An unbroken line of drow souls extended before and behind Halisstra as far as she could see,
a ribbon of Lolth's dead stretching across the infinite, featureless gray aether of the Astral Plane.
With Lolth's power apparently returned, the souls were at last free to float toward the Spider
Queen's plane, where they would spend eternity.
One after another the souls streamed along in a procession as straight as that of marching soldiers. The orderliness of the line struck Halisstra as strangely incongruous for souls heading into the arms of a goddess who embodied chaos.
Formerly as drab as the gray aether in which they floated, Lolth's reawakening had sent a surge of power through the line of souls, through the Astral Plane, and perhaps through all of the other planes as well. The Spider Queen's stirring had painted the dead in hues reminiscent or life,
had reawakened the souls even as Lolth had herself reawakened from her Silence. By reinfusing them with color and purpose, Lolth had marked each of the souls as irrevocably and irretrievably hers.
The words bobbed uncomfortably in Halisstra's consciousness: Irrevocably and irretrievably
Floating in the same gray aether, as anchorless as the souls drifting past, Halisstra looked at her slim black hands. On them, she saw the blood of the countless screaming victims she had sacrificed in Lolth's name. Did not their blood mark Halisstra as irretrievably Lolth's, the same as the souls around her? Wasn't her soul too colored, stained crimson?
She clenched her fists, and looked past the souls and out into the gray nothingness. The same hands that had murdered in Lolth's name were to wield the Crescent Blade of Eilistraee. With it,
Halisstra was to kill Lolth.
Kill Lolth. The thought excited her, repulsed her.
Halisstra saw her course clear before her, a path as straight as the line of souls, but she still felt lost. She was marked by a goddess, by two goddesses, and at the moment she was not certain whose mark she preferred.
The feeling shamed her.
She felt both Lolth and Eilistraee pulling at her, tugging her in opposite directions, stretching her as thin as parchment. Lolth's reawakening had roused in Halisstra something she had meant to leave for dead in the silver moonlight of the World Above, when she had given herself to the
But it had not died, not really. Could it ever? Lolth's inexplicable pull on Halisstra remained, a troublesome, seductive memory of power, blood, and authority. Halisstra had only her infant faith in Eilistraee with which to shield herself from a lifetime of indoctrination. She did not know if it would be enough. She did not know if she wanted it to be enough.
She had spent her life in service to the Spider Queen-killing, ruling-and had turned her back on all of it in less than a fortnight. How could that have been a genuine conversion? She had been
Houseless, her city destroyed, everything she knew gone. Turning to Eilistraee had been an impulse, almost flippant, and driven by fear of an uncertain future.
She did not know, and the uncertainty shook her.
Even while Eilistraeen prayers filled Halisstra's mind, she found herself looking longingly at the manifestations of Lolth's reawakened power that surged through the endless gray of the
After the Spider Queen's power had traversed the line of souls and revivified them, the Astral
Plane itself had exploded in chaos. Maelstroms of colored energy formed here and there in the aether, churning vortexes of violence that spun rapid circles for a few heartbeats or a few hours and dissipated into glorious, acrid showers of sparks. Jagged bolts of black and red energy several leagues in length intermittently knifed across the void, ripped it into pieces for a moment,
and raised the hairs on Halisstra's arms and head. Lolth's power fairly saturated the plane.
And it felt different than Halisstra remembered-more vital, but also somehow incomplete.
Halisstra found the flashing storms of power a tantalizing suggestion of the Spider Queen's might, a seductive reminder of different prayers, of a different kind of worship. Lolth's power was everywhere around her. Lolth herself seemed everywhere around her, knowing her, tempting her, whispering to her.
And always the whispers were the same: Yor'thae.
The word was promise, threat, and imprecation all at once.
Halisstra did not know whether to smile or cry each time she heard the word sigh across the
Astral winds. As a bae'qeshel, she was trained in lost lore and knew what the word meant. Its etymology came from two words in High Drow: Yorn, meaning "servant of the goddess"; and
Orthae, meaning "sacred." The Yor'thae was Lolth's Chosen, her sacred servant, the vessel through which Lolth would … do something.
But Halisstra did not know what the something was. Though she knew the meaning of the word, she did not understand the word's meaning for her or for Lolth. More uncertainty.
Halisstra knew the power of words-her bae'qeshel magic depended in part upon words for its power. And like a bae'qeshel spell-song, the whispered recitation of Yor'thae had enspelled her, had wormed its way into her soul and there planted the seed of doubt. She was at war with herself and struggling to stay whole.
