Into the Sewers

With a longing last glance upward, Aleina stepped off the last rung of the ladder and onto the narrow, raised ledge running along the wall. Following the lead of the others, she put a sleeve to her nose the moment her hands were free.

It hadn't rained in a few days, which made the putrid water in the center of the sewer tunnel a thin elongated stinking, stagnant, and shallow pond. Under these circumstances, the raised walkway was currently unnecessary. At other times, however, she assumed it was the only way to travel the tunnels without slogging through a rushing flow of sewage.

She sighed after taking in her surroundings.

"I could have been married to a handsome scion of a rich patriar family," the aasimar mumbled to herself. "Be running his household, planning parties where I could snub those who'd previously snubbed my family. But oh no, I had to go seek my destiny out in wide Toril."

She'd meant it as a private musing, but the perceptive ears of Jhelnae's elven heritage heard.

"And be under the thumb of some horrible mother-in-law no doubt," the half-drow whispered conspiratorially.

"But still not in a stinking sewer," the aasimar said, voice equally low. "Also, Lady Abalea was actually pretty nice. Always telling me how excited she was to welcome me into the family."

A knot of guilt formed in her stomach at that rememberance. She'd paid back the lady's kindness by publicly humiliating her son when she'd fled her impending nuptials. And that after a small fortune had already been spent in the planning of them. Faced with the prospect of facing Demogorgon again or Lady Abalea, the choice, for the aasimar at least, was obvious.

"It's not so bad." Jhelnae gave a slight prod with her elbow to knock her friend out of her thoughts. "We could be in a stinking sewer and only in our underwear."

The half-drow lowered her sleeve and took a tentative sniff, then wrinkled her nose. But, with visible effort, she kept her arm down.

Aleina smiled at the reference to their initial flight into the Underdark from Velkynvelve and the knot in her stomach loosened. That had been far worse and the chances of survival back then, very slim. But at least the Underdark had smelled better and, though they'd been filthy, it had only been with layers of dirt and dried sweat rather than the sewage of a city.

"Thank the Moon Maiden for that," the aasimar said, also lowering her sleeve. She was becoming used to the smell. "Because that would be disgusting."

"Very disgusting," the half-drow agreed.

"What do you all think," Sky said, pointing. "It's yellow. Some sort of sun symbol?"

A small symbol was drawn on the wall near the ladder with yellow chalk - a palm-sized circle with ten equidistant spokes radiating out from its circumference.

"I don't see any other yellow signs," Kuhl said, glancing around. "That must be the signs the kenku mentioned."

"Makes as much sense as anything else," the half-drow said.

Aleina responded with a shrug and a nod at queried looks directed her way. With that decided, they headed down the raised walkway of the tunnel in the direction of the symbol, Sky leading them.

Whenever they reached branching tunnels a yellow spoked sun symbol always waited to show the way forward. They followed these with blind faith, hoping these markings meant what they believed. After a time, Sky stopped, knelt and picked something up. When she turned around, she held up a burned black feather.

"Look at this," she said, holding it out towards Aleina. "It probably dropped off one you hit with your scorching rays."

Wordlessly, the aasimar accepted the charred remnant of their battle in the warehouse. It smelled like singed hair.

"So, the kenku came this way," Kuhl said.

Sky nodded and they continued on, their greater confidence that the yellow signs led in the right direction lending renewed vigor to their steps. Soon Aleina found she marched along behind the others almost without thinking, so much so she almost ran into Jhelnae when Sky stopped again.

The tabaxi crouched, staring down the tunnel to the three-way intersection ahead. The companions did likewise. Jhelnae was the first to see what made the tabaxi stop and gave a sharp intake of breath. Several moments passed before Aleina saw it as well.

A ladder, similar to the one they descended to get down here, led up into a stone shaft. No doubt the top of that shaft would be capped by a circular metal cover. One of the now familiar chalk symbols marked a wall nearby, and a small spherical creature, around the same size as her moonstone orb, with a bulging central eye and four stumpy eyestalks, floated in front of it.

