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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40. In the thick of it
Night in the Dreamscape crept upon the entrance to Toadwallow Caverns like a skulking thief, the leaden grey sky darkening slowly, before dropping to a deep dusk in the blink of an eye. Cedric watched Beon pick his way slowly across the marshy terrain of the Toadwallows, leading the other catatonic captives by the hand, who followed him without protest.
His heart panged at the thought of these innocent victims being left to fend for themselves but Alfrigg’s soldiers-wisdom had been enough to make him see the right of the situation, however much it pained him.
“There be other battles to fight,” Alfrigg had stoically proclaimed, sheathing his fearsome axe across his back. “Would ye win the battle there only to lose the war here?”
Alfrigg was right. The dwarf was not normally the most philosophical of people, but he understood war, and whilst the marshy and ephemeral landscape they found themselves in may not seem the most obvious of battlefields, something told Cedric that the battle they fought here was of critical importance to the fate of Aundair and maybe even the nations beyond.
What a strange path we have travelled, Cedric mused, his gaze going to the large, iron cage across the clearing as he settled upon the porous outcropping that marked the entrance to Toadwallow Caverns.
It lay slightly askew now and had sunken a little further in to the swampy ground, but it was still an imposing structure.
It must weigh half a tonne, Cedric thought with some sense of awe.
Images flickered in to his mind, intruding on his thoughts. Fiery eyes and a never-ending cavern in place of a mouth; all within the face of a delicate gnomish woman. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. This place was strange.
Like a dream, Cedric thought with an ironic smile.
He cast a surreptious glance at Selph. The wizard had busied himself with the Potion of Healing and had a small flame burning beneath the bulb of the flask, warming it slightly.
Cedric caught occasional flashes of green as the gem in Selph’s palm caught the light. The image flickered in his mind once more. Fiery, malevolent eyes. More like a nightmare, Cedric thought, and pulled some rations from his pack.

Stupid elf, Selph thought as Aernard disappeared down the rocky length of the passageway, ranging and scouting ahead. Why didn’t he just tell me to use Message before he left, Selph thought grumpily, annoyed at Aernard’s silent mocking of his misunderstanding, folding his arms and staring intently down the tunnel.
He suspects. Kill him as well my love.
Selph’s eyes widened as the thought caressed his mind like a lover whispering in his ear.
He looked about, suddenly self-conscious, imagining for a moment that someone had actually spoken to him.
Alfrigg stood stolidly beside him with axe in hand, as implacable as ever. The Priest and Druid watched down the corridor, weapons at a low-ready, occasionally exchanging a whispered word.
No one else. No one. He was virtually alone.
Never alone my love. Never alone.
The whisper came again, this time like a touch on the back of his neck. He shuddered involuntarily, momentary pleasure tingling down his back.
Again Selph looked at his fellow party members to see whether anyone had seen his reaction. They continued to focus their attention down the passage.
He breathed deeply, unsure of what to make of this sudden tumble of emotions. Fear. Adoration. Urgency. Love. Hatred. Love. Hatred.
Never alone.
Selph shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts and focus on the task at hand. He caught sight of Aernard returning, creeping up the passageway in a silent crouch.
Suddenly he wondered what he had been thinking about. Becoming senile in my old age, Selph thought with a smile, the feelings of a moment ago now completely gone.
He initiated Message again, but Aernard had reached the party before it was needed. He motioned the party in and Selph leant in to the huddle they formed.
Aernard relayed what he had seen in a low voice, using hand motions where appropriate. Selph nodded as they decided on a plan of attack. He thought he heard something and cast a quick glance over his shoulder, looking out on to the marshy clearing, but there was nothing there.
I’m getting old, he thought again with some amusement, besides it’s not like I’m alone. I’m never alone.

