Greetings. I hadn't played D&D really in years. Scratch that...decades. Yes, I'm old. But I wanted to get my kid into it and so I had my friend who still plays start a gaming group with his daughter, my daughter, and other kids. The only problem was my friend kept pestering me about having some 'adult sessions'. I kept explaining to him I was too busy...but he finally convinced me. First he had me make a character and he kept telling me, "More back story. More..." I felt like he had given me homework! But there was a method to his madness. By the time we started playing Waterdeep Dragon Heist I was very attached to my character and hence took the sessions very seriously. Soon I was hooked. And I started buying all sorts of stuff I knew I'd never get the chance to play, but it was always fun to imagine, "How would the story go if I actually got to run this adventure?"
So I decided to have some fun and try and write out a story based on one of the campaigns (might be combined with others if I keep going).
Spoilers, obviously. If you are planning on playing as a player of Out of the Abyss read no further. Thanks for anyone interested enough to continue. Note edited in re-write of first 60 chapters...
Chapter 1 - Prisoners of Velkynvelve
Kuhl came to consciousness in steps. First the underlying smell of earth and water, dank and deep, then the more pervasive reek of unwashed bodies. He lay on cold hard stone. He inhaled deeply at the sweeter fragrance of a flowery perfume and became aware of a light touch of a hand on his chest. A cold sensation accompanied it.
"I've neutralized the poison. He wakes even now."
A woman's voice. Nearby, another woman whimpered. More distant the sound of a waterfall.
Kuhl opened his eyes and tried to sit up. He felt weight on his wrists and tugging at his waist and neck. A glance down revealed he wore manacles linked by a chain to an iron belt and collar around his neck. For some reason he wore only his underclothes - a linen tunic and linen short trousers. The cool, damp air raised goosebumps on his skin. It took more effort without the use of his hands, but this time he sat up. He was in a large cave lit by lanterns containing phosphorescent fungi. The dim light was unlike anything he'd experienced before, casting everything in a green hue.
A dark elf woman clad in fitted black scaled armor looked down at him with amber colored eyes. Her white hair was drawn up in a top knot to flow behind her and she smelled of the perfume he'd detected on waking. She wore a diaphanous purple shawl with a matching slitted dress of the same fabric draping down in segments to her ankles. The combination of apparel was impractical. The shawl would easily get snagged in combat and she'd be in danger of tripping over the dress with every step. But Kuhl suspected it gave the impression she desired now. The silk showed she was at leisure, in the center of her power, in full control, while the black armor showed she dressed for hostile intent. And if that wasn't enough, the black scourge she tapped rhythmically against her thigh drove home the threat.
Part of him thought he must still be asleep and dreaming. Everyone knew of the dark elves, the drow. One of his grandmothers, in fact, was drow. But Kuhl had never met her. This drow woman was the first he'd ever seen. His father had told him the story of the meeting of his paternal grandparents. Grandmother had danced to her goddess Eilistraee in a moonlit glade. Grandfather had watched from the trees, entranced by her beauty from the moment he'd come across her. One look at the dark elven woman before him and Kuhl understood what his grandfather had felt. But his bonds and the scourge, told his first meeting with the drow would be far less pleasant, and he doubted she worshipped Eilistraee, the Dark Maiden.
"Where?" His throat parched and the iron collar tight, Kuhl found it hard to speak.
"The Underdark. Velkynvelve. Welcome," she said. She surprised him by speaking Common. The scourge in her hand belied her words. "I am Mistress Ilvara. Your stay with us is temporary. Accept your fate, learn to obey, and you may survive."
Two drow males flanked her. The one on the left had a mass of scars on one side of his face and neck. Beyond them more drow guards stood in front of an iron gate sealing off the cave entrance. Other manacled prisoners were scattered around the cave. Kuhl wondered again if he actually still slept. The disparate group of prisoners seemed only fit for a dream.
