Chapter Seven

Nimor leaned over the map of Menzoberranzan that had been laid on the floor of the mine, its corners weighted with jagged, fist-sized chunks of silver. He gestured with his rapier.

"The spider we hope to slay has two heads," the drow told the five others - three duergar and two demons - that had gathered around the map. "Cut off either, and the body dies." The point of his blade pricked the southern edge of the city. "One head is here: Qu'ellarz'orl, the plateau where the First House stands." He moved the rapier, pointing to a spot on the northern edge of the city where a smaller cavern bulged off the main one. "The other is Tier Breche, the cavern that houses three of the most important institutions in Menzoberranzan: Sorcere, Melee-Magthere, and, most importantly of all, the great temple of Lolth, Arach-Tinilith."

"Tough stones to crack, both one of them," said Horgar, who stood immediately to Nimor's left.

The gray dwarf prince came barely to the draw's waist but had wider shoulders than the slender Nimor. He scowled down at the map, absently rubbing his bald head with stubby fingers. His two guards??- duergar like himself, one of them with a scar that stretched from chin to ear along the cheekbone - kept a wary eye on the pair of half-demons that stood on the opposite side of the map.

"Quite so, Crown Prince," replied Nimor. "Which is why I want the duergar to lead the assault on Tier Breche. A frontal assault down the tunnel from the north. Your troops will establish a siege wall, then, from behind it, use catapults tolob stonefire bombs into Sor-cere and Arach-Tinilith, reducing them to a smoking ruin.

"Easily said," Horgar challenged, "but not easily done. That tun-nel will be thick with jade spiders. We may be able to smash our way through one or two of them butnot all."

Chuckling, Nimor reached into a pocket and pulled out half a dozen flat ovals of green jade, each pierced by a hole through which a silver chain had been threaded and inscribed with a name. Holding them by their chains, Nimor jiggled them so they tinkled together.

"Thanks to an associate who's managed to penetratedeep into Menzoberranzan, I'm able to guarantee you they won't be a problem," he told the duergar.

The scarred prince snorted and said, "And where will the tanarukks be while we're making our attack? Bravely bringing up the rear?"

This elicited a growl from Kaanyr Vhok, who bared perfect teeth and thumped the hilt of the rune-inscribed sword he held against his golden breastplate.

"My Scoured Legion could outfight your mushroom-men any day," he growled, glaring angrily across the map at the scarred duer-gar. "Why, even our orcs would be a match for - "

A tug on his arm from Aliisza stopped him in mid bluster. He glared at her but listened as she whispered in his ear, then slowly lowered his sword.

"Gentlemen, please," Nimor said. "Hear me out." He turned to Vhok. "The Scoured Legion will indeed be involvedin the fight. You will rake Donigarten, the city's food and water supply, then fall upon Qu'ellarz'orl from the east. That will cause the matron mothers to withdraw their defenders south, allowing the duergar to take up posi-tions in the north. But notall of the duergar. One company, at least, must march together with the tanarukks, spread amongst their ranks to give the impression that our force as a whole is committed to an attack on Menzoberranzan's First House."

Vhok narrowed his eyes and asked, "We are to be a meredistraction ?"

"Not at all," Nimor assured him, a twinkle in his eye. "You also have a chance at victory - an excellent chance. I've taken steps to take House Baenre out of the fight with a little surprise that I've got planned for its matron mother. Once Triel is eliminated, the other females of House Baenre will begin vying for her throne. The com-panies each commands will begin fighting each other - which will keep them too busy to bother about something so insignificant as defending their city.

"When the other noble Houses see Baenre in disarray, they'll sense its weakness and strike. One or more of them will try to usurp Baenre's position as First House. While they're busy fighting each other, Lord Vhok's troops can swoop in and seize Qu'ellarz'orl."

Vhok scowled and said, "An interesting theory."

"It's not just theory," Nimor countered. He paused to brushed rock dust off the sleeve of his immaculately tailored gray shirt. "It's drow nature. We're like spiders reacting to the twitching of a web. When we think we have our prey at our mercy, we strike.

"Only this time," Nimor said, "the prey will be the drow them-selves. Menzoberranzan will fall. I guarantee it."

Triel coldly regarded the prisoner who had been brought before her: a young male drow. He lay on his back on the floor of her audi-ence chamber, wrists bound tightly behind him and ankles likewise tied above his bare feet. His black pants and shirt hung in tatters, the slashes revealing a myriad of lacerations that dribbled blood onto the floor. The hair on one side of his head had been burned down to stubble, and his face was covered in blisters. One eye was fused shut, its eyelid blistered and weeping, but the other glared up at Triel with undiminished defiance.

