The World Tree

A Step Into Hell

About 10 hours later the party is awakened by Jarvis.

“One of our informants reported back. The Grey Man will be exporting slaves from the dock by the river tonight! We’ve suspected Elise’s involvement with the slave trade for a while now but have been unable to prove anything. If we can catch them in the act and link it to her, it should be all we need to convince the people to rise against her! I must caution you, though, I’m a little wary of how easily we obtained this information. I smell a trap. However, we can’t pass this up. If we go in prepared for whatever they can spring we should be able to pull this off!” He looks threateningly at Samuel and Xull’ree. “Are you two good? Or am I going to have to keep you back so you don’t get everyone killed with your petty issues?” Samuel nods. Xull’ree laughs. Jarvis then turns his attention to Zak. “Look, I don’t know what we’re going to find there, but after everything you told me about the Grey Man and what he said about Vere, I have to ask: can I rely on you to keep a cool head? I would prefer we bring the Grey Man back alive.”

Zak tightens his lips. After a few seconds he says “I’ll do what I can, but if he will not be captured then I will not hesitate to kill him.” Jarvis nods his assent. “I guess that’ll have to do for now, I guess. I’m certain he wants you to be there, so if you don’t show the trap might not be sprung and we’ll have missed this window.” “What makes you so certain?” Zak asks. Jarvis pulls a document from his coat pocket and hands it to Zak. It reads:

“I will deal with this ragtag group of fools. Zaknithra will know true pain. As you have kept your end of the bargain, so will I.” It is not addressed to anyone and there is no signature.

Jarvis places his hand on Zak’s shoulder. “Zak, if she’s alive…just remember our best chance at getting answers is bringing him back alive, okay?” Zak nods grimly.

Jarvis calls everyone together and lays down a map of the docks, showing several points of entry and leading everyone through an attack plan: “Take out their sources of light. They may be prepared for that, but if not then that will be a solid advantage for us. We do not know where the Grey Man will be, but [speaking to his cohorts] he is your secondary target. You [speaking to the party, Durth and Daniela] will be the ones to apprehend him.” He looks pointedly at Zak. “Alive, if possible. May we all make it back alive.”

[Music: Dark Harbor – Two Steps From Hell]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVNODfCYrRs

As the party approaches, Sam and Daniela venture ahead and quietly eliminate a few of the workers, each keeping score of their kills. Everyone gets into position and strikes at once. Within moments of the battle, two of the three massive containers burst open as armed men, rather than slaves, leap out and ambush the party. After another minute or so, the Grey Man appears in a cloud of smoke. His longsword drawn in one hand, his other holding a chain leading to a collar around Zaknithra’s former lover, Veremillae!

[Music: Velocitron – Two Steps From Hell]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Amf0FZiGcw

Enraged, Zak charges the Grey Man. As he does so, the Grey Man throws an object down to the ground. When it hits, a force sphere envelopes him and Zak, blocking all others out. A duel to the death! At the same time, the third container is shattered as a massive earth elemental emerges, roaring and causing everyone to stare in panic.

The battle raging around him, Zak has blocked out everything except for the Grey Man. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” the Grey Man taunts. “Knowing that your loved one will be lost to you? That she is going to die and you can’t stop it?”

“Who ARE you!?” Zak yells angrily, dodging a swing. “What have I ever done to you?!”

The Grey Man nimbly dodges a punch. “I’m not surprised you wouldn’t remember me. I was a NOBODY back then! When we leapt to capture you and your little whore here, everything looked like it was going to go smoothly! But then you and your damned fire!”. Zak remembers the day, remembers not understanding how he scorched the area in flames before passing out. “MY love was caught in that blast! Do you know how long she suffered?! Days turned to weeks as she writhed in agony, her body a mass of fatal burns! She begged for me to kill her, and when I could take no more I did, but only after promising her that I would avenge her! And today I fulfill that vow!”

Meanwhile, the elemental is killing all in its path and it’s all the party can do to take it down. But take it down they do, as Zak delivers the final blow to the Grey Man. Barely holding himself back from delivering the killing blow, Zak patiently watches as the Grey Man writhes on the ground. He looks up at Zak. He bites off one of his teeth and chomps down on it. A maniacal grin spreads across his face.

