Chapter Eleven

Day was drawing near. The nalfeshnee and chasme flew on. The mountains grew larger and larger in Pharaun's sight. Though perhaps a league away, they stood so tall they looked like a wall of black rock that never ended. He knew that no one could ever go over them. There was only one way throughthe Pass of theSoulreaver.

Souls streamed overhead, angling downward and flowing toward the base of the mountains. The nalfeshnee eyed the glowing souls hungrily as they passed, but his fear of Quenthel kept him from doing anything other than looking. The chasme continued to whine at the heaviness of his load.

As the mountains loomed closer and closer, Pharaun caught Quenthel looking back, not at him but at the horizon line. Pharaun turned to watch it too, expecting to see the light of the rising sun once again summon forth Lolth's children for the Teeming.

The sun peeked over the edge of the world, casting its dim red light across the landscape. To Pharaun's surprise, nothing happened.

The light oozed over the rocks, holes, and pits, but no spiders came forth to greet it.

It appeared that the Teeming was over. Strange, that so great a degree of violence could erupt and end with such suddenness. Pharaun had a peculiar sense that the Demonweb Pits was holding its breath, waiting for something.

When he turned back around, he found Quenthel staring at him. With exaggerated gestures, she signed, Be prepared when we land. But do nothing except at my command.

Pharaun nodded in understanding. The time for the confrontation had come at last.

He let himself lag a bit behind the chasme. There, he began surreptitiously to cast defensive spells that had no outward visible effecthe did not want some aura or emanation to alert Danifae and Jeggred to Quenthel's intent. He sprinkled diamond dust over his flesh and turned his skin as strong as stone. He whispered sequential incantations that made his body resistant to fire, lightning, and acid.

The Master of Sorcere could not contain a smile as they flew. When they reached the mountains, Quenthel would kill Danifae, and Pharaun would kill Jeggred.

It is about time, he thought.

Halisstra, Feliane, and Uluyara streaked through the air, riding the wind. They flew amidst the river of souls, though Halisstra did not look any of the glowing spirits in the face. She was afraid she might encounter someone else she had known.

The mountains were visible ahead, a titanic wall of sheer stone. They looked like the fangs of an unimaginably huge beast. The flow of souls angled downward, heading toward the bottom of one of the mountains.

Behind them, the sun rose over the horizon. Halisstra looked earthward, expecting to see another day of violence, but it appeared as if the only violence that would happen on the Demonweb Pits that day would happen between drow.

Far ahead, Halisstra caught sight of two large forms descending toward the base of the tallest of mountainsdemons, she saw.

Quenthel Baenre was there, she knew. So was Danifae.

Her heart began to race.

The souls swirled around the demons as they descended toward a hole in the mountains that could only be the Pass of the Soulreaver.

Halisstra and her fellow priestesses sped onward, slowly gaining.

Flying in shadow form near Menzoberranzan's stalactite-dotted ceiling, Gromph reached House Agrach Dyrr. Looking down, he saw that little had changed from when he had scried the fortress an hour or so before.

Agrach Dyrr's defenders still paced the tall, stalagmite walls, peering down through their fortifications at the attackers. The violet-plumed helms of the officers and the blades of the soldiers' polearms and swords bobbed along behind the crenellations. Banners with House Agrach Dyrr's heraldry festooned the walls, charred but largely whole. Scores of orc and bugbear crossbowmen bolstered the drow forces.

Gromph could not smell the battlefield due to his incorporeality, but he could see the clouds of black smoke gathered near the cavern's roof and could imagine the stink.

On the plateau before the stalagmite castle gathered the massed forces of House Xorlarrin. The army numbered perhaps eight hundred all told and encircled the complex at a distance of a long crossbow shot from the moat-filled chasm. Gromph noted the makeup of the Xorlarrin s oldiery half a score drow wizards, a few hundred drow warriors, two score war-spiders, and numerous platoons of lesser creatures, all of whom stood assembled and ready. Several siege engines fashioned of magically hardened crystal and iron stood amidst the ranks.

All was quiet. The Xorlarrin appeared willing to wait for reinforcements before making another attempt on Agrach Dyrr. Gromph was mildly surprised. He knew Matron Mother Zeerith to be as ambitious for her House as any matron mother. He would have expected her to hoard the glory of Dyrr's capture all to herself. Yasraena must have been mounting an impressive defense to so temper Xorlarrin ambition.

Gromph floated down and saw scores of bodies and body parts floating in the water-filled chasm that surrounded the manse's walls. A few toothy reptilesgiant aquatic lizards, no doubtswam in the moat and fed on the remains. Gromph saw that the dead ogres and their battering ram, which he had seen while scrying the House, no longer lay before the adamantine doors. No doubt some Agrach Dyrr necromancer had animated their corpses and turned them back against the Xorlarrin.

