The World Tree

A Song of Death, A Song of Hope
The next morning the party meets with Armon, who explains to them that there is nothing more they can do for Jarvis. His battle must continue without them, for Armon has a more important task for them. He has received a letter from one Tahrmyl Valandrin, a Miranveil elf and Treebearer. The letter specifically asks for the aid of the five who are in the service of the True Mother. Armon offers his assistance in teleporting them just outside the borders of Miranveil, and in helping Xull’ree appear as a woodland elf.

Appearing just outside of a lush and beautiful forest, the party treks on. After a few hours a song reaches their ears through the trees.

[Music: Turn Loose The Mermaids (Instrumental) by Nightwish]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXw7-KiSpy4

They hikes towards the music. They approach an opening by a river, where they see a robed elf leaning against a tree facing the river, playing the lute. As the song plays on, they see phantom copies of this elf appear, each one playing a different instrument in perfect unison. Samuel pulls out his pipes and walks into the grove, joining in the music. The elf regards him with a slight smile and nod of his head and they continue to play. The music is entrancing.
Eventually the music stops. Carefully laying down his instrument but remaining seated, the elf looks at no one in particular. “Welcome, travelers. I am known as Voidsong. What brings you to the fair realm of Miranveil?” His voice is lyrical.
“Somebody asked for us, actually. We have come to help them.”
Voidsong cocks an eyebrow. “Oh, really?” he says. “Do you know this person?”
“No.”
“Yet you come to their aid. It must be something quite important. I don’t suppose you would care to tell me who it is that you seek?”
“We’re looking for Tahrmyl Valandrin.”
The smile on Voidsong’s face disappears. A cloud of darkness spreads over his fair features. He slowly rises to his feet. “The elf you seek is a weakling and a fool. His is an errand of futility. It will only lead to death. And that death will only lead to worse.” He pointedly eyes the Tree tattoo on Vere’s face. He rolls up one of his sleeves, brandishing a tattoo of a lute colored in a green aura of divinity. “You know of which I speak.”
At seeing his tattoo, the party is hopeful. “You know of our quest then, of that which we face. Join us. Help us fight. Help us win.”
Voidsong laughs bitterly. “Win,” he says. The laugh cuts off abruptly. “There is no winning. Not when we have to face him. There can be no victory. There is only the endless cycle of war and death. However, not all must be lost. In fact, I have a gift for you, should you choose to accept it.”
“I love gifts!” one of the party says.
Voidsong chuckles grimly. “You may want to think carefully about accepting this one. I offer you the gift of oblivion. A true death. A peaceful respite from this eternal cycle in which we are all stuck. My song will be your guide into the void.”
The party looks at each other uncomfortably. Hands go to their weapons as they warily turn their gazes back to the Voidsong. “No,” someone finally says.
He sighs sadly. “I will not force you to accept this. It is your choice of whether or not you wish to pass quietly into the night, or if you want to engage in a war that cannot be won.” His eyes begin to moisten. “I weep for you. I weep for what will happen to you, for when you realize the doom that awaits you all.” Voidsong turns, picks up his lute and walks into the forest.
The party continues to Miranveil. They are met by a scouting party and brought back under careful scrutiny. They are finally brought to see Tahrmyl.
“Thank you for coming! The True Mother told me about you, about how much you have done.” He shows them a tattoo on his left shoulder. “I asked you here because I need your help in serious and personal matter. I want you to help me stop my brother Ki’ethar, killing him if necessary.” Tahrmyl tells his story:

Tahrmyl reached the Tree with his two brothers, Eldul and Ki’ethar. Unfortunately their kin, the elves of Miranveil, remain obstinately doubtful about the truth of things. Rebuked by their Elders for their “foolish, youthful fantasies”, Tahrmyl is disheartened and begins to doubt himself. His brothers remain staunch, so much that it keeps him going. Unfortunately, they draw the attention of Asmodean’s agents to themselves. Eldul is killed so that he and Ki’ethar can escape. Grief-stricken and thoroughly discouraged, Tahrmyl abandons the cause and seeks to pick up the pieces of the life he had before he had been to the Tree. The Elders are pleased with his decision and make his transition easier for him. Hoping to set the example for his younger brother, he is surprised and saddened by Ki’ethar’s disgust with him and refusal to abandon their quest. By his own actions Ki’ethar gets himself exiled from Miranveil.
Years pass. Despite his wanting to live a normal life, Tahrmyl cannot shake off what he has learned, nor forget his younger brother. He blames himself for Ki’ethar’s exile, and over time that burden drives him to do something about it. He searches for Ki’ethar far and wide.
Unable to find a trace of him, Tahrmyl returns to Marinveil. Just outside of its borders, he hears a familiar song being played. Racing to it, he finds his brother. His joy is soon replaced with a cautious fear. Ki’ethar regards him dispassionately and offers to kill him mercifully to remove the crushing hopelessness of a meaningless life. Tahrmyl is horrified. He offers to help, but Ki’ethar tells him that no one can be helped; all are equally doomed. With an unnerving coldness in his eyes, Ki’ethar says that he will let him leave and continue his life, but only because they are brothers, which once meant something.
Heartbroken, Tahrmyl returns to Miranveil and finds that several of their kin have disappeared without a trace while outside of the city. Faint echoes of a mournful song are sometimes heard on the wind around the time that people disappear, but is gone before anyone can find its source. In the pit of his stomach, Tahrmyl knows that Ki’ethar is responsible. Afraid to go to the Elders, he returns to the Tree for the first time since Eldul’s death and asks for guidance. The Tree tells him that there is a group that can help him and possibly save his brother. They are in Cambria, and they can be contacted either through Jarvis or Armon. Wanting to deal with the matter as quickly as possible, he sends a letter via magical means to Armon, explaining his problem and desperately seeking help.

After hearing his tale the party relates the story of their encounter with Voidsong. “So you have seen him then. I am glad you were able to resist his offer. You’d be surprised how many people he persuades into accepting his ‘gift’. His music can rapture even the undead. Some of our own kin have fallen victim to him, but the Elders refuse to accept this. They believe the danger lies elsewhere. I do not understand their steadfast refusal to see the truth of him!”
The party agrees to help, but it is late. They are invited to spend the night with Tahrmyr, and do so. In the middle of the night, they find themselves awakened by a haunting melody. Some of them step outside and see Tahrmyr standing at the rail, staring off into the direction from which the music comes.

[Music: It’s Hard to Say Goodbye, by Michael Ortega]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_Am4cHMBKM

“Our mother played this song,” Tahrmyr says. “She played it when a dear friend of hers passed on. She never talked about it; she could never find the words. She would say she didn’t need to, and played this song. It spoke for her. From then on, whenever someone close to us died, she would only play this song. I think it’s what moved Ki’ethar to immerse himself in music. When words failed them, it was this song that communicated the tenderness of their souls. It’s rare for him to play this.” He lowers his head, choking back emotion. “It reminds me of better days.” After a moment he turns to go back inside. “Please, get some rest.”
The next morning the party goes back to the where they met Voidsong before. They do not see anyone there, but a voice greets them, seemingly coming from everywhere at once.
“I thought perhaps you came to accept my gift. Instead, I see you keeping company with a sniveling coward. Begone.”
“Ki’ethar, stop this!” Tahrmyl yells into the trees. “You can’t keep doing this just because I failed you so many years ago!”
An unnerving laugh echoes in response. “Is that what you think? That I persist in this ‘foolishness’ because you failed me? No, brother. I do it because I have accepted the truth that you could never bear. I have seen the inescapable end that awaits us all. And what am I doing about it? I am offering others a way out. And what about you? What are you doing about this? What have you done with the knowledge that has been imparted to you?”
Tahrmyl has no response. He lowers his eyes.
“Nothing. You have done NOTHING. And what of the rest of you? You ask me to fight? You think you can win? I name you fools and ignorant liars. Prove me wrong. Defend yourselves.” At once a frightening and powerful song thunders from all around them.

