Well it looks like there isn't too much interest in Out of the Abyss...or maybe my writing is just that bad! :) Anyway, having fun so I'll continue. When I get some time I'll do some reviews as well. Note there are 10 NPCs to start in Out of the Abyss so trying to give a reader the sense of a 14 person 'party' is a pain in the butt! But the challenge is also fun.
Edit - going back through this in the re-edit. I know this chapter ending up too long, but for ease of re-posting I'll just leave it long. Sorry!
Chapter 2 - Escape!
Aleina could not get comfortable. Despite body heat from Kuhl, laying beside her, the cold air and even colder stone beneath, made it impossible to get warm. The crooked arm she used to cushion her head had gone numb, and she brought it out to try to rub some feeling back into it.
She turned over, surprised to find Kuhl awake. He'd returned exhausted from filling barrels from the waterfall for the drow earlier in the 'day', cycle, or whatever you called it down here. He should be asleep to recover his strength.
"My arm fell asleep." She continued to massage her arm with the other hand.
Kuhl nodded, then patted his shoulder nearest to her. Aleina hesitated. They'd been part of the same caravan only a few days on the surface. He was essentially a stranger. But she was cold and didn't want to put her arm back asleep by using it to cushion her head again. She scooted closer and lay her head on his shoulder.
It was, but she felt tense. It felt both right and awkward to lay beside this half-elf. She seemed to fit naturally in the space created by his shoulder and arm. But what to do with her free arm and leg? It would be most comfortable to drape it over his body, but was that too intimate? She settled for laying a hand on his chest and setting her knees together. Their heads were close now and they communicated in whispers, likely inaudible to the others over the ambient noise of the waterfall.
"Better, but weird."
"It is not my habit to snuggle and share pillow talk with men I barely know, Kuhl."
She kept her tone light, teasing and more felt than heard him briefly chuckle.
"Fine. You barely know me. Let's get the dark secret out of the way. I'm really a doppelganger who poses as half-elf…"
Aleina broke him off with a playful jab to his ribs. But she also rewarded him with a small smile, not that he could see it, a private smile into his linen shirt. She felt herself relaxing into his shoulder more easily with the banter.
"Be serious, Kuhl. We really don't know each other all that well and I'd like to change me something truthful about yourself. What was it like to grow up in Evereska? Was what Ilvara said true? Was it hard for a half-elf to live among the elves?"
The strange thing was he had actually tried to get to know her, back on the surface, back with the caravan. But she'd politely rebuffed his attempts. Experience had taught her to play the part of an aloof celestial touched sorceress with males, no matter how fair seeming or friendly.
"No," he said, answering. "The opposite. My grandmother was a hero of the phaerimm war. My father is a bard and a Nightstar from Evermeet. It's a noble house of the elves. My aunt is an honored priestess of Sehanine Moonbow. I was basically a spoiled child. Living in luxury and honors I didn't earn."
"Then why did you leave?"
Now silence stretched between them. Her inquiries had started well, but she'd come against an unexpected barrier of reluctance.
"I ran away from my family," Aleina said. The words just sort of tumbled forth. "Ilvara was right. The Dluskers are an old patriar family of Baldur's Gate, but we're destitute. I had a chance to change that. A favorable alliance for my family if I married someone. But I ran away instead. The reason you left home can't be worse than that."
She waited, feeling him building up to it. He took a deep breath and his reluctance seemed to seep away as he released it.
"I was a member of the Desert Border Garrison in Evereska. Out on patrol we met a creature called a phaerimm. My city had a war with them over a hundred years ago, and I suppose it was one of the survivors from that. All of them, friends and comrades in arms, were killed. I was the only survivor."
Guilt welled up in her. She hadn't intended for questions, driven by her insomnia, to make him relive something like that. And yet she couldn't help but ask the foremost question on her mind, one sure to make him delve deeper into the memory rather than away from it.
He sighed, and for a time his only answer was steady breathing as he stared up at the cavern ceiling.
"I don't know," he finally said. "I believe, my aunt believes it too, that I was saved by the magic in a ring. A gift sent to me by my mother. I lay wounded, dying, in the desert, staring up at the moon before I lost consciousness. Then I awakened, but maybe I was only dreaming, because I only got a glimpse of her kneeling over me before I went unconscious again. She was an elf, her skin pale and white like pearls. When I woke again, I was back in the desert, but days had passed and I had been healed of my injuries."
Aleina stiffened, worried she now lay against the shoulder of someone delusional or prone to tell stories to try and impress. Kuhl seemed to sense her sudden change in mood.
"I don't normally speak of it," he said. "Because...well, because I'm treated like I'm crazy after I tell it."
