Sunlight & Stairs

The Canyon

ch spireDuring the world’s early age, when hideous, powerful beasts ruled the world and Gods roamed the Planes, the elven tribes huddled together in a narrow, high-walled canyon bisected by a river.  Weary from the endless Dragon wars and marauding armies of demi-humans, the elven tribes hoped to find peace, quiet, and a safe place to raise their children.    The canyon walls provided protection while the grasses and river provided food.

For a while, life was good. The people were at peace.

Time passed and the tribal populations grew.   Land became scarce.  Soon, tribes bumped into their neighbors.  Neighborly bumping turned into fights. Fights turned into battles.  Battles turned into wars.  Tribe fell on tribe.  The river ran red with blood.  Many died during the struggle to end the fighting and forge a single kingdom.

From this mayhem stood a hero.  He pointed to the walls of the canyon and shouted:

“Stop fighting!  My tribe’s Goddess is a Goddess of building.  She has shown me the way and the way is up.  We have plenty of room for us all to live together in harmony!  We will build our city up the canyon walls!”

And so they did.

Lead by the Builder Tribe, the tribes put down their weapons and built their cities up first one canyon wall, and then the second in great edifices of architecture. The tribes grew food from enormous terraces.  To maximize living and working space,  the tribes left only the narrow river running between the two sets of buildings.  Now everyone had plenty of space.  Problem solved!  The tribes lived together, forever safe from the endless apocalypse outside their canyon, in peace.

The tribes had a brand new problem, though:


Like all people who rely on magic, they don’t think too hard about physics.  As the buildings grew in height to house more people, the buildings cast deeper shadows on the ravine below.  Those who lived at the top enjoyed full sun and those who lived on the bottom experienced sunlight only at noon. The people at the top had plenty of sun for their plants and crops. This can’t possibly be fair, those who lived on the bottom said to those who lived on top. We are all equal. We are all People of the Canyon!

But those who lived on the top laughed and threw their leftovers down on the Sunless below.  They said: “Perhaps you should have worshipped the Builder Goddess.”


Safe from the world’s terrors by the canyon and ensconced in their Canyon City, the Tribal People became one people. Over time, their society stratified into castes based on their access to sunlight and thus better, fresher plants. While they didn’t know what Vitamin D was, the effects of more sun on health were apparent.

The Builder Tribe lived on top and enjoyed full sunlight and the incredibly scarce resource of the roofs.  They fashioned themselves the Canyon’s royalty and nobility.   They crowned a Queen.  The Sunlit, as they renamed themselves, wove delicate bridges of stone and magic high in the air over the river ensuring the canyon walls did not bifurcate into two societies.

Directly beneath the Sunlit lived the military leaders, the Wizards and the Clerics – the intelligencia, the scientists, and the armed and dangerous.  With a dangerous outside world, the Sunlit kept the military close, highly trained and ready.   No one knew when Planal Horrors or Demons of the Abyss would appear from the desert and attack the Canyon City.   Those best equipped to support the magic buildings and fight the world’s terrors lived closest to the top beneath the Sunlit.

The military provided a layer between the rich and everyone else.  Should the lower castes rise up, they literally had to rise up.  They had to climb the endless stairs to fight an uphill battle against an always armed and well-trained military. In the city’s beginning uprisings, were plentiful. Blood shed on the stairs. Yet blood, like all liquids, flows back downhill.

Beneath the military, Wizards and Clerics lived the non-magical but highly skilled craftsmen – the clockmakers, the tool makers, the apothecaries, the engineers, those who kept the waterworks flowing and understood the pumps to bring water to their terraced gardens.  These were the builders and merchants. They were key to ensuring the Canyon City functioned.  These were the City’s “middle class.”

These middle class citizens fought over windows where they could see the sun and place their windowsill planters. Small battles erupted over deck access. They had sun but never quite enough sun.  Full sun was for their betters.

At the bottom of Canyon City lived the Sunless.  Their lack of sun (and proper nutrition) condemned them by birth to live among the enormous piles of refuse thrown from above.  Those living on the canyon floor enjoyed sunlight only when the sun was at noon and, even then, only in summer time; otherwise they dwelt forever in a twilight dimness.