She and the two priestesses of Eilistraee, Uluyara and Feliane, had been following the line of drow souls for what felt like an eternity. A trio of the living trailing an army of the dead, they propelled their bodies through the endless gray mist of the Astral Plane through the force of their will.
The aether appeared to extend forever in all directions, the gray emptiness broken only by the line of souls, occasional islands of floating, spinning rock, and the colorful, whirling maelstroms of Lolth's returned power. Swimming through emptiness, Halisstra felt her senses dulled by the uniformity. Time and again she had to fight down a sense of vertigo, though she couldn't tell whether its source was the infinite space under her feet or the internal struggle taking place in her soul.
"We must be getting closer to the portal," Uluyara said from behind her.
Halisstra didn't turn, only nodded.
With each passing moment, the three priestesses moved closer and closer to their goal, yet with each passing moment Halisstra also became less and less sure of herself and their cause.
Hours before, Seyll, a former priestess of Eilistraee, had sacrificed her own soul to shield
Halisstra from the infusion of power the reawakened Lolth had sent surging through the Astral aether. Seyll, a woman Halisstra had murdered in life, had chosen the annihilation of her own soul so that Halisstra could complete her charge to kill Lolth with the Crescent Blade of
But Halisstra was beginning to think she was charged with something else too, something she could not yet see.
Yor'thae, whispered the aether, and Halisstra's body went weak.
She began to suspect that Seyll had allowed herself to be annihilated not so much to protect
Halisstra from something but to prevent Lolth's power from touching Halisstra and communicating something to her, something profound. Seyll had gone to oblivion in service to
Eilistraee, not Halisstra.
She felt herself standing on the edge of a mystery, at the precise moment just before understanding dawned. If only Seyll had allowed Lolth's power to reach Halisstra she would have-
"No," she said. "No."
But the word sounded as empty as a void.
Halisstra's course had seemed so obvious when she had been staring into the steady crimson eyes of Seyll, when she had heard in the dead priestess's words the promise of hope and forgiveness through worship of Eilistraee, sentiments Lolth and her faithful would have deemed weak. But then Halisstra had encountered Ryld Argith's soul in the Astral. He had been standing in line with the rest of the dead, colorless, awaiting his eternal fate. She had stared into his dead eyes, listened to his listless words, and felt her certainty of purpose crumble. Old feelings had bubbled up from the bottom of her soul. She had wondered, she still wondered, what would happen to Ryld if she somehow did kill Lolth. Would he, like Seyll, be condemned to annihilation?
The thought of it made her chest tight. She would not condemn her lover to nothingness; she could not! But what then? The fact that she felt genuine love at all she owed to Eilistraee, and the
Dark Maiden had charged her to kill Lolth, had put into her hands a weapon that prophecy said could do it.
But the proximity of Lolth's power quickened Halisstra, tempted her, spoke to her. Halisstra heard Eilistraee calling to her heart, but she felt Lolth calling to her soul. It both appalled and delighted her.
She was terrified.
Yor'thae, said the nothingness.
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
"What do you want?" she whispered.
She was distantly conscious of her body slowly sinking in the aether but did not care. She had forsworn Lolth-she had! She'd made herself a willing apostate. She had embraced Eilistraee's faith, sworn herself to the Dancing Goddess under the light of the moon on the surface of the
But her conversion had occurred at the end of a sword's point. She had been implicitly threatened with death by the priestesses she had come to call sisters. Was it not all a sham then,
driven by the need of a homeless drow priestess without access to her spells to find acceptance and a home somewhere, anywhere?
No, she thought, and pressed her fingers hard against her brow as though she could drive them into her brain and pluck out that part of her that still longed for Lolth. Her conversion had not been forced. It had been willing, beautiful, soul opening. .
A hand, a steadying hand, closed gently on her bicep, stopped her descent, and pulled her around. She opened her eyes and found herself staring into the intense red eyes of Uluyara. The drow High Priestess of Eilistraee looked comfortable in her mail and forest green tunic. A sword hung from her hip, a war horn from her neck. A host of magical tokens-feathers, buttons, and pins-hung from her tabard. Her full mouth wore a look of genuine concern for Halisstra, but behind the concern, deep in her eyes, lurked something else-something Halisstra could not quite identify.
"Are you all right?" Uluyara asked. She gave Halisstra a gentle shake. "Halisstra, are you all right?"
Beside them, the parade of souls continued to stream past, so quickly they looked blurry.
Black lightning split the aether neatly in two. Maelstroms churned. The voice whispered.
Uluyara's white hair waved in the Astral wind. Her armor, weapons, and clothing appeared dull compared to the color of the souls. They all looked dull compared to Lolth's dead.
