Chapter Twenty-eight

Valas waited, a kukri in each hand, at the end of the tunnel that Pharaun had bored through solid stone with his magic a moment be-fore. Perfectly smooth and slightly oval in shape, the tunnel was not quite high enough for Valas to stand fully upright. He stood with shoulders hunched, his hair brushing the magic-warmed stone.

Pharaun, a pace behind him, chanted softly, holding the tiny seeds that were the spell's material component between forefinger and thumb. The mage had prepared well over the course of the four days it took them to reach the portion of the Underdark that lay beneath Myth Drannor. He'd already cast the spell several times, extending the tunnel until it was more than a hundred paces long. If the rogue who'd told Valas about the portal had been accurate in his estimates, the distance between the corridor behind them and the vault they hoped to reach was close to that figure. The next spell should see them through the intervening rock.

As Pharaun completed his spell, flicking the seeds at the tunnel's end wall and pointing with his forefinger, Valas braced himself. The stone before him shimmered, then seemed to melt away in front of Pharaun's finger, revealing a large room about ten paces ahead. A rush of stale air came back along the tunnel, carrying with it the smell of dust and desiccated flesh.

Quiet as a spider, Valas crept forward and peered into the ancient treasure vault. It was, as the rogue had described, immense. Circular in shape, it was perhaps a hundred and fifty paces across and fifty paces high, with a domed roof whose ceiling was inlaid with intricate mosaics. Those, wrought in polished pebbles - many of them semi-precious stones - depicted a number of the surface elves' gods, bows in hand with arrows nocked. Portions of the mosaic had fallen away in spots where tree roots had grown down through the ceiling, bulg-ing its masonry inward. Chunks of stone and a scattering of earth lay on the floor below. The gods that remained in the mosaic frowned down into the empty room as if angered by its decrepit state.

At floor level - about five paces below the tunnel in which Valas crouched - were three doors, set at equal distances from each other. The one immediately below Valas and to his right looked as though it had been blasted off its hinges. Thar was how the rogue and his companions had entered, after negotiating a corridor filled with more traps than a spider's nest had eggs. Wisely, Quenthel - or rather Pharaun,who had subtly persuaded her - had chosen not to try that route.

Valas stared into the darkened room, listening intently. Of the wraiths there was no sign, but that was not unusual. Wraiths could pass through walls, and they might appear at any moment. Nor was there any sign of the bodies of the rogue's companions. Again, that was not surprising. Risen again as wights, they probably left through the ruined door in search of fresh meat - only to be cut to pieces by the blade traps that lined the corridor. Their stench, however, lingered in the still air... or did it?

Glancing up at the ceiling again, Valas saw a skull nested in one of the tangles of tree root that bulged down into the room. The vault must have been built under a graveyard. The surface elves were known for planting trees atop the graves of their dead. With all of the moldering corpses that lay just above the ceiling, it was no won-der wraiths were drawn to the place.

Pharaun crept up behind Valas and stared down into the vault.

See anything?theMaster of Sorcere signed.

Transferring both daggers into one hand, Valas shook his head and replied,I see no sign of the wraiths??- or of the portal.

If it's here, you soon will,Pharaun signed back.

The wizard began whispering the words to a spell. He passed a hand through the air, palm toward the room. After a moment, a circle at the center of the room began to glow a faint purple.

There,he signed, pointing.

Valas made a mental note of the spot, then continued watch-ing and waiting. Since magic had disturbed the air of the vault, the wraiths would likely appear that much sooner. Assuming, that was, that the rogues story had been accurate.

The fellow had claimed the vault still held treasure - something Valas hadn't told his companions, since it might have distracted them from their mission - but the room was clearly empty. Perhaps the rogue had been lying about the wraiths, as well. Neither the sud-den appearance of a magic-hewn tunnel in one wall of the vault nor the divination Pharaun had just cast had brought them out into the open. If wraiths had once haunted that place where the gods frowned in stony silence, they seemed to have gone.

