Flesh For Lolth: The Secret Life of Dark Elves
by Robin D. Laws (Dragon #298)
O Flesh Carver; who wove the world
Who made us from the darkest clay.
Spinning in it a red web of vein and artery.
We feel thy hunger.
O Lolth, humbly today we feed thee.
We feed you this flesh, this quivering meat.
With a blade like your jaws.
We divide muscle from bone.
Eat of this, the meal we consecrate to thee,
And do not this day devour us.
- Abjuration from the Crimson Liturgy of Lolth
Through ancient stone corridors, wet and slick with moss, the drow gentry proceed. Screams and whimpers emanate from the amphitheater ahead. The cries prompt throaty laughter from a lithe, pitch-skinned priestess, her glistening body covered with dozens of gray-furred spiders that crawl across it, each the size of a baby's fist. The priestess's hair, white as an ice field, lays close to her narrow, oblong skull. Studs of polished silver protrude from her brow, cheekbone, and jawline.
Her gnome servant teeters from side to side, bent from the weight of the gilded chest she hears, laden with greenwine and sweet-meats. The servant's hands have been removed at the wrist; her eye sockets are scorched and empty. She cannot stop herself from shuddering.
Abruptly, a red-lipped jester capers up from behind, displaying steel hooks that jut up through his shoulder blades. He seeks a new victim, someone to run his chains of precious metal through. The priestess reaches out to rake the clown with razor-honed nails, casually opening troughs of crimson in the flesh of his back. The jester shimmies and wriggles his tongue out along his rouge-caked lips.
A hiss of anticipation arises in the crowd. Tonight the blood will flow like wine, and if they are lucky, the spider goddess herself will appear and tear off someone's head.
Evil Beneath Your Feet
Many good people of the surface world fear the drow, even though few have ever beheld one. They've heard legends of the night-skinned elves and of their cruel and hungry goddess, Lolth the Spider Queen. Some say that these tales, which attribute every imaginable depravity to the dark elves, cannot possibly be true. Although there is evil in the world, the idealists say, the accounts of adventurers who come back from the Underdark must be exaggerated. No society, not even a completely evil one, could possibly continue if its people were as perverse and unpredictably brutal as their enemies claim.
So much for the prattling of sages! Go to any tavern frequented by explorers and treasure seekers. and they will educate you: If anything, the stories fail to capture the true horror of the dark elven world.
"We Are All Lolth's Meat"
Drow society survives as it does because a powerful and capricious goddess wills it so. Lolth - known as the Mother of Mandibles, Flesh Carver. and the Weaver of Webs, rules drow existence. Through her terrible earthly agents. The priestesses she takes an interest in each individual, from painful birth to wretched death. From early childhood, all drow know that they exist only to provide their goddess with food and pleasure. Those who survive to adulthood learn not to fear this eternal truth, but to embrace it. They face any hazard with steely resolve, knowing that no danger can be remotely as terrifying as the face of Lolth. To worship her is to blot out doubt and hesitation. Her dark and beady eyes contain the only truth: Life is but fleeting dance between predator and prey. Eventually every one is torn apart and digested. Therefore, the only way to grant meaning to existence is to ensure, that YOU make many kills before you die and that you show your taste and style by making your prey suffer exquisitely as they expire. A drow who cannot find delight in agony and destruction is no drow at all, fit only for ritual slaughter. When courage wavers, the true drow need only chant to herself the central of her faith: "We are all Lolth's meat".
Although all drow embrace death, each individual naturally prefers to embrace the death of others over their own. The desire to avoid becoming Lolth's next meal drives all interactions in a dark elven community. Even the mightiest priestesses must watch their backs to ensure that ambitious young acolytes don't schedule them for the Flesh Carver's feeding chamber. For every hundred adults in a drow community, its priestesses must make one sacrifice per week. The priestesses satisfy the grinding demand for new sacrifices in various ways. Vigorously they seek blasphemers and lawbreakers to consign to their blood altar. They solicit informants who report the infractions of others to avoid becoming victims themselves.
