Normally it pleased Jarlaxle to be in the middle of such a conflict, to be the object of wooing tactics by both sides in a dispute. This time, though, Jarlaxle was uneasy with the position. He didn't like dealing with K'yorl Odran on any account, as friends, and especially not as enemies, and he was uneasy with House Baenre being so desperately involved in any struggle. Jarlaxle simply had too much invested with Matron Baenre. The wary mercenary leader usually didn't count on anything, but he had fully expected House Baenre to rule in Menzoberranzan until at least the end of his life, as it had ruled since the beginning of his life and for millennia before that.
It wasn't that Jarlaxle held any special feelings toward the city's first house. It was just that Baenre offered him an anchor point, a measure of permanence in the continually shifting power struggles of Menzoberranzan.
It would last forever, so he had thought, but after talking with K'yorl-how he hated that one!-Jarlaxle wasn't so sure.
K'yorl wanted to enlist him, most likely wanted Bregan D'aerthe to serve as her connection with the world beyond Menzoberranzan.
They could do that, and do it well, but Jarlaxle doubted that he, who always had a private agenda, could remain in K'yorl's favor for long. At some point, sooner or later, she would read the truth in his mind, and she would dispatch and replace him. That was the way of the drow.
The fiend was gargantuan, a gigantic, bipedal, doglike creature with four muscled arms, two of which ended in powerful pincers. How it entered Jarlaxle's private cave, along the sheer facing of the Clawrift, some hundred yards below and behind the compound of House Oblodra, none of the drow guards knew.
"Tanar'ri!" The warning word, the name of the greatest creatures of the Abyss, known in all the languages of the Realms, was passed in whispers and silent hand signals all through the complex, and the reaction to it was uniformly one of horror.
Pity the two drow guards who first encountered the towering, fifteen-foot monster. Loyal to Bregan D'aerthe, courageous in the belief that others would back their actions, they commanded the great beast to halt, and when it did not, the drow guards attacked.
Had their weapons held their previous enchantment, they might have hurt the beast somewhat. But magic had not returned to the Material Plane in any predictable or reliable manner. Thus, the tanar'ri, too, was deprived of its considerable spell repertoire, but the beast, four thousand pounds of muscle and physical hazards, hardly needed magical assistance.
The two drow were summarily dismembered, and the tanar'ri walked on, seeking Jarlaxle, as Errtu had bade it.
It found the mercenary leader, along with a score of his finest soldiers, around the first bend. Several drow leaped forward to the defense, but Jarlaxle, better understanding the power of this beast, held them at bay, was not so willing to throw away drow lives.
"Glabrezu," he said with all respect, recognizing the beast.
Glabrezu's canine maw curled up in a snarl, and its eyes narrowed as it scrutinized Jarlaxle, privately confirming that it had found the correct dark elf.
"Baenre cok diemrey nochtero," the tanar'ri said in a growl, and without waiting for a response, the gigantic beast lumbered about and waddled away, crouching low so that its head did not scrape the corridor's high ceiling.
Again, several brave, stupid drow moved as if to pursue, and again Jarlaxle, smiling now more widely than he had in many weeks, held them back. The tanar'ri had spoken in the language of the lower planes, a language that Jarlaxle understood perfectly, and it had spoken the words Jarlaxle had longed to hear.
The question was clear on the expressions of all the unnerved drow standing beside him. They did not understand the language and wanted desperately to know what the tanar'ri had said.
"Baenre cok diemrey nochtero," Jarlaxle explained to them. "House Baenre will prevail."
His wry smile, filled with hope, and the eager way he clenched his fists, told his soldiers that such a prediction was a good thing.
Zeerith Q'Xorlarrin, matron mother of the fifth house, understood the significance of the makeup of the gathering. Triel and Gromph Baenre attended primarily to fill the two vacant spots at the spider-shaped brazier. One of those places rightfully belonged to K'yorl, and since they were gathered to fend off K'yorl, as the avatar of the Spider Queen had bade them, she hadn't been invited.
The other vacant place, the one filled by Gromph, was normally reserved for Zeerith's closest drow friend, Matron Mother Ghenni'tiroth Tlabbar. None had said it aloud, but Zeerith understood the significance of the Baenre son's presence and of the matron mother's failure to appear.
K'yorl hated Ghenni'tiroth-that was no secret-and so Ghenni'tiroth had been left open as a sacrifice to delay the intrusions of House Oblodra. These other supposed allies and the goddess they all served had allowed Zeerith's best friend to perish.
That thought bothered the matron mother for a short while, until she came to realize that she was the third highest-ranking drow in the meeting chamber. If the summoning was successful, if K'yorl and House Oblodra were beaten back, then the hierarchy of the ruling houses would surely shift. Oblodra would fall, leaving vacant the third place, and since Faen Tlabbar was suddenly without a proper matron mother, it was feasible that House Xorlarrin could leap past it into that coveted spot.
