Chapter Five

Pharaun smirked as Belshazu surged across the boiling pool of water.

"Demons areso predictable," he said,tsk tsking.

He raised the cone of glass he'd palmed earlier and spoke a com-mand word. A blast of freezing air burst from the cone, smashing against the demon. Sweat crystallized to sparkling ice on Belshazu's broad chest but cracked and melted away under the heat and motion of the demon's charge. When the cone of cold struck the knee-deep water that surrounded Belshazu the pool instantly froze solid again.

The demon, finding himself trapped in knee-deep ice, directed the flames that surrounded his hands downward, but the ice did not melt.

Pharaun's smirk grew as he saw that his plan had worked.

"Thanks for stirring up the pool," he told the demon. "You mixed Jeggred's blood into it quite nicely. Oh, and here's a bit of trivia for you. Did you know that ice crystals always have six sides? So do crystals of blood, since blood is mostly water. They always form perfect little hexagrams. Millions of them."

It took a moment for the demon to realize what Pharaun was talking about. When it did, it roared even louder than before, smash-ing its pincers down on the ice that bound it. While the blows were hard enough to fill the cavern with booming crashes, the ice neither cracked nor splintered. The effort seemed to tax the demon. After just a few blows, it was panting in great, wheezing gasps.

"Now then," Pharaun continued. "You were going to tell us where the nearest gate to the Abyss can be fou - "

With a lurch that sent bile rushing into his throat, Pharaun fell upward as gravity suddenly reversed itself. Bound in ice the demon might be, but he still could work his magic. Taken by sur-prise, disoriented by the sudden gravity shift, Pharaun was unable to counter his fall with levitation magic. He slammed into the ceiling, knocking the breath from his lungs. Danifae and Jeggred crashed into the ceiling an instant later, but Valas had landed on his feet with catlike grace, and Quenthel was able to levitate be-fore striking the rocks.

The demon lunged up at Pharaun, stretching as far as his ice-bound feet would allow. One of his pincers clamped onto Pharaun's foot and scissored down, slicing through boot leather and flesh until it grated against bone. Pharaun screamed in agony and scrambled at the rocks, trying to find a handhold as the demon pulled the drow wizard toward himself.

A moment later, something flashed past him: Valas. Magic lend-ing him unnatural speed, the mercenary had sprinted across the jag-ged rock of the ceiling with a dagger in either hand to slash at the demon. One of the enchanted blades bit deep into Belshazu's wrist, spitting blue sparks of magical energy as it cleanly severed the bone. The demon howled in wounded rage and flailed with his remaining pincer at his new target, but Valas darted out of range.

As Pharaun felt the severed pincer fall away from his bloodied foot he levitated away from the ceiling, pushing himself out of range of the demon. Still roaring, with foul-smelling black blood pump-ing from its severed wrist, Belshazu reversed the spell he had cast a moment before. Danifae and Valas fell back to the cavern floor, the mercenary at once clambering to his feet to menace Belshazu with his dagger. Quenthel and Jeggred floated down after Pharaun.

Pharaun, favoring his mangled foot, landed on the frozen pond behind the demon. Blood squelched out of his torn boot and spread across the ice, freezing to pink on the intensely cold surface. He fumbled a small metal flask out of a pocket of hispiwafwi, uncorked it, and drained the contents. The healing potion took effect almost immediately, numbing his pain like a glass of lace-fungus brandy. In another moment his wounded foot was whole again. He tested his weight on it, and no more than a slight tingling feeling remained. Aside from the tear in his boot, he might never have been wounded.

From the slope where the others had landed came the low hiss of the vipers in Quenthel's whip. Their mistress's voice was equally impatient.

"Pharaun! Stop wasting time. Compel the demon to tell us what we need to know."

Pharaun gave a brief bow in Quenthel's direction, then turned to Belshazu, who had sagged into a crouch on the frozen pond, feet still bound by the ice. The demon was wheezing from his exertions and held his severed wrist tight against his chest. He appeared to be sulking - but by the blaze in his violet eyes Pharaun could see that the demon had not been tamed. Yet.

