The portal from the varrangoins' tower opened on this side in a space between the trunks of two oak trees, with their intertwined branches forming the top of the "doorway." A breeze tossed Vheod's long hair, and he shivered in the soft touch of its caress. Here on this world-wherever it was-the air was not abrasive. It didn't tear at his skin as he moved through it as it had all live life in the clutches of the Abyss. The sounds that surrounded him-calling birds, chirping insects, scurrying animals-all seemed so non-threatening. In his home, such an environments always made a wise man suspicious, but here? How could he know?
Vheod looked down at himself as he took a few steps forward. The magical trip had seemed instantaneous, and he looked none the worse for wear. At some point, while he wasn't looking, the Taint had slithered to the underside of his forearm, near his wrist. Its shape resembled a contorted face with narrow eyes and a thin, broad mouth. Tipped points on the sides might have been ears, or they might have been horns. As he examined it, the red mark shifted, the face broadening and the stiff line of the mouth bending into a smile. Vheod couldn't decide whether it was a smile of triumph or a leer of mockery.
In the dim light, trees heavy with leaves reached out in all directions as if searching for the intruder he knew himself to be. The first reaction that came to was that he didn't belong here. The colors were too calm, the sounds too sweet, and the smells too pure for someone accustomed to the horrors of the Abyss.
Cautiously, Vheod began to explore the immediate area in which he'd arrived. Smooth grass rustled under each step, but he soon found it quite easy to move silently through the wilderness. Ahead the sounds of running, splashing water alerted him, yet drew him onward. A brook cut its way through the landscape, and Vheod, once at its side, suspiciously reached down to touch the water. It was cold, coming down from rocky highlands that rose behind him. Its touch and smell revealed no threat, so he dipped his head down to taste it, for it had been almost a day since his lips had last touched water. The water wasn't only safe and pure but delicious.
This place was as different from the Abyss as he could possibly grasp.
Vheod's imagination could never have conjured a place like this. Surely this was a paradise. What kept all creatures from all worlds from coming here and taking part in the beauty and peace that seemed to come to this place so easily? Was there some guardian he needed to be wary of?
Crouching at the river's bank, Vheod became acutely aware of a horrible smell. A few worried moments passed before he realized the evil odor came from himself. Without another thought, he waded into the cold water, then submerged his entire body. When he could hold his breath no longer he surfaced, then shed his breastplate and all his clothes. He scrubbed each piece of clothing with his palms, then tossed them to the rocks at the water's edge. Once finished, he scrubbed himself with his hands and with sand and pebbles pulled from the bottom. The idea of getting the smell and filth of the Abyss off him consumed Vheod for quite some time. He scrubbed until his body felt raw. His rumbling stomach made him aware of how much time had passed.
Climbing out of the water, he scoured his clothes and armor with the rocks at the side of the river. Finished, he put them back on while still wet.
Now, he thought, it is time to see what paradise has to offer me to eat.
Darkness consumed the forest quickly, but eyes developed in the darkness of the Lower Planes had little trouble finding prey. Vheod's sword was too big and clumsy for hunting, but spells of charming and illusion were powerful, efficient means to provide a night's dinner. By the standards of those sorcerous creatures he was forced to call kin, he was no wizard. Still, he'd learned a few minor spells and possessed some abilities that came naturally to him because of his heritage. That night Vheod even took the time to conjure flame to create a fire in which to roast the tiny, furry animal for which his memory had no name. With a full belly and a weary body, he soon fell asleep next to the fire with his sword next to him. As he drifted into sleep the flames died a slow lingering death of glowing embers.
Bright rays of light woke the cambion from a night of feverish, dark dreams. Vheod's spirits lifted immediately as he remembered where he was-a place far better than any of his dreams. Still, he was surprised and a little annoyed at the amount of light that came from the bright orb high in the sky. Did it have to be so bright? His eyes would need to adjust, and his dark flesh would have to cope with its warmth.
His garments were dry, and his tattered cloak was the cleanest he remembered seeing it. This light revealed more than he was used to seeing. He wondered what it might reveal of himself in the sight of another.
