The Dungeon

If one were to take a look at the ground beneath their feet, they would surely conclude that the foundation of the world is a solid and unyielding thing. An impression that would only grow stronger if they tried to dig deep into the earth and stone, for most of our planet is indeed composed out of hard, solid material.

And yet, this initial impression would be mistaken. Beneath the surface of our planet, there lies a vast network of caves and tunnels that extend into seemingly every corner of the planet. Some places contain denser concentration of the caves and tunnels than others, but no one has ever found a land that was entirely free of them. People call it the Underworld, the Dungeon, the Labyrinth, and countless other names. It connects to the surface world though openings both large and small, and it descends into unfathomable depths below, creating a habitat full of dangers and wonders beneath our feet.

The Dungeon had captivated humanity since the beginning of recorded history. It is the source of magic. It is the birth place of monsters. It contains inconceivable wealth and cosmic secrets. A thousand expeditions had been launched into its depths – to plunder it, pacify it, make sense of it, or simply try and reach its bottom. Many of these had disappeared without a trace, never to be heard from again. Many more had returned with little to show for it. And no one had ever found a bottom. The interest never waned, however, and where there is a will there is a way.

This document is designed to give the reader some basic facts about the topic and dispel common misconceptions about the Dungeon. It is my hope that it will spark interest in the reader about this part of our world, which is so influential in how we live our lives and yet is so often taken for granted.

The Dungeon and Mana:

Probably the most obvious trait of the Dungeon is the relationship it has with ambient mana. The Dungeon is very rich in ambient mana, and the deeper one goes the higher the concentration of ambient mana becomes. This effect doesn’t appear to ever actually stop. No matter how deep one descends, the levels of ambient mana keep growing. It is rumored that if someone goes deep enough, the levels of ambient mana become high enough to passively induce mana poisoning in human beings, regardless of whether they try to draw in ambient mana into themselves or not. Reports relating to such deep expeditions are often highly confidential, however, so confirmation is hard to find.

Ambient mana in the Dungeon is rarely static – instead, it flows from some unreachable place deep underground and gradually rises towards the surface, thinning out as it is absorbed by the walls of the tunnels and the life forms that make their home in them. The bigger and straighter the tunnels, the less mana is lost during its flow towards the surface. This can create localized areas of atypically high ambient mana density, if a large vertical shaft connects a deeper portion of the Dungeon with areas near the surface.

This flow of mana is also usually accompanied by air currents that keep dungeon air from growing too stale and make the entire underworld far more livable than it would otherwise be. Since air is constantly moving upward from the Dungeon depths but never runs out, there is presumably a source of it somewhere in the depths. This source, much like the source of ambient mana itself, has never been found.

The Dungeon is connected to the surface in many places. These kinds of Dungeon openings are very easy to detect, because they invariably raise the ambient mana levels on the surface by their very presence. Even shallow portions of the Dungeon have significantly higher levels of ambient mana than most areas on the surface, so a Dungeon opening constantly spewing plumes of mana-infused air into the area is bound to raise its mana levels. Places where the Dungeon connects to the surface like this are called mana wells.

In fact, it is widely believed by mages that all ambient mana ultimately originates from the Dungeon. The main proof for this is that if one compares the map of known mana wells with a map of ambient mana levels, it immediately becomes obvious they match almost perfectly to one another. In the rare few cases where a high level of ambient mana is not matched by an appropriately-sized mana well in the center of it, there are usually traces of a mana well that collapsed (or was forcibly closed) sometime in the past.

The Dungeon and Magical Creatures:

The Dungeon has plenty of inhabitants. One might think that the number of living beings would be highest near the surface and then gradually grow thinner and smaller as one descended into the depths, but this isn’t the case. Every corner of the Dungeon is teeming with life. It just gets progressively more powerful and alien the deeper one descends into the tunnels below.

All dungeon creatures are magical in some way. Mundane creatures sometimes colonize new mana wells before Dungeon denizens become aware of them, but they are inevitably outcompeted and driven out by magical creatures in time. After all, magical creatures can do everything a mundane creature can, but with additional advantage of magic on top, and the only limitation is that they need a certain level of ambient mana to survive. Since the ambient mana levels in the Dungeon are high, even in very shallow portions of it, they can support very powerful magical creatures that outclass mundane ones in every conceivable way.

The shallowest portions of the Dungeon – those closest to the surface – are often inhabited by magical creatures that are clearly based on mundane animals. This is where one may find things like fire-breathing beetles, hyper-agile bats, spear-like worms, and so on. Some of them may be very unusual animals, however. For instance, land dwelling octopuses that can masquerade as rocks and mushrooms, or a type of flightless bats twisted into a small humanoid form. Although dependent on high levels of ambient mana to survive, most of these creatures can survive on the surface for a brief period of time, and will sometimes raid the surface if they are desperate or driven from their homes by other threats.

Near mana wells, many magical creatures that live on the surface will adopt a hybrid lifestyle, moving freely between the surface and shallower levels of the Dungeon. Large mana wells may also have specialized species that rely on this kind of lifestyle and cannot survive without the presence of both in the area.

