Melann hoped that keeping up with the ravens would be easier, but even with their swift, well rested horses she and Vheod fell behind. The birds didn't need to worry about the physical landscape, while Melann and Vheod were forced to guide their mounts around trees and rocks and ride up and down steep slopes. The ravens flew straight and swiftly together like a flight of arrows launched from powerful bows.
Melann thought about Vheod's words. She didn't like the sound of someone who called herself the Ravenwitch. What could this witch possibly want with Whitlock? Was it something special about him, or was he just a random victim of some horrible desire? Had they fallen into someone's trap, or was Whitlock simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
She glanced at Vheod and saw the grim determination in his set jaw. Melann was glad not to be alone. If Vheod hadn't been with her, she was sure the ravens would've carried her off as well. His presence comforted her, though she was still just a little afraid of him as well.
The savage fury that Vheod displayed reminded her that he was, in part, a demon. When she saw him fighting with the ravens, for a short while it seemed he took on a completely different countenance. He'd seemed a different person-if a person at all. She didn't like thinking these thoughts, but they came to her unhidden. A part of Vheod was, and probably always would be, a monster.
The glimpse of the savage Vheod she'd seen seemed the exception, not the rule. If she could keep him from getting into similar situations, perhaps she could help him resist his evil nature. Of course, having him ride with her to encounter the ravens again-and perhaps their mysterious mistress-probably wasn't a good start. She vowed to herself to do whatever she could to help him fight to be the man he wanted himself to be. Perhaps that was part of the reason the Mother of All had brought them together.
Or perhaps Chauntea knew Melann would need Vheod's help to rescue Whitlock. She shuddered again at the thought of riding into unknown danger like this alone. Surely Chauntea was guiding her and taking care of her.
They followed the ravens, pushing their horses as much as they dared. The sky remained mostly overcast, and the air was cooler than it had been. Whitlock and his captor were out of sight, but Melann and Vheod moved fast enough to see the cloud of smaller ravens moving steadily westward. Once or twice they lost sight of the birds but saw them again once they crested the next hill.
They entered a wide valley filled with trees and lush greenery. Melann assumed that a river most likely flowed through the area, fostering and nurturing all the plant life. Once again, they lost sight of the ravens. The canopy of trees was thick, casting shadows over large areas, but letting in just enough light in others to produce a thick undergrowth of grasses, bushes, and climbing vines. The air was still.
Wordlessly exchanging glances of indecision, the two slowed a little and rode westward through the woods. As they rode, Melann wondered if they'd lost the ravens for good. Perhaps the birds led them into this wooded area for just that reason. They'd seemed rather intelligent, at least in their ability to coordinate their actions. Melann wondered if she and Vheod had been drawn into a trap-a fate as horrible as that which befell Whitlock. Melann steeled herself against her fear, but she remained wary.
Blood coated the blade of his sword. Vheod looked around and discovered he had no idea where he was, or how he'd gotten there. He stood on a smooth wooden floor, thin wisps of gray-blue mist coiled around his feet and partially obscured the floor, but he could see and feel enough to know it was made of wood. Rounded wooden walls rose to either side, each almost close enough to touch. Smatterings of black moss grew on the wood, clinging like perspiration. The air was cold, but damp. He held a torch in his left hand, which had been burning for some time, it appeared. He didn't remember lighting it. The light revealed that, forward and back, this passage of wood extended into darkness.
Where was he? What had happened? He saw that the blood on the blade was mixed with some yellowish substance he couldn't identify. He was wounded, and while he remembered a number of scratches from the battle that morning-he assumed it was that morning-he seemed to have a few new cuts and something that looked like a bite on his leg. The Taint had moved to the back of his hand, and seemed no worse for the fact that it had been cut by a raven's beak earlier in the day.
Melann was nowhere to be seen. Vheod stood in a dark corridor that seemed to have been hollowed out of wood. He looked down the corridor and listened closely. He heard nothing ahead- He checked behind him, and this time he heard movement in the distance, impossible to identify.