[Battle Music: One Winged Angel (Final Fantasy: Advent Children)]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_MW65XxS7s

A fierce battle ensues, with Voidsong and his phantom copies hiding throughout the forest while a colossal worm battles the party. When it is slain, it rises from the dead, continuing to fight on for Voidsong. After a bitter struggle, the party has Voidsong at their mercy. Tahrmyr begs him to stop.
On his knees and staring at the ground, Voidsong speaks to no one in particular. “Where were you?” he says softly. “Where were you when we needed you? Where was such strength when my brothers and I were overcome, when it was needed most?” There was no blame in his questions, only despair. He gazes up at the party. “Perhaps…if there are more like you…maybe he can be stopped…” He raises the sleeve of his other arm and shows a tattoo of a worn and rotted lute in a gray aura of withering. He looks at his brother.
“There is but one thing I can do still. Please, take me back. I will show the Elders the truth of things.”
The party escorts Voidsong back. The scouting party almost kills Voidsong on sight, but Tahrmyr manages to convince them to let him speak to the Elders. The Elders themselves are about to dismiss him before he can ‘poison them with his silver tongue’, but they finally concede the matter and let him speak.
Voidsong strides forward. He smiles back at Tahrmyr.

[Music: It’s Hard to Say Goodbye, by Michael Ortega]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_Am4cHMBKM

“Elders of my people. You have stoically refused to give ear to our words because we have been unable to answer your questions to your satisfaction. You have ignored our insistence that we have had to hold our tongues not because we wished to, but because failure to do so meant destruction. Things have changed. Though I am no longer under the same restraint as these”—he gestures to the party and Tahrmyr—“the consequences remain the same. What I do now, I do to make up for my wrongs.”
“All of creation is threatened with annihilation. The World Tree has revealed to me, to us, that there are but two other deities besides Herself: Her children, Elysius and Asmodean. They have been at war since time immemorial. There has always been balance. With each death comes life, and with each life comes death. The True Mother is the vessel of it all, taking the souls of the dead and giving them new life. You, I and everyone here, have lived and died countless times.”
The skies darken overhead. “Brother, no! Don’t do this!” Tahrmyr yells.
“Recently, the balance has begun to shift. Asmodean has discovered a way to disrupt the cycle and take what rightfully belongs to his brother and make it his. He is stealing the souls of all creatures loyal to Elysius and corrupting them. They do not make it back to the True Mother. They become bound to him, twisted and corrupted by him to bolster his army.”
A slight tremor pulses through the ground. Everyone present begins to look fearful. “Stop! Please! I beg of you!” Tahrmyr screams.
“I have been given the blessing of Elysius.” He reveals the green tattoo. “But I have also been seduced by the dark promises of Asmodean.” He reveals his gray tattoo. “He taught me that everything has been set in motion by the True Mother to keep Her alive. Just as She breathes life into us, so does She also need us to nourish Herself. By taking in our souls, She continues to exist. Our deaths are what sustain Her. In order to survive, we must continually die. Thus exists the endless cycle of blood and death.”
A circle of fire begins to burn around Voidsong. He doesn’t seem to notice the flames that lick at his feet. “No! You don’t need to do this! We can find another way! Please, just stop!” Tahrmyr shrieks.
“Asmodean has told me that he only seeks to end this cycle. He once thought nothing of our being used as merely food, but has grown to lament our plight. The pain at the loss of a child, the despair of having someone you love die in your arms, the emptiness of being powerless to stop the death of a friend…an eternity of this has moved him to end this game we call life. He wants no more of it. So he gathers the souls of all and prepares them for a final war, a final death. This final death will be more painful than any of us could possibly imagine. It will be nothing less than the culmination of all of the pain that we have felt throughout every life we have lived. Truly it is a horrific end. We cannot allow this to happen.”
The flaming circle burns with greater intensity. A giant hand bursts from beneath Voidsong’s feet and lifts him into the air, crushing him in its grasp.
Gritting his teeth in agony, Voidsong continues speaking. “And now…my soul is his. Please…” he looks down at the Elders. “Fight…him…Save yourselves, and all…of creation…” Voidsong looks over at Tahrmyr and manages a weak smile. The hand disappears into the earth. The fires subside. The darkness in the skies recede.
The crowd stands still in stunned silence, save for one. Tahrmyr stumbles forward to where Voidsong was standing before crumpling to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. He throws his head back and screams a primal scream. It is borne of rage: rage at his weakness, rage at what has become of his brother, and rage at the evil that destroyed him.
“I will fight you!” he screams at the sky. “I will cleave my way to your side and take my brothers back! They will not be yours forever! I will come for them!”
Afraid to approach Tahrmyr, one of the Elders walks up to the party. “Please,” he asks, “can you take us to see Her? To meet our True Mother?”
Before they can answer, Her voice speaks in their heads. “Open a portal. I wish to see my children.” The party does so.
The Elves of Miranveil all become Treebearers. For the first time, the party begins to feel ready for the impending war. They return to Cambria to report to Armon.

View
Vigilante Justice

The party wakes. The hour of Elise’s reckoning has come.

Jarvis lays out a plan. At his request, the party convinces Armon to Scry Elise’s whereabouts. having discovered where she is holed up, Jarvis assigns them to cover the east and north side of the building in which she is housed, preventing any means of escape that way. “Elise is to be captured alive and delivered to me,” he warns. “If anyone strikes her down, I will kill them myself. Elise must pay the proper price.”

Waiting in their assigned spots, the party watches Jarvis and a group of his men sneak into the house. It isn’t long before the sounds of battle commence. After a few minutes, Elise comes flying through a second story window on the east side of the house, gently landing on her feet. Amidst the crowd she spots the party lying in wait.

[Battle Music: Mombasa – Inception soundtrack, with sound of rainfall accompaniment]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwIo_VadeFU
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COBKXuz1rKQ

As the party closes in on her, Elise is protected by powerful mercenaries: a samurai, calling himself Arashi, the Still Blade, deflects a blow meant for her from Vere. A Hexblade, Haliax, rushes Arrow. An invisible sorceror, Kastyora, hurls deadly spells at Xull’ree. Elise disappears into an alleyway, re-emerging through a portable hole she cleverly set up shortly after she came out onto the street. A body double throws off pursuit long enough for her to get a lead, but it doesn’t last. Vere and Brieck strike down Arashi. Xull’ree’s magical lion pet tackles Kastyora out of the air, bringing him down into the street before mauling him to death. The onslaught of Arrow and Xull’ree overwhelms Haliax. Samuel and Daniela cut off Elise at every turn before Durth corners her with a wall of flame. Having been caught, Jarvis catches up to them. As he grabs her shoulders, she looks at him and smiles mockingly. “Why Jarvis,” she says, “If you had shown this much determination in bed then perhaps things would’ve worked out.”

