When I wrote this, I had originally planned on having the party meet up with an NPC to help out - since the group was a bit outclassed in the magic department. I changed my meeting story about two weeks before this game when I learned that one of my player's daughter was going to be here for the summer (14 years old) and wanted to play. So Evian Merrywidow was conceived and placed squarely in the party's path to help out.
I think the group was surprised at the staunch resistance of the outer wards of the Circle of Thorns - really expecting to just saunter in and do their thing. And sadly, it only got worse the next two meetings or so - so much so that one of my players voiced his dissatisfaction with the tone of the adventure. Not everyone felt the same way he did, but his words did register and one of the things I learned as a good DM - Always Try to Listen to Your Players. Always.
Write up follows:
It was Watermonth the 10th, just past noon and our lunch, and we had noticed that to our west the horizon had a darker green smudge upon it; indicative of the expansive forest and environs of the Circle of Thorns (according to our directions). We continued on our way, the sturdy wagon easily taking the brunt of the abuse over land while a few of our members rode their own steeds.
Shortly afterwards, we noticed near a copse of nearby trees (perhaps a 20 count of oaks and elms) a proud looking white stag was standing there watching our party's passage. It was a majestic beast, 14 points and about 6' at the shoulder. However as we (read: Detheron) made an attempt to approach the beast, it turned tail and bounded off across the plains eventually losing itself to distance.
About 15 minutes of travel later we saw another white stag, also looking surprisingly like the first one. This time we didn't approach it, instead riding around the beast as it fed off the tall grasses. Zoltan and Detheron made comments that we were most likely on the right path as the animal (or one like it) had been mentioned in the Dargan's Folley volumes as well as these sort of animals are sometimes used as omens for the gods.
With the forest coming closer now and more distinct, we saw ANOTHER stag – more convinced that this was the same one each time, and it sort of led not directly towards the forest but at a canted angle to the right. We discussed the meaning of it and then decided to follow the beast's trail – hoping that it might be leading us someplace in question.
About 30 minutes shy of the wood line, we were approached – once more by the stag but ALSO with a person walking with it. She is just under 5' tall and weighed about 80 lbs. Her long hair was the color of molten honey as it blew around her heart shaped face. The tips of her ears pointed through the curls of her hair, attesting to the fey and/or elven character of the woman. Her skin was flawless and smooth, her flesh unmarred by weather or sun. The bodice of her dress was deep green while the lower portion was sunshine yellow. She sported a rucksack across one shoulder and the rough wooden handle of a cudgel hung from the belt loops of her waist.
The stag snorted as they approached but the woman placed a comforting palm on the great animal's neck and said, "At ease, Fantas. Thank you for telling me of their approach." She gave the party a welcoming smile, her eyes twinkling in the afternoon light. "I bid you welcome, travelers. I am Goloriana Meadowsweet, and this is my friend Fantas. I would ask your names if you may, as there are precious few wandering personages of good fortune wandering these sad lands."
We spoke to the woman, deciding to hide nothing of our purpose as well as speak to her of who we were and where we came from. In the next hour of conversing we learned that she had lost her sister about two years ago to an attack by "orcs, druids, and the wizard Djohrgahd" when the two women (and presumably others) attempted to enter the forest protected by the circle and "correct the balance of nature" (sounds ominous – and most likely not pleasant for those OF the Circle). During the conflict, Goloriana's sister was weakened, hurt, and her head removed by Djohrgahd with "a single blood rending bolt of his foul wizardry".
She spoke to us of druidism and how it works. There are traditionally 3 schools of druidic magic: 1) Shamanism – where the druid draws his strength from the animal world and kingdom (As followers of Frey and our own Detheron is a practitioner of), 2) Wardens – where the druid draws his strength from the plant world and its kingdom (As followers of Idun and most druidic wild elves are practitioners of), and 3) Elementalists – where the druids draw the bulk of their strength from the elements themselves.
However, there are sometimes cabals, covens, or circles who seek to delve into places best left untouched – and that is the augmentation of blood. With the right subjects and a constant "bleeding" – a skilled enough (or determined enough) circle of druids, or Sanguinists, can up the effects of their influence in an area. However – this unnatural taint often soils or negatively impacts such a place – and according to Goloriana – the Circle of Thorns is party of such rituals and rites.
This blooding has made the earth almost like a poison to the purity of Goloriana's kind (she definitely seemed to be much more "pure" elven or natural fey than most of the others we've ever encountered) – hence why her sister was seriously weakened when they tried to enter years ago and slain. She has spent the last few years watching the Circle carefully, culling the weak of them when they emerge from the forest, and trying to find recruits to help her in taking the Circle out.
