Inside the Tower of Araj, pale violet light greeted them, illuminating the hollowed-out interior of the giant stalagmite. A staircase wound in a spiral up the walls, stopping at several landings along the way.
The source of the violet light was an orb hovering at the center of the room. Grinna strode into the center of the orb, and gestured Mavash and her companions to join her. "Don't be alarmed," she said.
By what? But as soon as Mavash stepped into the glow of the violet orb, her skin prickled with the sensation of magic.
Once everyone had gathered around Grinna, the apprentice said something that sounded like, kulam, and the violet orb began to rise -- carrying Mavash and her companions as passengers.
Though Mavash had flown before in her animal forms, it was a different experience entirely to be levitated through the air out of her control. And yet the orb did not move quickly, and so she was able to observe the passing floors -- a kitchen and dining room, guest suites, and a laboratory of some sort. Most interesting was a large device, partially deconstructed on the floor of the lab, which appeared to be... well, the most accurate description would be "horseless carriage."
Jorlan made some hand gestures at Grinna. Then he added in Common, "Fortunate that Vizeran doesn't assume that anyone worth visiting him would be of noble blood."
Grinna laughed at that. "True!" Glancing over at the group, she added, "That may require more than translation for the surfacers."
But the apprentice's attention was diverted as the orb neared the vault of the ceiling. Grinna spoke the word ikalik and the orb stopped; she immediately leaped out and headed for an arched doorway.
Jorlan waved his companions ahead as he made the explanation. "It's only nobles who innately have the power to levitate. There are a number of noble dwellings in Menzoberranzan without stairs, for that reason. I'm just surprised my father makes anything easier for anyone."
"You can levitate?" Mavash said, glancing behind her with a look of incredulity. "How have I never seen that? Or did you lose that when you..." Defected. She stopped the word just in time, though her hand gesture still told a story.
He made a lazy shrug. "It's not the fastest or most effective means of movement, unless I need to get somewhere I can't reach on foot. It has some uses in traversing the Underdark -- though luckily we've been avoided most of the worst terrain."
"I would have worried so much less for you when we faced the corespawn, if I knew that was the case," Mavash grumbled.
"I'm touched," he said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He put a hand to the small of Mavash's back, encouraging her forward, through the archway.
They found Vizeran in what Grinna called his "sanctum." It had the air of a study, or a library -- a room full of bookshelves of dark-stained zurkhwood, softened by comfortable couches and tattered tapestries on the walls. The lighting was provided by a series of small rods in sconces along the walls, glowing amber to half their height.
Vizeran, reclining on one of the couches with a book in his hand, did not stand to greet them. "Ah, your timing is excellent. I've just sent my servant for some libations. Please, sit." He set down his book and waved them to seats nearby.
Mavash took a seat gingerly in an armchair full of books, feeling one of the spines dig into her back. This "sanctum" did not seem the sort of place that was designed to have guests, and Vizeran was taking up the only clear space in the entire room. Jorlan, for his part, opted to lean against a wall at Mavash's back, his posture idle but alert. It seemed even in the house of his father he did not relax easily.
Within moments, a tray ghosted invisibly into the room, carrying a plate of dried mushrooms and small cups of what looked like jhinrae. Vizeran took a handful of the mushrooms and one of the cups, and settled back into the pillows propping him up. "Well, my friends. What did you learn in the Gravenhollow?" He spoke in Undercommon, but repeated himself in Common.
Gaulir inclined his head in silent thanks for the code-switch. "As we spoke of in the Archive of the Past. We learned that this Gromph Baenre you mentioned summoned Demogorgon into Menzoberranzan. By reports the demon prince was much weakened by the ordeal. Which," he reflected, "was, I suppose, to our benefit when we met him in Sloobludop."
Vizeran raised his bushy silver eyebrows. "Oh, so you had met the fiend before? Interesting. I had heard he'd caused trouble amongst the kuo-toa."
"He wiped out the entire city," Umbra added.
Vizeran made a lopsided smile. "Indeed? Impressive." He raised his cup in a salute. "Anything else?"
