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Authors: Elaine Cunningham

Tangled Webs

BOOK: Tangled Webs
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Elaine Cunningham

“Tangled Webs”

Chapter 1

Far below the streets of Waterdeep, in a cavern buried beneath the bottom of the sea, lay the hidden city that legend and rumor had named Skullport. Most of those who came here sought to trade in goods that were banned in civilized ports, and the dregs of a hundred warring races did business in an atmosphere of knife-edged danger. Yet beneath the streets of Skullport were even deeper realms, places that the most intrepid merchants strove to avoid. In one particularly noisome labyrinth-a series of winding tunnels and despoiled crypts-a dungeon had been fashioned for those who disturbed the tenuous balance of the city.

Once the burial place of a long-vanished tribe of dwarves, over the centuries these catacombs had become home to other, more dangerous creatures. From time to time, treasure hunters came seeking an undiscovered dwarven cache; most of these seekers remained as piles of moldering bones, giving powerful testament to the trapsand monsters that lingered in the dank stone passages.

It was a forbidding place, even to a drow accustomed to walking the endless tunnels of the Underdark. Magical elven boots muted the sound of her footsteps, and a glittering piwafwi cloaked her with invisibility, yet Liriel Baenre kept keenly alert for possible dangers. To speed her way, she carried foremost in her thoughts the remembered face of the man imprisoned in this, the worst of Skullport’s dungeons.

Slender as a human girl-child and seemingly not much older, the young drow appeared delicate to the point of fragility. Her black-satin skin gave her the look of living sculpture, an image that was enhanced by the supple, tightly fitted black leathers and ebony-hued chain mail she wore. She was beautiful in the fey manner of elvenkind, with fine, sharp features and a cloud of thick white hair as glossy as moonlight on new snow. Hers was a mobile face that could be one moment impish, the next coldly beautiful, dominated by a pair of large, almond-shaped eyes the color of Rashemaar amber. These eyes spoke of a restless intelligence and an ever-ready supply of mischief By all appearances, the drow girl hardly seemed capable of storming this deeply buried stronghold. And yet, that was precisely what she intended to do.

Liriel moved easily through the utter darkness of the tunnel. The gloom presented no problem, for the eyes of a drow could detect subtle heat patterns in the rock and the air currents. The eyes of a drow wizard were even more sensitive; in the tunnel ahead, Liriel perceived the faint, bluish aura-visible only to those who had inherent magical talent and assiduous training-that warned of magic at work.

The drow crept cautiously closer. The eerie glow curtained off the tunnel like a luminous sheet, but since it was a magical aura visible only to wizards, it cast no illumination upon the scene around it. Liriel debated for a moment whether to risk creating a true light and decided it might be wise to view the trap through the eyes of those who had created it. That it was a trap, she did not doubt for a moment.

As easily as thought, Liriel conjured a globe of faerie fire. The magical light bobbed in the air beside her, floating here and there in response to her unspoken directions and bathing the grim scene in faint white light.

Bones littered the tunnel on both sides of the telltale blue aura, tumbled haphazardly together with abandoned weapons and gear. The tunnel’s floor and walls had been splashed repeatedly with gore, and the stone was caked with the dull, dark red of long-dried blood. Whatever the trap was, it had certainly proven effective.

Liriel’s gaze fell upon a shallow, much-dented bronze bowl embossed with finely wrought designs and lined with ivory. It seemed strangely out of place among the grisly remains and the practical tools scattered around her feet, and the curious drow crouched to examine it. As she picked it up, the “lining” fell out-it was not ivory but bone, and too thick to be anything but the skull of a dwarf

The drow settled back on her heels to examine this discovery. Something had sliced neatly through the dwarf’s head, cutting through helm and bone so cleanly that the edges of both were as smooth as if they’d been ground and polished by a master gem-cutter. This told her much about the dwarf’s death.

Liriel kicked through the scattered debris until she found a heavy thigh bone that had once belonged to a goodsized ogre. As she expected, the bone was severed near the upper joint, at just about the spot where a dwarf’s head would reach if the two treasure-hunting fools had stood side by side. The drow rummaged through the pile, selecting similarly cut bones from the remains of several different races, and then laid them out beside each other. In moments she had a fairly precise idea of the trap’s danger-and its limitations.