"What is that?" Jhelnae whispered. "It looks like a smaller version of Xoblob."

It did look like the stuffed beholder in the window of Old Xoblob's shop, but alive, it's tentacles writhed as it floated and stared down another branch of the sewers. Thankfully, it was much smaller than the stuffed window display.

"What do we do?" Aleina asked, voice hushed. "Fight our way past it?"

She retrieved her moonstone orb from her pouch and hefted it in threat.

"We shouldn't jump to conclusions," Kuhl said. "Remember the flumph? It could be friendly."

The aasimar did remember the flumph. It had been friendly. Helpful as well. Without it, they probably wouldn't have survived the tunnels under Gracklstugh in the Underdark.

"It might be friendly," Aleina agreed in a whisper. "Talk to it?"

The half-elf nodded.

"Sounds good," Jhelnae said. "We'll be ready in case it isn't friendly."

Her moonstone tipped rod had been left behind with a lot of their other adventuring gear, but she knifed a hand to show her readiness to cast eldritch energies if needed.

Kuhl sighed, understanding her meaning. He'd, once again, been volunteered as spokesperson. He straightened from his crouch and freed Dawnbringer from her holder on his belt but left but left her unignited. A whisper from Jhelnae made him pause and look back.

"Oh, and Kuhl," she paused for a beat to make sure she had his full attention. "If it isn't friendly, just step into the mists."

Kuhl gave a short, inaudible laugh, and nodded in understanding.

Sky rolled her eyes. "I guess Jhelnae is still sour about our joke of abandoning her in the alley. But don't worry, Kuhl. You've been lucky so far in conversations like these. The flumph was friendly, the mind flayer was an iounitarian, and something similar will happen this time."

"Really wish you hadn't just just said that Sky," the half-elf said.

But he steeled himself with a breath, turned, and started down the tunnel.

The floating creature hadn't heard their hushed conversation, nor did it react to Kuhl's approach. It just kept floating there, staring down the other tunnel. Despite its open eye, Aleina started to wonder if it was asleep.

The half-elf cut the distance between them in half with no change in behavior. He paused his approach and glanced back. They gave him encouraging nods and motions in response.

"Hello?" the half-elf called out hesitantly.

The sphere lazily swiveled, and the central eye widened as it caught sight of Kuhl. It seemed dazed for a moment, then hissed and bared a row of needle-sharp teeth.

"That doesn't look like a friendly greeting," Sky said.

Neither did the two beams of light that emanated from the stalks and winked into the half-elf. One of them glowed blue and a breeze of cool air blew by as it struck.

"Kuhl!" Jhelnae yelled.

Her cry echoed down the sewer tunnels. The half-elf stumbled to the side, tripping off the narrow walkway to fall into a heap below. Thankfully most of the bed of the sewer tunnel was dry and he didn't fall into the putrid water.

A crackling blast of energy lanced out from Jhelnae's outstretched hand and Aleina added her own bolt of flame to the attack. But their target was far away, small, and agile. The sphere-like creature bobbed and weaved, and fire and beam found only stone. The little monster stopped its dodging dance and widened its tooth filled maw in a triumphant grin, then hissed in baleful rage as a small piece of thrown mortar struck its central eye. It blinked, spun, then sped away down a sewer branch, choosing the tunnel with the sun symbol.

"Kuhl!" Jhelnae yelled again and rushed to the fallen half-elf.

Aleina and Sky ran as well and soon the three of them were crowded around their companion. The half-drow and aasimar knelt to check on him while the tabaxi kept watch.

"Are you alright?" Aleina asked. "Do you need healing?"

He gave her a dazed and confused look, as if he didn't know where he was or who they were.

"Cold," he said, then trailed off, seemingly unable to say more.

"Help me warm him up," Jhelnae said, seizing an arm and massaging his shoulders and back.