A drow woman lay curled in a whimpering ball at the feet of the drow with the scourge, Ilvara. This one had dark hair rather than white. She wore a tan embroidered lace up bodice with matching short trousers. The straps of the sleeveless top had been pulled down to expose the skin of her shoulders and back, skin scored with welts and lacerations from the scourge.
Some sort of catlike humanoid knelt to Ilvara's right. She was tall, thin, and lithe limbed with spotted fur. Her long tail wove patterns behind her while feline ears and green eyes focused on Kuhl with intense curiosity. Kneeling seemed unnatural for her, and he thought she might have crouched to all fours had it not been for the manacles binding her wrists together. She wore a sleeveless shirt of soft, well used, leather which flared out below the iron belt around her waist and matching short trousers below. If not for the chains and manacles, Kuhl would have thought her with the drow, as the cat-woman seemed at ease.
Another bestial humanoid squatted near one of the cavern walls. This one had a hulking presence rather than the feline grace of the other. Even squatting it came to the shoulders of the standing drow and likely came close to 8 feet in height when it stood. With its size and pale blue fur it should be a menacing presence, but the white collared shirt it wore combined with the styled tufts of longer fur on top of its head gave the impression of urban sophistication rather than savage ferocity. Looped leather cords ran all the way down the front of his shirt with the same down the outside of the sleeves. The shirt and cords strained to contain the monstrous body beneath, and fur poked through at the gaps. The creature wore nothing below its shirt, which was long and hung well below his waist. Kuhl somehow knew the absence of trousers was not by choice, but because no clothes could be found to fit its peculiar anatomy.
Next to the hulking creature sat a dwarven female with red hair. Her hair was gathered in two uneven braids that framed her young face. She wore a green tunic and drawers, which matched her green eyes.
Strangest of all, a man-shaped fish creature sat cross-legged, eyes closed, hands clasped together on its belly with webbed fingers extended. It exuded a light stench of rotten fish and wore no clothing. Its gray scales glimmered with a sheen of slime. Next to it, a bipedal toadstool with legs, but no arms, mimicked the cross-legged pose to the extent anatomically possible.
One familiar face was among the prisoners. She too would have fit in a dream. Aleina sat nearby, pale skin so in contrast to her surroundings she seemed to glow. Whether this came from her aasimar heritage or a trick of the unusual fungal lighting, Kuhl did not know. Her hair, normally brushed to a dark blue sheen or intricately braided, was a matted nest around her oval face.
Kuhl had been traveling in a caravan with the aasimar sorcerer. It had been attacked and they'd been part of the night watch. His last memory was pulling out a dart which had struck him. The dart had obviously been coated with some sort of sleep-inducing poison. He felt a twinge of guilt at his relief of seeing a familiar face. It would be better to find no one else from his group a prisoner and be able to hope the rest had escaped. Yet relief was there. It helped to know he wasn't fully alone in this predicament.
Like him, Aleina had been stripped down to her undergarments. Gone were the familiar brown hooded cloak, belted woolen tunic and woolen hose. Instead she wore a blue silk chemise that hung to her waist with a matching silk and lace bodice, probably to provide support, but Kuhl couldn't help noticing it also made the garments form-fitting and emphasized her figure. The silk drawers she wore underneath left her legs bare from mid-thigh to ankle high boots.
The attire looked expensive and was in stark contrast to the clothes Aleina normally wore on the outside. Yet it confirmed a suspicion Kuhl had held in the short time he had traveled with the aasimar sorcerer. She could change her dress, but she hadn't been able to hide her refined manners and bearing. A noble upbringing lay in this woman's past.
Ilvara had noticed the clothes as well. She leaned forward and fingered one of the short sleeves.
"This is lovely. Not as soft and fine as the silk of the Underdark, but passable." She sighed. "And those clumsy males have let it get frayed and smudged bringing you here. It's ruined."
"It was already like that," Aleina said. "My aunt told me she could no longer fit it and gave it to me. I think someone else had given it to her. It's old, but comfortable."
Ilvara nodded. "You are from a House that has fallen out of favor. This happens here in the Underdark as well. But they do not linger long enough to pass on threadbare clothing. They recover or are destroyed and absorbed."
