Of the Undercities

Of the Undercities

An introduction to the form and disposition of the known Underworld, particularly the Dwarven Empire, written in the year 99013 of the New Reckoning by Argev, Master of Letters to House Deepdelver, Chief Epistolary of the Great Library of Deepdelve, ably assisted by Goluff, Master of Terragraphy to House Deepdelver, for the education of the noble sons and daughters of our Lord Hundrik, and those that follow afterwards.

My young lords and ladies will already know much of the Underworld from their lives so far. Even in the safety of the Women’s Quarters, a young Dwarf is not completely isolated from the events outside! From your lord fathers you will have heard snippets, and perhaps some of you have been fortunate enough to journey outside the Underkeep into the passages of Deepdelve, or even beyond. Nonetheless, it is important that noble heirs such as yourselves have committed to tablet a definitive document from which they may take education. This is necessarily a brief treatise on a vast and vital subject, but I hope that my young lords and ladies shall find it useful as reference, and perhaps look back upon these simple words with fondness in your later lives. Maybe you will spare a thought for Old Argev in his dusty library when you are off adventuring and making histories of your own!

The known Underworld is properly defined as a region of earth some one-thousand-two-hundred miles from north to south, three-hundred miles from east to west and six-hundred miles from top to bottom. Threaded through this vast expanse of rock are uncounted tunnels and caverns, fissures and vents, mines and mineral seams yet untapped, streams and lakes, carved passages and chambers, and the glorious settlements of our people, the Dwarves. The most important terragraphic feature is the Molochfyre, which means “God’s Blood” in the Ancestor Tongue. This, as even my young lords and ladies should be aware by now, is a mighty river of magma that flows through the centre of the Dwarven Empire. Its flow begins to the south-east-down, emerging from the Deeps, and it journeys upwards, north and west, until it passes into the High Reaches. Its true limits are unknown, for the Deeps are utterly unfathomable: a layer of dense, impenetrable stone, riddled with natural tunnels and caverns that are infested with Goblins and other even fouler creatures. Where the Molochfyre goes is also a mystery, for the High Reaches are similarly unnavigable, though for a different reason: here the rock is loose and waterlogged, such that cave-ins are too frequent for any excavation to be possible. Shadow Pit is the only Underkeep of any note in this benighted region, and it is a rude and foetid settlement. No one knows what powers the flow of the Molochfyre, for it travels against the natural inclination of the Underworld towards the downward direction (what the Pyromancers call the Earth’s Grasp), but many philosophers believe it forms a continuous ring around creation, endlessly flowing and powering life itself. Such questions are beyond the scope of this lesson. What is known is that the Molochfyre has a cycle of activity that allows us to divide the year into twelve Ebbings. It thus rages more strongly or weakly in a predictable pattern, but there are years when it is more active than others, causing an increase in Quakes.

The Molochfyre is what makes life possible for Dwarves. It provides heat, light and the ability to dispose of things unneeded. Without the Molochfyre – as those Dwarves who live beyond the Core find – it is very difficult to build an Underkeep, as it is almost impossible to remove excavated earth. The heat of the Molochfyre consumes rock, soil, rubbish, the bodies of our dead and all manner of less savoury materials. The Molochfyre is also a vital navigational aid: a Dwarf with particularly strong terrametry can feel its flow from even hundreds of miles away, and can thus tell in what direction he is oriented and how far he is from the Core. The Core, as my young lords and ladies may know, is the region centred around the Molochfyre itself. This is the oldest and most settled region of the Dwarven Empire, the seat of our race’s power, and the true beacon of civilisation.

The Core has been settled for over twenty-five-thousand years. The oldest hewn tunnels bear runic inscriptions in the Ancestor Tongue, and a skilled Pyromancer or other scholar of the language can interpret these crude inscriptions and thus date the ancient earthworks. The oldest settlement is undoubtedly Vorganash, the first Undercity of the Empire, located roughly equidistant between the known limits of the Molochfyre. Vorganash – which means “Seat of the Dwarves” in the Ancestor Tongue – fell into ruin over ten-thousand years ago. No one now knows exactly why, but the evidence points strongly towards a period of heavy flow along the Molochfyre, causing massive Quakes, which no doubt were the main contributory factor in the capital’s demise. The ruins are now also infested by Goblins, as while the Quakes sealed off the gates to the rest of the Empire, they also opened fissures into the Deeps, allowing the foul denizens of that black realm access to our most ancient and sacred wonders. The line of Emperors also died with Vorganash, and now the long ages before its destruction are remembered only dimly as a great golden age. Though Vorganash has fallen, there are many other Undercities that perhaps match it in splendour. I will attempt to catalogue some of the greatest and summarise their history and some of the reasons for their notability.

