The Crocodile Queen failed to put in an appearance, so the party left her putrid lair to continue their eastward journey on the River Esk. A night passed, followed by a day and another night. The next day, at around noon, the landscape changed from forest to marsh; endless mire extending both north and south as far as the eye could see. After another two days, a swamp forest rose up, its willows, tupelos and stilted mangrove-like trees coming into view here-and-there, punctuating the marsh with their crowns.
At about noon on the second day, the swamp forest retreated into the distance, giving way to a marshy opening filled with hummocks of rushes and sedges. The hummocks were separated by pools of pitch-black water. It was in one of these pools that the party came across the stone that Silvermane had told them about: a flat rock etched with what appeared to be a Crown of Thorns. The adventurers headed north, led by Gydion, who was familiar with navigating wetlands. Although the druids’ movements weren’t hindered (thanks to their Woodland Stride ability), the other characters’ were, as Gydion patiently showed them all where they could safely step [of course, the two elf ladies, a druid and a ranger—respectively—didn’t need as much help as the others].
Turin smiled at the beautiful mid-summer day that was unfolding, despite the buzzing insects which were becoming increasingly loud and annoying with their stings. As they traversed the hummocks and approached the edge of the swamp forest, the druids and ranger stopped often to admire the beautiful marsh plants: blue irises, emerald cattails and pink swamp candles were the dominant species. It was a paradise for birds—Bracken and Blaez periodically needed “reeling in” by their masters because they wandered too far afield, exploring and feeding. A few times, the druids and ranger argued about plant identification, further slowing their progress (but in a good way). Taking in the sheer, untouched, natural beauty of the place, it was obvious why the Council of Thorns had given their lives to protect this land.
About 1000 feet further north, the land got drier, with the hummocks replaced with a 7-foot-high field between the borders of the swamp forest on their left and right. The druids identified the plants in the field as giant stinging nettles, so Gydion re-routed the group into the surrounding forest. The swamp forest was dark and wet, and progress was slow-going—when, all of a sudden, Silaqui was grabbed by a leafy tendril! She was able to struggle out of the snare as Draken hammered at the beast it was attached to: a huge Shambling Mound. Draken was the next to be grappled by the monstrous vegetable. Silaqui fired an arrow of elemental ice into its crown, Turin cast a Force Missile at its roots, and Kingsley and Toboe bit chunks out of its flesh. Finally, Gydion landed the killing blow with his oak staff, and the dwarf was freed.
Moving north, the intrepid explorers exited the swamp and found themselves in a savanna filled with four-foot-high reeds with intermittent willows and swamp-oaks here-and-there. Avoiding the pools of black water again made progress slow, as did avoiding the poison sumac trees (which Gydion successfully identified). It was about 2:30PM when the group noticed a duck flying towards them. It appeared to have a small scroll tied to one of its feet. It landed in front of Gydion and looked up at him. Silaqui cast Speak With Animals, and the bird informed her that he was there to deliver a message to Gydion. Taking the scroll from the duck, Gydion found a personal note from his two Druid guardians, Duskthorn and Kyrian, informing him that the will-o-wisps in the Marsh were actually reincarnated Druids from the Council of Thorns; in addition, the note said, Gydion and his friends couldn’t hope to defeat all of them—they needed to use Persuasion and Diplomacy if they were going to survive their encounters with these beings. The scroll also included a special orison [referred to here as Insect Repellent ], which deters all biting insects in a 10-foot radius. Much to the relief of his comrades, he read it immediately. Silaqui spoke a bit more with the duck while Gydion scribbled a quick ‘thank-you’ reply to his Guardians. They attached the note to its leg before releasing it into the air.
A little further north, they encountered a meandering, slow-moving stream wending its way through the savanna. They found a log rolled over one branch of the stream, and upon further inspection, found a crude animal trail. It headed north, so they decided to follow it. As they walked, some large (one-foot-long), bright pink dragonflies got their attention. Delighted, they approached another log-crossing when most of them noticed a swamp oak with a face leering at them, about 20 feet away, at the stream’s edge! Silaqui fired at it and scored a critical hit, putting out one of its eyes and causing the plant-creature to shudder and splash around at the stream’s edge. Toboe ran up to attack it and found himself the target of an oak-root which tore up out of the wet ground—luckily, it missed the wolf. Turin stepped off the trail (narrowly avoiding falling into a black pool) and fired a scorching ray at the creature, but it just shrugged it off. After a few rounds of combat, Kingsley finally landed the killing blow, biting its trunk. (Kingsley’s bite was, apparently, worse than its bark!). Draken approached the lifeless husk and attempted to hack the face off of it. In so doing, he discovered a gem-encrusted belt worth 50 gp; a wand of Hold Person with 6 charges, and 2 potions of Cure Moderate Wounds.