Only on rare and glorious occasions can a drow community justify the sacrifice of one of its own adults. Its victims are most often slaves or captives. Still, shortages at captives can occur at any moment, and smart drow always make sure they have at least one patroness among the local priesthood. Each priestess surrounds herself with a network of toadies who do her bidding. Normally, no priestess dares sacrifice the favorites of a higher-ranking colleague. Although a wheedling and servile manner never harms one's chances of success with a priestess, a proud and dignified drow can prove herself indispensable in other ways. Renowned artists, skilled torturers, knowledgeable sages, and accomplished craftsmen can ensure their survival by serving both the priestesses and the community at large. Among all their favorites, the priestesses covet hunters the most. These hunters are drow adventurers who rove the passageways of the Underdark in search of intelligent captives to enslave or sacrifice.
Lolth's priestesses know what she best likes to eat: Drow are better to sacrifice than other races, adults are better than children. She prefers healthy individuals to the sick or feeble, and the more powerful and skilled a character, the better. Among non-drow, the Spider Queen vastly favors humanoids over all other creature types and would rather devour the good and lawful than the evil or chaotic. Unintelligent beings (with an Intelligence less than 3) are beneath her interest, for they cannot understand their suffering. To place a mere animal on her altar is to risk being eaten yourself.
The priestesses determine if their sacrifices lack sufficient quantity and quality to please their goddess. When they must know for certain, a commune spell provides the Great Spider's direct answer. Usually, though, experienced priestesses can, by reading omens, tell if Lolth is content with their gifts. One telltale sign of the goddess's displeasure is the success of one's enemies. If, for example, a party of adventurers penetrates the drow community's defenses, it is clear that the Spider Queen has withdrawn her favor. To win it back, the priestesses must increase their regimen of sacrifices - starting with the invaders.
Bloodied From the Birth-Sac
A notable difference between drow and their topside cousins lies in their fertility rate. Most elves have very low fertility rates, in keeping with their long lifespans. Drow mothers, in contrast, give birth as often as the more fertile races, such as humans and orcs. Their greater fertility reflects the crushing mortality rate among drow infants and youngsters. Drow females might give birth to ten times the number of babies than the females from other elven subraces do, but this does not mean that they end up with more adult children.
It is common for pregnant drow to carry twins or even triplets. Even in these cases, multiple births are rare, as the strongest of the fetuses feeds on its siblings in the womb. Pregnant drow can sometimes feel these mortal combats take place in their bellies. Such prenatal battles produce in their mothers a euphoric sensation, referred to in the Undercommon tongue as chad-zak. The feeling is infinitely stronger than that produced in the bedchamber or by any intoxicant. Without it, it is doubtful that drow women, selfish to the core, would ever deign to suffer the inconveniences of reproduction.
Chad-zak occurs up to four times per multiple pregnancy. It usually happens early in the third trimester. Mothers who experience repeated chad-zaks usually feel them in quick succession, once every one or two days. The final chad-zak indicates one fetus's successful slaying of its rivals. This process does not result in stillbirths; the slain are absorbed back into the mother's body.
Playing For Keeps
The fact that a newborn drow has survived in the womb and made it through birth does not guarantee its further survival. All drow children, even those not yet able to walk, feel an instinctive homicidal impulse toward their siblings. In fact, when opportunity rears its head, most drow youngsters happily kill any playmates. Despite this fact - or, rather, because of it - children are not kept apart in drow nurseries. Their mothers want the strong children to sharpen their predatory inclinations, polishing off their weaker offspring in the process. No drow wants a weak or incompetent child to reach adulthood, where she might bring shame to the family. Note that strength need not be physical; it is better to have a spindly child whose cleverness allows her to engineer the deaths of others than a well-muscled brute who is easily fooled. It goes without saying that any drow bent toward mercy or virtue stands out as glaringly weak. In the unlikely event that his siblings don't gang up on him and crush his windpipe, the mother will surely send such a shameful freak of nature to the priestesses, as fodder for their ceremonial daggers. It is for this reason that good drow are exceedingly rare. To survive without enthusiastically embracing evil is next to impossible.
Drow parents rarely visit their children. Some weak-minded males might enjoy playing with their spawn, but nurses and other servants keep a watchful eye on them.
