A common and widely detested inhabitant of bedrooms and inns throughout Santharia, Dreamlice are more than just a ubiquitous and adaptable pest. Very rarely, if an infestation goes unchecked, something changes in the nature of these parasites – instead of sipping blood while their victims sleep, and then hiding away, they latch on and stay put, and the victim begins to change. Poorly understood and reviled by all races, Dreamlice are, regrettably, accepted as a fact of life in certain areas.
A tiny, flat bodied creature, usually less than half a
nailsbreadth long, Dreamlice
are small enough to go unnoticed unless looked for. Their small, scale-shaped
bodies are covered in hard armour, especially on the small head, which is built
into the body so that it is almost impossible to get a hold on. Examined under a
lens, the only feature really visible on the head is the mouth, made up of a
sharp-tipped tube through which blood is sucked. The Dreamlice use their eight
hooked legs to cling to the hosts’s skin, though their small size usually means
this isn’t felt at the time. They are coloured according to the area they are
born in, usually dull brown or grey coloured, but when full up of blood they
swell slightly and gain a pinkish tinge. If light is shone through one that has
fed well, the translucency of the armour becomes clear, and they show up as
Easier to recognise than the lice themselves, which tend to only come out at night, and retreat back into hiding during the day, are the bites they leave behind. Small red marks, usually in lines, often in circular rings where groups have fed together, are left on the skin, where they itch, alerting the victim to the presence of Dreamlice in their bed. Dreamlouse bites are usually covered up by sufferers, however, as a stigma is attached to the creatures’ presence in a home or inn.
In the rare cases when the infestation becomes truly threatening, the lice become much more noticeable. They latch in clusters onto the host’s skin, overlapping like scales so that they are very hard to dislodge – the appearance of patches of scaly skin is so convincing that in some places the lice are known as draketicks, and their victims as “scalies”. However, the lice are belied by the reddening of skin around the affected area; in sucking blood from the flesh, they exude a substance that seems to increase blood flow to the surrounding skin, making it redder.
Dreamlice are infuriatingly adaptable. Able to travel in clothing and bedding,
and to reproduce extremely quickly, they can make themselves at home almost
anywhere with a food source. They gain this food – blood, from any warm-blooded
animal (and especially from sentient races, whose sociable natures and regular
sleeping arrangements make things very easy for them) by sucking blood through
their tube-shaped mouthparts. They seem to exude a substance that makes this
painless for some time, but after a few hours the bite tends to become itchy.
The adaptability of Dreamlice is perhaps best seen in the ways they differ, depending on their hosts. Those feeding on dwarves, trolls, and orcs tend to have larger heads with stronger jaws, to tackle the thicker skin of these races. This, however, makes them more vulnerable to being pulled out by hand, and when they bite humans, elves, and other “thin-skinned” races, they make themselves felt, as the numbing substance they produce doesn’t quite cover the pain caused by their enlarged mouthparts. Mullogs’ lice are resistant to a wide variety of poisons that are often found in their bloodstream, to the extent that they may mildly poison other races if allowed to bite in significant numbers. Fortunately, the isolation and generally unwelcoming attitude of the mullogs make guests unusual, so their lice aren’t often shared with other races. The mullog researcher Lumbe Bloggson, though, reported feelings of sickliness and constant headaches when staying as a guest in a mullog home. He noted that the illness, though not debilitating, was a nuisance until he mentioned it to his hosts, and, after some trial and error, they solved the problem by changing the bedding he was sleeping in.
