((This is for my character’s backstory in the Thursday Night Forgotten Realms campaign))
“Vani, wake up!”
She hadn’t even realized she’d fallen asleep. The party had stopped for just a moment and she’d sat down to rest her feet. When the lights were out how could you even tell when your eyes were closed? Shuddering at the thought of what might sneak up on the unwary, she hopped up immediately.
“Iolas, any sign of our pursuers?”
The other elf adjusted his goggles as he scanned the darkness. “No. No sign”. Father should’ve hired the dwarven ranger, she thought to herself. Iolas was the most charismatic of the group. Vanimorien was at once both enamored and repelled by him. He was the epitome of elven sorcery - peerlessly skillful with both spell and blade. He had felled more than a dozen of the fish men whilst the rest had done their best just to hold their own. He always smiled at her reassuringly after a crisis - like how she imagined an older brother would. He made her feel safe but also a little sad. It seemed his smile and wide blue eyes were remnants of a once great beauty - worn down by a hard life among hard people. At some point he had long ago abandoned any pretense of hygiene and self care. He smelled.
Her father flipped his reckoning glass and recorded the new day in his notebook. “Almost a fortnight since we departed Tibblestone. Take heart, Vani, we’re just two days from the entrance.”
She hid her doubts and smiled at him. She wasn’t the only one it seemed, Hostlar the orc druid had been on edge for at least the past couple of days. And anyway, how could they even know where they really were? The thing about the underdark, she thought to herself, was that everything looked different going out than it did coming in. The shadows cast from lights played tricks on the eyes. It was not like the dungeons she had heard tales of as a child. The tunnels were not flat, smooth, and predictable. Instead they were winding, rough, and broken. One moment you could be crawling on your belly in the mud and the next strolling through a vast crystalline cathedral or rappelling down a yawning chasm. Passageways that were plainly visible approaching from one direction were nearly impossible to detect from the other. The tunnels twisted on, seemingly forever diverging and converging like veins in a corpse leading back to… what?
They were a motley band of misfits. Khemed and Ralmev, the human fighters had a similar run down, dead end look about them. These were the kinds of people her father now counted as friends. Many years ago when Vani was still a child he had been a wealthy noble, full of joy and like so many elves of their station without a care in the world. Her mother’s death had changed all of that. As the years went by he had run up gambling debts and his love of fine drink which had previously been hearty and mirthful, became all consuming.
Despite all of his flaws, he had never raised a hand against her even during his blackest moods. For a short time he had cleaned up and looked for work and found it. But the life of a common laborer did not suit him and he soon returned to his wasteful ways. Later the get rich quick schemes came along. He always had some new plan to restore their wealth and station but none of these ever worked out. The last time he had approached the elven council with his idea to mine gems in the thunder peaks. They had all laughed - not just a few awkward chuckles, but full on uncontrolled, riotous laughter. This had wounded him deeply. One night she found him crying and so she hugged him. Child comforted parent. She felt the pain of his humiliation as only a father’s daughter can and resolved to do whatever she could to help him restore his honor.
Maybe this time would be different. Her father had obtained an old hand drawn map from a human adventurer returning from a dungeon in Cormanthor which appeared to show the location of a hidden Svirfneblin town in the underdark. He spent their remaining coin hiring a small band of mercenaries to embark with them on an expedition. The plan was to borrow funds to equip the group and purchase a load of luxury items - wine, whiskey, tobacco, and furs, and deliver them to the gnomes in exchange for refined Arundur, a rare metal prized for its use in weapons and armor, the secrets of whose manufacture were mostly known only to the deep gnomes.
It was a good plan, but also an insanely risky one. Hiring and outfitting a group desperate or crazy enough for such a task ended up being very costly. Not only had the mercenaries to be paid, but also magical bags of holding procured as leading beasts of burden through the underdark would be impossible. On top of all of this, the only parties willing to finance the expedition were, as father called them, “non traditional lenders”. Vani tried not to think about what that might mean.
