Chapter Twenty-three

Sculling to keep herself just beneath the surface of the lake, Quen-thel waited until the spell that allowed her to breathe water ended. When her lungs began to feel tight and hot, she exhaled the last of the lake water from them and let her head break the surface. Then, treading water and coughing slightly, she touched the brooch on her chest. She rose smoothly into the spray-filled air beside the waterfall, at last drawing level with the tunnel.

Jeggred was sitting just inside it brooding, staring out across the lake. When he saw her his eyes widened. Letting out a howl of delight, he leaped to his feet, cracking his head against the low ceil-ing and splitting his scalp. Oblivious to the blood that flowed freely through his thick white hair, he broke into gulping laughter.

"Mistress!" he barked.

Quenthel landed lightly on the ledge beside him. Crouching low, she scrambled into the tunnel. Jeggred leaped forward, his massive fighting arms wide as if he were actually about toembrace her, of all things. Quenthel's stern look - and the twitching of her vipers - warned him off, and instead he groveled at her feet. Not daring to couch her, he kissed the cold stone in front of her feet, whimpering softly.

Quenthel half-hoped Jeggred would ask how she'd managed to escape the aboleth. She would have relished relating how clever she'd been. But, being a draegloth, he was far too literal-minded for that. His mistress had been eaten, but now she was alive again. That much was enough. That - and the comfort of having someone to give him commands again.

Curling her fingers like a spider's legs, she touched them momen-tarily to his shoulder and watched his mane ripple as he writhed with pleasure. Then she turned to more pressing matters.

"Where are the others?" she asked.

Jeggred pointed behind him, back down the tunnel, and said, "In another cavern. That way."

Stooping to avoid the low ceiling, Quenthel set off in the direction indicated. Jeggred trailed behind her, ducking his head subserviently and silently pointing each time she glanced at him for directions. After a while, the ceiling became higher, and they were able to walk upright. They were going back the way they had come, still following the river. Up ahead Quenthel could hear voices, one male, the other recognizable as Danifae's by the audible pout of the words. Quenthel remembered a larger cavern, just ahead. By the echo of their voices she guessed they were probably standing inside it, talking.

"Why were you alone?" Quenthel asked Jeggred. "Did the others leave you behind after Pharaun failed to return?"

When Jeggred didn't answer immediately, she glanced back at him. The draegloth had a confused frown on his face.

"The wizard did return," he answered.

Quenthel ground her teeth, irritated, and felt her whip-vipers writhing against her hip. Sometimes her nephew could be so thick-headed.

"I know he came back the first time he went to speak to Oo-thoon," she said. "I was talking about the second time he - "

Hearing a third voice - one she recognized - Quenthel stopped so abruptly that Jeggred bumped into her from behind. So surprised was she by the sound of the voice, she didn't even think to draw her whip and lash the draegloth for this transgression. Instead she swore softly under her breath - a curse that would have invoked the wrath of Lolth, had the goddess been able to hear it - then she rushed for-ward, scrambling up the incline that led away from the river tunnel, toward the cavern from which the voices came.

The entrance to the cavern was a narrow one, and Quenthel had to squeeze past a mushroom-shaped stalagmite to get inside. Through the opening she saw Valas and Danifae sitting on a natural shelf of rock, sharing a bricklike loaf of pressed fungus. A moment later she saw the third speaker, standing a little apart from them and holding a small spherical object in front of one eye as he chanted the words to a spell.

Quenthel's ears hadn't lied. It was Pharaun, alive, whole, and without a single aboleth tooth mark anywhere on him.

"Ah, Mistress," the Master of Sorcere said, stopping in mid-in-cantation and lowering the glass sphere. "I was just casting a spell to help me look for you."

Quenthel stood frozen in the cavern entrance, mouth hanging open. Even her serpents had stopped their usual writhing and were rigid with surprise, eyes staring, unblinking. Then, as Valas and Danifae looked up - and gaped back at her - Quenthel realized how foolish she must have looked.

Pharaun tucked the sphere inside a pocket of hispiwafwi.

"You're wondering why I'm still alive," he said,addressing the question she hadn't dared to ask. "The answer is simple: a contin-gency spell that I prepared before visiting Zanhoriloch. I was expect-ing something like that little surprise you gave the aboleth matriarch, though I'm surprised you were willing to part with one of your beads of force. Still, it served its purpose, I suppose."

