- "Is it possible that the Skaven are no less than a manifestation, a dark and morbid reflection of mans cities, his civilization, even his fears? Are not the Skaven, their religion, and their foul dank world not just a growing shadow and a dark twin of mans deep and barren nature?"
- —Passage from "The Malefactorum", by Professor Theodosius
The Under-Empire, sometimes known as Skavendom is the name given to the massive inter-continental underground Empire that holds uncounted miles of tunnels and passageways that stretch from the ice-capped mountains of the north to the damp swamp lands of the south, and from the great plains of the East to the lush jungles of the West. Though arguably one of the largest and perhaps the most vast Empire in the entire Warhammer World, the Under-Empire is by no means an entirely unified nation. Though the Council of Thirteen has direct and absolute control over Skavendom, they are utterly helpless to contain the inter-clan warfare that has engulfed much of the Skaven's long and arduous history. As such, the Under-Empire is in actuality a loose confederation of smaller clan-based kingdoms that are only tied together by their utter belief in the Horned Rat, and the tyrannical ruling of the Council of Thirteen.[2a]
The great city of Skavenblight acts as the capital of the Skaven race, and is situated at the very heart of the Under-Empire. Most of the vast territories that make up the Under-Empire are held by the larger stronger Skaven clans, with the smaller weaker clans having territories only a few square miles in size, usually in a backwater region of the Under-Empire. Most major Skaven strongholds or cities are within the vicinity of larger population centres like the cities of the great Clan-Empire. These cities were built either as a staging point for an invasion of the city above or from the wealth the fat upper city throws away.[2a]
- "They are watching me now, I know. They are in the walls, under the stones, in the canals, everywhere. I do not know at which point I ceased to be the master and became the slave, but they have me fast in their chains. I need the powder every day now or my eyes weep and my hands shake. And they have me do things for them, as I once had them do for me—steal things, hide things, play turncoat to my own liege lord. I have thrice-damned my soul and betrayed my friends, my city and my empire to our greatest of enemies."
- —Doctor Anton Wiessang, Master Necromancer, last diary entry[1a]
The Under-Empire stretches from one end of the Old World to the next. Its borders are not defined in the same sense as those on the surface. The fact that the Skaven have been sighted in places as far away as Araby and Cathay indicates they are a widely-travelled race. Skaven do not willingly travel under the open sky. Instead they use a variety of underground avenues when moving great distances. These passageways have been millennia in the making, and the most widely-used have felt the pitter-patter of billions of Skaven feet over the centuries. As with any surface city, the size of a Skaven settlement depends on the amount and types of resources available.[1b]
Warpstone, especially, is a prized commodity to the Skaven, and cities in proximity to plentiful Warpstone veins are often the largest and most populous. Besides this precious ore, a settlement’s access to food and fresh water are also important. Other commodities, such as captive slave labour, also play a role in determining how prosperous a Skaven settlement is. The Skaven’s Under-Empire closely mirrors the surface world in most respects. Nearly every single unsuspecting surface city has some manner of Skaven warren nestled beneath its streets. While the size of the upper city does not always reflect the population of the Skaven settlement beneath it, the largest Human settlements tend to have correspondingly large Skaven populations. The Ratmen are able to gain easy access to these cities through the use of man-made tunnel systems and sewers, which the Skaven cleverly combine with their own network of passageways.[1b]
Weather in the Under-Empire is more or less constant. Temperatures in the caverns, tunnels, and passages of the under world are affected by a great many things: humidity, depth, available water sources, wind, and sources of geothermal heat. A vast cavern that teems with Skaven is warmer than it would be otherwise, due to the body heat that they generate. The Skaven, having adapted to life underground, are typically comfortable under most circumstances, though, like men, they are not overly fond of extremes of either heat or cold.[1c]
Highways and Tunnel
The Skaven utilize a complex series of tunnels, passageways, and caverns to navigate between settlements and between destinations on the surface. By far, the most common mode of transportation used by Skaven is their own two feet. Skaven inherent laziness and constant hunger keep them from moving about very much. When a large group is determined to reach a goal, however, they can become fast and tireless. The Musk of War combined with the cruel whips of taskmasters allow them to cover great distances with little or no rest.[1c]
Another mode of transportation used by the Skaven is the Warprail. Designed by the Warlock Engineers of Clan Skryre, the Warprail is a train driven along a system of iron rails by a massive warp-engine. Though still experimental, the Warprail has been the fastest mode of transportation in the Under-Empire...when it works. The warp-engines powering the Warprail are prone to overheating and experience constant problems with pressure regulation. If not properly maintained, warp-engines can explode, causing catastrophic loss of life and can even cave-in the tunnel they travel through.[1c]