Vheod decided to move back that way. Before he did, however, he whispered an intense, "Melann!" He repeated it a few more times. No response came. Nothing changed.
He walked down the wooden passage. The torchlight revealed no signs of boards or even tool marks on the wood. In fact, if anything, it seemed that he walked through a hollowed out log rather than a building made of boards. The curve to the walls and floor gave the impression that he moved through a natural passage or tube that extended through a tree, if such a thing was possible.
The passage took Vheod a few paces then reached a staircase leading down. The steps were of the same smooth wood as the walls and floor, but no tool had crafted these regular, perfect stairs. Some sort of sorcery must be involved here-wherever here was.
Vheod looked behind him, again hoping to see Melann. How could they have been separated? He looked down at the torch he didn't remember lighting, and the sword he didn't remember drawing. Blood.
Lords of the Abyss, not. The very thought that he might, have harmed Melann churned his stomach. How could he have done such a thing and not realized it? He looked at the Taint. Was it possible, he wondered in horror, that somehow something else had taken control of him? Worse yet, he considered that it might not be something else at all-perhaps the tanar'ri side of his nature had forced him to do things he now no longer remembered.
He couldn't remember ever losing time like this before, but maybe his dark, fiendish side did this to him from time to time. Perhaps he wasn't as in control of his life as he thought.
Vheod ran down the stairs, this time shouting, "Melann!" He so wanted reality to prove his fears wrong. "Melann!" he cried out again as he reached the bottom of the winding stairs. Already he grew disoriented in this strange enclosed environment. Mist still swirled around every footstep he took. The bottommost step led him into a rounded chamber, the torchlight illuminating most of it. Vheod saw no furnishings, but there was still some sign that an intelligence had designed the chamber and lived within it. He now understood the movement he'd heard.
Ravens flitted about the room, roosting on a high shelf along the opposite side from the stairs he'd just descended. Their droppings stained the floor and gave the room an acrid smell. Black rose-covered vines ran up along some of the walls, entwining around the ravens' roost and down again. The ravens stopped when he entered, watching him with their black, soulless eyes. Emotionlessly they stared, as if waiting to see what he might do or say.
Vheod did and said nothing. He stared back in confusion. Ravens. He must have somehow arrived here while following the ravens that had taken Whitlock. The last thing he remembered was riding through a valley thick with trees, Melann at his side. She'd appeared so frightened. He'd wanted to comfort her, but things like that didn't come easily to him. He had no experience with such displays of emotion or caring.
"Melann!" he called again.
At the sound of his shout, some of the ravens nervously flapped their wings, and two or three even flitted to a higher perch on the shelf. A few cawed.
Vheod looked around him quickly. He stepped into the room. The chamber's only other exit was another curving staircase, leading down even further-Keeping a cautious eye on the ravens, Vheod went to the other staircase and went down. The ravens did nothing, though they watched his every move.
The stairs led Vheod down into yet another room that seemed identical to the first, including the climbing rose vines, though there was no roost filled with ravens. Instead, a wooden table and four simple stools filled most of the room. Vheod looked at the furniture and saw that it wasn't furniture at all. The stools and even the table grew up out of the floor, from the same smooth, uncut wood that made the rest of this place. Obviously, some sort of plant-affecting sorcery was at work here, though even that didn't explain where he was.
A few bird droppings scattered about the floor, just enough to indicate that the ravens-or some of the ravens-came down here occasionally, but this wasn't their main roost. The mist was even thinner here, and rose vines crawled all about the walls and on the table. Vheod didn't see any of the black moss here, or even in the room above, like he'd seen in the corridor where it had seemed he first arrived.
Another stairway descended farther, and Vheod left this room and the sounds of ravens behind. This stairway led down into silence but not darkness. Vheod saw that he no longer needed the torch he carried, for the room below was illuminated by a glowing sphere of soft, blue light. The sphere floated in the middle of the room, which seemed about the same size as the two above it, and round like those as well. These rooms seemed grown rather than built. As before, the room was all wood-almost. In this chamber, unlike those above, the wood on the floor parted, leaving patches of exposed, wet soil. Another staircase descended farther on the opposite side of the chamber, but Vheod could see that it sank down into the earth, not wood.
