It was good to have a purpose. Vheod's footsteps no longer fell gingerly on the ground with the tentative-ness of an explorer, but instead his stride betrayed the resolute determination of a man with a mission.
The village he'd observed earlier lay on the outskirts of the forest. Two days previous, Vheod watched laborers work to clear more of the land. As the sun rose into the morning sky this day, those same workers returned to their tasks. Sounds of axes against wood and falling trees filled the rapidly warming air.
Vheod hoped that someone here could direct him in which way to go. He needed to find the two people shown to him who would free Chare'en. Were they servants of the balor? Somehow he doubted that. More likely, he thought, they would inadvertently loose the tanar'ri lord through some other action. Stopping them, then, would be as simple as finding them in time and warning them.
He had no idea where this place, Tilverton, might be. He was unsure even of its nature, though he assumed it must be a city or a fortress of some kind, since people obviously lived there.
In his previous visit, Vheod had slipped into the village after the descent of night. In the Abyss, he learned to approach others with either subtlety and guile or domineering aggression. The stealthy approach had served its purpose so far-now it was time for a change of pace.
Leaving the cover of the woods, Vheod entered the tiny settlement, walking amid the small buildings constructed of felled logs fitted crudely together. Smoke rose from a number of them, carrying with it good, wholesome smells that tugged at Vheod's nose, making him suddenly aware of his own hunger. Trying to ignore the feeling, he walked toward a central area from which all the other buildings seemed to radiate and the largest building in town stood. He never reached it.
A man dressed in rough, sturdy clothes stepped through an open doorway. As he walked he pulled thick leather work gloves onto his hands, despite the growing heat of the day. His face concealed with a thick beard, the man looked up at Vheod with surprise.
"Who in the name of Helm are you?" the man asked.
"Silence," Vheod said, attempting to sound as powerful and confident as he could, despite his smoky, scratched voice. "I am Vheod Runechild, and I must know where the place called Tilverton lies."
The man backed slowly into the open doorway. "Feshik! Get out here," he yelled, still staring at Vheod.
"And bring my sword," he added over his shoulder.
Vheod was confused. He looked around, even behind him, but saw nothing. By the time he returned his gaze to the man, a young boy had appeared in the doorway, attempting to peer around the large man. The child's black hair was tousled, and his eyes opened almost as wide as his mouth as he stared at Vheod.
"Who is that, Papa?" the child asked. "I said to bring my sword!" the man replied, pushing the child backward into the house with a wide, gloved hand.
"You don't need your sword," Vheod said, extending an empty hand in the man's direction. "I have need of knowledge. Aid me and no one will be harmed." "What you'll get is a taste of steel, demon." Demon? Was it so obvious? "As I said, there's no need for that."
"What's going on here, Tallin?" a voice came from behind Vheod, causing him to whirl in surprise, his hand instinctively going for his sword hilt-an action he immediately regretted. He just was not accustomed to this sort of peaceful approach. His instincts were too versed in danger.
Behind him stood another man, larger but older than the first. His yellow hair receded from his forehead, and his face was clean shaven. He hefted a wood axe at the ready as Vheod turned. The cambion pulled his hand away from his hilt, holding his hands open and high in front of him.
"I don't want to have to hurt you," he said. "Who is he, Tallin?" The axeman asked. His eyes narrowed as he examined Vheod.
"I figure he's a servant of the Spider Lord," the man in the door replied.
Vheod looked behind him now to see the child bring a broadsword to the man. The boy lifted the heavy sword with both hands, handing it to the man carefully. The child's wide eyes remained focused on Vheod.
"Get back inside now, Feshik," Tallin told him. The boy complied, eyes still wide with fear.
"Looks a little like a dark elf to me," the man with the axe stated.
Dark elf? A drow? Servant of Lolth? Vheod knew of the drow and their Abyssal mistress, the spider queen Lolth.
"I assure you, I'm no drow," he told them, hands still help open in front of him. "And I'm no one's servant.".,.
“Fallach! Chorrad!" the older man cried out in the direction of the woods. "Get over here, we've got a… we've got something.".
Vheod saw doors to the buildings around him begin to open, and frightened eyes peered out.
“I’ve come here," Vheod explained again, "just to get some informa-"
"Be quiet!" Tallin spat out, stepping forward, his bared sword upraised.
Vheod turned back fully to face him. How long could he keep from drawing his own blade? Vheod thought they would respect his powerful demeanor and help him. Why wouldn't they even listen?
