Chapter Eight

The storm railed against the temple for hours. Feliane and Uluyara sat in peaceful Reverie throughout, untroubled by the angry scream of the wind and the blistering patter of the smoking, acidic rain. Halisstra allowed them their rest.

Within only a few hours, the storm abated, as though the plane itself was too exhausted to continue its tirade. Even the ever-present wind died down somewhat. Halisstra offered a prayer of thanks to Eilistraee, rose quietly, and exited the makeshift temple.

She stepped forth into the fall of night. Lolth's tiny sun was just vanishing behind the distant horizon, casting its last spiteful rays of blood-red light over the landscape. The violence below too had abated, and Halisstra took a moment to enjoy the silenceno storm, no keening webs, no whispered, "Yor'thae." She felt free of Lolth, entirely free. She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply, a clean breath.

She turned and saw that the walls of the temple were pitted from the rain, but that the symbol of Eilistraee over the door remained intact, untouched by the storm.

Our goddess is stubborn, Halisstra realized with a smile.

High above her, the river of souls flowed on toward their eternal fate. Looking at them, she felt a pang for Ryld. She hoped he had found at least some peace.

The souls flowed as one toward a range of craggy mountains that soared so high they looked like a wall between worlds. Halisstra noticed that while vortices of power still churned in the sky, there were fewer than before.

She felt as though events were settling down, consolidating before the final resolution. Unfortunately, she did not know just what the final resolution would be. She pressed the flat of the Crescent Blade against her palm and tried to keep her heart calm.

Feeling small but still determined, she walked to the edge of the tor and looked out and down on the Demonweb Pits.

The sight nauseated her.

Evidence of the destructive violence had survived the storm. Legs, torn carcasses, and pedipalps lay strewn across the broken land for as far as she could see. Ichor stained the rocks, even after the rain. Gorges, holes, and pits marred the surface of the landscape; webs spanned every opening; lakes of acid steamed poison into the air.

Soon, she knew, the wind would return and with it, the keening of the songspider webs and the call to Lolth's Yor'thae.

Why did Lolth need this Yor'thae, Halisstra wondered? What was the Chosen supposed to do?

With effort, she pushed the questions from her mind. Lolth's schemes no longer concerned Halisstra. She touched the symbol of the Dark Maiden embossed on her breastplate and smiled. She felt that she had stepped on a new path, that Lolth's voice would no longer pull at her soul. She was free of the Spider Queen.

For now, said a stubborn voice from the depths of her brain, but she pushed it back down.

The sun sank behind the mountains and its light faded entirely. Halisstra felt a painful itch between her shoulder blades, as though she had been poked with needles. She turned and saw, through a convenient hole in the clouds, eight red stars rising into the sky. Seven were bright, one dim. Clustered like a spider's eyes, the stars looked down on Halisstra with palpable malevolence.

She answered their gaze with a defiant stare and a raised blade.

Gromph sat behind the enormous, polished dragonbone desk in his office in Sorcere. A dim green glowball cast the room in viridian and threw long shadows on the walls. Various trinkets, weapons, sculptures, and paintings decorated the office, the magical flotsam Gromph had gathered over the course of his long life.

His magical ring had almost fully regenerated his flesh. The burns were entirely gone; the blisters healed. He tapped his fingertips on the deskthe skin was still slightly tender and tingly-and thought about his next steps.

Though he'd had little time to spare, he had managed a quick meal of spiced mushrooms and cured rothe meat while he and Nauzhror had awaited Prath's arrival. Gromph had not taken the time to bathe or change his attire, so the stink of filth and smoke still oozed from him. More conscious of the smell in the close confines of his office, he crinkled his nose, spoke the words to a cantrip, and used the minor magical power to mend his clothes and clean himself up, at least a bit.

A knock sounded on the zurkhwood door that opened onto the hallway.

"It is Prath, Archmage," the apprentice called.

With a flick of his finger, Gromph temporarily suspended the wards on his door.

"Enter," he commanded, and Prath did.

The wards reengaged when the door shut.

Prath nodded to Nauzhror, who sat in one of the two cushioned chairs opposite Gromph's desk, and crossed the room.

"Sit, apprentice," Gromph said and indicated the second chair.

Prath sank into it, saying nothing.

Gromph studied the two wizards, thinking the apprentice overly muscular and fidgety, the Master overly fat and ambitious. Neither yet understood exactly what Gromph proposed to do.

Gromph's personal office was perhaps the most secure location in the city, the haven from which he could begin in secret his assault on House Agrach Dyrr. A series of wardsfar more than those that simply prevented entry through the doorwaysheathed the room to prevent not only physical intrusion but scrying and other magical surveillance. Gromph perceived the wards in the room around him as a tickle on the newly regrown hairs of his arms, a slight charge in the air.

Of all the mages in Menzoberranzan, only the lichdrow would have had a chance to penetrate Gromph's ward scheme, and only maybe.

Of course, the lichdrow was no more than dust at the moment. Gromph intended to ensure that he stayed that way.

A half-full chalice of fortified mushroom wine sat on the smooth, white desktop beside the remains of Gromph's meal. Near the chalice and silver plate sat one of Gromph's two personal scrying crystals. Unlike his crystal ball, unlike the great lens in Sorcere's scrying chamber, the crystal on his desk was not smooth surfaced, but rather was a head-sized, irregularly-shaped piece of brown, black, and red banded chrysoberyl. Those in the World Above called it "cat's eye," and its properties as a scrying medium were highly valued.

Unfortunately, a chrysoberyl scrying crystal typically did not have the range of most other types of crystals. Still, for close work, there was nothing better. And Gromph's crystal had an added benefit He could cast certain types of spells through it.

The crystal sat cradled in a triangular stand of unusually-textured gray stone. An eye motif decorated the stand. Gromph hadsculpted it from the spheroid body of an eye tyrant that he had petrified in battle long ago.

