Chapter Five

Traveling the rocky, uneven terrain proved difficult. Pits, gorges, and smoking lakes of acid forced Pharaun and his three traveling companions to weave acircuitous route. They picked their way around gorges and holes, between the tall, black spires of petrified legs. Pharaun particularly disliked walking in the shadow of the petrified spider legs. He felt at any moment that they would return to life and catch them up in their embrace. Spiders and webs thronged the petrified limbs, darting into cracks and crevices.

The wind fought against them as they moved, and it whistled through the songspider webs. Pharaun was sweating. He felt exposed.

"Mistress," he said to Quenthel. "The passage of hours may bring a dawn. We are under open sky."

Pharaun had no desire to experience the blinding light of another sunrise like he hadseen in the World Above.

Quenthel did not look at him. One of her whip vipersYngoth, Pharaun was certainhovered near her ear for a moment. Quenthel nodded.

"A sun will rise over Lolth's Pits," she said. "But it is dim, red, and distant. You have nothing to fear, Master Mizzrym. We will find traveling under its light as easy as traveling by night."

Jeggred snorted and asked, "Do the snakes of your whip fill the holes in your understanding of the Spider Queen's realm, aunt?"

Danifae snickered, or perhaps it was a cough.

Over her shoulder, Quenthel answered, "Sometimes, nephew. They are demonsbound by meand have some knowledge of the Lower Planes that I require them to impart. Perhaps Mistress Danifae can fill in the rest of our understanding?"

She stopped, turned, and looked at Danifae.

The battle-captive did not lower her hood. "When I have something to add," she said, "I will offer it." Quenthel smiled at her nephew and started again to walk.

"Perhaps we should use spells to transport us, Mistress?" Pharaun suggested to Quenthel, though he did not know exactly where they were going.

Quenthel shook her head and replied, "No, mage. This is the Spider Queen's realm, and she wants us to experience it. We will walk until I say otherwise."

Pharaun frowned but made no other answer. He could have flown, of course, using the ring he had taken from Belshazu, but decided not to provoke Quenthel. For him, the new Demonweb Pits was an obstacle to be overcome. For Quenthel, it was a religious ordeal to be experienced. Circumventing it would have been heresy.

Throughout their nighttime trek, the eight stars of Lolth peered down at them through a hole in the clouds that moved with the satellites across the night sky. Pharaun felt the Spider Queen's gaze pressing into his back like the tips of eight spears. Lolth's voice, in the form of the keening of the wind through the songspider webs, hummed in his ears. Pharaun found it maddening but kept his thoughts to himself.

High above them, the river of souls streamed silently onward. Sparking power vortices continued to dot the sky and vomit forth the spirits of the dead.

Pharaun marveled at the number of drow souls. He knew that all of them must have died after Lolth had fallensilent. Where had they all come from? How many worlds did Lolth's children populate? He hoped many. Otherwise, he feared he would return to find Menzoberranzan as empty as the space between Jeggred's ears. The fact that Gromph had stopped responding to his sendings did not allay his concerns. Possibly the Archmage was too preoccupied with the siege of Menzoberranzan to reply; possibly, Gromph was dead.

He shook his head, pushed away the doubt, and focused on the now.

Pharaun's magical boots allowed him to stride and jump with more ease than the rest, but even he found the footing treacherous. Jagged rocks edged as sharp as daggers, boulders as large as buildings, sheer drop-offs, hidden pits, and shifting fields of loose scree challenged their every step. Most of the pits turned out to be web-lined tunnels that snaked down into the darkness under the landscape. Pharaun assumed that the whole plane must have been honeycombed with them. The stink of rot and a soft, barely audible insectoid clicking floated up from the black depths of the holes. He did not like to think of what might be lurking under their feet.

After a few hours travel, they stopped for a moment to eat their rations of fungus bread, cheese, and cured rothe-meat near the edge of a pit as large across as an ogre's arm span. A disturbing clicking sound emerged from somewhere deep in the darkness of the hole. A musty stink wafted out of it.

"Whatis that sound?" Jeggred asked above the wind, around a slobbering mouthful of meat.

"What is that smell, you mean," Pharaun corrected. "It's almost as bad as your breath, Jeggred. And I mean that in a brotherly way."

Jeggred answered him with a glare as he tore into another shank of rothe meat.

From under the hood of her cloak, Danifae whispered, "The sound is the voice of Lolth's children."

"Breeding pits, I would guess," Quenthel said by way of clarification and bit into a piece of dried meat. She held forth her whip, and the serpents snaked their heads downward into the pit and hissed.

The clicking stopped. At the same time, the wind died, and the keening of the songspider webs went silent. The night grew still.

Pharaun's skin went gooseflesh, and the four of them sat motionless, staring into the pit and waiting, expecting a horror to crawl forth. It didn't, and after a time the wind started anew and with it, the keening.

Pharaun hurriedly finished his repast, rose, and said, "Shall we continue?"

Quenthel nodded, Jeggred stuffed another mouthful of cured rothe into his jaws, and they left the pit behind them and moved onward. As they walked Danifae smiled from under her hood at Pharaun with undisguised contempt. She obviously found his discomfort with the plane amusing.

Pharaun ignored her and thought he had never imagined he could so miss Valas Hune. No doubt the mercenary guide could have led them along the path of least difficulty. Or perhaps it was Ryld he missed after all, who would have at least provided a nice partner for conversation. Quenthel and Danifae, on the other hand, simply trekked along under the souls in silence, oblivious to the difficulties of the terrain. And Jeggred was worth speaking to only to taunt.

Webs were everywhere, growing increasingly more common. They coated everything, from the ordinary-sized traps of a black widow to the monstrous, thick-stranded curtains of silver as large as the skin-sails on the Ship of Chaos. Pharaun's shoes were caked with webs. The air itself, thick and irritating to his throat, seemed infested with invisible strands.

After several more exhausting hours of travel, webs coated them all in a sticky sheathe. Pharaun had to continually remove the delicate strands from his face so that he could breathe. He felt as though the whole plane was really a giant spider, cocooning them all so slowly that they would not realize their peril until they were wrapped up, immobile, and awaiting the bite of fangs.

