Chapter Nineteen

As a dozen priestesses raised horns to their lips to signal the start of the night's hunt, Halisstra felt a thrill rush through her body. Part of it was a shiver. The wind was picking up, and a few flakes of snow had started to fall. Like the others, she wore nothing save for a heavy silver chain around her waist, hung with the silver disk that bore the symbol of Eilistraee.

Tipping her head back, she raised the hunting horn they'd given her to her lips, staring past it at the moon. She drew a deep breath and blew, adding her horn's strident voice to the others. There was an urgent rush of raw sound as each of the horns found its own note, then held it in perfect harmony with the others. The very air shivered and for several heartbeats was still. Then the wind resumed, stirring the tree branches overhead.

As if the goddess had given her a signal, Halisstra suddenly cut short her note at precisely the same moment that the other women did. She lowered her horn and stared expectantly as the leader of the hunt??- Uluyara, the drow who had killed the troll the previous night - drew from the ground the sword they had been dancing around a moment before. Holding it straight out in front of her, the high priestess slowly turned in place.

Like Uluyara, Halisstra's only weapon was a sword, Seyll's long sword. Her hand gripped its hilt tightly, covering all but one of the holes. Through that single hole the wind blew, producing a faint, insistent note.

Feliane, who had stayed close to Halisstra throughout the dance, caught her eye.

"Use it well," she said, nodding at the songsword. The moon elf had dyed her skin black, once again, in preparation for the night's hunt. Too small and innocent looking to ever be taken for a drow at close range - especially with her brown hair - Feliane nonetheless gripped her own sword like someone who knew how to wield it.

"What do we hunt?" Halisstra whispered.

"Whatever monster Eilistraee causes to cross our path," Feliane answered, an enigmatic smile on her lips.

Uluyara began to spin faster. Her sword flashed in the moonlight as she whirled in tight circles: once, twice, three times . . . then she jerked to a halt, her blade quivering.

"This way!" she shouted.

Like a hunting lizard suddenly unleashed, she sprinted into the woods.

A rush of excitement swept through Halisstra as she leaped to fol-low the high priestess. All of the other priestesses did the same, and just behind her, Halisstra could see Feliane running swiftly, her eyes eager and bright. Urged on by an emotion that was part elation, part lust for the hunt, Halisstra wove through the trees, leaping over snow-dappled logs and clumps of fern, and shouldering her way through branches whose pine needles slapped her skin. She ran, following the others, and plunged after them down a gully. She splashed through a wide stream at the bottom of it, slippingon the ice that crusted the river stones under her feet. Then she was scrambling up the far bank, fighting to keep her balance as she climbed the steep slope with a sword in one hand and a horn in the other.

At the top she paused, uncertain which way to go. She could no longer hear the other priestesses in the forest ahead. The only sound was the noise of Feliane scrambling up the slope behind her. Then she heard a horn, coming from a distance and to her right.

"That's Uluyara," Feliane gasped. "She's found it."

Halisstra didn't stop to ask what the high priestess had found. Panting, sweating even though the air was cold, she plunged on into the forest, running in the direction from which the sound had come. As she ran, she noted to her disgust that, unlike her, Feliane wasn't even breathing hard. Like the other priestesses, Feliane was swift and sure of her footing on the snowy ground. Halisstra, accustomed to a noble's life in a city where one strolled along smooth streets and levi-tated from one avenue to the next, had never had cause to run and climb so hard or for so long.

This must be the "trial" Feliane had spoken of when I was lifted from the cave, Halisstra thought. That's why she's holding herself back, watching my every move.

Determined not to show herself to be wanting, aware that Eilis-traee herself might be watching, Halisstra ran on, ignoring the pain that was pinching her side like a centipede's jaws.

At least the moon provided ample light to run by - to Halisstra, accustomed to the Underdark, the forest appeared brilliantly lit. But the trees were thick, the spaces between them filled with low bushes and ferns. Halisstra had long since lost sight of all the priestesses save Feliane. When Uluyara's horn sounded a second time, immediately in front of Halisstra, the closeness of it surprised her. An instant later, Halisstra burst through a tangle of tree branches that felt strangely sticky, into a moonlit clearing.

She spotted Uluyara, hunting horn still raised to pursed lips, but she could see none of the other priestesses. Nor could she hear them. Lowering the horn, Uluyara pointed at the far side of the clearing, then she backed slowly into the woods. Tree branches closed after her like curtains.

Halisstra stared in the direction in which Uluyara had pointed, but she saw only forest.

She turned to where Feliane should have been and began to ask, "What do I . . ."

Her voice trailed off as she discovered that Feliane, too, was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing behind Halisstra but tree branches, sighing against oneanother in the wind. As it blew across the clearing from the direction in which Uluyara had pointed, the breeze carried a familiar, musky smell.

