Charon's Claw (Neverwinter #3)


She had thought the Sovereignty would give her the pleasure of order here in Neverwinter. Perfect order, demanded internally and externally. But now they were gone and so many roads had opened. Too many roads for Arunika’s comfort, but she knew that it would pass as she came to better command the ultimate destination.

The agitated devil shook her head repeatedly as she followed every potential turn to its logical conclusion. What of Valindra? What of Szass Tam? What of the trio now hunting Alegni?

And most of all, what of Alegni and the Netheril Empire? Even with the potential pitfalls opening all around him, it seemed to Arunika that Alegni held the upper hand. Despite her assurances to Brother Anthus, Arunika understood that if Alegni survived the near future, he would become Lord of Neverwinter, perhaps for many years. Her meeting with Valindra had shown her the truth of the Thayans, and they would not threaten the power of Alegni and his Shadovar.

This likely outcome was not to Arunika’s taste, of course, but she was of the Nine Hells. The strong imposed the rule, and the rule was more important than the ruler.

Her preference, thus, seemed irrelevant.

She glanced back to the south, where Anthus lay on her floor, exhausted beyond consciousness, then shifted her gaze just a bit to the west, to an inn on a small hill, and a room looking back toward the river and the Herzgo Alegni Bridge.

Arunika did not like the uncertainty, but she knew what she must do if she wished to remain in the region, and more importantly, if she wished to help shape those rules that would govern this tumultuous area.

Now she walked with purpose, along the boulevards running south and west.

She could battle uncertainty by situating herself properly for all potential outcomes.

That was her litany, and it did help to calm her a bit as she passed by the darkened windows of sleeping Neverwinter. Emotionally, at least, though there remained the physical agitation, which Brother Anthus could not calm.

As she neared the inn, Arunika glanced around to ensure that there were no witnesses. Leathery wings appeared on her back as she willfully minimized her disguise, and then her wings spread wide.

As much a hop as flight put the succubus on the balcony of a particular room at that fine inn, and there she folded her wings once more and leaned on the railing, her back to the darkened city, her eyes watching the darkened room beyond the wood and glass door before her.

A long while passed, but she did not mind, as she worked even harder to clarify the possibilities and her potential within each.

Finally, she heard the lock click and a few moments later, the balcony door swung open and Herzgo Alegni stood before her, his expression a mixture of sly anticipation and hardened resolve.

Most of all, Arunika recognized, he was not surprised to see her. She stood on a balcony some thirty feet from the ground, with no stairway and only a locked door providing access, and yet, he was not surprised to see her.

His twisted warlock minion had extracted much from Invidoo, Arunika knew then more clearly, as she had suspected.

She answered Alegni’s hard look with a disarming smile.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Alegni remarked, the second half of a common warrior litany.

“Enemy?” Arunika asked innocently—so much so that she made it obvious to Alegni that she was denying nothing.

Alegni couldn’t resist her expression, her posture, her playful retort, and a grin spread on his broad face.

“You have won, Herzgo Alegni,” Arunika stated flatly. “What enemies remain?”

“Indeed,” he replied unconvincingly.

Arunika smiled all the wider, coyly, and let her wings spread wide once more as she walked deliberately toward the hulking tiefling. “How close would you like your enemies?” she asked quietly, her voice husky and promising, and her devil wings embraced him.

“Close enough to kill,” Alegni answered.

Arunika couldn’t resist that tease. Where Brother Anthus failed, Herzgo Alegni excelled.

Chapter 3: The Spellspinner

It is not the dwarf homeland, Jearth’s fingers flashed to Ravel Xorlarrin. The forward scouts of the expedition, a tenday and a half out of Menzoberranzan, had come upon a vast cavern, its walls tiered and worked. First word back along the lines had been promising that this might be a lower barracks or undercity of some sorts, something with which Jearth apparently did not agree.

You know definitively?

Jearth nodded, then nodded again to indicate the approach of Tiago Baenre on Byok, his famed lizard mount. “These are orc dwellings,” he said aloud, including Tiago into the conversation. “The place is filthy with them, and with bugbears.”

“Then we are likely nearer the surface than we believed,” Ravel reasoned, and he cast a quick look to acknowledge Tiago’s arrival before turning back to directly address Jearth. “We should send scouts—perhaps your friend here—along any ascending tunnels we find to see if we might break free of the caverns.”

The reference to Tiago Baenre, a noble of the First House of Menzoberranzan and very likely soon to be named the weapons master of that most important drow family, as a scout drew a thin grin from Tiago. It was sourced, Ravel knew, less in amusement than in the young Baenre’s desire to let him know that the comment had been appropriately marked and would be appropriately remembered.

The proud Ravel wanted to retort, but the sensible Ravel suppressed that foolish urge.

“We have scouts suited to the mission,” the wiser and older Jearth replied, “already seeking such boulevards.”

When Ravel started to respond, Jearth flashed him a warning stare.

