Melann cradled her brother's unconscious, blood-soaked body in her arms as she kneeled on the stone floor. Her lack of conviction had brought her here- deep inside the prison of a demon, having just killed two men, and with Whitlock dying in her arms. If she'd only remained focused on Chauntea's will and not her own, none of this would have happened. How could she call on Chauntea's mercy to heal her brother's wounds? How could she expect the Mother of All to answer her call when she'd so obviously and blatantly gone astray? She didn't deserve the aid of her god, and now her brother would pay the price for her shortcomings.
Perhaps it was for the best. Whitlock had fallen in battle, and he certainly would have wanted it that way. She knew that death and failure were inevitable now for all of them. Melann looked down into her brother's face and thought of how he'd always considered her the cheerful one. She'd always seen the best of things-always believed in what was good. He'd told her once that was what made her so well suited for the priesthood. Compliments came rarely from Whitlock, so she always remembered the comment and took it to heart. Finally now, her optimism had been proven wrong-she had to accept that. The gnolls had them trapped here amid the dead and dying, along with an imprisoned demon. She had failed and failed utterly.
Tears rolled down her face, but she ignored them, instead wiping the brow of her brother.
Worst of all, with, each step she'd taken toward failure, Melann had told herself she was following Chauntea's will. She'd deceived herself, and she'd done so happily. She'd wanted her own will more than she'd wanted, to serve her patron. No deserving priest would ever do that, she knew. Melann had dragged herself toward this end, convinced that she'd been led by Chauntea and by good fortune.
In her delusion, she'd also brought her brother and Vheod to their sad end as well. Though Vheod had proven to be the master of his own life, just as he'd wanted, Melann was certain that none of them could escape this place and this end. Her own selfishness and hubris had brought them too deep to escape now. She looked down at Whitlock and knew that she was right.
The flames of the dropped torches around her died, but she made no move to correct the situation, for she'd neither the power nor the strength.
Vheod, she saw in the flickering light, stood over the body of Orrag. Melann could at least see that the offer Orrag had made Vheod-one the half-orc seemed to honestly believe Vheod would accept-was the test of inner strength he knew was coming. At the very least, she was right to have faith in Vheod. Not that it mattered now.
Vheod moved through the growing shadows toward the doorway that now stood open after the battle. The bronze doors had somehow given way during the fighting. Melann couldn't remember when that had happened, but they were indeed open now and revealed a gigantic room beyond, awash in a faint glow that at first seemed green, then changed to red. Through the wide doorway, the huge room appeared full of a multitude of objects making vast and dramatic movements. Vheod approached slowly, drawn by curiosity-she hoped. Had he completely overcome his evil nature? What lay in that room that compelled him so? She shuddered. Had she been wrong about everything?
As he moved closer to the entrance, her own vision was drawn with him. She could see now that what she'd believed to be many moving objects was really a single object of many parts, all of them spinning and moving about the room, yet connected to one another. Spheres and other three-dimensional shapes, crafted from tarnished bronze, rotated rapidly, like a gigantic orrery animated with life-frantic life. The parts of this immense device, which must have been at least a hundred feet high, moved rapidly but with such precision that they produced almost no sound other than the whip of displaced air.
A metallic smell rolled through the open doorway, mixed with dust and ancient, stale air. Vheod continued inside, until Melann could no longer see him. Remaining where she was she could just make out that at the center of the spinning, rotating, orbiting arms, and rings and other portions of the device, was an oval made of green stone. Through the translucent shell of this colossal egg, a humanoid figure writhed. The thing in the glassy container must have stood twelve feet tall, and huge wings jutted from its back. Chare'en.
This was the prison of the fiend-a prison made of the green glassy rock that had once comprised an ancient idol dedicated to him. A painful chill ran slowly through Melann like a wave of nausea, and as it passed over her she grew numb. She became completely unfeeling as though she was wrapped tightly in a prisonlike shell of her own. Now every lie she'd been told was indeed confirmed.
Now, every hope she'd possessed was truly dead.
She heard Vheod's voice come from inside the strange chamber. "Melann," he cried. What could it be? Was there really any more that could happen? If it was over, couldn't it just be truly over?
"Melann! The staff-I believe I've found the staff you seek. I've found the key to removing your family's curse."
Eyes wide and staring straight ahead, she still knelt on the cold stone, too shocked to move. Too afraid that if she even breathed what Vheod just said might somehow not be true, or that she would realize she heard him incorrectly.
Warmth cracked and penetrated the despair that encircled Melann. All the hope she'd lost, all the faith that had fled from her-both faith in herself and in her goddess's willingness to provide for her-came flooding back. It overwhelmed her. She'd given up believing in the lies she'd been told. Now, now was there yet some grain of truth in the stories of the dead wizard named Chare'en and the magical staff that lay in his crypt? Could it be true?
