Chapter Twenty-two

Together but apart, Danifae, Halisstra, and Quenthel rode the wind over the Plains of Soulfire, over Lolth's host, over the Infinite Web, and up to the top of Lolth's city. The priestesses alit on the stone walkway that surrounded the pyramidal tabernacle and returned to flesh.

Quenthel shot Danifae a hateful glare.

Staring up at the mammoth pyramid, Halisstra had an eerie sense of having done it all before. She looked through the temple's doors and saw that it appeared almost exactly as it had in her vision. Webs covered slanted walls. A processional of the drow-giant widow crossbreeds lined an aisle that led to a raised dais. Yochlols stood to either side, their misshapen, slimy bodies strangely elegant, their eight tentacle arms slack at their sides. The yochlols had no faces, but a single red eye glared out at the priestesses from near the top of their columnar, amorphous bodies.

Lolth sat atop the dais in the form of eight spiders, eight giant widows. The power exuded by her presence nearly knocked Halisstra to her knees. Webs extended from her bodies in all directions, reached to the walls, through the walls, and into the multiverse.

Her web covers all, Halisstra thought.

Beside her, Danifae and Quenthel stared in awe. All three abased themselves.

Lolth's voices rang in Halisstra's head, no doubt in all of their heads.

Enter, Yor'thae.

Almost as one, the priestesses rose and stepped over the threshold. Halisstra was not certain who had taken the first step.

Side by side, they walked the aisle. The abyssal widows shifted as they passed. Lolth's eight sets of eyes watched them approach. Halisstra could not take her gaze from the eyes. The largest of the eight spiders sat centermost. As it had in Halisstra's vision, it seemed strangely quiescent, as though waiting.

She realized that she was praying, whispering supplications under her breath with each step. Danifae and Quenthel were doing the same. All three held a hand on their respective holy symbolstheir different holy symbols.

They reached the dais and stood, small and insignificant, before the eight bodies of their goddess. Each of the eight spiders was as large as Jeggred, with the eighth half-again as huge. Halisstra could not stop staring into the empty eyes of that eighth spider.

The eight embodiments of Lolth stared down at them, the ultimate predators. No flaw marred the carapaces of their glistening, black bodies. Each of the bodies' long, graceful legs ended in a spike as long as Halisstra's forearm. The black flecks of her eye clusters reflected what they saw, revealed nothing, and contained no mercy. Seven mandibles churnedslowly in seven fanged mouths. The eighth stood still, waiting.

Lolth's eyes fell first on Danifae, then on Halisstra, on Quenthel.

Each of the priestesses fell to her knees in turn. Each bent her head and stared at the floor. None dared speak.

Sweat soaked Halisstra's body. Her breath was labored. She felt lightheaded.

Had Lolth chosen her? The thought both thrilled and repulsed her.

Only one of you will leave my tabernacle alive, Lolth projected, her seven voices driven like spikes into Halisstra's temples.

Each of the priestesses looked sidelong at the others.

With fearsome suddenness, the eighth body of Lolth lurched into motion, lunging forward and taking Danifae in her mouth.

The battle-captive screamed once.

The Spider Queen lifted Danifae from the floor, impaled her on her fangs, and drank her dry. Blood and fluid leaked from the goddess's maw and pooled around Quenthel and Halisstra. Danifae's legs kicked spasmodically as she died. After feasting on her fluids, Lolth devoured her flesh and bones and cast her clothing and gear to the floor with a clatter.

The other seven spiders watched, as still as had been the eighth.

Halisstra thought she might pass out, so fast was she breathing. She felt Quenthel looking at her and turned her head to see. The Baenre priestess wore an ecstatic grin, even as she continued her supplications.

Only one of you will leave the tabernacle alive.

The eighth spider slid to her side until she stood over Halisstra. Halisstra could have counted the hairs on Lolth's legs. She squeezed shut her eyes and continued to pray. She realized that she still had Seyll's sword in her hand. The other seven spiders took a step forward, an eager step.

Halisstra clutched the blade so tightly it made her knuckles ache.

She awaited the touch of fangs. Long moments passed.

