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Mel Odom

Rising Tide

Prologue

Veemeeros Sea (The Shining Sea) 26 Eleasias, the Year of the Bow (1354 DR)

'You have followed a lie all these months, Priestess Laaqueel, or a figment dreamed up by your deformed malenti mind. We have had enough. We go no further.'

The harsh words challenged Laaqueel's self-control as she stood in the mud covering the ocean floor. Malenti, uttered like a curse, still cut through her. Her heritage was all sahuagin despite her appearance. As fierce and hard inside as any of her people, her body and face came from the unfathomable tie between the sahuagin race and the sea elves Only her unique mutation had further deformed her Instead of the greenish-silver or blue skin of the aquatic elves, her skin took on the pinkish hue of surface dwellers, setting her even more apart and making her a target among her own people.

Little light from the surface world penetrated the murky depths around her and all that it touched held a bluish cast deepening toward indigo. Reds seldom penetrated the gloom at that depth. She stared at the abyssal hills surrounding the party, created from the line of volcanoes that still racked the savage land of Chult a hundred miles and more to the west.

Crustaceans roamed those hills, moving slowly under the great pressure of the depths. Every now and again one disappeared, seized and dragged into burrows dug into the mud by hidden predators. Manta rays and eels glided through the water, staying well away from the sahuagin party.

Somewhere out there, Laaqueel felt certain, lay the prize she'd come so far to claim. She took a deep breath through her mouth, flushing fresh saltwater into her system and the excess through her gills, and turned to the three sahuagin priestesses assigned to her quest.

'I am senior among you, Thuur,' Laaqueel announced. 'As long as I remain such, no one may speak to me the way you have.'

At a few inches under six feet in height, the malenti was the shortest of the group. She wore her long dark hair tied back in a single braid. Besides her breasts, the long hair was the biggest difference between herself and her tribal sisters. She was cursed with the ugly body of a sea elf as well; all rounded and soft looking, wrapped in that pale complexion. If she spent too long under the sea without spending time in the sun, that color paled to the color of a frog's stomach. On this journey she'd chosen to wear only the traditional sahuagin harness to carry her gear. The decision further flaunted the differences between her and her kin, but she had learned over her long life that those differences couldn't be hidden. She had used them to make herself stronger in her faith and her convictions.

'Senior you may be,' Thuur replied, 'but you are no longer fit to command us.'

Laaqueel felt the sahuagin priestess move through the water behind her. Even though she resembled a sea elf, much of her senses remained those of her own people. The lateral lines that ran from her neck to her hips picked up the motion, and she was already gliding into a defensive position.

'Beware what you say,' Laaqueel warned harshly as she turned to face the other priestess. She tightened her grip on the metal trident she carried. 'You've already said enough that your words might be construed as a blood challenge between us.'

Thuur stood tallest among them. Her anterior fins lay back against her head, and her huge mouth was partially open to reveal her ferocious fangs. Her black eyes gleamed with cruel light. She wore the true colors of the sahuagin race, the nearly black green on her back that turned a truer green on her flat stomach. The fins on her shoulders, arms, and legs were black. Her tail was deep yellow, telling any sahuagin male that she was past the age for mating. As a female now, her worth lay in whatever office she laid claim to. For the last ten years or more Thuur hungered for the senior priestess position Laaqueel now held within the tribe.

Saanaa and Viiklee, the other two priestesses, held their own council, but they didn't stand with Laaqueel as they should have.

'I know what I say,' Thuur said. Her broad, finned feet slid through the greasy black mud, assuming an attack stance. 'I think we should turn back now.' She touched the loaded crossbow hanging from her waist.

The lateral lines in Laaqueel's body turned more sensitive, reading every flicker of movement Thuur made. 'We won't turn back until we've found what we've come for,' she said steadily.

“You're dooming us to wander these forsaken hills forever.'

'Has your faith been shaken, Sister?' Laaqueel made her voice harsh and challenging. With Thuur, she knew there was no way to speak of reason. 'Sekolah guides this quest. You should trust that.'

'I trust Sekolah, not some diseased abomination who has been given status by Baron Huaanton purely by accident of her birth.'

'That status was earned,' Laaqueel said, 'not given as freely as you say. As a malenti, I was trained to be an assassin from the moment I was born. I've lived among the surface dwellers as a spy and helped our village grow. I've slain our enemies, and I've stolen their secrets. If High Priestess Ghaataag had not seen the promise in me to better serve Sekolah, I would still be among the hated elves as Haaunton's dagger.'

In truth, the training spy was somewhat wasted. Laaqueel's deception among the surface dwellers had been limited to brief excursions. With her pale skin, she'd been forced to adopt disguises and pass herself off as a surface dwelling elf among the sea elves, or a sea elf among the surface dwellers. She'd been the least effectual of all the malenti in her tribe. Had Priestess Ghaataag not sensed Sekolah's blessed fin moving in her as a hatch-ling, she'd have been put to death the moment she'd been discovered among the newborn.

Thuur continued moving, turning Laaqueel to put the malenti's back to Saanaa and Viiklee. 'You worked a glamour over the high priestess,' Thuur accused. 'She would never have granted you the position otherwise.'

'Sekolah granted my position,' Laaqueel argued. 'High Priestess Ghaataag only followed his direction.'

'You lie!' Thuur declared, sneering and throwing an accusatory clawed hand toward her. 'Long have we known Sekolah as an uncaring god. He gave us courage and fierceness in battle, and fertility to make sure that our numbers would always be strong in our wars. How dare you even suggest Sekolah would care enough to intercede on behalf of an ill-bred malenti over his true children. It's sacrilege.'

Laaqueel continued moving. The insult cut through to her heart, touching all the insecurities she'd carried for the long years of her life. If not for the calling of the priesthood and her belief in Sekolah, there would have been no place in all the world for her. 'We can settle this when we return to our village.'

Thuur laughed derisively, the effort causing her to expel bubbles into the surrounding ocean that quickly floated toward the surface. 'If we continue on this insane quest, you know we'll never return home.' She shook her great head, her black eyes steady on Laaqueel's emerald ones. 'No, we'll settle this now.'

'There can be only one way between us, then.' Laaqueel crouched, her senses flaring. She brought her trident up, the three tines facing the other priestess.

'To the death, malenti,' Thuur agreed, issuing the blood challenge. 'I say that you are weak and unable to fulfill the duties of your office. Further, I charge that you have no business living among true sahuagin.' She kicked free of the mud, taking to the water where her battle skills were most effective. 'If you wish, I'll spare your life and you may live it among those elves you say you despise so much.'

The offer was a further insult. Laaqueel expected no less. When Ghaataag had assigned Thuur, who was her bitterest rival, the high priestess had explained that the problem would take care of itself during the quest-one way or another.

Laaqueel expanded her trachea and air bladder to increase her buoyancy. Though her legs weren't jointed in two places as well as her ankle like a true sahuagin and she had no tail, her training and experience in underwater combat were extensive. She'd faced more combatants than Thuur and had slain a greater variety of them.

Opposite Thuur in the sea's cold embrace, she held her trident in one hand. 'Let Sekolah take the weakest among us that the tribe may grow ever stronger.'

Thuur reached for the crossbow dangling from her waist and brought it up. She snapped off her shot as soon

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