Part 45: Hesiod's Theogony
The Truth, Part Three - Eat Me
Getting to Ashenwood is a bit harder without Lord Okku vouching for you.
The basic set-up is the same, though. The Ashenwood garrison is under attack from the forest. Treants and shambling mounds have whittled the berserker force down to nothing. Dalenka is paralysed by indecision, but Nadaj sets a plan in motion regardless - using Calliope as her pawn.
So off we go.
* * *
You'll be glad to know that Calliope's Craving bar is increasing rapidly. By the end of this update, we'll be maxed out.
The Ashenwood is just as good for Devouring as it is Suppressing. The map is littered with random telthor encounters which regenerate fairly quickly. It's hard to run out of food up here - but a high Craving makes getting back to civilisation rather tricky.
We're facing the same problems as we did in the previous playthrough: an island full of giants, a raging forest fire, and a divine blight.
Squashing the giants is simple, but doesn't offer anything new for our Evil playthrough. We still need to find a new guardian spirit for the island, though.
Meanwhile, there's an alternative solution to Shape of Fire and his vendetta against the Wood Man.
: Bound here still. Can't move far. Planar-bound no more, location-bound yet.
: You must help me. You must help me.
: How could I help you?
Well, it's certainly Evil!
There is justification, though. If we help Shape of Fire burn the grove, there's a chance it could draw the Wood Man out of hiding.
Bashing the trees with fire damage - any kind, from spell or sword or even torch - sets them alight.
Note that you have to bash the trees that aren't on fire. Don't do as I did and waste your Fireballs on the trees that are already burning.
Soon the whole grove is ablaze.
: Hoped to draw him. Hoped for justice. Hoped in vain.
: All is lost. All is lost.
: So that's it? That's all you're going to do?
: Cannot move. Still I burn. Cannot move.
: Body is bound, not spirit. Shape is bound, not soul.
Seriously? We can do that?
We can do that.
* * *
All right, so here are some things we didn't see the last time we were in Ashenwood:
Remember the berserker and the Malarite? We defended the berserker last time, so his dead friend's ghost agreed to become the new guardian spirit for the island.
Now we choose to help the Malarite murder the berserker and she transforms into a weird werewolf thing.
Apparently it's a blessing from her god? I don't know.
Siding with the Malarite isn't the Evil part of this sidequest, though.
Urgh. That's just... you get a suit of armour and a Pristine Essence out of it, there is a reason for doing this, but...
Anyway, moving on - Tamlith's and Imsha's judgement changes depending on how deeply we've indulged in the curse.
: I see it too, Imsha. She wanders blindly, embracing her "powers," ignoring their meaning, disregarding their cost.
: With each new consumption, her identity slips away. There will be naught left of her to save before the end.
Tamlith and Imsha send us on a mission to find a bheur - a winter hag - and evict her from the Immil Vale.
She's hiding out in an old mine. I think last time we killed her and stole her essence of orglash extract. This time we'll speak to her, see what she has to say.
: Ugh. Well, aren't you a lovely lass? "But you're a hag," she says. As if there was something I could do about it!
: It's a wonder you're not travelling the countryside with a thousand adoring fans in tow, instead of standing here, badgering an old crone like me for the-gods-know-what reason.
: The Witches by the Red Tree out there are looking for you. Is there some reason you're down here?
: Well, it isn't for this ghastly landscape, I'll say that much. I don't understand how anyone can stand such a detestable climate for more than a few seconds without fleeing for a nice snowy peak or glacier somewhere.
We're gonna help her out. It's not really Evil or anything but it'll upset the hathrans and I'm pretty sure that counts too.
: Kick an elderly woman while she's down, why don't you? Your mother would be so ashamed to see you carrying on this way. In my day, we used to eat our young for such insolence.
: Bah, you're right, though. It's more heat than I can bear, and it's still too little to cover my tracks. Froze the ground before I could duck into this place.
: If someone were to melt away the snow and ice outside this mine, would that be helpful?
: I suppose it might. The Witches might think I'd left, perhaps turn their attention elsewhere.
I see someone's internalised Republican talking points
There's five patches of ice that need to be melted - the waterfall, the cave entrance, two parts of the river and a snowdrift down the bottom of the cliff.
It's a similar puzzle to Shape of Fire's grove - just cast fire spells onto the ice.
Then watch it melt away.
Lying about what you did to the Witches is the final step. Although since the mine entrance is just across the valley from the Red Tree, they really should have seen Safiya casting all those Fireball spells.
The hag then gives us a reward of orglash essences. Redundant, since we freed Shape of Fire already, but we can still apply it to our weapons for extra cold damage - and we'll need to, because we've missed out on crafting with both Shape of Fire's essence and the Child/Brute's Shadow of the Void essences from the Furnace.
