Berg'inyon Baenre, weapon master of the first house of Menzoberranzan, put his twin swords through a dizzying routine, blades spinning circuits in the air between him and his opponent, an insubordinate drow common soldier. A crowd of the Baenre house guard, highly trained though mostly males, formed a semicircle about the pair, while other dark elves watched from high perches, tightly saddled astride sticky-footed, huge subterranean lizards, the beasts casually standing along the vertical slopes of nearby stalactites or towering stalagmite mounds.
The soldiers cheered every time Berg'inyon, a magnificent swordsman (though few thought him as good as his brother, Dantrag, had been), scored a minor hit or parried a fast-flying counter, but the cheers were obviously somewhat tempered.
Berg'inyon noticed this, and knew the source. He had been the leader of the Baenre lizard riders, the most elite grouping of the male house guards, for many years. Now, with Dantrag slain, he had become the house weapon master as well. Berg'inyon felt the intense pressure of his dual stations, felt his mother's scrutinizing gaze on his every movement and every decision. He did not doubt that his own actions had intensified as a result. How many fights had he begun, how many punishments had he exacted on his subordinates, since Dantrag's death?
The common drow came ahead with a weak thrust that almost slipped past distracted Berg'inyon's defenses. A sword came up and about at the last moment to drive the enemy's blade aside.
Berg'inyon heard the sudden hush behind him at the near miss, understood that several of the soldiers back there-perhaps all of them-hoped his enemy's next thrust would be quicker, too quick.
The weapon master growled low and came ahead in a flurry, spurred on by the hatred of those around him, of those under his command. Let them hate him! he decided. But while they did, they must also respect him-no, not respect, Berg'inyon decided. They must fear him.
He came forward one step, then a second, his swords snapping alternately, left and right, and each being cleanly picked off. The give and take had become common, with Berg'inyon coming ahead two steps, then retreating. This time, though, the Baenre did not retreat. He shuffled forward two more steps, his swords snapping as his opponent's blades rushed for the parry.
Berg'inyon had the lesser drow up on his heels, so the young Baenre rushed ahead again. His opponent was quick enough with his swords to turn the expected thrusts, but he could not retreat properly, and Berg'inyon was up against him in a clinch, their blades joined to either side, down low, by the hilt.
There was no real danger here-it was more like a break in the battle-but Berg'inyon realized something his opponent apparently did not. With a growl, the young Baenre heaved his off-balance opponent away. The drow skidded back a couple of steps, brought his swords up immediately to fend off any pursuit.
None came; it seemed a simple break of the clinch.
Then the backpedaling drow bumped into the House Baenre fence.
In the city of Menzoberranzan, there was perhaps nothing as spectacular as the twenty-foot-high, web-designed fence ringing House Baenre, anchored on the various stalagmite mounds that ringed the compound. Its silvery metallic cords, thick as a dark elf's leg, were wound into beautiful, symmetrical designs, as intricate as the work of any spider. No weapon could cut through it, no magic, save a single item that Matron Baenre possessed, could get one over it, and the simplest touch or brush against one of those enchanted strands would hold fast a titan.
Berg'inyon's opponent hit the fence hard with the flat of his back. His eyes went wide as he suddenly realized the young Baenre's tactics, as he saw the faces of those gathered brighten in approval of the vicious trick, as he saw devious and wicked Berg'inyon calmly approach.
The drow fell away from the fence and rushed out to meet the weapon master's advance.
The two went through a fast series of attacks and parries, with stunned Berg'inyon on the defensive. Only through his years of superior training was the drow noble able to bring himself back even against his surprising opponent.
Surprising indeed, as every drow face, and all the whispers, confirmed.
"You brushed the fence," Berg'inyon said.
The drow soldier did not disagree. The tips of his weapons drooped as Berg'inyon's drooped, and he glanced over his shoulder to confirm what he, and all the others, knew could not be.
"You hit the fence," Berg'inyon said again, skeptically, as the drow turned back to face him.