Like asava grand master, Pharaun put his final piece into play.

"Here's something else I think you should know," he told the demon. "My spell not only froze the pool, but also crystallized the water vapor in the air. That's what you can feel inside your lungs ... thousands of tiny hexagrams, sawing away at your flesh. Tell us what we want to know, and I'll release you before they do any fur-ther damage. Keep stalling, and you'll die."

As Belshazu considered that, Pharaun carefully kept his face composed. He had no idea whether the ice crystals inside Belshazu's lungs could actually harm the demon - but it sounded good.

Belshazu roared in anger, but the roar ended in a wheeze. The demon gave Pharaun a pained look, then grudgingly nodded.

"I do not know of any gate," he growled.

Behind Pharaun, one of the vipers in Quenthel's whip gave a soft hiss of frustration.

"But there is a way to reach the Abyss from this plane," the de-mon continued. "There is a demon ship that will carry you there . . . if you can find it."

"A demon ship?" Quenthel echoed.

Belshazu glared at her.

"Have you heard of the Blood War?" Belshazu asked.

His voice was heavy with scorn, as if he expected the drow to be ignorant of the doings of his kind.

"Of course," Quenthel answered. "It is a contest between the Abyss and the Nine Hells - a glorious war that has raged for millennia."

"Glorious?" Pharaun scoffed. "More like loud, sloppy, and point-less. Neither side remembers what they're fighting about - let alone has the slightest hope of winning."

"The devils of the Nine Hellswill bedefeated!" Belshazu bellowed.

"In due time, I'm sure," Pharaun interjected dryly. "But for the moment, you were telling us about a ship?"

Still snarling, the demon wrenched his attention away from Pharaun and addressed himself to Quenthel.

"In ages past, my kind found a fresh way to launch our attacks against the Nine Hells. We built ships of bone bound with strands of spirit stripped from the manes who serve us, and hung with sails of flayed skin. These ships sail between the planes, blown by the winds of chaos.

"Centuries ago, one of these ships of chaos set out into the Plane of Shadow, seeking a new route to the Nine Hells. It sailed down the River of Shadows to a place where that river touches upon this plane, and there it was lost. Of its crew of thirteen, only one returned: a groveling mane. It babbled something about the uridezu who cap-tained the ship being overcome and of a terrible storm. We subjected the mane to the fiery lash and the torments of boiling oil, but it was able to give us only one useful piece of information. Just before the ship was lost in the storm, it had visited a city of your world. The city's name meant nothing to us, but perhaps you will know it - Zanhoriloch."

Unlike Quenthel, who was listening avidly as the demon spoke, Valas seemed not to be listening; his attention was focused on clean-ing the sticky black streaks of demon's blood from his dagger. Danifae stood behind them, an openly skeptical look upon her face, toying with a ring. Jeggred, bored, was licking the wound on his wrist.

"This information is useless," Quenthel said. "How are we to find this ship - assuming it exists? I've never heard of a city by that name."

"I have," Valas said. As the others turned to the mercenary, he gave a final polish to the kukri, then shoved it back into its sheath. "It's an aboleth city."

Pharaun rolled his eyes and said, "It just gets better and better, doesn't it? Those fish-folk are the last creatures I want to deal with."

Danifae suddenly stirred.

"Mistress," she said, "Pharaun's right. Shouldn't we be - "

"Silence," Quenthel spat. "I've noted your cowering - how you kept to the rear, like a whimpering male - and am tired of it. If I want your opinion,priestess,I'll ask for it."

Danifae did as she was told, pursing her lips shut in a tight, angry line.

"Zanhoriloch isn't far from here," Valas continued. "It's in Lake Thoroot."

"InLake Thoroot?" Quenthel asked.

"Aboleths live underwater."

"How far?" the high priestess asked.

The scout frowned, thinking.

