Chapter Twenty-nine

Ryld trudged along the open, treeless plain, following Halisstra's trail. She'd forbidden him from accompanying her, saying the quest for the Crescent Blade was something she had to undertake alone??- but she hadn't forbidden him fromfollowing her. Not in so many words.

And so he'd bade her farewell when she left Eilistraee's temple, then set out after her as soon as she was out of sight. He'd been able to trail her closely during the three days she'd traveled through the forest, but when she struck out across the Cold Field, he'd been forced to fall back and follow only under cover of darkness. Even with his magicalpiwafwi there was no way for him to hide on the flat, featureless plain in full daylight.

He followed the faint traces of Halisstra's passage: a blank spot on the frosted ground where a pebble had been kicked out of place; a patch of lichen that had been scuffed off a rock; and a concave fragment of bone, recently kicked over, the frozen dirt clinging to its underside still fresh.

Flicking the fragment of skull aside with the toe of his boot, the weapons master stared across the desolate landscape, looking for Halisstra. As far as he could see the frozen ground was studded with crumbling pieces of bone, rusted lance heads, shield bosses, and chunks of chain mail so rusted the links had fused into a single, solid mass. It was as if the remains of the armies that had fought there centuries past had been seeded into the ground in the hope that they would one day rise again. Yet nothing grew there, save for a few faint traces of lichen on those rocks that hadn't been melted to slag by the fiery breath of dragons.

A bitterly cold wind began to blow, plucking at the ends of Ryld'spiwafwi like the ghosts of the dead. Shivering, he peered into the gloom, searching for Halisstra. She must have still been far ahead of him; he couldn't see her. Ryld wondered if the ground had swallowed her up, just as it had the fallen armies, then he realized his nerves were getting the better of him. That was the way of the place, though. The combination of the moldering death beneath his feet and the vastness of the sky above him made him feel vulnerable, exposed. If the dead truly did walk that barren landscape, there was nowhere to make a stand against them - no cavern wall to place his back against.

Running a hand across the crown ofhis head - his close-cropped hair had almost grown out and would soon need to be shaved back again - he trudged onward, eyes constantly flicking down to search the ground for Halisstra's trail. After a few paces, however, he stopped. There, some distance ahead of him in the direction Halisstra had been heading - was that someone moving?

Not someone - something.The figure was definitely drow-shaped but seemed to be lacking its lower half. Ryld could clearly see a head, shoulders, and arms silhouetted against the spot on the horizon where the moon was rising behind the clouds, but below the waist there was nothing but a trail of dark fog, twisting in the wind like smoke from an extinguished candle. He didn't need to see its legs, however, to determine which direction the thing was moving in. It sped brisklyalong, stopping every now and then to stoop down low over the earth. With a shudder, Ryld realized it too was following Halisstra.

He drew Splitter from the sheath on his back and sprinted forward. The ground beneath his feet blurred as his magical boots propelled him along at several times his normal running speed. To attempt stealth on the featureless plain was futile. All Ryld could count on to tip the balance in his favor was speed. That, and the magic of the greatsword in his hand.

Within moments he was close enough to the creature to see it clearly. The thing had once been human. It wore a soldier's surcoat over chain mail - the surcoat emblazoned with a stylized tree - and an ornate silver helmet topped with a plume of white hair that spilled over the creature's shoulders, marking the soldier as an officer. The helmet shone in the cloud-shrouded moonlight, and the links of the officer's chain mail still clinked. At least part of the creature was corporeal, then, though Ryld was doubtful it could be wounded by a normal weapon. Ryld was thankful he had Splitter; its enchantments would help even the odds.

Ryld was still two dozen paces away - and closing the distance swifter than a charging rothe - when he heard the low muttering. He couldn't make out the words, but the emotion attached to them made him stagger. It was as if he'd run into a pool of chest-high water. Waves of disappointment, sorrow, and loss crashed one by one into his chest, slowing him to a stumbling walk.

The undead officer stopped, then slowly turned. It was a hu-man male, with a dark mustache that framed a drooping mouth, and eyes creased with sorrow. Every aspect of the apparition cried out despair, from its drooping shoulders to the listless way it held its dagger.