Highthrone, called Gundanash in the Ancestor Tongue, is known as the Second City of the Empire. It dates back almost to the founding of the Dwarven Empire, and considers itself the modern capital. Rulership of Highthrone has changed hands many times, with over a dozen different Houses claiming domination of it over the centuries. Currently it is ruled by House Greytusk. Highthrone is located seventy-five miles almost due up of Vorganash, so far up as to be nearly in the High Reaches. It is certainly the uppermost of the Undercities of the Core, hence its name. Though it has access to rich mineral seams and other valuable resources, its great power is owed mainly to the spirit of mercantilism and commerce that is its lifeblood. The Overlords of Highthrone are known principally for their trading and brokering, and Highthrone is the location of the Imperial Mint, which supplies coinage to the whole Empire. Highthrone thus controls most trading consortiums, banks and merchants’ guilds. Highthroners are known for both their arrogance and their gaudy attire. Derided behind their backs as popinjays and worse, most are all too happy to accept the gold of a Highthroner when given the opportunity.

Greyhearth, called Umberhelt in the Ancestor Tongue, is a small Undercity lying about seventy miles south-west-up of Vorganash. Its people are proud and distinguished, and its Overlords have been of House Hellhammer for over a thousand years. Greyhearth has a fierce rivalry with its neighbour, Ironhold, and this has led to open war on more than one occasion. The Warriors of Greyhearth are known for their stoicism, and weapons and armour forged in Greyhearth are considered the finest available.

Ironhold, called Bunderk in the Ancestor Tongue, is eighty miles due south of Vorganash. It lies on rich seams of iron ore, and its people are miners with few peers. Ironhold has grown wealthy due to its trade in iron and steel, overseen in recent centuries by House Smeltfury but it has long refused to trade directly with Greyhearth, which is the source of their long conflict. The Smiths of Greyhearth long to have easy access to the good iron of their rivals, but are forced to purchase it through third parties, driving the price up to unacceptable levels. They often launch raids into the outlying Underkeeps of Ironhold’s vassals in an attempt to seize ore, which means that much of the wealth of Ironhold is spent on hiring mercenary armies to keep the Greyhearthers at bay.

Risegate, called Heddenmeng in the Ancestor Tongue, is one-hundred-and-fifty miles south and slightly east of Vorganash, and sits very near to the Molochfyre, atop an unusual upward kink in the river of magma which means it is almost always calm in the region, as all its ferocity is spent pumping itself upwards. Risegate is thus therefore uniquely placed to take advantage of the Molochfyre, which is does by pumping magma throughout its halls. Risegate is therefore exceptionally well lit, warm and luxurious in many other ways. It has more shrines than any other Undercity, and is known for its pious inhabitants. Dwarves come from throughout the Empire to bask in the light of Risegate, to make offerings and prayers to Moloch, and simply enjoy the realm where, it is said, “Waning never comes”. Risegate is ruled by House Lightbringer, which is rumoured to be almost completely in the pocket of the Pyromancers of the Dreadkeep.

Crossing the Molochfyre, Southember, called Joturglest in the Ancestor Tongue, lies one-hundred-and-forty miles south-east-down from Vorganash. In contrast to its nearest neighbours at Risegate, Southember bears the full fury of the Molochfyre, which lies directly above it. Southember was founded fairly recently, only three-thousand years ago, by the opportunistic House Embersmoke, a minor family of nobles with aspirations above their station. Southember was supposed to be as grand as Highthrone and lit like Risegate, but its undesirable location below the Molochfyre made this logistically challenging. Instead, Southember is riven by Quakes and frequently prone to magma floods that destroy its outlying sections. The people of Southember are an embittered and quarrelsome folk, prone to squabbling amongst themselves, as well as launching raids on their wealthier neighbours. They survive because their proximity to the Molochfyre – and lack of Risegate’s religious scruples – makes them the Empire’s leaders in disposing of waste. Excavated earth from throughout the Underworld is brought to their gates, along with the bodies of those slain in wars whose Underkeeps have been destroyed too and so have none left to mourn or pay funeral costs. Southember thus understandably has a dire and morbid reputation.

One-hundred-and-thirty miles south-east-up of Vorganash is Silvermine, called Ordenclife in the Ancestor Tongue, an old Undercity named for the great seams of silver below it. The great wealth of Silvermine allows it to outfit its Warriors with equipment of Greyhearth-make, and the lords of the Undercity are known for their fierce ambition and expansionist tendencies. Long centuries of campaigning have won Silvermine a vast realm of sworn vassals in the surrounding region, and access to even greater mineral deposits. In recent centuries, they have begun to encroach on territory claimed by their greatest rivals, the lords of Highthrone. As yet, open war has been avoided, but only because Overlord Dorek Greatbeard has been cunning enough to use mercenaries from the North Fringes to carry out most of his attacks, thus enabling him to avoid accusations of warmongering. If tensions between Highthrone and Silvermine ever do spill into outright warfare, the repercussions for the entire Empire could be extremely dire.

