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Bright Future

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On the southern shores of the Darklake, Mavash thought, The Underdark is surely beautiful.

It was an alien beauty, and one she hadn't had time to appreciate before now. It was not the sighing of the pines of the Neverwinter Woods, or the exquisite green of early spring. It was phosphorescent fungi glowing like a maze of carnival lanterns, or twinkling like stars in a sunless sky. It was the perfect stillness of the Darklake's surface, reflecting the glow of the nearby city like an unblemished mirror. The entire palette was rendered in the deadly colors Mavash had learned to beware of in nature, the saturated hues of flora and fauna laden with poison -- sulfurous yellow, carmine red, viridian green.

She was waylaid by the vastness of it, and stood gaping on the shoreline like a landed fish.

On a small hillock beside the water, a hovel had been carved out of a large zurkhwood mushroom. In front of it sat a tall high elf, his hair flame-red and past his shoulders. His feet were bare, and his toes dangled in the water. Leaning back on his arms, his eyes were closed in a look of pure peace.

Mavash was nearly sorry to interrupt him. "Sladis Vadir?" she said.

The elf's eyes snapped open, and a look of irritation crossed his face. "Who's asking?" He took in the band of them, from kalashtar to dragonborn to drow, and came to no good conclusion.

Mavash laid a hand to her heart and bowed her head. "I am the druid Mavash, of Neverwinter Wood. I've been sent by Morista Malkin of the Emerald Enclave. I believe he told you to expect us?"

Sladis shot to his feet, wiping dirt from his hands. His entire manner had changed at the word "druid." "Oh, yes, indeed. You took longer than I expected getting here! Let me make you some tea; I think I have some nibbles around here somewhere. Or at least some goodberries."

In the interest of being hospitable, Mavash said, "Yes, we should be very grateful--"

But the elf had already wandered back to his hovel, and was standing in the door talking to someone. As Mavash approached, she heard a string of chitters and squeaks which she recognized as animal speech. "Yes, yes, Sir Possum," he was saying. "Tea. For"--he looked his shoulder at his guests--"six of them, I think. And this time try not to put too much sugar in it."

Mavash eyed her companions, who looked as baffled by a grown man emitting chirping sounds as she was by the improbable words. She seated herself on a zurkhwood stool that had been placed around a firepit, smoothing her travel skirt over her knees. Her companions came to join her, Jorlan sitting to her left, and Gaulir to her right.

Bustling and crashing noises were coming from within the hovel, but Sladis seemed unconcerned. When he emerged, he seated himself cross-legged in the middle of the circle. "Well, what can Sladis Vadir do for the Emerald Enclave?"

Umbra spoke up first. "We understand you know the paths of the Deep Dark."

Sladis scrutinized the shadar-kai woman, as if trying to decide if she was drow, and therefore dangerous. "I am somewhat familiar with them. Certainly more than most surface druids are." Impossible to tell if that was modesty or cageyness.

And yet they would have to trust him with their mission; might as well get straight to the point. "We are looking for the Gravenhollow," Mavash said.

Sladis turned back to Mavash, his eyes wide with surprise. "The Gravenhollow! I'm happy to provide any assistance you need, of course, but regrettably I can't say I know the way to that mythical place."

"We have that part well in hand," Lux added, holding up Ghazrim's ring. "We just need to find our way to the Deep Dark."

Sladis' eyes fixed on the ring, though he ignored Lux's words. He continued, to Mavash, "Are you looking to leave immediately?"

"As soon as possible, yes. Of course, we can compensate you accordingly."

"No need! No need!" Sladis said, with a birdlike flap of his hands. "I am always happy to be of service to a sister of the forest." He made a little bow, a bend of the waist from his sitting position.

Mavash looked out at the impenetrable depths of the Darklake, distracted by a ripple of the water and the shimmer of scales. "When we showed up, were you... dipping your toes in the water? I'm surprised something didn't try to bite them off." She'd been warned of the size and variety of predators that dwelt within the Darklake; how, like the Underdark itself, it was its own microcosm of horrors unfathomed by the world above.

"Oh, well, if I weren't cautious, something might! But," he tapped the side of his head, "I always keep an eye on what's coming."