The drow's attention moved to Kuhl.
"And what have we here? The loyal retainer of her fallen House? Her bodyguard and hopefully, also her forbidden lover? Please give me a tale worthy of one of your surface chapbooks. A prisoner who passed through here had some of these and I had him read them to me. In Velkynvelve we must entertain ourselves one way or the other. The other is far more painful."
The scourge still tapped against her thigh in emphasis.
"I don't know what a chapbook is," Kuhl said. "We don't have them in Evereska."
The tapping of scourge against her thigh stopped.
"Evereska? You? The stubble of your chin shows you as no pure blood elf."
"I'm not. But Evereska is where I am from."
"So not fully of the People but raised by the People." Ilvara smiled and nudged the drow woman on the floor before her with an armored boot. "This one is different. She is part of the People, of my People, but raised on the surface."
Kuhl looked to the whimpering woman curled into a ball on the floor.
"Do not worry," Ilvara said "She has an unruly tongue. One prone to blasphemy who is also a thief. We're going to get along much better. Particularly if you have talents to pass the tedium. A singing voice? A jester's wit? Nimble fingers that ease aches and tension?"
Ilvara patted the head of the cat-woman slave crouched nearby as she spoke the last.
It took a moment before Kuhl realized she actually wanted an answer. The dream-like feeling remained. He'd only recently woken to find himself manacled, in his underclothes, and a prisoner. Given all that this woman asked if he had any skills to entertain her?
"I play the lute." Kuhl said.
"A musician. I know this instrument. We have a similar one in the Underdark called a Vazhan-do. It has a lot more strings. Unfortunately, we don't have one in Velkynvelve for you to try. And even if we did, it wouldn't be wise to let you. The strings of a Vazhan-do also make an excellent garrote. Not something I want in the hands of a prisoner. Hard labor is the best use of you."
She glanced again at the dark elven woman on the floor
"No healing for you this time. I like to deliver sacrifices unmarred. But goddess knows you've tried my patience. If you prefer to be sacrificed stroke by stroke, so be it. The altar in Menzoberranzan can have whatever is left."
She gave a final look at Kuhl. "
When the poison fully wears off, you're going to be hungry. The slavers woke you, fed you, and let you relieve yourselves, from time to time. you probably don't, remember, the poison has that effect. But you'll eat when you earn the food. In the Underdark, nothing is free."
Ilvara swept out of the cave, her drow entourage following. The clang of the gate behind them echoed through the cavern.
Aleina stood, then went to the woman on the floor. Kuhl followed, relieved to find he still wore his leather boots at least.
The chain binding Aleina's wrists to waist clinked as she crouched down and laid bound hands on the woman's shoulder.
"Let me help," she said.
Kuhl expected to see the raw welts on the woman's skin close, but after several moments, nothing. Aleina looked to Kuhl with concern.
"Something's wrong. You try."
The dark elf woman rolled to a seated position, winced, drew in a calming breath, and opened her eyes. It surprised Kuhl to find those eyes emerald green rather than the amber, violet, or gold of the Underdark. Like all the other prisoners the dark elf wore chains and manacles.
"It won't work," she said. "No magic does in this cavern."
Kuhl tried anyway, crouching and laying hands on the opposite shoulder Aleina held. He sent a prayer to the elven goddess, Sehanine Moonbow. Something was wrong. The divine connection felt just out of reach.
"She is right," he said
"Of course I am right," the woman said. She gave a rueful smile, which turned into a wince as she tried to shrug her shoulders. "But I'd love to have been proven wrong in this case."
Kuhl sat back on his heels, giving the woman some space as he couldn't heal her. She was beaten, bedraggled, dirty, and clad only in smudged undergarments, yet still remained beautiful to Kuhl's thinking.
"My name is Jhelnae." She proffered manacle bound hands.
"Aleina," Their chains clinked together as they clasped hands. Other than their hair, the women were a picture in contrast. The aasimar fair and her drow counterpart dark.
