Chapter Twelve

Up close, the mountains were among the most majestic things Pharaun had ever seen. Sheer and jagged, they soared so high they appeared never to end, an infinite wall of rock ejected from the ground to reach for the sky. Like the rest of the Demonweb Pits, cracks, jagged openings, and tunnels dotted the face of the peaks. Spiders scuttled in and out of the holes, preying on each other. Lolth's sun gave the otherwise dark rock a peculiar reddish cast, as though the mountains were dusted with rust, or perhaps blood. Souls streaked around Pharaun, near enough that he could have reached out and touched a dozen as they flew past. He hoped soon to add Jeggred's spirit to their number.

The nalfeshnee and chasme eyed the souls with hungry eyes as they passed. Only the barked orders of Quenthel and Danifae kept the demons from feasting on Lolth's dead.

The stream of souls flowed toward and into a jagged black hole at the base of the tallest peak. Pharaun presumed the opening to be the Pass of the Soulreaver, though it was less pass than tunnel. To Pharaun, it looked like a rough tear in the mountain, a malformed mouth open in a scream.

The pass's opening was as dark and impenetrable as pitch. The light of Lolth's sun did not touch it, let alone enter it. The hole was a literal wall of black.

A creeping realization struck Pharaun the Pass of the Soulreaver was on the Demonweb Pits but not of the Demonweb Pits. To enter it would be to enter something... other.

Untroubled by Pharaun's realization, the souls poured into the hole and vanished the moment they broached the entryway, as though they had been extinguished, swallowed by the mountain. Pharaun licked his lips.

Quenthel pointed downward with the handle of her whip and shouted an order to Zerevimeel. The nalfeshnee headed lower. So too did the chasme bearing Danifae and Jeggred. Pharaun followed.

Zerevimeel set down fifteen or so paces to the right of the pass. Pharaun landed beside the towering nalfeshnee. Danifae steered the chasme down perhaps ten paces to the left of the tunnel. The river of souls flowed between them, and the Pass of the Soulreaver devoured them all.

Quenthel straightened her robes and stared through the line of ghosts at Danifae. Pharaun could see the calculation in Quenthel's eyes.

The nalfeshnee, his feeble little wings still beating, bent down to Quenthel's ear and said, so softly that Pharaun could hardly hear, "I could be of assistance to you for the right price. The draegloth would be an enjoyable kill."

Pharaun could not have agreed more.

Out of the side of her mouth, still staring at Danifae, Quenthel said, "I require no assistance, creature. And this is to be decided by priestesses. You are dismissed. Begone."

The demon hissed in anger. His muzzle peeled back from his fangs, and he reared up to his full height. Pharaun put his hand to the iron wand of lightning at his belt, just in case. He need not have worried. The demon had no desire to challenge Quenthel Baenre.

Pharaun wondered if Danifae still did.

"Remember our bargain, priestess," the nalfeshnee said. "You owe me sixty-six souls. I will expect payment when next we meet."

Quenthel waved a hand dismissively. The nalfeshnee's eyes narrowed, but he gave no further expression to his irritation. He triggered the innate ability of his kind to teleport and disappeared in a blink. A short distance away, Danifae and Jeggred stood near the chasme. The fly demon beat its wings and turned a circle in excitement.

"Perhaps my payment now, lovely priestess?" the demon said, and a long tongue emerged from a toothless mouth. Something else long and dripping emerged from his thorax.

Danifae smiled sweetly at the chasme, and he beat his wings harder. The charnel reek from the wings caused Pharaun to wrinkle his nose.

Danifae sidled a step closer to the demon. She licked her lips and said, "Kill this wretch, Jeggred." At first, the words did not seem to register with the demon. His wings beat in agitation, and his malformed brow creased in confusion.

"What did you say, priestess?"

Jeggred bounded forward, and the demon at last understood his peril. He flew into the air but Jeggred leaped up and grabbed him by his human forelegs.

The chasme squealed in pain.

"Youlied!" he screamed at Danifae, trying to shake Jeggred free.

Danifae laughed and said, "Of course."

Jeggred, partially lifted into the air by the chasme, grunted and yanked at the demon's arms. The chasme squealed and whined; Jeggred roared and tore.