"The mind can play tricks. Especially near death in the desert."
She relaxed, yes, that was it. Anyone would be in a delirium after what he described.
"You sound like my father and my superiors. Whether a trick of the mind or not, with the encouragement of my aunt, I left Evereska in search of who, or what, had saved me. And now I'm in the Underdark. I should have left well enough alone."
"This sounds selfish, but I'm glad you didn't," Aleina said.
She felt better about laying there with him with the obvious affection and respect in his voice whenever he talked about his aunt. Anyone with that sort of seeming bond couldn't be too bad, right?
"For one thing, I'd have no pillow right now, would I?" She said, bringing back the teasing in her voice.
Aleina again felt his laughter through his shoulder more than heard it. Other questions rose to her mind. She'd heard the distance in his voice when he'd said 'mother' and heard the warmth when he said 'aunt'. But she'd interrogated him enough for the crime of letting her rest her head on his shoulder. She forced herself to remain quiet.
"Was he terrible?" He asked after a time. "The man you were to marry."
"Not at all," she gave a small shake of her head against his shoulder. "Handsome, charming and, of prime importance to my family, the heir to a fortune. The answer to all my uncle's prayers and dreams since he gained an aasimar for a niece."
"But not your dreams?"
"I love my family. I would sacrifice almost anything to help them. Yet the birth of the aasimar is a rare thing. Would Selune have me born just to be married off to seal an alliance between families? There has to be some greater purpose for me than that. And yes, I'm aware of how arrogant that sounds."
"Not at all. But your family wouldn't accept that? You had to run away?"
"My uncle Norold is a good man in an impossible position. He's trying to hold together the last vestiges of our family. I'm a coward, Kuhl. I talk about how there must be a divine destiny, and yet I didn't even have the courage to face his disappointment. He'd probably have been able to convince me I had delusions of grandeur. So, I just slipped away, like a thief in the night."
Tears brimmed at this admission. She brushed them away with her free hand. His arm tightened around her for a moment, holding her closer. She felt like a fool. She'd tried to tell him a little of herself to get him to share more of himself, but it seemed like a torrent of pent-up emotion within had been ready to burst forth.
"Handsome, charming, and wealthy? Too good to be true anyway. Definitely a doppelganger. You're better off with me in the Underdark."
She smiled into his shirt again. Thankful he attempted to lighten the mood.
"Who, according to you, is just another doppelganger. Before I at least had a bed, blankets, and more to eat than mushroom broth."
They lay silent for a time and their talk and banter had pushed their desperate circumstances away from the forefront of her mind. With silence, it returned.
"Can we count on the others?" Aleina asked. "Like Sarith?"
"As a former soldier here, he is our best chance of escape. At the moment he knows he won't survive the Underdark on his own so we can follow his lead. But once he doesn't need us…"
"We'd better watch our backs."
"We'd better watch our backs," Kuhl repeated.
They again fell silent, letting that truth sink in.
"I've spent some time with Jhelnae," she said. "The drow put the rest of you to work, but they keep the two of us here. Safe underneath the wards that keep us from our magic. I've found I like her, and trust her. She and her friend Sky."
Having grown up surrounded by female cousins, she'd always been more comfortable with women and idle chatter had flowed easily between them.
"Tabaxi." Aleina corrected. "Sky."
"The tabaxi, Sky," Kuhl said. "Called her a 'vile servant of Lolth'."
"And she was teasing her when she did. There is some sort of story there."
"Anything involving Lolth can't be good," Kuhl said.
"I want to know more about that too, but it's not something easy to bring up, especially with someone with a fiery personality like Jhelnae. We want her as an ally, afterall."
"This doesn't have to do with her taking that beating, does it? Because she said she wasn't trying to protect you."
"I know what she said. And I don't believe her. My instincts say we can trust them."
"Instincts? From all the other times you were imprisoned in the Underdark with strangers?"
His sarcasm earned him another light jab against his ribs. But he didn't laugh this time and she'd been less playful in intent. They'd moved past 'pillow talk' and understood they needed to weigh who to trust and distrust carefully to increase their chances of survival and eventual escape from the Underdark.
"Fine. We trust them, cultivate them as allies." Kuhl said. "But let's be careful"
"Agreed. Eldeth?" Aleina asked, bringing up the red-haired dwarven woman.
"An open book. She wants to get back to Gauntlgrym. And she doesn't hide her dislike for those from the Underdark. We can trust her."
"I think so too."
"Ront can be counted on in a fight," Kuhl said, bringing up the orc of their group. "Which we'll need when we escape and while we're trying to survive in the Underdark."
