Chapter Nineteen

On the Plains of Soulfire, the mezzoloths shifted into battle formations. The nycaloths flew above the host, axes in hand. The ultroloth pulled out a second rod, likely to bring down Pharaun's wall of force.

Jeggred stood at the top of the path that led down to the plains, growling with rage.

"Get rid of this wall, wizard!" the draegloth roared, veins and tendons visible under his leathery skin. Beside Pharaun, the priestesses voiced spells of summoning. Quenthel didn't bother with a summoning circle. Neither did Danifae. Each cradled her holy symbol to her breast and called on Lolth for aid. Their voices rose into the darkened sky, boomed over the blasted plains.

And the Spider Queen answered.

Quenthel called out a name. The word hit Pharaun like a physical blow, skipped off his brain, and was lost to his memory.

A roll of thunder boomed. Quenthel repeated the name.

Above them, the sky opened. An enormous shadow filled the hole, winged and awful.

Pharaun knew it for it was, but he could scarcely believe his eyes.

A klurichir. One of the most powerful demons in the Abyss. Quenthel had taken a great risk in summoning it. She was either very confident or very desperate.

Except for the lonely sound of Danifae's voice, silence fell over the Plains of Soulfire. Even Jeggred quieted. A nervous shuffle ran through the yugoloth army. The nycaloths hurriedly flew back down to stand with their troops. Pharaun caught the magically augmented telepathic projection of the ultroloth. Stand your ground, he ordered, and the yugoloths obeyed.

The klurichir circled downward, growing larger with each pass. A roar escaped it, and the sound shook the mountains.

It alit on the mountainside, just outside of the invisible wall of Pharaun's sphere of force.

The klurichir's powerfully muscled body, covered in coarse grayish skin and hair that looked more like quills, stood four times the height of Jeggred. The membranous red wings that sprouted from its back extended out to twice that and cast the entire ledge in shadow. Its short legs looked as thick and sturdy as stone columns. Four powerful arms, all of them in constant, twitchy motion, erupted from a torso that was little more than a gobbling, cavernous mouth that could have swallowed two ogres whole. An insectoid pincer on each side of the mouth spasmed hungrily. A flood of incompressible prattle and drool leaked from between its rows of grinding teeth.

Pharaun thought the babbling would drive him mad. He vomited down the front of his piwafwi. He couldn't help it.

The mammoth head that sat atop the demon's torso looked vaguely orclike, though more bestial. A second, smaller mouth opened in the face,below a pair of black eyes. In one of its hands, the demon held a rune-inscribed axe as long as Jeggred was tall.

The bass voice that emerged from the mouth in the klurichir's face nearly knocked Pharaun down with its power. The huge mouth in its torso continued to gobble and drool while the other mouth spoke.

"You should not have summoned me, child priestess," the demon said, the implicit threat in its words all the more terrifying because it was unspoken.

To her credit, Quenthel's body did not shake, though Pharaun knew that not even Quenthel Baenre could match the klurichir in power.

For a moment, Quenthel seemed at a loss for words.

At last she said, "Ten thousand souls are yours if you but perform a single service for me."

Both mouths erupted in laughter.

"Ten thousand souls are a pittance to me," theklurichir answered. Its wings beat in agitation, sending a hail of scree into the air.

"Name your price," Quenthel said, blinking in the gust.

Pharaun could hardly believe what he had heard. Even Jeggred gasped.

Quenthel had offered one of the Abyss's most powerful demons whatever it wished.

The demon too seemed stunned. For a moment, its huge mouth ceased its senseless gobbling. A giant tongue emerged from the mouth and licked its lips.

"Your desperation intrigues me," it said. "Name your service and I will consider it. For payment, I shall have such other, fleshly payment as I may see fit."

Quenthel did not quail, and Pharaun could not believe it.

"Done," she said, and gestured down at the plains. "Assist us in destroying the yugoloth army below."

The demon grinned, gobbled, and took wing, soaring high into the sky. Quenthel watched it go, smiling, breathing heavily, sweating.

Danifae's voice sounded behind him, reminding him that she too was summoning aid.

