Jorlan Duskryn found it hard to rest in Gauntlgrym.
He was back below ground again, but there was still too much light. The Vault of Kings, where he and his companions were housed, kept the cycles of the surface day with hundreds of daylight-enchanted driftglobes. At night, the globes dimmed, but thousands of coal braziers and candles and phosphorescent fungi made a light still brighter than Menzoberranzan in festival time.
With little to do during his companions' interminable meetings with every worthy on the Sword Coast, he found himself wandering the massive halls of the dwarven city at all hours, from the Vault of Kings down to the Great Forge. He explored mining tunnels and the mazes of ancient crypts, and the cycles of rest and wake melted before him.
Most of the time, he was alone with his racing thoughts. Replaying everything he had done wrong, from the time he had made the rash decision to spite Shoor and open that prison door. A petty, childish revenge fantasy, which played out to his satisfaction -- until the end, when he was the only one alive to witness his supremacy.
And for how long would he live? He didn't fully trust his companions--his jailors, really. They were abban, not-enemies, ones who hadn't betrayed him yet. But they were interesting, and they were powerful. He had always known how to make himself useful to powerful people.
He was returning to the guest quarters, crossing the sprawl of the Vault of Kings, when he came face to face with a patrol of dwarven guards.
Axes and crossbows appeared immediately, and the six dwarves circled him, shouting in Dwarven and Common. Surprised and outnumbered, Jorlan raised his hands and backed into the nearest wall.
A black-bearded dwarf, his hair peppered with grey, stepped forward to press the blade of his axe to Jorlan's throat. "What are you doing here, knife ear?" the dwarf spit at him, his eyes slitted with hatred.
Knife ear. Jorlan spoke a choppy Common, at best, and so it took a moment to put the two familiar words together into a slur--one he'd wager they didn't call other elves.
Ignoring the sting of cold steel--and his own indignity--he assessed the situation. Most of the patrols in the Vault of Kings knew him by now, and knew he was in the custody of the "heroes of Velkynvelve." (How it grated to hear them called that. They would still be sitting there if it weren't for him. Or in Menzoberranzan, being sacrificed at the end of an eight-legged dagger). They would meet him with a cold stare, and he would lower his eyes, and pass by unmolested.
But he had never seen these guards before, and clearly no one had bothered to inform them their king had welcomed a drow into their midst. He must have never ventured out during their shift before. So... early morning?
Jorlan met Black-beard's hatred with a cold smile. "Good morning to you, too. I'm a guest of the, ahem. 'Heroes of Velkynvelve.'" He ground his teeth around the words. "Just out for a stroll. Hard to rest here, you know?" His words weren't coming out nearly as smoothly as they sounded in his head.
Black-beard backed off a hair's breadth, hesitating. "Guest?"
"Well. Prisoner." The word made him flinch.
Black-beard looked him over dubiously, as if noting he was awfully clean for a prisoner. "Making an escape, I see." He gestured to the other guards, and said a few words in Dwarven; they closed the circle around Jorlan. "You'll come with us. Resist, and we'll show you where we throw away all our drow trash." He chuckled, and his eyes flitted down towards the floor--towards the pit of magma that heated the Great Forge, far below their feet.
Light, but they intended to drag him to some jail cell. "It's more like house arrest." Actually he said something inane like 'in-jail-in-home,' as close as he could manage in Common. "I've been staying in the guest quarters, with my traveling companions."
Six skeptical looks met his own. He could scarcely believe it, either. He knew he wasn't welcome here; knew that the "heroes" needed to maintain their veneer of credibility. An oubliette had been about what he'd expected when he'd surrendered.
But they had housed him beside them, and made sure he had the same amenities they enjoyed -- new clothes, warm baths, and plenty of that too-rich dwarven food. It was more than he deserved, but he wasn't about to let a couple of random dwarves take it from him.
"Please," he begged. Put aside your pride, Jorlan. It's lost on filth like them. "Your, uh, princess. Eldeth. She can confirm it--"
" 'Her Highness' to you, drow," one of the other dwarves -- red-haired and red-bearded -- growled at him. "Don't sully her name."
They divested Jorlan of his weapons -- the ones they could find, at least -- and dragged him back to a guard post, eyeing him and grumbling in Dwarven the whole way.
