Jorlan knew his error had not been forgotten -- and never, ever forgiven-- when they arrived at the gates of House Baenre.
Flanked by Ilvara and her mother, Matron Miz’ri, Jorlan was led into the chapel of the house. While larger by far than House Duskryn’s chapel, the design was similar. The room itself was lit with only faerie fire -- the sigil of House Baenre, glowing red between the spider-limb buttresses.
Straight ahead was the terrible altar of black basalt, its inevitable and inerasable bloodstains invisible in darkvision. Behind it stood the statue of Lolth in her half-spider form, humanoid to the waist and undressed. Colored with an array of vibrant faerie fire, it was meant to be alluring.
But who, gazing up from the altar below, would judge it so?
Small mercy -- Jorlan was led to the right, into an alcove. He saw the arms of a throne and slippered feet before he was shoved to his knees. It didn’t take much -- the pressure of Ilvara’s hand against the nape of his neck made the fresh wounds there scream, knocking the strength from his limbs.
Before him, Quenthel Baenre, Matron Mother of the First House of Menzoberranzan, sat upon her throne.
Jorlan kneeled, recovering himself as the pain slowly receded, as Ilvara lightly stroked the wounds she had lately inflicted. He was only dimly aware of the conversation happening above his head, the two Mizzryms explaining his error to Matron Baenre. Eventually, the pain returned to a manageable level, nerves merely aching and arcing as they died beneath his skin.
Of course, he would not give the priestesses the satisfaction of seeing that pain written on his face.
From the corner of his eye -- because light blind him, he wasn’t going to do anything stupid like meet her gaze -- he noted Matron Baenre’s gown, limned with seams of purple faerie fire, the hem crawling with live jewel-spiders on adamantine threads. It might almost be beautiful, in other circumstances, but like the statue behind him, its effect was lost on him.
A shadow rose in front of him, which he connected at length to Quenthel rising from her throne. Fingers pinched his chin, raising his head. Surprised, he flinched.
Jorlan’s gaze was forced to meet hers, finding her much the same as when he had last seen her, over a century ago at her elevation to Matron Mother. Despite being at least three hundred years his senior, Quenthel’s hair was still silver and her skin an unlined red-grey hue. Though she was famed for her temper, her features were placid and curious now, studying him. A hair comb that glowed with faerie fire cast an eerie violet light over her features like a veil.
She puckered her lips in a smile. “Pretty,” she said, and released Jorlan’s head. “Trouble,” she murmured as an afterthought.
Her slippers shuffled out of Jorlan’s vision, leaving a wake of spiders behind her. “Friends, why do you trouble me with this? There’s an easy solution to your problem. House Duskryn has already censured him. Even his own mother is silent. And if they still act against you, well…”
Her hand at her side made a gesture -- not the sign language, but it might well have said: You are the Fourth House. Let them come and let them be erased.
Jorlan closed his eyes and made the tiniest of sighs under his breath, so faint even Ilvara couldn’t feel it vibrate through him. Prae’anelle would not risk that for her traitorous nephew -- even if a Ninth House had wiped out a Fourth House in living memory. That had been done with Lolth’s favor, which House Duskryn certainly no longer had.
It had been a calculated risk, what Jorlan had done, but the figures had been written in the vibrant green of envy, and his arithmetic had failed him; he was about to reach a deadly sum.
In layman’s terms, he was truly fucked.
Yet he dared to hope -- he was still alive. Surely he could win Ilvara back? She didn’t care so much for Shoor; one tool, one weapon was as good as another. And Jorlan could be a very skilled weapon indeed...
“And yet--” Ilvara blurted out, before catching herself. Even she would not gainsay the most powerful woman in Menzoberranzan.
Matron Baenre’s skirts swept the ground as she turned to Ilvara. “Yes, child?” She sounded curious, not annoyed. But that could also be a dangerous trap.
“Please excuse my daughter’s forwardness.” Matron Miz’ri said. “But I share her concern. It would be a great loss, wouldn’t it?”
A long pause, where Jorlan imagined he was being scrutinized by Matron Baenre. “The son of the second priestess of the Ninth House of the city, skilled with a blade but utterly ungifted in the Art. Surely there are many like him. However attached to him your daughter might have become.”
Jorlan felt Ilvara’s hands tighten at his collar; felt shards of white-hot pain shoot through his head and blind him.