Finally, there are creatures that live in different area depending on the stage of their life. Some magical creatures live their initial stages on life on the surface, where there are fewer things to threaten them, but descend into the Dungeon when they grow older and the levels of ambient mana on the surface can no longer support their existence.

The biosphere of the surface layer is not uniform across the world, and in fact greatly varies from place to place. Due to the great number of bottlenecks in the local landscape, as well as other factors that are poorly understood, dungeon denizens are often localized inside their own small areas. Entering a brand new section of the Dungeon is always a dangerous undertaking, because one can never be certain what kind of creatures they would find there.

The shallow, surface layer of the Dungeon is the one more extensively explored and exploited by humanity. Although no part of the Dungeon can be said to be truly safe or totally understood, this level of the Dungeon is considered fairly accessible and even non-magical people feel confident making limited forays into it. Sections of it are routinely pacified and section off from the Dungeon as a whole to serve as storage spaces, dumping grounds, experimental chambers, mining areas, and so on.

There are a number of sapient races making their home in the shallow portions of the Dungeon, though none possess the technical or magical sophistication of humanity. Their relationships with humans are complex, but surprisingly peaceful. Though humans are interested in exploiting the Dungeon, they have no ambition to outright colonize this space and are wary of sending significant forces into subterranean tunnels. As such, unless Dungeon races raid human communities on the surface, most humans would prefer to leave them alone or engage in trade.

Deeper into the Dungeon, in what is known as the middle layer, creatures become more and more removed from the surface, both in terms of appearance and in terms of behavior. They never venture out into the surface unless some major disturbance has occurred, and would not survive there for long even if they are displaced there. Their appearance is difficult to place among standard classifications of life on the surface. Many of them are recognizably bestial in basic structure, but do not correspond to specific known animals. A middle layer denizen can be said to resemble a frog or a crab, but they are also clearly not those things when studied in detail. Vivisections often produce bizarre results, such as a weasel-like creature that entirely lacks a spine, a jellyfish being that contains a bizarrely human-like brain in its cap, or a mass of pink gel covered in eyes.

Middle layer is viewed with great fear and caution by humans, since even experienced mages could easily perish here. Dungeon denizens that make their home here are powerful and poorly studied. Information about specific species is scarce, and what little of it exists in publicly-available libraries is often useless outside of very specific sections of the middle layer. The middle layer, just like the surface one, often has a unique species and variants living in different sections of it. This means that anyone wishing to go there will be faced with a plethora of strange magical abilities that are difficult to plan and prepare for. Only an archmage, armed with a wide selection of spells and mastered magic types, can reliably take on an environment like this and emerge victorious. These people are in short supply, so forays into the middle layer are rare.

Some of the dungeon denizens on the second layer are confirmed to be sapient, but none of them seem to form large organized societies. Most of them are highly territorial and aggressive, and will not respond to human attempts at communication – they are only known to be sapient due to mind magic. The few species that are willing to communicate are difficult to talk to, as their understanding of the world is entirely alien to humans. These creatures have never left their tunnels, don’t live in civilized societies, and often make references to magical perceptions that not even mages can make sense of. They often perceive humans as both weak and stupid, and are not shy about letting them know that. No long-term trade or productive interaction has been accomplished between humanity and middle layer dungeon denizens.

What lies beyond the middle layer is shrouded in mystery. Past a certain point, the monsters become so dangerous that even the best human mages wouldn’t last long against them. Their appearance is utterly alien as well, and they can no longer be described as weird animals but instead assume utterly alien forms that rarely resemble anything familiar. Like literal monsters conjured out of speculative horror stories, these strange entities increasingly challenge one’s common sense as one delves deeper into the depths. There are rumors of beings that can exist in two different places simultaneously, creatures that can trap people inside their own private pocket dimension that they can conjure and dismantle at will, elephantine-sized predators that are totally soundless and invisible regardless of what detection magic one uses, and eel-like parasites that can phase straight through unprotected flesh so they can slowly feed on the person’s insides. Truth is hard to distinguish from fanciful tales when it comes to the Dungeon depths.

Fortunately for humans (and other surface dwellers), magical creatures that dwell in these depths are such massive mana hogs that they wouldn’t be able to survive more than an hour on the surface and would never willingly ascend that high.

Beliefs and Theories:

As stated, the Dungeon and its place in the world is a mystery. Humans have only scratched its surface and can hardly unravel its deepest mysteries at this point in time. The gods rarely gave a definitive answer about what it represents, and many of their explanations conflict with each other. That is not to say that there is a lack of theories and supposed divine wisdom preserved from before the Silence. Most cultures and religions have an explanation about the Dungeon, and many scholars have put forward various theories about the place. Until someone is able to actually reach its greatest depths and return alive, however, it is likely that it will all remain speculative.

As noted earlier in this document, something in the depths of the Dungeon is responsible for producing nearly all ambient mana in the world. Since the only other thing capable of producing mana is souls of living beings, many people believe there is something alive down there. Some people believe the world itself has a soul, which reside in the center of it. Others believe the creator god that fashioned the world sacrificed his own heart to bring life to the otherwise barren soil. One group thinks the gods built the world around the body of a sleeping giant, and that the world is doomed to ruin once he finally wakes up.