Following the route once more, the party found itself near a lakeshore, which the stream seemed to empty into. The lakeshore was surrounded by a quaking mat of Sphagnum moss, with low sedges, irises, ferns, and some more half-dead swamp oak trees. After almost an hour, Jane saw that, up ahead, the path ended at a rustic campsite, with a tent and firepit. At the edge of the pit, staring into the fire and muttering to herself, sat a bedraggled-looking female dwarf. After some discussion, the group decided to approach her cautiously Draken went first, since he was a dwarf, and hailed her in dwarvish. The she-dwarf turned towards him, wide-eyed. “Umlo! My brother! You have returned to me!” Then, looking past him, she cried, “Look out, Umlo! Orcs! Green-skinned devils are right behind you!” With that, she jumped to her feet and rushed them, drawing two axes as she ran. Turin pulled out his newly acquired wand and pointed, freezing her in place as the Hold Person spell took effect. While the rest of the party tied the insane dwarf up, Silaqui went into the tent and found a backpack and bedroll. She then walked around the tent and saw, to her surprise, a puma hiding in the undergrowth. She cast Speak With Animals and learned that the puma was the dwarf’s animal companion, named “Cat” [the dwarf was a ranger, like Silaqui], and that they had been exploring Ghostlight Marsh along with the dwarf’s brother and two hired mercenaries when they’d been attacked by a coven of green hags, and their bodyguard! When Silaqui asked what happened next, the puma’s memory was unclear, but he recalled that the coven had “done something” to his mistress and her brother—and the two siblings parted ways at that point. He said he was worried about his mistress and had been watching over her since that time (about two weeks ago).
Silaqui relayed all of this to her comrades. They decided to take the dwarf and Cat with them to find the Vault of Thorns—Cat told Silaqui that he could take them back to the spot where they’d been attacked. Before they left the campsite, Turin used Detect Magic and discovered that one of the she-dwarf’s axes radiated magic, and in addition, she had two potions on her person. Upon further inspection, they learned that the axe was +1, and that the two potions were Cure Moderate Wounds and Remove Curse. Intrigued by the puma’s story, the party decided to force-feed the potion to the dwarf (who was cursing and sputtering at them as they did so). Upon ingestion—suddenly, in mid-sputter—the dwarf grew still and calm. “Where am I?” she asked. As they walked, she told them her name was Ingrahild Nargrymkin, and that she and her brother had been trying to locate the ancient tomb of a long-lost ancestor of theirs—a famous giant-slayer named Nargrym Steelhand. She said that they had reached a stone circle deep within the marsh, but before they could explore further, they were ambushed by a coven of green hags and their bodyguard. She didn’t know what happened after that, or what had become of her brother. “We have to find him! Poor Umlo!” She cried. “You remind me so much of him”, she said to Draken, through her tears.
After about an hour of walking through another large patch of swamp forest, two glowing lights appeared and attacked Gydion and Silaqui with an electric shock. The lights then disappeared, and all went quiet again. Gydion, realizing that these must be the will-o-wisp remnants of the late, great Council of Thorns, spoke. He told them that they were on a mission from Silvermane, and that they needed to find the Vault of Thorns, so that they could acquire some weapons for defeating the Twisted Hearts orc tribe. Jane chimed in, repeating what Gydion had said, and adding that she was Silvermane’s granddaughter. She produced the Ghostlight Lantern that he had given her from within her backpack. At that point, the two bright lights—one green, the other white—appeared again. Within the green one, a bearded visage was evident; within the white one, the face of an elderly woman. Introducing themselves as Mossmoon and Starshine, the will-o-wisps spoke with Jane and Gydion about the party’s mission. After Gydion expressed dismay about needing a will-o-wisp husk, the lights reassured them that nobody needed to die in order for them to procure a husk. Mossmoon told them they could lead them to a place where they could energize the Lantern with an already-dead will-o-wisp husk.
