Chapter Seventeen

Halisstra stepped into the Pass of the Soulreaver and felt her body stretch through time and space. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to keep moving forward. Vomit raced up her throat, but she fought it down.

A narrow path stretched before her and behind her. Sheer walls rose to either side. A mist cloaked her ankles.

The mist screamed at her and hissed.

She clutched the Crescent Blade. She was not alone and she knew it.

"Come out," she said, her voice low and dangerous.

Ahead, the mist swirled and formed into a vast serpent whose body stretched behind it to infinity. Black, empty eyes stared into Halisstra's soul and pinioned her in place. The serpent opened its mouth and hissed. The sound turned Halisstra's legs to water.

Deep within the serpent writhed the tiny, partially consumed essences of millions of failed souls. Their screams, rich with despair, fat with terror, bombarded Halisstra. She struggled to stand her ground. She saw her own fate in themshe too was a failed soulbut instead of causing her despair, it raised her anger. "Face me," she said and did not know whether she was talking to the creature or to someone else.

The serpent hissed again and slithered sinuously forward. The souls wailed their pain and terror with each movement of the creature.

Halisstra stared at the glowing souls and wondered for a moment if Ryld was trapped within the creature. She decided that she did not care and moved forward.

She roared, lifted the Crescent Blade, and charged, meeting the serpent's advance with one of her own. The miniature golems swarmed forward at Gromph. The transmutation that allowed him to fight prevented him from casting any spells to stop them, and he refused to abandon his station over the prismatic sphere atop the main body of the golem.

The smaller constructs scrabbled and leaped up the body of the golem to get a Gromph, thirty of them, forty. The archmage roared and brandished his axe.

A spider golem landed on his back, then another, and both bit into his flesh. Others clambered up his legs to beat at his chest. His armor spells deflected some but not all of their bites, and he grunted with pain over and over again.

He grabbed one of the creatures by a leg, threw it atop the body of the golem, and chopped it with his axe. He chopped another, and another, all the while waiting for the transformative spell to abate so that he could focus on the real issuethe prismatic sphere.

To his horror, the miniature golems that he struck split into smaller fragments and within a five count sprouted eight legs each and came at him again.

He cursed, swung at more of the spiders, again and again. Each time he struck, the small constructs burst into pieces, and each piece itself became another, smaller spider golem. Killing one made five more. He was surrounded by a roiling swarm of constructs. They came at him from all sides, a swarm of fearless, remorseless killers. Eventually, he stopped chopping at them with his axe and instead tried to throw or push them off of the main body of the golem. But he could do only so much and in moments was covered in them, their weight so heavy that he could hardly move.

He tried to trigger the levitation power of his House Baenre brooch but the weight of the golems crawling over him was too much. He could not get airborne.

Their fangs and claws ripped through his defensive spells and into his flesh. He screamed with rage, pain, and frustration. His ring struggled to heal the wounds inflicted by the spiders, but there were too many. For every spider that he jerked from his body or threw down from atop the golem, another three took its place. He shook them from his hands, pried them from his face, pulled them from his legs. Agony lit him. He roared as he fought. If not for the regenerative magic of his ring, he would have been dead. With the suddenness of a whipdagger strike, his transformative spell ended.

Knowledge returned to him in a rush. Physical strength drained out of him, and he sagged under the burden of the golems. His understanding of combatswings, feints, and footworkfaded out of his memory like a half-remembered dream. His normal understanding of the Weavethe necessary gestures, component admixtures, the language of the arcanerefilled his mind.

Gromph was himself again, and he was in agony. A hundred holes pockmarked his flesh. Blood soaked his robe. In theory he could again cast spells, but the pain was too much.

Thinking fast, he did the only thing he could. He leaped from atop the golem and hit the ground in a roll. The impact jarred many of the spiders loose. With fewer attached to him, he triggered the levitation magic inherent in his brooch and went airborne.

He shook free the remaining spiders and hung in the air, gasping and breathing, dripping blood. Below him, a thousand eyes stared upward, tiny mandibles clicking, tiny pedipalps waving. His broach allowed him only vertical movement, so he took a feathera spell component difficult for him to procure in the Underdarkand spoke the words to a spell of flying. When he finished, he floated to his right.

