"So, are you a wizard?”
"Me?" Melann asked in surprise.
The summer sun would soon set, and the shadows Around them grew long. The looming shadows of the mountains already swathed much of the surrounding area in a blanket of darkness. She looked down to Vheod, who had asked the question, and apparently had asked it with sincerity. His eyes told her that he indeed sought an answer. Vheod walked alongside their horses while she and her brother rode. Melann was amazed that he could keep up the face over the hours of the journey. A full day had passed since their paths joined, and he never once showed signs of tiring-though he slept the night before like any mortal man.
Whitlock never ceased his constant vigil, convinced the gnolls would attack again. His caution probably slowed their pace a little, but no one commented on it.
"In the battle with the gnolls," Vheod said, "you cast a spell that struck down a number of them."
Melann laughed for a moment, more out of the joy of actually laughing than the humor of what Vheod really said. He didn't seem to take offense at her laughing at him-instead, it seemed to bring a smile to his own face. She was fascinated with his long hair and dark, rough skin-but mostly she enjoyed looking into his face. She saw a sort of nobility in his eyes. She believed that a tanar'ri, raised in the Abyss no less, trying to overcome its inherent evil was perhaps the noblest thing she'd ever heard of.
"I'm not a wizard, but a Watchful Sister of the Earth. A follower and servant of Chauntea, Our Mother," she said with a smile.
Vheod looked puzzled. "Our Mother?"
"Yes. Chauntea nurtures and provides for our world. She loves and cares for all growing things." It felt strange to be talking about her faith with a tanar'ri-or half tanar'ri, anyway. According to all she'd ever read or been taught about creatures such as he, Vheod was an abomination. Of course, she really hadn't read that much. Demonology was hardly a requirement for a priest of Chauntea. She'd heard a few stories about creatures summoned by wizards or great monstrosities that walked the land in earlier, more arcane ages, but she honestly never thought she might ever, or could ever, simply talk with one.
"I see. There are few priests where I come from, and they all worship, well… things better left unworshiped and names better left unspoken. I am more familiar with wizardry than priestcraft. Forgive me."
Melann kept her smile. "You don't need to be sorry."
What must it have been like to have lived in- well, wherever he came from? A place of evil and darkness, certainly, but now he was here, and he'd seen beauty and freedom. Could anyone in the world appreciate the Mother of All's goodness and bounty more than he?
Melann turned away from him, looking at the green, rolling hills that led up in every direction to high, rocky peaks. Birds sang in the trees that dotted the hills, and the nurturing sun blazed down in all it’s glory, as if to spread its energy on the world for orc last moment as it prepared to rest for the night. It was so easy to trust utterly in the goodness and night of Chauntea gazing on such a scene. It was easy to see that she guided all things with her divine hinds.
But what if Vheod was right? What if Melann and Whitlock couldn't find the cure for the wasting disease that drained away their parents' lives? Worse yet, what if in so trying they freed some horrible evil? Surely Chauntea wouldn't lead her down such a path. Melann decided that Vheod must be mistaken. He must.
"What's it like to believe in something so wholeheartedly?" Vheod asked her, staring straight ahead is he walked, "How can you trust in what you believe? And if the god you serve is truly worthy of service, how can you know that you are worthy to serve?" Vheod looked up at her. "I'm sorry. I have no business asking such-"
"No, that's quite all right." Melann swallowed. How did this man-if man he was-see her so clearly? His questions cut right to the heart of what troubled her, and why she was plagued with self-doubt.
"Proof that Our Mother is worthy of worship is all around you. Didn't you say yesterday that you found our world beautiful? That's the work of Chauntea." She forced herself to smile, hoping it would cover for the fact that she left his last question unanswered. Vheod just nodded, and didn't press any further. Whitlock remained closed mouthed. He obviously didn't trust Vheod. His every mannerism made this clear to Melann, and maybe to Vheod. Melann wasn't so certain. She wasn't willing to dismiss Vheod as quickly as her brother had. The elf spirit in the Vale of Lost Voices had spoken Vheod's name. That had to mean something.
