"I was wondering when you would get here," Orrag said with an evil grin. "I was starting to worry."
"What are you doing here?" Vheod demanded, pointing at Orrag with the short sword.
Tm here for the same reason you are, friend," the half-orc said to Vheod, never dropping his toothy smile for a moment. "To free your ancestor, the great and powerful Chare'en, Lord of the Seven
Vheod had never heard that title before. How had Orrag? He felt Melann and Whitlock's gazes fall on him, but he didn't turn from the villainous half-orc. Tm here for just the opposite reason, as you well know," Vheod said. "Was everything you told me in Tilverton a lie?"
"Of course not," Orrag replied with his phlegmy, rough voice. "If it had all been a lie you never would've found your way here."
"Listen, you," Whitlock interrupted, "I don't know what sort of game you're playing, but we won't be your pawns. Why did you give us directions to this place if you knew it wasn't really what we were looking for. We sought the crypt of an old wizard-not a demon's prison."
"Simpleton," Orrag said. "You'll die not knowing."
The four men who stood around Orrag tensed. Two of them took menacing steps forward but stopped when they saw their leader made no hostile moves. Orrag continued to smile.
"Why all the elaborate deceptions?" Vheod asked and lowered his sword.
"Only you can free him, Vheod. I may be a devout servant, but the spells that imprison him can only be broken by a blood relation. Braendysh, the wizard who created this prison, saw to it." Orrag drew forth a long, curved scimitar from his belt, still grinning.
"I was so sure that Chauntea led us here," Melann whispered. "I was so sure."
Orrag spoke. "Now, Vheod, join me in opening these doors, and let's finish what has been started."
"If you think," Vheod retorted without hesitation, "that for one moment I might consider joining you in your sick plans, you're as dim-witted as you look.'"
"Vheod," Orrag said, still smiling, "this is your destiny. Don't fool yourself." The smile faded. "This is who you are."
"Never!" Vheod suddenly launched himself at Orrag, with sword in hand and denial as a battle cry.
Melann's world crumbled around her as surely as if the stone of the walls tumbled down around them all. How could she have been so wrong? The whole thing-the whole quest that she and her brother had undertaken-was a lie. It had all been a trick from the beginning. She'd told herself that Chauntea wanted her to undertake this journey, and as proof to her self she observed how everything seemed to work so well to lead her down this path. Now she saw that she'd been fooled as much as Vheod. She wondered if Vheod, like she, had been the primary instrument in his own deception.
Poor Vheod. She'd only helped his enemies in maneuvering him into this situation. Now he fought not only for his life but for his very soul. With every movement he must be questioning himself, she realized. She'd told him that she had faith in him, and it was true. Despite all reason, she truly believed that in the struggle against his own evil nature he was strong enough to win. That didn't mean it was going to be easy for him-nor did it mean he might not be killed if he wouldn't submit.
Melann had faith in Vheod but not in herself. While she never doubted Chauntea's power, she certainly doubted her own ability to devote all of her time and attention to the Mother of All's causes. She had become caught up in this personal mission to come here and find something to assuage the curse that plagued her family. Now that obsession with her personal goals had brought everything to ruin. There was no magical staff to remove the curse, there was only some demonic creature about to be loosed on the world.
Vheod had, at first, seemingly caught Orrag off guard with his attack. Though he seemed as surprised as the half-orc by Vheod's actions, Whitlock appeared more than happy to leap into the fray and help. Orrag and his followers outnumbered the two warriors- they needed her help. Melann reached through the cloud of despair that surrounded her and grabbed the wooden amulet bearing Chauntea's symbol.
No. She couldn't bring herself to call on her goddess's power. Her hand dropped to her belt where she kept her mace. She drew it out and stepped forward to where Vheod and Whitlock already fought Orrag and his men. Vheod engaged Orrag directly, but the four thugs threatened to overwhelm her brother almost immediately.
Melann hefted her weapon with both hands and attacked one of the men. She smashed the mace into his shoulder and spun him around to face her.
"Chare'en will show you vengeance, woman!" the cutthroat shouted as he slashed at her with a curved knife.
The wicked blade cut through the air, but she stepped backward to avoid it. All these men must worship Chare'en, she realized. Melann found it difficult to imagine such a horrible thing. How could they revere a demon? How could they worship the evil and death it represented? Her revulsion drove her mace in powerful strokes, first onto the villain's arm, which replied with a snap of bone. The knife flew from his hand, and she lifted the weapon over her head to finish him off.
