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Chapter Thirteen

Melann couldn't help but find the giant tree fascinating. As frightened and confused as she was, walking around inside a giant, living tree thrilled her. Despite the Ravenwitch's evil-at least, Melann assumed the witch was evil-she obviously knew wondrous secrets about the care and nurturing of growing things. Melann saw nothing to indicate that the tree had been mistreated or was unhealthy. On the contrary, it appeared to be thriving, as did the rose vines that grew throughout the interior, climbing and winding their way around everything. How the grew without sunlight was a mystery to Melann, but the interior of the tree was far more mysterious and wonderful. Obviously, somehow, the Ravenwitch had communicated with the tree on some level, coaxing it to take the shapes she desired. Corridors, rooms, staircases, doorways-the place was amazing.

Melann and Vheod briefly explored the subterranean root section of the tree, but Vheod seemed convinced that the Ravenwitch had Whitlock with her and that she would be in the upper reaches of the tree. Birds, he reasoned, stick mostly to the branches high above the ground, and Melann could find no reason to argue with him. The truth was, she really had no idea what to do next, but determination to find her brother drove her onward. It was good that she had Vheod to direct that driving need. She felt like some sort of wild storm, full of energy but aimless and without bearing.

Vheod, it appeared, didn't share her appreciation of the tree, but she couldn't blame him. Anyone else except perhaps a Brother or Sister of the Earth would most likely find this place frightening and strange. Remaining very quiet since he found her amid the roots, Vheod seemed more pensive than she'd seen him before. Of course, Melann was not completely without fear herself.

Whitlock was somewhere inside the tree, and she had to find him. She realized that if something happened to Whitlock, she would be utterly alone. Vheod provided intriguing and pleasant companionship, but she was entirely dependent on her family for support and nurturing. As a garden grows dependent on its I caretaker, she found it difficult to imagine that she could possibly succeed in her quest without her brother-and that would mean losing her mother and father as well.

Vheod had spoken about the loss of memories, but Melann had assumed that she'd just been waylaid in the woods and brought to the tree-perhaps by magic. He was sure that the two of them fought then way into the Ravenwitch's lair and something have attacked their minds. He was convincing. The fact that their horses lay slain outside of the tree certainly lent credence to his idea, but Melann simply couldn't remember any of it.

They stood in the round chamber one story above its almost identical counterpart on the ground level. The wooden table and stools grew up from the floor at a manner that occupied much of Melann's attention. She marveled at the way they had been something shaped, presumably as the tree grew. The whole room had obviously been shaped by careful planning and great skill with plants. Her mind drew back to the Ravenwitch. Melann considered their predicament, and the need to find Whitlock.

"At what point do you believe our minds were attacked?" she asked Vheod.

"Up high in the tree," he answered. "The first thing I can remember is standing in a woody corridor with rose vines and black moss and-"

Vheod paused suddenly, his dark eyes growing wide. "What is it, Vheod?" Melann asked. "Melann, you have some knowledge of plants, right?" Vheod asked with a rapid intensity. "Well, yes, but I-"

"Have you ever heard of some sort of moss or fungus that can affect one's mind?"

"Well…" Melann ran through her training, and all she'd ever heard or read about mosses, lichens, and fungi. "Yes! There's something I believe is called, obviously enough, memory moss. It feeds on memories. Patches of it can be found in magical glens and enchanted areas, sometimes underground." "Is it black?" "I… I think so."

"Well, now we know what we're up against then, at least." Vheod leaned back against the wall. He seemed more relaxed. "Is there any way we can fight it?"

"I would imagine it could be burned," Melann told him. "But Vheod, I can't… I mean, I'm not supposed to…" She paused, with a pained expression.

"What is it?" Vheod furrowed his brow in obvious concern.

"I can't willingly destroy a growing thing-even I something like memory moss. It's against everything I I've ever been taught."

Vheod replied with a question as he drew his sword. "How do you know the tree isn't a thing of evil? It's creator obviously is, isn't she?"

