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Authors: Philip Athans

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BOOK: Annihilation
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“What’s going on here?” Feliane called, her voice much closer. “What in the goddess’s name are you doing?”

Its long, fang-lined jaws dripping with the arrowhawk’s blood, the animal looked fiercer, more dangerous, and angrier than ever. Ryld smiled, spun his massive enchanted greatsword in front of him, and ran at the thing head on.

Behind him and off in the underbrush, Halisstra and Feliane were talking in urgent tones, but Ryld’s trained senses put that aside. They were allies, and the only opponent of note was the furious beast. Whatever they were discussing, they could tell him about it later, after he had dispatched the vicious, cunning predator.

The creature reared up again as Ryld came in, and the drow slipped Splitter in low in front of him, slicing a deep furrow in the beast’s exposed underbelly. Blood oozed from the wound, and quickly soaked the matted, dirty brown fur around it. Ryld spun his greatsword back around and pointed it forward, held in both hands above his head, for a final impaling stab.

The forest predator again proved it wouldn’t go down easily. Before Ryld could plunge Splitter home, the thing’s huge, hand-like claw wrapped around his right arm, digging into the space between his pauldron and vambrace to puncture the skin of his underarm.

Ryld tucked his right arm down, pressing the claw against his armored side to keep the beast from tearing away his pauldron—and a good portion of skin and muscle with it. That had the unfortunate effect of tipping the point of his greatsword up. The animal pushed down, and its weight was enough to send Ryld sinking, slipping, then falling onto his back. Splitter’s tip passed harmlessly past the animal’s shoulder. When he felt the other claw clamp onto his left pauldron, Ryld knew he was pinned.

The beast snapped at his face, but Ryld still had enough room to jerk his head out of the way. With all his considerable strength, the weapons master pushed up, but with his arms trapped over his head and his sword all but immobile next to the animal’s ear, he had to use his back and shoulders to try to lift himself off the ground—carrying the fifteen-foot animal that must have weighed a ton at least with him. He didn’t move it far, but when the animal felt him trying to push up, it pushed down, extending its arms
the fraction of an inch Ryld needed to muscle his sword down and under. Twisting his wrists painfully, Ryld managed to get the greatsword’s tip up under the beast’s chin.

The animal rolled its dark, dull eyes down and stretched its neck up and away from the sword. The two of them were stuck that way, and Ryld feared that that was how they were going to remain for a very long time: it pushing him away, he trying to stab it through the throat.

“Halisstra!” Feliane screamed. “No!”

The sound was shrill, panicked, and close enough that it finally registered on Ryld that the two females were still there. He wasn’t alone. As females were wont to do, they were letting him take the brunt of the punishment, but they wouldn’t leave him like that—or would they? From the sound of Feliane’s voice, it was exactly what she intended to do.

Ryld redoubled his efforts, but so did the beast and they got no closer to a resolution—until Ryld heard a woman growl in an odd way, realizing it was Halisstra. The thing dipped that fraction of an inch forward that Ryld was hoping for.

The tip of the greatsword bit into the animal’s throat, and blood poured down the blade. The animal grunted, opening its mouth a quarter of an inch—and allowing the blade to slip that much farther in. Hot red blood exploded from the wound, then pumped out of the monstrosity’s neck in rhythm to its speeding heart—Ryld had found the artery he’d been hoping for.

He saw Halisstra’s boot to his right and heard a sword come out of its sheath. She had jumped onto the animal’s back and was straddling it, drawing the Crescent Blade to deliver the killing blow.

Ryld celebrated that realization by twisting Splitter’s tip into the creature’s throat, bringing more blood and sending a shiver rippling through the creature’s fur.

Feliane ran up next to them and must have hit the side of the
animal hard. Halisstra grunted, and the hulk started to topple sideways. Ryld sawed into its neck for good measure, not sure it was actually dead.