Until he had evaluated the fortress's network of wards up close, Gromph dared go no closer than the line delineated by the moat. With a minor effort of will, he activated the permanent dweomer on his eyes that allowed him to see magical emanations.

House Agrach Dyrr lit up like the sun of the Green Fields, the ridiculous "halfling heaven" to where the lichdrow had banished him during their spell duel. Gromph had expected as much, but seeing the wards of House Agrach Dyrr through the muted lens of his scrying glass had been something different than seeing the blazing spiderweb of defenses in person. Unlike the rest of the physical world, which appeared to his transformed eyes only in shades of gray, the wards blazed red and blue. Their power reached across the planes and would affect even incorporeal creatures.

More out of pride than necessity, Gromph decided that he would walk through the front doors, just to spite Yasraena. In truth, it did not matter where he made his assault. The wards and defenses were shaped as spheres, concentric circles of power, not walls. They covered every avenue of approach. He would face everything that protected the House whether he attempted the adamantine doors or the lizard stable wall.

He sat cross-legged on a large rock, near the far end of the adamantine bridge. He was perched almost exactly halfway between House Agrach Dyrr and the besieging Xorlarrin army. He was pleased to see that his presence went unnoted by both the Dyrr and Xorlarrin forces. He knew that the mages among them would have various divinations in effect, including some that would allow them to see invisible creatures. Gromph's nondetection ward must have thwarted them. The victory still brought him only small pleasure.

As a preliminary measure, he withdrew his ocular and held the milky gem to his eye. Though incorporeal, the magic of the ocular continued to work. Looking through the lens of the gem, Gromph saw things as they truly wereundisguised by illusion, disguise, or shapeshifting magic. The ocular's power could have been thwarted by spells like those which protected Gromph, but such protections were atypical.

He eyed the complex and saw nothing out of the ordinary except that two putative male drow officers were actually polymorphed demons. Gromph's magical lens showed their actual form, that of towering, muscular, bipedal, vulturelike creatures with hateful red eyes and large feathered wings.

Vrocks, Gromph knew. Yasraena must have bought the services of a pair of the fiends.

Gromph pocketed the ocular and softly spoke the words to a spell that modified his magic sensing vision so that it excluded from its effect the anti-scrying wards and the spells that offered House Dyrr structural reinforcement. For his purposes, those spells were irrelevant. He was interested only in those wards that would prevent his physical intrusion into the complex and those that would kill or capture him once he was within.

When the modification took effect, perhaps half of the lines of power vanished, though the fortress still glowed brightly, encased in a net of red lines. Spell traps lurked within the network, killing spells that would be triggered by the breach or inartful dispelling of a ward. For a time, Gromph used a series of divining spells to examine the intricate lattice of spells visible from where he sat. He wanted to understand the interconnections between the wards before he tried to penetrate them.

Gromph would have to peel the wards back, spherical layer by layer, as though flensing a slave to the bone.

He pulled out his eye-capped wands and with their more pointed divining spells deepened his analysis. Among the multitude of spell traps set within the network he discovered the tell-tale traces of magical symbolsone of pain, two of death. He confirmed the presence of glyphs that emitted fire and lightning, forcecages to trap him, contingency spells to bind his soul, barriers that forbade passage in any physical or incorporeal form.

And he saw something else. Knifing through the entire network was the thin, almost unnoticeable line of a ward that tied all of the other wards together and that augmented them alla master ward.

Gromph had no doubt that the lichdrow had cast it.

Essentially, Dyrr had tied a knot around a knot, lacing his master ward through the interstices of the other wards until all of them were irretrievably intertwined. As a result, the ordinary protections put in place over the years by the various Agrach Dyrr matron mothers would, upon being triggered, become all the more deadly from an influx of power from the lichdrow's spell.

Gromph studied the line of the master ward more closely. He pulled out another wand and used it to carefully analyze the ward's dweomer. Its complexity suggested that it did more than simply augment the other wards, but Gromph's spells could not divine anything more, at least not from where he sat. He would have to get within the ward network itself before he could do a more detailed analysis from another angle.

He sheathed his wand and frowned. His ignorance of the master ward's full purpose gave him pause but he knew there was nothing for it. He could not turn back, and delay was his enemy.

He floated to his feet and faced his first challenge, a simple detection spell that would alert the caster if anyone, in any form, crossed the adamantine bridge. Gromph looked along the ward's bulky, glowing lines, saw no spell trap connected to it, and dispelled it with a whispered counterspell.

