It wasn't that Jarlaxle, who always thought ahead of others, hadn't been expecting the visit, it was simply the ease with which K'yorl Odran entered his camp, slipped past his guards and walked right through the wall of his private chambers, that so unnerved him. He saw her ghostly outline enter and fought hard to compose himself as she became more substantial and more threatening.
"I had expected you would come many days ago," Jarlaxle said calmly.
"Is this the proper greeting for a matron mother?" K'yorl asked. Jarlaxle almost laughed, until he considered the female's stance. Too at ease, he decided, too ready to punish, even to kill. K'yorl did not understand the value of Bregan D'aerthe, apparently, and that left Jarlaxle, the master of bluff and the player of intrigue, at somewhat of a disadvantage.
He came up from his comfortable chair, stepped out from behind his desk, and gave a low bow, pulling his wide-brimmed and outrageously plumed hat from his head and sweeping it across the floor. "My greetings, K'yorl Odran, Matron Mother of House Oblodra, Third House of Menzoberranzan. Not often has my humble home been so graced..."
"Enough," K'yorl spat, and Jarlaxle came up and replaced the hat. Never taking his gaze from the female, never blinking, the mercenary went back to his chair and flopped down comfortably, putting both his boots atop his desk with a resounding slam.
It was then Jarlaxle felt the intrusion into his mind, a deeply unsettling probe into his thoughts. He quickly dismissed his many curses at the failure of conventional magic-usually his enchanted eye patch would have protected him from such a mental intrusion- and used his wits instead. He focused his gaze on K'yorl, pictured her with her clothes off, and filled his mind with thoughts so base that the matron mother, in the midst of serious business, lost all patience.
"I could have the skin flailed from your bones for such thoughts," K'yorl informed him.
"Such thoughts?" Jarlaxle said as though he had been wounded. "Surely you are not intruding on my mind, Matron K'yorl! Though I am but a male, such practices are surely frowned on. Lloth would not be pleased."
"Damn Lloth," K'yorl growled, and Jarlaxle was stunned that she had put it so clearly, so bluntly. Of course everyone knew that House Oblodra was not the most religious of drow houses, but the Oblodrans had always kept at least the pretense of piety.
K'yorl tapped her temple, her features stern. "If Lloth was worthy of my praise, then she would have recognized the truth of power," the matron mother explained. "It is the mind that separates us from our lessers, the mind that should determine order."
Jarlaxle offered no response. He had no desire to get into this argument with so dangerous and unpredictable a foe.
K'yorl did not press the point, but simply waved her hand as if throwing it all away. She was frustrated, Jarlaxle could see, and in this one frustration equated with danger.
"It is beyond the Spider Queen now," K'yorl said. "I am beyond Lloth. And it begins this day."
Jarlaxle allowed a look of surprise to cross his features.
"You expected it," K'yorl said accusingly.
That was true enough-Jarlaxle had wondered why the Oblodrans had waited this long with all the other houses so vulnerable-but he would not concede the point.
"Where in this does Bregan D'aerthe stand?" K'yorl demanded.
Jarlaxle got the feeling that any answer he gave would be moot, since K'yorl was probably going to tell him exactly where Bregan D'aerthe stood. "With the victors," he said cryptically and casually.
K'yorl smiled in salute to his cleverness. "I will be the victor," she assured him. "It will be over quickly, this very day, and with few drow dead."
Jarlaxle doubted that. House Oblodra had never shown any regard for life, be it drow or otherwise. The drow numbers within the third house were small mainly because the wild clan members killed as often as they bred. They were renowned for a game that they played, a challenge of the highest stakes called Khaless- ironically, the drow word for trust. A globe of darkness and magical silence would be hung in the air above the deepest point in the chasm called the Clawrift. The competing dark elves would then levitate into the globe and, there, unable to see or hear, it would become a challenge of simple and pure courage.
The first one to come out of the globe and back to secure footing was the loser, so the trick was to remain in the globe until the very last second of the levitation enchantment.
More often than not, both stubborn competitors would wait too long and would plunge to their demise.
Now K'yorl, merciless and ultimately wicked, was trying to assure Jarlaxle that the drow losses would be kept at a minimum. By whose standard? the mercenary wondered, and if the answer was K'yorl's, then likely half the city would be dead before the end of the day.
There was little Jarlaxle could do about that, he realized. He and Bregan D'aerthe were as dependent on magic as any other dark elf camps, and without it he couldn't even keep K'yorl out of his private chamber-even his private thoughts!