In Ikosian mythology, the dungeon is a remnant from the time the world was created, when the gods took the last Primordial Dragon and fashioned her body into the land we live in. The tunnels are dragon veins, and they all converge at the very center of the world. There, bound in divine chains but still very much aware and seething in hatred, lies the still-beating heart of the primordial dragon. This is the Heart of the World, or the Heart of the World Dragon, and is supposedly the source of all the ambient mana gushing upwards from the depths, as well as the source of monsters that stalk the tunnels.

Many people have raised doubts about this story. Unlike ancient Ikosians, we have a pretty good idea about how big our planet is, and it’s big. Very big. The amount of distance the tunnels would have to cover in order to reach the center of the planet is mind-boggling. Furthermore, some of the scientific theories are suggesting that a large portion of our planet’s interior is actually in a molten state – a giant mass of lava upon which the continents float, basically. That would seem incompatible with the idea that there are tunnels crisscrossing the entire planet all the way to the very center of it.

Many people have raised questions about how the Dungeon can even exist in its current state. They claim that natural forces should have collapsed most of the tunnel network by now, citing both scientific models and the observed rate at which human-controlled sections of the Dungeon deteriorate. The simple answer to this is that we don’t know how this works. Magic is the obvious answer, but no mage can identify the actual mechanism by which the Dungeon maintains itself. Sections of the Dungeon do collapse from time to time, but it is clear that the Dungeon is both far more resilient to structural damage than it should be, and that it has some kind of unknown mechanism for creating brand new sections to replace the destroyed ones.

There is a persistent rumor among delvers that there is a gigantic cavern somewhere deep beneath Altazia, forming what is effectively a small underground continent. Such a place has never been found, and it is unclear where the rumor originates from.

Origin of Dungeon Denizens:

There are two main theories in regards to where the monsters that inhabit the Dungeon come from: the hybrid theory and deep origin theory.

The hybrid theory states that dungeon denizens come both from the surface world and the unidentified depths below. The deeper, more alien creatures are said to have no relations to surface creatures. They originate from the bottom of the Dungeon, whatever it is, and have gradually extended their influence upwards. The inhabitants of the shallow and middle layer, however, are clearly just magical animals. They are surface creatures that have colonized the Dungeon and gradually developed magical powers due to long exposure to mana. At certain depths, these two ecologies meet, though the exact point at which this happens is in dispute. The hybrid theory is currently the more popular of the two theories.

The deep origin theory states that all dungeon denizens originate from the depths of the dungeon. The more animal-like creatures in the surface layers of the dungeon are just monsters that learned to mimic the creations of the gods to better infiltrate the surface and lure the unwary into a false sense of security. This was once the more popular of the two theories, but it has fallen in disrepute in recent times, since greater exposure to the surface dungeon denizens has shown that these creatures just aren’t that hateful and duplicitous. They’re most just vicious animals with magical powers. The spread of magic and firearms has also made dungeon denizen raids on the surface a much rarer thing than it was in the past, which makes people a lot less negative about the place.

Dungeon Journeys:

One question that is often asked is whether travel through the Dungeon can be used to circumvent surface obstacles. The answer is yes, but with some caveats.

Surface sections of the Dungeon are often poorly connected to each other. Thus, if one wants to travel large distances through the dungeon, then at the very least they need to descend into the middle layer from time to time. This means that any person or group that wishes to travel through the dungeon must be uncommonly powerful and experienced. Because large sections of the Dungeon are poorly mapped and many dungeon denizens are fond of ambushes, progress is bound to be slow. If speed is desired, traversing large stretches of the Dungeon is a poor choice of action. Finally, although the Dungeon is teeming with life, very few of it is safe to eat by human beings. Dungeon denizens, especially ones from the deeper reaches, have highly magical flesh that has strange, usually negative effects on human that eat it. Thus, you will have to ensure a steady supply of edible food throughout the journey.

Finally, a question of whether it’s possible to travel beneath the ocean to another continent through the Dungeon is sometimes raised. Such a feat would require one to descent into the deep dungeon and stay there for a long time, which is suicide for just about anyone. No one has been reported to have even attempted it, much less succeeded.

Dirge Moths

Dirge moths are fairly large species of moths with distinctive colorations: they are black with white markings that can glow when the moths are agitated. The white markings are said to be rather skeletal in appearance, especially when they glow in the dark. They are highly poisonous and only active at night. Though folk superstitions claim they lay their eggs inside corpses of people who die in the forest, they actually lay their eggs inside rotting trees. They spend most of their life (about 23 years) as larvae, feeding on wood pulp and absorbing ambient magic, spending their chrysalis stage within the safety of their wooden home before emerging en masse one night. Dirge moths do not feed, subsisting solely on the mana reserves they stockpiled as larvae, and live for just one day before dying. Within this one day they mate and find a suitable place to lay their eggs. They possess highly developed soul sense, which they use to track down and judge potential mates. It is also useful for avoiding threats, though dirge moths are too poisonous for most things and rarely attacked.