"He'll do exactly what benefits himself and no more," Aleina said. "He wants to leave Shuushar and Stool behind."
"He doesn't see the value in them. The kuo-toa spends almost all his time meditating and he has made it clear he won't fight, not even to defend himself. And Stool is just a sprout of his kind."
"So they should just be abandoned?" Aleina realized her voice had unintentionally risen and she took a breath to calm herself.
"No. I'm saying he doesn't see their value. Not that I don't. No one is getting left behind. I'm the one who volunteered to carry Stool when we escape, remember?"
Stool, didn't speak, but communicated his feelings through spores that somehow transferred a mix of thoughts and emotions. Those telepathy spores had conveyed the terror and loneliness of the little walking toadstool. With such direct communication, it was impossible not to feel empathy and Aleina had already privately vowed to get the little myconid back to his people before she escaped the Underdark. Ront's suggestion to leave Stool behind had angered her, still angered her.
"With Jimjar we just need to make sure his wagers aren't against our survival in the Underdark or our escape," Kuhl said. "That deep gnome would stab himself in the back to win a bet over a copper glint."
"He probably would," Aleina said. "He wanted to bet me he could juggle five clay bowls and wouldn't stop pestering me to bet him after I refused. He kept going on and on about 'easy gold'."
"The cat girl…tabaxi must have taken him up on it," Kuhl said. "I saw them trying to piece some bowls back together. I don't think she realizes she'll never collect."
"I don't think Sky cares." A grim thought struck Aleina. "Will they be punished for it? For breaking the bowls?"
"I think they'll be all right. Ilvara favors Sky because her massages relieve her headaches."
"I hope so," Aleina said. "Jimjar can be annoying, but I like him. At least he talks with the rest of us. The twins just keep to themselves. Not that I would understand anything they'd say."
"Topsy and Turvy?" Kuhl said, naming the deep gnome twins. "I haven't been able to get a sense of them either. But they were separated for work parties. Buppido worked alongside Turvy. I'll see what he learned."
Aleina gave an involuntary shudder thinking of the derro.
"He unsettles me."
"Buppido?" Kuhl asked. "He is friendly. Talkative. Harmless."
"I don't speak UnderCommon, remember," Aleina said. "How did you learn it?"
"My father taught me. He learned it from his mother. She is drow."
"A drow and a hero of Evereska. She sounds like an amazing woman."
"Two different people. One on my father's side and the other on my mother's. Both amazing women from what I've heard."
"From what you've heard?"
"I met my mother's mother once. Never met the other."
Aleina couldn't help but show her surprise. Her family had generations all under the same roof. Her great grandmother, the great lady of the household, still lived and told anyone who would listen of the grand old days when the family's wealth and influence had been at its height. Of hosting banquets so splendid lords from far away Cormyr would attend. And of the dresses and the jewels she wore, all long since hawked. She couldn't imagine never even meeting a living grandparent. But as she thought about it, the long lives of elves might make things different. Kuhl's grandmothers would likely both still be in their prime of life and still be so when he, a half-elf, died of old age. The thought made her keenly feel her mortality and she felt her time on Toril would be too short. She pushed this feeling aside - aware her time would be shorter still if she let the drow use her as a sacrifice to their goddess.
"Maybe Buppido is friendly," she said. "But I can't speak with him and sometimes I catch him watching and I get a chill."
"Probably because of his eyes. We're not used to eyes without irises or pupils. You've exotic eyes yourself and they can be unsettling at first."
"These eyes are unsettling?" Aleina propped herself on an elbow and gave her a full glare. But she also smiled, letting him know it was mock offense.
Her smile fell. Uncomfortable moments passed as they stared at each other. She'd meant for more playful banter to continue building their camaraderie, but accidentally forced a compliment more romantic in nature. Kuhl was attractive. Tall, strongly built, with dark hair framing green eyes. But she didn't need a romantic interest, with all the complicated distractions that entailed. She needed a partner, a friend, an ally to rely on while they attempted the impossible task of escaping to the surface.
She dropped her head back down onto his shoulder, physically close but feeling more distant than moments before.
"What about Derendil?" You've worked alongside him, right?"
"Difficult to talk while hauling water barrels under the watchful eyes of drow. But he believes what he says. That he is an elf prince cursed with the form of a quaggoth."
"He believes, but you don't?"
"I was raised in Evereska. If there was an elven kingdom named Nelrindenvane I think I'd have heard of it. It's strange, he understands you no matter what language you speak, but always answers in Elvish and his Elvish is flawless. He clearly isn't faking. And don't question his belief. I hinted I'd never heard of Nelrindenvane and he grew agitated. I thought it best to play along after that."