A muffled whisper was all Aernard heard before Thysper suddenly threw his hands upward.
Ahead of them, thick, ropey vines seemed to spring from the rocky floor of the cavern and writhe about like fibrous tentacles. They grasped at the Thrall Guard and at the massive, charcoal-coloured Hell Hound, pulling at their limbs and entwining themselves around their bodies.
Aernard took his cue and released his own natural magics, a hemisphere of silence emanating from the large, wooden door on which the Thrall and Hell Hound stood guard.
The sounds of their struggles was suddenly cut off as the magic took hold, and Aernard snatched up his bow and began firing.
The Thrall immediately began slashing at the entangling vines with its scimitar, cutting them away in swathes and within moments it was free and had moved a short way to it's right.
Aernard smiled as it tugged upon a long chord and the bell mounted on the wall began to swing metronomincally, the clapper swaying back and forward against the mouth.
An alarm's no good if it can't make a sound, Aernard thought, pleased by his own foresight. He raised the arrow smoothly to his cheek and fired, the projectile streaking unerringly towards the Thrall and thumping in to its forearm, pining it to the cavern wall behind and stopping its pulling.
That's one, Aernard thought, and sent another arrow at the struggling Hell Hound, which battled amidst the mass of vines. The arrow struck true and the beast let out a silent, fiery howl.
That's two!
Aernard stowed his bow and drew his weapons. The cacophony from behind him told him that the rest of the party were not far behind and he dashed forward as the Thrall wrenched its arm free impassively, the arrow still sticking through its arm.
A streak of green to his right showed Thysper had joined the battle and the Hell Hound thrashed about in silent fury as a projectile suddenly sprouted from its eye, fire spewing from it's mouth like coughed up blood and a sickly black ichor leaking down its muzzle.
Aernard met the Thrall as it advanced with a flurry of blows, striking in a clatter of steel.
Alfrigg dashed past and on towards the Hell Hound, massive axe in hand, then Cedric moments later, a large crossbow held ready.
A blast of heat erupted to his right, smothering both Alfrigg and Cedric, but both seemed to weather the fiery exhalation with little distress.
Aernard caught a glimpse of the beast, which now thrashed about blindly, snapping randomly with his fanged maw, a large bolt also protruding from its other eye.

A few moments later, Aernard wrenched Little Tooth free from the now lifeless body of the Thrall.
Alfrigg gave a grunt as he also pulled the blade of his axe free. Both Alfrigg and Cedric looked none the worse for wear, and if anything, each a a strange flush to their cheeks.
"This be obvious enough to me" Alfrigg offered, looking upon the cavernous entrance to Toadwallow Caverns for the first time.
"They be supplyin' an army."
"I agree," Cedric offered, adding the weight of his martial tutelage.
"This is obviously some kind of forward supply depot."
"And taken by force," Aernard replied, pointing to one of the many mangled corpses lying about.
"Aye. And I'm no hedge-doctor, but these don't be the skeletons of any Bullywugs I've heard of" Alfrigg said.

The three warriors stood considering the answers. They were all experienced soldiers. They knew the implications of supply lines and strategic caches. A gathering army.
Aernard considered the massive disturbance he had felt to the south, just a few miles from their position.
Fiends. Thousands of them. As fearsome an army as he could consider, and certainly one that could turn the War.
He had thought that entering the Dreamscape and chasing the Queen would lead them further from the War.
But suddenly, here they were again, behind enemy lines, and in the very thick of the conflict.
He looked upon the thick, oaken entrance to Toadwallow Caverns, considering what might be beyond.
I need a drink, he thought, and decided to check whether the supplies included any liquor.
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Epic × 2!
39. Entering Toadwallow
Aernard nocked an arrow, his intense gaze focussed solely on the massive, avian beast. This close he could almost smell its foul stench. Wretched creature, he thought. It finished whatever conversation it was having with the Tiefling and turned towards the entrance to leave. Aernard was moving forward, bow raised and an arrow loosed before he even realised what he was doing.

Selph watched Aernard dash forward, two shafts zipping from his bow in a flash. Interesting tactics, Selph thought, watching Aernard charge directly towards the largest and most fearsome foe in sight. It was amazing how close stupidity and bravery were. He sighed. He’d have to pull the party out of the fire again. Or the swamp. Next to him, Alfrigg began to move forward. “A moment, if you please” Selph whispered, laying a hand on the dwarf’s thick arm.

Alfrigg felt a tingle along the arm Selph was grasping. It spread along his body and quickly became a pulsing. He watched with some recognition as he began to grow, enlarging with every pulse of the energy within. A shriek sounded from the south and 6 sets of eyes locked on him as his now-massive form broke the treeline of the clearing. There goes the element of surprise, he thought. He sprung forward, blood-red greataxe held high.

Cedric raised his halberd and splashed forwards, using the outcropping and tent for some cover. His armor clanged and his feet splashed which each step. Oh Great Dol Arrah, bless this blade as it strikes true, he whispered, holding his talisman to the haft of his halberd and making three quick strikes in the air. Seconds later a pale glimmer of light materialized, forming in to a shining, spectral halberd. It struck and the horrible fiend shrieked. Bless you Dol Arrah, Cedric thought with a smile.