Triel crinkled her nose at the stench of burned hair and flesh and toyed with a perfectly balanced throwing dagger - the only one still in the fellow's bandoleer when he was captured. She could tell by the tingle it sent through her fingers that it was magic - as had been the blades that had killed four of her elite guard.

"This is an assassin's weapon," she observed, handing it to one of the females who stood on either side of her: twoof the House guard who attended her at all times, magical shields and maces at the ready.

A third member of the guard - an officer - stepped forward to conclude her report.

"The intruder was captured on the fifth level, Matron Baenre," she said. "We believe he was trying to reach your private quarters."

Triel stared at the officer, who, despite all that was happening, looked as if she was freshly turned out for inspection. Her adaman-tine chain mail was a glossy black, her long white hair neatly braided. She stood at rigid attention, a polished mace hanging from her belt and a hand crossbow strapped to the back of each wrist. Five black spiders, embroidered into the shoulder of her silver tunic, proclaimed her rank.

"How did he get inside, Captain . . . ?" Triel let the sentence trail off, an obvious invitation for a name.

"Captain Maignith," the woman answered, meeting Triel's eyes for precisely the amount of time that was appropriate. "He didn't get in through any of the lower doors. I questioned the guards - thoroughly. All were at their posts, and the wards are still in place. He didn't slip past us. He must have gottenin from above."

That said, Captain Maignith glanced at a second officer - a lieu-tenant of the lizardriders - who stood several paces farther back, as befitted a male. He wore tight-fitting, padded leather breeches and a piwafwitrimmed in silver. He held his plumed silver helmet in thecrook of one arm and seemed to be having trouble looking Triel in the eye.

"Matron Mother, I ... My riders saw nothing on the outer wall," he stammered.

Triel noted the shift of words with amusement. A magic ear-ring told her the lieutenant was speaking the truth - as he believed it to be. She could hear none of the echoing quaver that accompa-nied a lie.

She toyed with the handle of the whip of fangs that hung from her belt, twin to the one carried by her sister Quenthel. The vipers hissed softly in anticipation, sensing her desire. The lieutenant de-served punishment - and would receive it, in due time.

Her hand fell away from the whip.

"Go and fetch your lizard," she said.

The lieutenant hesitated a moment too long, a mix of relief and puzzlement on his face. Then, suddenly remembering his place, he bowed deeply and backed from the room.

The captive smirked, obviously pleased with the concern his in-trusion had caused.

Not liking the look in his eye, Triel drew a wand of braided iron that hung beside her whip.The tip of the wand was set with a tiny white feather, which she pointed at the captive as she spoke a com-mand word, No visible force came from the wand, but the effect was instantaneous. The captive screamed - a sound of acute terror that filled the audience chamber - and drew his legs up to his chest. Had his hands been free, he would no doubt have wrapped them around his legs. He rocked back and forth, whimpering. When Maignith nudged him with the toe of her boot he screamed anew and rolled away, leaving a stain of pungent urine among the blood spatters on the floor.

Triel sighed, hoping she wasn't wasting her time. There were so many other matters in need of her attention. On the outskirts of Menzoberranzan, an army of duergar, tanarukks and other, lesser races were preparing to assault the city proper. Triel should have been in her war room, communicating with the officers who would hold the invaders at bay, but there had been an assassination attempt on her - not nearly the first, of course - and she needed to know who was behind it.

Had one of her sisters decided that she could do a better job as matron mother? Did Triel need to strengthen her defenses from within? Or had the assassin been sent by one of the other noble Houses? House Barrison Del'Armgo, perhaps? That seemed unlikely, since the second-ranking House was just as badly off as House Baenre just then. After the disastrous battle at the Pillars of Woe, Mez'Barris Armgo had come straggling back with what remained of her forces - and the sorry tale of how her troops had been driven up a side tunnel and lost one-quarter of their forces and all of their wagon trains.

As she waited for the lieutenant to return with his lizard, Triel walked to the thronelike chair that had once been her mother's. Shaped like an enormous spider and forged from solid adamantine, it balanced on eight curved legs. The chair had been imbued with powerful spells, not the least of which was a magical symbol that would instantly turn any attack directed at the matron mother back upon whomever had been foolish enough to initiate it. The chair was a symbol of Lolth, but even though the goddess had fallen disturbingly silent, its magic still functioned, since it was powered by wizardry.