As the former battle-captive finished her casting, her voice rose, imploring Lolth for assistance. When she finished, she turned to face the mountain. At first nothing happened.

Then the mountainside began to seethe.

Millions of spiders, billions, boiled forth from every crack, crag, hole, and opening. The sound of their legs and pincers was like a rainstorm, almost worse than the gobbling of the klurichir.

Danifae shouted something that Pharaun could not make out above the hissing din, and the spiders crawled together, massed, clustered. Churning sickeningly, they piled themselves into a swarm as large as the klurichir. The swarm took the rough shape of a giant spider.

Danifae swept her arm out wide and gestured down toward the yugoloths.

As one, billions of arachnids boiled down the mountainside.

"Now, Master Mizzrym!" Quenthel shouted to Pharaun.

"Lower the wall of force!" Danifae ordered.

Pharaun did exactly that and immediately took wing.

Jeggred tore down the mountainside, roaring with rage. Quenthel and Danifae followed at a run. The klurichir roared, raining drool on the Plains of Soulfire, and descended downward. The arachnid swarm boiled toward the yugoloths.

To their credit, the yugoloths responded quickly. They were a practiced force.

Though they often were loath to do it due to the price, Pharaun knew that extraplanar creatures had the ability to summon others of their kind, usually due to some pre-existing cooperative arrangement. The mezzoloths and nycaloths were no exception. A hum of arcane syllables wafted up from below, and more and more mezzoloths and a handful more nycaloths teleported in with a soft sizzling sound and the stink of vomit. An army of five hundred became an army of eight hundred in a three count.

The nycaloths hurriedly deployed the new troops, trying to prepare for the klurichir's attack, Jeggred's charge, and the swarm's rush.

The ultroloth rose into the sky, his presence there offering a clear challenge to Pharaun. Half a score nycaloths rose with him.

The klurichir roared, the yugoloths clicked and shouted, the swarm hissed and boiled.

The battle was joined.

Jeggred pelted down the narrow path, heedless of the long fall to either side, heedless of the army that awaited him at thebottom. His clawed feet dug furrows in the stone with each stride. Rage burned in him. He could already taste blood and flesh. He roared for joy.

Below him, two score mezzoloths awaited his charge, glaives at the ready. Several of them gestured, calling upon their innate magical abilities, and clouds of stinking green gas formed before him.

He ran through the killing fog without a pause, inhaling the foul fumes, feeling the sting on his flesh. He ignored the discomfort on his skin and in his lungs and chargedon.

Some of the mezzoloths in the second rank summoned balls of fire to their palms and threw them at him as he ran. Most missed and exploded harmlessly on the rocks or in the air, but even those that struck him had no effect on his flesh. He was demonspawn after all. Low intensity fires could not harm him.

He threw back his head and roared again.

Another explosion nearly knocked him from his feet. He dug his fighting arms into the rock to keep his balance and ran on.

A shadow fell on him, but he did not spare a glance up. The giant demon summoned by his aunt soared overhead, toward the rear of the mezzoloths.

Jeggred was twenty strides from the first of the creatures. Fifteen. Ten. He looked into their compound eyes, brought his fighting arms up to rend. Five. He could hear their clicks, the ring of their armor. He leaped high off the path and landed into their midst. His momentum carried him into two of the mezzoloths' glaives, and both sank deeply into his skin.

He barely felt the pain, even as his blood began to flow.

He let fury take him over fully. His claws rose and fell, slashed and tore. Sometimes he struck carapace, sometimes he struck nothing. He had arms in his mouth, bodies, heads. Anything that came within his reach was bitten, rent, torn. Yugoloth blood dribbled down his chin.

Glaives slammedinto him but he did not care. Balls of flame exploded against his skin and he still did not care. He felt his blood flowing down his back, his chest, his arms. He was swarmed with mezzoloths. He roared and killed, roared and killed.

Impenetrable darkness suddenly sheathed him. Blind, he continued to rake and slash at anything within reach. He didn't know if the mezzoloth s could see within the darkness, and he did not care. He slashed and killed even as he began to grow weaker.