Vheod spent the rest of the day exploring. As the light began to ebb once again, the trees and plants around him grew sharper and more distinct. Objects farther away came into view in the shadowy twilight. His vision improved as the light around him died to levels more like those to which he was accustomed. With keener eyes, Vheod saw figures making their way through the trees. Two men carried a long log through an area of felled trees. He quietly pressed through the foliage to get a better look.
Now he could see more figures in the woods. A dozen men, all wielding axes, shaved the branches from felled trees. A few toted the logs off somewhere else. Each man wore a thick beard, and their thick, sturdy shirts revealed massive, muscular frames-Sweat dripped from brows hung low on weary necks. It looked to Vheod as if these men were ending their day of work, perhaps more hindered by the dying light than he.
"Well have this area cleared by tomorrow, then we can begin building," Vheod heard one of them say.
“Fine," another replied with a good natured smile, "that's where my skills come in."
Vheod's ever-sharpening eyes saw, far beyond the working men, a tiny village of log homes set among the trees, fading into the sea of brown and green around it. Faint wisps of smoke rose from the tiny homes, greeting the first awakening stars of the evening.
These humans were clearing away trees to make space to build, Vheod realized. A simple enough act, he thought, but something far more important occurred to him as a result. The inhabitants of this world master their environment, rather than letting it master them. That wasn't true in the Lower Planes. As powerful as some of the lords of those nether worlds could be, they were always-consciously or unconsciously-servants of the very planes on which they lived. The fact that the Abyss's inhabitants were creatures of that plane, where evil and chaos were real, tangible things made them servants. The Abyss was chaos and evil, and the tanar’ri and other lower planar creatures that dwelled there, embodiments of those concepts themselves, served the Abyss with a far greater loyalty than any conventional master could ever hope to gain from those under him.
Here, Vheod realized, where the world was a place more than a master, men could make of it what they wanted. Not driven by inborn philosophies or outlooks, they were free to choose their own paths. These weren't people of predetermined destiny but of freedom and choice. Vheod watched these burty, muscular men as they left their work site and was suddenly gripped with sadness-and perhaps envy. He knew that what they had, what he'd never had, was exactly what he wanted.
Vheod fled once again into the darkening forest. Throughout that night, sounds rose from the village. Laughter and song filled the dark, star-filled sky. At one point, Vheod crept close enough to see six tiny wooden buildings, most glowing cheerfully with interior fires lit probably more for the light than the heat, for it was a warm night. The chirping insects covered the soft sounds of his footfalls as he made his way toward the nearest building. Within, a few people spoke of things the eavesdropping Vheod couldn’t understand. As he crouched beneath a window, they talked of someplace called the Dales and of the near-by Desertsmouth Mountains.
"As he listened further, he ascertained that this was just a minor settlement to the west of someplace called Shadowdale, at the edge of the Spiderhaunt Woods. The land that rose toward the west evidently led to the aforementioned mountains. Strangely, the people spoke of a fear of the woods. They wouldn't go past the cleared area, telling of dangers much deeper in the forest.
This is the most beautiful place I have ever been, Vheod thought. How could they fear it? Where are they from that this is a place of fear and danger?
Before he could learn anything else, the light in the building dimmed suddenly, and the people grew silent. Vheod waited in the darkness and quiet for a time, lost in his thoughts.
Vheod woke just before dawn to sounds of movement. He kept very still but opened his eyes. Once again, his ability to see in dark conditions served him well. Two bloated humanoid creatures, covered in short, bristling hair lumbered toward him. Without thinking further, the cambion leaped to his feet and drew his sword, which lay beside him while he slept. The dark-furred things jerked back awkwardly but made no sound. Their long arms had dragged along the ground as they moved, but now their clawed hands reached toward their fat bellies. They opened yellow-fanged mouths in an obvious attempt to give him pause.
It didn't work.
Vheod charged, but as he did, he saw what these mysterious creatures were doing. Each pulled a glistening cord from their abdomens. Somehow, these beasts created webs like a spider. What was worse, each seemed to be quickly forming their creations into forbidding nooses or lariats. Vheod reached his foes before they finished. A mighty swing of his sword stopped one of the creatures from its spinning, and it reeled back from the force of the warrior's blow. Black blood mixed with a thin yellow pus ran from the gash the sword made. The creature flung itself toward Vheod in retaliation, but the cambion swung his sword back around, cutting it down before the beast could reach him with its long, clawed arms.
