6 Eleint, the Year of the Banner (1368 DR)
The Greypeak Mountains
Blue skies greeted the quartet and their horses when they left the cave the next morning. Tiep complained of a headache and tired easily, but was otherwise on the mend. They put him up on Hopper and covered more ground in the morning alone than they'd covered since they'd crossed the Dawn Pass Trail.
In the afternoon, a trio of red dragons flew freely overhead—a mother and her young, by the look of them. The first time they spiraled between the peaks, Sheemzher had led a pell-mell charge from the stone ledges to the bogs where they'd cowered, dreading an attack that didn't come. The second time the dragons swooped, they held their ground and watched an aerial dance of fire and grace. By the third and fourth times, they had better things to think about and just kept walking.
The ground was rising. There was more stone, less boggy forest. Sheemzher said they could push on with torches and reach Dekanter after dark, or camp above the last bog and arrive mid-morning at their destination. Dru thought of who and what they might find among Ghistpok goblins and decided he rather wait until daylight.
No one spoke out against Dru's caution.
The night was quiet with the clouds rolling back after midnight. There was no dawn, just a gradual brightening of the gray sky. Rozt'a said she'd seen something that might have been one of the misshapen goblins shortly before she'd awakened Dru.
"Makes sense," he said, rubbing his eyes. "They're goblins, after all. They don't like the sun. Yesterday would have been misery for them. They'd have spent the day hiding from the light."
Rozt'a nodded, "Then today they're hungry and hunting. Let's get out of here fast."
They did, but not before filling all their skins with water, all the horse nets with grass and shoots, and gathering fresh rushes and green wood poles for making torches. Dru could cast a durable light spell. It would last the better part of a day or night and he could control its brightness with a thought, but only complete fools would venture underground without torches and the natural means to light them.
After they'd gathered all their gear, Sheemzher proposed that they march straight into Ghistpok's colony.
"People good. Ghistpok good! Remember Sheemzher. Welcome Sheemzher. Welcome all."
Dru and Rozt'a harmonized on the word "No!" and the goblin assured them that they could get into the mines without introducing themselves to Ghistpok. There were ancient air shafts opening onto something he called the High Trail. All was going according to plan along the High Trail until they stumbled against a rockslide at an inconvenient narrows. There wasn't space to turn the horses around. The animals had to be coaxed backward to a wide spot. The goblin apologized continuously for his mistake.
Six years was a long time. Even ordinary mountains changed in that time, and Druhallen remembered what Amarandaris had told him about the futility of maps in Dekanter. Druhallen supposed the goblin had made an innocent error, but the rockslide had reignited Tiep's suspicion of all things goblin.
At least the youth was behaving like his usual self again.
Sheemzher found another path. The humans judged it prudent to send him and Rozt'a ahead to check for rock slides. They were back sooner than Druhallen expected.
Rozt'a was nearly breathless. "You're not going to believe this, Dru," she said.
"No—the mines, the ruins—I was expecting a hole in the ground, but nothing like this. There's a hollow mountain up here. You could fit Scornubel inside the ruins and have room left for a village or two."
But the path she and Sheemzher had followed was too steep and rocky for the horses. Tiep said he'd stay behind. "Who's interested in a hole where goblins live?"
Druhallen didn't try to explain. He scrambled ahead of Rozt'a and was breathing hard when he emerged from another rockslide ridge. The ruined mines took his breath away. All the conflict, loss, hardship, and deception that had brought him to this moment faded to insignificance—though he wished Galimer were beside him to share the sight.
Like Rozt'a, he'd expected ruins—true ruins: heaps of rubble left by miners and magicians alike, and dark doorways to the underground standing empty like so many blind eyes. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He'd forgotten that the dwarves had quarried stone from Dekanter as well as metal ore. In rough shape, Dekanter was an amphitheater; in size, the theater had been built for giants. Five receding tiers—each at least twenty feet high and twenty feet wide—rose from an irregular plain Dru judged to be a half-mile wide and slightly longer. Zig-zag patterns etched the tiers. Dru looked closer and realized they were ordinary stairways.
