The Shadow Elves, like all elves, naturally metabolize ambient magic – and the Twilight Isles have a great deal of that. While excessive concentrations (common during storms) or low-magic areas (occasional in the hills and common on the volcanic peaks) have effects on them similar to the effects of high and low oxygen levels on humans – leading to the dangerous sport of “Storm Dancing”, or going out in the magical storms to experience a “high” – most Shadow Elves can handle normal variations with ease. As might be expected, naturally-metabolized magic is channeled into a variety of survival mechanisms – personal enhancements, self-healing, enhanced senses, and spell-like abilities that vary somewhat from bloodline to bloodline. Of course, this also means that the bloodline, and rough power level, of a Shadow Elf is easily gauged with the simple ability to Detect Magic; more powerful individuals will have more robust metabolisms, and thus process more magic…
Physically, Shadow Elves are quite similar to human beings, although they tend to be slightly shorter and slimmer – averaging about five feet tall and weighing a little over a hundred pounds – and have sharper, more aquiline, features, including the classical pointy ears. Combined with their narrow chins this gives them a look that’s sometimes described as “foxlike”. They generally have dusky skin, sparse facial and body hair, an exceptionally wide range of eye colors (including some almost solid-color variations), and dark hair – but, given the widespread use of cosmetic magic and the occasional throwbacks to ancestral colorations, it’s sometimes hard to see the general tendencies in the face of fashion. They usually live for about three hundred years, reaching puberty at around sixty, adulthood at around ninety, and middle age around a hundred and fifty. The eight to sixteen children a fertile couple can expect to have are usually separated by at least ten years. Given that a relatively small percentage of a woman’s life will be spent pregnant or burdened with an infant (the gestations and infancies of Shadow Elf children are little longer than those of humans), and the leveling availability of supernatural powers, a rough sexual equality prevails – although they make no pretense that individuals are equal in other ways, and see nothing wrong with the powerful demanding the respect that is their due.
The Shadow Elves are essentially urbanized; the wilds are dangerous, the storms unleash random bursts of wild magic across the land, and the seas – never more than a good days journey away on an archipelago – spawn occasional monsters. At a bare minimum, civilization requires a stockade and very solid construction. By preference, a village will have an outer wall, an inner wall, a central hill or group of hills that can be dug out for living quarters without getting too far underground and risking the energies of the underworld, and gardens on the surface and around the village.
Above-ground houses of stone are for the poor. Above-ground houses of wood are for those who can afford no better – slaves, outsiders, and those suffering serious hard times. The wealthy build lovely residences of stone, filled with panels, tapestries, books, and artworks, within hollow hills or buried beneath artificial mounds – for only in massive thicknesses of earth, preferably covered with vegetation that tends to absorb magical energy, is there security. The less wealthy remain underground, but often patch things out a bit with cheap illusion.
Most homes are crowded. The Shadow Elves breed relatively quickly compared to their lifespans, even if accidents, monsters, fights, and enslavement take out a fair number of the children before they can establish their own families – and it’s a lot of work to expand such a dwelling or build a new one. You can’t dig too deeply either; there’s too much necromantic power flowing through the depths to allow that. Unfortunately, lacking the facility with permanent enchantments of the Thunder Dwarves, or the more flexible inherent mana of the Ikam, the Shadow Elves must rely on the unreliable services of talented individuals and actual harvesting to support their populations – meaning a large chunk of the population must work on the dangerous surface of the isles.
Beyond the cities of the Shadow elves and their encircling croplands, the wild areas buffer the energies of storms, provide wood, raw materials, food, spices, and a hundred other products, and allow monsters to be dealt with before they reach the cities proper. Still, while important, the wild places aren’t as vital as the sea. The Shadow Elves trade more than the other races, range more widely, and rely extensively on fish for protein.
