It was rare that both Gromph and Triel Baenre would be in audience with their mother at the same time, rarer still that they would be joined by Berg'inyon and Sos'Umptu and the two other notable Baenre daughters, Bladen'Kerst and Quenthel. Six of the seven sat in comfortable chairs about the dais in the chapel. Not Bladen'Kerst, though. Ever seeming the caged animal, the most sadistic drow in the first house paced in circles, her brow furrowed and thin lips pursed. She was the second oldest daughter behind Triel and should have been out of the house by this time, perhaps as a matron in the Academy, or even more likely, as a matron mother of her own, lesser, house. Matron Baenre had not allowed that, however, fearing that her daughter's simple lack of civility, even by drow standards, would disgrace House Baenre.
Triel looked up and shook her head disdainfully at Bladen'Kerst every time she passed. She rarely gave Bladen'Kerst any thought. Like Vendes Baenre, her younger sister who had been killed by Drizzt Do'Urden during the escape, Bladen'Kerst was an instrument of her mother's torture and nothing more. She was a buffoon, a showpiece, and no real threat to anyone in House Baenre above the rank of common soldier.
Quenthel was quite a different matter, and in the long interludes between Bladen'Kerst's passing, Triel's stern and scrutinizing gaze never left that one.
And Quenthel returned the look with open hostility. She had risen to the rank of high priestess in record time and was reputed to be in Lloth's highest favor. Quenthel held no illusions about her tentative position; had it not been for that fact of favor, Triel would have obliterated her long ago. For Quenthel had made no secret of her ambitions, which included the stepping stone as matron mistress of Arach-Tinilith, a position Triel had no intention of abandoning.
"Sit down!" Matron Baenre snapped finally at the annoying Bladen'Kerst. One of Baenre's eyes was swollen shut and the side of her face still showed the welt where she had collided with the wall. She was not used to carrying such scars, nor were others used to seeing her that way. Normally a spell of healing would have cleaned up her face, but these were not normal times.
Bladen'Kerst stopped and stared hard at her mother, focusing on those wounds. They carried a double-edged signal. First, they showed that Baenre's powers were not as they should be, that the matron mother, that all of them, might be very vulnerable. Second, coupled with the scowl that perpetually clouded the worried matron mother's features, those wounds reflected anger.
Anger overweighed the perceived, and likely temporary, vulnerability, Bladen'Kerst wisely decided, and sat down in her appointed chair. Her hard boot, unusual for drow, but effective for kicking males, tapped hard and urgently on the floor.
No one paid her any attention, though. All of them followed Matron Baenre's predictable, dangerous gaze to Quenthel.
"Now is not the time for personal ambitions," Matron Baenre said calmly, seriously.
Quenthel's eyes widened as though she had been caught completely off guard.
"I warn you," Matron Baenre pressed, not the least deterred by the innocent expression.
"As do I!" Triel quickly and determinedly interjected. She wouldn't usually interrupt her mother, knew better than that, but she figured that this matter had to be put down once and for all, and that Baenre would appreciate the assistance. "You have relied on Lloth's favor to protect you these years. But Lloth is away from us now, for some reason that we do not understand. You are vulnerable, my sister, more vulnerable than any of us."
Quenthel came forward in her seat, even managed a smile. "Would you chance that Lloth will return to us, as we both know she shall?" the younger Baenre hissed. "And what might it be that drove the Spider Queen from us?" As she asked the last question her gaze fell over her mother, as daring as anyone had ever been in the face of Matron Baenre.
"Not what you assume!" Triel snapped. She had expected Quenthel to try to lay blame on Matron Baenre's lap. The removal of the matron mother could only benefit ambitious Quenthel and might indeed restore some prestige to the fast-falling house. In truth, even Triel had considered that course, but she had subsequently dismissed it, no longer believing that Matron Baenre's recent failures had anything to do with the strangeness going on about them. "Lloth has fled every house."
"This goes beyond Lloth," Gromph, the wizard whose magic came from no god or goddess, added pointedly.
"Enough," said Baenre, looking about alternately, her stare calming her children. "We cannot know what has brought about the events. What we must consider is how those events will affect our position."
