Before the Cataclysm and the resulting large-scale migration of Ikosian mages to Altazia, the continent was a complex landscape of warring tribes and isolated city states. Well, the human parts of it, anyway. Altazian humans were far less populous and widespread back then, with many areas off-limits to human settlement. The forests and swamps were larger and darker, the territories of yetis and trolls more extensive and entrenched, and the various native spirits often claimed the choicest bits of land for themselves.
Regardless, although this human civilization was in many ways primitive and did not have the magical sophistication of the Ikosians that conquered them, they had developed several magical traditions of their own. Most of these were not anything special to the Ikosians, who had by this point already absorbed magical traditions of many other tribal groups. However, three traditions would prove to be exceptionally novel and influential, changing Ikosian magical tradition forever after. Specifically, the magical traditions of the shifters, the witches and the morlocks. For now, we will consider the witches and the morlocks in more detail.
Altazian magical traditions, just like traditions of many other peoples, were heavily connected to their native religions. Only the priesthood was allowed to wield magic openly, and anyone dabbling in magic was condemned as foolish and a danger to society. This idea was not without merit, since such amateurs often made pacts with less-than-friendly spirits to gain their magic, but people often found themselves in need of a mage outside the existing power structure. Priests were only human, after all, and had their grudges and vendettas just as everyone else. Plus, sometimes one needed the sort of help that the local priest just wouldn’t be willing to provide.
Fortunately for such people, there was an alternative. Since most Altazian cultures were very patriarchal, women generally couldn’t become community priests. However, it was inevitable that some would come into possession of magic, either through simple accident of birth or through a mage father who decided to teach them what he knew for one reason or another. Such women were effectively outside the traditional power structure, since they couldn’t be recruited into the priesthood and trying to get rid of them was often unwise. Nobody wanted to make an enemy out of a mage whose powers they could barely understand, and this was doubly true in places like pre-Ikosian Altazia were magical education was rare and one couldn’t simply call the local mage guild for help if they angered the wrong person. Thus, so long as such ‘witches’ didn’t make too much of a nuisance of themselves, they were allowed to live their lives on the edges of their communities and offer their magical services to those who sought them out.
Of course, such a position was a rather precarious one. Many people who came to visit a witch did so because they needed access to shady or illegal magic, and those that didn’t were often desperate and had trouble paying for their services. Enforcing payment was a problem, since witches had considerable issues taking matters to community judicial systems. The priesthood was rarely entirely happy with the arrangement and did their best to work against them in any way they could. Unsurprisingly, this caused witches to acquire very unpleasant reputations. They found it hard to marry, weren’t welcome in polite company and were the first to be suspected when a supernatural crime occurred anywhere near them.
Shunned, yet armed with potent magic and prideful about that fact, witches began to tackle their problems by turning to each other for help. They befriended other witches around them, sharing their magical insights, caring for one another when sick or otherwise disabled and coming to each other’s defense when threatened by outsiders. In time these gatherings were formalized into what are today known as ‘covens’, and developed their own customs and traditions. These covens often ignored tribal lines, as witches came to think of themselves as witches first and members of their community second. They grew insular and secretive, with an attitude towards normal society that was often antagonistic or even outright predatory.
Of course, the covens only worsened the reputation of witches among normal society… but they also made people leery of targeting them. The covens policed their own members, punishing the worst of the excesses, but any attack on one of their members was met with immediate retaliation by the rest of the coven.
Witches dabbled in all sorts of magics, but they were most infamous for their potion making skills. This appears to be a consequence of their highly antagonistic relationship with the local priesthood, which forced them to figure out an alternative source of magical healing. Thus, witches took the rudimentary herbal remedies that were present in virtually every culture in existence and slowly refined them into downright supernatural cures. The initial versions of the potions were quite underwhelming compared to divine healing, and thus of little interest to outside mages, but they were relatively cheap and thus often used by the poorer segments of society. Eventually, witches developed these rudimentary cures and healing potions into ever more powerful versions and then started branching out into non-medical applications such as mind-affecting drugs (such as the infamous love potions), transformation potions and poisons.
In addition to their increasingly refined potion skills, witches were known to be skilled in soul magic – though not soul magic as most modern Altazians would understand it. Witches rarely went for actual animation of corpses, instead using soul magic for enforcing deals with outsiders through magical geas, forging familiar links and deciphering people’s true attitudes by studying their soul auras.