"Across the back," he agreed.
Berg'inyon's swords went into their respective scabbards and the young Baenre stormed past his opponent, to stand right before the enchanted web. His opponent and all the other dark elves followed closely, too intrigued to even think of continuing the fight.
Berg'inyon motioned to a nearby female. "Rest your sword against it," he bade her.
The female drew her blade and laid it across one of the thick strands. She looked to Berg'inyon and around to all the others, then easily lifted the blade from the fence.
Another drow farther down the line dared to place his hand on the web. Those around him looked at him incredulously, thinking him dangerously daring, but he had no trouble removing himself from the metal.
Panic rushed through Berg'inyon. The fence, it was said, had been a gift from Lloth herself in millennia past. If it was no longer functioning, it might well mean that House Baenre had fallen out of the Spider Queen's favor. It might well mean that Lloth had dropped House
Baenre's defense to allow for a conspiracy of lower houses.
"To your posts, all of you!" the young Baenre shouted, and the gathered dark elves, sharing Berg'inyon's reasoning and his fears, did not have to be told twice.
Berg'inyon headed for the compound's great central mound to find his mother. He crossed paths with the drow he had just been fighting, and the commoner's eyes widened in sudden fear. Normally Berg'inyon, honorable only by the low standards of dark elves, would have snapped his sword out and through the drow, ending the conflict. Caught up in the excitement of the fence's failure, the commoner was off his guard. He knew it, too, and he expected to be killed.
"To your post," Berg'inyon said to him, for if the young Baenre's suspicions proved correct, that a conspiracy had been launched against House Baenre and Lloth had deserted them, he would need every one of the House's twenty-five hundred soldiers.
King Bruenor Battlehammer had spent the morning in the upper chapel of Mithril Hall, trying to sort out the new hierarchy of priests within the complex. His dear friend Cobble had been the reigning priest, a dwarf of powerful magic and deep wisdom.
That wisdom hadn't gotten poor Cobble out of the way of a nasty drow spell, though, and the cleric had been squashed by a falling wall of iron.
There were more than a dozen remaining acolytes in Mithril Hall. They formed two lines, one on each side of Bruenor's audience chair. Each priest was anxious to impress his (or, in the case of Stumpet Rakingclaw, her) king.
Bruenor nodded to the dwarf at the head of the line to his left. As he did, he lifted a mug of mead, the holy water this particular priest had concocted. Bruenor sipped, then drained the surprisingly refreshing mead in a single swallow as the cleric stepped forward.
"A burst of light in honor of King Bruenor!" the would-be head priest cried, and he waved his arms and began a chanting prayer to Moradin, the Soulforger, god of the dwarves.
"Clean and fresh, and just the slightest twinge of bitterness," Bruenor remarked, running a finger along the rim of the emptied mug and then sucking on it, that he might savor the last drop. The scribe directly behind the throne noted every word. "A hearty bouquet, properly curling nose hairs," Bruenor added. "Seven."
The eleven other clerics groaned. Seven on a scale of ten was the highest grade Bruenor had given any of the five samples of holy water he had already taste-tested.
If Jerbollah, the dwarf now in a frenzy of spellcasting, could perform as well with magic, he would be difficult to beat for the coveted position.
"And the light shall be," Jerbollah cried, the climax of his spell, "red!"
There came a tremendous popping noise, as if a hundred dwarves had just yanked their fingers from puckered mouths. And then... nothing.
"Red!" Jerbollah cried in delight.
"What?" demanded Bruenor, who, like those dwarves beside him, saw nothing different about the lighting in the chapel.
"Red!" Jerbollah said again, and when he turned about, Bruenor and the others understood. Jerbollah's face was glowing a bright red-literally, the confused cleric was seeing the world through a rose-colored veil.
Frustrated Bruenor dropped his head into his palm and groaned.
"Makes a good batch o' holy water, though," one of the dwarves nearby remarked, to a chorus of snickers.
