Chapter Eighteen

Billions of eye clusters burned holes into Inthracis's back. He felt their gazes through his robes like a thousandweight. The clicking of countless arachnid mandibles rang in his ears.

He could sense the nervousness in the regiment. The fiends shifted uneasily, stealing looks over their shoulders. Souls or no souls, they had not expected this.

Stand your ground, he projected to the nycaloth leaders.

He kept his back to the Infinite Web and Lolth's mobile city. Inthracis did not want to look again upon the unending abyss, the chaotic strands of the web that never ended, the grotesque undulation and metallic groans of Lolth's metropolis.

And the eyes.

Millions upon millions of spiders and other arachnidsincluding thousands of abyssal widows and hundreds of yochlolsthronged the far edge of the plains, looking toward the mountains, toward the Pass of the Soulreaver, toward Inthracis and the regiment. Inthracis had never before seen a horde of such size, not even during the Blood Wars. It seemed that every arachnid in the Demonweb Pits had gathered there, in a line before their goddess's city.

Several tense moments had passed before Inthracis felt certain that the throng would not attack.

Apparently, they had gathered not to fight but to bear witness.

Still, the realization caused Inthracis concern. It meant that Lolth had planned for, or at least foreseen, Inthracis's involvement. He comforted himself with the reminder that Lolth was a demon, chaos embodied, and that she would notcould not, by her very nature accept a predetermined outcome.

Matters were still subject to chance.

Perhaps Inthracis's attack would facilitate the creation or emergence of the Yor'thae. Perhaps he would kill all three priestesses and Lolth herself would die. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

He considered reneging on his promise to Vhaeraun and returning to the Blood Rift, but he knew that the Masked God's vengeance would be swift. Perhaps Vhaeraun was watching him even then.

Inthracis resigned himself to play his part. If Lolth was going to allow him to attack the priestesses, then he would attack the priestesses. If she was not going to allow it, then he would not.

He showed none of his doubt to the regiment, of course. To them, he projected, If they were going to attack, it would already have come. Remain steady. It will not be long.

He patted Carnage and Sl aughter, and they growled softly in response. They too seemed restless. He looked around and wondered how in all the planes he had allowed himself to become involved in the workings of the gods.

The Plains of Soulfire spread out around him, a cracked, broken plateau of rock that bridged the half-league between the mountains and the Infinite Web. Open tears in the rock spat sprays of arcane fire and blasts of acid into the sky. A thin haze of green gas cloaked the terrain, not enough to be opaque but enough to create wrinkles in Inthracis's perception.

Before him, the plains ended at the mountains. Behind him, the plains just... stopped, as though wiped clean. And where they stopped, an infinite abyss yawned, a black, empty hole in reality that never ended. Spanning the abyss, and extending out to forever, was the Infinite Web of Lolth.

Inthracis did not turn, but he pictured the web in his mind strands of silk, most of them fifty paces in diameter or more, stretched across the void forever.

Lolth's city sat amidst the strands, an architecturally chaotic metropolis that somehow appeared like an enormous spider, on equally enormous legs, crawling along an even more enormous web. Its glacial, groaning movement across the web vibrated even the hugest of the strands.

The city was a mammoth cluster of metal and webbing, with one web-cloaked structure piled on another, and no order, reason, or uniformity to the layout. Only the position of Lolth's pyramidal tabernacle made sense it capped the city, glowing like a beacon with violet light. Transformed souls stalked the city's walks, webs, and ways, damned insects in a hive. The glowing spirits of those not yet transformed into their eternal flesh flitted around the metropolis like frustrated fireflies.

Billions of spiders prowled strands of the Infinite Web around the city. Some lived in holes, and tunnels bored into the strands. Others skittered along the surface. All of them fed upon the others. Only the strongest survived for very long.

Inthracis put the city out of his mind and focused on his task.

Before him rose the titanic peaks of jagged stone whose tops scraped the sky. Cracks and holes marred the sheer mountainsides, and millions more spiders crawled in and out of the openings.

