The Teicna Files 07 - Magic (and Necromancy)
Before mortals walked the surface of Teicna, before the gods began to shape the world itself, before even the Elemental Four were created, there was magic.
None can say for certain what magic is, though theories abound. Some believe it to be nothing less than the fabric of the universe, the primordial element, before it takes on a physical form. Others say that it is the essence of some ancient, all-powerful being leaking out into the world around them. Still others claim that it a manifestation of the imaginations of sapient beings, allowing those with the knowledge and willpower necessary to make their dreams a reality. Whatever the case, arcane forces pervade the mortal world, growing steadily stronger as both the mortal and divine populations grow.
For mortals, tapping into this ever-present force is a tricky affair. It's not that magic is out of reach - quite the opposite, in fact, as literally anyone could practice magic if they so wished - so much that it always comes with an element of risk attached. A common analogy used by teachers of the arcane arts is that magic is like an endless ocean, separated from the mortal world by a great wall. When someone wishes to draw upon magic to perform some task, they must become a tap in that wall, allowing it to pour through them and into the world. It is a careful balancing act, ensuring that you draw upon only the power that you want, and want only what you can handle. Try to draw too much at once, and the tap will fail, leaking errant energy at best or being utterly destroyed at worst.
The vast majority of mortals in the early years discovered magic by accident, when their wills were so strongly directed towards something that they drew upon the power around them without realizing it. A lucky few got precisely what they wanted in these cases, but far more often, terrible accidents and spontaneous combustions befell these would-be magi. It was largely through the intervention of the gods that mortals began to practice magic more carefully, not to mention intentionally. In modern times, accidental casting still occurs, as it’s difficult for non-magi to truly understand what sort of feelings or desires might set off a spell before they’ve personally experienced it, but centuries of training and research have allowed many of these cases to be rendered slightly less lethal than in the early days.
The practice of magic can typically be divided into two main camps, with two side fields that won’t be covered here. There are Mental Magi, who practice their craft through concentration, ideation, and force of will, and Endurance Magi, sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘Muscle Magi’, who accept a certain degree of physical suffering and chaos in the process of tapping into their magic in exchange for the act of casting putting less strain on their minds.
Mental Magi attempt to perfectly encapsulate the effect they want within their mind, seeing a mental image of both the world as it is, and the world as they want it to be. When these are properly formed, magic is drawn in to forcibly turn the former into the latter. Some minor variance in these images will not immediately doom a mental mage. If their vision of fire does not quite match reality, their candle-lighting spell won’t fly apart at the seams and set their house on fire, but if their concentration is fully broken during the casting, or if the caster attempted to shorthand images and effects in their mind, magic has a habit of seeking out the path of least resistance. And in magic’s case, ‘least resistance’ often means ‘inflating the desired effect to its maximum logical extreme’.
The downside of Mental Magic, aside from the intense focus and concentration is requires of its practitioners, is that all of that power flowing through one’s cranium tends to cause a bit of degradation over time. The mind isn’t meant to suffer the reality-warping effects magic offers in such a concentrated dose, and so over times, coping mechanism or lasting damage begin to manifest. From hallucinations to inhibited faculties to the damage or loss of certain senses, the strength, frequency, and specific form of the effects used play an integral role in determining exactly what a mental mage has to be wary of as they continue to cast. If they are supremely careful, avoiding slip-ups and spells gone haywire, the effects can be incredibly minor until the natural ends of their lives, but for people who lives lives of danger and excitement, an early retirement is likely to be forced upon them.
On the opposite side of the fence is Endurance Magic. In this practice, a mage accepts that they will likely not have the focus or willpower to shape magic with their minds - or else they seek to avoid the more debilitating side effects of long-term use - and so instead they sacrifice their bodies to the cause instead. The mind still factors in, of course, as it remains important for the mage to imagine their desires spell and will it into existence, but the results flow into the world through their bodies, emanating from their physical form directly. Without the firm control of a focused mind, the magic tends to be a bit wild, flaring out from what was intended and sometimes acting on more subconscious elements in the caster’s mind to create something more than what the caster thought they wanted, but closer to their true desires.
Just because they are safe from brain injury doesn’t mean Muscle Magi have it easy, however. Much like the mind, the mortal body was not built to withstand magic’s power with any frequency, and it has a habit of reacting in strange, glaringly obvious ways over time. Sometimes it manifests as injury, scarring or bruising the body in response to their spell’s effects. Other times, they are subjected to strange mutations, shifting in color or shape or texture or ability. These effects are often unseemly, as you might expect, but for the truly unfortunate they can also seriously affect their day-to-day lives. They might suffer nerve damage, lose a limb entirely, become intensely sensitive to light or temperature changes, and so on. Some might argue that these are nearly as bad, if not worse than, the mental damage, and they might be. In neither case is such a devastating outcome certain, but it’s a possibility one must be willing to accept before taking on either field of magic.
