Chapter Fifteen

Pharaun's mind fogged the moment he stepped onto the Pass of the Soulreaver. His equilibrium failed him. He felt as though he were moving back and forth, up and down, all at once.

Staggering, he held out a hand until it touched the cool wall of the narrow pass. He stood still, leaning against the stone and trying to recover himself.

The mage knew he wasn't moving but still felt a sensation of motion and perceived the rapid passage of time. He stood at the center of the world as it streaked around and past him.

Pharaun closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and clutched at the wall with a death grip.

Time and motion stopped so suddenly he almost fell forward.

He opened his eyes and saw no souls, no Quenthel, nothing but stone walls to either side of him rising toward infinity. Darkness shrouded the pass, but ordinary darkness through which Pharaun could see. A smooth, narrow path stretched before him, disappearing into the far distance. He turned around and saw the same path extending backward to the limits of his vision.

But he had taken only one step. Hadn't he?

Pharaun had teleported, gated, dimension doored, and shadowalked enough to understand that the Pass of the Soulreaver was not a physical place with spatial dimensions so much as it was a metaphor, a symbol for whatever bridged the time and distance between the ruined land he had just left behind and Lolth's personal realm that lay ahead.

For a disconcerting instant, though, he wondered if the entirety of Lolth's plane was no more than metaphor, if the minds of he and his companions had given form to something otherwise formless.

The thought disquieted him, and he pushed it from his brain.

"Quenthel," he called and did not like the quaver he heard in his voice. The word echoed off the stone, and when it came back to him, the voice was not his own.

A scream of terror "Quenthel!"

Hysterical laughter "Quenthel."

A despairing mumble "Quenthel."

A wail of pain "Quenthel!"

Pharaun's skin crawled. Sweat beaded his forehead. His skin was clammy. He kept his mouth shut and walked down the pathslowly.

He saw nothing and heard nothing but the twisted echo of his own voice, but. . . He was not alone.

And it was notQuenthel he sensed.

From aheador was it behind?whispering began, hissings, the remnant of ancient screams. The inarticulate mutterings soaked into his soul. He felt itchy, soiled. His breath came fast.

"Who is there?" he called and cringed when the words rebounded to him, screaming in terror.

He reached into his robe and withdrew a wand for each hand the iron shaft that discharged lightning in his right, the zurkhwood wand that fired bolts of magical energy in his left.

He walked on. The walls whispered and muttered in his ears.

"Reaver," they said.

He felt eyes on him from behind, boring into his being. He whirled around, both wands brandished, certain something was there.


The whispers turned to hissing laughter.

Breathing heavily, he put his back to the wall and tried to gather himself. Ghostly hands as cold as a grave reached through the wall and covered his mouth. Panic sent his heart hammering. He pulled hims elf free, fell to the ground, turned and fired three magic missiles into the wall.

There was nothing there.

He scrabbled to his feet.

What was happening? He was not himself. A spell was affecting him. Surely he A sudden shriek rang off the walls, a hopeless wail filled with despair and rage. Pharaun tensed, his knuckles white on his wands.

Ahead of him, a vast, spectral form flew out of the wall on one side of the pass and into the wall on the other, like a fish swimming through the waters of the Darklake. The form moved fast, but he caught a good glimpse of it before it vanished into the stonea vast, bloated, serpentine body of translucent gray, within which squirmed and screamed hundreds or thousands of glowing drow souls.

The Soulreaver.

Its black eyes were bottomless holes; its mouth a cavern. It dwarfed the nalfeshnee; it dwarfed ten nalfeshnees.

It was a living prison for failed souls.

Pharaun imagined his own soul trapped within it, and a pit formed in his stomach. He tried to ignore the shaking in his hands as he put one of the wands back in his robe and withdrew a pinch of powdered irtios, a clear gem. He cast the sparkling powder into the air while speaking aloud the words to a powerful evocation.

He maintained his concentration even when the arcane words echoed back at him as wails.

When he finished, the irtios powder swirled around him, formed a sphere about fifteen paces in diameter, and transformed into an invisible, impenetrable sphere of force that could keep out even incorporeal creatures.

Pharaun prayed to Lolth that it would keep out the Soulreaver. Even it if did, however, Pharaun knew the solution was only a temporary one. The spell would not last overlong, and he could not move the sphere. Still, he needed some time to gather himself. He was agitated, nervous.

The shriek of the Soulreaver repeated but sounded muffled, as though from deep in the ground.

Secure within his sphere, Pharaun tried to settle his racing heart and develop a plan.

The soles of his feet began to tingle. He looked down and saw a distortion in the floor of the pass. He watched in horror as the rock turned translucent under him and the distortion took shape an enormous open mouth lined with teeth.