He flew across the adamantine bridge. Blood stained it in several places. From atop the walls, Dyrr soldiers and the two demons looked through and past him. To them, he did not exist. He was alone with the wards.

Hovering before the gate, he studied the lines of magic crisscrossing its surface. The lines not only prevented physical passage, their pattern formed two magical symbols that would kill anyone whose flesh touched the doors without first speaking the password, having the appropriate item on their person, or the right blood in their veins. A further analysis with one of his wands showed Gromph that the symbols were permanent. They did not vanish upon a single discharge. Instead, they would continue to reset and kill unless they were eliminated.

He spoke the words to a counterspell and focused the magic of the spell into his forefinger. Gently, he ran his shadowy fingertip over the lines of the first symbol. Though his finger was incorporeal, the magic reached into the physical world. Where his finger touched, his spell erased the symbol. Soon, it was effaced.

Gromph cast another counterspell and repeated the process with the second symbol. It proved more stubborn than the first. Gromph's magic met the magic of the symbol and did nothing. His counterspell had no effect. Biting back his frustration, he prepared another spell, a more powerful, focused version of the counter.

Sudden motion from above drew his eye. A swarm of crossbow bolts rained down at something behind him. Gromph turned to see a half-score of giant trolls charging across the bridge. They wore piecemeal armor strapped haphazardly to their gray-green, warty hides. The smallest stood three times as tall as Gromph, with over-long limbs, a mouthful of fangs, finger length claws, and rippling muscles. In their huge hands, the giant trolls held a mammoth stalagmite, shaped by magic into a fearsome battering ram.

Gromph's magic-detecting vision told him that the ram had been powerfully enspelled.

Green disks of magical energy hovered over the huge creaturescast by distant Xorlarrin wizardsprotecting the trolls from the rain of bolts that poured from the walls. In ten strides, the giant trolls had crossed half the bridge.

From the Xorlarrin lines behind them, a platoon of orog crossbow-men and their shield bearers ran up to the edge of the moat-chasm and fired a volley of arrows at the defenders on the wall. An answering volley streaked down at them. Fire and lightning fired from Dyrr wands exploded in the midst of the orogs, and several of the bestial creatures burst into flames or exploded into pieces.

Drow soldiers stood lined and ready fifty paces behind the orogs, ready to charge forward should the giant trolls penetrate the doors.

The huge creatures lumbered forward, the bridge vibrating under their weight. Fire exploded in their midst but did not divert their charge.

A wall of conjured ice, taller than the giant trolls and an arm's span thick, formed before the creatures, blocking their rush across the bridge. They did not even slow. In stride, they swung the magical stalagmite ram into the wall, and the ice exploded in a blast of shards. They charged onward.

Cursing, Gromph started to fly upward. Though incorporeal, magical energies could still harm him, a s could appropriately enchanted weapons. He did not want to get caught in any crossfire.

A cloud of vaporpoisonous vapor, Gromph assumedformed before the doors. The giant trolls gulped clean air and charged in, swinging the huge ram as they didright at Gromph.

He dodged aside but his incorporeal flight was cumbersome and slow. The magical ram clipped his shoulder, and its enchantments reached through realities to affect his insubstantial body. Agony exploded in his brain. The impact spun him in a circle and knocked him toward the gate and the killing symbol. He struggled to right himself and contorted his body to avoid contact with the magically charged gates. Gromph regained control a heartbeat before careening into the gate, and he flew upward and off to the side of the bridge, hovering over the moat chasm. His entire right side flared with pain, but his ring began immediately to repair the wound.

Still holding their breath, the giant trolls reared the ram back and slammed it again into the doors. Sparks flew from its tip, flecks of stone showered the bridge, but the adamantine doors showed not even a scratch. More and more crossbow bolts poured down on the trolls, some getting through the magical shields and finding flesh. One of the creatures, struck in the cheek by a bolt, exclaimed in pain and inadvertently drew a breath of poisonous air. He fell writhing to the bridge and was dead in moments. The rest continued on, futilely battering the gates as bolts poured down. Gromph found the scene surreal. He could hear nothing, smell nothing. He felt as if he was looking at the imperfect illusion of a first year apprentice.

Gromph assumed the giant troll assault to be only a feint, with the real attack occurring elsewhere, but he had no way to confirm his guess. Apparently, he had been mistaken about Xorlarrin complacency.

Matron Mother Zeerith had not yet decided to surrender the glory of sacking House Dyrr. Either that or she simply wanted to keep the Dyrr defenders off guard and force them to expend resources on fodder troops.

