Authors: Philip Athans
“There will be no opportunity to stop along the way?” Danifae asked.
Pharaun regarded the beautiful, enigmatic battle-captive with a smile and said, “We’ll travel from this lake across the Fringe and into the Shadow Deep. From there to the endless Astral. From there to the Abyss. Any roadhouses along the way will be … unreliable to say the least.”
“Which is to say,” Valas cut in, “that there won’t be any.”
“What did you have in mind, Valas?” Pharaun asked. “How much are we talking about?”
The scout made a show of shrugging and turned to Quenthel to ask, “How long will we be away?”
Quenthel almost recoiled from the question, and Jeggred turned to stare daggers at her back for a heartbeat or two before returning his attention to the captured uridezu.
“One month,” Pharaun answered for her, “sixteen days, three hours, and forty-four minutes … give or take sixteen days, three hours, and forty-four minutes.”
Quenthel stared hard at Pharaun, her face blank.
“I thought your wit had abandoned you, Master of Sorcere,” Danifae said. She turned to Quenthel. “An impossible question to answer precisely, I understand, Mistress, but I assume an educated guess will do?”
She looked at Valas, her white eyebrows arched high on her smooth black forehead. Valas nodded, still looking at Quenthel.
“The simple fact is that I have no idea,” the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith said finally.
The rest of the drow raised eyebrows. Jeggred’s eyes narrowed. It wasn’t what any of them expected her to say.
“None of us do,” she went on, ignoring the reaction, “which is precisely why we’re going in the first place. Lolth will do with us as she pleases once we are in the Demonweb Pits. If we must be supplied, then we will need supplies for the length of our journey there and perhaps our journey back. If Lolth chooses to provide for us while we’re there, so be it. If not, we will need no sustenance, at least none that can be had in this world.”
The high priestess wrapped her hands around her arms and hugged herself close. All of them saw her shiver with undisguised dread. Pharaun was too taken aback to see the further reactions of the others. A low, rumbling growl from Jeggred finally drew his attention, and he looked over to see the draegloth’s eyes locked on Quenthel, who was successfully ignoring her Abyssal nephew.
“You talk like humans,” the draegloth growled. “You speak of the Abyss as if it was some feral dog you think might nip at your rumps, so you never rise from your chairs. You forget that for you, the Abyss has been a hunting ground, though you do most of your hunting from across the planes. Are you drow? Masters of this world and the next? Or are you …”
Jeggred stopped, his jaw and throat tight, and returned his steely gaze to the uridezu. The demon captain looked away.
“You assume much, honored draegloth,” Danifae said, her clear
voice echoing across the still water. “It is not fear that prepares us for our journey, I’m sure, but necessity.”
Jeggred turned slowly but didn’t look at Danifae. Instead, his eyes once more found the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith. Quenthel appeared, to Pharaun’s eyes at least, to have succumbed to the Reverie. Jeggred blew a short, sharp breath through his wide nostrils and turned a fang-lined smile on Danifae.
“Fear,” the draegloth said, “has a smell.”
Danifae returned the half-demon’s smile and said, “Fear of the Spider Queen surely smells the sweetest.”
“Yes,” Valas broke in, though Danifae and the draegloth continued to stare at each other with expressions impossible to read. “Well, that’s all well and good, but surely someone knows how long it will take us to get there and how long to get back.”
“A tenday,” Pharaun said, guessing for no other reason than to get on with it so he could rest and replenish his magic. “Each way.”
The scout nodded, and no one else offered any argument. Jeggred went back to staring at the captain, and Danifae drew out a whetstone to sharpen a dagger. The vipers of Quenthel’s scourge wrapped themselves lovingly around her and began, one by one, to sink into slumber.
“I’ll be off then,” Valas said.
“Off?” Pharaun asked. “To where?”
“Sshamath, I think,” the scout replied. “It’s reasonably close, and I have contacts there. If I go alone, I can be there and back quickly, and no one who doesn’t fear Bregan D’aerthe will even know I was there.”
“No,” Danifae said, startling both Valas and Pharaun.
“The young mistress has a better suggestion?” Pharaun asked.
“Sschindylryn,” she said.
“What of it?” asked Pharaun.
“It’s closer,” Danifae replied, “and it’s not ruled by Vhaeraunites.”
She sent a pointed look Valas’s way, and Pharaun allowed himself a smirk.
“I’m tired,” the Master of Sorcere said, “so I will weaken enough to speak on Valas’s behalf. He is Bregan D’aerthe, young mistress, and his loyalty goes to she who is paying. I don’t believe we’ll have trouble with our guide jumping deities on us. If he can get to, through, and out of Sshamath faster, then let him do what he’s been hired to do.”
“He will go to Sschindylryn,” Quenthel said, her voice so flat and quiet that Pharaun wasn’t certain he’d heard correctly.
“Mistress?” he prompted.
“You heard me,” she said, finally looking up at him. She let her cold gaze linger for a moment, and Pharaun held it. She turned to Valas. “Sschindylryn.”
If the scout had any thought of arguing, he suppressed it quickly.
“As you wish, Mistress,” Valas replied.
“I will accompany you,” Danifae said, speaking to Valas but looking at Quenthel.
“I can move faster on my own,” the scout argued.
“We have time,” said the battle-captive, still looking at Quenthel.
The high priestess turned to Danifae slowly. Her frigid red eyes warmed as they played across the girl’s curves. Danifae leaned in ever so slightly, eliciting a smile from Pharaun that was as impressed as it was amused.
