The horse was as swift as Vheod had hoped it would be. He sped through the wilderness and into the mountains. The horse's hooves and Vheod's heartbeat were the only sounds either heard for hours on end. Vheod focused only on speed, and it seemed his mount took, this as a sign to do likewise. He learned from his earlier experience with a horse that he should treat it well if he was to expect it to do as he wished. Here, unlike in the Abyss, it seemed that kindness could accomplish as much as cruelty or threats-perhaps more.
He followed drag's directions carefully, riding into the mountains toward the end of the first day. Ever with the steeper, rougher terrain, Vheod attempted to keep a steady, rapid pace. The horse didn't fight him, and they made good time. The Thunder Peaks rose high and jagged into the blue sky thick with a heat-born haze. Most of the time, no path offered itself to the rider and mount, and he charged headlong into thick, green brush full of flowering plants that had just passed their full bloom. Discarded, wilted petals scattered as they rode through the growth.
As the horse crested the top of a tall hill, Vheod brought it to a stop to give it a short rest and survey the landscape ahead of him. Orrag, it seemed so far, hadn't lied to him. Nevertheless, he couldn't help but feel as though something was wrong. It seemed as though he was being led rather than following his own path. Vheod spat on the ground and attempted to turn his attentions elsewhere.
The horse breathed heavily but already seemed ready to continue. Vheod leaned forward and patted his mount on its neck. The horse, it seemed, was strong as well as swift. Moreover, after only one day, he and it had already seemed to form a bond.
"I’ll call you Stonesong," Vheod whispered in its ear, "because you are both solid and graceful." He looked around at the wide open sky and the vast green and brown terrain stretching in all directions. "You do your world proud," he added before straightening again on Stonesong's back.
He inhaled deeply of the warm, dry air and smiled. His eyes glistened in the sun.
Just for a moment, Vheod considered that keeping Chare'en from wreaking havoc on this world might be a good thing all by itself, even if it didn't benefit him directly. What an odd thought. He tried to think of something else.
That night Vheod camped in the moonlight, enjoying a gentle, cool night breeze that rid him of the perspiration of the long day's ride in the summer heat. The truth was Vheod really hadn't noticed the heat much. In the Abyss, conditions varied from intolerably hot to deadly cold, and thus he developed a fair bit of immunity to such variances. His tanar'ri heritage helped in that regard as well. Vheod's flesh was thick and tough, resistant to things that would bother or even actually harm a mortal man.
Greater than human endurance had its limits, however, and sleep eventually claimed Vheod. He dreamed of shadowy, winged shapes, tumbling rocks, and storms underground. Even with his body on this mortal world, his mind dragged him back into the Abyss. Or was it some baleful future he saw in his dream? His sleep fitful, he awoke before the sun fully rose above the horizon.
Another day of hard riding took Vheod deeper into the Thunder Peaks. The terrain had grown steadily rockier and rougher. Stonesong's path like-wise became steadily more circuitous as Vheod was forced to guide him around steep hills and jagged rocks. The cool breeze of the previous night had become a hot wind blowing through the afternoon. Vheod ignored it, but his horse didn't. By late afternoon., he could see that Stonesong probably couldn't take this speed in this heat for much longer. Rather than run the horse to its death, he slowed down.
The slowing pace was a stroke of good luck in Vheod's search, for now he moved slowly enough to grow more aware of his surroundings. A few hours before sunset, Vheod heard the sound of metal against metal. A moment later came a cry of pain or rage. Battle!
Alerted and wary, Vheod followed the sounds. A narrow path led up a short but steep ridge, and he passed through some leafy green trees and underbrush quickly but cautiously.
Over a hundred yards ahead of him, Vheod saw what appeared to be a battle. Only after a moment consideration could he determine that actually large force was attacking a small one. Huge, hirsute footmen surged around a pair of mounted combat ants, attempting to bring them down.
The mounted warriors were a man and a woman. Vheod drew forth his long sword and galloped into the fray bellowing out ti'teriinn akinni! a tanar'ri battle-cry meaning "blood of my enemies, seek my blade."
Some of the hairy brutes were clad in leather armor: some wore the hides of creatures Vheod couldn't begin to guess at. Many wielded long spears, but a significant number brandished large, heavy weapons like morning stars, flails, axes, and gargantuan blades. He knew these creatures were gnolls, bestial humanoids familiar to him because some of them served-even worshiped-tanar'ri masters.