The Soulreaver was coming up through the floor directly under him, mouth open, wide enough to swallow both Pharaun and the sphere.

Pharaun stared downward, wide-eyed with terror. He tried to find the words to a spell but failed, stuttering incoherently.

Deep down in the Soulreaver's gullet, he saw the tiny forms of wriggling souls, their eyes filled with a terror that mirrored his own.

The walls of the inside of the Soulreaver's mouth rose around him, and he could do nothing but watch as he was engulfed.

He did not even have time to scream before the jaws snapped shut and he joined the damned.

Quenthel stood alone on the Pass of the Soulreaver. She knew that anyone who would brave its trials must do so alone.

She knew too that the Soulreaver was the lone survivor from the mythology of a long dead world. Lolth allowed it to exist in the Demonweb Pits because it amused her, because it provided a final test for some of her petitioners.

The high priestess did not know why some petitioners were tested and others not. She attributed it to the chaotic whim of Lolth. When Quenthel had died at the hands of a renegade male in the Year of Shadows, her soul had passed into Lolth's city without test by the Reaver.

She knew she would not go untested a second time.

With her whip in hand, Quenthel stalked down the narrow pass. The wind whistled between the walls, calling Lolth's Yor'thae. The heads of her whip rapidly flicked their tongues in and out, listening, tasting the air.

It comes, Mistress, said Yngoth.

Quenthel knew. Her skin went gooseflesh.

When she heard the Soulreaver's sinister hissings, sensed its maddening mumbles deep in some primitive part of her brain, she had to fight to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

She was Lolth's Chosen, she reminded herself, and she would not be deterred.

The Soulreaver slithered up out of the floor ahead of her, passing through stone as though through air, a sinuous, huge, translucent serpent. Souls squirmed within its long body, trapped, desperate, tortured. The Reaver was the final resting place and torture chamber for thousands upon thousands of failed souls.

Quenthel did not intend to add her own soul to their number.

Be wary, Mistress, said K'Sothra.

But Quenthel did not intend to be wary. That time was past. She would take what the Soulreaver offered.

Gripping her holy symbol in her hand, speaking Lolth's praises from her lips, she charged forward toward the apparition. It opened its mouth and hissed, showing her the squirming, twisted faces of innumerable trapped souls lodged in its gullet. Without hesitation, Quenthel dived through its teeth and into its jaws. Hate pulled Halisstra back to consciousness. Rage opened her eyes. She fought her way through the pain and stared up into Lolth's sky. It was night, and she felt upon her the weight of the eight stars of Lolth. Souls streaked above and past her, on their way to their dark mistress, heedless of her agony.

She fought through the pain and sat up.

Dizziness made her vision swirl, but she steadied herself with a hand on the ground until the feeling passed.

Feliane lay in a bloody pile not far from her, glistening in the dim light. Spiders crawled over the elf's small body, tasting her flesh and blood. Uluyara's corpse lay not far from Feliane. The substance that had held her immobile had dissolved. She lay on her back, facing the sky, and the slash in her throat gaped. Arachnids crawled in and out of the hole.

To her surprise, Halisstra felt no sympathy for her fallen sisters. She felt nothing but anger, a white hot flame of rage burning in her gut.

As she watched, Feliane's body spasmed, and she emitted a wet gurgle. She was still alive.

Halisstra rode her rage to her feet and retrieved the Crescent Blade. Pain wracked her body. Crusted blood coated her ruined face. Her jaw was cracked, innumerable ribs were broken, and she could not see out of one eye. She could well imagine how she must appear.

The souls flew past her into the Pass of the Soulreaver, uncaring. Lolth's seven stars and their dim eighth sister looked down from the cloudy sky, also without a care.

Halisstra called to mind a prayer of healing but stopped before the words formed on her swollen lips. She would not call on Eilistraee, not ever again. The Dark Maiden had failed her, had betrayed her. Eilistraee was no better than Lolth. Worse, because she purported to be different.

"You could have warned me," she managed, through the bloody mess of her lips.

Halisstra realized then, fully and finally, that she had embraced the weakness of Eilistraee's faith out of guilt. She had worshiped a weak goddess out of fear. She was pleased that she had learned wisdom before the end.

She was through with Eilistraee. The part of Halisstra that had worshiped the Dark Maiden was dead. The old Halisstra was resurrected.

"You are weak," she said to Eilistraee.

Gritting her teeth against the pain, she took her lyre from her pack and sang a bae'qeshel song of healing through her torn lips. When the magic took effect, the pain in her face and head subsided, the punctures closed. She sang a second song, a third, until her body was once more whole.

But the spells did nothing to close the emptiness in her soul. She knew how she could fill it, how she would fill itshe felt Lolth's pull stronger than ever. Since Lolth's Silence first began, Halisstra's faith had moved like a pendulum between the Dark Maiden and the Spider Queen. Like all pendulums, it must ultimately come to rest in its natural state.

