Chapter Twenty

Quenthel stared thoughtfully at Danifae's submissively bowed back. If the lesser priestess was to be believed, Pharaun was at last making his move. After endless petty insubordination, the infuriating male had finally worked up the courage to inflict the killing bite. Except that he didn't have the strength of will to kill Quenthel himself. In-stead, he would let the aboleth do her in. That way, he could report back to the matron mother - honestly - that Quenthel had died at the hands of another, hostile race, in the pursuit of her quest.

A quest he obviously hoped to make his own, in order to steal what should rightfully be Quenthel's glory.

Quenthel stroked the sinuous bodies of her vipers, which shud-dered softly as they shared her thoughts.

She must be telling the truth,Yngoth said, staring fixedly at the top of Danifae's lowered head.Ican see no reason for her to make up such a story.

Nor can I,Quenthel thought back.

Danifae is your loyal servant. Mistress!said K'Sothra, squirming with delight.

Quenthel sighed and stroked the smaller viper's head. K'Sothra was pretty, but she wasn't very bright. She took everything at face value, completely missing the subtle nuances of deceit that usually lay just beneath the surface of so blatant a betrayal. But Quenthel thought that the naive snake might actually be correct. Danifae's motivation seemed clear as quartz crystal. The lesser priestess had everything to gain by betraying Pharaun's plans to Quenthel and nothing to lose. When Lolth reawakened, Danifae would no doubt attempt to claim a prominent place in Arach-Tinilith.

Quenthel shifted the whip to her left hand - smiling when Danifae flinched as the serpents passed over her head - and she curled the fingers of her right hand. She rested her fingertips lightly on Danifae's bowed head.

"You will be rewarded," she told the lesser priestess. "Now go. Return to Pharaun, before he suspects what you've been doing."

Danifae rose, smiling, and turned to leave the narrow cavern. Jeggred, who had been hunkered by the entrance the whole time, watching the tunnel beyond for signs of danger, flexed the claws of his fighting hands and glanced back over his shoulder at Quenthel. She gave a slight shake of her head, and Jeggred flattened against the wall to let Danifae pass.

"What about the mage?" the draegloth growled.

Quenthel saw that the hair on the back of his neck had risen. He'd listened carefully to everything Danifae said and was bal-anced on the knife edge of one of his rages. The slightest word from Quenthel would send him into violent motion back down the tunnel to where Pharaun sat by the waterfall, studying his spellbooks.

"I will deal with him myself," Quenthel told him. "Later."

Still growling softly, Jeggred settled back into a crouch, wrapping his smaller arms around his knees. Red eyes stared out into the tun-nel, and slowly his hackles smoothed.

Quenthel sat for a moment in silence, brooding. The cavern she'd chosen for her Reverie was no larger than a servant's room, but it had a high ceiling that ended in a narrow fissure. Water seeped down one wall to puddle near her feet. It trickled out through the opening where Jeggred squatted, eventually joining the river she could hear flowing through the tunnel outside. A cluster of faintly luminescent, round fungi grew on the wet wall beside her, casting a dim greenish light. Quenthel reached out and popped one with a fingernail, releasing a sparkle of spores, then she contemplated her glowing fingertip.

Useful as Pharaun's spells were, his latest treachery had tipped the scales, turning him into a liability??- one that needed to be elimi-nated. Yet killing him was not the simple solution it seemed.

Pharaun was a powerful wizard and a key player in the politics of the Academy. If it was learned that Quenthel had killed him, she would surely face the wrath of Pharaun's patron, her brother Gromph. Quenthel's sister Triel, Matron Mother of House Baenre, would not be pleased at having to choose sides between her siblings, especially as long as they were all weakened by Lolth's inattention. By all accounts, Pharaun's own matron mother, Miz'ri Mizzrym, was hardly fond of the mage, but he was a Master of Sorcere after all and still an important part of House Mizzrym's modest assets - and House Mizzrym was a close ally of the First House. The other mas-ters and wizards of Sorcere would likewise be displeased to lose one of their own - especially one important enough to have been chosen for the expedition in the first place. Killing Pharaun would indeed be difficult, yet there had to be a way. . . .