Thysper raised his bow as the other’s followed Aernard in to the chaotic melee. The clang of metal rang out as first Aernard, and then Alfrigg, joined the fray. He breathed deeply and the chaos slowed. Limbs and claws made a slow and graceful arc as they moved towards their targets. Water splashed up in to the air in a crawl, droplets moving like poured honey. Time was still. The arrow loosed, a green blur that streaked unerringly at its target. The chaos resumed.

Aernard spun, ducking the taloned blows of the massive fiend, slashing out with Thorn Breaker, once, twice, then bringing Little Tooth in for a third. It screeched, snapping at him with its horrid beak. Slash and move. Slash and move. Die quicker, he thought, darting forward again for another flurry.

Selph moved forward across the wet terrain, watching every which way he could. He was a shadow. Virtually invisible. There was no way he would be taken by surprise. He spotted the tent, and his interest was piqued. I wonder what’s in there, he mused.

Alfrigg threw a massive foot at the remains of the cook fire, kicking embers across the Tiefling and the feathered fiend behind it. It raised an arm, fending off the charcoally-grit and stared defiantly back. Malevolent eyes stared a hateful gaze back. It hissed, revealing small teeth filed to a point. I’m shaking in me boots, Alfrigg thought with a grim smile and swung his great-axe.

Cedric surveyed the viscous melee that had ensued. We must keep it penned here and stop it escaping, he thought of the Vrock, assessing tactics and manoeuvres in an instant. He moved to the tent, cutting a straight slit in the back and ducking through. The smell was horrible. He dashed through, a bedroll to his right, a small, wooden chest to his left. The halberd struck and the beast turned, blows falling on it from all sides. Harry your foe. Spread its attacks. Keep it penned. Bring it down. He could almost hear his tutors voice as he raised his halberd to strike again.

Thysper watched the Thralls move mechanically forward, coming up upon the rear of the party. There was something – inhuman to them. Impassive. Unnatural. Their heavy chain mail armor clinked as they advanced. He raised his bow. It would not be enough. Then he heard a bugling sound behind him, like some massive beast calling. He looked around, startled. Nothing but the silent expanse of Toadwallow. It sounded again. And he understood. It was a question. Thysper closed his eyes and let the change consume him. His answer was yes.

Aernard gritted his teeth and ignored the horrific sound. The screech echoed through the clearing like some horrid mating call. His anger overwhelmed it. He struck again, and again, and again. Feathers flew and pale, purple scales fell to the waters below. The screech became a scream.

Selph eyed the small devilish creature with intrigue. Strangely, he felt no fear. This creature was obviously inferior and easily contained. He smiled. The world bent to our will. To my will, Selph thought. A thick, iron cage suddenly materialized around the creature, plummeting 15’ down with the creature inside. It hit the ground with a squelching thump. The creature bounced about like a bug in a jar. Selph giggled, already moving towards the hide tent. I wonder what’s inside.

Projectiles bounced off Alfrigg’s breastplate with a loud ping. Flaming archers! he thought, focusing on the Tiefling and its massive, spiked chain. The thing bled from at least three different wounds, but it seemed undeterred. It struck again, the chain snaking out, smiling with pointed teeth. The axe leapt forward, hungry. The creature’s head sailed from its body, turning slow circles in the air, the smile still on its face. Alfrigg didn’t celebrate. He focused and waited. The flame appeared and this time he was ready. As he absorbed the life force, the warmth suffusing the body, he couldn’t help but smile a little himself.

Cedric opened his eyes with a gasp. An empty potion bottle knocked at his cheek and he could feel wetness around his head. He sat up with a splash, reaching instinctively for his halberd which lay nearby and felt to his chest. He remembered the blade suddenly appearing there before darkness closed in. Praise the Sun! he thought, getting to his feet and readying his weapon. Around him the battle still raged. The Thralls worked mechanically with their scimitars, ignoring the flames that licked at their skin and clothing, the blades that pierced their skin. What are these things? Cedric mused. Whoever they were, he owed them a debt of blood that he intended to collect.

Now. It was Thysper’s voice calling now and Twelve-Points answered with his bugling call, bowing his antlered head in acquiescence. The world heaved and Thysper stood again in elf form, bow in hand. He surveyed the battle and unleashed an arrow. It streaked through the air unerringly. The small creature shrieked, then gave a few feeble kicks, before collapsing within the cage and slowly disappearing. Now for the Thralls, Thysper thought, aiming up his bow once again.