The entrance to the underdark was a small crack, barely wide enough to squeeze through at the back of the dungeon. The journey in was uneventful except for an encounter with a band of fish men. Once they had gotten near Tibblestone however they were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unable to find the entrance. It was a full three days milling about in the dark before the town guard had finally come out to meet them. The deep gnomes were far more suspicious than their surface cousins and a tense exchange had nearly resulted in violence but Iolas had managed to talk things down and eventually they were allowed in. The gnomes had warned them that they had been followed - hence the delay at the town gate. Were they being followed even now?
The group was now moving along a narrow path through a forest of stalactites, stalagmites, and pillars. On one side of them, a swiftly moving stream of water flowed past. The ground was slick with moisture - one slip a bit too close might send a person to some far off unknown depth. On the other side the forest stretched into the darkness - all but impenetrable but to the most skilled of rock climbers. Vani did not remember this place at all. Had they taken a wrong turn somewhere?
Her father paused the group. “Something’s not right. Iolas, the map.” The sorcerer produced the map from a scroll case.
“Best not to tarry here for long, Eothan. I don’t like this place.” Something had spooked the druid. His hackles were up.
Eothan and Iolas puzzled over the map together, calmly discussing their predicament in low voices and occasionally looking up and pointing in different directions.
A soft “thunk”, followed by three more in rapid succession.
Eothan looked over at the druid who had been peppered by multiple ornately carved black projectiles. They were too small to be arrows but had nonetheless easily pierced his armor. He slumped to the ground.
“Drow!” roared her father. And immediately the fighters drew their swords. The sorcerer frantically traced sigils in the air but to no avail. “Iolas! Magic!!”
Iolas appeared to vocalize the words of power but no sound escaped his lips. To her horror, Vani understood what was happening. “He’s been silenced!”
The group was not equipped to handle this attack. The fighters didn’t have shields and they were completely in the open. Vani felt one of the bolts pass right through the side of her shirt, barely missing her torso. Some sort of glistening black net enveloped Ralmev. His eyes, filled with terror, made contact with Vani’s as he was snatched back into the darkness. Moments later another net claimed Iolas. They never even saw their attackers.
Her father turned to her and said “Vani, forgive me. I love you.” And with that he pushed her into the rushing water, into the darkness. The water was ice cold and pitch black. The current pulled her backpack away, spilling all of its contents into the stream. Somehow, miraculously, she managed to catch hold of her spellbook just as it fell out. She couldn’t see it, but she could feel it and instantly recognized it for what it was. She clutched it tightly as she was whisked away. Using her other hand as a means of steadying her herself, she was able to feel the shape of the currents and the rocks in the stream that littered the way. Without any kind of head protection she could easily be knocked out and drown.
Eventually the rapids settled out into a deeper, slower moving stream. It was cold, but relatively easy to tread water. The space she was in was vast. She knew this because of the resonant echoes of water overhead. At various times she tried to find a shore or an edge. Something she could grab hold of but these caves were completely smooth conduits of water. For now, she would have to be grateful simply for the presence of air. On and on she drifted through lightless grottos until at last she could hear the roaring of falls.
The thought of death hadn’t occurred to her. There simply hadn’t been time to ponder it. She was frightened, certainly, but in the moment was only able to process what was immediately before her, and as she slipped over the falls, she was able to keep her presence of mind, holding her spellbook close to her chest and extending the other arm out in a diving posture. Down and down she fell, sailing through the night like a shooting star before cutting a perfect landing into a deep black pool of water below.
Still alive? Yes, but underwater in the pitch black and without any sense of direction or orientation. The noise from the falls seemed to come from all directions. Which way was up? She forced back an encroaching sense of panic and paused for a moment to think. With a full breath of air in her lungs there was no danger of sinking deeper. She allowed a small breath to escape from her lips. The bubbles trickled along her cheek before dispeappearing under the collar of her shirt. She attempted to flip over. It was impossible to know whether she had actually turned about completely or not so again she let a tiny breath escape. This time the bubbles trickled past the tip of her nose. Success! She swam upward and found the surface and salvation.
