Chapter Fifteen

Valas sculled just outside the turbulent swirl of water at the base of the waterfall, wondering how he was going to contact the others. Fully transformed, he was no longer capable of breathing air. His hands and feet had turned into webbed paws, and his tailbone had elongated into a fluked tail. After the last of his hair had fallen out, a grayish-green membrane had grown over his skin, which secreted a slimy coating that kept out the water's chill. Valas was trapped underwater, unable to climb back up to the tunnel where his companions waited.

At least he still had all of his equipment. He touched the thick leather belt around his waist, with its steel buckle shaped in the form of a rothe's head. Perhaps, with the aid of the magical strength it lent him, together with the increased nimbleness afforded by his enchanted chain mail, he could climbinside the waterfall, against its pounding force. But when he swam to the surface to take a look, he remembered that the waterfall arced out of the cavern above. For most of the climb, the falling water was a good three or four paces distant from the cliff - too far for him to duck his head into it while still holding on to the rock face.

Disappointed, he allowed himself to sink back under the surface of the lake. There was no way out.

Then he remembered his enchanted backpack.

Shrugging it off his shoulders, he moved it to his chest, put-ting the shoulder straps on backward and cinching them tight. He opened its main flap. Water rushed into the nondimensional space inside the pack. When it was full - holding the equivalent of perhaps thirty waterskins - he closed the flap. Many of the items the back-pack held would be damaged, but that was a sacrifice that mattered little against his survival.

Valas swam directly under the waterfall, fighting the current with powerful strokes of his tail. The water falling from above thun-dered in his ears and forced him down, but at last he saw a more solid patch of darkness ahead: the base of the cliff. The current slammed him up against the rock before he was ready, but an instant later he found a handhold. To his surprise, he felt claws emerge from the ends of his fingers and thumb that helped him hold on. Muscles straining, he resisted the current that was trying to tear him away from the rock face. Valas began to climb.

The closer he got to the surface, the stronger the pounding of the waterfall became. Twice he slipped and was nearly swept back to the bottom of the lake, but he managed to hang on with one hand. By thrashing his tail, he forced himself back against the cliff each time. At last his head broke the surface.

He heaved himself up, scrambling for handholds and toeholds on the slippery cliff. As he climbed, he held his breath - or rather, held water in his lungs. When at last he could hold it no more, he exhaled through his mouth - a process that felt like vomiting, at least when he was no longer underwater - then he opened the flap of his back-pack and plunged his head inside. He inhaled deeply, then closed the flap and continued to climb.

Gradually he drew near to the tunnel mouth. When he was per-haps a pace or two below its lip, Pharaun peeked out from above. The mage had obviously been alerted by magic to Valas's presence -??there was no way he could have heard someone climbing the cliff over the thunder of the falls. The mage was casting a spell.

Valas - to Pharaun's eyes a "monster" rising from the lake - waved a webbed paw in a desperate attempt to fend off whatever magical attack was about to be launched at him. Shaking his head, he pointed to the kukris sheathed at his hip.

Pharaun, oblivious, touched his forefingers to his eyes and flicked them downward, releasing his spell. Valas felt a wash of magi-cal energy tingle through his skin, and he flinched. Flexing his claws still deeper into the crevices to which he clung, he waited for death to take him.

Above him, Pharaun's eyes widened.

Lifting a hand, he signed rapidly,Valas! It is you. What happened?

Sighing water in a trickle over his chin,Valas realized he had been reprieved. Pharaun had recognized him by his kukris, after all - the spell had just been one that allowed him to see through the misshap-en form Valas wore, to confirm the mercenary's identity. He signed one brief word - Wait - and inhaled once again from his bag.

Valas climbed up to where Pharaun crouched, and heaved him-self over the edge into the tunnel. Slipping into the river, he grabbed a rock to hold himself against the current that threatened to carry him over the waterfall.

Quenthel, Danifae, and the hulking Jeggred were all still waiting by the river's edge. The vipers in Quenthel's whip lifted their heads and quivered in alarm as they saw Valas, and Jeggred sniffed the air and bared his teeth, but Pharaun told them that the drow-thing was, in fact, their companion. Danifae stared at Valas with an expression of open disgust, her perfect lips slightly curled, then she turned away.

"Well?" Quenthel demanded. "Did you find the ship of chaos?"

Valas shook his head. Using the silent speech, he told his story, ducking his head underwater each time he needed to breathe. Pharaun listened closely, looking grim as Valas told of his capture, then giving a congratulatory nod as the mercenary described his escape. Quen-thel's expression, however, had not changed. Her lips remained tight, while her eyes blazed.

She turned on Pharaun, the vipers in her whip writhing, and said, "Your demon was lying. The ship isn't here."

Pharaun raised an eyebrow and asked,"My demon?"

"We're no farther ahead than when we started," Quenthel said. "You should have kept questioning Belshazu about gates. This rothe-dung story about a ship of chaos was obviously just a lie to throw us off the track."

"Off the track of what?" Pharaun asked, glaring back. "The only gate around here is the one in your imagination. And it was your bright idea to have me summon a demon in the first place."

