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The Nations of the Central Darkness
Posted on Mon, December 08, 2008 by Dongul
rasgon writes "Beneath the center of the Flanaess, including the Kingdom of Celene, the Lortmil Mountains, and the Gnarley Forest, is a network of caverns and tunnels known as the Central Darkness. The upper cave networks are largely inhabited by orcs, goblins, ogres, gnolls, and other similar humanoids, but in the deeper caves beneath are three major nations, each in their way as powerful as the nations of the surface above them, though they rule over lands that have never seen the light.

Serisstad, the Court of Briars

Deep beneath the nation of Celene, in a massive cavern created by the slow dissolution of stone in dripping water, there is a forest of massive, leafless thorn-trees drawn from the surface and corrupted long ago with the power of dark magic. In the city there, the antithesis of Yolande's Faerie Court is ruled by her counterpart, Queen Sorscha of the drow. Far from the uncertainty and chaos associated with the fractious dark elves of Erelhei-Cinlu, there has never been any doubt in Serisstad who is in charge. Sorscha rules the Court of Briars by the divine right given to her family by a dread demon goddess, and neither queen nor goddess is questioned.

Serisstad is a monarchy, however, not a theocracy; while the priestesses support and enforce Sorscha's power, they are all subject to dismissal and reprimand at the Queen's pleasure. For this reason, many other faiths are tolerated, so long as their obescience to the Briar Queen is sure.

Besides the massive central temple, which resembles a tree with hideous spider legs, the city of Serisstad contains temples to Vhaeraun, Kiaransalee, and Lolth, as well as to more obscure entities like Obad-hai, Holashner, Y'chak, and Demogorgon, smaller buildings that cower in the shadows before the might of Serisstad's constructed drow pantheon..

Obad-hai is known there as the Master of Beasts, and is mostly revered for his opposition to Ehlonna, who is so beloved by the elves of Celene. He is pictured as a male drow with the head of a wolf.

Serisstad lent its support to the orcs and their allies during the Hateful Wars, sending assassins to eliminate many of the elven officers in secret.

The Hax-Tormtor Dynasty

Though Erelhei-Cinlu is the oldest drow city on Oerth, it was not long after Erelhei-Cinlu's founding before drow came to Celene, the most powerful of the surface elf nations, to counter it and attempt to corrupt it from beneath. The founding house of Hax-Tormtor ruled for millennia, its Lolth-pledged nobles growing increasingly inbred and complacent, until they were wiped out in a single night by the ambitious nobles of Vae.

The Vae Dynasty
The House of Vae ruled Serisstad for two thousand years under the auspices of a single queen, the lich Threllpanna. The Vae held special reverence for Kiaransalee, goddess of undeath and the patron of their house. The queen and her court were overthrown after a combination of woes struck the city: a devastating year-long siege by the armies of the kuo-toan cities of Shloostanz and Gloomdwell, an increase in the power of the cult of Graz'zt in the city that cumulated in the mercurial demon king abducting all his cultists to be slaves in his Abyssal breeding pits, and a harsh judgement of Lolth that transformed most of the noble family into driders. Those who remained whole were driven into exile, where they fled beneath the Pomarj to build a new life as merchants and slavers..

The Tarefell Dynasty
After a long period of strife with no clear queen, where none of the remaining houses were dominant, a new force arrived from a very unexpected source: the surface elves, where the faerie elf House of Tarefell in Enstad fell to demon-seeing corruption and the worship of Lolth. Driven from their kin, they were guided by their patron beneath the surface, where they found the ancient city of Serisstad. Though mistrusted and hated for their pale skin, their fanatical devotion to the Spider Queen could not be denied, nor could their strong enchantments and summonings. Soon they came to dominate the other houses, if only because they were free of the specific blood-rivalries that prevented the other nobles from uniting. For the first time since the original exile of the drow, a group of elves from the surface ruled over their dark kin.

The Tarefell lasted only a few centuries, however, before their devotion to Lolth was tested by the intervention of the demon queen Nocticula. Dissatisfied with the amount of power the Queen of Spiders was doling out to her Tarefell priestesses - less than they believed they were promised when they first turned from the worship of Corellon Larethian and Sehanine Moonbow in their days on the surface - they looked to other demon rulers, and Nocticula responded. Beginning with a small inner circle among the Tarefell priestesses, soon all among that house rejected the Weaver of Chaos. Nocticula, known as the Undeniable, recognized her new subjects by changing them physically from the elven form associated with Lolth to new, hybrid beings, seemingly as much plant as animal with thorns and leafy tendrils erupting from their flesh. The transformed nobles found they could no longer reproduce in the usual way, but only by implanting seeds in the flesh of drow; strange blooms would erupt from their flesh and produce new Tarefell infants from long vegetable pods. For this reason and this reason only, they allowed their drow subjects to continue to live. Many fled in fear of their transformed rulers and their strange new powers, but many more, especially among the commoners, had nowhere to go and remained to labor for their new masters and pray to Lolth, Vhaeraun, and the other traditional drow gods they continued to revere that they would not be chosen to host the new generation of Tarefell.