As one, the swarm of spiders followed him, eyes turned upward. An idea occurred to him A sizzling sound from above and behind turned Gromph around. Green veins of magical energy arced along his wall of force. The Dyrr wizards were attempting to dispel it but their first attempt had failed. Gromph had to move fast. He flew farther to his right, drawing the swarm of golems away from the body of their destroyed parent. He took from his robe a finger-shaped lodestone, one end of which was covered in iron shavings.

Hovering above the swarm of golems, he incanted the words to a powerful transmutation. When he finished the casting, the shavings moved from one end of the lodestone to the other and within a cylindrical area that ran from floor to ceiling and included Gromph and all of the spider golems, up became down.

Under the effect of his flying spell, Gromph simply adjusted his internal bearings, flipped over, and remained hovering in the air. The golems, however, fell up toward the ceiling, just as if they had stepped off a cliff. Gromph dodged them as they fell past. Two latched onto him, but he shook them free, and they too fell upward. All of them crashed into the ceiling, but it damaged them little.

With the entire swarm treating the ceiling as if it was the floor, Gromph spoke the words to another wall of force and ringed the area of effect in which he had reversed gravity. The golems would not be able to walk out of the affected area of his spell and fall to the floor. They were hedged in.

Gromph allowed himself no time to enjoy his victory. He flew down, flipped again when he left the affected area of his spell, landed atop the body of the parent golem, and looked down at the prismatic sphere, at the twine of the master ward that fed into it. He could have used one of his more powerful spells to disjoin the magic but doing so would negate all magic within the temple, triggering the master ward, freeing the golems, forcing his soul back into his body, and negating his walls of force.

Instead, he would cancel the sphere with the methodical application of specific spells. Each of the seven colors of the sphere was negated by casting a certain spell on the sphere when the appropriately colored layer appeared.

In his mind, Gromph thought through the spells he would need to eliminate the sphere's layers. Some of them would require material components. He reached into his robes and withdrew the materials he would need a tiny cone of glass, his lodestone, and a pinch of dried mushroom spores.

He stared at the prismatic sphere as it cycled through its colors. He had to down the colors in sequence, starting with red and moving to violet. The master ward complicated things potentially, but Gromph had no more time to worry about it.

He readied his spells.

The sphere showed red. Gromph incanted a couplet, put the glass cone to his lips, and exhaled a cone of freezing cold that slicked the floor in ice. The prismatic sphere froze in the ice. Gromph tapped it with his finger, and the red layer shattered and disappeared, revealing the orange layer.

Another assault on the wall of force. The ang ry clicking of the golem swarm from above. Gromph ignored both.

He spoke another series of arcane words and summoned a powerful gust of wind. The magic of the spell whipped his hair into his face and tore the orange layer from the sphere, where it dissipated into nothingness. The yellow layer was revealed.

He picked up his lodestone, gathered some of the dust from the floor, and spoke the words to the same spell that he had used to disintegrate Geremis. The spell annihilated the yellow layer, exposing the green. Gromph heard voices from outside the window. The screech of something powerful and predatory.

Yasraena must have brought the vrocks, he thought, recalling the shapechanged demons that had stood on the walls.

He picked up the mushroom spores and spoke aloud the words to a spell that ordinarily would have opened a hole through solid walls. Instead, the magic opened a tiny hole in the green layer, which rapidly expanded until the layer was consumed. The blue layer lay open to him.

Almost there.

The vrocks screeched again.

He whispered the words to a simple evocation, pointed his finger, and discharged a bolt of magical energy. It struck the blue layer and consumed it, revealing a scarlet layer.

He was nearly done.

Behind and above him, another assault on his wall of force brought it down. A shower of sparks announced its fall. A victorious cry sounded from outside the window. Gromph could not halt his attack on the sphere to erect another defense.

Looking at the next layer, he closed his eyes and pronounced the words to the next spell. When it took effect, light as bright as the sun in the World Above illuminated the temple. Gromph's eyes watered even through his closed lids.

Shouts of dismay sounded from outside the window. House Dyrr's forces no more liked light than did Gromph.

Darkness spells quickly countered the light, but the spell's work was done. The light had burned away the scarlet layer. Only one remainedviolet.

Gromph uttered the words to the spell he had used so many times over recent hours, the spell that dispelled other magic. When he pronounced the final syllable, the violet layer disappeared.

He held his breath.

There, exposed but for the twisting embrace of the master ward, lay the lichdrow's phylactery. It glowed so brightly in his magic-attuned vision that he had to again blink away tears.

The phylactery looked like nothing more than a sparkling, fist-sized beljuril, a hard green gemstone. Tiny runes covered it.