These such intense drawbacks to casting in either form, one might wonder why anyone bothers with it at all. The answer is fairly simple: Unimaginable, physics-defying power has quite a powerful allure for most people. That said, it has inspired people to seek alternative paths to power through technology, as well as to institute what has now become a nearly universal means of mitigating the risk. Nearly everyone who practices magic, whether professionally trained of self-taught, has a Specialization.
A mage’s Specialization is their chosen effect or field of effects, which they dedicate themselves to entirely. By limiting themselves to a small a collection of spells as possible, they allow themselves to refine their instincts, thoughts, and mental images to the point that they are nearly second nature. To throw a lightning bolt is a powerful spell that carries with it a fair amount of risk. To throw the same lightning bolt you’ve thrown a thousand times before brings the same amount of power to bear while suddenly minimizing a vast amount of the risk. The mage’s mind - whatever their casting style - can eventually learn to format the spell so cleanly, so quickly, and so efficiently, that it barely even takes any conscious effort on their part. In this way, a mage can grow in power and potentially begin to branch off into new effects while always having their signature spell to fall back on without having to perpetually risk seriously injuring themselves in the process of breaking the laws of the universe.
The flip side of this is, as you might expect, a nearly total lack of magi who have any breadth of magic. Someone might be able to expand within their Specialization to an incredible depth, beginning with lighting a candle and developing to a point where nearly any effect involving fire is safely within their grasp. But you would be hard-pressed to find someone with any more than two entirely disparate magical effects at their fingertips, and even those with two tend to be ancient beings who managed to perfect one craft to such an extent that dipping into another did not risk undermining the first. Dabblers, as someone who deals in an array of effects is called, tend to be young, inexperienced magi who have not yet found something that speaks to them enough to devote all of their time and energy to it. Those who seek to Dabble professionally have a habit of getting their effects mixed up at some point in their careers, cutting them suddenly and tragically short.
-- Necromancy: Not Strictly Evil --
A mortal soul is a sacred thing. Those who tamper with or restrain the soul of a living being, even themselves, can expect quite unfavorable treatment once their time comes to visit the land of the dead, if not sooner. Mortals eventually realized, however, the gods don’t seem to be quite so worried about a mortal’s body.
Necromancy is especially curious. To practice the art requires toying with dead things, and this is rarely a positive sign of one’s psychological well-being. As such, the most prolific necromancers are loners, outcasts, or otherwise avoid ‘normal’ society. This suits members of that society just fine, since the dead are not exactly the most pleasant or hygenic of beings in the first place, and surrounding oneself with them leads to a very specific, very unappealing aura being formed. Unfortunately, many are also assumed (and not always incorrectly) to be deviant in other, far less pleasant ways, such as relieving their loneliness with the recently deceased or actively prowling the streets in order to 'harvest' their workforce. This is by no means a common occurrence, but that fact does little to quell the rumors.
Practically speaking, necromancy is a very efficient craft, allowing a society to make use of the husks of the dearly departed for everything from cheap labor to cannon fodder. The relatives of said departed, not to mention the devout worshipers of certain deities of life and/or death, are less concerned with the practicality of the art, however, seemingly blinded by concerns like ‘honoring the dead’ or ‘abominations against nature’. Still, there are no regions with overall bans against the practice of necromancy on unclaimed or donated bodies. The average joe might turn up his nose at the shambling corpses paving the new city streets, but few can deny their usefulness as a persistent, rarely-faltering workforce. Some regions have even begun offering payments to individuals who wish to sell their posthumous bodies to the government in a more official capacity, providing a good chunk of wealth to those they leave behind.
In addition to the more obvious uses of a risen dead - physical labor in dangerous/ otherwise impossible conditions, warfare, simple security, etc. - a curious tactic has slowly been adopted within the police forces of some larger, more magically-inclined cities. They have begun hiring necromancers to visit crime scenes in order to raise sufficiently-intact victims, in the hopes that their brains will still be in good enough condition for the resulting zombie to recall the events leading to their deaths and describe them to the officers. In some cases they are able to name their cause of death exactly, while in other cases they cannot be quite so precise, but they can provide useful information regardless. This becomes slightly more difficult in cases where the corpses are unable to speak (slit throats, disemboweling, etc.), or where the head was significantly injured. However, as these ‘necro-detectives’ grow in demand, some have also begun to dabble in healing magics as well in the hopes that they might be able to reconstruct bodies well enough that even dismembered or similarly mangled victims might be rendered whole enough to reveal their secrets. After all, there’s not as much difference between reconstructing a corpse and reconstituting a living being as most mortals would like to think.
Hidden in Plain Sight (NaNoChaMo)
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At the request of a few friends, this coverage of how magic is accessed by the people of this setting is joined by some notes on Necromancy! So often shoe-horned in as 'the magic the evil guys use', it's important to consider the practical ramifications of having zombies do your work for you! The webcomic 'Unsounded' managed it! Of course, when people spend their days surrounded by dead things, there are bound to be some societal and psychological considerations... Not all of them are going to be entirely right in the head, and even then the average citizen probably won't appreciate their company. The stink of death doesn't wash out too easily.