Part 16: Treebeard's Great-Grandpappy
Act Two Chapter Eight - Call Me Virgil
The fire Nadaj sent us to put out... it's alive.
: Was bound in a red place. A place of fire. Only heat. Only scorching.
: Then a disturbance. A cool breeze. She is awakened. She is awakened.
: The time for what approaches?
: Scorching vengeance. Burning wood. Dying forest.
: His end is near. His end is near. His end is near.
: Was a man, now a form. Was a soul, now a shape.
Shape of Fire is technically a kind of firey undead monster, but in Mask it's presented as a unique character with a unique curse.
IGNUS WISHES TO BURN
Maybe not that unique.
: Draw him out. Smoke him out. Draw him out.
: [Wisdom] Are you talking about the Wood Man?
: Sent me from here. Sent me from life. Sent me to burn.
: Undying pain. Undying heat. Undying pain.
: I don't understand. You were punished?
: He hated you. He feared you. He hated you. He feared you.
: You can't mean me. You must mean someone else.
: Perhaps it is speaking of another spirit-eater that once shared the same curse - to its eyes, you are merely a vessel that contains the same hunger.
: Same grove, and you return. Weakened him once, now have again.
Yes, the insane being of fire seems amenable to reason.
: Will not stop. Burning brings him. Makes him pay. Makes him remember.
: I have suffered. I have suffered. I have suffered.
: I am going to put out these flames, like it or not.
: A wise decision, little one - this monstrosity must be extinguished.
: Fought icy hag, fought winter itself. Almost lost, then you drew near. Found my strength.
* * *
East is the Immil Vale. Like the Wood Man's tree, Immil Vale is warm and inviting even in the deepest winter. However, this is because it's based in the foothills of an active volcano.
Still a sacred place, though.
And it's full of wyverns, the poorer, mutant two-legged cousins to dragons.
Companions occasionally bark out one-liners when entering an area. Mostly it's just for flavour (Okku complaining about the dust and noise of Mulsantir, for example) but sometimes there's something interesting to be heard. Or something amusing:
: I like to think that everything looks good in red... and I think that tree is no exception.
Meet Tamlith and Imsha, the telthor witches.
: In life, we were othlor - the pinnacle of our order. But the higher one's rank, the higher their duty.
: A day came when we realized ours exceeded our own lifetimes. But our prayers were heard, and the gods permitted us to stay as telthors.
: What do you want?
: But the threat of that hunger cannot be known without seeing what countenance it wears.
: Well, here I am. What do you make of me?
: A brave course, to be sure, but one that ensures your time here is soon to pass.
: Brave, yes. Though I wonder, Imsha - how long will it last? How long before her courage is all that remains for her hunger to consume?
: A word of advice, cursed one. There are many who will have designs for a being with such destructive power. Most will hide it.
: Only a handful, yet far too many. Always drawn to Rashemen, it seems, like any beast that catches the scent of fresh prey.
: Inevitably they follow it to Ashenwood, where the aroma is strongest. Makes them likely to pass this way, either coming or going.
: Many of them meet their fates in the Ashenwood. It is a wild place, and it has a sense of self-preservation all of its own.
: But they have done damage there - wounded the forest like no one else can. They have brought sickness and upset its natural balance.
: Well, he certainly made his mark on the Wood Man, but ultimately he got the worse end of it.
: Not like that tracker, though.
Shape of fire, shape of fire!
There's more that these two can tell us. Ask them about the forest and they drop a few hints as to what's actually going on (in fact, they've given one or two already). They give a little more info on Nadaj and Dalenka - two witches with opposite personality types, sent to learn from one another. They also re-explain the business with the cure for Gnarlthorn's blight, in case you'd forgotten how to use the Journal.
They also provide a side-quest:
: No doubt, Tamlith. Although I suppose the bheur would qualify.
: Ah yes, the bheur. She certainly would.
: She's a hag, really - an ice hag. Wherever she walks, winter follows in her footsteps.
Tamlith and Imsha want us to find the bheur and eliminate her - not a problem, we were looking for the hag anyway, since she knows how to defeat Shape of Fire.
* * *
One of my favourite myths is Orpheus & Eurydice. You've probably heard of it, it's a very famous story: Orpheus the poet is married to Eurydice. Eurydice dies in an accident. Stricken with grief, Orpheus enters the Underworld and begs the return of his wife from Hades, god of the dead. Hades says yes but tells him he must first leave the Underworld with the spirit of Eurydice following, and only when both stand under the sun can he look upon his wife - but if he doubts Hades and turns to look back too soon, Eurydice will disappear forever. Orpheus gets all the way to the exit but, anxious, turns around before Eurydice has left the Underworld. She vanishes forever, leaving Orpheus heartbroken. He never takes another (female) lover for the rest of his life.