* * *
Our last obstacle is the blight. Gnarlthorn gives us instructions to make an offering to the Earthmother, Chauntea, to beg her for a cure. We need to mix three ingredients together: blighted leaves from Gnarlthorn, bark cinders from Shape of Fire, and sanctuary water from the giant-infested island.
We won't be using that last ingredient, though.
Instead we make a detour to the Predator's Den, squirreled away in a corner of the woods.
The caves are home to several packs of dire and paragon predators - wolverines, leopards, and so on.
At the end we defeat a Paragon Beast of Malar and capture some of its blood in a flask.
We use the blood in place of the sanctuary water to make an evil offering for evil Malar.
: [For a moment, you are alone with the Red Tree, and you see nothing else. You feel a light trickle on your forehead - dew dripping from above.]
: [You reach up to brush it off, only to find that your hand is streaked with blood darker than any you have ever seen.]
: [You look up to see the entire tree oozing the strange dark blood - it seeps and spurts from cracks in the bark and cascades in ribbons from the tips of all the leaves.]
: [The trickle on your forehead becomes a torrent, and you are bathed in blood that smells like a fresh kill. The odor is death in its purest, most savage form. It overwhelms and chokes, and you cannot bear to take another breath...]
We bring the Toxic Plantbane to Gnarlthorn. Good thing NPCs can't hear air quotes.
: You have? Well don't waste it on me, little one. Just see that the other trees in this glade are restored.
I like how blunt the last option is. However, we're leaving Gnarlthorn for last.
One short combat later...
: Ahh. It gives me great relief to know that they will not meet their end as I did.
: No, they met a much more painful one by my hand.
If One of Many approves, you know it must be Evil.
Anyway, this course of action finally prompts Gnarlthorn to get off his butt and do something (i.e. kill us).
One way or another, the problems assailing the forest have been resolved. Maybe not to the Wood Man's satisfaction, but too bad for him.
* * *
Nadaj doesn't care what we've done, so long as we help her overthrow Dalenka.
Refuse to help her and she jumps straight to ordering them to kill us.
Dalenka will attack us too - but if we pass the skill check, we can persuade her of Nadaj's guilt and she'll actually join the party. She's a Level 20 Wizard with 27 Intelligence, by the way.
* * *
The Genius Loci fight can get a bit congested at times.
And finally we meet the Wood Man, the god of Ashenwood. There are a few subtle differences to the dialogue here.
: WILL YOU ALWAYS BE HERE WHEN I WAKE, DEVOURER OF SOULS? GORGE ON MY LIFE A HUNDRED TIMES, AND YOU WILL NEVER BE SATED... NOR WILL I EVER DIE, WHILE THE FOREST PERSISTS.
: How many times have you been devoured by a spirit-eater?
: MANY TIMES HAS YOUR HUNGER SOUGHT MY LIFE. ONLY ONCE BEFORE HAS IT FOUND ITS WAY TO MY GROVE, DRINKING FROM THE SOUL OF THE WOOD, THEN CALLING ME FORTH AGAIN, AND DEVOURING AGAIN... AND AGAIN... UNTIL I COULD TAKE SHAPE NO MORE.
Oh... yeah... those horrible things we did. Though a script error prevents the correct dialogue from showing, which is even more reproachful:
: NOW YOU BURN ME, CHAR MY LIVING WOOD, RENDER ROOT AND BARK TO ASH. YOU COAX VENOM FROM THE BEASTLORD TO MURDER MY CHILDREN.
Anyway, we ask the Wood Man for advice, and he tells us the same old story. Dead god, don't know who it is, blah blah... you can even tell him it was Myrkul if you've already done the Sunken City module. And as for suggestions on the spirit-eater curse:
: TO CHANGE YOUR NATURE... TO RETURN TO WHAT YOU ONCE WERE... MOST SUCH CHANGES ARE IMPOSSIBLE.
: BURN A FOREST TO ASH, AND YOU CAN ONLY PLANT ANEW.
A reasonable reaction, especially considering that the Ashenwood module doesn't actually advance the plot in any way, shape or form.
: STILL THE SAME HUNGER, AND THE SAME WILL BENEATH. YOU ARE A BEAST... A SLAVE TO YOUR NATURE... NOTHING MORE.
: [Unbidden, the hunger surges forth, not even waiting for your command. You imagine the Wood Man - indeed, the whole forest - as a wounded stag, bleeding and defenseless at your feet.]
* * *
Is what we're doing... evil?
It's definitely horrible. We're making the world a worse place to live in a thousand different ways, from corrupting the island sanctuary to hiding hags from righteous othlor. But some of the motivations seem suspect. All right, helping Shape of Fire was a quick way of resolving the burning grove issue, and devouring the Wood Man has several justifications, ranging from "I'm sorry but I need your essence to stay alive and end the curse" to "I want more power no matter what," but the other stuff was just vindictive. Putting Shape of Fire on the sanctuary? Poisoning the trees and tormenting Gnarlthorn? Skinning the Malarite alive? Honestly, there were easier and simpler options available. The only reason to do those things was for the sheer hell of it.