No doubt because it is such a dangerous time for them, drow children grow up much faster than the children of other elves. By the age of eight, drow children can walk, talk, and speak. They are then carted off to receive schooling. Junior priestesses tutor the young, savagely punishing them for misbehavior. Students might be caged, doused with scalding or freezing water, poked with sharpened sticks, poisoned, burned, or simply pulverized with fists and clubs. Such ill treatments scarcely seem to slow down these untamable children, who have already proven themselves bullies and survivors at home. Priestesses never fatally harm their charges; if they want them dead, it's wasteful not to sacrifice them.
Religious doctrine is the main object of study. Youngsters are also drilled in combat maneuvers, literacy, mathematics, alchemy, natural history, and various artisan skills. Students who demonstrate an affinity for magic are often taken out of classes and apprenticed to wizards and sorcerers.
School continues until the age of twenty, when adolescence officially begins. By this time, one out of every three students will have been murdered by classmates. Another one in ten will have been sent to the temple as food for Lolth.
Tests of Treachery
During the years that bridge childhood and adulthood, young drow are expected to choose a role for themselves in society and to set themselves on a path toward achieving it. They typically latch on to mentors, learning their skills and acquainting themselves with their contacts. Once a young adult drow gains enough experience, she waits for something terrible to befall her mentor (or she might engineer it herself if required by one of Lolth's tests) and attempts to step into her mentor's place. Typically this attempt requires conflict with rival apprentices or others with a claim on the mentor's clients, position, and property. It is considered a high crime for drow to mentor their own children, although dispensation from high priestesses can sometimes be had, for a price.
Masters are given the rights of life or death over their protegés, but then, so is everyone else. Adolescents may not ingratiate themselves with priestesses, and are therefore without protection in drow society. They must keep their heads down, while at the same time proving themselves useful to their patrons. To tip the balance either way is risky. A too-humble apprentice is perceived as easy to bully, while overly ambitious ones alarm their masters, who begin to fear assassination.
At the approximate age of eighty, adolescents are expected to complete a task indicating their mastery of their chosen role. A hunter must capture a valuable sacrifice, while a musician must perform a particularly difficult ballad. Not only must the drow perform her task well, she must not show any self-doubt or fear. Doing so means failure in the eyes of Lolth, and it results in horrible punishments. Success indicates that the drow is ready to be recognized as an adult. Adolescents who pass the test without dispatching their mentors must set up shop for themselves, going into business independently.
As adults, drow look for protegés to exploit, rivals to destroy, and opportunities for pleasure. Wealth and luxury are seen as outward signals of success, but the true measure of an adult's status lies in the number of people she's murdered (or caused to be murdered), and the creative manner in which her prey were made to suffer as they slowly perished. Just as a slow, torture-filled slaying wins more admiration than a mercifully quick sneak attack, different victims accrue varying amounts of prestige. Killing a victim well known to the community confers more glory than a mere outsider. Credit for sacrificial victims goes to those who capture them. Thus, the hunter class is among the most admired in drow society, second only to the priestesses.
An ingenious evisceration means nothing if others do not know of it. Hence, bards have a crucial role among the drow. Social climbers hire bards to commemorate their slayings in song. If possible, they even invite the balladeers to.attend the killings, to more vividly portray the slaughter. A skilled bard with a popular following can greatly enhance a drow's prestige, transforming a run-of-the-mill execution into a celebrated slaughter. Bards patrol the winding passageways of an underground community, yipping out their gore-spattered ballads in the screechy, affected tone expected of a drow singer. The hiring of a famed bard can cost tens of thousands of gold pieces, and the more an individual drow pays, the greater her chances of social elevation. The subject of the song might, for example, attract a more powerful priestess as a patron or gain new, well-heeled customers for her business.
Especially popular murder songs outlast not only the fame of their victims, but of the killers. Along with newly commissioned songs, bards perform timeless classics such as "The Burning of Farza-Lach," "Tornon's Guts," and "Seven Drips from the Gore Cord."
Accompanying a drow bard's keening voice is a complex, lute-like instrument known as vazhan-do. Their tight strings can be plucked furiously, unleashing a violent torrent of notes, or slowly bent, producing slow and disturbing sounds. Any of the sixty-four strings of the standard vazhan-do can be quickly unstrung from the instrument, doubling as a garrote. It is not surprising that bards often double as assassins, as their nightly rounds allow them to travel throughout the community without question. Although their status as hired killers is well-known, it would be unthinkable to restrict their movements. To refuse to give a bard hospitality is to seem both cowardly and unsporting. However, it is one thing to invite a bard into one's home and quite another to let him out of one's sight for even a moment.
