Erky offered medical treatment for the injured, which Zorp was only too happy to accept. The adventurers dispatched three skeletons in the nearby eastern octagonal chamber, then turned their attention to the southwest exit from the northmost octagon.
The door opened to reveal a hall to the south that emptied into a larger chamber to the west after twenty feet. Dragon-carved granite blocks tiled the walls and ceiling, though many were crumbled and broken, creating stony debris on the floor.
A huge marble statue of a rearing dragon still stood in the curve of the western wall. The eye sockets of the dragon were empty, but a red glow lingered there, providing reddish light throughout the chamber. The effulgence cast an inky shadow behind the statue’s wide wingsA crumbling 5-foot-diameter circular redstone tile was inset in the floor in front of the rearing dragon carving. Runes were carved around the circular tile’s inner edge. A wooden door exited to the north.
Zorp was in the lead and reported to the others in a low voice. “Creepy dragon statue in there. Sal?”
The wizard moved up beside the goblin and examined the statue from the hall. “This seems like a red dragon. It also seems magical. Same with the tile on the ground.”
Zorp backs up about ten feet as Trin entered the room to look for traps. A few moments later, she reported all clear.
“Seems very odd to have a tile in front of a statue of a dragon.”
“Any idea what it does?” Grunt asked of the enchanted features.
“That statue, it has any writing on it?” asked Zorp.
“There are runes on the tile.”
“What they say?”
“They say goblins should come over here and stand on the tile,” Grunt said sarcastically.
“That is correct,” Sal deadpanned.
“No, that sound like Kobold trap,” said Zorp, eyeing the door. “We moving on?”
“It says ‘Let the power flow through me,’” said Sal.
“Hmm… That could be good or bad,” said Grunt.
“Red dragons are usually powerful, so it is like a gift?”
“It work like the last one?” asked Zorp.
The wizard shrugged and nodded. “It seems like the thing with all the other statues you say the words and the magic works. I think we should test it from a safe distance.”
“Sal if you think you should try it,” said Grunt. “I’ll be right here, buddy … to … you know … watch.”
Sal nodded and returned to the edge of the hallway. Then he turned toward the statue and said, “Ea serpenta rau kaluva nyawisti.”
“Are you dead yet?” Trin called from the gallery, two rooms away. Everyone ignored her.
“Maybe I need to be standing on the tile,” said the wizard. He walked over too it, but no sooner had he stepped upon the tile than the statue’s shadow moved, rising up to reveal a vaguely humanoid shape with burning red points of light where its eyes should be. It advanced on Sal and reached inside his chest, tearing out a chunk of ephemera. The wizard gasped, weakened by the violation.
Grunt swiftly came to Sal’s defense, striking at the incorporeal attacker, but he barely registered any resistance as his war flail passed through the entity. Zorp advanced next, but he felt his dogslicer pass right through the shadow. Noting this, he dropped the blade and shook free of his shield, reaching for his horsechopper.
The wizard took a step away and lashed out at the shadow with his magic, which advanced on him and stole more of his essence. Trin came around the corner having only just heard the commotion from where she had retreated. Unfortunately, her arrow passed right through the apparition much like Zorp’s weapon had. The warriors had little better luck against the creature as they continued to press their attack. Sal retreated into the hall and fired off his force bolt, which seemed to impact the shadow just fine. Alas, he had only the one.
“Um, this thing only seems to feel the magics,” said Zorp.
Erky’s divine lance burned away at the shadow, and he said, “Well, keep it off us and we’ll kill it!”
The shadow whirled on Grunt but the dworc evaded. Trin pulled out the nearly forgotten magical dagger the party had found in the tomb of the dragonpriest. She stepped into the flank that Sal had abandoned, but she was unable to strike the shadow.
Sal next threw a ball of fire at the shadow but missed. Stopping to consider for a moment, the wizard said, “This is a Shadeling, an alien creature that feeds on dreams.” A moment later, Erky’s spell brought the “shadeling” down.
“Ooook… that wasn’t the effect of the statue, right?” said Grunt. “You never said the words on the tile.”
“It was not,” agreed Sal, as Erky treated his injuries. He could do nothing for the feeling of weakness the wizard experienced from the shadow’s touch. Perhaps time would resolve it.
After the cleric’s ministrations, everyone took up their previous positions and Sal stood atop the redstone tile and repeated, “Ea serpenta rau kaluva nyawisti.” A puff of spectral flame harmlessly enveloped him, and after a moment the tile stopped glowing.
