AUTHOR'S NOTES: This follows up on the events of "For a Change," my oneshot of about a year ago, but if I've done my job right it should read fine on its own. For the same reason, notes on related canon aren't on here for now but will be provided on request should I prove not quite as competent as I imagine.
I began writing this before the first book of the Lady Penitent Trilogy came out, and it's extremely AU with that for reasons that are quite evident if you've read the book, though I'll probably be nicking aspects of Sacrifice of the Widow for my own purposes. I hope this'll turn out to be an adequate exploration of what might lie beyond a door that appears to have been closed.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own the Forgotten Realms, which is probably a good thing for all concerned.
SPOILER WARNINGS: So far there'll be some for War of the Spider Queen, with allusions to the results of the Last Mythal trilogy and Blackstaff.
GENERAL WARNINGS: Looks like I've got pretty much the whole banana permissible for the rating - at one point or another there looks to be violence, profanity, sexual innuendo, reference to physical and mental fold/spindle/mutilate, the consequences thereof... plus lots of "original" characters (born, I like to think, out of necessity) and some exceedingly "human" gods. With a side of drow fangirlism and authorial savior complex.
Without further ado...
A Spider in Arvandor
Chapter One: Family Union
The Year of Risen Elfkin
"It seems to be a time of change," said Corellon Larethian. "An appropriate time for this, I should think."
Angharradh nodded. They stood at the top of a tower at the heart of their realm in Arvandor, watched two cities rise on the Material Plane, and listened to the murmur of both, a murmur of return, a murmur that gave Corellon some encouragement though he knew it was a different return they spoke of.
On the Material, return was elves bursting out of Evermeet and spreading back over Abeir-Toril. Among the Seldarine return was Fenmarel Mestarine silently walking toward the mountains with the aim of shaping his realm there. It was Shevarash following him, bow in hand. It was Eilistraee spinning in the grass, arms out beneath the moonlight.
The tower was called the Overlook for a reason. Eilistraee's realm was easy to pick out, since it was day in the adjoining areas but perpetual night there, and perpetual moonlight. He could make out her petitioners moving about in its loose confines; she was notable in her absence.
"Everyone seems to be coming back," said Angharradh. She'd been born, in a sense, the combination of three goddesses, on the day the leaving began. He hoped what caused the leaving to begin with had been remedied sufficiently.
Perhaps not back for this one, nor return. How could you return to somewhere you'd never been?
No, Selvetarm might not be returning as such to Arvandor but he could return in a different sense. Should return.
"It seems I should be with her," he said, knowing he spoke only to hear Angharradh's reassurance that this was not the case.
From the quirk of her lip, he supposed Angharradh knew as well. "There is little we could do at this point that Eilistraee cannot do already. I understand she was doing quite well with him to start with, until… If she needs us before the arranged time," Angharradh concluded, "she will call on us."
"And suppose she does not think she needs-?"
"She will not risk him for the sake of pride."
So. This is how it happened: I followed my god. He was walking in one direction and I followed. When I blinked he started running the other way, back past where we'd started. I didn't go after him.
This happened more than a hundred years ago, not long after the Year of Frostfires. I changed gods like I changed clothes, shed them when I thought they asked too much. Corellon Larethian and Eilistraee haven't asked as much and I haven't left them yet, but I'm no priest of either of them which is just as well.
I'm no priest of Labelas Enoreth, for that matter, so don't expect a great work of art from this, some explanation as to why Selvetarm ran the other way all of a sudden. I only write what I'm asked to and maybe they can make something of it.
But as I said, it's been more than a century. If they haven't worked it out yet I doubt they ever will.
(Kalannar Dhuunyl, once of Selvetarm, the Year of the Blue Shield)
"You've all been taught this, of course, so I shouldn't have to teach you." Adinirahc Xarann shifted his weight slightly, taking care not to look like he was fidgeting. "But it's one of the easier things to forget." He paced now, back and forth across the floor of the Grand Temple amphitheater, almost trying to fill it with his movement. It had been constructed with a view to combat and public sacrifices, not to the comfort of someone just standing there and speaking. "So as a reminder…"
Whispers from the seated Selvetargtlin of the Temple Guard, flurries of hand signs. He knew better than to try to quell them. Fingers and tongues had been fluttering for quite some time, but they seemed to move in circles, receiving little in the way of further insight but picking up speed as they went, their owners more agitated each time they prayed for their spells and still more agitated by each contact with their god when the spells were granted. It had to break, and the thing to do was try to focus the gathered energy, control it to some degree.
