Charons Claw by R. A. Salvatore

Page 1



  Ravel Xorlarrin strode confidently into his mother’s audience hall, his purple robes dancing around his loudly and rudely clacking high boots. Everyone in the room of course knew that he could walk in perfect silence; his boots, like those of most drow nobles, were imbued with that rather common magical trait. He had thrown back the black cowl of his garment so his long white hair flowed behind him, further drawing attention to himself. This was his shining moment, after all.

  To the left side of the room, Ravel’s older brother and sire, Elderboy Brack’thal, flashed him a simmering stare—not unexpectedly since the much younger Ravel had taken the mantle as the most powerful of the Xorlarrin children. Brack’thal had once been the object of such high honor, a mighty wizard greatly favored by Matron Mother Zeerith. But that had been before the Spellplague, during which Brack’thal had suffered terribly and his powers had greatly diminished.

  In that same time, the patron of the House, the unfortunately-named Horoodissomoth, had been driven completely insane and had consumed himself in a delayed blast fireball, one he had inadvertently placed into his own vest pocket.

  And so Zeerith had turned to the semi-comatose Brack’thal for seed and had produced of his loins Ravel, his brother and his son.

  Every time Ravel greeted Brack’thal with “my brother, my father,” the older wizard winced in anger, and the younger wizard grinned. For Brack’thal could not move against him. In personal combat, Ravel would annihilate Brack’thal, they both knew, and though he was barely out of Sorcere, the drow academy for wizards, Ravel had already built a stronger spy network and support team than Brack’thal had ever known. Like the younger magic-users of House Xorlarrin, Ravel did not even call himself a wizard, nor did Matron Mother Zeerith and the others. Powerful weavers of arcane powers like Ravel were now considered “spellspinners” in House Xorlarrin, and indeed they had tailored the material and semantic components of their spells to make their casting seem more akin to the dance of a spider than the typical finger-waggling of pre-Spellplague wizards.

  When he glanced to the right side of the room, Ravel took note of the House weapons master, Jearth, a poignant reminder of his vast and growing network of influence. Jearth was Ravel’s closest ally, and though House Xorlarrin was widely and uniquely known for its many male magic-users, Jearth Xorlarrin was rightfully considered one of the most powerful of the current weapons masters of Menzoberranzan.

  From the day of his birth, it seemed, everything had broken Ravel’s way.

  And so it was now. It was Ravel who had discovered Gromph Baenre’s work on the magical skull gem. Ravel had dared to sneak behind the back of the mighty Archmage of Menzoberranzan—no small risk, considering that Gromph’s family reigned supreme in the drow city—and also explore the inner magic of that gem. In it, Ravel had encountered the disembodied spirit, a lich, and from that creature the spellspinner had discerned some startling information indeed.

  Apparently, Matron Mother Zeerith had thought the tales interesting, as well.

  “Well met, Matron Mother,” Ravel greeted, barely diverting his eyes from hers. Had Zeerith been angry with him, such a bold break with etiquette would have surely gotten him snake-whipped. “You requested my presence?”

  “I demanded it,” Matron Mother Zeerith curtly corrected. “We have determined that the cataclysm that struck the surface was the work of a primordial. The vomit of a fire beast perpetrated the catastrophe. ”

  His head down, Ravel grinned from ear to ear. He had told her as much, for the lich in the skull gem had told him the same.

  “We have determined that this primordial resides within the ancient Delzoun homeland of Gauntlgrym,” Zeerith went on.

  “Have you found it?” Ravel asked before he could stop the words from bursting out of his mouth. He sucked in his breath immediately and lowered his head, but not before noting the gasps from his many vile sisters, or noticing that one put her hand to her snake-headed whip. His ally Jearth, too, had winced and sucked in his breath, clearly expecting a swift and brutal punishment to rain down on Ravel.

  But stunningly, Matron Mother Zeerith let the breach go unpunished, unmentioned even.

  “Look at me,” she commanded, and Ravel complied.

  “Your pardon, Matron Moth—”

  She waved him to silence.

  “We do not know the way to this place, Gauntlgrym,” she admitted. “But we know its region. We are grateful to you for your resourcefulness and cunning. It is no small thing to extract such information out from under the nose of that miserable Gromph and his wretched family, who deign themselves so superior to all others in Menzoberranzan. ”

  Ravel, despite his bravado, could hardly believe the sweet words and could hardly breathe.

  “We must find it,” Zeerith said. “We must determine if this place, with this source of power, is suited to our designs. Too long has House Xorlarrin toiled under the smothering cloak of House Baenre and the others. Too long have we been held from our rightful position of leadership, the ultimate favor of Lady Lolth. We were the first to emerge from the Spellplague, the first to learn the new ways to weave magical energies for the glory of the Spider Queen. ”

  Ravel nodded with every word, for Matron Zeerith’s bold declarations were no secret among the nobles of House Xorlarrin. Long had they searched for a way out of Menzoberranzan. Long had they pondered the thought of founding an independent drow city. How daunting it seemed, however, for they all knew that such an act would bring the vengeance of mighty House Baenre and other allied Houses, like Barrison Del’Armgo.