On the opposite side of Dekanter—across the narrows to the eastern side of the quarry—a gorge had been cut through all five layers of dark gray granite. The gorge curved and disappeared. Dru guessed it led to the Dawn Pass Trail, though in days past, surely it had been the western end of a road that wound into Netheril's heart.
Dekanter's great tiers weren't perfect. Here and there the rain, frost and snows of countless winters had shattered the quarry's deliberate structure. Streams of paler rock spread onto the lower levels. The untouched debris looked as if it could have fallen yesterday. With a shake of his head Druhallen dismissed his eyes' conclusion. Dekanter was ancient; even the scars of its abandonment were ancient.
Yet Dekanter wasn't abandoned. Ghistpok's goblins—Sheemzher's relatives—dwelt on the rubble-strewn plain at the bottom of the quarry. Their colony was a black-and-green smear across a small portion of the granite plain. Gardens, Dru thought—marveling for a moment that goblins would have the sense or skill to grow vegetables. Then common sense reclaimed his mind. The green patches weren't gardens—at least not deliberately planted crops. Ghistpok's goblins weren't farmers, they were merely living atop their garbage. What he'd taken for gardens were weeds erupting from the trash.
Dru rough-counted forty huts on the midden and one larger, stone-built structure. From their vantage, in the crease between the rectangular tiers and naturally irregular stone of the untouched mountains, the goblins were little more than dots between the huts. The stone building was as crude and ugly as any of the huts, but had the squat solidity of Zhentarim construction. He'd bet it was where the Network's minions lived while the slave trade flourished; and he almost pitied them for the stench and filth they'd surely endured.
There were more dots around the stone building than anywhere else. If power and status had run true to form, the goblin chief, Ghistpok, had moved in once the Zhentarim left. Sheemzher might blame Takers for goblin slavery, but there'd never been a slave-trade that didn't rely on the cooperation of some element within the enslaved population.
There were two other landmarks on the plain. One, slightly north of the goblin colony, was a water pool so perfectly circular that it couldn't have been natural—and couldn't have been carved out of the stone by the goblins either. The second area lay some distance south of the colony. At first glance, it resembled a wizard's conjure circle painted white on the stone, but conjury required a measure of intelligence Dru would not grant any goblin, even Sheemzher standing silently at his side.
A black spire-stone jutted out of the white circle. The Greypeaks were, as their name implied, a study in shades of gray, without a trace of pure black or white. Both the stone and its circle were out of place, ominously out of place.
"What is that?" Dru asked the goblin.
Sheemzher had been staring at his own feet and raised his head slowly. His eyes were red and watering. He didn't like sunlight, even on an overcast day, and had suffered since losing his hat, which left Dru wondering about how many goblins the nearly shadeless colony contained. Surely more than he could see among the huts.
Cupping his hands around his eyes, Sheemzher peered out across the plain.
"Beast Lord, good sir."
Just when he thought he was getting a measure of goblin intelligence, Sheemzher would utter something unbelievable. "The Beast Lord is a black stone?"
"Sheemzher never see Beast Lord, good sir. Ghistpok say drink wine. Ghistpok say dance. Ghistpok say sing. Ghistpok say Beast Lord come. Ghistpok say not-look, never-look. Sheemzher look once. Elva go away. Sheemzher not-see Beast Lord. Sheemzher see black stone. Sheemzher see Takers."
Was the stone a teleportation focus? Dru asked himself and asked Sheemzher, "Did the Takers come out of the stone? Did your wife vanish in a flash of bright light?"
"No," Sheemzher answered, a touch of exasperation in his voice. He calmed himself. "No, good sir. Takers under Dekanter. Takers walk. Elva walk into darkness, walk into mountain." The goblin tapped his foot on the stone. "Sheemzher tell already. Good sir forget, no? Sheemzher follow Elva. Here. Below. Into mountain. Sheemzher follow. Sheemzher find egg. Sheemzher tell already, good sir."
"You've been told," Rozt'a chided. "Pay attention to what he tells you from now on."
Dru didn't know if she was joking. "Do I understand that there's an entrance to the old mines at the bottom of the quarry? Do we have to climb down these tiers to reach it? Do we have to meet Ghistpok? You said that wouldn't be necessary."