Feliane’s boot scuffled in the snow next to him, and she said, “Stop it. For Eilistraee’s sake, that’s not what the Crescent Blade was meant for.”

Ryld let the quivering carcass roll off him and fall into a dead sprawl in the underbrush. Wincing from the pain in his shoulder and underarm, he slid his blade out of the dead animal’s neck and got to his feet, stepping back a few steps before he had his legs under him.

Halisstra and Feliane were standing next to the fallen animal, and Feliane’s hand was wrapped tightly around Halisstra’s sword arm.

“I couldn’t …” Halisstra said, her voice quavering, each word punctuated by a puff of steam that rolled into the frigid air. “I couldn’t let it kill him.”

Both of the women turned to look at Ryld, who could only shrug.

“She was only protecting her young,” Feliane said.

She was looking at Ryld, but the weapons master got the distinct impression she was talking to Halisstra. Ryld didn’t understand. Who was protecting …?

“The animal?” he asked.

“She’s a giant land sloth,” the Eilistraeen said, releasing Halisstra’s arm and stepping away from her. “She
a giant land sloth. They’re rare, especially this far north.”

“Good,” Ryld said. “It was tougher than it looks.”

“Damn it!” Feliane cursed. “She was only protecting her young. You didn’t have to kill her.”

Halisstra was looking at her sword, the blade glowing in the darkness.

“Why,” Ryld asked, “would it attack an armed drow to protect its young? It could have lived to birth more.”

Feliane opened her mouth to answer but said nothing. A strange look came over her, one that Ryld couldn’t remember ever seeing on the face of a drow.

Halisstra looked down at the dead sloth and whispered, “She….”

Ryld shook his head. He didn’t understand and was beginning to think he never would.

It had been two days since Pharaun had contacted his master, and the news that sending had brought still sat heavily on the wizard’s shoulders. The spell allowed only a short message to travel through the Weave from the Lake of Shadows into Menzoberranzan and an equally short message back.

Ship of chaos is ours
, Pharaun had sent, careful to use no unnecessary words though that was against his natural tendencies.
Advise on proper diet. Don’t trust captain. Any word of Ryld Argith or Halisstra Melarn? Sent home to report details

He’d waited the interminable seconds for a reply, all the time wondering if the time he had been waiting for had come—the moment when Gromph Baenre, Archmage of Menzoberranzan, would fail to answer. That would be the moment Pharaun would know that they had failed, that they had no city to
return to, no civilization to protect.

That time had not yet come.

Feed it manes
, the archmage had replied.
As many as you can. Captain will serve power. Master Argith and Mistress Melarn not here. Stop your squabbling and get moving

Pharaun didn’t stop to wonder how Gromph had known that the tenuous alliances within the expedition were fraying. Gromph was a drow himself, after all, and probably assumed it. If he thought he’d had the time, Pharaun might have studied that point much more closely, tried to determine the degree to which Gromph was aware of their actions, but there was work to do.

A manes demon was hardly the most daunting creature to either summon or control, but it was a demon nonetheless. He would have to use powerful spells to summon and bind them, all the while maintaining some measure of control over the uridezu captain who gave his name as Raashub. It had been two long, difficult, and tiring days for Pharaun. He had taken only enough Reverie to replenish his spells and was doing everything his considerable training allowed him to push his casting to its limit. The parade of hideous, groveling, snapping sub-demons he brought to the ship’s deck began to amaze even himself, and Pharaun hoped that Quenthel and the others were taking note. Those among them capable of gauging such abilities would have to be impressed, and if they were impressed they would be scared. So long as they were scared, he would be safe.

As he led a string of the vile-smelling fiends into the gnashing jaws of the demonic ship’s hold, Pharaun let his mind wander back to the rest of that sending. Ryld hadn’t made it to Menzoberranzan, but that could mean anything. He could be dead anywhere between that cave on the World Above and the City of Spiders, or he could still be on his way. There was no straight line between any two points in the Underdark, and he could be only a few miles
as the worm bored from Menzoberranzan and still have a tenday’s travel ahead of him.