Their captain seemed surprised to see Jorlan. He, at least, had seen the drow before. He assured the dwarves that yes, yes, this drow was in the custody of the heroes. Yes, they wished him to have his liberty and to be treated fairly. No, he did not need to be interrogated, or imprisoned. No, this was not a raid. He spoke in Common for Jorlan's benefit, giving him a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
At last he was allowed to leave, his weapons returned to him. But of course he couldn't be free without hearing the inane comment he'd come to hate in his time in Gauntlgrym:
You know, our king is good friends with a drow.
Bone-weary, he returned to the suite he shared with Lux and Mavash, retreating to his bedroom without checking if either was in. He winced as he entered; a driftglobe embedded in the wall glowed with the grey light of dawn. It was an amenity for guests from the surface, meant to emulate the day-star passing outside a south-facing window.
Right now it seemed specially designed to torment him.
He drew a curtain across it in a huff, and collapsed on the bed. Trance settled upon him immediately.
He thought he had won.
The yochlol had done their job, tearing at the enemy's vanguard, keeping the druid and the dragonborn constantly under threat and unable to mind their failing allies. One of the priestesses had summoned darkness upon the surface dwellers, too, leaving them blind except for a small square illuminated by the dragonborn's sunblade. The weapon's coruscating light kept Jorlan and his drow elites at a distance, but was no obstacle to the handmaidens of Lolth.
Nor was it an obstacle for the cloud of poison Ilvara had summoned, or the webbing she had trapped them in. With grim amusement, Jorlan sidestepped the poison, knowing Ilvara would readily sacrifice him for a victory over the "heroes of Velkynvelve."
But with their enemies struggling, he dared to hope his victory would be sweet. That, now that Shoor was dead, and he had delivered the escaped prisoners into Ilvara's hands, she might forgive him. Might have a use for him again. Might invite him back to her bed.
One of the yochlol moved between the sunblade and Jorlan, and in the momentary dim, he could see the cave bear at the center of the melee, fur matted with blood, grinning maw full of dagger-long teeth. He knew that was the enemy's druid, and he knew that moments before she had been a rail-thin humanoid woman, knocked out of beast form by the attacks of the yochlol. Right now she stood between him and the spellcasters of their party, though, and Jorlan saw no way around. He aimed his crossbow at the bear's head and fired.
The crossbow bolt hit the bear's shoulder, and the druid growled. The bear's eyes fixed his, far too intelligent for any beast. She had marked him; she knew what he had done, and she knew who he was. Jorlan recoiled a step.
The tide turned quickly after that.
First, there was that ssussan dragon. Where had they found a red dragon in the Underdark? A young one, to be sure, but still the size of a rothe and breathing fire. Jorlan gagged on the smell of his own soldiers' charred flesh, disconcertingly sweet.
Then that pallid sorcerer, the drow who was not a drow, had summoned a shadow hound on top of Ilvara. Behind the lines, cut off from Jorlan and the rest of his elites, the priestess had quickly been overpowered. With her concentration lost, the webbing had evaporated and the poison had dissipated. The other priestess fell to Goddess-knew-what, and the magical darkness lifted as well, leaving only the greys of the caverns as seen with darkvision.
One yochlol fell, then the other.
Jorlan heard Ilvara's screams, and the wet, snarling noises of the shadow hound feasting upon her. He watched her blood creep downhill towards him, still white with heat.
He wasn't conscious of having made the choice to live, to abandon Ilvara--he just found his feet carrying him towards the exit of the cave. He was a coward, but he would be an alive coward.
He looked back once. The druid had returned to her humanoid form, one last casualty of the yochlol's attacks. She clutched a hand to her bloodied shoulder where Jorlan had shot her; with the other, she drew a pattern upon the air. He didn't know what she meant to cast, but he didn't waste time; he drew darkness around him like a cloak, and prepared to slip away.
And then there was light. Cold, blinding daylight, conjured into being deep beneath the ground. It banished darkness from every corner of the cavern, and tore away Jorlan's cloak of shadows--
He awoke in a panic, blinded by a dagger of daylight from the driftglobe. His bedsheets were wound around his body like a shroud; struggling to escape, he fell to the cold stone floor. He kicked the bedding aside and sat up, leaning against the stone wall, breathing hard. With shaking hands, he pulled his pillow over his head to block out the light. A strobing headache was already building in his temples, even with the driftglobe's light dimmed by a curtain.