Poor Jerbollah, who thought his spell had worked brilliantly, did not understand what was so funny.
Stumpet Rakingclaw leaped forward, seizing the moment. She handed her mug of holy water to Bruenor and rushed out before the throne.
"I had planned something different," she explained quickly, as Bruenor sipped, then swallowed the mead (and the dwarf king's face brightened once more as he declared this batch a nine). "But a cleric of Moradin, of Clanggedon, who knows battle best of all, must be ready to improvise!"
"Do tell us, O Strumpet!" one of the other dwarves roared, and even Bruenor cracked a smile as the laughter exploded about him.
Stumpet, who was used to the nickname and wore it like a badge of honor, took no offense. "Jerbollah called for red," she explained, "so red it shall be!"
"It already is red," insisted Jerbollah, who earned a slap on the head from the dwarf behind him for his foolishness.
The fiery young Stumpet ruffled her short red beard and went into a series of movements so exaggerated that it seemed as if she had fallen into convulsions.
"Move it, Strumpet," a dwarf near the throne whispered, to renewed laughter.
Bruenor held up the mug and tapped it with his finger. "Nine," he reminded the wise-cracking dwarf. Stumpet was in the clear lead; if she pulled off this spell where Jerbollah had failed, she would be almost impossible to beat, which would make her the wise-cracking dwarf's boss.
The dwarf behind the humbled jokester slapped him on the back of the head.
"Red!" Stumpet cried with all her might.
A few snickers came from the line, but in truth, the gathered dwarves were more curious than amused. Stumpet was a powerful spellcaster and should have been able to throw some light, whatever color, into the room. The feeling began to wash over them all (except Jerbollah, who insisted that his spell had worked perfectly), that something might be wrong here.
Stumpet turned back to the throne, confused and embarrassed. She started to say something, to apologize, when a tremendous explosion rocked the ground so violently that she and half the other dwarves in the room were knocked from their feet.
Stumpet rolled and turned, looking back to the empty area of the chapel. A ball of blue sparks appeared from nowhere, hovered in the air, then shot straight for a very surprised Bruenor. The dwarf king ducked and thrust his arm up to block, and the mug that held Stumpet's batch of holy water shattered, sheared off at the handle. A blue storm of raging sparks burst from the impact, sending dwarves scurrying for cover.
More sparking bursts ignited across the room, glowing balls zipping this way and that, thunderlike booms shaking the floor and walls."What in the Nine Hells did ye do?" the dwarf king, a little curled-up ball on his great chair, screamed at poor Stumpet.The female dwarf tried to respond, tried to disclaim responsibility for this unexpected turn, but a small tube appeared in midair, generally pointed her way, and fired multicolored balls that sent Stumpet scrambling away.It went on for several long, frightening minutes, dwarves diving every which way, sparks seeming to follow them wherever they hid, burning their backsides and singeing their beards. Then it was over, as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the chapel perfectly quiet and smelling of sulphur.Gradually Bruenor straightened in his chair and tried to regain some of his lost dignity."What in the Nine Hells did ye do?" he demanded again, to which poor Stumpet merely shrugged. A couple of dwarves managed a slight laugh at that."At least it's still red," Jerbollah remarked under his breath, but loud enough to be heard. Again he was slapped by the dwarf behind him.Bruenor shook his head in disgust, then froze in place as two eyeballs appeared in the air before him, scrutinizing him ominously.Then they dropped to the floor and rolled about haphazardly, coming to rest several feet apart.Bruenor looked on in disbelief as a spectral hand came out of the air and herded the eyeballs close together and turned them so that they were both facing the dwarf king once more."Well, that's never happened before," said a disembodied voice.Bruenor jumped in fright, then settled and groaned yet again. He hadn't heard that voice in a long time, but never would he forget it. And it explained so much about what was going on in the chapel."Harkle