Quenthel thought over what Danifae had told her. According to the battle-captive, the aboleth would only reveal where the ship of chaos was in exchange for an opportunity to consume a pow-erful spellcaster. Pharaun was obviously gambling that Oothoon would fail to realize that Quenthel's spells were no longer useful - that the aboleth would provide him with the location of the ship before his trickery was discovered. And the aboleth matriarch had obviously believed him. If not, she would have simply consumedPharaun on the spot to acquire the spells the wizard carried inside his own mind.

You should turn thesavaboard on him,Yngoth suggested.Offer Pharaun to Oothoon, in exchange for the ship.

Easily said,Quenthel answered.But not so easily done. I would have to meet Oothoon in person and first persuade the aboleth matriarch that I was not worth eating.

Tell the truth,Zinda said.Your spells are useless. Lolth is silent, per-haps forever. Perhaps she is dead.

"No!" Quenthel cried aloud. "Lolth lives!"

Seeing Jeggred's sharp glance in her direction, she shut her mouth.

She must live,she continued silently.If I didn't believe she was still alive, I would -??

What?Yngoth spat, his thoughts cracking Quenthel out of her despair.Give up? Embrace death yourself? What god, then, would claim your soul?

Anger making her steadier - she hated it when the vipers peered into her innermost fears - Quenthel spat her thoughts back at them.

No. Never that. It's just that revealing what has happened to Lolth would mean bargaining from a position of weakness. The aboleth would realize I was powerless. She might even decide to mount an attack on the drow, as other races have done.

Hsiv joined the debate with a chuckle in his voice. The first of the imps to be bound into her whip, he was often the one who helped guide Quenthel's thoughts back to a truer course.

The aboleths are an aquatic race,he reminded her.They can't leave their lake.

I know that,Quenthel retorted, not caring that the vipers would see through her lie.But the aboleths might tell other races about Lolth'ssilence. If word of our weakness spreads, we're doomed. Ched Nasad has fallen, and now Pharaun is no longer able to contact Gromph. For all we know, Menzoberranzan -??

Menzoberranzan is far from Lake Thoroot,Hsiv gently reminded her.And this is a little-visited region. Anyone the aboleth might tell would attack a drow city that is closer to hand.

Quenthel barely heard him. All of the fears and doubts she'd kept bound tightly inside her ever since the group had fled from Ched Nasad erupted like spiders from a cocoon.

But that's just it!she wailed.Who knows how many of our cities have been destroyed - or how many will yet be destroyed before this crisis is done? I've got to find Lolth - to tell her what's going on. Triel and the other matron mothers are all depending on me, and I'm not sure . . . I don't know how. . .

Leave that to us,Yngoth hissed.

Quenthel wasn't listening.

The fate of every drow city in the Underdark is on my head,she moaned.Things are hard enough without Pharaun and his stupid, petty power games. Doesn't he realize what's at stake? This could result in the extinction of our race!

It could,Zinda agreed.

Yngoth quickly hissed the larger viper to silence.

You must focus on the matter at hand,he reminded Quenthel.You must find out from Oothoon where the ship is - a task that will be easier than you think. Thesavaboard has already been set up for you. All of the pieces are already in place.

That brought Quenthel up short, and she asked,They are?

Yngoth's tongue flickered in and out in the serpents equivalent of a smile.

To learn where the ship of chaos is, Pharaun must meet with Oot-hoon a second time. If he thinks you have been consumed, he may lower his guard slightly. And that may be his downfall.

Quenthel frowned and sent,I don't understand.

Listen, and you will,Yngoth continued.You will tell Oothoon that Lolth is dead -??

Oothoon won't believe me,Quenthel interrupted.I don't believe it myself.

Your ring will prevent the aboleth from hearing your thoughts or from detecting your lies,Hsiv reminded her.Then, once Oothoon has deemed you unworthy of eating, you will offer her Pharaun, instead. You will tell her that in return for her telling you where the ship of chaos lies, you will convince Pharaun that you have been eaten. Thus tricked, he will swim willingly into the jaws of death.