As Triel settled cross-legged onto the chair - her two personal guards shifting to stay on either side of her - she thought of Gromph, and wondered, once again, where the city's archmage had disap-peared to.

The door to the audience chamber opened, and the musty smell of lizard wafted into the audience room. The lieutenant walked in, leading his mount by the reins. The lizard squeezed in through the door, the sticky pads on its feet making faint sucking noises as they were lifted from the stone floor. With a body twice as long as a drow - three times as long, if the lashing tail was counted - it was a formidable sight. Its leathery skin glowed with a sparkling blue luminescence that faintly illuminated the otherwise dark room.

As it scuttled past the captive, tongue flickering in and out, it twitched its head to the side, inhaling the man's scent. The assas-sin, still feeling the effects of Triel's wand, whimpered and cringed away from it.

Triel drummed her fingers on the cold metal of the throne.

"So," she said, making her observations aloud. "The assassin couldn't have climbed the outside of the stalagmite. If he had, the lizards would have picked up his spoor."

The lieutenant closed his eyes in relief.

"Which begs the question," Triel continued. "Howdid he get in?"

Beside the lieutenant, the lizard's tongue continued to flicker in and out, licking at the blood smeared across the floor. Its round, black eyes stared, unblinking, at the captive.

Triel smiled.

"Your mount appears hungry, Lieutenant," she observed. "Why don't you slip the muzzle and let it feed??- on a non-essential part, of course."

Grinning, the lieutenant did as he was ordered.

The lizard twitched its tail in anticipation, its luminescent skin darkening momentarily to a. deeper blue, but it waited tor its master's hand signal before it sprang forward. Teeth cracked through bone with a loud crunch, severing the assassin's boundlegs at the ankles. The assassin screamed once as his feet disappeared down the lizard's throat, then he fainted.

Grabbing the lizard's reins, the lieutenant pulled it back.

Triel looked dispassionately at the blood that was pumping onto the floor.

"Staunch those wounds," she ordered.

Obediently, Maignith stepped forward and tapped each of the as-sassin's severed ankles with the head of her mace. The magic possessed by the weapon caused the head to flare brightly, cauterizing the wounds. When they stopped sizzling, Maignith grabbed what remained of the assassins hair and bent his head back. She slapped him awake.

The assassin's one functional eyelid fluttered, then opened. His burned face, once a throbbing red, had gone gray.

"Do you want to live?" Triel asked.

The assassin seemed to have recovered, at last, from the effects of the wand.

"You're going to kill me, no matter what," he croaked.

"Not necessarily," Triel answered, "You obviously have some tal-ent, to get as close to my quarters as you did. Perhaps I'll recruit you for my House."

"With no feet?"

"We have regenerative magic," Triel answered.

"Not any more," the assassin said, wincing as he tried to smile. "Lolth is dead."

Triel shot to her feet, yanking out her whip, and shrieked, "Blasphemer!"

For a heartbeat or two, the vipers in the whip lashed, hissing their fury. How dare this male speak to her like that? She, who had been first in Lolth's favor and who was Matron Mother of House Baenre. A distant corner of her mind recognized that fear was driving her fury. The lack of a report from Quenthel was fill-ing her with worry, increasing as each cycle passed. But if Lolth awoke from her silence and learned that Triel had not punished the male for his insolence. . . .

Then Triel realized she was being goaded. The assassin was try-ing to draw her closer to him. She couldn't see what attack he could possibly mount, wounded and bound with magical rope as he was, but she hadn't survived so many centuries by underestimating her foes. She stroked each or the vipers in turn to soothe them - and herself - then she tucked the whip away.

Lolth's grace might be out of Triel's reach - for the moment - but Triel had other magical abilities at her disposal. She used one of them, the power of her voice. Dropping into a husky, seductive tone that vibrated with magical energy, she began planting a suggestion in the captives mind.

"You might as well tell me who sent you," she told him. "If it was a matron mother of another House, she's safe enough. I'm not about to waste my troops in striking back at her with this siege on. If it was one of my sisters, you have as much to gain by serving me as you do by serving her. So tell me ... who hired you?"

"I am no mere hireling," the man gritted.

Ah, pride. Triel could work with that.

"Of course not. You're proud of who - and what - you are.Why don't you share this information with me? Surely telling me about yourself won't betray anything about the matron who sent you."

"I serve nofemale. "the assassin spat. "Nor will any male, soon enough. The Masked Lord will see to that."