Mavash sat back, nodding her head with understanding. Her telepathy made such precautions unnecessary -- she could always sense minds nearby -- but for those without, there were spells. "Since the minute I saw the Darklake, I've been wanting to do just that!" Something about that ink-dark water invited the desire to handle it, anoint herself with it. "I'll have to take that into consideration. It's such a beautiful home you've made here, it would be a shame not to take full advantage of it."

Beneath the artificial gloaming of the lights of Mantol-Derith, she had the impression of sitting by a forest lake at sunset with her fellow druids, telling stories. While Sladis might be strange, he was still a druid, and kin, in a way.

Surprising herself, she smiled up at him. He reminded her a little of Sethendir from her grove, who she'd been traveling with when she was abducted by the drow. Same silky red hair, same ethereal beauty, same flighty nature, always having inane conversations with woodland animals. (He'd once thumb-wrestled a squirrel). She'd fancied him, a little, and was awed by him a great deal, and if she hadn't been captured--

The other druid met her smile with his own lopsided grin, and a duck of his head. "I'm glad you think so. I've put a great deal of work into it. And regrettably I don't often have visitors to appreciate it. Or at least not repeat ones. Ah! Here is our tea!"

Out of the hovel toddled two small animals. Mavash immediately recognized them as surface creatures -- a raccoon and an opossum, both common to Neverwinter Wood, but unheard of here. Each carried in their mouth a little basket; one of the baskets contained a ceramic pot puffing steam, and the second was full of the white-flecked goodberries.

Mavash put a hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh. It was like something out of a fairy story -- adorable and yet uncanny. The druids she knew would readily work and fight beside animals, but very few would employ them in this menial manner.

The possum -- an older male, Mavash judged -- waddled into the circle of companions, eyeing each one in turn. Once he had dropped the basket at Mavash's feet, he looked up at Jorlan, baring tiny, needle-sharp teeth and hissing at him.

Jorlan went a pale grey; he hand flew to the hilt of his short sword. "What light-spawned monster is this?" he growled. He looked like a prey animal himself, backed into a corner, lips taught over teeth.

Mavash couldn't help laughing. "Oh, it's just a possum, Jorlan. They're good little creatures. Omnivores. They eat all kinds of dangerous bugs, and ticks, and spiders--" Maybe she shouldn't mention the spiders.

Flatly, Jorlan said, "It has daggers for teeth and the eyes of a madman."

That was an apt description of a possum. And she supposed that if she had never seen one before, she might have had the same reaction at the ball of vicious teeth and attitude. It was endearing, though, seeing the man who had faced down assassins and the kalaraq quori startled by a ragged marsupial.

Mavash offered her hand to the possum for inspection. Well met, Sir Possum, she said to it telepathically. I have some treats in my bag for you.

As often happened with her telepathy, the animal looked up at Mavash with mingled fear and surprise. You do not speak like Master Sladis, it replied. What are you, hairless female?

Mavash laughed, and reached in her pack for a piece of jerky. She'd hardly been called hairless before; if anything, she had more hair than she needed, felting into messy tangles around her face. The possum snapped at the jerky, taking it to retreat a few paces, warily flicking his beady eyes between her and Jorlan. His delicate nose waved in the air, before asking, Is the grey one your mate? He smells of you.

That made her blush, and she was suddenly glad no one was privy to this unexpectedly intimate conversation. He is someone I am very fond of. But. No. Not in the way you think.

The possum seemed content with this answer, and maneuvered the strip of dried meat into its mouth with clever little paws. I will not harm him. You are good like Master Sladis. He brings us meat to eat. We grow fat and lazy here. It pleases us.

"Ah, you return Sir Possum's hospitality with your own!" Sladis said, interrupting their silent conversation. He handed Mavash a chipped porcelain cup, its pattern faded -- another relic of the surface.

Mavash took the cup, her thoughts lingering on the two creatures. "I'm surprised you brought them all the way here! Do they not find it uncomfortable?" After a thoughtful moment, she added, "For that matter, don't you?"

"Hmm? Oh, no. The Underdark suits me well -- I'd studied it for a long time before I left the surface. I was fascinated with mushrooms, you know, and the faerzress, and how they lived in symbiosis -- a perfect braid of life." His vision grew distant, wistful for a moment, and then he shook it off, chuckling. "And my companions are very accommodating, so long as they are fed."