Whirling back to face the clearing, Halisstra raised her sword - and not an instant too soon. In front of her crouched an enormous spider, easily half again as tall as she was. Its body was a mottled gray and black - perfect camouflage in the moonlight-dappled wood. Glossy black eyes reflected the moon as the creature reared up, jaws dripping venom.

For the space of a heartbeat Halisstra stared up at the spider, uncertainty making her sword waver. Years of subservience to Lolth screamed at her to throw her weapon to the ground, to grovel be-fore the holy creature and selflessly offer unto it whatever Lolth would claim.

"A hungry spider must feed," was one of the first things she had been taught after being accepted as a novice at Lolth's temple. "Give yourself to it joyfully, for in the end Lolth will consume us all. Better to suffer the torments of the flesh now than to face the wrath of the goddess later."

Lolth would surely have punished a priestess - especially one who had spurned her as Halisstra had - for so grave a transgression. But Lolth was dead. Or at the very least, not watching.

The moonlight reflected in the spider's eyes reminded Halisstra of one thing more: Eilistraee was watching. Or at the very least, she might have been. Halisstra smiled grimly, suddenly realizing why Uluyara and Feliane had disappeared.

The spider was her trial.

As the spider lunged down at her, Halisstra swung her sword with all her strength. Flashing in the moonlight, the sword described a clean arc, its blade exactly in line with the spider's bulging eyes. But instead of connecting with the meatythunk Halisstra had expected, the sword continued to whistle through the air until it slammed into the ground. The spider had suddenly disappeared. Thrown off bal-ance, Halisstra pitched forward. She managed to land on her knees and one hand by dropping the hunting horn. An instant later the spider reappeared - directly above her.

Halisstra rolled onto her back, swinging the sword into an up-right position as she did, then she thrust upward at the belly of the spider. Just as it had done the first time, it disappeared.

"Goddess help me," Halisstra groaned. "A phase spider."

There was no way to predict where the spider would appear next - but at least for the moment, it was safely in the Ethereal.

Halisstra rolledviolently to one side across the snowy ground, praying that she'd chosen correctly - that the spider was moving in the other direction, its ethereal legs passing right through her.

Halisstra's guess had been a lucky one. The phase spider re-entered the material plane a pace or two away, allowing her the briefest instant in which to spring to her feet. Then it rushed forward again.

Grimly, Halisstra turned to meet it, knowing that she was in a fight she could not win - not even with Seyll's magic sword. All the spider had to do was wait her out, slipping into ethereal form each time she attacked, then skittering invisibly away to reappear some-where else a moment later. One of those times Halisstra would guess wrong and it would wind up behind her. Unseen, it would inject its deadly poison and take its time as it sucked her dry.

There was, however, one thing she could fall back on: herbae'qeshel magic. Her voice shaking slightly, she chanted a song. It should have charmed the spider, rooting it to the spot in fascination, but nothing happened. The spider appeared, attacked, then disap-peared again, forcing Halisstra to constantly whirl and defend herself with her sword. She cursed her luck, under her breath. Had she mis-pronounced a word - or were phase spiders simply resistant to the form of enchantment she'd attempted?

Dodging the spider once more she slipped on a patch of snowy ground and fell. The spider stepped on her sword, forcing Halisstra to release the weapon and roll to the side to avoid its jaws. When the spider disappeared once more, she sprang to her feet and snatched the songsword up again. To her dismay, she saw that the tip of the blade had been snapped off, rendering the blade useless as a thrusting weapon. But perhaps there was still hope.

Remembering how she'd used the songsword to augment the spell that had knocked the stirges from the sky, she quickly reversed the weapon and raised the hilt to her lips. The spell might not be enough to stun a creature as large as the phase spider, but at least she could try. Her fingers found the same holes that they had before, and she blew - hard and long, expecting the same shrill note - but noth-ing happened. The only sound the hilt-flute emitted was a sourphht. Slushy mud sprayed out of the hole.

Once again, the spider lunged, and Halisstra leaped away - but more clumsily. Frightened, she realized that she was tiring. The long sword felt heavy in her hand, its hilt gritty in her sweat-ing palm. The next time the spider lunged forward, Halisstra was barely able to twist aside. Its jaws caught and held Eilistraee's symbol, yanking on the disk and pulling the chain tight around Halisstra's waist. Dragged forward, she flailed at the spider with her sword. Then the spider became ethereal once more, allowing her to stagger back.

If only she still had her clerical magic, she could have blasted the creature with a column of flame or held it at bay with a wall of wind. But those spells, like the charm she'd already tried, would in all like-lihood also have failed. Lolth would hardly have granted one of her priestesses the power to kill one of her beloved, arachnid children, after all.

