Quenthel Baenre sat facing a cubby of the small chamber's wall, staring down into a pool of calm water. She squinted as the pool, a scrying pool, brightened, as the dawn broke on the outside world, not so far to the east of Fourthpeak.
Quenthel held her breath, though she wanted to cry out in despair.
Across the small chamber, Matron Baenre was similarly divining. She had used her spells to create a rough map of the area, and then to enchant a single tiny feather. Chanting again, Baenre tossed the feather into the air above the spread parchment and blew softly. "Drizzt Do'Urden," she whispered in that breath, and she puffed again as the feather flopped and flitted down to the map. A wide, evil grin spread across Baenre's face when the feather, the magical pointer, touched down, its tip indicating a group of tunnels not far away.
It was true, Baenre knew then. Drizzt Do'Urden was indeed in the tunnels outside Mithril Hall.
"We leave," the matron mother said suddenly, startling all in the quiet chamber.
Quenthel looked back nervously over her shoulder, afraid that her mother had somehow seen what was in her scrying pool. The Baenre daughter found that she couldn't see across the room, though, for the view was blocked by a scowling Bladen'Kerst, glaring down at her, and past her, at the approaching spectacle.
"Where are we to go?" Zeerith, near the middle of the room, asked aloud, and from her tone, it was obvious she was hoping Matron Baenre's scrying had found a break in the apparent stalemate.
Matron Baenre considered that tone and the sour expression on the other matron mother's face. She wasn't sure whether Zeerith, and Auro'pol, who was similarly scowling, would have preferred to hear that the way was clear into Mithril Hall, or that the attack had been called off. Looking at the two of them, among the very highest-ranking commanders of the drow army, Baenre couldn't tell whether they preferred victory or retreat.
That obvious reminder of how tentative her alliance was angered Baenre. She would have liked to dismiss both of them, or, better, to have them executed then and there. But Baenre could not, she realized. The morale of her army would never survive that. Besides, she wanted them, or at least one of them, to witness her glory, to see Drizzt Do'Urden given to Lloth.
"You shall go to the lower door, to coordinate and strengthen the attack," Baenre said sharply to Zeerith, deciding that the two of them standing together were becoming too dangerous. "And Auro'pol shall go with me."
Auro'pol didn't dare ask the obvious question, but Baenre saw it clearly anyway from her expression.
"We have business in the outer tunnels," was all Matron Baenre would offer.
Berg'inyon will soon see the dawn, Quenthel's fingers motioned to her sister.
Bladen'Kerst, always angry, but now boiling with rage, turned away from Quenthel and the unwanted images in the scrying pool and looked back to her mother.
Before she could speak, though, a telepathic intrusion came into her mind, and into Quenthel's. Do not speak ill of other battles, Methil imparted to them both. Already, Zeerith and Auro'pol consider desertion.
Bladen'Kerst considered the message and the implications and wisely held her information.
The command group split apart, then, with Zeerith and a contingent of the elite soldiers going east, toward Mithril Hall, and Matron Baenre leading Quenthel, Bladen'Kerst, Methil, half a dozen skilled Baenre female warriors, and the chained Gandalug off to the south, in the direction of the spot indicated by her divining feather.
On another plane, the gray mists and sludge and terrible stench of the Abyss, Errtu watched the proceedings in the glassy mirror Lloth had created on the side of the mushroom opposite his throne.
The great balor was not pleased. Matron Baenre was hunting Drizzt Do'Urden, Errtu knew, and he knew, too, that Baenre would likely find the renegade and easily destroy him.
A thousand curses erupted from the tanar'ri's doglike maw, all aimed at Lloth, who had promised him freedom-freedom that only a living Drizzt Do'Urden could bestow.
To make matters even worse, a few moments later, Matron Baenre was casting yet another spell, opening a planar gate to the Abyss, calling forth a mighty glabrezu to help in her hunting. In his twisted, always suspicious mind, Errtu came to believe that this summoning was enacted only to torment him, to take one of his own kind and use the beast to facilitate the end of the pact. That was the way with tanar'ri, and with all the wretches of the Abyss, Lloth included. These creatures were without trust for others, since they, themselves, could not be trusted by any but a fool. And they were an ultimately selfish lot, every one. In Errtu's eyes, every action revolved around him, because nothing else mattered, and thus, Baenre summoning a glabrezu now was not coincidence, but a dagger jabbed by Lloth into Errtu's black heart.
Errtu was the first to the opening gate. Even if he was not bound to the Abyss by banishment, he could not have gone through, because Baenre, so skilled in this type of summoning, was careful to word the enchantment for a specific tanar'ri only. But Errtu was waiting when the glabrezu appeared through the swirling mists, heading for the opened, flaming portal.
