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Bright Future

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Jorlan had not expected the prisoners.

He'd scouted the tunnel ahead, emerging into a dimly-lit open space that smelled like a tannery and a chamberpot combined. To the east was another tunnel; to the north was an entrance to the larger cavern. Shadowed in the entryway was the one troglodyte guard, facing outward toward the underground stream and the conflict there. Evidently this was the cave complex Mavash had mentioned.

Between Jorlan and the troglodyte was a stinking pit that he judged to be a privy, and along the walls on all sides were bedrolls and cauldrons full of bones. A few fires burned low, as if left in a hurry.

It was all too easy to approach the guard on silent feet and slip a shortsword between the creature's ribs. Jorlan was not usually one for sporting, but even to him this felt a bit disappointing.

He summoned his companions to join him, and while they squeezed through the narrow tunnel, he propped the body of the troglodyte into a standing position. The troglodytes on the cavern floor were distracted, true -- but how long would they remain so, when they saw their living quarters were no longer secure?

He wiped his hands on his trousers and turned back towards the tunnel, where his companions were now emerging. His path skirted the privy, and something -- perhaps just curiosity -- prompted him to peek over the edge.

A pale, dead face stared back at him. Its eyes were gone -- eaten by carrion -- but from the rest of its remains, it had been a drow in life.

Repulsed, Jorlan shuffled back a step before looking again. On second glance, it was not the only corpse there, either -- most of them mere limbs or bones, long decayed.

It took him a moment longer to realize it wasn't just a charnel pit. There were living forms huddled against the walls, opposite the dead bodies and piles of filth. He counted two drow and four dwarves, each group sitting the maximum distance apart the space would allow. An oubliette, then.

He couldn't judge anything about the dwarves, except that they were short and hairy and very dirty, which was more or less their natural state. He looked back to the party, beckoning Ambergris.

The drow -- two males -- were similarly dirty, but by their tattered garments and hairstyles they were housefolk. Jorlan could see no house insignia; if they wore them openly, it would be on their piwafwi, which the troglodytes would have taken. They were no one he recognized, but then, he hardly knew every noble in the city, especially beyond the first sixteen houses or so. Those that could threaten House Duskryn.

One of the drow chanced to look up; seeing Jorlan, he made a gasp of surprise. That caused the dwarves to look, and soon they were all shouting for help, drowning out anything else the first drow might have said. Jorlan winced at the noise, and had to hope there were no more troglodytes nearby.

Ambergris arrived at his side. Her eyes lit up, and she murmured shield dwarves under her breath. "Brothers!" she called down in Common. "Where d'you hail from?"

A light appeared at Jorlan's back -- Gaulir and Dawnbringer. On Jorlan's other side, he felt Mavash's furry head bump his shoulder. She'd taken the form of a moorbounder this time, what she tended to pick if their work required stealth or covering long distances; at this size, Jorlan could nearly hide between her front legs. He smoothed a reassuring hand over her flank, careful to avoid rubbing the barbed hairs the wrong way.

Who the gesture was meant to reassure was still an open question.

One of the dwarves stepped into the center of the pit and waved up at Ambergris. "We're from the Silver Marches!" he called. "Name's Brightmantle. We were prospecting when we found these ugly bastards. Or they found us, I suppose. But enough about the drow!" He chuckled, but there was something hard behind his eyes. "Can you get us out of here, friend?"

Jorlan realized now: there had been more of these prisoners once. The troglodytes had been picking them off, one by one, as their appetites dictated -- and tossing what remained back into the pit. He rubbed at his arms, suddenly chilled.

"What of you, gentlemen?" he said in Drow. His language was cautious and noncommital, not knowing their rank. "Are you looking to escape? Or do these surroundings suit you?" And yet he could never resist a bit of teasing.

But he couldn't forget what Hanne had said -- a Mizzrym hunting party. Despite his feigned certainty with Mavash, they could very well be looking for him. It had been months since the ambush in the Upperdark and Ilvara's death, but Matron Miz'ri had lost her first priestess and heir. That sort of vengeance could simmer for decades and centuries.