"If I can find the right tunnel," he said, "the journey would take no longer than it would for the heat to rise through Narbondel."

Quenthel considered that, then asked, "How big is this lake?"

"Enormous," Valas answered. "Big enough to cover a city, at any rate."

"Or a ship," Quenthel mused. "If the ship of chaos had just left Zanhoriloch when it ran into the storm, it may be at the bottom of the lake. If it is, the only ones who would know of its existence would be the aboleths." She glanced at Belshazu, and her expression hard-ened. "Assuming, that is, the ship is still intact. You said it was 'lost' in a storm, Belshazu? How badly damaged was it?"

Belshazu shrugged and said, "The mane said it was intact."

Quenthel's eyes narrowed.

"Then why didn't the demons try to recover it?" she asked.

Belshazu's eyes blazed.

"Weren't you listening, drow? I said it was lost - on this, the foulest of planes. How were we to find it?"

Pharaun, listening quietly, noticed that Danifae was staring at him. She'd shifted slightly, so that Quenthel was between her and the demon. When she had Pharaun's attention, she spoke to him in sign, behind Quenthel's back.

The demons know where the city is now. The minute you release this one -??

Pharaun gave a quick flick of his fingers:Yes.

More than that, he did not offer. For all he knew, Belshazu could read the silent speech.

It was Valas, as usual, who asked the practical question, "Once we find the ship, and raise it from the lake, how do we sail it?"

Belshazu gave him a sly grin and replied, "The ship has a mouth. All you need do is feed it a soul."

Quenthel matched the demon's lascivious smile with one of her own. Seeing her glance in his direction, Pharaun had no doubt whatsoever about whom she'd most like to shove into the demon ship's gullet.

"And?" Valas asked, still focused on the practicalities. "Once the ship's been fed, what do we do next?"

"Sail it," Belshazu answered derisively. "It has sails, and lines, and a tiller. Catch the wind and go. Continue up the River of Shad-ows, and sail the breadth of the Shadow Deep. The river branches as it reaches the Abyss. Smaller streams empty into the pits that pock the Plain of Infinite Portals. One of those portals leads to the sixty-sixth layer. Follow the right branch, and the ship will carry you into the Demonweb Pits."

Pharaun said nothing. It all sounded highly doubtful to him. Quenthel, however, had a gleam in her eye. The serpents in her whip lashed in apparent eagerness for their mistress to begin the search for the ship of chaos - at once.

"Our thanks, Belshazu," she told the demon in a purring voice. "And my apologies for the indignities this mage has subjected you to." She stared coldly down at Pharaun, and gave a terse order: "Release him."

Behind her, Danifae gestured rapidly at Pharaun,No! The demon will only be waiting at the ship when we -??

With the speed of one of her serpents, Quenthel turned and, in one smooth motion, pulled the whip from her belt. Hissing with glee, the vipers lashed out at Danifae.

"I ordered you not to speak!" Quenthel shrieked.

Caught by surprise, Danifae was slow to react. She reared back - but not before the longest of the serpents grazed her cheek with its teeth. Its work done, the viper curled back, eyeing the livid red lines it had drawn in the drow's soft flesh. As its venom flowed through Danifae's body, she sagged to her knees, already gasping for air.

Quenthel stood staring coldly down at Danifae, stroking the head of the viper that had inflicted the near-fatal kiss.

"Don't worry," she told Danifae. "Zinda may be the largest, but her poison is the least venomous. You'll live - if you're strong enough." Ignoring Danifae's choking sobs, she turned back to Pharaun and said, "Well?"

Once again, Pharaun bowed - a little deeper - and he addressed himself to the more pressing issue. Carefully.

"I can speak the word that will release Belshazu, but he won't be able to return to the Abyss until the ice melts," he told Quenthel.

"Then speed it up," she spat back. "Fill the cavern with a ball of fire."

Pharaun cocked an eyebrow.