This common usage of soul magic, and the corresponding proliferation of soul perception, had great influence on the witches and their beliefs. Many a witch has obtained soul perception and then had a child, allowing them to observe the process by which souls are created in developing children. In short, the soul of a child seems to ‘bud off’ from the soul of the mother. At some point (quite a while before the actual birth of the child) this soul bud separates from the mother and becomes the property of the baby alone. Although children clearly do inherit things from the father, to anyone observing the process with soul perception, the soul itself seems to originate from the mother alone.
The Ikosians (and most other groups) believe this only means some parts of the process are invisible to humans, even with soul perception. They cite the fact that children can inherit magical abilities from their father as their chief proof that there is more going on beneath the surface. Witches, on the other hand, placed tremendous importance on the fact that a child’s soul seemingly comes from the mother alone. They believed only female children could truly continue their bloodlines. A person’s ‘soul lineage’ originated solely from their female ancestors, and sons are basically spiritual dead ends.
According to ancient Altazians, many witches had a habit of quietly killing off their male offspring because of this belief. It is hard to know how much of that is true, but it does appear some covens had a habit of doing that – especially during hard times when the witch had trouble supporting all of her children. Most witches had a more nuanced philosophy, however, and found plenty of uses for male children – they were often married off to witches from other covens to forge links and cement alliances, or just raised as loyal helpers and workers for the coven.
After the Silence of the Gods, witches rose considerably in prominence. Without divine healing, their potions became the primary source of magical healing and medical care on the continent, which put them in a position of considerable power. Although the breakdown of social order and traditional power balance that followed in the wake of the Silence claimed the lives of many witches, many more had profited immensely in the aftermath. Thus, in many regards, the century between the Silence of the Gods and the coming of the Cataclysm is considered something of a golden age of the witch covens.
Yet, it was precisely this golden age that created the fractures in the covens that Ikosians would exploit when they came to Altazia. Suddenly finding themselves in this new position of increased demand, many covens struggled to maintain direction and discipline. The leadership of the covens had always been very tradition-bound and based heavily on age. They disdained outside ideas and young witches with more ambition than experience. That had been fine in the past, when young witches needed the support of their covens and had nowhere else to go, but as the world around them started to change more in their favor, they found themselves less willing to tolerate the restrictions their elders placed on them.
When the Ikosians started flooding into the continent, they almost immediately started tempting these young, ambitious witches into their service. Having lost their source of divine healing just like everyone else, they appreciated the alternative that their healing potions represented immensely. Unlike the natives, Ikosian mages had no problems with legitimizing these ‘female mages’, giving them positions of authority, marrying them and even granting them the status of nobility in some cases. Though these ‘defectors’ tended to be young and only possessed the very basics of witch potion making and magic… it was enough. Ikosians took those basics and gradually developed them into what is today known as alchemy, eventually far outstripping the witches in terms of sophistication.
As Ikosians finished their conquests and started re-organizing their territories, they began to crack down on unlicensed mages. This included the witches, of course. Many skirmishes and wars were fought, with witches finding themselves on the losing side more often than not. Faced with a choice between fighting a losing battle or assimilating into Ikosian mage communities while they still could, many covens ended up disbanding or fracturing.
The Ikosians stopped hounding the witches once they had destroyed the bulk of the covens, believing that the remnants would quietly fade away in time. In this they miscalculated somewhat, since some covens survived the witch wars and exist even today. However, these covens have been irrevocably changed by the conflicts, and are vastly different from how they were in the past. Modern witches make considerable use of the Ikosian spellcasting system in their daily lives, and often even take inspiration from alchemy to improve their traditional cauldron-based potion making. They still exist on the margins of society, however, due to lingering prejudices among the populace and their own unwillingness to toe the line in regards to magical regulations. Their insistence on having their daughters inherit their surnames and insistence that the child inherits the soul exclusively from the mother do not help, either, as they are things that clash heavily with the prevalent cultural norms across most of Altazia.
Overall, the legacy of the witches is felt keenly across Altazia. Modern society would be almost unrecognizable without the existence of alchemy, and many of the powerful mage families and even Noble Houses draw their roots from ancient witch lineages.
