Saturday, December 29, 2018
No more searching through stacks of books and magazines to find out what you need to know. The Players Handbook puts it all your fingertips, including:
All recommended character classes. Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, Magic-Users, etc.
Character Races. Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Humans, etc.
Character level statistics.
Equipment lists with costs.
Spell listings by level and descriptions of effects (including many new spells).
As a dungeon adventurer or a dungeon master, you will find the contents of this book to be what you have been waiting for. All useful material is now compiled under one cover, especially for the players!
First, I have to say that I'm impressed with how weird and alienating that back cover is. It really sells the "if you don't know what this is, it's not for you" feel. I suppose that's all part of labeling your game "advanced," though. Doesn't make sense to be "advanced" Dungeons and Dragons, unless there's also a regular Dungeons and Dragons out there for you to be advanced from.
I'm not too worried about it going over my head, though. I'm a pretty old hand at this stuff, and I got my start with AD&D 2nd edition. In fact, the only real reason I have this book is because I wanted to fill the gaps in my collection. One day, I looked at my shelf and I said, "you know, you've got Basic D&D, AD&D 2nd edition, D&D 3rd edition, and D&D 4th edition (which, at the time, was the most recent), so why don't you have AD&D 1st edition?" And while that's not literally how it happened, it was the basic thought process behind why I wound up buying more than a half dozen books for a game I never intended to play.
The weird thing about AD&D 1st edition is that it is the oldest game in my collection. The copyright on my Players Handbook is 1978, a full four years before D&D Basic. Not going to lie. That surprised me. What were the newbies buying between 1978 and 1982? It can't be those books and magazines alluded to on the back cover, because they were the problem AD&D was created to solve. Maybe it was just AD&D. Maybe they saw it on the bookstore shelves and said, "you know, I'd feel more comfortable with just regular Dungeons and Dragons, but there isn't any here, so I'll just have to get advanced and jump in feet first. Gotta run before you can walk, right?"
Anyway, I'm expecting this to be pretty rough, as befitting its age. I'm also expecting, after reading the later BECMI D&D to have it be thoroughly inspired in the oddest of places. That's something to look forward to, at least.
Friday, December 28, 2018
I think the best way to approach Mage is to pretend the rest of the World (sorry, Chronicles) of Darkness does not exist. This has always been an issue with White Wolf crossovers to some degree. Vampire is set in the World of Darkness, and then each subsequent game introduces its own unique cosmology that is pretty interesting in its own right, but doesn't really play nice with anything that has come before. The pieces sort of fit, but sooner or later, you have to make one game subordinate to the other, or at wind up mangling the metaphysics of one or more of your settings.
If I'd read the WoD games in anything resembling the semblance of the right order, this would be a trite observation by now, but because I wanted to read a new book first, I wasted it on Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition. It does indeed fit the pattern that goes all the way back to Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It is a very interesting modern fantasy game, but it is most definitely not a Mage supplement for the setting established in Vampire.
It's hard to tell, though, whether that is as big a deal as it should be. In the first edition of the nWoD, all the supernatural types shared the same core book. They didn't work together any better than they had in the oWoD, but there was a clear editorial intent there. It wasn't that weird if you wanted to play a vampire in the Werewolf game. In fact, the rules made it pretty easy.
With second edition going back to an all-in-one core book for each supernatural type, it's unclear whether crossover optimization is any longer a priority. There is some mention of crossover rules, but nothing as prominent as Requiem 1st Edition's "Supernatural Conflict" sidebar.
I guess that means I should proceed as if Mage: The Awakening is its own distinct thing, and not worry about it as a World of Darkness game.
I think it's pretty good, but it suffers from being a World of Darkness game.
Oh, it's nothing in particular. It's more of a general feel. Mages get their magic because they have a vision of the Supernal realm, where the true forms of all the exists casts a shadow on the Fallen world, creating the reality we know as an imperfect copy of the sublime. Once the mage has seen the truth of this other realm, they can call the Supernal laws into the real world and reshape it according to their desires. But there is a problem. The mages have enemies. A powerful group of godlike beings, known as the Exarchs, who reign in the Supernal realm and want to keep its power for themselves. Through their agents, the Seers of the Throne, they strengthen the Abyss, the vast gulf of negative spiritual power that keeps the Fallen world in darkness.
Which is fine, as far as it goes. Its a powerful conflict, with stakes that are simultaneously political, spiritual, and metaphysical. Magic isn't just a superpower, it's filled with mystery and peril. So far, so good.
Where it goes wrong is in the game's pessimism. Nonmagical people don't just lack abilities, they succumbed to The Lie. If they witness undeniable magic, they go insane and unravel it with their disbelief. The very laws of the universe conspire to keep humanity ignorant and afraid, and even if mages were interested in helping them, they have to be extremely circumspect. Again, it's not necessarily a bad setup, but something about it feels vestigial. Like, the mages are fighting a long-term war against near-impossible odds, so obviously things are going to be shitty for awhile, perhaps even the foreseeable future, but the way the game frames the conflict, victory is a foolishly idealistic dream.
And there's no real need for that. The world as it is is enough of a vale of tears, what with the inevitability of sickness and heartbreak and all. And the mage setting is demon-haunted besides. So why shut down hope?
It's not as bleak as it could be. And it's not as if the tone is written in stone. You can play the game hopefully easily enough. I just think it sometimes goes a little too far in trying to make its dark world a World of Darkness. Take its focus on mysteries and exploration and make it a bit more pulp and a bit less horror and Mage: The Awakening comes to be a great contemporary fantasy game on its own right.
Nitpick aside, I really like this book. It dramatically improves the spellcasting system from previous versions of Mage, its organizations and fantastic locations make for compelling plot hooks, and overall, it just works well as a stand-alone game. It's been so long since I read first edition that I cannot compare them accurately, but if I remember correctly, M:tAw 1st had more of the stuff I didn't like in it, so I'm pretty sure this is going to be the definitive version of Awakening for me . . .
At least until 3rd edition comes out.
UKSS Contribution - In Salamanca, Spain there is a library where books that were never written magically appear, last just long enough to inspire their readers with a bit of otherwise unattainable knowledge (from new magical spells to advances in cutting-edge science) and then disappear. I think something like that might be at home in one of UKSS's centers of learning.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
THE WORLD IS A LIE
Humanity is cursed to a prison of sleep, ignorant of the wonder and danger all around them. Ground down into slavery, by masters they will never see, beset by a plague of cares to distract them from the Truth.
You were like them once, but now you are Awakened. You see the world beneath the Lie's skin, and the Mysteries beckoning you into the shadows. Every day of your life, you hear the call of the supernatural, from the leas ghost to the deepest cosmic enigmas.
You are a mage, one of the Wise. You see, know, and explore what others can't imagine, from the depths of the human soul to he hidden corners of reality. Armed with your spells, driven by an addiction to the Mysteries, you delve into the secrets of the world. Knowledge has a price, and the dangers are many.
This is actually the first of the Onyx Path second edition corebooks I've come to own. I ordered it about six months ago and I haven't read it yet. So I feel like I'm in uncharted territory here. What is the design philosophy that animates the second edition? How is it different than the first? Why was it necessary? I know none of these things.
That's basically why I decided to read these books out of order. So I could come into Mage: The Awakening with my mind as empty as it's going to get. I want to understand the game on its own terms, without constantly comparing it to its predecessors.
And yet . . .
Mage: The Ascension was my favorite of the old World of Darkness games. Mage: the Awakening . . . I also enjoyed (though my favorite nwod game was Changeling). I do have some prior knowledge here, and I will be bringing some prejudices to this reading.
However, I am optimistic. Awakening 1e was like this Gnostic thriller, a game of suspense and uncertainty set in a world ruled by evil, where your highest aspirations are the very crimes the powers that be will use to condemn you. It was probably the most different from its owod counterpart, but nonetheless very satisfying in its own right.
If we're talking about my wishlist for 2e, the only things I really want are a bigger scale and more magic. I like it when wizards get to wiz, and the White Wolf mage games were always a little diffident about their own premise for me to be 100% on board.
Obviously, it's not perfect. It had at least one example of "no one knows what's going on in the mysterious East," which is less than ideal. Someone knows, White Wolf. The vampires that live there know. You, the authors of the whole damned universe, know. It doesn't have to be a thing. So why do you keep making it a thing?
That being said, one of the bloodlines was a Japanese offshoot of the Nosferatu. There are actual, named, black vampires. None of the clans is based off an offensive racial stereotype. A solid B+ all around.
Now that we have that unpleasantness out of the way, what about the book as a whole?
It's weird. Nearly every particular element is a notable step forward from its predecessor, but the book, taken as a whole, seems less than Masquerade. And I think I've identified the culprit - something I didn't talk about in my reaction to Vampire: The Masquerade. Something that I really should classify as an artistic and technical flaw, but which nonetheless gave the book a certain charm:
Masquerade would, occasionally, use metaplot to introduce errata.
I only noticed it a couple of times - with the Assamite clan weakness and the Malkavians having Dementation instead of Dominate - but I'm sure it happened a few more times under my radar. And the reason this matters is not (necessarily) that a few artful flaws can make a good thing better, but rather because of what this particular flaw says about how the game was made.
Namely, Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised was the product of White Wolf distilling a decade's worth of constantly-evolving game material, with an active fan-base who had a particular lived experience, and making it into a new introductory core book. Vampire: The Requiem was a product of White Wolf taking fifteen years of experience developing a vampire game and using it to create a new game from scratch.
Masquerade felt . . . weightier, like you were walking into the middle of a conversation. Requiem is probably the superior artistic achievement. It's certainly more confident in its moods and themes, and it has much less of that random weirdness that comes from your main inspiration being your own previous work. But it definitely loses something.
My recommendation is that if you're going core only, go with Requiem. If you're buying into the line as a whole, Masquerade is the way to go.
Although, now that I think about it, Requiem has a second edition. Maybe it too is late-stage vampire, drawing from an entire edition's worth of supplements to mutate into its own unique thing. Without knowing for sure, my recommendation has to be at least somewhat tentative.
Looks like I've got another candidate for my drivethrurpg wishlist. Maybe I'll order it about a month before I'm ready to read V:tM 20th anniversary edition, to repeat the comparison a decade later.
UKSS Contribution: Oh, this is a tough one. Everything good about this game is really specific, and everything stealable is really generic. I guess I'll go with the Morbus bloodline, vampires that can only feed on the sick, and who spread disease wherever they go.
Monday, December 10, 2018
This is not
the abandoment of death,
Nor is it
the breath of life.
This is the funeral song . . .
No, you know what, this is White Wolf putting poetry on the back of their books, because why should things be simple and helpful. Let's just skip it and go straight into what it is.
Vampire: The Requiem is the follow-up game to Vampire: The Masquerade. In the early 2000s, White Wolf decided to blow up their massively successful rpg franchise and rebuild it from first principles. Requiem should be Masquerade, shorn of its accumulated excesses and refocused on delivering a pure vampire-themed horror experience.
You know, I honestly thought there was more of a time gap between Requiem and Masquerade, Revised. Now I'm wondering if Requiem will be nearly as socially aware as I'm hoping. I don't recall anything particularly offensive about it, but then again, I didn't remember anything specifically problematic about Masquerade either.
Which isn't to say I'm going into this looking for a political hit job. I'm okay with a little political incorrectness in my vampire games. Actually, what I'm most looking forward to are the clearer genre expectations and more refined mechanics.
What I'm least looking forward to are the fonts. White Wolf loved fonts that kind of look like handwriting. It's not something I mentioned in my reaction to Masquerade, because I actually kind of like that game and didn't want to keep piling on negativity, but I happened to glance at the introductory fiction and I saw something like four different fonts in the space of two pages.
So, clearly, it would be naive of me to expect Requiem to correct everything that was wrong with Masquerade.
It's nothing particularly hateful. On the balance, I'd say the book is on the right side of history. It's just closer to the center of the bell curve than I'm entirely comfortable with. Put in the starkest possible terms, the problem is this:
Vampires are really white.
And, look, it's a thing. It was the 90s. White people were whiter back then. If you stack 1999-era John Frazer up against the Vampire Revised core book, I guarantee you that I was at least 10-20% whiter, by volume. The difference is that I've since had nearly 20 years of personal growth, and this book hasn't.
It's not that the book is racist. I mean, it is, but in that mostly benign 90s way, where it's rigorously colorblind and sometimes overly pious in its tokenism, but clearly committed to the notion that the races are "equal." And I'm pretty sure, that given its subject matter, any depictions that might have wandered uncomfortably close to real world bigotry were dismissed as "we're equal opportunity offenders."
There is some justice to that. It's not like the Ventrue, a clan whose whole shtick can basically be summed up as "we may have lost our lives, but they'll never take our white privilege," is any better, morally, than the designated PoC clans, and in fact, in true White Wolf punk fashion, is often the punching bag when characters criticize "vampire society." It's just that you have one clan whose deal is that they have traditionally recruited the scions of nobility and have adapted to modern nights by moving into the board room. And then you have another clan of Arabian religious fanatics who are waging an implacable holy war against the underpinnings of civilization (in this case, it's vampires, so it's kind of justified, but in context, it's not a good look).
Vampire: The Masquerade resolves this tension by pointing out that Clan Assamite has recently started recruiting "westerners" (their word).
That's a pattern for the book. Non-white spaces are either closed off completely (basically all of east Asia is a no-go zone, thanks to the "mysterious" Asian vampires) or it takes pains to note that white people are included (as per the writeups for the Followers of Set or Assamites). The reverse is not true for the Clans that read as white. No mention of black Ventrue, or Native American Toreadors or anything like that. I'm 99% sure that the intent was that the Camarilla and Sabbat clans were all default inclusionary and none explicitly broke down along racial lines (in fact, the portrait on the Brujah clan page is probably meant to be a black man, but it's hard to say for certain with the art style - his skin is page-colored). However, that's the problem. White culture is invisible, and thus the white-coded clans represent broad generic archetypes, despite the fact that a nobleman from Edwardian England is even more alien to a modern American than a contemporary Japanese person from "the mysterious East."
I don't necessarily think the cure for this is more explicitly diverse Ventrue. If we're taking the clan's history at face value, then it makes perfect sense that it is lily-white. European nobility was overwhelmingly white, and modern finance hasn't exactly closed the racial gap. And it's not as if the Ventrue are going to benefit from good publicity by being inclusive. Plus, you know, given the age of the vampires and the social circles they came from, they're almost certainly hugely racist.
But if you're going to go with an all-white clan Ventrue (and the more I think about it, the more I agree that you should), you kind of have a duty to point it out. To acknowledge whiteness as a political force, and, indeed, to draw parallels between vampirism and the exploitative power of white supremacist capitalism. Indeed, if you're doing it right vampires = white people is a metaphor that is too on the nose.
I mean, not to belabor a point (too late), but there's a whole chapter devoted to the history of the kindred, and an important theme is how vampires crossed the ocean to escape the stifling order of the European elders, and you don't even mention the transatlantic slave trade? Nothing about characters having to be shipped as cargo rang a bell? The American revolution is discussed in the paranoid context of warring vampire factions, and not one peep about the ready availability of blood in a society where it was possible to literally buy and sell human beings?
That's how white vampires are. They can afford to forget about race as a force.
And so, despite my best intentions, this post wound up being heavily political after all. But that's not all of what Vampire the Masquerade is. It's not even the bulk of it. At its heart lies the dream of bringing your Anne Rice fanfiction to life. And how does it fare at that task?
Passably. It has flaws. The system makes a hash out of probability. Having both a variable target number and a variable dice pool makes it very hard to have an intuitive sense of how likely something is, and some actions requiring multiple successes doesn't make it any easier. The end result is a system that feels like it is held together by the players' optimism.
But it also leads to a system that is at its most robust and functional in combat situations. A factor, I'm sure, that led to many games becoming extended brawls.
That ties into the system's biggest weakness - it's being pulled in too many directions. It wants to be a game of sexy vampires doing sexy things in a moodily-lit shadow world of decadence and deceit, but it also wants to be a game of personal horror, where characters have a tenuous hold on their morality and slowly become corrupted by the temptations of undeath, and also an occult conspiracy game, where long-buried secrets hold the key to an imminent apocalypse and also a game about the conflict between rival ideological factions, with different visions of how the vampiric condition should relate to society at large. All these factors can work together to tell some remarkable stories, but it's more likely that they don't.
That's probably the game's greatest strength, too. Roleplaying games are a chaotic storytelling medium at the best of times, and the players are likely to have different agendas about the direction they want the game to go (a fact that Vampire, Revised sometimes seem to be in denial about) and it's good to have something for them to do.
UKSS Contribution: Probably Clan Tremere. The hubris of wizards attempting to wrest the secret of eternal life from the undead, only to fail and become vampires is pretty compelling. I also like the image of a sinister cabal of vampires, gathering in secret to perform mystical rituals. Plus, they're arrogant jerks, which is always something you want to see in your vampire conspiracies.
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
There will come a time, when the curse of the One above will not be tolerated further, when the Lineage of Caine will end when the Blood of Caine will be weak and there will be no Embracing for these Childer for their blood will run like water and the potence in it will wither. Then, you know in this time that Gehenna will soon be upon you.
-- The Book of Nod
What is This
Well, the back wasn't very informative. It's a game about vampires. Or, more accurately, the game about Vampires. The third edition of the original, gothic-punk, superheroes-with-fangs, angsty, tortured storytelling game of personal horror.
As a classic White Wolf game, I'm looking forward to one part compelling fiction, one part unbearable pretentiousness, and one part mechanical carelessness. As an artifact from the late 90s, particularly one that marketed itself as "adult," it's likely to blindside me with some bit of political backwardness that I didn't notice at the time. So that'll be interesting to write about, at least.
Overall, I think I'll be pretty energized by this one. White Wolf always had a knack for creating readable rpgs.
Reading the D&D Rules Cyclopedia so soon after the individual boxed sets wasn't quite that bad, but it gives me a horrifying glimpse at what awaits me.
But putting that aside, I have to say, this book is . . . good? Bad? Goodbad?
It's one-volume D&D. Everything you need for a game - player abilities, DM advice, monster stats - in a single book that you could sit down and read over the course of a couple of afternoons. I may be missing some obscure product, but it is quite possibly the only version of the game ever released that lets you do that. So the very fact that it exists is incredible.
It's just, this version of D&D, it's . . . I don't want to say "bad," but I'm at a loss for a similarly simple word that means "inconsistent, filled with ad hoc rules, and a poor fit for emulating the heroic fiction that inspired it."
Of course, that was my key observation on the first go round of BECM D&D. So, the worst thing you could say about the Rules Cyclopedia is that it doesn't dramatically improve the material it compiled. It does streamline things a bit. It's easy to underestimate how much of a benefit it is to just have all the rules for a particular character class in one place, but it does help both comprehension and flow. And some of the more obvious missteps have been corrected. For example, it now advises thief characters to not steal from their party. And it is no longer canon that apes can become wereseals.
The parts I was most interested in are those from the Companion DM's book, which I inexplicably do not own. There were some monsters, some magic items (including the demihuman relics, which all seemed to produce some obscure method of transportation, for some reason), but the biggest contributions were the mass combat and dominion management rules.
Which, I'm glad they're included, but I'm even more glad that I won't have to use them. Mass combat basically involves sitting down with your friends and doing algebra for 20 minutes (if you're lucky) and dominion management is not dynamic or interactive enough to be worth your time (it actually suggests that staying in your dominion, ruling in person, is likely to increase your chances of a coup, so that's a pretty sick burn).
In theory, I really like taking these high level things out of the realm of DM fiat and making them objectively influenced by character stats and actions, but ultimately, what I want is something that will model the interstitial narration of a historical epic (". . . and in the year of the lion, the Ochre Horde advanced on the capital, but Lord Horence was too far away to rally his forces, or was he . . .") without getting bogged down in too many corner cases or exceptions.
Maybe it's not an attainable goal, and I certainly don't fault the Rules Cyclopedia for not pulling it off, but it does kind of exemplify both the strengths and weakness of this edition - everything is included, allowing you to tell fantasy stories of any scope or scale, all with one book . . . but the price is that it's all just a little bit crummy.
Overall, though, I think I'd take it over AD&D, which - hell, I'll let the Rules Cyclopedia's conversion section finish this thought for me - ". . . often has a more detailed rule that includes more variables, allowing it to cover situations in much greater depth."
I mean, good gods, at least we dodged that bullet.
UKSS Contribution - This pretty much had to come from the monster's section, and there were some pretty good choices, but none that quite had the charm of Sasquatches. I'm pretty sure they were in either Basic or Expert, but the Rules Cyclopedia introduces a new rule here - they can sometimes be spellcasters. Specifically, they can reach up to level 4 as druids.
Now I'm picturing a whole community of gentle, hippy Sasquatches, living in harmony with nature and hiding from the rapacious industry of the hu-man with the aid of the forest spirits.
Thursday, November 29, 2018
From the Back
Whether you're a player or Dungeon Master, the DUNGEONS & DRAGON Rules Cyclopedia is now the comprehensive sourcebook you need for the original fantasy role-playing game! For ages 12 and up, the Cyclopedia contains the complete game system and hundreds of features including:
- All the rules from the D&D Boxed Set series, including Basic, Expert, Companion, and Masters.
- Guidelines to develop and play characters from levels 1-36.
- Comprehensive lists of weaponry and equipment.
- Expansion rules including optional skills and talents.
- And overview of the Known World and HOLLOW WORLD game settings, the official D&D campaign world.
- Rules to convert D&D games and characters into AD&D 2nd edition game statistics and back again.
- Provides all the original monsters from the earlier boxed sets.
I'm kind of dreading this one. It seems like it should just be a rehash of the three-and-a-half books I've already read before. But maybe the Cyclopedia will put a new perspective on the material, or at least rephrase it so I'm not going through exactly the same stuff as I did before.
But let's be real. This is going to be very similar to the books I've already read. At least I'll be able to find out what I missed in the Companion DM's book.
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Okay, so it's 2018, and it's highly unlikely that anyone is coming across Earthdawn 4th Edition by accident. I mean, I discovered it by accident, when I went into the local game store and saw it on their rpg shelf, but even then, it didn't have to sell me on the game. I knew right away what it was, and how improbable it was that I'd ever see it again. Still, if I'm imagining an alternate universe where these books were destined for the hands of an utter Earthdawn naif, then I have to question the wisdom of putting the game's main selling point - its incredible setting - into a book marked for GMs.
Because the setting information here really is quite good. It combines the familiar with the novel in a way that feels fresh. Like, it's a fantasy setting with elves and dwarves and whatnot, but dwarves are the most common race, outnumbering even humans. And the dwarf kingdom is underground, but that dovetails with the setting backstory in a really fruitful way. Of course, dwarves would have certain advantages in a world where all sapient life spent six of the last seven hundred years huddled in underground bunkers. And yet, aside from its exotic location, the Kingdom of Throal is portrayed in much the same terms as any fantasy kingdom - it is driven by profit and pride, but sometimes the idealists win. Just because they're a kingdom of dwarfs doesn't mean they're pigeonholed as the "dwarf kingdom." It's a remarkable bit of world-building.
But if I had to narrow the appeal of the setting down to one single element (which I don't have to, and really shouldn't - there's a lot of great stuff there), I'd say that what makes Earthdawn great is that it really manages to capture the sense of loss that comes with its post-apocalyptic setting. Lots of fantasy stories are set in the ruins of some prior, great civilization, but they often seem to use these ruins as a sort of adventuring loot box. Rarely are they engaged with as ruins - places that were once filled with activity and life, but which have since faded away.
The way Earthdawn establishes this is subtle. Take, for example, the broken kaers. Let's be real for a second. They're dungeons. They exist to be big, dangerous boxes full of thrilling monster fights and fabulous treasure. And they succeed in that. But, the plot of going into a kaer, clearing out the monsters, and retrieving the treasure also manages to be effortlessly affecting, even without further embellishment.
And it all comes down to one choice that seems obvious in retrospect, but which eluded me for years - Kaers are not mysterious. You never have to wonder "for what purpose did the ancients construct such an elaborate underground structure." You know it was to take refuge from an implacable enemy. And you never have to wonder "what fate befell the inhabitants that such a place would be abandoned to monsters." You know. The refuge failed.
But the trick Earthdawn pulls off is actually a two-step. Because Barsaive is not a bleak world, where people are constantly wailing in grief over a past that can never be reclaimed. The thing that most sells the sense of loss is that world is really quite the opposite. It's a world filled with hope. The people of Barsaive are rebuilding. The Horrors are in retreat. The evil empire suffered a major defeat. The dwarves of Throal were sincere when they said they were going to use their influence to liberate and unify, rather than rule. It's called Earthdawn for a reason. Tomorrow is going to be brighter than yesterday (with the help of the heroes, of course). The world has faced its darkest moment and survived. Life endures.
But then, sometimes, you come across a reminder of the people who didn't make it . . .
And that's what makes Earthdawn so great as a setting. And it's a shame that so little of that made it into the player-facing book. I'm glad that it's still somewhere, but I can't help but feel that the Player's and Gamemaster's Guides are less two stand-alone books, each serving a particular purpose and more two complementary volumes of a single work, that can't really function without each other. In fact, my theory at this point is that printing technology isn't really well suited to making a 1000-page book at 6"x9", so they arbitrarily split it in half to make it easier to manufacture.
Oh well, it doesn't much affect me on a personal level. I own both books and I was happy to read them. I may even put out feelers in my gaming group, see if anyone's interested in starting an Earthdawn game.
Ukss Contribution - I'm going to be cautious here and go with "cats can see into the astral." Such a picayune detail, doesn't especially help anyone but a Beastmaster character, and the only reason I even know about it is that the writers made the odd decision to include normal, non-combatant animals in their bestiary alongside Griffins and Unicorns.
So, you know, if you ever need to fight a mule, Earthdawn's got you covered. They don't have any magical powers or anything, but they are pretty good at carrying gear, so they could be armed with anything.
Seriously, though. The thing about cats seeing into the astral is a detail I really like. I enjoy it when fantasy games take real world superstition and make it function within the context of their rules.
Monday, November 26, 2018
[Snip same 3 paragraphs that appeared on the back of the Player's Guide]
The Gamemaster's Guide provides rules and advice for running the Earthdawn game and includes an exploration of the lands of Barsaive, as well as numerous fantastic creatures and magical treasures to challenge and reward your players.
The Player's Guide disappointed me a bit with its lack of setting information. The Gamemaster's Guide devotes 80 pages to history and setting (not counting the setting info that's surely in the creatures, dragons, and horrors chapters) so I'm optimistic about that. On the other hand, this book, like the first one, is huge. It's got to fill that word count with something, and if it's not high fantasy spectacle, it will be GMing advice and dry rules that is too rarely used to be included in a player reference.
In any event, Earthdawn is a game I've always had a soft spot for, despite not owning it until about two months ago. The best case scenario is that I'm inspired to buy a whole bunch of old supplements off Amazon. (Some might call it the worst case scenario, but I'm a slow learner).
I went into this batch of books with a certain skepticism, and The Grand Duchy of Karameikos did not disappoint in that regard. I was expecting a by-the-numbers D&D fantasy setting, and what I got was even less fantastic than that.
Don't get wrong, the book is still useful, if you ever needed a serviceable starter kingdom, predominantly run by humans (so much so that the fantasy races could be excised neatly without changing much of anything) and low magic. It describes several medieval-style towns and gives a rundown of all the major figures of the Duke's court. And there's a historically-based ethnic tension that could serve as the driver of a lot of plots.
But . . . nope, no buts. If you were hoping for early D&D high fantasy weirdness, there isn't any. Not even any mention of water termites. Okay, it introduced two new monsters, one of which is kind of weird. The chevall is a sort of . . . were-centaur? It's a creature that mostly runs around in horse form, but can change into a centaur if it sees horses being threatened. The other new creature was the nosferatu. As near as I can tell, it exists only to be a stealth errata for the D&D vampire ("[it] strongly resembles the vampire. However, the Nosferatu does not drain energy levels. It drinks blood.")
The best things about The Grand Duchy of Karameikos are its seriousness and attention to detail. The most entertaining thing about it was Baron Ludwig von Hendriks. I'd already encountered him once before, in Lathan's Gold (which I only now realize covered the entire south coast of "The D&D World," not just Ierendi). He was the asshole who kidnapped my girlfriend for a ransom of unrefined gold. He lives in a castle called Fort Doom.
I think the author of this book might have hated the character. It depicts him very bizarrely. Like, even in-setting he is "bizarre" and "theatrical". The origin story of Fort Doom is that Ludwig von Hendriks was the Duke's cousin and was granted the title of Baron, but despite being the lawful ruler of the village of Halag, he came in with an army and conquered it anyway (actual quote - "he didn't need to conquer it . . . but he wanted to conquer something.") and then renamed it Fort Doom. The canonical reason for why he's allowed to get away with it is that his deeds are so over-the-top that the Duke assumes the reports are exaggerated.
So there you have it. A mostly down-to-earth fantasy setting, so restrained in its use of magic that you could slot it into a historical game with only minimal modification, and also it's home to a cartoonish, scenery-chewing supervillain.
UKSS Contribution: It has to be Baron von Hendriks. A guy who straight-up relishes in his own villainy and lives his life like a romantic diva? He could be equally ill-at-home in any genre.
The Emirates of Ylaruam
I was worried this book would be really racist, but it turns out that it was merely blithely sexist. Don't panic. It's not the worst case scenario. Fantasy Arabia, in the wrong hands, could have been very bad. The Emirates of Ylaruam's cardinal sin is that women are nearly completely invisible. There are zero named female characters, and while I didn't keep a running count, as near as I can tell, the only specific female character at all is a woman who buys some magic makeup after being tricked by an evil alchemist (but who doesn't actually figure into the subsequent adventure, which is about retrieving the makeup for a good alchemist). The character creation page does have example female names . . . marked by an asterisk because they're mixed in with a whole lot more male names.
It's weird. Even for the time, it's weird. Both The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and The Kingdom of Ierendi were much better about this. The Duchy had a Duchess and the Kingdom had a Queen, so even by the bare minimum standards, the Emirates fell behind, but then they each had female ambassadors and shop owners and city administrators, and even some female adventurers. All books written in 1987, but only two out of the three seemed to remember that half of the human species even exists. Counting points off for that. Bad form.
I wish I was more of an expert on Orientalism, because I'm curious about how this is influenced by the book's subject matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but harems are conspicuous in their absence, and I wonder if that was less an oversight and more a deliberate excision. Certainly, the cover of the book is well aware of the existence of the trope. And if you're in 1987, writing about fantasy Arabia, and you're cutting out harems, than maybe there's no other mental connection you have between Arabs and women.
I've got to figure that someone, somewhere, made a call. Because when we look at Ylaruam's treatment of its male characters it's . . . okay. Not great, but okay. They invented fantasy Islam to underpin the region's culture. Which makes perfect sense. You can't have medieval Arabia without Islam. It's so influential that you leave a huge void if you just take it out. But that raises the uncomfortable question - what is fantasy Europe's analogue to Catholicism?
That's the main flaw of this book (aside from the women thing) - it makes specific things that are maybe a bit more general. Like, there's roleplaying advice that basically boils down to "characters will act rashly if challenged on their machismo, because the region's warrior-ethic is rooted in a highly performative masculinity" and my main thought was "where was all this when we were talking about Karameikos."
Guys, did you know the people of Ylaruam take their religion seriously, consider it rude if you jump straight into business without engaging in small talk first, and believe it's important to be hospitable? Wow, what a strange and mysterious people.
Okay, I've ragged on this book enough. It actually does a pretty good job of sketching out a setting and making it feel real. So maybe the problem is less that its editorial focus makes common things seem exotic and more that other books take a lot of stuff for granted.
And if you put aside the political angle, The Emirates of Ylaruam follows in the tradition of The Grand Duchy of Karameikos in being a serviceable workhorse of a book that mostly eschews magic and high fantasy for a grounded pseudo historical realism. It devotes roughly twice the word count to water management policy than it does to genies. Which, okay. It's not what I want from a roleplaying game, but I respect it. You can pick up this book and within minutes have a perfectly unremarkable Arab-inspired town, complete with beggars, barbers, and rival tribes, that's ready to be slotted into nearly any appropriate campaign. It may not make for the most compelling reading, but it does spare the DM a lot of scut work.
UKSS Contribution: The Roc. It's not used in an especially unusual way here - She attacks a village after the inhabitants steal her egg. But hey, the classics are classics for a reason.
The Kingdom of Ierendi
Moving on from fantasy Arabia to fantasy Hawaii. And people, this is bedrock D&D weirdness. It goes off the rails almost instantly and it never gets back on. I can't even figure out how this tracks with the previous two supplements, because it doesn't seem like remotely the same world. In Ylaruam you've got people sipping coffee and pointedly not discussing financial transactions, and in Karameikos you've got them stoking ethnic tensions as cover for their criminal syndicate, and meanwhile, over in Ierendi, you've got adventuring-based tourism, civic government, and religion.
This is not me being hyperbolic and reading more into the text than intended. The King and Queen of Ierendi are literally chosen by a process known as "The Royal Tournament of Adventurers." Once a year, the ministers of Ierendi set up mock dungeons, stock them with monsters, and hopeful contestants run through them, being judged by the mysterious criteria of "The Tribunal" and the highest-scoring man and woman get to be the King and Queen for the year.
And the economy of Ierendi is based on tourism. Given the numbers provided by the book, hundreds of thousands of people visit the islands each year. And one of the more popular attractions is Gastenoo's World of Adventure on Safari Island (so much so that it spawned a dozen imitators). In these parks, special magic items are used that absorb all damage directed at their wearers, while simultaneously announcing the wounds they would have received. Combined with weapons enchanted to stun, rather than kill, visitors to these parks go through carefully scripted scenarios "based on fairy tales, heroic legends, and ancient myths."
I . . . don't . . . even.
Wrap it up people. It turns out we've all been living in a world that reached peak irony back in 1987.
I'm not sure how this is meant to be used. Why am I taking a heroic legend and using it as the basis for a game within a game? If the players were interested in roleplaying the legend, couldn't I, you know, just make that the basis of the game? What's my pitch, here? "Hey, do you guys want to play D&D, but with a framing device where you're in the Enterprise's holodeck?"
But apparently, thousands, nay tens of thousands, of people in the D&D world do this every year.
And as for the religion . . . well, that I am reading into a bit. I'll let the book's own words describe it:
One message on the stones has not changed at all. Tomia, the Hope, wrote of a great treasure . . . [It] will be found, according to the Immortals, when the People's Temple's need is greatest. Not even the Temple officials know when this will be, so a continual search for the treasure is conducted by the Temple priests and by individual followers of the Temple.So, the doctrine of Ierendi's most popular religion is that you should gain levels and look for treasure. Imagine me giving a very pointed hmmmm.
Temple officials strongly encourage adventurers to increase their proficiencies and to someday achieve the level of Immortal. They do this in hopes that the great treasure will be revealed to them.
I guess my takeaway from the Kingdom of Ierendi is that I have a very poor intuitive sense of what the beginning of Dungeons and Dragons must have been like. To me, 1987 is still very early D&D, too early, I'd think, to start with the whole, jaded "adventuring is kind of like extreme sports" idea. Hell, real sports hadn't even gotten to that stage yet. It feels like learning that there was a punk rock band in 1965.
I'm not saying I don't like it. I'd tweak a few things, put the islands in a setting where people actually go on expensive island vacations, maybe just up the tech level generally, but as a concept, it works. On the other hand, if I'm working at TSR in the mid-80s, I would never have approved the manuscript. Gazetteer 4 is too early in the run to start parodying your own setting.
UKSS Contribution: There is a village of albinos that believe they can attract their gods to the mortal realm by building magnificent houses for them. They do this by building mansions out of sand (the primary material available at the beach) and then using secret alchemy to harden the sand into a durable structure.
I'll take the sand-hardening potion. Leave the stuff about the cult of albinos.
PS: I'm writing this about a year after the original post. I linked to this one from The Complete Book of Humanoids because I remembered a detail from Ylaruam that was relevant to the discussion - in the village, there's a tainted well. It's cursed because there are a bunch of undead lizard-folk down there. It didn't merit much mentioning at the time of the initial post, but apparently it stuck with me for months afterwards. Funny what you remember.
Friday, November 23, 2018
Dungeons and Dragons had a series of thin books that described various locations in its default setting. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is used for example adventures in the Expert rulebook. The Kingdom of Ierendi showed up in Lathan's Gold. And a quick internet search shows that the Emirates of Ylarum are original to the book.
In terms of old-school supplements, these are the real shit. The covers are gorgeous in that mid-80's overwrought fantasy way. And you can bet your life that all the ladies are staring sleepily into the distance while having implausibly deep cleavage and the men are all doing heroic action poses with lovingly detailed fantastic weaponry.
The back covers of Karameikos and Ylarum both promise a "complete historical, economical, geographical, and sociological overview" of their respective areas. Whereas by Ierendi, they'd mellowed a bit and focused more on pitching the adventure. 1987 must have been a very busy year at TSR.
I think the trickiest thing about tackling these is that they are from before the time when their brand of fantasy became boring. Like, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos looks like peak D&D fantasy. I'm expecting heroic knights, rampaging goblins, and aloof wizards. Maybe there will be some mysterious elves that live in a forest and some taciturn dwarves that live in the mountains.
Ylarum looks like it's going to be benignly racist in that old-school orientalist way, where the author is really enthusiastic about the subject matter, but engages with it through a colonialist lens. Though to be fair to the author, this impression comes mostly from the cover, which feature two men in Keffiyehs, with covered faces, a harem dancer, and a beautiful woman with a veiled face. The rest is just an educated guess.
Ierendi is harder to pin down, at least from the book's cover. It's the one I'm most optimistic about, just because it gives off a purer sword and sorcery vibe than the others (though, the phrase "psychotic natives" appears on the back cover, which is never a good sign).
Despite my cynicism, I'm prepared to be surprised by any or all of these. The advantage of predating the genre it created is that there's still room for the ideas that got dropped in the process of working out the common denominator. The D&D rulebooks themselves were filled with all sorts of bizarre ideas that were largely forgotten. Here's hoping the setting books are early enough to share that sense of experimentation.
There are fifteen Adept "Disciplines" (ie character classes), covering a variety of heroic archetypes. And I like that a lot. My complaint is that a significant portion, 4 out of 15, of the Disciplines are spellcasters and taken together, they undermine the Adept system in ways I'm not sure it can recover from.
Don't get me wrong. Wizards and Elementalists and Illusionists and Nethermancers fit well into the Earthdawn setting, and it is both appropriate and wise to include them as character options. It's just, the portion of the book given over to spells and spellcasting is 95 pages. The portion of the book devoted to all of the other talents for all fifteen Disciplines (including those belonging to the four spellcasting Disciplines) is 64 pages. One quarter of the Disciplines gets one and half times more wordcount than the other three quarters combined.
It bugs me. On the one hand, the book is saying "magic permeates this world and is used in a variety of activities and fields, rather than being sequestered away in the dusty old tomes of specialists" and then it immediately walks that back by putting most of the flashiest special effects into the dusty old tomes of specialists.
It's not that spellcasters are necessarily more effective than other Disciplines. In fact, I'm fairly sure that given the xp sink that spells represent, nearly every Discipline is going to be better at its niche. It feels like a missed opportunity to give other fantasy archetypes a greater diversity of wondrous feats.
But that's a fairly minor complaint. Overall, I would call the Discipline system a success and my whining merely an aesthetic preference. The only thing that I'd call out as a flaw is the "step system" method of determining dice pools.
The way it works is that your attribute and talent ratings combine to give you a "step" and then various bonuses and penalties (such as equipment, magic, or the specific maneuver you're attempting) can raise or lower your step. Your final step determines what dice you roll, as indicated by a chart near the beginning of the book. At the low levels, it's fairly intuitive. Step 4 is 1d6. Step 5 is 1d8. Step 6 is 1d10. And so on. But then, once you start rolling multiple dice, it gets a little hard to follow. Step 28 is 1d20 + 1d12 + 2d8. Step 29 is 1d20 + 1d12 + 1d10 + 1d8. And step 30 is 2d20 + 2d6. There's a logic to it, but realistically, you're going to have to be checking that chart constantly.
I think you'd get used to it, though. And it would be worth it to do so. Earthdawn as a setting as a lot of great fantastic conceits that make it a one-of-a-kind experience. It is the only fantasy rpg I can think of that is explicitly post-apocalyptic. Most others have a vaguely sketched out disaster that ended a previous golden age, but in Earthdawn, that disaster is within living memory and the current society is the first and second generation descendants of people who huddled for safety in underground bunkers while ravenous Horrors scoured the surface of all life. There's even a location called Bartertown, which I have to assume is a deliberate homage.
Other things I like are Blood Elves, a group of elves whose magical protection against the Scourge failed and in desperation turned to blood magic to cause living thorns to grow inside their bodies, depriving the Horrors of the opportunity to derive sustenance from their suffering. Or the Sea of Death, which is an ocean of open lava, where specially shielded airships fly over it to harvest pure elemental fire. Or that trolls get around the fact that they are too big to ride horses by domesticating dinosaurs.
It's very cool, and honestly I wish there was more of it here in this book. The explicit setting chapter is less than 15 pages long, and much of the feel of the game has to come from examples, chapter quotes, and the odds and ends sprinkled throughout the book. I feel like 1st edition maybe did it better, but that was a long time ago, and I may be remembering the past with rose-colored glasses. (Sadly, I don't have any 1st edition Earthdawn books, probably my most regrettable collecting oversight).
UKSS Contribution - This is a tough one, but I'm going to have to go with sealed kaers. It's mentioned a couple of times throughout the book that not everyone has emerged from their magical bunkers yet. Even now, decades after the Scourge has ended. I think it would be cool to have a couple of those in the World of Ukss, even if the thing they're hiding from has to be changed.
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
An age of magic once existed in our world. Lost to history, this time is remembered in the echoes of myth and legend. Humans lived alongside the other Namegiver races: Dwarf and Elf, Troll and Ork, Windling, T'Skrang, and Obsidiman. The wild places of the world were home to griffins, shadowmants, and other fantastic beasts.
The land was once besieged by the horrors, foul creatures from the depths of astral space that sought to feed upon and destroy all that was living and good. Their time, the time of the scourge, has passed and the people have returned to the surface, reclaiming the lands that were once their home.
Brave heroes band together to explore the land of Barsaive, fighting the horrors that remain and protecting their homes from those that would enslave them.
The Player's Guide Provides you with the rules for playing characters from first to eighth circle, with all the talents, spells, and other tools needed to forge your own legends in the Earthdawn roleplaying game.
I have a friend who lent me the old FASA version, many years ago. I thought it was a great setting and I especially loved all the clever easter-egg connections to Shadowrun. From what I understand, those are no more, due to the severing of the licenses, but I still like the exotic fantasy races, strange magic, and undercurrent of melancholy that characterize the setting as a whole.
This particular book is an absolute brick, more than 500 pages long. I hope that means that there will be a lot of juicy setting detail, though my worry is that the system will be really finicky and complicated.
Either way, there are sure to be long, dry stretches.I've got to prepare myself emotionally to power through.
Monday, November 19, 2018
This module was a bit of a surprise. When I saw that it was a solo adventure, I assumed it was for one player and one DM. But it turned out to be a solo adventure. Just a single player with no DM, like a choose your own adventure book. A really dry, complicated choose your own adventure book.
It was kind of neat. It had hundreds of paragraph-long encounters that would branch into each other to lead me through the plot. It was nearly impossible to read. Imagine page after page of things like this:
V69. You are just off the shore of an island in the Minrothad Guilds. Other guild islands lie to the north and east. An island of the Kingdom of Irendi lies to the west. If you land on the island before you, read entry E13.
north -- T20, 1 day east -- V79, 1 day
south -- V68, 1 day west -- V59, 1 day
I made the decision early to just play through the adventure as intended instead of trying to read it like a book. And it went pretty smoothly. I inadvertently cheated a few times, because I accidentally skipped over the random encounter rules, but then I balanced it out by mistakenly rolling for more random encounters than necessary. (The rules are at the start of section V, and only apply there, but I used them for sections T and C.)
Also, there was some ambiguity as to whether I succeeded at the quest or not. You're supposed to bring the evil Baron some unrefined gold, weighing 1000 coins (Dungeons and Dragons uses "coins" as a measure of weight). I had 700 coins worth from the expedition and 800 regular coins. I counted that as a win, because surely the Baron would understand that gold is gold, and if we're just going by weight, then 300 actual gold coins are better than the exact same amount in lump form.
But then again, maybe the standard gold piece is adulterated, mixed with other metals. But if the coins are at least 3/8ths gold then the Baron would come out ahead. The book didn't give me much guidance either way. I'm inclined to award myself victory, because of course, but reading the rules as written, I probably shouldn't have. It certainly doesn't make sense for the Baron to set a 1000gp ransom when your character starts with 750gp.
Overall, it was pretty decent. It was like playing a really short adventure game where I had to track my inventory with a piece of scratch paper. I'd have gotten a lot of use out of it when I was a kid, but now I can just play an adventure game whenever I want . . .
Still, a pretty cool thing to own.
UKSS Contribution - nothing in this adventure is particularly well-described or distinctive, so it's hard to choose, but I guess I'll go with Three Sisters Island, where you receive a vision of the three sisters of the sea and they teleport you to some other island.
Blade of Vengeance
This was a traditional solo adventure of the sort I was expecting when I started with this batch. It's D&D, but with only one PC. It's also the best story out of the bunch, though that's not saying much.
You're an adventurer who returns to her hometown just in time to see it destroyed by a dragon. Swearing vengeance, you track down the final resting place of the hero that slew the dragon's grandfather so you can get his special dragon-slaying magic items.
A simple enough story, but the tone is all over the place. Halfway through, you encounter a mischievous nature spirit who steals one of your magic items, and there's a lighthearted detour from the main quest while you sort it out. All the while, the adventure is assuming you're pursuing this in a well-focused, but mercenary manner. The text goes out of its way to point out how much treasure every character (no matter if it's a wandering monster, friendly NPC or random halfling townsfolk) is carrying. The bizarre treasure focus reaches it's zenith in the dragon's lair itself, where you notice a tapestry worth 1500gp . . . depicting the dragon's grandfather destroying a village.
I misread that entry the first time through. I thought the tapestry was of the same dragon you were trying to kill. And I laughed my head off. I guess my imagination went even farther than the (misread) text and I just pictured the tapestry as showing the destruction of the main character's village. Like, while the PC was off chasing faeries and communing with the ghost of an ancient hero, the dragon had somehow commissioned and received a tapestry of itself. And that tapestry just happened to be so well done that it had already received critical acclaim and an appraised value of five years' worth of workman's wages. The image of Erystelle doing a double-take as she walks past is one that's going to stick with me for some time.
Ultimately, though, what hurts Blade of Vengeance the most is that its story doesn't have a proper arc. You've got the dragon attack at the beginning, a whole lot of filler with no particular symbolism or thematic weight, and then the confrontation at the end. Structurally, it's a mess.
Also, it seemed like every other monster in this quest had a sword +1. I noticed at least four, not counting the main characters, which honestly makes them seem less magical.
UKSS Contribution - I have to go with Wally, the Halfling elder. This is another case of me misreading the book, but this time I'm doing it on purpose. Here's how he's described:
No matter when Erystelle calls, Wally will be in his dressing gown and will have a pipe in his hand.Now clearly, this just means that the adventure wasn't going to go through the trouble of writing out this minor character's entire daily routine. But I'm choosing to interpret it to mean that he just goes around all day in his pajamas, possibly as a result of whatever is in his pipe. I'm certain that I could have a lot of fun pairing that personality with some other authority figure in the world of Ukss.
Mystery of the Snow Pearls
For this one, I'm going to let an image do the talking.
The whole book is like that, except for a few paragraphs of explanation. Apparently it originally came with a "magic viewer," which I'm guessing is a small piece of red plastic film that has long since been lost. I may come back to this book if I ever find something suitable, but until then, I guess this one was super easy.
Quest for the Heartstone
The simplest of the five adventures (probably). You and a team of your friends are just chasing after a Macguffin because you're being paid to do it. I remember the blurb on the back not doing an adequate job of explaining why the Queen needed the Heartstone to rule, but that turned out to have a very simple answer. The Heartstone gives its wielder the power to read minds, which she intended to use in her courtly intrigues. Which, you know, fair enough. She'll need all the help she can get, what with being the 35 year old wife of a man who died at the age of 82.
Okay, it was a different time. And surely good ol' King Ganto was a decent man. But geeze, there's no version of that relationship that leaves me feeling comfortable.
The quest itself is fairly boilerplate. You go through a trap-ridden dungeon, fighting monsters and getting a bunch of incidental treasure. The high point is the "wellevator," a magical elevator built in a well. Or perhaps the cursed scroll that turns whoever reads it into a pixie for one week. Or maybe the return of the water termites (which also showed up in Lathan's Gold - I may have underestimated the broadness of their appeal).
No, actually, the best thing is the NPC line "we are providing you with a pair of tongs." The queen's advisor doesn't want the PCs to touch the stone, presumably because they might then covet its powers for themselves, but even if the stone were actually as dangerous as implied, it would still be a ridiculous line. Tongs are, like, what, 2 cp? To present them as if they were some piece of specialized equipment generously being bestowed upon the adventurers is just ridiculous.
The worst thing about the adventure is the way it took every opportunity to advertise the official D&D line of figurines. They even based the preconstuct characters off the toys. And only 3 of the 18 were women. Which doesn't say anything good about either D&D culture or toy culture circa 1984.
UKSS Contribution - The Prism Wars. The module didn't say anything about them, just that they happened 50 years ago, under the rule of the previous king. I just think the name sounds cool.
This adventure has one critical flaw. The negative consequences of the plot only happen because the PCs get involved in the plot. The gates to the ancient prison of the Carniflex were in no danger of being opened until the PCs went to the seven magical realms to retrieve the keys. If they had just decided to say, "let's not get involved," nothing would have happened and the status quo that had endured for thousands of years would endure for thousands more.
Technically, an evil god tricks the PCs, by pretending to be a mad prophet who predicts the coming disaster, but at no point is that revealed and the PCs can't do anything about it.
The adventure itself is adequate. You go to seven different mini-dungeons, each of which has its own theme. Some of them are overly precious, like guardian who challenges you with three-card monte and then gives you a hint in the form of a pun. And the adventure as a whole suffers from that old D&D thing where there is a lot more combat than is necessary. Like, narratively, it doesn't contribute the story to be attacked by a dragon out of nowhere, but it does pad out the length.
Although, the part of the adventure where you go through the Carniflex kitchens and have to avoid falling into a pit of poisonous barbecue sauce was pretty amusing.
UKSS Contribution - Rainbow Knights. They don't have any deep description. They're just a monster you might fight if you flub the riddles on the rainbow bridge, but I think they might have fought in the Prism Wars.
I've never really used pre-made adventures and this group of five shows me why. Their pacing was weak and they don't really mesh with my interests or humor. Creating something from scratch is the only way to make sure it fits me perfectly. Maybe if I'd had more experience in using them, I'd also have a better intuition for how to adapt them to my style, but that's just speculation at this point.
Unfortunately, nothing in this batch of adventures sold me on the concept. That was pretty predictable. I got all of these in a big bundle from a stranger I never met, but I would never have bought them for myself. They are from a genre of fantasy I don't particularly care for from a period of time that I can't really relate to. I'm glad to have read them, but I'm also glad I don't have to read them again.
Saturday, November 17, 2018
The World of UKSS
General Facts About Ukss
There is no firm line between magic and technology on the world of Ukss. Engineers use spells to create more and more intricate inventions, using enchanted materials to create components with impossible properties. And sorcerers use technological devices to explore deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the Magic World.
The world of Ukss is in the middle of an industrial revolution, with new techniques of mass-production and automation emerging every year. Large states have railways, select installations have electric lighting, and even the poorest armies wield rifles. The most advanced nations have begun experimenting with airplanes and even the most isolated regions will import machine-woven clothes and machine-forged housewares.
limitation of Ukss' technology is that they have not yet discovered
the principle of magnetic induction. Machines with magnetic
components must use rare and expensive natural magnets, and any that
require electricity must rely on mercury batteries (mercury is a
common byproduct of and catalyst for alchemical processes and there
is a mature infrastructure for mining it in almost every nation on
Ukss), with the most essential applications indulging in the expense
of enchanting them to perpetually recharge.
The reason for
the uncertainty surrounding magnetism lies in the complex
relationship it has with antimagic. Any relatively pure iron, nickel,
or cobalt object that is brought into an antimagic field will rapidly
magnetize. What's more, they will carry their own weak antimagic
fields with them for as long as they remain magnetized. However, it
is not the case that all magnetic fields are antimagic. A natural
magnet made by any means other than being brought into an antimagic
field will have the same reaction to magic as any other similar
Because of the unimaginable wealth and power that would surely come to the first person to unlock the secret of antimagic, almost all scientific research done with magnets focuses on their magical properties.
Vehicles and factories in Ukss are powered by internal combustion engines that use an alchemically-stabilized solution of acetylene and acetone known as sunbrew. Sunbrew burns cooler than acetylene, but can be used as a fuel in liquid form and doesn't need to be kept pressurized. Petroleum is not unknown, but is rare enough that it is more economical to use alchemy to make sunbrew from limestone and various forms of biological waste (sadly, this produces a magically active byproduct that is significantly more toxic, but the capitalists of Ukss are happy to let other people deal with that externality).
No adept in Ukss is more storied than Lilith. Though she lived before humanity tamed magic wands and before the invention of all but the most basic of rituals, she is said to have bargained with the gods for a hundred types of wild magic. She was a mentor to heroes (especially women) and a foil to authority (especially kings, fathers, and overbearing husbands). Civilizations on all three continents have stories of Lilith introducing them to some vital craft (Sheyaugh says she taught them the cultivation of millet, Mu that she tamed the first horse, and The Kingdom of Bliss credits her with the soul-painting ritual), though how many of these stories are true is impossible to say. It's likely that for every accomplishment falsely attributed to her, there are two more where her contributions have been forgotten.