A dagger that was thrust, hilt-deep, into its own chest.

As the eyes of the undead officer met Ryld's, the tide of emo-tions rose above the weapons master's head, drowning him in de-spair. With it came a voice - a telepathic voice, for the officer was still muttering, and the movements of the ghost's mouth bore no relation to the words that pounded into Ryld's mind.

It is finished,the voice moaned.Our army is defeated. It was our duty to die in defense of Lord Velar, yet we few did not fall. We cannot return to him in disgrace. Only one course remains open to us - one path that leads to honor. We must take our place beside those who have already fallen. Like them, we must die.

The words echoed in Ryld's mind.

Die. . . die. . . die. We must die. We must take our place beside the others, it is your duty. You must die. . .

Rooted to the spot by the intensity of the command, Ryld tried to obey. He turned Splitter, holding it by the blade and placing the hilt on the ground between his feet. All he had to do was lean for-ward, and his agony would be at an end. His honor, hanging in tat-ters like the banners of his fallen army, would be restored.

Letting his head droop, Ryld stared down at his hands - and the point of the blade he held between them. He leaned forward until the magically keen blade punched through his breastplate to prick his chest, and felt the eyes of his commanding officer watching him approvingly. All he had to do was allow his weight to fall forward, and the defeat of the army of Lord Velar would be ...

Ryld's eye was caught by a ring on the finger of his own left hand. Shaped like a small, twisting dragon, it was obviously an insignia of some sort. The army of Lord Velar had been laid low by dragons - what was a ring shaped like one of those foul creatures doing on his finger? It was just plainwrong. . .

No . . . the ring was the only thing that was right. It marked Ryld as a Master of Melee-Magthere and triggered in him a re-alization.

He was not an officer in some army that was defeated centuries before he was born. He was Ryld Argith, Weapons Master of Melee-Magthere, citizen of Menzoberranzan.

Shaking his head violently, Ryld threw off the last of the magical compulsion. He let Splitter fall from his hands and drew his shortsword - a weapon that had been enchanted with just such a foe as this in mind. The weapons master leaped forward, plunging it into the undead officer's chest.

His blade met resistance, just as if it had been thrusting into solid chain mail and living flesh, and the thrust did the job. Glancing down at the sword that was buried in its heart - beside its own dagger - the undead officer let out a groan. Ryld yanked his short sword free and danced back out of range.

A wisp of dark mist spurted from the puncture the sword had made in the undead officer's chest. The smokelike substance that was its lower body began to swirl. Within the space of a few heartbeats its stomach, chest, arms, and neck dissolved into dark mist.

The head was the last thing to disappear. As it did, the undead officer's lips curled into a smile, and its eyes brightened.

Thank you,it whispered.

A heartbeat later, it was gone.

Shuddering at his close escape, Ryld stared at the sword in his hands. The blade was unblemished; its plunge into the undead officer didn't seem to have tarnished it. He peered carefully in each direction to make sure there were no more of the foul creatures. Seeing none, he returned his short sword to its sheath, then picked up Splitter and sheathed it as well. He resumed his journey, following Halisstra's trail.

The sooner she finds this sword she's looking for and leaves the Cold Field, the weapons master thought, the better.

Halisstra sank, exhausted, into a crouch, feet crunching the dusting of snow that had fallen just after the moon rose. She'd been searching for a night and a day - and on into a second night - without pausing for rest. She'd tried to cast the spell that would help her to locate the Crescent Blade several times, but though she was certain she'd com-mitted the words of the song to memory correctly, she might have confused the melody slightly. Either that, or the darksong was still beyond her limited reach. She'd felt none of the tingling certainty that should have led the way to the object she was seeking. The only thing she'd felt was the incessant cold wind sweeping across the deso-late plain.

She sat in the darkness, peering through the gloom at the object she'd just pulled from the breast pocket of herpiwafwi:her House medallion. When she converted to Eilistraee's faith, she'd decided to set it aside with the rest of her past, but something had made her hesitate. The brooch was magical, after all, and gave her the ability to levitate - but there was more to it than that. She sensed that it was not only a link with her past but with her future as well.

