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Chapter Twenty-Two

The growing darkness had in fact been the ravens filling the small room that gave way to the prison chamber. Vheod looked at the Ravenwitch over his shoulder. "I don't have time for you now, witch."

The Ravenwitch flowed toward him like black water given life. A long cloak of black feathers rippled behind her, as did her long, ebony tresses. She smiled a thin, tight smile but didn't reply. As Vheod and

Melann watched, she stopped at drag's body and knelt beside it. Pulling his shirt away from his neck, she pulled out an amulet on a chain. It glittered with gold and some small sorcerous symbols.

Taking it from the half-orc's corpse, she handed it to Vheod. "If anyone concerned was in possession of this amulet, it would be this one. He'd been planning for this day for some time, and while not exactly a tower of intellect, he had a sort of craftiness that suggested he would plan ahead."

Vheod took the amulet and turned back to the chamber. Chare'en slowly advanced through the debris and dust, breathing heavily.

"But what is it?" Vheod asked with an intensity burning in his eyes.

"Braendysh needed something to defeat Chare'en.' she told him. "This protected him and enabled his victory against the demon so long ago."

"Why are you helping us now?" Melann asked, her voice betraying all her suspicions.

"I am helping myself, not you." She looked over Vheod's shoulder into the room and a look of mixed fascination and horror crossed her countenance. "Surely we can discuss this some other time."

Vheod placed the amulet around his neck and turned back to Chare'en. He hefted the broads-word, wiped his brow of sweat and blood, and moved into the chamber, almost immediately having to climb up and over some of the scattered metal debris. He noticed he was suddenly accompanied by dozens of ravens that flew into the room and hopped about the wreckage around him. Biting his tongue, Vheod did his best to ignore them.

The tanarri and the half-tanar'ri met near the center of the room, but closer to the entrance than the opposite side. Chare'en flexed his long claws at the end of his powerful arms. His sneer betrayed hundreds of jagged teeth. Visible, dark green breath snorted out of his wide nostrils. Already his eye was healing, for blows from unenchanted weapons or attacks could never permanently harm him.

Still, the balor breathed heavily. Chare'en couldn't conceal the fact that he was quite hurt.

"I suppose," Chare'en said heavily, "you might expect me to ask you one last time to concede to my will and serve me." He paused and took a labored breath. "I do not need you any longer, boy. I am free. Letting you live now would be akin to mercy, I would suppose, and you should well know that I could not abide that."

"I know all too well what you're like," Vheod told him. "I harbor a bit of you within me."

"If that were true, you would not face me now-for you would know that I would destroy you."

Vheod shook his head. He almost smiled. "I know something that you do not."

A sharp laugh escaped Chare'en's toothy grin. "We shall see."

The balor raised his muscular arm and brought it down on Vheod. He raised it again with a horrid smile, thinking to find the cambion smashed beyond recognition. Instead, Vheod stood his ground, unscathed.

Vheod breathed a sigh of relief. Even up to the last moment, he questioned the words of the Ravenwitch. However, at least so far, she'd apparently spoken the truth. Chare'en could not harm him. This changed everything.

Chare'en struck at Vheod again and again. With a wrinkled brow, he looked down at the cambion. All at once, his eyes filled with recognition, then something else crossed his face. Could it have been fear? Vheod hoped so.

Vheod struck at the balor, sinking his sword deep into tanar'ri flesh once again. "You are nothing but an abomination here, Chare'en," he said. Another stroke, another hit. "You will be destroyed this time." Another strike.

Vheod's blows forced the tanar'ri back. Chare'en clawed at his foe, but to no avail. The magic of the amulet seemed to provide complete protection. As Vheod attacked, the ravens in the room did as well. They came at the huge demon from all sides, buffeting his face with their wings and tearing at his already open flesh with beaks and claws.

Vheod jumped up, thrusting his weight against Chare'en's chest and striking with his sword. The force of the blow knocked the balor back, tearing his side as he pushed against a sharp metal shard. Vheod dropped to the ground but stumbled over some debris. As he did, Chare'en lashed out, attempting to grab the amulet away. Vheod was just barely able to pull back and dodge the blow.

"I must destroy you, Chare'en, for this world and for myself. Neither deserves to have to worry about your manipulation or threats." Vheod chopped at the balor with his blade yet again.

Chare'en's face was full of pain and worry now-but both emotions fled, pushed away by anger. Chare'en began drawing on his internal, sorcerous nature. He began summoning power-a lot of power. The ravens began to scatter, though some remained to peck and claw at their enemy.

Chare'en's arms raised above his head, and he gazed upward as black and violent fire wrapped around his hands then the air between them. The demon lowered his gaze back down to Vheod, and a smile crossed his thin, black lips.