Aernard’s chest heaved with exhaustion and he swung again, a piercing strike with Thorn Breaker aimed at the things heart. Suddenly it raised its shield and deflected the blow, the reverberation shaking the weapon from Aernard’s grip. Damn it! he thought, knowing tiredness was getting the better of him. Little Tooth followed. Take this! Aernard thought as he struck, determined to finish the blasted creature. Again the shield seem to move with an unnatural speed, blocking the blow and sending the short sword splashing to the ground. Aernard stared at his bare hands in disbelief. The creature stared back, expressionless. I need a drink, thought Aernard, and prepared to duck.

The smell in here is horrible! Selph thought, as he reached down to the small, wooden chest. Something tugged at his mind, like someone was pulling a small string attached to his ear, but he waved a hand at it, like brushing away a biteme. Easily ignored. The tugging came again. Was he forgetting something? Of course not. His memory was like an iron cage. Extremely hard to escape. Almost impossible really. Shut tight. With a large lock. Iron. He waved a hand again and the pulling disappeared. Right, he thought, now I wonder what’s in this chest?

Alfrigg swung again. These flaming things were harder to hit than a greased-up Halfling in a wrestling competition. The axe seemed to thrum in his hand – almost eager to be swung. He dodged another scimitar strike, twisting to the side. He used the momentum and brought the mighty axe around in a tight arc. The shock up his arms told him what he needed to know. Not so hard to hit after all.

Cedric wrenched his halberd free as the last of the Thralls fell. Unlike the fiends, their bodies lay where they had fallen, faces as expressionless as they had been just moments before. Small flames still licked faintly at the bodies of two of them. What strange creatures. The party gathered about him. Everyone but Selph. Seconds later, the small gnomes head popped out from the cut he had made in the back of the nearest tent. “Found something” he piped, before ducking back in. Cedric looked about. Selph had no doubt found the chest. But Cedric was not interested in what it might hold. His eyes went straight to the entrance and he moved cautiously forward, halberd raised. He was interested in whether anyone had heard their frantic battle.

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Epic × 3!
38. Just a dream
The magmins clamboured across the dense carpet of the dream-jungle; moving ape-like across the ground towards Cedric. They seemed to be fleeing the massive plant-like beast as much as they were coming towards him, but he braced his halberd and set his back to the broken and crumbling wall behind him.
Oddly, he felt a strange sense of clarity; even within the tumultuous nightmare in which they found themselves, as though he had already faced down the worst it could offer and a part of him was looking in at the scene from above.
He watched the elemental creatures rush in and swipe at him with rocky claws, droplets of red, hot lava dripping on him and searing his skin, burning with a sickening hiss.
He grimaced at the pain and pushed them back with a swipe of his pole-arm.

A foul curse suddenly came from the right catching his attention. Cedric cast a quick glance over to see Alfrigg frantically patting out the hot embers that smoldered in his beard and on his armor, the magmin he had just destroyed having exploded in his face.
Ah, that’s right, Cedric thought calmly, remembering the creatures’ tendency to burst in a red-hot flurry upon their death. I must keep them at length, Cedric decided, sweeping his halberd out in a defensive form to try and prevent the creatures closing further.

He watched again as Aernard crept up cautiously from behind the magmins, moving soundlessly across the foliage and striking, once, twice, thrice, like a coiled adder. More droplets of lava and red-hot rock were blown from the creatures, hitting the ground and burning small holes in the undergrowth beneath them.

Cedric readied his halberd – he knew that one blow might fell both creatures but he also knew that both he and Aernard were now within the radius of their horrid death bursts.
Again, that detached calmness stole over him.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl and he saw the nightmare around him in a different way. It seemed to flow, like water over a rock, swirling and flowing.
He swung his halberd and extended his will like massive, gauntleted hands. They scooped at the nightmare, guiding and shaping its flow. He sculpted it around the end of halberd, turning it in to some massive maul and hammered the ground between the magmins and Aernard.