Pharaun watched Jeggred tear down the narrow path and leap into a mass of waiting mezzoloths. The draegloth vanished under an avalanche of black bodies, and Pharaun gave him no further thought.

The klurichir set down toward the rear of the yugoloth army and cut a great swath through their number with its axe. Nycaloths and mezzoloths swarmed it, axes and glaives thumping into its flesh. Its roar rang across the battlefield.

The spider swarm poured down the mountain like an avalanche and crashed into the front of the yugoloth lines. The mezzoloths responded with clouds of green killing gas, which left piles ofspiders dead, but the swarm churned forward, devouring everything in its path.

The ultroloth floated over the battle toward Pharaun, perhaps a long crossbow shot distant. Eight nycaloths accompanied the powerful ultroloth, four to either side. Each of the nycaloths called upon an innate magical power and caused multiple mirror images of themselves to form around them. Eight became over thirty, and Pharaun could not tell which was real and which an illusion.

Half of the nycaloths beat their wings, brandished their enchanted axes, and flew for Pharaun. The ultroloth followed them, holding a sword in one hand and two crystal rods in the other. The other nycaloths veered aside and flew toward the ledge, toward the priestesses.

"Beware, Mistress!" Pharaun shouted down to Quenthel.

She heard him and looked up.

Quenthel saw the scaled, green yugoloths streaking toward her. She stopped her charge down the path, pulled her holy symbol, and began to incant. Beside her, Danifae too began to chant a spell.

Yugoloths are inured to lightning, Mistress, Yngoth said in her ear. And to fire and ice.

Quenthel nodded as she cast. She knew all about yugoloths and assumed that they had augmented their innate resistances with magical protections. She had no intention of using any of those energy types. Instead, when she completed her spell, a sheath of blue energy flared around each of the approaching nycaloths. The magic of the spell destroyed all of the moisture within the nycaloths' bodieswater, saliva, blood. The creatures had only a moment to scream their agony before Quenthel's spell reduced them to shrunken husks of flesh and bone that fluttered to the ground.

And the high priestess had only a moment to enjoy their destruction before Danifae cut short her spell by slamming her morningstar into the back of Quenthel's head.

Sparks erupted in her brain, pain in her skull. Her vision went dark, and she stumbled forward.

But she did not fall. The blow would have killed most anyone, but Quenthel's protective spells muted much of its force.

She lashed out blindly with her whip behind her and hit nothing. The serpents hissed angrily.

Danifae's voice from behind said, "Here is the final test, Baenre bitch. You for me, and me for you. Let us see who is to be the Yor'thae."

Quenthel felt the back of her headit was warm and sticky with blood, but already her vision was clearing.

She turned around, whip and shield at the ready.

"You should have made certain to kill me with that blow, child," she said.

Danifae whirled her morningstar and answered, "I will remedy that mistake right now."

Halisstra awoke on the other side of the Pass of the Soulreaver. The sounds of battlethe ring of steel, the screams of the dyingbrought her back to herself.

The din gave way to the words from her vision, which still echoed in her brain Embrace what you are.

She would. And with the power granted her by Lolth, she would kill Danifae Yauntyrr.

Her hand closed over the hilt of the Crescent Blade, lying beside her on the rock.

She sat up and found herself on a ledge, high up on the mountainside. The Pass of the Soulreaver yawned behind her. Souls streamed out of it and past her.

Fire had blackened the rock of the ledge, melted it in places. Burned spiders littered the ground, their charred legs curled under their bodies, the hair of their carapaces singed.

"A sign, Spider Queen?" she asked of Lolth.


Then a breeze stirred the dead spiders, caught them up in a tiny whirlwind. She watched them, transfixed by their tiny bodies floating randomly, chaotically on the eddies of the wind. She sympathized with them. Staring at the dead spiders, she felt a thrill charge her soul. She grinned, a fierce, hateful smile. She understood at last.

Lolth had told her to embrace what she was.

Eager, she climbed to her feet and studied the face of the mountain.