One of the drow stumbled to his feet. Old blood painted his torn trouser leg a red-brown. "Free us, dalninuk." He looked to his companion, who still sat. The other drow's skin was so pale as to be almost white, and he shook with cold or illness. "It will be profitable to you, I'm sure. We are retainers of House Mizzrym, and our Matron Mother will reward you."

Jorlan should have been offended, being called brother by someone not of his rank. But the words were so much din in his head beside what he already knew. Mizzrym. There would be no reward for saving these two but the cold chill of an altar stone at his back and a spider-legged dagger to his heart.

Or worse fates still.

He turned his gaze away from the pit, the words ready on his tongue. You may rot, iblith.

Abruptly, Mavash was in his mind, her mental presence as warm as her feline shape at his side. Who are they?

Right. She didn't speak Drow, aside from the more inventive curses he'd taught her. They are Mizzrym retainers, he said, because it was too difficult to lie when she was in his head.

You want to leave them there. It wasn't a question.

It's irrational, he replied, marshaling his will with a rattling breath. I have no idea if they are hunting me. And they are males, and mere retainers, not of Mizzrym blood. Their lot is not a happy one at the best of times.

And yet hatred burned in him like a stoked fire. Worse, he wasn't sure if his counsel was his own, or it was a unwitting lesson in mercy he had learned from his surfacer friends.

Mavash was silent for a time, considering. Do as you will. I trust your judgment.

How could she throw around dangerous words with such ease?

After a beat, she added, But if they hurt you, though, I will give them a swift death.

That is better than the troglodytes will offer.

I know. Her animal eyes were liquid as she made a long, slow blink.

In Common he said to the dwarves, "Just a moment, and we'll have you out of there." Let that confuse the hairy creatures, that a drow was helping them.

He lifted the grate, and with help from Ambergris, fashioned rope from his pack into harnesses. They pulled up the dwarves first -- Ambergris' choice, and Jorlan did not gainsay her. It would allow the Mizzrym retainers to stew, and he savored that.

The dwarven prisoners were able to clamber up on their own, but the two drow needed more assistance. The sickly one was the last they pulled up. He grasped at Jorlan's clothes as he climbed to his feet.

When his eyes met Jorlan's, he inhaled sharply. "L'og'elend Duskryn." He gave a bitter laugh that ended in a cough, wracking his frail body. "We covered the entire Wormwrithings, only to find you here, amidst shit." The double entendre did not miss Jorlan: iblith, both excrement and non-drow.

The drow with the bad leg glanced at Jorlan. His eyes narrowed, the look of a canny hunter spotting their prey. "You are as predictable as Matron Miz'ri said."

Jorlan pushed the sick one away and peddled back, drawing his shortsword. Too weak to stand on his own, the sick drow fell to his hands and knees, gasping.

"I'll do you the favor of killing you now," Jorlan growled, "so that you won't feel her displeasure when you go back empty-handed."

The limping one looked around him, assessing the odds. Already Jorlan's companions had closed ranks, their own weapons coming to hand. At his side, Mavash growled long and low. Vaeros came to alert at the back of the room with a rustle of wings, and even the freed dwarves looked wary.

Hanne, too, had her daggers drawn, her lips set in a line. "These are the ones who attacked us," she said in Undercommon for the benefit of the party. "I recognize that one's leg wound. Mother gave it to him." She stood a little straighter.

The wounded one's head swiveled to meet Hanne's gaze with thin smile. "The Duskryn traitor was our target," he said in Undercommon, "but we couldn't turn down a little sport with these heretics."

Hanne stood still and silent, her eyes burning with a cold fire.

"We've danced with demon princes and we've a red dragon on our side," Ambergris said, addressing the prisoners in Undercommon. She held her mace overhead, the weapon flickering with green flame. "How d'you figure your chances, greyskin?"

In hand signs, the sick one counseled his companion, Flee and live, brother.

The wounded one touched his hands to opposite shoulders across his chest, a gesture of surrender. "You are a wanted man, brother, but you have freed us," he continued in Drow, not taking his eyes from Jorlan. "By my account that makes us quits. We will go, and bother you no more."