He'd been paying attention when Sheemzher assured them they didn't have to meet Ghistpok in order to steal the scroll.
"Many ways in, good sir. One way all rocks, no good. One way below, yes. Other ways. Many other ways. Sheemzher find. Not worry, good sir."
A strange sound filled the quarry. It started soft, grew louder, and as hard as Druhallen listened, he couldn't decide if it came from an animal or some kind of horn, and, if an animal, whether from a single beast or many. He was thinking magic when Rozt'a slapped his arm and pointed to the southern tiers. About twenty goblins were marching down the zigzag stairways. His imagination rebelled. Goblins couldn't make such a noise and twenty of them couldn't fill the quarry with echoing sound.
Then Sheemzher added his note to the chorus. The goblin's eyes were shut and his head was thrown back. His lips shaped the sound which he made in the depths of his throat.
"Sheemzher! Stop! Quiet!"
Sheemzher didn't obey. He didn't appear to have heard Druhallen's words. He opened his mouth wider; the sound deepened in pitch. Dru felt it beneath his ribs more than he heard it in his ears.
"Enough!" he shouted and seized the goblin's shoulders. "When I say to stop something, you stop! Understood?"
The goblin quaked and nodded his head vigorously. "Sheemzher understand. Sheemzher forget. Hunters return. Pots full." He pointed at the goblins on the zigzag stairs. "Welcome hunters. Sheemzher forget."
A trickle of goblins left the midden, racing southward.
Druhallen pulled off his ring and squinted through it. The descending goblins had spears very similar to the one Sheemzher carried slung between their shoulders and animal carcasses slung from the spears, none was larger than a swamp rat. He realized that goblins weren't herders or farmers. Maybe it had been different when the Zhentarim ran their slave market in the quarry. Maybe they'd seduced the goblins with food, but since Amarandaris abandoned the market, the bog forests were the goblins' sole source of food. No wonder Amarandaris believed Ghistpok's goblins were starving.
And, no wonder that the sight of hunters returning with meat had roused an instinctive welcome from their own goblin.
"You're not one of Ghistpok's goblins any more," Druhallen reminded Sheemzher. "Your loyalty lies with us—with your good lady."
"Sheemzher not forget, good sir. Sheemzher remember. Sheemzher find way now, good sir?"
"Soon?" Rozt'a sputtered. "How long are you planning to stay here? I'm for getting this damned scroll today, if we can, and getting our tail feathers out of these mountains before they're plucked."
The goblin nodded. "Sheemzher say yes! People eat now. People happy. Nobody look. Nobody see. Nobody know."
Druhallen thought of the spells he'd memorized last night. They weren't the ones he'd planned to use when he tried to crack the Beast Lord's egg. "We don't want to rush ahead blindly. We want to be prepared."
"You want to wait until after midnight." Rozt'a saw through Druhallen's caution. "You want to change your mind."
"I'd feel safer with different spells. You'd be safer."
Dru withered a little in their disappointment and when Rozt'a suggested that she could follow the goblin as he searched for a way into the mines that didn't expose them to scrutiny, he agreed even though a part of him felt that they shouldn't be splitting up.
There were more mysteries in Dekanter than a man could count, starting with ancient Netheril and working forward in time to the Beast Lord and the real reason Amarandaris and the Black Network had pulled their slave market out of this place. If he'd had the time, the magic, and the muscle, Dru would have liked to unravel a few of those mysteries. Lacking all those things, he easily stifled his curiosity and hoped only to escape with the golden scroll.
He returned to the horses and Tiep, scouting campsites along the way.
"You and I make the night's camp," he told the youth when they were together. "Rozt'a's gone off with the goblin to find tomorrow's way in. I spotted a blind gully with runoff pool. If we can get the horses in, they'll have plenty of water and won't go wandering. We'll take them in one at a time. You grab Hopper—" He took Star's rein. If they could get him and Hopper up the path, the others would follow peacefully.
Tiep proved a non-cooperative partner. "You let Rozt'a go off alone with Sheemzher?" He'd folded his arms across his chest.
"Do you think Rozt'a can't handle a goblin, Tiep? Should I mention that to her when she gets back?"
"Tymora protect me! Don't do that!" Tiep snatched Hopper's rein and fell in behind Druhallen.
