Chapter Four

Ryld pulled the bag of sand out of the pocket of hispiwafwi and placed it on a ridge in the rock wall at the point where the tunnel forked, then carefully balanced a large stone on top of it. He pulled from his quiver one of the crossbow bolts Halisstra had taken from the surface elves and checked its barbed head for traces of poison. Seeing none, he used it to cut his palm. He smeared blood on the tunnel wall, then snapped the point off the bolt. As he placed the broken bolt on the tunnel floor, he glanced nervously back down the fork that led to the cavern, worried that someone might have heard the sound.

Silence. The noise had been slight, and no one was coming to investigate.

He balled his hand around a rag to staunch the flow of blood, then dropped it to the floor beside the broken crossbow bolt. Then he pulled his portable hole out of a pocket and flipped the folded piece of phase-spider silk open, laying it on the ground just below the sand-filled bag. Carefully, he loosened the bag's drawstrings un-til just a trickle of sand began to fall from it into the portable hole. Then he hurried back down the steeply sloping corridor to the cavern where the others were.

He'd been worried that Jeggred would smell the fresh blood on his palm, but the draegloth seemed to have been doing a little blood-letting of his own. It was Danifae who stared at him as he returned.

Ryld paid little attention as Pharaun summoned the demon, his mind instead focused on the silent count he'd begun after leaving the bag. He did glance down in alarm, however, when the demon told Pharaun there was a gate to the Abyss directly under the frozen pond. It was obviously a ploy of some kind, but Pharaun didn't question it. Instead, when the demon's handsflared with fire for the second time, Pharaun merely stood and watched, as if curious to see what the de-mon would do.

Ryld concentrated on his count: fifteen, fourteen, thirteen . . . almost time.

"Listen," he said, touching Danifae's arm. "Do you hear that?"

Danifae gave him a suspicious look. Then, from farther up the tunnel, came the sound or a dislodged stone hitting the tunnel floor and rolling toward them. Danifae's eyes widened slightly.

"Someoneis - "

Her words were cut off by a violent hiss of steam from the cavern below. Glancing down, Ryld saw that the demon was melting the ice. He opened his mouth to shout a warning -??

- then he pursed his lips shut. The demon was Pharaun's problem.

Ryld shifted to sign language, in order to speak over the hissing roar of boiling water.

Whoever it is, I'm going to make them sorry they followed us. Tell Quenthel where I've gone.

You're running off after Halisstra,Danifae accused.

Ryld, startled, was surprised by her bluntness - and by the approval he saw in her eyes. Was she glad that her mistress would have some-one to protect her, after all?

No,he told her, determined to keep up his bluff.I'llbe back. As proof you can keep this.

He pulled the lesser of his two magical rings from his finger and passed it to Danifae, intentionally dropping it. The ring bounced off a rock and began to roll down the slope toward where the oth-ers stood. Danifae scrambled after it, trying to grab the ring before Quenthel or one of the others claimed it.

Ryld turned to hurry back the way they had come. He saw Valas shoot him aquick, questioning glance. Then Quenthel shouted a warning to Pharaun. An instant later a roar of triumph filled the cavern. The demon was free.

Ryld was already several paces away, climbing swiftly up the narrow tunnel that had led them to the cavern. Behind him he could hear more roaring, violent splashing, and terrified shouts. An explosive rush of cold air whooshed past him - the blast of a spell. There was no way to tell whether it was one of Pharaun's - or one cast by the demon. Then a male voice screamed in mortal agony. Pharaun's?

For a heartbeat or two, he actually considered turning around. Then he decided against it. Pharaun deserved to know what it felt like not to be able to count on a friend.

He climbed upward, ignoring the sounds of battle behind him until he reached the flattened bag, which he plucked from its ledge. He dropped it into the portable hole, then folded the hole shut. He'd shake it out later when he reached the surface. If the others survived the demon attack and came looking for him, there would be no clues to alert them to the trick he'd played.

Ryld pressed on, retracing the route they'd taken from the sur-face. He'd taken careful mental notes as they descended, pausing several times to turn around to view landmarks from the opposite direction.

He passed the place where they'd been forced to crawl over a jumble of rock because the ceiling had partially collapsed, then the long, narrow cavern where a trickle of water had encouraged a faintly glowing patch of lichen to grow. Next came the natural chimney that rose more than a hundred paces above and below to dead ends, with several narrow tunnels opening onto it.