What was wrong with him? His heartbeat hammered in his chest and dinned like a drum in his ears; he couldn't catch a breath. It was embarassing, sitting here on the floor, made insensible by visions and memories, like some hardened soldier returning from war. Nothing that bad had happened to him. He was alive, after all.
He forced himself to take long, calming breaths, recalling what had come after the events in his dream. He remembered the changeling blood hunter--Lux, he heard them named--charging up to him in the form of a bloodthirsty half-elf. He remembered their chill blade at his neck, not much different than the dwarf's this morning.
He remembered Mavash--the druid--a few paces behind, counseling Lux to peace, all while trying to staunch the bleeding from the wound he had inflicted. Gaulir, the dragonborn paladin, and Umbra, the pallid sorcerer, were not far behind, and both had their own opinions on the worth of his life.
He had fallen to one knee and dropped his weapons at his side, making the drow gesture of surrender. Would these surface dwellers even recognize it--the tremendous deference it implied?
In the end, it was Gaulir who suggested Jorlan could be useful. In his voice like grinding stone, he said that the things they had seen in the Underdark -- the fiends of the Abyss making an incursion, drow cities attacked by demons, living beings turned to mindless hosts for fungal spores -- would scarcely be believed. They needed someone to corroborate their fantastic story, and who better than Jorlan, who had dogged their steps since Velkynvelve?
Jorlan merely had to follow them. To Mithril Hall, stronghold of his enemies. To the hated surface, with its blinding star. To help them march their armies down into his home to fight this demon threat.
But he'd looked behind him at the line of bodies -- Shoor, Asha, Ilvara, all the warriors under his command. He imagined returning to Menzoberranzan, the sole survivor of the slaughter of Velkynvelve. The captain of the guard who had failed to protect the priestesses in his charge. The male drow who had let his lover, a daughter of powerful House Mizzrym, die.
No, he would return as a traitor, not a hero. And he knew how he would be punished--the horrible abomination his body would be twisted into.
He had spent his whole life making powerful people like him, but this was one palm he couldn't grease.
He'd accepted their offer. And, more or less grudgingly, they had accepted him.
There was a knock on the door.
He tossed the pillow to the bed, smoothing a hand through his hair. "Come in," he called in Common. No one needed to see him looking like a fussy child after a nap.
Mavash poked her head in around the door. "I wondered where you were." She spoke in Undercommon, only marginally better than his Common. "I tried to wake you for the meeting with Master Malkin this morning. If you were serious about--"
"I was out," he said, and looked at the wall across from him. Blessedly blank, and peaceful. "I was restless, so I thought I'd go for a walk."
Mavash stepped into the room. She towered over him, pale and gaunt and looking like a bundle of sticks he could break in his hand. She was wearing what he'd come to think of as her "official druid garb" -- green and white linens, white hair braided into intricate patterns, draped with jewelry that suggested her druid circle. At her neck was the Eldritch Windstone -- the gift from the Emerald Enclave, the gem that would make her beast forms stronger.
It was still so odd to see her so. When he first met her, in the prison at Velkynvelve, she was no less frail-looking than now, and wearing prisoner's rags. The guards had taken bets on which of the prisoners was going to break first under the oppressive weight of Velkynvelve's wards and hard labor. He'd had his money on her.
Of course, that was before he'd seen her turn into a giant spider, rip the head off a quaggoth, and climb down the sheer cliffs of Velkynvelve with a myconid sprout on her back.
Since then, he'd seen her in a dozen different forms -- surface creatures he mostly didn't have names for, suiting whatever purpose she required. Lately she fancied being a cave bear.
But this form -- her humanoid form -- was most alien of all. She was subtly but uncannily different than any other race he had ever encountered -- taller than elves or humans, but with ears subtly pointed, like a half-elf. And sometimes, like the planar-touched, her eyes glowed with an inner fire.
But she was none of these things; nor was she the bloody fur and teeth like daggers she so often presented.
He was still figuring it out.
Mavash watched him with concern knitting her brow. Jorlan felt a nudge in his mind, and the foreign thought intruded: Are you unwell? You look flushed.
It was easy to reply like this, to just think his Drow proto-word-thoughts and let that telepathic link ease any linguistic misunderstandings. This was how she communicated with her companions when in beast form; how they could anticipate what five hundred pounds of furry murder was going to do next in battle.