Between the group, they shared what they had learned. Vizeran listened attentively, hands steepled, eyes closed.
When they were done, Vizeran opened his eyes and said, "You did not mention the voice you heard." His eyes fixed on Lux. "Hunter of demons. You were the one who mentioned it. The laughter, when Demogorgon was summoned."
"Does that signify?" Lux asked.
"I believe you described it as feminine, no? Demogorgon isn't usually described in those terms. Though, of course, the demon princes may take any form they like."
The bowl of dried mushrooms passed to Mavash, and she sampled one; it had been dredged with a mixture of spices, rendering it pleasantly piquant. "I'm not sure what you're implying," Mavash said, taking a cup from the tray the unseen servant proferred. "Are you saying it was one of the other demon princes?"
Vizeran chuckled. "Not precisely." He shifted himself to a sitting position, looking up at Grinna. "Do you recall your lessons in the geography of the Abyss?"
Grinna looked surprised, like a student not expecting to be called on. "Uh... it's an outer plane on the Great Wheel, right? Bordered by Carceri and Pandemonium. Some say it has 666 layers; others say the number of layers is unknowable." She paused, finger tapping at her lip. "What am I missing?"
Vizeran made a scowling noise, clearly displeased. "Surely you recall what resides on the 66th level of the Abyss?"
Grinna clenched her fists, lowering her head. "The Demonweb Pits. The home of the Queen of Spiders."
Vizeran made a mocking clap. "Very good. I see your lessons haven't been completely in vain."
A long silence lay between them, with Grinna furrowing her brow in thought. Finally she said, "If you are suggesting what I think you are suggesting... what motive would the Dark Mother have?"
"Could someone please enlighten me on what in everloving fuck is going on here?" Lux said, reaching their breaking point.
"My father is implying," Jorlan said, "that Lolth was somehow behind this all, and that it was her laughter you heard."
Vizeran and Grinna's heads swiveled towards Jorlan, staring him down.
He spread his hands wide. "What? Lolth. Lolth, Lolth, Lolth, Lolth. Why will no one say it?"
Vizeran made a half smile, showing a hint of white teeth. "Indeed. If we are not secure from her manipulations here, then there is nowhere secure. But," he said, "old habits die hard. And perhaps that superstition is understandable, when you have borne the consequences of that laughter." His eyes seemed to drill into Jorlan's, daring him to continue his defiance.
Jorlan laughed, and Mavash thought she saw him roll his eyes. But this was not, apparently, a hill he cared to die on.
"However, Jorlan has the thrust of it," Vizeran continued. "I believe that Gromph's intentions were simply to summon one of the abyssal lords. Even he would not be foolish enough to think he could control all of them. So we must believe the ritual slipped out of his control somehow. And given that laughter you described, it leads me to believe that that... error, was somehow orchestrated by Lolth."
"Again, Master... why?" Grinna asked. "What does she have to gain by bringing the demon lords into the Underdark?"
Vizeran's features bunched up in a gesture of disdain. "Bah! Just because she has her own defensible keep in the Abyss does not mean she is not still at war with the demon princes. Does the Spider Queen strike you as the type to be content with the power she has?"
Grinna winced at that -- an unnamed pain that acknowledged the justice of the remark.
"Perhaps," Mavash said, her thoughts running only a step ahead of her words, "she wished to evict the princes from the Abyss, so she might have the whole place to herself."
"Like young adults trying to kick their parents out of the house so they can have a party," Lux said.
"I assure you, there's no party of Lolth's I want to be invited to," Jorlan added.
Mavash had to agree with that sentiment.
"And where does the faerzress come into this?" Umbra asked, an echo of her question in the Gravenhollow. "Gromph was clearly channeling them somehow. Since then, they seem to almost be... corrupted, somehow. They have always impeded magic, to some degree or another, but... not like this."
