Chapter Sixteen

Danifae lost track of Jeggred the moment she stepped onto the Pass of the Soulreaver. One moment he was there; the next, gone.

She was alone.

A narrow passageway stretched before her, lined on each side by sheer walls of rock. A gray mist crawled over the ground. Her skin went gooseflesh from the chill.

With nothing for it, she walked forward. She felt as though she was covering leagues with each step, taking days to draw each breath. She pressed on, waiting for the Reaver to show itself.

After only a few moments, whispers sounded in her head, then hisses, pained wails. She could not see the source.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Her breath came fast.

It was behind her! She knew it with certainty.

She lowered her morningstar and turned around slowly.

A mere five paces away, the misty, serpentine form of the Soulreaver filled the passage. Its empty eyes reduced her to insignificance. Its open mouth could have swallowed an ogre whole. Deep in its throat, in its bowels, glowed innumerable souls, as tiny as the dolls of a child, as desperate and pained as victims of a torturemaster.

Danifae struggled to find herself, t o show no fear. She knew she faced another test of her worthiness. She touched her holy symbol, and the amber felt cool in her palm.

The Reaver was so immense, so ancient, so terrible....

The screams of the souls filled her mind. She bore it, though she wanted to dig a furrow in her skull.

The Reaver opened its mouth wider, simultaneously beckoning and challenging her to come forward, to test herself against what it would show her.

She started forward on leaden legs but stopped after only two steps.

Danifae gestured it toward her and said in her most seductivewhisper, "You come to me."

It did not hesitate. Mouth agape, it streaked at her, terrifyingly fast. She held her ground as its maw engulfed her.

A thousand muttering voices, terrified, hopeless voicesthe voices of the trapped soulsrang in her ears, sounded in her being.

She answered their scream with one of her own.

Anival, First Daughter to the Matron Mother of House Agrach Dyrr, watched from high atop one of the walls as the Xorlarrin forces shifted their ranks in preparation for an assault. She could see little. Strategically placed spheres of magical darkness shielded much of the movement. Shouted commands and the ring of metal carried across the moat chasm.

Standing beside her, Urgan, the scarred weapons master of House Agrach Dyrr, said, "They will attack within the hour, Mistress Anival."

Anival nodded. She put her hands to the hafts of the two enchanted light maces that hung from her belt. Each sported a head fashioned in the shape of a spider.

"The timing is not coincidental," she said but did not explain. She assumed the attack to be designed to protect the archmage. His allies surely knew that the matron mother had learned of his deception.

Anival looked up and down the line, at walls of adamantine and stone. They had stood for millennia. Surely they would not fall now?

Dyrrsolders lined the battlements, and Anival could see from their hard expressions that all of them sensed the impending attack. A tense rustle rippled through the ranks.

"We will hold," Anival said, speaking to herself as much as to Urgan.

The weapons master said, "We will."

Anival thought she heard doubt in Urgan's tone but let it pass. She wondered whether she should hope for her mother's success or failure in stopping the archmage. If the matron mother died and the lichdrow's phylactery was destroyed, Anival mightmightbe able to negotiate an end to the siege.

But first, she needed to hold her walls, and without either her vrocks, or her House wizards.

Xorlarrin war trumpets sounded.

"Here they come," Urgan said.

Each of the spider golem's forelegs ended in a sharp claw of jet as long as a short sword. Its mandibles churned with fangs as long as Gromph's hand.

Gromph did not care. Transformed into a skilled warrior by the power of his spell, he charged straight at the golem's front, axe held high in both hands.

The golem crouched at his approach, and two claws lashed out in rapid succession before Gromph got within reach. Anticipating the move, Gromph spun aside and partially parried one blow with his axe. The other claw struck at one of the mirror images, hit it, and caused it to vanish with a pop.

Using the force of his spin to add momentum to his swing, Gromph whirled in close, slashed with the duergar axe, and cut a wedge of jet from the construct's thorax. With his spell-augmented speed, he followed up with another, cleaving a furrow in one leg.