Valas didn't like the look in the mage's eyes. Once again, Pharaun and Quenthel were on the verge of coming to blows. The Master of Sorcere let a hand drift behind his back and had his fingers flexed, ready to cast a spell. Jeggred crouched behind his aunt, clearly ready to spring at Pharaun's throat if any suspicious move was made. Dani-fae, meanwhile, folded her arms across her chest and stared defiantly at Pharaun - while simultaneously edging out of the path of what-ever spell he was about to cast.

Valas, sick of their endless bickering and ready to die anyway, having delivered his report, slammed the flat of his dagger against the stone floor of the tunnel. Sparksexploded out from the blade like ripples from a rock hurled into a pond, crackling against both Pharaun's and Quenthel's feet. Each jumped back??- Quenthel im-mediately drawing her whip.

"Insolent male," she sneered.

The vipers spat, their fangs dripping venom.

Valas could see she was itching to use the whip against him.

Please do,he signed.It is the swiftest way.

Quenthel frowned, confused by his reply, but Pharaun's mind proved the quicker again.

"There is no need for that, valued mercenary," the wizard said. "I can restore you to your proper, air-breathing, drow form."

Valas blinked, all thoughts of the viper whip driven from his mind.

You can?the scout signed.But you don't have healing magic.

"That's true, but I can - "

Quenthel spun - an awkward movement, forced to crouch as she was by the low ceiling - and said to the mage, "You can do nothing. Youwill do nothing. Valas will return to the lake and continue to search for the ship."

"He'll only be captured if you send him back," Pharaun ob-jected. "He has no way to protect himself. The aboleth will eat him this time."

He paused, and a thoughtful look crossed his face.

"Just as," the Master of Sorcere went on, "they have eaten others who dared trespass in their waters. Including, perhaps, any manes who survived after the shipwreck. And if they did eat any of these petty demons and thus acquired their memories. . . ."

Quenthel at last understood.

"The aboleth would know where the ship of chaos sank," she finished for him even as her vipers writhed in anticipation.

Pharaun turned back to Valas and asked, "What is the name of the city's matriarch?"

Using sign, Valas spelled the name out phonetically.O-o-t-h-o-o-n.

Pharaun nodded, then stared out over the lake. It was clear to Valas what the mage was thinking. Pharaun intended to meet with Zanhoriloch's matriarch himself, to ask her for information. Pharaun had powerful spells, including one he seemed confident would shield him against the aboleth's mind magic. The scout was certain the mage could handle the situation, but then Valas had thought the same of himself.

Then came a surprise.

"I will go, too," Danifae said.

Quenthel started to object, then gave the Melarn battle-captive a long, pondering look. After one glance at the uncertain motions of the vipers in the high priestess's whip, Valas could guess the ques-tions that must have been coming to Quenthel's mind.

Was Danifae offering to keep an eye on Pharaun to ensure that he remained loyal to Quenthel, in the hope of regaining her superi-or's favor? Or did she have some ulterior, even more selfish motive in mind? In the end it seemed not to matter, for Quenthel nodded.

Valas ducked his head for another breath, then he reached out and tapped on the mage's boot.

You said you had something other than healing magic that could help me,he reminded Pharaun.

Pharaun's lips parted in an "ah," and he nodded. He reached into a pocket of hispiwafwiand pulled out a small brown cocoon. Crumbling it between thumb and forefinger, he let the fragments drift down onto Valas's head. Then, waving his hands over the flakes that stuck to the mercenary's wet scalp, he began a spell.

Kneeling, Pharaun leaned over Valas and shouted in his ear, "Exhale! Quickly!"

Valas did and an instant later felt a powerful wrench shudder through his body as the spell took effect. His tail sucked back into his rear like a snail retreating into its shell and his fused fingers sprang apart, the webs disappearing. Hair erupted on the top of his head, and the skin of his arms, legs, and chest tingled as the mem-brane that had been cloaking his body disappeared.

The scout was coughing violently, retching the last of the lake water from his lungs. Even though it hurt, he didn't care. Instead he was filled with relief. Pharaun had restored him to drow form - his body was his own once more.

Except for one small detail. Staring down at his hands, Valas saw that his scars were in all the wrong places.

"What spell," he wheezed as he climbed out of the river, "did you just cast?"

Pharaun, still kneeling, was directing a second spell upon him, one that requited no arcane material component to cast. Valas saw the mage's shoulders slump as he completed it and knew it had cost Pharaun apiece of himself.

"I polymorphed you," Pharaun said when he was done. "I shaped your body into a pretty good likeness of its old self, if I do say so myself. Until something dispels it, that is. Be thankful that Ryld's not around, waving that greatsword of his."

Valas, still standing chest-deep in water, spread his fingers to admire their shape and nodded.

"Iam thankful," he said aloud.

His eyes met Pharaun's, making it clear he was speaking not about the absence of the weapons master but of the presence of the mage.

Pharaun nodded, then gave Quenthel a bow that just bordered on insolence.

"With your leave, Mistress, I will begin studying the spells I need. Then I - thenDanifae and I - will set out for Zanhoriloch and speak to this Oothoon."

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