Jorlan felt his heartbeat thrumming in his ears. He closed the distance between himself and the drow with the leg wound, pointing his shortsword at the man's throat. "Don't be so familiar with me, shebali," he said, his voice a menacing whisper.

And yet why did his outstretched hand shake?

The wounded male noticed. The smile he gave Jorlan made him want to skewer the other drow's throat then and there. He restrained himself before the shortsword darted more than an inch forward.

Feeling the touch of the blade against his skin, the wounded drow lowered his eyes. "My apologies. You are, of course, the secondboy of House Duskryn." The man's voice was perfectly deferential, but Jorlan sensed the barb. Secondboy of a house lower than ours, child of a second priestess, and an outlaw, to boot. It was precisely the sort of subtle rebellion he would have made in the man's place.

There were only two choices -- kill them now, or let them go, revealing his and his companions' position in the Underdark. There was no middle ground; he couldn't very well order them not to tell their Matron that they had met him. Indeed, doing so might be the only thing to assure their continued usefulness to her. House Mizzrym ran the slave markets, and always needed labor; it mattered little to them if those slaves were drow or not.

On the other hand, in their current state, there was no guarantee the two drow would make it to Menzoberranzan. Wounded and ill, they would be targets for all sorts of predators, humanoid and not.

"Please," the sick one interjected. His voice was heavy with exhaustion, beyond caring if his plea was shameful. "We could not hurt you if we wanted to. We have no weapons or armor, and our qu'el'velguk has already been killed."

House assassin. There was only ever one of those in a house at a time; competitiors tended not to last long in that business. "Matron Miz'ri invested a great deal in killing me," Jorlan said, inordinately pleased.

"Actually, she preferred we bring you back alive," the wounded one said, with a shrug. "But we were prepared to be merciful."

As opposed to what Matron Miz'ri had in mind.

Jorlan dropped his sword. "Go." His words came out whispery and faint. In Common, he told his companions. "Let them pass. They can do us no harm."

It was Mavash who stepped aside first. Soon, the line had dissolved. Only the shield dwarves groused about it.

The two drow, leaning heavily against each other, made their way to the tunnel entrance. At the last, the one with the bad leg looked back over his shoulder. "Do you know what they call you in Menzoberranzan, Jorlan Duskryn?"

Jorlan waited, dispassionate.

"The Widower." The man made a throttled chuckle. "A consort who outlives his mistress outlives his welcome. And you've done it... how many times now?"

His hand on the hilt of his weapon felt cold, and his fingers twitched irritably. "I expect you won't live to find out."

When they had seen the shield dwarves off -- with rations, water, and healing potions, better than the drow had gotten -- Jorlan and his companions explored the rest of the cavern complex. They found it empty of life, but with all the signs of the hasty occupation Hanne had suggested.

Then, with the goal of skirting the troglodyte conflict entirely, they followed another tunnel leading north.

Jorlan was scouting ahead with the drow girl when she signed, The Widower, eh? What have you done to garner that name, house boy?

He winced inwardly. He should have expected this would come up -- and from Hanne, the only one who had understood that conversation with the Mizzrym retainers. But perhaps he wasn't used to other drow asking probing questions instead of assuming the answers. As they said. I've had the misfortune of outliving some lovers. The first priestess of Fourth House Mizzrym among them.

Hanne's eyes went wide, and she made a whistle of admiration. Outlived? Or 'outlived?' Her fingers formed quotation marks in the air.

He stared down his nose at her, daring her to ask more.

Blessedly, she did not. And what would he have done if she had? She wasn't Mavash, that could nearly get away with such things. And that sort of curiosity could anger the wrong people in Menzoberranzan. But it wasn't his job to teach Hanne how to be a proper drow, and frankly, he didn't want to.

As for the subject itself... Ilvara was not his first dance, in more ways than one. And Jorlan was far from the helpless victim of the matriarchy that Mavash sometimes painted him as.

He pushed those thoughts ruthlessly from his mind. A certain druid could be listening.