"Like Lux," Mavash joked, and threw a teasing glance at the changeling. "Feed them, and they will be your new best friend."

Lux looked up, their hand already wrist-deep in the basket of goodberries. "Mrm?" they said around a mouthful.

Sladis turned his back on the blood hunter. Taking the pot of tea from the basket, he poured for Mavash, meeting her eyes in a deliberate and languorous way. In Druidic, he said, "Why do you travel with these lesser races, queen of the forest?" His eyes settled on each of her companions in turn, finding each of them wanting. "A mongrel half elf, this... lizard man, a dwarf, and two drow? Are they your servants? Perhaps, you find them quaint, like I do Sirs Possum and Raccoon?"

Mavash recoiled, taking in the torrent of words -- a language she hadn't heard in months, the term of endearment, the dismissal of her traveling companions. After a stuttering start, she replied in Druidic, "I will not hear them maligned. They are my friends, and they have saved my life a dozen times over."

He looked her over, his lips curving in an indulgent smile. "Of course." He turned towards the others and said in Undercommon, "Let's have tea."

They had all been served tea -- the water too hot, the brew too bitter, and where had the tea leaves even come from? -- when Sladis returned to the topic of the Gravenhollow.

"Indulge me, Mavash of Neverwinter Wood. How do you come to be searching for this library?"

Mavash glanced at her companions, wondering how much she should reveal. Seeing no objection, she said, "Surely you are aware of the incursion of the Lords of the Abyss into the Underdark?"

His eyes grew wide, and he lowered his teacup from his lip. "I am not! The demon princes! Fancy that!"

Umbra frowned at his words. "But surely you'd noticed the faerzress affecting your druidic magic? Even I was affected by it, though I've been in the Underdark my whole life."

Mavash remembered camping near the Darklake, nine days out of Velkynvelve, and the odd poisonous fruit that had come to hand when she'd tried to summon goodberries. How even conjuring up a shillelagh, the most basic of her cantrips, became a nearly impossible act. She had acclimated to the magical radiation since then, but if even Umbra had been affected, she was surprised Sladis had not felt the effects.

Sladis weighed that in his mind. "A little, I suppose. The faerzress has always ebbed and waned according to its own patterns, and I've learned not to depend on my magics too much. I can track, and find foods to eat, and find my way easily enough without it."

"How long have you been down here?" Jorlan said.

It was the first thing he'd said since the possum had spooked him. Mavash tried to read motive in his expressions, but was at a loss. She was better than most at that challenging art -- had learned his little tics, his evasions. But to look at his face now... it was blank, emotionless, a perfect mask.

It reminded her of how he'd looked when they had first taken him prisoner.

Sladis saw none of that, but pursed his lips into a thin line. "Long enough, greyskin. Nothing I've seen in that time has convinced me that you -- the drow -- are anything less than the betrayers of elvenkind, suckling at the teat of your demon goddess."

Mavash had a sudden, idiot urge to point out that drow were elves, too -- though she suspected that would infuriate both of them.

Jorlan made a cold, humorless laugh. A killer's laugh.. Mavash was reminded that he was not only the small man she'd bundled in her arms the night before, but a very dangerous rogue, death with a shortsword and dagger.

"I suckle at no one's teat," he said, and then, curling his lip in a wry smile. "At least not without being well compensated first."

Gods damn her, Mavash loved that wicked tongue.

Sladis reddened, the perfect complement to his ginger hair. "Mm. Perhaps that clever mouth is why Mavash White-Hair keeps you around, then."

Jorlan turned that smile towards Mavash, raising his eyebrows expressively. The look brought a sense of buoyancy to her stomach, like the feeling of flying.

"If we are to travel together, please rein in your dog, sister," Sladis said in Druidic, not daring to take his eyes off Jorlan.

But Jorlan was dangerously patient, and it was Sladis who looked away first.

After an awkward silence, the other druid brushed at the arms of his tunic, as if brushing off the uncomfortable memory. "None of this explains your travel," he said. "I don't mean to pry, but it's not every day I'm asked to serve as guide to a mythical library."

"We wish to learn how the Lords of the Abyss came here, so that we might banish them," Gaulir said. "I'm told the Gravenhollow has all knowledge of the Underdark. If it can't teach us about demons -- their summoning and banishment -- then nothing can."