With a wet ripping sound, the draegloth pulled the chasme's forelegs from its body. Jeggred fell to the ground in a crouch, clutching the two gory sticks of the chasme's arms.

The chasme wailed with agony, and the sound was so ridiculous Pharaun almost smiled. The demon buzzed in circles overhead, showering them all with gore from the bleeding stumps of its front shoulders. "You will pay, lying drow bitch!" the demon screamed through its pain. "You will pay. Vakuul does not forget!"

Jeggred threw one of the demon's arms at it, but the chasme whined indignantly and wheeled aside. The bloody limb landed at Pharaun's feet.

With one final glare at Danifae, the chasme disappeared, teleporting back to whatever layer of the Abyss it called home.

Jeggred sniffed the other arm, wrinkled his nose, and tossed it away.

Still smiling, Danifae looked through the river of souls to Quenthel. The priestesses stared at one another for a long moment before Quenthel said, "Lolth awaits her Yor'thae beyond the Pass of the Soulreaver."

Jeggred must have sensed something in the air. He stepped in front of Danifae, his eyes fixed on his aunt. Pharaun drew nearer to Quenthel.

"Mistress Quenthel states the obvious," Danifae said.

Her small hand was on Jeggred's back. It took Pharaun a moment to realize that she was signing against his skin, telling him something.

"Mistress..." Pharaun began, but Quenthel cut him off.

"I state the obvious, battle-captive, because the obvious has escaped you since first we set foot on Lolth's domain." She punctuated her point with a crack of her whip.

Jeggred's breath came faster. Danifae removed her hand from his back. She had told him whatever it was she had wanted him to knowor wanted him to do.

Tension sat as thick as mist. Pharaun brought to mind the words to a spell. Quenthel had told him to attack only at her command so he stood ready and waited.

Jeggred stared through the souls and alternately eyed him and Quenthel with undisguised hunger. His battle with the chasme had only whetted his appetite, no doubt.

Danifae touched her holy symbol and said, "And what obvious point have I overlooked, Mistress Quenthel?"

Quenthel's serpents hissed hate at Danifae.

"Just this," Quenthel said. "That Lolth requires a sacrifice before her Yor'thae enters the pass." She reached back with her whip as though to strike but Jeggred moved faster. Before Quenthel could move, before Pharaun could cast a spell, the draegloth charged Quenthel.

He covered the distance in four bounding strides.

"Do not!" Danifae shouted, but her words did not match the pleased expression on her face.

Taken aback, Quenthel managed a weak swing with her whip but Jeggred caught the serpents in a fighting claw and held them away from him. He shouldered Quenthel's shield aside and lashed out with a vicious claw strike at her chest.

Armor links flew. The impact knocked Quenthel back two steps.

Jeggred followed up with savage speed, still clutching the hissing whip serpents, which tried futilely to sink their fangs into his iron-hard flesh. Roaring, the draegloth slashed with his free claw. Quenthel recovered herself and batted it aside with her shield, reversed her parry, and struck the draegloth in the face with her shield rim. Several of Jeggred's teeth flew. The strength of the blow momentarily stunned him.

Taking advantage of the respite, Quenthel yanked the whip serpents free of Jeggred's grasp with a grunt. Pharaun marveled at the strength granted her by her magical belt. She leaped back a step, spun the serpents over her head, and lashed them at the draegloth. Propelled by the force of her strength, the serpents struck home. Bloody furrows opened along Jeggred's ribcage. He roared in pain and dived aside, coming to his feet in a low crouch.

Growling, spraying spit, Jeggred pounced forward and unleashed a flurry of blows against Quenthel, blows that would have shredded a rock wall. Quenthel's shield answered, and there was her armor, but the force of the blows drove her backward. Her whip snapped again, and fangs sank into the draegloth's flesh.

Pharaun realized that he had been watching the combat too long. He quickly pulled a small leather glove from his piwafwi, moved his closed fists through an elaborate gesticulation, and spoke aloud the words to a spell.

When he finished, a gray disembodied fist as large as a titan's formed before him. At his mental command it flew at Jeggred. The draegloth never saw it coming, and it struck him on his flank with force enough to crack stone.

The impact cut short Jeggred's roar and sent him flying through the air. He landed in a roll ten paces from Quenthel, amidst the souls. He found his feet and clawed at the passing spirits to no effect.

