Chapter Seventeen

Danifae followed Pharaun through the round doorway in the side of the stalagmite, into a corridor that spiraled upward. The water she swam through was fouled by the slime of the aboleth that led them. Danifae could taste it each time she inhaled. A second aboleth fol-lowed close behind her, crowding her forward.

The corridor through which they swam was grayish pink and as shiny as the surface of a pearl. Deep lines were carved into it, revealing the dark gray stone underneath. Most were spirals or wavy lines. Danifae glanced at them, wondering if they were a form of written language. Then she remembered that the aboleth had no need for written texts. Whatever knowledge their minds contained was passed on to future generations when their hatchlings swarmed over them, tearing them to pieces.

She smiled ruefully, sorry that Lolth hadn't given the drow the ability to consume knowledge in that way. Still, there were other ways to find out what one needed to know. . . .

The corridor wound past several round doorways, then opened at last on a room that must have been near the stalagmite's core. Swimming into it, Danifae halted near Pharaun, letting the weight of her chain mail pull her to a standing position on the curved floor. The aboleth that had been following her swam into the room behind her and hovered in the water just close enough that it could reach her with its tentacles, if it chose. Danifae saw that the first aboleth had taken up a similar position on the other side of Pharaun.

On the far side of the chamber, enthroned within a niche in the wall, was an aboleth Danifae guessed was Oothoon. The crea-ture rested on what looked like a nest of spongy kelp, occasionally using a tentacle to rip off a chunk and stuff it into the mouth in its belly. Its bluish-green, rubbery skin was dotted with white patches of freshwater barnacles, and its belly was a darker pink than those of the two that had accompanied Danifae and Pharaun into the room. Danifae searched in vain for a clue as to the thing's sex but found none - she thought perhaps the creature was male and fe-male in one - though the others had referred to Oothoon as the aboleths' "matriarch."

She felt a tickle against her scalp, and an instant later a sparkle of magic crackled through the water, pushing the tickle back as the pro-tective spell Pharaun had cast earlier was triggered. Danifae glanced at the mage out of the corner of her eye and saw him nod slightly. His boast had proved true. His magic was strong enough to keep the aboleth's mind probing at bay.

Oothoon stirred, rising slightly from the kelp nest. A chunk of something that had been trapped under the aboleth's massive body - it looked like fresh meat but left a smudge of green in the water rather than red - swirled in the current and floated gently to the floor. Aboleth flesh, Danifae decided, noting its mottled skin.

Ignoring it, Oothoon let one of her tentacles drift out toward Pharaun to hover a mere hand's breadth from his face. Another moved toward Danifae.

Pharaun's hand drifted slightly behind his back, where Oothoon wouldn't see it.

Steady,he signed.

Danifae stared at the taunting tentacle, tasting the rancid-grease odor that clouded the water around it. Fearing that even that slight exposure to it might transform her, she held her breath, not wanting to breathe the clouded water in. After a moment, Oothoon withdrew first the tentacle that was menacing Pharaun - then, when Danifae began to see spots before her eyes and was at last forced to inhale, the second tentacle. The creature's three eyes narrowed in what Danifae took to be a catlike smile.

"Why have you come?" Oothoon asked in a voice like rumbling bubbles.

Danifae let Pharaun do the talking. The mage used the drow silent speech, which Oothoon seemed to understand. The aboleth matriarch must have consumed a drow or two at some point in the past.

Centuries ago, a demon ship visited your city,Pharaun began.After it left Zanhoriloch, it was caught in a storm and was lost on this plane. We are searching for it.


Our leader, a powerful priestess of Lolth, wishes to find it. She wants to use it to sail to the Abyss, to meet her goddess.

Danifae glanced out of the corner of her eye at Pharaun, a frown starting to form on her brow. Quenthel had specifically ordered Pharaun to say nothing of herself - or of their quest. Was he telling the aboleth all that just to spite her?

No, Danifae thought, her eyes narrowing as she surveyed the mage. Pharaun knew better than that. He was up to something.

