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Bright Future

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In her dream, Mavash was running from something, through the gnarled, stunted evergreens of the Sossal tundra. Of course she wasn't dressed sensibly -- when was she ever? -- and she was barefoot, her feet burning with cold from the snow. Above, the aurora borealis glowed a sickly green hue.

There was something in the sky above her, chasing her. Backlit by the aurora, it cast a monstrous shadow over her, blackening the needles of the pines on the distant mountain. It moved on skeletal wings, a rattling sound like the wind through a ship's rigging.

The rattling turned into a deep rushing sound as the shadow dove toward her--

"Mavash?" A pounding noise. "We're going to be late."

Mavash awoke with a start. It took her a long moment to realize she was in her room in the Gravenhollow guest quarters. Her head strobed with pain every time she moved it.

The whole night came back to her in a flood, from discussing wine to puking all over Jorlan's boots to--

Wait. Hadn't he been here when she had fallen asleep? He was gone now, leaving only a faint trace of his scent -- whetstone oil and an earthy musk. She touched the bearskin where he had sat, as if hoping to find his warmth remained.

"Mavash? I'm coming in." The voice was Umbra's, she now recognized.

Before Mavash could warn her off, the sorcerer stepped in. "You're still in bed," she said flatly. "Overindulged a bit, I see?"

"A bit more than a bit," Mavash groaned. "It's nearly time to meet with the librarians, isn't it?"

Umbra nodded. "Less than an hour, I'm afraid. You've already missed breakfast."

The thought of food made her stomach threaten to upend itself again. "I think I'll live," she said, her voice thin with suppressed pain. "Where is--"

"He's waiting for you," Umbra said, needing no further explanation. "Says he put you to bed last night, and that you were quite incomprehensible. Personally I was expecting a few more juicy details, but I guess a gentleman never kisses and tells."

The sorcerer winked and turned to go, but Mavash held up a hand to stop her. "Why did they send you? To wake me, I mean?"

"Because they figured that if you wouldn't come willingly, I could chivvy you with an bit of cold?" She summoned an orb of ice to her hand -- just a trick of prestidigitation, but hinting at the greater spell.

With a smirk, Umbra let herself out.

Mavash was still weighing the cost versus the benefit of getting out of bed when she remembered the dream. Her veins turned to icewater, colder than anything the sorcerer had threatened.

Kalashtar didn't dream. But, as she'd once told Jorlan, her quori did use her hours of sleep to deliver warnings.

The librarians' giant-sized audience hall was too cold and bright for Mavash, who alternated between shivering and nauseous sweating. Truly, there was no more light than a few driftglobes floating close to the distant ceiling, but she had a new appreciation for how Jorlan must feel at any brightness more than the light of a candle.

He stood beside her, looking surprisingly put together. Apparently he had found somewhere to bathe in those four hours she'd spent snoring. He wore the formal clothes from Gauntlgrym -- she suspected they were now the only clothes he owned -- but they had been laundered and mended. His hair was brushed back in a neat queue, and gleamed in the light of the driftglobes.

Honestly, she felt very shabby beside him, with her ripped travel clothes and tangled hair.

There was no furniture small enough for them to sit on, so they stood to greet the stone giants. Something about their looming, genderless forms inspired Mavash to lower her head respectfully. Glancing to her side, she saw her companions do the same.

The middle stone giant stepped forward. "Welcome to the Gravenhollow," he said, and his voice was the grinding of a mill wheel. "I am Urmas, Keeper of the Present." He gestured to his left. "This is my brother, Ulthar, Keeper of the Past." And to his right: "This is Ustova, my sister, Keeper of the Future."

He paused, and the silence was uneasy. Mavash eyed Gaulir -- their designated speaker -- wondering if he should step forward.

After a long moment, Urmas continued, arching one rocky eyebrow, "I assume you have not come for any idle purpose, nor do I suffer that. Please, speak of your purpose, and we will tell you if we can satisfy that curiosity."

Gaulir bowed. "Librarians, thank you for your audience. We are united in asking one question: how and why the Lords of the Abyss have come to the Underdark, and how they might be sent back."

Another long pause, marked by a faint tremor in Urmas' expression.

After a time, it was Ulthar who replied, making a small bow of service. "Such matters fall within my domain, and I can, of course, assist you with that intriguing question. I feel there is much we librarians can learn from your study, as well."

"Be careful what you promise, brother," Urmas murmured. "The future is our sister's domain. And anyway, that sounds like two questions to me. You have been told the rules, yes?"

"It is a question with multiple parts, yes," Umbra said, stepping forward. "But the two are intertwined. We cannot plug the gap they entered through if we don't know where it is."