About a year plus ago, a party of 4 members led by a High Elven woman named Evian Merrywidow attempted to enter the forest. It seemed that Evian had been friends to someone who had gone missing, abducted by slavers. Through much coin and personal sacrifice, she paid a seer in Reeterstrod to divine where her friend was – learning that he was "in this forest of growing poison, in a circle of thorns, warded after by a cruel elf named Tehpaguar, and destined to be slain with the greatest amount of pain."
They came here after acquiring 4 wolf headed amulets from accosted sentries outside the circle's environs, and tried to storm the interior. They made it less than 2 dozen paces in before they were all beaten down and slain. Goloriana managed to drag the dying Evian away from the forest and hide her in her home – slowly nursing the battered and beaten elven woman back to life and health.
We talked with the two of them (Goloriana and Evian) for some time and decided to ask/accept Evian's accompaniment with us. It seemed Evian was a skilled warrior and wizard and even though she had not made it far at all (the forest is estimated at 6 or 7 miles radius) – she did have first hand knowledge of what worked, what didn't, what they would face in there – and was filled with a vengeance.
We decided since the forest was thick, we would NOT be taking our wagons or horses with us – and Goloriana offered to watch them, happy to do so. She told us that if we could interrupt the Sanguinist (blood druid) ritual at the forest's heart, it would weaken the taint enough for her to eventually come in and help if possible. Good news.
Finally she gifted Detheron with a wand called "Blossombane" – telling him that she had been crafting it over the last year after her conversations with Evian and it would help. It could only be used once per day by a person – and would stay active until the person either died, passed out, or willed it to end. What it would do though was dampen any and all ambulatory plant movement in a given area (about as large as a spear toss she told us). It draws it strength from the wielder though – so using it too long could kill whoever held the wand.
She had Fantas lead us to the forest's edge where the stag then turned away and we checked out the place. The description read as follows:
As you approach the forest itself you note the edge of the forest is disturbingly regular. It appears as if the tree line shows no natural wavering one would expect from roots, twig, or branch. In fact, on closer inspection, the ground along the "front" of the trunks appears to be churned up and piled as if it was pushed from behind.
The occasional rounded stone pokes amongst the tree line, standing alone and perhaps a bit menacing for some reason. The fading light of the sun fails to penetrate more than a handful of feet into the gloomy interior of the foreboding forest, the deeper portions shrouded from the thick canopy of vine wrapped trees branches above. The underbrush appears to be thick and rife with thorn and sticker bushes.
We figured we could see into the green shadows about 50' and then maybe another 50' beyond that with difficulty – after that – there was little to see. Zoltan went first (the wolf head medallion grew warm as he passed through the edge of the forest), made it in about 4 paces before the vines and thorn bushes grabbed his pants and pulled him down. He had to pull and yank and twist himself before he was able to back away out of the forest. Ok – ward's are up. Detheron tried it next, concentrating on his ability to leave no trace while walking – and made it only a few paces beyond that but he too was being accosted and had to retreat.
We talked about using the wand now and figured we MIGHT need it at a later date – so we made a wedge formation with Karis, Evian and Gwyn in the front with axes, swords, and scimitars at the ready – then on the wings was Amal and Osgar with their own axes, and the rest of the party behind and in the middle – and we chopped chopped chopped the underbrush away.
We were making good headway but the two orcs were starting to have problems after 25' odd feet so we tightened up the formation and hacked further. Then Gwyn was grabbed by more ivy and thorn bushes and he was pulled down. Puck fired a Flaming Hands over the dwarf's head – burning LOTS of the underbrush beyond the dwarf, while Karis worked on cutting the dwarf free. Meanwhile the vines and thorns and brush and whatnot from behind us and to the sides were filling in the hacked up and trampled ground at our back slowly – cutting off the path we were making OUT of the forest. We kept on.
After 50'-60' the wards stopped making the underbrush come alive and we all got to a clearer area – and then the strange forest defenders that Evian warned us about arrived. About 4 to 5' tall, they were roughly humanoid but composed entirely of ivy, brush, leaves, thorns, branches, twigs, and burrs. They burst upon us (4 of them) and we drew up battle lines to fight them off.
Their blows were not very punishing and we were not worried at first – until we noticed they began swelling, pulling the plants they trod upon into their bodies – and then each of the Thallids (as the strange plant men were called by Evian) actually SPLIT into two! Doubling their attacks upon us, we took the threat to heart and effected to take them down swiftly (as the doubles were now beginning to swell).
Each one that died though exploded in a ball of spraying branches and wickedly sharpened thorns which found their way against every nick and chink on our armor – whittling hit points away slowly. Flaming arrows were loosed by Kalarig and Puck fired another Flaming Hands – but it was Detheron's most impressive summoning of a 5' ball of rolling flame that cleared the way through the last of the Thallids and ended the threat against us for the time being.
And we ended it here. Already a bit wounded and surprised at the intensity of the foes against us. And we were only 90' into the forest.