The most frightening ability of Dreamlice, though, is the one by which they gain their name. Occasionally, usually only where there is a severe infestation, the lice change behaviour dramatically; instead of biting discreetly in the night, and then scurrying back to their hiding places leaving nothing more than an itchy welt, they attach to the skin in groups, their hard, flat carapaces looking like patches of scales on a victim’s skin, hence the name “scaly” given to sufferers. Because of their small size and tough bodies, as well as the way they interlock very tightly, they are tricky to remove, but there is more to it than the simple physical difficulty of pulling the creatures off. As well as taking blood from the victim, they appear to give something back. Believed to be caused by a disease carried by some Dreamlice, it has a rapid and marked effect on the victim – they become drowsy and lethargic, wanting only to curl up and sleep. They report fantastic, involved and unusually lucid dreams, and will often come to welcome the soporific effects of the Dreamlice, craving them desperately if the lice are forcibly removed. If the victim is allowed to stay among the infestation, more and more lice will attach in clusters to their skin, sucking the blood and effectively replacing it with their own dull-red carapaces. There are even reports, albeit fairly dubious ones, of lice infesting mouths, and coating the tongue, or even growing and forming interlocking structures to replace damaged body parts as large as a whole finger. While the Dreamlice appear to take great pains to keep the body in working order, the mind of a victim seems to become smothered by the desire to sleep, and the need for the addictive and intoxicating dreams that the lice induce. Although it is rare for lice to completely take over a person, “scaly sickness”, as the condition is called, can irrevocably alter a mind before action is taken to remove them.
The exact nature of the dreams caused by Dreamlice is hard to ascertain, as scalies are generally unreliable witnesses. There are useful accounts, though, such as that of the researcher Friddriv Alav, a specialist in molluscs, who had the dubious fortune to experience two separate kinds of animal-incurred dream or hallucination – both the Ugling’s dreams, which reportedly show a person their heart’s desire, and the scaly sickness of Dreamlice, although fortunately the latter was only briefly and mildly, as a healer was fetched to remove the lice within a few days. Nonetheless, the experience seems to have been scarring to the already eccentric researcher, not least because a significant portion of his notes were burned along with his bedding, in the traditional purging of anything that might have harboured the lice (see Myth/Lore section). Nonetheless, a comparison with the ugling dream seems to have been too good an opportunity for Alav to pass up. His observations are as follows:
“I was awoken around sunblaze by my landlady’s shrieks
of indignation. Why she should take it upon herself to invade the rooms I
pay for (with passable punctuality) I do not know. Probably again with
some quibble or misapprehension concerning the rent, though I can’t say I
greatly care, nor did she trouble much to explain herself, as the matter
which caused her grating cries of horror interrupted whichever tirade she
had prepared for my benefit on this occasion. She had apparently noticed
“scalybugs” on my person – and maybe there were a couple, I don’t know, I
was barely awake to be honest. All I can really recall is that I was
hauled out of my room and into the street while my belongings were flung
around and heaped on the ground with a terrible disregard for the delicacy
of my notes and experiments. I tried, again and again, to save the
collections of fossilised shells, and pickled Kraken – I tried but they
stopped me, gathering in the street and watching, not caring. They burnt
my notes! I beseeched them to save some, and they took pity, but not
before reams of vital observations had been consigned to flames. What
followed was barely noticeable, next to the despair of losing my precious
research. They conspire to steal my ideas from me, I know it. They make up
lies and use petty reasons to sabotage me at every turn...
Dreamlice are ubiquitous across vast swathes of Sarvonia, and, to a lesser extent,
Nybelmar, especially poorer or more densely
populated towns and cities, their favoured habitats being the dark corners of
bedrooms the less thoroughly or often cleaned, the better. They are renowned as
the scourge of inns, where constant movement of people in and out of rooms makes
it almost impossible to keep them from spreading from one person to the next.
Even outside of large settlements, they thrive in barns and stables, feeding on
livestock, in the great subterranean settlements of the dwarves, in ships and
travelling caravans, bird roosts and wolf dens –
Dreamlice can find a living anywhere there are warm blooded creatures sleeping.
Lately, though, as they begin to be better understood, and less superstition and
stigma is attached to their presence, people are becoming better at keeping
their homes free of these pests.
Habitat/Behaviour. Dreamlice are attracted to warmth and dark, and repelled by light. It is this which dictates their choice of habitat, together with their need for warm-blooded prey, preferably asleep so they don’t react unfavourably to their depredations. They tend to hide during the day in cracks between floorboards, in walls, as well as in the fabric of beds themselves, especially straw-filled mattresses. The lice hide here during the day, and then emerge once it has gotten dark, to feed on sleeping people or animals. They are easily disturbed, and hence restless sleepers tend not to be bitten so badly – a common, if makeshift, remedy often employed by travellers who needs must stay in louse-ridden inns is to sleep with a hairbrush in the bed. The bristles continuously irritate the sleeper, making them stir in their sleep, and hopefully disturb lice before they can bite. The Dreamlice feed in small groups of three or four, arranging themselves in lines, or often small circles, and leaving telltale bite patterns.