Ryld might still hold a grudge for Pharaun’s having abandoned him all those days before, back in the city, but Pharaun knew he still had a powerful ally in the Master of Melee-Magthere. The warrior might have fallen under the spell of the First Daughter of House Melarn, but if Halisstra herself still lived, surely she would be on her way to Menzoberranzan herself. Pharaun couldn’t imagine the homeless priestess had anywhere else to go.

Without Ryld at his side, Pharaun had given Quenthel and her draegloth nephew Jeggred as much room as the cramped deck allowed. They hadn’t appreciated Pharaun leaving them to spin while he’d gone to pick up Valas and Danifae first. Even Valas and Danifae had been surprised by that one, but Pharaun had long ago learned that whenever possible a cautious drow lets his enemies twist for a while, if only to remind them that he can.

Still, the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith had been more than a little displeased, and Jeggred had made another serious attempt at a physical assault. Quenthel had held him back, if reluctantly, and charged the draegloth with guarding the uridezu. They were two of the same: demons on the wrong plane, pressed into the service of drow who were ready to take them back to the Abyss that spawned them. Pharaun let himself sigh at that thought. He knew it was a bad idea on its surface, going to the Abyss, but they had passed up the acceptable a long time before. They were in new territory. They were headed for the Spider Queen herself, and right when Lolth seemed least inclined to greet them.

Pharaun was sure he wasn’t the only one who had second thoughts about the expedition, even as strenuously as he’d argued for their going forward. For a Master of Sorcere, it was a mission that could make him Archmage of Menzoberranzan. For her part, Quenthel had already achieved the highest post she could hope for.
As Mistress of Arach-Tinilith, Quenthel was the spiritual leader of all Menzoberranzan and the second most powerful female in the city. Some would argue that she was indeed more powerful than her sister Triel.

Of all drow under Faerûn, she would surely be welcomed into Lolth’s domain—assuming there was either a Lolth or a Demonweb Pits at all anymore—but still the high priestess was on edge. Her normally stern countenance had gone nearly rigid, and her movements were jerky and twitching. Any talk of the journey ahead made her pace around the deck, all but oblivious to the lesser demons that often snapped at her or reached out to grab her.

Even Pharaun, cynical as he was, didn’t want to believe that the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith might be losing her faith.

The fact that Jeggred also noticed Quenthel’s unease didn’t make the wizard feel any better. The draegloth’s expressions weren’t always easy to read, though the half-demon was the least intellectually capable of the party, but since coming to the Lake of Shadows—perhaps even before—Jeggred had looked at his aunt quite differently. He could see her agitation, though he might have thought it fear, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.

Pharaun closed his eyes and took a deep breath as the last of the day’s manes went down the ship’s gullet. He felt tired enough to sleep like a human. Without even bothering to cross the deck to the place where he’d set his pack, Pharaun sank to the fleshy planks and sat.

“Before you slip into Reverie,” Valas Hune said from behind him, “we should discuss practical concerns.”

Pharaun turned to look at the Bregan D’aerthe scout and offered him a twisted smile.

“Practical concerns?” the wizard asked. “At this point I’m too tired for any kind of concerns … other than … the … ones that are …”

Pharaun closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Are you all right?” the scout asked, his tone comfortably devoid of real concern.

“My wit has failed me,” Pharaun replied. “I must be tired indeed.”

The scout nodded.

“We’ll need supplies,” he said, addressing all four of them.

Quenthel didn’t look up, and Jeggred only glanced away from the chained demon for a second.

The draegloth shrugged and said, “I can eat the captain.”

Pharaun didn’t bother to look at the uridezu for a response, and the demon, sensibly, didn’t offer one.

“Well, I can’t,” Valas replied. “Neither can the rest of us.”

BOOK: Annihilation
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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