Once again, Oothoon's answer was a question: "Why does your leader wish to do this?"

Pharaun's expression grew troubled, and he replied,She wants to consume Lolth.

All four of Oothoon's tentacles began twitching at once. So too did the tentacles of their guards. Shared surprise, perhaps? Or humor at so audacious a statement? Danifae didn't let her mind dwell on the question. Instead she stared at Pharaun, wondering what he'd say next. He caught her eye and held ita moment in a silent warning to say nothing.

"Your leader is a fool," Oothoon said at last. "Her goddess will devour her, instead."

Our leader is no inexperienced novice but a most high-ranking priestess,Pharaun answered.She knows a spell that makes it possible for her to slay a god. Any god.

Hearing that outrageous lie, Danifae had to struggle to keep her face composed. Whatever mad scheme Pharaun was playing at, she didn't want to spoil it. He'd been crafty in his dealings with the demon Belshazu, after all. He was obviously up to more of the same.

"Who is this leader of yours?" Oothoon asked.

But when Pharaun began to spell out a word - Q-u-e-n -??Danifae felt compelled to give the mage a warning nudge, disguis-ing it as a swimming motion.

Don't! shesigned, making the motion between strokes of her hand.

The mage continued as if he hadn't seen it.

- t-h-e-l.

"Quenthel," the aboleth said, repeating it aloud, then smacking her lips as if the sound itself tasted sweet. Her three eyes blinked rapidly. "I have never heard of her."

I'm not surprised,Pharaun answered.We've come from a city of the Underdark that is many leagues from here.


Danifae looked up at Oothoon in surprise and signed,You've heard of it?

"The one who escaped from the cage told Jooran the name."

And that aboleth reported it to you,Pharaun concluded, cutting Danifae off before she could question Oothoon further.

"Yes. I found it within Jooran's mind when I ate him."

Danifae shivered, wondering if Oothoon made a habit of eating everyone who came to the throne room. She let her hand drift down toward the morningstar that hung from her belt. If the aboleth made a lunge at her with its tentacles, she'd use her weapon's magic to beat them back. Then she reconsidered and let her hand fall from the mace. The fact that they'd been allowed to enter the aboleth matri-arch's throne room with their weapons wasn't very reassuring. The aboleth obviously didn't fear magical weapons - or even Pharaun's magic, when it came to that.

A brief shiver of apprehension swept through Danifae. Was she going to get out of there alive? She realized she was depending upon Pharaun, and she despised herself for it.

Pharaun was signing again. Danifae had been distracted and so just caught the end of it.

. . .tell us where it lies, and I'll arrange for you to meet Quenthel, the mage told Oothoon.

The aboleth matriarch's three eyes blinked rapidly.

"To what purpose?" she asked.

Pharaun nudged the piece of aboleth flesh with his toe, then glanced up.

To eat her,he said bluntly.

Danifae's eyes narrowed. She hoped Pharaun was bluffing.

Oothoon's tentacles writhed.

"Eat a drow priestess powerful enough to slay a god?" the aboleth asked in a voice that burbled with mirth. "You mock me!"

Not at all,Pharaun answered.Quenthel's spells are strong, but each takes a long time to cast. She is weak, physically - as weak as any other drow. Knowing this, she keeps a half-demon at her side at all times for protection. If she can be separated from this demon - perhaps by some trick - she will be unable to defend herself. The magical items she carries are paltry ones: her only dangerous weapons are her hammer - which is magical and can smite at a distance - and her snake-headed whip, whose vipers have a poisonous bite.

Danifae looked on in shock, astounded by Pharaun's audacity. He'd just told the aboleth everything she needed to defeat Quen-thel. The only detail he'd left out was the fact that Quenthel no longer had access to Lolth's magic. He'd baited his hook with Quen-thel's supposed god-slaying capabilities, and Oothoon, anticipating the acquisition of such a spell, was practically salivating as a result. Strangest of all, the mage had done it all in Danifae's presence. Did he realize that she would betray him to Quenthel - was he count-ing on it? Perhaps there was a deeper game the mage was playing at. ...