Phosphorescent fungi trailed off behind them, leaving the party in darkness. Jorlan switched seamlessly to darkvision, making out the shapes of stalagmites and stalactites around them. A normal Underdark scene... and yet something did not sit right with him. Something was wrong about the shadows, maybe? He held up a hand to signal Hanne--

A flicker, and Jorlan was in motion before he knew it, stepping to the side. Something dropped from the ceiling right where he had been standing. "Piercers!" he called in Undercommon, though who knew if his surfacer companions even knew what those were.

Dawnbringer flared to life, and Jorlan switched back to light vision before it could blind him. In the light of the sunblade, he saw two more piercers drop from the ceiling. He understood now what had clued him in to danger -- not being warm-blooded, the piercers left little heat signature for him to follow, but a careful eye could see how their shapes distorted the shadows.

Then an eye opened in the stalagmite beside Jorlan and a tentacle whipped out at him.

He sidestepped this one, too, growling as he did. Piercers by themselves were little danger, but a roper?

Another tendril struck out from his other side, blazingly fast. Its target was Umbra, who had just stepped into the cavern behind Gaulir, shading her eyes. The tentacle tried to wrap around her like a lasso, but she managed to duck free of the grasping limb.

Make that two ropers.

"Jorlan, 'ware the light!" he heard Mavash call.

He slammed his eyes closed just in time. If Dawnbringer was bright, what filled the cavern next was coruscating -- brighter than his first glimpse of daylight on the ramparts of Mithral Hall. Even behind his eyelids, his eyes felt like they were being scalded. The light disappeared just as quickly, but left black spots on Jorlan's vision.

The roper to his right made a scream of pain as its flesh sizzled -- the effect of... whatever that spell was. Ssussun -- and how ironic that oath! -- Mavash cast spells so infrequently he forgot how deadly she could be with them.

His vision was patchy still, but he could see Hanne had not been so lucky when the sunburst had hit. She groped against the cavern wall with shaky fingers, staring blankly ahead. The injured roper, seeing easy prey, lashed out with a tendril, wrapping around the drow girl.

Jorlan drew his shortsword and slid in between Hanne and the roper, hacking at the tentacle. The blade sliced through the rubbery flesh with surprising ease, severing the roper's tendril. The creature made a terrible guttural noise, and the remaining stub flailed wildly. Freed from the beast's grasp, Hanne stumbled and slumped against the wall.

Three more piercers detached themselves from the ceiling. One of them sliced into the flesh of Mavash's shoulder, setting her off-balance. Annoyance grated at Jorlan like a pebble in his boot. Why was she standing around in her humanoid form?

Then it dawned on him -- she'd already been a bat and a moorbounder today, and she'd given up the latter form when it became an obstacle to passing through narrow tunnels. She wouldn't be wildshaping again until she rested. He watched as she lifted her infrequently-used staff from her pack and drew a dweomer around it. It was her weapon of last resort; he'd seen her wield it in the deadly battle in the Upperdark, when the yochlol had taken everything else.

But surely the situation was not that dire?

With only the enchanted staff, Mavash managed to pummel the piercer into the ground. Its alpha strike having failed, it was no more dangerous than a large grub.

But the injured roper was not done. To Jorlan's horror, the severed tendril reformed itself with alacrity. This time, it focused its attention on Mavash, who had lately hurt it -- four of its six tentacles reaching out to envelop her. Three of them, by his estimation, found their mark; Mavash, poisoned, slumped in its grasp. With a horrible slurping noise, the roper began to reel her towards it.

"Attack the body, not the tendrils!" Jorlan yelled over the din of battle. He dove for the roper, aiming for the creature's central eye.

A clarity settled over him -- a singleness of purpose. There was only one thought in his head -- free her -- and one thing to do. Like some dwarven automaton, he worked shortsword and dagger in a deadly alternating pattern, losing track of anything else. The sounds of scraping metal and the wet burbling noises of the ropers faded into the background of his mind.

Eventually, the roper screamed and stilled. Its tendrils slackened, and Mavash, suddenly freed, fell heavily against him. As she did, her wounded shoulder brushed his cheek, leaving something wet in its wake.

He touched his face, drawing back bloodied fingers. Her blood. He stiffened.

