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Authors: Philip Athans

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BOOK: Annihilation
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Though he could feel the wires holding his eyes open, Gromph, when he let his concentration fall away from his familiar, could see nothing. There was not a hint of light or shadow, not a sliver of reflection.

Gromph took a deep, steadying breath and said, “Proceed.”

His concentration off the rat and onto himself, Gromph couldn’t see Kyorli crawl over his face, but he could feel every needle prick of her claws, could smell her musk, and could hear her sniffing. A whisker slipped across one of Gromph’s open eyes, and he flinched. It stung. His eyes might have been useless, but they could still register pain.

Well, thought Gromph, too bad for me.

The first bite sent a wave of burning agony blasting through the archmage’s head. Gromph’s entire body tensed, and his teeth ground together. He could feel the rat back off and could feel the blood slowly drip down the side of his face. Jaemas continued to chant. The pain didn’t stop either.

“Kyorli,” the archmage grunted.

The rat was hesitating. Even under the influence of the spell,
even offered the tasty morsel of a living—if sightless—eye, the rat knew that she was mutilating her own master, a master who had proven in the past to be anything but forgiving.

Gromph slipped his consciousness into his familiar’s, and despite the one already ruined eye sending blood dripping down the side of his head, Gromph could see. It was the same colorless, dull rat’s vision, though. He could see the bite the rat had already taken out of his right eye, could see the blood, could see himself shaking, could see the grim set of his jaw, and the open, helpless orb of his other blind eye awaiting the rodent’s reluctant ministrations.

Gromph compelled the rat to finish her work.

Kyorli might have hesitated at the orders of Jaemas, but she responded to her master’s invitation to feed without a second’s pause. For at least three bites, Gromph watched his own eye being chewed out of his head, then Kyorli’s vision blurred as she plunged her head into the ruined orb to tear at the tender, blood-soaked bits inside.

The pain was unlike anything Gromph had ever imagined, and in his long, uneasy life, the Archmage of Menzoberranzan had imagined a lot.

“Scream if you have to, Archmage,” his nephew whispered into his ear, barely audible over the sound of the feeding rat. “There is no shame in it.”

Gromph grunted, trying to speak, but kept his jaw clamped shut. The young apprentice had no idea what shame was, but even in his maddening agony, Gromph promised himself that his nephew would learn and that would be the last time Prath Baenre offered his uncle advice.

Gromph didn’t scream, even when the rat moved on to the other eye.

The demon steered them to the darkest part of the lake, and not one of the drow thought anything of it. Bobbing at anchor in the deep gloom of the Lake of Shadows, the ship of chaos—
ship of chaos—stood out stark white against the inky darkness. The water itself was a black matched only by the deep ebony of his drow master’s skin. The wizard, the one they called Pharaun, had found him, bound him, chained him to his own deck, and had done so with no humility, no respect, and no fear. The thought of it made the wiry black hairs that dotted the demon’s wrinkled gray flesh stand on end. For a few moments, the demon stood reveling in the hatred he felt for that drow and his haughty kin.

The drow had been gating in one servile, simpering, weak-willed mane after another. The damned souls of petty sinners were food
in the Abyss, and they were food for the ship of chaos. The uridezu took note of the number of manes the drow wizard brought in at any given time in hopes of gauging the dark elf’s power. If it was an exact science, the gating in of lesser demons, Raashub didn’t know its finer points, but so many of them were coming through there could be no doubt that the drow was skilled. Raashub wasn’t helping the drow and was happy to let them not only feed his ship but exhaust their spells, efforts, and attention in the process. The presence of all those wailing, miserable demons must have clouded the drow priestess’s senses enough that at times Raashub could push the boundaries of his captivity.

A rat’s primitive consciousness intruded on his own, and Raashub sent only the tiniest hint of a glance its way. He’d been calling them, subtly, for two days—ever since the drow had first come aboard. The rodents swam the surface of the Lake of Shadows, and they inhabited the spaces between decks and under steps on the ship of chaos the same way rats everywhere swam, hid, and survived. Raashub, an uridezu, was as much rat as anything else a mundane prime could understand, and he knew the rats of the Underdark as he knew rats in every corner of the endless planes.

The rodent responded to Raashub’s glance with a silent twitch of its whiskers, a gesture the uridezu felt more than saw. It scurried behind the thick base of the main mast and crept cautiously toward the draegloth.

They called the half-breed Jeggred. As draegloths went he was an average specimen. If Raashub were stupid enough to engage him, the draegloth would win a one-on-one fight, but the uridezu would never be that stupid. He would never be as stupid as the draegloth.

The rat didn’t want to bite the half-demon, and Raashub had to silently insist. It was a gamble, but the uridezu didn’t mind the odd risk for the odder reward. His psychic urging drew the attention
of one of the female drow again, though, and the uridezu backed off, looking away before they made eye contact. All of the drow deferred, if grudgingly, to the female named Quenthel, who was apparently some high priestess of the drow spider-bitch Lolth. That one was as conceited and as unworthy of that conceit as the rest of them, but she was sensitive. Raashub worried that she could actually hear him when he didn’t want her to.

Darting in fast, the rat nipped at the draegloth’s ankle. The half-demon swatted it away with a grunt, and the tiny rodent flew through the air, out into the darkness. The splash was almost too far away to hear. The draegloth, whose skin was unmarred by the puny creature’s teeth, locked his eyes on Raashub’s and glared at him.

