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Bright Future

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Mavash and her companions lingered several more days in the Gravenhollow, learning what more they could of the arrival of the lords of the Abyss.

From more mundane sources than the stonespeaker crystals -- those mortal informants Vizeran had mentioned -- they learned additional facts about Demogorgon's arrival. How the demon prince had been summoned into Menzoberranzan's Clawrift; how it tore its way out, severely weakened by the ordeal.

How the other princes arrived in the Underdark -- at different locations, to different ends, but all roughly simultaneously.

More personally alarming to Mavash, they heard rumors from the Wormwrithings of creatures of shadow with too many eyes -- waking dreamstuff -- preying on travelers. It seemed il-Lashtavar, or its minions, had found their way to the Underdark as well, still hungering for Mavash's quori soul.

Nonetheless, she did not suffer another dream while in the Gravenhollow. But the unease from her last one lingered, long after her hangover had passed.

On the morning they were to leave for the Tower of Araj, she sat cross-legged on her bed in meditation, bringing to mind the magics she would need for the day. Quickly enough she prepared the spells she regularly traveled with, but she found herself pausing over what she would need for the journey ahead.

The truth of it was, she really had no idea what to expect, or even how long the trip would be. They had been told that the Gravenhollow had the power to release them wherever it desired in the Underdark (It? Or was it the will of the librarians?) She also was unsure what expect from the Tower, or from Vizeran -- or even if they could trust him.

The vision that haunted her did nothing to put her at ease.

She found a leather bag at the bottom of her satchel, used for various spell components, and emptied it onto the bed. An array of wooden sticks spilled out, tumbling one over another.

Mavash picked up one at random, carved from a yellow birch twig. Even dried, it still smelled faintly of wintergreen, a homesick smell. She turned the wooden stub in her fingers, running her thumb across the symbol on the back -- a letter in the Quori alphabet, roughly equivalent to the letter "b" in Common. Each twig was a different wood with different symbols engraved upon it.

These were divination chits, and each druid was encouraged to make their own, with symbols that were personally meaningful to them. While Mavash had opted to use the traditional ordering of trees -- most of them didn't exist in her homeland of Sossal -- using the Quori alphabet instead of the Druidic one was her own touch. While she preferred to forget most of what had happened before she left home at the age of sixteen, she could not forget the quori animating her.

She returned the chits to the bag, and on the bearskin beneath her, she drew a glowing green circle with a touch of druidcraft. She then upended the bag, letting the chits fall where they would.

Only two chits fell within the circle. The first was easy to recognize, even without the letter -- it was the long black-red spine of a hawthorn. She remembered the thicket she had crawled through to harvest that. She'd emerged scratched and bleeding, but victorious -- anointing the thumb-sized thorn with her own blood.

Some called this rune "terrible" or "difficult night;" Mavash had learned to read it as representing obstacles and entanglements.


The other chit was a springy twig from a shrub, its bark a warm brown color. She'd learned it was called swamp laurel, and it grew in wet places, and kept its leathery leaves through the winter. This one had always occasioned conversation among the druids of her grove -- the original formulation, passed down from elven druids of Cormanthyr, called for a plant called "heather," which didn't grow in Neverwinter Wood. The archdruid of Mavash's grove had shrugged and suggest she use any evergreen plant that seemed appropriate. This is what she had settled on.

This rune's meaning was simple: earth. To a druid, it was all things passionate, powerful, and magical.

Obstacle of earth. It was an interesting combination of symbols. It took Mavash several more moments of contemplation to figure out what it meant.

Earthbind. It was a spell she had learned a long time ago, but never had occasion to use. It was designed to bring flying creatures to the ground, useful when a druid couldn't wildshape into a flying form.

What creatures in the Underdark flew? Her mind readily supplied a few: chasme. Those corespawn. Darkmantles, after a fashion. Dragons, too, although she'd seen few of those -- just Vaeros, and Themberchaud, his supposed sire. Oh, and the shadow dragon in the Rockblight--

All right. Message received.

She ran her thumb over the two runes as she committed the spell to mind.

The Gravenhollow disgorged them at the eastern end of the Wormwrithings. Vizeran had passed on directions to Jorlan, who led the way. He was not -- as he frequently reminded them -- any kind of ranger, but still he knew the paths of the Underdark the best among them. Especially here, closer to Menzoberranzan than they had yet been in their travels.

Within less than a day's march, they arrived at the edge of large cavern, stretching out some three hundred feet to the east and dipping down into a valley. The space was full of jagged crystal and mica outcroppings, glowing blue in the ethereal light of fungi. A set of terraced steps led down to the floor of the valley, and in its center stood a multi-story structure carved from a massive stalagmite.

The Tower of Araj.

