The Tree of Life
- The heroes find themselves in a serene meadow, a lake in the middle, grass and flowers waving in the wind, and glowing clouds overhead. No trail appears, but the heroes sense the direction they are meant to go and begin to walk towards a dark forest in which they find they are not alone. Dozens of nature spirits, humanoid figures just a few inches tall with large hollow eyes and over large heads, start following them. Some even climb up on their arms and shoulders. The path takes them uphill and after a few hours of travel the forest clears, revealing the smell of foul air and clouds of smoke obscuring what lies above them.
- Now the little nature spirits begin to grab onto the heroes’ legs and pull them back towards the forest. Anafiel picks one up, says a prayer, and speaks to the nature spirit who warns him about the fires above the safe place they are just about to leave. Anafiel assures the spirit that the three of them have a mission that will put out the fires and the spirit looks thoughtful for a moment. Then he calls out to the others, ‘Let’s go for a swim!’ and the nature spirits run down the hill and jump into the lake, releasing their human companions.
- Emerging from the thick, hot smoke the heroes discover that they are standing on a branch of the largest tree they have ever seen. They notice that this tree is dying; all around fires rage, charred branches fall, and smoke in the shape of large snakes burrow in and out of the tree’s trunk and branches. The further down the tree they look the worse the damage, but no part has been untouched. Only at the very top does a small patch of light shine through the dark clouds.
- The heroes make their way down the branch, still following the path. A few hours pass. They begin walking along a ridge when frantic sounds in the distance grow louder. A carriage thunders in front of them, an Indian man calling out in Hindi and whipping the horses. Close behind run dark, humanoid figures, eight feet tall with the heads of various vicious animals. About sixty yards away from the path the horses fall, the carriage crashes, and the manitous swarm the man and his wife and baby.
- Anafiel draws his sword and races down to save them. Immediately the ridge, Abigale and Ray, and the path disappear behind him. However, the only thing Abigale and Ray see is Anafiel running down to save the family. The manitous kill the man and woman and turn towards Anafiel who begins to strike them down.
- Ray starts firing bolts of fire down from the path and she too sees Abigale and the ridge disappear. Abigale draws her weapon and prepares to follow, but halts when she notices the confused expression on Ray’s face and realizes that her companions have lost the path.
- Once Anafiel defeats four of the evil spirits the remainder flee. The spirits of the defeated man and woman return and the man says that since Anafiel defeated the manitou in combat they are now pledged to his service, just as they are to the manitou that defeated them. Anafiel orders the manitou to release the man and woman and they do so, immediately disappearing afterward.
- Anafiel returns to the spot where he last saw Abigale and the path. He and Ray have no idea that Abigale can still see and hear them as they decide what to do. The man explains that he and his family have been trying to find a way to the top of the tree, to the hereafter, which has proven especially difficult and dangerous now. The man does know of someone who could help, a being named Jordrava who knows The Hunting Grounds and its paths well and even guides people to the hereafter…for a price.
- Anafiel and Ray decide to let the man take them to Jordrava. Abigale could follow the path on her own and possibly return to the past, but she rejoins her companions to make sure she knows that they can return as well.
- Talking with the man, it become obvious to the heroes that he has had a very hard life since his family’s death in a violent volcano eruption. When they ask if he knows anything about the glowing marks on their foreheads that have appeared ever since they arrived in The Hunting Grounds the man quickly answers no. He leads them into the tree, passing through a forest of enormous flowers and giant fungi hanging above them on the ceiling. Approaching one of the flowers he raps the petals with his oak staff and they open, revealing a large cavern containing a tent village. The man leads them to the largest tent, directs them to enter, and they meet Jordrava.
Is it a man? The form is human, but what would be flesh is not flesh at all. The skin is petrified and cracked. Looking into his eyes is like staring down into bottomless wells; just as vacant emotionally. If he did not move you would have thought your Indian guide had lead you to a statue. Yet the figure’s gaze is drawn and even on Jordrava’s rocklike face the intense dislike is very, very much obvious.