The spider leaped backwardcrushing a bench under its weightand struck at Gromph with one claw, then another. Gromph ducked and dodged, trying again to get in close. Two more images vanished. The construct moved with astounding rapidity, despite its weight.

For a moment, the two circled, a few paces apart. The golem stepped over the benches, cracking stone as it moved, waving its pedipalps hypnotically. Its clawed feet thumped into the floor with each step. Gromph followed it with his eyes, light on the balls of his feet.

A boom against the temple doors turned Gromph's head. Someone was trying to get through his holding spell. Yasraena had located him.

Seeing his distraction, the golem lunged at him, knocking over benches in its haste. Gromph dived aside and rolled. Claws thumped into the ground around himone, then another, and anotherand three images vanished in rapid succession. A claw nicked his shoulder, drawing blood. His ring began to heal the wound.

Gromph leaped to his feet and intercepted a decapitating claw strike with his axe. The parry severed one of the golem's legs, and a shaft of jet as large as an ogre's arm crashed into a nearby bench.

Another boom against the door. His spell held but Gromph had little time.

Dodging first one blow, then another, he darted inside the golem's reach and struck at its head with his axe. He cut a sliver from it, but it backed off, toppling benches. Gromph pressed but the creature responded by exhaling a cloud of black mist.

Acid, Gromph realized, but could not avoid it. The personal wards that would have protected his own body did not protect Larikal's. Agony lit his skin. His nonmagical clothes disintegratedwhich thankfully didn't include the enchanted robe in which he carried his essential spell componentsand his exposed flesh burned and blistered as the mist sloughed away flesh. The stone of the floor and surrounding pews smoked and pitted. An acrid stink filled the air as the cloud dissipated.

Gromph gritted his teeth against the pain, leaped over an acid-slicked pew, and struck another leg from the golem. Another.

The golem answered with a flurry of claw strikes that drove Gromph backward and dispelled all of his images.

Blood and pus leaked from Gromph's skin. His breath came fast and heavy. The pain was slowing him. If the golem was like others of its kind, he knew it would be able to use its acid breath again after only a short time. It had but to gather more of the caustic substance within its enchanted body, and the archmage doubted he would survive a second coating of the stuff. Gromph had to destroy it first.

He parried another claw strike, reared his axe back and A blow from the golem hit him squarely in the chest. Only the magical shield of force and conjured armor kept the impact from splitting him open. Still, the force of the blow sent him careening backward. He stumbled, flailing, and tripped over the broken remnants of a bench. Gromph fell on his back.

The spider lurched at him, crushing the broken bench. Its mandibles opened wide. Its pedipalps reached for him. Gromph swung his axe furiously from his back, rolled, and tried to regain his feet. A claw descended for his throat, but the shield of force turned it, though the force knocked him down again. He scooted backward, found his feet, and swung his axe defensively. The golem pressed him, drew in close and snapped its jaws. The bite snagged Gromph's cloak and pulled him off balance. A claw strike knocked him to all fours, and he nearly dropped his axe.

Gromph reared up and struck a glancing blow on the golem's head, just above its eye cluster. Flecks of jet flew and the golem backed off, pedipalps waving menacingly. Gromph regained his feet and backed off a bit too.

Breathing heavily, Gromph knew that he could not waste time. Soon, the golem would be able to use its acid breath again. Soon, Yasraena and her wizards would find a way into the temple.

The vein of the master ward stuck out of the spider's abdomen like some grotesque entrail. At the end of it, Gromph knew, within the golem's body, was the phylactery. He had to press the attack.

He backed off toward the altar, axe held defensively. The spider followed, clambering over broken and acid-scarred pews.