The group followed the will-o-wisps to an eerily quiet clearing: an ancient black spruce bog. The moss around their feet was slightly quaking, but mostly stable, as they strolled past beautiful terrestrial orchids, together with all manner of insectivorous plants: sundews, Venus flytraps and pitcher-plants. Black spruce dotted the clearing. The lights told Gydion and Jane to produce the Lantern and follow them into another, smaller clearing off to the side, whlie the others waited. Following their instructions, Mossmoon showed them a pile of small, sponge-like spheres on the ground. “This the burial ground of the will-o-wisps that were the Council of Thorns… those that have died, find rest, here.” Gydion looked at Mossmoon and waited. “Take one of these and place it into the Lantern while Jane holds it,” he said to him. Ceremoniously, the two Druids did as instructed, and upon doing so, the Lantern came to life with a bluish-white light. The beam it emitted shone north, further into the swamp forest. “Follow the beam; the Lantern will show you the way,” Starshine told them. Jane and Gydion thanked them, and then, the will-o-wisps disappeared.
After another hour or so, following the Lantern ’s light, the party found itself in another Sphagnum bog, with no spruce trees; only a few orchids, carnivorous plants, and ferns. In the middle stood a circle of monolithic standing stones surrounding a central menhir covered in a layer of thick, thorny vegetation. In all, eight formations surrounded the central stone: five were intact, while three were crumbled (and partially sunk into the soggy soil). Like the will-o-wisp graveyard, this clearing was eerily quiet; but in addition, a mystic energy filled the air. A certain electricity tingled in the atmosphere as the Lantern ’s glow became immediately more diffuse and soft.
Then, out of nowhere—crashing through the trees to the northwest—a huge marsh giant entered the bog, brandishing a hooked spear! With a mighty ROAR it attacked, rearing up to its full height, as the party struggled to mount a defense. Upon seeing the giant, Ingrahild screamed: “It’s the hags’ bodyguard!!”
Seeing clouds up above, the two Druids invoked Call Lightning, doing serious damage to the beast. The dwarves, meanwhile attacked it from both sides with axe and hammer. Turin cast Shocking Grasp on Blaez and sent him to deliver it; unfortunately, the giant launched an Attack of Opportunity with his , sending the tiny bird plummeting to the bog mat!
After a few rounds of combat, the giant was laid low by one of Jane’s lightning boltsThe party, for their part, suffered some damage, especially the dwarves and Toboe. Jane Stabilized Blaez, after which Turin healed him with a magic potion. Gingerly lifting the little creature into his hands, he cast a Fly spell and rose 60 feet into the air. There, in mid-air, he broke the sacred familar-bond between him and his hummingbird; and then, he released the creature into the air. It flew off into the swamp forest, looking back one last time before disappearing into the canopy. It was a difficult decision for the wizard, but in the end, he felt he had done the right thing in letting this poor, innocent creature go. Stifling his sobs, he flew north and got a good look around. A few hundred feet away, he saw the swamp forest finally end at the shore of an immense, bubbling hot spring, thousands of miles across. On its other side was another swamp forest. There was no civilization as far as he could see. Aloft in the air alone, the elf took solace in the untarnished natural beauty before him.
Meanwhile, in the clearing below, jane and Gydion read and re-read Silvermane’s instructions. As he spelled out in the note that he’d given Jane together with the Lantern, the Druids shone its light upon the central menhir. At that moment, the vegetation dropped away from the stone, and it started to hum and glow with a dull amber light. Detect Magic revealed that the stone was alive with a strong conjuration magic. The party gathered around and attempted to look for runes, or other writing, upon the central stone—but they found none.
After a minute or so, Jane—seeing no other option—touched the stone.
Then, to the amazement of everyone… the white-haired elf disappeared!
The others looked at each other, not believing their eyes. They started to discuss what they should do, when all of a sudden, Toboe—who had lost his psychic connection with Jane—touched a paw to the stone. The wolf, too, disappeared.
The group called Turin back, then, they all held hands as Gydion touched the central menhir. All of them felt a mild tingling sensation as a yellow glow, like golden sunlight, shrouded their vision. A few seconds later, they found themselves in a medium-sized wooden chamber, standing around a similar-looking menhir that shone with a pale amber glow. The stone was in a corner of the chamber, and in the opposite corner was a wooden doorway set in the middle of an elaborately-carved wooden flower. In between themselves and the floral door, Jane and Toboe were engaged in combat with three bizarre-looking, animated, roughly humanoid bundles of twigs!
