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Authors: Philip Athans

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BOOK: Annihilation
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Nimor Imphraezl watched from above as the duergar engaged the spiders. Drow warriors—all male—rode the enormous arachnids into battle. The spiders skittered and whirled around them while the riders sat stiff and straight in their saddles. The mounted drow carried long pikes—weapons the duergar were unaccustomed to, as rare as the long weapons were in the confines
of the Underdark—and they skewered one after another before the gray dwarves drew any dark elf blood.

The spider riders were hopelessly outnumbered by the horde of duergar who continued to lay siege to the slowly crumbling city of Menzoberranzan, and Nimor was content to lose a few gray dwarves for the chance to watch the drow fight. They were good, he would grant them that. The spiders killed as many duergar as the pikes did, but the beasts were never out of their riders’ control. All in all it was a beautiful, bloody dance.

In the center of the spider riders a mounted drow male wearing armor of the finest mithral positively glowed with magic. He carried a pike like the others but hadn’t brought his to bear. He held it up, and from it a long, thin banner wafted in the cool Underdark air. It took Nimor a minute or so to recognize the sigil emblazoned on the banner. The riders represented House Shobalar—a lesser House, but one loyal to the Baenres and known throughout the drow-settled Underdark for their effective and impeccably trained cavalry. The dark elf with the banner must be their leader.

One of the riders took two duergar at once, pinning them together then using their weight at the end of his pike to topple three more of their companions onto the flowstone floor. Nimor smiled.

He had come to that particular tunnel after hearing three separate times of unusual activity there. The duergar had managed to kill a Menzoberranyr scout only a day before, and even the gruff gray dwarves had admitted that other drow had been there and gotten away. It wasn’t the most well defended approach, and Nimor had been keeping an eye on it, certain the Menzoberranyr would be testing it.

When the scout was killed, Nimor had Crown Prince Horgar send reinforcements, but only a few. Enough, Nimor hoped, to satisfy the drow but not enough to close the approach. Nimor
wanted to draw them out, and like the arrogant aristocrats they were, they’d taken the bait.

Nimor hung upside down, hidden by a spell of invisibility, his
, another spell that prevented anyone using similar magic from finding him, and another that would draw enemies’ attention away even if they thought to look up at him. Those things and the immediate threat of the duergar soldiers were enough that he could wait and watch in peace—wait and watch for the spider rider captain to send his arachnid mount scurrying into the fray, scurrying right under Nimor.

With a touch to a brooch that bore the sign of the Jaezred Chaulssin, Nimor dropped slowly, still hidden from sight by magic. As he descended, Nimor drew his dagger—a very special dagger—and when he came to rest on the spider, inches behind the cavalry leader, he flicked the blade across the back of the drow warrior’s neck. There was a perfect space there between his helm and his pauldron.

The spider rider flinched and turned in his saddle. Nimor, still invisible, grabbed the drow around his neck and held the poisoned blade to his throat.

The spider rider couldn’t see him, but he could hear Nimor whisper in his ear, “What is your name, Shobalar?”

“Who are you?” the warrior asked, and Nimor cut him again—not too deeply—in response.

The drow grunted, and Nimor could feel his body stiffen, jerk, and quiver.

“Yes,” Nimor hissed into the slowly dying officer’s ear, “it is poison. Very, very elegant poison. It will paralyze you, twist your throat closed, squeeze the last gasp of air from your lungs, and keep you from screaming while you suffocate.”

The drow growled and said, his voice already quiet and tight, “My House will avenge me.”

“Your House will burn, Captain …?”

“Vilto’sat Shobalar,” the drow answered even as his throat squeezed shut, “of the Spider Riders of House Sh—”

Smiling all the while, Nimor held the dying drow upright in his saddle as he suffocated. The Anointed Blade of the Jaezred Chaulssin waited until Captain Vilto’sat Shobalar quivered through his last attempt at a breath and his magenta eyes glazed over. Then Nimor levitated up and away from the suddenly uncontrolled, feral war-spider.

The arachnid went berserk, chewing through duergar after duergar then turning on another of its kind. The rider of that spider turned his attention to protecting his mount from the wild arachnid—just long enough for a particularly enthusiastic duergar footman to take his head with a poleaxe.

Nimor killed eight more drow himself over the next ten minutes or so, while the duergar claimed three. The rest finally turned and ran back through the tunnel, past the outer siege line and back into Menzoberranzan. They had taken back nothing, and Nimor had four of their spiders and the dead drow.

Nimor ordered up more duergar to resecure the position, had the spiders bound and made ready for travel, and went back to his command post with the corpse of Captain Vilto’sat Shobalar.

Spoils of war.

Valas could tell that Danifae didn’t know the drake was behind her until the second his arrow sliced through the fine membrane of its wing, surprising it. It made a noise deep in its throat, the arrow made a wet ripping sound as it entered, and the drake’s smooth motion ended in a jerk. All that was enough for anyone to sense some disturbance behind her and turn—and it was that simple reflex that saved Danifae’s life.

Though the drake forgot its intended target, it landed hard in a skidding roll and would have bowled her over if she hadn’t jumped clear—and she barely managed that.

The portal drake whirled in the direction from which Valas’s arrow had come. Saliva dripped from its open mouth, curling around jagged teeth and collecting on the cave floor in steaming pools. Valas saw the intelligence in the thing’s eyes, the great
age—centuries spent stalking the alluring magical portals of the Underdark—and the cold, hard anger.

The drake searched the darkness for him, but Valas knew it wouldn’t see him. Valas didn’t want to be seen; it was that simple.

