Chapter Thirty-two

As the worm's mouth closed around her, Halisstra squeezed her eyes shut. She gasped as a wave of acid splattered against the exposed portions of her body - her face, neck, and hands - then regretted it as the stench of acid filled her nostrils. Rivulets of agony trickled through her hair and down her neck, searing her chest and back as they found their way under her chain mail and padded tunic.

Clinging to the hilt of the songsword, she twisted violently against the rippling, sucking force of the worm trying to swallow her down. She managed to get her feet braced against the worm's lower jaw, but when she tried to lever the mouth open her boots slipped. The worm swallowed her, wrenching her hands away from the hilt of the sword.

As the worm's throat muscles constricted, forcing her down its throat, Halisstra began to pray. To open her burning lips would mean swallowing acid, which would further increase her torment, so she prayed silently, fervently, begging Eilistraee to help her. Despite the fact that she could feel her skin erupting into blisters, she didn't at-tempt a curative spell - that would only delay the inevitable - instead she pleaded for something that would help her to escape.

The worm thrashed back and forth, bending Halisstra violently this way and that. She heard dull, muffled thuds that must have been Ryld hacking at the worm with his sword, but then the creature twisted suddenly and they stopped. The motion forced the air from Halisstra's lungs - and she dared not try to inhale. Instead she forced her hand down, scraping it against her acid-slimed chain mail to touch the amulet hanging from her belt, next to her empty sheath.

Eilistraee,she prayed.Help me. Send me a weapon.

Something nudged against her hand - something hard and smooth. Grasping it, Halisstra realized it was the hilt of a sword - obviously the weapon of some other unfortunate victim of the worm. She wasted no time in using what the goddess had provided. Forcing her elbow back against the pulsing wall of the worm's gut, she brought the pointof the weapon to bear and felt it slide into the worm's flesh. Then she began to saw.

Her entire body was covered in acid. The worm's digestive juices had seeped under her armor and clothing and onto her skin. She could feel blisters erupting and could feel the acid flowing into the rupturing skin with each move that she made. Head pounding from a lack of air, she sawed desperately, her movements made short and jerky by the fact that the worm's gut was pressing her arm against her side. Flashes of red danced before her eyes, but still she continued to saw. It was either that or die.

The wall of gut in front of her ruptured. Riding a wave of acid, Halisstra fell through the wound in the worm's side, dropping the sword. She lay for a moment on the hard stone, drawing deep, shud-dering breaths and watching the worm thrash itself across the cavern. The creature was wounded in half a dozen places: deep gashes that had probably been made by Ryld's greatsword. As the worm shud-dered and at last died, Halisstra rolled feebly over, out of the puddle of acid.

"Ryld," she gasped, sighting him.

As her pain-dulled mind registered that he was lying on his back on the cavern floor, she forced herself into a sitting position, nearly fainting at the pain of her heavy chain mail as it rubbed against her acid-burned flesh.

"Ryld," she said, her voice cracking. "Ryld!"

The weapons master's chest still rose and fell beneath the breast-plate he wore, though the breaths were shallow. Just below the edge of his breastplate his tunic was torn - a round bloodstain told her that it was a puncture wound. The worm had injected him with its venom.

He needed her magic - and quickly - but she could not aid him without first healing herself. Time was of the essence, so she usedbae'qeshel magic, a darksong that would close her wounds. The worst of her pain was relieved - though it returned, in lesser form, a moment later as the acid that had soaked into her clothing began to eat at her skin again. As rapidly as she could, she stripped off her chain mail and pulled off her soggy tunic and boots. Her tunic came off easily, peeling away in wet, rotted chunks. As she stripped down, she noted that the spell had knitted her ruptured skin back together but had left a pattern of overlapping burn marks. Startled by the sight of them, she began to raise a hand to her face - then im-mediately dropped it as she heard Ryld softly moan. It was no time for vanity.

Scrambling across the floor to him, she laid a hand over the site of his wound and felt a shudder pass through the flesh under the blood-soaked tunic. Closing her eyes, she chanted her prayer.

Eilistraee, aid him. Slow the poison that rushes through his veins. Grant him just alittle time, yet, to live.

She lifted her free hand, imagining herself outside, under a clear sky, reaching up toward the moon. When she felt the familiar tingle of magic she swept her hand down, placingher palm upon the hand that still covered Ryld's wound. She felt a rush of magical energy flow through her and into Ryld - energy as cool and as bright as the moon. As the last of it drained out of her she shivered, suddenly cold and exhausted.

Halisstra knelt, anxiously watching Ryld's slow, labored breathing, wondering if her spell had worked. Uluyara had been right - Halisstra had been mad to think she could find the Crescent Blade, when the combined efforts of Eilistraee's faithful had failed. Halisstra wondered if the ghost that had led her to the worm hole had truly been Mathira Melarn. It seemed more likely that it was just some malevo-lent spirit seeking to lead others to experience the same gruesome death that it had. Stupidly, like a rothe being led to slaughter, she had followed the ghost to the edge of the worm hole, then entered, despite her realization that it would be a purple worm she'd be con-fronting and not a dragon after all. She had proceeded anyway, blind faith causing her to believe that the Crescent Blade would be inside the worm's lair.

If it was, she hadn't seen it. In the moments before Ryld had startled her, breaking her spell, Halisstra had gotten a good look at the cavern floor. She'd even gotten the worm to shift this way and that, enabling her to search beneath it.

She'd seen nothing.