A ripple of tension passed through the room as the officers and guards reacted to the name. With an effort, Triel kept her temper. Instead she focused on the information he'd just let slip.

Vhaeraun's worship was strictly forbidden in Menzoberranzan. Admitting to it was tantamount to suicide??- slow suicide, since its worshipers were typically tortured to death in an effort to root out the names of other blasphemers. The assassin had just signed his own death warrant, which meant that any promises Triel made to spare his life would be ineffective.

No, hewanted to die. And slowly.

Triel stared down at him.

"If you hope to be rewarded by Vhaeraun, think again," she told him. "You failed in your mission. You'll be lucky if your god lifts his mask to spit upon you. And your fellow conspirators are feeble and weak, just look what they sent to do the job, a mereboy? They're not even worth my contempt."

The assassin's good eye blazed.

"Laugh while you can," he spat back at her. "You'll be weeping soon enough, when the Jaezred Chaulssin come to call."

Triel smiled to herself as she pondered the name. It was obvi-ously an organization of some sort??- perhaps one that had arisen during the slave rebellion that had been so recently put down. Could they be some ragged refugees from the ruins of the city called Chaulssin?

"I've never heard of this Jaezred Chaulssin," she said disdainfully. "They're obviously as inconsequential as they are ineffective."

The captive gave a croaking laugh and said, "Hardly ineffective. My master brought an army to your doorstep."

Triel seized upon the information.

"Your master is a duergar then ... or a tanarukk? Kaanyr Vhok?"

"Much more than that. Much more than that mercenary Vhok. My master has powers that you could only dream of. It was he who engineered your army's defeat at the battle of the Pillars of Woe."

Triel raised an eyebrow and asked, "Oh, did he?" She could guess who the assassin was referring to but needed confirmation. "Then no doubt he'd like me to know his name - to know which male dared attack Matron Mother Baenre in her own home. Or is he afraid of me, as all good little drow males should be?"

That goad, combined with Triel's magical suggestion, tipped the balance.

"Mymaster is no mere drow, he said. "Nimor is - "

He bit off the rest, aware that he had already revealed too much.

Nimor? Triel growled. The name was unfamiliar. Then she realized who it must be. "You mean Captain Zhayemd of Agrach Dyrr, don't you? The traitor who led the army of duergar to our very doorstep?"

The prisoner nodded defiantly and said, "Your master, soon enough."

Triel thought about that for a moment. Zhayemd was clearly an assumed name - had the assassin's leader also assumed the name of the Sixth House? She wondered how deeply Agrach Dyrr's treachery truly lay. Had Nimor persuaded the soldiers to attack their allies on his own, or had he the backing of the House itself? An important question, since Agrach Dyrr's household was under siege by forces of Menzoberranzan that could better be used to battle the duergar and tanarukks.

Triel decided to bluff.

"I knew your master was not an Agrach Dyrr," she told the as-sassin. "I had never seen him before??- and I know all of the senior officers of that House. Matron Mother Yasraena and I are ... allies. As much as any two matron mothers can be."

"Yasraena Dyrr is of no consequence."

Triel stiffened and asked, "What do you mean?"

"A male rules House Agrach Dyrr - the lichdrow. Vhaeraun has re-established the natural order of things, just as he will in all of Menzoberranzan, once this war is won."

Triel heard a slight intake of breath beside her, and remembered her lieutenant. Quick as a striking snake, she cracked her whip in his direction. Gleefully hissing, the five vipers sank their fangs into his dark flesh. The male officer stiffened, then gurgled faintly as his eyes rolled back. He crashed to the floor like a broken stalactite.

His lizard sniffed him once, then immediately began to feed, chewing on the head with loud crunching noises.

Triel glanced at Maignith.

"Not a word of this to anyone," she hissed.

Maignith bowed, then stared meaningfully at each of the guards on either side of Triel and said, "You can count on our silence, Matron Mother."

Triel returned her attention to the captive. She was delighted that he had at last succumbed to her magical suggestion - he was giving her even more information than she'd dared hope for. Wetting her lips like a lizard scenting blood, she probed further.

"Was it the lichdrow who sent you here? Was it his magic that got you inside?"

"No . . . and no."

"Who got you inside, then?"

"Nimor himself. And though I have failed, he will not. Your de-fenses are as weak as cobwebs against him. He escorted me through the shadows and into your 'stronghold' with ease."

"Nimor is within these walls?" Maignith gasped.

The assassin smirked and answered, "He was."

