Gnolls swarmed from every possible angle, as though they'd been scattered and were regrouping. Unfortunately, their chosen rallying point lay within the clearing right outside the entrance to the prison, at the edge of which stood Whitlock and Melann. Prison, Whitlock thought. The prison of Chare'en. Had he already completely given up on the idea that this might be the crypt of Chare'en-the goal of the entire journey? If this was a prison, and Chare'en was a demon and not a wizard, what in Helm's name were they doing here?
The situation at hand hardly presented Whitlock with the opportunity to think about that at length. Fortunately, it appeared that the gnolls were expecting to find him and his sister here even less than Whitlock expected the gnolls to return right at that moment. Bestial eyes stretched wide, and howls of surprise and confusion seemed to occupy the gaping mouths of the creatures rather than commands or warnings. Whitlock's combat training and experience took over as he looked all around him, sizing up the enemy and possible strategies to defeat them. He fired the loaded crossbow at the first gnoll he saw through the trees and watched it drop into the foliage at its feet.
His instincts quickly determined that their only option was flight. Turning to look for Melann, Whitlock saw that she was already casting a spell on the gnolls nearest her, wrapping them in divine energy that held them in place. Effective, but not enough considering that the monsters numbered at least a hundred, if not more.
Careful not to interrupt her spell, Whitlock shouted when she was finished, "Melann, run inside the… cave. He wasn't sure whether to call it a crypt or a prison, at least not out loud. There was no time to consider it now. He hung the crossbow on a hook, on his belt.
Melann turned to him, her eyes betraying utter terror. Whitlock ran, not into the mountain, but along the edge of the clearing that surrounded it, racing to reach his sister. His sword sang in his hand, and he threw himself at the nearest gnoll. Steel met flesh, but the warrior was interested only in reaching Melann. As he ran toward her, she moved to meet him.
"Into the cave!" he shouted again. The gnolls began to recover from their surprise and confusion, surging toward the humans. Whitlock pushed away an onrushing beast-man, using his charging momentum to add to the force of his blow.
Melann used her mace to fend off the only gnoll near her left mobile after her spell. Rather than fight it, she ducked under its muscular, hairy arms as it slashed at her with a crude axe. She ran to her brother. Whitlock held his ground, waiting for Melann to reach him. Another gnoll rushed toward him and he slashed at it with his blade.
The creature lunged to his left to avoid the sword stroke, then raised its spear high above its head. Plunging the weapon down at Whitlock, the gnoll was caught off guard as the warrior threw himself at its feet. Whitlock crashed into its lower legs, so as the gnoll lunged forward with its spear, it not only missed him, but toppled over the top of his now crouching form. The impact to its legs only sent it over the top of him that much harder. Whitlock gained his feet much faster than his foe did, and two well-aimed chops from his sword ensured that the gnoll would indeed never rise again.
Pain arched through Whitlock's arm and he whirled and saw that another gnoll had approached while he'd fought with the other. The bestial humanoid's spear point dripped with Whitlock's blood, and the gnoll pulled back for another stab. Whitlock's empty arm went limp, and he could do little but swing his sword to block the second spear thrust. He was weak with pain.
Suddenly darts of reddish energy struck the gnoll, overcoming it and sending it crashing to the bare earth. Whitlock turned again, this time to see Vheod standing at the entrance to the cave. His spells had cleared a path for the siblings to reach the opening in the cliff face. Melann reached Whitlock's side and reached toward his wounded arm.
"There's no time!” he told her, pulling his arm away. He ran to Vheod and Melann followed. Turning to look behind him, Whitlock saw the gnolls rushing after them, appearing more numerous than the trees from which they poured forth. Whitlock and Melann had to cross almost two hundred yards between the edge of the clearing and the rectangular entrance. Their feet slid in misplaced steps on the open, gravel-covered earth. The gnolls followed them into the clearing, emerging from the trees in greater and greater numbers like grain pouring into an empty bowl.