"What then? I thought you and the goblin had made peace."
"We did," Tiep replied with a notable lack of enthusiasm. "As much peace as an honest man can make with a liar."
"Right," Dru agreed with a sigh.
Star sulked and balked, but he was thirsty and the smell of running water got him down the last slope.
"You're sure we're going to be able to get them out of here?" Tiep asked when he and Hopper were beside the water.
The slope had been steeper than Dru imagined. They'd all had a few sliding, frightening moments. Dru had wrenched his shoulder keeping Star upright and Hopper was favoring the hoof he'd cracked before they got to Parnast.
"Well push 'em out one at a time, if we have to. It was here or leave them on the bogs. If the goblins catch sight of them, they'll eat them all." After emptying one of the forage-filled nets, Dru handed the green wood poles to Tiep. "Strip them down while I heat the pitch and dip the rushes."
They had three torches finished when Rozt'a and Sheemzher returned.
"He found it," Rozt'a announced. Dru watched Tiep roll his eyes skyward. "We went down as far as we could—as far as I could without light. Why Ao made their eyes better than ours is something I'll never understand."
Dru wound another length of pitch-dripping greenery around the working end of a torch. Rozt'a wouldn't have given up sunlight or far-sight for all the moonlight in the world, but that didn't keep her from complaining. He understood the frustration—and a few of the races did have undisputedly better vision than humans did—but not the goblins. One had only to look at Sheemzher's watery eyes to know that.
Rozt'a hefted one of the finished torches. She tested the pitch to see if it would light. "We could take these and check it out, Dru—go down and really see what we're up against before you're up against midnight decisions."
Druhallen advocated caution. In truth, he was anxious ... afraid. Rozt'a, Sheemzher, even Tiep were cut from different cloth than he. They were fighters, hunters, or gamblers and would rather be in the middle of a situation than mapping it from the outside. Dru had probably done more damage to life and limb than the three of them combined, but always in reaction. He didn't start fights, didn't deliberately expose himself to danger—
"We won't steal the godsforsaken thing," Rozt'a chided. "We're just going to try to get a look at it so we can decide how we'll steal it tomorrow ... is that better?"
She tossed her torch Dru's way. He caught it without hesitation. Tiep grabbed the other two. "Who says we won't steal it?" he asked as he scrambled up the rocks.
Dru made them wait until he'd checked his folding box and pulled soft rope from their gear. He wouldn't deny the wisdom in Rozt'a's words—or in Tiep's for that matter. If they could snatch the scroll, then, by gods, they would, but he wasn't plunging underground without embers enough to kindle his fire spells five times over and all the rope he could comfortably carry.
Sheemzher's way into Dekanter was a gap in the gray rocks that was generously wide for him, tight for Rozt'a and Tiep, and downright painful for a man with Druhallen's shoulders. He went in feet first. When he got stuck, Rozt'a wrapped her arms around his dangling legs and pulled with all her strength. Druhallen entered the ancient mines of Dekanter with a groan.
Moments later, after he'd kindled a light spell, Dru had forgotten his discomfort. A pair of gilded symbols had been carved into the squared-off ceiling. He didn't read dwarven script, but he knew their Dethek runes by sight.
"We've come to the right place."
The goblin set a steady pace. There wasn't time to explore, even when their path took Dru past side chambers where the Netherese wizards had perfected—or not perfected—their art. The chambers had been looted—Dru could see that much from the corridor—but debris remained. The walls of several were covered with the Empire's ancient script.
Dru's head said, keep walking. His heart said, take a moment, read the walls—what harm can a moment bring? The light spell followed him into a square room.
Woe betide the ... He racked his memory for a translation. Woe betide the moon-eyed thief...
Rozt'a broke Dru's concentration. "We're in the dark up here. Get a move on. You're the one with the light."
Dru hurried, caught up. He deliberately hadn't memorized the Candlekeep scrying spell. He couldn't succumb to the temptation to cast it; that didn't stop the aching. "You don't understand—" he muttered and quickly swallowed the rest of his private disappointment.
"I don't," Rozt'a agreed. "Galimer would. He'd be wide-eyed beside you, if he wasn't stuck in Weathercote Wood."