Stonedeep, called Erdenhung in the Ancestor Tongue, lies seventy miles east-down from Vorganash. It is built into unyielding rock, in a place where no sane Dwarf would ever attempt to settle. Five-thousand years ago, Lorgon Flintshard, a determined prospector, founded his Underkeep in the future site of Stonedeep and all called him a fool. It is said that he hewed out the passages with his own pickaxe, and when that blunted and then shattered, he finished it with his own hands and teeth. His heirs have reigned in Stonedeep ever since, and are renowned as a folk as grim and uncompromising as their home. The Flintshards have almost no interest in the grand politics of the Empire, and are wedded to their pride and honour. They have a habit of involving themselves in hopeless causes, allying themselves with the oppressed and downtrodden and alone amongst the High Houses pay almost no attention to the sanctity of noble blood. Because living in Stonedeep and quarrying out its only resource – iron-strong stone – is so hard, they have no time for what they call “putting on airs” and keeping themselves apart from the lowborn. A Flintshard bride will marry for love as often as politics, and its Overlords are thus often raised from mere commoners. Many of the High Houses thus look down on the Flintshards and Stonedeep as a whole, but they have proved themselves stalwart fighters and unwavering allies to those who have shown their loyalty. In Stonedeep, it is said that one Stoneaxe (as their Warriors call themselves) are worth half a dozen Warriors from anywhere else in the Empire.

If one follows the Molochfyre up its course some ninety miles, one would come across Oldfort, called Dungragen in the Ancestor Tongue. Oldfort claims to be the oldest Undercity in the Empire, predating even Vorganash, and indeed it is hard to deny the authenticity of the ruins that littler the region. However, the lords of Oldfort are derided throughout the Empire as outrageous liars and cheats. The Undercity’s current ruling House, the Splithelms, are considered little more than jumped-up thugs by the High Houses, and Oldfort a den of thieves and brigands. Oldfort may be ancient, but it has existed in its current form for less than two-thousand years, and no House that has ever ruled it has any claim to true nobility. Oldfort is likewise in a state of poor repair, constantly shaken by Quakes, and is notable only for its size. Its large population means it manages to wield certain influence despite its well-earned ill reputation, with its unscrupulous merchants spreading across the Empire like a plague.

Fifty miles west-up and across the Molochfyre from Oldfort is Quakeblight, called Karrtak in the Ancestor Tongue, a place almost equal to its neighbour in ill-repute. Though Quakeblight is not as close to the Molochfyre as some Undercities, some chance of nature means that it is affected much more heavily by Quakes than any other settlement, save perhaps the Dreadkeep. Quakeblight was originally called Northhold (Jotanderk), until the excessive Quakes reduced it to almost total ruin, causing it to earn its current name. Quakeblight is a lawless, dangerous place, ruled over by a constantly shifting alliance of Houses, currently led by House Cleftshield. Its inhabitants are a mix of mercenaries, fortune hunters and half-maddened holy men, seeking communion with Moloch or even Mammon in the Quake-hammered passages of the Undercity. So unstable is Quakeblight that ancient tunnels to lost regions are constantly being unearthed in its depths and, though it lies on the edge of the Core, there are rumours that a way into Vorganash has been discovered, though it is a dangerous journey through uncertain territory to find even its beginning. It is therefore no surprise that Quakeblight attracts many dispossessed and dangerous men, seeking glory and riches in its darkness.

The last of the great Undercities of the Core is our own glorious Deepdelve. You will already know much of the history of your sires’ realm, but I will summarise it here to place it in context with the other Undercities. Deepdelve, called Hunganosk in the Ancestor Tongue, is approximately eighty-miles south-down from Vorganash, counting Ironhold and Stonedeep as its closest neighbours. Deepdelve was founded in the dim and distant past by the Deepdelvers themselves and is one of the few Undercities that is still ruled by its founders’ descendents – including my young lords and ladies, of course. Mining has always been the principle industry of Deepdelve, and it is built into harsh rock just like Stonedeep. Mineral seams of all kinds run close to Deepdelve, and they have yet to be exhausted in all the thousands of years of mining that have taken place around the Undercity. Every year, the miners of Deepdelve plunge deeper into the earth, and a great chain of vassal Underkeeps stretching down almost to the Deeps owe their fealty to House Deepdelve. It was our people that discovered the Deepslime, a vast underground lake equalled in scale only by Eastmire and Twins and founded the nigh-impregnable fortress of Coaldelve, which lies almost one-hundred miles down – further from Deepdelve than Deepdelve itself is from Vorganash. Deepdelve can thus fairly claim to be at the centre of the largest realm in the Underworld, albeit one which is thinly spread and composed primarily of austere mining colonies. Ore, stone and precious gems mined by Deepdelve and its vassals are traded throughout the Dwarven Empire, and the Undercity is known as a friend to all, taking no sides in the conflicts that so blight other regions. Deepdelver is one of the great High Houses, taking tradition and honour very seriously. Our lords’ terrametry is strong, and the shrines of the Deep Ones glow hot with magma pumped directly from the Molochfyre. Truly my young lords and ladies are fortunate to live in such a bountiful Undercity as fair Deepdelve.