The balor leaped out and lashed out with his whip, catching the glabrezu by the arm. No minor fiend, the glabrezu moved to strike back, but stopped, seeing that Errtu did not mean to continue the attack.
"It is a deception!" Errtu roared.
The glabrezu, its twelve-foot frame hunched low, great pincers nipping anxiously at the air, paused to listen.
"I was to come forth on the Material Plane," Errtu went on.
"You are banished," the glabrezu said matter-of-factly.
"Lloth promised an end!" Errtu retorted, and the glabrezu crouched lower, as if expecting the volatile fiend to leap upon him.
But Errtu calmed quickly. "An end, that I might return, and bring forth behind me an army of tanar'ri." Again Errtu paused. He was improvising now, but a plan was beginning to form in his wicked mind.
Baenre's call came again, and it took all the glabrezu's considerable willpower to keep it from leaping through the flaring portal.
"She will allow you only one kill," Errtu said quickly, seeing the glabrezu's hesitance.
"One is better than none," the glabrezu answered.
"Even if that one prevents my freedom on the Material Plane?" Errtu asked. "Even if it prevents me from going forth, and bringing you forth as my general, that we might wreak carnage on the weakling races?"
Baenre called yet again, and this time it was not so difficult for the glabrezu to ignore her.
Errtu held up his great hands, indicating that the glabrezu should wait here a few moments longer, then the balor sped off, into the swirl, to retrieve something a lesser fiend had given him not so long ago, a remnant of the Time of Troubles. He returned shortly with a metal coffer and gently opened it, producing a shining black sapphire. As soon as Errtu held it up, the flames of the magical portal diminished, and almost went out altogether. Errtu was quick to put the thing back in its case.
"When the time is right, reveal this," the balor instructed, "my general."
He tossed the coffer to the glabrezu, unsure, as was the other fiend, of how this would all play out. Errtu's great shoulders ruffled in a shrug then, for there was nothing else he could do. He could prevent this fiend from going to Baenre's aid, but to what end? Baenre hardly needed a glabrezu to deal with Drizzt Do'Urden, a mere warrior.
The call from the Material Plane came yet again, and this time the glabrezu answered, stepping through the portal to join Matron Baenre's hunting party.
Errtu watched in frustration as the portal closed, another gate lost to the Material Plane, another gate that he could not pass through. Now the balor had done all he could, though he had no way of knowing if it would be enough, and he had so much riding on the outcome. He went back to his mushroom throne then, to watch and wait.
Bruenor remembered. In the quiet ways of the tunnels, no enemies to be seen, the eighth king of Mithril Hall paused and reflected. Likely the dawn was soon to come on the outside, another crisp, cold day. But would it be the last day of Clan Battlehammer?
Bruenor looked to his four friends as they took a quick meal and a short rest. Not one of them was a dwarf, not one.
And yet, Bruenor Battlehammer could not name any other friends above these four: Drizzt, Catti-brie, Regis, and even Guenhwyvar. For the first time, that truth struck the dwarf king as curious. Dwarves, though not xenophobic, usually stayed to their own kind. Witness General Dagna, who, if given his way, would kick Drizzt out of Mithril Hall and would take Taulmaril away from Catti-brie, to hang the bow once more in the Hall of Dumathoin. Dagna didn't trust anyone who was not a dwarf.
But here they were, Bruenor and his four non-dwarven companions, in perhaps the most critical and dangerous struggle of all for the defense of Mithril Hall.
Surely their friendship warmed the old dwarf king's heart, but reflecting on that now did something else as well.
It made Bruenor think of Wulfgar, the barbarian who had been like his own son, and who would have married Catti-brie and become his son-in-law, the unlikely seven-foot prince of Mithril Hall. Bruenor had never known such grief as that which bowed his strong shoulders after Wulfgar's fall. Though he should live for more than another century, Bruenor had felt close to death in those weeks of grieving, and had felt as if death would be a welcome thing.