Whitlock and Melann scrambled over the jumbled rocks that lay at the bottom of the cliff wall. The hot summer sun beat down, and the cacophonous growls and roars of the gnolls behind them deafened them to all else. Sweat and blood covered Whitlock's upper body as he ran toward the opening in the stone wall. Vheod stood at the entrance, calling out to them-no, to Melann-as they approached.
The opening showed signs of great activity-the gnolls had apparently uncovered this entrance, probably within the last day or so. Large, bestial footprints and claw marks covered the surrounding rock. There was something else, too, but the situation provided no time for a detailed analysis. Only when they were inside did Whitlock realize in surprise that he could see Vheod. When the cambion had entered he'd rendered himself hidden from sight.
"Don't go back very far," Vheod told them in a harsh tone. "There's a stone guardian blocking the way."
Whitlock looked down the passage that led into the earth but saw only darkness. Small bits of stone lay scattered amid the smooth rock floor, and dust churned in the sunlight around them, stirred by their activity. "If we can't go inside, we're doomed!" Whitlock said. "We can at least make a stand here," Melann said hopefully. Whitlock knew that defensive position or not, the three of them could never defeat so many enemies.
“Perhaps we can defeat two foes at once," Vheod told them as he grabbed Whitlock's crossbow from his belt in a swift motion. Whitlock handed him a quarrel and watched silently as he loaded and cocked the weapon. He had no idea what the cambion had in mind.
Melann invoked the power of Chauntea in the form of a blessing. Vheod turned to her and said, "I believe we're going to need that."
"Here they come," Whitlock shouted, looking up at the approaching gnolls. "What's the plan? We don't have any time." The gnolls slowed. They appeared to approach the entrance with trepidation-or was it reverence?
"This is going to be extremely dangerous," Vheod said with a calmness Whitlock found disturbing. "When I begin to run, follow me. Even if you can't see me, just keep to one side of the passage or the other and run as fast as you can. When you reach the end of the corridor, turn to the left and stop."
"What are you going to do?"
"There's no time to explain," Vheod said. "Just trust me."
As much as it surprised Whitlock to realize it, he did trust Vheod. How could he not? Despite all of Whitlock's initial reservations and suspicions, Vheod had twice saved his life.
Whitlock looked Vheod in the eye and gave him a short nod. "Whatever you say."
Vheod turned to look at the oncoming gnolls. They would reach the entrance in a second, but Vheod seemed to be waiting for something. Melann visibly held her breath. Whitlock gripped his sword's hilt more tightly-both in anticipation and to help distract him from the pain in his other arm. They stood just inside the cave, and Whitlock noticed for the first time that cool air drifted slowly out of the corridor behind him.
Vheod turned away from the gnolls and fired the crossbow down the corridor and into the darkness. The sound of the grunting, growling brutes was louder than the sound of their heavy footfalls on the bare earth, and even louder than the first few gnolls clambering over the rocks in their way. Whitlock couldn't hear if the quarrel struck anything in particular.
The sounds of the gnolls wasn't loud enough, however, to overcome the heavy thud that Whitlock heard deep in the darkness a moment after the quarrel was released. Another scraping thud followed, and Whitlock saw Vheod's body tense.
"Get ready to run," Vheod whispered, staring down the dark passage.
Another thud was accompanied by the sound of stone scraping against stone. This time the sound was louder-or perhaps closer. Whitlock turned to look back outside, and saw that the first ranks of the approaching gnolls were less than a dozen paces away. He looked back to Vheod for some sort of sign, but the cambion just stared into the darkness, ignoring the oncoming gnolls. More heavy thuds followed, and Whitlock realized that they were footsteps. The creature making those sounds, he guessed, must be huge, heavy, or quite probably both.
"Vheod?" Melann whispered. The name asked many questions, but Vheod answered none of them.