The other hairy creature had finished its spinning by that point. It held a many-stranded loop of spidery silk aloft over its head and grunted, stamping its feet on the ground with rapid thuds. As Vheod prepared to slay the creature before it could use the weapon, he felt something brush against his back. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that a hairy spider, at least a foot across, had dropped down from the trees above on a cord of webbing.
A tug on his arm drew his attention back toward the humanoid foe. With surprising speed, the creature had looped its makeshift weapon around Vheod's free arm. He pulled at the bond, but the hairy, manlike thing tugged back with great strength. It showed a hideous grin, producing more and more web to keep Vheod bound but to stay out of sword's reach. It was waiting for the spider to bite, Vheod thought, and for its venom to bring him down while keeping him off-balance with the web.
The creature was jostling him too much to allow Vheod to use a spell, and he could feel the spider reach his lower back. Vheod reached behind him with his sword, pretending to slash at the spider, but instead flinging the weapon end over end toward the other foe, even as he felt the spider's fangs sink into his flesh.
The sword caught the creature by surprise, slashed its shoulder and knocked it backward off its feet. Vheod didn't waste a moment in running toward his wounded opponent, which was able to right itself by the time he got to it. The important thing to Vheod was that too much slack in the web strand prevented the creature from using it against him now. Snarling, Vheod began pounding at the creature's head with his fists.
At first, the creature attempted to claw and bite Vheod, but the onrush of blow after blow forced it to hold its long, hairy arms in front of it in a hope to block the torrent of attacks. Vheod's furiously pounding fists continued unabated. Blood and pus ran down the creature's face and shoulder, staining its hairy, naked body The gray-bristled beast fell to its knees, and holding its long-fingered hands over its head, murmured something with a pleading look in its large yellow eyes.
"There is no mercy in the Abyss, creature!" Vheod cried as he lifted his fist, dripping with black blood, down one more time on the beast's face. It fell to the ground with a heavy, wet thud. Reaching behind him, Vheod grabbed the spider and tore it from his back. Holding it in front of him, he shouted, "And tanar'ri cannot be harmed by simple poison!" He crushed the creature in his hand, and a thick, greenish-yellow ooze squirted out and mingled with the black blood running down his arm. The spider stopped squirming. Vheod dropped it to the ground.
He sat on the spot where he'd slept through most of the night and breathed heavily. For a moment, a feeling of satisfaction and triumph welled up inside him, but as the light of this world's day rose over the horizon, he came to a horrible realization.
This isn't the Abyss.
While he held no doubt that these beasts wanted to feed on his blood, the bright light and pure air of this world cried out in disapproval of his savage methods. Perhaps this place offered a different way than wanton destruction. That creature had wanted mercy. Perhaps it expected to get it. Did the warriors of this world, of "the Dales” practice a different sort of philosophy? Perhaps on this world survival wasn't the only goal.
He felt a twinge of kinship with the men he'd seen working the day before. Now, after seeing these hairy, inhuman spider-creatures, Vheod wanted it to be true. He wanted to be a part of this world and its people. It was the best place he'd ever been. Still the attack had taught him an important lesson-there were dangers here, just like in the Abyss.
Later on that same day. Vheod took to exploring again. This time he walked in the opposite direction from the settlement he'd visited the night before. Somehow after his actions that morning, he felt unfit to be around those he was sure were far nobler and more merciful than he.
Gray clouds seeped across and eventually covered the sun after midday, and a few hours before twilight distant flashes of lightning crossed the horizon. Vheod noticed that the deeper he traveled into the woods, the fewer animals he saw or heard. Here and there, spider webs-some of enormous size-clung to the trees, but no other signs of more spiders or spidery humanoids revealed themselves. Perhaps they didn't care for the rain.
When the downpour that Vheod expected finally came, he all but ignored it. Lightning crackled across the sky overhead, and cool winds carried the formerly warm, still air through the trees. The canopy of leaves above him provided shelter from much of the rain, but the water still ran down the branches and gathered in muddy pools at his feet.