Aleina did the same on the other side. He didn't really seem all that cold. It had actually been a while that she'd used him as a convenient pillow, and she'd forgotten how muscular he was. Her ex-fiancé was a handsome man but was not the athletic specimen of the half-elf. She pushed these thoughts firmly out of her mind. Her reasons for fleeing her planned marriage had taught her something about herself. She was very young and not ready for a serious commitment. Kuhl was a good friend, not someone to lose in a fling.

No.

He was more than that. He was part of an adopted family she couldn't imagine losing or even risking breaking up. She'd already broken the heart of her former fiancé and didn't want to do something similar again. Especially knowing Mialee had already hurt the half-elf like that once before.

Kuhl shook his head, as if to clear it, then gave a surprised glance from side to side.

"This is nice," he said, voice amused. "Well worth getting hit by a ray of cold."

Aleina and Jhelnae stopped massaging. Their gazes met over his head, and they shared an eye roll.

"I don't think this is working," the half-drow said as she stood. "He still feels cold. Better hit him with a flaming bolt to warm him up, Aleina."

"I think you might be right," the aasimar said.

She picked up her orb from where she'd set it and also stood, lifting the moonstone sphere meaningfully.

"You know, I suddenly feel a lot better," Kuhl said, scrambling to his feet.

"I'll bet," Jhelnae said. "Last time feigning being hurt is going to trick me into giving you a massage."

"I wasn't feigning anything," the half-elf said." The first of those beams was freezing cold, but I could handle it. But the next one addled my mind, and I couldn't even think."

"Couldn't even think? Did you even notice a difference?" Jhelnae asked. "By all that dances! To think I actually felt guilty for paying you back for your earlier joke with Sky. I kept thinking I could never forgive myself if you were seriously hurt. Well, I take it all back."

"You actually never said any of it," the half-elf said. "You have to say the apology first, then you can take it all back."

"Not happening," the half-drow said with a teasing smile. "Just be grateful for your double massage."

"I am," Kuhl said, rolling his shoulders, then his voice grew serious, and he searched the ground with his gaze. "What happened? Did you kill it?"

Aleina shook her head. "It got away."

"No sign of it," Sky said, tail lashing as she stared down the tunnel where it had disappeared.

"If it's related to those who kidnapped Floon," the half-elf said. "And I have a bad feeling it is, then it's probably heading to warn them we're coming."

"It didn't seem all that smart." The aasimar pursed her lips in thought. "Can it even speak to give a warning?"

Jhelnae shrugged. "Well, it could certainly hiss. What a nasty little thing. Who hit it with the rock?"

"Oh," Sky said. "That would be me. Good throw, right?"

"Yeah, great throw," the half-drow said, shaking her head. "But why a rock? You just scared it away before Aleina and I got another try at it."

"Only thing I could find laying around" the tabaxi said, shrugging.

"Only thing you could find?" Jhelnae asked. "Ever heard of a throwing knife?"

"Yes, I've heard of a throwing knife." The tabaxi sighed, the very representation of sarcastic patience. "But I don't have any of those, do I? Aleina said no armor or weapons in the city, remember?"

"Actually," the aasimar clarified. "I said we should wear no obvious weapons. It was only a suggestion and I assumed we'd keep the things we could conceal. It's why I have my orb."

"And why I have Dawnbringer," Kuhl said.

"Oh." Sky's eyes widened in understanding. "I wasn't really listening during that part of the conversation."

"Of course not." Jhelnae closed her eyes and took a calming breath. "Probably staring into that damned Well. So, you have no weapons at all? Nothing?"

"Would I be scrounging rocks off a disgusting sewer floor if I did?"

The tabaxi tone indicated she thought this was a really stupid question.

"Anyone have anything Sky can borrow?" Aleina asked.

Kuhl bent and retrieved a knife sheathed at his ankle and held it up.

"Oh, a boot knife," the half-drow said. "I wonder who else normally carries one of those? Let's see, she is a tabaxi who also usually has a brace of throwing knives concealed at the small of her back. If only she'd thought to bring those."