Setting the brooch beside her on the snowy ground, she drew Seyll's songsword from its sheath and raised the hilt of the weapon to her lips. How did that melody go again? It seemed strange to be playing a song from thebae'qeshel tradition on an instrument forged for a priestess of the Lady of the Dance ... or did it? Wasn't the rais-ing of the skills and talents of the Underdark to the World Above the very end for which Eilistraee strove?

For a time, Halisstra concentrated on her fingering, trying the melody in different keys and pausing, from time to time, to warm her fingers by blowing on them. Though she tried to concentrate, her mind kept drifting, and her eyelids felt heavy. After more than a cycle and a half of constant searching, she was desperately in need of the release that Reverie could give. She longed to let it claim her, to drift among her memories until they soothed her, but she couldn't give up her search. Exhausted though she was, she would master the spell before she rested. But the bitterly cold wind seemed to snatch away the notes and fling them into the night, scattering her efforts like dead leaves in a wind.

Lowering the songsword, Halisstra stared at the scraps of bone and rusted metal that protruded through the snow all around her. Centuries before an army had taken the field against a foe who counted dragons among their allies. Knowing that they would al-most certainly be defeated, those soldiers had nonetheless marched bravely into battle - and been slain.

Centuries later, at the urging of a dead priestess, Halisstra was about to face even more impossible odds. It was madness to think that she could defeat a goddess. Even armed with the Crescent Blade??- assuming she could find it - Halisstra would surely bedefeated. Lolth's power was unimaginably vast and all encompass-ing; no one could escape her web of destruction and vengeance. Halisstra was foolish to even think of trying.

Perhaps it would be better if shedidn't find the Crescent Blade.

Suddenly Halisstra sensed someone looking over her shoulder. Someone whose breath came in thin, chill gasps.

Startled, she sprang to her feet, songsword in hand. She whirled but saw no one. Quickly, she sang the spell that would allow her to see invisible creatures. The few flakes of snow sharpened as the air took on a magical shimmer, but still she saw nothing.

Then a ghostly figure materialized right in front of her.

It was a drow female, but one who had been horribly disfigured. Long white hair clung in straggling clumps to a scalp that was puck-ered with deep pits, and her face was terribly burned. Where the nose had been was nothing but a gaping hole, and the eyes were likewise missing. Skin had bubbled in enormous blisters on the face and on those portions of the arms and legs that were bare. The torso, thank-fully, was hidden by a chain mail tunic, but the metal links were corroded and loose as though the armor had been hurled into a lake of acid.

Halisstra clutched the broken songsword, heart pounding, wishing desperately that she held a better weapon. The ghostly figure, how-ever, made no threatening moves. Instead it stooped and reached for something on the ground: Halisstra's brooch. As it did, a medallion that hung from its waist by a metal chain swung forward. Like the chain mail, the medallion was blackened and pitted, but Halisstra could see a faint trace of the design it once bore: Eilistraee's symbol.

Halisstra glanced at the corroded sheath at the figure's hip - a sheath that was curved like a crescent moon. Slowly, she lowered her sword.

"You're Mathira Melarn," she whispered.

The ghost nodded.

"I'm looking for the Crescent Blade," Halisstra told the ghost. "Will you help me?"

Once again the figure gave a slow, mournful nod.

"Where is it?" Halisstra asked.

The ghost opened its mouth, but all that came out was a gurgling groan. The tongue was missing, burned away by the acid that had consumed the rest of the woman's body. The wyrm that had killed her must have been a black dragon. Halisstra shuddered at the thought of the agonies its acid spittle must have wrought upon the priestess in the moments just before her death.

Can you sign?Halisstra asked.

In answer, the ghost let Halisstra's medallion fall to the ground and raised hands that were lumps of pitted flesh, the fingers burned away to skeletal stubs. Then, turning stiffly as if still suffering the agonies of her wounds, she motioned with one arm in a gesture whose meaning was clear enough:Come.

Halisstra glanced at her House insignia and saw that the ghost's touch had left it pitted and blackened. Not wanting to touch it, Hal-isstra left the medallion where it lay and followed the ghost.

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