There. A narrow, deep crack, like a slot.

"I understand now," she said.

Halisstra stuck the blade halfway into it, took the hilt in both hands, and jerked downward. The blade resisted her attempt. She tried again. Again. She roared and tried again.

The Crescent Blade snapped in a flash of crimson light. When its steel broke, something in Halisstra broke as well. Tears flowed down her face, and she did not know why. The tiny seed of doubt, of hate, the power-loving kernel that sat in her center, bloomed fully and flourished. She felt as she had before the fall of Ched Nasad, as though the past days had been a dream.

No, she realized. Not a dream. A test.

And she had finally passed it.

She was Halisstra Melarn, First Daughter of House Melarn, servant of the Spider Queen, and she knew what she had to do.

She would kill Danifae.

She needed to kill Danifae, as much as she once had thought she needed to see her former slave redeemed.

Halisstra watched the blade of the broken sword blacken and shrivel in her hand, curl up and die like the dead spiders that littered the ledge.

She had her new holy symbol. She had her sign.

The prayers she had memorized in Eilistraee's name, the magic she had stored in her brain for use against Lolth, flowed out of her in a rush. She sighed, sagged, and kept her feet only by leaning against the mountainside.

Halisstra was empty, bereft.

A small black spider emerged from a crack in the stone and crawled onto her hand, the hand that held the broken sword. She watched it as it sank its fangs into her flesh.

She felt no pain, but a coldness suffused her being. The venom entered her veins, and as it spread through her body it brought Halisstra arched her back and screamed as the spells that Eilistraee had stripped from her mind were restored by Lolth. Tears flowed again, but at least she knew why.

Overflowing with power, she wiped her face dry and hurried to the lip of the ledge.

A battle raged below her between demons, yugoloths, and drow. Lolth's city beckoned in the distance, an infinite web shimmered over a bottomless gulf, and Lolth's damned burned in violet fire in the sky above the plains.

Halisstra paid little heed to any of it. She had eyes only for Danifae Yauntyrr, who fought Quenthel Baenre on anarrow path that led down from the ledge.

Holding her holy symbol in her hand, Halisstra chanted a prayer to Lolth. When she completed the spell, she felt her strength increase. She smiled at the feel of again casting spells in Lolth's name.

She sang the words to a bae'qeshel spell-song and turned herself invisible.

Ready, she drew Seyll's sword from the scabbard on her back and hurried down the path toward her former battle-captive.

Pharaun hovered in the air and watched the nycaloths bearing down on him. He pulled a small glass flask of alchemist's fire from his piwafwi, coated his fingers in the sticky, flammable substance, and hurriedly recited the words to a powerful incantation. When he finished, he mentally selected several points in the air next to the nycaloths flying toward him, beside the nycaloths flying toward the priestesses, and a few points at random amidst the mezzoloths on the ground.

Little balls of fire appeared at the loci he had selected and exploded into small but incredibly intense bursts of flame and heat. The nycaloths roared. The explosion sent them all spiraling off course. One of the four coming at him fell smoking to the ground, trailing its mirror images.

Yugoloths were resistant to fire but not fire of the intensity that Pharaun could summon.

The mezzoloths below answered Pharaun's spell as three score balls of flame exploded in the air around him. His protective spells partially shielded him, but his non-magical clothing burst into flame and his skin charred.

The explosion spun him around, and he struggled to recapture his bearings. At last he found the three nycaloths as they streaked toward him. Just as he prepared another spell, all three of the nycaloths winked out.

Teleportation, Pharaun realized with a curse.

Before he could respond, they appeared beside him.

He caught only a chaotic glimpse of muscular, scaled bodies, fanged muzzles, black horns, beating wings, armor, claws, and axes.

Steel and claws rained down on him. His enchanted piwafwi, as hard to penetrate as plate armor, turned most of the attacks, but a claw rake opened his shoulder, and the wound poured blood.

He went straight up into the air and spun a long, vertical loophis field of vision went from ground, to mountains, to sky and back again. The nycaloths and their illusionary duplicates pursued, harrying him the while, but he was more agile in the air than they.