When darkness overcame the vale through which they traveled, the three of them stopped to sleep for the night. Vheod helped Whitlock gather wood for a fire. Neither of them spoke, but both kept a sharp eye out for more gnolls.
Melann had gathered some wild berries when they stopped earlier that day for a short rest. When they returned, she offered these to both men to supplement their rations. As he was the previous night, Vheod was grateful that they shared their food with him, for he had brought nothing to eat himself. Fortunately, his inhuman nature usually allowed him to go for long periods without needing to eat. Usually, Vheod didn't think of food until the pangs of hunger allowed him to think of nothing else.
He happily accepted the berries, as well as leftover meat from some game birds Whitlock had killed the previous morning. While they ate, Whitlock muttered quietly about needing to hunt again the next day. Vheod planned to help him but kept quiet for now.
Removing his breastplate, Vheod stretched out near the fire. The heat didn't bother him. Night birds, insects, and the crackling fire made the only noise for quite some time. To Vheod it seemed there were a great many birds in the area, but he realized it was probably normal and thought nothing more of it. Like the previous night, the three of them didn't really know what to say to each other. Unlike the last night, however, they weren't so exhausted that they collapsed into almost immediate sleep. Melann finally broke the silence.
"Do you know anything about these green stones?" She held up a small glassy stone she'd pulled from her pouch, rolling it between her thumb and forefinger. It was lustrous and sparkled in the firelight, Vheod reached toward her with his hand open. She cropped the stone into his palm, and he felt the stone's smooth surface between his fingers.
He shook his head and said, "No, I've no idea. Does t have meaning?"
“I’m beginning to think so," she told him. "I took his from one of the gnolls that attacked us the first time. I noticed the second group also had some of them. They're collecting them, I think. The stones have meaning to the gnolls. It's a piece of the puzzle is to why they're gathering, I think."
Vheod nodded and looked again at the stone. "Do you think," he asked her slowly, "it has anything to do with us, or with Chare'en?"
“I’m not sure, but I have a feeling it does." Vheod just nodded again. He kept the stone. Melann did not object. In fact, she changed the subject entirely. "Vheod, if you don't feel I'm prying too much, could you tell us a little more about yourself? I mean, we're traveling together, and yet I still feel as if I hardly know anything about you."
Vheod should have been prepared for this, he realized, but he wasn't. Surely these two, particularly Melann, wouldn't want to hear about the horrors of the Abyss. Whitlock would probably trust him less than he already did. Melann, on the other hand, seemed sincerely friendly and welcoming, though Vheod found that hard to believe. Why should one such as she be so accepting of one such as him?
Perhaps she didn't truly understand what he was. All the more reason not to tell them.
Vheod swallowed his food and lied, "There's really very little to tell."
"Oh, I find that remarkably hard to believe," she replied. Her eyes widened. "I mean, you don't even come from this world. That alone is the most incredible thing I've ever heard."
"Well, as I said yesterday, my family-my mothers side-came from this world. I understand they were great sorcerers."
"That figures," Whitlock added with his mouth full.
Melann shot a glare at him but quickly looked back to Vheod. If that was meant to be an insult, Vheod didn't understand it, so he chose to ignore it. Vheod put his food down, no longer in a mood to eat. "I, unfortunately, never knew my mother. She died when I was born. I've been told that's typical when humans give birth to nonhuman offspring. I also never knew my father. Most likely, he doesn't even know I exist. Born in the bowels of the Abyss, I was raised by creatures some call alu-fiends. They're sort of half human like me. Anyway, there were three of them, and they took me after my mother died, deciding to care for me so that I would grow and serve them as a protector. Unfortunately, they died long before I was old enough to protect them. That's the way of things in the Abyss.
"I grew up on the streets of a city called Broken Reach. I met many… unique individuals there." Vheod chortled humorlessly. "It's more cosmopolitan than you might think. Creatures from hundreds of worlds and planes walked those streets. That's where I first heard of Toril. In Broken Reach I learned to be a thief first, a warrior second, and a wizard last. Each type of skill was helpful in my survival. You see, they don't care for my kind in the Abyss. I was looked down on because I was a half-breed."
