Chapter Six

The surface world was cloaked in darkness by the time Ryld emerged from the tunnel. He had traveled for some time after leaving the others in the cavern. A full moon hung above the tree-tops, half hidden by clouds but still casting so much light that it impeded his darkvision. The snow that covered the ruined temple was covered with footprints, but Ryld was able to pick out those belonging to the cleric and warriors of House Jaelre. They led in one direction only - into the tunnel. The escaped cleric hadn't returned that way.

Ryld scanned the trees, searching for any sign that more of House Jaelre's warriors might be lurking in the forest. Seeing none, he crept out of the tunnel mouth.

A moment later he heard a soft, melodic whistle. It was a tune he recognized.

"Halisstra?" he whispered.

Halisstra negated the spell that had rendered her invisible and rushed, over to embrace him.

"Ryld!" she exclaimed. "I thought you weren't coming back."

He tried to ask why she'd doubted him, but she pressed her lips against his, kissing him. For several long moments he returned her embrace, feverishly drinking in her scent and taste. She was alive! Then he remembered the warriors he'd killed - and the cleric who had gotten away.

"We can't stay here," he told her. "House Jaelre is on our trail. I ran into one of their scouting parties below."

"I know," she said, surprising him. "I saw three of them pass through the woods, just after sunset. I made some noise, and they were drawn this way. They didn't find me, even though they searched for a long time after finding my gloves."

"I'm glad," Ryld whispered fiercely. "No need to worry about them now, though. They're dead."

He heard her draw a sharp breath and thought she was reacting to his words. Then he realized that it was his grip on her arm that had prompted the gasp. She was wounded. Turning her arm, he saw a puncture just below the spot where the sleeve of her chain mail end-ed. The wound had been healed??- probably by magic - but freshly so, since it still pained her.

"I think I got your gloves back," he said. "What happened?"

"Stirges. Dozens of them, but they're deadnow."


"I blasted them with magic, then made myself invisible."

"With your lyre?"

When Halisstra shook her head and grinned, Ryld blinked in surprise.

"How, then?" he asked. "Has Lolth reawakened?"

Halisstra laughed scornfully and said, "Let's check. Are you awake, Lolth? Can you see this?"

Smiling fiercely, she made a blasphemous gesture, flipping her hand palm-up, fingers curled in the sign for a dead spider.

Ryld cringed, but several heartbeats later, when nothing hap-pened, he slowly allowed himself to relax.

Halisstra smiled and patted the hilt of the sword she'd taken from Eilistraee's cleric.

"I've found a new way to work my magic. I don't need my lyre - or Lolth - any more."

Ryld nodded, disturbed not so much by her blasphemy but by the fear of what would follow. Above them hung the moon - symbol of the god who had driven Lolth out of Arvandor. Was Halisstra about to be claimed by Corellon or one of the other surface gods?

Trying to ignore his own question, Ryld glared at the ruins of the creator god's temple.

"We should get moving," he said, more harshly than he'd in-tended. "This place is dangerous."

Halisstra stared at him a moment, then nodded and said, "Let's go."

With a quick motion of his hand, Ryld caught Halisstra's attention.

Be still,he signed. Then,do you hear that?

They had walked for the rest of the night through the forest without hearing anything but the pattering of the rain that was melt-ing the slush underfoot, but from somewhere ahead came the sound of an animal's howl. It was answered a few moments later by a second howl, somewhere to the right, that ended in a series of brief, excited yips. The yips had a pattern, almost like that of speech.

There're at least two of them,Halisstra signed back.

Ryld nodded. He peered into the forest but the light of the rising sun, slanting in through a crack in the heavy cloud cover, was ruin-ing his darkvision.

Halisstra reached for her sword as she signaled,They're coming our way.

Yes. And they're moving fast, but... He listened for a moment and heard a high-pitched yelp of alarm. They're not hunting. They're fleeing from something.

A grim look on her face, wet hair dripping onto the shoulders of her armor, Halisstra drew her sword. Curiously, she did not ready it but instead reversed the blade and held the hilt to her lips.

Levitate,she said with her free hand.Hide.

She pressed her lips to the hilt and blew, and a haunting music filled the air. An instant later she disappeared. The only way Ryld could tell she was still there was bylooking at the ground. The spot where no rain wasfalling marked where she stood.