“Fiddle-dee-dee, can’t catch me!” yelled one as Toboe snapped at it with his powerful jaws. Jane fired arrows at another as it fired a volley of thorn-like projectiles at her. The other party members quickly drew their weapons and closed in to assist her. Turin fired a Scorching Ray at one, setting it on fire, while Draken smashed another with Agrimmosh. “We come in peace! Please stop your attacks,” shouted Gydion—but to no avail—the wooden creatures continued their assault.
Another batch of thorns hit Turin as he flew around the room. One of the creatures seemed to teleport away from Jane and over to Silaqui, attacking her with a wooden spear as it taunted her with faerie rhymes: “Can’t catch me! Dumble-dee-dee!”. Turin cast Mage Armor on both Gydion and Draken as Silaqui fired an arrow into the creature that had teleported to her, killing it. Gydion delivered the killing blow to the one that had caught fire, and Jane finished off the third and last one.
The group cautiously approached the door. Above, a sign (in Druidic) read: “For those who love peace in nature, welcome. For those that don’t, beware of the wrath of the Vault of Thorns.” Jane read it aloud for her non-Druid colleagues, and they pondered the meaning for a second. Then, they decided to go through the doorway.
The petaloid doors gave way easily, and the group entered what seemed to be a giant greenhouse. They found themselves on a 15-foot-wide bridge that spanned the plant-filled room, 80 feet above the floor below and 80 feet below what seemed to be a glassy “ceiling” above. All around them, lush trees grew, their branches teeming with birds and other wildlife. The light above made the air steamy and warm. Across the bridge, about 80 feet away, was another set of doors.
As the group walked across the bridge, they quickly realized they weren’t alone: Turin and his sister Silaqui were both cut by unseen attackers. From the buzzing they heard, they guessed that these were invisible fey borne on gossamer insect-like wings. What could they be? Gydion attempted to talk to their unseen assailants, telling them that they were Druids sent by Silvermane, and they meant no harm. However, no sooner id he get these words out that they were assaulted again! Whatever was divebombing them was clearly skillful with “flyby” attacks, and were able to maintain their invisibility even after attacking… Formidable fey indeed!
Breaking free from the crowd, Silaqui ran towards the other side of the bridge, and was once again hit by an unseen attacker. While the others behind her where attempting to pinpoint the whereabouts of the invisible creature that had attacked Turin, Silaqui narrowly avoided getting hit by her unseen attacker. She felt the buzz of its wings as it flew by. The next round, she made another mad dash, and pushed open the second set of doors, revealing an ornately-carved, wooden chamber.
A statuesque, middle-aged elven woman stood up out of her throne-like chair at the other end of the chamber, staring at Silaqui. “Who are you?” she demanded. Silaqui gave her name, and then explained their mission. “Silvermane’s granddaughter, Jane, is with us,” she added. Suddenly, she was attacked by her unseen attacker once more, and the middle-aged elf ran to her aid. “I am the Guardian of the Vault of Thorns,” she said, “And these evil fey that have invaded this sanctuary are not to be trifled with!” With that, she enveloped them with Obscuring Mist.
Outside, on the bridge, Toboe managed to use his scent ability to snag the other invisible fey creature in his jaws. Gydion came to his aid and securely grappled the gossamer-winged being. Jane approached them and asked it why it was attacking—aren’t we all friends here? It responded by saying “This is our realm now!” Jane, wishing to see the creature, cut herself with her knife and smeared her blood on its head, revealing a baby-faced fey creature with bulging, angry eyes. It stared at her venomously as she said “Aren’t you supposed to be allied with the druids here?”
The thing replied, “The druids have all gone! So this is our place now! Get out!” Jane exchanged a nod with Gydion and the others before plunging her knife into its neck: “Guess what?! The Druids are back in town!!” She then dipped her fingers into its neck and spread its blue blood on her cheeks—like warpaint—as the creature bled out. They left the creature to Turin, who began chiseling its wings off, to use as the material component to a wizard spell he was planning.
The group reached the other side of the bridge and entered the wooden Council Chamber, only to see a cloud of mist. Silaqui heard her colleagues and explained what was going on. After a few seconds, the self-proclaimed Guardian of the Vault remarked that she didn’t hear any more buzzing, so the coast was probably clear. She dropped the Mist and addressed the rest of the party. “Welcome! I am Wynnea, Guardian of the Vault of Thorns! Which of you is Silvermane’s granddaughter?” Jane approached and introduced herself.