Within it, Gromph knew, was the lichdrow's essence.

Gromph hefted the duergar axe. Not only would a blow from the axe destroy the gem, it would drink the lichdrow's soul, such as it was. The thought pleased Gromph.

Behind him, the vrocks streaked through the window and into the temple. Gromph spared a look back. The demons had assumed their natural form that of muscular, giant, bipedal vultures. Vicious talons ended their legs, and large, tearing beaks jutted from their twisted faces. The beat of their enormous wings carried the stench of carrion.

"She is here!" they shouted back outthe window, and Gromph heard exclamations of excitement from outside the temple.

Yasraena appeared in the window, levitating high and stepping onto the sill. For a moment, she stared down with a confused expression at the ruined temple and Gromphhe still wore the body of her daughterbut her expression quickly changed to one of rage.

She guessed who he was.

"Archmage!" she screamed.

Gromph shot her a smile and raised the axe high.

The vrocks flew toward him as fast as arrows, mouths open wide and shrieking. Yasraena voiced the words to a spell.

"Good-bye, Dyrr," he said, and drove the axe into the beljuril.

The gem shattered into countless glittering fragments, emitting a foul puff of smoke. A vague, distant howl sounded somewhere deep in Gromph's mind, and the axe shook in his hands. The lichdrow's soul rushed into the metal. It glowed, vibrated, and displaced the previous souls that the axe had claimed. A score or more spirits exploded from the axe head, exclaimed with joy at their freedom, and vanished into the aether. Henceforth, the axe would house only the lichdrow.

"No!" Yasraena screamed and lost the thread of her spell.

The vein of the master ward turned a burning orange.

Before Gromph could reason out the meaning of the change in the master ward, before he could turn to face the onrushing vrocks, a tremor shook the temple, shook all of House Agrach Dyrr. The force of it knocked Gromph off of the remains of the golem, and thevrocks shrieked past him overhead.

Speaking as quickly as he could, Gromph uttered the incantation to one of his most powerful spells. Time stopped for everyone but Gromph.

Silence fell. Motion ceased.

The vrocks hung frozen in mid-air, mouths agape. Yasraena stood in the window, frozen in the middle of another casting.

Gromph studied the vein of the master ward. A bubble of power distorted its otherwise straight line, just where it passed through the temple doors.

It took Gromph a moment to determine what had happened. He cast a series of divinations to confirm his suspicions. When he saw the results, he almost laughed.

The lichdrow's defenses never ended. And it appeared he would have his revenge, after all.

The master ward had reset the wards behind Gromph not to prevent a second intruder from entering but to provide a power source for its real purpose. The destruction of the phylactery had triggered the lichdrow's final spell, a cyclic reaction that fed on the reset wards.

Power would race back along the vein of the master ward, absorbing the energy of all of the wards in its path. When it reached the start of the spell network, it would rebound back to its place of originthe location of the phylactery, the templebringing with it all of the pent-up power of the absorbed wards. The explosion would be enormous, perhaps large enough to level the entire stalagmite fortress complex of House Agrach Dyrr.

Gromph could not flee. The dimensional lock prevented magical travel, and he could never get out on foot in time.

The lichdrow had ensured that he would not go alone into oblivion.

"Well done," Gromph said to the axe, though he knew the lichdrow could not hear him.

The archmage smiled at the symmetry. He had destroyed the lichdrow's body by breaking and exploding his staff of power. The lichdrow would destroy Gromph's body by breaking and exploding all of House Agrach Dyrr.

There was nothing else for it. Gromph's timestop spell was about to end. He decided that he would rather die in his own body than that of some Dyrr priestess. He decided too that he would die amused. The battle of spells and wits, of moves and countermoves, had been as good as any sava game he'd ever played.

He spoke the words to a minor transmutation and transformed Larikal's body to look more like his ownshorter, slimmer, with shorter hair and sharper features. The likeness was rough but probably good enough.

Despite his timestop spell, he sensed the master ward collecting power.

With an exercise of will, he returned his soul to the ocular, forcing Larikal back into her own form. Once inside the gem, he quickly moved back into his own shrunken, invisible body. He came back to himself outside the temple, small and unseen, awaiting his death.

Yasraena blinked in surprise but managed to hold onto the thread of her spell. For a moment, Gromph Baenre had appeared cloaked in an illusion as her daughter Larikal, but the illusion had expired, and the Archmage of Menzoberranzan stood revealed.

