Authors: Elaine Cunningham
There is a world where elves dance beneath the stars, where the footsteps of humanfolk trace restless paths in ever-widening circles. There is adventure to be had in this land, and magic enough to lure seekers and dreamers with a thousand secrets. Here there are wonders enough and more to fill a dragon’s lifetime, and most who live in this world are content with the challenges life brings.
A few, however, remember the night-told stories that terrified and delighted them as children, and they seek out the whispered tales and grim warnings so they may disregard them. Intrepid or foolish, these hearty souls venture into forbidden places deep beneath the lands of their birth. Those who survive tell of another, even more wondrous, land, a dark and alien world woven from the fabric of dreamsand of nightmares. This is the Underdark.
In gem-studded caves and winding tunnels, turbulent waterways and vast caverns, the creatures of the Underdark make their homes. Beautiful and treacherous are these hidden realms, and perhaps chief among them is Menzoberranzan, fabled city of the drow.
Life in the dark elves’ city has always been dominated by the worship of Lloththe drow goddess of chaosand by a constant striving for power and position. Yet in the shadows of the temples and the grand ruling houses, away from the Academy that teaches fighting and fanaticism, a complex and diverse people go about the business of life.
Here the drow, both noble and common, live, work, scheme, play, andoccasionallylove. Echoes of their common elven heritage can be seen in the artistry lavished on homes and gardens, the craftsmanship of their armor and ornaments, their affinity for magic and art, and their fierce pride in their fighting skills. Yet no surface-dwelling elf could walk among her dark cousins without feeling horror, and earning a swift and terrible death. For the drow, fey and splendid though they are, have been twisted by centuries of hatred and isolation into a macabre parody of their elven forebears. Stunning achievement and chilling atrocity: this is Menzoberranzan.
In a time some three decades before the gods walked the realms, the chaos and turmoil of the dark elves’ city achieved a brief, simmering equilibrium. Wealthy drow took advantage of such intervals of relative calm to indulge their tastes for luxury and pleasure. Many of their leisure moments were spent in Narbondellyn, an elegant district of the city that boasted broad streets, fine homes, and expensive shops, all crafted of stone and magic. Faint light suffused the scene, most of it from the multicolored glow of faerie fire. All drow were able to conjure this magical light, and in Narbondellyn the use of it was particularly lavish. Faerie fire highlighted the carvings on the mansions, illuminated shop signs, baited merchandise with a tempting glow, and glimmered like embroidery on the gowns and cloaks of the wealthy passersby.
In the surface lands far above Menzoberranzan, winter was beginning to ebb, and the midday sun struggled to warm the harsh landscape. The Underdark did not know seasons and had no cycle of light and dark, but the drow still went about their business according to the ancient, forgotten rhythms of their light-dwelling ancestors. The magical warmth deep in the core of Narbondelthe natural stone pillar that served as the city’s clockwas climbing toward midpoint as the unseen sun reached its zenith. The drow could read the magic timepiece even in utter darkness, for their keen eyes perceived the subtlest heat patterns with a precision and detail a hunting falcon might envy.
At this hour the streets bustled with activity. Drow were by far the most numerous folk in Narbondellyn. Richly dressed dark elves wandered down the broad lane, browsed at the shops, or paused at chic cafes and taverns to sip goblets of spiced, sparkling green wine. City guards made frequent rounds mounted on large, harnessed lizards. Drow merchants whipped their draft animalsmost often lizards or giant slugsas they carted goods to market. And occasionally, the sea of activity parted to permit passage of a drow noble, usually a female riding in state upon a slave-carried litter or a magical, floating driftdisc.
A scattering of beings from other races also made their way through Narbondellyn: slaves who tended the needs of the dark elves. Goblin servants staggered after their drow mistresses, arms piled high with purchases. In one shop, bound with chains and prompted by three well-armed drow, a dwarf smithy grudgingly repaired fine weapons and jewelry for his captors. A pair of minotaurs served as house guards at one particularly impressive mansion, flanking the entrance and facing each other so their long, curving horns framed a deadly arch. Faerie fire limned the nine-foot creatures as if they were living sculpture. A dozen or so koboldssmall, rat-tailed relatives of goblinslurked in narrow stone alcoves, and their bulbous eyes scanned the streets anxiously and continually. Every so often one of the creatures scurried out to pick up a bit of discarded string or clean up after a passing lizard mount. It was the kobolds’ task to keep the streets of Narbondellyn absolutely free of debris, and their devotion to duty was ensured by an ogre taskmaster armed with whip and daggers.