The poorest Sunless, living next to the now-polluted river, survived by garbage picking.  Those luckier, who lived in hovels on the lowest building floors where the pressure from above was greatest, served as servants, manned the endless ropes of the enormous elevators, worked the terraces and gardens, ferried the endless garbage, and labored in the bowels of the City.  No Sunless could pass for the military class or even the middle class; these above shunned them for their skin untouched by rays of sunshine.

The Sunlit ruled with a tyrannical fist and maintained order over their delicate society. They unleashed their military upon their own people as readily as external threats.  In their mind, Canyon City must survive.  Their people lived here.  They weren’t any more and there wasn’t anywhere to go.  They were a tiny flame in a universe of chaos and darkness.  Should their society collapse, they all would be afterthoughts in this Age of Terrors.

The Sunlit would do what they needed to do – and reap the rewards of sunlight.

Under the Sunlit’s leadership, the Canyon City survived the terrors of this Age. The people metastasized into a stable society.  They built culture and religion around their stratified class system.  No one dared marry someone from a different floor.  No one even hired into a job or position they hadn’t been born into.  They lived a segregated existence.

The canyon people forgot equality.  The Gods put them in their place for excellent reasons.  The middle class didn’t want to be Sunlit as Sunlit had all the responsibility.  Sunless didn’t want to be middle class because they had to sit at desks all day.   Memory of a more egalitarian time before the city and the wars faded and then were gone.  Eventually, the Sunlit ruled, the military and magic users married among themselves, the middle class fought for windows, and the Sunless picked through refuse and operated the elevators.

There were fights. And bloody uprisings.  Many died on the stairs up.  They made their own history. But life in the canyon was, over the arch of this age of history, stable.

This was the Will of the Gods and their Chief, the Goddess of Building in High Places.  This was the way it was and forever will be.

Forever it turned out, even to people of this early age who measured time in eons instead of years, was too long a time horizon for their survival.

Childhood’s End

The world warmed. The rains came. The desert turned into great expanses of grazing grassland.  New intelligent peoples emerged from the caves and tiny enclaves. Without the Canyon City noticing, the Age of Terrors ended.   A new era began.

More terrifying than any dragon, demon, or demi-human army, man was the ultimate destructive force in the universe.  Man multiplied their population ten times faster than the Canyon City people.  They tore metal from the ground and honed iron into swords and armor.  They domesticated beasts.   They tore down forests to sew fields of wheat.

Pushed by population pressures, great horse tribes swept from the east led by chariot-riding warlords.  They began the great and storied Age of Heroes.  They destroyed the monsters of the earlier age.   Dragons died. Demons died.  Man wrested their lands and settled their people.  They spread and fought and kinged themselves.

Heroes stumbled upon a few Sunless who left their Canyon City and survived the terrors of the world.  These Heroes listened to the Sunless’s tales and told these creatures they would free their people from the Sunlit’s merciless bondage. (“Is that such a good idea?” asked the Sunless but one cannot stop a Hero once he has a Quest.)  Seeking treasure, magic, and power, the greatest Heroes of the Age held high their magic swords, bonded together into a great Murder Hobo adventuring army, and marched on the Canyon City.

The Sunlit were not taken completely unaware.  Their Wizards warned them horrors were coming.  The Sunlit roused their military and readied their spells.  The ensuing battle between Sunlit and Man was terrible and bloody.  But men are cunning bastards and they rallied the lower castes long jealous of the Sunlit to their cause.  Many centuries later, in the mouths of bards, this battle was cast as an epic battle between Good and Evil.

When it was over, and Canyon City destroyed and plundered of its ancient riches, man was victorious.  They lifted the Sunlit high and pronounced a terrible sentence on them:

“For your crimes, your people and your Goddess shall be cast underground.  You will forever be deprived of the sun.  You will not even earn an hour a day in summer time.  Never again will people be oppressed by you or your kind.”

Man cast the Sunlit, including their military and magic-users, into a deep underground cavern and sealed them away with magic.   Some say they survived the catastrophe with the help of their Goddess of Building but no one has seen them since.

Gazing upon their destroyed city and life with men standing by smiling and going “hey wasn’t this a great idea,” the people of the canyon did the only thing they could do.   They gathered their possessions from the rubble and drifted away from the canyon and out to the strange new grasslands and forests full of new intelligent beings.  Bewildered city people not equipped to hunt and fight, they lived mostly on their magic and gifts from their Gods.

