Authors: Philip Athans
Something was moving, and it was close. It was on the ground, and it was moving toward them. He knew that Feliane had gone ahead of them—the Eilistraeeans were always sensitive about giving the two newcomers time alone—but she was farther away and in a different direction.
, he signaled to Halisstra,
and to the left
Halisstra nodded, and her right hand moved to the enchanted blade at her hip. Ryld watched her turn, slowly, and as he drew his own mighty greatsword from his back, he took the briefest moment to admire the curve of Halisstra’s hip, her mail glittering in the starlight against the dark background of the forest. Her feet whispered in the snow, and Ryld tracked the sounds. Whatever it was wasn’t moving in a very deliberate way, and it sounded as if there was more than one, though the lack of echoes still made it hard for him to be sure. He didn’t detect any change in the way it was moving when either of them drew their swords, so Ryld thought it unlikely the trespasser had heard them.
A spindly plant devoid of green—the Eilistraeeans had called one like it a “bush”—quivered, but not from the wind. Halisstra stepped back and held the Crescent Blade in the guard position in front of her. She had her back to him, so Ryld couldn’t communicate with her in sign language. He wanted to tell her to step back farther, to let him take care of whatever it was, but he didn’t want to speak.
When the thing rolled out from behind the bush, Halisstra hopped back three fast steps, keeping her sword at the ready. Ryld rushed at the bundle of bristly brown fur assuming Halisstra would clear the rest of the space for him. When she didn’t he was forced to stop, and it looked up at him. The closest thing to the creature Ryld had ever seen was a rothé, but it was no rothé. The creature was small, the size and weight of Ryld’s torso, and its wide eyes were wet and innocent, weak and—
“Young,” Halisstra whispered, as if she was finishing his thought.
Ryld didn’t let down his guard, though the beast sat calmly on the ground, looking at him.
“It’s a baby,” Halisstra said, and slipped the Crescent Blade back into her scabbard.
“What is it?” Ryld asked, still not ready to let down his guard, much less sheathe his sword.
“I have no idea,” Halisstra answered, but still she crouched in front of it.
“Halisstra,” Ryld hissed, “for Lolth’s—”
He stopped himself before he finished that thought. It was another habit he would have to change or take home with him.
“It’s not going to eat us, Ryld,” she whispered, looking the little creature in the eyes.
Its nose twitched at her, and its eyes held hers. It seemed curious, with a face vaguely elflike, but its gaze betrayed an animal’s intelligence and no more.
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked.
Before Ryld could say anything else, two more of the little animals wandered out of the bushes to regard their comrade and the two dark elves with a meek curiosity.
“Feliane will know what to do with them,” Halisstra said, “or at least be able to tell us what they are.”
It was Ryld’s turn to shrug. One of the creatures was licking itself, and even Ryld wasn’t wrapped so tight that he could still see them as a threat. Halisstra sent out a call the Eilistraeeans had taught them—the sound of some bird—and Ryld slipped his greatsword back into its scabbard.
Feliane would hear the call and come to them. Ryld cringed when he realized that when she got there and saw the two of them dumbfounded by what looked like harmless prey animals … they would both look foolish again. At least, Ryld would.
Feliane came stomping through the underbrush. Ryld was surprised by not only how fast the Eilistraeen was moving but
by how loud she was. He’d come to respect their ability to slip through the forest un—
He realized at that moment that what he heard crashing at them through the pitch-black forest wasn’t Feliane. It wasn’t a drow, or a surface elf, or even a human. It was something else—something big.
The thing burst out of the thick tangle of underbrush like an advancing wall of matted brown fur. Ryld managed to get his hand on Splitter’s pommel but couldn’t draw it before the beast rolled over him. The weapons master tried to tuck his body to protect his belly from the monster’s trampling claws, but he didn’t have the time.
The creature stomped on him, tripped on him, rolled on him, then stepped on him. All Ryld could do was keep his eyes pressed closed and grunt. It was heavy, and when it first punched him into the ground Ryld heard then felt at least one of his ribs snap under its weight. It finally came off him, and Ryld rolled off to one side—any side—ending up curled under a spindly “bush” with thorns that harried at his armor and
. Snow packed into the spaces between his armor’s plates and chilled his neck and hands.