But it was only recently she'd begun addressing him like that -- during the fight with the kalaraq quori, whatever that was -- and he'd learned there was a certain intimacy that was part and parcel with telepathy.
She had given him a simple, one-word command: Run. But it wasn't just a word; it was a whole jumble of thoughts and feelings. You don't need to be here you don't need to protect us this is my fight my burden as kalashtar as vessel of Vash be safe I want you to live--
I want you to live. Well, that makes one.
Likewise, he was sure he was transmitting his own undercurrent of self-loathing to her right now, no matter how much he tried to still his mind, or how he pulled his lips into a smile. He gestured at his face, responding, How can you tell with this complexion?
You're a slightly darker grey. Very subtle. Your people must tell all kinds of embarrassing stories without anybody being any wiser.
Mmm. The less said about his people, the better. No, I'm well enough, though I haven't had enough rest. And... it happened again.
He hadn't meant for that last bit to slip out. It happened again. Again he had been mistaken for an enemy, the sharp-eared greyskin lurking in someone's home. Again he was tormented by nightmares, fearful of the very people his life depended on.
Was there ever a time when you weren't, Jorlan? she asked. Even in his mind, her voice had the same breathy softness it had in life.
In normal circumstances, he would have stabbed anyone who dared ask that of him. Instead he scrambled back onto the bed, clapping his hands to his temples. "Stop it," he said aloud in Undercommon. His voice was weaker than he expected. He summoned up his best "standing up to Ilvara" voice. "If we must have this conversation," he growled, "it's going to be on my terms."
Mavash made a curtsy, mockingly elaborate. "By all means, Lord Duskryn."
"I'm no lord," he muttered, clutching his pillow to his chest like a shield. He was the second son of the second priestess of House Duskryn -- last he checked, the ninth house of Menzoberranzan -- and the only title he'd ever been able to claim was jabbuk, as guard captain of Velkynvelve. And that was gone now, too.
A long silence stretched between them.
"I'm glad you're not ill," Mavash said, and probably meant it.
It was hard when people were so gods-damned earnest about things. He had honed his mind into a weapon that could tear apart any subtle implication, any veiled jibe, any innuendo, and now he was faced with a group of facile do-gooders who just didn't bother to lie, or give an ugly truth some flash.
Jorlan looked to the wall again, allowing no distractions to his fevered mind. "What did Master Malkin say?"
Mavash twisted in place, looking unusually bashful. "I wanted to ask him if... if he might find a place for you above ground, where your skills might be of service."
His skills. His only skills were flattering people, and if that failed, murdering them. Slithering out of things, saving his own skin.
"He seemed to think he could," Mavash continued. "Especially if you were interested in the path of a druid, or a ranger--"
"It's foolish. I was joking, when I spoke of rangers. Thinking of... well, never mind." He turned a feather from his pillow in his hand. "Can you imagine me, in your beloved Neverwinter Wood? I'd probably get mauled by a bear"--poor choice of words, that--"or eat a poisonous fruit and die clutching my gut." He shook his head. "I'm no druid. The closest I get to wilderness is the Darklake." And he wouldn't be getting very close to that any time soon.
She put a hand on her hip. "Well, I am a druid, and I can tell you that when I was in the Underdark, I couldn't find a single thing to eat, and I never knew if the water was safe to drink. I couldn't even summon up a magical berry, because the faerzress twisted all our magic. If it weren't for Umbra and Sarith, those first few days, I probably would have starved, or died of thirst." Softer, she added. "Both of those paths are, in a sense, about survival. About being rooted in a land that that is hostile to others, and that even you don't understand completely. A world that would kill you as soon as pillow your head." Her gaze grew wistful and distant.
She was thinking of Neverwinter Wood, he knew. Of that place she called home. A place she could go back to at any time -- all she had to do was reject this foolish plan to storm the Underdark and take on the fiends of the Abyss.
But ever sarcastic, he added, "Alas, I don't think your Emerald Enclave has a Circle of Insufferable Sellswords for me to join."
Her lips curved into a crooked grin. "Don't give yourself that much credit. Most days you're moderately sufferable. But, I suppose, anyone could be taught." She winked at him, but then her tone grew more earnest. "Seriously, Jorlan. I think surviving -- in the Underdark, in drow society -- is something you're very good at."