“Sschindylryn….” the wizard said. “I’ve passed through it a time or two. Portals, yes? A city crowded with portals that could slip you in an instant from one end of the Underdark to another … or elsewhere.”
Danifae turned to Pharaun and returned his smile—impressed and amused.
“How much time do we have?” Valas asked, still ignoring the more subtle, silent conversation-within-a-conversation.
Pharaun shrugged and said, “Five days … perhaps as many as seven. I should have provided the ship with adequate sustenance by then.”
“I can do it,” Valas replied. “Barely.”
The scout looked to Quenthel for an answer, and Pharaun sighed, pushing back his frustration. He too looked at Quenthel, who was gently stroking the head of one of her whip vipers. The snake swayed in the air next to her smooth ebon cheek while the other vipers slept. Pharaun got the distinct impression that the snake was speaking to her.
A sound caught Pharaun’s attention, and he saw Jeggred shifting uncomfortably. The draegloth’s eyes twitched back and forth between his aunt and the viper. Pharaun wondered if the draegloth could hear some silent, mental exchange between the high priestess and her whip. If he could, what he heard was making him angry.
“You will take Danifae with you,” Quenthel said, her eyes never leaving the viper.
If Valas was disappointed, he didn’t let it show. Instead, he simply nodded.
“Leave when you’re ready,” the high priestess said.
“I’m ready now,” the scout replied, perhaps a second too quickly.
The viper turned to look at the scout, who met its black eyes with a furrowed brow. Pharaun was fascinated by the exchange, but exhaustion was claiming him all the more quickly as the discussion wore on.
Quenthel slid back to rest against the bone rail of the undead ship. The last viper rested its head on her thigh.
“We will take Reverie, then, Pharaun and I,” the Mistress of the Academy said. “Jeggred will stand watch, and the two of you will be on your way.”
Danifae stood and said quietly, “Thank you, M—”
Quenthel stopped her with an abrupt wave of her hand, then the high priestess closed her eyes and sat very still. Jeggred growled again, low and rumbling. Pharaun prepared himself for Reverie as well but couldn’t help feeling uneasy at the way the draegloth was looking at his mistress.
Danifae slipped on her pack as Valas gathered his own gear. The battle-captive walked to Jeggred and put a hand lightly on the draegloth’s bristling white mane.
“All is well, Jeggred,” she whispered. “We are all tired.”
Jeggred leaned in to her touch ever so slightly, and Pharaun looked away. The draegloth stopped his growling, but Pharaun could feel the half-demon watch Danifae’s every move until she finally followed Valas through a dimensional portal of the scout’s making and was gone.
Why Sschindylryn? Pharaun asked himself.
It was the battle-captive’s calming touch with the draegloth that accounted for the wizard’s uneasy Reverie.
A little more than half a mile under the ruins of the surface city of Tilverton, two dark elves ran.
Danifae breathed hard trying to keep up with Valas, but she stayed only a few strides behind him. The scout moved in something between a walk and run, his feet sometimes appearing not even to touch the slick flowstone of the tunnel floor. As they’d emerged from the last in a rapid, head-spinning series of gates, Valas had told her they were more than halfway to Sschindylryn, and it had been only a single day. Danifae admired the mercenary’s skill in navigating the Underdark, even as she dismissed his obvious lack of ambition and drive. He seemed content in his position as a hired hand—scout and errand boy for Quenthel Baenre—and the idea of that sort of contentment was utterly alien to Danifae.
After all, she thought in time, Valas is only a male.
The scout came to an abrupt halt, so abrupt in fact that Danifae had to stumble to an undignified stop to avoid running into him. Happy for the chance to pause and rest, though, she didn’t bother to complain.
“Where—?” she started, but Valas held up a hand to silence her.
Even after all her years as a battle-captive, a servant to the foolish and slow-witted Halisstra Melarn, Danifae hadn’t grown accustomed to shutting up when told to. She bristled at the scout’s dismissive gesture but calmed herself quickly. Valas was in his element, and if he wanted silence, both their lives might well depend on it.
He turned to her, and Danifae was surprised to see no hint of annoyance or irritation on his face, even as her one word still echoed faintly in the cool, still air of the cavern.
Another portal up ahead
, he told her with his fingers.
It will take us to Sschindylryn, but it’s not one I’ve used in a very long time
But you’ve used it before
, she replied silently.
Portals, especially portals like this one
, Valas explained,
are like waterholes. They attract attention
You sense something?
Danifae’s own sensitive hearing detected no noise, her equally sensitive nose no smell but her own and the scout’s. That didn’t mean they were alone.
As if he’d read her mind, Valas replied,
You’re never alone in the Underdark
So what is it?
Can we avoid it? Kill it?
, he answered in turn,
probably not, and I hope so
Danifae smiled at him. Valas tipped his head to one side, surprised and confused by the smile.
, he signed,
and keep still. I’ll go on ahead
Danifae looked back along the way they’d come then forward in the direction they were going. The tunnel—twenty-five or thirty feet wide and about as tall—stretched into darkness in both directions.
If you leave me behind…
. Danifae threatened with her fingers and with her cold, hard eyes.
Valas didn’t react at all. He seemed to be waiting for her to finish.
Danifae again glanced to the seemingly endless tunnel ahead, only for half a heartbeat. When she turned back, Valas was gone.