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Bright Future

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Six feathers from six different angels.

After their encounter with Baphomet's champion, the heroes of Velkynvelve traveled deeper into the Labyrinth, their path a corkscrew upwards.

The cold grew as they climbed, and was joined by the sawing of the wind, so rare in the Underdark. The wind carried the sounds of beasts -- the yipping of gnolls and the clomp of bovine hooves, reminders of the monsters they had lately fought.

On the sixth day, with no end goal in sight, Mavash grew unsettled. Watching their goblin guides talking amongst themselves, she began to wonder if they really knew what they were doing, or if this was another lark of theirs, as suicidal as jumping from the heights of the Silken Path. Or worse, perhaps they meant them some ill intent--

It was irrational. It was only the unnerving constant wind, the lack of immediate threats, a path without end.

"They know what they're about," Jorlan said at her shoulder, making her start. "Never thought I'd say that, but those little bastards have grown on me." Up ahead, Yuk-yuk and Spiderbait were preparing some sort of improvised crampons, for the stone beneath them had been covered in a thin layer of ice.

Mavash frowned a question at him.

"You looked worried," he said, by way of explanation.

She made a hmph of laughter. "I was trying to determine if they were going to lead us into an ambush."

"They're not smart enough for that," he said, and touched a hand to her arm. "Peace."

"When a drow tells me to relax, I suppose I am being paranoid," she said, punctuating her sentence with a nervous laugh.

It was a day later when they arrived on the floor of an enormous cave. It wasn't quite the size of the cavern of Mantol-Derith, but it was still as large as a cathedral, vaulted with stalactites. Stalagmites rose up to meet them, forming something like the pillars of a nave.

In between each of the pillars was a stone angel, its features rendered in exquisite detail. There were eight of them in total, each one standing twice Gaulir's height, with wings stretching twenty feet in either direction. Only their poses differed -- here, one covered its face with its hands; there, another clawed at its eyes.

This was what they'd been looking for -- the Gallery of Angels.

A bolt of psychic energy shot through Mavash's senses. She heard a choir of alien intelligences, some pleading, some instructing. They formed a waterfall of voices, overlapping and drowning each other out.

Mavash’s hands flew to her temples, warding off a headache that was more than physical. But she understood now how they were meant to convince these angels to part with six feathers.

"These creatures are-- were-- celestials," she said, with breathy awe. "But they’ve been condemned, for wrongs they've long since forgotten. The stone is their prison -- their punishment."

Lux, pacing impatiently, gestured at the nearest statue. "Can't we just... break the feathers off?" This angel stood with its feet apart, its head downcast, its arms straight at its side. "Anybody have a chisel?"

Mavash raised a warning hand. "I'm getting to that. As soon as we touch one, it will invoke a sort of... communion. Depending on the angel, this could be beneficial, or..." She remembered the dark undercurrent of the river of voices. "It could be quite bad. But bane or boon, we must weather it. That is the only way we will get the feather -- if we pass the ordeal."

Gaulir turned a meaningful look to Lux. "No chiseling off feathers, then."

"Didn't Grinna or Vizeran or someone say that we could each only commune with one angel?" Umbra asked.

Mavash nodded. "As we need six feathers, and there are six of us -- not counting our intrepid goblin guides -- we will each need to commune with one angel." She spun around, noticing that Spiderbait and Yuk-yuk had absented themselves, as they were wont to do whenever trouble was threatened.

It was one thing to ask Gaulir and Umbra and Lux to do this along with her, but she was less sure of Jorlan and Ambergris. She'd asked them, back at the Tower of Araj, if they were willing. In for a copper, in for the count, had been Ambergris’ reply.

Jorlan had agreed, and then, glib as always, added, Besides, Lux is doing it, and I’m at least twice as smart as they are.

And yet, it was another thing entirely to stand in this frigid temple of stone and consider these ghastly visages. Mavash wondered if any of her companions were having second thoughts. Even if they were, could they be indulged? Vizeran had many times stressed that none of the ritual components could be neglected.