Surviving drow society. Did anyone ever just live there? Even the most powerful women, the high priestesses, always seemed to be fighting for their lives. Even Ilvara feared Asha might try to displace her, worried about the disgrace of being posted to Velkynvelve. Not that she ever shared as much with him, but it was easy enough to read in her panicked orders, in the words pitched too-high, in how she reacted to the slightest barbs.
Still, his anger flared at Mavash's words. "I abhor the insinuation"--and here he used his most erudite Undercommon vocabulary, the one thing he could hold over her--"that my motherland is something that needs to be survived." It was one thing to think it himself; it was another thing to be told that by a surface dweller who perpetually smelled of wet fur.
She ducked her head. "Fair enough. I'm sure there's much about the drow I still don't know. But... I know they hurt you there, in more ways than one. I know you said you couldn't go back."
Oloth plynn ilta! She never said anything outright against him and his people, just let him draw his own conclusions. He was good at hating, but it was impossible to hate her for that.
Mavash picked at the paint on the door, looking uncomfortable. But at length she said, "Anyway. My point is, each druid has their domain, their own area of expertise. For some it's the forest, for others the swamp, and so on. I grew up in the far northeast, where the ground is permanently frozen below a certain level, and when I first came to Neverwinter, I was amazed that trees could grow so tall." She concluded, "So why not the Underdark? It clearly has its roots in you."
But he was thinking of Mavash's roots, not his own. The far northeast. Sossal. There was little she would say of her birthplace, but he knew she had crossed Faerûn for her faith -- a calling, and distance, that Jorlan could scarcely comprehend.
But that strange priestess of Shar had spoken of Mavash's connection to a place called "Aber," not of this world, and Jorlan knew there was more to her. Knew there was a reason her eyes sometimes glowed with an inner fire. Knew there was a reason that terrible insectile creature had targeted her, and it had something to do with why she sometimes talked to herself, hand to her heart.
He gave a nervous laugh, belying his own turmoil. "We can talk about my future after we get back." If we return. He almost prayed he didn't, so that he didn't have to have this conversation ever again. "But for now -- I hope all is decided? When are we leaving for Mantol-Derith?" He hoped his eagerness to return to the Underdark didn't show too keenly in his words. That was the sort of thing that would be used against him, back... home.
You have no home, his thoughts mocked him. No future. No past.
Mavash seated herself on the far end of the bed. She had produced a small box from the pouch at her waist, which she turned in her hand. "Not yet. There's still so much to decide, to organize."
"Was I not such a good little informant after all?" he said, his tone carefully lighthearted. It had stung, to be led around to those meetings like a pampered pet, to be called "spy" and "slave" and "prisoner" and worse. He'd gritted his teeth when Gaulir had needled him about his "conversion" to "the path of good"; he'd kept his opinions to himself about the cult of Eilistraee.
Mavash shook her head. "It wasn't that at all. But organizing an army, even a small one, takes time. And our attentions have been diverted by the attack of the kalaraq quori."
A moment's mention, and Jorlan was there again.
He had been awakened from his trance by Mavash's screaming and the sound of falling bodies. When he emerged into the common room, he found Lux and Mavash in their sleepwear, menaced by an abomination with too many eyes and claws. On the floor was the body of their dwarven guard, split down the middle where the creature had shed him like a snake's skin.
He hadn't planned to help them, at first. No one would notice if he slipped away, out of the reach of the terrible thing whose hunger to possess rolled off it in waves.
But Jorlan saw an opening to slide into the shadows and dig his blades into its chitinous shell, and before he knew it, he was doing exactly that. Maybe it was his own vanity; maybe he didn't know how to walk away from an exposed back.
His daggers sank into the creature, and then it turned to face him. A thousand eyes, shining with alien intelligence, reflected his own face. No time to back out.
And then there was the terrible moment when a swarm of insectile eyes engulfed him. He heard a thin keening, which he only distantly realized was his own scream. He was blinded, brought to his knees with pain. Into that, he had heard Mavash urging him to run; only later did he realize she wasn't speaking aloud. He thought he returned some message like, I will try, but he didn't know how fast he could move when the whole world was dark.
Like when daylight broke upon you, all over again. There was nothing clarifying about this, however. No mercy would await him from this creature. It didn't just want to murder them, it wanted to obliterate their souls. Especially the one dwelling in Mavash.