As Vheod crossed the distance he saw the two humans at the center of the melee-almost certainly the pair he'd come looking for. Each had the dark hair and high cheekbones of the people he'd seen in Arach and Gyrison's pool. The woman swung a mace, warding away attackers hoping to dismount her with their long weapons. The man wore chain mail and hacked at his foes with a broadsword in one hand and a flail that appeared to have come from one of his assailants in the other. Both fought well, the man particularly impressive in his skill.
Vheod slowed his horse. It occurred to him that if the gnolls slew this pair, his troubles might indeed be over. If they were to free Chare'en, their deaths would insure Vheod's victory. Watching the brutes tear into the two mounted figures caused the hair on Vheod's neck to bristle. His hands flexed around the hilt of his blade. No. He couldn't. Vheod spurred the horse into the battle.
The attacking creatures noticed Vheod's charge when he was halfway to them. The gnolls were at least two dozen in number. Most of the terrifying swarm were unable to get at their prey-only so many could reach the two defenders at once. Many of them turned, attempting to set themselves for Vheod's charge, but they weren't quick enough.
Vheod crashed into them, his horse knocking two over before he could even reach an opponent with his blade. Vheod's sword bit into one that had fallen, forcing him to reach down farther than he would have liked. He wasn't accustomed to fighting on horseback. Spears lashed and stabbed at him, but his breastplate served him well, turning away those points he couldn't dodge.
Though Vheod could spare little time to notice, the woman used the distraction he caused to take the time to cast a spell. A large hammer of magical energy appeared near her, wielded by no hand. This shimmering blue weapon lashed out into the crowd of humanoids, striking even as she defended herself with her own weapon. She shouted something, but the only word he really beard held no meaning for him.
Inspired by her actions, Vheod uttered the words of a spell of his own. He learned this minor spell from a spellbook he'd stolen from a foul and disgusting human wizard who lived among the tanar’ri for a time in the city of Broken Reach. With a gesture, a handful of knives-created from a reddish, magical light-flew from his hand and unerringly struck a pair of the bestial foes as they approached. Both gnolls fell under the sorcerous onslaught, not to rise again.
Even as he cast his spell, a terrific blow struck him from behind, and Vheod found himself hurtling toward the ground. He managed to roll as he landed, to soften the impact. The uncoordinated attack of the gnolls even allowed him time to get to his knees before any of the creatures could react. They charged at him, but his blade stabbed into one advancing gnoll's heart before the creature could ever swing its weapon. He fended away two other gnolls' spear jabs before a particularly large specimen circled behind his horse hefting a large axe-mace.
Still on his knees, he could no longer see the pair he’d charged into the fight to aid over the heads of the gnolls that surrounded him. The large gnoll obviously wanted to fight him, but Vheod had other plans. He reached out with his free left hand and grabbed one of the nearby gnolls' spear. As he hoped, the creature cling to its weapon with all its might. Rather than attempt to disarm it, Vheod used the leverage to gain his feet, then flung the gnoll with all his might toward the large oncoming foe. As they crashed together, roaring in protest, Vheod parried away two other attacks and dived between the slow-moving, hyena-faced humanoids to reach the pair defending themselves in the middle of the fray.
Already, dead or injured gnolls piled around their rearing horses, felled by the warrior's blows or the woman's spells. Vheod sliced into a gnoll from behind as he charged toward them.
"I must talk to you," Vheod shouted earnestly up at tie two of them.
The chainmail-clad man ignored him, too preoccuped with at least four foes all around him to notice. The woman only stared at him incredulously-as if he were a madman.
"Talk?" She shouted. Her assailants drew her attention away from him so she couldn't finish whatever she was going to say.
Vheod ran between them, using them and the fact hat the gnolls were focusing on them to gain himself free moment. He called forth a power he used very infrequently, one that drew on the dark, fiendish portion of his soul. As he felt the chill energy run from the pit of his stomach to his hands, he dashed out and laid his hand on the shoulder of the nearest gnoll. The creature howled as if struck and ran off, out of the battle and toward the nearby hills.
Vheod touched another, then another, each suddenly gripped by terror with his merest touch. They fled the battle in terror, as if the cambion's touch called up their greatest and most horrific fear. After the first three or four so affected, some of those gnolls not touched by Vheod's terrifying power retreated of their own free will, seeing their fellows running from what appeared to be something more dreadful than they wanted to face. Soon the pair on horseback simply watched as one by one their foes retreated into the wilderness.
The gnolls eventually all fled, but not before more than ten of them lay scattered about, dead or dying. The man's leg bled from a terrible wound. As Vheod looked around for surviving gnolls, he saw that his horse lay on the ground, a spear protruding from its side.