Harpell," Bruenor said, and whispers ignited all about him, for most of the other dwarves had heard Bruenor's tales of Longsaddle, a town to the west of Mithril Hall, home of the legendary, eccentric wizard clan, the Harpells. Bruenor and his companions had passed through Longsaddle, had toured the Ivy Mansion, on their way to find Mithril Hall. It was a place the dwarf, no fan of wizardry magic, would never forget, and never remember fondly."My greetings, King Bruenor," said the voice, emanating from the floor right below the steadied eyeballs."Are ye really here?" the dwarf king asked."Hmmm," groaned the floor. "I can hear both you and those who are around me at the Fuzzy Quarterstaff," Harkle replied, referring to the tavern at the Ivy Mansion, back in Longsaddle. "Just a moment, if you please."The floor "Hmmmm'd" several more times, and the eyeballs blinked once or twice, perhaps the most curious sight Bruenor had ever seen, as an eyelid appeared from nowhere, covered the ball momentarily, then disappeared once more."It seems that I'm in both places," Harkle tried to explain. "I'm quite blind back here-of course, my eyes are there. I wonder if I might get them back..." The spectral hand appeared again, groping for the eyeballs. It tried to grasp one of them securely, but only wound up turning the ball about on the floor."Whoa!" shouted a distressed Harkle. "So that is how a lizard sees the world! I must note it...""Harkle!" Bruenor roared in frustration."Oh, yes, yes, of course," replied Harkle, coming to what little senses he possessed. "Please excuse my distraction, King Bruenor. This has never happened before.""Well it's happened now," Bruenor said dryly."My eyes are there," Harkle said, as though trying to sort things out aloud. "But, of course, I will be there as well, quite soon. Actually, I had hoped to be there now, but didn't get through. Curious indeed. I could try again, or could ask one of my brothers to try-""No!" Bruenor bellowed, cringing at the thought that other Harpell body parts might soon rain down on him."Of course," Harkle agreed after a moment. "Too dangerous. Too curious. Very well, then. I come in answer to your call, friend dwarf king!"Bruenor dropped his head into his palm and sighed. He had feared those very words for more than two weeks now. He had sent an emissary to Longsaddle for help in the potential war only because Drizzt had insisted.To Bruenor, having the Harpells as allies might eliminate the need for enemies."A week," Harkle's disembodied voice said. "I will arrive in a week!" There came a long pause. "Err, umm, could you be so kind as to keep safe my eyeballs?"Bruenor nodded to the side, and several dwarves scrambled ahead, curious and no longer afraid of the exotic items. They battled to scoop up the eyes and finally sorted them out, with two different dwarves each holding one-and each taking obvious pleasure in making faces at the eye.Bruenor shouted for them to quit playing even before Harkle's voice screamed in horror."Please!" pleaded the somewhat absent mage. "Only one dwarf to hold both eyes." Immediately the two dwarves clutched their prizes more tightly."Give 'em to Stumpet!" Bruenor roared. "She started this whole thing!"Reluctantly, but not daring to go against an order from their king, the dwarves handed the eyeballs over."And do please keep them moist," Harkle requested, to which, Stumpet immediately tossed one of the orbs into her mouth."Not like that!" screamed the voice. "Oh, not like that!""I should get them," protested Jerbollah. "My spell worked!" The dwarf behind Jerbollah slapped him on the head.Bruenor slumped low in his chair, shaking his head. It was going to be a long time in putting his clerical order back together, and longer still would be the preparations for war when the Harpells arrived.Across the room, Stumpet, who, despite her antics, was the most level-headed of dwarves, was not so lighthearted. Harkle's unexpected presence had deflected the other apparent problems, perhaps, but the weird arrival of the wizard from Longsaddle did not explain the happenings here. Stumpet, several of the other clerics, and even the scribe realized that something was very wrong.Guenhwyvar was tired by the time she, Drizzt, and Catti-brie came to the high pass leading to Mithril Hall's eastern door. Drizzt had kept the panther on the Material Plane longer than