At least they had advance warning. It was not so long ago that the priestesses of Lolth had come out of Reverie to find their goddess no longer answering prayers. No one spoke of it any longer, at least in earshot of the priestesses of Lolth, but it had not been so long ago that they would forget it. Not in Eryndlyn, where heretics flourished in the open just over the rivers and across the central lake.
Would there be a second Silence, this one for Lolth's Champion? Adinirahc suspected it would be more of a shout.
Now he shouted, "Where do we hope to die?"
"In battle," they shouted back immediately, though most would naturally hope not to die at all.
"How do we hope to die?"
Another shout, "Against overwhelming odds."
"Because we will not fall to less!"
He'd gone through this a hundred times if not more while teaching them, or most of them. They understood the pattern even if they couldn't recite it cold, and they followed it when prompted. Now for variation.
"What are we?" he demanded, lowering his voice.
The answer was correspondingly lower, not as swift this time, and definitely conflicted. He supposed they thought it a trick question.
"The warriors of Selvetarm?" hazarded Micarlin Jhalavar, near the front. Obvious but true, as were many of the answers that followed.
"We are drow."
In the back, "Lolth's meat."
"We are all Lolth's meat."
"The Temple Guard?"
Nadal the spellsinger quipped, "Servants of Lolth's servants."
"Lolth's chosen people."
Someone else in the back, with a distinct sarcastic tinge, "Also Lolth's meat."
Adinirahc stopped pacing long enough to say, louder again, "Yes. So we are."
This time - not a whisper, not a finger twitched.
He started moving again. "We will all die, of course. Selvetarm willing, we will die well. We will die fighting and we will take as many of our enemies with us in our last bite as we can."
Another stop. Turning in a neat circle, he drew sword and mace, crossing them in the familiar pattern emblazoned on their holy symbols. All it needed was a spider.
"I won't tell you not to forget this. I think better of you than that." Fits of muffled laughter erupted throughout the gathering. He hadn't thought it was that witty, and suspected nerves. "Only… keep it in mind, in the future." In the future, when whatever he prepared them for arrived. "Keep it in mind. Dismissed."
Corellon had never met the younger god, Selvetarm, his grandson.
His grandson. There was no forgetting that.
How much of Vhaeraun would he see in Selvetarm's face, his frame, his movement, his speech, his disposition? How much would he see of half-gone Zandilar the Dancer? How much of himself, and how much of… No. That could go nowhere of help.
What knowledge he had was mainly through Eilistraee. She'd suspected foul play from the start - it happened too quickly, she'd said, too abruptly - but Selvetarm no longer spoke to her let alone asked for her help, and there were, if not rules, quite definite guidelines.
Then, not so long ago, Eilistraee's persistence had been rewarded, or at least answered. She came before him carrying a jug of Evergold's water which she'd already acquired from Hanali Celanil. Her momentum was obvious, and Corellon's answer nearly a given.
Not long ago Vhaeraun had thrown Corellon's name to the air, surely knowing that a part of the other god would hear and listen. "Well, Father," he'd whispered. "I think I'm thinking on my own and I'm certainly living on my own. I await the way to Arvandor." He'd laced the words with implication and accusation so thick that Corellon could almost hear it as a shadow of a voice. "You said I must learn to do this," said the shadow, and Corellon had indeed said he must learn, "and so I have." So he had. "Why, then, am I still here? I don't await the way, not truly, but why is it barred to me?"
A shadow of a shadow hissed alongside it, I don't need you or Arvandor, you sanctimonious liar.
Vhaeraun always had an excellent memory for what he wished to remember. Corellon, meanwhile, remembered the rest of what he'd told his son those millennia ago and knew he hadn't lied to Vhaeraun, knew there was little if not nothing else he could reasonably have done. Nothing he could reasonably do now, if Vhaeraun did not show willing.
Selvetarm showed willing, willing to escape the Demonweb Pits if nothing else. He had replied to Eilistraee through an intermediary and expressed interest in arranging a meeting out of Lolth's sight. She'd said, "Perhaps he does wish to be redeemed," but they both knew the likelihood of that.