But what I like most about the story is the description of Tartarus. Tartarus is the deepest, vilest abyss of the Greek Underworld, where enemies of the gods are punished for their crimes. Sisyphus (who betrayed Zeus' confidence) rolls a boulder up a hill, only for it to slip through his hands and roll back down every time he reaches the top. Ixion lusted after Hera, queen of the gods, and was strapped to a burning wheel for his impertinence. Tantalus the cannibal is chained to a rock, starving to death, but unable to grasp the berries and water that lies just out of his reach. I find these monsters and their divine punishments grotesque and chilling, but in a good way - it fulfils a desire that once would have been indulged by stocks, public whipping and capital punishment.
It's probably linked to why I like reading the Ecology sections in my 2nd Edition Monster Manual.
Anyway, it's not something limited to the Greek myths, with their many villains and their gruesome ends. There are so many different mythologies, each with their own versions of Hell, the Abyss, Sheol, Xibalba, Naraka... and these mythmakers take so much pleasure in assigning specific torments to specific crimes. There's a reason Inferno is more recognised than Purgatorio or Paradiso.
I've heard some people say it's a kind of bribe; religions promise rewards for the faithful and punishments for the faithless. People you don't like (e.g. criminals) go to Hell when they die, and suffer accordingly. You, on the other hand, go to Heaven and a blissful eternity.
I've always felt this was too pat an explanation - it doesn't really explain why the specifics of the afterlife evolve over time, why people might like to read a guided tour of the nine circles of Hell. I see it as a more general need on Mankind's part to have a Universe that reflects society, that is reassuringly human. Just as we have a code of laws with punishments for transgressors, so too does God have His code and His punishments for those that transgress against Him.
Forget the comparison to the 2nd Monster Manual: look to horror stories for modern versions of this behaviour.
Uh... so, to bring this back on topic: Shape of Fire is another criminal, suffering under the verdict of the Wood Man. Unfortunately it didn't work out so well, and now the tracker who betrayed the Ashenwood is a flaming Epic-level undead with a pressing need to burn.
I'd've turned him into a tree or something but what do I know?! The Wood Man moves in mysterious ways.
* * *
The bheur is lurking in an old vremyonni mine hidden along the far side of the Immil Vale.
I don't know why the othlor couldn't find it - it's the only other location in the whole area.
: The one within... her spirit lies upon the cold edge of ice, I suspect. A heart of winter beats within her chest - a dangerous thing indeed.
: This creature... this bheur... they thrive in cold, and they use it as a weapon. Anything that shields us against a winter's chill would help us in the battle to come, if we choose to fight.
: What do you mean, "if we choose to fight?" Isn't she hostile?
: As you may have noticed from my own... tendencies, we hags, even half-hags, are a talkative people. It is a form of self-flattery to go on about oneself, no matter what the subject.
Wait for it, wait for it...
Oh snap, son.
The mine is very short - it's just this corridor and the main chamber, plus a few sidechambers with minor treasure inside. The only thing of note are the traps, as this area is one of the few that has any.
Even with eight-hour resting, traps are still no threat to us. But you should still disarm them, as in Mask they're now worth experience.
The hag herself, surrounded by pet orglashes. This is where we'd lose our captured orglash from Okku's barrow.
She's a funny lady with a sharp tongue, but this is the Good/Neutral playthrough so we're killing her for the telthors. This is justice in the wild land of Rashemen.
The jar is what we came for. Orglashes are spirits of ice and snow - just the thing to shake a certain fire spirit out of his stupor...
* * *
Applying the orglash essences to your weapon temporarily turns it into a frost weapon. There's 30 charges to the thing so it's pretty handy.
Shape of Fire is displeased and turns hostile. Finally!
He lasts about five seconds, but we weren't in this for the fight.
Kaelyn's upset by our indulgence but I feel we're entitled. Not only have we ended a threat to the Ashenwood and come one step closer to finding the Wood Man...
...we've also found an ingredient for Gnarlthorn's blight cure...
...and we've got ourselves a unique Spirit Essence.
The red one is Shape of Fire's essence. The blue one is a Shadow of the Void essence, which you can get from devouring the Child and/or the Brute from Myrkul's Furnace. These are our first two unique essences (and the only two we'll be using on this playthrough) - there's only one Shape of Fire in the game, and although Shadows of the Void spawn in the Secure Vault of Myrkul's temple, only the Brute and Child give an essence when devoured.
What's special about these is that they offer 6d6 elemental damage, which is more than you can get with normal essences. Like NWN2, elemental damage is always the best enchantment to give a weapon in Mask because elemental resistance is so rare. The drawback is a 25% elemental vulnerability but that's nothing to be concerned about.
So of course I give an essence to each of our daggers, using the Mold Spirit feat. Shape of Fire's goes onto our dagger "Lightbearer", while the Shadow of the Void essence powers "Thanatos." Thanatos is named for the Greek daimon of Death, the son of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebos) and brother to Sleep (Hypnos).
The provenance of Lightbearer, meanwhile, should be obvious.