"Can we trust him?"
"We can trust him to play the part of an enchanted elven prince. But it is hard to rely on someone who may be delusional."
"Thank you, Kuhl. Both for trying to make me comfortable and keeping me company. But you really should try and get some sleep. They'll work you again tomorrow while I just sit here."
"We doppelgangers need little sleep."
Despite his words he shifted to get more comfortable and took a deep breath. They lay silently for a time. She listened to his breathing, hearing the rhythm of his heart with the ear on his shoulder fall into the slower pattern of sleep.
She had just decided she might also be able to finally fall asleep herself when she heard it.
An inhuman shriek followed more shrieks. Much more. Then a droning buzz. Aleina sat up straight, alert. All traces of sleepiness fled her. The sounds came from outside their cell, outside even the outpost, from the greater cavern beyond.
The racket woke the other prisoners. Kuhl stirred beside her, then sat up.
"Something is out there," Aleina said.
She stood and helped him to his feet. Together they went to the bars. Soon a crowd had gathered, all peering outside the bars to see what was happening.
The fungal light interfered with her dark vision, or she might see better. She made out moving shapes in the darkness of the greater cavern beyond. When two of the shapes came together the inhuman shriek echoed through the cavern. Now she understood there were fewer of whatever creatures than she'd first thought. The echoes had made it seem one scream followed another.
The drow had built the outpost of Velkynvelve high in a large cavern. It consisted of a series of small caves, like the one holding her and the other prisoners, in the cavern walls and four hanging "towers" — hollowed-out stalactites connected by walkways, stairs, and rope bridges made of spider silk. To be visible, whatever was out there had to be flying. The whirring buzzing drone she heard when a shape streamed closer seemed to confirm that.
A horn sounded from somewhere inside the outpost. Three long bursts. An alarm, Aleina guessed. Drow started moving on the silk bridges. From another side cave the quaggoth slaves roared a challenge, but no drow came to release them.
"I think the dice have come up double spiders," Kuhl said.
He looked to Sarith.
Sarith peered in the direction of the nearest guard 'tower', then nodded.
"He's right. We won't get a better chance. No one is watching this way."
"Escape now?" The dwarf, Eldeth asked. "When we don't even know what is out there?"
"You expected something more from the Lady of Chaos? Sarith said. "A choice of evils is the best we could hope for."
"She is your goddess, not ours," Eldeth said. But she walked up to Sky and held out her manacled hands to show she agreed.
"I'll bet 10 gold I unlock more than you," Jimjar said, brandishing one of Ilvara's 'borrowed' hair pins. Out of the prisoners he'd shown the most aptitude for lock picking, other than Sky.
"Deal," said Sky.
Sky had already started on Topsy's locks before answering, getting a head start. Jimjar didn't protest as he set to work on Sarith's bonds. No one in the group pointed out to these two, yet again, they had no gold to wager.
A wave of anxiety swept through Aleina as she waited in line for Jimjar to free her from her manacles. As a group they had planned and planned, but so much could go wrong. She took a calming breath and let the continued echoing shrieks from the greater cavern comfort her. The drow hadn't resolved whatever went on outside yet.
Soon she knelt in front of Jimjar. He and Sky had obviously been practicing on the locks as it took less time for them than the first time she'd watched Sky unlock Jhelnae. The gnome's breath smelled of mushroom broth as he worked on the lock at her neck. The lock opened with a click, the ones holding her wrist and binding her waist followed.
She rubbed her wrists and neck as she walked to the locked door of their cave. It felt good to be freed. If she died during the escape attempt, at least she had this moment.
"Let Jimjar finish with the others," Sarith said. "Unlock this door before someone notices us."
He rattled the bars for emphasis.
"No fair," Sky said. "I was winning. The bet is off."
Despite her complaint the tabaxi moved quickly to the door, knelt and inserted the hair pin into the lock. Tense heartbeats passed and the door remained locked.
"Hurry," Sarith said.
"I am hurrying. That's the problem."
The tabaxi stopped fiddling with the lock, closed her eyes, and took a few calming breaths.
"You said you could unlock it!" Sarith said.
Sky's eyes opened and she resumed trying to pick the lock. This time, after a few moments, the door swung open with a snick of the lock and a squeal of hinges.
The tabaxi flashed an irritated look at Sarith, then stood and invited the others out the door with a bow, a flourished wave, and a toothy grin. Somehow, despite the sharp teeth, it looked innocent and sweet.
Aleina exited their cave. She stopped within a few steps when she felt it. Access to her magic flooded back to her, just as Sarith had promised.
