Rise of the Underdark
“In the drow imagination, Erelhei-Cinlu is both the darkly shining star of their subterranean empire and a foul pit of the rankest offal, teeming with filthy lesser creatures and bubbling with a raw sewage of dirty commoners and vulgar merchants. Erelhei-Cinlu is at once loved and hated, like an obese and disease-ridden lover who nonetheless provides golden trinkets to her consorts. It is a treasure to be protected and a festering boil to be lanced. In typical fashion, the dark elves simply accept their city as both and go about their foul business.”
“Erelhei-Cinlu is one of the few places in the drow empire where outlanders can come and go in relative freedom. As evil, sadistic, and xenophobic as the drow can be, they tolerate the presence of foreigners here—as long as their own interests are not threatened. An outlander can even live in Erelhei-Cinlu without interference from drow authorities, as long as she does not draw undue attention to herself. Of course, many other dangers lurking in the shadows make life here a constant challenge. The spiders, the thieves and bandits, the slave-takers, the gangs, the diseases, the undead—these are only a few of the hazards facing non-drow in the city.”
— Human scholar Monus Abramus, in his treatise The Empire Below, a rare and largely unknown work on drow history and society
THE DARK GEM
The city of Erelhei-Cinlu stands like a polished gemstone in the heart of the dark elf realm. At the center of an elaborate web of alliances, rivalries, and traditions, it embodies the essence of drow existence—a darkly enchanted capital from which Lolth’s faithful praise her name as they plot against one another and the world beyond.
Erelhei-Cinlu is also one of the most cosmopolitan drow cities, which is to say that outlanders are tolerated. Those who interfere with the drow are ruthlessly and painfully exterminated, but those who abide by the city’s traditions, as distasteful as those traditions might be, can survive here, at least for a time.
AN ANCIENT EVIL
Erelhei-Cinlu lies at the core of a subterranean realm known as the Vault of the Drow. As dangerous as it is immense, the Vault is the center of drow power in its part of the world, and Erelhei-Cinlu is its unquestioned seat of authority.
For many years, House Eilservs was the city’s leading noble family. But when a raid by surface adventurers threw the Vault into chaos, Eilservs and its Matron Mother, Eclavdra, fell from grace, replaced by the ambitious House Tormtor. This realignment of power sent shock waves through Erelhei-Cinlu society, and in the aftermath, House Kilsek challenged Tormtor’s authority, going so far as to reject the worship of the Queen of Spiders. The Priestess Wars began, and they raged for almost two decades until some semblance of peace was restored to the city. In the process, several major houses, most notably the rebellious Kilsek, were destroyed or significantly weakened, while others, such as the nomadic Vae and the upstart Xaniqos, rose to power and displaced or destroyed their predecessors.
The massive changes wrought by the Priestess Wars are still being sorted out by the Spider Queen and the surviving drow. Though their wickedness and perversity remain undiminished, the drow of Erelhei-Cinlu have gained a certain amount of perspective from these events, realizing how close they came to self-destruction. Accordingly, their activities below and above ground have changed, with intrigue and hidden plots replacing overt militaristic schemes. House Tormtor and others now place spies in the surface world, pay agents and unwitting dupes to advance drow causes, and pull the strings in clandestine operations ranging from simple merchant affairs to the corruption and overthrow of entire kingdoms. These activities occur in secret because most drow do not wish to draw more attention to themselves than absolutely necessary. Not all dark elves are as cautious, however.
House Vae’s slave-raids on the surface world have raised alarms among other houses that advocate subtlety. Similar motivations spur drow activities in the Underdark. Although open conflict, slave raids, and the mindless destruction of foes always have their place, the drow of Erelhei-Cinlu have grown more cunning, making peace and sometimes even allying with traditional rivals, such as the illithids and the derro. These partnerships are for convenience only, and both sides know it. For the time being, however, House Tormtor and its allies seek to weave a web of diplomacy, espionage, and conquest that will eventually bring all subterranean races under drow rule. Tormtor believes that it is doing the work of Lolth in a manner that the Spider Queen herself would find most pleasing.
MISTRESSES OF SHADOW
As is the case in other drow cities, the real power in Erelhei-Cinlu resides in the noble houses and their matriarchs. Due to the city’s importance to drow society at large, the nobles of Erelhei-Cinlu are especially powerful and exceptionally ruthless, even for dark elves.
