Run. The mournful baying of the demonic hounds rolled across the landscape from behind Vheod. He couldn't be sure exactly how far behind him they were or when they might catch up to him. All he could do was run. The thorns of the gnarled brier that covered the plain tore at his flesh as he ran, but he did what he could to ignore the pain. The malevolent brier hungrily absorbed Vheod's blood, not allowing a single drop to touch the ground. He didn't worry about the wounds. Vheod was grateful no trail of blood would betray his passage. The thorns drank it all in.
Vheod Runechild's body ached from hours of desperate flight, much of which took him through the Fields of Night Unseen, a meadow filled with vampiric thorns. His limbs grew more and more resistant to each step. Cold sweat ran down his back and clung to his neck. Vheod longed to draw his sword and hack his way through the brier, but he feared leaving an obvious path that his pursuers could trace.
Take the intelligent approach, he kept telling himself. Vheod knew the challenge was to not allow his fear and exhaustion to overwhelm his thoughts. He had to keep a cool head and ignore the deadly forces that marshaled against him. Startling images of the terrible, hungry mouths of the vorrs that chased him came unbidden into his mind. He gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes, forcing himself onward.
The Taint formed a new, beckoning shape on his arm. The crimson, tattoo-like mark flowed across his flesh like a thing alive. Its changing shape resembled a hand slowly urging him forward. He ignored it.
The field of black thorns flowed over hill after hill. Nowhere offered Vheod relief from their constant clawing at his legs as he ran, the vorrs close behind him. The sky above him bore a reddish-brown hue that recalled either rust or dried blood. Not even the whisper of a breeze came to alleviate the dry, parched heat. The thorns required blood, not water to live. The skies of the nether planes were selfish with their gifts, and usually bestowed moisture only in the form of dangerous storms. Vheod, however, would welcome a storm at this point-it might aid in his escape. Knowing that wishing for help from the environment in this plane of darkness and evil would avail nothing, Vheod pushed himself to keep running.
If I stop, he thought, Nethess's hunters will find me and will offer no mercy.
The rush of air as he fled pulled at his long, brick-red hair. It fluttered along with the tattered, violet cloak that whipped behind him like an extra, frantically flailing limb. It caught on thorns and slowed him, probably even left behind bits for his pursuers to find. Reaching behind him he gathered as much of it as he could and wrapped its length around his arm so it would no longer tangle in the twisted, pointed brier. He wished, too, that he could shed his black steel breastplate. Vheod would do anything for speed now.
For a time the only sounds Vheod could hear were his own labored breaths, the soft footfalls his boots made on the ground, and the tearing of his flesh by the thorns. The vorrs howled again, their baying louder than before. His fear granted speed to his feet, and he ran on faster and faster. He veered to the left, then to the right.
The hounds bayed again, louder still, and from right behind him. Had they caught his scent? He could hear the blood-lusting-no, soul-lusting-glee in their cries. He thought he counted three, if not four, of them from their sounds. He had to think of a plan and quickly.
Let them come to you, he told himself. Fight on your terms, not theirs.
The terrain here rose and fell in rough, jagged little hills amid the thorns. It occurred to Vheod that perhaps he could use that fact to his advantage. Again he veered to one direction, then another, but his mind focused instead on a plan-and on picking his moment carefully.
Leaping into a narrow gully that probably once guided a small brook, Vheod drew his sword and spun even as he struggled to keep his footing. The ravine was deeper than he realized. His foot slipped under him, but somehow he managed to stay standing, though his body twisted around awkwardly. The first hound leaped over the gully, thinking Vheod had done the same. As it flew over the gully, Vheod sprang upward with his blade. It was barely within his reach, and the lunge sent Vheod tumbling off-balance, yet he felt the tip of his sword strike something as he slipped. The yelp from the creature was shrill, its gut torn open. The blow sent it spinning around in midair. The vorr landed to Vheod's side, not to rise again.
The next vorr dived down into the ravine, the bristling, brownish-black hair on its back as rigid as daggers. Vheod pulled himself to his feet and lashed at it with his sword, but the blade cut through only empty air. Abyssal magic had granted these creatures incredible speed. The vorr lunged. Its bite almost caught a bit of Vheod's leg in its jagged, frothing jaws. Vheod's second blow split the gaunt, ragged head of the beast in two.
He turned. The glaring, hungry eyes of the third vorr focused on him and narrowed. Thin legs spread wide, as it thrust its head at him. Savage jaws snapped at him again and again. Vheod pushed the hungry beast back with desperate parries and thrusts.