It had no entrance to speak of. Vine-like stone cords spiraled up the sides of the stalagmite, and more of the crystals dotted its side. It drew Mavash's gaze upward to the dome of the cavern above.

She heard the beating of wings and the rattling of bone before she saw it. A gasp escaped her lips, and her hand flew to her mouth.

It was the creature from her vision.

This... thing looked like the decayed remnants of a dragon. Tattered, but not forlorn -- it was clearly animated by some eldritch power, allowing it to fly despite the gaping holes in its wings. Lightning coursed beneath its ribs, visible through ragged holes in its flesh. The shadow it cast was massive, moving across the valley.

Towards them.

Gaulir made a low rumbling deep in his throat, a familiar sound of displeasure. "A dracolich. One of my kind has sought disgrace instead of death."

"Is that... exactly what it sounds like?" Umbra asked. "A dragon, and a lich?"

The paladin gave a curt nod "A powerful foe. But Bahamut is mightier."

It was then that Mavash noticed the second danger. Standing on a raised step -- where a doorway would be, if the tower possessed one -- was a creature she had only heard legends of. It had a head that looked like an octopus, and its skin was mauve and glistening in the fungal light. The rest of its body was covered in dark clothing, except for its skeletal hands.

A mind flayer. And this one seemed to be undead as well. Mavash's pulse struck up a rhythm of war.

The mind flayer looked to Mavash, and in an instant his thoughts invaded hers. Our business is with the wizard deVir. Its psychic voice was like the whispering of dried leaves. Leave, and we will not harm you. Interfere, and there will be violence. If there is violence, we will obliterate you.

Mavash clutched at her temples, the intrusive thoughts battering her like a migraine. Her voice a whisper, she relayed the message to her companions.

"There will be violence regardless," Gaulir said. He drew Dawnbringer, filling the space with light. "I won't allow undead to live."

Jorlan -- who had been standing close to the paladin -- flinched, raising a hand to cover his eyes. "Warn me when you're going to do that next time."

Mavash remembered something she had read or seen in the Gravenhollow -- how a mind flayer colony east of Menzoberranzan had gone silent. Undead were the domain of the Abyssal lord Orcus, and this seemed likely to be his doing.

I'm sorry, she conveyed to the mind flayer, but Vizeran deVir isn't taking audiences today.

Mavash knew how she was meant to use the spell she had prepared. And yet, it was against her better nature to linger in her frail kalashtar form.

Already Jorlan had disappeared -- and already Mavash had whispered don't die after him, as was now her habit.

"Don't die again, I think you mean," Gaulir said with a grin, before clicking his heels and putting the boots of speed to work.

A sigh of tremendous forbearance came out of the shadows.

Gaulir and Lux leaped from stone to stone down to the valley floor, approaching the shadow of the dragon. It felt wrong not to follow them, not to take the vanguard position.

And yet Mavash still had no idea how her allies intended to reach the dracolich -- perhaps they hoped that Umbra, crouched behind a rocky outcropping, would bring it down in a rain of fire.

Or perhaps they're depending on me. Better she not let them down, then.

But first she needed to be close enough to cast her spell. She ran ahead to a boulder, her legs pumping wildly beneath her. She felt awkward and ungainly when she considered how smoothly her moorbounder would have covered the distance.

She dove behind the rock and into range. The dracolich was nearing, hovering above Gaulir and Lux. Vaeros had taken to the air to engage the dracolich -- though it hurt Mavash's heart to see his tiny shadow against the bulk of the ancient undead dragon. Even Ambergris was in motion, nearly on Mavash's heels.

Mavash fixed her gaze on the dracolich, and uttered words in Quori under her breath: To the bones of the earth, bind with root and thorn the thing that flies. She added, because it seemed appropriate: Bring the serpent home to its den beneath the mountain.

Yellow bands of light wrapped the dracolich, tearing from it a scream -- of fury or pain, unknown. It reared in midair, fighting the bonds.

Mavash held her breath, hoping the bonds would hold. The dragon began to coast towards the ground, its wings locked in a rictus.

But as it glided closer, fear gripped her chest as tightly as the bonds on the dracolich. The creature was going to devour her; its terrible lightning would stop her heart. She would feel her own bones crunch in its teeth; she would smell her own death in the cavern of its fetid mouth.

She clutched her hand to her chest, calling on Vash to protect her, chanting the words against fear she had been taught. She felt the heat of the quori's presence in her body, but it was not enough to banish the chill of fear. She had made an opening in the creature's defenses, but she could no more make use of it than she could reverse time.

She sobbed, tears rolling in fat drops down her face. Her concentration broken, the spell failed.