"The city desires a pera'dene," Quenthel reasoned, the drow word for scapegoat. Her unblinking stare at Baenre told the matron mother who she had in mind.
"Fool!" Baenre snapped into the face of that glare. "Do you think they would stop with my heart?"
That blunt statement caught Quenthel off guard.
"For some of the lesser houses, there never has been and never will be a better opportunity to unseat this house," Matron Baenre went on, speaking to all of them. "If you think to unseat me, then do so, but know that it will do little to change the rebellion that is rising against us." She huffed and threw her arms up helplessly. "Indeed, you would only be aiding our enemies. I am your tie to Bregan D'aerthe, and know that our enemies have also courted Jarlaxle. And I am Baenre! Not Triel, and not Quenthel. Without me, you all would fall to chaos, fighting for control, each with your own factions within the house guard. Where will you be when K'yorl Oblodra enters the compound?"
It was a sobering thought. Matron Baenre had passed word to each of them that the Oblodrans had not lost their powers, and all the Baenres knew the hatred the third house held for them.
"Now is not the time for personal ambitions," Matron Baenre reiterated. "Now is the time for us to hold together and hold our position."
The nods about her were sincere, Baenre knew, though Quenthel was not nodding. "You should hope that Lloth does not come back to me before she returns to you," the ambitious sister said boldly, aiming the remark squarely at Triel.
Triel seemed unimpressed. "You should hope that Lloth comes back at all," she replied casually, "else I will tear off your head and have Gromph place it atop Narbondel, that your eyes may glow when the day is full."
Quenthel went to reply, but Gromph beat her to it.
"A pleasure, my dear sister," he said to Triel. There was no love lost between the two, but while Gromph was ambivalent toward Triel, he perfectly hated Quenthel and her dangerous ambitions. If House Baenre fell, so, too, would Gromph.
The implied alliance between the two elder Baenre children worked wonders in calming the upstart younger sister, and Quenthel said not another word the rest of the meeting.
"May we speak now of K'yorl, and the danger to us all?" Matron Baenre asked. When no dissenting voices came forth (and if there had been, Baenre likely would have run out of patience and had the speaker put to a slow death), the matron mother took up the issue of house defense. She explained that Jarlaxle and his band could still be trusted, but warned that the mercenary would be one to change sides if the battle was going badly for House Baenre. Triel assured them all that the Academy remained loyal, and Berg'inyon's report of the readiness of the house guard was beaming.
Despite the promising news and the well-earned reputation of the Baenre garrison, the conversation ultimately came down to the only apparent way to fully fend off K'yorl and her psionic family. Berg'inyon, who had taken part in the fight with the dwarf Gandalug, voiced it first.
"What of Methil?" he asked. "And the hundred illithids he represents? If they stand with us, the threat from House Oblodra seems minor."
The others nodded their agreement with the assessment, but Matron Baenre knew that such friends as mind flayers could not be counted on. "Methil remains at our side because he and his people know we are the keystone of security for his people. The illithids do not number one-hundredth the drow in Menzoberranzan. That is the extent of their loyalty. If Methil comes to believe that House Oblodra is the stronger, he will not stand beside us." Baenre gave an ironic, seemingly helpless chuckle.
"The other illithids might even side with K'yorl," she reasoned. "The wretch is akin to them with her powers of the mind. Perhaps they understand one another."
"Should we speak so bluntly?" Sos'Umptu asked. She looked about the dais, concerned, and the others understood that she feared Methil might even be among them, invisibly, hearing every word, reading their every thought.
"It does not matter," Matron Baenre replied casually. "Methil already knows my fears. One cannot hide from an illithid."
"Then what are we to do?" Triel asked.
"We are to muster our strength," Baenre replied determinedly. "We are to show no fear and no weakness. And we are not to do anything that might push Lloth further from us." She aimed that last remark at the rivals, Quenthel and Triel, particularly at Triel, who seemed more than ready to use this Lloth-absent time to be rid of her troublesome sister.
"We must show the illithids we remain the power in Menzoberranzan," Baenre went on. "If they know this, then they will side with us, not wanting House Baenre to be weakened by K'yorl's advances."
"I go to Sorcere," said Gromph, the archmage.
"And I to Arach-Tinilith," added a determined Triel.
