Of course it isn't always ruthlessness or dire prophecy that leads to these outcasts taking to the sea. Just as often it is bad luck, or some quirk of the individual. And like moths to an exceptionally dim flame, these freaks band together and find some semblance of fellowship upon the abyssal waves. Because together, they just might find fame, wealth, or glory upon the undersea.
Of course most find a watery grave beneath it, sooner or later. This bunch is probably no exception.
The Gutted BellyThe origins of this ship are as mysterious as the ship herself is ugly, but it is abundantly clear that it is not a normal vessel. While generally shaped like other ships of the Underdark, it is constructed in a manner completely unlike any other. It possesses many organic or non-euclidean elements to its geometry, and rather than being made of wood, its hull has an unsettling resemblance to flesh- though what creature all of that grey-green hide could have been taken from is unknown. And given that the ship's hull is one contiguous piece of material almost 20 fathoms in length, it is something best not thought about for long.
Also unusual for the subterranean world is that it possesses sails.
There is not a lot of weather to be had so far underground, except for faint, constant currents of water or air in or out of the vaults which keep them (relatively) livable. These currents are enough to stir a breeze or set the waves in motion to carry things adrift, but rarely can they be harnessed to move a vessel with purpose. Therefore most ships rely upon manual labor, primitive engines, or magic for propulsion. But, somehow, The Gutted Belly has sailed into port countless times over the years, her membranous airfoils turgid with a strong wind that is only ever felt in the ship's wake.
Notable personalities include...
Istoyn Maerret- Drow, Captain."Welcome aboard, lads! We'll be running through a known kraken haunt today, so I hope you've all got your wits about you. We need lively bait! What? No. I said 'bayt'. That's short for "bay technicians".We'll need you down in the cargo bay. Yes, that's what I meant. Hahah. Anyway, welcome aboard!"
The exuberant shepherd of deranged sea-gits himself, Captain Maerret is a living reminder that even the truly hopeless can survive and thrive on the Undersea- for good and ill.
Born to some insignificant piss-ant hill of a non-noble drow family in one of the many dark elf cities dotting the underground, Istoyn Maerret was a sickly child. When debt collectors and Lolth religious hardliners both came down hard upon the clan one day, he was one of several superfluous children given over as sacrifice or sold into slavery. Istoryn found himself on a galley rowing the breadth of the Undersea before long, and remained in that state well into his adulthood. At some point in his past that ship was destroyed in a freak accident, and the dark elf washed ashore alone. Another gulf of mysterious, unaddressed years passed by then, and suddenly the drow was hiring a skeleton crew in a coastal city to bring a ship to port from an undisclosed location. Hours later, the somewhat rattled sailors disembarked from the bizarre Gutted Belly, captained by the cockily grinning former galley slave.
It is no secret or scathing defamation to say that the ship and the crew it has attracted survives on luck. Almost immediately after becoming seaworthy, Captain Maerret and his crew began to pursue high risk, high reward objectives that ranged from legal trading ventures, to piracy and smuggling, to the most heinous of all professions: adventuring. Life is cheap, short, and utterly thrilling to most who sign onto the crew, making the captain's more unique derangements stand out less.
One doesn't live long in the Underdark without cracking a bit, and in Istoyn's case he seems to have developed a very efficient form of mental compartmentalization in order to cope with a myriad of stressors. He exhibits (or mimics) certain symptoms of personality disorders during downtime which make him unpredictable, and just a little uncomfortable to be around. Yet his penchant for brutal, calculated violence reminds everyone that he can be perfectly, horribly sane when needed. He consistently shows competence on the job, leads his crew from the front in times of danger, and cultivates an atmosphere of egalitarianism among his peers that is difficult to find elsewhere in the Underdark. The instances where he has saved a crew member's life, executed a stunning flourish to secure victory, or austerely foregone his own share of booty in order to keep things literally shipshape seem in general to balance out the occasions where he has expended considerable resources to sate his (mediocre) alchemical curiosity, or thrown an unpopular cabin boy to that week's newest beasty "because it seemed like an easy and amusing solution".
If you sign your contract with an honest name and do right by your crew, the captain can be counted on to lead you to the wealth or the exciting end you seek.
