A deal is struck between the Elves and the party: mercenary work for treasure and freedom. But their methods of delivering the party to their work make the party feel confused and used.

Scene 1: Waiting

Days 66 - 71

Vaalyun returns the next day with his standard team of guards to to continue the conversation. He sets up a space in an unused room within the compound, aided by his surrounding orbit of help, and places down a short pile of blank pages and fountain pen. He sits and stays there for half the day. Party members drift in and out of the room to tell their story. The pile of unfilled pages grows shorter. He's especially interested in their arrival to Ferran and their time underground in the Dwarven processing complex. He asks Arcos, List, Balcazar, and Hardy to repeat the story from their point of view. Arcos is interrogated the longest.

Eventually the pace of page-filling slows. Vaalyun has had enough. He thanks the party and says he'll be back in four days, mid-morning, for the simulation. He explains that it will take a few days to set things up. He collects his belongings and together, with the guards, opens and walks out the compound door. The party watches as all traces of the entrance disappear.

The party disperses and tries to settle in. They have days of time to fill. There's ample food and time for relaxation.

They're still confined, however, and that confinement irritates them. They lash out in their own small ways. List wants a campfire. She starts one in the central garden courtyard. Orryn looks for anything to steal. Hardy, Arcos, and Balcazar begins a thorough examination of the periphery of the compound in ten foot chunks.

A day removed from Vaalyun's visit, on the exterior wall, across the central courtyard, and far opposite of the entrance, Arcos, Hardy, and Orryn find a second, well-hidden door. Arcos spots it. The illusion is unbelievable, perfect. It's only noticed under direct visual interrogation. Balcazar and Hardy don't see it, although when Arcos calls Orryn over, he can. Next to the door is a small indent he can feel with his fingers. His knuckles disappear into the wall. Maybe it's the receptacle for a key.

Balcazar thinks for a second. There's isn't a door that hasn't responded favorably to his greataxe. He returns with his weapon, plants his feet, and wings the back side of its heavy head at the door. The greataxe strikes wood but bounces back hard as if it had struck hard metal. The wall reverberates like a massive bell. The party cringes and shakes the ringing from their hears. It takes Balcazar a few hours to regain his hearing.

Arcos and Hardy settle back into the courtyard to stare up at the open sky. They wonder if it's real.

Scene 2: Preparing for the first trial

Day 71

Vaalyun and his crew come precisely when he says they will: mid-morning, fourth day. Vaalyun is a bit more animated. Hardy knows he's excited. Vaalyun asks the party to get ready and waits in the central courtyard, arms crossed, under the red oak, while the party dons their clothing and weapons.

As the party assembles and double-checks their gear, the guards gather around the back wall to open the hidden door. List ties to watch to catch the incantation or key but misses the moment. The wall breaks into an open door and List can see beyond into a natural passageway of stone and brickwork and thick roots that crawl along the walls. It's tall enough for Balcazar to comfortably walk upright, but to narrow to proceed any way but single file.

The party is ready. Vaalyun arranges them into a single file, guards at the front and guards at the end, and they step into the tunnel.

The party thought it would be a short walk, but the walk takes fifteen minutes, all in uncomfortable silence, before they reach the end and a circular door which Vaalyun opens. They walk out of the claustrophobic space into a small yurt-like room, wooden, with a conical ceiling. It smells of cedar.

Around the edge of the room are six carved and reclined wooden seats affixed to the floor and spread equidistantly around the room's circumference. Although they're unpadded and upholstered, they look inviting. Vaalyun asks everyone to pick a chair and says it doesn't matter which one. Balcazar starts, sits his large frame down and then Arcos follows. Everyone settles into a spot and looks calmly ahead and up at the ceiling. At the pinnacle of the sloped ceiling is a small hole above which is empty space of considerable size. The mystery distracts List and Hardy.

Vaalyun stands in the center of the room. He begins to explain their expected experience.

"We're going go distribute a small amount of sleeping portion and a small guiding rod. Drink the potion and hold the rod in your right hand. You'll get tired and then gently fall asleep. It's fast acting. You should be asleep in thirty seconds."

"The rods that I'll distribute will link everyone together. You'll all participate together. It will feel real but it's a dream. There's no danger. You'll face a little skirmish but the damage won't be real. You'll wake up exactly how you are now in about an hour."

"We like to see how participants react in novel situations, so I can't give you any more information, but I'll be watching to ensure you're safe." He holds up a rod, "But you won't notice I'm there."

"Everyone ready?", he asks. The party responds "yes".

The party doesn't have any questions. They want this over with. The guards distribute the rods first and then then from a wall cabinet, take a small stack of metal cups and a gold flask. The pour a small amount of liquid into each one and distribute it. It's clear, smells herbal, and is warm, like a broth. They begin to drink: Arcos, List, Orryn, Balcazar.

Hardy pretends to drink, but doesn't swallow. There's a short gap while the guards and Vaalyun are attending to other party members. He slips the drink into his flask and casts sleep upon himself. If he's going under, it won't be forced by the Elves.