He could feel the reverberations in his mind as it struck, like he had struck his weapon against a metal pole. For a moment, nothing happened. The axe-blade of the halberd lay buried in the soft ground.
Then suddenly the nightmare rippled, and a shockwave of force exploded from the point, throwing the magmins and Aernard away from him.
Aernard rode upon the wave dexterously; shifting his body weight and nonchalantly sheathing his swords as he glided backwards 10 feet from where he was.
The two magmins flew a similar distance through the air; one hitting the ground hard enough that it’s body suddenly collapsed from the force, and lava fountained upwards like someone had dropped a water-skin from a great height.
Cedric gasped.
By the Great Sun! he thought, marveling at the what he had just done, watching the magma splat upon the ground and immediately begin to burn the leafy carpet below.

And then, staring at the fiery remains, he suddenly spotted a faint and pulsing light. It rose slowly from the lava, like some wispy ball of smoke. Cedric stared at it, fascinated.
What the-, he thought, and instinctively, he reached for it. His hand moved towards it but when he had reached arms’ length, he strained forward with his will.
It pulsed and ebbed, fading slowly away as though trying to elude him and Cedric snatched at it, making a grabbing motion with his hand. He grabbed it. It sat there, hovering, no longer fading and Cedric stared at it again, fascinated. And then he crushed it.
Life flowed in to him with a sudden and inexplicable force, like he had been dunked in cold water. He gasped as it surged in to him, the sudden cold turning to a beautiful and quenching warmth. It suffused his body and his arms and legs tingled. It seemed to last an eternity but within a moment it was over and Cedric found himself panting.

Remnants of the warmth remained and he realised he felt more invigorated than he had since he had entered the Dreamscape. What just happened? he thought, still unsure what to make of it, his body still flush with energy.
He looked at his arms – the burns had faded and were little more than pale, pink spots. He wasn’t sure what happened, but he knew he wanted more.
He gripped his halberd again and looked at the remaining magmin, a small, hungry smile creeping on to his face.

Khali checked the bodies again. The wind howled, beating at the thing walls of the canvas tent. Something screamed in the darkness, whether from pleasure or pain, Khali could not tell. It was distant yet, thankfully.
Barg would return soon, hopefully with word. The lads lay still in a row, their bodies pale and thin, and their faces gaunt and haggard.
Hurry lads, he thought again and bent to dab a damp cloth across their brows. He gasped, dropping the cloth.
Cedric had changed. Somehow his face looked different – healthier, if that was possible. Khali cast about the tent, looking for some sign of what may have caused the change. Only the howl of the wind and flap of the canvas answered.
What is happening? he thought, a faint spark of hope suddenly blossoming in his chest. He looked down again. A small smile had crept on to Cedric’s face.

Aernard ducked and danced, first left, then right, under the lumbering blows of the Shambling Mound.
Dangerous as all hell if they hit you, Aernard thought with some amusement as he easily evaded its taloned strikes. That’s if they hit you of course.

The mithral armor he had brought from Mevrin flowed across his body like a second skin – he could notice the difference the light-weight metal made to his movements already. Cedrics strange enchantment also hovered before him – a luminescent shield that moved with him as he moved.
Not just a pretty face, Aernard mused.

He noticed Alfrigg moving in from the flank of the creature, his massive, blood-red axe raised menacingly, trailing a tail of dark smoke from his beard as he dashed towards the beast, and decided a bit of elevation was what this battle needed.
He took a couple of steps back, and vaulted upwards, twisting his body in mid-air with the momentum to land upon a narrow ledge formed by the fallen columns behind him.
The lumbering beast gave a guttural bellow and swung clumsily at him as he moved, but Aernard jumped the viney appendage with ease and continued to tip-toe backwards down the narrow, stone walkway. He sheathed his swords and unlimbered his bow, confident he’d moved out of the creatures range.
Within moments he had an arrow knocked and launched, the shaft sprouting from its hide and producing another angry bellow. Gotcha! Aernard thought with a grin.

He watched on with a detached fascination as the massive, fang-lined maw of the creature opened to reveal a dark and dank cavern, from which it emitted its horrible growl.
Even from 20 odd feet away he could smell the fetid odour of decay and rotting flesh that wafted from its mouth as it bellowed. Without thinking, he notched another arrow and loosed the shaft in to the depths of the gaping mouth. The shaft zipped through the air, flying true, and in his mind, Aernard absently imagined that the small shaft was the size of a spear – big enough to puncture the creatures’ throat and burst from the other side of its dense carapace.
The air around the arrow warped, and in an instant it grew, suddenly the size of a spear and slamming directly in to the back of the creatures’ mouth. Its guttural bellow became a muted whine, and it turned it huge body away in fear, cowed by the brutal blow.

