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Bright Future

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Mavash awoke with a start in cold darkness. She was sitting up, her back pressed against the wall, and everything up and down her spine ached from that awkward position.

And why had she-- oh.

The room might be cold, the candle burned out, but she had her arms around Jorlan's warm presence.

The evening before came back to her in a rush. Waking up with terrible fear pooling in her stomach like nausea. The momentary relief when she saw he was well. Then his strange behavior; then the dread as she realized his fatal game. The moments afterward -- his emotions roiling like a tempest inside a glass jar, the contents beyond her reach. And finally, this gentleness, and his face slackening into the elven trance.

That last bit was worth all the back pain.

She looked down at him, nestled against her shoulder. The only difference she could see between trance and sleep was how he breathed; it was the rhythmic breath of meditation, not the slackened breath of sleep.

She knew what her fellow druids, many of them elves, had told her about "the Reverie." It was meant to consolidate the hundreds of years of memories that elves had -- not only of this life, but also past lives. It was also supposed to be twice again as restorative as sleep.

Her elven colleague had insisted that there were no dreams in the trance state. We control it entirely. Dreams are antithetical to that. She'd been comforted by that thought -- her lack of dreams, as a kalashtar, had always set her apart, and in the early days of her apprenticeship, it meant a great deal to find a similarity like that.

Yet despite those assurances, Jorlan dreamt. She'd heard and seen the aftereffects of his dreams -- of the nightmares he wouldn't admit to having. When they'd shared a suite in Gauntlgrym, they'd awakened her often. She'd lain awake afterwards, hearing him thrashing and whimpering in the next room, and felt powerless to help. Inevitably she'd be unable to fall back asleep until he quieted.

At least he hadn't been troubled by nightmares tonight.

She wondered what would happen if she tried to move him. She could feel gooseflesh on the bare skin of his arms, and knew he must be cold. Could she reposition him under the blankets without disturbing him, like a sleeping child? Or would he open his eyes as soon as she made a movement? Elves were supposed to be aware of their surroundings during their Reverie; she wasn't sure if that would be a help or a hindrance here.

Before trying it, she looked down at him appreciatively. She didn't have darkvision as he did, but there was enough light creeping in from the braziers in the courtyard. His silver-white hair was luminous in the dim light, his skin the perfect match for the shadows. It was easy to forget -- with his bravado and his competence with a blade -- that he was a small man (or an average sized drow), but here, cross-legged on the bed, he was only the height of Mavash's shoulder, and she scarcely needed two arms to wrap around him.

In short, he looked as fragile as the walls of his troubled mind.

Telepathy seemed like it might be the least jarring way to rouse him, so she probed, Where are you now, Jorlan?

There was no delay before he responded. Do you mean physically, mentally, or spiritually?

She smiled into his hair. Any of the above.

I was meditating on the quality of light in my bedroom on a certain day when I was fifty-three years old.

She was taken aback by that response. Really?

You're surprised?

It just sounds like the sort of erudite thing a surface elf would meditate on.

Well. I was also remembering that was the day my dearest matron mother decided to punish one of our slaves for burning one of her gowns, and pressed the poor goblin woman's face into the side of an iron. Is that drow enough for your standards? She could feel a jagged edge to the thought, and an undertone of hurt, of do you think us all ugliness and hate?

She winced in sympathy. In that case, I'm sorry to bother you. I just thought you might be cold. And I didn't know if I would be disturbing you.

A pause. I am cold. It's easy not to notice these things in trance. I think-- He broke off as he stirred in her grasp. His eyes opened, glinting red as gemstones in the light from outside.

How are you feeling? She didn't know how to ask, Still wanting to end your life?

He didn't answer; only pulled out of Mavash's grasp to burrow under the covers. Your people make beds all wrong, he groused at last.

My people? Whatever he thought he knew about kalashtar, it was probably wrong.

Something like exasperation bubbled up in his mind. Surface dwellers. Humans. I don't know. A proper bed for trance should only recline slightly. I hate that my only choices are to sit up or to lay prone. It feels like I'm a dead body being prepared for the flames. After a moment, he added, Don't you need to sleep?

Mavash stretched, trying to ease the kinks out of her back. I have been sleeping, after a fashion. She yawned, belying the claim. She wanted to lie down and she wanted her own bed. But she didn't know--

You can leave me alone, he said in response to her unspoken words. I've stopped thinking about carving bloody crosses on my arms. Then, with a touch of mirth: Don't forget, the link goes both ways.

It did. But she had more practice shielding her mind from the telepathic link than he did.

Then again, he just plain had more experience shielding his mind. And maybe, too, reading other people's unspoken thoughts and emotions. Ever vigilant, always ready to move out of the way of the riptide.