"What contingency spell?" Quenthel asked, still not understanding.

Valas, having quickly recovered from the shock of seeing Quen-thel alive, bit off a chunk of fungus loaf and chewed. Danifae sprang to her feet and clambered down the shelf of rock toward Quenthel, exclaiming her relief and joy at the fact that her mistress was alive. Quenthel stared at Pharaun, ignoring both the lesser priestess - who was kneeling before her in a bow - and Jeggred, who was crowding close behind her to stare over her shoulder.

"You see?" Jeggred grunted, his foul breath hot in her ear. "He came back."

"Before teleporting to Zanhoriloch I cast a number of spells," Pharaun explained at last. "One of them was a contingency that would teleport me back to these tunnels if certain events occurred. I made the condition simple, and specific. The spell was triggered the moment an aboleth - Oothoon, as it turned out - tried to eat me."

Oothoon ate him?K'Sothra asked.

Be silent!Yngoth shot back. Then, to Quenthel, the viper said,Tell him you knew this would happen -??that you were counting on his resourcefulness.

Quenthel smiled and said, "I expected no less of you, Master Pharaun. You are truly resourceful."

Pharaun returned the smile with eyes just as cold as Quenthel's.The looks they exchanged made it clear that knives had been drawn - and would be plunged home when the time was right.

"Thank you," Pharaun said, acknowledging her false compliment. "You are wiser . . . Mistress. . . than I thought. How clever of you to escape the aboleth. Your 'death' was in fact a ruse of the highest order. You have the very mind of a demon, when it comes to trickery, and I commend you for it. No doubt you managed to get the loca-tion of the ship out of Oothoon, in return for my life?"

Quenthel frowned. Had the mage deliberately hissed when using her title? It was almost as if he suspected the idea had come from her serpents all along. Which it only partially had. The vipers had made a few suggestions, it was true, but it had been Quenthel who had pulled everything together, who had seen the pattern those sugges-tions wove.

Of course it was your idea,Hsiv soothed.

We are but your servants,added Yngoth.

You are a priestess of the great Spider Queen, and we bow to your wisdom in all things,Zinda said.

Quenthel nodded and absently stroked the largest viper's head.

K'Sothra twisted around to look at Hsiv and said,But she -??

Silence,the elder viper interrupted.

Yes, silence,Quenthel snapped, her irritation rising to the sur-face once more.Ican barely hear myself think, with all of you talking at once.

She squeezed the rest of the way into the cavern, Jeggred follow-ing close behind.

"I did discover the location of the ship ofchaos," she told Pharaun and the others. "It went down in the Lake of Shadows." She turned to Valas and asked, "I assume you've heard of this lake?"

The Bregan D'aerthe scout chewed a moment - annoying Quen-thel, who was used to more prompt answers. Her hand fell to the handle of her whip, and she was just about to draw it and threaten to flog an answer out of him when he stood, wiping the last crumbs of fungus loaf from his mouth. Why couldn't he be like Danifae who,she was pleased to see, had scurried back a pace or two? The lesser priestess was suitably cowed by the vipers, which were nearly spitting in anticipation of tasting flesh once more.

"It's a large lake," the scout continued, obviously sensing the high priestess's impatience, "about the same size as Lake Thoroot. The two are connected by an underground river."

"Flowing in which direction?" Quenthel asked.

"Toward Lake Thoroot, from the northwest."

"How far?" asked Pharaun.

"About the same distance away as the Fireflow," Valas said, and Pharauns eyes lit with recognition. "By surface and tunnel, that's about a tenday's march from here. The river might be longer, espe-cially moving upstream."

Quenthel nodded, pleased to see they were getting somewhere at last.

Turning to Pharaun, she said, "We'll set out for the Lake of Shad-ows at once. Prepare your water-breathing spells."

Pharaun's eyebrows rose and he asked, "You intend that weswimthere?"

"Of course," Quenthel said.

"That won't work."

Quenthel squeezed her whip handle so tightly the serpents spat venom.

"Why not?" she askedthrough gritted teeth.