The Pass of the Soulreaver, like a black mouth in the stone, parted its lips three spearcasts up the sheer side of the tallest of the mountains. A ledge jutted from the mountainside at the pass's opening, and only a single, twisting, rock-strewn patha ramp, reallyled down the steep mountainside.

The pass vomited souls. A steady line of glowing spirits streamed out of the opening and streaked into the air for Lolth's city. Few made it unharmed.

Curtains of magical energy rose from the cracks in the broken rock of the plains and engulfed the souls as they soared over. The ghosts burned everywhere in the sky, so numerous they looked like sparks cast off from a blazing fire. After squirming for a period of time that varied from a few heartbeats to a two-hundred count, the flames released the captive soul, and the spirit flew free toward Lolth's city.

Inthracis assumed that the burning served as some kind of purgation.

To his nycaloth sergeants, Inthracis sent, Order up the troops. When the drow priestesses emerge from the Pass of the Soulreaver, we ambush them with spells as they exit. They will have no cover. That should force them down, and we can finish them here.

If the priestesses survived the initial onslaught of spells, they would have to walk or fly down the narrow path. Inthracis and his troops would attack them as they descended and be waiting for them if they reached the Plains of Soulfire.

The nycaloths, flying above the assembled host of mezzoloths, growled orders, and the latter shifted into formation. The regiment assembled into a roughly crescent moon shape at the base of the ramp leading down from the Pass of the Soulreaver. The barbed tips of their glaives shone with magic. The nycaloth commanders continued to circle the troops, eyeing the pass. Each bore a powerfully enchanted axe.

Inthracis stood near the rear of his forces, rods at his belt, canoloths at his side.

Given the audience gathered behind him, Inthracis assumed the priestesses would soon cross from the other side of the pass. He cast a series of defensive spells on his person and attuned his vision to see magic, invisible creatures, even ethereal forms. Nothing on the mountainside could escape his sight. Soon,the Pass of the Soulreaver would spit out Lolth's priestesses. And when it did, Inthracis would be ready. He intended to give his audience something to watch.

Pharaun came back to himself on what he assumed to be the other side of the Pass of the Soulreaver. The dark opening yawned behind him. Souls exited and flew over and past him. He thought of the Reaver, of the souls that would never leave the pass, and shuddered.

After being swallowed by the creature, he had felt nothing more, seen nothing more. He did not remember moving through the pass at all. Moments or hours had been lost to him. He recalled a whispered voice, vague screams, and agonizing pain, but the events were so distant in his memory that they might as well have happened to someone else.

The challenge of the pass is not for you, Quenthel had said. From you, the Reaver will take only a tithe. A tithe.

He did feel somehow diminished in a way he could not quite articulate. He tried to conjure a witty observation but came up with nothing. Perhaps that in itself was reflective of his diminishment. In his mind's eye, he saw the Reaver's chasmal maw, its insidious whispers. He couldnot help but wonder what Quenthel had experienced.

He lay on the rocky ground, on the other side of Lolth's mountains, facing the cloudy, gray sky. He saw no sun, though dim light illuminated the land. He felt as though he had traveled through the mountains to find himself on another world, another plane. He knew that where he lay at that moment was related to the land he had left only in that Lolth ruled both, only in that the Pass of the Soulreaver connected them. He put his hand to his temple and found that small spiders crawled over him. He heard a sizzling, like cooking meat. He could not pinpoint the source. A soul flew over him, then another.

He turned his head and saw that Quenthel lay to his right, her eyes closed. Her face looked drawn. She held her holy symbol in her hand. Her body had returned to normal size.

He swallowed but found his throat dry. Dusting off the spiders, he sat up and To his left, Jeggred and Danifae lay unconscious. He stared for a moment before the reality struck him. How had they ended up there, at that moment? They must have entered the pass well after Pharaun and Quenthel.

He toyed with the idea of quietly killing Jeggred but swallowed the impulse. Quenthel had allowed him to live even after the draegloth had attacked her. Pharaun dared not act so presumptuously.

Frowning with frustration, he reached out and put a hand to Quenthel.