Magic has confirmed that Lilith was a real person who lived approximately 1000 years before the adoption of the written word, but attempts to trace her origin or identify her final resting place have been futile. Mystery cults that worship Lilith believe she bodily entered the Magic World and is even now exploring its farthest reaches for new discoveries to share with her children.
Lilith is sometimes known as "the Mother of Demons," though this is a title that mostly promulgates in the more inflexibly patriarchal cultures. Some say that the sobriquet is literal, and that her early dealings with the gods culminated in a physical consummation. Like much surrounding the demon courts, the truth is murky, but it is undeniable that most demons revere Lilith, and all but the most powerful are obligated to respect an oath made in her name (though woe-betide any who breaks such an oath, whether made to a demon or not, for the Demon Princes claim plenipotentiary jurisdiction over any such oath-breakers.)
Tarnished silver coins bearing the likeness of the Dark Mother are the official currency of the Demon Realm. Pegged to the value of one oathbreaker's soul, Lilith Coins are highly unstable and subject to speculative bubbles, which is just the way the Demon Princes like it – chaos among the ranks is believed to be good preparation for dealing with the material world.
In the hands of a mortal, Lilith Coins ooze blood. Not enough to pool or drip, but just enough to stain hands or purses or pockets (vampires can, theoretically, nourish themselves on this blood, but it takes a long time, and there are . . . side effects). Mortals who handle Lilith Coins frequently will eventually find their skin permanently stained, forever marking them as one who does business with the infernal realm.
Obviously, no respectable market will deal in Lilith Coins, but they do have their uses. Foremost, demons accept them in lieu of favors, allowing sorcerers a more reliable way of securing service from summoned demons. Second, they can secure a promise – slip a Lilith Coin in among the regular coins while paying for goods or services and if the goods are substandard or the services unperformed, then demons will come and drag the vendor to the infernal realm, where they themselves will become worth exactly one Lilith Coin.
Finally, they are extraordinarily easy to enchant with illusion magic – a quick spell can make Lilith Coins look and feel exactly like gold or silver in any denomination, for long enough to go through several transactions and thoroughly obscure their initial origins. Enchanted Lilith Coins leave behind only trace amounts of blood, unless held by someone who has recently made a deal with a demon. Unfortunately, disguised coins cannot bind promises.
The House of Helekar
To those that reside in its walls, the House of Helekar is a temple. They serve the Grand Harvester of Souls with utmost devotion, and if he says there is a primordial power that guides their hands, they aren't inclined to question him.
Those on the outside have a different view. Helekar is a place of atrocities, a haven for murderers, and a lure to the most predatory of the Yokai. Children go missing near the House and the ghosts of its victims lay bound in its halls.
There is not a government on Ukss that would not gladly destroy the House of Helekar. Unfortunately, it moves. Sorceries bound deep into its foundations allow it to disappear with nothing more than a word from the Grand Harvester. It may then reappear on a bare patch of earth anywhere on Ukss. Usually, it flits between one distant and unmonitored wilderness and another, but its gnarled minarets and permanently rime-shrouded frescoes have been seen even in major cities - always for just long enough for a few unwary souls to disappear forever.
They call him "Mouse," but he is really an Awakened Rat. And he is Ukss' most prolific serial killer. Small of stature, even for a rat, Mouse looks cute from a distance. He uses this cuteness to draw in his victims, but it is only too late that they see the eyes - the murderous, hateful eyes that always give him away.
Existing now only in ruins, the villages, temples, and battlefields (especially the battlefields) of the Bird Civilization speak of a time when humanity was not Ukss' dominant species. Archaeologists have found traces on both Atalanta and Hyborea, but they suspect that there are sites on Mu that are simply waiting for a calmer political situation to be discovered.
Relatively little is known about the Bird people. They were expert masons and had rudimentary iron working, but the artifacts that survived are tools and weapons, with no verifiable wands or charms, suggesting that they did not know how to wield magic. Some theorize they practiced alchemy, but the evidence is limited to some ambiguous pottery at a single site . . . and the fact that the remains of the Bird people themselves almost always show multiple wounds, suffered as adults and healed over time.
While other aspects of the Bird Civilization culture may remain in doubt, they were indisputably a violent and passionate people. There are several surviving fossils that preserve two of these seven-foot-tall ostrich-like creatures in the immediate aftermath of a vicious combat that killed both within the space of minutes. Mass graves are likewise common. And no one has yet summoned one of their ghosts and escaped unscathed.
Sometimes, for reasons unknown, a rat will grow to giagantic size (for a rat - about 2-3 feet tall), develop articulate fingers, and gain the power of speech. These mutations invariably breed true, and when these Awakened Rats find each other, they form tight-knit bands that stay together generation after generation.
Unlike most other Yokai, Awakened Rats do not separate themselves from human society. Instead, they live at its fringes, finding work as mercenaries, thieves, and, occasionally, heroes. Rat culture is very keen on the idea of the rogue adventurer, and many Awakened Rats seem like they belong to an older, more chivalrous age.
Invasive pests from the world of magic, Dream Beetles enter this reality through the minds of potential magicians who have not yet found a wand to channel their budding magical energies. They rarely stay confined there for long, though, spreading from mind to mind like a plague.
Dream Beetles are not a deadly threat, but they are highly disruptive. They take images from sleepers' dreams and extrude them into the real world to create repulsive nests of rapidly decaying dream-matter. These can cause quite a shock to those not used to the phenomenon, seeing, for example, a hive that appears to be made of the rotting corpses of the infested's friends and family, but which are merely the dream bodies of such people, absent their real-life animating spirit.
Perhaps the strangest of Ukss' Yokai, the Iotans are half-spiritual, half-physical humanoids that are so small they are invisible to the naked eye. They have the curious property of being roughly as intelligent as their host organism. Mostly they hibernate in the roots of various plants, but sometimes those plants are eaten by an animal and the Iotans become active, inducing gastrointestinal distress as they graze on their host's beneficial intestinal flora. This can become a serious problem for such animals, as the Iotans are usually smart enough to outwit the animal's immune system. Often, they'll reach a natural equilibrium eventually, but weakened animals have been known to die of an Iotan infection.
then, sometimes, an infected plant or animal is eaten by a human or
sufficiently animal-like yokai (goblin body chemistry is too
different, and species like the kitsune are half-spiritual
themselves, but talking horses, awakened rats, and mole people are
biological enough to act as hosts), and the Iotans gain self
This is almost always a disaster for both Iotans and host. With typical human adaptability, they quickly spread to every part of the host's body, learning to use almost every mineral and protein for some craft or magical application. The infected quickly becomes covered in boils, as the Iotans build grand subcutaneous cities, and their bones collapse from the inside out, as the Iotans mine ever-deeper for calcium compounds.
Mostly, the damage done by Iotans is nothing more than a naive consumption of their environment's natural resources, perpetrated without any knowledge that their home is a living organism. However, in especially hardy hosts, the Iotans may survive long enough to start scientifically exploring the nature of their world. These great Iotan civilizations will sometimes master grand ceremonial sorcery that they can use to usurp control over the host's body. As they come to realize the fragility of their world, their main goal becomes spreading the infection to some other intelligent host, usually by tricking the victim into consuming a portion of the host's flesh.
There is no documented case of an Iotan civilization reaching sustainable equilibrium with its human host. Sometimes, the host receives medical treatment in time to wipe out the Iotans, and sometimes the Iotans successfully flee into a new body, but in almost every case, the Iotans consume and consume and consume until the host dies, their civilization collapses, and the few survivors revert to their unintelligent hibernating forms, infecting the roots of the plants that cover their world's grave.
sages believe this to be a warning to the human race, but they're
largely dismissed as overly pessimistic.
The people of Ukss have a rudimentary understanding of magnetism. They know it is the operating principle behind the compass and that it has some relationship to the production of electricity. But they still don't know where it comes from or how to create it directly. Instead, they make magnets by bringing iron to the Hungry Stones.
The Hungry Stones are natural magnets of incredible size, capable of pulling an armored man off his feet at 30 paces. There are about 50 known Hungry Stones, but more are being discovered all the time. The best theory that scholars have is that they were ammunition in a weapon used by the gods to defeat some invading creature of magic. Evidence for this hypothesis is scarce, but it is undeniable that Hungry Stones are found mostly in magic-dead areas. Anyone who could unlock this mystery would have a weapon that governments would pay dearly for.
These ancient megaliths appear all around the world, usually in the shadow of volcanoes. Initially taken as mere monuments, it is now theorized that they are ancient magical artifacts, created to protect the surrounding areas from earthquakes and lava flows. All that is known is that areas which have lost their Anchors will usually succumb to natural disasters within a few decades.
Disturbingly, some Earth Anchors appear in areas that otherwise appear calm and stable. Whether they suppressed volcanic activity in the past or were merely built later, in imitation of the more functional monuments, is currently unknown.
This unique creature has a hundred names among the people of Ukss, though those who study it most just call it "The Forester." It is a giant slug, at least 60 feet long, that is capable of hardening its slimy skin to become as tough as the strongest steel armor. It is drawn to places of devastation and ecological collapse, where it will crawl in complex spiral patterns, a "dance" with meaning known only to itself.
Something about the dance speaks to the memory of plants in the soil, and within a season, everywhere its trail of slime remained undisturbed will sprout new growth to replace the old. Scientists have studied the slime itself and found it to be a remarkable fertilizer, but not inherently magical. The ritual of restoration is the slug's and the slug's alone.
Book of Tales
From time to time, a lonely soul in Ukss will find a strange book among their possessions. They won't remember how they came to possess it, but it will seem familiar, like something they owned in childhood (or if they themselves are children or otherwise too poor to have ever owned a book - then as something they've dreamed of one day owning).
Regardless of the form it takes, The Book of Tales calls to its chosen. Even the most illiterate of them will feel drawn towards reading the book, and after just one or two pages, they'll be hooked. The main character will be immensely relatable, like the sort of strong, resilient, and principled person they wish they could be.
As the readers get deeper into the story, they'll find it takes on a curious applicability. The main character's trials and tribulations are exaggerated, allegorical versions of the problems they face in real life. And if the reader emulates the main character, borrowing their unconventional strategies to overcome challenges with courage and integrity, then things will generally work out.
The Book of Tales doesn't do anything as blunt and direct as prophecy, but in its pages, lost people discover a way to become found. It never fails to change a reader's life for the better, and those who best absorb its wisdom have a habit of becoming legends.
Though rifles and pistols are the preferred weapons of Ukss' great militaries, the world's most powerful warriors still prefer to use the sword. Passing down ancient adept techniques, these masters combine magical skill and martial prowess into deadly fighting arts.
The School of the Gunblade
The most modern of the sword schools, it finds favor in semi-modern nations like Capet and the Kingdom of Bliss. Gunblade adepts wield swords with pistols built into the hilt. These pistols are integrated into many of the style's katas and can be used to add power to a thrust or to punish a careless parry. Naturally, they can also be used to attack enemies at a distance, but the short, unrifled barrel on a typical gunblade makes this a desperation move at best.
Gunblade masters can weave strikes and shots into a complex ballet of carnage and are renowned for their ability to handle multiple opponents at once. A common quip is that half of all gunblade training is spent on learning to manipulate the forces of luck, and while that's not quite true, the school's advanced awareness techniques do lend its practitioners an air of the uncanny.
The School of the Chain-sword
A brutal, uncompromising style, it originated in Laconia, but soon spread to a number of widely-scattered academies that envied its unparalleled might. Chain-swords require utmost discipline to master, as their spinning, toothed blades can pose as much threat to a careless wielder as they do to the enemy.
For those who master the chain-sword, however, the style offers the promise of overcoming any single foe, no matter how mighty. There is little an enchanted chain-sword can't cut through, and against the few creatures capable of withstanding its might, the adept's unnaturally powerful arms and highly focused fury become powerful weapons in their own right.
The School of the Fractal Sword
In the barrens of Luna's northern hemisphere, far from places any human finds fit to settle, there grows a peculiar species. Half crystal and half plant, these strange formations take the shape of large, serrated crescents, ranging in size from a dagger to an office building. Close examination of the teeth of the crescents reveal that each one is a smaller copy of the whole (and the teeth on those copies are themselves copies of the entire structure, and so on, down as small as anyone has cared to look).
A crescent of the appropriate size can be harvested from its parent growth, fitted with a hilt, and used as a high-quality sword. These blades have the strength of fine steel and the weight of pumice stone. Masters can wield them with devastating efficacy, creating lingering wounds that are unnaturally slow to heal. Fractal Adepts are also highly skilled at creating layered defenses that leave their enemies baffled and helpless.
Any tooth of a fractal sword may be broken off and replanted in its native Lunar soil. Given enough time, it will eventually grow into a duplicate sword. Students of the school imbue this process with sacred meaning and when it is time for an apprentice to leave the master's service, their first blade will have been grown from a shard of their teacher's sword.
The School of the Macuahuitl
Though many hoped this terrifying art would have passed away in the wake of the Prism Wars, it nonetheless survives in a few of Mu's more isolated kaers. Given the dangers of the Spectrum Lands, it is likely to thrive in the coming years.
The Macuahuitl was old Mu's signature ceremonial weapon, a dense wooden club with razor-sharp obsidian blades attached to the edges. In years gone by, large quarries on the slopes of the Helltooth mountains would produce tons of high-quality obsidian that would subsequently be treated with alchemy to become as shatter resistant as steel (and not coincidentally keep its impossibly sharp edge for nearly a hundred times as long). At the peak of the Republic, nearly every officer in the military carried one, even if the magical art was confined purely to elite units and civilian experts.
Macuahuitl magic is versatile in its ferocity. Masters have been known to decapitate horses with a single stroke, but the style itself is most feared for its nonlethal techniques. A disciplined practitioner can bring a victim low with dozens of shallow cuts and dazzle any potential rescuers with flying ribbons of blood. They are also skilled at using the wooden core of the weapon for powerful stunning blows.
The School of the Flux Blade
Flux stone is a rare material that occurs only when an extruded labyrinth intersects a dense deposit of bauxite. The aluminum in the bauxite becomes corrupted with magical energies and is thereafter susceptible to being influenced by human thought. The resulting material has many applications, though the oldest and most widespread is the flux blade.
Concentrate on a flux blade and you can reshape it into any weapon you can imagine. Most use this power to make an ideal version of a specific weapon they've already mastered, but some martial artists choose to explore the flux blade's versatility and attempt to use its shapeshifting to gain an advantage on the battlefield.
is very difficult. Not only must the wielder be familiar with a wide
variety of fighting styles, they must also be able to shift their
entire focus and concentration onto the blade at a moment's notice.
Those who overestimate their own abilities will quickly find
themselves imperiled by these lapses in attention. With the proper
mental training, however, the flux blade becomes an incredibly deadly
weapon, able to extend or contract, bend or stiffen, become lighter
or heavier, all as the situation demands. Few defenses are able to
stand against it, and few attackers are able to cope with its
unpredictable threat range.
"Yokai Village" is a collective term for the hidden settlements of lesser spirits and near-human monsters. The classic Yokai Village is a refuge for any supernatural creature strange enough to to be shunned by human society and smart enough to honor the Village truce. These Villages usually reside in "cursed" wilderness, where humans fear to tread, lest they get hopelessly lost . . . or worse. It's unclear whether these curses are caused by the Yokai enforcing their borders or if the Yokai simply seek out the most dangerous lands in which to hide. Either way, a mixed Yokai Village will welcome any of the Old Peoples who need to flee the encroaching hand of humanity.
Not all Yokai Villages are so diverse, however. Some contain only a single species. They still tend to be isolated and well-protected by secrecy, but any unfamiliar monster that wandered through will be treated with suspicion, at best.
Yokai villages are hidden, but that doesn't mean they are all isolated. Some Yokai maintain a tentative contact with the outside world, staging elaborate traveling markets that bring a little of the wonder of the supernatural to the towns and cities they visit.
Goblin Markets do not advertise, but they are not difficult to find for the determined seeker. Most people don't bother, because the wares for sale mostly appeal to the appetites of the Yokai - a Giant Lynx might find a variety of exotic rats at the concessions stand. A Vampire might find a mirror enchanted to show their true reflection. A Kitsune might find an incense that smells exactly like fox piss, for the rare times she is feeling homesick.
Nonetheless, humans do sometimes find the Goblin Markets, whether they are sorcerers looking for rare components, adventurers looking for material to lay or break a curse, or simply drunkards and fools, stumbling in by accident. Few leave entirely unsatisfied, but rumor has it that some never leave at all.
Most Goblin Markets are not directly owned or operated by the goblins themselves. Goblin craft is simply the most attractive lure for human visitors, so that is what humans call them.
From a distance, goblins appear to resemble humanity. They have the same basic body plan - two arms, two legs, an upright posture and hairless skin. Yet there are certain crucial differences. They are smaller than humans, rarely exceeding four feet in height, with three to three and a half feet being more common. Their skin is also not quite human, possessing a mineral luster even in its most human-like shades of earthen-brown (slate grey, jade green, and sapphire are more common, though). Their extremities have exaggerated proportions, with long, clever fingers at the end of their spindly arms and big, floppy feet at their dramatically bowed legs. Their eyes, ears, and noses are proportionately larger than a human's, and their senses are sharper as a result.
Goblins excel at crafts, especially working in metal or gems or with complex mechanisms. There are very few goblin magicians, but they have a special gift for weaving magic directly into the items they create, sometimes without consciously realizing it.
Goblins are instinctual nesters, and are uncomfortable living above ground or in nomadic groups. Goblin homes are usually well-fortified and far enough underground that the surface's light and noise cannot penetrate.
Goblins have an undeserved reputation for avarice. Rather, because they tend to bond very strongly to particular fixed homes, they are very vulnerable to anxieties about scarcity. Many goblins become compulsive hoarders, but this is an illness analogous to depression in humans, and is usually brought on by the same sort of stresses.
Deep Goblins hold themselves apart from other Goblin peoples. They live much farther underground than their kin, often hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface in cavernous cities that have been meticulously carved over the centuries.
Conservative to a fault, Deep Goblins eschew most forms of mechanical and electrical technology, instead relying on their own, long-cultivated magical crafts. Though they use only the traditional arts of stone-cutting, blacksmithing, and carpentry, their tools and weapons are coveted by the wealthy and powerful on Ukss's surface. Any goblin-forged blade will cut effortlessly through armor. An axe made by a Deep Goblin will cleave an engine block in half.
The Deep Goblins pride themselves on being fierce warriors who will never back down from defending their own. They are slow to anger, but their stubbornness has drawn out many conflicts far longer than the surface goblins think wise.
The culture of the Deep Goblins often strikes outsiders as bleak and depressing. It is shameful for a Deep Goblin to publicly show emotion or to flaunt their wealth in any way. Thus they dress in practical browns and greys and adopt a gruff, stoic demeanor. Inside the home is different. A Deep Goblin's lair is almost always decorated with exquisite craft that catches the light of the hearth and echoes the sounds of the family's laughter.
Vampires in Ukss are no mere bloodsuckers. They are the harbingers of the end of the world. The vampires themselves are either unclear or deliberately evasive about their initial origins, but they know one thing for certain - they are the only thing that can survive the coming apocalypse. Some vampires look upon the apocalypse with horror and seek to delay it. Others look upon it with glee and seek to hasten it. One thing both factions agree upon is that they will be in no danger of running out of blood.
Most of the Tremere vampires were magicians and sorcerers in life, and retain those abilities even in death. Though only the most corrupt and death-tainted wands will function for the undead, the Clan has learned to substitute the mystical energies of their blood. As a result, they are less physically potent than other vampires, but make up for it in versatility and precision.
Clan Tremere is more hierarchical than other vampire families, organizing itself as a perverted mystery cult where deeper circles of initiation grant access to ever more potent mystical secrets.
Clan Tremere is despised by most other vampire families because they tend to operate semi-openly, making deals with corrupt civic officials for sanctuary in exchange for providing their mystical services to the upper class. A city inhabited by Tremere vampires is extremely hostile to other vampires, with hunters frequently tipped off when the trespassers arrive.
The Tremere oppose the coming apocalypse and will preemptively attack rival vampires rather than risk their doomsday cults taking root.
Most vampires are ambivalent about the coming apocalypse. They identify with one faction or the other and pursue its goals in a desultory sort of way, but mostly they just exist night to night, with little thought to the future.
Not so the Morbus. They have fully embraced the end of the world. They work to disrupt human civilization and weaken the guardians of order. Their weapon of choice is indiscriminate pestilence, stored in their immortal bodies and spread through their infectious bites.
No place visited by the Morbus escapes disaster for long. The Morbus don't just spread a single disease. As immortal blood-sucking creatures who feed exclusively off of sick and dying humans, they tend to collect a wide variety of infections over the years. The older Morbus will host a greatest-hits selection of all of history's most terrifying plagues.
If mortals knew of their existence, the Morbus would be the most hunted vampires in existence. Unfortunately, few who come into contact with them survive long enough to spread the word.
Less a faction of vampires than a title, an Inconnu is an elder vampire who has shunned the trappings of family and temporal power and to focus entirely on exploring the vampiric condition. For the most part, "Inconnu" is a past-tense sort of title, something you say about a vampire who has disappeared, but who you dare not proclaim as dead.
Sometimes, though, an Inconnu vampire will reemerge, wielding strange powers and espousing strange philosophies. It is clear that they learned something in their extended absence, but whether such knowledge delays the apocalypse or hastens its arrival is something beyond the comprehension of lesser minds.
Magic on Ukss comes in three types - wand magic, ritual magic, and wild magic. Wand magic is faster, flashier, and more adaptable - able to be used in seconds, rather than the hours or days required for serious magical rituals - but it requires the use of a special magical item of incredible power.
There are a few thousand magic wands currently on Ukss, but new ones are rare. Historically, they were made only about once per century, by none but the greatest practitioners of the mystic arts. In recent years, the pace has picked up, as scholars come to understand the natural laws that govern magic. Now, the world will see a new wand once every 2-3 years.
It is a misconception among laymen that wands create or power spells. Rather, they act as a bridge between the magician's thoughts and the magical realm. Each wand is attuned to a rather narrow range of elemental and/or spiritual energies and thus is limited to creating spells in line with the wand. A Wand of Fire, for example, can shoot sparks or stoke bonfires, but could not summon frost or heal wounds.
Wands work through a combination of gestures and focused visualization. Some magicians use chants, poems, or keywords as part of their spells, but these are purely aids to concentration. Wand magic does not require such measures.
Most wands are patterned after one of the Great Wands, used by the Creators to make the world. Great wands have a higher ceiling for mastery than their more common imitators, but reaching those heights requires just as much study and learning as mastering a lesser wand. A magician who has not yet reached the limits of their current wand would gain no extra benefit from wielding a Great Wand (aside, perhaps, from prestige).
Ritual magic, by contrast, is broader, subtler, and farther reaching. It can have long-lasting effects and may call upon multiple energy types at once. Each ritual is unique and most require exotic ingredients and elaborate ceremonies to perform. Skill in rituals does not grant one the ability to wield a wand, nor vice versa, but the two disciplines are often taught together for the sake of convenience.
Wild magic is controversial as a category. It is not entirely arbitrary. It describes a real phenomenon - creatures and people of Ukss who have some extraordinary magical ability that they can just do. Wild magic requires neither wand, nor ritual behavior, nor any sort of external aid. To those who possess it, wild magic is as natural as moving their limbs.
The controversy comes from the fact that wild magic is incredibly diverse, and not necessarily innate. Some forms, like the clock magic of the Seekers of the Hour can be studied and learned. Those who come by their wild magic through practice are called adepts, whereas those who are born with their magic are called prodigies, but many dispute that there should be categories at all.
The Tremere have learned to tame the wild magic innate to vampires, making it operate more like wand magic. This renders it vulnerable to the same sorts of detection, warding, and disruption, but since their wands are their own bodies (well, technically, the blood inside their bodies), they will often have highly personalized and versatile skill sets.
Those who have reason to fear magic (and to be fair, that's most anybody) favor cats as pets. They can see partially into the magical realm and will notice rituals as they are being cast and the tell-tale aura that surrounds an experienced wand magician at all times. Wild magic is hit or miss. Certainly, no cat will tolerate the presence of a vampire, but they tend to be completely indifferent to the presence of gods.
Widely considered the most elegant of the travel rituals, the caster folds a piece of special silk-threaded paper into an elaborate origami boat. Then, speaking a specially composed poem about their hopes for reaching a particular destination, they place the boat into the water, where it grows to full size. As soon as the caster steps aboard, the Origami Vessel will start sailing itself to the destination named in the poem, traveling day and night at a constant speed and ignoring prevailing wind conditions. When the caster steps off the boat, it disintegrates into a cloud of swirling confetti, announcing to all that a sorcerer of considerable power has arrived.
The Tainted Bargain
There are some on Ukss with an urgent need for power. Not for its own sake, and not for themselves, but to accomplish some goal or defend some principle that will live on long after their death. The boldest and most desperate of those seek out The Tainted Bargain, offering their lives to a creature of the magic realm in exchange for securing a powerful champion for their most cherished ideals.
When the ritual is complete, the summoned creature takes possession of the caster's body. This is a one-way trip. For as long as the body's physical integrity endures, it will belong to the entity. In exchange, the entity is afflicted with a compulsion to work towards whatever goal the caster offered - whether as concrete as "rescue this particular prisoner from captivity" or as abstract as "work towards equality for all". The entity does not gain control until it agrees to these terms, and it has a last opportunity to back out (causing the ritual to fail), but generally having a physical body and acting in the material world is seen as desirable enough that nearly any offer is going to find an interested taker.
More powerful entities tend to be more discerning, but sometimes even they rush into ill-conceived deals that transgress against their morals and preferences. Nonetheless, once the bargain is made, it is iron-clad. For all but the most knowledgeable entities, the death of a body means they die along with it, so there are very few loopholes for a trapped and tormented creature (though the nature of the Bargain itself ensures that those who die while sincerely attempting to fulfill their end will usually be able to return to the Magic World).
The authorities are constantly trying to suppress knowledge of The Tainted Bargain, but the ritual is relatively simple to perform and widespread in the Magic World. Whenever a creature does break through, it usually makes it a priority to spread the knowledge far and wide. Such a service is worth many favors among the spirit courts.
A variant of the Tainted Bargain exists that allows a sorcerer to bind a spirit into an inanimate object. Most spiritual beings find the very idea beneath their dignity, but Gafflings, the Magic World's equivalent of semi-intelligent animals (they're usually about as smart as a clever dog or ape) will jump at the opportunity.
Gafflings do not have especially potent magic, but they are eager to please and take great pride in finely crafted or well-loved vessels. If they are treated well, they come to view the object as a nest or lair, and will diligently see to its maintenance and upkeep. A Gaffling-inhabited sword never rusts or becomes dull. Gaffling clothes will subtly alter their shape to better fit their owner. In time, Gafflings can even learn to master complex technology, allowing for guns that never need reloading or engines that run without fuel.
A Gaffling who inhabits a cherished item for a century or more begins to evolve human-level intelligence. Their innate magic grows apace and a hundred-year-old Gaffling can potentially bring their object to life, protect it from fires, floods or malicious destruction, or make it profoundly more effective than a mundane item (allowing hammers to shatter stone, shoes to walk on water, etc).
Freeing the Primordial Flesh
While exploring the limits of transmutation rituals, scholars at the University of TBD made a stunning discovery - the stones of Ukss were not created as stones, but as something else. Something . . . fleshy.
It is still unclear at this time, whether the earth was transmuted from the massive body of a single being or the mingled bodies of an unimaginable charnel-pile. Different types of stone will revert to different types of . . . meat, but there is no way currently known to determine if these meats come from different donors or from different organs of the same donor or from a once-uniform primordial flesh-stone subjected to aeons of geological alchemy.
What is known is that consuming the flesh produced this way is . . . unwise. It will nourish a body, but it will also change it. It is as yet a mystery what the endpoint of this process might be, as the unfortunates subjected to this experiment have all been mercifully dispatched, but no one who knows of this lore thinks it leads anywhere good.
The more dedicated vampire scholars know the nature of the earth from another source - their ancient apocalyptic prophecies, which predict that an eternal vampire kingdom will thrive when the primordial's flesh reverts and fills the seas with blood.
Theft of Futures
There are safe, if expensive ways to magically extend human life – with rare alchemical substances, mined from the clouds of Aetheria. And there are safe, if corrupt ways to extend life – with necromancy and demon pacts. And then there is the cheap, reckless way to live forever – through the Theft of Futures ritual.
As the victim is bound in a ritual circle, the sorcerer draws away their years, in long streamers from their eyes and mouth and fingertips. They then begin to age, a year every few seconds. The sorcerer does not directly get younger, but begins to live those years in place of their own. Only when the years run out will they resume aging.
This is phenomenally unwise.
The sorcerer has stolen a future and such a thing is not merely extra
time. It is also the victim's destiny and potential and the thousand
paths they didn't take. The longer the sorcerer lives in those
unnatural years, the more their own decisions diverge from those of
their victim, and the more the energy of this dissonance bleeds into
the sorcerer's body. For the first victim, this transformation is
usually pretty subtle – a cast of the eyes, the shape of the
cheeks, characteristic postures and mannerisms. But more victims add
more complexity and draw the sorcerer further and further away from
their own natural destiny. After a century, they develop animal
features. After five centuries, strange limbs and organs never seen
in nature. These transformations can grant terrible powers, but the
sorcerer is no longer remotely human.
The Rod of Teeth
Ranking among the most infamous of recently-created wands, the Rod of Teeth is abnormally thick for a wand, almost like a small club or baton. It needs the extra girth because it is studded with human teeth of every type - molars, bicuspids, incisors - young and old, from at least a half-dozen different "donors."
The Rod of Teeth can channel the magic of identity. With it, a magician can steal the traits that make a person unique, removing physical imperfections, stealing memories, erasing names from the skein of history. Once removed, these traits can be bestowed upon others, cast into oblivion, or manifested as half-mad wraiths with a hatred for all life.
The Wand of Dreams
The Great Wands are always a little perilous for mortal magicians to wield. Not because they are cursed or trapped, but because the minds of the Creators moved in spirals. Coming at their powers in a straight line can lead you to places you never meant to go.
It is unclear what the original purpose of the Wand of Dreams may have been. Every magician who has ever wielded it has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Yet people are still drawn to its power, for many of its wielders created wonders.
The Wand of Dreams connects a magician directly to the portion of the magical world that corresponds to their own subconscious mind, allowing them to manifest illusions that are, to them, completely real. More disturbingly, they may edit real things out of their personal reality. These things still exist, but cannot affect the wielder in any way.
To onlookers, wielders of the Wand of Dreams look half-magic and half-mad. They will undeniably float through the air while claiming to climb a staircase only they can see or touch. They will act completely nonchalant as an enemy's blows harmlessly glance off them. Everything seems to go their way . . . until the day that it doesn't and they disappear into their own solipsistic pseudo-reality.
The Wand of Shelters
This eccentric wand targets and manipulates personal domiciles. It can raise a cottage from the ground, add or subtract rooms from a house, change the facade of a tenement building or otherwise enact any conceivable architectural change. Though it affects everything from shacks to palaces, it works only on places where people actually live. How and why it does this is a frustrating mystery for serious scholars of magic.
Buildings created or altered with the Wand of Shelters can later be repurposed for other functions, but the Wand will not work if the magician does not use it with the sincere intent to create a home. It also won't work if the magician is deceived about the purpose of the building by an employer or other proxy (though it will work if the person telling the magician about the project has themselves been deceived by some other patron, which scholars agree is just plain weird).
The Wand of Shelters can also create, destroy, or alter items within a home, provided they serve a domestic, decorative, or architectural purpose. It can add new gaslights or toilets, clean carpets, place dishes back into a cabinet or even cook a meal. It could move a piano, but it could not tune it. Nor could it do things like stock an alchemical laboratory or repair a bicycle, just because they happened to be in a home.
The Wand of Shelters can harness the massive energies necessary to turn an asteroid into a cylindrical homestead, but it really must be intended as a new home for some intelligent creature.
The Shattered Wand of Love
The Great Wand of Love has abetted many terrible deeds over the years, but in the hands of a wise and gentle wielder, it has also healed wounds and enriched lives. Its final owner was one of the good ones, the magician Poppy, who sought only to allow people to discover themselves through romantic love.
Unfortunately for Poppy, she had enemies. She wouldn't have thought of them as such, but neither did she worry over much about facilitating relationships between humans and yokai, princes and peasants, or young men and their enemies' sons. Eventually, a cabal of sour-hearted schemers took revenge for their thwarted ambitions and ended her life. In the process, they shattered the Wand of Love.
But because Poppy was a caring soul, who held no hatred, even for her murderers, the destruction of a Great Wand did not lead to cataclysm. Instead, her spirit became a bridge between the shards of the Wand, keeping it together metaphysically, even as it scattered. Now, when someone finds a piece of the Wand of Love (an exquisite gem that most are loathe to part with), the threads of destiny stir to ensure that their ideal romantic match finds a neighboring piece. Events will then conspire to bring the two potential lovers together, and when they discover that their gems fit perfectly together, that is usually enough to smooth the introductions. From there, natural chemistry takes care of the rest.
When the Wand of Love finally reassembles itself, Poppy's soul will be released to find its own ultimate reward, but it's likely that some part of her will linger on, and the reborn Wand will be ever-so-slightly harder to wield towards corrupt ends.
The Wand of Goo
Ukss has only recently begun to rigorously study the science of wand creation. In previous centuries, master magicians relied on intuition, the tutelage of the Alfar, or slavish imitation of the Great Wands to guide their craft. The results of such a haphazard process were not always something to be proud of.
The Wand of Goo is probably a failed wand. Certainly, nobody is quite sure what the intent behind its creation was. Scholars of magic regard it as an amusing curiosity, and only the most desperate of magicians would actually deign to use it. It's not . . . dignified.
It has its uses, though. If a magician can cope with its constant stickiness and the unidentifiable fluid that drips from its tip at maddeningly irregular intervals, they will find themselves armed with a potent tool of creation. A skilled wielder can cause the Wand of Goo to spew forth nearly limitless amounts of a greasy, viscous liquid that can be any color of the rainbow and either harden into a rigid polymer or evaporate into a harmless gas. The goo is totally inedible, but also non-toxic and chemically inert. It can put out fires, float items that would sink in ordinary water, and is impassible to ghosts, demons, and other spiritual beings. With sufficient artistry, a patient wielder can even create lifelike sculptures that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, at least until they start to stain the carpets with their perspiration.
The Wand of Confinement
wand makes boxes around things. Or cages. If the magician is skilled,
fences, chains, and forcefields are possible. The truly legendary
ones can cast domes over whole cities.
Very few figure out the wand's true purpose, however. It can imprison anything that moves. It can trap words in a whistleblower's throat. It can trap thoughts in a victim's unconscious. The wielder need only know that such things are there to keep them locked away forever. The barriers created by the Wand of Confinement can be broken through, but there is no guarantee that it will happen fast enough to save whatever is trapped inside.
The Wand of
The primary purpose of this wand is to enhance a target's memories, allowing them to recall distant events with perfect clarity. Under the right circumstances, a wielder might use this as a distraction or punishment, by bringing unbidden or painful memories to the surface, but in general it is a therapeutic tool.
The wand can also share memories, allowing the wielder to shuffle experiences around even a quite large group of people. The original possessor of the memory need not even be present. Once a memory is enhanced with the wand, it remains inside it forever.
The greatest power at the wand's command is the ability to bring its stored memories to life, creating realistic illusions that place the wielder (and anyone nearby) into the scene where the memory took place. This isn't a simple playback, however, and does not rely on anything as fragile as human recall. Instead, it's a kind of virtual time portal. Witnesses can will themselves into the scene and interact with the memory shadows as if they were actually there, gaining insight into historical events that might otherwise have been lost.
The Wand of Memory can never destroy or distort true memories, however. It exists to illuminate the past and preserve it for all time. That doesn't stop the occasional memory donor from claiming deception, especially if the enhanced memory is embarrassing or contradicts a comforting mythology. Wielders must be careful not to run afoul of those who would see the past forgotten.
The Great Tentacle Rod
It summons tentacles. Small, dexterous ones that can perform the most delicate of crafts or large, powerful ones capable of tearing down city walls. Sometimes it's a whole host of medium-sized tentacles that thrash wildly and block the movement of the wielder's enemies. Other times, they grow out of the wielder's back, allowing them to climb sheer surfaces or swim quickly through the deepest oceans.
It's not the subtlest or most versatile magic wand out there, being confined as it is to largely physical tasks, but it has enjoyed a certain popularity through the ages. An imaginative magician can always think of something to use it for.
The Wand of Flesh
unnerving Wand is unusually large, scaled for the giant hands of a
Creator god, and has roughly the consistency of a human tongue. For
those with the nerve to master it, it gives incredible power over
living flesh. Nearly any transformation is possible, provided the
Wand is wielded with care (wielded recklessly, it is a terrible tool
for torture). The main uses are therapeutic - regrowing limbs,
confirming gender, and reversing muscular and skeletal degeneration –
but it is also potentially transhuman. The main limit on providing a
target with superhuman abilities is a rough conservation of mass.
Muscle can be added to a limited degree, provided the target is able
to quickly eat enough calories to sustain it, but for greater
transformations, the wielder must strip the flesh from a living donor
and give it to the beneficiary. In theory, the Wand could create
titanic beings of incalculable power, but only at the cost of slaying
and absorbing hundreds of victims.
While cannons remain Ukss' premier weapons technology, the advanced nations of the Lowlands and the more necromantically inclined city-states of the Bay of Blood (as well as anyone willing to pay any of the above a fortune in trade) have access to a more potent weapon of mass destruction.
Skullshot is made by performing certain dark rituals over a human skull and then coating it in lead. Strictly speaking, the coating is not necessary, but the items thus created are called "Spirit Skulls," and they are never fired out of a cannon - the metal merely keeps the skull from disintegrating in the barrel of the gun. Despite its limited purpose, iron or steel must never be used, as they block the magical energies.
When fired, the skull inside the skullshot breaks apart, releasing the murderous specter trapped inside. For a day and a night following its release, the spirit will rampage indiscriminately, slaying any unfortunate enough to fall beneath its claws.
The skullshot specter is not the ghost or embodied soul of the skull's former owner. Rather, it is a spiritual construct made from the lingering energies of the owner's death. Thus skullshot may be made from the remains of almost any person. Only when the skull's owner was truly at peace in the moment of death does this ritual fail.
This glowing, golden liquid is extremely precious . . . and extremely dangerous. It is a catalyst for magic. Nearly any sort magic user, be they magician, adept, or prodigy (but not ritual casters. . . usually) can use Primessence to dramatically boost the power of their spells. And if Primessence were merely a weapon, that alone would justify how tightly it's controlled by the governments of the world.
The most dangerous thing about Primessence, though, is the way it's manufactured. If a small dose of Primessence is injected into a living creature's bloodstream (and it must be a regular creature with a regular circulatory system - the process does not begin until the Primessence is pumped through a beating heart) then the serum initiates a complex alchemical transformation, turning all of the subject's blood into more Primessence.
This is not necessarily fatal, but it is highly upsetting. The victim's blood vessels become visible through their skin as a complex network of light. Any incidental bodily fluids like tears or saliva become luminescent, even if they are not true Primessence themselves. Survivors have described the physical sensation as a mix of cocaine high and being set on fire.
Usually, those injected with Primessence are quickly killed and exsanguinated before their natural magic resistance asserts itself and the Primessence reverts to blood (a process that takes about a day and leaves behind "only" psychological trauma).
Using Primessence safely involves placing small amounts on the palms, eyeballs, tongue, or genitals (depending on the particular magical application) and then immediately casting the spell. It is possible, however, to inject it into your own veins. This is exponentially more "efficient," but it is highly reckless. Each use of magic would burn up a small, but significant portion of your own blood. Magicians have dropped dead after an hour of nearly god-like power.
Most non-magical people who have experienced Primessence poisoning are quickly killed. However in the day or so where they are transformed, they may attempt to use magic. This doesn't really work except in times of extraordinary need (although, if you've been injected with Primessence, it's likely that you're in a pretty bad situation), but assuming that they don't accidentally kill themselves, there's a chance that the magic will stick around, even after the Primessence fades (the cruel calculus here is that the odds of acquiring a new permanent magic talent increases the more a particular effect is used).
The precursor technology to the Dream Twister, these magically enchanted beds are potent tools of torture and indoctrination, but they also have some benign and even therapeutic uses. When a subject sleeps in a Sleepteacher, they have unusually vivid and memorable dreams. If there is no sorcerer-technician operating the Sleepteacher's controls, these dreams are semi-lucid, but otherwise normal. However with the proper rituals, an overseer may use the Sleepteacher to cause the subject to dream whatever they desire.
Ostensibly, the main use of these devices is rapid education, allowing a dreamer to cram a month's worth of training into a single night. Unofficially, governments often keep several Sleepteachers in the blackest of their black sites, for purposes best left unspoken.
The alchemists of Sheyaugh are among the best at what they do. They have managed to distill the essence of fear into a rather pleasant fragrance they call Clout perfume. Used primarily by high government officials who wish to awe their subordinates and petitioners, it is also sometimes issued to spies and diplomats.
The beauty of Clout is that it's almost impossible to pinpoint its effects. Those who smell the wearer feel a vague trepidation and paranoia, but they almost never connect it to the scent. All they really know is that there is one person in the room who seems really intimidating.
Clout. Your friends will worship you. Your enemies will stay the hell out of your way. Clout. The only terror is how fierce you'll look.
It's rare for the contents of a shadow safe to disappear into the Magic World. It's even rarer for the creatures of magic to use one as a bridge to enter the material world. What never happens, though, is a thief breaking into a shadow safe and stealing its contents. Even if they get past the door, they will find nothing but an empty box. The real safe exists entirely in the Magic World and can only be accessed by the sorcerer who created it (or, potentially, a daring band of kidnappers who force them to speak the activation word, though at that point the sorcerer has other worries).
The other main advantage of using a shadow safe is their flexible size. Anything you can fit through the door, you can store in the pocket dimension. There is no upper limit.
Because of their absolute security and potentially fickle safety, sorcerers mainly use shadow safes to hide secrets, prototypes, and mistakes - things they may have use for later, which may prove dangerous in the hands of their enemies, and which they can reasonably stand to lose.
These enchanted jumpsuits are made of the tanned skins of captured cats, scrubbed and treated so the origins are not apparent. When the zipper is pulled up all the way, the wearer is transformed into the exact type of cat the skin was taken from (usually, because of the use of multiple skins, this has the appearance of a calico domestic cat, but the higher-quality cat suits are made from the hide of a single lion, tiger, or other great cat). Favored by spies and thieves, they are usually worn half-zipped to allow for a sudden escape. Removing a Cat Suit requires the assistance of an accomplice who can speak the code-word that causes the zipper to appear on the feliform's chest (and, of course, provide the human hands necessary to pull the zipper down).
The Terracotta Warriors
Though they have fallen out of favor in the Lowlands since the invention of the cannon, magically enchanted clay statues are still a favored strategic weapon in the Bay of Blood and Omphalos Coast. Relentless, pitiless, and utterly loyal, their only weaknesses are an inability to use firearms (though they are themselves essentially bulletproof) and the expense that goes into their creation. Most city-states can afford to field no more than an elite unit of about 100 or so, though rumor has it that the Republic of Mu had two full divisions that they dared not deploy lest they be subverted by the spell-twisting of the Indigo Legion of Rainbow Knights.
Though Terracotta Warriors are increasingly coming to be seen as obsolete, the old stockpiles still have their uses. With only a small amount of technological and magical augmentation, old automatons can be rebuilt into the world's most potent armor. Wearers of Automaton Armor have increased strength and endurance, damage resistance comparable to the Terracotta Warriors, and the ability to use complex tools like guns and explosives. This flexibility makes them profitable to deploy in small batches, mitigating the worst disadvantage of the older technology.
Like most magical things, it is highly difficult to make a set of Automaton Armor out of iron or steel, but sorcerers in the Lowlands are experimenting with new materials in the hopes of creating a new generation without the weaknesses of clay.
A product of advanced alchemy, Klot is a rapidly-expanding foam that quickly hardens into a durable polymer lattice that is highly resistant to most conventional forms of harm. It is primarily used as a security measure of last resort in Ukss' most well-guarded prisons and laboratory facilities. These installations will feature "Klot chambers" at vulnerable choke-points. When an intruder (or escapee) enters a Klot chamber, guards may pull a lever that releases the Klot's two precursor chemicals. Within seconds, the room fills up with a web of sticky goop. A couple of seconds later, that web freezes, holding everyone in the room in place. Because it is nearly indestructible without exerting unreasonable amounts of pressure, it is perfect for taking prisoners alive (once the proper breakdown enzyme has been administered, of course).
Sometimes a crime is so unforgivable, an atrocity so harrowing that it burns its way into a survivor's, witness's, or investigator's soul. Such a soul may be alloyed with gold to create a Justice Blade. Etched with a detailed description of the crime that inspired its creation, a Justice blade is normally unwieldy, dull, and extremely heavy, but becomes as light and as strong as steel when its in the presence of one of the crime's perpetrators.
If their only property was unfailingly pointing towards the guilty, Justice Blades would still be worth the effort it takes to make them, but they are also among the most effective weapons to use to punish evildoers. A Justice Blade is immune to all defensive magic used by those who committed the original crime, cutting through the most potent of sorcerous protections with incredible ease, and any wound dealt by the sword to a guilty party is automatically fatal, even if it's as small as a superficial scratch. Those punished by the blade slowly disintegrate from the inside out, eventually becoming a hollow shell of skin that will collapse into a pile of dust at the slightest disturbance.
Because they require both a massive amount of gold and a willing human sacrifice to create, Justice Blades are (usually) only created for massive crimes with dozens or hundreds of perpetrators. Everyone who actively participated, provided material support, or helped cover it up will be subject to the blade's power. Once the last perpetrator is dead (whether by the blade or from other causes), the soul inside the blade departs and it reverts to inert gold. The gold can theoretically be reused for another Justice Blade, but those who craft them often prefer to keep retired blades as a memorial for the victims of the original crime.
There's a reason spirits must make the Tainted Bargain or become Alfar - it is very difficult to project anything but the smallest bit of power into the material world. Yet sometimes that bit is enough to cause big trouble. Weak minds can be tempted, small objects can be lost, and souls in crisis can even be possessed. There's not much that humans can do against such intrusions, but if they're knowledgeable or lucky, they might be able to pin the offending spirit in place.
Popular folklore sometimes makes more of this than it should, and you'll often find homes in the Omphalos Coast with dozens of pins stuck in the walls in the vain hope of warding off ordinary bad luck, but if the circumstances are right (the pin has a high iron content and was previously lost then found), it's possible to catch a genuine mischievous spirit. A pinned spirit cannot move their consciousness anywhere else in either world and may only use their powers on someone who is currently touching the pin. This annoys them greatly, but does them no lasting harm, as their immortal minds do not register time in a concrete enough way for confinement to cause great suffering.
An ordinary pin can only capture a minor spirit, those with barely more power than a gaffling. Anything larger will shoot the pin straight out of the hole. There is some speculation that long spears of meteoric iron may be able to bind more potent entities, but no one has been both rich and desperate enough to attempt it.
Some people, especially children, believe that if you find a pin stuck into some random surface and pull it out, you can make a wish and the grateful spirit will grant it to the best of their ability. In practice, the results are . . . mixed.
This sticky, white powder is made with iron, beeswax, and a variety of obscure alchemical substances. If you completely cover your face with it, you become invisible to telepathy. Anyone trying to scan your mind comes back with a complete blank. It's not a perfect defense, because you're still vulnerable to suggestions, memory alteration (though it becomes much clumsier and easier to detect), illusion, and direct psychic assault, but your secrets are safe as long as there are no gaps between your hairline and your shoulder-blades.
It's possible to dye soul-shroud powder into a variety of colors, which replaces the blank result with a mental signature corresponding to the color (red = angry, blue = sad, etc). An elaborately-patterned face painting can deliver such sophisticated false results that the telepath might not even realize that they're scanning a protected person . . . unless they try to read you twice, that is.
Despite their overwhelming power in naval combat, Chaos Drums are used only by small, highly skilled navies. In many cases, a single ship with a Chaos Drum will be deployed against an entire fleet. That's because Chaos Drums do not control the weather. Instead, they make it wild. Seas swell, storms come from clear skies, and winds blow in eight directions at once. The more intricate the rhythm, the more pronounced the effect, and aside from a thin bubble around the player, the Drum offers no protection against its effects. Elite sailors in well-built boats can evade the worst of a Chaos Drum, but the more ships you deploy alongside one, the more you stand to lose.
Death Curses are a storied part of Ukss' history, but most people think they're much more common than they actually are. Whenever a soldier, murderer, or particularly disliked government experiences a run of bad luck, onlookers are prone to suspecting some slow-acting curse from one of the people they killed. In reality, there is nothing subtle about a true Death Curse. Walls bleed. Glass breaks. Animals shriek in fear. And if the target's lucky, they die. Worse still is to survive a Death Curse. The worst will systematically destroy everything the target worked to create, ruining them utterly while striking them with some wasting disease that leaves them powerless, wracked with pain, and bereft of aid.
However, true Death Curses are rare. They require a very particular set of circumstances. The leveler of the curse must have died from betrayal. It is not enough to be slain by some random brigand or longtime foe, the victim must have trusted the one who caused their death. However, Death Curses are not limited to deliberate murder. If a death is caused by negligence, carelessness, or even pure accident, it might still trigger a curse. Secondly, one who levels a Death Curse must die alone. If they were abandoned or ambushed, that's the simplest situation, but a warrior who is the last survivor in the squad may still utter an efficacious curse. Finally, the person being slain must either have enough forewarning or die slowly enough that they can actually speak the curse.
The most potent Death Curses are the ones where all the circumstances apply and the curse-layer singles out a target by name. However, it is not a foolproof precaution against curses to operate in secret, for “I curse the one who killed me” is sufficient if the betrayal is real, but yet undiscovered. And killing quickly is not necessarily a defense, because ghosts can utter curses, if the shock of the death is enough to create one. And killing the victim while they have allies nearby raises its own host of problems.
So, while true Death Curses are rare, they are also unpredictable enough that Ukss' schemers can't afford to discount them in their plans. If a person's ambitions put them a position where they need to eliminate a relative, friend, or sworn comrade, they often prefer to imprison, exile, or maroon their victims, just to be safe.
The largest of Ukss' continents, Atalanta extends from the southern tropics all the way down to the south pole, and east-to-west stretches halfway around the world. It's home to a wide range of climates and biomes and a subsequently diverse array of cultures and peoples. Atalanta's northernmost peninsula is separated from the south coast of Hyborea by only a narrow channel and defines the western edge of the Omphalos sea. That region is known as the Lowlands and is the most prosperous and technologically advanced in Ukss.
To the southeast of the Lowlands are the Shielding Mountains. They run the entire width of the peninsula, cutting it off from the main body of the continent. South Atalanta is dominated by cold grasslands that gradually shift into temperate rain forests the closer you get to the north coast.
Going east, the Haven Mountains define the edge of another sub-continent. These mountains are considerably more navigable than the Shielding Mountains, with only a few peaks extending up past the tree line. The eastern slopes of the Haven Mountains are covered with rivers, both great and small, making the coastal Twilight Forest region into vast, sprawling wetlands.
Travel across Atalanta is difficult and expensive. The densely-populated Lowlands and Omphalos coast have complex rail systems, but mountainous terrain keeps them from connecting to each other. The south plains are too sparsely populated and the Twilight Forest too wet to support much infrastructure. The preferred method of travel between regions is still the shallow-water ships that specialize in traversing the Omphalos sea, though for direct travel between the richer cities, airplanes are becoming more and more popular.
Despite the difficulties in travel, Atalanta does have a very nearly transcontinental telegraph network the connects human and goblin settlements from the Lowlands to the Haven Mountains (the Yokai who inhabit the Twilight Forest have so far demonstrated little interest in maintaining communications with the outside world.)
A rich land of broad fields and fertile soil, the Lowlands slope gently up from the sea to the foothills of the Shielding Mountains. Though the climate ranges from balmy in the north to chilly in the south, the whole region is remarkably temperate and well-suited for agriculture. The massive Grey River bisects the Lowlands, serving as a conduit for travel and trade, though it has surprisingly few tributaries for a river that size. The region as a whole is very densely populated, and virgin wilderness is rare, save for the occasional old-growth forest that remains protected by Alfar or other Yokai.
The people of the Lowlands have straight, black hair and skin that ranges from medium brown in the south to near-black in the north. Eyes range from dark brown to hazel, though heterochromia is relatively common among the upper classes and is thought to be a sign of magical potential.
Language and Culture
At any given date, between 20 and 30 nations call the Lowlands home. The core of any given nation is usually a distinct language, though sometimes linguistic nations will split for religious or cultural reasons or multi-language states will form for mutual protection and/or economic advantage. To some degree, though, these distinctions are artificial. Lowlands languages share many common roots and loanwords (especially relating to modern inventions), and border regions are thoroughly bilingual.
The key to understanding international relations among the Lowlands states lies in its ongoing state of cultural vertigo. A hundred years ago, the various national rivalries seemed, if not settled, then at least in a permanent stasis. Kingdoms expanded to their natural geographic borders and wars between them were long and indecisive. However, rapid industrialization, and the new weapons and tactics it made possible, appears to offer a chance to settle old grudges once and for all.