"And this is Kuhl."
Kuhl nodded in greeting.
"Why did you speak out?" Aleina asked. "When I woke, she was focused on me. She gloated and threatened, then you spoke up and insulted her."
"Because Ilvara is a bully and a coward, and I was tired of her little script. With every new prisoner it is the same. Establish dominance with some lashes of her scourge." Jhenrae rattled the chains binding her. "As if these weren't enough to prove her point."
"You wanted to save me a beating?"
"Nothing so noble. I just can't stand that bitch and wanted to ruin her little welcome speech."
"Well, you certainly showed her. Bravo."
The new speaker was a drow male. He sat in a corner of the cavern Kuhl could not see when he first woke. The drow gave some mock applause. With his hands bound it amounted to a slapping of fingertips.
"If there was any doubt you were no drow, but only a half-breed, it is beyond doubt now. A drow would know to mask their hate. Nurture it silently until they had advantage. Not take a pointless beating for the sake of it."
"Why Sarith, I didn't know you cared so much. I must be growing on you." Jhelnae's tone mocked, and some prisoners laughed.
Anger darkened Sarith's face, but a look of resignation followed.
"I care not. But keep at it and she might lose control next time and beat you to death."
"She won't. As she said, some of us have a grand destiny to fulfill as a sacrifice to Lolth. Ilvara wouldn't cheat her goddess of that. We have that in common, remember?"
Despite the woman's teasing tone, no one laughed. In a rattle of chains Sarith struck his knees.
"It's a setup! I didn't kill him!"
But his fury again abated quickly, and he lapsed into sullen silence.
For a long moment the only sound was the constant background noise of the distant waterfall.
"I am sorry, Sarith," the half-drow said. "That was uncalled for."
Sarith made no reply, only stared off into a distance that did not exist in their cavern.
"I wish we could do something about your back," Aleina said, sitting down beside Jhelnae. "But we've no bandages, no clean water, nothing."
The cat woman approached and deftly wove her way into the knot they had formed around the half-drow.
"I found something that will take away her pain." She crouched before her. "A gift as precious as mama's milk to the newborn cub. You'll like it."
She pulled a pair of black metal hair pins from under her shirt. Fine decorative metalwork had crafted webs and spider motifs around the pins, but the shafts themselves were sturdy and came to sharp points. The green feline eyes glanced up at Aleina and Kuhl.
"I am Red Sky in the Morning. Sky to my friends. So, Sky to you."
"Sky! We've talked about this before," Jhelnae said, talking as if Aleina and Kuhl were not there. "When you first meet people, you don't know if you can trust them. Let them prove it first."
Sky's tail swished back and forth as she thought this over, then she grinned a sharp toothed smile.
"So taking a beating for those you don't know if you can trust is okay, but don't show them stuff I 'borrowed' yet. Confusing...but I will take your word for it." Sky leaned in to Aleina and Kuhl in turn and sniffed. "Besides. They smell trustworthy."
Aleina looked over to Kuhl. She clearly didn't know what to make of this exchange between their two new 'friends'. But despite finding themselves manacled and caged in a cavern in the Underdark she shrugged and gave him a half smile.
"They smell as bad as the rest of us. And don't you dare start that again," Jhelnae said. "I haven't forgotten the last time 'someone smelled trustworthy'. And for the final time I wasn't trying to save them from a beating..."
"Yes, yes, we know," Sky cut her off. "You are a vile servant of Lolth who never helps anyone. We know. Old news..."
She trailed off as she inserted one of the hair pins into the lock of the manacles binding Jhelnae's wrist. Her eyes narrowed in concentration and her tongue worked its way back and forth on her upper lip while her tail ceased its swaying and went still.
"Almost," she whispered. "Almost, almost, got it."
Jhelnae's manacles opened with a click that could not be loud yet seemed to ring through the cavern. Kuhl looked up and found the attention of all the prisoners on them and he'd overlooked more prisoners than just the male drow.