Mavash's eyes settled on an angel whose features were frozen in horror, its arm pointing to a spot of no significance on the cavern wall. She shivered.

"Please," she said, and gestured before her. "My friends. Choose which one you wish to commune with. I will take one that remains."

"Hold," Gaulir said, raising a hand. "Let me try something." He stepped into the center of the room, eyeing the statues above him on either side. Then he put his hands together, lowered his eyes, and spoke in a language Mavash did not recognize, his voice sonorous.

At the words, another wave of psychic energy crashed over Mavash’s head. The intelligences were in unison now -- a psychic scream of such bitterness and anguish that it felt like it might split her eardrums. Her legs gave out beneath her, and she clutched ineffectually at her temples. Get it out get it out get it out her psyche cried out to no one in particular, as her lips could make nothing more than a pitiful keening noise.

Someone, at least, heard her cry.

Jorlan stepped in front of her, as if he could shield her from the onslaught. "Stop it," he said, pointing a finger at Gaulir. "Whatever you're doing, it's hurting her."

Gaulir looked up from his prayer, and glanced to Mavash. A mournful look came over his face, snout wrinkling in something like guilt. "I-" he began.

"Please," Mavash said, finding her voice again, "please don't do that again."

The paladin gave a resigned nod. "I'm sorry, Mavash." He glanced up at the statues, quiet and still. "It doesn't seem to be helping, in any case. But... I believe I know which one I will choose."

Gaulir stepped toward an angel. Frozen forever in a kneeling position, its face was buried in its arms as if against a railing or bed. The paladin shifted in his armor, then reached out one clawed finger to the statue. He made a quick intake of breath and then stood silent.

Mavash listened to the distant sound of wind whipping and water dripping. She’d only looked away for a moment -- to Jorlan, of course, who was circling around the statues in a figure eight -- but when she looked back, Gaulir had recovered himself.

He also held in his hand a white feather. It was larger than a feather from any bird Mavash had ever seen -- larger even than an avariel’s flight feather.

The paladin looked back at his companions. “I was granted a boon.” He tugged at the ties on his armor, betraying nervousness.

Lux stood up a little straighter, looking eager.

“I had the power to ask two questions -- the sort met with simple yes or no answers. I only hope I asked the right one, without”--he waved at his companions-- “your guidance.”

“I’m sure you did,” Umbra assured him. “What did you learn?”

He opened his mouth and closed it again, considering how to begin. “I must admit, I erred in my first choice of question. I asked if I had the power to save these angels.”

Mavash wasn’t sure it was possible to roll one’s eyes psychically, but -- through the psychic link her scream had opened -- Jorlan was certainly trying. His actual facial expression was bored, impassive, as if the paladin’s words were of no consequence to him.

Gaulir made a tentative chuckle. “The creature laughed at me. ‘Foolish one,’ it chided me. ‘I’ll give you that one free of charge. No, you do not have that power. Our fate is as sealed as our stone prisons.’” He cleared his throat, glancing wistfully at the statue he had lately touched. “Forgive me. It’s hard not to pity a creature such as this. A being that has known the heights of Mount Celestia but has fallen to this place so close to the Abyss?” His mouth moved wordlessly, making a sound like flint striking steel.

This time Jorlan scoffed aloud. “I suspect if you knew their sins, you would not pity them so readily. Remember our friend the gnoll?”

Mavash remembered that conversation -- a century and six days ago. A gnoll, chained and tormented, begging to be set free. A heated conversation -- Mavash’s mercy warring with Gaulir’s righteous insistence that gnolls were no more than mindless spawn of Yeenoghu. The paladin attempting to make the gnoll swear an oath to live a goodly life. A spell of truth, revealing the betrayal the gnoll had in mind. How Dawnbringer severed the creature’s head from its neck in one blinding slice.

How, with the gnoll’s blood pooling at their feet, the truth spell had drawn words from Jorlan, too: I would not have passed that test.