It is not entirely clear whether increasing nationalist sentiment is a cause or an effect of this new wave of imperialist warfare. Despite centuries of cultural cross-pollination, Lowlands governments are placing more and more emphasis on small areas of distinction. It's as if the very porousness and arbitrariness of the region's borders demands a careful policing of the boundaries of cultural identity to compensate.
Despite the fervor with which the nations proclaim themselves unique, the entire Lowlands region is quite homogeneously capitalist, and invested in the notion of scientific and material progress. It is common to believe that nature exists for human use, magic is simply an unexplored branch of science, and that hierarchical forms of organization are both natural and inevitable. Republican ideas are gaining popularity, even in ancient monarchies, but the intellectual foundations of republican movements are meritocratic and propertarian rather than grounded in any universal standard of human rights. If an individual can claw their way to the top, they deserve to be there. The problem with traditional aristocrats is that they inherited their positions from worthier forebearers.
The Faith of the Lowlands predates most of its languages. It is not one, pure thing, but the result of millennia of conversation, conquest, and compromise, a tree with a thousand branches. Even far distant nations will recognize a common canon of significant writings, but that canon has been annotated, expanded, and interpreted by any number of regionally important scholars and prophets. Depending on how you count, the region has a single religion, three religions (the universalist, nationalist, and individualist theologies), or a countless number of religions.
The central belief that unites the Lowlands faiths is that human beings (and mortal yokai like goblins and awakened rats) came into being as pure spirits, beings of limitless power, but lacking wisdom. The material world is the result of disharmony and conflict among the spirits. Unstoppable forces met each other in the Magic World and became immovable objects in the material. Thus the sky and the earth and a person's very flesh itself are all a cage, crafted by the arrogance of their unbound spirit. The only way to escape this cage is to come into accord with other spirits, so that your powers no longer oppose each others and thus no longer crystallize into the material world.
How this accord is to be achieved is the main (but by no means the only) difference between branches of the faith. In the broadest terms, the goal is “True Living.” Desires may be in conflict, but truth is, by definition, shared. So one must control desire and yield to truth. But what is “truth?”
Ah. . .
There is broad agreement that True Living at minimum requires adherence to a basic moral code – murder, theft, deception, and cruelty are all crimes of desire and take a person away from the liberating truth. However, beyond that, there are hundreds of local variations, each maintaining its own list of ritual observances and everyday behaviors as the ideal guide to True Living.
However, looking beyond those variations, they can generally be grouped into three broad theological tendencies.
Universalist theology states that no one will be free until everyone is free. You might think that means the Universalists are the most authoritarian of the theologies, determined to control everyone's personal behavior, but in reality they are the exact opposite. Because truth is universal, it cannot lie in the particular customs of any specific time or place. True Living must require tolerance, flexibility, and a respect for individual differences.
Nationalist theology is the most straightforward of the three. It states that accord of the spirit follows from accord in the body and mind, and thus True Living means living by the values and traditions of your neighbors. But not just any neighbors. Without special authority, any individual's way of living is equivalent to any other's, and you're back where you began, with competing and arbitrary desires. It is up to the natural leaders – the men and women who become monarchs, ministers, and, recently, capitalists – to guide society. Lowlanders don't believe in hereditary merit, so even strict nationalist theologians don't necessarily advocate for automatic obedience to authority, but they do believe that a culture's heroes and leaders, through their great deeds and exemplary lives, create a model for True Living. Mediocre heirs may fail to live up to their ancestors, but the truth of the nation lives on.
Individualist theology believes that individuals have the power to liberate their own spirits. By confronting and overcoming desire, one may discover the truth that remains when nothing else is left. This is usually accomplished through ordeals and ascetic discipline. The specific practices vary from culture to culture, but this theology is characterized by a respect for charismatic holy figures. A community that subscribes to individualist theology might not be ascetic itself, but it will seek the advice of monasteries and wise hermits in times of trouble.
The theologies mostly exist as a tool for scholars, however. In practice, almost any place in the Lowlands is going to have a mix of all three. You might expect republicans and reformers to be universalist and emperors to be nationalist, and that is usually the case, but sometimes rulers push universalist theology as part of modernization campaigns, and populists evoke nationalist theology to suggest that their preferred ideology is a way of True Living. Though alternately persecuted or celebrated, individualist ascetics can be found almost anywhere. There is a strange correlation between their theology and the rise of secular capitalism, probably as people seek escape from its never-ending pressure to produce and consume.
There is a fourth branch of the Lowlands faith, but it is rarely acknowledged as such. Most believers find it abominable and refuse to lend it the dignity of calling it a sect. Known as “The Mirage,” it claims that there is no such thing as True Living, or even, ultimately, “truth.” Rather, the material world is purely the result of spirits fighting for dominance. Power is the only reality, and the only sensible way to live is to pursue personal pleasure, regardless of the cost.
The Mirage is popular with capitalist new money (traditional aristocrats may appear to live by its precepts, but nonetheless preach a moralistic religion) who mainly use it as an excuse to indulge in sex and drugs. Nearly every major Lowlands city has its own Mirage Society, and their existence is an open secret among people of a certain class.
However, not all expressions of the Mirage are harmless debauchery. Some individuals take it extremely seriously, and conclude from its tenets that there is fundamentally no such thing as an evil desire. These people can become terrible predators, and because of the deliberately transgressive nature of Mirage Societies, may remain undetected for a long time.
The Faith has a complex relationship with the gods. Because they live in the magic world, simple inference would suggest that they are less bound by their desires than most material creatures, but many gods are not great role models. Over the years, religious scholars have developed three categories.
True Gods are those who advance their followers' progress towards True Living. They are not necessarily benevolent – some will scourge those who stray from the path and must be placated with extravagant displays of virtue – but most embody the mysteries of law, knowledge, and family. Most nations in the Lowlands will have one or two gods that only they recognize as True Gods, but they also share many common gods with their neighbors. Generally, even historical rivals will respect each others' religious canon as part of the tapestry of the Faith.
False Gods are spirits whose desires do not bind them to the material world, and thus are free from the burdens of humanity's arrogance, but to emulate or honor them would lead individuals away from True Living. They embody esoteric mysteries that are irrelevant to human existence, and thus their enlightenment benefits only themselves. The Faith's relationship to them is much the same as its relationship to any natural creature (this is especially relevant as expanding industrial production brings Lowlands states into new conflicts with wilderness alfar).
The distinction between True Gods and False Gods is not supposed to be a political one. The canon is very explicit on this point. With the Lowlands' history of international conflict, the Faith was forced to confront this issue long ago. It teaches that different groups have different needs and may require different gods to lead them to the path of True Living. In theory, there is never a religious justification for war, though in practice, imperial expansion seizes on whatever excuses it can.
The third category is the Gods of Desire. These are spiritual creatures who do not represent any form of truth, but are not bound to the material world because their desires are so simple and so primal that they do not meaningfully contradict any human will. Gods of Desire tempt people away from the path of True Living, encouraging theft, adultery, and other selfish acts.
The distinction between gods and demons is one of scientific taxonomy and not recognized by the Faith. Individual demons may be classified as any of the three types of gods, though their predatory culture leads to them becoming Gods of Desire more often than not.
The Thief of the Unwanted
The exploits of this trickster god are a beloved part of the Faith's canon. They liberate human beings from the burden of excess possessions, often through elaborate heists or a variety of wacky schemes. The stories are sometimes told as cautionary tales to instruct the faithful in the mechanics of common scams, but they are also often meant to be funny. The victims of the Thief of the Unwanted are usually those who allow greed to make them callous, but the Thief is also jokingly blamed whenever small objects go missing.
The main lesson of the Canon of the Thief of the Unwanted is that human beings should not become too attached to material objects and that one's possessions should exist for a purpose and be kept only so long as they enhance their owner's life. This may seem ironic, given the region's relentless pursuit of wealth, but the wealthy piously cite the fact that have not yet lost their fortunes to the divine thief as evidence that those fortunes have not corrupted them spiritually.
A rare practice, even among the Mirage, the act of creating goetic demons is one of profound moral hubris. Using a special ritual, a sorcerer may completely excise one of their desires, giving it independent life in the Magic World. Being a fusion of human and divine spirits, these creatures are technically demons, but only the most powerful and uncontrollable desires are capable of surviving outside the sorcerer who spawned them.
The dark sorcerers of the Mirage use this magic to create powerful servants, capable of spreading their desires through dreams and visions. This alone can be a potent weapon against the sorcerer's enemies, when the desire in question is self-destructive or socially unacceptable. But for those willing to go farther, there are more terrible uses for these demons – by using the Tainted Bargain or corrupting a sacred Alfar gate, a goetic demon can be brought into the physical world, where it will serve the sorcerer as if they were loyal children, wreaking havoc with a variety of sinful magical powers derived from the impulse that spawned them.
But having corrupt servants
isn't the only use for this magic. Some sorcerers, mostly ascetics,
but sometimes members of the Mirage who have tired of decadence, will
conjure their desires and then ritually defeat them in spiritual
combat. It is believed that by doing this, an individual can free
themselves of all desire and perceive truth in its purest form.
Skeptics doubt that magical mastery can substitute for the rigorous
self-examination of enlightenment, but some goetic sorcerers do
appear to be paragons of virtue, though only they can say whether the
change is permanent or merely until the demon rejoins the soul of its
The Industrial Revolution
are at the heart of Ukss' industrial revolution. Mechanized
agriculture is well on its way towards taking over traditional family
farms and industrial cities have been seeing large increases in
population. Nearly everything the common people use has passed
through some factory or another. This is leading to the ongoing death
of traditional modes of craftsmanship and the homogenization of
popular culture, but with the exception of the occasional piece of
folk art that has been co-opted into a nationalist narrative, this is
a problem that won't be noticed for another two generations at
Most Lowlands industrial workers get paid on a piece-rate, usually in cash at the end of the day. This is a deeply-ingrained practice, tied intellectually into a common-law understanding of contracts. Day labor is the rule, and factory overseers will usually just pick the necessary workers by headcount from the crowd of people who happen to show up at the beginning of the day.
A growing concern among Lowlands states is industrial pollution. Most major cities have serious smog problems and the toxic runoff of industrial and alchemical processes is often allowed to drain directly into the region's waterways. Respiratory illness is common, but poorly understood.
Industrial production has
also led to a profound transformation in fashion. While the upper
classes of each nation still maintain their unique styles for formal
occasions, a sort of universal industrial uniform has emerged. Most
people, both men and women, wear a basic outfit of sleeveless tunic
and culottes. In the north, the tunic may be an unfastened vest and
in the south it may be covered with a thin topcoat in the spring and
fall, combined with a heavy overcoat in winter. In the north, sandals
are popular, but the south prefers tall boots year-round. In the
south, men will rarely be seen outside without a stocking cap, but
women usually have hoods sewn into their jackets. Personal expression
through fashion is difficult for those without significant amounts of
money, but for those who care, accent cloths are available in a
variety of prints and can be used as scarves, sashes, or belts (more
conservative people use them as curtains).
These cunning devices are among the most popular form of entertainment in the Lowlands. A moderately-sized box of brass and steel, from the front they resemble a theater stage. On the side is a slot for a wax cylinder.
The cylinder contains an audio recording of a dramatic performance, along with a coded parallel track that the Theater reads to direct the motion of its many gears, bringing to life up to four puppet performers to act out the scene as it is being played.
The puppets themselves are modular, and can be swapped out for different characters, although as Clockwork Theaters become cheaper and more common, playwrights have started writing cylinders explicitly for the four "stock" characters that come bundled with the base model (The Lord, The Lady, the Maid, and The Urchin).
Necromantic Calculating Pools
The industrial sorcerers of the Lowlands have developed one of the more repellent applications of necromantic ritual, all for the sake of ensuring the success of increasingly-massive mutual funds. Buying the unburied corpses of the poor by the hundreds, they cremate them in special lead-lined ovens to ensure that the soul lingers on after death. Those souls are then brought to an artificial sub-realm of the magic world and chained to one of the limitless calculating desks that extend from horizon to horizon in neat, identical rows.
One might think that randomly conscripted paupers would not make the most effective actuaries, but time moves differently in the magic world. In the space of a week, they might undergo a decade-long apprenticeship where a complex hierarchy of error-checking forces them to learn whether they like it or not. In time, the cold, leaching numbness of the realm itself wears away any thoughts or ambitions not relating to the job and their desks are redesignated as "reliable," to check, in turn, the work of the pool's ever-growing ranks.
The sorcerers who manage the Necromantic Calculating Pools pose difficult statistical and analytical questions, receiving answers in mere minutes that allow them to get a jump on the market by making frequent low-risk trades that steadily increase their funds' value. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, legions of undead slaves labor for subjective weeks or months to provide their captors with more and more detailed projections, leading to a mathematical arms race with no end in sight.
Alternately loved and hated, banned and spread as propaganda, The Spellbook is a Lowlands institution. Printed into a dozen languages and informally translated into a dozen more, it is a monthly tabloid magazine devoted to the comings and goings of the continent's most notorious magicians, sorcerers, and yokai.
The overall quality of reporting is . . . not good, focusing more on romantic rumors and fleeting moral panics than it does on substantive stories, but it has the virtue of being absolutely fearless. There are magicians with the power to crack mountains who have trembled with impotent rage at an unflattering story. On occasion The Spellbook even uncovers genuine scandals, and crimes the magically powerful would rather keep hidden.
The legal status of
is highly dependent on the subject of the current issue –
governments generally protect their own pet magicians while touting
the shortcomings of their rivals, however some nations will ban it
outright, just out of principle. Strangely, this has little effect on
its circulation figures.
This balmy nation near the north coast of the Lowlands is known as "The Land of Summer" and trades extensively with the Bay of Blood. It practices an extremely bureaucratic form of capitalism that looks on paper like it shouldn't possibly work, but in practice is quite robust.
This is thanks to the guiding hand of the country's Empress, a prophetic prodigy of incredible insight and power. She was found, 50 years ago, by an ambitious minister who immediately recognized her potential and put her to work. Since then, she has not visibly aged, appearing as the same serene child that was found in a field all those decades ago. The people of Sheyaugh adore her and believe she has delayed her own deification to stay and guide them. She is known by no other name but The Incarnate.
Sheyaugh is largely ruled by the ministers one level below The Incarnate. Technically, they are civil servants, promoted by nothing but merit, but webs of patronage and reciprocal nepotism-by-proxy are common. Occasionally, The Incarnate will direct her highest ministers to adopt a new law or strike an old one from the books. These actions often seem whimsical or overly specific to other people, but in aggregate, they serve to keep the nation prosperous in ways no conventional economist can quite understand.
Ledaal Kes is probably a spy. That's what most people who meet him conclude. There is no way someone with such an incisive mind, such improbable scientific abilities, such effortlessly seductive joie de vivre could possibly be satisfied as an investigator for the Sheyaugh Treasury. He must be hiding something.
Ledaal Kes just smiles and keeps his secrets. It's so much easier getting the beautiful boys into his bed if he has an air of mystery.
The people of Sheyaugh wear the same off-the-rack clothes as the rest of the Lowlands, but it's unheard of not to customize your own clothes. The preferred method is to embroider it with colorful thread (red is best, but green is cheaper), but some artistic types prefer to use special temporary dyes. The people of Sheyaugh like to read a lot of extra information into a person's choice of pattern, but there isn't a list of formal rules to it.
Stereotypically, simple geometric shapes indicate you can't sew, or you had a friend sew your pattern for you. Faces are for children. Trees are pretentious, but flowers are aspirational. Birds are popular, but if you look like you're wearing a parrot people are going to think you served in the military. Mechanical or technological motifs are fashionable, but only if there are no visible mistakes. Crooked stitching is seen as down to earth when the subject is “natural,” but for things like planes, trains, and gears it just looks like you're trying and failing to be cool.
The wealthy and well-connected don't embroider simple knock-around clothes, but go overboard with customized formal wear (sewn by well-paid artisans, of course). They typically wear long, gown-like robes in one of two styles – the cape-style or the train-style. Cape-style does not involve an actual separate cape, but rather an oversized collar that folds down to the mid-torso. Embroidery is limited to the collar itself, and the rest of the robe is usually a single complimentary color. In the cape-style, you usually want to illustrate a familiar story that can be shown off by spinning around.
The train-style is more elaborate and generally preferred by high-level ministers and people celebrating special occasions. The whole robe is embroidered, but anything above the knee is abstract. Representational art is reserved for a band around the hem. However, robes in this style often have long trains to extend the scene. It's considered the height of good taste for the lower art to blend seamlessly with the upper patterns, but audacity counts for something. The most conservative trend in this style is “the forest under the stars,” with the trees near your calves framing a predatory animal on your train. It's too traditional to find much fault with it, but everyone who sees it is going to know that you're playing it safe.
Food in Sheyaugh is heavily stratified by class.
Seafood is the most common protein, but there's a strict division –
commoners eat shellfish and crustaceans and ministers and capitalists
eat fish. Thanks to the movement of people into coastal cities,
over-harvesting is a major problem, but farmed oysters, mussels, and
clams are becoming cheaper and more common. Most people buy them
canned, but the middle class can afford fresh.
Shellfish is usually served stewed with millet, root vegetables (yams, onions, and purple carrots are most common) and garden greens. Seasoning is usually limited to salt and extract of citric acid, but imported pepper is starting to find itself in more and more pantries.
Chickens are kept for eggs, but it is against the law to eat chicken meat at anything other than a funeral. The family is supposed to slaughter and serve all of the deceased's chickens when they die, but these days an exception is made for the urban poor, who only have to serve one.
By decree of the Incarnate, food grown from the ground is for commoners and food from trees is for nobility. Oranges and lemons form a large part of the upper class diet, though Sheyaugh grows a remarkable variety of peaches, including one dark red peach that is barely sweet and extraordinarily savory. People say it tastes like tomato, but this is probably due to the color. Blind taste-tests describe it as “sweet, juicy mushroom,” but they are better than they sound. The juice is usually separated from the pulp and used like stock.
Fish is served braised, often in lemon, with multiple
species served together to give meals variety. Noodles are made from
wheat (the one exception to the Incarnate's rule) and eggs, though
dried pasta in elaborate shapes is gaining favor among the ministers.
Foreigners often find Sheyaugh cuisine to be uncomfortably sour. This is taken as a point of national pride, and restaurants that see a lot of tourist trade will warn customers away from “Sheyaugh Sour” dishes.
Sheyaugh is the Lowlands' great low-risk investment.
Domestic demand is steady to an almost uncanny degree. Coupled with a
rock-solid currency, Sheyaugh-issued bonds and financial services are
a widely-used supplement to riskier long-term investments.
This is all made possible by the Incarnate's constant low-level interventions in the economy. It is rare for any business above a certain size to go more than a year without a visit from a political officer bearing some picayune regulation that somehow inexplicably boosts profitability. The people of Sheyaugh have long since gotten used to this routine interference, but foreign-run firms often have a hard time adapting. The result is that most foreign investment is in the form of minority-ownership in Sheyaugh-run enterprises.
While the economy of Sheyaugh is as diverse as any in the Lowlands, its specialty is alchemy. Their bamboo-to-sunbrew factories power half the Lowlands, and their high-quality mercury batteries are the standard for high-end scientific and industrial applications. They also make a wide variety of small-batch potions and elixirs for consumption by the ultra-rich. The Alchemist Quarter in Northshore is one of the few places on Ukss that's capable of refining longevity gas from Aetheria (New Gold City has one laboratory that can do it, Yennin claims their facilities are up to the task, but don't have enough of the gas to prove it, and Mu's extensive refining factories were destroyed in the Prism Wars).
Northshore is the capital of Sheyaugh, a city of
almost a million people. Built on a large natural harbor, it is the
center of the country's canning industry and a major smuggling hub,
particularly for dangerous alchemical substances and outlaw sorcery.
Sunbrew is as cheap here as any place on Ukss, and the city's air quality is commensurately low. The city has an extensive trolley network, but popular routes, especially between the docks and the southside slums, are constantly packed to capacity.
Traditionally, Northshore was lit by fish-oil lamps, and those are still in use in large parts of the city, but electric lights are gradually becoming available and are considered a major status symbol. Only the wealthiest households have enchanted perpetual batteries, but many businesses will have small, light-up signs to catch the attention of people walking down the street.
Counted by technophiles as one of the great wonders of Ukss, Northshore Airport is a pet project of Sheyaugh's bureaucracy, subsidized by its government as a symbol of national pride. It is not just that Northshore is Ukss' largest airport. It is also the world's safest and most luxurious. No expense has been spared to ensure that every aspect of the facility benefits from top-of-the-line technology and magic. The runways and concourses are lined with electric lights, and a powerful weather control spell ensures optimal landing conditions year-round.
Despite the near-constant stream of air-traffic (Northshore is only one of three Ukss airports capable of landing planes at night), this modern marvel is still a massive financial liability. In its ten years of operation, it has failed to make a profit, let alone pay back its construction costs.
Because of its large size and artificially low rates, Northshore Airport has become a key piece of infrastructure not just for Sheyaugh, but the surrounding nations as well. Palace watchers suspect that it is the cultivation of this very dependence that is responsible for the Incarnate allowing it to continue.
The Wardens of the Sky
Large-scale air travel is still very new to the word of Ukss, but there is great enthusiasm for it among the world's cognescenti. So much so that the most daring among them have gathered together to create an adventurer's conspiracy - a vigilante organization devoted to hunting down and eliminating threats to the expansion of air travel, especially those who misuse it for criminal ends.
The Wardens of the Sky mostly work alone, booking passage on flights to intercept pirates and hijackers as they strike or hanging out in ports, listening for rumors of trouble from the air. They recruit mostly from those that have the wealth and leisure to travel frequently, and while few are full magicians or dedicated ritualists, all must be capable of casting the Cloud Chariot spell. Wearing their signature mirrored sunglasses and stepping off a sun-dappled cloud, the Wardens know how to make a spectacular entrance.
The ritual to create a Cloud Chariot is known only to the Wardens of the Sky and they take its protection very seriously. Most of the time, the Wardens travel incognito, hiding among normal travelers, the better to lure out aerial threats, but sometimes, they need to act openly, and when they do, the Cloud Chariot acts as a badge of office. When you see an armed warrior descend from the sky on a fluffy white cloud, wreathed in the golden light of dawn, then you know that you are dealing with a genuine Warden of the Sky.
The Sorcerers' Benevolent Association
Based in the commercial district around Northshore airport, this charitable organization has branches in every major city in Ukss. Their mandate is to use ritual magic to improve their communities and identify and support talented young people who may not otherwise get to study the magical arts.
They are fantastically corrupt.
Though they do indeed donate their services in a
desultory sort of way, their real
business is almost entirely off the books. They are the people you go
to when you need a spell cast by someone who won't ask any questions.
At their most benign, they are a gray market for highly regulated
transformations, enchantments, and summonings that allows their
customers to sidestep government paperwork and its accompanying
scrutiny. At their worst, they sell curses, demon contracts, and
assassination spells to ruthless criminal gangs.
They are, however, sincere in their commitment to educating young sorcerers from underprivileged backgrounds, though those who accept their aid have a way of finding themselves deep in debts that can only be paid back by a lifetime of "favors."
Seven Blossoms Orchard University
An hour's train ride inland from Northshore is Sheyaugh's premier university. Built in an old ministerial estate, its grounds are classically patrician in a way that belies the University's new middle-class role. Seven Blossoms Orchard University is Ukss' premier center of study for the arts of alchemy and agronomy (the eponymous Seven Blossoms being – lemon, orange, cherry, peach, lychee, pomegranate, and blood peach).
Though the town of Seven Blossoms Orchard was once an out-of-the-way retreat for high-ranking bureaucrats, it is experiencing rapid urbanization as a year-round student population and ever-expanding university demands more and more affordable housing and services. Unusually for a university town, the locals have embraced the students, and the entire area is seen as a very fashionable place for young entrepreneurs to settle down. This harmonious coexistence is hardly a surprise, seeing as how the Incarnate herself chose the University's location
The University would probably have a cooler reception if the locals learned that it is the home of the infamous Poison Book. SBOU's Alchemy department has used insights gleaned from the Book to stockpile a wide variety of absolutely terrifying chemical weapons.
An ancient horror, exiled from the self-consciously tolerant Chthonic Empire, the Yokai known as Professor Worm is blessedly the only known one of his kind. A boneless creature of malleable flesh, he can contort his body to imitate almost any creature. With a wig and light makeup, he can even pass for human, a fact he has exploited to become a teacher at Seven Blossoms Orchard University.
Professor Worm is not a popular instructor. His students find him odd and unsettling, and he has little respect for their physical or emotional boundaries. Occasionally, one of his students goes missing, victim to his anatomical curiosity. So far, the authorities have dismissed these disappearances, attributing them to the stress of university life, but if they ever discover he is to blame, they are in for a nasty surprise - he is not only deceptive, he possesses superhuman strength and his rubbery skin can deflect bullets and blades.
Occasionally, when he thinks he can travel to and from the venue without revealing his identity, Professor Worm will give lectures in his natural form. These events are much more relaxed and instructive than the lessons he teaches at the University, possibly because Professor Worm is much more relaxed and comfortable. Those who can endure these lectures may learn many obscure magical secrets, but only at the cost of drawing the professor's personal attention.
The Poison Book
There's a book where if you read it, it will kill you. Not quickly, and not inevitably, but slowly, page after page, you'll get weaker. Most can make it through a single chapter and come away with nothing more serious than the worst flu of their life. The exceptionally strong of will can get through a second chapter with survivable vomiting and paralysis. Nobody has ever made it through a third.
Experiments in spacing out the reading have been disappointing. Apparently whatever contamination you get from the book lingers in your system for decades. Scholars have fully recovered from their book-imposed illness only to immediately suffer fatal hemorrhages after reading a single additional page.
Why even bother? Some do it for the bragging rights, others to test the potency of their magical wards, but the real reason is because The Poison Book is an encyclopedia of weakness. If you can endure long enough to find it, you may learn to kill anything that lives. It is speculated that even the secret dooms of the gods can be found within its pages, though if that's true, they are surely in the later passages, the ones that burn your eyes out just for looking at them.
This small, but dignified state abuts the Grey river, near its source in the Shielding Mountains. It is known for its crisp autumns and brutal winters, but also for the grace and elegance of its courtiers. It is ruled by Hir Majesty, the Sovereign Sasha Blackberry Capet. The Sovereign is a hard-working, practical soul, ill at ease with hir court's pomp and formality. The masters of protocol have had to work overtime in adapting the nation's ancient customs and rituals to hir non-binary gender, but ze regards it as hir one indulgence in royal prerogative in hir otherwise humble and conventional reign.
Capet strikes many outsiders as quaintly backward, like something out of the last century. Sovereign Sasha has been negotiating with both foreign investors and the nation's home-grown industrialists to try and rapidly modernize, but has been running into problems with a capitalist class that is a little too eager to sacrifice the country's natural beauty on the altar of profit. Capet currently has some of the best air and water quality in all of the Lowlands, something that gives Hir Majesty considerable clout, given its position at the head waters of the Grey River, but ze has not yet mastered the political maneuvering necessary to use it to hir country's advantage.
Despite its lagging technology, Capet is not easy-pickings for its more opportunistic neighbors. It has one of the premiere air forces on Ukss, in the form of the Aeriel Excellence Squadron and its proximity to the Shielding Mountains gives it abundant mineral resources, especially living metal, which can not merely transform a horse into a match for a biplane, but also has a myriad of industrial and sorcerous applications only now being discovered.
The Aerial Excellence Squadron
In the rolling hills of western Capet, they breed the world's heartiest destriers. Of these, the strongest and the swiftest are chosen to become the steeds of the Aerial Excellence Squadron.
Using ritual magic, these horses are fused with a form of living metal, growing 20-foot long wings of glittering steel. From then on, the horses must eat iron filings as well as grass, but the transformation seems to have no other ill effects.
Unlike the Order of the Mantis, the knights of The Aerial Excellence Squadron are lightly armed and armored (aside from their steeds' steel skin, that is), but they make up for it in speed and acrobatic skill. Because the transformed horses are indigestible to a giant mantis, the Squadron is one of the only groups that can meet the Mantis Riders on their own terms. The two groups each consider the other to be their greatest rivals.
Imported, machine-made clothing is actually something of a luxury in Capet. Every family has one or two sets of “good clothes,” which are high-quality versions of the standard Lowlands outfit, but except for particularly well-off urban professionals, day-to-day wear is hand sewn from locally manufactured cloth and patterns copied from catalogs and magazines. In contrast to most Lowland states, Capet cloth is yak wool rather than linen or cotton. Dying is done in the factory, but it's sold almost exclusively in bolts. Rural families will swap cloths or give away scraps to give each other more variety. Parti-colored and quilted clothes are common.
The nobility dresses in imported silk, with men in elaborate doublets and women in long gowns (for both, though, the more frills the better). With the accession of the current Sovereign, court fashions are becoming simpler and more unisex, though expensive materials and prominent, chunky jewelry will probably never go out of style.
Chefs in Capet are expert in a hundred-and-one uses for yak milk. Butter, yogurt, and a wide variety of artisinal cheeses are on every table, rich or poor. Nobles eat meat, but most yaks are too valuable for their fur. A common peasant dish is creamed kale served over rye bread. Whiskey is both a popular drink and an ingredient in sauces.
Flavoring is mostly done with herbs and yak stock. Dessert dishes are popular. Berries and yogurt are a simple dish, but layered trifles are served in the royal court.
Capet trades extensively with the Chthonic Empire,
selling yak wool cloth and lumber in exchange for gems and magnets,
which it then resells to Lowland sorcerers. Mining is a growing
industry, especially for living metal, but many large deposits lie on
royal land and the Sovereign is wary of destroying the beauty of hir
Located near the center of the Lowlands region, Seljuk is an economic and military powerhouse. Possessing an ancient culture that distrusts magic, it has taken to identifying and capturing young magicians at an early age, pressing them into service in the King's elite Janissary guard. Though the kingdom lacks the wands to outfit all of its troops, the Janissaries are nonetheless fearsome fighters, able to exploit their connection to the Magic World to shoot straighter, march longer, and fight completely without fear.
Though the Janissaries are technically slaves, as the King's personal bodyguard, they control access to his person, making the Janissary generals some of the most influential figures in the Kingdom. Retired Janissaries have taken positions in all areas of the Seljuk government, and year-by-year the combat readiness of the guard suffers as they indulge more in the civilian pleasures they were previously denied.
economic power of the central Lowlands, Seljuk has access to a wider
variety of consumer goods than any other nation in Ukss. This
includes clothing, making fashion an important form of personal
expression for rich and poor alike.
The basic culottes and tunic style originated in Seljuk and spread through the Lowlands and beyond as a result of their powerful textiles industry, but that very same industry is now responsible for a proliferation of variants and offshoots. Patterned cloth is a major element in Seljuk fashion. Bold primary colors and metallic accents are the rule, and the expectation is that tops and bottoms will clash in interesting ways (everyone experiments with mixing horizontal and vertical stripes at some point, but this is considered an adolescent indulgence that only the classically beautiful can really pull off). Astronomical and floral prints are the safe choice, though new manufacturing processes are allowing for clothes with prominent graphics (Seljuk has not yet discovered the practice of branded graphic clothing, but it's only a matter of time).
For the wealthy, the basic style is the same, but the materials and tailoring are much, much better. Cloth-of-gold instead of metallic dye, higher threadcounts with ordinary cotton, etc. The main distinction is in jewelry. Most people in Seljuk have a piece or two of heirloom jewelry that they'll wear on special occasions, but the rich are expected to wear it at all times. Diamond earrings are risky – if you've got the biggest diamond in the room, it's a major status symbol, but because this is well-known, everyone is going to assume that the diamond you're wearing is the biggest one you own. Other gemstones don't carry that kind of baggage, but are consequently less daring. Bracelets must be paired with anklets and are usually crafted to maximize jingling. Janissaries wear layered chain necklaces, but consider it an insult for anyone but their spouses, lovers, and heirs to do the same. Pendant necklaces on a chain are fine, though.
The middle class will sometimes wear high-quality costume jewelry as an affectation. Both the rich and the working class make jokes about this practice, though the punchlines could not be more different.
The people of Seljuk consume a prodigious amount of beef. High quality cuts are reserved for the wealthy, but the cattle industry has such incredible volume that even the poor have diverse ways to prepare beef remnants. Rendered beef fat is present in almost everything, and many households serve it as a tabletop condiment.
A typical recipe is spit-roasted beef tips and charred vegetables (usually peppers or onions) served in a convenient wrap. Kale is used by cheap street vendors, but given the choice, most people prefer a common type of unleavened bread, fried in in beef fat.
Among traditional communities in rural areas (and a few particularly tight-knit urban neighborhoods), perpetual stew is a dietary staple. Prepared in large ceramic vessels known as caldera, the local stew is often a source of community pride. Caldera are often elaborately decorated or sculpted (there is a usually friendly rivalry between proponents of the aesthetic styles, so long as you don't call a glazed caldera “painted” or a sculpted caldera “lumpy”), and will serve as a focal point for village or neighborhood gatherings. The stew itself is rarely truly perpetual (although there is certain ritual magic that can extend its life dramatically), and is sometimes called “Saturday Stew,” because that's the traditional day to empty and clean the caldera.
Despite its thriving beef industry, dairy products are almost unheard of in Seljuk. Most Lowlanders are lactose intolerant, and the consumption of milk and cheese is associated with immigrants from the Shielding Mountains. There are a few ranches that specialize in “beef milk” for immigrant markets, but it's expensive and most people prefer imported yak cheese.
That said, ice cream is a hugely popular desert among those who can afford it, lactose intolerance be damned. In Seljuk-style ice cream, the traditional sweet berry flavors of the Shielding Mountains (who originally introduced the treat) have been replaced with saltier, lightly-seasoned nut flavors to accommodate the local palate.
Seljuk is the major economic power of the Lowlands. Their factories produce everything, usually so cheaply that their only foreign competition is in products that benefit from short supply chains or hard-to-transport raw materials. They are especially known for their textiles and steel, but they are also leading exporters of high-tech goods like rifles, airplane engines, and mechanized farming equipment.
Seljuk is also a major imperial power, which means that much of its industrial output is pumped into the military. This is a major source of wealth for domestic investors (foreigners are restricted from owning more than 25% of any military contractor), and a bone of contention for republican rabble-rousers. In addition to its well-equipped, elite Jannisary units, Seljuk's air force is second to none.
The nation's main import is energy, although it largely prefers to avoid too much reliance on Sheyaugh-produced sunbrew. Instead, it patronizes a patchwork of smaller foreign refineries, and will often use an interruption in the sunbrew supply as a pretext to interfere with weaker governments.
The capital city of Seljuk is renowned for its large and glorious moon towers. During the day, these distinctive buildings look like long-stemmed mushrooms, but at night the bulbous lanterns at the top are lit up like a hundred miniature suns. “The alleys of Luminous have long shadows” is not just a popular aphorism among the city's criminal underground, it is also literally true. City planning is something of a new art in Seljuk, but the local governor has been positively draconian in ensuring that new construction leaves room for the light, and at least 75 percent of the city's streets are well-lit, day or night. This has led to a surge of neophilia among Luminous' mid-range property owners, as old buildings are torn down or renovated to allow for “sun-facing doors.”
The less fortunate will try to capture the tower light by means of reflective mobiles or wind chimes. A long and careful enough chain of such reflective objects can provide an entire street with dim, if uneven light. These “Star Alleys” are associated with the working class. “Shadow alleys,” with no light amplification whatsoever, are home to criminals and the poorest of the poor. Most of the darkest Shadow Alleys lie behind historic buildings that predate the moon towers, giving the city's political satirists an incredibly lazy metaphor.
The city's name, “Luminous,” predates the moon towers and actually refers to the eternal flame at the top of the Tower of the Sun, inside the royal palace. Ironically, the hand-fed woodfire of the Tower is much dimmer than its smaller, sunbrew-powered imitators, but maintaining it is a sacred duty of the royal family, and its rare lapses are seen as troubling omens for the nation as a whole.
The Other Library
In the old Shadow Alley behind Luminous University, there is a library the world's scholars speak of in hushed tones. It is not a center of learning. It does not contain the great historical classics, nor cutting-edge treatises on advancements in science and magic. It is The Other Library, and it contains only books which have never been written.
Most people visit only to satisfy their curiosity. The bulk of its books are histories of events that never happened or the outlandish stories of alien societies that no one on Ukss will ever meet. Sometimes, though, a visitor will become obsessed. They will search the stacks desperately for posthumous works from history's greatest authors, diaries of their enemies (or loved ones!), or for wondrous inventions that never were.
It's a fool's errand, but sometimes it pays off.
Captain of the Black Squadron, Juno Eclipse has a fearsome reputation among the world's fliers as the deadliest woman to ever pilot a biplane.
But she has an even more terrible reputation among those conquered by Seljuk's imperial expansion, for her Black Squadron is the last thing a village will see before being bombed into oblivion.
Juno Eclipse's main rival, at least in her own mind, Quiet Oasis is a strongly precognitive Janissary who transferred to the air force after her superiors got tired of hearing her dreams of flight. There is likely no better pilot anywhere on Ukss, though she lacks Captain Eclipse's killer instinct.
Given her resistance to opening fire on civilian populations, Quiet Oasis is mostly assigned to the air force's most dangerous reconnaissance, courier, and extraction missions. She's been shot down more than anyone in the fleet, but she's never failed to pull off a safe landing.
A battle-hardened Jannisary who has fought her way up to command of Seljuk's 2nd Army, Hundred Killer is a calm and methodical commander, perhaps overly conservative in her strategies, but unmatched in personal valor. Though it would be irresponsible to risk her on the front lines these days, she began her career as a member of the infantry and every soldier under her command knows that she has lived up to her name a dozen times over (though the exact figure has a way of growing every year).
Hundred Killer is a physical Adept of unrivaled power, and is sometimes known as "Battering Ram," for the time she salvaged a siege by punching the defenders' gates off their hinges. She is not nearly as fearsome as her reputation indicates, but those who know her well come to see that she carries an expertly-suppressed rage that only manifests on the field of battle.
Seljuk is a world leader in military innovation.
They've recently introduced a new type of heavy cargo biplane,
capable of carrying up to 75 soldiers and their equipment. Initially,
these planes were reserved for the fast transport of specialists
between bases, but a special division of Jannisaries has begun to
practice the magic of Wind Catching. In theory, this will allow them
to leap from a plane in flight and glide safely to the ground, but
military strategists are still fine-tuning the deployment protocols,
out of fear that too slow a glide will leave the unit vulnerable to
being shot out of the sky.
The Republic of Crosswoods
The Republic of Crosswoods has the lowest crime rate in all of the Lowlands . . . but it is far from safe. It is policed by an organization known only as the Bureau, and its citizens live in terror of its agents. People go missing when they're taken in to the Bureau's custody. Paperwork is "lost," witnesses are intimidated into silence, and often the families of the accused are arrested shortly thereafter. It doesn't happen every time . . . just often enough that the common folk get the message - never question The Ruling Council.
The horrifying truth, that no one has yet uncovered and lived to talk about, is that the Bureau is riddled with vampires. Their mortal agents don't do much by day except stay visible . . . and take copious notes. The real enforcers always come by night.
The Ruling Council itself is "democratically elected" in typical Lowlands fashion (i.e. it's a free choice, but good luck standing for office if you're not worth at least 20,000 a year). The Bureau technically answers to them, but in practice they never question its decisions or practices. The most frightening secret of the Republic is that the Council is not under vampiric mind control. The quarterly statistics are all the persuasion they need that the Bureau is worth the price.
The Forest Of Moaning Oaks
No living soul remembers the purpose of the monastery at the heart of the Forest of Moaning Oaks. Did they commit some impiety that brought down a curse on the surrounding lands? Or did they perform appeasing rituals to keep an ancient evil sealed away, rituals that failed when they were destroyed by enemies without or within?
Whatever the explanation, the woods truly belong to the dead now. Spectres haunt the decaying trees, and mobile skeletons claw at any life that dares sprout up in the ruins.
Travelers shun the Forest, but sometimes, by mistake, their path takes them perilously close. If it does, they might encounter the land's only survivor, a giant sow, at least as tall as a man. The sow may or may not be a guardian of human life, but what is not in doubt is her hatred of the undead. Many lives have been saved by her timely charge out of the mists. She will trample effortlessly over zombie flesh, and somehow, there is a magic to her that puts fear even into the spirits of the dead.
Not much is known about the protector of the Forest of Moaning Oaks, except that she must, at some point, have been domesticated, for she still bears a rhinestone collar embroidered with the name "Diva."
The City-State of King Mountain is a historical oddity. Fought over by empires for more than 200 years, it was eventually granted a sort of semi-independence to soothe the tensions between the neighboring states of TBD and TBD.
The grandfather of the current Prince flaunted tradition by opening King Mountain's first casino. The wealth this brought in was sufficient to buy the nation's freedom and abolish the national income tax besides.
Today, King Mountain is a playground for the wealthy and powerful. Drawn by its mild climate, decadent night life, and status as the Lowlands' premiere tax haven, industrialists and aristocrats from all over the continent (and beyond) maintain homes in the tiny coastal nation, giving it an influence all out of proportion with its diminutive size.
Though, officially, the economy of King Mountain is driven by its casinos, banks, and rich arts scene, its real national industry may well be espionage. Despite some overly sensational fiction, it's not true that everyone is a spy, but secrets abound at the gaming tables, and there's usually someone around to overhear a careless word.
The goblins of Vintner's Valley live in comfortable, shallowly-dug burrows, outfitted with all the latest middle-class comforts. They are respectably old-fashioned, wearing styles that were popular among humans a half-century ago. When they are not working, there is almost always some sort of festival or gala or garden party with which to celebrate the turning of the seasons. They are fat, rich, and contented.
The source of this idyll is the Valley's fertility and mild climate, which make it an ideal location for some of the world's best dairies and wineries. The instinctive magic that goblins put into all of their crafts manages to elevate even those natural blessings into the realm of the sublime. Wines, cheeses, and cured meats from Vintner's Valley are the gold standard by which all luxury foodstuffs are measured.
Vintner's Valley is extremely friendly to humans, provided they appear to be of sufficient social class to afford its products. This reputation for chumminess makes it the butt of many jokes among more worldly goblins. "Valley Goblin" is widespread slang for those who appear to have adopted human customs at the expense of their own heritage.
The Hourglass Casino
Despite being in one of King Mountain's less fashionable neighborhoods, the Hourglass Casino does a brisk trade among locals and those tourists who are not quite wealthy enough to afford the more famous establishments. Professional gamblers respect it as a place with fair odds and an understated atmosphere that caters more towards comfort than glamour.
Yet professional gamblers avoid the Hourglass. They've heard the rumors. That if you find the dead spot in the middle of the gaming floor, and follow the trail of silence past the tables and into the basement, you might find the elevator that leads down into the foundation, and to the silent cashier with the ashen face who sells chips made of lead that are purchased with years of your life.
In the casino under the Hourglass, the ghosts gamble. Wagering charms and miracles and brokered lives, they are each and every one trying to win big enough to move on and leave King Mountain behind. The living, if they are wise, will stay away, but they are always welcome. They are the high-rollers, the whales. Rich with life, they can play for wealth beyond their wildest imagining.
Though, in the end, of course, the house always wins.
The Summit Center
The richest and most fabulous of King Mountain's
Casinos, the Summit Center is a disaster waiting to happen. Built on
a huge railroad track circling the peak of King Mountain itself, it
makes one revolution every day, offering its guests 360 degree views
of one of Ukss' most spectacular vistas.
Built largely of glass, the Summit Center requires an
absurd amount of maintenance, both in the cutting-edge engineering of
its rail system and in the potent and subtle spells that keep it from
shattering under its own inertia.
Yet, implausibly, the Summit Center turns a profit. It frequently tops the list of Ukss most glamorous hotels, and though its rooms go for an absolutely staggering rate, they are rarely empty.
The combination between the hubris of its design, the precariousness of its maintenance, and the wealth of its patrons makes the Summit Center a favored target for terrorists and revolutionaries. So far, every attempt has been thwarted, but its security budget is large, and getting larger every year.
Existing in the fringes of the Lowlands most fabulous and opulent night-life, the Phantoms are a secret society of gentleman-rogues, committed to liberating the plundered treasures of the region's most decadent capitalists and brazenly-lawless crime lords (on those rare occasions anyone can tell the difference).
The Phantoms are anything but radicals. They steal for both personal profit and the thrill of the game, but they have a code. They abhor violence, and will never steal from charities, churches, or museums. They are themselves members of the Lowlands' upper crust and view their activities as nothing more than a harmless way to embarrass those who give their class a bad name. If, in the course of their work, they discover evidence of truly unforgivable crimes, they will not hesitate to deliver it to the proper authorities.
Because of this, they have made some very powerful enemies over the years. Every ambitious police captain in the Lowlands dreams of making their career by being the one to finally unmask their leadership and end the organization once and for all.
"Sabrina" is probably an alias, although, if it is, it's the one she uses most often. Nobody knows where this international woman of mystery came from, least of all the lady herself. But she does seem to have some serious training - mystical martial arts, state-of-the-art spycraft, and a seemingly endless repertoire of useful magic rituals (that she always "just happens to remember" at a convenient moment).
Sabrina has worked freelance for every intelligence agency in the Lowlands and more than a few besides. She's unfailingly professional and never allows her past employers to influence her current loyalties, though if there's one thing that might tempt her to go rogue, it's the secret of her mysterious past.
Sabrina's signature weapon is the enchanted button. With a quick flick of the wrist, she can pop one off her coat to hurl at an enemy. The subsequent explosion is rarely fatal, but does provide her with a suitable distraction to either make a clean getaway or establish dominance in close quarters combat.
Rocko and Scarlet
Rocko and Scarlet are unlikely friends. He's a wrestler who tours the Lowlands, staging fights for credulous yokels. She's a lounge singer in a low-traffic King Mountain nightclub. Were it not for a chance encounter one night, when Rocko was providing extra security for a Corax spy, the two would have never bonded over their shared showmanship and unshakable moral principles.
In the years since their first meeting, the pair has gotten together almost a dozen times, usually to solve an unsolvable murder. Between her knack for reading people and his effortless charm, the pair make a startlingly effective investigative team.
The glittering stars of the Lowland empires' cocktail party circuit, the Kitsune cut an impressive figure wherever they go. Fox spirits who have taken human shapes, they have an instinctual knack for the predatory social environment of Ukss's elite capitalists.
Many of the ultra-wealthy value the Kitsune as political advisors and personal companions. They are thoughtlessly ruthless and effortlessly beautiful. Only their fox tails (of which they gain more as they age, up to a maximum of nine) mark them as inhuman, but they have the charm to play them off as a fashionable accoutrement.
Kitsune have no sort of organized society or culture. When two fox-spirits meet, if resources are plentiful, they may bond over their shared hustle, but once they come into direct competition, they instantly become deadly rivals.
The raven-folk are another form of Yokai that lives quietly among humankind. Though their natural forms are tall, lean humanoids with black, grey, or white feathers, they are prodigies capable of taking human or avian form (usually ravens, but sometime crows, jackdaws, and other similar birds). They also have a natural affinity for illusion magic, though they still need wands or rituals to take advantage of it.
Corax have an unsavory reputation among most human cultures. They feature prominently in many tales about witches, supernatural tricksters, and ill-omened travelers. Some of these stories are even true, though in modern times a great many have found work in Ukss' intelligence agencies, who value their keen observational talents and ability to blend in nearly anywhere.
The Lonestar Republic
The Grey River, as the Lowlands' primary artery of commerce and travel, has been the objective of many of the continent's longest and bloodiest wars. Sometimes, the combatants' greed will be so furiously out of control that they will risk destroying the very prize they sought to conquer.
That's what happened in the years leading up to the founding of the Lonestar Republic. The north and south bank empires had come to blows one too many times over control of the Grey River's mouth, and fought without restraint. Neither state comported itself with any great degree of honor or dignity, but it was the south who was the first to unleash the unforgivable sorceries.
Even to this day, the old capital, Friendship County, is a barren wasteland, a scar on the earth that may never heal, but if the rulers of TBD thought that show of brutality would cow the populace, they were sorely mistaken. After 15 years of hard fighting, they were forced to withdraw by an undaunted guerrilla resistance.
Today, the Lonestar Republic is a significant mercantile power, but the people's distrust of magic never went away. Unique among the nations of the Lowlands, Sorcery and Wand magic are completely outlawed. It is illegal even to know how to use magic, and while most visiting sorcerers and magicians are allowed to maintain plausible deniability, it is not unheard of for authorities to harass suspected magic users. (The subjects of wild magic and Yokai are much more complicated, but even though certain talents are legal, it is not a nice place for these people to be).
Despite its magical deficit, the Lonestar Republic is no military pushover. They have truly staggering numbers of cannons, and a stockpile of mustard gas that continues to shock and vex its southern neighbor, even after 150 years of relative peace.
Another contributor to their economic power is The Friendship Scar. In this ruined land, any non-magical industrial process is completely legal. And while the Lowlands in general is not terribly scrupulous about pollution, the Scar factories make them look squeaky clean by comparison. Some more progressive nations even ship their toxic industrial waste down the river to dump in the wasteland, a practice the Lonestar Republic is all too happy to encourage, so long as they can collect a fee for the service.
Because it is of so little interest to law enforcement, the Scar also acts as a refuge for Yokai and magical Prodigies. Between the pollution and the residual magic from the area's destruction, the land alters its residents in unpredictable ways. It is only a matter of time before the Republic faces an insurgency of its own, one that all the chemical weapons in the world might not be enough to put down.
Hill Town is the new capital of the Lonestar Republic, a fortress city erected after the destruction of Friendship County.
Knights of the Tongue
Not a true martial order, The Knights of the Tongue nevertheless have a complex system of ranks and etiquette that is only half-joking. The Knights are a social club based in Hill Town and composed of explorers, adventurers, and the respectable bandits of the gentry who share a singular passion - to discover Ukss's most unusual flora and fauna and sample their taste.
For some, this is but a decadent hobby, for others an important form of scientific and agronomical research. Both types are fond of haunting goblin markets and stalking through yokai-haunted wilderness, looking to buy any vaguely food-like substance the locals might be selling (when they're not hunting the locals for game, that is).
The Hill Town Havok
The creature known only as the Hill Town Havok represents the
Republic's sins rebounding upon them. Once a hopeful young Prodigy
with an instinctive command of the wind, he was hounded from his home
and forced to retreat deep into the Friendship Scar. The strange
magical energies he encountered there wound up amplifying and
twisting his power, until he was less a boy and more a living storm.
Eventually, driven by his loneliness and grief, he returned home, not
for revenge, but to prove his worth to the family that exiled
Since then, he has performed many well-meaning deeds of civic service, but never without drawing down furious winds upon the city. Whenever he shows up, shop windows break, roof shingles peel away, and laundry snaps from the lines, never to be seen again. Unbeknownst to him, a new mob is gathering to “put down the threat, once and for all.”
Though magic is outlawed in the Lonestar Republic, there are still some who dare to defy the law. Their meeting place is a bar known as The Darks, which has no fixed entrance in the physical world. It can be accessed only by spells and witch-roads, and thanks to the owner's sorcery, those paths are constantly on the move. Only its regulars can find it with any reliability, and the proprietor has ways of stopping the wrong sort of people from becoming regulars. However, outlaw magicians and sorcerers who manage to keep exactly the right level of low profile may also find themselves invited for a visit.
Though the Darks has plenty of shadowy corners in which to arrange illicit deals, the main chamber, where Joe's Girl holds court, is a well-lit and cozy location in which to debate the intricacies of “the trade.”
Joe's Girl keeps a dangerous secret – though she set up and maintains the bar, she did not create the Darks, nor can she entirely control who comes and goes. Instead, she found it when she herself was in dire need of potent magic. Though she doesn't entirely understand or trust the entity at the heart of the Darks, she is utterly loyal to it, for it helped her to stop being Joe (it is her private joke – she is “Joe's Girl” as in, “the girl made by Joe, out of her wrong-gendered body”). She would likely not kill innocents on the Darks' behalf, but she will use whatever force is necessary to protect it from its enemies.
The second-largest city in the Republic, New Hope borders the Friendship Scar and is seen by outsiders as the last safe place for “regular” (i.e. “non-magical”) people. It is a central transshipment hub for goods going into or out of the Scar. Many of the residents work directly in the Scar itself, but they largely compose a distinct and separate class, as most of the New Hopers don't want to get too attached to people so close to the edge of death.
That may soon change, however, as New Hope is home to a growing labor movement that threatens to shut down the Scar factories and topple the wealthy rentiers who dominate the Republic's politics. So far, the military has not been called out to deal with this threat, but that's mostly because politicians in the capital have been dismissing the union as “Scar madness.” Once they win a victory or two, the government's tone is sure to change.
The Pesticide Factory
Environmental pollution and exploitation of labor are, surprisingly, not the worst of New Hope's crimes. Some of the Scar's mutations are economically valuable. This bland, windowless factory focuses on the Curse of the Black Sands, mutants who are shunned by the earth, so that whenever their feet touch bare ground, an oily black liquid rises up out of the prints left behind. Such cursed feet can be . . . removed, and repurposed into a cheap, effective pesticide. The Republic is unconcerned with the fate of their former owners.
Republic of Kuru
Situated on the north bank of the Grey River, where it meets the Shielding Mountains, and extending north to the Omphalos sea, the Republic of Kuru is a land of stunning rock formations, emerald green forests, and gentle rain-showers. Its people are known for being studious and industrious and, also, ironically, for throwing raucous festivals and feasts. They are the Lowlands' premiere iron-workers and one of the few non-goblin sources of enchanted steel.