[Music: Grandma – Nier soundtrack, with sound of rainfall accompaniment]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUzBQbajbvQ
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COBKXuz1rKQ

Without a word Jarvis grabs Elise by the hair and drags her screaming through the streets. Onlookers, having gathered to watch the battle, follow them to the Town Square. All activity ceases as everyone forms a wide circle around them. Elise is on her knees, staring at the ground. Jarvis strides around her, alternating his gaze between her and the crowd.

“Elise Korzan,” he pronounces. “You have been brought here today to answer the charges against you. You are charged with bribery, extortion, blackmail and illegal trading. These are the least of your crimes. You are charged with trafficking people, dealing in slavery and treason.”

“Finally, you are charged with murder: the murder of countless people of this once thriving city. Murder of fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters. Murder of children.”

The sound of metal clinking draws everyone’s attention. A sizable force of the city guard arrives and stops at the edge of the circle. A look of relief floods Elise’s face before a wicked smile spreads across her face. She glares victoriously at Jarvis. “Arrest this man.”

Jarvis levels his gaze at Elise. After a few seconds, when she notices that no one has moved, she looks back at the guards, alarmed. “What are you waiting for? I said arrest him! You know what will happen if you defy me!” A few guards begin to shift nervously, but the captain remains perfectly still. Elise looks back to Jarvis.

“How do you plead?” he says.

Elise struggles to her feet. She approaches the captain of the guard. “Scott, think about this! Think about what I have done for you! For all of you!” She singles out one of the guards. “Kelson, when your wife was sick, who was it who procured the rare medicine that was needed to make her better?”

The guard stares back. “I had to break the legs of one of your debtors to get that medicine. The man was a friend of mine, but I did it because it was that or watch my wife die. I’ll never forget having had to betray him, nor the look in his eyes, which still haunt me.”

Elise begins to panic. She turns to a civilian. “Marissa! When your family lay starving because your husband was unable to find work, who was it who employed him and put food on your table?! Me!”

The woman shakes her head. “That food came at the cost of others. Other families starved while we ate. I knew this, but what was I to do? My husband told me what kind of work you had him do. He was a gentle, compassionate man, and you used his ill fortune to make him do things that destroyed that part of him. We had food, but at the cost of a husband and father.”

Elise stared at the crowd around her. The look on their faces was all the same. No one would step forward to help her this time. She was alone. She begins screaming at them.

“I am the one to bear the blame for all of your ills?! The famine hits us all and I am to be blamed for YOUR laziness, for YOUR inability to provide for yourselves!? The only reason this city has done as well as it has is because of ME!”

Jarvis interrupts her. “Elise Korzan. You have been found guilty of all charges.” He draws his sword. “The sentence is execution, effective immediately.” He slowly begins walking towards Elise.

She panics and runs at the guards. Tears streaming down her face, she yells “Are you going to stand by and watch this lawless thief murder me in cold blood?! Do something!” They do not respond. She tried to push past them and is thrown back in to the circle. She looks up at Jarvis approaching her, silent and determined as death. She scrambles to her feet and runs into the crowd, but is once again thrown back. She shakily rises once again. She draws a small dagger from her sleeve and, in desperation and rage, throws herself at Jarvis. He deftly catches her wrist and twists it aside before running his sword through her gut.

Only the sound of the rain can be heard. The crowd stares in silence. Elise falls against Jarvis, holding them motionless in the rain. After a few breaths he gently sets her body down onto the street. Surprisingly, a tear falls down Jarvis’ cheek. He gently strokes Elise’s face with his finger. He speaks to her.

“You were such a beautiful girl. You natural sweetness bought out the beauty of everyone and everything around you. Despite your father being a ruthless man, that didn’t seem to crush the sweet spirit from you. I—we all had such high hopes for you.” Jarvis closes his eyes. “But then you allowed yourself to get pulled into his work. His greed infected you. You turned your sweetness and beauty into a weapon. The world tainted you, and you embraced it. You became a monster far worse than your father ever was. Why? … … Why did you do it…”

Wiping his eyes, Jarvis stands up to face the guards. He strides confidently over to them, holding out his hands in front of him. “Captain Scott…I know that you have to do this. I am the one responsible for this, and no other. I surrender.” The captain nods and begins to cuff Jarvis. As he does, Jarvis turns his attention to the crowd.

“This is what we have been reduced to: vigilante justice! I did what had to be done because our king is weak! He shuts himself away from his duty and his people, and look what it has wrought! This is not the end of this bitter tale! It will only end when he steps up to his responsibilities! And if he does not, then someone else will have to do it for him! For all of us! For the city! For it’s people! For our little ones!” The guards level their weapons at Jarvis as he speaks, but no one moves to silence him. When he finishes speaking, he looks back at the captain, who shakes his head and says “His Majesty won’t like that one bit. I’m sorry, but you’re done for now.”

Jarvis sees the party and gives them a reassuring smile. Hands bound, he pulls out a book from a hidden pocket—The Village Boy’s Fairy—and leaves with the guards. The crowd slowly disperses.

View
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.

View
Bringing Down the House

The Grey Man turns to face the party, but he is looking squarely at only one person.

“Zaknithra,” he says. “I’m glad you came. You and me…we have some things we need to work out.”

The rest of the party looks at Zak, who seems as confused as they are. Does he know this man from somewhere? He cannot recall.

The Grey Man chuckles. “I’m not surprised you wouldn’t remember me. Perhaps it’s better this way for now. You see, it’s not time yet. But it will be soon.”

“How do you know me?” Zak presses. “Who the hell are you?”

“In time, Zak. In time. As far as how I know you…well, maybe you’ll have the chance to ask Veremillae yourself. Maybe.” Zak freezes. Vere. His lover. His DEAD lover. He watched her die…right? While he is taken aback, the Grey Man sets his gaze on the other party members.

“What loyalties do any of you even owe towards Jarvis? You just show up out of nowhere and pledge yourselves to him? What can he offer you? That man is broke. Desperate. He is losing. You can remain rats aboard a sinking vessel, or” he pulls out a fat coin purse “you can end this conflict on the winning side.” He sees the sparkle in Xull’ree’s eyes and throws him the purse, which contains 1,000 platinum coins. “That is a pittance compared to Elise’s vasts resources. Let this whet your appetite.”

The Grey Man cuts off any further inquiry. “I have other business to finish. Until we get another chance—and we will—I have someone else for you to play with. Don’t die, Zak. I’d be very disappointed.”

A rumbling sound is heard all around. Suddenly, through the wall on the right comes crashing a freakishly large man wrapped in stones and plates of all kinds and wielding two tower shields.