Gromph feigned a stumble and the spider pounced. The archmage dived aside, regained his feet in an instant, and unleashed a vicious downward slash that severed one of the golem's legs at the shoulder. The golem struck at Gromph with another leg as it tried to turn to face himthe blow opened the archmage's thighbut Gromph bounded between two of its remaining legs and chopped furiously. Chunks of the golem flew into the air as it clambered around.

Another blow struck Gromph, cracking ribs and driving the breath from his lungs, but he dared not stop his attack. His ankle caught under the golem and snapped.

Stars exploded in his vision. Agony raced up his leg. Shouting, spraying spit, he continued his onslaught. His axe rose and fell, rose andfell. Pieces of the golem lay scattered about the temple like so much Darklake flotsam.

After an indeterminate time, Gromph became aware that the spider golem was not moving. Fueled with spell-induced ferocity, he chopped at it several more times before he was sated.

When he came back to himself, the pain nearly caused him to lose consciousness. The bulk of the golem lay before him, cracked and broken. Its bulk pinned his leg. Pieces of it lay all around, scattered amidst the broken benches.

Another boom sounded against the temple's double doors, fairly shaking the whole of the structure. Yasraena and her wizards had not yet been able to breach Gromph's holding spell. They would try the windows next.

Gently, hissing at the pain, he pried up the golem's body with the duergar axe and slid his foot free. Bone ground against bone, and the pain caused Gromph to vomit the mushrooms he had eaten in his office earlier. He did not look at the break. His ring was working to heal his wounds, but too slowly. He reached into his robeits magic had protected it from the acidic breath of the golemand extracted two healing potions, both ordinarily serving as material components to his spells. He tore their seal with his teeth and drank the warm fluid down, one after the other.

His ankle reknit and the gash in his thigh and shoulder closed. Even most of the acid burns healed. He sighed, tested his ankle, found it fine, and climbed atop the golem's body. There, he found his footing and straddled the point at which the rope of the master ward vanished into the golem's body. He raised the axe high and started to chop.

With each swing he grew more and more eager and the light from the phylactery's dweomer grew brighter and brighter in his sight.

After half-a-score swings, the axe blows revealed a hollow within the spider golem's thorax. Gromph stopped, sweating, and stared.

There, floating in the air, intertwined with the vein of the master ward, was a shimmering, fist-sized sphere of red.

The sphere turned yellow. Then green. Then violet.

Gromph watched the globe cycle through seven colors before beginning the sequence anew. In a distant way, he knew the globe for what it wasa prismatic sphere. The colors lay atop each other, alternating spheres within spheres, like the layers of a flakefungus. The lichdrow must have found a way to make a prismatic sphere permanent. He had placed his phylactery within it and placed the whole within a specially constructed golem.

Gromph knew how to bring down a prismatic sphere. Certain spells defeated certain colors. Touching certaincolors without dispelling them resulted in harm or death. He would have to defeat all of the colors to get at the phylactery within.

It would take time. Time he did not have. Besides, he had another problem.

The transformative spell that had turned him into a warrior had temporarily modified his mind, closing the door on that part of him that interacted with and drew on the Weave. He knew that he could cast spells, but the knowledge that allowed him to link with the Weave was gone, temporarily crowded out by the knowledge imparted to him by the transmutation spell.

He could not end the spell early. It had to run its course. Only after it had would he be able to bring down the sphere.

Above him, a portion of the conjured stone wall before one of the temple's windows shattered, destroyed by some spell cast by one of Yasraena's wizards. The stone rained down on the temple floor. Gromph had only the wall of force between him and the forces of House Dyrr.

He was almost out of time.

A scrabbling sound turned him around. What he saw caused a pit to form in his stomach.

Each of the pieces he had chopped from the golemthe legs, the chunk of thorax, the claw, the piece of abdomencracked and split. Eight legs of jet sprouted from the cracks, a pair of mandibles. The threescore chunks of golem that Gromph had left scattered around the temple had been reanimated as buds of the main golem. The battle was not over.

For the tenth time in the last hour, Gromph cursed the lichdrow.