"For one thing, if we use an underwater route, the aboleth will follow us," Pharaun said. "We're too tasty a treat to let go, and we'd end up fighting them all the way. For another, as our able scout mentioned, if the connecting river flowsfrom the Lake of Shadowsto Lake Thoroot, we'll be swimming against the current. That could make the journey much longer than a tenday, and there will be no place for me to stop and re-study my spell along the way. When its magic runs out, we'll all drown."

Quenthel was furious - but even through her rage, she could see that the mage was right.

Why didn't you think of this?she thought furiously at her whip vipers.

A hissing match ensued, in which each of the vipers berated the other four for not realizing something so obvious.

At last, Hsiv answered.Our apologies, Mistress. It will not hap-pen again.

Valas cleared his throat and said, "There is more than one ap-proach to the Lake of Shadows. Chosing the wrong one, farther from the ship, could cost us days . . . even tendays. Did Oothoon mention anything else about the ship of chaos, Mistress? Anything that might help me to find it in such a large body of water?"

Quenthel, still glaring at Pharaun, started to shake her head. Then she remembered a passing comment the aboleth matriarch had made.

"Only one thing," she said, "that the air above the lake was thick with bats. That's what gave the lake its name . . . the shadows they make against the cavern ceiling."

"That's not the only reason, Mistress. There are ... oddities there," Valas said. "It's said to be a gateway of sorts to the Plane of Shadow. Anyway, I know where the Lake of Shadows is, and I know of two different ways to reach it that are reasonably safe."

Finally, Quenthel thought then asked, "What are they?"

"The lake is connected to the surface by natural chimneys in the rock - that part of the Surface Realms that lies just above it is known for the bats that fly out of the holes in a cloud every night. We could descend through one of the chimneys - but that would mean climb-ing up to the World Above again and traveling through the forest."

Quenthel considered that - briefly. She wasn't about to subject herself to a cold, snowy trudge through bright sunlight again.

"We're not going back to the surface," she decided.

That's wise,Hsiv's voice breathed in her ear.House Jaelre's warriors will still be looking for us.

"We want to avoid House Jaelre's warriors," Quenthel explained to Valas. "They either killed or captured Ryld Argith, the best war-rior we had. We don't want to lose anyone else."

Valas's eyes narrowed slightly, and Quenthel wondered if he was silently questioning her order. To remind him or his place, she drew her whip - but held it by her side.

Ha!K'Sothra chortled.That pricked his pride.

Valas glanced at the vipers.

"As you command, Mistress," he acquiesced. "We'll keep to the Underdark. But that leaves only one other means of reaching the Lake of Shadows - and it's a dangerous one."

"Go on," Quenthel prompted.

"There is an ancient portal that gives access to a lake. It's a march of about four cycles from here, northward through a series of connect-ing tunnels and caverns. The portal was constructed centuries ago, but I have heard from a reliable source that its magic is still active. Reaching it, however, might prove difficult."

Quenthel nodded, unperturbed by Valas's grim tone. Everything in life was difficult - only those who rose above difficulties were wor-thy of Lolth's favors.

"We'll make for the portal," she told the mercenary. "Pack your things, everyone. We'll set out at once."

"This portal," Pharaun said slowly. "What makes it so difficult to reach?"

"It lies directly under the ruins of Myth Drannor." Valas said nothing more, as if that was explanation enough.

"Myth Drannor?" Pharaun groaned. "Not again. I have no de-sire to stare down a beholder a second time."

"We wouldn't be facing a beholder, this time," Valas said. "Which is probably just as well, since we don't have our 'best warrior' here to dispatch it, like he did the last one."

"Whatwould webe facing?" Pharaun asked.

Valas muttered something too low for Quenthel to hear, but Pharaun's reply was loud enough for her ears to catch.

"Too bad our spiders have lost their venom," he said, glancing at Quenthel and Danifae.

Valas nodded gravely.

Furious at the deliberate slight, Quenthel drew her whip. She snapped it, and the serpents hissed loudly, splattering venom on a stone floor that had been hastily vacated by Danifae.

"You will address your answers to me," she told Valas. "House Baenre has paid for your services, mercenary, not Sorcere."

"I beg your pardon, Mistress," he said, bowing deeply and ad-dressing her in a suitably chastised voice. "Ah . . . what was your question?"

Pharaun turned abruptly away, suddenly interested in placing his spellbooks back into his pack.

