The black dust from the tower’s explosion slowly settled over the ruins surrounding the party. For a moment, an eerie feeling hung in the air. It dawned on the party that the woods were completely silent for the first time since entering, as if the entire area was holding its breath.
Suddenly, two figures emerged in to the edges of the ruin at different places. Our heroes, ready for anything, prepared to fight. All at once they realized that the figures were Embergrace and Neera! As the two stepped toward the group, the forest noise quickly resumed, and the treetops in all directions began writhing angrily. Unnatural screams and moans could be heard from all around. The phylactery pulsed coldly.
Embergrace and Neera quickly approached the party and began asking what had happened. Neera related that the party had the attention of many forces, not the least of which included her people and the spirits and creatures of the wood. She requested help from Lethe to commune with any benevolent spirits nearby for protection. Being relatively new to this type of spell, Lethe asked the party to contribute in garnering the spirits’ attention.
As Lethe and Neera focused their energies, our champions began a skill challenge. They performed various feats to attract the spirits, including shows of strength, agility, and power. Soon, they had gathered a cadre of benign essences.
The most powerful of the well-disposed beings began to speak, “What would you ask of us?”
Neera asked, “How long until my people arrive?”
In a voice that crackled with elemental and arcane energy, the spirit methodically replied, “The elven ones will arrive on the morrow.”
Belgerath stepped up and asked where the party must go next to eliminate the undead plague. The spirit informed him that they had already done so, at least insofar as the being’s realm of influence was concerned.
Lethe, obviously bothered and internally struggling, suddenly blurted out, “What of my people?”
The spirit slowly turned to Lethe and studied her for a moment with its piercing gaze. Then, coldly, “Your time has come. That which you would call home is in grave danger.”
Lethe looked pale and distant, “I… I should be there… this is my trial.” She trailed off, lost in her thoughts.
Neera turned to the heroes and spoke once more, “I have an idea. Lethe and I can hold the denizens of the wood at bay while your party rests, but I cannot openly oppose my people. In the morning, I will take Lethe and escape to the North, while you set off back towards the plaguelands.”
Our heroes agreed, and Neera began channeling again. The spirits quickly created a magical barrier around the ruin, which crackled with energy as the malevolent ghosts of the wood rushed in to crash against it.
The party awoke to the same sounds, and an exhausted-looking Neera and Lethe. Neera warned them, “When the shield drops, the full wrath of the forest will bear down upon you. I will no longer be able to help you.”
After saying their goodbyes to Lethe and Neera, the party expressed that they were ready. In a moment, the barrier had dissipated and an enraged miasma of spiritual energy began assaulting our heroes’ minds. They found that if they kept moving, it was more difficult for the angry spirits to latch on, so they immediately began their journey back towards Ormpetarr.
On re-entering the woods, our champions noticed that the area had changed completely. Previously taken paths had been swallowed up, and new ones had formed that twisted and wound in strange directions. The very trees seemed to have rearranged themselves in to new and unfamiliar configurations.
Within just a few steps in to the wood, the party was attacked! They were beset upon by a group of pod demons; shamblers; and giant, mutated elves, all of which had been twisted and disfigured by years of exposure to their spellplagued environs. The pod demons and shamblers spawned additional creatures from pustules and discarded vines in an attempt to overwhelm the group, but it was no use.
The winds of fate themselves seemed to urge our heroes on, and each decisive stroke bolstered their strength. As quickly as it had began, the battle was over, and the party resumed their trek in to the dark and foreboding woods…
Navigating the woods was not an easy task. While the wood continued to twist around the party, the light and shadows of the forest seemed to mix and mesh together. Days and nights would sometimes last for only a few hours, sometimes only a few minutes, and it became impossible to accurately track time.
Our champions continually pushed forward by orienting themselves, listening for nearby noises, moving, and repeating.
Near the beginning of the journey, hushed arguing could be heard in one direction, and rushing water in the other. The party chose the arguing, and quickly encountered a group of bickering centaur! Fortunately, Nicolae was able to communicate and convince them that fighting would end badly for the horsemen, and the group was allowed to pass.
Next, they journeyed towards an area of extremely agitated foliage. As they entered the area, vines lashed out and grabbed on to their ankles, holding them fast. (How did we get out of this? Was it the teleport?)
To ease their traveling, Belgerath attempted to part the magical wood with arcane energy, and though the trees themselves were not affected, he did manage to create a temporary barrier against the spirits. Given the choice of using the barrier to move forward or to take a 5-minute rest, the group chose some much-needed rest. They healed up and regained the use of several powers before moving on.
