The travelers said little after their encounter and "conversation" with the gnoll. That night the ground was still wet from the morning rains, so they made their camp in the driest area they could find. The top of a large hill provided a small, flat area suitable for the three of them and the two horses. Their packs offered little to eat, but none of them really seemed to care. Clouds obscured the moon and stars more than the mountains ever could, conjuring an utterly black night. Their fire provided the only light, and they kept it very small so as not to draw too much attention.
As they prepared to sleep, Whitlock took Melann aside to speak with her. They stood in the edges of shadow and light, their faces masked in darkness but their eyes sparkling from the campfire.
"I've been thinking," he began in hushed tones, "about our new traveling companion."
Melann said nothing.
"What if this is all some sort of elaborate ruse? What if he's working with the gnolls for some purpose? His sudden appearance seemed awfully convenient, as did his supposed translation of what the gnoll was saying. How do we know if it really said those things?"
"I don't believe all that," Melann told him, “not for a moment. Why go to all that trouble?"
"To keep us away from the Crypt of Chare'en, for some reason," Whitlock whispered intently.
"Why not just kill us, if that was his intent? He's obviously powerful enough." She shook her head, then continued, "I just can't believe Vheod is somehow leading us into a trap or lying to us. Chauntea would never guide us into such a situation, and I still believe Chauntea is guiding us. She has to be-how else could everything that's happened be explained?" Whitlock just stared at her, working his jaw, his gaze dropping to the ground.
"I hope Vheod is wrong about the nature of Chare'en," Melann said, "but that doesn't mean he's going to betray us. What it comes down to is that I believe in Vheod's sincerity. I envy the strength he must have to struggle against his nature and win. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be in conflict with your own soul, or at least a part of it! Everyone's tempted by evil-that's a part of what evil it is, after all-but his temptations must be unimaginable. You might think that makes it easy to expect the worst of Vheod, but I can only see it as a challenge worthy of the noblest of souls. Such a soul must belong to Vheod."
"I said, you've got a point."
"What?" Melann was shocked out of her speech by her brother. He must have spoken while she was rambling on. "Oh, sorry."
"I don't know why he wouldn't just try to kill us."? Whitlock whispered, "so well assume you're right for now, but I assure you, I'm going to be watching him. If he's plotting against us, I’ll know."
Melann sighed in exasperation, frustration, and fear.
In the morning, Vheod awoke from a night of fitful dreams. He'd dreamed of running about in a maze of underground tunnels. No matter where he went there seemed to be no way out. He felt as though the tunnels were leading him ever onward, toward some dark fate he could see coming but could not avoid.
The sun had already risen, but still cowered behind the mountains, giving the sky a light purple glow. The clouds still loomed above and gave no hint of parting that day. The air was moist but pleasantly fragrant in a way that might take him many years to truly become accustomed to. He was willing to try, he thought with a smile.
Melann was awake, not very far away, searching through some bushes for berries or other edible plants for breakfast. Vheod wasn't hungry, but thought to offer to provide some game for a meal. He stood, preparing himself for a short hunt. Melann turned at the sound of his rising.
"Good morning," she said, smiling. She held a small handful of red berries.
In the Abyss, plant life is twisted and evil-viper trees, clawgrass, and the blood-drinking thorns that Vheod remembered so well. Here it was pure. Vheod admired Melann's dedication to nurturing growing things. It seemed like a worthwhile purpose in life. "Good morning," he returned, a little awkwardly. Vheod gathered some of his things together. "Perhaps I can add to what you have gathered there. Surely there's some small animal or bird around here that-"
"No, I'll go." The voice came from behind Vheod. It was Whitlock. Vheod turned to see him already taking up a small crossbow he'd not seen the warrior use before. Whitlock scowled at Vheod and turned, walking out of the camp. Vheod watched him go but said nothing.
Melann walked over to Vheod, offering him some berries. "He…" Melann began to explain, but never finished. Vheod nodded sternly.
“I know he doesn't trust me. I cannot blame him for that."
Melann smiled, still holding up the berries. "We've had this conversation before," she said.
"Yes," Vheod said, taking a berry in his long fingers and popping it into his mouth.
Melann laid the berries on a cloth on the ground and searched through their packs, probably looking for any remaining bread or cheese. Vheod wished again that he'd thought to bring along his own supplies-not for himself, but to offer to Melann and Whitlock.
Vheod looked at Melann, and watched her prepare the food. He turned to look in the direction Whitlock’s had gone, and finally back to Melann.
"Not having grown up with siblings or a family of any kind," Vheod said, "I can only guess at the relationship you and Whitlock share. You must care about each other very much." He turned away, suddenly no longer able to look directly at Melann.