She swam about and reached out, trying to grasp anything to catch hold of near the falls but it seemed there was none. The only choice was to try to steer a straight line. This body of water was much larger than the others. Eventually, she had to pause to tread water. Her arms ached. How big was this place? It could be miles across and she would never know or… she could just be swimming in circles - a distinct possibility since she still had her spell book in one hand. She wanted to release the book. What good was it if she had no light to read by? But something told her she would need it anyway. Can ghosts see in the dark? Underwater? Bedtime reading for when you’re dead! Buried by miles of rock, mud, and water! Forever and ever!!
Silence, she thought to herself. These fears had to be pushed back before panic set in. The moment brought clarity and with it she understood her situation wasn’t immediately dire. The sound from the falls had been gradually receding and was still directly behind her, so at least she had been swimming in a straight line. Moreover, there was a discernible echo. It was impossible to be sure, but Vani had the distinct impression that a wall or some other large surface above water lay not more than a couple hundred feet ahead.
Sure enough, she at last reached it. Calmness and attention to the senses that availed her had paid off. Of course, there was still the matter of finding dry land, but at least the rocky edge had a few nooks and crannies where she could plant her feet, giving her body a desperately needed moment to rest. She considered which direction she might go next. The wall was too steep to climb. There must have been a creek or some near horizontal exit of the water from this space and likely there would be a beach or some kind of silt deposit where she could dry off. A vortex would’ve likely pulled her away from the grotto’s edge so a vertical exit from the cave seemed unlikely. The water was almost completely still. If she could work out the direction of flow by using say, a float attached to a string then she would know which direction to go. Unfortunately everything she had to rig such a device had been lost in her pack and was probably at the bottom of this lake.
Having rested up and feeling the chill of the water creep into her bones Vani decided to move to her right as she was facing the wall and slowly made her way around the edge of the grotto. It took a long time. She reasoned that she must be in a round grotto as the falls never seemed to change position relative to where she was at. At a few moments she thought she heard singing coming from somewhere ahead of her. It sounded like a distant chorus of singers, both men and women, and the song was like a lament but also lined with a sense of hope. My mind playing tricks on me. I’m eventually going to go crazy down here. Somehow the singing in her head made the journey easier though.
Again, and at last, she was proven correct. The outlet stream was adjacent to a sandy beach, perhaps created from the silt deposits of the falls over centuries. It was only about 10 feet or so across and there was no discernable path or foothold leading away from it, but it was dry and for now all she cared about was sleep.
Some time later she awoke to the sound of a voice. “Look at me.”
Vani couldn’t see anything. “Who are you?”
The dark was silent, and she drifted back to sleep.
“Look at me!” Again, the same voice. I thought I would starve first, but it looks like I’m going crazy anyway.
Vani slowly extended her hand along the sand next to her. There was something half buried there. She brushed away the sand, pressing her index finger along the orbit of an eye, the place where a nose had been, teeth.
She wasn’t alone after all. Well, this is really a fine way to go. Trapped somewhere in the underdark with only a ghost for company! Other details of her companion came into focus - the bones were male and definitely elven. There was an old leather backpack, a pair of gloves or gauntlets of some sort, a pendant necklace and… a wooden shaft. A wand perhaps? No, it was a bolt like the one that killed her friends. She was lucky, her fingers had found the middle of the shaft and had traced toward the feathered end. Had she probed in the opposite direction she could’ve been slain by the bolt’s fell poison. “Looks like they got you too, eh?”
Hunger. Cold. She would’ve liked to have cast a spell - perhaps the spell of cleaning would’ve made her feel better. But the energies had slipped from her mind when she dozed off and now she couldn’t re-memorize it from the spell book without a light source. She wondered about the fate of her father and his friends and cried.
“Look at me!” This time the voice was more insistent. Almost demanding.
