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Bright Future

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"Aa, ol zhah l'og'elend Jorlan Duskyn," the drow named Zilchyn snarled as they passed. He spit on the ground at his feet, a gesture that needed no translation.

Jorlan's gaze swept over the other man's body, his lip curling in disgust. "Vlos'calin har'shebali."

Mavash and her companions were in the Zhentarim Enclave of Mantol-Derith. As soon as they'd heard from Peebles about the meeting, they'd come running, stopped only briefly by the Zhentarim guards, who relented at seeing Ana'Ise. The city was a powder keg, and at the moment, it looked like the epicenter of the blast would be here, in front of Ghazrim duLoc's house. The square was crowded with drow and duergar, all shouting about stolen gems and beholders -- and the Zhentarim enforcers, anxiously shifting in their armor.

Currently, Ana'Ise was trying to convince the duergar Amarith Coppervein that the Zhentarim's pet beholder was perfectly sane, thank you very much, and no, the Zhentarim knew nothing of this magical gem. But the snakes of her hair, writhing behind her black veil, did little to inspire trust.

That's the Zhentarim, all right, Mavash mused. Your creepy friends who get things done. She'd never forget how she'd had an entire conversation with a faceless suit of armor in Gauntlgrym.

Moments ago, Umbra had melted into the shadows, heading to the north through a secret door she'd revealed. Through their mind link, she told Mavash, It's a drow woman. I think it's the one Peebles mentioned -- Kinyel.

A master assassin, according to Jorlan. The Great Houses use her as a weapon against their enemies. Her strikes are precise, surgical. Far cleaner than all-out warfare.

Don't overextend yourself, Mavash warned, but Umbra had already moved out of range of her telepathy.

Ana'Ise was offering to the crowd that she and her companions would go check on Lorthuun, the beholder. Gaulir stepped in line behind her. Looking back between her companions and the crowd, Mavash decided to follow, too.

"I'll stay here," Jorlan said, crossing his arms and fixing his eyes on Zilchyn.

"Stay good, Jorlan," Mavash whispered, touching a hand to his arm. She didn't really expect him to start a brawl in the middle of this crowd, but he had been... unsettled ever since arriving in Mantol-Derith. Especially since finding out about Zilchyn Q'leptin and Kinyel Dru'giir.

She couldn't blame him -- word had to have reached Menzoberranzan by now that the high priestess of Velkynvelve had been killed, and that her captain of the guard had not been found. Mavash didn't expect the drow to have a generous interpretation of Jorlan's disappearance.

Catching up with Gaulir, Mavash asked, "What did they say to each other?"

"Hm?" The dragonborn looked up at her.

"Zilchyn and Jorlan. You had Ana'Ise's spell, didn't you?" In the Eastern Marketplace, the yuan-ti wizard had cast a spell on Gaulir to allow him to understand any language. As of yet, the dragonborn was unwilling or unable to learn Undercommon.

"Oh. Just name calling. Zilchyn said something like, 'So, it's the traitor Jorlan Duskryn,' and Jorlan called him..." He furrowed his scaly brow. "I think it translates to something like 'blood-sucking commoner.'"

Mavash made a huff of laughter. "He seemed to think Zilchyn was lowborn." Even in disgrace, Jorlan wouldn't let them forget he was from a powerful family, once part of the Council, the eight ruling houses of Menzoberranzan. Eight. Because spiders. Of course.

Even knowing that about Zilchyn was useful information; a lowborn male wouldn't be put in charge of the Drow Enclave of Mantol-Derith. Which meant Kinyel was the real power here.

A cry of surprise from ahead caught Mavash's attention. Ana'Ise was bent down beside two bodies; both wore the distinctive Zhentarim armor. The yuan-ti turned to Mavash and Gaulir, and in her whispery voice, said, "Tend to them. I will see to Lorthuun."

Gaulir arrived first, kneeling to examine the bodies. After too short a time, he rose, giving a shake of his head. "They've been dead for at least a few minutes." Unsaid was: too long to be revivified.

"The assassin," Mavash said, suddenly understanding why Kinyel had been leaving the Enclave. She'd thought at first the assassin was just trying to get behind them.

She hoped Umbra was keeping her distance...

At the same moment, Ana'Ise's voice came from inside, calm and yet pained. "Lorthuun's dead."

The next beholder they met was definitely not dead.

They had followed Umbra through the passageway to the north, catching up to Kinyel on the shores of the Darklake. Of course, she wasn't alone; she had the company of five gargoyles and a very healthy-looking beholder. In fact this beholder seemed to have a few extra eyestalks grafted onto its body. Mavash wouldn't be surprised to learn they had belonged to Lorthuun.

The svirfneblin Peebles was there, too. "Bastard sold us out," Jimjar muttered.

This was, in Mavash's professional opinion, looking very bad.

