One column remained, the central column. After resting to recover from the battle with the earth elementals, the party set off to end the battle with the mysterious forces in the valley. They advanced back into the mist-shrouded forest, once again enveloped in its fog and dancing lights. They had little idea of how much time had passed since they had entered; perpetual night left them with only vague guesses.
They paused when they reached a break in the tree line and spotted the source of the column; a trio of pedestals, each seeming to correspond with an element whose orb they had obtained, all arranged in a triangle. Beyond the pedestals towered a blackened oak tree whose roots spread out like fingers through the clearing, arraigned with razor-sharp thorns. The tree sat on a small mound into which a burrow had been dug to form a small house, from which emanated the now-familiar blue-white light through its smoke hole and around the single wooden door set into its side.
The party discussed their options and decided to send Glithas forward to investigate the burrow. The mage/thief crept forward, but as he advanced beyond the pedestals the oak seemed to sense his presence and its roots began to creak threateningly and advance. The mage hastily backed off. Bjorin also tried to advance but met a similar reaction. He tried to analyze the problem but could up with little solution; the arcane nature of the crystal made its motives, if any, inscrutable, but it seemed strange that it would manifest the orbs corresponding to the druidic poem. Regardless, the party decided to place the orbs on their pedestals, and Bjorin stepped forward.
As he placed each orb, it seemed to meld into its pedestal and bring it to life; flowers sprung on the column of wood; magma pulsed on that of earth; the ice pedestal turned into a fountain of burbling water. After each, Bjorin heard the line of the poem repeated in his mind. When he placed the final orb, a pillar of flame erupted from the ground and consumed him. Every part of his body was alive with pain and he screamed, the party outside able to see only his shadow inside the fire. The pain turned to anger and Bjorin understood; understood the rage of a forest that had been corrupted, its trees twisted, its animals tortured, its inhabitants made to serve a strange arcane master. The rage coursed through the druid and burned the shadow from his arm and his scream began to change into a roar. The party watched as the shadow in the flame began to change as a beastly roar echoed from it. When the flame stopped abruptly, Bjorin had been replaced by a huge, black bear whose fur still smoked.
Answering the challenge, the door of the mound flew open and from it emerged a wispy shadow in the shape of a main, the shadow seeming to form a beard, cloak, and staff. Behind it came the dire bear Bjorin had seen in his vision, so large that it ripped the doorframe out of the mound and caused a cave in an the entrance that rolled off its shoulders. The final battle had begun.
Roondar stood at range to channel his psionic power into bolts of ice and electricity, focusing on the shadowy form. However, the damage that it took was difficult to gauge as its body betrayed no sign. Roondar made perhaps his most important move when he reached into the Ethereal plane and summoned a sticky ectoplasm that he flung at the dire bear as it began its charge towards Bjorin, entangling it. For the duration of the battle, the bear would be unable to move to finish off foes wounded by its formidable claws and teeth.
Meanwhile, the rest of the party were temporarily stymied when the shadow summoned a sleet storm that blinded them and slowed their movement. Yunaan cleared it and attempted to sling an arrow, but found the ice-coated shaft flew poorly. Luthiana, outclassed by both enemies, fell back. Glithas staggered free and summoned a flaming sphere on the shadow but faced the same problem Roondar encountered; though it burned atop the shadow, did it damage him at all? Torash summoned a spiritual hammer to pummel the enemy but followed it up with a hasty forward charge toward him, forgetting about the threatening oak tree and becoming entangled in its roots for the duration of the battle.
The shadow answered Yunaan’s arrow with a pillar of flame from the heavens that fell upon the barbarian, burning him badly. Bjorin, still in bear form, traded harsh blows with the dire bear but found it was no ordinary bear. It seemed to be able to channel the power of the elemental pedestals, stomping its forepaws to assume one of its powers. He channeled fire and breathed flame onto Bjorin and Roondar, forcing the psionicist into withdraw further from the support of the party. He channeled earth and gained a flinty skin as Bjorin began to tear at it. Torash attempted to help by summoning a celestial bison, but the creature found its attacks largely thwarted by the bear’s enhanced armor.