As he fought to hold the beast back, his ears caught the sounds of a fourth hound on its way. Vheod knew he was in trouble. He had to try something different-and quickly. He reached inward. There were black portions of Vheod's soul that he only rarely allowed himself to see, but now he would try anything. He didn't close his eyes but instead simply looked within rather than without. His body raging with heat and sweat, at the center of the darkness within him he found his own cold, icy heart. It was an empty and motionless place, but he found what he was looking for. In a few short instants, Vheod called on the power innately entwined about the inhuman portion of his soul. Born half tanar'ri, magic flowed within his veins as surely as blood. It came eagerly when he called to it-perhaps too eagerly.
A tingle of chill fingers ran across his skin as he filled himself with the unleashed power. It felt as though the cold would eat away at his skin from the inside, and his muscles all tensed at once. Tapping into that Abyssal energy, he forced the ground away from himself. He pushed down with all his inner might. Beads of sweat ran down his temples and even into his eyes, but he kept them open. Even in the short time it took to call on the power, he was terrified to take his eyes off the demonic hound.
As he concentrated, Vheod rose into the air, levitating out of the reach of the attacking vorr. As he did, the last of the tracking hounds reached the top of the ravine right at his level. Watching its prey float up into the air past it, the beast stood wide-eyed long enough for the swing of Vheod's blade to slash across its face. A second blow brought the creature's life to an end. Vheod looked down at the vorr still in the ravine as it snarled up at him. If the beast had been capable of speech, Vheod knew that snarl would be a curse. Muscles aching, he realized he would have to end this battle soon. The long chase had weakened him too much for a protracted fight.
The beast's hateful gaze unnerved him, and Vheod couldn't stay aloft forever. Rather than wait any longer, he released his grip on the power that held him aloft and let himself drop. As he fell, he pointed his sword down. Blade-first, he crashed into the horrid hound. Vheod's own grunt on impact was drowned out by the vorr's shrill bellow.
As Vheod tried to untangle himself from the beast and get to his feet, his hair covered his face. Seeing nothing, he heard only snarls and whines. By the time he stood, the snarling had stopped. Vheod pushed his hair away from his eyes. His sword remained thrust into the vorr, pinning the now still creature to the ground.
Vheod knew that more would come. He stood for a moment over the bodies of the creatures he'd slain, hoping to catch his breath. Syrupy slime and blood covered his tattered clothes and armor. Panting out tired breaths, his body's aches seemed to beg him to sit or lay-even amid the pricking thorns. He had to push himself onward, however. He couldn't allow himself to think of anything but his goal. He had to escape the Abyss.
Escape presented a great challenge, however, for entrances and exits, often called portals, were hidden and usually guarded. Once the Abyss held something in its fetid grasp, it let go only reluctantly. Vheod had always been within that grasp-he'd lived here his entire life. As horrible as this malevolent plane was, he had little knowledge of anywhere else. A childhood in the deepest, foulest realms of the Abyss had taught him little except how to survive. A half-breed human-tanar'ri could only live among the fiends and horrors spawned in this darkest of otherworldly pits if he could protect himself. The fact that he'd somehow survived against such horrors had to count for something-at least he hoped that to be true. In the Abyss, his fiendish masters and peers had called him a cambion-a word that accentuated his half-mortal existence and carried with it all the abuse, oppression, and injustice that had been heaped on him.
While the thorns hungrily absorbed the dead vorrs' spilled blood, Vheod pulled his sword free and set it on the ground. He drew himself up straight and took a deep breath. Gesturing toward the trail he'd left behind him as he ran through the brier, Vheod spoke sorcerous words long ago memorized from an ancient book. He closed his eyes and held forth his battle-scarred hands. Magical power stretched from his fingertips to the thorns trampled in the battle and in his flight. The crushed plants slowly stood upright once again. The savage flora would consume the blood of his foes here, but the scene of battle would still present obvious clues to anyone coming this way. Vheod hoped the spell would keep the thorns from betraying his path from here.
Once he finished with the spell, Vheod picked up his sword and cleaned the blood from it with the end of his cloak. He slowly slid it back into its sheath and slipped away from the scene of the battle with careful, deliberate steps, once again plunging across the violent landscape.
Dark clouds began to obstruct the bloody sky. He wondered if they were actually the visible aspects of spells cast by Nethess to find him. He could almost see the venom of her inhuman eyes glaring down at him through the threatening black clouds. How long could he avoid her reach?
Vheod saw the Taint had moved to the back of his hand from where it had been on his forearm. The indistinct, fluid shape of the mark contrasted with the sharpness of its color, as red and piercing as a babau's eyes.
