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Authors: Philip Athans

Tags: #Fantasy

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BOOK: Annihilation
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Jeggred hit him hard enough to drive the air from Ryld’s lungs and push his greatsword into him so hard it sliced into the side of his face, nearly cutting the weapons master’s ear off. Ryld felt his feet leave the ground, his body completely at the mercy of the draegloth’s inertia. They went through a window, glass shattering into millions of tiny knives that cut them both in a hundred places. Ryld could only close his eyes and grunt when he hit a wood floor so hard with the heavy draegloth on top of him that at least one of his ribs snapped like a twig.

The draegloth rolled, and Ryld pushed him off. Before he knew what was happening, they were both sitting on the floor of some kind of ramshackle tavern surrounded by a dozen very surprised humans.

Let it in
, Aliisza whispered into Pharaun’s mind,
but not too far

Pharaun sat on the deck, his legs crossed, his eyes closed, and his palms pressed down against the pulsating surface of the living vessel. He tried to sort out the sensations that were coming at him. Some were physical, some were emotional, and some came in forms Pharaun had never imagined. He could smell something like algae cakes being grilled over an open fire. Flashes of light pulsed behind his eyelids and left trails and tendrils in their wake. The sound of the ship’s pulse hummed in his ears. He grimaced when a horrid taste like rotting fish rolled across his tongue. That all happened at once then changed.

You will use your body to steer it
, Aliisza continued,
as much as your mind

Pharaun could feel that she was right. A wave of hopelessness came from nowhere and made his flesh crawl. Almost at the same time he was charged with adrenaline and felt as if he could lift the ship physically over his head and throw it across the endless Astral and into the Abyss that way.

Like that
, Aliisza whispered.
Yes …

It wasn’t wind or water that powered the ship of chaos but desire, entropy, malice, and confusion—those things and others like them.

You will have to gather the will to move
, Aliisza went on,
which should be easy enough for you. Learn how to channel it through the ship and into the planar medium around you. There’s no way to learn how to do that. You simply have to give yourself over to it, while keeping it at bay at the same time. Do you understand?

Pharaun nodded, not wanting to speak.

Something entered his skin at the wrist—a thin tendril like
a length of string. The Master of Sorcere could feel it slip into a vein, tapping his blood. He tried to jerk his hand away, but his fingers were stuck to the deck.

Don’t panic
, Aliisza sent.
It won’t take enough of your blood to weaken you, but it must have some or the connection will fail

You’re asking me to trust it?
Pharaun asked her.
To trust this construct of demonic chaos?

He felt her touch his cheek, her fingers warm and dry, but he couldn’t see her. She remained invisible, insisting that he not reveal her presence to the others. Pharaun was content to keep her a secret.

Another wave of conflicting emotions rolled through him, and he rode it out.

The ship will feel what you feel
, Aliisza told him,
even as you feel what it feels. It will follow your commands now. When you’re ready, will it into the Shadow Fringe and on from there

Will it?
asked the mage.

The same way you would lift your arm or open your eyes
, she answered.

That easy?

The alu-fiend laughed and said,
There are three sentient creatures out of a thousand that can do what you have done, my dear. Bonding with a ship of chaos is a dangerous proposition

How so?

If it hadn’t accepted you, it would have killed you
, she replied,
and in a very ugly, mean way

Pharaun sighed, interested but not surprised.

You would have let it kill me?
he asked.

Aliisza thought about it for a long time then said,
You have to do this, one way or the other. I had faith in you

Pharaun caught the sarcasm in her tone and cracked a smile. She was an alu-fiend and by all rights on opposing sides of a bloody,
ever-unfolding war. Why would she care if the ship of chaos killed him or drove him mad?

The tendrils slipped out of his wrists, and his palms came free of the deck.

Navigating the ship will require your full attention
, Aliisza advised,
but if you’re adrift or on a predetermined course, you will still be able to speak with your comrades and even cast spells

, the mage remarked.

The ship of chaos was a war ship, Pharaun
, she replied.
It was created to fight, and the tanar’ri who built it had no interest in having the most powerful spellcaster among them bound to the deck, helpless and mute. The ship will require a lot of you but not everything. Don’t give it any more than it needs

, the mage shot back.
I like that

“Are you all right?” a voice asked, and Pharaun thought at first that it was Aliisza.

You know perfectly well
, he thought to her,
that if I wasn’t well I would simply—

He realized that it wasn’t Aliisza who’d spoken but Quenthel.

“Master Mizzrym….” the high priestess said.

Pharaun opened his eyes but had to blink several times before he could see clearly. The Mistress of Arach-Tinilith was standing over him, arms folded across her chest, her eyes stern and cold but distracted.

“I am well, thank you, Mistress,” Pharaun replied. “I have reason to believe that I am fully in command of the vessel and that it is suitably powered.”

He looked around at the others, who were standing behind Quenthel, also looking down at him. All he saw were Valas and Danifae.

“When the draegloth returns,” Pharaun finished, “we can be on our way.”

“We won’t be waiting for Jeggred,” Quenthel answered, eliciting a sharp look from Danifae and a lift of one eyebrow from the mercenary scout.

“Mistress—” Danifae began, but Quenthel held up a hand to silence her.