Serisstad today is a broken city, the eerie blooms of Queen Sorscha's palace dominating the shattered walls of the huddled commoners. Still they remain a potent force in the Central Darkness, their demonic allies, battlebriars, and exotic magic preventing their hated rivals, the kuo-toans of Shloostanz, from conquering them or poaching their dromite slaves.

Obscure races

An intelligent race resembling giant beetles with human faces, the hedriomes, wander the wilds and corridors of the underdark beneath the Lortmils, Celene, and the Gnarley Forest. They are wise and powerfully psionic. Many are druids. They lived in this region since long before the coming of the drow, duergar, or kuo-toans.

They are revered as wise sages by a race of small humanoid insects called the dromites. The dromites and hedriomes are so closely associated here that some have wondered if the dromites might not be some larval stage of the hedriome life cycle. Most of the dromites are enslaved to the duergar and drow, however.

Machthorin, duergar kingdom

While most duergar communities are theocracies dedicated to the god Laduguer, Machthorin is the opposite, a secular tyranny defined by its strong belief in the absence of their chief god. They believe in a creator that has died or become exiled, leaving the duergar with the task of repairing and maintaining Creation (there is some evidence that their banished god is actually the derro deity Diinkarazan, who was imprisoned in the Abyss). This they treat as a sacred duty, the only sacred duty in which they believe. They strive to become the masters of all crafts, specializing in the working of the metals and stone they believe are the broken bones of the world. They have also opened themselves to an unusual degree to other planes, believing it is their destiny to rebuild every other world as well.

The ruler, Herglien, is nicknamed the Forgemaster, and Emperor of the Void. The meaning of the second title is twofold: first it is a spiritual title referring to the absence in the heavens since the death or imprisonment of their unnamed creator deity. Secondly, it refers to the void of the Astral Plane, which the Forgemaster has claimed as his territory.

This claim is spurious, of course, but was suggested by the greater devil Wiiksel when he first set up an embassy in the duergar realm, a squarish tower made of an unknown greenish-black metal staffed by bearded devils, beautiful tieflings with erinyes blood, and squealing imps. Wiiksel flattered the Forgemaster and his people's skills, which were considerable, and made them the exclusive source of forged goods for his infernal legion. With no gods to worship, the Machthorini were eager to worship devils, and many cults to the Lords of the Nine sprang up in the city.

More recently, in the last decade, the duergar have found new clients: a citadel of wormlike psurlons who heard of the Machthorini craftmanship through their diabolic contacts. Pleased with the duergar work, some have moved into Machthorin permanently, creating a ghetto of aberrations in order to better share their mental powers with their duergar allies in exchange for fine weapons and tools. With the power of the psurlons on their side, the Machthorini finally have the opportunity to make good on their claim of mastery over the planes.

While the githyanki have cause to be concerned over this new alliance, the being most threatened by it is Wiiksel, who is finding his centuries-old monopoly over planar access for the duergar eclipsed by the psurlon portals. Even the Machthorini traditional reverence for devils is being rivaled by new duergar cults dedicated to the psurlon god Mak Thuum Ngatha, also called the Nine-Tongued Worm. Wiiksel has not yet discovered a way to destroy the duergar-psurlon alliance, but is attempting to sow doubts and suspicion among the leaders of both peoples.

In the immediate underdark, Machthorin strives to keep itself politically neutral and isolationist. The Machthorini sold weapons to both sides of the Hateful Wars, and sell weapons to both the drow and kuo-toans in the hope that they will keep each other weak with their constant warring. The duergar of Machthorin are the secret sponsors of the humanoids of Blackthorn in the Gnarley Forest, which is near the edge of their kingdom. They hope to use the orcs of Blackthorn as pawns, attacking the cities of the surface while the duergar use their special abilities to steal the tools from the surface-dwellers that they believe they need to complete their great work.

Shloostanz

Shloostanz is by far the most ancient civilized realm in the region. settled as it was by the kuo-toans who lived on the Isles of Woe long before the rise of mammals. When the Elder Elves drove them into the Underdark, this was the first settlement they founded. Unlike almost every other kuo-toan settlement in the world, the folk of Shloostanz have retained their ancient knowledge and sorcery, avoiding the decline into madness and barbarism suffered by so many of their kind, including the people of neighboring Gloomdwell. Shloostanz is ruled by a council of mages, the greatest among them believed to be immortal and of gargantuan size. They have never forgotten their hatred of the elves who exiled them, taking most of their frustrations on the neighboring drow. Ironically, it is chiefly because of the Shloostanzian interference that the dark elves of Serisstad have never been able to seriously harm the kingdom of Celene; they have been too busy defending themselves against kuo-toan aggression.