"Yes," Vizeran said, drawing out the syllable. "The faerzress. It was what allowed Gromph to tear a hole big enough for a demon prince to step through. But since then it's become like a... current, I suppose you surfacers would say. A tide? Is that the word? It carries the madness of the fiends into this world from the Abyss. "
A chill ran through Mavash at his words. And yet, his logic was compelling; it explained many of the strange characters she'd met in her time in the Underdark. "We've seen the results of that first hand. The Deep King enthralled, the residents of Mantol-Derith fighting over a gem, a mad druid..." Mavash closed her eyes, thinking on one who could not be saved. As an aside to her companions, she said, "Perhaps we should inform the Emerald Enclave that their contact turned out to be a cannibal."
"I... think that's a conversation best had in person," Umbra said, her voice pitched low.
"So," Vizeran said, "that is the situation as I best understand it. Understandably, my exile makes it difficult to keep track of what that idiot Gromph is up to, but I fancy that I've done a rather good job of it." He sat a bit taller at those words.
A long, pregnant pause followed, while Vizeran eyed them expectantly.
Finally, Mavash spoke. "I suppose the obvious question is, is there any way to reverse what Gromph has done?"
"Hmph." Vizeran frowned. "Can you pour water back in a broken jug? Can you undo words spoken in pain? Can you put a stalk of zurkhwood back in the earth once it's been harvested?"
"Are these song lyrics?" Lux asked, through their teeth.
"Point taken," Mavash said, and felt blood rush to her cheeks, embarrassment at a question she knew now was absurd.
A foot tapped at the back of her chair. She looked up, seeing Jorlan behind her. As she watched, he tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, a finger brushing over his temple. An odd gesture... oh.
Yes? she probed telepathically.
You are completely without artifice of any sort, aren't you? Look back at Vizeran. He's watching you. He doesn't need to know we're having this conversation.
I need to see you to make the mind link, she grumbled. But fair enough; once it had been made, she didn't need vision in order to maintain it.
Luckily he probably thinks you're besotted with me, Jorlan added.
Mavash forced her gaze back to Vizeran, who was again sporting that toothy half-smile. She raised the cup in her hand to her mouth, hiding her look of confusion in its shadow. The liquid within smelled of fortified wine and of surface spices.
Aren't I? she replied -- and wouldn't that give Jorlan something to chew on. What did you want?
A flustered pause, and he replied, To give you some advice. Vizeran lived some five hundred years under the matron mothers of Menzoberranzan, and that takes a toll on someone. Another uncomfortable pause. What I'm saying is, don't let him intimidate you. If you look down your nose at him, he'll remember his... place. The last word-thought was seasoned with bitter irony.
Mavash hadn't thought of that angle -- using her gender as a lever against recalcitrant drow males. (It might have helped with poor Sarith, for better or worse). But it went against her better nature, to use the cruel priestesses she'd known in Velkynvelve as an example.
You don't need to be cruel, Jorlan counseled, you just need to act as if you have have no tolerance for his nonsense and that you are absolutely in control of the conversation.
All right, then. Mavash sat up straighter, and practiced a scowl of disapproval, looking down her nose at Vizeran. "Enough." She made a slashing gesture in the air. "Do you know a way to stop this demon incursion, or did you bring us here merely to impress us with your knowledge? My companions and I don't have time to waste playing out your grudge with Gromph Baenre."
Vizeran's eyebrows shot up. "Ah, of course." He set down his cup, hiding his own face while he composed his features.
Well done, Jorlan mindspoke, a purr of satisfaction in his word-thoughts.
Mavash sat back in her chair, forcing herself to look more at ease than she felt. She finally took a sip of the fortified wine, and found it an interesting blend of savory and spicy, clearly some type of jhinrae. If only she had time to indulge more...
Vizeran cleared his throat, and said, "To be frank, I know of no way to reverse the ritual Gromph has done. It may not even be possible. However..." He made a dramatic pause, as if begging the others to ask him to continue.
Mavash tipped her head in a look that said, Are you really still grand-standing?
Truly, you're a natural at this, Jorlan said in her mind. I'd cower with you as my matron mother.
It's not something I wish to get too comfortable with, Mavash replied; it made her feel dirty. And yet, would they have gotten anything from this recalcitrant wizard otherwise?