She looked at the dark opening of the Pass of the Soulreaver. Souls flew in and vanished, swallowed by the mountain. Halisstra knew what lay beyond it Lolth.

And Danifae.

She was going to kill Danifae Yauntyrr, kill her without mercy. She pushed from her mind everything that she had learned from Eilistraee. She had no more room in her soul for sympathy, understanding, forgiveness, or love. She had room for only one thing hate. And hate would give her strength.

It was enough.

She consciously gave herself over to the seed of her former self that had long lain dormant within her. From that point on, she would behave as a drow should. From that point on, she would be as merciless a predator as a spider.

Halisstra looked down at her breastplate and saw there the symbol of Eilistraee inset into the metal. She used the Crescent Blade to pry it loose. It fell to the ground, and she crushed it under her boot as she walked toward Feliane.

The elf lay on the ground, a bloody pile of torn skin. Her eyes were open and staring. Her mouth moved, but no sound came forth save the labored wheeze of her failing breath. The draegloth had fed on the soft parts of her flesh.

Halisstra knelt over her former fellow priestess. Feliane's almond eyes, glassy with pain, managed to focus on her. The elf's hand moved, as though to reach up and touch Halisstra.

Halisstra felt nothing. She was a hole.

"We are made anew each moment," she said, recalling the elf's words to her atop one of Lolth's tors. Feliane's body shook with a sigh, as though in resignation.

Without another word, Halisstra put her hands to Feliane's throat and strangled the elf. It took only moments.

Praise Lolth, Halisstra almost said as she stood. Almost.

She walked toward the Pass of the Soulreaver amongst the flow of Lolth's dead, falling in with the rest of the damned.

Still occupying Larikal's stout body, Gromph pulled closed the temple doors and stripped off the priestess's chain mail hauberk, shield, and mace. They would interfere with his spellcasting.

Unencumbered, he channeled arcane power into his hands, placed them on the two door latches, and said, "Hold."

His magic passed into the bronze slabs. The spell would make the doors impossible to open without first dispelling his dweomer, a difficult task for any of Yasraena's House wizards. And the lichdrow's dimensional lock would prevent Yasraena and the Dyrr forces from using teleportation or similar magic to get into the temple. They would have no choice but to enter through the doorswhich Gromph had since warded himselfor the windows.

The archmage turned, looked up, and examined the windows. Four of thehalf-ovals lined each wall of the nave, abouthalfway up the stone walls. They were large enough that a drow could easily pass through them. Gromph would have to seal them off.

From his robes, he withdrew a small piece of granite. With it in hand, he spoke the words to a spell and summoned a wall of stone. Its shape answered his mental command, and it formed up and melded with the stone of the temple wall, filling in the window openings in the process. He did the same with the windows on the other side.

The temple felt like a tomb.

The wall of stone would hold a skilled wizard or a determined attacker for only a short while, though, so Gromph took from his robes another component, a pouch of diamond dust. Casting on first one side of the temple then the other, he reinforced the walls of stone with invisible walls of force. Yasraena and her wizards would have to bypass both to get in through a window.

"That should give me enough time," he muttered in Larikal's voice and hoped he was right.

Gromph started up the aisle and stopped about halfway. The spider golem stood behind the altar, dark and forbidding. The pulsing master ward extended through Gromph and into the golem's thorax like an umbilical cord. They were connected, at least metaphorically.

Gromph knew golems. He had created several over the centuries. Mindless and composed of inorganic material, even the most ordinary of them were immune to virtually all forms of magical attack. And the spider golem was no ordinary construct. Composed of smooth jet, it was the guardian of the lichdrow's phylactery. Gromph had no doubt that the lichdrow had augmented its immunities to magic. He knew that the spider golem could be destroyed only by physical attacks with enchanted weapons. Unfortunately, Gromph was not a highly skilled fighterhis battle with Nimor had demonstrated that amplybut he nevertheless planned to chop the golem down with the duergar axe. He had spells that would assist his strength, speed, stamina, and aim, but still....

At least it was Larikal's body that would suffer, he thought, but the realization gave him only small solace. He occupied the body, so he would feel the pain.

And he was growing weary of pain.

Gromph unbelted the axe and got comfortable with its heft. Eyeing the golem, he took a piece of cured lizard hide from his robes and cast a spell that sheathed his body in a field of forceessentially asuit of magical armor. Next, he spoke the words to a spell that caused eight illusionary duplicates of himself to form around him. The images shifted and movedit would be difficult for the golem to determine which was the real Gromph and which an illusion. He followed that with a spell that formed a shield-sized field of force before him that would deflect attacks. An illusory shield appeared before all of the duplicates. Almost ready, he thought.

