After the death of Talion and Rex, Falaren looked about the clearing. Littering the ground around her were the corpses of the Thicket’s spiders. Clay had sheathed his sword and Silhuin looked racked with guilt, blaming himself for striking the killing blow against the gargantuan spider which then fell and crushed the druid and fighter. Nonetheless, the group knew that they still needed to push towards Iesel’den and defeat the avatar of the Thicket so that its evil may be banished from the material plane. And so, the group walked forward into the passage that the spiders guarded.
As they walked down the increasingly narrowing path, Falaren’s ears perked as she heard an all too familiar sigh rattle through the branches of the Thicket. Having felt the presence of the demon Torpor, Falaren felt for her bow, but knew such a weapon would be worthless in such short quarters, and so contented herself with keeping a careful watch for the demon as the Thicket seemed to grow ever denser around the remaining members of the party. The trees began to grow so close to one another that it was impossible to see between them and the sun was blocked out almost completely. Realizing the Thicket’s plan but a moment too late, Falaren became separated from the monk and paladin and so was unable to call out a warning to her party.
The trees closed in on the ranger, and eventually began to wrap around her, losing their material substance and becoming shadows. As the shadows wrapped around her legs and torso, Falaren knew that struggling would be futile and let them engulf her. She was calm as the shadows wrapped around her, she was stoic as they reached towards her face, she was completely serene as the shadows transformed into leaves, and she remained composed as she fell from the branches of a tree.
The ranger landed with a thud, but was uninjured by the fall. As she stood and dusted herself off, Falaren took in her surroundings, and quickly realized she was no longer in the Thicket of Iesel’den, but the forest of her homeland. It was just as she remembered, down to every rock, tree, and the sounds of a trickling creek in the distance. However, the large turquoise bird sitting on the branches of a nearby tree was new.
Falaren immediately recognized the bird as the quarry of her god, which she had been commanded to kill to preserve the balance of nature. The ranger quickly drew her bow and fired an arrow at the affront to her god but missed. Realizing she meant it harm, the bird quickly flew from the branch deeper into the forest and Falaren gave chase, and though she fired several volleys at the bird, each arrow fell just short of her prey or barely missed the bird.
The bird flew over the nearby creek and the elf easily leaped over the small stream of water chasing the bird. Curiously, the bird seemed to wait for her to get within firing range but would then quickly take off again, forcing the ranger into a seemingly endless chase. Indeed, the chase would have been endless had Falaren not lost her footing while trying to cross a river by running across a log perched above the waters.
As the elf fell into the waves she kicked and tried to straighten herself in the waves but was quickly swept under. Though she tried to reach the surface, the water quickly began to enter her mouth and began to drown the ranger. Falaren became cold, the world became dark, as she thrashed one last time against the water, and everything seemed to fade away.
She turned once last time beneath the waves and felt… leaves underneath her. Falaren quickly sat upright and found herself seated on the forest floor with the azure bird circling overhead. Realizing that something was wrong, the ranger crossed her legs and tried to enter a trance, but was disturbed as the bird jumped from its perch and landed not even a yard in front of her.
Falaren opened her eyes and saw the bird cock its head looking at her. The ranger stood and felt her bow. The bird opened its wings and ruffled its feathers. As the bird took to the skies and began to fly westward, the ranger began to walk eastward. Falaren walked for some time and began to notice that the further she distanced herself from the bird, the less the forest resembled the forest of her home. After five minutes, she could no longer hear the sounds of insects or the wind or the creeks. After 10 minutes, the sun was no longer a burning orb in the sky, but began to resemble a spotlight above a stage and the trees resembled cardboard cut-outs propped up to create the illusion of life to an audience.
Eventually, even the undergrowth began to fade away as Falaren entered an area that looked like an empty stage. She heard the sigh of Torpor and, from nothingness, the demon appeared before her. The ranger did not reach for her weapons, but ceased walking as the shade stared at her.
“Little elf, dear child, why do you turn your back on the hunt? “ The demon spoke in his voice that was somewhere between a whisper and a sigh.
The elf crossed her arms and told the demon that there would be no point to this hunt, as it would not end and was not real. As she said this to Torpor, the bird descended from high above and landed on his shoulder.
“Tell me ranger, what do you know of this bird? Why do you hunt it?”
The elf responded, “I know only that it must die to preserve the balance of nature.”
“And that is it, child? What if this bird is a creature of Good and its death heralds misery and death? Do the people of this world not deserve the happiness and peace of an imbalance in the favor of good?”
“No,” retorted the elf defiantly, “any imbalance is bad, be it for Good or Evil, balance must be maintained”.
“Oh? And what of the plains of Iesel’dor? Before my arrival, the plains were peaceful and serene. You know that I am a force of Evil, do I not deserve the opportunity to introduce balance to these planes?”
“No,” repeated the elf, “for as far as I can tell, the planes were fine before the Thicket and you appeared, and your presence would do far more than tip the scales to a balanced position”.
Torpor sighed and looked about the illusionary forest he had created. “Why do you fight against this place ranger? I have given you what every hunter desires most, a great, wild, endless, hunt against worthy prey. I gave you the opportunity to never have to deal with fools again, to never grow tired, to never die, to hunt forever. Is this not enough?”
“No,” said Falaren as she crossed her arms, “you have given me nothing, for none of this is real”
Torpor’s shoulders sagged as he, the bird, and the forest began to fade away.
“You could have been happy, you could have had what you always wanted, you could have been free”
As Torpor evaporated, Falaren felt a pressure on her cheek. This pressure began to increase as she realized that someone was slapping her. The next moment, the ranger looked into the eyes of a young man dressed in the armor of a paladin of Rao. The elf sat up and saw that Clay was already on his feet and seemed relieved that she had awoken. She turned her head and saw that Silhuin was still unconscious and he was wincing in pain as Ezrah knelled over him, trying to use his clerical abilities to wake the monk…