“Anyone who breaks off from this expedition,” Quenthel said, “without my permission will be considered to have deserted it.”

“Surely that wasn’t the intent of your nephew,” Pharaun replied. “I think it was hardly the intent of Master Argith either. Where we’re going it seems to me that we’ll need their str—”

“We won’t,” the high priestess interrupted. Looking off into the darkness she continued, “They are both strong, but where we’re going there will be things around every stalactite that could rip them both to shreds. We’re not going on a jaunt in the Dark Dominion. What we’ll encounter will not be defeated by brute strength but with a clear and steady mind—the single-minded pursuit of one’s own desires.”

Pharaun frowned and waited for one of the others to say something.

Valas stood waiting for the females to sort it out.

“You seem to know what we’ll see,” Danifae said to the high priestess, “but you don’t know, not for sure.”

Pharaun, surprised by the way Danifae had pinned the high priestess down, looked at Quenthel, curious to hear her answer.

“I know that I can’t stay here anymore,” Quenthel answered. The vipers writhed slowly at her hip. “This place is killing me. We know what needs to be done. Live or die, we live or die in the Abyss at the side of the Spider Queen.”

Pharaun lifted an eyebrow and smiled, glancing between the two females.

“We’ve not even begun,” Danifae warned. “There will be much for Jeggred to do. We should wait.”

“That, my plaything,” the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith shot back, “is not for you to decide. You’ve presumed enough.”

Pharaun recognized that it took considerable effort for Danifae to look down, letting her smoldering red eyes linger on the deck instead of boring into the high priestess. The battle-captive had come a long way, and Pharaun caught himself smiling at her.

“Master Mizzrym,” Quenthel said, “take us to Lolth. Now.”

“I will require a brief rest,” the mage lied. Even as the words passed his tongue, he wondered why he was lying. He didn’t look at Danifae. “One more period of Reverie for us all. We should face the goddess rested and at our best.”

Quenthel didn’t answer but turned and walked away. Danifae lingered.

What are you doing?
Aliisza whispered into his consciousness, startling the mage. He’d forgotten she was there.
That’s not true

The Mistress of the Academy
, he told the alu-fiend,
isn’t thinking clearly

Don’t want to travel without your draegloth?
Aliisza asked.

Would you?

Pharaun could feel her laugh in his mind. “Thank you,” Danifae said.

Pharaun looked up at her with a smile. Quenthel and Valas had both wandered off, but he used sign language to be sure they weren’t overheard.

Why should I continue to help you?
he asked.
What are you doing?

She thought about it for a long time then signed back,
I want you to promise me that you won’t leave without Jeggred

And if I do?

Danifae had no answer.

The Mistress irritates me
, the mage went on.
I’ve made no effort
to mask that. She’s tried to kill me in the past. She has treated me with less respect than I deserve, but she is the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith, the most powerful priestess in Menzoberranzan if not in the whole of Lolth’s faithful—the matron mothers included. This is her expedition, and her orders are law where I come from

Not where I come from
, Danifae replied,
and I serve Lolth as well

“Perhaps,” Pharaun replied aloud, confident that the high priestess had gone back to her quiet, oblivious sulking, “but in what way do you serve me?”

Danifae looked puzzled, her eyes inviting him to continue.

“You wish something of me,” he explained. “You ask me to put my life at risk and my future in Menzoberranzan. You ask me to defy the sister of the archmage, my master, and the Matron Mother of the First House, his mistress.”

“You want to know what I will give in return?” she asked.

It was his turn to let his eyes invite an answer.

“Answer this,” she said. “Do you really want to travel through the Plane of Shadow, into the Astral, through the Plain of Infinite Portals, and to the sixty-sixth layer of the Abyss without Jeggred?”

“He would be of service to us all, I’m sure,” said Pharaun, “as he has been, but he doesn’t serve me. He doesn’t really even like me, if that can be imagined. You, on the other hand, have made an important and powerful new ally to replace the one you’ve used up.”

You think Quenthel is “used up”?
Danifae asked silently.

“She’s not herself,” answered the mage. “That much is obvious, but the question remains: Why should I do anything for you?”

“What do you want?” she asked, and Pharaun got the feeling he could have asked her anything and she would have at least considered it.

“I would feel more comfortable if Ryld was here,” he said, not caring if it made him sound weak.

Danifae nodded and said, “Even if he has gone over to Eilistraee?”

“I doubt that that’s happened,” replied the mage. “Master Argith isn’t the religious type.”

“His sword arm works for you, as Jeggred’s claws work for me,” she said.

Pharaun smiled, winked, and nodded.

“I suppose that’s fair enough,” she said, “but don’t ask me to spare Halisstra.”

“Who?” Pharaun joked.

That drew a smile from Danifae.

“Keep the draegloth away from Ryld,” the mage said. “Bring the Master of Melee Magthere back here, kicking and screaming if you have to, but alive, and I’ll take him from there.”

“Agreed,” Danifae said. She touched a ring on her right hand and disappeared.

That took Pharaun by surprise.

, Aliisza said from somewhere.
Who is she?

A battle-captive
, Pharaun replied,
or at least she used to be

Seems more like a priestess to me
, said the alu-fiend.

Yes, Pharaun replied.
Yes, she does, doesn’t she?

BOOK: Annihilation
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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