Liriel took up the ogre’s leg bone once again. Keeping her hand well away from the magical danger zone, she thrust one end of the bone into the glowing aura. From either side of the tunnel wall, discs of gleaming blue whirled out from the solid rock. The spinning blades met, crossed, and disappeared back into the stone.

The drow regarded the bone in her hand. The tip had been sheared off, so quickly that she hadn’t even felt the impact, so silently that the only telltale sound was the muffled clatter as the bone shard fell to the bloodencrusted rock.

Not bad, Liriel acknowledged silently, but too predictable. A drow wizard would have enspelled the blades for random attack, so that each strike would come from a different place. Or perhaps such a provision had been made to deal with those who might figure out the first attack and try to slip in under the trigger area.

Liriel picked up two more long bones, one in each hand, and held the first into the glowing aura. Again the blue discs sped from the tunnel walls. The moment they crossed paths through the first bone, Liriel thrust the second one down low. The blades continued undeterred along their course and disappeared into the rock. The second bone did not trigger the magical trap at all.

Too easy! Her lips twisted into a smile that mingled triumph with contempt. A drow would have expected a second intrusion-and a third!-and would have ensured that the blades could reverse their paths instantly to meet any challenge.

Now that she saw her way clear, Liriel triggered the trap one last time. The moment the circular blades met and crossed, she dove under their path and rolled through the portal to safety.

In Skullport and environs, however, “safety” was a relative term. As Liriel rose to her feet, she glimpsed a flicker of reflected light on the wall of the tunnel ahead. Something was approaching from a side passage. Instantly she summoned the innate drow magic of levitation and, still invisible, floated up to the tunnel ceiling some twelve feet off the floor. She flattened herself against the damp stone to wait and observe.

A wisp of luminous smoke rounded the sharp bend, then recoiled as if surprised to find itself in an empty corridor. After a moment’s pause the smoke came on, flowing around the corner until there was enough to form a small, glowing cloud. The luminous mass writhed and twisted, finally settling into a hideous, vaguely human shape. As Liriel watched, horror-struck, the wraithlike cloud solidified into decaying flesh. The undead thing looked this way and that, its red eyes gleaming in the darkness.

Liriel had never seen a ghoul, but she recognized the creature for what it was. Once human, it had been twisted into a mindless but cunning beast that fed on carrion. Somehow it had sensed that the magical trap had been triggered, and it had come to feed. This would account for the clean-picked bones that littered the tunnel. It did not, however, explain the ghoul’s ability to take on a wraithlike form.

The ghoul shuffled around the passage, sniffing audibly and pawing the air with filthy, clawed hands. Liriel noted that it narrowly skirted the magical trap, showing a perception that only a gifted wizard could have possessed. As she studied the creature’s movements, the drow realized that it was retracing her steps. It was following the invisible path left by her innate darkelven magic. But how?

She thought fast. Without doubt, the undead creature had once been a wizard, probably talented enough to have prepared for an afterlife as a lich. If his plans had been altered by attacking ghouls, he might somehow have managed to combine the two transformations. If that were so, it meant the ravenous creature below her was armed with a lich’s magic and a ghoul’s terrible cunning.

Her own command of magic was formidable, but Liriel knew better than to fight this mindless, undead thing. In a spell battle, strategy was as important as power. Accustomed as she was to the multilayered intrigues of her people, she could not outthink a being that acted solely on hunger and instinct.

At that moment the ghoul looked upward, turning its red eyes fully upon Liriel’s face. A long, serpentine tongue flicked out in anticipation, rasping audibly as it passed over the creature’s fangs. The drow shuddered, though she was certain the ghoul could not actually see her. Her invisibility granted her little comfort, though, when the lichghoul’s clawed fingers began moving jerkily through the gestures of some long-unused spell.

Liriel seized the leather thong that hung around her neck and gave it a sharp tug. Up from its hiding place beneath her tunic flew a small obsidian disk engraved with the holy symbol of Lloth, the Spider Queen, the dark goddess of the drow.