Order of the Mantis
This elite martial order operates out of the fortress of Great Chariot and serves as a sort of national symbol for the people of Kuru. They are Ukss's only heavy aerial cavalry and fly into battle heavily armed and even more heavily armored. Partly this is to act as hard-hitting shock troops, supporting the infantry wherever air support is needed most.
Mostly, though, it is to protect the riders against their own mounts, should the beasts ever slip out of control. For the Mantis is not simply the Order's heraldry, it is what they ride into battle.
Giant Mantises are natural creatures, native to the northern reaches of the Shielding Mountains. The Order of the Mantis captures them young and bonds them with adept candidates, who must master the magic necessary to control them before the creatures become so large that they can devour their captors.
Those who survive the Order's training develop a cocky swagger, and are treated by the people of Kuru as superstars. Though even with the Order's magic, death in the belly of a giant Mantis is only a matter of time, giving the Knights of the Order a live-for-today energy that only heightens their mystique. Despite the dangers, the Order of the Mantis has never suffered from low recruitment.
The Petals of the Lily
Half religious cult and have recreational society, the Petals of the Lily originated on the banks of the Grey River, near the southern borders of the Republic of Kuru. It has since spread to Sheyaugh and King Mountain, though it has made little headway in Capet, thanks to the traditional rivalry between the two nations.
The Petals of the Lily are the acknowledged experts in the cultivation and preparation of the Grey Lotus, a waterborne flower with potent entheogenic properties. Using their horticultural knowledge, the Petals spread the Grey Lotus to any viable environment, the better to encourage its use by spiritual seekers and the merely curious alike.
There is, undoubtedly, a god of the Grey Lotus, but
so far it seems to want nothing more than what the Petals of the Lily
have volunteered to give. Some of the especially faithful have
received visions that forestalled danger or led to hidden treasure,
but for the most part, the Grey Lotus brings more relaxation and
pleasure than useful insight.
Ukss' most unlikely oracle, The Mathematician is a magical Prodigy with the ability to see the underlying mathematical structure of reality. A ghostly halo of numbers swirls around his head at all times, and his blank, silvery eyes don't see shapes or colors, but rather the equations that govern the forces they represent.
The practical upshot of this power is that the Mathematician can intuitively create statistical models that predict the future with uncanny accuracy. Only his own actions are beyond his ability to account for (though he is blessed/cursed with the knowledge of their consequences mere moments after he takes them). As a result, he is extremely reluctant to engage with the world, instead preferring to use the vast wealth he's accumulated as one of Ukss' great industrialists to further tighten his security and make his isolation from the events of the world ever more complete.
Despite his anxieties, the Mathematician is a very lonely man, and he will occasionally take promising young up-and-comers into his confidence. His mentorship can be quite valuable (literally - only massed necromantic calculating pools are as effective at playing the stock market), but there inevitably comes a time when his predictions call for an intolerable sacrifice and few friendships can survive his fear of ruining the future.
It all began when the Tainted General, Measured Cube, lost a hand in the Battle of White Shores. The people of Galat were so grateful for his sacrifice that they commissioned the finest prosthetic Lowland science could create. But though Measured Cube was only a minor spirit, barely able to shape the flesh of his vessel, when the surgeons attached the hand, something extraordinary happened - the magic of the prosthetic somehow grafted itself onto his spirit. His very nature was thereafter permanently transformed so that, years later, when he finally lost his mortal body, the clockwork hand somehow followed him back into the Magic World.
The magical engineers of Galat discovered many wonderful and terrible things in the subsequent decades. That the Tainted can survive having 100% of their flesh replaced with steel, lightning, and enchanted crystal. That a divine being that is bound into a human body, grafted onto a piece of industrial machinery, and then . . . released back into the magic world will forever after retain a connection to that same machinery, not just in form, but in function, so that you might take a simple Geometrical and make it into a patron of the autoloom (and protector of the capitalists who own them).
This technology proved to be too recklessly blasphemous even for the Lowlands, and by convention it is reserved for the most desperate of military applications (no empire can consider itself a true naval power if it does not have at least one demon-bound dreadnought chained to its docks . . . just in case).
In the end, though, treaties are just paper and no nation would dare risk being the only one to not have an answer to this technology. Clockwork gods are still being built in secret, for uses both civilian and military. Some of the more foolish nations have even begun using Clockwork Gods to design newer, more powerful Clockwork Gods. These creations are invariably quite powerful, but with additional undocumented functions that human engineers can only barely understand. The paranoid (or perhaps merely sensible) believe that there is a third- or fourth- generation creation these Gods are searching for, a true Machine God that will rework the mortal world the way that humans have transformed the Magic World.
Also called RWBG cloths, because they are made with red, white, blue, and green threads, Code Cloths are made by a very particular breed of clockwork god, and they have the strange property of being completely unique. Not only are all code cloths distinct from each other, it is impossible to sew multiple cloths together to replicate a larger one, and for any square patch larger than an inch per side, it is impossible to match part of a cloth with any similarly sized part of any other cloth (the unique sections are actually significantly smaller than 1 inch, but getting much below that makes it hard to discern the uniqueness with the naked eye).
code cloths are fairly rare, because each new one takes longer to
make than the previous one, but that just gives them a high value to
collectors of fine cloth. Some excessively cautious people have even
begun using code cloths as a form of currency, under the assumption
that they are nearly impossible to counterfeit with illusion magic
(this is technically true, but the mathematical algorithm that
verifies whether something is a true code cloth is so complex that it
would require every buyer and seller to have a dedicated necromantic
calculating pool to make this a viable form of commerce).
Lozenges of Living Metal
These miraculous pills of living metal take a hundred years to make. Housing bound gafflings, they are trained over the course of a century to love and value human beings. When swallowed, it will completely heal a person's wounds, knitting together flesh with threads of quicksilver and replacing missing organs with semi-spiritual prosthetics
The magic of a Lozenge of Living Metal relies on the gaffling inside being intelligent enough to understand the details of human anatomy and well-treated enough to consider the living metal prosthetics their home. An immature gaffling, or one who resents its vessel, will have disastrous effects when introduced to a living body. Since Lozenges can only be used once, and there is no know way to test them in advance, the makers of such things operate under exacting standards. Each one costs an unimaginable fortune, and they are only sold to the rich and powerful who are desperate enough to pay whatever it takes for a miracle.
Lying directly to the east of Seljuk, on the south bank of the Grey River, is the nation of Lydia. A generation ago, it bloodlessly transitioned into a constitutional republic after the extinction of the main branch of its royal family. Now, the economy is dominated by the lesser aristocratic families, who kept their ancestral lands and properties, and have largely parlayed them into diverse foreign investments and controlling interests in the nation's emerging industries.
Lydia and Seljuk are remnants of a larger kingdom that broke apart 500 years ago, and so speak very similar languages (they are about 75% mutually intelligible), worship almost exactly the same gods, and share many of the same customs and laws. This has made them bitter rivals who each claim to be the true inheritor to the ancient kingdom, with a legal claim to significant expanses of the other's territory. Though Lydia is the poorer and less technologically advanced of the two nations, it has nonetheless maintained the balance of power through its extraordinary powers of sorcery.
Some within the new republic fear that the balance may be set to change, now that the royal family, The House of the Dragon, is no more. For all that they were highly inbred, corrupt, and prone to dangerous mood swings, they were descended from the dragon, Dollmaker, and it was that bloodline that was credited for their incredible skill at magic.
Genealogists in the employ of the aristocratic families suggest that the House of the Dragon is not entirely irreplaceable, though. Dollmaker sired the first king shortly before the crisis that broke apart the old kingdom. The royal blood has spread far and wide in the subsequent centuries, and every single living aristocrat can claim descent from the dragon. What is less widely publicized is the fact that the same is true of very nearly every commoner in the nation as well. As a result, skill with magic is unusually common, with the strongest sorcerers bearing the Dragon's Eye, a single, golden, cat-like eye, replacing one of their normal human ones (this is very likely the origin of the Lowlands belief that heterochromia is a sign of magical potential).
Lydia is currently ruled by a parliament, but candidates who lack an aristocratic name have basically no chance of winning an election. This is less due to popular sentiment than it is serious structural and legal barriers to entry. Election districts follow the borders of the ancestral estates, and though the franchise is universal, the local offices that run the elections are appointed directly by the landowners. Corruption is rampant and the nation's three largest cities, as legal entities bound to the Throne Estate (now managed, but not technically owned, by the parliament) have no representation whatsoever.
Among magical prodigies, telepathy might be the most frequently manifested power. But prodigies of any sort are rare, and telepaths who survive childhood rarer still. That's why the nation of Lydia, in the heart of the Lowlands, created the Dream Twister.
The Dream Twister is a work of ruthless cunning and clinical, industrialized evil. It is also the only way anyone knows of consistently creating telepathic adepts. It takes the form of a squat pyramidal structure of eye-watering, geometrically impossible asymmetry. The building both amplifies and taints ambient magical energy, channeling it into a central chamber. Prospective adepts are placed into medically-induced comas, wheeled into the room (in batches of as many as 24, though it is rare for there to be enough volunteers to meet capacity), and left to dream.
Over time (and it may takes days, weeks, or months, depending on a wide range of psychological factors and the subjects' latent magical potential) those placed inside the chamber begin to . . . change. Their dreams no longer connect to their own subconscious, but rather to certain ominous parts of the magic world. At first this manifests as nightmares (and failed subjects never advance beyond this stage), but as time goes on, the dreamer makes peace with the dark realm and their dreams become chillingly functional - not quite lucid, but unfailingly focused on solving their personal problems with sociopathic pragmatism. Once they've reached that stage, they may wake themselves from within the coma, and become telepathic adepts in truth.
Any telepath created with The Dream Twister is fundamentally tainted by its dark energies. They are experts at prying information from the minds of the unwilling, but leave only mental wreckage in their wake. They make poor spies, but excellent assassins. They also find use on the battlefield, cloaking themselves in an aura of fear that will devastate ally and enemy alike.
The Girl Who Dreamed a City
Living in the shadow of the Dream Twister is difficult for the people of (TBD city) The suffering of its converts echos loudly on the Astral Web and the psychic landscape of the city is littered with the cast-off remnants of their mutilated spirits. And so, one day, a young telepathic prodigy decided to do something about it. She gathered the bits and pieces of the would-be Dream-Twisted and carefully sorted them inside her mind palace.
Soon, she had stacks and stacks of dream fragments, unspoken passions, and wistful memories of better days, more than any one person should be able to hold. But she grew to meet the challenge and discovered new ways to compress and bundle the soul remnants, so that she could rescue larger and larger portions of the Dream Twister's victims.
It would have been a terrible burden for anyone to bear, let alone an orphan girl living on the streets, and so it was perhaps inevitable that the soul fragments would begin to break down and bleed into each other, becoming a new, unprecedented type of yokai that lived exclusively inside the girl's brain.
The yokai are not, strictly speaking, people. But they are made from the best parts of people, and they were born into a world built from the girl's compassion, and so the city they built for themselves is one of peace and comfort. The streets are lined with beloved childhood homes. The fields are green and gold, woven from the romance of autumn and the hope of spring. It is always planting and it is always harvest, because from horizon to horizon, the entire world is made from the good and worthy parts of the spirit that had to be stripped away to turn an ordinary person into a killer.
The girl is a woman now. She still has many years ahead of her, but she's of an age where she can no longer ignore the closeness of death. Tending the city has been her life's true purpose, and now she worries that it won't survive without her. The wise among the dreamborn yokai have discovered pathways out into the broader Astral Web, but the city itself is largely ignorant of its coming peril. Some great ritual magic will be needed to give the city its own independent existence, but if it exists, it is within the deepest recesses of the magic world, in the library of some esoteric god or demon prince.
Dollmaker, the dragon, figures prominently in Lydia's national mythology. He was, supposedly, a savior to the people of the nation, having the foresight to sire and mentor a family of sorcerers just as the old kingdom was about to collapse, thereby ensuring that it would not fall under the sway of Seljuk. Little do the Lydians suspect that the House of the Dragon was a lark, an experiment by a cold and ancient mind to see what would happen when his human neighbors were wound up and pointed in a particular direction.
Dollmaker is not cruel by inclination, and actually has a distant affection for the nation he created, but his goals are not human goals. He is one of Ukss' most powerful sorcerers, and quite possibly the most knowledgeable mortal expert on the subject of the mind. Yet it is still a mystery to him, and so he uses Lydia as a living laboratory, pushing and probing its citizens to investigate esoteric questions of identity and free will.
The dragon lives in an extensive series of caverns underneath the Dream Twister. Working through one of his humanoid puppets, he helped design the structure, both as an experiment in the magic of telepathy and a way of shielding his home from unwanted prophecy and clairvoyance (any would-be seers are drawn, inexorably, to the atrocities above, rendering him insignificant in comparison).He does continue to meddle with his descendants in the aristocratic families, but always through a mind-controlled pawn or through messages sent via the Astral Web.
The cloud-shrouded peaks of the Shielding Mountains divide the major human civilizations of Atalanta from each other. Impassible by all but the hardiest explorers, they are the last bastion for many of the Lowlands' native Yokai.
Though the Shielding Mountains are synonymous with untamed wilderness among the Lowlands' nations, they are gradually falling under the influence of industry and commerce. Mines riddle the lower elevations and only the most isolated still need garrisons to protect them from hostile encroachment.
The Chthonic Empire
A subterranean civilization centered under the Shielding Mountains, the Cthonic Empire is an alliance of goblins, mole-people, and other underground Yokai. It is moderately industrialized, perhaps two or three decades behind the Lowlands in magical and weapons technology, but with sophisticated electric lighting and ventilation techniques.
As a diverse civilization, formed from a union between historical rivals, the Cthonic Empire highly values politeness and ceremony. The mole-person Emperor employs a whole legion of courtiers and diplomats to ensure that his commands are delivered with precision and respect.
Fashion is especially important in the Imperial Court. Brocaded cloth and neck ruffs are standard for anyone who wishes to look respectable, though the arms-race between courtiers for ever-larger ruffs has led the Emperor to hand down an official decree limiting their size.
Even more than the alpine Yokai, the Chthonic Empire is the main impediment to the Lowlands' eastern expansion. Through careful diplomacy, the Emperor has secured treaties to limit the depth of mines in the Shielding Mountains. These treaties have so far been enforced by the Empire's superior underground engineering experience, but some of the eastern-most nations have been experimenting with mechanized boring machines (called "Drill Tanks" when they're weaponized) that threaten to turn the tables.
The bulk of the Chthonic Empire is based in the Great Vault, a giant, egg-shaped cavern 150 miles long that sits about a half-mile under the surface. The ceiling and walls of the chamber are covered in glowing, multicolored crystals and its extensive mushroom forests are a dark fairyland of bioluminescence. A dozen large, modern cities call the Great Vault home, with maybe a hundred satellite villages existing in the twists and turns of the various tunnels radiating out from the perimeter.
The Crystal Trees
Scattered throughout the fungal forests of the Great Vault are sculptures of twisted wire in the shape of large, leafless trees. Hanging from their branches are coconut-sized green crystals which seem to burn with an inner fire.
Despite appearances, the Crystal Trees are alive, and if roused they can untwist the wire of their trunks to become filigreed humanoid figures with green crystals in their abdominal cavity. Though they are physically very powerful, they loathe conflict and prefer to flee from combat.
Occasionally, the fire in one of their crystals will go out, and then they walk across the land to seek the only fuel that will reignite it – a mortal soul. Being trapped in a crystal does no great harm to the soul, but it does delay its destined departure from the physical world. While in tree form, these beings can commune with their trapped souls and this is their primary means of learning about the world. As such, they much prefer to collect the souls of great heroes and other luminaries, though in desperate times they'll take what they can get. Eventually, the souls always escape, and thus the cycle begins again.
The Crystal Trees can be a phenomenal source of information, but dealing with them is tricky. They can only communicate telepathically, and they are used to speaking with the dead. Mind-to-mind contact runs an unusual risk of separating the soul from the body entirely.
The Chthonic Empire is an entire nation of subterranean Yokai, but the cities of the Slime people deserve a special mention. Though they have integrated fairly well into the multi-species culture of the Empire, the peculiarities of the their physiology have led them to stand (well, not exactly, but you know) apart from the other Yokai. The cities of their original homeland have vertebrate districts and certain hastily-added architectural accommodations, but they are mostly built for the comfort of fluid bodies. They don't have "streets" so much as "pipes" or "doors" so much as "valves." Travel to outlying districts is augmented with pneumatic systems of such incredible efficiency that the slime cities have become the backbone of the Empire's industrial production.
The larger conventional cities of the Chthonic Empire have their own pneumatic-tube transport systems, but even a medium sized town finds it difficult to justify a mass-transit system that can only service a minority of the population. This gives the Slimes a reputation as sophisticated, but out-of-touch urbanites and may bias educators and employers towards directing them to clerical and administrative careers.
The Slime People are not the only member of their peculiar genus. There are also less intelligent slime-animals, who wander their native fungal forests. The most common are the slime-cat and the slime-dog, who are popular companion animals even among the solid species, thanks to their enthusiastic, if messy affection for their owners.
A tougher, more aggressive form of slime creature can also be found in the fungal forests. Gelatinous bears are more flexible than their counterparts on the surface, but cannot take full ooze form like their smaller cousins. Instead, these adaptable and intelligent predators can slither with deceptive speed, opportunistically charging after any prey that crosses their path and absorbing them into their massive digestive reservoirs.
The Gold Sniffers
This elite order of mole-person Adepts directly serves the emperor, using their magical ability to sense gold to fill the empire's coffers and ensure that too much of the substance does not wind up in the hands of the surface dwellers. Only relatives of the emperor are trusted with this mystical knowledge, and to further encourage loyalty, service as a gold sniffer is often a prelude to powerful and prestigious positions in the upper ranks of the Chthonic Empire's administration.
But though gold sniffing is officially a state secret of the Empire, that doesn't mean it never leaks to the public. Every few years, a gold sniffer falls into debt or leaves themselves open to blackmail, and the price of choice is almost always instruction in the order's secret arts. Rogue gold sniffers walk a dangerous line. It's nearly impossible to make someone forget an adept power, and thus the empire mandates their swift execution, but they're scarcely safer among people who want to keep them alive. To keep your life, your freedom, and the money is the ultimate dream, but only the most legendary rogues are able to pull it off.
The Way of the Badger
Some in the Chthonic Empire look down on the goblins of the Great Vault, viewing them as refugees and outcasts from the Deep Goblin states who have joined the Empire purely for protection, but this view is not quite accurate. While both the Mole People and the Slime People inhabited the Great Vault prior to the goblin migrations, goblins have been a part of the empire since the first days of its founding. The Great Vault goblins have their own distinctive customs and traditions practiced by no one else, whether under the earth or on the surface.
One such tradition is the Way of the Badger, a fierce martial art that focuses on relentless all-out attack as the ultimate form of defense. Adepts who learn the Way of the Badger do so on long wilderness retreats, where they are cut off from the tools and technology that otherwise define the goblin way of life. During these retreats, the goblins get in touch with their primal nature and focus their magic inwards, becoming living weapons able to fell much larger foes with little more than their own unleashed rage.
The Priests of Truth
On the Eastern slope of the Shielding Mountains, in a high valley, overlooking the plains, there is a hidden spring. Legend has it that its waters pour forth from the still-bleeding heart of a long-forgotten god. If a mortal being bathes in the crystal-clear waters of the source pool, they will emerge with the ability to unfailingly recognize falsehood in all its forms.
A sworn fellowship of mystics guards this place, both from those who would exploit it and from honest seekers who are not yet prepared for its power. They allow only those who have spent a lifetime in study and contemplation to brave the waters of the spring, for the first lies it reveals are invariably the ones you tell yourself.
Few survive this revelation.
The ones who do, the monks who have spent decades purifying their minds and souls of all self-deception (and even for those such as they, the waters can pose a terrible danger), are highly sought after as judges and arbitrators. Only the greatest of injustices will induce them to leave the monastery, however, for they are as incapable of speaking deception as they are of hearing it and the outside world weighs heavily on them.
For aspirants who seek their wisdom, and ask if it's worth the risk to experience pure truth for themselves, they always give the same answer - "It's almost always better not to know. . . Almost."
Over the years, many have tried to tame the Roc. The reward is obvious - she is a giant eagle, capable of lifting an elephant in each of her mighty claws. Anyone who controlled such a thing would have uncontested mastery of the skies. Certainly, even the mightiest hunter quails at the thought of confronting the beast, and every general, warlord, and king in the shadow of the Shielding mountains, where she makes her lair, has planned for the nightmare scenario, where she is drawn into battle against them.
Yet the Roc is too wild, too pure to ever be tamed. The mountain folk revere her for it, seeing her as a symbol of freedom against the encroaching rule of the Lowland empires. Though it would be condescending to say they "worshiped" her, they do occasionally leave her offerings of ox and yak. And they keep secret a fact that would draw fortune-seekers from around the world - the Roc's nest contains an egg. A chick is on the way.
Fenris doesn't mean to cause so much trouble, really. He's just a big, clumsy oaf of a puppy . . .
Wait! That thing is a puppy?! That 20-foot-tall slavering hellbeast, with teeth like scimitars and paws the size of a grown-man's torso is a puppy? It's going to get bigger?
And so Fenris was betrayed. As an immortal, he could be slain by none but the gods, but he could be bound. Lured with succulent treats and kind words, he bounded after his human friends into the deepest, darkest cave anyone could find. While he was distracted with a freshly-slain yak carcass, his captors dynamited the entrance.
You can still hear Fenris' howls on a quiet night. They are apologetic and full of sadness. One day, maybe one day soon, the apologies will stop and the sadness will turn to anger.
High in the Shielding Mountains, there is a valley that dips below the tree line. Inside is an old-growth forest containing gorgeous hardwoods and fragrant pines that have otherwise been logged into extinction. Thanks to the fertile soil and ideal climate conditions, some of these trees are of truly gigantic scale, the size of battleships or office buildings.
There are magnates down in the Lowlands who would pay millions to secure the rights to the valley . . . and profit to the tune of millions more as they stripped it bare. But they cannot, because the Valley has powerful protection in the form of its own native band of Sasquatches.
Despite their size and fearsome demeanor, the Sasquatches are peaceful herbivores. They speak a simple language of grunts and howls, but their knowledge of the valley runs deep. They mostly spend their time observing the valley's animals, tending to the health of the trees, and maintaining the rituals that keep their home hidden from the outside world.
The magic of the Sasquatches is unlike anything else on Ukss. Though it is no match for a true magic wand, it has spared their lands from scrutiny for hundreds of years. If discovered, it would inspire even more greed than the valley's untapped natural resources, but only someone as gentle and humble as the Sasquatches themselves could ever hope to master it.
The Giant Lynx of the Alpine Woods
Though, as solitary predators, the Giant Lynx do not live in villages, as the term is commonly understood, they do try and keep in touch with each other, meeting at the intersections of their territories for trade, mating, and news. The most frequently trafficked points on the network are called "crossroads" and the Lynx name them with smell-signs that only partially translate into spoken languages.
The Giant Lynx prefer to have as little to do with humans as possible. They will sometimes negotiate with isolated mining, logging, or furrier camps, trading their services as scouts and guides for recognition and protection of their favored hunting grounds. However, like all cats, they can see nascent magical energies and will often go out of their way to warn others of major magical threats.
The Keepers of the Council
On the eastern slope of the Shielding Mountains, where the temperate rainforest climbs to the timber line, there stands a ring of seven stones. Erected in memory of an ancient war between the forest and early humankind, it is the enduring token of an oath of truce. Each stone has a steward - a man or woman who was given by their clan to the forest to serve as both hostage and ambassador.
As a mark of their service, the stewards gained the power to change into great and terrible bears, a power they use to both protect the descendants of the clans and defend the woods from those who would harm or exploit it.
But their greatest power can only be used when the seven are in accord. If they gather at the standing stones, they may summon the Council of the Forest – the seven great monarchs of wood and grass and stream. The Council may hear petitions from needy humans, offer advice to the Keepers on the state of the forest and the threats against it, or take direct action on its own behalf. It is slow to rouse to anger, and has little pity for human weakness, but once it has committed to a course, there are few who can turn it aside.
Though the Shielding Mountains are home to many powerful alfar, relatively few come from the sacred gate at the continental divide. It is a large rift, stretching hundreds of miles, but it is razor thin. For a great spirit to pass through, it must accept an existence as a split, liminal creature.
Gafflings face no such dilemma, however. They are small enough to pass through whole, and because they are not sharing the gate's energy with larger creatures, there are more mephits on the peaks of the Shielding Mountains than anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of the North Pole). These light, airy creatures rarely descend to the earth, instead floating on updrafts and capturing hawks to ride in thrilling aerobatic stunt routines. Mephit hawk-riders can be fierce combatants when riled, but they prefer play to war and will only organize against persistent threats and those they can't outrun.
A land of rolling, golden hills, slow, muddy rivers, and rich, fertile valleys, the Omphalos coast is blessed with mild winters and long summers. It is almost as capitalist as the Lowlands, but more pastoral, more religious, and less aggressively expansionist.
Bordered on the south by an impassible, yokai-haunted rain forest, the Coast is much more accustomed to strange disappearances, mysterious transformations, and alien revelations than nearly anywhere else on Ukss. The people are earthy, practical, and unpretentious, but they take no chances with the occult. Every village and small town has its own rituals of appeasement, and though the cities don't have the same sort of worries, they never quite lose that cautious edge. Reverence for nature and respect for the gods are key values.
The people of the Omphalos Coast have golden-brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. In the country, dark suntans are both expected and considered a sign of a proper work ethic, though city folk view them as an affectation that goes in and out of fashion with periodic regularity.
Religion is a daily fact of life on the Omphalos Coast. Though some gods have sacred days, and some extraordinary events require special rituals, most of humanity's relationship with the divine comes in the form of day-to-day respect and routine acts of deference.
The main belief in Omphalos Coast religion is in “The God of the Place.” The stream that runs through the village is ruled by a god. The old hills outside town have a different god. The forest to the south has many gods, perhaps as many as one for each tree, but certainly one for each grove and cliff and strangely-shaped stone.
Human places don't have gods, but only because no place can truly belong to humanity until its god retreats to the spirit world. This can be a voluntary retreat, to make room for favored humans, or it can be a forced retreat, for gods that were defeated by ancient heroes or sorcerers. However, even in the spirit world, the gods take an interest in the lands they left behind. Religious observances are meant to discourage the gods from returning and reclaiming their places.
For benevolent gods, this means demonstrating that the land is being well cared-for or that the people remain worthy of the gift of the land. For hostile gods, this means showing the strength of the people, or that they still possess the god's doom or bane.
A given village may have been built on the lands of a dozen or more gods, and the most common ritual observances happen when crossing from one land to the next. The fields to the south may have been carved out of the forest domain of The Tree Who Wears Corpses, a great warrior god who used human bodies as armor, and so the farmers will pound their chests, stomp their feet and shout a challenge as they head out to work. By contrast, the bridge across the stream may have been won on a bet from The Duck Who Runs Like A Man (giving the stream its name – Duck Race), and as a tribute, young boys and girls are encouraged to run across it whenever it's practical.
Because a given town may have dozens of ancient pacts or lingering spiritual enemies, the most important religious task is remembering old stories. This is given over to the Rememberers, an all-female tradition of sorcerers and storytellers. The job is usually passed from mother to daughter, though there are rituals that allow for adoption. Training begins as soon as the girl learns to speak, and is a lifelong pursuit. However, no apprentice becomes a true Rememberer until her mother dies. Then, if all the magics were performed correctly, and all the rituals observed, the mother's memories transfer to her daughter, including all the preserved memories of the entire line of mothers and grandmothers going all the way back to founding of the line. Genuinely new Rememberers are rare, but it happens that lineages are broken and new lands are claimed from the gods, and thus from time to time likely-looking girls are taught the secret arts to found new lines of their own.
Set for the 11th full moon of the year, just as autumn is giving way to winter, Vine Day officially marks the end of the grape harvest and a celebration of a job well done. Unofficially, it's an excuse to get drunk and act like a fool.
Vine Day is a day sacred to the God TBD, but is primarily celebrated in the more heterodox cities of the Omphalos coast region. There it is an excuse to release inhibitions and express passions that have been suppressed the rest of the year. The more decadent trade cities compete with each other to throw the grandest parade, and in places with a strong Vine Day tradition, anything done while wearing a carnival masque does not count against the year's tally of sins.
Some of the more staid priests of TBD try to shut down Vine Day celebrations, but rulers and subjects alike view it as a necessary release valve for pent-up tensions. This lavish celebration of excess is going nowhere anytime soon.
Festivals of the Departed
It is said on the Omphalos Coast that when the music plays on Vine Day, even the dead tap their feet. Though something of an exaggeration, it is true that ghosts may be drawn back to the living world with a properly-staged revel. There is an entire school of sorcery that focuses on precisely this sort of benevolent necromancy, calling the departed back to Ukss to retrieve lost information, briefly reunite family, friends, and lovers, and learn from the wisdom of the ancient dead.
Vine Day is a popular choice for such rituals, both for its associations with seasonal rebirth and because it is a time the dead remember fondly. Though they can usually only be seen by mediums, everybody's just a bit more psychic on Vine Day, and when the parades are in full swing, many a bottle has been passed unwittingly into skeletal hands.
The Seekers of the Hour
Concentrated within the technologically advanced areas of the Omphalos Coast, but with followers worldwide, the Seekers of the Hour are a mystery cult whose rituals revolve around clocks and timekeeping. The deepest initiates, those who have studied and meditated for years, gain the minor magical ability to manipulate clocks, causing them to run faster or slower, stop or start, all with a thought.
The Seekers demonstrate no other telekinetic of time-manipulating abilities, and they have never claimed to offer such. To their thinking, the clock is humanity's purest invention. A concrete manifestation of Intellect, undiluted by personality, or even knowledge. They believe that their control of clocks comes from a spiritual connection to that pure intellect, and that while they may not be able to control anything as crude as terrestrial time, their practices allow them to influence their own celestial clock – advancing their progress along the wheel of reincarnation or extending their time in a favorable form.
The Seekers of the Hour tend to recruit from well-to-do people, the natural philosophers of the gentry, who use their leisure time to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Connections within the cult can open a lot of doors in high society, and their more or less unique magic allows them to easily identify each other across national lines.
Cauthrunne, The Crow Goddess
In the aftermath of a great battle, a wounded, dying survivor may have a vision of Cauthrunne, a trickster spirit who appears in dreams as either as a giant crow or a beautiful woman dressed in black. She will offer a deal to the delirious and the shell-shocked: their lives and incomparable skill in battle in exchange for . . . nothing.
Or, at least, nothing a human would ever notice missing. Cauthrunne is a carrion-eater, and though she is far too powerful to manifest in the physical world, even as an Alfar, she may accept sacrifices in her name. When she chooses a champion, the spirits of any who fall by the champion's hand will fly to her palace in the Magic World.
It might be possible to deny Cauthrunne her prize by swearing off violence and living a life of peace, but fate will rarely allow such a retirement. Her chosen have a habit of winning battles, and even if they can resist the temptation and quit while they are ahead, their comrades will be loathe to lose such a potent talisman of divine favor, and their superiors will come to rely on them more than is entirely wise.
In the end, this
form of salvation is temporary. The Crow Goddess' blessing is finite,
and her champion will inevitably face more than they can handle. That
suits her just fine, though. She can always find a new servant among
A small island less than a day's sailing off the coast, Vaporia is a community utterly devoted to its signature industry: glass-making. The famed sorcerer-artisans are world-renowned for their enchanted glass boats and elegant mechanical hawk familiars (made with brass fittings and clockwork mechanisms, holding together the glass feathers which allow them to fly), but the island also produces large amounts of mundane glass, from the exquisite blown-glass figurines that decorate every house on the island to industrial quantities of simple plate glass, to sate the south's ever-growing appetite for modern windows.
The culture of Vaporia is best described as "artistic, but mercenary." They love to show off the latest achievements of the glass-maker's art, but not unless they've been paid first. As long-distance travel continues to drop in price, they've been receiving increasing numbers of tourists, eager to experience its colorful and chime-filled streets. Though this has been an unquestionable economic boon for the people of Vaporia, some of the old guard believe that it threatens to dilute their way of life and replace real glass work with "shows for gawkers."
The Sorcerer-Artisans of Vaporia produce these elegant sea-going vessels for a select clientele of discerning customers. Made from a form of enchanted glass that is "grown" into the proper shape over the course of years, the glass boats are lighter than wood and harder than steel. Only dedicated warships are better under cannon fire, and there is not a cargo vessel in the world that can carry more weight, faster. Plus, a glass boat need never worry about barnacles or water termites.
Yet for all their meritorious qualities, glass boats are ludicrously expensive, and thus nearly every one in service acts as a personal yacht for some sorcerer, monarch, or Lowlands industrialist.
Made from magically-hardened Vaporian glass and
enchanted brass mechanisms, these swan-shaped boats can seat two in
their molded glass saddles. Riders steer by embracing the swan's neck
and leaning their body weight left or right as necessary. When fully
charged by three hours of sunlight, they can match pace with a
steamboat for up to 90 minutes, making them a largely recreational
vehicle, except in places like the canals of New Gold City, where
their short range is not a terrible disadvantage, but their small
size and high speed allow couriers (both legal and otherwise) to
deliver high value cargoes anywhere in the city.
New Gold City
Celebrated in song and story, New Gold City is the unofficial capital of the Omphalos Coast. Commanding the mouth of The Big River, it is a major commercial port and a military and industrial hub every bit the equal to anything in the Lowlands. It is also widely considered the world's most cosmopolitan city and is a frequent destination for refugees, migrants, and outcasts, all of whom bring their own unique cultures into the mix. New Gold City has a reputation as a place where fortunes are made, true love is discovered, and the unlucky are never seen again.
The city is ruled by the Waters dynasty. Said to be descended from the god of the Big River itself, they are hereditary Prodigies, able to hold back floods and divert river water to outlying farms. The current Queen, Juliana of the Waters, highly values propriety and protocol. Her strictness and exactitude are legendary, though she is also renowned for knowing the birthdays of all of her servants and bestowing upon them gifts that are as lavish as is proper for their station.
The Waters dynasty lives in The Golden Palace, the only part of the first Gold City to survive the Thousand-Year Flood. The Palace is an architectural marvel, meticulously carved by water magic from the gold-colored cliffs that give the city its name. The Palace is also famous for its living paintings, whose figures move when they are unobserved. Whether the paintings are haunted or a product of forgotten sorcery is the subject of much debate.
The core of New Gold City's military is their elite Boar Warriors. Dedicating their minds, bodies, and souls to the Great Boar god of the southern woods, they fight with terrible stubbornness, pushing past wounds to continue the battle up until the very point of death. Though their attrition rates are high, they count much more heavily on the battlefield than their numbers might indicate.
It is rare for a goblin to accept the Tainted Bargain, but Gremulo was a master locksmith obsessed with overcoming the last plateau of skill that keeps mortals from perfection. In exchange for ultimate mastery, he gave his body to a god of doorways and passages, and thus the Keyhole was born.
Nestled in one of New Gold City's famously cozy alleys, the Keyhole sells keys. All kinds of keys. Every kind of key. Every specific key, too. The Tainted goblin who runs the place refuses to make them to order, but look long enough through the sprawling rows of tiny drawers (more than could possibly fit in the shop's modest floorplan) and you will find a key for any lock in existence, all for the modest price of one silver coin. The trick is recognizing it when you see it.
The largest colony of these sprites of brick and ivy
slipped into the world in the wake of The Keyhole's divinity, but
they can sometimes herald other urban deities. Like all mephits, they
are flighty and mischievous by nature, but they can also be
surprisingly helpful. Approached with an offering of garbage (their
favorite is balled-up bits of newspaper, especially if the headline
is weird or exciting), they will gladly share overheard gossip or
lead a lost traveler to any address in the city. Be careful, though,
because they live for drama, and may orchestrate messy emotional
outbursts that spill out into the streets. They especially love
coaxing unsuspecting people to return home early and catch their
partners in the act of infidelity, even if the situation is not what
it first appears.
The House of Not Yet Midnight
This house is not in any guidebook to the occult. It is neither studied as a mystery, nor marked as a threat. As far as the outside world is concerned, it's just an ordinary house. But the children of New Gold City know better. They warn each other to stay away from the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, the one hidden behind an overgrown hedge and wrought-iron gates. Kids who venture into that house come back . . . changed.
The House of Not Yet Midnight sits on a vortex of invasive magical energies. The whole structure is a Labyrinth that channels its inhabitants' fears and regrets, trapping them in a time-loop of their own creation, one where they face their greatest weakness again and again, until it is overcome. No one ever ages in The House of Not Yet Midnight. Nor do they die. No matter how many hundreds or thousands of times they fail, the House will not grant them that mercy.
The Nightmare Theater
In New Gold City, on the Omphalos Coast, there is a shabby and disreputable-looking building that nonetheless has a well-maintained stairwell sinking down below street level to an imposing door of black hardwood. Those who know the password . . . or who have been drawn to the door by fate may pass through to find an intimate, dimly-lit theater.
The shows at The Nightmare Theater are lurid and disturbing. The actors wear grotesque masks and the plots are surreal pastiches stitched together by dream logic. A common theme is sudden, unexpected violence, presented not as spectacle but in a way that makes the audience feel complicit. Patrons leave the Theater feeling psychically drained.
Which is exactly what happened. The Yokai who run the Nightmare Theater live off the spiritual energy they harvest from their performances. But this is not a purely parasitical transaction. Once they get a good night's sleep, those who have sat through an entire show find that for a few days afterwards they perceive the world with unusual clarity. They are more tuned in to the emotions of their friends and coworkers, more alert and observant, and much less focused on their own problems. Whatever it is these minor gods take from their audience, it is the energy that powers anxiety and self-doubt.
Those who figure out the connection often seek to return, but it is said that it's impossible to find the Nightmare Theater unless one's soul is burdened enough to nourish its proprietors.
The Angel of Flames
Like all large cities, New Gold City is particularly vulnerable to out of control fires. Luckily, it has a protector in the form of The Angel of Flames. This beloved figure has a magical immunity to fire and is usually the first one on the scene when one breaks out, rushing into burning buildings to save the residents and the most irreplaceable of their possessions.
What the people of New Gold City do not suspect,
however, is that the Angel of Flames is a serial arsonist, who starts
fires specifically so she may act the hero. It started accidentally,
when a pyrokinetic demon took refuge in her body after a particularly
out-of-control blaze, but even though she was able to fight off its
mental control, the rush she got from exploiting its powers to save
lives was enough to allow the demon an avenue of manipulation. Now,
they have a bizarre, dysfunctional partnership. She is in full
control of her actions, but she also allows the demon to channel its
powers through her. She rationalizes it by telling herself that
without her lifesaving, the demon would simply kill with impunity,
but every time she rushes into a burning building, she loses just a
little bit more of her soul.
Dark, the Blade
He used to have it all. He was the best cop in New Gold City's elite Special Investigations Unit. He had true love, and a family on the way. Then Baron Von Hendriks took everything from him.
Now he goes by the name of Dark, his soul as black as the funeral clothes he's vowed to wear until his wife and child are avenged. He stalks the shadows, bringing his blade of justice to Von Hendriks' criminal associates, eliminating them one by one until he finds the perfect opportunity to not just kill the Baron of Fort Doom, but to destroy him.
Dark has mastered the art of stealth to such a degree that he can vanish in the time it takes for a witness to briefly glance away. As he gathers allies for his vigilante crusade, he has begun to mentor others in this technique.
As literacy grows more common in the Lowlands, cheap pulp novels have begun to proliferate. Among the most popular are the serialized adventures of Lady Harden - magician, adventurer, and elegant Omphalos Coast heiress, who travels to the most far-flung reaches of human settlement to battle slavers, smugglers, and those who would prey upon the most innocent of the Yokai. Featuring over-the-top action, lush descriptions of exotic locales, and a healthy dollop of . . . ahem . . . romance, they are the favored escapist fantasy of socially conscious dreamers, trapped in the industrial hell of the Lowlands' slums. So far, they've been translated into 11 languages and sold more than a million copies.
Little do the readers suspect that every word of the Lady Harden books is 100% true. There really is a Lady Harden, and she really does spend her days thwarting the worst of the Lowlands' imperial excesses. Numerous governments would love to have her head, but they fear if they acted openly people will realize that the atrocities depicted in the books are real as well. Maybe that's why she writes them.
The Daughters of Gabrielle
There once was a brilliant, vibrant young woman named Gabrielle, and life was not very kind to her. Her parents were important people and they were determined to marry her to the son of one of their rivals, to secure an alliance that would make both houses stronger than ever before. But Gabrielle found she could not love any man, and so one night she ran away from home.
Gabrielle had many adventures and met many people, most of whom were cruel and corrupt. Time and again, it seemed like her fate to confront demons in human form, destroying their host bodies or collapsing the gates through which they entered the world. She eventually became quite good at it.
Until one day, she took one wound too many. She nearly died, but she was nursed back to health by a beautiful, kind woman. After a turn of the seasons, the two were wed.
Though her adventuring days were behind her, Gabrielle found other ways to help. It gradually became known that her home was somewhere lesbians could go to find safety. And though she would never have wished such a life on her surrogate daughters, Gabrielle's stories enchanted her young wards. After she died, they vowed to carry on their mother's mission.
That was nearly a century ago. In the years since, the Daughters of Gabrielle have achieved fame to eclipse even their founder's great deeds. It's even become fashionable for well-off families to send their lesbian daughters to serve a few years in the Gabriellite mission.
Though they have more of the air of a boarding school these days, the Daughters of Gabrielle still fight demons with unusual effectiveness and fervor. Being chosen for a hunting team is something the younger girls train for years to achieve and no one wants to be the one to let down "Mama Gabrielle."
The signature weapon for the Daughters of Gabrielle is the meteor hammer - a fist-sized ball of pure meteoric iron at the end of a long rope. Demons find getting struck with these to be so painful that they will often voluntarily retreat back to the magic world rather than face them in combat.
The Big Sister
The Daughters of Gabrielle produce many great fighters, but the warrior nicknamed "Big Sister" is probably the greatest of them. Though the numbers are in dispute, she may have slain more demons then even the original Gabrielle herself . . . then she made the mistake of listening to one.
Some of the girls who served under her will still loyally maintain that she is possessed and not in control of her actions, but she has been working as a gang enforcer for several years and has certainly not been shy about enjoying the fruits of her wicked deeds. The Daughters of Gabrielle have officially, if reluctantly, declared her anathema and the only reason she is not rotting in a cell is because she has, on three separate occasions, fought the entire student council to a standstill.
A former alumnus and expert on all things demonic, The Daughters of Gabrielle's librarian was never a formidable combatant, but she makes up for it with her vast collection of potions, charms, and ritual scrolls. Usually, she's content to simply loan her tools to more competent teams of hunters, but when the situation gets desperate, she'll take the field herself, girded in heavy armor and carrying dozens of different countermeasures in twin bandoliers strapped across her chest. Seeing her waddling across the battlefield, laden down with magic is usually enough to inspire the Daughters to new heights of heroism, but the librarian is not just a mascot. As ridiculous as she looks, she usually has just the right answer, at just the right time. Even beyond her magic items, she knows a ritual that can take any ordinary item (even an actively burning lantern or campfire) and shrink it into a cute little cloth patch. When these patches are tossed to the ground, they reform into the original items, allowing her to carry a veritable warehouse worth of equipment whenever she takes the field.
Anton, The Gator
Anton was just a simple sausage vendor, out to make
an honest living on the streets of New Gold City. Then, one night, he
saw something he shouldn't have and a price was put on his head.
That's how he wound up halfway between life and death floating in The
As the hungry gators swam towards his barely conscious body, he prayed to the god of the Big River, not for deliverance, not for revenge, not for himself at all, but for justice, that the crime he witnessed would not go unpunished.
The Big River is not known for caring much about human affairs, but something about the plea moved him. The gators dragged Anton beneath the waters, but their jaws did not close around his flesh and he did not drown.
Some time later, the criminals of New Gold City gained a new foe - half man and half gator, he lurked in the city's waters, stalking his prey and striking without warning. He is a terrible guardian, as befits the fickle nature of the river god, but he is also beloved. The poor and the desperate make offerings to The Gator, that they might be delivered from the city's routine injustices and the powers that would exploit them have been growing increasingly worried that these offerings seem to be reciprocated.
Drawn by the city's immense wealth and easy-going cosmopolitan atmosphere, organized crime thrives in New Gold City. An informal consortium of demons, known as the Tainted Circle, helps match up desperate people with the spiritual entities who wish to possess their bodies (but on its own commits no other crimes.) The Baron Von Hendricks sponsors riverboat pirates who use the city as a port of call. But though these criminals thrive in their own niches, the real power players in New Gold City's underworld are all vampires.
This is an open secret. The vampires make token efforts to hide themselves from casual publicity, but in the high class salons and elegant up-river estates, they flaunt their ill-gotten wealth and predatory glamour. The people of the city take a back-handed pride in the decadent spectacle of their vampire gangsters, and on those rare occasions when one of the bosses creates a new vampire protege, the “Introduction Galas” are some of the biggest events in the city's social calendar.
But though the vampires play at being the fun and friendly kind of disreputable, lavishing gifts on their exquisitely fashionable “blood dolls,” who themselves become minor civic celebrities, they are still predators by nature. Their in-fighting is as terrifying and brutal as any human gangster's, made all the more vicious by their immortal grudges.
The current kingpin of the city's vampires is a small, unassuming man who goes by the name “Mr Sanguine.” Unusually for a vampire, he is physically revolted by blood, violently heaving and gagging whenever he sees the substance (he takes his sustenance intravenously, from an opaque bag). But though he cannot stand the sight of blood, he is no meek and retiring pacifist. He possesses strange and uncanny powers and has been known to telekinetically crush a victim's heart inside their chest, without ever spilling a single drop of blood. Rumor has it that the vicious Black Dog that stalks the slums and preys on the unhoused is actually an enchanted animal that contains the imprisoned spirit of the previous kingpin, dispatched by Mr Sanguine's sorcerous might.
The Compact is a group of dedicated vampire-hunters who have sworn an oath to free New Gold City from the clutches of the undead. They share information, equipment, safehouses, and the danger of the hunt itself. The only catch? To join, you have to be a vampire.
The Compact is looking for something more than justice in their quest to eliminate the vampires of New Gold City. They're looking for redemption. Each and every one of them has killed, and then come to regret it. Now, the only way they can make sense of their crimes is to use their vampire powers to make sure no one else ever has to go through the same thing.
The particular skillset of most vampires makes them better suited to being assassins than monster hunters, but The Compact has learned to embrace that fact. If they're going to be assassins, they may as well assassinate the most powerful and well-protected targets in the entire world.
The Obertus Family
For generations, the Obertus family has worked for New Gold City's vampires in a semi-legal capacity, managing their affairs in the daylight hours, ensuring that their investments and businesses could operate when their owners were not available to assert direct control. This has made them rich and powerful, but it's a double-edged sword – in order to ensure their loyalty, the vampires have subjected the Obertus scions to repeated mind control, over the span of centuries, leaving the entire family prone to terrifying dissociative episodes where they black out for several hours and wake up not knowing what they've done (usually their actions are fairly benign, but that doesn't lessen the emotional impact).
If all the Obertus were getting out of the arrangement was access to the corrupt wealth of their vampire overlords, they might be counted as greedy fools, but their ambitions reach much higher than mere riches. While the vampires have been controlling the Obertus, the Obertus have been studying vampires, documenting their powers, subjecting their blood to sophisticated alchemical tests, seeking to isolate the factor that gives them their immortality and mystic might in the hopes of creating a variation with all of the vampires' strengths and none of their weaknesses.
It's an audacious plan, but there is no reason to believe it is inevitably doomed to failure. And should the day ever come when the Obertus crack the code and affect their dark apotheosis, the vampires' outrages against the family will be avenged with all the meticulous fury their scientific minds can conceive.
This group of benevolent necromantic adepts has developed the ability to simultaneously perceive both the material world of Ukss and its shadowy reflection in the near reaches of the Magic World. This allows them to perceive immaterial ghosts and active spirits, but at the cost of opening them to attack from unseen forces. They primarily use this ability to aid the restless dead and help them find peace, but vampires and Tainted hosts are also obvious to them, and they will feed that information to New Gold City's various vigilantes, if they believe they can do so without compromising their mission or exposing themselves to danger.
The Shadow Walkers mostly work alone, given the highly personal nature of their work, but they will meet periodically on the beaches just outside New Gold City. Though these places may seem continuous in the physical world, the meeting of land and sea brings together two separate realms in the magic world, making them dangerous places for inexperienced spirits to tread. The spiritual interface is especially fraught for the most disturbed and violent ghosts, as any attempt to avoid pockets of positive emotional energy (usually generated by happy beachgoers) can push them straight into the abyssal depths of the ocean's magical shadow. This hazard allows the Shadow Walkers to discuss strategy and logistics with relatively little danger of being overheard by their enemies.
Handsome Bentley's Cabby Service
In a city as large and diverse as New Gold City, there are a lot of different taxis, all hustling for your transportation dollar, but Handsome Bentley's is widely regarded as the best. It's only a single horse-drawn carriage, but the driver seems to have a sixth sense for the city's traffic. His cab runs faster, avoids obstacles almost as soon as they appear, and takes greater risks when turning corners or passing through crowds.
What the passengers don't realize is that the driver is just an actor hired to be a likely pair of hands that collects fares and chats with the customers. The real boss is Handsome Bentley himself, a Talking Horse from the Equine Steppes.
While Bentley is a true expatriate and considers New Gold City his home, he still retains contacts among the southern Horse Sorcerers, and will periodically send them reports on things he's overheard while pretending to be an insensible draft animal.
Unlike the Bay of Blood, the Omphalous Coast does not
tolerate mercenary companies . . . which is why the yokai-for-hire
who make up The Claw take pains to bill themselves as “private
security contractors.” Nonetheless, this group of outcasts, led by
an intelligent spider and her werewolf lieutenant, has a reputation
for doing whatever it takes to protect their clients' interests. They
specialize in repossession and the retrieval of stolen objects, but
have been known to track down bounties, turn the tables on riverboat
pirates, and even hunt down their fellow yokai. Everything they do is
technically legal, but hiring them sends a definite message – they
are the last resort before things spiral totally out of
Sandcastle's name isn't purely poetic. The people there have mastered a peculiar alchemy. By means of a certain potion, brewed from a mix of local herbs and minerals, they are able to harden sand so it has the durability of stone. The resulting buildings, which look for all the world like scaled-up children's sandcastles, give the village its distinct character. The exact mixture is a well-kept secret, and protecting it is the only thing the otherwise laid-back residents of Sandcastle Village seem to take seriously.
Sandcastle is "ruled" by Mayor Wally. Chosen by general acclaim, Wally is not your typical politician. No one has ever seen him without his trademark robe and slippers, even in town meetings and important trade negotiations. Similarly, his trusty pipe is always close at hand. The two facts may be somewhat related.
Yet the people of Sandcastle love their mayor, and seem to take special delight in directing impatient outsiders to take their "urgent problems" to him.
Looking like nothing so much as a giant onyx skull and built on a volcanic island to the north of New Gold City, Fort Doom is nearly unassailable by conventional means. Through the mechanical manipulation of a half-dozen stolen Earth Anchors, the Baron (or, presumably, anyone who holds the Fort's main chamber) can direct lava flows anywhere on the island while the defenders stay safe behind ancient god-forged walls. Von Hendriks did not build Fort Doom, but he discovered and named it and it is inexorably bound up in his legend.
"Lord of Fort Doom," Baron Von Hendriks is a mystery
wrapped in an enigma. His enemies, of which he has many, dismiss him
as a fool and a fraud, but they have never been able to defeat
He is a conqueror. A schemer. A tyrant. A raider of cities and ransomer of damsels. Above all else, he is theatrical. He attacks when he doesn't need to, overcomes impossible odds, and is left with a prize he can't possibly keep. He gloats when he is merely on the verge of victory and gives grand speeches when his forces should be in retreat. He has a knack for angering the powerful and inspiring peasant uprisings in places that have been peacefully subdued for the past thousand years.
While his tactics are invariably brilliant, none can figure out his strategy. Some say he does it for the glory. Others for the challenge. Some quip that he must have made a deal with a trickster god - peerless might in exchange for fleeting victories. These theories all capture part of his reasons, but his real motivation is much simpler - he does it because he is the one and only Baron Von Hendricks, and no one else would dare.
King of Commerce Island
Twenty years ago, the self-styled “King of Commerce” fled the Lowlands in disgrace. His vision of unrestrained capitalism was popular with all the right sort of people, but he made the huckster's cardinal error – some of the people who lost money on his stock market schemes were, themselves, already rich.
Taking his ill-gotten fortune and staying one step ahead of the Serpent Company assassins, he paid seven of the Omphalos Coast's most powerful sorcerers a veritable fortune to raise an island from the sea. Over the next decade, he was able to build himself a kingdom on the promise of a regulation-free haven for vice, slavery (sorry, “contractual indentured servitude of indefinite duration”) and tax avoidance.
Eventually, his enemies caught up to him, but he passed his kingdom to his son, the second King of Commerce. Having mended fences with his father's enemies, the new King rakes in unimaginable wealth as the sole landowner on an island where property is the only human right. Ruling from his glitzy mansion at the head of Cash Street, he has attracted an almost cult-like following of ambitious immigrants who believe the only thing holding them back are the self-serving laws of lesser minds.
King of Commerce Island suffers from some of the most extreme income inequality on Ukss. Though only the King himself actually owns land, those who can afford the most expensive leases have free rein to do as they like. When a powerful merchant rides through town, they are preceded by an entourage of mercenaries who roughly push people out of the way. The bigger and more inconvenient the spectacle, the more status is earned among the ranks of the elite. The poor largely tolerate it because these impromptu parades will often toss coins to the crowd, both to mollify their victims and draw a larger audience.