Lolth does not make it easy for her minions to please her. All drow feel a sense of creeping unease as they progress in their careers. This is true no matter what roles they've selected in life. All fear the day when they reach a level of achievement that catches the cruel attention of their grim goddess. Even the all-powerful priestesses are not immune to the dreaded Lolthtanchwi - the "Punishments of Lolth." Lolth puts her worshipers through a number of terrifying tests throughout their lives, the first of which occurs in late adolescence (1st level in game terms). The tests continue as the drow progresses in strength and skill, each one more demanding and with more terrifying consequences than the last (for more on the tests and punishments of Lolth, see "Punishments of Lolth" in this issue).
Drow perceive when each test is about to descend on them. Their senses become painfully acute, and the world seems both more crisply real and more menacing. In some cases, horrifying visions preclude the start of a test, while in others, a sign, such as the sighting of a particular spider, indicates a new test. Different tasks are required of the drow for each test, and they invariably require the drow to risk both her life and all she has achieved in life to date.
As is true for many species of spiders. drow mating rituals are unpredictable and fraught with peril - for the male.
Women enjoy an unquestioned upper hand in drow society. The priestesses run all political affairs, and grim-faced matriarchs control families and their business proceedings. According to drow stereotypes, females are smart, cool-headed, and cruel, while males are foolish, impulsive, and emotionally weak. Males kill and maim to defend themselves and to prove they are not cowards. Females kill and maim because they enjoy it.
Females marry for political reasons but are not monogamous. They may dally with their followers, with travelers from other communities, or even with servants and slaves. Husbands are expected to remain faithful to their wives and are usually sacrificed if caught cheating. On the other hand, if a powerful priestess takes a liking to another woman's husband, she can have him consigned to the sacrificial altar for having the temerity to refuse her his favors. Charming, well-muscled males often face such no-win situations. For this reason, handsome men often disfigure themselves or spend long periods away from the community in all-male hunter bands.
Drow custom allows its females to engage in cross-species coupling; if a male engages in such a dalliance, it is considered a capital offense. Any sexual contact between a drow and a drider means instant death, no matter what the status of the drow. Congress with driders remains the mightiest taboo in drow culture.
In the Drip, Drip, Dripping Dark
As fearsome as they are, the drow are beset by many powerful enemies. They must defend their subterranean communities against mind flayers, dwarven warriors, and other humanoid adventuring parties. Drow settlements cannot be cleared out by merely charging from room to room and killing the inhabitants of each chamber. Dark elves react quickly to intrusion. They install sophisticated magical alarms and mount systematic patrols throughout a wide perimeter so that the entire community is mobilized for battle by the time enemies can reach its gates. The drow wear down opponents with waves of conscripted soldiers and common soldiers before sending out high-level hunters and mighty priestesses.
It is possible, though difficult, to gain peaceful admittance to a drow enclave. As lovers of luxury, dark elves hunger for unusual foods, strange intoxicants, fine fabrics, beautiful jewels, and other exotic items they cannot produce themselves. They're also always in the market for slaves; specimens too damaged to work can at least be torture victims.
Drow pay for these items with captured loot from raids or with unique magic items produced by their talented wizards. They ensure premium value for these items by keeping the techniques of their creation secret. Most decent individuals abhor all signs of drow craftsmanship and look askance at those who make open use of drow magic items. Although many sellers of magical curios refuse to handle these items, they fetch high prices in lands that have a tendency for evil.
There are easier ways of making a living than running trade caravans into the Underdark, but a few intrepid individuals have earned fortunes this way. Drow do not easily trust outsiders, even when vouched for by traders they already know. Only after many successful and mutually profitable trade missions are non-drow given free access to a dark elven settlement. Even an ally of long standing can always be hauled off for ritual murder when he commits a major gaffe, or if the drow are desperate enough for sacrifices.