Near the bottom of the stairs, the climbing black rose vines formed a curtain so thick Vheod couldn't see what it concealed. Judging by its size, however, he thought it might be a door. He had little desire to descend underground at this point, so he hoped the answers he sought would lie beyond the curtain. He paused to yell for Melann again but received no response. In a change of tactics, he called out, "Whitlock?" but still no reply came.
Trying to avoid the long, sharp thorns the vines presented, Vheod gingerly pushed the curtain to one side. Even though he was careful, a thorn pricked him lightly, and he winced for a moment, then cursed himself for forgetting to use his sword to move the curtain again. Again?
What did that mean? He definitely, for a moment at least, felt as though he'd moved this curtain aside before.
Using his sword to help this time, Vheod passed through the curtain and found himself back in the woods. These seemed to be the same trees into which he and Melann had ridden, though the exact surroundings were not familiar. In the distance, Vheod thought he heard running water, like a river or a stream. Ahead he saw their horses. Both lay slain on the ground, dozens of ravens picking at the flesh of their corpses.
He stepped, out of the trunk of a giant tree, larger than he really had the time or inclination to grasp. At his feet, near the curtain-door, lay a giant raven like those he'd fought earlier, dead. It had been hacked by a blade, and its bloody corpse actually brought a sigh of relief to Vheod. The blood on his blade was almost certainly the same blood that stained the feathers of the giant raven.
The blood was not Melann's. He hadn't lost control to his darker side, or at least so it seemed. His memories had still left him somehow, for it seemed almost certain he'd been here before and fought this monstrous raven. There were many unanswered questions, the most important of which was where was Melann, and what was this yellowish syrupy substance on his blade?
As if in answer to his silent query, a creature trotted around the trunk of the tree to the doorway in front of which Vheod still stood. This creature seemed canine, walking on four legs. It stood almost chest high to the cambion, and its flesh was a dark yellow. Unlike a dog, which it resembled in the shape of its face, its tall, pointed ears, and its body's shape, it had no fur. Instead, covering its flesh were the same black tendrils of rose vines that grew within the chambers through which Vheod had just passed, and he now noticed they grew so thickly over the surface of the giant tree that he almost couldn't see its bark. The only difference between the black rose vines on the dog creature was that the thorns on it were pronounced and appeared particularly dangerous.
The thorn-covered beast growled at Vheod and leaned back into a battle-ready stance. Vheod had no desire to fight this dog, but judging by the wounds on its back and side and the yellowish substance that oozed from them like sap from a tree, he'd fought before. Now the creature that he couldn't remember wanted a rematch. Vengeance and anger filled its red eyes. “Fine," Vheod said to the beast resignedly. "If this is what you want so badly, come and get it." He hefted his blade, dropping the torch to the bare earth so he could hold his sword in both hands.
The thorny dog leaped at him, snarling. Its yellow teeth were the same color as its flesh, and its tongue was simply a darker version of the same shade. Vheod suddenly realized the dog was more plant than animal.
He slashed with his sword but misjudged the hound's speed. The dog ducked under the swing and lunged at Vheod, teeth bared. Vheod's breastplate protected him from the creature's bite, but the force of the attack knocked Vheod to the ground. Worse, the creature's thorn-covered hide slashed Vheod's arms as he struggled to get the beast off him. He wriggled free and a half-hearted slash with his sword caught the dog's underbelly, slicing into it. The wound oozed more sap, and the beast howled and backed away, angrier than ever.
The dog circled around Vheod, which gave him time to regain his feet. Lunging at him yet again, the beast went for Vheod's throat, but he was ready this time. A quick thrust with his sword plunged the blade into the dog's spine-if it had one-through the back of its neck. Vheod pounded the hilt of his sword with his off hand to shove it even deeper. Phlegmy sap bubbled up from the wound, and the beast fell silently to its side with a gurgling noise. Vheod didn't know if it could really be dead, for he wasn't sure what actually defined its life.