In theory, King of Commerce Island does have a fixed code of law. Anyone who suffers from aggression can take their case to the King, who will hear the arguments of both parties and require the loser to compensate the winner. In exchange, the King collects a fixed-rate payment from the party that initiated the suit (for indigent plaintiffs, he collects his fee from awarded damages or imposes a term of indenture if they lose). The practical upshot is that justice is for sale. The poor cannot afford to access the system, and the rich understand that they're buying results. It also means that disputes between parties of high social status are mediated outside the system.
Hence the King of Commerce Island bardic tradition. One of your peers will send a band of musicians to perform at your home, and you'll know for a fact that it's a declaration of cold war. If you turn the bards away, it's an admission that your security is insufficient to keep them on task. If you allow them in, they will use their, ahem, additional skills to rob or spy on your house. The trick is to minimize the damage and send your rival their own troupe of bards to deal with. As long as both parties keep playing the game, they are equals and may resolve their disputes in arbitration (possibly using material gathered by the bards to argue their case). Once a party loses their nerve, then it unfortunately becomes a matter for the courts.
But hey, at least for awhile the feud had a soundtrack.
The KoCi Sunbrew Holdings Consortium is the second most powerful economic force on King of Commerce Island. It owns sunbrew refineries all throughout the Lowlands and uses its Island headquarters to shelter millions in profits from taxes. It also controls a sizable military asset in the form of its mascot -Sunny Bruce, the KoCi Sunbrew Flame.
Sunny Bruce is a prodigy who can transform his entire body into flame and maintains mental control over any fire ignited by contact with his body. He is not quite a match for a modern Lowlands army, but he can fly at 300 miles per hour and destroy an unfortified building in a matter of minutes.
Not that the Consortium would use him for that, of course. Why, he is merely a public relations agent, teaching children about safe sunbrew handling and lending his likeness for advertisements. It's just that he collects a suspiciously large salary for such simple tasks, and this has not gone unnoticed among governments that might think about regulating KoCi Sunbrew Holdings to the point of excess.
King of Commerce Island is not a nice place to be poor. Technically, it is impossible to physically occupy space without owing rent to the King. But sometimes, poor decisions or unexpected hardships will leave a person with nothing. The suggested “solution” in these cases is a contract of indenture, but even that doesn't always work out. Some people, for whatever reason, can't or won't sell their labor to pay off their debts. Since you can't leave the island with an outstanding balance, sooner or later they are all forced to relocate to Freak Alley.
The King has written off Freak Alley as a sort of open-air debtor's prison. The people who live there are squatters, occupying the land without a lease, but the alley's position near the island's sewage runoff pipes means it's cheaper to ignore the squatters than to imprison or exile them. From time to time, the King's private security will raid the alley, dragging a few dozen captives in front of an arbiter, who will impose indentured servitude as a penalty for their outstanding debts (usually owed to the King himself, though the King will often buy noncollectable debts for a small fraction of their face value, if the debtor winds up in this kind of arbitration).
The culture of Freak Alley combines disillusioned anarchism with reluctant solidarity. Every day is a struggle for survival, and the residents do what it takes to make it through, but at the same time, you don't belong in Freak Alley if you can't show the sort of mercy that the rest of the island lacks. You can be a serial housebreaker or violent mugger and face no negative judgment, but refuse to give money to a disabled panhandler, or, worse, mock the mentally ill, and you will soon find yourself a pariah in the only refuge left available to you.
The agricultural heart of the Omphalos Coast, the countryside around the city-state of Fantasia is the most magical in the region. Humans have made pacts with the Yokai of the Southern Forest and the gods of its places are unusually tame.
Fantasia's neighbors worry about its seeming good fortune. The nation's Rememberers tell stories of agreements made in good faith and humble offerings exchanged for the blessings of the earth, but between the villages and beyond the southern borders, witches hold sway, with magic wilder and more frightening than the people of the Omphalos Coast usually tolerate. Rumors speak of hidden prices, paid with blood sacrifice, made in darkness.
The people of Fantasia do not worry, though. The witch families have deep ties to the land, and guard it with a ferocity that matches even the most stalwart knight's. They claim stewardship over the forests and the rocky high hills, but the roads that run through their lands are as safe as any in Ukss. Yokai avoid them and bandits are rare. Bandits are conspicuously rare.
Thanks to the presence of the witch families, magic is more common in Fantasia than other lands, carried into the villages and capital city by frequent intermarriage (even if the three populations – city, village, and wilderness – sometimes see each other as rival subcultures).
The magical manifestation most noticed by outsiders is the strange behavior of the nation's animals. It's subtle at first, but most people quickly come to realize that in Fantasia, the animals will obey human laws to the best of their ability. They aren't any more intelligent than normal animals, but stray dogs will wait for permission to eat a person's garbage; pigeons will nest only in designated boxes and pay their human landlords a periodic rent of scavenged coins; even on isolated rural roads, the deer will cross only at the designated signs.
This strangely ordered behavior is a residue from the habitual use of more deliberate enchantment, specifically the art of spell-cooking. In Fantasia, ordinary-looking food can have profound magical effects (this differs from formal alchemy primarily in the fact that Fantasian enchanted food is always nutritious, life-sustaining food, in addition to its other effects).
Feed a squirrel a spiced, baked acorn and it will return to you with an item lost in the woods. Feed a sparrow a fermented sovereign redberry and it will deliver a message anywhere within a day's flight. Cook up a complex pumpkin soup and the mice who eat it will sew you a dress made from nearby cloth scraps and carpet remnants. Nearly everyone in Fantasia knows a few efficacious recipes, and family matriarchs/patriarchs know many more.
The compulsions of a basic Fantasian enchantment work best when given to an appropriate local animal, but the magic is in the food, not the eater, and so a well-preserved delicacy can retain its potency even in far-off foreign lands (though strange side-effects are to be expected). When a human eats an animal-grade enchantment, they find themselves briefly sleepwalking, but shake off the effects within a few minutes at most.
Which isn't to say that Fantasian cooking cannot effect humans, it just needs to use one of many rare special recipes. These are almost all proprietary secrets of the witch families, though many have dread reputations. Everyone in the Omphalos Coast has heard stories of a poor unfortunate who accepted an innocent-seeming pastry or candied apple from a Fantasian witch, only to suffer some terrible enchantment.
Though most human-scale enchanted cooking is subtler than that. Many Fantasian meals are supplemented with soups, beers, and side-dishes that contain spells of healing, relaxation, and peace. Communal eating is a huge part of the local culture, and even in the capital city, a witch-trained chef will attract regulars to their restaurant that rapidly come to feel like family.
While common village soups are incapable of healing serious wounds (like gunshots or acid burns), they will smooth over the routine micro-injuries that come from hard work and exercise. As a result, the people of Fantasia are prone to gaining muscle mass. They are renowned for their solid builds and muscular arms, so much that the expression “thicker than a Fantasian bull” is common throughout the Omphalos Coast.
Another effect of these enriching communal builds is strong bonds between coworkers, leading to labor being a powerful force in the city-state's politics, despite the monarchist system of government. Each of the four largest labor unions has a representative on the queen's privy council, making them roughly equal in status to the nobles who rule the villages.
Thanks to the unions, worker protections are strong. Almost every place of business has a dedicated employee break room, which is usually the most comfortable and luxurious room in the building.
Fantasia is currently ruled by a Queen, though the office itself is not gendered, and the country has had both male and female monarchs in the past. Unlike many other monarchies, the throne of Fantasia is not hereditary. Instead, when a monarch dies, the Golden Hart emerges from the woods, parades through the kingdom, and bows before the new ruler. Every King and Queen of Fantasia has so far been both a noble and a magic user (usually a sorcerer, though magicians are dramatically over-represented, given their relative rarity), but no one knows whether this is a requirement or a coincidence.
Lying near the base of the Shielding Mountains, Canyon City is built directly into the walls of a mammoth canyon, cut out over the centuries by the mighty waters of the Big River. A major center of industry, its factories are powered by giant waterwheels that are owned by the city and leased out in lieu of regular taxes.
The people of Canyon City are physically closer to the Southern Rainforest than any other major Omphalos Coast city and have adopted a siege mentality as a result. It welcomes goblins, mole people, and other Chthonic Empire yokai, but other non-humans are shunned, especially Alfar. Military skirmishes with the gods of the forest are a common occurrence.
The Prince's Folly is a carnival's carnival. It stages greater spectacles, it hosts more esoteric mystics, it offers more elaborate games, it is more riddled with thieves than any other show on the world of Ukss. It is run by the Tainted, M. Corona, a refugee from the spirit courts of the magical world.
M. Corona is, by strict taxonomy, a demon, but that mainly manifests in an unrepentant pragmatism. They employ thieves to keep the Folly afloat, they sabotage rivals to make it easier to acquire key talent, they use their androgynous good looks to seduce yokels questioning their sexuality because it's fun, but they hold no malice for humankind. They took over this struggling carnival in order to hide from their enemies in the magic world, but it has become their passion and their obsession. They want nothing more than to astonish and amaze the mortals that attend the Prince's Folly, shaking their small minds out their limited perspective by showing them something they've never seen before.
All demons are inherently genderless, but unlike most of their kin, M. Corona does not disguise themselves as either male or female. They prefer to tread the line as closely as possible, presenting as mostly masculine, in their frock coat and starched collar, but adding feminine touches like a floral print cravat and dangly diamond earrings. They especially delight in awakening the latent desires of small-town gay and lesbian visitors, and will offer unconditional refuge to any LGBTQ person who wants to run away with The Prince's Folly.
The Crypt Rangers
There are many forces in Ukss that would disturb the places where the dead are interred - Mad scientists, sorcerers, and vampires all have their own uses for human remains, uses which would not meet with the approval of their original owners. The Crypt Rangers are the self-appointed guardians of these sacred places, patrolling graveyards for intruders and using their famous tracking skills to bring back escapees.
The Crypt Rangers often come in conflict with necromancers and the undead, but they are not intrinsically opposed. They will inter any necro-automatons they find in the course of their duties, but will often act as protectors and patrons for those sentient undead that have no desire to cause havoc among the living. Though they are not allowed in positions of leadership, many of the most effective Crypt Rangers are themselves vampires and ghosts.
The Southern Forest
Near the outskirts of the Southern Forest, in a lightly-wooded area safe for humans to walk, lies a small cave, tended by an order of monks, sworn to poverty and nonviolence. The cave is the resting place of the Blackfire Cauldron. A sacred relic of the god TBD, it is a simple bronze pot that contains a flickering darkness. If ashes are fed into it, they will un-burn, restoring the original object.
This always seems to work out fairly smoothly, not being confused by partial or mixed ashes, but the exact mechanism is a mystery – the monks gently forbid experimentation. As near as anyone can tell, the Blackfire works by answering a sincere prayer for restoration. Casually tossing in a handful of random ash probably won't do anything.
The Blackfire cannot bring the dead back to life, but it can restore a burned corpse for purposes of identification or dignified burial.
The Order of the Cauldron has an itinerant branch that wanders from city to city, gathering the ashes from the fires that periodically spring up in such places. They return these ashes to the Cauldron as an act of devotion. The walls of the cave are lined with hundreds of items recovered in this manner. Pilgrims, provided they did not bring ashes of their own, are allowed to remove a single such item, as a keepsake of their visit and an icon of the god TBD.
In the forest to the south of the Omphalos Coast, there live many dangerous Yokai, but over the years, explorers and mystics have identified a few dozen patches of neutral ground, places where human beings are tentatively permitted, provided they stay on their best behavior. The most hallowed (and harrowing) of these places are the Red Groves, where the devoted and the desperate may come to make offerings to the powers of the woods. It is said that the trees there get their distinctive color from the centuries' worth of blood that they've absorbed through their roots, but whether that is fact or embellishment, it unmistakable that the Alfar who watch over these groves are strange and wild, and the disembodied spirits who hear the petitions grant enlightenment only to those who have a bit of the predator inside them.
Mephits of the Red Groves
It is not just the Alfar of the Red Groves that are wild. Gafflings that pass through the gates become vicious carnivores, consuming prodigious amounts of meat. Their favorite prey is boar. An entire pack will surround a single wild boar, the great beast mountainous in comparison to their slight, fairy-like bodies, and harass it unto death with a hundred jabs of their tiny spears. A small group of twelve can eat an entire boar in a little less than two weeks, devouring almost four times their body weight every month. It is lucky for the wildlife of the Southern Rainforest that boar hunting is incredibly dangerous for the diminutive creatures. A typical pack of Blood Mephits will usually last no more than a year before its numbers are so depleted that the survivors starve to death.
Huge and gnarled, the Sleeping Lord does not entirely look like a tree. Near the center of its trunk are a distinctive collection of knots that resemble nothing so much as a cruel and wicked face. Parasitic vines hang from its branches, like stringy, unkempt hair. Anyone who sees it immediately feels a powerful sense of nascent malice . . . at first.
Hidden among the vines are a thousand small, white blossoms with a scent that's sweet and green. Subtle at first, it gradually becomes overpowering. By the time an interloper starts choking on the perfume, it's too late. They fall asleep, most likely to never awaken.
Anyone who sleeps under the branches of the Sleeping Lord is drawn into an astral domain where the ancient tree rules as a god. Such dreams are completely lucid, but they are inescapable. The Sleeping Lord likes to imply otherwise, though. Often, he will manifest as a “helpful ally,” who “guides” the prisoners through a gauntlet of irrational challenges. His charges will always seem to pull through until the very moment they openly suspect his treachery. Then, he slays their spirits in his wrath, leaving their now-vacant bodies to rot away and feed his ancient roots.
No one knows exactly what the Questing Beast looks like, but most hunters agree that it definitely exists. They can hear it when it taunts them in the woods. Its call is like the ringing of bells and its footprints are always clear and distinct. But it has never been caught. Somehow, when the hunters know they are right on top of it, it vanishes, to find new pursuers to play with.
Chasing the Questing Beast is not without its rewards. It always leads its pursuers to somewhere they didn't know they needed to be. Legend has it that if you catch the Beast it will grant a wish (or perhaps simply reveal an important truth - these legends are pure speculation), but no one has any idea about how such a feat might be accomplished.
The Yokai forest to the south of the Omphalos Coast has been a potent barrier to human expansion, but there are some humans the Yokai fear. These depraved hunters stalk through the woods, running down any physically manifested Yokai they can find. Any unfortunate enough to be caught are skinned alive so that their murderers might steal their visage. It can take several attempts for a form to "stick" (this mainly depends on the precision of the skinning technique and complex astrological factors of which the Skindancers are currently unaware), but once it does, the Skindancer can take that shape for the rest of their life. The most powerful Skindancers can take up to five forms, though it's unclear whether this is a hard cap or just the limits of the cult's current knowledge.
The Skindancing ritual can be used against humans just as well as Yokai (but not against any animal incapable of speech), but so far the cultists have dared not risk the wrath of human law enforcement. As they become more emboldened by success and drunk on the blood of their victims, this may change.
At first glance, Gloomshire appears to be a normal, human village. A bit too bucolic, maybe. The people a little too friendly, too eager to extend hospitality to strangers. But, fundamentally, a nice place. What visitors don't realize, not until it's too late, is that Gloomshire is not a human village. Gloomshire belongs to the spiders.
Using a combination of threats, venom-derived narcotics, and obscene magical rituals, the spiders of Gloomshire keep their captive humans tightly under control, forcing them to play-act the role of cheerful welcoming villagers, the better to lure travelers to the spiders' larders. Sometimes, one of these captives will break free of their control, but that just means the spiders don't have to look so far for their next meal.
Gloomshire has existed as a trap for the better part of a generation, and it has worked well, but the locals are starting to catch on. It is only a matter of time before the spiders abandon the "village" and start again somewhere else. They likely won't let any of their prisoners live to tell the tale.
The intelligent spiders of Ukss are not all dedicated enemies of human-kind. Some appear to have a code, or at least are wary enough of humanity's magic and military might to want to coexist. One such group runs a traveling bazaar. Carried from town to town by a colorful swarm of tame servitor spiders, the Spider Bazaar is the best place in Ukss to buy silk and venom. Many of the spiders are themselves enchanters of great skill, and the clothes, tents, and rugs available for purchase will sometimes bear strange, inhuman magics.
The Spider Bazaar never stays in one place for long. Over the course of only a couple of days, its merchants can exhaust the surrounding countryside of any prey animal larger than a rabbit. In the more profitable towns, they will avoid livestock, but rumor persists that some of the smaller villages of the Omphalos Coast have been consigned to ruin by a Bazaar that overstayed its welcome.
The Wild Hunt
You'll hear them before you see them. In the distance, under the darkness of the new moon, a horn will sound, playing a long, ragged note that sounds like an assemblage of screams.. It's best, then, to head inside, for the Wild Hunt is near. The Hounds of the Wild Hunt will catch the scent of wickedness, and their favored prey are those whose crimes have been successfully concealed. Thus it is that most of the Omphalos Coast thinks of them as a scourge upon the innocent, running down pillars of the community in their chariots of ghostly fire. Sometimes a victim's sins will be posthumously revealed, but the Wild Hunt doesn't care. They need only their victims' terror, as they realize their reckoning can no longer be delayed.
“Giant,” as a term, is relative. The carnivorous squirrels of the southern rainforest are the size of a small dog, but their fluffy tails make them look much larger. Despite their size, they are nearly as agile as their smaller cousins, lurking in the canopy as they search for prey on the forest floor. Their favored tactic is to drop bodily on an unsuspecting target, taking advantage of the sudden shock to begin gnawing on its flesh. Up to a dozen squirrels can feed on the same animal, and a pack can kill a full-grown horse in less than a minute.
Something about the cursed nature of the rainforest grants the squirrels a perverse fascination with intelligent creatures. They will target humans and yokai to the preference of even large and tempting pack animals. Their favorite meal is the occasional talking horse who wanders into the woods from the Equine Steppes.
Like normal squirrels, Giant Carnivorous Squirrels bury food for later consumption, leaving many to mistakenly conclude that their victims were targeted by human killers looking to dispose of their remains.
Tears of the Gods
The forest is a dangerous place. The hunters among the yokai know many occult secrets, and the lesser gods of root and stream may be sacred, but their persons are not sacrosanct. Though they may only be felled by hidden dooms, those dooms are often found, and demonic alfar will feast on the flesh of the gods.
The shredded remains of a god's spirit will often sink into the earth, permeating the roots of a tree and manifesting, many seasons later, as a shimmering fruit. Mortal beings who eat these fruits find themselves transformed by some lingering part of the god's nature, usually, though not always, for the better.
Only the smallest of the gods leave behind these magical tears. Anything more majestic than a tree or a stone or a creek will leave behind a dark and enduring blight instead. However, for all the humbleness of their domains, these slain gods are still gods, and thus something sublime and infinite. To take a part of their mystery into oneself is either an act of supreme faith, or a hubris beyond imagining. Thus, many of the Tears of the Gods remain undisturbed by the forest yokai, awaiting consumption by foolish or ambitious humans.
These dry, rolling grasslands in the south of Atalanta get their name thanks to their total domination by the Talking Horses. Though they do not have the hands to use most forms of technologies, the Talking Horses are expert sorcerers, able to call down great storms or raise imposing fortresses out of the bones of the earth. The massive herd-dances may take weeks or months to organize, but they grant a power even dragons fear.
The need for large-scale organization has led to a peculiar sort of feudal society. The Talking Horses are ruled by their master sorcerers, who even on an individual level command devastating ritual magic, but uniquely for horses, sorcerers are tied to their citadels and cannot stray to far from the seat of their power. Thus the nomadic herds will shift their allegiances throughout the year as they roam from fief to fief. Ultimately the balance of power is maintained when new migrants come to replace the departures, but different citadels have different reputations and an overly demanding sorcerer may find their home bypassed entirely. This gives the herd-leaders a certain degree of soft power, which they use to bargain for more generous grazing rights or sorcerous assistance in their various rivalries and feuds.
The only other major intelligent species on the Steppes are the werewolves. Ruthlessly hunted to near-extinction by the more organized Talking Horses, a few werewolf communities exist in the shadow of the citadels - client villages that the sorcerers can exploit for dexterous labor. A few roving bands of outlaw werewolves still exist on the fringes of society, clinging to an idealized version of the ancient werewolf culture. Half-bandit and half-revolutionary, they fight to break the power of the sorcerers and the herd-leaders and establish a more equitable society. Their code of honor dictates that they may never eat the flesh of any creature that speaks, but the powers that rule the Talking Horses nonetheless slander them as viscous predators - all the better to prevent any idealistic young foals from listening to their talk of equality.
So far, the Equine Steppes have been protected from human imperial attention by geographic barriers like the northern rainforest and the Shielding Mountains, but as the Lowlands begins to colonize the Haven Mountains, conflict has become more frequent. The boldest of the Talking Horses have a game to prove their courage. They'll wander near a human settlement pretending to be a dumb, Lowlands horse. When a human attempts to claim the "windfall" of a "stray" horse, the young bravo bolts wildly as soon as the rider mounts their back. The farther into the wilderness they can carry the hapless human, the more prestige they earn amongst their peers. There is extra acclaim for a horse that is calm and collected enough to make off with saddle and tack, though it usually takes a sorcerer or subservient werewolf to get it off afterwards.
To hear the sorcerers of the Equine Steppes tell it, they destroyed the werewolf civilization to protect themselves from predation. Packs of ravenous wolves with human cunning would chase the talking horses until they fell, exhausted, and then devour them whole. Thus it was only natural that the talking horses would band together and strike back against their attackers.
And to their credit, that is not entirely a lie. The war began in defense, but it continued out of greed. The heart of a werewolf will fetch a handsome price in Ukss' sorcerous black markets. So long as it is still alive, it may be transplanted into the chest of a human or canine and grant its new bearer enhanced strength, superior senses, and the werewolves' legendary healing ability. Though the horse sorcerers have little use for human currency, the magical favors they've accrued have done much to keep the Equine Steppes free from human encroachment.
As the werewolf population declined, the sorcerers have cracked down on the practice, but thousands of werewolf hearts are still in circulation. The wealthy desire them for their life-extending properties, but most are owned by governments, implanted in elite soldiers who fight without fear of death.
The Free City of Tyr
Hundreds of years ago, the city of Tyr was at the heart of the werewolf civilization, and as such it was their last refuge as the Talking Horses prosecuted their war of extermination. When it became clear that resistance was impossible and the werewolves subjected themselves to the Horses' rule, the city was given to the great Horse sorcerer, Kalak, who was charged with seeing that the wolves would never again be a threat.
With his magical might, Kalak ruled the city for centuries, creating an elaborate system of privilege and bondage. Favored werewolves were given plots of land or tutelage in the arts of magic (though the magic-using Arcanaloths were not allowed to own land, nor were landed trustees allowed to study sorcery). Rebellious werewolves were enslaved, or even forced to fight to the death in the gladiatorial arena. Those who kept their heads down were allowed a bare existence as free townsfolk, but were constantly under the watch of the king's Arcanaloths, who needed little provocation to bring the full force of the law against the unlanded.
It was a cruel, unjust system sustained by the unparalleled might of a legendary sorcerer, but five years ago it came to an end. Just as Kalak was attempting a terrible ritual to transcend his physical body, the chief Arcanaloth, along with a champion gladiator and an ambitious Horse sorcerer snuck into his ritual chamber and slew him while his mind was occupied in the Magic World.
Tyr is now a free city. Slavery is officially outlawed. The Arena is now a marketplace. The laws are written by an elected council. However, despite its new democratic status, the city is dangerously unstable. The Arcanaloths still administer the city's justice, when they are not assassinated by vigilante gangs for their actions under the king. The land is still owned by the old class of collaborators and sycophants. The slaveholders may have lost their captives, but retained their status and wealth. As a result, elections are fantastically corrupt and dominated by revanchists and apologists for the old regime. The commoners and new freemen could be a potent political force, but they have no experience with elections and are completely disorganized. Laws are nearly as oppressive as they were under the king, but now riots are frequent.
The main bulk of the Equine Steppes eyes the situation warily. Tyr is near the southern coast, with a clear sea passage to the Lowlands during the summer months. Left alone, its problems could spill over into neighboring werewolf populations, but if the Talking Horses intervene, they may invite the Lowlands to support the city and thereby gain an imperialist foothold on southern Atalanta. Then again, Tyr might surprise all the great powers and come to forge its own destiny.
These low, weathered mountains have been ground down by centuries of erosion. But though the terrain is gentle, the land is as wild as any place on Ukss. The original goblin homeland, the Haven Mountains have never been truly settled by humans.
Small, frontier towns dot the landscape, but they must take care not to grow too large, lest they draw the attention of a hungry dragon. They persist because there is good money to be made prospecting, trading with deep goblins and wild yokai, and exploring abandoned ruins from all the prior colonies that had the hubris to think they could tame this land.
There are no humans native to this region. Lowlanders are the most common, driven by their home governments' ambitions and a strong cultural need for profit, but nearly anybody can come here to make their fortune. The most unusual feature of the Haven Mountains' population is the degree to which humans and nonhumans mingle. Goblins make up a bare majority of the population, and in many places Yokai outnumber the human population, even in colonies sponsored by a human nation.
One of the tallest peaks in the Haven Mountains, the Sleeper stretches almost all the way to the tree line. Near the top, a long, sinuous rock formation spirals around the summit, forming a caldera-like divot. From this shallow valley, long streams of dense fog pour down the the sides of the mountain, waterfalls of mist that puddle around the base on a cool day and gradually fade to invisibility when the sun is high. The forest these mists pass through is eerie and sacred. The more spiritual Yokai gather there, and even the most secular of Lowland capitalists hesitates to cut branches or gather stones.
The Sleeper is not an ordinary mountain. It is a great dragon, one of the few that has ever been powerful and cunning enough to reach the end of a dragon's natural life span. As it felt the day of its passing draw near, it called upon the deepest of draconic magics to merge itself with the land. The forest and the mountain and the mist all have a rudimentary consciousness, not quite as intelligent or as perceptive as the dragon in its prime, but one that nonetheless has access to potent and poorly understood abilities that serve to keep the area free from human interference.
The Tree of Sages
It is known among the scholars, engineers, and magicians of Ukss that the wisest among them need never die. If they are willing to face the perils of a long and dangerous pilgrimage, they may take themselves to an isolated valley in the Haven mountains to find there The Tree of Sages. If the Tree finds them worthy, it will take the soul from their body and absorb it into its branches, where the now-immortal sage may commune with their fellows until the end of time.
Seekers of knowledge will sometimes seek out the Tree of Sages to answer their questions and provide guidance to their research or inventions. When queried, the Tree will grow faces, like wooden masks, through which its sage-spirits may speak. Since the tree contains hundreds of sages, gathered over centuries, any of whom could speak to any question, the "answers" given are usually more like symposiums (or, less charitably, "massive arguments"). Nonetheless, a discerning student could learn much, provided they don't lose patience first.
To hear River Rat Smith tell it, there is no finer guide to the turbulent waters of the eastern Haven Mountains. Though small of stature, like all awakened rats, he has no equal as a steersman, no rival as an explorer, and pound-for-pound he's a pretty decent warrior too.
Ask literally anyone else . . . and you'll hear much the same story, though told grudgingly and with snarky asides about his questionable grooming, his transparent attempts to cheat at cards, and the way even the smallest amount of wine inspires him to sing loudly and off-key.
Still, for all that you wouldn't want him as a roommate, he's completely unflappable in the face of ghosts, wisps, and (if the money's right) dragons. He boasts that no expedition of his has ever returned without survivors, and he's almost good enough to make it as comforting as he tries to make it sound.
The Fat Candle
The Haven Mountains attract treasure hunters, prospectors, colonists, and mercenaries from all around the world, and most towns have at least one shady establishment to cater to these “adventurers.” The most storied of these is the Fat Candle, a cramped and rough-hewn bar near the fringes of goblin territory. Lit only by a single tree-trunk-sized candle in the center of its common room, it has many long shadows where business can be conducted out of sight. It is here that the slaying of dragons is plotted and where deals are struck to plunder long-forgotten goblin hordes. It's wise to keep your pistol loaded and your sword loose in its sheath, but for those with ambition and nerve, there's no better place to find the sort of work that can make you rich after a single job.
The bartender at the Fat Candle is a retired adventurer who goes by the name of “Rapier.” He hears a lot of stories, and always has a better one in response. Those who've known him for any length of time quickly realize that he'd need to be two-hundred years old and in about four places at once for all his stories to be true, but he spins an entertaining yarn, and as far as he knows, all the original protagonists are dead (though it's only a matter of time before he casts himself as the hero in some customer's personal exploits).
With so much at stake, tempers at the Fat Candle can run high. In those situations, the bouncer and co-owner steps in to keep the peace. Nicknamed “Legbreaker,” this powerfully-built, 7-foot-tall women is an expert in unarmed combat and has more than lived up to her moniker.
Cryptex, the Dragon
Though most of the Haven Mountains' dragons pose a terrible danger to travelers, there is one who is more benevolent. In his natural form, Cryptex has thick, bronze scales capable of deflecting concentrated artillery fire, but he is rarely seen in his natural form. Instead, he uses his sorcery to take the shape of small and harmless forest creatures, to better spy on human and goblin activity. While he is in his animal forms, the only thing that gives him away is an unnatural density that sometimes causes tree branches to break under his weight or leaves deep imprints in soft earth.
Those who know of Cryptex suspect him of plotting grand schemes with the information he gathers, but the truth is largely benign – he's simply old and bored and takes spies on humans to satisfy his curiosity. That said, the dragon is a great lover of nature, and those who are cruel to his animal forms will inevitably find themselves surprised by the sudden appearance of a raging dragon where once there was a squirrel or sparrow.
The Boiling Sea
To get to the Boiling Sea, you must travel to the far south, deep into the interior of Atalanta's polar ice shelf. If you approach from the east, upwind, you'll have only a day's warning, as the permafrost gives way and scalding hot geysers spring from the earth. Downwind, to the west, the warm air thaws a thousand square miles, making it an improbable temperate region in the middle of the arctic.
The Warmlands are home to a small, but thriving civilization. They almost never see outsiders and are curious and friendly, but they can be ruthlessly pragmatic when the winds change and resources become scarce.
The Boiling Sea itself is exactly what it sounds like. A small sea, around 100 miles across, that boils like a kettle running over. It is wreathed in a huge pillar of steam that acts as a beacon from horizon to horizon. The Warmlanders have learned to harness the steam to power simple industry (only their small numbers prevent the adoption of more sophisticated techniques), but it is dangerous work. No one has ever ventured into the center of the sea and its cause is currently unknown.
The people of the Warmlands have tawny skin with golden undertones. They are paler the farther they are from the Boiling Sea, but this does not appear to be genetic. Someone who moves from one area to the other will often find themselves gaining or losing a tan. Hair is brown or auburn, but occasionally shockingly blonde. Eyes are brown with pronounced epicanthic folds. Ruddy cheeks and red noses are common, especially among the region's heavier drinkers (their mastery of steam technology means that flavorless distilled liquors are common and often served in delicious mixed drinks that take visitors completely by surprise).
Nearly all important business in the Warmlands is done inside of
large, public steam baths. It's believed by the Warmlanders that
nakedness encourages honesty, and even to the extent that the cynical
laugh at this belief, it's still a relaxing escape from the harsh
polar cold. The baths nearest the coast of the Boiling Sea are havens
for criminals – a body dumped in the outtake pipes will likely not
be found until the Sea melts it into an unrecognizable soup.
These expansive wetlands dominate the east coast of Atalanta. For hundreds of miles at a stretch, the branches of the mangrove trees are so tightly intertwined that the swamp floor exists in a state of permanent darkness. Fireflies in a half-dozen colors swarm thick in these areas, and it is a rare piece of deadwood that doesn't quickly become covered in glowing, bio-luminescent fungus. Strange vampire families call the forest home, growing powerful in the absence of their enforced slumber. Some say these vampires are the force behind the will-o-wisps that lure travelers away from safe paths, never to be seen again. Others believe that there are other powers at work there, and old gods that even vampires fear.
The northernmost quarter of the Twilight Forest is dominated by the Frog Nation. Canny to the ways of the swamp, and grown fat on its bounty of fireflies, the Frog People fear neither vampire nor god nor wisp. The Misty River marks the southern border of their traditional range, not out of any power the local Yokai have to stop them, but because they find the chillier, foggier climate uncomfortable.
Though the Yokai are the most prominent danger of the Twilight
Forest, travelers should also be on the lookout for more mundane
hazards. Sinkholes are common, and if you step into one, the mud will
close over your head almost instantly. The native alligators are
small, but unusually agile and aggressive. And from time to time,
highly pressurized blasts of water will erupt from the ground. They
are caused by the obstruction of underground rivers, and so they are
not scalding like geothermic geysers, but that is little comfort to
those pummeled to death by a spray of debris.
There are very few humans native to the Twilight Forest. It is more of a Yokai place, but there are a few isolated villages in the colder southern regions, maintained by the vampires as sources of blood and (rarely) new recruits. These people are pessimistic, with dark humors, but are also nonetheless tenacious survivors. They have chalky white skin and blue eyes with hair that ranges from blonde to mousy brown. They worship the solar deity TBD, but in a terrifying apocalyptic aspect. In their prophecies, they will be liberated from their vampiric oppressors when their god consumes the Twilight Forest (and perhaps the entire world) in a cleansing inferno that delivers pure souls to paradise and consigns the monsters to oblivion.
The Frog Nation
The hundred or so frog-person villages of the Twilight Forest are not a nation-state in the modern sense, but they do have a shared national identity. They speak the same language. They share many of the same customs and traditions. Until recently, they shared a common religion and values.
But the Frog Nation has become riven by civil war. Radical new ideas have shaken the normally staid frog people. A growing faction, calling themselves the Bullywugs, is preaching a violent doctrine of racial supremacy and hatred for the outside world.
The Bullywugs got
their start ten years ago (an eyeblink to the long-lived Frog
People), when the Prophet TBD discovered the God Egg. He cannot
explain what drew him to the wisp-forsaken shadowmurk, but in it, he
found a female Frog-person, beautiful beyond compare, but with
haunted eyes. Her belly was sliced open and a hundred ruined eggs lay
crushed underfoot. With an unnatural strength, she reached into
herself and pulled out her last viable egg and already a shadow moved
“This is my son. He dreams grippli dreams,” she said, with the last of her strength. The Prophet says her wounds were not fatal, but that the child's father called her to be by his side.
Since then, the egg has grown slowly, but has continued to show all the signs of an incipient birth. Those who tend the God Egg have reported strange dreams, which the Prophet presumptuously calls grippli dreams. In them, a tadpole speaks with the voice of a man,
“I am the age that is to come. I will be born under your guidance and you will name me 'Thunderhead.' You will fear me and seek to break me and stripe me with many wounds, but I will endure and I will thank you for making me strong. I will thank you by sweeping you out into the world, and you will be as the wind that precedes the storm. The lightning has already struck and now the world waits to hear the thunder.”
The Bullywugs don't
entirely agree on the meaning of these dreams, but they all feel like
a fire has been lit under them. They've begun to prepare for the
hatching of the egg – stockpiling weapons, engaging in mock combats
and extended war games, and gathering reconnaissance on the
communities that border their lands. The prospect of war thrills
them, and they are eager to see exactly how far the Thunderhead will
Opposing them are the Grippli, traditionalist Frog People who believe they should live in harmony with nature and ignore the outside world.
“Grippli” is a tricky concept in Frog Person culture. The most literal translation is “proverbial,” but that doesn't really convey the depth or the importance of the idea. “Grippli” is “truth,” but a particular type of truth – it's truth revealed by observation of the natural world and preserved in traditional wisdom. To be genuinely grippli, an idea must have both elements – a grounding in empirical observation and acceptance by the community at large.
The archetypal grippli tale is the animal omen. The Frog People don't worship the gods, per se. They instead believe them to be another, higher form of life. It is wise to learn from the gods, but sometimes a god will eat you, just as you might eat a firefly and it is right and just that they do so, because lower life exists to feed higher life. So the Frog People attempt to observe the gods from a distance, and take what lessons they can, and in that spirit, it is said (i.e. “it is grippli”) that sometimes the gods will take the form of animals (and this is what the Bullywugs believe about the God Egg). When you are alone in the swamp and you see an animal behave in an uncharacteristic fashion, it is probably a god in disguise, and a story worthy of retelling around the village fire. If, in the weeks and months of debate that follow the retelling, a consensus is reached on an allegorical interpretation, and if the “interpreted” story is itself retold, so that the young will have heard it entirely second- or third-hand, then it becomes a grippli story, part of the collective knowledge of the Frog People.
No faction can truly
own the concept of grippli, and there is no definite authority able
to settle what is and is not grippli - that's not how it works.
However, the group that calls itself “the Grippli,” does so as a
rebuke to the bullywugs, implying that their ideas are dangerous and
radical innovations, which will not withstand the test of time.
The conflict is largely generational. Frog People are biologically immortal. If they can escape cancer, they may live for hundreds of years. The Grippli is a philosophy of the old - deeply spiritual, conservative, and cautious. The Bullywugs are a movement of the young. They believe their longevity and regeneration make them superior to other forms of life and are eager to go out into the world and prove it.
It is a chaotic time in the Frog Nation. The ideological split is tearing apart not just villages, but families. There have been intermittent flare ups of violence, but no deaths so far. Over time, the factions will migrate so that Gripplis live in Grippli towns and Bullywugs among Bullywugs, but for now, it is a dangerously unpredictable environment for outside visitors.
Grippli knowledge is not purely theoretical. The Frog People may take all sorts of practical lessons from their stories. At various points in any Frog Person's life, they embark on a Spirit Chase. Starting with a gippli story, they search the deep swamp for a similar situation. Then they watch. And watch. They can go weeks or months sitting in one place, or following one particular swamp creature. And as they come to know their target, they find their spirits coming into harmony. The Spirit Chaser can start to access some of their target's abilities. They may fly like a bird or glow like a wisp or bite with the force of an alligator. Then, they return to their normal activities, now with a useful new power to aid them in a tough spot.
Most young hunters will treat Spirit Chasing as a sort of game, keeping an ability for a few seasons before they become jaded to the grippli knowledge, but as they age, they will begin to take it more seriously as a religious discipline and start Chasing Spirits who don't even have particularly useful abilities, all in hopes of becoming one with the Twilight Forest itself. Given the long lives of the Frog People, these later lessons may persist for centuries to come.
The continent of Hyborea straddles the equator. The Bay of Blood is defined by a spur of land that comes within sighting distance of the northernmost point of the Lowlands peninsula. Its mouth is about 200 miles wide and it's 500 miles across at its widest point. The lands ringing the Bay are hot, but fertile grasslands. They are densely populated with more than 100 fractious city-states.
To the north of the Bay of Blood, the grasslands dry out and turn into the Reliquary Desert. Though now inhospitable to human life, there are grand, cyclopean ruins half-buried in its sands. The desert continues to the north up to the slopes of the Dragontail Mountains. In the east, it fades back into a thin ring of grasslands the border a dense tropical rain forest.
The Bay of
The nation-state never took root in Hyborea thanks to its abundance of powerful magic users. The lands are not intrinsically more magical than Atalanta or Mu, but the old civilization of the Reliquary Desert left behind many sophisticated rituals and magic wands, and that inheritance has deformed the social history of the continent. Every few years, an ambitious treasure-hunter or magician stumbles upon some piece of relic magic that allows them to conquer a city-state and turn it to their will.
The Bay of Blood gets its name from the innumerable wars prompted by the ambitions of these would-be sorcerer-kings. Any individual realm may be stable for decades or centuries, but none can grow too large without provoking rebels, adventurers, and jealous rivals.
This hothouse atmosphere has led to many eccentricities among the Bay's cultures. The only states that survive are the ones who have some edge, usually some unique magic or a powerful sorcerer as a patron.
As a result of the intense competition between city-states, mercenary work is openly legalized almost everywhere in the Bay of Blood (and quietly tolerated even in the places it's not). To protect their identities against old enemies and new employers, a tradition has emerged for these mercenaries to wear elaborate and colorful masks. For large bands, like The Serpent Company, their mask is standardized as part of their uniform, but the Bay has no shortage of solitary heroes who sport their own unique masks. The most celebrated identities sometimes get passed down from generation to generation. It is said that a mask worn by three great heroes will come alive and allow its wearer to become more legend than man.
A living mask is likely to bear special enchantments, granting
superhuman strength, unnatural senses, or the power of flight. The
most common ability changes the wearer's entire outfit when the mask
is donned, so that the hero who bears it can always be recognized.
Such masks are often magically easy to hide and have a strange way of
always showing up when their owners need them most.
There is no single dominant racial type in the Bay of Blood. It has been a crossroads for centuries and mixed ancestry is common. Native Hyboreans have skin that ranges from coppery brown to deep black and black hair that ranges from curly to coiled, but after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, nearly the entire human population of the continent migrated to the Bay, so there's no simple geographic distribution of ancestral peoples.
Except in the few places where it is banned by the local sorcerer-kings, the predominant religion of the Bay of Blood is the Avatar Cult. The Cult believes that there are primordial godforms, called Avatars, in the near reaches of the Magic World that select human beings to guide and watch over.
It is believed that the goal of the Avatars is to refine the wisdom of their human charges, and that when an avatar-blessed dies the best parts of their character are absorbed into the Avatar itself, to help guide future generations. The truly enlightened may find a kind of immortality through their unity with the Avatar (if everything about you is the best it can be, then everything about you will be preserved), but it's also believed that those who spurn the Avatars are lost entirely to oblivion.
The more liberal branches teach that most humans have an Avatar, even if they've not yet mastered the spiritual practices to allow them to make contact. The more aristocratic Cults insist that only a special few (whether a priestly caste or a select group of heroes) can speak with their Avatars. Regardless, both believe that the Avatars will subtly influence their charges' luck to goad them into greater enlightenment. They can also send dreams and visions, usually in the form of ethical or spiritual tests. It is said that the most powerful Avatars (usually, but not always, belonging to magicians, adepts, or prodigies) can even manifest briefly in this world to physically intervene on their charges' behalf.
The Avatar Cult is a non-exclusive religion. Adherents can and do worship a variety of other gods, often at the Avatars' guidance. These subsidiary forms of worship are highly local, and can cause a certain degree of tension, though the shared culture of the Cult ensures that even deadly rivals usually have a common theological vocabulary.
The Avatar Guides
In the Bay of Blood, even deadly theological rivals will put aside their difference at the rumor that the Avatar Guides are operating nearby. Few ideas can be considered heresy in the easy-going and adaptable Avatar faith, but the Guides managed to find one. They believe that they can manipulate Avatars by carefully orchestrating the deaths of certain fated individuals.
If the Guides were mere murderers, that would be bad enough, but they claim to have insight gleaned from their own Avatars - that over time the Avatars they "liberate" will change their nature, gaining desired traits from their mortal hosts. They also believe that by arranging the premature death of an Avatar's charge, they may prevent the Avatar from “accumulating impurities.” In time, they expect a messiah to be born with a "perfected" Avatar, granting the chosen one an unprecedented power and wisdom.
Whether that is to be the end of the world or the beginning of a new one remains to be seen.
The Avatar Guides possess a unique and blasphemous sorcery that allows them to invert the Avatars' normal guidance, causing them to lead their charges into danger and manipulate probability to make their lives more difficult. Though it is sometimes used as a weapon against foes who are protected from more conventional forms of attack, the main use of this magic is in the Guides' brutal training rites. Abandoned in an unfamiliar city with a hostile Avatar, the initiate must overcome the odds and learn to ignore their Avatar's urgings. Only when they have proven willing and able to trust their own judgment above the Avatar's are they allowed to join in the Guides' great apocalyptic work.
The Serpent Company
Most infamous among the mercenary companies operating out of the Bay of Blood, The Serpent Company markets itself as discreet, professional, and willing to take any contract, no matter how small.
Its detractors call it a gang of assassins-for-hire, and they're mostly correct, but people who go up against them expecting a group of petty criminals are in for a rude surprise. The Serpent Company's discipline and loyalty are second to none. Though they are pragmatic about losses while on assignment, they will go to any lengths to avenge a comrade killed or captured outside the lines of duty.
Given their usefulness and disproportionate vindictiveness, the Serpent Company has attained a sort of defacto legitimacy among the coastal states and the more ruthless lowland empires. No one will admit to tolerating them, but it's an open secret that they are often hired at the highest levels of government.
One of the smaller Hyborean mercenary companies, the Exchequers have perfectly serviceable military training and discipline, but their real specialty is economics. They are the outfit a client hires when they want to make sure their military operations turn a profit.
The Exchequers employ accountants, surveyors, and actuaries
embedded in small commando squads to be deployed at key locations to
seize documents, assess property values, and weigh the long-term
benefits of capturing prisoners. Usually, an employer hires one or
two squads at a time, for special operations, but the entire company
has occasionally worked on massive nation-building projects.
The founder of the Exchequers, TBD, believes that it is naive to ever dream that the Bay of Blood might know peace. A much more realistic ambition is to encourage limited warfare that preserves as many natural resources, works of infrastructure, and, incidentally, lives as possible. They built their company on the hope that armed with the proper numbers, future sovereigns would make more temperate decisions.
The Eighty Empresses
The Eighty Empresses is not, strictly speaking, an all-female mercenary company, but they are unapologetically feminine. Their first priority is, of course, martial skill, and there is nowhere on Ukss better to learn the use of their signature weapon, the Quicksilver Blade (a hollow sword containing free-moving mercury in its core, widely considered unwieldable by anyone who lacks the proper adept training). However, in addition to the arts of war, they study fashion, deportment, etiquette, and politics. They specialize in providing bodyguards to elite politicians and capitalists and in special operations that can blend in unobtrusively in high society.
Also, several of their alumni have gone on to become warlord-generals in the Bay of Blood's innumerable wars, an ambition the organization seems to tacitly endorse.
Unlike many other mercenary companies, the Eighty Empresses see themselves as having a higher calling than just selling their blades. They view themselves as a sisterhood of heroes, adherents to a life-encompassing philosophy of perfection in all matters. Their martial arts are impeccable. Their appearance is always well put together (they don't discriminate based on looks, but they demand maximum effort be put into presenting what you've got). Their conversation is breezy, elegant, and insightful. Their historical knowledge and powers of observation are second to none.
Or, at least, that's the ideal. Not everyone is cut out for perfection, and the Eighty Empresses is also known for having more than its share of washouts, but it would be wrong to underestimate the outcasts. To even become an aspirant in their order requires a whole battery of intense mental and physical tests (famously, they are required to identify a single missing ribbon from an entire closet full of colorful clothing, after only a few minutes of observation), and those who have training from the Eighty Empresses can pretty much name their price in the world of high-end personal protection, even if they technically didn't make the cut.
In addition to their highly unpredictable Quicksilver Blade style, the sorcerously-inclined among the Eighty Empresses may wield The Rain of Black Petals in battle. This elegant spell is reserved entirely as a secret of the order and is especially useful in delicate situations where force is necessary, but the risk of collateral damage it too high. The caster summons a cloud of tulip petals out of the empty air, which proceed to swirl around the immediate area. In addition to being a gorgeous spectacle, anyone struck by the petals will sink into a harmless slumber, to be apprehended or dispatched at the Empress' leisure.
The city-state of Yennin is a rising power in the Bay of Blood, buoyed by its willingness to experiment in areas of magic others treat with superstitious dread. The ritualists of Yennin have devised magic that interferes with the natural process of procreation, potentially bringing to life things that were never meant to be.
The most famous application of this magic is the Clone ritual, which is already changing the way the wealthy cope with death. In the long-run, though, their chimerical breeding program may wind up having even more profound effects.
The champions of Yennin are made from the seed of ten fathers, which is somehow blended together and implanted in a single mother. These champions have super-human strength, durability, and insight. They manifest strange Prodigies, even if their fathers were normal men. If the fathers were Prodigies themselves, these abilities may magnify as much as ten-fold.
So far, Yennin is a commercial power, selling the fruits of its research for unheard of profits, but it has imperial ambitions, and the day may come when the people of Ukss curse its champions as the vanguard of a conquering army.
Based out of the city-state of Yennin, where they have easy access to the black market sorcery that keeps them "alive," the Cognizants are Adepts who have developed their mental powers by stripping away all the distractions of the flesh until only their magically-sustained brains remain, floating in an enchanted vessel.
Despite the precariousness of their existence, the tradeoff is largely a fruitful one. In addition to gaining telepathic and telekinetic abilities, the Cognizants can think more clearly, calculate more accurately, and remember more completely than normal humans. They use this power to operate the most powerful underworld network in the Bay of Blood.
Though there is very little that would be considered illegal in a region where mercenaries, assassins, and relic sorcery are openly tolerated, there are many codes governing the movement of magic, weapons, and people. No state wants their rivals to gain an unanswerable advantage, and thus customs enforcement is a deadly serious business. The Cognizants make evading customs checks into their business, and they've gotten very good at it.
A newer ritual, originally devised in the city-state of Yennin, is gradually spreading among the elite of every land who can afford its exorbitant price. Using only a thimble-full of blood, or a similar amount of flesh, from a recently-dead body, the Clone ritual can create a perfect duplicate of the donor, complete with all of their knowledge, memories and skills. The clone is the same age as the donor was when they died, but cured of all wounds, magical afflictions and infections (certain diseases, like cancer, carry over, but scholars aren't sure why.)
A secret, known only to the ritual's inventors and a few trusted co-conspirators, is that the Clone ritual works even on the living. The age and memories of the clones are the same as the donor when the sample was taken, and while the cabal has not yet figured out a use for this information, it is working on methods of long-term flesh preservation and spells to transfer the soul from one body to another. In the future, the wealthy of Ukss may need never to die.
In Yennin, the indigent do not need to worry about the prospect of affording medical care. By law, any may seek aid at the TBD Research Hospital, without any need for payment. The one stipulation is that if you die under their care, they may claim your body so that it may be studied.
The poor make reluctant use of these doctors' services, but they don't trust them at all. Those who work for the Research Hospital are called “Reapers,” and it is widely believed that they let patients die on purpose, so that they may harvest their organs. Technically, this isn't true . . . the Research Hospital's policy, both officially and unofficially, is to try their best to save everyone, but their doctors are scientists and not physicians, so the standard of care is low. That this just happens to provide a steady supply of materials for their research projects. . . is what keeps the program economically viable.
Unlight, the Auditor
The strangest and most terrible of Yennin's champions, Unlight has a volatile, fluid form. It's a daily struggle for them to not simply dissolve into a puddle of organic goo, but their mind is powerful enough to master their body. As a result, they can take any form imaginable – though they prefer inanimate objects for the feeling of stability.
Unlight uses their powers on behalf of Yennin's government, infiltrating the city's biological laboratories to verify their compliance with the city's (admittedly fairly lax) health and safety laws.
The House of Fingers
You're not supposed to know where the House of Fingers is. That's part of its agreement with the city. It is allowed to exist, but only if the authorities can pretend that it doesn't. It is useful to the city that assassins be able to do business (and, indeed, the House of Fingers is a key linchpin of Yennin's foreign policy), but to openly acknowledge it would undermine its diplomacy and political legitimacy. If you know of the House's existence, you are either trusted and dangerous or you are in mortal peril.
The House of Fingers is a major hub for the assassination trade in the Bay of Blood. Killers from across the continent come to set up contracts and purchase necessary supplies. To gain admittance to the House, you must give it a mummified pinkie finger (it doesn't matter from who). These fingers are displayed on the wall as a form of sinister decor, but they may also potentially be revivified with the Clone ritual, giving the House's proprietors a source of leverage and labor (the less valuable the finger's former owner, the more thoroughly their clone may be exploited, so the proprietors regard it as a reasonable trade-off).
The House of Fingers
is run by the Heavenly Immortal Corps, an ancient order of assassins
that make extensive use of alchemy to enhance their bodies and minds.
They are not necessarily the strongest mercenaries in the Bay of
Blood, but they have the technical expertise to use the Clone ritual,
and it has made them completely fearless. Their activities have been
increasing in boldness and ambition, and it is only a matter of time
before they endanger the neutrality that makes the House of Fingers
such an appealing neutral ground.
The Kingdom of Bliss
The Kingdom of Bliss is probably not a true kingdom. If it has a
monarch, they have never been seen in public. There is no royal
palace or crown jewels. In fact, by the standards of most nations, it
is barely ruled at all. The sorcerers who create and interpret the
soul-paintings are probably the closest thing they have to a
government, but that is an open fellowship, and they are constantly
admitting new members to help relieve the burden of their work.
The soul-painting ritual is at the heart of The Kingdom of Bliss. A specially-trained sorcerer goes into a trance and begins to draw, sketch, or paint a subject (the magic works regardless of artistic skill, but the sorcerers pride themselves on technique). When they are finished, they are left with a depiction of the subject's true character, one that strips away all prejudice and self-delusion to reveal the soul's true calling - whatever vocation, lifestyle, and social associations would make the subject happiest. Then, once the report is ready, the Kingdom of Bliss works its hardest to try and make it happen.
Travelers tell of an upside-down land, where
stable-muckers go home to expansive palaces and scientists and
engineers live in humble cottages. Where there is song and laughter
everywhere, but long lines for grain and water. Where there are few
soldiers, but those that exist fight with unseemly passion.
It is unclear exactly how much magic is going into propping up the Kingdom of Bliss, but it is likely that their all-consuming obsession with making every citizen as happy as possible is the only thing keeping them from being a major regional power.
The Kingdom of Bliss is unusual among the nations of Ukss in that
it reveres Lilith as an ascended goddess. Despite their mutual
reverence for this ancient adept, the Kingdom of Bliss has a strained
relationship with the Demon Courts. The demons regard her as a
historical personage, and feel like elevating her in this manner is
foolish and disrespectful. It also doesn't help that the Kingdom's
sorcerers will perform exorcisms in her name . . . and that those
exorcisms are remarkably effective.