"I’ve never really worked with anyone or been cared for by anyone," he continued. "I've never encountered anyone worth caring about."
Vheod lowered his voice to almost a whisper.' "Melann, I want you to know I am sorry about your parents. Even though I don't believe any good can come from visiting the place where Chare'en rests, I do hope you and your brother can find another means with which to lift the curse on your family."
"Thank you, Vheod," she replied, looking up at him only for a moment. She added, "We're not ready to give up."
"I know, and I even understand. That's why I'm going with you. I want to make sure that when you discover that-as I believe-you've made an error, I can be of some help in ensuring nothing goes wrong, and Chare'en is not freed."
Can a man trust his own feelings, Vheod thought, particularly a man whose soul is half demon? Vheod wondered how a cambion could ever truly know which half of him was guiding his actions. The fact that Chare'en was his great-grandfather, and the fact that the Taint seemed to be leading him along his current path, worried him. He couldn't share that worry with Melann, though-not yet.
Melann didn't say anything, nor had she apparently found any more food in her pack. She put the pack down with a sigh, and the sound was accompanied by a far-off cry of surprise and pain.
"Whitlock!" She turned toward the sound. Vheod heard the yell and what seemed like the sound of a sword being drawn. He ran off toward the noise, followed quickly by Melann.
Wet grass under Vheod's feet made footing slippery as he loped down the hillside on which they had camped. He kept his sword sheathed in order to have both hands free to steady himself as he ran. He heard a resonant, high-pitched screech he couldn't identify. At the bottom of the hill, a number of pine trees grew, their spread branches forming a thick, dark green wall. Vheod plunged into the trees. The needles scratched against him as he ran but didn't cut his leathery skin. The earth underneath his feet was covered with a thick carpet of brown needles and old pine cones, but the thick trees had never allowed grass or underbrush to grow. The ground under the needles was soft and moist and gave with each of Vheod's heavy, booted steps. He paused for just a moment to look behind him Vheod couldn't see Melann through the trees, but he thought he heard her approach. Another high-pitched screech made him turn back the way he was headed.
Vheod heard another shrill cry, but this time it came from behind him. He stopped and turned yet again. He heard Melann cry out, "Vheod!"
He ran back. Melann lay on the ground at the edge of the trees. Her shoulder was bare, and crimson gashes gushed blood. Next to her stood a black bird at least five feet tall, with its outstretched wings measuring fifteen feet or more. The slashes must have come from this creature's talons, and it wasn't done with her yet. The gigantic raven raised itself over Melann, ready to strike her with its huge, black beak.
As he charged, Vheod yelled to draw its attention. The ploy worked, and the monster looked up. Vheod's I blade sang as he slid it from its scabbard. The raven silently stared with shining eyes as black as oil. As Vheod burst from the trees, he saw that the sky was black with ravens. Most of them were smaller than the creature that stood over Melann.
He also saw that Melann was far from helpless She cast a spell-more of a beseeching prayer-as he ran to her prone form. She waved her small holy symbol above her head, toward the sky.
A surge of energy washed over Vheod. Cool and warm at the same time, this pleasant power flowed through him, making his muscles relax and obey hid with precision. His heart beat strong and steady it his chest, and all manner of fatigue fled. When the energy reached within him, he felt it wrap around his soul and gently caress it, as though he was being strengthened and supported in the battle he was about to fight. He realized this was a feeling he'd never felt before.
Vheod had been blessed.
A stinging sensation stabbed into his right leg. It felt like a dozen needles poking into his flesh at rapid intervals. He had no idea what it was, and when he looked down he saw nothing. He had to ignore it. He turned his attention back to the giant bird.
Melann was trying to scramble away from the distracted raven. It kept its wide eyes on Vheod and opened its beak, producing the high screech that Vheod had heard earlier. He leaped at the creature with his sword, and as he did, half a dozen of the more normal-sized ravens swooped down at him from above. The large bird pulled its head back, dodging Vheod's blow while its smaller brethren dived at him. Their beaks and claws struck like tiny, flying daggers, cutting into his flesh in many places at once.
The large raven, its wings still outstretched, thrust itself beak-first at Vheod. He realized just in time that the small birds only meant to distract him, and he swung his sword like a powerful club, batting away the sharp beak in a clumsy parry. Meanwhile, at least two of the small ravens landed on Vheod's shoulder and back and tore at his flesh with greater ferocity, their beating wings battering him into distraction. The movement all around disoriented him, but he planted his feet firmly on the ground and steadied his gaze on the real threat.