"This day," K'yorl said again, grimly. "And when it is done, I will call for you, and you will come."
Jarlaxle didn't nod, didn't answer at all. He didn't have to. He could feel the mental intrusion again, and knew that K'yorl understood him. He hated her, and hated what she was about to do, but Jarlaxle was ever pragmatic, and if things went as K'yorl predicted, then he would indeed go to her call.
She smiled again and faded away. Then, like a ghost, she simply walked through Jarlaxle's stone wall.
Jarlaxle rested back in his chair, his fingers tapping nervously together. He had never felt so vulnerable, or so caught in the middle of an uncontrollable situation. He could get word to Matron Baenre, of course, but to what gain? Even House Baenre, so vast and proud, could not stand against K'yorl when her magic worked and theirs did not. Likely, Matron Baenre would be dead soon, and all her family with her, and then where would the mercenary hide?
He would not hide, of course. He would go to K'yorl's call.
Jarlaxle understood why K'yorl had paid him the visit and why it was important to her, who seemed to have everything in her favor, to enlist him in her court. He and his band were the only drow in Menzoberranzan with any true ties outside the city, a crucial factor for anyone aspiring to the position of first matron mother-not that anyone other than Matron Baenre had aspired to that coveted position in close to a thousand years.
Jarlaxle's fingers continued tapping. Perhaps it was time for a change, he thought. He quickly dismissed that hopeful notion, for even if he was right, this change did not seem for the better. Apparently, though, K'yorl believed that the situation with conventional magic was a temporary thing, else she would not have been so interested in enlisting Bregan D'aerthe.
Jarlaxle had to believe, had to pray, that she was right, especially if her coup succeeded (and the mercenary had no reason to believe it would not). He would not survive long, he realized, if First Matron Mother K'yorl, a drow he hated above all others, could enter his thoughts at will.
She was too beautiful to be drow, seemed the perfection of drow features to any, male or female, who looked at her. It was this beauty alone that held in check the deadly lances and crossbows of the House Baenre guard and made Berg'inyon Baenre, after one glance at her, bid her enter the compound.
The magical fence wasn't working and there were no conventional gates in the perimeter of the Baenre household. Normally, the spiderweb of the fence would spiral out, opening a wide hole on command, but now Berg'inyon had to ask the drow to climb over.
She said not a word, but simply approached the fence. Spiral wide it did, one last gasp of magic before this creature, the avatar of the goddess who had created it.
Berg'inyon led the way, though he knew beyond doubt that this one needed no guidance. He understood that she was heading for the chapel-of course she would be heading for the chapel!-so he instructed some of his soldiers to find the matron mother.
Sos'Umptu met them at the door of the chapel, the place that was in her care. She protested for an instant, but just for an instant.
Berg'inyon had never seen his devoted sister so flustered, had never seen her jaw go slack for lack of strength. She fell away from them, to her knees.
The beautiful drow walked past her without a word. She turned sharply-Sos'Umptu gasped-and put her glare over Berg'inyon as he continued to follow.
"You are just a male," Sos'Umptu whispered in explanation. "Be gone from this holy place."
Berg'inyon was too stricken to reply, to even sort out how he felt at that moment. He never turned his back, just gave a series of ridiculous bows, and verily fell through the chapel's door, back out into the courtyard.
Both Bladen'Kerst and Quenthel were out there, but the rest of the group that had gathered in response to the whispered rumors had wisely been dispersed by the sisters.
"Go back to your post," Bladen'Kerst snarled at Berg'inyon. "Nothing has happened!" It wasn't so much a statement as a command.
"Nothing has happened," Berg'inyon echoed, and that became the order of the day, and a wise one, Berg'inyon immediately realized. This was Lloth herself, or some close minion. He knew this in his heart.
He knew it, and the soldiers would whisper it, but their enemies must not learn of this!
Berg'inyon scrambled across the courtyard, passed the word, the command that "nothing had happened." He took up a post that allowed him an overview of the chapel and was surprised to see that his ambitious sisters dared not enter, but rather paced about the main entrance nervously.
Sos'Umptu came out as well and joined their parade. No words were openly exchanged-Berg'inyon didn't even notice any flashes of the silent hand code-as Matron Baenre hustled across the courtyard. She passed by her daughters and scurried into the chapel, and the pacing outside began anew.