Halisstra blinked, managed a nod, and said, "Yes. I'm just. . troubled, from seeing Ryld."
Uluyara's eyes showed understanding, though her hard expression held little sympathy.
Halisstra knew that the death and afterlife of Ryld Argith little concerned Uluyara. The High
Priestess was focused on their goal of finding and killing Lolth; nothing else mattered to her.
Yor'thae, whispered the Astral.
Hearing the word again, Halisstra felt her cheeks burn. She looked for a reaction from
Uluyara, but the High Priestess showed no sign of having heard anything.
"Did you not hear that?" Halisstra asked, fearful of the answer.
Uluyara stiffened, cocked her head, and looked around warily. Her eyes came back to
"Hear what?" she asked. "The souls? The lightning? There is nothing else."
Before Halisstra could answer, Feliane floated beside Uluyara and put a gentle hand on
Halisstra's mailed shoulder. The slight elf priestess wore a suit of fine mail and a small round helmet out of which her long brown hair streamed. A thinblade hung from her narrow hips. She looked like an armed child sent off to do battle. Was Eilistraee so desperate?
"It is the murmur of the souls as they journey to their fate," Feliane said. She looked upon the dead and her round eyes were sorrowful. "Nothing more."
Uluyara nodded agreement. The souls did mutter as they streamed past, a low, barely audible hum, but Halisstra knew the whisper of Yor'thae was something else, something audible only to her.
"The damned of Lolth do not go quietly to their fate," Uluyara said, and unlike Feliane,
Halisstra saw no sorrow in the High Priestess's red eyes. In her own way, Uluyara was as merciless a priestess as any servant of Lolth. "Perhaps they sense at the last the mistake they have made."
Halisstra jerked her arm free of Uluyara and glared into the priestess's eyes.
"I loved one of those damned," she said and could not keep the bitterness out of her voice.
Uluyara stiffened; her eyes flashed, but she said only, "I had forgotten. Forgive my insensitivity, sister."
Halisstra heard no sincerity in Uluyara's voice.
Feliane, her voice gentle, said, "Peace, sisters. We're all tired. You especially, Halisstra, since you carry so heavy a burden. Uluyara and I will help you bear it, but you must let us. Eilistraee too will help you bear it, but you must also let her." She paused before adding, "Do you believe that?"
Her grip on Halisstra's shoulder tightened.
Halisstra looked from Uluyara and Feliane and was suddenly aware of the looks-behind-the-
looks on the faces of the Eilistraeeans. She floated between them, speared by their gazes, their expectant expressions. She realized then what she had seen moments before in Uluyara's eyes:
They doubted her or were beginning to doubt her.
She felt a flash of anger, but it dissipated almost immediately; she also saw genuine concern in their eyes. They loved her and accepted her as a sister despite their doubt. Halisstra's mind turned to Quenthel and Danifae, her former «sisters» in faith, both so different from Uluyara and
Feliane. Quenthel would not have abided doubt; and Danifae. .
Danifae Yauntyrr stood on the same precipice on which Halisstra recently had stood, teetering between Lolth and Eilistraee, torn between the habits of an old life and the hope of a new one,
afraid to take the next step. Halisstra believed that Danifae too could come over to the Dancing
Goddess, if only she would.
In a visceral way, Halisstra needed Danifae to submit to the faith of Eilistraee. Through the
Binding, she had come to know Danifae well. They were very much alike, Halisstra and her former battle-captive. She knew that Danifae too could be redeemed, that she could be turned from Lolth, and she knew too that Danifae's redemption would validate Halisstra's own.
"Halisstra?" Feliane said.
Halisstra looked from one to the other of her sisters and forgave them for their doubt. How could she be angry at them for doubting her when she was beginning to doubt herself?
"Halisstra?" asked Feliane again, her hazel eyes soft but her grip hard. "Do you believe what I
have just said? That we and the Dancing Goddess will help you bear your burden?"
Halisstra looked into Feliane's eyes and managed a nod. "I believe it," she said, but was not sure that their help would be enough.
Uluyara blew out a breath and said, "Perhaps we should make an offering to the Lady before venturing farther?"
"A good idea," Feliane said, still eyeing Halisstra.
Uluyara took from around her neck a pendant of silver, upon which was engraved a sword encircled by a swirling ribbon-Eilistraee's holy symbol. She cradled it in her palms.
Yor'thae, hissed the aether, and Halisstra detected a note of anger in the wind's voice.
"This is an ill place for a dance," Feliane said, looking around at the souls and gray swirls.
"True," answered Uluyara, "but let us at least take a moment to pray."