The gnolls were close enough that Whitlock could smell their musky scent. He was ready to run on Vheod's signal, and he kept an eye on the humanoids that were rapidly descended on them. He was ready to turn to face these enemies, ignoring Vheod, when he glanced into the darkness one last time.
Looming out of the tenebrous shadow, a tall, indistinct man made of stone approached them. It carried a long spear carved from the same stone from which its body had been made, obviously long years before. The animate statue bore no expression, but its malignancy was obvious.
"Now!" Vheod's deep voice resonated throughout the hall. "Run!" Though he was prepared, surprise still gripped Whitlock as Vheod raced toward this new menace.
The statue lashed out with the long, wide-headed stone spear, but Vheod flattened himself against the wall at the last moment, and the spear struck behind him, producing a flash of sparks along the stone floor.
The gnolls reached the entrance. They were coming in.
Vheod slipped past the statue, which continued moving forward.
"Run!" Whitlock shouted to Melann as he leaped toward the oncoming stone guardian. He paused for a moment, stepping to his left. The statue countered, coming at him with its spear point aimed at his head. Whitlock feinted with his blade, drawing the construct's attention for a moment. A blow from the statue was too powerful and heavy to parry, so he had to remain light on his feet if he was to survive. He lunged to his left to avoid a thrust from the guardian's spear. The sound of charging gnolls rose behind him, and he expected a blow from one of the brutes against the back of his head at any moment. Nevertheless, he stood his ground until he saw his sister dive past the statue to the right.
Her movement drew the statue's attention momentarily, but it was enough to give Whitlock his chance to escape as well. As he ducked and tumbled forward, he felt the movement of air next to his ear where an axe blade or spear point slashed by him. Melann's blessing must be helping somehow, he reasoned. Whitlock actually scrambled under the statue's legs, dodging its weapon and its heavy, crushing footstep.
Now, Vheod's plan became obvious. His crossbow bolt alerted the guardian and brought it toward them. However, with so many intruders, the statue didn't turn toward the three of them after they managed to slip by it. Instead, it threw itself into combat with the oncoming gnolls. A forceful spear thrust pierced the midsection of an oncoming gnoll and proved that the brutes were too large and clumsy to dodge past the guardian as their human targets had.
Whitlock watched for a moment as the gnolls attempted to turn and flee from the animated statue only to run into their frenzied comrades behind them. The statue mercilessly, indiscriminately, slashed and stabbed at their backs. Already Vheod and Melann had disappeared into the dark corridor. Whitlock followed.
Vheod's only regret was that his spellcasting had caused his invisibility to falter. Other than that,, everything had gone better than he could have dreamed. Now they'd just have to get deep enough into the caves so that when the gnolls retreated from the guardian, the stone statue would be too far away to turn on them. Of course, they would almost certainly need to return this way when they left, but Vheod hoped the guardian statue had been prepared only to keep out intruders and might not notice someone trying to leave.
Vheod's vision allowed him to see well enough to round the corner to the left. He stopped and waited for the others, noting that the turn to the right led only to a dead end-it was really more an alcove-in which the statue had waited. The magical cloud of greenish particles was gone.
At Vheod's feet lay a blood-soaked human body. He couldn't make out many details, even with his tanar'ri darkvision, but the man had apparently died within the last hour or so. Melann hurriedly, quietly walked down the passage, feeling along the right side wall. Her face showed terror mixed with relief. "This way," Vheod whispered.
Her head turned suddenly toward the sound of his voice. She paused wordlessly, then came toward him with small, careful steps. Obviously, she couldn't see at all. He reached toward her and grasped her arm, pulling her close to him.
"What now?" she whispered in his ear. Her presence gladdened him. At least his plan had worked well enough to get her past the statue. Glancing around the corner, he was equally glad to see Whitlock making his way along the left-hand wall. The statue engaged the gnolls behind him. It worked.
Vheod called out softly to Whitlock and brought the three of them together in the darkness. "What's that smell?" Melann asked. "There's a body on the floor. Someone was killed here very recently."