For Matron Baenre it was the answer to her prayers and the realization of her nightmares all at once. She knew immediately who and what it was that sat before her on the central dais. She knew, and she believed.
"If I am the offending person, then I offer myself..." she began humbly, falling to her knees as she spoke.
"Wael!" the avatar snapped at her, the drow word for fool, and Baenre hid her face in her hands with shame.
"Usstan'sargh wael!" the beautiful drow went on, calling Matron Baenre an arrogant fool. Baenre trembled at the verbal attack, thought for a moment that she had sunk lower than her worst fears, that her goddess had come personally for no better reason than to shame her to death. Images of her tortured body being dragged through the winding avenues of Menzoberranzan flashed in her mind, thoughts of herself as the epitome of a fallen drow leader.
Yet thoughts such as that were exactly what this creature who was more than a drow had just berated her about, Matron Baenre suddenly realized. She dared look up.
"Do not place so much importance on yourself," the avatar said calmly.
Matron Baenre allowed herself to breathe a sigh of relief. Then this wasn't about her, she understood. All of this, the failure of magic and prayer, was beyond her, beyond all the mortal realms.
"K'yorl has erred," the avatar went on, reminding Baenre that while these catastrophic events might be above her, their ramifications most certainly were not.
"She has dared to believe that she can win without your favor," Matron Baenre reasoned, and her surprise was total when the avatar scoffed at the notion.
"She could destroy you with a thought."
Matron Baenre shuddered and lowered her head once more.
"But she has erred on the side of caution," the avatar went on. "She delayed her attack, and now, when she decided that the advantage was indeed hers to hold, she has allowed a personal feud to delay her most important strike even longer."
"Then the powers have returned!" Baenre gasped. "You are returned."
"Wael!" the frustrated avatar screamed. "Did you think I would not return?" Matron Baenre fell flat to the floor and groveled with all her heart.
"The Time of Troubles will end," the avatar said a moment later, calm once more. "And you will know what you must do when all is as it should be."Baenre looked up just long enough to see the avatar's narrow-eyed glare full upon her. "Do you think I am so resourceless?" the beautiful drow asked.A horrified expression, purely sincere, crossed Baenre's face, and she began to numbly shake her head back and forth, denying she had ever lost faith.Again, she lay flat out, groveling, and stopped her prayers only when something hard hit the floor beside her head. She dared to look up, to find a lump of yellow stone, sulphur, lying beside her."You must fend off K'yorl for a short while," the avatar explained. "Go join the matron mothers and your eldest daughter and son in the meeting room. Stoke the flames and allow those I have enlisted to come through to your side. Together we will teach K'yorl the truth of power!"A bright smile erupted on Baenre's face with the realization that she was not out of Lloth's favor, that her goddess had called on her to play a crucial role in this crucial hour. The fact that Lloth had all but admitted she was still rather impotent did not matter. The Spider Queen would return, and Baenre would shine again in her devious eyes.By the time Matron Baenre mustered the courage to come off the floor, the beautiful drow had already exited the chapel. She crossed the compound without interference, walked through the fence as she had done at her arrival, and disappeared into the shadows of the city.As soon as she heard the awful rumor that House Oblodra's strange psionic powers had not been too adversely affected by whatever was happening to other magic, Ghenni'tiroth Tlabbar, the matron mother of Faen Tlabbar, Menzoberranzan's Fourth House, knew she was in dire trouble. K'yorl Odran hated the tall, slender Ghenni'tiroth above all others, for Ghenni'tiroth had made no secret of the fact that she believed Faen Tlabbar, and not Oblodra, should rank as Menzoberranzan's third house.With almost eight hundred drow soldiers, Faen Tlabbar's number nearly doubled that of House Oblodra, and only the little understood powers of K'yorl and her minions had kept Faen Tlabbar back.How much greater those powers loomed now, with all conventional magic rendered unpredictable at best!Throughout it all, Ghenni'tiroth remained in the house chapel, a relatively small room near the summit of her compound's central stalagmite mound. A single candle burned upon the altar, shedding minimal light by surface standards, but serving as a beacon to the dark elves whose eyes were more accustomed to blackness. A second source of illumination came from the room's west-facing window, for even from halfway across the city, the wild glow of Narbondel