Through the haze of the rain, large, dark shapes loomed ahead of him. As he drew closer, Vheod could make out stone structures. Closer still, and he could see that there were two structures, one much larger than the other. Both were ancient and overgrown with climbing plants. The once-cleared area now teemed with brush and tall grass. Rain ran down the moss-covered, crumbling stone walls. It probably, Vheod thought, rained right into the structures themselves, for the wooden slats that once served as roofs for both buildings had collapsed years or even decades ago. leaving only a hint of their passing around the top edges of the walls. Even if he sought shelter-which he didn't-he would find none here. Walking into this seemingly abandoned place Vheod recalled the tower of Destiny's Last Hope. Reflexively he looked at the Taint, wondering if it had led him here as well. The vaguely round shape it presented had no discernible meaning. It lay dead on his arm, looking much like a normal birthmark.
Vheod made note that no wall had ever encircled this place, and that even in their heyday, the buildings offered no defensible positions. What this observation revealed he wasn't sure, other than that in the place he'd grown up, no structure was ever built without defense in mind. Buildings of any sort never lasted long in the Abyss with the horrid conditions, but builders always assumed their work would be attacked. Battle was a way of life there-perhaps not so here.
Closer still to the main building, the rain spattered into a round pool, about fifteen feet across. Its perimeter was girded by mossy stones and had obviously contained a shallow sampling of some brackish, cloudy water, but the storm was quickly replenishing it with clear, pure rain. The door of the larger, two-storied building opened out to the pool and hung partially open. Vheod was surprised the wooden door still hung on its tired, rusted hinges. Peering through the doorway, he'd enough light coming through the open roof to see that only rubble and debris remained within.
The smaller building, with only a single story, possessed a closed wooden door, and Vheod now realized, a more intact roof. As he looked at the structure, the door opened, catching the cambion completely by surprise. Two men stepped slowly out of the doorway, each wearing brown robes with gray stoles bearing no sign or mark.
The rain diminished to a lazy, irritating drizzle, but Vheod hardly noticed.
"Good day to you, traveler," the plumper, shorter of the two said in a soft, kind voice.
"Good day to you," the taller, more broad-shouldered of the pair chimed in with a smile.
Vheod said nothing. This was his first encounter with creatures of this world-not including the battle with those blood-seeking beasts earlier. How to handle it?
"You've come seeking something, my friend?" the round-faced, balding man asked.
"What do you seek?" the bearded, taller man added. Both of them stopped a few paces away from where Vheod stood. They halted at exactly the same time, exactly the same distance away from him.
Vheod still said nothing.
The rounded, fleshy one said, "My name is Gyrison"
"And I am Arach," the larger, dark-haired man added.
"My name is Vheod," he told them after a long pause.
"Good," Gyrison replied.
"Yes, good," Arach said immediately after.
"We serve here as priests," Gyrison stated with a short bow.
With a sweeping gesture Arach told him, '"This is our temple."
As one of them finished a movement or phrase, the other continued it or started another. The two men seemed to Vheod to be more like one.
"Priests of what power?" he asked them, still unsure whether to reach for the hilt of his sword. "What is it that you seek?" Gyrison asked. "You're new here, aren't you?" Arach finished. "I… I am," Vheod said slowly, "is that-how do you know that? Is it important? Are outsiders forbidden?" Both men smiled at Vheod. He noted quickly that the building behind them appeared as empty as the larger.
"You've come to Toril looking for… someone?" Gyrison asked him.
Toril. The home of my mother.
Vheod answered quickly, if only to keep Arach from asking a different question of him as well. "I have family here. Somewhere."
"Ah," Arach replied. "We can help you find them, traveler." "Why?"
"Because it's what we do," Gyrison replied. "Because you need us to." He smiled again, in a way Vheod could not interpret.
"Because we can," Arach added.
Vheod looked the two over again. The drizzling precipitation didn't seem to bother them any more than it did him, but the moisture seeped into their brown robes. They seemed to act in perfect concert, but they never looked at each other-only at him. Every instinct within him told him not to trust these two strange men, but he realized that such was the Abyssal way. This was a different world, with different customs, different outlooks, and different approaches. They seemed genuinely generous and hardly a threat. Why not see what they knew?