But that didn't mean Valas wouldn't take precautions. Hanging around his neck on a delicate gold chain was an amulet crafted by the surface elves and shaped like a golden sun. He pulled it out from under his armor and kissed it, then let it hang free against his chest, ignoring Pharaun's raised eyebrows. If any wraiths did turn up, it would protect him.

For a while, at least.

You and the others should make a run for it,he signed.With a running start and a leap, you should be able to levitate down onto the portal without touching anything in the room. I'll use my amulet to make the jump. With luck, the wraiths - if there are any - won't even know we're here.

You're forgetting that Danifae can't levitate,Pharaun signed.

Valas groaned - softly. Was he the only one capable of tactical thinking?

Use one of your spells on her - the one that enables you to leap around like a flea. She'll be able to make the portal in one or two jumps.He paused, then added,Just make sure she goes last. She'll be the clumsiest - if there are wraiths here, it will be her noise that at-tracts them.

Pharaun frowned at that but made no comment. Instead he raised a hand to his lips and pointed back down the tunnel, where Quenthel, Danifae, and Jeggred waited.

"We're through," he breathed, his spell carrying his whispered words to Quenthel. "The portal looks clear - and active. Come quick-ly, but quietly."

Valas, still intently watching the room below, heard a faint clink of armor from the far end of the tunnel??- Danifae and Quenthel moving along it - and the faintclick-click of Jeggred's elongated toe-nails on the stone. He gritted his teeth, praying that his companions would learn the value of moving silently - and learn itsoon. Then he heard the clicking pause and the sound of a low growl.

His patience at an end, Valas spun around, an oath on his lips. He saw Quenthel moving toward him, leading the others down the corridor. Danifae was just behind her, but Jeggred was lagging several paces to the rear and was looking backover his shoulder, still growling.

Mistress!Valas signed angrily.Tell Jeggred to keep -??

Before he could finish, the relative silence was split by a fierce roar. Jeggred launched himself back down the tunnel, bellowing his battle howl as his claws scrambled on the floor. In another instant, Valas saw what had triggered the draegloth's attack.

Two twisted caricatures that had once been duergar, with claws as long as Jeggred's own and mouths filled with needle-sharp teeth, were stalking up behind them. Rotted clothing hung from them in tatters, and their hair was a tangled mass, crusted with dirt. Their eyes blazed with the malevolence with which all undead regarded the living. Unlike the drow they'd been stalking, the two wights moved in utter silence. Seeing they had been spotted, they ran forward to meet Jeggred's charge.

Jeggred crashed headlong into the first wight, smashing it against one wall with a powerful swipe of his fighting arm, then ripping its belly open with a rake of the claws on one foot as he stomped on it. As the pungent odor of death and rot filled the air, the second wight darted under Jeggred's other arm and casually slapped Jeggred's chest. The draegloth grunted and clutched one of his lesser hands against him??- the first time Valas had heard him express pain aloud - and he staggered slightly. An instant later, however, he recovered. Roar-ing fiercely, the draegloth grasped the wight's face with a fighting hand and, wrenching violently, tore the head from its neck.

The first wight was still moving, crawling furiously after Jeg-gred with its rotted entrails dragging along behind it. Before it could reach him, Danifae rushed forward, morningstar in hand. There wasn't much room to swing the weapon in the low-ceilinged cor-ridor, but she managed an abbreviated downward smash. The spiked ball of the morningstar connected with the wight's head in a blaze of magical sparks, filling the air with a sharp ozone tang. The wight dropped and laid still.

Pharaun stared at Danifae with a look of open admiration. He held a tiny leather pouch in one hand, which he'd drawn from his pocket as the wights attacked.

"Well done," he said, tucking it back into a pocket of hispiwafwi.

Quenthel looked past Danifae.

"Are there more?" she asked Jeggred.

Jeggred stood panting, head turning from side toside as he searched for the scent of additional foes. As his chest rose and fell, Valas noted the wound the wight had inflicted on the drae-gloth. It was little deeper than a scratch, but it was causing Jeggred to wheeze as if each breath was painful. After a moment, Jeggred shook his head.

"No more," he concluded, "just these two."

Valas cleared his throat.