The creature stopped, rolling all the way over in the end and coming back onto its feet still facing away from Ryld. The weapons master looked up and blinked at it. It looked like a bigger—much bigger—version of the little animals that had wandered up to twitch their noses at the drow. It was a clever ruse and surely a successful hunting strategy: Disarm and distract your prey with your curious young, then trample it into the ground when it isn’t looking.
Still, the Master of Melee-Magthere grimaced at his having fallen for it, however clever it was.
I’m getting slow, he thought. All this open air, all this talk of goddesses and redemption …
Shaking the distracting thoughts from his mind, Ryld spun to his feet at the same time he drew Splitter and whirled it in front of him. The lumbering animal turned to face him, and Ryld was ready for it.
The beast looked him in the eye and Ryld winked at it over the razor edge of his greatsword.
Steam puffed from its nostrils as it coughed out a series of loud grunts. It scratched at the snow with one of its front paws, and Ryld saw its black claws, the size of hunting knives, at the end of surprisingly well articulated hands. The look in the creature’s eyes was a mix of slow-wittedness and feral anger—a look Ryld had seen before and had learned to respect. Stupid foes were easy to defeat and angry foes even easier. Mix the two together, though, and you’re in for a fight.
The beast charged, and Ryld obliged it by meeting it in the middle. When it reared up at the end of its charge, the animal was nearly three times the drow’s height. That display would likely frighten lesser opponents, but for Ryld all it did was open the thing’s belly. The weapons master brought his greatsword in fast at shoulder height in a hard slash meant to open the animal’s gut and end it quickly. The beast was faster than it looked, though, and it fell backward, rolling onto its back as the edge of Ryld’s sword flashed past it, missing by a foot or more. Ryld had no choice but to follow through with the swing, but he managed to make use of the inertia to send him dodging off to the left when the creature slashed at him with its hind claws.
Ryld spun to a halt, blade up high, while the animal continued its roll and flipped back onto its feet. Both of them blew steam into the frigid air, but only Ryld smiled.
They went at each other again, and Ryld was ready for it to try to either trample him or rear up again. The animal did neither. It reached out for the drow warrior with both hands, obviously
trying to grab him by the shoulders—or by the head. Ryld slid toward it at the end of his run, stabbing up with his greatsword as he passed under the animal’s chin. He intended to impale it, maybe even behead it, but his opponent proved still more surprisingly agile. It ducked its head to one side, and all Ryld managed to do was nick one of its ears.
The weapons master continued his slide, bringing his arms in so he could stab again and at least get the creature in the gut, but the animal jumped to one side and rolled off, again managing to elude the drow’s attack.
Ryld hopped to his feet, and the two opponents faced each other again. Ryld heard a voice to his left and glanced over to see Halisstra, bent in an attitude of prayer, mumbling her way through some kind of chant. The animal took advantage of Ryld’s momentary attention gap and leaped at him, clearing easily eight feet before crashing to the ground in front of the drow. The creature had to dodge back, unbalancing itself, to avoid another slash from Splitter. It opened its jaws wide, revealing nasty fangs, and let loose another series of angry, frustrated grunts.
It swiped at Ryld with one set of claws. Ryld was ready to meet it, fully engaged to sever the animal’s front leg at the elbow—when both of them jerked backward to avoid something that whizzed through the air between them in a flurry of feathers, talons, and turbulent air.
Ryld followed the animal’s eyes as it followed the new player’s mad course through the air. It was some kind of bird, but with four wings. Its multicolored feathers blended well into the dark background of the forest, and Ryld actually lost sight of it for a second. The huge furry beast stepped back, trying to look at Ryld and look out for the bird-thing at the same time.
Even Ryld wasn’t able to do that, and since the furry animal was in front of him and at least a little off its guard, the weapons
master stepped in to attack again—and again the bird-thing flashed between them, raking the air with its needle-like talons.
Ryld barely twitched away, but the big animal all but fell onto its back to avoid the newcomer. Ryld, already in mid-slash, quickly changed the direction of his attack and was half an inch from cutting the fast-flying bird-thing in half when Halisstra called out from behind him.