"Whatever it is, it ain't human," the man behind him now said, "and it ain't, well… anything good. You can tell that just by looking."
"Look, demon-or whatever you are-leave us or die," Tallin said, staring Vheod in the eye.
"You don't need to be afraid," Vheod said, pleading with his open hands.
Looking down, he could see that the Taint was no longer on either arm. Where was it? He sometimes suspected that it altered when others looked at him, perhaps communicating something to them. Perhaps others saw something in the mark that he didn't, which might suggest that his own body conspired with others against him-a paranoiac's nightmare.
"He's a drow," a female voice called from an open door across the way.
Another, a male, replied, "Drow don't have red hair." "Ill bet he was conjured up in that storm yesterday," still another voice called out. "Manchal says storms like that are a sign that a doorway between worlds is opening."
Footfalls grew louder behind him, coming from the direction of the woods.
"I just need to know how to find a place called-" Tallin watched something over Vheod's shoulder and suddenly drew himself up taller, as if more confident. The footsteps behind Vheod were louder still. He lunged at Vheod with his sword, shouting, "I said, get away from here!"
Vheod dodged to one side to avoid the sword blow and could hear the man behind him moving closer, probably with that axe ready to cleave his skull.
"I don't want to fight you!" Vheod finally cried. He couldn't keep his rising anger and frustration from showing in his voice.
"You’ll not find us to be defenseless prey," Tallin said, again raising his blade.
Vheod drew his sword, the Abyssal steel ringing in the morning air.
Just then, two more men ran up the bare earthen road. One carried an axe, the other a long knife. They cried out in surprise and ran at Vheod.
Vheod shot his blade straight out at the one called Tallin, catching him right where he wanted-the wrist of his sword arm. Tallin's blade flung end over end through the air as his fingers splayed wide. His other hand reached up to grasp at the painful but minor wound. Tallin cursed, but Vheod had no time to listen. Two more men approached, and there was still someone behind him with a-
Pain flared in Vheod's armored shoulder as metal clanged against metal next to Vheod's ear. The man had struck his shoulder but fortunately hadn't penetrated the pauldron. Vheod turned and brought his sword up to block the man's second blow. The two other men charged toward him, and he could hear more humans stirring all around, probably grabbing weapons to help. "Go back where you came from!" the axe wielder shouted.
Vheod now knew he would have to kill all these insufferable, intolerant, misbegotten fools who-
Something within him bade him to fight that urge. Perhaps because of the growing distance from the baleful Abyss, other forces were able to work within him, despite the fact that he still felt the evil in his nature as strongly as ever. Years of swordplay beckoned his arm to raise the weapon and cut down these men. Vheod forced his arm to remain still. He was suddenly forced to remember days earlier when Nethess had hired him to kill an enemy of hers. Living by his wits and fighting skills, Vheod took the job. To his surprise, Vheod discovered that his target was a human mortal-not a tanar'ri. Further surprising him, Vheod found he could not kill the man. At the last moment, the mortal portion of Vheod's soul had conjured forth his conscience, which stayed his hand. He couldn't kill a man as easily or thoughtlessly as he might slay a fiend.
This discovery may have surprised Vheod, but it only enraged Nethess. Now he found the same strange reluctance. He had to think of another way.
There was no time for a spell. If he fought these men, he would end up killing them. Vheod reached deep within himself, thrusting a mental hand deep into the dark well of fiendish power. He called to it, like a master calls an attack dog. Dark energy welled up inside him, climbing up his throat from his gut. Vheod choked back the bile that it brought with it and thrust the energy out from, him into the world. A magical darkness exuded from every pore, enveloping him and hiding him from sight. It spread impenetrable darkness as well. Though he'd called for such darkness before-it was a common enough trick among the tanar’ri-he never noticed that the darkness seemed oily and smelled of spoiled food. It had never occurred to him to pay attention before now.
Vheod tried to comfort himself in the fact that the darkness would eventually fade. He couldn't spare the time to think about it any further. The darkness kept the men from attacking him. Their shouts of surprise and terror only helped create further confusion. Vheod knew from experience that once oncoming foes were thrust into such darkness, they were likely to begin swinging their weapons wildly. He immediately dived to the ground and began to crawl a few feet away.