The draegloth had been doing little the past two days but glare at him.

Annoying little vermin
, Raashub sent into the draegloth’s mind,
aren’t they, Jeggred?

The draegloth blew a short, vile-smelling breath out of his nostrils and his lips peeled slowly back to reveal fangs—rows of dagger blades as sharp as razors and as piercing as needles. The half-demon hissed his anger, and boiling spittle sizzled on his lips.

, Raashub taunted.

The draegloth’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Raashub allowed himself to laugh.

The high priestess turned and looked at them both. Again, Raashub avoided eye contact. He moved his foot enough to let the chain that bound him rattle against the single dragon bone that comprised most of the deck of his ship. Above him, the tattered sails of human skin hung limp in the still air. The demon heard Jeggred turn. Raashub liked the game—they were both caught by a sternly disapproving mother in their boyish mischief.

Quenthel looked away, and Jeggred locked his eyes on Raashub
again. The uridezu didn’t bother taunting him anymore that day. It was becoming boring. Instead, the demon contented himself with standing quietly, occasionally nudging the ship a little closer to the deeper gloom along the cavern wall.

Patience was not normally a quality enjoyed by his kind, but Raashub had been trapped in the Lake of Shadows for a long time. The appearance of the drow had been something of a godsend—though by the tone of their conversations and the snippets of facts regarding their mission the drow had let slip, Raashub knew it was hardly a god or goddess who’d sent them. They had managed to release his ship and release him. If he was anything but an uridezu, a demon born in the whirling chaos of Mother Abyss, he might have been … ah, what was the word? Grateful? Instead, he was patient, a little patient for a little longer.

Soon the drow would slip into their Reverie, their meditative trance so like sleep, and the high priestess would look inward. When that time came and she couldn’t sense what he was doing, Raashub would bring another of his kind across the limitless infinity between planes. He had already called one of them the day before. The drow, over-confident in their measure of control over him, hadn’t sensed him calling, failed to notice his cousin Jaershed cross from the Abyss, and still didn’t realize that the other uridezu was even then clinging to the keel, wrapped in conjured darkness, waiting.

Jaershed hadn’t learned patience the way Raashub had, and the lust for blood and chaos sometimes came out of him in waves. When it did the damnable high priestess would look around as if she’d heard something, as if she thought she were being watched. Raashub would silently wail, then, adding his mental voice to the anguished moans of the parade of manes they brought in and led into the hold one by one. Quenthel would be curious, disturbed even, but she would ultimately believe.

The dark elves had bested Raashub after all. Their powerful mage had trapped him on that miserable plane, chained him to his own deck, cowed him, enslaved him … and none of them could imagine that as true as that was, nothing—not in the Abyss, the Underdark, the Lake of Shadows, or aboard a ship of bone and chaos—lasted forever.

Raashub closed his eyes, suppressed his anticipation, and smiled.

Ryld Argith peered into the darkness of the Velarswood night and sighed. In the places where the trees were tall enough and close enough together to block out the star-spattered sky, it almost felt comfortable for him, but those times were few and far between in what the weapons master had come to learn was a relatively small forest. The sounds didn’t help—whistles and rustling all the time from every direction, often not echoing at all. His hearing, sensitized by decades of training at Melee-Magthere, was tuned to the peculiarities of the Underdark, but in the World Above, it was making him a nervous wreck. The forest seemed always alive with enemies.

He turned to scan the darkness for the source of some random twittering—something he’d been told was a “night bird”—and instead he caught Halisstra’s eye. She knew what he was doing—startling at every sound—and she smiled at him in a way that only days before Ryld would have taken as a sign that she’d identified a weakness in him, one that she’d surely exploit later. The twinkle in her crimson eyes seemed to imply the opposite.

Halisstra Melarn had confused Ryld from the beginning of their acquaintance. The First Daughter of a noble House from Ched Nasad, at first she had been every inch the haughty, self-possessed priestess she’d been raised to be, but as her goddess turned her
back on her, her House fell, then her city crumbled around it, Halisstra had changed. Ryld abandoned his long-time ally Pharaun and the rest of the Menzoberranyr to go with her, and he didn’t regret that, but he wasn’t sure he could turn his back forever on the Underdark the way she so obviously had. Ryld still had a home in Menzoberranzan—at least he assumed he did, absent any news from the city that was already feeling the effects of Lolth’s Silence when they’d left. When he thought about it, he felt certain that someday he would return there. When he looked at Halisstra he saw a dark elf like him but also unlike him. He knew that she would never be able to go back, even if she had a House to go back to. She was different, and Ryld knew that eventually he would have to change too or go home without her.

“Are you all right?” she asked him, her voice a welcome respite from the cacophony of the forest.

He met her eyes but wasn’t sure how to answer. Thanks to the Eilistraeen priestesses Uluyara and Feliane, he was not only alive but unwounded. The poison that had nearly claimed him had been pulled from his blood by their magic, and his wounds and Halisstra’s had been healed, leaving not even scars to mark their passage. The alien goddess of the surface drow had granted him his life, and Ryld was still waiting for her or her followers to present a bill.

“Ryld?” Halisstra prompted.


He stopped, turned his head, and when he heard Halisstra inhale to speak again, he held up a warning hand to silence her.

BOOK: Annihilation
6.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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