He had managed to pull himself to the edge of the fray, behind the wall of his companions. He couldn't see; overlapping voices and the sounds of weapons filled his ears. He heard Eldeth's voice, her footsteps beside where he lay, and knew the dwarven woman would leave him to die; knew he might bleed out right here, not ten feet from his companions.
He heard the dwarven woman clapping her hand to Lux's back, muttering a few words of healing. He heard the growl of Mavash-bear. And then Eldeth leaned down beside him, murmuring some words. The crushing pain in his chest ceased, and the burning in his eyes lessened. He still couldn't see, but at least he no longer felt near death.
By then his companions had mostly torn the creature apart, and the air stank of blood and ichor. But he made a wild gambit -- showing off, maybe; tracking the creature by sound -- and threw one of his daggers into the melee.
The screaming that erupted next was celebratory. His vision still clouded, Jorlan was only dimly aware he had dealt the killing blow. Later, he would find his own dagger embedded in one of the monster's eyes.
His companions in the adjoining room -- Gaulir and Umbra and the duergar Rhonkar -- had faced much the same thing. There was a long discussion of What This Meant, all very boring. Master Malkin had appeared, and talked to Mavash of Destiny, and being a Chosen One, and tripe like that, and he could scarcely believe she was listening to him. When someone was flattering you like that, usually they were about to ask something terrible and deadly of you. Light, he'd used the same tactic a few times himself.
He had stayed quiet on the sidelines, cleaning his daggers, still blinking insect parts out of his eyes.
Back in the present, Jorlan became aware that Mavash hadn't spoken for some time. He looked up to find her regarding him with that same furrowed brow. You seem very far away today, she said into his mind, and ducked her head. A wash of color painted her pale cheeks like rouge. "I'm sorry. Sometimes it's just... easier."
It was easier. He let his thoughts travel along that link, like spiders along the Silken Paths. It's all right for now. I was just thinking about the battle with... that thing.
Ah, yes. She looked down at her hands. I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you. If I shifted back, I could have restored your sight.
That would have been foolish, he replied, and then, unbidden, the thought bubbled up, I'm not worth the trouble.
Mavash's eyes went round. "No!" she said, appalled. It's not that. But every time I shift back, I'm especially vulnerable. She gestured down at her humanoid form. Not feeble, but also not a cave bear.
I would not expect you to put your safety above mine. It had been dinned in his ear since he was a child--you are expendable.
Mavash smiled sadly. You've spent a long time numbering your own worth, haven't you? But the way I see it, my job in a fight is to be the vanguard; to take the hits for the ones who are less able to. To stand between the enemy and you.
Are you so sure I'm not the enemy? Jorlan replied, seasoning the word-thought with a tickle of mirth.
She responded with blithe innocence, What reason do you have to be my enemy? I spared your life. We've aided each other every day since then.
Before he could stop the thought, it slipped out: You killed my lover.
She looked pained, and turned her head to avoid his gaze. Yes. I wish it could have been otherwise. But you know she would not have shown us mercy.
That much was true. Ilvara, in a rage, had threatened that if the prisoners were killed before they reached Menzoberranzan, she'd personally resurrect them so that they could meet their fated end as sacrifices to Lolth. "Indeed," he said aloud, his voice jarringly loud in the silent room.
To be honest, Mavash began, her word-thoughts gentle, I did not think you truly loved her. I expected you were using her, just as she was using you. And she'd already shown she was willing to throw you away--
He closed down the telepathic link before his helpless thoughts betrayed him. How could he explain that the word they used so readily for "love" in Undercommon had no analogue in his native tongue? The closest was ssinssrigg -- which also meant "lust" and "greed."
He supposed he had been greedy. How else should he feel, when everything he'd ever been belonged to Ilvara? He was from one of the most powerful families in Menzoberranzan, but he hadn't been allowed to meet her gaze until she'd given him permission. He was nothing, less than nothing, without a powerful woman like her propping him up.
He settled for saying, at a whisper, "Things are very different with my people, I'm sure you know." His hands clenched around the pillow he still held.
Another long silence. At last, Mavash said, "Anyway. I knew the creature was weakening, and I knew I could cure your blindness after the fight. I'm only glad you were able to get to safety first."
