Ah, a newcomer? Settle in, settle in, I’ve not yet begun to tell my story!
The rains have slowed to a crawl in this, the city of Waterdeep, prefacing a bright new day and a cool, breezy evening. Perfect weather for a grand tale! And, like many stories to be told, this one begins in a tavern. Let’s see, where to begin… ah, yes! Now let me take a good long puff of this pipe…. (breathes in)… and let’s begin…
Not too long ago, but long enough that it bears remembering, three figures sat at a well oiled and polished table in a tavern in the Castle Ward section of this, our grand city. And although it was not much to look at, this was no ordinary tavern. Amid the bustle of the Castle Ward where barristers, nobles, and emissaries battled with word and contract, stood this inn, not quite like any other. To be honest, before there was a Castle Ward, or even what could be recognized as an ancestor of the great Waterdeep, City of Splendors, there was a dungeon, and in that dungeon truly begins the tale of the Yawning Portal…
The City of Waterdeep
Waterdeep, one of the major cities along the Sword Coast of Faerun, had a rich and vibrant history. Thousands of years ago, it was a mere trading port for northern tribesmen and southern merchants. But after hundreds of years of fertile mercantile growth, permanent farms had sprung up in the area. The name “Waterdeep” (not as a city, but as a town) was used by the ship captains docking to trade at the port, and it was slowly adopted into common use. The city eventually began to grow out of control, ushering in a period of unrest and bitter conflict known as the Guildwars. The Guildwars eventually ended, and in doing so, the modern system of government in Waterdeep was instituted, creating a group known as the “Secret Masked Lords of Waterdeep”. Since that time, the city continued to grow and prosper. Humankind and other races came from all over the Realms to earn hard coin in the City of Splendors. Over the years, these successful merchants set up guilds and themselves became nobility, supporting the secretive Lords of Waterdeep who policed the city fairly, yet with a light hand, by means of the superb City Guard (soldiers), City Watch (police) and over 20 black-robed magistrates. As a result, Waterdeep was a place tolerant of different races, religions, and lifestyles. This, in turn, encouraged commerce and Waterdeep grew into a huge, eclectic city.
And in the midst of this city sat the tavern at the center of our story, and it was known as the Yawning Portal. But why the odd name, you may ask? Well, a good question! The Yawning Portal sat on a rather auspicious and infamous location – the ruins of an ancient and powerful building – the tower of Halaster the Mad Mage.
Halaster and the Undermountain
In his youth more than a thousand years ago, Halaster Blackcloak was known as Hilather, though where he spent his youth is the source of great speculation. Some sources place him in the ancient Imaskari Empire of old. Whatever his nation of origin, it is known that he was more gregarious as a young man, creating and hosting magefairs and spellmoots, and taking many apprentices. However, as his power grew, he became more interested in aberrations and the Outer Planes, which led to growing paranoia and viciousness.
Hilather, now calling himself Halaster Blackcloak, arrived at the foot of Mount Waterdeep with his apprentices, collectively called “The Seven”. The mighty wizard Halaster began to build a tower at the foot of the mountain, summoning demons and other outsiders to construct it, and claiming the nearby lands as his own. Halaster refused to release the monsters and demons after they constructed his tower, instead sending them into the caverns below it to explore in search of ever greater magical power. This began Halaster’s Hunts, a long series of journeys into the area now called the Underhalls, driving out the drow, duergar, and various monsters that lived there. Halaster and his apprentices expanded the tunnels they found, worming out new lairs under the surface for reasons of their own. Years later, Halaster obtained complete control over the near-endless tunnels and caverns and then began constructing the largest and most deadly dungeon imaginable, called Undermountain. By that time, Halaster had become completely mad and wanted nothing to do with the outside world. He left his hold to live in Undermountain itself, allowing the tower and surrounding area within the city to fall into ruin… but allowing the burgeoning city of Waterdeep to grow up around it.
For untold years, the secrets of Undermountain remained hidden from the surface world. Everyone who entered its halls failed to return. Its reputation as a death trap grew to the point that criminals in Waterdeep who were sentenced to die were forcibly escorted into the dungeon and left to fend for themselves.
Durnan and Mirt
Durnan and Mirt grew up hard, leading lives that made them tough and muscular, in a rural village in the north part of the Sword Coast. They were vastly different in temperament and disposition and intended to lead separate lives, but both lives took the same turn. At around the age of twelve or so, Mirt and Durnan ended up separately on their own, having fled from an orc raid on their township to seek their own fortunes. They were country boys, although Mirt had a swifter wit and a nastier nature than Durnan, the quieter and calmer Durnan having more patience, tolerance, and muscles. Together, they sought out cities, because cities were where money and excitement were to be found, and where opportunity dwelled. During their nascent adulthood, they became firm friends and adventuring companions. Mirt was a wily but no small-statured sneak thief, and although an accomplished warrior, Durnan was just as bright and as conversant in daily life and culture as the shopkeepers he walked among in the ports along the Sword Coast.