The shadow drew back to summon corrupted nature’s allies, and three dire badgers joined the fight on his side and the situation began to deteriorate further. Roondar burned a pair of them with cold, but was knocked to near-death when one of them turned on him. Torash found his health rapidly depleting under their frenzied attacks, but was unable to move to help himself or Bjorin who found himself unable to stand alone against the bear with only the bison’s limited help. Once Roondar fell, Luthiana joined the fight against the badgers to hold them off. Yunaan attempted to charge the bear but was unable to land a blow, and when the bear turned on him after Bjorin was forced to withdraw, Yunaan was forced to follow suit. The bison, left alone, was soon destroyed. Luckily, Roondar’s ectoplasmic prison prevented the bear from being able to follow up on its success and struggling in place to free itself. The shadow rushed forward, but its intentions remained unknown after the spell it attempted to cast fizzled under the pressure of Yunaan’s and the bison’s presence.
Bjorin was near death once he withdrew but gambled on an attempt to summon aid of his own after shifting back to human form. The battle hung on a knife’s edge. Roondar was already down, Yunaan’s health was already low and Torash and Bjorin were near death. A series of events saved them: Torash landed a heavy blow with his blood-enchanted warhammer on a dire badger, and Yunaan followed up on the success with a killing stroke. Glithas engaged in a masterful combination, destroying the second badger with a flaming sphere while simultaneously smiting the third badger in close combat. A second spell of the shadow’s fizzled, and when it attempted to infect Yunaan with some sort of magical disease, the barbarian’s formidable fortitude resisted it. However, Torash was felled by a strike from the shadow’s staff and lay in critical condition.
Bjorin’s summon was successful, and three pure dire badgers of his own came to his aid. The trio surrounded the dire bear and began tearing at him while Bjorin healed himself and Roondar, whom had been dragged to the druid’s side by Glithas. Yunaan began having great success landing heavy axe blows on the shadow, his rage fuelled by Torash’s bloody form lying only a few feet away. The dire bear, surrounded, overwhelmed, savaged by Bjorin’s attacks and bleeding from the onslaught of the bison and badgers, finally fell and the shadow found itself quickly enveloped by the party. When Yunaan landed a final blow, it simply faded away.
The party was forced to heal its fallen before it could go any further, but finally was able to stagger into the mound. It found what looked like the aftermath of an explosion; furniture and blankets were pushed up against the walls from a central point, where a pulsing crystal lay in the fire pit. Nearby lay a wizened, malnourished man, on the verge of starvation. Bjorin boosted his constitution with a pair of curative spells, but Torash realized the man would need long-term care to revive him from his near-death state. Roondar warily approached the crystal and attempted to pick it up through his backpack but found, as Bjorin did in Termecia, its reach extended through cloth.
This time, Roondar did not see the flash of pictures, but instead a mish-mash of voices from which he could pick out only fragments, speaking of ‘the way forward’, ‘unmatched purity’, ‘danger’ and an ominous cry of ’..cannot hold it!’ before the screams overwhelmed his senses. When they faded, he was flying over Tantas, arcing southwards over Termecia and El’Atol, crossing into Ravenna and skirting its eastern coast to the swampy mouth of the river Renose where it fed into the Bay of Batal. There, he saw a ruined, half-sunken castle and knew the next crystal lay there. The vision faded with the mournful whisper from before: Forgive us, we did not know.
When Roondar’s vision ended, the party discussed their options and decided to rest for some time in the forest, but their plan was up-ended by the arrival of a quartet of druids, flying through the now-breaking clouds in hawk form. The quartet were Ulvbroden, lead by their second-in-command, Hendrik. After the heroes explained the situation, a perturbed Hendrik identified the starving man as Gedda, the druid of the valley, and confessed that the situation was unlike anything he had heard of. He told the party to come to Brynolf to consult Leontes, the head druid of the Bjergrad and the party agreed, eager to find some answers or sense of direction to this cursed quest they had apparently inherited.
They left the valley, looking back on it from the slope of a nearby mountain, and found the illusion that had made it appear idyllic to their eyes when they first looked upon it had faded. The valley was now apparent for what it was; a haunted place, its trees still twisted and blackened, its wildlife still corrupted. The mist was rising and the night breaking but it would take years of druidic care to rehabilitate the land.
Turning their backs to the valley, the group set off towards Brynolf with Hendrik and the Ulvbroden, the unconscious Gedda being drawn on a horse litter. Brynolf is three days away, and the heroes can only hope that Leontes can offer some direction to their mysterious quest before it destroys them…