety, giving the appearance that he was looking straight ahead when his head was turned almost completely towards the elf. He had been doing that more and more lately and he was not sure why. But Thysper had been acting stranger and stranger. And less trustworthy. Within the dark depths of his boar helm, the elf’s eyes would occasionally catch the light, gathering it in and shining like some predatory beast, like some monster in the dark. Yes something strange was happening to Thysper and he was becoming unpredictable. Some animals can never truly be caged, Selph thought, and they need to be put down. Was that his thought? Selph wasn’t sure. Things seemed to float in and out of his mind lately, with little rhyme or reason. Hmmph, must be age catching up with me, he thought almost sombrely.
The party were approaching a ridge now, the pillar of smoke becoming clearer and clearer. Aernard strode with confidence, occasionally using his spyglass for a better view and handing it on to Cedric to look. Selph sighed. No doubt he would need to pull the rest of the party out of hot water yet again. He settled down upon the ridge with the others as they viewed the horrible scene below. Fire again. Selph sighed and listened to the planning with half an ear. The others around him tensed, set to head down towards the carnage, when suddenly he heard a voice from behind. Who is that? he thought turning, and the world began to shift….
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34. The Refugee
Thysper rubbed at the temples of his long face - this place was getting on his nerves.

The air was wrong, the wind was wrong, the smells were wrong. Everything about Dal Quor was offensive to his highly attuned senses. By the stars, even the damned gnome was all wrong!

He had been feeling off balance since they arrived.
Over the many years of his long life, he been a student of the natural world, had learned to base his whole being on subtle cues from the world around him. To read the shift in the weather by the flight of birds through the air, to gauge the wind by the way the leaves moved on a tree, he could tell if water was safe to drink by which plants grew alongside the stream.

He tasted the wind, felt the of passage of life energies through the soles of his feet, and gracefully danced from footfall to footfall as he traversed the halls of nature.

Here there was none of that.

And now they were stuck here. The party back on the road, with a task set by Atrabon, the great wyrm, and gatekeeper of the door back to his home.

...and the elven houses burning, the fey folk running screaming…

Thysper longed to shift into his comfortable bear form, to slip away from the party into the forest to hunt. But he knew he would find no refuge there, in fact the primal beast form would only be more attuned to the jarring wrongness of it all.

... the great tree, its boughs cracking in the heat of the flames engulfing it, and the trapped elves jumping from the top branches to escape the pain …

To make matters worse, apparently there were evil forces at work here too - ‘Gathering it’s power’ Atrabon had said. Gathering what, and to what end?
He frowned deeply - more foolish Human meddling no doubt, the whole damn species was set on destroying itself by tampering with forces they did not understand!
Thysper glanced over where Selph walked, talking animatedly to a stolid Alfrigg.
Not only mankind he huffed.

...and the eyes, red with malice, that laughed from the depths of the flames as his whole world burned into ashes...

And how terrifying it had been to see those eyes again, here, on the face of his companion.
He needed to escape this accursed place.
He had to get back home.

Deep from within the closed doors of his mind, the red eyes laughed and taunted him - he had no home to return to.
She was gone forever.

* * *

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33. The Sentry
Brother Cedric trudged heavily along, his trusty halberd clinking out a staccato rhythm on the dry country road.
In the rolling land beside the road, tall grain-like plants swayed in slow vibrant waves, although there was no wind to move them.
Surely they had been walking for hours now, hyperreal countryside slowly passing by, and yet the sun had shown little sign of movement.

Ahead of him walked Selph - the little fellow had been much in the armoured cleric’s thoughts of late. It seemed the malady was not one that could be solved by medicine alone, leaving Cedric feeling powerless to help.

Again the memory of the recent roadside encounter passed, like a dark cloud, across his thoughts. The man, sitting dejected and broken - as his wife and daughter wept over his lifeless form in the prime plane.
What could he have done? Rationally, he had known that he couldn’t offer much in the way of help - but the knowledge had done little to assuage his feelings of frustration and guilt.
Why had he been set on this path, if not to make a difference? Was he not devoted enough to see the path his guiding light illuminated for him?

Again, he closed his eyes and silently reached out to the light of Dol Arrah.
As before, it was like the light seen in the heart of a clear gem - brilliant, bright, and yet distant and without warmth.
Frowning, he dragged his thoughts back to the present.

He tried to pin down exactly what it was that had changed about Selph.
In all honesty, if anything, his demeanour had changed for the better - he seemed more positive, he was more animated, and more inclined to join in conversation.
On the other hand, during the battle with Rean Battleborn, Cedric had turned to catch a disturbing expression on Selph’s face. As roiling flames poured from the gnome’s outstretched palm, the little man wore a mad rictus of unmistakable pleasure in power, and pain caused to his enemies. Meanwhile, he had remained seemingly oblivious to the discomfort and fear he had induced in Thysper, the typically aloof druid fully giving way to his beastial side.

To the side walked Aurala, the Queen of Aundair. Laid low by her affliction, she looked like a sleepwalker, her eyes distant, her movements mechanical.
Cedric sensed that she was engaged in an all-out internal struggle. They knew that the Queen had held out for weeks now, and it seemed the battle had turned into a bitter war of attrition. His instincts also told him that there was a distinct chance that victory may very well come at the cost of the Queen’s life, or her sanity.

And there was the other terrible possibility, the risk that the Aurula would fail, giving herself over to whatever evil beset her.
Cedric shuddered as he recalled the hideous beast that the shadowlord’s willing subject, Joshin, had become - an enormous personification of rage and hate, imbued with demonic power.

Selph, The Queen, Joshin.
Three stages of the same affliction.
Cedric would have to watch his two companions carefully. If the time came, he he knew he’d need to make a choice. A terrible choice.
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