Ghenni'tiroth had been given as a sacrifice. Zeerith Q'Xorlarrin smiled widely.
Such were the ways of the drow.
Into the brazier went Gromph's prized spider mask, a most magical item, the only one in all of Menzoberranzan that could get someone over the House Baenre web fence. The flames shot into the air, orange and angry green.
Mez'Barris nodded to Baenre, and the withered old matron mother tossed in the lump of sulphur that the avatar had given her.
If a hundred excited dwarves had pumped a huge bellows, their fire would not have been more furious. The flames shot straight up in a multicolored column that held the eight watchers fast with its unholy glory.
"What is this?" came a question from the front of the room, near the only door. "You dare hold a meeting of council without informing House Oblodra?"
Matron Baenre, at the head of the table and, thus, with her back directly to K'yorl, held up her hand to calm the others gathered about the spider brazier. Slowly she turned to face that most hated drow, and the two promptly locked vicious stares.
"The executioner does not invite her victim to the block," Baenre said evenly. "She takes her there, or lures her in."
Baenre's blunt words made more than a few of the gathered drow uneasy. If K'yorl had been handled more tactfully, some of them might have escaped with their lives.
Matron Baenre knew better, though. Their only hope, her only hope, was to trust the Spider Queen, to believe with all their hearts that the avatar had not steered them wrongly.
When K'yorl's first wave of mental energy rolled over Baenre, she, too, began to foster some doubts. She held her ground for some seconds, a remarkable display of will, but then K'yorl overwhelmed her, pushed her back against the table. Baenre felt her feet coming from the floor, felt as if a gigantic, unseen hand had reached out and grabbed her and was now edging her toward the flames.
"How much grander the call to Lloth will be," K'yorl shrieked happily, "when Matron Baenre is added to the flames!"
The others in the room, particularly the other five matron mothers, did not know how to react. Mez'Barris put her head down and quietly began muttering the words of a spell, praying that Lloth would hear her and grant her this.
Zeerith and the others watched the flames. The avatar had told them to do this, but why hadn't an ally, a tanar'ri or some other fiend, come through?In the sludge-filled Abyss, perched atop his mushroom throne, Errtu greatly enjoyed the chaotic scene. Even through the scrying device Lloth had prepared for him, the great tanar'ri could feel the fears of the gathered worshippers and could taste the bitter hatred on the lips of K'yorl Odran.He liked K'yorl, Errtu decided. Here was one of his own heart, purely and deliciously wicked, a murderess who killed for pleasure, a player of intrigue for no better reason than the fun of the game. The great tanar'ri wanted to watch K'yorl push her adversary into the pillar of flame.But Lloth's instructions had been explicit, and her bartered goods too tempting for the fiend to pass up. Amazingly, given the state of magic at the time, the gate was opening, and opening wide.Errtu had already sent one tanar'ri, a giant glabrezu, through a smaller gate to act as messenger, but that gate, brought about by the avatar herself, had been tenuous and open for only a fraction of a moment. Errtu had not believed the feat could be duplicated, not now.The notion of magical chaos gave the fiend a sudden inspiration. Perhaps the old rules of banishment no longer applied. Perhaps he himself might walk through this opening gate, onto the Material Plane once more. Then he would not need to serve as Lloth's lackey; then he might find the renegade Do'Urden on his own, and, after punishing the drow, he could return to the frozen Northland, where the precious Crenshinibon, the legendary Crystal Shard, lay buried!The gate was opened. Errtu stepped in.And was summarily rejected, pushed back into the Abyss, the place of his hundred-year banishment.Several fiends stalked by the great tanar'ri, sensing the opening, heading for the gate, but snarling Errtu, enraged by the defeat, held them back.Let this wicked drow, K'yorl, push Lloth's favored into the flames, the wretched Errtu decided. The gate would remain open with the sacrifice, might even open wider.Errtu did not like the banishment, did not like being lackey to any being. Let Lloth suffer; let Baenre be consumed, and only then would he do as the Spider Queen had asked!The only thing that saved Baenre from exactly that fate was the unexpected intervention of Methil, the illithid. The glabrezu had gone to Methil after visiting Jarlaxle, bringing the same prediction that House Baenre would prevail, and Methil, serving as ambassador of his people, made it a point to remain on the winning side.The illithid's psionic waves disrupted K'yorl's telepathic attack, and Matron Baenre slumped back to the side of the table.K'yorl's eyes went wide, surprised by the defeat-until Methil, who had been standing invisibly and secretly at Matron Baenre's side, came into view.Wait for this to end, K'yorl's thoughts screamed at the octopus-headed creature. See who wins and then decide where your alliances lie.Methil's assurance that he already knew the outcome did not disturb K'yorl half as much as the sight of the gigantic, batlike wing that suddenly extended from the pillar of flame: a tanar'ri-a true tanar'ri!Another glabrezu hopped out of the fire to land on the floor between Baenre and her adversary. K'yorl hit it with a psionic barrage, but she was no match for such a creature, and she knew it.She took note that the pillar was still dancing wildly, that another fiend was forming within