One of these kobolds, whose back was lined with the recent marks of the ogre’s whip, was busily engaged in polishing a public bench near the edge of the street. So anxious was the slave to avoid future punishment that he failed to notice the silent approach of a driftdisc. On the magical conveyance rode a drow female in splendid robes and jewels, and behind her marched in eerie silence threescore drow soldiers, all clad in glittering chain mail and wearing the insignia of one of the city’s ruling houses. The snake-headed whip at the female’s belt proclaimed her rank as a high priestess of Lloth, and the haughty tilt of her chin demanded instant recognition and respect. Most of Narbondellyn’s folk granted her both at once. They cleared a path for her entourage, and those nearest marked her passing with a polite nod or a bended knee, according to their station.
As the noble priestess glided down the street, reveling in the heady mixture of deference and envy that was her due, her gaze fell upon the preoccupied kobold. In an instant her expression changed from regal hauteur to deadly wrath. The little slave was not exactly blocking her path, but its inattention showed a lack of respect. Such was simply not tolerated.
The priestess closed in. When the driftdisc’s heat shadow fell upon the laboring kobold, the little goblinoid grunted in annoyance and looked up. It saw death approaching and froze, like a mouse facing a raptor’s claws.
Looming over the doomed kobold, the priestess drew a slender black wand from her belt and began to chant softly. Tiny spiders dripped from the wand and scurried toward their prey, growing rapidly as they went until each was the size of a man’s hand. They swarmed over the kobold and quickly had it enmeshed in a thick, weblike net. That done, they settled down to feed. Webbing bound the kobold’s mouth and muted its dying screams. The slave’s agonies were brief, for the giant spiders sucked the juices from their victim in mere moments. In no more time than the telling might take, the kobold was reduced to a pile of rags, bones, and leathery hide. At a sign from the priestess, the soldiers marched on down the street, their silent elven boots further flattening the desiccated kobold.
One of the soldiers inadvertently trod on a spider that had lingeredhidden among the bits of ragto siphon the last drop. The engorged insect burst with a sickening pop, spraying its killer with ichor and liquid kobold. Unfortunately for that soldier, the priestess happened to look over her shoulder just as the spider, a creature sacred to Lloth, simultaneously lost its dinner and its life. The drow female’s face contorted with outrage.
“Sacrilege!” she declaimed in a voice resonant with power and magic. She swept a finger toward the offending soldier and demanded, “Administer the law of Lloth, now!”
Without missing a step, the drow on either side of the condemned soldier drew long, razor-edged daggers. They struck with practiced efficiency. One blade flashed in from the right and gutted the unfortunate drow; the strike from the left slashed open his throat. In the span of a heartbeat the grim duty was completed. The soldiers marched on, leaving their comrade’s body in a spreading pool of blood.
Only a brief silence marked the drow soldier’s passing. Once it was clear the show was over, the folk of Narbondellyn turned their attention back to their own affairs. Not one of the spectators offered any challenge to the executions. Most did not show any reaction at all, except for the kobold slaves who scurried forward with mops and barrels to clear away the mesa Menzoberranzan was the stronghold of Lloth worship, and here her priestesses reigned supreme.
Yet the proud female’s procession kept a respectful distance from the black mansion near the end of the street. Not a house like those known to surface dwellers, this abode was carved into the heart of a stalactite, a natural rock formation that hung from the cavern’s ceiling like an enormous ebony fang. No one dared touch the stone, for on it was carved an intricate pattern of symbols that shifted constantly and randomly. Any part of the design could be a magic rune, ready to unleash its power upon the careless or unwary.
This stalactite manor was the private retreat of Gromph Baenre, the archmage of Menzoberranzan and the eldest son of the city’s undisputed (if uncrowned) queen. Gromph, of course, had a room in House Baenre’s fabulous fortress castle, but the wizard possessed treasuresand ambitionsthat he wished to keep from the eyes of his female kin. So from time to time he retired to Narbondellyn, to enjoy his collection of magical items, to pore over his vast library of spellbooks, or to indulge himself with his latest mistress.
