"I still can't believe she's gone. What are you gonna do now?"
"I'm not sure. I'm certainly open to suggestions," Erthim prompts. With some lucidity, he hopes to learn more from Harald while has the chance.
"Well, we've taken care of all the obvious things. It's amazing how well you kept it together during the service."
"She would have wanted me to be strong. Heimdall gives me that strength."
"She was a strong lass herself, that Amateria. She loved you a lot. It's okay to have these feelings though. No one expects more of you right now."
The party set out the next morning to investigate the burrow on the opposing hill. They find it to be a makeshift camp, already abandoned. Bren determines the markings in the soil within to indicate one large and heavy creature, and one with many spindly legs like a giant spider. After some light debate, the party decide it best to return to their original off-road course to avoid encountering these creatures again. As they converge with the road once again some time later, Bren spots a large, metallic-looking beast up ahead, crunching idly on something by the roadside. Lin makes to path around the creature, but it notices and charges the party, goring Bren with its long and brutal horns, smoke puffing from its nostrils.
Erthim tries to calm the creature as he would a rampaging horse, but to no avail. Trying to keep from slipping into the violence, Bren does the same, and is head-butted again for his troubles. Meanwhile Lin advocates for killing the creature, and Ivellios tumbles around it to flank and attack. Giving no second chances, Bren pummels the beast and ends it quickly. Afterward, Lin goes to inspect the creature's meal- a petrified Night Hag by the side of the road. Hoping to cover their activities, the others drag the dead beast off the road. No sooner have they succeeded when they hear a sibilant voice urging an attack to capture new slaves!
The party are set upon by the buglike pair from earlier – a lumbering, chitinous Umber Hulk gnashing its huge mandibles, and a skittering spiderlike Neogi with a head and neck like a giant lamprey. Erthim quickly makes a convincing plea for parlay as the pair close in, stopping the vile slaver to consider a more profitable partnership with the party. As Erthim fumbles through his ill-advised bargaining with the creature, Lin knocks the Umber Hulk into a magical unconsciousness. The skittering trader knows he's been had, and fires a poisoned bolt at Erthim before trying to escape, but he is slowed by Lin's magic. Ivellios delivers a coup de grace to the sleeping Hulk, holding its head high to intimidate the slaver. Bren riddles him with arrows. Dying, he threatens that others of his kind will come to look for the missing Neogi.
The travelers feel sour after rushing so quickly to violence at these two encounters, and Lin criticizes Erthim sharply. Bristling, Erthim concedes to someone else to lead their travels for now. Bren takes up the mantle, guiding them back off the road to continue in the direction of the dark mountains in the distance. They travel wordlessly, lost in thought and spite. As they come to the end of their day's travel, the woods around them thicken.
Upon everyone awakening, they head further into the woods. After another tense, wordless march, Bren hears the sound of axes clopping into trees up ahead. Lin offers to make Bren invisible, and Bren and Ivellios scout ahead. Getting close enough to see through the dense stand of trees, they spot four burly, dog-headed men clear-cutting the woods, tree by tree. Ivellios returns to summon the rest of the party. Erthim arrives and heads up to the creatures to attempt another parlay. He is met with near-hostile disregard as their leader Tezau assumes them to be damned souls attempting to interfere with his mission. The rest of the party intercede to mixed effect as Tezau continues to arrogantly castigate Erthim. Bren winds up exchanging blows with Tezau while Ivellios tries to side with the dog-headed brutes, chopping at the trees himself.
Erthim finally manages to defuse the situation, and Tezau directs the party to the (relative) northwest, where they can encounter the "great tree" that is at the center of this forest's perceived corruption. Erthim agrees to go try to destroy the great tree, and leave Tezau to his chopping.
Following Tezau's directions, the party arrive at a particularly dense stand overseen by a massive willow. Ivellios waltzes up to chop at the tree, when the tree turns to look at him. Revealing its true nature as a treant, he introduces himself as Zumneroth. He laments his lonliness and boredom, and asks that someone play a game of strategy with him to pass the time, and for a wager. Ivellios ignores this and tries to continue with the original plan of chopping him down. Zumneroth swats Ivellios aside to speak with the more interested Lin. Lin agrees to play the game, which the treant summons up from the ground with his roots. After explaining the complex game to Lin, Zumneroth offers to answer Lin's questions if he can be bested, or have his roots moistened with blood if he wins. Lin agrees, and the two begin a tense match. Ivellios attemts to cheat on Lin's behalf twice, but is noticed by the treant and violently swatted aside both times. Coming out barely on top, Zumneroth demands payment in blood. Lin thinks fast and offers a couple flasks of dragon blood.
Nothing if not a good sport, Zumneroth offers to answer questions anyway if Lin will offer more blood. Lin agrees, and consults with the party. Of course, they decide upon seeking information to help escape Hades. Zumneroth explains that great magic can free them of their plight, and indicates that a powerful practitioner lives to the north. Lin thanks him for his help, and warns him of the anthropomorphic hounds that seek to destroy the whole grove.
"Destroy MY trees?" Zumneroth booms. "The time has come! Awaken, Nulnul! Awaken, Shaennen! Awaken, Zumnel and Walieh!" he cries out as he uproots himself and flails his branches menacingly. As he does, the other trees in the copse suddenly spring to life, uprooting themselves and crawling, lumbering, and listing in the direction of the lumberjacks. "Awaken, Olmansa, and little Roongan! They've come to destroy the trees!"
Dumbstruck, the party watch the stand of trees plod off into the distance. Bren idly pokes around in the holes left by their roots, finding a chest which the others help him wrest free. Among the collected bones of those who came and failed before, they find numerous treasures. Ivellios becomes fixated on one, though: he wants to take Zumneroth's game. Digging fervently, he finds it in the big crater and absconds with it as they follow the treant's directions to find the powerful mage.
Traveling along a rock face as directed, the party stop to rest a couple hours from the clearing once covered by the trees. Bren and Erthim hear the rustling of leaves and branches in the distance during their rest. Later, Bren is disturbed by a dream of his own. He skulks in the shadows, following some sort of royal hunting party through a wood so green it gives him a headache. The hunting party enters a clearing, oblivious of the stalking ranger. Across the clearing, Bren can sense the presence of his elven allies high in the trees, feeling the tension as they nock their arrows and draw back their bows.
Lin and Ivellios take their opportunity to practice their new game while Bren and Erthim finish their rest. Feeling refreshed, Erthim offers to continue to lead the rest of the way to the tower. Not a long walk from their camp, they encounter the small, dilapidated tower. Upon knocking and entering, they find the great wizard Minsirith seated on a throne of bone, dressed in luxurious garb, and having two small demonlike horns protruding from his forehead above his closed and sunken eyelids. He cuts right to the chase, preempting the party's aversion to collecting soul larvae, and offers instead to have them retrieve a magical totem from a dungeon nearby. Upon further questions from the group, Minsirith stands and drops his magical disguise, revealing himself to be a near-skeletal lich. He demands they carry out their mission, but offers further employment if they prove beneficial.