Shrieks still came from the cavern, now accompanied by the hiss of crossbow bolts being loosed from the stalactite towers against whatever flew out there.
She turned and saw Kuhl and Jhelnae had followed her. Kuhl laid a hand on Jhelnae's back. The half-drow gave a sigh of relief as the wounds from Ilvara's scourge closed and healed. It reminded her she had her own role to play.
Aleina concentrated, spoke an incantation and made a gesture. A tingle swept over her body.
"How do I look?" She asked.
"Like someone I want to punch in the face," Jhelnae said. She raised a fist, but also shot Aleina a half smile.
Aleina smiled back, knowing she'd succeed. Her disguise spell had made her appear like Ilvara. The drow priestess commander of Velkynvelve.
"They are going to notice we escaped any moment," Sarith said. "Stop wasting time."
Aleina nodded. Ahead hung a guard 'tower' in one of the huge hollowed out stalactites. A bridge of spider silk rope linked the tower to the ledge in front of the prisoner cave. With a deep breath, Aleina walked out onto the ledge. She tried to imagine herself as Ilvara from the brief exposure she'd had with the drow priestess. If the drow in the tower ahead of her saw they had escaped they could bar the door, securing the tower. Then they'd never get the equipment they needed to survive the Underdark, or even make it out of the outpost. Poisoned crossbow bolts loosed from the drow in the tower would make their escape attempt a short one. Nothing to see here, she thought, just your mistress out for a stroll in the middle of a battle.
Her facade of confidence vanished with her first lurching step onto the spider-silk bridge. She steadied herself with a death grip onto one of the guide ropes. The drow made it look so easy! Running along the bridges as if they were solid ground. Up ahead, in the darkness, something shrieked again. Without the fungal lanterns from the cave, her eyes had adjusted, vision shifting to dark vision. She could make out the creatures. The one that had shrieked had a humanoid body with feet and hands ending in talons. Broad grey wings sprouted from its back, and it had the head of a vulture. This latest shriek had been louder, almost ear piercing. Had the creature been closer she'd have been tempted to release her grip on the guide rope to cover her ears, possibly falling from the silk bridge to the spider webs below.
With a droning buzz two other creatures flew around the giant vulture thing, harassing it. These looked like giant flies with a large spike for a nose. The creatures tore into each other as they flew to the south. Crossbow bolts loosed from the guard tower followed them. She didn't think any had found their mark.
Aleina glanced backward. Kuhl and Jhelnae hugged the cave wall, creeping their way up the ledge to incapacitate the guards of the Northern Watch Post. If those guards noticed the escape, they would unlock the quaggoth from their cave and the prisoners would be quickly overwhelmed. From the cave mouth where they'd been imprisoned, Sarith motioned for her to continue. With another deep breath, she turned. Gripping both guide ropes she willed herself to take another step. Now only the silk bridge held her. Thick webbing stretched out below, masking the distance to the cavern floor. Thankfully none of the giant spiders watched her from below. Another step, and it was getting easier. She might not be as nimble as Sky, but Aleina had always had good balance. She had just never done something like this before. Making it to the tower door, she opened it and hauled herself off the silk bridge and inside.
Two drow turned to stare at her. Aleina resisted the urge to drop to her knees and kiss the solid ground now under her feet. The center of the room held a table surrounded by three chairs. The drow stood at the far wall. Arrow slits were spaced along the walls of the chamber, allowing those to shoot out into the greater cavern or back at the cave holding the slaves. Without the distraction of the flying creatures, or her disguise as Ilvara, crossing the spider silk bridge to the hanging tower would have been impossible.
The drow seemed surprised to see her. Small wonder, she'd just come from the opposite direction from where they would have expected Ilvara. Still, they inclined their heads in a slight bow. One of the drow reloaded his hand crossbow, but looked out the arrow slit towards where the flying demons had last been seen and not towards her.
The other was the drow with the scarred face, Jorlan, Sarith had named him. Aleina could see now his injuries went far beyond his face. One hand was twisted, and two fingers were missing. The other handheld the crossbow awkwardly, and Aleina guessed it was his offhand. But Sarith had warned her not to underestimate him. Of the drow at the outpost, he remained one of the most dangerous.
Jorlan said something in Drow Aleina didn't understand.
She groaned and clutched at her stomach and put a hand on the table as if she needed its support, feigning injury or sickness. When the scarred drow approached to help, she shook her head warning him back, aware her disguise spell would not fool him if he touched her. Thankfully he did stop, but he questioned her again in a language she could not understand and could not answer in. Her silence wouldn't hold him back for long. She groaned again and clutched harder at her stomach, as if in even greater pain.
"Hurry Sarith!" she mentally pleaded.