To their credit, the Dyrr defenders were using mostly mundane weapons to deal with the giant trolls. They had wasted only two spells and a few discharges from their wands. Crossbows were doing most of the work. Already four of the trolls lay dead. The remaining six continued to swing the ram, though with less force.

An idea struck Gromph.

Moving quickly, he wove his hands in an intricate gesture and spoke aloud the words to a spell. The magic generated a field of force as an extension of Gromph's will. With it, he gripped one of the foremost giant trollsthe creature's eyes went wide, though it did not shout for fear of inhaling the poisonous gas. Gromph forced the giant troll to loose its grip on the ram and reach forth an arm to touch the doors. The beast seemed to sense its danger and its great strength warred against Gromph's willbut the Archmage of Menzoberranzan's will was the stronger. The giant troll held out a clawed hand, touched the gate, and triggered the remaining symbol.

Gromph averted his gaze as the symbol flared. The magic entered the giant troll, and the creature opened its mouth in a scream. It fell to the bridge, dead. Gromph gave it no further thought.

The rest of the giant trolls, seemingly stunned at the stupidity of their companion and unable to easily manage the weight of the ram without him, broke. First one, then another loosed their grip, turned, and ran. Crossbow bolts chased them back across the bridge. A sphere of magical darkness formed around the head of one. Blinded, the creature ran off the side of the bridge and fell into the chasm. Gromph studied the gate and saw with satisfaction that the symbol was gone. For a precious few moments, it would remain so.

Moving quickly, Gromph hovered before the door, in the midst of the poisonous cloud, above the giant troll corpses. With the delicate touch of a skilled chirurgeon, he bent aside the lines of the ward that prevented physical passage and slipped through. He did not like leaving the intact symbol behind him but figured he would be able to leave House Agrach Dyrr much more easily than he would be able to enter it. Wards typically barred entry, not exit.

He flew through the adamantine doors and found himself standing in the gatehouse tunnel of House Agrach Dyrr, in the midst of two score spear-armed, lizard-mounted drow cavalrymen. Many of their spear tips glowed with magical power in Gromph's sight, power enough to harm Gromph, had they known of his presence.

They stood in a cluster around him, not seeing him. They must have been stationed there in the unlikely event of a breach or perhaps in preparation for a counterattack.

Gromph could not hear their voices, but he could see the sweat on their faces, the determination in their eyes. Some of the soldiers shifted their mounts and passed right through him. He flew into the air to the tunnel's ceiling to avoid their touch. The negative energy associated with his shadow form might damage one of them and alert them to his presence, or worse, one might inadvertently wound him with an enchanted spear.

Safely up against the ceiling, he allowed himself a smile. He had beaten the first challenge. He was in. Looking to the end of the gatehouse tunnel beyond the cavalry, he saw that another ward awaited him there.

The glowing lines of the master ward charged the air around him, around the soldiers. Magic literally saturated the air around the Dyrr defenders, but they saw it no more than they saw him.

Having bypassed the first line of defense, Gromph had another perspective on the structure of the master ward. He pulled out one of his wands, triggered its dweomer, and examined the line of the master ward. The wand showed that it had many threads within it. He frowned.

One of the threads was a contingent dimensional lock. Its latent magic likely had been triggered by the destruction of the lichdrow's physical form, to prevent easy entry into House Dyrr and consequent access to the lichdrow's phylactery. The presence of the dimensional lock complicated matters.

A dimensional lock prevented all forms of magical transport. Even if Gromph disabled or dispelled all of the ordinary wards in House Dyrr, he would not be able to teleport out of the Dyrr complex unless he first dispelled the master ward, or at least the dimensional lock that was part of it. Even the powerful contingent evasion spell that Gromph had cast on himself would not work in the presence of a dimensional lock.

Gromph could see that the master ward was too intricate for him to be able to dispel with any ease. It would take hours, and he could not spare the time. He had to keep moving.

He floated over the Dyrr soldiers toward the far end of the gatehouse tunnel. A flash from behind him turned him around, a defensive spell on his lips.

A violet pulse ran through the master ward and traveled to the area of the discharged symbol on the adamantine doors. The magic circled the area, redrew the symbol, recharged it, and reset it.

To Gromph's surprise and admiration, the power in the master ward then circled the point where Gromph had dispelled the first symbol and redrew it too, essentially recasting the spell. Gromph's dispelling dweomer should have eradicated the symbol forever.

The lichdrow's spellcraft was masterful. It was unfortunate that such knowledge would be lost forever when Gromph destroyed the lich's phylactery.

Without further waste of time, he turned and began his attack on the ward at the end of the tunnel.

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