"I'm not as stupid as you must think," Whitlock told Melann in a low whisper.
The three of them had walked the entire day and the summer heat had them all soaked in sweat. Hiking through the rough terrain, climbing over rocks and up and down steep slopes, proved to be a great deal more work than riding had been, and so the heat took its toll. They still hadn't reached the crypt of Chare'en, which they now knew to be the prison of Chare'en. They made camp, and Vheod moved out to find more game for their meal. Whitlock lent him his crossbow on a somewhat permanent basis, since Vheod hadn't been able to retrieve his sword, leaving him without a weapon.
With Vheod gone, the siblings spoke of the matters at hand.
"What do you mean?" Melann asked forcefully but quietly. She'd gathered some roots and leaves from edible plants.
Whitlock arranged the wood for a fire to boil what she'd gathered. "I've got eyes, sister," he said. "I know you're attracted to Vheod."
Melann didn't reply, but stared at him silently.
"I just don't think it's a very good idea." He pulled flint and steel from his belt pouch, striking it to set fire to the kindling he'd piled.
"You don't think what's a good idea?" Now Melann's nostrils began to flare. Her face reddened. Whitlock knew she was angry or embarrassed. Perhaps she was angry because she was embarrassed, or embarrassed that she was angry.
"You and Vheod," he replied, spreading his hands wide and dropping the flint. "It's not that I don’t trust him, though I don't mind telling you I certainly didn't before. The growing attraction between the two of you made it worse, not better." He picked up the flint and began working it against the steel again.
"As I was saying, I do trust him now-he's earned that from us-but let's face the truth here, Melann. He's a demon.”
"He seems to prefer tanar'ri," Melann replied. "Whatever," Whitlock shot back, irritated. "It doesn't change the fact that he's not human."
"And he's only half tanar'ri," she said in his further defense.
Whitlock looked up from his work and grimaced. He began working at the fire again and said. "So you're in love with him, aren't you?"
"To be truthful, Whitlock, I don't know," Melann said, then looked off, down the hillside where Vheod had gone to hunt. "I thought I might be, but then I caught more than one glimpse of his dark side-and it really frightened me."
Finally, a blaze started in the twigs and grass Whitlock had gathered. He prepared the wood to add once the fire really got going in earnest. He made a grunting noise and seemed to pause in thought for a moment. He didn't speak until the fire really started. "That's for the best, Melann," he said, looking up at her. She'd filled their small pot with water and set it over the fire to boil. Melann placed the roots into the water right away, for they would need more time to boil than anything else. Once softened, they would complement just about anything Vheod might bring back. Of course, they were better heavily seasoned, but Melann \vas quickly growing used to doing without such pleasantries.
She wondered if she was indeed carrying out Chauntea's will. Everything she'd been taught had been about the Mother of All's love for growing things, and about nurturing and caring for others. Now Melann found herself wandering through the wilderness, fighting for her life at every turn against enemies she didn't even know she had. Where was the divine direction she'd come to count on? Melann suddenly felt very alone and distant from all she knew.
Vheod returned with three quail. Soon the three travelers feasted on the roasted birds, garnished with the boiled roots and leaves that Melann found. By the time they finished, the moon had risen high into the night sky, and a cool wind blew away the day's heat. After dinner, Melann prepared for sleep, knowing the next day they would probably come to the end of their long journey. Orrag's directions indicated that they were only three or four hours' walk from where Chare'en lay-either entombed or imprisoned, depending on which story one believed. Melann watched as the others also prepared to go to sleep, even Vheod. She knew he'd not slept the night before. She could almost imagine what had been going through his mind, or at least she thought that she could. She knew what it was like to fear what the future might hold. Each day that passed for her brought new doubts. Melann continually wondered if she was good enough, if she did the right thing. For Vheod, it must be even worse. As frightening as it was to see the darker side of her new friend, it was more troubling still to realize that even he was just coming to fully realize what he was-and what he was not. Vheod, she surmised, felt as confused, and perhaps as alone, as she did.
As Vheod laid back into the cool night grass, she moved to him and knelt wordlessly at his side. He looked at her and opened his mouth to speak. Melann put a single finger to his lips to quiet him. Whitlock's soft snores already accompanied the crackling of the dying fire. Melann took Vheod's hand in hers, feeling the coarse, hardened skin that covered his fingers. Kneeling there, under the stars, Melann silently gazed into his deep, dark eyes, until he fell asleep. She slept at his side.
By morning the night's cool breezes had transformed into chilling winds. Dark clouds sped over the tops of the mountains like swarming warriors preparing for battle. Vheod saw that he was the last to wake. He thought for a moment about Melann, and remembered her holding his hand until sleep claimed him. She'd said nothing. It seemed almost like a dream now.
But no, that had been no dream, for Vheod's dreams had been filled with images of death and destruction. Haunting crimson images of battle and horrible monstrosities gathered in his mind, and he felt it better to just forget about the entire night. This new day held enough on which to focus itself. Today they would reach the prison of Chare'en.