The most useful part of the dirge moth is the chrysalis, which must be harvested in just the right moment. It is easy to recognize if the harvester picked the right moment for an experienced alchemist, because the contents of a properly harvested chrysalis are a milky white slime as opposed to an orange-tinted chunky contents of a too-soon harvested one, or a black jelly exhibited by a too-late harvested one. The chrysalis can be used for a variety of potions, but is most important as a component for potions that grant soul perception to people.

Although dirge moths are only active for one day every 23 years, they are actually quite numerous in the northern wilderness of Altazia. As such, their chrysalises can he harvested in great numbers when the right time comes. The Triumvirate Church uses this to create soul perception potions on a mass scale, turning many of its priests into soul mages every 23 years. The resulting abundance of soul mages has done a lot for keeping the Triumvirate Church a powerful and influential force in modern times, despite losing their divinely-granted powers in the Silence.

It was the Triumvirate Church who developed and perfected the dirge moth potion. However, the final recipe was so simple and reliable that it eventually leaked outside the Church hierarchy and became wildly employed in necromantic circles. The church is very unhappy about this and has tried for quite a while to hunt down these recipes and destroy them, without much success. These days they have mostly given up on this, as it has become obvious that this is a lost cause – too many people know the recipe now to truly suppress it – but they have still made actual usage of the potion illegal in many countries.

Even before the soul perception potions had been developed and become widespread, dirge moths have always had a heavy association with death and necromancy, likely because of their skeletal markings and highly poisonous nature. They were said to flutter about around dying people, waiting for them to breathe their final breath so they could steal their souls as it leaves the body.

Morlock societies, before their destruction at the hand of Ikosian refugees, considered them sacred in some way. This probably only added to their sinister, deathly reputation among surface inhabitants of pre-Ikosian Altazia.

Adult dirge moths and over-ripe chrysalises can be harvested for their poison, though trade in it is illegal. The larvae have very high mana reserves, but have no known use in alchemy – though many magical creatures consider them an absolute delicacy.

Hunters & Exterminators

Monster Hunters:

Mages who hunt and kill monsters that menace humanity from the wilderness. This is arguably the most important job of mages from the perspective of humanity as a whole, since non-magical humans have a hard time dealing with the tougher monsters out there without magical support. Without mage monster hunters, humanity would be limited to a handful of scattered enclaves, constantly getting picked off by creatures they could not hope to match.

Monster hunters almost never work alone. They move around in groups of 10 or more, both for safety and to make sure they cannot be easily brushed off when the job is done and it’s time to collect payment. Mundane people have a love-hate relationship with them – they need their services, but they often feel they demand too much in exchange. The line between monster hunters and bandits gets pretty thin, sometimes.

Hunter groups do not have to be made exclusively out of mages, and in fact usually aren’t. Especially in modern times, with guns having decisively proved their usefulness, the numbers are often padded with mundane people. In the past these people were clearly second-class members compared to the mages, but the advent of guns have changed this dynamic to be less lopsided. Not every mage is happy with this, but some mages have discarded traditional group dynamics and simply filled the entire group with gun-wielding mercenaries, with only one mage providing magical support.

Traditional hunter groups usually have several specialists working together – at least one mage skilled in projection to deal critical damage to the enemies, at least one diviner to track down their target, and at least one warder to stop any exotic magics from wiping out the group. Hunter groups usually inform themselves very well about the target in order to exploit its weaknesses and block its strengths. Many of them will refuse to go after completely unknown threats, or will require ruinous fees in exchange.

Exterminators:

A subset of monster hunters that deal with weak but numerous enemies that infest buildings, fields and the like. Rodents, birds and insects are the common target for this kind of thing. This is considered a less prestigious, but safer type of profession from the monster hunter. However, safer doesn’t mean safe. It is hardly unknown for exterminators to end up dying while performing their tasks. Unexpectedly getting swarmed by magical rats or hornet swarms can panic even the most experienced mages, and the true size of the infestation is easy to misjudge unless one has a lot of field experience.

Because of the reduced chances of dying, exterminators rarely congregate in large groups. They commonly work in pairs, and some even operate alone if they’re particularly experienced or confident. If a challenging job comes up, they may form into larger congregations, but many exterminators specifically chose their job because it was relatively safe and will refuse to risk their lives for money. If the infestation is very extensive, many exterminators will just advise the employer to scour the whole place clean with fire or write it off as a loss.

Exterminators often dabble in multiple fields of magic, having wide but shallow understanding of each. They usually have some knowledge of projection, divination, warding and mind magic. Mind magic is employed to manipulate their target, which are typically very vulnerable to mind magic and can thus be influenced by it very easily. This use of mind magic is considered completely uncontroversial.

Tetra & Abnazia

The current political situation in the Altazian continent is clearly unsustainable. The Splinter Wars have fractured the previous states that made up the Old Alliance, creating a complicated landscape of tiny statelets and moderately-sized powers, but this is less of a stable equilibrium and more of a compromise that nobody is really happy with. Right now, the three main contenders for the new ruler of the continent – Eldemar, Sulamnon and Falkrinea – are lying low, but a new war is quietly brewing beneath the surface. The Big Three, as they are known, are constantly probing their rivals for any sign of weakness, making alliances with minor players and spying on each other for any scrap of information as to what they’re doing on their end.