"Hm. Perhaps." The Speaker of the Present held his nose high, considering. "You should be aware that what you research will determine the length of time you must spend with us. If you wish to emerge together from the Gravenhollow, then you must be united in purpose. And yet..." Here he paused -- almost, it seemed, for dramatic effect. "I sense not all of you are interested in waking from the dream the Lords of the Abyss have inflicted on this world."

His eyes fell on Neheedra. "Neheedra the medusa, cursed by Ogrémoch's Bane. You do not come with the same purpose as your fellows, I know. You smell of ambition -- a desire to understand your condition, and ultimately to cure it. You would dearly love to set your eyes on the one who inspires such swelling in your heart -- a heart that was once made of stone."

Neheedra lowered her head, looking shy -- though the snakes of her hair belied that, whipping wildly from side to side. "I do, Keeper. I'm not hiding that. My continued existence like this pains the both of us. I would see again -- or at least know that I cannot be cured, and be resigned to it."

It was Ustova who spoked next, her voice no more feminine or less raspy than her brothers. "As my brother said, this means you will be separated from your beloved when you leave this place." Her eyes fell significantly on Lux. "Is that acceptable to you both?"

Lux glared daggers back at Ustova, looking as if they might say no, and spit in the Keeper's face for asking. But Neheedra's hand brushed against theirs, and the coldness in their face melted away. "Yes," they said, with a sigh of resignation. "We have discussed it."

Neheedra bowed and stepped back, leading Lux away by the hand.

"I speak not only of that one, sister," Urmas said coldly. This time, his eyes fell on the figure at Mavash's side. "Jorlan Duskryn, betrayer. Speak your purpose in coming here."

Jorlan looked up from his feet, startled. "Keepers, I don't know what to say. My purpose is the same as my companions."

Ulthar tilted his head, saying, "And yet you are different than them. You exist within our domain. You are tangible. Perhaps that has clouded our perception. Tell us how you came here, that we might understand better."

For a brief moment Jorlan hesitated. "Well. My companions were prisoners of the drow in the city of Velkynvelve, prepared as sacrifices to the Dark Mother. I was their jailor, but I decided to free them, for... personal reasons. They made their escape, and I chased them across the Underdark. They were stronger than me, and defeated me. But they foolishly spared my life, and so I follow them now, charming them into complacency while waiting for the right moment to betray them."

Mavash looked up at those alarming words. One corner of Jorlan's mouth was creased with a smile, though, which eased -- nearly -- all her worries. "I don't believe a word of," she said, shaking her head.

"Which will make my revenge even sweeter and more unexpected, won't it?" He met Mavash's gaze, humor flashing like fire in his red eyes. Damn, but his sense of humor was even more questionable than her own.

"You waste our time!" Urmas howled. The ground beneath him shook; the whole library skittered to the side as if it had feet. "You mock the work of the Gravenhollow by your glibness, and you answer my brother's question with a lie."

The smile melted from Jorlan's face, and he lowered his eyes again. It reminded Mavash of the look he had held in the memories of Ilvara -- the look of fearful subservience.

Idiotically, Mavash thought, Don't hurt my sweet boy.

"Truly?" His throat bobbed as he swallowed hard. "They spared me, with a mercy I don't understand or deserve. I have no home to return to, no family who will claim me. I am, as you say, a traitor to my people. I am furthermore a danger to my companions here in the Underdark, simply by existing. And yet... they have given me everything I now possess, down to the clothes I'm wearing." He gestured down at his body before continuing, "What I wish to understand is... why."

Mavash felt her throat thicken with nameless emotion. She took Jorlan's hand, lacing her fingers with his and giving a comforting squeeze. To her relief, he squeezed back.

Urmas was silent and still.

It was Ustova who broke the silence, amusement cracking her stony visage. "I am pleased to say that will not find the answer you seek in this library. You may study the Lords of the Abyss with your friends, and you may depart with them." She turned her attention to Ulthar. "If you will, brother, show them to the Archives of the Past."

The past is a crystal, for it can be seen from many facets yet it always remains the same.

The words over the door of the Archives of the Past -- translated from Dwarvish, courtesy of Ambergris -- rang in Mavash's head as she held the stonespeaker crystal, warm in her hand.

It wasn't the first of the type she'd seen -- there had been the one they'd been gifted by the Stonespeakers of Gracklstugh, of course. But this one had a different purpose.

Mavash set the crystal into its stone pedestal at the center of the archive. She and her companions joined hands around it, with Jorlan to Mavash's right, and Lux to her left. Normally only Mavash would receive the vision, as the one who attuned to it, but with her telepathy she hoped to share it with her companions.

The warm of their presence, her hands in theirs, eased some of her trepidation at what she was about to undertake.

"Show us," she said, closing her eyes, "how the Lords of the Abyss came to the Underdark."

Pinpricks of light glow red in a dim room.

