As they were sucked through the portal, they heard the howling of evil, angry shadows behind them -- but the portal closed, sealing them safe in... an idyllic forest, full of wonderful fruit, mushrooms, small animals, and large animals to eat. There was no sign of civilization, but there was a ridiculously huge tree off in the distance, so they headed for that as the only landmark.
ASM noticed that they were being shadowed by tree-like creatures. "Maybe we should talk to them?" she suggested. Heyyou thought that was a wonderful idea, and went to do so. Except that they only spoke Sylvan, and no one in the party knew that language. Celeste could have used comprehend languages, probably, but as long as they didn't seem hostile she didn't care enough. Plus that wouldn't let them understand the party, so its value would be pretty limited.
When they set up camp, a fairy stopped by to tell them that the council was going to be waiting for them near the big tree, around noon the next day. So they had a nice sleep, and after half a day's walk arrived at the giant table. The council was a council of gods.
Sylvanis (the god of nature whose root they were carrying) was there, along with Azuth (the god of knowledge), an ancient incarnation of Mystra (the goddess of magic) -- apparently they were still back in time, which explained why they were still 12 -- and Merkull, the late god of death who hadn't been killed yet. Merkull proceeded to act like a whiny little kid and demonstrate why one of his followers had eventually knocked him off, but in the interest of fairness, the council agreed to his demands -- the party would be tested to see if they were worthy to bear the root.
"And if we fail?" Arial asked.
"Then I win!" Merkull proclaimed gleefully.
The god of knowledge didn't want Merkull to win, so after Beware asked for some details about the challenge, he explained how it would work in *painful* detail. They would choose one of their member to fight multiple clones of, and if they won that person would go to the stands to join the cheerleading squad, and they'd choose another, until finally the last of their party faced a mirror image of himself. Half the party was guaranteed to win initiative against the enemies, the other half was guaranteed to lose, and they got to choose which half. They could also determine the enemies' starting formation by setting up their own formation, which the enemies would mirror.
They decided to face the weakest party members first, the theory being that massive aoe death could take them out before they could retaliate -- the last person to fight would be Heyyou against himself, since no one wanted to try to kill more than one of the indestructible tank.
Since the enemies would start in whatever state the party member being cloned was in, they made sure to use up their daily attacks before being cloned, and if possible their action points, although in three cases it was literally impossible (since they would have just passed a milestone) and in one of the others Beware forgot to spend his points early and ended up with one left for his clones to use. Oops.
They considered wounding themselves near the point of death before the fight, but decided that was asking to be actually killed if they were unlucky enough, and didn't actually do it. They also considered stripping naked so the clones would have to fight naked, but didn't want to risk it not working, since there had been no guarantees about equipment.
Round 1: Asm, mostly because the party was curious about how Asm's abilities worked. The party stood in fireball formation, with Beware and Celeste and Arial going first. AoE blasts took out four of the six monks, but the other two managed to take down Varnix instantly before being finished off. Fortunately, Varnix wasn't killed, just knocked unconscious.
Round 2: Celeste. Varnix was left out of the fireball formation. Only one of the Four Celestes in formation died from Arial's AoEs (thanks in part to their shield spells), but Beware was able to take out two more, and the last two (including the one near Varnix) only got off one shot each before being pounded into the ground.
Round 3: Arial. The party specifically did *not* stand in fireball formation for Arial, instead splitting up to fight her one on one. Arial's only real strength (besides massive damage) was AoE, so that strategy worked pretty well.
Round 4: Beware. This took a bit longer, because Beware had lots of hit points. The clones were mostly forced (by marks) to attack only Heyyou, though, which kept them from doing anything especially clever. Heyyou *almost* dropped from the focused damage, but Varnix was just barely able to keep him upright.
Round 5: Varnix. Varnix is not a strong fighter. Heyyou managed to take down one of the clones using an action point, and Varnix coup-de-graced it so that the other clone couldn't rez it. The other clone healed himself to full three times, but eventually just got worn down.
Round 6: Heyyou. Vs. Heyyou, alone. "Can't we just flip a coin?" Instead, there was an extended coin flip while the two warforged juggernaughts beat on each other with massive hammers until, with two lucky blows in a row, the real Heyyou managed to smash his evil twin to splinters. The party won!
Merkull: "No no no no no! One of them MUST be MINE!" Apparently, any party member who'd been killed in the fight would have been Merkull's to claim, and he'd expected *someone* to bite it. So, exasperated, the gods of neutrality agreed to sacrifice one of the party to Merkull. Helplessly, the party had to stand around while Merkull interviewed them each separately to choose which one he wanted.
Basically, he asked each of them 'which among you most deserves death? GIVE ME A NAME!'
As far as I can gather, the votes were:
Beware: Go to hell. [recorded as 'Beware']
Varnix: [no vote because his player wasn't present]
So Merkull claimed Celeste, stealing her off to his halls to become his eternal servant. Well, at least until he got whacked by his minions a few thousand years later.
Beware: "Let me guess -- that wasn't Celeste's mother that tried to kidnap her on the docks. It was her future self trying to save her from being sacrificed to Merkull."
After Merkull flew off gleefully, the other gods reassured the party that things would not turn out as badly as the evil god hoped -- Celeste was fated for something important as a result of the decision, which is why they let him take her. Also, they were going to give the rest of them a boon, to help make up for Merkull being such a cheater -- also known as 'raising them to 21st level and giving them an epic destiny of their choice'.
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