“Brave man,” said Grunt. “Good on ya. Now what happened?”
“He got glowy,” said Zorp.
“I feel smarter,” said Sal. “A little bit.”
“Smarter is good,” said Zorp. The goblin did a quick search of the room now that the carrot and stick within had apparently been dealt with. He found a small hoard hidden behind a loose rock in the wall behind the statue. Then the party went through the door to the north.
Leaning and completely fallen stone bookshelves filled the next chamber, though a clear path connected wooden doors on opposite walls. The litter of torn and burnt pages, bindings, and scrolls formed disordered piles in the corners. “Who was mad enough to do this?” said Sal, sounding sad.
The adventurers searched the chamber. Grunt found a bronze bull pendant in good repair. As he looked at it, the eyes glowed briefly. “Heyyyy! Look at this,” he said, showing everyone the item. “I saw its eyes glow for a sec.”
“Found some weird magic oil,” Sal commented from another corner.
“If we got a minute, I can check them,” said Trin. Everyone agreed, and a minute later she said, “No idea.” Grunt shrugged and pocketed the cordless pendant.
The far door opened onto damp and crumbled steps that descended sharply to the east. They proceeded down, passed underneath the northernmost octagonal chamber then ascended a matching set of stairs that turned down a long southern hall. There were two doors on the east wall near the far end, and the first was locked.
Trin spent a few tense seconds attempting to unlock it with her lockpicks without breaking them before giving up. “Maybe we go look for a key?” suggested Zorp.
The next door opened to reveal four goblins sorting twig and root piles on the floor of a sagging chamber, with the collapsed southern wall opening on a vast cavern. Pustules of luminescent fungus on the rough walls and high roof loomed over a twilight grove of sickly briars, bushes, saplings, and other woody plants. Ruined walls and hollow towers protruded from the briars like islands in the sea.
The goblins were dispatched, but not without blood. Afterward the dworc grunted and lay down on the floor. Erky made the wings of Desna over his heart and cast a heal spell to restore his companions’ vitality. Alas, the healing energy from the goddess of dreams was not abundant.
“Hey, look. One of my scabs healed.”
“Desna weeps,” Erky sighed. “She must nae feel ye need more luck than that.”
After some discussion, Erky spent two more spells healing the worst of Grunt’s injuries, then the party considered the hole in the southern wall. Beyond, they noted the higher, less crumbled walls in the southern recesses of the large cavern, over which the tip of a gargantuan tree was visible, nearly two hundred feet distant.
“Here’s the tree,” said Grunt. “So the druid is likely there too.”
“Let me sneak forward a bit,” said Trin.
Pale, spindly briars coated with tiny barbs pressed close as the gnome scouted forward, trying to avoid notice. The violet light above cast nauseating shadows on the earthen floor, creating the illusion of movement among the branches, though no wind blew there. She’d made it perhaps forty feet before one of the briars reached out to take a swipe at her. The twig blight’s claws scraped up against her leather armor. She jerked back, quick drew her rapier, and attacked back.
Zorp noticed and said, “Oi, looks like Trin making not-friend.”
Erky gestured the rogue back toward the goblins’ room, readying to cast a spell if a target presented itself. Zorp moved up to protect Trin and readied his horsechopper to strike, as well. “It’s over here!” he warned the others, when he struck the twig blight that had chased Trin northward.
Several more plant monsters were forthcoming, and despite the adventurers’ eventual victory, the poisonous scratches left them ragged and bleeding. They retreated for a few hours so Erky could treat their wounds with bandages, medicine, and magic. Feeling sufficiently patched up, they decided to press forward and confront the master of the citadel.
A courtyard wall of heavy stones created a half-walled clearing among the briars. Several varieties of plants grew around the perimeter, including a few suspicious-looking saplings, but their importance paled before that which stood at the courtyard’s center. Beneath the venomous fungal light grew a singular tree of evil. Its blackened, twisted limbs reached upward, like a skeletal hand clawing its way from the earth. Human figures stood near the tree: a woman and two men. A three-foot-long tree frog squatted next to one of the men.
“They have a tree frog,” said Sal.
As the party gathered behind one of the walls relative to the heinous tree, a voice called out. “I was beginning to wonder if you had changed your minds and decided to flee after all.”
“Who you is?” said Zorp.