If not for these minor setbacks, the Warprail would be the pre-eminent form of travel between major Skaven settlements. As it is, there are only a handful of Warprail engines available, and not all of them are in working order. In addition, Warprail engines require tracks laid down in stable tunnels, and these only exist, so far, between some major Skaven cities, such as Skavenblight, Hell Pit, and the City of Pillars. As Clan Skryre continues to perfect warp-engine technology, additional tunnels and tracks will be implemented, allowing the Skaven to move large bodies of troops and supplies between their cities with unprecedented ease.[1c]
Each Skaven settlement is different. They reflect the personality of the clan that calls it home. Given that the Skaven psyche is linked to Chaos, no two Skaven cities are built the same. Some sprawl over a great distance, others are compressed areas of intertwining tunnels and passageways that loop and twist over and beneath each other like knotted and tangled ropes. Skaven settlements are classified by their size and population, similar to human cities, towns, and villages. Skaven cities are sprawling complexes that are, in large part, self-sufficient. These metropolises can easily accommodate from 10,000 to 50,000 Skaven, though populations vary depending on current political climates.[1d]
A Skaven city often has twice the number of residents as its mirror Human city on the surface; in times of plenty, the population may be much, much higher. The next most populous Skaven settlements are referred to as warrens. Warrens are the equivalent of Human towns in size and composition. While not completely self-sufficient, they are typically able to support themselves so long as they can trade with other settlements for products they do not produce. The population of a Skaven warren can range from 1,000 to 10,000. The smallest of the Skaven communities are commonly called nests.[1d]
Nests are akin to hamlets on the surface world, and they are often closely tied to a nearby city, warren, or stronghold. Nests are rarely home to less than 50 individuals, with the largest of them providing shelter to as many as 1,000 Ratmen. Nests are affiliated with a single Clan or Warlord. Though they are not settlements in the strictest sense of the word, Skaven strongholds deserve some mention. Like the keeps, castles, and citadels of the surface world, strongholds are easily defensible dwellings often at the centre of Skaven communities. They are fortresses with carefully restricted access points and brutally effective defences. If they are not incorporated into a warren or city, strongholds are traditionally affiliated with client nests that provide labour, revenue, and conscripts.[1d]
Skaven cities are massive, with a perplexing number of structures packed into a small place. However, Skaven are not great builders; they see things in the short-term, slapping together make-shift hovels that serve the moment. Skaven would rather steal a home than build a new one. And if a neighbouring home cannot be stolen, the spiteful Ratmen have no compunctions against burrowing beneath it to sink it. Skaven cities therefore tend toward ramshackle collections of debris and detritus. Skaven use wood, dung, and mud as their materials. The only thing that keeps these buildings from falling down is the skill of the slaves that shore up and rebuild them. Few structures have foundations, and if so, it’s because a Human or Dwarf builder thought to incorporate one.[1d]
As a result of this shoddy architecture, fire is a constant threat, and buildings collapse regularly. Style depends solely on the workers. Human and Dwarf structures are reserved for the important Skaven. On occasion, these buildings might be built in sensible lines, along paths or even roads, but again, such quality stems from slave ingenuity and never Skaven forethought. Even the better buildings are rarely finished, given the life expectancy of slaves and the Skaven themselves. Most settlements are collections of incomplete and plundered structures.[1d]
The only exceptions to these slapdash and dangerous structures are the temples of the Horned Rat. Ostentatious amounts of Warptokens, slaves, and materials are granted for their building by status-seeking Skaven wanting to curry favour with the Grey Seers. These temples usually have a tower and bell. The tower has thirteen storeys, which represents the Council. Beneath the temple is a labyrinth, which is used as a divinatory tool as well as a method of initiation for Apprentices as well as an excellent mode for executing undesirables. The maze is sacred to the Horned Rat, and those that can find their way through it are deemed to have been guided by the will of the Skaven God.[1d]
Those who become lost in one of the many traps have clearly been abandoned by their God and are thus worthy of death. Needless to say, the traps are many. Shifting walls and hidden passages in the mazes are common. The Skaven are not overly fond of right angles. They prefer tunnels that are smooth, rounded, and organic in appearance. Depending on the purpose of a particular passage, its size can show a great deal of variation. Tunnels designed to accommodate individual Skaven are often no larger than five feet in diameter. Given the compact physiology of the Skaven, this is more than enough room for them to manoeuvre. Large thoroughfares, on the other hand, are designed with vehicles and large crowds in mind, and can be any size at all.[1d]