Triel's eyes narrowed. Not at the fact that Nimor had been able to creep into the heart of House Baenre??- the massive stalagmite that had been hollowed out to form the Great Mound - but that, having accomplished such a feat, he would have left it again. Why hadn't he stayed to attack her himself? Why leave a weaker vassal behind todo his bidding? Certainly he would have known that this man would be caught.

The assassin interrupted her musings with a pained laugh.

"You will see Nimor's power and majesty yourself soon enough, when he leads the final assault against this House. That is, if you live to - "

Triel realized that the glare of defiance - and self-will - had never left the assassin's eye, the entire time he was speaking. And his gaze had slid down to her chair more than once - but only when he thought she wasn't looking at him.

"Guards!" she shouted. "Shields!"

Instantly, the women on either side of her sprang into motion, thrusting their shields between Triel and the only visible threat: the assassin.

Even as the two shields clanged together, the audience chamber filled with a blast of magical energy. Searingly hot flame exploded outward from where the assassin lay, the roar of it slamming against Triel's eardrums with such volume that it nearly blotted out the screams of the guards whose bodies were blackening like over-cooked meat.

The magic of their shields held fast, and the blast was deflected over, under, and around the chair on which Triel cringed. She felt the wash of its heat as little more than a flush of warmth; felt noth-ing of its blast save for the shields that were forced back against her chair. The throne itself had not reacted to the blast of the fireball the assassin had carried within himself. Triel could guess the reason. The attack was directed at the assassin who'd carried it into the room, not at the matron mother herself. Nimor's information - and his guess as to where Triel would question the failed assassin - had been flawless.

All this Triel realized in the instant of ear-ringing silence that followed the blast.

Maignith and the other two guards crumpled to the floor, burned beyond recognition. The lizard, too, was dead, curled and immobile in one corner of the room, its skin no longer glowing.

Of the assassin's body, nothing remained but bones, glowing red like coats and sending up wisps of oily black smoke.

Triel shivered, aware that she had come within a heartbeat of death. For a moment, she knew fear. No wonder the assassin had been so willing to talk. He had needed to keep her within range until the spell went off.

Triel heard running feet in the hallway outside, approaching the audience room door. She gripped the legs of her chair, clenching tightly to subdue the trembling of her hands. She stared over the blackened husk of her guard, wincing at the burned-meat smell, as a captain of her House guard ran into the room. The woman's eyes widened at once as she took in the blackened bodies on the floor.

"Matron Mother," she gasped. The captain was panting, as if she'd run some distance. "The enemy approaches the city!"

"From which direction?"

"Through the caverns to the southeast. Our patrols have skir-mished with them at the Cavern of Severed Tentacles and at Ablon-sheir's Cave."

"Was it tanarukks the patrols encountered or duergar?" Triel asked.

"Both, but most tanarukks"

"In what numbers?"

The captain shrugged and said, "Impossible to tell. But the armies seem to have combined and are making their way swiftly through the Dark Dominion. They'll reach the outskirts of the city at any moment."

Triel ground her teeth. Was it a feint - or an assault in force? Judging by their approach, the tanarukks and duergar were aiming to enter Menzoberranzan through one of the nine tunnels that lay between Donigarten Lake and the edge of the plateau, but which would they emerge from? And, should they succeed in entering the great cavern, what would their target be? Under ordinary circum-stances, Triel would have expected the attackers to push north across the great cavern, cutting off Donigarten and the moss beds, the city's main water and food sources, to ensure that Menzoberranzanwould have nothing to sustain it during their siege. But given the timing of the assassination attempt - which, had it succeeded, would have thrown her House into chaos - perhaps there was another tar-get. House Baenre would be the first stepping stone to an assault on Qu'ellarz'orl itself. If she was right, the main force of the attack would come through the tunnels closest to the plateau.

Was there still time to plug the gap? She dared not commit the House guard. It would be needed to defend the Baenre compound if the enemy made it into the city. There was only one other House Baenre company close enough.

"Pull our troops back from the siege of House Agrach Dyrr," Triel ordered. "Send them into the caverns immediately below the eastern end of the plateau. Order them to hold them at all cost. And tell the other Houses to send their troops to defend the other caverns leading into Narbondellyn. House Barrison Del'Armgo es-pecially. Our troops will be first to bear the brunt of the assault, but Del'Armgo must reinforce us. Leave Agrach Dyrr to the Xorlarrin."

The captain bowed and said, "As you order, Matron Mother."

As the captain hurried away, Triel chewed her lip, praying she'd made the right decision.

Where in the Nine Hells was Gromph when House Baenre needed him most?

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