Sighing, she stared down at Ryld. In pursuing her quest, she'd come close to forfeiting her own life. That, she had no quarrel with. As a drow, and a former servant of Lolth, she was used to such sac-rifices being demanded of her and all around her. The goddess con-sumed her followers like flies, then cast their empty husks away. But Halisstra had expected more of Eilistraee. A little mercy - if not for her, then for innocents like Ryld. She hadn't expected her quest to cost him his life as well.

Then she saw a slight change. Ryld's face, which had been swiftly draining of color a few moment before, seemed slightly darker, less gray. She could see his breathing begin to steady, though it still sounded wet and tight. The spell had worked - there was still hope.

"Eilistraee, forgive me," she quickly whispered. "Forgive me for doubting your mercy."

Squatting, she hooked one hand under Ryld's shoulders, the other under his hips, intending to carry him, if need be, all the way up to the surface, then back across the Cold Field to the nearest town.

Eilistraee willing, she would be able to locate one of the priestesses - someone who knew a healing spell that would flush the poison com-pletely from his body - before the poison-delaying spell she'd cast ran out.

As she started to lift Ryld his eyes flickered open, startling her. He looked confused for a moment, but slowly recognition dawned.

"Halisstra," he croaked. "Is it really you?"

At first Halisstra thought he was still groggy from the poison. Then she realized, from the way he was staring at her, that he truly did not recognize her. She touched her face and found it cratered with over-lapping scars. Her hand trembling, she reached up still farther, and found that most of her hair had fallen out. Only a few ragged strands remained. Thebae'qeshel magic had closed the wounds caused by her burns - but it had left her with terrible scars.

She told herself not to worry about it - the priestesses would cer-tainly have a spell that would smooth her skin and restore her hair. Getting Ryld back was the thing to concentrate on.

"Itis me, Ryld," she told him. "Do you think you can walk? Otherwise I'll have to carry you back across the Cold Field."

"I can walk . . . if you help me up," he said. Then he looked around. "Splitter - where is it?"

The poison having been slowed, Ryld struggled to his hands and knees - still shaky but looking stronger than he had just a moment before. Halisstra knew he would no sooner leave his enchanted greatsword behind than he would sacrifice an arm or a leg, but hewas still weak.

"I'll find it," Halisstra told him. "You stay here, and save your strength."

She approached the worm carefully, worried that it might not yet be dead. Its body was unmoving, however, coiled in a limp tangle. Easing its mouth open, she yanked Seyll's songsword from its cheek and let the acid drain from the finger holes in the weapon's hilt. Then she searched for Splitter.

The greatsword lay close to the spot where Halisstra had hacked her way out of the worm's belly, its hilt protruding from under a coil of the worm. She stooped and yanked it free - then spotted something lying half in and half out of the wound. It was the sword she'd used to cut herself free. Its blade was bright and untarnished - obviously magical, since it had been protected from the acid's cor-rosive effects - and curved. Curved.

Halisstra realized what weapon it must be.

It was the Crescent Blade.

Eyes wide with awe, ignoring the acid that was stinging the soles of her bare feet, she picked up the sword, then backed out of the pool of acid. The hilt should have been slippery with the worm's digestive juices but its leather wrapping felt dry and clean - further evidence that it was a magical weapon. Silver had been inlaid along the length of the blade, giving the metal its sheen. The inlay spelled out words in the drow tongue that began to glow slightly as Halis-stra held the sword.

Ryld, rising unsteadily on his feet, moved closer to take a look as Halisstra read the inscription.

" 'Be your heart filled with light and your cause be true, I shall not fail you,' " she recited. Her brows puckered in a doubtful frown. "Even in the Abyss?" she whispered.

When she looked up, she saw Ryld staring at her.

"So that's why you wanted the Crescent Blade," he said softly. "To try to kill Lolth?" He shook his head. "That's something even Vhaeraun failed to do. How can you hope to succeed where a god has failed?"

"I don't know," Halisstra answered honestly.

Part of her felt manipulated - despite nearly being devoured by the worm, it felt as though the Crescent Blade had just fallen into her hands. That made her wary, uneasy. Butat the same time, another part of her felt elation. She might be no more than a piece on asava board, being moved this way and that by an unseen hand, but that hand belonged to a goddess. Eilistraee, for good or ill, had taken a per-sonal interest in her - something Lolth had never done. The thought filled Halisstra with a heady pride.

"Eilistraee is watching over me," she told Ryld. "It feels as if all of this has been preordained - and I have a sense that it's my destiny to atleast try to follow the path the goddess has set me on. If I do succeed in killing Lolth, we'll at last be free of her clinging webs. All of us. The drow can come up into the light, without fear of her retaliation."

"And if you fail. . ." Ryld began, then weakly coughed.

Halisstra took his arm and helped to steady him. They didn't have time to stand there contemplating her chances of success. Not with the poison only temporarily held at bay.

"Do you have any spare clothing?" she asked.

He nodded at the backpack on the floor and said, "In there. A tunic and some boots."

"Good," she said.

A tunic and boots alone would be little protection against the bitter winds of the World Above, but Halisstra knew she could use her spells - if sparingly - to gain temporary respite from the cold. She dug out the clothes and put them on, helped Ryld slide Splitter back into its sheath, and strapped the Crescent Blade and songsword across the top of her backpack and slipped it onto her back.

"Come on," she said, slipping one of Ryld's arms over her shoulder. "The sooner we get you back to the temple, the better your chances of living long enough to watch me die trying to kill a goddess."

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