While he flew, he spoke the arcane words to his next spell. Midway through the incantation, he produced a small glass mirror and held it in his palm.

One of the nycaloths flew past him and caught him by his ankle. Another crashed into him from the other side. The three of them went into a mad, twirling spin. Centrifugal force stripped the grip of the nycaloth on his ankle.

Pharaun could not tell up from down. He turned from ground to sky, ground to sky, ground to sky.

A lightning bolt from the ultroloth ripped into him. It had no effect on the nycalothsyugoloths were immune to lightning, he knewbut its power sliced through his protective wards, burned holes in his skin, and set his hair on end. He gritted his teeth and continued his casting.

The nycaloth grappling him growled in his ear, its wings and claws beating frantically. Pharaun held it off as best he could while holding the rhythm of his spell.

Claws tore through Pharaun's piwafwi, ripped the skin of his mid-section. Blood leaked from the wound, but Pharaun managed to mouth the final word of his spell while simultaneously slamming the mirror against the flesh of the nycaloth holding him. Green energy flared, and the nycaloth's roar was cut abruptly short as the magic took effect.

The creature's entire body turned to clear glass.

It started to fall, along with its illusionary doubles, dragging Pharaun with it.

Pharaun wriggled free of its stiff grasp and watched with satisfaction as the transformed creature shattered on the rocky ground below. The other two nycaloths and their illusionary duplicates circled back at him, roaring.

Pharaun turned and flew away from them, speeding around a series of burning drow souls, gathering for another spell.

He spared a glance to his right, over at the ultroloth. Already, a shimmering globe of magical energy surrounded the yugoloth wizard, and the creature was in the midst of casting yet another spell. Pharaun knew the globe would make the ultroloth invulnerable to a whole host of Pharaun's less powerful spells. Pharaun pulled up hard and wheeled to his right. The clumsy nycaloths flew past him, cursing.

Hoping to disrupt the ultroloth's casting, Pharaun pulled a crystal cone from his piwafwi and hurried through an incantation.

The ultroloth finished first and pointed his open palm at Pharaun.

Almost all of the protective spells on Pharaun's person winked out at the same time, dispelled by the yugoloth's counterspell.

Pharaun cursed. The ultroloth must have been powerful to have so disposed of Pharaun's protective magic.

Pharaun put his vulnerability out of his mind and finished his own spell. He flew at the ultroloth, pronounced the final word, put the cone to his lips, and blew.

An expanding blast of ice and freezing air erupted outward and engulfed the ultroloth. The creature spun backward, coated in a sheath of freezing cold.

Pharaun could see that his spell had harmed the ultroloth, but far from mortally.

He rotated a circle in the air, looking back for the nycaloths.

He saw them nowhere. Either they had abandoned the field or they had turned invisible.

He accelerated upward, anticipating an axe blow with every breath, and at the same time triggered his ability to see invisible creatures. The power took effect just in time for him to see the nycaloths swooping in from either side, axes high.

He veered aside but too slow. An axe sankdeeply into his shoulder. The other would have split his skull but he managed to duck under it at the last moment, so it only tore his scalp.

Wings beat in his face. The nycaloths grabbed at his piwafwi, clawed at his flesh. Their weight dragged him downward. He used the ring of flying to resist their pull, but he was slowly drifting down.

Below, hundreds of mezzoloths waited.

Bleeding, mildly dazed, Pharaun voiced the single word to one of his more powerful spells. The incantation used sound as a weapon, and Pharaun thought it unlikely that the yugoloths would have protected themselves against sonic energy.

When the magic took effect, he felt it gather in his throat. He let it build, then exhaled it in a high-pitched scream that resounded over the battlefield. The magic of the scream tore into and through the nycaloths, killing them both, and continued downward in an invisible wave until it smashed into the waiting mezzoloths and killed fully half of them where they stood.

He righted himself in the air, bleeding profusely from the wounds inflicted by the nycaloths' claws, and turned to face the ultroloth. Souls burned in the air between them, writhing in pain.

Pharaun, burned and torn, sympathized.

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