Currently, the city is recovering from a series of convulsive internal conflicts that saw many of the old families displaced or destroyed. The so-called Priestess Wars were unusual for a society that favors subtle intrigue over open conflict, but when such raw clashes occur, Lolth watches with pleasure as the weak are smashed and the strong rise to take their place.
The Spider Queen sees overt civil war as a means by which her people remain pure and avoid stagnation. Besides, she and her consorts find it amusing to watch and occasionally meddle. By tradition, eight noble houses oversee Erelhei-Cinlu, each responsible for one of the city’s neighborhoods, or ghettos.
At times during the various conflicts that have racked the city, the number of houses fell to as few as four, but new and upcoming houses always step in to fill the gap. Each household is organized along familial lines, with the high priestess as the unquestioned ruler. Lesser houses cultivate relationships with greater houses in the hope of gaining influence and eventually displacing them. Of course, members of allied houses rarely trust each other, upholding their arrangements only as long as they have something to gain.
The eight leading houses are described below in order of their relative status in the city. None of the families actually live within Erelhei-Cinlu—the place is far too vulgar and filthy for noble drow. Instead, their vast estates are located to the north, across the river known as the Pitchy Flow, while high-ranking administrators oversee house affairs within the city.
OUTLANDERS IN ERELHEI-CINLU
As the hub of dark elf activity in the region, Erelhei-Cinlu is surprisingly cosmopolitan, with all major races present as residents, visitors, or slaves. Even the despised surface elves can walk the city’s labyrinthine streets and manage to survive in the ace of their cousins’ venomous hatred.
Being chaotic in general, the drow care little for the alignment or character of visitors, as long as they obey the city’s ways and stay out of trouble. Travelers who enter the Vault of the Drow through normal trade routes are inspected by dark elf patrols, who demand that each visitor swear on pain of death to obey all dictates and traditions of the drow houses. Visitors then receive dark green guest cloaks, which they must wear at all times to signify their status as outlanders.
Non-drow who live in the city are restricted to the Ghetto of Foreigners, which falls under the administration of House Tormtor. To be granted resident status, an individual must live in Erelhei-Cinlu for at least six months and then make a successful application to Tormtor. Outlanders who become residents no longer have to wear guest cloaks, but they must pay a fee of 1 gp per month and carry a resident’s medallion—a black metal item inscribed with a stylized spider. Trade in counterfeit medallions is brisk. Fakes cost up to 1,000 gp, even though the penalty for carrying or selling them ranges from permanent enslavement to death.
RELATIONS WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD
The drow are increasingly aware that they do not live in a vacuum and that a teeming surface world exists above, far from the isolated security of their realm. Early attempts to gain influence in that world ended catastrophically, causing the downfall of major drow houses. But since the conclusion of the Priestess Wars, the drow of Erelhei-Cinlu have grown more realistic and cunning in their dealings with outlanders, whether they hail from the surface or from below.
Most drow believe it is their destiny to conquer the Underdark. However, the other subterranean races—including derro, illithids, aboleths, kuo-toas, duergar, desmodus, and myconids—stubbornly refuse to cooperate with drow schemes for world domination. Some races, in fact, have the temerity to actively resist.
The dark elves know that they are among the most powerful of the Underdark races, and they have no intention of abandoning the destiny of conquest promised by Lolth. However, the drow are willing to employ subtlety and forge alliances to get what they want. Some drow houses, for example, have established close ties with illithids, using the mind flayers to help promote dark elf causes in the Underdark and on the surface. Such alliances are hazardous, however. House Noquar suffered for its association with illithids and was eventually brought down in the Priestess Wars.
Relations with the surface world are complex and often involve contradictory goals. The disastrous assault on the Fane of Lolth, now decades in the past, still lingers in the drow psyche, and most dark elves wish to maintain a degree of isolation from surface dwellers. At the same time, the lure of power and the lust for bloodshed and mayhem (inherited from their patron deity) compels the drow to expand their realm beyond the confines of the Underdark. The dark elves of today hope to accomplish this goal with intrigue and subtlety.
Erelhei-Cinlu is a wondrous sight, brooding in the dim light of the Vault, surrounded by a massive wall made of polished black basalt and studded with guard towers. The city is every bit as chaotic as its natives, with structures ranging from the ramshackle tenements of artisans to the extraordinary buildings in the Ghetto of Scholars. Day and night are a purely surface concept, so the city is busy at all hours, teeming with drow, their slaves and servants, and outlanders of all races.