Scene 3: The first trial

Day 71

They're in a dark chamber. They look around. They see Balcazar, List, Orryn, Arcos, but not Hardy. They feel his presence as if he's standing by their side, but they don't see or hear him. They wait around for him to appear but he doesn't. Yet his impression still remains.

Wide, stone columns support the roof. In front of them is a deep channel, cut perfectly perpendicular to the party, which divides the chamber in half. A single bridge crosses the gap. On the other side of the room is a small treasure chest on the floor. They fundamentally and without communication understand that's their objective. They must get to the chest and open it.

Arcos and Orryn step forward, away from the noise of Balcazar and List to survey the room. They pause, scan the area, listen.

In front of them they hear motion coming over the bridge, in a piecemeal stop-and-go pattern. They back up, alert the party, stand at ready.

A face and body materialize in mid-swing: a Duergar, a deep Dwarf. Humans spoke of them in Ferran, but the party had never observed one. It's malice is clear. Hardy blocks the blow, but then a second and third Duergar appear and attack.

Once visible, the Duergars' advantage is lost. They're talented melee fighters, but the party is able to deal with forces that stay within reach of the swing of their weapons. One by one they fall to the party's attacks. They're all dead. The party moves forward through their bodies and across the gap. They look below as they cross the void. Sparks of light glitter like stars.

They're on the other side. In front of them is the chest. Arcos checks the area. There are no traps. Orryn reaches to open it...

Scene 4: Hardy's experience

Day 71

Hardy is caught between two dreams. He can see and hear the party. They're there beside him, in the chamber. They're talking, looking for him. He calls out but they can't hear him. He tries to touch List but his hand moves through her space.

He concentrates and forcefully tries to join their reality, but he's now back in the Elven sleep room, floating and drifting, slowly bouncing off the walls without control. He sees his body asleep below. He sees Vaalyun and the guards. Sometimes the guards close enough to touch, but he doesn't. They don't notice him.

He watches Vaalyun walks over to each of the party members to check their pulse. Vaalyun looks satisfied and he calls out to the guards. Hardy can't understand what he said. He doesn't understand Elven.

The guards leave and an older female Elf enters carrying a hinged leather satchel. She sets the satchel down in the middle of the room and from it pulls out a variety of equipment: silver boxes with wire leads, an hourglass of swirling liquid, a chattering box of gears. Each one is gracefully set on the floor.

She talks to a guard and the guard pulls long, thin wisps of wire from the box and wraps the ends around the left ear of each party member. She collects the other ends and connects them to her equipment. The gears in the whirling box stop and start, clicking a repetitive pattern. She listens attentively. She's not fully satisfied. She hovers over Hardy's Earth-bound, physical body while he looks down from above. She goes over to Vaalyun, back to Hardy, places her hand on his head, and he vanishes from the space. He's back fully in the dark chamber. The party is at the far end of the chamber, there are three dead Duergars in front of him. List, Arcos, Orryn, and Balcazar are talking around a closed chest. Orryn reaches down to open it...

Scene 5: Awaiting the next trial

Days 71 - 74

List, Balcazar, Orryn, Arcos, and Hardy awaken to the faces of the guards and the Vaalyun. They smile. The party feels fine, refreshed. They know what happened, but like the memory of a dream it's already begun to fade. Hardy looks around for the woman and the gear, but everything is gone. There's no trace.

Vaalyun thanks everyone for their time and says that they were very helpful. The guards help the party collect themselves and they head back to the holding compound. Vaalyun says he'll be back in two days. He and his crew close the doors behind them. The party must wait.

As soon as Hardy is guaranteed free speech out of range of the Elves, he details his perspective from the orphaned junction between dreams and reality. He speaks of the Elven overseer, the laid-out equipment unpacked and connected to each and every one of them, the Duergar chamber, and his inability to react or respond with anyone in both worlds.

The rest of the party is slightly troubled by the detailed Elven supervision, but the trial was otherwise uneventful. They accomplished the task without incident in a safe space. They shrug Hardy off.

A couple of days of boredom pass.

Vaalyun walks through the front entrance with a new crew, different guards and two plain-clothed helpers. They spend their time awkwardly staring at the party while the party packs and collects their belongings. Once packed, everyone heads to the back to the compound and gathers around the location of the hidden door.

The door is opened, but to the party's surprise the passageway behind it is different. It's now lined with smooth, marbled brick, well lit with glowing orbs affixed to the ceiling. Sound ripples, bounces, and echoes away from them.

The walk is shorter. The walkway ends in another round chamber, but this time of antiseptic white marble. The party slows as they enter. Their pulse quickens. In the center of the chamber is a deep shaft. Five rooms branch out in perfect symmetry from the center. The setup is catastrophically similar to the environment that dropped them in the Plains and bifurcated their life. They hadn't described the space to Vaalyun. Their conversations had been nearly singularly focused on the activities and description of the Dwarves.

The party exchanges glances. Hardy asks why the environment is so different than the previous, intimate space. Vaalyun answers that it's a longer, more powerful dream which requires a different setup. Hardy doesn't buy Vaalyun's answer.

The guards guide the hesitant members into the individual chambers. As Balcazar and Arcos pass by the center shaft to rooms across from their entrance, they note that the shaft is half full and capped by a delicately carved shield. Green flames sear around the shield's edges. The air tingles with energy.