Mavash could only guess at what he meant: I would have let the gnoll go free? Or: My greatest truth would have condemned me to death, too?

Or both.

Gaulir’s eyes lingered for a long moment on Jorlan. When he dragged his eyes away, he said, “Generously, the being disregarded that question and let me ask another. So next I asked, ‘Will our actions succeed in banishing the lords of the Abyss and weakening Lolth?’” He made a bitter laugh, deep in his throat. “It said ‘that is a letter written in uncertainty,’ and marked down my first question.”

“It was a wise question, Gaulir,” Ambergris murmured. “Pity it didn’t have a useful answer.”

Gaulir nodded his agreement. “I continued in that vein, then, asking ‘Is the path we walk true to our objectives?’”

That could mean all manner of things, Jorlan grumbled psychically to Mavash.

Bide, she replied judiciously.

“Basically you asked, ‘are we on the right path?’ then?” Lux asked.

The paladin nodded. “It answered with an unequivocal yes.” When no one spoke for a while, he added. “I hope you will take some small comfort in knowing that.” He looked as if he was desperately trying to.

“Well,” Mavash said, looking around at her companions, “who wishes to go next?”

“I’ll go,” Jorlan volunteered before anyone else could speak up. He strode towards the horror-stricken statue that pointed towards the wall, carrying himself with utter non-concern. As if he were walking to the market. One grey hand came to rest against the statue’s free hand, gripped loosely at its waist.

This time, Mavash was determined not to look away.

Almost immediately, Jorlan leaped back. It reminded Mavash of when she had been caught in the dracolich’s lightning breath -- the same sort of force propelled his movements. She took a step forward to catch him, but he recovered himself at the last minute, dancing away a few steps, feather held out like a counterweight.

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” he said. “It was just… a terrible wailing.” He gave Mavash a rueful look, addressing her directly. “I imagine not unlike what you experienced. But I don’t have the same… sensitivity that you do.”

“Oh Jorlan, Mavash would never call you a blockhead to your face,” Lux said, sickly sweet.

Jorlan ignored the jibe, looking thoughtful. “It might have been worse, if I’d let myself get carried away in that… madness, I guess. I also don’t have your psychic defenses.” He rolled one shoulder, dismissing the thought.

Mavash studied Jorlan, saying into his mind I’m sorry you had to do this. The message reflected back on her, his consciousness once again retreated to its walled garden.

The thought of the beautiful labyrinth of his mind torn apart by that scream plunged Mavash in icewater. She scrutinized Jorlan’s body language, his microexpressions, looking for a greater pain or a more horrid truth.

She saw nothing. But perhaps she was simply seeing what she wanted to see.

“I’ll go next,” Umbra said, breaking the silence.

The shadar-kai approached the nearest angel. This figure had an arm cast dramatically across its eyes, a smile on its lips. Umbra’s fingers brushed the stone folds of its chiton and went still.

She was gone for the longest time yet, but when she opened her eyes, there was a sadness there that Mavash had never seen. The blue light from Dawnbringer made her look gaunt, aged beyond her years.

Umbra’s eyes flicked down to the feather in her hand, looking uncomfortable under the scrutiny. “No bane or boon to report. I just… had a vision. A memory? Of being hunted by the drow.” Her gaze went distant, staring through her companions. “So many times I was cornered and brought back, like some sort of escaped animal. So many times I thought the tunnel in front of me would be my escape, only to be flanked and dragged back to a new prison. So many times I thought I could trust someone… so many times, waking with a knife at my throat.”

Abstractly, Mavash knew how Umbra had suffered -- how she had been no more than a curiosity to the drow, looking for an answer to what is this creature that was born of our blood but not one of us? More so when she turned out to be a heretic; rejecting Lolth for the Raven Queen her fey blood drew her to.

The look in Umbra’s eyes painted a vivid portrait of that desperation and loneliness.

“Did I ever tell you, they even denied me words?” She looked up at Jorlan. “You’ve probably wondered why I don’t speak Drow. It was an experiment,” she said, with a bitter laugh. “For the first thirty years of my life, I was imprisoned in a soundless cell, with mute captors to bring me food and water. They wanted to see what language a child would grow up speaking if no one said a word to them.”