Politically, the Shadow Elves are a loose confederation of island kingdoms united under a High King or Queen. In practice they’re a loose meritocracy: Shadow Elves find it relatively easy to judge each others raw power. While tactical skill, wealth, the support of others, and social talents all come into play (along with assassinations and duels), powerful individuals tend to rise to leadership of the various houses, the most powerful house on an island tends to be in charge of the island, and the most powerful island rulers are deferred to by others. Still, wealth and heritage does play a role; the wealthy and powerful can provide better training, better equipment, and better opportunities for those they favor – giving their offspring a far better-than-usual chance to follow after them.
Youngsters tend to be desperately trying to build their own power and scramble up the ladder – or at least to resist sliding any lower, which is the constant tendency. There are a limited number of spots available at the top, but there is always plenty of room for slaves and peasants at the bottom. A career as an “Adventurer” is attractive to the young and impatient who have sufficient potential for it – and isn’t much more dangerous than life as a wilds-harvester or some such in any case. Perhaps fortunately, however, high-level potential is rare. Most Shadow Elves (and members of other sapient species) can never achieve any great personal power.
Since the time of the first High Queen, the chaotic tendencies of the Shadow Elves have been contained within a fairly rigid society; malefactors are harshly punished. Typical punishments include fines for minor offenses, being forced to give up part of your life force to power magical operations for intermediate ones, enslavement for debt, incompetence, or serious offenses, and death for anything truly major. Slaves are generally afflicted with a variety of curses – commonly pain if they disobey their designated master, penalties if they attempt to escape or rebel, limitations on their innate powers, and sterility. Still, their life isn’t too bad; after all, excessive oppression tends to lead to them throwing curses and such right back at their masters.
The Shadow Elves tend to view the Ikam – or at least their warrior caste – as a mixture of thugs, agents, and guard animals. Sure, they’re intelligent in theory, but (from their point of view) they certainly don’t act like it. Little or no personal ambition, settling for nothing except being useful to others… Doesn’t sound like the action of an intelligent being to them. Still, they’re really useful if you can buy some – and they prefer the poor lands up in the hills, which means that they’re no real competition. Even if they were, their little tribes are so small that they could always eliminate them if they had to. (This never actually happens; any Shadow Elf army big enough to do so tends to be ridden with backstabbing).
The Shadow Elves view the Thunder Dwarves as bizarre. They build massive cities in places that are downright unlivable to begin with, and then pollute them with so much static magic that it’s GOT to hurt. They’re useful, they’re dangerous, and they produce some nice stuff – but it’s a bit like humans might view bees if they were bigger and intelligent; you want honey sometimes, but it’s best to trade for it – and they certainly aren’t “people like us”. There’s always an undercurrent of suspicion as well. The Thunder Dwarves sell some of the most powerful static magical items around and they all act like one great big House. Given some of the military secrets and magic that individual (and far smaller) Shadow Elf Houses have pulled out at one point or another, who knows what the Thunder Dwarves aren’t revealing?
The Shadow Elves tend to get along just fine with the Veltine. They share enough attitudes to get along in small groups (although they disagree as to who the natural rulers of the world are), they see that the Veltine are disorganized and primitive enough so as to be little overall threat even if they are fierce. They’re alert guards, good drinking buddies, good scouts and commandos, and quite loyal (more reliably so that other Shadow Elves) if you hook up with one who’s been exiled or something and has no other Veltine about to impress. They don’t make very good slaves or pets though, unless you’ve got lots of power to invest in controlling them – which is a drawback from the Shadow Elves point of view. Otherwise the slave traders would be raiding the Veltine quite regularly.
To reprint their religious note:
The Shadow Elf founders apparently had many gods, who each controlled their own transcendent otherworldly realm and who drew to them the souls of their followers after their deaths. Of those, only Haerun, God of Trickery and Concealment, is still said to grant certain powers to his worshipers – and they aren’t very forthcoming about whatever those powers are or whether they enjoy some sort of special afterlife. Regardless of the exact nature of those speculative powers, they’re certainly no more potent than other sources can provide. The other old gods, the powers that were supposed to have created the world, are either out of contact or – perhaps – gone for good. No one really knows. Today the Shadow Elves have a formal system of ancestor worship, and an endless quarrel over what lies beyond the Maze