During the first night, as the party rested behind their makeshift barricades, they heard the sounds of combat from higher up in the citadel complex, but on the second night of rest there were no such sounds.
On both nights they heard sounds from further to the west along the tunnel. Periodically the strange smell of burning wafted through the tunnels. It smelled neither of flesh nor wood, nor was it pleasant like incense. None of the group had smelt anything like it, nor could they guess its cause.
Although it was hard to tell in the endless black of the Underdark Ashendarius sensed when two days had passed since their assault. Unlike the others he did not need sleep, a few hours of meditation were all the elf needed to rest himself and remain alert. His sense of time keeping in the utter black was as good as if he were in the sunlit forests of his long destroyed home.
He roused the others at dawn on the second day. All looked refreshed and ready for the trial ahead. As they set out Ashendarius cast a Light of Lunia spell which suffused his entire body with a pearly and unearthly light. It played off his fingertips and fell dripping to the floor. The elf was suffused with the power of his god.
Stepping past their dismantled defenses the group moved swiftly through the silent complex. As they came to the chambers where they had fought two days ago most signs of their victories had been removed. There were no bodies anywhere, only splashes of blood remained to mark the fierce fighting that had taken place as the party fought their way into the citadel's heart.
"Whoever Belak is, he is fastidious in his housekeeping." Ashendarius muttered.
Balthas agreed, "I expected resistance".
"That will come", hissed Ibn Solaar. The eyes of the prickly Kettite warrior glittered in anticipation,
"Then, let them taste the Sublime Way."
The half-orc gave a feral grin in return. "They shall taste my axe first swordwizard! Your sublime way you can save for despoiling their headless corpses". Na-Dulak eyes lost focus in an expression signaling to his compatriots that the Na-priest had summoned his draconic totem and assumed its aura.
"Now if they strike us, my totem shall blast them with the red master's flame".
The group made their way quickly through room after room until they found themselves once more before the doors leading into the twilight grove. Following Bathas’ suggestion the party spent a little time investigating the room adjacent to the cavern. The door was locked since the last time the party passed through but it posed no problem for Ashendarius. Exploring this area briefly they found nothing but a soil covered floor in which grew several pale bushes and saplings. The walls were lined with shelves containing various books. Discovering nothing of value the party moved swiftly on.
The elven cleric paused to cast a spell on the party which improves their aim in ranged attacks – a real boon for Balthas and his eldritch blast. Then Ashendarius again called upon the Laughing Rogue's domain power of speed; already quick on his feet the cleric trickster now moved with inhuman speed, he forged ahead to act as a scout.
The light from the fungal growths covering the walls and roof filled the cavern-grove like a bruise. The stunted and wicked thorns severely hampered their movement. Picking their way through the undergrowth carefully they pushed deeper into the lair of their enemy. On either side and ahead the thorn trees rustled and moved.
"We're not alone," Balthas warned, "more of the plant creatures we fought two days ago, although they seem a darker colour and of a more muscular build".
The creatures seemed content to flee as the party pushed on, however there was clearly little chance of surprise. The cavern opened up into a vast cathedral-like void, the ruins of an ancient keep crouched against the southern rock face. Ashendarius’ elven eyes quickly made out that the keep was little more than a ruin – an open courtyard, inside which the briars did not seem to grow.
Between gaps in the fallen walls they caught glimpses of a tall powerful bearded man dressed in the ragged greens of a forest priest – a druid, a young woman and noble looking man dressed in armor and wearing a holy symbol of Pelor. The party guessed that the latter two were the missing Hucrele girl and Sir Braford the paladin. Surrounding the trio in the gloom were several of the blighted twig creatures.
Hulking behind them all was a massive, gnarled and ugly looking tree. Its branches were naked and its roots penetrated the earth like vicious skeletal fingers. A deep pit dug at the side of the tree indicated where the druid had been conducting his experiments, several of the roots were exposed.
The bearded priest, who the group surmised to be Belak – raised his hands and cried out "Hold your movements a moment, you know not what you do!"
"We’re here for your tree Druid", Ashendarius responded, "don’t get in our way!"
Belak scorned the elf. "Fools", he laughed, "you don’t understand what the tree is. It grew from a green and still growing applewood branch used to stake a powerful vampire to the earth here centuries ago. That vampire was Gulthias, high priest of Father Claw. You meddle in the power of unlife!"
The druid cackled. "You don’t comprehend its power, from the seeds of the Gulthias tree’s white and red apples grow the twigblights, and the tree itself can take living flesh and infuse it with new life".
Now they were a little closer the party could see two human shaped indentations in the bowl of the tree.
It was then that they noticed that the flesh of the man and woman with Belak had been transformed into tree bark. Sharwyn and Sir Braford had become half plant half human hybrids, and as Belak ordered them forward it was clear that he controlled them utterly – their eyes were blank and vacant.
"You shall be my next subjects, come let the tree take you!" Belak cried, "You shall join my army, the army of the Outcast"!
The final battle began when Sharwyn released a magic missile at Ashendarius who took the hit without flinching. With his now enhanced eldritch powers Balthus destroyed a twigblight with single blast before moving into cover. Na-Dulak moved into position to strike on the next round.
Ashendarius slipped quickly to the walls of the ruined keep and the pearly light suffusing him was discharged at Belak – injuring him with the Light of Lunia. Ibn Solaar moved to the walls also, seeking to enter the side of the keep and achieve flanking advantages. The vicious thorns prevented him moving into the keep immediately however.
