Episode 52: The Bird Lady and the Demon Tree
The voice was there again. How long had it been? Years. No matter. It spoke now, and it spoke in its same quiet urgency. Something was happening in the hills outside Uman. A new threat to the balance of nature, a nature already in turmoil: a huge, menacing tear in the sky, scars across the face of the moon, and the forces of evil and chaos making ground in the city. “Go to the hills,” said the voice. “The miners delve too deep. A great and terrible power awaits them; it must not be unearthed. At all costs, it must not be recovered by those whose allegiance is to the golden throne.”
Whispering Wind, a Kenku ranger and old now but still clever and quick, left her watchtower and headed north into the hills. With little trouble she found Knacklebun’s Silver Mine. At night she stole inside and made her way into the depths of the earth, following the new vein and the feint sounds of…was that argument?
At last she approached a group of miners in a new shaft, their lanterns throwing long, distended shadows up the stony walls. There seemed to be some heated discussion in a language she did not know. As she crept closer, trying to understand, there was a clink of breaking glass behind her, and suddenly an explosion rocked the tunnel. Whisper and the miners were blown from the their feet as the force of the detonation cannoned through them; she hit the wall hard and blacked out. When she recovered her consciousness, Whisper found herself in unfamiliar surroundings: a dense, hot jungle. There was no sign of the mine, and no indication of how she might have arrived here.
That was perhaps 4 days ago. Whisper has survived in the jungle evading predators and the myriad dangerous flora, looking in vain for a way back. She observed a tribe of froglike humanoids at war with giant, acid-spewing ants throughout the jungle, and, curious, followed a patrol back to their village, a series of low, spherical adobe huts arranged haphazardly around a large, deep pool at the base of a small waterfall, high cliffs raising up on three sides. Whisper spent a day or so watching the tribe come and go in patrols into the jungle, groups of them emerging from the pool, exhausted, and new groups exiting the huts, diving in and disappearing for hours.
On the fourth day, as she watched the curious and vicious creatures go about their work, she was surprised to see one of the patrols return with a group of adventurers: two humans, a tiefling, an elf and a halfling. The adventurers were led to the edge of the pool and given tiny pearl-like stones to swallow. They did so, and after a moment, a small escort led them into the pool and under the water.
Not wishing to follow them into the pool, Whisper decided to make her way up the cliffs, to the top of the waterfall; if the pool connected to others, as she suspected it did, perhaps she could see where they emerge. As she crested the top of the cliff, she was surprised to find that the rocky hills descended into a steep valley, in which perhaps a half-mile away she could see an immense, four-sided pyramid under construction by hundreds of the frog men, many times more than could have come from the one village she knew of. She descended a short distance down into the valley, hopping from pool to pool, driven by curiosity. As she approached the outskirts of the construction, a cry of alarm went up from the wooden watchtowers on the perimeter, At first Whisper thought she was discovered, but an army of acid ants, dozens of them, perhaps a hundred in all, emerged from the jungle foliage and rushed the camps in a coordinated attack.
Whisper quickly retreated back up into the safety of the hills and watched as as the battle raged for perhaps an hour, before the remaining ants retreated, leaving scores of dead frog workers behind. The dead seemingly ignored, the tribes immediately resumed work on the structure.
A short while later, the adventuring party and their escorts emerged from a pool not far from Whisper’s hiding spot. They turned away from the valley and followed the ridge line south, down into the jungle, and pleased with herself for catching them, Whisper followed quietly behind.
The party followed their Grung escorts for some hours, down out of the hills and into the jungle, eventually arriving at the edge of another ant colony, this one much larger than their first encounter, some three hundred feet in diameter. A dozen or more mounds dotted the soil, with a central tunnel entrance perhaps 10 feet tall dominating the others. The gold-skinned Grung had led the party to a rendevous with a green-skinned scout, with whom they had a brief exchange and then disappeared into the trees. The scout pulled a strange looking frog from its writhing leather bag, and the party watched in horrified fascination as the frog, its back covered in large red boils that seemed to be glowing first dull red, then increasingly brightly, becoming yellow and then white, was tossed down into the clearing. It hopped twice and then exploded, sending a shower of dirt into the air and cratering two of the tunnel entrances. In seconds dozens of acid ants poured out of the founds and swarmed the impact site. The scout looked at the party for a moment, and satisfied that its warning was understood, lept away into the trees and in seconds was lost to view.
The party, realizing they had been abandoned at the site of ant colony they had little hope of destroying unaided, began to debate whether even attempting it was wise, or indeed necessary. Yuna considered the Grung’s actions thus far, and suggested that perhaps this was their way of getting rid of the party, who might be a threat to them or their Great Work.
Keen was distant in this discussion, distracted as he was by the sense that all of this – the jungle, the temple, the ants – was somehow familiar. As he pondered this, he noticed movement in the trees behind them, and spied Whisper spying on them. She came forward then, meeting the party and sharing with them the circumstances of how she came to be in the jungle.
As they spoke, Keen, with a flash of insight, realized why everything was so familiar – it was a story often told by one of the performers in his former home, the Spectacular Spectacular circus. Meku, a dark-skinned and funny man claimed he was from a tribe that called itself the People of the Sun and Rain, who lived at the edge of a great jungle. His people would tell this story, of a great hero who defied the prohibition against entering the jungle, encountered a colony of acid ants surrounding a great Demon Tree. The hero escapes certain death by outsmarting the tree and bargaining for her freedom.