Danifae looked through the tiny, unglassed window of her garret in the Braeryn. Narbondel glowed red two-thirds of the way up its shaft. It was late in the day.

Danifae had lost track of time. For her, one day seemed much like another, one hour bled into the next. She found it easier to measure time not with Narbondel but with corpses. It had been thirty-seven corpses since Lolth had selected herDanifae could not so much as think her nameas Yor'thae.

Though Danifae had never been to Menzoberranzan before Lolth had selected her Yor'thae, she had come to know it well since. And to hate it.

To her right, far across Menzoberranzan's cavern Danifae eyed the mammoth steps of the great stairway that led up to Tier Breche. She could see it at such a distance only because of its enormous size and the violet faerie fires that illumined its steps. On the high plateau beyond the stairsinvisible to her at that distancestood Lolth's grandest temple, Arach-Tinilith, the heart of the Spider Queen's faith. Danifae had never set foot within it and never would.

Within Arach-Tinilith presided the bitch, Lolth's Yor'thae.

Anger still boiled in Danifae, hate without end for the Yor'thae. She vented it on the males who came to her.

Danifae had created her own temple to Lolth, her own Arach-Tinilith a tiny, stinking garret deep in the Braeryn. There, she spun her web and fed on her prey in Lolth's name.

She leaned out of the windowher holy symbol still dangled from her neck, the amber smudged with grease and sootand looked down to the street below. Addicts haunted the alleys like sunken-eyed, dazed ghosts. Fellow whores loitered in the doorways below her, soliciting anyone and anything that passed them by.

Groups of filthy orcs and bugbears leered at the fallen drow females. Danifae could see that thewhores had sold their dignity along with their flesh. Not her. She served the Spider Queen still and ever would, despite the Yor'thae.

A thick sludge of sewage and trash coated the street. "The Stenchstreets," they were called, and rightly. Danifae could not but think of the whole of the Braeryn as an open sewer that she could not escape.

She would not let Danifae escape.

The odor of freshly emptied chamber pots carried up to the window and made Danifae wrinkle her nose.

The expression felt awkward around the stiff scars that marred the left side of her face. Thinking of her disfigurement brought another flash of anger. She willed hate through the air and across the cavern to Tier Breche.

She had long ago given up trying to hide her scars. They were part of her, as much as her faith, as much as her hate.

After Lolth had made her choice, the Spider Queen's resurrection had been completed and the Yor'thae had come to Menzoberranzan in triumph. She had promised to usher in a new age for the Spider Queen and her worshipers.

But not for all of her worshipers.

The Yor'thae had punished Danifae for her presumption, forcing her to live a houseless life, dispossessing her of almost all of her property, marring her features to make her ugly, denying her the dignity of an execution.

Even Lolth herself appeared to have turned her back on Danifae.

The goddess no longer granted the former battle-captive spells and instead merely haunted her dreams.

When she slept, Danifae saw visions of eight spiders, eight sets of fangs, legs, eyes, and poison.

Despite it all, Danifae refused to accept the label of apostate. She worshiped Lolth still, though she was a congregation of one.

Poor and disfigured, she sold her body to males to earn enough coin to eat. Though the Yor'thae had scarred her face, men still lusted for her body and were willing to pay for its use. Danifae abhorred their touch, despised making them feel as though she were subjugated to them, but nevertheless did what she had to to survivelike any good spider.

The Yor'thae had laughed when she'd cast Danifae into squalor, thinking that a life of penury would make Danifae weak. But Danifae was a survivor, like all spiders, and her trials were but another test in a long line of tests. She had and would survive it. She would grow stronger. She could not be broken, not ever. If Danifae had learned but one tenet from Lolth's worship, from her life as a slave to Halisstra Melarn, it was that existence was a test. Always. The strong preyed on the weak and the weak suffered and died.

There was nothing more to know.

And though Danifae was not the Yor'thae, she refused to be weak.