"I assume so, but a tree cannot be evil. It is but a tree. Besides, the Ravenwitch almost certainly didn't create the tree. She just shaped it, if it was her at all.

Melann considered that perhaps the Ravenwitch had killed the original caretaker of the tree or had forced another to shape it for her. She just couldn't reconcile in her mind that the same person responsible for the amazing nurturing and caring that went into the creation of this tree fortress could have sent foul, wicked ravens to attack them and abduct her brother.

"I think well learn soon enough," Vheod said, moving to the stairs.

Vheod's tall but graceful form emerged from the shadows of the staircase, illuminated by the magical light conjured by Melann's priestly faith. His long, cold steel blade bared before him, he advanced into the dark room he knew earlier had been filled with ravens. The chamber stank of bird droppings and feathers, and as Melann carefully followed Vheod up the stairs and into the room, they both could see that this indeed had been a roost for the black-feathered birds.

Now, however, the room stood empty and utterly silent. As Vheod moved to the center of the room, he looked all around and up onto the high shelf where he'd seen the ravens roosting earlier. The ravens were gone. He paused a moment to listen, motioning for Melann to remain at the top of the stairs.

Far above, he heard the distant sounds of shrill shrieks. The ravens had moved higher into the sayerior of the tree and now seemed to be agitated in cone way. Vheod was too far away to determine more. He rushed across the room to the stairs leading higher up. Melann moved from the other staircase and followed him. When he reached the top of that flight of stairs, Vheod paused. This was about where he first remembered being in the tree and thus perhaps where his memories were stolen from him. He looked ahead in the light as the illumination brightened with Melann's approach. She stopped quietly a few steps. How where he stood, but Vheod could see in the magical light the black moss that streaked the wooden walls like blood from a wound or rust on metal. He was sure he hadn't seen this sort of moss anywhere else on the tree. It might not be the culprit that had stolen their memories, Vheod knew.

Even if it wasn't to blame, he had little to lose. Vheod sheathed his sword and began reciting the incantation for a spell he'd learned in a dark corner of Broken Reach. A tanar'ri wizard named Chirotobyn had taught him a number of minor spells in exchange for a full year of Vheod's service as a bodyguard. It had been a busy year, for Chirotobyn had many enemies. But Vheod served his temporary master well, however, and even managed to get the tanar'ri to hold up his rid of the bargain, though Chirotobyn had only done it at the end of Vheod's sword. In any event, Vheod owe spread his fingers, thumbs touching, forming a spell with his hands. As he did, flames leaped from his fingertips, jetting outward against the walls of the corridor ahead of him. The fire splashed against the hardwood, which was too firm and solid to catch fire, Hough it blackened and scorched.

The moss, on the other hand, burned away just as Vheod had hoped. The passage through the tree filled with flickering light as the moss took the flame. As it did, the black, stringy substance changed its shape before his eyes. While Vheod watched, the moss formed a perfect image of his own face, howling in pain while it burned. The face contorted hideously-then reformed to gain the appearance of Melann's face.

Vheod looked away. He couldn't bear to see the wracked expression of the moss Melann face burning in the flames he'd conjured. Thankfully, the fire burned the moss quickly and thoroughly, almost disintegrating the stringy strands completely. What little remained fell to the floor as a dark powder. The hall went mostly dark again, lit only by the magical light Melann still held cupped in her hands on the staircase below Vheod.

The horrible display on Melann's face seemed to confirm in Vheod's mind that the moss had somehow stolen a portion of their memories. A useful defense, he mused, assuming the Ravenwitch herself had some immunity to the affect. Obviously, when the memory moss struck, the witch or her servants had grabbed Melann. Perhaps they had come back for him, but he'd already wandered off to another portion of the tree fortress. His tanar'ri nature probably allowed him to shrug off the effects more quickly than they-whoever they were-had predicted.

Vheod turned to Melann and again motioned for her to wait. Her face showed concern. She wasn't the type who liked to wait while others went into danger-Vheod had realized that early on. He wanted to make sure the corridor ahead was safe, and he'd also observed that neither Melann nor Whitlock possessed his skill at moving quietly. Obviously, they'd not grown up in an environment filled with fiends that would slay them at the slightest provocation.

