"I have tricked tanar'ri to go to your city, Menzoberranzan, and soon I must force them back," the great Errtu roared. "And I cannot even go to this place and join in their havoc, or even to retrieve them!" The balor sat on his mushroom throne, watching the scrying device that showed him the city of drow. Earlier, he was receiving fleeting images only, as this magic, too, struggled against the effects of the strange time. The images had been coming more strongly lately, though, and now the mirrorlike surface was uncloudy, showing a clear scene of House Oblodra, wedged between the fingers of the Clawrift. Fiends great and minor stalked and swooped about the walled compound, banging strong fists against the stone, hurling threats and missiles of rock. The Oblodrans had buttoned the place up tightly, for even with their psionic powers, and the fact that the fiends' magic fared no better than anyone else's, the otherworldly beasts were simply too physically strong, their minds too warped by evil to be much affected by telepathic barrages.
And they were backed by a united army of drow, lying in wait behind the fiendish lines. Hundreds of crossbows and javelins were pointed House Oblodra's way. Scores of drow riding sticky-footed subterranean lizards stalked the walls and ceiling near the doomed house. Any Oblodran that showed her face would be hit by a barrage from every angle.
"Those same fiends are preventing the third house from being attacked," Errtu snarled at Lloth, reminding the Spider Queen whose army was in control here. "Your minions fear my minions, and rightly so!"
The beautiful drow, back in the Abyss once more, understood that Errtu's outburst was one part outrage and nine parts bluster. No tanar'ri ever had to be "tricked" into going to the Material Plane, where it might wreak havoc. That was their very nature, the most profound joy in their miserable existence.
"You ask much, Lady of Spiders," Errtu grumbled on.
"I give much in return," Lloth reminded him.
"We shall see."
Lloth's red-glowing eyes narrowed at the tanar'ri's continuing sarcasm. The payment she had offered Errtu, a gift that could potentially free the fiend from nearly a century more of banishment, was no small thing.
"The four glabrezu will be difficult to retrieve," Errtu went on, feigning exasperation, playing this out to the extreme. "They are always difficult!"
"No more so than a balor," Lloth said in blunt response. Errtu turned on her, his face a mask of hatred.
"The Time of Troubles nears its end," Lloth said calmly into that dangerous visage.
"It has been too long!" Errtu roared.
Lloth ignored the tone of the comment, understanding that Errtu had to act outraged and overburdened to prevent her from concluding that the tanar'ri owed her something more. "It has been longer to my eyes than to your own, fiend," the Spider Queen retorted.
Errtu muttered a curse under his smelly breath.
"But it nears its end," Lloth went on, quietly, calmly. Both she and Errtu looked to the image on the scrying surface just as a great winged tanar'ri soared up out of the Clawrift, clutching a small, wriggling creature in one of its great fists. The pitiful catch could not have been more than three feet tall and seemed less than that in the massive fiend's clutches. It wore a ragged vest that did not hide its rust-colored scales, a vest made even more ragged from the tearing of the tanar'ri's clawed grasp.
"A kobold," Errtu remarked.
"Known allies of House Oblodra," Lloth explained. "Thousands of the wretches run the tunnels along the chasm walls."
The flying tanar'ri gave a hoot, grasped the kobold with its other clawed hand as well, and ripped the squealing thing in half.
"One less ally of House Oblodra," Errtu whispered, and from the pleased look on the balor's face, Lloth understood Errtu's true feelings about this whole event. The great tanar'ri was living vicariously through his minions, was watching their destructive antics and feeding off the scene.
It crossed Lloth's mind to reconsider her offered gift. Why should she repay the fiend for doing something it so obviously wanted to do?
The Spider Queen, never a fool, shook the thoughts from her mind. She had nothing to lose in giving Errtu what she had promised. Her eyes were set on the conquest of Mithril Hall, on forcing Matron Baenre to extend her grasp so that the city of drow would be less secure, and more chaotic, more likely to see inter-house warfare. The renegade Do'Urden was nothing to her, though she surely wanted him dead.
Who better to do that than Errtu? Lloth wondered. Even if the renegade survived the coming war-and Lloth did not believe he would-Errtu could use her gift to force Drizzt to call him from his banishment, to allow him back to the Material Plane. Once there, the mighty balor's first goal would undoubtedly be to exact vengeance on the renegade. Drizzt had beaten Errtu once, but no one ever defeated a balor the second time around.
Lloth knew Errtu well enough to understand that Drizzt Do'Urden would be far luckier indeed if he died swiftly in the coming war.
She said no more about the payment for the fiend's aid, understanding that in giving it to Errtu, she was, in effect, giving herself a present. "When the Time of Troubles has passed, my priestesses will aid you in forcing the tanar'ri back to the Abyss," Lloth said.