The mining is relegated to captive labour, be it Skaven, Human, Elf, or Dwarf. Excavation techniques are, by and large, simple. Shovels, picks, trowels, and other hand tools are used to dislodge and move large amounts of earth, stone, and rock in order to create passageways. Larger Skaven settlements skillfully incorporate massive natural caverns, in addition to Skaven-made tunnels and chambers. Craftsmen (or craftsrats) assist in finishing the tunnels, ensuring that they are stable and visually pleasing. Of course, the aesthetics of Skaven leave a lot to be desired, especially by the standards of Dwarfs.[1d]
Since they spend much of their lives in proximity to their broodmates, Skaven are not accustomed to privacy. Doors are an uncommon sight in the Under-Empire. Many high-ranking and influential Skaven seal their personal chambers with wood or stone doors, or with iron bars and gates, in order to keep out unwanted trespassers. Privacy is not considered a luxury available to the masses. The Skaven also have little use for windows, so they are rarely incorporated. The only exception to this is defensive fortifications for arrow slits and murder holes.[1d]
The sleeping areas used by the Skaven are communal, and are often dictated by clan affiliation. Skaven bedding and nesting areas are made out of anything that they can scrounge. From mouldering straw, animal skins and furs, to old clothes and discarded cloth. Position in the sleeping area is largely dependent on social status, with the most influential sleeping closer to the top of the pile. Areas with high concentrations of Skaven smell strongly of rat urine. This is due to Skaven leaving small markings wherever they go. Skaven have little difficulty identifying their own marks by scent, as well as marks made by their kin and associates. Skaven have no concept of privies. Just about any spot of open ground that is out of the way is an appropriate place for a Skaven to relieve himself.[1d]
The Skaven have innumerable strongholds and burrows in every corner of the Old World. Though most of these are just collections of smaller villages and nest-lairs, the large and prosperous strongholds are formed near other population centers, growing fat and wealthy by scavenging and stealing the surface dwellers wealth. Most of these cities have their own small Council, each member representing the Skaven clan that previously claimed the city. With so many Skaven from different clans all in one place there will always be a power struggle within the governing system as Chieftains and influential politicians fight, kill, and assassinate their rivals to gain control of the city. This has ensured nearly all Skaven cities sit on the brink of Civil War, only the fear of intervention by the other Clans sway the hands of ambitious War-leaders.
Strongholds within the Clan-Empire (The Empire)
- Under-Altdorf - Once considered to be the largest and most prosperous of Skaven cities. As a result its leaders found more opportunity in exploiting the riches of the surface-dwellers rather than wasting money fighting to control them. This ensured that the city was only second to Skavenblight itself, making the Council of Thirteen uneasy towards their fellows within the Altdorf Council. Some even openly considered the city "New Skavenblight", heretical talk that ensured the death of those that preached it. But none could deny the city was growing more powerful, with population numbers increasing and no wars to keep the population in check. As of late the city had many misfortunes. Nearly 1/10th of the population died in floods and the treacherous deeds of Grey Seer Thanquol, an act that ensures future generations of Skavens will be stemmed, leading to the population grinding to a halt.
- Under-Delberz -
- Under-Middenheim - Another large Skaven stronghold, the denizens that occupy the lower reaches of the mighty Fauschlag have lead a constant guerrilla war against the Imperial authorities of the city. This has lead to the occasional skirmish between Imperial and Dwarven Patrols guarding the tunnels. Small parties of Skaven warriors raid the upper reaches. The Skaven occupying the lower depths are meant to spy on the city, waiting until the opportune moment to infiltrate and wreak havoc among the populace. Thus a large garrison of Skaven troops are stationed beneath the city.
- Under-Nuln - A minor Skaven garrison. The occupants of this nest-lair formerly participated in the Nuln campaign intending to take the provincial capital from below. Vermek Skab, the Chief Warlord of Clan Skab, lived beneath the tunnels of Nuln before the campaign began. After the untimely death of its leader, the invasion force of 10,000 Skaven warriors was lead by the diabolical and tyrannical Supreme Commander Thanquol, a Grey Seer representative of the Council. Currently, the Clan is decimated, as a vast majority of their members died during the Battle of Nuln.
- Bitter Stink - A relatively new stronghold. Set below mercantile city of Marienburg. Currently controlled by Clan Scruten whose influence encompasses the territory of the Cursed Marsh east of the Human city.
