Chapter 21: Nightmares
As quickly as we can, we are preparing to witchwalk into the dreamworld in search of Robbie. Salimar conjures a walking-stick for Tom (still exhausted from the previous rescue mission -- his own) and Mirien "steps" party members from the castle to Daewen's cottage, if they aren't already there. Then, as is our custom when going on a group witchwalk, we settle on a marching order:
Mirien, Markel, Kate, Tom, Gannar, Dafnord & Daphne, and Salimar.
Tom finishes putting clairvoyance tracers on everyone, then he, Kate, and Salimar all bring up the telepathy net, redundantly. We all join hands, and Mirien leads off.
We have a couple of false starts, and it first seems that nothing is happening. Usually, a witchwalk takes you into hazy gray nowhere. But Gannar notes that the sky -- usually a light, pearly gray -- is getting sunset-red. The terrain no longer looks familiar; the trees look autumnal. Salimar looks about with Third Sight and everything looks rather doubled. The path we're on wanders differently. Daewen's cottage is still in sight, but the details are different, and it's acquired a barn next to it. Up ahead, we spot a figure in a field. (We didn't used to have fields here.)
The figure turns out to be a scarecrow. Its shadow lies dark across the path -- and the lighting shouldn't cast any shadows. Markel looks the shadow over clairvoyantly and feels it doesn't look properly flat -- or proper at all.
Some of us then spot a bright winged figure, hiding in the "shadow" -- something like Daphne, but six-winged and in firey colors, not Daphne's blues and greens. Noting the six wings, Dafnord thinks "seraph" and recommends we proceed circumspectly, asking permission.
Then Gannar makes a couple of disturbing observations -- the scarecrow and fire-sprite both have glowing red eyes, and there is someone in our line-up, between Markel and Kate! This interloper is translucent and shadowy. It tries to pull Kate off the path. She resists; it lets go and flees into nearby woods, in a wobbly, rubbery, shape-changing run.
When Markel tries to re-join hands with her, their hands pass through each other on the first attempt. The scarecrow shadow they are both standing in is somehow sticky and adhesive...
"What do you want?" Dafnord demands of the scarecrow and fire-sprite, dropping the idea of deferential behavior. They both grin, one greedily, one fiercely, neither pleasantly. Daphne readies her wood-magic; what if the scarecrow's pole suddenly started growing?
About then, the scarecrow utters a banshee-like screech. Several of us scream in helpless panic. But several don't. Dafnord swings his sword Umbra at the scarecrow's shadow. The scarecrow pulls back his arm and the shadow retreats with it. The fire-sprite then throws a good old-fashioned fireball at Dafnord, but he's still wearing a barkskin spell of Daphne's; he's soon wearing burning rags, but he's unhurt.
While Salimar glamours up some rope to keep us from getting physically separated on the witchpaths, Tom retailates on the fire-sprite -- he conjures a block of ice around it. When it starts to melt its way out, he does it again. It vanishes, leaving a hollow ice-shell.
About then, Daphne's growth magic on the scarecrow's pole kicks in, possibly made all the stronger by the panic the scarecrow's scream aroused. It goes shooting up into the ruddy sky. Salimar lobs one of her telepathic brain-cocktails at it, and its head explodes.
Tom conjures some water to extinguish the flaming Dafnord, then produces some clothes for him.
Well. We seem to have won. But, checking the surroundings carefully, Salimar spots something black flying way up high. Markel and Dafnord study it and conclude it's a black dragon. Draconian forces are behind our diplomatic crisis with Allied Epochs and the assault of grey ninjas on Lanthil; could they be behind Robbie's disappearance? In any case, we can't do much about the creature at the moment.
We march on, following our dowsing sign toward Robbie, and soon we're walking on a dirt road through a darkening forest. The road runs up a hill, and there we see a dark rider on what looks like a mummified horse. Markel and Salimar try to inspect him remotely, but their clairvoyant viewpoints wink out when they get close -- not even very close.
There's a mundane fix for this, though. Well, sort of mundane. Tom conjures a pair of binoculars and looks at the fellow. Ah-ha, just as he hoped. The rider is Mad Jack Crorey, whom we have met once or twice on the chaos paths near Lanthil. He looks as bad as ever -- weatherbeaten, scarred, a hole torn clear through one cheek -- and his horse looks even worse, but it's him.
Tom hails him and waves. He waves back and, with alarming speed, approaches the group. Soon, we're eying each other on either side of the invisible point where our second sights failed.
Tom refreshes Jack's memory, since it seems to have been longer for him than for us. And he now speaks hoarsely and with a muffler round his throat, as though some of the vampiric nasties he hunts had gotten too close once or twice. The horse is clearly not the same one Crorey rode before. That one looked skinny and bony and mean, but it was a different color (pale), and it didn't breathe fire... Crorey explains this is a local breed. And we bet we can guess the name. Tom pats it gingerly on the nose. Nice horsey.
Tom asks what Crorey is doing here. He's on a border patrol and is supposed to keep folk like us out. People really aren't supposed to come here in the body, as a general rule. "How do they come here?" "Mortals dream. Fays die..." So we are, indeed, in the dreamworld, or at least on its borders. Crorey acknowledges that, since we have several fays in our group, coming in the body is about the only option -- if we come at all.
Tom explains we are looking for the soul of a friend, who's left his body behind, and nor is it dead (or actually matter, but never mind). Crorey says that, since Tom is The Tom (which makes Tom intensely uncomfortable) and he's seeking a Lost Soul (also uncomfortable), so this is one of the allowed exceptions. Crorey waves his hand and, apparently, opens a barrier for us.
Tom asks if there's anything we can do for him? Supplies, first aid? Crorey says no. The lord he works for supplies him, and one advantage of working in the dreamworld is "it hardly hurts at all here."
Can he suggest where we might find Robbie? Well, other than the ones held captive, wandering souls like Robbie tend to accumulate in "eddies." He also warns us that the river that lies ahead of us is a dangerous place.
Daphne feeds the nightmare some candy -- red-hots -- to no visible effect, and we proceed. Salimar wonders if it would be more proper for us to ride the local mounts rather than go a-foot. Tom amuses himself by working up a skeletal horse for her, if that's the way she feels.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.