"Wights are the least of our worries," he reminded the others. "We should get moving. The portal is just ahead, at the center of the vault, about seventy-five paces into the room. Pharaun's marked it with a spell. Quickly now, and one at a time. Take a run and leap out from the end of the tunnel, then levitate down. Touch nothing in the room. You first, Quenthel, then Jeggred, while Pharaun casts a spell on Danifae. Then Pharaun, followed by Danifae. I'll go last."

That said, he flattened against the wall and motioned the others forward. As he did, he scanned the vault one last time, searching for signs of movement, in case any wights had entered it while his back was turned.

They hadn't.

Quenthel moved forward to glance down into the room, then, after communing silently with her whip vipers, she nodded. She backed down the corridor, then sprinted past Valas and leaped into the air. A heartbeat later Jeggred rushed after her, arms flailing.

As the pair drifted down through the empty room toward the portal, Valas glanced up at the ceiling. Were the gods in the mural scowling a bit more fiercely? He stared back at them a mo-ment, then decided it must have been his imagination. Meanwhile, Quenthel had ignored his instructions and was hovering above the portal. Jeggred, floating in the air beside her, kept glancing back and forth between his mistress and the portal, a confused look on his face.

Valas turned to warn Pharaun that something was delaying the pair, but the mage was just completing the spell he was casting on Danifae, tracing an invisible symbol on each of her knees with some-thing he held pinched in his fingers. Finishing, he gave Danifae a quick smile of encouragement, then he turned and sprinted down the corridor past Valas, leaping into the vault.

He levitated to a halt just above Quenthel and Jeggred and mo-tioned furiously for them to go through the portal. Quenthel, how-ever, shook her head.

"You first," she ordered.

Pharaun, hovering in the air, folded his arms across his chest.

"Come on, Danifae!" he shouted up at the tunnel. "We're all waiting."

Valas shook his head. The scuffle with the wights had already caused enough noise to wake the undead, and with all the shout-ing they'd never hear if more approached. Impatiently, he beckoned Danifae forward.

As she crouched on the lip of the tunnel, he noticed that her legs were articulated the wrong way. She leaped - in a jump that carried her halfway across the room. She looked confident and to all appear-ances was about to land easily on the bare floor - but then, when she was still about a pace above the floor, she suddenly stumbled and pitched over to one side. As she did, Valas heard a noise that sounded like pebbles shifting.

Danifae wound up on her hands and knees - but not on the floor. Instead she seemed to have landed on something that held her at arm's length from it. Something invisible - or something cloaked by an illusion. Something that kept shifting.

Pharaun, too, saw her stumble. One of his hands whipped into a pocket of hispiwafwi, and a moment later he was smearing some-thing across his eyes as he chanted a spell. As Danifae struggled to her feet on the shifting surface - causing that pebble noise again - Pharaun's eyes widened.

"Danifae!" he shouted. "You're standing on a rotted chest that's spilling gems - but more importantly, there's a wand just to your right. Grab it!"

Quenthel's head snapped up, and she asked, "A wand?"

Danifae began patting the still-invisible pile on which she stood. Valas, meanwhile felt a growing sense of unease. Someone, or something, was watching. Once again, his eyes flicked up to the ceiling.

The scout saw that his intuition had beenright. The eyes of the gods in the muralwere different. They'd been dull, flat stones a short time before, but had begun too glow red, like angry coals.

Then they blinked.

"Venom's kiss," Valas swore under his breath. Then, as two pairs of glowing red eyes detached themselves from the ceiling and drifted down into the room, he shouted. "Pharaun! Quenthel! Above you??- wraiths!"

Jeggred was the first to react. Grasping Quenthel's shoulders, he gave her a shove that forced her down into contact with the floor. Her feet touched the portal and she disappeared. The draegloth then turned and tried to do the same to Pharaun but the mage twisted out of his grasp, kicking Jeggred. The blow forced the draegloth into the portal, and he too disappeared.

Valas grunted, Jeggred's actions had been too deliberate - and too disrespectful - to have been anything but Quenthel's orders. Quenthel had obviously briefed him well in advance about what to do should wraiths attack - and her tactics were sound. She and Pharaun were vital to the quest, but the others could be sacrificed. Pharaun, however, had guessed what was coming - and had decided, wisely or not, to stay and fight.