[Battle Music: I Want My Tears Back (Instrumental) – Nightwish]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9XbBSox0qM

The Grey Man barks some orders to the half-giant in an unknown tongue, calling him a Wrecker, who then charges forward, crashing through crates and support beams alike. Watching the chaos for a few moments, the Grey Man and his two cohorts then turn to leave. Zak tried to run after him, but is blocked by explosive traps and the rampaging Wrecker, whose reckless destruction begins to bring down the entire warehouse on top of everybody. As he approaches death, the Wrecker makes for the same door through which the Grey Man exited, which is now barred. While smashing on it, Zak delivers the killing blow by leaping atop his back and snapping his neck. Brieck manages to finish breaking the door and the party comes leaping out into open air again as the building collapses behind them.

Meeting up with Jarvis again, the party explains all that occurred.

“Kobolds? Really? I’m…genuinely surprised that Elise would have anything to do with them. I mean, they’re cheap to hire, but unpredictable at best. And a Wrecker? Those are hard to find in these parts, and their service is expensive. I bet Elise felt that loss. As for the Grey Man, he managed to slip through the net that I had set up around the warehouse. That tunnel came out much farther away than I had anticipated…well, DAMN. … sigh … Go get some sleep. I’d say you look as bad as animal waste, but that would be an insult to animal waste.”

Before going to sleep, Samuel asks Xull’ree about the money pouch that Jarvis threw at him. Xull’ree claims (successfully bluffs) that it was lost in the chaos of the battle, but Samuel, who can’t tell if he’s lying or not but chooses not to believe him, tries to knock him out with the butt of his rapier. Xull’ree responds with an Acid Arrow to the face. Before things can escalate further, both of them feel daggers pressed to their throats. They hear Jarvis speak in a calm, cold voice. “If you are finished—which you are—then sheathe your weapons and sleep it off. I will not let this be a problem.” They both nod and Jarvis backs off. Reverting to his usual casual “Seriously, I sometimes wonder how you’ve spent this much time together without having killed each other. Well, I’m not complaining. Not yet, anyways.”

The party takes a much needed rest.

View
I Regret Nothing!

After pushing past a slovenly guard trying to extol a bribe, the party sees that Cambria is in terrible shape. A few ragged individuals watch them warily from the shadows. One even wears the tattered rags of a noble. Durth presses on and leads the party to Jarvis.

Jarvis, surprised to see them, asks them about their disappearance and about Rekton. When the party is unable to elaborate, he asks them if they have been to the Tree. They show him their marks. He gets excited and says that with them here he should be able to put his plans in motion.

“I’ll be blunt,” Jarvis says. “I need you. The longer this goes on, the more the people of my city starve and suffer. We can go about this in two ways: either you can volunteer to help me and you will be rewarded upon completion of the task, or I can use the Blood Contract on you for this. You will be forced to do it, but payment of that debt will be your reward. How do you want to do this?” The party volunteers for the reward.

“Excellent,” Jarvis continues. “Elise has a confidant working for her that we believe to be her right hand man. The problem is, we don’t know anything about him. His ability to remain hidden under even my scrutiny has been quite difficult for us. We only have two things on him: the first is his moniker that his minions use: The Grey Man. Clever, I know. The second is that he will be at one of their manufacturing warehouses a few hours from now. This is a new warehouse, so we don’t have any detailed maps or schematics of the area, save for one thing: there is a back entrance that leads into a collapsed part of the cellar. Through there, you can access the storm drains which will take you into the middle of the warehouse. It will be tough to get through there unseen, but MUCH easier than any other entrance we’ve seen.” He turns to Daniela. “You will not be accompanying them; you know what I need you to do.” At this, Durth steps in, saying “I’m going with her.” Jarvis nods his assent.

The party heads out. They make it to the cellar and into the storm drains without raising any alarm. From the drain they can see up into the warehouse where dozens of workers go about their tasks. They overhear a few mumble about when “the boss” is coming by, so the party decides to wait. A few hours pass before they hear the whispers and the commotion above them. Peering through the grate they can just make out the head of a figure hooded in grey heading off down a side passage, accompanied by a small entourage.

After waiting for the hubbub to die down, Xull’ree creates the ghost sound of a fire. The workers hear it and slowly begin to panic, looking for the source of the noise. Then he jumps up through the grate and quickly starts a real fire. Amidst the chaos, the party slips into the side passage to pursue the Grey Man.

[Music: Arabesque (Instrumental) – Nightwish]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCzSjK6dZzw

The passage turns into a tunnel of strange design. The party overhears the patter of footsteps that sound like they belong to children. Suddenly a strange gas bombards them. Most of them seem to come out of it unfazed, but Samuel and Brieck begin acting strange. Samuel simply looks at the others in shock, and a creepy smile begins to curve his lips, but he does nothing else. Brieck, on the other hand, begins to hit on Arrow, professing his love for “her”. What the party doesn’t know is that Samuel and Brieck now see the others as beautiful versions of the opposite gender.

Pressing on, Brieck gets caught in a trap of some oilish miasma. Arrow goes to help him, but gets trapped as well. From across the room, a high-pitched voice squeals from a strange panel on the wall “Hey! You guys! You’re in our oil quicksand! If you want us to let you out before you drown, one of you has to kill the other one!” It is immediately followed by child-like squeals of laughter (though these are clearly not human children). After exchanging nods, Arrow lets loose an arrow into the muck and Brieck screams and falls limp. “You killed him! You bastard!” the rest of the party screams. The creatures buy the bluff and they hear a lever being pulled. Nothing happens. “Oh well, I guess it won’t work. Thanks for doing it anyways!” More squeals of laughter. After frantically and unsuccessfully finding a way to escape, Brieck is up to his chin in it when his feet hit solid stone. The voices being shrieking.

“You idiot! I said dig it two-person deep!”
“We did! We dug it out as deep as two of us!”
“Not us! They’re a lot bigger than us! Two of THEM!”
sounds of slapping and squealing

The party pulls them out Brieck and Arrow as Brieck begins lamenting that he might have died before showing Arrow how true his love for “her” is. Zak and Samuel press ahead as a kobold appears from a trap door in the ceiling above them and hoses them down in oil, laughing and disappearing back into the hole. Wiping their eyes, they see a strange light at the end of the tunnel ahead of them. A kobold appears, wearing a thick chain vest, a spiked hat, some roller skates and is sporting a stogie in the corner of his mouth. He reaches behind him and pulls out two torches. He looks at the oil-soaked party and smiles.

[Music: Chariots of Fire opening theme]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9myoXFk-O4U

Time seems to slow as he begins skating towards them. In panic, Arrow lets loose a shot, but between the oil soaking his bow messing up his aim and the chain vest, the kobold keeps coming. Xull’ree lets loose a barrage of Magic Missiles that blasts one of the torches his hand. Arrow gets off one final shot into his neck, but the kobold goes down throwing his torch at the now very close party. … He misses!

In the next room the tunnel opens up to a wider chamber with a locked door on the end. As the party approaches the door, the walls recede and a horde of rust monsters appear! Furiously laying waste to the monsters—with fire, fist and steel—the party stands in the middle of a gory pile of…kittens! They were not rust monsters at all! Arrow stoops down a picks up two of their bodies, overcome with grief and what he has wrought. Just then, the door opens as three more kobolds appear, each carrying an armload of lit grenades.

“I regret nothing!” the first one squeaks.
“I immediately regret this decision!” the second one squeals.
“…HUGS!” the third one shrieks.