Druhallen nodded. Remembering where Galimer was effectively dashed his curiosity. "Lead on," he said to the goblin.
Sheemzher led them along sloping corridors. They were moving away from the quarry, at least Dru thought they were. Over the years, his sense of direction had proven reliable above ground, but this was his first experience with caverns and mines. He was calm until their corridor ended at a cross passage. Dru matched the Dethek runes above them with the ones he'd seen at their entrance. He deduced that the four on the cross-passage ceiling were directional guides—useless directional guides for a man who could read a Netherese wizard's curse but not a dwarf's clear-cut runes.
Left or right? He asked himself and was suddenly in the grip of primal terror: They had torches, but no water, no food. If they made a wrong turn or failed to retrace their steps accurately, the light spell would eventually fizzle, likewise the torches, and they'd be trapped in the dark. Dru felt the mountain around him. His heart raced, his lungs labored—The damned goblin wasn't even looking up at the Dethek runes for guidance!
The light spell revealed Sheemzher standing on his toes in the intersection. He turned slowly to the right, then to the left. His eyes were shut, his nose was pointed up, his nostrils were wide, and he sniffed the still air like a dog.
After a few moments of this behavior, he chose the right-side path. "Come," he said. "Come. Sheemzher remember. This way."
Dru had beaten back his fear—or he thought he had. His feet weren't moving. "You remember what?" Dru asked, sounding like Tiep. "This can't be the path you followed six years ago, not if you followed Elva and the Takers underground from that black stone."
"Sheemzher remember smell, good sir. Sheemzher never forget egg-smell. Smell stronger this way. This way, right way, good sir. Come."
"Bad eyes, good ears," Rozt'a muttered, repeating the common wisdom. "Good nose, too ... I guess ... hope." The light spell made all of them look pale, but Rozt'a's face had no color at all.
They hadn't gone far when they came to an intersection that offered three choices and more Dethek runes. Sheemzher took the middle path. Dru committed the runes to memory. Wizards trained their memories the way warriors sharpened their swords and merchants counted their coins. They didn't make mistakes—Druhallen of Sunderath didn't make mistakes when he memorized.
Make a mistake with a fireball and he'd be dead instantly. Make a mistake inside Dekanter and there'd be time enough for despair.
The mountain was all around Druhallen, pressing inward, interfering with his memory and, maybe, his judgment. They kept going forward because that was easier than making a decision to turn back.
The squared-off, rune-marked corridors gave way to rougher, unmarked passages. Newer passages, Dru thought, and wondered why.
"Not far," Sheemzher announced when they came to another intersection.
They heard that before in Weathercote. This was their eighth crossing, the third with no runes, the third where they'd followed the straight-ahead path. Dru looked for something ... anything ... physical to commit to his memory.
He heard something instead, down the left-hand path—garbled sounds that might have been voices. Sheemzher tugged Dru's sleeve. The goblin's ears were as good as a man's.
"Quick! Quick, good sir!"
"What are they?"
"Demons, good sir," the goblin predictably answered. "Quick!"
Dru called the light close and dimmed it to a firefly spark. They linked hands and trusted Sheemzher to lead them through the darkness. No one spoke, but they weren't silent. Their boots clattered on the stone. Rozt'a's sword clattered against her hip. Tiep yelped and Dru had never heard anything half so loud as the hammering of his heart... until he heard the sound of pursuit.
Daring a backward glance Dru saw light and shadows behind them. Whatever the demons were, they didn't have a goblin's dark vision advantage over humankind. Dru planted his feet and the quartet came to a stop. He fingered his folding box and found a sliver of quartz near the hinge.
"Roz—What do you think? Stand or run?"
She swore once and whispered her decision: "Stand. Everybody, flat against the wall and hope they've got to get close before they can start fighting. What about you, Dru? Can you fire them from here?"
He rubbed the quartz between his fingertips, warming it. "I'd sooner give you an advantage. By the time I have something to aim fire at, there won't be enough time for me to blur you."
The blurring spell would make Rozt'a shifty and elusive in the eyes of anyone trying to attack her. It was like armor, without the weight or encumbrance and usually she welcomed it.