Just when it seemed the drow would come around the table to her, despite her warning gesture, she heard the door creak open behind her. Aleina focused on Jorlan, again remembering Sarith's warning of the danger he posed. One of the elite drow warriors of the base, they were unlikely to quickly overwhelm him.
Aleina concentrated, attuning herself to her magic, and spoke.
"Go!" She pointed at the door opposite from the one she came in. Aleina spoke the word in Drow. Kuhl and Sarith had drilled her repeatedly on that one word.
She felt the spell settle around him and she hoped being disguised as Ilvara would add weight to the command. He glanced at the door she wanted him to go through, then he shook his head to clear it. Her heart sank. She'd failed. Had she spoken the word wrong? She readied a firebolt to send into that scarred face.
But then Jorlan smiled. With one side of his face melted and scarred it looked like a grimace. He glanced up behind her, undoubtedly seeing Sarith, Derendil, Ront, and Eldeth rushing in to grapple with the other drow. He stood, walked to the door she'd indicated, opened it, and went through. Before closing it behind him he caught her gaze and gave her a wink.
Aleina stared after the departing drow, confused. Then she recovered, followed and dropped the crossbar over the door he'd exited, locking it from the inside.
Derendil roared behind her. Four against one, the drow already lay senseless on the floor by the time she turned around. Sarith scaled a ladder to an upper level. Within moments he returned holding a hammer and a bag.
"Spike that door closed. Just in case." Sarith indicated the door Jorlan had departed through and tossed the hammer and bag to Eldeth. The contents of the bag clinked as the red haired dwarf caught it. "There are more weapons and armor upstairs. I'll pass them down."
He climbed the ladder again. Ront waited to take what he handed down. Eldeth began hammering spikes to further secure the door. More prisoners entered the tower: Sky, Jimjar, Bupido, Topsy, and Turvy.
"I knew you would do it," Jimjar said, smiling at Aleina. "A pity no one would take my wager."
"We all knew she would." Sky also smiled, a sharp toothed one, but also friendly.
"I…" Aleina started to explain she hadn't. That Jorlan had let them go for some unknown reason. But now wasn't the time.
The door opened again and Shuushar entered bringing the odor of rotten fish with him. Like Aleina he seemed very glad to find himself on solid ground. She tensed when one of the male drow soldiers followed him inside, but he was unarmed, and he gave her a bowing nod as he entered. She'd forgotten she still wore the guise of Ilvara.
Jhelnae came in next with Kuhl carrying Stool bringing up the rear. The half-drow and half-elf were now armed. Both had daggers sheathed at their waist while Kuhl also had a short sword.
Jhelnae asked the soldier something Aleina couldn't hear from where she stood. There was an exchange with the soldier pointing at a small chest in the corner, then shaking his head.
Understanding dawned in Aleina. Jhelnae had used her magic to charm the soldier, similar to when she'd tried to magically command Jorlan.
"Our things are in that chest. But it's locked and Nadal doesn't have the key." Jhelnae said. "Sky?"
"Sky unlock this, Sky unlock that. Does anyone think to thank Sky? No. Not even one word." Despite what she said, the tabaxi went and knelt before the chest and peered at the lock.
"Thank you, Sky," Jhelnae said. "That's three words by the way."
Absorbed in her task, Sky's only response was a dismissive wave of the hand and a flick of her tail.
Sarith, now wearing studded leather armor, climbed back down the ladder. He carried coils of rope over his shoulder. Weapons, equipment, shields, and leather armor lay around Ront.
"There is chainmail in the room above, but no one should wear it. We're going to have to swim to escape." Sarith said. He passed bags to the deep gnomes and the derro. "These have caltrops. Throw them down once we enter the tunnel to slow down anyone coming after us."
Kuhl and Jhelnae buckled on studded leather armor, the half-elf the largest set he could find. But none of the other fighters could fit in something designed for drow. Aleina was about to retrieve the dagger from the unconscious drow on the floor when Sky hissed in pain behind her.
"Drat." Sky put one of her fingers in her mouth. She sucked, then spat to the side, sucked on her finger again, then spat once more.
"What happened?" Aleina asked.
"I opened the lock, but I didn't see the stupid needle." Sky pushed open the chest with her uninjured hand. "It's still sticking out near the lock. Watch out for it when you take things out."
"I'll be fine." Sky sucked at her finger again and then spat to the side. "We tabaxi are hardier than other races. Whatever was on that needle probably won't affect me."
"Probably?" Aleina asked.
"Hopefully." Sky gestured in invitation to the chest.