At least, Vheod thought, there they would all find answers to the questions they'd asked for the last few days, or even for their entire lives. A cure for Melann and Whitlock's family curse, the truth behind Vheod's real reason for coming here, perhaps even the real purpose of the Taint-the day was fraught with possibilities. Most of them were quite unifying.
They ate some of the previous night's leftover food, washing it down with cold water from the stream at the bottom of the hill on which they had camped. Vheod took some time after the meal to make minor preparations to cast some magical spells that day. Some wizards needed to study in books or scrolls to prepare spells, but the Abyssal magic Vheod had learned required only that he ready some of the particular mental concepts in his mind-focusing on the central idea of each spell and placing it within his mind's eye.
When Vheod was finished, he helped Melann and Whitlock get ready to break camp. The three of them spoke little as they packed their two backpacks, Vheod and Whitlock hefting them when they were ready to move. The fire had long since died, but Melann made sure to scoop dirt onto the warm ashes to make sure that there was no chance of the surrounding vegetation catching fire.
The terrain presented a number of difficulties, as the rough, forested hills of the past few days became rocky cliffs and pathless treks up steep slopes. Vheod wondered if they would even have been able to bring the horses through this area, had they lived. By mid-morning, they had rounded a steep mountain and walked through a nearly level pass between it and another towering peak. The wind still tousled their hair and clothes, and the gray clouds concealed the sun. They knew from the landmarks around them that the end of the journey lay at the end of this very pass.
Vheod led the way through the tall pine trees. As he always did when he got nervous, Vheod looked for the Taint. He couldn't find it again, so he assumed it hid under his breastplate or clothes. A noise behind him made him stop. He turned.
Whitlock motioned for him to come back. Vheod stepped quietly and slowly toward the warrior, watching him for some clue as to what was wrong. Melann stood next to Whitlock but seemed as confused as Vheod felt. Whitlock pointed down. "Gnolls," Whitlock whispered. "Lots of them." Vheod looked down and saw numerous prints of large feet. His gaze followed them along and noticed that branches of trees had been broken and other growth disturbed by their passing. Whitlock was right. As Vheod looked around, he now saw that dozens on dozens of the creatures had probably passed through this very area, though he admitted to himself that if he didn't already know there were gnolls in the area, he couldn't have identified the exact type of creature that had made this disturbance. He wondered if Whitlock also made that assumption, or if he could see something Vheod couldn't.
It didn't matter. What did matter was that the three of them would need to be particularly cautious. Vheod knew that through a minor spell he could render himself invisible from sight, but that wouldn't help his companions. They would all have to just take their chances together.
This area seemed drier than most of the mountainous region through which they'd traveled. The needles of the coniferous trees showed brown patches and snapped off at the merest touch. Brittle, fallen branches crunched under their feet as they resumed their march, each step kicking up a small amount of dust that lay under the carpet of rust-colored needles. The thinner trees didn't provide as much cover as Vheod wished, but he did his best to use the concealment that remained in case there was someone or something watching for them.
Finally, after about another hour's careful walk through the thick trees, the three of them rounded a ridge and found themselves staring at a cliff face partially obscured by boulders and loose stones. While some of the rocks hadn't moved in lifetimes, it was apparent that others had recently been moved aside, which judging by their size was no small feat. These recently displaced boulders surrounded a dark, rectangular opening that led into the cliff. An open area at least two hundred yards across stretched in front of the opening.
Vheod had no doubt in his mind that Chare'en lay within the cliff, through that doorway, but who had cleared away the boulders? The trees surrounding the area had been chopped down too, probably to facilitate the work uncovering the doorway.
Taking a deep breath, he started for the opening, but Whitlock's hand on his shoulder stopped him. Vheod turned and saw that the man wanted to talk. He followed Whitlock and Melann back a few paces but toward the cliff's face. The three of them crouched amid the trees, behind a far-tossed boulder. This is it, isn't it?" Melann asked, staring at the opening rather than the two men.
Whitlock didn't respond, instead telling Vheod, '"We've got to look around the outside here and make sure that if we go in, nothing comes in after us. We don't want to get trapped in there."
"I suppose that's prudent," Vheod stared with dark, passionate eyes, "but don't you think that the sooner we can get inside and look around, the sooner well be able to leave? I mean, if the staff you seek lies within, the sooner we find it the better."
Melann's expression indicated that she agreed, but Whitlock was adamant. "We've got to be smart about this. Now's not the time to be headstrong."
"If we hadn't plunged 'headstrong' into the Ravenwitch's tree, you wouldn't be here," Vheod said immediately.
Whitlock dropped his gaze to the ground. His shoulders slumped slightly.
"No," Vheod said, shaking his head, "forget I said that."
Melann forced a smile. "We're all nervous," she said, placing her hand on Whitlock's shoulder. "Everyone wants this to end well-whatever that means."