Eventually, the lights resolve into the shapes of red candles, outlining a circle drawn of chalk and salt. Mavash doesn't know much about wizarding magic, but she recognizes a summoning circle when she sees one.

Around it is a miasma of faerzress, swirling auroras of green and pink and gold, like the lights that sit in the sky above Sossal.

Standing outside the circle is a drow wizard, clad in black. The wizard's hands draw patterns on the air; he is conducting the symphony of faerzress around him, his sonorous chanting providing a harmony. There is a tension in the air, palpable even through the lens of the vision. And yet, the wizard seems unworried, confident -- perhaps smug.

Behind him is the outline of a city made of tiers upon tiers of stalagmites. One glows red along its whole height with a fiery light.

The tension grows, and fear creeps into the wizard's eyes. His movements become more erratic, more crazed; he reaches for more salt, more candles, his spellbooks. He is met only with a woman's laughter -- deep, dark, and mocking.

The ground beneath him trembles and splits asunder. Fear turns to horror in the wizard's eyes, and he throws up a hand to protect himself.

In his eyes are reflected a fiery, mandrill-headed fiend.

Mavash opened her eyes, taking a gasping breath. "Demogorgon."

"Indeed," Gaulir said, his hand on the hilt of Dawnbringer. Clearly the encounter with the fiend in Sloobludop still weighed heavily upon him.

Mavash let fall the hands of her companions -- or tried to. Jorlan still clung to her with tenacity.

She turned a questioning eye to him. "Are you--?"

He met her eyes, puzzled. "You do know-- ah. No, you don't." Reluctantly he pulled his hand away, pinching the bridge of his nose. "That was Gromph Baenre. And, judging by the spire of Narbondel, that city was Menzoberranzan."

Mavash opened her mouth to make a reply, but no sound came out.

"I'm sorry?" Umbra tried first. "Who are we talking about?"

Jorlan held one hand across his chest protectively; with the other he gestured at the crystal. "He's the archmage of Menzoberranzan, and a scion of the first house of the city." He gave a bitter laugh. "Matron Baenre's trained spider."

"You forgot to mention he's a complete imbecile," another voice joined in.

Mavash spun around, finding Vizeran had joined them. With his robes trailing on the floor, he seemed to float into the room. Hells, maybe he was levitating, if only to seem taller.

Jorlan made a wry smile. "He's just upset because Gromph outdid him at Sorcere."

That lit a fire in Vizeran's eyes. "He most certainly did not. That is a lie he spread after my exile. As if it wasn't bad enough to brand me a heretic and set the Council upon me! My house never would have been destroyed by those upstarts--"

"No one wants to hear about what happened seven hundred years ago, old man. Do you want to hear about the vision, or not?"

"Seven hundred years ago, my grey arse. It merely some two centuries ago." His eyes narrowed at his son. "Just about the time your mother cornered me and plied me with jhinrae--"

"Now I really don't want to hear it," Jorlan rejoined, head in palm.

There was a certain entertainment to watching the two of them spar, and it gave Mavash an opportunity to observe the similarities between them -- the shape of the nose, the straightness of the hair, the same red eyes.

The same clever smile, sharp as a knife.

Without the cue, she would never have guessed them related -- she was rubbish at telling drow apart. But now that it had been pointed out to her, she couldn't help but notice how alike they were.

But it was time to end to this familial farce. "We saw this... Gromph, performing some kind of ritual involving the faerzress. At the last minute, something went wrong and... the ground split, and we saw the face of Demogorgon."

"Don't forget the laughing," added Lux, in a quiet voice. "Did you notice the laughing?"

Vizeran and Jorlan looked gravely at each other. They did not speak, but their hands moved in rapid motion, like two artists at canvases. Mavash had seen their captors at Velkynvelve use this language of signs when they wished not to be overheard.

At last, Vizeran made a cutting motion through the air. "No. We must not speak that name here. As I've said, the walls have ears, in a very real sense."

"Is there any significance to how he used the faerzress?" Umbra asked. "It's grown in intensity just since our escape from Velkynvelve. It seems to prevent us from using our magic rather than enhancing it."

Vizeran's shoulders fell, and for a moment he looked the old man Jorlan accused him of being. "That always was Gromph," he murmured, "treating forces he didn't understand as his playthings. No doubt Matron Baenre was standing just behind him, pulling his puppet strings, too. One does not make excuses to a matron of the Council."

"But to what end?" Gaulir interjected. "He couldn't honestly wish to bring a Lord of the Abyss into his city, could he? Did he think he could control it? That seems foolhardy, even for an overconfident drow archmage." As if suddenly realizing his audience, he added, "No offense."

But Vizeran was gazing at -- or perhaps through -- the stonespeaker crystal, lost in thought. "I have my suspicions," he said at last. "But let's not speak further of them here. Find me at the Tower of Araj."