Still within the mass of inky blackness, Vheod muttered sorcerous words long-practiced, forming a short incantation. He couldn't see, but he could feel the power unleashed by his spell spreading over him. Starting at his fingers, a prickling sensation spread down his arms., across his chest, down his body and back up until it covered his head. He had used this particular incantation many times, so he didn't need to see to know what the spell accomplished. In fact, sight wouldn't allow him to see the effect at all-that was the point. This spell rendered him beyond the vision of those who sought him. He held his breath as the magical effect finished clothing him in invisibility. Then, and only then, he slipped out of the darkness altogether.
By that time, as he blinked away the sudden light of day outside his dark creation, he saw his assailants drawing away from the oily cloud, recoiling from the frightening and surprising magic.
"I told you he was some creature of evil!" the axeman shouted to anyone who might listen.
A young woman ran up with a strung hunting bow pulled taut with a nocked arrow. She pointed it at the roiling blackness, but one of the men who had run in from the forest grasped the bow before she could loose her missile.
"No!" he told her. "It might fly through the darkness and strike someone on the other side. Everyone, wait. We’re got to find him. I've seen this spell before."
"But Chorrad," a man's voice called out, "we're got to do something before he attacks us-or the children!" It was Tallin. He still grasped his wrist, but he'd regained his blade. A woman in a simple dress stood behind him with a bloody cloth that she tried to apply to his arm, but he pushed her back with a determined scowl.
Vheod determined then that his only recourse was to slip out of the village before a real fight started. A voice in his head nagged him, telling him: these simpletons deserve whatever harsh treatment you deal out. You tried to approach in peace, and they attacked you. Shaking his head, he tried to think about something else. How was he going to find Tilverton now?
Using soft, slow movements, he slipped out of the village's center and the crowd of people gathering there, despite the fact that all of them were looking for him. His spell proved more than capable of hiding him. He escaped with ease, but he wasn't glad. He knew no more than he had before, except that help was going to be harder to obtain than he'd thought. Perhaps this world had no place for him after all. At the edge of the settlement, Vheod found a small stable and corral with a handful of creatures he knew to be horses. He'd seen the animals before, though he'd seen creatures used as mounts in the Abyss that seemed as different from these noble beasts as one could possibly get.
Vheod approached the wooden fence around the beasts' corral. They snorted at his presence, probably catching a whiff of his odor since his magic made it impossible for them to see him. The horses grew more uneasy as he climbed over the fence. They stamped and nervously walked around in their confines. Vheod had no charms prepared that might tame one. Still, his determination to leave the village with speed gripped him. He approached one of the horses as quietly as he was able.
Reassuring himself that his actions were justified, he leaped atop the creature in a single, swift motion. He'd ridden a few different creatures in his life and knew a little about such beasts.
Unfortunately, it was only a very little. Worse, his smell-or perhaps his general otherworldly nature- spooked the animal. The horse reared up. He'd not yet completely steadied himself on the horse's back to begin with, so Vheod's fingers clutched at the creature's mane and neck. It reared again and jumped forward. Vheod slipped and landed on the side opposite the one from which he'd approached the horse. "There he is! By the horses!"
An older man stood ten yards away from the edge of the fence. He held a staff before himself and used it to point right at Vheod as he lay in the dust. The man could see him?
Then Vheod noticed the symbol that hung from the tip of the man's staff. While he didn't recognize it specifically, he knew it for what it was-the holy symbol of a priest. Some divine-granted sight must allow him to see that which was otherwise invisible.
Curse all gods!
Vheod could already hear people running toward them. The words and gestures to a spell of fire and destruction came to his mind, seemingly unbidden.
Still invisible, he didn't need to resort to attack yet, and hopefully not at all. Vheod wished he'd been taught more potent magic-particularly something that might counter the priest's ability to detect him. Studies of that degree, however, had been beyond him. He had only the simplest spells at his command. A deep snort came from directly above him. He rolled to one side, still lying on the ground. A horse's hoof crashed down to the ground where he'd lain. The horses stomped around and snorted, shaking their manes and whinnying. Looking back at the priest, Vheod saw the gray-bearded, bald man stretch his neck one way then the other. Perhaps, Vheod thought, it was difficult for the priest to keep an eye on him with the confusing movements of the horses all around him. Behind the man, more of the villagers came running. Most carried weapons, shaking them in tight fists.
Vheod grabbed a small stone from within his reach and hurled it at the nearest building behind the cleric. He hoped the horses shielded his action. The old man quickly turned toward the sound of it striking the wood. As he did, the others behind him also turned.