"Someone?" Whitlock asked in a forced whisper. "Not a gnoll?"
"No, not a gnoll. I don't know who it is," Vheod replied.
Both Melann and Whitlock paused in silence, as if considering this. Melann stared straight ahead, knowing that she could see nothing. Whitlock still glanced from side to side, as if some action on his part might suddenly allow him to see. The underground passage was cool. A slight breeze originated somewhere deeper in.
"We need light," Whitlock stated.
"Whitlock's right, Vheod," Melann said. "We can't fumble through the darkness like this. It's too difficult. It's too dangerous."
Vheod produced one of the torches he had managed to recover from the dead horses' packs. Even in the darkness, he was able to produce enough of a spark with his flint and steel to light some tinder, then the torch. Soon, flickering light illuminated the well-crafted passageway. All three of them could see where the statue had once stood, the corridor ahead of them, and the corpse at their feet.
Whitlock knelt next to the body, but Melann interrupted him, using her divine power to heal his injured arm. The process took a few minutes, during which Vheod anxiously watched the passage around the corner where the gnolls fought against the guardian. The bestial warriors struggled against the stone statue to no avail. He was surprised to see that they didn't turn from the overwhelming might of their foe. Instead the humanoids threw themselves at it. They must really want to get inside-was it really only to get at them? Somehow Vheod doubted it. This underground structure held more secrets, that seemed evident.
The body at their feet held no recognizable features for any of them. All three of them, in fact, were certain they'd never seen the individual before. He wore a leather jerkin and carried equipment and supplies befitting someone who knew he was going underground-torches, rope, pitons, and more. Vheod also noted that the dead body was well armed with a short sword and a number of daggers.
Vheod took the sword and daggers, shrugging his shoulders as he stood back up and looked at his companions. "We may need these." Whitlock replied with a grim nod. Melann said nothing.
"We should get moving," Whitlock said. He took the torch from Vheod.
Whitlock led the three of them down the corridor as Vheod tucked the weapons in his belt. The hauntingly cool air currents chilled their summer-accustomed flesh. The smooth angular walls and floor were coated with a thick layer of dust, though in places the flickering torchlight indicated disturbances suggesting that others had passed through there before.
"That man was not killed by the stone guardian…" Melann said to no one in particular.
"I don't think the guardian was activated until we got here," Vheod replied.
"… I think he was a sacrifice," Melann continued. She turned to Vheod with an intense glare in her eye. "His throat had been cut. I don't think he was killed in a fight."
"The gnolls?" Vheod asked.
Melann raised her eyebrows and shoulders in unison, shaking her head slightly. She turned away.
"I think it must have been the gnolls." Whitlock said from ahead of them. "Take a look at this."
Whitlock moved to one side to allow the other two to see beyond him. The passage gave way to a small chamber with smooth stone walls and powerful arches supporting the ceiling. In the center of the room, hundreds of small green stones glittered in the torchlight. They lay in a carefully constructed pile.
"Those are the same stones the gnolls were gathering," Melann said.
"Yes," Whitlock replied. "They must have been bringing them here as an offering or something."
Vheod entered the room and approached the stones. He could see that they'd not just been piled on the floor, but had been placed in a deliberate pattern. When he stood next to the pile, directly over the pattern, he could see what was intended. It formed a crude depiction of a leering, fiendish face.
Instinctively, he brought his left arm up to look at the back of his hand. There the Taint emblazoned on his flesh, mockingly took the same shape as the pattern on the floor. The leering face was a shape that the Taint had taken numerous times before. He never thought about it before, but it was the shape the tattoo took most of the time. The stones had been positioned here in the same manner. The same leering, mocking face. "Damn," Vheod said quietly.
Melann came to his side, looking down at the pattern of stones. She looked at the Taint, then into his eyes.
"I don't think you should be here," she told him. Her voice was soft.