As the howls and yips drew closer, Ryld touched his brooch. He rose silently into the air through sodden tree branches, then paused at a height of about ten paces and readied his crossbow. A moment or two later, he heard a rustling in the underbrush. An enormous gray-furred animal that walked on four spindly legs burst into sight, run-ning full out with its tongue lolling and eyes wide. It glanced from side to side as it ran - not with the terror of a wild creature but with a keen intelligence as if seeking somewhere to hide. It yipped once, was answered by a companion still some distance away in the woods, then was gone.

Ryld could have shot his crossbow but had not. He wanted to save the magical bolt for whatever was chasing the carnivore. He didn't have long to wait. A few moments later, he heard something big crashing through the forest with stumbling steps. From its gait, it sounded like a human, but by the snap of branches and the huffing grunts Ryld guessed that it was much larger. When it crashed into sight, smashing a slendertree in half with one careless swipe of its hand, Ryld saw that he'd been right.

It was a troll.

Twice the height of a drow and nearly five times as heavy, the troll had a mottled, gray-green hide covered in splotchy gray lumps. It loped along on misshapen, three-toed feet, its rubbery arms so long that its knuckles made drag marks through the slush on the ground. Greenish-black hair grew from its sloping forehead down its back in a tangled, dirty mane, and even in the steady rain its body emitted a foul smell somewhere between human sweat and the stench or rothe manure.

Ryld stared down at the troll as it paused, streams of drool sliding from the corners of a panting mouth filled with broken teeth. Once again, he refrained from shooting his crossbow. The bolt would do no more than annoy the troll and alert it to the fact that someone was there.

After a moment, having caught its breath, the troll got ready to run again. Then its head suddenly whipped to the side, and its nos-trils flared.

"Halisstra! Watch out!" Ryld shouted - more to draw the troll's attention than to warn Halisstra, who was almost certainly watching the troll herself.

In that same instant, Ryld fired. The bolt whizzed toward its target but glanced off a branch just before striking the troll. Instead of burying itself in the monster's eye, as Ryld had intended, the bolt sliced a furrow across the top of the troll's head. A heartbeat later, the graze mended itself.

The troll, having scented Halisstra, raked the air in front of it with long sweeps of its clawed hands. It must have come uncom-fortably close, for an instant later Halisstra became visible, her long sword slashing forward in an attack. Stupidly, the troll parried with its hand, and two of its fingers went flying. They lay on the forest floor, wriggling in the slush.

The creature struck with its other hand, raking it across Halisstra's chest. The magical chain mail stopped the claws from penetrating, but the force of the blow sent Halisstra stumbling backward. She slipped on the slushy ground and went down. Sensing an easy kill, the troll lunged, andonly at the last moment did Halisstra manage to bring her shield up. The troll's teeth sank into the edge of the shield, crum-pling it. Then the troll shook its head, wrenching the shield from Halisstra's arm. Pinned to the ground by the weight of the monster kneeling on her, she was unable to bring her sword into play.

Negating his levitation magic, Ryld plunged down through the branches. He landed perfectly braced in a ready posture, drawing Splitter in one smooth motion from the scabbard at his back. Putting all the force of his will into the blow, he swung the greatsword with both hands and felt it slice cleanly into the troll's neck, cleaving it instantly. The head flew into the air, eyes blinking stupidly, then it landed and rolled away. The headless body reared to its feet and spun around as Ryld opened its stomach with a second sword swing, spill-ing foul-smelling entrails.

The headless, disemboweled troll finally stumbled away into the forest.

Halisstra lay on her back on the wet ground, gasping, rain spat-tering her face. Worried that she might be in immediate need of healing magic, Ryld reached down to help her -??

- and was slammed to the ground by an attack he should have anticipated. Rolling quickly away, he saw that the troll was back. The creaturestumbled toward him, one hand holding its head on the stump of its severed neck, the other attempting to rake Ryld with its claws. Even as Ryld flipped himself up off the ground and back onto his feet, dancing out of the reach of those claws, he saw flaps of sinew burst out of the ropy muscles of the troll's neck and quest up like sentient worms to hook themselves into the head. Swifter almost than the eye could follow, they stitched the head back onto the body, while the entrails that had spilled from the troll's slashed belly sucked back into the stomach wound. Already the fingers that Halisstra's blow had sliced off earlier were starting to grow back. Knobs of pinkish-gray flesh pulsed outward from the severed digits.