Her foe was driven by powerful emotions of his own, though, and weaponless, he lunged at her using his weight to knock her back. Savagely he tore at her with his remaining arm and even with his teeth. "Animal!" she grunted as she pushed him away. Melann bore no regret as she smashed her mace into the man's face. He slumped to the floor. She'd never fought a human before, let alone killed one- though these fiend-worshiping cultists hardly carried themselves as men-but there was little doubt that he was dead.
Melann suddenly couldn't see the battle around her. She could only see what her willful actions had brought her to as she looked at the blood that coated her weapon.
She began to sob.
Whitlock had thrust himself, sword first, into the fray. As Vheod attacked Orrag, he positioned himself to fend off the other men who accompanied the half-orc. It was all he could do, however, to parry their attacks with his blade. He missed his shield, not to mention his armor. He dropped his torch to the ground, hoping it would burn long enough so that he could see in the coming fight. Orrag's henchmen who brandished torches did like-wise as they moved to attack.
Melann moved forward and attacked one of his foes, drawing the cultist's attention to her. That helped considerably, as Whitlock thrust his blade offensively toward one of the three remaining men. Two had short swords, the other-the fastest and most dangerous, Whitlock judged-fought with a dagger in each hand. With three foes instead of four, Whitlock could press them back with his own jabs and feints while still maintaining his guard. Fighting multiple gnolls a number of times over the last few days had forced him to become accustomed to this sort of fighting, and while these fiend-worshiping cultists weren't without skill and determination, they didn't possess the size and strength of the gnolls.
Whitlock at least had a chance. Defeating all three of these men would almost certainly still be the most difficult battle of his life. One of the swordsmen moved in close to eliminate the advantage that Whitlock's long sword granted him. He countered that move with a punch to the man's stomach that caused him to double over. Whitlock raised his sword to capitalize on his advantage, but the double-dagger man lunged forward, forcing him to duck aside. He still brought his blade down on the first attacker, but it was mistimed and only barely sliced the cultist's leg.
Whitlock then backed away a few steps. Behind him Melann still fought with her foe, though it sounded as if she was getting the best of him. She'd done nothing but impress Whitlock in battle and stressful situations. His little sister had certainly grown up. He should have told her how proud he was to fight along side her and how willing he'd become to rely on her skill and intelligence, but he'd not. He rarely thought to say such things.
The man with two daggers-a bearded tough with dark hair-leaped at him again. Whitlock countered with a wide stroke, forcing his foe back, but it was just a ruse. One of the other men-a long-haired, stout man with a sword-stabbed at him when his guard was down. The blade cut into his side, and Whitlock knew his only hope was to go on the offensive.
Slashing wildly, he forced all three of his opponents back a step then lunged at the heavy-set swordsman with long hair. Whitlock's blade sank deeply into the man's guts, but the fellow made no sound other than to whisper, "Chare'en." His eyes closed as he fell to the ground, but Whitlock couldn't take the time to watch. Freeing his blade he stepped around the fallen foe, putting him between Whitlock and the other two cultists.
Now that he was turned around, he could see that Melann was in the process of dispatching her foe. As the cultist she fought fell, his comrades' attention was drawn to him. Whitlock used the opportunity to grab the dead man's short sword. With two blades, he was more likely to match two foes. The thug whose leg he'd cut came at him with an animalistic growl. Whitlock parried his blade with the newly acquired short sword, then swiped at him with his other weapon. His opponent retreated a pace.
The bearded dagger-wielder jumped, and Whitlock turned to see the man already high in the air. With a shrill scream, the dark-haired man crashed into Whitlock and they both tumbled to the stone surface of the corridor. The short sword fell from Whitlock's hand and skittered away along the floor.
"Your soul will go to feed our master," the cultist said through clenched teeth as he and Whitlock lay in a tangled heap. If he didn't get this man off him quickly, one of those daggers would almost certainly find its way into his heart, Whitlock knew.
Focusing all his might, ignoring his assailant's words and the foulness of his breath, Whitlock flung him off and rolled to his feet. The swordsman hadn't yet advanced. Perhaps the wound Whitlock had dealt him was worse than he'd had thought. Spinning around to face the dagger man, he saw that his opponent had already regained his feet. He also saw that one of the man's dagger blades ran red with blood. Only then did Whitlock realize he'd been stabbed while the two lay on the ground.
Don't look down, he told himself. I don't want to know how bad it is.
"Whitlock!" Melann yelled from somewhere off to his right.
Probably losing blood fast, Whitlock pressed the attack. His sword caught the dagger-wielder with a slash across his chest. The man winced in pain but still stabbed forward with both his blades. Whitlock stepped back but used his sword's length to his advantage and brought it up then down on the cultist's neck.