She smiled into the darkness. And yet she didn't rise; she just took his hand, rubbing a thumb over his palm with curiosity. His blades had left calluses at the base of his fingers.

She didn't want to leave his side, when it came down to it.

You don't have to. And then he yanked on her arm, sending her tumbling to the bed beside him.

She laughed -- giggled, really, like she was some druid novitiate learning about sex for the first time. But she was incapable of being embarassed, seeing him more at ease than he had been in a long time, teasing in a way that didn't come easily to him.

She turned on her side to face him. Is this your famous charm?

Mmm. Regrettably, I think you got a taste of that earlier tonight. She could feel a pulse of shame for his strange behavior. I think this is what you might call... 'playful?' I don't know. It's a foreign sensation. I'm trying it on.

It fits well, she said, with a ripple of psychic laugher, and brushed a lock of hair out of his face.

He looked her up and down, assessing. Now you're the one who looks cold.

She had left her own blanket in a heap at the end of the bed. She'd reached for it, but he stopped her with a hand on her wrist. Just get under the covers. There's room enough for both us, and we're both adults here.

But think what Gaulir will say? she joked.

Oh, that scaly busybody is probably listening at the door. You know he's our biggest booster, right?

Our? She wondered about that turn of phrase, but slid under the covers nonetheless. Uncertain how to place herself, she began, Do you want...

An uncertain pause. If you wouldn't mind. If he'd spoken aloud, the word-thought would have come out as a shy whisper. It seemed it was easier for him, like this, to ask for what he needed.

She wrapped her arms around him again, pulling him close. Once again his head came to rest against her shoulder, her arms encircling his thin frame. This was certainly a much more comfortable position, even if her arm was now pinned beneath him.

"Is that true?" she murmured aloud, although she wasn't sure why she chose that moment to switch to Undercommon.

He switched to words as well. "Is what true? That Gaulir is trying to set us up? Definitely. Every time we talk, he's standing off to the side smirking."

"I hadn't noticed. Good thing we're speaking in Undercommon, then." She made a huff of laughter into his hair. "But, no, I meant, about being adults. I have no idea how old you are. In elven or human terms. Am I robbing the cradle?"

"I could ask the same thing of you. I have no idea how kalashtar age. If you were human I might guess you were... fifty?"

Mavash suppressed a laugh. "Half that much. But still very much an adult, thank you. We age at roughly the same rate as humans."

"Well. You can tell I've met so many humans in my life. And of course, the circumstances I met them in were exactly the kinds where you might discuss age."

"Of course." She could too readily imagine what those circumstances were -- raids, or interacting with slaves. But she wasn't going to mention that if he didn't. "And how old are you?"

"Don't you know it's rude to ask a handsome young drow his age?" She couldn't see his face, but she could easily imagine him batting his eyes in mock demureness.

"Mmm, well, maybe you're a thousand or so?" She was pretty sure that was an advanced age for surface elves -- and she was going for the joke -- but was unsure about drow.

He made a bark of laughter, muffled by her body. "I see you know about as much about how elves age as I do about humans."

Just tell me how old you are, Jorlan Duskryn, she said into his mind, a gentle nudge.

She could tell he was calculating. 200, I think?

You think?

It's not like anyone celebrates the births of sons. A long, uncomfortable pause. Anyway, it's somewhere between 195 and 204. Which I think is about your age, roughly, in human terms? So you're not robbing the cradle. Since that seemed of some concern to you.

So what you're saying is, you're somewhere between 'old enough to know better' and 'too young to care.'

A trickle of mirth, like a spring of fresh water across her mind. Precisely. After a moment, he added aloud, "I should let you sleep.

"And I should let you trance."

"I suspect you need the former more than I need the latter, but as you say."

Mavash was saved from having to explain her... unique bedding circumstances by the impersonal wakeup call -- a Zhentarim enforcer, pounding on each of their doors in turn. "Breakfast with Lady Jassur in an hour," he called.

She sneaked back to her room, tidied herself, and changed into new clothes. Within the hour she joined her companions in a private alcove of the enclave's refectory.

Breakfast was not worthy of note -- Mavash had resigned herself to the fact that she'd be eating nothing but mushrooms and goodberries for the rest of her time in the Underdark. Until we defeat the Lords of the Abyss, or die trying. Once Ana'Ise set up the shield guardian, they might have shipments from the surface, but for now their breakfast was a journey cake made from dried, sliced mushrooms, and something that looked like bacon, but clearly not from any pig she'd ever seen. Lux--in their usual waifish half-elf form--was digging into the meal with gusto, but everyone else was picking at the food.

Ana'Ise appeared, gliding into the room with a cool grace that belied the fact that they'd nearly sacrificed their lives yesterday. "Friends," she greeted them with a nod. The snakes of her hair were active this morning, curling and uncurling about her neck and ears. "We must speak about the Gravenhollow."