Vheod pushed the long, wet strands of hair away from his face and asked them, "So what can you tell me?"
"First," Gyrison said, "you must tell us what you seek, exactly."
"Who are your relatives?" Arach asked on his turn. "My great-grandmother's name was Thean," he said trying to stress the name with the same importance that he remembered it was told to him long ago. That single name was all he knew of his mortal heritage. "Great-grandparent," Gyrison said thoughtfully. "Let us take a look," Arach said, motioning toward the pool that Vheod stood beside.
As Vheod turned to look into the water, he realized that the rain had stopped. The pool showed remarkable clarity-no hint of the murkiness that it had just a short time ago. Vheod followed the lead of Gyrison and Arach. He wanted to see, if nothing else, what they would do next.
Still, Vheod paused to think, what joy it might be to find his people here in this world-perhaps they would even accept him as their own. He liked the idea of calling this world home.
Gyrison and Arach stood beside the pool and chanted softly The strange-sounding words broke Vheod out of his thoughts. He couldn't understand what they said, but it seemed likely they were invoking the magical power of whatever deity they represented. Following his instincts, he kept his gaze on the pool. He was rewarded with a surprising sight.
The water calmed to a smooth plane. In this reflective, shining surface, Vheod saw movement. Two humans-one male, one female-stood before a massive, open doorway leading into darkness. As they looked on, a gigantic shape loomed from the dark portal. The creature that passed through the doorway and into the light was a colossus of dark red flesh pulled taut over a broad, muscular frame. Flames dripped from its body like water. Contracted, draconian wings folded at its back, and muscular, taloned arms gripped a jagged sword and a flaming whip with many tails, A tanar'ri balor.
"Not great-grandmother," Gyrison said. The balors were the most powerful of the tanar'ri- they commanded vast legions of lesser fiends and wielded tremendous power. Drenched in flame, their might was rarely questioned.
Further, this balor seemed somehow familiar. It breathed a single word, so low in pitch that Vheod could scarcely comprehend it. "Freedom" was the word he thought it uttered.
"Great-grandfather," Arach stated with a gesture I toward the image.
Vheod had always heard that Chare'en, the grandfather of the tanar'ri fiend that had cursed his human mother with seed, was imprisoned somewhere, but on this world? Unbelievable-but somehow, it made sense. The tanar’ri side of his family must have had some connection with this world or Vheod's father would never have come in contact with his mother.
Now this vision showed Chare'en free. A balor free in this peaceful and beautiful world could bring only disaster, terror, and death. Further, it would bring Vheod one step closer to the Abyss from which he'd just escaped. A balor would bring more tanar'ri, and Nethess would be sure to learn that he was here. If Chare'en was freed, this place would no longer be safe for him. He had to stop this-but how?
"Tell me," Vheod demanded, "does this sight represent the past, present, or future?" "Future," Gyrison answered. "A possible future," Arach added. "How can I stop it?"
"Stop it?" Gyrison repeated with a look of surprise. Or was it mock, surprise? Vheod no longer cared to play these games.
"Where are these two?" Vheod pointed to the humans in the pool's image. They appeared similar in their faces and mannerisms. Perhaps the two were related.
The two priests, for the first time since Vheod had seen them, looked at each other. They said nothing, though it seemed that perhaps their eyes spoke silent words in a language only they shared.
"Where?" Vheod demanded. "You must tell me!" Gyrison opened his mouth to speak, but Arach held up a hand that silenced the round priest. "There is one, not unlike you, in a place called Tilverton, who can tell you what you need to know."
One like him? What did that mean? Vheod looked at Arach, then Gyrison, and back to Arach. Their plain faces stared at him expressionlessly with their silly, simpleton smiles.
"Very well," Vheod said. Unaccustomed to most niceties, he turned without further word and strode out of the temple. If he was to stop Chare'en, he had to start now. A balor was nothing to underestimate, and he already doubted his own power and skill. The sky, empty of its rain, grew dim as the day drew to a close.
His driven pace took him away from the ruins without so much as a look back, which is why he never saw the enigmatic smiles on the faces of Gyrison and Arach turn more sinister. Nor did he notice that the Taint had formed a wide-mouthed face on the back on his hand, a face that bore the same wicked smile.