No longer. He missed Wulfgar still-forever would his gray eye mist up at the thought of the noble warrior-but he was the eighth king, the leader of his proud, strong clan. Bruenor's grief had passed the point of resignation and had shifted into the realm of anger. The dark elves were back, the same dark elves who had killed Wulfgar. They were the followers of Lloth, evil Lloth, and now they meant to kill Drizzt and destroy all of Mithril Hall, it seemed.Bruenor had wetted his axe on drow blood many times during the night, but his rage was far from sated. Indeed, it was mounting, a slow but determined boil. Drizzt had promised they would hunt the head of their enemy, would find the leader, the priestess behind this assault. It was a promise Bruenor needed to see the drow ranger keep.He had been quiet through much of the fighting, even in preparing for the war. Bruenor was quiet now, too, letting Drizzt and the panther lead, finding his place among the friends whenever battle was joined.In the few moments of peace and rest, Bruenor saw a wary glance come his way more than once and knew that his friends feared he was brooding again, that his heart was not in the fight. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Those minor skirmishes didn't matter much to Bruenor. He could kill a hundred-a thousand!-drow soldiers, and his pain and anger would not relent. If he could get to the priestess behind it all, though, chop her down and decapitate the drow invading force ...Bruenor might know peace.The eighth king of Mithril Hall was not brooding. He was biding his time and his energy, coming to a slow boil. He was waiting for the moment when revenge would be most sweet.Baenre's group, the giant glabrezu in tow, had just begun moving again, the matron mother guiding them in the direction her scrying had indicated, when Methil telepathically informed her that matrons Auro'pol and Zeerith had been continually entertaining thoughts of her demise. If Zeerith couldn't find a way through Mithril Hall's lower door, she would simply organize a withdrawal. Even now, Auro'pol was considering the potential for swinging the whole army about and leaving Matron Baenre dead behind them, according to Methil.Do they plot against me? Baenre wanted to know.No, Methil honestly replied, but if you are killed, they will be thrilled to turn back for Menzoberranzan without you, that a new hierarchy might arise.In truth, Methil's information was not unexpected. One did not have to read minds to see the discomfort and quiet rage on the faces of the matron mothers of Menzoberranzan's fourth and fifth houses. Besides, Baenre had suffered such hatred from her lessers, even from supposed allies such as Mez'Barris Armgo, even from her own daughters, for all her long life. That was an expected cost of being the first matron mother of chaotic and jealous Menzoberranzan, a city continually at war with itself.Auro'pol's thoughts were to be expected, but the confirmation from the illithid outraged the already nervous Matron Baenre. In her twisted mind, this was no ordinary war, after all. This was the will of Lloth, as Baenre was the Spider Queen's agent. This was the pinnacle of Matron Baenre's power, the height of Lloth-given glory. How dare Auro'pol and Zeerith entertain such blasphemous thoughts? the first matron mother fumed.She snapped an angry glare over Auro'pol, who simply snorted and looked away-possibly the very worst thing she could have done.Baenre issued telepathic orders to Methil, who in turn relayed them to the glabrezu. The driftdisks, side by side, were just following Baenre's daughters around a bend in the tunnel when great pincers closed about Auro'pol's slender waist and yanked her from her driftdisk, the powerful glabrezu easily holding her in midair."What is this?" Auro'pol demanded, squirming to no avail."You wish me dead," Baenre answered.Quenthel and Bladen'Kerst rushed back to their mother's side, and both were stunned that Baenre had openly moved against Auro'pol."She wishes me dead," Baenre informed her daughters. "She and Zeerith believe Menzoberranzan would be a better place without Matron Baenre."Auro'pol looked to the illithid, obviously the one who had betrayed her. Baenre's daughters, who had entertained similar treasonous thoughts on more than one occasion during this long, troublesome march, looked to Methil as well."Matron Auro'pol bears witness to your glory," Quenthel put in. "She will witness the death of the renegade and will know that Lloth is with us."Auro'pol's features calmed at that statement, and she squirmed again, trying to loosen the tanar'ri's viselike grip.Baenre eyed her adversary dangerously, and Auro'pol, cocky to the end, matched the intensity of her stare. Quenthel was right, Auro'pol believed. Baenre needed her to bear witness. Bringing her into line behind the war would solidify Zeerith's loyalty as well, so the drow army would be much stronger. Baenre was a wicked old thing, but she had always been a calculating one, not ready to sacrifice an inch of power for the sake of emotional satisfaction. Witness Gandalug Battlehammer, still alive, though Baenre certainly would have enjoyed tearing the heart from his chest many times during the long centuries of his imprisonment."Matron Zeerith will be glad to hear of Drizzt Do'Urden's death," Auro'pol said, and lowered her eyes respectfully. The submissive gesture would suffice, she believed."The head of Drizzt Do'Urden will be all the proof Matron Zeerith requires," Baenre replied.Auro'pol's gaze shot up, and Baenre's daughters, too, looked upon their surprising