"I make no illusions about friendship among my rivals," Gromph added. "But a few promises of repayment when issues sort themselves out will go far in finding allies."
"The students have been allowed no contact outside the school," Triel put in. "They know of the problems in general, of course, but they know nothing of the threat to House Baenre. In their ignorance, they remain loyal."
Matron Baenre nodded to both of them. "And you will meet with the lower houses that we have established," she said to Quenthel, a most important assignment. A large portion of House Baenre's power lay in the dozen minor houses that former Baenre nobles had come to head. So obviously a favorite of Lloth's, Quenthel was the perfect choice for such an assignment.
Her expression revealed that she had been won over-more by Triel and Gromph's threats, no doubt, than by the tidbit that had just been thrown her way.
The most important ingredient in squashing the rivalries, Baenre knew, was to allow both Triel and Quenthel to save face and feel important. Thus, this meeting had been a success and all the power of House Baenre would be coordinated into a single defensive force.
Baenre's smile remained a meager one, though. She knew what Methil could do, and suspected that K'yorl was not so much weaker. All of House Baenre would be ready, but without the Lloth-given clerical magic and Gromph's wizardly prowess, would that be enough?
Just off Bruenor's audience hall on the top level of Mithril Hall was a small room that the dwarf king had set aside for the artisans working on repairing the panther figurine. Inside was a small forge and delicate tools, along with dozens of beakers and flasks containing various ingredients and salves.Drizzt was eager indeed when he was summoned to that room. He'd gone there a dozen times a day, of course, but without invitation, and every time to find dwarves huddled over the still-broken artifact and shaking their bearded heads. A week had passed since the incident, and Guenhwyvar was so exhausted that she could no longer stand, could barely lift her head from her paws as she lay in front of the hearth in Drizzt's room.The waiting was the worst part.Now, though, Drizzt had been called into the room. He knew that an emissary had arrived that morning from Silverymoon; he could only hope that Alustriel had some positive solutions to offer.Bruenor was watching his approach through the open door of the audience chamber. The red-bearded dwarf nodded and poked his head to the side, and Drizzt cut the sharp corner, pushing open the door without bothering to knock.It was among the most curious of sights that Drizzt Do'Urden had ever witnessed. The broken-still broken!-figurine was on a small, round table. Regis stood beside it, working furiously with a mortar and pestle, mushing some blackish substance.Across the table from Drizzt stood a short, stout dwarf, Buster Bracer, the noted armorer, the one, in fact, who had forged Drizzt's own supple chain mail, back in Icewind Dale. Drizzt didn't dare greet the dwarf now, fearing to upset his obvious concentration. Buster stood with his feet wide apart. Every so often, he took an exaggerated breath, then held perfectly steady, for in his hands, wrapped in wetted cloth of the finest material, he held... eyeballs.Drizzt had no idea of what was going on until a voice, a familiar, bubbly voice, startled him from his shock."Greetings, O One of the Midnight Skin!" the disembodied wizard said happily."Harkle Harpell?" Drizzt asked."Could it be anyone else?" Regis remarked dryly.Drizzt conceded the point. "What is this about?" he asked, pointedly looking toward the halfling, for he knew that any answer from Harkle would likely shed more dimness on the blurry situation.Regis lifted the mixing bowl a bit. "A poultice from Silverymoon," he explained hopefully. "Harkle has overseen its mixing.""Overseen," the absent mage joked, "which means they held my eyes over the bowl!"Drizzt didn't manage a smile, not with the head of the all-important figurine still lying at the sculpted body's feet.Regis snickered, more in disdain than humor. "It should be ready," he explained. "But I wanted you to apply it.""Drow fingers are so dexterous!" Harkle piped in."Where are you?" Drizzt demanded, impatient and unnerved by the outrageous arrangement.Harkle blinked, those eyelids appearing from thin air. "In Nesme," he mage replied. "We will be passing north of the Trollmoors soon.""And then to Mithril Hall, where you will be reunited with your eyes," Drizzt said."I am looking forward to it!" Harkle roared, but again he laughed alone."He keeps that up and I'm throwin' the damned eyes into me forge," Buster Bracer growled.Regis placed the bowl on the table and retrieved a tiny metal tool. "You'll not need