Vheod didn't wait to see what would happen next. He leaped upward at his huge foe, this time throwing his shoulder into Chare'en's chest. Hands still blazing with black fire, the balor flailed his arms to keep his balance. His nearly useless wings fluttered, and it wasn't enough. Chare'en fell backward-backward onto the broken remains of his glass prison. The bottom portion of one of the vertically split halves rose up slightly from the debris, its jagged edge protruding like a spike that thrust up through the tanar'ri as he fell. Blood and black bile spurted in all directions, and his hands exploded in unreleased dark sorcery.

Chare'en let loose a high-pitched wail. His eyes shot forth dark bolts of raw, evil power. His body shook violently, then crumbled abruptly into a fine reddish powder that rose in a cloud around his former prison, settling down on and around the broken green shards.

Vheod breathed a slow, easy breath. Chare'en was gone, his physical form destroyed. This world wouldn't need to know his abrasive touch. It was safe. He was safe. Melann and Whitlock were safe. Vheod breathed again. He looked back to the entrance, where he could see Melann laughing-though he knew it was through great pain that she did so.

Vheod looked on the shattered glassy stone that lay all around him. In each piece, he saw his own reflection, and he knew that like his great-grandfather, he too had been in a glass prison. All his life he'd looked around himself and believed himself to be free, never realizing that transparent walls of destiny surrounded him. He now knew that his own nature was in fact his greatest enemy.

Vheod looked down at the Taint. It rested as it often did, on the back of his hand. He knew he could never completely rid himself of that nature, no more than he could rid himself of his heart or his brain. It was a part of him, as true as any other, but that didn't mean he was its slave.

He could take control. Now that he saw the walls, he could break through them, just as Chare'en's own glass prison had shattered.

With Chare'en destroyed, the Ravenwitch and her cadre of ravens simply left. Vheod had walked back to where she and Melann stood and said, Im not sure how to say this, but thank you."

The Ravenwitch showed no sign that she even recognized the words he spoke. She made a small sound that apparently the ravens all understood. They began to fly out as a flock then the Ravenwitch just turned and left. Vheod and Melann let her go.

Eventually, after they rested a while, they carrier Whitlock through the underground passages and found the exit. All around lay slain gnolls. Though many looked as though the guardian had killed them, a significant number of others sported smaller wounds, indicating tiny talons or beaks. A great many black feathers lay scattered about the fallen, as well as a few dead ravens. The guardian was nowhere to be seen. Vheod did, however, notice that there was a little more stone rubble near the entrance than he remembered.

The three of them rested not far away for two full days, until Whitlock was feeling better. Melann administered both conventional aid and magical healing, which brought relief to all of them. During that time, they discussed what they would do next.

"Obviously," Whitlock said, still somewhat weak from his wounds, "Melann and I need to return to Archendale with the staff. We can lift the family curse and present the staff to my father." Whitlock smiled broadly, and Melann joined him in his smile.

"Actually, Whitlock," she said, "I'm not going to return with you right away."

"What?" he asked with a wrinkled brow and a sharp frown.

"You see, Vheod's going to look for his family. With all that's happened, he can do that. He could use some help, he's still very new to this world.

"It won't take both of us to carry the staff," she told him. "You'll be fine to travel by tomorrow." She paused, looking her brother in the eye. "You understand, don't you?"

Whitlock stared back at her for a long while. He finally replied, "Yes, I suppose I do," and managed a smile.

Melann saw now that Chauntea had never abandoned her, and that she had never abandoned Chauntea. The goddess represented goodness, order, purity, the sanctity of life, and the nature of all growing things. As long as Melann, as a representative of the Mother of All here in the world of mortals, dwelt on those ideals, upheld them and lived her life in a way that fostered and encouraged those beliefs, her will and the goddess's will would not be in conflict. She'd finally found peace with herself in that fact. She'd found the frame of mind required of her to truly serve Chauntea in the best possible way.

For now-and maybe forever-that way meant helping Vheod. Not only did she love him for what he was, but she felt compelled to stand at his side to help him become what he could be. She smiled at the thought of it. She was suddenly bound on another quest, confident this time that it was the right thing to do.'

Vheod left the siblings alone while Melann told Whitlock that she had decided to travel with him. He was still anxious to find the human part of his heritage. It would be good to develop actual ties with this world. Such ties would allow him to feel like he belonged here, which at the moment, was the second most important thing to him.

The most important thing, he'd realized over the last few days, was Melann. He loved her. She was everything he wanted to be, and he wanted more than anything to be with her and to help her in whatever she set out to do. He wondered still if he actually deserved to be with her. The Taint, glaring up at him from his arm, certainly made him question that. Did the dark side of his soul represent a danger? He certainly hoped not, but how could he ever be certain? Can a man overcome his own inborn nature? The answer depends on the man.

"FREEDOM" | The Glass Prison |