Vizeran opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and then started again with, "I believe you all know what happens if a demon is killed on the material plane, yes?"
Gaulir did, which obviated Mavash having to give Vizeran another capital-L look. "They are merely banished back to their home," the paladin said. "The Abyss, in this case."
"Indeed," said Vizeran. "In this world, they can't be created or destroyed; merely summoned and banished. Their return to the Abyss is exactly what the Demon Queen does not want, yes? Which means it is precisely what we seek."
"If you are suggesting we kill the eight demon princes to send them back to take their revenge on Lolth... well, that is a task I will gladly take up." Gaulir smiled, baring his dagger teeth.
Lux looked up, suddenly interested in the conversation again at the mention of killing demons. "Why don't we follow them, and destroy them in their homes, for good?"
"That would be your death," Vizeran said. "Which I'm told your type sometimes seeks, but I found it hard to believe until now." He tapped a finger to his lips, his smile canny. "What is that foolhardiness like? It must be intoxicating."
"Don't commit the rest of us to that course," Umbra murmured.
Gaulir bowed his head. "Very well."
Lux merely looked disappointed.
"Surely it must be one's death on this plane, too?" Mavash wondered aloud. "Even away from the Abyss, their powers are considerable." She looked back on the devastation Demogorgon had wrecked on Sloobludop, or that Zuggtmoy had wrought on the Neverlight Grove, and could not imagine how mortal power could oppose them.
"For mighty adventurers such as yourself, who have already fought their way out of the Underdark once? Perhaps not as deadly as that." His fingers played over the lip of his cup, as he looked into the middle distance. "Or at least, I believe... defeating and banishing one would be within your power. All eight? Perhaps not."
And there weren't only eight to contend with, were there? Still il-Lashtavar was on Mavash's tail -- the shadow with eyes that hungered for her soul. It might not be a lord of the Abyss, but it was danger enough on its own. It was the reason the goodly quori had left Dal Quor, had fled to the stars.
"If we only banish one, we gain little," Umbra pointed out. "The others will simply fill the void left by their absence. We've already banished Fraz-Urb'luu, and that had very little discernible effect."
"It made a great deal of difference to the citizens of Mantol-Derith," Ambergris pointed out, speaking for the first time. The dwarf had seated herself on a footstool, the only sitting surface short enough for her legs.
"All right, fair enough," Umbra admitted. "But still. I'm curious how Vizeran thinks this will help."
"I think," Vizeran began, and then stopped. This time, Mavash allowed him his bit of showmanship. "I think that we are going to monopolize on the work Gromph Baenre has already done, and the well-known enmity between the demon princes, to let them whittle down their own numbers."
When my father says 'we,' you should know that means, 'you', Jorlan told Mavash.
Of course. If he'd been able to do it himself, he would have already done so.
A mental chuckle. And that doesn't trouble you. Of course not.
"Doesn't that require getting them in the same place?" Lux asked, looking up from what they had been doing -- apparently, splitting hairs along Azuredge's blade, in real or simulated boredom.
Vizeran pursed his lips in a thin smile. "Why, yes it does. I propose answering Gromph's summoning with a summoning of our own."
He looked excessively pleased with himself for a moment, and then everyone began speaking at once.
"You want to replicate--" Umbra began, and started over. "You want to summon them, like Gromph summoned them."
"Is the idea to pit them in gladiatorial combat?" Gaulir added. "And then we defeat whoever is left over?"
But Mavash, for her part, said, "How is this possibly a good idea? Forget defeating a single one; their very footsteps will destroy the ground around them."
"Which is why," Vizeran said, loud enough to be heard above the other voices, "I intend to summon them into the heart of Menzoberranzan."
Grinna's eyes went wide at that; either that had been news to her, or she had not expected Vizeran to reveal it.
Vizeran rose from his couch, taking his book in hand and brushing crumbs from his robe. His eyes flicked towards the amber lights, and he said, "Now, if you will excuse me. I will leave the details of what is required for the summoning ritual to Grinna. It is well past time for me to take my Reverie."