Drow are most likely to admit adventuring parties past their gates as the bound, gagged. and unconscious captives of hunting parties. Most captives are maimed and put to work as slaves, but adventurers are usually treated with extreme care until an auspicious time for sacrifice arrives. Still, it is not unknown for adventurers to escape from captivity and fight their way out of a drow enclave.
Spiders, Spiders, Everywhere
The chambers of any drow settlement crawl with spiders. From mites the size of pinpricks to guardian tarantulas the size of houses, there is no area of a dark elven community devoid of spiders. They skitter in swarms across walls and along floors. They drop from ceilings. Webs, some stronger than rope, hang from every imaginable surface.
Although guests might be unnerved by the spiders' inescapable presence, the locals pay them no heed. Cobwebs are waved or burnt away without comment. The squishing and crunching sound of stepped-on spiders is a constant refrain. Drow do not bother to check for spiders before sitting. A matriarch might idly seize a fist-sized spider while negotiating a trade arrangement and proceed to casually rip its legs off, one by one. Drow breads and puddings are speckled with stray legs. mandibles, and eggs. The overwhelming presence of so many spiders is often disconcerting to non-drow visitors, but drow themselves hardly take note of the creatures.
Theater of Atrocity
There are no more fervent followers of the arts than dark elves - provided that the works in question revel in demented evil.
Lolth's ritual slayings can be seen as a gruesome form of performance art. Although everyday sacrifices are conducted in small temples or shrines, events featuring notable victims are often held in large amphitheaters in which the entire community can gather. These events provoke a carnival atmosphere, with raucous laughter filling the hall as jesters leap through the stalls. Bards stroll the aisles, singing of murder, and celebrants haul in food and wine to consume throughout the event. Intoxicating vapors waft from censers, making hearts beat faster and hands tremble with bloodlust. Priestesses and other members of the gentry watch from private boxes fixed with blinds that can be drawn for privacy. Everything from conspiracies to trysts might be negotiated in the confines of these boxes.
Most drow bloodsports are horribly brutal and gory. In one popular entertainment, a bound captive is held beneath an apparatus that slowly drips a magical acid onto his forehead, one drop at a time. The solvent opens up a hole in the victim's skull and then melts the brain. During this time, orbs of telepathic power communicate the dying victim's memories to the salivating crowd. Attendees vicariously savor the captive's most traumatic and painful experiences as he slowly succumbs.
Not all bloodletting in the amphitheater if fatal. Torturers often display their supreme skill with their filleting blades by leaving victims just on the brink of death. The most artful torturers become as famous as bards. Even torture victims, left alive to magically heal between performances, can become (drow celebrities if they can communicate their suffering artfully enough.
Drow taste in the decorative arts is appalling to non-evil humanoids. One particularly skilled class of drow artisans specializes in incredibly life like sculpture that looks as if it's created from living flesh. In truth, the sculptures are carved from blocks of drider silk, elaborately hand-painted and made to move through complex mechanical craftsmanship. Many are life-sized depictions of torture or mayhem. Common motifs include a human paladin impaled on a pike, a spider eating the brains of a halfling, or the good elven god, Corellon Larethian, carved up on the torture table.
In some drow communities, more abstract pieces are popular, such as a tapestry of liquid flesh in which hundreds of oozing eyes continually drift upward and downward in a regular wave pattern.
Predation, Travel and Warfare
For many male drow, finding peace and autonomy is possible only on the trail, away from their wives, mothers, and sisters. (Although nothing stops female drow from becoming hunters, women tend to stay at home, closer to the levers of power.) Hunters win status for themselves and wealth for their families by capturing slaves and sacrificial victims. They especially seek out adventurers to attack, because such powerful individuals are highly prized sacrificial commodities.
It is a short step for some discontented dark elves to keep wandering and never return home. So-called "good" drow are typically former hunters who have decided to find places for themselves in other societies. Even when fighting for apparently good causes, they find their ingrained predatory habits hard to shake.
Prosperous drow communities might decide to give Lolth her favorite gift of all and launch warfare against a nearby town, village, or underground settlement. The object of such conquests is always the same: mass murder. Victorious drow slaughter entire populations in the name of Lolth. On rare occasions, ambitious priestesses seek alliances with other drow enclaves, hoping to build armies big enough to overrun and slaughter entire nations. Such efforts might be successful in the interim but are generally short-lived, as it does not take much provocation for jealous priestesses from different communities to turn on one another.