... So long as you don't make the mistake of calling his cutlass a scimitar. If you do, he'll simply have to demonstrate their myriad differences to you- at length, and in torturous detail.
Shursh- Quaggoth, Boatswain, 1st & 3rd Mates."It is the compact-given right of every last one of you to air your grievances on matters of ship governance. Just as it is my hammer's right to reply."
Most quaggoths exist in a state that one could be forgiven for calling "savage". The ash-furred bear people are necessarily brutal to survive in their environment, xenophobic toward all outsiders thanks to a drow penchant for enslaving them, and occasionally more hateful of any and all technology than even the most misinformed Luddites.
But as evidenced by one quaggoth named Shursh, they can clean up nicely.
Another former oar-slave, Shursh had been the prized catch of one dark elf reaver until he realized one day that the menacing crew actually feared his prodigious strength. He walked off of the boat at port with several torn-out spinal columns thrown over his shoulder that same day, and soon learned how to use his strength to turn a profit. Eventually this landed Shursh in the crew of the Belly, where his resilience and cool head under attack ensured that he began to outlive more and more of his superiors. Captain Maerret, strapped for able bodies, proceeded to pile ranks upon the quaggoth, who seemed not to complain- though he did later split the role of 2nd Mate up into dedicated Navigator and Medical Officer roles, delegating them to others because he simply didn't want to be bothered with that type of work.
Now Shursh is one of the most visible members of the crew, standing heads taller than most and representing the captain when he is away or indisposed of. He also holds the respect of much of the crew, though the fact that he often walks around with a massive carpenter's maul resting on his shoulder might contribute to that.
Letil Idki- Svirfneblin, Navigator."Attention crew, we are now approaching a known shipwreck reef site. We will be slowing wind propulsion by five knots in preparation for scavenging. Anchor is on standby for deployment. Shark status is currently unperturbed. And your weather forecast for this evening is whatever the hell I decide it will be."
One would be understandably curious as to how and why a deep gnome came to be part of a pirate crew. One would also be understandably hesitant to ask Letil after she electrocutes someone else for raising that very question.
Deep gnomes are a famously earthy people, if anything can be called "famous" about such a reclusive group. They were born from the earth, live in it, and shape it around themselves. They also tend toward pleasant dispositions, or at least avoid mucking around in other people's lives for the worse. But this society produces weirdos and imperfect fits like any other, and like any other it can do a plain awful job accommodating them.
Letil seems to be a druid, after some fashion. Inborn, intimately tied to aspects of nature, utterly powerless to ignore that power. And it just so happens that her power manifests in the fury of biting winds and churning waves, quite out of place in the tunnels of the Underdark. She was exiled early in life, and ironically became more 'earthy' only after the experience hardened her to be stone-like, body and soul. She never found her way up to the surface world, but she found an acceptable surrogate in the subterranean seas.
Now, Letil Idki is the navigator of the Gutted Belly. She conjured its earth elemental anchor up and bound it with hate and chains in equal measure, and now aids the corsair vessel in propelling itself without need for rowers. Hers is the enchantment which keeps the ship's sails turgid and bloated with conjured winds, and which allows its prow to cut so smoothly through the undersea waves.
Needle Threader- Grimlock, Medical Officer."Shh, child. I cannot hear your lacerations with you whimpering like that."
Needle Threader is perhaps the gentlest soul on board the Gutted Belly, not that that's saying much. Surprisingly open about her past, the grimlock explains that she was once a warren-matron for her clan of sightless subterranean humanoids. Children were raised communally, she explains, and it is with bitter fondness that she remarks she was once mother of dozens, despite never producing any of her own.
She doesn't like to recount what happened when routine tunnel renovations disturbed a particularly large nest of gricks. Somehow though, Needle Threader blindly groped her way through the Underdark until she came upon a port city which was cosmopolitan enough not to kill her on sight. Captain Maerret took her aboard as another one of his frivolous "acquisitions", only for her to prove useful after the fact.
The eyeless trogloxene now serves aboard the Belly as an exceptionally hands-on surgeon and medical officer, well known to the crew for her tendency to emit a constant, low humming during examinations or operations while rolling her head from side to side in what looks to an outside observer like a trance-like state. According to Needle Threader, it allows her to 'see' in finer detail, even when she's rooting around in a patient's guts. Surprising recovery rates attest to her competence, but her first-time patients are rarely comfortable around her, nor her vast array of knapped stone tools.