"A bold plan, lizard! I hope for the sake of the whole Underdark that you are right." Despite the slur against the dragonborn, there was no malice in Sladis' voice.

Just wait until he meets Vaeros, Mavash transmitted to Gaulir, who replied with a bubble of mirth. The juvenile red dragon -- now the size of a horse -- had remained outside Mantol-Derith, awaiting their return. Clearly that had been a wise decision.

"Well, it might be a fool's errand," Sladis continued, "but I'm always happy to be of service to a sister of the Circle of the Moon. Shall we go?"

"Now?" Lux said, with some surprise. Their mouth was stained red from the goodberries.

"No reason to delay," Mavash said, and stood, kicking dust out of her skirt hem.

Sladis bowed his head, and returned to his hovel, presumably to prepare for the journey.

Mavash looked down at the raccoon and possum, bustling at her feet, picking up tea cups in tiny paws. She transmitted to them a request -- take care of this place while Master Sladis is gone. Their reply -- of course, of course, hairless one -- tapped against her mind like light rain.

Within a matter of minutes, Sladis had shouldered a pack, and headed down the trail into the warrens of the Underdark, humming tunelessly under his breath. Gaulir followed close behind in his usual position of vanguard, and the rest of them fell in behind the dragonborn.

At the end of the caravan, Jorlan caught Mavash's arm. "I don't trust him," he said.

"I can't imagine why," she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. "It's unpleasant, I'm sure, but perhaps you can tolerate it if for a few days?" She gave his hand an encouraging squeeze. Sladis clearly had no love for any of them save her, but why did he reserve the worst of his disdain for Jorlan? Even Umbra -- a drow to all appearances -- didn't garner the same rancor.

"It's not the first time I've been insulted by a surface elf. And truly, I find it refreshing to be honestly hated rather than secretly plotted against." A shadow fell over his red eyes. "But if he betrays us, I will kill him."

Two days out from Mantol-Derith, and they were spiraling deeper into darkness, the air growing hotter and stuffier moment by moment. Jorlan's senses told him he was deeper underground than he had ever been, out of the range of his knowledge. The fungi and lichen here were mostly unfamiliar to him, the paths rugged and scarcely traveled.

"Magma vents," Sladis explained, regarding the heat. The elf was tasting the air like some sort of serpent -- how appropriate -- with his eyes closed. "You can taste the brimstone." He opened his eyes, and started forward again. "It shouldn't become unbearable. But then, I'm not really sure where you're going, am I? I suppose we just wander around until that ring starts talking."

Lux looked down at their hand. "From what I can gather, it thinks we're heading in the right direction." They tapped the ring. "It? They? Her? Is it sentient, like Azuredge or Dawnbringer?"

" 'Outlook uncertain, ask again later,' " Ambergris quipped.

They rested at midday in a stand of riotously-colored fungi, nurtured by a miasma of faerzress. Jorlan recognized a variety of trillimac, but every other fungus was alien to him as it was to the surfacers. And yet, he felt at ease enough to lie back on a cushion of moss.

These places had always felt safe to him, despite their recent association with the demonic threat. In his youth, he'd sought them out on the outskirts of Menzoberranzan, when things became unbearable in the city itself. He hadn't cared if his innate spells were useless here; he'd always relied more on blades, anyway. But it meant no one else could catch him unawares, ensorcel him, torture him for some imagined slight.

He raised his head at the sounds of animated talking. Mavash was turning a mushroom in her hand, examining the gills. Sladis, beside her, was saying, "--are not real gills, you see. They're not attached in a radial pattern to the cap, but rather are extensions of these raised bits of the stalk." He took the mushroom from Mavash's hand to point them out, his wrist brushing hers.

"Fascinating," Mavash said, with breathy awe. "And by this you can tell they're edible?"

"Not just edible, sister of the forest, but a delicacy! We shall pick some, and your servants can cook them for us." His eyes lit on Jorlan, narrowing in unveiled disgust.

Suffused with rage, Jorlan looked down at his hands. It was a feeling he was used to in combat -- where he let that feeling power his blows. But it was odd to feel it now, in response to this whelp of an elf. He had spoken true to Mavash that he found the other druid's bald-faced hate a relief. It saved having to watch his back.

So why this?

Those who watch their backs meet death from the front, went the drow proverb. Maybe that was what troubled him. He was not safe here after all.