[Music: Yakety Sax – performed by Boots Randolph]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnHmskwqCCQ

The party scrambles. Except for Arrow, who is obliviously lost in the kittens. The first kobold explodes when no one is near. The second one manages to corner Zak, who runs up to punt him away. He succeeds in doing so, but the grenades are dropped and go off. Zak erupts in flames and cries for help. Samuel runs over to put out the flames, forgetting that he, too, is soaked in oil. Samuel erupts in flames and cries for help.

After dousing them, the party presses on. In the next room, the ceiling opens up and they can see daylight coming down a long vertical shaft. In the distance, they see 10 shapes dropping in at incredible speed.

[Music: Flight of the Valkyries]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V92OBNsQgxU

As the shapes approach the ground, large sheets sprout from their backpacks as they land on the ground, some of them spraining their ankles or breaking their legs on impact. Kobolds. Armed to the teeth. After nine of them land, the last one plummets headfirst into the ground screaming. The other nine look on in horror. Two seconds later, its parachute deploys. The remaining nine look at the party. All of the injured kobolds’ legs regenerate completely, and they seem emboldened—strengthened—somehow, as if by magic. As the fight progresses, each time one of them is killed, the remaining ones are healed and bolstered by this strange arcane bond they share. When only one remains standing, an unusual stillness seems to freeze everything in place and time itself. Light warps around him as he changes. With energy seeping from him like an overflowing container, he proclaims “I have achieved enlightenment! I am a part of the fabric of the universe, which now bends to my will! I have become a GOD!”

“… … … Welp, see ya.” He disappears. Utterly at a loss for words, the party presses on.

As they enter the last room, they see through the stacks of boxes and crates three figures on the opposite side of the room. Two of them are facing the party: formidable looking bodyguards for the third.

The Grey Man.

View
Awakening

Looking around, the party finds themselves in a strange circular chamber. The walls are lined with arches, and each arch seems to lead to a strange place. One is cloaked in moving darkness and shadows. Another seems to a series of broken landmasses, floating by some unknowable force. When they see one they recognize as their home, they realize that they must be looking at portals to different planes.

In the middle of the chamber Durth sits facing a grand Tree unlike anything they have seen before. Before the party has a chance ask any questions of Durth, a portion of the Tree begins to take the shape of a woman.

[Music: Lothlorien – Enya]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fissRZIw4c

“I am a representative of your True Mother. Her voice is my voice; Her will is my will. She is the beginning of all things and the Mother of all that is.”

“In the beginning She saw that She was alone and despaired. She bore two children and created worlds for them to play with. She gave them power to create. She took joy in their joy as they gave form to all manner of life.”

“But one boy began to grow envious of the other. He could not make toys that were as beautiful as his. He designed his to be fearsome and powerful, that they might dominate those of his brother. From him came the creatures you know as demons, devils, monsters, horrors, abomination. He took upon himself the name Asmodean.”

“His brother made toys that were not as strong or fearsome, but bore other qualities. His toys possessed great courage and ingenuity. With these they were able to stand against the forces of Asmodean. He took upon himself the name Elysius.”

“The Mother was not overly concerned about the game of war Her sons waged. Life itself was a clay to be molded in Her hands. When a creation of either of Her sons perished, the life energy was collected and reborn. So the cycle of war and destruction continued.”

“But recently, one of Her sons proved to be far more clever than She imagined possible. Asmodean has found a way to disrupt the cycle. When one of his creations dies, or those of his brother are slain by his own, Asmodean is able to steal that life energy and make it his. Neither the Mother nor Elysius understand how he is able to do this. The war has been thrown out of balance. The creations of Asmodean surge as those of Elysius dwindle, and the Mother is unable to stop it. It is only a matter of time before Asmodean is able to overcome all things once and for all. When he does so, none will be left but him and his creations. He will be the undisputed Lord of all that is.”

“You have all sought me out for reasons of your own.” She looks at Xull’ree “For power and vengeance…”. She shifts her gaze to Zaknithra, “…to free those in bondage…”. To Arrow, “…to find answers to your past…”. To Samuel, “…to protect those who cannot protect themselves…”. To Brieck, “…or to find the truth of these things.”

“You have been brought here because the Mother needs Her children to step forward and find a way to learn how Asmodean is doing this, and to stop him. The powers that you have received were not granted by Her; She simply unlocked the powers of your soul. All living things harbor a portion of the essence of their creator. All living things are Gods in chrysalis. What you did back there was unleash the full extent of what resides within you. Unfortunately, bringing forth that much power while you were still unprepared to wield it almost killed you, but it was a risk that needed to be taken. Nevertheless, the toll has been taken. You have been asleep for approximately one year rejuvenating your broken bodies and fractured souls.”

The party looks at each other in shock. They then notice the difference in Durth: he seems stronger, more confident, more sure of himself. Indeed, he looks as if he has grown much.

The speaker continues. “Though you do not know it, you have been worshipping the two sons. They reward their creations according to their faith. All those known as ‘evil’ Gods-Lolth, Vecna and the like-are only different manifestations of the same being: Asmodean. The other hand holds true for Elysius. Given their creations’ tendencies to squabble and fight amongst themselves, it is best that you do not reveal this to any others.”

“But that is not the only reason you must keep silent on the truth of things. Asmodean’s power has grown in such a way that he is able to take more direct action in the war. Since the truth known only to a select few, he is able to identify them should they even speak the truth of things. You have all been marked by the Tree.” The party looks down and sees that they have each received a mark, their weapon of choice colored in an aura to match the manifestations of their souls. “These marks will act as a failsafe. For your own protection, should your tongue slip and you reveal yourself by your knowledge of the truth, you will be silenced so that Asmodean may not find you.”

“You must prepare yourself for Asmodean in three ways. First, you must master yourselves. Harness and discipline the power within you. As you grow in power, you will unlock memories of your past lives, little by little. As Asmodean has done with his creations, I could extend my hand and give you a full recollection of things, but, as it has done with his creations, it would cause immense and unpredictable harm to the integrity of your soul. It must be done over time. Prove yourself to be the undisputed Master of your element: that is the only way to fully manifest your power. There can only be one of each element among Her children.”

“Secondly, you must learn how Asmodean is able to disrupt the cycle and prevent it from becoming even more unbalanced. If possible, reverse the damage that has been done.”

“Lastly, you must unite the creations of Elysius together. You fight a losing war, and to even have a chance you must all stand as one. This is part of the reason I selected you.” She looks at the two Drow, then the Half-Elf, then the Dwarf, then the Human. “By all rights you SHOULD be enemies. You should hate and fight each other. And yet, you do not. You stand and fight side by side. You have overcome the racial barriers that divide Her children. You must be the example to all others. Win them to your way of thinking. Show them the path to victory.”

Some of the party looks at Daniela. She looks just as perplexed as they are. They sense that she has lied to them about having been to the Tree. Seeing the accusations in their faces, she turns away, ashamed. Sensing this, the Tree speaks. “Do not fault Daniela for what she has done. Though I leave it to her to decide if she will explain her story, I will simply say this: she did not deceive you out of malice or personal gain. She was compelled to do so against her will. Whether you learn the truth of the matter or not, remember that.”