“And really.” Jorlan heard the snap of a fan opening and felt a faint breeze stir the air. “You knew his reputation when you took him to your bed.” The faint smell of Matron’s Baenre’s perfume at his back, the touch of the fan against his shoulder. “The Widower. Hmph. Some foolish matrons and mistresses may be deceived by a silver-tongued mongrel.”
The fan was removed, and snapped closed again. Matron Baenre circled around to Jorlan’s front. “It is the job of the mistress to bring such a mongrel to heel. Others have failed. Did you think yourself more Lolth-favored than the Third House?”
Ilvara’s fingers continued their assault on Jorlan’s wounded back, and yet he wanted to laugh, knowing how those words would make hatred burn in her eyes. The name Aumaurae Tlabbar was unspoken, but it was on everyone’s mind.
Jalbol velkyn zhah naubol. Jorlan had made sure of that.
“Matron Baenre,” Miz’ri said, “Again, please forgive my daughter. She is young, and easily infatuated. But the fundamental problem, you see, is… he’s not quite a mongrel, is he?”
When Quenthel did not reply, Miz’ri probed, “You know of what I speak. House Duskryn’s experiment.”
The fan made a rhythmic tap-tap-tap against Matron Baenre’s leg. “I know of no such thing, of course,” she said, her voice placid. “But one hears stories. My brother is quite the fanciful storyteller, for example.”
Which one? Jorlan bitterly mused, though he was sure she must mean Gromph, whose rivalry with Vizeran deVir had ultimately erased Jorlan’s sister Si’Nethraa. Her death had expiated House Duskryn’s sin of presumption, and to admit it had happened was to admit wrongdoing.
And yet, if it was likely to save his skin, Jorlan wasn’t going to argue.
“Yes, Matron,” Ilvara said, sounded chastened. “We hear many stories about your brother, too. Surely his magical prowess has brought glory to your house. Would that our lowly house could have done as much, with what we were gifted and have lost.”
Matron Baenre made a well-hidden snort of satisfaction. It didn’t need to be said how House Mizzrym’s magical talent -- Ilvara’s older siblings -- had devoured themselves, removing a thorn in Quenthel’s side and paving the way for Gromph to become head of Sorcere.
“But,” Ilvara continued, “It’s fickle how magical talent works, though, isn’t it, Matron? How it seems to miss siblings, or doesn’t breed true -- and then sometimes, some seventh son will show up with all the magic that skipped a generation! We discard the ungifted at our peril, I believe.”
Oh, that was cleverly worded, and that was Ilvara at her best -- when she wasn’t consumed by rage and zealotry, as she had been of late. Even now, it made Jorlan want to kiss that clever mouth.
Matron Baenre halted -- both her steps and the tapping of her fan. “I see,” she said, after some deliberation. She sounded sour. “Perhaps we can give your pet a chance to redeem himself, then. Blood will tell, as my mother always said.”
This time, when Quenthel grabbed his face, Jorlan was prepared, and didn’t flinch.
“Jorlan Duskryn,” she said, drawing out the words with a sigh. “I’m going to address you now, and I expect a response.”
He nodded and said, “Yes, ussta val’sharess.” My queen. Let that flatter her -- no one ever used that term for drow rulers. But what else could she be said to be?
Indeed, the Matron smiled, a hungry look in her eye. “I will give you a choice. The first option is this: you may leave the city as an exile. You will no longer be Duskryn; your name will be as ash on the tongue of the noble Houses. You will devote your every movement, your every waking hour, to tracking these lost sacrifices -- to the surface, if it comes to that. You and your elites will assist Ilvara Mizzrym and Asha Vandree in any way they require. Return to the city, and your house, only when you can leave those sacrifices in chains at my feet.”
He swallowed and nodded, expecting Quenthel to go on to the second option. She did not -- but Jorlan had not been asked a question, and he dared not prompt her, nor break the gaze she still enforced.
Blessedly, Ilvara asked the question for him. “Matron Baenre is generous. What is the second option?”
Matron Baenre’s smile morphed into something more predatory. Again she did not answer for a time, her fan tapping out a rhythm against her leg, her eyes boring into Jorlan’s.