A cracking sound. Wet tearing. Lolth screamed in her head, the sound enough to flatten Halisstra and Quenthel to their bellies on the blood-soaked floor. With effort, she pulled herself to her hands and knees, opened her eyes, and loo ked up. She had to bear witness Before her, the seven bodies of Lolth were tearing apart the eighth, feeding on their sister. With their own mandibles, Lolth's bodies sliced into the legs of their eighth sister. The eighth spasmed on the dais, shaking the webs, sending a quiver through the multiverse. Her exoskeleton cracked in a hundred places. Behind Halisstra, the abyssal widows shuffled anxiously. The seven spiders stepped back, pieces of the eighth still hanging from their jaws. Two yochlols hurried forward to the torn body of the eighth. They slid atop the dais and wrapped their eight tentacles around the eighth's legs, her thorax, her abdomen. They began to split her apart, moving methodically from one leg to the other, to her thorax, her head.

Lolth screamed againthe sound of eight female voices. Dark liquid leaked from the cracks in the flesh of the eighth spider, ichor that drained to the floor around Halisstra and mixed with Danifae's blood. Pieces of Lolth's carapace fell way in chunks.

Halisstra lurched to her feet, horrified. What was happening? She fell back a step, staring wide eyed at her goddess. Quenthel too climbed to her feet and staggered back a step, uncertainty in her eyes.

A whisper ran through the ranks of the abyssal widows. The yochlols returned to their station beside the dais.

Lolth's carapace gave way with a wet crack and was still. Ichor poured from the arachnid body, soaking Halisstra's feet.

The tabernacle went silent.

Halisstra did not know what to say, what to do. Quenthel looked aghast.

Halisstra opened her mouth to speak and Movement on the dais, a stirring amidst the pile of hair, carapace, and gore.

With a lurch, the Spider Queen pulled her new form from the old, separating from the shell of her eighth body with an even louder wet, tearing sound. She stepped out of her divine molt and stood, wet and glistening before Halisstra and Quenthel.

Her shining black body was still that of a giant black widow, but instead of a spider's head and face, a drow form jutted from her thorax, a beautifully featured face, a full figured torso....

Danifae Yauntyrr.


The Eighth Face of the Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

Lolth was transformed.

Halisstra could not move, could not think.

Only one of you will leave here alive, Lolth had promised.

Halisstra fell to her knees and waited for death.

A tapping on his cheeks brought Gromph back to consciousness.

"Archmage," said a voice, Prath's voice. "Archmage, open your eyes."

Gromph blinked open his eyes and found himself staring up into the concerned face of Prath Baenre.

Gromph was on the floor of his office, facing the ceiling.

Prath's youthful face split in a smile, and he said, "You appeared from nowhere, burned all over, and fell to the floor. You have been this way for over an hour. I was afraid to move you or to leave your side. I am pleased to see you alive, Archmage."

Gromph smiled, and his burned lips cracked.

The archmage said, "I share your sentiment, apprentice. But... ?"

Prath only shook his head, still smiling.

The last thing Gromph remembered he had been trying to cast a teleportation spell to escape the explosion of the master ward. He had failed to get the spell cast in time, so how...

It struck him His contingent evasion spell. He had forgotten about it in the rush of events, but the absorption of the dimensional lock by the master ward had allowed the evasion to function.

But only after his body had been "materially consumed by magical energy." And he had no ring to heal him. He'd left it on Larikal's body. "Now that you are awake, Archmage," Prath said, "I will send for a priestess."

Gromph shook his head, and the motion caused shooting pain along his neck.

"No." He didn't bother to explain his reasons. "No, apprentice." Gromph had an eerie sense of reliving previous events. He had been in much the same state not so long before, after his battle with the lichdrow, but it had been Nauzhror bent over his burnt body then.

Events had come full circle.

Prath looked down on him, ran his eyes over Gromph's body, and said, "You are badly burned, Archmage."

Gromph knew that well enough. His skin felt as stiff as leather. He didn't want to look at his hands. He didn't want to move, not for a long while.

He said, "Prath, I have healing salves in metal tins in the first dimensional shelf in the third drawer on the left side of my desk. Retrieve them."

Prath rose, and Gromph almost grabbed him.

"Wait!" he said instead. "What of House Agrach Dyrr?"

A soft rush of air announced the operation of a teleportation spell.

Gromph would need to put his wards back into place. No one should have been able to teleport into his offices.

"Archmage!" exclaimed a voice.