Vheod hunched down so he was almost crawling on "rinds and knees and crept forward down the corridor. The illumination behind him enabled him to see enough-more than if he weren't half tanar'ri. As he Dipped silently down the passage he felt a strange tangling sensation on his wrist. He didn't need to see it, all to know it was the Taint, but he had no idea what the feeling meant. He pressed forward.

The passage twisted and turned but sprouted no side passages. It almost seemed to Vheod that he and Melann had climbed up through the trunk of the fee, and now he crept inside one of the gigantic branches. The corridor split into two, and Vheod had idea which way to go. He also had passed far away from Melann's light that he could really see just a little more than nothing. He would have to go back and get her. Before he did he allowed himself another moment to just listen. Again he heard he high shrieks of upset ravens, and though they seemed closer, Vheod's ears detected the sounds of lower of them now.

Worst of all-or perhaps best of all-amid the flying birds he heard what sounded like a man groaning in pain. Whitlock. Vheod ran back down the corridor as quietly as he would, but as quickly as he dared. The light grew brighter with each step, until he reached Melann once again at the top of the stairs near the scorched corridor walls. She looked at him with silent expectation. "I think Whitlock is ahead somewhere. We must be careful, and as quiet as possible." "Is he all right?" She asked emphatically, the excitement and anxiety a living thing in her eyes. "I don't know," Vheod said in a forced whisper. "I think he's alive, but I think he might be hurt or in danger."

"Then let's go," Melann stressed, attempting to press ahead of Vheod.

The cambion turned to the dark passage and stepped forward so he remained in the lead. He drew his blade and began to creep silently ahead, if for no other reason than to encourage Melann to be as quiet as she could, and slow down her too-anxious pace, Vheod didn't want them to foolishly stumble into some unknown danger.

Melann's devotion to her brother was the most sincere thing Vheod had ever encountered. She was everything he'd always wanted to be himself-honest, true to herself and others, noble, generous, kind… At many times in his life he'd thought such things were only fabled concepts, not real. Her purity of heart had quickly become the most important treasure he knew of. Melann herself had just as quickly become the center of his thoughts. He knew now that he would do anything for her.

Vheod and Melann reached the point where the passage branched off into two passages, separated by only a narrow angle, as if they stood at the juncture of two tree limbs. They followed the sounds of ravens that seemed to come from the right, with Vheod still in the lead and Melann anxiously dogging his heels. Vheod saw light ahead and tried to pause, but he knew Melann's understandable efforts to urge him ahead would quickly spoil any chance they had of approaching undetected. Both could hear the pained screeches of ravens entwined about a human moan. Behind him, Vheod could hear Melann discarding the light and preparing a blessing for the two of them. She obviously thought they were going into danger and battle. Vheod couldn't help but think she was right. His instincts screamed of danger ahead. As he began moving swiftly down the passage toward the light, he once again felt the rush of power flow over him as Melann bestowed Chauntea's blessing on tem. He also felt a prickling pain at his wrist- where he knew the Taint to be. He knew there was no t me to think of that now, as he rushed into the well It area at the end of the passage.

A starry sky above Vheod and a cool summer breeze brought him to the realization that he was at side. The passage he'd come through led through a gigantic tree and out onto a platform firmed by the spiral entwining of a number of the huge tree's branches. The platform reached a diameter of at least thirty yards, but for the most part its surface stretched emptily into the night, except for numerous thorn-covered black rose vines. The ever-fresent climbing vines snaked in every direction, borne of those hanging on higher branches within the tree's gargantuan canopy dangled down above the platform, while others stretched down and grappled the wood of the platform in a taut web of black flowers and thorns.