could be clearly seen.Ghenni'tiroth showed little concern for the pillar clock, other than the significance it now held as an indicator of their troubles. She was among the most fanatical of Lloth's priestesses, a drow female who had survived more than six centuries in unquestioning servitude to the Spider Queen. But she was in trouble now, and Lloth, for some reason she could not understand, would not come to her call.She reminded herself constantly to keep fast her faith as she knelt and huddled over a platinum platter, the famed Faen Tlabbar Communing Plate. The heart of the latest sacrifice, a not-so-insignificant drow male, sat atop it, an offering to the goddess who would not answer Ghenni'tiroth's desperate prayers.Ghenni'tiroth straightened suddenly as the heart rose from the bloody platter, came up several inches and hovered in midair."The sacrifice is not sufficient," came a voice behind her, a voice she had dreaded hearing since the advent of the Time of Troubles.She did not turn to face K'yorl Odran."There is war in the compound," Ghenni'tiroth stated more than asked.K'yorl scoffed at the notion. A wave of her hand sent the sacrificial organ flying across the room.Ghenni'tiroth spun about, eyes wide with outrage. She started to scream out the drow word for sacrilege, but stopped, the sound caught in her throat, as another heart floated in the air, from K'yorl toward her."The sacrifice was not sufficient," K'yorl said calmly. "Use this heart, the heart of Fini'they."Ghenni'tiroth slumped back at the mention of the obviously dead priestess, her second in the house. Ghenni'tiroth had taken in Fini'they as her own daughter when Fini'they's family, a lower-ranking and insignificant house, had been destroyed by a rival house. Insignificant indeed had been Fini'they's house- Ghenni'tiroth could not even remember its proper name-but Fini'they had not been so. She was a powerful priestess, and ultimately loyal, even loving, to her adopted mother.Ghenni'tiroth leaned back further, horrified, as her daughter's heart floated past and settled with a sickening wet sound on the platinum platter."Pray to Lloth," K'yorl ordered.Ghenni'tiroth did just that. Perhaps K'yorl had erred, she thought. Perhaps in death Fini'they would prove most helpful, would prove a suitable sacrifice to bring the Spider Queen to the aid of House Faen Tlabbar.After a long and uneventful moment, Ghenni'tiroth became aware of K'yorl's laughter."Perhaps we are in need of a greater sacrifice," the wicked matron mother of House Oblodra said slyly.It wasn't difficult for Ghenni'tiroth, the only figure in House Faen Tlabbar greater than Fini'they, to figure out who K'yorl was talking about.Secretly, barely moving her fingers, Ghenni'tiroth brought her deadly, poisoned dagger out of its sheath under the concealing folds of her spider-emblazoned robes. "Scrag-tooth," the dagger was called, and it had gotten a younger Ghenni'tiroth out of many situations much like this.Of course, on those occasions, magic had been predictable, reliable, and those opponents had not been as formidable as K'yorl. Even as Ghenni'tiroth locked gazes with the Oblodran, kept K'yorl distracted while she subtly shifted her hand, K'yorl read her thoughts and expected the attack.Ghenni'tiroth shouted a command word, and the dagger's magic functioned, sending the missile shooting out from under her robes directly at the heart of her adversary.The magic functioned! Ghenni'tiroth silently cheered. But her elation faded quickly when the blade passed right through the specter of K'yorl Odran to embed itself uselessly in the fabric of a tapestry adorning the room's opposite wall."I do so hope the poison does not ruin the pattern," K'yorl, standing far to the left of her image, remarked.Ghenni'tiroth shifted about and turned a steely-eyed gaze at the taunting creature."You cannot outfight me, you cannot outthink me," K'yorl said evenly. "You cannot even hide your thoughts from me. The war is ended before it ever began."Ghenni'tiroth wanted to scream out a denial, but found herself as silent as Fini'they, whose heart lay on the platter before her."How much killing need there be?" K'yorl asked, catching Ghenni'tiroth off her guard. The matron of Faen Tlabbar turned a suspicious, but ultimately curious, expression toward her adversary."My house is small," K'yorl remarked, and that was true enough, unless one counted the thousands of kobold slaves said to be running about the tunnels along the edges of the Clawrift, just below House Oblodra. "And I am in need of allies if I wish to depose that wretch Baenre and her bloated family."Ghenni'tiroth wasn't even conscious of the movement as her tongue came out and licked her thin lips. There was a flicker of hope."You cannot beat me," K'yorl said with all confidence. "Perhaps I will accept a surrender."That word didn't sit well with the proud leader of the third house."An alliance