He turns to your guide. “I thought I told you to find the Gaun.” When the stone lips part and the menacing voice exits from them a fiery glow is all that is seen inside the mouth.
The man bows slightly. “Sir, I failed the task you gave me. But I found these three and they have the mark.”
“Indeed they do.” Jordrava glances back at the three uncertain humans before turning back to the Indian man. “Well I did not have much hope for you to start with and you have already given me more than I ever imagined you could deliver.” He motions to figures beside him. “Lead them to the hereafter.”
The man says not another word to the heroes and he and his family walk away. As they exit the tent Anafiel and Ray wish them good luck. They do not look back.
Now there are only four beings in the tent. A moment of palpable silence passes while the heroes and Jordrava exchange looks of caution and disgust. Finally Abigale speaks.
“What do you want with us?”
Jordrava leans back into his seat and his form becomes ever so slightly less rigid. “You must be halfwits if he found you wandering about. This is the only reason I have not killed you.”
“Is he with the mafia?” Ray whispers.
“I don’t think that exists here,” Anafiel hastily replies in her ear.
Jordrava chuckles. “Yes, definitely halfwits.”
“We only just arrived here. We haven’t had time to grow a wit,” Abigale answers apologetically. “What do you want with us?”
Jordrava motions at the green glowing marks on their foreheads. “You made a pact with the Gaun. They destroyed the mortal realm and also devastated The Hunting Grounds. I want them dead for that. Where are they?”
Abigale’s face pales, but she maintains her poise. “You mean the Earth Spirits? This destruction is not our fault or theirs. We made that pact over two hundred years ago in order to eliminate an evil on Earth. But we were deceived and the power of the spirits was controlled by an evil being that is called Grimme.”
“I know. You think you can make excuses? You still made the pact; meddled with powers that were far beyond your meager capabilities, that evil could easily wrestle from you. They destroyed everything. You destroyed everything.” Jordrava snaps his fingers and a giant golem emerges from the ground beside him. Abigale and Anafiel take a step back, but recognize one of the manifested powers of the Earth Spirits. Ray jumps and points at the thing yelling out, “What is that?”
Jordrava ignores her. “I’ve already consumed five of the earth spirits and I have been searching for the other two. You will lead me to them and I will destroy them also.”
Anafiel speaks up. “We don’t know where the Earth Spirits are now. And what are you hoping to accomplish? Revenge won’t stop this devastation.”
“At least I will have done justice. And you think you can stop this terror? You already failed once.”
Ray retorts, “But we have a plan! You see there was this path we were following that was going to lead us back to a time before this disaster started. We got separated from the path, but you can help us find it again. When we get back we will stop Grimme.”
Jordrava’s voice raises just slightly, but the darkness and terror of his tone increases so much that Abigale cringes. “You are failures and ignorant. The thing called Grimme was created by a dark magic controlled by the civilization Nib, powerful beyond your comprehension. I know there is no way you can defeat this abomination. You have never even understood what you are facing."
Abigale averts her face, but Jordrava can still see the guilt and smiles. Ray is only silent. Anafiel, however speaks.
“Give us a chance to set thing right. Evil has already won everything there is to gain in this time; whatever you or we do now won’t change that. Our only hope is in the past, but the only way to set things right is for you to help us return.”
Jordrava’s crusted, lidless eyes narrow and he leans forward. The scars on his stony face run deep and his fiery mouth echoes dark cynicism that could only exist after two hundred years of defeat and misery. “Know this: I have no hope. I know you will fail. You will fail if you try to find a majority of the glyphs. Grimme very likely already knows the location of them and any of his thirteen Elders can mark them as well. Once he marks a majority of the seven the power is his to control according to his evil desires. You only have a slightly less chance of failing if you seek out the remains of the civilization of Nib. Only their powers can remove the taint of Grimme from the pact you made with the spirits and then the spirits will answer only to you. It is located beneath the place you call Devil’s Postpiles." He closes his eyes and after a moment of silence reopens them. "Even if you decide to do this I still know you will fail.”
Jordrava stands up and snaps his fingers. The heroes blink. The tent has turned into a dark sea cave. Jordrava has vanished, replaced by Grimme.