Death and Burial
In the bloodthirsty culture of the drow, the words "burial" and "old age" do not exist. It is rare for a drow to survive past 400 years, and sooner or later, a drow powerful enough to have gained so many years will certainly attract the attention of Lolth and end up on the sacrificial altar. Drow who die of natural causes are considered to have shamed Lolth. Their bodies are simply left to rot, their carcasses feeding the insects and vermin. In some cases however, such as when a more prominent drow dies of natural causes, the priestesses might choose to use the death as an example to other drow, imparting on them the shame that comes with never having caught the eye of Lolth and been called to sacrifice. The corpse of such a drow is strung up over the door of her family home, suspended by delicate spider silk, and left until only bones remain. This serves as a symbol of the family's shame, and a reminder to other drow of the benefits of murdering particularly long-lived family members. Drow who fall in battle or who have been killed by another drow receive a "blessing" from Lolth. Rather than being thrown on the garbage heap or left to rot over the doorway of one's ancestral home, the flesh on their bodies is ceremoniously stripped from the bones by a priestess, dried, and used for clothing enhancements or to make czak'ls, special bowls used to collect blood drained from sacrificed victims. Their remaining body parts and bones are soaked in a strong acid, and alter a few days, nothing remains.
The drow have no concept of ancestor worship, and they do not grieve for fallen family members. Instead, they are too busy scheming how to use the death to their advantage. This might mean gaining new power and prestige within the family, new business contacts, or new inherited wealth. On the extremely rare occasion that a drow feels loss over the death of a mate or family member, it is advantageous to hide such feelings. A dark elf stupid enough to demonstrate an emotion as useless as grief is considered an abomination, and quickly and painfully sacrificed to Lolth.
A terrible logic arises from Lolth's taste in sacrifices. If she prefers drow over non-drow, and high-level characters over lowly ones, it stands to reason that her favorite victims are her own top priestesses. Thus, the priestesses have devised a way to avoid winding up on their own altars: They band together. Most of the time, a community's priestesses maintain an attitude of respectful, but mistrustful, distance from one another. If one priestess moves against another, the rest tend to side against the aggressor. The annals of drow history recount several famous incidents in which rebellious priestesses lined up allies against a High Priestess only to be betrayed by their supposed allies. A priestess must be extremely unpopular before her fellows will stand idly by for her sacrifice.
Open conflict within a priesthood is not unknown, however. In almost all such cases, a schism erupts between two sides that are evenly matched with one another. These fights are prone to expand into outright civil wars that engulf entire communities. Each faction of priestesses uses its favored lackeys, soldiers, and hunters to war against the other. Dark elven historians have even documented cases in which warring priestesses recruited outside adventurers from the surface to bolster their forces.
Lolth never intervenes in such struggles, even when it means the demise of entire communities. The success of the predator should never be restrained by sympathy for the prey.
The Ethics of Drow Killing
Adventurers who want to maintain their good alignments must always think before they smite. Just because the vast majority of orcs or bugbears, for example, tend to be evil, does not guarantee that any particular orc or bugbear deserves to be mercilessly cut down in the name of truth and virtue.
With drow, such qualms do not apply. Virtually any individual in a drow community has already proven him- or herself a murderer - even small children.
Be warned, though: By the same token, almost all drow, including very young ones, are experienced killers and might boast shockingly high levels as warriors, rogues. or sorcerers. More than one adventurer has died an ignominious death after relaxing his guard with a drow child,
Drow wanderers might, in exceedingly rare circumstances, claim the mantle of goodness. Some individuals exile themselves from their murderous communities in search of a peaceful life out of Lolth's reach. In most cases, they'll be consumed with shame and self-loathing, unable to fully shake the savagery of their formative years. A supposedly good drow might not gut you in the night as you sleep. but he'll still constantly wrestle with powerful impulses toward dishonesty, selfishness, and treachery. The fact that surface-dwellers shun them at all costs makes life even more difficult for the infinitesimally tiny fraction of drow who sincerely seek redemption.