Diet. Dreamlice live entirely on blood, always from warm-blooded creatures, including all the sentient races (barring, of course, the cold blooded psyrpents). In the vast majority of cases they take the blood by piercing the skin of sleeping prey with their tube-shaped mouthparts, and sucking until they are full – they can in fact be seen to visibly swell as their bodies fill with blood. It takes very little blood to sustain a Dreamlouse, due to their small size – one drop is a hearty meal, and a Dreamlouse need only feed once in ten days or so to survive. Because of this, even fairly ingrained infestations can yield little real trouble to the victims, aside from the irritation of the bites. Very rarely, though, something will cause Dreamlice to feed far more aggressively – latching on in dense clusters and injecting a substance which causes lethargy and vivid dreams. What causes this sudden change has been the subject of much scrutiny for some time, and many ideas have been put forward – is it something in the victim’s blood that attracts the Dreamlice? A more squalid or welcoming environment? An unusually high population? The most likely explanation seems to be some disease which they carry, as it does occasionally seem to spread between households like an infection. As of yet, there are no concrete answers, and becoming a scaly is a prospect weighted with great fear and superstition.
Mating. Dreamlice can breed very rapidly, if conditions are good – a nymph seems to mature within a fortnight, whereupon it will be ready to breed, and can probably continue to do so until it dies, two or three months later (if it doesn’t meet some premature end). Thankfully, the lice don’t often reproduce with quite such rapidity. If they have a good food supply, are relatively undisturbed, and their habitat is warm and stable, they can go from a handful of individuals to hundreds within a year or so. However, cleaning, and the use of repellents tends to stop them reaching greater numbers, except in the worst of cases. Eggs are laid in the hiding places available in the habitat, rather than, as is sometimes feared, under the victim’s skin.
Usages. Unlikely as it seems, even a creature as detestable as the Dreamlouse can have its uses. The soporific effects of scaliness infections have led to them often being ground to powders reputed to help with nervous disorders such as strangling disease, or chronic inability to sleep. There have been attempts to use an essence of Dreamlouse to combat some of the effects of sleep-ill disease, the idea being that, if it can give a regular night’s sleep, the sufferer will be less inclined to fall asleep at irregular times of the day. Unfortunately, though, none of these uses has resoundingly successful effects – they work sometimes, but such is the nature of Dreamlice themselves that the sleep-inducing qualities are only rarely present, and you can’t tell whether they are without either allowing the live lice to bite, or trying them out in powdered form.
It seems obvious that using Draketicks taken from people already suffering scaliness might have far more reliable effects. However, the rarity of the condition in itself combines with an illicit practice of harvesting the Draketicks nd selling them for extortionate prices, to make these more useful lice far harder to obtain. The reason that such traders as stoop to collecting lice from the unfortunate victims of scaliness are able to ask such prices is not entirely clear, but there are strong suspicions among many who have experience of scaliness that they are used to manufacture some form of intoxicant – in particular the notorious Veell elixir. Though the ingredients to this dangerous and highly addictive concoction are closely guarded, it seems likely, given certain similarities in the effects of Draketick infection and the elixir, that Dreamlice do play some part in its manufacture. This would also go some way to explaining why many of those who become addicted to Veell are previous victims of scaliness.
Indeed, the fantastic dreams offered by Draketicks seem often (though by no means always) to open a path for victims into further addiction, as they chase the feelings of escape they felt as scalies. In drinking dens and gutters where slaves to vaninen, Veell, Tharoc weed and rotgut frequent, it is not unlikely that you can spot the telltale scale-shaped scars, where Dreamlice have been burned from the skin, but left a far deeper mark on their victim.