The vrocks streaked in, biting with their beaks and tearing with their claws. The archmage appeared disoriented, reaching for weapons at his waist that did not exist, lashing out with fists rather than spells. His screams sounded like those of a woman. He found the axe he had used to destroy the lichdrow's phylactery and swung it awkwardly at the circling vrocks.

Yasraena continued her spell. She would annihilate the archmage. A bottomless ocean of pent up anger flowed into the casting, powering itrage at Gromph for his deception, rage at the lichdrow for the foolish, short-sighted plotting that had brought her House down.

Another tremor nearly shook her from the window perch, but still she continued the chant. Flecks of stone rained from the temple dome. Glass cracked. The entirety of House Agrach Dyrr was shaking. She saw it then.

With a sense of certainty that opened a hole in her stomach, she knew that House Agrach Dyrr was destroyed. The archmage had destroyed the phylactery, and the fool lichdrow had triggered some retaliative magic that would bring the entire complex down.

No matter, she thought. She would kill the archmage. Matron Mother Yasraena would die with at least that satisfaction.

The words poured out of her, and power gathered with every syllable. The vrocks continued to attack, harrying Gromph from either side. He comported himself well with the axe. He fought back the vrocks and looked up at Yasraena. His expression went wide-eyed.

He shouted something but she could not hear it over the shaking temple, over the boom of her own voice.

She finished the spell, pointed her holy symbol at the archmage, and let its energy take root in his body. She knew he would be warded, but she also knew his wards would fail him. She had put all of her power into the spell. No one could resist it.

Still staring at her, the archmage began to shake. His entire body quaked as much as the temple and the rest of the fortress. Sounds poured from his mouth but Yasraena could not understand them. The vrocks backed off, unsure of what had occurred. Yasraena touched her House brooch and used its levitation magic to lower herself to the shaking temple floor. She wanted to watch Gromph die up close.

"You are but a male, Archmage," she said. "And I will watch you did before Lolth claims me."

The magic took deeper root. Gromph struggled to say something to her but could not control his body. His tongue flopped between his lips. He gagged, bit down on his tongue, and sprayed spit and blood. A horrible gargling noise escaped his lips as his body began to shrink in on itself.

For a moment, as the body collapsed, Yasraena saw Gromph's features contort to reveal. . .

"Larikal?" Yasraena rushed forward and took the archmage's imploding body in her hands. "Larikal!" She could see the archmageno, her daughtertrying to nod through her spasms. The quaking grew more and more intense.

Yasraena could not stop the spell. It was too late.

Mother, Larikal croaked through the connection of their telepathic amulets.

Yasraena could not respond before her daughter's mental voice became a prolonged scream, then turned into an incoherent, pain-riddled gobbling. With a wet, tearing sound, her body folded in on itself over and over and over again until it was nothing more than a densely packed ball of flesh at Yasraena's feet.

Yasraena stared down at her daughter's remains and clenched her fists in rage. The archmage had deceived her again.

Above her, the dome began to crack. She stared up and looked into Lolth's eyes.

Blood-spattered and gasping for breath, Halisstra stood on the landing outside the doors of Lolth's pyramidal tabernacle. To her left and right lay the corpses of Danifae and Quenthel. Halisstra had killed them both, cut them nearly to shreds with the Crescent Blade. In her rage, she had left Danifae little more than a pile of bloody, shapeless flesh.

She had stopped them both from entering the tabernacle. Neither would be Lolth's Yor'thae.

She unstrapped her shield and cast it to the stone landing. The rattle sounded loud in the silence. Except for the occasional sigh of the violet fires on the Planes of Soulfire behind and below her, the entirety of the Demonweb Pits seemed to be holding its breath. Even Lolth's wind had died down.

She looked up at the massive, pyramidal structure before herLolth's tabernacle, composed of black metal and acrawl with spiders. At its base, the towering double doors stood open and beckoning. Violet light leaked from within. Halisstra saw arachnid silhouettes in the lighthuge, predatory forms.

Now she would do what she had come to do.

She paused.

What had she come to do?

She shook her headher thoughts were confusedand stepped across the threshold.

Webs covered the slanting walls of the temple's interior, their collective pattern suggestive of something disquieting but indiscernible. Spiders of all shapes and sizes skittered through the webs.

Columns dotted the structure, slender spires fashioned of hardened, twisted web strands. She could not see the source of the violet light.