He was not safe.

He became dimly aware of pain -- his fingernails biting into the meat of his palm. He loosened his grip, but blanked out his thoughts, willing his mind and his features to still. He was utterly uninterested and uninteresting. His mind was as dead as a riding lizard's, its brain scrambled to make it docile.

After a timeless moment, he noticed Gaulir studying him. Seeing Jorlan return his gaze, he looked away, leaning to say something to Lux under his breath. Between the distance and that it was in Common, Jorlan had no idea what words they shared, save that they were probably about him.

Meanwhile Mavash and the druid were still talking mushrooms. She tipped her head back and laughed at something he said, exposing the white column of her neck, and--

Light take him, Jorlan knew now what was troubling him. This feeling was familiar; it had quickened his hand on the prison door at Velkynvelve.

Sssinssr'ogglirin. Or, more crudely, vith'ogglirin. Sex rivalry.

Jealousy, in Undercommon.

Jorlan heard a crunch on the moss beside him, and immediately his hand was on his shortsword. But it was only Lux. They plopped down to sit cross-legged beside him, saying nothing as they scrutinized him, brow furrowed in concentration.

Then the changeling's features melted into a perfect simulacrum of his own.

His eyes widened and his body recoiled in horror. One was not supposed to meet one's doppleganger.

Maybe that was the point. Or maybe this was what the blood hunter thought was friendly conversation. He'd never understand them, honestly.

He looked back at Mavash and was surprised to find her watching the two of them. Doubtless Lux's prank had caught her attention. "Look, Jorlan," she said, her mouth alive with laugher, "it's the one person you're capable of loving."

He was unprepared for how those words gutted him -- like Kinyel opening him up with a blade. Exposed, he scrambled for the blank, featureless mask that suddenly he could not put to hand.

(She was right, of course).

After a moment that probably felt longer in his head, he let a calculated smile grace his lips, a hand to his heart. "You wound me, Mavash! Do you think I'm so vain?" He tossed his hair over his shoulder; in a queue currently, it lost some of the effect.

Sladis' cold gaze fixed on Jorlan, his eyes as dead as a fish's.

Everyone's a critic. But Jorlan, at least, was pleased with his performance.

On the third day out from Mantol-Derith, the ring-compass swerved towards a gap in the tunnel wall. Sladis had passed it moments before, brushing it off as another vent. But the ring was insistent, and so they followed it, to the sound of the underdruid's bewilderment.

(Mavash wasn't sure when she'd starting thinking of him as "the underdruid," but the weak humor added some needed levity to a traveling party gone tense from the oppressive heat).

The space they emerged in provided no relief. On the contrary, it was like stepping into an oven. Ahead of them, a broken, manmade bridge extended out over a lake of lava, which glowed with a coruscating light. Acclimated to the dim as she was, she had to shield her eyes against the glare. Poor Jorlan flinched, fumbling for the sun spectacles buried at the bottom of his pack.

Lux's cry caught Mavash's attention. The blood hunter looked ready to surge forward, their hand on Azuredge. "It's Neheedra," they choked out. "They've got Neheedra."

Some three hundred feet ahead, across the broken stones of the bridge and the expanse of lava, Mavash made out two figures. One of them was definitely the medusa they'd last seen in the Rockblight district of Blingdenstone -- that they'd noticed before she set her deadly petrifying eyes on them. Rather than meeting her with aggression, they had helped her escape her stone prison, a fate deserved by no one. Lux had been the one to climb through rubble in magical darkness to free her, laying a blindfold over Neheedra's eyes with a delicacy belying their usual bloodthirstiness.

Dimly Mavash recalled that the Gravenhollow had been the medusa's destination, when they had parted. She recalled, too, the long embraces between Lux and Neheedra that preceded that parting, the hushed conversations. After that, Lux had started calling Neheedra "my wife."

The other distant figure had powerful arms, Mavash could tell, by how it held Neheedra off-balance above the lava. It was as tall as a humanoid on insectoid legs, and though it wore clothes, they glowed with a psychedelic indigo light.

Mavash scanned the near side of the bridge, noting a number of smaller creatures gathered there. These ones had long, gangly limbs with hooks in the place of hands, and a terrible prehensible tail, and they dragged themselves across the rock with the clattering of chitin. A pair of pedipalps and chelicerae also gave an arachnoid impression.