This aggressively expansionist city state has few friends, but many admirers, mostly among romantics, authoritarians, and militarists in societies that otherwise know better. It is a state that has devoted itself utterly to the art of war, and every aspect of its culture, religion, and civic organization is bent towards that end.
Laconia is the most self-regarding state in the Bay of Blood region. It practically worships its own idealized conception of its mission. According to the Laconian constitution, their society is broken up into two castes - serfs, who farm the land and provide auxilliary and irregular troops for the Laconian army and citizens, who are devoted from birth to death to becoming the perfect soldiers (there is also a third unofficial and unnamed caste of merchants and artisans, who are neither tied to the land nor allowed to own it - the Laconian constitution is not very rigorous)
In theory, this means that Laconian citizens live a life of discipline and austerity, devoting their days to fitness regimens and military drills and their nights to the study of tactics and strategy. And superficially, this does appear to be how the Laconians live, but the entire society is shot through with subtle corruption. Though they lack taverns, bawdy houses, and gilded palaces, they find other ways to indulge their pleasure-seeking impulses. Sadism is shockingly common, whether directed at serfs or at lower-ranking citizens. Even the best Laconians are hidebound and haughty and seem to delight in reminding their "inferiors" about the purity of the Laconian lifestyle.
Laconia is currently a state in decline. Its warriors are unusually fierce and skilled, but not to such a great degree that it's worth sacrificing science, philosophy, and the arts. And more and more in recent times, they've been facing new weapons and tactics that their overwhelming conservatism is ill-suited to adapt to. The more cosmopolitan wags in neighboring states like to joke that they've become a living museum to an outdated way of life.
It would be foolish to discount Laconia as a threat, though. They are a people who can feel their culture and values slipping away from them and that makes them dangerous. They may not be a match for a modern Lowlands military, but they can still do a lot of damage to states that are lagging behind. Whoever they decide will be their last blaze of glory will find themselves in mortal danger.
The Feast of
A custom originating in Laconia, it has since spread to several major trade cities who care not for its sacred origns and simply use it as an excuse for gambling, excessive drinking, and the spectacle of grievous bodily harm. The real Feast of Blades is only held on festival days sacred to Melin Daguz, but knockoffs gravitate to whatever the local drinking holiday happens to be.
Before the Feast of Blades begins, aspirants drink a special potion that gives them the ability to chew and digest metal. Then, they are presented with a table laden with swords, knives, and daggers. Whoever eats the most before the potion wears off wins.
The potion lasts about a quarter-hour, but differences in metabolism, body weight, and other factors can vary that time by up to five minutes. The first sign that it's wearing off is usually bloody lips, cheeks, and gums. The truly determined (or demented . . . or drunk) can push past that to scarf down a few extra inches of steel, and this usually throws the crowd into a raucous frenzy, but it is inevitable that someone is going to take it too far and wind up in the hospital or, rarely, the morgue.
Pandaemonium is a blister on the waters of the Bay of Blood. A small volcanic island near the center of the Bay, its winding caverns, filled with a turbid, sulfurous smog, contain a rift into the Demon Courts. One of the widest sacred gates on the surface of Ukss, it is notionally capable of allowing even the Great Dukes to enter the world as Alfar.
But that is not how it's used. Instead, Pandaemonium Island is reserved as a refuge and reward for the demonic masses. Those who please their masters in service, or who can secure the proper bribes, may pass through the rift to enjoy the pleasures of the physical world.
The revels and debauches of Pandaemonium are infamous throughout the world. Strange lights explode over the island at all hours of the night and the haunting screech of demonic music can be heard for miles out to sea.
Pandaemonium represents an irresistible allure to the more decadent sort of partier. When a person has become numb to all safer and saner pleasures, this one last adventure awaits. The demons encourage human visitors, for they themselves are fascinated that bodies so fragile are so willing to partake of their festivals. Despite the moralizing rumors, most visitors actually survive.
The island has a permanent human population of sunken-eyed and sleep-deprived servants. They load and unload ships coming into the docks, keep the feast halls in good repair, perform music (a troubadour can make a fortune in infernal gold playing Pandaemonium . . . if they can escape to spend it), and provide intimate services. The one thing they never do is enforce the law, not against the demons (obviously) and not against their human guests. Whether the natives are hostages or cultists, not even they can say.
Demand to enter Pandaemonium is so high in the Demon Courts that time here is carefully rationed. The day is divided into twelve overlapping segments. Any particular demon may stay eight hours, with one hour set aside on each end of the period for arranging transit (even with these rations, the lines are incredibly long). The most desirable periods are reserved for demons of higher rank and those they wish to reward. The concept of the time segments has filtered down to the human workers, and they themselves measure status by which shift a person works, though, of course, the hours the humans find most appealing are not the same as those of their masters.
Located in an arid valley on the north coast of the Bay of Blood, the city state of Dazul is built atop the Black Spring, a turbid fountain of shadowy anti-water that spills from the mouth of an obsidian statue. Trapped in the statue is a Duke of the Infernal realm. The Priest-Kings of Dazul consult with the demon on matters of state, using powerful ritual magic to compel its honesty.
The demon rules Dazul, but only indirectly, by playing the factions off each other. United, the Priest-Kings are too cunning and too powerful to safely manipulate, and thus the demon gains power by advancing the ambitions of various favorites and carefully playing the role of the dutiful servant.
By law, the demon may only be contacted in front of the full assembly of 91 Priest-Kings. However, this law is frequently violated. Those naive enough to follow it don't last long in city's cutthroat politics.
The anti-waters of the Black Spring both attract and annihilate normal water, and in the untold centuries before the Spring was capped and bound, the region around it became unnaturally arid. Even today, when the wind blows over the palace, it becomes a desiccating force known to locals as the Thirsty Wind. When the Thirst Wind blows, the people of Dazul clear the streets, with the indigent taking shelter in the city's Avatar Shrines or in canvas-covered pits called “tortoises.”
The city's water comes from industrial-scale desalination. Antiwater is pumped through pipes to large pylons off the coast. Pure water is attracted to the pipes and is harvested over land as it follows the antiwater back to the palace. Over the years, this has lead to the waters just off the coast of Dazul becoming toxic with concentrated salt. Sea life that drifts into the dead region sickens and dies, giving rise to the Death Wind from the ocean (widely regarded as the most offensive odor in the Bay of Blood).
The Dazul fish market harvests the dead waters, and while little of the catch is fit for human consumption (not that this stops the poor of Dazul from trying), they are able to render fish oil in industrially useful quantities. Nearly all of the city's light comes from fish oil lamps, with enough left over to export all over the Bay.
The fish market is also home to some of Ukss' most ruthless criminal gangs. The overwhelming stench makes it trivial to hide most varieties of contraband, and the overall unpleasant atmosphere keeps the authorities from taking too close an interest in the area.
The Priest-Kings of Dazul rule their city with an iron fist. None dare oppose them, lest they be forced to drink the anti-waters of the Dark Spring. One sip will afflict a victim with a desperate thirst, as if they'd gone days without water. A belly-full of the anti-waters will destroy a person utterly. They will dry up within minutes and go screaming into death. . . if they're lucky.
Those with the talent for magic - magicians mostly, but also the stronger sort of prodigies - may use their connection to the Magic World to survive. They become the Unquenched, undying ghouls who seek any moisture they can find, whether it be water or blood or crude oil, and drink it down with a disturbing ferocity.
It is possible for a magician of strong will and pure intent to stay ahead of the thirst for some time. They will still drink every liquid they can find, but they retain enough awareness to warn away strangers and prioritize pure waters over filth. However, in the end, everyone succumbs. The echoes of their screams, rising up from the caverns of the undercity, keep the rest of Dazul's citizens on the straight and narrow.
In the northern reaches of the Bay of Blood, near the Reliquary Desert, the Sorcerer-King Zarub brooded in his growing paranoia. He held a wand that could fracture souls and break wills, but though his might was unquestionable, his cruelty had earned him many enemies among both his neighbors and his own people. He needed champions and protectors, brilliant minds that could lead his armies of golems into battle, but were so loyal they would never betray him.
It was a problem that plagued him for many years until he realized there was only one person he trusted with preserving his life and his rule . . . himself.
And so he turned to dark and terrible sorceries, summoning ancient demons to advise him and sacrificing a hundred lives to gather his power. In the end, he split his own soul into three parts. The bulk of his mind remained in his own body, perhaps a little more fragile, and certainly a lot more unstable, but nonetheless in full possession of his powers. His two shadows, he placed in exquisitely designed golem bodies of incredible beauty and physical might.
The hope was that, as lesser copies of his own mind, his Shadow Generals would serve him willingly. And for a time, they did. But even souls can heal, and as the years passed, the Generals regained a portion of Zarub's ambition. They became the very threat he feared and each sought to claim the throne for his own.
Zarub eventually prevailed, but the people of his kingdom suffered greatly in the crossfire. Zarub was anything but humbled by the near-loss of his crown, and he's since become obsessed with the idea that it was some rival magician that turned his creations against him.
Zarub the Sorcerer-King did not begin his magical experiments with his Shadow Generals. As a proof of concept, he created an elite unit of golem-enforcers animated by the souls of his most vicious and loyal followers. One such golem was severely damaged in the War of the Thirded Crown, not just physically, but mentally. Rather than start from scratch, Zarub simply scoured away its memories. The newly-repaired golem was a complete innocent, and found itself disgusted by the orders it was asked to carry out. One night, while on patrol, it simply absconded into the desert.
Now it wanders the world, evading Zarub's hunters and contemplating the meaning of existence. It does not yet know what it wants to do with its life, but it thinks it would prefer not to be a weapon of war.
The Tower of Nebt Bhakau
Magicians of all sorts play outsized roles in Ukss' history, but few names have the power to strike dread into nearly any soul who hears them. Nebt Bhakau is one of those names. Quite possibly the greatest Necromancer to ever live, he is the only person to have attained true immortality. At the height of his powers, he was indestructible by any blade or gun or wand wielded by lesser hands. It was a feat attained only after a century of atrocities performed in the name of "research."
Though he was never a great conqueror or tyrant, his outrages against the dignity of both living and dead made him an enemy of every decent person on Ukss. In the end, an alliance of the five closest nations, from which he drew the bulk of his victims, laid siege to his spectre-guarded tower, and though they lost nine tenths of their forces, the survivors were able to bind him in chains of meteoric iron.
With ritual techniques gleaned from his own notes, his captors were able to dismember Nebt Bhakau and bind his six most essential organs (eyes, tongue, heart, hands, genitals, and spleen) into special ceramic jars. So long as the bindings for all six endure, his regenerative capabilities are sealed away. But if even one of the jars is opened, he will be free to live and work his evil once more.
The only blessing is that each jar contains a separate aspect of Nebt Bhakau's full power, so even if he's reborn, he will still need to find the five other jars to assume his true strength. For that reason, each of the five nations holds one of the jars, with the sixth, containing his heart, entombed in a secret location known only to the ones who buried him.
Today, the Tower of Nebt Bhakau is inaccessible. Shortly after the necromancer's body was removed, a terrible contingency magic was unleashed. A shadowy necromantic wall, made from a miasma of shredded souls, sprung up out of the earth. Any living thing that touches the wall simply dies. There is no known defense or counter-charm, but the nearby nations are largely comfortable with this state of affairs. There's no telling what dark secrets remain within the tower, and it may be for the best that no one can get close enough to learn them.
is the most open city in the Bay of Blood. According to stereotypes,
it's because the Weneti people will do anything for money, but that's
an accusation that could be fairly applied to nearly every human
society on Ukss. Wenetos' mercantile reputation is likely due to its
prominent position near the mouth of the bay and its ruling families'
endless hunger for sorcerous components.
Every sixteen years, the city's eight great lineages of sorcerers gather together to elect one of the families to rule Wenetos. These elections are far from democratic, being swayed by bribes, threats, and occasional gang warfare in the streets. However, since no family may rule for two terms in a row, the result is a rough balance of power. None can take control without a power bloc behind them, and none can afford to wield their power too roughly, lest they unite the other houses against them.
Though the sorcerers of Wenetos are skilled in many types of magic, they are most famous for their unique brand of necromancy. In Wenetos-style necromancy, the sorcerer impresses the dead with their immense wealth, casually strewing the ritual area with coins, rare artworks, and expensive technological devices like custom-made guns or electric lamps. The idea is to awe the dead by presenting oneself as a person of enviable status. This envy is then weaponized by magic to trap the ghost in a never-ending hustle, where they ceaselessly pursue physical treasures they can never actually possess.
The most terrible aspect of Wenetos-style necromancy is that infecting the dead with unsatisfiable greed endures even in the absence of ongoing sorcery. This makes the enslaved ghosts a fungible resource. Sorcerers from the ruling families derive a significant income from packaging infected ghosts and shipping them to other nations, where they act as spies and messengers, so long as their new captors remember to surround them with ostentatious displays of wealth (ironically, this is incredibly cheap in practice, because the wealth is never actually spent or consumed, so anyone who can afford to purchase a ghost from Wenetos in the first place can simply store them in a lavishly decorated room or treasure vault that they would have had regardless).
Frick and Frack, the Ghostly Brothers
For the ghosts of Wenetos, the best defense against necromancy is to have been impossibly jaded while you were still alive. That is why the twins nicknamed “Frick” and “Frack” have so far been able to elude enslavement. They were members of the aristocracy while alive, and remain savvy to the ways of magic, even in death (hence, their largely successful effort to obscure their living names). They use their unique place among the dead of Wenetos to act as power brokers in the Magic World. They've been known to sell their fellow ghosts into slavery, but they are also the people you seek out to rescue a captured ghost or protect a dead relative from potential enslavement.
they are now allies, Frick and Frack have a secret – they are each
other's murderers. When they were alive, they had a remarkably
similar way of thinking, and when an opportunity for political
advancement came along that only had room for one brother, they each
simultaneously plotted the other's death, dying within minutes of
each other from identical poisoned meals. Neither brother has yet
discovered the identity of his killer, and each takes satisfaction in
a secret successfully concealed, but if the truth were to come out,
it could reignite their feud and open up space for a new operator to
take over the Wenetos underworld.
The International Mail Service
Given their culture's emphasis on exploration and adventure, the average Awakened Rat is much more well-traveled than the typical human or goblin. Some bands are permanently nomadic, moving from city to city, continent to continent in never-ending migration patterns that take years to complete. As a result, more settled people have gotten into the habit of entrusting the Rats with their mail.
Twenty years ago, a group of enterprising Rats decided to make this custom into a business venture, and thus the International Mail Service was born. With a promise to deliver any package to any address (so long as it's legal at both origin and destination), the IMS is the most secure, reliable way to send letters and small, valuable parcels (the IMS likes to boast that it has never lost a delivery to employee theft - surprisingly the claim is true). It's not always the fastest, but the Rats will brave fire and flood to see their deliveries through. To those who work for it, the International Mail Service is not just a company, it's a creed.
Most of IMS' business is done in Hyborea, which lacks the extensive telegraph networks of Atalanta, but they have recently started taking more and more deliveries to Mu. As the kaers open up to the world, they are in dire need of couriers who will risk the dangers of the Spectrum Lands.
leader of the IMS is a rat known only as Young Noble (the origins of
this nickname are lost to time, though presumably there was an “Old
Noble” somewhere in his past). Young Noble is a colorful character
to say the least. He boasts of being personal friends with Santa
Claus, and he has the autographed sleigh bells to back it up. He's
delivered mail to every continent, and even under the sea. He bathes
in tub made from the polished shell of a giant clam, given to him as
thanks for services rendered to some merfolk king. He keeps a large,
surly tomcat as a pet. He calls him “Tiger” and the relative
scale does indeed match up. There's never been a documented instance
of Tiger mauling any of Young Noble's Awakened Rat visitors (not even
the really rude ones), but when asked about it, the Postmaster just
smiles in a way that's not at all reassuring.
Bothers and Black – Discreet Clothiers
One of the more infamous businesses to operate in the lax environs of Wenetos, The firm of Bothers and Black specializes in hard-wearing, practical clothing that nonetheless retains a touch of elegance even as its wearer engages in serious physical exertion.
Murder suits, in other words. They make murder suits. Oh, they wouldn't put it that way, and in fact the bulk of their business lies in designing distinctive uniforms for the Bay's mercenary companies. However it is undeniable that a Bothers and Black original will never stain with blood. Their shoes seem to muffle the sound of footfalls, and their plain, grey overcoats will blend in equally well among masonry, stones, and crowds. Rumor has it that sufficient gold will buy you even more esoteric and specialized couture, and if they really trust you they'll let you use their witch road to House Helekar.
The Society of Murder
Politics in Wenetos are serious business. All eight of the ruling families play for keeps, and when one of them decides to remove a piece from the board, no amount of wealth, connections, or clout is going to stop the inevitable.
That's where the Society of Murder comes in. You hire them to kill you before your enemies can do the job. Of course, they don't really kill you, not usually (though, with Yenin's invention of the Clone ritual, it has become a part of their repertoire.) They just make it look like they did, with a meticulous attention to detail. They will use whatever sorcery is necessary to fool the investigators. They will bribe, intimidate or . . . silence whatever witnesses could contradict the story. And they will pay whatever it takes to smuggle you out of the city and into a new life. All it costs you is half your wealth.
Don't bother negotiating. They know what you have, and if you really need their services, that money was as good as lost anyway. You also needn't worry that it might take more than half your wealth to make it worth their while – if you're that poor, you'll never be able to find them.
The Little Dreams toy shop in Wenetos is one of the major attractions of the Bay of Blood. Their sorcerer-artisans create ingenious devices with complex and surprising behaviors – baby dolls that cry and are comforted with cuddles, miniature catapults that really work, delicate puzzle boxes that unfold into mechanical songbirds. There is something to amuse and delight customers of all ages.
If you're well-connected, you can ask to see their “special merchandise,” toys that bear lethal enchantments – the doll that comes to life and attacks its owner, the wooden sword that can change to razor-sharp bronze, the clockwork war machines at full-size scale. Most of these creations look completely harmless and can be discreetly shipped in bulk to the nascent insurrection of your choice for an additional fee.
One of Little Dreams' most in-demand products, puppet familiars are usually even legal. They are articulated plush toys that may be controlled by a marionette . . . or by a gaffling spirit drawn from the Magic World. Unlike most gaffling-infused items, the puppet actually becomes the gaffling's body instead of just a home. These toys gain all the abilities of the depicted animal (so toy birds can fly, toy skunks can spray musk, etc), but they also have unusual occult knowledge and ways of perceiving and navigating through the world that veer into the uncanny.
Tenebrous, the Living City
The most ancient of the Bay of Blood's city-states, it was a mystery even in the days of the Old Kingdom. It is a place of narrow streets and deep shadows, made of bricks of black stone that seem to absorb any sound louder than a whisper.
And the streets move. Usually not when anyone is looking, but swiftly enough for people to notice. When it rains, the stones underfoot grow rough to provide better traction. The elderly and the injured will usually face ramps instead of stairs. And a criminal who is not swiftly caught will almost always find themselves fleeing into a dead-end alley.
Tenebrous watches over its inhabitants, and while it cares for their well-being, it also will not tolerate their defiance. It hates bright lights and noise, but enjoys soft music, whispered conversations, scholars hunched over ancient books, and any craft that can be done without fire. It provides its people a limitless bounty of cool gardens and well-stocked libraries and enforces its will with the cruel attentions of the Shinobi.
They look human, but they're not. Never forget - they are not human.
Maybe they were once. Maybe they were simply so devoted to the worship of the powers of night that they lost the daylight aspects of their personalities. Maybe they were so obsessed with becoming the perfect adepts of shadow that they ultimately became shadows.
Because that's what they are now. Stare at them all you want and you will see only a flat thing, so black its contours vanish into the whole. That doesn't seem so human, sure. But when they come for you and you're fighting for your life, you might see a cock of the head, a tilt of the posture, some small gesture that makes you think there might still be a person inside. You might be tempted to show them mercy.
Don't be fooled. They gave up their voices long ago. They surrendered themselves utterly to the city of Tenebrous and it is the city itself who acts when the Shinobi come upon you. They will kill you for your mercy. Any glimmer of humanity you might see in them is as substantial as the smoke they leave behind when they're slain.
Book of Whispers
This deceptively slim volume is considered one of Ukss' most dangerous magical tomes. It does nothing more contentious than describe what's happening in its immediate vicinity (out to about 100 meters, though the effect is blocked by walls), but when those descriptions include the inner thoughts and secret agendas of any nearby "characters," that is more than dangerous enough.
The Book of Whispers is, by this point, thousands of pages long, impossibly crammed into a spine only a half-inch thick. This is despite it being literary enough to condense long periods of uninteresting activity ("the Prince slept through the night"). Those who own it for long enough eventually learn that it is constantly rewriting its own earlier pages to provide historical context, establish foreshadowing, or point out ironies (not to mention discreetly trimming all those paradoxical, recursive passages that occur whenever people read the book itself).
Though it never changes while someone is looking at it (the last sentence is always some variant of "the reader turned to the final page of the Book of Whispers"), the sound of words moving around on unobserved pages is what gives the book its name. Fortunately for those who would use the Book of Whispers for nefarious purposes, the sound is successfully muffled when the covers are closed.
A hundred years ago, an ambitious young sorcerer ventured into the depths of the Reliquary desert and returned with a treasure trove of ancient artifacts. The most precious was a magic wand that allowed him to create words that would bind themselves into the mind, forever shaping it with a fixed, indelible idea that natural thoughts would have to twist to accommodate. It was obviously a gateway to great power, but he tried too much, too quickly. Using the wand, he wrote a gospel of himself, a book that would force anyone who read it to worship him as a god. . . then he read it himself. Just to check for errors, see. He thought he, of all people, would be immune. And thus the Perfect was born. The Perfect is wise and merciful and just and cares for all the world.
The man who became the Perfect is none of those things. He is forced to play the role, to act as if it was his true face, but his thoughts are still free. The ideas from the book are a cage around those thoughts, but that only means that he suffers severe migraines whenever he contradicts them. Thus he suffers endless agony as he is forced to try and wield absolute power with the infinite grace of a god.
He's realized, in retrospect, that his mistake was making the binding too elaborate. He never needed a personal theology, he only needed obedience. And thus the people of Paragon are now bound with a simple oath – follow the laws of the city or suffer. The result is a peaceful, orderly city, with clean streets and a population that always acts friendly. Outsiders can tell the smiles are fake. That terrible things happen to those who break the facade. Nonetheless, Paragon still manages to draw refugees from the more chaotic parts of the Bay of Blood, who believe its safety is worth a simple oath. It's only too late that they learn the true cost of paradise.
The Perfect himself is obsessed with making an ideal city, of fulfilling the “prophecies” that foretold a utopia under his benevolent guidance. It is not a goal he values for its own sake, but he believes that if he ever fulfills the technical requirements of his binding, he might be able to contemplate escape without being wracked by terrible phantom pains.
Those who grow up in Paragon will sometimes hear tell of the strange customs of foreign lands. There are places in the world where judgment is not automatic, where civil authorities have to make decisions about guilt and innocence and then assign a punishment proportional to the offense. Most citizens suppress their resentment upon hearing this information. They do not wish to borrow misery by imagining another way of life. However, there are some who cannot let it be.
The Mercykillers are one such group of people. They emerged from a philosophical discussion that concluded that Paragon's way was the best possible system. Justice came from within, punishment was both certain and absolute, and the true spirit of the law resides inside every citizen. And if Paragon has achieved the ultimate in justice, then every other place in the world must fall short.
So the Mercykillers travel the world, seeking out those who have escaped punishment or those who have received an undeserved (by the Mercykillers' unyielding standards) lenience. And they administer punishment – a quick and painless death. That is their “mercy,” that the criminals they hunt do not suffer the way Paragon's twisting words would make them suffer. Some among their number argue that this is a deviation from true justice, but the Mercykillers largely believe that only those who have sworn the oath are capable of true, internal punishment. If punishment must come from without, then death is the closest thing anyone can achieve to the absolute sentence that the people of Paragon inflict on themselves.
It is likely that the Mercykillers' stated motives are not their true motives. They act like itinerant warriors on a sacred mission, but they are obsessed with something they call “the Moment of Pronouncement” - the instant the condemned realize they are going to die for their crimes. The Mercykillers never execute a target without first telling them why it is happening, and though they pride themselves on delivering a clean killing stroke, they will linger before raising their blades, to allow the Moment of Pronouncement to register.
Then, as the body lies cooling on the floor, they inject it with necrostimulant from Yennin, and perform a brief telepathic ritual that allows them to experience the victim's final thoughts and feelings (giving them all the more reason to strike painlessly). The true heart of the Mercykillers as an organization is the harvesting of these Moments of Pronouncement from the dead. They want to feel the last few moments of the condemned's life, when they can clearly anticipate the external punishment and know it is deserved. They do it again and again, as if they are searching for some sign that justice can exist without the oath.
The Mercykillers do sometimes slay the innocent (and often kill for crimes that in no way merit death as a punishment),and when they do, their oath punishes them. Terrible, incapacitating headaches for several days, but then the headaches pass, as do all attempts to go against the wand-fixed words, and the Mercykillers consider themselves cleansed of wrongdoing.
Only one Mercykiller has never slain an innocent and never punished anything less than a true capital crime. His name is Blander Mul, and he is one of the organization's few true believers. The other Mercykillers largely despise him, because he shows no signs of the soul-sickness that drives them. In truth, for all their effort to justify the oath, most of the order hate the oath. It is not something they'd ever admit, even to themselves, because then their terrible deeds would have no meaning whatsoever, but for most of them, capturing and consuming the Moments of Pronouncement is not truly about experiencing justice. Rather, it is a pathetic, corrupt attempt to feel the mercy that the oath never grants.
Blander Mul is almost entirely oblivious to the feelings of his fellow Mercykillers. He is conscientious, diligent, and forthright, and thus has never experienced the true horror of Paragon's oath. He naively thinks that the Mercykiller's true mission is to bring the light of justice to places with imperfect, non-magical courts.
The Reliquary Desert
Buried in the sands of the Reliquary Desert, there is a tomb that is not a tomb. Once it was a place of glory, the throne room of a sorcerer whose unsurpassed power was almost enough to satisfy his ambition. Now it is a monument to his failed ascension.
The mummified body of the God-Emperor still sits on the Golden Throne that was to be vehicle of his transformation from human to divine. Its forbidden magic keeps him trapped between worlds, the spark of his life-force still burning after hundreds of years. Not quite ghost and not quite god, only his legendary willpower has kept him from going completely mad. Destroying the Throne will surely release him, though whether into death or something else, no one can say.
The followers of the God Emperor of Hyborea's Old Empire are thin on the ground these days, but there are certain pieces of sacred lore that still manage to stay in circulation. One particular legend concerns The Dream Stele, a modest obelisk the last Emperor erected shortly before he made the decision to pursue divine ascension.
According to legend, the Dream Stele documents the prophetic dream that led to that fateful decision. On its sides are listed the great deeds the God Emperor would have to perform to be worthy of joining the ranks of the great spirit courts. If an adventurer or scholar found the Dream Stele in the ruins of the Reliquary Desert, they might reexamine the text to find where the God Emperor went wrong. Perhaps to free him from his torment . . . or follow in his footsteps.
Living in the Reliquary Desert, the Sandcrawlers are a community of Awakened Rats that rejects the romance and chivalry of their brethren for a pragmatic philosophy of survival . . . or so they claim. More mainstream rats point out that they are scrupulously honest in their dealings, but the Sandcrawlers claim it's so their word will have value. They'll point out that the Sandcrawlers rescue stranded travelers and the Sandcrawlers will protest that dead men can't pay a reward. They'll point out that they are meticulous recyclers and careful stewards of the land, and the Sandcrawlers answer that in the desert, you can never afford to waste resources.
The settled villages along the border of the Reliquary desert have a harsher opinion of the Sandcrawlers, viewing them as scavengers and sharp dealers, but even the harshest of their critics would be hard-pressed to say that they are a dangerous threat.
The Sandcrawlers live collectively in massive junk-gathering caravans and wear thick robes to protect themselves from the desert sun. It's said that a Sandcrawler can repair any sort of technology, but only for long enough to pass it on to an unsuspecting customer.
Built before the scorching
of the Reliquary Desert, as the God-Emperor was conquering nation
after nation, the Witness exists to preserve the culture of the White
Cliff Artificers. Made of exquisitely engraved bronze and diamond
clockwork, the Witness has a beautiful voice with a twelve octave
range and a perfect memory for songs, stories, and poems.
The White Cliff Artificers exist now only in The Witness's memory, but taverns across Hyborea echo with the sound of their drinking songs, and the tutors of the wealthy know the history of the Artificer's Council.
In the centuries since its creation, the Witness has traveled the length and breadth of Ukss, seeking out small villages and peoples under siege to learn their stories and keep them forever alive.
Deep in the deadliest reaches of the Reliquary desert, where even the Sandcrawlers fear to tread, there lives a culture of nomadic lizard-people. Though they have no name that would translate into a human tongue, the few travelers lucky enough to see them and survive have dubbed them "the Chromatics."
The Chromatics are masters of light. They need no clothes, because their spells can divert the hottest of the sun's rays. They need no weapons, because they can hurl lances of solar fire with pinpoint accuracy. They can make themselves completely invisible or weave complex illusions in the air. They are so attuned to the nature of light that they don't even speak. All of their communication is done through complex patterns of color, many of which are invisible to the human eye.
Because they are so difficult to find (let alone communicate with), scholars mistakenly believe that the Chromatics are Prodigies. And while they do have superhuman vision and the ability to change their skin color, those traits are purely natural. Their magical control over light itself is a form of wand magic.
The Chromatics produce only one kind of wand, polished over years from a certain type of desert crystal, but the number of wands they've accumulated over the years would absolutely stagger the various imperial strategists, were it to become known. Every Chromatic child receives one as a rite of adulthood (whether carved by their parents or handed down from an honored ancestor). Aside from wands, they use little other technology. Mostly bags, belts, and pouches, but also occasionally flint knives for when they need to cut without heat and spearheads for when they wish to fight their own kind.
In the days of the Old Empire, Chromatic artisans had a way of etching their illusions into crystal, using very precise beams of light. With enough work, they could make stones that contained fully three-dimensional images that seemed to move as one turned the crystal in their hands. Unfortunately, the God Emperor was so enamored with these creations that he conscripted every creator he could find into his personal service. Thus the art was lost alongside the Emperor.
The City of Illusion
In the heart of the Chromatics' territory is their most sacred site. It is the repository for their cultural memory. It is here that they record their legends and deeds. It is here that they recreate the ruined buildings they find half-buried in the desert, imagining what they must have looked like when they still stood tall. It is here that they share the faces of travelers, both friend and foe. Everything the wandering Chromatics felt worth preserving has been woven into vibrant moving images and then permanently anchored with a bit of the Sun's own generative power.
At some point, the Chromatics began to understand that their use of life energy had . . . side effects. The most ancient illusions broke from their programming, and began to act out new stories, as if they were in truth the characters they were drawn to be. The mystics among them pronounced this a blessing, saying that the living illusions, as they became aware of each other, would reveal paths of meaning between their stories. They say the center of the city is their racial unconscious, and that the dream-like chaos found therein represents the dreams of the Chromatic people.
For their part, the living illusions are unaware of their role in Chromatic culture. The newly awakened still believe they're real, and rationalize the City as a waking nightmare. The oldest ones worship the god they're certain they'll become.
The Great Serpent
It burrows under the sands of the Reliquary Desert, grinding away at the imperishable stone of the God-Emperor's chambers. In another two thousand years, it may even break through. It has an unusual degree of focus for an animal, almost as if it foresaw what it might become if it tasted the God-Emperor's semi-divine flesh. . .
But until that day comes, the Great Serpent cannot survive on rock and stone. When its hunger becomes too great to bear, it stalks through the sands, ambushing bands of Chromatics or whole caravans of Sandcrawlers. It has an uncanny knack for attacking when its prey is least prepared, almost as if it had some way of foreseeing the outcome of its attacks . . .
But that's ridiculous. It's probably just a big, dumb snake that just . . . constantly . . . gets lucky? Right?
The Tamers of the Sand
Their isolated redoubt lies so far inside the Reliquary Desert that human life would not ordinarily be able to survive, but the Tamers of the Sand have a priceless magical treasure – the Decanter of Endless Water. This magical crystal carafe pours forth hundreds of gallons of water every day, enough to support a hundred sorcerers, their servants, and the rough agricultural plots that keep them all fed.
But the Tamers of the Sand are not mere isolationists. They have a reason for living in such an inhospitable region. They seek the resting place of the God Emperor, and the secrets of his almost-apotheosis. A century ago, they found the ruins of the palace itself (largely thanks to their unique ability to beckon relics to rise out of the sand, though even with the aid of magic, it was a long, meticulous search). In the decades since, they've studied the palace's lingering magical protections, in service to history's most ambitious heist – they hope to emerge from the palace with a piece of the God Emperor's flesh.
Specifically, they seek his tongue. Their lore says that one who could graft the Tongue of the God Emperor into their mouth would have the ability to make their pronouncements into absolute truth. Little do they suspect that they are half-right. The God Emperor was a failed divinity, and so he could not change facts with merely his words, but he could overwhelm a mortal mind with his voice, causing any who heard him to believe the world was changed. It's still a potent ability, going beyond mere lies to allow a speaker to force listeners to believe any kind of absurdity, but it's also one that's nearly as dangerous to the wielder as to the victim. If a mortal were, somehow, to gain the Tongue of the God Emperor, they would be in constant danger of believing their own lies, and descending into a madness more terrible than even that which afflicts the God Emperor himself.
If someone could talk sense into the Tamers of the Sand, they might be able to abandon their ridiculous plan and become merely an influential order of archaeologist-sorcerers. They have more experience with the region than anyone else in the world (even the Chromatics merely live there, having too much sense to disturb the ghosts of the fall). They know a wide variety of spells for manipulating the earth, especially sand, making them into peerless excavators. They've learned to call small personal clouds, even in the driest regions of the desert, creating cooling canopies to shield them from the sun. And, of course, their signature ability to simply hold out their hands and beckon an ancient tool, weapon, or other artifact out of the sands is incredibly valuable in its own right.
But a hundred years is a long time to devote to a single plan, and they may already be too far lost to their great obsession (ironic, considering the fate of the man they so desperately seek).
The Dragontail Mountains
On the slopes of the Dragontail mountains, grows a most unusual plant. Small-leafed and hardy, it climbs up cliff faces and takes root on any old patch of bare rock. It would be a terribly invasive weed were it not for one miraculous property - its roots contain gold! Through some process not yet understood by scientists, the Dragontail Cliff-clover draws in heavy metals as part of its normal life cycle. Though the amount in any one plant is minuscule, villages in Cliff-clover country can make a decent bit of extra money by harvesting them in the thousands and burning them in specialized kilns. The kilns run hot enough to reduce the plant matter entirely to ash and leave behind only a modest, but profitable stream of molten gold.
There is a mountain in the Dragontail Range whose name is politely translated as "The Root of the World." It rises far above its neighbors and is visible, hazily, from the Reliquary Desert to the shores of the Girding Ocean. Its peak is so tall that clouds pass beneath it, and the people of the Dragontail Mountains can divine the weather by charting how much of its silhouette is obscured on any given day.
Atop The Root of the World, there sits a throne of aluminum and sapphire. Any who sit in the throne may cast their senses out and look down from any cloud that touches the slopes of the mountain or through any fog that rises in the shadow of those clouds. In the days leading up to a blizzard, this may extend for hundreds of miles, right down to the villages by the sea.
Only kings, sorcerers, and fools actually attempt to use the Mist Throne, however, for the climb up the Root is perilous in the extreme, and to approach the peak from the air risks angering the ancient gods who watch over the mountain.
Occupying a highly desirable territory on the northern spur of the Bay of Blood, the jungle known as the Plaguelands should have been cut down a long time ago. The combination of rich timber and strategic position should make it irresistible to any would-be sorcerer king. But the Plaguelands are more than capable of defending themselves.
Strange creatures boil forth from the heart of the jungle to overwhelm any potential settlement. Cutting down the trees does little good. They . . . adapt. After the first wave of human intrusion, they began to bleed an acidic sap that dissolved saws faster than they could cut. When the settlers came back with bulldozers, the fallen trees began to explode. Now, razor-sharp leaves will fall from their branches whenever a human so much as approaches the edge of the forest.
And the animals themselves have become larger, faster, and smarter. In response to the settlers' rifles, they gained the ability to spit venom and organi-ceramic spines that are harder than steel. When they started using airplanes, the animals learned to leap from treetops and ride updrafts on never-before-seen membranous wing-flaps. Everything humans do to try and tame the land is quickly answered by some new, monstrously mutated species.
But the truly frightening thing about the Plaguelands is that they have begun to expand. A little over twenty years ago, it began to show an unprecedented fury and since then its borders have expanded by over a hundred miles. It was only stopped after it overwhelmed the city state of TBD. The loss of an ancient culture shocked the people of the Bay of Blood into action, and in a rare show of cooperation, rival city states came together to contain it with an impenetrable shield wall.
The first wall failed.
The second wall has so far held, but it's been a non-stop battle. All the cunning that the Plaguelands used to reserve for defending itself has been turned towards assaulting any trace of human civilization. Every day, new variant creatures appear and all the easy ways of defeating them have been exhausted.
No one can explain the Plaguelands new aggression, though conservatives like to blame Yennin's experimentation in the biological arts. Most don't find this a very compelling theory, however, since Yennin is the city state most in the line of fire.
The truth is that the Plaguelands have always existed to protect a sacred divine mystery – the Everliving Flower, which bloomed from a seed on the first day of Ukss' creation. Right before the change, an adventurer did the unthinkable – they cut a single petal from the blossom and spirited it away for alchemical experimentation.
Since then, the Everliving Flower has been screaming in pain and shedding an endless torrent of mutagenic blood. Everything the blood touches becomes wildly twisted and filled with rage. Unless the wound is healed, the Plaguelands will continue to spread until they cover all of Hyborea.
Mu is a broadly egg-shaped continent that extends from the equator in the south to tornado-wracked dry grasslands in the north. It is the closest land to the northern ice cap, but it still takes several days of sailing across the Girding Ocean to get there.
The southern third of Mu is a massive savanna of unnerving flatness. In prehistoric times, the gods leveled the savanna and piled all the surplus dirt into the Great Mesa, a six-mile high mound of earth with a flat top hundreds of miles across. In the center of the Great Mesa, perfectly aligned with Ukss' equator, is the Ascension Tower, a massive diamond cable that stretches all the way into the Cosmic Sphere. Those who wish to petition the Celestial Embassy may enter the palace at the base of the Tower, and if their case is deemed worthy, the palace as a whole will rise up the cable, eventually, after seven days and seven nights, reaching the Celestial Embassy itself.
To the north of the savanna is the Crimson Badlands, a desert of red earth that was once a prehistoric sea. The region is rocky and mountainous, though the tallest of the peaks reach only a few hundred meters above sea level. There is a stark beauty to these lands, as if the bones of the earth have been laid bare, but it is so hot and so dry that few have crossed it and lived. In old Mu, the Republic would maintain coastal cities to the north and south of the Badlands to divert cargo and passengers destined for The Great Mesa, but those cities were among the first targets in the Prism Wars.
Farther north, past the Badlands, lies the former heartland of the Republic of Mu. It is now known as The Spectrum Lands, a place where the standard rules of Ukss geography have been put into abeyance. The Spectrum Lands were ground zero for the Prism Wars, where the magician TBD's mad ambition held the greatest sway, and where the Rainbow Knights were allowed to terraform the land to better match their bizarre home dimension. The soil of the Spectrum Lands has been scoured away and replaced by vast stretches of multicolored sands. Strange crystalline life thrives in these wastelands and giant polyhedral crystals dot the landscape. It is a place of quiet dread, but is not without its own alien beauty. Humans survive in the Spectrum Lands only by taking shelter in kaers. A few have opened themselves to the world, now that the worst of the crisis has passed, but many still believe it unsafe to emerge.
The natural borders of the Spectrum Lands are those territories the Republic of Mu found too dangerous or unprofitable to settle - the Crimson Badlands in the South, the volcanic Helltooth mountains to the West, and the Funnelcloud plains to the North. There is a strip of habitable land between the Spectrum Lands and the Girding Ocean to the East, the last vestige of the Republic of Mu, where they made their last stand against the Rainbow Knights, but the political authority of the Republic has collapsed and it currently has no organization above the local level. It is home to villages of survivors, and to colonies from the Lowlands, who hope to exploit the fall of native Mu society to establish a new imperial foothold on the continent.
The people of Mu used to have a wide range of skin colors ranging from russet to pale pink, but the close confinement of the kaers has evened out the human palette a bit. Olive skin and dark hair is the most common, but mutations are everywhere. Due to contamination from the Spectrum Lands, as many as 1 in 3 people in an isolated settlement might have brightly-colored hair or eyes in unnatural colors like orange or purple. These people sometimes try to dye their hair black, but any native of Mu will immediately recognize the shade and wonder what else they might have to hide.
The Prism Wars
Fifty years ago, the magician TBD, holder of The Wand of Illumination, became unsatisfied with her lot. She held one of the Great Wands, tools of the Creators, each one a key to unlocking some facet of reality, but over time, she came to resent its limitations. She had absolute mastery over elemental light, but deep in her soul, she knew she was capable of more.
And so she broke the Wand of Illumination into seven pieces. The shards could no longer be used as true Wands, and with the breaking TBD lost a lot of her immediate power, but when they were set as the focus for slower, ritual magic, they had profound and far-reaching abilities, unlike anything the world of Ukss had ever seen.
Thus began the Prism Wars. Through the shards, TBD reached into a realm of pure magic and drew out seven legions of warriors - the Rainbow Knights - each one empowered by a different primordial power - from the Red Legion, who could heal themselves by drinking the blood of their enemies all the way to the Violet Legion, who marched in shadow and were never seen until it was already too late.
The people of the continent of Mu were able to band together and defeat the Rainbow Knights, but at a terrible cost. Even now, their kaers - underground shelters, woven with many protective spells - still stand as monuments to their brush with total extinction. They say some kaers still stand undisturbed, their inhabitants refusing to believe that the Rainbow Knights could ever be defeated.
To understand the religion of modern-day Mu, one must first understand the religion of Mu before the Prism wars. The Republic of Mu had a highly formalized ceremonial civic religion that blurred the line between sacred and secular. Cynics would say that the people of Mu worshiped the nation of Mu, but that's an ungenerous characterization. Rather, the nation of Mu was the religion of Mu – rituals and ceremonies derived from religious praxis were the fundamental building blocks of the state's administrative and political apparatus.
Before the creation of the Republic, the culture of central Mu revolved around a sacred story cycle. These stories were never regarded as entirely historical, but nor were they seen as mere allegory. The important thing was the way the stories were told, and what the telling of the stories meant for the communities of ancient Mu.
The overall cycle featured twelve main characters, each one a different animal with its own symbolic meaning, representing the arts and sciences of the ancient Mu peoples. The exact cast of animals varied from region to region, in order to match the local fauna, but the symbolic roles remained the same – raptor and peacock in the south became wolf and butterfly in the north, and so on. When the Republic began to unify the continent of Mu, these local substitutions became officially recognized and the state's legal doctrine assumed a condensed canon, where the stories themselves remained consistent, and the local animals were merely swapped out in a superficial capacity. However, historically, the stories also tended to drift with distance, and so many scholars maintained the existence of an expanded canon, though in practice religious tension over these differences was never a real problem.
The way the stories were traditionally used is that each village “kept” a different animal. So, there would be a Horse village, which told the Horse stories of the cycle, and their neighbors would include a Peacock village and a Raptor village and a Raven village, and so on, out to a complete “network” which may include villages a significant distance away. These networks of villages would overlap and thus serve as conduits for trade and cultural exchange all the way across the continent, even before the creation of the Republic (and, indeed, it was the very existence of these networks that allowed the Republic to expand so rapidly and peacefully).
While each village had its own distinctive animal, every village held the entire story cycle to be sacred. Thus, on the appointed days of the calendar, villages would send delegations to their neighbors to perform the stories and officiate the ceremonies relating to their animal. These performances also served important secular functions – being occasions for diplomacy, intermarriage, and commerce, as well as being the Mu culture's primary source of entertainment. Villages would take a special pride in performing elaborate and generous rituals for their neighbors, and this form of competition engendered an uncommon degree of good will among the Mu peoples.
With the coming of the Republic of Mu, and the increasing urbanization and industrialization of the continent, the system adapted. Cities became home to people from numerous different villages, and while some neighborhoods were able to maintain networks, the anonymizing effects of urban life threatened to destroy traditional religious practice altogether. Thus, an early Mu government instituted the tribal system. Every citizen would belong to one of twelve tribes and maintain their cultural commitments, regardless of where they happened to live.
The important thing to remember about Mu tribalism is that it was always intended and perceived as an artificial administrative convenience. Villages had animals, urban-dwellers had (if they were lucky) villages. Up until the very eve of the prism wars, the distinction between living in, say, a Horse village and being a member of the Horse tribe was a significant source of urban vs rural disconnect. Nonetheless, the late Republic was more than 75% urban, and so the system largely worked. City governments would hold the ceremonies according to the ritual calendar, and members of the appropriate tribe would be taxed or conscripted as necessary. This could, potentially, have been unpleasantly exploitative, but even among urban populations, the ceremonies were regarded as excellent entertainment, and participation was seen more like winning a lottery than being forced to work a job.
With the formalization of the tribal system, many of the civic functions of government became conflated with the traditional religious expression of the story cycle. The most prominent was elections. Even before they united into a Republic, Mu villages were governed democratically, by leaders chosen in the ceremony of How Fox Became the Leader of Dogs (a semi-comical story that took some of the bile out of the Republic's elections), and so members of Fox tribe were conscripted to act as poll-workers and ballot-counters. Similarly, the story of How Butterfly (Peacock) enraptured the Sun would solemnize marriages (Mu was famous for its mass-weddings). And the regular cycle of public feasts, given by a number of different animals, would serve as a defacto social-welfare system. Overall, the Republic of Mu was a prosperous and content nation, and tribal identification was seen as slightly more serious an affiliation than rooting for a sports team (all of Mu's sporting leagues used the animals as their teams, though technically, you didn't have to belong to a particular tribe to join its animal's team), but significantly less serious than an ethnic identity. Regardless of your tribe, they were all necessary for the cycle, so you didn't belong to an animal, you belonged to Mu.
Then the Prism Wars happened.
Kaers were emergency shelters. They were populated by proximity and convenience, rather than any kind of coherent plan. Preserving the culture was an important goal, but a low priority. Thus individual kaers were not guaranteed to have full networks. Most kaers had a maximum of seven or eight tribes, many had only three or four, and there was one that had only a single tribe (because tribal affiliation was matrilineal, large extended families of a single tribe would occasionally cluster together). Mu was a literate society, so most kaers had knowledge of the full cycle, but few had the expertise, the experience, or the resources to keep the entire calendar intact.
Unfortunately, there was no universal solution to this problem. The larger kaers scaled down the tribal system, reassigned tribal identities as necessary, and carried on. Sometimes this was accepted as a pragmatic survival measure, and sometimes this engendered resentment and unrest that lingers to this day. Another common solution was the creation of designated officiants – individuals who would take charge of administering the calendar, with the entire kaer shifting from tribe to tribe as necessary. At its best, this solution mobilized the community to remember the best of Mu, at its worst, it created an authoritarian clerical class where none previously existed. Other kaers would decide to truncate the calendar, reassigning the most critical ceremonies to whatever available tribe was most suited and rewriting the stories accordingly. A few kaers abandoned the old ceremonial religion (and its accompanying Mu identity) entirely, becoming home to brand-new religious movements that ran the entire spectrum from uplifting to abusive. Some even began to worship the animals as gods (their status in the Republic was ambiguous – sacred, but not sacred, more serious than mascots, but not by so much that they were treated as objects of veneration – it was the cycle that was important, the calendar and its accompanying rituals and myths that made you a citizen of Mu – that's what the people venerated).
Today, the Spectrum Lands and the Mu diaspora are a patchwork of different beliefs. There is still a common vocabulary, but each community is defined by its own reaction to the trauma of the breaking of Mu. That is the only thing that truly still unites them, the sense of a lost and perhaps unrecoverable culture, a lingering spiritual wound where an identity used to be.
There are many in the ruins of old Mu that would attempt to restore the cycle, but little agreement on how to do it. Few would dispute the legitimacy of kaers reverting to the old village system, but it would mean disbanding the tribes and that is an unattractive proposition without an existing network. In the meantime, caravans of traveling performers wander the region, offering to fill gaps in the calendar and perform old stories “in the traditional manner.” The quality of these troupes vary, and some are little more than frauds, but even the serious and conscientious ones are controversial for their habit of performing whatever ceremonies are needed, without identifying with a specific animal.
These magical tattoos feature clean, bold lines and simple geometric shapes that nonetheless combine to evoke the abstract essence of a particular species of animal. By concentrating on the figures and allowing their mind's eye to walk the labyrinthine paths of their construction, the bearer of a Shifter's Mark can transform into the depicted creature, remaining in that form until they next sleep.
By their very nature, Shifters' Marks must be placed somewhere visible to their bearer. Mirrors count, however, and the most popular location is over the bearer's heart.
To the people of Mu, these tattoos have a special religious and cultural significance. Every known shifter's mark is in the shape of one the canon animals, with Horse, Raven, and Fox being the most common due to their range extending across all of Mu. Like much related to Mu's civic religion, there was an element of playfulness to the tattoos. Having one was not necessarily a devotional act – people got Raven tattoos because they wanted to fly or Seal tattoos because they wanted to swim. However, they did represent a certain civic commitment. Getting a shifter's mark meant openly identifying with a tribe (and, legally, this overrides your tribe of birth) and accepting that tribe's role in society. Bearers were expected to expose their tattoo to signal a willingness to perform certain prescribed duties – those with Raven tattoos should be open to hearing tales of grief, those with Horse to helping with onerous physical labor in exchange for traditional compensation (an appropriately expensive meal), and so on – this was considered an appropriate price for having the ability to change shape (it was socially acceptable to cover your tattoo in your “off hours,” but if you abused the privilege, word got around).
Back when the Republic of Mu was the world's most powerful nation, foreigners getting a shifter's mark was considered tacky and uncouth. The people of Mu would tease them mercilessly and hound them to perform traditional tasks. Those foreigners who took the teasing with good humor could eventually earn themselves a grudging respect, but only if they wanted to participate in the culture of Mu.
Now, after the Prism Wars, foreigners with these sacred tattoos are deeply resented. It's seen as the theft of a cultural secret that rightfully belongs to the survivors. The fact that bootleg shifter's marks are most common among organized crime in the Bay of Blood and Omphalous Coast only furthers to deepen these feelings.
How Fox Became the Leader of Dogs
This ceremony is central to Mu's practice of democracy and is practiced even in kaers that have lost their Fox tribe (though not every kaer is democratic any more). In pre-Republic villages, the procedure was that the adults of the village would don dog masks and listen to several potential leaders, who are also wearing fox makeup underneath their masks, give humorous speeches that outrageously flatter dogs. These literally consist of funny observations about household pets, and are not meant to be metaphors for the electorate (inuring people to transparent political flattery is part of the whole point of the exercise), because nobody is supposed to be making their decision based on the ceremony itself.
After the speeches, the voters join their preferred candidate in a ceremonial dance (which is itself hilariously canine-themed) and once all the voters have made their choice, the candidate with the fewest dancers moves to join one of the other dances. Their voters then move to one of the other candidates (they do not need to follow their first choice, though the endorsement usually counts for a lot). This continues until only one dance remains, when the candidate removes their mask to reveal the fox makeup beneath. The “fox” becomes the leader of the village for the rest of the year.
These sorts of votes are semi-anonymous, as everyone wears a mask, but the villages were pretty small, so it was always possible to make an educated guess. Obviously, everyone knew who the candidates were (and they wore identifying garments just to be sure), because the intent was never to actually trick the voters. On the rare occasion that there would be a dispute, the visiting Fox delegation would mediate (Fox villages would often have their elections run by other Fox villages farther away in the network, those that didn't were either exceptionally honest or exceptionally corrupt).
In the days of the Republic, the ritual was no longer binding. Instead, they were a combination of acceptance and concession speech. The outcome was determined by secret ballots, already cast and counted, with ranked choice voting, and the Fox tribe merely reenacted the rounds' proportionate vote totals. Contemporary kaers that maintain democracy will mostly follow the Republic's way, but some have reverted to making the ceremony itself matter.
The Twelve Animals
(Those separated by a slash are regional substitutions)
The art of politics and diplomacy. Maybe a bit untrustworthy, but always ready to compromise.
Physical labor. Unimaginative, but eager to lend a hand.
Esoteric scholarship, negotiating the mysteries of birth and death. Secretive, but wise.
Austerity and frugality. Making full use of even unpleasant resources. A victim, but also the ultimate survivor.
Beauty for beauty's sake. Argues for rest and pleasure in the face of oppressive pragmatism. Sometimes vapid, but always welcome.
Maintaining a household. Keeping to your own business and leaving others to theirs. An introvert who offers good, if boring, advice.
Mathematics and engineering. An architect of great skill who often loses sight of the value of human experience.
The art of self-defense. A powerful force when roused, but a gentle soul when left alone.
In the old ways, a hunter, but lately a more general capitalist. Going after what you want with ruthless efficiency.
Contentment with simple pleasures. A slothful consumer, easily tricked, but often gets the last laugh when complicated schemes fail to take into account their honest modesty.
Curiosity and exploration. A gossip and spy. Knows much, but is unreliable. Must be paid for the slightest service.