Belak wielded a wand to unleash his mastery of plantlife. The thorns and vegetation surrounding the party came writhing to life, tearing and grasping at the heroes. Na-Dulak and Balthas evaded its grip but the others did not. Ashendarius and Ibn Solaar – the two most dependent on frequent and fast movement for their skills were pinned in place by the Entangle spell cast by Belak. Things looked suddenly bleak as Sir Braford moved to striking range, and the twigblights closed in from all sides.
Sharwyn unleashed another magic missile – this time striking Na-Dulak who shrugged off the damage like an itch. Balthas returned the compliment by slamming a powerful eldritch blast into the enemy wizard, but she withstood its blast. Sir Braford attempted a sophisticated maneuver to sunder Na-Dulak’s magical morningstar but he failed utterly. Swinging his newly acquired weapon Na-Dulak destroyed a twigblight.
Belak unleashed another spell – a flaming sphere appeared where Balthas was standing but the wily warlock managed to sidestep the ball of fire and took no hurt. Ashendarius and Ibn Solaar struggled in vain to free themselves.
Balthas launched another eldritch blast that severely damaged Sir Braford, and he then steps away from the flaming sphere and out of the entangling vegetation. Na-Dulak then moved swiftly to unleash a mighty attack upon Sir Braford. Already heavily injured by the warlock, the unfortunate paladin fell to the half-orc’s furious assault. Ashendarius and Ibn Solaar continued to try to free themselves without success.
Balthas brought another twigblight down with his eldritch blast, but meanwhile a second managed to close in and hit Ashendarius – poisoning him. Na-Dulak moved into the central courtyard to engage Belak and was bitten by the giant tree frog for his efforts. Ashendarius and Ibn Solaar remain trapped in the thrashing undergrowth.
Now forced to defend himself Ashendarius was distracted from his efforts to get free by attacking and injuring the twigblight that scratched him. Balthas brought down yet another twigblight from range with his deadly accurate eldritch blast, the near helpless Ashendarius taking comfort from the fact that his spell of blessed aim is at least of some use. The twigblight attacking Ashendarius hit him again but this time took fire damage from Na-Dulak’s energy aura. Ibn Solaar remained entangled.
Both Na-Dulak and Balthas missed Belak with their attacks but Ashendarius finally destroyed the twigblight attacking him with his rapier. Reduced to attacking Na Dulak with his sickle, Belak struck the half orc doing damage. At last Ibn Solaar broke free of the entangle spell and moved into a position to threaten Sharwyn.
Balthas next sickening blast caused severe damage to Belak, sickening him for a minute. Ibn Solaar, as the closest to the tree, saw clearly for the first time that that Belak had been digging around the roots of the tree, exposing tendrils – as if the druid has been conducting experiments. Ibn Solaar performed a Charging Minotaur maneuver which not only caused Belak significant damage but pushes him back away from the tree. Balthas launched a huge blast at the tree frog, causing massive damage, but not enough to bring it down. With a cry of frustrated joy Ashendarius finally escaped the entanglement spell and moved into the courtyard.
Ibn Solaar finally succeeded in hitting Belak but the druid remained standing. The tree frog continued its pursuit of the warlock managing a nasty bite before Balthas delivered another massive eldritch blast that blew it into tiny pieces. In swift succession Na Dulak dealt a final fatal blow to Belak who died instantly. Between them Ashendarius and Ibn Solaar flanked Sharwyn before knocking her to the ground, unconscious.
The battle was over, and all things considered the group were in good shape having taken very little in the way of injury.
The party then examined the roots of the tree. The druid had clearly been digging carefully down to the roots of the tree, exposing a grotesque tangle of deformed and blackened tendrils. One particular root alone was still green and fresh at the lower end, although part of it still remained seeking its way into the soil below. The druid had marked a spot higher up the root where it turned necrotic in appearance and some initial cuts had been made. Several spent saw blades laid nearby and a fresh one was in its frame, probably set for the final work.
While the others argued about what to do next Ibn Solaar snuck up to the tree. As the arguments raged the Kettite swordmage dropped into the hole and before they could stop him, began pulling furiously on the last root.
"I shall honour my obligation – bring me the sword!" He cried mysteriously.
It took surprisingly little effort to free it from the soil. The root had a sharpened end and was covered in blood. Fresh blood. A translucent mist seeped up from the ground, from the hole occupied by the root. The slow seep quickly became a rapid escape.
Before the group could react something supernatural lashed at their minds, freezing them with fear. Paralyzed and helpless something probed their thoughts, working its way into their very souls. They were powerless to stop it.
In mere seconds the mist assumed a shape as large as a man and although it has no distinct shape it is clearly some sort of creature. The mist, engulfed the corpse of the druid for several seconds and then rose above it, forming a vaguely humanoid shape.
A confused cacophony welled up inside their heads threatening to overwhelm them before falling to a whisper. A voice formed, full of hatred.
"Releassssed from infernal damnation! Know this, mortals : you have brought upon human-kind the beginning of a new age, a new rule, my rule! And for that you will be forever cursed!"
Unconsciousness enveloped the fools, one last thought accompanying the darkness. They had freed an ancient evil. Gulthias was unbound and now no one could stop him.