"I'll take my chances."
That wasn't the answer he'd hoped to hear. "There's risk to fire—they might not be against us until we use it and we could find ourselves with nothing to breathe afterward."
"We're here to steal a golden scroll. Burn them." Rozt'a surged forward to take the point position in the tunnel.
Druhallen shifted the crystal to his offhand and retrieved a cold ember instead. They waited in the dark until he saw something he considered more silhouette than shadow.
There—he thought, aiming the spell as an archer would aim an arrow. He felt a prick of icy cold as it leapt off his fingertips. A magician could track his own spells; a good magician could track the spells of others. For several heartbeats, the question in Dru's mind was: do they have a good magician with them?
The answer, when it came, was a resounding No! Blinding light and screams filled the tunnel. Dru's fireball eliminated an unknown number of their pursuers, but not all of them. His aim had been slightly off, or his timing—whichever, the magical fire had erupted behind the front ranks of pursuit. If they hadn't had enemies before, Dru and his companions had them now. The silhouettes that raced toward them had thrown down their own torches and were lop-sided with drawn swords.
There was no advantage left in the darkness. Druhallen let his light expand and rise to the ceiling, then weighed his next move, defense or offense? Blur Rozt'a or throw more fire? He knew what Rozt'a would say. She'd rather have him take down one of the long-armed swordswingers coming toward them. Dru could cast a fiery streak with the ember bits that remained on his fingers after the fireball, and he did, as soon as the kindling power had flowed back to him.
He aimed for the base of the forefront swordswinger's neck and his head disappeared in a sphere of flame. The three behind the first never hesitated; that was ominous. They leapt over their fallen comrade and two of them attacked Rozt'a together.
Dru recovered quickly from the fire spell. He had two more memorized. The angles were bad now that Rozt'a was fighting. The odds of hitting her were almost as high as hitting one of her opponents. Dru took aim at their third pursuer, the one hanging back. He'd lost the advantage of surprise. The fellow dodged and, despite the close range, wound up singed, not burned.
Rozt'a backpedaled and, for an instant, Druhallen was closer to the attackers' swords than she was. Using the torch as if it had been the ax shaft he'd left behind, Dru beat steel with green wood. It was a close call—a chunk of wood went spinning in the air—but Dru survived and retreated.
He dropped the bit of quartz. There wasn't anything he could do for Rozt'a except prepare his second and last fireball, in case they attracted more attention. There was something Sheemzher could do, and he did it well. The goblin scurried forward, low to the floor, and jabbed his spear at Rozt'a's opponents whenever they tried to get beneath her guard.
Sheemzher didn't draw blood, but he kept the swordswingers off-balance until Rozt'a did. With a shout and a swallow-tail slash, she disarmed her right-side attacker and made sure he'd never swing a sword again. The goblin got past Druhallen and finished the wounded attacker with a thrust and a twist. In that moment, Rozt'a got the upper hand on the other swordswinger. She put him down with a two-handed cut across the mid-section.
The third attacker—the attacker that Druhallen had singed—beat a retreat. Dru's last fireball burnt itself out without stopping him.
"I'm whole," Rozt'a declared before anyone asked.
"And I," Dru added. "Sheemzher? Tiep?"
Tiep answered that he was fine. Sheemzher's attention was on the corpses. Druhallen called the goblin off before he butchered them; then he willed his light magic to its greatest radiance.
The goblin was wrong, but the bodies belonged to creatures unlike any Druhallen had seen before. They had the torsos of men, the limbs of elves, the faces of goblins, and the jewel-red eyes of Wyndyfarh's mantis servants. The corpses were bald and instead of either pointed or rounded ears, their skulls bore what appeared to be parchment drumheads behind their temples. Their skin was a shade lighter than Sheemzher's, but scaled in places, especially around their hands. They had four fingers, two of which were jointed; the other two were rigid and opposed like an insect's claws. The pair wore scabbard belts for their weapons but nothing else in the way of clothing. Short of cutting them open, Dru couldn't tell if they were male or female.
Dru pried the sword from one death-frozen hand. The hilt had been adapted for their odd combination of pincers and fingers, but the balance was tolerable, the steel better. He handed the weapon to Tiep who hesitated and wouldn't take it.
