AUTHOR'S NOTES: Okay, to clear some things up before we start - as of this writing, the stories are not continuations of each other, as in a chaptered fanfic, though I might follow up on some of the characters in different fics later on. They can each be read independently; what they have in common is the idea I found interesting.
Further notes on canon are at the end of each fic.
Hope you enjoy. If you don't, there's still three (so far) to go. You might feel differently about those, if this one doesn't turn you off completely.
DISCLAIMER: Forgotten Realms isn't my world and drow aren't my fantasy race. I'm just borrowing them to play with for a while.
SPOILER WARNINGS: There shouldn't be any spoilers in the fic proper, but there's an undetailed one for R. A. Salvatore's "Paths of Darkness" (including Servant of the Shard) in the end notes.
GENERAL WARNINGS: Warnings (and possibly ratings) vary per fic. If the rating is too low, drop me a line. "The Spider Queen's Second Chance" contains violence and obliquely described postmortem mutilation.
Traditional Gender Roles
The Spider Queen's Second Chance
The Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Again Ranaghar Khalazza did not remember sleep or Reverie but it must have happened, else the spider crawling on the stone above him had teleported away when he blinked. Once he determined there was no imminent assassination requiring his attention, he sat up. Appropriate words came easily, spilling off his tongue while he folded his hands together and reached into the dark. His memory had always been one of his strong points, such as they were, along with ritual daggerwork. He could recite each prayer they'd seen fit to teach, all the praises and supplications and thanksgivings, even those he would never speak on grounds of inapplicability.
By the time he opened his eyes his folded legs were beginning to numb and the stone beneath them had warmed. His hands unfolded, empty. That part of his mind that was used to being filled with granted magic, meanwhile, was near-empty. Near-empty; it had been a calm tenday before, and a calm journey since, and several unused spells continued to linger in his memory - darkfire, lie detection as was his habit, several healing magics. There was also her laughter, of course. She had been laughing for some time now. It was the type of mocking chuckle that often served to point out male stupidity generally obvious to all but the male in question.
When he was twenty he'd been taught that Lolth's laughter was heard by those who had lost her favor and by the mad. He had refrained from asking the obvious question of how the mad could know it was truly the Spider Queen laughing at them, not a conjuration of their deluded minds. The reactions of priestesses to stupid questions from male students varied from a similar amusement to drawn blood, sometimes combining both, and Ranaghar had never been overeager to try his luck.
There was plenty of time for him to fret as the caravan made its way along the familiar route. He'd set aside some part of his mind for cursory observations and simple tasks such as - currently - steering his riding lizard, while his main body of thoughts swirled about and expanded into the space they were given.
It was bad enough that he'd lost her favor. There was a second chance, he knew, there was always a second chance, but difficult to take advantage of it when he hadn't even a reference point to correct his error. He might be too ambitious, for a male - but then he might well be instead not ambitious enough for one of her priests. There was no way of telling, and adjusting his behavior in either direction would have a chance of raising the Spider Queen's ire still further. It was simple enough for the likes of his sister Laele, or Matron Belarbreena - they were female, high priestesses, this combination was unquestionable. All their lives drow walked on webbing, with gaps between the strands. Far easier for a female to see where the strands lay. But that was natural, wasn't it?
There were others like him in Ched Nasad, one in two dozen perhaps, and it was not uncommon for them to fall. Rai'gy Bondalek, for example, who Ranaghar still remembered though he wasn't entirely certain he should. That one who was mage and priest both - high priest even - but he ended fleeing, with the piwafwi half-torn from one shoulder, hair and robes smoking from thrown darkfire. They chased him to a lower level before he vanished, and by then House Bondalek had vanished as well. No. Not vanished, but never was.
His ability to mentally separate had saved his life twice. Now it informed him of the approaching patrol. He debated for a moment whether to let whoever had taken point handle them. But best, he decided finally, to give some semblance that nothing had changed; who knew, he might actually maintain that.
He spurred his lizard past the front guard till he drew level with the point - a short and slight female who he remembered was named Talabrina. She turned her head and tipped it slightly, her face blank, and he rode on.
The leader of the patrol wore a robe stitched with what Ranaghar recognized as Draconic - phrases he'd heard rattled off among young wizards as a simple way to display their erudition. The other yanked his own lizard to a halt; he did not bother to hide his stare at Ranaghar's own garments - adorned as they were with rampant spiders and accompanying webs, though he had stopped short of including Abyssal axioms. He stared also at the platinum disk, slightly too large to enfold in a hand, with the embossed spider on the visible side. There was always discomfiture at first, and often if not always that discomfiture lingered. Around such a contradiction, response was measured with extra care. Finally, his stare lifted to Ranaghar's face, his own face bearing an expression of mild incredulity. "Your name and business?"
