After warning patrons of the tavern that a snake will magically appear among them, Darvith Raldemarr calmly explains that before he takes the lid off the chalice, the questioner should ask their question -- only one query each night, per person -- of both himself and his daughter. It should concern a future decision as to an investment or deed that might or might not make the questioner wealthier, never something from the past or involving the honesty or performance of someone else. The questioner can cry it aloud for all to hear, or whisper it in both Raldemarr ears at once -- and each questioner can choose to have the Raldemarrs call out the reply or whisper it in confidence.
"The chalice will then be unhooded," Darvith adds, "and the Holy Serpent will bring the Reply of the God to one of us. The snake will be poisonous, but if not struck, menaced, or obstructed, and able to see both of the Anointed (humble father and daughter, standing before you) as we murmur the right prayers, all will be well."
"The Holy Serpent will travel to one of us, and we shall return it directly to the chalice. All shall be quite safe."
Many tavernmasters are familiar with the Raldemarrs and their holy cup -- and if they've heard of no great results from it, they've seldom seen harm from it, either. So long as a slithering snake doesn't panic patrons, spectacles are always welcome. And Darvith has none of the desperate air of a festival charlatan -- if no one seems moved to ask a question, he'll shrug, pray to the chalice, and order tankards for himself and his daughter. The chalice sits gleaming, however, until he departs -- and it's a rare alehouse crowd that doesn't have someone willing to part with a copper for a Holy Reply (even as a joke).
So it begins. The questioner is allowed to inspect the empty bowl before the lid goes down. The coin drops through the slot without any metallic clink, the Raldemarrs pray, one of them unhoods the chalice and sets the lid down right beside it, both of them kneel and bare their chests and murmur unintelligible prayers -- and a glittering, fanged snake rears up out of the bowl, opening its jaws wide to hiss!
Then it glides down the chalice to the lid, circles it once, and slithers straight to one of the Raldemarrs, climbing them to rear back and viciously fang the offered human chest.
Shuddering and gasping in obvious pain, the bitten Darvith or Taleene then tenderly cradles the Serpent, murmuring thanks to it and a prayer to the god. They then pass the snake to their unbitten partner for gentle return to the chalice (which is rehooded to await the next question, for the Serpent won't vanish again "until morning").
The bitten Anointed then delivers the Holy Reply to the questioner, sometimes with the blood drawn by the serpent's bite trickling down their front.
Impressive enough -- and a complete sham. Darvith and Taleene make enough from the coins it brings to pay for food, drink, caravan escort, and rooms, allowing them to sell their sundries only at good prices, and never out of desperation.
The domed lid of the chalice is hollow, with a shallow upper chamber filled with sticky sap that coins stick to (and so they don't rattle around when the lid is lifted; when one of the Raldemarrs heats the lid later, the sap becomes liquid and releases the coins). So offerings go in and "vanish."
A larger chamber below it in the lid (which has a richly engraved, flat inside bottom, not a concave one) has a collapsible floor (triggered by any two of the small, apparently ornamental studs around its edge; the graven lines of the design conceal its seams) that drops a snake hidden inside the chamber into the bowl of the chalice.
The Raldemarrs "milk" the trained snake regularly of its poison, and the family also has immunity to its venom (as well as that of two other types of snakes). Both of them know much regional lore, lost and buried treasure tales in particular, and simply invent Holy Replies.
A Waterdhavian noble had the chalice constructed for him, and then he abandoned it upon learning its secrets were widely known in Scornubel (home of the long-dead smith who fashioned it). Much of its reputation is due to Darvith diligently spreading rumors about it for two decades now.
He began working this act with his wife, but she retired to Elturel to rear snakes when her health and looks started to fail, and Darvith's eldest daughter took her place.
So ends the tale of the Chalice of Serpents.
The next installment of this column will commence a brief exploration of the Black Mysteries -- that is, particulars about the Order of the Black Flame that remain mysterious to all who don't happen to be Order members.
About the Author
Ed Greenwood is the man who unleashed the Forgotten Realms on an unsuspecting world. He works in libraries, writes fantasy, sf, horror, mystery, and even romance stories (sometimes all in the same novel), but he is still happiest churning out Realmslore, Realmslore, and more Realmslore. There are still a few rooms in his house with space left to pile up papers in . . .