"An unusual scrying crystal," Nauzhror observed. "I have never seen its like."

"It is of my own making," Gromph replied. "And I have never recorded the process of its creation."

Nauzhror only nodded, eyeing the crystal.

Gromph took a sip from the mushroom wine. The bitter taste left a pleasant tang on his tongue. The wine fortified his will. He put his fingertips to the faceted surface of the crystal. It felt cool, though the magic within it sent a charge through his hands. He moved his fingers over its surface, tracing its edges, attuning it to his will.

Nauzhror and Prath watched in expectant silence.

Gromph closed his eyes and let his mind see the lines of power that flowed within the chrysoberyl. He waited for the connection between the stone and his mind to coalesce.


He smiled, feeling the crystal as an extension of his own mind, his own senses. He opened his eyes, still connected to the crystal, and gave a satisfied nod. The bands of color in the crystal had bled together to turn the crystal black. As he watched, the black gave way to a misty gray.

"It is ready," he said, as much to himself as to Nauzhror and Prath.

"Indeed," said Nauzhror. "Are we to be of assistance, Archmage?"

"Yes," Gromph answered. "But not with this. Be patient, Nauzhror."

Prath leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. He eyed the swirling gray mists in the crystal, and asked, "Archmage, I presume you will scry House Agrach Dyrr. Why not use the Scrying Chamber for this task? The crystal there is"

Before Gromph could answer, Nauzhror answered in the same tone he might use with a particularly dense student, "Because only Baenre are to know of this. There may be spies other than Vorion within Sorcere's walls."

Gromph cocked an eyebrow. Nauzhror's analysis impressed him; the Master wizard saw much. Soon, Gromph would have either to move him up Sorcere's ranks or, if his ambition proved too great, kill him. "Master Nauzhror offers one reason among several," Gromph said, giving the Master of Sorcere a look of reserved approval. "Another is that I know my offices to be shielded from Yasraena's scrying. I cannot be as certain regarding the wards around the scrying chamber without first performing a thorough check. We do not have time for that. Still a third reason isthat I will need you both here, in my office, to further my deception."

"Deception?" asked Prath.

"Need?" Nauzhror asked.

Gromph regretted his word choice the moment it exited his mouth. Nauzhror's expression showed an ill-concealed eagerness at Gromph's declaration of "need." Even Prath looked mildly taken aback.

Gromph sealed the breach.

He stared coldly into Nauzhror's pudgy face and said, "My need is one of convenience, Nauzhror. Nothing more. Any Baenre mage will do. Perhaps another would be better suited than you. Do you wish to be dismissed?"

The multitude of possible meanings for which "dismissed" might be a euphemism hung in the air between them.

Nauzhror shook his head so rapidly that his paunch shook. "No, Archmage," he replied. "Not at all. I am honored to be of any small assistance in these weighty matters. I merely want to understand what it is you are planning."

"And you will," Gromph replied. "In time and only in part."

Gromph eyed Prath, whose expression showed no challenge whatever. Gromph was mildly disappointed.

"I am pleased to be of service too, Archmage," said the apprentice unnecessarily.

"I know," Gromph replied. Hours before, Prath had shaved off his own flesh to supply Gromph with a needed material component. He still bore a divot in his finger from the wound.

Prath was loyal, but Gromph had little love for loyalty. It wastoo fickle a sentiment, easily shattered, easily manipulated. Gromph demanded not loyalty but obedience, and he ensured it through fear of his power. He decided that he would have to keep a close eye on Prath going forward, though the apprentice would be useful over the next few hours.

"Well enough, then," Gromph said. "Let us first determine the nature of the challenge."

He concentrated on the crystal, and whorls of color began to swirl within the gray mist. Prath and Nauzhror watched intently. Both pulled their chairs closer to Gromph's desk.

"The lichdrow's phylactery must be within House Agrach Dyrr," Gromph said, speaking his thoughts and his hopes aloud. "Or at least it must be accessible through House Dyrr."

"A reasonable supposition, Archmage." Nauzhror scratched his cheek and said, "But even if the phylactery is in the House, will it not be too heavily warded for divinations to locate it?" Gromph replied, "It will."

Gromph pictured House Agrach Dyrr in his mindthe moat, the bridge, the wall of stalagmites and adamantine, and the adamantine keep within. He had been within House Agrach Dyrr many times in the past. He called upon those memories to focus his vision.

"Then how do you propose to find it?" Nauzhror asked.

Gromph smiled through his concentration and said, "I'm not going to find it." He let his underlings share a confused look before he added, "I'm going to find everything but it."

Confusion stayed written in Prath's expression, but Nauzhror's face showed dawning realization.

"Cunning, Archmage," Nauzhror said, and Gromph heard genuine admiration in his voice.

Gromph did not acknowledge the compliment but instead let his mind sink farther into the crystal, let his consciousness float on its many facets.

"What is he going to do?" Prath whispered to Nauzhror.

He need not have kept his voice to a whisper. Gromph could maintain concentration while holding a conversation or while burning in the Hells' fires.

"Excluding the possibilities," the Master of Sorcere answered. "Watch and learn, Prath Baenre." Prath seemed to want to ask another question but held his tongue.

The mists in the crystal parted, and House Agrach Dyrr took shape in the facets. Nauzhror and Prath leaned farther forward, put their elbows on Gromph's desk.

Gromph forced the crystal to change perspective and saw the House as though from the ceiling of Menzoberranzan's cavern.

House Agrach Dyrr was built in a series of concentric circles, with a domed temple of Lolth centermost. A wide moat in a deep chasm surrounded the complex. The chasm ended at the very edge of a high, worked wall of nine stalagmites, each as thick around as a giant's waist and as tallas a titan. Walls of adamantine stretched between the stalagmites. A second, lower adamantine wall ringed several inner structures.