"I imagine they didn't like the other differences you displayed as well," Melann said. '"What do you mean?" Vheod asked. "The tanar'ri," she answered, matter-of-factly. "They're completely evil. They embody all that is chaos and evil in the multiverse. You're not like that, right? I don't know if most tanar'ri have the free will to choose to be what they are, but you're different in at least that one way."
Vheod thought for a moment. Tanar'ri live in dark, tortuous places and think only of death and rage. Life in this world was more than that.
"I hated them," he answered finally – "I hated what they did to me, and I hated to think of myself as one of them. I never really gave it much more thought than that. I rarely had time to think about whether what I was doing was evil or not."
Before he could stop to think, he found himself continuing on. "Don't get me wrong. In the Abyss I learned to steal, to kill, and to do as I wanted. I worked as a professional assassin." Vheod sighed deeply and looked at the ground. "Just before I left I was hired by a tanar'ri named Nethess to kill a man, and I found I couldn't do it. I'd killed tanar'ri before-and other monstrous things-but I couldn't kill this mortal man. Something stayed my hand. I'm really not sure what it was. For my troubles, I was hounded until I fled. I wound up here."
He looked at Melann with a darting glance. Vheod realized he'd said much more than he'd intended to say, and with much more emotion. He breathed heavily and drew his knees up to his chest. He wished he still had his armor on. He looked away.
"What a sad, sad tale," Melann whispered. "So you really are what you say you are." Whitlock said. It was a statement rather than a question.
"Why would I lie about that?" Vheod retorted, a little more edge to his voice than he wished.
Whitlock just nodded and gave him a stern smile-or perhaps it was a grimace, Vheod couldn't tell. A few more moments of silence passed. Whitlock finished eating. Melann had finished a few minutes before. He took to gathering the remaining food and utensils and packed them into the saddle bags that lay by his bedroll.
"What does your tattoo mean?" Melann asked Vheod quietly.
Again, Vheod's mind reeled. His eyes grew wide-Lords of the Abyss! The Taint! Who knows what shapes it had taken, or where it had placed itself, making his companions believe him to be even more strange. He glanced down at his arms, but it wasn't there.
"The tattoo-on your chest, just below your neck," Melann nodded in his direction. The red tattoo. I never noticed it before, I suppose because of your armor." She chewed her lower lip and looked into his face.
Reflexively, he looked down, but he could just barely see it. Fortunately, it looked rather innocuous. Indistinct, actually. He relaxed a little. "That's not really a tattoo. More a birthmark."
"Oh, I'm sorry. It just seemed so… I don't know. It just seemed more purposeful than a birthmark. I thought perhaps it had some meaning. Please accept my apologies. I didn't mean to be rude."
Vheod just shrugged. Now, he realized, he was going to have to worry about what the Taint was doing during the entire time he spent with Melann and Whitlock.
"It's getting late," Whitlock interjected. He'd finished packing and prepared his bedroll.
Vheod appreciated the change in subject and was more than happy to lay back away from the fire and the light and stop feeling as if he was on trial. After his experience in the village so soon after his arrival, he never knew how the people of this world would react to him or his past, and he was already tired of thinking about it.
Morning came and with it a summer storm. Not like the dangerous storm of a few days before, but rather a cool rainstorm with little wind and only a smattering of thunder. The noise echoed through the mountains in ways Whitlock had never heard before, living in the relatively open Dales all his life. He liked it.
The rain really wasn't so bad. Whitlock appreciated the break from the heat, and he liked how the rain always made Melann so happy. He supposed it was the nurturing nature of the rain and the moisture that it brought to the growing things she loved so much. Anyway, he liked the shine on her cheeks when she smiled in the rain. It made him happy.
While he packed their already soggy things onto the horses, Whitlock noted that the rain would probably make for poor hunting. Most animals would find some sort of shelter. He would have to wait to get the group some food. That thought made Vheod's next comment so strange.
"What sort of bird is that?" the cambion asked. Whitlock looked around, not for the bird, but for Melann, assuming she would answer his question.
Melann, however, was a few feet away, tending to her own horse. Whitlock sighed and looked to where the half-breed pointed. Sure enough, a large raven, black as night, sat in a tree not far away and watched them.