"Mistress," he hissed and shook her.

She frowned, mouthed something incomprehensible, but her eyes did not open.

Jeggred uttered a growl. The draegloth's fighting hands clenched into fists. Pharaun wondered for a moment about what Jeggred might have seen in his journey through the Pass of the Soulreaver, then decided that such things were better left unknown.

He climbed to his feet and stood on wobbly legs.

Fire exploded all around him, soaking the ledge in light and heat. His magical protections shielded him from substantial damage from the flames, but the explosion blew the breath from his lungs, seared his exposed skin, and knocked him flat.

He sat up, blinking, looked to Quenthel, and saw that she too had come through the fireball relatively unharmed, partially because she had been prone. Unfortunately, Danifae and Jeggred too looked blackened but alive.

Another explosion rocked the ledge, then another. The heat was melting the rock. Smoke made Pharaun's eyes water. Crisped spiders fell from the heights like black snow.

What in the name of the Abyss is happening? he thought.

A lightning bolt ripped across the face of the ledge, shattering rock. Fragments of stone buried themselves in Pharaun's face, in Quenthel's hands, in Jeggred's flesh.

Quenthel's serpents came hissing to life, followed by their mistress.

From Pharaun's left, Jeggred too awoke fully, his inner hands brushing away the stone shards stuck in his flesh. Danifae propped herself up on one of arm and looked around, dazed.

For a long moment, the four of them stared at one another.

Another explosion rocked the mountainside.

"What's happening?" Jeggred growled, as he climbed to his feet.

Danifae stood and said to Quenthel, "It seems we've both passed the trial of the Soulreaver, Mistress Quenthel."

Quenthel's serpents hissed at the former battle-captive.

"So it appears," Quenthel acknowledged.

Pharaun started to crawl toward the lip of the ledge, but before he reached it, an impenetrable cloud of white vapor cloaked the edge, and veins of superheated embers suffused it. Pharaun recognized the spellan incendiary cloud. The embers sank into Pharaun's skin, burning their way through his protective spells.

Pharaun threw the hood of his enchanted piwafwi over his head. The embers still found his hands, and he gritted his teeth against the pain.

The stink of burning flesh and hair filled his nostrils.

Jeggred roared with pain. The priestesses grunted against the burning.

Pharaun could not see through the fiery mist more than an armspan in front of him.

A second lightning bolt split the fog, rocked the ledge, and sent Pharaun crashing into the mountainside. The embers swirled in the explosion, rooting for exposed flesh.

"Dispel the cloud, Mistress!" Pharaun shouted and did not care which of the priestesses heeded him. "I will give us cover."

From his left and right he heard both Danifae and Quenthel chanting spells. Their voices sounded as one, eerily disembodied in the burning cloud. Jeggred growled low, the pained, angry rumble of a wounded animal.

Pharaun waited until the priestesses were well into their spell before beginning his own. He took a pinch of diamond dust from his piwafwiand rushed through the gestures and words to a spell that would raise a sphere of magical force around them. He could not tell exactly where Quenthel stoodthe explosions had sent both of them careening about the ledgeso he worded the spell to make the sphere as large as possible.

The priestesses finished their spells simultaneously, and one or both of the counterspells dispelled the magical cloud. One moment the cloud was there, the next it was gone.

Both priestesses were brandishing their holy symbols on opposite sides of the ledge. Jeggred crouched in a huddle near Danifae, his arms encircling her protectively, his mane and skin still smoking.

The priestesses stared at each other, Danifae holding her chunk of amber, Quenthel her jet disc.

Pharaun had no way to know whose spell had successfully dispelled the cloud, and the uncertainty troubled him. Everything about the recent past troubled him.

Still, he kept his concentration and finished his own spell. When he pronounced the final word, a transparent sphere of magical force took shape around the ledge, covering all of them.

Another fireball and lightning bolt slammed up against the sphere and exploded in light, but neither breached Pharaun's spell.

Jeggred stood to his full height, eyeing Quenthel. Dried blood caked his claws and ringed his mouth.