The dark elves are notorious for their kinship with spiders, which developed as a result of their self-image and the dictates of their unforgiving deity. Nowhere is this relationship more obvious than in the streets of Erelhei-Cinlu. Spiders of all sizes and varieties lurk in alleys, on rooftops, in basements—just about anywhere, stringing webs between buildings to catch vermin or unwary passersby.
Outlanders are increasingly common in Erelhei-Cinlu, and despite the wishes of some secretive drow, the city’s existence is known to more and more surface dwellers with each passing year. Visitors can find rewards and opportunities in Erelhei-Cinlu, but they must remember that they take their lives in their hands just by sharing the streets with the mercurial and often sociopathic dark elves.
The city is divided into eight ghettos or districts, each under the control of a different drow house. The nobles do not live within the city’s enclosing wall, dwelling instead in palatial estates on a plateau to the north that is accessible only by way of the Flying Bridge.
An enormous wall of black stone surrounds the city, at once protecting and imprisoning its inhabitants. Crafted of polished basalt, it is apparently seamless, a continuous piece of stone describing the perimeter of Erelhei-Cinlu. Like just about every other crime in the city, scaling the wall is an offense punishable by death or enslavement. Whichever drow family is the most powerful—currently, House Tormtor—maintains security and provides guards to patrol the wall. There is great competition for this role, since the house that keeps the wall also controls access to and from the city, and with it the majority of tariffs, taxes, bribes, and other income. Such an important responsibility requires plenty of guards, so the patrols often include warriors from House Despana, which (for the moment) maintains good relations with House Tormtor. This arrangement makes Despana indispensable to Tormtor, for the withdrawal of Despana support would leave Tormtor all but helpless.
GHETTO OF FOREIGNERS
This district is the only region of Erelhei-Cinlu where outlanders are allowed to live. It is a warren of narrow streets and tottering buildings in varying degrees of disrepair. Humans, dwarves, illithids, svirfneblin, and others inhabit this deadly urban maze under the watchful eye of House Tormtor, whose officials try to prevent the ghetto’s mayhem from spilling over into the rest of Erelhei-Cinlu. Other drow avoid the district, deigning to visit the ghetto only when they must hire outlanders for their schemes.
The Ghetto of Foreigners is also the only place in the city (and in the dark elf realm beyond) that allows temples dedicated to non-drow deities. Needless to say, evil gods predominate, and all temples exist at the pleasure of Lolth and her clerics. The temples are heavily taxed, and their priests and priestesses must be approved by representatives of House Tormtor. Nonetheless, ghetto residents can practice foreign religions in relative freedom. The drow look the other way as long as the worship does not disrupt the city or interfere with the work of Lolth.
GHETTO OF SCHOLARS
House Shi’qos recently took control of this district, where the darkest and most forbidden knowledge is available to anyone who pays the price. The ghetto is frequented by drow and thus more cosmopolitan and more crowded than the nearby Ghetto of Foreigners. The neighborhood was the scene of fierce internecine battles during the Priestess Wars when House Noquar was forcibly expelled. In fact, many of the landmarks were destroyed, most notably the Spire of the Encyclic, a storehouse of dark elf knowledge.
The Ghetto of Scholars lacks the usual gamut of inns, taverns, brothels, and similar establishments. Residents here tend to focus on their various quests for knowledge. In the few taverns present, such as the Poison Pen and the Empty Tome, the ambience is sedate and intellectual. Quiet study, polite conversation, and the occasional game of skill is the rule, though the violence and perversity of drow society is never far beneath the surface. For example, the famous Third Level Inn was destroyed in a dispute between two drow sorcerers over whether one of them had removed his hand from a piece during a friendly game of dragon chess.
GHETTO OF ARTISANS
The drow pride themselves on their lavish good taste in fashion, architecture, fine art, and sculpture. Everything that a drow uses each day must conform to dark elf aesthetics, even such mundane items as tools and utensils. Amid the twisted streets and walled mansions and workshops of the Ghetto of Artisans, drow crafters labor to outdo one another in every aspect. The darker side of creation is represented as well, for the drow consider poisons and implements of torture to be among the most valued works of art.
Outlanders are forbidden in the ghetto unless given specific permission by House Godeep. Slaves are an exception to this rule, since they carry or are marked with their house’s sigil, signifying that they are mere possessions and unworthy of undue attention.