"You're probably right," he said slowly. Sighing deeply, he continued, "I've been led here, Melann. Everything that's happened to me since I arrived in this world, or perhaps earlier than that-perhaps even my entire life-has led me here. It's as though I have no will of my own. Like what I want to do with my life doesn't matter. Everything I've done, every person I've ever met, has been part of a manipulation to bring me here. Even you and Whitlock, unknowingly, have been a part of it."
"But," Melann interrupted, "who has been doing this to you?"
"For all I know, I have." "I don't understand."
"Neither do I," Vheod said, shaking his head and stepping away from the stones, "but I do know that all my life I've borne this Taint and that sometimes it acts as though it's an intelligent force of its own. It leads me places. It set into motion the events that brought me here in the first place. The Taint led me to Arach and Gyrison. It led me to Orrag. It… it led me to you."
"Why?" Melann asked. "Why did it do all of this? What is it?"
"I don't know," Vheod said, looking at the tattoo.
"Can you get rid of it somehow? Can you use magic? Can you cut it off?"
"In the first battle with the giant ravens, the flesh where it rested was slashed, but it didn't affect the Taint."
Melann grew quiet, obviously overwhelmed by the situation. Vheod couldn't blame her.
Finally, she said, "Is Chare'en-the demon-imprisoned here like you said?" She paused, and knelt down to look at an individual green stone. "If so, why are we here? Does that mean everything we've been told, and all we've relied on to save our parents and possibly ourselves, has been a He?" She stood again. "Perhaps." Vheod lowered his head. "If you even so much as suspected this, why did you come at all?"
"If it wasn't true, then you might come here and free Chare'en accidentally. I thought you might need my help." He looked back up at her.
"By the Mother of All," Melann said, "it's my fault." "No, it's not. Don't you see? Even if everything I feared was true-I still had to come here. I need to know who's controlling my life. If Chare'en-my own fiendish ancestor-is here, then it's not only my responsibility to make sure he doesn't cause any harm, but it's also imperative I come here to prove that even if forces have manipulated to bring me here to free him, I won't do it.
"I am my own man. I have to prove that-at least to myself."
"I understand," Melann said after a moment, "out there's such a risk."
Vheod's shoulders fell. He shut his eyes.
"No," Melann said. "I didn't mean that. I have faith in you, Vheod. You can do it."
Whitlock suddenly returned, though Vheod hadn't noticed he'd left. "I looked ahead-the passage continues beyond this chamber. It leads fairly far into the mountain, and I'm pretty sure I heard something moving around up there. I think we should probably check it out. Besides,"-he looked back the way they'd come-"there's no way to tell if and when the gnolls or that guardian statue might show up at our backs."
Melann looked to Vheod and nodded solemnly, with a smile of support. "Let's go check it out," she said.
Vheod arched his back, thrusting his chest ahead of him. He took a deep breath. "Yes," he said quietly, "let's go."
The passage was indeed long, and the temperature dropped slightly with each step down its length. Ahead of them they saw light and heard movement. They continued without discussion.
At the corridor's end, a huge set of brass doors barred the way. Runes, glyphs, and other symbols covered the entire surface of both doors. Four figures stood before the portals, obviously attempting to open them. As Vheod, Whitlock, and Melann approached, three turned to face them while the largest among them continued to work at the doors, thrusting his weight into pushing one open.
The figures were human men, each brandishing a short sword, a dagger, or a long, curved knife. Two held well-burnt torches high above their heads. They glowered silently as Vheod and the others approached. Their eyes showed only malice. "Hello," Melann said tentatively.
Whitlock and Vheod both tightly gripped their already drawn swords. No response came. The three of them stopped about twenty feet away from the doors, the menacing figures in front of them.
Finally, the large figure turned toward them. Vheod recognized him, as did "Whitlock and Melann, judging by the looks on their faces. But then, of course they did, Vheod realized.
The man was Orrag.