I want to draw a distinction here between intellectually knowing something is evil and actually feeling it. We know what we've been doing to the Ashenwood is wrong, in a very abstract sense (because we've been picking up alignment points telling us so), but in terms of our gut feeling I don't think it all stacks up. We're cruel, vicious, petty, selfish and uncaring - but evil? Actual honest-to-god villainy?
We see it in games all the time. Being officially Evil means nothing more than being rude to people and demanding huge rewards for completing sidequests, and maybe taking some lazy shortcuts in resolving plot issues that ends up hurting people and not caring about it. That's called being a prick, not being evil. We're anti-heroic, not villainous. We're like kids imitating bad guys (twirling moustaches, putting on English accents, the whole works) but it's all just pretend.
Some of it is due to genre conventions and game design issues - it's hard to get an evil person to save the world without sounding forced, and it's hard to implement evil resolutions to quests that aren't just making the problem worse. So designers default to giving options like "extort money from questgiver" and "kill everyone for no reason" which is superficially evil but not much more than that.
From a philosophical angle the issue is that good is basically a privative: the absence of evil. Look at the Ten Commandments, for example. How many are orders to positively do something? Sabbath, parents... that's two, maybe three depending on which version you read? Now, how many are orders to not do something? No killing, no thieving... seven or eight, right? To be evil is to act, but being good requires only that you do nothing at all.
It's an oversimplification and doesn't include all those other rules about how to prepare oneself for temple and all that, but I think the thrust of the argument stands true. Evil is active, good is reactive - and that makes writing for Evil PCs difficult because games just can't provide that level of agency to players yet, not without sacrificing something else.
I'd argue that's what's happening here. Yeah, destroying the forest is a bit more horrible than just demanding gold from people, but at the end of the day it's just a particularly cruel way of helping the forest. Flaying the Malarite was more of a crazed overreaction to her attack than the act of an evil person. These are sociopathic responses to something, not acts of evil.
Compare to the uthraki quest, where we made the decision to go out and actively lure people to their deaths in exchange for knowledge and profit. That was evil. This? This is just being rude.
* * *
Dalenka becomes somewhat irate if you devour the Wood Man. She summons several telthors to her side, then attacks.
Fortunately for us we got a new toy. Spirit Gorge is like an area-of-effect Devour Spirit/Soul - stripping health and Spirit Energy off all applicable enemies within a radius of 30'.
It dramatically multiples your Spirit Energy intake because it counts as only one of your ten Devour Spirit uses per day, but can effect as many spirits as you can cram into a small area. It's more difficult to finesse (target Near Death opponents for bonus Energy and Essences) but if you're looking to deal damage or suck up some Spirit Energy quickly, it's not a bad choice. Definitely a combat power more than a downtime one, though.
The trade-off is that it dramatically increases your Craving, even if you're low on Energy and it's your first Devour of the day. With maxed-out Craving, though, there isn't really much point in us not using it.
* * *
Sheva's reaction is more measured.
: Indeed, you should be sorry, Sheva, for you are as guilty as she. You patted the monster's head and sent her on her way... and now our sister is dead, and...
: And thanks to my poor judgement, our sacred forest is a stillborn dream... a groaning, shattered waste. Make no mistake, Kazimika, I know what my failure has wrought.
: The Wood Man gave useless counsel, and he suffered for it.
: We never promised you salvation, monster! I promised you only death, but you chose to heed my prattling sister!
: That is enough, Kazimika... your raving will not bring back-
: Do you see, Kazimika? Would you risk our temple, our spirits, our people... for empty satisfaction? That is not the path we will take.
: Then I am finished walking your path.
And Kazimika leaves the Wychlaran.
If you're feeling sorry for Sheva Whitefeather, remember that the only reason she sent us to Ashenwood in the first place was in the hope that the Wood Man would kill us. She's a Crone, and Crones are Tricksters, see?
As for Kazimika, she's supposed to ambush you outside Mulsantir with a pair of hathrans and some berserkers:
: There she is!
: Look at us, spirit-eater! You'll find no mercy in these faces... only the resolve that Whitefeather lacks.
: Ah, Kazimika. You have no idea how long I've been hoping for this.
: Hoping for what? You are alone here, spirit-eater! No Whitefeather to speak for you, no mewling Katya to wring her hands and cry over spilt blood.
: Or maybe death will be a comfort for you, after all. For that, monster, and that alone... I am sorry.
I couldn't get her to show, most likely because of a mismatched variable in the game's script. Lucky for her, else she'd be a Spirit Essence in my backpack by now.