None, was the response that came immediately to Mavash’s mind. But one might go mad first.

“Oh, Umbra,” she whispered. “How did you bear it?”

The sorcerer shrugged. “I bore it.” There were tears in her eyes, which she quickly wiped away. “But I had the Raven Queen. I had her words in my head in… I guess Sylvan, I know it’s called now.” She looked at Mavash with a weak smile -- remembering when they had first met and exchanged words in their shared language.

“Anyway,” Umbra said. “I’m fine. Enough of that. But just know -- If I’m ever… awkward, or I struggle to find the words, it’s because… I didn’t learn Undercommon until I was grown.” A long pause, and a bracing breath. “The celestial’s name was Silnia. It wanted you to know.”

Names matter. That knowledge was comforting, in some odd way.

“I’ll go next,” Lux said, stepping forward. “One good, two bad so far, right? The odds are in my favor.”

Light, are you bad at math,” Jorlan murmured, watching the changeling approach a statue.

I imagine drow society teaches you probability, if nothing else, Mavash transmitted, lighthearted.

The impression of a smile around gritted teeth. I learned very well the independence of outcomes.

This angel had its hands spread before it, as if offering something to the changeling and their companions. Lux approached, raised a hand, and then stopped. “That’s funny,” they whispered. “Why do I know this one’s name is Baatral?”

“Is that it?” Gaulir asked. “Is that the communion?”

Lux shook their head. “No. Not yet. Does that name mean anything to any of you?”

They were met with silence.

“Oh well.” The blood hunter rolled their shoulders, as if about to go into battle. “Let’s find out who the fuck Baatral is and why I care.” They slapped a hand down on the statue, closing their eyes.

After several moments, Lux gasped and their eyes opened, widening in horror. The feather dropped from nerveless fingers, and with hands clapped to their mouth, they backed away from the statue, towards their companions.

Umbra put a hand to Lux’s shoulder, and Lux flinched. Ambergris stooped to pick up the relinquished feather, but no one said a word.

Finally the blood hunter exhaled a great breath and said, “It was… good, at first. I saw Neheedra.” A whisper of a smile appeared on their lips. “Every giddy feeling I’ve ever had about her… they were all there.” Their smile was replaced with a snarl of anger. “Then this angel promised me that if I murdered all of you, Neheedra’s curse would be lifted.” They looked up at the statue, their eyes hollow pits of rage. “I would not. Everything after that was blood.”

Their hands were still shaking as they let Umbra pull them into an embrace, let Ambergris hand her the feather. The words I would not echoed in Mavash’s head. How difficult had it been for the changeling to say those words?

More, how would Mavash herself answer such a promise?

She glanced at Jorlan. He was crouched on an empty plinth, his chin in his hands, watching her. He looked away quickly, though, as if he would deny it. But the tilt of his chin and his secret smile betrayed him.

Through the open psychic link, he ventured, it’s a good thing I’m not cursed, isn’t it?

Is that what you think is on my mind? So presumptuous, she replied, with a mental cluck of disapproval.

His ears flattened against his head, a hint of pink coloring the tips. So the matrons always called me. He wore his hair loose today, and Mavash admired how his silver hair curled around said ears, like waves across a bed of seashells.

Did they also tell you you were cursed with good looks?

Not unless they were trying to drag me into bed. He stiffened as he said that, and the expression on his face went blank, as his thoughts faded into the distance like an echo.

Haven’t I been trying that for the last few weeks? But Mavash kept that thought to herself. Their conversation in the baths at the Tower of Araj still lay between them like a sword.

Mavash took a determined breath, tangling a hand in the folds of her skirts. Only she and Ambergris remained. She waved the dwarf ahead. “Go ahead. I will go last.”

Ambergris’ arms were crossed, her mace still held in one hand. She was studying the statue closest to her, a standing female shape hiding her face in her hands. “No,” she said, drawing the sound out. “I think it’s best if you go first.”