Ravel hated this, hated having a Baenre along. For, like many of his family, he hated House Baenre above all. The Xorlarrins rarely admitted that, of course, usually reserving their public venom for Barrison Del’Armgo, the Second House of Menzoberranzan, and indeed, Matron Mother Zeerith’s most vociferous fights at the Council of Eight usually involved the matron of Barrison Del’Armgo. For who would dare openly speak against Quenthel Baenre?

And this young Baenre was very much cut of that one’s cloth, Ravel knew. He watched Tiago closely as the young warrior gracefully dismounted, straightening his perfect clothing and silvery chain armor before he was even fully clear of the beast. His short-cut white hair was perfectly and stylishly coifed, as everything about his appearance—the bone structure of his slender face, the set and sparkle of his eyes, even the whisper of a thin white mustache, something very uncommon among the drow—showed that Baenre perfection. It was rumored that much of House Baenre’s magical energies of late had been preempted for superficial reasons, to create beauty among the House’s inner circle, but if such magical intervention had been the case with Tiago, it had happened long ago, at the time of his birth. For this one had always seemed to have “the right side of the mushroom in his face,” as the old drow saying about luck went.

Tiago came up in a casual, easy posture, fully in control in his own mind, Ravel assumed. His hands rested easily on the hilts of the twin swords sheathed at his hips—no doubt among the most fabulous weapons in all of Menzoberranzan. The spellspinner would have loved to cast a dweomer then to determine the no-doubt abundance of magical items and implements carried by this privileged noble, and he made a note to secretly enact such a spell next time he saw Tiago coming.

He pulled his gaze from the handsome young warrior and turned back to Jearth. “Can we circumvent the chamber?”

As Jearth began to answer yes, Tiago interrupted with a resounding “no,” and both Xorlarrins turned to regard him with surprise.

“Why would we?” Tiago asked.

“True enough,” Jearth interjected before Ravel could speak. “No doubt the orcs and bugbears will cower before our march and would not dare try to hinder us.”

“And why would we let them do that?” Tiago asked.

Ravel looked from one to the other, crinkling his face in disapproval and incredulity that they would dare have such a discussion around him, as if he was not even there.

“It is true,” Jearth insisted, the weapons master obviously catching the growing and dangerous ire of the spellspinner.

“We should demand a tithing of fodder for our inconvenience of even having to ask,” Ravel replied.

“No,” Tiago again unexpectedly interrupted, and again, both Xorlarrins looked at him in surprise.

“It is past time for a fight,” the young Baenre explained.

“We have had fights,” Jearth reminded.

“With a pack of displacer beasts and a few random creatures,” Tiago explained. “Nothing against an entrenched enemy, the likes of which we will surely find when we do at last come upon this place called Gauntlgrym. This is a great opportunity for us to witness the coordination of our various factions. Let our warriors see the power of Ravel and his spellspinners.”

Ravel narrowed his eyes just a bit at that remark, wondering if what Tiago really meant was that he personally wanted to see how formidable an enemy Ravel might truly prove to be.

“Let us all, warrior and spellspinner alike, witness the tactics, power, and boundaries of these damned driders we have towed along,” Tiago finished.

Ravel continued to stare hard at him, while Jearth gave an agreeing nod, apparently easily swayed by the young warrior’s argument. Or was it that Jearth was easily swayed by any argument put forth by a Baenre? Ravel wondered.

“We need such a fight, spellspinner,” Tiago said directly to Ravel, and the deference in his tone caught the Xorlarrin off guard a bit. “It will bolster morale and hone our tactics. Besides,” he added with an irresistible and mischievous grin, “it will be fun.”

Despite his reservations, suspicions, and general distaste for the Baenre noble, Ravel found himself believing in Tiago’s sincerity. So surprising was that to him that the spellspinner briefly wondered if one of Tiago’s magical items had secretly cast a dweomer upon him to enamor him of the young warrior.

“Well enough,” Ravel heard himself saying, to his surprise. “Coordinate it.”

Tiago flashed him a shining smile and motioned for Jearth to follow, then turned to his mount.

“I will lead the first assault,” Ravel demanded, his tone changing abruptly. “I and my spellspinners will cast the first stones.”

Tiago bowed respectfully and mounted Byok, then waited as Jearth retrieved his own lizard mount. In the few moments he had alone with Tiago, Ravel found that their discussion was not quite at its end.

Free yourself of your envy, Xorlarrin son, Tiago’s fingers flashed at him.

Ravel looked at him suspiciously, then answered, I know not what you mean, presumptuous Baenre son.

Don’t you? came the response, but it was flashed with an expression of honest curiosity and not consternation, minimizing the accusation.

Tiago’s fingers flashed emphatically, and quickly, since Jearth was even then climbing into the saddle, and soon to return. When our elders speak of the promising young males of Menzoberranzan, two names are most often mentioned, are they not? Tiago Baenre and Ravel Xorlarrin. Promising young students, respective leaders of their academies. Perhaps we are doomed to be rivals, bitter and ultimately fatal to one.