Gromph moved the scrying eye downward, near the moat chasm, and saw that bodies floated face down in the water, burned, bloated, or cut down. Many were drow, some were orc and ogre, some were unrecognizable.

"Xorlarrin casualties," Nauzhror observed.

Gromph nodded agreement. "And perhaps a few Dyrr dead too," he said.

The moat was useful primarily as a way to channel an attacker's forces. Skilled mages could span it with a magical construction or fly over it, but it would be difficult to attack the walls in more than a few places at once without expending substantial magical resources. And even after crossing the chasm, an attacker would be faced with the foreboding outer wall of House Agrach Dyrr.

Atop that outer wall of stone and metal the Dyrr forces masseddrow soldiers, ogres, trolls, mages, a few of Yasraena's priestesses. They gazed down at the besieging Xorlarrin forces through narrow gaps in the stone parapets. To Gromph, they looked like insects crawling about their hive.

A single adamantine bridge, a narrow slab of metal without guardrails and wide enough for only two or three men abreast, spanned the moat. Gromph presumed the bridge was designed to be dropped into the chasm, if the need arose. At the bridge's end stood the massive adamantine and mithral doors that provided the only access through the stalagmite wall. A group of eight ogres lay in burned pieces in the shadow of the doors. The metal battering ram they had carried lay askew across the bridge. Gromph knew the doors would not show even a scratch from the ram. Like all drow noble manors, the doors, walls, bridge, moat, and the structure of House Agrach Dyrr itself would be wardedwith a series of protective spells and enchantments, all of them cast by the lichdrow and a long line of powerful Matron Mothers.

House Agrach Dyrr would stand for as long as the wards remained. Gromph knew that the wizards of House Xorlarrin, despite their deserved fame, would be hard pressed to dispel a ward put in place by the lichdrow. Until those wards were dispelled, Xorlarrin spells would harm the walls of House Agrach Dyrr about as well as a candle flame would harm a fire elemental.

"The siege will be long and bloody," Nauzhror said.

The Master of Sorcere and Prath leaned out over Gromph's desk so far that their heads almost touched Gromph's.

"Longer and bloodier still if the lichdrow returns," Gromph said, and the lesser mages shared a look. "How long do we have, Archmage?" asked Prath.

"I am uncertain" Gromph admitted. "But not as long as I would like."

Prath's brow wrinkled, and he sagged back into his chair.

Gromph returned his focus to the scrying and saw that the bulk of the Xorlarrin forces massed on the far side of the bridge, just out of easy crossbow and spellrange.

There, Gromph saw spider cavalry, drow infantry, a score or more of the robed Xorlarrin mages, a handful of priestesses, and a multitude of the soldiery of lesser races. The siege seemed to have quieted for the moment, as though House Xorlarrin was planning a new strategy.

Gromph moved the image over the stalagmite wall and drew in closer. Within the walls stood the squat, interconnected buildings that made up House Agrach Dyrr itself. The temple of Lolth dominated, a domed tabernacle set in the center of a complex that looked from above like the silhouette of a spider. "Let us see what we have," Gromph said and whispered the words to a spell that allowed him to see magical emanations, their strength and type. He could have simply activated the permanent dweomer on his person that allowed him to see such emanations, but he wanted his underlings to see the wards as well.

When he finished and the spell took effect, Nauzhror drew in a sharp breath.

"Lolth's eight legs," Prath swore, and Gromph forgave him the heretical oath.

Layer upon layer of protective wards sheathed the structure of the house, the bridge, and the moat. More even than Gromph had expected. Gromph's divination translated the wards as a network of glowing lines, a matrix of veins that ran along and within the stone of the fortress, pulsing with power. The magical energy flowing through the walls, floors, and ceilings of House Agrach Dyrr nearly matched that of Gromph's own chambers. The lichdrow and the Dyrr priestesses had been busy over the centuries.

Some of the wards glowed ochre and viridian, some a deep blue, and some glowed a hot crimson. Most of them were designed to prevent physical entry, to bolster the structural strength of the House, or to dampen or negate magical effects, but many were designed to prevent scrying within the walls. It was those that Gromph was most interested in, at least at the moment.

Interspersed among all of the various types of wards were a series of spell traps, killing spells, and alarms that would be triggered by the disruption of a ward.

"One step at a time," Gromph said, both to himself and his undermages.

He whispered a series of arcane words and modified his divination slightly so that it showed him only the glowing blue lines of the anti-scrying wards. They made a complex network that surrounded the fortress. Various sub-networks covered only certain buildings or rooms within buildings.

"It's as fine as a smallfish fisherman's net," Prath observed.

"True," said Nauzhror. "There are alarms, but I see no killing spell traps set amongst the scrying wards." "Nor do I," said Gromph and was pleased.

The spell traps set in the anti-scrying wards that surrounded his own offices, if triggered, would trap the soul of the would-be scryer or drive him mad. House Agrach Dyrr had not been as thorough.

Gromph took a long moment to study the structure of the wards, searching for a backdoor.

Unfortunately, he saw none. He settled in for a long assault.

He took a calming breath and said, "Let us begin."

The Scourged Legion was in full retreat, Nimor saw. Already it had entirely withdrawn from the fungus fields of the Donigarten, and only a token force held the tunnels to the east of the city. Within those tunnels, Shobalar spider cavalry prowled and infantry from House Barrison Del'Armgo and House Hunzrin massed.

Invisible once more, and also using the shadows and darkness as cover, Nimor avoided detection by the drow forces as he moved through their lines. He could see they were preparing for a counterattack against the tanarukks. He was tempted to kill a few as he passed, just out of spite, but decided against it. His business with the Menzoberranyr was finished.