Numerous businesses in the ghetto cater to drow, including the usual assortment of drinking establishments, brothels, and drug dens. Many drow crafters practice decadence and perversion as a form of art, offering such disturbing services as torture, flesh sculpting, slave abuse, and murder. It is all one to Lolth, who looks upon this sordid district and is pleased.
GHETTO OF PERFORMERS
Decadence extends into every aspect of drow life, including popular entertainment. This district, under the oversight of House Aleval, is home to most drow actors, singers, dancers, and other performers. Dark elf tastes are notoriously fickle, and a dancer or poet who is the toast of the town one day might find himself the butt of jokes and cruel satire the next.
Unsuccessful performers usually drown their sorrows in corrupt and debased activities. Indeed, the ghetto is a haven for every imaginable vice, since drow performers are even more decadent than typical members of their race. The district has the highest consumption of narcotics and alcohol in Erelhei- Cinlu, and House Aleval allows any substance to be bought and sold here, as long as it receives a percentage. Drug dens, brothels, taverns, torture parlors, and gladiatorial fighting pits exist alongside theaters, dance studios, and public squares.
GHETTO OF SAVAGES
An especially rough and dangerous section of the city, the Ghetto of Savages falls under House Despana’s authority. The bulk of Erelhei-Cinlu’s non-drow warriors live here amid violence and cruelty. Bugbears make up the majority of the inhabitants, followed by troglodytes and trolls. The effective rulers, however, are the yugoloths, whose relatively small numbers belie their power and influence.
Most of the ghetto’s residents are slaves or indentured servants that are sworn to the drow noble houses. Some have won their freedom but continue to live here, building new lives as mercenaries or freelance adventurers.
GHETTO OF CHATTEL
The majority of Erelhei-Cinlu’s slave trading takes place in the Ghetto of Chattel, where vast pens and holding facilities house thousands of wretched souls. Business never closes for the drow, and the ghetto sees constant activity as dark elf nobles seek new household slaves, military commanders and arena managers search for capable warriors, vampire lords purchase breeding stock or fresh meat, wizards buy experimental subjects, and priests find new sacrificial victims. The life of a slave in Erelhei-Cinlu is short and miserable, and often the best that a captive who is sold here can hope for is a quick and relatively painless death.
GHETTO OF OUTCASTS
This filthy district is the last destination for drow undesirables, including criminals, beggars, half-breeds, and the survivors of fallen noble houses. House Xaniqos has dominion over the ghetto, and in typical fashion, Lady Thandysha has ambitious plans for its use. Her agents have purchased several local taverns and brothels, and she recruits the neighborhood’s more skilled residents as killers, spies, and guards.
The rest of the drow in Erelhei-Cinlu shun the district, leaving its inhabitants to their own devices. In return, the residents have created a nightmarish society ruled by criminal gangs and brutal thugs. From time to time, a talented resident rises up from the grinding poverty and regains influence in the city, but for the most part, the down-trodden drow of the ghetto remain oppressed, poor, and utterly without hope.
Foreigners sometimes visit the ghetto, and a handful even live here. Ironically, compared to other districts in the city, the Ghetto of Outcasts is relatively safe for outlanders because common drow ignore the district, and residents are too far gone to care who they rub shoulders with.
GHETTO OF THE DEAD
Once widely believed to be dead itself, House Eilservs, whose schemes on the surface world led to disaster, now controls this dark and horrifying district of Erelhei-Cinlu. The Ghetto of the Dead, also called the Necropolis, is a fitting locale for the fallen house and its still-ambitious leader. Long ago, the ghetto was a traditional place of the dead, known for its mausoleums, cemeteries, and tombs. But drow necromancers started coming here to experiment, raising corpses of the recently deceased to do their bidding. In the end, the ghetto became a place of the walking dead, and conventional interment of corpses was finally abandoned.
Most drow avoid the district, venturing into the ghetto only when they must dispose of mortal remains. Bodies are deposited according to varying degrees of ceremony, depending on the importance of the deceased. Once the mourners depart, the district’s permanent residents—the hungry undead—descend to feast upon the corpses.
Ghouls are the most common inhabitants of the ghetto, but vampires and necromancers are the unofficial rulers. Once a year, the ghouls are allowed out of the district to terrorize Erelhei-Cinlu in a ritual known as the Time of the Hunters. Most drow barricade themselves in their estates or homes during this time, but the ravenous horde overcomes many security measures, and the event results in many deaths.