Pharaun shook his head and put the image out of his mind.

Despite the many large webs hanging between the boulders and tors, up to then Pharaun had seen only ordinary-sized arachnids, ranging in size from a fingernail to the size of a head. The narrow-bodied, long-legged songspiders were the la rgest spider he had seen, though he knew there had to be larger ones somewhere. Spiders lurked over, under, and between every rock and hole on the surface. The ground was acrawl with them. Pharaun assumed that the originators of the largest webs must have laired in the tunnels underground, where he hoped they would stay, at least for the time being. The small spiders were enough of an irritant.

Though he knew that not even the smallest of the creatures could sneak through the magical protections of his spells, Sorcere ring, and enchanted piwafwi, Pharaun could not shake a constant crawling sensation on his skin.

Danifae and Quenthel, on the contrary, appeared to enjoy allowing the spiders to crawl freely over their skin and hair. Jeggred, of course, seemed as oblivious to the spiders as he was to most everything, though even the half-demon took care not to willfully squash any of the creatures while he walked.

As they picked their way through yet another field of petrified spider legs, Pharaun caught a flash of motion from near the top of one of the tallest of the spires. He stopped and watched, but the motion did not repeat itself.

Curious, and otherwise bored, Pharaun activated the power in his ring and took flight. He rose rapidly into the air up the face of the tor. He spared a look down as he rose and saw his traveling companions looking up after him. He knew then how they all must look to Lolth's eyessmall and meaningless.

When he reached the top of the stone spire, he stopped and hovered in mid-air, the words to a spell ready in his mind.

The wind gusted, rustling his hair and cloak. Farther above him floated the glowing, translucent line of souls, the lowest of which were almost within arm's reach. The spirits did not respond to his presence so he ignored them. Power vortices swirled in the heavens, raining green and blue sparks. Acrid clouds of smoke peppered the air.

From below, Quenthel shouted something, but he could not make it out in the wind. Still, he could imagine what she was probably saying.

He ignored her and focused on the object of his curiosity.

Irregular outcroppings of rock covered the otherwise flat expanse of the tor's top, as if the spider's leg had been hacked off before it had been petrified. Thick webs hung between every outcropping, blanketing the surface in silver.

Hanging there in Lolth's air with Lolth's dead, Pharaun felt inexplicably comfortable, as though soaking in a warm bath. The Demonweb Pits stretched large and alien below him; the sky extended vast and strange above him, but he did not care. He thought that it might be almost comfortable to lie amongst the webs, to wrap himself in their warmth. He floated forward, desperate for a rest.

Within the strands, he saw, prey struggledlarge prey. He could not make out their forms because they were covered entirely in webs. The prey nearest him, perhaps agitated by his presence, wriggled, struggled, and some of the web strands parted to reveal an open eye.

Aliisza's sending had hit Kaanyr Vhok like a lightning bolt. The words still bounced around his head. Lolth welcomes home the dead. She lives.

Then nothing more. Kaanyr had expected Aliisza to return to him, but she had not, nor had she communicated with him since. He found her behavior surprising.

For a moment he had convinced himself that the alu-fiend was lying about Lolth's return, but he knew he was deceiving himself. He had heard no falsehood in her mental voice, and he knew her well enough that he would have been aware had she been telling a lie. She could have been mistaken, so he would confirm her missive, but in his core he knew it to be true. Soon, he and his men would be facing not only Menzoberranzan's soldiers and wizards, but also its priestesses of Lolth. Lots of them.

He had warned Nimor already of Lolth's return, though the drow had not so much as acknowledged the sending.

The ungrateful ass, Kaanyr thought.

According to Kaanyr's spies, Nimor had fled the battle with the Archmage of Menzoberranzan, leaving the lichdrow Dyrr to face the Baenre wizard alone. Details were few, but it appeared that the Baenre wizard had at last prevailed. Apparently, the city's bazaar had been leveled and many Menzoberranyr destroyed or petrified.

At least the lichdrow had done something worthwhile, Kaanyr thought.

Kaanyr evaluated his situation. First, the lichdrow was destroyed and House Agrach Dyrr was closed up and under siege. Second, Nimor Imphraezl had fled. Third, and most importantly, the Spider Queen lived and her priestesses could again cast spells.

The evaluation allowed only one conclusion, and the conclusion settled over him like a shroud.

He had lost the battle for Menzoberranzan.

The realization sat heavily on him. He'd had to turn it around again and again in his mind before he came to accept it.

Sitting on a luxuriously upholstered divan in the magical tent that served as his headquarters, he held a goblet of brandy to his lips and drank. He barely tasted it, though he ordinarily savored its sweetness. He sighed, set the goblet on a nearby table, and sagged back into the cushions of the divan.

He had been so tantalizingly close to victory. So close!

His Scourged Legion had fought well and hard in the tunnels along Menzoberranzan's southeastern border, and in the Donigarten, amidst the dung-fed forests of fungi. He had lost five score of his tanarukks but killed half again that many drow, along with several score of their fighting spiders and a drider or two. For a time, it had appeared that his tanarukks would force their way through the drow lines, penetrate all the way to the great mansions perched on Qu'ellarz'orl, and lay siege to House Baenre itself.

But then he had received Aliisza's sending.

He could not win the battle; he knew that. All that was left was to ensure that he did not lose his hide, and that would require quick action. He had no doubt that the drow and their priestesses were planning counterattacks even then.

Fortunately, Kaanyr Vhok had a plan. He would use Horgar and the duergar to cover the retreat of his Scoured Legion. The stinking,incompetent little waddlers had done nothing in the battle for the city other than hide behind siege walls and lob their stonefire bombs at Tier Breche. If the duergar forces actually had gained and held even a single defended tunnel, Kaanyr would be shocked.

At least now they will serve a purpose, thought the cambion. They will die so that I will live.

He took up his goblet and offered a mock toast.

My gratitude, Horgar, you little vermin, he thought. May you find an ugly death, since you were so ugly in life.