Reaching it, Ryld looked up the chimney and counted. The third tunnel above and slightly to the right was the one they'd come through. Touching the magical brooch pinned to his shirt, Ryld stepped out into the chimney and levitated toward it.

As he drew closer to the tunnel mouth, he heard a faint clink from somewhere inside it. Instantly recognizing the sound of chain mail links clinking against each other, he whipped up the hood of his piwafwiand drew his feet up under its hem. The magic of his cloak enfolded him, throwing his body into shadow. He drifted past the mouth of the tunnel he'd been heading for - to one side of it, so the person he'd just heard wouldn't spot the movement of shad-owed gray against shadowed gray - then he halted the equivalent of a dozen paces above the opening. He hung there, carefully control-ling his breathing so that not even a whisper of sound escaped his lips. He waited.

A moment later, a dark face appeared in the tunnel mouth. The strange drow's ebony skin blended with the darkness of the tunnel behind it, as did the black mask that hid his lower face - the symbol of a cleric of Vhaeraun - but his white hair and faintly glowing red eyes stood out in sharp relief. He peered up at where Ryld floated. A chimney was a natural place to expect an ambush.

Slowly, Ryld slid his finger into the trigger of the crossbow that was strapped to his wrist, but the cleric didn't appear to have spot-ted him.

After a quick scan of the chimney above, the cleric turned his attention downward. Pulling a forked bit of bone out of a pocket of hispiwafwi, he grasped it with the thumb and forefinger of each hand and held it over the chimney, then spoke the words of a spell. The bone glowed with a soft purple light. A moment later, the light coalesced at the point of the V-shaped bone, then erupted into a siz-zling purple spark. The spark began to drift up, then hesitated and drifted slowly and steadily downward. It came to a halt in front of the tunnel Ryld had just climbed out of before it winked out.

The priest turned and signed to someone in the tunnel behind him,They went this way.

That seen, Ryld's suspicions were confirmed. The cleric was from House Jaelre and was seeking vengeance for the death of his high priest.

Ryld watched in silence as the cleric and two well-armed males descended toward the tunnel. The cleric and one of the warriors simply stepped out of the tunnel and drifted magically downward, but the second warrior was forced to climb down the narrow cor-ner of the chimney, his back braced against one wall, hands and feet against the other. Tactically, that was the moment for Ryld to strike - or to flee, since the grunts and scuffing noises the climbing male was making would cover the sound of him entering the tunnel they'd just left.

Ryld didn't care about Quenthel Baenre. He had accompanied her because he'd been ordered to. Valas could take care of himself in a fight, and Danifae was from another city, and no concern of Ryld's. But Pharaun, even though he was a powerful mage, had just been in a fight with a demon. He would be easy pickings for those three. . . .

Flipping back hispiwafwi, Ryld shot hiscrossbow at the cleric. The tiny bolt struck the drow's cheek, plowing a furrow of red across it. As the powerful poison on the barb entered his bloodstream, the cleric sagged in mid-air and was forced to grab at the mouth of one of the tunnels as his levitation magic failed him. Crawling into it, he lay trembling on its stone floor, his lips moving in whispered prayer.

Ryld touched his brooch and dropped like a stone. He twisted as he fell, simultaneously drawing his short sword and lashing out with a foot as he passed the climbing drow. Braced against the rock as he was, the man could do nothing but close his eyes against the kick Ryld aimed at his face. The blow rocked his head back, smashing it into the wall with a loud crack. An instant later, his unconscious body tumbled afterRyld.

Pushing off from a wall, Ryld activated the magic of his brooch a second time, checking his fall. The unconscious drow tumbled past, landing with a bone-snapping thud against the floor far below. In the meantime, the levitating warrior had drawn his weapon: a spiked mace.

Ryld floated down toward him, short sword at the ready. His opponent shouted something - a command word - and the head of his mace burst into bright, magical light. Blinded by the sudden bril-liance, Ryld instinctively twisted aside - and heard the mace strike a shattering blow against the wall beside his head. His foot lashed out a second time but missed its target. The warrior was used to fighting in sunlight and had easily avoided the kick.

Cursing, Ryld summoned a magical darkness that filled the chimney. Neither of them could see, so both had to listen carefully over the sound of the cleric's prayers for the faint shifts of fabric and armor in order to locate his opponent.

A rush of air warned Ryld of a second mace blow. He twisted violently back, inadvertently falling a little as his levitation magic was interrupted. His sword arm brushed the chimney wall - and an in-stant later the mace smashed into his elbow, numbing his arm to the fingertips. He tried to swing, but the sword slipped from his fingers.