"Take it," Dru insisted. "You could get lucky with it; you won't without it. Get the belt and scabbard, too. You don't want to gash yourself while we're walking." He loosened the second corpse's belt.
Rozt'a gave one of her disdainful snorts. "Walking! We'll be moving a damn sight faster than that! You were right. There, I admit it. We're not ready for this. We've got planning to do."
"Too late for that, Roz." He freed the belt and exchanged it with the one that supported his folding box. "One got away. He's going to tell somebody what he survived. By sundown, whatever else lives in these mines is going to be laying for us. We've got one chance, right now, to find Sheemzher's egg, snatch the scroll, and beat a once-and-forever retreat."
"You can't be serious—" Rozt'a began.
The goblin cut her off. "Sheemzher find egg. Not far. Sheemzher find sky new way, yes?" "Yes."
"Have you got anything useful left?" Rozt'a asked.
"Enough light to see us until tomorrow's dawn. A fireball. A pall of gloom. Warding, if we found an empty room and needed to hide, and let me blur you next time; no arguments." Her chin dipped. "Tiep, get that belt." The boy didn't move. "You've seen worse. You didn't think this would be a walk in the park, did you?"
"I hoped," Tiep admitted, but he got the belt and fastened it around his waist.
When they got back to the sky—as Sheemzher put it—Druhallen expected his nerves would quake for a month; in the meantime, he nudged Tiep in the goblin's direction. Sheemzher's sense of time and direction were better underground than they'd been in the Weathercote Wood. They truly hadn't gone much farther when light glowed ahead of them.
They approached with caution: ten steps, then wait and listen. The tunnel widened but remained a rough-cut passage to a chamber that was filled with a faint, but steady, pale green light. Dru dampened his own light spell and strained his senses searching for another wizard's magic. He found it, too: powerful, but alien. A glance through his ring revealed nothing they couldn't see with their eyes alone. It should have been reassuring; it wasn't.
Dru successfully stifled a twinge of guilt when Sheemzher waved his hands in silhouette to indicate that he'd be the first to enter the chamber.
Go ahead, he mouthed, moving his lips but making no sound.
Tiep scowled and drew his sword. The sound was louder than thunder in a summer's night, but didn't precipitate disaster. Sheemzher walked ten paces, twenty paces into the light. He turned and beckoned them closer.
"Empty. All empty."
Rozt'a led Druhallen and Tiep into a large, but not huge, chamber. The light, which seemed to rise from the chiseled floor on the far side of the chamber's center, revealed an irregular dome that formed both walls and ceiling, but the light wasn't nearly bright enough to banish shadows. Dru thought they were alone, though he couldn't prove it. The center of the chamber was clear, but the sides were cluttered with boulders and piles of smaller rocks. Anything man-sized or smaller could be hiding there.
The chamber was damp, even misty. There was water here, and there had been for a very long time. Dripping icicles of stone hung from the ceiling; glistening spires grew beneath them. When Dru touched them with his ring he felt only the faintest magic and manipulation.
The same could not be said for a series of pools had been dug out of the floor. Their shapes were regular, their lips precisely square, and the largest of them was the source of the light that filled the chamber. Rozt'a knelt to examine it and without warning dipped her hand beneath the surface. She'd raised her hand to her lips before Dru found his voice. She was already spitting when he told her not to swallow.
"Brine!" she sputtered between spits. "Brine from the worst pickles ever made!"
Tiep chuckled, Druhallen resisted.
"How do you get brine in the middle of a mountain?" she demanded.
"Rock salt," Dru suggested seriously enough, though Tiep took it for a joke.
The rock all around them was the same gray granite they'd been hiking through for days. Good for making buildings, but useless for pickles. Dru took Rozt'a's place beside the pool. He looked down into the light, saw the underwater passages connecting the light-filled pool to the smaller, dimmer pools on either side.
"What good is brine?" Tiep asked. "You can't drink it."
"The oceans and seas are filled with creatures that don't drink brine," Dru replied and collected a few drops of the suspect liquid on his fingertip. He'd seen an ocean just once, after his visit to Candlekeep. It had little in common with the brightly lit Dekanter pool, including the taste. The brine on Dru's finger was far saltier than Candlekeep's ocean and slick, reminding him of blood.