The aboleth will eat him!K'Sothra cried.

And you'll be rid of Pharaun at last,Zinda added.In a way that even Triel won't find fault with.

How will I convince Pharaun I'm dead?Quenthel asked.

You won't,Yngoth answered. Twisting to stare at the entrance to the cave, the viper fixed its eyes on Jeggred.He will. Take Jeggred with you - and tell him nothing of your plans. That way, his grief will be all the more convincing. Give him an order, and make sure he fixes it in his mind, that if you should be killed, he is not to take his revenge upon the aboleth. He instead must fight his way back to Pharaun and tell him what happened, so the others may carry word of your death back to Menzoberranzan. Tell Jeggred thathe must succeed in doing this - at all costs - or the life of his mistress will have been forfeited for nothing.

As if he'd somehow sensed that they were talking about him, Jeg-gred stirred and glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed, but he obeyed Quenthel's sharp gesture instantly, returning his at-tention to the tunnel.

Quenthel, meanwhile, was relieved to learn that there was a way out of her dilemma - one that would finally pay Pharaun back for his intolerable insubordination.

She stared at Yngoth expectantly and asked,How am I to avoid being eaten by the aboleth?

The viper bared its fangs in a menacing smile.

You still have your rod,Yngoth replied.

Quenthel nodded.

And that bottle of lace fungus wine you've been saving.

Yes,Quenthel answered.But how in the Abyss are those going to -??

Listen,Yngoth said again.And I will explain. . . .

Quenthel listened avidly. By the time Yngoth was finished speak-ing, her lips were parted in a feral grin.

It might just work,she thought to the snake, sending a wave of excitement along with the thought. Then, on a grimmer note, she added,It must.

The other vipers, who had maintained a respectful silence as Yngoth outlined the plan, writhed in anticipation of seeing it carried out. Even Qorra, the serpent who almost never spoke, could hardly contain herself.

Oh!she said.This will be such fun!

Jeggred waited just outside the audienceroom in which Quen-thel was speaking with the aboleth matriarch, every muscle in his body tense. Quenthel was in there, atone, with two of them. She'd let one of the creatures - the one that wasn't Oothoon - move into a position behind her. Why had she allowed it to do that?

Jeggred didn't like the bloated fish-folk. They could not be trusted. Even with water filling his nostrils, he could smell the stink of deceit. He glanced, eyes narrowed, at a third aboleth, which had been ordered out into the corridor by its matriarch when Quenthel had told Jeggred to wait outside. Jeggred itched to rend its rubbery looking flesh, to see if its blood ran red. He could picture it ... the blood would fill the water in a cloud. What a heady feast that would be - to inhale blood with each breath!

One of the trailing tentacles of the aboleth guarding him drifted close to his shoulder. Jeggred lashed out, clawing a furrow in its flesh.

Its three eyes blinking, the aboleth let out a burbling cry and yanked the tentacle away. It did not attack.

Jeggred, his pulse pounding in his ears, prepared to hurl himself after it, to close for the kill. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Quenthel had turned. She was signing at him furiously.

Hold your temper,she ordered.We are their guests.

Had it been a male who had spoken, Jeggred would have snarled back in defiance - thentorn him to pieces. Instead, he bowed to his mistress.

As you command, Mistress.

As he signed, he snuck a glance at the aboleth he'd wounded.

He'd been wrong about aboleth blood. It was green and didn't flow freely but oozed out like sap.

Satisfied the stupid creature was not going to retaliate, Jeggred returned his attention to Quenthel. He could have guarded her bet-ter if he'd been allowed to remain at her side, but an order was an order. He had obeyed, as he always did, without question. As a re-sult, he could understand nothing of the conversation - Oothoon's voice was pitched too low for him to hear, and he could not see what Quenthel was signing, since her back was to him.

It didn't matter though. Jeggred didn't need to know what was being said. He could read Quenthel's emotions by the way she held her body. That stiffening of her shoulders was tension. And that furtive drift of her hand toward her wand was caution - perhaps even fear.

