With no better idea of where to start, Kal, JD, Jared, Zabulon and I began to make our way toward the path that we had followed earlier while the rest of our little band set up shop in the hotel lobby to draw fire away from us. AmalgamationSage (astral projecting from where ever he really is - and so you don't get confused, his astral form is a lady with a sword) was somewhere ahead of us, searching out signs of the Thief and incapacitating a few obstacles - in this fucked up place, it seems his astral form can be as solid as our own physical bodies. Sometimes he would pop back to our little group and give us explicit directions and sometimes he would just leave markers for us to follow (they looked like little blue balls of fire; I'd make a joke but in light of all that's happened... I really don't feel like it). As time went on, the markers became more and more common. At first, we did follow the path, but it wasn't long into it before AmalgamationSage led us into the tree to the side of it. There some amount of hesitation on our part about venturing into the trees - except for Kal, who pushed on into them, seemingly immune to the fear that was inside the rest of us. I've never seen him so determined or set on something before. It was absolutely amazing.
So we walked through the trees, guided by AmalgamationSage and encouraged by the leader that had emerged in Kal. There was one tense moment where we all stopped moving as a veritable horde of our Stalker's followers flew through the trees, presumably in the direction of the hotel. Not a single one was attracted to our band of fighters though - it seems Damien's plan worked. I don't think the Thief liked this little trick of ours though. I think he had planned for his minions to do his dirty work. It wasn't long after we started moving once again that AmalgamationSage came back to us - irregular at this point in the journey. He seemed concerned.
"He saw me. He is coming."
And come he did, in an explosion of trees. The time for subtlety was apparently over and the more violent side of our Stalker was coming out once again. Branches fell around us, smaller trees were uprooted entirely - it was at once frightening and amazing.
Kal: "Sage, keep going to that gateway!"
But he stayed anyway. Brave man. But it was JD, a 12 year old boy, who actually had the nerve to charge the Thief. Screaming with a rage nestled so deep within him that all of us could feel his catharsis, he sprinted toward him, a knife in his small hand. Tentacles darted out at him which is when a rock bounced off the Thief's chest, coming from Kal. This seemed to confuse him, so the rest followed in hist footsteps and began looking for anything to throw at our Stalker. JD was able to get close and actually stab him. It didn't do much though. Suddenly, all of us rock throwers were knocked to our asses as if some concussive force had emanated from the joined trio of JD-knife-Thief. I heard groans of pain from Zabulon that suggested his broken rib had been a little bothered by this as the tentacles refocused on JD.
Sage: "Get up, and run!"
Realizing the logic in this, Kal jumped to his feet and helped Zabulon to his own as I stood. JD was done for. But his life was going to get us around the Thief and toward the gate we were looking for. But the sight of that kid, slashing at tentacles that were sharper than his own knife, being cut to ribbons because a few moments ago he had been braver than his elders... I saw a stream of blood from the corner of my eye that came with a cessation of JD's screaming. I think his throat was cut. I didn't stop to look. None of us did. We just ran, following AmalgamationSage. And then we were in a clearing. One moment, we were in the trees, running for our lives, the next we were all standing in this clearing, as if we were waiting for something to happen. And in a way we were, as in front of us stood the gate we had been looking for. AmalgamationSage said as much and Kal seemed as if he recognized it, as if he was drawn to it. It was similar to what we had found at the end of the path the other day, but it was more structured almost, more shaped. I'm not sure how to explain the difference, but this simply felt like a gate.
In front of the gate was our Stalker. I think he moved us here on purpose. The tentacles that held ready to strike certainly seemed to indicate something of the sort. It was Kal who ran first this time, followed shortly by Zabulon. I had a quick moment of doubt about how three barely armed men and an astral projection were going to do any damage to an abomination before I realized Kal wasn't really running at the Thief, but at the gate. I got my feet moving and made up my mind to give myself to get Kal to the gate if I had to. Three people now had already died on my account. But it didn't quite come to that. I caught up to Kal as a tentacle approached him and punched it - the skin of my knuckles burned as if they were on fire but the appendage was knocked just enough off course, though that didn't stop the attacks and I got knocked to the ground for my trouble. It was a running battle to the gate. Zab, Jared and I stayed behind Kal, trying to keep Kal from being touched by taking the blows meant for him - and mostly we succeeded. AmalgamtionSage seemed to be the only one able to really hurt him. I doubt we would have been able to get Kal to the gate without his magick to save us from the full wrath of our Stalker. Just the same, Kal took his own share of the beating. A cut across the face, a headlong tumble across the grass. He wasn't the only one though - all of us were bloodied before Kal made it into the gate. Somehow even AmalgamationSage was bleeding here. Zabulon was still fighting - and I use that term loosely here; fighting for us had become more self-sacrifice than anything else - despite what must have been massive pain in his rib and I had broken a few fingers in my efforts and twisted an ankle after tripping over my own feet. Jared was on the ground, immobile, his face covered in blood and his arms covered in cuts. But Kal was at the gate now. I was a few feet away from him with Zabulon while Sage was nearer to the Thief, using some kind of energy or spell. Jared was beyond them. Kal hesitated. Here, of all places, his unshakable resolve seemed in doubt. In that moment, our Stalker worked some kind of attack on AmalgamationSage - something I can only describe as a vortex slammed into him and ripped him from our pocket-world. I don't think he died, but the screaming indicated a great deal of pain. The sound must have motivated Kal, as he jumped in the gate at that moment. Time slowed. I turned my back on the gate and ran at the Thief to see death staring me in the eye in the form of a slick, oily looking tentacle Hell-bent on crushing my face; Zabulon was raising an arm to protect himself from a tentacle bent on hammering him into a pulp as he turned with me; the vortex that had taken the Sage was still swirling. Time continued to stretch until we all seemed frozen in that moment. I imagine this must be how movies feel when they are paused. Then the play button was hit. Everything went full speed and our Stalker simply disappeared. Zabulon opened his eyes now that death was no longer coming toward him. The three of us looked around the clearing, now seeming much smaller than it had before. Aside from Jared, dead on the grass, and our own battered appearances, there was no sign of any battle here. With the Thief's total lack of theatrics in his exit, we were all left with the taste of anticlimax - but it was a sweet taste.
Zabulon: "Is that a little girl?"
He was pointing at the gate as he said this. And it was a little girl. It was my little girl. It was Sara. I ran, picked her up. I discovered that she was just as much a vegetable as she had always been. But still I held her close to me, satisfied in the small movements of her chest that told me she stilled drew breath. Then, as if to makeup for the lack of a fireworks show, the gate exploded out and up. Brilliant lights and colors I couldn't name with a gun to my head shot in all directions. It was soundless, but it seemed to also take sound with it as moving of the branches in the breeze was ceased and none of us could hear the sound of our exclamations. Then the color and the wonder withdrew back into itself and we were left in the darkness of its absence. The moon and stars were nothing to what we had just beheld. But the gate was gone. The Thief was gone. And so was Kal.