From there, the party heard metal creaking, and soon encountered a huge iron “fence”, comprised of a thick bramble of thorny metal vines. Titanius agilely made his way up the wall, though he took a few scrapes and jabs on the way up. Knowing that he could lead them over the same path, the group decided to follow, with each sacrificing a little blood to the thorns in order to reach the other side.
Ahead, they spotted a large hole in the forest canopy, a huge fog bank, and a patch of seemingly normal trees. They made for the innocuous patch, but as they were trekking through, several of the party members began to go mad with hallucinations ranging from accusatory dead relatives to friends attempting to kill them. Luckily, several party members retained their sanity, and divined that the visions were induced by a magical fungus surrounding them. Knowing this, they were able to supress the spores and heal the afflicted minds before continuing on.
In the areas a head, they heard groaning from one direction, and saw a shimmering energy hanging in the air in the other direction. They made for the groaning, and sure enough, encountered a huge pack of roving undead! Although there were many zombies, they were relatively weak, and Embergrace was able to cast a powerful spell which destroyed two-thirds of the horde. The remaining undead were easily pushed aside or felled.
The next scouting attempts revealed smoke and floating branches. Our heroes made their way to the smoke, which turned out to be originating from a cottage fireplace attended by a powerful witch! Belgerath took a long shot and attempted to charm her with a spell, which succeeded! He bluffed her in to believing that he was a long-lost relative. She seemed embarrassed that she wasn’t able to remember him, but tried her best to keep up appearances. She informed the party that the wood had warned her of a group of encroaching adventurers, which she was to kill and eat. Under Belgerath’s sway, the witch was easily convinced that “These are not the adventurers you’re looking for.” After some light conversation, the party waved a cheery goodbye and wished her good luck in catching those nasty intruders.
The single path from the witch hut took them straight in to the floating twigs, which they discovered were only the tip of the weird iceberg. Along with the twigs, entire trees and landmasses floated about. Occasionally the motes crashed together, causing lightning storms which shot upward in to the sky. The ground undulated under their feet, and gouts of flame shot past in random directions. Embergrace understood that the chaos was a manifestation of planar tears caused by the Spellplague. After a moment of concentration, she tuned herself to the seemingly chaotic energies, and became able to predict each danger moments before it happened. This proved to be enough, and she led the party safely through the area.
Given a final choice between a piercing banshee-like wail and an area of even denser spiritual energy, our heroes chose to brave the spirits. Though their minds were constantly assaulted, they managed to hold the essences at bay and push through, and found themselves at the entrance to the secret elvish settlement!
The entrance itself was a wide wooden bridge over a bubbling river, guarded by elvish archers, woads, and dryads. The defending force seemed relatively small, and the party realized that the rest of the elves must still be out searching.
As the group approached, their minds were suddenly rent in two! Each member could see dual worlds in the same place, with one imposed on the other. The first was the real world, with bridge and elves and town. The second was a twisted landscape which looked as though small chunks of the widely varying terrain of the wood had been smashed together to form a single jagged grove. Surrounding the landmass was a pitch black abyss. At the center of the ground, a huge reddish-brown stone rhythmically pulsed. This was an incarnation of the will of the wood, a figurative “heart of the forest”.
Each adventurer was forced to focus in on one world. Knowing that they’d need to defeat both the forest and the elves to escape, the party split, with Garth, Nicolae, and Titanius entering the world of the heart. These heroes found that the stone could be damaged, and that it did not fight back directly, but two things happened after each round of the party’s actions. First, any section of land they had been previously standing on disintegrated, forcing the heroes to plan ahead and move quickly over the rough terrain while fighting. Second, the heart would release a mind-shattering pulse which affected both those in the real world and the heart realm.
As the heart-slayers wore the stone down, large cracks appeared in the surface and oozed a saplike substance. The weaker the heart became, the weaker the pulses were that wrenched at everyone’s wills…
The adventurers back in the real world held their own against the guardians by swatting down the relatively weak dryads and focusing the woads with disabling enchantments. They were pelted by arrows from across the river, and some took a fair amount of damage from the heart pulses, but they managed to down about half the enemies and stay alive, until…
The cracks in the heart were widening, and thin shafts of light streamed out from the holes in all directions. With a final decisive blow, the heart violently shattered and exploded! The remaining ground quickly disintegrated, and the three adventurers began falling! As they tumbled, the world went black, and they abruptly awoke back in reality, ready and able to join the fray against the elves.
With the will of the wood broken and both groups reunited, they made quick work of the remaining monsters and forced the elves to surrender. They had won! Knowing that they could no longer hope for victory, the subdued elves stepped aside as our heroes strode proudly across the bridge and through the main street of the village. Some townspeople stared resentfully, but most hid. Children scurried inside, windows and doors slammed shut, and the town was quiet except for the heavy marching and loud bragging of our champions…