The look of concern on the dwarf’s face -- her certainty -- chilled Mavash. What did she know that the rest of them did not?

Mavash took a deep breath and stepped past Ambergris, laying her hand upon the chill stone.

Nemevon. She knew at once that that was the angel’s name. She heard the phantom rustle of wings, and felt the celestial’s breath as a cold breeze across her ear.

Kill me, Nemevon said, his voice -- it was definitely a he -- the whisper of wind in the pines. Kill me. The moaning of the wind grew, as if presaging a great storm front.

Mavash opened her mouth. She could not move; her hand seemed frozen to the statue as if it were made of ice. Even though she didn’t remember closing her eyes, she saw nothing but grey-black before her. No weapons, no magic, no wildshape; no senses, and hardly any self. What could she possibly kill this angel with?

Kill me. Kill me. Kill meeeee. The creaking of a tree as lightning split it.

Once on her way to Neverwinter, Mavash had seen a badger hit by a fast-moving carriage. Its spine had been crushed, and the creature could no longer control the rear of its body. And yet the creature had tried so hard to right itself, its animal intelligence unable to understand that it was dying. With a sob stuck in her throat, Mavash had called upon her magic to end the creature’s suffering.

Kill me. Kill. Me. Kill. Me. The staccato of a butcher’s knife slicing meat.

It was the same moment. It was the intake of breath before mercy. But there was no end -- only the pleading voice and Mavash, a wire pulled tight and about to snap.

KILL ME. The boom of thunder over the Armridge Mountains.

A sense of warmth came into her hand again, and suddenly she was able to move. She dragged her fingers away one at a time, and stumbled back.

Tears were wet on her cheeks, and in her hand was a feather. A real feather, not made of stone, and yet it sat in Mavash’s hand like a sun-warmed rock.

Kill me, the voice whispered again. Mavash, startled, looked up. The statue was watching her through its hands. Kill me. Kill me.

She wasn’t aware she was staring dumbstruck until Jorlan said, “What happened?”

Kill me. The voice was fading away, but still Mavash felt its psychic presence in her head, the same pain as before.

Not taking her eyes from the statue, she answered, “It begged me to kill it.” She ran a thumb over the feather in her hand, soft as a paintbrush beneath her touch. “How I was supposed to do this, I don’t…”

The moan of the wind -- the real wind that haunted this cavern, not the angel’s voice -- blew over them, raising gooseflesh on Mavash’s skin. She rubbed ineffectually at her arms, turning away at last.

“Are you well?”

The note of concern in Jorlan’s voice was subtle, but it was enough to jar Mavash from her reverie. She looked up just as she was about to walk into him.

He put a hand to her shoulder in a steadying gesture, searching her eyes. “Mavash?” he said, quiet enough that only she could hear it.

“I’m well.” Her mouth felt fuzzy as if from sleep. “Well enough.”

“I suppose that leaves me,” Ambergris said, her voice like the tolling of a bell. She turned her attention to one of the remaining statues, a male angel who grimaced as he clawed as his own eyes. Thick stone clots of blood stood out on its face.

The dwarf strode forward and touched a hand to the angel’s hip.

The wind struck up again. Somewhere, far away, Mavash heard the sound of hoofbeats.

Ambergris leaned against the statue as Mavash counted down several minutes in her head. She was looking nervously at her companions when the dwarf made a heavy sigh and turned away from the angel.

“My lady speaks prophecy through this angel,” Ambergris said, spinning the rewarded feather between her fingers.

That made sense. Who better to understand both the cursed and the divine than Shar?

“I saw two possible futures,” the dwarf said. After a score of heartbeats, she added, “We will fail if we do not seek out the Maze Engine.”

The Maze Engine. The last time they were at the Tower of Araj. Grinna had mentioned it as a feature of this part of the Labyrinth -- what Yeenoghu and Baphomet had been fighting over, why gnolls and minotaurs and goristros prowled these parts. Some believe it has the power to alter reality, the young wizard had said.