An orc lumbered their way. He wore only a long hide tunic belted at the waist and hide boots. The chains and manacles were not long enough to allow his arms to hang naturally, and he held them at an awkward angle as he walked their way. Kuhl stood to intercept him.
"Everyone stop," Sarith hissed from his corner. "I have told you fools before the guards can see us from one of the towers. If we all cluster around one person they'll know something important is happening."
Everyone went still. The orc stopped advancing.
"They can't hear us over the waterfall," Gone was the sullen surly tone from Sarith's voice. "Act natural. Feign conversation. And Sky, or whatever your name is, lock those manacles back on her. You can leave them loose enough for her to slip out of, but tight enough so it won't be noticed."
With a nod from Jhelnae, Sky did as she was told. The snick of the manacles locking again seemed louder than it should.
"I know what you are all thinking," Sarith said. "You are thinking this Sky can let us all slip out of our manacles. Then maybe she might be able to do the same trick on the door."
"I can," Sky said. She remained crouched before Jhelnae, perfectly still but for the languid swish of her tail. A predator ready for action. "And why shouldn't I?"
"You are thinking," Sarith said as if he hadn't been interrupted, "There are fourteen of us and only nineteen of them. But your numbers are off, and you are forgetting the quaggoth slaves and trained spiders in the web. Not all, or even one, of the quaggoth slaves are like our Derendil, enchanted elven princes."
His tone held an undercurrent of malice jest, but the hulking beast in the ill-fitting shirt gave a grave nod and spoke.
"Don't let my form deceive. One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. If only the quaggoth were my fellow transformed kinsman. They would obey their prince and I would lead them back to the surface, back to the trees of the High Forest and our kingdom of Nelrindenvane."
Kuhl reassessed the creature, the quaggoth. He'd never heard of the kingdom of Nelrindenvane, but the quaggoth had spoken in cultured Elvish in a high clear voice, nothing like its monstrous form.
"We are unarmed and outnumbered more than two to one," Sarith said. "Attacking them is a fool's wager. And even without the quaggoths and spiders, these are drow, the deadliest fighters of the Underdark. We'd be slaughtered."
"Deadliest fighters." The red-haired dwarf woman shook her head in disgust. "Give me my war hammer and shield and I will show you who is deadly."
"But you don't have your hammer and shield, do you?" Sarith said. When the dwarf made no answer he added, "Which is precisely my point."
"I'll bet 10 gold he is right, and we'd be slaughtered."
The new voice speculating their slaughter was high toned and cheerful. How many prisoners were in this cavern? The speaker was a deep gnome sitting near two other unnoticed deep gnomes. He was bald and strangely had a pair of gold hoop earrings in one ear that had not been confiscated. He wore a maroon high collared shirt accentuated with ruffles at the chest.
"Stool is wondering," the fish creature said in a garbled voice, opening one eye and turning his bulbous head to regard the deep gnome with it. "How can we bet when we all have no gold and how could you collect if we were all dead."
"It only stands to reason there is some currency in the afterlife..." the deep gnome began.
"Not now Jimjar." Jhelnae directed her attention to Sarith. "Do you have an alternate suggestion, or have you suddenly remembered you love the sound of your own voice?"
"I do. My corner of the cave is not visible to the guard tower. Slowly, throughout the night, each person will get their manacles loosened by your friend there."
"Red Sky in the Morning," Sky said.
"I am not calling you that," Sarith said.
"Sky then," Sky said with obvious reluctance.
"She loosens our bonds without the guards knowing," Aleina prompted, breaking into the flurry of conversation among the prisoners. "What then?"
"Yes," Jhelnae said. "What then? That much we could have come up with on our own."
The pale aasimar and dark half-drow shared a glance and a nod.
"Have you played Sava?" Sarith asked.
"Never heard of it," Aleina said.
"It is a game of strategy and chaos," the drow said.
"He is talking about the Sava dice," Kuhl said. "They introduce an element of chance."
When Sarith looked at him in surprise he added, "My grandmother was drow. She taught it to my father."