the flames. Lloth was against her! she suddenly realized. All the Abyss seemed to be coming to Matron Baenre's call!K'yorl did the only thing she could, became insubstantial once more and fled across the city, back to her house.Fiends rushed through the open gate, a hundred of them, and still more. It went on for more than an hour, the minions of Errtu, and, thus, the minions of Lloth, coming to the call of the desperate matron mothers, swooping across the city in frenzied glee to surround House Oblodra.Smiles of satisfaction, even open cheers, were exchanged in the meeting room at the back of the Qu'ellarz'orl. The avatar had done as promised, and the future of Lloth's faithful seemed deliciously dark once more.Of the eight gathered, only Gromph wore a grin that was less than sincere. Not that he wanted House Oblodra to win, of course, but the male held no joy at the thought that things might soon be as they had always been, that he, for all his power and devotion to the ways of magic, would, above all else, be a mere male once more.He took some consolation, as the flames died away and the others began to exit, in noticing that several of the offered items, including his prized spider mask, had not been consumed by the magical flames. Gromph looked to the door, to the matron mothers and Triel, and they were so obsessed with the spectacle of the fiends that they took no notice of him at all.Quietly and without attracting attention, the covetous drow wizard replaced his precious item under the folds of his robe, then added to his collection some of the most prized artifacts of Menzoberranzan's greatest houses.Part 3RESOLUTIONHow I wanted to go to Catti-brie after I realized the dangers of her sword! How I wanted to stand by her and protect her! The item had possessed her, after all, and was imbued with a powerful and obviously sentient magic.Catti-brie wanted me by her side-who wouldn't want the supportive shoulder of a friend with such a struggle looming?-and yet she did not want me there, could not have me there, for she knew this battle was hers to fight alone.I had to respect her conclusion, and in those days when the Time of Troubles began to end and the magics of the world sorted themselves out once more, I came to learn that sometimes the most difficult battles are the ones we are forced not to fight.I came to learn then why mothers and fathers seldom have fingernails and often carry an expression of forlorn resignation. What agony it must be for a parent in Silverymoon to be told by her offspring, no longer a child, that he or she has decided to head out to the west, to Waterdeep, to sail for adventure along the Sword Coast. Everything within that parent wants to yell out "Stay!" Every instinct within that parent wants to hug the child close, to protect that child forever. And yet, ultimately, those instincts are wrong.In the heart, there is no sting greater than watching the struggles of one you love, knowing that only through such strife will that person grow and recognize the potential of his or her existence. Too many thieves in the Realms believe the formula for happiness lies in an unguarded treasure trove. Too many wizards seek to circumvent the years of study required for true power. They find a spell on a scroll or an enchanted item that is far beyond their understanding, yet they try it anyway, only to be consumed by the powerful magic. Too many priests in the Realms, and too many religious sects in general, ask of themselves and of their congregations only humble servitude.All of them are doomed to fail in the true test of happiness. There is one ingredient missing in stumbling upon an unguarded treasure hoard; there is one element absent when a minor wizard lays his hands on an arch-mage's staff; there is one item unaccounted for in humble, unquestioning, and unambitious servitude.A sense of accomplishment.It is the most important ingredient in any rational being's formula of happiness. It is the element that builds confidence and allows us to go on to other, greater tasks. It is the item that promotes a sense of self-worth, that allows any person to believe there is value in life itself, that gives a sense of purpose to bolster us as we face life's unanswerable questions.So it was with Catti-brie and her sword. This battle had found her, and she had determined to fight it. Had I followed my protective instincts, I would have refused to aid her in taking on this quest. My protective instincts told me to go to Bruenor, who would have surely ordered the sentient sword destroyed. By doing that, or taking any other course to prevent Catti-brie's battle, I would have, in effect, failed to trust in her, failed to respect her individual needs and her chosen destiny, and, thus, I would have stolen a bit of her freedom. That had been Wulfgar's single failure. In his fears for the woman he so dearly loved, the brave and proud barbarian had tried to smother her in his protective hug.I think he saw the truth of his error in the moments before his death. I think he remembered then the reasons he loved Catti-brie: her strength and independence. How ironic it is that our instincts often run exactly opposite from what we truly desire for those we love.In the situation I earlier named, the parents would have to let their child go to Waterdeep and the Sword Coast. And so it was with Catti-brie. She chose to take her sword, chose to explore its sentient side, perhaps at great personal risk. The decision was hers to make, and once she had made it, I had to respect it, had to respect her. I didn't see her much over the next couple of weeks, as she waged her private battle.But I thought of her and worried for her every waking moment, and even in my dreams.