He lashed at the giant raven with his sword, but it quickly dodged the swings, using its wings to leap up into the air a few feet with a single beat. It stabbed at Vheod with its savage beak and even attempted to jump on him, tearing downward with its large talons.
Vheod lunged first to one side, then another to avoid its attacks.
A flash of light behind Vheod startled some of the attacking birds, driving them away. Melann had cast another spell. He was glad for the help, and grateful to see she was still all right. In fact, he was surprised at just how important her safety was becoming to him. Still, one small raven ripped into the flesh on his shoulder, with repeated strike after vicious strike. Clenched in ferocity, Vheod's free hand lashed upward and grabbed the bird. With a look of hatred and anger in his eyes, in an instant he crushed the bird in his hand, squeezing the life from its soft flesh and brittle bones. The thought came from deep within him to thrust the raven up to his mouth and tear its head off with his teeth, but just at that moment he glanced to one side to see the shock and revulsion or Melann's face. He looked away immediately and threw the dead bird to the ground. What was wrong? What did she see? No!
He realized that she saw him for what he was- of what a part of him was. The look in her eyes made him realize it was something he no longer wanted to be. Unfortunately, the whole event distracted him- just as the small ravens had intended. The large bird's beak tore into Vheod's arm and almost knocked him off his feet. He slashed at it with his sword drive it back, and it fluttered into the air and down again a few yards away.
Vheod looked up and saw still more small ravens descending to attack. He knew he had to finish the battle quickly. Swinging his sword wildly to ward off any smaller birds around him, he lunged at the giant raven with renewed vigor. He focused on the blessing bestowed on him by Melann and mentally thrust this power into his arms. With a single mighty blow, he chopped the monster's head from its body. The dark, bloody mess fell to the wet ground in a heap, huge black feathers cascading down from the sky.
Before Vheod could even catch his breath, Melann shouted, "We've got to get to Whitlock!"
She ran into the trees, disappearing as if she had submerged herself in dark green water. Vheod dived into the trees behind her, the needles of the pines tearing into the small wounds that covered his body. This time he couldn't ignore the scratches, but he forced himself onward regardless.
Vheod ran, following Melann as she darted between trees. She moved fast, and he pushed himself to keep up. Despite her wound, her concern for her brother must have pushed her onward. Vheod, it seemed, was even more hurt than she he kept her within sight, however. Too focused and wounded to say anything, he ran behind her. That alone kept him too busy to even think.
As quickly as they had passed into the thick expanse of trees at the bottom of the hill, they suddenly passed out of it as the land rose up to another crest. Coming out of the trees was like passing through a wall from one world to the next. As before, the sky was filled with ravens. On the ground, a giant raven's body lay sprawled, with feathers scattered everywhere. A crossbow bolt rose up out of its breast. That and a number of bloody sword cuts indicated that Whitlock most likely had slain it, yet the warrior was nowhere around.
A screech tore through the sky above them. Both Vheod and Melann looked upward as one, and to their horror they saw Whitlock's body held suspended in a giant raven's claws. Whitlock lay limp, his sword and crossbow fallen from his dangling arms.
"No!" Melann cried in terror. Vheod kept a cool head. A keen mind is worth far more than a sword, he'd been taught. Sheathing his sword, he drew power from within him, calling on his inhuman essence. Using that power, Vheod rose off the ground, upward into the cloudy, raven-filled sky. He positioned himself so he would intercept the monstrous raven that carried Whitlock away. It seemed to be circling around to the west, which gave Vheod the opportunity to rise up ahead and underneath it.
Like black shadows, two more giant ravens swooped out of the sky toward him. Vheod called on a spell, reciting the incantation quickly and flawlessly. His outstretched hand launched red daggers of enchanted energy. The magical darts flew unerringly toward one of the monstrous ravens, striking its wings. The huge bird shrieked and plummeted to the ground. Still, the other soared closer. Vheod rose as fast as his tanar'ri levitation would allow, reaching upward to grab Whitlock out of the claws of his captor. The approaching raven spread his talons, ready to rake Vheod.
Before it could reach him, something streaked by the raven's wing, forcing it to veer to one side. Vheod looked down and saw Melann, surrounded by normal-sized ravens, holding Whitlock's crossbow. As he neared the steadily rising raven, Vheod flung his body toward it. His grasping hands found Whitlock's foot as the raven flew over. It wasn't the hold that he wanted, but he hung on with all his might.