Perhaps it really did.

“Fail?” Gaulir raised a leathery brow. “As in, not defeat the Lords of the Abyss?”

Ambergris nodded, taking a shuddering breath. “That is one future. The second one, then: our victory will be assured when we make three great sacrifices before the Maze Engine.”

Hadn’t they had enough of sacrifices for one lifetime? Mavash bit her tongue.

Umbra did not. “Sacrifices?” She sounded disbelieving, panicked. “To whom?”

Ambergris mulled that over for a moment. “The forces of order. The ones who put the great clockwork of the Maze Engine in motion.”

A long, low grating noise resolved into Gaulir’s voice. “I dislike this. This is not the sort of thing lawful gods would demand. Certainly not Bahamut.”

Ambergris made a wry smile and turned a sad look at the dragonborn. “Does a paladin never make a sacrifice for their god?”

Gaulir looked to be grinding his teeth. “Sacrifice can’t be demanded; only given.”

“Just so,” the dwarf said. Her hands were idly moving through the gestures of a spell. Between her fingers, tendrils of necrotic shadow played over the white of the angel feather. “Three sacrifices:

“Something precious must be lost for a thousand years.

“Something immortal must be made mortal.

“Something living must be erased.”

The black tendrils fell away from the cleric’s hand, and she made a long exhalation. “That is all I know, friends. A riddle from the gods.”

They stood, silent and unmoving for a long time.

A shimmer of blue light, and Dawnbringer manifested her physical form. The ghostly female figure hung in midair, transmitting its solemn psychic voice to all of them. All very troubling. But… She brought her spectral hands together and bowed her head. But if it would save Gaulir, I would do it without hesitation.

“Do what, precisely?” Lux said, frustration and sarcasm warring in their voice. “Be erased? Become mortal? Be lost for a thousand years? How are we supposed to make sense of this?” They drew Azuredge, and took a swing at one of the empty plinths.

“Don’t dull a perfectly good weapon, fool,” Jorlan muttered, not turning to look at the changeling.

A dark intelligence swam in the air like a storm cloud, the counterpart to Dawn’s light. I don’t volunteer to be sacrificed. The strident psychic voice was Azuredge, who spoke to the group even less frequently than Dawnbringer did.

Clearly it thought it had something worth saying.

Mavash sunk onto the nearest surface, burying her head in her hands with a groan. She didn’t want to look at her companions -- didn’t want to do the deadly arithmetic of who met what criteria of the dire words.

But she knew which prophecy was seared into her mindscape: Something precious must be lost for a thousand years.

One precious came to mind immediately, and she was pointedly avoiding looking at him.

She felt a tug at her ear. “Hey,” Jorlan said, his tone light. “For what it’s worth, I’m also not volunteering to be sacrificed.”

Mavash let out a laugh, desperate and hysterical. The absurdity of it… “Your objection is noted.”

“There are two more angels,” Ambergris said, clearing her throat. “We don’t need another feather, but…” She made a helpless gesture in the air. “Perhaps we will gain some comfort from their words.”

Lux turned from their destruction of the plinth to give the dwarf a deeply skeptical look.

“Gaulir’s at least seemed useful,” Umbra said, sounding more hopeful than the bleak look in her eyes suggested.

Mavash stood up. “I’ll go.” She looked to the nearest remaining angel -- the same one Lux had threatened to chisel a feather from. Before she could second-guess herself, she moved to the shadow of its downcast head, placing a hand on its frozen arm.

Another soft voice in her ear, and Mavash knew this angel’s name was Lorabelios. But where the last angel had spoken with the voice of the wind, this one was the burbling of water over mossy rocks.

Do not lose hope. The words themselves were like a drink from a forest spring. The secret to the prophecy is: do not lose hope.

Mavash didn’t recall moving away from the statue, but suddenly she was awake and staring at the feather in her hand. The words of a certain Sword Coast poetess dinned in her head:

Hope is the thing with feathers.