“I am Belak, called the Outcast. The druidic society expelled me, the fools. And why? Because I dared to expand nature’s reach in ways their puny minds couldn’t grasp. I don’t care. I have found what I long sought, embodied in the Gulthias Tree.”
“We only want the ones taken from the town. You have them here?”
“They were the first two ‘supplicants.’ The Gulthias Tree has ‘accepted’ them, and they are mine to control, just like the twig blights. You can’t save them.”
While the goblin kept the druid busy talking, Grunt had pulled out his oil of potency and applied it to his weapon. “Challenge accepted,” growled the dworc, rushing out from behind the wall to advance on what must have been Sir Braford. The man’s gaze was vacant, and his skin had a wooden look to it, like he had somehow grown tree bark. He struck the man-plant hard, though he was careful to make sure the blow would not be lethal. Braford dropped in an instant.
Trin moved next, drawing her bow and loosing a couple of arrows at the druid. One of them struck the man, and she called out, “Let them go, and we’ll let you live!"
Belak the Outcast sneered in response and uttered harsh syllables in an ancient tongue. The briars and moss along the wall where most of the party still crouched erupted, wrapping around Erky and Zorp and holding them in place. The cleric panicked and flailed about, failing to escape the grasping plants. Sal rushed south along the wall, taking cover behind the curve of the cavern wall and struck the giant frog with a force bolt. Zorp failed to strike a twig blight that came out of the western darkness to engage him.
Next Sharwyn Hucrele, her wooden flesh similar to that of Sir Braford, unleashed a barrage of magic missile that all flew to strike Grunt full in the chest. The dworc winced, but pressed forward to engage the druid. His magically enhanced war flail came down hard twice and made an end of the self-appointed caretaker of the Gulthias Tree.
Zorp fought against the twig blight, while Sal and Trin stayed at the perimeter and took shots at targets of opportunity. Erky broke free of his entanglement and made his way south along the eastern courtyard walls.
Grunt turned his attention next to Sharwyn, but owing to his desire to spare her life, he couldn’t land a meaningful blow against the ‘Accepted’ wizardess. She unleashed another trio of magic missiles into the dworc for his trouble, and he staggered back a step. Zorp escaped the enchanted plants and abandoned the melee with the twig blight to come to Grunt’s aid. His disabling blow came down at the perfect angle to knock Sharwyn senseless and the adventurers breathed a sigh of relief. The rest was cleanup.
Sal’s fire spell impacted the insidious Gulthias Tree, which hissed and popped with a sick oily sap. The adventurers stayed below long enough to make sure the vile plant was truly destroyed.
Belak had a key in his pouch that unlocked the doors near the Twilight Grove. Rough wooden shelves, filled with a scattering of tomes and scrolls, lined the north and east walls, and a rough-hewn desk stood in the center of the chamber. Sal gathered the writings that seemed most relevant.
* * *
Getting the afflicted adventurers back to the surface was a trial unto itself, but the Grunt and Zorp managed it with a little help from the others. The party brought Sharwyn and Sir Braford to the shrine in Oakhurst to confer with the priestess there. Unfortunately, she had no notion of how the victims might be restored from whatever had befallen them at Belak’s hands.
* * *
Trin reported to Madame Hucrele about the fate of her children and collected the reward for retrieving the signet rings. Though Sharwyn had technically been returned “alive,” her mother withheld the additional money she had offered, contingent upon a cure being found.
* * *
“So, we no get paid for bringing girl home?” said Zorp, seated at their table in the Ol’ Boar’s taproom.
“Not unless we can fix her,” said Trin.
“According to Belak’s journal, the Gulthias Tree was the source of the magical healing apples,” said Sal from the bar. “Maybe one of those could reverse the curse. Too bad the last one was sold to some duergar from the north.”
“Does it say where exactly?” asked Grunt.
“Not really. Some old dwarven ruin near Blasingdell.”
Grunt pulled out the strange glass whistle they had found. It was inscribed with the Dwarven word Azangund, which rougly translated to “Night Caller” in the Common tongue. It apparently possessed necromantic magic, but of greater interest to the dworc was the material from which the whistle had been forged. Unless he missed his guess it was nephelium, which he had only heard stories about.
He cast his thoughts back to his youth and stories of the legendary dwarven smith Durgeddin the Black and his forge within lost Khundrukar.
“Well,” said Grunt with a grin. “I have a theory about that.”