She sat down on a bench across the table from them, and slid a ring across the table. Mavash recognized it as one Ghazrim duLoc wore.

"This is the key you were seeking. Lord duLoc was not eager to part with it, but your heroics yesterday saved him considerable difficulties. And so..." She shrugged, trailing off.

Gaulir spoke up. "This will admit us to the Gravenhollow?"

"More importantly, this will also lead you to the Gravenhollow. It is the sort of place you don't find unless you are looking for it, and this is the compass that will point you there."

Lux picked up the ring, turning it in their fingers. "I don't notice anything special about it."

"Ah, yes, well, there's another matter. First you need to find your way to the Deep Dark. Although..." She fixed her eyes on Mavash. "I believe Morista Malkin of the Emerald Enclave gave you a lead in this regard?"

Mavash looked up at the ceiling, recalling. "The druid called Sladis, yes."

Ana'Ise made a thin smile. "Yes, him. A strange man, but one of the few surfacers who can act as guides. And I can tell you where he is." She waved in a southerly direction. "You will find his encampment on the southern shore of the Darklake. I can't promise you will find him in a good mood, but hopefully he will have heard already from Master Malkin."

"If I might go back a step," Umbra spoke up, "I know we've been told we must go to the Gravenhollow, but what are we hoping to find there?"

A long explanation followed of the Gravenhollow -- how it was a repository of knowledge about the Underdark, a repository of memories, and how it also chronicled events that had not yet happened. If there was any place to learn about the Lords of the Abyss -- to learn about how they got here, and how to banish them back to the Abyss -- it would be there.

After a long conversation, Ana'Ise excused herself. She would not be traveling with them, as her magics were required for setting up the shield guardian. Mantol-Derith would be a better staging ground than Blingdenstone, and that was news that Jimjar would be happy to bring back to the svirfneblin.

More worrying to Mavash -- Jorlan had still not showed himself. Surely he couldn't require more trance time, so what was keeping him? She bit her lip, trying to focus on her companions' conversation about supplying.

"Do we wish to replace the diamond we used on Jorlan?" Gaulir asked. "We should have more than enough coin, and Mantol-Derith seems like a market where we could find more." He flashed a toothy smile -- well, all his smiles were toothy -- in Mavash's direction. "You're not allowed to answer."

It was in jest, so Mavash said, "I think you already know how I feel about it." She hid her face behind a glass of... what was it? Juice, of some sort? It tasted sweet and yet earthy, so it probably came from some kind of mushroom.

"I don't see why we wouldn't replace it," Umbra added.

Mavash rose and wandered over to the doorway to the refectory, searching for fresh air -- such as it was, a mile beneath ground. If confronted, she would have admitted she was looking for Jorlan. When he appeared, loping towards the refectory at a quick pace, she felt her face crease automatically into a broad smile.

He noticed her, and a similar look graced his own face -- Mavash's delight echoed in his own. "Waiting for me, were you?" he said.

"I was just a little worried," she murmured under her breath, as if concerned her companions would hear her. She hadn't spoken with them of what had happened last night -- Jorlan's dark night of the soul, as it were -- and she suspected that was a secret she could easily carry to the grave.

Gaulir looked up from scribbling notes, noticing Jorlan. "Ah, good. We were just discussing purchasing some supplies. On our shopping list is another diamond, some strong healing potions... anything else you can think of?"

"Maybe get a saddle for that moorbounder," he said, with a wink at Mavash.

There was a brief silence as everyone processed the obvious innuendo. Umbra burst out laughing, and Gaulir looked puzzled for a moment before his draconic maw split in a grin. Mavash, for her part, turned away to hide the blush heating her face.

"Why, Jorlan," Lux said, "I do believe you're flirting. Is that a first?"

"The first time you've heard," he said, the corner of his mouth turning up.

Gaulir narrowed his eyes in humor. "I'm sure to have survived this long, Jorlan has had to flirt with any number of powerful women. Am I right?"

Jorlan made a nervous cough, evading the question. "My bags are packed and I'm ready to go. Sadly, no time to launder my bloody clothes, so you'll have to excuse my poor sartorial choices for now." He gestured down at his outfit -- the formal clothes that had been made for him in Gauntlgrym, for his presentation before the king. Aside from an excess of gold and silver embroidery, it looked suitable for travel.

As they filed out of the refectory, Jorlan raised his eyebrows and aimed a look at Mavash. "A second diamond? Whatever did I do to deserve this?" He delivered it with his usual sardonic tone, but Mavash knew there was a genuine question underneath.

I mean, aside from saving our lives? she replied telepathically, before adding aloud, "Don't spend it all in one place."