Putting the horse out of his mind, Vheod turned his attention to the two humans. This was a moment he'd both been looking forward to and yet dreaded. What were the right words to say? Vheod wondered if these two knew what they were doing, and if so, if he'd done the right thing in helping them against the gnolls.
The woman stared at him. "Thank… thank you," she said, clearly out of breath.
"What's going on?" Vheod asked. "Why were the gnolls attacking you?" He wiped the blood away from his sword.
"There seem to be a lot of them around here," the warrior said, pained, though it was no answer to Vheod's question. Besides his chain mail, the human wore simple clothes covered with the dust of extensive travels. His face was covered in a dark beard and mustache, and his dark hair was short.
They came out of nowhere," the woman answered. "That's the second time we're been attacked. Just last night they came into our camp. They're everywhere around here. We've heard they're gathering for some reason."
Vheod found the young woman compelling. Her long dark hair was tousled from the battle, and even though her clothes and cloak were covered in dirt and blood, her eyes were soft and gentle. She guided her horse nearer her companion and bent over in her saddle to look at his wound. He motioned her away.
"We've got to get moving," the man told her. "They might return at any moment." He spoke through gritted teeth and swallowed heavily. His face was clenched in obvious pain, but the woman left him alone.
She turned to Vheod, who was preparing to see to his horse. Stonesong shook his head, whinnying in snort bursts. The horse's body twitched and convulsed, his stiff legs now and again flailing against nothing. Vheod almost couldn't bring himself to look at the animal. I brought you to this, he thought, and I am sorry.
As eager as he was to speak with these others, he couldn't focus on anything until he did all that he could for Stonesong. It appeared that all he could do vas end the animal's misery. The mercy of death was t concept that came easily to him. In his lifetime he'd been many who were in such pain that death brought only relief. Stonesong was in as much pain as anything he'd seen in the Abyss. The sight seemed particularly offensive here away from the hellish Lower Planes.
"You served me only a short time, but you did so admirably."
Vheod cut the horse's throat. It was a swift, clean gesture. Stonesong's painful sounds ended immediately.
The woman seemed compelled to stay until the deed was done. Arms folded in front of her, she kept silent on her own horse while Vheod did what he felt he had to do. When he'd wiped Stonesong's blood from his blade he turned and looked at her. She returned the long look, gazing right into his eyes, but still said nothing. Somehow, Vheod could sense her concern and compassion. It seemed remarkable to him that someone-a stranger-might care that much about him or his mount.
Vheod tried to smile but only managed a nod in her direction. She smiled back.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"My brother is eager to go," she said softly, "and he won't allow me to tend to his wound until we leave the area. Will you come with us?"
Vheod nodded. She helped him onto the back of her own horse.
Whitlock found a small copse of trees for them to rest in, well out of sight of the surrounding area. The three dismounted, and Melann immediately made Whitlock sit down so she could treat his wound. Whitlock, barely able to stand, found it easy to oblige.
"Look, now that we're safely away, I’ve got to speak with you," the stranger said.
Whitlock gritted his teeth through the pain as Melann lifted the lower portion of his hauberk and pulled the blood-stained cloth away from his leg. "Who are you?" she asked the stranger as she worked.
"My name is Vheod Runechild," he replied.
"I am Melann Brandish, and this is my brother Whitlock."
"What are you doing out here?" Whitlock asked through teeth clenched in pain. "Looking for you," Vheod stated.
"What?"' Whitlock started in surprise, then again in pain as his movements put his leg in a bad position. "What do you mean?" Melann asked Vheod, turning away from Whitlock for the moment.
"I came here looking for you, to warn you that you are about to do something… terrible." Vheod stood over the two of them, a few steps away.
"What thing?" Whitlock asked, his voice raising in volume, his brow furrowed. "What are you talking about? How do you know anything about us?"
"You intend to free the tanar’ri Chare'en from his prison." Vheod said.
"What?" Whitlock said. "What are you talking about?"
"Just as I've said you're about to release a terrible evil into the world."
"No, we're not," Whitlock said quickly. "Our business is our own. Besides, isn't tanar'ri just another word for demon? If anyone's going to have anything to do with a demon, it's probably you. You look like you're probably a demon yourself. Come to think of it, what did you do back there to frighten all the gnolls away?" Whitlock grimaced from the pain.
"Just a moment," Melann implored, and called on Chauntea to grant her the ability to heal her brother's wound. When she was finished, she urged Whitlock to lean back and rest easy for a moment. "I’ll talk to him," she whispered to her brother.
Whitlock grimaced. He was worried that the gnolls might come back. In fact, he really didn't understand why they ran away in the first place. The twosome-or rather, the threesome-had slain a fair number, but the gnolls had seemed certain of victory. Somehow, the dark-skinned stranger forced them to flee. The thought didn't comfort Whitlock, it fueled his suspicions.