He drained the glass and smiled. Only then did his mind turn again to Aliisza.

Did her silence mean that she was leaving him?

He snorted derisively and shrugged. He did not care if the alu-fiend left himtheir relationship had been one of conveniencebut he would miss her physical gifts. He did wonder at her motives, though. Could she be in love with this drow mage she had spoken of? He dismissed the possibility and settled on a more likely solution her fascination with the Master of Sorcere had grown into infatuation. She often fancied weak things, the same way a human woman might a pet.

She would be back eventually, he figured. She had left him before, even for decades at a time. But always she came back to him. Randomness was in her nature; structure in his. She was drawn to him, though, so she would not be away long. She simply wanted a new plaything for a time. Vhok did not begrudge her that.

He smiled and wished the Master of Sorcere well. Aliisza could be exhausting.

Of course, the mage must have had something of substance to him, since it appeared that he and his ragtag bunch had managed to wake up Lolth. Kaanyr had thought their quest a fool's errand until it had actually worked.

He sighed, stood, strapped on his rune-inscribed blade, and called out of the tent, "Rorgak! Attend me." In moments, his tusked, towering, red-scaled lieutenant parted the curtains and entered the tent. Blood still streaked Rorgak's plate armor. He wore a collection of drow thumbs on a thin chain of hooks around his thickneck. Kaanyr counted six.

"Lord?" Rorgak asked.

Kaanyr gestured Rorgak close and said in Orcish, "Lolth has returned. Soon the spells of her priestesses will strengthen the city's defenses."

Rorgak's black eyes went wide. Despite his brutish looks, he was reasonably intelligent. Heunderstood the implication of the words. He asked, "Lord, then what do we" Kaanyr silenced him with an upraised hand and a soft hiss. "We are removing our headquarters back to Hellgate Keep," he said. He could not quite bring himself to call the withdrawal a retreat. "Inform the officers. Make it appear to the drow as though it is a tactical withdrawal to consolidate forces for a counterattack."

Rorgak nodded and asked, "And the duergar?" His tone suggested that he already surmised the answer.

Kaanyrvalidated his guess by answering, "Kill the hundred or so intermixed with our forces, but be certain to allow no word of it to travel back to Horgar and the main body of his forces. Let them continue with their attack on Tier Breche."

"Horgar and the dwarflings will be slaughtered when the priestesses of Arach-Tinilith join their spells to the forces defending the Academy," Rorgak said.

Kaanyr nodded, smiled, and said, "But that final battle will occupy the drow long enough for the legion to move far from Menzoberranzan. Go. Time is short."

Rorgak thumped the breastplate of his plate armor, spun on his heel, and hurried from the tent.

For an instant, Kaanyr wished that Aliisza stood near him. He could have used some comforting.

It took Pharaun a moment to realize what was ensnared in the web.

One of the souls, a drow soul.

Presumably, the other wriggling forms were more trapped drow souls. They must have ventured too low, or the web's creator might have been able to snatch them from the sky. And perhaps the same creature could snatch Pharaun himself from the sky just as easily.

Pharaun didn't like the mental image that last idea evoked.

He cleared his head and scanned the outcropping for the spider or spiderlike creature that had spun the web but saw nothing other than the doomed spirits.

Still, something had affected his mind....

The trapped soul near him, perhaps sensing his presence, struggled against the web and freed more of its face. It was a drow male. Opening his mouth in a soundless wail, the soul pinioned Pharaun with his terrified eyes. He wriggled more and set the entire web atop the tor to vibrating.

As though agitated by the movement, the other cocooned souls too wriggled more. All to no avail. The webs held them fast.

Another shout from below drew his attention, but he ignored it.

Fascinated and horrified, Pharaun called upon the power of his Sorcere ring to allow him to see emanations of magic and invisible things. As he'd expected, the web glowed a soft red in his sight. The corporeal web possessed magical properties that allowed it to trap and hold incorporeal souls. He wondered at the arcane mechanism behind that spell when his augmented sight revealed an otherwise invisible creature crouched in the center of the web, near one of the bound souls. Except for the eight black eyes in the center of its face and the fangs poking out from under its lips, it appeared vaguely reminiscent of a drow whose body had been crossed with a spider and stretched thin on a torturer's rack to twice its normal length. It crouched, watching him, on the web strands, naked, its clutching fingers half as long as Pharaun's forearm. Patches of short, bristly hairs jutted in patches from its skin. Periodic tremors coursed along its body, asthough it was wracked by pain. A horrid fluid leaked from its mouth. Spinneret holes opened in its legs.

I see you, Pharaun thought as he called to mind a spell.

He must have stared a moment too long. The creature realized that it had been seen. It opened its mouth and coursed over the web toward him. As it moved, a voice sounded in Pharaun's head, a reasonable, persuasive voice augmented by magic.

Here is comfort, here is warmth. Come closer.

Pharaun felt the suggestion sink into his brain and pervert his will, but he resisted its pull and floated backward, incanting a spell the while.

The creature bounded forward, hissing. When it reached the end of the web, it spun a flip and turned its legs toward Pharaun. Web filaments shot from its spinnerets and hit Pharaun in the chest. He barely felt the impact on his flesh, but the webs seemed to reach through and into him.

His breath nearly left him. He felt himself separating in two, like curdled rothe milk. The web was pulling his soul from his body. The creature hissed again and began to pull.

More shouts from below. Quenthel's voice, angry.

Pharaun maintained his concentrationbarelyand finished his spell in a whisper. The magic powered his voice, gave it strength, potency, and with it he uttered a single word of power.

The magic of the spell shredded the web strands attached to Pharaun and struck the creature like a hammer blow. The force blew it backward along its webs where it lay still.

The trapped souls struggled for freedom from the partially destroyed webs. The male drow nearest him managed to squirm himself free of the web. The soul did not so much as look at Pharaun. Instead, he simply headed skyward to join the other souls on their way to Lolth.

"Thanks are unnecessary," Pharaun shot after him, in a voice more like his own.

Below him, Quenthel was still shouting.