"That will be unnecessary."
Ranaghar swallowed the explanation already lined up on his tongue. The speaker was a priestess, astride another lizard behind the patrol leader. No whip hissed from her hand, and for a moment this hampered his recognition. For a moment.
"Fine luck to have caught you," said Laele, though both knew luck had as much to do with it as rothé had to do with myrlochar. To the patrol leader she said, "This is one of House Khalazza's." She did not call him elderboy or brother. No need to remind them of one who did not exist. "There's no need for undue delay, is there?" He nodded quickly. "Talabrina - you know the way well enough, yes?"
Presumably Talabrina had given some gesture of affirmation as well, because then Laele returned her attention to Ranaghar. "The Matron wishes a more detailed report than is possible with sendings, and I have my own to give you as well regarding recent events. Otherwise, I am afraid you might be somewhat taken aback by developments in the city. What say you?"
Ranaghar ducked his head. "As you will." It was the only thing he could say.
Ranaghar knew a deathtrap when he saw one, but he dismounted at Laele's bidding at the end of the tunnel and tethered his lizard to the stone protrusion she pointed out. Though he knew he wouldn't be able to see them if they existed, he found himself scanning the stone around and below him for bloodstains from previous visits.
at me," Laele told him once she'd restrained her own lizard.
Do not dare look at me, it had been from everyone since before he was old enough to understand. Then, when he didn't look, look at me. He looked and didn't look, as he was prompted. He looked at her now.
"It has happened to you as well?" It was not truly a question.
In the first moment Ranaghar was on the verge of simultaneously asking how she knew and throwing himself to the ground with accompanying entreaties that he could still be of use, that he was still loyal. The first he discarded immediately - the yochlol or Lolth herself would likely tell her things he could never fathom, as they had probably always told her.
The second required minimal additional thought. He was not entirely sure he could be of use. It was another priest the House needed when Ranaghar was sixteen, and it was a priest they got. Now what he offered them was another mediocre warrior, with the knowledge of tomes' worth of irrelevant lore. Laele would know just how useful he was and saying such a thing, lie or not, would show desperation. She'd probably inferred that already, but no point in proving it twice over.
It was only when he had by default settled on silent gaping that he realized the import of her phrasing. "As well?"
"Did I not say you would be taken aback?" Now she was the one who would not look at him. She instead watched her fingernails trace each other's edges. "If you have that spell, you may cast it. It will not change what I have to say."
He cast with deliberate movement and precise intonation, sparing a part of his attention to be sure she did not lash out in the middle of it. Once it was cast, he focused on Laele, the familiar aura clear to him. Of course she would probably substitute half-truths for any falsehood she might have said otherwise, of course she was probably laden with blocking magic or else was able to hide it by strength of her will, but there was a way to test the latter somewhat. "A lie, then?"
She nodded readily and after a moment's thought gave the wrong names to their cousins. Ranaghar sensed the telltale fluctuation and nodded back, satisfied. "You need not worry about being the only one," she went on, her aura returned to serenity. "There are no male priests of Lolth. Those that we may remember - those she no longer recognizes."
"None in Ched Nasad. In other cities? Perhaps, but unlikely."
"Kelnozz Vrammyr, also?" He had not set out to learn their names but, unique as they all were, there were fewer names to learn and he recited the first to come to mind. "Calimar Glannath? Nilonim Ssambra?"
"They do not exist." Try as he might he could not see what it was about her fingernails that so interested her. "Not according to Vrammyr, and Glannath, and Ssambra. Perhaps they exist in another form…" She shrugged. "Perhaps they exist as you exist. What they called themselves? What you call yourself? Those do not, and never did. 'What a question,'" Laele mimicked. "'A male priest of the Spider Queen - were you taking Reverie through your education, girl, or were you simply deaf?' That is the truth now, brother. That is how it has always been."
This happened to certain Houses, certain individuals. For the most part they stayed that way, only emerging from some mental crevasse or another at intermittent periods - as Rai'gy Bondalek and all of his House had not long before. But when he applied the concept to himself, there was rebellion; the last time Ranaghar had wanted so badly to argue had been years before. There had been, he had been. He had been granted clerical spells, he remembered them still. Surely that proved -
It proved nothing, except that he was a heretic and that he compounded his heresy by serving another, so-called, god. He had seen several of those, in the course of his duties, and seen how they died.
When he was sixteen he'd thought it impossible, and when Matron Belarbreena informed him what his future course would be he had wavered as close to love as he ever had. And he'd been right in the end, it was impossible. All that had happened was that the contradictions were sorted out, expelling him from his waking dream.
"You are free to disbelieve, of course. You are free to enter the city in clerical garb and be torn apart for your blasphemy, if that is what you need to do."
"And what is it you gain from my believing? I must know what I die for?"