Leaping forward, Ryld slashed at the troll's neck a second time, but the monster, unlike him, anticipated the attack. It ducked - startlingly fast - then lunged forward and wrapped a rubbery hand around Ryld's own. Ryld heard a bone in his hand crack and gasped at the incredible strength of the troll. Even with a hand that was missing two fingers, its fist was crushing his. The troll jerked Splitter out of Ryld's hand and cast it away.

Halisstra had struggled to her feet and was slashing at the troll's broad back, her sword making strange, flutelike noises as she swung it. The monster grunted with each stroke like a slave under the lash but otherwise ignored the deep cuts in its back. Whirling, it back-handed her away with a blow that sent her staggering. Ryld drew his short sword and thrust at the spot where the troll's heart should have been, but even though the blade buried itself to the hilt in the thing's rubbery chest the monster was not slowed.

A hand whipped out with the speed of one of Quenthel's whip vipers and wrapped itself around Ryld's neck. Powerful fingers tightened against flesh, choking off his breathing. Ryld felt a rush of magical energy flowing into his body from the dragon-shaped ring on his finger, as the ring hardened his flesh against the troll's claws - but too late. His windpipe had already squeezed shut. Abandoning his sword, still hilt-deep in the monster's chest, he drove stiffened fingers into what would have, on a drow, been a crippling pressure point - then he winced. He might as well have driven his fingers into solid stone.

Halisstra charged back into the fray and managed to slice one of the troll's feet from its ankle. It stumbled but quickly found its foot-ing, balancing on the stump. Halisstra was rewarded with a rake of claws that snagged her chain mail, tearing a link from it.

Ryld, unable to breathe, shouted at her the only way he could.

Flee! I am finished!

"No!" she gasped. "I won't leave you."

She lunged forward, attacking the troll with a furious barrage of blows. Ryld, observing with the eye of a master, saw that Halisstra had opened her stance, inadvertently exposing herself to what would be a fatal rake of the monster's claws.

Though Ryld should have been watching with the detachment of someone who knows he is about to die and can do nothing about it, he felt a strange emotion fill him in that impossibly long moment that stretched between two fading heartbeats, a deep sadness and a sense of infinite loss. Not only because Halisstra was about to die, but be-cause her death would mean the end of something Ryld had only just discovered: true friendship - perhaps even love. The kind that would cause a person to willingly sacrifice herself in a hopeless attempt to save another. As their eyes met, Ryld realized that he would have done the same for Halisstra - and he saw that she knew it. He also saw something he'd never seen inthe eyes of a drow: trust.

At that moment a drow female burst out of the forest, her silver-white hair plastered against her face by the rain. She was naked, save for a heavy silver chain around her waist that was hung with a large silver disk and a curved hunter's horn. She moved at a full-out sprint, holding above her head a sword whose blade glowed with leaping silver flames.With a piercing, high-pitched shout that sounded like a single note in a song, strong and true, she slashed down with her sword.

The blade bit deep intothe troll's shoulder, then flared. Silver fire spread instantly across the troll's body, blinding Ryld. He winced, expecting to be burned himself, but the wave of heat he'd been an-ticipating never came. The flames seemed to emit song rather than heat, dancing to their own rhythm as they licked over the troll's rub-bery skin.

Bellowing, its flesh blackening under the magical fire, the troll sagged to its knees. Ryld, suddenly able to breathe again as the mas-sive hand fell away from his neck, gasped in a lungful of air. Though fouled by the stench of burning flesh, it had never tasted so sweet. He watched, dumbfounded, as the troll's body crumpled in on itself, the magical, silvery flames destroying it in a matter of heartbeats.

"I thank you, my lady," he told the drow - obviously a mage or a cleric, and a powerful one. He bowed deeply before her. "You have saved both our . . ."

His voice trailed off as he saw the look on the woman's face. She was staring at Halisstra with a look of surprise - and bitter anger. Ryld finally recognized the symbol on the silver disk that hung from the chain at her waist. It was a sword, set against a haloed circle. The symbol of Eilistraee.

"That's Seyll's armor," the cleric said, eyes blazing as she stared at the chain mail Halisstra was wearing. "You're the one who killed her."

The stranger wrenched the horn from her belt and blew a single, prolonged note. An instant later, the horns of her fellow hunters answered.

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