Still, Corellon's answer was nearly a given. He'd ached to say yes from near the moment Eilistraee opened her mouth, but there were other responsibilities to consider, other practicalities. He could not recklessly pursue a phantom hope when there were others who trusted him to act in their best interest. Eilistraee dealt with each consideration in turn, though faint doubts persisted beyond her ability to dispel them.
"Call it a family matter," she said at last, and that sealed it whether it should have or not.
Angharradh slipped her hand around his own and held them interlocked. He watched the moonlit patch, its edges bleeding into the land around it, in particular the place he'd seen Eilistraee step into a gate to the Abyss.
Father? It is done.
Attuned to the plane as he was, he felt the fluctuations as Eilistraee announced it, marking the arrival of another divine being. From the Overlook, he saw the new gate, quickly closing, and the two figures before it. He heard the scream.
Some of the magic laid on him was supposed to stop him from coming here, Eilistraee continued, and it continues to wound-
Corellon momentarily tightened his grip on Angharradh's hand as the top of the Overlook dissolved around the pair and near as quickly spun back into grass, trees, moonlight. He let go and stepped forward, ready to meet his grandson and help his daughter finish what she had started.
Something writhed in the grass of Eilistraee's realm, finishing off the scream that had been audible from the Overlook. Eilistraee knelt beside him - him, though Corellon's mind, to his consternation, first leapt to it. He knew who he must be.
Eilistraee spoke without opening her eyes. "Father…" Her eyes opened then, and her attention shifted rapidly back to her charge. "He's here. You see? It will be all right."
The scream ended, replaced by gasps. Long spider's legs bent in midair, unbent. They were attached to a black-glinting carapace, riddled with seeping wounds. Corellon heard himself draw in a sharp breath. He found it somewhat easier to look at the arms - all six of them though they were, clawing at the ground though they were. Easier to look at the back, as dark as the carapace it melded to, and bearing its own wounds. At Selvetarm's head, presently turned away and giving rise to all manner of absurd worries as to the face that might go with it. Those had their own associations, but nothing comparable to what the arachnid features brought to mind.
Corellon produced one gem, Angharradh another. These basic protections went off in a matter of moments, the fragments of the gem falling from his hand as he examined the established magic and cast a more specific spell to match, meshing with the current and prior efforts of Eilistraee and Angharradh. It was quick and by no means thorough, but it went some way toward blunting the effects. Complete disjunction of all of the linked compulsions, forbiddances, and penalties would take time - best to spare some of that time at the start to temper the pain in the interim.
"You saw the binding?" said Eilistraee. It was not truly a question. "He's also absorbed a demonic essence, and it's tangled up with his own. It's hard to tell at first glance, but there is a difference - Shh. Shh," as Selvetarm's gasps got him enough breath to cry out again. "We're here for you. We're here."
Further observation on the appropriate level revealed that what seemed to be an undifferentiated darkness indeed contained striations, grotesquely merged and twisted. He could not look at it very long, especially with even more screaming in the background, and refocused himself to Selvetarm's physical form flailing in the grass. The movement had more direction now - Corellon guessed he was trying to stand.
At the same time, Eilistraee reached out and tried to coax him to stillness. Selvetarm ignored her - he was staring toward Corellon now, and in his face Corellon saw much of what he'd feared he'd find - what was natural to find, and so all the more feared. It was not quite so bad as expected, however. Perhaps one of his few saving graces was that Corellon had never seen Vhaeraun half out of his mind with agony, and so there wasn't as much basis for a direct comparison between his son and his grandson. It wasn't much of a grace, but there it was.
Eilistraee looked about to ask how he could be speaking of weapons at a time like this, but seemed to understand the next moment - the answer itself was not as important as just the conversation. "I brought them." She waved toward a location out of Corellon's range of sight. "The two named ones."
He nodded, trusting they were there, and continued to reconnoiter his task. Strands of magic were woven together with the skill he'd expect of a goddess who'd once been Araushnee the weaver of destiny - riddled with trick knots, and loops that were by no means loopholes. Outright force would most likely end up breaking Selvetarm's mind before it broke the strands. Subtlety would fare little better, if undertaken entirely from the outside.