With a roar, he charged Pharaun, but the Master of Sorcere interposed the magical fist.

"I'll kill you, mage!" Jeggred shouted and rent the construct with his claws. "I'll kill you both!" "Jeggred!" Danifae said, and for the first time in Pharaun's memory her words did not get through.

Battle mad, the draeglothcontinued to claw at the fist.

Pharaun smiled and readied the fist to deliver another blow.

"Jeggred, stop!" Danifae shouted.

That registered.

Jeggred stopped in mid-rampage, looked to Danifae, then back to the fist. His chest rose and fell, his eyes glared, and slobber dripped from his fangs. He fixed his gaze on Quenthel, on Pharaun, on the magical fist of force Pharaun had summoned.

"She was going to attack us, Mistress," Jeggred hissed to Danifae.

Pharaun inched the magical fist closer to the draegloth. He could strike Jeggred again anytime he wished, but he was enjoying the draegloth's growing frustration.

"You underestimate your aunt," Danifae said, smiling sweetly at Quenthel.

Pharaun said, "She ordered Jeggred to attack, Mistress."

The Baenre priestess, only mildly winded from her exchange with Jeggred, smiled and said, "You overestimate our battle-captive, Master Mizzrym."

Pharaun thought not but said nothing.

Jeggred, voice low and dangerous, said to Danifae, "Mistress, I should be allowed to kill" "Silence, male," Danifae snapped.

The draegloth fell silent. Pharaun admired the obedience she had instilled in the dolt.

Quenthel examined the small hole in her armor caused by Jeggred, then said to the draegloth, "Nephew, you have just named yourself as a sacrifice to Lolth."

Jeggred spat a glob of yellow saliva inQuenthel's direction. It spattered on the magical fist and dangled there before falling to the rocky ground.

"Are you certain that my mother would approve, aunt?" he said.

That hit home. Jeggred was the son of Matron Mother Baenre. Perhaps Quenthel would risk Triel's wrath by sacrificing him, but perhaps she would not. Pharaun had his answer with Quenthel's next words. "I shall enjoy administering your punishment, nephew," she said.

Disappointed, Pharaun decided that changing Quenthel's mind was worth another try.

In the most cavalier tone of voice he could summon, he said "This shaggy dolt has repeatedly disobeyed your instructions, has sided with a minor priestess" he nodded with contempt at Danifae"and has shown himself unworthy of the Baenre name. His folly is exceeded only by his stink. If you will not sacrifice him, please allow me to kill him. It would be a favor to intelligent life in the multiverse."

Jeggred glared hate.

Quenthel didn't look at Pharaun but answered, "You will do nothing unless I allow it, Master Mizzrym." "Mistress..." Pharaun began.

"Only if I allow it, male," Quenthel snapped, and her serpents fixed Pharaun with a stare.

The mage ground his teeth in frustration but managed a halfhearted bow.

"The mage's insolence and the influence of that cursed whip is what shows your weakness, aunt," Jeggred growled.

Pharaun brought the magical fis t to his side.

"Enough," Danifae said. She looked to Quenthel and withdrew her holy symbol.

Quenthel did the same. They stared at one another for a moment.

"Perhaps some protective spells before we attempt the pass?" Danifae said.

Quenthel nodded.

Both began to cast, eyeing the other the while.

Pharaun saw the look in each of their eyes and was not certain that defensive spells were what either had in mind.

Gromph moved methodically through the unending series of wards. Sometimes he used brute magical force, dispelling or destroying them; sometimes he usedsubtlety and misdirection, bending or warping the magical defenses for a time while he slipped past.

He focused entirely on House Agrach Dyrr's arcane defenses, barely noticing the passing Dyrr soldiers or the second foiled attack on the bridge by the Xorlarrin.

With each ward he overcame, he moved nearer to Lolth's temple, nearer to the golem and the phylactery.

The wards and spell traps cast in days or years past by Yasraena or a previous matron mother provided little challenge for Gromph's counterspells. Only those cast by the lichdrow proved difficult to bypass or dispel, but always Gromph prevailed.

And always the lichdrow's master ward, the thread that strung all of the others together, reactivated those that Gromph deactivated. Gromph opened and unlocked two score magical "doors" on his way in, only to watch the master ward close and relock them behind him. He did not fully understand the lichdrow's purpose and had no time to think on it more.