He took a specially prepared root from his robe, chewed itthe taste was sourand articulated the words to a spell that sped his reflexes and movement.

He had one more spell to castone from his scrollbut after casting it, he would not be able to cast another until it had run its course. Most mages were loathe to use it. Gromph had no choice.

First, he had to awaken the golem.

He held the scroll ready in his hand, took a wand from his pocket, aimed it at the spider golem, and discharged a glowing green missile of magical energy. It struck the golem in its chest, below the bulbous head. While it did no harm, the attack animated the construct.

The huge stone creature stirred. Light animated its eight eyes. Its pedipalps and legs stretched.

Gromph unrolled the scroll and read the words to one of the most powerful transmutations he knew. As the words poured from him, the magic took effect, bringing with it an understanding of how to use the duergar axe, an understanding of how to fight. Gromph felt his skin harden, his strength increase, his speed increase still more. A vicious fury seized his mind.

By the time the spell had transformed him fully, Gromph felt nothing but a powerful compulsion to chop the golem into bits. He reveled in the spell-induced ferocity. The knowledge imparted to him by the spell crowded out his understanding of the Weave, but he did not care. He would not have cast spells even if he could have. Spellcasting was for the weak.

The axe felt weightless in his hand. He crumbled the suddenly blank parchment in his fist and spun the axe around him with one hand, so fast it whistled.

The golem fixed its emotionless gaze upon him and bounded over the altar. The creature moved with alacrity and grace, unusual for a construct. Its weight caused the temple floor to shake.

Gromph brandished the axe, roared, and charged the rest of the way down the aisle.

Quenthel sat cross-legged on the floor of her room, praying by the light of a sanctified candle, asking for some revelation that would explain this absurdity. She clutched her holy symbol in her hand and ran her thumbs along its edges.

Lolth did not answer. The Spider Queen was as silent as she had been immediately before her rebirth. Merely thinking of that obscenity caused Quenthel to shake with rage. The serpents of her whip, laying by her side, sensed her anger and swirled around her in an attempt to comfort their mistress.

She ignored them, rose, and took the whip and candle in her hand. Quenthel threw open her door, exited her chambers, and stalked the great hall of House Baenre, seething. Her wrath went before her like a wave and cleared her path.

Servants saw her coming, bowed their heads, and scurried into side halls and off chambers. Her forceful strides caused her mail to chime and the candle flame to dance.

How could Lolth have chosen another? Quenthel washad been she reminded herself with heatthe Mistress of Arach-Tinilith. Lolth had brought her back from the dead.

But the Spider Queen had chosen her, an upstart whore!

The serpents of her whip offered soothing words in her mind but she ignored their soft hissing. You are still the First Sister of House Baenre, K'Sothra said.

True, Quenthel acknowledged. But she was no longer Mistress of Arach-Tinilith. She had seen to that. Quenthel knew it was blasphemous to think ill of the Yor'thae, but she could not stop herself. Quenthel would have preferred the dignity of a clean death to the shame of being removed from Arach-Tinilith.

Triel regarded her differently since her removal; everyone in the House did.

Why would Lolth have cast her so low? After all she had done and endured?

No one had been better suited to be Lolth's Yor'thae. No one. Especially not her.

A cobweb caught Quenthel's eye. Her rage subsided, and she stopped in the middle of the hallway. She saw nothing unusual about the web, but it seemed meaningful to her.

It hung in a corner, strung between two tapestry-covered walls, silvery in the candlelight. It was big. A stonespider's web, Quenthel decided. She had seen stone spiders grow half as large as her hand.

A few desiccated caveflies hung from the strands like tiny marionettes.

She walked to the web, head cocked, and held the candle aloft.

She studied the strands, thinking them beautiful in their intricacy. Every strand had a reason to exist in the web, every strand served a purpose.

Every strand.

The web made sense in a way that her life, death, and resurrection did not.

She looked more closely at the web, moved the candle around it, but saw no spider. She lightly brushed it with her finger, hoping the vibration would draw the creature out of hiding.

Nothing. The caveflies bounced on their strings.

For no reason that she could articulate, Quenthel hated the web. An impulse took her, and she could not stop herself.

She lifted the candle and held its flame to the strands. She knew it was blasphemy but she did it anyway, unable to contain a crazed grin.

The strands curled and disintegrated, vanishing into fleeting streams of smoke. The caveflies rained to the floor. Warming to her work, Quenthel continued until she had obliterated all sign of the web. She kneeled and burned each of the caveflies, one by one.

The serpents of her whip were too stunned even to hiss.

Mistress? K'Sothra finally managed.

Quenthel ignored her and stalked off, her rage inexplicably abated.

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