Authors: Philip Athans
“I’ll eat you alive …” the portal drake rasped, “for that.”
Valas drew his kukris, and his images did the same. The dragon, blood pouring from its ruined eye, didn’t bother to pull out the arrow that still protruded from its eye socket. Instead it charged, wings up, claws out, jaws open.
Valas stepped to the side, into the drake’s blind spot. The creature had obviously never fought with only one eye before, and it fell for the feint. Valas got two quick cuts in—cuts each answered with a deep, rumbling growl.
The drake lashed out, and Valas stepped in and to the side, letting one of his images cross in front of the attack. The portal drake’s claw touched the image’s shoulder, and by the time the talon passed through the false scout’s abdomen the illusion was gone.
The dragon grumbled its frustration, and Valas attacked again. The creature twisted out of reach and snapped its jaws at Valas—coming dangerously close to the real dark elf. When the dragon’s single eye narrowed and smoldered, the scout knew the dragon had pegged him.
Valas danced into the drake’s blind spot, stepping backward and spinning to keep the dragon off balance and to keep his own mirror images moving frenetically around him. The drake clawed another one into thin air then bit the third out of existence.
Valas watched the image disappear and followed the portal drake’s neck with his eyes as it passed half an arm’s length in front of him. He looked for cracks, creases, for any sign of weakness in the monster’s thick, scaly hide.
He found one and sank a kukri between scales, through skin, into flesh, artery, and bone beneath it. Blood pumped from the
creature in torrents. The dragon flailed at Valas, though it couldn’t quite see the scout. As the creature died, it managed to brush a claw against the last false drow. The drake started to fall, and Valas skipped out of the way. The narrow head whipped around on its long, supple neck, and the jaws came down on Valas’s shoulder, crinkling his armor and bruising the black skin underneath.
The scout pulled away, rolled, and came to his feet with his kukris in front of him.
No attack came. The portal drake splayed across the floor of the cavern. Blood came less frequently and with less urgency with every fading heartbeat.
“Always knew …” the dying dragon sighed, “it would be … a drow.”
The portal drake died with that word on its tongue, and Valas lifted an eyebrow at the thought.
He stepped away from the poisonous corpse and sheathed his kukris. There was no sign of Danifae. Valas didn’t know if she’d kept running back the way they’d come or if she was hiding somewhere in the shadows.
With a shrug and a last glance at the portal drake, Valas turned and went to the abandoned monastery. Assuming that the Melarn battle-captive would eventually return to the cavern and the portal that was their goal there, Valas climbed into the great downturned mouth.
Inside the semicircular structure were two tall, freestanding pillars. Between them was nothing but dead air and the side of the tall cavern wall. The interior was shrouded in darkness, and from it came the sharp smell of the portal drake’s filth.
Danifae stood between the pillars, her weight on one foot, her hand on her hip.
“Is it dead?” she asked.
Valas stopped several strides from her and nodded.
Danifae looked up and around at the dead stone pillars and the featureless interior of the huge face.
“Good,” the battle-captive said. “Is this the portal?”
When she looked back at Valas, he nodded again.
“You know how to open it,” she said, with no hint that it might be a question.
Valas nodded a third time, and Danifae smiled.
“Before we go,” she said as she pulled a dagger from her shapely hip, “I want to harvest some poison.”
Valas blinked and said, “From the portal drake?”
Danifae walked past him, smiling, spinning her dagger between her fingers.
“I’ll wait here,” he told her.
She kept going without bothering to answer.
If she survives that, Valas thought, she might just be worth traveling with.
Pharaun traced a fingertip along the line of something that hadn’t been there the day before: a vein. The blood vessel followed a meandering path along the length of the bone rail of the ship of chaos. At random intervals it branched into thinner capillaries. The whole thing slowly, almost imperceptibly, pulsed with life—warm with the flow of blood. When they’d first come aboard the demonic ship, the railing was solid, dead bone. Half a tenday spent gating in minor demons and feeding it to the ship was changing it. It was coming to life.
“Will it eventually grow skin?” Quenthel asked from behind him.
Pharaun turned and saw the high priestess crouching, examining the deck the same way he was examining the rail.
“Skin?” the wizard asked.
“These veins it’s growing seem so fragile,” she said. Her voice sounded bored, distant. “If we step on them won’t we cut them?”
“I don’t know,” Pharaun said. What he meant was that he didn’t care. “What difference could it possibly make?”
“It could bleed,” she said, still looking down at the deck. “If it can bleed, it can die. If it dies when we’re …”
Pharaun could tell she didn’t finish that thought because she was afraid to. He hated it when a high priestess was afraid. Things rarely went well if they started with that.
“Not everything that bleeds dies,” he said with a forced smile.
She looked up at him, and their eyes met. He expected her to be angry at least, maybe offended, but she was neither. Pharaun couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“It troubles me,” she said after a pause, “that we know so little. A ship like this … you should have studied it in the lore, shouldn’t you? At Sorcere?”
“I did,” Pharaun said. “I’ve been feeding it a steady diet, I’ve cowed its captain, and we’re nearly ready for our little interplanar jaunt. I know what it is and how it works, which means I know enough. For a priestess you can be overly analytical. Will it grow skin? If it wants to. Will it bleed to death if your spike heels slice a vein? I doubt it. Will it behave exactly the same way every time for everyone? Well, if it did, it wouldn’t be very chaotic, now would it?”