The counterattack that the drow were so carefully planning likely would find no enemies. Before Narbondel climbed another hour, the Scourged Legion would have vanished into the Underdark and be scuttling its way back to the warrens under Hellgate Keep. The war-weary drow were unlikely to pursue, Nimor thought, especially with the duergar still battling at Tier Breche. Nimor found it ironic and amusing that Vhok had shown more effectiveness in retreat than he had in attack.

After flying over and through the drow lines, Nimor moved through a long series of mostly empty tunnels, encountering only an occasional stealthy drow scout. To judge from the marks in the stone, much of the combat between the Scourged Legion and the Menzoberranyr had occurred within those tunnels. The passage of many hobnailed boots had scored the floor; blood stained the stone here and there; severed body parts and spider carcasses dotted a few of the rooms; broken weapons, shields, and links of armor littered the floors; and burn marks from magical energies blackened walls.

Nimor saw no actual bodies until....

A winding, narrow, tertiary tunnel opened onto a large cavern in which lay the bloody corpses of forty or so duergar footmen. They looked as though they had formed against the far, dead-end wall and fought to the last. Broken weapons, dented armor, and cloven shields littered the cavern's floor. Blood slicked the floor, still tacky to the touch. The duergar had been hacked to bitsthe work of tanarukk axes and swords, not elegant drow blades.

"Well done, Kaanyr," Nimor said.

It seemed that Vhok, like Nimor, had decided to clean up his duergar association before retreating. It seemed that Vhok no more left ends untied than did Nimor.

Vhok had planned his escape well. He would flee the siege of Menzoberranzan with hardly a scratch, and if it mattered, scavengers would strip the cavern clean of duergar bodies within a tenday. Meat, dead or alive, never went unconsumed in the Underdark. No evidence of Kaanyr's betrayal of the duergar would be found by anyone but Nimor.

Nimor left the dead duergar behind and continued his invisible flight through the caverns. After a time, he began to encounter pockets of the withdrawing tanarukk forces. Squads of scaled and horned tanarukkscreatures with the savagery of orcs and the cunning of demonstrooped through the winding tunnels, weapons bare, bloodshot eyes intermittently checking behind them for pursuit. The ring of their boots, weapons, and armor resounded off the stone. Nimor moved over and through them like a specter, and only the breeze from his beating wings betrayed his passage.

For perhaps half an hour, Nimor trailed the retreating tanarukk forces through the tunnels. The demon-orcs moved with a purpose, probably toward a pre-determined mustering point, and Nimor hopped from one group to the next. He knew he would eventually happen upon Vhok.

Nimor heard the cambion before he saw himcoarse voices, the thump of dozens of boots, and the ring of heavy armor sounded from ahead, as did the occasional barked order by Kaanyr Vhok. Nimor beat his wings, sped forward, and spotted the cambion at the front of a large column of torch-bearing tanarukks. Vhok's close aid Rorgak, a tusked tanarukk broad-shouldered by even the standards of his own kind, stood at his side as they marched. Vhok had apparently retreated ahead of even the token force that he had left behind in Menzoberranzan.

Nimor smiled at the light that shined into Vhok's characterthe cambion was a loud bully but ever a quiet coward.

Still, he commanded an army and had his uses and might yet again. And cowards were easy to manipulate, if not to rely upon.

Nimor swooped in front of the column, alit on the tunnel floor, and allowed himself to become visible. Snarls and shouts of surprise ran through the tanarukk ranks, a low, dangerous rumble. The column surged to a halt. Vhok and Rorgak had their blades in their hands within a heartbeat.

Rorgak, greatsword in hand, lunged toward Nimor. Several of the tanarukks behind Vhok moved forward, blood in their eyes.

Vhok halted all of them with an upraised hand and a barked order.

"Hold," the cambion commanded, and they did. Even Rorgak.

Dozens of red eyes fixed on Nimor, hungry eyes.

Nimo r held up his hands to show that he bore only a smile, though he knew his wings and fangs must have appeared disconcerting. Vhok and his tanarukks had never before seen him in his half-dragon form. If it proved necessary, Nimor could quickly flee into the Shadow Fringe.

"Nimor," Vhok said and raised his pointed eyebrows. "I hardly recognized you. You look different than last we met." He sheathed his rune inscribed blade and offered Nimor a hard look. "You take a chance showing a lone drow face to my men and me."

The tanarukks near Vhok growled agreement. Rorgak continued to stare at Nimor, his blade still bare. Nimor flapped his wings and let shadowstuff leak from his nostrils. "As you can see, Kaanyr, I'm no more drow than you are human or they orcs."

At that, Vhok smiled and tipped his head to acknowledge the point. A few of the tanarukks chuckled. "What then?" the cambion asked. "Do you have yet another wondrous scheme to offer me?" He gestured at his battle scarred, retreating column. "You see the result of your last."

Vhok's men laughed at that, but it was forced laughter. No doubt their retreat shamed them.

Nimor kept his smile, though it was difficult.

"Perhaps," he said. "But I would speak of it privately. Your tent?"

Nimor knew that Vhok's command tent was a magical structure that formed and collapsed into a fist-sized ball of cloth upon command, so it was always a convenient bit of private space.

Vhok studied Nimor's face for a moment before he said, "Very well." To Rorgak, Vhok said, "Have the legion take a meal. I will not be long."

Vhok added something else in a low tone, speaking to his lieutenant in Infernal. Though Nimor could not understand the language, he understood the meaning. Vhok was instructing Rorgak to stand ready in case Nimor attacked Vhok in the tent.

Nimor merely stared at Rorgak as the big, red-scaled lieutenant nodded to Vhok then headed back into the ranks, barking out orders. The tanarukk column broke ranks for a meal, but many bloodshot gazes stayed on Nimor.

Vhok pulled the magical wad of cloth from his pack, picked as level a spot as he could find on the tunnel floor, and cast it to the ground, uttering a command word in a harsh, forgotten language.