He stopped on the threshold of the door, considering each of them in turn. If he were anyone else, Mavash would have judged he was about to make an apology for his inhospitable behavior.
But his nostrils merely went wide for a moment, and he nodded at Jorlan before leaving the room.
As soon as Vizeran was gone, a murmur of conversation filled the room; plans and concerns and a touch of affront at Vizeran's outrageous plan.
But Mavash had her own concerns. Leaving the Gravenhollow, she had asked Jorlan, Can we trust Vizeran?
We can trust him to act according to his nature, he had said, which was no kind of answer.
Aloud, she said, "This is what I feared -- that Vizeran would use us as pawns to enact revenge. Not just on Gromph, but on all of drow society. Or at least all of Menzoberranzan." She shook her head with a vigorous motion, sending her braids flicking from side to side. "I won't be party to it. He will not make me a murderer of innocents."
"One would be hard pressed to find innocents in Menzoberranzan," Umbra said.
Mavash swiveled her head towards the sorcerer, her eyes blazing with rage and with the radiance of her quori. "But not none," she hissed. She glanced significantly at Jorlan.
"I am no innocent," Jorlan said, under his breath.
"Mavash has a point," Gaulir said. "I won't participate in a slaughter. How many Jorlans are there in Menzoberranzan that can be redeemed?"
Jorlan made a thin smile. Redeemed, eh? he said into Mavash's mind.
It isn't the word I would have chosen. But she was in a rage, so she closed the mind link abruptly.
Grinna cleared her throat. "I believe if Master Vizeran were here, he would say..." She took a shuddering breath, readying herself for the words. "Menzoberranzan is sick, diseased. It is rotten down to its foundations. It can't be healed; it can only be destroyed and rebuilt."
"Is that what you think? Or what Vizeran thinks?" Mavash asked, her tone steely.
Grinna pinched the bridge of her nose. "I... see the justice of his point, but unlike him, I still have family there. People I care about." She laughed. "My failing as a drow, I suppose." She rubbed her thumb along the spines of books, looking thoughtful. "Know that this isn't something I go into idly, though. I've had plenty of time to think about Vizeran's plan. If I told you there was a way to reduce collateral damage -- to save as many innocents as possible -- would you consider his plan?"
Now, that was a more difficult question. Mavash cursed the fact that, in all her time as an adventurer, she still had never learned to make those kinds of judgments; to figure out what amount of death balanced out what amount of life.
And so she looked to Jorlan. "It's your home. Or at least, your birthplace. What do you say?"
He gave a shrug, so casual they might have been talking about getting rid of an old shoe. "Aside from a few noodle shops, I have no fond memories of Menzoberranzan. Light it up."
Mavash was sure there was more to it than that, but without the telepathic link, she couldn't tell much more. "I suppose we have to at least consider it," she admitted, making a permissive gesture.
"You need make no decision now," Grinna said. "As Vizeran alluded to, there are many components he requires for the summoning ritual. That should give you plenty of time to think on the cost and the benefit of the ritual. And, in the meantime, my contacts in Menzoberranzan will have time to make preparations."
"What a fine introduction that is," said a musical voice from the direction of the door.
Standing in the doorway was a small drow woman, about Umbra's height. She had some of the longest ears Mavash had ever seen on an elf, and her white hair was tied back behind them in a queue. Her skin was a rosy-grey color, giving her the impression of being flushed with embarrassment.
Grinna's expression brightened to see her. "Thank goodness you're here," she said, around a sigh of relief. "I thought Vizeran might have frightened you off."
"He can't get rid of me that easily." The newcomer crossed to Grinna and took her head in her hands, kissing her on the forehead. "I will have to leave for Menzoberranzan soon enough, though," she murmured, resting her forehead against Grinna's.
Grinna made a sad nod and stepped away reluctantly. Turning her attention back to Mavash and company, she said, "Ah, friends, this is my companion, ah... Szinoj Do'Urden. Or--" She looked uncertainly at Szinoj.