Pharaun imagined it to belong to one of the Eilistraeeans.

"Mistress," Pharaun said, "my spell will not hold long."

"Of course it won't," Quenthel answered. "You are a male."

Pharaun ignored the barb, crept forward the rest of the way, and looked out over the ledge. The others did the same.

A twisting path, bounded on its sides by sheer drops, led down the steep mountainside to a plateau riddled with chasms, craters, and pools of acidic venom. A green haze filled the air, and Pharaun blinked at the acridity. Through the haze, Pharaun saw...

An army waited below.

"Yugoloths," the mage observed. "Five hundred, at least."

"Mercenaries," Quenthel spat, following his gaze. Her serpents hissed.

Scaled, four-armed, nycaloths swooped through the air above an assembled force of insectoid mezzoloths. The squat, beetle-like mezzoloths bore long polearms in their four arms, while each of the nycaloths held an enchanted battle-axe. They were arranged in a crescent shape at the bottom of the path, a wall of armor and flesh. Pharaun knew the yugoloths to be resistant to most forms of energy. He assumed that most would have used magic to bolster their inherent resistances. Dealing with them would not be as easy as simply burning the lot with a fireball, but he had killed fiends before.

He scanned the army for the ultroloth that he knew must be leading them. Nycaloths and mezzoloths were followers, servants to the archwizard yugoloths.

The haze in the air made it difficult to discern details, but. . .


Toward the back lurked a gray-skinned, bald ultroloth. Even from that distance, Pharaun felt the weight of its huge, black eyes. Two over-large canoloths, both armed with spiked barding, stood to either side of him. The ultroloth wore dark robes, a sword at his belt, and a quiver at his thigh filled with rods. He held another rod in his hand.

Souls continued to stream out of the pass behind them and soar over their heads. When the spirits reached the plains, the air itself caught them up and exploded in sheets of violet fire. They burned there for a time, writhing in the air above the yugoloth army, before being released. The flames reminded Pharaun of faerie fire, the harmless sheath of flame that most all drow could summon.

"The Purging," Quenthel said, seemingly more interested in the spirits than the yugoloth army.

"Where weakness is seared away," Danifae added.

Looking down at the yugoloth army, Pharaun said, "Speaking of searing..."

Even as they watched, several of the mezzoloths held up their palms and balls of fire appeared there. They hurled them up toward the ledge, where they hit the wall of force and exploded.

Instinctively, the drow sheltered behind the ledge, but no fire pierced Pharaun's spell. They peeked back over.

The army remained in place.

"Why aren't they coming?" Jeggred asked.

"Why would they?" Pharaun answered. "They would bottleneck themselves on the path."

Pharaun knew that the four drow could have held for days the narrow path that led to the ledge. The yugoloths hoped to either force them down by bombarding them with spells or simply wait them out. It was no mystery that the four of them had not gone all the way to the very gates of Lolth's city only to turn back. "We cannot go back," Danifae said, giving voice to Pharaun's next thought. "And we must go forward." "Of course we will," Quenthel said with undisguised contempt. "They are the final test." "Are they?" Danifae asked.

Pharaun thought an army of yugoloths to be quite a test but kept his observation to himself. He let his gaze wander and for the first time looked beyond the army, beyond the ruined plains, to Lolth's city. "Look," he said and could not keep the awe from his voice.

Half a league away, the plains endedjust ended, as though cut off with a razorat a gulf of nothingness that went on forever in all directions.

A web of monstrous proportions somehow spanned the void, its far ends lost in infinity. All of Menzoberranzan could have sat insignificantly upon its strands.

Lolth's city, a heaped clump of metal and webs and souls and spiders as large as a hundred Menzoberranzans, sat near the edge of the web. Mammoth legsa grotesque amalgam of the organic and the metallicsprouted from the city's base and held it in the web strands.

A roughly pyramidal temple capped the metropolis. Intuitively, Pharaun knew the pyramid to be the tabernacle of Lolth. Its great doors appeared closed.

"The children of Lolth...." Danifae said, and it took Pharaun a moment to understand her meaning.