The cloth unfolded itself time and again until finally it sprung up into the pennoned, red-and-gold command tent that Nimor knew well. Vhok gestured him in, his breastplate shining in the torchlight. He kept one hand on his blade.

Nimor furled his wings and entered. Within, he found the tent fully furnished with a fine wooden table, a luxurious divan, and a plush couch. The decanter of what Nimor assumed to be brandyone of Vhok's indulgencessat on the table with two empty glasses beside it.

"Furnished and stocked," Nimor said, turning a circle. "An excellent magic item, Kaanyr. You need only dancing girls. Speaking of which, where is your little winged sweetmeat?"

Vhok snorted derisively, but Nimor heard the affectation in it.

"Gone," Vhok said. "At least for now."

"Ah, fickle women," Nimor said, and decided not to press further. "May I sit?" he asked.

Vhok indicated the couch. Nimor crossed the tent and collapsed onto it.

"We did not have to lose this fight, Kaanyr," he said.

"Only one of us actually fought this fight," Vhok answered. "The other fled when things got difficult." Nimor struggled to retain his smile.

From outside the tent, near the flap, Nimor's keen hearing betrayed the quiet scrape of a boot on stoneRorgak, no doubt.

Only when he had full control of his tone of voice did Nimor say, "Lolth's return alone saved Menzoberranzan. That and an unfortunate choice in allies."

Vhok looked at him sharply.

"Not you," Nimor said. "The duergar."

Vhok's expression relaxed and he nodded. "True, that," he said.

To Nimor's surprise, the cambion poured two small chalices of the liquor from the decanter and offered one to Nimor.

Nimor took it, but he did not drink. Vhok remained standing.

"Our little princeling is dead," Nimor said, swirling the brandy in his goblet.

Vhok raised an eyebrow. "You?"

Nimor nodded. When Vhok sipped from his brandy, Nimor did the same. The liquor had traveled well. "Serves the little fool right," the cambion said. "Duergar are useless creatures."

"We are in agreement on that at least, Kaanyr," Nimor said. "The gray dwarves are a race of imbeciles." After a pause, he added, "I tracked you down to thank you for warning me of Lolth's return during my battle with the Archmage."

Vhok smiled around his goblet and said, "We were allies."

"Indeed. And as far as I'm concerned, we still are."

When Vhok did not reply, Nimor filled the silence by raising his glass in a toast and saying, "To grand undertakings."

Vhok raised his own glass half-heartedly and took a sip, eyeing Nimor over the rim. Afterward, he asked, "Is there something else, drowling? Or did you return only to express your gratitude and drink my brandy?"

Nimor decided to take Vhok's obnoxiousness as a jest and laughed it off.

He leaned forward to refill his chalice. As he poured, he said, "There will be other battles, Kaanyr. Perhaps not tomorrow or the next day, but someday. As I said, I still regard you as an ally. We were effective together and would have triumphed but for some unanticipated contingencies."

" 'Unanticipated contingencies'?" Vhok said with a snort. "That's what you call Lolth's return?"

Nimor shrugged, sat back, and took another gulp of brandy. "Call it what you will," he answered. "Do you deny that we made an effective team?"

Vhok considered it while he drank.

"I don't deny it," said the cambion, "but at this moment, I wish we'd never met and that I'd never seen that cursed drow hive."

Nimor nodded as though in understanding.

"But feelings change with time and distance," Vhok said. "And I am always open to a future opportunity. Provided it involves no duergar."

He laughed and Nimor joined him.

That was the answer Nimor had wanted to hear. Vhok could be a valuable ally in his quest to regain his status as Anointed Blade.

"I know how to find you," Nimor said.

Vhok set down his chalice and stared at Nimor, his smile hard.

"A threat?" Vhok asked.

Again the shuffle from outside the tent.

"An observation," Nimor replied. "We'll see each other again, Vhok. I have no doubt of it."

With that, Nimor activated his ring, slipped back into the Shadow Fringe, and left Menzoberranzan and its environs far behind.

Prath and Nauzhror watched, their eyes fixed on the image in the scrying crystal as Gromph began his attack on the wards of House Agrach Dyrr.

Gromph whispered the incantations to a few preparatory spells meant to augment his magical sight, then began.

He found it surprisingly easy to breach the outer network of wards that surrounded the fortress. Without disrupting the grid, without breaking any of the interconnected lines of power, he gently bent a few aside, created a conceptual opening in the layers of the net, and slipped his scrying eye through.

"Well done, Archmage," said Nauzhror, exhaling loudly. Prath only smiled.

A second layer of interconnected wards awaited himstiffer magic that he couldn't bend without triggering alarms. After a few moments of study, he opted for a different approach. But he would need to work quickly.

Conscious that he was sweating, Gromph cast two spells in such rapid succession that they might as well have been a single incantation. First, he sealed off a tiny section of the network. With his next breath, he rapidly dispelled the sealed section, opening a hole in the net, and sent the scrying eye through. He turned his perspective and held his breath as he released his first spell.

He watched in alarm as the entire network quivered, the interconnected flow of magic momentarily disrupted by the tiny hole he had fashioned.

He allowed himself to exhale slowly as the magic redirected itself around the hole and flowed anew. It had self-corrected. Gromph had succeeded. He was in.

"Daring," Nauzhror breathed.

Gromph moved the scrying eye to ground level, within the walls of House Agrach Dyrr. He took a moment to gather himself.

He knew that he would face only pockets of wards of varyingpower, sub-networks guarding this or that room or building. Most of them were unconnected to the larger grid of defenses.

He held onto the image while he took one hand from the crystal and drained the rest of his mushroom wine. Prath looked around the office, found the bottle on a nearby table. He retrieved it, returned, and refilled the chalice.

Gromph moved through and around each of the wards in turn. He could have dispelled them easily enough, but eventually that would have been discovered. For those he could not work through, he dispelled them, but after examining the building or room to his satisfaction, he replaced the ward with a similar one of his own casting.