"What does that mean?" he whispered in frustration at the tattoo as he loped along as fast as his tired legs could carry him. Vheod had never really known what the Taint was, but it had always seemed like some sort of intelligence. It often guided him, though he was never sure to what, or if he interpreted it correctly. All his life, Vheod could find no answers as to its meaning, least of all from the Taint itself.
This time, however, as if in answer to his rhetorical query, the reddish mark twisted and moved like flowing water across his arm, lengthening into a narrow, pointed tower. Or is it an arrow? Vheod thought, shaking his head in confusion.
"Are you trying to tell me something?" he whispered again, his gaze never leaving the mark on his arm. Vheod glanced around, looking for more signs of pursuit. He knew he should be more quiet. He thrust his arm in the direction the narrowest end of the
Taint indicated. When Vheod moved his arm, the pointed scar shifted as he did so that it always oriented in the same direction.
"Yes, you are," Vheod said.
Unknown hours passed since he'd started running, and each time he considered slowing down visions of more vorrs or even worse creatures pushed him onward. Finally, heavy limbs dragged Vheod almost to a halt. No sign of pursuit revealed itself.
As the sky above him continued to darken, taking on the mottled brownish green of a festering sore, a dark tower rose above the uneven horizon and the bloodthirsty brier. At first, all he could do was stare at the distant structure, his mouth slightly open. With his goal finally in sight, he could ignore the fatigue in his body, the sweat coating his flesh, and the stink of the dead vorrs that clung to him like a nagging conscience.
The tower was surrounded by a gray stone wall. Iron supports spaced along the wall spread eons-old rust across the stonework, and Vheod wondered where the moisture to form rust could have come from in this parched wasteland.
Stopping in front of the closed gate, Vheod took a moment to examine the entire place. It was just as he'd heard it described. The thorny plants didn't reach the wall, stopping a few feet away as though even they were wary of the place.
Vheod closed his eyes and breathed a sigh. Opening them again, he knelt to examine his wounds. The thorns had torn numerous and sometimes wide, gaping wounds in the flesh of his lower legs. He'd assumed up until this moment that the pain he felt in his legs came only from his hours of running. Now he realized that a good deal of the fiery torment came from the terrible wounds rent by the thorns. Using the spikes on his breastplate, he tore his cloak into two pieces and wrapped the cloth around his bloody shins and calves. When he finished he stood, stepping closer to the gate. His fist (banged against it with what remained of his strength. The air had grown noticeably colder over the last hour, and the sky continued to grow even darker. Soon it would be so dark that only true natives of the Abyss could see at all-and Vheod knew there were things dwelling in the darkness of the fields behind him that could see much farther in the dark than he could. Vheod pounded on the gate again, harder this time. No sound came from beyond the wall. He pressed on the gate, and it opened with a groan of metal. The walled courtyard around the tower's base lay barren of thorns or any other living thing. The tower itself appeared to have no means of entry.
"Is there anyone here?" Vheod shouted.
Vheod stepped through the gateway. A wooden sign with crude lettering hung from a hook on the side of the tower just above eye-level. Written in the tongue of the Lower Planes, the words "Karreth Edittorn" were scrawled across it, a name he knew meant "Destiny's Last Hope," in the language of the tower's creators. Vheod had read of the tower once long ago in an otherwise forgotten book, but more recently he'd paid a rutterkin most of his remaining gold and an enchanted cloak for the exact details of the tower's location. He already missed the cloak, and when he looked down at himself he thought again of the Taint. It seemed to have guided him here. Perhaps he'd not needed to pay the rutterkin at all.
As he looked again at the bailey formed by the wall, he noted with suspicion that no one had come to greet him-or fend him off. None of the information he'd gathered said anything about Karreth Edittorn being abandoned.
"Who are you?"
Vheod spun to see who had spoken, but the bailey was still empty. A rustling sound disturbed the air above his head. There three winged creatures hovered like insects. Their flesh was weathered and black, and their small white eyes glistened like pearls. Wings of stretched skin pulled taut over long, spindly bones silently beat with enough power to allow them to float otherwise motionlessly above him.
"Who are you?" one asked again.
"Vheod," he answered, "from the city of Broken Reach."
"And why have you come here, cambion?"
Vheod knew these creatures were varrangoin, the masters of Karreth Edittorn. Sometimes burdened with the misnomer of "Abyssal bats," varrangoin were neither stupid animals nor blind. Instead, these fleshy-winged creatures were powerful and intelligent foes feared even by some of the tanar'ri. It was their role as adversaries that Vheod planned to use to his advantage.
"I've come here to use the portal," he told them.
"And why is that, half-tanar'ri?" the batlike creature asked with a cruel sneer.
"I have angered the marilith Nethess and now seek to avoid her vengeance," he told the varrangoin. Quickly he added, "So that I may do so again." It was a lie, but perhaps it might help him endear himself to these creatures if they thought he was an enemy of their enemy.