At the border where the Plains of Soulfire ended and the web began, an entire host had gathered abyssal widows, driders, yochlols, billions and billions of spiders, more even than Pharaun had seen during the Teeming.

"Her web covers all," Quenthel muttered and touched her holy symbol.

"And the world is her prey," Danifae finished. "Her host has come to bear witness."

"We must get through the yugoloths," Quenthel said.

"They should all die," Danifae added. "Their presence here is heresy."

Jeggred eyed the army below and growled in the way that Pharaun knew to be a prerequisite to his entering a battle frenzy. But for the wall of force, the draegloth looked as though he would leap over the ledge and charge down the path at any moment.

Quenthel's serpents haloed her head, and she nodded at something they communicated to her. "We must pass," Quenthel said again.

Danifae smiled broadly and said to Quenthel, "Indeed we must. Summon what aid you can, priestess." Each eyed the other for a moment, then both stepped back from the ledge, out of the sight of the yugoloths, and began to cast.

Back in his own body outside of Agrach Dyrr's temple, Gromph dispelled the dweomer that had reduced him to a fraction of his size. Still invisible, he watched the mighty stalagmite fortress begin to shake itself apart. Buildings cracked from their foundations to their roofs. The great stalagmite and adamantine walls vibrated. Dyrr soldiers scurried frantically along the walls for the stairways, sprinted across the grounds or leaped from the walls and levitated to earth.

Gromph would have laughed but for his own impending death. He might have tried to fly into the air and away from the fortress, if he had not left his spell components in his robe on Larikal and if he had thought it would allow him to escape. He did not think it would.

The explosion would be too big. There was no outrunning it.

With his dweomer-sensitive eyesight, he watched the pulse of power run along the master ward and saw it extinguish the lesser wards and draw their power into itself.It was a beast, devouring all of the magical power in House Agrach Dyrr's intricate defensive structure. In moments, it would vomit it all out in an explosion that would shake Menzoberranzan's cavern.

The gathering energies caused Gromph's ears to pop.

The wave of power reached the outer wards on the gate and walls, gathered them in, and rebounded back, moving fast.

Roofs collapsed on the buildings around the archmage. Drow screamed. Priestesses shouted unheeded orders.

Another great tremor shook the temple behind him, and the central dome collapsed in a shower of crashing stone and glass. Gromph presumed that Yasraena, Larikal, and the vrocks died under its weight. Fitting, he thought, that in the end Lolth had crushed the traitors.

Gromph stepped off the portico and away from the temple. He wondered distantly if the Xorlarrin forces would be caught in the blast. Certainly enough power seemed to be gathering. The energy from all of the wards would power the explosion. It would consolidate at the trigger, in the center of the collapsed temple, and explode outward from there. Gromph thought it possible that all of House Agrach Dyrr would be destroyed.

He looked toward the gates and saw the wave surging backa great, glowing wall of arcane power. The ground rippled before it.

An idea fluttered around the back of Gromph's mind. The wave was gathering and extinguishing all of the wards as it moved.

All of them.

Even the dimensional lock?

His heartbeat accelerated.

Could the lichdrow have made such a mistake?

Gromph thought it might be possible. He studied the surviving wards as the wave of power drew nearer.

The dimensional lock was still in place and h e could not tell if the master ward would draw on even it. If so ...

If so, Gromph might be able to time a final spell just right. Fortunately, the spell he would use required no material component.

He waited... waited.

The wave of power surged along the master wardand passed him, knocking him from his feet. There! The wave subsumed the dimensional lock and hit the ruined temple. The whole structure glowed, pulsed a blinding white.

Gromph shouted the words to his spell as rapidly as he could without risking a mispronunciation.

Blinding beams of energy shot from the temple in all directions. An explosion was imminent.

He hurried through the spell. A word. Another. Another.

The temple burned as bright as the sun of the World Above as it exploded in a unequalled blast of magical energy. Gromph did not complete his spell.

Pain seared his body, a brief moment of agony unlike anything he had ever felt, and Gromph Baenre knew pain.

Then it was over.

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