The next few moments passed in a blur. Looking back, Mavash wasn't entirely able to reconstruct the events in order.

She definitely had summoned an earth elemental -- so why was it attacking them?

She remembered the exhilarating feeling of changing into a new form -- the cat-like creature called a moorbounder, with tusks like a boar and sharp spines down its back. The sudden freedom of the wildshape was intoxicating like wine, and in her zeal she leapt into battle. Gaulir called after her, and guiltily she remembered she should have waited for his blessing.

She recalled the foul taste of beholder flesh in her mouth, and how it felt when the gargoyle's stone teeth bit into her side.

She remembered Jimjar racing for the water's edge, towards the wagon where Peebles had sheltered. She recalled the two deep gnomes wrestling one another across the sand.

She remembered the beholder casting its gaze over the length of the shoreline, and magic... vanishing. She remembered how the Eldritch Windstone had sat like a dead thing around her neck, more noose than jewelry.

She recalled seeing Jorlan running -- away, she thought, at first. Though it saddened her, she couldn't blame him. This was far above his paygrade.

But no, he had run towards the shore, where Kinyel had last been seen. As he ghosted into the shadows, Mavash realized he was hunting the assassin.

No, that wasn't right. He had already killed Kinyel, putting a dagger through her eye. Or... was that the fight with the kalaraq quori? That was it, wasn't it?

Wait, no... had she watched him die? He had died, hadn't he?

Oh, Vash, he had died.

She remembered the moment one of the beholder's eyestalks had pivoted towards her, and the sickening green ray it had emitted. The feeling that came over her was... odd. One minute she felt she might vomit; next, all her muscles seized at once, her skin turning a dark grey.

She was being turned to stone.

Restrained, she'd watched helplessly as Kinyel appeared from the shadows and driven her blades, one after the other, into Jorlan's back, running him through. He fell to his knees and then to the ground, sliding off the blades. His terrible grimace of pain and shock was etched as an afterimage into Mavash's mind.

She had watched as Kinyel drove her blades again and again into Jorlan's unconscious form. She didn't just want to neutralize him; she wanted him dead.

As far as Mavash knew, she succeeded.

Mavash remembered feeling very, very far away, like in a dream. And just like waking up from a night terror, she was paralyzed, unable to act, barely able to breathe or think. What she saw made her sick with fear, but she couldn't remember why.

She became aware of a blur at the edge of her vision -- Gaulir, moving faster than she'd ever seen the dragonborn move. He kneeled down beside Jorlan, searching his body. Why was he doing that? What violation was this?

But the red dragon Vaeros was there now, too, as was Umbra's shadow hound. Together they surrounded Kinyel, cutting off her escape.

Next Mavash knew, Jorlan was standing. Clutching his side, weaving like a drunkard, but alive. A brief luff of hope moved through Mavash's stony body.

She watched him slide a rag across his blade and lunge for Kinyel.

Flanked by the rest of their companions, the assassin had nowhere to dodge, and Jorlan's short sword and dagger sunk into her back. Kinyel looked over her shoulder, trading her look of surprise for the one she had taken from Jorlan. He had smiled wickedly and said, "Illythiiri elg'cahl."

Kinyel went down just as abruptly as he had, her face purpled with poison.

A hand touched Mavash's flank. Like a clock hand restrained and now released, time caught up to her. She fell to the ground, her feral throat emitting mewling cat noises.

After taking several panting breaths, she looked up. The beholder was down, and Gaulir was... rummaging through its innards? That seemed gruesome for the paladin. The gargoyles, seeing their allies defeated, were fleeing.

Ambergris was standing over Mavash, looking concerned. Mavash met the dwarf woman's eye and nodded, a mute gesture of gratitude.

Jorlan made his way to Mavash's side. He was covered in blood -- impossible to tell how much of it was his own -- and he limped more than ran. There was a torn and bloody hole through his doublet, marking where a sword had passed through him. But still his first concern was: "Are you well?"

Mavash dropped her beast form and pulled Jorlan into an embrace, burying her face in the crook of his neck. She remembered at the last minute how incredibly small he was -- at least a foot shorter than her, and little more than half her weight -- and refrained from dragging him off his feet.

At first he flinched at her touch -- surprise? pain? disgust? But he relaxed and leaned into the gesture, exhaling a ragged sigh into her hair.

"I was so worried..." she whispered in his ear. The overpowering old-coin smell of his blood stung her nostrils. She wanted to cry out, Kinyel murdered you and I had to watch, petrified, as life left your eyes. But--

"Where is the gem of Frazz-Urb'luu?" came a voice over Mavash's shoulder. She whirled in time to see the duergar Amarith Coppervein appear.

... and, just as quickly, the duergar woman melted into the form of a succubus. One they had last seen in Gracklstugh, charming the Deep King.

