Mesmer sends his newly-conjured familiar, the black rat ‘Dweezil’, into the eerie violet twilight of Belak’s subterranean grove. After a half-hour of nosing about, the rat passes through the remains of a keep wall. In the center lies a large tree of twisted black limbs, presumably the ‘Gulthias Tree’. At the base of the trunk is a wooden chair where sits a man in gray robes holding a staff in one hand and a burning book in the other. The rat’s poor vision can make out no other details.
Mesmer and the rest of the rune warriors inch forward through the tangle of briars, weeds and bushes. Leelo thinks to see the face of a twig blight in one of the thickets, but upon moving to a different angle can no longer make it out. A trick of the imagination? Unlikely. Lodermulch scouts ahead along the far wall of the cave to come up within 30’ of the tree and the robed man.
The rest of the invaders creep into the crumbled shell of a stone tower to survey the scene. All the while the man has moved not an inch. His face is mostly concealed by a hood, but Keelo recognizes his skin has the appearance of hard wood or bark. The burning book is clearly magical. Moreover, a glowing symbol burns upon the trunk of the tree, identical to the rune-heroes own in all but color. Ethereal forms drift among the dark branches. Finch recognizes the ghostly faces of the Hucrele siblings, Talgen the elder warrior and Sharwyn, his wizardly sister. Perhaps their late companions Sir Pelor and Karakas should be considered fortunate to have died relatively clean deaths.
Finch steps forward to address the silent druid, “Belak, what do accomplish here with this tree and grove? And what of the glowing symbol…we know it well”. Belak briefly turns to look up at the tree, for the first time exposing his pallid and shrunken countenance. He speaks without looking up:
“I see no symbol…I have been gifted with this child from the dead Tree of Life at the Well of Souls, where Emperor Arbandi cast Ceridwen’s mighty spell consigning this world to it’s doom. I do Arbandi’s bidding by giving the tree’s fruits to fools who unknowingly spread Armageddon across creation. Interfere with my work at your peril!”
The rune warriors conduct a whispered discussion. What could this reward be? In any case, it appears that Emperor Arbandi and Os-Gabella might not be on the same page in all respects. Further attempt at negotiation elicits an ultimatum from Belak,
“Submit and you will share in the reward after the remaking of the world. In the meantime, you will survive to serve me, after a fashion…”
The spirits of Talgen and Sharwyn enter two stunted saplings to the left and right of Belak. They quickly swell and grow into demonic-appearing trees complete with arms, legs and evil visages, not unlike twisted versions of treants Keelo would be familiar with from his time in the alfar forests. The 9’ tall tree-demons stride forward with creaking limbs. At the same time, everyone near the tower shell is entwined and held fast by masses of living vines and roots. Mesmer was hiding behind a wall and escapes the vines. Lodermulch is still hidden behind Belak and thus far avoids notice. Mavriy was already moving toward Belak. Ten stick-creatures animated by evil spirits emerge from the tangled briars all around the cavern: more twig-blights.
Mavriy takes up her shield and pole-scythe and strides forward to confront the huge tree-demons. The young paladin is quickly dashed to the ground. Her shield arm is broken. She crawls away from the looming monsters, back toward where Krag and Keelo are held fast by twining branches. The half-orc and elf druid heal her quickly, restoring the use of her arm just in time. Then both are swarmed by approaching twig-blights. Erki the gnome ex-slave is cut off on the other side of the wall. Leelo fires magic arrows retrieved from the ruins above. They burst into magical flame which proves to be highly effective against the demon-trees, but perhaps not enough to save her companions. Finch attempts to charm Belak but the evil druid resists his voice with ease. Grenl fires arrows but they have little effect
Lodermulch steps forward and throws a dagger into Belak with accuracy, slashing one arm. The druid now stands to pull his robe free of the dagger embedded in his chair, still holding the burning book and staff. Mesmer torches an approaching twig-blight with fire magic, then drinks the smoking orange liquid extracted from the dragon-fountain in the ruins above. Smoke and fire begin to belch from the nostrils and mouth of the wizard! Finch destroys a twig-blight with dissonant whispers from his unknowable patron.