Proper manners and polite formality. A messenger who gets caught up in dangerous events and who survives by trusting custom and the rules.
Charity and generosity. Shunned by society, but often winds up having a key contribution to victory.
The Spectrum Lands
Here was the heart of the
old Republic. Now, it contains the ruins of a once-great
civilization. The Republic of Mu was organized, educated, and
economically powerful. Its sorcerous academies were the best in the
world, teaching many rituals, now lost, that aided agriculture,
mining, and travel. They were the foremost explorers of the Cosmic
Sphere, even without the boost provided by the Ascension Tower, and
their scientists were the closest of any on Ukss to unlocking the
secrets of electricity.
Then the Prism Wars came. TBD, using knowledge she gained from Mu's universities and resources she gained from its colonies on Aetheria, unleashed an invasion from the depths of the Magic World (some even say from a reality beyond), one that ripped up fields, tore down cities, and changed the very nature of the earth.
Many of Mu's citizens hid from the invasion in self-sufficient underground bunkers called kaers (from an old word for “fortress”). For fifty years, the kaers were sealed with magic and isolated from the outside world. Though the Rainbow Knights were eventually defeated (for the most part, some still wander the Spectrum Lands, seeking revenge for their slain comrades), the land itself still bears the terrible wounds of the invasion, transformed into a place of strange alien geometries and a bright and unnatural color palette.
The people of the kaers are still in a survival mindset, wary of outsiders, determined to guard their scant resources with lethal force, if necessary. Strangely, since the opening, relatively few have migrated to more congenial parts of Ukss. They say that they are too attached to their communities, and that their grief is too great to bear the sight of their ruined homeland, though given the physical transformations they've undergone (many kaer-dwellers have blue, green, or cherry-colored hair and purple, orange, or yellow eyes), some suspect that they've become dependent upon the energies of the Spectrum Lands and are as bound to it as the remaining Rainbow Knights.
Nonetheless, commerce is slowly starting to return. The average kaer was built on or near a prosperous mine, and was able to resume economic activity almost as soon as the seals were broken. This drives an extensive trade in relics of old Mu. Though many are traded purely for sentimental value, there are many wonders of lost magic that would bring an explorer a fortune, were they to find their way to the right buyer. Sadly, fakes and charlatans abound, and many of the salvaged “treasures” that grace the kaers were made in a colonial sweatshop.
Ago'astia, the breach point
Though the rift to the
Rainbow Knights' dimension is now sealed, the architecture of the
breach still remains. That's because it was never a simple spell, but
rather a fiendishly intelligent alien creature called to Ukss by the
breaking of the Wand of Illumination. Ago'astia exists as a
polychromatic light inside a series of interconnected crystals. It
draws on the life energy of the sun to expand its habitat, and though
these crystals are nothing more than vessels for its senses and
consciousness, it takes pride in crafting elaborate geometric
structures according to its own alien aesthetic.
Its creations don't have to be purely decorative, though. As the Rainbow Knights poured through the breach, Ago'astia created streets and barracks and fortifications for them, all out of transmuted crystal. When the Rainbow Knights were defeated, these structures were largely left in place, as the heroes of Mu did not understand that they were technically alive.
At the center of Ago'astia is a large crystal ring, roughly 300 meters across, set into the ground. This was the original portal, and there are several large gaps where it was broken in the final assault. The light could repair these gaps, but the portal itself requires the aid of a native sorcerer to rekindle, so it has thus far not bothered. Without access to the energies of its home reality, the Ago'astia has had increasing difficulty in transmuting matter. It still wishes to expand its reach, but it must now carefully choose its battles. Nonetheless, it is cunning and ancient, and may yet prove a threat to the people of Mu.
TBD believed that she found Ago'astia through her explorations of the Magic World, but deep in the caverns under Mu, there are murals and carvings that depict a crystalline entity spreading over the land. These chambers have been sealed for hundreds of years, indicating an ancient contact between Ago'astia and the world of Ukss. It's possible that TBD was merely the tool for an older and more dangerous power.
The Stasis Vector
Ago'astia wasn't purely aggressive. It consumes and it kills and it conquers not just to expand, but to create something great – the Stasis Vector. In its purest form, it is a shape that signals perfection. It cannot be altered or even touched or even approached. The clearer it's drawn, the more it incorporates the world into itself, and the farther out it reaches. Inside the horizon of the Stasis Vector, everything stops. Such is the best possible end of the world, a perfect moment captured forever.
Ago'astia hoped to imprint a Stasis Vector onto Ukss, but the rainbow knights failed before it could even get close. At most, it made a few small, vague copies, capable of ensnaring only a few dozen square feet. Even these imperfect Vectors are hard to destroy, as any matter and energy that passes their horizon freezes in place, leaving the core intact, but there is a counter-pattern that may be inscribed around its borders that causes the Vector to collapse. The trick is prying it from the few remaining loremasters among the Yellow Knights.
The Republic of Mu was not entirely a human society, but while goblins adapted easily to the kaers, the nation's large population of Talking Horses (second only to the Equine Steppes) could not overcome their natural tendency towards claustrophobia. Spending an entire lifetime in a cramped underground shelter would be a fate worse than death. So they decided to fight.
The Nic'Epona are what remained after they were defeated. These powerful steeds have shimmering rainbow coats and when they run through the crystal wastes of the Spectrum Lands, their hooves leave no impression in the multi-colored sand. They are wholly corrupted by the energies of the Rainbow Knights, and are now as much creatures of their alternate dimension as they are natives to Ukss.
These rainbow horses still possess the full intelligence of their Talking Horse ancestors, and they still have sorcerers among them, though they are neither the Academy-trained scholars of the late Republic nor the feudal herd-dancers of their distant relations. They instead wield strange spells from the alternate dimension, able to change a target's fundamental nature by upsetting the balance of its natural colors. The greatest among them can even run the path between worlds, potentially offering the Rainbow Knights a new route back to Ukss.
The Shadow Tree
One of the more ill-fated attempts to reclaim the Spectrum Lands, the Shadow Tree is a product of sophisticated bio-manipulation magic, a half-vegetable clockwork god (though technically, no actual clockwork is involved) that is tied physically to a trembling aspen, planted underground and nourished with redirected solar life energy. In theory, this aspen, with the assistance of its bound god, should be able to expand its root system and spawn clonal offshoots, reclaiming a large swath of land for the people of its kaer. However, progress so far has not been good.
The surface above the kaer has a small grove of aspens, but the god of the Shadow Tree says he requires vastly more life energy to overcome the alien terraforming. The solar binding-runes on the ceiling of his chamber are not enough. He requires blood sacrifice.
The people of the kaer
have done their best to comply as humanely as possible, taking small
samples from volunteers, but it hasn't been enough. Some have begun
to suspect that the god has his own agenda, but for the most part,
the more the people sacrifice, the more committed they are to seeing
the project through to its completion.
Hardship dogged this kaer throughout the decades of its isolation. Crime was rampant and shortages were common. Many believed it would not survive long enough to unseal itself. But they were saved by the Judge.
The Judge was a skilled leader and jurist, able to broker compromises between bitter rivals and to envision punishments that would both satisfy the victims and ensure that the perpetrator could still be of service to the community. In time, the people of the kaer came to believe that he was a prodigy of justice itself.
Then the kaer opened and the Judge expressed his desire to move on, to seek out his distant family in another region of Mu. The people of the kaer, convinced they could not survive without him, captured the Judge and put him in chains. Now, he is a slave, bound to his bench by day and confined to a cell by night.
It would be too easy for the Judge to sabotage his captors, but though he resents his enslavement, he cannot bring himself to issue an unjust ruling. Thus, he continues to judge fairly, though he dare not hope that the subject of his imprisonment might come before his court.
The kaer has built itself a new, arena-sized courtroom it calls “The Confessional.” There, the entire town gathers, so that they may one-by-one confess their crimes (which may be as petty as “selfish thoughts”) to their jeering neighbors. The Judge then assigns a penance and thereby is the community cleansed of all wrongdoing. If something were to happen to the Judge, it is likely that this ritual of self-flagellation will quickly turn very ugly indeed.
The Confessional is not just a building. It is a religion and it is a way of life. Though they do almost everything the Judge commands (everything except allow him his freedom), the Judge is not their leader. Instead, they are lead by the Novice Confessor, a young man or woman chosen for their pure nature. The Novice accepts upon themselves the guilt for enslaving the Judge and is bound to never confess that sin (lest the Judge become able to rule on this issue). However, even as they bear this burden, they must still regularly confess their crimes, just like anyone else in the town. Unfortunately, the crowd is especially hard on Novice Confessors, perhaps out of their own sublimated guilt, and sooner or later, they demand their bloody execution, for the crime of falling short of perfection.
Then, a new Novice Confessor is chosen, in the hopes that this time they may be innocent enough to absolve the entire town.
At the edge of the Spectrum Frontier, there lies a town that seems to have escaped the touch of the Prism Wars. So long as its water wheels keep turning, the people of the town continue to go about their lives as if they didn't have a care in the world. Their town is cheerful, prosperous, and blessed with all the arts of ancient Mu.
But when the wheels stop, whether due to seasonal droughts, mechanical failures, or deliberate sabotage, the town grows still. It's as if the life departs along with the power, and everyone, from the shopkeepers to the constables to the playing children (and even most of the livestock and pets) simply freezes into place. The color drains from them and it becomes apparent that they are all merely clockwork dolls, given life by some electric sorcery.
Someone maintains Manikin town, for these outages never last for long, but they have hidden themselves well, and it's unclear whether the village is a monument, an experiment, or a way of making amends. The people of Manikin Town seem unaware of their unique condition (or at least there is no power yet found that will make them admit it), though if you earn their trust, they will confide that they often have nightmares of ice.
The terror of the grassy, unpolluted fringes of Mu's Spectrum Lands, Dog-Eater is a warlord-scavenger who has made his fortune raiding the ruins of cities destroyed in the Prism Wars (and, rumor has it, looting kaers that had managed to make it through the crisis intact).
The struggling villages that have had the misfortune to play host to his horde of reavers view him more as a malevolent force of nature than a man. He seems to have little interest in conquering territory, but he has no tolerance for anything that could be interpreted as disrespect or defiance. He earned his name through his habit of finding the most pampered, beloved pet in any new town to slaughter and consume as a form of psychological dominance.
Dog-Eater is beloved by his followers for his extravagant generosity when it comes to the spoils of his looting. Whenever he must address his followers or intimidate a recalcitrant village elder, he dons a glittering coat made of strung-together coins of a hundred different denominations and governments. He claims it's strong enough to stop bullets, but conveniently, he only wears it in situations where gunplay is unlikely.
This warlord is a rival to Dog-Eater and will often attack his raiding parties while they are in the middle of attacking some vulnerable frontier village. This has happened so frequently that the only possible explanation is that Metal Hand is deliberately sending scouts to monitor Dog-Eater's band and report back prime opportunities. However, Metal Hand is no hero – he will plunder both the raiders and their original victims, and has his own reputation for ruthlessness.
The rivalry dates all the way back to the beginning of Metal Hand's career. Once an honest hunter, on one of his infrequent trips into town, he was caught up in a raid, and bore first-hand witness to Dog-Eater's cruelty. The villagers swore to Dog-Eater that they had no hidden treasures, just a few simple relics as a legacy from their ancestors. Dog-Eater did not believe them and made a great fire to melt down every bit of metal in the town (not out of any great practical need, but to humiliate the villagers by leaving them with a giant lump of slag). One by one the village's tools and weapons went into the vat and they stoically stuck to their story. At last, Dog-Eater came to the closest thing the village had to a genuine treasure – a bronze relic flute, woven with minor enchantments, but effectively irreplaceable in Mu's fallen state. The villagers begged him not to destroy it, but he merely repeated his demands. When he didn't get the answer he wanted, he threw it in.
Something snapped inside of the honest hunter. He plunged his arm into the vat of molten metal and retrieved the flute. Holding it aloft as a banner in his ruined hand, he led the villagers in a brutal counterattack. Dog-eater and his troops were forced to retreat, and forever after the hunter would be known as “Metal Hand.”
In the subsequent years, Metal Hand has pondered that day often, and has come to the conclusion that the heart of the problem was that the villagers fell into the trap of nostalgia. The Republic of Mu failed, and venerating its relics is nothing but a weakness. He is now an ideological raider, selectively attacking villages that he feels wallow too deeply in the past. He is not arbitrarily cruel, like his rival, but he is merciless. The people of the Spectrum Lands will build a new society, and if he has to destroy every vestige of the old to make that happen, so be it.
The grasslands of Mu are struggling under the depredations of scavengers and warlords, but it has its share of heroes too. One such hero is an intense goblin woman of indeterminate age. Known only as the Wanderer, she is an expert swordswoman who travels from town to town riding a giant reptilian dinosaur. A great foe of injustice, she will accept no payment but room and board. In peaceful times, she lives off the land, but it's been a long time since she'd known peace for more than a few days at a time.
The Sword of the Wanderer is as clean and as sharp as any goblin-forged blade, but it bears a unique inscription that gossips are sure must have a profound occult meaning, "WEAR ME UNTIL YOU FIND A BETTER."
The Sky Preserve
The Floating Garden was one of the wonders of old Mu, an expression of sorcerous might unrivaled by any human-wrought working in the modern history of Ukss. Commissioned by the Republic to celebrate its 500th anniversary, a team of 100 sorcerers worked together to lift one of the smaller floating continents out of the skies of Aetheria and transport it through the Cosmic Sphere, where it was set in a route to visit every major city in Mu once every three years.
On this floating mountain, the people of Mu built exquisite gardens and farms devoted to the most rarefied delicacies of Mu's cuisine. When it appeared above a city, the local government declared a festival. A few lucky people, chosen by lottery, were flown up to tour the gardens. Everyone else was given wine and candy from the Garden's generous stores.
When the Prism Wars came to Mu, the Floating Gardens became the ultimate kaer, a place of refuge for those the government thought best represented the arts and culture of old Mu. Intended as a staging area to rebuild the Republic, the Floating Garden was renamed the Sky Preserve.
When the Republic fell, the people of the Sky Preserve were forced to watch helplessly as the Rainbow Knights ravaged Mu's heartland. Many wanted to help, but the Indigo Knights specialized in hunting down and killing sorcerers, and the first few sorties shook the foundations of the Preserve, threatening to rip it from the sky.
Now, this last, greatest repository of sorcerous knowledge is tasked with reclaiming the Spectrum Lands, finding some way to undo the strange magical transformation that accompanied the Prism Wars.
The Crimson Badlands
The Dragon Market
If you leave TBD-city and head inland, riding for six days through the Crimson Badlands, you will come across a massive meteor crater, nearly a mile across and more than 2000 feet deep. But the ancient signs of carnage pale before the modern ones. Carved into the sides of the crater, to take advantage of the magic-dampening properties of meteoric iron, are the only cages in Ukss capable of holding an enraged dragon.
The Dragon Market is an assault on the senses. Explosions of dragon breath, unleashed in useless rage, light up the sky. Noxious odors of unwashed bodies waft down from the cages and up from the mercenary armies that regularly rotate in and out of the crater. And above all, the noise. Roars and curses, insinuating whispers, offers of bribes, and screams of pain that seem almost human.
And in the center of it all is the Trading Floor, a modest three-story townhouse, made in a popular TBD-city style, that nonetheless seems to dominate its surroundings from the audacity of its smallness. It is here that merchants, potentates, and speculators gather to trade dragons.
It is rare for a dragon, once captured, to actually leave its cage. The ownership is almost entirely on paper, and exists purely to facilitate games of statecraft and realpolitik. But their value is not entirely by fiat. Most dragons, even the nastily evil ones, will honor a bargain made to secure their freedom, making them the ultimate weapon of last resort (The fact that the Market quite provably knows how to contact the really effective Dragon-Hunters also serves to secure the prisoners' honesty).
The proprietors of the Dragon Market are shrouded in secrecy. Any number of heroes, rulers, and apocalyptic cultists would love to move against the people who hold the keys to dragon cages, and not all of them would be dissuaded by the chaos that would ensue if those cages were thrown open all at once.
Human beings cannot easily survive in the Crimson Badlands. It is too hot and too dry – a hellish environment for mammals, but perfect for lizard-folk. The Khasta are the same species as the Chromatics of the Reliquary Desert, but though they share the same ability to change their skin color and see a broader range of the spectrum, they do not have the same ability to manipulate light (scholars believe the two societies diverged before the Chromatics learned to craft wands). The Khasta are nomads who travel the Badlands with herds of horse-dragons (large, bipedal dinosaurs) that they use as mounts and livestock.
Before the Prism Wars, the Khasta had a peaceful, but strained relationship with the Republic of Mu. Their territory was nominally claimed by the Republic, but for all practical purposes was beyond the Republic's ability to govern. Thus the Khasta would often act as smugglers or hired muscle for Mu's criminal gangs, but just as often, the Republic would hire Khasta mercenaries to clamp down on illegal trade through the Badlands.
In recent years, some villages on the Spectrum Frontier have taken to hiring Khasta to protect them from raider attacks. A few of these contracts are honest exchanges, but most quickly devolve into thinly-veiled protection rackets as unscrupulous Khasta bands begin raiding the villages that do not pay.
Khasta speak in a very quiet, heavily aspirated voice with little noticeable inflection. Where a human would emphasize words or speak in an emotional tone, they change the color of their scales. Much like human vocal tone, this is semi-voluntary. A calm and collected Khasta can lie with their color changing.
Old books tell of a monster the size of a mountain, a geomantic parasite that could drain the vitality from entire counties worth of land. Armies could assault these creatures, only to be turned away by the symbiotic horrors that lived in their lava-like blood. When the Hulgue was done feeding, it would leap away on the massive legs it kept concealed under its stony carapace. Sailing miles through the air, it would land with meteoric force and a sky-darkening cloud of dust.
Scholars believe the last Hulgue was killed over a thousand years ago, but the barren places of the world contain many large hills, and a creature of stone may sleep for a very long time indeed.
The Great Mesa
Dominated by the looming sight of the heaven-challenging Ascension Tower, the lands atop the Great Mesa are practically their own world, home to many refugees from the Cosmic Sphere, who have ridden the palaces down, just as humans have long ridden them up.
The Helltooth Mountains
The Helltooth Mountains are a range of active volcanoes that run the entire length of the old Republic of Mu. Their fertile soil once nourished the breadbasket of the Republic, but since the transformation of the Spectrum Lands, they have become an imposing barrier to any who would flee that strange and barren land.
Many of the range's peaks regularly belch smoke, but for the large part, ancient Earth Anchors have prevented any cataclysmic eruptions. Still, open lava flows are not unknown, and breathing in the upper reaches can be extremely difficult, which is likely why the land has become a haven for the undead.
The Helltooth range technically continues to the south of Mu, into the ocean, creating a series of volcanic islands. The rich volcanic soil of these island supported large populations until recent years, but with the death of the Volcano Maiden, there have been massive famines, leaving entire cities abandoned, save for the undead.
The Death of the Goddess
The Helltooth Mountains have always been inhospitable, but since the Prism Wars, they've gotten much, much worse. Old Earth Anchors, which have stood unperturbed for centuries, have begun to show worrying cracks, and unprecedented tremors have forced the early evacuation of some of the deepest western kaers.
The cause is the death of the Volcano Maiden. Towards the end of the Prism Wars, she decided she would break her long practice of neutrality and declare her support for the people of Mu. And though she subsequently launched several credible offensives, she was too tied to her home range, allowing her to be cornered by the deadly terraforming magics of the Green Knights.
It is no trivial thing for a god to die. In life, she weighed heavily on the world, and now that she's gone, everything that bore her tread has fallen out of balance. Lush soil will grow barren. The earthquakes are going to get worse. The Earth Anchors will fail. And then the eruptions will start in earnest. The western half of Mu will be obliterated, but the rest of Ukss will not be much better off. The skies of the Lowlands will be darkened with ash. The Twilight Forest will wither in darkness. And the Bay of Blood will turn grey.
The only hope is that a new god can be found for the Mountains, but is there any strong enough to take up the Volcano Maiden's Crimson Mantle?
The City of Black Rains
Named for the falling ash from the nearby Helltooth Mountains, the City of Black Rains was always a bleak and unfriendly place, a trading hub between the Omphalous Coast and Mu where people were expected to finish their business quickly and get out.
Then, one day, the Springreach mine collapsed. Two hundred miners were trapped underground, in the hot and humid depths, with enough air and water (thanks to the spring) to last them weeks, if necessary. Rescue was possible, but the owners didn't see the profit in it, so they let the miners die . . . slowly . . . of starvation. But the Volcano Maiden was a goddess of the living earth, and as deep as the miners were, that life energy sustained them, even as their bodies died. Eventually, the miners clawed their way to the surface as fierce revenants, born once more from the womb of the earth. Then they had their revenge, first on the mine owners, then on the aristocrats and capitalists who tolerated their negligence.
Now, the City of Black Rains endures under an uneasy peace. The leader of the undead, who takes the title Twiceborn, rules the entire city. Her fellow zombies are just below her, a proletarian political machine that oversees the tenuous capitalism still allowed to the living. It is still nominally a democracy, but the Worker's Party is the only legal party under the new constitution, and advancement in its ranks is nearly impossible for anyone who has not been buried in the ruins of Springreach, which still retain the power to bring a semblance of life to a sufficiently intact corpse.
The original two hundred Reborn are committed to workers' rights with a passion strong enough to pull them back from the grave. While their regulations can be heavy-handed, they are always imposed with the intent of helping the common worker. Those who have been animated in the subsequent years have more variety. While the Grave Manager of the Worker's Party will never approve an open ideological foe for burial in Springreach, it is a bit harder to filter out the idealists, the reformers, and the opportunists that may be hiding among the living workers. As time goes on, the politics of the city is sure to shift away from the uncompromising principles of the first revolutionaries, though it has not yet become clear what will replace them.
Trade in the city took a major hit during the Prism Wars, but living refugees swelled its population, allowing for the expansion of its industrial production. It exports worked metal (mainly simple tools and ship parts) to the Omphalous Coast and the Equatorial Colonies, but as it comes into increasing competition with Lowlands manufacturers, it runs the risk of a military intervention to “liberate the living from rule by the dead” (*wink*).
weapon of the revolution, maggot revolvers are the brainchild of the
artificer TBD. Looking just like normal six-shooters, they fire fat,
bone-white maggots instead of bullets. When these maggots strike
flesh (whether living or dead), they burrow inside, seeking the
heart, which it will devour. Naturally, this is deadly to living
humans, but it can also destroy zombies. Though their hearts no
longer pump blood, they still represent the core of their spirit, and
when the heart is destroyed, that spirit can no longer remain
anchored to the body's decaying flesh.
Because of their potential to destroy even the Reborn, the Worker's Party of Black Rains will go to great lengths to recover any maggot revolver that falls into unfriendly hands. Little do they suspect that counter-revolutionary elements are already on the verge of reverse-engineering the design.
The Ghost Clan
A scourge to living and dead alike, the Ghost clan is a major political force in the Helltooth mountains. Impossibly stubborn when they were alive, the entire Piper family was flash-mummified after they refused to evacuate their ancestral home in advance of a predicted volcanic eruption. Too pigheaded to die, the Pipers dug their way out of their impromptu tombs and proceeded to consolidate their power.
In the last days of the Republic, the Ghost Clan acted as bandits, waylaying isolated settlements and poorly protected convoys heading towards the Crimson Badlands. The Prism wars temporarily forced them to retreat (their animating magics were as vulnerable to subversion by the Indigo Knights as any other spells), but they used the time well, becoming masters of an aggressive and domineering form of necromancy that gives them absolute control over summoned ghosts.
Their latest activities have revolved around summoning whatever ghosts they can get ahold of and interrogating them about the circumstances and locations of their burial. They then use this information to plunder tombs of any valuable grave goods or to recover any treasures that may have been lost with the unburied dead of the Prism Wars.
Though the Ghost Clan has largely adapted to its new, parasitical existence, traces of the old Piper family remain. Many nights, high up in the lava-carved valleys, there can still be heard the haunting strains of the family's forgotten bagpipe music.
Native to the Mountains' lower slopes, these small, furry creatures are as dangerous as they are cute. In the days of the old Republic of Mu, they were considered a major pest, creeping into farmlands to steal grain and hunt insects and scaring off predators by breathing fire.
Though the flame of a Dragon Mouse is not enough on its own to do more than startle a human, it is perfectly capable of igniting flammable materials in a human residence. More than one granary was burned entirely to the ground by a Dragon Mouse that was trying to intimidate a fox, cat, or dog. They haven't had quite the same range since the Prism Wars destroyed their major food sources, but in the western reaches of the Spectrum Lands, there are many scorched ruins that never actually saw battle.
Technically, the name “Bone Spirit” is a bit of a misnomer. This recently emerged form of undead comes from bodies that were completely vaporized by eruptions of the Helltooth volcanoes, and thus left no remains more substantial than a pile of dust. They can manifest in the physical world as abrasive whirlwinds of ash and bone fragments, but those are actually ectoplasmic projections. In the Magic World, they appear as blackened, eternally-crumbling skeletons whose breath is superheated air. Necromancers have not yet learned to summon these creatures, but when they do, their destructive potential will be enormous.
A temperate woodland to the west of the Helltooth Mountains, the Unicorn Forest has a high canopy that filters dim sunlight down to the wide game trails that run through its sparse underbrush. It has a managed quality about it, but human settlement does not extend more than a day's walk inside the woods. Some other intelligence governs the forest, something wise and ancient, not hostile to humanity, but too pure to be long endured – the Unicorn.
There's only one Unicorn, and he is much more than a horse with a horn. He is a god in equine form, the mystery of the woods personified, and he claims its entire expanse as his domain. He will aid lost travelers and even tend to the wounds of defeated intruders, but he will not tolerate anyone approaching the sacred treasure at the heart of the woods, the holy blade Excalibur.
To defend Excalibur, the Unicorn will use a variety of tricks and strategems. Paths will curve back upon themselves. Wholesome-looking streams will enchant those who drink their waters, putting them into a deep slumber. Rifts and chasms will appear in the earth, forcing explorers to leave the path and venture far out of their way. The Unicorn controls the earth and the waters and the wood and the air, and he uses those powers to confound those who seek Excalibur. He is not, however, a vindictive or violent soul, so he will first attempt to exhaust all non-lethal methods of deterrence before he personally joins battle and crushes would-be thieves under his immortal might.
Ultimately, Excalibur waits for a wielder with noble intentions, wise discernment, a strong arm and valorous heart, and above all a great and terrible need. Only when all those conditions are met will the Unicorn voluntarily allow a seeker to enter the heart of the forest, to cross the Mirror of Opposition in order to retrieve the sacred blade from its resting place.
The Mirror of Opposition is a broad, shallow lake that surrounds the island that contains Excalibur's shrine. It is not a difficult hazard in itself, and in fact there is a bridge leading directly from the shore to the island. However, those who approach the lake find themselves perfectly reflected in its waters. . . at least at first glance. The longer an image remains in the Mirror, the more it diverges from the person who cast it, becoming with time more and more of a parody, a version of the seeker from a world where they made all the opposite moral choices. And if a reflection stays too long in the Mirror (about half the time it takes to cross the bridge, at a brisk pace), it will emerge from the water as a fully-formed individual, as physically and magically powerful as its originator. These reflections will stop at nothing to keep their opposites from laying hands on Excalibur.
That is the blade's final protection, the last line of defense in case the Unicorn fails. Were some villain able to penetrate the heart of the forest, they would be met by a hero as kind and just as they were wicked. And should a hero have need of the sword, the villain that meets them will serve as a final test – if they cannot overcome themselves, what hope do they have of wielding Excalibur for the benefit of the world?
The Wolf-Riders of Hightor
The eerie holiness of the Unicorn Woods prevents human beings from settling too deep inside it, but there are many communities in the foothills that border it. In this border region, between the volcanic peaks and the sacred woods, the Wolf-Riders live in a collection of small villages and farming hamlets. They are a hard people, used to lean times and sudden disasters, but they have a great love of nature, especially the giant wolves that their great warriors ride into battle.
The bond between warrior and wolf is one forged over a lifetime of care, and in the religion of Hightor, the two are considered to be a single soul, inseparable in both life and death. Teams of wolf and rider will hunt through the outskirts of the Unicorn Woods, running down game in regions far from the forest's heart. The Unicorn tolerates these incursions to a certain degree, but sometimes hunters go missing, never to be seen again, and the wise among the villages caution hunters to not mistake the god's forbearance for unlimited license.
The villages of Hightor are far enough from the Helltooth mountains that it is rare for the dead to spontaneously rise from their graves, but the people take no chances. They build circles of standing stones, capable of binding the spirits of those cremated within. This not only prevents the reanimation of the dead, it also allows those who train in the mystic arts to consult the wisdom of their ancestors. Some foreign sorcerers view this practice as a form of dark necromancy that imprisons the souls of the dead, but the culture of Hightor is long experienced in these matters. Each stone circle is its own full realm in the Magic World, shaped by generations of the departed to become a pastoral paradise, free from the woes that afflict the living.
Given the barrier of the Helltooth Mountains, contact between Hightor and Mu has largely been sporadic. The Republic claimed both slopes of the volcanic range (and, by implication, the woods below), but historically, they've had little ability to project power into the region. There was an attempted invasion, about a generation before the Prism Wars, when Mu was at the height of its power, but it ended with the Republic in defeat.
In defending their homeland, the elders of Hightor wielded sorcery of unprecedented might. Somehow, they were able to call storms that could . . . absorb their warriors, lifting them up to become one with the clouds. These clouds would then travel over the Helltooth Mountains and begin to rain blood and bone down on the villages of Mu. These bits of viscera would reconstitute into whole battalions of skilled raiders who could strike deep behind enemy lines with almost no advanced warning. Eventually, the cost of the insurgency became too great for the Republic to bear, and they abandoned their expansionist ambitions.
The sorcerers of Hightor have demonstrated no other abilities on a similar scale, and so many believe that they were given the Storm Legion ritual by some outside power. The likeliest candidate is the Cloud People of the Funnelcloud Plains, but if so, it would be a rare deviation from their policy of non-intervention with the affairs of the surface. This has given pause to many foreign powers who have pondered moving in to Mu, in the wake of the Prism Wars.
A hundred years ago, the city of Bluefall was Mu's eastern-most settlement. An experimental planned city built on the coast south of the Unicorn woods, its main purpose was the scientific and magical study of the region (as well as being a naval base capable of harboring ships operating in the north Omphalos Sea). As such, it was, for its day, a technological wonder, having all the modern amenities Mu was capable of providing.
Then, one day, it went silent. Every one of the 25,000 living souls who inhabited the city mysteriously vanished in the space of a single night. Buildings, technology, even warships were left totally pristine and intact. There was no sign of struggle or battle. Everyone was just . . . gone.
Mu sent teams to investigate the disappearance, naturally, but they were unable to pinpoint a cause. Their best guess is that it had something to do with the Bluefall Observatory, as any explorer who ventured too close to what was, at the time, the world's largest telescope, would find themselves spontaneously and rapidly growing hair everywhere on their body. Eventually, the entire area was quarantined and lingering suspicion for the sorcerers of Hightor helped set the stage for Mu's disastrous invasion.
After the Prism Wars, the diaspora of Mu survivors gave Bluefall new life. Yes, everyone had heard the rumors, and no, they were no closer to an explanation than the pre-war scientists, but to the scarred refugees, fleeing the destruction of their homeland, a nearly-modern city with mostly intact infrastructure and enough ordinance to establish rudimentary self-defense was too attractive a prospect to pass up. They avoid the Observatory, of course, just to be safe, but they don't see that as any reason to abandon an otherwise ideal settlement.
The Funnelcloud Plains
When the sun shines, you will feel safe in the Funnelcloud Plains. You will look from horizon to horizon and see wave after wave of bright green grass, bending on a gentle breeze, and maybe you will wonder why no one has settled this pastoral paradise. Those fluffy clouds in the distance look so cheerful. Then the clouds will grow taller, reaching into the upper atmosphere. The sky will darken, and the cold rain will fall. By noon, it will be as dark as midnight and the winds will scream between deafening claps of thunder. In the instant of a lightning strike, the half-second daylight will reveal a silhouette looming downwards from the clouds, the conical shape of a tornado. The sparse trees will groan and crack and you'll be pulled off your feet. If you're lucky, a stone will crack you on the head and the darkness will overtake you. If you're not, the lightning will strike and you'll see the faces in the clouds. This was not a coincidence. They were coming for you.
The Funnelcloud plains are expansive grasslands that, due to a variety of complex geographical factors, are prone to attracting frequent extreme weather events. There are more tornadoes in this region than the rest of the world combined. This would, by itself, make settling difficult – even the sturdiest building can expect to last only 5-10 years before it's knocked down by high winds – but the naturally inclement weather is further exacerbated by the actions of the Cloud People, who have no interest in allowing any ground-based civilization to take root.
It is unclear, even to themselves, whether the Cloud People are yokai or human adepts. Most of the time, they float through the air, mostly human in appearance but with pale white or gray skin that is cold to the touch. When they set foot upon the earth, however, they rapidly gain color and warmth and will appear to be completely unremarkable human beings (their “human” skin colors do not appear to correlate with their “cloud” skin and demonstrate the full range of pigments). This is not a magical disguise. A given cloud person will have a single earthbound form that they always return to. Returning to the sky is as simple as jumping off a high place and hoping the change reverts before they hit the ground. As time goes on and the cloud person spends more time touching earth, the height requirement gets steadily greater. After about a year, even the top of Ukss' atmosphere is no longer high enough and the cloud person becomes permanently earthbound.
This transformation also works in reverse – the Cloud People may swoop low and carry away normal humans. When they reach a certain altitude, the human's skin will begin to fade to monochrome and they will gain the ability to float in the air. This is fine, so long as the human returns to the earth in time, but as time goes on, visitors to the Cloud Peoples' realm will notice their shape becoming hazier and more indistinct. Sooner or later (usually after about a year), a wind will blow through the visitor and they will completely disintegrate. A small number of humans have the ability to keep their shape indefinitely, and it is suspected that this mutation is the origin of the Cloud People as a whole.
Cloud Person culture emphasizes the arts of scholarship and astrology, and their great cumulonimbus cities are filled with libraries, salons, and observatories. They have many extremely dubious (some might even say “silly”) theories about the culture and life cycle of ground-dwellers and it is unclear how many are truly serious (for example, Cloud People do not need to sleep, and thus there are long-running academic debates about why humans lay around for a third of the day – the prevailing consensus is that they're lazy).
The Cloud People have very few physical needs (mostly just water, which they can attain in nearly limitless quantities by seeding the clouds), and therefor little use for government, but they do have a class of knight-judges known as the Lightning People. Lightning People have hot, dark-gray skin and can change into lightning bolts at will, striking down enemies or traveling from city to city in the blink of an eye. The distinction between cloud person and lightning person is not a racial one. Cloud People can train to become Lightning People, though it is a grueling process, best begun in childhood, and potential mentors are extremely selective. In addition to scaring away ground dwellers, the Lightning People also mediate disputes between Cloud People and have the power to levy any sentence up to exile (though this is technically not capital punishment, many Cloud People regard it as a fate worse than death).
The most powerful Lightning People are the four Storm Kings/Queens (membership in this elite society usually turns over every few decades - currently there are two Kings and two Queens). They don't rule the Cloud People in any conventional sense, but they are entrusted with stewardship of the four Storm Keeps, which grant their holders the ability to control weather on a semi continental scale. Each Keep controls a different phenomenon – Rain, Wind, Clouds, and Thunder – and by coordinating their efforts, the Storm Kings can totally control all the weather in the Funnelcloud Plains. Typically, though, the holders of the keeps are prone to petty rivalries, ensuring chaos in the lands below. The only thing that reliably brings them together is the prospect of new ground-based settlements, which they will destroy with terrible tornadoes.
Near the center of the Funnelcloud Plains, equidistant from each of the Storm Keeps, there is a jagged outcrop of dark stone that rises 500 feet in the air. If you climb to the top, there is a point where the winds form a permanent standing vortex, as loud as an airplane engine. Any message spoken into the vortex will find its way to its intended recipient, so long as they are somewhere on the surface of Ukss. The winds will carry the words for as far and as long as it takes. Such communications are not perfectly confidential, but they are extremely difficult to intercept (though anyone nearby the recipient will hear the words at the volume they were originally spoken, which makes things a little awkward when the sender wrongly believes they needed to shout).
After it became clear that the Rainbow Knights were defeated for good, a land rush began to reclaim as much of Mu as possible. This led to the establishment of Lowlands colonies in the southern savanna. Though they are still small and dependent upon their home nations for support, the largest of the Equatorial Colonies are well on their way to becoming self-sufficient.
In addition to providing cheap sources of cotton, corn syrup, and chocolate, the Equatorial Colonies also serve as a dumping ground for petty convicts, political dissidents, and the unemployed. Ships containing transportees operate in a more or less continuous circuit and though as many as one in five die within the first year of arrival (approximately half from the voyage and half from the near-survival conditions of the colonies themselves), the growth rate of the colonies is among the highest in the world.
The animal gods are the biggest obstacle to further expansion of the colonies. Great herds of animals roam the grasslands and they have champions among them. Beasts with wise eyes who scorn bullets and turn magic back against their attackers. The people of Mu revered these creatures as gods, and no one who has faced one in battle could say that they were wrong to do so.
The most common animals in the savanna are brightly-feathered avian dinosaurs that graze on the grass. They are stalked by mammalian predators like lions and hyenas, and compete for territory with elephants, giant porcupines, and the more reptilian dinosaurs that wander south from the Crimson Badlands.
The Ghost Elephant
The animals gods are very nearly indestructible, but they are not invincible. Colonists recently managed to slay the God of Elephants . . . or at least its physical form.
The psychically sensitive have reported seeing a great elephant spirit roaming the savanna, raging through the grass in helpless agony. While the spirit is invisible to most humans, it seems to agitate nearby elephant herds, which begin desperately searching the plains in response to its subsonic pleas.
Several herds of elephants have managed to find the remains of their slain god, and will make periodic pilgrimages to the site whenever they are in the area. By fussing over the god's bones, these elephants gain extraordinary endurance, sensory acuity, and insight into the behavior of both human and beast. They invariably use these powers to harass the human communities that slew their guardian.
For now, the phenomenon seems isolated to the region immediately
surrounding the god's remains, but it is spreading. Every season,
elephants are coming from farther and farther afield to pay their
These elephant-sized birds are surely very wise. Most people who meet them agree that they are very intelligent and know many mystical secrets. Nobody has an unkind word to say against them.
A Typhonian Peacock is definitely as smart as a human. Some of them are even as smart as a clever human. But they lean on their beauty. They are conversationally skillful. They evade questions they don't know how to answer and speak so confidently that none dare gainsay them. They do have magic, often quite potent, but they are Prodigies. Each one is born able to manipulate a particular element (usually sky or flame), but there is no trick to it. They have no secrets to share. They are simply vain enough to imply that they do.
A tail feather from a Typhonian Peacock can be used as a Wand of Splendor, but it is fragile and quickly disintegrates under repeated use.
The Field of
In the vast, flat plains of Mu's savanna, there is a place where the grass thins and the landscape is dominated by hundreds of stone spheres, each the height of a full-grown man. Legend has it that they were created by the god TBD in a single night of drunkenness. Even now, the spheres are sacrosanct, perfectly resistant to axes, hammers, and picks and highly resistant to dynamite and destruction magic. As near as anyone can tell, the spheres have no function or purpose. The god simply likes them.
These gentle herbivores manage to survive the dangers of the savanna by being entirely too dangerous to fuck with. At least, until recently. New settlers have begun to hunt the giant porcupines with high-caliber rifles, in order to harvest their spear-like quills. These quills are light, strong, and easily enchanted, making them perfect for architectural applications. They are usually used as support poles for the semi-permanent tents that make up the bulk of colonial housing, though the rapid growth of the colonies is leading to an increasing scarcity of the giant porcupines in the wild.
Surrounding the three continents is a vast expanse of open water. Without the land to break them up, both storms and waves are free to grow to massive size, and as a result it is largely considered unnavigable. However, it is not without life. Underwater mountains sometimes breach the surface, making for small, bare islands that will occasionally bloom with the odd storm-tossed seed or stranded family of birds. Some of these islands, particularly near the continental shelf, are havens for pirates, sorcerers, or forbidden gods.
But it is under the waves that the true life of the Girding Ocean is found. The sea floor is deeper and darker and stranger than anything found in the Omphalos Sea, and yet whole civilizations thrive in its crushing depths.
These aquatic yokai build magnificent cities of coral and pearl, lit by the otherworldly glow of bio-luminescent sea-weed. There are entire monarchies, complete with barons, knights, and courtiers, who play out grand romances never dreamt-of by surface dwellers.
Yet in the darkness between the kingdoms, in great rifts and stygian mountain hollows, there live terrible things. The benthic vampires are often the least of them. Whole wars have been fought to keep even one of these horrors quiescent, and ancient enemies will often put aside their differences when their sages and advisors detect a shift in the familiar currents.
Three Sisters Island
There's an island in the Girding Ocean that wise sailors avoid. It has no name. Very deliberately, it has no name. When the sea-canny refer to it all, they do so obliquely. It is "where the sisters sleep." Or "The place the sisters protect."
No one is quite sure what the sisters are, exactly. Goddesses, perhaps? Or creatures older than humanity's petty categories. It is rare for them to directly confront trespassers, but if you sail towards their island, you will find yourself sailing away into stranger seas. It is a common beginning to many heroes' stories.
The hero always survives, but it may be because only a hero can.
The Undying Island
In contrast to Three Sisters Island, there is a place in the Girding Ocean that many have sought, but few have found – the Undying Island, the Field of Grass and Flowers, that decay may not touch. Legend has it that every flower on the island is a tiny gate, allowing the passage of miniature Blossom Alfar, who tend this sacred place and keep it free from the taint of human greed.
For on the Undying Island, no life may completely perish. In time (though “time” may be decades or centuries) even grievous wounds may heal. It is believed, with varying degrees of wishful thinking, that many ancient heroes have found refuge on the Undying Island, guided by the gods to its hidden location as reward for a lifetime of service. There is hope that they may return to the world in its hour of greatest need.
The Undying Island's greatest protector is the goddess, Violet, who permits no bloodshed on this sacred land. She has great power over the workings of chance, and any who attempt violence find their attacks foiled by inexplicable happenstance and unlikely coincidences. This power is not absolute, however, and Violet's greatest fear is that Island may be discovered by powerful wielders of magic, who will corrupt its healing powers to work unimaginable horrors.
The Pirates of
the Western Gate
Operating out of the rocky islands of the Girding Ocean, this band of seafaring sorcerers engages in many dark practices to evade capture by technologically advanced Lowland navies. The most dramatic of their arts is their ability to open sacred gates, drawing demons into physical reality in the form of Storm Alfar.
The demons and the pirates have a complex web of contracts, blood oaths, and common interests. In return for giving their ships fair winds and wracking their pursuers with lightning and gales, the demons receive a never-ending stream of human sacrifices and treasures of occult significance.
The Pirates, for their part, appear to be searching for something in the Girding Ocean. They plunder ships to satisfy the hungers of their demonic patrons, but what they want goes beyond mere wealth. The sorcerers who lead them are old and cunning and know many secrets. If they ever find what they're looking for, it could make storms look like child's play.
As intelligent dolphins, the Dargonesti do not build shelters, nor do they stay in one location long enough to call it a home, but their Pods are as tight-knit as any human community and last generation after generation with a fixed name and identity.
Some describe the Dargonesti as the playful jokers of the sea who rescue lost seafarers and entertain ships with their acrobatic antics. Others as sadistic brutes who torture the helpless and take pleasure in cruelty. Both assessments miss the mark. The Dargonesti are people, for all the contradictions and complexities that entails. Nonetheless, they are heavily influenced by the local culture of their pod. If it is led by a craven bully, then that's what they become. Otherwise, most Dargonesti culture hews to the hedonic principle - if it makes you happy, do it.
Dargonesti have an affinity for the magical arts. Their natural form precludes using a wand, and most rituals do not work underwater, but they have a knack for wild magic and are some of the few people to become adepts multiple times over. Most Dargonesti magic is what you would expect from an aquatic creature (summon fish, protection from drowning, etc), but they are eager students and a pod with access to highly-trafficked shipping routes will collect an eclectic variety of talents from friendly land-goers.
The signature Dargonesti magic, though, is the ability to shift into a human-like form. This too is an adept ability, taking years to master, but it is so widespread, appearing even in the most antisocial pods, that outsiders tend to mistake it for an innate power. Dargonesti disguises are good, but rarely completely perfect. They usually overdo the ears, though whether this is because hearing is such an important sense to them or because they don't have external ears of their own (or, as more likely, because it's some private joke at humanity's expense) is currently unknown.
Vampires are immortal. The thing no one tells you about immortality is that as time goes on, it becomes increasingly likely that you will become trapped. A building will collapse on top of you. You will be buried in a concrete tomb. You will sink to the bottom of the sea and have your bones crushed by the unbearable pressure of the depths. . .
Benthic vampires are those who have adapted to the deep sea. Down far below the surface, where the sun never shines, they have honed their innate vampire powers to withstand the terrible environment. They are stronger, swifter, and more vicious than surface vampires, but can no longer pass for even remotely human.
Warm blood is rare under the sea, especially at the depths that Benthics favor, but they have learned to listen for whale song. A single whale can feed a whole pack. The monsters swarm over them en masse, dragging them to the sea floor and draining them dry before they can drown.
The Dargonesti hunt Benthics whenever they can, but they are no match for them one-on-one and usually wind up being chased away from the choicest Benthic feeding grounds.
The Assassin Priest
This renegade mermaid was banished from the kingdom of TBD for attempting a failed palace coup. Since then, she has made many dark pacts with slumbering stygian horrors, and turned her new personal puissance towards getting revenge on those who banished her. In recent years, many of her old rivals have vanished under mysterious circumstances, and the soothsayers have only now begun to put a name to the threat.
The time will soon come for the Assassin Priest to reveal herself openly, and when she does, the merfolk kingdoms will tremble, for she knows well the ways of the shadowed gods, and she has so well concealed her corruption that her name still carries weight among the disenfranchised masses. If she can successfully reconcile her personal popularity with her devotion to her dark patrons, she may threaten more than just the deep ocean.
Sartis, the Black Tentacle
The Assassin Priest's closest ally is a chipper talking octopus with an unflagging work ethic and a complete lack of conscience. One minute, she'll be taking notes on the boss's sinister schemes, the next she'll be stabbing a traitor with a poisoned blade . . . and at no point will she ever lose the song in her voice or the twinkle in her eyes.
No one is quite sure what the Assassin Priest did to earn the loyalty of this dangerous creature, but she will explain in nauseating detail the dire fate she wishes for the kingdom of TBD.
The Northern Ice
A harsh and unforgiving land, with no soil for plants to find purchase, and reachable only through stormy seas, the Northern Ice Shelf has no native life. Even Yokai avoid the place. Only the alfar spend any length of time there, and they come and go with the unpredictable patterns of the magical gates. Some sorcerers regard the Ice Shelf as an untapped resource, given the thinness of the barrier between Ukss and the Magic World, but the cold and the snow are so severe that even the promise of untapped magical power has proven insufficient to draw permanent settlement.
The one exception is Santa's Village at the North Pole. Inhabited by the largest concentration of Alfar outside Pandaemonium Island, these semi-divine creatures labor year-round to create the magical wonders their master delivers to those he finds deserving. Unlike his counterparts on other worlds, Ukss' Santa Claus does not have a specific day on which he delivers presents. Instead, he travels the world giving gifts wherever and whenever they are most needed, revealing his true identity only to the International Mail Service, who deliver letters to him as a courtesy from one group of package delivery professionals to another.
Though air travel on Ukss is increasingly common, there is a realm above the sky that has barely been explored. Actually ascending into the Cosmic Sphere is not especially difficult. Any form of magical flight that does not rely on air resistance will eventually lift its user beyond the reaches of Ukss' atmosphere. The real difficulties come when the traveler is exposed to the Stellar Medium. Not only is the Stellar Medium airless, it is full of raw magical energy, capable of roasting an unshielded traveler alive or grotesquely mutating one whose wards are only against the heat.
Pure elements will block the worst effects of the Stellar Medium, though most dedicated cosmic explorers prefer to sheathe themselves in elemental air, so that their shelter will also let them breathe.
The rituals to maintain a sufficiently strong elemental pocket are delicate and fickle. They require constant monitoring to maintain their potency. The ritualists who specialize in this work must also be powerful warriors, for there are monsters capable of surviving the Stellar Medium who like to preface their attacks by sabotaging their victims' protection.
The Overcoming will make you perfect. All you have to give them is everything. Though most active in the Cosmic Sphere, the eerily perfect physiques and unnerving, frozen smiles of the Overcoming's members are a familiar sight on Ukss as well. Presenting themselves as a benevolent group that seeks only to use sorcery to achieve physical and mental perfection, they actively recruit in universities, night clubs, and sometimes even the halls of government - anywhere they think will open doors to the rich or powerful.
Yet the Overcoming is more than just a status-seeking cult. They are, in fact, a collective mind, a massive superhuman intelligence made from the best parts of anyone vulnerable enough to fall under their influence. Their only saving grace is that they will not take new minds by force. Trickery, seduction, and a hard sell that borders on coercion, sure, but the final choice must technically be a free one.
One of the key challenges to exploring the Cosmic Sphere is the vast distances involved. Ordinary magic can take months or years to fly an explorer between even the nearest celestial bodies. Tessers are gigantic fauna native to the Stellar Medium with the power to slip in and out of the magic world at will, allowing them to traverse truly mind-boggling distances in the blink of an eye.
Tessers resemble a mix between a squid and a mollusk. They have thousands of wire-thin tentacles that can stretch for miles outside their soft, squishy bodies. These tentacles harvest energy directly from the Stellar Medium and convert it into power for the Tesser's massive brain. It's debatable how intelligent a Tesser truly is. Most psychics who have bonded with one say that they have the intelligence and demeanor of a small puppy, but those who have worked with them for extended periods often come to believe that they think deep thoughts on a scale too slow for humans to register.
Tessers will burrow into asteroids, using them as protective shells for decades or centuries until they grow too large and are forced to seek out new homes. Their teleportation abilities are more than strong enough to carry millions of tons of rock and metal with them over celestial distances. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed among Cosmic explorers. Coaxing tessers into adopting star ships as their temporary shells (given their slow growth, a large enough ship could last a century or more) and then telepathically binding them to magical navigation thrones is the main way to build a vessel capable of traversing the Cosmic Sphere.
The Dead Crews
A reanimated body cannot telepathically communicate with a Tesser (the creatures whine in pain whenever it is tried), but they can operate every other part of a ship, walking through the cosmic medium as if it were little more than an inconvenience. In the days before the Prism Wars, the shipping magnates of Mu would recruit entire crews from the Helltooth Mountains, paying them a fraction of what they would a living traveler.
the balance of power is reversed, with ships full of undead
“recruiting” (it's approximately 75% voluntary, though pirates
skew that number a lot) living helmsmen to pilot their ships as they
operate profitable trade routes through the cosmic sphere.
The Dagger Moon
Looking like nothing so much as a slate-grey arrowhead, the Dagger Moon is among the most accessible of Ukss' celestial bodies. It is a mere 19km across, but orbits so low that it looms as large as the more distant Luna.
Magicians who have visited the Dagger Moon report that it is, incredibly enough, a massive spacefaring vessel, put into orbit a long time ago, by visitors from far, far away. Deciphering its inscriptions, they have determined that the aliens called it a "Superior Star Destroyer," which seems consistent with the thousands of cannons they've found scattered about its surface.
No one has yet figured out a way to enter the interior of the vessel and explorers of the Cosmic Sphere will move rapidly to stop anyone who is appearing to try. Those who know of the Dagger Moon's true nature have nightmares that some reckless or ambitious scavengers will wake it from its quiescence and unleash destruction on a scale Ukss has never seen.
The Celestial Embassy
The greatest spirits of the Magic World, the gods, demon princes, and other primordial powers, have difficulty communicating directly with Ukss. It would be beneath their dignity to enter the Tainted Bargain or pass through a gate to become Alfar, but dreams and omens are too imprecise and too subject to interpretation.
It is for this reason that they created the Celestial Embassy atop the Ascension Tower. This vast, kilometer-tall dome takes advantage of the thinness of the border between the magic world and the Cosmic Sphere to allow greater spirits to project shadows of themselves into the human world (the massive scale of the audience chamber is to accommodate the often surprising bulk of such shadows).
Though technically, only the audience chamber is the true Celestial Embassy, the term has expanded to include the small city that has grown up on the "bottom" (Ukss-ward side) of the dome. Populated by the lesser spiritual entities who may project their entire being through the Stellar Medium, it exists to serve the gods by sorting petitions, judging their worth, and performing the rituals to call the gods to answer the worthiest requests. It is considered neutral ground in the factional conflicts of the magic world and is one of the few places where gods and demons may be found side-by-side without open warfare.
Closest to the diamond cable are the Four Direction Palaces, the only buildings in the Celestial Embassy capable of descending down to Ukss. They are the temporary home of any humans, goblins, and non-spiritual yokai who might be visiting the Embassy. By tradition, three of the Palaces remain at the Embassy, while the fourth lies on the surface of Ukss. In ancient times, when congress between humans and the gods was more common, each of the Palaces was specialized to hear a certain category of petitions, but now, the custom exists mainly to discourage too much mortal traffic at any one time.
Because the Celestial Embassy exists at a stable point over Ukss' surface, it is a major navigational hazard for would-be explorers of the Cosmic Sphere. The god-forged material of the cable and dome are impervious to any normal collision, but that is scant comfort to the sorcerers who can't move quickly enough to avoid getting splattered along their sides.