Myth/Lore. Dreamlice have been around for as long as there have been people living together, and probably a good deal longer, so it’s unsurprising that a wealth of lore has sprung up concerning them, mostly in the form of reputed cures or ways to get rid of infections. Some of these are of little real effect; the Carmalad tradition of daubing on bedroom walls a face with an eight-legged insect in their grinning mouth, or the elven belief that wearing gloves to sleep will keep the lice at bay are as ineffective as they are quaint. Some, though, have more basis in truth. The dwarves lay out dishes of lamp bitumen mixed with crushed rock at the legs of their beds (quartz for preference, though nor’sidian is also effective). Lice seem unable to cross the gritty, oily mixture, and become trapped in the trays to be disposed of in the morning. In the Kuglimz city of Lu’Weilima, where Dreamlice have been ingrained for decades, bunches of pfepper grass and juk’lan leaves are hung around the bedroom, the smell from which apparently discourages lice.
More mysterious is a preventative against scaliness used in many areas – that keeping bees, or using beeswax in the home, somehow discourages lice from attaching themselves. Strangely enough, it seems to be upheld by several accounts of outbreaks in which beekeepers or people who worked with beeswax were inexplicably spared the infection despite being in regular contact with Dreamlice, even during outbreaks of scaliness among others. The reason often given by those that swear by this preventative, is that malise are the favourite hosts for hivelings, and hivelings hate scalies with a fearsome passion. Thus keeping a reminder to the lice that there are bees nearby warns them off of trying to take control of a person, for fear of retribution from an angry hiveling. Fanciful as it sounds, this is an opinion that has widespread adherents, including many scholars and healers. The belief seems to stem from a great time ago – even archaic texts such as Talabaltt Calitter’s “Ailments and Maladies of Men” speak of the practise as a very old custom:
“In inns and way houses, beeswax candles are burned in every room, not for the light or smell, but to keep Dreamlice from causing scaly sickness, a great fear to people in some parts. It cannot be that the wax has some smell which dissuades the lice, or they would not bite at all. The reason given by the common folk is a story, telling of a fight long ago between hivelings and scalies, wherein both sides lost their permanent bodies, and now exist in an uneasy truce, founded on their mutual insubstantiality. In a way, this makes a certain amount of sense – hivelings, according to the old tales, are made from a single entity imposing its will on many smaller creatures, whilst scalies are formed from many small creatures collectively imposing themselves on one, larger mind. So perhaps there is something more to these ancient stories.”
Cures for serious scaly infections that have already set in, though, are harder to come by, and possibly even more drenched in superstition. One old Avennorian text prescribes that the sufferer “pluck a live taenish, and let him loose in the house, whereupon the draketicks will attach to his bare skin in an effort to clothe the taenish, in place of his feathers.” This almost certainly doesn’t work, and many other cures likely did more harm than good – often a scaly is simply shunned for fear that the infection will spread. This kind of infestation is held in such fear by many living in prone areas, that it is often answered with fire, as this rhyme from the city of Marduran instructs:
a dreamlouse and I crushed its head,
is simple, if ruthless – take every stitch of clothing, bed-sheets, any fabric
and indeed most of the furniture out into the street and burn it, along with the
sufferer’s shorn off hair. The sufferer should also, according to tradition, be
kept awake while the fire burns, however much
they may want to sleep, and when only hot coals remain, they are used to burn
away the dreamlice attached to the skin. Given how traumatic this must be for
the sufferer, it’s unsurprising that becoming a scaly is usually something that
scars a person for life.
In the times after the Great Plague of Nyermerysys, living conditions had degraded so that Dreamlice were a problem for many inhabitants, albeit a relatively trivial one compared to the pestilence that had gone before. Scalies were becoming increasingly common, and many enterprising citizens found employment as a specialist kind of healer – calling themselves “birdwights”, they travelled the streets with caged corbies, which they trained to pluck off the Dreamlice that had latched onto scalies. They would also set the usual fires in the streets, burning bedclothes and other fabrics in which the lice could find a home, but the assumed authority that the corbies apparently conveyed seemed to drive them to treat scalies with more compassion than they often had reason to expect. Figures with caged corbies, or a bird emblem about their person, can still be seen walking slum areas of Nyermerysys and nearby towns, though these days they act as more general healers, the corbies signifying that they serve those most in need.