At last she tipped her head to the side, looking up towards Ilvara. “You asked about my brother earlier. He is loyal, is he not? And yet still a troublemaker, in his own way. Quarval’sharess knows where he is at the moment, and with the city in such a state!” She clucked disapprovingly, gesturing broadly towards the city at a whole. Even Jorlan, consumed with his own thoughts, had noticed the destruction left by Demogorgon’s steps.“Some might consider it dangerous, putting so much power into the hands of our wizards, who are so often males. But I’m sure you are aware of how we ensure their loyalty.”
The Test. Where each potential graduate of Sorcere had to bare their souls before the Spider Queen herself, to see if any heresy lay therein. Even the smallest seed of dissent would out, and the Test had destroyed many wizards.
Of course Jorlan, who could barely kindle a fire with his magic, hadn’t had to go through such a thing. The propaganda which was half the point of Melee-Magthere was expected to keep him in line.
Well, that hadn’t worked.
“Of course, Matron Mother,” Ilvara said. “And how those who are not loyal are made to serve in their own way.” Jorlan could hear the purr of satisfaction in Ilvara’s voice.
“Mmm. I find it a very instructive example outside of Sorcere, too.” A long lacquered fingernail stroked his cheek. “Jorlan, of no particular house. Do you know how an orb’ilythiiri is made?”
His mouth went dry at the words, though the conversation had gone exactly the direction he expected. “I-- is it not a guarded secret, Matron Mother?”
“It is,” she said, drawing out the s with all the subtlety of a snake. “But I’d like to grant you a little part of that secret. You may do with this knowledge what you will, of course.”
Jorlan dared not breathe, knowing how his body would betray him -- a twitch of a facial muscle here, the drop of a shoulder there. Quenthel did not require his response, anyway.
The Matron Mother released his head, and backed away. “Some ignorant people think it is merely magic -- that Lolth waves her hand and it is done. While she does so for those subjects she wishes to reward with the gift of orb’ilythiir, for the heretic cases she lets her creatures act on their own initiative. And some of her creatures are, let us say, very inventive.”
Did she mean the drow, or the spiders?
There were so many ways to die in Menzoberranzan -- and more to suffer. A simple misstep, and it might be a poisoned dagger in the back in the dark from a rival house. More advanced cases were met with sacrifice or torture, or both.
But treason and heresy had their own reward. Lolth would keep her wayward subjects closest, made to serve in the most abject way.
Jorlan had seen driders, of course. They were used as a minatory example for the students of all schools of Tier Breche, not just Sorcere. Standing at the edge of the drider pits, no one said -- but he was meant to know -- this is what happens when you fuck up so hard that a priestess thinks death is too kind.
And Jorlan had truly, fatally fucked up.
“In the drider pits, they keep a certain type of spider,” Matron Baenre began. “They’re hunting spiders in most senses, but they’re… possessed by the fungus called shanaal’karliik.”
The room had gone hushed -- except for the skittering of spiders in Matron Baenre’s gown.
“Shanaal’karliik has a peculiar life cycle. It is a parasite, and it first uses hunting spiders as its host. It causes the spider to become much more aggressive, and lose all natural fear of creatures larger than she. She will also become driven to lay her eggs in… unusual places.”
A chuckle, and Matron Baenre added, “Oh, Miz’ri, not like that. Get your mind out of the Braeryn. We are not barbaric.”
Her fan snapped again, and her steps continued. “When a male -- and they are almost all male -- has failed the Test, or has displeased the Spider Queen, he is sedated, stripped of his weapons and armor, and penned in with one of the shanaal’karliik spiders. You’ve worked with hunting spiders before, haven’t you, Jorlan?”
Around a dissonant heartbeat, he managed: “I have.”
Uninterested in his response, Quenthel continued, “They have a powerful paralytic poison. Usually a hunting spider would never use it against a drow that smells of her home, but these creatures are quite addled by the shanaal’karliik.
“So there our boy is, drugged and helpless, and the shanaal’karliik, acting through the hunting spider, sees a perfect target. The fungus’ goal, you see, is to reproduce -- like all of us, really. That process starts with the spider injecting her venom into the base of the target’s spine, and laying an egg there.” The Matron’s fingernail traced a line down Jorlan’s back, raising a shiver.
“You see, Miz’ri? An unusual place,” she continued, “but not entirely unsuitable. The egg is incubated by the drow’s body heat, and when it hatches in a few days, it will have plenty of food.” The fingernail stopped, and sunk into the flesh at mid-back. “The venom of the possessed spider has a special purpose, beyond its usual paralysis. It begins to digest the tissues of the drow’s body. Of course, it doesn’t want to kill the drow, just incubate its egg. The venom will only digest the flesh and bone below the pelvic bone -- the legs -- and avoid any of the vital organs.”