"No tracks," Prath said.

"No tracks," Gromph agreed. Not yet, anyway.

Presumably, the magic shielding the lichdrow's phylactery was masked from his scrying eye. He would "see" it only when he bumped up against it. Accordingly, he could locate the phylactery only through the process of eliminationeventually, he would attempt to view an area that appeared open to scrying but which he would not, in fact, be able to scry. That would be where the phylactery was located.

Of course it was also possible that the phylactery was not in the stalagmite fortress at all. If so, Gromph would never locate it before the lichdrow reincorporated. The thought gave him pause. He put it out of his mind.

Methodically, he moved his scrying eye through each of the buildings of House Agrach Dyrr, one room at a time.

Nauzhror crowded his head closer over the image until a look from Gromph backed him off.

"Apologies, Archmage," Nauzhror muttered.

Gromph moved the image through dining halls, shrines, training rooms, bedrooms, laboratories, slave quarters, kitchens, amphitheatres, always seeking an invisible w all that would block his scrying eye. Troops, mages, and priestesses hurried through the halls. He could not hear them, though their expressions showed their agitation. He did not let his scrying eye linger long on any one person, lest they sense the divination.

Sweat from his forehead dripped onto the scrying crystal, blurring the image. Prath wiped it away with the sleeve of his piwafwi.

Gromph moved the image down another hallway, past another group of "Larikal," he said, recognizing the short-haired, uncomely Third Daughter of House Agrach Dyrr. She led a group of three male mages that Gromph recognized as graduates of Sorcere. He let the image linger on the group for a time. His spell showed that each of them bore a variety of magical items wands, rings, cloak pins, brooches, a staff in Larikal's hand.

"Geremis, Viis, and Araag," Nauzhror said, naming the wizards. "Sub par students, the lot of them." Gromph nodded and kept the scrying eye with them, keeping a mental count in his head; he moved the image off of each person before he reached twenty.

Larikal barked orders, but Gromph could not read their lips. The mages moved from room to room, hallway to hallway, casting spells and concentrating for a time. Gromph kept the scrying eye just above and behind them, each in turn. Though he could not hear the words uttered by the mages, he studied their gestures.

"What are they doing?" Prath asked.

"Casting divinations," Gromph said, a fraction of a heartbeat before Nauzhror said the same thing. "Powerful divinations," Nauzhror added, watching as Geremis finished his gesticulating and put a hand to his brow in concentration.

Realization struck Gromph. "They are looking for the phylactery," he said. "They must be."

All of them understood the implication Yasraena did not have the phylactery in her possession, and she too thought it was hidden somewhere in the House.

"A good sign," Nauzhror said.

Gromph nodded. He needed to hurry.

Seeing nothing else of import, he moved the scrying eye away from Larikal and her pet wizards and continued to move through the Agrach Dyrr complex. The process was time-consuming but he endured. He took the time to study each room with care, to cast additional divinations designed to root out the lichdrow's masking spells. Again and again he found nothing, nothing but a desperate drow House under siege and fighting for its life.

"Could the phylactery not be in the fortress?" Nauzhror finally asked, after hours of fruitless searching. Gromph didn't even bother to look up. "Silence," he commanded.

It had to be there. The lichdrow would not have allowed the phylactery to be far from him. The risk was too great.

Gromph continued the search. Hescoured each building thoroughly. In an isolated portion of the complex, he found the lichdrow's alchemical laboratory, library, and quarters. Shimmering gem golems carved in the shape of drow wizards stood rigid guard at every door.

"His laboratory," Prath said, eyeing the uncountable number of beakers, braziers, chemicals, and components. The room was disordered, as though someone had searched it roughly.

Thinking that the lichdrow's laboratory or quarters were a likelyhiding place for the phylactery, Gromph moved carefully through the lichdrow's wards and pored over the rooms. His frustration mounted when he found nothing. He went over it again, certain that somewhere was the telltale spoor of a masking spell. Again he found nothing.

He was exhausting his spells, exhausting his body. Between his spell duel with the lichdrow and his scrying of the fortress, he had spent fully half of his repertory. If he did not find the phylactery soon, he would have to rest, restudy his spellbooks, re-memorize the incantations that slipped from his fatigued mind one by one as he cast them. By then, Yasraena might have located the phylactery herself.

He sighed, mopped his forehead, and moved on. He had only the temple to Lolth and a few other structures remaining.

The temple first.

With minimal effort, he slipped past the elaborate wards that protected the temple of Lolth. No doubt Yasraena herself had cast them. Gromph thought her spellcraft paltry. Her wards were no match for him. The interior of the temple appeared much the same as the temples to Lolth maintained by other great Houses. A sacrificial altar, limnedin violet faerie fire and dotted with candles, sat in the apse at one end of the large, oval nave. Behind the altar towered the enormous sculpture of a spider, carved in lifelike detail from smooth basalt or perhaps jet.

Gromph knew it to be a guardian golem that would animate should anyone enter the temple without authorization.

High-backed, ornate stone benches lined the nave, facing the apse. Transparent gossamer curtains, made to look like spiderwebs, hung across the temple's faerie fire limned windows. Spider motifs appeared on everything, from the black altar cloth to the carved door jambs to the armrests of the benches.

Spiderwebs hung in every corner, the silvery threads and their small black creators regarded as blessings from Lolth.

A depiction of the Spider Queen in her hybrid forma beautiful drow female head and torso jutting from the bloated body of a giant black widowdecorated the underside of the temple's domed ceiling. Gromph wondered in passing whether Lolth appeared the same since her return, whether Lolth was the same. Almost the whole of the temple glowed in Gromph's sight, alight with enhancements and protections cast by Lolth's priestesses. Otherwise, the nave was empty.

Gromph blew out a frustrated sigh and prepared to move on, but something rankled him. He kept the scrying eye on the temple, looking, thinking.