Aleina looked inside. She saw the needle sticking out of the lock and avoided it. Only a few items lay inside. One was a moonstone orb inlaid with seven silver stars, her orb. Surprisingly, the other items of the chest were also crafted with moonstone. Together they lit the chest interior with a pale blue glow. There was a short iron rod with a moonstone set at the tip, a silver amulet with a round moonstone at the center with another moonstone carved into the crescent over it, and finally a silver ring. The engraving in the ring showed a bow over a moon represented by a small round moonstone with a sword underneath.
"I found my orb. But there is also a rod, an amulet, and a ring in here."
Jhelnae and Kuhl came quickly, both still fiddling with the buckles on their armor. The half-drow scooped up the rod while Kuhl took the amulet and ring. He put the silver chain holding the amulet over his neck and tucked the amulet under his newly donned armor. The ring went on a finger on his right hand. A look of relief crossed his face as it settled into place, and she recalled his story of a ring given to him by his mother.
"Is there a hammer in there? A shield?" Eldeth came up to the chest and looked inside.
The growing disappointment on Eldeth's face made her check the chest again, even though it was too small to hold either.
"The good news is you weren't going to be sacrificed like these three. The bad news is your hammer and shield are lost to you." Sarith said.
With a sigh, Eldeth accepted this. She moved to belt a short sword around her waist and take a shield. Others followed her lead, arming themselves. Aleina spied two black cloaks hanging along the wall. She put one on and passed the other to Jhelnae, who gave her a grateful nod.
"We need to go back over the bridge to our cave then up to the watch post near the quaggoth den. From there we can climb down with these ropes into the pool below and avoid the webs. If you fall, the pool is deep, and you won't be injured. But swim quickly to the shore. An ooze inhabits the waters."
Pounding started at the locked and spiked door. Aleina started in surprise, along with many of the others. But the blows lacked force. It seemed even the drow had trouble getting enough purchase on one of the silk rope bridges to put any real weight behind their strikes.
"They've realized we're escaping," Sarith said. "Time to go."
Jhelnae said something to the charmed drow soldier in Drow. He looked briefly at Aleina, but the half-drow pointed at the door. The soldier nodded, with obvious reluctance. The aasimar spoke passable Elvish but was unfamiliar with several of the words Jhelnae had said.
"You play a dangerous game," Sarith said, looking at Jhelnae, as he led the way back out of the tower. "It is foolish to antagonize a priestess of Lolth."
"She started it," the half-drow said.
"What did you do?" Aleina asked as she passed the half-drow.
"I told Nadal to pass along a message to Ilvara from me once she got through the door. He got confused at first because you still look like her. It doesn't translate well from Elvish, but the closest translation is: "You're a weak and pathetic bitch."
Outside, in the cavern, the shrieks and droning buzz of the flying creatures could still be heard. But it remained to the south, beyond where they could see.
They back tracked back over the silken rope bridge, back to their cave. Aleina walked near the rear, only Jhelnae behind her. She'd started to get the rhythm of the bridge and traversing it was easier. Strangely, however, Sky ahead of her seemed to be having trouble. She moved slowly, methodically, as if having difficulty focusing. Then she stopped and started to slump.
Realization hit Aleina a moment too late. She remembered the needle - it must have been poisoned. No wonder Sky had been so unusually silent. Why hadn't she said something? Aleina reached for the tabaxi, trying to stop her from slipping between the guide rope and the bridge, but she just missed grabbing her under the shoulder.
The tabaxi fell to the webs below. They stretched downward, then bobbed upward and downward repeatedly, Sky caught in them.
"Sky!" Jhelnae screamed behind her.
Kuhl turned, saw what had happened and handed Stool to Derendil ahead of him. He started back along the silk rope bridge towards them.
"They're coming," Jhelnae said.
Aleina saw them. Giant spiders closing on where Sky lay.
The bridge lurched and lost tension. Behind her, Jhelnae had jumped down. She pulled on the tabaxi, trying to free her from the web, but only succeeded in sinking her own legs deep into the webbing. She gave up and drew the rod from her belt. A crackling beam of energy flew from the moonstone at the tip and struck the lead spider. The spider chittered, slowed for a brief moment, clearly hurt, then continued forward with greater speed.
Conscious of the effect fire might have on the webs, Aleina attacked another spider with a ray of frost. Like the half-drow's attack, it only slowed the creature momentarily. A wave of desperation passed through Aleina. Jhelnae and Sky were about to die, and there seemed nothing she could do about it.
Kuhl swung down off the bridge and onto the web between the spiders and the half-drow and tabaxi. He drew his sword but ignored the oncoming spiders. Instead, he hacked down at the web below him. His blow cleaved through several strands, but the web still held.