Many of the current Splinter States are not strong enough to survive on their own in the long term and are well aware of this. For them, the main concerns while going into the future is whether they’ll be able to choose the ‘right’ side in the upcoming conflict and under what terms they will be absorbed by the victor. Others, though, have higher aspirations. Some, especially the states far away from the Big Three, hope to attain high degrees of autonomy by default – it is hard to govern distant places without a high degree of delegation, even with magic. Some of them hope to make themselves such a tough nut to crack that major powers would rather negotiate with them than war, whether by pursuing some kind of unique national advantage or by forging alliances with their fellow minor states.

There are two Splinter States that aim straight to the top, aiming to compete with the Big Three for the leadership role in a future Altazian super-state. These are Tetra and Abnazia, two relatively large and prosperous states in the western part of the continent.

Though powerful, neither Tetra not Abnazia are really states on the level of the Big Three. This, coupled with the considerable distance between them and the heartland of the continent, causes the Big Three to be dismissive of these two ‘pretenders’. The state that ends up controlling Altazia’s Central Valley, with its vast population and industry, holds an insurmountable advantage over some so-called ‘power’ out there on the periphery of the continent.

Tetra and Abnazia are well aware of all this, of course, it’s just that they don’t think any of the Big Three will be able to triumph over the other two any time soon. It’s all well and good to say that the continent will be united eventually, but if that ‘eventually’ turns out to be several decades of grueling warfare, that gives rising powers like them a fair amount of time to work with. Moreover, while the Big Three are busy fighting for the Central Valley, they can hardly stop Tetra and Abnazia from securing their local region by swallowing up any vulnerable nearby states.

The Kingdom of Tetra is a trading nation, heavily involved in the trade with Miasina and Hsan. They have a very large and capable navy, but their military is of dubious strength. It looks good on paper, but it is a product of recent militarization, making it somewhat disorganized and untested in the actual field of battle. They have an extremely firm grasp on the trade routes going through the Shivan Archipelago and the Xlotic coast, having achieved virtual monopoly in certain markets, and they are constantly pushing for more. There is considerable conflict between the crown faction, which wants the kingdom to keep pursuing its current path of vying for supremacy in Altazia, and the merchant faction, which is pushing towards a less belligerent stance that would see the state focus exclusively trade concerns and avoid entangling themselves in Altazian politics. Their main rival is Falkrinea, which is similarly trade focused and also possesses a powerful fleet.

The Kingdom of Abnazia does not have any particular strength, but also no obvious weakness either. They are somewhat like Eldemar in this regard, but with better diplomacy. Abnazia wishes to expand westward, towards the frontier states located beyond the Winter Mountains. These lands are poorly developed and sparsely populated, having been colonized only recently, but any country that could unite all this land under its rule would have quite a bit of power on its fingertips. Quantity has a quality all of its own, after all. In any case, although Abnazia claims these lands rightfully belong to them (a lot of the colonists came from Abnazia originally, due to its closeness and strategic position), nobody else is willing to tolerate naked aggression on their part. Thus, they are quietly building up their forces and laying down the groundwork for the eventual occupation by subverting various interest groups in the targeted frontier states. The current consensus is that Abnazia is being too ambitious, trying to swallow more than they can chew, but if their plan succeeds and they stabilize the vast western frontier under their rule, they could potentially become a genuine contender for leadership of the continent.

(You can find the location of Tetra and Abnazia on a map I posted way back.)

Basics of Magic – Spellcasting

The mysterious substance of mana is the foundation of magic. Magic is initiated and sustained through mana. Its lack or abundance sharply delineates what is and is not possible for a given mage to accomplish. It is not entirely wrong to say that having enough mana to produce the desired effect is the single most important thing when it comes to magic – the prerequisite that must be met before the mage can even begin their work.

And yet, having a sufficient quantity of mana is only half of the battle. Mana does very little on its own, after all. Something needs to take control of the mana and direct it towards a coherent goal. This directing, this shaping of mana is what people call spellcasting.

And being capable of spellcasting is what truly makes mages so formidable.

Prerequisite Skills:

Before a person can even think of performing magic, they must master a few minor but absolutely necessary skills. Specifically, they need to learn how to sense their own mana, quickly and reliably draw upon their personal mana reserves, consciously direct their mana along specific ways, visualize the desired result with a high degree of detail and clarity and exercise discipline over their thoughts to maintain concentration during spellcasting.

Although none of these skills are terribly difficult on their own, developing all five into a seamless and reliable whole has proven to be rather difficult. The process takes 2-4 years for an average mage and requires considerable work ethic and introspection. Instructors can provide guidance, but everyone’s thoughts and mana are somewhat different – it is up to aspiring mages themselves to figure out what works for them personally and what doesn’t. Some people just can’t do that while others lack the discipline to apply themselves to the problem with sufficient intensity. Numerous mage aspirants have been stopped from achieving their dreams at this very first step in the process.