"What is it, Archmage?" asked Prath, excitement in his voice. "Have you found it?"

"Silence," Nauzhror admonished the apprentice, though the Master's voice too betrayed a certain eagerness.

Gromph shook his head. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but. . . The spider golem!

His scrying eye did not show it as magical, yet it should have detected as suchstronglyunless the Agrach Dyrr priestesses had replaced the former golem with a normal statue. He deemed that unlikely.

An excited charge ran through him. He caused the scrying eye to draw nearer to the golem until its image filled the viewing crystal. He pored over it, inch by inch. Was it standing atop a secret panel in the floor? He cast another series of divinations, attempting to get even an inkling of whether or not the golem's magic was being masked.

At first he met with no success, but he persisted.

Finally, and for only an instant, he caught a flash of a faint red glow, like light squeezed from under a closed door. In that single instant, the golem flared in his sight, as befitted the latent magic that would animate it, but a still brighter glow flared from within the golem.

Nauzhror smiled, Prath gasped, and Gromph could not contain a chuckle.

"The golem," Nauzhror breathed.

The Master of Sorcere sounded as exhausted as Gromph, though he had done nothing other than observe.

"The golem is masked," Gromph said, nodding. He could not believe the lichdrow's temerity. "The golem is the phylactery?" Prath asked.

Gromph studied the construct for a while longer, confirming his suspicion with a series of spells. When he finished, he said, "No, but the phylactery is embedded within it."

Despite the evidence they had seen in the crystal, Prath and Nauzhror's faces showed disbelief. "Within the temple's guardian golem?" Prath said. "It is heresy."

"It is ingenious," Nauzhror countered.

Gromph agreed. The lichdrow, a male, had not only hidden his phylactery within House Dyrr's temple of Lolth, he had hidden it within the body of the temple's most powerful guardian. Gromph had located it only because he had known the spider sculpture to be a golem that should have glowed in his magic-detecting sight. That it had not had caused him to look more closely, and he still had almost missed it.

With a slight exertion of will, Gromph let the image in the scrying crystal fade. It moved to gray, then to black.

The archmage leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. His entire body ached, his temples pounded, and sweat soaked him. Unfortunately, he could not take time to recover. Getting through the anti-scrying wards and finding the phylactery had been the easier of his two tasks. Next he had to get himself physically into House Agrach Dyrr, into Lolth's temple, and destroy first the golem, then the phylactery.

"You should rest first, Archmage," Nauzhror said, reading his expression and knowing what would come next.

Gromph picked up his chalice and gulped another mouthful of wine. Enough. He did not want a light head when he assaulted House Agrach Dyrr.

"There is no time," he said. "Yasraena or her daughters may happen upon the phylactery. It will be easier to take out of the golem than it will be to take from Matron Mother Dyrr's hands."

Nauzhror could not help but nod agreement with that. He asked, "When, then?"

"Within the hour," Gromph replied and blew out a tired sigh.

Prath and Nauzhror digested that. Gromph closed his eyes and tried to still the pounding in his head. "The wards will be challenging," Prath said at last.

Nauzhror backhanded Prath across his mouth and snapped, "The archmage is aware of the challenges, apprentice."

The rebuke drew blood. Prath sank back in his chair, daubing his broken lip. His eyes burned, but he said nothing. Gromph was pleased to see the anger in Prath's face.

Gromph was aware of the challenges. He had just seen them; they all had.

An intricate network of wards, an altogether different layer of protections at least as complex as those he had just bypassed, would attempt to prevent his physical entrance into the fortress. The combined power of all of the mages of House Xorlarrin had so far been unable to breach those wards. Gromph was no mere Xorlarrin wizard, of course, but neither was the second layer of wards likely to prove as easy to bypass as the anti-scrying protections.

And triggering a ward while he was physically present put him at risk for injury and death, not merely detection. He remembered well the glaring red glow of the spell traps.

"Shall I accompany you, Archmage?" asked Nauzhror.

"No," Gromph replied, and massaged his temples. "I have other plans for you two. You, Nauzhror, are to stay within my offices and help me attempt to scry House Agrach Dyrr."

Nauzhror's fat face pinched in a question. "Help you scry? You did exactly that. What do you mean?" Gromph eyed Prath, who also looked confused.

"I mean," Gromph said, "that I will be in two places at once, Master Nauzhror."

Gromph let his words hang in the air without further explanation.

After only a moment, realization showed on Nauzhror's face.

"Prath will remain here in your guise," the Master of Sorcere said.

"Yes," Gromph affirmed. "And I in his, at least for a time. You will remain here too, Nauzhror, as though assisting me with my divinations."

Prath's expression showed understanding but also a question. "Why the ruse, Archmage?" he asked. "Yasraena and her mages cannot scry into your office. No one can."

"No," Gromph agreed, "but no doubt she is trying. She knows I must move against her House, and she will want to know when I am coming. We will mislead her. You and I will change forms to appear as the other. I will decrease the power of the wards around my office enough to allow Yasraena and her wizards to finally get through. When she does, she will see Gromph and Nauzhror attempting to scry House Agrach Dyrr, as though in preparation for an attack yet to come. The actual attack, however, will already have begun."

Nauzhror smiled.

"Very clever, Archmage," he said. "Might it not be easier, however, for me to take your form?"

Gromph had expected as much from Nauzhror. He eyed the master coolly and said, "I think not. And be careful, Nauzhror, lest I find your eagerness to sit in my chairunseemly."

Nauzhror's eyes found the floor. "I meant no presumption, Archmage," he explained. "I merely thought that I might be better able to mimic you than would an apprentice."

Gromph decided to let the matter rest. He had made his point to Nauzhror. "Prath will serve. Besides, having you, a Master of Sorcere, assisting me will further the deception."

Nauzhror accepted that with a submissive nod.