The mage yanked from his pocket the tiny pouch he'd been reach-ing into earlier. With a serpent-fast motion, he pulled from it a pinch of diamond dust and flung it into the air. As a pair of wraiths swooped in to attack him - their location revealed only by their glowing eyes - Pharaun shouted his incantation. Unable to stop themselves in time, the two wraiths plunged into the diamond dust. As they struck it they wailed - a hollow, anguished sound that raised the hair on the back of Valas's neck. Their eyes winked out as the powerful spell snuffed out the necromantic magic that had sustained them.

Unfortunately, there were, as the rogue had correctly warned, more than just those two. Dozens of glowing red eyes erupted from the ceiling and descended into the room like tiny, paired embers fall-ing from a burning building.

Seeing that, Pharaun glanced quickly between the wraiths and Danifae. What he was thinking was plainly written on his face. Should he save his own skin by escaping through the portal - or should he stay and protect her?

The wizard began to levitate down coward the portal, then paused abruptly and stared hard - not at Danifae but at something near her feet. Instead of fleeing, he reached into his pouch for another pinch of dust.

The hesitation nearly cost him his life. Unseen, one of the wraiths swooped down behind him and, with a hollow death-rattle of laugh-ter, swept through his body. As its glowing red eyes erupted out of Pharaun's chest the Master of Sorcere shuddered, his face slate gray.

Three more of the wraiths descended with murderous pur-pose toward Danifae. Raising her morningstar, she braced her-self to meet them, even though she must have known the futility of it. The magical weapon might account for one of the ghostly undead, but the other two would almost certainly kill her a heartbeat later.

Acting purely on his soldier's instincts, Valas touched the nine-pointed star pinned to his chest and stepped between the dimensions. He materialized beside Danifae just as the ball of her mace whistled past his head, exploding with sparks as it struck a wraith. Losing her balance as her weapon met no resistance, Danifae stumbled.

Seizing the opportunity, the other two wraiths rushed forward. Before they could close with Danifae, however, Valas leaped into the air, his magical boots propelling him upward. Arms wide, he drove the points of his kukris into the wraiths. As Danifae's mace had, the blades passed through the bodies of the wraiths without stopping. The one in his right hand exploded with magical energy, but the one in his left merely tore a rent in the keening wraith's mistlike body.

Unable to avoid following through on his knife thrusts, Valas found both arms engulfed by wraiths. A shudder passed through him, and he fell back to the ground in a barely controlled land-ing, stumbling on the invisible, shifting gems. He thought his heart was going to falter and stop as the ache that chilled him to the bone was drawn upward into his chest. Then it was gone, ab-sorbed by the amulet that hung around his neck, which suddenly felt much heavier.

Having driven the wraiths away from Danifae, Valas expected her to make her escape. Surely she was smart enough to realize that Pharaun had paused not for her but for the wand which only he could see. Threemore wraiths were nearly on them, and others were descending through the ceiling every instant. But instead of fleeing toward the portal, Danifae dropped to her knees and began patting the ground.

"Protect me," she barked up at Valas, not even bothering to look up.

Valas considered for a heartbeat - battle-captive or no, Danifae was a priestess of Lolth, and her word was his command - then he shook his head.

"No time," he bellowed. "Jump!"

Ducking just in time as a wraith swooped past, he called upon the magic of his star-shaped amulet and stepped between the di-mensions a second time, arriving at the portal. He paused just long enough to observe Danifae suffer the same fate as Pharaun, her face blanching to a pale gray as the wraiths swept through her body. Meanwhile Pharaun had managed to dispatch another wraith with his dust - leaving his pouch empty.

Glancing up at a wraith descendingthrough a tangle of exposed tree root, Valas suddenly realized something. The surface could be no more than a few paces above the ceiling. After a quick calculation of the time, he realized he had overlooked one of the most powerful weapons of all. He pointed up at the ceiling with one of his daggers - goring a low-flying wraith in the process - and shouted to Pharaun.

"There's daylight above - use it!"