Her spirit was almost torn asunder. Never before had she found such a pit of despair within her, and now to be pulled out so quickly and completely to learn that her greatest wish had come true was almost more than she could take. She steadied herself with a hand on the stone floor.
Melann told herself that she dare not believe it before she saw it with her own eyes, but it was too late. All her hopes and faith now rested on the words of Vheod-noble Vheod who had overcome the temptation of his own evil soul. He'd rejected Orrag, and now his strength brought him to the staff that would lift the curse on her family. She owed it all to- Whitlock!
Melann realized that before she could do anything, she had to save her brother. She lowered his body slowly to the ground and stood up. She took a deep breath, then another.
Her hands raised above her head, and she whispered, "Great Mother, please… I don't know if I've followed your will to come here or not, but I need your help. I probably don't deserve your attention now, but my brother is dying." Summoning what inner strength remained, she performed the healing rite and lowered her hands to Whitlock's bleeding abdomen.
Before her eyes, the gaping wound exposed by the tear in his shirt blurred and disappeared, leaving only healthy flesh.
"Oh, thank you! Praise Chauntea-provider and nurturer of life!”
Whitlock remained unconscious, but Melann knew he would live. His condition was still fragile, he needed rest, and any undue stress might still pose a danger to him. She should remain at his side.
But the staff! How could she not go see the object of their quest? It was the culmination of all their dreams and plans. They could cure their parents and ensure that their family was free of the affliction forever. She and Whitlock could live out their lives without fear of the curse. That staff meant freedom and peace. Melann looked down at her brother and smiled. She stood and walked into the strange room from which Vheod had called to her.
Once inside, Melann saw the contents of the room in greater detail. At the center was the glass prison, eighteen feet in height and more than half as wide. Orbiting around it, however, were strangely shaped objects of all sizes-some as large as a horse-that rotated, rose, fell, and circled around each other. All these objects were connected together in a complex web of metal supported at the center of the room around the area of the floor on which the oval vessel of green, glassy stone rested. The spinning spectacle of metal whirled at great speed all around the prison, filling the room that stretched at least three hundred feet in all directions, but it never touched the green glass egg itself.
Vheod stood before the glass prison, reaching toward it. What was he doing? Was he compelled by his evil side, even now, to liberate dread Chare'en? Was there no end to his internal struggle?
"No, Vheod, don't! Not after all you've already overcome," she shouted at him from just inside the doorway leading into the vast chamber.
"But," he said, turning his head toward her, "the staff…"
Melann looked more closely at the prison. There, barring the seal that held the two halves of the egglike vessel together was a wooden, rune-covered staff. Both the staff's ends were capped in silver, and the runes that ran up and down its four sides were inlaid also in silver. It sparkled with a radiant beauty that seemed out of place here. The silver glow that came from the staff extended from it like tethers lashing it to the prison, holding it against the seam over a silver seal.
It was clear that to remove the staff, the seal had to be broken.
The figure inside the glass prison shifted its position and flexed its wings. It seemed as though it was listening to the conversation. It seemed that it was preparing to escape its imprisonment.
"Without it, your parents will die," Vheod told her. "You may die."
"That doesn't matter now," she told him. "I can't believe that." He shook his head slowly, his gaze never dropping from hers.
"You have to believe it, Vheod. I'm not worth it. No one person is."
"That's not the way I see it," he told her firmly "If I thought that I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have survived in the Abyss."
"That's not what I mean."
"I can't let you die, Melann. I can't let the misery and pain of your family's curse continue."
Melann looked away from him. As she was drawn to look even closer at the massive figure within the translucent prison, she saw that its face was shaped like the stone pattern the gnolls had made with their green rocks. It looked just like the Taint on the back of Vheod's hand.
Melann then knew the truth. Orrag was not the voice of temptation, he was yet another pawn in the whole vast plan. Apparently, only Vheod could remove the staff and free Chare'en, but Orrag could never have convinced him to do it-the balor in the prison knew that.
No, Orrag did not provide the temptation here. She did. Every portion of the Taint's-of Chare'en's-plan had come together.
"Vheod, you can't let them win!" It's not your fault, she thought. It was the Taint-it was Chare'en all along. Even the curse on her family was but a stepping stone to this moment when Vheod's human side would act out of what Chare'en certainly saw as the human weaknesses of love and loyalty.
"No," Vheod said, "I love you too much to let you fail." He reached toward the silvery staff.
Melann ran to him, hands outstretched, attempting to cross the distance that remained, all the while dodging the veritable maelstrom of metal parts to the grand device surrounding the prison. Her mouth formed a silent scream of protest, and her eyes were wide with fear and despair. She was too late.