Aernard blinked, unsure at what had just happened. Did I? he thought, not quite able to grasp it.

The Shambling Mound lashed about in a rage now, flinging it massive arms about wildly and pounding at the hardy figure of Alfrigg, who fought desperately to turn it back.
A small, feathered shaft still protruded from its flank and the sharp point of a metallic, over-sized arrowhead had pushed painfully through its body from its mouth.
Let’s end this thing, Aernard thought with determination, caught in the cadence of the battle.
He strode forward, stowing his bow and drawing both swords at once. Within a few steps he was at full pace and launched himself towards the back of the beast, swords aloft, moving through the air like a bird of prey.
He slammed in to the creatures’ viney back, his feet sinking slightly in to the moist surface as though jumping upon a rotting tree trunk.
He used the momentum of the jump and brought the swords down in a vicious arc, impaling the beast with twin blows, the blades sinking almost a foot in to its spongy hide.
It reared back, the muted whine increasing in volume and changing quickly in to a painful cry. The world beneath Aernard heaved, and he instinctively pushed away with his feet, pulling his swords free and flipping backwards with the momentum.
He turned gracefully over in the air and landed with a small thump, crouched slightly, his swords at the ready. Moments later the ground shook with a massive thump, and the smell of burning, wet wood suddenly filled the air.

The creature collapsed to the ground, a large hole burned in to its chest. Aernard looked up, chest heaving with exertion, adrenaline still pumping through his body, confused by the sudden smell of burning.
Across the corpse of the Shambling Mound, Selph looked smugly back at him and shrugged, his hand still raised, the emerald green embedded in his palm sparkling in the light of the flames that were starting to take hold on the beasts body.
“Got tired of waiting.”

Alfrigg patted at his beard again disconsolately.
Blasted magmins! he thought for the hundredth time, and did his best to cover the charred and burned holes in the hair. He sighed. Again.
He caught a snatch of what Cedric had just asked Aernard.
"Toadwallow you say? Ae, I've heard of it."

The party set out westwards once more as he spoke, and he told what he knew of Toadwallow.
The party were strangely quiet - strangely introspective.
Alfrigg wondered as he spoke whether the others had seen the same horrors he had.
He could still hear Thali's voice in his mind - thank you brother.
Was it a just a dream? The more he thought on it, the less he was sure.

Toadwallow Caverns, is a series of subterranean tunnels that, in the Prime Material Plane, are home to a eccentric tribe of Bulllywugs, or Toadmen, known as the Mudhides. The caverns are located in a small area of marshland where the towering trees of the Harkenwold Forest intersect with the White River. These fresh-water wetlands, are not particularly difficult to traverse, though the Mudhides, like all Bullywugs, are very territorial, and are known to exact a toll on any looking to pass through their territory.All of this is relevant however, to the world of the Prime Material Plane. Here in the Dreamscape, it's inhabitants are few and varied. Like the farmsteads and small dwellings you have passed, a few make their strange living here, but you are not even sure whether the Bullywugs and their tribalistic existence would be reflected here in any way, beyond the unique terrian in which they live. What you do know however, is that according to Atrabon, some great evil is beginning to gather here, and whilst you doubt it is Bullywugs, something or someone may be making a home of Toadwallow Caverns.
The closer you are get to Toadwallow, the wetter the terrian becomes. The massive oaks and firs of the Great Forest begin to thin, their massive roots rising further from the earth like long spindly fingers. They are replaced by even taller paperbarks and swampoaks, whose canopy forms a leafy cathedral above you and thrust out from the forest itself right to the shores of the White River. The ground seems to drop away as well as you head westward, replaced by growing pools as the river also reaches out to touch and embrace the encroaching forest in its watery grasp. You are reminded immediately of the Deadmoors, though these wetlands lack the brakish and sulphuric tang. There is also nothing of the overflowing verdance of the Deadmoors; no chirping of crickets, no trumpeting of frogs, no shrill cries from hunting birds. You have entered the Toadwallows, or more accurately, you have entered their reflection here in the Dreamscape, and like a dream, it is a strange and ephemeral reflection. The wispy tendrils of life force periodically sway about you in silent vigour; phasing in and out of your vision like leaves on the breeze. This silent waterworld has an ominous feeling, like a scaly predator is waiting just below its calm waters, waiting to strike.

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Epic × 3!
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.
“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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