Leelo escapes the grasping branches and dances past the smoking tree demons. Lodermulch leaps over an approaching twigblight. The pair confront Belak, who has now lost his protective skin of bark. Leelo trips as she draws her mithril daggers and slams into Belak. The dark druid loses concentration and the animated vines return to normal, freeing the rest of the rune-heroes. He casts his staff to the ground nearby. The black wood twists and writhes, expanding into a 10’ long black viper which strikes at Loder. The halfling dodges nimbly aside. Belak conjures a man-sized ball of fire nearby…the heat is intense.
Mesmer breathes forth explosions of flame from across the cavern, turning Talgen the tree-demon into a raging pyre. Sharwyn tree-demon is likewise set alight and then chopped apart by Mavriy. The screams of Talgen and Sharwyn echo through the cavern as their immortal souls are freed from whatever hellish bond was keeping them from passing on.
Belak is stabbed to death by Leelo and Loder. He dies soundlessly. As the dark druid’s emaciated form slides to ground, the flaming book winks out of existence. Loder finds nothing at all within the bloody folds of Belak’s robe. The snake transforms back into a staff of black wood. Grenl is on hand to snatch it up. She runs screeching around the cave back toward Finch. Leelo gives chase and intercepts the goblin, who concedes defeat and hands over the staff, “I was getting it for my master!” The now-mobile heroes quickly save Erki from encroaching twig blights.
The glowing rune upon the tree shimmers and changes to a blue-green hue, then disappears. The color of the symbols above the rune-warriors heads also change from blue to blue-green. The Gulthias Tree begins to shrivel and die. Within five minutes it is reduced to a black stump. Likewise, the glowing fungus and various other plants crowding the grove begin to go dim and wilt.
The group retreats from the dimming grove, gathers up all the items from Belak’s study and heads back up to the entry ruins, where much has transpired in the short time since Finch played his drinking game with Ballsack the bugbear. The kobold prophet Yusdrayl received a last vision from the wight of Asmoday, “Your service to Ashardolon is complete, you may return to the jungles whence you came…” Yusdrayl and her people plan to depart within the day.
The black dragon Wyrmling ‘Calcryx’ escaped its handlers for the last time, eating Meepo on the way out. The kobolds report the dragon reached the sinkhole and departed on black wings into the jungle night. Leelo is bitterly disappointed. She had plans for Calcryx’s hide, including a custom suit of dragon-leather armor. As a consolation prize the party discovers the scaly hide discarded by Calcryx after molting the week before.
After threats from Grenl, the goblins provide porters to help carry treasure from the ruins. As the Durbuluk tribe is not well-liked by the encroaching Sheaim civilization, they refuse to travel the high road or actually enter any human settlements, but do greatly reduce the party’s burden in the meantime. The rune-heroes deem Nininsnal too small to serve their purposes and decide to head northeast toward the city of Kuldevind. After covering a good 15 or 16 miles along the low-road, a very large man with a great black beard steps out onto the trail, flanked by four rogues.
“As you have no doubt correctly surmised, Syzimondo the Great stands before you. Now don’t tell me you’ve gone and killed my golden goose?”
The bandits are richly equipped and dressed, wearing shirts of iron mail and bearing both poniards and rapiers of precious steel. Clearly these rogues have benefited greatly from their association with Belak and Yandroon Kuldevind. And now they are looking for compensation. Farther back on the trail, Mavrey, Krag and Keelo notice that the goblin porters have dropped their loads and disappeared without a trace.
Finch steps forward to contest Syzimondo’s claim. The bandit chief observes, “Yer shenanigans have cost me a run of easy living, to be sure! It’s only fair me and my lads are justly compensated, don’t you agree?” The overbearing ex-pirate then instructs the party, “Kindly deposit your conveniently transportable wealth on the trail and you can be on your way.” Leelo sees her profit from this venture going up in smoke and urges immediate attack. The party conducts a hasty colloquy. During this conversation, Lodermulch disappears into the jungle unnoticed. Likewise, the crafty goblin Grenl sneaks off in the other direction.
Syzimondo grows impatient: “What?! All I get is grumbling and sullen looks for my trouble? Stand and deliver you dogs, or be spit by a score of archers in the trees yonder, not to mention burned by my wizard!”
Finch accedes to the murderous whispers of Leelo, who believes the bandit chief is bluffing. The warlock chants a spell of charming toward the odious black-bearded buffoon standing on the trail.