Pharaun shook his head to clear it and checked his body to ensure that he had suffered no permanent damage. Satisfied that he had not, he removed a leather glove from his cloak and voiced another spell. An enormous hand of magical force tookshape before him. At his mental command, it retrieved the stunned body of the arachnoid creature and gripped it tightly, taking care to ensure that the hand's grip covered the creature's spinnerets. Pharaun voiced another spell, temporarily dispelling the creature's natural invisibility.

Pharaun descended, trophy in hand, so to speak. He did not spare even glance at the other trapped souls.

The moment his boots touched stone, an impatient Quenthel demanded, "What in the Nine Hells were you doing?"

She had barely looked at the creature enwrapped in the huge fingers of his magical spell. "Investigating, Mistress," Pharaun answered.

Before Quenthel could reply, Danifae threw back her hood and said, "I did not hear you ask for permission to investigate, male. Nor to kill one of Lolth's creatures."

Pharaun glared at Danifae and might have advanced on her had Jeggred not offered a threatening growl. "I have not been in the habit of asking your permission, battle-captive. And this creature attacked me." "Relearn your habits, Master Mizzrym," Danifae snapped, her eyes narrow and cold. "You are a resource of a priestess of Lolth, nothing more. Your disobedience borders on impudence and heresy." To Pharaun's surprise, Quenthel said, "She is correct. The next time you divert our mission without my command, you will be punished. Lolth awaits her Yor'thae. We will not waste time with your trivial investigations."

As if to emphasize her point, the serpents extended to twice their ordinary length and flicked their tongues against Pharaun's flesh.

The Master of Sorcere swallowed his anger, stifled his pride, and set out to control the damage.

He offered Quenthel a bow and said, "Of course, Mistress. Forgive my presumption." To Danifae, he said, "And I was not aware that you now spoke for the Mistress."

Quenthel's jaw clenched at that. She glared first at Pharaun, then at Danifae.

"No one speaks for me," Quenthel said, and Pharaun lowered his gaze.

Danifae said, "I seek only the Spider Queen's will, Mistress of Arach-Tinilith."

"As do I," Quenthel said, and turned away to study the route ahead.

When she did, Pharaun met Danifae's eyes. She offered him a small smileno doubt she thought she had driven some wedge between Quenthel and Pharaun by pointing out that the mage had acted without the high priestess's permission. Her gaze promised Pharaun an ugly death should the wedge result in a wide enough gap.

Pharaun smiled back at her. He felt reasonably comfortable that he had mitigated the damage by suggesting that Danifae had acted presumptuously by speaking for Quenthel. And if blades came to blood, it would be Danifae who would suffer the ugly death.

The thought gave him a momentary start. Kill a priestess of Lolth? True, Danifae was Houseless but she was still a priestess. Such a thing would not even have occurred to Pharaun before Lolth's Silence. He realized that while Lolth might have returned, her Silence had changed something fundamental about the relationship between male and female drowfor at least some males, priestesses would no longer seem so untouchable. Their weakness during the Silence, albeit temporary, had removed some of the social controls that underlaid their rule. He wondered how that would play out in future years.

The creature held in his magical fist stirred and groaned. Pharaun's spell had left it only temporarily stunned.

"As is her wont," Pharaun said to Quenthel. "Mistress Danifae has misconstrued the situation. I have not killed one of Lolth's creatures. I have merely brought it to you, Mistress, to do with as you wish. Perhaps to question it?"

Quenthel belted her whip and turned. Pharaun saw approval in her eyes. The serpents of the whip went slack. She eyed the creature closely for the first time then stepped forward, took its fanged jaw in her hand, and squeezed.

"Speak," she said to it. "What are you?"

"Be wary, Mistress," Pharaun warned. "It has the ability to implant a suggestion. That is how it lures souls to its web, offering them comfort."

Quenthel squeezed, and the creature wailed. Danifae smirked at its pain. Jeggred eyed it as if trying to determine how it might taste.

"If you attempt it," she said. "I will squeeze your head until it bursts."

"Not do," the creature whimpered in a high pitched voice. It spoke in an archaic form of Low Drow.

"Not do. Mistook him for a soul. But not a soul. Living."

Quenthel shook its head and asked again, "What are you?"

The creature attempted to shake its head but Quenthel's strength held it immobile. Spittle and hisses rained from between its lips.

"The cursed of the Spider," the creature said at last, its voice difficult to understand.

"The cursed of Lolth?" Quenthel asked, eyebrows raised. "You do not serve the Spider Queen?" Phlegm and drool leaked down the creature's face. Its forehead furrowed.

"The Spider hates me, but I feedon her souls. Eat many."

Quenthel relaxed her grip on the creature and looked to Danifae, then to Pharaun.

"This useless creature has nothing to tell us," she said. "Kill it, Master Mizzrym."

Pharaun did not hesitate. He caused his magical hand to squeeze, and squeeze. The creature screamed, bones cracked, and drool and blood exploded from its mouth.

"The Teeming will take you," it wailed, then it burst into a shower of gore.

"The Teeming?" Pharaun asked while he dispelled his magical hand and let the bloody pile fall to the ground.

Neither priestess responded to his question or seemed interested in the creature's threat, so he said, "It appears that the Spider Queen is not without a sense of irony. She rewards her followers for a lifetime of service by allowing them to be captured on the way to her and made food for whatever spun those webs."

Quenthel scoffed, eyeing him with contempt. The serpents of her whip lazily flicked their tongues at him. "Master Mizzrym," Quenthel said. "You understand as little as most males. Faithful worship in life is not a guarantee of safety in death. This whole plane is a test for Lolth's dead. Surely ev en you can see that?" Danifae looked at Quentheland said, "Then does that not make this creature a servant of Lolth after all, Mistress Quenthel?"

Silence fell. Quenthel seemed dumbfounded by the question.

Before the high priestess could reply, Danifae looked to Pharaun and said, "Lolth winnows the weak always, even among her dead.If a soul is weak or stupid, it is annihilated."

Pharaun shrugged and said, "How pleasing for her."