mother.Baenre ignored them all. She sent a message to Methil, who again relayed it to the glabrezu, and the great pincers began to squeeze about Auro'pol's waist."You cannot do this!" Auro'pol objected, gasping for every word. "Lloth is with me! You weaken your own campaign!"Quenthel wholeheartedly agreed, but kept silent, realizing the glabrezu still had an empty pincer."You cannot do this!" Auro'pol shrieked. "Zeerith will ..." Her words were lost to pain."Drizzt Do'Urden killed you before I killed Drizzt Do'Urden," Matron Baenre explained to Auro'pol. "Perfectly believable, and it makes the renegade's death all the sweeter." Baenre nodded to the glabrezu, and the pincers closed, tearing through flesh and bone.Quenthel looked away; wicked Bladen'Kerst watched the spectacle with a wide smile.Auro'pol tried to call out once more, tried to hurl a dying curse Baenre's way, but her backbone snapped and all her strength washed away. The pincers snapped shut, and Auro'pol Dyrr's body fell apart to the floor.Bladen'Kerst cried out in glee, thrilled by her mother's display of control and power. Quenthel, though, was outraged. Baenre had stepped over a dangerous line. She had killed a matron mother, and had done so to the detriment of the march to Mithril Hall, purely for personal gain. Wholeheartedly devoted to Lloth, Quenthel could not abide such stupidity, and her thoughts were similar indeed to those that had gotten Auro'pol Dyrr chopped in half.Quenthel snapped a dangerous glare over Methil, realizing the illithid was reading her thoughts. Would Methil betray her next?She narrowed her thoughts into a tight focus. It is not Lloth's will! her mind screamed at Methil. No longer is the Spider Queen behind my mother's actions.That notion held more implications for Methil, the illithid emissary to Menzoberranzan, not to Matron Baenre, than Quenthel could guess, and her relief was great indeed when Methil did not betray her.Guenhwyvar's ears flattened, and Drizzt, too, thought he heard a slight, distant scream. They had seen no one, enemies or friends, for several hours, and the ranger believed that any group of dark elves they now encountered would likely include the high priestess leading the army.He motioned for the others to move with all caution, and the small band crept along, Guenhwyvar leading the way. Drizzt fell into his Underdark instincts now. He was the hunter again, the survivor who had lived alone for a decade in the wilds of the Under-dark. He looked back at Bruenor, Regis, and Catti-brie often, for, though they were moving with all the stealth they could manage, they sounded like a marching army of armored soldiers to Drizzt's keen ears. That worried the drow, for he knew their enemies would be far quieter. He considered going a long way ahead with Guenhwyvar, taking up the hunt alone.It was a passing thought. These were his friends, and no one could ever ask for finer allies.They slipped down a narrow, unremarkable tunnel and into a chamber that opened wide to the left and right, though the smooth wall directly opposite the tunnel was not far away. The ceiling here was higher than in the tunnel, but stalactites hung down in several areas, nearly to the floor in many places.Guenhwyvar's ears flattened again, and the panther paused at the entrance. Drizzt came beside her and felt the same tingling sensation.The enemy was near, very near. That warrior instinct, beyond the normal senses, told the drow ranger the enemy was practically upon them. He signaled back to the three trailing, then he and the panther moved slowly and cautiously into the chamber, along the wall to the right.Catti-brie came to the entrance next and fell to one knee, bending back her bow. Her eyes, aided by the Cat's Eye circlet, which made even the darkest tunnels seem bathed in bright starlight, scanned the chamber, searching among the stalactite clusters.Bruenor was soon beside her, and Regis came past her on the left. The halfling spotted a cubby a few feet along the wall. He pointed to himself, then to the cubby, and he inched off toward the spot.A green light appeared on the wall opposite the door, stealing the darkness. It spiraled out, opening a hole in the wall, and Matron Baenre floated through, her daughters and their prisoner coming in behind her, along with the illithid.Drizzt recognized the withered old drow and realized his worst fears, knew immediately that he and his friends were badly overmatched. He thought to go straight for Baenre, but realized that he and Guenhwyvar were not alone on this side of the chamber. From the corner of his wary eye Drizzt caught some movement up among the stalactites.Catti-brie fired a silver-streaking arrow, practically point-blank. The arrow exploded into a shower of multicolored, harmless sparks, unable to penetrate the first matron mother's magical shields.Regis went into the cubby then and cried out in sudden pain as a ward exploded. Electricity sparked about the halfling, sending him jerking this way and that, then dropping him to the floor, his curly brown hair standing straight on end.Guenhwyvar sprang to the right, burying a drow soldier as she floated down from the stalactites. Drizzt again considered going straight for Baenre, but found himself suddenly engaged as three more elite Baenre guards rushed out of hiding to surround him. Drizzt shook his head in denial. Surprise now worked against him and his friends, not for them. The enemy had expected them, he knew, had hunted them even as they had hunted the enemy. And this was Matron Baenre herself!"Run!" Drizzt cried to his friends. "Flee this place!"