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Authors: Philip Athans

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BOOK: Annihilation
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Ryld drew the whetstone slowly along Splitter’s razor edge. The enchanted sword hardly needed sharpening, but Ryld found he was always better able to think when he was performing the simple tasks of a soldier. The sword had no outward signs of an intelligence of its own, but Ryld had convinced himself some years before that Splitter enjoyed the attention he gave it.

He was alone in the crumbling, weed-choked hovel he shared with Halisstra. The sounds and smells of the forest all around him managed to invade even that personal time with his sword and his thoughts. He knew he was as relaxed as he would ever be on the surface in the daylight under the endless sky—at least, when Halisstra wasn’t with him.

The Master of Melee-Magthere was alone because he hadn’t been invited to the circle that Halisstra had gone to join. The curious, heretical surface drow were planning something, and Halisstra and her newfound toy—the Crescent Blade—were obviously a big part of it. He had killed the raging animal that
attacked him, and as many times as Feliane had tried to explain it to him, he couldn’t imagine why that made him an outcast. Still, Ryld knew he had been left out for more than that one reason.

He sat alone also because, unlike Halisstra, he had not openly rejected the Spider Queen nor openly embraced her sun-ravaged rival, the Lady of the Dance. Ryld didn’t understand that frivolous goddess of theirs. The Lady of the
Were they to set their lives along a path defined by
What sort of a bizarre goddess could draw, much less mete out, power from something so pointless as dancing? Lolth was a cruel and capricious mistress, and her priestesses held her power close, but she was the Queen of Spiders. Spiders were strong, resourceful predators—survivors. Ryld could see himself as a spider. Spiders knew no mercy and never asked for forgiveness. They spun their webs, caught their prey, and lived. Spiders made sense, spiders had power, and power was all any drow needed.

Apparently not every drow.

Still, Ryld knew that there was a third reason why he sat sharpening his sword while the females plotted and planned, and that was precisely because he wasn’t a female. In Menzoberranzan, Ryld Argith was a highly regarded and well-respected warrior, a soldier with powerful friends and much to recommend him to his superiors. He led a comfortable life, wielded some items imbued with powerful magic—the greatsword not the least of them—and was even trusted to be a principal member of the vital expedition in search of their silent goddess. Despite all that, Ryld Argith was a male. As such he would never be anything but second, and he well knew likely not even that. He would lead other males, other warriors, but would never command a female. He would be asked his opinion, and that opinion would occasionally even be considered, but he would never make decisions. He would be a soldier—a tool, a weapon—but never a leader. Not
in Menzoberranzan among the daughters of Lolth and not in the sun-baked forest among the dancing priestesses.

Three reasons for being left out, Ryld thought, while at home there is only the third. Three reasons to go home to Menzoberranzan.

One reason to stay.

In the past lingering hours of solitude Ryld had thought often of returning to the Underdark. Pharaun and the others would have moved on, continued their quest. Likely they’d all forgotten about the Master of Melee-Magthere who had left the City of Spiders with them. Ryld held no illusions about his worth to the likes of Quenthel Baenre, and Pharaun had at least once proved that Ryld’s life was less important than the wizard’s convenience, let alone the Master of Sorcere’s own well-being.

Pharaun, however, was predictable. Ryld knew the mage and knew what to expect—even if that meant expecting betrayal. Pharaun was a dark elf, not only well tuned to, but prone to revel in, his drow nature. Quenthel Baenre was the same, which was why they so irritated one another. Those two and the others—even the laconic Valas Hune—were like spiders too: predictable, efficient survivors. Ryld saw himself in the same terms, and being in like company had a compelling draw.

Until he thought of Halisstra.

In his years in Menzoberranzan, Ryld had enjoyed the company of more than a handful of females, but like any male in the City of Spiders he knew well enough not to allow attachments to run too deep. He had known from time to time that he was a plaything, a tool, a dalliance, a performer—but never one of those surface elf words, those oddities such as lover, companion, friend, husband. Those words had no meaning until Halisstra.

Ryld tried and tried, but he couldn’t understand the hold the First Daughter of House Melarn had on him. He had even drawn
upon the unique power of Splitter to dispel whatever magic she had cast on him to draw him along with her—but there was no magic. She had cast no spell, sang no
ballad, slipped him no potion to wrap herself around him so tightly. She hadn’t, Ryld mused, even done or said anything too different than things he’d heard before, though in the past such things were said in tones of mockery or even cold, bitter irony by those dozen or more drow females who had had him.

Halisstra had simply smiled at him, held his gaze with hers, touched him, kissed him, looked at him with fear, longing, regret, pain, anger, desperation … looked at him with honesty. Ryld had never seen any of it before, not on the black face of a dark elf, not in the cool gloom of the Underdark. He could feel her when she was close, as if she gave off some ripple that tuned his senses to her. She was simply Halisstra, and the Master of Melee-Magthere was dumbfounded to find that was enough. Her mere presence was sufficient to drag him away from a life that was, and would continue to be, as rewarding as a drow male could expect.

There he was, putting up with the same things, still the male whose strong sword arm would be called into service on a second’s notice but who would not dine at the same table.

The fourth reason that he was alone that day and had been alone for much of the day before roared into Ryld’s mind then, and he let it come, but only for a moment.

They mean to kill her, he thought as a chill raced down his spine and the whetstone that had so slowly and so carefully and so rhythmically been drawn along his blade came to a sudden stop. They mean to kill Lolth.

Ryld closed his eyes and drew in a long breath, calming his suddenly racing heart.