Strongholds within Norsca
- Hell Pit - The monstrous city of Clan Moulder and the only large settlement situated within the arid mountains of Norsca. It consists of nine levels, including laboratories, a barracks, a Colosseum hanging from chains, and a pit where their most powerful creatures are kept in darkness. Master Moulders use warpstone, from the mines found in the area, in mad combinations of alchemy and genetic engineering to breed all sort of monstrous beasts. To replenish their stock of mutable flesh, the Clan Moulder will strike out into the Chaos Wastes and Troll Country kidnapping Northmen and Chaos Spawn already mutated by the ruinous powers. They have become a very wealthy clan renting out their beasts to other Skaven clans. Their most common war-beasts are the wolf-sized Giant Rats and enormous Rat Ogres, four times the size of a man whose massive filthy claws can take down a heavily armoured knight.
Strongholds within Bretonnia
- The Black Chasm - The Black Chasm was the Stronghold of former Council member, Lord Vask, before he was killed by Plaguelord Nurglitch in 600 IC. Upon Lord Vask's demise, the Clan of the Stronghold lost much of its power and influence. Black Chasm is located in the mountains of central Bretonnia. It is here that the Skaven mine ore-rich mineral veins and harvest the fungi plants grown along the underground streams. Another unique feature that the Stronghold possess is the natural cave network that branches out to the surrounding region, giving the Clan little need to create new tunnels. Along these numerous arteries the Skaven emerge upon isolated human communities, snatching away inhabitants for their slave mines. Unlike the stronghold of Fester Spike, which has numerous Goblinoid, Dwarfen, and Human slaves, the slaves here are nearly all Human or Skaven, and their lives are every bit as miserable as can be expected. This mountain range is feared in Bretonnia, although the presence of Skaven is not well known by the populace.
- Under-Mousillon - After the war that brought the Duke of the city to his grave, the city has been under a curse. Surrounded by a massive putrid swamp, where the foundations slowly but surely sink into the marshy soil. Clan Pestilens has settled beneath the tunnels and sewers of the upper city, using the few residents as test subjects for their new and virulent diseases.
Strongholds within Tilea
- Skavenblight - Of all the Strongholds in the Under-Empire, none can match the size or strength of the capital. Located within the North-Western reaches of Tilea, within the heart of the Blighted Marsh, Skavenblight has always been a massive metropolis. It teems with untold numbers of Skaven; some say the numbers reach in the hundreds of thousands. The city is the location of the First Temple of the Horned Rat, the Shattered Tower, and the Council of Thirteen. However, the most prominent feature of the city is that it is mostly situated on the surface. Once a massive human metropolis, unrivaled in the entire world, it was beautiful and wealthy. With the coming of the Skaven, the city fell into a series of misfortunes until all its former inhabitants were gone and the city along with them. The city does have levels beneath the surface, where the powerful and rich Skaven live in comfortable nests under the old mansions of the humans. Those poor and weak skaven live in the wet crumbling tunnels beneath the swamps surrounding the old city.
- Under-Tobaro - A minor stronghold that houses most of Clan Skurvy's fleets of barges and skiffs.
- Under-Miragliano - Of all the human cities Skaven have preyed upon, no city has suffered more than the city of Miragliano. The upper city is the closest to Skavenblight, and lies just a few miles from the outskirts of the Blighted Marsh. A massive Skaven force crushed a defending mercenary army and sacked the city of Miragliano in 2522 IC. The disgraced Imperial Count Leopold von Stroheim led the remnants of the defeated force through the Blighted Marsh only to be cornered and destroyed by Warlord Quickpaw and Grey Seer Squelch.
- Queekwell - A minor Skaven stronghold near the city of Pavona.
Strongholds within the Dark Lands
- Crookback Mountain - Crookback Mountain is the largest Skaven fortification in the Dark Lands. Located on the eastern edge of Mad Dog Pass. Currently controlled by Council member Kratch Doomclaw, Warlord of Clan Rictus, one of the most powerful of the clans. Clan Rictus is notable for having a large number of black-furred Skaven, resulting in the largest number of Stormvermin in the Under-Empire. The strongholds main function is to provide an inexhaustible supply of Goblin slaves and iron/copper from mines within the Mountain and surrounding areas.
Strongholds within the Vaults
- Fester Spike - One of the three major Skaven strongholds located within the Vaults, Fester Spike occupies the mountain's highest peak with tunnels stretching out for hundreds of miles underneath. The stronghold's economy relies on its mines, run by a number of clans holding different sections. It is common for the clans controlling the mines to fight each other in small skirmishes and, intermittently, open warfare. Fester Spike is notorious for its violent slave revolts and the ruthless measures used to put down such uprisings. In the past, Fester Spike had been at odds with Putrid Stump, wasting precious warp-token that could have been used elsewhere. Eventually, the Council of Thirteen was forced to step in to stop the inter-clan warfare and deal with the local Night Goblin tribe that had taken up residence in the war-torn region.