“I didn’t tell you the best part, Zak!” he says as he begins to convulse. “When I die, I…go back to…my Master!” His lips begin to froth. He looks over at Vere. “And…so does…she…”.

The Grey Man dies laughing. Veremillae lies still. Overcome with grief, he collapses and cradles her. The party runs over. Durth examines her. With great alarm he grabs Zak and forces him to face him. “She is not lost yet! The Grey Man has her soul and is taking her to the Abyss, but they are not there yet! You can get her! You must go after her!”.

Surprised, Zak sobers up. “How can I do that?” Durth places his arms on the body of Vere and the Grey Man. They close their eyes. Zak feels everything go quiet and loses all sensations for a moment. He opens his eyes and sees nothing, feels nothing. Slowly, his vision focuses in front of him. He seems himself and the others, as through a portal. Looking below and to the sides, he is standing on nothing. He sees other portals, and recognizes them from when he was in the chamber with the Tree. He must be in the space between planes.

A scream turns him around. He sees Veremillae in the clutches of the Grey Man and another woman, heading towards the horizon. At the end of the horizon he sees what can only be the Abyss, and demons flying from it towards them, still a ways off. Looking back at his friends, he sees them prepare for battle as the bodies of their slain enemies, including the elemental, are possessed and animated by a dark energy, rising and seeking to surround and consume them. Durth looks directly at him! “Go! Before she is lost to the Abyss and we are consumed by darkness! GO!”

[Battle Music: Archangel – Two Steps From Hell]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCEjoHQl5BA

Zak flies towards Vere, planes speeding past him. Seeing their pursuit, the Grey Man and the woman—Zak remembers her face; she was there on the day he lost Vere!— press on harder. Vere screams for Zak and begins struggling. She slows them down enough for Zak to catch up to them before the demon reinforcements from the Abyss. Vere breaks free from their grasp and Zak grabs her and throws her towards home as the demons close in to engage them. Meanwhile, the party is slowly being pressed in on all sides by their risen foes. The elemental in particular beats them back with ungodly strength. They don’t have much time.

Zak whispers into Vere’s ear to fight in his place. Confused, he then yells “Run! I’m right behind you!”. She races towards home. When she almost gets there, she turns around to see that Zak did not flee with her; he stayed behind to hold off the swarm, which was now pressing in around him. “No! You can’t leave me! I can’t lose you again!” she yells. From behind Durth yells at her “You cannot get to him! They have him now! If you go back you will be lost as well and his sacrifice will have done nothing!” Turning, Vere sees the party in a desperate position: Brieck is down, the rest are badly hurt and they have no room left to retreat. She sees that they will be overrun in moments. She looks back to Zak, who manages to make eye contact with her through the din. A slight smile curves on his lips. The last thing Vere sees as Durth reaches out and pulls her through is Zak once again enveloped in flames.

Vere jolts awake. Durth closes the rift in the planes. Immediately, the energy that animated the corpses dissipates, its source cut off. Everything falls to the ground lifeless.

[Music: Sad Romance – Thao Nguyen Xanh]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFZ7bBaYpcw

Vere grabs Zak. He has no pulse, no breathing. His skin is pale, his eyes dull. She shakes him, begging for him to come back. She slaps him and screams at him. She finally collapses on him, wailing. The party watches on in silence.

Jarvis approaches. He has blood all over him. Looking around, the party realizes that they fought only a fraction of the foes that were there: the rest were taken care of by Jarvis and his men. He looks down at Vere, still sobbing uncontrollably, his eyes etched with pain and compassion. Waiting for her to calm, he gingerly places a hand on her shoulder. Vere flinches and backs away, but when she recognizes Jarvis she catches herself.

“It’s good to have you back, Vere” he says. “I wish it could be under better circumstances. We lost a lot of good men tonight. But now we can finally make the one responsible pay. With her right hand man gone and Armon ready to help, we can bring Elise down.” Jarvis stares at her with a deathly calm. “And her downfall will be sweet indeed,” he promises. He holds a hand down for Vere, which she accepts. “Come on. We have few preparations to make. Then Elise will regret every choice she has ever made…especially this one.”

The party gathers their dead and return home.

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