Upon entering the portal, Saint Komè found himself bathed in moonlight, far brighter than the darkness of Arantor’s cavern. He quelled the aura of light that he emanated as he surveyed his surroundings. He stood in a teleportation circle at the top of a rocky hillside, surrounded on all sides by a sea of trees. He recognized the landscape as the Forest of Twisted Souls, which he’d seen illustrated on a tapestry in one of the caverns above Arantor’s lair. His friends were nowhere to be seen.
Before he could examine the place any further, one of the trees near him stirred. It pulled its roots from the ground, trudging towards him on column-like legs. As a hateful black maw opened in the center of its trunk, the kalashtar caught the smell of rotting wood. It was a Blackroot Treant, a former primal guardian, now twisted by unlife. Komè had heard of them from the tales of the other Champions – they’d fought one before in Cachlain’s arena, where they defeated Virizan.
Luckily, before the treant could do much harm, Ionen appeared, driving it back with gouts of flame. As it howled in pain from the embers spreading along its limbs, two warriors carved from black stone appeared to challenge the duo – blackstar knights, servants of Kas the Betrayer. Ionen briefly considered spreading out in order to divide the enemies among them, but Komè noticed an enchantment on the trees – a deadly trap that would activate as soon as a living creature stepped out of the circle.
The two of them held their own until Jett and Blank arrived. The swordmage kept the treant occupied with his aegis, while Blank scattered the knights and used her telekinetic mastery to repeatedly topple the unwieldy treant.
Finally Erdanen came, bumping into Ionen as he walked backwards into the crowded circle. With five bodies fighting for space in the fifteen-foot-diameter sigil, Erdanen did what he could, elbowing past his friends so he could bring radiant energy to bear against the necrotic-fueled foes. The cramped quarters enraged Jett, who threw caution to the wind and marched outside the circle to bring his sword to bear against the blackroot, which was just out of his reach otherwise. Venomous magic began to rain down from the inanimate trees in the area, so Ionen focused his efforts on burning them down.
Finally, all threats were eliminated, and the Champions lay down for a well-deserved rest on the thrice-blasted earth of the hillside. They slept uneasily at best, each mulling over the stress of facing their own moments of betrayal, and coming to terms with the betrayals committed by their friends. More blurted confessions had reared their ugly heads in the final rooms of the cavern, including Jett’s condemning Ziggy to a trollish fate, Blank’s provocation of Trethix, and a mysterious phrase from Komè – “Do we accept? Of course we do!”
When they awoke, Komè summoned his cloud chariot once more, steering it toward a dark tower that loomed over the trees some ten miles distant. Normally, picking their way through the forest on foot would take all day, but the cloudy steed could bear them above the canopy and arrive in just over an hour’s time.
On the way, the group passed over numerous twisted black trees until they came across a grand oak that still retained some of its leaves, though they appeared yellow and sickly. Her curiosity piqued, Blank summoned her dream form to the ground below to have a look around. There, she spied a beautiful eladrin woman, her eyes wide in terror. As their eyes met, Blank was able to see through her illusion – she was actually a hideous creature with skin like bark and claws like thorns. As the crazed plant woman lashed out, Komè hurriedly brought the chariot down to help. Ionen deduced that she was once a dryad, but had since been changed into an undead, much like the treant. He believed that the barely-alive tree acted as a phylactery would to a lich, and so he breathed a cloud of flame into its dying branches. Komè saw the anguish in her eyes, begging the sorcerer to stay his hand as they attempted to reason with her. Jett attempted to distract her fury away from his friends, while Erdanen reached out to her in the elven tongue. After extinguishing the blaze, they were able to calm her down.
She shakily introduced herself as Naiethar Traihel, and begged the heroes to release her from her undead existence by planting a branch from her tree in untainted soil; in return for their kindness, she let them copy the rituals that had appeared on her tree over the years. They accepted her request and apologized for attacking her, though Ionen later refused to admit any rashness on his part. “Why should I apologize?” he asked. “My actions are justified. She was undead, and eager to harm us. I knew the tree was the source of her power, so I sought to destroy it before she could make use of it. If anyone here is to blame for the harm I brought on her, it is you, Komè! Next time you wish to try to save something that is clearly an enemy, you might at least inform me of your intent.”
The kalashtar fumed at Ionen’s outlook – it was as if he cared nothing for anyone but himself. Secretly, he confided in Erdanen, voicing his doubt as to whether it would be truly wise to aid someone as tyrannical as him in reattaining godhood.
Before the group could set out again, a large group of creatures could be heard approaching through the thicket of trees. Erdanen and Jett barred the way to the oak tree, while the other three took off in the cloud chariot to gain an aerial advantage. As the figures came into the light, Ionen recognized one of them: the bluespawn that he had spared in Tu’narath, when he’d first met the Platinum Champions! He was accompanied by a small pack of fey wolves, and a sullen-faced mage.
As Komè drove the chariot forward, Ionen let the bluespawn know of his displeasure with a rain of elemental energy that lit up the night sky. Though wounded, the brute refused to be frightened by Ionen – he was out for revenge for his previous embarrassment.
Blank aided the assault by slamming the mage with her telekinesis, hitting him so hard that his face flew off! Actually, it was only a mask… and beneath it – to the tiefling’s disgust and horror – was a mass of dark, writhing worms. Even with her mental defenses, she was unable to shake the feeling of disgust and utter wrongness that the long-dead mage exuded, and she wasn’t able to meet its gaze. Ever resourceful, she decided to compel the bluespawn to fight it instead.