In truth, the situation here has improved considerably in modern times. The increasing number of mages and the accumulation of magical knowledge available to the public have led to a specialized profession of magic instructors and vastly better training methods than what had existed in the past. Consequently, the success rate of passing this first major hurdle has gone way up than it was in the past. Historically, mages were fairly uncommon and magical training was done mostly through apprenticeships. Very few of these ‘master mages’ actually knew how to teach – they knew what worked for them and simply taught that to any student that came their way. If that was a poor fit for the student, well… tough luck. Go find another teacher willing to take you in. And that was assuming that the mage in question honestly tried their best when teaching someone. For many mages, the primary motivation for accepting apprentices was to have some extra hands to fob off all the boring chores and unpleasant work onto.

Of course, most modern magic instructors and teaching institutions actually demand far more than mastering just these five elementary skills from their students. Anyone who seriously intends to be a mage in one of the Altazian Splinter States, for instance, will also have to memorize a great number of different chants and gestures, develop an ability to draw upon ambient mana to replenish their personal mana reserves, learn the relevant laws governing the use of magic and a whole host of other things. But strictly speaking, one can do magic without satisfying these extra requirements. It’s just usually illegal to do so.

Unstructured Magic:

The oldest and simplest form of magic is unstructured magic. Anyone with prerequisite basic spellcasting skills is capable of performing it to some extent. All they have to do is visualize the effect they’re trying to produce and then direct mana at the problem until they get what they want. They may not succeed the first time, or the second time, or the tenth time, but they are bound to succeed eventually. They just need to keep at it long enough.

Unstructured magic works because souls can, to some extent, figure out how to perform feats of magic on their own. If given aid in directing mana outside the body and presented with a clear picture of the desired goal, the soul will slowly chip away at the problem in question, getting closer and closer to a solution with each attempt. Since this is a very blind and crude process, however, it can take quite a while before it converges on a viable solution. If the desired magical effect is complex or mana intensive, the training could take years, decades, or even so long that no person would live to see the results within their natural lifetime. Such long training times can be made more manageable by breaking down complex effects into multiple simpler steps and by studying similar magic, but the fact remains – unstructured magic is generally very time-consuming to train.

Some effects are easy to accomplish with unstructured magic. Mana is very much inclined to produce light, heat and kinetic force. In fact, it often does so against the caster’s wishes – most spellcasting is not flawless, and wasted mana naturally manifests itself in the form such energies. If the caster has a healthy amount of control over the mana involved in the spell, this means unwanted glows, rapid increase in the temperature of surrounding area and chaotic waves of kinetic force (often perceived as strange wind by spectators). If not, a failed spell could easily blow up in the caster’s face or burn their hands off. Thus, unstructured magic that deals with said energies is quite easy. Turning objects into sources of illumination, igniting paper and levitating things are all examples of elementary tricks that virtually every mage is capable of.

(As an aside: Because of its obvious inclination towards light and heat, magic has historically been heavily associated with fire in many different cultures. Ikosians, for instance, considered magic to be fashioned from the fire of the primordial world dragon from which the world was created.)

Unstructured magic is extremely flexible. The caster can use it at will, with no forewarning or preparation, and can adjust the details of what they’re doing from moment to moment, adjusting to changing circumstances far more agilely than a structured spell ever could. Not only is this a great boon in situations where speed and adaptability is crucial, it also means that many structured magic defenses – especially simpler, low-level ones – have trouble effectively countering unstructured magic. They are made for blocking rigid spell constructs that attack a target in very specific ways and have trouble dealing with magic that can be adjusted on the fly to attack their weak points or slip past their blind spots.

All this said, unstructured magic is something that virtually nobody trains exclusively in. Every mage has some amount of ability in it, but this is purely because a certain level of unstructured magic expertise is vital as a foundation for another system of spellcasting. One that gives results much faster than unstructured magic and also gives the mage a much more versatile set of magic skills to boot.

Structured Magic:

Unstructured magic can, in theory, do anything. It is unbounded and freeform. However, it is that very freedom that that is in some ways the problem. With no limiters in place, the soul loses itself in the vast space of different possibilities and takes an impractically long time to reach a viable solution for problems presented to it. What if there was a way for mages to direct the flow of mana in a more precise, forceful manner? What if one could tell the soul, not just what to do, but explain to it exactly how it should go about doing it?

Structured magic – also known as bounded magic and the divine limiter system – is a method of doing just that. By performing a series of words and gestures, the caster can invoke a rigid mana construct that directs mana in very specific ways. These rigid mana constructs are called spells in casual parlance, and also invocations… for Ikosians believe that structured magic had been handed to mankind by the gods themselves in ancient history.

Handed by the gods or not, spells are not black boxes that nobody understands. Rather, each spell is essentially constructed out of lego-like ‘blocks’ (spell elements) that can be assembled into all sorts of ways to produce desired effects. Humans cannot create new types of spell elements, but existing ones can be combined in novel ways easily enough. Spell crafters are constantly inventing new spells through this process and it doesn’t seem like the potential of the system as a whole is anywhere close to being fully tapped.