"That's a raven," he said dismissively. Before Whitlock could turn away Vheod asked, "Is it an evil bird?"
"Evil?" Whitlock replied. "No. It's a bird. I suppose some people think they're a bad omen or something sinister like that, but it's just a bird."
"Sinister. An appropriate word. I don't like that bird."
Vheod was strange, to say the least. "Look, this isn't Hell, or wherever you're from. This is… the world. Here, animals can be just animals. You don't have to distrust everything."
"Did my brother just say those words?" Melann asked, approaching the two with a playful smile.
"I came from the Abyss, not Hell," Vheod said softly but succinctly. "There's an important difference but I shouldn't expect you to understand that."
Whitlock turned. After all the liberties Whitlock had given this stranger, he wouldn't be spoken to like that. "Listen, you-"
"Wait. What's all this about?" Melann asked, step ping between them.
"Oh, he saw a bird and it spooked him," Whitlock said dismissively.
Both he and Vheod turned toward where the raven had perched, with Melann following their gaze, but it had gone.
"It's not even there anymore. Happy now?" Whitlock turned to finish his preparations. When he turned back again he saw the reassuring smile that Melann gave to Vheod. He did not like it.
Once they were back on the move, the rain diminished, and by mid-morning had stopped altogether. The trees dripped with a glistening shine, and the grass they passed over was slick, slowing them a little. The day remained cloudy and dark.
"According to Orrag's instructions," Vheod said, “we should probably arrive at the site tomorrow."
"Late tomorrow, perhaps," Whitlock added, looking at the mountains and comparing landmarks with the half-orc's directions. "Assuming he told us the truth in the first place."
They'd been moving at a dangerously slow pace compared to the earlier portions of their journey. That was to be expected, but the threat of the gnolls made the slow pace all the more nerve-racking.
"That's my brother for you," Melann said. She turned to Vheod. "Always the suspicious one."
Vheod didn't respond. Whitlock and Melann dismounted, and they prepared to rest for a while, using the opportunity of a nearby stream to water the horses.
Vheod turned with a start.
"What is it?" Melann hissed, turning in the direction Vheod was looking. Whitlock's hand was already on the hilt of his sword.
"In the trees, to the right," Vheod said, pointing. At first Whitlock relaxed a little, thinking Vheod had seen another bird, but no, something passed between two trees-something humanoid. It was running away.
"A gnoll," Vheod said.
Whitlock leaped back into the saddle and pulled hard at the reins. His boots dug deeply into his steed's sides as he urged it to speed. Crossing the open space, he raced into the trees where the gnoll was quickly loping away. Whitlock drew his sword with a single smooth stroke. The gnoll was probably a scout, going to warn a larger group of their position.
He couldn't let it get away.
The gnoll ran, and ran quickly, but Whitlock saw an opening in the trees large enough to ride through, and he guided his mount into it.
Obviously sensing it was hopeless to attempt to outrun the horse, the gnoll wheeled and pulled at a spiked club that dangled from its belt. Grasping the club in both its clawed hands it planted itself, ready to attack as Whitlock approached.
So Whitlock did what the gnoll was not expecting. Pulling his left foot up onto the saddle, he pushed off and leaped to the right, toward the surprised gnoll. He crashed into it with great force, knocking the gnoll off its feet. The flat of Whitlock's sword smashed into the creature's snout, and blood spattered over both of them as they rolled together. Whitlock used the gnoll's large, shaggy form to absorb the impact of his leap.
When they stopped rolling, the stunned gnoll lay on the ground under Whitlock and against a tree. The warrior placed his blade across the creature's neck, but it was still too dazed to even notice. Whitlock glanced up and saw that his horse had stopped about ten yards away and was circling back out of the trees. He also heard footsteps coming up behind him-Vheod and Melann caught up.
"Melann," Whitlock said, "remember when that dwarves came to Archendale and they couldn't speak our language? That old priest-Thontoman, I think his name was-cast a spell that allowed him to speak with them. Can you do that?"
Melann was breathing heavily as she ran up.
"No.” she replied. "That's not a power at my command."