Quenthel whirled on him. "Pleasing indeed, wizard. Are you concerned for the safety of your own hide?" At that, Jeggred smirked.

Pharaun almost laughed at the absurdity of the question. He was always concerned for his own hide. Instead of answering Quenthel directly, he said, "One might think the Spider Queen would make an exception to her tests for the Yor'thae and her escort, at least."

"Exactly the contrary," Danifae said and tucked her hair behind her ears.

She held her hand before her face and watched a small red arachnid with overlarge mandibles crawl along her fingers. She kneeled and let it scurry safely onto a rock; only then did Pharaun see the pinprick of blood on her hand from where the spider had bitten her. She had not even winced.

Danifae rose and said, "Lolth subjects herself to the same laws to which she subjects her servants, mage." She eyed Quenthel with a sly smile. "Only the strong or the intelligent will survive. Only one who is both can be her Yor'thae."

Quenthel answered the former battle-captive's stare with an icy glance.

Returning her gaze to Pharaun, Danifae continued, "Were Lolth to select an unworthy priestess as her Yor'thae, no doubt something unfortunate would happen to the failed candidate. And her escort."

Quenthel's whip was in her hand, the serpents fully awake.

"It is well that she will not choose wrongly then," Quenthel said.

The serpents of Quenthel's scourge rose up, and five sets of small red eyes fixed Danifae with a hateful glare. Quenthel cocked her head and nodded, as though the whips had spoken to her.

"Has she not yet chosen, then?" Danifae asked, all innocence.

Quenthel's eyes flashed, perhaps in anger at herself for such a poor choice of words. She walked toward Danifae and stomped on the red arachnid that Danifae had just released onto the rocks.

Danifae's eyes flashed surprise, and she took a backward step. Even Jeggred seemed aghast.

"To kill that cursed creature is no crime," Danifae blurted, indicating the twisted form on the ground, "but to kill a spider is blasphemy."

Quenthel scoffed, ground her boot against the stone, and said, "That was no spider. It only appeared to be one. That is how it survived. For a time, at least." She eyed Danifae with meaning and said, "Killing those things that pretend they are more than they are is consistent with Lolth's will."

Danifae's mouth tightened as she took the sense of Quenthel's insult. Without a word, she snapped up the hood of her cloak, turned, and walked away. Jeggred glared at Quenthel and stalked after Danifae.

Quenthel smiled at their backs and Pharaun could not help but wonder why she left Danifae alivethere would be no consequences for her murder. Danifae did not belong to any of the Houses of Menzoberranzan, and Lolth reveled in internecine slaughter between her priestesses.

"Come," Quenthel said to him. "More obstacles await us before we reach the mountains."

And in those words, Pharaun heard Quenthel's explanation.

If indeed the whole of Lolth's plane was a test, as both priestesses had averred, then likely more challenges awaited, challenges that might require allies to overcome, even for Lolth's Yor'thae. Quenthel did not kill Danifae for the simple reason that she might need her later.

He hurried after the Mistress. As he walked past where Quenthel had been standing, he caught sight of a small red arachnid that looked very similar to that which Quenthel had squashed.

Had she only pretended to squash it?

He could not be certain, but her words to Danifae sounded in his head Killing things that pretend they are more than they are is consistent with Lolth's will.

Who is pretending? he wondered.

He pushed the question from his mind and followed after.

While Larikal and Geremis led the search for the lichdrow's phylactery, Yasraena decided that she would attempt to buy her House peace, or failing that, time.

She sat on the stone throne of her reception halla locale that Triel Baenre could easily pinpoint with a spelland hoped that the Matron Mother of the First House would respond.

She gathered her thoughts, held her holy symbol in hand, and spoke the words to a sending. The spell would allow her to speak and send to Triel Baenre a statement of not more than twenty-five words.

Defensive wards had no effect on a sending, mostly because the spell did nothing other than transmit the speech of the caster. It could carry no spells or words of power.

When she finished the casting, she spoke Triel's name to denote the recipient and recited her message. "Matron Mother Baenre, Matron Mother Agrach Dyrr wishes to discuss situation. I am in Dyrr reception hall. Scrying wards are lowered. Do same. Mutual clairaudience."

With that, Yasraena spoke the triggering word to lower the anti-scrying ward in the reception hall, and contacted Anival telepathically through the magical amulet at her breast.

Matron Mother? Anival answered.

Send one of the House wizards to my throne room, one skilled in divinations. Now.

Yes, Matron Mother, Anival answered, and the connection went silent.

While Yasraena waited from the House wizard to attend her, she cradled her holy symbol in her hand and recited the words to a minor spell that allowed her to see scrying effects. If and when Triel's House wizard placed a clairaudience sensor in Yasraena's throne room, Yasraena would know.

In less than a fifty-count, one of the House wizards, Ooraen, a recent graduate of Sorcere, entered through the far archway of the reception hall. He made obeisance and hurried down the aisle to the throne.

"How may I serve you, Matron Mother?"

"You know how to cast a clairaudience divination, I presume?" she asked.

The wizard nodded.

"For the time, stand beside my throne and be silent. When I command it, you will cast the spell at the location I designate and leave me."

The male bowed and stepped beside the throne.

Yasraena drummed her fingers along the haft of her tentacle rod and waited. And waited. Nearly an hour passed, and she grew increasingly impatient.

A small magical sensor materialized in the throne room, a fist-sized, red globe that would have been invisible but for Yasraena's augmented eyes.

"I see it, Matron Mother Baenre," Yasraena said to the sensor.

At the mention of Triel's title, Ooraen gave a visible start. Yasraena turned to him and said, "Cast your clairaudience spell in the reception hall of House Baenre."

Yasraena knew that Ooraen had never seen the inside of House Baenre but that did not matter. An adequate verbal description of the desired location would serve.

After only a moment's hesitation, Ooraen removed a tiny metal horn from his cloak, held it to his ear, and recited the words to his spell. When he completed the divination, Yasraena heard Triel's voice through the sensor "Greetings, Yasraena."