The raven squawked in protest as Vheod's weight added to its load. The cambion knew he could use the magical lift to suspend him even as the raven dragged him along, but he wanted to force it down. The giant raven descended, shaking Whitlock and thus Vheod. Still Vheod clung to the warrior's foot. It worried Vheod that he saw no reaction from Whitlock at all this transpired. He looked to his face to see if he was breathing but couldn't tell.
Like a rain of knives, a torrent of ravens dived into Vheod, stabbing and tearing with beaks and claws rising his free arm, he beat at the ravens to make them go away. As soon as he forced one away, however, another grabbed his flesh with tiny talons and began attacking with its beak. As one raked his face, his vision was filled with flapping black feathers. He wanted to reach up and grab Whitlock with his free and, but he had to use it to protect his own face and eyes from the relentless attack.
Suddenly, he felt a raven land on his arm. He reach it to grab at it but missed. As he clung to Whitlock's boot, the small raven tore into the flesh of his hand hen each individual finger. He clenched his fingers tighter and tighter, but they became slippery with his own blood. The giant raven carrying the two of them dropped lower and lower down into the trees. Still Vheod clung to Whitlock.
With a sudden jerk, the raven shook Whitlock and wrenched his boot free of his foot. Vheod suddenly bund himself covered in ravens holding nothing but boot. As the giant raven rose once again up into the sky, Vheod dropped. He frantically focused on his Dower to levitate, but it wasn't enough to completely compensate for the momentum that carried him into the tree tops. Branches and needles tore at his Bounded, bloody flesh, and the ravens loosed him and flew away.
Vheod finally used his supernatural power to catch himself and slow his descent, sinking down from the tree tops. The ability granted him mostly vertical movement, and certainly not the speed needed to catch the huge raven now. He hit the ground and crumpled, closing his eyes. His wounds quickly dragged him toward unconsciousness.
Before the darkness could completely claim him, Vheod felt a something warmth flow through his body. He felt the pain from some of the larger wounds fade, while the sting of the smaller wounds disappeared completely. Despite a longing to enjoy this pleasure fully, letting him fall into a peaceful sleep, he forced his eyes open. Melann kneeled over him, Whitlock's sword and crossbow at her feet. Sweat and blood covered her body and stained her hair. It appeared the ravens had been as savage to her as they'd been to Vheod.
"Come, Vheod," she pleaded. "We can take the horses. We can follow the raven. It's got to land somewhere."
She was right. He rose, saying, "You should heal yourself first. You can't make it too far like that."
She nodded quickly and recited her plea to Chauntea. Her eyes contained an intensity Vheod hadn't seen in her before now. He watched as her own gashes and bleeding cuts disappeared, her healing magic sealing the wounds as if they'd never existed at all.
"You saw him," she said. Vheod wondered if she blamed him for his failure to bring Whitlock down. He'd been so close…
"He was still alive, wasn't he?" she asked as she stood and grabbed her brother's weapons.
"Yes," Vheod lied. "I saw him breathing." He handed Whitlock's boot to her-he'd held on to it the whole time.
She forced a weak smile and took it. "We've got to get going, then. It flew to the west."
The two of them ran back through the pine copse once again. They crossed though the wooded vale. Neither spoke.
Crossing through the trees, they ascended the hill and reached their camp. Melann stored Vheod's sword and crossbow on her horse and quickly threw their packs over the steed's back. Vheod helped load Whitlock's horse.
Melann paused only long enough to ask Vheod one plaintive question: "What's going on?"
"Orrag spoke of someone called the Ravenwitch. He said I should beware her. This can't be a coincidence." She only nodded and went back to her work. A tear-probably more from exasperation than anything-flowed down her cheek. Something inside Vheod grew tight at the sight of it.
When they were finished loading the horses, Vheod climbed into the saddle of Whitlock's mount. It snorted and stomped as if it sensed something wrong. It took Vheod a moment to realize that what it sensed was him. The creatures of this world would never let him forget how different he was. He jerked hard on the reins with a grimace crossing his face. His might brought the horse under control, but he kept the grimace. Melann looked away from this scene and mounted her mare. The two of them beckoned the animals to speed.
They headed west, looking upward for the raven. The sky was still filled with birds, but the diabolical creatures no longer paid them any attention. As they flew to the west as one, they made it easy for Vheod and Melann to follow.
The saddle chafed at a wound on his leg that Melann's healing hadn't coped with-Vheod's body still sported a number of small scrapes and scratches, in fact. He looked down to his thigh and saw that his leggings were ripped open. He did remember a pain there early on in the fight. He saw that the Taint had been slashed by a raven's beak. The pain he remembered, however, came before ravens swooped down on him, Vheod thought, and it had been more of a prickling than the sharper pain he now felt from the wound.