"Angharradh," he said, "Eilistraee. Will you keep watch?"
They nodded. Angharradh said, "Call on us when we're needed."
"Earlier than that. When you think for a moment," said Eilistraee, not looking up, "that we might be needed, then you call on us. Promise me that, Father?"
He promised her. Meanwhile, Selvetarm had made some measure of progress and kept at it in spite of Eilistraee's best efforts, though his struggles seemed to be slowing.
"Can you hear me?" After checking the strands once more to be sure none of them would try to prevent his next spell and further worsen Selvetarm's condition in the process, Corellon cast it and mentally repeated the question.
Selvetarm choked on another scream and managed to gasp, "Yes-"
He slipped more of himself into the link, splitting off from the physical. Use this, if you can. It should be easier.
I can. The bite to his mental voice called up even more unwanted association. It isn't. But it's not harder. His voice's shadow, though, was not so much a hidden message as an constant undertone - it hurts, it hurts, it hurts…
I can help you, if you will help me do so.
He heard a yell of "Agreed," followed by another fit of gasping. Selvetarm continued through the link with obvious effort. Where's my mace, then? My sword? Did Aunt Eilistraee leave them behind? No matter, bare hands can't be that hard. Just give me a breath to get up. Or don't. Why should you make allowances? I wouldn't. Eilistraee had renewed her pleading for Selvetarm to try and be still before he hurt himself further. Draw your sword, then. I'm ready.
Ready? Ready to die? Slipping into his mind before he could stop it was the memory of someone else saying much the same thing - but while she had been scornful, clearly believing he would never carry it out, this one seemed entirely resigned to the possibility - more than resigned, actually eager.
Corellon was aware others would be entirely willing to take him up on the mockery of combat - Shevarash, for one - and didn't anticipate telling them of this development. He put it out of mind for now. It was not intended in that sense.
Then in what sense?
In the sense of living. In living freed from this.
You don't mean it. You can't.
I do. I can.
Oh, then you'll do your own. Should have thought of that. Why bother even asking?
I have no intention of repeating what she has done to you.
You're a good liar, said Selvetarm, but some shouldn't ever be tried.
I do need your assistance in undoing it. Your voluntary assistance.
What you're saying, then…agh! The sudden cry penetrated, echoed through the mental link. Corellon felt the magic humming - something had triggered another penalty. Yes. Yes, she hates you doesn't she, and so far I hate her more than I do you. Might be I'll even live to see her rotting in the Astral if I play it right, is that right?
Corellon paused, and wished he could insert a swallow in telepathy. Some little excuse for delay. True enough.
Let me tell you something. Once you've got me - don't bother lying, not now - then change me.
Change you? How so? Eilistraee had spoken of change, of healing and redemption, but he doubted somehow this was what Selvetarm meant.
Make me forget what I've learned about lying and then you can do it all you like. Make me an idiot again so I'll listen. Put me to sleep and don't let me wake. She liked me awake, she liked me hating her, liked me knowing I'd been had, and look at me now. Use me, but don't let me know it. Insistent and almost earnest, I tell you this for your own damnable good.
He thought Corellon was lying - well, here was a lie for him, or closer to one than all the other truths. Yes. You will change - at the least, we hope it will be so.
Eilistraee crooned something comforting and inarticulate. Angharradh spoke; Corellon could tell it contained words, but in this state they were beyond him.
Then tell me what to do.
He slipped halfway out of the link. His body had numbed somewhat in his absence, and movement sent almost-stars shooting through his veins. The two goddesses looked toward him. His mouth was dry. "I believe I am in need of you."
The last strand snapped away and dissipated. Corellon tilted forward but managed to seat himself with a modicum of dignity.
"It is done," said Eilistraee, tossing her words into the air for whoever qualified to pick them up. "You can rest now." Selvetarm no longer screamed or flailed. She ran her fingers over his hair, down his neck and back damp with sweat and Evergold's water.
At some point, Angharradh had separated into her component goddesses. Aerdrie Faenya and Hanali Celanil wandered off, talking quietly. Sehanine Moonbow remained for now, resting her hand on Corellon's elbow.
"Rest," Eilistraee repeated. "Rest." She began to hum the same melody.
Selvetarm looked toward him again. Closed his eyes. "Don't let me wake."
Corellon said nothing.