By all appearances, she was too fair a creature to be walking through the swirling sludge of this smoky layer of the Abyss. Too beautiful, her features were sculpted fine and delicate, her shining ebony skin giving her the appearance of animated artwork, an obsidian sculpture come to life.
The monstrous things around her, crawling slugs and bat-winged denizens, monitored her every move, watched her carefully, cautiously. Even the largest and strongest of them, gigantic fiends that could sack a fair-sized city, kept a safe distance, for appearances could be deceiving. While this fine-featured female seemed delicate, even frail by the standards of the gruesome monsters of the Abyss, she could easily destroy any one, any ten, any fifty, of the fiends now watching her.
They knew it, too, and her passage was unhindered. She was Lloth, the Spider Queen, goddess of the drow, the dark elves. She was chaos incarnate, an instrument of destruction, a monster beneath a delicate facade.
Lloth calmly strolled into a region of tall, thick mushrooms clustered on small islands amid the grimy swirl. She walked from island to island without concern, stepping so lightly about the slurping sludge that not even the bottoms of her delicate black slippers were soiled. She found many of this level's strongest inhabitants, even true tanar'ri fiends, sleeping amid those mushroom groves, and roused them rudely. Inevitably, the irritable creatures came awake snarling and promising eternal torture, and just as inevitably, they were much relieved when Lloth demanded of them only a single answer to a single question.
"Where is he?" she asked each time, and, though none of the monsters knew of the great fiend's exact location, their answers led Lloth on, guided her until at last she found the beast she was looking for, a huge bipedal tanar'ri with a canine maw, the horns of a bull, and tremendous, leathery wings folded behind its huge body. Looking quite bored, it sat in a chair it had carved from one of the mushrooms, its grotesque head resting on the upraised palm of one hand. Dirty, curved claws scratched rhythmically against its pallid cheek. In its other hand the beast held a many-tongued whip and, every so often, snapped it about, lashing at the side of the mushroom chair, where crouched the unfortunate lesser creature it had selected for torture during this point of eternity.
The smaller denizen yelped and whined pitifully, and that drew another stinging crack of the merciless fiend's whip.
The seated beast grunted suddenly, head coming up alert, red eyes peering intently into the smoky veil swirling all about the mushroom throne. Something was about, it knew, something powerful.
Lloth walked into view, not slowing in the least as she regarded this monster, the greatest of this area.
A guttural growl escaped the tanar'ri's lips, lips that curled into an evil smile, then turned down into a frown as it considered the pretty morsel walking into its lair. At first, the fiend thought Lloth a gift, a lost, wandering dark elf far from the Material Plane and her home. It didn't take the fiend long to recognize the truth of this one, though.
It sat up straight in its chair. Then, with incredible speed and fluidity for one its size, it brought itself to its full height, twelve feet, and towered over the intruder.
"Sit, Errtu," Lloth bade it, waving her hand impatiently. "I have not come to destroy you."
A second growl issued from the proud tanar'ri, but Errtu made no move for Lloth, understanding that she could easily do what she had just claimed she had not come here to do. Just to salvage a bit of his pride, Errtu remained standing.
"Sit!" Lloth said suddenly, fiercely, and Errtu, before he registered the movement, found himself back on the mushroom throne. Frustrated, he took up his whip and battered the sniveling beast that groveled at his side.
"Why are you here, drow?" Errtu grumbled, his deep voice breaking into higher, crackling whines, like fingernails on slate.
"You have heard the rumblings of the pantheon?" Lloth asked.
Errtu considered the question for a long moment. Of course he had heard that the gods of the Realms were quarreling, stepping over each other in intrigue-laden power grabs and using intelligent lesser creatures as pawns in their private games. In the Abyss, this meant that the denizens, even greater tanar'ri such as Errtu, were often caught up in unwanted political intrigue.
Which was exactly what Errtu figured, and feared, was happening here.
"A time of great strife is approaching," Lloth explained. "A time when the gods will pay for their foolishness."
Errtu chuckled, a grating, terrible sound. Lloth's red-glowing gaze fell over him scornfully.
"Why would such an event displease you, Lady of Chaos?" the fiend asked.
"This trouble will be beyond me," Lloth explained, deadly serious, "beyond us all. I will enjoy watching the fools of the pantheon jostled about, stripped of their false pride, some perhaps even slain, but any worshipped being who is not cautious will find herself caught in the trouble."