Footsteps, then the pudgy Master of Sorcere appeared over the Archmage. Gromph saw him steel his expression when he looked upon his master's burns.

"You are alive," Nauzhror said. "I am pleased." Over his shoulder, he ordered, "Apprentice! Send for a priestess!"

Gromph shook his head. "He is retrieving healing salves from mydesk, MasterNauzhror. I would just as soon be spared the attentions of another priestess of Lolth."

He tried to laugh, but it turned into a painful cough.

Nauzhror smiled and nodded in understanding.

"I assume the phylactery is destroyed?" the master asked Gromph.

The archmage managed a nod. "Destroyed," he said. "I was just asking Prath about House Agrach Dyrr." Nauzhror nodded and said, "The temple was utterly consumed in the blast, Archmage, along with many of the House's forces. In the aftermath, House Xorlarrin breached the walls at last. It seemed as though House Agrach Dyrr would fall, annihilated by the Xorlarrin. But. . ."

"But?" Gromph prompted.

"But Matron Mother Baenre arrived with a contingent of Baenre troops and halted the assault. She met with Anival Dyrr, now apparently Matron Mother of House Agrach Dyrr, and it appears they reached an understanding. House Agrach Dyrr will survive as a vassal House to House Baenre."

Gromph smiled through his pain. Anival and House Agrach Dyrr would be beholden to Triel for centuries, essentially an extension of House Baenre. His sister once again had surprised him. He reminded himself never to underestimate her again.

"You have done the city a great service, Archmage," Nauzhror said.

"Indeed," Prath echoed, looking up from his search.

Gromph nodded. He knew that. But the healing would be long, for himself and the city. For a moment, he wondered what had happened to the duergar axe with which he had destroyed the phylactery and taken the lichdrow's soul. He had left it behind in the temple.

He put such thoughts from his mind. The lichdrow was destroyed for good.

He hoped.

"The healing salves, apprentice," he called to Prath.

Quenthel stared up into Lolth's face, into Danifae's face, and tried to control her anger, her disappointment, her shame.

Danifae Yauntyrr, a Houseless battle-captive, was Lolth's Yor'thae.

Quenthel's rage burned so hot she could scarcely breathe. Her shame weighed so much she could hardly stand. Halisstra lay on her face beside Quenthel. The high priestess looked at her, looked at the eight bodies of Lolth, at Danifae's form sticking out of the body of the largest, and slowly, with great difficulty, put her head to the floor.

Quenthel might not have been the Yor'thae but she remained a loyal servant of Lolth.

When she looked up, she dared ask, "Why?"

Anger crept into her voice, and once it started, it poured out.

"Why bring me back from the dead?" she demanded. "Why make me Mistress of Arach-Tinilith if only to do ... this?"

She thought back to the many times she could have killed Danifae outright and rebuked herself for her mistake. She had been a fool, an arrogant fool.

Lolth's eight bodies surged forward, with the eighth at their center. Quenthel thought she was going to die, but instead DanifaeLolth!reached forth with a drow hand and stroked Quenthel'shair, an inexplicably gentle gesture. When she spoke, her voice was eight voices, but Danifae's was loudest.

"You seek reasons, daughter, purpose, and that is your failing. Do you not see? Chaos offers no reasons, has no purpose. It is what it is and that is enough."

Quenthel heard the words and in them understood how she had failed her goddess. In that failure, she had failed her House and herself.

She did not have it in her to cry at her failure, not in front of her goddess, especially not in front of her goddess. She would not give Danifae, or what was left of Danifae, the satisfaction.

She lifted her head and looked into Lolth's gray, drow eyesDanifae's eyes. "Kill me, then. I will not beg for my life."

She almost added the blasphemous, "from you," to the end of her statement, meaning Danifae. But Danifae was no longer just Danifae, and Quenthel had to come to terms with that. Danifae was part of Lolth, the Spider Queen, the Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Quenthel's goddess, and in a form greater than before.

Lolth's full lips curved back in a smile to reveal not teeth but a spider's fangs. "And that is why you will live," Lolth said.

Quenthel was not sure if she felt relief, shame, or both. She said nothing, merely bowed her head. "Leave my tabernacle, Mistress of Arach-Tinilith," Lolth said. "Return to Menzoberranzan and continue to head my faith in that city. Tell what you have seen here."