usual, and though it was taxing, Guenhwyvar was glad for the stay. With all the preparations going on in the deep tunnels below the dwarven complex, Drizzt did not get outside much, and consequently, neither did Guenhwyvar.For a long, long time, the panther figurine had been in the hands of various drow in Menzoberranzan, and, thus, the panther had gone centuries without seeing the out-of-doors on the Material Plane. Still, the out-of-doors was where Guenhwyvar was most at home, where natural panthers lived, and where the panther's first companions on the Material Plane had lived.Guenhwyvar had indeed enjoyed this romp along mountain trails with Drizzt and Catti-brie, but now was the time to go home, to rest again on the Astral Plane. For all their love of companionship, neither the drow nor the panther could afford that luxury now, with so great a danger looming, an impending war in which Drizzt and Guenhwyvar would likely play a major role, fighting side by side.The panther paced about the figurine, gradually diminished, and faded to an insubstantial gray mist.Gone from the material world, Guenhwyvar entered a long, low, winding tunnel, the silvery path that would take her back to the Astral Plane. The panther loped easily, not eager to be gone and too tired to run full out. The journey was not so long anyway, and always uneventful.Guenhwyvar skidded to a stop as she rounded one long bend, her ears falling flat.The tunnel ahead was ablaze.Diabolical forms, fiendish manifestations that seemed unconcerned with the approaching cat, leaped from those flames. Guenhwyvar padded ahead a few short strides. She could feel the intense heat, could see the fiery fiends, and could hear their laughter as they continued to consume the circular tunnel's walls.A rush of air told Guenhwyvar that the tunnel had been ruptured, somewhere in the emptiness between the planes of existence. Fiery fiends were pulled into elongated shapes, then sucked out; the remaining flames danced wildly, leaping and flickering, seeming to go out altogether, then rising together in a sudden and violent surge. The wind came strong at Guenhwyvar's back, compelling the panther to go forward, compelling everything in the tunnel to fly out through the breach, into nothingness.Guenhwyvar knew instinctively that if she succumbed to that force, there would be no turning back, that she would become a lost thing, helpless, wandering between the planes.The panther dug in her claws and backpedaled slowly, fighting the fierce wind every inch of the way. Her black coat ruffled up, sleek fur turning the wrong way.One step back.The tunnel was smooth and hard, and there was little for panther claws to dig against. Guenhwyvar's paws pedaled more frantically, but inevitably the cat began to slide forward toward the flames and the breach."What is it?" Catti-brie asked, seeing Drizzt's confusion as he picked up the figurine."Warm," Drizzt replied. "The figurine is warm."Catti-brie's expression likewise crinkled with confusion. She had a feeling of sheer dread then, a feeling she could not understand. "Call Guen back," she prompted.Drizzt, equally fearful, was already doing exactly that. He placed the figurine on the ground and called out to the panther.Guenhwyvar heard the call, and wanted desperately to answer it, but now the cat was close to the breach. Wild flames danced high, singeing the panther's face. The wind was stronger than ever, and there was nothing, nothing at all, for Guenhwyvar to hold on to.The panther knew fear, and the panther knew grief. Never again would she come to Drizzt's call; never again would she hunt beside the ranger in the forests near Mithril Hall or race down a mountain with Drizzt and Catti-brie.Guenhwyvar had known grief before, when some of her previous masters had died. This time, though, there could be no replacement for Drizzt. And none for Catti-brie or Regis, or even Bruenor, that most frustrating of creatures, whose love and hate relationship with Guenhwyvar had provided the panther with many hours of teasing enjoyment.Guenhwyvar remembered the time Drizzt had bade her lie atop sleeping Bruenor and nap. How the dwarf had roared!Flames bit at Guenhwyvar's face. She could see through the breach now, see the emptiness that awaited her.Somewhere far off, beyond the shield of the screeching wind, came Drizzt's call, a call the cat could not answer.