Melann got up and moved to Vheod, motioning with her hand that they should walk a few steps away. "Please, sir-" she began. "Vheod," he corrected. Whitlock strained to hear them as he lay on the ground and watched. He could feel the divine energy knitting his wounds together, but he ignored it in favor of the conversation being held.
"All right," she said with a gentle smile, "Vheod, could you please tell me what all this is about?"
"I’ve told you what I know-what you need to know." Vheod shook his head. "Are you or are you not going to free Chare'en?"
"Free him?" Melann asked, her face showing confusion. "He's dead."
Vheod paused. He cocked his head and stared into the sky through narrow eyes. Whitlock studied this strange man. His breastplate was forged from some black metal covered in bizarre barbs and spikes. It was like nothing he'd ever seen before. The stranger had surprisingly long, reddish hair and a dark, weathered look to his skin. His features were gaunt and pointed-his appearance didn't suggest the kind of warrior Whitlock had seen in the fight earlier. Something about him, Whitlock thought, made him appear different-almost detached from the world around him.
Vheod said, "When I spoke to Orrag-" "Oh, you know that misbegotten half-orc?" Whitlock called out from behind them. "Well, that at least explains something." It confirmed his suspicions that Vheod wasn't to be trusted after all.
Vheod turned to look at Whitlock and said, "I spoke to him briefly while I was looking for you. He indicated you might think Chare'en is a long dead wizard. I can tell you you're wrong about that. I don't know why you believe it, but you're wrong. He's an imprisoned tanar'ri, and if you go to where he waits you'll risk freeing him."
"How did you know to look for us!" Melann asked. Vheod turned back to her. "I spoke to these two men-priests, I believe. They showed me your image in a magical pool and revealed to me that you were going to free Chare'en."
"Vheod," she asked him, "where are you from? Do you have something to do with the elves?" She glanced at Whitlock with a look that was supposed to carry with it some meaning-Whitlock was sure of that, but he didn't know what he was supposed to gain from it. The pain kept him from being able to concentrate.
Vheod paused, his eyes widening slightly, as if he was caught in a trap. "I'm not an elf."
"But that's not what I asked," she said gently. "I come from another plane, if you must know." Vheod said sullenly. "I came here seeking my heritage-my family-and instead I met a pair of priests who warned me that the two of you are going to do something awful. I've searched for you ever since."
"You're a cambion, aren't you?" Melann asked, taking a step backward.
Vheod stared at her flatly. Before he could answer, Whitlock asked from behind them, "What's a cambion?"
Vheod looked at Melann. "Yes," he said. "Does it make a difference?"
"Shouldn't it?" She shook her head, mouth slightly open.
"What's a cambion?" Whitlock demanded, standing up. The wound was almost entirely healed by the spell, and he felt much stronger.
"My father was a tanar'ri, but my mother was a human-from this world. Don't judge me by that, though. I am my own man."
All three stood in silence, a gentle breeze blowing through the trees, providing relief to an otherwise sweltering day. A few insects flew around their faces, Melann brushing away the buzzing from her ear. She turned to Whitlock.
"He helped us fight off the gnolls. He might have saved our lives. We owe him our thanks and respect for that." She knew just what to say to him. Those were words she knew he would take to heart, and she was right. Whitlock couldn't argue with that.
"Well, I suppose that's true enough," he said to Vheod. "We thank you for that, sir."
Vheod looked back and forth between the two of them, his long hair tossed about in the breeze. He seemed confused.
Melann's church spoke of tanar'ri distantly-as only something to be feared and destroyed. That had been easy enough for Whitlock to accept. Until this moment, Whitlock hadn't even been certain they were real. Demons were just something that didn't come up in everyday life. Now one stood before him. and he owed the demon a debt. Whitlock still didn't understand why Vheod sought them and what it was he was trying to accomplish. It might be best, Whitlock thought, to never find out.
"We must be on our way," Whitlock said. "Wait," Vheod implored. "Haven't you been listening to anything I've said? Chare'en is a balor! If you go to him you'll loose a terrible evil into this world."
"First of all," Whitlock said, "there's already evil in this world-plenty of it. Second, Chare'en's not a demon, he's a long-dead wizard. And third, why, by the name of all that's holy, should we listen to you? Just because you helped us against those gnolls? Now we're supposed to believe everything you say? Does everyone in the world think I'm a complete idiot? Ill have no more of this. Melann, come, we're leaving." "Wait," Vheod said again.