It took Jorlan a few beats to realize the fighting had stopped. The second roper was a smoking ruin of flesh; Gaulir stood beside it, his entire sword arm vibrating with a terrible light, like he was merely the extension of Dawnbringer. Lux, in their vulpine lycan form, morphed back to their half-elf shape. Hanne was rubbing at her eyes, but was standing under her own power.

"Well, hello there," Mavash murmured into Jorlan's shoulder. Weakened by the roper's poison, she swayed and started to collapse.

Jorlan caught her before she fell. "Ambergris, can you do anything for her?" His voice careened out of his control -- too high, too panicked.

"Aye," the dwarf said. She had been one of the targets of the piercers, and was busily bandaging her own wound. "Bide a moment."

Don't waste time, he nearly snapped at her healer's calm, but that was inane. Roper poison would dissipate quickly on its own, anyway.

At least, it did with drow physiology. In most cases.

Mavash was limp in his arms, and like this, she seemed so frail -- bird-like, hollow-boned. She could shape herself into nearly any beast, and now Jorlan thought he understood why she did -- why she chose these forms over the spells that came as easily to her. Because being a cave bear is armor, as much as mage's spell.

Her eyelids had fluttered close, as if in sleep. Jorlan admired the spiderweb of her eyelashes, and the pinkish hue that colored her cheeks and her rounded ears. The sight made something ache deep in his chest, as if he were homesick for somewhere he had never been.

And if he wrapped his arms around her tighter than was strictly necessary? Well, no one dared comment.

By the time they stumbled out of the roper lair, Mavash was recovered enough to walk on her own, if leaning heavily against Jorlan.

His shoulder ached from where she leaned against him, but he couldn't bring himself to mind. She was warm and alive, and right now that was gift enough. More than he deserved, honestly, given that he'd basically had sent up a flare towards Menzoberranzan with their location.

And how long until he mentioned that?

That was when they met the troglodyte chieftain carrying the drow sword.

At his back were six more troglodytes on riding lizards. The chieftain made an inscrutable facial expression, and launched into a hissing tirade, swinging the sword lazily from side to side. It might have intimidated a lesser creature, but Jorlan's expert eye noted his shoddy swordsmanship, his movements broad and uncontrolled.

"I don't suppose anyone here speaks Troglodyte?" Lux asked, glancing around at the party. They were met with nothing but shakes of the head.

"Oh, for--" Umbra muttered, rolling her eyes. She raised her hand in an all-too-familiar gesture.

A globe of flame formed in the air above her head. With a pointing gesture from Umbra, it arced towards the troglodytes and burst down upon it.

And then the air was rent with smoke and gurgles and a smell like cooked fish.

When the smoke cleared, the troglodytes and their riding lizards lay dead.

"Well done, Umbra," Mavash murmured, and made a congratulatory clap.

"Well!" The sorcerer blew out a breath. "Sometimes you just need a fireball to speak for you."

"A waste of fine riding beasts," Jorlan muttered. But he could not argue with the efficacy of the sorcerer's methods.

Gaulir approached the charred remains of the troglodytes, and reached down to pick up the sword. He carried it between two fingers, as it was superheated by the recent fireball. "Ambergris, would you do the honors?"

The dwarf nodded, and Gaulir dropped the blade; Ambergris went to her knees above it, letting her hands caress the air around the sword. After several minutes of concentration, she declared, "Well, it's drowcraft, that much is certain. And it's not cursed. And I think... I think it is what is commonly called a vorpal sword?"

"Which means what?" Hanne asked.

"It means it's for cutting off heads," Jorlan answered. "May I see it?"

"Need to do some head chopping, drow?" Ambergris quipped, but handed the blade over.

Jorlan hefted the blade. The hilt was merely warm to the touch, but the blade still glowed as if it had lately emerged from the forge. It was, as he had suspected, a drow assassin's blade. Its crossguard was shaped like a spider, its legs curled in on itself, with rubies glinting in the place of eyes. Its balance was exquisite, and it sat easily in his hand, for all that it was a good deal heavier than his shortsword.

Sighting down the blade, he noticed the lettering in the Drow script. Oloth tlu malla. "Darkness be praised," he echoed, in Undercommon.

Hanne looked up, hearing the Drow expression in translation. "What do you mean?"