The girl clutched the sacred device and quickly debated her next move. Even a minor priestess could turn aside an attack by undead creatures, but Liriel had attended the clerical school for only a very short time and was accounted a rank novice. On the other hand, she was a princess of House Baenre-the most powerful clan in mighty Menzoberranzan-and she had left her homeland armed with the favor of Lloth and the captured magic of the Underdark. But Liriel had traveled far since then, in ways that could not be measured in miles alone. She found herself inexplicably hesitant to call upon the deity of her foremothers.

Then the lichghoul’s lips began to move, spewing graveyard dust and foul spittle as it chanted soundless words of power. An unseen force closed around Liriel like a giant hand, pulling her down toward the waiting creature with a yank so sharp and sudden that her head was snapped painfully back and her arms thrown open wide. Her piwafwi flapped open, disclosing her to the undead creature. But Liriel managed to keep her grip on the sacred symbol, and with a drow’s lightning-fast reflexes, she thrust it into the ghoul’s upturned, slavering face.

“In the name of Lloth, I turn you,” she said simply. It was enough. Crackling black energy burst from the symbol and sent the undead thing reeling back. For a moment the ghoul huddled against the far wall, cowering before the revealed power of the drow goddess. Then its hideous body dissolved into smoke, and the wisps scattered and fled like a flock of startled birds.

Liriel heaved a ragged sigh and floated the rest of the way down to the tunnel floor. But her relief was mixed with vague, nagging misgivings. She had reason to know that Lloth was capricious and cruel. Fortunately, the ghoul did not bother to inquire into the goddess’s character. Power was power, and Liriel was alive because she had dared to wield it. There was a certain basic practicality to this reasoning that quieted the drow’s uneasiness and sped her steps. She once again drew her piwafwi close about her and glided silently down the tunnel, making her way unerringly toward the dungeons.

The drow girl had explored Skullport for several days now and had learned many of the city’s secrets. She had reveled in Skullport’s lawless freedom, its endless chaotic possibilities. But Liriel was young, and certain that her destiny lay across a vast sea on an island known as Ruathym. She was impatient to get on with it.

Her ears caught the echoes of a distant song, a rollicking tune sung with enormous gusto but little discernible talent. Liriel followed the voice, tracing the intricate path the sound took through winding passages and reverberating stone as effortlessly as a surface-dweller might follow a tree’s shadow to its source.

Before long she came to a small, dank cave that in eons past had served as a crypt. Now a prison cell, the cave was secured by iron bars as thick as Liriel’s wrist and a massive door that was chained and locked not once, but three times. The small stone chamber was cold, and lit by a single, sputtering torch that gave off more foul-smelling smoke than light. A few deep shelves, long emptied of bones and treasure, had been chiseled into one stone wall. On the opposite side of the cave was a plank bed, suspended from the wall by two rusted chains. And sprawled upon the bed was the singer, who kept time to his music by tossing bits of moldy bread to the creatures that scuttled about the floor of the cell.

The prisoner did not seem at all downcast by his grim surroundings. He was a giant of a man, deep-chested and broad of shoulder, with a face bronzed by the sun and wind, and bright blue eyes nearly lost in a maze of laugh lines. The man’s braided hair, vast mustache, and long beard were all of the same sun-bleached hue, a color so pale that it almost hid the streaks of gray. This was Hrolf of Ruathym, better known as Hrolfthe Unruly, a genial ship’s captain with a taste for recreational mayhem. Liriel had learned that this rowdy pastime had gotten him barred from many civilized ports and had landed him-not for the first time-in Skullport’s dungeons.

She reached into her pack and took out a statuette she’d purchased in a backstreet market: a roughly carved, rather comic rendition of a Northman skald with a horned helm, a bulbous nose, and a moon-shaped belly; It was not an impressive work of art, but some wizard with a sense of whimsy had imbued it with an especially powerful magic mouth spell, one that would capture any song and play it back, over and over, for nearly an hour. Liriel figured that an hour should just about do it. As she triggered the statue’s magic, the wooden bard stirred to life in her hands. His tiny; bewhiskered face screwed up into an expression of intense concentration as he absorbed the lustily sung ditty;

“When you meet with the lads of the Elfmaid, my friend, You would rather face Umberlee’s wrath.

BOOK: Tangled Webs
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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