"If I have my way you will not die." At his raised eyebrow she said, "If I have my way you will not be harmed at all." No variation on either statement.
"You cannot do better for an ally than a disfavored and nonexistent priest?"
Seconds passed. Ranaghar gritted his teeth, maintaining the spell-sight. Laele's features shifted slightly, betraying greater movements beneath the surface. Finally she said in a resigned tone, "I do not understand. I pretend, of course. I pretend, but I do not see. No. I do see."
Her voice rose as her visible misery grew. "I saw you. For past a hundred years I saw you. We might have been high priestesses but next to you I looked faithless, Aunt Phaere looked faithless, Mother looked faithless, and you were… thrown away." She babbled now, a habit that had seemed conquered. "Not even thrown. Only dropped. No longer existent, and never existent. Such is the fate of one of her most loyal servants." She shook her head. "You are male, true. But that did not stop her to start with."
He stared at her. He stared at her undisturbed aura.
"I did not come here," she said, "to do as they bid me." Misery gone, she smiled weakly. "If they had their way I would have you flayed alive by now. But I have not and I will not. There is no place for you in Ched Nasad, but there is more than Ched Nasad. There is more beyond the Houses. More beyond -" At the last moment she faltered from this final heresy and instead concluded, "Can we do no better than this?"
The spell-sight faltered, then faded as Ranaghar could no longer maintain it. It did not matter.
Slowly, he smiled back; it seemed to resonate, as Laele's own smile widened. She stood and turned for the lizards. "I brought something else for you to wear," she said. As it had been designed to do, the sheath released his dagger with only a faintest whisper, a whisper covered by her voice. "I think-"
She did not scream. First she froze, as if uncertain that her senses were working correctly. Then she half-collapsed. Ranaghar caught her with one arm.
"That was why you didn't have your whip," he said, tugging at the blade half-buried in her back. "Did it attack you? Do you hear her laughing now?"
Laele turned her head halfway, her visible eye large, and grabbed at him while she gasped a spell. The moment her hand brushed his arm an array of new-formed injuries began to seep blood. He staggered, dragging her with him, and gave the dagger another yank. Laele jerked in the opposite direction, arms flung outward. He dove after her. They crashed to the stone.
"The Spider Queen always gives a second chance," he told her as she tried to reach her mace. The impact had driven his dagger still deeper; giving up that one, he drew a second. "You - you say I am one of her most loyal, and then you expect me to turn my back on her so quickly. You do not know, do you? You never knew." He brought the dagger down across her hands, one after the other. They fell, twitching spasmodically.
"You thought I was like all males, cringing and looking for any chance to run. But you were right about another thing - my faith is stronger than yours. It had to be." He aimed originally for her throat, but he had no idea where it actually pierced her and did not look down to see. Instead he removed it with considerably more ease, then up and down again. Again. Several times the dagger struck stone. "I had to mean my devotions, more than ever you did. I had to rid myself of doubts. And you- I could not believe it at first, but you must be my second-"
He looked down. She was not moving. His hands automatically folded, cupping his dagger between them. The prayers came to him easily and he said them once, twice, eight times in total, with an unfaltering voice. There Ranaghar stopped.
Laele's intact eye stood out; it looked as though it did not belong. As though someone had dropped it there. He could make out stains forming on his sleeves, blotting out designs of webbing as they spread, and distractedly spoke one of his healing spells. Some of the pain he'd forgotten about abated. The remainder made its presence known.
What else might I have -? Ah. Of course.
It was the most flawless removal he had ever performed even without access to sacrificial paraphernalia, even as his hands trembled. He raised Laele's heart above his head, taking care not to let it slip from slick fingers, and started over with another eight.
Not nothing. Lolth laughed. Or
was it her?
Was it her? Did it matter?
Was he disfavored, or mad?
Disfavored or mad? Did it matter?
He decided it didn't.
CANONICAL NOTES: In the sourcebook Demihuman Deities , some four percent of Lolth's clergy was male, though they didn't have a very easy time of it; I also got the "second chance" business from information in that book. In the more-recent Faiths and Pantheons , however, Lolth's clergy is exclusively female, which is admittedly what would seem to make more sense. But something had to have happened to that four percent, right?
Rai'gy Bondalek, the wizard/cleric, appears in R. A. Salvatore's The Silent Blade (which gives more of the circumstances behind what was referenced in the story), along with other books in the "Paths of Darkness" series, though his name is rather inconsistent. He was... unavailable for the period I wanted to cover, so I dreamed up poor Ranaghar to torment instead.
Unlike the clear shift from first to second edition of D&D rules as far as sourcebooks and fiction, there's no big event to commemorate the change from second to third. Therefore, I've engaged in some guesswork in regards to dating.
Anything else in need of clarification? Feel free to ask. And feel free to review.