Inside each room is a pedestal. Each party member is instructed to lie down on top, in a carved relief that fits their bodies perfectly like it was carved for them, and are told to rest and relax. Arcos goes first, then Hardy and Balcazar, then List. They're hesitant, but they comply with their instructions. Orryn doesn't. He refuses and is manhandled by the guards and dragged, yelling, into his own space. The rest of the party lose sight of him. Eventually he stops yelling, and the everyone else figures he has decided to cooperate.

The guards leave. The space is quiet. From outside their chambers, they can hear the small crackling of fire. The sound grows louder. Balcazar's head hurts. The ceiling is shifting and swaying above him. Something is descending towards him but his head is to addled to do anything else but accept his fate. He hears a small yelp from outside, maybe another chamber, but he isn't able to care. Reality is slipping away.

Scene 6: The second trial

Day 74

The universe claps. There's an explosion. They aren't sure if it's real or in their heads. Their squeezed through a pinhole, expanded into an ocean. The feeling is physical, of time passing slowly and quickly, sometimes simultaneously.

Balcazar, Hardy, List and Arcos shake their heads. They come to, standing, in a hallway that curls to their left. They have a headache but they try to shake it off. Everyone is present but Orryn. They wait for a few minutes, but he doesn't show.

They know they need to go ahead. At the end of the hallway is something they must acquire. They don't know what, but they know it's there.

They let Arcos lead the way. He advances with care and stealth around the curve and out of sight. He scans the floor, the ceiling. He stops, listens, and then moves. Twenty yards ahead, there's a tiny, unnaturally smooth divot on the ground. It looks out of place. He bends down to examine it. It's a trap. He tries is disarm it, but can't. It looks mundane, but the skill of creation and placement is too high to circumvent. He delicately applies pressure and tumbles back.

The space erupts. A thick spike, the diameter of a tree blows from ground and plunges into the ceiling overhead. Poles of razor spikes protrude five feet from the center heft. It would have eviscerated Arcos and anyone next to him.

Balcazar, List, and Hardy run forward to see Arcos standing behind the hallway-filling sculpture of death. He waves them off, steps through the space, and continues on.

He finds a second trap, sets it off, avoids damage, steps through the space. He's at the end of the hallway. It terminates in a wide staircase that descends a half flight into a square, stocky room. At the back of the room are two tall pedestal blocks, and suspended between them is a mass of shifting, deep-black liquid held aloft by little bolts of energy that radiate from it and attach to metal plates riveted to the side of each pedestal. It's the liquid, he tells himself. That's what we need to get. He wants to walk down the stairs to grab it by his bare hands, but he shakes of the impulse.

His brain catches up with his instinctual hesitation. There are two metal metal bulls to the left and right of the pedestals. Gorgons. Their big, ponderous, iron-horned heads are lowered to the ground and are ready to crack forward. Arcos must have had tunnel vision. They're right there, dominating the confined space. He's sure they'll have to deal with them.

He turns around to head back through the two traps to collect the rest of the party. When he arrives, he sees Orryn has joined the party. He's bitterly deriding the Elves and explaining why he was late. He looks a little beat up. The hatred is a bit too much for Arcos and he clears his throat to interrupt the conversation to get everyone's attention and explains what's up ahead. As a full party, everyone moves forward.

Scene 7: The second trial — battle with the Gorgons

Day 74

The party is at the top of the stairs, looking down from above onto the pedestals, the suspended, charged fluid, and the Gorgons. They don't want to deal with the Gorgons.

The room is small and their bag of holding is full. They've tried the trick before. The Gorgons can't swim. What if they fill the space with water? Orryn's game. He pulls out the bag of holding, opens it, and braces for the pushback.

Water floods down the stairs. Slowly the chamber beings to fill. Ankle deep, then knee deep. The Gorgon's don't move. The water reaches the base of the suspended fluid. Steam bellows out from the point of contact and beings to obscure the entire space until the thick fog cuts out everything beyond arms reach.

The bag of holding is empty. It's time for action. They step down the stairs, blind to the environment, into the waist-deep water, and forward towards their goal.

As soon as they step foot onto the chamber floor, two diffuse lights fill the space. They can hear the heavy clang of moving metal. The lights grows brighter. The Gorgon's are coming. The party gets in position.

It's a tough battle. List and Arcos are seriously hurt. Luckily the high water has impeded the use of the Gorgon's petrifying breath weapon. The party smashes out their animating force. The Gorgons battered frames fall. Arcos reaches down to check. It's safe. He descends below the surface of the water to get a better grip, and rips two chest plates from the Gorgon's bodies. He's knows he'll be able to combine them into a good shield1.

All that's left is the pulsing, animated fluid. They move towards its energy. The water is uncomfortably warm.

  1. Arrow Catching Shield Shield fashioned from armored plates taken from the corpse of two Gorgons. +2 bonus to AC against Ranged Attacks. Whenever an attacker makes a ranged Attack against a target within 5 feet of you, the user can use their reaction to become the target of the Attack instead.  

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