He drew his sword out of the creature and wiped the sap and the blood from it on the sparse grass the shade prevented much, from growing around the looming tree. Vheod looked back to the horses and saw that the ravens had ceased their carrion feeding. Now they all stared at him. An urge to charge at them, scaring them off or killing them, rose to his throat and into his mind, but something made him look up.
Silent, staring ravens teemed over the impossibly high branches of the trees. Some appeared, at least at this distance, to be as large as the giant raven at his feet, or the one that carried Whitlock away. This wouldn't be a good battle to pick, he surmised. Not now. Besides, he wasn't sure what it could accomplish.
With the horses here, he reasoned, Melann could only be somewhere inside the tree. They must have entered together. Something stole away his memories, or his consciousness, or both. Perhaps the same thing had happened to her. Vheod thought of Melann wandering around inside the tree alone, and he picked up the torch again. It had gone out, but a few moment's work with flint and tinder nursed the flames back to life. Vheod thrust himself back through the curtain, this time remembering to use his sword to move the thorny curtain aside.
Something bid Vheod to check the stairway that descended into the earth. Though he thought it more likely that she was above, nearer where he found himself earlier, he crossed to the stairs.
The torchlight proved valuable as he descended. The passage at the bottom of the steps was low and narrow. Roots, some huge, some small, wrapped around the passage and sometimes bisected it. Small roots dangled from the ceiling, and Vheod had to be careful not to ignite them with his flaming brand. Moist earth was all around him, which produced a thick, rich odor. Soon after leaving the steps, the passage split into two. Vheod chose the left path, but it split again after fewer than a dozen steps. He could hear dripping water in the distance, but there was little sign of occupation.
Vheod had an idea. He kneeled down on the ground. Lowering the torch, he examined an area of soft earth on the floor between two roots. His search proved fruitful, for he found two booted footprints still fresh in the dirt. Neither was his, but they might have been Melann's. He pressed onward.
When he came to the next branching intersection in the root tunnels, he searched the ground for more tracks. Finding another boot print, he followed that branch of the passage. Occasionally, he had to duck underneath or climb over a root that stretched from wall to wall into the passageway. The going was slow, and the hanging roots and tubers continually made Vheod jump, for their startling appearance always resembled the movement of some creature. The weight of the earth above him and narrowness of the tunnel was oppressive. Perhaps it was only Vheod's imagination, but it seemed the passages continually became narrower and narrower. His hair and clothing was soon caked with fresh, black earth that clung to him when he brushed too close to a wall or the ceiling above him. The rich odor of the fresh soil became a thick, gagging, overbearing atmosphere of worm-laden dirt and mud.
He tracked the passage of the booted prints farther, but after two more intersections, he noticed something odd about them. It appeared that the person making these footprints was dragging something, or two things. Twin marks marred the earth. Farther on, Vheod found still more such tracks. Now, however, he could tell that the load the individual was dragging was a body-the marks he found were another pair of boots sliding along the ground. He hurried forward.
Finally, the narrow passage gave way to a larger chamber. The ceiling remained low, but the chamber stretched out to the left and the right farther than the light of Vheod's torch allowed him to see. His tanar'ri eyes allowed him greater vision in the dark than most men, but he still couldn't make out the extreme edges of the chamber. The torchlight passed over the dangling and protruding roots creating strange, snaky shadows. These serpentine shades danced and writhed in his flickering light, disturbed by his own movements.
The sound of dripping water was louder now. In fact, Vheod could hear what sounded like the gentle splashes of slowly running water somewhere ahead in the darkness. He advanced and saw that the chamber was cleft in two by a chasm at least fifteen feet wide. Gazing down into the trench, Vheod saw that water ran slowly over twenty feet below in an underground stream.