Beside Mavash, Gaulir closed his eyes for a moment, snout twitching. "Not fiends," he said, his voice rumbling with ill-restrained fury. "But not of this world, either. Let's be wary."

Not of this world? And yet, the paladin's divine sense hadn't erred yet. Mavash glanced back at Sladis, raising an eyebrow with a question.

The other druid looked terrified -- his jaw slack, his skin gone pale. He made a slow, heavy gulp, and then managed, "I- I've never seen anything like this."

That must have been enough information for Lux, who charged the nearest enemy. Their features broadened into lycan form, and the crawling creatures looked up in interest. Gaulir shrugged, and said something in Draconic to Vaeros, who lifted into the air and headed for the bridge.

Jorlan had already melted into the shadows; Mavash only knew he had passed by the smell of blade oil. "Don't die, Jorlan," she whispered after him. By now the fear that he would bolt had been replaced with a different one.

And just like that, they were committed. Mavash melted into the shape of a moorbounder, intending the cat's immense speed and powerful jumps to carry her across the broken bridge ahead.

As she sped across the spit of land towards the nearest enemies, the heat of the lava rose up like a wall on both sides of her. Already sweat slicked the barbed hairs of the moorbounder's back.

A pounce closed the distance to Lux, and landing, she felt the spine of one of the crawlers crack beneath her. But the blood hunter didn't stay to fight; they had a purpose that led them across the bridge.

Mavash was by herself in the thick of it. The crawling monsters did no harm to her; her powerful claws tore through them like tissue paper. But ahead, flying over the bridge, were insectoid monsters -- like the chasme from Velkynvelve -- that looked much more dangerous. They were floating towards her when Gaulir arrived at her side, his steps quickened by his magical boots.

Mavash became aware of a deep rumbling sound beneath their feet -- a sound she now realized had been growing in volume over some seconds.

Before she could reflect, a gargantuan worm-like creature reared out of the lava and onto the bridge, shattering it like brittle glass. Lux was knocked over by the impact; for a moment it seemed they might pitch into lava below. Above their head, Vaeros reared up, gathering strength to dive in rescue. But Lux managed to scramble to their feet at the last moment, as the segment of bridge before them spilled into the lava with a horrid creaking noise.

What in Vash's name was this thing? Mavash had heard legends of the purple worms that dwelt in the Underdark, but this was clearly not that. Its flesh was black, but with something like magma bleeding through its skin, giving the impression of cooling lava. Its mouthparts were concentric rings of teeth, like a lamprey's, and were ringed with quivering, barbed tentacles.

Mavash dispatched the last of the little monsters and looked behind her. Jorlan was nowhere to be found -- that meant everything was going to plan. Ambergris was still making her way towards them on her short dwarven legs, huffing and puffing. Sladis was not far behind her.

As she watched, Sladis' hands made the somatic component of a spell. One Mavash recognized, even. But--

"Get going, dwarf," the underdruid cried, and a gust of wind flew from his fingertips into Ambergris' back. She went spinning to the ground and rolled head over feet before stopping.

What in the Abyss was going on? That was an offensive spell Sladis had thrown at the cleric -- admittedly, a minor one. To Mavash's relief, Ambergris was already climbing to her feet. But if this was a prank, it was a very poorly-timed one, indeed.

Mavash was chilled as she remembered Jorlan's words. I will kill him if he betrays us.

That chill was a premonition. Jorlan appeared a few feet before Sladis, his shortsword already aimed in a downward arc towards the druid. Sladis only had time to raise his hands in a gesture of defense before the blade sunk itself deep into his neck, making a spray of arterial blood. With his next move, Jorlan's dagger found its home in the druid's belly. Sladis' knees gave out beneath him; if he wasn't already dead, drow poison would finish the job.

None of it made any damn sense. She wanted to shake Sladis, to ask him why he did that. She wanted to take a swipe at Jorlan for his lethal reaction to what might have only been a joke. In the privacy of her own head, she'd jokingly called him murder elf, but now it was a little too real for comfort.

But the flying insectoids descended on her and Gaulir, leaving no time to deliberate.

It was done, and Lux and Neheedra were embracing on the steps of... well, it was probably the Gravenhollow, judging by the giant stone doors engraved with the same symbol that was on the ring.