Erdanen managed to get the killing blow on the larva mage, while Blank helped Jett fend off the wolves that he found himself nearly overwhelmed by. The bluespawn’s dying words were: “You think you’ve beaten me, but I promise you’ve not heard the last of Donaar...” Ionen seemed disappointed by this turn of affairs, but said nothing.
After dealing with Tiamat’s servants, the Champions piled into the Chariot once more and resumed their course toward the Mantled Citadel. Just after the oak tree faded from sight, a reaper ascended from the trees below, silently beckoning for the group to follow him. Komè was reluctant to follow a servant of Vecna, but equally disliked abandoning the opportunity to learn more of the Maimed God’s involvement, both here and in Monadhan. As the chariot landed, the reaper crossed a black stream, where it joined a man-sized figure with a bald head and mummified skin who raised a single hand in greeting.
The figure introduced itself as Rithkerrar, but the cleric quickly identified his true nature after noticing the absence of a left eye. This stranger was an aspect of Vecna himself! Rithkerrar reassured the heroes of his intentions, saying that they shared the same enemy – Onthorirfel. He revealed that the ritualist had betrayed Vecna long ago, and that Vecna had dispatched an aspect of his to see to the lich’s destruction (though obviously, Rithkerrar was unable to succeeded on his task). He claimed they would benefit from a sharing of information pertaining to their foe, even if they were not willing to make a formal alliance against him. He proposed a fair exchange – he would answer one question of theirs for every question they answered for him. Komè knew that while Vecna was the sworn enemy of his goddess, he also held information unknown to anyone else in the cosmos, and the opportunity to use his knowledge against Onthorirfel was invaluable. This, coupled with the kalashtar’s aversion to unnecessary violence, convinced him to agree to Rithkerrar’s terms.
Komè began. “What are Onthorirfel’s defenses like?”
Rithkerrar answered. “His lair is guarded by many creatures both living and undead, and his halls harbor a few traps as well. Most notable of all, however, are the enchantments that permeate the Mantled Citadel itself. All those with beating hearts should fear its power, although you, a saint, will fare better than most.” The aspect smiled as it asked its question. “Why do you seek Onthorirfel?”
Komè truthfully replied, “We were sent to investigate his dealings with Tiamat, and his involvement in the recent war against the world.” Electing not to explain further, he asked his second question. “How can we break or foil the enchantment on the Mantled Citadel?”
“You cannot. As I said, you will fare better than most. What of this war you speak of, and how does Onthorirfel relate to it?”
“We know Onthorirfel aided a shadar-kai merchant known as Sarshan in the destruction of the village of Talar, though what he has been up to since then remains unclear. Sarshan acted in the interests of the githyanki, who were under the indirect control of Tiamat. The githyanki are defeated now, but we have reason to believe that we’ve not seen the entirety of her plan – Onthorirfel is the best lead we have to finding out her true intention in attempting to destroy the world she once defended from the primordials. Now, I’ll ask you one more time, as clear as I can: is there any way to mitigate the effects of the enchantment on the Citadel?”
“You would be best served by a resistance to necrotic magic. Now tell me, how did you come to Vaerothim?”
“We used the key to pass through Monad—”
“I know that, idiot!” growled Rithkerrar. “These word games benefit neither of us. I mean how did you come to know of Vaerothim?”
The kalashtar smirked ever so slightly. “We were told by someone.”
At this, Rithkerrar became unruly. “Enough! Answer me straight or forfeit the opportunity to parley. WHO. SENT. YOU. HERE?”
Komè hesitated, unsure if he should reveal the identity of their ally. Telepathically, Erdanen suggested that they should just kill him already, while Blank practically begged him to allow her to mislead Vecna with a clever lie. In the end, Ionen blurted out the truth impatiently. “We were sent here by Rachaela, an angel of Kord.”
“Rachaela?” A look of realization dawned on Rithkerrar’s face. “So it was Rachaela that told you? That explains everything…” The aspect grinned evilly as it turned to the reaper, who’d remained silent during the proceedings. “Kill them all.”
It would be doing the Champions a disservice to say that they were truly surprised by this, but even though they suspected all along that they’d have to fight Rithkerrar, he was just a little too fast for them. In the blink of an eye, he summoned a web of necrotic energy, binding the chariot and all its occupants to the ground while the reaper tore into them with its scythe. Jett managed to teleport free and used a spell that doubled his size. Blank summoned her dream form away from the web, then swapped places with it. Erdanen managed to tear himself free, and chased down Rithkerrar, neglecting to draw his sword. As he closed with the aspect, he shouted “I bring greetings from an old friend, Vecna!” and plunged the Sword of Kas into the aspect’s side, which had been invisible in the bard’s hand all along. The wound glowed with radiant power, and Rithkerrar struggled to get away from the blade, only to be confronted by the towering form of Jett. With Blank and Erdanen speeding up his attacks, he reduced the aspect to dust in a remarkably short battle.
Blank looted the robes it wore, while Erdanen openly told Ionen of the conversation he’d had with Komè earlier that day. Ionen was indignant that anyone would dare think of denying him the power that he was born to reclaim, but surprised everyone when he listened to the concerns the kalashtar had about his tyrannical behavior. Komè seemed upset that Erdanen chose to expose all this to the dragonborn, but Erdanen claimed he was simply doing away with confidences within the group in an effort to weaken any power that Vecna might try to gain over them as the god of secrets.
Finally they came within sprinting distance of Onthorirfel’s domain. There, they encountered a group of wraiths guarding the entrance, but they offered only minimal resistance (especially compared to their recent opponents). Erdanen continued using Kas’ weapon, which had an unusual affinity for the radiant energy he supplied it. Eventually, the spirits were vanquished, and the door to the Mantled Citadel stood before them…