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Bright Future

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An unhatched purple worm egg.

The first item required for Vizeran's ritual, Grinna informed Mavash and her companions, would be found in the Wormwrithings to the west of the Tower of Araj. They lingered only another day at the Tower before setting out again, back down the trail they had entered from.

And so they were committed, at least for now, to crafting the ritual.

After several days, they emerged from narrow tunnels into a wide, oblong space, three times as tall as their heads, with the edges distant enough that Dawnbringer's light didn't illuminate them. Distantly, Mavash heard the sound of running water -- an infrequent sound in the Underdark, where most bodies of water were still and dead. Were they growing closer to the surface in their journey?

She was about to suggest they stop for a midday meal when a voice boomed out in Undercommon, "Go no further, or suffer a death so horrible you cannot imagine!"

The sound reverberated and echoed off the distant walls, only silencing once Mavash's pulse had returned to normal.

As ever, she looked to Jorlan, opening her mind to him.

I'm at a loss, he mindspoke. In the Underdark, things that want to kill you typically don't give warning.

Indeed. Nor do they always speak Undercommon, I would wager.

Jorlan made a huff of laughter, and then added, With an accent, no less. Actually... His thought dead-ended abruptly.

The rest of their companions were equally confused. Gaulir's scaly brow was set, and he held Dawnbringer in a guard position. Umbra and Lux had similarly stopped in their tracks, with the shadar-kai cocking her head from side to side, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. Vaeros, emerging from the narrow tunnel, had paused, perfectly still, his wings set in an awkward position.

Jorlan gestured at Gaulir, as if to say, Can you turn that thing off?

It was their only light source, so when Gaulir obliged, pitch blackness rushed in. Mavash found herself holding her breath, painfully aware that there was a mile of crushing stone above their heads.

Jorlan's eyes glowed -- shifting his vision to the infrared spectrum, no doubt, but it gave the impression of a predator. He drew his own blade -- the hissing sound it made deafening in the sudden silence -- and took two silent steps forward.

"I mean it!" the voice cried out again, as if it had heard those subtle sounds. "Flee now! This is your final warning!"

Jorlan made a sniffing noise, like he was holding back a laugh. Then he said something in Drow -- Mavash didn't know what, but she'd learned to recognize it sounds of the language, the sibilant scratching of spider legs across parchment.

And if he was speaking Drow, that meant there was someone who understood it.

The voice replied -- or a voice, at any rate. Unlike the booming, emotionless voice that had shaken the rock, this one was a high-pitched woman's voice, raised and hissing with anger, like a viper poised to strike.

Jorlan murmured something that sounded soothing, or quietly threatening; it was hard to be sure. Then he added, in Undercommon, "Come out, sister. We are no drow hunting party. But beware the light." Switching to Common, he said, "She's no danger to us. But some dim light, Gaulir, if your sword can manage something shy of blinding daylight."

That was purely for their benefit; Mavash was sure whoever this was could see as well in the heat spectrum as Jorlan could.

And who were they? A drow, female, apparently afraid of hunting parties?

She recalled something Grinna had told her, before they left -- that the followers of the goddess Eilistraee, shunned as heretics by the Lolthites of Menzoberranzan, often called these tunnels their homes. Some of them were even famed for hunting the purple worms -- a group called the Dark Hunters, led by Zhora Hallen. They were elusive by necessity, but Mavash had harbored a private, irrational hope that they might run into the famed hunter in the warren of tunnels.

Maybe they had.

Dawnbringer flared to life once more -- but softer, this time, red-orange instead of a blinding blue. It didn't illuminate the whole box cavern, but it shed a circle of light wide enough to see the drow woman who approached from around a pile of rubble.

Or, perhaps more accurately, the drow girl. If she were human, Mavash would have judged she had not yet reached her maturity; she had the awkward leanness of an adolescent.

Either way, the young woman was holding two daggers before her in a guard position, her stance showing she knew how to use them. Her dark lips were pulled back over gleaming white teeth in a grimace. "You might have seen through my illusion, but you'll not find me easy prey," she growled in Undercommon. She circled wide around Jorlan, her eyes never leaving his. To her, he would appear the greatest threat among them.

Jorlan sighed and sheathed his blades, crossing his arms over his chest in a gesture Mavash recognized as one of peace. "Sister, we truly wish you no harm. In fact, we could be of assistance to each other."

A strange look passed over the girl's face -- hope, quickly followed by canniness. If she was like every other drow Mavash had met -- dear Jorlan included -- she was busy calculating the cost of such cooperation.

"Ask her if she knows anything about this Zhora person we're seeking," Gaulir said in Common.

Jorlan hesitated -- of course, he would be more cagey about what they were looking for -- but the translation was unnecessary.

The young woman had caught the word Zhora, and something in her face brightened. Just as quickly, she tamped down that enthusiasm. In a level voice, she said. "You are looking to hunt the purple worm, then? I know of a hatchery not far from here -- only two days travel. I would be willing to lead you there, if..." She gestured broadly towards the group. "If you bring no harm down upon us. Me. Uh..."

Mavash caught the slip, and if she had, Jorlan had as well.

Lux, however, had not. "You seem a bit young to be taking on one purple worm, let alone a whole hatchery of them."

"I may be young, but I'm just as well trained as Zhora Hallen!" she spat back, and her grip tightened on her daggers. "I will lead you there, and assist in your hunt, for the price of my safe passage and, uh, fifty of your gold coins?" She bit her lip, clearly uncomfortable with this sort of bargaining.