“I already did! Leave me alone. I’m just going to die here.”
“Please…look at me. Really focus on looking…”
Vani stared out into the darkness. What was there to see? There was no light to see with! But then something strange happened in her mind. It was like she remembered something - a trick her distant ancestors had known. There was no light as such, but there was… a resonance - traces of something. This wasn’t a hallucination. There were little gray outlines and shapes that appeared in the dark. As she looked, the shapes became forms and the forms became water, rock, an ancient road, a vast stone cathedral reaching up to dizzying heights. In the center she could see the falls pouring down through a hole and into the middle of the lake. It was, if she were being honest, beautiful. It was also infinitely lonely and depressing. The beauty of this underground realm, which she was now inexplicably able to see only made her long for the forests of the surface world even more.
She could see movement. Far across the water there was a great expanse of toadstool covered plains and nearby was a group of elven captives being ritually executed by another group of elves. One of the captives managed to break free, and taking a pack with him, dove into the water. As he swam across the lake, the captors fired volleys of bolts at him, one of which struck true before he could swim out of range. It occurred to Vani that while everything else she was seeing was real, these people were merely apparitions, and the man swimming across the water to his grave was her companion. He crawled out of the water and laid down in the spot where the bones were. The bolt had slowed him down, but the poison had ended his life. “So this is what happened to you. But why would the drow kill their own?”
Vani dug around further in the sand and discovered a strap of leather. It was the pack she had seen the apparition carry. The interior was astonishingly dry. Inside were some provisions which had gone off, but there were also some dried mushrooms. Vani didn’t recognize this variety. Best not to risk eating these unless I’m really desperate.
There was also a book and a flint. Inside the pages was an unfamiliar script which she reasoned to be Drow. It was similar enough to her native elvish that she could catch some fragments of meaning. This was the diary of some sort of dissident of the Drow people. It seemed to tell of years living a double life studying wizardry and worshipping a forbidden goddess in secret. He had a name: Shrilynstra, and a dream - to sleep under the starry sky. There was also a map showing a route to the surface. If she was reading it correctly, it was through a chimney high up in the ceiling of the grotto above. For the first time since the attack, Vani began to feel like all wasn’t lost.
“We’re going to get out of this place, Shrilynstra”. Vani looked at his bones again and found a silver pendant attached to a necklace. It was like a circle of flame with a sword through the middle. She didn’t know what it meant, but something about it made her feel better. “I hope you don’t mind if I keep this.” She took the pendant and put it around her own neck. Then, taking the dried mushrooms and scraps of her companion’s clothing used the flint to produce a fire. It didn’t last long, but it was enough to dry out the pages of her spellbook along with her boots. The heat made things a little more bearable for a few minutes. She respectfully put her companion’s bones into the pack.
There was a spell that she’d never been able to cast before that could get her back to the surface. She spent the next several hours wrestling with it in her mind, trying to cohere the energies. It was to no avail. I’m just not able to do this on my own. “Shrilynstra, I need your help with this spell. Please…”
Immediately she heard whispered the words of power and felt a gentle breeze pass across her face. Holding her hands out toward the wall, tiny hairs sprouted. It worked! “Thank you, Shrilynstra! Thank you!!” Vani immediately placed the pack on her shoulders. There was no time to lose. The hairs that had sprouted from her hands and boots allowed her to easily grasp the rock wall. Miraculously, the spell even seemed to compensate for her relative lack of upper body strength. Climbing was nigh effortless! Far above she could see the chimney shown on the map. Up and up she climbed, out of the darkness.
Some days later, Vanimórien arrived in a village of Drow refugees who followed the Dancing Goddess. She rested there for a time, learned their ways and became an adopted member of their community. Shrilynstra’s bones were buried in a nearby graveyard. Although he did not live to see the starry night, his spirit was able to move on to Arborea. Eventually, Vani set off again to explore the world with the aim of becoming a powerful wizardess. Perhaps someday she would be reunited with her father, if he still lived.