"That's its name." As far as he knew, assassin's blades didn't usually have names; they were weapons of utility. And yet someone had clearly placed a great deal of craftsmanship and -- dare he say? -- love into this one.

Mavash took a step away from him. He lifted his eyebrow, asking a question. She made a nod and a permissive smile, and took another step back.

Jorlan made a few experimental swipes in the air -- a simple opening attack sequence, the first form he'd been taught at Melee-Magthere. Oloth tlu malla, indeed. It cut as fine as shadow, and would put even his magically-enhanced shortsword to shame.

With reluctance, he returned the blade to Gaulir's gauntleted hands, hilt first.

"Well, who would like to claim this one?" the paladin said. "I've no need of any blade besides Dawnbringer."

Jorlan held his tongue.

"Azuredge would be jealous," Lux said, patting the axe at their hip.

"Umbra?" Gaulir asked.

"I'll stick with my spells. Can't depend on my blades in the shadows, with these fools tossing light spells around." She gave a wink to Mavash. "How about you?"

Take the damn thing. Jorlan mentally willed her. Otherwise you've got nothing but bear claws and a magical piece of wood.

Mavash made a single shake of her head. "You know I've no use for weapons."

Jorlan cursed her inwardly. Like a helpless drow child, she probably couldn't even use a sword.

Gaulir's gaze fell on Ambergris.

"Since you lot keep bashing your heads against things, I do more healing than anything else," the dwarf said. "But Emerald Flame is plenty of weapon for me." She looked the drow blade over, from hilt to tip. "I think it'd give me the screaming willies to be holding that thing, anyway."

"As you would say, to each their tastes," Jorlan murmured.

"Jorlan, why don't you take it?" Mavash said. She was at his side again, weaving her arm through his, tugging him closer.

He realized he had been standing with his arms crossed tightly at his waist, and forced himself to relax a fraction. "I'm sure your companions have someone in mind," he demurred, not meeting her gaze.

Gaulir cocked his head, narrowing his eyes. "It seems not. You would put it to good use, no?"

Light, yes. Lest he appear too eager, he made a show of considering that, finger to lips. "I suppose I would find a use for it."

Mavash squeezed his arm so tightly he made a yelp of surprise. He looked up to find her staring down at him with the same disbelieving look she'd given to Vizeran's dramatics.

Gaulir bared his predator's teeth in a smile. "Well, that settles it, then." And this time, it was him placing the sword in Jorlan's hands.

The sword was warm through his leather gauntlets, like a heart in his hands. He remained still and quiet for one tense moment, feeling the tremendous pressure of this delicate thing.

Then he blurted out, "You're giving me a head-chopping sword?" He'd expected some resistance -- from Umbra, if no one else. That they would just give it to him defied everything he thought he knew.

"You're doing such a good job of chopping off heads already, Jorlan," Mavash said, her eyes twinkling with humor. "This will just make it easier." Telepathically, she added, Since that's of some importance to me.

I'm charmed. Just for that, you'll be the last one I murder in your bed.

You are so gracious, my dear.

My dear. The Common words lingered in his head longer than he expected. Perhaps something was lost in translation.

"Statistically speaking," Umbra continued, heedless of the psychic conversation, "it's only moderately more likely to chop off a head than a regular sword."

"You are all disgustingly trusting," he said, with a whisper of mingled awe and disdain.

And... was that pride?. This hadn't even occasioned a debate, unlike the poisons. Of course he would get the sword, they seemed to be thinking. Who else was going to use it?

Jooooorlan Duskryn... a voice in his head interrupted. Its word-thoughts were a heavily-accented ghostly warbling. I am the spirit of Oloth tlu malla! Heed my fearful intelligence! Together we shall cut through our enemies--

"Cut it out, Mavash." He grinned up at her.

She threw back her head and laughed. It shook her whole form, setting the beads in her hair to dancing. "What gave it away?"

"Your pronunciation of Drow is atrocious." He laced his fingers with hers, pulling her towards the exit tunnel. "We'll have to work on that. Lux will be very disappointed if you don't know how to greet a matron with Vendui', vel'uss lil vith phuul dos??"