Finger by finger, Jorlan made himself release his grip on the pillow. "I'm losing count of how many times I've been blinded while in your company," he mused.
"Should I take that as a compliment? Astounded by my natural charms, are you?" She batted her eyelashes, playing the coquette. It looked awkward on her earnest face.
He narrowed his eyes and curved his lips in a cunning smile. "I do enjoy the twigs in your hair and the perfume of bear musk. It's a... unique fashion." He never would have dared to tease a woman of Menzoberranzan like that, and the novelty of it was pleasing. "Sounds more like an omen to me. Or a metaphor for how you keep dragging me screaming into daylight."
She favored him with a smile. "To be fair, on the parapets of Mithril Hall, it was less a scream and more of a curse. What was it you said? Something something Susan?"
"Ssussun pholor dos. It's an oath -- it means 'light upon you.' " He made a huff of laughter. "Ironic, isn't it?"
She must be feeling pity for him, thinking how terrible that you had never seen a sunset before. He hated pity, and not wanting to see it in her eyes, he turned his gaze back to the wall.
Good old wall.
There was a rustling, and Mavash held out the box in her hand. "On that note... something I thought would help. The dwarves made it when they were making my pendant." She touched a hand to the gemstone at her neck. "I hope you won't hold it against me."
He opened the box revealing... what, precisely? A gift?
He had given gifts to Ilvara, of course -- a pair of hairsticks, bone-white and chased with gold. Perfumes, scented oils for her bath, and more intimate things still. But as far as he could remember, no one had ever given him a gift before.
He lifted the item from the box, inspecting it from every angle. It was some confection of steel wire and... obsidian?
"Smoked glass," she said, as if still witness to his thoughts. "You know what they are?"
The wires snapped open under his fingers, and he saw two lenses of glass, smoky grey. "Some sort of spectacles?"
"Just so!" Mavash beamed, clearly proud of her idea. "Sun spectacles, I call them. In my homeland they wear something of the sort to guard against snow-blindness." She gestured at the driftglobe lighting the room. "I know how the light hurts you, and I know we've got a week's journey overland to Mithril Hall ahead of us, so I thought this would help."
He stared at the spectacles for a long, long time. Finally he folded the wires down and placed them back in the box. "Once I go back to the Underdark, I don't think I'll be returning here again."
Mavash's gaze flicked from his face to the spectacles as she bit her lip. "What will you do in the Underdark?"
"As Umbra so rightly pointed out... I have many friends there." Well... "Contacts. Assets. Whatever. I'll figure something out once we're done with- with the demon threat."
It was bravado, and he knew it. But what else did he have, any more?
"You know," she said, twisting the linen of her skirt between her fingers, "You could stay here, afterwards. Not Gauntlgrym, I mean, but on the surface. The Sword Coast. I would- I would welcome you in Neverwinter Wood. In my home."
He tried to ignore the invitation in those words, the warmth and homeliness of them. She needed to stop trying to convince him that the world was all goodness and light. If she only knew him better -- knew what he had done to survive -- it would chill the goodness right out of her.
"You could, of course," he rejoined, "stay in the Underdark."
One corner of her mouth quirked up, somewhere between a smile and surprise. "What, and have you show me around Menzoberranzan? I doubt they'd like me very much there. Especially after I ruined their sacrifice."
He curved his own lips in a humorless smile. "And they like me so much here." He still hadn't told her about the guard patrol he'd run into. But what was the point? It was over now, and only his pride had been hurt. Right?
Gently, she added, "But you have to admit that dwarves don't feed people they don't like to spiders."
No, they just throw them in magma. Much better.
He picked up the spectacles again, the smoked glass catching the light. It wasn't the baroque inutility of in drow craftsmanship; these were sturdy and yet flexible, beautifully uncomplicated. He had to admit it was well suited to a functional piece like this. He opened the arms of the spectacles and set them on his nose, looping the wires behind his ears.
The light in the room dimmed a fraction, and he released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding.
Mavash reached across the bed and took his hand, giving an encouraging squeeze. Her skin stood out in sharp contrast to his, milk white against ash grey. "Look, we have no idea what the future holds. We might be here another day, or another month. For all I know, we might not make it out of the Underdark again. But for now... I wanted to make things a little easier for you. You know?"
He didn't know. Not at all. But he wanted to find out.