A single wide root stretched across the chasm like a bridge. Vheod approached and judged the root to be about three feet wide-enough to allow him to cross. He climbed on the rounded, twisted root, and made his way across. Numerous branching roots eased his passage, allowing him something to grasp as he walked across the treacherous, makeshift bridge. This tactic had forced him to sheathe his sword, but his weary arm was glad not to carry it for a while anyway.
His boot slipped on the soft, damp root, and his body slid to one side of the bridge. As his feet gave way underneath him, he flailed out with his free arm. He frantically grasped for anything he could get his hands on. He found himself dangling below the bridge, hanging from nothing but a single root strand. His shout of surprise and fear echoed throughout the underground chamber and across the submerged river.
He needed both hands to pull himself up and fast- before the root he clung to tore free. That would mean dropping the torch, however. Vheod considered trying to hold the torch in his mouth for a moment, but visions of his long hair catching fire forced him to drop it into the darkness and water.
Vheod heard a muted splash, then all went dark. He cursed himself for a fool as he realized he could have thrown the torch to either side of the chasm, hoping it might rest, and if it went out, he would at least have a slowly diminishing light rather than the darkness that now enveloped him. Vheod's thoughts were interrupted by a sudden jerk and a cracking, tearing sound. He was breaking free from the root bridge.
Using his weight to his advantage, Vheod swung himself on the quickly tearing rootlet and grasped in the darkness like a bund man. His now-free hand found another hanging root strand, and he grasped it just in time as the first tore away. The sudden added weight, however, caused this new strand to begin to tear, so he thrust his hand upward to find another.
Somehow he managed to grab hold of yet another strand. Summoning all his strength, Vheod pulled himself upward so he could grasp another, higher strand. His hands clawed at the side of the massive main root as he found higher and higher minor roots that branched from it to pull himself up. Finally, he sat atop the bridge, straddling it like a wide horse. Vheod's tanar'ri vision began to adjust to the complete darkness enough to allow him to see a few feet ahead of him. Crawling and scooting along the bridge-not wanting to risk walking across again- he made his way across it to the other side.
Once on the opposite ledge of the chasm, Vheod stood. Without his torch, he could see only a short distance ahead of him, so he drew his sword to use to feel ahead in the dark. He didn't care for the bright light of day, but the utter finality of darkness was worse, and more limiting, though he could see a little. He preferred the light of an overcast day, or twilight- those were similar to the lighting conditions on the layer of the Abyss in which he'd grown up.
Where had he gotten a torch from anyway? Had Melann given it to him? Vheod seemed to remember vaguely there being a few torches mixed in with the siblings' other equipment on the horses. In any event, he moved forward into the darkness.
Since he couldn't see, after two dozen steps or so, he allowed himself the dangerous luxury of calling out again. The danger, of course, came from the fact than everything that might be down here would hear "him-even something that meant him only harm. "Melann?"
Vheod continued walking until his sword bumped into a wall. He followed it along, occasionally grasping the roots that reached out from the wall. He yanked them away from where they hung for no good reason other than to mark his path-a path he probably couldn't see to follow in any event. Vheod considered attempting to make another torch, since he carried flint and tinder with him in his pocket, but he didn't think he could make the moist roots burn well. As he grasped a root projecting out of the earthen wall, it suddenly grabbed back. Vheod looked down at his arm and saw with faint vision a root about half an inch in diameter wrap around his arm. He tried to jerk it away, but the root held fast. He raised his sword, still tugging to free his arm. When he couldn't pull away, he tried to get as much of the root exposed between him and the wall as possible. Having done that as best he could, he hacked at it with his blade. It took two strikes to cut through the root, but when he'd succeeded, the severed part fell away, limp and lifeless.
"Hello?" A voice cried from within the sea of darkness. "Is anyone there?"
Vheod recognized Melann's voice and stumbled toward it in the darkness, moving away from the wall to keep out of the reach of any more strange, grasping tendrils. "Melann! It's me, Vheod." "Vheod, I'm here!"