“Wait!” she shouted, and Ryld tipped the point of his blade down barely enough to let the bird fly past. “It’s mine. I summoned it.”
Ryld didn’t have time to ask her how she’d managed to do that. Instead he stepped back three long strides, keeping his eyes on the beast, which was already back on its feet. The bird-thing slashed in from the darkness behind the animal and dragged its talons across the beast’s head. The creature howled in pain and surprise and snapped its jaws at the passing bird-thing, missing it by a yard or more.
“What is that?” Ryld asked, not looking at Halisstra but keeping his eyes on the furious forest animal.
“It’s an arrowhawk,” Halisstra answered.
Ryld could hear the pride and surprise in her voice, and something about that sent a chill down his spine.
The animal looked at him, grunted, and came on. Either it had forgotten about the arrowhawk or had given up trying to see it coming. Ryld crouched, Splitter out in front of him, awaiting the beast’s charge. He kept his shoulders loose and told himself that the fight had gone on long enough. He was not going to be made a fool of by—
—and the arrowhawk swished over his head, missing the top of his close-cropped white hair by a finger’s width.
Ryld tucked his head down as it shot over him. The bird flew as fast as an arrow shot from a longbow, and it was easy for Ryld
to understand how the creature had received its name. It looked as if the hawk was flying straight for the furry creature’s eyes. Half of Ryld wanted the arrowhawk to kill it, the other half didn’t want to be shown up by some conjured bird. At least not in front of—
That thought too went unfinished when Ryld heard himself gasp at the sight of the huge ground animal grabbing the arrowhawk right out of the air with one huge, clawed hand.
The bird let out an ear-rattling squawk, and the creature looked it in the eyes as it started to squeeze. Ryld didn’t doubt for a moment that the big animal could break the long, slender arrowhawk in two with one hand. It was half a second away from doing just that when the arrowhawk flipped its long, feathered tail up and pointed it at the animal’s face. An eye-searing flash of blinding light arced from the arrowhawk’s tail to the tip of the animal’s nose. Ryld snapped his eyes shut and gritted his teeth against the pain. There was a loud rustle of feathers, another angry squawk, and a high-pitched wail that could only have come from the big ground animal.
Ryld opened his eyes and had to blink away an afterimage of the graceful purple spark that had shot from the arrowhawk’s tail. The animal had let go of the bird, which was nowhere to be seen. A tendril of smoke rose from its burned nose, and the stench of singed hair quickly filled the still night air.
Halisstra stepped up to Ryld, and they shared a glance and a smile as the big animal writhed in pain.
“Not bad,” the weapons master joked, and Halisstra responded with a pleased smile.
“Praise Eilistraee,” she said.
As if it understood her and had no love for her goddess, the big animal looked up, coughed out two more feral grunts, and started at them. Ryld put out one hand to push Halisstra behind him, but she had already skipped back into the darkness. He
set his feet, ready for the charge, and saw the arrowhawk shoot out of the darkness again. The arrowhawk whipped its tail forward, and Ryld, knowing what was coming, closed his eyes and lifted one arm—both hands on Splitter’s pommel—to shield his sensitive eyes.
There was a sizzle of electricity, the faint smell of ozone, and the none-too-faint stench of burned hair again. The furred creature growled in agony, and Ryld opened his eyes. Again, the arrowhawk was nowhere to be seen, likely whirling through the forest dodging tree trunks, circling back for another pass.
“Wait!” a woman’s voice called. Ryld thought at first that it was Halisstra.
“No, Feliane,” Halisstra called back. “It’s all right. Between Ryld and the—”
“No!” the surface drow cut in.
Ryld would have turned to watch Feliane approach, but the animal had decided to charge him again. Not sure what Feliane was trying to stop, exactly, Ryld stepped in toward the big animal. He saw the arrowhawk coming, though and slid to a stop in the snow. The animal must have realized why the drow came to such a sudden halt, and when the arrowhawk came in low for another slash with its talons, the creature saw it as well.
Jaws snapped over the arrowhawk. There was a loud confusion of fluttering wings, screaming, growling, snapping, and popping—and the arrowhawk fell to the snow in two twitching, bleeding pieces.