then, if that is what you must call it," K'yorl clarified, recognizing the look. "It is no secret that I am not on the best of terms with the Spider Queen."Ghenni'tiroth rocked back on her legs, considering the implications. If she helped K'yorl, who was not in Lloth's favor, overcome Baenre, then what would be the implications to her house if and when everything was sorted out?"All of this is Baenre's fault," K'yorl remarked, reading Ghenni'tiroth's every thought. "Baenre brought about the Spider Queen's abandonment," K'yorl scoffed. "She could not even hold a single prisoner, could not even conduct a proper high ritual."The words rang true, painfully true, to Ghenni'tiroth, who vastly preferred Matron Baenre to K'yorl Odran. She wanted to deny them, and yet, that surely meant her death and the death of her house, since K'yorl held so obvious an advantage."Perhaps I will accept a surren-" K'yorl chuckled wickedly and caught herself in midsentence. "Perhaps an alliance would benefit us both," she said instead.Ghenni'tiroth licked her lips again, not knowing where to turn. A glance at Fini'they's heart did much to convince her, though. "Perhaps it would," she said.K'yorl nodded and smiled again that devious and infamous grin that was known throughout Menzoberranzan as an indication that K'yorl was lying.Ghenni'tiroth returned the grin-until she remembered who it was she was dealing with, until she forced herself, through the temptation of the teasing bait that K'yorl had offered, to remember the reputation of this most wicked drow."Perhaps not," K'yorl said calmly, and Ghenni'tiroth was knocked backward suddenly by an unseen force, a physical though invisible manifestation of K'yorl's powerful will.The matron of Faen Tlabbar jerked and twisted, heard the crack of one of her ribs. She tried to call out against K'yorl, to cry out to Lloth in one final, desperate prayer, but found her words garbled as an invisible hand grasped tightly on her throat, cutting off her air.Ghenni'tiroth jerked again, violently, and again, and more cracking sounds came from her chest, from intense pressure within her torso. She rocked backward and would have fallen to the floor except that K'yorl's will held her slender form fast."I am sorry Fini'they was not enough to bring in your impotent Spider Queen," K'yorl taunted, brazenly blasphemous.Ghenni'tiroth's eyes bulged and seemed as if they would pop from their sockets. Her back arched weirdly, agonizingly, and gurgling sounds continued to stream from her throat. She tore at the flesh of her own neck, trying to grasp the unseen hand, but only drew lines of her own bright blood.Then there came a final crackle, a loud snapping, and Ghenni'tiroth resisted no more. The pressure was gone from her throat, for what good that did her. K'yorl's unseen hand grabbed her hair and yanked her head forward so that she looked down at the unusual bulge in her chest, beside her left breast.Ghenni'tiroth's eyes widened in horror as her robes parted and her skin erupted. A great gout of blood and gore poured from the wound, and Ghenni'tiroth fell limply, lying sidelong to the platinum plate.She watched the last beat of her own heart on that sacrificial platter."Perhaps Lloth will hear this call," K'yorl remarked, but Ghenni'tiroth could no longer understand the words.K'yorl went to the body and retrieved the potion bottle that Ghenni'tiroth carried, that all House Faen Tlabbar females carried. The mixture, a concoction that forced passionate servitude of drow males, was a potent one-or would be, if conventional magic returned. This bottle was likely the most potent, and K'yorl marked it well for a certain mercenary leader.K'yorl went to the wall and claimed Scrag-tooth as her own.To the victor...With a final look to the dead matron mother, K'yorl called on her psionic powers and became less than substantial, became a ghost that could walk through the walls and past the guards of the well-defended compound. Her smile was supreme, as was her confidence, but as Lloth's avatar had told Baenre, Odran had indeed erred. She had followed a personal vengeance, had struck out first against a lesser foe.Even as K'yorl drifted past the structures of House Faen Tlabbar, gloating over the death of her most hated enemy, Matrons Baenre and Mez'Barris Armgo, along with Triel and Gromph Baenre and the matron mothers of Menzoberranzan's fifth through eighth houses, were gathered in a private chamber at the back of the Qu'ellarz'orl, the raised plateau within the huge cavern that held some of the more important drow houses, including House Baenre. The eight of them huddled, each to a leg, about the spider-shaped brazier set upon the small room's single table. Each had brought their most valuable of flammable items, and Matron Baenre carried the lump of sulphur that the avatar had given her.None of them mentioned, but all of them knew, that this might be their only chance.