Matron Baenre made a chuckle, low in her throat. Her hand came to rest on top of Jorlan’s head, and she stroked a hand down his queue, saying, “The generative organs are maintained, and when the process is done he may be… harvested. So have no worries on that account, friends. As the young priestess says -- he will be made to serve.”
Oh gods. Bile rose in Jorlan’s throat, even as he wondered what god he was beseeching. Surely not the Spider Queen. But who else had he ever sent his prayers to?
A yank on the knot of his hair, and Jorlan’s head was pulled back, his neck exposed before Ilvara and Quenthel, his collar wracked with pain that made his eyes water. Ilvara’s eyes met his, upside down in his view, sparkling with mirth. How many times had a look like that preceded pain or pleasure -- or both? Not just with Ilvara, but Aumaurae before her, and Thalena, and more before her. A mix of emotions roiled in his gut, and ssussun pholor ukta, they were not all wretched.
Quenthel released his hair, and Jorlan stumbled forward, catching himself with one hand to the stone-paved floor. His arm shook to bear his weight, and he wanted so badly to sink against the floor, let its coolness soothe his tremors.
“The venom makes a slurry of flesh and bone and muscle of the legs, leaving the skin as a sort of… casing. The slurry will nourish the nascent spider once it hatches. It’s an elegant process -- the newly hatched spider attaches itself to the spine of the drow, and draws nourishment through its blood, in much the way an unborn child does with its pregnant mother. This spider will continue to grow as long as there is nourishment.”
A clicking noise, as if Ilvara were smacking her lips. “How long does that take to deplete, Matron Mother?”
“Some thirty cycles of Narbondel, depending on body size. Obviously, as the nourishment is depleted, the drow’s legs shrivel and the skin necrotizes and sloughs off. And the spider, still attached to his spine, continues to grow, its own legs replacing the drow’s.”
Into the pregnant pause that followed, Miz’ri asked, her voice breathy and ragged, “Is this process painful to the drow?”
“You are so ruthless, Miz’ri!” Quenthel exclaimed. “But this is why we entrust you with the slave markets, I suppose. Anyway, I’m told it’s an… uncomfortable process -- having one’s legs turned to blood sausages; imagine! -- but the paralytic venom makes it tolerable for some time. Nonetheless, we do lose a few subjects to shock at this point in the process.
“Oh, no, it’s not quite done yet, beautiful,” she added as an aside to Jorlan, crouching down to pat his cheek.
“While we now have a drow with the lower body of a spider, the integration is not complete. The proto-drider is quite uncoordinated and disordered -- as you might expect from three living beings trying to inhabit the same body! And the shanaal’karliik has not met its goal -- to reproduce.” Quenthel rose to her feet, resuming her pacing. “At this stage the fungus, nourished by the digestion process, begins to grow. It expands its tendrils -- I’m told the proper name is ‘fruiting bodies’ -- through the spider’s flesh, encircling the spine of the drow like heat climbing Narbondel. Eventually it reaches the drow’s head, devouring along the way nerves and the lower functions of the brain.”
Jorlan stared at the drops of his mingled sweat and blood spattering the tiles below him. Tried to ignore how the room seemed to be spinning around him.
“The combined creature’s movement becomes less dysfunctional and more organized as the fungus takes over,” Quenthel continued, circling around Jorlan’s form. “More obeisant, too -- as if the fungus knows what it must do to survive, and loses all will to resist its captors. This is the first we can speak of it being orb’ilythiiri -- the perfect fusion of spider and drow. All orchestrated perfectly by this humble fungus -- this agent of Quarval’sharess’ will.”
Quenthel’s thumb pressed into the base of Jorlan’s skull, then ghosted over the line of his jaw. “For whatever reason, the end result of this process makes it difficult for the drider to speak. We don’t entirely know why, though we suspect the fruiting bodies take up some space inside the drider’s skull. Inspection reveals a vastly swollen tongue, and deformed teeth and gums.” She made a click of her tongue, a suppressed laugh. “But it can still beg quite effectively, when it suits it.”
Fingers roamed over the nape of Jorlan’s neck, leaving a wake of painful sparks. He made a sound low in his throat: half choking, half groaning. The pain, miserably, was not enough to distract him from the words -- the moment when he became it, when beast replaced humanoid.