Time passed, but Gromph had no way to measure it. He assumed he had been at the wards an hour and a half or more. Soon, the spell that allowed him to change shapethe spell that had allowed Prath to take his form and him to take that of the shadowwould expire. He would no longer be incorporeal. Prath would no longer look like Gromph.

At that point, Yasraena would surely recognize the deception, assume that Gromph was within the complex, and muster all of the resources at her disposal to find him.

He put that possibility out of his mind and focused on the next defense, a spell trap that would imprison him in a cage of force if he attempted to bypass the ward's outer border. The forcecage could hold him even in incorporeal form.

Just as he prepared to dispel it, he noticed a subtle twist to the ward.

It was not one ward but two, the second cleverly masked by the first.

The hidden ward would be triggered by dispelling the first and held a latent spell that caused a few moments of agonizing pain before stopping the target's heart.

Gromph admonished himself for his carelessness. He was mentally exhausted, and fatigue was making him sloppy. He had almost made a fatal mistake.

He took a moment to refocus before dispelling the wards in the proper sequence. As he passed through the area, the master ward reactivated them both behind him.

Gromph continued on.

The temple doors, themselves heavily warded, stood tantalizing near. He moved rapidly through the two wards that stood between him and the temple as Dyrr soldiers hurried past.

Constructed of finished stone, the temple sported a domed ceiling and a stone-flagged portico with a colonnade. A pair of open bronze double doors, darkened with age and inlaid with electrum spider motifs and prayers to Lolth, opened onto the nave.

Within, Gromph could see stone benches lining either side of the center aisle, which led up to the apse and the altar. He could not quite make out the golem, though he knew it to be positioned behind the altar. The temple appeared unoccupied. The House was too busy defending itself to spend time in worship.

Several powerful wards and spell traps shielded the doors. The master ward twisted through all of them and extended into the temple, straight up the center aisle, presumably right into the spider golem. Gromph floated before the lines of power and cast several spells that enabled him to analyze the wards' natures. He removed one of his divining wands and stared through its tipwhile he cast.

He saw that the wards on the doors were heavily intertwined, heavily interdependent. He was not sure he could unravel them.

Frustration made his pulse pound. He tried to calm himself, but then he sensed something behind him and turned around.

A drow female, Yasraena's daughter Larikal, walked toward the open doors of the temple. Her mesh armor hid her overlarge frame. A large mace hung from her belt. Her bland, unattractive face wore an angry scowl.

A balding, portly male walked beside her, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his black robeGeremis, Gromph remembered, and thought that he looked much like Nauzhror.

Both Larikal and the wizard glowed various hues in Gromph's sight. Personal protective spells sheathed both of them. Magical trinkets and weapons adorned each. Gromph read their lips as they walked.

"I will not tolerate your failure much longer, male," Larikal said.

Like all drow males, Geremis had the good sense to accept the admonishment without comment.

"The phylactery is within the fortress," the priestess continued. "You and your undermages must find it within the hour. Or the next time you enter this temple with me, it will be as a sacrifice to Lolth." "Yes, Mistress Larikal," Geremis replied.

Larikal and the mage walked right through Gromph's incorporeal formit felt to Gromph as though a breeze passed through himand stepped through the temple's open doorway. The wards on the doors shimmered at their passage, briefly encapsulating each in crimson light as they walked across the threshold. Neither had spoken a command word or made any sign so Gromph reasoned that the wards must be attuned to something they wore or perhaps to their very bodies.

Just beyond the doorway, Geremis stopped. He turned, a curious look on his round face, and looked back at the space Gromph occupied.

Gromph cursed and froze. Fearing that the mage had sensed him somehow, he prepared a spell that would immolate Geremis, assuming it could get through the mage's personal wards.

Gromph relaxed when Geremis turned away and hurried up the center aisle after the Dyrr daughter.

Gromph shifted his position so that he could better see within the temple.

The priestess walked up the aisle, crossed into the apse, and kneeled before the black altar. Her manner suitably reverent, she used a tinder-twig to light the single candle atop it. Shadows leaped up around the temple. Spiders, some as large as Gromph's fist, crawled over the altar.