much of the poultice," the halfling said as he handed the delicate instrument to Drizzt. "And Harkle has warned us to try to keep the mixture on the outside of the joined pieces.""It is only a glue," the mage's voice added. "The magic of the figurine will be the force that truly makes the item whole. The poultice will have to be scraped away in a few day's time. If it works as planned, the figurine will be..." He paused, searching for the word. "Will be healed," he finished."If it works," Drizzt echoed. He took a moment to feel the delicate instrument in his hands, making sure that the burns he had received when the figurine's magic had gone awry were healed, making sure that he could feel the item perfectly."It will work," Regis assured.Drizzt took a deep, steadying breath and picked up the panther head. He stared into the sculpted eyes, so much like Guenhwyvar's own knowing orbs. With all the care of a parent tending its child, Drizzt placed the head against the body and began the painstaking task of spreading the gluelike poultice about its perimeter.More than two hours passed before Drizzt and Regis exited the room, moving into the audience hall where Bruenor was still meeting with Lady Alustriel's emissary and several other dwarves.Bruenor did not appear happy, but Drizzt noted he seemed more at ease than he had since the onset of this strange time."It ain't a trick o' the drow," the dwarf king said as soon as Drizzt and Regis approached. "Or the damned drow are more powerful than anyone ever thought! It's all the world, so says Alustriel.""Lady Alustriel," corrected the emissary, a very tidy-looking dwarf dressed in flowing white robes and with a short and neatly trimmed beard."My greetings, Fredegar," Drizzt said, recognizing Fredegar Rockcrusher, better known as Fret, Lady Alustriel's favored bard and advisor. "So at last you have found the opportunity to see the wonders of Mithril Hall.""Would that the times were better," Fret answered glumly."Pray tell me, how fares Catti-brie?""She is well," Drizzt answered. He smiled as he thought of the young woman, who had returned to Settlestone to convey some information from Bruenor."It ain't a trick o' the drow," Bruenor said again, more emphatically, making it clear that he didn't consider this the proper time and place for such light and meaningless conversation.Drizzt nodded his agreement-he had been assuring Bruenor that his people were not involved all along. "Whatever has happened, it has rendered Regis's ruby useless," the drow said. He reached over and lifted the pendant from the halfling's chest. "Now it is but a plain, though undeniably beautiful, stone. And the unknown force has affected Guenhwyvar, and reached all the way to the Harpells. No magic of the drow is this powerful, else they would have long ago conquered the surface world.""Something new?" Bruenor asked."The effects have been felt for several weeks now," Fret interjected. "Though only in the last couple of weeks has magic become so totally unpredictable and dangerous."Bruenor, never one to care much for magic, snorted loudly."It's a good thing, then!" he decided. "The damned drow're more needin' magic than are me own folk, or the men o' Settlestone! Let all the magic drain away, I'm sayin', and then let the drow come on and play!"Thibbledorf Pwent nearly jumped out of his boots at that thought. He leaped over to stand before Bruenor and Fret, and slapped one of his dirty, smelly hands across the tidy dwarf's back. Few things could calm an excited battlerager, but Fret's horrified, then outraged, look did just that, surprising Pwent completely."What?" the battlerager demanded."If you ever touch me again, I will crush your skull," Fret, who wasn't half the size of powerful Pwent, promised in an even tone, and for some inexplicable reason, Pwent believed him and backed off a step.Drizzt, who knew tidy Fret quite well from his many visits to Silverymoon, understood that Fret couldn't stand ten seconds in a fight against Pwent-unless the confrontation centered around dirt. In that instance, with Pwent messing up Fret's meticulous grooming, Drizzt would put all of his money on Fret, as sure a bet as the drow would ever know.It wasn't an issue, though, for Pwent, boisterous as he was, would never do anything against Bruenor, and Bruenor obviously wanted no trouble with an emissary, particularly a dwarven emissary from friendly Silverymoon. Indeed, all in the room had a good laugh at the confrontation, and all seemed more relaxed at the realization that these strange events were not connected to the mysterious dark elves.All except for Drizzt Do'Urden. Drizzt would not relax until the figurine was repaired, its magic restored, and poor Guenhwyvar could return to her home on the Astral Plane.