Errtu did not hide his surprise well. He knew that Lloth had been planning some sort of campaign, and he assumed his monstrous minions would be sent along beside the drow army. Now that Lloth had clearly stated her intentions, though, the fiend recognized her reasoning. If a horde of tanar'ri marched beside the drow, all the Realms would rise against them, including goodly creatures of great power from the upper planes.
Also, both Lloth and Errtu knew well that the drow priestesses, powerful as they were, would not be able to control such a horde once the rampage of warfare had begun.
"All but one," Errtu corrected.
Lloth eyed him curiously.
"I will need an emissary to go to Drizzt Do'Urden," the fiend explained. "To tell the fool what I have, and what I require in exchange for it."
Lloth considered the words for a moment. She had to play this out carefully. She had to hold Errtu back, she knew, or risk complicating what should be a relatively straightforward conquest of the dwarven halls, but she could not let the fiend know her army's destination. If Errtu thought Lloth's minions would soon put Drizzt Do'Urden, the great fiend's only chance at getting back to the Material Plane anytime soon, in jeopardy, he would covertly oppose her.
"Not yet," the Spider Queen said. "Drizzt Do'Urden is out of the way, and there he shall stay until my city is back in order."
"Menzoberranzan is never in order," Errtu replied slyly.
"In relative order," Lloth corrected. "You will have your gift when I give it, and only then will you send your emissary."
"Lady of Spiders..." The balor growled threateningly.
"The Time of Troubles nears its end," Lloth snapped in Errtu's ugly face. "My powers return in full. Beware your threats, balor, else you shall find yourself in a more wretched place than this!"
Her purplish black robes flying furiously behind her, the Spider Queen spun about sharply and moved off, swiftly disappearing into the swirling mist. She smirked at the proper ending to the meeting. Diplomacy went only so far with chaotic fiends. After reaching a point, the time inevitably came for open threats.Errtu slumped back on his mushroom throne in the realization that Lloth was in full command of this situation. She held the link for his minions to the Material Plane, and she held the gift that might allow Errtu to end his banishment. On top of all of that, Errtu did not doubt the Spider Queen's claims that the pantheon was at last sorting itself out. And if the Time of Troubles was indeed a passing period, and Lloth's powers returned in full, she was far beyond the balor.Resignedly, Errtu looked back to the image on the scrying surface. Five more kobolds had been pulled up from the Clawrift. They huddled together in a tight group while a host of fiends circled about them, teasing them, tormenting them. The great balor could smell their fear, could taste this torturous kill as sweetly as if he were among those circling fiends.Errtu's mood brightened immediately.Belwar Dissengulp and a score of svirfnebli warriors sat on a ledge, overlooking a large chamber strewn with boulders and stalactites. Each held a rope-Belwar's was fastened through a loop on his belt and a mushroom-hide strap set over his pickaxe hand-that they might rappel quickly to the floor. For down below, the gnomish priests were at work, drawing runes of power on the floor with heated dyes and discussing the prior failures and the most effective ways they might combine their powers, both for the summoning, and in case the summoning, as had happened twice already, went bad.The gnomish priests had heard the call of their god, Segojan, had sensed the returning of priestly magic. For the svirfnebli, no act could greater signify the end of this strange period, no act could better assure them that all was right once more, than the summoning of an elemental earth giant. This was their sphere, their life, and their love. They were attuned to the rock, at one with the stone and dirt that surrounded their dwellings. To call an elemental forth, to share in its friendship, would satisfy the priests that their god was well. Anything less would not suffice.They had tried several times. The first summoning had brought forth nothing, not a trembling in the ground. The second, third, and fourth had raised tall stone pillars, but they had shown no signs of animation. Three of the stalagmite mounds in this very chamber were testaments to those failures.On the fifth try, an elemental had come forth, and the gnomish priests had rejoiced-until the monster turned on them in rage, killing a dozen gnomes before Belwar and his troupe had managed to break it apart. That failure was perhaps the very worst thing that could befall the gnomes, for they came to believe not only that Segojan was out of their reach, but that, perhaps, he was angry with them. They had tried again-and again the elemental came forth only to attack them.Belwar's defenses were better in place that sixth time, as they were now, and the stone-limbed monster was beaten back quickly, with no loss of svirfnebli.After that second disaster, Belwar had asked that the priests wait a while before trying again, but they had refused, desperate to find Segojan's favor, desperate to know that their god was with them. Belwar was not without influence, though, and he had gone to King Schnicktick and forced a compromise.Five days had passed since that sixth summoning, five days wherein the gnomish priests and all of Blingdenstone had prayed to Segojan, had