"What do you think might be around here?" Vheod asked.
"Look around!" Whitlock's whisper was harsh. "This area looks just like the one we passed a few miles back, but it's even more clearly been occupied by gnolls for some time."
"Then where are they now? Inside?" Vheod motioned toward the opening in the cliff.
"No, I don't think so," Whitlock said, looking around. "Something tells me they left this area-but not long ago." Whitlock kneeled down and examined the ground carefully, looked around him, then straightened up. "In fact, the tracks even suggest that they left in a hurry. See how there's lots of scuffling and smeared prints? They'll probably be back." Whitlock's skill as a tracker certainly impressed Vheod. Nevertheless, he felt an eagerness to get inside that doorway. Maybe it was just that he wanted to get the whole thing over with-maybe because a part of him was anxious to find out which portion of his nature was truly in command of his life. He would see if someone, perhaps even himself, schemed and manipulated him into coming here to free his ancestor. If he was truly meant to free Chare'en, and the balor waited inside, he would see if he could keep himself from committing such an atrocity. Somehow the answers would all be found beyond that doorway.
Vheod handed Whitlock the crossbow. "Here, you scout around the perimeter of the open area and cover me with this." He turned to Melann. "You stay here and watch this side of the entrance. I'm going to sneak in and take a brief look around on the inside. If it's clear out here and within, you can follow me through the doorway."
Whitlock scowled. "Fine."
He accepted the crossbow and took the time to cock and load it. Vheod drew the knife he'd found in their packs earlier, then cast the brief spell that allowed him to fade from sight. Melann gasped softly, obviously unprepared for Vheod's tactic. Her wide eyes searched in vain for him, but she said nothing. By the time he disappeared, Whitlock was already creeping through the trees.
Invisible, Vheod moved very close to Melann, so that his mouth was very near her ear. Her mouth opened slightly, and her eyes flashed, indicating that she could feel his presence near her.
"I'll let you know where I am," he whispered. He wanted to touch her soft cheek with his own, but he didn't. Instead, he turned and moved very quietly into the cleared area, toward the open doorway. Inside, Vheod's tanar'ri vision allowed him to see a fair distance using just the daylight filtering in through the cloud of dust at the door. Ancient, stagnant air hung in the doorway and grew thicker as he entered. A passage, cut through the stone with regular singles and keen workmanship, extended into the cliff at least twenty-five feet, but then ended. Only after he crossed most of that distance did Vheod see that corridors probed deeper into the stone to the left and right of there. He approached this juncture and looked down both options.
To the left, he saw a fair amount of rubble and loose dirt scattered about the floor. The passage extended deeper into the darkness than his supernatural vision could penetrate. At the edge of the darkness, however, amid the broken stone, Vheod thought he could see a dead body, perhaps that of a human or something human-sized.
Looking to his right, Vheod saw only a strange cloud of sparkling greenish flecks hovering in the air, churning like dust. Vheod tentatively reached out to touch one of the shining motes. "When he did the cloud stirred violently. He heard stone agonizingly slide against stone, and a terrible, heavy footfall, then another.
Backing away, Vheod saw a large shape lumbering out from the cloud of swirling specks. Something lurched out of the darkness. He backed a few steps, eyes wide. His muscles tensed and his mind raced. What was this thing? What magic was this?
It stood at least a foot taller than Vheod. The top of the creature's head came within a foot of the ceiling. It was humanoid in shape, but the entire, gigantic figure was made of stone. In one fist it clenched a long, broad-headed spear, though Vheod didn't think the stone of the spear was actually separate from the stone of the hand that appeared to grip it. The living statue had been carved with an intricate, ornate pattern on its body, granting it raiment and facial features. The hands of time had clawed away at the fine detail, so now the lumbering giant seemed mostly crude in construction, except for a few spots that retained the designs, betraying its former beauty.
Vheod found nothing beautiful about this animate mass of stone, though, and backed away toward the entrance as fast as he could. He had no intention of attempting to fight this thing with just a knife-if he could fight it at all. What worried him most was that the construct advanced toward him even though he was invisible.
Afraid to turn his back on the advancing monstrosity, Vheod continued to back quickly away. The animated statue stopped. Vheod stopped. Obviously, this thing was a guardian-perhaps it wouldn't follow him out. Still, it halted in the juncture of the two passageways, and Vheod imagined that it would react with hostility if he attempted to get past or even approach it.
Perhaps a spell could destroy it, Vheod mused, staring at it from just a few steps from the entrance. Obviously, it was a creature animated by magic, and perhaps that would be its undoing. Unfortunately, Vheod's spells were minor. He doubted he could do anything that might affect a giant stone statue given life by sorcery. Then, he considered-
His thoughts were suddenly torn away from him by the sound of Melann's scream from outside. He whirled around and ran, still magically hidden from normal sight, into a danger even greater than that of the magical statue.
The gnolls had returned.