In the candlelight, Gromph could see the silhouette of the golem. It was huge.

Geremis maintained a discreet distance from Larikal; males were forbidden to enter the apse of a temple of Lolth. He took a seat in the front bench and bowed his head.

Without preamble, Larikal lowered herself to her knees, likewise bowed her head, and prayed. Gromph could not hear the words but he could imagine her murmuring voice carrying through the temple.

The candlelight danced across the smooth finish of the spider golem. The huge creature loomed over the altar, over Larikal. She was less than five paces from the subject of her prayers and did not realize it. Gromph almost smiled through his exhaustion. The Spider Queen certainly had a sense of humor.

Gromph turned back to the wards. He had to An idea struck him, and finally he did smile.

He did not have to unravel the wards after all.

Quenthel held her holy symbol in her shield hand and hurried through the words to a spell. When she finished, she grew to nearly twice her size, as did her whip, armor, and shield. A violet glow suffused her and leaked from her eyesthe divine favor of Lolth made manifest.

Danifae completed her own spell, and a gray shield of magical force surrounded her entire bodyher faith in physical form.

The priestesses eyed one another across the broken ground while Lolth's dead streamed between them and into the Pass.

Those are not defensive spells, Pharaun thought as he prepared again to send his magical fist against Jeggred.

Quenthel's whip hissed. Danifae shifted on her feet, her hands near the haft of her morningstar. "An interesting choice of spell, Mistress Quenthel," Danifae said.

Quenthel sneered.

Pharaun thought open combat inevitable at that point, but no. Both priestesses held their ground and began again to cast.

Though he knew arcane magic far better than that granted by the gods, Pharaun had seen enough spells cast by clerics such that he would be able to identify most of the invocations that were being performed. Danifae finished her spell first. The magic had no visible manifestation, but Pharaun determined from her gestures and words that the spell had augmented her physical strength.

Pharaun appreciated Danifae's subtlety. Quenthel's first spell had made her large and strong but obviously so. Danifae had made herself stronger too but without it being apparent.

Quenthel finished her own prayer, and a faint, green glow formed around herskin.

Resistance to spells, Pharaun recognized.

With that, the two priestesses eyed each other anew.

"The pass?" Danifae asked but took a threatening step toward Quenthel. "Or... something else?" Quenthel smiled, took a step toward Danifae, and said, "Something else."

Pharaun too smiled. If Quenthel and Danifae came to blows, he would take the opportunity to kill Jeggred, Baenre or no.

Halisstra's heart caught in her throat. Ahead, at the base of the mountains, Danifae and Quenthel Baenre stood facing each other. A shimmering shield of gray force surrounded Danifae, while Quenthel Baenre stood twice her normal size.

They were doing battle, or about to.

The draegloth Jeggred, watched from one side, and the wizard Pharaun, with some kind of conjured fist before him, watched from another. The souls of Lolth's dead streamed around and between the combatants, flowing into the jagged opening at the base of one of the tall mountainsthe Pass of the Soulreaver.

Halisstra had to move quickly. She flew down behind a rock outcropping thirty paces from the scene. Feliane and Uluyara followed. With an exercise of will, Halisstra ended the spell that had transformed them to vapor. She crouched behind the rocks and spoke with urgency.

"You see?" she said to Uluyara. "Danifae is fighting Quenthel Baenre. The Baenre priestess must have learned of her allegiance to Eilistraee."

She turned to go, but Uluyara grabbed her by the shoulder and turned her around.

"Halisstra, they do not appear yet to be fighting. We should prepare defensive spells. The Baenre priestess is not a trifling opponent."

"There is no time," Halisstra said, pushing Uluyara's hand away. If Danifae had finally heeded Eilistraee's call, Halisstra did not want to leave her to face Quenthel alone. "We will use our spells incombat. It will be enough."

She looked her sisters in their eyes, demanding with her gaze that they obey her.

"The draegloth and wizard?" Feliane said. "What of them?"

Halisstra drew the Crescent Blade.

"Quenthel Baenre is our enemy," she said. "Assume the draegloth and wizard are too, unless they give you reason to believe otherwise."

"And what of Danifae?" Feliane asked.

"Leave her to me," Halisstra said.

With that, she turned and charged toward the combat. Uluyara's horn rang out behind her.

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