Behind the creature, Danifae scrambled to her feet, drawing her morningstar at the same time. Valas already had another arrow in his hand, and as he slipped sideways along the edge of a deep shadow he set it to his bow and drew back the string. The drake mirrored that expansive movement by drawing air into its lungs. It couldn’t see Valas, but it had apparently concluded that all it had to do was get close. It was a conclusion with which Valas could—unfortunately—find no fault.

After taking a heartbeat to aim, Valas let the arrow fly. The drake exhaled, releasing a billowing cloud of greasy green vapor into the air. It rolled and expanded as it left the dragon’s mouth. The drake began to strain to get it all out.

Danifae struck with her morningstar—a weapon enchanted with the power of lightning—from behind, and the portal drake jerked forward. Valas’s arrow bit deeply into its chest, finding the half inch it needed between two hard scales. The thing’s armored skin quivered, and muscles rippled and jerked. The breath caught in its throat, and its cloud was cut short. Still the gas rolled in Valas’s direction.

The scout could see it coming. It was aimed toward rather than at him, so he flipped backward away from it. He had no way to protect himself from poison gas. It was a weakness in that situation that Valas found frustrating. All he could do was avoid the gas, and avoidance, at least, was something he was well versed in.

“Hide in the dark there if you wish, drow,” the portal drake hissed in Undercommon. Its voice was cold and sharp, almost
mechanical, and it echoed in the high-ceilinged chamber with a sound like glass breaking. “I can’t see you.”

The creature turned to face Danifae, who was whirling her morningstar, looking him in the eye. She was backing up.

“But I can see her,” the drake said.

Danifae smiled, and the expression sent a chill down Valas’s spine. He stopped, noting the sensation but utterly confused by it.

When the battle-captive lashed out with the enchanted morningstar again, the drake dodged it easily.

“What are you expecting, lizard?” Danifae asked the drake. “Do you think he’ll reveal himself to save me? Have you never met a dark elf before?”

Valas, about to draw another arrow, let it drop silently back into his quiver. He slipped the bow over his shoulder and made his way around the back of the drake, skirting the edge of the cavern wall toward the giant face. He quickly estimated the number of steps, the number of seconds, and gauged the background noise for sound cover.

“Dark elves?” the drake said. “I’ve eaten one or two in my years.”

Danifae tried to hit him again, and the drake tried to bite her. They dodged at the same time, which ruined both their attacks.

“Let us pass,” Danifae said, and her voice had an air of command to it that got Valas’s attention as well as the drake’s.

“No,” the drake answered, and Danifae stepped in faster than Valas would have thought her capable of.

The morningstar came down on the portal drake’s left side, and Valas blinked at the painfully bright flash of blue-white light. The burning illumination traced patterns in the air like glowing spiderwebs. The creature flinched and growled again, its anger and pain showing in the way its lips pulled back from its teeth.

Danifae stepped back, setting her morningstar spinning again. The drake crouched, and Valas stopped and stiffened. The drake didn’t lunge at her—it burst into the air with the deafening beat of wings. In less than a second it was high enough to disappear into the gloom up in the cathedral-like space.

Valas stepped forward and let his toes scrape loose gravel on the floor. Danifae looked up at him.

Run back to the tunnel
, Valas traced in sign language.

Danifae saw him, didn’t bother to nod, and turned to run. Valas slipped back into the darkness, drew his
up over his head, and rolled on the floor until he knew he was back in a place where no one would be able to see him.

Valas watched the battle-captive run, knowing she wouldn’t be able to see the portal drake. He drew another arrow slowly so that it wouldn’t make a sound as it came free of the quiver. He turned and twisted a fraction of an inch here, a hair’s breadth there, so the steel tip would reflect no light. Breathing slowly through his mouth, the Bregan D’aerthe scout waited—but didn’t have to wait for long.

The sound of the portal drake’s wings echoed from above, doubled, then doubled again, and more—not just echoes. Five, Valas counted.

Still cloaked in auras of invisibility and the gloom of the long-abandoned cavern, Valas started forward.

Five portal drakes swooped out of the shadows in formation. The two at the far ends swept inward, and two others shifted out. They changed positions as they flew, but their target was the same.

Danifae hesitated. Valas could see it in her step. She heard them and knew they could fly faster—many times faster—than she’d ever be able to run. To her credit, though, she didn’t look back.

The five portal drakes were identical in every detail, and no one who had traveled as extensively as Valas had could have been fooled for long. Only three wing-beats into it, Valas knew what they were.

Not all of the trinkets the scout wore were enchanted, but the little brass ovoid was, and Valas touched it as he ran. The warmth of his fingers brought the magic to life, and only a thought was needed to wake it fully. It happened without a sound, and Valas never missed a beat or revealed himself at all.

Danifae stopped running anyway, leaving Valas to wonder why.

Similarly confused, the portal drakes drew up short, fluttering to a halt, crossing each others’ paths and coming within fractions of an inch from collision.

Danifae smiled at the dragons—all five of them rearing up to shred her with claws like filet knives—and she said, “Careful now. Look behind you.”

The toothy sneer that was the drake’s reply played out simultaneously on all five sets of jaws.

Valas let his arrow fly, and all four of his own conjured images did the same. The little brass ovoid—a container for a spell that had been very specially crafted by an ancient mage whose secrets had long ago been lost—had done its work, and for each of the five portal drakes, there was a Valas.

For each of the five portal drakes there was an arrow.

The dragon might have heard them or sensed them in some other way, or maybe its curiosity had gotten the better of it. The creature whirled around and met the arrows with its right eye. Four of the arrows blinked out of existence the instant they met with the false drakes, and those illusionary dragons disappeared as well. The barrage left only one real arrow, one real portal drake, and one real eye.

The force of the impact made the creature twitch then stagger back a step.

Valas could tell that the dragon could see him—all five of him—with its one good eye.

BOOK: Annihilation
10.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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