- Foul Peak - One of the three major Skaven strongholds located within the Vaults. The lair is home to a large population of Skaven slavers. Slaves, of all different races, are the main export and industry of the stronghold.
- Putrid Stump - One of the three major Skaven strongholds located within the Vaults. This Skaven lair sit along an important route in the Under-Empire's main tunnelway. Underground rivers also pass through the area making the lair a major trade hub. The Lair had been at odds with Fester Spike. Only the timely intervention of the Council ensured that the wars between the two strongholds finally ended.
Strongholds within the Dwarven Empire of Karaz Ankor
- City of Pillars (formerly Karak Eight Peaks) - All conquered strongholds within Karaz Ankor pale in comparison to the conquest of the mighty City of Pillars by Clan Mors. After its downfall the Council affirmed the clan's claim to the City, making it their stronghold. Since delivering the fatal blow to the City of Pillars, Clan Mors had begun its rise within the Under-Empire and the Council of Thirteen. The plunder from the conquered dwarf-hold gave Clan Mors wealth and prestige, making them the strongest of the Warlord clans, even rivaling the Four Great Clans. By ransacking Dwarf armories their Stormvermin legions have access to Dwarf armor and weapons. Queek Headtaker, Warlord of Clan Mors and second to Council member Lord Gnawdell, has become so arrogant he audaciously sends the beard-things warnings before launching new attacks. Though much of the city remains in Clan Mors control, the surface levels of the Dwarf Citadel have recently been retaken by Dwarf warriors lead by the city's royal bloodline.
- Karak Azgal - After many long years of prosperity, this Dwarf city fell under constant attack from bands of Greenskin and Skaven armies. Integral to the city's downfall were the secret attacks made by Clan Sketter: Poisoning wells and foodstuffs, assassinating key individuals, and supporting local Greenskin raids. These plans were carried out in secrecy for a very long time. Neither the Dwarfs nor the Greenskins knew of their existence until it was too late. When the city fell, the Skaven were crushed by the sudden appearance of a Dragon named "Graug the Terrible" who invaded the tunnel networks below to search the ancient Dwarven vaults for gold. The Dragon sat upon the hoard for hundreds of years until he was killed by a young Dwarven warrior. With the dragon threat eliminated, Clan Skitter made another attempt to control the Hold, but was stopped by a force of local adventurers, mercenaries, and Dwarven explorers drawn to the Dragon's hoard by the allure of wealth.
- Black Crag (Karak Drazh) - A minor garrison whose main purpose is to spy on the local Greenskin tribes inhabiting the area.
- Karak Ungor - A small garrison whose only real importance is mining small deposits of warpstone.
- Karak Varn - The first Hold ever conquered by Skaven. When the lower levels flooded with Night Goblins who, trying to take advantage of the chaos of the Time of Woes, attacked, the Dwarfs fought valiantly, and almost kept their city from the Greenskins. Using the element of surprise Skaven erupted from the lower levels, smashing headlong into the Dwarven host. Though expert tunnel-fighters, the numberless hord of ratmen overwhelmed the Dwarves and the hold was lost.
- Bonestash (Karak Angkul) - A settlement of a minor sect of Clan Mors established under the dwarf hold of Karak Angkul. Unexpectedly hiring the services of Ikit Claw and Grey Seer Thanquol's mercenaries Rikkit Snapfang made daring attacks against the lower dwarf mines, hoping to take the riches for himself. Eventually the conflict escalated to the point where Ikit Claw constructed the second Doomsphere at the heart of Bonestash, meaning to obliterate the Dwarf Hold from below. The machine was destroyed by a Dwarf expeditionary force causing Queek Headtaker to be sent to Bonestash to aid the skaven settlement. Instead Queek attacked the upper levels while the Dwarf warriors fought below. Successful at first, Queek's army was eventually stopped by a Bloodthirster mistakenly summoned by Grey Seer Thanquol. The Bloodthirster wreaked havoc amongst the Dwarfs and Skaven, but was banished by the valiant efforts of Klarak Bronzehammer, who was in turn killed by Grey Seer Thanquol while his back was turned for his efforts.
- 1: Children of the Horned Rat (2nd Edition Fantasy Roleplay)
- 2: Warhammer Armies: Skaven (7th Edition)
- 2a: pg. 12