"Wait," he said in the direction of her voice. She sounded close. Vheod knelt down, setting his sword at his side. He took the flint from his pocket and tried to get a light, even a tiny spark that might set fire to one of the root tendrils he'd torn. After a few moments, he managed to get a spark to light the end of one of them. It wouldn't burn long, but it provided a tiny jewel of light for now.
Vheod saw Melann just a few feet away, up against the wall, held fast by a number of roots that had entangled themselves around her wrists and ankles, as though she was shackled. In fact, the roots that held her resembled conventional manacles too much to be coincidence. Someone was holding her here.
"Melann," he asked her, still a little worried to get too close to the obviously dangerous wall, "is there anyone near?"
"No," she replied, "I don't think so." Her voice was hoarse and dry. Sympathy welled inside him, and he longed to go to her, to free her.
"Who put you here?" Vheod nervously looked around, though he could see very little in the oppressive darkness. His tiny light was already dying.
"I don't know." Her voice seemed a little frantic. "I remember a woman with dark hair. I remember moving against my will, as if I was dragged, then I just remember being here. What happened? How did we get here? Where are we? The last thing I fully remember was riding through the woods "with you." "How long have you been here?" he asked her. "Not long, I… I don't think…"
Perhaps their minds had been affected by the same thing, but she was abducted somehow, and he "wasn't. Still there was much left that needed to be explained. The light winked out. She gasped. Vheod stepped forward and grasped Melann's hand. He was close enough now to see her "without a light. He could see her smile and visibly relax in the darkness when he touched her. He pulled her hand away from the wall as much, as he could and chopped at the root that held her. He could see more roots uncoiling from the wall. "Keep prilling as far from the wall as possible. I'm going to cut these bonds, and when I do, pull that part of you away." He didn't tell her why. He couldn't afford to have her worrying about advancing roots that she couldn't see anyway.
Melann did as Vheod told her, and he managed to cut away the roots and avoid being grasped himself. She thrust herself completely away from the wall just as more roots reached for her. He guided her away from the edge of the cavern. The roots on the floor where they knelt to catch their breath didn't react the way those along the wall had. Apparently the animate roots had been enchanted. Whoever lived in this tree fortress obviously used the lower level for prison or dungeon.
Melann didn't speak for a few moments, and Vheod realized she was praying. When she finished, she raised her cupped hands above her, and they filled with magical light that illuminated the area around them much more brightly than Vheod's pitiful little flame.
When his eyes adjusted to the new light, he looked at Melann carefully. Moist dirt was caked all over her clothes, face, and hair.
"Are you all right? Are you hurt?" "Other than some chaffed wrists," she said with raised brows, "I think I'm fine. You look as though you've been fighting."
"Do you remember anything, Melann?" He helped her to her feet, so that both of them were standing in the chill chamber. The air was still, but the water moving in the underground stream echoed in the distance. "Do you remember arriving at this… giant tree filled with ravens? Do you remember a thorny dog, or lighting a torch and exploring the inside?"
"The inside of a tree?" Melann asked, looking around.
"Yes," Vheod answered, nodding slightly. "We are below it now-in the roots."
"What you're saying seems to strike a familiar chord within me, like you're describing a distant dream. The events sound familiar, but I don't really remember them."
She brushed dirt away from her face and hair, then patted the soil from her clothes as well. She'd left her traveling cloak on her horse-as she'd done most of the time during the day. She wore only her light leather jerkin and gray cloth trousers, both torn and dirty.
"The same is true with me, I'm afraid. I've only been able to piece together what I've told you through interpolation. The last thing I clearly remember is riding through the woods with you."
"You said something about the tree being filled with ravens." It was a statement, not a question. She stopped brushing the dirt away and stared into Vheod's dark eyes. "Does that mean this is the lair of the Ravenwitch?"
"I think so," Vheod replied.
"Do you know where Whitlock is?"
"No, but I think I've got a good idea where to start looking."
Melann nodded, her eyes once again wide with optimism. "Well then, let's go."