"I can speak to it," Vheod said. Whitlock noticed that the half-demon wasn't breathing heavily at all. Both Melann and Vheod approached and stood over Whitlock and his prisoner. "Assuming he can speak to anyone."
Whitlock slapped the gnoll's bloody snout a few times-not hard, but enough so it would notice. "Wake up," he spat.
The gnoll began to shake its head. Its eyes focused, and the warrior made sure it saw his blade before he put it back at its neck. "Don't try anything, monster."
Vheod concentrated for a moment, then bent over the creature to touch it.
"Do not attempt to flee, or you will die," Vheod said, in the common tongue.
The gnoll grunted and growled. "What are you doing here?" Vheod asked. The gnoll bared its teeth, and Whitlock could see its black gums. While it smelled of musk and feces, its breath was much worse, stinking of rancid meat. "Tell us or you will die," Vheod's voice took on a cold quality that sent a chill down Whitlock's back.
The gnoll silently moved its head back and forth for a moment, then made noises like barking and grunting.
"He can understand what you're saying?" Melann asked from behind both Vheod and Whitlock. "You sound as though you're speaking normally."
Vheod didn't turn his gaze from the captive. "He can not understand the actual words I speak, exactly, but I can make him understand what I mean- and I can understand what he means."
She paused to consider this, and Vheod resumed the interrogation. "Why were you here? Were you looking for us?"
The gnoll responded with a few short grunts, then a string of unintelligible growls.
"It says," Vheod said, still focused on the gnoll, "that it wasn't here looking for us, but something else."
"They were expecting someone else along this path?" Whitlock asked.
"No, something, it said," Vheod reached into his pocket, and pulled forth the small green stone.
"Is this what you were looking for?" Vheod asked. Though he couldn't understand the gnoll's crude speech, Whitlock could tell by the sudden look of recognition in its eyes that the answer was yes.
"What are they? What are they for?" Vheod asked sternly, still holding up the green stone that glistened, like the wet leaves around them.
The creature spoke again, and Vheod translated, "It says they must gather these lost stones to bring to their master."
"Who in the Nine Hells is their master?" Whitlock demanded.
Vheod gave Whitlock a questioning look, but they asked the gnoll and got a reply. "It says its master is The who has called to its people.' The who will soon awaken from a long sleep.' It doesn't have a name for this master."
"That's why there're so many gnolls in the area” Melann interjected. "Someone has been calling then here."
"Chare'en," Vheod stated flatly. "Is that what the creature said?" Melann asked. "No, not by name." Vheod shook his head. "Look," Whitlock said, "we can talk about that later. Are there more questions we need to ask this thing?"
Vheod proceeded to ask if there were more gnolls nearby, but the creature replied that most of the gnolls in this area were killed or chased off by something it didn't know or understand.
“That sounds bad," Whitlock said. He cleared his throat, not wanting Melann to hear the worry in his voice.
"Perhaps it means the crypt," Melann said suddenly "Perhaps something about the crypt of Chare'en frightened the gnolls away. If we head toward it, we won't have to worry about them while we're there."
"Perhaps," Whitlock said slowly, "but that doesn't mean we don't have to be worried about whatever it is they're afraid of." "True," she agreed.
Vheod sighed audibly. "I doubt there's anything more we can get from this creature." "Now what?" Melann asked.
Vheod turned to her, his brows furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what do we do with our… prisoner?" She looked to Whitlock, who still watched over the gnoll.
Whitlock raised his sword suddenly and brought the pommel down on its head. With a heavy thud, the creature's face fell to one side, and its eyes closed. Whitlock stood, brushed himself off, and walked to where the gnoll's weapon had dropped.
Picking up the club, he said "By the time the creature wakes up we'll be long gone and won't have to worry about any others it might talk to."
Melann sighed, turned and walked back to her horse. Whitlock heard her mutter a prayer to Chauntea under her breath, imploring her to guide them along the right path.
Whitlock lingered back to walk alongside Vheod for a moment. He recognized Vheod's surprise at their comparative leniency toward the gnoll, and knew what Vheod would have done.
He whispered tersely to Vheod., "We don't kill prisoners here, demon," then sped past him, going to gather his own horse.