"Ah, yes." There was a twinkle of mischief in Szinoj's eye. "I believe you were told to find me." She made a grasping gesture in air, and her drow features melted away, leaving the face of a high elf woman with braided red hair. "I'm Rystia Zav. And I can't imagine there are many like you walking around the Underdark, so you must be the heroes of Velkynvelve." She gave a little nod to Jorlan. "And you must be Jorlan Duskryn -- the 'traitor' House Mizzrym has been screaming about."
"My reputation, as always, proceeds me," Jorlan muttered.
"You're our contact with the Harpers," Mavash said, just as she realized it. "We were told you were infiltrating Menzoberranzan?"
Rystia gestured down at her body. "Hence the disguise." She looked over at Grinna, touching her hand to the other woman's elbow. "I had some help."
"Szinoj Do'Urden," Jorlan said slowly, as if tasting the name. "So that's how you think you can reduce the collateral damage from Vizeran's plan -- from inside Baenre's puppet house." He had a satisfied look on his face, as if he had finally pieced it all together -- and how uncannily he looked like his father when he did that, with a hint of tooth behind his smile. "From your dress, I have to assume you're a warrior. Is this something your captain dreamed up?"
That seemed to surprise Rystia -- maybe the truest sign that she wasn't actually a drow. "You mean, ah, our mutual friend?"
Jorlan made an exasperated gesture. Mavash didn't understand a word of their sign language, but even she knew that meant, Who else could I possibly mean?
"Well, yes, he and the Matron Mother. She has generously offered--"
"Stop," Jorlan said, holding up a hand. "She doesn't do anything generously." He added, lowly, "For that matter, neither does the new captain."
If nothing else, Mavash's rage had been replaced with confusion -- at the words, and at the furious conversation with hand signs that was still going on. She sighed and said, "Could one of you please explain for us ignorant surfacers what these drow politics have to do with Vizeran's plan?"
Grinna and Jorlan matched gazes, their hands moving quickly through questioning gestures, as if arguing who was going to explain.
Jorlan apparently lost the argument, because he threw up his hands in frustration. "Fine. House Do'Urden first. It's not a real bloodline, not any more. Obviously you know of its most famous scion"--he made a vague gesture, assuming everyone knew of whom he spoke--"but for the most part, the bloodline is dead. So the drow in that house today are... let us say, blessed, to be there by the grace of the Baenres, the first house of the city."
"The house this Gromph is from, then," Lux said.
"Just so," Grinna answered. "He is brother to the current Matron Mother, Quenthel. Or was. We don't really know what happened to him."
"Anyway," Jorlan continued, "the point is, the new House Do'Urden is entirely composed of people that Quenthel Baenre wants to keep an eye on. 'Keep your enemies under your own roof?' Is that the phrase in Common?"
"More or less," Ambergris said.
Grinna smiled, adding, "Jorlan is just sour that he hasn't been invited to House Do'Urden."
"Oh, I was invited," he insisted. "Quite generously wooed, even -- the reborn house needed a new weapon master, someone to captain their forces. But let's say I was... not inclined to acquiesce."
"Matron Inshalee still can't believe you turned down that post," Rystia said. "She chafes to see another in the role."
Jorlan chuckled. "As I said earlier -- I'm always a disappointment. But luckily for you hapless surfacers, I ended up at Velkynvelve instead." He made a bow.
"This is the house that took the position of eighth from House Duskryn, then?" Gaulir asked, in memory of their conversation in the Gravenhollow.
Jorlan nodded. "Not that it troubles me much -- nor the matron of the eighth house."
Only Rystia was shaking with laughter, wiping at her eyes. When she composed herself enough to speak, she said, "Of course. I see now. Matron Mother Inshalee Do'Urden. Or as she was once called... Inshalee Duskryn. Younger sister to Prae'anelle, always wanting to get out from under her sibling's thumb, eh?
Jorlan raised an eyebrow, a gesture of sly admission. "So how is my dear mother going to reduce civilian casualties when the demon princes rampage through her city?"