All agreed, and together the three worshipers of the Dancing Goddess, two drow elves and a moon elf, gathered into a circle and asked Eilistraee for strength and wisdom while the souls of
Lolth's damned streamed by, while the storms of Lolth's power raged around them. Halisstra felt like a hypocrite throughout.
Afterward, with doubt still stabbing at her, she asked her sisters, "Are we certain that we can we do this?" She had asked them the question before, but she needed to hear the answer again.
She put her hand to the hilt of the Crescent Blade, scabbarded at her waist. It felt warm against her flesh. "This is only a blade. And we are only three."
Uluyara and Feliane shared a look of concern before Feliane said, "That is the Crescent
Blade, Halisstra, consecrated by Eilistraee. It will serve. And you must not think that our strength is measured in numbers. Our strength is measured in faith."
Halisstra was not sure that her own faith would provide much strength. Still, she looked into her sisters' eyes and saw firm resolve there. She took what strength she could from them.
Uluyara nodded at the line of shades moving past and said, "Let us continue. Our path remains clear. The gates to Lolth's domain are now open. The souls will lead us to her."
Halisstra tried to imagine what it would be like to stand before Lolth, to do battle with the goddess she had worshiped for almost her entire life. She could not conceptualize it. It seemed absurd. And yet…
Perhaps it was possible.
"She is awake but I am not certain that she is fully returned," Halisstra said. "She is calling across the cosmos for her Yor'thae, her Chosen."
Feliane and Uluyara stared at her for a long moment.
"Yor'thae," Uluyara said, tasting the word on her tongue and crinkling her forehead at its flavor. "How do you know this?"
"I heard the term once, long ago," Halisstra lied.
Uluyara bored into her. "That's not what I mean, Halisstra Melarn. I mean: How do you know that she is calling for her Chosen now?"
Halisstra felt her whole body flush. She knew that she had just increased whatever doubt they harbored. Shame warred with defiance within her, and defiance won.
With effort, she recovered the dignity and assurance that had been trained in her from birth as the First Daughter of House Melarn.
"By my soul," she said, with as much certainty in her tone as she could muster, "I serve
Eilistraee the Dark Maiden. Do not doubt it. Lolth's voice is an echo in my mind. A distant echo."
Her sisters continued to eye her. Feliane was the first to speak. Her angular, pale face wore a soft smile.
"I hear truth in your words," she said and looked to Uluyara. "That is enough for me."
"And me," Uluyara said and looped her pendant around her neck. "Forgive us, Halisstra. It just seemed strange that Eilistraee would choose one so recently separated from the Spider
Queen to bear her blade. That strangeness made me. . concerned." She took a breath and straightened. "But it is not for us to question the will of the Dark Maiden. You are the bearer of the Crescent Blade. Come. We'll follow these unfortunates to Lolth and do what we came to do."
With that, the three set out again, following the line of the dead. Uluyara's words bounced over Halisstra's brain, and she could not help but wonder what exactly it was that she had come to do.
Yor'thae, said the wind into her ear.
As they flew through the fog of the aether, the energy bolts and power maelstroms grew more common. Halisstra's entire body felt charged, energized.
"We're getting closer to the source of Lolth's power," she said, and Feliane and Uluyara nodded. Only afterward did it occur to her to feel alarm that proximity to Lolth's power quickened her soul.
A short time later, they saw ahead a huge whirlpool of black and viridian energy, slowly churning. Its eight spiral arms extended out into the aether to almost the length of a crossbow shot. The whole of the maelstrom reminded Halisstra of a stylized rendering of a spider. She found its slow rotation hypnotic. One after another the souls streamed into it and vanished.
"That is the doorway to Lolth's plane," Halisstra said.
A bolt of ochre lightning split the emptiness.
Her companions nodded, eyeing the maelstrom. Feliane looked more pale than usual. The weight of their charge was settling on all of them.
"Are you prepared?" Halisstra asked, as much of herself as her comrades. She drew the
Crescent Blade from its scabbard. In her other hand, she held her small steel shield-Seyll's shield.
Face grim, eyes fixed, Uluyara nodded. She drew her own blade, put her horn to her lips, and sounded a short blast that echoed through the Astral. The souls showed no sign of having heard.
Feliane drew her thinblade and readied her round shield. She looked so small.
"Follow me," Halisstra said and propelled herself toward the whirlpool. She was careful to look none of the souls in the face.
She realized as she entered the portal that they should have taken a moment to offer a prayer to the Dark Maiden before entering Lolth's domain. She was certain the oversight had been accidental.
As the energy of the gate took her, she felt herself being pulled between the planes. As she came apart, the word Yor'thae sounded once more in her ears.