The three of them stared down with hard, indecipherable eyes.
"Nethess serves hated Graz'zt," one of them-a different one-finally said. "We would like to see his viper tree orchards uproot themselves to tear his palace down. We would like to see dread Graz'zt and all his minions die slow and painful deaths."
"Then may I use the portal?" Vheod asked. His eyes widened as he stared at the batlike creature.
"We hate your kind, tanar'ri. Why should we help you?"
"Can't you see that if you do, I’ll live on to fight against those you hate?"
The varrangoin stared long in silence. Vheod hoped they would buy his bluff.
"Yes," one of them said finally, "we can see that if you live, other tanar'ri will be harmed. If you can reach the portal, you may use it. It should function for you-if Nethess seeks your blood, it is truly your Last Hope."
"Where does it lead? Will it take me somewhere safe?"
"Addle-cove! Don't you pay attention? It takes you where it wishes, not where you wish". The creature glared at him then beat its monstrous wings with a powerful motion, swooping even higher, followed immediately by the other two. "It takes you to your destiny".
As the varrangoin flew up they pointed to a shimmering hole suddenly forming near the top of the tower that hadn't been there before. A small ledge jutted out underneath it. The window-like hole opened into the side of the structure, as though it might look out from the tower's uppermost room. If that was the portal, how did they expect him to reach it? Vheod circled the tower, but as he suspected, he found no other new means of entry, nor anything resembling stairs or even a ladder. He looked up into the air above the tower, but the dark sky held only ever darker clouds.
He was too spent to even think of calling on tanar'ri power again to lift him to the door. As hard as it might be to assail the stone wall, it would be harder to reach into himself for that cold energy, yet Vheod knew he needed to get to the door right away.
He was still being hunted. He had no time to wait. Though his tired, bloody legs screamed even as he considered it, he reached toward the stone wall of the tower. The old and uneven masonry offered many easy hand holds on which he pulled himself up. His feet rested on crumbling stones that threatened to give way as his hands sought new holds even higher. Exhaustion and fear slowed his otherwise steady progress up the side of the tower as tired muscles began to shake with uncertainty and his mind wandered. Vheod imagined he could hear more vorrs or other of Nethess's servitors on their way, catching him at this awkward and defenseless moment. He imagined horrible vulturelike fiends tearing at him as he clung to the stones, ripping away his armor and finally his flesh. He saw huge, bloated demonic toads making obscene leaps into the air to pull at his bloody ankles, skeletal babau, with their infernal gazes, lashing at him with hooks, pulling him down, and all the fiends feasting on his flesh even while he still lived.
Reaching the top after a grueling and fearful ascent, Vheod finally pulled himself up to the ledge. He eased his tired body down, dangling his weary legs over the side, but with his body turned so he could look up and into the large, round opening. It appeared to lead into the tower, though he actually saw only darkness. Vheod knew the doorway itself mattered, not what he could see through it. It was magical, and it provided a way to leave the Abyss.
The Taint throbbed on his neck. Ignoring it, Vheod reached up, his fingers finding the portal warm to his touch. He sighed and looked into the darkness, wondering where it would lead.
He looked back over the thorn-filled Fields of Night Unseen and hoped it would be the last he ever saw of the Abyss. Each layer held its own mystery and its own terrors. Mortal souls condemned for their evil actions faced torments more terrible than even he could imagine. Eventually, these victims, twisted by aeons of suffering, became tanar'ri themselves. Just such a fiend had fathered Vheod and bestowed on him a wicked, corrupted portion of his essence.
The Abyss was pain, misery, and evil deeds. It spawned from dark, depraved thoughts of murder and revenge, embodied the very essence of wanton destruction, the infliction of suffering, and the chaotic tumult of annihilation. Its layers knew only adversity, calamity, and devastation. Where another world might have rivers of cool water, the Abyss had only acids and poisons. Where another might be wrapped in a cushion of fresh air, the Abyss was home to choking clouds and flesh-eating mists. Where other worlds sported cities, the Abyss held fortresses filled with tortured souls and baleful fiends. It held no safe places and no shelter from the ravages of devastation. The Abyss was all evil, yet it was all Vheod had ever known.
He stood, steadying himself as he stood on the narrow ledge-the long drop to the ground behind him and the unknown darkness before him. A cold, dry wind lifted his long hair and tossed it into his face. Blood still ran from the wounds on his legs. Vheod smiled with bitter disdain.
"I can assume," he said aloud, "that wherever this takes me, it can't be any worse than this."
Vheod leaped through the portal, leaving the Abyss behind him.