She stroked Quenthel's hair a second time, less gently, as though controlling an impulse to kill.

"Now," the goddess said. She indicated Halisstra with a nod and added, "Leave this one with me."

Quenthel did not question. She rose, turned, and strode between the abyssal widows until she was out of the temple.

Halisstra could not move. She had heard the Spider Queen speak to Quenthel, but the words did not register, simply skipped off of Halisstra's hearing.

Danifae was the Yor'thae. Lolth was reborn.

After a time, Quenthel turned, gave Halisstra one final looka mixture ofhate and respectand exited the temple.

Lolth had promised that only one would leave the temple alive. Quenthel had just leftalive.

Halisstra was going to die.

The goddess looked upon her. She felt the weight of Lolth's gazes. She awaited the bite of the goddess's mandibles, as she had seen in her vision.

It did not come.

She dared a look up into Lolth's face and saw Danifae there, but also so much more. She still clutched Seyll's sword. She released it and shoved it from her.

"I'm sorry, goddess," she said to Lolth and abased herself fully, "Forgive me."

She knew that her apostasy was beyond words. She had danced to Eilistraee on Lolth's plane, erected a temple to the Dark Maiden atop the Spider Queen's tor. She was the worst kind of heretic.

All eight of Lolth's aspects regarded her, and the silence stretched. When the goddess at last spoke, her voice was Danifae's only, but pregnant with power, thick with anger.

"You have been away from me too long, daughter," Lolth said. "I do not forgive."

Lolth leaned toward her, over her. The seven other bodies of Lolth encircled her. Halisstra could not move. Lolth bent. Halisstra's heart pounded.

Lolth's sibilant voice, more Danifae's than ever, whispered in her ear, "Good-bye, Mistress Melarn. What you could have been is not what you are."

Halisstra screamed when the goddess' fangs sank into her neck, twin rods of agony. The other seven spiders too lurched forward and sank their fangs into her flesh. The pain was agonizing, exquisite. The venom set her skin afire, turned her body red hot. Pain and an inexplicable exaltation caused a spasm to course through her body. Her vision went blurry. She opened her mouth to curse Lolth, to thank her, but she could make no sound. Her life ebbed, ebbed. Briefly, she wondered what would become of her soul in death. She longed for the same annihilation as Seyll.

She smiled as the end came for her.

But Lolth's venom did not kill her. She lingered between life and death.

"Not death, wayward daughter," Lolth said in all eight of her voices. "Your sins were too great for such an easy release. For your apostasy, you will give me an eternity of service as my Lady Penitent, my... battle-captive," she said in Danifae's voice, "neither living nor dead. You are charged to shed the blood of the heretics who follow my daughter, son, and once-husband. Pain will eat at you ever. Hate will fuel you. And guilt will plague you but never stay your hand. This is to be your penance. Your eternal penance."

Horrified, Halisstra grasped for death. Futile.

"There is no escape," Lolth said. "Like me, you too will be transformed and resurrected."

The eight body of the Spider Queen took Halisstra in her pedipalps and pulled her under her thorax. Halisstra hung limp in the arms of her goddess. From her spinneret, Lolth drew forth silken webs and with fearsome grace, spun Halisstra into them.

She was being cocooned. It started at her legs and crept up her body. She barely felt it. She barely felt anything. The strands covered her eyes, and she saw only darkness. Lolth dropped her to the floor.

Within the cocoon, Lolth's venom transformed her. She retreated from the edge of death. The venom saturated her to her soul, wracking her with pain, pain that she knewwould never end. Something in the webs sank into her skin.

Lolth's power probed her heart and found there the hate that Halisstra had never been able to extinguish, found there the forgiveness and love that she had never fully been able to nurture. Lolth's touch brought the hate to full bloom, and reduced the weakness of love and forgiveness to little more than a single spore.

Her skin grew as hard as her soul. Her strength and stature increased to match her hate. The pain of rebirth was agonizing. She opened her mouth and screamed. It came out as a hiss. She ran her tongue over her lips and felt fangs. She tore through the webs with her newfound strength and freed herself from the cocoon. She rolled out onto the floor of the tabernacle, covered in slime.

The yochlols oozed forward to her and wiped her clean with their tentacles. The eight bodies of Lolth retreated to their web, finished with her.

Beside her, Halisstra saw a sword, Seyll's sword. She closed her hand over its hilt and rose. Violet flames rose from the blade.