Brieck asks the Tree about the demon that seemed so familiar with him, who called him by an unknown name. “This war has raged for countless cycles. You have all lived innumerable lives. As I mentioned, Asmodean has unlocked the memories of the many lives of each of his creations and caused them irreparable harm in the process. The memories themselves become a swirl of chaos and fractured pasts in the minds of those unable to cope. Whether or not this creature truly recognized you, I cannot say, for I do not know. The children of Asmodean are beyond my influence for the time being.”

“Children, time works against you. You must move as quickly as you can. You are not alone in this endeavor, yet you are few in number. For the sake of all that is, for the sake of your Mother, do this thing. Durth has some experience in these things. Look to him for guidance.”

The party returns to their native plane just outside of Rekton. Durth explains, “Before we do anything else, I want you all to see Rekton. I want you all to see what awaits us should we fail.”

[Music: Field of the Dead – Age of Conan soundtrack]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3OB8vDw7EE

Rekton is shrouded in a permanent gloom. The sky and land is not darkened in the vicinity of the town; rather, it is as if their perception of the world around them slowly darkens as they near the town. There they find lifeless husks of many bodies, solid gray but permanently formed in the likeness of their dying moments. Shadows emerge and seek to consume the party. One great shadow in particular threatens to drown them in sorrow, overwhelming them with such despair that they desire to succumb to oblivion. Nevertheless, they hold their ground and beat back the shadows. Durth in particular shows that he has gotten much stronger.

Leaving Rekton behind them, Durth explains further, “I don’t know if killing those shadows has made any difference. There are always more whenever I go back. But I like to think that each fallen shadow is a soul relieved from an endless Hell.”

“Though Rekton is the worst that I have seen, the forces of As-” Durth is seized upon and silenced. “Sorry. That was easier for me when I know you didn’t know. It will be harder not to let slip my tongue again. As I was saying, these demonic forces have begun to appear more often, though still in small numbers. People are becoming more aware of them, but few, if any, have come to realize how big a threat they are.”

“For now, we have much work to do in Cambria. With the loss of many suppliers, Rekton in particular, food has become a precious and rare commodity. Like a domino effect, the shortage has led to many more problems. A few of the richer nobles, true to form, have capitalized on this as a business opportunity and have made a fortune off of those who become desperate and pay anything just to eat. Elise is the worst of them. The Archmage Armon has taken it upon himself to police the city with his students, but they do so not out a sense of duty or desire to stabilize order: rather, they do so more as an academic pursuit. And I don’t know why, but he seems to devote few of his resources to the matter. As such, their effectiveness is…minimal. Things have gotten very bad. But there is hope: Jarvis keeps the people alive with his underground group. I was quite surprised to find that this master of thieves actually DOES care about the people. On numerous occasions I have watched him give up his rations to those who need it most. He seeks to normalize the economy again, but he lacks the muscle to stop Elise and the others.”

Durth stops in his tracks and stares levelly at the party. “We will change that.”

View
Because of the %&#$ing Rain

Upon leaving the meeting with Armon, the party notices that people have begun taking note of them. A few regard them with awe or respect, but most out of fearful suspicion. No answers are forthcoming, as anybody they try to approach shrinks away from them. Finally they are approached by one of Jerek’s friends.

“What happened to Jerek!? Rumors are flying around town and I don’t know what to believe. Please, as his friend, I need to hear it from you.” “Why can’t you just ask him yourself?” the party asks. “You don’t think we tried? He’s not making any sense. Nobody understands what he’s talking about and he doesn’t respond to our questions or presence. Please, tell me.” Deciding that it’s better for him not to know the truth, they reply “It was a bear that got to him.” The friend sees the lie for what it is. “Okay, fine. But just so you know, you’d better get out of the city. You’re wanted men.”

Right as he leaves, Daniela comes out from the shadows. “I didn’t want you to find me, but I couldn’t just let you get arrested, either. Come with me, some friends and I will help you out of the city. Oh, and promise me you won’t attack my friends on sight.” They follow her into the same district of town where they had the Games. They enter a building and find out who Daniela’s “friends” are: Jarvis and his crew.

Always the businessman, Jarvis takes full advantage of the party’s plight. In exchange for getting them out of the city safely and without pursuit, each party member signs a Blood Contract: when Jarvis asks them for a favor, they must comply with the request or face mortal peril, perhaps death.

The party is disguised as a merchant caravan. Daniela accompanies them, as well as two of Jarvis’ crew members. They are almost given away when one of Samuel’s acquaintances, Garron, approaches Samuel and threatens to make a scene unless Samuel gives him coin. “It’s just brothers looking out for each other, after all,” he snickers.

As the party is bluffing their way through the front gate, Brieck gives a fake name and says he came into the city about two weeks ago. The guard tells them to wait while he checks the register. Bracing themselves for the impending discovery of their deceit, they are surprised when the guard speaks with the man holding the register who has been standing within earshot the whole time. The guard looks it over, nods his assent, returns to the party and tells them they’re good to go. They look back at the man with the register. He winks at them and pulls out a copy of “The Village Boy’s Fairy” and begins reading.

The party takes the road to Rekton, a village that is the main supplier of wheat and apples to Cambria. After a few hours, Jarvis’ two crew members take their leave and the party finds Durth on the road to Rekton as well. He says he was already outside the city in his usual training spot when he found out about his ‘Wanted’ status, so he decided to take the road least traveled: the road to Rekton.

Several days into their trek, the rain picks up. When they reach a passable ravine, a hideous laughter seems to erupt all around the party. They are attacked by the notorious highwayman The Manic Rogue.

[Battle Music: Titan’s Dune – Two Steps From Hell, with sound of rainfall accompaniment]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyaG7QE30Cg
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COBKXuz1rKQ

Fighting through his trap (which they were able to do much more easily than expected BECAUSE OF THE %&#$ING RAIN) they take the Manic Rogue’s signature face mask and continue to Rekton.

They arrive a few days later. They collect a bounty that was on the Manic Rogue’s head for $10,000 if dead. The Mayor, Stefan, pays them and invites them to dinner. Every night, the entire town has a community dinner that the women cook for all the men who have been toiling in the fields since dawn. After the party accepts the dinner invitation, Stefan asks them if they would be willing to do them another favor: of late, the crops have been infected by a strange disease that they have never seen before. The last caravan that came in only a few weeks ago had two people willing to look into the matter. After telling Stefan they traced the source to something in the cave by the seashore, about an hour’s walk from the town center, they went to investigate the caves and never returned. Nobody in Rekton is prepared to handle any sort of real danger like this, being simple folk and all, so Stefan asks them if they would be willing to go investigate themselves in the morning. The party agrees.

The dinner begins shortly after. With music played by the locals, plenty of strong drink, delicious food and friendly company a good time is had by all. Even the few people who remain somewhat wary of the dark elves become comfortable after time; after all, they DID slay one of the more prominent highwaymen and the Mayor has said that they will take care of their crop problem. Plus, they DO seem rather jovial.

The evening wanes and the good people of Rekton begin to trickle out to their homes. The party follows suit and retired for the evening.

View
An Ominous Encounter

Waking up the next morning, the party finds Daniela’s room vacant with a note left on the bed. It reads:

“Thank you for coming to my aid. I know I said I would tell you more about the Tree, but it’s better if you don’t ask. Trust me, this is the best for you. Please don’t follow me.”