Mirt and Durnan took their adventures to the major cities along the Sword Coast, learning all about the varied folk of the Realms, how they lived and what goods were to be bought and sold and how, about laws and who makes and keeps them and who they benefit and who they spurn (most of the time, Mirt and Durnan being among the spurned), and all about the guilds (including the well known thieves’ guilds). They would soon learn what sorts of ships sailed the Sword Coast, how cargoes were packaged for travel, and how ships were loaded and unloaded through what goods are needed where (and therefore imported) or surplus and needed elsewhere (and therefore exported) to local spoken expressions, guilds and their influence, the attitudes of this or that city, and hundreds of little details of daily life.
Finally deciding together that their skill was sufficient, Durnan and Mirt ventured into Undermountain, and disappeared. Sometime later, they resurfaced, becoming the first true adventurers to return from Undermountain alive, laden with riches and magic treasures. While Mirt used his wealth to buy a mansion, Durnan had different plans. Durnan retired from adventuring completely and purchased the land on which sat the deep, broad well that was the only known entrance to the massive dungeon. Around this well, he built a tavern and inn that caters to adventurers and those who seek their services, and he called it the Yawning Portal. The Yawning Portal’s main attraction was the fact that as it sat upon the entrance to Undermountain itself, it was a litmus test for any adventuring party (or drunk tavern goer) to prove his or her mettle by paying the fee and descending into the well, venturing into Undermountain and returning (alive, one would hope) with riches and spoils of conquest. The truth is that very few, if any, returned in one piece. Many who descended screamed to be hauled up the wall as soon as they reached the bottom (which Durnan was more than happy to oblige upon the payment of additional coin).
But now, we return to that fateful night, where for three well-heeled adventurers spending the evening in the Yawning Portal’s common room, things were about to get very interesting…
The Yawning Portal
Amelio Softpaw sighed, his fingers drumming on the worn wooden table, waiting for something to happen. Amelio was a halfling, a rogue of no mickle might, and devout cleric of Brandobaris, the halfling god of Stealth, Thievery, Rogues, and Adventuring. His was a life fit for whatever he could make of it. He and his erstwhile companions had seen much and done much, in adventures that spanned much of the continent of Faerun. He had faced off against the undead, demons from beyond the plane, and horrors from the Underdark. Yet he yearned for something more. Something that would be the grand epitome of his life as an adventurer. And this place was far from it.
Near Amelio, a lithe catlike humanoid scanned the tables around her. The tabaxi warlock known as Desert Pale at Midnight kept her visage hooded, although she had no fear of Waterdavians – the tavern was a mix of many different nonhuman species, although hers was not one of them. She had experienced all manner of prejudice aimed at her through her life, and through her skill and practice as a seeker of eldritch knowledge, had overcome it and earned the respect of many. She was a follower of the god of knowledge himself, Thoth, and in her quest for arcane secrets and lore, gifted her deity with knowledge once forgotten in return for the power that her God had invested her with. Her slitted dark yellow eyes narrowed as she spied a middle aged elven woman staring at her from a nearby table. Her focus on the group made Midnight nervous.
Next to Midnight sat a small elven woman with fine clothes and fair skin, her attention focused solely on the large tome propped up on the table. Iallawen Luthiel‘s dark hair contrasted sharply with her bright blue eyes, and although she showed signs of nobility in her poise and posture, her reticence and calm demeanor belied a bookish nature. Iallawen was a powerful mage, who along with her companions (unfortunately many of them buried or lost along the way) had performed many heroic tasks in the service of the land. Her goals, however, similar to Midnight’s, were in the acquisition of knowledge, rather than the altruistic goals of others that might have ego issues, or in the acquisition of wealth, power, or other such nonsense. Her path had taken her from the ancestral seat of her family, Clan Luthiel, to the massive library at Candlekeep. There, studying lore amongst the thousands of tomes, she met another seeker of knowledge, Midnight. The two joined forces and sought arcane knowledge through their many adventures, finally joining with others, including the halfling Amelio. Over the years, the three heroes performed great deeds and vanquished mighty foes, and along the way, found themselves to be a new family.