begged him to no longer turn against them.Unknown to the svirfnebli, those five days had also seen the end of the Time of Troubles, the realignment and correction of the pantheon.Belwar watched now as the robed priests began their dance about the rune-emblazoned circle they had drawn on the ground. Each carried a stone, a small green gem previously enchanted. One by one, they placed a gem on the perimeter of the circle and crushed it with a huge mallet. When that was completed, the high priest walked into the circle, to its very center, placed his gem on the ground, and, crying out a word of completion, smashed it under his mithril mallet.For a moment there was only silence, then the ground began to tremble slightly. The high priest rushed out of the circle to join his huddling companions.The trembling increased, multiplied; a large crack ran about the circumference of the enchanted area, separating that circle from the rest of the chamber. Inside the circle, rock split apart, and split again, rolling and roiling into a malleable mud.Bubbles grew and blew apart with great popping sounds; the whole chamber warmed.A great head-a huge head!-poked up from the floor.On the ledge, Belwar and his cohorts groaned. Never had they seen so tremendous an elemental! Suddenly, they were all plotting escape routes rather than attack routes.The shoulders came forth from the floor, an arm on each side-an arm that could sweep the lot of the priests into oblivion with a single movement. Curious looks mixed with trepidation on the faces of priests and warriors alike. This creature was not like any elemental they had ever seen. Though its stone was smoother, with no cracks showing, it appeared more unfinished, less in the image of a bipedal creature. Yet, at the same time, it exuded an aura of sheer power and completion beyond anything the gnomes had ever known."The glory of Segojan are we witnessing!" one gnome near Belwar squealed in glee."Or the end of our people," Belwar added under his breath so that none would hear.By the girth of the head and shoulders, the gnomes expected the monster to rise twenty feet or more, but when the trembling stopped and all was quiet again, the creature barely topped ten feet-not as tall as many of the elementals even single svirfneblin priests had previously summoned. Still, the gnomes had no doubt that this was a greater achievement, that this creature was more powerful than anything they had ever brought forth. The priests had their suspicions-so did Belwar, who had lived a long time and had listened carefully to the legends that gave his people their identity and their strength."Entemoch!" the most honored burrow warden gasped from his perch, and the name, the name of the Prince of Earth Elementals, was echoed from gnome to gnome.Another name predictably followed, the name of Ogremoch, Entemoch's evil twin, and it was spoken sharply and with open fear. If this was Ogremoch and not Entemoch, then they all were doomed.The priests fell to their knees, trembling, paying homage, hoping beyond hope that this was indeed Entemoch, who had always been their friend.Belwar was the first down from the ledge, hitting the ground with a grunt and running off to stand before the summoned creature.It regarded him from on high, made no move, and offered no sign as to its intentions."Entemoch!" Belwar shouted. Behind him, the priests lifted their faces; some found the courage to stand and walk beside the brave burrow warden."Entemoch!" Belwar called again. "Answered our call, you have. Are we to take this as a sign that all is right with Segojan, that we are in his favor?"The creature brought its huge hand to the floor, palm up, before Belwar. The burrow warden looked to the high priest standing at his right.The priest nodded. "To trust in Segojan is our duty," he said, and he and Belwar stepped onto the hand together.Up they rose, coming to a stop right before the behemoth's face. And they relaxed and were glad, for they saw compassion there, and friendship. This was indeed Entemoch, they both knew in their hearts, and not Ogremoch, and Segojan was with them.The elemental prince lifted its hand above its head and melted back into the ground, leaving Belwar and the high priest in the center of the circle, perfectly reformed.Cheers resounded through the chamber; more than one rough-hewn svirfneblin face was streaked with tears. The priests patted themselves on the back, congratulated themselves and all the gnomes of Blingdenstone. They sang praises to King Schnicktick, whose guidance had led them to this pinnacle of svirfneblin achievement.For at least one of them, Belwar, the celebration was shortlived. Their god was back with them, it seemed, and their magic was returning, but what did that mean for the drow of Menzoberranzan? the most honored burrow warden wondered. Was the Spider Queen, too, returned? And the powers of the drow wizards as well?Before all of this had begun, the gnomes had come to believe, and not without reason, that the drow were planning for war. With the onset of this chaotic time, that war had not come, but that was reasonable, Belwar knew, since the drow were more dependent on magic than were the gnomes. If things were indeed aright once more, as the arrival of Entemoch seemed to indicate, then Blingdenstone might soon be threatened.All about the most honored burrow warden, gnomish priests and warriors danced and cried out for joy. How soon, he wondered, might those cries be screams of pain or shrieks of grief?