While reading the note, a woman enters the inn and asks the innkeeper, Graff, if he has seen her son, Jerek. She says he didn’t come home last night and she worries about him. After leaving, Graff approaches the party and offers them free meals and rooms if they will take some time and look into the matter.

Upon leaving the inn, they are approached by a young man who introduces himself as Samuel Draconus. Samuel was in the audience during the Games and offers his expertise with traps and the like. In exchange, he gets to join them in looking for the Tree.

The party splits up and investigates. They learn that Jerek is an apprentice to a blacksmith and is a likeable fellow; it’s not THAT unusual for Jerek to spend the night elsewhere, such as at a friend’s home; Jerek’s father seemed paranoid that his wife is being unfaithhful; most evenings Jerek and his friends play a ball game at a field outside of town; the last time someone saw him was when he and his friends has just finished a game the night before and Jerek had gone into the woods to relieve himself. Going out to investigate, the party finds the spot in question and saw that the tracks left by Jerek went a little bit further into the woods before ending in a spot where there was clearly a struggle of sorts. There was no evidence of anything coming at him or or anyone leaving the spot afterwards. Xull’ree feels an arcane resonance in the air that has a distinct ‘flavor’: the only other time he had experienced it was when Durth demonstrated his powers.

Finding Durth at his traditional training location, they banter a bit. When Xull’ree mentions the magical residue left where Jerek disappeared, his face pales. “You want to know more about the Tree? You want to what I can’t tell you, or why? Then take me there. And pay attention.”

By the time they return to the scene of the struggle darkness has fallen. Durth picks up a trail only he can detect and works his way into the woods. After about two hours of walking they come to a cave entrance. Scuffs lie all over the entrance, looking like an army dragged their spears through the dirt. The outer wall of the cave looks as if the same army then hacked at the rocks with their spearheads.

“I’m going to call him out,” Durth says. “Subdue him, for I am the only one here who can truly kill this creature. If you strike him down yourself the boy will die.”

The party positions itself as Durth calls out in a strange tongue. After a few seconds, the dragging of chains can be heard coming from the cave mouth. Ghostly chains slowly crawl forward in the dirt. Jerek emerges. He is hunched, his eyes’ natural color glowing deep, his skin almost devoid of color. His body is wrapped in the ghostly chains and more hover in the air around him.

“Come to deprive me of my right so soon?” Jerek says. It sounds as if he speaks with two voices, one human, one…not. “You, who can’t even remember what you fought so hard for, jump to deprive me of my prize? I EARNED this, and I will not let you take it from me!” The chains flare to life!

[Battle music: Master Passion Greed (Instrumental) – Nightwish]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOgbM73qU6g

Following Durth’s instructions, the party subdues Jerek. As they are holding him down, Durth (who was frozen in panic during the fight) approaches and straddles Jerek. Once again, a red magic courses through his veins and into his hands, and Jerek, who looks truly afraid for the first time, begins thrashing and screaming.

“This will stop nothing!” he screams. “You abandoned us before and stole what was ours! We will take it back! You do not remember us, but we remember you! And we will MAKE you remember your sins!” Durth places his palms on Jerek’s face and the entity possessing him begins to burn out. Jerek’s body goes limp. Within seconds, his skin reverts to its natural color. The party carries him back to Graff, only saying that Jerek had been attacked by a bear that lived in the area. Graff did not press them on the issue. When the party asked Durth for more information, all he said was “You heard him. They remember us. And if I wish to stay alive, I will not draw attention to myself. I am lucky that I was able to kill the spirit inside him, because if I didn’t, and he had returned…”. Durth says nothing else on the matter.

The following morning the party returns to Elise for their reward. Upon leaving her house, they are approached by an emissary of the Archmage Armon. Armon wishes to meet with them immediately. They follow the emissary to the University and are shown into a conference room. Armon is just finishing up a conversation with a colleague.

Armon wastes no time in getting to the point. “I heard about what happened last night. I heard also that this…demon, spirit, whatever it may be, spoke to you. Is this true?” The party affirms it. “Tell me what he said. Leave nothing out. Every word is crucial.” The party, reluctant to share everything, give small tidbits of the conversation before wanting to know what Armon’s stake in all this is. “Quite simply, I am the only person in the world who knows the scope of the threat facing us without being under the same restraints as certain individuals. No, I have not been to the Tree. I have tried on several occasions, but the Tree itself refuses to acknowledge my great power and will and grant me passage. Why it bars a man of my talents is an infuriating enigma in and of itself. Nevertheless, I will unravel the mystery before it is too late! You all are going to help me do this. You have already been fortunate enough to have sampled what awaits us, and I believe—though I can’t imagine WHY—the Tree will one day grant you an audience, if you pursue this. Which you must. And when you do, it is imperative, for the good of all, that you return to me. For now, I have other business to attend to and must bid you good day.” With that, the party leaves.

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A Game of Life

The party returns to Elise and inform her of her father’s death. Showing her the toe ring that Baron Korzan gave them, Elise buys it. She promises a hefty reward to the players, but it will take two days before she can deliver it.

The party passes the time by looking into another lead: Daniela. Arrow is able to find out that Daniela has angered the wrong people, and her whereabouts for the past three days are unknown. But if they had to guess, she was being held by the rumored Thieves Guild…which, officially, doesn’t exist, of course.

Zaknithra and Xull’ree don’t find much, but they DO garner the attention of a dangerous looking individual. Splitting up to reconnoiter elsewhere and pincer him, he evades the sprung trap with ease. Leaning casually against the wall of a building behind them and reading a book, the man casually explains one of the reasons why this particular children’s tale, “The Village Boy’s Fairy”, is his favorite:

“When the boy finds this fairy, a creature that existed only in stories, he is utterly fascinated. The two of them, being young and innocent, become friends. In his naivete, the boy decides to finally introduce the fairy to his parents. The parents, panic-stricken, chase the fairy away and explain to the boy just how much danger he was truly in. They inform him that her kind are a dark and cunning lot, amusing themselves at the cost of others…usually their lives.” He snaps the book closed and looks at Zaknithra and Xull’ree. “It was then, gentlemen, that the boy learned that he was in way over his head. Fortunately, the boy was smart enough to listen to his elders.” He walks in close to the two. “Are you?”

“…Nope,” replies Xull’ree. “Hi, I’m Xull’ree. What’s your name?”

The man hangs his head down and sighs. “You’re not going to let this go, are you? Very well. Get your friends and follow me. Oh, and call me Jarvis.”

The party meets up and follows Jarvis. He leads them to a section of town off the beaten path and into an abandoned building. The party follows him as the path twists and turns, leading them deeper. They come to a door. Jarvis opens it and beckons them in. “Come inside, and we’ll talk about Daniela.” As the last party member goes through, Jarvis yells “LET THE GAMES BEGIN!” The door slams shut and locks.