Keen relayed this to the party, who were surprised that Keen was so surprised, given they had just been discussing what to do about the giant blood red, evil-looking tree in the middle of the clearing. Keen was surprised they were surprised. Ara noticed Keen’s pupils had taken on a strange, three-bodied shape and were glowing faintly. Magnus and Yuna recognized this from a few days earlier, when they were surprised to find themselves on a private lift in Uman moments after Keen mentioning them.
Whisper decided the Demon Tree was the key to their escape, but with a hundred and fifty feet of open ground between them and it, they first had to deal with the acid ants. Rummaging in her bag, she pulled out a child’s noise maker of the kind that would emit a high-pitched squealing and ratcheting sound when fitted with two firecrackers and set off, causing the noisemaker to spin about its axis. Whisper moved a ways away from the party and using bits of vine rigged a fuse to the two firecrackers, lit it, and moved quickly to rejoin the party.
The firecrackers ignited with loud bangs and the noisemaker began to scream. In seconds the ant colony had reacted, swarming up out of its tunnels and as one making for the tree in which the toy was hidden. The party immediately began stealthily moving towards the tree with Whisper in the lead. But despite Whispers stealth magic and the party’s best attempts at not attracting attention, the moment Whisper moved within 60 feet of the tree, two long, sinewy, almost tentacle-like branches shot down out, grappled Whisper, and pulled her from her feet. A horrible, malevolent eye opened in the trunk of the huge tree then, and a two-wide smile filled with razor thorn “teeth.”
The party engaged the tree, but found their weapons barely able to penetrate its thick bark. Worse, it seemed capable of absorbing magic, as Sirlius and Yuna both hit it with spells that seemed to actually heal the demon. It taunted them, laughing, and pulled Whisper up to its face, whereupon with a huge bit it swallowed her in a gulp.
Magnus, beginning to realize that Keen was somehow intimately involved in the scenario, convinced the rogue to put on the Ring of Bliss, in case the tree, the ants and maybe the jungle itself were a manifestation of his mind, just as his dreams had started to manifest in reality when not wearing the ring. Reluctantly, Keen did so, but to no obvious effect on their situation. Magnus removed the ring, restoring Keen’s intelligence, but was then grappled by the tree’s tentacle branches and reeled upward. Keen sent his dancing rapier Levani to try and free Magnus, but without success, the blade not able to sever the thick, tendon-like branches.
Realizing they had little hope of defeating the entity by conventional means and not knowing how long the hundred or more acid ants would remain distracted, Sirlius, Keen and Yuna began to try to negotiate with the creature. It declared itself Toru the “Nightstalker,” and though blustery and legitimately terrifying to look upon, the Demon Tree revealed itself to be rather stupid. They convinced it to release Whisper, and then Sirlius convinced it that should it let them go, they would spread the story of Toru the “Nightstalker,” so that all of Telisar would know and fear it, promising fame and terror for the demon. It agreed, and the moment the bargain was struck, the world around them began to change.
All around the party their view of the world began to fragment into what looked like cubes, rotating about a central point. As each “cube” locked into place, the Demon Tree, the clearing, and the everything they could see was replaced by stone, and earth, and darkness. As they watched, dumbfounded, their surroundings became that of a dark, cramped cavern deep in the pit of a mine shaft. As the last cube spun into place, removing the last of the lush, verdant green from sight, a small modron – a spherical creature of metal with spiny arms and legs and fluttering white wings – dusted its hands with a look of satisfaction, was startled to see the party staring at it, and vanished with a faint popping noise.
In front of the party they could see, partially embedded into the rock, a large irregular chunk of what appeared to be raw platinum struck through with pulsing, glowing red arteries: the second shard of the Heart of Bahamut. Though she did not know its nature, Whisper realized immediately that this was the dangerous power the whispering voice in her mind had warned her of. Sirlius reached out to touch it, and was repelled with such force that he was blown across the small pit and impacted the opposite side, taking considerable injury. Keen placed his hand tentatively on the Heart, then, and instantly it liquified, flowing up his arm to encase his entire body. For a moment Keen had a cosmic perspective, his awareness flowing into all of creation, the entire multiverse and all its potentiality entirely belonging to him. The feeling faded as the liquid metal receded, flowing into his palm and taking on the shape of a large platinum coin for a moment, before sinking into his skin and disappearing.
Whisper regarded Keen with fascination, and decided that she would remain as his protector, guardian of the power within him. “You not good man, but not bad man either,” she declared, to general agreement.
As the party settled to take a brief rest and recover from their ordeal, Yuna considered all that had happened: the tear in the sky, the apparently death of Bahamut, the Platinum Queen, Keen’s relationship to the Heart of Bahamut, and his inadvertent ability to influence reality. She felt certain that there was a pattern that would explain everything, some unifying force; for the moment however it alluded her.
Party Kenku Levels: Optimal
Plot Clarity Level: 2%
Demon Tree Encounter Rating: Terrifying/Stupid
RP Rating: Awesome!