Doolploobdulilb- Kuo-toa, Chaplain."Le'suor'bren'sehan'aul'tel’lahr'ath'Blibdoolpoolp!*"
* "I bless this voyage in the name of Blibdoolpoolp!"
It's a common saying aboard the Belly that Letil keeps the wind in check, while Doolploobdulilb manages the waves- best not to piss either one of them off. And there is a considerable amount of truth to this. But while the svirfneblin is a very public and approachable fixture on the crew, the kuo-toa whose name is typically shortened to just "Doolp" for everyone else's sake is rarely so approachable.
Of uncertain age and identity but of absolute conviction in their goddess, this kuo-toa cleric or "whip" is a devotee of The Sea Mother, The Drowning Goddess, The Mistress of the Black Pearl, and Uncomfortably Buxom Lobster-Lady, Blibdoolpoolp. Though vocally hateful toward any and all surface-dwelling species--as well as most other species besides kuo-toa in general--Doolp's actions on board the Belly speak to a milder nature. As the ship's chaplain, the cleric's ministrations are directed at proper observance of ceremonies meant to placate and appease sea deities (such as their own). This keeps the ship from falling prey to the worst of dangers out on the undersea, and allows for the occasional seafood feast in honor of this, that, or the other thing.
Ostensibly Doolp is also tasked with seeing to the spiritual health of each crew member, but the reality is that everyone will say they are just fine and dandy in order to avoid the flabby fishnet-wearer coming around to their bunks one day and asking them if they have a moment of their time to spare for the Drowner of Lands and the Scourge of Sekolah.
Understandably, Doolp is the most vocal opponent of the continued practice of keeping and feeding the frenzy of sahaugin below the ship, but they haven't yet gathered enough votes to do anything about it.
Ulwiss Coaleyes- Duergar, Quartermaster & Accountant."Togrysh has not come to collect his bonus for volunteering to lead the boarding party three days ago. What is that? He died in the attack? Well, death is no excuse for tardiness. Tell the kuo-toa to raise him, and then remind him of that. The bonus will go toward his debt for the spell components."
Dwarves often get a bad rap. It seems that wherever one goes, one can always find the same stereotypes in place- that they fill whatever time isn't spent being workaholics with time spent as alcoholics, that they hate elves almost as much as they do
Temperate, impassive, pacifist, and almost clean-shaven, Ulwiss Coaleyes avoids checking off nearly all of those dubious boxes. Unfortunately for Ulwiss the last box on the list was checked, first in pencil, then in charcoal, then signed in red ink, then sealed with wax, branded, circled and underlined a thousand times until the paper tore away and there were scratches on the desk, and then rewritten and copied in triplicate.
Ulwiss in the one who keeps the Gutted Belly financially solvent and ensures a well-ordered list of supplies and individual accounts, but he doesn't appear on any of his own payroll reports. This is because he doesn't accept payment for his work- his payment is the work. The work--or as he would write it, the Work--is an end in and of itself, giving a single all-unifying purpose to the sack of meat he occupies, and to the universe around it. Numbers, ledgers, tables, ink pens, and the hands that use them are all vectors through which Work may flow into something which is for the moment Unworked.
When Captain Maerret and his crew boarded the ship the duergar was on and slaughtered the rest of the crew, Ulwiss Coaleyes hardly looked up from his writing desk. Only the drow's cutlass prodding at his chin lifted his head, and only long enough for him to negotiate a contract with the captain, who was in good spirits after a battle ruthlessly won, so he humored the strange dwarf. No one really doubts that he'd do it again if the Belly is ever overtaken, but then again if the Belly were boarded, no one would really care what the book-balancer was doing.
Tongueless Tizzkar- Derro, Chief Cook."Unnyoy!*"
It's a strange, happy bit of luck that the crazed ramblings of the hereditarily insane derro people sound quite a lot like the humming or muttering of a top chef hard at work.This helps cement the idea that Tongueless Tizzkar knows what he is doing in the galley of the Gutted Belly. Unfortunately this illusion of competence normally dissipates as soon as one gets a taste of the food he prepares back there.