That Triel had called her byher given name rather than her title was an intentional slight, but Yasraena gulped down her anger. She waved Ooraen from the chamber, and the wizard fled down the aisle.

"Greetings, Matron Mother Baenre," Yasraena replied.

"How fares House Agrach Dyrr?" Triel asked, and Yasraena heard the sarcastic smile in the voice. "Well," Yasraena answered, defiant. "House Agrach Dyrr fares well."

Triel's laughter carried through the sensor.

Yasraena ignored it and said, "Matron Mother, I sought this communication so we might discuss a settlement."

"Indeed?" Triel answered.

"Indeed," Yasraena replied and wasted no further time with conversational niceties. "House Agrach Dyrr's alliance with the forces besieging Menzoberranzan was undertaken in secret by the lichdrow. By the time I learned of it, the plot already was in motion. Since then, I have endeavored to quietly undermine the lichdrow's plots at every turn. Now that his body is destroyed" "Now that your ambition has proven far too large for your capabilities," Triel interrupted, "you wish to sue for peace. Is that not so, Yasraena?"

Yasraena could not keep anger from her own voice. "You mistake me, Matron Mother Baenre. I" "No," Triel interjected. "You mistake me. You seek to save your House by blaming your own failings on the lichdrow. Even if what you said was true, it simply demonstrates your own incompetence to rule."

Yasraena gripped the tentacle rod so tightly in her hand that her fingers ached. Anger burned in her, and she almost exploded at Triel. Almost.

Instead, she calmed herself and answered. "Perhaps you speak some truth," she said, slightly emphasizing the word 'some.' "Which is why I wish to make you an offer."

Silence. Then, "Speak it."

"House Agrach Dyrr is made a vassal House to House Baenre for five hundred years, the arrangement to be ratified by the Ruling Council. My House will be removed from the Council" temporarily, Yasraena added to herself"and in the meanwhile will be under Baenre rule and protection during that half-millennium period. I and it will be at your disposal, Matron Mother."

Yasraena knew the offer to be a bold one. It had been long since any of the city's Houses had been made a formal vassal to another. But it was not unheard of, and she had few other options.

A long silence followed, during which Yasraena held her breath. No doubt Triel was mulling the possibilities.

At last, Triel said, "Your offer has some small potential, Yasraena."

Yasraena exhaled.

Triel continued, "To show me your sincerity, you will destroy the lichdrow's phylactery."

Yasraena had expected nothing less. "Of course, Matron Mother. I am in the pro cess of locating it but the siege makes it difficult. As does what I presume to be the inevitable assay of the Archmage.

Temporarily halt the siege and restrain your brother. When I have the phylactery, I will contact you again and provide evidence of its destruction."

Triel laughed. "Do not be foolish, Yasraena," she said. "You will demonstrate your worthiness to be a vassal House to House Baenre by finding and destroying the phylactery even while House Agrach Dyrr is under siege by the Xorlarrin. And if the Archmage decides to try your defenses, then you will abide that too. Or you will not. And if not, then destruction is what your House warrants."

Yasraena bit back the angry words that flew to her lips. She had little choice but to accept.

"Your terms are reasonable," she said through gritted teeth.

"I'm pleased you find them so," Triel answered. "Do not contact me again, Yasraena, unless it is to provide evidence of the lichdrow's destruction."

With that, the connection went quiet. A heartbeat later, the sensor in Yasraena's reception hall dematerialized.

Yasraena sat in her throne and thought, her mind racing. She had made her play but was not sure how it would unfold. If she did in fact locate the phylactery, she was undecided whether she would honor the terms of the deal or instead safeguard it until the lichdrow could reincorporate. A part of her very much desired the permanent destruction of the meddling undead wizard, but the pragmatist in her knew that she weakened her House, if not her own personal position within it, by destroying the lichdrow. But to throw herself on the mercy of House Baenre....

Yasraena shook her head. She had no decision to make if her House fell to the Xorlarrin or Gromph Baenre found the phylactery before her. She rose and went searching the halls for Larikal.

Silence reigned for the next several leagues of travel as Pharaun and his cohorts picked their way through the towers of stone and the blasted ground. The entire plane, the very air, felt restive and stretched, as though about to explode.

Over the hours, the wind grew steadily more forceful, with intermittent gusts so strong that Pharaun had to lean forward to avoid being blown off his feet. The gusts howled between the towers of stone, set the songspider webs to screeching, and stirred up a blizzard of spiders, dirt, webs, and loose scree. Jeggred protected Danifae from the living hail with his hulking body. Pharaun shielded himself with his magical piwafwi. Quenthel merely smiled into the storm and held her arms outstretched to provide a haven for any spiders that blew onto her. After a time, spiders teemed in her hair and on her piwafwi.

She was home, Pharaun realized, and pulled the hood of his magical cloak lower to protect his face. The Yor'thae was returning home.

The gusts grew more frequent and still more intense with each passing hour. An increasingly powerful hail of pebbles, webs, and spiders pelted them, like a blizzard of sling bullets. The keening webs sounded more and more like the agonized wail of a creature in pain. Pharaun had little experience with surface weather patterns, but even he could smell a storm on the wind.

"Perhaps we should find shelter," he said above the shrieking winds.

"Faith is our shelter, mage," Quenthel answered back, the wind whipping her hair around her face. A small black spider crawled over her eyelid, down her nose, and over her lips. She only smiled. Danifae put back her cloak hood and cocked her head as though she heard something. Red spiders thronged her hair too, and her face.

"Can you not hear it in the keening, mage?" Danifae shouted. "The Spider Queen calls us onward. We continue."

Pharaun squinted into the wind, looked from one priestess to the other, and said nothing. He heard nothing in the wind but the abominable screech of the webs. And as for faith providing a shelter? He knew better than that. He had seen Lolth's faithful trapped in a web atop a tor, waiting to be fed upon. That was the shelter provided by faith in the Spider Queen.

Still, he bit his tongue and trudged forward, bent against the wind and hurtling debris. Time passed; fatigue dulled his mind and body.

The storm and winds continued to build as the hours dragged on.