In order to cast a structured spell, the caster must communicate the structure of the spell in question to their soul. This is usually done by reciting a chant and performing a series of hand gestures. Specific words and gestures invoke specific spell elements, essentially explaining to the soul of the caster how it should go about constructing the spell boundary. The reason both chanting and gestures is typically used is to cut down on spellcasting time – by ‘speaking’ two things at once, the casting time is essentially halved. ‘Silent spells’ that only used gestures and ‘still spells’ that only use chants both exist, and naturally take far longer than regular spells to cast.

Although spell elements are bound to certain words and gestures (henceforth: proxies), the proxies do not possess power of their own. If a spell proxy is used in normal social interaction, by a person ignorant of its significance, it will invoke nothing except its mundane meaning. Even knowing that a word or gesture is a proxy is not enough. They must know exactly what the proxy stands for in order to use it.

Spell elements are not exclusively tied to one specific proxy. Modern mages typically use the Old Ikosian language and conventions in their spellcasting, but it is entirely possible to bind a spell element to another proxy. Doing this requires cooperation of a mage already capable of invoking spell elements, but this isn’t an especially stringent requirement. This is especially important for non-human species like aranea, who are incapable of mimicking human speech and hand movements, but even some human cultures find the default Ikosian magic vocabulary too alien for their liking. As such, spell elements are bound to new words and gestures all the time. It should be noted, however, that there are many spell elements and that the translation of the entire Ikosian spellcasting language into another functional spellcasting language is a major undertaking that can easily take decades of hard work to accomplish. On top of that, this makes it more difficult to use the bulk of existing magical literature, and is thus often more trouble than it’s worth.

Invoking a spell element successfully is obvious. Thus, if a mage performs a proxy incorrectly and fails to invoke a spell element, they will immediately know it. However, they can still ruin the spell without realizing it by missing some of the proxies, adding ones that shouldn’t be there or performing proxies in incorrect order.

In any case, although a spell boundary defines how the mana should be used to produce an effect, that doesn’t mean that performing the spell will result in a successful magical effect the first time its cast. The spell boundary simply narrows down the possibility space to something small enough that the soul can figure it out relatively quickly.

Still, even if the learning process is not instant, it is blazingly fast when compared to alternatives. Spells that would take decades of training if done through unstructured magic can be learned in a week, and things that would require a week of tireless repetition can be mastered in five minutes of practice.

There are trade-offs involved, of course. Although a spell boundary massively shortens the time necessary to learn a piece of magic, the rigidness of the mana construct limits the ability of the caster to adjust the effect of the spell beyond what is programmed into the spell boundary. Generally, the caster defines how the spell will behave when he casts the spells – after that, the magic mostly does its own thing and the caster has very limited ability to change its behavior beyond just dismissing it entirely and casting a brand new spell.

This inflexibility can be ameliorated by having a mage invest some of their time into unstructured magic related to often-used spells. Doing this allows the caster to use more loosely defined spell boundaries in their spells, which gives them more freedom in adjusting their effects to suit their needs at the moment. This practice is widely used among modern mages, and is the main reason why modern structured spells are so flexible compared to their ancient counterparts. Previously, a combat mage had to learn 15 individual variations of a fireball spell if they wanted to have a high degree of control over the blast radius, fire intensity and other variables. The modern version of the fireball spell can do everything those 15 variations did, provided one has sufficiently high shaping skills to actually cast the spell.

In addition to being inflexible, structured spells also require a rather lengthy casting procedure. This is both inconvenient and dangerous. Especially in battle but sometimes even outside of it – the longer the casting procedure, the more chances for something to do wrong or for the caster to be interrupted halfway through. And while unstructured magic can usually be dismissed or adjusted if something goes wrong, structured magic essentially offloads a lot of the mana shaping and safety control to the spell boundary… if it is damaged or improperly made, the caster could easily end up dead.

It is possible to shorten the casting time of structured spells. The first method is through spell formulas, which are outside the scope of this article. The second method is by casting a spell so often that it becomes reflexive. That is, the soul gets so proficient at shaping the mana into that specific spell that the mage in question can start gradually dropping proxies from the casting procedure one by one. Eventually, the spell can be executed with a single word or gesture… or even with a mere thought.

The problem is that it takes years for a spell to reach that level. Developing reflexive magic is not that much faster than developing unstructured magic.

Yetis, Trolls & Cranium Rats

The world holds many sapient species. Even on the three human-dominated continents, numerous rival species exist. This article gives a brief description of three of them: yetis, trolls and cranium rats.

Yeti:

Yetis are large, furred humanoids, about 2.5 meters tall on average, that live in the forests and mountains of Altazia, Hsan and Miasina. The fur is commonly a shade of brown, though some of the tribes are black or white instead. They are clearly some sort of ape, albeit one that is every bit as smart as humans. Despite having greater physical strength and intelligence that compares favorably to those of a human, conflicts between humans and yetis have nearly always gone badly for the yetis in the past, and they have been driven deep into their forests and mountain homes by human encroachment. This is largely because yetis seem incapable of organizing themselves into social units larger than tribes of about 200 individuals – different tribes do not trade between each other, or even interact much with one another, instead fighting each other and vying for territory with one another just as fiercely as they do against humans. The situation has only gone worse as time went by, as humans have advanced both magically and technologically, while most yetis still exist as a stone-age culture. Some yeti tribes do have impressive magic, but the impact of this is limited, as these tribes do not trade their insights with other yeti tribes.