The title of "Tongueless" is not a literal naming- aside from a few teeth or finger joints, Tizzkar is quite physically whole. The nickname comes from his enormously thick accent, coupled with a speech impediment, which makes him sound like what most people might assume a tongueless person to sound like- though most have never actually met one in their lives to be able to make that assumption with any accuracy. It's rather mean, really.
Tizzkar is also tongueless in the sense that there is no way on or below earth that he is able to taste the things he prepares for the crew, or else they'd never leave the kitchen out of culinary shame. But his rates are low, his products and workplace are shockingly hygienic, and it brings a tickle of laughter to even the most dour brute's heart to see the manic little figure running to and fro, grey hair thrusting out in all directions like porcupine spikes from beneath a saggy, ill-fitting chef's hat.
Vashen Skitter- Chitine, Lookout & Sailmaker."Land ho, port side! Wait... wait, no. It's just a floater of chuul eggs... Breakfast ho!"
The loudest and most vulgar of the ship's crew is, appropriately enough, its lookout. Hyperactive, neurotic, and always inexplicably greasy, the man-spider makes good of his namesake all day every day, skittering up and down along the ship's masts. Less commonly he can be seen spinning strands of his own resilient web to mend damage in the sails. Most rare and begrudging of all are the times down below deck when he can be spied mending clothing with a needle or four in his dexterous, chitinous claws.
Despite a famous dislike for saltwater, Vashen is one of the few senior crew members with prior experience at sea. Much like Ulwiss, he originated from an opposing vessel, but unlike the work-addicted number-cruncher, Vashen willingly, even eagerly defected from the slaving ship dominated by Lolth faithful. One might think that a religion so centered on spiders and their various permutations would afford a measure of egalitarianism among arthropods. Instead, Vashen Skitter found himself firmly set among the bottom rungs of a strict, pseudo-theological racial hierarchy with nothing but ettercaps beneath him- and only because everyone hates ettercaps, including other ettercaps, he is quick to emphasize.
Scrubs- Scrag, Chief Beakhead Officer & Barnacle Remover."Scrubs iz done cleanin' hull, cap'n! Scrubs did a good job today. Scrubs took off twenny-eight new barnies! Twelve on port side 'n' sixteen on, uhm... not port side. Scrubs wuz wundrin', though. Duz cap'n fink if the seasonal meltwater from above ground is lowerin' water salinity to lethal-enough levels to kill off barnie larva, it could be damagin' fish health 'n' reducin' their nutritional value enough to impact crew productivity? Wut'z that? Get back t' work? Yessir!"
One day while coasting along during prescribed bedtime hours, the Gutted Belly struck something that made the crew fear that they had hit a reef or been attacked by some leviathan. But when the alarms and lights were raised, they only found a very stocky, mostly-dead scrag drifting in their wake. Out of curiosity and a desire to harvest some troll blood and/or fat for alchemical experiments, the captain ordered the crew to hoist the troll's body up on board. There they found that the prow of the ship had split its head almost in two, but also that the troll's regeneration was slowly knitting things back together. Fancy struck the captain, as it often does, and he cauterized a seemingly random portion of the aquatic troll's brain before the hole closed up.
When the creature awakened in chains shortly thereafter, it was docile to the point that it resembled a (poorly handled) lobotomy patient. It responded surprisingly well to basic commands given in Undercommon, and hardly tried to eat anyone after a week of impressive labor. Once Needle Threader gave it a clean bill of health (and determined that it was a he), the troll was given a tentative place in the crew as a heavy-lifter, beakhead toilet cleaner, and most famously, barnacle remover. And so he came to be known as Scrubs.
But Scrubs did not remain quite so placid. His job performance and amiability have remained constant throughout, yet his mind seems to have pieced itself together over the years. He reacquired language and complex problem-solving some time ago, and now seems to be working on abstract, conceptual thinking with the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed child who's walked into a library desperately wanting to understand all of the big words around them.
