And yet, miles beneath our lackadaisical wandering they live their lives of leanness and cold valour.
The origins of this mysterious people lie within Idrlyn the Ashborn’s conquest of Damesht, seventeen years after his initial subjugation of the human cities of the Western and Southern sides of the continent, when his war to subjugate the Ordning of Zunya was in full-swing. Crossing the mountains on campaign, he encountered a network of tunnels (believed to be the current Titanheart Mountains) of dazzling, labyrinthine complexity and chilling depth. Those scouts that returned from what is now known as the Underdark returned with stories of twisting tunnels, caverns vast as any palace, and horrors that crept and feasted in the forgotten world below. Tantalisingly, they uncovered that beneath the soil Idrlyn had claimed other nations existed. Whilst the Troglodytic peoples lacked even the rudimentary civilization of their human surface cousins, they had a clear intelligence and therefore the ability to benefit from Elven stewardship. Idrlyn selected from among his champions two thousand soldiers who would subjugate the peoples of the Underdark and bring their tribute to Damesht.
To understand the change that this wrought on those plucky Elves, veterans of a decades-long campaign of conquest, is staggering. They had known only warfare on the surface, relying on their advantages in weaponry, cavalry and magical ordinance to shatter human and giant hosts. In the strangely linear world of the Underdark, such tactics were folly. Early in the Endeavour of the Underdark, the Elves cast aside their lances and slaughtered their stallions (for meat was worth an emperor’s ransom in such darkness). They left their filigreed armour unadmired in the dank caves they traversed. Their footmen and washerwomen were armed – their luxuriant muscle grew lean and cold and hard as they adapted to war in the endless darkness. After initial victories and adaptation, they realised a tantalising second truth: the Underdark was yet more vast and rich than they had ever imagined, and they might have the opportunity to plant the banner of the Ashborn in the very roots of the world. The troglodytes were easily vanquished, and still they descended: to strange blind nations of rat-men and goblins; twisted part-dwarves who devoted their lives to endless toil; an empire of silken warrens presided over by chittering half-man spiders.
It is said that in a cavern they came across some discarded trinkets they had early thrown into the abyss – what had started as lighting their load had become something like a ritual: to cast out the imperfections; the fat and indolent trophies of the surface world. They looked around at the baubles and trinkets twinkling in the filth and laughed like mad-men at the irony of it at all. They had filed their teeth and shattered the nerves of their body so that they could slide and climb and root through the earth, plucking strange bony fish from the occasional streams and eating them raw. They had drank the blood of spiderfolk and goblins for moisture; they had thrown aside ancient treasures to make room on their person for bone-shivs and cruel jabbing spears. The flower of Elven chivalry had descended into the heart of the world and they had become monsters. They knew this and exulted: for were they now not the most fearsome horrors in the endless dark? They knew that when the Underfolk saw the flash of their knives and the cruel sinew of their bodies they grew cold with fear. They had honed themselves and become predators, not prey.
With time, even the memories of sunlight faded, as new generations were born in darkness. They had set out to plant the Swan-Banner in the depths of the Underdark and yet none among them could truly say what a swan was; and in the darkness the colours of the banner meant nothing, symbols meant nothing: there was only the Drow and their war against all. The written word was one conceit of civilization that was soon cast aside: a language for the sunborn. They threw aside their books, ancestry scrolls: and created a new, tactile tongue of feel: a Drow spellbook is more a sculpture than a book. They spoke of their fat, cowardly and weak cousins who cowered from the sun with baffled contempt: wo would choose to live so close to the tyrannical sun and its endless fire? They told legends of how the sunborn even built makeshift caves and warrens on the surface and cowered in them to escape the heat and pain and the madness of water that fell from the roof. The Drow shook their heads in solemn disbelief that anyone would choose such a life. The God of the Elves became meaningless, and their worship was quietly abandoned as a shameful reminder of descendent who spent their lives cowering from ‘weather’. Colour too was abandoned as they became accustomed to a life of grim chiaroscuro.
Their society retained its military structure and absolute insistence of discipline, and all other creatures were viewed as slaves or meat. The Drow rove the Underdark now seeking their lasting dominion, and exert a rough-and-tumble hegemony over a number of nations, who pay them tribute in goods and labour and flesh. For millennia in the depths they fought their strange wars over caverns and cliff-faces ignoring the surface just as no surface nations seeks to colonise the depths of the ocean or the endless skies. In the past few years however, Drow have been found lost and disorientated, nearer the surface. In their grating, fearful way they discuss a doom that hunts them in the darkness, and some few souls have even braved the tyranny of the sun to beg aid of the descendants of the Emperor who ordered their grim descent millennia ago.