And now, that family of three sat in a rowdy tavern in the midst of a vast city, waiting for fate to land the next big thing in their lap. Over by the bar, two humans and an elf stood speaking to the current owner of the Yawning Portal, Durnan the Sixth. Durnan, like his forefather namesakes’ before him, owned the Yawning Portal. Durnan was a gruff man, never one to brag or boast about his family’s wealth, nor one to speak lightly to those who dared balk at the challenge of Undermountain under their very feet. While Midnight walked over to speak to the elven woman about her propensity for staring, Amelio snuck up on the three to hear their conversation. The three were drilling Durnan for details on some kind of lost tomb known as the Tomb of Horrors, to which they very much needed directions. Durnan, complying (with a bit of gold as an incentive), drew a haphazard map to this hidden tomb, and let the three uncivilized adventurers go on their way. He smirked as they left, seemingly knowing that they’d find this lost tomb more of a challenge than they expected. Amelio returned to the group and relayed this information. Iallawen nodded, knowing of the tomb and its history.
The Tomb of Horrors
The tales of the Tomb of Horrors had spread across the Sword Coast from the furthest reaches of Faerûn and beyond. The minor details changed with the telling. The tomb was the final resting place of the lich known as Acererak. The dread tomb of Acererak was never found, shifting its true location from a dismal swamp to a searing desert to some other forbidding clime in each supposed telling. But the key elements remained the same in each version of the tales, lending a thread of truth to the tale. Acererak was once a powerful mage who sought immortality to further his search for arcane power. In doing so, he voluntarily gave up his life to become the undead monstrosity known as a lich – a massively powerful undead spellcaster. According to the legend, however, this was not enough for Acererak. He experimented with a way to further his power as a lich, and attempted to doff the restraints of his physical body, to become an even more powerful being known as a demilich. Whether he was successful in this endeavor, no one ever found out. He ordered his followers to build a labyrinthine structure with which to house his hoard of riches and magical artifacts, and entombed them inside, along with fearsome creatures with which to guard against bothersome adventurers. The tomb was so laden with traps and fiendish monstrosities that no one who ever supposedly discovered this tomb ever returned…
Midnight returned from speaking with the elven woman, who had apologized for staring and disguised any interest that she had with the three of them under a glaze of kindness and shaded sympathy. Clearly, whatever the woman saw or noticed, she was not willing to discuss with them. Midnight kept a close eye on the woman as she padded back to the table.
The night wore on, and Durnan made intimations that he wanted to speak to them at the close of business. Something important, clearly, as Durnan was not usually known for taking on the confidence of patrons. As the customers filed home into the moon-laden streets of Waterdeep, the sounds of raucous merriment faded from the old tavern. Soon, the three were the only patrons left. Durnan finished cleaning his mugs and polished the old oaken bar to a spit shine. Then, gingerly placing his old rag on the counter behind him, he came out from the behind the bar and gestured for the three to follow him. He wound his way around the old well that was the supposed entrance to Undermountain. Amelio looked down in the dim lamplight. A long way down, he thought. I wouldn’t chance a ride in that old bucket. Durnan brought them to a sturdy oaken door with a large bronze fitted bar seated across its frame. Locking the bar down was a massive iron lock. Durnan produced a set of keys, opened the lock, and then, as if it were nothing, tossed the heavy wooden bar aside. As he opened the door, he lit a lantern fitted to the inside wall, allowing light to spill on the room’s contents. Even with their years of experience, all three gazed in shock. This study was filled with all manner of strange and seemingly enchanted objects. Durnan sat them down at a table and related that he and his partner Mirt went down into Undermountain and returned with riches beyond measure. While Mirt went on to be a wealthy merchant, Durnan chose to retire and found this inn above the entrance, almost as if he expected to be its guardian of a sort. The truth is, he had always wanted one last adventure to the place that he himself could not dare to go back: The Tomb of Acererak. Durnan said that he indeed knew the location of the tomb, but that the place was festooned with traps that would engulf even the stoutest warrior, the most wily wizard; in short, it was hell. In one case, Mirt and he had come into a series of rooms where darts kept flying at them. Wounded and succumbing to horrific traps and puzzles, they had no chance to flee.
Durnan made a proposition to the three heroes – he would supply the location of the hidden tomb so that the heroes could plunder its riches and forbidden knowledge. In return, the heroes would donate 25% of whatever they would find to Durnan. As an insurance measure, Durnan introduced them to his machine, a contraption powered by necromantic magic that would recreate a clone of them if they died within the tomb. The clone would be less powerful each time they were recreated, and would possess none of their worldly material goods (if they died in the tomb, it would of course still be in there) but be assuming that the machine worked as it did, they would have multiple chances to plunder the riches of the evil lich. The group agreed and signed a set of contracts that Durnan provided. In return, Durnan drew a detailed map of the location of the tomb.
In the morning, Amelio, Midnight, and Iallawen mounted their horses and traveled south to the location of the tomb in the high moors, just west of the Serpent Hills. Preparing themselves for the worst, they finally arrived at the tomb’s location….