  But if House Xorlarrin found such a fortress as this Gauntlgrym, and a source of power as great as a primordial, perhaps they would realize their dreams.

  “You will lead the expedition,” Zeerith said. “You will find all the resources of House Xorlarrin at your disposal. ”

  At the side of the room, Brack’thal’s audible sigh had many heads turning his way.

  “Is there a problem, Elderboy?” Zeerith asked him.

  “Elderboy. . . . ” he dared echo, as if the fact that he and not Ravel held that title should be an obvious enough problem for all to see.

  Zeerith glanced at her daughters and nodded, and as one, the five Xorlarrin sisters took up their magical whips, multi-headed, devious magical implements whose strands writhed with living, biting serpents.

  Elderboy Brack’thal growled in response. “Matron, do not! If you would allow Ravel his miscues, then so you must—”

  He fell silent and took a step back, or tried to, but those drow around him grabbed him and held him fast, and as the sisters approached, their commoner male servants marching defensively before them, Brack’thal was thrown to their grasp.

  The commoners dragged him out of the chamber, into a side room that many males of the House knew all too well.

  “All the resources,” Zeerith said again to Ravel, and she didn’t lift her voice, flinch, or avert her eyes at all as the beating in the anteroom commenced and Brack’thal began to shriek in agony.

  “Even the weapons master?” Ravel dared to ask, and he, too, feigned that his brother’s screaming was nothing unusual or disruptive.

  “Of course. Wasn’t Jearth complicit in your deception of Gromph Baenre?”

  It was the answer he wanted to hear, of course, but Ravel hardly smiled. He glanced over at the weapons master, who seemed to shrink back just a bit and flashed him a cold stare in response. Jearth had indeed helped him, but covertly . . . only covertly! Jearth had warned him from the beginning that he would not have his name associated with any deception involving Gromph Baenre, and now Matron Mother Zeerith had ex
pressed it openly in the House Noble Court.

  House Xorlarrin was the most magical, from an arcane and not divine standpoint, of any House in Menzoberranzan. Xorlarrin put more students into Sorcere than any other House, even Baenre, and many times the number of any House other than Baenre. And the Master of Sorcere was the Archmage of Menzoberranzan, Gromph Baenre.

  No one, not Ravel, not Jearth, not even Matron Mother Zeerith, doubted that Gromph Baenre had spies within House Xorlarrin. To Ravel, this was no great issue. He had been a favored student of Gromph and the archmage would not likely move against him for such a transgression as a bit of spying.

  But Jearth was a warrior and no wizard, and merciless Gromph would likely show no such deference to any swordsman.

  “You will take Brack’thal, as well,” Zeerith instructed.

  “Subservient to me?” Ravel asked, and Zeerith grinned wickedly.

  “And of your sisters, only Saribel and Berellip are available for the journey,” Zeerith explained.

  Ravel tightened at that, but quickly hid it, for Saribel was the youngest, the weakest, and, as far as he could tell, by far the stupidest, of the House priestesses, and Berellip, though older and more powerful, often looked upon him with open scorn and had made no secret of her dismay that House Xorlarrin allowed males so prestigious a status among the nobles. Fanatical in her devotion to Lolth, Berellip showed indifference, at best, to the arcane spellspinners, and had, on occasion, issued open threats to the upstart Ravel.

  “You will argue?” Zeerith asked, and coincidentally, at that moment, Brack’thal let loose the most agonized scream of all.

  Ravel swallowed hard. “Harnessing a primordial . . . ” he said, shaking his head and letting his voice trail off ominously. “Has it ever been accomplished?”

  “Redirect its powers, perhaps?” Zeerith asked. “You understand what we need. ”

  Ravel bit back his next argument and considered the words carefully. What did House Xorlarrin truly need?

  Room to breathe, most of all, he understood. If they could establish a fledgling city in this ancient dwarven land and have time to get their considerable magical wards in place, would the other Houses of Menzoberranzan think it worth the cost to assault them?

  If this new drow city could open avenues to expanded trade, or serve as a warning post against any potential Underdark excursions by the wretched surface dwellers, would that not be a boon to Menzoberranzan?

  “Ched Nasad has never been replaced,” Ravel dared to remark, referring to Menzoberranzan’s former sister city, a beauty of web bridges and sweeping arches, which had been destroyed in the War of the Spider Queen a century before.

  “Berellip will inform you of your budget for mercenaries,” Zeerith said with a dismissive wave. “Assemble your team and be away. ”

  Ravel bowed quickly and spun around, just in time to see Brack’thal staggering back into the audience chamber, his shirt tattered and bloody, his jaw clenched and eyes bulging from the painful poison of snake-headed whips. Despite that obvious inner struggle, the Elderboy managed to control his facial muscles just long enough to toss Ravel a hateful glare.

  For an instant, Ravel thought of appealing Zeerith’s decision that he take his brother along, but he let it go. Brack’thal could not defeat him in single combat, after all, and they both knew it. Brack’thal wouldn’t make a move against him personally. And since Ravel had been given the power to determine the composition of the expeditionary force, he’d make sure that none of Brack’thal’s associates would go along.

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