At the center of the platform, the network of vines grew thick, and to Vheod's surprise the vines held a number of ravens. Coils wrapped around the birds like constricting snakes. Many of the birds screeched in protest, while others hung limply in the black tendrils. Looking closer, Vheod saw thin trickles of red blood inch in grisly streaks down the vines to the center of this hideous black web. Whitlock lung suspended above the platform wrapped tight-y in biting strands of black roses. The thorns dug into his bared flesh so that the ravens blood flowed down the vines and into his wounds. The man groaned and weakly thrashed in his taut bonds, but his eyes were closed and he showed no signs of conscious awareness.

Vheod and Melann sprinted forward out of the tunnel and across the platform. The footing was uneven and tricky, but the urgency of the situation pressed them onward, guiding their feet.

Before they could cross even half the distance, a shimmering wall of translucent blackness erupted before them. Vheod could just make out a female form, clothed in long black dress, on the other side of the wall, standing below where Whitlock hung. He hadn't seen her when they began running, but she'd obviously seen them. The magical barrier rested on the platform and stretched around in what appeared to be a semicircle. Vheod knew he could get around it, but surely its creator was aware of that simple fact as well.

She wasn't trying to stop them, just delay them. Obviously, time was of the essence here, and Vheod surmised that Whitlock was the key. Melann drew her mace and slammed into the barrier forcefully but to no avail. She began to run around to the right. Vheod, however, took a few steps back and hefted his sword in a way that offset its center of gravity, pointing the blade almost parallel with the floor. Taking a few steps forward again, he threw his arm back and flung the sword so it spun through the air, over the conjured wall of energy. The whirling blade cut a swath through the air, and the woman behind the translucent screen watched it fly over her head. "No!" the woman shouted in protest. Vheod hoped Chauntea's blessing would help guide his reckless heave. He almost prayed.

The spinning blade flew toward Whitlock, and Vheod saw the look of horror cross Melann's face as she ran to the right edge of the wall. Wordlessly, she watched as it chopped at the air, angling over the wall and down at her brother.

The blade struck true. It cut through the vine that supported the bulk of Whitlock's weight. With that line severed, a number of the others tore with the adden weight of his body, and Whitlock came crashing down amid rose petals, thorns, and blood.

The black-clad woman screamed in frustration.

The energy wall faded away.

The woman looked at Vheod, dark eyes smoldering, her skin shone in the moonlight like smooth, milky alabaster, her long dark tresses merged with her lowing dress so that in the dim light they made it difficult to distinguish where they ended and the garment began. A cape made entirely of raven feathers draped from her neck and dragged well behind her in a long train. She raised her long-nailed fingers like jaws, as though she prepared to loose some dark spell, but then she stopped.

Melann ran to her brother, passing the woman to she side. She was too preoccupied to pay the black-dad woman any heed. Likewise, the woman ignored Melann. Once at her brother's side, Melann began lulling the thorny vines away from him. Whitlock stirred enough to indicated that he was at least alive and partially conscious. Melann's sobs of fear and relief were the only sound other than the cries of pain and protest from the trapped birds.

Until the mysterious woman spoke. She focused on Vheod for a moment, as though studying him.

"Child of demons," she said. "Chare'en's blood flows through your veins."

Vheod stared back at her. He felt helpless and naked before her gaze, particularly without his sword. This woman-the Ravenwitch-was beautiful and terrible at once. She reminded him of Nethess, the tanar'ri marilith that had hunted him his last days in the Abyss. Something inside him roused at the sound of her dark, throaty voice. It was like nothing that caused him to care for Melann. In fact, it seemed his desire came from all the parts of him that lay dormant while he thought of the pure-hearted priestess. This Ravenwitch appealed to that small part of him he didn't want to admit existed. She reminded him of everything in him that missed the Abyss and his former life. She was the catalyst that brought to the surface the lure of the darkness in his soul. The revel of dark power, the taste of innocent blood, and the beckoning need of betrayal and corruption churned within him.

Vheod felt the power of Melann's blessing drain away, almost as if it pooled at his feet and evaporated. He glanced at his left wrist, and saw the Taint. It formed a leering, fiendish face with a look of triumph and exultation.

"You have come to free Chare'en," the Ravenwitch stated. It wasn't a question.

Chapter Twelve | The Glass Prison | Chapter Fourteenth