“My dear child,” the Guardian said, taking her hand, “I am Silvermane’s wife. I’m your grandmother… My prayers have been answered!!” Jane recalled stories of her grandmother, Wynnea, but knew that she had died, long ago. “That’s true, my dear,” confirmed Wynnea, “But the spirits of the Vault have resurrected me.” She went on to explain how the Vault’s spirits must have known that Jane was on her way, and that the Fates had indeed given them a lucky turn. Jane explained about the loss of her parents while Wynnea listened wistfully.
“And who is this delightful canine companion of yours?” Jane introduced Toboe, and Wynnea replied, “Well, wolf companions must run in our family… I have one as well!… Balto!” And in ran another wolf, from an adjoining room, and licked Toboe’s face. “Oh what a happy occasion!” Wynnea beamed, “And your appearance couldn’t have come at a better time.” Gydion asked what she meant, and Wynnea explained that she needed Jane’s, and the others’, help in clearing the Vault of Unseeley Fey invaders. “Since the Council left this place, many years ago, the Vault has become slowly occupied by evil faerie,” she told them. “You must help me rid the Vault of these interlopers, and the treasure of weapons will be yours,” she told them. “Oh the possibilities,” she added, eyes wide open. “Maybe we can even reconstitute the Council of Thorns itself!”
“First, however, about this weapon stash,” asked Jane, “Where is it?” Wynnea looked at her sadly and told her that because she had been resurrected just a week ago, she hadn’t had time to fully explore the place. She also told them that the resurrection had left her memories cloudy at best, and further, the Druidic architecture of the Vault was constantly changing, ever-so-slightly. “Even if I had a map, it wouldn’t do us much good in the long run,” she said, “it’s all so malleable.”
“What’s behind these doors?” asked Jane, pushing through another set of doors to the north. They opened into a hallway, which led to a short flight of stairs, heading down. The party entered, together with Wynnea and Balto. The stairs ended upon a platform that looked across a room filled with floating lily pads! On the other side of the room was another platform, leading down a staircase to a dimly-lit closed door. The floor below the platform could not be seen, but pungent wafts of soil (smells similar to mulch) came up from below.
Turin pulled out a scroll and cast Fly on Draken, and the two of them began testing the weight capacity of the floating pads. It appeared they could hold about 200 lbs before beginning to sink downwards. As they tested the pads, Jane spotted a memorial plaque (in Druidic) on the wall for her grandmother Wynnea, and asked her grandmother about it. “Yes this is where Balto and I were buried—or, should I say, composted,” the old elf smiled, “Very sustainable. Very green. Very Druidic, wouldn’t you agree, dear?”
All of a sudden, Turin noticed a bright blue, man-sized dragonfly speeding towards him and Turin from the dark depths below them. The dragonfly somehow cast Entangle, and the wizard and fighter narrowly escaped being curled up inside the lily pads floating around them. Turin cast a Fireball at it, seriously damaging it, and Draken flew down and whacked it with his magic hammer. Silaqui then fired an elemental arrow of fire from her magic bow, doing 19 points of damage to it. After a few rounds of combat, Wynnea finally zapped the giant insect with an arc of lightning-like energy, killing it and causing it to drop to the bottom of the room, far below, with a crash. “Talk about a bug-zapper!” the old elf cackled.
With the threat from below dealt with, the group focused on breaching the chasm. The Druids all turned into hawks and flew across. Silaqui, and Ingrahild bounded across the floating pads acrobatically; Kingsley did the same, but with Draken holding a rope tied around the lion’s waist (for security). Finally, Draken ferried Toboe and Cat across the room.
On the other side, a hallway led down two flights of stairs to a hollow tree. The hollow tree was a spiral staircase (created, the Druids guessed, with Wood Shape and/or Warp Wood spells) that led down into the greenhouse they’d seen from above. They found themselves looking up at the bridge they were once on, but the air was cooler now; a 3-foot deep mist covered the forest floor. The Druids, and the ranger Silaqui, were delighted with the diversity on display before them: bamboo from Tian Xia; teak trees from distant Vudra; vines from the Mwangi Expanse; and even stranger, unrecognizable vegetation. A constant symphony of birdsong and other animal noises filled the air, and a howler monkey approached them playfully. A rabbit, too, came up to them and sniffed Jane’s boots, unafraid, as birds landed on their shoulders. Water dripped down from the bridge high above, falling like tiny rainshowers upon them. The air was full of a thousand smells, both pleasant and pungent, as they made their way across the large, round, green expanse.