It was, after all, why Halisstra had been sent to retrieve the Crescent Blade. It was why the Eilistraeen priestesses put up
with the obviously unpleasant presence of the Master of Melee-Magthere—at Halisstra’s demand. It was why Halisstra stayed and why she carried herself with a confidence and composure he hadn’t seen … well, never in the outcast from the ruins of Ched Nasad. It was why Halisstra no longer trembled in fear. It was why she woke in the morning and why she drew breath during the day.

In Eilistraee’s name, Halisstra Melarn meant to murder the Queen of the Demonweb Pits in her sleep.

Ryld set the whetstone in motion again and smiled.

Maybe, he thought, she’s more like a spider than she wants to admit.

Valas held the crystal to his left eye and scanned the chamber. He stood in the deep shadows at the edge of where the tunnel—a very old lava tube—emptied into the pyramidal cavern. The ancient monastery was obvious to even his unaided darkvision. Set against the northern wall of the cathedral-like space off to Valas’s right was a half circle of stone, perhaps seventy-five feet in radius. The curved wall rose as tall as two hundred feet before rounding to a domed roof, with the apex about thirty or forty feet above that. Two huge slit windows, not much wider than Valas was tall but eighty feet in length, were set high on the walls. A thief might have to climb the brick wall for a dangerous hundred feet before being able to slip inside. Between the two tall windows and a few feet below their bottom edges loomed a pair of small, dark holes tall enough that Valas might be able to step through them without dipping his head. Below those round holes a drooping oblong opening led into the pitch-black interior of the ruin.

The windows, the two round holes, and the oblong opening
gave the ruined monastery the look—obviously intentional—of a frowning face.

Stalactites had formed along the upper edge of the mouth and hung down to form ragged fangs, and dripping water had carried centuries of sediment onto the dome so that a wide patch of smooth white flowstone capped the far end of the great head like some gaily off-kilter hat. What grim ceremonies might have been held before that giant face Valas didn’t bother to imagine. The centuries that had passed since his ancient ancestors had abandoned it had been unkind to the building, but Valas knew that the ravages of dripping water, mold, and earthquakes hadn’t touched the gate that rested inside it. Twice before, though many years gone by, Valas had climbed into that drooping, melancholy mouth and passed between two rune-carved pillars to step two hundred miles to the northwest shore of Lake Thalmiir, an easy walk to Sschindylryn.

Valas knew he wasn’t the only one who’d used it.

A crystal normally hung on his vest—an enchanted garment that gave Valas much of his nimble footing and lightning reaction—with many other magical trinkets he’d picked up over a lifetime in the wilds of the Underdark. Through that crystal the scout could see that which others couldn’t—most things rendered invisible by magic either sorcerous or innate.

Valas slowly and carefully scanned the base of the great face, then to the left along the still pool of black water that bisected the round floor of the cavern. There was a cave low in the sloping wall across from him and a smaller one—another lava tube of similar dimensions to the one Valas had come through—higher up and to the right. The scout began to scan the roof of the ruined monastery when he heard Danifae all but stomping through the tunnel behind him.

Valas didn’t stop his slow, methodical examination of the
structure. He knew that Danifae would walk past him, their shoulders close to touching, and she would never see him. He had told her to wait, and if she disregarded his warning it was her choice.

Let her stomp on in, he thought. Let her—

Valas froze when the crystal revealed the tip of what could only be a talon resting on the top of the monastery. Holding his breath, the Bregan D’aerthe scout drew his head back half an inch and played the crystal, still held close to his left eye, along the domed roof of the ancient face.

The creature that rested atop the ruin wasn’t too big, at least not as far as dragons go. No taller than Valas himself, with a wingspan maybe twice that, the beast was coiled comfortably but alert atop the dome. Though the crystal tended to bleed any color from the scene, Valas knew the monster was as gray in color as it appeared to him through the magic item. Even through the crystal it seemed undefined, blurred as if it had been painted onto the giant face in watercolors.

That’s how you hide, Valas thought. You blend into the darkness.

Danifae passed him and strode uncaring to the mouth of the lava tube. She stood for a moment, one hand resting casually on the rock wall, gazing out into the cavern. Valas could tell she hadn’t seen the dragon on the top of the face, but a last quick glimpse through the crystal showed him that the dragon had seen her. It slowly uncoiled itself, drawing up its wings.

Valas slipped into the cavern, relying in no small part on his own training and experience but not too proud to call on the power of an enchanted ring to speed his way. Mithral chain mail hushed any sound he might make as he moved, and it helped his toes find safe, quiet footing. Keeping always in shadow, always without the slightest scrape of sole on stone, without the faintest
reflection of stray light on metal, Valas came down the incline from the mouth of the lava tube and along the bowl-shaped edge of the huge space to the yawning black cave across.

He risked the occasional glance up at the creature, whose outline he could only barely discern in the gloom high up in the cavern—and only then because he knew it was there. Valas also risked a glance or two back at Danifae, who was slowly, and with surprising grace, making her way down into the bowl of the cavern. She looked all around but not up. Her eyes never rested on either Valas or the stone-gray dragon.

Danifae walked slowly toward the edge of the pool as Valas drew the shortbow from his back. He nocked an arrow and drew back the string.

The female was all but offering herself on a silver platter to the beast, and though Valas ached to allow her to see her folly through, he worried about Quenthel. The high priestess seemed to have taken a liking to the Melarn battle-captive, stealing her away without a thought from the female from Ched Nasad. Valas didn’t want to find out the hard way that he’d let the battle-captive die when Quenthel had plans for Danifae beyond their occasional loveplay.

“Valas?” the female called into the dark, still cavern.

Her voice echoed, Valas cringed, and the dragon took wing.

BOOK: Annihilation
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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