They had cut through the smaller monsters easily, leaving only the challenge of the lava worm. Umbra's brilliance had saved the day there. She had turned to her spells of cold, which had cracked the skin of the giant creature, making it vulnerable to further attack. Within a few heartbeats, it had given a terrible moan and sank back into the lava, dead.

Seeing that, the glowing blue creature had released Neheedra and fled. It was clearly intelligent -- smart enough to live another day.

Neheedra wiped at her blindfold, now damp with tears. "T-thank you. They set upon me just as you arrived here. They're core spawn -- aberrations, not native to this plane. I think they hoped I could get them in." She gestured at the stone doors, her lips turning into a frown. "Though it's puzzled me for nearly a fortnight now. It seems to require some key -- and it's not the sort of lock you can pick."


Mavash spun, seeing Jorlan appear behind her. He had Sladis' pack slung over one shoulder, but he tossed it at Mavash's feet as he approached.

Like a cat bringing its owner a dead mouse. She supposed she should be grateful it wasn't the underdruid's head.

The anger she'd felt, seeing the other druid cut down with little provocation, flared up in her chest again. "What in the Abyss was that?" she growled.

Jorlan met her rage with a tired calm. "Open the satchel" he said, at the same time that Ambergris said, "Let me wrench out Sladis' soul and ask him myself." Necrotic energy flared at the tips of the dwarf's fingers, black and bubbling.

As if we were at any risk of forgetting she's a priestess of Shar.

"Maybe it was just a prank!" Mavash waved her hands expressively, feeling her voice spiral out of control. "But now a man -- our ally, need I remind you? -- is dead, and it's too late to take it back." She looked over at Gaulir, wondering if the paladin had any more powerful spells of resurrection.

Again Jorlan said, "Open the satchel." He met her eyes. "Mavash. Please."

As Mavash bent down to the backpack, an odor like decaying meat assaulted her, sickly sweet. She opened the flap--

She gasped, stumbling away, feeling her stomach roil. She was no stranger to violence, but it was one thing to see blood; it was another to see

--a severed hand, bloated, clearly humanoid. Maggots making a feast of it, worming holes through the dead flesh down to the bone. And oh gods, something with bigger, blunter teeth had gnawed on it, too--

She pushed the terrible thing away from her, moaning. "Did you know?" she said, not meeting Jorlan's eyes.

He made a curt nod. "Since making camp yesterday. I did a little... exploring while Sladis was attending to the necessaries."

"Spying, more like," Ambergris grumbled, beside him. "D'you do the same to everyone who joins the party?"

He narrowed his eyes with mirth. "You are all very easy to deceive with a little sleight of hand." He winked at the dwarf. "I approve of your taste in weaponry, by the way."

Mavash, however, was caught on another point. "Why," she began hoarsely, "did you not tell us?"

His mouth moved silently, as if discarding many different replies. "I'm not a precipitous person." He looked back towards the lava, his gaze growing distant. "And anyway, I didn't find a backpack full of parts. This was what I found instead; he'd left it lying by his bedroll."

From his doublet, he produced a leather-bound book, handing it to Mavash. A journal of some sort, then. The cover was dappled with dark brown stains -- blood, of course, but they could have easily passed for mud or wine.

"Any man may write about the succulence of humanoid flesh, but it's not exactly damning evidence by itself." Jorlan licked his lips. "I'd hoped I was wrong. I'd hoped it was fiction. This act... is anathema, even to the drow."

"He was a cannibal," Umbra said, as if she had just realized the situation.

"He was mad as a derro, in any case," Lux added -- and then winced, clearly thinking of one particular derro of the party's acquaintance. They turned to Neheedra as if to lead the medusa away protectively. "You shouldn't see this. Well, I guess you can't see this." The changeling made a hiccup, followed by a nervous laugh.

Neheedra nuzzled at Lux's head, seeking comfort regardless. "I can smell it. That's bad enough." To the rest of them, she said, "It must be the faerzress that made him mad."

"Or maybe Zuggtmoy's spores," Gaulir suggested. "He was rather taken with mushrooms. Though I shudder to think of Zuggtmoy's influence that close to Mantol-Derith."

"Then maybe it's an aftereffect of Frazz-Ur'bluu's gem?" Umbra added.