Vheod once again hurled himself over the back of one of the mounts, this time prepared for its violent reaction. It did indeed rear, but Vheod gripped at the horse's neck tightly, his strong legs wrapping around its midsection as best he could. Utilizing the beast's fear and anger, he coaxed it toward the fence. It bolted in that direction. When the horse reached the fence, it leaped over it without slowing. Vheod dug his boot heels into its sides and yanked at the mane, hoping to make it even angrier. The horse carried him far and fast away from the village. He didn't look back.
Vheod didn't know what direction to ride other than away. He left the forest, the thick clumping of trees giving way abruptly to a grassland of gently rolling hills. A warm breeze brushed across the landscape against the direction in which he rode. The miles passed by him, Vheod using the horse's anger and fear as best he could. Eventually the horse slowed. Apparently its anger could only last so long. Vheod grew tired of aggravating it, anyway. The two moved slowly through the tall grasses, the sun-the very existence of which Vheod was only now growing accustomed to-washing light and heat over them. The sun had been easier to ignore in the dense forest. Now he felt its heat and experienced its blinding light without protection. Both Vheod and the horse glistened with perspiration.
Miles of open grassland around him, the forest now a thin dark line on the horizon, Vheod became more aware of the fact that he had no idea where he was or where he was going. Why was he here at all?
The horse carried him slowly down the side of a gentle hill. The tall grass brushed against the bottoms of his feet. His mount seemed tired, reluctant, and quite irritated. Even if he knew where he was going, Vheod was unsure that he could force this horse to actually take him there. It seemed unlikely that he could spur the beast on only by continuing to aggravate it. Unfortunately, he knew no other way.
Glancing down, he saw the Taint had once again returned to his hand. Further, it resumed the appearance of a guiding arrow, pointing toward what Vheod believed to be south. Could he trust it? The Taint could be some intelligent, malevolent ally of his dark half. It could be a manifestation of the tanar'ri part of him.
Perhaps the best thing he could do would be to stop riding where he was. Surely he could insure that no action beyond his control could be wrought by his dark half here in the middle of nowhere, but that could be exactly what it wanted. How could he know for sure? Another rider through the grassland approached over a nearby hill. From this distance, Vheod could see that it was a woman on a horse, but little more, She veered her horse toward him.
As she approached, Vheod considered flight, or at least keeping a good distance away. He didn't want another situation like the one at the village. Before he could get control of his unwilling mount, however, she rode up within just a few yards.
"Good day," she said, her voice as smooth as the seductive succubi of the Abyss. When her horse moved, she moved as well, as though she and her mount were a single creature with a single mind. Her movements were slow and sure, betraying an unfailing grace. Her petite features included delightfully smooth skin and delicate, pointed ears. Long, silver hair nestled around her thin neck like waves carefully caressing a shoreline. She wore a heavy green cloak the very color of the grass around them draped over her shoulders despite the heat, yet Vheod couldn't see a hint of perspiration on her face or neck. Most surprisingly, she didn't seem at all fazed by his appearance, unlike the villagers earlier that morning.
"Hello," Vheod returned tentatively. "Your horse doesn't like you," she told him with a hint of a smile.
"Urn, no, I think not," "Vheod replied, still watching her with scrutiny.
"Well, I hope you are not traveling a great distance then," she said.
"Actually, lady, I have no idea how far I must ride." "Really?" Her clear, gray eyes betrayed a hint of skepticism, and nothing more.
"I am not from… from around here. My destination is known to me in name only."
"I see," she said. "Well, my name is Tianna. I am riding to the mountains to the west. Do you believe your travels will take you there, or elsewhere?"
"I go to a place called Tilverton, and my name, fair lady, is Vheod Runechild."
"Ah. Tilverton is a human city that lies almost straight south of here, in a place called Tilvers Gap. The Gap itself lies between the Desertsmouth Mountains," she said, pointing to the west with a long, elegant finger, "and the Thunder Peaks to the south." Vheod followed her hand and looked about carefully, attempting to fully establish his bearings. "Then I am afraid our paths cross only here," he told her. His voice conveyed his regret.
Vheod wished he could ride with Tianna for a while. Only now did he realize the loneliness he'd felt since his arrival here. He had so many questions about the nature of this world, and it seemed as though she would be willing to answer them. He knew that haste was important and thus allowed himself only one question.
"Tell me, Tianna, before we part company-for I must be on my way-why are you not alarmed at my appearance, as others have been?"
She gave him a cautious smile, but one not without some warmth. "Vheod, we of the elves are not strangers to cambions, or to those traveling from Other planes."