"Lloth was never known for caution," Errtu put in dryly.
"Lloth was never a fool," the Spider Queen quickly replied.
Errtu nodded but sat quietly for a moment on his mushroom throne, digesting it all. "What has this to do with me?" he asked finally, for tanar'ri were not worshipped, and, thus, Errtu did not draw his powers from the prayers of any faithful.
"Menzoberranzan," Lloth replied, naming the fabled city of drow, the largest base of her worshippers in all the Realms.
Errtu cocked his grotesque head.
"The city is in chaos already," Lloth explained.
"As you would have it," Errtu put in, and he snickered. "As you have arranged it."
Lloth didn't refute that. "But there is danger," the beautiful drow went on. "If I am caught in the troubles of the pantheon, the prayers of my priestesses will go unanswered."
"Am I expected to answer them?" Errtu asked incredulously.
"The faithful will need protection."
"I cannot go to Menzoberranzan!" Errtu roared suddenly, his outrage, the outrage of years of banishment, spilling over. Menzoberranzan was a city of Faerun's Underdark, the great labyrinth beneath the world's surface. But, though it was separated from the region of sunlight by miles of thick rock, it was still a place of the Material Plane. Years ago, Errtu had been on that plane, at the call of a minor wizard, and had stayed there in search of Crenshinibon, the Crystal Shard, a mighty artifact, relic of a past and greater age of sorcery. The great tanar'ri had been so close to the relic! He had entered the tower it had created in its image, and had worked with its possessor, a pitiful human who would have died soon enough, leaving the fiend to his coveted treasure. But then Errtu had met a dark elf, a renegade from Lloth's own flock, from Menzoberranzan, the city she now apparently wanted him to protect!
Drizzt Do'Urden had defeated Errtu and, to a tanar'ri, a defeat on the Material Plane meant a hundred years of banishment in the Abyss.
Now Errtu trembled visibly with rage, and Lloth took a step backward, preparing herself in case the beast attacked before she could explain her offer. "You cannot go," she agreed, "but your minions can. I will see that a gate is kept open, if all the priestesses of my domain must tend it continually."
Errtu's thunderous roar drowned out the words.
Lloth understood the source of that agony; a fiend's greatest pleasure was to walk loose on the Material Plane, to challenge the weak souls and weaker bodies of the various races. Lloth understood, but she did not sympathize. Evil Lloth never sympathized with any creature."I cannot deny you!" Errtu admitted, and his great, bulbous, bloodshot eyes narrowed wickedly.His statement was true enough. Lloth could enlist his aid simply by offering him his very existence in return. The Spider Queen was smarter than that, however. If she enslaved Errtu and was, indeed, as she expected, caught up in the coming storm, Errtu might escape her capture or, worse, find a way to strike back at her. Lloth was malicious and merciless in the extreme, but she was, above all else, intelligent. She had in her possession honey for this fly."This is no threat," she said honestly to the fiend. "This is an offer."Errtu did not interrupt, still, the bored and outraged fiend trembled on the edge of catastrophe."I have a gift, Errtu," she purred, "a gift that will allow you to end the banishment Drizzt Do'Urden has placed on you."The tanar'ri did not seem convinced. "No gift," he rumbled. "No magic can break the terms of banishment. Only he who banished me can end the indenture."Lloth nodded her agreement; not even a goddess had the power to go against that rule. "But that is exactly the point!" the Spider Queen exclaimed. "This gift will make Drizzt Do'Urden want you back on his plane of existence, back within his reach."Errtu did not seem convinced.In response, Lloth lifted one arm and clamped her fist tightly, and a signal, a burst of multicolored sparks and a rocking blast of thunder, shook the swirling sludge and momentarily stole the perpetual gray of the dismal level.Forlorn and beaten, head down-for it did not take one such as Lloth very long to sunder the pride-he walked from the fog. Errtu did not know him, but understood the significance of this gift.Lloth clamped her fist tight again, another explosive signal sounded, and her captive fell back into the veil of smoke.Errtu eyed the Spider Queen suspiciously. The tanar'ri was more than a little interested, of course, but he realized that most everyone who had ever trusted the diabolical Lloth had paid greatly for their foolishness. Still, this bait was too great for Errtu to resist. His canine maw turned up into a grotesque, wicked smile."Look upon Menzoberranzan," Lloth said, and she waved her arm before the thick stalk of a nearby mushroom. The plant's fibers became glassy, reflecting the smoke, and, a moment later, Lloth and the fiend saw the city of drow. "Your role in this will be small, I assure you," Lloth said, "but vital. Do