Perhaps even more than his obvious wealth and famed magical power, Gromph’s ability to select his consorts was a testament to his status. In this matriarchal city, males had a decidedly subservient role, and most answered to the whims of females. Even one such as Gromph Baenre had to choose his playmates with discretion. His current mistress was the youngest daughter of a minor house. She possessed rare beauty, but little aptitude for clerical magic. The latter gave her low status in the city and raised her considerably in Gromph’s estimation. The archmage of Menzoberranzan had little love for the Spider Queen goddess or her priestesses.
Here in Narbondellyn, however, he could for a time forget such matters. The security of his mansion was ensured by the warding runes outside, and the solitude of his private study protected by a magical shield. This study was a large high-domed chamber carved from black stone and lit by the single candle on his desk. To a drow’s sensitive eyes, the soft glow made the gloomy cave seem as bright as noonday on the surface. Here the wizard sat, perusing an interesting book of spells he’d acquired from the rapidly cooling body of a would-be rival.
Gromph was old, even by the measures of elvenkind. He had survived seven centuries in treacherous Menzoberranzan, mostly because his talent for magic was matched by a subtle, calculating cunning. He had survived, but his seven hundred years had left him bitter and cold. His capacity for evil and cruelty was legendary even among the drow. None of this showed in the wizard’s appearance, for thanks to his powerful magic he appeared young and vital. His ebony skin was smooth and lustrous, his long-fingered hands slender and supple. Flowing white hair gleamed in the candlelight, and his arresting eyeslarge, almond-shaped eyes of an unusual amber huewere fixed intently upon the spellbook.
Deep in his studies, the wizard felt, rather than heard, the faint crackle that warned him someone had passed through the magic shield. He raised his eyes from the book and leveled a deadly glare in the direction of the disturbance.
To his consternation, he saw no one. The magical shield was little more than an alarm, but only a powerful sorcerer could pass through with an invisibility spell intact. Gromph’s white, winged brows met in a frown, and he tensed for battle, his hand inching toward one of the deadly wands on his belt.
“Look down,” advised a lilting, melodic voice, a voice that rang with mischief and childish delight.
Incredulous, Gromph shifted his gaze downward. There stood a tiny, smiling female about five years of age, easily the most beautiful child he had ever seen. She was a tiny duplicate of her mother, whom Gromph had recently left sleeping in a nearby suite of rooms. The child’s face was angular, and her elven features delicate and sharp. A mop of silky white curls tumbled about her shoulders, contrasting with baby skin that had the sheen and texture of black satin. But most striking were the wide amber eyes, so like his own, that regarded him with intelligence and without fear. Those eyes stole Gromph’s annoyance and stirred his curiosity.
This, then, must be his daughter. For some reason that thought struck a faint chord in the heart of the solitary, evil old drow. He had no doubt fathered other children, but that was of little concern to him. In Menzoberranzan, families were traced solely through the mother. This child, however, interested him. She had passed through the magical barrier.
The archmage pushed aside the spellbook. He leaned back in his chair and returned the child’s unabashed scrutiny. He was not accustomed to dealing with children. Even so, his words, when he spoke, surprised him. “So, drowling. I don’t suppose you can read?”
It was a ridiculous question, for the child was little more than a babe. Yet her brow furrowed as she considered the matter. “I’m not sure,” she said thoughtfully. “You see, I’ve never tried.”
She darted toward the open spellbook and peered down at the page. Too late, Gromph slapped a hand over her golden eyes, cursing under his breath as he did so. Even simple spells could be deadly, for magic runes attacked the untrained eye with a stab of searing light. Attempting to read an unlearned spell could cause terrible pain, blindness, even insanity.
Yet the little drow appeared to be unharmed. She wriggled free of the wizard’s grasp and skipped over to the far side of his desk. Stooping, she fished a scrap of discarded parchment from the wastebasket. Then she rose and pulled the quill from Gromph’s prized bottle of everdark ink. Clutching the pen awkwardly in her tiny fist, she began to draw.