Vheod was taken aback. "Is it that obvious-my tanar'ri heritage?"
Tianna looked at Vheod, studying his features for a moment. "No," she replied, "not to one without any experience with beings from other planes. However, there is a certain, well, quality to you, an indefinable characteristic that gives you a sense of… otherness: She paused to look at him, watching his eyes. Perhaps she was attempting to determine the effect her words had on him.
"Many of those you encounter here may be able to sense that you are different in some way," she said.
"That will certainly make any time I spend here harder," he said, looking at the ground, struck as severely as if he'd been in battle. His voice was edged with sudden bitterness, but he didn't have the time to consider if its target was his own nature, or the people who were prejudiced against him.
"Perhaps it will fade over time," she said. "Or perhaps your own nobility will be enough to override anyone's antagonistic first impression."
He looked up at Tianna again and smiled as though she'd just healed a bleeding wound. Her hair shone in a way that made him believe that a special place existed for it in the moonlight, and that its proper place didn't lie in the sun. She was beautiful.
"But you must be on your way," she finally added with some regret, "as you said."
Vheod hated to hear it, but the truth couldn't be denied. Duty and responsibility called to him with voices filled with fear. "Yes, I suppose so."
"Before you go, however," she said, reaching into a saddlebag, "I think that you should have this." She produced a small charm on a silver chain, holding it up to let it glint in the sunlight. "What is it?"
"A magical trinket," she said with a delicate shrug, "with a single use. It grants the wearer a power called longstepping. Essentially, it will allow you to travel to a destination in almost no time. You can use it to reach Tilverton today, rather than the three days' ride it might take from here. It will also allow you to bypass a dangerous area known as Shadow Gap."
Vheod stared in surprise, taking in everything she said. "But, why?"
She smiled slyly. "If you use this, then I can take back this horse to where you got it." "What? How did you-"
"I'm sorry, Vheod, but it's obvious that you just arrived here at the edge of the Dales, let alone Faerun and even Toril. Judging by your ride, the steed's demeanor, and the fact that you have no riding tackle, it becomes fairly obvious how you came on your mount.
"Further, I am a bit of a seer when it comes to people. You-at least a part of you-didn't want to take the horse. I can return him, if you'll tell me where he comes from."
Vheod's mouth hung agape as wide as the young boy in the doorway earlier that morning. He quickly closed it, feeling quite the fool, but remained entranced by Tianna and her kindness. Without a word, he slid down off the horse's back and stepped toward her. Tianna urged her mount ahead a few-steps until she reached him. She held out the silver charm.
"It only works once," she reminded him.
"Thank you," Vheod said as he grasped the tiny charm in his weathered hand. "How can I repay you?" "You cannot, to tell the truth," Tianna said, "but that's not the point. I want to help you."
She looked deeply into his dark eyes and leaned down close to his face. "I just thought that you probably needed to see a little of the good in the world. You needed some kindness. My gift is really a minor one." "But there you are wrong," Vheod returned her look with a slow shake of his head. "This is a great gift, one I will remember for all my years."
"May there be many of them," she said, straightening in her ornate saddle.
Tianna rode over to Vheod's grazing horse, and drew an extra bridle from her saddlebag. The horse looked at her with calm, welcoming eyes. It nuzzled her thigh with its nose. She placed the bridle on the beast and readied to lead it away, then turned back to Vheod.
"The village lies almost directly in your path, at the edge of the woods to the west." Vheod gripped the charm even tighter in his sweaty palm. "They may have unkind things to say of me," he told her. "They may not welcome you if you claim to be my friend."
"Do not concern yourself with such things. I can take care of everything. Safe journey, Vheod, and be well."
"Yes, ah… safe journey to you as well, Tianna." Vheod was unused to pleasantries. Tianna turned to leave.
"Wait," Vheod called out.
Tianna turned to look back at him. She kept her smile.
"You said you are a seer when it comes to people. Can you tell me-is it possible for a place to change a person? Can this world be changing me?"
Tianna shook her head gently. "No, Vheod, only you can change yourself." She turned again, whispered something to her horse that Vheod couldn't hear, then rode off in the direction Vheod had come.
He turned southward, in the direction he understood Tilverton to be. He opened his hand to look at the silver, arrow-shaped charm in his palm. Its shape beckoned him to look back at the Taint, still on the other side of his hand. It remained in its arrow shape, and still pointed, as if directing him where it wanted him to go. It pointed south, toward Tilverton.