Quenthel’s hand stilled, and she observed, “You have marked this one already.”
“It was only the first part of his penance, Matron Mother,” Ilvara said in a shy whisper. “A sign that he must be collared. If he survives this, perhaps it will spare another matron or mistress the pain he has caused me.”
“Hmm. How perspicacious of you.” The mockery in Matron Baenre’s voice was faint, but unmissable. “I’m sure you derived no pleasure from this task.”
“I do only the work of House Mizzrym.” Pride veiled in humility; Jorlan could imagine the mischief in Ilvara’s eyes.
“A valuable service you provide to the Ilythiiri, indeed.” Matron Baenre blew out a long breath. “Well! I promised I would tell you how a drider is made, but I’ve left out a valuable part -- how it all ends. How the fungus achieves its goal.”
Jorlan was sure this part would sicken him worst of all.
“After the drider is fully integrated, the shanaal’karliik goes dormant. Oh, it’s still there, and is visible if the beast is vivisected, but it stops growing. We don’t know what causes this, or how long it will remain so. Some orb’ilythiiri may live the lifespan of a normal drow. But eventually, the fungus will have its way. It will begin growing again, putting out the same tendrils it had before, expanding until it cracks the skull. “ A hand traced a line over the crown of Jorlan’s head. “This has the effect of killing the drider, naturally. Only now its spores will be released, and travel on the air currents to infect hunting spiders, beginning the whole process over again. The circle of life.” Matron Baenre made a thoughtful hum. “I suppose it’s a rather complex cycle, but it is as Lolth wills.”
Jorlan heard the rush of blood through his head and the sound of his own panting. He scarcely cared any more how pathetic he looked before the priestesses. He only wanted pain to plug his ears and eyes and render him senseless.
“What a long digression!” Quenthel said, after an interminable pause. “I’m becoming quite the yammering old woman. I only hope it was instructive.” Her fingers pressed into Jorlan’s wounds with deliberateness.
Opening his mouth to reply allowed a whine of pain to escape. “Yes-- ah! Ul’ilharess.” He used her proper title this time -- first Matron Mother. Flattery had become too expensive.
Quenthel’s head bent down beside his. “Will you find the prisoners, ssin’urn?” she asked, her voice thick with honey.
Something was wrong. Well, more wrong.
Jorlan felt himself leaving his own body, hovering above it as if hanging in air. From a great distance, he observed his abject state -- bent over upon himself, limbs shaking, mouth hanging open. Blood blossomed across his shoulders through the thin shirt he wore, bright with his body’s heat.
Completely broken, in a way he had not been for a long time.
Is this what it is like to die? He’d heard tales from drow brought back from death who had experienced their own passing in this way. But no; one didn’t die from the aftermath of the tentacle rod, no matter how brutally it had been applied. Nor did one die from the horror of imagining one’s own body twisted into an abomination, will all but erased, used as slave, shield wall, and breeding stud.
Somewhere very far away, a voice arose that he recognized as his own. I will not do this. I will not repay my life with betrayal. I will not see her die.
And yet the body as his feet said, “I will find the prisoners, ul’ilharess.”
With a spangle of red across his vision, Jorlan was back in his body. But there were two of him there now, and one was aware that--
Ilvara dragged him to his feet. Her fingers closed in the front of his shirt, pulling his face to hers. The smell of her perfume made a choking cloud around Jorlan-- and why was he suddenly aware that it was the scent of a surface plant, yellow and sickly sweet? “I half hope you will fail, ssin’urn. I do so like to see you brought low.” Her eyes turned down, and her lips quirked in a coquette-ish pout. “Though it would be a shame to lose the pleasure of your company.” Her finger traced a line over his hip bone through his clothes.
Something in him snapped. His knee came up, striking Ilvara’s stomach. She let out a cry, cut off as the wind was knocked out of her.
Jorlan rushed her, pushing her back against a spider-carved column. He had no weapons, but with one hand he pinned Ilvara’s arms above her head. The other arm he raised, poised to slam his elbow down into her windpipe.
“Jorlan!” she cried. Her eyes widened in fear. They both knew it was a killing blow he’d made before.
He looked down into eyes that weren’t red, but blue, and full of scalding betrayal.
He made a keening noise and fell back, just as the form beneath him melted into that of a spider and skittered away.