There are also persistent rumors of hidden cities in the deep wilderness, populated by yetis that are far more technologically and magically advanced than their common brethren. These rumors remain just that for now, but they occur with sufficient regularity that most scholars think there may be something to them.

Trolls:

Making sweeping statements about trolls as a whole is somewhat tricky, as the species is very diverse. There are many troll subspecies scattered throughout the entire world, surviving in all manner of environments, and most regions have their own regional variety. The reasons for this dizzying variety of different trolls in the world is unclear, but it is clear that the species as a whole is far more prone to mutation than most other creatures.

That said, all trolls have some things in common. They are all very tall humanoids (ranging from 1.8 to 3 meters in size, depending on the subspecies and individual) with sharp teeth, clawed digits, and lean, muscular bodies. Trolls never seem to get fat, no matter how much they gorge themselves on food, and most experts agree their metabolisms are probably set up in such a way as to disallow it. Coloration spans all the colors of the rainbow – green, blue, red, purple, pink, even metallic silver trolls have been spotted in the wild. Most species have very prominent noses, as well as a keen sense of smell. Finally, every troll species possesses the signature regeneration ability that gives them their feared and coveted powers of self-healing. So long as their tissue is not chemically altered (such as being burned by fire or dissolved in acid), they can regenerate wounds with startling quickness, to the point where they can reattach severed limbs by pressing them against the appropriate stump and holding it there for half a minute or so.

Although their regeneration is their most famous ability, a troll’s body is very remarkable in general. Most poisons are ineffective against trolls, and they appear to be immune to all but the most magical of illnesses. Additionally, they have an iron stomach that can digest just about anything and derive nutrients from it… although they greatly prefer meat when they can get it, and behave like carnivores most of the time. Finally, all trolls are supernaturally strong and tough, even accounting for their great physical size.

Although trolls are sapient, all known subspecies are quite dim. Stories of them being outwitted by small children exist in nearly all cultures. Most are also high solitary, only tolerating others of their kind during mating. Even the most social of troll subspecies only exist in small family units that never number more than 15 or so individuals – the alpha pair of such groups will not tolerate additions to the group that aren’t their own children, so any of their progeny that wants a family of their own must leave the group.

Trolls have no compunction about eating sapient prey, and regularly feed on humans in areas where their territories meet. As such, humans mercilessly hunt trolls back, usually with the intent of turning their blood and flesh into powerful healing potions. Sometimes, trolls are captured and enslaved instead. Trolls make awful laborers, however, being too dim to understand complicated instruction and prone to violent tantrums if left unattended for even a second – instead, these trolls slaves are usually used as slave soldiers, by giving them armor and melee weapons and sending in front of the real army to soak up blows. These ‘war trolls’ are generally viewed very dimly by most people, especially if used anywhere near populated areas – war trolls have even less concern for civilians than regular soldiers. The practice of employing war trolls has been banned throughout most of Altazia, but is still employed by some anyway. Ulquaan Ibasa is notable for their extensive use of troll slaves in their armies.

Trolls are all shockingly primitive for a sapient species – they employ virtually no technology in their daily lives, and they are not known to employ any form of magic other than their innate abilities. They sometimes appropriate human tools for their own use, but these tend not to last long – few tools take a troll’s strength into account when it comes to their tolerances, and trolls are not known for their restraint.

Cranium Rats:

Cranium rats are hive mind organisms consisting of a swarm of normal-sized rats, which have a somewhat unique appearance – the top of their heads appear to have been sawed off, exposing the brain to open air. In reality, the brains are not nearly as exposed as they appear – there is a tough transparent film covering the brain matter, stopping dirt and such from entering the brain easily.

All individual cranium rats are telepathically connected into a single shared consciousness. The more rats there are in a swarm, the more intelligent the shared hive mind becomes. There is a limit, however, and a swarm that gets too big will eventually splinter into two or more smaller swarms, each with their own hive mind. It is rumored that bigger swarms are frighteningly intelligent, far outstripping the thinking power of a single human being, but this is hard to confirm – cranium rat hive minds are very alien in their thinking, and find humans just as bizarre, making communication difficult. Regardless, the average swarm is clearly comparable to a human in intelligence.

Cranium rat swarms are powerful mind mages, and can easily survive the loss of as much as half of their component rats. This, coupled with their ability to spread their rats over large areas, makes eradicating them difficult. Fortunately, cranium rats don’t have any special animosity towards humanity – though not exactly friendly, the swarms are content to live and let live most of the time. The swarms also largely view each other largely as competition, so it’s rare to see two or more swarms cooperating on a single goal.

Aranea and cranium rats covet similar territories, and both specialize in mind magic. This has led to frequent clashes between the two species, which have been steadily going worse for the cranium rats as time goes by. This is partially because araneas have gotten proficient in structured magic as well as their innate psychic powers, but also because the aranea have been far more adept into recruiting human mages to help them against the cranium rats. As a consequence, some swarms have actually begun to share information between each other and coordinate their anti-aranean activities.

It’s not quite a society yet, but it might be a beginning of one.