The mace smashed in a second time, catching him in the stom-ach. Ryld's breastplate stopped the spikes from penetrating, but even so, the force of the blow made him grunt. His opponent was better than Ryld had expected.

Ryld heard his short sword clatter against the bottom of the chimney, far below. Meanwhile, the cleric's prayer had increased in volume from a whisper to a chant. The cleric must have been using his magic to neutralize the poison, which meant that Ryld would soon have two threats to face. In the narrow chimney, the greatsword strapped to his back was useless. He wouldn't be able to bring Splitter to bear. That meant close fighting. Very close.

Kicking off from a wall, Ryld launched himself horizontally at the sound of his opponent's breathing. His fingers brushed against a mail tunic, but then he heard the rush of a mace. He twisted, but the weapon connected with his shoulder. He was saved from injury by the dragon-shaped ring on his finger - the ring that marked Ryld asa Master of Melee-Magthere - for its magic made his skin and flesh as tough as that of a dragon. The spikes of the mace bent as they struck, and the weapon glanced off.

Meanwhile, Ryld clawed his way up his opponent's body, stab-bing fingers into pressure points. The man grunted, gasped - then made a loud, choking gurgle as Ryld found his throat and crushed his windpipe. His body went limp, and he too tumbled away.

They must have been losing elevation during the fight. Ryld emerged from the magical darkness and could see again. And the cleric could see Ryld.

Shouting an invocation to his god, he tore the mask from his face and hurled it at Ryld. The weapons master twisted and dropped, but the mask followed him with the speed of a swooping bat. It slapped against his face and adhered tightly against his nose and mouth with a wet sucking sound.

Ryld tried to tear the mask from his face, but it clung to his skin like fungus to a rock. Unable to breathe??- a single indrawn breath would draw the contagion the mask carried deep into his lungs - Ryld did the only thing he could. He touched his brooch and dropped. Somehow, he was able to avoid drawing a breath as he caught the ledge where the cleric stood. He held his breath still as he wrenched his head up to the level of the ledge, then swung his legs up in a graceful leap. The mental discipline taught to him by the masters of Melee-Magthere sustained him as he sprang toward the startled cleric, hands poised to strike. Dark sparkles danced before his eyes as he reached the limits of what his body could do without air to sustain it - and he passed those limits, still rushing forward.

The cleric, red eyes wide with fear, danced backward, avoiding Ryld's charge. Then, nerve broken, he turned and fled, screaming the words of a prayer. A circle of darkness appeared in the air just ahead of him, and he hurled himself into it. Then he was gone.

An instant later, the mask vanished from Ryld's face. Able to breathe again, Ryld drew a shuddering breath and steadied himself against one wall. For the moment, all was well. The cleric was gone, his magic having spirited him away, and the two warriors of House Jaelre who had accompanied him were dead. Even if the cleric did find Pharaun and the others, Ryld had greatly improved the odds. In the meantime, the two dead bodies would give his excuse about go-ing back to see who was following them the ring of truth. If the oth-ers came that way they would find the dead warriors, would be able to tell from the tracks that there had been a third man, and would assume, when Ryld failed to return, that he had been captured and dragged back to Minauthkeep. Perfect.

Stepping out into the chimney once more, Ryld levitated down to retrieve the sword he'd dropped. The bodies of the two warriors he'd killed lay in a tangled heap, wedged into the bottom of the chimney.

Ryld's sword was sandwiched between them.

Flipping the top corpse over, he reached for his sword - then gasped when he spotted a pair of leather gloves that had spilled out of one of the warrior's torn pockets. He recognized them in an instant by the insignia of House Melarn embossed onto their wide cuffs.

They were Halisstra's gloves - and the soft leather was stiff with dried blood.

Fear washed through Ryld like an icy river. Did that mean Hal-isstra had been killed? If so, the logical thing for Ryld to do would be to return to the others - assuming they weren't demon meat by then - and give up the insane notion of remaining on the surface. It had all been Halisstra's idea, anyway. If she was dead, there was no point in him continuing alone.

But if she wasn't dead. . . .

Ryld shook his head, angry at himself. He didn't owe Halisstra anything, he told himself Going after her was simply insane.

His fist tightened on the bloody gloves. Stuffing them into a pocket of hispiwafwi, he touched his brooch and levitated up the chimney.

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