She left off the window, turned, and looked upon her sparsely furnished garret. She preferred to think of it as her web, an unassuming web, like that of the widow, within which lurked a predator.

A mushroom fiber pallet strewn with soiled blankets sat against the near wall. Every day, she carried the sheets to the shores of the Darklake to launder themthe routine had long ago taken on the significance of a religious ritualbut the smell of sweat and sex always lingered. She slept on the floor, refusing to take rest in the same bed that she shared with a male. A clay oil lamp sat on a stool near her bed, its tiny flame guttering in the stagnant air. In the corner stood a stone chair, upon which she hung the few articles of clothing she owned. A chamber pot and washbasin sat on opposite walls.

Danifae owned nothing of significant value except her faith, her holy symbol, and the blackroot distillate that shekept in a vial at her sash. She refilled the vial every fourth tenday by giving her body to an old, half-drow apothecary who worked out of the bazaar. She had made herself immune to the poison long ago through slow exposure.

She had sunk far, she knew, much farther even than when she had been a battle-captive. But she refused to surrender her faith. Most thought her nothing more than an insane whore or a cast-off hag afflicted with grand delusions. But she was neither. She was a spider, and she was being tested, nothing more and nothing less.

She had failed Lolth back in the Demonweb Pitsthat was why she had not been chosen to be the Yor'thaebut she would atone for that failure and someday again find favor in the Spider Queen's eight eyes.

In the meantime, Danifae murdered in Lolth's name. Every eighth client that came to her garret fell prey to her. The Spider Queen might not have been answering Danifae's prayers, but Danifae offered sacrifices nevertheless.

She disposed of the corpses by selling them to an elderly drow fungus farmer. Danifae's prey ended up fertilizer in the mushroom fields of the Donigarten.

The weak fed the strong, she thought, and smiled through her scars.

A knock on her door turned her around.

" 'Fae," said a slurred voice from behind the door. "Open up. I want to taste your flesh."

Danifae knew the voice. Heegan, the second son of a failed merchant, who always stank of pickled mushrooms and mindwine.

"Hold a moment," Danifae said, and the male did as he was told.

Heegan was number eight.

Danifae pulled the vial of blackroot distillate from her pouch, daubed her finger, and coated her lips. Donning a smile, she moved to the door and opened it.

There in the hallway stood Heegan, his white hair mussed, his filthy shirt partially unbuttoned. Danifae stood two hands taller than the male. She looked at his watery, dull red eyes and thought, You are one of the weak.

"Well met, 'F ae," he said, leering at her breasts, covered only in her threadbare shift. "Aren't we a pretty pair?"

He dangled a pouch of coins under her nose.

Danifae snatched the coins and slapped him across the face. He smiled through his bleeding lip, seized her in his arms, and pressed his lips to her. His breath was foul, his excited grunts fouler. She abided, knowing that with each kiss he became more ensnared in her web.

She allowed him to steer her toward the bed. He tried to lay her down but she used her superior strength to turn him around and force him down instead. He grinned drunkenly, muttering some ridiculous endearment.

She straddled him and he licked his lips in excitement. His hands fumbled with her shift, her sash, and she could tell from his movements that more than mindwine was clouding his mind. His hand passed over the blackroot vial and never paused, so eager was he to get at her skin.

Smiling into his face, she teased him for another thirty countuntil his eager expression grew confused, then alarmed.

"What's happening to me?" he said, his speech thick and sloppy. "What have you done to me, bitch?"

He tried to shove her off him but the drug had already taken hold. His strength was gone, and he managed only to paw at her shoulders. In moments, he was fully paralyzed and could only stare up at her in horror.

She eyed him coldly, still smiling, and began her incantation. Her voice called upon Lolth, offering the male's death for her amusement. When she finished her prayer, she put her hands on his throat and throttled him.

He died with bulging eyes and a wet gurgle.

"You are the weak," she whispered in his ear. "And I am the spider."

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