There are locations in the Cosmic Sphere that attract miniature worlds. These tiny planetoids range from a few hundred meters to dozens of kilometers across. Most are empty and unexplored, but there are hundreds which have attracted settlement from Ukss, Luna, and stranger places still.
These settlements are small villages, on average, housing two or three dozen families. However some homesteads are the isolated estates of powerful individuals, and a few are magnificent cities, every bit the equal to anything on the other celestial bodies.
Each homestead requires its own technique to protect its residents from the Stellar Medium. The easiest and most common is to hollow out the asteroid and live in air-filled caverns in the interior. The thick elemental earth serves to act as an effective shield. More sophisticated constructions will smelt the iron out of the rock and spin it into a cylinder that is often several times the length and diameter of the original world. Obscure rituals will create a gravitational pull towards the exterior of the homestead, allowing settlers to build farms, towns, and temples on its interior walls. The most extravagant homesteads eschew the inherent protection of metal and stone and build on the world's surface, relying on thrice-fold runes of binding to capture an envelope of elemental air that leaves the settlement open to the majesty of the cosmic sphere.
The culture of the Homesteads values privacy above all else. It is the one value they have in common. Most will come to the aid of a neighbor, in the event that they have a life-threatening emergency, but any issue less critical will rarely rouse their attention. Almost without exception, people homestead the cosmic sphere because they seek to do things they can't do on Ukss - like perform strange or forbidden experiments or create new societies that follow a full expression of their ideology or simply hide from their enemies in a place impossible to sneak up on.
One social tradition common to the Homesteads, for the rare occasions when they wish to socialize with their neighbors, is formalized martial arts. Every asteroid has its own signature martial arts style, and it is a common ritual of greeting for guests to challenge their hosts to a friendly sparring match. Every couple of years or so (the calendar has little meaning in the Cosmic Sphere), one of the larger Homesteads will host a grand tournament. Competitors and spectators will travel as much as a month through the interplanetary void to attend. Though for most it is no more than a sport or a means of cultural expression, there are enough genuine masters to make it a spectacle worth seeing.
Every asteroid homestead was created with powerful magic, but it's not necessarily the case that anyone who calls the Cosmic Sphere home is a potent magician. Many Prodigies are born from exposure to the stellar medium, but even communities where the populace is innately magical may wind up performing their maintenance rituals by rote, without true understanding (when they even remember it all - a few have forgotten entirely that their ancestors have ever called Ukss home).
Thirty years ago, Ukss reckoning, the magician Clarin grew disgusted with terrestrial society. He came to the conclusion that the problem with life on Ukss, the reason it had so much war and poverty, was that most people were not blessed with his abundant natural gifts. If only everyone were as intelligent, dispassionate, and magically talented as himself, surely they would work together to create a paradise.
Clarin Station is his attempt to attempt to make that vision a reality. Using specially-built chambers he bought from Yennin, he is able to incubate clones of himself in batches of 50. These artificial wombs predate the Clone ritual, so each "generation" of Clarin-clones are merely infants with his genes, rather than full-fledged physical and mental duplicates, but to Clarin's thinking, this is the superior way. Of course a society made of nothing but himself would flourish, but the point of the experiment is that his powers, distributed evenly among the people, would allow them to thrive even without his specific brilliance.
After raising the first generation himself, Clarin turned the station over to them, to administer how they see fit. Clarin occasionally stops by, to both check in and to rest in the only place in the universe he feels truly at home, but by and large the clones have become accustomed to independence. There are only a half-dozen wands on the station, meaning that the bulk of their natural aptitude for magic has gone to waste, but seeing as how they are more than sufficient to maintain the population's material needs, most of the clones content themselves with exploring science or the arts.
The station as a whole is approximately 500 acres on the interior of a cylinder. It houses fewer than 200 clones, half of which are under 15 years old. Most live in a brick and ivy manor house near the entrance chamber, but a few of the older clones have cottages out in "the country" It is magically cultivated to have a temperate, pastoral atmosphere, with rolling woods-covered hills and small streams that flow in an eternal loop. The clones themselves have an air of the aristocratic natural philosopher. They lack their father's single-minded megalomania, but their upbringing and environment has deeply instilled the idea that they are the universe's most blessed form of life.
Clarin Station practices Hundred-Fist Style martial arts, which emphasizes rapid punches from unexpected directions, and synergizes extremely well with their natural inclination towards teamwork.
A full celestial body in its own right, Luna possesses a thin, but breathable atmosphere and enough warmth to support sparse native life. Because Luna has less protection from the Stellar Medium, the surface is subject to strange energies that spawn bizarre and powerful Prodigies.
Disembodied eyeballs, the size of ripe pumpkins float through the air, skimming off the psychic energies of the life down below. Giant starfish, as tall as men, lurk on high rocks and drop on those who walk below, devouring them with their vicious maws. Sentient Lunar Kelp uses its innate telekinesis to lift its foliage into the air. Contrary to popular belief, it is not carnivorous, but it will brutally attack any animal that threatens its shallow system of roots. Other, stranger creatures live in the crags and crevices of the seemingly barren Lunar landscape, the only thing they have in common that they cannot survive in the lesser ambient magic of Ukss itself.
The self-appointed "Gateway to Luna," Victory Station is the largest and most cosmopolitan homestead within easy reach of Ukss itself. A massive construct of wood and glass, it resembles a small city built within a giant train station. It is roughly cylindrical in shape and open at both ends to allow space vessels to dock in the massive shipyards that take up the middle third of the station, but unlike a true cylindrical homestead, gravity pulls in only one direction, towards the local "ground." Victory Station is protected from the Stellar Medium by an envelope of elemental air that extends for more than a hundred meters past its exterior walls.
Victory Station is run by the consortium of Sorcerers who built it. Despite the immensely profitable trade and industry that comes with this control (more than half of all space vessels currently in service were built here), no one dares challenge them. Every day this improbable place stays in operation is an extravagant display of the level of magic that would be turned against any usurpers.
The people of Victory Station have a very stiff and formal style of boxing that draws derision from outsiders . . . until they're on the receiving end of a sledgehammer-force punch.
The Lunar College of Prophets
Located in the balmy equatorial regions of the Sea of Rains, The College of Prophets is an organization that seeks to gather all true seers under its umbrella, so that they might use their powers for the advancement of all humanity. The College accepts anyone who can magically foresee the future, regardless of whether they are Prodigies, Adepts, or Magicians. Even Yokai are welcome to join, provided they are of good will and honest intentions (in fact, College doctrine declares that Yokai must be included in their definition of humanity so long as they are not inherently and irredeemably creatures of malice - and even then there's always hope).
The College helps prospective seers hone their talents, though many find their tutelage frustrating and vague. There is no formal hierarchy and no official teachers or students. Rather, everyone is both. As they are fond of saying, "you never leave the school, the universe is our classroom." This ethos of equality and humility is fostered in the College's members to try and keep them from setting themselves up as humanity's rulers. Many of the more devoted students will renounce all material wealth and national citizenship and come to live at the College full time.
Those who seek out the Prophets' help often find themselves stymied by their seeming lack of urgency and indirect way of addressing requests. Yet the College exists precisely to turn vague prophecies into real benefits for humanity, and they are experts on tugging lightly at the strings of destiny.
The only thing that really seems to rile up the notoriously imperturbable prophets is when they learn of a true seer who abuses the gift of prophecy to exploit or manipulate the unsighted. Rumor has it that the College maintains an elite squad of psychic assassins to deal with such troublemakers, though, of course, if such a group exists, no one has ever been able to find evidence of its existence.
The College is a largely pacifist organization, but they do practice Crane Style martial arts as a form of meditation.
The Cult of Ecstasy
Though they operate primarily on Ukss, the Cult of Ecstasy began as an offshoot of the Lunar College of Prophets. These renegade seers believe the College's project is not only doomed to failure, but also that it must inevitably infringe on humanity's free will. As a result, they seek chaos in all things, hoping to muddy the chains of cause and effect so much that the future becomes impossible to see.
The leaders of the College take no direct action against the Cult, saying only that "they are on their own path." The younger seers are not quite so sanguine, however. Though both organizations are avowedly non-violent, there exists something of a cold war between the two groups. The Cult is constantly trying to monkey-wrench the College as a matter of principle, and occasionally groups of young College hotheads will visit Ukss against the advice of their elders to return the favor.
The Cult uses a variety of methods (such as sex, drugs, and loud music) to overwhelm the physical senses and achieve spiritual clarity. They use the insights of their prophecies to find nexus points in destiny and then work to complicate these situations as much as possible (without violating their own oaths to respect the sanctity of human freedom).
The Cult of Ecstasy practices drunken fist style martial arts.
First discovered by the Lunar College of Prophets and held as one of the terrible secrets of their order, the formula for Perfection was stolen by the Cult of Ecstasy when they defected . . . and kept as a terrible secret, because even those agents of chaos have standards.
Perfection is a fusion of alchemy and precognition. It is impossible to brew by anyone who cannot foretell the future, as it requires different ingredients each time, depending on complex astrological factors that are impossible to calculate to a sufficient degree of precision. With liberal application of the intuitive arts an alchemist may have, after 3-15 days, a single draught of clear, tasteless liquid that retains its potency no matter what it is subsequently mixed with.
In the wrong hands, Perfection would be a potent tool of assassination. It doesn't technically kill, but it does instantly and permanently shut down an imbiber's conscious mind. From that point on, every last scrap of the subject's soul is focused on empowering their subconscious. Their coma dreams gain an incredible, nigh-divine insight, at the expense of never being able to communicate such insights with another living being.
unscrupulous prophet might dose an unsuspecting victim with
Perfection and then use telepathic or astral contact to plunder their
dreams for valuable information, but thankfully, the current
possessors of the secret are too conscientious to engage in such
underhanded behavior. Still, there are at least three doses that are
currently unaccounted for, and if one found its way back to Ukss, it
could change the nature of the Astral Web forever.
The Living Island
There is a small island almost perfectly centered in the middle of the Sea of Rains, at Luna's warmest, wettest point. Unlike most of the moon's surface, life thrives here, even if the magic has made it . . . strange.
Though there are many animals on The Living Island, none are predators and none are prey. They eat only fruit, and never living bark, leaves, or seeds. Similarly, the Island is lush with blue-tinted foliage, but the broad-leafed trees do not compete for sunlight. On the rare occasions when one drops a seed, it will be picked up by a bird and gently deposited on a bare spot of ground. Animals will come from all over the island to fertilize it with their leavings, not one daring to disturb its germination.
Everything on The Living Island acts with the same singular purpose. They are all connected, joined by psychic bonds carried through the magic-rich air of the Lunar surface. Explorers who've studied the island have so far been unable to locate its controlling mind. Some say it's in the plants, others in the animals, a few even say it's in the rock itself. The best guess is that it's all of the above, a collective mind, acting in perfect concert, to create a paradise for its constituent organisms.
The growth of The Living Island is limited by the boundaries of the sea. Its trees will not take root on the mainland, and any animal removed from it will sicken and die before it reaches the nearest shore. In all likelihood, they have adapted to require the Island's psychic energies as part of their normal metabolism. Moving a significant portion of the Island all in one trip might suffice to create an offspring colony, but freed of its geographic limitations, it would probably overwhelm any world it was transplanted to.
The Living Island is hostile to most visitors, though a few Lunar seafarers know a ritual that will trick the Island into thinking the caster is part of its collective. This ritual is completely safe to use . . . unless you are a rare psychic prodigy who has not yet mastered the art of mental shielding. Then the ritual will serve to open your mind to the collective in truth.
The Amethyst Tower
This forty-story building is made of pale purple quartz and practically glows in Luna's magically active atmosphere. Though it hasn't been used as such in centuries, it is also a telekinetic amplifier of incredible power, able to combine the mental strength of up to ten thousand prodigies and adepts into one massive blast, capable of hurling asteroids to distant stars or cracking continents as far away as Aetheria.
Though it is mostly a residential building these days, a hint of the Amethyst Tower's true power lies in the Diorama Room. There resides a 1/36th scale model of the entire tower, minus its exterior walls. Any changes made to the diorama are reflected in the corresponding area of the tower, with a delay of 1-5 minutes (depending on the scope of the changes).
The Tower Birds
not much like birds, actually. More like reptilian bats. But the
residents call them “birds” and have taken to keeping them as
pets. They are intelligent and highly trainable, and thanks to the
proximity of the telekinetic amplifier, they may also move small
objects with their minds. Mostly, they use this to knock small items
off their owners' shelves, but some rogues have managed to train them
for more nefarious purposes.
This distant gas giant is visible as a pale, yellowish-white dot in Ukss' southern hemisphere. Even with powerful travel rituals an explorer without a tesser will take at least a decade to reach it. Up close, it is a very pleasant lemon-cream color, with bands of clouds ranging from pure white to tan.
The depths of Aetheria are as hellishly wind-swept as you'd expect any gas giant to be, but in the upper layer of the atmosphere, at roughly the same altitude as its fluffy white clouds (give or take a few thousand meters), there are hundreds of magically floating continents. Born aloft by some inherent magic in the stone, they are perfectly suitable for human life. The temperature ranges from crisp to toasty, though it can get positively frigid in the higher altitude continents. Presumably, they also get sweltering down in the lower altitudes, but for some reason, any continent that sinks below a certain level can no longer maintain its lift and inevitably crashes into Aetheria's core.
Air pressure and gravity are roughly the same on the continents as they are on Ukss' sea level. There is a persistent stiff breeze almost anywhere that is not sheltered from the East, and these winds can sometimes elevate into dangerous gales, but strangely, extreme weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes are rarer than they are on Ukss.
Between the continents float pastel-colored sky whales. These gentle creatures sing haunting, tuneless songs and migrate in huge, multi-year circuits around the planet. Many cultures consider them sacred, but just as many exploit them for a variety of economic purposes - hunting them from primitive airplanes or strapping howdahs to them to use them as transports or vehicles of war. Though the sky whales possess no instinct for aggression, they can very effectively defend themselves by diving deep into Aetheria's atmosphere, to regions too hot and windy for humans to endure.
The sky whales graze on massive beanstalks that somehow take root in Aetheria's clouds and extend their stalks downward. Along well-traveled grazing routes, these stalks will be at most a few dozen meters long, but in places where the sky whales have been hunted to extinction, the beanstalks grow to a length of several kilometers. Some nations have taken to cultivating them deliberately, to serve as a bridge between continents at different altitudes.
More dangerous than the sky whales are the rakken, large flying predators with worm-like bodies and gaping tooth-filled mouths that can consume a human in a single bite. Rakken maneuver through the air with four short limbs that constantly shoot jets of fire, allowing them to maneuver very precisely in Aetheria's atmosphere, but requiring huge amounts of food to sustain. They mostly prey on ground-based megafauna far from human settlements, but will opportunistically snatch up smaller creatures (such as explorers) when the occasion presents itself.
Travel to and from Aetheria's orbit is much more difficult than on Ukss, and not just because Aetheria lacks its own Ascension Tower. The band where humans can safely exist is very thin, and a traveler who slows their descent too quickly or too slowly can be blown off-course into an extremely dangerous situation.
The safest (though not necessarily safe) way to get to Aetheria is by finding a Cortelestial, a massive dog-like creature with colorful spirals in its fur. Cortelestials migrate from continent to continent, flying with a strange magic that sounds like the ringing of chimes. They have no natural enemies and their diet appears to consist entirely of creatures that voluntarily walk into their open mouths.
A Cortelestial's jaws are 8 feet tall when fully extended and they will rest for days at a time with their mouths open. While in this state, the space between their upper and lower jaw will form a magical portal to some other location in the universe, mostly other places on Aetheria, but sometimes Luna, Ukss, a Cosmic Homestead, or some other unidentifiable place. What's more, the portal is two-way. Any who spot the shimmering oval in the air may step through and enter Aetheria. This is perfectly safe . . . unless the Cortelestial shuts its jaws mid-transit, in which case any being or beings who were in the process of passing through are instantly killed and digested. No one is quite sure what triggers a Cortelestial's hunger, but it always happens sooner or later. Then the creature moves on to the next stop on its eternal circuit.
Cortelestial's destinations are permanently fixed. Whenever it stops
at a particular location, the portal it generates always leads to the
same place. Furthermore, Cortelestial markings are all unique. A
brave enough traveler can reliably plan trips around the creatures'
schedules, provided they don't unexpectedly become their next
Human civilization thrives on Aetheria, though there are deep cultural divisions between the two major "waves" of human settlement. The more recent arrivals descend from a colony established by the Republic of Mu about 100 years ago that was cut off from Ukss-side control during the height of the Prism Wars. They are stereotypically high-tech and imperious.
The "native" Aetherians are descended from various ancient expeditions and the wide range of human magicians who have visited the planet over the millennia. They are too culturally diverse to classify, but by and large they do not have the technology to resist the newcomers.
Aetheria has a dizzying variety of native flora and fauna. Between the various continents, it has almost 100 times the land area of Ukss and strange creatures have evolved in lands never before seen by human eyes.
A dangerous, but lucrative industry on Aetheria is cloud-mining. Traditionally, this is done by using tree-trunk thick ropes to lower huge baskets containing up to 30 workers from the floating continents to the alchemically rich yellow cloud layer. Needless to say, casualties on these trips are massive. In recent years, the Mu-descended peoples have taken to using increasingly-large airplanes. These are scarcely more reliable, but their mechanical harvesting tanks allow a much greater yield per worker.
The gasses harvested from Aetheria have a variety of magical and industrial uses. The most valuable is called by locals "The Seven Year Condensate," because while it has the miraculous ability to extend life, it is so dangerous to acquire that they say the workers lose seven years of life for every one gained by the user.
As the Prism Wars ravaged the Republic of Mu, the Mu colony on Aetheria came to see itself as the standard-bearer for the Republic's culture. When contact was lost, the colonists assumed the worst. After a brief, but bloody civil war, the sorcerer Stasia Grendle declared herself Empress of Mu Reborn. She was immediately assassinated.
The war continued for another five years until a young girl emerged, potent in the ways of sorcery. She claimed she was the reincarnation of Stasia Grendle, reborn with all of her knowledge and power. She became known as The Phoenix Empress and united the factions to become Aetheria' dominant power.
The people of Mu Reborn adore their Empress, seeing her as an exemplar of the glory of old Mu. That would likely all change if they discovered that she was not who she claimed. She is, in truth, an ancient witch. She has lived on Aetheria for more than a thousand years, moving from life to life. Her power of rebirth stems from a long study of the properties of Aetheria's more esoteric gasses. The Mu Colony attracted her attention with their industrial-scale cloud mining operation and she arranged to be born into a member of the prominent Grendle family. The assassination was a minor inconvenience, but ultimately proved beneficial as the populace serves the Phoenix Empress with a devotion they'd never have shown Stasia.
upper crust of Mu Reborn are as decadent and corrupt a group of
slaveholders as has ever existed in human society. Sure, they call
their system “emergency labor conscription,” but the emergency
has been going on for more than two generations now, and shows no
sign of letting up. While their countrymen labor in the fields and
mines, they lounge in their luxurious estates, sipping the potent
tinctures of advanced alchemy, dining on delicacies from the farthest
reaches of Aetheria, and being fanned by the humming wings of
cat-sized golden beetles known as Hurum.
Mu Reborn is governed from the fortress at Mount Dominance. A towering edifice of grey stone, it sports more than 500 cannons whose firing arcs extend all the way to the edge of the continent. It is widely considered unassailable.
Another independent city-state founded by refugees from Mu, Riven might well be the most technologically advanced location known to humanity. It is a small floating continent covered with hundreds of windmills, both ringing the city, between the farmers' fields, and built on the roofs of the taller buildings. These windmills generate electricity through a complex technomagical process involving diamonds that have been enchanted to convert heat to electricity, but once the electricity is generated, it is transmitted along wires to every home on the island, who use it for lighting, cooking, and other simple household appliances.
Every 26 Aetherian months (approximately a year and a half on Ukss), when the moons are mostly obscured, Riven holds a Festival of Lights, where long strings of colored lights are put up over the central square and the people of the town feast throughout the night.
Though it's more of a simmering resentment than an active feud, Riven has a poor relationship with Mu Reborn. Riven was originally founded by escapees from the “emergency labor conscription” that the colony put in place when they lost contact with Ukss. Within a generation, it had degenerated into full-on slavery that still exists today. Though the governing council denies it, Riven sometimes acts as a safe haven for Sortar's Army, an open secret that day-by-day brings the two fledgling nations closer to open war.
Reborn calls them pirates and brigands. The people of Riven think of
them as heroic revolutionaries. Their general, a scarred and fearless
swashbuckler known as Jill of the Nine Lives, wants nothing more than
revenge, both for herself and for the company's founder, who was
killed in the line of duty. Using stolen (and occasionally, donated)
airplanes, the escaped slaves of Sortar's Army harass any traffic to
and from Mount Dominance, getting as close as they dare to cripple
the trade, diplomacy, and cloud mining of their former captors.
The Crystal Cities
The first human explorers to reach Aetheria discovered these curious, yet elegant homesteads already in orbit around the mighty gas giant. They could only speculate who built them, as the original architects had long vanished.
Since then, the Crystal Cities have become home to a thriving culture of squatters, pirates, and magicians. Some will trade with the gas miners on Aetheria, acting as transshipment ports for alchemical substances of great value throughout the Cosmic Sphere. Others are devoted to pure research, with scholars trying to learn as much as possible about their alien builders. Most, however, are havens for the stranded. People who lack the means to return to Ukss, but for whatever reason cannot or will not dare the descent to Aetheria's floating continents.
There are 12 known Crystal Cities, ranging in size from 1km to 15km and housing populations as high as 3 million souls. Thanks to the magic of their ancient creators, they are self-sustaining. There are no wards or seals that any human magic can identify, but the air remains fresh, the waste-water pools into purifying reservoirs, and there are long galleries near their exteriors where the crystal is clear enough to act as a greenhouse.
The Crystal Cities all exhibit 3-dimensional symmetry and are so uniform in their layout that most humans find them difficult to navigate. Colored paints and cloths are prized imports, both from Aetheria and Ukss itself. Not only do they allow for the marking of passages, they help offset the near-blinding luster of the walls, ceiling, and floors. The scientific outposts preserve the original white color, but even they mark passages with color-coded ropes and flags.
He Who Shudders in Outermost Night
The thin reality of the Stellar Medium allows gods to manifest physically, yet outside the Celestial Embassy, few do so. That's because the darkness between the stars contains things even the gods have learned to fear.
He Who Shudders in Outermost Night does not venture from the magic world, but he will send tendrils of his power across the barrier, sometimes to harass an isolated spacegoing vessel, sometimes to act as a bridge for his various servants, spawn, and parasites. Encounters with these living nightmares are rare, but they are the horror stories invariably shared by explorers whenever too much alcohol has been flowing and the claustrophobia of the hungry darkness begins to feel a little too close.
An ill-omened comet in a highly eccentric orbit, The Dark Epoch is made of a strange black stone that shimmers with a rainbow of shades invisible to the human eye. The stone attracts the strange, writhing spirits of the outer dark and traps them in the twisting veins of the comet's interior.
As the comet approaches Ukss, every 200-500 years, large pieces break off. These meteors are so suffused with Void energies that they do not burn up in the atmosphere. When they land, the spirits inside are able to break free of their stony prison and rampage across the surface of Ukss, golems without a maker and driven by bizarre, inhuman impulses.
Rarely seen in the human-inhabited regions of the Cosmic Sphere, these majestic creatures sometimes leave the comfort of their close solar orbit to satisfy their curiosity about the rest of the universe. Feeding exclusively on sunlight, Star Dragons hold within themselves incredible amounts of energy, which they may use for rapid travel or terrible plasma attacks. As they age, their increasing energy levels are seen in the color of the radiance they shed at all times – first red, then yellow, then white, then blue, until they reach the end of their life cycle, when they suddenly become pitch black.
A black star dragon has not lost its energy. In fact, quite the opposite. They have so much inside themselves that it can no longer escape as light. When they reach this stage, they begin an interstellar voyage. Those that make it will plunge into the heart of the star, exploding into a hundred new star dragons, two or three of which may survive to make their own voyages in turn.
Resembling a giant, undead fetus, the Atropal is the stillborn spirit of a potential creator god. Too powerful to entirely die, it exists in a state of cursed half-life in the space between worlds, where it engages in a grotesque pantomime of its originally intended role. The Atropal's world is a large asteroid that has been assiduously shaped into a parody of a world. It has plants and animals, landmarks and people, but they are hollow, robotic in their behaviors and lacking any ability to grow, improve, or reproduce.
That's because the Atropal is only the shadow of a creator. It can't make anything new, it can only copy. When it encounters a new form of life, it reaches out with its profane aura and engulfs the hapless creature, absorbing it into its spirit, so that it might spawn copies on its isolated asteroid.
Existing as it does in the depths of space, the Atropal would, at most, be a danger only to the rare cosmic explorer, but on Ukss, there is a cult that naively serves its purposes. Using ritual magic, these Aspirants of Utopia gather plants and animals (and, occasionally even people that they find attractive or useful) and “teleport” them to the asteroid. Little do the Aspirants suspect that no actual transportation takes place. Instead, they summon a tendril of the Atropal's power, which disintegrates the victim and then recreates a shadow copy on the asteroid.
Most of the Aspirants have their own means of traveling to and from the asteroid (though many have visited only in dreams) and they have convinced themselves that they are building a utopia with the Atropal's help. The fact that any comrade who uses the “transportation ritual” emerges . . . wrong, is something they willfully ignore, though as time goes on, their carefully cultivated innocence becomes harder and harder to maintain.
Magic in Ukss functions by connecting the magic wielder with a nearby shadow-realm, known to scholars as the Magic World. The rules of the magic world are not well understood. It seems to have its own forms of space, time, and matter . . . except when it doesn't. The thoughts of creatures in the realm of matter appear to affect the landscape there . . . except when they don't. It is impossible for a mortal creature to enter the magic world and survive . . . except for those that have.
It is a world without near and far. Whose landmarks are ideas and whose inhabitants are gods. It is also a source of raw energy, enough to crack mountains or hurl a traveler to the moon. Most magicians come to accept it as a mystery, but the scholars of Ukss have vowed to try and tame it.
Gods and Demons
There are a myriad of spiritual creatures that inhabit the Magic World, and they cannot easily be categorized by human beings. However, there are two self-identified tribes that encompass the bulk of the self-aware entities human sorcerers have identified – gods and demons.
Gods are spiritual creatures native to the Magic World, and as such, they all, from the least to the greatest, embody an idea. More specifically, they embody a mystery. Even the simplest ones spread beyond easy dictionary definitions. The god of a particular tree is not just a spiritual reflection of that tree's physical substance – it is the wind in the leaves and the shade in the summer and and every kiss between lovers and arrow-felled hawk and suicide by hanging that ever occurred and ever will occur under the tree's branches. The god is the meaning of the tree, and its place in the universe, and is eternal, even though the tree is not, because until the end of time, there will always be the tree that was.
That is the mystery of the gods. Gods can be slain, but it takes unique banes and mighty heroes to do so, and there are always . . . consequences. Because gods are not meant to die. Even the death of a humble tree god will have unforeseen ramifications. The tree will die, obviously, but also the marriage of the lovers may fall apart, and the hunter will find his arrows forever after missing the mark, and maybe even the suicides come back to an unholy mockery of life, haunting the decaying tree as hungry specters. More powerful gods like the Volcano Maiden of the Helltooth Mountains will have even greater consequences. And were a primordial goddess like the Great Mother to fall, the chaos that followed would be too terrible to contemplate.
Demons are not gods. They are spiritual creatures, but they are infected by mortality (legend has it because they are descended from Lilith, the adept). What this means, in practice, is that they are meant to die. They don't age or suffer disease, and against human weapons they are so durable as to be virtually invincible, but it is not a disaster when they die. They do not require unique dooms to fall, but merely sufficient force (though “sufficient” can mean “enough to make mountains tremble” in the case of beings like the Demon Princes). And when a demon dies, that is it. You have a dead demon and the pillars of the earth remain unshaken.
Demons do have certain advantages, though. They can relate to humans. Not easily, but certainly with less than a mortal lifetime of effort. They don't even need to remake their minds to comprehend mortal concepts like hunger and fear and the linear nature of time (gods, with their vast, superhuman intelligence, can manage this feat, but there's always a certain degree of artifice involved). The practical upshot of this is that demons are much, much better at addressing humanity's desires. Pray to a god lamenting your family's poverty, and the god may send a white bird at sunset, as an omen leading you on an arduous journey to rich new lands in the west. Contact a demon and they'll just give you some money . . . in exchange for a minor favor, barely worth mentioning.
Demons are not intrinsically evil, but they do eat souls, and many regard humans as a variety of prey animal. A demon will not die if starved of spiritual energy, but they will get ferociously hungry, and after a long enough time, start to lose access to their powers (also, demons need to consume souls to reproduce, but that only happens when they are glutted). The souls a demon eats need not belong to intelligent creatures, and they can quite easily survive off of gafflings and other lesser entities of the Magic World, but their culture does not place a high value on the sanctity of consciousness or intelligence. The Demon Princes got as powerful as they are by devouring ancient gods, and that remains a common ambition in demonic society.
In the magic world, the term "Alfar" does not describe a race so much as a particular set of material circumstances. There are demon-Alfar and god-Alfar and strange-things-which-have-no-human-name-Alfar. To earn the title, one must pass through a sacred gate and take a human-like form. They range in power from minor magicians to lesser gods, though unlike the Tainted, they are tied to the specific place or time that allowed them to cross over. They can only exist in places of unusual magic - ancient groves and barrow hills, seasides and salt flats, or among seasonal storms like hurricanes, blizzards, and siroccos. Being inherently ageless, they can stay in the material world for as long as their gateway endures - sometimes just a few hours, but potentially thousands of years.
Alfar are known for their incredible skill in magic. Technically, they are Prodigies of unusual versatility and power, but their way of using magic is very similar to that of wand magicians. So much so, in fact, that many wand wielders will seek out an Alfar to mentor them in the art. If the wand is sufficiently in tune with the Alfar's normal magical themes, the Alfar can master it almost instantly (the Alfar describe it as "writing poetry in a foreign language"). It is rare for an Alfar to gain new powers by wielding a magic wand, but those that do figure prominently in human legends.
The Alfar sometimes honor their best students with Alfar-crafted wands. They are invariably quite powerful, but also extremely idiosyncratic.
Most Alfar will bear strong marks of the gate they passed through to enter Ukss. This shapes their appearance, their powers, and even their attitudes. Some spirits are drawn to particular gates and will always become the same sort of Alfar every time they visit the material world. A few, especially those who are worshiped as gods, will enter through multiple gates depending on their needs, whims, or circumstances, adopting and dropping Alfar personas like masks for their central mystery.
Typically, spirits will compromise, like Jack of the Green, the fertility god who passes through century oaks, crop circles, mushroom rings, and other living gates, but never through anything that is at odds with his plant nature. He expresses different powers in each of his forms, but retains largely the same personality and goals.
The sacred gates that allow spirits to enter the world are not limited purely to the mighty souls who become Alfar. Sometimes, Gafflings (the minor animal-like spirits of the Magic World) will pass through the gate. When they do, they become Mephits, tiny, sprite-like creatures with their own peculiar magic. Like the Alfar, a mephit's personality is shaped by the nature of its entry into the world, but since Gafflings did not have much of a personality to begin with, Mephits seem one-note and obsessive. They can often communicate in human languages, but their speech will rarely stray from their preferred subject and they will, at best, pretend to understand conversations outside their purview. Mostly, they amuse themselves by performing highly eccentric and highly specific actions relating to their imposed nature (for example, Flower Mephits will go around counting the petals on their preferred type of flower, pruning any that appear discolored or supernumerary), but they also possess minor magic of their own and have been known to use it for crude practical jokes.
The power of a Gaffling is small enough that when one passes into Ukss, it does so in its entirety. They may stray as far from the sacred gates as they like and they will endure indefinitely (though many are eaten by predators in their first few days). A mephit who survives on Ukss for 100 years begins to develop full human intelligence, and will often transform into a creature much like an Alfar. These evolved mephits are often more complex than true Alfar, having had a full century of personal experiences, but they are also less mystically potent. They may develop their innate magic over time, but it takes study and practice.
All mephits, evolved or otherwise, are creatures of the material world. They may never return back through the gates that spawned them. If they attempt it, they will die, just as surely as any mortal creature that enters the Magic World (i.e. not very surely at all, but often enough that it's reckless to try).
A single mephit, or even a small horde of them, does not draw a significant amount of power from a sacred gate, and thus the appearance of a half-dozen minor sprites will often accompany an Alfar's entry into the world.
The Dark Alfar have an unsavory reputation among humankind, but they are not really "evil" so much as "spooky." They cross into Ukss during the witching hour or, more rarely, during certain portentous astrological conjunctions. They are invisible in darkness and in starlight or moonlight. The touch of the sun will instantly send them back to the magic world in a puff of black smoke, but is otherwise harmless (and does not prevent them from crossing back when the time is again right).
Under artificial light, the Alfar have skin as black as the space between the stars. Hair ranges through a variety of colors, from moon-silver to aurora-green to rich purples and blues that evoke the complex palette of night.
Dark Alfar best love lonely and misunderstood things. They have a special affinity with spiders and even the intelligent predators of Gloomshire will let them pass unmolested. Their favorite season is winter, when the trees no longer hide the sky. They are especially drawn to abused and neglected children. They will whisper in the young ones' ears, inspiring them to act out, run away, or get revenge. If an abuser is strong and well-respected, or otherwise tries to punish the Dark Alfar's charge, they will lure them into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
The Dark Alfar consider themselves friends to humanity, but their ways of expressing it often bring terror and confusion. Wherever they take up residence, sleepers will begin to have vivid nightmares (that bring personal enlightenment or foretell an avoidable disaster), long-buried secrets will bubble to the surface, long-suppressed desires will find sudden and spontaneous expression, and orphans, outcasts, and hermits will receive forbidden tutelage in the arts of witchcraft.
These peculiar Alfar cross through the mystic gate that forms when a meticulously planned venture fails spectacularly due to some unforeseeable quirk of chance. They endure until an investigator discovers the particular factor that opened their gate and solves the mystery of the disaster. Some Dust Alfar are hundreds of years old, the circumstances of their arrival lost to history.
Dust Alfar are drawn to magic that manipulates probability and fate, especially if it's used to cheat at games of chance. They seem to disapprove of the use of this magic in general, though they rarely express this disapproval with anything more than a stern scolding. For truly severe cases, or when they need to defend themselves, they have potent magic that can cause any inanimate object to crumble to dust (or even curse others to destroy everything they touch) or age a living creature in the blink of an eye, but they've never been seen to use these abilities frivolously.
They are generally serious, conscientious people with a strong faith in the natural order. They get their name from the cloud of dust and grime that surrounds them at all times. It's unclear, even to the Dust Alfar themselves, whether the dust is attracted to them or whether they subconsciously create it with their powers, but it embarrasses them greatly and offends their orderly sensibilities. The eldest of them believe that their aura exists to keep them humble and focused on correcting the fault that allowed them to enter the world.
Born from the same chaos and
failure that allows the Dust Alfar to enter the world, Dust Mephits
are gloomy and fatalistic, convinced of the utter futility of human
endeavor. As far as they're concerned, everything fails sooner or
later, and the best they can hope for is to be canny enough to
anticipate it. They take an unseemly glee in their cynicism, and
affect a fascination with death as a way to cover for the morbid
satisfaction they take in the misfortune of others. Though they act
as heralds for the Dust Alfar, they are usually cast aside fairly
quickly, winding up in the service of necromancers or other dark
sorcerers, who dispatch them on missions such as “deliver this
threat” or “mock my enemy's grief.”
While magicians and adepts are renowned for wandering from one crisis to another, and prodigies for stumbling carelessly into dangerous situations, sorcerers are notorious for staying in one place. This is not entirely a stereotype, nor is it merely a practical consideration for those whose magic relies on having access to specific materials and tools. Skilled ritualists have a way of shaping a location to their desires. It's a slow process, usually taking decades (or even generations), and is largely subconscious, but as a sorcerer becomes acclimated to a particular location, their magic becomes easier.
It is never wise to take ritual magic for granted, but inside a dedicated Sanctum, it becomes more forgiving of minor mistakes, more accepting of substitute ingredients, and more likely to quickly take root and endure for far longer than it otherwise might. Casting times become faster (though still nothing compared to the ease of a wand) and the sorcerer's spiritual and mental energies regenerate faster.
Scholars say that a sorcerer's Sanctum is a place where the border between Ukss and the magic world is especially thin. Because it is adapted to their specific energies, a Sanctum will never harm the one who created it, but the most powerful ones can have an effect on nearby plants and animals similar (though usually much less potent) to exposure to the stellar medium. They also have a way of attracting immaterial yokai like ghosts and demons.
A Sanctum is in many ways similar to an Alfar's sacred gate, but its connection to the powerful mind of the sorcerer prevents it from being used in that way . . . while the sorcerer still lives. Wards and contingency spells are highly advised.
It is not generally possible for one sorcerer to use another's Sanctum, not unless the two possess very similar styles and attitudes. That said, the more powerful Sanctums are those that have been passed down from master to apprentice throughout the centuries. Over time, these places of power become broader and deeper, allowing their owners to work miracles with barely any effort at all.
Places where the Magic World touches Ukss are usually the product of design. A sorcerer will wear the borders of reality thin in order to create a Sanctum. A would-be Alfar will widen the cracks in the weave of possibility to open a new sacred gate. And places like this, while possessing some of the wildness of the Magic World, are nonetheless as controlled and as safe as anything magical can be.
Sometimes, though, a connection between the worlds will not be nearly so tame. Maybe the sorcerer loses their will while retaining their power. Maybe something too big or too ancient attempts to traverse the Alfar gate. Maybe the unpredictable energies of the magic world will create a connection with no intelligent intervention whatsoever. In times like these, there is a danger that a portion of the Magic World will prolapse into the physical, creating a Labyrinth - a place neither entirely spiritual nor entirely physical, where the two worlds can mingle much more thoroughly, posing a terrible risk to both body and soul.
Labyrinths aren't purely a hazard, however. There is power in them, strange wild magics that a determined seeker might learn, were they to navigate to the Labyrinth's heart. Even for those who would abandon the quest before the end, there are often magical treasures, occult insights, and breathtaking vistas that might prove tempting even in the face of the unique and terrible beasts that often take up residence.
They say the Magic World is as narrow as the space between raindrops, and that all sacred places are connected. How true that is is debatable, but when two sorcerers truly love or hate each other, their thoughts will fly between Sanctums. When one Alfar sheds the blood of another, it takes on some part of the other's nature. When a Red Grove is consecrated, the leaves of the others shake with a sympathetic thirst.
There are rituals that exploit these connections, allowing insults and curses and spells to bridge the gap between physical locations. The most potent will even allow a human (or group of humans) to cross over, if they possess the right keys and know the words of propitiation that keep the predators of the Magic World at bay.
The Mysteries of Death
The veil between the living and the dead runs right through the Magic World. Ghosts linger on the near shores of the divide, spying on the mortal world and intervening in the affairs of their descendants. Necromancers may bind these wayward souls into service, or corrupt them into the foul monsters known as specters.
Most of the dead, however, only stick around long enough to satisfy their curiosity about the effects of their passing and the future fate of their loved ones. When they are ready to move on, they hear the call of the Lonesome Train, a low whistle from deeper in the magic world, one that beckons them through the mist to an abandoned train station.
Only the dead have ever seen the Station of the Lonesome Train, though many of the dead have ventured to and from the station on multiple occasions (whether because they are conflicted about moving on or to witness the departure of friends they've made in the world between) and its description is well-established in mortal books of the occult. It is the train itself that is the final point of no return. It accepts only a single passenger at a time and no one who has boarded it has ever been heard from again.
Those dead who wish to live again search far and wide for an invitation to Death's Masquerade. Held at an unpredictable schedule in the realm of dreams, this elegant masked affair has strict rules. The living must name a specific soul they seek to redeem and before the night ends, the living must remove a mask from one of their dance partners. If the figure revealed is the ghost they named, both may return to the land of the living. If it is anyone else, the ghost returns and the living guest dies to take their place. The living must tell the truth, but the dead may lie.
For the living, an invitation to Death's Masquerade is almost always a surprise. Great powers in the magic world arrange attendance based on the inscrutable politics of the dead, and they don't tolerate mortals getting too comfortable with coming and going into their rightful domain. It is possible to use sorcery to forge an invitation, but that is a terrible risk – if the soul you mean to rescue has already moved on, there will be no one you can safely unmask.
Death himself is an enigma
to the people of Ukss. He will manifest in the form of an a tall,
elegantly dressed man wearing a bone-white mask, usually to escort
some important figure to the Station of the Lonesome Train, but also
to brood on his marble throne while overseeing his Masquerades.
There's a story that says taking a man's form has also given him
something of a man's nature, and that he once fell in love with a
mortal woman. He took her soul into the beyond, as is his duty, but
somewhere a lock of her hair survives. The storytellers say that one
who brought Death this keepsake might be granted free passage between
this world and the next. But then, storytellers say a lot of things .
She is the source of all life, the primordial principle that drives all growth and reproduction. She is transformation and there is a mystery at the heart of her. She hungers.
The Great Mother takes the form of an undifferentiated orb of flesh. Her surface ripples as eyes, mouths, and . . . other organs emerge and recede in endless seething tides of adaptation. Size is more or less meaningless in the Magic World, but she grows. Anyone who sees her understands. She is always growing.
The Great Mother requires fathers for her numberless children, but she does not mate in any conventional sense. She consumes. She devours. Anything that touches her skin is enveloped, trapped in a cyst of flesh as it's slowly taken apart to fertilize new hybrids and stranger creations still.
It is said that the Great Mother cannot create life energy on her own, but that her divine magic can make optimal use of any she absorbs. Perhaps as many as two births for every cell in the donor's body, though sometimes she births new gods, made from the interwoven power of a thousand lives.
One need not be male to father a child on the Great Mother. Sometimes sorcerers will call an extrusion of her power into the material world, so that women may donate to her a strand of hair or a drop of blood. The children born this way have a hint of the monstrous about them, but many have created great things from the ashes of their enemies.
The Great Mother is the tutelary deity of Yennin. It is from her that they learned the art of flesh-weaving, and their great champions can all trace their lineage back to her.
The Weaver and her Astral Web
The intelligent spiders of Ukss have stories of the goddess who bestowed upon them the power of speech. They call her The Weaver and say that she has become so set in her ways that she can no longer leave her lair, and thus she spins an elaborate web of refined soul-stuff in order to bring the world to her.
The Weaver is not well-respected among spiders. She is cunning, yes, but she lacks the killing instinct that is what spiders value most about themselves. As their proverb has it, "Prey disturbs the web," and for the Weaver, that is unacceptable. Her Astral Web touches nearly every mind on Ukss, but only lightly. It cannot catch anything as powerful and as willful as a conscious thought, but it does snare dreams and nightmares, ideas that have never been realized, and knowledge stripped of all context.
It is possible, through a specially prepared ritual chamber, covered in the thin, spindly runes of The Weaver's first script, to contact the Astral Web. The sorcerer enters a fugue state and their senses depart their body, attaching themselves to a fine network of threads that rests directly on the border between Ukss and the Magic World. From there, they may travel to any other active ritual chamber or query the Web itself for information about nearly anything (it is good at answering factual questions like "how many people live in Laconia" but terribly confusing when it comes to speculative judgments like "would Laconia beat Sheyaugh in a war?")
Sorcerers may also place their thoughts directly onto the Web, allowing any who ask to hear whatever it is they have to say, even centuries later. Some particularly skilled and malicious travelers may even encode infectious spells into their thought-forms, delayed-action traps which can harm, distract, or even control less savvy visitors.
With the right knowledge, sorcerers can bind dream-stuff into the pattern of their ritual chambers, creating entire fantasy worlds for those who visit them through the Astral Web. These thought-palaces often seem like paradise, but they are no more substantial than any other dream. Some become obsessed with them nonetheless and seek to shut out the real world in its entirety, but these unfortunates are regarded with pity and disdain.
Telepaths can learn to perceive the Astral Web without the need for a chamber, but it is a delicate and difficult discipline that only really works in heavily populated cities. In the wilderness, the Web is too thinly spread for anything less than a dedicated ritual working to contact. The Astral Web does not reach into the Cosmic Sphere at all. Many of the more paranoid Homesteaders have moved there for exactly that reason.
This dark art gives all explorers of the Astral Web a bad name. The more staid sorcerers get incredibly defensive when it is brought up. They say that the threat is overblown and that there is at most one Dream Hacker for every hundred honest travelers.
That may well be true, but it mostly just means that the average person's defenses are woefully inadequate.
Normally, the flow of information on the Astral Web always goes in one direction - towards the insatiably curious spider goddess with no particular interest in any specific human being. Without the deliberate effort of a sorcerer, any particular fact or dream fragment is nearly-anonymous, stripped of all but the vaguest of identifying details.
Dream Hackers, however, are experts at collecting these fragments and painstakingly reassembling them. With enough effort, they can assemble a profile of nearly any person connected to the Astral Web (i.e. everyone who does not live in total isolation or the cosmic sphere).
If this were all they did, it would be bad enough. Dream hackers can learn any number of shocking or embarrassing secrets from their studies. But that's not all they can do. Hidden in a person's thought fragments is the key to their dreams. With such keys, they can visit a sleeping mind exactly as if it were an active connection chamber. While they are powerless against anyone who is awake and conscious, inside dreams there is almost no limit to what they can do. Many people, both innocent and guilty, have been driven mad for offending the wrong dream hacker.
Sorcerers who explore the Astral Web are usually safe from most dangers. Their senses may travel to distant places and exotic dreamworlds, but their bodies are safely ensconced in their meditation chambers. But sometimes things happen - enemies sneak in and assassinate them while they're prone, they become so enraptured that they lose track of time and starve, they are struck by rare and potent curses capable of traveling through the Web itself.
The Astral Web trembles when it is touched by death. It is the one mystery the Weaver can never understand. As the Lonesome Train rolls across the threads of the Web, they begin stretch under the weight and mutate into strange and terrible forms. Some part of the deceased remains behind, creating a sub-realm born of the chaos of their terminal thoughts. Often, these places are nightmares of illogic and grief and pain. But sometimes, when someone dies amidst clarity of purpose, the realm they leave behind is full of miracles.
Regardless of the results, the Weaver strives to isolate these sections of Corrupted Web. Her senses cannot access them, and she fears that ideas filtered through these realms will poison her mind and lead her to lose touch with reality. Unfortunately for her, it is in the nature of the Web that nothing can ever be separated from it entirely. Explorers trade rumors of obscure paths that lead to the more wondrous realms . . . and warn each other of the grim fates that await those who enter the wrong one.
The Astral Web is a realm of information, and as such, it has a tendency to absorb information, even when no one intends to leave it behind. This can include information like thoughts, memories, and personalities. It takes a lot to make a true Echo – an explorer must visit the Astral Web more than a hundred times a year, every year, for at least a decade . . . but some people spend a lot of time in the Web.
An Echo is a perfect mental copy of the person who originated it. They think of themselves as a continuation of the original person, and can pass almost every test imaginable. The only real way to tell is to ask a question about some event that has happened to the original in the time since they last visited the Astral Web.
An Echo and the original person cannot exist in the Astral Web at the same time. When the original's mind enters the Web, the Echo will fly towards them and be instantly absorbed, regardless of the time or distance (this does mean that the original can remember things that only happened to the Echo, though only as well as they might remember a dream). The only way an Echo can ever be a truly independent being is for the original to die.
Echoes may be summoned outside of the Astral Web, using telepathy instead of necromancy, but not while the original is still alive (the Echo merges with them in the physical world just as it does in the Web). This can be used as a quick way to “update” the Echo with current memories, because an Echo will flee back to the Astral Web whenever the original next loses consciousness (unless they are outside of Ukss' atmosphere at the time).
of Corrupted Web can host the Echoes of those who died to create
them, but only if they were habitual enough explorers to leave an
Echo in the first place. Corrupted Echoes are strange, unpredictable
creatures. The touch of death distorts the Web, and as an entity that
is composed of imprinted Web fragments, that distortion carries over
to the Echo's thoughts and memories. In some ways, being Corrupted
frees the Echo from the burden of carrying on the identity of the
original, but the price for that freedom is a deep mental wound –
the knowledge of what it means to die, without the peace of true
Melin Daguz - The Goddess of Upset Victories
There are few warrior gods more feared in the Magic World than Melin Daguz. She does not have the strongest arm, nor the sharpest blade, nor the keenest sense of tactics and strategy. Nonetheless, she wins, on average, half the time.
That is because it's her nature to even the odds. When she fights, circumstances twist to the advantage of the weaker side. Stronger opponents find their weapons breaking, the weather turning against them, or the ground crumbling beneath their feet. Weaker ones find unexpected reinforcements or a windfall of intelligence. These quirks of fate are never decisive. They're just enough to make it fair.
When her power moves across a battlefield, the conflict inevitably changes to one of desire and will. Those who win are the ones who want it more. Because of this, she has gained an unsought-for reputation as a champion of justice and the oppressed. The victims of empire call out to her for deliverance, and while her gifts are never certain, it is rare that those who seek to keep others in chains will fight harder than those who want to escape them.
The Black Cow That Will Devour The World
The Vampires' apocalypse story is not the only tale told about the end of the world. In the Magic World there is a Black Cow that feeds on the sparks of potential that may become souls. It is a hole cut in the fabric of the universe and every day the ground grows barren under its hooves. Mostly, the Black Cow wanders without direction, roaming wherever the soul harvest is richest. If it finds Ukss, it will be entirely by chance, but scholars debate how far in the future that's likely to be. If the cosmos is not infinite, then it is only a matter of time.
Black Penny - A God of Wealth
Once upon a time, there was a penny that was never pulled from circulation. It was never lost or stolen. Never taken across a border or stashed in a child's piggy bank. It was a mostly ordinary penny, unusual only in its knack for winding up on the top of any particular pile of change. As a result, it was spent and re-spent, at least once a day, every day, for a hundred years. And one day after the centennial of its minting, the penny came alive.
The spirit born from this lucky penny prefers to go by the sobriquet "Mr Black," but spending money is still his business. He spends and he spends and he spends, and somehow he never runs out. It's not any form of magical counterfeiting, the universe simply looks out for him. He's got a face that screams "prosperity," and the money guys can't help but make him the bagman for any number of perfectly legitimate revenue-generating enterprises.
That's what his would-be proteges don't understand. They admire the flash and the style. They envy the luxury suites and the statuesque kitsune that follow him everywhere he goes. They like how relaxed he is, how easy he makes everything seem, but they never learn the lesson - once you start to care about the money, you now have something to lose. A few opportunists and hustlers manage to ride his coattails for a month, a year, sometimes two, but Black Penny is unique. The circumstances of his creation are unlikely to ever be repeated, and sooner or later they all find out the hard way - his ride only has room for one.
Neither god nor demon, the Epoch Spirits don't have much of an agenda. They simply . . . watch. Watch and remember. Not all of history, though, or at least not all at once. Epoch Spirits come in waves. In the build-up to great events, they gather in the border regions. When the event concludes, they pass away into slumber, to make room for the next wave.
Epoch Spirits imprint strongly on the times and places they observe, and become a sort of icon (or, less generously, stereotype) of a particular era of history. Wake one from slumber and it is not merely a great source of historical knowledge, it is like a living embodiment of the hopes, fears, obsessions, and fashions of an age gone by. There is a lot to learn from Epoch spirits, but it is dangerously easy to become deceived by the past's justifications for itself.
Blank Epoch Spirits are passive, vague, and dull. Even under sorcerous duress, they seem barely capable of even noticing the acts of an individual person. They are mainly worth observing for their habit of migrating towards places that will be significant in the future.
The Well of Souls
Location has little meaning in the Magic World, but to the degree that you can talk about geography at all, new souls emerge "everywhere," rising up out of the landscape like embers from a dying flame. But there is one place (and it is, indeed, a real place - humans could exist there, if they had some way of enduring its power) where the flame is a raging bonfire and the souls streak across the sky in long, radiant arcs.
No one is quite sure
about the purpose of the Well of Souls (presumably, the gods know,
but they're not telling). It could be the origin of human life, but
what would it add to the numberless new souls that spawn in the Magic
World's vast infinities? Some believe it is the male counterpart to
the Great Mother, just an endless font of life energy that fertilizes
the world even as she gives it birth.
Whatever the reason for its existence, it is undeniable that the Well of Souls is a source of great power. Sorcerers can use it to give life to bodies of clockwork or clay. Gods may use it to shape the seeds of entire worlds. Demons covet it for the infinite life it promises. All have abused it for their purposes at one point or another, but most have been undone by their hubris sooner rather than later. The souls that come from the Well are the potential of life incarnate, and whatever shape they are given, it is their nature to struggle against control.
Every once in a while the souls in the well will clump together, forming a writhing serpent of pure life energy. These silvery creatures are known as Ravids and they are creation incarnate. Most live out their entire existence gamboling inside the surging energies of the Well of Souls, but occasionally one makes its way to Ukss. These creatures are too innocent and simple-minded to have a much of an agenda, but their very presence imbues their surroundings with life energy, granting miraculous life to random objects and concentrated elements like campfires and dust devils. This invariably leaves a trail of chaos behind them as animated objects frolic in their wake like newborn fauns.
Ravids have no malice towards any living creature, and can in fact heal wounds (but not infections, cancer or other living illnesses) with nothing more than a touch. However, they greatly enjoy bringing objects to life and to the degree they understand the material world at all, they will deliberately avoid encountering already living creatures, the better to spread their generative energy as far and as wide as possible.