What creatures might we face?Hsiv prompted.

Quiet!Quenthel thought back.I can ask my own questions. Then, out loud, she added, "What will we have to fight, this time?"

Rising from his bow, Valas met her eye.

"Wraiths," he said. "Dozens of them."

That made Quenthel pause. Wraiths were dangerous creatures; shadowy, incorporeal. Their slightest touch could drain a living creature's vitality in an instant, and even magical healing would not restore it. Those drained entirely by wraiths became undead themselves, rising as twisted caricatures of their former selves to feed on their own kind. Few ordinary drow had seen a wraith - let alone several dozen of the shadowy creatures - and survived to speak of it.

And that was what Quenthel had been reduced to after all, an ordinary drow. Had Lolth not been silent, Quenthel could have used her magic to drive the creatures back from her, blowing them away like rags in a wind, but without it, she was as powerless against them as any other drow. The thought of facing several of the creatures without being able to turn them made her shiver.

Then she reminded herself that the fate of the drow race hung in the balance. Shehad to find the ship of chaos - it offered her the only chance she had to reach the Abyss and find out what had happened to Lolth. And that meant reaching the Lake of Shadows. Then, once Lolth restored her magic to the drow, Quenthel could return to Men-zoberranzan in triumph. She might, perhaps, even depose Triel and claim the throne of the most powerful House in the city.

Yes,Hsiv thought.You were meant to rule. You must succeed.

Ignoring him, Quenthel returned her attention to Valas.

"Tell me more about the portal," she ordered. "How do you know of it?"

With a slight bow, Valas answered, "I heard about it from a rogue - an odd little fellow who hailed from Gracklstugh. He learned of a vault under Myth Drannor that supposedly had treasure the surface elves left behind during their Retreat. He found a way to get there through the Underdark, but the vault was empty - except for the wraiths. They killed his four companions and nearly killed him too, but he escaped by leaping into a portal. It led to a narrow ledge overlooking the Lake of Shadows. Fortunately, he wore a ring that allowed him to levitate out of the cavern - otherwise he'd be there still."

Quenthel listened, nodding.

"Did any of the wraiths follow him through the portal?" she asked.

"No. According to the rogue, it would admit only living creatures."

Quenthel thought a moment then asked, "Did he see anything that might have been the ship of chaos?"

Valas shook his head and replied, "Nothing that he mentioned to me. But the Lake of Shadows is wide??- as large across as Lake Thoroot - and deep. If the ship sank, there'd be nothing to see."

"This rogue toldyou there were 'dozens' of wraiths?" she asked.

Valas nodded and said, "Those were his very words."

"An exaggeration, no doubt. What race was he?"

Valas frowned.

"The rogue?" he asked. "He claimed to be human, even though he was no taller than a duergar."

"Humans," Quenthel snorted. "A cowardly race. There were probably less than half a dozen wraiths, all told. With Pharaun's spells - and our magical weapons - we'll easily be able to fight our way through."

Valas opened his mouth - perhaps to protest that even half a dozen wraiths were too many - but he closed it a moment later.

Quenthel, meanwhile, took mental stock of the resources she had at hand. Valas, whose speed and stealth would allow him to get behind the wraiths and dispatch them with his magical daggers. Pharaun, with his arsenal of powerful protective spells. Jeggred, who would protect Quenthel at any cost, hurling himself headlong at the wraiths, if the need arose. And Danifae . . .

Quenthel paused, considering. What good was the battle-captive, really? Oh, she groveled sweetly when threatened and gave pleasure readily enough, but Quenthel sometimes noticed a look in Danifae's eyes that she didn't like. Not at all.

Still, Danifae was a competent enough fighter, when she had to be. The morningstar she carried was no mere boy's weapon. If it came to it, Danifae could be abandoned to the wraiths, if the need arose to sacrifice someone. Truth be told, Quenthel would rather be rid of Pharaun - though she had to admit that his expertise with demons was going to come in handy, once the ship of chaos was finally located.

No, she'd have to make sure that Pharaun survived the encounter with the wraiths. Which meant making sure that if Danifae's life was threatened, the mage didn't try to defend her.

"We'll get by the wraiths," Quenthel told the others. "We'll reach the portal." Then, silently, so only the serpents could hear, she added,Or at the very least, some of us will.

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