Since the mindlink was still open, Jorlan opined, She is just a little girl trying so desperately to be a drow. After a moment's pause, She was clearly raised outside the city.

That seems like a good thing.

Or at least to our benefit. His fingers drumming against his leg, he added, You notice how she assumed the surname 'Hallen' without it being mentioned?

Mavash shrugged. Zhora is famous, I assume.

Perhaps that's all. Even through the medium of telepathy, Jorlan sounded dubious.

"What is she asking?" Gaulir said.

"She wants a mere fifty gold and the pleasure of our company, it seems," Umbra murmured. Fifty gold was nothing to them -- they held the wealth of a small country in the bag of holding at Gaulir's side.

"To find this Zhora Hallen?" he asked.

"To bring us to the worm hatchery," Mavash clarified.

It was Gaulir's turn to look dubious. "She looks nearly a child. Is she up to the task?"

"She seemed quite offended at the suggestion she was not," Lux said tartly.

Jorlan had turned away from his companions, back to the girl. He asked quietly in Undercommon, "How do you know of Zhora?"

The girl looked back and forth between Jorlan and the rest of the party. She spit something out in Drow, her hands signing in harmony.

With a thin smile, Jorlan replied in Undercommon, "For the benefit of my friends, of course."

The young woman's eyes narrowed. "Abban. Hm." She lowered one dagger, sighing. "I know Zhora Hallen. Those who hunt worms... they don't do it alone. It takes a team to bring down one. I have worked with her. Trained with her."

Her questing eyes told Mavash that was not the whole story. "What if we were looking for an egg, not the worm itself?"

The young girl nodded, considering. "You'd find it difficult to pry away without a fight. Even if the worms were not present--" She stopped abruptly. "Why do you require it?"

"For a ritual," Jorlan said, surprising Mavash at how forthcoming he was being. "A ritual that will stop the demon plague, and deal a blow to the Hated Mother."

The girl's eyes went wide for a moment. "You speak heresy," she said after a carefully considered pause.

"And yet I think it's a language you understand." Jorlan made his own canny look.

How do two renegade drow let each other know they're both renegades? Mavash bet it looked a lot like this.

He dropped to one knee -- a gesture of trust, or to meet the girl at her height? "Now," he said, his voice hushed, "please be honest with us about your relationship with Zhora Hallen. Familial, I would guess?"

The girl let out a defeated breath. "Ssussun pholor dos!" She threw her dagger down at Jorlan's feet along with her curse. "My name is Hanne Hallen."

Aha.

"Your mother?" Lux asked.

Hanne nodded sullenly. "Before you ask, I can't lead her to you. I've no idea where she is. We were attacked yesterday by a hunting party out of Menzoberranzan." She bared her teeth at Jorlan. "As you guessed, there are reasons we're not welcome there, and apparently that makes us good sport. "

"I'm not exactly wanted there, either," Jorlan said, sitting back on his heels. "And what of your mother?"

She rolled her eyes, an adolescent gesture. "I'm getting to it. Of course, we fought. I was trying to flank one of the priestesses when a purple worm burst through the tunnel wall -- they're drawn by noise, you see -- and caused this landslide. I was cut off from the rest of the hunters, and nearly buried in the rock fall. Still limping from this." Hanne gestured at her foot.

Mavash noticed now that the girl's boot had been awkwardly sliced open to accommodate a swollen ankle. For all that, Hanne didn't move like someone with a broken foot.

When Mavash looked up again, there were tears in Hanne's eyes. She rubbed her hand roughly across them to banish the moment of weakness. "I'm sorry, I just-- I don't know what happened to her, if she's alive or dead. I've tried to look for her, but I can't get very far on this." She eyed the rubble thoughtfully, murmuring, "So I keep coming back here, hoping she'll return to this spot."

"We can look for her on the way to the hatchery," Mavash offered, and held out a hand. "And after, if we don't find her along the way. If nothing else, you'll have our assistance if we run into the hunters again." She turned to Gaulir, explaining the situation in Common.

The dragonborn made a curt nod. "Of course she'll have our protection for as long as she wants it. And if it's as she says, I doubt even we can take on a nest of purple worms alone." He stepped forward, dropping to a knee at the girl's feet. "Let me heal that for you. We can't have you walking on that foot."

Hanne pedaled back at the dragonborn's clawed hands. She looked uncertainly to Jorlan, who translated. And yet the young drow only looked back at the paladin, eyes hooded with suspicion.

Lux nodded their agreement. "I'm in, too."

"As am I," Umbra added. "Maybe I'll get to drop a globe of acid on some priestesses, if we're lucky." The sorcerer stepped towards the young woman, holding a waterskin in one hand and a ration in the other. "You look starved."

Hanne looked back and forth between them -- between the offered food and drink and healing -- and looked panicked.

The look of a prisoner who's been given a reprieve, but doesn't trust it's real yet, Mavash realized. She'd seen it on Jorlan's face, too -- when he was their prisoner, surprised to be offered a meal by his captors.

The default cruelty that implied still did not sit well with Mavash, and it gave her no comfort to know it was a cultural affliction.

Jorlan's laughter broke the awkward silence. "Sister, I assure you they're sincere." He rose to his feet, brushing off his knees. " It takes getting used to, but they do in fact just like to be generous. Sometimes idiotically so."

He looked to Mavash, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.

Mavash could not help meeting his smile with her own; it brimmed unbidden from her lips. That he was secure enough in his trust that he could sell it to another... well. The thought suffused her chest with warmth.

How far you've come, my sweet boy.