[Trap room music: What’s Happening To Me? – Two Steps From Hell]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yobDr1Zu1M

[Battle music: Whoever Brings the Night (Instrumental) – Nightwish]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY88QMkHWbs

The party finds themselves in an underground arena of sorts. After working through several rooms of traps, the party finds a girl facing off against orcs. She looks like she won’t be able to handle much more. Coming to her aid, the party fights off wave after wave of enemies: first orcs, then ogres, then a warrior astride a tiger. At the end of it all, Jarvis enters the arena cheering. “Excellent! You have your reward—the girl and your lives—and I have mine: a hefty profit! You may go now. Feel free to return anytime; there will be coin in it for you next time!” He also invites them to the after-celebration, but the party declines. They take Daniela to the inn and she immediately retires, explaining that she is exhausted after the day’s ordeals. Feeling much the same way, the party follows suit.

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What's In A Name?

Xulree Arkenett and Zaknithra Auvryarn arrive in the kingdom of Cambria with two names. The names may lead them to the Tree, or just another dead end.

Stopping by the Squabbling Duck to settle in and begin the search for their queries, they encounter Arrow. They are interrupted by a drunkard who tells them they should go visit Armon the Arch Magister if they want to find out more about the Tree. On their way out, they find a man, Cameron, boasting to a small crowd of his having been to the Tree. He proudly displays his mark—a wooden sword in a colorless aura of divinity—and offers to take people to the Tree if they will help him accomplish a task for him that he cannot do alone. Selena, who has grown weary of Cameron’s pursuit, has tasked him to bring her a batch of the wildflower that has been attracting the strange creatures that people have begun talking about. Zaknithra’s intuition reveals Cameron to be a liar when pressed about his ‘new magical prowess’; Cameron is unable to keep his story straight about his magical power being ‘internal’, and granting him ‘extra strength’. After exposing him as a fraud, Brieck Stormaxe steps forward and offers to join the party in their search. Brieck convinces Cameron to give him another lead if he will keep his secret. Cameron tells him to find Elise.

Elise is the daughter of Baron Korzan, a shrewd trader who can be your best friend or your worst enemy. After meeting with her briefly at the front door to the estate the party, at Elise’s whispered request, climb into her bedroom window. It is there that she reveals the horrendous abuse her father inflicted upon her: deep bruises and long gashes along her back and shoulders. She tells her story.

“I eloped with my lover John, who then betrayed me to kidnappers. I never did know who my other captors were, or where they went. One day they were attacked—by what? I couldn’t say—and after escaping and running for over a day, I was near exhaustion when I found the Tree.” Upon beginning to speak of the matter, it was as if something seized upon her and silenced her. After moments of silence, she regained her composure. “Then, I traveled home. Alone. When my father found me, he…well, let’s just say that few of these marks came from my captors. There is more I can tell you about the Tree, but you must do something for me first: kill my father. He has no son and intends to marry me off to an appropriate suitor that can take over his empire. I am perfectly capable of doing so. I am just as cunning, if not more so, than he is. For years, I have watched him. I have learned. But, in the end it matters not because I am a woman whose only worth lies in her beauty. Kill him so I may make a life for myself.”

To further prove the validity of her story, she points out her eyes: shades of blue, green and brown, with flecks of a metallic—gold? Copper?—color. The party agrees. Elise informs them that her father is currently negotiating a deal, and that if the deal goes well he will most likely celebrate the way he always does: a night at The Maidenhead, the finest brothel in the city.

With some time before the deal goes through, the party sidetracks to pursue another lead: Durth. Nobody seems to have taken “Durp’s” claims of having been to the Tree very seriously because of how weak he is. He tries to be a monk, to achieve self-perfection, but it’s almost pitiful how far he falls short of the mark. The party finds him attempting to meditate just outside the city. Xulree gets on his good side and Durth agrees to show them his power. By focusing very intently, he is able to channel a strange fire magic—strange to Xulree, who is somewhat versed in the arcane fire—into first a ball, then a beam. The ball explodes in Durth’s hand when he sneezes and loses his concentration; the beam misfires and evaporates a squirrel. Durth also shows them a mark on his right hip: a wooden fist in a red aura of divinity. He inquires if they bothered to ask Elise about her mark; the party did not. Durth points out the coloration of his eyes: shades of red, orange and yellow with flecks of something metallic—gold? Bronze?—and when he begins to explain the correlation between the colors and his magic, Durth is as if seized upon and silenced.

Upon further inquiry of how he found the Tree, Durth’s offered a somewhat cryptic explanation:

“I failed to protect somebody once. I went looking for the Tree because I had to find it, because I could NOT let it happen again. It wasn’t a matter of finding some physical location. The path to the Tree is never the same for everyone. I think it’s because I wanted it badly enough that the Tree ALLOWED me to find it. And now, I have this power, and I’m still incompetent. I have knowledge that I can’t share and power that I can’t use. It’s MADDENING! But at the same time, I feel as if things won’t always be this way. I can become stronger. I HAVE to become stronger. If I don’t, then…” At this, he is once again seized upon and silenced. “I’m sorry, I must end this conversation. That is the second time that I have come too close. I cannot risk speaking on the matter anymore.” With that, Xulree offered Durth some pointers in how to control the magic, and the party went on their way to deal with baron Korzan.

Korzan had just finished his deal with a company named Weston. Evidently it went well, for as the party observed, both men were radiating sheer jubilation. Korzan invited his new business partner to accompany him to The Maidenhead for a celebration, who was more than happy for any excuse to visit that paradise of delights.

The party follows and enters The Maidenhead just after Korzan. They meet the woman who runs the brothel, who introduces herself as Matron. She looks very young, yet possesses an air of grace and competence that would rival a queen. The party selects a booth for the evening’s entertainment that is within sight of Korzan. They notice that he has selected two companions for the evening: one which looks remarkably like Elise and another as if she were Elise’s mother. As the evening progresses, he becomes increasingly inebriated and shameless in his treatment of them; it isn’t until Matron walks by and pauses by his table that Korzan backs off.

Unfortunately, given the size of the crowd and the presence of the guards, the party is unable to find a way to confront Korzan there. The party’s companions pick up on their interest in him and, after finding out that their intentions are unfriendly, reveal that they, and all of the women there, detest Korzan. Given his influence, they would not dare ban him from the establishment outright, or make any such overt move, but if something were to happen to him that did not involve them direcctly…One of them turns to the party and says “Gentlemen, we have had such a lovely time, but we cannot accommodate you for the night. We must show you out. You see, there will be…excuse me, has been a disturbance by some of our guests.”

The party is led to the back exit, and the area outside is the perfect spot for an ambush. The party moves into position, and within minutes an uproarious din ensues inside. Korzan is tossed out the back door, sputtering furiously about ‘false allegations’. As he and his guards pick themselves up, the party attacks! Korzan puts up a surprisingly good fight, showing an impressive martial prowess despite his being clearly drunk. Nevertheless, he and his guards surrender.

Upon learning that Elise set this in motion, he laughs bitterly. “She thinks I don’t know, does she? I’ve watched her come into her own for years now. I know damn well she’s almost as shrewd as I am, but if she still thinks I’m blind then that shows how much she has to learn still. You might be interested to know that only some of those bruises were mine; those gashes she did to herself. Looked pretty convincing, though, didn’t it? And she told you she had been to the Tree? Psh…fools. You are on an errand that will end only in your death. Here: take my money and let us be on our way. And take this toe ring. It will help convince Elise that I am dead.” The party agrees to let Korzan live.

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