Rozt'a observed, "I don't see anything swimming in there."
"Be grateful," Dru replied in a tone meant to discourage further questions.
Thanks—as usual—to Ansoain's relentless collection of useless facts and her determination to share those facts with her son and apprentice, Dru had begun to put the puzzle pieces together. The central piece was a bit of information Amarandaris had given him about the second garrison slaughter. The Zhentarim and Red Wizards had torn each other apart. Those were the honored divide-and- conquer tactics of those who'd mastered the discipline of usurping another sentient mind. Dru could name a handful of living wizards and a score of races or monsters who were known to usurp sentient minds, but only one such race made use of brine-filled pools.
If Druhallen was remembering Ansoain's lessons correctly then the Beast Lord wasn't a god but a colony of mind flayers and they were in a world of hurt.
"You know something, Druhallen. Tell me what you know," Rozt'a demanded.
"I don't know anything." And Dru didn't, not yet. The picture wasn't nearly complete and much of it remained contradictory. The commanding presence of a mind flayer colony— something called its Elder Brain—was supposed to reside in a brine-filled pool. Without an Elder Brain, there was no colony—according to Ansoain, who might have been wrong. She'd never encountered a mind flayer, merely learned about them as she learned about everything else.
"Is this what you're calling 'the egg'?" Dru asked Sheemzher.
Sheemzher shook his head. "Egg not here, good sir. Egg there." The goblin pointed to a tunnel in the shadows that Dru hadn't noticed before.
"Let's go then."
The tunnel was short and led to a room square enough to have been hollowed out by dwarves but cluttered with rock debris and chunks of twisted metal, some of them larger than a full-grown man. Sheemzher's egg stood in the center of the room. It was no more an egg than the creatures they'd been killing for the last few days were demons, but it was an athanor of dangerous proportions. Dru judged the oval engine was twice as high as he was tall and perhaps a third as wide as it was high. It was made from hammered and riveted plates of bronze, or possibly brass. Double-doors, hinged at the athanor's widest point, had been left open and revealed a two-chamber interior. The bottom chamber was large enough to accommodate a goblin or three. The upper chamber, though much smaller, could have held a good-sized snake or a hundred of Lady Wyndyfarh's mantises.
Metal pipes and parchment hoses connected the two interior chambers and other parts of the athanor, too. The widest pipe of all disappeared into one of the walls above an incised rectangle that might have been the start of another rock-cut passage. Two more pipes were bolted to the floor. Dru figured he knew what the athanor did and was asking himself how it worked and what it had to do with a Nether scroll when he looked up and found the answers to both questions in the same place.
A golden cylinder as long as his forearm stuck out of the top of the athanor and up into at least a score of wires dangling from the ceiling. Some of the wires were shorter than the others. All of them were soot stained. He didn't know what leapt between the wires and the scroll—maybe fire, maybe lightning, maybe something he'd never studied—but he understood the principle of using explosive spells to power engines both arcane and ordinary.
The metal litter on the floor—the smaller sections of pipe and larger sheets of brass—could have formed the shells of earlier eggs. The Beast Lord—the mind flayers—hadn't perfected the transmutation process. Suddenly, the misshapen goblins connected to the growing pattern. They were the egg's failures and the swordswingers were its triumphs.
Sheemzher grabbed his sleeve in a panic. "Not egg. Not egg! Smell right, but not egg! Too big. Very much too big."
That, too, fit into the pattern. "Six years, Sheemzher. Remember that it's been six years since you were here. They've rebuilt your egg." Dru pointed out the piles of blasted metal. "Step back and look up. It's your egg with the golden scroll sticking out the top."
Sheemzher retreated, squinted, and began jumping for joy. "Sheemzher see! Sheemzher see! Get it now, good sir? Sheemzher climb. Sheemzher climb good."
It couldn't be this easy, Druhallen thought as he lifted the goblin. It couldn't be—
And it wasn't.
Sheemzher had one foot on the hinge of the open door and the other still resting on Druhallen's shoulder when they heard the sound of a heavy latch being thrown.