The last Undercity of note is the only one that does not lie in the Core – a very unusual state of affairs, for obvious reasons. It has long been supposed that it is impossible to excavate a settlement of any size so far from the Molochfyre, but Stokekeep, or Brindengrad, has proved the exception. It almost five-hundred miles north-up of Vorganash, in the wild territories of the Northern Fringes. Such a benighted realm is infested with all manner of lawless brigands and foul creatures such as Goblins, Wyrms, Hellmites and worse. Stokekeep was hacked from the bare rock by the Firestokes, an extended clan of mercenaries with pretensions of nobility. In recent centuries, their breed of veteran Warrior has become a common sight throughout the Empire, finding employment in almost every Undercity – even, sad to say, our own Deepdelve. They are a scarred, brutal folk, not finely armoured like a Warrior of the High Houses, but instead bedecked in crude trophies and talismans, their flesh scourged by tattoos and ritual brands and their teeth filed into sharp points to match their fierce tusks. Stokekeep is not a civilised place by any measure; little more than an overgrown Underkeep, but its defences are strong and its inhabitants fiercely independent.

Here, a word must be said about the Dreadkeep, which is not an Undercity at all, but a huge network of passages and chambers built almost directly into the Molochfyre so that magma flows freely through its lower levels at high Ebbings. The Dreadkeep has no true name, or if it does it has long been forgotten, and it lies forty miles along the Molochfyre from Vorganash, the closest of any settlement to the ruined capital. It is the home of the Pyromancers, those Dwarves who are imbued with a portion of Moloch’s power. Able to wield terrametry with astonishing skill, the Pyromancers are not truly of this world at all, and their minds are constantly filled with the chatterings of the very earth around them. Pyromancers can produce flame with a thought, and are in great demand for a huge number of tasks across the Empire. Dreadkeep should thus be vastly wealthy, but the Pyromancers and their ragged apprentices live in almost absolute poverty in the bare tunnels of their grim home. Some say they simply cast all their riches into the Molochfyre as an offering to the Furious God. Dreadkeep is an extremely dangerous place, and no Dwarf should make the journey there lightly. Only those wishing to become Pyromancers or those seeking the services of one of their masters – the mysterious Grand Pyromancers – should come to its black gates, which open directly onto a narrow ledge above the surging magma of the Molochfyre. Visitors are left standing on that thin strip of rock, mere feet from the very blood of God, for as long as the Pyromancers wish, and many have been driven insane just from the terror of holding such precarious station. Unsurprisingly, the Dreadkeep is constantly shaken by heavy Quakes, but since there is nothing of value to destroy in its shadowy depths, this has done nothing to curb the power of its inhabitants.

Away from the Core, the Empire grows increasingly wild and lawless. Underkeeps are hewn from rock, some fortunate enough to have access to a tributary of the Molochfyre, others simply alone in the darkness. In the unstable High Reaches, notable Underkeeps include Shadow Pit and Reach Hold, both sworn to Highthrone. The North Fringes have few large settlements, save Stokekeep, but Dragonhold, near Twins – two lakes linked by a narrow channel – is another powerful Underkeep in the region. The Eastern Reaches are dominated by Eastmire, the largest lake in the known Underworld, and the site of the two warring Underkeeps of Drowned Hold and Dredgekeep. These two fortresses are understandably prone to flooding, and the earth around them is more mud than stone. Many of their battles are fought across the roiling black surface of Eastmire, atop strange platforms that float on the water and are driven by steam-powered engines or simple paddles wielded by their crews. Such things are confusing and outlandish to all sane Dwarves, and the inhabitants of these two Underkeeps are derided as slime-dwellers and worse by most. Steelrut is another large Underkeep in the Eastern Reaches, a vassal of Silvermine and a proud realm in its own right. The Western Vaults is a vast region and relatively civilised – its principle Underkeeps include Westreach, Horngate, Fyrepit, Bloodkeep, Black Keep and Blightmere. These last two border into The Deeps, and there are a few Underkeeps that cling to the bottom of the Underworld, fighting the eternal darkness below and the constant infestations of Goblins in their lower levels. The largest are Blackvault, Banekeep and Undervault.

By Thomas Heasman-Hunt