Sky ignored her, instead giving the half-elf a sharp-toothed smile as she snatched the knife out of his hand.

"Thank you, Kuhl."

They continued forward, chalked symbols beckoning them onward at every tunnel intersection while they kept watch for the small orb creature. It occurred to Aleina, as they traveled, that if it hadn't been for her time in the Underdark, she'd probably feel claustrophobic. They'd been underground for over an hour now. It was dark, the span between the sewer walls was less than ten feet and the weight of an entire city was above. But she'd squeezed through tighter spaces in the Underdark with a world's worth of oppressive stone pressing down from overhead. This was nothing.

They came to a widening in the tunnel where three branches met in a circular hub. The aasimar suddenly realized that this complex sewer system was actually repurposed from something older, likely the ruins of what came before the city. There was no reason to build the meeting of three waterways into something this wide unless it was to retain water, but no water was retained, only the putrid thin elongated ponds that had been present everywhere else, more a series of large puddles. Aleina thought she could see hints of a mosaic or pattern in the stone floor, but the layers of grime made it impossible to be certain. Had this once been the plaza of a lost civilization? And here was something they hadn't yet encountered down here - a stone door was set into the back wall with an uneven ledge as a porch.

Sky backpedaled a few steps, signaling for the others to do the same. She huddled next to Kuhl and beckoned for the rest of them to come close as well.

"There is a slit in the wall ahead," the tabaxi whispered. "See it? Could be nothing, could be guarding that door."

Aleina had not seen it but looking again she saw the vertical gap in the wall. It had not been part of the original stonework, but carved and hollowed out later, maybe even fairly recently.

"So, what is the plan?" she asked, voice low. "I don't see any more yellow chalk suns and that door is the most promising thing we've seen to where they might have taken Floon."

"Agreed," Kuhl said.

"We don't know the door is being watched," the tabaxi said. "I only suspect. We can try and sneak by."

"We'll be wide open targets to anyone behind that slit," Jhelnae whispered. "And easily seen when we get closer. I have a sleep charm I can use, but I will need to summon my sword as a focus. By all that dances! I am going to feel really stupid if I use the spell and no one is even there."

"Prepare to cast but hold back until we know there is a threat," the half-elf said. "You both should summon your warding armor as well. We'll try and sneak by first. I'll take the lead."

Aleina shook her head even as the pale warding protection settled around her.

"Do you know how stupid that sounds, Kuhl?" she said. "You're wearing nothing more protective than cloth. This time, Jhelnae or I should lead."

"I can heal myself," he said, already moving into position.

"So can I," the aasimar hissed. "And I have magic wards."

"It's no use arguing with him, Aleina." Jhelnae already held her summoned abyssal blade and the glowing strands of webbing glimmered around her briefly before fading. "It's Kuhl. You'll never convince him not to be all paladin like. Trust someone who has parents just like him."

"Fine," Aleina whispered, leveling a glare at the half-elf. "But just so you know, you're a stubborn idiot."

He gave her a half-smile in reply. "I can live with that."

Considering that they might be heading into danger, she didn't like his word choice. But she let it pass.

"Have your spell ready," Kuhl said, glancing at Jhelnae and pulling Dawnbringer free.

Step by silent step, they crept towards the stone door. They were well within the circle opening, Aleina thinking there really was no one behind the vertical slit, when a growling voice called out in challenge in rough Common.

"Are you a plumberer or a cellar?"

The companions stopped, holding their position mid stride. Moments of silence passed, then the distinctive clicks of crossbows being drawn back and ready to loose came. Disconcertingly, some of those clicks came from their rear. The aasimar turned and saw the circular wall behind them and to their left had a matching slit, one they hadn't been able to see from their planning huddle in the tunnel.

"Are you a plumberer or a cellar?" the voice repeated, this time more menacing.

"Maybe?" Kuhl said.

"Maybe? We shoot on maybe?" the voice asked.

The speaker seemed to realize he'd asked in the wrong language and asked again in another language and a reply came from the other vertical gap.