A moment of thought and Aleina understood. They'd never be able to pull Sky out of the webs and to the edge before the spiders overtook them. Destroying the web and falling into the water below was their only chance. The half-elf had the right idea, but wrong tool. She had one that would work better.
Another crackling beam of force from Jhelnae struck the lead spider. This time it seemed to have a greater effect and it was visibly weakened. But there were five others, and they were almost upon them.
This time Aleina did use fire. A bolt of it landed in the web in front of the approaching spiders. The section of web burst into flame and they back away, chittering.
She sent more bolts streaming down, surrounding her companions in the web with flames. The spiders backed further away from the circle of fire. Below, Kuhl continued to hack at the webbing. As the flames rose and approached the group, Jhelnae's face looked up in confusion.
Aleina watched the burning webs for a moment, then ducked under one of the silken guide ropes of the bridge. She leapt as high as she could in the air and landed on the webbing with as much force as she could muster from her slim frame. She panicked as the web at first held, but then the burning edges frayed and broke away as they bounced up and down from the impact of her landing.
They fell, the four of them forced together in a sticky burning mass. Aleina cried out as the fire burned her. But the cloak she'd taken mostly protected her. They seemed to fall a long time before they splashed into the deep water of the pool. The cold of the water shocked and energized her at the same time. She started tugging and kicking herself free of the remnants of the burned webbing. Running out of breath, she realized she needed to abandon her cloak to escape. She retrieved her moonstone orb from one of the pockets, then shrugged out of it and swam to the surface.
"Sky? Sky?" Jhelnae's frantic voice was the first thing she heard when her head broke the surface.
"I have her," Kuhl said, panting. "Aleina?"
"Here," she called.
"Swim for the shore," Kuhl said.
The sounds of the battling flying creatures could still be heard over the nearby roar of the waterfall. Fire no longer burned in the webs overhead. Aleina heard her own labored breathing as she swam along with those of her companions. Somehow Jhelnae found the energy to speak between breaths.
They reached the shallows and waded onto the shore. Aleina found herself enveloped into a wet hug by the half-drow, the metal studs of her leather armor digging into the aasimar's skin. She also had abandoned her cloak in their plunge.
"You saved our lives you crazy bitch," she panted into Aleina's ear. "By all that dances, I thought we were dead."
"She did," Kuhl said. He carried Sky over one shoulder. That she still slept after a fall and a plunge into cold waters was a testament to the efficacy of drow poison. "But let's thank her after we actually escape. The others are already headed for the western tunnel. We'd better get there before they drop those caltrops."
Jhelnae nodded and released Aleina.
"You still look like Ilvara and I just hugged you. Disgusting."
They shared a brief laugh at that but sobered quickly. With a deep sigh Jhelnae started running for the western tunnel. It took a force of will for Aleina to follow. Her water-logged boots, soles sticky with web residue, squelched with every step and she shivered from the cold air against her damp skin and wet clothes. The cavern floor was rocky and uneven, and she kept her gaze down to keep from twisting an ankle.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw something tumble from the sky, strike the ground and roll into their path. One of the vulture creatures struggled to stand and spread its wings. Crossbow bolts stuck out from its hide, and it bled from a score of other wounds. It was badly injured and it's first attempt failed, and it fell back to all fours. It spied them and shrieked. But this wasn't the ear-splitting shrieks of earlier. It conveyed more fearful warning than challenge.
"I lost my sword in the fall and abandoned my dagger after cutting Sky and I free," Kuhl said from behind.
Jhelnae brandished her rod. The moonstone tip glowed blue in the darkness.
"Whatever you are, I have had a really bad day and I am not in the mood for this. So, get out of our way."
The menace in Jhelnae's voice was palpable. And Aleina almost took a step back herself. But she hefted her orb up and prepared to cast in support.
To her surprise the creature blinked, dropped to its haunches and looked to the cavern rooftop. With a leap it again took to the air.
"Right choice," Jhelnae said, lowering her rod back down. "Let's get out of here."
Aleina nodded and forced herself to again run after the half-drow. Soon she saw the others, on their own path following Sarith from wherever they had climbed down. Her heart briefly sank when she saw Derindil did not carry Stool. Then she saw the sprout myconid in the middle of the group, running faster than she would have thought possible on its small legs. Maybe she shouldn't have been surprised as the Underdark was his home. He was probably more suited to it than she was.
Jimjar and Eldeth waved and Aleina gave a weary wave in response. The tunnel mouth loomed and as she passed through, she lamented the loss of her borrowed cloak. It was one thing to face the unknown dangers of the Underdark and quite another to face it clad only in your undergarments.