The possibility of redemption made guilt sit heavy in Mavash's chest. "If it was from the gem, it could have been cured, then..."

Jorlan gave a sigh of tremendous forbearance, and muttered something in Drow under his breath.

Neheedra's ears pricked up. "Now that's a tongue I haven't heard since the drow left Blingdenstone. I made a few statues out of them, in those days." A sad smile. "Is this one your partner, then, Mavash?"

"No!" she said at the same time as Gaulir said, "Not yet."

Mavash rose to her feet, aiming a playful kick at the dragonborn's boot. "Right, you wouldn't have met Jorlan yet, would you? He -- and Ambergris here -- joined us when we reached the surface." In very, very different ways, but that didn't need to be said.

"A drow on the surface, how fascinating!" Neheedra said. "You must tell me all your stories!"

Jorlan took off his sun spectacles and folded them in his hand. "It's too bright and there are small rodents with too many teeth. Also the surfacers drink rotting grape juice, which is disgusting, and they don't know how to make beds. And everyone is so gods-damned earnest."

"Aye, that about sums it up," Ambergris said, with a chuckle.

Lux produced duLoc's ring then, and pressed it to an indentation in the carved stone of the door. With a heavy groan, the doors began to move inward.

Before she stepped inside, Mavash looked to the journal in her hands. She didn't want to read it. "What will I find within this?"

Jorlan clapped her on the back, leading her towards the entrance. "Aside from the cannibalism.... maybe your name surrounded by hearts?" He chuckled, squinting up at the lintel of the Gravenhollow's doors. "I'll read it more fully while you dedicated scholars do your research."

Thank you for sparing me that, she told him telepathically, and was pleased when he squeezed her shoulder in response.

The Gravenhollow was like no library Mavash had ever seen.

For one thing, they'd been greeted at the door by a basilisk. A basilisk standing on two legs and wearing shaded spectacles, admittedly, which rendered him somehow less threatening. His name was Veldyskar, and he told the companions that he would be their guide to the Gravenhollow.

He also subtly implied that if they damaged any of the volumes, or otherwise caused trouble, he wouldn't hesitate to treat them to his petrifying gaze.

Secondly, a large portion of the library wasn't books, but... memories. They'd been warned of this, of course; it was what made the Gravenhollow unique. But still it was uncanny to see ghostly images of historical figures that Mavash knew only from coins and art. Of course, they weren't spirits of the dead, but more like mirages. She heard the voice of King Bruenor Battlehammer down a hallway, and had to remind herself that he was assuredly still alive -- or at least had been when they'd left Gauntlgrym.

They entered an expansive room flanked by tall pillars and headed by a vast stone throne, too big for sitting. Another of the mirage-figures had been placed before the throne, hands raised as if casting a spell. He was an older drow male, his face long and lean, with white hair falling over the shoulders of green robes. With a staff at his side completing the look, there was no doubt it was meant to depict a wizard.

As they drew near, however, the mirage turned towards them with a smile, and Mavash realized it wasn't a simulacrum, but an actual flesh-and-blood drow.

"Ah, you must be the heroes of Velkynvelve!" the wizard said. "I was told to expect you. I, of course, am Vizeran deVir." He put his hand to his chest and made a half-bow -- then waited, as if anticipating a reaction.

Should I know that name? Mavash probed Jorlan.

Jorlan's jaw was set and his lips fixed in a hard line. No reason you should. He's a powerful wizard, but his house was destroyed a couple of hundred years ago. He's supposed to be the sole survivor of the massacre. Oh, and the matrons of Menzoberranzan would dearly like to get their hands on him. He looked as if he was calculating how he might turn that to his advantage.

Of course he was.

Vizeran walked down three steps to greet them. "A kalashtar, a dragonborn, a changeling, and a shadar-kai. What a motley band you make. By comparison, a dwarf and a drow as traveling companions seems rather mundane." He gestured to Ambergris, but his hand faltered as he saw Jorlan, confusion clouding his features.

"Ah," the wizard continued after a moment. "I see you've met my greatest mistake. Well met, Jorlan Duskryn." A smug smile graced his lips.

Mavash glanced over at Jorlan.

... who was examining the floor, scuffing the tile with his boot. "Ah yes. Everyone. This is Vizeran deVir. He is my -- I suppose you would say -- sire."