The middle class re-tribalized.  They turned into enclaves of families and familiar groupings.  They choose to live closer to man’s settlements but never with the home-destroying mankind. They found man’s cities filthy, the technology crude, and their feudalism lacking the old caste system’s elegance. The prior middle class hid in their forests but learned their lesson and kept an eye on the world.  Always nearby, always apart.

The Sunless became their own tribe.  Now, with infinite sunlight at their disposal, they found they didn’t much care for it.  And they despised man. Why did they need “men” to “free” them?   In time, in this new world, they would have freed themselves.   Man destroyed their city and took away their revenge. They owed man nothing. The Sunless disappeared deeper into the darkest forests and built their own cities of magic and light. A few Sunless popped up time to time in man’s cities and man’s affairs but these were the curious and young. Otherwise the Sunless wanted no part of this new Age.

Time went on.  The Age of Heroes became the Age of Man.

The Sunlit are still gone.

Occasionally, the elder people of the canyon tribes, those who still dimly remember the Canyon City, leave offerings at cavern mouths.   They press their ears to the ground listening for sound.  They use mirrors to sharpen sunlight to a burning point hoping to summon the Building Goddess.  And, rarely, they see a faint, possible, maybe sign that the Sunlit still live and will return to enact vengeance on man for them all.

And one elder claims he saw a sigil on a dungeon wall not too long ago.  Maybe?  A building with connectors that looks, in a certain light, like a spider…

Writer’s Note: Although not built into a canyon wall, I was specifically thinking about UNESCO World Heritage Site at Old City Sana’a in Yemen.  And yeah, okay, Brave New World but I was mostly thinking about Snowpiercer.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Just thinking. Elves have a tradition of light armor. Dwarves a tradition of heavy armor. Dwarven stone-hewed buildings are going to be much more tolerant of heavier armor types than almost any artificial flooring. Elf soldiers (such as there are any melee types) would need the lighter armor to avoid risking too much load stress on the City’s floors. And if the City is vertical, lighter weight means less fatigue as troops ascend/descend for deployment. Elves also have that higher base speed than dwarves. Why? Quick deployments for rapid response SWAT teams. Surpress the riot before it takes hold.

    • I actually hadn’t gotten that far but that makes internally consistent sense. Thus Elves would be lighter, faster, and wear lighter armor.

      Also remember the Age of Man moves much faster than the Age of Terrors so the number of generations from the Canyon City to now is relatively small (maybe 3 or 4, tops). The elves would still have the same physiology as they did when they adapted to their maybe 100,000 years of living in vertical spaces.

  2. Nice explanation to the origin of the various elven races… The Sunlit became the Dark Elves, the middle-class became the High Elves and the Sunless became the Wood Elves.

  3. So was the Builder goddess really Lolth in disguise fomenting the seeds of the fall? Or did the elves turn to Lolth as they became haughty? Or did Lolth kill the Builder God and take over the priesthood clandestinely?

    Love the alternate history premise for the fall of the drow. Brilliant as usual!

    • I actually left most of that undefined. Gods are funny — they tend to take the characteristics of their believers. You can decide it’s any one of the three — all valid rationales.

    • you seem to suppose that lolth was somehow always evil, rather than corrupted by the injustice of men imposed upon her chosen sunlit. that her thoughts have darkened and turned to revenge should be obvious and reasonable.

  4. wickedmurph says:

    Nice summary of Chung Kuo.

    • I had never heard of _Chung Kuo_ before you left a comment. I looked it up and it’s compared favorably to James Clavell’s Shogun which peaks my interest. Honestly, I ripped off Snowpiercer, hence the citation at the bottom.

      • wickedmurph says:

        It’s odd, Chung Kuo is one of the really amazing sci-fi/dystopian series, but it seems to be little known. Glad I could point you to something new.

        Be careful though, it’s a substantial investment in time. If you do get into it, I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of nifty stuff to inspire you.

  5. You know, I think I might just use this idea for a campaign setting I’m making!

  6. AnAxe2Grind says:

    For me this brought back memories of climbing the ladder/stairs at the kivas of Mesa Verde.