"My master, Grazzt, has sent me to parley."

It was finished. One lord of the Abyss down, seven left to go.

There was much work to do, curing the madness that the gem had wrought on so many residents of Mantol-Derith. The duergar wanted an explanation for the disappearance of Amarith Coppervein. Same, really, with the svirfneblin and Peebles.

And Zilchyn was still alive, glaring daggers at Jorlan.

At the moment, all Mavash wanted to do was sleep.

They followed Ana'Ise to rooms the Zhentarim had laid out for them. Along the way, Mavash turned to Jorlan. "Interesting enough for you yet?" She was thinking of their conversation in Gauntlgrym, about why he was following them. Because you are interesting and powerful.

Between Gaulir and Mavash, they had been able to heal the worst of his wounds, but Jorlan looked asleep on his feet. "Mmm. I'd settle for some quiet right about now."

She picked up the thought she'd been in the midst of when the succubus had interrupted them. "I was so afraid you were going to die," she murmured, and added, with a sad laugh, "I suppose you did." When her senses had returned, she'd realized that Gaulir had been able to revivify him, using the diamonds they'd each carried just for this purpose. That explained why the dragonborn was rifling through his pockets.

Jorlan looked into the distance, a thin smile painting his lips. Blood had dried in his pale hair, glinting like rubies in the flickering light. "I thought you were going to say you were afraid I'd bolt."

"Well, that too, at first. One, then the other."

Almost imperceptibly, Jorlan flinched, and Mavash realized she had said the wrong thing.

She lowered her head. "I'm sorry. It's not that I don't trust you. It's just that I expected any sane person to run under those circumstances. Especially someone who's survived as long as you."

Jorlan made no reply, his gaze fixed on his boots.

After an awkward silence, she continued, "What you did to Kinyel... that was impressive." She heard awe creeping into her voice, and did nothing to suppress it.

"Nobody stabs me and gets away with it." Jorlan pointed his head towards Umbra and Luxan, walking ahead of them. "And to think, they didn't want to give me those poisoner's kits. "

"Thank you," Mavash whispered. There was a lump in her throat, and a certainty that whatever she said would be inadequate. "Your assistance--you--are invaluable."

He inspected his hands, still caked with blood. His face was an unreadable mask. "I'm just a male."

Mavash opened her mouth to reply, but all that came out was a deep sigh. She wished she could put a hand to his head and melt away all that self-loathing he'd acquired from a lifetime of being less-than -- remove it as easily as Ambergris had cured her petrification.

Words were harder than magic, though.

Gaulir spoke from behind them, breaking the silence. "You are more than that. We are all pleased to call you friend." He clapped a hand on Jorlan's shoulder, making the drow jump.

They had reached their lodgings, individual rooms in a long building. Ana'Ise pointed out whose was whose, and told them where to fetch more water, and then headed back to the heart of the complex.

Mavash's room was next to Jorlan's, and they both lingered in the space between. The ground beneath them was covered with a filament-like glowing fungi that reminded her of grass. She bent and broke one off in her hand, letting it rest in her palm.

"K'lavulin," he said. When Mavash looked up at him, he indicated the mushroom. "That's its name. Don't eat it."

"Deadly?" she asked. Crouching down, she could actually look up at him -- a rare sensation.

His eyes narrowed in something like mirth, long white lashes closing over red eyes. "No. But it tastes like ash."

"That was... not the word I thought you were going to say," she laughed, and impulsively, put the mushroom on her tongue.

It tasted like charcoal, and worse, it crumbled in her mouth and coated her tongue with fur. She didn't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her retch, but she couldn't help it. It was every bit as awful as he had implied.

Still coughing, Mavash managed to choke out, "Well, will it make me glow?"

Laughing, he said, "Waela jalil." He looked surprised at the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, making Mavash suspect it was something he wouldn't say to a drow matron. "Don't they have mushrooms in Neverwinter Woods? You don't just eat one."

Mavash wiped at her mouth, nodding. As a druid, she knew all sorts of facts about mushrooms. About mycelium and fruiting bodies and spores. About their symbiosis with certain trees. Which ones in the Neverwinter Wood were good to eat and which would make you sick. While it wasn't quite as dire as Jorlan painted it -- you did sometimes put pieces on on your tongue to identify them by taste and smell -- she wouldn't normally gobble down a whole one she had never seen before.

And yet: "Maybe I just did it to make you smile."

And he was smiling. For now, at least. Sadness was creeping back into his eyes, though, as inexorable as sunset.

Or if not sadness, then pain or regret or... what, she didn't know. There was so much going on behind the armor of that tight, closed-mouth smile.

She realized, of a sudden, that sometime in the past month it had become supremely important to see him smile -- that she would do almost anything to eke one out of him.

But not tonight. He'd died today; he deserved a break from her relentless cheer.