Although there are many varieties of humans in the world, few were as distinctive as the culture of subterranean humans that once built underground kingdoms beneath Altazia. The morlocks.
The most noticeable things about the morlocks are their white hair and their vivid blue eyes. Ancient records often describe morlock eyes as literally shining in the dark, but modern morlocks do not exhibit such traits – it is likely these were just cases of magical intimidation on the part of the morlocks in question. They do not have any innate supernatural abilities, but most of them see very well in low-light conditions and have excellent hearing. They also do not appear to suffer any health issues from spending prolonged periods of time in total darkness. Contrary to rumors, the sun does not burn them or hurt their eyes – at least not if they’ve grown up on the surface like most modern morlocks.
As one can figure out from the description, morlocks are a breed of humanity specifically adapted for underground existence. At some unknown point in the past, the ancestors of the morlocks colonized the surface layers of Altazia’s Dungeon, battling the creatures living there for living space and occasionally raiding the surface for things they could not acquire in their underground homes. What exactly compelled their ancestors into making that choice is unknown, and the morlocks’ myths are inconsistent and fractured about that point.
Regardless, the morlocks were surprisingly successful in their underground habitat. At their height, just before the Silence of the Gods, they had the highest level of technology and magical sophistication on the continent. They were extremely feared and hated by the other human groups, however, for they had the habit of raiding them for slaves and tribute. Worse, many of the slaves had ghastly fates waiting for them, for the morlocks excelled in blood magic and used it often… and had religious appreciation for cannibalism. They believed that through eating the flesh of their enemies they could steal their powers and that through eating the flesh of their ancestors they could preserve their wisdom.
It is likely that this widespread use of blood magic and belief in the benefits of cannibalism are linked closely together. After all, one could gain another’s powers through blood magic – and indeed, many of the high ranking morlocks were armed with at least one power they had stolen from someone through the use of such – so it’s not so farfetched to believe one could go even further by taking more than just blood…
The Silence of the Gods hit morlock society very hard. Although most known for their blood magic, the truth is that morlock society depended most heavily on divinely-granted powers, just like most human societies. Without the support of their gods, the morlocks found themselves struggling, and started raiding the surface humans more heavily for slaves and sacrifices. Thus, when the Ikosians came to Altazia, one of the first targets the locals pointed out to them was the morlock underground kingdoms.
The Ikosians didn’t have the numbers or the will to wage an underground war on the scale that would be necessary to thoroughly crush the morlocks. But they didn’t have to. Simply by virtue of stopping their surface raids and destroying their most prominent centers of power, they broke the backs of morlock kingdoms and left them vulnerable to assaults by underground creatures. In the end, the surviving morlocks were forced to abandon their underground holdings and journey to the surface in several waves, where they were forced to surrender to the Ikosian authorities and beg for mercy.
The terms they were offered tended to be harsh. The Ikosians found the morlock beliefs and practices odious and blasphemous, and the natives under them hated them to the core and advocated to have them exterminated outright. Thankfully for them, as much as Ikosian authorities expressed disgust at the very idea of their blood magic, plenty of powerful mages found the idea… intriguing.
In the end, the Ikosians decided to give morlocks a chance. As the various morlock groups streamed out of the Dungeon, they were presented with the same or similar deal – they would be forced to convert en masse to the Ikosian faith and scattered throughout the land to speed up assimilation, but they would be allowed to live. Some of the morlock groups were not willing to suffer this wholesale destruction of their culture and returned to the Dungeon, where they descended into the fathomless depths in search of something. They were never heard from again, and are surely dead now.
Though the Ikosians had hoped to quickly assimilate the morlocks by breaking them up and suppressing their culture, the reality proved to be not that simple. Altazian natives wanted nothing to do with the morlocks, and the morlocks themselves often found themselves turning to crime, alcoholism and the like. Today, they still tend to exist on the periphery of society and suffer heavy discrimination.
Their blood magic is also alive and well. Partially because many of the morlocks still retain some of their ancient magical traditions, and partially because many of the Ikosian mages secretly compiled many of their techniques and kept passing them around, and so blood magic refuses to die out.
And, though it is not said in polite company, it is well known that many of the modern Houses and magical bloodlines would not exist without the blood magic acquired from the morlocks…