not fail me, great Errtu!"It was as much a threat as a plea, the fiend knew."The gift?" he asked."When things are put aright."Again a suspicious look crossed Errtu's huge face."Drizzt Do'Urden is a pittance," Lloth said. "Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, his family, is no more, so he means nothing to me. Still, it would please me to watch great and evil Errtu pay back the renegade for all the inconveniences he has caused."Errtu was not stupid, far from it. What Lloth was saying made perfect sense, yet he could not ignore the fact that it was Lloth, the Spider Queen, the Lady of Chaos, who was making these tempting offers.Neither could he ignore the fact that her gift promised him relief from the interminable boredom. He could beat a thousand minor fiends a day, every day, torture them and send them crawling pitifully into the muck. But if he did that for a million days, it would not equal the pleasure of a single hour on the Material Plane, walking among the weak, tormenting those who did not deserve his vengeance.The great tanar'ri agreed.Part 1RUMBLES OF DISCORDI watched the preparations unfolding at Mithril Hall, preparations for war, for, though we, especially Catti-brie, had dealt House Baenre a stinging defeat back in Menzoberranzan, none of us doubted that the dark elves might come our way once more. Above all else, Matron Baenre was likely angry, and having spent my youth in Menzoberranzan, I knew it was not a good thing to make an enemy of the first matron mother.Still, I liked what I was seeing here in the dwarven stronghold. Most of all, I enjoyed the spectacle of Bruenor Battlehammer.Bruenor! My dearest friend. The dwarf 1 had fought beside since my days in Icewind Dale-days that seemed very long ago indeed! I had feared Bruenor's spirit forever broken when Wulfgar fell, that the fire that had guided this most stubborn of dwarves through seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his quest to reclaim his lost homeland had been forever doused. Not so, I learned in those days of preparation. Bruenor's physical scars were deeper now-his left eye was lost, and a bluish line ran diagonally across his face, from forehead to jawbone-but the flames of spirit had been rekindled, burning bright behind his good eye.Bruenor directed the preparations, from agreeing to the fortification designs being constructed in the lowest tunnels to sending out emissaries to the neighboring settlements in search of allies. He asked for no help in the decision-making, and needed none, for this was Bruenor, Eighth King of Mithril Hall, a veteran of so many adventures, a dwarf who had earned his title.Now his grief was gone; he was king again, to the joy of his friends and subjects. "Let the damned drow come!" Bruenor growled quite often, and always he nodded in my direction if I was about, as if to remind me that he meant no personal insult.In truth, that determined war cry from Bruenor Battlehammer was among the sweetest things I had ever heard.What was it, I wondered, that had brought the grieving dwarf from his despair? And it wasn't just Bruenor; all about me I saw an excitement, in the dwarves, in Catti-brie, even in Regis, the halfling known more for preparing for lunch and nap than for war. I felt it, too. That tingling anticipation, that camaraderie that had me and all the others patting each other on the back, offering praises for the simplest of additions to the common defense, and raising our voices together in cheer whenever good news was announced.What was it? It was more than shared fear, more than giving thanks for what we had while realizing that it might soon be stolen away. I didn't understand it then, in that time of frenzy, in that euphoria of frantic preparations. Now, looking back, it is an easy thing to recognize.It was hope.To any intelligent being, there is no emotion more important than hope. Individually or collectively, we must hope that the future will be better than the past, that our offspring, and theirs after them, will be a bit closer to an ideal society, whatever our perception of that might be. Certainly a warrior barbarian's hope for the future might differ from the ideal fostered in the imagination of a peaceful farmer. And a dwarf would not strive to live in a world that resembled an elf's ideal! But the hope itself is not so different. It is at those times when we feel we are contributing to that ultimate end, as it was in Mithril Hall when we believed the battle with Menzoberranzan would soon come-that we would defeat the dark elves and end, once and for all, the threat from the Underdark city-we feel true elation.Hope is the key. The future will be better than the past, or the present. Without this belief, there is only the self-indulgent, ultimately empty striving of the present, as in drow society, or simple despair, the time of life wasted in waiting for death.Bruenor had found a cause-we all had-and never have I been more alive than in those days of preparation in Mithril Hall.