The dragon sloughed off its bonds and turned to Mavash, its eyes full of malice. It inhaled and--

It was like teleporting, what happened next -- suddenly she was ten feet to the right of where she had been, on her hands and knees, her body wracked with pain. She coughed, and sparks of lightning fell from her mouth like blood. She was grateful she carried no iron weapons; they would have become lodestones at her touch.

She tried to stand, and fell again. She was so weak, and she smelled her own hair singed, her life force leaking out of her through some hidden crack. Vaguely she was aware of Umbra behind her, and Ambergris ahead. She wanted to call to them for help, but her voice came out as a whisper and crackle.

She lay there for she know not how long, the cave ceiling spinning above her.

A brush of a hand on her shoulder. Gentle grey fingers shrouded in gauntlets lifted her head, and she heard a bottle being unstoppered. A sweet liquid she recognized as a healing potion flowed over her lips and down her throat, warming her like alcohol. The fingers ghosted over the line of her jaw, brushed away a tear, and were gone.

In a few moments, Mavash recovered herself enough to stand. The ground where the dracolich's breath had landed still sparked and smoked, and not twenty feet ahead of Mavash lie Ambergris, unconscious.

So much for her beast forms. She sighed, making a gesture in the air, the somatic component of a spell she so rarely cast. "Cure the ails of allies and friends alike," she whispered to herself in Quori. She felt healing suffuse her body and flicker golden over Ambergris, and Umbra behind her gave a call of victory.

In the air beside the tower something else was hovering -- a small drow woman, hands flickering with magic. Fire sprouted from her fingers, growing into a beam that hit the dracolich square in the chest. It fell the remaining dozen feet to the ground, and already Mavash's companions were upon it.

Mavash didn't know there were female drow wizards, but that definitely was not clerical magic.

Without a moments the drow woman had turned to the mind flayer lich on the "doorstep." She called out something ragged and hoarse in Drow and the monster... vanished.

A great, anguished cry came from the dracolich. Its wings rattled and sparks leaped out from it in a circle. Gaulir and Lux were thrown violently back, outlined by galvanic coronas.

But it was done, and the drow woman descended to the ground beside the fallen dracolich.

Mavash hurried over to her companions, helping Ambergris to her feet along the way. Together they stumbled over to the wizard who had rescued them.

She was about Jorlan's height, and her hair was a white that reflected pale blue, cut in a bob around her head. Her skin was a light grey that was nearly lavender -- or maybe that was just the lighting, too. Unlike Vizeran, she did not wear the robes of a wizard, but practical leathers that looked more suited to a warrior.

She addressed them in Undercommon, "I am Grinna Ousstyl, Master Vizeran's apprentice. He is expecting you; come, I'll show you the way in." She turned -- not towards the tower, but towards a narrow path through the rock.

Gaulir sheathed Dawnbringer, and his snout crinkled in a look of annoyance. He said something in Draconic, and Grinna whirled around, her expression bright. She added something in the guttural language, and Gaulir chuckled. Vaeros flapped his wings with delight.

"Perhaps we should stick to Common, for the sake of our paladin," Umbra said. "And for those of who don't speak Draconic."

Grinna glanced dubiously at Jorlan.

"I speak fair Common," he replied in the language in question.

"Excellent. And, of course--" She made a series of hand gestures to Jorlan.

He ducked his head, looking sheepish, but replied with a few quick gestures of his own. "Lead on, sister," he added in Common.

Grinna stepped into the gap in the rock, the glowing of the fungi disappearing behind them. She brought to hand a floating globe of light. "For our surfacer guests," she said.

Mavash stopped at the end of the line leading into the gap. "Sister?" she said, fixing on Jorlan. How many secrets could one elf hold? "I thought she--"

Jorlan shook his head, made a cutting gesture in the air. "No, do not misunderstand. 'Brother' and 'sister'... it is a form of address." He looked back at Grinna with a forgiving smile. "At least with equals. Though that is rare, in Menzoberranzan."

Grinna spun, walking backward through the narrow space like some sort of Underdark tour guide. Realization dawned on her face, and she made a laugh like the tinkling of crystal. "Oh you thought-- ha! As if I were the daughter of the great Vizeran deVir!" She elbowed Jorlan as he tried to push past her. "One with deVir blood should be quite talented in the Art, no?"

Jorlan looked like he was holding his tongue. "I'm always a disappointment," he said stoically, and then added, "Sister." He gave a defiant look back at Mavash, as if daring her to say something.

Fine, keep your secrets, Jorlan Duskryn, Mavash said to him psychically, with a ripple of mirth. She still wasn't entirely sure she believed him; "sister" certainly seemed more intimate a term of address than she expected from the drow matriarchy. But it also seemed like Jorlan had some history with the female wizard, and perhaps that explained it.

You do make that difficult, he replied, and Mavash could feel laughter bubbling at the edges of his mind, too.