"Interesting," Sarith said. "Between you and Jhelnae we have nearly another drow in our group. Nearly. Anyone else want to claim some drow heritage? Just a little more and we have another full drow in our group. That might increase our chance for survival."
Kuhl ignored the bait. As a half-elf he'd heard insinuations of being half a person his entire life.
"Sava?" He prompted.
"The game is almost played out and we are almost out of pieces. The only chance to win is roll the dice and hope the Lady of Chaos provides. Double spiders and one of their pieces become one of ours."
"You are saying we bide our time and wait for an opportunity?" Jhelnae asked.
She did not sound convinced.
"Yes. But if no opportunity comes, we can always fall back on the first option," Sarith said, shrugging.
"Or maybe we wait, and you betray us." The orc spoke for the first time. "My people know not to trust the words of elves. No matter the color of their skin or where they live."
"Believe what you will," Sarith said. "If you want to attack now, with no distraction and no plan, feel free. But I'll take no part. I will take my chances in the Underdark alone. But I am not stupid enough to believe that offers me much of a chance. Only a better chance than certain slaughter. And I have no reason to betray you. I am accused of a murder I did not commit. Sentenced to be sacrificed to Lolth back in Menzoberranzan. That is a fate worse than any death the Underdark would provide."
"I'll bet that isn't true," Jimjar said. "There are some fates worse than being sacrificed by Lolth's priestesses. Not many, but some."
"Like what?" Sky asked, voice curious.
"Do you wager I can't come with some?" Jimjar asked. "How much?"
"Not now, Jimjar!" Jhelnae said. Aleina supported her with a shushing motion of her hands to Sky.
The cat woman creature huffed a sigh, then shrugged.
"Everything you say makes sense, Sarith. Except we don't know if we even have time to wait." Jhelnae looked to Sky. "How soon do you think Ilvara learns of the missing hair pins? She'll know who took them and why."
Sky cocked her head sideways in thought.
"I don't think she'll notice them for some time. I was giving Ilvara a massage. She complained of headaches and bad visions when she takes reverie, but said my massages provide her some relief."
"Not enough to improve her temper," Jhelnae said. "My back can attest to that."
Sky smiled. "The Cat Lord himself does not have fingers nimble enough to improve her attitude to you, Jhelnae. I was almost done when Ilvara was called away. The two of you had arrived."
She nodded to Kuhl and Aleina.
"She was careless with me. I have always played the part of a willing servant. She left me alone and unbound in her chambers. I searched her quarters, found the pins tucked away in a garment chest, at the very bottom. I don't think she wears them often."
"She used to," Sarith said. "They were a gift from Jorlan. Before he was scarred and injured. He used to brag to the rest of us whenever she wore them. Tell us the tale of finding them at the Bazaar in Duthcloim. We were all sick to death of hearing about it. This is good. She cast him aside after his accident and took Shoor as her lover. It is unlikely she'll want to wear them anytime soon. Their theft should go unnoticed."
"Borrowing, not theft," Sky said. "I do not steal, and I plan to leave them for her when we are done needing them."
"I'm sure she'll thank you for their return if she captures us again after our escape." Despite his obvious sarcasm, Sarith's tone held little mockery, as if the thought of what Ilvara would do to them frightened him too much for mockery.
"Fine. We do it your way, Sarith," Jhelnae said. "But we won't wait long. You yourself have said the patrol that is supposed to be delivering us to a Menzoberranzan is delayed. They could arrive any day."
"Agreed," Sarith said. "Time is against us. As I said, Sava is a mix of strategy and chaos. So we plan."
Aleina caught Kuhl's attention by meeting his gaze. She had pale blue eyes, the hue of the moon at its brightest. She gave a sigh.
"Well, Kuhl, it appears our caravan to Waterdeep lost its way and went slightly off course."
Kuhl laughed. "Slightly." He took a more serious tone. "I hope we're the only two and the rest are still on their way to Waterdeep."
"I hope so too, Kuhl."
Her voice held little hope.