Eilistraee, however, would kill a spider without the slightest qualm. And if indeed the goddess was watching the battle - as Uluyara and Feliane almost certainly were - she just might grant her most recent convert the magic she needed to save her own life by restoring her spells to her.

Swept up in that revelation, that hope, Halisstra nearly missed spotting the phase spider when it re-appeared suddenly on a tree branch above her and dropped silently down in a direct line with her head. Only the slight creak of the branch warned her.

Just in time she threw herself to the side. Halisstra scrambled across the ground on hands and knees, dragging her sword behind her, then struggled to her feet again.

The spider, sensing that she was tiring, walked slowly across the clearing toward her, taking its time. Venom dripped onto the ground between its feet as its jaws opened and shut, anticipating the meal it would soon have.

Knowing it might be her only chance, Halisstra grasped the hilt of Seyll's sword in both hands and raised it above her head - not in preparation to swing it but instead to point it at the moon.

"Eilistraee, hear me!" she cried. "From this night on, I forsake Lolth and swear to be your humble servant. If you deem me worthy, I beseech you. Will you have me? If so, give me the magic I need to prove the truth of my words by slaying this symbol of Lolth. Give me the power to cast spells in your name - and to your ever-lasting glory!"

Her words rang out with the power and clarity of a song that was perfectly in tune and in harmony with her heart.

And she was answered.

The spell Eilistraee sent her looked like Lolth's flame strike, ex-cept that the vertical column of divine energy was silvery-white in color and seemed to rush down from the moon itself. It struck the phase spider when the creature was no more than a pace away from Halisstra, enveloping it in a beam of blindingly bright, absolutely silent light. One moment the spider was there, rearing up to rake im-potently at the magical fire with its legs as it was enveloped in flicker-ing white flames, the next, it was lying in a crumpled heap, bleached bone-white bythe moonlight.

Eyes wide with wonder, Halisstra nudged the dead creature with the broken tip of her sword. The spider, burned instantly to ash by the cold magical moonfire, broke apart into pieces, which in turn collapsed, leaving only an outline of ash on the ground. A moment later, the wind blew it away.

Sensing someone staring at her, Halisstra glanced up, expect-ing to see either Uluyara or Feliane. Instead it was Ryld who gaped at her from the far side of the clearing. He was holding his greatsword in both hands, but the tip of its blade rested on the ground in front of him as if the weapons master had forgotten how to use it. His eyes were wide, his mouth open and panting. He'd obvi-ously come at the run. After a moment, he seemed to remember how to speak.

"Halisstra," he whispered. "What have you done? You can never go back now. Never."

Halisstra stared at Ryld across the space where the spider had just died, conflicting emotions warring within her. She felt irritation at the fact that he had disobeyed her and followed her - and, at the same time, joy that he had cared about her enough to do so.

At last she sighed and said, "That's true, Ryld, but you can go back. You still have a choice, a choice between the Underdark and Lolth - who is obviously as dead as this spider - and Eilistraee, who smiles down upon us now. Which will you choose?"

Ryld stood silently for several long moments, then lifted his greatsword and shoved it into the sheath on his back.

"I choose you," he said, staring at Halisstra. "If you will have me."

Before Halisstra could answer, Uluyara and Feliane stepped out of the forest. Feliane was smiling at Halisstra, a look of rapturous joy on her face, but Uluyara kept a keen eye on Ryld, as if watching to make sure he wasn't going to draw his sword.

"If Eilistraee will haveyou, then you are welcome among us," Uluyara told him. "If not, then you will have to leave." A wry smile played about her lips. "Permanently, this time."

Ryld nodded and said, "Understood."

Uluyara turned to Halisstra.

"Come, priestess," she said. "There is much, yet, that you must learn. And much that you must do. This is only the first of the trials the goddess has ordained for you."

Halisstra bowed, acknowledging her new mistress. At the same time, her mind whirled at the wonder of it all. She'd fled from Ched Nasad as a homeless refugee, hoping to find out if her goddess was alive or dead, only to have her hopes dashed against the black stone monolith that sealed Lolth's temple. But in the alien forests of the World Above, she'd found something entirely unexpected, a new home - and a new goddess. In gratitude, Halisstra knew she would serve Eilistraee faithfully from that night forward. Whatever the goddess asked of her, Halisstra would give it.

Rising from her bow, she glanced at Ryld, silently contemplat-ing the warrior. Would he do the same? Or would coming up into Eilistraee's light prove too much for Ryld, too far at odds with the ways he had always known?

Only time would tell.

Copyright © novelfull thefreeonlinenovel.com All Rights Reserved.