Danifae shook her head. There was no guessing the mind of a man who had matched wits with a demon and won. She made a quick hand gesture, the sign that indicated she wanted to speak to him in private.

Pharaun frowned, then turned and addressed Oothoon.

The spell sustaining my companion is waning,he told the aboleth.To recast it,I need to hold her hand for a moment. The spell will conjure up a small black cloud around our hands. Do not be alarmed by it, for it is harmless. Do I have your permission to proceed?

The aboleth's three eyes narrowed - an expression the creature had doubtless picked up from the drow.

"You may."

The two guards tensed, watching Pharaun closely as he took both of Danifae's hands in his. A moment later, a sphere of darkness just large enough to cover their hands appeared and Danifae switched to finger-speech. With a rapid series of taps, she spelled out words against his palm.

Do you seriously intend to sacrifice Quenthel?

The fate of Menzoberranzan hangs in the balance,Pharaun tapped back.I'm sure Matron Mother Baenre would consider it a worthy sacri-fice. If she was in my place, she would do the same.

Danifae could hardly argue with that logic. Instead she turned to a more pressing matter: herself.

You're asking me to take your side. To betray a priestess of my own faith. Why should I? I care nothing about Menzoberranzan.

What of Eryndlyn?Pharaun asked.

What of it?her fingers tapped back.

Would you like to return to it, one day?

That made Danifae pause.

Ihave visited Eryndlyn more than once,Pharaun tapped.Iknow the plaza that surrounds the Five Pillars very well. With a simple incan-tation, I could send you there.

There is nothing left for me in Eryndlyn,she replied.No House, no family.

Then where else?

Danifae was quick to catch on.

Quenthel would never permit it,she tapped out.Not after losing Halisstra . . . and Ryld.

No,Pharaun signed, shaking his head.She would not - but I would. So the question remains, if not Eryndlyn - and certainly not Ched Nasad - where would you like to go? Llacerellyn? Sschindylryn?

Despite herself, Danifae gasped. Sschindylryn was a city known for its many portals and known to Danifae as the adopted home of perhaps the only drow in all the Underdark who might be able to help her, who might be able to undo the spell that bound her to Halisstra. If indeed he could . . .

Seeing that Pharaun was studying her face - and irritated at her-self for betraying her thoughts - Danifae composed herself.

For a moment, she'd almost believed him, but she knew better than to allow herself to hope. In her experience, promises - especially those made by a fellow drow - were seldom kept.

Still, there was a chance. During the fall of Ched Nasad, Pharaun had risked his lifeto rescue her. Danifae was still trying to puzzle out why. What advantage had that gained him? Maybe the rescue had simply been an impulse, a product of lust. That emotion might have been driving him still.

Had the moment come to switch her allegiance from Quenthel to Pharaun? Danifae turned the thought over in her mind. She'd cultivated an alliance with Quenthel because finding out what had happened to Lolth offered a chance to regain her magic, perhaps even to gain special favor from the dark goddess herself. Quenthel was the highest ranking drow among the Menzoberranyr, and if Danifae was doomed to serve, she preferred serving at the highest level possible. To be a battle-captive was one thing, to be the servant of a Houseless refugee from a crumbled city was another. Danifae's servingQuenthel had stymied Halisstra. The First Daughter of House Melarn could have killed Danifae on a whim, but once her battle-captive became Quenthel's plaything, Halisstra would be an-swerable to the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith.

After so many years of demurely bowing and murmuring acqui-escence to others, Danifae was finally able to choose her own path, finally able toact - but she was far from free. There was still the Binding. She could still feel that unbreakable connection to Halis-stra Melarn.

Quenthel was a powerful ally, and if Danifae played hersava pieces correctly, she might even wind up at Quenthel's right hand . . .ifthe quest to find Lolth succeeded. Of which, given their lack of success so far, Danifae was less than certain.