Strangely, the vipers in Quenthel's whip were drifting lazily withthe current, completely relaxed. They, even more than Jeg-gred himself, should have sensed her rising tension. But instead the stupid things were off guard. Quenthel was wrong to put such stock in the bound imps, which were little better than slaves. Al-ways asking their opinions - instead of trusting her own heart -??made her weak.

The draegloth didn't like the feeling of that thought. He wasn't sure what to do with an idea like that, the idea that the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith, his aunt, sister to his mother the Matron Mother of the First House of Menzoberranzan, was . . . weak? He pushed the thought from his mind and found it quickly replaced by a growing unease.

Growling low in his throat - a low gurgle of water - Jeggred readied himself. Something was about to happen. He braced a foot against the far wall - one kick would send him into the room - and flexed his claws.

Quenthel drew her wand, and in a swift motion spun and aimed it at the aboleth behind her. A sticky glob shot out of the end of the wand, expanding swiftly as it raced through the water.

Simultaneously raking the aboleth beside him with one clawed hand, Jeggred kicked himself into the audience chamber -??

- only to find his head and shoulders tangled in a sticky mass. Quenthel's shot had missed when the aboleth ducked swiftly aside. The viscous glob struck the doorway instead and completely blocked the opening.

Roaring with rage, Jeggred twisted his body around and braced both feet against the sides of the opening. Heaving, calf and thigh muscles nearly bursting from thestrain, he tore his head free, then his shoulders. Ignoring the sting where hair had torn from his scalp, he clawed at the sticky barrier with a fighting hand. It got stuck, too.

Meanwhile, inside the audience chamber, Quenthel corrected her aim. A second glob erupted from the wand, and it struck the aboleth guard in the mouth just as its teeth were about to close on the drow priestess. Gurgling, the aboleth tried to spit out the sticky ball but could not.

The aboleth that had been out in the corridor with Jeggred had been motionless at first, but it soon moved in to attack. It reared above Jeggred, opening its mouth, attempting to bite. Jeggred raked its belly with his free hand, tearing a deep slash. Green blood oozed out - lots of blood - clouding the water Jeggred breathed. It tasted vile, like pungent seaweed - not at all as Jeggred had imagined.

The aboleth turned and bolted down the tunnel, retreating with powerful strokes of its fluked tail. Jeggred growled, knowing it had probably gone to summon more of the fish-folk.

He continued ripping at the sticky ball that blocked the audi-ence chamber doorway. Each time, his hand got stuck - but each time he ripped off a few strands. Smelling real blood, the draegloth began to pant - then he realized that the blood was his own. His hand was raw where skin had been torn from it.

Inside the audience chamber, Quenthel held Oothoon at bay with her rod. The aboleth matriarch stared for several moments, her three eyes unblinking, then she launched herself out of the niche. Mouth gaping, she sped across the chamber.

For some reason that Jeggred could not imagine, Quenthel seemed to be having trouble making her rod work. Only at the last moment did its magic come to life. A glob streaked toward Oothoon - andmissed. As Quenthel flailed back in terror, the aboleth matriarch closed on her, and swallowed the high priestess whole.

For a moment, Jeggred could only stare in horror. His mistress was gone. Eaten. Dead!

Fury seized him. He tore at the sticky mess that held him, heed-less of the skin that was being ripped from his hands and arms. Pant-ing water in and out of his lungs - or perhaps vomiting it up and swallowing it again - he thrashed like a fish caught in a net.

All the while, Oothoon stared at him mockingly, one tentacle stroking a bulge in her stomach.

The sticky mass blocking the doorway tore but did not come free. Tipping his head back in frustration??- and tearing out yet more hair that had become stuck in the viscous glob - Jeggred howled in rage and sorrow but at last came to his senses.

The Mistress was wise, he thought. She had foreseen this.

And she had given him an order - a final order that had to be carried out quickly, before the wounded aboleth returned with rein-forcements.

Wrenching himself free of the sticky doorway, Jeggred swam as fast as he could down the corridor, looking for a way out.

Copyright © novelfull thefreeonlinenovel.com All Rights Reserved.