He turned to face the last remaining foe, already weakening, but he saw that Melann stood over the man's fallen body. Her blood-covered iron mace was clenched tightly in both hands. She didn't look at the swordsman but at Whitlock. Her mouth open, she followed him with her gaze as he turned toward her and the last downed thug, then as his knees gave out from under him and he collapsed to the stone floor.
Vheod didn't care how many men Orrag had with him. It only mattered that he kill the half-orc before he could complete his baleful task and free Chare'en-or worse, somehow force or trick Vheod into freeing the balor. Orrag's counter to Vheod's strike was powerful. The half-orc was as strong as he was massive.
Gritting his teeth, Vheod launched a flurry of attacks against Orrag, but each time the larger man parried them or somehow managed to step back out of the way. Vheod was more accustomed to a longer, heavier blade than the one he now used, but he would adapt.
"Don't be foolish, Vheod," Orrag told him with the last parry. "You're not fighting me, you're fighting yourself here. Don't straggle against your own nature. Accept what and who you are."
"Shut up!" Vheod stabbed at his tormentor and ducked past his scimitar, but Orrag's leather armor turned the blade enough that he barely drew blood. "You're the fool, Orrag. You think you serve Chare'en? He's a tanar'ri! As soon as he's free he'll slay you as eagerly as he'd slay anyone. In fact, he might take particular pleasure in your destruction and make it specifically horrible. That's what tanar'ri do, Orrag-they kill, they torture, and they betray. Only a simpleton trusts tanar'ri."
Just ask Whitlock or Melann, Vheod thought to himself. They trusted me, and look where it got them. Vheod sighed heavily.
"Oh, I'm not worried about any such thing," Orrag hook his head weightily back and forth, his fleshy cheeks swinging like pendulums. "I'm in control of 'his situation."
"You're more of an idiot than I ever imagined if you really believe that," Vheod said, "but even if you think you're safe from Chare'en, I assure you, you're lot safe from me!" He stabbed again with his sword. Vheod's powerful thrust almost knocked Orrag from his feet as the half-orc attempted to counter the blow.
"You came here to free Chare'en!" Orrag spat as he steadied himself. "Why do you fight it?"
Vheod was suddenly filled with dread. He stepped back a pace. "You, or perhaps Chare'en… you're in contact with the Taint, aren't you? That's how all of this is happening, isn't it."
Orrag's dark, bulging eyes opened wide for a moment as he reacted with a start. "What are you talking about now?" Orrag seemed genuinely confused.
He didn't know about the Taint? Could that be possible? Vheod took the time to glance at the mark, which remained on his left hand. The mocking face leered outward, but not at him-at Orrag. It almost seemed to be laughing at the half-orc. Why?
Vheod pressed his attack again and saw the beads of sweat gathering on Orrag's brow. The half-orc roared in frustration and pushed Vheod's attacks away yet again. When Vheod stepped forward with a flurry of blows, Orrag surprised him with a powerful swing that would have cut the cambion open if he'd not still been wearing his breastplate.
Only vaguely aware of the battle going on at his back, Vheod silently hoped Melann and Whitlock were all right. Once concern for Melann's safety entered into his mind, he knew he had to end this fight with Orrag as quickly as possible to insure that she was unharmed. While he knew she could take care of herself, he also knew he cared too deeply about her not to know for sure that she was safe.
Calling on the fiendish nature of his being, he brought forth a wave of oily blackness that occluded all light. It swarmed around him like water pouring into a basin, and he sent it forward to surround Orrag. The darkness had no effect other than to prevent his opponent from seeing, but that was all the advantage Vheod needed. Orrag stepped out of the swirling shadow, only to be knocked back into it by a forceful blow from Vheod's blade. The cambion felt his sword cut deep into flesh.
From within the swirling cloud of conjured blackness, Vheod heard a loud thud, then a softer one, but he could no more see in this magical darkness than Orrag could.
"It isn't fair," came the half-orc's gruff and gravelly voice. "I had it all planned, but you weren't supposed to attack me. That's not how it was supposed to happen." These words were followed by a grating sound that startled Vheod.
With but a thought and a focus of his tanar'ri nature, Vheod dispelled the darkness he'd brought forth. Orrag lay on the floor in front of the bronze, rune-covered doors, covered in blood.
The Taint visibly laughed on the back of his hand, but Vheod had no idea if it was laughing at Orrag, at him, or at both of them.
The doors, also now covered in blood, stood open.