But in Sschindylryn, if the old mage was still alive, she could be free at last. Free to - what? Where would she go? Even assum-ing Eryndlyn hadn't suffered the same fate as Ched Nasad, there was nothing left for her there. She could go to Menzoberranzan or some other city, but as what? A free drow, but one without alliances, without a House to protect her. But if she had a sponsor, a matron . . . someone like Quenthel Baenre, for instance . . . she might find a home at Arach-Tinilith. . . .

Danifae decided to play her pieces carefully, starting with a lie.

I'lldo it,she signed.Quenthel will hear nothing of this from me. But make certain, first, that they really do know where the ship is - and that it's still seaworthy.

Pharaun smiled and inclined his chin slightly in a token bow. Then he dispelled the globe of darkness, dropped Danifae's hand, and turned back to Oothoon.

Well?he asked.Have you decided to accept my offer?

The aboleth matriarch flicked a tentacle and said, "Give me Quenthel, and I will tell you where the ship of chaos is."

Danifae raised an eyebrow. Seeing it, Pharaun gave a slight nod. He'd obviously realized the same thing she had, they'd come looking for a ship, but neither one of them had mentioned precisely what sort of ship. Still, there was a chance that Valas might have done so.

Describe it,Pharaun signed.Convince us that you know about it.

The aboleth closed its eyes, as if calling up a distant memory.

"It was made of bone and moved upon the surface of the lake. The creatures that inhabited it were shaped as you are and seemed alive but were pale and bloated, and tasted of death - and of insects. The one that she-who-spawned-my-mothers consumed was infested with white, wriggling things."

Maggots,Pharaun signed, his face showing none of the revulsion that Danifae was certain was written plain across her own face.

"Yes. An uncomfortable experience - especially when the creature disincorporated into acidic vapor within her stomach. She-who-spawned-my-mothers nearly died and would not willingly eat one of those crea-tures again, had its mind held the secrets of the gods themselves."

Danifae seized upon that important point.

When did your ancestor consume the mane?she asked.When the ship first visited your city - or after it was lost?

"After," Oothoon answered. "The foolish creature came swim-ming back here when its captain was overcome."

Describe the captain,Pharaun signed.

"It was a land creature, with two walking legs and two holding legs," Oothoon answered, "and a long tail that constantly moved, like a strand of kelp in a shifting current. Its body was without hair, except for its snout. The demon's face resembled that of the tiny land creatures that scurry through the caverns, with a snout that was al-ways tasting the air."

An uridezu,Pharaun signed, with a knowing look at Danifae.Just as Belshazu told us.

Valas could have mentioned that detail to the aboleth,Danifae signed quickly.

Pharaun shook his head and replied,Valas doesn't know one de-mon from another. He wouldn't recognize an uridezu if one was staring him in the face, nor would he remember a demonic species Belshazu mentioned only in passing. Oothoon is telling the truth. Her ancestor did indeed consume the mane - and with it, knowledge of where the ship foundered.

To Oothoon, he signed,We know that the ship was lost in a storm. Was it destroyed?

"When the mane swam away from the ship, it was still whole," Oothoon answered. "The storm immobilized it and killed the crew but did not damage the ship itself."

Danifae snorted. As if the aboleth matriarch would give them any other answer, after Pharaun had revealed their plans to raise the ship and sail it again.

And what of the demon?Pharaun asked.

"It, too, was immobilized by the storm."

The mage thought for a moment, then nodded, seemingly satis-fied with Oothoon's replies.

Very well,he signed.Tell me where the ship lies, and I will arrange for Quenthel to come to you.

"No," Oothoon answered, glowering - and for a frightening mo-ment, Danifae thought that the bargain was off, that the aboleth had decided to eat them, instead. "You will give me the priestess - and after I have consumed her, I will tell you the location of the ship."

Danifae snorted. Impasse. But to her astonishment, Pharaun nodded.

I accept,he told the aboleth.

As Oothoon gurgled in delight, the two guards nudged Pharaun and Danifae from the room. The audience was at an end.

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