The archmage rose from his chair and said, "Time is short. Let us begin."

With that, Gromph removed his magical robes and the most well-known of his magical trinkets, including the ring worn only by the Archmage of Menzoberranzan. Nauzhror watched the ring slip from Gromph's finger with poorly disguised hunger.

Prath too rose and stripped himself of clothes and gear.

Presently, Gromph stood in the overlarge piwafwi, robes, and other accoutrements of an apprentice wizard, and Prath was in those of the Archmage of Menzoberranzan.

"They may fit you someday," he said to Prath.

The apprentice blanched. "Mine do not fit you," he said, embarrassed.

Gromph almost laughed, thinking of how he must look. He had not been so humbly attired in centuries.

He looked to Nauzhror, indicated Prath, and said, "Master Nauzhror."

Nauzhror nodded and spoke the words to a minor glamor. When he finished the incantation, an illusionary image of Prath took shape beside the actual apprentice, a magical portrait to serve as a frame of reference.

"An excellent likeness," Prath observed.

Gromph agreed. He opened a lower drawer of his desk and withdrew a scroll scribed with one of his most powerful spells. To Prath, he said, "Apprentice, should you err in the casting of this spell, it could have most unfortunate results."

The archmage would have cast the spell on Prath himself, but the magic could affect only the caster. Prath would have to do it himself.

Gromph continued, "After completing the incantation, look upon me and will yourself to take my form. The spell will do the rest."

Prath took the scroll in a hand that, to his credit, did not shake. He unfurled the parchment, studied the words, looked once more at Gromph and Nauzhror, and at their nods, began to cast.

Gromph listened with care to the apprentice's pronunciation of the words. To Gromph's satisfaction, Prath read with confidence. When Prath pronounced the last word, the scroll crumbled in his grasp and his body started to change.

"The sensation is not painful," Prath said, his voice already changing.

Prath's body thinned, his eyes sank deeper into their orbits, his hair grew longer, and his eyes changed from his own crimson to Gromph's blood red. Prath studied Gromph's features as the magic wrought its change, mentally shaping the transmutation. The magic of the spell filled in the necessary details and after only ten heartbeats, Gromph was looking upon his double.

"Well done," Gromph said to Prath.

The apprentice beamed.

"In my uppermost right inner pocket is a jade circlet," Gromph said to Prath, nodding at his robe. "Give it to me."

Gromph would need the component to cast the same spell on himself, not from a scroll, but from his memory.

Prath reached into the pocket of the archmage's robes, found the circlet, and handed it to Gromph. Gromph placed it on his head, and spoke the words and made the gestures that would allow him to assume any form he wished. When the magic took effect, a tingle ran through his flesh. His skin grew malleable and at the same time somehow thickened, like wax.

Using the illusionary image of Prath as a model, Gromph caused the magic to morph his body and features into those of Prath. Gromph felt no pain throughout, merely a strange sense of his flesh flowing. When he felt his body solidify, he knew the transformation was complete. The spell's magic would continue for several hours, during which Gromph could call upon the spell to transform him into virtually any shape he desired.

"It is done, Archmage," Nauzhror said, studying him. "The likeness is nearly exact."

Nauzhror dispelled the illusory image of Prath.

Gromph nodded. To Prath, he said, "The remainder of my components, apprentice."

Prath mumbled acquiescence, reached into the magical pockets of Gromph's robe, pulled esoterica out of the extra-dimensional spaces in the pockets of Gromph's robes, and set it all on the desktop. Among the items was the soul-stealing duergar axe. Shadows swirled along its head, suggesting faces, implying screams.

Gromph took the multitude of components and secreted them in his robes. He took the axe too, and hung it from his belt. It felt heavy at his waist, but he had no extradimensional pocket in Prath's robes in which to carry its weight.

He reached into another drawer in his desk and withdrew several potions, a scroll, and a milky-colored ocular on a silver chainlooking through the ocular would allow Gromph to see through certain types of illusions. He also removed several wands, all of them of bone, all of them capped with the petrified eye of a keen-eyed slave. Having cast so many of his own spells, he would need the ocular's and the wands' powers to supplement his repertory.

When he had everything he needed and had organized it to his satisfaction, he looked to Prath and gestured at his high-backed, bone chair.

"Take your seat, urArchmage," he said with a smile.

With obvious reluctance, Prath stepped around the desk and sank into Gromph's chair.

"No hesitation, and no reluctance," Gromph admonished him. "Yasraena will see it. Until I return, you are the Archmage of Menzoberranzan."

Prath looked Gromph in the face, set his jaw, and nodded.

Gromph then had only one thing more to do.

Though Nauzhror and Prath were both Baenre, Gromph knew better than to rely on familial ties to assure obedience. He needed to instill fear. Once he entered House Agrach Dyrr, he would be vulnerable to an easy betrayal. Nauzhror, and perhaps even Prath, would be tempted to do so unless Gromph made the cost of failure higher than the benefit of success. A simple lie would do.

"Other than you two, I have shared this plan via a sending with only Master Mizzrym," Gromph said. "In the event that I fail, I have ensured that Pharaun will alert Matron Mother Triel and investigate the causes of the failure very carefully."

Neither Nauzhror nor Prath uttered a word. Gromph's message was clearbetrayal would be punished, and harshly, even if Gromph was dead.

Nauzhror said, "Yasraena will never beaware of the deception."

"Good fortune, Archmage," Prath said.

"Maintain the illusion until I return or you know me to have failed," Gromph ordered. Both nodded.

Satisfied, Gromph spoke words of power and used them to weaken the more powerful wards that surrounded his office. Yasraena's wizards soon would find their way in.

Swallowing his pride, he bowed to his "superiors" as would any young apprentice.

"Masters," he said and backed out of the office.

The shapechanging spell would continue in effect for only about two hours. He would have to do everything that needed done within that time.

The real work was about to begin.

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