Somewhere deep inside, a tiny part of her watched it all in horror. The small spore of her former self, that piece of her that had found joy dancing under the moon, could only watch and despair.

The rest of her remembered her old life, a life of sacrifice, power, and debauchery. She eyed the blade in her hand,longing to use it.

Perhaps the Velarswood, the Lady Penitent thought, and smiled through her pain.

"Welcome home, daughter," said the eight voices of Lolth.

Quenthel stood outside the temple. She did not look back, even when she heard Halisstra Melarn scream. She looked up at the sky. There, the eight satellites of Lolth burned red, and all burned equally bright. The eighth had been reborn.

She swallowed her frustration, took out her holy symbol, prayed to Lolth, and once more took the form of the wind.

She flew off the tabernacle, descended past Lolth's crawling city, and over the Infinite Web toward the misty Plains of Soulfire. Abyssal widows, yochlols, and spiders still thronged the plains.

She alit on the plains and took her normal form amidst the milling arachnids. None paid her any heed. Little sign remained of the battle with the yugoloths. The field had been picked clean by the horde. As before, souls exited the Pass of the Soulreaver to be caught in the violet flames of the Plains of Soulfire, burning and writhing until weakness was purged from their flesh. Quenthel wondered when next she passed through the plains how long her own her soul would hang in the air, burning, until her weakness was adequately purged.

She saw movement near the ledge before the Pass of the Soulreaver. A towering form called out to her and loped down the pathJeggred.

She walked forward over the broken ground to meet her nephew. The draegloth picked his way over the plains, through the arachnids. Blood and gore covered him. Ribbons of yugoloth skin still hung from his claws. His own flesh, torn open by innumerable scratches, cuts, and oozing wounds, looked as broken and battered as the plains around them. One of his inner arms was nothing more than a bloody stump. He slowed as he approached, obviously surprised to see her.

His eyes narrowed in a question, and he looked up and past her, to the city, to the tabernacle. "I knew it," he said, grinning like the idiot he was. "It was her."

Her whip stung his hide, and he whirled on her, claw raised. Her stare stopped him cold.

"You were but a fortunate fool," she said, pent up rage making her voice tight. "Lolth is reborn, and now things are as they were. You answer to House Baenre."

The serpent whips flicked their tongues and hissed.

Jeggred stared at her, indecision on his face.

"Disobedience will be punished severely, male," she added.

Jeggred licked his lips, bowed his head, and bent his knee. "Yes, Mistress."

Quenthel smiled. Cowing Jeggred brought her some small satisfaction but not enough. She stared at the top of the draegloth's head, thinking, her anger unsated.

She incanted a prayer, cast a spell that charged her touch with enough power to kill almost anything. Jeggred heard her casting and looked up, his gaze wary. Quenthel smiled at him.

"You well served the SpiderQueen, nephew," she said, and reached out to stroke his mane.

Jeggred visibly relaxed.

Quenthel's smile faded. She grabbeda handful of the draegloth's course hair and discharged into the draegloth all of her hate, all of her anger, allof the power in her spell.

It hit Jeggred like a giant's maul. His bones twisted and shattered; his skin tore itself open; blood erupted from his ears, eyes, and mouth. He fell to the ground and writhed with agony, roaring.

"But you poorly served me," she said.

She brandished her whip for a killing blow but hesitated.

She had a better idea.

The half-demon clawed his way to his feet, bleeding from a hundred wounds.

"She will kill you for this," he said, spitting blood. "I will kill you."

Quenthel was not sure whether Jeggred meant Triel or Danifae but either way, she could only smile. Jeggred understood little.

"You've served your purpose," she said into Jeggred's bloody face. "And you are but a male." Around them, the arachnids began to gather, perhaps attracted by the smell of Jeggred's blood.

Quenthel looked into his red eyes and said, "Farewell, nephew. You are my first sacrifice to the reborn Spider Queen."

With that, she held her holy symbol in her hands and offered a prayer to her reborn goddess. Magic swirled around her, magic that would return her to Menzoberranzan.

She had much to tell her matron mother.

Just before the spell moved her away from the Demonweb Pits, she saw a thousand spiders clamber forward, coat Jeggred's body, and begin to feed.

The draegloth's screams made her smile.

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