"Ah!" Pharaun exclaimed, understanding instantly.

One hand darted to his pocket. He barked out a spell, flicking a pinch of seeds into the air. Even as he did, six wraiths dived down toward him and another four at Valas, eyes blazing. Then, like a cork being pulled from a wine bottle, a portion of the ceiling disappeared as the spell bored a tunnel through it. Daylight streamed into the vault. Valas had a brief glimpse of red eyes, streaking toward him less than a palm's breadth away - and the eyes were gone. Squinting against the glare of the shaft of light, he looked around the vault. The wraiths, driven off by the sunlight, had vanished.

He closed his eyes and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Then he glanced down at his sun amulet. The metal had lost its bright gold sheen. It was left a dull, lead gray. All of the rays were drooping.

Valas tucked the amulet inside his tunic, out of sight. It had done its duty.

So had he.

"I'm leaving," he toldPharaun and Danifae. "You two can stay and fill your pockets with treasure if you like."

He glanced down at the floor and saw the magic that had limned the portal in light had faded. No matter, he remembered where it was. As he stepped forward onto the portal, Pharaun, the vault - and Dani-fae, who had risen to her feet and was glaring at him with eyes that blazed more furiously than the wraiths' had - all disappeared.

The air around Valas was cooler and more humid, a welcome change from the vault's oppressive atmosphere of death and dust. He had the sense of enormous distance in front of him and a stone wall at his back. Shaking his head to clear the slight dizziness that travel-ing through the portal had produced, he saw Quenthel and Jeggred standing nearby on a narrow shelf of rock that was splattered with bat guano. Far below the ledge a vast, dark lake stretched as far as the eye could see, illuminated by beams of winter sunlight that shone in through crevices in the rock above. The ceiling of the cavern was high overhead, but even from a distance Valas could see the thou-sands of bats that clung, sleeping, to it. When dusk fell the air would be thick with them.

"Where's Pharaun?" Quenthel asked urgently, confirming Valas's earlier guess about himself and Danifae being little more than wraith fodder, in her eyes.

Jeggred, meanwhile, sniffed at the rock face, prodding it with a finger.

"We can't go back," he growled. "Pharaun didn't follow us - and we can't go back."

"Pharaun's still in the vault," Valas told them.

The vipers in Quenthel's whip gave Valas a baleful look.

"You left him?" Quenthel spat.

"Why not? The wraiths are defeated - no thanks to you," Valas grumbled - then realized he'd spoken out loud.

Stepping back a pace, he lowered his eyes, but the reprimand he'd expected did not come. Quenthel's whip was still in her belt, and her attention was entirely on the wall behind him. Her body radiated tension as she waited, silently staring at the wall, as if willing Pharaun to step through it.

A few moments later, Pharaun obliged by emerging from the portal, together with Danifae, whose legs were articulated normally again, Pharaun's spell having ended.

Jeggred growled softly at the mage, but Quenthel silenced him with a curt wave of her hand as she spotted the object Danifae held in her hands. It looked, to Valas's unschooled eyes, like a forked twig, plated in silver, but Quenthel seemed to recognize it at once.

"A wand of location," she said, holding out her hand in silent demand.

"It is indeed, Mistress," said Danifae, her face expressionless. "The rogues who were in the vault before us must have dropped it."

She handed the wand to Quenthel, bowing her head.

Quenthel stroked Danifae's hair in what Valas, had he not known Quenthel as well as he did, would have taken to be a sign of affection.

"At last, Danifae, you've proven your usefulness. This will make finding the ship of chaos much easier."

So fixated on the wand was Quenthel that she missed some-thing that Valas did not: the look on Pharaun's face. Once again, the Master of Sorcere was plotting something. Valas, neither wanting to know nor caring what it might be, turned away and stared, brood-ing, out at the lake. Then, spotting something in the distance with his keen eyes, he stiffened.

"What is it?" Pharaun asked, peering in the same direction. "More wraiths?"

Valas shook his head, and pointed to a distant spot where bats were frantically circling above a disturbance in the water.

"Something's stirring up the bats . . . something big. And it's headed this way."

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