When the sky to his left lightened enough to afford a better view of the landscape, he decided to call that direction "east." Despite Quenthel's assurance to Jeggred that the sun would not harm them, Pharaun found himself squinting, bracing for its impact.

To the west, perhaps another five or six days' of foot travel away, were mountains. The great triangular peaks soared high into the sky, forming a wall of dark stone with sides as sharp, sheer, and craggy as fangs. Caps of red ice crowned them. So too did storm clouds, an expanding bank of black as thick and as dark as demon's blooda storm the likes of which Pharaun could never have imagined.

And it was moving toward them. The cutting wind and screaming webs were its prophets.

The line of souls, unbothered by the swirling wind and gathering storm, poured toward the base of one of the mountains. There, they congregated at a dark point, perhaps a valley or a pass, between two of the largest peaks.

"Lolth's web and city sits on the other side those mountains," Quenthel said above the wind, above the screeching of the webs.

Danifae held her hair back from her face and looked to the far horizon. The distant look in her eyes reminded Pharaun of a mad prophet he had once seen in Menzoberranzan's bazaar.

"All the souls are massing in that gorge at the base of the mountains," Pharaun said, not certain everyone had seen it.

"It is not a gorge," Quenthel answered, her voice barely audible over the wind.

She offered nothing more, and Pharaun didn't like the haunted look in her eyes.

"The sun rises," said Jeggred, shielding his eyes with one of his huge fighting hands.

Pharaun turned to see the lip of a tiny red orb creep diffidently over the eastern horizon. It cast little more light than the silvery nighttime satellite of the World Above when it was full. The light from Lolth's sun formed a clear line on the landscape, a border between darkness and light, that oozed toward them as the orb rose higher. Just as Quenthel had said, the light caused only minor discomfort.

Pharaun lowered his hand from his eyes and watched the first sunrise of his lifetime.

To his surprise and alarm, where the dim light touched, movement occurred. At first, Pharaun thought the sunlight was causing the earth to ripple, but then he realized what was actually occurring.

The plane was birthing spiders. Millions of spiders.

Crawling, scuttling, clambering, they moved from the darkness of their fissures and caves and into the light, summoned by the dawn. All had eight legs, eight eyes, and fangs, but there the similarities ended. Some were the size of rats, some were the size of rothe, and a few that clambered forth out of largest fissures had bloated bodies as large as giants. Some leaped, some phased in and out of reality, some pulled their bloated forms along on overlarge pedipalps or swordlike legs, others tumbled or flew on the gusting wind.

As the sun's light moved across the landscape, the pits, tunnels, and holes that it lit vomited forth their arachnid denizens. A ponderous but visible wave traveled across the earth as the sun slowly trekked higher into the sky. The ground was acrawl.

The light was moving toward them. They watched in awed silence.

Pharaun had lived with and amongst spiders his entire life but he had never before seen anything like the seething, roiling mass of arachnids that was beginning to blanket the surface of the plane. They coated everywhere the light touched, a seething blanket of legs, eyes, and hairy bodies.

At first, little occurred other than the birthing. The spiders that emerged from their holes seemed content to sit in the light as the birthing line moved across the world. But soon, first one, then another, then a hundred, then a million of the spiders attacked the others and fed upon the fallen. A slaughter trailed the birthing line by a few hundred paces, and there the surface of the plane erupted into a roiling, chaotic mass of fangs, pedipalps, and pincers, all biting, cutting, and tearing. Hisses, screeches, clicks, and the sound of ripping bodies filled the air, a wave of sound that followed hard after the sunlight. Severed legs dotted the rocks; huge carcasses flailed and bled; ichor stained the earth.

It was purposeless slaughter, madness made flesh, chaos given substance.

Lolth must have been smiling.

Pharaun could see plainly that anything caught in the midst of the bloody tumult would be fortunate to survive. He spared a glance under his feet, and saw pits and holes gaping like open mouths all around them. Even above the wind he could hear the scrabbling of feet coming from within them, the eager clicking of fangs, the tapping of legs on stone. In his mind's eye, he pictured another million arachnids lurking just inside the darkness of the holes, waiting for the touch of the dim sun to set them free of their underground prisons. Pharaun had no idea how such an ecology could sustain itself and did not care.

Though born in a city where slaughter was commonplace, even he found the level of violence repulsive.

And soon they would be in the midst of it. The sun was rising. The light was coming.

"Goddess be praised," Quenthel said, a rapturous look on her face.

The wind gusted, pasting his robes to his body. The webs keened in answer. Pharaun thought the Baenre priestess must have lost her mind.

Danifae emerged out from under her hood to greet the sun, not unlike the spiders emerging from their caves. Pharaun counted not less than seven tiny red spiders crawling in her hair, "Do we intend to simply stand here and wait?" he asked above the noise.

Neither priestess replied, and he decided that was answer enough.

"Afraid?" Jegg red asked, smirking.

Pharaun ignored the draegloth and mentally activated the power of his ring of flight. With a silent command, he surreptitiously lifted his feet half a handspan off the earth. If the priestesses had a plan, that was well. If not, he saw no need to remain earthbound in the face of the madness.

Together, the four of them watched as the light and violence churned its way toward them. As it grew closer, the clicking and screeching from the caves and pits around them grew louder, more eager, hungrier. The arachnids within sensed the approach of the light.

Jeggred answered those sounds with a low rumble in his chest. He stepped before Danifae and assumed a fighting crouch. The priestesses did not even look at the ground around them. They had eyes only for the approaching slaughter.

Pharaun decided to try again. "Mistress," he said to Quenthel, "would it not be wise to take shelter?" Quenthel looked at him sidelong and said, "No, mage. We must stand in the midst of this and bear witness."

From around her neck, she removed her holy symbol of Loltha jet disk inlaid with amethysts arranged to look like a spider. The serpents of her whip stood upright and watched the wave of spiders approach. Quenthel chanted a prayer, the words in a language even Pharaun could not understand.

Pharaun bit back the cutting reply that came to his mind, content that he could take flight if and when the need arose.

Danifae put her hand on Jeggred's fur-covered back.