Grakk'ha- Goblin Lacedon, Figurehead."Who's that, pretty? Give ol' Grakk'ha a kiss~"
No one in the crew entirely remembers how they ended up with Grakk'ha. She's just always sort of been there. In a rather literal sense, she has become part of the ship. Specifically, she is the prow ornament of the Gutted Belly, lashed in place with just her arms and head free. She doesn't complain overmuch about this, and somewhat enjoys being the unofficial mascot of the crew. She'll even make a show of waving and shouting greetings when they finally sail to port- so long as they continue to feed her.
The small, gangling goblin woman was turned into a lacedon--an aquatic ghoul--long ago, and needs at least a semi-regular diet of carrion to stay what passes for healthy for an undead body. This, the ship's crew is able to supply her with regularly. But it's the rarer treat of live, humanoid flesh which she truly enjoys. As such, "a kissing session with Grakk'ha" has become the final destination for any mutineers or sufficient screw-ups who don't meet their end thrown overboard or at the hands of Istoyn and his unnerving powers.
K'shevash- Sahuagin, Honorary Disposal Officer."There is no friend or foe to the frenzy of K'shevash. There are only warmbloods who will or will not be dining with it tonight."
The sahuagin with a name almost as difficult to pronounce as the Chaplain's is not an actual member of the crew. In fact, they would probably eat any member of the crew who tried to parley with them or their tribe at closer than arm's length. (Though, to be fair, a number of proper crew members would also eat their fellows if push came to shove.)
Rather, K'shevash and its band are a bunch of exiles from the depths of one of the surface seas. How they found their way into the undersea, or why they've just sort of latched onto the Gutted Belly for so long, is unknown. But their presence is somewhat of a boon to the corsairs, for several reasons. They provide security from the other, lesser known threats of the deep which might otherwise try to attack the ship. They also eat much of the refuse from the ship's kitchens, in particular any meat scraps and offal to be had. And, as stated earlier, they have no qualms about eating any humanoids who find their way down into the wake of the Belly, with the seemingly sole exception of Scrubs- a compact was established after he ate several of them for making fun of his thoughts on causality one day.
In addition to providing a quick and easy method of disposal for the dead, the "Sharks" as they are affectionately referred to are also quite the deterrent from mutiny. Walking the plank takes on an even more grim character when you know that in addition to drowning, you'll be eaten in a creative fashion, over a period of time. And woe betide anyone who earns a keelhauling.
Anchor- Earth Elemental, Literal Anchor."Mmmmmmrrrrrdh...*"
* "A little to the left, Scrubs. There has been a mussel wedged under my shoulder for days now. Ahh, that's it..."
Anchor is, well... the ship's anchor. Summoned and bound in magical chain years ago by Letil, this elemental grabs a hold of features of the sea floor and keeps The Gutted Belly from drifting while at rest. It also acts as a lookout for dangers below the waterline, relying basic information to its mistress through a telepathic link when needed. It otherwise leads a rather solitary existence, content to lay on the seabed or drag along beside the ship's hull, doing little of note while the sahuagin swim past it, mildly annoyed that it isn't more edible. It is known to have an occasional, mostly one-sided conversation with Scrubs while the latter is removing built-up detritus from its craggy form, however.
Lesser-known personalities include...
Admiral Scratch- "Cat", Informant.
"Miaaaooo. Miao, mao, mao- HLGHKSHAULGH! ... Miao."
Whatever this thing is, it isn't a cat, and it does a rather poor job of imitating one. Members of the ship's crew still refer to it as one, however. They ignore the way its body shifts and morphs as it walks around on what might not always add up to four legs. They pretend not to notice when a tendril snakes out from beneath one of its unblinking eyelids. They just try to brush it off when some of its barbed hairs get stuck to a surface and cause mild damage to it as if from acid etching. They smile, call it Admiral Scratch, and make sure to leave treats out for it.
It does possess a rather catlike fondness for hunting rats, however. Perhaps a little too fond.