A long silence passed as the siblings both looked at the mysterious newcomer. Vheod stood very still, his arms hanging down at his sides. Melann seemed uncomfortable and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Whitlock glanced between the two of them, wanting nothing more than to leave. Damn the debt. "If what you are saying is true," Melann said, "then our family is doomed… and so are we."
Now it was Vheod's turn to be confused. He looked deeply into Melann's brown eyes and saw sincerity and sadness. Her long, dark hair had fallen out of the tie that had held it behind her head, and now it cascaded around her smooth, slightly sunburned face. As tears welled in her eyes, Vheod took a step forward and placed his hand on her arm.
"Perhaps you could tell me what it is you're doing here, and why you seek Chare'en," he said, attempting to keep his voice at a gentle level.
"Our family, long ago, had a curse placed on it. We don't know all the details, but we've been told it happened in the days of Chare'en, a powerful wizard. In his tomb we believe we'll find a magical staff that can remove the curse from our family." Melann wiped her eyes before continuing. "It's most important that we find the tomb now. Both our parents have fallen ill-struck down by the curse."
"I see," Vheod replied, already deep in thought and filled with doubts.
His own motives seemed shallow and selfish now. If Melann and Whitlock were correct, it would be wrong to stop them. But no, he knew Chare'en was his greatgrandfather, a tanar'ri balor, not some mortal sorcerer. Vheod had been telling them about the great wrong that would be inflicted on the world if Chare'en were freed-now he was beginning to realize how true his words were. He wondered if it was his responsibility to make sure that the balor stayed imprisoned. He wondered too at the circumstances in which the balor was imprisoned. Was there any truth at all about this magical staff? Melann certainly seemed to honestly believe in the curse.
The fact that Melann didn't immediately assume he \vas lying or even attack him on learning of his true nature gave Vheod hope that perhaps he could convince her he was right. She obviously was reasonable. Her brother, on the other hand, appeared otherwise.
"Look, Melann," Whitlock said to his sister, "there's no need to tell this… man about our business." He turned to Vheod- "As I said before, thanks for your help, and thank you for your warning. Now we must be going."
"I can't let you do that."
"You can't let us?" Whitlock spat. "Are you going to attack us? Come on, demon-I’ll have at you." Whitlock drew his broadsword.
Vheod's hand flexed, seeking the hilt of his own blade. He stopped. Instead, he simply held his ground. "I would not fight you, sir. I don't seek further bloodshed. I've already seen a surprising amount of that on such a beautiful, peaceful-seeming world."
"You must be from somewhere else," Whitlock’s leered, his sword still pointed at Vheod. "Beautiful, Perhaps, but peaceful? Experience has taught me something else."
Vheod said nothing.
"You won't stop us from doing what we're set out to do," Whitlock continued. "Well do what we think is test.
Melann spoke up. "You must understand, Vheod. We can't possibly turn back after all we've been through." She raised her hands in an emphatic gesture. "We can't just give up on the only hope we lave for our family-not just on the words of a Granger. I mean, no offense but… I'm sure you understand."
The worst part of it for Vheod was that he did understand. He would do the same thing in their place. He couldn't possibly expect them to simply do is he said when so much was at stake for them. Yet we was certain that if left alone, they would take actions that would spell disaster for both him and them-and probably the whole world. He certainly had no desire to see Melann hurt, especially when he would do something to stop it. He didn't even wish ill an hot-tempered, untrusting Whitlock. In reversed positions, Vheod would probably react much as the human warrior did.
"Well, perhaps we can reach a compromise. What if I accompany you to Chare'en's crypt? Then we can see which one of us is correct." And, he thought to himself, I can make sure that if I'm right, Chare'en is not freed-no matter what. The real question burning in Vheod's heart was whether or not he himself could be trusted going to Chare'en.
"I don't like this," Whitlock said quietly to his sister, though Vheod could hear him.
Before Melann could answer, Vheod said to Whitlock, "Isn't this the best way to keep an eye on me? If I'm trying to do something wrong, would I not be better within sword's reach? The best way to watch your enemies is to keep them close enough to kill, the saying goes. It's a saying where I come from, in any event. Besides, those gnolls will probably come back-just as you said."
Perhaps, Vheod thought, it would be good that Whitlock and Melann watched him very closely. Whitlock may very well be right not to trust him. He looked, almost reflexively, for the Taint. It resided on his forearm, as though it wanted him to see it. The tattoo had taken on the form of a laughing, leering face.
Whitlock didn't say anything. Instead he folded his arms in front of him defiantly.
Melann approached Vheod, extending her hand. "We would appreciate your company, Vheod Runechild."