"Unfortunately, knowing we would be underground in confined quarters, I did not prepare that spell," he offered, resisting the urge to say what he truly thought.

Quenthel was being even more stupid than usual - why, Pharaun asked himself, did the others persist in obeying her?

Jeggred was mindlessly, slavishly loyal to the nearest, highest-ranking female of his House, and Valas was getting paid to be there. But Danifae must surely have realized that her unfailing loyalty would go unrewarded. Especially with Lolth silent and presumably no longer watching the actions of her servants.

Valas cleared his throat.

"The ice will melt in time," he observed in a neutral tone. "What's a day or two of delay - to a demon?"

As Quenthel rounded on him, sputtering indignation at his "in-solence," Pharaun at last realized what she must have had in mind. She hoped to curry favor with Belshazu. Like her sister Triel, Quen-thel hoped to enter into unholy union with a demon, one day. And not just any demon.

Pharaun stared at Jeggred, who squatted at Quenthel's side, teeth bared in a silent snarl. Blessed of Lolth the hulking creature might be, but Menzoberranzan didn't need another draegloth. One fouling the air with its putrid breath was enough.

"I'm sure Belshazu will remember that you spoke for him," Pharaun reassured Quenthel. "I'm equally sure he'll . . . look favor-ably upon you . . . when the time comes."

The demon broke into a leer, tongue lolling as it stared up at the priestess. Its goatlike horns gave it the look of a satyr - if one dis-counted the misshapen body and the sole remaining pincer.

Pharaun shuddered.

"Very well," Quenthel said at last. "Speak the release word, Pharaun, and let Belshazu find his way back to the Abyss in his own time. When the ice melts."

"I will - as soon as the rest of you are safely out of here." Care-ful not to get within range of the remaining pincer, Pharaun skatedaround the demon on the ice and climbed back up to where the oth-ers stood. He looked around, then asked, "Where's Ryld?"

Danifae, who had already fought off the worst of the poison and risen, shaking to her knees, answered, "We heard ... a noise in the tunnel behind us. Just before . . . the demon freed itself. Ryld went to see what it was."

"He should have come back by now," Pharaun said, a touch of worry in his voice.

Quenthel glanced at Jeggred and jerked her chin. The drae-gloth loped up the tunnel and returned, a few moments later, with the head of a broken crossbow bolt. He handed it to Quenthel, his nose twitching.

"Blood," he grunted. "Ryld's."

"We should go after him," Pharaun said.

He started up the tunnel, but Quenthel caught his arm.

"You're not finished here yet," she said, indicating the demon. "And there's no point. The weapons master will either catch up to us or he won't. We've got to get moving, or we'll be trapped in this dead end. That bolt came from the bow of a surface elf."

"She's right," Valas said.

Grudgingly, Pharaun nodded. Even wounded, Ryld could take care of himself. He'd catch up to them eventually. Yet, since the warrior's absence had been pointed out, Pharaun felt it keenly. With Ryld gone, there was no one in the group to watch his back. Or to banter with. If Ryld was dead, Pharaun would miss him. Perhaps for days.

Quenthel glanced down at Danifae, who was still on her hands and knees.

"If you're quite finished lolling about, then get up," Quenthel told her. "We have a ship to find."

The vipers in her whip hissing with derisive laughter, Quenthel followed Valas out of the cavern. Jeggred growled one last time over his shoulder at Belshazu, then loped after his mistress.

As soon as he was certain Quenthel could no longer see him, Pharaun bent and offered Danifae his hand. She gave him a calculating look, as if deciding whether to vent her pent-up anger upon him, then she allowed him to help her rise. He supported her into the tunnel, then turned and spoke the words to a spell before hurrying after her.

Belshazu shook its remaining pincer at Pharaun's back.

"I will see you again, mage," it roared.

Pharaun chuckled as he scrambled up the tunnel and said, "When Hell unfreezes, Belshazu."

Which it was unlikely to do, since Pharaun had just cast a per-manency spell upon the ice.

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