"It is the Teeming," she said to no one in particular, recalling the words of the soul-eating creature Pharaun had taken prisoner. Awe colored her tone.

Pharaun didn't care what it was called. He knew only that soon the sunlight would reach them, light the pits around them, and...

He imagined his body buried under a mountain of bloated bodies, jointed legs, mandibles, and unforgiving eyes.

Quenthel and Danifae both appeared lost in rapture, temporarily mad perhaps. Each held her holy symbol in her hands; each wore the wild but assured expression of an ecstatic.

Pharaun knew that ordinary spiders answered the priestesses' commands, but he did not know whether the arachnids native to the Pits would. Besides, the priestesses' powers were limited. They could not command millions of spiders, could they?

Pharaun liked the situation less and less. He reached into his piwafwi, removed a ball of sulfur-soaked bat guano, and held it between thumb and forefingerjust in case. Ordinarily, he would not have considered offering violence to Lolth's children, at least not in the presence of her priestesses, but if it came to killing spiders or dying himself under a heap of hairy bodies, the choice would be an easy one. As ready as he would get, he waited.

The sunlight slid across the rockscape, birthing more spiders, closer, closer...

When it reached them, motion exploded all around. Thousands of spiders boiled from their holes like steam from a heated beaker, hissing and clicking. From a large tunnel to Pharaun's right, rothe-sized masses of hairy spider legs issued forthfive, ten, a score. His heart hammered between his ribs. The creatures had no bodies as such, noheads. They were nothing more than a clumped, disgusting, squirming mass of legs, each of which was longer than Pharaun was tall, and eight of which ended in a pointed claw of chitin as long as his forearm.

"Chwidencha," Pharaun said. "Two score or more."

Chwidenchahe'd heard them called "leg horrors"had once been drow, or perhaps drow souls, but they had failed Lolth, and as punishment had been transformed by the Spider Queen into that twisted form.

The Demonweb Pits did not appear to Pharaun to be a paradise for the Spider Queen's faithful. It looked more like a prison for her failures.

The chwidencha's rapid, undulating movement was enough to cause Pharaun a wave of nausea.

Impossible clusters of long, jointed legs, like a nest of vipers, squirmed a greeting to the red light of the dawn.

Though they had no eyes that he could see, the chwidencha immediately noticed the companions. Forty or more mouths offered muffled hisses from orifices buried under nests of legs.

"I see them, Master Mizzrym," Quenthel said, turning around, but her voice lacked the same confidence it had held a moment before.

The thousands of spiders boiling from the holes around them did not come near the chwidencha and left the companions unmolested, a small island of sanity amidst the chaos.

Lolth's damned appeared to command a certain respect, or fear.

With alarming speed and coordination, the chwidencha pack encircled them at a distance of perhaps ten paces.

The four drow closed ranks a few steps, a reflexive action. Pharaun called to mind the words to his fireball spell but held off casting. He shared a look with Quenthel but could not read her face. Jeggred's chest rose and fell heavily, and his fighting claws flexed. The draegloth interposed himself as best he could between the arachnids and Danifae but it was little use. They were surrounded. His growls answered their hisses and tapping claws.

Outside the ring of Lolth's damned, the spiders that had boiled forth stood still for a moment, like arena fighters gathering their strength. Then the urge to slaughter reached them, and they erupted into violence. Thousands upon thousands of spiders engaged in an orgy of dismemberment and feeding. Squeals, screeches, and hisses rang through the morning air. The ground vibrated under the volume of violence. Within the ring, the tension grew. The chwidenchas' legs churned sickeningly, as though they were agitated or somehow communicating. Though he could see no eyes, it was clear to Pharaun that the chwidencha were regarding them. He felt the weight of their looks, the heaviness of their malice, the depth of their hate.

"Well" he started to say.

At the sound of his voice, the chwidencha pack hissed as one. The smaller legs sprouting from what would have been their faces writhed, squirmed, and parted to reveal fanged mouths larger around than Pharaun's head. Finger-length fangs dripped a thick, yellow venom.

To all of them, Quenthel said, "We will not harm any of Lolth's children."

Pharaun could see that Quenthel was sweating as badly as he was, though her voice was calm.

"These are more like stepchildren," he answered and ran through the inventory of spells in his mind.

"They are neither," Danifae said, raising her holy symbola red spider encased in amberbefore her. "These are her damned."

At the sight of Lolth's brandished symbol, the chwidencha pack emitted a high-pitched screech that made the hair on the nape of Pharaun's neck stand on end. As one, they spasmed in anger, legs churning and squirming. The claws on the ends of their legs cracked rock, and Pharaun could not help but imagine what they could do to flesh.

"They do not appear to be the religious type, Mistress Danifae," Pharaun said.

Danifae did not lower her symbol.

The wind gusted, set the songspider webs to screeching, a sound that temporarily rose above even the cacophony of the Teeming.

This entire plane of existence is mad, Pharaun decided. The priestesses are mad. I am mad.

The chwidencha answered the song of the webs with another screech of their own. Pharaun didn't care for the look of their open, fanged mouths.

"Mistress," he said to Quenthel, "perhaps you could discourage further discussion with these creatures? I find them poor conversationalists. Mistress Danifae?"

For that, Quenthel turned to look at him just long enough to stare daggers. Danifae smirked.

Quenthel raised her jet symbol at the chwidencha, mirroring Danifae's gesture and eliciting a similar response.

Venom dripped to pool on the ground. Hisses answered their movements.

Quenthel pronounced, "Leave us now, damned of Lolth! We are servants of the Spider Queen about her will. You will not impede us."

"Back to your holes!" Danifae commanded, offering her own symbol.

A palpable wave of divine power went forth from both the priestesses.

Pharaun expected to see the chwidencha turn and flee into their tunnels but the leg horrors did not move, at least not away from them. More hisses answered the priestesses' command; legs squirmed and writhed. As one, the chwidencha took a slow step forward, and the circle of safety shrank.

While Danifae wore an inexplicable smile, Quenthel's uncertain expression told Pharaun everything he needed to know.

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