At the far end of the web-strewn temple, standing on a raised dais of polished, black granite, stood the eight bodies of the Spider Queen.

Seeing her former patron goddess in the flesh, Halisstra found it difficult to breathe.

Lolth was in her arachnid forms and appeared as eight giant widows, graceful and deadlyone goddess, eight aspects.

Seven of the widows crawled over each other, hissed at each other, as though fighting for position. But all of them stood behind the eighth, the largest, who sat quiescent in her web. The eyes of the eighth impaled her.

A yochlol stood to either side of the dais, their forms like melted wax, their waving arms like ropes. Creatures that Halisstra had never before seen lined a processional directly between Halisstra and Lolth. Their tall, graceful formsnude drow females sprouting long spider legs from their torsosloomed over Halisstra. Halisstra felt their eyes on her too, and the weight of their expectations. She marveled at the grace of their forms.

"I am not the one!" she shouted, and the webs swallowed her voice.

The eighth spider stirred.

A rustle ran through the ranks of the temple.

As one, the drow-spider creatures responded, "But you could be. The eighth awaits the Yor'thae."

"No!" she answered.

They hissed and bared their teeth, revealing a spider's fangs.

The eight bodies of Lolth clicked as one, and the widows fell silent.

They cocked their beautiful heads, listening to their goddess.

Halisstra brandished the Crescent Blade, drew in a deep breath, and took another step into the temple. The doors swung closed behind her with a boom. She stopped for a moment, uncertain, trapped, alone. She looked down the aisle at Lolth and somehow found a reserve of courage.

"I will face you for what you have done to me," she said.

The widows rustled. The yochlols waved their ropy arms.

You have done it to yourself, Lolth answered in Halisstra's mind.

The goddess's voicevoices, for Halisstra heard seven distinct tones in the wordsnearly drove Halisstra to her knees.

Holding the Crescent Blade in both sweating hands, her knuckles white, Halisstra took another step, then another. The blade shimmered in her grasp, its crimson fire a counterpoint to the temple's violet light. Halisstra might have no longer served the Dark Maiden,but Eilistraee's sword still wanted to do the work for which it was designed.

The strange drow-spiders eyed her as she walked between them but made no move to stop her. They shifted uneasily with each step that she took nearer to Lolth's forms.

Halisstra was shaking, her legs felt leaden, but she kept moving.

Seven sets of mandibles churned as Halisstra got closer. The eighth body of Lolth stood still, waiting. Halisstra stepped to the base of the dais, before the bodies of Lolth, and looked into the emotionless eye-cluster of the eighth spider.

She saw herself reflected in those black orbs and did not care for how she appeared. Her heart pounded in her breast, so hard it surely must burst.

Sweating, gritting her teeth, she lifted the Crescent Blade high.

Lolth's voices, soft, reasonable, and persuasive, sounded in Halisstra's mind.

Why have you come, daughter? Lolth asked.

I'm not your daughter, Halisstra answered. And I've come to kill you.

She tightened her grip on the Crescent Blade. Its light shone in Lolth's eight eyes, reminding Halisstra of the satellites in the sky of the Demonweb Pits that had watched her from on high.

The yochlol to Lolth's sides slithered toward Halisstra, but Lolth's forms stopped them with a wave of their pedipalps.

You could not even if you willed it, Lolth said. But I see your heart, daughter, and I know that you do not will it.

Halisstra hesitated, the Crimson Blade poised to strike.

It is not me that you wish to kill, child, said Lolth. I am what I am and you have always known that. I kill, I feed, and in that killing and feeding I am made stronger. Why does your own nature trouble you so? My daughter's worship ill-suited you. Why do you fear to admit what you want?

The Crescent Blade shook in Halisstra's hand. Tears welled in her eyes. She realized it then.

It was not Lolth that she wanted to kill. She wanted to kill the uncertainty, the dichotomy in her soul that had spawned her weakness. She knew it lingered there still, a guilty, fearful hole. She had raised a temple to Eilistraee in the Demonweb Pits, had slain countless spiders holy to Lolth, had wielded the Dark Maiden's own blade. Her final rejection of Eilistraee was inadequate penance.

She loved Lolth, longed for the Spider Queen, or at least the power that Lolth brought. That was what she wanted to killthe longingbut she could not, not without killing herself and who she was.

Embrace what you are, child, Lolth said in a chorus of seven voices.

But it was eight sets of mandibles that opened wide.

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