"Oh, yeah," the voice said again in Common. "I forget. What pass phrase?"

"It's 'go to sleep'," Jhelnae said.

She lifted her abyssal blade and focused on the vertical slit in front of them. A spiraling mist coalesced around the sword and flowed forward, funneling into the carved gap in the stone. Crossbows twanged from behind them, and the bolts hissed their passage. One sparked off Jhelnae warding and Aleina saw a flare in her own out of the corner of her eye. She flinched to the side and saw Kuhl and Sky dropping to the ground. The aasimar was about to join them down there, but that would leave the half-drow as the only standing target as she completed her spell.

Aleina paused in her dodging, waiting for Jhelnae to finish her casting, then dove to tackle the half-drow down. She forgot, however, about how their two wardings repelled each other. Instead, both fields flared pale white, and she and Jhelnae were knocked stumbling back away from each other to fall on their backsides. The aasimar's butt found a puddle and putrid water splashed up all around her.

Her actions, however disgusting the result, had the desired effect as crossbow bolts whirred through the space they'd just vacated to ricochet off the opposite wall.

"Buy me some time!" Jhelnae yelled.

From her seated position, she lifted her blade. From the slit behind them came guttural cursing and the sound of reloading crossbows.

Aleina spun and held up her moonstone orb. Sunbeams seared across the distance, striking the stone all around the gap. None of her burst of beams managed to penetrate through. Not surprising given the aasimar's seated position and hasty aim. She was, however, rewarded with twin yelps of fear and no missiles sailing out in answer.

Inky blackness exploded all around them, too dark for even Aleina's dark vision to penetrate. She immediately knew the source. Jhelnae, hiding them from their enemies. As quietly as she could, she rolled to her left, staying low to the stinking floor.

There was a rapid conversation in a language she did not understand, then crossbows loosing bolts to clatter against nothing but stone. Their opponents were shooting blind.

But the aasimar was blind as well. Her heart thrummed in her chest while she decided what to do. Then she nearly gave a revealing yelp when she felt a tugging at her arm. She forced herself to relax and trust that guiding hand, knowing the half-drow could see through the magical darkness. Missed shots were timed and Aleina was led. Suddenly, she could see again. She blinked a couple of times and found herself on the other side of the cloud of blackness, just in front of the stone door.

There she was left, to crouch and wait while Jhelnae retrieved first Sky, then Kuhl. When they were all assembled the half-drow silently pointed at the half-elf then at the door.

Kuhl turned the handle and pushed. The door was clearly heavy, and he strained against it as it built grinding momentum. The clack and whine of bolts being loosed came in answer, but the seeking missiles were wide off the mark. When the gap in the doorway was wide enough, each of the companions slipped inside and the half-elf closed the stone portal shut behind them.

As usual, this was challenging for me. But I keep saying that and I suppose I should just accept that writing something is challenging! If it were easy, I suppose, it wouldn't be fun for us. You'll have to forgive me. Even after two years I'm relatively new to fanficking. I assumed, wrongly, that it would just be a flighty fun endeavor and I wouldn't be pushed so hard to try to get it the way I wanted it.

There is a saying that it isn't the hard things that demoralize you...its finding yourself trying to do something that you thought would be easy, but turns out to be hard. In my own case, for example, I went through chemo treatment. I expected it to be hard. It was. I remember the last day the chemo nurse was like, "You're a rock star! You did everything no problem."

However...I assumed fanficking would be easy. Just a silly little thing to pass the time. Therefore, finding it to be very difficult left me plagued by self-doubt. To be honest, I owe everyone in the hobby a 'sorry' for all the years I just dismissed the hobby in my head. You reap what you sow, ha ha. :)

But I think I've finally come around to accepting it just *is* hard and it takes *a lot* of effort. For some reason that makes it all a lot less stressful. :)

Please let me know if the humor does not land or if the action is subpar. Again, I have 5th level characters going through encounters designed for 1st or 2nd level.