The Shloostanzians, unlike most kuo-toans, are not a theocracy. They believe Blibdoolpoolp was an ancient messenger of an alien race who taught their ancestors the secrets of beings they call the Outer Gods. They respect her and invoke her in their initiation rites, but they do not worship her. A saying among the Shloostanzians is, "An apprentice learns from Blibdoolpoolp; a master becomes Blibdoolpoolp." The Shloostanzians believe in a vast multiverse populated by an array of semi-sentient concepts, powerful beings, and planes of existence that they treat as nearly indistinguishable patterns of energy. Their society is divided into factions representing these patterns, bewildering and illogical from the perspective of outsiders. The chief factions are: the Abyss, the Elemental Plane of Water, Charon and the River Styx, Bolothamogg, Holashner, Piscaethces, Shothotugg, Y'chak, Dagon, Demogorgon, the personifications of Hatred and Madness, Panzuriel, and the Array of Lesser Planes. This last faction serves as a sort of "guild of menial workers," permanently indentured to the other factions. The others spend most of their time contemplating their chosen affiliation or debating and dueling the members of the other factions. The kuo-toans who serve the Array of Lesser Planes (which includes within it every other plane and concept) are of too low status to be worthy of either dueling or debate.

The architecture of Shloonstanz is impressive, consisting of enormous spheres of glassteel, some of them half-sunken or entirely submerged in a deep still lake, others hovering above the waters with no apparent means of support. The kuo-toans travel between them in a network of airlocks and transparent tubes.

The kuo-toans of Shloostanz are allied with tribes of subterranean quaggoths and the mad kuo-toans of Gloomdwell. They trade on occasion with the duergar of Machthorin, buying weapons with magic, slaves, and the piscine bounty of their lake. Besides the dark elves of Serisstad and, to a lesser extent, the light elves of Celene, the Shloostanzians have a secret enemy they do not discuss with outsiders, a race of serpentine humanoids whose rivalry predates the kuo-toans' exile into the lands beneath the surface. They retreated into other planes with the coming of the Elder Elves, but they once enslaved the kuo-toans before they learned sorcery from Blibdoolpoolp and would like to enslave them again. This secret war across dimensions is the real priority of the Shloostanzian adepts.
 
Gloomdwell

The kuo-toans of Gloomdwell are a degenerate people who took shelter under the protection of the sorcerers of Shloostanz after being driven away from elsewhere. They lived among the Shloostanzians for a time before the sorcerers of Shloostanz tired of them and found a flooded cavern some distance away for them to colonize. They are close allies, giving Shloostanz regular tribute of fish, slaves, and soldiers in exchange for their magical protection.

The Gloomdwellers were originally ruled by priests of Blibdoolpoolp, but the Shloostanzians discouraged this and managed to reduce the influence of the priests by charging them with interpreting the mutterings of a species of aquatic animal they had bred. Originally a dolphinlike mammal adapted to subterranean waters, the Shloostanzians rendered them blind and mad with secret wisdom, then tasked them with transmitting their knowledge to the people of Gloomdwell. They do this unwillingly, their strange cries and groanings tearing from their throats like cries of agony in response to the priests' proddings and torments. They form recognizable words and phrases in the Kuo-toa language, instructing them on everything from agriculture to troop movements to the esoteric movements of the planes of existence. The priest-interpreters have begun revering the blind aquatic mammals more than their distant goddess Blibdoolpoolp; the creatures are in many ways the true rulers of Gloomdwell, acting as a parliament commanding a republic of lunatics. Nothing may be done in Gloomdwell without the mammals' burbling approval. They are judges, jury, legislature and kings. The respect the barbarous Gloomdwellers feel for their strange pronouncements is genuine.

The Gloomdwellers as a people are entirely ignorant of the secret war between Shloostanz and the serpent people. A few Gloomdwellers of exceptional promise are taken from their people and educated in Shloostanz, where they have the ability to become adepts themselves and be treated as equals in that society. The vast majority are simply cheap labor and cannon fodder in the war with the drow.

Notes:

A duergar and kuo-toan civilization is mentioned in the description of Blackthorn in Slavers, as is the relationship between the duergar and the humanoids there. The idea of an underdark network comprising the Lortmils, the Gnarley Forest, and Celene was first advanced by Nellisir in this thread.

The drow house of Vae were originally invented by Fred Weining in his article on the Vault of the Drow in Dragon #298. They were presented there as a clan of merchants and slavers who worshipped the goddess Kiaransalee, recently brought to the Vault of the Drow from the Pomarj.

Bolothamogg, Holashner, Y'chak, Mak Thuum Ngatha, Piscaethces, and Shothotugg were all described in Lords of Madness. My interpretation of the psurlons as a race dwelling on the Astral Plane, rivals of the githyanki, is from the Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix III.

This article also owes much to the tale of the Great Embarkation.

"
 
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