“Some day,” Quenthel said without a pause, “I will sew your mouth shut so you’ll stop talking long enough for me to kill you in peace.”
Pharaun chuckled and rubbed cool sweat from his forehead. “Why, Mistress,” the mage replied with a smile, “whatever for?”
“Because I hate you,” she replied.
Pharaun said nothing. They gazed at each other for a few moments more then Quenthel stood and looked around. “I’m getting bored,” she said to no one in particular. You’re getting scared, Pharaun thought. “I’m getting angry,” Jeggred cut in.
Both Pharaun and Quenthel looked over to where the draegloth sat. The half-demon was slowly, methodically, skinning a rat. The rodent was still alive.
“No one asked, nephew,” Quenthel said with a sneer.
“My apologies, honored aunt,” the draegloth said, his voice dripping with icy sarcasm.
“Valas and Danifae will be back soon,” Pharaun said, “and we will have the ship ready when they get back. We will be on our way presently, but in the meantime we mustn’t let the tedium of this cursed lake get the better of us. It wouldn’t do to have a party of dark elves fighting among themselves.”
“It’s not the lake I find tedious, mage,” Jeggred shot back.
Pharaun rejected his first half-dozen retorts before speaking, but his face must have revealed something. He could see it reflected back at him in the draegloth’s amused sneer.
“Yes,” the wizard said finally, “well, I will accept that gracious threat in the spirit in which it was offered, Jeggred Baenre. Nonetheless, I—”
“Will shut up,” the draegloth interrupted. “You will shut your damned mouth.”
Jeggred licked the dying, squealing, flayed rat, leaving blood dribbling from his cracked gray lips.
“I don’t like this,” the half-demon said. “This one—” he tipped his chin to indicate the captive uridezu—“is planning something. It will betray us.”
“It’s a demon,” Quenthel replied quietly.
“Meaning?” the draegloth asked, almost shouting.
“Meaning,” Pharaun answered for her, “that of course it will betray us—or try to. The only thing you can trust about a demon is that it will be untrustworthy. It might cheer you to know we feel the same way about you, my draegloth friend.”
Pharaun had expected some reaction to that comment but not the one he got. Jeggred and Quenthel locked stares, their eyes boring into each other’s. There was a long silence. It was Quenthel who looked away first.
Jeggred actually seemed disappointed.
Aliisza nuzzled close to Kaanyr Vhok, her long ebony tresses mingling with the cambion’s silver hair.
“Have you been entertaining ladies while I was away?” the alu-fiend cooed into her lover’s neck.
The cambion let out a slow breath through his nose and slid a hand onto Aliisza’s back. He drew her closer to him, so their sides were pressed together. Aliisza could feel his blazing body heat, so much hotter than a dark elf’s. So comfortable and reassuring. So powerful.
“Jealous?” Kaanyr Vhok whispered.
Aliisza thrilled that he was playing along. It was a rare reaction from the half-demon, who normally kept his feelings so carefully guarded.
“Never,” she whispered back, pausing to let her hot, moist lips
brush along his skin. “I just wish I could have joined you.”
She hoped for further playfulness but instead got a dismissive chuckle. Kaanyr Vhok withdrew from her, and she plastered a coy pout on her face, narrowing her deep green eyes in a scowl.
Vhok flashed her a rare grin and put a finger gently to her lips.
“Don’t cry, my dear,” he said. “When this mad war is over, we’ll have time for dalliances to thrill the likes of even you.”
He took his hand away and stepped to a small table on which was set a tray, a crystal decanter of fine brandy stolen for sport from a shop in Skullport, and a single glass.
“Until then,” Vhok said, pouring a splash of the rust-colored liquid into the glass, “we’ll have to occasionally break for business.”
“How goes that business?”
“Menzoberranzan is under siege,” the cambion answered, making a sweeping gesture to indicate their surroundings, “and will be for a very long time, unless someone manages to inject some intelligence—or dare we hope, imagination—into our gray dwarf allies.”
“You don’t sound hopeful,” she said.
“They’re as dull witted as they are ill tempered,” Vhok replied, “but we make do.”
He turned to look at her, and Aliisza smiled, shrugged, and sat. More accurately, she let her body pour onto a richly upholstered sofa, her lithe body draping seductively across it and her eyes playing over his body. Her leather bodice looked stiff and restraining, but it flowed over her the same way she flowed over the sofa, shifting to her will like her own skin. The sheathed long sword at her hip tucked under one leg.
Vhok’s own costume was typically opulent, a tunic embroidered in a military style. A long sword of his own hung at his hip, and Aliisza knew he wore any number of magical bits and pieces, even in the privacy of his own temporary quarters.
The tent they inhabited at the rear of the siege lines was cloaked in enchantments that would prevent anyone from overhearing, peeking in, or spying on them in any conceivable way, but still Aliisza felt exposed.
“That lake,” she said, her eyes drifting around the silk-draped confines of the tent, “is the dullest place I’ve ever been, and I’ve spent time in duergar cities.”
Vhok took a small sip of the brandy and closed his eyes, savoring it. Aliisza had long ago gotten over not being offered any.
“It’s a dreary, gray cave,” she added. “I mean, the air is actually gray. It’s awful.”
Vhok opened his eyes and shrugged, waiting for more.
“They captured the captain,” she continued.
“An uridezu?” the cambion asked.
Aliisza nodded, lifting an eyebrow at the oddly accurate guess.
“Sometimes,” Vhok said, “I think you forget what I am.”