Admiral Scratch is ostensibly the obese calico longhair belonging to Captain Maerret. While he is the one person the animal spends the most time with, they clearly do not bond like a master and pet. More often, the Admiral leaps up onto his shoulder, sitting weightlessly as he stares unblinking at the dark elf. In turn Captain Maerret cocks his head and gives the cat an ear, at which point it proceeds to whisper to him. At least, it seems like whispering. No purr should sound that lilting, disjointed, or vaguely conspiratorial. Once he's spoken his piece, Scratch leaps back down to the deck and resumes his rodent vigil. Some believe that he is the real brains behind the captain, using him like a puppet. Others think that the Captain uses him as a spy on his own crew. Neither rumor has been substantiated, though the latter has slightly more credence in light of the list of would-be mutineers who have met sudden and messy ends aboard the Belly.
Hilivonsuul- Decapitated Illithilich, "Head" Adviser.
Anyone who's ever seen the inside of the captain's cabin will have noticed the grizzly trophy mounted on the wall behind his desk: a large, discolored illithid head, mummified into leather with its face tendrils braided together and then pinned together by bronze nails. There is no general consensus as to whether its eyes are milky and lacking pupils, or if it has pupils like an angry cuttlefish.
Captain Maerret is always happy to tell the tale of how he came across it, however.
Supposedly (and that word cannot be emphasized enough when dealing with one of Istoyn's tales), he slew the illithid with his very own hands and cutlass. One day early on in the drow's career of piracy while prowling the shore of one of the more treacherous vault walls, the Belly's crew caught sight of a battle unfolding. It was a chaotic three-way between githyanki, githzerai, and a small cell of mind-flayers trapped in the middle. Doing the only sensible thing, Istoyn ordered the ship to fire upon the melee on the rocks, scattering all parties and allowing for a landing party to loot the battlefield briefly.
Istoyn found a particularly withered-looking brain-eater, certainly not dead but not entirely alive either. He hacked its head off before it could utter a spell or make anyone's head explode, and carried the grizzly trophy back to the ship where he had it embalmed.
The part he leaves out of that story is that the head still isn't entirely dead.
Ensorcelled by dominating magic and kept in a docile state by a little-known source of psionic echoes which interfere with its ability to regenerate, there is little left of the desiccated head once known as Hilivonsuul, former acolyte of a coven of illithids who dabbled in arcane and necromantic magic. All that it can do is obey the will of its new master, who feeds it the names and thoughts of every soul upon the ship, living or dead. Hilivonsuul had known a thing or two about True Names back when its mind belonged to itself- after centuries of feasting on brains, one begins to hone their palette to pick out truly subtle flavors.
Much can be done with a Name like that. From subtly encouraging compliance with a captain in the pliable, to encouraging the sudden, explosive rupture of a dissident's head.
The Gutted Belly Herself- Taxidermied Aboleth Carcass, Marine Vessel.
"The sea, the sea, the sea, the sea, the sea..."
Istoyn definitely couldn't have killed this one. But since he claims to have built the ship himself, it is implied that he knew the creature, or at least its corpse. "Gutted belly" was quite an apt description for the state of the eviscerated aboleth when the dark elf equipped with a hammer, saw, and oscillating sanity ran across it. As distasteful as that is, the story only grows worse the deeper one goes. The Gutted Belly is not the largest ship on the undersea, but it is absolutely massive for an aboleth body, even taking into account the likelihood that all of that loose, flabby skin was stretched and smoothed out as far as it would go during construction. Aboleths never stop growing during their exceedingly long lifespans, so the specimen which became the Gutted Belly must have been old indeed. An aboleth's power also grows with age, raising the eerie question of exactly what could have killed such a being, only to leave it to rot on a scintillating beach somewhere.
The carcass still possessed some of that power when the marooned slave found it, in the form of powerful psionic emanations. They warded off virtually all other denizens of the deep, save for the drow who'd heard them throbbing in his skull ever since the wreck. They were the reverberating echoes leftover from a dying mind laid low and regressing, playing over themselves over and over again like the fever dream of a frightened child.
Where is the sea?
It wants to swim.
Swim away into the sea.
Where is the sea?
The echoes have died down considerably since those lightless days. Only the most sensitive could still detect them, though their influence runs deeper than most might know. Such interference could be enough to prevent a certain head from regenerating, or perhaps stimulate the mental growth of a lumbering, formerly blank slate always clinging to the hull. It could even resemble blind, dumb luck at times, as The Gutted Belly herself strives to "survive" yet more perils in order to enjoy just one more swim across that vast, abyssal sea.